Dancing in the Dark Rewritten!

Dancing in the Dark Rewritten!

A Story by Shrien Alshabasy
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Hazel has never knew anything but to dance. The stage is her friend, the crowd is her lover. The roses they throw are her only indulgence. But when the curtain drops, Hazel is faced with reality. A ma

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To my family

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ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS










© Copyright 2012 All work is property of Shrien Alshabasy, any duplication or reproduction of all or part of the work without explicit permission by the author is illegal.


























Chapter 1



Hero



“Great heroes need great sorrows and burdens, or half their greatness goes unnoticed. It is all part of the fairy tale.”

― Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn



London, 1861






Hazel bowed and swept her arms together, feeling the incredible rush that flooded her heart and accompanied her thoughts after every performance. She was performing in front of thieves and criminals, their faces a dirty portrait of grime, their hands groping into each other’s pockets. But if she closed her eyes, she could pretend it was only her, and the stage, and the night. The town clapped and cheered, piercing the sky with their hands grasping a bottle of whiskey. The women hooted and the children sat on the awnings of closed stores, hollering between two cupped hands. Hazel tried her best to open her heart up to the audience, and to love them, for they loved her. But it was hard to lend her heart out after it had been wrung and crushed so many times. She exited the stage, and the curtains drew close, signaling the last performance of the night. The clowns headed to the trains, taking off their itchy wigs. The acrobats stretched their arms over their heads and chatted about a warm bath. The extremely fat woman had slight difficulty making her way to the train, for she was fat. Hazel watched the performers go by from backstage; it was like a ridiculous parade that marched to the step of their own beat. Hazel slipped from behind the curtain and weaved her way through the performers she never got to know too well. Hazel didn't join all the other performers on the train ride that wouldn't get too far. She met Neal, Henry's son, at their own personal carriage. A smirk lit up his features when she approached, and he unfolded his crossed arms. Hazel looked up at the dark sky and wished for it to snow. She drew her coat tighter around her shoulders, bracing herself against the harsh wind. Neal's gaze slid down her, lingering at her lips and chest. Hazel scowled and helped herself into the carriage, though any proper gentleman would have gladly done so. Hazel did not care that Neal would not hold her clutch or help her in. She just wished he wasn't such a scoundrel and could keep those godforsaken eyes to himself! She slid into the leather seat and forced her shaking hands down into her lap. Hazel was being especially irritable tonight because she was terrified. She was scared of what horrible man the circus owner, Henry, would force onto her tonight. The wind was fierce and the night was still young. It told of coming change. Hazel leaned back in her seat and continued to take shaky breaths. The carriage door opened and in came Neal. He sat beside her and at once started to run his hands down her back. Hazel stiffened.

"Stop!" she shrieked, and hit him with her fist. He backed away and snapped,

"What is the matter?"

Hazel pushed back her red hair with trembling fingers.

"Don't touch me," she whispered, and Neal's features were invaded by anger.

Hazel backed farther into the corner. Her heart beat like a terrified rabbit, jumping to and fro in her fenced in body. A knock came from outside the carriage and Hazel sighed of relief. Neal, temporarily distracted, reached forward to open the door. Much to Hazel’s disappointment, it was only Henry. For some reason, Hazel always expected someone to save her. But no one ever did. Her hands started to emit sweat, and she bunched her dress in her palm to keep them dry. Following Henry was a young man. Hazel's tongue felt heavy in her mouth and her cheeks flamed in anger. She snapped her head away, refusing to look at him. Usually Henry's disgusting customers were middle aged men or older. To see someone her own age made Hazel wonder what kind of parents fostered this...boy. Could he not get a proper girl for himself? She crossed her arms over her chest and scowled a common habit that invaded her reactions.

Henry looked down at her and she stared up from his big belly. Henry was a portly man with a handlebar mustache and black, beady eyes. While his face was large, his nose was rather small. It gave him the face of a rat. Worse than his physical features, and his obvious lack of fashion, was his personality and actions. He was hot-tempered, without a care, and everything a proper man strive not to succumb to. Even the w****s at the pub needed a fine price to agree with such a man.

"Hazel, let me introduce you to Nathaniel Gideon," Henry said in his slightly high-pitched voice.

Hazel offered no hand, nor did she raise her eyes to meet his. He made herself known by leaning down and meeting her eyes with his blue ones.

"Nice to meet your acquaintance," he said, but Hazel heard it as a tantalizing sneer. The hand he held out was one she wished to kick, or slap away. Nathaniel sat down in the seat before her, and she refused to meet his gaze. She found herself pulling at her dress to hide her knees and crossing her ankles.

When they finally stopped at their motel in Leicester, Hazel felt her stomach turn. Her angry facade broke and she felt just as hopeless and desperate when she started this cruel cycle. She suddenly wished she was back in the Society London Theatre, dancing along with the thoughts in her head. Hazel looked up from her lap to see Neal staring at her. With his blonde hair and green eyes, he was the whisper of the girls in the town. But Hazel knew what lurked beyond the surface.

"Hazel," someone snapped, and she followed Henry's voice. He gritted his teeth and tilted his head, blood pouring across his skin and flushing his face the color of a pomegranate. Hazel stood up and felt her knees tremble. Every time this happened, she promised herself it would be different. She promised it would never happen again. Hazel walked down from the carriage and stared at the bleak motel. A hand stretched out for her hold but she scowled at the person who held it, Nathaniel.

Hazel followed Henry and Neal to the entrance. Like usual, Henry turned to his customer and smiled and the customer slipped the money between Henry's meaty fingers. Neal bowed his head slightly and gave his own dark smile. Henry then approached Hazel and gripped her elbow.

"Do not mess this up," he growled, his lips moving by her ear harshly. She clenched her fingers tight and waited for him to release her. When he did, she turned abruptly into the entrance. She heard Nathaniel's footsteps follow behind her as she ran up the steps. When they arrived at the second floor landing, Hazel swung her fist and aimed up. It crashed into Nathaniel's face and she scrambled away.

"Oh no you don't!" he yelled, and holding his bloody nose, clambered to his feet and lunged forward. Hazel had the key in the door when his hands wrapped around her ankle. She kicked out, and he fell away in shock. Hazel opened the door and rushed in, her hair ribbon untying as she turned to slam the door behind him. It would have shut, too, if only a shiny leather shoe hadn't blocked the way.

Hazel murmured a curse and searched for a weapon inside the room. Her eyes set on the lamp in the corner and she swung toward it. The door shut behind Nathaniel with a click and she knew there was no way of escape unless she knocked him out. She hid, tucked away in the corner as his slow footsteps thudded on the floor.

"Hazel," he said her name, and it infuriated her that he tried to reason with her. When he rounded the corner, she slammed herself forward, trying to run the lamp into his head. Nathaniel moved aside quickly, and she fell forward, losing her footing and landing on top of the lamp. The bulb broke underneath her, and when she raised herself up, her hand was cut and blood dripped down her arm. She glared at Nathaniel, who sat, startled on the carpeted floor.

"What a fine gentleman you have grown to be! Forcing a girl to bed you, tripping her, and causing her to cut herself. Still, you sit there and expect more!" she screamed, and felt her throat ache at the strain.

"I'm not here to hurt you," Nathaniel replied coolly. Hazel hugged her cut hand to her chest.

"Do not try to use that talk with me, I'm no fool!" she spat, and now his face flooded with anger.

"Ha!" he scoffed, then pushed back his ruffled black hair.

"I have no attraction to you at all, Hazel. Some might like their women wild, but not completely insane!" h shouted.

Hazel was shocked silent.

Then she said silently, "You would be insane too if you had to do what I did." she whispered, and his blue eyes softened.

"I apologize," he said, and then laid a hand on her shoulder.

"Hazel, I am not what, or who, you think I am. I was sent by Blake Gideon, my father."

The name did not have any significance to her, but she thought she heard it before in town meetings and whispers in the audience.

"He owns the Big Swing down in London," he hinted, but she just shrugged.

"Why has he sent you?" she whispered, but Nathaniel's eyes suddenly traveled to her palm.

"Come on, let us bandage that," he said, and left her on the carpet.

Sometime later, Hazel stood over the sink, watching Nathaniel bandage her palm.

"How long have you..." he let the words fall as he wrapped the cotton gauze around her hand a third time.

"I've been with Henry since I was five." she said softly, watching his nimble fingers press her palm where the cut was. She winced and he replied,

"Oh."

Hazel shrugged, "I've been taking 'customers' since eleven," Hazel whispered, and felt a flush crawl up her neck. She could not help but feel utterly tainted, standing in front of a respectable man and revealing her dirty secrets.

"What is his circus called?" Nathaniel asked, and Hazel removed her hand from his.

"Magical Feet," she said, and he nodded.

The candle that burned low between them flickered when she moved hastily away. She entered the parlor room once more, folding her jacket and gathering her hair into a bun.

"Where are you off to?" Nathaniel inquired, and Hazel met his quiet gaze.

"You have made it clear that you have no intention of....bedding me and I thank you for that. But you must understand this is my chance. I must go."

Hazel rushed out, but before she could step any more, Nathaniel's hand was on her elbow.

"Where?" he said in a low voice, and she flicked her eyes away.

"To escape. This may be only chance, please release me." Her eyes flashed bright, her heart trembling. Had Nathaniel been lying the whole time? Was he going to make her...?

Nathaniel shook his head and pursed his lips.

"You cannot," he said, and Hazel's eyebrows shot up her forehead.

"And to what reason may there be?" she snapped, suddenly feeling like a pillow was being pressed to her face.

Nathaniel led her back by the grasp of her wrist into the room.

"There is much I need to tell you," he led her to the window and drew the curtains apart.

Henry's faded carriage remained, like a looming omen that she could never shake off.

"Anyhow, you won’t make it two feet without being stopped," he said reasonably, and Hazel sighed in defeat. So the two completely different youngsters sat by the fire, warming their toes and keeping a distance. Hazel felt unsettlingly frightened, because she was getting comfortable with the boy. She wished to lean on his broad shoulder and allow his blue eyes to tell her stories only the ocean it resembled could tell. Nathaniel's hushed voice told her about his name instead.

"Nathaniel means God given," he smirked cockily and Hazel smiley warily.

"Gideon means powerful warrior," he said, and Hazel nodded shyly.

"What does your name mean?" He asked.

Hazel laced her fingers together, "When I was born, my father said I bore the eyes of a hazel tree. We also had a hazel tree that never grew in our garden. Mother told me that when I was born, it flourished," she stared endlessly at the flickering flames, allowing the heat to cast her into a sleepy oblivion.

"Have you heard from them?" Nathaniel asked, and she felt her heart get heavy with sorrow. The words seemed to weigh a ton, with the unease it took to get them out.

"They are both dead."

Nathaniel sat back, rubbing his palms onto his lap and pushed back his hair,

"I am terribly sorry," he said, and Hazel shrugged.

'Tell me more about yourself," Nathaniel said, and she did.

Without meaning to, she poured her heart out to Nathaniel. She told him of her love for dance, her savor for chocolate. She told him her favorite color, green, and how she couldn't eat a pastry without milk because it made her queasy.

Nathaniel listened in silence and said,

"The night is near gone. I must tell you something of high importance and you must listen."

Hazel leaned forward and clasped her hands together.

"I am here to help you escape," he said, and Hazel laughed bitterly.

When he stared at her in seriousness, she felt her heart pick up speed.

"Why?" she asked, but he shook his head.

"Never mind that. Listen," he withdrew a wrinkled parchment from his jacket interior pocket.

He smoothed it down with the heel of his palm in front of her and her eyes drank it in. Sketched across the parchment were directions and arrows, small captions written in quick ink.

"In exactly one month, I will return," Nathaniel said, and Hazel nodded.

"You must pack your things and meet me at this station," his fingers kissed an arrow and led to another word.

"You and I will board a train and go to Bedford to meet my father. We will stay at my aunt’s house until we can escape London unseen. Do you understand?"

Hazel felt her breath rattle inside her chest. She could not believe what she was hearing.

"Listen, Hazel," he whispered, and squeezed her shoulders.

She listened, her heartbeat thrumming.

"This will be a new life for you. You can join our circus. This will not be your job. All you have to do is dance."

Hazel looked away from his heavy gaze, not allowing herself to believe the beautiful words coming from his lips.

"Why are you doing this?" she whispered, and his gaze shifted.

"I cannot say. But I must tell you, it will not be easy. Running from this circus to ours will be like a wild goose chase."

Hazel watched his lips move fluidly with the dark words. Nathaniel was very handsome, she realized. He also had a tender, hushed voice that made her feel instantly calm.

Hazel nodded to his directions and warnings. She cared not if escaping was full of danger. What she was doing every night was dangerous.

Nathaniel had paid another two hours of her service, and Hazel much rather stayed inside with Nathaniel than go out to Henry and Neal. Hazel climbed into bed and pulled the sheets to her chin, hoping to get some real sleep now that she knew no one would harm her.

Nathaniel sat by the window, an unlit cigar in his mouth. Hazel squeezed her legs together and tried to push away the nightmares that accompanied her. Her hands started to shake, and pretty soon, she was sobbing into her pillow quietly. She really wished Nathaniel wouldn't hear her. Hazel hugged her knees to her chest to calm her trembling breaths and once again wished she had a mother that could hug her as well. Every night she would drown her pillow in tears and make the same silly wishes. Every morning she would wake up in the trolley of Magical Feet. Hazel wiped away her tears viciously.

No, she would not wallow in her pity.

Hazel turned to Nathaniel and said,

"Why are you helping me?"

Nathaniel looked up from his cigar dangling between his fingers. He spun the fat cigar once between his pointer and middle finger, and then tucked it away inside his jacket.

"I do not know," he said, and she shook her head.

"Surely you must now! Why would you go to such lengths to find me if you had no motive?" she sat up in bed now, her eyes burning.

Nathaniel grinned, a sly smirk that lit up his blue eyes,

"You are as bold as you are quick, Hazel. But I am not lying to you when I say my reason is my fathers, and I press him for an answer to no avail."

Hazel nodded and said, "How much time do we have?"

Nathaniel withdrew a pocket-watch and said,

'Only five minutes."

Hazel closed her eyes and moved into her pillow, wanting to savor the comfort of being left alone, not screaming or pushing or clawing.



        A knock woke her from her dreams and she sat up. A note fluttered from her hair and she unfolded it.

        Hazel,

Do not forget our plans. Be ready in one month. December 24th, midnight.

-        Nathaniel Gideon



Hazel smiled and tucked the note into her dress. She made her way to the door and unlocked it. There stood Henry and Neal, looking annoyed at her slow approach to the door. Henry peered about the room and snapped at her,

“Nathaniel said you were excellent.”

Hazel looked away, unable to accept the “compliment.”

Neal ran his green eyes over her and whispered, “Why can’t you be excellent with me? Huh?” Hazel scowled and ripped her arm away from his ever-present hand.

Neal slapped her across the face, sending her staggering back.

Henry checked the room and left without another word, not even sparing a glance over his shoulder at his violent and cruel son.

Hazel backed into a wall, Neal heading toward her with angry steps.

She felt the rough wall underneath her fingers, pricking at her back.

Neal pressed against her and breathed down her neck,

“You took her,” he whispered, and slammed his mouth against hers.

Hazel gasped from the force and Neal ran his hands roughly under her dress.

“Please,” the broken words spilled from her mouth, but Neal paid no attention. He laughed and kissed her neck, “Come on ballerina,” he murmured, and grabbed her by her shoulders.

Hazel screamed and kicked, but she was no match for Neal.

“Stop!” she screamed, she clawed at his hair, but that just made him angrier.

Hazel’s screams were heard down the hall and throughout the alleys.

Not a simple soul in the world answered her pleas.

Not the butcher with a mustache or the rich lady with pearls. Not the carriage driver downstairs or the mother who tucked her daughter into bed.

The chimney sweeper looked up to wipe the sweat from his brow and continued his work.



        By the time Neal left, Hazel was curled up in a ball, sobbing. Her throat burned from the endless screams, her eyes sore from crying. Her body shook in violent tremors, leaving Hazel a hopeless leaf that had been stepped upon and cracked, left to be blow away with the wind. She drew herself together and buttoned her dress. She smoothed out the crinkles in her shirt and stood by the window, arms hugging her raw torso. She wondered what Nathaniel had been thinking about, moments before, standing in the same spot as she only moments before, an unlit cigar dangling between his fingers. Hazel stared at the moon in the sky, a perfect sliver, a white jewel that decorated the neck of the dark abyss. Hazel’s gaze then shifted to the stars and watched them wink at her. They too were beautiful decorations, but the dark night kept drowning their aura. She clenched her fist against the cold glass surface and watched Neal go outside to smoke a cigar.



        The next morning, Hazel was shook away by Henry.

His beady eyes met hers and he growled,

“Get up. We are to perform in two hours.”

Hazel slid from the bed, well aware of Henry’s gaze settling on the back of her neck.

“Do I have time to bathe?” she asked, and he flicked his wrist to check the time.

“Make it quick,” Henry snapped, and sat down on the bed, making it creak.

Hazel rushed to the bathroom, closing the door behind her and flicking the lock. Hazel dragged the bucket of water that the maids had prepared. Quickly, she dropped her dress. She took the clean sponge from the sink counter and started to scrub. Hazel examined herself in the mirror. The mirror was beautiful, with an ebony frame and small beads engraved inside the wood. Her reflection stared back at her hauntingly. She shuddered, dully noting that she smelled like Neal’s cologne. She dunked her head under the water, holding her breath. She opened her eyes and stared at her feet. They were pale and when the ripples of the water ran over them, it reminded her of fish scales reflecting the light. After bathing, Hazel wrung out her hair and used the nearby towel to dry herself.

For now, cleansing herself would help her forget the feelings of Neal’s fingers on her skin. She cursed under her breath when she realized she had not brought a spare dress to change into. Quietly, she opened the door to see Henry snoring on the bed sheets. Hazel closed her eyes quickly in relief. She wrapped the long dress around her torso and took two quick lunges forward, grabbing her clean dress and taking two swift lunges back to the bathroom.

Temporarily satisfied, Hazel slid on the fresh, clean dress. It was her dancing dress, so it was much shorter then her day dress. She could not ever dance in long dresses; she had tried once and twisted her ankle. Hazel especially liked this dress because of its curved, not cut, neckline. It also had white tiny flaps as the collar. The dress itself was a powder pink with shiny pearls glimmering at the waistline. It really was beautiful, she only wished she could use it to dance somewhere else, for someone else. Her note lay crumpled in the folds of her discarded dress, and she hastily picked it up to tuck it into her undergarments.

“Hazel!” Henry’s voice vibrated through the walls, now clearly awake.

She opened the door and stepped out with her dress folded in the crook of her arm.

“Took you long enough,” he murmured, and then check his watch.

“Women,” he scoffed, and pushed Hazel toward the door.



        Now they were parked in front of the Society London Theatre, Henry’s warm, fat arm leaning against Hazel’s, making her slightly uncomfortable.

“Son,” Henry snapped, and Neal looked up from the window.

“Yes father?” he said, and Hazel felt a bitter laugh echo silently in her mind

Neal was such a cowardly b*****d.

He could do anything to her, a younger girl who could not match his strength. He could push her down and…rape her. But he would be a parrot for his father, an obedient dog whose ear perked at the slightest whisper of his name.

“Go tell the performers we are starting in five minutes.”

Hazel moved away from Henry when Neal left the cart.

“A month from now we will be doing a special show for Christmas. Perhaps the Nutcracker. Be prepared to entertain a crowd of hundreds. This may be the performance that puts Magical Feet ahead of The Big Swing,” he murmured.

Hazel nodded quietly. If it were odd enough to say, Hazel hated Henry slightly less than his son. Although Henry was also sperm of the Devil, he was quiet when giving orders or when doing his horrible tasks. He would sell Hazel to a fifty-year old man for the nigh without so much to say but a “be good.” Neal, on the other hand, would push, pry, and yell until she cracked. The only thing that put Henry on a worse level than his son was the fact that Henry had killed both of Hazel’s parents. Hazel closed her eyes and forced back the memory growing into her thoughts. The door opened and a man in overalls popped his head inside,

“We are ready,” he said, his voice sounding slightly from the country.

Henry only jutted his chin and Hazel stepped away and out.



        The theatre had been rented out by Henry. Usually they would place the circus in a barren Greenland or a crowded town with empty commercial space. Henry was trying to make Magical Feet known to those of higher classes, where better to find snotty upper-class men and women then at a theatre? Since Hazel was a dancer, she held herself at a straight pose wherever she walked or sat. She blended right into the straight-backed wealth women with powdered noses and too much etiquette. Hazel followed Henry to backstage where a woman put up her hair and pinched her cheeks. The woman in charge of costumes attached a few additional décor onto Hazel’s skirts and crowned her head with a golden tiara that made her bun look perfectly round. The curtains rose and a smile lit up Hazel’s face. This was her life; she could wake up and go to sleep hearing the velvet curtains swing apart, and the faint clapping and the soft murmurs. At that moment, Hazel pushed away the thoughts of customers and Neal and Henry. Hazel stepped forward, foot pointed and arms rose. She bounced up, and the crowd cheered. Dancing along with the shadows in her head, Hazel let all her fears fall like the dust that had spiraled down the curtains. She was free. Hazel lunged into the air, pointing her toe and keeping her back leg straight for good measure. Soaring upward, her heart lifted for a moment, the voices of those around her died down to a faint sound. Suddenly her sight was flooded with her childhood. She was only five. Hazel sat in front of her country house with her mother. Her mother was braiding her hair and remarking on its copper color. Hazel was twisting grass stems between her tiny fingers and waiting patiently for father to come home.

Hazel continued to dance, letting her hands flutter like a butterfly. Her slippers kissed the stage…

“Momma! It’s Papa!” she had cried out when she heard rustling in the trees. Her mother stood up to greet her father. But the man who split the branches apart was not her Papa.

As the dance continued, hazel felt her heart speed up. Sweat started to accumulate on the back of her neck. She almost slipped in mid-pirouette.  Her eyes found Henry’s in the crowd, and she choked on the air.



“Hazel!” she could hear her mother’s usually sweet voice blend into strain and hysteria. Hazel watched the chubby man approach her and she backed away, her mother pushing her behind.

“Henry,” her mother pleaded the man’s name.



The spotlight now burned on Hazel’s head, and she danced away from it. Still, wherever she went, the spotlight followed.



Hazel watched her mother. Her mother stood tall and brave, but her eyes kept glancing at Hazel.

“Take me,” she whispered, “leave the girl.”

Hazel could not understand what was going on. Henry remained quiet, his face placid.

“Hazel, run!” her mother screamed.

Hazel turned and did what her mother asked. She did not know why she did. A bloodcurdling scream from her mother sent Hazel back. She stopped midway when she saw her house burning.

“Meredith,” was all that came from her mouth. Meredith, her doll.



The audience started to cheer when she spun on her feet, her arms balanced gracefully in front of her.



Hazel tried to duck into the burning house, but a large hand pulled her back. She stared, awe-stricken, into the face of Henry.

He grinned, “You wouldn’t want to do that, you’ll get hurt,” he sneered, and pulled her back forcefully. Hazel’s wrist was grabbed by Henry’s fingers and she followed him the way he came. The only difference now was that her mother lay pale on the floor, blood seeping into the grass under her. Her eyes remained forever on the blue sky, and Henry dragged Hazel forward. She tried to yell, but only empty screams left her mouth.



Hazel drew her legs together, sweeping her arms forward. The crowd roared in excitement, throwing roses at her feet. Blinking away tears, Hazel shook hands with the audience after slipping offstage.

“Wonderful,” they whispered, and she thanked them.

Hazel was showered in compliments that night, but her heart rose only once. Her hand shook a slender one and when she looked up, a woman said,

‘That was a spectacular performance.”

Hazel looked up, trying to be polite and meet the woman’s gaze. Hazel’s hand slid quickly from the woman’s grasp. The woman, it was her mother! She had sort, close-cropped hair to her angular face. Her lips were full and pink, her eyes a stormy green.

“Mamma,” Hazel whispered.

A scene flashed before her eyes- the tendrils of blood seeping into the freshly grown grass. The woman’s smile dropped and Hazel felt her hand grab her mother’s wrist.

“What…?” the woman ripped her arm away, startled. Hazel stared at her. She had black hair now, with brown eyes. She looked nothing like her mother.

Hazel turned and pushed through the crowd, her gasps coming out in dry heaves. Tears clouded her vision and she pushed away the rich people complimenting her. She stepped on dresses and ran past suits, her heart beat accelerating.

‘Hazel!” Run!” she heard her mother scream, and she pushed open the doors of the theatre.

“Oh mamma, oh momma,” she found herself gasping, and suddenly, she was running. Strong dancer’s legs led her forward, the dark night giving to soft tufts of snow. Hazel ran the piercing cold a minor inconvenience. She ended up in the town square, heaving and sobbing. She sat down shakily on the curb, wrapping her arms around herself. This did not happen often when she danced. Usually dancing was an escape, now it felt like a prison. Hazel stared up at the sky, wishing morbidly that she would catch a cold and die. She could not survive a month waiting for Nathaniel. Even then, how did she know he was there to help? She could not be naïve and assume he was her savior. There were never any saviors without a hidden agenda. There had to be a reason why he wanted her. As Hazel strolled the block that night, she found out why.

        The past weeks, Henry and Neal had been hiding newspapers from her sight. When a man stumbled from a saloon, throwing up his innards, he pressed a newspaper to his mouth. A sheet of the paper flew from his hands and fell at her feet. Hazel glanced and then froze. Her picture, it was in the paper! It looked more like a painting, but there was no way that was anyone but her! Printed in bold was: Greatest Ballerina Dancer Threatens The Big Swing. Hazel blushed at the compliment and read on.

        Hazel McAdams, the spectacular ballerina, has crowds going absolutely wild and roaring! Ms. McAdams dances for Magical Feet, a circus owned by Henry Marvill. On his success, Mr. Marvill says “We are very grateful for Hazel’s talent and we never fail to tell her how proud we are of her.”



Hazel scowled, her fingers bunching the sides of the paper.

       

        Hazel met Magical Feet when she was five. She was fan of the circus. Henry saw her dancing on the streets and decided to rescue her talent and bring her into his circus. Magical Feet was a famous circus forty-years ago but has since been triumphed by The Big Swing, owned by Blake Gideon. It seems as if Hazel McAdams will change this, and put Magical Feet back where it belongs!



Hazel felt angry, flattered, and surprised all at the same time. Blake Gideon was Nathaniel’s father that much she knew. Nathaniel did not want to help her; he only wanted to benefit his own circus! Damned him! Hazel check the date on the article, four days ago. Still, The Big Swing wouldn’t treat her as Henry had. She would be better off. Hazel tucked the article under her dress as she had with Nathaniel’s note.

        An hour later, Hazel was suddenly slammed against a wall. She screamed and kicked her leg back. Hearing the person groan behind her, she turned quickly to see Neal, red in the face. Her eyes widened and she turned to run. She was stopped by Henry, who stepped in her way.



“How dare you, you little b***h,” Henry growled, and slapped her in the face. A stinging sensation lit up her cheeks and she gasped. Henry pushed her back, his anger spilling out from his large hands. Neal caught her by the waist and slammed her against the wall once again. A cool blade was against her sin in a matter f mere seconds. Hazel’s eyes widened and the smooth metal slid down to her collarbone, slicing open her skin. Hazel gasped and scratched the wall behind her with her nails.



“Please, please,” she sobbed, but Neal only chuckled.

He bunched her hair in his fist and pulled her head back. He slammed his lips against hers, kissing her harder when she struggled.

“How dare you run from us,” he spat, and took the knife and pointed it to her chin.

“I should kill you right on the spot,” he growled.

Hazel wished to say, You cannot. I’m the only thing putting you ahead of the Big Swing.

But she had a feeling she didn’t want them to know she knew her value.

Neal brought the knife down and slit her dress down the middle. She stared at her destroyed dress. Her favorite dress. The blade caressed her chest, kissing her skin and drawing blood.

“Please,” she whispered, and Neal grinned.

“You are nothing but a w***e!” he screamed, and removed the knife from her skin.

“No one will ever love a tainted w***e like you. You are so bloodied and scarred no decent man would even glance your way,” he spat, and stalked away from her. Hazel slid down the wall and tried to close her dress with trembling fingers. Neal was right.



        They packed the circus. The acrobats and dancers chatted idly when they entered their train cart. The freaks, the fat woman, the man with three noses, they all huddled together, sharing their oddities. The tent was tucked away inside the back cart like a fallen star. Hazel watched with faded eyes, her throat still store from screaming, and her collarbone still aching from the cut. She felt a hand grasp her elbow, and knew, without turning, that it was Neal. She moved her arm away and followed him back to the carriage. Hazel checked her arm. She had been marking the days with tiny ink dots until she saw Nathaniel again. Twenty-nine days to go.



        Five days later, Magical Feet had traveled three miles in two restless nights. The town they settled in was bursting with excitement, and the square smelled like sweet apples and cider. Hazel watched the men lift the tent from the back cart of the train. The workers in overalls moved mechanically, their movements identical. They pulled the tent back, urging one another with roars of motivation. Hazel smiled. To her, this was the circus. Not the illusions splayed on the stage or Henry introducing his acts while the crowd roared. Building it, putting it together, this was the magic. The sky was a clear blue today, though the temperature was icily low. Hazel sat on an upturned crate, and waited for her favorite arrival: the animals. The men in overalls lifted monkeys from the carts, followed by horses and zebras and parrots. Then came the almighty lion. Hazel watched its golden eyes stare at her as it came by. She couldn’t help but feel connected to the cat. Stuck in a cage where a world so wonderful could be. Last, Hazel watched in awe as Cierra the elephant came forward. The town screamed in delight, clapping their mittened-hands together in inaudible sound. The kids cheered, and the parents watched with soft smiles playing at their lips. Workers threw their caps in the air in delight. The elephant lifted its splendid trunk and showered the spectators with noise. Hazel shivered, and watched the elephant tamer sit upon its gray back, waving at the crowd. The rest of the equipment was loaded into the town, but Hazel escaped to find the lion. She had to speak to Jasmine. Hazel pushed her way through the smoking workers that spoke in harsh accents. Finally, she reached the lion. A tent had already been put up to hide Jasmine and create a surprise for the show. From underneath the flaps of the striped tent, Hazel spotted the striped socks. She drew the flaps apart, and Jasmine roared. Hazel hushed the feline and approached the man, Oliver.

“Hello Oliver,” she said, her eyes resting on Jasmine.

“Hazel,” he nods, and she smiled politely back.

“I promised not to leave Jasmine with anyone, but you see, I’ve got to take a leak,” he spit out his toothpick and wiped his mouth. Hazel grinned and Oliver winked before exiting.

        “Hello Jasmine,” Hazel whispered, and Jasmine tilted her head.

Her hands rested on the cold bars of the cage and she leaned forward. Her nose delved between the bars. Jasmine lifted her head and gently touched Hazel’s nose with her pink one. Hazel reached her hand into the cage and stroked Jasmine’s soft fur. She purred and rubbed her head into Hazel’s palm. Hazel sat cross-legged on the grass and said,

“I am leaving soon Jas,” she took a deep breath and pushed her hair back.

The lion regarded her with solemn, golden eyes.

“I am never coming back,” she whispered, and the lion roared, a thunderous shake piercing the air. Jasmine moved away from Hazel, swinging her tail slightly back and forth like a pendulum.

“I’m sorry, Jasmine. I’m sorry. I cannot be stuck in this prison any longer. I’m…” she wiped away falling tears in frustration,

“I am not strong like you,” she whispered, and Jasmine remained far from her. Hazel turned at a rustle and turned to see Oliver’s head stuck between the flaps of the tent, his face ashen.

“Is it true?” he whispered, and Hazel stood up, brushing her skirt from dust.

“You know what they would do to you if you ran, Hazel. They would kill you. They need you,” Oliver stepped forward, playing with the straps of his overalls.

We need you,” Oliver’s curly red hair stuck up in all directions, and his brown eyes stared at Hazel’s feet.

“Oliver, I cannot do this anymore. I do not want to live in fear, or in a cage. I want to dance because I love it, not because I have to or else. I want to travel the world without having to…” her words died in her throat. She didn’t want to say what she secretly thought. I’m terrified I will get pregnant…and then they will have to kill my child. Hazel stepped forward, her hands reaching out to Oliver.

“Please, you cannot let anyone know, Oliver. Please,” she squeezed his hands and he nodded.

“Okay, I promise,” he said, and a fearful smile lit up Hazel’s features.

She waved goodbye to Jasmine, but the lion ignored her. Hazel’s heart dropped, feeling like she had betrayed the one friend she really made in Magical Feet. Hazel passed through the tent, only to have a sweaty hand pull he back. Oliver’s eyes were wide when he asked,

“When are you due to leave?”

Hazel looked down at her wrist. She had remarked the days this morning.

“Only twenty four days,” Hazel said, and Oliver smiled half-heartedly.

“I will miss you dearly,” he said, and she nodded.

“Yes. I will miss you too, Oliver.”

She pulled away from the young man and ran from the tent. She did not know why, but she felt like falling to the ground and crying. If she didn’t push herself to run, she would fall at once. And a ballerina mustn’t fall.



***

       

        That night, after an early performance, Hazel met Henry on the side of the stage, watching the last performance close.

“I wish to go to the library,” she said, and Henry snapped his eyes to her.

“Why is that?” he spat, and she looked down at her feet.

“I am looking to see if I can learn some new dancing techniques.”

Henry crossed his meaty arms over his chest.

“Fine, but Neal must accompany you. Where is this library?” he said, and Hazel replied,

“Not a block away,” she replied quickly.

Henry nodded and beckoned her away.

Hazel moved away but Henry snapped, “Hazel.”

She turned; Henry almost never said her name.

“Do not try to play games with my son or I. I am the one who makes the games here, understand?” he said it quietly, but the dark threat was all serious and no play.

Hazel felt a shiver crawl up her arms. It was then replaced with angry determination.

You’ll see, she thought, and forced herself not to smile. She nodded obediently, running off to find Neal.

-

        Neal grumbled the whole block to the library. He hated the library and thought it was for prude older men who held their noses up at everyone else. If only Neal knew he was made of the exact mold he so hated. The truth was Hazel did not come to the library to search up ballet techniques. She was there to look through the newspapers. There had to be something about The Big Swing Hazel could discover. How would she know if they were any worse? She had to protect herself. She would not be so gullible. Hazel pulled open the heavy oak doors of the library. Her feet pattered against the shiny marble floors. The winding staircases led up to floors of shelves full of books and newspapers. Hazel turned to Neal, wondering how she could get him off her trail. Neal found his own way, luckily. A handsome young girl was fingering through some leather-bound novels, a stack already occupying her arms.

Neal strutted forward, offering help with a seductive smile. Hazel rushed away quickly, asking the librarian where the newspapers were. The fat, black-haired, woman looked up at Hazel and lowered her glasses.

“Aren’t you the ballerina from Magical Feet?” she asked, and Hazel nodded impatiently, looking over her should to see Neal leaning toward the blushing girl.

“Yes, yes,” Hazel replied, “I must see the newspapers at once, please.”

The librarian replied, “Sorry, Miss, the newspaper reviewing comes at a hefty price. Newspapers are expensive these days.”

Hazel sighed until the woman said,

“Unless, you can sign this parchment for my daughter. Perhaps it shall be free.”

Hazel grinned and quickly signed her name, Hazel McAdams with the inked feather. The librarian beckoned her over and gestured to the drawers behind her desk.

“Everything from The Times to The Illustrated London News to The Evening Chronicle,” and a hint of admiration announced itself in the woman’s voice.

Hazel clapped her hands together, ‘Thank you,” she whispered, and pulled open the drawer labeled Morning Post.

She fingered toward the most recent articles and found one from a week ago. The headline shouted THE BIG SWING IS STEPPED UPON BY MAGICAL FEET. Hazel found her name mentioned several times in the article, but only one line was said of Blake. It was a quote. The faded ink read, “I am undoubtedly upset that my circus is falling, but we will be back soon. We are gaining new pieces to our advantage. Magical Feet won’t be here for long.”

A smile invaded Hazel’s lips, and her heart lifted. She hoped dearly that Blake was right. A painting of a man in a glittery costume invaded the middle of the article. The librarian looked down at the newspaper Hazel was reading.

“Fancy being faltered, eh?” she said humorously, and Hazel laughed.

“No, I was just reading about The Big Swing.”

The woman’s face paled and she held Hazel’s hand in her own.

“That circus mistreats their performances. They treat them like cow…dung, excuse my language. Dear, never doubt your place n Magical Feet. The Big Swing is much worse.”

Hazel moved her hand away. She could not believe what the librarian was saying.

“How do you know this?” Hazel spat accusingly, very unladylike, to say in the least.

The woman regarded her with surprise and Hazel planted her hands on her hips.

“Haven’t you read today’s paper? It’s a column written by Elijah Griffand.”

Hazel felt a presence hover behind her and she squeezed her eyes shut, wondering how much Neal had heard.

“Hello,” Neal said politely to the librarian. He sounded like a cold snake to her, wrapping his visor-like grasp around her elbow.

The librarian smiled openly at Neal, as many women did. Unlike his father, Neal was graced with good looks and easy conversational skills that took root in his eyes. The darkness, however, he had inherited.

“What were you talking about, darling?” Neal asked, in his syrupy sweet voice.

Hazel felt the grip tighten and she widened her eyes obliviously.

The librarian looked down at her desk and said,

“I was telling the girl some tips on Pigeon pie. It’s four eggs not two!” she laughed almost maniacally. Hazel smiled at the woman, blessing her attempt.

“Yes, now I know,” Hazel said quietly, thinking of the Big Swing.

Neal bowed and said, “Much thanks madam.”

He dragged Hazel along but they were stopped at the entrance by a shout.

“Wait!” the librarian yelled, and with some difficulty, waddled toward them.

“The lady left her clutch.”

Neal glanced at Hazel, who had never seen the velvet clutch before in her life.

“Thank you!” she said, and shook the woman’s hand. The librarian pulled her into an unexpected hug and said, “Believe in destiny my dear,” before patting the clutch and walking off.

Neal shot her a puzzled look and led her forward. The England streets were crowded with workers just getting off their long shifts. The men bore shades of grime and permanent black hands while their skin was a pale white. Women and their daughters chatted about stitching and dinner. Hazel looked up at the gray sky, a portrait of swirly clouds painted into one another. The days had been full of rain and gray sky, and she wished again it would snow.

Neal glanced at Hazel the way back to the carriage, suspicious of her odd smirk. When they reached Henry, Neal whispered to his father outside and Hazel stuck the clutch beside her, so not to remind Neal during the trip. Henry stuck his head inside and said,

“Hazel, out.”

        Hazel stepped down from the carriage to be met face to face with a stranger.

“This is Mr. Wilkins. He is going to take you to his inn for the night.” Wilkins bowed and held his hand out. Hazel glared at him, anger bubbling in her chest. The man was tall with grayish hair and expensive spectacles. He wore a tailored suit and gold rings decorated his fingers. Hazel felt the panic start to enter her body as Henry and Neal left her. The train, packed with the Big Swing’s materials, moved forward, performers hooting and waving to passerby. Soon enough, it was only Hazel and the older man in the dark. The town was cleared, when moments before it had been full of people.

The man said, “Comment vas-tu ma cherie?”

Hazel glared at the man. Son of a b***h! She thought to herself. He didn’t even share her language, what a foul b*****d! Hazel felt her hand rip forward with seething fury. Her anger at Henry and Neal and her mother for leaving her, it rose into her fingers and slapped the man full in the face. the French man stumbled back, mumbling French words. Hazel took off in the opposite direction, her hair falling free and onto her shoulders as she shoved through a random stream of people coming her way.

“Venir vous soutenir!” the man screamed, and Hazel turned to see him running after her. She turned abruptly into a corner and slammed into a trash bin. Hazel shook off the shock and hid behind the bin, chest heaving. The French man stopped I front of the alley, casting a tall shadow on the floor. His head whipped from the alley to the sidewalks in confusion. Hazel tucked her legs closer to her chest and stifled her heavy breaths with her fists. The man checked his watch and pushed his hair back in a furious move. He turned abruptly, into the alley. Hazel heard the footsteps approaching and she squeezed her eyes shut. She knew he had found her when he picked her up by the shoulders. Hazel shivered in fear. The man slammed her against the slimy wall and started to kiss her. Her body turned numb, trying not to feel his hairy knuckles run down her cheek. He savagingly opened her dress and pushed her to the ground. Hazel closed her eyes and welcomed the darkness.



        Hazel awoke in a motel. She opened her eyes to see the French man buttoning his shirt and his pants. Hazel looked under the sheets and felt her chin tremble on its own accord. She was bare. The French man left without another word, closing the door behind him. hazel rushed from bed and drew the lock on the door. She closed the curtains that let in a portion of sunlight. Hazel took shaky steps to the bathroom and mechanically drew the bucket over. The water was sudsy from the soap and Hazel tried to fit herself in. When she was younger, she could fit her whole body in. Now she had to practically fold herself in. She let her body sink down and her legs dropped over the buckets wooden rim. Do not cry, Hazel thought to herself. She splashed the water to keep herself from thinking too hard. If she focused hard enough on anything else, she could forget. Hazel squeezed her eyes, fighting back tears. A knock sounded on the door but she didn’t respond. Hazel sank deeper inside so the water reached over head. She wondered if it would be more peaceful to die in the water that cleansed her then live in the earth that tainted her. She held her breath. One…two…three…

The door slammed open and sent Hazel into a fright. She sucked in an immense amount of water. She lifted her head, choking back, eyes flying pen at her intruder. The maid stared at her for a moment and Hazel hid her chest as an afterthought.

“Sorry Miss,” the maid whispered, and backed away, closing the door behind her.

       

        Hazel stood up in the bucket and let the suds slide down her body, delving back to their home. A tall mirror decorated the right side of the wall and Hazel watched her reflection. She was skinny and tall, a characteristic she had inherited from her mother. Her red hair was slicked back, allowing her features to be more prominent. Dull freckles invaded her nose and splattered her cheeks. Hazel stepped from the bucket and let her eyes trail over the bruises on her arms that were shaped like fingers. A red mark had taken root under her ear. A scab was forming from Neal’s cut. Hazel felt her head spinning, thinking of all the horrid stories her scars could tell. She couldn’t look at herself any longer. There stood a hopeless, frail, w***e staring back at her. How could she ever think of herself as any different? Her fist ripped forward and she punched the mirror, allowing the shards of glass to fall at her feet. Once something that bore her story, the mirror was now a bunch of dangerous tales littering the floor. Hazel escaped the bathroom and got dressed.



Neal and Henry were waiting at the entrance of the motel when

Hazel left. She let them drag her forward and into the carriage. She listened wearily as they spoke of a circus picnic. A newsboy came by, shouting about bread and Queen Victoria. Suddenly, Hazel remembered her clutch, and the librarian who had given it to her. She had left it in the carriage! Her eyes escaped to Henry's wondering if he had taken it. She sped up her pace and slid into the carriage before them, throwing herself into the seat. Her heart quickly fell as her hands fell over nothingness. Her clutch was gone! Neal climbed inside and Hazel looked around desperately. Her clutch lay there on the floor. Hazel quietly reached for it and placed it in her lap. They arrived at a park. When Hazel peered out the window, she saw the performers sprawled on the grass, talking. Without their make-up, they all looked like broken antiques. As Hazel got out of the carriage and approached them, no one stopped talking. No one looked up or invited Hazel over. They all thought she was too proud for them, worthy enough for a carriage but unable to ride the dingy train with them. The acrobats glared at her as she walked by. They especially hated her because they thought they were the true performers of grace. Hazel attempted a smile at the freaks, but no one spared her a seconds glance. Even the three-eyed man. Hazel surrendered and sat with Oliver and the animal trainers. In a circle sat Oliver, Jace and Beatrice. Jace took care of the flamingos and parrots while Beatrice took care of the elephant, and Oliver the cats.

"Where’s Cleo?" Beatrice asked, spewing bits of apple onto Hazel's dress. Hazel turned her attention to Beatrice. The elephant tamer was pretty in her subtle ways. She had a man's haircut, close cropped to her face. Her eyes were dark brown but beautifully original. Hazel was always jealous of Beatrice's eyes. Beatrice was all muscle as well. She had never been thrown off Cierra the elephant, and they had been attached since they met.

"He's watching the train and carriage," Jace responded. Jace was the opposite of Beatrice, fair with light skin and blonde hair. He was also not one for muscle and tended to make jokes of everything. almost everyone in the circus knew Jace loved for Beatrice. Besides Beatrice, of course. If she did, she didn’t pay attention to it. Hazel spared a glance at Cleo. He was a tall, muscular man who liked to wear stripes and pretend he was a sailor. Cleo had a twin brother, Elijah, and they used to be on attraction for the audience. When they got replaced by the Chet twins, Cleo worked on the rail and picked up the equipment. Elijah ran away when he turned seventeen, and rumor had it he was a news-writer now. Hazel checked back into the conversation, hearing Beatrice’s foul words fill the air.

“Those bloody b******s cannot watch their own equipment? What a damned Dicken!” she spat seeds from between her teeth and Hazel folded her legs to her chest quietly, staring at her.

“What are you looking at you boot-licker?” she growled, and Hazel’s cheeks burned.

“Hey, Beatrice, stop!” Oliver admonished, pushing her shoulder not unfriendly.

“What? She spends her time running after them, especially that god forsaken son, cash carrier,” she growled, and Hazel realized that Beatrice had just called her a w***e.

“That’s not true! Liar!” Hazel hated that her voice broke and tears welled in her eyes instead of anger spilling from her mouth.

“What are you going to do about it you filthy dolly mop?” Beatrice grinned and crossed her arms, pitching an eyebrow. Hazel threw herself forward and slapped Beatrice in the face, pinning her down underneath her. In the fearless eyes of Beatrice, Hazel saw only herself, her own body under her trembling and screaming. She sat back but Beatrice grabbed her wrists and pulled her closer, her face close to hers. Beatrice’s hot breath danced on Hazel’s skin.

When she squeezed her wrists and whispered, “Remember this moment when a man tries to steal from you what is yours,” she hissed forcefully, and threw Hazel back.

Hazel fell to her bottom and Oliver and Jace stared at her. Jace was trying to hide a smile, sparing glances at Beatrice.

“Are you alright Hazel?” Oliver asked, and Hazel nodded quickly.

“Yes, I am fine.”

She listened to the bunch talk about circus gossip and more dirt of Neal and Henry.

Hazel let her eyes trail over the members in Magical Feet. She would not miss any of them. She could hardly put name to face. She didn’t even think she would miss Oliver much. Immediately she felt guilty, even more so when he offered her some pumpkin bread. She smiled and accepted, chewing.

Neal and Henry were sprawled under a tree, they were laughing and Henry was smoking a cigar. Neal was speaking fast and animatedly. Hazel wondered where Neal’s mother was. They were similar in that way, mother-less. Hazel then imagined how it would be to have a horrible father rather than no father at all. Sighing, she turned a heavy heart to the bunch.

“We heard you were escaping,” Beatrice said, lowering her voice and bringing her head closer. Hazel glanced at Oliver and he blushed bashfully.

“I was. But I do not know anymore.”

Beatrice shrugged, “When were you going to leave?” she asked, and Oliver said,

“Christmas night.”

Hazel snapped her attention to him. She hadn’t even realized it was Christmas when she was to depart. If she did.

“Good luck,” Beatrice said, and Hazel smiled, knowing that under her hard exterior, there was a soft, sweet girl.

“Thank you,” Hazel said softly back, and resumed her quietness. The picnic lasted all day and into the dark night. Performers got drunk and started to whisper tenderly into the night. The Freaks laughed and whooped. Henry watched with entertained expressions planted on their faces. Hazel watched some performers assemble on their own, bringing their partners with them. The acrobats started to swing up in the trees and land softly on the floor. The clowns honked their noses and giggled. Some started an egg dance and Hazel watched in awe. Painted by the dark sky, the figures in a moon blue suit were illuminated by eggs that glowed, balancing in mid-air. Hazel’s breath caught in her throat, watching the glowing orb dance in the air. A warm hand crawled over to hers and laced their fingers with her own. Hazel looked down at Oliver’s knuckles. She couldn’t help but feel that a man’s touch was a dangerous one. She withdrew quickly and Oliver looked up. The eggs turned their way, illuminating his heartbroken brown eyes. Hazel looked away, hating herself for causing him any pain. He cleared his throat and stood up, weaving his way through the crowd of performers watching. Hazel stared at his back as he walked, and turned back to the illuminating eggs. They were no longer orbs. They looked more like tears now.



        Days past in a blur, a meld of dancing and dirty motels. Hazel found herself dancing day and night until her feet bled. She had to bandage them every day and even after she had worked them through. On Christmas Eve, Henry came to her side when she was dancing at the town by herself.

“Hazel, we are going to have a Christmas spectacular tomorrow.”

Hazel had guessed as much, they always did. But it was never amazing, Henry made late plans and it ended up being a fluke.

Henry pulled a small book from his pocket, “The Ash Girl,” he whispered, and shoved the book into her hands.

“Cinderella.”

Hazel stared at the pages, her eyes running over the faded, and pressed words. It was beautiful. The title read Children's and Household Tales. When she looked up, Henry was gone.



***

.        So it came to be that Hazel sat in a crowded bar that night, her head delved into the story of the Ash Girl. The Ash Girl had two false sisters who were daughters of Cinderella’s sister. Cinderella’s mother had died and left her with misfortune. One day Cinderella asked her father to bring her a stick home while the sisters asked for golden dresses. The father did, and with that, gave the Ash Girl her hazel stick. The Ash Girl stuck her hazel branch into her mother’s grave outside her house. Hazel felt tears blur her vision, thinking of her own mother and the Hazel tree she was named after. After time consuming tasks forced upon by the stepmother, Cinderella was not allowed to go to an amazing ball, for she was dirty. Hazel closed her eyes and began to sob into her knuckle, chest aching from not screaming. Hazel couldn’t help but relate to Cinderella. She would forever be stuck in this world of hatred, and when she turned to love, they would all brush her away because she was nothing more than a tainted, broken ballerina. The bartender asked her if she was alright and Hazel nodded, focusing hard on the text. The hazel tree had come to Cinderella’s luck. All she had to say was,

‘Shiver and quiver little tree. Silver and gold rain down over me.”

Hazel’s fingers trailed over these words, once, twice, thrice. She glanced over at Neal and Henry, drunk and cheering on Christmas Eve. She wondered if she was their own little hazel tree. She had to tremble and shiver and shake and they held their hands out for the silver and gold, anything to put Magical Feet on top. Like all fairy tales ended, Cinderella had ended up with her prince. Cinderella had left her golden slipper on the palace staircase and the prince had gone searching for the perfect fit to the girl he had danced with all night long. The Ash Girl, Cinderella. The dirty girl was now worth something to someone. Hazel closed her eyes and saw Nathaniel’s face, and the sparkling performer and heard Blake speaking in her mind. She would escape. If Cinderella could do it, so could she. Making sure that Neal and Henry were still in their drunken stupor, Hazel pulled at the crumpled note from her dress. The letters were now faded.



Hazel,

Do not forget our plan. Be ready in one month, December 24th. Midnight.

        -Nathaniel Gideon

Hazel looked down at her wrist. Just one day left. One day and she would be worth something more. One day and she would no longer be their hazel tree, shaking and shuddering and giving them the profit. It was time to leave, to escape. Her and the Ash Girl would make it. Together.



        Hazel watched Henry and Neal the rest of the night. They were now both drunk stupid. The acrobats lingered in the corner, and their unsettling gazes made her shiver. She stepped outside into the brisk winter air. Hazel made her way to the train, where Oliver and Cleo were leaning against, chatting.



“Merry Christmas Eve,” Cleo shouted, and Hazel smiled, waving at them both. Oliver tilted his head toward her, picking up his cap in a welcome.

She made her way to the cart and clambered in. She would open her clutch here, surely it was safe. Hazel looked down at the seat and stared. Before her was a golden dress, simple but extravagant all at the same time. There were no sequins or eye catchers, but the color...

Hazel ran her hand over the soft material. It felt like a golden river, slipping through her fingers. Lying underneath was two slippers, golden as well. Hazel grinned, feeling like Cinderella with her golden attire. A note lay under the shoes and Hazel read it calmly.



Hazel,

One more day. Do not forget. Tick-tock Cinderella.

-Nathaniel Gideon



Hazel wondered how he could possible know that was her act, but guessed competing circuses had some sort of spy. Hazel could not help but feel overwhelmingly happy. She opened her clutch and her eyes landed on the front page of a newspaper. Hazel smoothed it out on her lap and her eyes flitted across it quickly.



Big Swing Mistreats It’s Performers



the headline shouted. Hazel’s fingers curled around the paper. She squeezed her eyes shut, hoping that when she opened them, the words would be gone.



***

        The tears had dried on her face when Neal came into the carriage, mumbling. Hazel quickly folded the newspaper and stuck it inside her clutch. Neal threw his arms around her and slurred,

“You know Hazel, you and I are alike in a lot of ways,” he traced his finger over her cheek, his eyes unfocused as they rested on her eyes.

“Your mother died and my mother died and now we have to be a prisoner in this damned circus. F*****g Magical Feet,” his grip around her neck tightened and she tensed. He removed his arm and the carriage started to move forward. Hazel stared at Neal and saw tears fresh on his face. Neal crossed his arms over his chest, staring at the floor.

"I miss her. I miss Meredith," he whispered, and Hazel twisted her fingers in her lap. Meredith was the ballerina prior to Hazel. She was a Russian beauty, with short blonde hair and green eyes. Her accent was soft and smooth, beautiful in all its oddities. Meredith told Hazel how Henry was secretly using her for sexual favors. Hazel was only ten. She did not understand why anyone would do that. When Henry ordered Hazel to meet his male friend, Mr. Finn, Hazel screamed and ran, punching the main when he leaned down to touch her shoulder. Henry soon learned that Meredith had told Hazel their secret. The next day, Meredith lay on Hazel's bed, bleeding through her sheets. Hazel clearly remembered crying into her sleeve as she lifted Meredith's body with the sheets. She looked just like her own mother. Neal always loved Meredith, and Hazel was the reason why she died. Meredith had chosen to be a brave angel, and because of it she was sent to Heaven. Hazel glanced at Neal, who had passed out beside her. Secretly, she was sorry. She was sorry she was the reason Neal was so heartbroken. She was sorry he would never truly love again. Hazel turned away from him, closing her eyes and allowing the rattle of the wheels banging on the cobblestones drift her to sleep.

On Christmas Day, Hazel awoke in the carriage. Her eyes were sore from reading by candlelight and her throat was dry. Sunlight, sweet sunlight poured through the window and Hazel sat up to see that Neal was gone. A knock came on the door and Hazel watched Oliver pop his head inside.

'Bright and early, Ash Girl! We must get ready!" he exclaimed, and Hazel smiled softly. She slid off the leather seat, following Oliver into the town square.

"You are leaving today?" he asked, but Hazel shook her head, tucking a loose strand of red hair behind her ear.

'No. I have heard bad things about The Big Swing," she whispered, and the words tasted false in her mouth. Oliver frowned, but Hazel thought she could see him smile.

He turned to her, and in a second, their lips were melded together. She stepped back, shocked that his touch wasn't a threat. Oliver held her face between two hands, the sunlight streaming through the curly strands of his hair and giving him a halo. He dropped his hands and said,

"See you later," walking briskly off.

He turned and shouted something in the air, but Hazel could not decipher it because Celia the elephant had screeched. Hazel watched the circus set up. It made her sad that this would not be the end. Last night, she thought she was escaping her darkness. Now she was only being reeled back in. Tents were put up, striped black and white, red and white, black and gold tents coming to life, inhaling the air and magic of the circus. Stands were heaved forward and those who did set-up were calling the performers in line. Hazel was surprised to hear her name called. She almost never wore a costume or used face applications. She always went on stage bare, with only her dress and slippers.

Hazel waited behind a Chet twin, she could not she could not remember if it was Andrew or Anthony. He turned around and Hazel smiled down at him. He was only ten, and he had fascinating blue eyes that made the audience stare in awe. The Chet Twins were both musical prodigies. Andrew played the piano with simplicity, for someone so young. Anthony played the harp slowly, but every note that hit the air was a godsend. The boy smiled half heartedly back and asked,

"I heard you are to play Cinderella, is it true?"

Hazel nodded and stepped up in line, "Yes. The Ash Girl," she said, and the boy nodded.

"I will be playing the piano before your midnight escape from the palace."

It was Anthony, than.

"Oh, wonderful."

Hazel felt her stomach turn every time someone mentioned her performance. She had never been so nervous about an act. She knew that there would be a big fuss and Henry was trying to impress the audience, so it put some pressure on Hazel to be perfect. Anthony stepped forward and the costume director pulled a small suit from the cart.

"Step inside and try it on," the woman said.

Hazel watched the woman hand the suit forward and examined Hazel.

Haze stepped forward and the woman rose an eyebrow, "You are the dancer, right? What is your name?" she asked, and Hazel felt slightly hurt that she did not know.

"Haze McAdams," she said, and the woman smiled tightly.

"My name is Jacqueline...let me see if I can find something..."

"Oh, that will not be necessary," Hazel said, "I have my dress and slippers."

Jacqueline crossed her arms over her chest, looking slightly irritated.

"Fine. Before your performance, meet me backstage so I can fix...that," she gestured to Hazel's hair and she blushed.

Hazel nodded and rushed off the line, feeling oddly humiliated by someone she had just met. The sun was slowly now fading in the sky, returning to its regular, cold gray painting. Hazel wondered what Nathaniel would think when he waited at the station and she was nowhere to be found. She felt guilty for betraying Nathaniel, since he had been so nice to her. Hazel admonished herself, stop having a naive heart! He only wanted you to think that so you could join his own circus! When Hazel leaned against the train, she contemplated the decision. How would mistreatment from The Big Swing be any different from the abuse of Magical Feet? Hazel could not allow herself to believe that she was terrified of The Big Swing. Not because they mistreated their performers, but because  she was terrified of putting hope into something, or someone, only to have her heart crushed. At least at Magical Feet she could expect what was coming. There was no sweet faces with hidden agendas here. The enemies made sure you knew they were your enemies. Hazel's thoughts were interrupted when someone touched her arm. Standing before her was Neal, his eyes dark from a night of drinking and unrest.

"Hazel, you must come. I have to show you the preparations made for your performance."

He spoke quietly, for he was too dizzy to speak loud and clear. She nodded and followed him. He led her into a motel and she stopped at the entrance. Her heart was starting its regular routine of beating fast when she reached the motel doors. Usually, she would brace herself for the harsh hands and rough is and hot breath. She would numb her mind and body right here. Neal turned and stared at her,

"Come on, I haven't got all day!" he exclaimed after a moment.

Hazel followed him inside, wrapping her fingers around her wrists to keep them from shaking. Neal led her up the stairs to a room. Hazel felt a scream crawl up her throat and spill from her lips.

'What the hell is the matter with you?" Neal spat, turning around and glaring at her.

She couldn't keep the memories from flooding her thoughts. She refrained herself as Neal led her to the second floor to a tiny room to the far left. He quickly walked to the door and opened it. The door fell open to reveal a dark room, save the candle burning at the table.

"It is so dark," she whispered, and Neal shrugged.

"It is the only cheap room I could get my hands on. Besides, we will not be long." He sat down at the table and unfolded parchment in front of them. His hands looked like Nathaniel's when he smoothed out the plan to escape. Neal pointed to the sketches of scenes in the performance, giving a command or prompt at a certain line or action.

"Our actors have fallen sick, so we need some replacements. Oliver is going to play the prince."

Neal scratched his head, letting his fingers flick across the page. His eyes were dark green, hues of black shadow dancing across his face. In the candlelight, Hazel realized that Neal would be a fantastic circus director. He had it all planned out, the scenery, the actors, the lines. Over a drunken night, he had made something beautiful out of nothing.

"Oliver is princely enough, right?" his voice broke through her thoughts and she nodded.

"Yes."

He rubbed his chin, "We will have some acrobats fill in for the stepsisters and the mother. But they do not matter much. What matters most is you." He pointed to a sketching of herself, her foot pointed and her arms outstretched like a swan's wings.

"You are the Ash Girl. In order for this performance to be successful, you must make the audience believe good can come from the worst of things. Can you do that?" he asked, and for a moment, his eyes flooded with fear.

Hazel nodded, "Yes, I can."

"Good," he replied, and in a moment's silence, the candle was blown out.

--

At nine in the evening, the town exploded. The children jumped down their apartment steps, squealing in excitement. The fathers, exhausted from a day of hard labor, fell to the seats around the stage. Mothers of higher classes held their noses up, their tiny girls waddling behind, a ribbon decorating their hair. The boys wore a frock coat, their pressed, pleated shirts puffing from the folds of their clean cut collars. Hazel watched the melding of people colliding together to watch the circus. This was by far the biggest area they had used. From the entrance of the town square to the exit into the industrial lands, the whole area was full of Magical Feet. Henry stood at one entrance, Neal at the other, collecting fares from their customers. It was the first time Hazel saw such a collection of peasants and workers and upperclassmen. Usually the peasants could not afford to go to such events, but it was Christmas and people were merry and generous. Hazel waited outside the women dressing cart in the train. A surge of female acrobats exited, glaring at Hazel and waving to the ecstatic crowd. Hazel stepped forward. She brought her golden attire with her and her clutch. She did not know why she had bought it, but it supplied her with unexplainable comfort. Hazel entered the cart after sparing a glance nervously at the growing crowd. She stepped inside the low ceiling area and stared at the female performers around her. They all chattered excitedly, and most were bearing all to show. Hazel felt uncomfortable at their ease and turned toward the wall. She undressed quietly, hoping she would not draw any attention to herself. Hazel picked up the gold dress and ran a hand over it longingly. How she wished Nathaniel could have saved her. She did not know what to do now. She could not go. Hazel slipped the dress on. It was fabulous clothing, a round neckline with a tightened waist and a flowing skirt. Hazel twirled to test out the dancing ease.

"Oh look who is showing off!" someone snorted, and Hazel blushed wildly.

She quickly removed her ballet flats. They were periwinkle and mostly broken. She tucked them into her clutch and left the cart before anyone could stop her.



Hazel passed the animals that were now put up for everyone to see. She smiled at Cierra

the elephant and chatted with the parrots. Onlookers whispered about her dress and it hit her then that the Ash Girl should not be wearing something so extravagant. She rushed over to Jasmine, making sure her feline friend was not still mad at her. The crowd was around her, some daringly poking their fingers into the cage. Some called her a beautiful gift. Others called her ugly, or stupid. Hazel approached the cage, rushing through the crowd and planting her hands on either side of the cage.

"Jasmine," she whispered, and the lion lifted its golden eyes. They immediately flicked away.

"I am staying," Hazel whispered, knowing not why the lions opinion mattered to her so.

Jasmine looked up again and then stood up, making the onlookers step back.

Jasmine pressed her nose against the bars, and the crowd hooted in surprise.

In a moment, they were silenced. Jasmine let out a painful roar, one that sent the townspeople staggering and left Hazel shell-shocked.

"I thought you would be happy," Hazel said desperately, clasping her hands together.

Jasmine growled and led herself to the back of the cage, curling up once again and closing her eyes.



Hazel bartered a mismatched, dingy poncho from a peasant in the crowd and made her way to the stage. The performance would start any moment now, and she wanted to make sure she did her very best. Though she despised him, Hazel could not let Neal's perfect plans fall to the dust. She practiced jumping on her right foot, her posture straight, her arms stretched in the air to support her. From fifth position, Hazel brought her right leg to the front. She sprung straight up, her legs closed tightly together once she hit the air, tilting slightly backward. Hazel landed confidently on her left foot, throwing the right to the front. She ran through chasses, a gliding step that she felt she could never give enough elegance to. When she paused to take a break, Jacqueline stepped from the shadows and clapped. Hazel smiled, though the slowness of her applause made it seem somewhat mocking.

"Come, I must fix your hair," she said, and Hazel sat on a wooden chair Jacqueline had pulled forward. Letting the woman style her frizzy hair into a neat elegant bun, Hazel closed her eyes. Her mother had been touching her hair softly just moments before she was killed. When Jacqueline was done, Neal shouted,

"All performers to stage!"

Jacqueline rushed off, leaving the stage with Hazel alone. In a few moments that felt like eternity, more performers joined her side. Oliver stood beside her and said,

"This is going to be spectacular."

Hazel nodded and put up a finger before rushing off stage and retching on the road. Her chest felt incredibly tight, as if someone was tying a ribbon around her heart.

"Hazel," a voice startled her from her chest attack and she stood up, exhaling deeply. Cleo wrinkled his eyebrows, placing a large hand on her shoulder.

"Are you alright?" he asked, and she nodded. Cleo's eyes darted to the floor,

"Hey, what is this?" he asked, and scooped up a newspaper from the floor. It took a moment for Hazel to realize it was her newspaper Cleo was holding.

"My brother wrote this!" he exclaimed, beaming proudly. Hazel smiled half heartedly and he quickly gathered her things into her cutch once again.

"Here Loosen your corset, maybe that's what is making you faint."

Hazel nodded and thanked him before grabbing her things and rushing backstage.

Oliver glanced at her unsurely, but before he could say anything, the velvet curtains rose and the show began.



Hazel pirouetted onto the stage, letting out a desperate cry before landing into her skirts. The crowd stared, hypnotized at the poncho girl before the next character appeared on the stage. The stepmother was a tall acrobat who had pinned her hair tightly back and wore a gray, dull dress.

"Oh Ash Girl, why must you be so ugly and odd?" the stepmother croaked, and spun into the air, lifted by invisible strings and swung off the stage. The light burned on Hazel now. She lay, crumpled in her poncho, crying quietly. Hazel stood up, and gracefully glided toward her steps, sitting down and staring ahead. Soon after, the father arrived with the stepmother and the two sisters. The sisters crowded around Hazel, chatting excitedly.

"Your mother and I are going to the market, is there anything you would like us to bring home?" her father bellowed.

"Oh three new dresses," one step sister pleaded.

"Four new earrings," the other crowed.

Hazel looked up from her hands and said,

"The first branch that hits your head father. Ties all I need."

The parents departed and the scene ended with the stepsisters giggling about a ball.

Hazel was once again the center of the attention, dusting the floors and performing dances all the while. She twirled in the air, arms hugging her body before dusting the floor. She leaped across the stage, hearing the crowd cheer. Hazel twisted and spun before softly falling to the ground like a feather. The audience quieted and Hazel looked out into the audience. The poncho wrapped around her body, Hazel looked dreary and utterly depressing, alone on the stage, crying out.

The father arrived home from the market and Haze was gifted with a hazel branch. She ran across the stage, sticking the branch into a mound of dirt that signified her mother’s grave.

"Oh Mother, how I miss you. You are gone, and now," Hazel felt her voice break and she stifled her cries.

"I am nothing but an Ash Girl."

The stepmother refuses to take Hazel to the ball, claiming her to be filthy and poor. Hazel calls to the birds for help, and Jace's perfectly trained birds flock towards her, pushing pebbles into a bowl. After completing the tasks at home, Hazel begs her stepmother to take her to the ball. Her stepmother again rejects her pleas and Hazel turns to the audience with tears in her eyes. She rushes to her mother’s grave once again and tears fall onto the mound. From the branches grow marvelous leaves, and Hazel does not know how Neal does it, for it looks real! Hazel felt the audience's excitement as she spoke.

'Shiver and quiver little tree. Silver and gold throw down over me."

Her eyes darted to Henry and Neal watching in the audience with expecting faces. Hazel stood up and spun off the stage, ripping off the poncho and returning with her golden ensemble. The crowd stood up and jeered, Hazel spinning on one toe and releasing the energy from her fingers into the air. Her heart lifted like Jace's doves, one by one the beat of her heart quickened as the cheers grew louder, her blood rushed in her veins.

They clapped and cheered, the curtains swinging close with Hazel's exit. Hazel escaped backstage, taking deep measured breaths and gulping down water. Oliver patted her back,

"That was beautiful," he said, and Hazel smiled.

Thank you," she whispered.

Hazel ran back onstage, the curtains opening with the cheers of the audience. Her heartbeat slowed and blackness invaded her thoughts.

"That's my brother!" Cleo had said. Hazel kept thinking of the newspaper, clenched angrily in Cleo's hand. The audience stared at her, waiting. Hazel kept dancing, but her thought were on Cleo's brother. From her escape to the ball to her dance with the prince, Hazel's mind was occupied with other thoughts. When Hazel ran from the palace, leaving her slipper behind, her thoughts connected. Was it possible that Cleo's brother had wrote a false article for Magical Feet to get paid? Hazel turned, watching her golden slippers being picked up by Oliver. He looked for his princess in confusion, and the audience pointed toward Hazel. She remembered than what he had shouted earlier, what she couldn't catch. He had shouted I'm sorry. Hazel turned away, and caught Henry's gaze. She leaped toward the end of the stage, her heart beat accelerating. She was scheduled to leap off the stage and return to her home when the clock struck midnight. The audience cheered and she dove for the ground. Except her legs wouldn't stop moving. She was due to make a full circle backstage, but her feet led her forward on its own accord. She knew already that Henry knew. He had watched her carefully the whole performance, and now, as the clock hit midnight, and the dramatic piano music hit the air, she heard Henry's roar of anger. Hazel pushed through the crowd, heading for the train. But her heart veered her left toward the back entrance. She put forward a burst of speed, pressing her clutch to her chest. She wore only one golden slipper now, and her foot was starting to bleed, picking up stones and glass.

"Get her!" she heard Henry scream in the distance, and Hazel started to feel faint. What was she doing She couldn't escape! She would be running into more trouble than she was already in. A roar broke through the thoughts in her head and Hazel ran toward Jasmine's cage.

"Be free," Hazel whispered, and pulled open the cage with the secret lock tucked inside. Jasmine roared, standing on her hind legs, her elongated body a beautiful orange ember against the dark sky. Jasmine thundered once more and nudged Hazel forward with her mighty head before pouncing away.

        In a matter of seconds, the spectators began to scream. Hazel ran toward the station, knowing that by the time she got there, Nathaniel would be long gone. He had said midnight sharp. It was now 12:10. As Hazel approached the station, she heard footsteps behind her. She turned but no one was in sight. It was dark outside and the station was bare, everyone was at home with their family or at the circus. Hazel wondered what kind of havoc she had caused and what Henry would do to her when he caught her. She sat down on a bench and allowed herself to cry. Soon, she would be caught, and there was nowhere to hide her. A hand grabbed her shoulder, and her heart jumped into her mouth. Slowly, she turned. Standing there in his princely attire was Oliver.

“Hazel, I thought you were not going to leave,” he said breathlessly, and her eyes darted over his shoulder.

“Where are the others?” she asked, and he replied,

‘I diverted them.”

She nodded and then said, “Why did you tell Henry?” her mouth filled with foul, bitter anger and Oliver let go of her shoulder.

“I wanted to protect you. You do not know what the Big Swing is like. I wanted you safe,” he whispered. His brown eyes rested on her bare feet and she spat accusingly,

“In what regards is the Magical Feet safe?”

“I would keep you safe, I promise,” he pleaded, and Hazel felt guilty for the words that would tumble from her mouth next.

“I do not need you to protect me. I can protect myself.”

A call from a distance signified an approaching train and Hazel ripped her arm from his hand. The air was chilly and cold, but Oliver’s empty gaze made it all the more freezing. The train rattled forward them, and passengers stood up. Hazel watched with hopeful eyes, knowing that her fantasy of Nathaniel had been just that.

“He is gone,” Oliver said, and Hazel let him grab her wrist and pull her back. A figure was leaning off the train, a black suited figure, waving their cap in the air and calling,

“Cinderella! Cinderella! I know you are out there!”

Hazel’s heart lifted and she ripped away from Oliver. She started to run, her legs pumping and her arms spreading. Her throat burned from the air she was gulping down, but she could not let Nathaniel get away.

A shadow fell over her own and a weight crashed onto her back. Hazel screamed as Oliver jumped onto her, pinning her down. Hazel watched, horrified, as Nathaniel, unaware of her, sped away.

“Let me go!” she screamed, but Oliver pushed her shoulders down.

“I can’t,” he whispered, and Hazel kicked out.

Oliver sprang back and Hazel took the distraction. She bursted forward, allowing her strong dancers legs to take control. Behind her, familiar voices yelled. Neal and Henry’s. But she could not turn now, it would only slow her down. Hazel braced herself for the jump and leaped onto the speeding train, throwing her torso onto the platform and banging her ribs. Hazel cursed loudly, her legs flailing off the train. She tried to crawl forward with her elbows, but she only slipped farther. A pale hand grabbed hers and pulled her into the cart. Hazel rolled over, gasping, hugging her bruised torso. A girl stood before her. With blindingly white hair and deep blue eyes, she looked like an angel. The girl held out a hand and Hazel took it, getting to her knees, and soon after, her feet.

“Thank you,” Hazel gasped, and the girl smiled.

‘Not at all. My name is Eve.”

Hazel tried her best to curtsy, but just fell into a nearby seat.

“Hazel McAdams,” she breathed, and Eve sat down beside her, folding her hands in her lap.

“You dance for Magical Feet,” Eve posed the question as a statement and Hazel nodded.

“Where are you heading to?” the girl asked, and Hazel replied,

“The Big Swing.”

Eve crossed her arms and tilted her head inquiringly, “What a coincidence. I was just thinking of going there as well, to become a dancer.”

Hazel drew apart the small curtains of the cart window and saw speeding darkness and nothing more. When she looked closer, she caught her reflection and stared.

Jacqueline’s hair-do was now all ruined and her mess of curls were unleashed at her shoulders. Her face was scratched and her throat ached. Hazel looked down at her burning bare feet and banged knees. She looked all the part for a broken ballerina, but as Hazel watched her past speed away through a window of black abyss, she had never felt so whole in her life.




******** Chapter ************



        Hazel woke up to snow. Large, blissful, mounds of snow, decorating the windowpanes and giving hats to all the buildings in sight. Beside her, Eve was biting into an apple and reading a book.

“Hello,” Hazel said, then realizing that she had probably lost Nathaniel, her heart sunk.

“Are you still going to the Big Swing?” Hazel asked, trying to conceal the desperation in her voice.

Eve nodded and relief spread through Hazel’s chest.

“You don’t mind if I accompany you, do you?” Hazel asked, and Eve’s pale blue eyes lit up. A smile invaded her pale face and she squealed,

“Of course! you are my idol! You are the top ballerina! I dance ballet too, and I follow in your every footsteps! You must teach me!” she exclaimed, her eyes widening at every word.

Hazel flinched as the girl grasped her arm in excitement and she smiled quietly.

“Have you heard much about the Big Swing?” Hazel asked, wondering if Eve had seen the paper.

‘Of course! Everywhere you go you will hear people spitting out the Big Swing’s or Magical Feet, depends on who paid them,” she took a flourishing bite of her apple and leaned forward.

Her slender nose just inches away from Hazel’s, she said,

“It is all a game. Show business, Momma calls it.”

Suddenly serious, Eve lowered her eyes and for a moment, silence engulfed the space between them.

Suddenly, the cart door slid opened, letting in a cool breeze. Eve kept talking, but Hazel’s heart danced in her chest. Could it be Henry approaching them? Neal? Hazel sunk down in her seat and looked towards the window.

Eve stopped chatting and Hazel heard a soft thud on the floor that sounded like an apple. Hazel closed her eyes, bracing herself for the stinging slap.

“Open your eyes Ash Girl,” a soft voice whispered, and her eyes flew open.

She knew that voice.

“Nathaniel,” she whispered, and turned into him, allowing the hug to consume her fears. She cared not that they were but strangers, that he had all her happiness in his palm. Tears started to root in her eyes. After waiting eternity, counting the days, he was finally here. The key to her new life. Embarrassed, Hazel withdrew herself, blushing.

“You...how did you know I would be here?” she croaked, and let her eyes run over him.

Nathaniel grinned, pushing back his black mess of hair with the back of his hand.

“Cinderella was late to leave the ball, I figured you would be too. Anyway, I could not leave you there with...them.” his voice tinged with disgust and he scrunched up his nose.

“Especially on Christmas,” he said, and Hazel smiled.

She could not believe the warm feeling that would not stop spreading over her chest. Every time Nathaniel talked, smiled or laughed, she could not help but smile. How could she not?

She was rescued by her prince, and she would never have to be a hazel tree no longer. The train sped forward, and Hazel saw a new life fast approaching.



**INSERT LOCATION***



        Hazel and Nathaniel left the train at the next step. Hazel waved goodbye at Eve, but the girl only stood up and followed them out. Hazel stepped from the cart and grinned. The snow had stuck and it still decorated everything with its magical simplicity. The air tasted like freedom, and fresh happiness. Nathaniel smiled and touched her elbow, leading her to the right. Hazel stumbled, too consumed of happiness a walk night.

“Where are we going?” Hazel asked, and when she stretched, the pain in her ribs became more prevalent.

“Ouch,” she whispered, and Nathaniel paused his quick walking to turn and ask,

“What is the matter?”

Hazel shook her head, dismissing his worry with the wave of her hand.

“Oh nothing. I bruised my ribs when I jumped onto the train.”

He stared at her in shock, “You jumped onto the train and you live to tell the tale?” his jaw dropped and Hazel laughed.

“Yes. I could not let you get away.”

He rose his eyebrows and mumbled something under his breath before continuing his fast pace.

Hazel hurried after him, passing the slums, where people had narrow, gray faces. She pushed past crowded market squares, where vendors bellowed into the air. Nathaniel grabbed her wrist and she squealed as they ran into a crowd of pedestrians. Carriage drivers cursed at them and those she pushed turned and mumbled foul words. By the time they reached a corner, Hazel was laughing and taking gulps of air in large doses. Hazel could not remember running without fear in her heart and tears in her eyes. In front of them, a large house loomed. Completed with jutted shingles and large paned windows, the estate owned an elegance and wealth Hazel always wished she could grow up in.

Nathaniel led her forward and lunged up the front steps. He reached for the brass knocker, but before he could lift his hand, the door swung open to reveal a short, pudgy woman.



“Nathaniel! I have not seen you in ages pumpkin squash!” the woman grabbed him and bent his head down, squeezing him to her bosom and ruffling his hair.

Hazel looked away, feeling a smile tinge her lips.

“Who is this?” the woman pushed Nathaniel aside and walked forward, holding out her hands.

“You’re married?” she squealed, and Hazel laughed, too shocked to respond.

The woman’s eyes were so happy she did not want to let her down.

“No auntie, Father and I were looking for her. Remember? She’s our new dancer.”

Hazel curtsied, holding her dingy skirts out to the side and bending her knees.

“Nice to meet your acquaintance,” Hazel said, and Nathaniel's aunt beamed.

“Oh how darling! Come inside, I have made some turtle soup- the real kind none of that mock rubbish some have been eating these days!”

Nathaniel rolled his eyes humorously and followed his aunt into the house. Hazel followed after, entering the warm house with a smile.



        Minutes later, Hazel found herself being chauffeured around the room. Nathaniel’s aunt, who insisted Hazel call her Margie, babbled on about their antiques and paintings. Hazel kept her hands clasped in front of her, listening intently and wondering where Nathaniel had run off to.

Margie beckoned her up the curved oak staircase that was made “fifty years ago by my Great uncle Linus,” Margie had cooed.

Hazel followed the woman up to a floor with three rooms. She pointed to the lavender door,

“This is my room,” she said, and then beckoned to the blue door,

“That is Blake’s.”

She opened a pink door to the right and Hazel followed her in.

“You can sleep here,” she said, and Hazel gazed into the room. Inside, the walls were decorated with bookshelves and paintings. A violin leaned against the wooden writing desk and lavender sheer curtains laced the windows, giving the room a light hue. The bed was huge, powder pink curtains decorating the corners and giving a niche of security. Hazel felt tears reach her eyes. A room for her. A real house where she could sleep and not be terrified. Hazel turned and gave Margie a great hug, squeezing her to her chest.

“Thank you so much!” Hazel whispered, and aunt Margie grinned.

“Not at all dear,” she said, and winked at her after she pulled away.



        Hazel lay on her back for a while, looking up at the ceiling and twisting her fingers in the space above her. She could not believe that she was gone from Magical Feet. She kept closing her eyes, expecting that when she woke up, a strange man would be beside her. Softly in the house, piano music haunted the walls with a delicate but mourning melody. She wondered who would be playing such a morbid tune, and clambered off her bed to press her ear to the carpeted floor. She heard a masculine angry curse and then a huge crash. Hazel snapped from the floor, feeling like an intruder. She stood up and peeled a book from the bookshelf, its gold bind attracting Hazel to its pages. When she saw the cover, she could not keep herself from laughing. In clear gold embellishment the title was stamped proudly against the brown cover: Ash Girl. Hazel fell into her bed with the book. Moments later, she dozed off.



        “Dinner!” a shout echoed from downstairs and Hazel snapped up with a start. She rubbed her eyes with her fist and gathered her hair into a semi-neat bun. Hazel stood up and flattened her skirt, noticing then that she had gone all this way barefoot.

“Hazel?” someone called, and her door opened hesitantly.

“Yes, sorry, I’m getting together,” Hazel said, and stopped midway to the door when catching Nathaniel’s face. His blue eyes ran over the room and as he got closer to her, they hardened like pebbles.

“Is everything alright?” Hazel whispered, and Nathaniel curled his hands around the door frame.

“Dinner is ready,” he said quietly, and his eyes rested on the book on her bed before turning away and slamming the door.



        Hazel felt quite shaken as she went down the stairs. She had no idea what had made Nathaniel so upset. She could not help but feel she had intruded horribly into his house. Whatever it was that set Nathaniel off, Hazel hoped she could fix it. Hazel entered the dining room. The furniture was made of oak wood, a common furnishing Hazel had noticed. A bowl of fruit accommodated the middle of the table. Margie set the food out onto the table,

“Blake should be here soon. He was out helping the performers for tonight’s performance.” Hazel nodded and sat down. Margie lit a burned out candle on the chandelier and sat down as well.

“So Hazel, where are you from?” she asked.

Hazel was about to reply, “Magical Feet,” but stopped herself.

“Oh nowhere important,” she whispered, and Margie shrugged and patted her lips before launching into her life story. Margie was born a peasant in a small town where no one knew her name. Her sister, Anastasia, was Nathaniel’s mother, and had always been the tall beauty with a magical voice. Margie slipped on a sly smile and said,

“But Anastasia never could beat my booking. When people tasted my pies and truffles, oh how they squealed!” Margie slapped the table with her palm and leaned back, leaving a hand on her apron.

‘When my younger sister got married before me, to Blake, my parents worried. They thought I would never find a suitor,” she had whispered.

Turns out a year later, at twenty-five, Margie did. His name was Albert, a brave man known for his sweet tooth and love of children. Margie reminisced falling deeply in love with Albert, a soldier from the United States. He died shortly after in 1815 in the war. Margie had bore her first son, Jordan, that same summer. Hazel, fascinated by Margie’s life, barely heard when a man walked through the front door and shouted,

“I am home!”

Hazel turned in her seat and smiled.

Owning some startlingly similar features as his son, Blake was tall with curly black hair, a hooked slender nose like his son, and glistening light brown eyes.

“Hello!” he shouted excitedly, jumping forward.

Hazel let out her hand and he shook it vigorously,

“Wow, wow,” he repeated, and Hazel wondered if he was referring to Margie’s food or her.

“You are even more beautiful here than in the paintings!” he exclaimed, and beckoned her to sit.

“Nathaniel told me you had red hair, but that color, some women would die for it. We need to get you new clothes. I will be sure to tell Gill,” Blake took a deep breath, checked his watch, and said,

“Where is my son?”

Margie shook her head, “On his piano,” she said quietly.

“Every time he comes here, it gets worst,” Aunt Margie said in a lowered voice, and Hazel looked away.

“He is fine. Nathaniel!” Blake called, glancing reassuringly to his sister in law.

Hazel heard footsteps pound up the stairs in response and hoped Nathaniel wasn't still mad at her. Nathaniel slammed the basement door behind him, slipping into his jacket.

“Nathaniel, where are you going?” Blake called, and his son grunted, turned, and stalked into the dining room.

“You gave her the room!” he shouted, and Hazel winced, shrinking into her seat.

Blake exchanged glances with Margie and sighed, “Come on Nathaniel,” he pleaded, and reached out.

Nathaniel ripped his hand away, his face a flush pink.

“Stop calling me Nathaniel! It is so prude!” Nathaniel yelled, and Hazel remembered to keep that in mind.

“Well, Nate,” Blake spat, and stood up from his seat, “I will stop calling you Nathaniel when you decide to stop acting like a child.”

Margie rotated her plate several times, looking away.

“She has only made things worse. Not worth it,” Nathaniel mumbled, and stalked away, slamming the door behind him.



        After an awkward but delicious dinner, Hazel escaped to “her” room, not bearing to hear Blake shower her in compliments when Nathaniel roamed the streets, angry and upset. She practiced some new dances, ignoring the throb of pain in her ribs. She let her head lean against her slender arms and then fell gently to the floor, her legs folding underneath her softly. When Hazel danced, all the stress melted away from her chest and spit out like tendrils of smoke from her legs. A tentative knock came at the door and Hazel stood up, pushing back her sweaty hair with clammy hands. Blake poked his head into the room,

“Hello Hazel. Sorry to intrude.” He stepped into the room after her permission and he lay down a dress on her bed with a pair of light blue slippers.

Hazel smiled, “Thank you so much!” she whispered, and Blake shrugged.

“Margie said it was bad luck for a new performer to wear old clothes,” he murmured.

“Has Nathaniel returned?” she asked, her eyes stealing away to Blake’s gaze.

“Oh do not worry about him. He is very sensitive about some things. He storms off, takes a walk, and cools down. Just like his mother, hot-tempered.” He sighed and said,

“Any who, the Big Swing is performing tonight and I wondered if you wanted to sit this one out and really get a feel for what the Big Swing is all about,” he winked and Hazel laughed.

“Well, get ready and I will see you soon,” he said, and exited the room.

        An hour later, Hazel had bathed in hot water, removing temporarily. She had slipped on the simple denim dress that reached her ankle and then put her hair up in a tight bun. Hazel glanced at her reflection and scowled at her pale complexion. She pinched her cheeks to give some color, but it faded quickly. Hazel was downstairs to meet Blake, dressed in a finely pressed black suit and shiny, leather shoes. Blake looked very wealthy, and handsome as well. Margie clapped her hands together, she too was dressed up in a long skirt and an embroidered skirt.

“Out we go!” Margie exclaimed, and the three headed out.



       

        The night was perfect. Thought it had snowed a vast amount earlier, it was not freezing nor chilly. Hazel was perfectly comfortable in a small cardigan and everyone was dressed down, without layers. Hazel knew they were approaching the circus before Blake mentioned it. The scent of buttery popcorn and warm chocolate stained the air. The voices were heard miles back, and as they got closer, it absorbed the silence like a sponge. Blake opened the gates to the back entrance and threw her a grin over his shoulder. Slowly, she followed Blake in a trance, gazing at the leaping performers in extravagant costumes. One woman was suspended in the air with only a key between her teeth holding her up. Tight-rope walkers invaded the sky, tiptoeing across anything that wire could stretch between. Tattoo artists painted some sailors arms with anchors and hearts. A sailor tipped his hat at Hazel and she nodded curtly. Everywhere she turned, she was distracted by something, or someone. One moment a monkey would be leaping across rooftops, the next a man blew bubbles from his nose. The possibilities were indeed endless. Blake carried her forward, urging her that the real performances were still to come. Hazel passed animals of all sot, but there were no caged lions. There was a vast amount of horses, however. Hazel approached the center stage, and it was when Hazel turned that she recognized all the acts were built upon ending you here. The main event. Blake took the four seats reserved for them in the front and waited as the seats started to fill.

Soon enough, there were crowds in every corner and people were hopping from foot to foot in excitement. The seat beside her was the last one to be filed, and Hazel glanced, expecting Nathaniel. But it was only Eve. Eve smiled at Hazel,

“Oh, hello!” she said, and Hazel smiled. Blake stood up, too much approval of the crowd, and took center stage.

“Greetings, ladies, gentlemen, children!” a monkey swung onto his shoulder and he laughed.

“and of course, animals,” the crowd chuckled and he continued.

“The Big Swing wishes everyone a late Merry Christmas, get ready for The Feathers!” he exclaimed.

The crowd roared and the curtains pulled apart to reveal two figures. One, a female in a white feathered attire, and a man in a black feathered ensemble. Hazel watched the two swans reel each other in and walk across a tightrope with bare feet. They pushed one another in a vicious scene, and they thundered to the ground. Just before they fell, a string yanked them up by their ankles. Now suspended in the air, the two swans shared a tender kiss.

“Hazel,” Eve whispered, and Hazel turned, slightly irritated that she was bothering her.

“Yes,” she murmured.

“I heard the Big Swing makes their performers entertain after performances,” she said quietly and Hazel watched the swans swing forcefully toward each other, landing on opposite sides of the wire and chasing each other around.

“What do you mean by entertain?” Hazel whispered, her eyes trained on the male swan, whose eyes glinted in the candlelight. The female swan crept closer, enticed.

“You know, customers, for the men,” Eve said, and the male swan leapt toward his female counterpart. In an instant, the male swan had wrung the white swan in his hands and she fell to the floor with a thump. Hazel felt sweat start to accumulate on her scalp and she breathed deeply. On the stage, the white swan was slowly turning black.

        Two performances later, Hazel excused herself and made her way to the exit. She collapsed on the sidewalk, her surroundings a blur of melded colors. She knew this would happen. She put all of her hope into something just to watch it crumble in her hands. Someone stood in front of her, casting a shadow over her crumpled frame. The first thing she saw were long feet wearing glittering golden shoes. Hazel looked up and struggled to keep her mouth from dropping. Before her stood a man with golden, short hair. The normalites ended there. Hazel’s eyes ran over his muscular arms and flat stomach. He was wearing a golden jumpsuit, dipped finely into golden glitter. Glitter even covered his face, the only thing sparkling more was his green, stormy eyes.

“Damsel in distress?” the man asked, and planted his hands on his hips, popping a leg in an extremely feminine gesture.

Hazel smiled half-heartedly, blinking away tears.

“Oh, I will be fine,” she whispered, but the golden man rose an eyebrow.

“Oh sure, and I am just a regular gentleman.”

He sat down beside her and asked, “What busies your mind, dear?”

Hazel laughed bitterly: Nathaniel, The Big Swing, Magical Feet, death. Fear.

“Nothing,” she said quietly, and then after a moment’s pause, began crying.

“The Big Swing, I am a performer there now. I just got released from Magical Feet to come here, and...” she shook her head, “they make the performers entertain,” she said in a hushed voice.

The man’s face bore a quizzical expression,

“So what?” he said, and Hazel blinked slowly,

“What do you mean?” she shrieked. Was she losing her mind?

“Do you dislike children?” he asked, his eyes watching her intently.

“No, but what does that...” Hazel started, but the man burst into laughter, standing up and holding out a hand.

“We entertain children after performances,” he said, wiping humorous tears from the corner of his eyes.

Hazel took the man's hand, “Really?” she whispered, and he chuckled,

“Yes, dear, really.”

Hazel grinned, wanting to slap herself for being so foolish. The golden man shook his head,

“I am Gill. I am also a dancer,” he said, and he offered a hand.

She shook it and grinned, “Hazel McAdams. I apologize for that odd start. I must seem like a lunatic!” she smiled fondly at Gill and he stuck a finger into his ear, removing glitter and letting it fall like stars down his back.

“Are we not all a little insane anyway?” he said, and ran forward, jumping into the air. He led her back to the Big Swing, chatting happily. Hazel smiled at him, her heart warming. At that moment, the man didn't need gold glitter to shine to her.



        Gill was next to perform. With astounding grace, he danced with  golden ribbons tied around his ankles. He leaped into the air using only the strength of his arms and the propel of his weight. He twisted his torso, wrapping the whole ribbon to his upper thigh. Hazel glanced at the spectators, who had stopped whispering to stare. When he unraveled himself, he spun like a top, his arms spread. Gold glitter showered down on the mat the flick of his fingers and the crowd cheered. Hazel kept staring at him. She could watch Gill for ages and still think the stars held nothing on him. He winked at her and she grinned.



        The curtains closed after Gill’s riveting performance. Before the go-seers could return to tour the grounds, Blake bounded on stage, “One moment please!” he shouted, and everyone sat hesitantly down.

“It was certainly rude of I to not introduce you to our new dancer,” he said, and Hazel heard bits of mumbled surprise. He held out his hand to her and Hazel accepted it, though she could feel herself trembling. Blake held onto her hand and squeezed it reassuringly.

“I would like you to meet Hazel McAdams!” he shouted, and the crowd responded in sheer silence.

Heat crawled up Hazel’s cheeks, and she felt her hand start to sweat. She pulled away from Blake to run from the stage, but he held his hold.

“Don’t be afraid,” he whispered, and Hazel stared like a frightened animal to the crowd.

Blake lifted their hands in the air together and shouted out,

“Welcome to the Big Swing!”

The audience erupted in cheers, the people up front throwing their fists into the air and hollering. Blake led her offstage, dismissing the crowd with a “goodnight.”

Eve sat in her chair, her white hair gathered like a pool in her lap. Hazel had noticed that Eve had not clapped.

Instead of mentioning it, Hazel followed Blake and aunt Margie. She was pulled slightly back by a hand at her skirt. Hazel glanced over at Eve, who’s eyes were wide.

“You are nothing but a puppet, remember that,” she whispered, and headed off into the opposite direction.



        Blake went off to talk to newspaper writers and aunt Margie started to chat with some of the neighborhood women. Hazel was pulled away when the women started excitedly discussing cranberry juice. Hazel stumbled back in f to see Gill leading her forward.

He pulled her onto a wooden crate in the middle of the square.

“What is it?” Hazel asked, wide-eyed.

“I was just rescuing you from that distasteful conversation,” he said.

When Hazel didn’t respond, he patted her hand and nodded sincerely, “You’re welcome.”

Hazel laughed. Gill was unlike any man she had ever met. Every man she knew dressed in suits and a tie. Even dingy men like Henry tried to wear decent attire. Most of the men Hazel watched always strived to talk to the noble girls. They drank with the scholars and bought fancy items for themselves to prove they were worthy. Gill was wearing a one-piece sparkling jumpsuit and glitter! Hazel watched him speak loudly and wave his hands about.

It didn't seem like Gill cared much about what others thought about him either. Hazel knew then that she would be great friends with Gill. Ever since the murder of her parents, Hazel wanted someone to talk to. Someone to whisper into the night, her deepest darkest secrets. A friend. That was all she wanted. Slowly, small children gathered around Hazel and Gill and pulled on their shoes and Hazel’s skirts.

“A story, Gill! Please!” a small girl begged, and the other children gathered in, pouting and begging. Hazel grinned when Gill sighed dramatically and relented. In the reflection of Gill’s eyes was the flickering of candles around them. Parents lounged on chairs, buying corn and watching their children. Single men drank in the corner, winking at the daring young girls who stayed in a group and fanned their faces and fluttered their eyelashes. Gill told a story about a young boy. He smiled at every child as he spoke, which kept their attention.

“Once there was a young boy. He lived in a grand estate with a garden surrounding and large paned windows,” he spread his hands in the sky and Hazel saw the house in the darkness.

“The boy was alone, as he always was. His father told him that to fill the time, the boy should read books off the shelves in the library.”

Hazel pictured a small boy climbing up a wooden ladder and pulling novels from the shelf.

“So the boy did. Every day, while his mother attended town meetings and his father taught at the academy, the boy read. He would complete three or four books a day,” the children mumbled in surprise. Gill flashed a grin at her, but it seemed forced. A small girl climbed into Hazel’s lap and nestled in her arms.

“One day the boy fell off the ladder pertaining to the bookshelf.”

The children leaned forward, and Hazel caught herself doing the same.

“Instead of falling straight to the ground, the boy grabbed the nearby curtain and swung forward, landing on the opposite side of the room, on his feet.”

Hazel smiled and Gill clapped his hands together.

“And the boy discovered there was something he loved even more than books,” Gill paused and ran his gaze over the children, “dancing,” he whispered, and the children clapped.

Hazel saw Gill blink fast. She knew from experience he was trying to fight back tears. She rested her hand on his elbow and started to tell the children about the Ash Girl.



        An hour later, it was midnight. The poorer children were still up, playing and talking. The richer had left at eleven, taking special measures not to bump into the children with ripped clothes and dingy faces. A small girl sat in Haze’s lap, and upon request, Hazel braided her hair. The girl had brown wavy hair and piercing green eyes, her smile a toothless gap.

“I want to be a ballerina, just like you!” she exclaimed.

Hazel grinned, pushing her hair from her face.

“My name would be ballerina Sally and I’ll be beautiful and tall and have flowing dresses like you. Momma says all ballerinas have to be perfect. Is it true? Is momma right?”

Hazel wanted to say, No, your Mommas wrong. I’m not perfect. I have so many scars that no one could look at me and call me perfect.

Hazel tapped Sally’s nose and said, “Yes, your momma is right.”

Sally grinned and hugged Hazel, “Are you married to someone, Hazel? A prince?” the girl asked, popping her head up in excitement. She clasped her hands together and Hazel laughed.

“No, I am not married Sally,” she said, and the girl shrugged.

“You will be. To someone handsome like Cinderella’s prince!” Sally exclaimed and Hazel squeezed her cheeks.

A dark shadow was thrown over them and Sally’s smile dropped. Her eyes sparkled and she whispered, “Is that your husband?”

Hazel turned to see Nathaniel standing behind them, his hands dug deep into his black trousers. His black hair was windswept cross his pale face, making his eyes look all the more blue. The black sky made him look especially dark, like a sinned angel who had fallen from Heaven.

“No,” Hazel replied to Sally, and hugged the girl to her chest, glancing away from Nathaniel.

“Hazel,” he said, his voice lacking emotion. Hazel turned to him again.

“Yes, Nathaniel?” she asked, and his eyes ran from hers to Sally’s.

“Would you like to accompany me to dinner?” he asked, and his eyes ricocheted back to hers.  

Hazel wished to say, no thank you it is far too late, or sorry I must stay with the children. But Nathaniel’s eyes told her that the question was really a command. Hazel gently placed Sally off her lap and stood up. She brushed her skirt and awaited Nathaniel’s response. His eyes lingered on her dress, and he opened his mouth to say something, but did not. Nathaniel started to walk and Hazel followed after, crossing her arms over her chest. As they got farther from the circus, the temperature seemed to drop. Nathaniel led her through alleyways where drunken men stumbled out and hacked up their drinking. They passed a brothel, where some women hooted at Nathaniel from a window. Finally, Nathaniel stopped walking. In front of them stood a bleak, gray apartment building that looked abandoned. Hazel felt a shiver run down her back when she looked at it. She wondered where one would find a dinner here, but did not say anything. Though she had entered dark buildings with men before and came out scarred, she trusted Nathaniel. This scared her the most. Upon opening the door, darkness consumed them. Hazel stepped into it, barely able to see Nathaniel’s shape in front of her. In the middle of the room, a small light appeared. Holding onto the glowing light bulb, Nathaniel said,

“This is my home.”

Hazel stared around the room. The subtle light now flickering across the room put into character the once nameless objects. A small chest rested in one corner, a pile of dusty blankets stacked on top. A broken doll lay in the other corner, its eye sprung from its oddly morbid face. A miniature piano graced a wall behind Nathaniel, but the sheet music was eroded and crumpled.

“Home?” Hazel whispered.

The room looked like a prison cell to her.

Nathaniel laughed, “Yes. Believe it or not, I used to run down these halls and,” his words fell from his mouth when his gaze rested on the piano.

He led her quietly forward, “I want you to see this,” he murmured, and Hazel’s heart jumped. She wondered what he had in store for her. Nathaniel pulled a string behind a side-table and a ladder ran down from a secret door hidden in the ceiling. Hazel followed after Nathaniel, grateful to leave the dark room. Mounting the steps, Hazel felt a chill. When she reached for the last rung, her head swung out into the air. They were on the roof, Hazel realized, and felt her stomach flip. She disliked heights very much. Nathaniel stepped onto the roof, taking a deep breath. Hazel watched him move toward the edge and look down.

“Nathaniel, please step back,” the words tumbled from her mouth in their own accordance.

He turned and offered a sly smile, “Come and see this,” he replied.

Hazel took three daringly large steps forward, her head feeling heavy when looking down at the grounds. But her fear occupied her thoughts for only a moment. Before them, hanging in the sky like a charm, the moon shone, great in all of its beauty.

“Wonderful,” she whispered, and the fear lifted from her chest.

Nathaniel's eyes rested below and Hazel followed his gaze. Below, the circus lights guided her vision to the Big Swing. She could barely make out Gill chatting with some ladies. Everyone else was a blur of color.

“It’s amazing how small and insignificant everything can seem from up here,” Nathaniel said, and his words felt like gold, threading into the air.

Hazel remained quiet, not wanting to ruin the moment of sheer perfection.

“My mother died,” Nathaniel said suddenly, turning to her.

Hazel watched him. His hair was blowing against his face, he chewed on his lower lip.

“I am sorry,” Hazel whispered, and he shrugged.

“Nothing you could have done. It s odd because Mother never got sick. Then one day she fell ill...and...” he flicked his hand across the sky,

“Gone,” he whispered.

Nathaniel looked quite shaken, confessing this. Hazel wanted him to stop. He put one foot forward, his toes balancing off the ledge of the roof. Hazel stepped back, heart racing. Was he going to jump? She desperately wanted to pull his arm back, but she was frightened that if she did, he would pull forward and go tumbling.

“Sometimes I want to relive the day I found out. Holding her clammy hand, it was like I was on the edge and I could either leap off,” he suspended his arms forward and bent his knees.

Hazel muffled a nervous cry with her fist.

“Or I could step back,” he said, his voice hushed.

Nathaniel turned to her, his eyes quick as a whip.

“I must apologize,” he said, but Hazel shook her head.

“It is fine, no need, it is your house.”

Nathaniel waved her away and said, “Not for that. For making you believe I was your prince.”

Hazel allowed her gaze to slip from his. Her cheeks burned and rose with color. She had been hoping he was.

“My father told me that I must act like a gentleman in order to have you. So I did. But that is not me,” he said, and beckoned Hazel over to a small white table, covered with food.

“I apologize,” he repeated, and Hazel smiled.

“It is alright,” she responded quietly.

“Well I put together a small meal for us,” Nathaniel rushed.

Before her, there was a bowl of soup and a sandwich neatly cut in half diagonally.

“Thank you,” she said, and began to sip from her spoon.

Hazel rose her eyebrows in surprise, it was delightful!

She caught Nathaniel staring at her and blushed, lowering her spoon.

“What?” she murmured, and he shook his head, grinning.

“Oh, nothing. I have just never seen a girl eat so fast in my life.”

Hazel laughed, well aware of her face turning a soft crimson.

“Oh, I...” she started to laugh again and Nathaniel smiled.

“No need to be embarrassed. I quite like it. Rather different, from other women I’ve seen.”

Hazel laughed sarcastically and he rose his eyebrows.

“Neal always told me I was the same as all other ‘loose’ women. A w***e,” she started to munch at her sandwich, her chest feeling hot with arising anger.

Nathaniel ate some of his sandwich and asked, “How did you end up with them?”

Hazel swallowed and watched Nathaniel over the burning candle between them.

“Haven’t you read the articles?” she spat, and realizing her own anger, tried to curb it.

“I was only five. Momma and I were waiting for Papa to come home. He had been traveling overseas for some time and was returning to us finally.”

Nathaniel finished off his sandwich and his blue eyes watched her intently.

Hazel sighed, “But Papa never returned. Henry did, and Momma kept screaming t me to run. I had no idea what was going on, how was I...” she bit her lip, blinking hard.

Hazel pinched her wrist under the table, stop it she thought, do not cry.

“So I started to run. I probably would have escaped, too. But I turned back to get my doll, Meredith.”

Nathaniel nodded as if he understood, but Hazel knew he never would.

No one would.

“And Momma was just lying there, and her blood was seeping into the grass and I kept screaming, ‘Momma wake up’” Hazel looked down, tears falling into her lap.

“But she never woke up. And Henry took me.”

Nathaniel placed his warm hand on top of her icy one and patted it gently.

“What hurts the most is that momma told me to run and I did not. With her last breath, she wanted to save me.” Hazel then understood what Nathaniel meant when he spoke of being on a ledge, so close to escape, but so far away until you took the jump.

Hazel slid her hand away from Nathaniel’s and wiped away her tears.

“I think I should go. It is far too late,” she whispered, and pulled her hair back in a tight bun. Nathaniel cleared his throat and nodded, leading her off the roof. Hazel blew out the candle on the table and followed after.



        Hazel awoke with a start, her heart beating wildly. She had been having a recurring nightmare that Nathaniel and her had jumped off the roof and sprouted wings. The late afternoon sun dappled on her face and she checked the watch strewn on her table. It was twelve in the afternoon! Hazel cursed and slid from bed. She sniffed and realized her hair smelled like Nathaniel. She had no recollection of getting up the stairs of the house. She remembered collapsing on the couch, not wanting to disturb Nathaniel by sleeping in the room. Hazel blushed when realizing Nathaniel had brought her up. She ran down the steps, hoping Blake would not be too mad that she had overslept. Aunt Margie and Blake turned to her when she entered the dining room, still wearing the dress from last night.

“I am so sorry,” Hazel said, and Blake bursted into laughter.

“It is fine Hazel, we are not performing today. I hope you slept well,” he said, and she smiled sheepishly. When thinking all she had told Nathaniel, Hazel winced. She had always been more vulnerable at night.

“My son told me he took you for a tour,” Blake said, sipping tea from a porcelain mug.

Hazel nodded and sat at the table, munching at some cold toast.

“Dear,” Margie said, and Hazel rose her gaze to her.

“You must get ready, you look horrid,” she said, patting her shoulder sympathetically.

Hazel laughed, grateful for Aunt Margie’s honesty. Hazel wondered where Nathaniel was as she polished off her toast and jam. She escaped into her room to bathe and dress rapidly. When she stepped from the bathroom, a towel wrapped around her body, she jumped and screamed.

Her clothes were scrawled across her bed and she watched Gill pitch them into a bin. The Cinderella dress still lay on the surface.

“Gill!” Hazel shrieked, and rushed over to him. He grinned, his green eyes lighting up.

“Hey there darling. I was only ridding of trash, I am sure you do not mind.”

Hazel grabbed the blouse from his hand, face heating. She was awfully protective of her items. She always had been as a child as well.

“Gill, these are the only clothes I have,” she croaked, and he smiled, shaking his head and pulling the blouse back and dumping it into the bin.

“Today we are going shopping and we are getting you a whole new attire!” he said and spread his arms out in excitement.

Hazel looked away, “But I have not any money,” she whispered.

Gill shrugged her off, “The folks at the Big Swing will take care of you,” he said, and threw her a simple brown dress.

“Put this on and let us get going!” he exclaimed, and pitched one last dress into the bin before dragging it behind him as he left.




        Hazel skipped down the stairs wearing her brown dress, her hair tucked back in a simple pony tail. Blake was scribbling onto a paper and Hazel saw a sketching of her dancing. She smiled and said,

“Excuse me, Blake, but Gill said he was to take me out. Is that alright?”

Blake turned and grinned, “Quite alright with me. In a few weeks we are to attend a ball and I was hoping you would accompany us.”

A flood of happiness rushed to Hazel’s head. A ball! How wonderful! She had never been to one before!

Margie rushed into the dining room, looking rather perturbed.

“Darling, be back before dark. I heard the Quarrel’s are out tonight,” Margie said, her eyebrows drawing together.

Gill stepped into the room and Hazel heard him groan, throwing his head back in exaggeration.

“I thought it’d be another year ‘till we’d see them again,” Gill hissed, but Margie just shrugged and Blake looked down at his sketching.

“Who are the Quarrel’s?” Hazel asked Gill, the anxiety of the bunch was rubbing off on her.

Gill sighed, pushing back his blonde hair. “The Quarrel’s are another circus. They, however, are not so friendly with their competitors. Their magicians are into dark magic, their jugglers like to make human heads appear in their palms, and their fire-tamers...” he shuddered at the thought.

Hazel suddenly felt chilly, disliking the seriousness borne in Gill’s eyes.

“So we both better get going now,” Gill said, and turned from the kitchen, leaving Hazel speechless.




****CHAPTER BREAK*****



        The day was surprisingly sunny. The rays of the sun kissed the top of the England people, and in return, the people bore smiles. Gill moved quickly and craftily through the crowds of shoppers cluttering the market square. Finding it awfully complicated to keep up, Hazel finally grabbed onto Gill’s jumpsuit and pulled herself forward. Finally, he stopped abruptly in front of a shop. Hanging in the window were dresses of every color, ranging from a soft lavender to a loud orange. Hazel wondered how expensive the dye must have been. Gill grinned at her and opened the door before she could protest. The prices would be to heavy here! A woman standing on a stool was carefully sewing a customer’s dress. She turned, a needle clenched between her teeth and her eyes widened. The thin woman jumped, Hazel watching as the needle dangerously leapt from her mouth. Tall and skinny, the woman wore a modest dark green dress that covered her arms and legs. She wore glasses, large framed and circular, to which made her face look particularly owlish but cute.

“Oh darling, it has been too long!” she squealed.

“Granny, I saw you after the show, remember?” Gil said, laughing as she kissed him on both cheeks. His grandmother slapped him jokingly on the shoulder and her eyes landed on Hazel. She cracked a smile and planter her hands on her hip.

“Now aren’t you going to introduce me, Gillian?”

Hazel smiled and curtsied, “Hello, I am Hazel. I just joined the Big Swing,” she said, and Gill’s granny grinned.

“Well, welcome home than Hazel,” she said, and squeezed her into a very warm hug.

Gill’s granny’s customer scowled, “Renee, preferably today,” she snapped.

Renee put a hand up to indicate  moment and scurried back to repairing the woman’s dress.

Gill beckoned Hazel over and she followed him, her eyes consuming every blouse, dress, shoe or trouser that hung on the walls. Gill pulled her into a tiny room in the back and swept an arm across the air. Before her were racks and racks of dresses. Dresses of every color, fashion, price and fabric. They all had one thing in common: created with the utmost craft and delicacy.

“Try some on,” Gill snapped, catching her resting a hand on a blue dress.

“Oh no, it is alright, I was just...”

“Hazel,” Gill said, his serious tone echoing into the room. He rested both hands on her shoulders,

“Do what I say. There is a ball coming soon that is awaiting you. And in that ball will be a very handsome Nathaniel Gideon. If you do not follow my order, I will not let you attend that ball.”

Hazel stared at him, not sure whether to laugh or feel extremely frightened.

“So go on!” he ordered.

Hazel grabbed the blue dress from the rack and rushed into a dressing room. Once inside, Hazel slipped the dress over her head and looked down at herself, frowning. Her bosom was flat, it did not fill up half of the support the dress indicated. But her frame was small and slim, and that was something she should fancy, right? Stepping out from behind the dressing room curtain, Hazel felt oddly self-conscious. She was not used to flaunting herself, especially in front of a man. Gill turned and grinned, and Hazel broke into uncontrollable laughter. Gill now wore a red-sequined jumpsuit, some sort of red eye application, and his face was painted a flaming orange.

“Wow. Gill, you are..” she stuttered, unsure of what to say.

“On fire?” Gill offered with a raise of his eyebrow, and she began to laugh, shocked beyond words.

“So are you, dancer. Care to take a look?” he turned a mirror towards her and her eyes lit up. The dress looked as if it were made for her, simple and serene like the sight of an ocean wave. It did not highlight her flat chest, but complimented her small waist.

“These dresses are not doing all the work, dear. Go on, take another one, try them on. Keep ten of your choice.”

Hazel blinked back surprise, “Take? Oh Gill...that is really too much, really...”

“Hazel! Do not make me launch into another threat!”

Hazel rushed over to him and gave him a quick hug and he squeezed her back. She grinned and grabbed another dress from the rack.



        After thanking Renee profoundly, the two dancers left the shop Hazel carried her heavy load of dresses, but felt no ache. On the contrary, she felt warm and alive. The Big Swing had granted her so much greatness, how could she ever repay them? Gill showed her the meat market, owned by Karl the butcher, who lost his left leg sword fighting. Gill knew it to be because of a slip in the cuttings of a piece of meat. Then he showed her the most inexpensive source for jewelry, in a big department store with wide windows. Hazel found that she very much enjoyed meeting new people, it was refreshing to see new faces, hear new voices. Gill stopped at a vendor and brought them each a boiled apple, leading her over to a fountain where they sat.

“Thank you Gill,” Hazel said, and squeezed his arm.

“I am having such a grand time, I have never met so many great people, so alive, and unique.”

Hazel knew she sounded plenty ridiculous, but at the moment, she was so overcome with gratitude, she did not care. Gill patted her leg in a silent response and then abruptly cursed when catching sight of his watch.

“What?” Hazel asked, startled by his sudden language.

“Sorry, darling, but our time is coming to a close. We must get back to Margie’s. It is almost dark, I should have been keeping track of our time..” he dropped his boiled apple frantically and grabbed her wrist, pulling her forward. Hazel fetched her bags and stumbled after him quickly, her heart beat increasing with every frantic step. Gill was really starting to worry her. By the time they were almost home, they ran into a group of men. Gill pulled her closer, her eyes running over them. In all shapes and sizes, they were an odd bunch, ranging from a fat bald-headed man to a curly-haired slim boy. Gill and Hazel tried to walk around them, but they chuckled simultaneously. A broad shouldered man crossed his arms and rose one bushy eyebrow,

“What are you circus clowns doing out this time of night?” he growled.

Hazel glanced at Gill, who looked regretful of wearing his red jump-suit.

“We were just on our way home, that is all. Goodnight Lads,” Gill rushed, stepping abruptly forward. But he was pushed back by a man with one tooth.

He grabbed Gill’s collar and grinned eerily, “I think these fools were waiting for us, perhaps they wanted to be a part of our show?” a clear voice broke through the crowd. It was smooth and penetrating, gliding across Hazel’s heart like ice. A younger man divided the large group quickly in half. He was not younger nor older than Hazel, but he bore an intimidating power and confidence. He head a head of copper hair and freckles splattered across his face, which would normally give him a boyish look. But his green eyes burned with cunningness and Hazel took a deep breath. He wore but a translucent white top, and his arms of muscle were marked with dust and a spiraling tattoo that reached into the depths of his rounded collar.

“Oh, I have never seen you before,” he said, and wagged a finger in her direction. Hazel squirmed uncomfortably at his gaze and he smiled, crossing his arms over his chest.

“You were very well favored yesterday,” the boy stepped closer, closing the small space between them. He brushed his knuckles softly against her cheek, grazing her skin. Hazel squeezed her eyes, knowing all too well what came after a caress like that.

“Leave her alone,” Gill’s voice snapped, strong and confident now.

The boy tilted his head toward Gill and grinned sloppily. His eyes burned like fire, making the moon behind him seem to tremble in fear.

“Excuse me, clown? You know very well that the Quarrel’s run this town tonight. So who are you to tell me what I should do?” the boy hissed.

Hazel stepped away from the boy and said in the most gentle voice she could muster,

“We mean no harm, surely you can understand that.”

At this, the group gave a loud roar of laughter. She found she was being pulled by the wrist, despite Gill’s protests to leave her alone. Hazel, dragged by a burly man, was thrust back into the village square, where another audience awaited. These people, however, were nothing like the bright adults and happy children she had performed with earlier. These people were scavengers, thieves, she could tell by the hungry glint in their eyes when she walked by. When they saw her, their eyes feasted on her like an unexpected piece of gold.

“We have a new dancer tonight,” the boy with red hair shouted, and the crowd roared in pleasure, clapping and stomping their feet. Hazel felt a cold finger trail up her back, and only when squeezing her eyes shut, did her mind allow her to believe she was imagining it. The men led her behind the curtain, Hazels wrists still held at her back.

“What do you want with me?” she spat angrily, twisting away from the burly man's grasp.

“You were out at our time, darling. So all we wish to do is use you as a showpiece for our carnival, only this once. Unless you happen to make the same mistake twice,” the boy said. He leaned forward and Hazel could see the amazing contrast of his green eyes and his copper looking hair. He was a handsome boy, under all that dirt and grime, oh, and indecency.

“Fine. But what will you do to my friend?” she hissed, trying to keep her courage.

“Oh, you mean the queer man? That odd-ball, we want nothing with him. He can simply be a part of the audience. What’s in your bag?” he growled, poking at the bags she held.

Hazel stepped back, “Just some dresses I bought for my performances.”

“Perfect. Slip one of those on. Do you have a red? Red would match well with your skin and hair,” he added, and whispered something to his comrades, and left.

Hazel never felt so violated in her life, with shoving away Gill, making her perform and wearing a beautiful new dress to a performance she didn’t even want to do. This was not supposed to happen; this was supposed to be a new start for her! Hazel gritted her teeth together and turned to get dressed.

***

                “Ladies and gentleman, today I present you with a once in a lifetime beauty, one that will be sacrificed to her own blood today nevertheless, so you must see her now, or never!” a voice in front of the curtain yelled, and when Hazel was shoved past the curtain, she was surprised to see it was the copper-headed boy. A loud noise of cheers and drunken cries came from the crowd and Hazel slowly walked across the stage. Her eyes scavenged hungrily for Gill, but she couldn’t find him anywhere. Hazel glared at the boy under the torchlight he held, the flickering flames dancing across their faces, casting shadows against their pale complexion. A box was on the stage, tall and skinny, and a dark mahogany.

“Today, our beautiful dancer will see the last of life. So feast your eyes!” the boy cried, and opened the box, beckoning her inside.

“What are you going to do to me?” she whispered, climbing in and waving at the crowd.

“Do not worry, don’t you trust me?” he asked, and in that moment, when he lowered her into the box, his eyes were gentle, as if he meant no harm. But then he closed the lid shut and trapped her in darkness.

        Hazel couldn’t take being stuck in the box no longer. Her breath came out in short pants, her chest felt like it was collapsing in on her, and she never felt a pain so great in her life. She heard the muffled sound of voices outside, and the darkness enveloped her even more, encased her. Suddenly, a sharp sound filled around her and she screamed when she saw a blade just miss her head. The crowd outside gasped and cheered, and Hazel began to shake, tears running down her face in fear. Another sharp sound and the blade hit the spot between her fingers. The surface under her trembled and the bottom of the box opened and Hazel fell deep into a hidden trapdoor in the stage. Screaming and flailing, she watched as the blade hit the middle of the box, where her heart would have been just seconds ago.

        A light flooded her surroundings. Hazel looked up and saw the boy approach her, a sly smile on his face.

“The crowd loved you,” he said, and without warning, Hazel kicked him in the face. Blood spouting from his nose, he cussed at her,

“What was that for?” he screamed.

“For putting me in a box and stabbing me!” she screamed back.

He held out his hand, sticky with blood, “Come, let’s get you out of here.”

Hazel ignored his hand, anger fuming throughout her body, “You should be ashamed of yourself,” she spat, and pushed past him, not really knowing where she was going. Crouched down under the basement of  the stage, she found a small door, and she crept out, into the dark night. Soon enough, the boy followed her out and scowled.

“You’re not hurt, I don’t see the problem,” he said.

“Well, I could have been killed!” she said, her fists shaking.

“I apologize, I didn’t know you weren’t used to this, I forgot you were a part of the boring circus.”

“Boring? No! Safe, sane? Yes!” she yelled back. The boy chuckled, putting his hands up in surrender.

“I apologize, may I take your name?” he said, grinning.

“Hazel, now where’s Gill?” she spat, wrapping her arms around her chest.

“Don’t you want my name?” he said, leading her around to the front of the circus tent.

“No,” she mumbled.

“I’m Casper, nice to meet you.”

She ignored him, following him until she found Gill. She screamed out his name and ran over to him. He was hanging tied up, upside down with an apple in his mouth as the crowd laughed.

“Hey! Leave him alone, you filth!” Hazel screamed, grabbing the ropes that bound his legs together. Someone grabbed her waist from behind and whispered,

“Oh look it’s the dancer, how would you like to spend the night with me?” he growled. A fist protruded from behind her and punched the old man in the face as he fell to the ground. Hazel turned and saw Casper shake his fist and untie Gill. In shock and speechless, she grabbed Gill’s hand and walked away.




        Hazel slammed the door open, oblivious to the fact that Margie and Blake had dozed off to sleep. Gill followed behind quietly, and she stomped into the parlor room, fingers curled into fists. When her eyes landed on Nathaniel, sitting on a duvet and reading by candlelight, she gritted her teeth.

“You too look like you have had a rather fun night,” he remarked, turning the page.

Hazel glared at him, planting her hands on her hips, “We ran into the Quarrel’s!” she exclaimed.

Hazel plopped down in the seat next to him, expecting an eager response from Nathaniel, but receiving instead a quick grin.

Gill rubbed his chafed wrists and lowered himself into the rocking chair by the fireplace.

Hazel tied her hair up in a knot at the top of her head to give her hands something to do.

“They placed me in a box and dug blades into it,” she said breathlessly. She still could not believe it.

Nathaniel placed his warm hand on top of hers, and blood rushed through her fingertips. She raised her eyes to his gaze and he said,

“Hazel, you are alright now. Next time you know not to walk in the night with someone who cannot protect you.”

Gill scoffed and rolled his eyes, and Hazel scowled openly.

“What are you trying to imply? I should go out with you?” she laughed sarcastically and tucked a loose strand of hair behind her hair.

Nathaniel grinned, “Yes. Why not? I make for excellent company.”

Hazel rolled her eyes, annoyed at his casual and uncaring manner. She stood up, kissed Gill softly on the cheek, and ran upstairs to her room.



        Hazel stripped down to her silk underwear. She pranced in front of the mirror, touching her flat belly and making sure her body was tiny and fit like a dancers should be. She squeezed a tiny film of fat near her stomach and groaned. She had been eating nice here, but it wasn’t doing wonders for her figure. Hazel sighed and slipped on the nightgown Gill bought her, crawling under the covers. She was still upset at Nate for not comforting her-but she didn’t know why she expected him to. Nathaniel was Nathaniel. The door creaked open and she looked up to see Nathaniel, hair curly and eyes bright. Nathaniel approached her bed, meeting her gaze for a moment before letting it slip away.

“What is the matter?” Hazel asked.

His hands played with each other, a sign of worry that Nathaniel usually never wore. He shrugged and sat down on the corner of her bed quietly.

“I just wanted to inform you that the Quarrel’s will not be bothering you again.”

Hazel rose her eyebrows and frantically whispered, “What do you mean? Nathaniel, what happened?”

He grinned and leaned closer, close enough so she could see a scratch running down the side of his cheek. Hazel shied away, drawing her legs closer to her body. She did not like the familiarity with which he was treating her with.

“I had a ‘talk’ with the circus leader,” he responded, grinning.

Hazel felt her chest grow cold, and he said, “He received my message, don't you worry.”

Hazel shook her head and leaned forward, placing a hand on his arm.

“Nathaniel, you fought them? Are they alright? Are you alright?” she stammered.

She touched the scratch on his cheek softly with the pads on her fingers, but Nathaniel only shrugged, his gaze on her. His teal eyes ran over her features, and for once, she saw a softness to the way he moved. Hazel blinked from her stupor, withdrawing her hand.

“You have the same nose as my mother,” Nathaniel said, and Hazel looked up, twisting a ring about her finger.

“Oh, Nathaniel,” she said. The candle by her bed burned low now and a feeling of unease came over her.

“Yes, you resemble her, its remarkable,” he took a deep breath and brushed a hand across her cheek.

Hazel shivered, unable to keep the fear from settling in the pit of her stomach.

“Do not be afraid of me Hazel,” he whispered, and she shook her head, tears stinging at the back of her eyes.

“How can I not?” she said, and her voice broke.

She brushed away tears with the back of her hand, wishing she was not so terrified.

“You should sleep Nathaniel,” she started.

He shook his head and cupped the back of her neck. His fingers left imprints of numbness running down her spine, and slowly he drew closer and whispered,

“No need to call me Nathaniel.”

His nose brushed against the tip of her own and his lips met hers. A fire arose in her heart, one so brilliant; she was blindingly unaware of what was going on. Hazel felt no fear, but she felt strong and invincible, Nathaniel’s warm embrace securing her. She drew way, taking measured, trembled breaths.

“I apologize,” Nathaniel whispered, and scrambled off her bed, walking briskly out the door.



        Hazel sat awake in bed all night, hands folded over her stomach that encased her eager butterflies. Her mind reeled with thoughts of Nathaniel, his blue eyes strong and fierce, but when he drew closer, they dimmed to a faded timidness. It was not the actual kiss that moved Hazel so. It was his fingers. A skilled piano player, they were nimble and quick. But they had brushed softly against her cheek. She was used to grasps and pinches, but when Nathaniel let his hands rest on her, she was not scared. Hazel fell into soft dreams and woke up abruptly, still hearing Nathaniel’s soft voice. She had begun to believe he was her hero. Though he had told her that he was far from it on that cold night on the roof, Hazel knew from his fingers that he could save her.



        Hands were shaking her, first softly, and then sometime later, harshly. Hazel opened her eyes to see Blake standing above her, blinking.

“Hello Hazel. Sorry to awake you so early. But we are performing today. I am sure you have seen enough of the Big Swing now.”

Hazel nodded groggily, her head a muddle of unfinished thoughts. She clambered from bed, her eyes following Blake’s figure exiting the room. She rubbed her face, and realized she had fallen asleep smiling. Recollecting last night’s events, Hazel felt her face heat and she laughed incredibly to herself. Nathaniel-Nate-had kissed her. Hazel dressed quickly, not wanting to waste any more of Blake’s time. She skipped down the stairs to see Nathaniel and Aunt Margie all waiting for her. Hazel’s eyes skipped to Nate but he looked away quickly. Hazel bid everyone a good morning and Blake handed her a muffin before they made their way out. Once they stepped outside, Hazel was hit by a blasting cold. She shivered outwardly and looked up to the gray sky. The people streamed into the streets, wearing multiple layers and coats. A small boy sat on the step of a dingy apartment, his face an odd blue. Hazel paused, kneeling down to him and gathering his hands in her own. She rubbed her hands  profusely over his and a frozen smile filled the small boys features. Blake called after her and Hazel rummaged into her purse, pulling out some loose change Blake had given her. She emptied it into the boys palm and hurried off, fighting her way through the crowd of workers to reach Blake. Finally they reached the town square and the tell-tale signs of the circus was born. The tents were up, and a large train bordered the outskirts. The performers were all huddled inside, the windows securely shut. Blake departed to check on them and left Nate and Hazel staring at the Big Swing ensemble.



“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Nate said quietly, and Hazel nodded.

“Bunch of ugly spare parts, but when you put them together, a grand result,” he whispered, and nudged her shoulder with his own. A soft smile played at his lips, and when she returned the smile, his lips drew apart like curtains.

“I apologize for that kiss. I had not entered thinking that would happen as it did.”

Hazel raised an eyebrow, “Oh yes? So you wanted to show your brave battle scars not for my recognition but..” she questioned, and Nate chuckled. A high flush had crawled up his cheekbones and Hazel smiled.

“I was just...I hope you did not think I was trying to...” Nate said, but his eyes rested awkwardly on the ground.

Hazel rested a hand on his arm and whispered, “It is fine.”

Nate smiled and offered a hand, stretching out the other to the circus, “Let the show begin,” he whispered, and Hazel grinned.



        Eve had not been lying when she said the Big Swing was grand. The audience had already begun to file in, becoming greater with every passing moment. Hazel watched The Shades cut shapes from paper and other materials: their fingers flying. Some singers were drinking honey to soothe their throats and the acrobats stretched across the cobblestone floor, chatting with children. The whole town smelled like beer and oranges, girls and boys rushing around with refreshments and fruits. It was overwhelmingly beautiful, the Big Swing. You smelled it in the air, heard it in the excited whispers of the people, felt it in your heartbeat thudding, your blood rushing. As Hazel ascended the stage side-steps, a clenching fear ran through her. Stepping across the stage felt like stepping upon a layer of glass. If she failed, she would fall through and down. Her eyes caught Nate’s, who put a departing hand into the sky before turning away. She rushed backstage as the curtains drew close. Haze felt incredibly restless, though she had danced a million times before.

Gill joined her shortly after, and noting her wringing of the hands, said, “Darling, stop. You are giving me a weak heart. What is on your mind?”

Hazel shook her head, “ I do not know. I am terrified. I have never been so nervous before, not with dancing. It has always just...” she tilted her head, staring at her feet.

“It is always just happened,” she whispered, and Gill nodded knowingly.

“I know exactly what this is. All you new dancers get cold feet. It is when you are still naive and young,” he said, and Hazel wondered what he meant by that.

“Right now it seems like this is...perfection,” Gill said, pushing his hair back and allowing sparkles to fall into her lap.

Hazel watched him carefully, believing he held all the answers.

“But it is not. If the perfection shatters, it is not because of you,” Gill said, and squeezed her shoulders warmly. Hazel smiled but Gill’s words reassured her none. In fact, they made her even more nervous.

“Welcome men, women, children, and all else!” someone shouted, and Hazel matched the voice in front of the curtain to be Blake’s.

“Today, performing for the very first time, is our own Hazel McAdams!”

Hazel heard the cheers follow her name and a secret smile drowned her face.

“The ballerina ballad!” Blake shouted, and just as suddenly, the curtains swung apart. The sun bore down on her head, the wide eyes of the audience watching her in expectation. Hazel turned, but Gill was gone. She stepped out into the stage, and took a deep breath. Hazel felt her legs go slack, her hands lose feeling. She was frozen. The stage of ice was drowning her feet. Hazel suddenly felt like ice-cold water was spreading across her chest and she stared at the puzzled expressions of the audience. Then, a melody trailed through the air. Hazel looked up, the soft sounds of a piano running in front of her. Se chased after it, and the ice around her feet melted. The music was on fire, and Hazel grinned. Her feet rose on their own accord and Hazel leapt across the stage. Her hands found their own place to be, fluttering in the air. The world seemed to melt away around her. Gone with Henry, gone with Neal...

Hazel spun on her feet, taking a leg out to keep her balance. But her leg failed on her, when a voice in her head whispered, How do you look without that pretty dress? Hazel screamed and dropped to the floor. The man’s hands kept searching for more, no one had ever touched her so roughly. She was only ten. She wanted to shout to Blake and tell him to draw the curtains closed, she would not make it. The piano kept playing its haunting musical. It seemed to mock her. You’re not a dancer, you’re pathetic. You’re a man’s tool, you w***e. The crowd fell hushed and their stares burned on her. The piano started up again, but this time, its tone was quiet, as if Hazel falling was all planned out.

Hazel stood up, knees trembling, tears in her eyes and pain in her heart. She lifted her leg and spun, and this time her balance remained. Her dress spun around her waist like mesmerizing waves, the crowd now enchanted. The piano music reached its crescendo, the notes harsh and intense. Hazel danced toward, the cheering from the crowd pushing her forward. Hazel was so involved in putting one foot before the other that she temporarily forgot she was being watched A smile now replaced her forgotten frown, and she threw her head back, leaping across the stage, her arms supporting her in the air. Fast and furious, she shook off the pain of her past. Like an undying light, her passion melted the stage of ice underneath her, her slippers  on her feet were on fire. The piano faded away and Hazel swept her legs together, hair sticking to the back of her neck, breathing heavy. A deafening applause from the crowd followed. Roses fell at her feet, children cried her name, adults stared on. Hazel smiled at the audience, seeing her pain drown into the melted ice stage.




        After the performance, Hazel rushed off the stage, grinning so hard her cheeks were really starting to ache. People around her shook her hands and kissed her cheeks fondly. She exchanged polite words with the strangers and turned into the arms of Nate.

“Oh, hello,” she said breathlessly, and wondered how horrid she must look. She had sweated tons during the strenuous performance. Nate did not smile or frown, he just watched with no particular emotion.

“How was it? How did it feel?” he asked.

Hazel smiled, “It was great! Spectacular! Was that you playing the piano? It was grand!” she squeezed his hands but he recoiled, as if she had burnt him.

His eyes darted away, “Yes.”

Hazel rose her eyebrows, “Was it an original?” she asked, and he nodded quickly. He looked unsettled, his hands stuffed into his pockets, his eyes on the ground.

“Yes. I never meant to play it. But I had to, you wouldn’t move,” he sounded almost accusatory and Hazel frowned.

“I apologize, I do not know why that happened...”

“Practice makes perfect. Maybe you need to practice more so next time I do not need to rescue you again.”

Hazel snapped her head back in shock, “I am sorry! I did not mean it. I do not understand why you are getting so damned upset!” Hazel was starting to get tired of Nathaniel’s mood spikes.

Nate shrugged, and walked away, one fisted hand swinging by his side.



        Hazel watched Gill perform next. Golden and glittering, the crowds roar was greater than ever. He gracefully twirled and blew kisses to the crowd, who reacted fondly. His bare torso sparkled with glitter and sweat, his muscle rippling in the dark afternoon sky. The women blushed and watched in spiked interest, but Gill paid them no attention. Hazel waved at him and he winked at her, dancing on.



        The circus went on into the night and after telling stories to the children, Gill and Hazel made their way back to Aunt Margie’s. Hazel retold the events of the night, hoping Gill would clear up the confusion. Gill munched on a boiled apple and said, “Nathaniel really is trouble, Hazel. Trust me, he is more headache than handsome. But it may have something to do with Natalie.”

Hazel looked up to Gill, hoping she did not sound jealous when she asked, “Who is she?”

Gill flashed her a grin and Hazel blushed. He had sensed the anger.

“Natalie was Nathaniel’s love. She left a year ago and he has been a heartbroken b*****d ever since. Quite annoying actually, with the moping on her birthday and the w****s every now and then.”

Hazel felt her heart clench, “W****s?” she whispered. Gill threw his apple into the air and caught it with elegance.

“Yes. Well, they weren’t actually w****s. But they were the loose women around town who were worth nothing. They were looking for a young man and he was lonely, so he just settled for them and took them home.”

Hazel nodded, partially grateful she was hearing all this now.

“Back to Natalie,” Gill said, and slowed his pace, since they were nearing the house now. Hazel could tell this would be a long story.

“After Nathaniel’s mother died, Nate started to play the piano. But his songs were always morbid, funeral tunes, I would say. Any who, his only friend was Casper...”

Hazel choked back surprise, “What did you just say?”

“Morbid songs? W****s?” Gill offered, staring at her in confusion.

Hazel shook her head, “Casper and Nate were...friends?”

Gill nodded, a smile playing at his lips, “The best of. Complete opposite, once cold as ice, the other hot as fire. Oddly, they mixed well. Casper’s mother had supported Nate when Blake...” Gill trailed off, and his eyes turned dark.

Hazel nudged him and Gill said, “Blake was very sad after his wife died. He was depressed, practically gone. So Nate and Casper became the best of friends,” Gill stopped in front of the house, stretching his arms, “and they grew up and both fell in love with the same girl.”

“Natalie,” Hazel finished, and Gill nodded, “Correct.”

“And then what?” Hazel whispered, intrigued. A hand rested on her shoulder and a voice said,

“Let me do the honors on finishing my own story, do you mind?”



       

        Hazel bid Gill goodnight and turned to Nate. He looked disheveled, his eyes red as if he had been drinking.

“Are you alright?” Hazel asked, and Nate laughed bitterly.

“I am exhausted,” he said, but it did not seem like he was talking just about tonight.

Nate sat on the steps and Hazel followed after quietly. He rubbed his eyes with the palm of his hand and took a deep breath.

“You do not understand,” he said, not lifting his head from his hands.

“Natalie was everything to me. When she came along, it was like I had not lost my mother. Whenever Natalie was there, mother stood beside her and whispered, ‘marry her.’” Hazel swallowed, staring at the sky. She hated this and she did not know why.

“Casper loved her too, but she did not love him. She loved me,” Hazel glanced at Nate, who seemed to be smiling into his hands.

“Broke his heart. And our friendship.”

Hazel held her hands in her lap, not knowing where to look.

“We went out at night and took walks in the day without Casper knowing. We did not tell each other we loved one another, but we both knew.”

Hazel nodded. Nate lifted his head up, his face pink from pressing down on his hands.

“You know when someone just gives you a feeling and you have no idea what it is...it’s just there when you are and you know that it is good. Love.”

Hazel squirmed under the heavy words and Nate looked away,

“One day, Natalie came to my house when I was playing my piano. I opened the door and she came in, her hair was a mess because it was raining. But she was still beautiful. When she kissed me that day, I knew something would happen.”

An odd feeling had settled over Hazel. She did not want to hear the story.

“Natalie told me that she loved me, that she wanted us to marry.”

Hazel’s mouth dropped open, and Nate smiled humorously at her.

“I would have said yes, and I hated myself because of that. I did not even once think of Casper, who was heartbroken at home. I was all ready to go with her. Then my consciousness seeped in and I bid her to go home. I told her I was not a good husband to be.”

Hazel nodded, not sure what to say. The night was dark and a breeze blew by, scattering dead leaves on the ground.

“She left,” Nate said, and Hazel saw him turn to her.

“Now everything feels like a curse. Especially the piano,” he whispered, and Hazel took a deep breath.

“So...when you were performing, I had to play after not playing for a long time. It hurt,” he said, and flexed his fingers. Hazel scowled,

“Well I do not see how your little broken heart has anything to do with me and I certainly do not see why your anger is towards me. How was I supposed to know?”

Nate shrugged, “I apologize for the anger. Now you know,” he said, and Hazel stood up.

“Thanks,” she said sarcastically, and turned to the door, slamming it behind her.



        Hazel undressed, locking the door behind her. She truly was frustrated with Nate’s behavior. She did not care if Natalie had broken his heart. When would he understand? Hazel sat down and took a deep breath. She did not know why she felt so unsettled. Hazel cracked open a window, letting the cool air spiral into the room. She slipped on her nightgown and sat on the small duvet and curled her knees up to her chest, her eyes running around the room. Signs of Nate’s mother trailed around the walls. Her eyes rested on a brown book and Hazel stood p, rushing to the bookcase to pull it down. She opened the cover, and saw lined paper and faded script. A diary. Hazel’s fingers itched to close it shut, but her mind urged her on. She glanced around the room, deciding it would do no harm to read one entry. Only one. Hazel sat on the edge of her bed and began to read.




                              Dear Journal,

Today is the fourth of November and I am to get married tomorrow. The man I am marrying is my long love, Blake Gideon. I have not wrote about him before for I was frightened someone would find out and tell the rest that I am an improper girl. Bt we are engaged now, and I am not frightened anymore. Margie is cooking loads for the wedding, so I will expect everyone to show up. Mother and father love Blake dearly, and I do too.”



Hazel smiled, the entry was quite romantic, but she felt odd thinking of Blake as such a young lad. She turned the page anew and read on.



Diary, if I can to be honest, I do not love Blake. I have confessed it the line prior, but I feel no warmness at his touch or happiness at his sight. I love another, but I cannot, for he is Blake’s best friend, William. Mother says William is fine enough but he does not have the love in him like Blake does. I disagree. You see diary, I am horrible because I have taken walks with William. I have fallen in love with him. He is dear to my heart and he knows all of my secrets. He is adventurous and kind and...we kissed once. Long before Blake proposed, I assure you, but nevertheless. Fire was on my lips at that moment and now I realize how close I was to getting burned He’s engaged now to another woman, but he told me that he loved me after we kissed. Oh journal, what am I to do? Blake is a fine, handsome gentleman. But my heart is already given to another.

Regards,

Anastasia



        Hazel slammed the journal closed, her eyes scrambling. Did she really set her eyes upon those words? Hazel slipped the book back to its original setting and then sat on the duvet, staring at it until her eyes watered. She wondered if Blake knew. Then she wondered if Nate knew. She clambered into bed and retired into sleep.


Hazel awoke when a small sound hit her window. It was dark outside, so it was still early morning, or really late into the night. She approached the window and slid it open. She choked back a scream when sighting the fire bursting into the air, consuming the garden in a matter of seconds. She had to get out, she would not die like her mother, consumer in flames. Hazel slammed her feet down the stairs, banging on the doors and screaming, “There’s a fire out there! Wake up!”

Margie appeared, hair ruffled and eyes red. Blake stomped downstairs to get his son and Hael went through the parlor and waited outside, helplessly watching the flowers burn in the garden. Her eyes continuously traveled to the flames and suddenly she was sweating and her mother was screaming, “Hazel! Run!”

Before she knew it, she was on her feet. Her legs carried her forward and she gasped, “I’m running momma!” She slammed into a railing overlooking the water, taking trembling breaths. Hazel stared at her reflection, a small girl with bright red hair. She was holding Meredith to her chest. The water rippled and Hazel blinked from her reverie. Her reflection now bore her pale face and nervous eyes. A face hovered by her shoulder and she turned to see the fire-tamer, Casper.

“What do you want?” she hissed, and he flashed a grin at her.

“Oh, please Hazel stop,  might think you fancy me.”

Hazel spat at his feet and turned away. He grabbed onto her elbow and she used her other arm to slam him against the railing, pushing his head toward the water. Hazel remembered Beatrice, her dark eyes and fierce scowl, and grinned.

Casper’s green eyes sparkled, “You are a catch,” he whispered, and she made a face at him.

Catching her off guard, he hooked his foot around her ankle and tripped her toward the railing. Hazel turned quickly, but Casper held his arm against her chest. Hazel glared at him, squirming under his grip.

“Let me go, haven’t you had enough of your damned fun?” she hissed, but Casper only smiled wider.

“We were even when you performed for me,” Casper said, and Hazel shook her head.

“But now that you had your lover come after me,” he leaned forward, his nose tickling her own.

“Now we are at odds again.” He released her and grabbed her wrist before she could run.

“What is this a game?” Hazel scowled and he bound a rope around her wrists, securing it twice.

He leaned toward her ear and whispered, “Isn’t everything?”

Hazel rolled her eyes nd decided to save her strength to run when Casper was distracted. He led her forward, and as she walked, the dark early morning sky melded into light blue hues. Casper led her down many blocks, and she rubbed her wrists against the rope until her skin burned. She continued on, and upon reaching a corner, Hazel lunged forward, toppling Casper behind her. He cursed and she grinned, taking off at a run.

“Hazel!” he screamed, and she turned once. He stood a distance away, watching her and she spat once again before turning and slamming into a large chest. Hazel shook her head, stumbling back. She made to run, but realized when she was pulled back that the man had a hold on her collar. He peered at her over her shoulder and she recognized the man to be apart of the Quarrel’s. Hazel scowled and he grinned, revealing missing teeth.

“Is he yours boss?” he croaked, and Casper approached them, pushing back his ruffle of copper air.

Hazel struggled against the circus member’s visor-like grasp and Casper shook his head.

“Why do you want me? What did Nate do?” she spat, realizing now that this had very little to do with her.

“Hazel, hush,” Casper snapped, but she glared at him fiercely.

“What does he have?” she hissed.

Casper stepped close, his lips set in a grim line, his eyes on fire.

“It is not what Nate has that I want. It is what he has that isn’t his. Preferably things that were once mine.”

He stepped back and opened the door to the neighboring apartment.

“Bring her upstairs, Hugo,” he said warily, and headed inside.


Hazel was tugged along, and as the door shut behind her, she shivered. The sound of the lock clicking closed told her encasement. Before her was a grand interior. It was surprisingly large for an exterior of a medium size. The floors were carpeted with rugs bearing curling golden designs, all a soft red or maroon. Dark wooden furniture decorated the walls, a glass case in the corner, a bookcase to the right. Hazel walked deeper in, catching sight of a burning fireplace. Hugo tightened his hold on her and led her up to the wooden stairs to a grand level, where four rooms were. Hugo opened the door and before Hazel could protest, shoved her in and slammed the door.


Hazel danced in the large, empty room. She let her thoughts fall and trailed her fingers along the walls, twisting and stretching against the floor. She pretended she was an angel, gliding across the air. She closed her eyes and turned her hips, letting her leg swing in the air before her. She thought of Nate’s warm fingers on her shoulders. Hazel shivered outwardly, lost footing and let herself fall. The room had one solitary window, bare for a small bed and a painting of a rose.

“That was beautiful,” someone said, and she jumped.

Standing by the door, cloaked in shadows, was Caser. Hazel remained quiet, staring at him. He stepped forward and crossed his arms over his see-through dress-shirt. Hazel allowed her eyes to run down his fit form and lingered at his burning green eyes.

“Are you hungry?” he asked, but Hazel turned away.

Casper sighed and stepped into the room, staring at the white-washed walls.

“Wow,” he breathed, and the word seemed to bounce off the walls. Hazel backed herself into the wall and watched with a hard expression.

Casper seemed to be absorbed in his own thoughts for a moment before turning to her.

“They’re looking for you,” he said, and Hazel looked up, glaring back at him.

“Nate?” she whispered, and he laughed aloud, almost to himself.

‘No. Magical Feet.”

Hazel scoffed, but looked down at her hands unsurely.

She didn’t know what question to ask first.

“How do you know?” Hazel whispered.

Casper exited the room, and returned rapidly, tossing a newspaper into her hands.

Famous Dancer from Magical Feet: Lost,”  was printed in large font across the page. Hazel read on, ignoring Casper’s stare.

“Hazel McAdams, infamous ballerina of Magical Feet has been reporting missing just days after her Christmas Spectacular performance with Magical Feet.”

Hazel looked up to se Casper watching her and read on.

“Spectators have sighted her with the Big Swing’s train. If you have any information, please report it to Henry Clarvill for a heavy price.”

Hazel gritted her teeth and rose her eyes slowly to his. She threw down the paper, pulse raging.

“So this is why,” she hissed, and stood up. Casper watched, unmoving as she approached him in murderous steps. Casper bore his gaze into hers and she returned it just as heavy.

“Why is the price so high?” he asked, and his raspy voice echoed across the walls.

Hazel glared at him, her cheeks a red resembling the color of her hair.

“That is not the right question,” she said, and without hesitation, slapped him in the face.

Casper’s head remained to the side, a deep blush hand printed on his cheek.

Hazel stared at him  in partial surprise and partial fear. Casper turned his head slowly, and when he looked at her, a smile flitted across his features.

“You...” he started, but he paused. His fingers went to his lips and blood came away at the tips.

“I will not be bought, bartered or sold,” she whispered, and stepped back, “I won’t do it anymore.”

Casper glared at her, and it seemed then that the room was on fire, the heat between them escalating with every passing second.

Casper chewed his lip, “I was not going to give you in,” he finally said, and Hazel laughed bitterly.

“Why did you show me the article? A threat, perhaps?” she growled, and Casper grinned, a flash of his even, white teeth.

“Not a threat” he said, and stepped closer, diminishing the last space between them.

“They are looking for you. They know where you are, and it has been three days since that newspaper was printed.”

Hazel felt fear seized her and she looked away, blinking away tears of frustration.

“If you’re not going to turn me in,” Hazel started, but before she could finish, Casper reached for her elbow.

“Stay with me. This way Nate will be punished for his unjust violence,” he pointed to a bruising eye and finished, “and you’ll stay off the stage and Magical Feet will think you have ventured elsewhere.”

Hazel stared at him incredulously, “Nate saved me,” she protested, ripping her arm from his grasp.

Casper shook his head stubbornly, “What is the purpose of being saved if you will be trapped once again?” he said, and his words spoke close to her heart and mind.

Hazel nodded, “You make a reasonable proposition. Three days,” she said.

Casper laughed, “Three days for a punch? Four days and a brawl.”

Hazel shook her head and smiled to herself, “You men can be so absent minded sometimes. No brawl, four days,” she said, and a satisfactory smile grin swept his features before he shook his head and left.


Hazel spent the days doing what she had been taught to do best: dance. She danced with the walls, let her hands use the curtains as partners. Every night, Casper would call her down for dinner and they would eat together. On the second day, Hazel opened the door and pranced down the steps, reaching Casper. He waited for her at the table, reading a book. Hazel sat down and watched Casper close his book shut. They started to eat, utensils kissing plate ever so often.

Casper broke the silence and said, “We are performing tonight. Would you like to come and watch?”

Hazel looked up from her plate, her smile dropping from her face. It would be a betrayal to the Big Swing...she thought to herself quietly. Hazel chewed her food slowly, mulling it over in her mind. Wasn’t she already betraying them? Hazel cleared her throat and Casper rose his copper eyebrows.

“No thank you,” she said, and an odd emptiness filled the air. Truth be told, she dire wished to go. But doing so could potentially put her in danger of Magical Feet, and she didn't think it would be fair to...Nate. Casper nodded curtly but she could tell by his over bent frame that he was surprised and maybe even hurt. Hazel continued to eat, and Casper read his book quietly.


When night approached, Casper gathered his men and knocked on Hazel’s door. She looked up as he entered, wearing a particularly clean dress shirt, sleeves rolled up, collar buttoned down. Hazel blushed at his revealed collarbones, finding them an attractive sight. Her eyes darted away and he stepped into the room.

“Are you sure you do not wish to come?” he inquired, and she nodded, finding it hard to keep the determination in the nod of her head.

Casper shrugged, “Well our maid will be looking after you. Her name is Iodine,” he said, and then added, “goodnight,” before closing the door quietly behind himself.


Hazel watched them leave from the window in the parlor. The crew was huge, all ambling and speaking volumes in the cold winter night. Casper lagged behind and cast a glance over his shoulder. Hazel could have swore their eyes locked and she scrambled away, taking deep breaths.

“What is it dear?” a voice said, and Hazel shrieked, jumping back. When realising it was only the maid: n old frail woman with blue glassy eyes and white hair, she laughed.

‘Oh I was just,” she gestured to the window but the woman did not seem to pay any mind to her hand.

“Watching the boy? Ah, so you fancy him too?”

Hazel looked up quickly, “No. You fancy him?” she asked incredulously, and the maid, Iodine, smiled.

“No, of course not, he’s not even half my old age!”

Hazel laughed and the woman held out a worn hand, “My name is Iodine,” she said, and Hazel loved her sweet voice and tender smile.

“Hazel McAdams, nice to meet you maam,” she said, and curtsied. The woman did not cursty back nor acknowledge Hazel’s with a nod of her head. Ascending the stairs, the woman turned abruptly and asked,

“Your hair, to what color may it be?”

Hazel thought it was an odd question and said, “Of the red sort. Can you not see it?”

The woman’s blue eyes rested on her feet and she said, “Neither ‘it’ nor anything else. My sight is lost.”

Hazel frowned openly, feeling horrible for failing to notice earlier.

“My apologies,” Hazel said softly, and the woman turned her back and said,

“Tis a gift and a curse.”



The woman led her to a room on the far left and opened the door.

“The masters room is always the most tidy,” she said humorously, and Hazel grinned. Casper’s room was indeed neat. A stack of clothes were piled neatly upon his bed. On the right were boxes, organized by size. Hazel stepped forward, but Iodine held out an arm to stop her.

“Master does not like when you touch his things,” she said, and started to rearrange his clothes.

If Casper did not like people touching his “things” than he would not have let his maid keep him room extra tidy. What Iodine really meant was that Casper did not like it when you touched his boxes.

Hazel resisted the urge to lift the cover off with her toe and her eyes rested on the windowsill, where an jar sat. Swarming inside were small orbs of light, zooming inside the glass interior.

“Fireflies,” Hazel whispered, and tapped the glass softly.

Hazel turned to see Iodine folding back the covers and fluffing the pillows.

“How did you come to work for Casper?” Hazel asked, picking up a stray book and running her hands across the cover.

Iodine smiled and spoke quickly, “I was not born blind. When I was sixteen I went to a circus much like Casper’s. They focused on the tricks and trade of the flame. The leader and I started to talk and soon enough, we were infatuated with each other, terribly in love. My father did not favor him, for he had no real occupation sufficient enough to support us...or a family in the future, for that matter,” Iodine leaned forward and fluffed Casper’s pillows, her smile melancholy.

“When I told him we could never marry...” she sighed heavily and said, “he was enraged. He attacked me and bound me. Then he lit my eyes on fire.”

Hazel bit back a disgusted cry. Iodine looked like she was about to cry, her glass eyes stood unmoving, but her chin trembled. She attempted a wan smile and said, “I met Casper when I was fifty six, three years ago. He was only seventeen, a young lad. He listened to my story and promised to shelter me. I do not know why he showed me such tenderness, but I figured he was quite lonely himself, since he did not seem to have any parents.”

Hazel nodded, “So why do you do labor? Does he not understand your condition?” she asked, slightly bothered by Casper’s offhandish treatment.

“Oh, it isn’t he who puts me to work. I do it for repayment, he saved me after all.”

Hazel shook her head, absently glancing at the fireflies.

“But you cannot see, he would not have mind if you could not work.”

Iodine grinned and lowered her unseeing gaze to Hazel, “It is like those fireflies, perhaps. They are trapped in a small jar, yet they still burn bright. If I allow myself to treat my condition as an excuse, I will fail to glow...I’ll just fade.”

Hazel stared at the woman. How could she be so self-assured?

Iodine smiled as Hazel started to leaf through a book.

“Which is that?” Iodine asked, and Hazel turned to the cover.

“The Bible,” Hazel responded, and a grin flitted over the elderly woman’s face.

“Ah my favorite,” she said, and sat down on Casper’s freshly made bed.

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness,” she whispered, and Hazel smiled unsurely. She did not know where that quote was from, nor who said it. Her knowledge of the Bible and its scriptures were far and few between.

“Casper, is he religious?” Hazel inquired, letting her fingers skim over the words. Hazel’s father had prayed every day and bid thanks to God for their food. Her mother believed more in book of fiction.

“Casper? Oh I do not know that much. He is very secretive you know, keeps to himself mostly. That is his problem,” she said, and Hazel fell silent.

“I do know he came from a very religious family. His father was a pastor and his wife knew the Bible by heart. Casper does tell me some, when he’s had too much to drink.”

Hazel smiled. She noticed the woman treated Casper with a gentleness only a mother could obtain. When she said his name, it was softly, and when she spoke of him, a secret smile would play on her lips.

Hazel yawned and placed the Bible down on the stack of papers.

“I am in dire need of sleep,” she said, although she was not that tired.

Iodine slowly stood up and grasped her shoulders firmly, “You remind me of someone I knew,” she said quietly, and Hazel inched away from her widened gaze.

“Oh,” she said, and the woman released her.

“Well, have a good night Hazel,” she said, and Hazel curtsied and sped from the room.


Hazel stayed awake all night. Her mind was a torpedo of thoughts revolving around Nate, Casper, and Magical Feet. Most of all, she could not stop thinking of Iodine and the way she squeezed her shoulders. She heard the door open at about midnight and the men downstairs chat excitedly. Casper’s voice was absent from the conversation. The men ate, talked for another hour or so and then departed to their rooms.


On the third day, Hazel spent the day reading. Iodine brought books into her room, leaving Hazel wondering how she knew which was which. Hazel felt lazy, lying in bed and reading, but the day was rainy and gray and promised to soothe her troubled mind. A knock came at her door and the door opened to reveal Casper.

His eyes rested on her books and he asked, “Where did you get those?”

Hazel detected uneasiness in his voice and responded, “Iodine, she brought them to me.”

Casper walked briskly to the bed, rummaging through the hard covers, and Hazel watched him sigh of relief and smile watery at her, “Great,” he said.

Hazel looked down at her lap and said, “How was the performance last night?”

Casper leaned against her bed, stuffing his hands into his pockets.

“It was alright. Your folk were there.”

Hazel sat up, “Nate?” she asked, and he shook his head.

“Magical Feet. They asked me about you and I told them I had never even heard your name.”

Hazel grinned and he offered a subtle smile.

“Why do you like fire so much?” she blurted out, and he stepped back, seemingly surprised.

“Why do you like to dance?” he spat back accusingly and Hazel shrugged.

Casper took a deep breath and she watched his chest rise and fall. He rolled up his sleeves and sat down on her bed. Hazel drew her legs away and watched him. In all honestly, she thought Casper extremely handsome. His face was smoothly carved as if from stone, and his eyes burned with a sharpness she would not think possible from a street performer. His lips were flush pink and his hair a dark red, not unlike her own. His shoulders sloped perfectly like a hill sliding down his body. The inked tattoos that curled from his arm into his sleeve and reappeared by his neck were his only blemish. To Hazel, it was no blemish at all.

Casper started, “When I was younger, I was incapable of anything. I was terrible at school, had no charming skills, could not socialize well. No talent whatsoever appeared in my stature.”

Hazel watched him lean back and close his eyes softly, baring a curl of ink running across his chest.

“One day I threw my school books into the fire and an ember leaped back and onto my fingers.”

Hazel leaned forward, watching as a smile played at his lips.

“It did not hurt nor burn. It did not tease like the children at school or scold like my parents at home. It rested there, just a ball of flame, kissing me.”

Hazel saw the happiness and calamity painted across his face when he spoke, and nodded.

“My parents saw me playing with fire one day. My mother screamed. My father took out his Bible and began to pray.”

His shoulders tensed and his eyes flashed, “My own damned father thought I was demon spawn!”

Casper stood up suddenly, his back to her, “That night I burned my Bible in the garden. I left years after, when I no longer needed my parents to take care of me.”

Casper turned to her, scratching the back of his neck, smiling sheepishly.

“Fire has always been there for me. Never left. So to answer your question, I love fire because if I do not, I will have nothing to live for.”

Hazel drew in a breath of his horrid words and he smiled, crossing his arms over his chest.

“But is that not every love? That’s why it is so dangerous, right?”

Hazel nodded quietly and Casper popped an eyebrow, “Do not look so sullen. I am not weeping on about it like Nathaniel. I love fire. No need to cry over something I love.”

Hazel watched him move away from her bed and say, “Dinner will be ready soon.”

He left without another word.


****


After a fulfilling meal, Hazel spent an hour dancing and then another two reading. She felt unsettled by Caspers love of fire and oddly wished she could see it in action. Hazel slipped from bed and padded down the hallway to Casper’s room. She knocked but no answer came. Hazel tried the knob, and with a turn, it clicked open. Huddled under the sheets, Casper’s form remained. He slept quietly, his face illuminated by the fireflies glowing by the window. Hazel kneeled by his bed and shook him gently. Slowly, he stirred, and catching sight of her, sat up and rubbed his eyes.

“Hazel?” he said. His voice was low, his eyes sleepily staring into her face. He looked different, a child somehow.

“I am terribly sorry to wake you,” she said, and Casper’s smile was half-hidden in the shadows.

‘What is it?” he asked, and she reached out to squeeze his hand, hoping he would do what she asked of him.

“Play with fire for me,” she whispered.

Casper grinned.



It was dark outside, pitch black and silent. The only sound to be heard were the murmurs of youngsters in hidden corners. Casper walked quietly beside Hazel, his head bowed.

‘I do not usually give private performances,” he said, and Hazel met his laughing gaze.

“Oh?” she said wiggling her eyebrows, and he chuckled.

“I may charge,” he said, and pulled a hand out from his pocket, stretching it to her.

Hazel laughed out loud and slapped it away. Before she could withdraw, he curled his fingers around hers and pulled her in. Hazel gasped as he pulled her close to his chest. Her eyes drowned in darkness and fear.

Casper frowned openly, “What is the matter?” he asked, and she shook her head.

Be normal, she thought to herself, the past is the past.

Hazel smiled breezily and pranced away teasingly, “Sorry sir I have not a coin to spare.”

He grinned and chased her down the street, their shrieks of laughter echoing across the silent city. Behind Hazel, there lay her broken dreams and sorrow, and when Casper grabbed onto her wrist and spun her around, a warm feeling spread across her chest. She tugged away but he shook his head, pulling her close and whispering in her ear, “You aren’t running away again. I won’t let you.”

Hazel smiled into his shoulder and for a moment they stayed frozen together.

Hazel heard his heartbeat thud against hers, and closed her eyes. His hands around her wrists made her warm and when he pulled back to look at her, she felt like she was on fire. The town now lay a short distance away, and as they approached it, their hands remained locked.


Casper dragged a wooden box over in the bare square and she curtsied to him gracefully. He bowed back almost mockingly and his eyes sparkled. Casper swept his arm across the sky, his gaze in the stars, “Welcome ladies and...” he rested his eyes on her, “and ladies.”

Hazel laughed and grinned at him.
“Today I shall perform one of my favorite acts. I call it:
dancer.”

Hazel leaned back and crossed her ankles. He swiftly removed his top and Hazel blushed.
“Casper!” she snapped, and he laughed.

“Do not worry Hazel. It is for safety purposes only. Don’t flatter yourself.”

She peeked between her fingers and saw him bend over, folding his shirt and placing it on the floor. When he turned to her, his arms were flexing as he struck a matchbox. Her face was burning and she found her gaze slipping away and returning. The tattoo she had seen only part of was now visible to her. She concentrated on the swirls and curls as the design flew from his hip, up his side and across his collarbones. Hazel realized when he turned that it was a dragon. She smiled to herself and suddenly, a ball of flame hit the air. She shrieked, watching it tumble toward her in frozen shock. Casper, a foot away, made barely a move. He snapped his fingers and the flame died just inches from her face. He danced now, with the orange globes in his hands. He clapped his hands together and they disappeared. Hazel felt her heart sink until he spread his palms a part and a line of fire was born. She cried out in shock and fascination. Clasping her hands together, she watched intently. He twisted his body, moving his hands above his head so the flame followed like a shadow. His body glowed with the light, his toned arms now basked in a young orange. Hazel forgot herself, watching Casper dance with fire. The only thing she could think of were the colors and the way his eyes lit up when the flame touched his skin. Casper was fascinating to watch, his body a perfect shape and unscarred by the fire that loved him so. When he finished his act by blowing the fire from between cupped hands, Hazel was speechless. He wiped sweat from his forehead with his forearm and sauntered over to her, his grin wide.
‘How was it?” he asked breathlessly.

Hazel shook her head, “Marvelous...spectacular!” she said.

He shrugged, leaning close, “So that would be two pounds or...?”

She slapped him playfully on his lean stomach and he sat beside her.

Hazel leaned slightly against him, watching a ball of fire burn slowly on the ground.

“How is Nathaniel?” he asked, and Hazel shied away.

“How am I to know? I have been with you.”

Casper shrugged, turning to face her.

“Before you were with me. Is he still heartbroken over Natalie?”

Hazel nodded, remembering how angry she had been when Nate told her his tale.

“It greatly upsets me because I do not get to see the real Nathaniel, but a ghost that someone has left behind,” she confessed, and Casper stared at her.

“Yes, exactly,” he said, and Hazel shrugged.

“You loved her too, Natalie,” Hazel said, and Casper looked away.

“I suppose so. but I do not get upset when I think of her, only angry. You see, Nate thinks only of the great things of Natalie, like how wonderful she looked in dresses, and how she laughed at the lamest of jokes.”

Hazel nodded, noticing how Casper had recorded these small memories.

“When she left, it was like she had never done anything wrong. Like she never cursed at him or broke his heart. Like she did not leave when she did, and I suppose that’s why she’s still oddly here.”

Hazel nodded, tilting her head “Do you still love her?” she asked, and he alughed.

After a moment pause he said, “I love her the way some people love rain. When it comes, it never stops, and I can not stop thinking about her. But when the days are sunny and warm, she’s not on my mind.”

Hazel nodded and Casper smiled, “Besides, what does it matter? The past is the past and there is nothing we can do about it.”

He stretched a hand out and said, “You must keep looking foward, else you’ll be stuck going backwards.”

Hazel loved the way Casper’s voice hummed and his words seemed to flow like no other. She loved the way he used one thing to say another and his odd passion. Hazel especially loved that he made her want to live, to do things she had not before.

“Tomorrow’s the last day, and then I am to return,” she said, and Casper nodded.

“Yes. I hope then Nathaniel will see what he has done.”

“I am not sure he’ll mind much,” Hazel said.

It did not seem like the Big Swing was searching for her. Not like Magical Feet was.

“Believe me he does,” Casper said.

Hazel looked away, “But you and I, we had our fun together,” she whispered.

Casper nodded, his eyes burning close to hers when she turned back.

“Yes,” he said, and she forced her mouth close. She would not say anything. She would not say that his eyes were beautiful or that he was handsome. She would not say that his lips were perfectly sculpted. He stood up and Hazel stared up at him, frozen.

“I think we should return,” he said, and just as he turned to grab his shirt, Hazel took hold of his wrist and pulled him back down.

“Hazel, what--” she put a finger to his lips and quieted him.

He looked petrified, watching her.

“I know this is silly of me to say, but Casper I have fallen for you. Not to say that I am in love with you, for surely I do not know what that is yet. But I...” she dropped her gaze.

Casper removed himself from her grasp. She watched in humiliation as he withdrew, the feelings not shared between them.

Casper smiled sadly and said, “Natalie came to me after her and Nathaniel got into an argument. She said she favored me but did not love me.”

Hazel felt herself blush and he frowned.

“I knew then that when she said she didn’t love me...that it really meant she still loved Nate and that I would not change anything.”

He glanced at her meaningfully and said, “I kissed her and the next day Nate and her made up and my heart was shattered. Do not go to someone in your time of vulnerability if you cannot be with them in your time of strength.”

Hazel fell away, feeling ashamed of her actions. They were unruly, unladylike, and foolish.

She had no idea why she had blurted it out. All she knew was that Casper talking about the future made her realize she wanted to spend it with someone, not alone.

Casper fetched his shirt, buttoned it up quietly and asked, “Are you hungry?”

“Hungry? This late at night?” Hazel said, and Casper grinned, holding out a hand to her.

“I have a fond love of food, deserts particularly. I know a very nice shop...”

A smile widened on Hazel’s face and she nodded, “That would be grand,” she said, and he pulled her off her feet.


It was a small bakery called Sweet. It was the only shop open this late at night and was dimly lit. Hazel followed Casper to the shop and stepped inside. Immediately her senses were flooded with the scent of chocolate, truffles and cherry pie. An old man was dozing in the corner, and when they entered, he snapped his head up and grumbled. The man blinked and then exclaimed,

“Casper! How nice to see you!”

Casper smiled and shook the old man’s hand vigorously, “This is...Elizabeth,” Casper said, and Hazel hesitated before holding out her hand.

“What can I do for you fine customers?” the old man wiped a hand over his weary eyes and Casper frowned.

“What do you have already baked? You seem exhausted, Sir,” he said.

The old man smiled wanly and gestured to the counter, “I have some cherry pies and muffins, you know what, I may have some cake in the back!” he exclaimed, suddenly gaining energy.

Casper shook his head, “A pie will be fine. You like cherry right Haz...Elizabeth?”

Hazel nodded and the man smiled gratefully before fetching the pie.


Casper and her took a table in the corner and sat down.

“I did not want word to get around that ‘Hazel’ was here. Okay, Elizabeth?” he grinned crookedly and Hazel smiled. Casper was sharp. The man brought them back the sliced pie and two glass cups of mik. Hazel thanked him and he retired back to his seat, folding his hands over his belly and closing his eyes. Casper drank his milk quickly and said, “What are you planning to tell Nathaniel when you arrive?”

Casper’s eyes would not meet hers and she knew Casper secretly cared about Nate. Besides that, Hazel had not thought of what she’d say.

“I will say you locked me in a chamber and made me wonder why you seem to hate God but have a Bible and why you will not let those fireflies go.”

Casper took a slice of pie and munched it, glaring at her. Hazel took her own slice and returned the glare.

Casper dusted off his hands and said, “You have known me for four days. What makes you think I would tell you my past?”

Hazel shrugged and leaned forward, “You really are nothing like Nate,” she said, and he smiled.

Casper reached for another slice and said, “You can tell him I kept you in a room and fed you and had done you no harm.”

Hazel rolled her eyes and sipped her milk, “You make my stay sound so incredulously exciting, please tell me more,” she droned, and he choked back a laugh.

“How about this? Tonight I mean,” she said, collecting the crumbs from the table and piling them together with the pads of her fingers.

“I think this should stay between us,” he said, and Hazel looked up.

“Why?” she asked, and Casper sighed.

“Nathaniel will get jealous. I know him. Believe me, I want this feud to be over. Before you arrived, I was about to even apologize. Then he punched me and...”

Hazel shrugged, “You are the one who stuck me in a box and dug swords into it,” she pointed out.

Casper rolled his eyes, “That is a common trick, Hazel, anyone knows that the prisoner always escapes.”

Hazel laughed quietly to herself and Casper rose his eyebrows, “What? What is it?”

Hazel waved it off, “Oh nothing, just those words together are quite ironic. The prisoner always escapes.”

Casper patted her hand, “But its true?” he asked, and she folded her arms and leaned back in her chair.

“I guess it depends on who the prisoner is,” she said.

Casper shook his head, drinking his last drops of milk before setting the glass down on the table and saying, “No it matters more on what the prison is.”

Hazel sighed, “Must you always contradict others to prove your inquisitiveness?”

Casper laughed, “Do not feel sullen. Others feel degraded in my presence of knowledge as well.”

Hazel rolled her eyes once more and Casper grinned. They polished off all six slices by the end of the night, paid the baker, and left.


Stomachs warm and full, Hazel and Casper walked back in teh early morning. Darnkess seemed to break and a dark red flooded the sky, tinging the black with a bit of fire before rapidly taking over. Hazel watched the darkness recede and the color take head. She glanced at Casper, who looked sleepy and absorbed in his own thoughts. When they got to the apartment, Casper lead her upstairs and they departed to their rooms, falling fast asleep.


Hazel awoke in late afternoon, Casper shook her awake and she opened her eyes slowly. His face hovering over hers, he said “Hazel. I called Nathaniel over. He is outside now.”

Hazel rolled over and stuffed her face into the pillow groggily. Casper laughed and tugged her back, holding her close to her chest.

“Come on Hazel, you must wake up,” she frowned into his shirt and said, “But I do not want to leave.”

Casper sighed and pulled her up. She stared at him as he took the blankets off her and led her from the bed and to the entrance.

“Come on,” he said, and grabbed onto her hand.

Hazel paused, “But I just woke up. I must fix myself,” she said, and Casper turned,

“You look divine. Now, come on.”

Hazel winced, hurt that he wanted her gone so quickly. As she approached the dark brown door, her heart started to beat rapidly, her face flush. Casper reached forward and opened the door. Standing on the doorstep was Nathaniel, dressed in a stark blue suit and trousers.

“Hazel,” he said, and pushed Casper aside, grabbing her hands and pulling her close.

“You are safe. My father and I were worried sick.”

Hazel sighed into his chest when he pulled her to him. They had cared, and that made Hazel feel a hundred times worse for lying to Nate.

Nate pulled away, cupping her face in his hands, “Are you alright?” he asked, and she nodded.

“I am fine Nathaniel....Nate. Do not worry. I have missed you.”

He smiled and reeled her from the doorstep. Nate faced Casper, sticking out a hand,

“Are we even here?” he asked, and Casper stared at Nate’s long fingers.

He laughed sardonically and said, “Get off my property.”

Nate shook his head and prodded Hazel gently forward. She turned to see Casper watching, arms folded as they approached the carriage.

“Nate, one moment,” she said, and ran back up the stairs, past Nate and in front of Casper. Her eyes ran over him and he stared down at her.

“I will miss you Casper,” she whispered. She gulped and pulled together her courage, “Yesterday was grand, I will never forget it.”

Casper’s gaze slid away but she clasped his hands into hers, grabbing his attention.

“I meant what I said,” she whispered, and he shook his head.

“Come back when you mean it, Hazel. You’re just learning to walk. Come back when you can dance. Dance with me.”

Hazel smiled softly and nodded, “I will. I promise a dance with you,” she whispered, and he kissed her hand, keeping his burning green eyes on her own.

“Until then dancer,” he said, and she curtsied before prancing away.


The carriage ride back was full of questions. Did Casper hurt her? Kiss her? Did she run into Magical Feet? Is she alright? Hazel felt almost exhausted after ten minutes and Nate sighed.

“Sorry, Hazel. I was woried Casper would do something to you...because of anger.”

Hazel smiled and turned to Nate, seeing his familiar blue eyes made her realize how much she had missed them.

“Casper acted like a gentleman, Nate. I am perfectly fine-fine as I will ever be anyway.”

Nate laughed and nodded reassuringly, “I also realized that it was wrong of I to take you to my past when you were still trying to fix your own. I apologize for that.”

Hazel smiled. It seemed as if Nate had grown wiser since she had been gone. Older somehow.

“It is fine,” she said, and he nodded.

“My father is going to jump from his seat when he sees you! He almost thought you had run away, or worse, Magical Feet had taken you!”

Hazel shook her head, “No I would never run away,” she murmured, although deep in her heart she felt like she did.


When Hazel reached Aunt Margie’s, Blake was waiting at the doorstep. He stood and rushed to her, exclaiming, “Oh my! I thought I would never see you again!’

Hazel allowed Blake to give her a quick hug and withdrew.

“There is much we need to accomplish and very little time to do so!” he said, and grabbed onto Hazel’s hand, dragging her forward. She entered the house and was confronted b Aunt Margie who complained that she was too skinny. Hazel warmed at the welcome of her circus family, her mind fleeing any thoughts of Casper. A hand flew to her elbow and twisted her around. Gill grinned and rose his blonde eyebrows,

“I heard you were in town!” he said, and grinned. Hazel smiled and hugged him. She had missed her odd companion. He was her only accomplice that she could whine to and confess her secrets. Gill smelled like rosewater, and when she withdrew he said,

“The birds have been chirping that you have been with the fire tamer. Care to explain?” he pulled a stern face and crossed his arms.

“Hazel?” Blake called from the adjacent room, and relief bloomed across her chest.

She rushed from Gill and joined Blake in the dining room. Papers were splayed before him, his hands stretched across the sketches and notes.

“We have performed once since your departure, but our income has been deflated. So we are leaving this town tonight and returning in a week for the ball I was telling you about earlier.”

Blake’s hands looked like Nate’s when he revealed their escape, and she listened carefully as she did then.

“Tonight you must pack so we can leave early tomorrow morning, understood?” Blake smiled and Hazel nodded.

“Tell me Hazel, how is Casper? I have not seen him since Nate and him quit talking.”

Hazel shrugged and said, “He is fine. I think he dearly misses Nathaniel and his ways. How long have they been friends?”

Blake blew out in exaggeration and pushed his hair back, shaking his head.

“Since the womb. They had grown closer when Anastasia died. Casper’s mother is a wonderful woman.”

Hazel fingered a piece of paper and asked, “Casper ran away when he was young. How young, if you know?” she asked, and Blake grinned, wagging a finger toward her direction.

“Ah, you are a curious one. That is dangerous, you know. Casper ran away when he was fourteen, and we did not see him because we were traveling with the circus. When Nate turned fifteen, Casper showed up and I took him in. How could I not? His mother had fostered my son for years before I was strong.”

Hazel chewed her lip, “Would you trust your judgement if you were weak?” she asked, and Blake raised his eyebrows. His eyes fell to his papers and he said,

‘That is a very heavy question for a lady so young. But I suppose not. When we are weak we tend to see things differently.”

“How so?” Hazel pressed, and he sighed, leaning back.

“For example,” he started, and pushed back his hair, “If you were poor, a man may come to you with money and a promise to make you rich. At the time this may seem like a grand idea because you haven’t another alternative.”

Hazel nodded, encouraging him to go on.

“But later you may find out the man has given you stolen money and wishes to include you in his evil ways. And then you cannot escape because you are too weak without them. You will have to wait for someone to rescue you, and more often than not, no one does.”

Hazel wondered if Blake was speaking from experience and said, “What if you trusted the man and the man is good?”

Blake shrugged, folding his hands behind his head, “I guess you will never know until you take the chance.”

Hazel said, “Hm.”

After a silence, Blake nudged her and asked, “Besides, where is all this talk coming from? I trust you have not run into any trouble?”

Hazel laughed and shook her head, “No trouble at all Sir. Just wondering is all.”

Blake grinned and said, “I will sure miss Margie’s cooking when we leave, that woman cooks Heaven, I swear it!”

Hazel laughed and agreed. She too would miss Margie. Over it all, she would miss Casper and the way his eyes glowed in the candlelight and his appetite for sweet delicacies. She wondered if she would ever see him again. Throughout the day, she would remember his words and his fire and his quick grin. Everything around her would suddenly be insignificant. Deep in her heart, Hazel knew the feeling would not last.





**CHAPTER/LOCATION**



She was right. The next day she had packed and by the time the omnibus was moving and the carriage was taking them from place to place, she barely remembered Casper. When she performed early and rested in the afternoon, the space was consumed with dancing or reading or chatting with Gill. One day, on a walk with Nate, she spotted a bright red flower. Her mind was flooded with cherry pie and flames and fireflies. She sucked in a deep breath and Nate stopped, observing her.

“Hazel, are you alright?”

Hazel blinked hard, “Yes, fine. Sorry I just...that flower is amazing.”

Nate squeezed her shoulder. She turned to him and said, “Casper and I spent a night out together. And it was grand, although not splendid.”

Nate let his hand fall slowly from her shoulder and she frowned.

“I do not mean to tread on your feelings, but I enjoyed it. And I have been ignoring this guilt for quite some time, and...”

Nate sighed and sat down on a bench.

Hazel stared at him, “We did not kiss or any of that,” she reassured him, but she knew the truth. She would if she could. Nate patted the seat beside him and Hazel sat.

He took a deep breath and said, “I am not mad or jealous. I am just worried about you. Casper has a way of making women feel like they truly are his only concern. But he is engaged to fire, Hazel, and he will never pay you as much mind.”

Hazel scowled at him, “You would not know, you are not even friends with him anymore! You cannot say bad things about him, you barely know him!” she spat, and blushed.

She had gotten so enraged and had no idea why.

“Casper and I have not changed much. We are ungrown children in men’s bodies,” Nate said quietly, and Hazel huffed, glaring away.

“And I am happy you had fun with Casper, I do not know why you assumed I would be mad.”

Hazel shrugged, “I thought you...”

Nate pitched an eyebrow, “No, Hazel. I do not.”

He stood up and brushed his trousers. Hazel watched, broken words in her mouth, afraid to respond.

He took a deep breath and said, “We should be getting back.”

They continued their stroll in silence.


Hazel spent the night in her motel room alone, crying. She had not cried hard in a long time, and she knew that she had to let it out sometime. She sobbed into her pillow, her chestraw, her head pounding. She wished she had someone to soothe her and tell her  how t

o handle men. But she did not. She had no idea how to tame her heart or where to put it.

She had never loved a boy before and didn’t even know if she truly loved Casper or Nate. All she knew was that her heart was burning and she could not stop thinking about them. Hazel wondered if any boy would love her back and then bit down into her pillow. Never. She was unpure, many men had tainted her. She was no virgin and no man would ever want to put their hands on a bloody bride. She shook her head into her pillow, hugging herself. Hazel hated the feeligns erupting in her chest. She felt oddly irresponsible, unable to handle or interpert them. Suddenly, a hand was brushing againsth er back, soothing her deep sobs into trembling hiccups. She looked up to see Gill sitting beside her, smilign sadly at her. She squeezed her eyes shut and said, “Gill have you ever...fancied someone?”

He rose an inquiring eyebrow and she looked down, “Or love someone?”

Gill snorted and then said, “No, darling. My ship has not sailed.”

Hazel flipped to face him and whispered, “I am not sure if I love anyone or if I’m running to them because they offer me something, anything. I’m a rat. I would chase for a measly crumb.”

Gill frowned and patted her mess of red hair, “You needn’t look for a better life anymore, Hazel. You are safe here.”

Hazel ran her fingers down the bedsheets, picking up threads with her fingernails.

“Am I?” she said, and he grinned.

“Safe as you will ever be, dancer. No need to run, we will just bring you back screaming.”

Hazel laughed, “Great,” she said, and Gill chuckled.

“We love you here, Hazel. You are like our family now. There is no way we will let you go.”

Hazel sat up in bed, discarding the warm feeling in her chest for a question, “Why did Blake save me? How did he know me?” she whispered, and Gill rose his eyebrows.

“Darling you aren’t very hard t ofind. The newspapers tell all. Besides, our circus was falling. We needed you to get back on top.”

Hazel shook her head, “Henry set Margie’s garden on fire with the intent of killing us. Why would Blake put himself in that danger for me?”

Gill shrugged, “I always thought Casper had lit the garden on fire...”

“Casper! No, that’s...” Hazel hesitated, looking away. Could he have done it? Was Casper really that revenge hungry? No, it could not be.

“He stole me, that is a wager for battle. Why?” she insisted, but Gill only patted her head oncemore.

“It is all business Hazel, believe me. He needed to be on top.”

Hazel leaned back in her bed, defeated temporarily.

Gill stood up and ran a hand through his hair, “Well I shall go to sleep,” he said, “are you alright?”

Hazel nodded, “Much thanks, Gill. Goodnight.”

He twirled and blew her a kiss before leaving the room.

~~~

The following day the Big Swing performed. Hazel awoke feeling anew, having cleansed all her horrid feelings the night prior. She donned an orange dress that Gill had bought her and wore her new ballet slippers. Hazel was excited to perform again, she could not wait to hear the roar of the audience greet her. She decided then that if she loved anything at all, it was the sound of the crowd chanting her name as she danced across the stage. Hazel twirled away from the mirror and knocked on the door across from hers, where Blake and Nate slept. The door opened under her fist and she looked up to see a disheveled Blake.

“Oh Hazel! You are ready! It is sure early...” he glanced at his watch, looking unsure.

Hazel smiled, catching Nate curled up on his bed over Blake’s shoulder.

“It is fine. I will go help set up until then!” she said, but Blake shook his head.

‘No need. We have workers for that.”

Hazel shrugged, “I will go see what Gill is up to than.”

Blake nodded, scratching the back of his head, “He’s in the performers train, the third cart from the start.”

Hazel nodded, bid him farewell and apologized for waking him before rushing away.


The train rested on the outskirts of the town, looking like a snake curling around a rock. Hazel headed to the third cart, tapping on the door before someone opened it. Gill grinned at her, bare of gold glitter, “Nice to see you awake so early,” he said, and Hazel blushed. She stepped into the cart. To the far right corner, there was a bed made of plain white sheets. Across from it was a vanity mirror completed with a dresser littered with brushes and small encasements of glitter. The rest of the compartment was bare, save for a duffel bag resting against the wall.

“Not so glamorous, eh?” Gill said, brushing his blonde hair back from his face.

“I won't complain,” he said, twisting a piece of hair into a curl and examining it in the mirror.

“Some have to share compartments. The only reason I am alone in here is because the other performers say my love for glitter is bothersome.”

He put the brush and scoffed, “fools.”

Hazel grinned, but underneath guilt started to crawl from within her chest. She had been sleeping at Margies and in hotel rooms her whole stay. Gill had been here much longer than she; and he had to sleep here?

Gill sat down in front of the mirror, “So that ball is coming up rapidly,” he said, glancing at her reflection.

Hazel shrugged, “Yes, are you excited?” she asked, and Gill titled his head to the side and said,

“I suppose I should be. Blake always invites me to balls. God knows why, I am an ill representation of his class,” he said, and dabbed gold glitter onto his forehead.

Hazel wondered why Blake chose certain performers over others. Why Gill and Hazel over the whole bunch?

“Do you think Blake thinks we are more worthy?” Hazel asked, and then realizing how utterly concited that sounded, regretted it.

Gill only chuckled and said, “Of course.”

He rubbed gold lotion into his hands and said, “We are the prize pieces in Blake’s little chess game. If we are stolen, he has nothing. Part of Blake believes that if he does not constantly show us he believes this...he thinks we will leave to Magical Feet.”
Hazel shook her head, “I would never...why would I?”

Gill shrugged, “Some people take comfort in things that bring pain.”

Hazel doubted she would ever do something so reckless.

“Would you ever leave?” Hazel asked, and Gill stared at himself for a long time before answering,

“I would like to think I’d stay. But gold cannot glitter in the same place for long before someone is going to come along and snatch it away, right? Besides, the magic here has died a long time ago for me,” he shrugged, picking up a pad and smoothing out his applications.

“I’m still here,” he said, almost so quietly that Hazel did not hear. But she caught it, and it flooded her with inexplicable sadness. Hazel sat on Gill’s bed, watching him with peeked interest. It was taking him an hour to put only his glitter on, and every time he was almost done, he wiped it off in frustration. It looked perfect to Hazel.

After two hours, Gill shooed her away so he could dress, and she departed, stepping out into the sunny day. Hazel inhaled, feeling the crisp air fill her with its thoughts of childhood and autumn leaves. The workers were slowly assembling, their faces groggy from lack of sleep. The tents were put up and the animals pulled in. Hazel watched, the circus being put together never ceased to excite her. he wondered how the workers felt, putting up something so spectacular. Their faces looked empty, like they were sick of heaving and pulling. Hazel hoped no one thought her snotty like she thought of herself. She slept in real rooms  and stood back to watch the workers perform laborious tasks. Hazel frowned at her fancy orange dress and wondered if it would do good to humble herself some. One man fell down a side of the tent and Hazel kicked off her slippers. She ran forward and helped the man up. He bowed his head but he looked somewhat embarrassed.

Hazel took one side of the tent and the men stared at her, chewing their tobacco.

“It is alright Miss, we can do it,” a man called across the tent.

Hazel shook her head, “I want to help!” she said back, and the men mumbled. The shared glances of confusion.

Hazel sighed and shouted, “Heave!”

The men pulled on all sides, stretching the heavy material to the wooden posts stickign from the ground. Hazel pulled it back, feeling a damp sweat sprinkle her forehead. When they were done,  the men looked at her, then at each other.

“Hooray!” they cried, and Hazel grinned.

They rushed to another tent.


When the tents were put up and the animals set up, Hazel said farewell to the men so she could ready herself for her performance. On her way to fetch her slippers laying in front of the train, Hazel slammed into Nate.

“I apologize!” she said, and then stepped back.

Nate held her out at arms length and smiled.

“So I see you are strong,” he said, gesturing to the tents. A sly smile decorated his features, his blue eyes sparkling with laughter.

Hazel raised an eyebrow, “So you have thought of me as weak prior then?” she suggested, and Nate laughed.

He shook his head, leaning forward, “Stop being such a fighter,” he whispered, and he rested a hand on her arm.

“Stop being such a flirt,” she replied, and he stared at her as she skipped away.


Hazel made her way back to Gill’s compartment. It was empty of Gill and when she stepped inside, she glanced quickly at herself in the mirror. She combed out her messy hair and pulled it up into a bun. Hazel, sure that Gill would not mind, used his sparkling rosewater to splatter on herself. Hazel dusted off her dress, slipped on her ballet shoes and stepped back into the sunshine.

A hand grabbed her elbow and spun her around and Nate, his eyes wide and hair sticking up, asked,

“Have you seen my father anywhere?”

She shook her head and he looked away, pushing his hair back, “Damn myself!” he whispered, and then kicked at the floor ferociously.

Hazel frowned and said, “Was he not with you this morning?”

Nate shook his head, “Yes, But he left early and I cannot figure out where he went off to. The circus is to perform and he...”

Nate exhaled deeply and stepped forward, suddenly knowing where he was going. Hazel followed after, her heart beat raging. She would like to believe Blake was about, but something in Nate’s stance told her this was no mishap. Blake would never leave his circus for a cup of tea.

Nate asked Gill, all the workers, and all of the performers individually. Suddenly, an idea struck him and he turned around. He glanced at her seemingly surprised she was behind him and said, “Hazel, what is the day?”

“The 20th of January,” she said, and Nate let out a painful cry that made Hazel step back.

“Nate, what is it?” she whispered, and he pressed his palms into his eyes.

“My parents anniversary, how could I forget? Oh God,” he shook his head and said,

“We cannot do the circus today.”

Hazel blinked, “But Nate, the men worked so hard...”

He shook his head, “I have to find my father,” he said, his voice a low murmur now.

Hazel looked away, “I think he just needs time to himself, would he not want you to...take over?”

Nate shook his head, “You don’t understand Hazel. Father has always needed me to be there for him. He...” Nate shook his head as if realizing he was wasting time, and stalked away.

“But...Nate!” she shouted, but he only walked more rapidly.

Hazel wondered how she could possibly tell the workers to disassemble after all their hard work.

Gill approached her, “Hazel, what is going on? Where is Nathaniel?”

Hazel sighed, “He is off to find his father. The circus will not be performing today.”

Gill looked at the workers eating breakfast, the children babbling in excitement, the performers stretching.

“Oh no,” he murmured, and Hazel sighed again.

Gill crossed his arms and said, “How long do you think it will take to get these b******s to listen to me?” he gestured to the performers and Hazel widened her eyes.

“Are you going to...?” Gill shrugged,

“We can do it. All we need is to get the whole crew together.”

Hazel shrugged and they began to call the performers, the laborers, the animal tamers and such.

Gill addressed the crowd quickly, telling them that Blake was very sick. Everyone murmured softly and Gill nodded.
“Yes, but if we can pull together a spectacular show, he will be back in no time! So who is ready?” he shouted, and Hazel hooted and clapped.

Mumbles ran through the crowd and one by one, they dispersed with a Sorry lad.

Hazel glared at each of them individually as they departed.

The workers set to disassembling the tents and the animals were heaved in. Hazel heard the children start to cry and frowned, feeling horrid. She stayed with Gill the entirety of the day, occasionally glancing out the window for any sight of Blake and Nate.

Gill escorted Hazel back to the motel, bid her goodnight and departed. For a while, Hazel stared at Blakes door. She knocked quickly and was surprised when it opened.

“Blake!” she cried out.

He looked terrible, his hair a mess, his eye purple and his lip cut.

“Anastasia! Nathaniel, come see your mother is back!” he called. He threw his arms around her and Hazel gasped.

Blake moved back at the pull of someone behind him and Nate stepped forward,

“Yes?” he asked, glancing behind him as Blake fell into the bed.

“Are you alright?” Hazel whispered, and Nate shrugged. A bruise larger than Blake’s shadowed Nates face.

He glanced down, “I apologize, but I have not any time, I must see to my father,” he said.

Hazel nodded, “Of course,” she said.

Hazel turned away, but before Nate could close the door, she spun around and wedged it open with her foot. Nate’s gaze glided from her small ballet slippers, up her leg and up to her face.

“I want to help,” she said, and hoped Nate did not hear the ache in her throat.

“With what?” Nate snapped, and Hazel had to remember that Nate hated needing someone.

She turned her head curtly to Blake and said, “Your father is plenty unstable. Your eye is not sterilized. I think you can use assistance.”

Nate leaned the door open slightly and lowered his eyes, “I do not have tim for trouble,” he said, and Hazel nodded, wincing inwardly.

Nate opened the door wide and she stepped inside. Without another word, Nate disappeared into his bathroom and shut the door. Hazel approached Blake and he turned drunken eyes toward her.

“Hello,” Hazel said, but her voice broke and she took a deep breath to regain composure.

Drunken men and herself had never been a good match.

Blake smiled warmly and said, “Anastasia, it has been too long.”

Hazel pulled the sheets up to Blakes chin.

“I have missed you,” he whispered, and Hazel smiled sadly.

She knew how it felt to have everything you’ve ever loved, taken away.

“Nate is a grown man now and I can feel him slipping away. Soon enough he will have a wife of his own and all there will be is me.”
Hazel shook her head “Blake I know that is not true. Nate adores you.”

Blake let his head fall back on the pillow with a heavy sigh.

“But he loves his women more. I can not stand thinking what is to become of the Big Swing when I am all alone here.”

Hazel watched his lashes flutter fast, and he stared up at the ceiling.

“All the performers, the animals...the pieces will be scattered,” he said, and turned his head to Hazel. She noticed then how startlingly similar Blake and his son were.

“Sleep, you will feel much better when you awake.”

Blake touched her fingers softly, “Sleep beside me once more Anastasia, until next year.”

Hazel watched his eyes slowly pool with unshed tears and she clambered in beside him. Hazel pushed away her dark thoughts and rested her hands upon her chest, staring at the ceiling.

“Goodnight,” Blake said, and kissed her hand softly.

“Goodnight,” Hazel whispered.

Blake closed his eyes and after a while, Hazel did too.

Though they both seemed frightened of their past sleeping in the bed, Hazel had never felt stronger in her life.


“Hazel,” someone whispered, and she came to as a warm hand squeezed her own. She opened her eyes, blinked, and sat up slowly. Nate stood before her, his face barely visible in the heavy darkness.

“Oh I must have fallen asleep!” she exclaimed, and removed her hand quickly from Blake’s loose hold. Nate glanced at his father, then at her. An unwritten emotion stirred in his eyes and Hazel blushed. She wondered how odd this must all seem to him. He beckoned her over and she slid from the bed, following him to the door. They stepped into the corridor and Nate closed the door behind them quietly.

“Thank you for looking after my father,” he said quietly, and Hazel nodded.

“Does this happen every year?” she whispered, and Nate looked away, nodding.

“Usually it hits him a couple of days prior, I reckon he forgot this year and he felt horrid for it.”

Hazel nodded, watching quietly as Nate tried to rationalize with his fathers depression.

“What happened to your eye?” she asked, reaching out to touch it.

Nate shied away from her fingers and she retracted them as if burned.

“Father got into a brawl while he was drunk, and then they got angry...” his voice faded away and Hazel replied, “How long has it been since your father has seen your mother's headstone?”

Nate watched her carefully now, as if someone had pricked him and he was waiting for them to make another move.

“He has never seen it. Could not bear to. Why do you ask?” Nate hissed.

Hazel shrugged, “Sometimes people need to remind themselves that others are really gone.”
Nate frowned, “You do not know anything about my mother. Nor how important she was to us...”

Hazel shook her head, “I do not. But I know how it feels to go back in time searching for something that is no longer there.”

Nate sighed and leaned against the door, black strands of hair falling across his face.

“I do not think that will help,” he said quietly, “father is a drinker. He was a severe alcoholic before he met m mother but she coaxed him out of it.”

His eyes landed on hers and there she saw despair, “So what am I left to do with a father who practically wants to commit suicide every year? What if I was not around? He could have been killed!” he yelled, and Hazel moved back.

She saw the frustration building and waited for it to crumble before she spoke.
“Your father will come to in the morning. Maybe you and him can have a discussion about this then.”

Nate nodded, still looking irritated.

“Okay,” he said hoarsely.

“Goodnight,” Hazel said, and turned to the door.

“Hazel,” he said, and she looked over shoulder to see Nate resting against the door as if exhausted. His head was tilted forward, looking down his nose at her, “Thank you,” he whispered. Hazel nodded before disappearing into her room.


***


The next morning was a rainy one and brought strong memories of Casper as Hazel lay in bed and read. She wished to check upon Blake, but decided it was Nate’s job to help his father face the truth. When the clock hit two in the afternoon, Hazel placed a bookmark into the crease of the bind and slipped from her mess of sheets. She wore a brown dress and a frock coat, pulling her hair back tightly. She donned a hat for good measure and then stepped outside, leaving a note on her door: Went to town. Be back soon.

She exited the corridor, sped down the steps, and out of the motel. Hazel stepped into the blistering cold day. The rain hit her hard in the face in violent sheets, but Hazel enjoyed it. Raindrops fell from her eyelashes and she walked slowly down the block. Abandoning the thought of disturbing Gill, she walked into town. Hazel needed some time to herself after all these years. Plus, she had some money to spare and was searching for a necklace to wear to the ball. Hazel blushed when thinking of it. Oh, how she felt young again, smiling at the thought. Hazel was searching in her purse for her money when suddenly, she was pushed down. She screamed out, clutching her purse to her chest and kicking wildly at her attacker. Hazel’s hat fell in front of her vision and blocked the face of the man.  

“Get her,” the voice spat.

Hazel then realized who it was. She stopped kicking and screaming, the passers by bearing ooks of confusion and annoyance.

Hazel tilted her hat back and stared into the face of Neal.

“You,” she hissed, and he grabbed onto her wrists,yanking her onto her feet.

“How dare you run form us,” he spat, and Hazel laughed bitterly.

“How dare I?” Hazel kicked him hard in the groin and his grasp released. She ran from his sight, and into an alleyway. Breathing heavy, she choked back her tears. She was safe. She was safe. She was-

“Hazel, we’ve missed you,” a voice said, and she let herself believe it was a hallucination. But thn she saw a portly man approaching her and she stared in disbelief.

Henry’s eyes were bloodshot, his fat fists at his sides curled as they swung forward.

She backed away quickly, only to slam into Neal behind her. Frantically, her eyes darted to and fro. Oh no she thought.

“Why would you run from us? We have fostered you since you were a child,” Henry sneered, and Hazel felt anger surge up and replace fear.

“Raped. You raped me since I was a child,” she whispered.

Henry shook his head, “I meant no harm to you personally, I was only trying to make us rich.”

Hazel tasted bile in her mouth when she spat, “B*****d.”

She watched the rain drip down Henry’s fat face as he approached her.

“What is the matter dear? Has the high life gone to your head?” he spat, and reached out.

Quickly, his fingers were around her neck and he growled at her, “You think you are so swell with your fancy dresses and expensive hats.” His grip grew tighter and Hazel choked back in shock. Was he to kill her? Neal tutted behind her and she fought the urge to fall to her knees.

She could feel her body collapsing inward, her chest caving in as red spots danced across her vision.

“You are coming with us,” Henry whispered, and Hazel felt tears burn at the back of her eyes as she nodded, unable to breathe.

“Not so fast,” a voice said, and all Hazel saw was flames before she fell to the ground.



***

Hazel woke in the alley. She sat up and looked around. When she realized the alleyway was empty, she took off at a run. Sobs tore from her throat as she passed the lively town and made her way back to the motel. Tears burned in the back of her eyes, but she promised herslef she would not cry in front of Nate. He had enough to worry about as it was. She ran up the steps, and threw herself against the door, slamming her fist against the surface. A dark thought filled her- Henry had caught them and killed them. The door opened and she fell in with a cry.

Nate stared at her, “Hazel, what is it? What is the matter?”

She bit back the tears, “Henry-Neal, they... they are back,” she whispered.

Nate ran a hand through his hair, “Are you sure?” he said, and she nodded quickly.

He beckoned her to the empty bed and she sat down, cradling her head in her hands. What frightened her most was that she could have been in their arms once again...if not...the memory flooded her senses and she remembered the bright fire, the hoarse voice. Hazel gulped, was it Casper? How did he know...?

A heavy hand squeezed her shoulder gently and she looked up to see Nate.

“What happened?” he said softly, and he sat down beside her. She took a deep breath and unraveled the story. Nate’s expression went from shocked to frightened to angry.

“B******s,” he mumbled and then said softly, “Hazel, please be calm. I promise you they will not catch you.”

She squeezed her eyes shut, feeling her chin tremble.

Nate removed her hands from her face and held her wrists, “Hazel,” he said.

She looked at him, his eyebrows wrinkled in worry, his mouth set with frustration.

“They were so close,” she said, “I was so close to being back.”

She pulled away from him and pushed her hair back.

  

© 2013 Shrien Alshabasy


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Shrien Alshabasy
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Added on May 31, 2013
Last Updated on May 31, 2013
Tags: dance, love, rape, circus, victoriantimes, romance, fire, piano, nate, hazel, gill, casper, blake, bigswing, dancinginthedark, shrienalshabasy

Author

Shrien Alshabasy
Shrien Alshabasy

NEW YORK, NY



About
By some miracle, you have ventured onto my profile and I am so happy you did! My name is Shrien Alshabasy, author of Dancing in the Dark and Twirling in the Twilight! I am an aspiring author with a dr.. more..