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small-minded people

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Anne knows someone’s in trouble as soon as the sound of crying reaches her from behind Phillip’s half-open office door.

(It is Phillip’s office now, ever since Barnum left the circus for that tour. Phillip is the one who runs the show, the one who monitors the profits they make. He's taken over in all but name, so he at least deserves the office, and the credit.

That’s all Anne has been willing to give him lately, anyway. No secret smiles, no shared glances or whispered conversations… she told him how things have to be. All she has left to give is credit; and Phillip does put on a great show, even if he’s still growing into the Prince of Humbug’s tophat.)

She jerks to a stop at the top of the landing, brows furrowing. Phillip wouldn’t have a girl in his office. He wouldn’t. There’s no question in Anne’s mind that he would ever be so unprofessional; nor is he ready for another girl right now. She sees the way he stares at her across the ring — filled with longing, desperate to catch her eyes. Phillip is still as in love with her as he was that night flying over the ring. It hurts to know, but it’s true.

Not a lover, then. A performer? Could he be letting someone go? Her mind flashes back to Crystal, with her dark skin and ice blue eyes; she’s been fretting that she “hasn’t been keeping up” lately. Could Phillip be the one kicking her out?

Anne refuses to believe that, either. Profits haven’t been bad, even without Barnum. And Phillip knows they’ve got nowhere else to go.

So then who could be crying?

She takes a step closer, feet silent on the landing. That’s when she hears it: over the sound of weeping, a familiar voice hushing them.

“Hey, it’s okay. Shh, don’t cry, Helen. Sit down — here, do you guys want some, uhh, some candy?”

Helen? Anne’s mind flashes back to Barnum’s youngest girl, with her round face and bold eyes. That it’s Helen crying surprises — and worries — her to no end.

(She’s gotten to know Barnum’s daughters a bit, like the whole circus has; she’s even watched them once or twice when the Barnums were busy. Caroline is the dreamier of the two, more perceptive, sensitive, easily affected by things. Helen is the brave one. She isn’t afraid of anything, energetic as a candle flame. Anne feels closest to Helen because he sees herself in her; once upon a time, she was that bold little girl. Knowing that it’s Helen crying startles her because a child like her never cries when she's sad — only when she's angry, unspeakably angry and hurting, and doesn’t know any other way to express it.)

“Here,” Phillip says again. Anne hears the crinkle of plastic wrap. His trick must work, because Helen’s sobs cut off with a hiccup. A second later she hears a testy murmur of thanks.

Phillip takes a deep breath. “Alright,” he says. “Caroline, can you tell me what happened? Where’s your mother?”

“Mama’s at the post office,” pipes up Caroline’s small voice, “across the street. We wanted to go to the circus, so she said we could as long as we went to find you, and then she went inside —“

“Then these big, mean men were there!” Helen suddenly interjects, the volume of her voice trying to drown out it’s shakiness. “And they were yelling… about the circus. One of them asked where Daddy was, and they were saying awful things! Really, really mean things! And they — they —“

She cuts off with a hiccup. Anne can imagine her little fists clenching in her lap, red face scrunching up in frustration. She can’t find the words she needs, and it’s got to be the worst feeling in the world.

Caroline picks up from there, though. “They said Daddy is a fraud,” she says. There is a quiet resignation to her voice, as if these are words she’s felt the sting of before. “They asked if we were proud of him.”

For a moment, the office is silent. Even Helen’s heavy breathing seems to have died down. Quiet stretches on for hours, eternities, all in the space of a few seconds.

“They has no right to speak to you that way,” Phillip finally says. Anne hears the undercurrent of anger low in his voice, but his words are calm. “No one does. Not strangers, not people you know. No one.”

“But they said —“ Helen cuts herself off with a tiny sob. Anne hears her take a gasping breath, grunt as if she’s fighting all the emotion back down. She can barely control herself enough to cry out, “Why would they say that?”

“Because they’re small-minded people.”

The words strike Anne in the chest, stealing her breath. She remembers Phillip saying those exact words to her, only a week ago.

She hears his footsteps against the office floor; he’s left his desk. When she dares to peek a bit further around the doorframe, she sees just what she’d imagined. Helen is hunched in the chair across from Phillip’s desk, her shoulders heaving. Her tiny face is bright red, lined with tears. Caroline stands next to her, downcast, still clutching the candy Phillip offered in her hands. Phillip rounds the desk quickly and drops to his knees in front of both girls. There isn’t an ounce of humor in his face; he is dead serious.

“Your father is an exceptional man. More importantly, he’s a good man — and he loves you more than anything else in the world. I’m not often sure what goes through his head, but I do know that all he wants is for you girls to be happy. Everything he’s built here is for you.”

Helen has a fist to her mouth, likes she’s trying to stifle another whimper. Caroline slowly raises her eyes to look at Phillip. “People still laugh at him.”

“People will always laugh, because they can’t see the world the way your father does. They don’t see… all the color. They don’t dream as big as he does, or see how happy the show makes people.”

“The show makes me really happy!” Helen exclaims — and then throws forward. Phillip catches her swiftly, wrapping one arm around her torso and holding her tight. As Helen gasps into his shoulder, he runs her back and hushes her. The concern on his face makes him look like he wants to cry himself.

“People will always criticize what they don’t understand,” he tells them both. “It… scares them. But that’s just because they haven’t seen how beautiful the things they don’t understand are.”

“And m-maybe… maybe if they saw those things, they’d understand?”

“Maybe,” Phillip confirms, squeezing Helen tighter. Now he looks up at Caroline, almost like he’s beseeching her. “You should never let small-minded people change how you feel about something you love. And I know you love your father very much.”

“And the show,” Caroline whispers. “I love the show too.”

“That’s right.” Now Phillip does offer a smile, even if it’s a tired one. He holds out his free arm to Caroline. She doesn’t hesitate a second before wrapping her arms around his neck, hugging him tightly.

“Don’t give anyone the power to make you feel bad,” he tells them. “The two of you make your father proud every day. If he were here, he’d tell you just how much loves you, and how he always will.” He gives the girls one more tight squeeze; over their shoulders, the look on his face is distant, lonely. “You’re both stronger than anyone who tries to use him to hurt you.”

The girls hug him for another few seconds before Helen declares, “Phillip, you’re the best big brother ever.”

Phillip chuckles softly to himself. Anne sees the faint red on his cheeks. “I… don’t know if I’m much of a big brother.”

“You are,” Caroline confirms. “And you’re definitely the best.”

“Thanks, girls,” he says, and chuckles again. Anne pulls away from the door just as Phillip says, “Now how about we go find your mother?”

She rushes back to the dressing room before she can be caught eavesdropping; she’s unable to keep the smile off her face. Phillip’s interactions with the Barnum girls really are the cutest thing. It couldn’t be more obvious how proud he is that the girls adore him so much.

It doesn’t hurt that he gives pretty good advice, too.

People will always laugh at what they don’t understand… you should never let small-minded people change how you feel about what you love…

His words echo in her ears; Anne can’t forget them, no matter how hard she tries. She leans against her vanity table, takes a deep breath, and slumps forward.

How does Phillip have a way of making the impossible sound so, so easy?