A Little Night Music

      I did not cry because I'd been pinned to the ground and had the wind knocked out of me, nor did I cry at the thought of what Francoise had to live with, there in her head. She could handle it, she'd learned how to. Perhaps I cried because I realised that I could not, and because of that - I could never have Francoise - not as a friend or a lover or a guide or anything else. There was too much to her I couldn't understand, and would probably have neither the patience or courage to try. Though I wanted to. I wanted to very much. The strange downturn of her eyes when she came back to me only made me hungrier for it. But I would never have her to myself. And I hated sharing. I didn't even realise I'd sunk slowly to my knees, clutching the Bird and crying, until I felt one hand on either side of my head, and opened my eyes to see with blurred vision her legs in front of me. The soft leather of her gloves tickled my cheeks, and there was a faint metallic smell. The smell of old blood, I realised, and slowly lifted my head to look at her. Her hair hung about her face, soft and sharp, from that angle looking for all the world like stalactites, and her eyes were dim and half shut. I had not seen such a - sorrowful look on her face before. It upset me further, and pulling away from her soft hands, I stumbled out of the tent, the sand on the Court surface creeping up between my toes.
     The mask pushed with every inch of its strength at the canvas as I bound it down in the cart once more, but I succeeded in shutting it finally, though my finers slipped on the knots a hundred times and were crisscrossed with dull red lines by the time I turned to go back to my tent, where Francoise was alone. Yes, despite what had just happened, I wanted to see her and I wanted to be near to her. I'm sure Clopin could of thought of a thousand questions to ask her -
     "Who were you?"
     "Who died? Did you kill them? Why does that seem right?"
     "Synthesis, coordination, what are you babbling about?"
     But I could only think of one -
     "Are you alright, Francoise?"
     Her head jerked towards me, a surprised question on her face, her eyes seeming sunken in their roundness. I thought perhaps she'd not heard me properly, so I repeated the question louder, though my voice still wavered on her name.
     She continued to stare at me for a moment, her forehead creased and her mouth open a little. Suddenly, it snapped shut and she turned her head away again, blocking out the candle light so the shadows ran wild, and the faint glow caught light in her hair giving it a hazy golden glow. "I'm fine." she said in a queer, choking voice, then turned to me with bright, deep brown eyes and a crooked grin on her face. Hesitantly, I crept forward to where she sat, almost tip toeing, as though I were afraid she suddenly leap out and fly off before I could get close. Slowly I sank down besides her, not letting my eyes leave her face for a moment, my entire body poised. She laughed a little and then quickly reached out a finger to run it down my sternum. My nerves were immediately set atingle, and I looked down with apprehension to see what I expected - the flesh was already beginning to discolor, as though Death herself had been the one to touch me, and bruise. Before Francoise could say another word, I leapt ahead.
     "Whoever your friend was," I said in a thoughtfully dry voice, examining the second set of bruises I had been given these last two weeks. "Tell her that my brothers are better at wrestling than I am." I looked up at her again with a wink and a smile and with something close to relief in those glittering eyes she smiled back at me. I wanted to take her in my arms and hold her close, but now - that wouldn't be fair, would it, to cup your hands around the hard-beating heart of a wild bird...

     Later on, I wrapped my diklo tight around my shoulders and tucked it snugly into my bodice to hide the purple stain that had spread there. Queries from Clopin I did not need. Bruises abound.
     Francoise seemed bended up double on herself, snuggled down deeply into the cushions and the rugs which covered her, her hands folded quietley in her lap, her eyes far, far away as she stared ahead at nothing and everything. She jerked back into life when I picked up her hands in mine and tugged on them, looking up at me with a sharp question.
     "Come, beautiful ibis, time to stand out amongst the pigeons." I said coaxingly and with a laugh to my voice that was not altogether in my heart.
     She got to her feet more slowly than before, although I could see a flush had risen in her cheeks, and gave me her hands. Painfully, she stretched to her full height and swivelled her gaze down to mine and then to the tent exit and, with I supporting her around her hard waist and she leaning down on my shoulder, we headed towards the Court Center.
     We were greeted to the tunes of laughter edged with drink and the good humor the companionship of friends always brings - Clopin was entertaining his people. And they were never more truly my handsome husband's people than when he was performing. He stood aloft on a barrel in the center of one of the circles, his long thighs and shapely calves carressed by the light of the fire, his arms spread wide and epxressive, and the grin on his face almost blinding. Men and women alike looked up at him rapturously, hanging on his every word as he shared with us a story of the idiotic gaje and their primitive ways on the streets above in Paris that day. Francoise and I hovered where we were, our eyes fixed on him as he rose above us in full force to give his story it's finishing touches - before bowing to the rom's applause. He basked in it shamelessly for several minutes before leaping lightly down and aspying the two of us waiting just beyond the circle, away from the warmth of the fire. With his sharply narrowed eyes came several other sets, and not long after that, hushed whispers and curious frowns as they examined Francoise from head to toe, and I by her side. We ignored them and moved stiffly over to sit on one of the benches, Francoise letting go of my shoulder to melt gently down and listlessly brush a damp ribbon of hair back.
     "I'll fetch you a drink, Francoise," I told her softly, and she nodded stiffly, her gaze lowered, as I turned towards the tankards scattered throughout the Center. I'd felt the tremor in her when she'd watched Clopin, felt it again when they'd all turned to look at her. She was cursing the twisted hole in her side that kept her from joining Clopin on the stage - from outshining Clopin on the stage.
     No, I thought. That kept her from joining him. And that, for the moment, was all.
     I met all eyes with a challenge of my own, and reached the wine barrels undefeated, filling a tankard for her with a small smirk playing on my lips - until Clopin's shadow fell against my outstretched arms. He coughed quietely, and when I finally tore my eyes over to his, I saw he was standing with his hat in his hands and an apprehensive smile on his mouth. What could I do? I kissed the apprehension away and took advantage of his hatless state to run my fingers through his hair, while he held me up. I grinned at him when we pulled apart and he shook his head at me.
     "You're almost as unpredictable as our friend the Bird," he said dryly, and I tugged at his tunic mischeviously to pull him back to where Francoise waited. I handed her the drink, as he walked up with a swagger and his hat perched cockily back on, stopping in front of Francoise to put his hands on his hips, and she looked up at him from beneath a fringe of hair, a wry smile twisting her lips.
     "Care to regale us with some dazzling dancing, fair Francoise?" he asked her gaily and so loudly I wondered if he'd been drinking. "Perhaps some astounding aerodynamics, performed with an artistry only you could achieve?"
     She sniffed. "I'm afraid you'll have to settle for winsome witticisms to while away the wonderless time, Trouillefou. I'm all wound up." she said dryly, and Clopin chuckled at the alliteration.
     "Well, madame, it appears that I at last have you at a disadvantage."
     "Well, sir, it appears that I have you at even more of one."
     "Pardon me, madame, but it appears to me that you're the one with a hole in your side."
     "Pardon me, monsieur, but it appears that you're the one who put it there."
     "Too true. But you know that I didn't mean it to be so."
     "Sadly so. I'm afraid that I find you totally innocent - which is the worst crime of all. An adage you had do best to repeat to yourself, sir, or one of these days you may find that you've been all virtue and no gypsy."
     "Conceded. But how might your injury be a disadvantage to me?"
     "Well sir, innocent or no, you're honor bound to be apologetic, self-deprecating, and charitable."
     "Ah. Yes, I could see that as a disadvantage."
     "Yet still---"
     "Still what, chere madame?"
     "They all look dreadfully bored."
     "Well, with you wounded and I honor-bound---not to mention bone-tired, of course---what on earth could you have in mind?"
     "I'm certain I have no idea, Trouillefou."
     "Perhaps together we could think of something."
     "Well, sir, there's always music."
     "Ah, but such a poor substitute for pantomime," Clopin sighed.
     "Then there's always legerdemain."
     "Yes, but such a poor substitute for music! And besides, you're not in condition for it," Clopin said ribbingly.
     "True, true. I must agree that sleight of hand is beyond me this evening," Francoise said, seamlessly pulling a long, green feather out of nowhere and tapping it thoughtfully on her cheek. "In better days, why, I could conjure eggs out of thin air---" she snapped her right wrist and produced an egg---"scarves from behind your knees---" she listlessly reached behind Clopin's leg and withdrew a purple scarf---"and flowers from cooking pots." She gingerly removed a wild rose from an abandoned stewpot. "But alas, not tonight."
     "Then it shall have to be music, I suppose."
     "Pity, isn't it, Trouillefou?"
     "Very. So, do you know any songs, then?"
     "Oh, a few."
     "Romance, humor, epic, or ditty?"
     "They look like a gray bunch, Trouillefou. A chuckle or two wouldn't hurt."
     "And once they're cheered, we can really go at them."
     "We can finish them off with a little pathos and lost love, is that the idea?"
     "Trouillefou, you're a genius. Comedic it is, then."

     The warm tones of their voices harmonizing filled the corner. Francoise sang a little more softly, not wanting to hurt her ribs further. It sounded strange, hearing her sings the words for once. There was a round, dusty accent to it, as if she'd grown up listening to cathedral chants.
     They were a disturbingly perfect duet---he with his curled notes and she with her shivering improvisations. They moved on to lullabies, and I almost fell asleep to the sound.
     "Well, sir," I heard Francoise say. "It is time for the last songs of the evening."
     "What do you recommend, madame?"
     "A tune that you might not know. Would you mind?"
     "Madame, the crowd is at your disposal."
     "I thank you. You may harmonize, if you wish."
     "Accepted. Proceed." Their tones were joking, but hushed.
     There was a brief pause as Francoise cleared her throat.

Lackaday, strange bird, lackaday
Your flock, they all have flown away
Lackaday, strange bird, lackaday,
Your lover's long since gone

Shed a tear, strange bird, shed a tear
The lands beneath your wings are queer
Shed a tear, strange bird, shed a tear
The valley's turned to stone

Fold your wings, strange bird, fold your wings
For you have lost so many things
Fold your wings, strange bird, fold your wings
Your journey's long since done.

     "And now, sir, I must bid you goodnight."
     "A fine farewell, madame."
     "A fine performance, sir."
     "And so, mesdames et messieurs, we bid you bon soir,"Francoise said. Clopin offered a hand to help her to her feet. She looked tired, and older. I noticed the lines that crossed her face and what might be a few wiry hints of gray in her hair. Such a strange creature.
     I took her back to the tent, Clopin gently squeezing my arm before we left. He too could see the weariness on Francoise's face. A few children trailed beside us, and she smilingly avoided their questions and sent them back to their mothers.
     "I suspect," she said huskily, "I'll be ready to leave soon. Sadly, I wouldn't be surprised if I didn't come back."
     "Why not?" I asked, a little alarmed. I swept back the tent door, closing it tight behind us.
     "Because, my dear, I'm not sure how long I can keep this up before something kills me off. I had a brush with eternity here, and it's a lucky thing that blade didn't go two inches higher. I've always had a penchant for borrowing time, and I'm quite certain that I've worked up a tremendous debt."
     "Don't be so morbid," I said gently, guiding her to the soft, inviting cushions.
     "I'm not," she answered, settling stiffly into the shadows. "I'm being realistic. And when a performer becomes realistic, the end can't be far behind." She smiled. "I've been wanting to go mad for years, and get it over with. But I haven't the heart to put it upon you two, no matter how much you've tried. One of these days I'll just let the bird take over and get us good and murdered, and that will take care of things nicely. Your husband might understand, a little. But he's drawn lucky cards---a decent city, a lovely wife, and something resembling a family. It won't happen to him. He'll go out in high style---as will you, I'm sure. But, as I said, a nice madness is what's appropriate. And now," she said, inhaling, "it's time I stopped alarming you and got some sleep."
     "Please do," I said weakly.

I didn't leave the tent again that night. I couldn't bear to.


(c) Covielle and Harley Quinn 2000