La Mort Rit En Dernier

Chapter Eight

Clopin had been considerably unnerved by his encounter with The Joker, and made his way quickly to the Lotta Wine Tavern. Shaking off his discomfort quickly, he entered ostentatiously, calling out greetings to the people he knew, vigorously kissing each of the barmaids who laughed and swatted him, before finally sitting down, removing his hat and running one of his large hands through his hair with a sigh. He ordered a tankard of beer and gulped it down quickly, then asked for another. At least things were going to plan, he mused to himself. Never mind the maniac. He won't succeed in his scheme. 
Behind him the tavern door burst open, slamming against the wall with a shudder, letting in the sounds of the wind and cheerful voices from outside. Clopin raised an eyebrow as he gazed into his drink. Someone was rather upset. The tavern door slammed shut again, closing off the outside noise, and quick light steps hurried themselves over to him before two shaky arms encircled his waist in relief and a head leaned against his back. Turning around in some astonishment, and with difficulty as his embracer would not loosen her grip, he was surprised to find Mirage, clinging to him and shaking.
"Mira!" he exclaimed in relief and considerable concern, and swept her small form into his arms. "Whats wrong, darling?" 
Mirage gave another shudder and controlled herself. The girl rarely let tears get the better of her, and this instance was no exception. Taking a few deep breaths she rested her head against Clopins' chest gratefully, and let herself be soothed by gentle hands stroking her dark head. Clopin was not renowned for his patience, however, and cupping her face in his hands lifted it to look into her eyes. "What's wrong with you?" he questioned gently and playfully in an attempt to get her back to herself. "You're only like this once a year, and it's not that time yet!"
Mirage sat up a little, resting both hands on Clopin's shoulders. "I know, I know. Clopin, I've just seen the most awful sight of my life!!!!"
Concern again leapt in his chest, and he pulled his friend closer. "Are you all right? What was it?"
She nodded. "I'm fine. Can we go back home? I need to be somewhere that feels safe." 
Clopin nodded, laid a few coins on the bar for his drinks, then hustled Mirage out of the tavern. Outside, the weather had turned, as was common with August, and the wind was blowing wildly, with a considerable bite to it. It was coming to late afternoon, and the citizens of Paris were rushing about their last duties, eager to get back home and out of the fierce wind which ripped at their hair and clothes and blew dust into their eyes. Clopin put an arm around Mirage and the two hurried through the streets, careful of potential pursuers, before coming to one of the hidden entrances to the Court of Miracles, a small sewer opening. Clopin lowered his long body in carefully, then held up his arms for Mirage to jump into. A few minutes later they were safe and warm in the Court, empty apart from the children who ran quickly back to the tents at the adult's arrival, not willing for any of their mischief to be discovered. 
Clopin hurried Mirage into his tent, running another large hand through her hair, and getting her a little drink of wine. Although outwardly she was the picture of calm, and her usual good humor, Clopin knew his friend far too well to be fooled. She sipped the red wine gratefully, looking over the brim of her glass at Clopin with large mellow eyes. Clopin again felt that peculiar knot in his stomach, and leaned on the back of a chair, watching her carefully.
Mirage gave him a look that was meant to be furious, but came out as a lopsided grin. "Where on earth were you all day, Gypsy Fool? I spent hours trying to find you in my frenzied state! I went to the tavern three times."
He grinned at her and shrugged. "I've been all over the city today, sweet. I've had a lot of work to do, and two disobedient gypsy girls to track down."
He furrowed his forehead meaningfully at her and she pulled a face at him. "You know I will never obey your foolish orders, 'King'," she said, unconcerned."I know too many of your deep dark secrets to treat you like a boss!" She looked at him slyly. "Like escapades with tiger tails and other related foolishness."
He grinned at her again. "Hey, you know I love that tail! Don't bring up any of that rubbish! And besides, Mira, when I tell you to do something, it's to keep you safe, darling." 
Mirage wrinkled her nose. "I hate it when you're like this. Can't you act like yourself again?" 
Clopin frowned at her. "No, damnit. I met our enemy today, and it hasn't sat well on my stomach to know you and your pixie friend have been running the streets with him about."
Mirage remembered why she had been so anxious to find Clopin, and the smile fell from her face. Clopin pulled a chair over to her and sat down, clutching his hands in hers. "What did you see, today, Mirage?"
"I saw him," she said dully. "I saw the magik he uses. It's true. What those women said. It makes people laugh, they cannot stop themselves. They laugh like madmen, Clopin." Mirage's eyes were shining, and Clopin hastily put a hand on her cheek. Mirage would never let her tears fall, and he didn't know how to react if they did now. "I couldn't stand it, I had to get away." 
Clopin pondered for a moment. "What about Irea?" 
Mirage's chin trembled. "I don't know, we agreed to split up. I don't know where she is, I haven't seen her anywhere." 
The girl gulped hard, and breathed deeply again. Crying never helped. Clopin, thankfully, had pulled her to him again. He didn't particularly want her to cry either, worried about the effect it would have on him. Concern for Irea was beating in his skull, but the little dark-haired girl in his arms was a welcome presence. Mirage was his very best friend, and he wasn't sure how life would go on without her. He hated it when she was upset, which was thankfully rare, and would do anything he could to keep her her usual, smiling, prank-pulling self. Was it Mirage who made him feel so strange? In a way, it would make sense. Inseparable since childhood, it seemed sensible that these feelings would be a natural progression from their close bond. Mirage was beautiful and clever and a lot of fun. And his best friend. When he thought about it he really would rather spend time with her than with one of his women.
Stroking her hair, he cupped a hand under her chin and lifted her face to look at him. Her eyes widened in surprise at the expression on his face. "Clopin, why on earth are you looking at me like that?"
Well, he would have to find out sooner or later. This would be the best way to do it. Stroking her cheek, he lowered his face to hers and kissed her. Mirage's eyes boggled open in surprise, but she didn't pull away. She couldn't think of a single reason for Clopin kissing her like this - like he kissed his women - but in a way it was comforting. After a moment she closed her eyes and kissed him back. Her arms went up around his neck and his were around her waist and for a long while the two friends held onto each other and kissed passionately.
For a while the world faded out and they concentrated on each other's mouths, exploring the one thing they knew nothing about the other. If he tries to get me over to the bed I'll have to kick him though, Mirage thought. She didn't think Clopin would do that, but one could not always be sure with the Gypsy King. Slowly, they drew apart and looked at each other hesitatingly. 
After a moment, Mirage laughed and ran a hand through her hair. "Why Clopin, why didn't you tell me before?" she said teasingly, though her heart beat fast. As nice as the kiss was, she hoped there wasn't anything behind it, except a moment of over-enthusiastic friendship. She didn't feel that way about Clopin, and wouldn't know what to do if he did. 
Clopin, meanwhile, was feeling more confused than ever. Kissing Mirage had been lovely, and had answered a question he'd often asked himself (what it would be like to kiss his best friend), but it had also become clear that he wasn't in love with Mirage, and didn't want her in that capacity either. Irea then? An image of the pretty, snub-nosed gypsy-faerie girl ran through his head. She was wonderful, but she'd been around for such a short time. Clopin's fazed state faded as he thought he would simply have to find out the way he had with Mirage. He tousled his friend's hair and grinned down at her. "A kiss can be the most soothing means of comfort, darling Mira. You know I would do anything for my best friend."
She was relieved. "I'm sure, either that or just an excuse for a kiss. At least it shut you up for a while." 
Clopin tweaked her nose. "Ah, but not for long! Enough of this, at any rate. Our people are working hard on the streets above us, you and I should join them. Let's go and find Irea!"
Mirage put her hands on her hips and grinned triumphantly. "So I have the King's permission to do something, eh?" 
He waggled a finger at her. "So long as you don't leave my side!" 
They laughed together and kissed again, this time a chaste and only friendly peck. 

Joker kicked open the door of the small cottage he'd "borrowed" for a while. "Honey, I'm home!" he shouted cheerfully, and danced into the warm, cozy living room where three frightened figures gazed fearfully at him, and one glared.
The glaring one was Irea, tightly tied up and lying on the floor. The other three were the houses's residents, a man, his wife and their child. All three were tightly bound to armchairs in the room. They'd been having their midday meal when their strange guest had burst in, dragging the gypsy girl by her hair. Frightened by the man's height, his glowering and evil smile, and his strange manner of speech, they'd quickly given in when Joker had proved his adeptness in knocking the man out as he rose to defend his family. He leered down at Irea who struggled against her bonds, unable to use her magik with her hands tied up.
"Aw, why so cranky, cutie-pie? We're gonna play a game now!!!!"
Hoisting Irea up unmercifully by her hair, he sat her down on another small wooden chair and pulled the gag out of her mouth. She spat at him ferociously and tried to bite his hand but he pulled it away and waggled a finger at her. "Naughty naughty! You're breaking one of the rules, and believe me, you don't wanna do that."
Irea refused to say anything, just glared from her angry black eyes. Joker perched on the edge of the table and smiled at his captives. "Now the game we're gonna play folks, is called 'Three Questions'. And it works like this. I ask our lovely little gypsy friend here a question, and then she answers it."
"The hell I will!" Irea finally spoke up. Joker pulled a face of mock horror. "Now say, are you trying to cop out here? You don't wanna do that honey, cuz ya see, if you're gonna ruin it for everybody else, it's bye bye daddy first, then mommy, then sweet little tot. You see this?" Joker pulled out his shiny black object. "This is called a gun. I'm gonna show you what it does now, and I'm sure you'll be dying to play along once I have." Joker shot the man between the eyes. The impact knocked the armchair back onto the floor, and the man's head lolled sickeningly, his eyes glazing over. His wife and child widened their eyes, and struggled hard against their bonds, trying to scream through their gags. Irea just stared, her mouth open slightly, not believeing this strange, dangerous weapon. 
Joker coughed. "Hmm...better make that 'Two Questions'." 

In the Vicomtesse's carriage, Harley watched Ginevra through suspicious eyes,her arms folded across her breasts, as the wind beat hard against the thin glass of the windows. "So, how you gonna get me back to Puddin'?" she demanded.
The Vicomtesse raised her imperious gaze to Harley and brushed it over the girl's face. If Harley had been sane, she might've been intimidated by this look, but she wasn't so she just glared back. "The Joker is coming to the Palace of Justice this evening," she lied glibly to the girl. "If you come back there with me, you'll be in a position to apologise for your folly and win back his affection."
Harley's forehead creased. Man the chick talked weird. But Harley understood enough to know that she could meet up with Puddin' tonight and be blissfully reunited with her one true love. Harley couldn't figure it. This chick had seemed like a totally cold fish last night. Certainly not the kind to do something outta the goodness of her heart, like Columbine. So how come she was being so nice to Harls now? "So, you came out all along the streets today to find me and tell me this?" she asked in suspicous confusion.
The Vicomtesse delicately raised her eyebrows. "By no means. You have to do something for me as well."
HA!!! She KNEW it! Harley grinned smugly. "Oh yeah? Like what?"
The Vicomtesse smiled cattily. "You have to give me some information. For example, tell me what your lover really has planned for the city." 
Harley gaped. "HELLO! You already know! Yer boyfriend's in on it, remember? Yeesh!" 
The Vicomtesse's smile faded quickly. "Don't play games with me, child. If you think I trust that lunatic for a second, then you're quite mistaken. Now tell me the entire truth." 
Harley pouted. Everyone was trying to bully her these days!!! Well, she wasn't gonna tell this woman ANYTHING, nuh-uh! "Look, Belladonna," she said cockily with a matter-of-fact expression. "I - "
The Vicomtesse's iron grip encircled Harley's wrist, and her eyes blazed furiously at her. "What did you just call me?"
"OUCH! Hey let go, ya buxom bully!" 
The Vicomtesse's face was a hard cold mask, but she loosened her grip. "What kind of game are you playing now?" The Vicomtesse glowered at Harley. "You have no right to take such a liberty. Address me as the Vicomtesse, and nothing else." 
Harley pulled a mimicking face, but changed it quickly under the Vicomtesse's stare. She did a mock salute. "Yes sir! Er, I mean 'ma'am'!!" Harley was feeling very cross and very naughty. This chick reminded her of some school teacher she'd had back in the seventh grade. Well, she wasn't going to tell her anything. Coughing in pretend politeness Harley began again. "Well, Vicomtesse, all I can tell ya is this! Puddin wants to paint the city green and purple so it'll match him. That way it'll make great camouflage when the King of the Potato People leads the Spud Patrol down the green green grass of home to attack him and OUCH!" 
The Vicomtesse's hand whipped out like lightening and slapped Harley hard. Too amazed to even react, Harley clasped her stinging cheek and gaped at the Vicomtesse. The Vicomtesse spoke in a biting voice. "I warned you not to play games with me. Now you can either tell me everything you know, or you can wait in the dungeons for your lover to join you tomorrow."
Harley's eyes widened even more. "WHAT?" She demanded "Dungeons? Yer gonna put my Puddin' in the DUNGEONS, didja just say?" 
Being unable to take Harley seriously had worked against the Vicomtesse, and certain of the girl's idiocy she continued without compunction now. "That's right. Your lover is a lunatic, so are you, the dungeons are where you both belong." 
Harley's eyes were blazing as furiously as the Vicomtesse's. "The heck with that!" she screeched, and punched the Vicomtesse hard in the face, before wrenching the still moving carriage door open and leaping down onto the streets, ducking through the crowds, and quickly down a side alley.
The startled and shocked Vicomtesse sat up dazedly, clutching her mouth where Harley had hit her, and recoiling at the sight of blood on her hands. Rapping furiously at the small window between herself and Erik she screeched. "Don't just sit there looking like an idiot! Go after her!"
But Harley had disappeared.

Columbine was thinking hard. Stop Joker's plan. But should she somehow get Joker to bump off Clopin? Columbine had gone down to the Court of Miracles as Harley had told her to do, and stopped at Trouillefou's tent to see him in a highly passionate and very involved embrace with his friend, Mirage. The sight had made Columbine exceedingly unhappy. Trouillefou had deliberately tugged Harley's heartstrings and Columbine did not feel particularly inspired to help him. She'd left the Court and decided to make her own way about the city, doing what she saw fit. The hell with the gypsies. She'd do what she could to help Harley and that was it. 
Columbine caught a glimpse of a familiar carriage rolling past, and darted forward gracefully to peer quickly in it's windows before moving swiftly on. The imperious woman was alone, with one hand over her cheek and a furious expression on her face. Columbine was glad; she hadn't trusted that woman one whit. But where was Harley now? Back in the Court? Looking for Columbine? Columbine's brow creased. She didn't want to leave Harley wondering where she was, but she also did not want to return to the Court. Maybe Columbine should simply cut a few corners and track down Joker herself. She could stop his plan, then find Harley and the three of them could happily go back to the twentieth century and forget this filthy place. Columbine found this to be an excellent plan.

Joker's victims had long since been discovered and the people of Paris were panicking and heading indoors at a frenzied pace to barricade their doors and kneel beneath crosses praying frantically. Those who did not were beating on the doors of the Cathedral and the Palace of Justice and calling out for guards and prayers and answers. Those who did not previously know anything about the mysterious deaths quickly found out as they called out questions to their neighbours. But the Romany still patrolled the streets tirelessly, hunting down Joker's bombs, leaving no stone unturned in their pursuit. With the loss of their audience, the Romani gathered in groups in taverns or under trees or by fountains. The Rom children meanwhile, played cheerfully in the Court, delighted at being left alone for so long, running wild and doing things they would not normally dare. 
Inside his new cottage, Joker was unaware of what was happening outside on the streets. Irea wasn't given a chance to wonder. "First question, toots. Who's the gypsy with the purple mask and the big hat?"
Clopin??? Why did Joker want to know about Clopin?? She couldn't tell Joker anything!! But if she didn't - Joker's gun was pointed firmly at the Parisian's woman head, even as teers pooled around her gag, her eyes red-rimmed and terrified. She was a gadje. If she saw Irea on the streets she would be likely to shout at her to move on. But she was also just a woman - with a child.
"I'll give you the count of three, cutie. One - "
"The Gypsy King!" Irea blurted out. "He is our King, and he rules over us and protects us from the gadje."
Joker grinned. "His name?"
Irea looked into the woman's eyes and sighed. "Clopin." 
Joker winked. "Thanks, toots."
And blew the woman's head off.
"NO!" Irea screamed "You lied!!!!!"
Joker grinned sharkily. "I'm a notorious liar, doll. But to be fair, that was just to show you I mean business. You can still save little daughter though. Tell me what Clo-pahn has planned and I'll let you both go." 
Irea glared at him. "You just said you're a notorious liar."
Joker shrugged again. "Have it your way," he murmured and cocked his gun at the little girl's head. Irea took a risk and lied. "He and his men are planning to hunt you down and kill you. They've taken away all your weapons and have thrown them in the river." 
Joker felt really, really annoyed. These ignorant peasants had completely ruined a totally brilliant gag. Now how was he going to pay them out for that? Bad enough Clopin had ruined his beautiful hat today, now the Gypsy King looked as though he were going to get one up on Joker. Couldn't let that happen, now could we. He'd have to think of something really special for Clopin.
Irea took a deep breath and "volunteered" more information. "They have also taken hostage your woman, Harley Quinn."
Joker leapt up in astonishment. "What? They've got Harley Girl, didja say?" 
Irea nodded, glaring at him defiantly. "They've got her. They will kill her too." 
Joker frowned. Now, if anyone was going to kill ole Harls, it really should be him. These gypsy really were not playing by the rules. Joker thought for a moment, scratching his long nose. "So all men and women are up on the streets tracking down my little gas bombs, eh?" 
It seemed almost strange to ask that and Irea hesitated before nodding slowly. Her stomach plummeted when Joker's eyes lit up and a strangely satisifed smile tweaked the corners of his mouth. "Ya know, come to think of it, I haven't noticed any wide eyed, barefooted dirty-haired little gypsy child out on the streets today," he said quietly, almost to himself. Irea's eyes widened. "What's to bet they're all by their little lonesomes in your underground hideyhole, eh?"
Looking at Irea's horrified black eyes, Joker got his answer. Then he laughed.

Harley was racing along the streets, heedless of the Parisians who wailed at the cathedral doors, ignoring the gypsies who stared at her in astonishment. She had to find Mistah J and warn him that Frollo was gonna betray him!!! She couldn't believe this, Mistah J was supposed to betray Frollo!! Soooo not fair!!!!! Oh but by the time Frollo planned to betray Puddin, Puddin would already have betrayed Frollo and Frollo would be dead! Then Harley got confused. But wasn't she supposed to stop Mistah J's plan? Yes!! But then if she did, Puddin *couldn't* betray Frollo first! So she *did* have to find him, then they could just go back to Gotham, and try their luck with Ancient Rome or something. It seemed like a plan to Harley, and her mind made up, she darted down an alley way then shrieked out loud as two long, strong arms reached out and yanked her to the side. 
She was more than a little relieved to see Clopin, with a wide-eyed Mirage behind him, was the one who held her. "Clopin!" she said cheerfully "Hiya, how's it?"
"Where are you running to, Harley?" Clopin asked her pointedly, not loosening his grip. "Has something gone wrong, where's Columbine?"
"I don't have time to chat, good-lookin, really! I gotta stop Mistah J and warn him that Frollo's gonna betray him!"
Clopin's eyes widened at that and his eyebrows shot up. "Frollo? What are you talking about?"
Harley wriggled to get out of Clopin's grip. "NO time, sexy! I gotta go!" She wrenched herself free and looked up into Clopin's handsome brown face. Well, it was now or never!!!! "But before I do, I just gotta do this!" and throwing herself on Clopin she wrapped her legs around his waist and kissed him vigorously as he started back and put surprised hands on her back. Mmmm!! He did taste nice! Like spices and wine and other tangy stuff. And what a tongue! Almost as good as Puddin's!!!!! Finally she pulled free, gave the startled Clopin a grin and a wink, leapt down from his arms and resumed her sprint down the streets of Paris. Puddin' Puddin', where could he be? 
Clopin, meanwhile, stared dazedly after Harley's retreating bouncy form, and despite his concern and worry for Irea, couldn't help but wish he had taken the opportunity to know Harley a little better. The thought was knocked out of his mind by Mirage giving him a hard whack on the head. 
"Are we going to find Irea or not?" she snapped when Clopin blinked at her.
He shook his head vigourosly to clear it, then grinned down at Mirage. "Of course, you female fool!" 

© Harley Quinn, 2000 (harley_quinn@cheerful.com)
May not be reproduced without permission. 
 
 

On to Chapter 9!
 

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