A Twilight Dawn

     Abigail makes a wondrous ointment that soothes pains and aids quick healing of any wounds. It was this ointment I had massaged gently into Francoise's cut, and although it was still deep, and the skin had not finished bonding, I knew Francoise would not be here at the end of two weeks to see if Clopin would keep his end of the deal. I did not, however, expect that when I awoke the corner where Francoise had lived with us would be empty, it's shadows retreating in upon itself and a silence hanging heavily over it. Alarmed, I leapt out of bed, not failing to note Clopin was not beside me. I hastily pulled a wrap around my shoulders, not bothering to get dressed although I knew it could cause me trouble. Then I was out and running hastily through the Court, towards the furthermost exit, far beyond the Center, the exit that leads to the outskirts of Paris.
     It was early morning and the Court was silent, still and very dark. A few dogs worried scraps at the corners of tents, and I heard the uncomfortable scurrying of rats, but I kept going until a dull grey light signalled my destination. I exited the Court and looked about me frantically, shivering in the early morning chill. The sun had not yet risen, but was threatening to break on the horizon. It was in this gloamy light that I caught sight of a solitary figure, making his slow way down the road, a canvas sack flung over her shoulder. A heavy, waist-length cloak kept him from the morning air, and a wide-brimmed, well-worn hat covered his face. And from the base of the hat emerged the single, slender, blood red feather.
     "Hie!" I called out. I thought I saw the figure pause, but he did not turn around. With an agitated sigh I took up running, my feet pounding hard on the ground, gaining on the figure who made no attempt to either stop or move faster.
     I fell into step by her side, panting from my exertion, glaring at Francoise who continued to merely look ahead, walking slowly. As we moved through the dim purple of the air, it seemed we were the only two creatures alive. For a moment I didn't say anything, just held back my hair from my neck, the slight sweat I had worked up in running now turning cold in the morning air, and continued to shoot angry looks at Francoise as we walked together. She was unpreturbed, her eyes focused hard on the road in front of her, her wonderful profile sharp and clear against the soft grey trees.
     Finally, I stomped in front of her, throwing out my arms to block her path. "Well? You weren't going to say goodbye?"
     She did me the courtesy of stopping, and the look she gave me was gentle. "Would it really have made a difference, Herli?"
     Angry tears sprang up in my eyes and I stamped a foot on the ground. I wanted to put my arms around her and somehow soothe everything away.
     "Of course it would've!"
     "What do you mean, what? What difference would it make? It would make me feel as though these last week and a half hasn't been a dream, it would make me feel as though I actually meant something to you!"
     A look of agitation washed swiftly over her features. "Do you have to have a profound effect on everyone you meet?"
     "Do you? You shouldn't talk, crazy bird. And did you have to play with my feelings like that?"
     She smiled suddenly. "Good lord, if that didn't take you awhile. Here was your husband, yammering about how I was playing with you, and now, one foot in the next province and eyes towards the horizon, I'm asked 'did you have to play with my feelings like that'! Herli, it didn't mean that much to you. You and I both know Clopin's the one in your heart, and I merely inspired a curiosity, perhaps perverse, but just a curiosity."
     "No no no!!" I was getting more and more frustrated. "No that wasn't it at all!! And I bet you know that too" I jabbed an accusing finger at her, and she caught my hand in hers, rubbing her thumb against my wrist and urging me a little closer, lifting my arm so I could feel her warm breath against my flesh. Instantly I shivered, not from the cold, but from the desire to take another step closer.
     "Voila," she said softly. "Within a week you'll have forgotten the physical attraction, and I'll be a vaguely disturbing memory, a quirky madwoman who disrupted your otherwise peaceful life."
     I snatched my hand back. "Why do I get the feeling you're trying to convince yourself more than you are me?" I couldn't intepret what passed through her eyes then, but she shook her head firmly.
  "Herli, no matter what you think now, you'd change your mind very quickly after a week of myself and the Bird - you couldn't even survive an afternoon at my pace, remember?" She chuckled, the brim's shadow covering her eyes. Her face straightened after a moment. "And you've stirred up somebody who's best left unstirred."
   "Bah! I'd enjoy every second and come back for more." I said obnoxiously, and her eyes started out from the shadow. "I already did once!" I pointed out. She stayed still for a long moment, then finally released a sigh, nodding.
     "Yes, you did. To your credit, if you can call it a good thing, that's never been done before. Maybe that's why I up and left so rudely - you're in danger of cracking a sea of eggshells." Again she paused and her eyes ran over me. "And maybe I like you too much to want that to happen."
     I met her eyes with mine, holding them stubbornly. "I'm not afraid of you, Francoise."
     She grinned. "No, I know you're not afraid of me."
  "I'm not afraid of the Bird, either." "
  You should be afraid of everything that lives beneath this hat," she said offhandedly, smiling still.    I didn't answer that.
   "I just wish you had stayed to say goodbye."
     "Perhaps I was concerned over what Clopin would do when he discovered your latest body art. In the fashionable shades of black and blue."
     I narrowed my eyes at her. "You're a fool if you think I believe that. I did notice Clopin wasn't there when I awoke."
     "No. He awoke when I did, and very courteously assisted my leaving."
     My blood boiled and I clenched my fists at my side. "Oh, really?"
     "Now, don't be angry at him - he was thinking of you, believe it or not. I can't say I particularly blame him for wanting me out."
     "He shouldn't act on my behalf! Perhaps I wanted you to stay!"
    "This conversation is beginning to make me dizzy. It goes only in circles."
     I bit my lip hard and swallowed tears. "I should come with you, just to teach you both a lesson!" I snapped childishly and she laughed. "Why don't you then?"
     "Ooh! You're so difficult to get along with!"
    "Ha! Precisely! Imagine what it would be like if I really played games with you. At the end of our journey you'd be crazy."
     "Then we'd make a lovely couple."
     The smile softened.
     "Well, come along then, little kitten. Lets see if you can handle it." She sped her pace, boots again raising dust. It wasn't a serious invitation but I pouted at her. "You know I can't leave Clopin. I don't want to leave Clopin, I'm happy with him."
     "Have you ever heard of something called a coin? The two sides can't meet. Fascinating concept, isn't it? Silly girl."
    I clenched my fists. "I don't know! I don't know what I want right now. I don't know what to think about it all."
    She smiled down on me. "Like I said, what a silly girl. Your mind is already made. Go home to your lovely young husband, daft creature. I know why I feel what I feel, sometimes I even pretend to understand what I do, but you're still learning which way is up and which is down. Somehow, in a few years' time I don't think you'll still be quite so content to languish about the Court, chattering and fidgeting. And I imagine you never expected a woman to crash into your thoughts, either. Makes it hard, doesn't it, knowng that you're not the one with the reins?"
     It almost drove me mad then, to see that all-knowing grin quirk one side of her face, accentuating the lines there. Yes, I was young and naive and on and on and on, but did she have to behave so exceptionally superior about it? And damnit all, I was still drunk on everything that was beneath that strange head, and I wished hard for her to stay - and for her to leave, for I didn't want to make a cuckold of my adored husband...
     "There's a positive mistiness to those pretty eyes of yours, Herli." Her amused voice broke my tangled little chain of thoughts. "You're not, perhaps, regretting you didn't act upon your baser instincts while I was still around to enjoy them?"
That did it for me. She hadn't been around so long that I couldn't surprise her yet! My heartbeat became a flurry of activity, and I pounced on her, wrapping one arm around her waist and the other behind her neck, pulling her high head down to mine. Then I kissed her. It was not the friendly peck I dropped on Colombine's forehead, nor the loving press I pushed against Abigail's cheek. It was certainly not the protective murmur I placed against my daughter's hair when she lay in my arms. I kissed Francoise the way I kissed Clopin, opening her mouth with mine and pushing my heart into it.
     For a second her lips were cold, then they came to life, kissing me back, and her wonderful hands were coaxing me closer by the waist so that my body pressed up against hers. I ran my other arm up around her neck and for a long while - somehow not nearly long enough - we stood together. I was unable to ignore the fact it was another woman I was pressed against - the feel of her was completely different, the hips and angled, tapering waistline- but it only made the whole moment more delicious, more intoxicating.
     At some point I became aware I was no longer the one leading the kiss, but it hardly seemed to matter. Her black hair had a fine coarseness to it which slipped quickly through my fingers, and her mouth had a sweet-salty taste, her lips warm but her tongue cold. Oh, it was completely different from kissing Clopin, though there was a degree of that intensity. Gradually, I recognised the hunger in the embrace; it was not the call for pure love that was answered when I was with my husband, but a need - a need for another to acknowledge something within ourselves neither of us could bother to name. It didn't have much to do with sex, in the end - more so on her part, maybe.
     Does it matter, in the end, Herli?
     When she released me finally I stumbled back a little, realising she had been supporting my body the whole time, and I blinked and let out a long, hard breath.
     Well, I'd surprised myself at any rate.
      I could feel the blood pounding hard in my cheeks, and I'm sure my eyes were bright as I looked up at her, she smiling masterfully down at me. But I wasn't so dazed I couldn't see a different respect in her eyes - she hadn't expected it, and I had had my way.
     "Well, I'm sure no kitten's ever mauled a bird in such a way before," she said softly, and I shook my head quickly.
     "I'm sure no bird's ever pawed back!" I retorted and she laughed.
     "Are you sorry you didn't try it earlier?"
     I leapt forward and grasped her hands again. "I want to take you back to my tent right now and pervert nature thoroughly!" Her eyes widened with something akin to surprise. "But I don't want to, either." I let her hands go again, turning to shake my hair behind my shoulders and get a hold of myself. "I've come to care about you despite myself - despite yourself - Francoise, but I love my husband. Clopin - " I outstretched my hands, as though the answer was held within them. " - he makes me right. I can't think of any other way to describe it. He makes life coherent, whereas I think you would only disrupt it. As much as I long for you - for all of you - at the end of it, there'd only be three very hurt people. Or perhaps five?" I cocked an eyebrow, and she gave me a tight smile with her hands crossed over her breast.
     "No, only three."
     "Three then. I don't want even one. Least of all, Clopin."
     "Lucky fool, to have one so devoted to him. And smart girl, finally realizing her own realization. There's hope for you yet - the both of you."
     It was my turn to cross my arms over my breast and cock the other eyebrow. "Is that an edge of sardony, lovely ibis?"
     "Not at all." she came forward and cupped my cheek in one of her hands,her strong fingers pressing against my flesh, looking down at me gently.
     "Have you ever done that before, Francoise?"
     "Ah!" her hand dropped back to her side and she turned away with a short laugh. "Just when I think I could bear you on an extended basis, you begin with your inquiries again! But in exchange for your generous hospitality - in all ways - I'll give you half an answer. I've not done that before - like I just did with you. And that will have to suffice."
     The sun had broken over the horizon and was flushing the surrounding countryside with a warm glow. The spell that had been cast by the silver-grey morning was being torn slowly apart like cobwebs. Soon, Paris would awaken and come to life, bidding her on and myself back.I could still feel her lips on mine, the taste of her on my tongue. My cheeks were still flushed, and the way she glanced at me from the side then made me step forward and put my arms around her neck again, pushing myself against her.
     "I don't want you to go."
     "In the beginning," she said dryly, "there was the end." But she put her arms around my waist again.
     I tilted my head upwards, inviting a kiss but she only shook her head. "Once more." I whispered. "Before you leave me for good."
     She leant forward and shook her head again, her nose brushing mine lightly with the movement.
     "Once more," she said softly, her lips hovering just inches above mine "and it won't end with a kiss."
     I trembled with indecision in her arms. I held her tight against me for a moment, resting my chin on her shoulder, then pulled away. Her smile was quiet, and her movement slow as she pushed hair away from her face. "I thought so." but it might've been regret in her eyes.
     She turned, and left. If anybody saw us, they saw a gypsy man giving his lover a farewell embrace, then striding off into the dust.

     I never heard of her again.


(c) Covielle and Harley Quinn 2000