Illya had always thought Napoleon would make the perfect clown—self-possessed, inventive, limber, able to carry off the silliest clothes with panache, doing pratfalls and last-minute saves, making people laugh with that incalculable charm.
In the small, down-at-heel European touring circus, band playing the plaintive Eastern European tunes he hadn't heard since childhood, his turn on the high wire safely over, he was seeing a side of his partner that he hadn't dreamed existed. In a drab street costume of exaggerated proportion, large shoes, high white collar, Napoleon had followed a golden butterfly dangled from the darkness above, almost catching it, climbing after it, watching as it fluttered away from him toward the canvas wall. Now he stood spotlit on a platform ten feet off the ground, hat on his heart, body silently yearning toward the silhouette of an eye-catching beauty that had appeared on the wall where the butterfly had vanished. As the silhouette beckoned, he swayed toward it, flute echoing his motion, leaning so far off the platform the audience held its collective breath, only to sway back to disappointed safety as the silhouette welcomed some other shadow.
The silhouette finally leaned over and pointed—the audience drew in a happy breath, the clown features formed an O! of joy—and another clown bounded up the little wooden stairs and disappeared behind the tent wall. The silhouette wound its shadowy arms around the newcomer as it drew down the shade, backlight winking off. The clown was left standing alone on his platform under the harsh light, the O! turned forlorn, becoming unbearable sadness as the light dimmed. When it brightened again, the clown was no longer there. Only the discarded shoes, supporting a heart-shaped flower which glimmered in the dark as the light faded.
The lights went back up and the band swung into an upbeat, peppery tune. Illya caught up with Napoleon as he went down to the end of the corridor to wait for the finale.
"Why don't you just make them laugh?" He couldn't tell Napoleon how hard that last disquieting image had hit him.
Napoleon shrugged, tall collar moving on his shoulders. "Not all clowns tell happy stories."
"You always tell me all your stories." The words burst out of Illya without thought and Napoleon turned round in the semi-dark of the canvas corridor and took him in his arms, hearing something more than Illya was saying. "What's wrong, love?" he asked softly.
"Don't ever do that to me." Illya snapped his mouth shut. It was too close to begging for a promise he knew neither could keep.
Napoleon smiled at him, but his eyes were sad. "I won't," he said. The fanfare for the finale tattered the air and he ran out with the rest of them, circling the ring, and Illya, watching, knew that someday one of them would not sway back to safety, that all that would be left would be the empty shoes no one else could fill.