Published on behalf of Ga_Elle (author on AO3). For any details about the story, search it on Archive of Our Own with the same title.
I am not a stranger to the dark,
Hide away, they say,
'Cause we don't want your broken parts.
I've learned to be ashamed of all my scars,
Run away, they say,
No one'll love you as you are. – This is me, from "the greatest showman", 2017.
Holt had never been a fan of the dark, but he'd learned to really despise the nights ever since he went to war and the darkness had become the epitome of fear. He could always hear the distant blast of cannon into his ears, every sudden light made his blood run cold at the memory of the guns being shot and sometimes the echo of the fireworks captured his heart into an iron grip.
Ever since he'd returned to the circus, he'd never felt really home. His children had grown immensely, even without him, and seeing them happy and busy with their own interests had made him feel quite useless; then, of course, his wife wasn't there to welcome him back. A common flu, they said. Many had died of the most simple diseases in the fields, but he thought that maybe it could be different for them. He was wrong because the Medici Circus had had no money, not even to buy medicines.
Life could've been so different if he had never left for war, if he'd made more money with his wife or if only Dumbo had come sooner or even Vandevere with his dreadful business which brought, nonetheless, welfare.
Things had gone the way they'd gone and his wife was dead and his children had become a young independent lady and a cheerful and hopeful young lad.
Little Dumbo had brought their little family back together and Vandevere, though unwillingly, had brought him a bright new future: with his downfall, the new Medici Circus had risen.
He loved the new acts, his old fellow companions merged with their new performers, but what he liked most about the improvements, were the ones brought to his horse show.
At first, he couldn't quite put his fingers on what exactly could be, and he considered that maybe it was the black stallion he had to ride or maybe that now his targeted balloons were flying and moving, or perhaps, yes, it was catching Colette as she descended from her ring and take her cantering around the small arena as she waved at the audience with her elegant and gleaming smile.
Maybe what he really enjoyed was the bond he had to create with her during the various rehearsals, since apparently, she had never ridden a horse before and staying on an elephant's back as it flew through the air, was different from actually riding an animal.
He found out that Colette was really good and caring with his horse. He'd watched several times as she quietly talked to him, stroking his dark fur as she did with Dumbo right before the show; at first, he thought she was doing so just because she was forced to bond with the little elephant, being the calf the main part of her new, imposed act, but now she had no reason to fake her kindness toward the animals, nor toward his kids.
Milly and Joe seemed to adore her and she often stayed with them, reading, teaching them things, telling them about Paris and France and the places she'd seen.
Colette had seemed to compensate the absence of their mother without any forced intrusion and the kids had accepted her cares immediately and with enthusiasm: she provided them love and kindness, things that for some reason were inaccessible for him at the time. It hurt him being unable to be the father they once had. They deserved much better than him as a parent figure.
He paced quietly around his tent and peeked inside to see that none of the lights were on. He sighed, while a timid smiled started to crept through his lips as he imagined exactly where they could be.
Holt looked up at the black sky to see the almost full moon staring back at him, telling things he couldn't quite understand yet. Maybe one day, everything would become clear, their lives would be back to normal, maybe even better than before.
He inhaled sharply the cool air and walked with a steady pace toward the closest tent.
He could almost make out her shadow projecting upon the pale fabric of the curtain. Without even knowing it, Holt was smiling to himself; he could always sense a certain good feeling whenever he had to go to her, whether it was for a new idea to improve their acts or to ask her an advice about his kids – even if she hadn't any, she was a natural with them, always having a nice word or a comforting smile when they need one. Even if he missed his wife dearly, Colette knew how to give them the warmness they sought for and should rightfully have.
Holt cleared his throat before entering the tent, pushing slightly the curtain away as he peeked inside. His eyes struggled to adapt at the poor light, but he could easily find the lit candle on the table bathing the whole area with a flickering, dim glow.
He spotted the small bed almost immediately, but he couldn't quite figure out the confused clump of bodies intertwined with each other.
"Shht." Whispered Colette with a sweet smile, her forefinger delicately pressed on her lips.
She still had a book on her chest, a collection of French fairy tales she translated for them each night when they asked her to. It was kind from her and she didn't mind, apparently.
Colette seemed to be trapped between Milly's body, who had fallen asleep at the feet of her bed, clutching the woman's legs as they were some sort of teddy bear, and Joe's one, who had apparently collapsed atop of Colette with his head unceremoniously slouching on her lap.
It was a pretty adorable image, he had to admit, but there was something inside him that made his stomach turn in guilt. Maybe it wasn't right to leave such a burned on her, when Colette wasn't their mother. Perhaps she wanted her privacy and was too kind to speak up for herself, fearing she might be seen as rude - like that was even possible.
Holt sighed, somewhat mortified, and began to massage his own scalp as he thought of the best way to move them away to bring them in their own tent and leave Colette to her earned rest. Perhaps he could spare Joe and carry him, but with just one arm it was impossible to lift Milly also without waking them both. Yes, despite her delicate appearance, Colette was strong and maybe she could help him.
"What are you thinking?"
Holt rose his head when he heard the woman's whisper. His features softened instantly when he noticed she was smiling.
He shifted uneasily from one foot to the other before talking.
"Just – that they seem to spend more time here than in our tent." He confessed, a timid smirk creeping from his lips.
The steady noise of the kids' breaths was a soothing sound and he couldn't ignore that her face, especially when she was smiling, was able to do the trick too. Why, he didn't know.
"I think they miss our little ami elephant." Said Colette with the same, dim voice and he felt his heart flutter when he saw her hand searching blindly for Joe and once it had laid atop of his head, her fingers started to brush his hair distractedly. "Besides, they keep me company." She added.
It was a realization he wasn't ready to take in: of course, he knew that taking care of the kids wasn't a burden for her, and yet, somehow, it didn't occur to him that Colette sought for their company too. Yes, she had her former colleagues from Dreamland, even though they didn't seem to know each other very well and new fellow companions from the Medici Circus who she could consider friends, but apart from that, she was alone.
She had no family member like anyone else had: the Chinese contortionist were a three-generation family, the acrobats were all relatives and the ones not related by blood they were bound by love. She had none.
"You must feel lonely sometimes." Offered Holt with a sympathetic smile.
Colette stared silently at him for a long moment. Her eyes had grown sad, the sparkle within her blue iris turning darker as she exhaled softly, but he couldn't tell for sure, for the light was poor and deceiving.
For an instant, he thought she would answer him yes; yet, soon after, she shook softly her head. Although she was still smiling, it was not the same.
"I'm not alone." Her voice was low, but at some point, it cracked. Colette seemed to mind that little fail in her whisper and swallowed quickly a lump in her throat.
Holt could feel she was lying on some level. She may be surrounded by people, ones of her kind, but she felt alone anyhow – the kids, maybe they were the only ones who provided her some sort of normality. Did she even know what a normal life was? Well, neither his kids did, and they were happy. Perhaps Colette could find her happiness too, some day, with them.
All in good time.
Holt sighed again, bending slightly down to watch closer their tangled bodies until he heard her soft giggle: it was clear that it was almost impossible for them to move the kids without waking them up.
"We should just merge the tents." He commented with a diverted snort, to which she agreed with a nod.
Then she froze, holding her breath as Joe began to stir.
"Yeah, let's do that." He mumbled in his sleep, curling even tighter to Colette's body. Holt shared yet another sweet giggle with her and she returned to brush his hair to get him back to sleep.
"You should just leave them here." Suggested Colette with a soft twitch of her nose.
She was in a tight spot to fall asleep and her back must've been sore already, but she made her best effort to lower herself into her bed and seek a more comfortable position.
Holt stood dumbly for a second, seriously considering her suggestion.
"Are you sure?" He asked with a furrowed brow.
"Bien sûr. I don't mind." Assured the woman, stretching her hand to place the closed book on the table.
Holt straightened his back to look at them one last time before returning to his lonely tent.
It would be a curious feeling knowing that his kids were sleeping somewhere else and at the same time he was glad that Colette was watching over them, brushing their nightmares away – which didn't seem to occur anyway when she was around.
He sighed and offered a sincere smile at her.
"Alright then." He yielded. "Goodnight, Colette." He whispered, restraining himself from the urge of offering her more: a hug, a caress, a kiss on the forehead, but maybe it was inadequate. A mere thanks would not be enough to compensate for everything she was doing for his mending, yet still broken three-members clan.
"Douce nuit, Holt." She whispered back.
Holt smiled again, blowing on the candle to let the soothing darkness cascade on them, carrying their minds into the sweetest land of dreams.
Perhaps, one day, they could walk those happy fields together... and, why not, as a family too.
*Bien sûr= of course
*Douce nuit= good night