The Ringmaster

Disclaimer: I do not and never will own Batman, the Joker, Harley Quinn, and all of the wonderful inventions that Bob Kane and others have come up with over the years. I'm just borrowing them to play with. That said, certain elements of this particular narrative do belong to me, so you know the drill- no taking without permission, no uncredited/undisclaimed copying, etc, etc. Enjoy!

Summary: Harley wants the Joker. The Joker wants Batman. Batman's busy trying to corral Gotham's newest crime lord, Oswald Cobblepot… and Cobblepot seems strangely invested in Harley. It's a circus out there in Gotham's underworld, but fortunately for Harley Quinn, she's got the best guide a girl could ask for—even if he DOES seem to be trying to get her killed half the time. Sequel to Bad Jokes.

Author's Note: Wow. Um. I kind of don't know what to say, though I know there are things I need to talk about leading into this. It's been five years and a day since the completion of Bad Jokes, three years since Malady, and I've been promising a follow-up—basically, I've been taking my sweet time (which is a casual way of saying that it can be hard to keep promises in a timely fashion when one is busy writing an original novel, getting a degree, finding a career, and adding sisters-in-law to the family every year/trying to find time to visit said family). It's been a busy few years, and very fruitful ones, but I've keenly felt my neglect of this arena and all of you. When I said I was going to write a full-length follow-up, I always meant it, and so finally, I'm here to make good. All there is left to say is that I thoroughly hope it'll prove worth the wait (I have my doubts, which I'm trying to squash) and give you some…

Housekeeping Notes: Obviously, for those of you who haven't read Bad Jokes (and to a lesser extent, its partner piece, Malady), let me redirect you to my profile, since this story won't make much sense without having first gone through those. Now,someday I'll draw a timeline of approximate events starting with the Joker's first appearance in the Dark Knight and going on through all the Bad Jokesverse stories, but for now: this story takes place about six-seven months after Malady. Harley has known the Joker for about a year now. This 'verse is skewed slightly in that it splits somewhat from Nolan's canon post Dark Knight—as of right now, these stories are incompatible with the events of The Dark Knight Rises and Batman is not retired (which makes his life very difficult given that people are firing at him from both sides).

Given that the events of this story are related from Harley's first person perspective with occasional third person sections told from the Joker's point of view, I encourage everyone to bear in mind that neither Harley Quinn nor the Joker are reliable narrators and that it's a given that they'll twist the truth to serve their purposes. In that light, this fic is rated mature for, among other things, graphic depictions of violence, casualization of violence (given our narrators' perspective), unrestrained language, psychological manipulation, and sensuality. If any of these things trigger you or simply aren't up your alley, you may want to seek fic elsewhere.

I'm breaking my usual rule in that I'm beginning to give chapters their final edit and post them before I have a complete rough draft, so that might result in some slight continuity errors that I'll beg your pardon for. This fic will be cross-posted to AO3, so if any of you out there are more comfortable with that format, my profile there is hahaharley.

Aaand… I think that's it. There will be less significant notes, pictures, soundtrack, and more at the Bad Jokes blog linked in my profile that should fill in any holes I've left. Go forth and (I hope) enjoy!


He opened his eyes.

His mouth tasted like metal. The room was pitch black, but the air around him felt familiar, and he lay on a mattress that smelled like him—he knew he must be securely at headquarters. He didn't know how long he'd been out, and lazily, his hand drifted up to touch his throbbing bicep, wounded from a close graze with a copper's bullet.

The touch stung, but he could tell from the tacky and clotted feel of the blood on his fingertips combined with the raw, almost concave ache of his empty stomach that he had been out for at least a few hours. Exactly how long he'd been asleep was not important.

He'd been having a dream. Normally, his dreams melted away like cobwebs upon waking, as elusive as the details of his entirely irrelevant past, but for whatever reason, this one stuck around. She had wanted to go shopping ("to pick out some curtains for the new hideout, silly") and he'd joined her on a whim, always willing to start the day with a good evisceration. The whole thing had culminated in her holding out two swatches (he wondered vaguely where he'd picked up that term but didn't care enough to trace its roots in his brain) for his perusal, chirping "Eggshell or ivory, Mr. J?" and him trying to make her understand that he didn't give a dead rat's ass, to just choose already so he could use the one she didn't want to wipe the sales clerk's blood and flecks of guts off of his shoes, good footwear wasn't cheap, didn't she know that?

As the memory of the dream faded, he stretched out, feeling a languid satisfaction in the ache of under-rested muscles and the sting of half-healed wounds, and then reached out absently to the space beside him. He frowned when his fingertips met nothing but cool sheets, and he felt around for a second before realizing that his quiet, erratic breathing was the only sound in the room. That… made no sense. She needed so much sleep; she was always there when he fell asleep and always there when he woke up, having given up on trying to match him in the first couple of weeks.

He felt vaguely betrayed by the emptiness of the bed—not because he needed or necessarily even wanted her there, but because he didn't recall having given her permission to change her routine. Since he didn't immediately have anything better to do, he rolled out of bed and went hunting for her. Or some food. Whichever he found first. (He kind of hoped it would be food.)

He exited the black room, went downstairs, and squinted at the fluorescent glare lighting the main room of the new hideout. Taking as little notice of the assembled henchmen as he would a dead body in the room (that is to say, none at all) he went straight to the connected kitchen, searching through the cabinets until he stumbled upon a huge bag of what looked like beef jerky. He pulled it open and tossed a piece into his mouth, testing, then nodded when he had confirmed to his satisfaction that it was jerky and took a handful, gnawing noisily on it as he turned and leaned back against the wall to look through the room for her. He checked the corners and the shadows, checked to make sure she wasn't hiding behind anybody, and when he still failed to locate her, he looked at the nearest henchman.

The guy felt eyes on him and nervously looked up, swallowing. "What's up, boss?"

The Joker licked his lips, getting a vague, familiar feeling that his voice may have rotted away as he slept, but no—it came out just fine, if high and creaky as usual, when he asked, "Where is she?"

"Where's who, boss?"

The Joker squinted sharply and shook his head from side to side a little, can you believe this guy? As if there was ever more than one woman allowed in the hideout. Well, okay, hostages sometimes, but they weren't really people, so they didn't count. Women complicated things, women got squeamish and screamy and cried when they got hit. In fact, during those first couple of weeks with her, he'd thought every day about cutting her throat and dumping her on Arkham's doorstep, at least until she'd proven that she wouldn't cause ripples with the boys and that she would only cry on special occasions. These days, he only thought about killing her once a week. Usually. He didn't think he needed to voice this thought.

Instead, he said, "Uhhh… how many shes do you usually see around here? Where's Harley?"

Understanding dawned, followed quickly by confusion. The guy spoke in a very careful tone that the Joker immediately loathed. It was the way normal people talked to crazy people, and not only was he not crazy, but he hated "normal." However, what the henchman had to say momentarily stemmed the Joker's annoyance. "She… she's at Arkham, boss. Don't you remember?"

The Joker blinked. No, he did not remember. When did that happen? he thought, vaguely irritated by her lack of consideration. He should leave her in there until she found a way out, just to teach her a lesson about being careless enough to get caught. That's how he'd always had to learn.

The guy looked vaguely encouraged by the fact that this news didn't result in a knife in his guts, so he kept going: "She's been there since the beginning of summer, a couple'a months ago, remember? You made the call to leave her for the cops."

The Joker blinked again. This was news to him. In fact, he could have sworn he remembered seeing her flitting around the new hideout, which they'd just moved into last week, a vague red outline always humming away in the corner of his eye—but those memories could just as well have been his idle brain inventing entertainment. He'd always had an… overactive imagination, and he was accepting of it so long as it didn't distract him from anything really important.

In fact, now that he thought about it, he remembered bending down over a wounded little blonde thing lying curled and bleeding on the pavement, pinching her cheek as the sirens drew closer and then climbing into the car and leaving her to the GPD's tender lovin' care. He didn't remember why anymore—details like that were unimportant in the face of the grand scheme—but he was sure he'd had a good reason.

That was then, though, and he frowned thoughtfully as he realized that he didn't want her in Arkham right now. Like it or not, Harley had survived in proximity to him long enough at this point to both understand and see the wisdom in playing by his rules, which made her an asset. Things were shifting fast, and he could use a decent face card in his hand. She could go back to the padded cells and ineffective antipsychotic meds later if she wanted to, no skin off his nose, but right now, he wanted her here.

He turned to look for some coffee. He had a breakout to organize.

A/N - Aaaand we're off. Rest assured, chapters get steadily longer from this point onward. I've got some reworking of the next chapter that I need to do, as well as scrambling to finish the rough draft so I can fix up all the little missing details before you get to them, but I'll try to have the next installment for you within a week. In the meantime: what do you think? Did you suspect we'd return this way? As always, feedback and commentary is the food of fic writers, so I'd love to hear from all of you, returning readers who've been waiting patiently (God bless all of you, particularly those of you who have fed me with questions and encouragement sent through the blog) and newcomers alike!