Title: The End Starts Today
Author: Jen Kollic

Disclaimers: All characters are trademarks of DC Comics. I'm just playing with them.
Feedback: Yes, please.
Notes: There will be a long hiatus between this and the next chapter, as chapters 1-6 took over 12 months to write over at my LJ, I've just copied and pasted all of this from there. Because LJ lets me have asterisks.

Spoilers: Big spoilers for Return of the Joker. (the uncut version) Passing references to various other toonverse cartoon/comic episodes/issues as well.


Chapter 6

The first thing Harley became aware of when she finally regained consciousness was the low drone of the air-conditioning. For several long minutes she lay with her eyes closed, not sure whether she was awake or still sleeping. The darkness and the soft, constant hum were strangely soothing, and she simply lay and listened to it for what could have been hours. Well, she was pretty sure she was lying down, but the numbness of her limbs and the odd sense of detachment made it hard to tell.

Anyway, if she was dreaming Harley hoped it would stay like this. No screaming, no Batman trying to strangle her, no tortured (or torturing) kids, just a nice, peaceful black. Though a small voice was whispering that hey, maybe she deserved those dreams. Because maybe she shouldn't have gone along with this plan. Or at least gone along with it until Mistah J had pulled out the car batteries and electrodes and drugs and scalpels but by then she'd been just too caught up in the joke (and trapped in the fantasy) to do anything other than play along.

At the time she'd reasoned that hey, she and Red had done the same kinda thing to the previous (older) Robin, and he'd been just fine afterwards. And after all, Ivy had used her hypnotic lipstick on him, and that wasn't too far removed from mind-altering psychotropics. And brainwashing. And hallucinogens. And electricity. Okay, so maybe that hadn't been good reasoning, but that was always one of the first things to go when she was with Mistah J. Maybe because she also had to subconsciously strangle any independent and/or potentially rivalling thought. She'd learned the hard way that Mistah J didn't appreciate initiative. More than once.

Which would have made it oh-so-easy just to pin the blame for everything on him and forget that irritating niggling that she knew was guilt because it always came whenever she was in solitary in Arkham after the particularly big jokes she'd helped her Puddin' pull off and she had time to think about how maybe dropping a nuke on Gotham could have been a bad thing. But somehow it always vanished whenever she was back with him, which was one of the many reasons she loved him, because he could make her forget everything except the joke. And even if inwardly she didn't think the joke was all that funny, or could do with improvement, she always laughed hard enough to believe in it.

She would have liked to think that she hadn't had much choice, but the same small, annoying voice told her that she'd be lying to herself. Sure, not laughing at Mistah J's jokes would pretty much guarantee unpleasant consequences, but she didn't always have to actually be there for them, did she? Just like Ivy always reminded her every time she turned up at her place after she'd had a fight with Mistah J. Though really, 'fight' implied a certain amount of violence on both sides, which wasn't entirely accurate.

And Harley just knew Ivy was going to make her feel so much worse when she went 'You helped that clown torture Batman's little sidekick into a miniature version of himself? That's not funny Harley.' Because that was one of the reasons that she always went back to Mistah J, he never made her feel bad about the jokes. Unless she'd somehow messed things up. Then she'd end up back at Ivy's again. Like now for instance, only this wasn't like any of Ivy's other hideouts she'd been to. Or maybe she'd been dreaming last time, and everything would look familiar now.

With that thought in mind, Harley forced her eyes open, flinching at the resulting shock of pain. Although the light in the room was minimal, it still seemed to drill through her retinas and into her brain. And no, the room wasn't familiar yet either. There weren't enough plants. Or possessions for that matter, the floor and surfaces were bare of everything except medical supplies. Still looked too clean to be a motel though. Too well air-conditioned too.

Unfortunately, as she became more aware of her surroundings Harley also became more aware of the little bits and pieces that assured her that the comfortable numbness she was currently feeling was only drug-induced. There was a tightness around her chest that felt like she was wearing a shirt that was too small, and faint twinges across her ribs as she breathed. The fingertips of her right hand itched abominably. The fuzziness in her head was threatening to turn nasty very soon. And her right leg… was still numb. But numb in the post root-canal 'oh god this is going to hurt when the local wears off' kinda way. And when she tried to move her left hand to investigate the source of the itching on her right, not even the drugs could mask the pain which spiked through her left shoulder.

A moment later the door was opened, making Harley flinch as she twisted her head to the side, away from the sudden flood of light from the next room. The pain in her shoulder had faded to a dull throb, but her head was starting to pound unmercifully. It took a few moments for her to realise she was being spoken to.

"Harley? Harley, can you hear me?" Ivy's voice seemed to cut through the fuzziness in Harley's head, and not in a good way. In more of a 'hot knife through butter' kind of way.

"…not so loud…" Harley was surprised at how hoarse her voice sounded, but was quickly distracted by the interesting way that the simple act of speech had made pain ripple across her ribs somewhat like a sadistic xylophone. Only not the same kind of sadistic as Mistah J's electrified one, because that had been sorta funny.

"Sorry." Even dropped to just above a whisper, the sound of speech still seemed to make Harley's brain vibrate unpleasantly, but bearably. "How long have you been awake?"

Harley was aware that Ivy was standing over her now, throwing a welcome shadow across her which blocked out the light from the door, which let Harley turn her head back to face her. Ivy was wearing only a long shirt, and from the haggard look on her face Harley guessed she'd just woken her up. Somehow.

"I… don't know Red." It took a while for Harley to answer as she realised that she honestly had no idea. "Not long… I think. Where are we?" She vaguely remembered asking this question before, but couldn't remember the answer. Or if Ivy had told her what had happened to Mistah J.

"We're in Florida. Orlando," Ivy replied, her hand on Harley's chest. Oddly, Harley realised that she couldn't feel it.

"Don't tell me we're in Disney World, because I can honestly say I don't feel up to it..." Harley muttered as she raised her head slightly, enough to see the vines coiled around her. "What the hell?"

"They're necessary Harl. Don't worry about them," Ivy said as she bent slightly to probe at Harley's leg.

"Well they're tight, don't tell me you're going in for corsets now and decided to try one out on me…" Harley had dropped her head back to the pillows, as her head cleared the ache was only getting worse.

"No. They're that tight so that they can feel your pulse."

There was a pause as Harley took this in. "You're joking… right?"

"What do you think woke me up? You should be in a hospital; I'm making do as best I can." Ivy seemed to have finished her examination, and laid her hand on Harley's forehead, her touch cool and somehow soothing.

"…hospital… right…" Harley knew there was a reason why she wasn't there, and was just trying to remember it. The involuntary start she made when she did set off a chain reaction of assorted pains from her head to her leg, and then back up. "Batman!"

"It's okay Harley." Ivy's voice was as soothing as her touch, her fingertips now running back and forth across Harley's forehead in slow, relaxing strokes. "That's why we're in Florida. He won't find us."

"But he'll try… what we did… not you, Mistah J…" Harley was finding it increasingly difficult to string the words together, the coolness of Ivy's touch seeming to seep into her body in a manner that wasn't at all unpleasant. "Mistah J… where…"

"I don't know Harley. We can talk about him later." Ivy's voice seemed to be growing more distant as her hand continued its slow, gentle strokes. All Harley was aware of now was that she wanted to go back to sleep, which was strange because deep down she knew she really didn't, because of the dreams and because she really did want to know what had happened to Mistah J… but somehow that wasn't so important any more.

The last thing Harley was aware of was the odd way Ivy's fingertips seemed to tingle against her skin, and the rapidly-smothered realisation of exactly what it was she was doing…

----------

This time, when Harley woke up her eyes instantly snapped open… to her immediate regret as the daylight which had managed to seep through the curtains raked at her optic nerves. Which soon paled into insignificance as she realised that the comfortable numbness had faded, leaving her with an unenviable symphony of hurt throughout her body. The prickling ache of her ribs was more background; it was the throb of her leg that was stealing the show. Her shoulder was okay as long as she kept it completely still and didn't try to move it and especially didn't try to raise herself up on her elbows. She'd have to remember that. But at least the pain was keeping her head clear.

Harley was relieved to find that she could still move her right arm without it feeling like it was going to pop out of its socket, only the rusty 'I haven't been moved in a while' twinges. Except for her hand, which felt like the skin was cracking when she flexed her fingers. Raising it somewhat shakily, Harley's somewhat detached curiosity was foiled by the gauze wrapped around her palm and fingers. She didn't remember doing anything to her hand, but then again she'd probably been distracted by her leg breaking. If not the fall itself of course.

But she was getting distracted. Harley needed her head clear to get some straight answers out of Ivy, not to think about the various ways she'd broken herself in the fall. (don't think about the fall) Using her right thumb, Harley cautiously poked at the vines wrapped around her chest, hoping she didn't hit a broken rib.

"Well? Get Red already, isn't that what you're meant to do?" Harley's voice was still raspy, but this time she wasn't sure if the crackle of pain across her ribcage was caused by speaking or by the way the vine she'd poked squirmed at her touch. She decided to blame the vine.

Several minutes passed before Ivy finally entered the room. And when she did, not even Harley could miss the reluctance apparent in her body language. Harley was starting to wonder just what in the hell she had to hide, she obviously hadn't been paralyzed by the fall and still had all her limbs, she couldn't think of anything else Ivy wouldn't want to tell her. (actually she could, but she was being very careful not to think of it, because it was silly anyway)

"You need better vines Red, if I'd had a heart attack I'd be brain-dead by now." To Harley's surprise, Ivy didn't look at all reassured by her regained sense of humour. In fact, she looked… worried? Afraid? Oh god, maybe Batman had caught up with them… no, if that was the case wouldn't she be fighting him?

Ivy knew she should have been relieved to see that despite her injuries Harley seemed to be her old self. But now she knew that Harley couldn't have any possible idea about what had happened to the Joker. And had also shaken off the effects of the opiates which should have kept her out or at least tractable until well into the afternoon. She was going to have to tell her. Unless…

"How are you feeling?" Despite her inner turmoil, Ivy's words were soft and reassuring as she reached out to touch Harley's forehead, hating herself for what she was doing.

Or rather, was going to do before Harley twisted her head away.

"Don't." The humour was gone from Harley's voice now, her eyes narrowed. "I know what you're trying to do Red. How long have you been keeping me out for?"

After an uncomfortable pause where Ivy considered just grabbing Harley's uninjured shoulder and knocking her out anyway, she finally answered. "I didn't have a choice. You had to be kept still. You still do." Inwardly she sighed in relief as Harley's gaze softened slightly.

"Then I promise to keep still." Harley wanted to be angrier, but couldn't help remembering that if it wasn't for Ivy she'd have been a corpse in a chasm. "Besides, you seem to want to knock me out whenever I ask a question."

Ivy wanted to deny that and gloss things over. It would be easy; for someone as skilled at manipulation as Ivy, Harley was as malleable as Clayface himself. Except of course that Ivy hated manipulating Harley even more than she hated knowing that she hated it. But she knew all the same, which was why she started steeling herself to answer the question she'd been dreading since that moment in the cellars of Arkham.

Ivy's silence was worrying. Harley was starting to wonder if maybe she was paralysed but her leg was just broken so badly that she could feel it anyway, which was crazy. No. Deep, deep down Harley had already guessed what this was about, though even without confirmation she was still denying it to herself. She'd had an awful lot of practice at denial after all. All of a sudden she found that she didn't want to ask any more questions, especially not concerning what might have happened to a certain someone who absolutely, positively, could not possibly…

She asked anyway, and immediately hated herself.

"What happened to Mistah J, Red? Tell me."

In the few seconds before she answered, Ivy somehow managed to run through various ways of answering that question in various roundabout ways. But eventually, and quite uncharacteristically, she opted for the plain truth.

"He's dead Harley. I'm sorry." Not sorry he was dead of course, Ivy couldn't bring herself to be that hypocritical, but for Harley. For what this would do to her. Oh Gaia, what would this do to her? Somehow, in all of her fantasies where the Joker was no longer in the picture, Ivy had never considered that vital point.

For several long moments Harley simply stared up at her in blank incomprehension, her blue eyes wide and wondering like a young child who'd just been told that their first pet had just gone for a long sleep. "You mean… there was an explosion or something?" Harley's voice trembled as she spoke, trying desperately to find some kind of reassurance that no, the universe hadn't just dropped out from under her. "No-one could find the body? Like that?"

"No Harley." Ivy's had taken Harley's right hand and held it gently. Harley didn't react, either because she knew the bandages would stop Ivy from trying to drug her by touch, or because she'd forgotten all about it. "I found his body. He's dead."

Much to the surprise of the small part of herself that was managing to stay detached, Harley didn't make a sound. She was much too busy feeling her world shattering around her like so many funhouse mirrors.

Only without the fun.