Six

In the beginning she had practiced writing her new name for hours:

Amanda Hart. Amanda Hart. Amanda Hart.

How should the 'A' look? The 'H'? Should she finish off with a scroll below the scrawl, a heart (as diamonds had been Harley Quinn's motif, so hearts were Amanda Hart's. Might as well stick to the deck.)

Mandy Hart, maybe. The 'M' had more decorative possibilities.

When she had finally hit upon a style she liked, a giant 'A' followed by tiny, curling letters, the even bigger 'H' looping back over the final 'nda', the 'art' just below them, she practiced until she was perfect at it. She used to draw a little jester's head over the 'i' in 'Quinn', but there was no 'i' in her new name, so she did add a little heart at the end.

It was too flamboyant a signature for deposit slips, credit card receipts and official documents. She had to shrink it down. But spectators at the basketball matches often asked for her autograph and it looked great then.

She had got a few requests at Arkham, for autographs. All of her mail was opened and checked, for coded messages or smuggled escape aids. All her outgoing mail was similarly scrutinised. The only thing they had accepted her sending was her signature, scrawled on a piece of paper they provided.

That was until the Doctors decided it was implying approval of her psychosis and forbidden.

He had only been allowed to do that once, she'd read in His file, another lifetime ago. Even though they'd given Him nothing more than a ballpoint pen, He had managed to use it to puncture the throat of His guard and escape. That was in the days when He only had one guard, when they had thought a pair of hand and ankle cuffs was sufficient restraint. He'd picked them open, with the same pen.

They wouldn't give her a razor to shave with, although the more years that looped over each other, the less that seemed to matter.

"Mister J. doesn't wanna make ha-ha with a yeti!" she'd told Dr. Leland in the beginning, but they wouldn't risk it. He'd been permitted to shave once, as well. Another thing she'd read. They'd given Him an electric razor, thinking it was the safer option. The guard then had only turned his back for a minute, but it was all He'd needed to open the thing up and remove the blades, opening yet another throat (and pausing just long enough to extend the corners of his mouth upwards into a bloody smile). After that, none of the Maximum Security inmates were permitted razors for any reason.

He'd never been hairy though, so it hadn't mattered much to Him. Still, it had fascinated her, the faint buzz of green stubble over His jaw, when she'd sat by His side in session. She'd wondered if all His body hair had been green.

She sat in her closet, and fingered the photograph and blushed to remember discovering that it was.

Blushing. Not a good sign.

She knew she should throw the photograph away. Tear it up and burn the scraps, even. She knew. Knew it was the right thing to do. But she just couldn't bring herself to manage it.

Almost three years now, without seeing Him, even in a photograph. She was over Him. She'd been crazy then, and she wasn't anymore.

She slept with it under her pillow.

It did no harm, surely. It was there – just to – to remind her. What she had lost. What she could lose again.

But if He really was – gone – then surely – she had nothing to lose? There was no danger, not anymore. So it could stay, there, under her pillow. She could look at it in the closet, once a day. Sometimes twice.

Did it matter if she kept it in her panties during the day? After all, she didn't want anyone finding it and getting the wrong idea. Who'd believe her, with her record? It was just a reminder.

The first month after her release there had been a rustle at her window, and heart racing she'd crouched behind the kitchen bench for a few blood-pounding moments. Finally, she'd worked up the chutzpah to go over to it, where her curtains fluttered in the night breeze.

She'd drawn in a big breath before leaning out.

There was nothing out there, of course.

She'd huffed out in relief, and laughed a little at herself. On a whim, she'd look upwards, towards the sky, where a half-moon dully gleamed in the indigo night.

Then she'd seen it.

The heavy black cape, swirling, that familiar, terrifying shape moving over the rooftop.

She'd dropped back inside, falling to the floor at the window, trembling violently in terror.

For the next four months she found evidence he was watching her. Nothing overt, just little indications. She knew he was too good, too clever and too cunning for it to be anything other than deliberate. He wanted her to know he was watching.

She was glad for the sleep medication, or she would never have gotten a wink, those early days.

But after a while, it stopped. Of course, that didn't mean he wasn't still hanging about. Just that he figured she didn't need to know anymore. That she could be – trusted.

So yes. It wouldn't do for the photo to be found. She was free, now, and she wanted to stay that way. She'd built a life for herself. A life free of Him and him and Ivy and of madness and Arkham Asylum, of straitjackets and tranquilisers, of beatings and humiliating acts, of strange sex that hurt even though it wasn't violent and that was blissful although she was only ever the vessel, of people dying with smiles on their faces and of robbery she couldn't remember, of being sick, absolutely sick with love, choking on love and growing nauseous on it, dizzy and crazed. Free of a smile that could rupture her heart and a touch that could consume her soul.

A Gotham, wracked by an earthquake, cut off from the rest of the country, left to tear itself apart.

They'd danced together, by the docks, He sweeping her into the waltz when she hadn't been expecting it, letting her neck fall back and watching Gotham's dusky red and blue skies whirl above her while He spoke of His plans for getting the most out of the city.

Carrying her, unexpectedly strong, to the top of the clock tower so that they could look out upon the city and the greatness He wrought.

Holding her close against Him, she curled up on His lap, His arms encircling her, squeezing her tight while He told her of His scheme to bring smiles to the faces of unsuspecting tourists at Gotham Harbour.

But there was more than that. He'd pat her bottom, pinch her cheek, chuck her chin, tug her ponytails, stroke her head and trip her up, laughing as she collapsed in a heap, all elbows and knees, before whirling her up once more and squeezing her tight. Not to mention the times He would embrace her, whirl her around in His arms, patter kisses all over her…

"Harley, it's been well observed The Joker has frequently displayed… certain types of physical affection towards you." Dr. Leland interrupted her, cool and crisp, swiftly making notes on her pad. "I am more interested in hearing you explain how this reflects a reciprocation of your romantic feelings, rather than the paternalistic gestures made towards a pet. I would say an indulged pet, but since The Joker has also been well observed to beat you senseless and at times make attempts on your life, I'm not sure that would be accurate."

Dr. Leland's objectivity in treating Harley had been questioned, but not with much interest. Who else could do it?

"You just don't get it, do you?" she was in a straitjacket although she could've told them there was no need, the sedatives had taken hold and it was all she could do to hold her head up. Her arms, wrapped in the confining canvas, felt weighted down with lead.

Sure, He tried to kill her more than once. And more than once afterwards He'd held her close, up against Him, sometimes months after the fact and whisper to her that it was all right, didn't she understand? He was in control of all things. It was just a joke, after all, and He could bring her back anytime that He wanted. Just like He always did.

After awhile, it began to make a sort of sense. Maybe she wasn't real. Maybe He really had imagined her for His own amusement.

She didn't mind, after all. She loved Him. She was happy to be a creation of His mind if it made Him happy.

It was like His schemes to take down The Batman. None of them were ever really intended to finish The Bat off once and for all. He kept the pretence up, but the truth was He simply wanted the engagement, the enjoyment of it all. He liked hurting Batman, shredding his world into scraps of bleeding confetti, but there was absolutely no way He wanted a world without The Batman. The very thought was enough to have Him raging, twisting and contorting into the strange Joker-Monster that emerged sometimes, a whirlwind of psychotic fury she cowered from.

She'd made that mistake only once.

It was okay to hurt The Bat. It was okay to kill the ones The Bat held dear. But, always, The Bat must live.

Just a jokeHe whispered to her, the time they'd been reunited once she'd recovered from her injuries, sustained after He'd pushed her out a window. Is Daddy's punkin feeling all better?

So she stopped taking it so seriously.

"Harley, I am interested in why you believe that anyone who attempts to kill you does it as a joke – or that they love you, regardless?"

She'd giggled, tapping her head back against the cushioned leather of the sofa, a bubble of spit forming in the corner of one mouth.

"If only you could see – just how much He really does love me," she whispered in a sing-song voice. "It's still the same – I'm the only one who understands Him. Really understands Him. That's why He loves me."

He needed her. No one believed her, but she knew it was true.

They didn't understand, did they? Just how easy it would've been to get rid of her. A bullet to the head, a big dose of toxin, a couple of bricks tied to her foot and dropped into Gotham River. But there always had to be something splashy about it, something over the top. If she was just the pawn they told her she was, He would never have bothered. He never went to any effort over His henchmen, after all.

And none of them had ever survived as long as she had.

He eliminated them without a moment's thought or hesitation, as He did anyone who crossed His path. But for her – He went to some trouble.

He really did need her.

Although it had come at a time she'd been spiralling into the Gotham skyline, trapped in a rocket intended to hurtle toward her doom, she still treasured the confession He'd made to her then. Nursed it in her heart like it was a puppy, feeding it on her blood and marrow, that recollection. That He was killing her because He had begun to care for her, that He found such feelings confusing and upsetting. That therefore she had to be disposed of.

It was romantic, in its way. No, in His way. His very special, unique way.

It was rarely seen by the world outside, the times that He petted and indulged her, stroked her hair and called her baby, but they were the moments of sweetness that made all the pain bearable.

And there was plenty of pain. He liked inflicting pain and after awhile, she learned to like it and to feel the love in the pain He gave her.

You always hurt the ones you love, Harley, He would laugh. And I love to hurt you best of all.

She understood, of course.

No matter what anyone said, she really had got through to Him. Maybe not really, back in Arkham. But afterwards, at some time, somehow, something had clicked and changed in His head, the psychotic brain that had so long stood alone in the world, perfectly content in its solitude.

And when it had changed, He had grown uncomfortable with it.

Dr. Leland had tapped her pen against her chin, frowning thoughtfully.

"Only you and The Joker can ever know what goes on between the two of you," she conceded, "but my difficulty here is that neither of you are renowned for giving reliable testimonies."

She'd blinked, stretched her neck backwards to look at Leland. "Why would I lie?" she whispered, her voice hoarse.

Dr. Leland's face had creased with a rare look of sympathy. "Because you need to believe it." She answered quietly, but Harley had only laughed. A long, loud peal of it.

How could Dr. Leland know? After all, He had told her so Himself

In the beginning, it had been like a fun pantomime, to call her 'my chick', or 'my dame'; it was a bit of a joke – The Joker with a girlfriend! The most dangerous, bizarre lunatic the world had ever seen, with a lady to call His own. But time moved on and it began to have meaning. And when it began to have meaning, it meant He had to question what He knew to be true – that He was in control of the world and all things in it.

He didn't like that.

So He objected, and she understood. She showed Him, through her unending, patient love, that she understood. And after awhile, He reasoned, it was perfectly possible He controlled this as well. In fact, He did. And so everything He did, no matter how harsh it might feel to her, was just to go on proving that.

She understood. It made sense, really.

Even if He ever did one day succeed in killing her, she knew why He would've done it: to prove to Himself that even caring for someone, He could still rub them out of reality. He was still in control.

It made her feel heady; this power.

"Power?" Dr. Leland had interrupted her, her frown all the more pronounced.

"Of course," she'd sat up, wiggling around on the sofa to get upright against the confining bonds of the straitjacket, and stared at Leland, incredulous. "Don'tcha get it? The Joker – the one guy known all over the world for being completely without feeling, entirely devoid of any sorta sympathy or compassion or goodwill toward any joe or dame – and He's gotta hurt me to prove He don't love me! Cos it scares Him that He does."

That Sunday night, she felt like pizza.

Dr. Leland had permitted her to read certain excerpts from her file, before she was released.

She hadn't gone out that day. One too many glasses of champagne last night and she'd felt ill all day, weighed down with the heaviness of a hangover and the echoing solitude surrounding her. She put on a Liza Minelli album full blast and cleaned her apartment instead.

In those pages, in that fat, bulging folder, she'd read how without The Joker, she was entirely devoid of motive. With Him gone, her desire to live a life of crime simply diminished. How throughout the entirety of their twisted relationship, her ultimate goal had been her own warped perception of reality – marriage, to Him, and children. A continuance, however one looked at it, of servitude towards Him, positioning herself as the embodiment of His needs and what she imagined them to be, conflating them with her own in her delusion. The Joker's needs, of course, were unknown, His motivation uncertain and constantly shifting.

So she simply fixed hers upon Him. Whatever He wanted, at a particular time, she would do what she was told in order to bring it about. Because He wanted to commit crime, whether out of some psychotic need to cause chaos, or to draw the attention of The Batman, so too did she. If He ever stopped (as she clearly hoped He would, in order to get her happy ending), then she would as well.

The Joker's disappearance had robbed her of this motivation.

And after that, unravelling the cord of infatuation had been simple. Breaking down her psychosis with the aid of therapy and medication a matter of course. There was no doubt Harleen Quinzel had been a very sick woman, and one with the potential for psychosis built into her, but the person who had manipulated and drawn it out of her was no longer around in order to do so.

With medication and continuing therapy, she should make a full recovery.

As she had.

She had had a pole installed in her living room, so that she could practice at home. She did, that Sunday, for a couple of hours, practicing a hands-free layout, the brass pole gripped tight in her thighs as she stretched her body out in a line parallel to the floor. The other girls all had to use one hand to support themselves.

After that she'd put on Kate Bush and sung along tunelessly to Wuthering Heights.

As Dr. Leland had spent countless hours analysing it with her, that infatuation had merely been a symptom of her psychosis, rather than true emotion.

She'd only once questioned that. She'd never experienced such intensity of emotion. Never. If that wasn't love, then what was? What else could it be?

Psychosis, had been Dr. Leland's calm reply. Which they were treating now.

The Gotham Knights Cheerleading Squad were headed for their fourth National Championship trophy in a couple of months' time. It would be her first time since High School going to a national level competition. She'd be on television again, even if she was just one more flipping body in a formation of short skirts and pompoms. Practice times had been upped and tomorrow they were spending a good four hours on choreography.

Still, she felt like pizza. She phoned down to the Ciccolina's.

So she had recovered and she had been released and she had built a life for herself. As Amanda Hart, a cheerleading, pole-dancing make-up artist who wore the colour pink and emblazoned everything with hearts and went jogging ten miles every day. It was a good life. She was anonymous, one more face in the crowd, and yet still enjoyed a sort of minor celebrity that made her feel connected to life, to the thrill of existing.

It made her days not feel so empty.

And she couldn't understand that. It was a good life. The sort anyone could envy. True, she didn't have any close friends. True, she was medicated up to the eyeballs. True, she crammed every day full of ceaseless activity so when she shut her eyes at night the world blinked out almost immediately.

But – wasn't all that just a matter of time? Steadily and surely she had found her place in the last year and carved out her niche. Independent. Individual. Her own.

Everything else would follow.

While she was waiting for the pizza, her wardrobe door, standing half ajar with a jumble of pink and white fabrics bursting through the gap, caught her eye.

She usually waited until just before bedtime.

But she figured she might as well do it now.

She huddled up the back of the closet, and reached into her panties, pulling out the creased, wrinkled piece of paper, unfolding it carefully. It was growing soft along the folds now, threatening to tear apart if she pulled too hard.

Her heart-rate picked up as the green hair came into view, her breath grew short as the eyes were unveiled and she had to swallow hard as the smile was revealed.

So why then this pale, shadowed emptiness in the base of her stomach?

An emptiness which echoed whenever she withdrew that photo and looked at it?

There was a knock at the door. Her pizza, sent up from downstairs. She folded the photo up again carefully and tucked it under the elastic waistband of her pink cottontails.

She wiped her face as she moved through the candy-coloured living room, surprised to find a dampness there. She checked her reflection in the mirror. Shorts and shirt, hair messy, but respectable enough. Her eyes were just a little red.

She did not ask who it was, or check the peephole. She just opened the door.

At first she didn't understand what she saw. It was not Mario, Signore Ciccolina's twelve year old son, standing there with a large vegetarian and garlic bread. There was not even a pizza.

What filled her doorway was tall and thin and violently coloured, the tips of its shock of green hair brushing the top of her doorframe, leaning against it at a jaunty angle with one purple-clad ankle crossed over the other. As she watched it flapped an arm – and she started. It had stood so still it had seemed merely propped up against her doorway, some awful, wretched joke. This is a joke, she thought, and soon I will get it.

She stared and stared, but it did not help. Indeed, it began to make even less sense the longer she looked at it, its mess of purple and green and orange blurring and running together. She kept on staring, and a long streak of red slashed across the blur of white that was stretched up, up, up so high and far above her head, making her a speck on the ground.

"Hello, Harley Baby." The Joker purred, leering at her from above, one hand tucked into the pocket of His orange waistcoat. "Did you miss Daddy? Daddy missed you. So. Much."

There was something warm and wet spilling down her legs as she continued to stare, the thud of her heart a thunderbeat in her head, the whiteness of His face lightning that dazzled her gaze. And His smile – it set off a tremble, a wash of shudderings as lovely as an orgasm, beneath her flesh – it was like the snarl of a panther, readying itself to pounce.

She stepped back as The Joker advanced towards her, slamming the door shut behind Him, shrugging off His purple greatcoat and fedora hat and tossing both onto her hatstand, gazing about Him with a glittering purple stare.

"Whew, Harls, looks like a carebear threw up in here," He exclaimed, casting an eye around the pinkness of her small apartment. Her home. Her new life. Her. Amanda Hart. He fixed His gaze on her once more, His smile splitting further up His face, holding out His lavender gloved hands towards her.

"No kiss for Daddy?" He queried and she finally drew in a breath, it filling her flattened lungs like a kick.

It didn't matter. How He knew where she was, how He had found her, where He'd been all this time. Her years of rehabilitation, of adjusting to normal life, of Amanda Hart and her love of pink and her place on the championship cheerleading squad. It was irrelevant; beauty school and the Drag Queens who forced pink champagne down her throat and jogging ten miles every day. It had all just been a way of killing time.

The hollowness inside her, the one that couldn't be filled with poledancing and gymnastics, with Sunday outings and gentle basketball players, was enflamed and throbbing, suddenly overflowing with that feeling and she felt herself drift forwards, towards His waiting arms.

How had she ever survived without it, its savage intensity, its vicious pleasure and the smell of Him that filled her nostrils as the shell of Amanda Hart shuddered and peeled off of her, leaving behind it nothing but love, love pure and violent and hungry, hungry to be sated by His touch, love that spread upwards from that now-filled place and flooded through every inch of her being. He lifted her, her face pressing against the hardness of His slender chest, enveloped by the silk of His green shirt, suffocated in the smell of Him, soothed by the grip He had about her. Suddenly, deliriously giddy with pleasure as His painted lips brushed hers, always the tease, He still smiling in satisfaction and brutal triumph, and she realised with a rush –

All this time, Harley Quinn had simply been waiting.