Author Note: In the seven years since I first started this story, it has changed a lot in my mind. The characters and their motives changed so much, but I'm still proud of this story and all the potential it has. So, I've decided to give it a make-over.
What does that mean, exactly?
It means I'm writing a "director's cut," of sorts. A beautiful new take on the mostly-familiar. I hope you all don't mind and enjoy the edit enough to read the sequel that I'm still planning to write.
I would also like to note that during the editing process, I will be posting chapters as I update them. This also means that things may not mesh well for the couple of months or so that it takes to do this. While the time that Harley knows the Joker is short in the original version, they will have more time together in the edit. I am really sorry for any confusion this may cause in the overall flow and I hope you can forgive me. I hope the new content is worth the momentary upheaval.
Thank you all so much for reading and sticking with me. Please leave reviews or send me messages with suggestions. I appreciate feedback immensely and love to make new friends.
"What's a pretty little thing like you
Doin' in this dingy old back room?
I've got some candy
A piece for every bruise."
~Brendan Kelly and the Wandering Birds "Suffer the Children, Come Unto Me"
It was Monday morning and she was running late.
That was how days like this always started, wasn't it? First you wake up to the sound of gunshots, look at your alarm clock to realize it's 4:30 in the morning, you were supposed to be awake at 4, and pray to every god you can think of that you somehow can manage to catch the train to make it to work on time.
Those were the only kinds of days Harley seemed to be having lately, the ones where everything started falling apart before she had even opened her eyes.
By some miracle she managed to catch the 5:15 train. Unfortunately, she also managed to forget her umbrella in her rush and the near-constant rain in the Narrows showed her no mercy. Out of breath and heart pounding, she managed to run the three blocks from the subway station to the coffee shop she worked in, and slipped in the door at exactly 5:59. Just barely not-late. Thank goodness.
At the sound of the bell, there came a rush of footsteps and Harley's boss, Annika, came running from the back room, only to roll her deep brown eyes when she realized it was not a customer. Offering a weak smile, Harley did her best to not look exhausted as she began sweeping her rain-drenched hair away from her face.
"Good morning to you too, Ann." It was meant to be a joke, but came out as more of a desperate wheeze.
"You look like you were hit by the fucking subway," Annika said in way of greeting. "You okay?"
Panting for breath, Harley still managed a laugh as she began to peel off her coat. "You'd look like hell if you'd just run three blocks in the rain too."
Making a sympathetic noise, Annika pointed to the carafe of freshly brewed coffee on the counter behind her. "The plight of us poor fucks that live in the Narrows. 'Least your really nice manager already made the first pot of coffee so you wouldn't have to."
Grinning, Harley shuffled past the counter and leaned into the back room to hang her coat on a peg. "You spoil me, dearest."
"Damn right I do. Now drink some coffee, catch your breath, and make yourself pretty before the morning rush gets here."
"Aye, aye, Captain." And with a mocking salute, Harley began her morning work routine.
She poured herself a cup of coffee from the carafe before moving to put on her apron. Her long blonde hair was pulled back into a neat ponytail and she fixed her eyeliner in the back room before bringing a fresh bag of coffee beans to the front to be ground. She and Ann made small talk as the two of them buzzed around the shop preparing for the morning rush. Which was to say that Harley complained at length about her roommate, and Ann made sympathetic noises where they were appropriate.
Around seven the rush came, the familiar faces of the folks in the Narrows lucky enough to be able to afford to buy a latte on the way to work. Around ten the rush went. This morning ritual was so familiar to Harley that she could almost predict the exact moment the rush would die, and knew that it would pick up again around 11:30. It was during this lull that Annika always ran to the bank, leaving Harley to tend to the few drifters that would come in.
Today was particularly slow and Harley busied herself with brewing fresh pots of coffee and doing the few dishes that were lying around in attempts to stay awake. She was on her third cup of coffee, but there was really only so much caffeine could do for the amount of exhaustion she was experiencing. Working nearly three weeks straight in attempts to pay rent was clearly starting to take its toll.
The bell chimed and Harley looked up to see a man enter the shop. He was tall, even with his shoulders hunched against the rain. Stringy brown curls were violently shaken out of his face, and he caught Harley's gaze with eyes so black she swore he was a void ready to suck her in. She almost took a step back, but caught herself before moving to the register.
"Good morning, sir." The bright greeting strained her throat and when she smiled the muscles in her face ached. "What can I get for you?"
His eyes darted away from her to the menu board above her head and it was only then that she got a good look at him. Handsome face, well defined cheekbones, and…scars. Scars on either side of his mouth to form what almost looked like a smile. Those black eyes caught hers again and she immediately glanced down at the register.
Silence started to stretch between them, thick and awkward. There was no one else in the shop and she knew damn well he had caught her staring at the puckered scar tissue around his mouth. Perhaps she should apologize? After all she'd been staring and it was rude, but bringing it up would probably just make things worse. With scars like that he probably got nothing but stares and whispers, and now Harley was part of the problem.
She couldn't stand how loud her thoughts were through the silence.
"Quite a storm out there, isn't it?" she said, eyes still focused on the fading keys of the register.
Nothing. Not even a goddamn smile.
Anxiously she looked up at him and that gaze of his snapped back to her, crushing her under its weight. She tried to read them for something, anything to make the silence less awkward, but his face was blank and menacing.
Eventually he brought a hand up to his mouth and cleared his throat, raising his eyebrows almost apologetically. "Uh, four large coffees. Black."
Letting out a breath Harley didn't realize she'd been holding, she began to work her fingers on the keys of the register to ring up his order, which he paid for with a crisp hundred-dollar bill. Fucking asshole. It was a damn good thing the morning had been busy. Usually they didn't have change to break bills that big. As it stood, she had to give him part of his change in fives, which seemed to amuse him. He stood there smirking at her the whole time she counted back the change, those black eyes staring holes into the top of her bowed head.
Trying not to fume, Harley turned to the counter behind her and began preparing his order.
"Room for cream or sugar?" The question left her lips automatically. It was like programmed response, hardwired into her brain. But it caught his attention, had him raising a sardonic eyebrow at her.
"What does 'black' imply, sugar?" His tone was teasing, but the slow lilt with which he spoke had her skin crawling.
When she looked up at him he was grinning, but there was no humor in it. That smile was just as empty and soulless as his eyes. It made the scars on his cheeks tug awkwardly and she swore it looked like the very effort caused him pain. Glancing down at her shoes, Harley shrugged and turned back to pouring his coffee. Four cups filled to the brim with steaming black liquid were loaded into a little cardboard carrier and she slid them across the counter to him with a plastic smile and forced, "Thank you."
With a nod, he took the coffee and left wordlessly.
As soon as he was out the door, Harley felt she could breathe again. It was as if that man's very presence made the air stand still in terror. He was haunting, menacing even. She wondered how the hell he managed to keep friends around. Probably his money, and the fact he was bringing them coffee. Only an asshole with money to show off waltzed into a café, bought one of the cheapest things on the menu, and paid with big bills. Somehow she felt as though even the money wouldn't be enough to convince her to willingly spend more than a few minutes at a time with that man.
As she went on with her day, the memory of those eyes seemed to have been burned into her mind. She had no idea who he was, had never seen him around before. Not a huge surprise in a city as large as Gotham, but certainly odd for a coffee shop mostly supported by patrons that came in regularly. Maybe he was new in town? Or, at least, new to this part of town. She had questions, far more than she had any right to. Somewhere deep down she hoped he would return simply so that she could get answers to a few of them.
And he didn't disappoint.
For the rest of the week he showed up every day like clockwork. The morning rush died down, Ann left for the bank, and that man would come in all hunched shoulders and piercing eyes. He'd order his black coffee, Harley would attempt to get some answers from him by disguising it in chit chat, and he would avoid answering as he took his coffee and left. At least he was paying in smaller bills now. Probably change from his first visit.
On Sunday Harley finally got a day off, which she spent most of sleeping. At some point in the afternoon she heard her roommate, Brianna, come and go, but didn't bother getting up to say hello. They had barely spoken since Harley's first week of moving in. Their schedules were nearly opposite and, as it turned out, they didn't have much in common. That was what she got for finding a roommate through an ad in the paper. A fragile balance was maintained in the house where the two of them came and went almost entirely as if the other did not exist. It worked for them, they didn't fight, and most of the time it felt as though Harley lived completely alone. Had she been able to afford living alone, she probably would have found a place of her own a long time ago.
When she returned on Monday life seemed ever so slightly brighter for having slept so long the day before. The morning rush came and went and at 10:15 sharp, when the mysterious new regular came in, the smile she greeted him with was genuine.
"Four black coffees?" she guessed before he even had a chance to order.
Cocking his head to the side, he stared at her for a long moment before nodding. He paid in silence, as usual, but it didn't stop Harley from going on about how nice it was to actually have the sun coming in the windows today. She could feel his eyes on her, the way he watched her every movement as though she were a lab rat he was challenging to a new maze. It didn't stop her, didn't even dam her flow of words long enough for her to realize he was chuckling. A low, deep sound crawled up his throat as though from some dark depths that were not often reached. It wasn't until Harley turned around with his coffee in hand that she noticed the smile and the way his shoulders shook under that quiet laugh.
For a moment she hesitated, her words coming to a halt as she slid the coffee across the counter. Her brow furrowed and her face grew red, but still that laughter didn't stop. She was about to ask him what the hell was so funny when he shook his head and moved to take his order from her.
"Day off did you good, didn't it, sugar?" His voice was low and even, almost pleasing.
Not missing a beat, Harley shrugged. "Caught up on some much needed rest. Why? Did you miss me yesterday?"
That smile of his only grew. His palms brushed over her fingers and she was surprised at the warmth of his skin. "Don't flatter yourself, sweetheart. The girl yesterday just, uh, didn't brew this coffee nearly as well as you do."
His tongue snaked out across his lips, and when they locked eyes Harley felt the pull of that void again. "Bet she left room for cream and sugar too."
The breath he let out had a laugh on it that didn't quite make its way past his lips. There was a quiet pop and she realized he'd been sucking on the scar tissue on the inside of his cheek. "Yep."
For just a moment longer he held her gaze before turning with his coffee in a rush and heading out the door.
Trying to ignore the way her skin was still electric from contact with him, Harley leaned heavily against the counter and watched through the window as his tall form disappeared into the crowd.
Annika returned shortly after and Harley jumped at the chance for a break. Still feeling confused from her encounter with her new regular, she made her way outside and slumped against the brick building. Briefly she considered allowing herself to smoke, but then remembered how good she had been at quitting. It had been nearly four days since her last cigarette and she was doing a damn fine job of keeping herself in check. It was one less thing to spend her sparse earnings on.
Her cell phone buzzed in her pocket and she glanced down to read the text. It was from Brianna, a short and sweet three words that had her heart speeding up and pounding against her ribcage. Fuck quitting, she deserved a goddamn cigarette now. Because there, brightly illuminated on the screen, were the three words bound to send her life into a downward spiral.
"I'm moving out."
When Harley arrived home that night, there was no sign of Brianna, or her stuff. She was gone, like a fucking ghost. An envelope on the counter had a half-hearted note of apology about the short notice and her half of bills for the week. At least she'd been decent enough to leave that. With a quiet curse under her breath, Harley realized she had probably been planning this for some time.
Her heart sank at that, breathing felt like too much effort and she splayed her palms on the cracked granite of the countertop.
This…this was what defeat felt like, wasn't it? Not only had she been forced to drop out of grad school because she was too poor to pay what student loans didn't cover, she was working a dead end job at a coffee shop and still couldn't make ends meet. There was a chance, a very slim chance, that Annika would allow her to work a few doubles during the week, but no matter how she spun that idea it still didn't seem like enough. Her pay wouldn't be enough to cover the other half of rent, let alone buy food, or have any sort of extra spending money. Hell, she probably wouldn't even have money for the subway and would have to find a way to walk to work. It made her regret selling her bike last winter.
The thought occurred to her that she could try her hand at painting again. After all, her bachelor's degree had been in visual art. Selling a few paintings would at least make her enough to get a month-long subway pass. Then she could pick up the odds and ends, all while praying work made her enough each paycheck to pay rent and bills. Despite the cynical voice in her mind that told her she wouldn't have time to paint if she planned on working doubles, she knew deep down she had to try something. Anything was better than lying down and accepting defeat.
Life knew just how to kick her when she was down, and this time she refused to let it.
That night she sat in her living room with the easel she could never bring herself to get rid of. Into the early hours of the morning, she worked tirelessly on a landscape rendering of Gotham. The bright lights of the city glowed beneath a full moon and just for kicks she painted the Batman's signal shining against a cloud. She liked it there. It made her feel safe.
She managed to get two blessed hours of sleep before rising for work the following morning. Her feet seemed to drag under the weight of her stress and exhaustion, but she made it to work on time and went about her morning routine per usual. Things seemed to fall into place and by the time the day started to pick up she had almost managed to convince herself that things were not as bleak as they appeared.
Morning rush, mid-morning lull, Annika ran to the bank, and then…
It was unclear to her why she waited, exactly, but she did. He was part of her morning routine now. Some warped part of her looked forward to those little one-ended chats of theirs. That man was an enigma, quiet and mysterious and absolutely captivating. Somehow in their brief week together he had managed to weasel his way into Harley's mind and popped into her thoughts more often than was probably appropriate.
He was handsome, even with those scars on his cheeks. Harley had never been one to let physical attractiveness go unnoticed and she quietly appreciated the beauty in everyone around her. Somehow this new customer had managed to really draw her attention and she would be lying if she pretended she hadn't been just a tiny bit curious as to what he would look like in some well fitted clothes rather than the baggy t-shirts and oversized coats he liked to come in with. Maybe a nice suit would do him good.
The bell chimed and Harley nearly choked on her coffee. Speak of the devil…
Today he was wearing a business suit, of sorts. There was a tacky lavender shirt beneath a navy jacket and a matching tie around his neck. He looked damn good.
"Well, aren't you dressed up this morning?" She couldn't help the grin that spread across her face, or the wave of disappointment that followed when he didn't return it.
In fact, he looked at her like she downright repulsed him. Like she had some strange growth, or was sprouting fangs. It gave her that same uneasiness that she'd felt the first time he'd come in, made her feel like his gaze was dissecting her. One vicious swipe with a scalpel and he'd see all of her insides and assess each organ individually.
"F-four coffees?" Her lips pressed into a thin line and she began ringing him up for his usual order after he made a low sound of agreement in his throat.
As she prepared his order, she didn't speak. There was something absolutely soul crushing in the way he'd snubbed her this morning. Between that and the ever-lingering feeling of doom that now hovered above her head, she didn't have the will in her to speak.
Her lack of chattering didn't seem to bother him and when she turned around with his coffee, those dark eyes were fixed on her in a glare so violent she nearly gasped. What the hell had she done? Was he angry because she pointed out that he actually looked really nice today? That was bullshit. It made her angry to even look at him.
Sliding the coffee across the counter, she couldn't even bring herself to thank him for his business. Just watched him cock his head at her and take the coffee without a sound. He was gone in an instant, and with him her last string of hope that she could hold herself together today.
Life, once again, had found a new and creative way to piss on her spirits.
For the next four days he didn't come in. It would have bothered Harley had she not been too stubborn to admit she noticed his absence. After the way he had acted during his last visit, she nearly hoped he wouldn't come back at all.
No one should have the power to make her feel so inferior, especially not a customer.
Sure he was quiet, but most people were their first few times visiting a new café. Her regulars were her friends. They appreciated her, told her their morning wouldn't be complete without her smile and excellent lattes. Those were the kind of people she liked having in the shop, the kind of person she so desperately wished he would be.
Had she not been on the receiving end of it, it would have fascinated her how small he managed to make her feel. Not even the businessmen that came in acting like they were the absolute center of the universe managed to throw her off the way he did. There was something about him that managed to get under her skin every time they were in the same space. Yet the last time he came in, she may as well have been dirt on the bottom of his worn shoes with the way he had ignored her attempts to be friendly. How could one nameless man make her feel so incredibly insignificant?
She swore that if he ever dared to show his face again she would give him the exact same treatment.
But he came back. Of course he came back.
When he waltzed in on Friday with a well-fitted black suit and charming smile, she hardly gave him a second glance. He approached the counter, seemingly waiting for her greeting, and when it didn't come a frown briefly crease his face.
"No bright good morning today, sugar?" His eyes flicked across her face before meeting her eyes. Lowering his head, he gave her a look of feigned sympathy. "Are you upset I haven't come to visit you the past few days?"
Not quite meeting his eyes, Harley shrugged. "Four black coffees?"
"And one of those muffins." He nodded his head at the glass case full of pastries. "The blueberry ones look deee-licious." Pressing his lips together, he seemed to hold back a giggle that shook his shoulders.
Trying not to roll her eyes, Harley added the muffin to his order. "Do you want it in a to-go bag?"
Shaking his head, he glanced at the empty tables behind him. "Nope. Think I'll eat here."
With a passive nod, Harley finished the transaction and handed him a plate with a blueberry muffin before moving to prepare his coffee. As she handed them over, she felt a twinge of guilt for acting so rude. Maybe he'd been having a bad day during his last visit? With how friendly he was being today, she was the one really coming off as an asshole.
Offering a weak smile, she pushed the little carrier full of coffee across the counter to him. "Better eat fast. Your friends probably won't appreciate their coffee getting cold."
Quirking an eyebrow at her, he glanced down at the four cups and back up to her face. "Friends? Sweetheart, these are all for me."
The grin he gave her showed off his stained teeth and she was certain he was being absolutely serious. He laughed as though sharing an inside joke with himself and turned to take a seat at an empty table near the counter.
As he unwrapped the baked good, Harley busied herself with wiping down the counter. She couldn't help glancing up at him every so often and noticing the way he devoured his food like it was his first meal in weeks. There was no decorum, no table manners. He seemed absolutely famished and desperate for food.
Harley was starting to relate to the feeling.
Next week's rent would be due soon and her last paycheck had only left her something like thirty dollars for groceries. It was enough to keep her fed, but certainly not satisfied. The last few days her only good meal had been the sandwich she was allowed from the café, her dinner consisting of the day old bread from the bakery near her apartment. An hour before close they always sold old bread for a dollar per loaf. Harley just felt it was nice to have something in her price range.
The radio caught her attention and she moved to turn it up. Glancing across the room at the one other person in the shop, she took note of his very empty plate (hardly a crumb left on it) and the book he was reading between swigs of coffee. It would be rude not to ask him if he minded, but she wasn't certain she wanted to interrupt him.
Her fingers turned the dial under the counter ever so slightly and he didn't appear to take notice, so she bumped it up a few notches higher. It was now loud enough to be heard clearly through the shop and he glanced up at her and quirked an eyebrow.
"Is it too much?" There was an apology in her tone, but it rang insincere. "I can turn it down…"
Shaking his head, he waved the offer away and fixed her with a satisfied look. "I didn't peg you as a Bowie fan."
For a long moment she started at him, not quite sure how to respond.
"I would be lying if I said I wasn't a little proud," he continued. "Good to know I've still got good taste."
That comment completely robbed her of any response she may have been forming. Her mouth opened and her browed furrowed. When words still evaded her, she shut her mouth quickly and pulled a face. Surely he couldn't have been implying that he liked her. He hardly even spoke to her. Hell, she didn't even know his name…
"Good taste?" Her voice was weak, completely lacking the challenge building in her blood. "Good taste in what?"
Sucking on his scars, he lowered his head and gazed up at her with hooded eyes. "Cafes, sweetheart." A smirk grew on his face and he cocked his head to the side. "What did you think I was talking about?"
Avoiding the question, Harley turned her attention back to scrubbing the countertops.
"Hey, hey hey." The book snapped shut and he was on his feet, moving to the counter in a few quick strides. "Look at me."
Chewing on her bottom lip, Harley looked up, but couldn't bring herself to meet those dark eyes of his. She had fucked up, clearly she had. It had been silly to think for even a second that he had been implying interest in her.
"Look me in the eyes, sweetheart." There was anger underlying his words and she complied instantly.
Gritting her teeth against the intensity of his stare, she clenched her fists on the counter. "I have a name, you know."
A grin played at the sides of his mouth. "That so?"
He was leaning close to her now, his breath ghosting against her face as he spoke. A blush was starting to color her cheeks and she could feel her breathing hitch. Clearly he'd heard it because his eyes swept down to her lips and back up to her eyes. The pounding of her heart felt as though it may burst through her ribcage, that gut-instinct to lean forward and kiss him nearly too strong to fight.
"Harley," she said at length, the sound of her name feeling thick on her tongue. "My name is Harley."
The narrowing of his eyes was brief, as though he were confused. Just as quickly as it had come, it faded and he grinned as he crossed his arms over his chest.
"Harrrrrleeey." He drew her name out for all it was worth, closing his eyes as though savoring the taste. "Harley what?"
Her lips pressed together tightly. "Hope, because I haven't gotten around to changing it."
"And what would it be if you changed it, Harrrrley?"
It had been years since her mother and father had gotten a divorce. Her good-for-nothing father had willingly walked out of their lives to chase the bottom of countless bottles. She swore she would sever all ties with that man one day by finally getting rid of his last name.
"Quinzel. It was my mother's maiden name." No further explanation seemed necessary. He already had learned far more about her than she had managed to divulge from him.
"Harley Quinzel." A giggle escaped him before he seemed able to stop it. "Harley Quinn. You know, that sounds an awful lot like-"
"Harlequin, I know." The smile she offered was weak, a little half-hearted. "I think that's half the reason I haven't changed it yet."
"Oh, but I like it. It suits you."
"You think so?" That smile of hers turned genuine and she reveled in the way he looked her over.
Another sweep of his eyes and he fixed her with a lazy smirk. "Yep."
A thrill shot through Harley, forcing a quick breath through her teeth. He was looking at her like a predator poised for the kill and somehow she found herself unable to get enough of it. It had been far too long since anyone had looked at her like that. It was downright primal, as though he could spring forward and pull her over that counter and fuck her senseless.
To her surprise, she realized that she absolutely wanted him to.
Not the time, not the place.
"So," she said eventually. "You gonna tell me your name?"
Giving her a casual shrug, he looked over his shoulder out the window. His tongue snaked across his lips and he smirked. "Mmmmm, nope. Don't think I will."
Taking a step back, Harley crossed her arms and matched his pose. "But…why?"
His arms fell to his sides and he moved in a flash. Before Harley had fully registered what he was doing, the coffee carrier was in his hands and he was glancing back at the door.
"It'll give you something to look forward to next time." Raising his eyebrows at her, he took a few steps back toward the door.
"You know, I have no idea what to make of you half the time. You're such a joker."
Amusement lit his eyes and he grinned at her like the devil incarnate. "Caught me."
Unsure what to make of that, Harley watched him slip away, nearly bumping into two cops as he went. With a cheerful smile he apologized and the two officers laughed at something he had said. They let him by and made their way into the shop.
It took Harley a moment to get her head on straight, even after she recognized the two officers. Smith and Kendall were two of her favorite regulars. They came in every few days and filled her in on the latest crime gossip around the city. Nothing too interesting, usually, just a few warnings about which areas to avoid on the way home because of muggings or turf war.
"Good morning, guys." She gave them a genuine smile and managed to pull herself away from the conversation she'd just had with the new regular who stubbornly continued to remain nameless.
"Hey, Harley, how's it going?" Smith smiled, but it was weak, certainly not the cheery look he usually gave her in the morning.
"Keeping busy, as always. How about you? Any news from Gotham's finest?"
A look was exchanged between the two officers and Harley knew that whatever it as must have been good. Far more interesting than the usual muggings and petty crime.
"We're not really supposed to talk about it," Kendall said at length.
Definitely interesting. She leaned on her elbows against the counter. "Who am I gonna tell?"
Smith shrugged and glanced around the shop before leaning closer.
"Bank robberies," he said quietly. "Not your run of the mill shit either. These fuckers are thorough."
There was no hiding how intrigued she was now. "How so?"
"Well, they've been robbing mob banks, for starters." Kendall rolled his eyes at the thought and glanced up at the menu board. "Well, banks suspected of being mob banks." He seemed distracted. "By the way, can we get two large coffees?"
Nodding, Harley began to ring up the order. "Room for cream and sugar?"
Somewhere in the back of her mind, a little voice asked her exactly what 'black' implied, despite neither of them asking for theirs black.
"Yes." Smith nodded and glanced over at Kendall, who mimicked the motion.
Smiling brightly, Harley moved to prepare their order. It was strange how her entire routine had been thrown off by one man. One customer amongst hundreds, and he was the only one that managed to occupy her mind even when he wasn't around.
"So, there's a couple of guys out there trying to rob the mob?" Harley prompted, hoping to hear the rest of the story.
"It's just one guy, by the sound of it." There's was something like awe in Smith's tone, as though he were still amazed by the whole ordeal. "Or rather, there's one guy in charge of the crime ring. I would call them another gang, but that doesn't seem quite their style."
"More like a circus," Kendall said cynically.
Raising an eyebrow, she turned with their coffees in hand. "What, do they dress up?"
"Sort of?" With an appreciative nod, Kendall took the coffee from her. "They wear clown masks. The whole gang. And the boss, he's…he's something. Leaves a calling card."
"He leaves a business card?" Harley's disbelief seeped into her tone and Kendall shook his head in response.
Again the two cops exchanged a look and Harley could tell they were debating whether or not to let her in on information that strictly should have been secret. Splaying her hands on the counter, she leaned toward them and gave a look of interest. When Smith looked at her, she gave an encouraging smile.
"He leaves a joker card," Smith clarified.
"A joker card?" Harley snorted at the thought, not quite able to believe what she was hearing.
These were two upstanding officers with the Gotham police department, two men that she had known personally for the three years she had been working at the coffee shop. They had regaled her with tales of their impressive takedown of crime throughout the city, especially in the past year since the Batman had prompted the people of Gotham to start demanding criminals be brought to justice. Somehow these two men were completely baffled by a group of literal clowns that were leaving joker cards as evidence at their crime scenes. The whole thing seemed ludicrous, at best. That sort of trick sounded like something an amateur would do to try to get his name out.
For just a moment Harley's mind reeled. The way her new regular had grinned when she'd called him a joker. That look of amusement and that smile…
Shaking her head, she pushed away the very idea. Couldn't be. He was quiet and a little off-putting, but he wasn't a bank robber. He bought cheap coffee in the Narrows and had only recently started dressing like he wasn't homeless.
"How many banks has he robbed now?" she asked, turning to start her next pot of coffee.
"Four in the last three months." It was clear that Smith was not particularly pleased or impressed by that. "The locations, everything. It's all completely random. They wiped out First Bank of Gotham on Monday afternoon and got away in a Brinks truck. And so far not a single criminal we have taken off the streets has known a damn thing about this guy short of his penchant for wearing make-up."
Harley raised an eyebrow. "Make up?"
"Face paint, like a clown."
Definitely not her new regular. He'd been in on Monday with no trace of face paint or make up on his face. Even if he'd applied it after getting coffee, that stuff didn't come off easily. Hell, it probably would have been sticking around today, right? It couldn't be him. Absolutely could not. There was a rush of relief at that. Wouldn't it have been just her luck to have a growing crush on a notorious bank robber?
Leaning against the counter, Harley took a moment to convince herself that she was definitely not making up excuses to not be suspicious of him.
One of their radios chirped and Smith rolled his eyes. "Duty calls."
Harley told them to be safe and waved goodbye as they left with their steaming cups. It endlessly amused her that Gotham had a way of attracting the strangest criminals she'd ever heard of. First there had been the Scarecrow last year, some madman that had managed to get some sort of hallucinogen in the water. Now there was some thug robbing banks in make-up and leaving joker cards in his wake.
Maybe someday she would move, find a nice quiet city with sane criminals. Or better yet, some little house in the country where she could settle down and not worry constantly about her safety. That, of course, would imply that she would ever be able to afford to move. Until then she would have to settle for carrying mace on her everywhere she went and praying that none of the weirdos of Gotham took an interest in her.
At least she could rest easy knowing she wasn't particularly interesting. She was just a poor grad-school dropout working at a coffee shop. No one gave a shit about her and she aimed to keep it that way.
That night, Harley set to work on her next painting project. It was a simple piece, something that wouldn't be too difficult to sell to the general public. A nice little sunset scene always went over well.
She was mixing an orange and a pink to highlight the sky when her phone rang. Rolling her eyes, she glanced down at the caller ID. Work. Of course.
"Hello?" Even to her owns ears it was clear she was distracted, but Annika either didn't care of didn't notice. Just heaved a sigh and let silence fill the line for a moment.
"Angelo quit." Annika sounded exhausted and Harley didn't blame her.
The shop was small and Annika couldn't afford to keep more than a few people on staff. There were five of them – make that four – in total. That included Ann and she owned the place. The loss of a staff member meant that there would be a lot of uncovered shifts. Uncovered night shifts, to be exact. No one was particularly fond of working after dark in the Narrows, Harley included.
However, with her last paycheck leaving her something like two hundred dollars short on this coming week's rent, she felt she was ready to jump on the chance to take extra hours.
"You know I'll take his shifts," she said at length, glancing across her living room at the half-finished painting she was working on. "Do you need me to come back tonight?"
Stupid question, really, it was nearly eight and the shop closed at nine.
"We're good tonight. Oh, I knew I could count on you, Harl." The relief was evident in Annika's tone, her breathing even starting to sound more even. "Do you mind working doubles for the next couple of days?"
Shrugging, Harley gave her painting supplies a longing look. "Nah, I could use the extra cash."
"Still haven't found a roommate?"
Heaving a sigh, Harley rested her forehead against her palm and fought a sob she didn't realize was building in her throat.
"Nope." The breath she drew in quivered in her lungs. "I think I'm gonna get evicted, Ann. You'll have to give me a cot in the back after all."
The two of them tried in vain to laugh at that last comment, but both knew it was a very real possibility. If Harley got kicked out, she legitimately would have nowhere to go.
"You could always..." Annika hesitated. "You could always sleep on my couch for a couple of days."
There was a little pang in Harley's stomach that she tried to push away. "That's…that's really nice of you, Ann. I'm sure it will be fine, though. I'll be fine."
On the other side of the line, her boss let out an audible breath. "If you ever need anything, I'll do my best."
Harley blinked against tears. "You spoil me, boss."
Maybe she was hearing things, but Harley could have sworn that Ann's voice was shaking too. It was strange to think that her boss was worrying about her so much. Yes, she was the longest lasting employee that had ever been at the shop. She'd started shortly after Ann had opened the place and never left. The two of them were a team, friends even. Honestly, Annika was the closest friend Harley had. Funny how it took such a desperate situation for her to finally realize that.
"So, I'll see you tomorrow morning?" she asked after a while.
"Yeah. Yeah you will."
They both said goodbye at the same time, giggled, and then hung up. It made Harley's heart hurt to realize that, not only was Annika her best friend, but she was caring enough to offer Harley a place to crash if she got evicted. That circumstance, unfortunately, was looking more likely by the day. No matter how hard she tried, regardless of where she cut corners in her budget, there was just not enough money there for her to continue paying double the rent.
She was going to be homeless, and it was not a matter of "if" so much as "when." That scared her shitless.
The next morning, Annika was obscenely quiet. Harley's attempts to chat were met by awkward silence or half-hearted responses. Harley would have sworn Ann was angry with her if it hadn't been for the sympathetic looks she kept throwing when she didn't think Harley was looking. Though the thought was nice, the act was absolutely maddening.
Yes, things in her life were going downhill. No, she didn't really want to talk about it at length. No, she really didn't want sympathy. This turn of events did not make her a charity case, it just made her more determined than ever to get her art career off the ground. Hell, maybe she could put her Master's degree to use again. The center for at-risk teens might rehire her if she tried hard enough. There was always something she could do. Sympathy just slowed her down.
A few times she tried to bring this up, but Ann shut her down every time. Waved a dismissive hand and told her that she was just distracted, the silence wasn't about her. After three years of working together, Harley could sense Annika's bullshit a mile away. This was no exception.
It came up again after morning rush as Annika was retrieving money from the safe and pointedly ignoring Harley's attempts to start conversation about how the rush seemed a little slow on that particular day. When her attempts to start conversation were once again ignored, Harley flapped her hands in annoyance.
"Christ, Ann, I know something is bothering you." Her tone left no room for argument or evasion. "Would you please just tell me what it is?"
Not looking over her shoulder, Ann sighed and hung her head.
"How much?" she asked, standing up from the counter with a handful of bills.
Harley blinked at her. "Huh?"
Rolling her eyes, Ann shook the wad of bills at her. "How short are you, Harley? How much do you need to pay your bills?"
Those words sunk in and Harley felt a wave of something not unlike disgust. Was she trying to pay for Harley's rent out of the register? It was flattering, undoubtedly. Proved just how deeply Annika valued her and their friendship. But Harley was not a charity case.
"No." Pushing the cash back at Annika, Harley shook her head.
No matter how desperate she was, taking handouts from her boss seemed wrong.
"Call it a pay advance."
Shaking her head, Harley backed away. "No."
"Harley, please. I can't have my best girl get evicted. Not when I can do something about it."
Biting her lip, Harley tried to keep from breathing. There would be tears if she drew breath.
"Let me do this for you, Harley."
The handful of bills was thrust at her again and Harley held up her hands as if surrendering. "I can't let you."
"Why the hell not?" Annika sounded angry now and Harley winced.
"Because." Taking a quaking breath, Harley wiped away tears before they could find refuge on her cheeks. "Because if you give me a pay advance this week, it will just postpone the inevitable. If I don't get kicked out this week, it will be next week, or the week after that. I'm never going to catch up with that place. Even if I manage to pay rent, I still can't afford food. I can't afford my student loan bills. Fuck, I can't afford anything."
Hurt shown in Annika's face. Her eyes widened and narrowed, and her brows knitted together in determination.
"At least we can buy you another week." And with that she shoved a collection of bills into Harley's apron pocket and all but stormed out the door.
Harley's back connected with the counter behind her and her knees gave out. Feeling overwhelmed, she slid down the cupboards to the floor. Through bleary eyes she counted the bills in her hand. Five hundred dollars.
Her hands balled into fists and she shoved the money into her pocket, feeling sick. This made her cheap, this made her desperate. Logically she knew that Annika was only looking out for her wellbeing. The money would buy her another week, long enough to start a thorough search for a new place. Something more in her price range.
But her pride…oh her wounded pride. It hissed in protest at the events that had just transpired. Insisted that she should have been able to make it on her own. Had she been evicted, she would have found her way from there. Would have slept on the streets if she had to. At least it was summer, so she wouldn't freeze to death. At least then she wouldn't have had to accept pity handouts from her fucking boss.
Frustrated, she pressed the heels of her palms against her eyes and let out a growl, slamming her head back against the cupboards. Spots flared in her vision and she groaned at the pain as her fingers clawed at her hair so hard she thought it may rip from her scalp.
It was wrong. She was wrong and pathetic and worthless and weak and…
"What are you doing down there, cupcake?"
That now-familiar voice of her new regular filled her ears and she felt her heart sink.
Harley whipped her head up so fast that it connected painfully with the counter behind her. It made her curse out loud before groaning. Her limbs ached, chest felt constricted, and now her head was pounding. Rubbing the back of her neck, she tried to convince herself to move, which proved far more difficult than it should have been. She didn't even want to look up to meet the eyes of the man speaking to her.
"Sorry." It was hardly more than a whisper. "Just…just give me a minute."
"Are you, uh…okay?" The question sounded awkward, as though asking about someone's wellbeing was miles out of his comfort zone.
Harley didn't answer, just shrugged and heaved a sigh. With some effort, she finally managed to look up at him. When she blinked, she could feel her wet mascara sticking to her skin. She must have looked like hell, all mussed hair, red face, and running eye makeup.
She ran her thumb under her eyes, trying to wipe away the black smear. "I'm…I'm really sorry….I just…I'll get your coffee."
As she got to her feet she could feel his eyes on her, though she didn't look him in the face again. Leaning heavily on the counter, took a moment to catch her breath before taking a cup and beginning to fill it with trembling hands.
"Fuck, sugar, forget the coffee."
Hands gripped her forearms, making her gasp and drop the cup.
"FUCK!" The curse ripped from her lips and she felt tears sting her eyes as those strong hands urged her back from the counter.
She hadn't heard him come around to stand behind her, hadn't even realized he'd moved. Honestly, she wasn't sure he could have gotten to her so fast unless he had jumped the counter.
"Leave it and go sit down." There was no arguing with him, not with that tone.
Not even attempting to protest, she let him lead her past the counter to one of the empty tables, silently grateful that he had been the one to catch her little breakdown. There wasn't even room in her mind to feel embarrassed, the fight with Annika had left her far too raw to feel much of anything.
The heat of his body radiated through the fabric of her shirt and she realized just how close he was to her. His chest was pressed flush against her back for the briefest second before he spun her around and forced her into a chair.
In two quick strides he moved to take the chair opposite her and fixed her with black eyes. Funny, she had nearly forgotten just how much that gaze intimidated her until now. She couldn't bring herself to hold it, opting to bury her face in her hands instead.
"You mind telling me what the fuck is going on?" Was that anger in his tone? Confusion, maybe? Frustration?
Whatever it was, it had her bursting into tears again. Great, painful sobs shook her shoulders and she apologized through gasps as tears streaked her face.
"Harrrrrleeeeyyy." He sing-songed her name and it would have made her uneasy had she been paying proper attention to him. "Look at me, Harley."
Still those sobs continued. Waving her hands, she tried to motion at him to give her just a moment to compose herself. It was a pathetic effort. She needed more than a minute, she needed a fucking century. Needed a miracle. Needed…
His fist slammed on the table, making her jump back as he growled at her. "LOOK AT ME."
The noise was inhuman, not like him at all. Not the voice she was used to, anyway. It frightened away the tears and had her looking up at him in abject terror. His face was contorted in a sneer that barred his yellowed teeth to her and his eyes….she had never seen eyes so black. So fathomless. He was a black hole pulling her in with immeasurable gravity, ready to snuff her out of existence.
"I….I'm sorry. I…" Words escaped her and she sniffed, shaking her head to try to rattle her thoughts into proper order.
A warm hand moved from the table to brush the hair away from her face. Little crescent moons were indented in his palm from digging his fingernails in. It looked painful, but he didn't seem to give them a second thought.
"You gonna talk to me now?" There was an unmistakable warning underneath the friendly tone and she didn't dare tell him anything but yes.
Nodding, she wiped her eyes with her palm. "It's been a really…really rough morning."
Rolling his eyes, he licked his lips and smacked them together impatiently. "Aaaannnnd?"
Sniffling, Harley tried to find a proper way to explain the last few months. Technically he had been around for the worst of it, but she had never actually told him about any of it.
"It's kind of a long story." That excuse wasn't going to cut it and she realized as much.
He raised his eyebrows at her and cocked his head, nodding for her to go on.
"Are you sure you want to hear it?"
"You're testing my patience, Harley."
She knew damn well that was the last thing she wanted to do. Testing him in any way, shape, or form right now seemed to absolutely not be in her best interest. Heaving a sigh, she did her best to conjure words and she blew the breath out through her teeth in a rush.
"I've been working here for three years and until now it has paid my bills." A twist in her gut had her pausing, but she willed herself to go on. "This job got me through my Master's degree and when I moved on to my PhD I managed to cut down on hours so that I could work at a shelter with at-risk teens. In May last year the guy I was seeing talked me into dropping out of grad school. Said that working on my dissertation made me moody and it made it difficult for him to focus on his studies. I lost the internship at the shelter and started working here full time. Last November I broke it off with him. There was a big fight, it was a mess. So, I moved in with this girl I met off an ad in the paper. Didn't seem like a terrible idea, we were both quiet and stayed out of each other's hair, for the most part. But the rent was higher, so I had to work extra hours and it still wasn't enough." Running a hand through her half-destroyed ponytail, she breathed deep against the constriction in her chest. It was fine. She could do this. "I started defaulting on my loans and knew I wouldn't be able to go back to school, even though I had promised myself that I would. Started picking up hours left and right here to try to catch up. That was going okay until about two weeks ago when the roommate just…she just left. No warning or anything. Just…gone."
She glanced up at his face to find no hint of sympathy. There was no doubt he was listening intently given the way his eyes burned at her, but his expression was unreadable.
"I…I've been picking up extra hours here," she went on. "Haven't had a day off since a two Sundays ago. I've been trying to sell my art, but no one is buying. We pay rent weekly and right now I'm two hundred dollars short because I decided I needed to eat and take the subway and there's a damn good chance my landlord is going to kick me out on the streets within the month. I just need time to find a new place, you know? And then last night Annika called and asked if I wanted to work a double today because one of the guys quit. I really don't mind. More money, right? So I accidentally let it slip on the phone that I was probably losing my place when we talked and she acted funny all morning, until like ten minutes ago when she left for the bank and handed me a handful of money from the till." Her hand went to her pocket and she felt the wad of cash still tucked there. "I can't let her do that. I feel so fucking guilty. This place is her life and I can't…just…take money like that. I'm not a charity case. I'd rather, I don't know, whore myself out, or rob a bank, or something."
The laugh he let out sounded unhinged and had her looking up from the thumbs she was twiddling on the table.
"You haven't got bank robbin' in ya, sugar," he said matter-of-factly. "And you're far too proud to be a hooker."
"There is nothing wrong with sex work."
"Never said there was. Just said you're too proud to do it."
Not quite looking him in the eyes, she shrugged. "I'm not so sure about that anymore. I could sacrifice my pride for a few hundred bucks a night."
He snorted. "You're worth at least a grand, sweetheart."
Despite herself, she felt the hot sensation of a blush coloring her cheeks. "You think so?"
Looking her over, he made a noise that was almost lecherous. Those black eyes were burning again, and this time Harley could have sworn it was lust that lit the fire. His lip twitched as though to say something, but he shook his head. "It doesn't matter what I think."
Cold disappointment shot down Harley's spine. Of course he stubbornly refused to give her the satisfaction of getting a straight answer about whether or not he was attracted to her. Hell, she didn't even know if he liked her. Well, that may have been a lie. A guy didn't pull you up at your weakest and attempt to comfort you if they didn't have some semblance of emotional attachment to you. Not his type, at least. The fact he was even trying to comfort her seemed like a miracle. She considered pointing out any number of these things, but she didn't push the matter. It didn't seem worth riling him over.
"You know, you never told me your name," she said, pulling the ponytail holder from her hair and letting loose a mess of dark blonde tresses.
The muscles in her shoulders were starting to relax, the pounding in her head began to subsided with her now-even breaths. Running her fingers through her hair, she tried to ease away any tangles before returning it to the ponytail.
Across the table, she noticed that his leg had begun to bounce distractedly. His eyes were on the ceiling, clearly avoiding contact with her.
"Is this another 'no', then?" She stopped playing with her hair and moved her fingers to massage the back of her neck.
Black eyes snapped down and pinned her in place, his tongue snaking out across his lips. "You know, I never got my coffee today."
Fixing him with an annoyed scowl, she began to move to her feet. One of those warm hands clapped down on her shoulder and he pushed her back into place.
"Just thinking out loud, sweetheart. I can get it myself."
Deep down she knew she should object, should get up and tell him that the area behind the counter was for employees only. That he wasn't allowed to do her job for her, seeing as their talk had left her feeling mostly capable. Yet, as she opened her mouth to do so, she couldn't quite manage the words.
Every attempt to get to her feet had her exhausted muscles screaming in protest, and she couldn't quite bring herself to ignore them. Defeated, she glanced up at him as he passed her, making his way behind the counter and beginning to pour himself a cup of coffee.
"Sure did manage to make a mess back here, didn't you?" he teased, grabbing a handful of paper towel and beginning to mop up the coffee spill that surrounded the carafe and ran down the front of the cupboard door.
"I can clean that. It is my job."
Even after making the offer she made no effort to move. It was far more entertaining to watch him move behind the counter, his lips moving silently and twitching up at the scarred edges. His head bobbed to the tempo of the song on the radio and she realized suddenly that he was mouthing to words.
"You, uh, want a cup?" he asked over the sound of coffee pouring into the thick paper cup.
"You still avoiding my question?"
"I am not. If I didn't want to answer, I just wouldn't." He grimaced at the cup he'd poured before downing the still-steaming liquid and beginning to pour another. "It's, uh, Jack. Friends call me J."
"Jack?" The name felt right on her tongue, suited him well. "It's a good name. I like it."
Shaking his head, he rolled his eyes at her. "We're friends, aren't we, sugar?"
The annoyance threw her for just a moment before she realized that he'd said that his friends called him J, and yet she had called him Jack. A little thrill made her insides coil and dance. Friends. He said they were friends. Grinning, she nodded enthusiastically. "Of course we are, J."
As he turned back to her, two coffees in hand, he was chuckling at a joke that she wasn't in on. He did that often, she had noticed. Everything was funny to him, even things that probably should not have been. It made the permanent smile seem even more at home on his face.
Not that she even noticed those scars anymore. For the first day or two that he had been in she had been distracted by them, fascinated by the way they would twist and indent as he mindlessly played with them as she took his order. Since then, they had begun to blend in with the rest of his face, and they certainly didn't distract from his handsome features by any means.
A black coffee was set in front of her and she grinned up at him, taking a careful sip and grimacing slightly at the bitterness.
"I see you didn't leave room for cream and sugar," she teased.
He sat across from her again and took a long pull from his own cup. Smacking his lips, he savored the taste before moving his eyes to her. "No sense in sugar coating things. It's all bitter in the end."
"Well, aren't you just a fucking ray of sunshine? You always this cynical, or did I just catch you on a particularly good day?" Her mouth ran away before she could control herself and found herself immediately regretting it.
Darkness found its way into his eyes and she worried for a moment that he may get up and leave. But then he threw his head back and laughed that mad cackle of his, which put her somehow more on edge.
"You are an absolute riot, you know that?" Taking a deep breath, his face grew serious. As his eyes searched her face he stayed silent, taking her expression in carefully before continuing. "But I'm not cynical, sweetheart, I'm a realist. This world is a bitter, awful place. You should know that better than anyone."
Shrugging, Harley glanced down at the black liquid in front of her. "I just like my sugar where I can get it. There's enough bullshit in my life. I need something that doesn't leave a bad taste in my mouth."
His eyes lit up as she spoke and she could have sworn he didn't even blink. For the first time in their short friendship, she felt she was legitimately interesting him. It encouraged her to go on, and once she set her mind to it, she didn't seem able to stop.
"With all the bad stuff that's been going on, I've gotta try to find some light in it, you know?" As she tried to find the right words, she took drink of coffee. This time the bitterness was not so overwhelming. "And if that light is the sugar in my coffee, then so be it. Lately the shit has been stacking up faster than I can shovel it, but I'm fighting tooth and nail to keep my head on straight. Like… I've been painting again because I need to sell some for extra cash. That's my first real passion and I hadn't done it for months, until a few weeks ago. Not that I've sold any yet, but it reminded me of how important it is to do things I enjoy. There's darkness everywhere and this city completely drains the soul of the less fortunate. We just have to find a way to fight back. Mine is painting and sugar in my coffee."
Silently, he stared at her and drummed his fingers against the table. "Why not actually fight for it, though? Physically take your happiness back from the city that insists on stealing it every day. This city and the people in it walk on you. The wealthy see you living in squalor and do nothing to help. Doesn't it make you angry? Make you wanna teach 'em a lesson?"
Shaking her head, Harley folded her hands on the table and leaned toward him. "Of course it makes me angry. It's just…I know they'll never actually care. They'll never be made to care. Because one person fighting against a whole city won't prove a thing. We can listen to all the Against Me songs we want and sing about how 'baby, I'm an anarchist,' but no one ever does anything. No one has the balls to do anything. It is way easier to have my little corner of the world where I can paint and mind my own business. I ignore the gunshots outside and mind my own business and it works alright for me, just so long as I can stay hidden there."
He listened intently to her, drinking in every word she said. Eventually his head dipped and he stared up at her amusedly. "If your landlord has his way, you won't have a place to hide come next week. You'll have to come out of your little corner and stand up with the rest of us."
Raising an eyebrow at him, she leaned a little further onto her elbows. "The rest of us? What? Are you planning a revolution?"
He moved in his seat, twitching side to side as he continued to dissect her with his gaze. "You don't plan a revolution, sweetheart. You plan strategic moves and allow the revolution to rise up around you."
"You sound like you're a fucking war general."
Those eyes lit up in amusement and he smirked up at her. "Something like that."
Unsure of quite what he meant, she cocked her head to the side and tried to decide how to go about getting him to explain himself. He was speaking in riddles, in dark metaphors of fire and blood. It was an idea she could get behind, of that she was almost certain. When he talked about making the city realize its filth by drawing it out as openly as possible, Harley felt she understood the logic there. She also knew that, though revolution and reclaiming the city for the deserving sounded nice in theory, it would be hell in practice.
The bell chimed and all of the questions bubbling inside of Harley died as an older gentleman walked up to the counter. She shot J an apologetic look and got up to do her job. He ordered a latte that she prepared in a rush and hoped to send him on his way with just as quickly. To her disappointment, he went and took a seat over near the window. So much for continuing that little conversation with J, whom she expected to get up and leave any time now, just as he did every time someone else came into the shop.
This time, however, he surprised her. He got up from his chair and came up to stand across the counter from her. Her coffee was offered to her as he looked her over with an unreadable expression.
"Guess I should get back to work," she muttered, picking up a rag from the sink and moving to wipe down the counters.
He made no attempt to show he had heard her, just silently watched her work. Eventually he let out a long breath and looked her over. "Do you enjoy this, Harley?"
Shrugging, she scrubbed circles on the front counter. "I guess so. It's not the worst job."
"What would you do if you could do anything?"
"Well, I was getting my PhD to specialize in art therapy. So, I would probably do that. Or I would just paint."
"No coffee shop?" He seemed amused at this.
"The coffee shop is important. I think everyone should have to work in customer service of some kind. It's the key to world peace, you know? Learn to respect other people and fake it til you make it. I think everyone would be a lot nicer to each other. But I wouldn't want to stay here, no."
He ran a hand over his face and regarded her strangely before deadpanning, "If you could have anything in the world, what would it be?"
Harley responded instantly. "Enough money to pay my bills and be comfortable. Nice apartment, well stocked cupboards."
"No big mansion or fancy cars?" He sounded like he was teasing, but Harley couldn't be sure. "The whole world is offered and you just want a nice apartment?"
Shrugging, Harley worked at a particularly stubborn spot where coffee had splattered earlier. "I'm a woman of simple tastes."
"Oh, come on!" He was grinning ear to ear now, his voice loud enough to make the man sitting by the window look up from the newspaper he was reading. "I tell you that you could have anything in the world and you tell me that you would be fine with things as they are so long as you didn't have to worry where your next meal was coming from?"
"Well…yeah. When you spend every night crying because you couldn't afford food and you probably won't be able to pay rent, it really sorts your priorities out." Looking up at him, she shrugged and tried to read his expression. He was smiling and his eyes were burning, but it was clearly not because he thought she was funny.
She watched the indent of his cheek as he sucked at the scar tissue inside his cheek. That smile had disappeared and his eyes were searching her face for something.
"I underestimated you," he said eventually. "I'm really sorry I did that."
Cocking her head, she tried and failed a few times to ask him what the hell he meant. Should she be offended that he had underestimated her? It sounded almost like an insult, but she couldn't decide which of them it was actually aimed at.
His eyes fell to the counter and he began digging in his pocket. "Not gonna do that again though. Not again." Those curls of his shook violently and she was almost certain he talking to himself rather than to her.
When he pulled his wallet out, something fell with it and began to flutter toward the ground. With quickness she didn't realize he had in him, he snatched the object out of the air and put it back in his pocket. Harley didn't get a good look, but she could have sworn it was a playing card. She almost asked, but wasn't sure he would give her a straight answer. For a split second she was reminded of the cops from yesterday telling her about the bank robber that left joker cards in his wake.
That thought was pushed away just as quickly when he handed her a ten and she realized he was paying for his coffee. "Keep the change."
Guilt made her bones feel stiff and she tried to object, but he shook his head. "I know you ain't a charity case, sugar. I just like you. Make sure you buy yourself something to eat." His eyes travelled from the once well-fitting pants that now sagged on her hips, to the skin of her chest that stretched too tightly against her collarbones. "Starvation's starting to catch up with ya."
He took both of their coffees from the table as he went and disappeared out the door before she even managed to thank him.
The older man by the window looked up curiously as he went and together they watched out the window as he disappeared into the crowd.
"That your boyfriend?" the old man asked, turning his attention to Harley.
Snorting a laugh, she shook her head. "Nah, just a friend."
"Kind of a strange fellow, isn't he?"
Pressing her lips together to hold back a laugh, Harley nodded. "Yeah. Good heart, though."
The old man shrugged and turned his attention back to his newspaper. The whole thing left Harley feeling confused, as she always did after her interactions with him – with Jack. He was unpredictable. Friendly and caring one moment, dismissive and standoffish the next. Today had been a good day, despite the odd questions he had asked her. It was like he was trying to get to know her innermost self, but had no idea how to actually go about it. She never hid anything from him, though. Didn't think she was capable. She liked him too much for that, wanted his approval too badly.
When the bell chimed above the door, she looked up to see Annika come back. It sent a thrill of anxiety through Harley and she took a deep breath before offering a hello. Annika smiled warily at her, but didn't speak as she came behind the counter.
"Hey." Harley's insides twisted as she spoke, but she fought off the ill feelings. "I'm really sorry about earlier. I…I appreciate everything you're trying to do for me."
There was silence as Annika turned to face her, smiling a little sadly as she nodded. "I should be apologizing. Springing that shit on you wasn't cool. I'm just so worried about you, Harl. You're my friend and I want to make sure you don't end up on the street."
"And I'm so worried about being a charity case that I can't accept, legitimate kindness sometimes." Harley laughed a little sadly and shook her head. "I really appreciate what you're doing to help me."
Annika grinned, clapping a hand on Harley's shoulder. "If I thought you were a burden, I wouldn't help you. Never think that I'm doing this because I feel bad for you or because I feel like I have to. I want to. Trust me."
Tears pricked at Harley's eyes and she smiled a little sadly. "I love you, Ann."
"Yeah, yeah." Annika waved a hand, but Harley could see the way her eyes were starting to mist over. "You better." They pulled each other close and Annika buried her face in Harley's hair. "I love you too."
Work went faster after that, the two of them finally falling back into their familiar banter. It was a sort of comfort knowing that she would be able to pay rent and buy food. Now that she was thinking with a level head, Annika's help was both welcome and needed. She still wasn't proud of the fact she needed help, but knowing that people would help willingly made her feel slightly better.
By the time she go home, she felt significantly better. It was a long, slightly terrifying walk seeing as she was getting home after dark, but with her pepper spray clenched tightly in her had, she knew no one would try anything. And if they did, she would fuck them up.
She made her way up the stairs to the fourth floor. As she stepped off the landing into the hall, she noticed something sitting near her door. Raising an eyebrow, she made her way toward the door, realizing with each step that it was an envelope, and it was wedged under her door.
Uncertainly she bent down and picked it up, noticing it was blank. When she opened the flap of the envelope, she noticed it was full of cash. Her blood ran cold and she quickly unlocked the door and slipped inside, immediately locking the door behind her. Biting her lip, she pulled out the stack of bills. There was so much money, more money than she had ever held in her hand at once.
Three times over she counted the cash, realizing in awe that there were ten-thousand dollar there. There must have been a mistake, someone must have believed that someone else lived in her apartment. Maybe they were aiming for the drug dealer down the hall?
Momentarily she debated putting it back, throwing it into the hall and hoping the right person would come across it. But, then again, she needed the money desperately and throwing it back into the hall would just leave it for someone else to stumble across. So what if someone had left the money at the wrong door? It was hers now and she needed it.
Again she picked up the envelope, searching it for something she had missed. A note maybe or an address it should arrive to. There was something in the bottom that she could see. Something that didn't seem to want to come out. Reaching into the envelope, she gripped the thick paper in between her fingers and pulled it out, feeling the glossy exterior.
When she looked down a gasp escaped her and a feeling of dread bloomed deep in her stomach. It was a card, a card that damned her new friend. Suddenly the fears she had been holding in for days was confirmed and she could feel sickness kicking deep in her gut. Jack was not who he pretended to be, and suddenly the danger she had sensed from him felt all too obvious. The signs had all been there and she had pointedly ignored them because she didn't want them to be true.
But this was undeniable, the damning evidence laid right out clear as day.
Between her trembling fingers there was a Joker card and she knew without a doubt it had come from him.