Ever since the Halloween five years ago where the Scarecrow had tainted countless batches of fireworks with his fear toxin, fireworks were harder to get in Gotham than pure crack cocaine.
But fireworks – really spectacular ones in all colours of the spectrum, dandelioning into glorious fountains of vivid colour, whizzing through the air to spot the sky like dying stars exploding – were absolutely critical to this plan, the Joker had decided.
So even though it set his scheme back a couple of months, which made things difficult in all sorts of ways – the Clown Prince of Crime was not precisely inconspicuous – he took the time to source the very best, the very brightest to be found and had them smuggled in.
He had been staring at them where they were stacked in one of his warehouse strongholds with a delighted smile, rubbing his hands together in anticipatory glee at what was to come. Yes, fireworks. Beautiful, sparkly, shiny, boisterous, brassy fireworks. Just the thought of them made his heart flutter a little – made it throb when he pondered the mischief they would accompany.
Harley had been parading about behind him where he stood, gleefully grinning at his mountain of fireworks. He was just barely aware of her as she hummed cheerily to herself, loading the cartridges into her over-sized pop gun. The special new cartridges he'd whipped up for her, so that she'd be properly themed for his spectacle – and because his collection of exploding sparklers put him in a jovial mood and he recalled she'd once said that fireworks made her all tingly inside.
"Pow! Bam!" Harley exclaimed and though he didn't turn to look at her he could imagine the poses she was striking, and his smile grew. She was excited. He was excited. They'd been looking forward to this for so long. It was going to be wonderful, and they'd dance together beneath the rainbow explosions that would illuminate the sullen Gotham sky while people fell screaming and laughing in the streets.
"Kablammie!" Harley cried out again and this time there'd been a loud, sharp bang and he'd jumped.
She'd pulled the trigger, unable to resist testing out her new toys.
He'd whirled to her to find her standing, gun clutched in both hands, eyes round and wide, staring up after the cartridge as it fizzed through the air, trailing a stream of sparkling red dust.
"Ooooh," she said wonderingly and he preened, pleased with the result. Just little fireworks they were, designed to do loop-de-loops through the air, twisting this way and that before finally bursting into a miniature peony of colour. Harmless, but so complementary to his grand design.
"Puddin', it's so pretty!" she squealed, watching as the hissing stream of light whirled through the air, leaping over their heads and twisting in its trajectory, just as he'd designed it to do. He smiled and rocked back on his heels, following the tiny firework's path with his eyes.
Then the smile fell abruptly from his face.
With a high pitched whine, the firework sailed straight towards the stacked up pile of rockets not eight feet from him.
His eyes bulged, his hands curled into fists and his teeth gritted as he beheld the inevitable. Behind him he heard Harley magnificently understate: "Uh-oh."
Then the firework landed.
All was quiet for a moment, the warehouse seeming to hold its breath in unison with theirs.
Then there was a sinister hiss, a spray of gold sparks and a low rumble which steadily and rapidly increased, the floorboards vibrating beneath his wingtips as one rocket quivered, jerked then abruptly shot upwards, following swiftly by several others, the air filling with their whining shrieks.
The Joker tipped his head back and watched them as they flew upwards, bursting through the ceiling, whizzing, twisted tubes seeming to scream their freedom and swell with the urge to explode, his jaw tight, teeth grinding. His whole body tensed hard as rock, riveting him to the spot before abruptly cracking and he whirled on his heel and made for the exit as the first bright bursts of colour blossomed in the sky above the warehouse with triumphant bellows.
In the car he hunched over, his hands balled in his lap, teeth still grinding, staring blindly out at the street, heedless of the cars that honked and swerved to avoid them, the bodies that thunked against the bonnet and shrieked. Fading in the distance he could hear the pops and claps as his beautiful, glorious fireworks continued to detonate, could imagine their exquisite beauty speckling the night sky above the harbour.
It took him a few moments to realise that the car had stopped, he'd gotten out of it and walked up through the garage into the crumbling old townhouse lair, standing there in the dark, flexing and unflexing his hands.
He slowly became aware that Harley was tiptoeing quietly around him, securing the locks and locating a floor lamp which threw a muted light about the dusty living room, glancing at him nervously and wringing her hands.
She trembled fitfully as he regarded her with wide, dry eyes, crossing her arms across her breast and hunching her shoulders over.
She gnawed her lower lip with her teeth, her eyes wet and fearfully wide. They stood facing each other in the shadowy living room amidst mouldering velvet furniture and stuffed animals, she shaking and meek, he still and coiled.
The sheer magnitude of her goof overwhelmed him. It seemed impossible. His rage was so absolute he was numb. He blinked at her and she sobbed.
"I'm s-so sorry, M-Mistah J," she stammered and it snapped him out of his spell.
Fury flooded through him like lava, firing every limb with murderous lust, the urge to dig his fingers into soft flesh and tear chunks away, to drive his foot again and again into her screaming face as it mashed into a mess of tissue and blood, to dismember and disembowel and become saturated in all the sticky matter that comprised her being, that made up the hopeless, disgusting little screw-up.
He started towards her, baring his teeth, hands lifting into hooked claws anticipating the feel of her throat collapsing beneath his grip.
Harley sobbed again and flinched, quivering and yet – yet at once she came forward, her eyes suddenly filled with – with relief.
The Joker halted in his path, hands dropping to dangle by his sides. Relief.
She really was just so. Sorry.
She'd welcome the beating. And that's all it would be. Oh she'd probably pee blood for a week or so, but he wouldn't kill her.
She wanted to atone through that pain. She wanted to.
She was blinking at him nervously, her forehead creased with confusion, waiting for him to vent his rage upon her little body. Simply waited. In trepidation, but fearless too.
Still he stood there, staring at her with eyes that prickled beneath the need to blink.
She hesitated, then edged towards him.
"I messed up, Boss," she managed in a little voice. "I messed up big. I'm sorry." Fat tears suddenly spilled over her cheeks, blurring her eyes.
He stared down at her, the muscles of his jaw slowly loosening, his clenched hands relaxing as she dared to move closer.
"Won'tcha talk to me, Boss?" she enquired pleadingly, tears still rolling freely. "Won'tcha rouse on me? I can never forgive myself."
She really couldn't, he realised. Not if he didn't pummel her into oblivion.
She was right in front of him now, arms still crossed over her chest, peeking up at him fearfully, but not backing away. Ready to take it, willing to do her penance.
And still he did nothing but stare, his face now still and expressionless, gazing down at her where she stood in front of him, her upturned face pleading, yearning for him to inflict all his fury upon her so that she could feel that he cared – to let out his rage so she could be considered punished and then all could go back to the way it was.
Moments of clarity always brought the Joker a sort of giddy, cruel joy. He felt it bubble within him, drowning out the rage as he gazed upon Harley's tremulous expression.
Then he turned on his heel and walked away from her.
"Boss?" she squeaked behind him. "Mistah J? Please! No, please!"
She was suddenly on the floorboards at his feet, grasping at the cuff of his trousers, clinging to his leg.
"Mistah J, please. Please punish me, please. I deserve it, I deserve it."
He remained silent, unperturbed, just shook her off as though she were nothing more than a bramble snagged there – not rough nor cruel, but matter-of-fact – indifferent. She screamed as he continued towards the door and the raw pain in her cry soothed the bitterness of his lost fireworks.
"You have to punish me!" She sobbed. She was crawling after him now, hiccoughing in dismay, snatching at his ankles. "Please, I'm so sorry! I deserve it, I'm sorry, you need to hurt me, you need to!"
The Joker reached the door that led to the bedroom, allowing himself a small, mean smile as he kept his back to her, ignoring the desperate tugging at his tailcoats. Yes, he needed to hurt her, he did, he did and he was. This was better than beating her. So. Much. Better.
The door swung open with a creak and he reached behind him, grabbed his coat and yanked it out of her grip. No, he wouldn't even touch her to remove her hands from him.
"No!" She cried out, on her knees in the dust, choking over her sobs. She would've taken her beating silently. This suffering was so much sweeter. "Don't go away. Please – hit me!"
He stepped quickly into the bedroom and shut the door crisply behind him, locking it. Then he leaned against the wood, pressing his body against it and shut his eyes, feeling giddy sensation rocket and sparkle through him as Harley pummelled the door from the other side with desperate fists.
"Please, please," she wailed, her voice raw with misery. "Hit me!"
He shivered, ecstasy thudding through his veins like sparkling trails of glitter, savouring the sound of her agony. The door shook rhythmically with a series of loud thuds and he realised she was beating her head against it, her muffled, whining voice repeating over and over: "Hitmehitmehitmehitme!"
He felt the tug of his lips as they curved into a delicious smile, felt happiness burst like bright confetti-streaks of colour inside him as Harley's voice rose in one final, rasping entreaty: "Please!"
Then there was nothing but the sound of her broken sobs. He imagined her out there, curled up into a pathetic little ball at the door, weeping into the dust and riveted with torment at the awful reality that was not anger, nor frustration or even disappointment. That was nothing that could be appeased and cajoled. Simply the awful cruelty of his indifference.
He giggled silently and relished the sensation of erupting bliss dance through him. Fireworks.