The Joker was leering with his full mouth of glistening white teeth on display, posed with one leg kicked out, leaning on his cane. His eyes glittered with an odd combination of lechery and indulgence with his free arm wrapped around the petite shoulders of Harley Quinn. She stood by his side, gazing up at him with liquid blue eyes, unutterable adoration lighting them from deep within. She was as close to him as she could be, arms wrapped tight around the maniac's waist, balanced on the toe of one foot, her other kicked up behind her.
The monitor shimmered in the darkness of the Batcave, the frozen image on it seeming to shift as the reflection of Alfred Pennyworth moved across it while the man himself descended the stairs in the background. His polished black shoes moved with quiet precision across the stone, knowing the layout of the cave so well by now that the sudden shift from well-lit mansion to gloomy subterranean dwelling did not phase him in the slightest.
In his hands he bore a tray, carrying a silver coffee pot, steam billowing from its spout, and a plate bearing a mound of sandwiches and a covered miniature soup tureen. As he approached the monstrous computer, he cast a sardonic eye at the displayed image of the two villains.
"They certainly seem happy," he remarked in quietly clipped tones and glanced at the cowled figure who hunched at the desk, glaring silently up at the photo.
"They've redefined the world to suit their distorted sense of reality. In this way they've unburdened themselves from the rules and standards of society. They perceive their behaviour as free from consequence. Of course they look happy."
The older man did not even roll his eyes at the Batman's terse lecture, quietly enduring the thoughtless condescension with the manner of one much accustomed to it. The same sort of remark that would've had Dick Grayson storming out of the cave in frustration, Barbara Gordon switching off her cam with an irritated sigh and even the good-natured Tim Drake grimacing indignantly.
Alfred set the tray down on the nearby table by his employer's elbow.
"Well, Sir, if you've finished brooding over the happiness your arch-nemesis has found in the arms of a woman, perhaps you'd care to turn your attention to a little sustenance before you head out to Miss Vreeland's ball? That is, if you haven't lost your appetite."
The Batman finally cast a glowering look at the tray of food beside him then stood up, kicking back his seat as he did so.
"The ball. I'd forgotten," he muttered, lifting his hands to tug off the armoured black cowl for the first time in many hours.
"I took the liberty of pressing your tuxedo and bringing it down earlier, anticipating that you would become preoccupied in your work here. It's hanging adjacent to the shower along with your razor and toothbrush." The loyal manservant cocked a brow as he observed the Batman's grizzled chin. "My skills at prediction have increased exponentially over the years for some reason."
The vigilante gave his oldest and most dear friend a slightly reproachful look then shrugged off his cape, letting it slide to the floor. Alfred folded his arms and once more ran his eyes over the super villain duo displayed in vibrant colour, the image occupying the largest of the fleet of monitors that ran almost the full length of the rock-face they were stacked against.
"Miss Quinn must have a high level of stamina to keep up with the deranged Clown Prince," Alfred remarked, stooping to retrieve the cape from where it had coiled on the stone floor. "Though one might say the same of the Joker. She certainly seems to be something of a match for him."
The hiss of water echoed off the stone walls as the Batman turned on the taps, stepping immediately beneath the ice-cold spray.
"He remade her in his own twisted image, Alfred," Batman's voice rose above the water as he switched the water to hot, squeezing shampoo into his cupped hand. "She survives because he oppresses her personality beneath the force of his ego. She gratifies his narcissism but he cannot tolerate her as anything more than a reflection of himself. She has to be a match to him or she fails as his creation. Yet he has not been able to absolutely suppress her spirit."
"Perhaps he enjoys the challenge," Alfred was busying himself carefully placing away his young employer's Batsuit, arranging each item within its special storage casket with care, ensuring each seam was straight and each plate of armour carefully hooked to its partner, then smoothing down the folds of the cape around the whole. When he had finished, the costume looked as though it were being worn by some unseen occupant. "Perhaps, dare I say it, the grinning ghoul has lived so long a solitary life that he even enjoys the company. Even the most solitary man on earth has been known to occasionally crave companionship." His gaze was pointed as he spoke those words, but beneath the spray of the shower, the Batman did not notice.
The Batman switched the water once more to ice cold, sloshing the heavy jet through his hair.
"It isn't the companionship that he delights in, Alfred. It's the control – the power. The thrill of knowing she was once his psychiatrist – though she was never truly qualified – and now is his slave."
"Strong choice of wording, Sir," Alfred replied drily, with one cocked eyebrow as the Batman turned the water off and stepped from the shower cubicle, reaching out for the towel his manservant held out to him.
The Batman shook out his hair, squinting against the water in his eyes. "But true words. There's no kinship there or commonality." He wrapped the towel around his body and began to dry himself as Alfred moved quietly back to the Batcomputer and retrieved the tray of food he'd prepared. "He's incapable of relating to her on any level and she can only continue to strive for connection. She's desperate to please him, desperate for him to regard her in any sort of favourable light and so she'll conform to his every wish." He did not notice when Alfred placed the tray down on the basin as he switched on his electric razor.
"Yet she seems to amuse him," Alfred's face was thoughtful as he regarded the still image once more, his dark brows slightly knotted as though pondering a perplexing puzzle.
Batman completed his shave, then reached for a comb to style his damp hair. "Of course she does, Alfred. She represents everything he finds most amusing about our world. To him, she only reaffirms his darkest beliefs – that we are all corrupt at heart and nothing is sacred. Nothing." He spoke the final word viciously, glowering at himself in the mirror before turning away sharply, led into bad humour by his thoughts.
As he turned his back to Alfred, the older man's nostrils flared delicately. "Sir, you seem to have ripped open a stitch or two." The calm dryness of his voice belied the glint of concern in his eyes.
Batman waved an impatient hand as he reached for his white dress shirt. "Leave it, Alfred. It will heal."
"Not before spreading a lovely scarlet stain across that crisp white Italian silk, Sir," the manservant pointed out coolly as he moved swiftly to retrieve surgical utensils he was as skilled with as he was in polishing silver. "And then whatever will Miss Candi say? Or will it be Miss Andi this evening? I suppose it couldn't be Miss Bambi. She doesn't quite fit the rhyming scheme, and you do have something of a penchant for perfection."
A close observer may have noticed the faintest twinkle in the old man's eye as his young employer cast a reproving glare upon him. The Batman was such a close observer and made as though his acquiescing to Alfred's first aid intentions was a snub, quietly turning his back on his loyal friend.
The two sat in silence for a moment as Alfred deftly threaded the surgical wire through the Batman's much abused flesh, and then the older man spoke:
"I suppose her years of medical school would come in handy to him at any rate."
The Batman lurched forward a little, pulling the stitches tight, barely flinching. "Exactly, Alfred. The Joker is a cunning animal. He comprehends her usefulness and exploits it to full advantage. Not just her ability to nurse him to health." Alfred finished tying off the stitches and indicated with a pat on Batman's shoulder that he could resume dressing. "With her innocuous appearance, she can cover for him, provide distractions and carry out errands – "
"Oh, by the way, Sir, Lucius Fox rang, wanting to know why you vanished so abruptly during the shareholder's meeting yesterday. I explained you brought a touch of fever back with you from Cuba and made the necessary apologies." Alfred packed away the suturing equipment as his master swiftly shrugged on his shirt, tucking it into his dress pants.
" – she can take care of middling detail such as keeping him fed and clothed and in comfortable surroundings – "
Alfred paused in his vigorous polishing of a kidney dish and raised an eyebrow in the direction of what was swift becoming Bruce Wayne, pulling on his freshly laundered socks.
" – and she can take the fall for him when things go awry," Bruce finished, slipping his feet into handmade leather shoes.
"Let's hope it doesn't come to that," Alfred muttered. "Oh dear, Sir, do allow me," he continued in a much louder voice as he watched his master fumble with his bow tie. "I am somewhat practiced." The classic mark of a refined gentleman had been a mainstay of the butler's uniform for almost fifty years, and his own were always perfect. He crossed the room to the man he'd been guardian to for so many years and deftly pulled the lengths of black fabric through his fingers, tying the most precise bow as Bruce calmly waited, chin tilted upwards.
"Where is this ball again, Alfred?" Bruce queried when Alfred stepped back, surveying his work with a critical eye.
"Miss Vreeland's estate, Sir," the old man repeated patiently and turned to retrieve the tray of food as Bruce moved to grab his dress coat. "Sir, would you humour an old friend and take a bite to eat before heading out for another taxing evening? I did, after all, season the chicken myself."
Bruce surveyed the plate with a critical eye for a moment as he put on his coat. "No sweets?" he questioned gruffly. Alfred pursed his lips and blinked mildly.
"Pardon me Sir, there was pudding, but I thought perhaps you'd find that in poor taste, given the circumstances."
For a moment their eyes locked, one pair cool and collected, the other suspicious and searching, scanning expertly for the merest trace of humour. After a moment, the solemn and smooth face of Bruce Wayne cracked with a slight half-smile.
"Now that they're back in Arkham, I can turn my mind to other matters," he muttered, turning to survey himself in the full length mirror, straightening his coat. "At least until the next time they break out."
"You do not entertain much hope for Miss Quinn's ultimate recovery then, Sir?"
Bruce Wayne paused on his way to the cave's exit, glancing sideways at the displayed image of the Clown Prince and his Devoted Harlequin, his expression grave.
"I never give up hope, Alfred. But… I'm not sure that I believe. Her love is too consuming, her devotion too unquestioning and the more time that passes, the more he manipulates and ensnares her within his own sick reality."
"A creature such as he would not know or understand how to secure such devotion as a sane person might," Alfred observed, tilting his head to one side. Bruce shook his head briskly.
"He knows enough to use those tactics when it suits him. He does it in this fashion because it amuses him. In a way, Harley knows this. But part of what stands in her way is that, for all her desire to live a normal life once more, all that she really wants is him."
"A truly twisted love," the butler said with what may have been a trace of pity, his arms quietly folded.
Bruce glanced at him, then made for the exit once more.
"A love all the more twisted because it is only one-sided. The Joker isn't capable of more. No matter to what extremes she goes to break into what passes for his heart, the Joker will never regard her as anything more than hired help."
The voice then spoken softly and dry behind him drew him up short, pausing on the steps leading beyond the Batcave and into Wayne Manor from which this world was kept concealed:
"Because no one loves the hired help, do they Master Bruce?"
Bruce Wayne turned on the steps to look where his oldest and most loyal friend stood in the heart of the cave by the mammoth computer, washed in hues of red and purple and green, thrown over him by the photo of the two demented clowns displayed on the monitor. Alfred's face was composed and quiet, his wise brown eyes gazing unflinchingly into Bruce's own.
Bruce's powerful hand tightened on the stair rail for a moment, the knuckles briefly blanching white, and then the Dark Knight was turning to ascend once more, his final words thrown in slightly abashed concession:
"Of course there are – exceptions. Thank you for reminding me."
Alfred smiled gently as he watched the man who was as a son to him depart: "Merely doing my duty, Sir. My chosen duty."
The idea for this one was spurred by a conversation with zhinxy the other day about how Harley and Alfred's roles mimic each other's in many ways. Alfred's little jibe about loving the hired help is more or less a direct quote of hers.
Hopefully, the parallels are clear here.
There have been a couple of mentions in canon of Batman's awareness that Joker loves Harley, but I think this particular scenario took place early on after she entered the scene. And perhaps it was Alfred who offered Bruce another perspective on this. As brilliant as Bats is, I think Alfred can be far more perceptive when it comes to the realm of emotion. Anyway, I think the comparison is fun. :)
I have another six unreleased stories, thanks to NaNo, but so that I don't deluge this section OR wear out your patience, I have decided to release the new stories once a week, on Mondays. Exceptions may be made for drabbles. Your continued support and reviews are deeply valued.
If you are into hardcore smut, I have just completed a rather epic threesome fic between Joker, Harley and Ivy. If you go to my profile, you can find the link as I can't post it here. It is called 'Entwined'.