To Twist the Knife
So this was the game.
How could he break her heart today?
He opened his eyes a crack in response to the amusing little thought, tickling the corners of his mind into wakefulness. Around him the lair was dark and quiet, the room they slept in buried deep in the hideout, no windows to allow a sliver of light to enter.
If the lair was so dark, Harley was still asleep.
He shifted a little to look at her where she lay, curled up beside him, snoring softly. In sleep her face looked cherubic, her lower lip slack and moist. Her hair was tied back into two plaits, strands of it dishevelled around her face, and her hands were curled up under her chin, her knees drawn up to her chest. She wore her pink Little Miss Giggles pyjamas.
A smile slid up his face as he watched her, a smile brimming with malice.
She was desperately cute. Really. Quite the little picture.
Arkham was only a few days behind them and he was regrouping, building up his resources once more, waiting for the initial heat to ease off before launching his latest piece of theatre on the unsuspecting city.
And he was bored stiff.
So yes, today they were going to play a game. They were going to play a game that Harley didn't know they were playing but that she would participate in nonetheless.
And by the end of the day – or night, or afternoon or whatever it would be as he had no way of telling what time it was so deeply buried were they in the old Funhouse – she would be broken.
Staring at her, he slipped his tongue out of his mouth and moistened his lower lip. The thing was, how to go about it. It had to have a little style, a little imagination. He couldn't just be crude about it. Beating her, berating her, feeling the crumple of her body beneath his fists, seeing the spark of hurt in her eyes – all of that had its charms, to be sure, but it came more naturally when he was truly angry with her. If he had to force it or fake it, it would simply lose its resonance.
Anyway, she was becoming accustomed to it. It made her sad, hurt her widdle feelings, but it really didn't cut deep anymore.
Lying beside his unsuspecting girlfriend, the Joker's face contorted into a truly unpleasant leer.
Moving carefully, he slipped out of bed and padded quietly away, a soft little snicker quivering through his lanky form.
Sometime later, he was sitting on the cushions in one of the adjoining living spaces, munching on toast smothered in peanut butter and bacon. A former hall of mirrors, they had left the mirrors lining the walls intact and dug out a wide circular space in the floor, filling it with cushions and surrounded by several large candelabras. He enjoyed sitting here when he had deep thinking to do, leaning back against the cushions and watching the way his body twisted and deformed in the varying reflective glass that bordered him, illuminated weirdly by the flickering candles. In many ways, it reminded him of the inside of his head and he liked looking at himself, even if it was distorted.
He wasn't really doing any thinking right then, just enjoying his breakfast (lunch, dinner, snack, whatever…) and watching his image warp and shift when Harley padded anxiously into the room, rubbing her eyes dazedly.
She had clearly only just woken up and was still disoriented, staggering a little as she approached him and blinking at the brightness of the candlelight on her sleep-bleared eyes.
"Mistah J?" she began in a quavering voice. "You okay, Boss?"
He took another bite of his toast and chewed on it slowly, lifting his brows to her as though in surprise. "Yes of course, Harley. Why?"
She blinked again and stared at him confusedly. "I – I'm sorry I wasn't up earlier. You want me to make you somethin' to eat, Puddin'?"
He held up the last corner of his toast and waggled it in the air. "Covered, Harley. Don't worry about it."
She clearly had no idea what was going on and squirmed a little as she looked at him, unsure what to do with herself. "O – okay then. Well, let me know if you want anythin' else."
He popped the last piece into his mouth and began munching. "Sure thing."
She edged out of the room, her brows knotted together, and once she had gone he began giggling.
Later on, he was drifting on yet more cushions packed in the bottom of a bright pink and green boat that floated upon the canal in the adjoining Tunnel of Love, listening to the murky water lap against the side.
Busily mulling over blueprints and scraps of paper decorated in multi-coloured crayon scribblings, he did not look up as Harley's slippered feet creaked over the wooden boards, pacing along the deck that ran the length of the canal, in time with his boat.
After a moment she cleared her throat and when she spoke it was with a politely cheery tone of voice: "Hey Mistah J, you got some errands you need me to run?"
He waved a disinterested hand toward her. "No."
There was a pause and then she spoke again: "You hungry?"
He tossed aside a couple of pages, reached for a crumpled blueprint jammed into a corner of the boat. "No."
Another hesitation and her voice was tinged with desperation then: "Any junk around here needs prepping? Bombs made, toxin brewed, suits patched? I wanna be sure my big beautiful Puddin' has everything he could ever need!" With her final words, her voice pitched into forced perkiness like the whine of a dog rolling over.
He finally glanced up at her. She was trotting along beside him, hands behind her back, smiling in a revoltingly ingratiating way, her eyes wide and bright. He blinked at her then returned his attention to his plotting.
"No. But thanks, Harl."
She stopped and watched the boat sail leisurely onwards, her shoulders drooping and her hands dangling by her sides.
Once the boat had rounded a corner and disappeared from her view, he began giggling.
She had gotten a little more aggressive by the time he encountered her again in the Shooting Gallery. He was busy painting new likenesses of the Boy Hostage and the Dork Knight onto large pieces of board, a selection of acid squirting flowers lined up along the barrier, awaiting a little aim practice. He was very, very carefully placing a spark of light in Batsy's crossed eyes when she marched right up to him and tugged on his rolled up shirt sleeve, almost causing the paint to smear.
It had been quite deliberate, but she still flinched the tiniest bit, expecting a smack and a cruel word. Instead he frowned down at his work and touched the end of the paintbrush to his mouth before saying distractedly: "Yes, what is it?"
She recovered admirably quickly, her voice about five decibels higher than normal, edging back into his personal space.
"Mistah J, I was just thinkin' that Gotham needs a little reminder that you're back and hot to trot. Hows about I go into town and raise a little Cain, scatter a few cards around just to get you on their minds?"
He carefully added a spot of drool to the Caped Crusader's lolling tongue, wondering idly what her angle was. He swivelled his head to look at her and saw straight away.
She'd made it concertedly obvious. Her makeup was streaky, patches of peach-coloured flesh showing through the white. Her black lipstick was smudged a little and strands of blonde hair escaped from the edges of her cowl. Her collar had a bright orange stain on it and there was even a torn seam running along the checkerboard pattern on her torso.
As he appraised her, her eyes brightened in anticipation of the scolding, sure her disarray would provoke insulted outrage.
After a moment he shrugged, turned back to his work. "Nah, I'd rather keep a low profile for the moment, Harley. Give it to them all in one big hit. You understand."
From the corner of his eye he caught the quiver of her liliripes as she bowed her head.
"Sure thing, Boss," she said in a small voice, then turned and padded dejectedly out.
Once she was gone, he began giggling.
By the time he saw her again, this time inside the spacious internal Promenade, the strain was beginning to show. Her smile was so forced it looked painful, her makeup cracking around the grooves of it, her eyes overly bright and glassy.
"Hey Boss, wanna tell me the plan?" her voice was entreating and her forehead creased with the effort to keep the smile plastered on.
Joker sniffed and shook his head. "Oh no, you wouldn't be interested, Harley."
She flinched a little at the sound of her name, the care he'd taken in using only that to address her the whole day having clearly hit its mark.
Then she hastened to reassure him: "Oh I am, Mistah J, I am! I love hearing your plans. Won't you please tell me? Please?" She clasped her hands together under her chin, her eyes round with pleading.
He enjoyed a little thrill at the thought of her aching facial muscles then shrugged. "Oh all right then. Sit down."
The plan was plastered up over a glass wall beyond which two men were trying to negotiate a violently rocking floor with the added challenges of being bound and blindfolded and discovering that several panels of the shifting floorboards were electrocuted. Their screams and yelps were muffled by the glass wall as Joker explained his plan to Harley, pointing out various details with his cane.
"The laughing gas will be pumped through these vents here and here, getting the audience giggling just right. He'll lap it up at first, thinking they're all laughing at him, but after ten minutes of non-stop chuckles, he'll begin to be slightly perplexed. Meanwhile, on the screen behind him, yours truly shall appear, playing out a little comedic theatre of my own – perhaps an astute imitation of the perplexed Mr. Leno. They'll be rolling in the aisles and in their seats at home, everyone in on the joke but him."
Harley was listening to him rapturously, nodding along with her hands clasping her crossed knees tight, baring her teeth in a shiny smile.
"Then, when he finally gets it into his fat head to turn around and look, seeing me in all my hilarious magnificence, I'll appear in a blaze of glory from the back of the studio, ready to persuade my man Jay to give me a spot as co-host. I'll be sure to make it an offer he can't refuse, dazzling him with my razor sharp rapier – heh – wit! Then we'll have a duel – of comedy of course, seeing which of us can induce fatal hilarity in our audience first. That oughta keep the lemmings happy and teach that cheeky phoney Mister Jay to make poor taste cracks like that one about me not slaying people with laughter, just slaying them," Joker pouted a little and slapped the length of his cane into his palm. "A little professional courtesy would not go astray, Jay."
Harley nodded eagerly as he tapped the end of his cane onto the ground and leaned on it, his pout transforming into a proud smile as beyond the glass behind him one of the men collapsed in exhaustion, spasming compulsively when the side of his face landed on an electrocuted board.
"Amazing, Mistah J!" she cried. "And?"
He let his smile fade, a little frown of confusion twisting his features. "And what?"
"Anythin' else?" The hope in her eyes was stunning in its fragility, desperately trusting he'd just forgotten.
He shrugged and threw his hands into the air. "That's it!" he exclaimed cheerily.
His throat tickled as he watched her expression slowly fall, her smile collapsing down on itself, her eyes round with disappointment.
"You – you don't got a part for me to do?"
The hollow ache in her voice gave him goose bumps.
He widened his eyes a little, made a small 'oh' with his mouth as though it had all entirely slipped his mind. Then he rubbed a finger below his nose and shook his head.
"I don't think so, Harley. Not this time anyway. I don't think you'll be needed. A night off for you, huh?"
The look of absolute heartbreak on her face was exquisite. He savoured it for several long, breathless moments as he carefully kept his expression nonchalantly cheery.
"O-okay." Her voice was choked, her body shrinking into itself, her chin sinking down onto her chest.
The Joker lifted his chin and sniffed exaggeratedly at the air. "Something's cookin'. Better go peel it off the skillet."
He exited the room, his cane propped jauntily upon one shoulder, whistling cheerily. Once beyond it and moving through the dark narrow corridors, he began to giggle.
Not so long after that he had a handful of skittles, a glass of champagne and called it a night (morning, afternoon, whatever), clambering into bed with a feeling of immense satisfaction swelling in his chest, pleased with the productiveness of his day. Harley sat silently on the floor at the foot of the bed, looking up at him with her lips slightly parted and her forehead creased. She sat there and stared at him, anxiety scribbled on her face, waiting.
He tugged his eye mask down, stretched his arms up above his head, yawned toothily then snuggled down beneath the covers.
After a moment he heard Harley get quietly to her feet and pad softly to the adjoining bathroom, where she shut the door with a click.
Soon, the delicious sounds of her smothered sobs filtered through the door to where he lay. The quiet despondency of her tears made him smile, hugging himself happily in the dark.
Then he began to giggle.
It had been a good day.