Five Across – Puzzling; Twelve Letters

Author's Note: Written for the livejournal batfic_contest prompt "Enigma" in more than 500 words; first posted there on 16 November 2008.

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Nigma threw his hands up in despair. "What kind of imbecile leaves an open bottle of soda balanced on top of a live electrical generator? You are worse than useless at being an 'assistant' and are severely hampering my work."

"Well this ain't exactly my idea of a fun-filled vacation either yanno!"

Harley scowled and aimed a haphazard kick at one of the discarded cardboard boxes piled up in a corner of the warehouse. She had been in a thoroughly bad mood all day, and it seemed to be getting worse with every hour she was stuck with this egotistical blowhard. Eddie didn't even seem to appreciate that she was giving up quality time that could have been spent with her Puddin' to help him put together his silly props.

If she hadn't been unwilling to risk Mistah J's wrath she would have abandoned keeping an eye on the Riddler (or "assisting" him, as the Joker had told Eddie with a sly smile on his face) after the first five boring minutes. But as his former doctor she was the first to admit her Puddin' was the paranoid type, and he was convinced for some reason that Eddie had tricks up his sleeve and might try to double-cross his way out of the bargain they'd struck to arrange a big heist-cum-Batsy-annoying-project.

Given the history of team-ups amongst the Gotham rogue clique that always seemed to end in bust-ups, often with both parties back at Arkham and blaming the other, he was probably not being unreasonable in this belief. So now she was landed with this part-babysitting, part-spying job until Eddie was finished constructing the animatronic reindeer Mistah J needed from the scavenged remains of some of his previous electronic death-trap-props. And it was dull, dull, dull.

Nigma walked over to stand before her, carefully but firmly removing the screwdriver she'd been poking at some circuit boards with from her hand, a beseeching expression of strained patience on his face. "Do you think you could possibly find something to occupy yourself with for five minutes that does not involve breaking, knocking into or in any way touching any more of these components?"

"It was just a few drops of grape soda!" She shot back indignantly. "And I was mopping it up fine with a paper towel until you got all hysterical…" How much harm could a little soda really do, anyway? It's not like she spilt battery acid all over his precious gizmos!

"There are some very delicate electronics in this device," he interjected, eyes bulging slightly, "and you were scrubbing at them like they were burnt saucepans!"

Harley noted the hysteria that was starting to creep back into his voice and rolled her eyes, bells on the end of her costume's headpiece jingling softly. "Geez Eddie, take a chill pill! I said I wouldn't do it again…"

"I would still be far happier, and my blood pressure far lower, if you would stay several feet away from this work area while I'm assembling the final components." He waved a screwdriver around for emphasis, mapping out an invisible exclusion zone. "I don't want chocolate ice cream 'accidentally' dripping all over the control panel, or Lucky Charms marshmallow pieces somehow getting embedded in the circuit boards."

She found her eyes rolling again and stuck her lower lip out in a pout. "You sound like you're channelling my mother. Do ya want me to tidy my room and set the table for dinner too?"

"Just please – go." Nigma made small shooing motions as though he were trying to scare away a particularly obstinate flock of pigeons. "Give me five minutes of peace or this work will never be completed in time and the Joker will start getting antsy. You've evidently learnt how to survive his temper tantrums, but I have no desire to try to gain that sort of experience firsthand."

"Fine! I'm goin', I'm goin'. There's gotta be something more interesting to do around here than watch you tie little coloured wires together for hours on end anyway…"

As she walked away she heard him muttering under his breath something about 'reduced to working in these atrocious conditions' and 'the blasted economic downturn'. It wasn't exactly a secret that Eddie wouldn't have thought twice about accepting a deal to work with the Joker, or any other rogue for that matter, if he hadn't been feeling the financial pinch. It had to put a bit of a dent in that giant ego he kept under his emerald green bowler hat to take a job for the cash rather than the pure intellectual challenge he seemed to crave.

In a continuation of her earlier nagging parent metaphor, Harley was tempted to slam a door as she stomped off away from the 'workshop', as Eddie insisted on calling the corner he had filled with a workbench groaning under the weight of electronic gadgets. But having based himself in an abandoned warehouse (popular choice for hideout locations amongst Gotham rogues) there were precious few doors available to demonstrate teenager-style bored frustration with.

She supposed she could always go outside and slam the fire exit behind her – it would certainly produce a satisfyingly loud bang, and there was the possibility of an extra bonus if the alarm still worked – but then she'd be stuck outside in the alleyway and would probably have to knock on the main front door to be let back in. That might just be pushing Eddie a little too far while he was still cranky, and Harley didn't want to be stuck sitting out on the doorstep for several hours until he relented and let her back inside. Tame compared to what Mistah J would do in the same situation, but she still wasn't going to go looking for trouble.

She consoled herself by stomping off to a far corner where a few sofas had been arranged surrounding – of all things – an old and rather battered looking oak coffee table. This was evidently a recent addition to the building, which had formerly been used as a storage and distribution point for advertising flyers.

Sofas she could understand. As the self-appointed person in charge of making sure all the hideouts her Puddin' chose were fitted out with sufficient domestic comforts, she knew that sofas were one of the most important items of hideout furniture. Henchmen could sit on them watching tv while waiting for orders, if Mistah J was in a good mood the pair of them could snuggle up together on one, and if Mistah J was in a bad mood then she still had somewhere else to sleep if he'd kicked out of the bedroom.

The coffee table she didn't understand. Coffee tables full stop were a bit of a mystery to her; their main purpose in life seemingly being to display books no one wanted to read and provide unexpectedly sharp corners just at shin-bruising height in the middle of a busy foot traffic area. So she couldn't imagine why Eddie would want a coffee table in an abandoned warehouse hideout, but decided that it could at least serve as a passable footrest. She casually stretched out and rested her feet on it as she slumped back against the predictably green-coloured sofa, but in doing so knocked something off the table and onto the floor.

She shut her eyes and winced slightly. "Geez I hope that wasn't somethin' else expensive and breakable…"

When she opened her eyes again and brought her feet back down onto the floor, leaning forward to look for some damaged antique or high-tech gizmo, she saw that it was actually only a stack of cheap paperback puzzle books.

"Eddie, you are just a walkin' cliché." She observed to no one in particular as she picked up one of the books now scattered across the floor.

It didn't look like Nigma had started any of the puzzles in this one – the pages remained unblemished, and the cheap plastic biro it came with was still attached by a strip of plastic tape to the front cover.

Harley idly flipped through the pages, not paying a great deal of attention to the puzzles that passed by. Word searches, crosswords, logic puzzles, even a few small dot-to-dots that had to be included more for a joke than anything else. She found herself wondering if Eddie had to complete every single page as part of his problem-solving OCD 'thing', or if he just picked out the ones that interested him. A dot-to-dot surely couldn't be much of a challenge to a guy who strived to confound the whole of Gotham with complicated riddles.

She paused in her page flipping and went back to something that had caught her eye – an entire page filled with a black and white grid. It was a giant 'Puzzle Monster Crossword'. There was apparently a competition you could enter by sending in the 'secret phrase' revealed by solving the grid, with a small cash prize available.

Harley had never entered a crossword competition in her life – she'd never even knowingly finished an entire crossword. A few times she'd tried the small cryptic one printed in the college newspaper if the lecture she'd actually showed up for turned out to be particularly boring. She'd always get off to a good start by answering one or two questions easily, then get bored, or distracted, or would enter a wrong guess and end up scribbling all over the damn thing until you couldn't tell which were the black squares and which were supposed to be white.

So to her a crossword puzzle wasn't exactly a barrel of laughs, but she was bored, and couldn't leave the warehouse and do anything more fun, so she found herself looking through the first few clues.

"Patterned sock – six letters. Hey I know that: Argyle! They're the ones with the weird diamond checkerboard pattern; Mistah J's got a couple of pairs. He always looks so handsome in them…"

Deciding that it couldn't hurt to write in Eddie's book since she was confident she had the answer right, Harley removed the tape sticking the pen to the front cover and carefully filled in the six tiny boxes with the correct letters.

"…L and E. Argyle. And don't say I never doing anything nice for you, Eddie."

She casually looked further down the list of clues, until another one leapt out at her.

"It's supposed to come first – safety! Ooh I can do that one too!" She filled in more of the tiny boxes with her neatest handwriting and a small smile of satisfaction.

"Bakery staple – five letters. Bread? Cakes? Donuts certainly wouldn't fit, and neither would pie." She sucked on the end of the pen as she pondered. "I think I need to wait until I've got some more letters for you, you naughty little clue."

"Lengthy lunches – four letters. That's easy! Subs. Mmm, I wouldn't mind a sub right about now. Turkey and swiss, on rye…"

But the thought of lunch didn't distract her for long, and she'd soon worked her way through almost half the clues.

"Ear-related – five letters. Aural. The au-kind, not the o-kind. That's quite another thing altogether!" She silently spelt the word out as she filled in the squares; completed boxes now outnumbering the empty ones.

She was so engrossed in the puzzle that she didn't notice Nigma appearing behind the sofa where she was sitting, wiping his hands on a paper towel and leaning across the back to look at what she was doing.

"High spot for eggs – five letters…"

"Aerie." A voice from directly behind her head offered, nearly making her jab the pen through the page in surprise.

"Jeepers Eddie! Ya made me jump out of my skin!" She shifted around on the sofa to see him from a slightly more comfortable angle.

"Sorry. But the answer is aerie; it's a nest built at high altitude. Good word for using up excess vowels in Scrabble." He looked at her curiously. "Why on earth are you doing a crossword puzzle anyway?"

"What?" She shrugged. "Can't a girl exercise her brain every now and then?"

"Of course – it's just that I would have assumed you were either off breaking something fragile and expensive, causing chaos in some other way or watching cartoons. Something of that nature." He stuffed the paper towel into a pocket of his jacket. "You just don't really seem the crossword type."

"Yeesh people can be so judgemental. I did go to college you know." Her voice was rising. "And I did qualify as a psychiatrist. And I ain't stupid! Just because I like chillin' out watching cartoons in the rec room at Arkham and I don't spend all my time obsessin' over anagrams you think I'm an overgrown kid?"

"No, no…" he protested, noting the glint of anger in her eyes and deciding if he was going to proceed further with this line of conversation it would have to be with caution. "But I would perhaps say that you don't exactly give off an intellectual air."

"What's that sposed to mean?"

"Well there's that for a start. You don't make much of an effort to articulate your words correctly. Or," he narrowed his eyes slightly, "perhaps I should say that you do make an effort, but in the opposite direction?"

Harley's expression suddenly shifted, and she gave him a smile that was the very picture of innocence. "I don't know whatcha talkin' about Eddie."

"You most certainly do." He countered, getting into his argument. "I've noted on several previous occasions that you adjust the way you speak around different people far more than is explainable by normal unconscious fluctuations and social conditioning. You do it deliberately."

"Is that so?" She sounded disinterested, but was still listening with a small smile on her face.

"When you are at Arkham amongst the other inmates, and also generally when speaking with myself, your accent is relatively strong, your articulation sloppy and you use quite a high proportion of slang terminology. You play up to the 'ditzy blonde' stereotype, and adopt a high-pitched, rapid way of speaking. In this way you lead others to underestimate you, which could be a valuable advantage should the need arise to do business with them in the future.

"On the other hand I've heard you speaking privately with Poison Ivy and your accent is noticeably less pronounced when conversing with her. You also speak with a lower register, except when particularly excited or agitated. I would hazard a guess that the same applies during your therapy sessions with that female doctor you used to know when you worked at Arkham. You would have nothing to gain from exaggerating your accent and mannerisms around them as they know you well."

"That makes an interestin' theory, Eddie." Harley conceded neutrally, turning back to the puzzle book.

Nigma crossed his arms thoughtfully. "There is one thing I don't entirely understand, however."

"Yeah?" Harley replied, not looking up from the puzzle and inking in a few stray squares.

"Contrary to my expectations, your accent is at its strongest when you're around the Joker. I've overheard you speaking with him on a few occasions before today, and you sometimes fluctuated into a particularly high register and became almost incomprehensible due to speaking to quickly. Although I concede that choice of vocabulary is generally at its most informal and articulation least precise around one's partner, again this degree of change cannot be unconscious."

Harley finally looked up at him again. "Ya'know Eddie, you sound like you've put far too much thought into this. And a gal might ask when you've 'overheard' me speakin' privately with both Red and Mistah J. Been listenin' at doors?" She fixed him with a suspicious glare. "I can't decide whether I should be flattered, angry or just plain creeped out."

"I haven't been listening at doors!" Nigma protested, flushing slightly red above his green jacket collar. "I've just… overheard, as I said."

"Pervert."

"Don't be ridiculous!" He denied hotly, then tried to regain control of the conversation. "That's not the point anyway. I just can't figure out why you would purposefully exaggerate the way you speak and downplay your intelligence around him."

"Ha! As if I could ever hide anythin' from my Puddin'. Newsflash – he's a genius! He'd know if I tried to play him like that."

"Then why do you do it?" he asked, now thoroughly confused and disliking the feeling.

For just a moment Harley looked thoughtful, and Nigma thought he might receive an explanation. Then she merely smiled sweetly at him and returned her attention to the puzzle book.

"That's for me to know, Ed, and you can riddle it all you like but you ain't gonna find out."

She giggled quietly as he huffed and turned on his heel, stalking back to his table full of circuits and plastic pieces of reindeer. They were all far less infuriating than the beautiful, intelligent young woman sitting on his sofa who was hopelessly obsessed with that psychopathic clown and as likely to start bouncing around the place on a pogo stick as she was to have a civilized conversation. At least circuit boards were rational.

"Mallet game – four letters. Aww, mallets…" Harley sighed happily, curling up on the sofa and thinking of her favourite oversized weapon-of-choice as she added the word 'polo' in the empty boxes. "If only I could find a pony to steal in this town I'd love ta give that a try!"

She totted up the number of clues left. "Ooh – just another three to go and I'm in with a chance at winnin' that $500! Let's see – like a dirty chimney, five letters. Hmm. Hey Eddie? Eddie!" She called across the warehouse to where Nigma was sulking with his electronic gizmos. "What's like a dirty chimney, five letters and it ends in a Y? Is it cryptic? I'm no good at the cryptic ones. I thought it was smokey that doesn't fit…"

"Figure it out for yourself." He shot back, trying to squash a bundle of wires into the very small space available inside a model reindeer head.

"Spoilsport! C'mon Eddie," she wheedled, "if I win I'll share the prize money with ya! 80:20! 70:30? Aww c'mon…"