By His Hand
He hadn't noticed yet.
At least – she didn't think he'd noticed yet.
He hadn't said anything anyway. If he hadn't said anything, then that was good. It meant he didn't care even if he had noticed.
Well. Maybe that wasn't so good.
But better all the same. Better that he didn't see her like this.
Harley kept up a reasonable pretence in that she made sure he was fed, massaged, bathed and clothed. She even managed to summon up a smile or two when she was around him, although she knew they were shallow and paltry shadows of their usual selves.
But had he been paying attention he would've noticed her curious listlessness, the frequent tremble of her chin and the glimmer in her eyes. How her voice had lost its lilting edge.
But mostly he seemed content to go about his pursuits by himself, utterly focused on the task at hand – as he always was whenever his plans were especially brilliant.
She didn't even mind that he seemed to have no real use for her right then. That's how she knew – even more so than the vague knot of nausea that was ever present in her stomach – that this was more than just a case of the dramatics, as Red called it.
It was kinda scary, really, to feel like that. Well, not so much to feel like that, but for it to be about anything other than the Joker. It had seemed for a while there she had entered a magical realm where nothing could touch her or hurt her, except her him – and he always made it up to her, so that was okay.
Besides, all that blistering pain just made the good times shine brighter. Being tossed violently between despondency and elation was a heady drug and she was all too happily addicted. A powerful elixir that made her heart beat faster, her blood beat harder and set her soul on fire, reminding her that she was alive and she was in love and that love was simply Everything.
And so all was as it should be.
But this. This was all new. She didn't have any assurances of how it would end, or even how it could end. Maybe it couldn't and that was a terrifying thought. Maybe she would be stuck with this wretched feeling forever, frozen in the moment she had opened up the paper and happened across the news – like a punch to her gut that would leave her gasping for breath always.
Mistah J always made everything better. That she could always count on. But all her woes had to do with him. Not only did this have nothing to do with him – she could never tell him. It would be an insult. An affront to the love they shared. A betrayal. As though he wasn't all and everything and the only thing she really needed to worry about.
How could he ever make this better?
After all the effort he'd gone through to set her free from stress and worry. She was selfish, horribly, thoughtlessly selfish, she knew.
Yet she just couldn't drive these feelings away.
She tried to sleep as much as she could, to avoid having to think about it all. She kept hoping every time she woke up the anguish would've lifted, dispersed and evaporated as though it had never been there at all, leaving her light and free as always. Every time she opened her eyes there was a moment of blankness, where she would blink dazedly at her surroundings, slowly remembering what the world was and that she was alive in it.
Then she would remember and that awful feeling would descend within her once more.
It wasn't a sharp and wrenching pain, fierce and bright as splintered bone that left her trying to escape from herself. It was simply a constant aching hollow as though she'd been scooped out and left to drain of whatever was left. It never left her and it never eased, but persisted as relentless as a parasite that had lodged within her, sucking her dry.
She paced, hands fisted by her sides, breathing shallow and strained, her whole body coiled tight as though ready to spring but she couldn't release. She couldn't.
"Get a hold of yourself, cookie," she hissed through gritted teeth to her reflection, before her expression wavered and she found herself pleading, her voice trembling: "Please girl, please. Please keep it together. Please. Please."
She would not let herself cry. The tears hovered but she dashed them away before they could fall and held her breath until they passed. She caught glimpses of herself and turned away in shame. She looked as though she were being drained, growing thinner and more drawn, the sparkling light in her eyes diminished and her smile quavered on her mouth.
She avoided him devoutly. If she heard him approach, she would quietly pad away, disappearing into another dark corner of the lair. If he barged into the room, muttering and fixated on some odd pursuit, she'd huddle quietly until he left. She strove to anticipate his needs and see that they were met before he could demand them, quickly slinking away once they were fulfilled. In this mood, he would not sleep but she avoided their bed anyway. Just in case.
If he got too close, he would see. And she couldn't let that happen.
As uncharacteristic as her behaviour was, he remained oblivious. She knew that was a good thing. She was glad, really. His anger, if he noticed, would be terrible. But his disappointment would be worse.
The pain was like a lump in her throat that she could not swallow. She quivered beneath the stress of it and battled its insistence. But still it did not abate and she thought finally she was going to split.
She knew finally she had to leave, had to break out into the night and go running the streets until she'd finally shed her sorrow.
She shifted frenetically through the lair, face contorted and her teeth bared as she strained against the emotion that threatened to consume her whole.
Then his voice, spoken softly through the darkness, brought her up short:
"Harley, what's wrong?"
Slowly, she turned to face him where he leaned against a wall in the corner of the room, one leg crossed easily over the other, hands in pockets, surveying her with a still and curious expression.
She breathed in, swallowed, finally trusted herself to speak: "N-nothing's wrong, Mistah J," her voice hitched and she clenched her fists by her side, sucking her lower lip into her mouth and staring at him with wide, unconvincing eyes.
The Joker raised an eyebrow at her. "You've been a terrible bore this week."
She gulped. Felt her chin begin to wobble. But she held on. "I'm sorry. I thought you were busy."
His eyes widened and he shifted off the wall, standing up straight. "But I have been busy. Very busy. And you've been no help at all. Pacing around, sulking, snivelling and brooding. You haven't even managed a smile to help inspire my work."
She let her head droop. Inside the ache was becoming a throb. Her selfish misery had overshadowed his needs. She'd let him down. The one thing she'd always strived never to do and now she had done it because she'd been too wrapped up in her own little corner of his world to pay attention to the rest. She was a miserable failure.
Yet, she just couldn't stop feeling. A part of her wanted him to understand that, too.
"I – I've tried," she heard herself say, voice quietly entreating. "It's just – " and then her eyes brimmed with tears and she shut them swiftly, struggling against the sudden rise of her heartbeat.
She heard the slither of fabric as he shifted across the room, opened her eyes again to see him folding his long body down into his armchair, hands on either arm rest, legs spread and head tilted back, regarding her from narrowed eyes.
"I'm sorry," she choked and realised she was wringing her hands anxiously in front of her.
He was silent a moment, his eyes hard upon her and then he spoke: "You know what adds insult to injury, Harl? I know this little depression of yours is nothing to do with me. No, I've been a perfect angel to you lately," his words were spoken without the same theatrical nuance he usually placed upon everything he said. Instead they were quiet and restrained, brimming with menace. Fear spiked out from her gut like slivers of ice. "So it begs the question of what else could possibly be so important that it deserves so much focus."
He paused again and the silence between them grew into a buzz, fraught with tension.
Again he quirked a brow. "Care to share?"
She hesitated, hands now twisted behind her back, squirming where she stood as his searching eyes held her in thrall. Then she shook her head. "It's nothing. It's nothing. I just – I just – " and then she was blinking away tears again, suddenly helpless against the tide of overwhelming grief that rose within her.
His expression abruptly shifted to one of contrived concern and he pouted at her, brows raised.
"Aw, Pumpkin. Poor baby!"
She shuddered beneath the caressing sound of his voice, made all the more terrified by the coddling in his tone.
"Why don't you come over here and sit on Daddy's knee?" He patted his lap and a mean little smile flickered across his face.
She went. She knew she had no choice and as frightened as she was, she wanted to go as well.
He pulled her onto his lap while she trembled, struggling hard against breaking down, both his arms trapping her tight against him. She realised she'd not been so close to him all week and suddenly the smell and feel of him against her was comforting and she did not resist when he placed a firm hand on her cheek and eased her head down onto his shoulder.
"Now," his voice vibrated through her as she curled her fingers around his coat lapels. "Why don't you tell Daddy all about what's upset his little girl?"
The desire to give in then was overwhelming. The illusion of safety in his arms was a powerful one and she wanted nothing more than to succumb.
She clung tight to his lapels and turned her face into his neck.
"I got some bad news, Daddy," her voice was small and babyish and he squeezed her so hard she couldn't breathe for a moment.
"Tsk tsk," he whispered fiercely into her hair. "Who's dared to give my baby bad news?"
She gnawed on her lip, shifted closer against him.
"I saw it in the paper. In the – in the Obituaries," and she remembers in a sudden brilliant flash of newsprint, growing translucent beneath the drip of her soda as she had read the words in shock.
He tucked a hand beneath her chin, lifted her face to his, staring intently into her eyes.
"What did you see in the paper, Cupcake?"
Her gaze held by his like that and she couldn't even shut her eyes to escape him. He may as well have tied her down and she hiccoughed and stammered over her answer, staring at him the whole time.
"M-my Au-Aunt. She ne-never loved me. She never ca-cared. I never – never had a ch-chance with her. And now – and now – " her breath hitched and her chest heaved as she almost erupted with emotion. " – she's – she's deadI!" She hiccoughed again with the effort to swallow her tears and she gazed at him hopelessly, her chin wobbling.
His lip lifted in a small sneer and he cocked his head, staring at her with outright disbelief. "Is that all?" he snapped and she lifted the back of her hand to her mouth, nodding tearfully. "That's ridiculous."
She knew that it was. She knew it. Yet that didn't curb the relentless tidal wave of remorse and loss that pounded within her then with creasing urgency.
"I just – " she stammered, trying to make him understand. "I just – she was – my only family. I just – she never cared – about me – I just always ho – hoped – "
His hand was on the back of her neck then and she fell immediately silent, gazing at him with a glazed expression, lips slack and wet.
"I'm the only one that should matter, Harley." His voice was dark, his teeth gritted and fear made her quake.
"I – I know – " she stammered but he continued, speaking over her.
"You know Daddy hates it when you're unhappy,"
"I know," she sniffled.
"You know Daddy wants to see you smile."
She shut her eyes and pressed her lips together, overwhelmed by the knowledge of her failure, battling the unforgiving reality of her grief. "I'm sorry, Daddy," she whispered.
"Harley, I want you to stop caring about this," The Joker commanded, squeezing his hand harder on her neck.
"I've tried," she whimpered. She really had, couldn't he believe that?
"Not hard enough," his voice was cruel in its finality. "I have important work to do. Your moping is highly distracting. Do you understand?"
Her chin wobbled as she opened her eyes, her shoulders heaving upwards with suppressed emotion. "Y-yes Sir, I understand, but – but I can't."
"Yes, you can," he leant into her face and spoke hard. "I'm a very busy man and I rely on you to take care of the trivialities. Are you telling me that this ridiculousness is more important to you than me?" He knew how that would hurt her and she heard its deliberateness and her eyes welled with tears.
"Never, Puddin', never. But it – it – "
"No buts, Harley. You need to sort out your priorities."
She felt lashed beneath the coldness of his tongue, how utterly empty it was of sympathy or compassion.
"You're my number one, Mistah J, I swear it. I swear it," she babbled entreatingly, gripping his lapels tight with trembling hands. "It just hurts so much – " her voice cracked and she hunched over on his lap.
He let go her neck and pushed her from him so that she tumbled to the carpet, quaking with mindless grief. He rose to his feet and towered above her, glowering furiously.
"How dare you insult me like this," he seethed at her.
"I don't mean to insult you, Boss!" she wailed and he hunched over her with clawed hands so that she quailed in fear. "But I can't help it. I just can't help it."
"That's because you're pathetic," he spat at her and she quivered and nodded, her whole body shaking like a dam about to burst. "Pathetic and hopeless, to mourn a woman who never gave you anything when the person who's given you everything is right here in front of you."
He was pushing her, pushing her so hard, so unkindly and she was in desperate turmoil.
"So stop it, Harley. Stop it right now. Stop. It."
Snared between her driving desire to please the Joker and the echoing loss of the last remnant of her former life, she could do nothing now but push back:
"I can't!" she screamed. "I CAN'T!"
The first blow set awful music ringing in her ears.
She had no time to react and then he was upon her, his fists a blur as they rose and fell again and again, connecting brutally with her face and head, her body and limbs. She heard herself shrieking as each blow landed, finally giving voice to the pain that had festered within her all that week.
He was silent and relentless in his punishment, teeth gritted and eyes gleaming bright as he beat her as cruelly as he ever had. She squeezed her eyes shut and screamed, unresisting against the assault, concertedly fighting the instinct to lift her arms up and cover her face, even rising up to meet the blows.
Hot tears poured down her cheeks, blistering her skin and combining with blood. Her chest felt as though it might explode from the pressure of her screams.
Each punch and kick sent shocking new pains erupting up through her body, each one stifling out the other, overcoming it until she was nothing but a resounding mess of indecipherable agony. Her muscles were battered, cringing beneath the abuse, her skin bloomed red and quickly began to blacken.
She choked on her screams as a kick to the ribs knocked the breath from her, sent her head reeling as though it might spin off, and then the world around her was a tremendous blur and she could no longer even see where the blows were coming from, only feel them in their endless reverberation.
Amidst all that pain, something broke and poured out. Beneath the ache she felt a curious beauty well, a sudden and marvellous sense of freedom. For a long while she floated as he beat her, her only motion the jerk of her body in response to each kick or punch, quietly receiving each one, savouring the pain as she became unable to tell where it ended and she began, until they were one. She gasped in delight and began to softly laugh beneath the battering, her voice high and thin, the wheezing peals of her laughter utterly chilling.
Then he stopped.
She lay on the rug, half-curled onto her side, tears still streaming down her cheeks and dripping between her lips as she laughed, the shake of her body causing new tremors of pain to course through her.
It was wonderful.
A moment later and his hand was in her hair, not rough but not gentle either, smoothing down her cheek, over her shoulder and around her back, the fingers digging into her flesh, massaging her abused body. He lifted his hand and repeated the motion and beneath the firm stroking she stilled, and became quiet.
Relief slowly washed through her, spilling gently to every inch of her body, filling her up. As he knelt down and stroked her into calm, the awful and relentless ache that had devoured her from within for so many days was washed cleanly away. All that remained was the slow shuddering of her breath, the thunderous agony gripping her battered body and a quietly perfect sense of peace.
She let her lips part, tasted blood, then let out a slow, shaky breath as he entwined a hand into her hair and dragged her into a sitting position, forcing her to look up at him as he stood upright once more, looming over her like a god. The sting of his hand knotted in her hair harmonised with the aches throbbing across her flesh and she made no more resistance than a tiny sound that made him smile as he gazed upon her with a look in his eyes that was as close to compassion as he could ever get.
"Can you now?" he asked her and it was suddenly easy to smile, though it caused fresh waves of pain across her battered face.
She blinked her swollen eyes at him and nodded, the bruised limpness of her body a lovely thing.
"Good," he said, then slapped her cheek sharp with his free hand. She shut her eyes as the sting blossomed, rushing out across her face.
"Thank you, Daddy," she whispered and the only passion in her voice was now for him.
His smile was suddenly bright and pleased and then he was bending at the waist, lowering his perfect, angular face to hers, capturing her bloodied mouth in a kiss that filled her with a lovely rolling warmth. He lingered there a moment, then lapped the blood gently from her mouth.
"Nobody hurts my baby but me," he informed her, straightening up once more and petting her firmly on the head. She beamed up at him, adoring him more absolutely in that moment than she could ever remember, overwhelmed with gratitude. "If your Aunt weren't already dead, I'd kill her."
She couldn't help but laugh.
If you're wondering, Harley's Aunt is part of my personal fanon. Harley's clinginess and dependency indicate a neglected or loveless childhood so that's what I gave her. Her father beat the scene, her mother died young and her aunt raised her dutifully but indifferently. Read more about it in my fic Arkham Asylum: Tainted Love.