Harley Quinn sat in front of the light-rimmed mirror and stared at her reflection.
She had been staring for what may have been hours, unable to tear her gaze away.
Only days before she had been unable to bear the sight of herself, finding it a pathetic and nauesating visage. She had been shamed and turned violently away, clutching her stomach, feeling pained with disgust.
A disappointment. An embarrassment. A failure.
Her costume had seemed ridiculous, a cringe-inducing effort to play in the big-leagues, a realm in which she had no place in being, or believing she belonged to, and she had torn it from her in disgust and anger, heaving pained sobs all the while.
She had lain in the centre of a moth-eaten old oriental rug in a dressing room of a long-abandoned theatre, and bawled into musty wool fibres until past the point of exhaustion.
When she could cry no more, she had lain there and stared at rotting floorboards and begrimed sideboards while her tears dried and her swollen cheeks had soothed, becoming unbearably intimate with the knot of pain deep inside her.
She imagined many things while she lay there and wallowed in her misery. She had imagined the Joker sweeping the door open and scooping her into his arms, kissing her all over and assuring her all was forgiven. She imagined him finding her, half-starved and weak from heartbreak and being overwhelmed with sorrow for her plight, tenderly nursing her back to health. She imagined finding a note instructing her where to find him only for that to be on a rose-petal strewn bed, waiting for her with a big smile and a bottle of champagne. She imagined him simply holding her as she cried, rocking her back and forth on his lap, his face nuzzling her hair.
When she had run through the many impossible fantasies of reunion, when the emptiness around her was finally too much to bear, when every fibre of her being rung with the need for his presence, she pushed herself to her feet and made her decision.
She had paused in the midst of her makeup application, gazing at her reflection with a serene curiosity. Cowl on, greasepaint pristine except for the mask-shaped patch of skin around her eyes, her lips rimmed in black but not yet painted, she had stood otherwise naked save for a pair of plain white cottontails and one of Mistah J's vivid orange shirts in raw silk, billowing on her slight frame, in front of the large cracked miror that occupied one full wall, darkened with age at the corners.
The petite clown gazing back at her had seemed hopelessly young and insignificant. Beautiful, but not complete - there was something missing. Something that kept her from perfection, from ultimate realisation.
She had hated the weakness she saw in her eyes.
Now she searched for it.
The work of the last few days had taken its toll on her. She was drained in body and spirit, her shoulders knotted with tension, her head heavy, blood-spattered images playing constantly behind her eyes. Concocting the scheme had been challenge enough and for the first time she began to comprehend the depth of thought and consideration her Puddin' paid to each one of his capers, but then actually carrying her twisted visions out...
She had challenged all of her medical knowledge, her ingenuity and imagination, but most of all her soul.
With each atrocity it was as though she had stripped off another layer of herself until finally there was only the raw core of her left, nothing left to obscure the darkest heart of herself, nothing remaining of what was past to sully or distort what he had built.
Now she could not stop staring at herself.
She looked younger, strangely. She could swear it. She would have expected the opposite. But there she sat, seeming soft and dewey and new. Maybe it was a trick of the dim yellow lights framing her, but she thought she even seemed to glow, her costume freshly laundered and pristine, makeup perfect and complete, a creature of imagination.
But her eyes had grown deeper and darker.
It didn't matter, she realised. She could do anything at all and it didn't really matter. The Joker had told her this over and over and she had always thought she understood it, but it wasn't until she had actually forced herself to do something she would never previously have contemplated that she realised what it truly meant.
Actions themselves did not matter. But how one did something - or, more importantly as far as Harley was concerned, why - did.
She had undertaken the final stages of her journey alone, by her own choice, completing what the Joker had begun, finally, and all so that she could be truly worthy of him.
Yet as she stared at herself in the murky old dressing table mirror, she couldn't be sure -
Had she found herself, or lost herself?
The silence was broken by a sharp rap at the stage door - the backstage exit that was once used by actors to leave at the end of the show.
Her heart leapt into her throat. Only one person knew about this hideout, apart from her. It was the place to which they had retired in the lulls between capers and Arkham and they kept it closely guarded.
But why would he knock?
Her stomach twisting in knots, her blood pounding in her ears, she drifted across the floorboards to the door, the sense of unreality that flooded her making her feel weightless. Swallowing the lump in her throat, she grasped the tarnished brass handle and turned it, pulling the door open.
The Joker stood in the doorway, his arms filled with sweet-scented roses in varying shades of red, their velvet petals gently luminous beneath the glow of the single bulb above the door. His expression held a curious tenderness, his eyes fixed fondly upon her, a small smile playing on his lips.
"Oh," Harley said, one hand fluttering to her chest, unconsciously stepping back as the Joker stepped forward through the doorway. Her heart swelled unbearably, pounding hard as she tipped her head back to gaze up at the face she adored so much, the face she had found herself reaching out to touch in the darkness of the long, lonely nights she had spent lately without him, the face that had spurned her onwards through her harrowing journey.
The Joker flung the roses sideways onto a tattered velvet couch with one arm and swept his hat from his head with the other, not once taking his eyes from her.
"Words are cheap," he said in a voice suffused with unfamiliar passion. "The biggest thing you can say is elephant."
She recognised the quote from her research. All the work she had done to perfect her demonstrations of devotion had left her in possession of a plethora of information regarding the comedian her Puddin' so loved. Her vision blurred with euphoric tears as the Joker wrapped an arm about her waist and pulled her into him, dipping his head to kiss her with fierce passion. She flung her arms about his neck and kissed him as passionately back, delighting in the feel of his grip tightening, tugging her closer.
As they adoringly reunited in the backstage of an abandoned theatre, Harley finally knew beyond a shred of doubt that all she had enacted and endured in her bid to win him back had been worth it, that now she had proven herself and earned her pride. In the end, the only thing left missing was him to whom she belonged and she understood she had to lose herself completely before he could find her again and make her whole.
As the Joker scooped her up into his arms and carried her towards the rose-strewn couch, not once breaking the kiss, some final words of wisdom from the Little Tramp drifted through her mind, making her smile hard against her Puddin's mouth:
"A man is what a woman makes him and a woman makes herself."
Finally, the end of this hopefully sordidly romantic tale.
It was never intended to be a mystery - it didn't bother me if people guessed it was Harley or thought it was someone else. What I wanted to do was explore Harley's own capacity for cruelty and how that could possibly have been something she had to learn. For me, Harley is a character who sways between a true ability for human compassion and kindness to insanity-driven absolute ruthlessness and disconnection from empathy. I pondered if, at the beginning of her life of madness, the human side continued to rule stronger and was something she had to willingly be able to sacrifice at times. There's an element of an 'Inanna's Descent' to this story (I hope) although it is obviously not a direct retelling or true parallel.
I also wanted to explore her ability to scheme and prove herself capable of devising themed crimes the Joker could consider worthy. If Harley doesn't scheme, it's because she doesn't want to, that it seems like a waste of her energy - she's more along for the ride. But if she has something to strive for, she can plot with the best of them.
Additionally, I wanted to contemplate what the Joker would actually find romantic - that he could be wooed by. A demonstration of her ability to be brutal in such a wonderfully theatrical way would surely appeal to his, erm, romantic side? There is romance between them but it is of a twisted nature.
I'm so glad this is finished! Hopefully the ending proves satisfying for you.