Who: Harley and Joker Where: Carnival When: Recently What: clown cuties meetin Warning: uuuh dead guy. there's a dead guy. and a secret pun
The Seaside Carnival at the end of Gotham Harbor did not look like it should exist in a modern, cold world. Ticket booths were smashed and graffitied. Tents for freaks were flattened and broken from the inside out. The ferris wheel high overhead was missing most of its spokes as cars swang in the wind and threatened to topple the entire thing over with loud, ghostly creeeaakks. In fact, all the rides were fragile death traps waiting for a dumb gaggle of teenagers to climb aboard and fall to their deaths. Disappearances went unchecked in a place like this and Gotham’s superstitious civilians were quick to give it any number of names from haunted to a real rogue lair. Well, they got it half right, anyway.
Vultures could be heard past the entrance and if investigated, the adventurous soul would find an old man strapped to a spinning circle meant for throwing knives at beautiful women. His name was groundskeeper Earl Hoskins and he did not have a good sense of humor until Joker pushed the old man’s face into a toy flower and then carved a smile before the toxin could even enter the bloodstream. Old Earl died with a double smile on his face, which was almost as good as a double rainbow, right? He had been dead for days and only the turkey vultures were brave enough to pick the ghastly clown meat off his bones. The first victim of the Joker had been taken and that alone was cause for celebration, wasn’t?
Beyond that was the giant clown’s head. Missing eye. Broken scaffolding. A dirty, blood red tongue rolled out like carpet into the dust and straw. Faint circus music played from inside, twinkling, scratching and skipping as if it was trying to escape its own wind up organ. Two armed thugs waited outside with their face painted on messy and mixing with sweat. They saw Harley, recognized her instantly and ushered her inside where the Clown Prince of Crime was waiting in a large, cleared out room that must have once been a place for circus tricks. He sat on top of crates and crates of something, swinging his long purple legs back and forth as he watched her come in.
“Hellllllllllloooo Harley.” Joker waved from up above. “We were just in the middle of counting out how many explosives I want to give away in goodie bags after I die. A little going away present to this pretty, blue Gotham.” He coughed into his hand, wheezed and then beckoned her to join him up high.
She was either real stupid or she was real courageous, but she'd never tell which. The ghostly docks erupted in stink and filth in Gotham Harbor, and the tinker toy amusement park came up alongside it. Even though it was as good as a graveyard these days, nothing stopped Harley from going on in. She even stopped to smell the roses before she let the babies wheel her into the gaping grin of the Joker's lair, down by where the water lapped at old, soft wood, and leaded paint peeled. On her skates, she skidded to a stop, her pair of hyenas slobbering and yapping over somethin' like they hadn't just had someone for dinner. The girl was trying to pry a rusted knife from the boardwalk (I mean, smelling the roses) when the circlet of vultures, chased away screaming by the yips and gnashing teeth of Lou and Bud, moved as a big, ol' stinky black cloak into the sky. The sun was low and gray, the belly of the clouds pierced by Gotham's—hehe—erected monuments to the rich, but Harl's smile, the one that went a little screwy at the end, had enough wattage to light up any ol' light show.
She skated over to the bones and ruined bloody mess of a man(?) on the clown-sized target. The birds had gotten his eyes and his tongue, but he still smiled, didn't he? He sure did! Aw, that was nice. He was havin' a good time, wherever the heck he was, in spirit or in… lotsa little bits of flesh kinda thrown all over the place. Harley made an icked out sound when she rolled over a stray bit of skin with limp hair still attached, but she wasn't really bothered—not by the decay, not by the bits, so much as the fact that her nice skates had gotten all gross. She wiped it off with the pad of her thumb and let Lou suck the squickiness off so she didn't have to use her dainty crop top as a napkin.
She hadn't dressed up for Mister J—okay, she had—but it was nothin' outrageous. It was just a whole lotta pink 'n' purple 'n' stuff. Sure, it was cold out, but that's why she skated! Got the blood pumpin' and the babies got their exercise (and dinner)! Her hair was tailed off, of course, per her usual style, and a glossy, sticky lip balm slicked over her lips, but she didn't wear any other makeup. Not today. With her Hello Kitty backpack slung over one shoulder, containing all the possessions she'd elected to bring, she made her pilgrimage. She put Red 'n' Kitty behind her, and if she was gonna do that, she was gonna look good doin' it, okay?
She did not think about what Pammy had said to her. She did not hear echoes of the conversations ringing still inside her mind. No. Harl was carefree! Like a turkey vulture eatin' a dead clown! And so she skated into that evil open mouth like she had nothing at all to lose.
Of course, Mr. J—of course her puddin'—was right there. His goons stepped aside, like the good lil pups they were, and she braked in the musty room, aware of the old, dead hay particles that tickled down her throat. She coughed, her nerves catching up to her. The babies yanked at their chains, nipping at the painted goons, and she let them go, and kicked out of the skates with more ease than was probably safe (you need good fitting skates for safety reasons, okay). Lithe and limber, she climbed atop those crates, the sense of the dutiful sneaking back into her. She bit her bottom lip, unsure of what to do—unsure of what she was supposed to do, not what she wanted to do. The year or however long behind her, the lonely one, without her puddin' stretched and stretched, and she had been plant-trained, hadn't she?
For now, she was able to hold her ground, but she did spread her fingers and squeak.
Joker turned his head, that ruby red grin going vacant as he sized her up. Recognition flickered in his green eyes with a touch of wonder. It was her and it wasn’t. She was here and she had so much to learn. “Let’s see. Gotham’s First National Bank should get a majority of the-” Joker started, grand and bright before tumbling into a fit of coughs that turned guttural as if the air was scraping off pieces of his lungs and throat. He wheezed and wheezed, giggling through each breath of air. “Oooh, we can do this later. You Hooo! Boys! Boys! You can go! My girl and I need a little alone time, heeeehe.” Joker rolled his eyes and thumbed at the exiting goons with an expression like taking care of a good sized mob was like maintaining an aquarium.
Once the door closed he leaned forward, elbows on his knees as his legs swung back and forth. “It was so nice of you to stop by and watch me cough up my insides. I couldn’t ask for a better audience.” The clown never had difficulty talking about his own approaching doom, in fact there was a steady amusement with the idea of actually dropping dead. Again. “Though, I must admit I’m a teensy bit disappointed you aren’t wearing your face today.” He patted her leg. “Don’t worry, I’m still going to leave you something nice in the will.”
She coulda cried. Course, she coulda laughed too. The line between the two was thin, sometimes even nonexistent, she had learned. But when the goons slunk out on command, all meat 'n no brains, Harley twisted her fingers together, trying to split her mind between the instantaneous and overwhelming joy that Mr. J had called her his girl, no hesitation and no implication apparent, and, ya know, the fact that he was a bad guy. Not a bad guy, like Eddie. A thorn in B-man's side. But a bad guy, like he just didn't have no manners when it came to love. He knew how to treat a girl, sure, but then he tossed her aside or tried to kill her, which, ultimately, did not endear her to him.
It was hard to know what to do. Did she keep smilin' away? Did she smack him? No. He was sick. That'd be mean. She waffled.—The decision of her next move was made easier by the pat on her leg. She winced at the clown's every hack and cough, but the physicality of his bony fingers against her leg drew her in like a stupid, girly moth to a painted-up flame. Harley had never been afraid of germs, if his illness could even be spread like so-called normal illnesses in Gotham.
She felt nervous, with cute lil bastard butterflies in her stomach. The worry she felt for Joe's illness hadn't yet hit her fully, so focused was she on seeing him again.
And, I tell ya what, habits are hard to break. Like a wet leaf under a shoe, Harley bent. She climbed into her puddin's lap, settling a shoulder against his chest. (Maybe he was sick, yeah, but he couldn't be all that frail. Right?) She looked up at him, at his curlicue of a smile, cut wicked on his lil face, then she buried her face in his lapel.
"Oh, puddin', I'm so sorry!"
Joker eyed her suspiciously when she crawled in his arms. What a silly girl, already getting attached to a Joker that wasn’t hers, but maybe close enough that it counted. He thought to ask about the other Joker, the one that hadn’t kept her at his side, but what did it matter now? This Gotham would belong to the new clown in town soon enough. Despite the urge to push her off his lap immediately (that was a punchline without a setup), he wrapped her up in his arms and squeezed. “Now that you’re here, everything is going to be A-OK.” He assured her and coughed a bit into her hair. “I have the same nasty cold I had before I died ever-so tragically. Now that I’m miraculously back, we get a second chance to really make ‘em laugh.”
He wasn’t the type of clown to tell the same joke twice, but this was a new audience. A couple tweaks and everything would be perfect. Joker looked down at her, pouting with those big red lips with a wibbly woobbly voice. “That is, if you’ll help me. I need to motivate old Batsy to cook me up a cure.” He batted his eyelashes at her.
She was a silly girl, and she was already attached. Yeah, course she was. The real problem was she never got unattached. Harl was like ...a puppet! Yeah, like a lil puppet, but one that was real messed up, one that everyone had a string to—Red, Mr. J, even Kitty and Eddie. And they could all pull at her whenever they wanted, they could make her dance, make her kneel, break her, whatever they wished, because Harley didn't give half-heartedly, did she? And once she was won over, there was no gettin' her to leave, not even if ya really wanted to. She might pout or scream or run away, but, tug once, and she'd be back, little wooden knees folded under her, her blue doll's eyes brimming with tears.
Just like now. As Mr. J's arms cinched around her in a hug, Harley was sniffling and wiping the big pearly tears that leaked from her eyes. She felt too much, and it was confusin' as crap. She'd missed him, she had, she had, she had. She would admit it. She had missed the Joker. Maybe he wasn't the nicest in the whole world, but he cared about her, and he could always look on the bright side.
Harley smiled at her puddin', just before the pout erupted. Concern flashed briefly over her face and she lifted a hand to stroke the clown's cheek softly.
"'Course I'll help ya, silly. I'm not gonna let ya die. Over my dead body!" There was a giggle that faded fast in the old circus tent. She put her head against his chest again, curled up tight. Her fingers played lightly with his stiff collar and she bit her glossy lips before looking up at the Joker through stuck, wet lashes. "Kitty might motivate B-man."
Harley was an emotional girl, yes. All bright sticky colors and dramatic boo-hooing on an Arkham lit stage. It was part of her charm. The world hid and buried and put on masks, while she painted her face white and showed every true color she had on her sleeves. She was the perfect girl for a clown who wanted to pull away all the curtains in Gotham. It made his smile grow and grow. Those big fat tears a sign that she would do so much for him, it was just a matter of seeing how far he could push.
He grinned at her as if his shining teeth were zapping away those tears one by one and then coughed loudly off into the dusty carnival air.
“Catwoman, eh?” The clown considered the possibility. “You see, Harley. Where I was from, I infected Batman with my very own sickness to push him to find a cure. And, he did, but the funny part was that he let me die anyway.” Skillfully leaving out the part that his own last minute doubts about the Batman’s morality actually lead to the clown’s own doom. “I think if we infected someone he loved instead, it would light a hotter fire under his behind.” Joker rocked her in his arms, this way and that in rhythm with his kicking heels. “The sooner I get over this little cough, the sooner you and I can have some real fun.” His voice grew dark like someone shut the lights off and turned on a projector, showing a long gag reel of all their good times together. “You deserve to have a little fun. We both do!” Cough, laugh, cough, cough.
"It's not real bad, is it? I mean, if ya got Kitty sick, B-man would find a cure 'cause he loves her, 'n she'd be okay, 'n you'd be okay, but before that—she'd be—it's not real bad, right? She just had a bomb in her head, Eddie said." Harley sniffed again, the stew of guilt in her seasick stomach diluting more and more with each minute spent in Mr. J's arms and under the alchemic glow of his smile. But she still remembered her friends, of course. She whispered, "B-Man 'n Eddie put it there like big ol' turds. The Bat is prolly still in the bat house for it too."
It was a secret, and she'd been good about keeping it, but Harley couldn't keep things from her puddin'. Not before and not now. This one might not have been her original one, but he was a reissue, not a new, meanie printing like the last dummy, and that was more than good enough for her.
Though his coughs worried her, the clown's words—about fun and laughs—were promising. She watched that imaginary, meta gag reel too, in stillness and silence. Harl wriggled a little in the man's lap, pulling herself up with his tie. Still holding on, she twisted and turned until she could put a bare knee on either side of Mr. J's purple-clad thighs. She reeled him forward like a big, funny fish (what a catch!), until they were nose to nose.
"You''re right o'course." From this position, perhaps she appeared a little more like herself—her former self. The clown princess. With or without face paint. She giggled a little, a sweet, small hiccup, before she gave Mr. J a big smackeroo, right on the lips, to hell with bein' sick.
“Oooooh, not too bad. This is only the first stages, if we let it go on long enough I’ll start getting acne scars.” He tapped her nose with his finger. “Don’t. Want. That. Now, do we?” Joker wasn’t worried about any Batman finding a cure for Catwoman, but there was one thing needling in the back of his mind. A sharp, prickling thing that told him every Batman would let him die if they got the chance. And, wouldn’t that ruin everything? All the jokes all the mayhem to prove how inseparable they were just big fat lies wrapped up in a giant bow. He liked pranks and pratfalls as much as the next clown, but he refused to let Batman play another joke on him.
The sudden turn and flash of his clown princess made him grin back. But, the kiss was too much. Too cloying and wanting and sickening like cotton candy out of a dumpster. He wiggled free out of it, shoving her to the side before climbing down off the piles and piles of explosives. “We need to lure the kitty cat here and give her some of my funny juice.” Blood, Harley. He meant blood. “Then, we have to make sure to get the cure from Batman.” Joker lifted his long arms and spread them out as if he were presenting the circus ring in front of him in a sweeping gesture. “After all, a Bat who’s willing to put a bomb in a lady’s head may not be sooooo inclined to save the life of a measly little clown.” It made his stomach turn thinking that this Batman wasn’t up to par with the one he knew before. It made him angry that there was a funny part of him that couldn’t believe the bat would come to his rescue. But, those stuttering lines were an insurance policy, right? Why exit stage left so early when he just got here?
Harley wrinkled her nose at the mention of acne scars and with the tap, tapping of the childish question. She didn't think B-man would let Mr. J die, not like he did wherever Mr. J came from. Maybe he put a bomb in Kitty's head, ok, but he loved her. All that proved was his love for Justice was greater than his love for Kitty, but didn't everyone know that? He was a miserable little man; that's why Harley liked him.
Not that she was thinking about that now, Mr. J, the fish on her line, getting free of the hook through his lip. Harley crumpled, just a little bit, her little puppet strings sagging, but—you gotta remember, this is how it is, how it had been. She knew Mr. J loved her, even when he forgot and acted like a real jerk. The girl curled up where she sat, making herself small and smaller, her eyes on the clown as he paced and gesticulated (no, Kelly) like a ringmaster.
There was a root, firm and deep, in her gut, a little seed that had grown, planted by Red a long time ago. It had yet to sprout into anything impressive, but it was there, all the same, a shoot of green, and Harley, its gardener and host, shot her puddin' a look at the mention of luring Kitty.
Her mind changed so fast, it'd give you bumper-car whiplash.
"Gee, I dunno, puddin',… she's my friend, ya know? Maybe we can use a lil birdy instead…"
The grand jesticulation (this is happening) stopped short as if someone yelled CUT! because a dog ran across the stage in the middle of a scene. He turned to look at her, that grin still printed across his face as his brow slowly lowered. It was strange how his shadow seemed to get longer when he looked at her like that as if he was growing larger while the world shrunk and shrunk. This was something new! Something grand his Harley didn’t bother with. Sure, she liked that vegetable and even ran off with her a few times, but she liked the flea-bitten cat, too? “Friend?” Said like Harley didn’t need anyone except him. That’s what love was all about, wasn’t? Especially in a town like this.
He got the bright idea that using the kitty cat as bait would be a good way to test the two most loyal clown fans all at the same time. Sure, a bird would work just fine, but the cat pulled heartstrings tangled with both Harley and the Batman. If Harley refused, then she didn’t deserve those pigtails. If the Bat failed, then he didn’t deserve his pointy ears. Oh, this was going to be good. “Don’t wooooorrryy Harley. She won’t die. Just a little cough until Batsy finds us a cure.” He slowly placed his hand over his heart. “I promise not to harm a hair on her little kitty cat head.”
The creeping of Mr. J's spindly shadow in the show lights of the room had Harley shrinking back a little more. He was a bad omen on a phony's tarot card. Maybe she didn't believe it, but that didn't mean she wasn't scared, because, ya know, what if it was true? What if her fortunes had changed? She bit her lip again, the flesh caught between her teeth and her brows knit, as she wondered if she should answer the question or if it was rhetorical.
Kitty was her friend. She would hiss at ya, yeah, but she'd let ya pet her too, when she was feelin' cuddly, 'n what wasn't nice about that? What wasn't nice about knowing ya could get a purr out of a little grouchy thing?
Harley almost joked that Mr. J shoulda said a whisker on her head, but she remembered, belatedly, that he wasn't Eddie. He liked to make the jokes, and not for the first time that evening, she thought about runnin' back to Pammy's leafy arms and beggin' for… somethin'. Maybe not forgiveness. Red didn't really do that. But for a hug or somethin'.
She climbed onto her knees, scratched them on the wooden crates that housed enough explosives to blow the entire city sky high. Her fingers twisted in the blond of a pigtail.
"Pinky promise?" She tried a smile and wondered how her heart ever got in such bad shape.
Joker was pleasantly surprised he didn’t have to take it any farther. Threatening Harley didn’t get the results he wanted and it wasn’t fun. Now, threatening some dock worker to let him use his boat, that was fun. Threatening a bat or bird, that was even better. He made a mental note to do a little of both soon, very soon.
He took a step towards the crates she was sitting on, hands casually folding behind his back and he looked up at her. Green eyes echoing madness of every part of Gotham while the threat of what he’d have to do if she turned on him drained right out. Now, he was so happy she was seeing things his way again.
“Pinky swears are for kids.” He teased her and held his arms out for her to jump into. “Why not seal it with a smooch?”