Gotham is eerily quiet at night. A graveyard kind of quiet, not that of a breath held in anticipation for something more to come, something better, as if the city was grieving the loss of its protector but expected his return. The city is plain grieving. Mr. J would have known how to make a joke out of that.
Without car alarms wailing in the distance, windows shattering, or screams piercing this blanket of silence, Gotham sounds empty, devoid of life, like everyone has fled for good. Perhaps there are no more cars to demolish, no more windows to smash, or people to attack. Perhaps everyone really has gone.
They all do in the end. They all leave.
"I don't get what's up with Harley," one of her goons says. Boots scuff against the floorboards, fabric rustles, lighters click. Inside, it's not so quiet after all. Not everyone has left yet.
"Yeah, you know something's up with the boss lady when she ain't flirtin with ya," another one answers.
"She ain't never flirted with me."
"That's cuz you just ain't her type."
"Oh? But you are?" There's a scraping of chairs, as if they're poised to fight.
"It's scary, man," a third cuts in, before a scuffle could ensue. "How depressed she's become. Haven't seen her that way since the Joker died."
"It's serious this time."
"It's all wrong is what it is. We're sittin' ducks. We shouldn't be hiding out here. We should be expanding! Carving out new territories."
Coughing and murmured agreement.
"He's right. Who knows how long the big guys are gonna stay locked up. Once they're out. they'll want their share of the cake again, so we gotta act fast."
"Let's not forget about Black Mask. Guy's already occupying the harbor. He's not slowin' down and waitin' for a better opportunity to present itself , so why should we?"
"Give her some space, man. She snapped out of it last time too, and then we got back into business."
"Did you forget we only got back into business this time because of that old dude she claimed was the Joker? Like, apart from the fact that that's crazy, what are the odds of that happenin' again?"
"You mean her finding another Joker?"
"Yeah." More scratching of chairs and scuffling of boots. There's as much restlessness in their bones as there's emptiness in her heart. This could never be reconciled.
"Maybe she should just make one if that's what it takes."
"You think she was bangin' him?"
"The old dude."
A cacophony of disgusted noises. "Gross!" "Ew!" "What is wrong with you?"
"Don't worry, guys," someone steers the conversation into safer waters. "She'll find some other deluded fool who'll put a bug in her ear and then we're rocking again."
But another rips the rudder around. "You mean someone who's gonna give her the D." Raucous laughter.
"I volunteer!" More laughter, more volunteers.
Harley's aware of what they're saying. About her. About what she should and shouldn't be doing. Always the same complaints. Think she can't hear them. They're like quarreling parents in that way.
"I don't care what's crawled up Harley's ass this time. The bitch needs to get a grip and get out there, kick some ass. Else I'm gonna have to do it for her."
She doesn't need to hear the words to know what they are thinking. It's in their voices. On their faces, too, when she does venture out of her room for a change. Their heads lift in anticipation, expectation, yes, entitlement even. They demand action. When she shuffles past like she was caught in a snowdrift, unhindered and unheeding, there's disappointment, disbelief, resentment. It's surprising that they stick around despite their many losses, their many setbacks and casualties, their lack of leadership.
What is it they're getting out of this? What are they promising themselves? Is it the money? Are they waiting around for her to dole out what she owes them before they set out for more lucrative shores? Black Mask's drug operation has been expanding aggressively, like an ulcer on the back of Gotham. He sure could use the manpower.
It's not loyalty that makes them stay.
It's always been money, or some misguided hope of filling Mr. J's shoes.
Some stay devoted, some don't. There are altercations. Disagreements about the management. What you'd expect when there's a power vacuum. Everyone wants to grab the top position.
"I keep telling ya," one of her grunts raises his voice above the others. "We should just dump her and take control of the Jokerz ourselves. Rob some banks while we're at it. With the Bat gone, it will be easy pickings. That little birdboy of his can't be everywhere at once."
Another one scoffs. "And who's gonna lead us? You?"
"Yeah, right. You remember what happened to Paulie?"
"That was the Joker, not Harley. What's she gonna do? Cry me to death?"
"You might wanna watch out what you say." A cap pops and clatters to the floor, as if it were a warning and not a testament to their distraction, their discontent and disorganization. Drinking beer and complaining about the boss. She wouldn't be surprised if there were a pub in front of her door, complete with barkeep and stools. Certainly smells like one already.
"Why? Because she can hear me? I ain't afraid of her. If she's got a problem with the way I talk, I'll answer to her. But she'd first have to step out of her stinking cell first. And I ain't seein' that happenin' anytime soon."
"She still owes us money. The way I figure, everyone else is in the slammer and won't likely be out any time soon so Harley's your best bet for scoring a job."
"If she ever gets a grip again, maybe."
"Cut her some slack, man." There's a cushioned impact, like the back of a hand hitting a bomber jacket.
"And who cuts me some slack? She ain't the only one who's lost the Joker, you know."
Loud guffawing answers him. "So you were in love with him too, huh? Can't remember Joker visiting you nights."
"I'm just sayin'. It ain't easy for any of us."
"Speak for yourself."
"He's right, man. Ain't the same without the Joker."
Harley's aware what they're saying, but it doesn't matter. Nothing matters anymore. She just wishes they would stop talking.
She was never meant to lead these guys. Not alone, anyhow.
She's a lackey at heart, I can tell.
Christina's voice burns in her tear ducts, but produces nothing more than a raw sensation. Harley wants to cry and sob and throw her arms towards high heaven, wants everyone to see her grief, but no longer has the energy to go through the motions. She rolls her head to the side, away from the pain in her chest. She lies crumpled on the floor like a corpse dumped into wet tarmac, like a worn rag doll, tossed into the trash because its owner-child is dead, or worse yet, grown up.
(Mr. J used to leave her like that sometimes. Her ribs ache to remember but her heart aches worse.)
Her arm feels like jelly when she lifts it and spreads her fingers against the only illumination in the room. In the corner, a JokerTV statue is replaying a grainy clip of her puddin' talking into the camera, talking to her, to Bats, to a traitor, she doesn't know. The sound is busted. Nothing but static comes out of its glowing head, its usually soothing lull now abrasive. It casts vague shadows in the otherwise dark room, with its drapes pulled against the chill. The candles she lit have long since drowned in their own tears. Part of her is disappointed. Part of her had expected the velvets to catch fire and burn everything to the ground, herself included. Fire would be cleansing the pain, turning it inside out. Like the barren dragon queen, she'd rise from it unharmed, safe for her blackened heart, charred beyond recognition, all its pieces turned into a single lump of coal, mended at last.
It's a classic story. The king died and then the queen died out of grief and their kingdom is ashes.
She rolls to her side, pulling her knees in but not taking her eyes off Mr. J's smile between her fingertips. These recordings are everything she has of him. Her other hand scratches the fabric of the corset that's not tight enough to tie off the phantom ache in her abdomen. She couldn't even give him a child, that's how useless she was. Nothing to remember him by save for images of the past and a ragtag bunch of runts who'd sooner dethrone her than wait till Gotham is taken over by anyone that ain't them.
Her fingers close around her puddin's face on the monitor, as if she could pluck him from it and bring him back to life. The Bat's death had been a media event her puddin's never was. The stations and papers went on and on about Batman's no longer secret identity, about how everyone should have known, about how some of them had always known, about the future of Wayne Enterprises whose stocks had taken a nosedive after the exposure, and about the future of the Batkids he left behind. There'd been inquiries and speculations about their identities at first, but even that has lost its appeal in the face of the mystery of the exploding manor. (Perhaps Sherlock Holmes might have been able to solve this one.)
Not a word about Ivy or her new Mr. J or the cute Jokers B-man had so offensively termed knock-offs. They were never knock-offs to her. They were a legacy and she'd been in love with all of them.
She should have known. She should have known what was going to happen, what always happens when the Bat got involved. She should have taken the Jokers by the scruff and run away with them while she could. Not that they would have listened. Not that they would have passed up the chance to play with the Bat. Henry had his plan all figured out, and it sounded so exciting. What could possibly have gone wrong? Oh, you know, the usual. She shouldn't have listened to that sweet, old fool.
Why did he have to have to kill himself? And the other ones, too? She could have loved all of them equally, not only the prime specimen. Although, truth be told, she's not sure she could have loved Batman as the new Joker. There'd been too much bad blood between them. But if he'd been anything like the other Jokers, then maybe she could have ignored the looks she hated so much because they'd been the looks of someone who'd continually hurt her puddin', who'd been responsible for her puddin's death.
She shouldn't have listened. Shouldn't have gone along with the plan. Of course, arguing with Mr. J never did prove useful and go along was all she could do. And it did sound like so much fun. The look on B-man's face when Henry revealed himself should have been worth all the trouble that came before. But not at the expense of the other Jokers. Not at the expense of Henry himself.
Pain seized her anew.
She'd imagined walking out of Panessa Studios with four Jokers and leaving the dead bodies of Batman and his bird wonder behind. Little did she know it would be Batman and birdboy who'd walk out of there, if not together then at least both alive, and she'd be left to cry over the dead bodies of her loved ones. She didn't even know what happened to them after that. All she can do is guess that they'd been cremated like her puddin', without so much as an obituary or a place for her to mourn.
Another time she might have risen against this unfair treatment in the media. People needed to remember her puddin', needed to know what his blood had created and what Gotham was spared due to their untimely demise. They needed to remember Ivy too, and know of her sacrifice, how she'd saved all of them, even after they'd treated her like nothing more than a common criminal and not like the gift that she was. (It pains her all the more that she'd taken her friend, lover and confidante for granted so many times, that they went their separate ways after their last fight, and that she never got to communicate how much Ivy meant to her.)
How was she supposed to go on living if there was no one to go on living for? True, Kitty Cat is still out there somewhere, but she has never been the most reliable in an emotional crisis. Ivy alone had managed to build her up after her puddin's death that first time. Ivy, and the promise of revenge. Great revenge plan that turned out to be, foiled as it had been before it came to fruition. This time, there would be no one to stop her, just as there would be no one to exact her revenge upon. She could go after Birdboy as thanks for last time, but he just ain't worth the trouble.
Nothing is worth the trouble anymore. All she can do now is wait to die and join her puddin' in the afterlife.
If there weren't her goons to consider and appease.
Heavy boots shake up the floorboards. Rifles are cocked in response.
"Where's the boss lady?" a newcomer asks, out of breath.
"Where do you think she is?"
"The boss lady doesn't wanna be disturbed," another goon pipes up.
"How'd you know? You talk to her?"
"What do you want with her anyway? Last time I saw her, she didn't look like wanting to talk much."
"We got somethin' for her we think she'd wanna see."
"If you want a bat to you head, be my guest. But I wouldn't go anywhere near Harley when she's in that mood."
"What mood? She doesn't do anything except lie around all day."
"Still, can't be too careful with that one. One moment she's crying on your shoulder, lamenting Joker's death an' makin' you feel sorry for her, next she's rammin' a knife down your throat."
A slant of light slices the darkness of her room as the door creaks open. Harley shields her eyes. There's snickering from beyond and a murmured "here it comes" abruptly cut off, elbow to ribs. Their bomber jackets swish.
"Boss?" A thug pokes his painted head through the door.
"What?!" she snaps. The force of her anger rips her upright. Can't even mourn in peace these days. Nothing's within arm's reach to throw, so she reaches into her boot.
The oblong of light thins to a sliver before the knife twangs in the wood. The force of it knocks free its twin she'd embedded there earlier this week. It scrapes across the floor as the door opens again. There's hooting on the other side. "What did I tell ya?"
"We, uh, we got a present for you. Something you need to see."
"Unless it's the Bat trussed up and hung from the ceiling like a piñata I don't want to know about it," she says and sinks back to the floor.
"It's not the Bat but it's pretty close."
Harley doesn't want to move but the grunt insists. It's been too long since they got any action around here. The guys thirst for violence. She can't blame them. She hasn't been a good crime boss in a very long time.
Rolling to the side, she pushes herself up and over to the corner where her Bat-bat is propped against the wall. That should do it for some piñata-popping. She's too weak to heft it so she lets it trail across the floor. With the dirt underfoot, it sounds like gravel over grindstones. She may have been more curious at one time, but a residue's still there. Apparently curiosity ain't something you grow out of easily. And if this ain't worth her time, there's enough someones to make suffer for disturbing her.
They take her down two flights of stairs and along some corridors. She follows blindly, as spots dance across her vision and all she can do is not succumb to the vertigo. She hasn't eaten, hasn't moved in days and her circulation is now getting back at her for her neglect.
When they open a gray, unmarked door, she sees him. Suspended in the middle of the room is the guy who'd been responsible for a lot of the chaos and warfare on Gotham's streets. His militia had been clogging them, and as many of her men had turned up dead or gravely wounded. He'd been in Scarecrow's ears from the get-go, allowing the Bat to roam free in a concerted and convoluted effort to bring him to his disgraced knees once and for all.
And he was still in his full armor.
"You left his armor on?" she asks. "Are you stupid or do you just wanna get hurt?"
She doesn't know if her guys had been scared to touch him overly much, afraid he might wake any second and take them out, or if they actually forgot what guys like him are capable of, that they needed to be stripped of every advantage they had. At least they'd stripped him of any overt weapon, but she bets there's at least as many still hidden in secret compartments in his armor. Sorry, guys. No bonus points for you.
Still, all they wanted to do was give her some treat, something to be excited about. And it worked.
"Thanks, guys. I do appreciate the gift."
She moves closer and prods him with her bat. He's out cold. Time to make him pay for some of the shit he's put them through.
"Hey, Knight freak." She knocks against his shiny red helmet. His head rolls away from her bat. Good, he's awake. Maybe he's even listening. "Did ya think that new helmet would fool me? And what's with the Batsymbol?" She prods some more, his chest this time where he'd scrawled the trademark symbol of the guy he'd claimed to hate. "You on his side now?"
Wouldn't that take the cake? If he'd been working together with the Bat and only manipulated Scarecrow into thinking he'd had the upper hand. Poor Crane, the blubbering fool.
"Was it all just lies?"
He's trembling, struggling against his bonds. His head jerks up as she takes a swing at him with all the glee of a child hitting a piñata (all that seduction and that sweetness promised), with all the grief of a lover left behind, and the pain of someone who's all alone in the world.
"This is all your fault!"
He swings himself to the side. She misses him by an inch. Where she fails to hit him, her henchmen are not far behind to compensate.
"Get him!" they cry and deal out blows like candy. It's riveting to watch. Less because they hurt him, and more because he's moving, curling over their heads and taking them out one after the other. He's quick. Not just fast – agile. He's not thinking about his next move. He's just making it. He's been trained well. It's exhilarating. The rapid fire of the machine guns is like applause to her ears.
And there's something about his motions. Something familiar.
With the force of an epiphany, she realizes why she's elated. It's not because of the violence – which would have been as good a guess as any – but because she knows those moves. She's warded them off often enough, so long ago.
"Stop shooting," she yells before any other thought comes to her. "Stop it, all of you."
He—it can't be.
She walks towards him on wobbling legs, and he must have heard her, because he stops beating her goons. He looks at her, as if recognition was dawning on him too. Her bat clatters to the ground as she stretches out her quaking fingers toward his helmet, needing to confirm.
She's mere inches from the revelation when a red dot zigzags over his torso. Her body flinches as if hit itself when the shot rings out.
"What are you doing?" she screeches and rushes forward to support him. "I told you to stop."
The Arkham Knight goes down on one knee and almost falls into her arms.
"No, no, no, please, no." Please, this can't be happening again. Hasn't she lost enough people dear to her? Must she lose him again, if it is indeed him?
Her fingers scuttle over his helmet, searching for the safety catch. She has to know. She's caught between wishing it's him and wishing it ain't. Her throat constricts when his visor opens. She cannot quite believe it.
"Junior!" she breathes out and her thumb strokes the familiar letter branded into his cheek. "Junior, it's really you."
Shock, relief and love all wash over her in equal measures as she takes off the helmet. His bangs are sweat-slick beneath her fingers and she smoothes them out of his handsome face, so she can have a better look at her boy. Gathering him in her arms, she kisses the 'J' beneath his eye over and over, taken with the onslaught of emotion she had believed dead like all her loved ones.
"Oh God, I thought I'd lost you." She's babbling now, oblivious to her men crowding around, curious about the spectacle. "When I couldn't find you after the chaos at Arkham, I thought you didn't make it. I checked Blackgate, the hospitals, everywhere the other inmates ended up in, but you were—you were gone. He said you must've met your maker. And that it wasn't my fault. But it was. It was. I'm sorry, I should have kept looking, shouldn't have listened, should've known you were still out there. Arkham couldn't keep you down."
He chokes out dry laughter, and it rattles through him like electricity. She cradles him, buffering the tremors and rocking him gently.
"It's okay now," she whispers soothingly, letting him know he no longer needs to fear. He's safe now. "I've got you. I'll fix you up again. Just like old times, okay? I'll make it right. Oh, my poor darling, it's all gonna be alright from now on. Nothing's gonna happen to you anymore. I promise."
He clutches her sleeve so hard he nearly rips the fabric and buries howls of pain against her chest. Her eyes are stinging and her voice is breaking but she manages to snap at her useless goons with some shred of authority.
"What are you standing around here for? Get me something to dress the wounds with. Pronto!"
It's for the good of her poor boy, after all. Her poor boy who has suffered so much, who has lost so much. Who has returned to her in the darkest time of her life, a little flickering candle threatening to go out if she doesn't do anything soon. Oh, he's tough, her boy, but she's still afraid. She just got him back. She can't go losing him already. It wouldn't be fair.
His pained noises die down and his fingers uncurl as he slips into unconsciousness. At least she hopes that's what it is, exhaustion and agony taking their toll on him.
"No no no, stay with me." She slaps his face, but too gently, it's hardly more than a pat on the cheek. "Don't fall asleep on me now."
As she bends over his inert body, she can't help herself. A nervous giggle builds in the back of her throat. She's filled with so much love and joy and helplessness, she doesn't know where to pack it all. The bullet had torn through his armor as if it hadn't been there in the first place. The jagged hole is leaking blood. Harley's no surgeon and there are no guarantees, not with abdominal wounds. This is what she gets for telling her grunts always to aim for maximum damage.
If she weren't so hysterical, she'd be laughing about the irony of it, but then she notices she is. She is laughing and sobbing and sheltering him, willing him not to die.
"Oh, puddin', why do you keep sending me gifts from beyond only to take them away again? Do you have to be that cruel even in death?"
"Now she's gone completely gone off the rails," one of her thugs comments, dumbfounded.
"Nah, she's just happy."
"How can you tell?"
"You know who that guy is? Look closely. You were there. You oughta remember."
"Oh, you mean that mark on his face. Yeah, that one rings a bell. It was right before the Asylum, right?"
"Yeah, he was just a kid back then and Joker's pet project. Really did a number on him. Wouldn't have imagined him to grow up leading his own militia one day."
"Wouldn't have expected him to survive this long in the first place."
"Yeah, kid's one stubborn son of a bitch."
"That's not even what I meant. The way I heard it, Deathstroke was supposed to take care of him."
"Wait, but Deathstroke was working for him, wasn't he? At least, I heard some guys mention he was driving one of the Knight's tanks when the Bat got to him."
"Could have been stolen."
Harley has enough of this idle chatter. "Quit yer jabberin' and make yourselves useful, you idiots," she snarls. "Get me some blankets. A table. Anything."
Her grunts snap to action. They may be a disorganized bunch off the battlefield, but they know how important treatment is when you want to survive your wounds. Good for them. Right now, it's best for them to follow her orders to a T if they want to survive Harley. If she finds another idiot twiddling his thumbs while her boy might be dying, she's gonna make their life miserable. If her boy doesn't make it, neither will they.