Urgency surging through his veins, Rick impatiently activated the handprint and retina scanners that would grant him access to the generic suburban McMansion. He only knew about this safe house because Waller had told him in case he ever needed to bring her there. She would probably have his head for bringing a Task Force X member here, but her reaction was far from his top concern at the moment.
The locks retracted, allowing him entry, and then slid into place once more as he strode rapidly over the threshold and down the hall to the living room. Harley was lying on the sofa where he had placed her before, her eyes closed and her form unmoving but for the rise and fall of her chest. It was an unusual sight, and undoubtedly an indication of her serious injury. Her default mode was in motion, be it swaggering, backflipping, or vaulting, and it was almost unnerving to see her still. Yet here she was, like a fairy tale princess trapped in a deep sleep by a wicked witch’s curse, who just happened to have hastily bandaged gunshot wounds and a bloodstained baseball bat by her side.
He hadn't wanted to leave her, but her condition—four bullets straight into the stomach—necessitated medical supplies that even the house’s extensive first aid kit didn't contain. When Waller raised the issue of the house with him, he'd have to inform her of the oversight.
Reaching out and taking her pulse, Rick found it to be unexpectedly strong. Well, that was heartening, even if he wasn’t entirely surprised; if nothing else, Harley was a fighter. He tried not to think of the similarities between Harley’s current state and the image the Enchantress had forced into in his mind of June dying in a hospital bed.
Moving swiftly, Rick carefully removed one sheet of bandages at a time, readying the disinfectant and preparing a moist pad of gauze to press against the wound. To his astonishment, when he finally unpeeled the last bandage, her skin was completely intact beneath it, the only marks some red and purple bruising. Even as he watched, the discoloration seemed to ebb away before his eyes.
Dumbstruck, Rick glanced up at Harley’s face as if asking for an explanation, and was startled to find her awake and aware, gazing back at him.
“Looks like I took away your opportunity to play doctor, huh?” She smirked, but her voice rasped in her throat.
Rick shook his head, preparing an IV. “I take it this is some weird metahuman thing, or something like that?”
Harley shrugged, sitting up painstakingly. Rick noticed and moved to help her.
“Thanks,” she said, rummaging in the pockets of her Gotham Rogues jacket that served as a replacement for the previous one that had read “Property of the Joker.” The wardrobe switch must have occurred sometime after she broke out of Belle Reve, and Rick had no doubt it went a long way to explain she had willingly returned to the team not long after her escape.
Extracting a compact mirror and lipstick, Harley meticulously reapplied the color to her lips, as Rick watched, half-impatient, half-bemused, the IV waiting in his hands.
June hadn’t ever worn much makeup. Some eyeliner, maybe a touch of blush. Of course, given the nightmarish situation she had been trapped in, she had far more serious concerns than cosmetics.
And right now, so did he. Rick shook his head slightly to clear his thoughts. Even after ending their relationship and leaving, June was never far from his mind.
The moment Harley stowed the objects back in her pocket, Rick grabbed one of her wrists and inserted the IV needle, ignoring the reflexive bat from Harley’s other hand.
“I also brought blood of your type,” he informed her. “But I don’t know you’ll actually need it, now that you’re somehow no longer wounded.” He made his skepticism clear in his tone.
“You’re right. I won’t need it,” Harley told him cheerfully. “But don’t worry. It’s the thought that counts.” Her eyes landed on the other item he had picked up for her. “Oh, a smoothie! Is that for me?”
Rick sighed, reaching over to coffee table to hand it to her, but then hesitating. “Should you really have this? Victims of abdominal gunshot wounds aren’t supposed to eat or drink for a few days afterwards.” Actually, it had been a poor decision to buy it for her in the first place, but he hadn’t been thinking straight. He had only remembered that Harley had difficulty with solid foods due to the amount tube feeding she endured at the hands of Grimes. And since the safe house didn’t seem to have a blender, his rationale was that she would need some sort of sustenance, not fully considering that she wouldn’t be able to eat for at least a day.
“Good thing I don’t have any gunshot wounds, then,” Harley said. Her hand darted into her pocket once more, extracting four misshapen slugs. “See? I pulled them out myself.”
God, Waller was probably going to send him the cleaning bill for the couch once she saw the state it was in. “You’re going to need to explain some of this,” Rick said, frowning, but giving her the smoothie.
Harley took a sip and grinned. “Mmm, orange and vanilla. Tastes like a creamsicle.”
“The gunshot wounds, Quinn,” he reminded her, but he wasn’t irritated. Actually, it was a welcome change to see Harley take satisfaction in something—anything—other than antagonizing her teammates.
“Sure. Riddle me this first, though. Where are we?”
“Some place in suburbia that’s supposed to be a safe house.” Rick glanced at their surroundings critically. “It could use a whole lot of improvements, though.”
“Suburbia?” Harley set down her drink, stretching her arms over her head. “Funny. That’s where our story begins. Back when I escaped and things went south with me and the Joker—”
The Joker, Rick observed. Not Puddin’ or Mistah J.
“—I went to hang out with my friend Pammy in Paradise Meadows. The neighborhood is set on a toxic waste dump, so she gave me an injection of science stuff to give me immunity. But the science didn’t just do that—it also gave me immunity to all poisons, increased my healing, gave me more endurance and agility, and decreased my vulnerability. So, here I am, A-okay.” Harley sipped from her smoothie once more.
“So, Poison Ivy gave you a vial of ‘science stuff’ that lets you get shot multiple times and be perfectly fine later on?” Rick asked skeptically.
“Is it so hard to believe?” Harley arched an eyebrow at him. “You’re quite the doubting Thomas for someone whose girlfriend was possessed by a demon. How is June, by the way? How does she like teaching at Metropolis University? You never talk about her now that she’s left.”
“Why would I?” Rick asked gruffly, focusing on reorganizing the medical supplies. “This is a military unit, not a therapy group.”
“Yes, but I’m a psychiatrist. I can listen.” Harley leaned forward eagerly, going into shrink mode now that she had a brain to pick. “I’ve had my fair share of romantic entanglements gone wrong, you know. You’re not alone.”
Rick snorted. “Yeah, you’re just the paragon of understanding and empathy. I’m some wounded soul in need of rescue, and you’re the good doctor, isn’t that right?”
“You want me to prove it? Fine.” Harley began ticking items off her fingers. “First, there was Guy. He was my first boyfriend. I met him at a gymnastics meet. He passed away right before I got my M.D.. It was terrible, and so sad.” Her voice was surprisingly sincere.
Guy Kopski. He had been Quinn’s boyfriend throughout grad school, and her only significant romantic liaison previous to the Joker. Their relationship had ended in tragedy, when Kopski inexplicably murdered a homeless man shortly before killing himself. The events had shocked everyone who had known him and did not match Kopski’s reputation as an easygoing and friendly individual. The various shrinks who contributed to Harley’s file suspected the loss of Kopski just before she began work at Arkham Asylum had made her vulnerable to the Joker’s manipulations. For his part, Rick wasn’t sure. Given that the others Harley had dated were criminals, it was possible she was simply attracted to violence.
“Of course, there’s Pammy,” Harley went on. “I love that girl, but she’s married to the job. We ended things a few weeks ago when she ran off to protect plants in the rainforest. I’ve never been much of one for camping. Call me spoiled, but I like my creature comforts, and I’m not going to live in a treehouse in some sweltering jungle just to make my better half happy. We’re still friends, though.”
Poison Ivy, another one of Batman’s villains. She and Harley had become involved during an “off” period of Harley and Joker’s on-again, off-again relationship. For several weeks, they had pillaged the city to the point that the newspapers christened them “Gotham’s Queens of Crime.”
“And of course, the Joker.” Harley’s voice hardened, and Rick once again noted the absence of any pet name. “He lied to me. Betrayed me. And thinking about what a fool he made outta me makes me want to strangle somebody.” Her hands twisted in the air, as if she was imagining wringing the Joker’s neck. “But don’t worry. He got what was coming to him.”
He paused at that remark. The Joker hadn’t been seen since Harley rejoined them nearly a month ago. Rick had assumed that the Bat either had him imprisoned somewhere, or that he was off sulking because Harley had broken up with him.
“You killed him?” Rick asked. While he hadn’t anticipated the revelation, he wasn’t entirely taken aback. After all, the reason Waller wanted Harley for the team was because she was unpredictable.
“I found out he lied to me.” Harley’s words left her mouth in a hiss of anger. “He told that he hadn’t killed that one kid—Bluejay, or whatever the hell his name was—the one that helped Bats—”
“Robin,” Rick volunteered, wondering where Harley’s story was going. Harley had claimed to be responsible for killing Robin, but the very idea was ludicrous. Robin had been dead long before she had ever set foot in Arkham.
Harley waved a hand dismissively. “Yeah, that might have been it. Joker always told me Bats framed him for that, so I took the blame. I said I was the one who killed him, ‘cause I wanted Bats to lay off Mista—” she caught herself before fully speaking the endearment “—Joker. But then I found out he lied.” She shook her head grimly, pointing at Rick with her baseball bat for emphasis. “No one tricks me and gets away with it. Much less someone who kills kids.”
“You’ve got your standards,” Rick observed. Thinking back to Harley’s list of crimes, he recalled that she rarely killed unless cornered and she had never once harmed a child. Though the distinctions might have seemed negligible, it was evidence that Harley took no pleasure in murder, unlike the Joker, who had been a sadist.
“Everyone does, at some point,” Harley replied matter-of-factly. “I’ll own everything I’ve done, and I was willing to own what I thought was a frame-up for the Joker, but his actual crime? No thanks. I'm not that interested in being a martyr. Ivy and I wrapped him up in that jacket of mine and then buried him in Paradise Meadows. We figured the ground couldn’t get anymore polluted.”
Rick started transferring some of the first aid supplies to his pack. They would have to be on the move again soon. “Good riddance. Would it be too sappy of me if I told you I was proud to be your commanding officer?”
“Not at all,” Harley said sweetly, rising from the couch and joining him at the other side of the coffee table.
Rising, Rick watched her approach, half-wary, half-anticipatory. She wasn’t moving with her usual speed, always half a step behind where she normally have been. It seemed that her injuries, or perhaps her rapid recovery, had left her drained despite her metahuman enhancements.
When Harley wrapped her arms around his neck, he didn’t object or push her away, though he was fully aware that he should have. For a moment, they simply held gazes, staring at each other unflinchingly, until she brought her lips to his in a long, deep kiss. For several moments, they embraced passionately, until Rick’s brain kicked in and he wrenched himself away.
“What the hell was that?” he demanded angrily.
Harley scoffed, retrieving her smoothie once more. “Oh, please. Like you were complaining.”
“I—you—” Rick struggled to form a coherent sentence. “You tell me about murdering your boyfriend. You bring up my ex and then give me all these sob stories about how woe is you and none of your relationships work out, and then you shove your tongue down my throat? What the fuck is your deal?”
“I wanted to make a point,” Harley informed him, unruffled. “Yes, you faced a difficult end to a trying relationship. But I’ve gone through several, and I’m still here. And besides,” a smirk played at the edge of her mouth, “if I hadn’t made the first move, you never would have.”
Rick went rigid as he absorbed Harley’s words, the implication inducing tension to every muscle of his body. “What are you saying? That I wanted you to—”
“Honey, of course you did.” Harley finished the last of her smoothie. “Otherwise, what was this about?” She rattled the empty container for effect. “You think about me. You care about me.”
“It’s smoothie, not a proposal of marriage,” Rick said tersely. God, buying that concoction for her had been a major mistake.
“No, but I see you looking at me when you think I won’t notice, so I think you’d like to propose something.” She sent him a shrewd look. “Is June the issue here? You don’t want another girlfriend after she’s gone? Newsflash: she ain’t coming back.”
“June is not up for discussion,” Rick growled. Frustration and irritation surged through him, partially because he knew Harley was right: a piece of him was still hung up on June, and he was beginning to wonder if he would ever stop longing for her.
Harley shrugged, but her demeanor changed as she once again walked over to Rick, her flippance fading, replaced by an uncommon gentleness he had never previously seen her display. “Frankly, I could use some TLC at the moment. And I’m sure you could, too. So why not give me a chance, at least?” She put her arms around him again, leaning in close, her chest pressing against his shoulder.
Rick gritted his teeth. He knew he should stop her then and there. He knew that he would be an idiot to become involved with another one of his operatives after the disaster with June. And who was to say Harley’s sudden attention wasn’t just another one of Waller’s schemes to trap him?
But he didn’t want it to be, and that knowledge shook him. If he were honest, he wished that the reason for the kiss was because Harley desired him, not for any kind of motive. He enjoyed feeling the heat of her body, the contours of her form. The skin on her face looked soft and smooth, and part of him was tempted to reach out and run a finger along her jawline and trace over her lips.
Opening his mouth, Rick told himself he was going to reject her, to make sure this scenario never again repeated itself, but instead, a question left his lips. “What if I say yes? What do you get from being with me?”
Harley spoke into his ear, her breath tickling her skin. “I saw how you were with June. I saw how much you cared about her, how much it hurt when you thought she had died. I want that kind of love for myself. For someone to care about me so deeply that even if they hurt me, I know for certain that they still love me without even stopping to question it.”
“That sounds less like you want love and more like you want surrender,” Rick commented, trying to determine her sincerity. He still suspected she might be working an angle.
She shifted around so she was in front of him yet again. “It’s devotion. And I want it. I want you to love me the way you loved June. Look, I know my place. I’m the villain of the story, not the fairy tale princess who gets a happy ending. But if I can play dress-up and score that knight in shining armor, even if only for a few minutes, well, I’m not going to turn down the chance. I saw how much June mattered to you, how she was your main priority, the drive for your actions. Now, I think it should be my turn.”
“That’s what you want? To be June’s replacement?” Rick was startled by notion, but he wasn’t as opposed to it as he would have liked to be.
Harley chuckled softly. “No. You’re the one who’s hung up on June, Flag. I just want your emotion, to be number one in your life. Think of it as a tradeoff, a bargain. You get a distraction from your lost lady love. And I get to be with a person who prioritizes me for a change.”
A realization dawned on Rick. “You don’t want me at all,” he challenged. “You’re just looking for another broken man to fix, just like you saw with the Joker. I’m a project to you, something to bolster your ego if not your resume.”
“Well, if all I’m trying to do is fix you, then you don’t have anything to worry about,” Harley returned evenly.
Rick looked away. “Goddammit.”
The word emerged more as a sigh than a curse. Harley was right. He did want her, and that pissed him off, that he didn’t have enough self-control to avoid emotions for his subordinates, even after the fiasco with June. But what really got him going was that he couldn’t even say what he felt for her—was it lust, genuine affection, or just transference of his remaining feelings for June? He had no idea, and it couldn’t be good that by the second, the origin of his emotions toward Harley concerned him less and less.
There were a million and one reasons for him to reject Harley, and he should have had the strength, the discipline, the professionalism to go through with it. But if he did, then all of those qualities were overwhelmed by the two other factors currently dominating his mind: loneliness and weariness.
He was sick of waiting for June to arrive back at their shared quarters, only for her never to walk through the door. He was tired of rolling over in bed, expecting to find June beside him but only encountering empty space. And most of all, he couldn’t stand the isolation brought on by turning to speak with her, to share a joke, to exchange a kiss, even to make some wiseass remark, only to realize she was no longer there.
“Look at me,” Harley breathed, the blue in her eyes gleaming like plashes of glacial ice. “Look at me and tell me that you don’t want me. Send me away.”
He couldn’t. Even if it was just because he was still hurting from his breakup with June, he couldn’t contain his desire for Harley. There were no excuses; he should have known better from June and he should have known better before June. But what the hell? He had already broken the rules once.
Pulling Harley forward, he kissed her, and could sense the smile on her lips as he did. He kissed her long and hard and good, and would have kept kissing her if his comm hadn’t beeped.
“Flag, this is Katana. I’ve commandeered a helicopter. Croc and Boomerang are with me, and we’re going to pick up Diablo and Deadshot now. We can provide transport to you, too, if you send us your coordinates.”
“Got it,” Rick replied. He glanced down at Harley, who wore a victorious smirk. “Wipe that smile off your face. We still have a mission.” Realizing his words might seem overly harsh, he debated with himself, then added reluctantly, “If we’re doing this, then we’re in the field together, I’m your commanding officer, and you’re my subordinate. During missions, that’s all we are to each other. Understood?”
“Whatever you say, Flag.” Harley looped his arm through his as they made their way to the door. “Whatever you say.”