DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE. In which two enemies are earned and one is avoided.
“He did WHAAAAT-?!”
The asylum woke the next morning to a particularly fearsome cock crow, as the Joker ripped the common-room newspaper into confetti, paper-white features even more blanched than usual as he screamed lividly at the article, Harley curling up on the far side of the sofa like a scolded dog.
“But that’s precisely the point- everybody THINKS that he DID!”
He grabbed another unfortunate edition, pointing accusingly at the black-and-white front and profile shots of the buck-toothed Englishman on the front spread; “It might as well be titled ‘Hatter plays Joker for a sap!’ Jacking my car, out-foxing the Batman, making everyone think I’d escaped and setting them searching in all the wrong places after the wrong man whilst I was back here playing peek-a-boo with Sergeant Smiles over there.”
He threw a thumb over his shoulder at the distinctly expressionless guard watching over the revelries of the common room. The second newspaper suffered the fate being twisted into a narrow rope before being torn in two. “I’ll be the laughing stock of Gotham after this!”
“But honey, ain’t that what you always wanted t’be?”
Harley simply earned a withering look for this suggestion.
“If that tea-sucking donkey-featured sorry excuse for a scientist had actually meant to implicate me I might have… well…” He paused to consider this for a moment. “Well, I'd still be plotting his demise, but AT LEAST HE WOULD HAVE EARNED THE CREDIT!” Clutching the spiked hair at the back of his head the Joker looked to be in real danger of pulling it off, his ire was so absolute.
“And then I find out that YOU were the one who handed him the key?!” Harley hid behind her cushion as the Joker leaned dangerously over her with a threatening finger, the guards in the room taking a warning step forwards before he left off, turning around in disgust to give a distemperate kick to an innocent chair.
“Some lackey you are! What in heaven’s name possessed you to do such a thing in the first place?!”
“W-well,” poor Harley was twisting her hands around each other so, it looked as if her fingers might never come undone again, “w-we were makin’ a break for it, when the cops appeared everywhere an’ I realized you were still inside, so I came back t’getcha while he picked up the car to give us a ride out…”
The Joker practically spat in contempt; “And you thought he would wait for us?!”
“He did!” For the first time in the whole conversation the pig-tailed girl bounced upright indignantly; “I couldn’t get past the crowd for ya, so I went back to meet him at the gate, an’ there he was! Just like he said! An’ I would got away with him too if it hadn’t been for that lousy Bat!”
“What did you say?”
Harley faltered at the growling tone of voice. As much as she adored Mr J, she never liked it when he used that voice. She shrank back down into the upholstery like a wilting plant. “U-uh… I s-said… I woulda got away if it hadn’t b…”
“Oh! Oh, so you would have got away!” The unpredictable clown clasped his hands together, one foot sticking out behind him in a balletic pose; “Well wouldn’t that have just been hunky-dory! You and your precious best-buck-toothed-buddy sailing on the wings of freedom whilst you left me here to rot you back stabbing piece of-”
This time the guards already had the straight jacket out, a minute of muffled cursing preceding the Joker squirming out of their clutches with his hands encased in the white material; “Alright alright, lay off, ya big goofs, I wasn’t gonna do nothing…” The guards exchanged raised eyebrows- they knew the Joker and his intentional double negatives all too well.
Harley pined sympathetically, stroking her idol’s arm despite the undeserving wrath he had just been threatening to be unleashed upon her; “Poor baby- but I wouldn’ta left my puddin’ all alone here, see? I was gonna come back with him to break you out later, I promise!” She whimpered up at him imploringly, her bottom lip quivering.
Her benevolent saviour appeared to regain his composure at the sight before falling back onto the sofa in a melodramatic swoon. “Ah, but the injustice! I’ve been wronged, framed, had! I tell you!” He sobbed into his sleeve in place of the back of his hand; “An’ I didn’t even get the chance to try murdering that oversized flying rodent this time!”
“Oh~! Puddin’-pie!” Harley embraced him, joining in with the scene with over-sized tears of her own; “I’m so sorry~! I didn’t mean ta get you all upset-like! I’ll make it up to you, I promise!”
“I know you will,” the painted face croaked sorrowfully into his admirer’s arms, disguising the malevolent gleam to his eyes as he repeated; “I know.”
In the meantime, one Alice Antrim sighed forlornly as she shook out the creases in the bedspread. Another day of wistfully looking out of windows, another day of dusting shelves that didn’t need dusting; in other news, another day. With the news broadcast they’d watched last night Billy hadn’t so much as permitted her to leave the house to buy a newspaper today. “Nothing to worry yourself over,” he’d said, as he’d headed out of the door with a confident smile; “you just take it easy, sweety. I’ll try to be home early tonight to make up for yesterday.”
“To keep an eye on me, you mean,” Alice had added after he’d shut the door, surprising herself.
Of course, part of her knew that it was true, but where had that outburst come from? He could have heard her, “-and goodness knows what that would have led to.” She remarked to herself, straightening the lampshade. Having to keep herself company from day to day, Alice had developed the habit of talking to herself for want of better conversation, and more often than not she ended up giving herself a sound talking to, although it seemed that she seldom took notice of it.
“Which is precisely why you end up in such trouble, young lady,” she added, flicking the feather duster with an extra severe swish. “Why, I’ve never known a girl get into such trouble without so much as leaving the house.”
“Oh, but I do wonder if I might get into less, if only I left it.” Alice countered, glancing up at the cloud-grey sky. How it had seemed so blue in an asylum she could only imagine, but the forecast was for snow this following week, so blue skies were hardly likely to be an option.
“Now dear, it’s no good talking like that,” she turned herself away from the cold panes of glass, shaking her head at the mantle piece as she set to dusting it, “he has your best interests in mind, after all, and you did push your luck yesterday with all that nonsense. A day indoors will do you a world of good.”
Her movements slowed to a pause, as she looked into the middle distance; yes, that had been precisely what they’d said to her after that had happened. She’d been so shocked by the events surrounding her friend (no, work colleague, that was all he had been) that in the week following she hadn’t felt at all able to leave the house; meeting people would have meant having to talk about it, and of course she wouldn’t have been able to deal with that, not after that sort of trauma, of course not. No, the doctors were surely right, spending a little time away from everyone to recover was just what she needed to get better, and helping you to get better was what doctors were meant to do, after all.
But then a little time had turned into quite a lot of time, and quite a lot of time had eventually cost her a job- although she didn’t much fancy returning to it anyway- and after the wedding and the honeymoon and Billy’s promotion there really didn’t seem much reason for her to look for another. Not that Billy thought that she ought to anyway; how nice it would be for her to be able to stay at home, with him earning enough for both of them to live comfortably. Why, she was practically a princess!
“Locked in an ivory tower,” she concluded, again, sitting down in her wicker chair with a soft flumping noise; she had had this discussion with herself before and always arrived at the same ending. She glanced around the spotless apartment with a self-deprecating sigh. “Oh, my dear Alice, whichever way you look at it, you really have made a terrible mess of it all, haven’t you.”
‘My dear Alice’… yes, hadn’t that been what Jervis had said yesterday? He’d often used that phrase in the office, but she’d simply taken it as fellow affection, never more than that. Even in the asylum, it had simply sounded like a typical, funny English figure of speech; just a part of her usual conversation with the shyly brilliant scientist with the comical nose and teeth, who only ever seemed to smile for her.
Unaware that she herself was smiling in a nostalgic way that very moment, she almost fell completely out of her chair in shock at the sound of Billy entering the apartment, the door slamming shut in a manner that implied that whatever the reason for his returning a whole three hours before he was due to was not strictly a result of his wish to ‘make up for yesterday.’
Had she known that her fear-bleached face bore a remarkable semblance to the very same expression that Harley Quinzel's had born this morning at the Joker’s anger, Alice would have been unlikely to have cared very much for the co-incidence, for she was very much more preoccupied in standing up and trying to figure out what sort of expression would be the least likely to result in something that wasn’t bad.
It seemed that it wouldn’t have mattered what expression she had worn though, as Billy stormed in through to the door to slam a copy of the Gotham Times down on the table with such force that it was a wonder it didn’t make a hole in it, as Alice found herself gaping open-mouthed at the picture under the main headline with the dizzying sensation of all of the air having left the room.
“What is the meaning of this?!” If Billy’s eyes had been able to bulge with fury any further they might have been at risk of shooting out of his skull, as a vein in his neck looked as if it were striving to do the same. Alice simply stood there, feeling uncommonly like a fish out of water, her mouth working silently up and down for a lack of breath with which to speak.
“HE breaks out of Arkham posing as that Joker nut-ball, and then I get a call at work, asking if you’re alright- not for the usual reasons, oh no- but because it turns out you went to VISIT HIM yesterday?!” If Billy resembled a cheerful labrador when he was contented he looked more like a rottweiler now, as he barked out the words like daggers at the cringing woman opposite him as he stepped towards her.
“I… I know it was stupid, I’m sorry, I didn’t-” Alice walked backwards with her arms instinctively rising in defence at the sight of Billy’s own raised hand, as she tried to pull a reason out of the tangle of thoughts that were rolling around her head like a ball of knotted worsted.
“Talk to?” The brick-built man glowered down at the captured wretch with such ferocity it seemed to burn almost as much as the fingers clenching around her narrow forearm; “I thought I told you- the only person you ever need to talk to is ME. You remember what happened the last time you talked?” The grip tightened, Alice biting down on her lip to counter the pain and fear. “To someone else?”
She could only nod silently, tears threatening to break out of her tight-closed eyes before he practically threw her at the back wall, sending her reeling to catch onto the chair to arrest her fall. Not again, not again not again not again oh how could she have been so foolish?! It had been so obvious he would find out sooner or later, what had she been expecting? Billy appeared to be providing the answer to what she ought to have expected, the sleeves already rolling themselves up and the belt coming off as he walked towards her; he always explained afterwards that he wasn’t himself, at times like this. That it wasn’t his fault; it was only because he loved her, wanted to protect her, wanted to make her understand it was all for her own good…
“I think I need to repeat myself again, Alice…”
Shaking her head numbly she couldn’t find a way to make her lips move to tell him he didn’t need to, that if he calmed down, they could talk about it, that she’d apologise, say it had been some great misunderstanding, that the papers must have got it wrong; anything, anything but…
A furious shout threw itself against the wooden panelling Alice found between herself and the enraged Billy.
Staggering back from the bedroom door she gasped a lungful of air with the feeling that she hadn’t breathed for hours- she couldn’t even remembering having run through the door, let alone slam it shut and lock it behind her. She’d never done such a thing before, and why would she? The repeating heavy blows and increasingly violent calls from behind it were making it all too clear that it wouldn’t last for long, and that she would end up much the worse for it. Vaguely aware of a warm tickling sensation on her hand where the belt’s buckle had swiped at it she backed further away, clutching it absently as she watched the vibrating door with terror.
The words continued along with the resounding impacts, the wood shuddering against the small brass lock and hinges as the petrified Alice looked desperately around her, though goodness knows what for. There was no telephone, nothing to block the door with, no means of calling for-
There was a frozen moment of stark bewilderment, as Alice blinked after the small white creature that she could have sworn she just saw running down the black metal fire escape outside, before she was stung back into reality by the sound of something far heavier than a foot or fist hammering against the door handle.
Several blows later, Billy dropped the badly dented iron to wrest the door open around the broken lock; “Alice! Where are y-” The curtains billowed, the window sash still halfway open, the sound of feet clattering down metal steps still receding outside. Swearing loudly the furious spouse threw the window open the rest of the way, almost breaking the glass as he made chase after his disobedient wife.
The disobedient wife had already launched herself off the bottom-most step and into the alley-way below after the skittering toy that had flown past her window, the four tin feet chiming mechanically against the concrete as the little white rabbit veered around the corner into another side-street. She had no idea what she was doing; this was completely insane, why was she following this thing? Why had it been there in the first place? Why had she been there in the first place? The world had gone mad, and it was all she could do to keep up with it. Grabbing a lamp-post as she made the turn the sound of Billy slamming the window open crashed against her ears like a gun-shot, as her head whipped around to see where he-
The sensation of missing a step was multiplied tenfold as the world shot up and away from her eyes to be replaced by the darkness she had dropped into, the daylight seeming to disappear as if by magic as something that wasn’t hard and painful wrapped around her waist and face, her vision fading for a moment as a faint almost took her from the shock.
A voice muted by a layer of tarmac spoke somewhere overhead; “Alice?”
“Come on honey. Stop playing games.”
The stony-faced man continued to walk down the alley, his patience expended and his voice low with anger and the awareness of potentially prying neighbours;
Blinking the flickering spots of light away from her eyes, Alice foggily contemplated the ludicrous nature of her predicament as she came back to. She had always fancied that falling down open man-holes was reserved for cartoon characters and safely out of the realms of reality, but, once again, it appeared that her knack for landing herself in trouble had done it again, quite as literally as you please.
But what a curious landing I must have had; I don’t feel the least bit sore or wet for all it being a sewer, she pulled her mind together against the insistent darkness, perhaps I landed on some plastic piping or whatever else they keep at the bottom of man-holes. Certainly that might have offered some explanation as to why there was still something coiled around her middle and mouth, but coming fully to her senses she realised that these both felt a good deal too soft and solid to be mere piping, and the one clamped over her lips felt remarkably like a hand.
A gloved hand.
Fearfully tilting her vision upwards, Alice found herself looking up at a tall, lime-green Eton collar, which was barely dimmed at all by the lack of light beneath the hurriedly replaced man-hole cover, as the air caught in her lungs regardless of the fact her nose was quite free to breathe, even if her mouth wasn’t free to speak.
Even so, she made no attempt to make any noise to protest the fact that the Mad Hatter was holding her quite still; just as much as he made no attempt to move from their spot, his eyes focused on the metal disk above them as the reverberating sound of heavy footsteps thrummed overhead.
The footsteps paused.Jervis’s hand now holding her against him just as her own had latched onto the front of his coat, Alice found herself just as disinclined to speak with the liberty of her lips, even less so in fact, as they waited. The silence seemed to build to an unbearable crescendo before the sound of footsteps resumed, fading back to where they had come from with a muffled statement of; “She’ll come back.”
"She always comes back."
Maintaining their state of suspended animation until the noise had completely disappeared the fugitives exhaled in simultaneous relief, as Jervis slid down the metal-runged ladder they’d been leant against; evidently the Hatter had shared the same amount of anxiety from the encounter despite his role in it.
It wasn’t exactly the sort of situation where one knew how to initiate a conversation.
“Th… Thank you.” Alice finally managed to stutter in her familiar lisp, jumping slightly at the sound of her voice after the concentrated silence. Jervis seemed relieved to hear it, as he smiled sheepishly.
“Don’t mention it.”
Having offered her a gloved hand she began to reach out for it, but hesitated, the circumstances and memories landing in her consciousness like a leaden weight. She was underground, in a sewer, with a mad man; a man that she had driven to madness, a convicted criminal who had already kidnapped her once after forcing Billy to break off his engagement with her with one of his mind control devices. What if that was what was happening? What if that was why Billy had become so aggressive during all these months? Was that how he’d known where they’d be? That they’d be arguing? This train of thought must have occurred to the man standing opposite to her at the same time, as his own hand retracted reluctantly, his face etched with an expression of sad comprehension.
There was something in the way he said it that made it almost impossible to think he was lying; she couldn’t have known that it was because he was telling the truth at that moment. Turning away with a sigh he spoke with his back to her, his voice dulled and echoing from the water and rounded walls.
“I… understand if you do not, but if you wish to follow, I would be grateful for it.”
Setting off down the tunnel ahead of him it took every nerve in his body to resist the instinct to look behind him, as the sound of his footsteps remained unaccompanied for some ten metres before- “Jervis, wait!”
Whether he simply imagined it or whether his feet actually floated an inch above the ground at that moment Jervis would never know, as he felt a slender-fingered hand wrap itself around his own from behind quite of its own volition before he had even managed to stop walking. As if his joy wasn’t covert enough already, turning to see her smiling meekly up at him with trusting eyes cemented his conviction that, no matter what had come before, no mattered what happened hereafter, he would never jeopardize this friendship of theirs again. He gave her hand a comforting squeeze before leading them down the narrow pass.
“I really must apologise for the décor…”
A sleep-deprived and exceedingly grumpy Bruce Wane returned to the manor that night to startle Alfred (who, naturally, did not look startled in the slightest) by slamming a fist down on the face that had been grinning mockingly up at him from the newspaper’s now famous front page the entire day.
“A fool! He played me for a damned fool, Alfred!” He gestured furiously out of the tall windows of the elegant study at the sprawling cityscape. “Five whole hours I was out there, looking for the wrong man! Eurgh! How could I have been duped so easily…?”
“Well, the evidence at the time did seem to indicate the Joker was the culprit… but, if you’ll permit me to say, sir,” Alfred speculated, hanging up the enraged vigilante’s coat, “you do seem to have something of a fixation, regarding him.”
“What do you mean by that?” Bruce managed to hold most of the annoyance out of his voice, but not all of it.
“I do not ‘mean’ anything, sir; am merely venturing the suggestion that you may have allowed your… well-founded presumptions, to cloud your judgement. Jumping to a conclusion is very easy to do, if one prematurely removes any other possible conclusions from which to choose from.”
The wealthy gentleman scowled at the butler in a decidedly un-gentlemanly manner for moment, before his expression cleared in a defeated sigh, his shoulders sagging heavily over the desk as he leaned his elbows against it.
“You’re right, Alfred. I guess the only one who made me look like a fool was me; I blinkered myself. I should have noticed it was odd for him to hide his face from me in the first place; that’s not the Joker’s style at all.”
“A forgivable oversight, considering the circumstances. You are tired, sir,” a tray of finely brewed tea landed soundlessly on the desk in front of the exhausted man, as Alfred stood primly to attention at his side. “Even the best of us cannot function if we are not adequately rested, sir; not even Batman himself.”
Bruce smirked wryly at his companion’s frustrating wisdom, picking up the steaming cup with reluctant admittance. “I suppose you’re right, as always.”
“I try to be, sir.” Alfred permitted himself an acknowledging smile before bowing his leave, returning to whatever myriad of chores he had to accost next. Watching the faithful servant exit the room, Bruce Wane sat back in his large leather chair, taking a long draught of the soothing drink as he attempted to clear his mind; Alfred was right, perhaps what he needed was a good night’s sleep. Goodness knew it had been a long time since he’d had one.
Still, tilting the fine china around in his hands to observe the rich auburn hue of the steaming liquid, he couldn’t help but be reminded of the eccentric scientist that used to work for him and his own pronounced taste for tea, and dreams.
“Jervis Tetch… where are you now?”