What Is Normal, Anyway?

October 28, 2018:

Harley and Owen trade breakup gifts on the anniversary of their breakup.

Harlem & Gotham & In between

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Luke Cage

Plot:

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

Tomorrow is an anniversary.

Tomorrow marks three months since the fight in New York that shattered the fragile balance that Harley Quinn and Owen Mercer had maintained. Three months since they said a word to each other. Harley would never admit it, but she had managed an unusual awareness of time.

…Okay, fine. A neurotic awareness of time. But it is just one more neurosis among many—a thing so small as it nestles itself down to rest each night with its soul-consuming, sanity-devouring kin. A flea in a land of giants.

It means that Harley greets the sun that morning after another sleepless night, hunched over a dainty china cup and saucer of Lady Grey tea while folded up on the slim ledge of her window. Tucked up beneath her are the new slippers that replaced the ones Owen and the hyenas ruined in the course of the Solo cup prank. Grey and lined in white, they are of a faux fur so soft that they could be rabbit skin. Balanced on the toe is a pink puff so light that it could be blown on the wind if it weren’t stitched down.

The slippers remind her of Horton the elephant and his mission to protect a clover flower that housed a civilization. A person’s a person, no matter how small, Horton had declared. Would he have thought the same of her? Would he have thought her a person, too? Somehow, she doubts it. The thought runs deep and she chases it until sleepy Gotham is bathed in the gloomy light of early morning.

Then she pulls in her fleece-pajama-wrapped legs, pets her hyenas as they sleep curled up on her bed, and closes the window behind her.

She gets ready to go out, wraps a few things in gold jewelry boxes with skinny black ribbons, takes care of her pets, and then leaves for New York.

Of course, New York is still under Hell’s siege, and that means that Harley must leave her bike on the New Jersey side of the bridge. For even someone of her caliber, it isn't easy to sneak past the carefully tended line that keeps the denizens of Limbo inside the city, but she manages with her messenger bag slung across her torso, and a Louisville Slugger in hand.

Eventually, she home runs her way into Harlem to the front door of a bar she’s never seen from the inside. There, she sets down her three boxes with the reverence of an idol’s offering. One necklace box, long and slender. One bracelet box, square. One trinket box, approximately six inches cubed. To: Owen, Open in order! a taped on tent card reads. The boxes are tagged with little pieces of paper like you might find in an antique shop: 1, 2, 3.

Then, with her black pea coat pulled tight, Quinn sits down on a porch across the street with the bat across the pale knees left bare by her knee high black socks and scuffed up black combat boots. She might stand out a little less if she wasn’t out lingering on the street in the middle of a demon invasion, or if she wasn’t wearing a slouchy beanie of scarlet red to hide her disheveled hair, if she wasn’t burrowed down in a thick matching infinity scarf with the matching fingerless mitts over her hands, or if she wasn’t briskly bouncing her heels in an alternating staccato.

On the plus side, she can’t keep her pale eyes from taking in the terrain around her. Unlikely to get surprised from other-realm critters. Or…other problematic creatures.


Counting days.

Owen's been counting days ever since. It just so happens that his breakup nearly coincides with his sobriety, such as it is. He layers on each day like an added layer of protection from a relapse. And as much as the days help him to feel more capable of handling one breakup, they do little to assuage him on the other.

Harley may be waking up at the crack of dawn, but Owen closer to cracking noon. It's around 10 when he wakes and manages to roll out of bed. Nearly eleven by the time he's made it downstairs in search of coffee and breakfast or something to call breakfast. He is dressed for fall in some baggy sweatpants, a hoodie and a quilted vest that is faded and torn in spots. His feet are bare except for some slip on sandals. It's obvious even to a casual observer that he's just woken up, his hair is apparently trying to escape his head in various different paths. He doesn't come out the main door for the bar, but the residential entrance around the corner. It's only by chance that he glances over and sees the packages, which cause a deep seated frown to cross his face.

He slowly approaches the door, looking around for anyone who might have left them though expecting they are long gone. He delicately picks up the note and stares at it for a while. They haven't pranked each other in weeks … but this has to be Harley, right? It could always be the Joker hoping to torture me… but that's not too likely, right? He mentally tries to get a grasp on other possibilities as he leans over and around the packages as if he might spot a wire sticking out of one, or smell Joker venom on them. After nearly five minutes of looking and debating he sighs and picks up the first …

"Please don't kill me." He asks of it as he starts to unwrap.


The clown across the street hides half of her face behind folded hands, using them to warm her nose which has started to go numb in the chill. She had lost awareness of it in the rush of other thoughts, but she regains that awareness as it starts to warm and express its displeasure. Puffs of frozen breath escape as Harley subtly worries her thumb nails behind the puffy knit.

The first box is nothing particularly noteworthy. It's a store-bought box—or mass produced at any rate—with no wires. No poison. No tricks. Once the mundane satin ribbon is tugged loose and the box is teased open, a plain Ticonderoga No. 2 pencil is set on the jewelry box cotton. The pink eraser at its end is still in pristine condition. It yet carries the strong perfume of fresh-cut wood and rubber that only this classroom tool possesses. It's not even sharpened!

…Not that Harley couldn't probably kill someone with a dull pencil if she really put her mind to it.


Okay, ribbon … box … that's good. Owen slowly unwraps the present and peaks in as he lifts the lid ever so gently, ready to speedily throw the thing as high and far as possible should it make any click like noises.

But it doesn't.

He opens the box fully and takes out the pencil to look at it. He frowns not getting any deeper meaning from this. Nor does he have any pleasant childhood memory of back to school that the smell of a fresh pencil might awaken. He tucks the pencil behind his ear after a thorough inspection and moves on to box #2.


It rustles. The next gold box - wrapped in the same black string - rustles when its picked up.

Maybe it's not Harley who left the gifts. The first box had absolutely nothing strange about it, save that it's strange to wrap mundane pencils in mundane boxes.

…Or maybe it was Harley. Because the second box is a little more odd in its offering. Set on a bed of its own dark, crinkled, spilled out innards, a cassette tape rests in the bracelet box. 'The Mix Tape' it reads on the 'Side A' paper label in what is presumably one of Harley's neater scrawls. She was a doctor once upon a time, after all, and it translates to her artistic chicken scratch.

On the stoop across the way, Harley abandons her thumb nails to worry her lower lip instead. The baseball bat on her lap is pulled a little closer to her belly by means of her elbows as she continues to nervously bounce her heels.

Beneath the brim of her beanie, her brow furrows. 'Oh, my gawd, Harl,' she berates herself already. 'He's never going to get it. This was the stupidest plan ever. Why did you pick such a stupid plan? This was a stupid plan.' She snorts once softly in frustration, wondering if it's already too late to bash him gently with the baseball bat, steal the boxes, and start over.


After the pencil, Owen is working up the nerve to do this a little quicker. He doesn't take so much time with the second but once he opens it, he smiles and looks around again.

He may not have fond memories of pencils, but mix tapes were a staple in his life. He slips the tape into the pouch of the hoodie and moves on to the next gift.

He has not connected the two other than memories of using a pencil to rewind a tape .. for reasons he can't remember. Man it's weird to think about tapes… how is he even going to listen to it? He might have to hit up a pawn shop or .. ebay? Who even has a cassette player. Now if it were like an old record that'd be straight forward. Do hipsters like cassettes? Maybe he can find one in Brooklyn.


Owen looks up. Harley swiftly looks down and away, reaching up one set of bare fingers to subtly tuck strands of blonde back into her cap where flaxen wisps threaten to escape. It helps shield her rosy-cheeked face, and may obscure it from Owen's perception. If she's lucky. It's not late anymore, but it is threatening to start drizzling. The overcast sky settles a grim filter on the lighting.

Oh, pencils do so much more than rewind tapes. They fix tapes to some extent, restoring filament to spools. So long as the filament isn't actually snapped.

As Owen moves to tuck in the cassette in his pocket, he'll find that the filament in the box belongs to this cassette. Whoever left that box - Harley or otherwise - destroyed a thing to deliver a gift.

The girl on the stairs looks down the street, in a practice she shouldn't have let slip given their particular surroundings. And then she watches Owen from the corner of her eyes as she rests her back on the railing.


It takes him a second to realize what he's looking at in the box under the cassette, but at least he was already thinking about tapes and pencils and tedious winding so he gets there. He smiles and puts the filament into his pocket.

Maybe this is good?

Maybe.

And so he finally picks up the last box and opens the wrapping, his smile growing despite his trying to suppress it.


Box number three is heavier. If any box was to house trouble, this would be it… Although there aren't really any warning signs. No wires hanging free. No weird smells. The simple black string slips as easily through Owen's fingers as the last two did. But this time, the lid reveals a bright yellow Walkman with an over-the-head headset that is little more than a couple of earbuds and a thin band of wire.

Meanwhile, Harley hides her tiny, conflicted smile behind the heel of her palm as her fingers curl up in a ball against her cheek. She watches without calling for Mercer, waits until he presumably goes inside the bar and fails to notice her spying, and then tries to get back out of the city without attracting attention. It's a little more nerve-wracking, the leaving… because it's not the demons that she's worried about finding her in New York or—worser still—in close proximity to Captain Boomerang's son.

DAYS EARLIER

Harley hunched over her 90s CD / Radio / Tape player. This was a dying art form: the cassette mix tape. Two sides. 60 minutes a piece. How to capture a mood, but not be too on the nose. She actually put on her reading glasses and searched play times and started scratching out possibilities in an internet search at the actual library, in a notebook and with a gravitas that made it look like she was working on an alternate nuclear source.

It’s a careful calculus. A safer—if still unhealthy—obsessive focus.

Also, an hours long dive into the bowels of the internet. Because you don’t really know how many people use ‘Boomerang’ in the lyrics until you actually look.

A K-Pop song by a group named ‘Wanna One’ seems like a good place to start. A musical ‘To’ line. The rest can build from there.

By the time Owen's opened the last box and seen the walkman, he's lost any attempt at hiding his smile. He snags the walkman, and fishes out his keys to the bar. Technically there's coffee in there. And booze. And peanuts or popcorn can be breakfast if you're hungry. And so he slips into the bar, leaving the door open behind him since they have to open in an hour or two anyway.


Coffee is setup at super speed, and a beer is poured at painfully regular speed before Owen sits down with the cassette, a pencil and a plan. It takes him a few tries to remember how to spool it and get it wound but soon enough he has the tape set and clicked into the walkman. He hesitates for just a moment before he pushes play. What if this is some sick joke by someone else? What if this is Babs… no, far too eclectic and dammit it's not like that. What if… what if he hears the Joker's cackle when he pushes play?

A big sip of beer and then click …

Owen has never listened to K-Pop, not by choice. If he's ever heard it with Harley though he would recognize it immediately. Of course it's her. The amount of time spent on it… it's a Harley project. And so Owen sits, alternating between beer and coffee, peanuts and popcorn as the first side plays. Maybe there's something between songs, he doesn't want to miss a minute of it. Occasionally in fits of impatience he'll fast forward but making sure to speed up right along side the tape to not miss a thing.


After the first line, the first song on the first side is barely any English at all. It's obscure, and probably intentional since she didn't include a mix list or lyrics set. Isn't that breaking a rule? Probably. Still, at least most of the first side are songs that Owen should recognize as the ones that so often had bled out of Harl's headphones or her tiny little boombox. She's appreciated vintage things. There's a longer than needed gap in a couple places between songs, allowing the whispering 'thwip, thwip' of the cassette functions to rise to prominence, but it always gets lost to the next song. At the very end of the last song, Oh, Bondage, Up Yours by the X-Ray Spex, her voice cuts in. "I know you missed these forsaken classics. Enjoy 'em with yer kettlebells or whatever."

The other side, however, once Owen flips the tape, is where the magic happens. At first, it may seem that it’s a duplicate with the K-Pop song reappearing.

Ring, ring, ring, ring… Boomerang.

But then it changes.

Lyric hunts with Mister Google will turn up most of them, none of them obscure to the point of zero presence. At the end, there’s a record scratch, and then it breaks into P!nk’s Bad Influence, then a song by Shearwater titled Red Sea, Black Sea, its heels followed swiftly by Tori Amos’s Hello, Mr. Zebra. It dances along into She’s Kerosene by The Interrupters.

The mood changes abruptly, into the somber Beautiful Lie by Virgos Merlot, a 90s band long forgotten, and then What Happened to Us? by Hoobastank. The Decemberists croon through Red Right Ankle.

And then…. Country?! Omg, did Harley Quinn actually add a country song?! In her defense, it’s Country Pop in the form of a song called Boomerang by one young Jana Kramer and it flows easily from the folk song prior.

I ain’t your boomerang, Kramer declares. I ain’t the kind of thing that you can throw away and watch it circle back around… I’m an arrow straight into the sun. Buckshot from a goodbye gun. A road that only runs one way. Anything but a boomerang. Embrace the Gimmick. Turn it on its side.

Stupid Thing by Nickel confesses that calling an ex was a bad choice, but there’s a huge part of the singer missing.

Letting You Go by Bullet for My Valentine. Istanbul (Not Constantinople), but surprisingly the suddenly jarring 40s styling by The Four Lads not by They Might Be Giants. Oh, and there’s P!nk again, this time with One Foot Wrong.

Then it turns a corner again, with Thinking of You by A Perfect Circle.

YESTERDAY

With only a few minutes left on the tape, the unfilled filament ran low. A choice had been made. Quinn stared at it, belly on the floor, and staring through the plastic door of the radio.

Unbeknownst to Owen, Harley had a handful of songs that she tortured herself with in the math of minutes over the course of two days. And then, finally, at long last, she took a deep breath, scratched out the competition, and pushed record on I Wish You Were Here by Incubus.

And she stared at the tape, once it was done.

She shouldn’t be sending mix tapes. She shouldn’t be heading into New York for reasons even beyond Owen Mercer, but certainly punctuated.

But this was consuming. This was consuming. She had to do something.

This was the best she’d come up with.

She still shouldn’t be sending it.

And so, she compromises.

Gingerly, she uses her pinky nail, covered in a chipped coat of red lacquer, to twist the white plastic spokes on one side until the filament peaks out. And then she starts pulling out the fragile charcoal tape. And pulling. And pulling. She pulls until there’s nothing left, and she feels moved by the deeper symbolism of that.

And then she sets the pile of tape aside, safely away from her bewildered pets who very much want to play with her hard work.

“C’mon, boys. I need a few things from the dollar store. Let’s go fer a walk.”

They dance around her ankles as she fetches their leashes, pulls on her varsity-styled jacket, and grabs her white and red roller skates by the strings, throwing them over her shoulder as she leaves and races down the stairs in her socks.


The X-Ray Spex blaring in his ears bring back memories of hearing it blare through the ceiling at the Gotham Arms both before and during they were a couple. He laughs at her 'voiceover' cutting in to speak to him directly.

Is that banjo? … Steel guitar? Is there a difference? Both sound deep fried in butter smothered in gravy to Owen.

Maybe you're forgettin' that your the one who called it quits…

"Nope… I remember just fine." Owen by this point in his tape ("Owen Mercer, welcome to your tape..") has moved to a seat at the bar. The coffee has since had a couple pours of whiskey added to it and been warmed up more than once.

I should have known you would come crawlin' back. It's the only thing to do when lose the best thing you ever had..

"Yea. Got it." Owen hears exactly the message in the lyrics that he expects to. The one that Stupid Thing drives home. And he's not sure what's worse, the fact that she's closing the door or that he's disappointed. The realization of how much he wanted this to be something else is still fresh in his mind by the time the tape rolls around to the last song.

I Wish You Were Here

"Yea. Big mood Harley. Big fuckin' mood."

Owen slips off the headphones and puts his head on the bar. Where does this leave them? Where does this leave him? He knows nothing dramatically has changed about the fight that they had. He knows that it's probably better that they broke up. He doesn't care.

And so Owen Mercer decides it's time to get to work. He locks up the bar and sends Luke a text saying he needs a personal day, something he's never done in his time working at the bar. He would normally head to Stark tower for what comes next but his apartment will have to do. Owen pulls out a couple boxes of tech, fires up a laptop next to him and pulls out a fresh beer from the fridge. It's going to be a long night.


It wasn’t that long out of Gotham. It wasn’t that long in New York.

Not that long. Not that long.

The bike ride back to home turf—a few hours—meant that Quinn was almost the whole day. By the time she’s back to the Gotham Arms, she’s plunging herself into a new sewing project while watching reruns of Project Runway. Black and red gabardine—woven in a subtle pinstripe—lays over her lap with gathered up yards as she sets a waistband on it. A bolt of black tulle, a couple of yards of solid black and solid red wool sit just beside her, and a few spools of red stain ribbon lay nearby.

People are out. Again. Task is running a job, God only knows where. Ivy's out doing her introvert thing with the plants… somewhere. Even the witch's host is out. It's bad when you'd even take the company of the witch herself over sitting alone.

To fill the silence, that means something new in the works, apparently. Something to tie up her brain and help her try to remember how this all works in the throes of her anxiety, her mouth defined by the line of sharp straight pins that she’s set between her lips, pointing out.

“Ohmigawd, Tim,” she mumbles distractedly to its silver-haired host at one point under the pound of her tiny sewing machine. “Devour her. That thing’s hideous.”


The firing mechanism is straight forward. Adding the sound to it is mere child's play. The hardest part, believe it or not, is tracking down a boxing glove.

In a matter of hours, which honestly would have been shorter if he could just smoke here rather than have to run outside or go bribe a fire chicken in the basement, Owen has managed to build his reply. It helps that it's mostly just a grappling gun bought off the street in Gotham purportedly having belong to a bat at one point in time, with a boxing glove on it and sound effects added. But the sound effects themselves are more like sound clips.

HERE I AM! Rocked you like a hurricane!!

Welcome to the jungle! We got fun and games!

NO! No! SLEEP! Sleep! Till Brooklyn! BROOKLYN!

etc.

Owen wraps the gun hastily in a box from the bar downstairs. He manages to sneak down and grab it without having to run into Luke and have an awkward conversation about why he's skipping work and far more drunk than he should be at 3 in the afternoon. But that's not important, what's important is that he get this to Harley. Thankfully he's not without resources .. for once. The job for Eddie means that he has cash to burn. Or at least cash to hire a shady non-Uber to take just the box to the Gotham Arms in Gotham. Yes there are demons and evacuations, but people still like to get paid.

The box arrives that evening, with sharpie scribble on the top that says:
<3 the tape. -B


The fact that this may have been a grappling gun owned by a Bat means that this particular toy might have been used against a friend of Harley’s at some point.

…friend being a very loose translation of the relationship, naturally, and would not be a deal breaker, even if she knew.

Harley dozed at some point in the wee hours of the morning, and someone must have taken offense with the volume of the television because it’s off when she rouses with a crick in her neck and under a makeshift blanket of her fabric.

…the hyenas shredded the tulle, though, and there's yards and yards of black mesh EVERYWHERE. Harley blinks back sleep, stares around blearily, hangs her head forward in frustration before unburying herself and getting coffee. …Cold coffee. Because it’s 1 in the afternoon.

The rest of the afternoon and night—the horrible, horrible day of a breakup anniversary—is spent out, trolling bars for free drinks because she is actually incredibly awful at her learning her lesson. Shocking.

She stumbles to the front door that night after consuming God only knows how much booze to overcome her unnatural tolerance, smelling like booze and old cigarette smoke, and nearly trips over the box when she moves to step inside. She blinks down, uncomprehending, and stares at the box for a long moment. Then, while using the door frame as a steadying brace, she leans down to open the tag.

Her lips—once stained cherry red, but now mostly an unnatural and chapped-looking pink—tug up unevenly in a smirk. Then, with a wobbling descent, she slides down the wall, sits against the door frame, pulls the box up into her lap to open it.

Her laughter fills the air moments later as she pulls the weapon free with a terrifying ease. Aiming it towards the open air over the stairs down to the other floors, she fires it to test out the mechanism.

And then it sings to her.

Her face explodes into a radiant, drunken, open-mouthed expression of pure joy as she starts shrieking in glee. She fires it again, gets a new song, and screams again. “HE GAVE ME A BATTLE SOUNDTRACK!” she tells no one as she draws the modified firearm close and cuddles it with the affection one might afford a favorite doll or teddy bear.

It takes a long, long time of firing that gun and getting new song clips for the practice to get old. She goes through the whole repertoire several times.

But he’s still not here. Because, of course, he’s not.

This is an anniversary for a breakup. ‘He probably doesn’t even remember,’ she tells herself because it makes her feel better about leaving the tape. About taking the gun after she murdered Owen’s last gift, Zook the Piezooka whose cold corpse slumbers under her bed waiting for the right moment to be resurrected and sings to her like Poe’s Telltale Heart. She pushes herself unsteadily up onto her feet, bringing the singing boxing glove with her.

Seeing no one but her pets in the room, much as she left the place, Harley leaves the trash in the hallway as she crosses it. They heckle and complain about their evening walk. She whines back at them, but ultimately takes them for their walk with her new gun in tow. The neighbors will love her! As she pulls the trigger time and time again, using it to knock over a few trashcans.

She burns the note on the street after bumming a cigarette from a guy who would have given her the shirt off his back to get the Boys to stop biting his legs. No note, no evidence. No evidence, no trouble later. …No evidence but her one identifying message on the tape buried so deep that it’s unlikely anyone but him will ever hear it. And maybe no one would ever be able to place it appropriately in time. Maybe.

She and Mercer can have this, at least, can’t they? The booze says they can, so Harley thanks it by getting some bottled friends and inviting them to the party, too. This is okay.

By the time she gets home the second time, she’s so drunk that she barely registers that she probably shouldn’t drag it into bed with her as she goes to pass out and her phone. It’s also probably for the best, all around, that she doesn’t have Boomerang’s number any more.

Happy Breakup-iversary.


Making the gun was all fun and games and classic 80s rock clips. But once it's sent? Well it leaves Owen with a cassette tape of songs from Harley and a few snippets of her voice and a lot of time on his hands. And going for a run can only eat up so long. And beating on demons can only take up so much time. And suddenly it feels like he's back at square one, fighting every minute, willing time to move at anything other than it's glacial steady creep.

So he needs a distraction. Frank's talk about a vigilante fashion from the other night means he's been thinking a little about that. And not exactly the 'fashion' side of it but the practical. Sure, this will work for distraction. He just needs to get a drink, grab a tablet to sketch out some ideas on and then he can start making things.

Welllllll. A drink somehow turned into a bottle. And sketching gear ideas somehow grew into a list of ridiculous things he could make for himself, for Luke, for Jess but of course mostly for Harley. And from there it just devolved into more drinking and when that wasn't enough? Owen convinced himself he just needed something to get through today. Just a teener of amp. Nothing serious.

It doesn't take Owen long to procure the drugs, a phone call to the right person, a quick errand out. And he's back at his place staring at it on the table. He looks at the clock, turns out not long is exactly 38 minutes. He knows that this is the start of a slippery slope, but it's not like he's going to shoot up heroin. That was the deal. No heroin. Who's deal? … Owen forgets now but he's pretty sure that was the deal. And normally he could distract himself but now all he has playing in his head are those songs, and her voice and the date. And so… he cuts some lines and looks down at it.

"Happy breakup day, Harls."

And a little bit of coke turns into more drinking, which turns into some straight costume ideas … which somehow leads Owen to wind himself waking in an alley the next day, dressed only in a speedo, a scarf and multiple boomerangs taped to himself. When Owen falls, he falls hard.

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