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building your girl's second story

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There are bruises all over the girl’s arms. Black and blue, swirling up her biceps like a tattoo. On the inside of her wrists, Bruce catches the sight of angry red lines, some fresher than others. It makes the white scars on his own wrists tingle viciously. He repeats what Dinah told him weeks ago, like a mantra.

It is not your job to save everyone.

He still cannot get the girl and her bruised arms out of his mind.

 

--

 

The thing is, Harleen knows. Rationally, she knows. She has known for a long time. There is nothing in the way Jack touches her that belongs in the definition of the word love.

Knowing isn’t enough.

Knowing is just another excuse to hide away in their small bathroom and try to open up her veins so maybe the pain can spill out. She tests the waters, slide the razor blades against the smoothness of her skin but doesn’t let it bite. In the end it always boils down to this: on black days, she puts the blades away. On red days, she watches rivulets of blood fall to the tiled floor.

 

--

 

The thing is, Harleen is in love with Jack.

 

--

 

He sees the girl with the bruised arms again on a Saturday. She’s sitting on a public bench with a battered school bag and a textbook open on her knees. She’s wearing jean shorts and there are bruises on her legs, too—yellow and purple and green, and there are wounds, too. She’s a patchwork of violence, and there isn’t an ounce of shame in the way she displays herself, openly under the sun. She’s pale and alone and no one bats an eye at the marks on her body, and Bruce’s throat tightens with rage and sadness simultaneously.

He takes off his hat, sticks it under his armpit, and goes to sit next to her. Not too close, he’s careful to leave room for at least another person between them, but not too far either. Close enough that should they talk, they wouldn’t have to raise their voices. He takes out a crumpled newspaper from his briefcase and pretends that he’s very interested in the sports page. She steals a look and her entire being tenses, her discomfort so powerful Bruce feels it in his bones, as if it were shaking the earth. He wants to tell her he would never hurt her. He knows better.

She’s probably five or six years younger than he is. Her blond her is dyed at the ends, one side blue, one side bright pink. The book she’s reading is about personality disorders.

“Psych major?” Bruce asks casually.

She has been watching him wearily the whole time but she still startles when he talks.

“Mmh mmh,” she hums non-committedly. “Graduating in May.”

“You like it?”

“Mmh mmh,” she says again. “Listen,” she bites her bottom lip nervously, “I have a boyfriend.”

Yeah, no fucking shit, Bruce wants to tell her, but that’s the most idiotic way to go about this. Instead, he offers her something that could destroy him. “I’m not flirting with you,” he chuckles, trying his hardest to make himself seem soft and harmless. “I’m gay.”

“Oookay,” she says, and she’s clearly confused now, and her confusion stings like a thousand needles. In that moment she reminds Bruce of a younger Selina. Who built this world in which young girls with black-and-blue skin can only understand a man’s attention as a threat? “So you’re just making conversation?” she raises an eyebrow, clearly not convinced.

“Yes,” Bruce says, and the lie almost doesn’t taste bitter. It is not your job to save everyone, Dinah hisses in his ear. He ignores her.

“If it’s about this,” she gestures vaguely to her arms, “I’m in a fight club.”

“Isn’t the first rule of fight club not to talk about it?” Bruce inquires jokingly.

“No,” she says, her smile deadly. “The first rule of fight club is punch your opponent in the fucking face and knock them out.”

“Hollywood lied to me, it seems.”

She shrugs. “It tends to do that.”

The silence stretches after that, like chewing gum against teeth. Bruce waits for the bubble to burst, and it doesn’t.

“Since you can talk about fight club,” he says finally, getting up. “This is my card. If ever you feel like… talking. About anything.”

There’s a flicker of comprehension mixed with primal fear in her eyes as she accepts the card and tucks it away in her bra. “We’ll see,” she says. “I’m not much of a talker.”

 

--

 

Instinct tells Harleen to hide the card. She should just throw it away, but something holds her back. It’s hope, she realizes later, and she wants to scream at how fucking stupid that is. A glimmer of hope.

She comes back from class and Jack is sitting at the dining table, an unopened bottle of whiskey in front of him. He’s waiting for her, she knows. She pops two pills and swallows the first one, and then shares the second with him in a wet kiss. They wash the E down their throats with alcohol, and then he fucks her against the wall and then once more on the floor of their bedroom. She remembers him laughing. She remembers herself laughing. It’s a good day, the edges of the world black. On good days, it’s harder to recall why she wants to die so badly. On good days, it’s easy to recall why this man has her in metaphorical shackles, chained to him, chained to her own darkness.

The thing is, she’s not sure she actually ever wanted to leave.

 

--

 

She meets Pam in a lab.

Pam has dark auburn hair and she’s wearing a long white lab coat and nerd glasses and a necklace with a small cactus pendant. Her green Doc Martens just make her look cool, not a drop of punk in her attitude. She’s a grad student, finishing her first year, studying biology and environmental science. She doesn’t say anything about the bruises on Harleen’s arms.

 

--

 

Jack grabs her by the elbow and pulls, and twists. She hears the bone crack before she can really even feel the pain. When it comes, it’s sharp and white and blinding, so strong she thinks she vomits a little. He lets go of her and it sends her tumbling against the nearest wall, her head banging up against cement. He kneels next to her and he says Honey, I’m sorry. She wants to kill him. She says, I know, puddin’, I know, instead.

No matter how hard she tries afterwards, she can’t remember anything about the trip down to the ER. She’s surprised when she wakes up in a waiting room. He never wanted her to see a doctor before, and it’s not the first time she breaks something. She understands when she looks down and sees her arm. Maybe they’ll have to amputate, she thinks giddily.

The nurse that treats her looks so desolated Harleen almost feels bad. She shakes her head when Harleen tells her about the fight club bullshit story, and shakes it again when Harleen refuses to see a male doctor.

“Honey,” she says, and Harleen recoils at the pet name. That, too, make the nurse shake her head. “Harleen,” she says. “There are ways we can keep you safe.”

It’s Harleen’s turn to shake her head. Safe is a concept for rich people. Safe is a lie some of them can afford to tell.

 

--

 

Pam wears a pin shaped like a lavender blossom on her leather jacket. Pam wears a lot of pins, actually, but it’s this one in particular Harleen notices first. The others don’t matter—the others make sense. There’s one that looks like a planisphere and one that says PLANTS ARE FRIENDS, and a bunch of feminist catchphrases, too. But the lavender on Pam’s lapel is an unexpected surprise.

They go for flavored lattes in the little coffee shop at the edge of campus, the one that always smells like mocha and peppermint not matter the season. Pam pays for both their drinks and then when they’re seated, she runs her fingers absently on Harleen’s forearm. She doesn’t shy away from where it’s ugly.

On the way back home, Harleen spends the entire bus ride with her heart like a bird in a cage, wings fluttering faster and faster by the minute. What does it mean what does it mean what does it mean, like a silent litany.

 

--

 

She calls Bruce and says, Can we talk about anything but fight club?

 

--

 

Pam steals her pens when they study, huddled close together in a corner of the Arts & Science library. She always forgets they’re not her pens and chews on the cap, and then she blushes when she realizes what she’s been doing.

“Talk to me about your thesis,” Harleen says.

“I don’t even have my masters yet,” Pam laughs. But then she does. Her green irises spark up as she draws small flowers on her notebook and talks animatedly, with her hands, with her whole body. Harleen doesn’t give a flying shit about plants but Pam does, and suddenly she can’t think of anything more beautiful than ivies and rhododendrons. She looks at her watch and finds she doesn’t want to leave.

She leaves anyway, because Jack said dinner at nine. For the first time, as she gathers her things, Pam says, “You just say the word, and I will kill him.”

 

--

 

On the other side of the phone, Harleen is breathing heavily. She hasn’t said anything since Bruce picked up. There’s a sour taste at the tip of his tongue, and he thinks it might be anguish.

“Harleen?” he dares.

“Can you come get me?” she asks, and her voice sounds so small and scared he punches a wall before climbing inside his car, because if he doesn’t he thinks he might become a murderer tonight.

She says, “I didn’t know who else to call,” when he gets out of his Lamborghini.

He says, “I’m glad you called me.”

Her fishnet tights have two holes in them, and he doesn’t think it’s a fashion thing. There’s dried blood on her knees, and while her right elbow isn’t in a cast anymore, it still looks so bad he almost reaches out to soothe the hurt with his fingertips before he catches himself.

“Are we still not talking about fight club?” he asks when they’re inside the car.

“There is no fight club,” she says, looking straight ahead. “There are only fights.”

 

--

 

Pam says, “Come home with me.”

She means let me keep you safe. She means this is your escape. She means you have a choice.

All Harleen hears is home and with me. She says, “I cannot leave him.” She says, “I’m sorry.” She says, “You don’t understand.”

Pam presents both her palms to her, open and facing the sky. She says, “Put your hands here.” Harleen does. “When you are ready,” Pam says, “I will close my hands over yours, and I will hold on so tight he will never be able to take you away from me.”

“And if I want to get away?” Harleen hears herself wonder, which is ridiculous, because she cannot imagine a universe where she is free to stay close to Pam and doesn’t want to.

“I will literally cut off my own hands before I force you to do anything or stay anywhere,” Pam says.

Harleen takes this and cradles it against her chest, and goes home.

 

--

 

“I was thinking,” she says, “Maybe I’d like to be a social worker.”

“That’s wonderful,” Bruce says. She imagines Jack saying, That’s wonderful. She doesn’t think wonderful is in his vocabulary. Well, the word itself is, of course. But the way Bruce means That’s wonderful, the gentleness and the understanding, it’s all foreign to her.

 

--

 

She studied psychology and wanted to become a psychiatrist, of course she knows about battered woman syndrome. She diagnosed her own bipolar disorder exactly two years and three months before her shrink did. She knows. She has always known. It’s not about knowing.

It’s about the pills she takes every morning and the way days still seem to melt into one another, the blurriness of the world around her and the sudden violence that overtakes her out of nowhere.

It’s about the way Jack says, you’re the most beautiful thing, and she always waits for him to finish with that ever happened to me but he never does because to him she is the most beautiful thing.

Pam says, you are the morning dew on autumn leafs. Harleen tangles her fingers with hers and thinks, oh. Oh.

 

--

 

“What if I said the word,” Harleen asks on a cold morning. Pam pushes her glasses up her nose, confused, and then comprehension dawns on her. The shift is almost imperceptible but Harleen has been trained in reading people. Something hardens in Pam’s eyes, like stone touched by Medusa. She twirls a pencil between her index and her thumb, and says, “I wasn’t joking.”

And it’s easier than what Harleen thought, to reconcile soft, tender Pam, with her plants and her woolen jumpers, with this woman who has fire for hair and fire for eyes and who breathes fire. Maybe it was there all along, and it’s not really a surprise, because Harleen has a tendency of falling in love with dangerous people.

“If you killed him,” she says, “They would take you away from me.”

“Yes,” Pam says, unmoved. “That is a possibility.”

She considers it for exactly two minutes thirty seconds before deciding against it. “Let me try another way,” she pleads.

“I am not letting you do anything,” Pam shakes her head. “You have no permission to take from me. These are all your choices, baby. You make them, and I will stand by your side.”

 

--

 

“I want to press charges,” Harleen says, and it’s the hardest and simultaneously the most liberating words that ever passed her lips.

Next to her, Bruce is a reassuring presence, solid and large and strong. He remains silent but oversees the whole process with a severe look on his face, to make sure nothing gets forgotten or rushed.

Later, way later, after the trial, she allows herself to hug him and whispers her thanks against his chest.

“You owe me nothing,” he tells her. “This was all you.”

For now, she spills her darkest secrets to two police officer, while everything in her brain is screaming, and then when they exit the station she has to lean on Bruce or else she will crumble and fall.

“You can stay at the manor,” he offers.

Pam’s voice resonates in her head, kind and firm. Home, with me.

“No, thank you,” she replies.

 

--

 

They celebrate a year of her freedom in a small but fancy restaurant in downtown Gotham. Pam is wearing a short dark green dress and black stilettos, and her hair is up in a bun. Harleen thinks of kissing her neck and bites it back almost immediately.

Clark and Bruce are sitting close together, and she takes in how Bruce’s hand often wanders to Clark’s forearm, to his shoulder, to his thigh. They seem to never stop touching each other, like a wordless language only the two of them know. Selina shoots them bored sideway glances from time to time. Harleen likes Selina. She’s a no-bullshit kind of person.

After too many bottles of wine and too much cake, she drops a kiss to Bruce’s cheek and hugs Clark and Selina and Pam and her start walking back home. Home. It’s weird how words can change meanings depending on surroundings and circumstances. Home now is the smell of dirt and flowers and Coco Mademoiselle. Home now is a place she can safely retreat to and not a place to run away from. Home now is how Pam brushes her fingers against hers in the most aerial of ways.

Harleen gets undressed in the bathroom and looks down at her scars. The most superficial have faded, but most of them are white lines, forever there, like the carvings on her soul. She brushes her teeth and blows hot air against the mirror, appreciates the stingy taste of cold mint on her tongue.

Pam is sitting at her desk, now having ditched her contacts and the dress and wearing her glasses with a too-big tee shirt and just her underwear.

I can have this, Harleen suddenly realizes. I can try. I am ready. She walks to Pam and drapes herself over her back, and that, at least, is still familiar. She kisses Pam’s shoulder through the thin cotton of her shirt, and sighs. Pam stills under her, suddenly tense as a wire.

“Harley?” she says.

Harley, Harleen thinks. Harley, I can be Harley.

“Yes,” she replies. She drums her fingers down Pam’s bared arms, her very own question.

“Yes,” Pam says, too, and then she’s out of her chair. She slips her hands around Harley’s waist and brings her closer, brings them so close it’s getting hard to breathe. Or maybe that’s what real love and real want feel like. Harley wouldn’t know.

Pam kisses like she treats plants: soft but firm, steady and grounding. Their mouths slide against each other and Harley gasps, and then there’s a faint scrape of teeth against her lower lip and she gasps again. Pam’s hands on her are burning, and she can feel them everywhere and nowhere at the same time. They fit together like jigsaw pieces, all worn angles and missing parts. Nothing hurts, nothing hurts and for a moment all Harley can feel is panic, blinding and suffocating panic, because nothing hurts.

“This is how it’s supposed to feel,” Pam says, pressing her hand over Harley’s heart. Harley can feel both their heartbeats, almost deafening in their strength. “This is how it’s supposed to feel,” Pam says again, as she kisses her way down Harley’s body. She touches every scar reverently. There haven’t been any bruises on Harley for months now, but this feels just like getting bruised. Forget the pain, she wants to yell, but the pain is wired in her like survival instinct. “This is how it’s supposed to feel,” Pam says for a third time, parting Harley’s legs slightly. “You don’t believe me,” she continues, and shushes her when Harley starts protesting, “You don’t believe me, but you will. It only matters that you will.” And then Pam bows her head and hot white pleasure explodes low in Harley’s belly as she feels Pam’s tongue on her, and she whines and trashes and buries her fingers in Pam’s red hair and Pam smiles and she can feel that too.

 

--

 

Jason Todd stares at her with terror disguised in anger. She excuses herself and goes to the bathroom, and there she takes off the bracelets Pam gave her for her birthday. When she comes back, she knows his gaze lingers on the scars.

She knows it’s unfair to read her own shortcomings in the way the boy trembles every time a man walks into the room; in the way he makes himself small and invisible and hopes to be forgotten. She knows projecting is the worst thing one can do in this job. But she asks him about his foster sister and he hisses, and he is all spikes and fury and scratches and she knows she is right. Bruce Wayne, she thinks. Bruce Wayne will take care of you.

Later, she lets herself in the apartment she shares with the love of her life and slips into bed where Pam is already half-asleep. She thinks of the ease with which she navigates the world now. She thinks of the bad days, the ones that get taken over by red and voices. She thinks of the bottle of pills stacked away in the bathroom cabinet, and the one in her nightstand drawer.

Pam’s hand finds hers under the covers. She tightens her grip and thinks, I will close my hands over yours, and I will hold on so tight no one will ever be able to take you away from me.