The Pale Man

I couldn't stay in Gotham, not after everything that happened there.

I never wanted to work at the Asylum. It was hardly my dream as a little girl to spend my days surrounded by lunatics and medications. It wasn't until I was six months into my internship at Arkham Asylum that I came to realise that a degree in counselling from Gotham University was hardly worth the paper it is written on anywhere outside of the city walls. Still, I was grateful for my position at the Arkham, the first institution to show any interest after a torrent of denied applications. Despite my best efforts, my college grades had not been quite up to scratch, and short of seducing my lecturers I was quickly running out of options. Had I not been accepted at Arkham, I might have given up the game and dropped out of college altogether.

Perhaps that would have been better.

Little did I know that Dr. Arkham had a disposition towards hiring the inexperienced and underachieving to use as bright young cannon fodder before our spirits became crushed beneath the weight of underpayment, psychological strain and abysmal working conditions. Young and eager, I saw Arkham as my chance to prove myself to my tutors, and as a chance to sink my teeth into some real crazies. Arkham has always been infamous for its inmates, from Mad Dog Hawkins to the Calendar Killer. I knew that as an intern I stood not a chance of hell of interacting with their sort; I wasn't even sure that I really wanted to. For me it would be supervised sessions with the schizophrenics and the occasional bed-wetting sociopath if I was lucky.

Still, my morbid curiosity drew me to the more colourful inmates. One such resident, Dr. Johathan Crane, had lectured in psychology at Gotham University not five years earlier. Had I started college not two years before he might have been helping me towards my degree. Another, Harvey Dent, was a celebrated attorney who was on course to becoming Mayor of Gotham before he fell victim to an acid attack and ended up locked in this place. Something about this city just seems to drive people crazy.

The most notorious inmate, however, was always undeniably the Joker. I'm sure he needs no introduction.

There was something electric about that man; his name alone held power within the Asylum's walls. It was whispered in meetings, replaced by goofy nicknames devised to make him less threatening by the orderlies. Pennywise, Bonzo, anything to take away the chill down the spine that simple word could cause. I was no different. I caught one glimpse of him being escorted from one cell to another, the shiver of a laugh dancing on the air, and couldn't shake the image of him out of my mind for days.

Terrified as I was, I begged to sit in on a session with him. Doctor Joan Leeland, at the time his therapist and my mentor, was heavily against the idea. She disliked me from my first day. I was too soft, she said, had no understanding of how things worked in a place like this. Besides, wasn't I majoring in counselling rather than psychotherapy? I had no business poking around in a mind like the Joker's. She sent me back to the drooling patients whose most interesting concerns were nightmares or complaints about the colours of the walls changing in their hallucinations.

The next time I would see him would be in the communal dining area, whilst sat with Lucas, a boy of twenty on the spectrum with a gentle nature who chose never to speak but enjoyed holding hands with the blonde staff members and humming the tunes of his favourite television shows quietly. I had been stunned to learn that Lucas had earned his stint in Arkham when, in the throws of a rare meltdown, he had beaten one of the carers at his respite unit with a cricket bat, breaking both of her legs; the staff had found him buried beneath bean bags in the sensory room murmuring to himself with his hands on his ears, trying to block out the world.

The Joker had been manoeuvred into the community room by his two appointed guards, one of whom settled him alone at the opposing bench to mine and Lucas', whilst the other went to fetch him a tray of food. The sad clown was strapped into a straitjacket, as his patient notes demanded when he was to share space with the other inmates. Again, he was drugged out of his mind. The other guard returned and placed the tray in front of Joker, setting a plastic knife and fork either side of it. The two guards chuckled to themselves and stepped back, watching the scene unfold. When nothing happened, the taller of the guards prompted him.

"Eat up, funny man."

The Joker glanced down at the food before him, looking disinterested through the haze of pharmaceuticals slugging through his bloodstream. His eyes moved to the knife, eyeing it dully, his arms barricaded snugly to his sides.

The second guard grinned. "Come on, Chuckles. Don't want your suede going cold, do you?"

I weaved my hands from Lucas' and clattered over to their table in silence, shooting the two guards an unsavoury look and sitting down beside the Joker on the bench.

He looked very different up close, so much more human. He was a little thick around the middle beneath his asylum-issue clothing, not the pencil-thin phantom who'd graced the front page of the Gotham Gazette for years, yet his face still seemed somehow gaunt as he sat there slumped in his chair. His hair had grown in a rich, dark brown at the roots, overlong, falling in soft waves around his face. Without his makeup, the dark black around the eyes and the ruby-red lipstick, he looked like any other of the asylum's inmates, all be it one who had never seen sunlight.

He was unphased by my presence; swallowing back my uncertainty, I reached a hand across him and took up the fork. His eyes followed the red polish on my fingers as they moved across the plate, scooping up a dollop of mashed suede and hovering it in his direction. His head turned a little my way and our eyes met for a long moment, before he opened his mouth slack-jawed, anticipating.

I fed him like a mother might feed her toddler, one spoon after the other; the long, awkward process went on until all of the food was cleared. Joker said not a word, only watched me with sunken green eyes as he chewed. I smiled at him. It was so strange, to see him as a man as opposed to the fantastical nightmare the media presented him as. I stood, and let the guards know that, should I see anything like this happen again, I would be reporting them.

"He is our patient," I told them with as much authority as I could muster, "your lack of sympathy is disheartening."

"Don't feel sorry for him, miss," the first orderly, whose name tag read Fredrick, retorted. "He'd snap your neck, given the chance. The guy is cracked."

"You're not paid to play therapist, Fredrick," I barked, placing a hand awkwardly upon Joker's shoulder in an attempt at reassurance before walking away. "That's my job."

That night I went home to my shared flat in the narrows, as I always did, and lay in bed unable to shake the clown from my mind. The experience had harrowed me. I had prepared myself to be greeted with the fantastical, terrific creature I had seen on television and in the newspapers, the effervescent being I thought I'd caught a glimpse of in that corridor; full of life, ripping at the seams with it, and I had found instead a sad middle-aged man with pale skin and tufty, oddly-coloured hair.

I pondered over the injustice of it all. In spite of the terrible things that the clown had done, he was still our patient. No one had the right to treat another person in such a way, especially not a person supposedly in their care. I pondered whether or not to report the orderlies' tomorrow morning.

He was not evil. He was just ill.

AN: Hey guys! Thanks for reading, and I hope you stick around for this descent into madness. This story is something I've wanted to write for a long time; I've always taken issue with the speed at which Harleen falls in love with Joker and goes full coco-loco of her own accord, so this is my attempt at creating a more realistic approach to her origin story. There'll be some delicious cameos throughout, so keep an eye open. This Joker and Harley are my own interpretation, but I take a lot of inspiration from Hamill & Monnaghan's Joker's, with a dash of Nicholson and Leto thrown in. Harleen is initially a lot more grounded, a la Arkham Origins style. Anyway, now that I've bored you all to tears, do enjoy this twisted tale!