A/N: This is a Nolan-esque origin story for Harley Quinn, a very different kind of Harley for Heath Ledger's unique take on the Joker. She's dark, observant, a little bit type A, and kind of an asshole, to be honest.
Hope you stick with it. There's a good three or four chapters of world-building before things kick off properly. The slow burn rapidly speeds up in the second act, so if you're here for smut, stick around for that.
Part 1 - Arkham
"Good people are inclined to visualize the psychopath as one who is as monstrous in appearance as (s)he is in mind, which is about as far from the truth as one could well get...These monsters of real life present a more convincing picture of virtue—just as the wax rosebud or the plastic peach seem more perfect to the eye than the imperfect originals from which they were modeled."
— William March, 'The Bad Seed'
Every morning, at 5.30 AM, Harley was jolted out of sleep by the sound of birds chirping loudly. Every morning, her eyes would snap open, and she would tell herself she would change her alarm. Then her thoughts would turn to the long list of things she had to complete that day at Arkham, usually with a degree of a go-get-em' attitude. But this morning, she felt irritation roll through her as she remembered what she had to deal with on top of her heavy workload; the Joker's admission to Arkham, an all-consuming event for the asylum. As if she didn't already have enough on her plate.
She stretched sleepily and reached out to tap her phone screen, silencing the birds. Her eyes closed again as she let out a long sigh, bracing herself for the day to come, and after a few more breaths she found the strength to pull herself out of bed and make her way to the bathroom where she turned on the shower and shed her pajamas, then stepped beneath the lukewarm spray.
The water was always lukewarm. Harley's building was supposed to be luxurious, or at least how the Crowne Group billed the development when she bought the apartment. Crowne Towers was part of an attempted regeneration project to clean up Gotham's East Side, an area of the city notorious for its unvarnished poverty. Obviously, 'regeneration' was code for 'gentrification', but it turned out that even if you built high-rise apartments next to a brand-new train station that got you to Midtown in less than 30 minutes, the upper echelons of Gotham society weren't interested in moving out of their Midtown penthouses or their Diamond District mansions.
This meant less than half of the building's apartments were occupied, but Harley didn't particularly mind living in a near-dystopian, half-empty high rise. She worked sixteen-hour days at Arkham and that same train to Midtown took her in the opposite direction to the Narrows just as quickly. Crowne Towers was the closest she could live to work without having to live in the Narrows itself. It had been the logical choice, and Harley always tried to do the logical thing.
After climbing out of the shower, she started her usual morning routine. Brushing her teeth, applying sunscreen and lip balm, and knotting her honey-blonde hair in a tight bun. She left a few pieces of hair loose, so she didn't look so much older than she was. More than once, friends accused her of presenting herself as a lonely librarian so she would be taken seriously in the professional world, but Harley insisted it wasn't intentional. She examined herself in the mirror, wondering if it was really that bad. Her face was heart-shaped, her cheekbones high, and she'd once had an ex-boyfriend describe her eyes as 'icy' just before he called her a cold-hearted bitch. If eyes were the windows to the soul, he'd said, then Harley was a glacier.
Harley wasn't really a cold-hearted bitch; she just didn't have the patience to deal with needy men.
Continuing with her routine, she confronted her closet next, full of neatly pressed gray and black slacks and an endless supply of white button-down shirts. This was her uniform: conservative, comfortable, professional. She slipped on a pair of leather loafers that fit the bill too, then moved into her kitchen.
Harley made herself a bowl of cereal and turned on the TV as she took a seat on the couch, a drab gray thing that had come with the apartment. It wasn't something she would pick out herself, but then again it was gray, and she seemed to have an affinity for the color. While she listened to the news talk about the Dent Act —they were always talking about Harvey Dent or the Dent Act —she scrolled through emails on her phone, keeping her ears open for any mention of the Joker's transfer to Arkham.
The MCU had gone above and beyond to make sure his transfer from Blackgate Prison wasn't leaked to the media. The police commissioner, Jim Gordon, even came down to Arkham the day before to prep senior staff. As if they didn't already deal with dangerous, psychotic criminals on a daily basis. Arkham's board of directors had passed around Non-Disclosure Agreements for the staff, and Gordon impressed upon them how serious it was that the transfer not only be kept a secret but that they interact with him as little as possible when he arrived.
The story was they'd been keeping him in Blackgate's solitary confinement ward since he'd been captured —hanging by his ankle off a building site, no less —a month earlier. The MCU werenervous that the Joker was 'influencing' the guards and other prisoners, so they decided to put him somewhere more isolated. Since both the DA Harvey Dent and the Assistant DA Rachel Dawes had been killed in what the papers billed as the Joker's 'Reign of Terror', he still hadn't been officially charged with a crime and couldn't be transferred to federal prison or - as most of the city was calling for - Guantanamo Bay. That left Arkham, which City Hall deemed the safest place for him because of their experience dealing with violent psychopaths. But more importantly, their ability to drug inmates into submission.
Harley finished her cereal, listening to the panel of news pundits on Good Morning Gotham discussing the viability and legality of the Dent Act, which was expected to pass in the coming months. Blessedly, there was no mention of the Joker. Harley tidied away her bowl and grabbed her bag.
The elevator ride down from the sixth floor was always eerily silent. Each stop brought on more suited men and women on their way to Midtown, their eyes glued to their phones as they studiously ignored their neighbors. They reminded Harley of drones, all following orders from the queen to go to the same place at the same time to do their same job every day. She supposed she was one of them if she was honest with herself - a different job in a different part of town, but no less repetitive.
Sometimes her life felt like Groundhog Day. Each day a repetition of the one before. Arkham, gym, sleep, Arkham, gym, sleep and repeat until she died.
But she tried not to think about that.
She walked with her neighbors to the station as she did every morning, but once there Harley parted from them, turning left toward the South-bound platform instead of right towards the city.
The train arrived, nearly empty aside from two junkies and an old man in a trench coat. Harley took a seat closer to the junkies since she didn't feel like getting flashed first thing in the morning, a common occurrence on Gotham's rundown public transport.
Her thoughts drifted back to the Joker as the train pulled away from the station, and she felt another twinge of annoyance. Even during his so-called 'Reign of Terror' she hadn't given him much thought. He'd only terrorized the wealthy parts of Gotham in Midtown and the Diamond District, and even when he'd been blowing up hospitals, she felt safe in the Narrows. It was no doubt the most dangerous neighborhood in Gotham but because of poverty and addiction, not the organized crime and corruption that ran the rest of the city. Arkham had even taken on patients from Gotham General during the whole hospital debacle.
All that ended a month ago, but the media couldn't let the Joker go. Endless inches of ink were devoted to him in the Gotham Globe's opinion section, long-form features attempting to debunk him in the Gothamite, and worst of all Vicki Vale's salacious columns in the Gazette suggesting his return was imminent, using fear to sell papers.
Harley was of the opinion that the Joker was a narcissistic nihilist who didn't deserve the mental energy these people lavished on him.
When the metro stopped at Elizabeth Arkham Station, Harley and the junkies climbed off, and she directed her thoughts toward the drug trials she was preparing for. Psychopaths were her speciality, specifically their brain chemistry, which made Arkham an ideal match for her. They hired her under the recommendation by Kane Company, the parent company of Elliot Pharmaceutical, who were paying Arkham a hefty sum to study the behavioral effects of their drugs on the inmates. Three members of the Kane family sat on Arkham's board and Murphy Walsh, the asylum's new director, had readily agreed to the deal, installing Harley to run the trials. It stank of nepotism and corruption, but that was Gotham for you.
It was ironic that Walsh had been hired to replace Jonathan Crane, who had been testing his fear toxin on the inmates in Arkham's basement, and now Walsh was openly testing drugs on the inmates for cold hard cash. Turned out if you were criminally insane people didn't care if your consent was coerced or fabricated entirely. Too bad Crane hadn't gotten into bed with a pharmaceutical giant to make his toxin legitimate.
Harley waved at the security guard at Arkham's front gate, who offered her a friendly smile, which almost distracted from the ominous creaking of the ancient front gate. Arkham's Brutalist architecture might have been considered art once, but now it just looked dystopian and lifeless in the urban sprawl of the Narrows, the occasional wailing of an inmate doing nothing to cheer up its grim facade.
Unlike her apartment, Harley's office actually represented her character, or at least who she thought her character should be. Textbooks and reference guides lined the bookshelves, psychology journals were stacked on the therapist's couch against the back wall, a peaceful painting of water lilies hung over a bricked off fireplace. There was a large mahogany desk flanked by a pair of dramatic wingback chairs that had already been there when she arrived, but Harley wasn't the type to waste time redecorating.
She sat down at her desk and brought up her schedule for the day, smiling when she remembered she had a session with Jonathan Crane, her pet project. Not a secret project. Maybe a little secret. She knew Crane from Gotham University when she was in her first year of post-grad and he was finishing his. She'd attended his lectures and reached out to him for his notes on her dissertation after he'd already been hired as Arkham's director. He had been harsh in his assessment of her work, but that he bothered to read it at all said a lot. She'd even been in touch with him about a reference for her application to Arkham just before he'd... well, turned the Narrows into a psychotic hellhole and eventually got locked up in his own asylum...
Harley settled in to review her patients' blood work, but her mind kept drifting to her last session with Crane. He'd finally revealed the name of the person who'd made it possible for him to formulate the fear toxin. A person who got in touch with Crane for his expertise in psychopharmacology. A man with a strange name. Ra's al Ghul.
They hadn't gotten far beyond that. Harley had to cut their last session short when one of her patients in C Wing had uncontrollable seizures thanks to a higher dose of the new Elliot drug.
But Harley still had many questions for Crane.
She slung on her white lab coat and locked her office door, heading for the staff room to get a cup of sludgy coffee. There she found the head nurse Rosa speaking in a low voice to one of the other Arkham doctors, Blakely. He was older than the rest, seventy-something with only a few wisps of gray hair hanging onto his head and an impressive set of jowls. Harley didn't understand why he didn't retire already. He'd been at the asylum for decades and was never even been considered for the directorship. Even Crane, who was some thirty plus years his junior, was advanced over Blakely. Be all that as it may, he was one of the kinder, more supportive members of staff, and Harley was glad he stuck around.
"Harleen," he greeted her, his lined face looking grim.
"Morning, Neville," she replied, pouring herself a cup of grainy black coffee. "How's Walsh holding up?" She smirked a little when Blakely sent her a disapproving look.
"I saw him this morning. He's doing as fine as he can be," Blakely sighed. "Once he finishes this admission interview with the Joker we can finally put him out of our minds for good."
"I cannot believe the board isn't taking Commissioner Gordon's advice that we skip the interview and just lock him up," Rosa shook her head. "If he was messing with the guards at Blackgate who knows what he'll do here!"
"Chavez's team are better prepared for cases like this," Blakely rationalized. "Gordon should trust us. And besides, we can't treat him differently than any other inmate. They all have their problems, but we work around them to keep everybody safe. We don't just ignore them."
Rosa left the staff room muttering to herself in Spanish, leaving Harley shaking her head while Blakely waited for her to add her two cents about the interview. The truth was, Harley didn't have an opinion. She just didn't care that much if they locked him up and threw away the key or tried to get him to talk.
"I have so much to do," she complained to Blakely. "I don't have time to go greet the Joker. What about you?"
"A Wing," he replied, looking satisfied. "Walsh is weeding out the cases that can be taken to Blackgate. You?"
Harley sipped her coffee, considering her answer. "I'm seeing Crane now. B Wing later to follow up with the Elliot patients, and sometime in between I'm sure Walsh will drag us downstairs to watch the clown get admitted." She could see Blakely frowning at her, making her scowel. "What?"
"I just don't understand your... relationship with Crane," he admitted at last.
"It's been over a year, but people in the Narrows are still suffering from his fear toxin," Harley said, shifting uncomfortably. "He's the only one who knows how and why—I think it's worthwhile to find out."
It was only half a lie. Her motivation wasn't as pure as that.
"Well, if you're seeing him now maybe I'll sit in," Blakely offered. "If it's worthwhile."
"Oh," Harley grit her teeth, scrambling to find a lie to keep Blakely away from her patient. But he was already moving towards the exit and looking at her expectantly. Composing herself, Harley followed with her clipboard tucked firmly under her arm so Blakely wouldn't be tempted to ask for a look at her notes.
They made their way to B Wing on the second floor where Crane was kept, Harley filling Blakely in on the prescription suggestions she'd made for Crane as they climbed ancient stone steps. She did not tell him she and Crane had discussed his medication plan together, or that Crane had twice requested she tweak the dosages and she had complied, eager to keep him happy, so he would continue to share things with her.
Neither did she tell Blakely that Crane had developed his compound from a blue poppy only found in Tibet, sent to him by an anonymous source who later turned out to be this mysterious Ra's al Ghul she was so keen to know more about. Though it seemed she wouldn't be finding out today, she thought bitterly.
Harley swiped her security card against the clearance pad beside a sign reading J. CRANE 0218. The three steel bolts locking the door shot back with a CLANG, and the door swung open, revealing Jonathan Crane wearing an orange Arkham-issue jumpsuit and a pair of slippers. He was gazing out the small window his cell afforded him, lined with bars but still giving him a view of the grounds. He turned upon their entering, his pale eyes settled first on Harley, then narrowed when they landed on Blakely.
"Neville," Crane acknowledged his former colleague with a sneer.
"Jonathan," Blakely replied, glancing at Harley uncertainly.
She rolled her eyes and sat on the creaky cot in the corner, leaving the chair bolted to the floor for Blakely.
She could feel the judgy, incredulous look he was sending her over her seating choice but ignored him.
"How are you feeling, Jonathan?" She asked as Crane lowered himself onto the cot beside her, still eyeing Blakely warily.
"My cognition is better," he admitted. "You were right about the Lorazepam."
"Knew it," she chirped, making a note on her clipboard. "We can discuss your medication later," She added, shooting him a loaded look. "I have some questions about the fear toxin—would you mind?"
Crane's pale eyes darted to Blakely and then back to Harley, understanding where she was leading him. His upper lip twitched into a sneer that was almost a smile.
"Of course," he agreed.
They spent an hour going over the basics of Crane's fear toxin. The part of the brain it stimulated, the primal fear it induced, its ability to permanently damage the mind in high doses but only temporarily in less concentrated amounts. They'd gone over all this already in the seven or eight weeks since Crane had been at Arkham, but their conversations only recently progressed past the basics.
When their hour was up, Harley followed Blakely out of Crane's cell with what she called her Patient Smile plastered on her face. She was more than a little annoyed she hadn't been able to ask about Ra's al Ghul thanks to Blakely's suspicious, and frankly intrusive presence.
"I don't see how any of that is helpful to the Narrows," Blakely observed once the cell's bars locked into place, placing five inches of solid steel between them and Crane.
Harley risked impatiently. "My job is to collect the data—any data we can get on that toxin is valuable."
"But the toxin is gone," Blakely pointed out. "And Crane is in here, so he can't make any more of it."
That wasn't strictly true. It was out there somewhere according to Crane, but Harley just plastered on another patient smile and shrugged.
"Harleen, I must say," Blakely removed his glasses and wiped them on his lab coat. "It's alarming that you would flatter a diagnosed Narcissist in a session."
Harley blanched. "Excuse me? I don't flatter him."
"You do," Blakely shook his head. "I understand, you're... manipulating him to get information, but it isn't good practice."
It was something Harley had been accused of before, more than once by teachers, friends... boyfriends especially. She knew she could get people to talk if she pushed the right buttons, it was what made her a good psychologist.
"I don't think you realize you do it," Blakely frowned, looking concerned. "Like it's... an impulse."
"I disagree," Harley said sourly, resenting Blakely for interrupting her session with Crane and for suggesting there was something nefarious in how she conducted herself.
"Maybe I'm wrong," Blakely shrugged, looking tired. "I need to get to A Wing. I'll see you downstairs after lunch."
Harley went about her day, as usual, meeting with Annie the nurse practitioner to discuss the inmates' blood work and checking in with test subjects to find out how they were coping with their new meds. Keeping the most dangerous and unstable men isolated, not just from the world but from each other, could make them remarkably eager to talk about their feelings to the only person willing to listen.
She ate a lunch of leftover Thai food in her office and soon enough it was 2pm and time to admit the Joker which Harley was on the verge of skipping even if Walsh would give her hell for it. Having the senior members of staff gather at the back entrance for his arrival was a ridiculous charade, its only purpose to prove to Gordon and the Mayor that they were making the right choice sending him to Arkham until the Dent Act passed or a new DA was elected.
If they were bringing him to Arkham, they were out of options; there was no point in pretending otherwise.
The back end of Arkham was more modern and prison-like than its front entrance, with a steel barrier that would rise into the stone ceiling to allow the new inmate and his guards to enter the building. The inmate would then be led into a cell with steel bars where they would be searched, given an Arkham-issue jumpsuit, and officially handed into the asylum's custody. That's when the Arkham guards took over, moving the new inmate out of the cell and into the interrogation room for the admission interview. Usually, there was no need for an audience.
Harley was the last to arrive, taking her place between Walsh and Rosa, who was rubbing her arms like she was cold.
"You're late," Walsh snapped. He was a small man, in both stature and personality. Harley had never gotten along with him particularly well. He had a piggy face and wore wire-frame glasses she thought made him look like a pedophile.
"So's he," she shot back, checking her phone instead of engaging Walsh further.
Chavez's radio beeped, informing them that the MCU's SWAT team had arrived with the Joker, and when Chavez gave the order, the external gate rattled noisily as it began to rise. Harley looked down the line of her colleagues, all of them stiff-jawed and doing a poor job of hiding their nerves. Rosa was clutching her elbows, Chavez was grinding his teeth, Blakely was staring at the flagstone floor, and Walsh was blinking rapidly, nervously. Even Annie, who had been a medic in Iraq, was shifting from one foot to the other uneasily.
The first gate opened, and Chavez's walkie squawked again, updating him that the MCU was signing the Joker over to Arkham while they searched him. It took maybe ten minutes for them to finish and Harley struggled not to check her phone while they waited.
The board wanted all of them to watch the interview to get a sense of him from a safe distance. The entire world treated him like an evil genius capable of supernatural feats, but as far as Harley could see they were all playing right into his narcissistic hands.
Chavez's walkie squawked again, informing them that the Arkham guards would bring the Joker into the interrogation room. Harley folded her arms and waited, refraining from tapping her foot as the steel bars parted and six guards frog-marched a man into the hallway.
Harley's impatience quickly faded when he came into view, and as he moved closer, her expression softened. It wasn't the same man she'd seen in the papers, the monster with a painted face and green hair and gruesome scars, leering into the camera and relishing the attention. This man was tall and lanky, with broad shoulders and a mop of tangled dark-blonde hair brushing the collar of his newly issued Arkham scrubs. The scars were there but less horrific without the red paint; the skin puckering into a thin line that curved up his right cheek while the left was more of a mess, knotted from sloppy sutures, their stitch pattern forever seared into his face.
He looked tired, his eyes red-rimmed with dark circles beneath, and there was a splotchy bruise fading on his forehead. But all of that was superficial. What drew Harley's attention was the gleam in his eyes. It reminded her of a tiger, something intelligent and cruel glowing in the darkness as he allowed himself to be marched forward. That felt like a salient observation—that he was allowing it.
As they moved him past the line of Arkham staff, Harley watched him glower at her colleagues, all of them looking away while she stared openly. She could feel her eyeballs drying out from not blinking, and her heart began to thump distractingly hard in her chest. When he passed her, she met his gaze and held it, and she could see the moment his attention on her shifted from passing to lingering. They watched each other as he was marched past, and one side of his mouth slid up in a roguish grin that made Harley's pulse leap in her throat.
Even after he'd gone too far for her to see his face, she couldn't stop staring at the back of his head, the impression of his dark eyes on her burned into her brain. Then the guards unlocked the interrogation room, and he turned to look over his shoulder, searching for Harley among the group. A shiver skated over her skin when their eyes met again, and she knew instinctively that the curious glint she saw in his eyes was matched in her own.
"Dios mio," Rosa swore, running her hands up her arms as the interrogation room door slammed shut. "I feel like a goose just walked over my grave."
Harley understood what she meant, but she wasn't sure she and Rosa had the same experience seeing the Joker in the flesh. Now that he was gone, Rosa was relieved while Harley felt strangely drained and confused. Like she'd been sucked through a wind turbine and thrown out the other side.
"Come on," Walsh grunted, gesturing for them to follow him into the observation room. There was a light sheen of sweat on his forehead, and he was still blinking his piggy eyes rapidly. "Let's get this over with."
Harley shoved her hands into her lab coat pockets and followed Walsh, keeping her head down as she tried to collect her thoughts. She'd had a strange reaction to a strange man, and now she felt rattled. She decided it was because she hadn't prepared herself for such an overwhelming presence. Psychopaths were frequently big personalities that required personal preparation, and in this instance, she'd been arrogant and didn't do her due diligence. That was all it was.
But his presence had been suffocating, like he'd invaded every corner of the corridor, sucking up all the oxygen. When they'd met each other's eyes, there had been something there that drew Harley in, and now all she wanted to do was to look him in the eye again so she could rationally understand why her heart was still hammering away.
Harley kept her head down as Rosa, Annie and Blakely crowded into the observation room with her, wished Walsh good luck. She knew she was being ridiculous and exhaled a calming breath, then lifted her head to watch the interview from behind a two-way mirror.
"Hello," Walsh greeted the Joker stiffly, his voice crackling over the intercom. "I'm Dr Walsh, the director of Arkham Asylum."
The Joker had been placed in a chair at one end of the steel table, watching with mild interest as Walsh crossed the room and sat across from him. His hands were cuffed and bound to the table; his feet chained to the floor. Behind him Chavez and a new guard called Fogerty stood with their arms posed military-style behind their backs while they glared at the back of the Joker's head.
Walsh coughed awkwardly and opened a file with all of the information they had on the Joker —which wasn't much —and the admission interview form.
"So..." Walsh started.
The Joker hunched forward and pillowed his chin on his cuffed fists, smirking knowingly.
"Soooooo," he purred back, making Walsh sputter stupidly.
"You refused to give your real name to the GCPD," he said once he'd recovered. "They haven't been unable to find a record of your real identity."
As Walsh spoke the Joker closed his eyes and nodded along agreeably, making Walsh falter again.
"I, uh, this is your chance to tell us your real name..." When the Joker just cocked his head to the side and squinted, Walsh hesitated. "So... if you'd like to..."
"Oh. Uh, sure! Let me spell it for you," the Joker's eyes were on the paperwork in front of Walsh, who seemed taken aback but raised his pen nonetheless. "It's T-H-E... space... J..."
Harley fought back a smirk. She had to admit, she enjoyed watching Walsh get fucked with.
"Sir, we will not be calling you by this... persona you have developed," Walsh blustered. "They may have indulged you at Blackgate, but if you don't give us a name, you will be referred to as patient 0801 for the duration of your stay."
The Joker sniffed and sat back in the chair, his arms stretched out in front of him, somehow giving the impression of a king lounging on his throne instead of a prisoner chained to a table.
"Catchy," he drawled, his eyes drifting beyond Walsh to the mirror. His tongue darted out to lick the scar bisecting his bottom lip, and even though it was irrational, Harley's pulse leapt again.
"Let's move on," Walsh huffed. "We have your height as six foot two, your weight as 190 pounds. I assume you're happy with those numbers?"
The Joker shrugged, still gazing at the mirror, and Walsh made a note.
"Jesus," Blakely grumbled. "It's like he can see right through the glass. What's he looking for?"
"He can't," Harley insisted, unable to ignore the feeling that he was looking for her. "He's not an idiot. He knows we're back here."
"Your date of birth?" Walsh was asking, and the Joker took his time answering, letting his head fall back, so he could stare at the ceiling like he was deep in thought. When he sat up again, he flashed Walsh a nasty little smile.
"27 November 1960," he announced complacently.
"I—what? Hold on," Walsh sputtered. "That's my birthday. How the hell do you know my birthday!"
"Shit," Annie murmured.
"Well," the Joker began thoughtfully, folding one large hand neatly over the other on top of the table. "I can kinda... read minds..."
There was a stunned silence on both sides of the mirror, the Joker's face the picture of innocence as he watched Walsh digest what he'd said.
"You... can read minds," Walsh sounded both worried and skeptical.
"Well, it's complicated," the Joker lifted his hands to gesture as best he could with his restraints. "I hear thesevoices, ya know? Sometimes it's like they tell me uh, like information. So I think the voices are really a uh," he rotated his hand thoughtfully as he spoke. "A manifestation of my psychic powers, ya know? Like a coping mechanism."
"Interesting that you didn't tell the psychologists at Blackgate about these voices," Walsh pushed back irritatedly.
"Maybe a guy doesn't wanna go around telling people about hearing voices," the Joker replied smoothly, "But I gotta tell you, Murphy, I feel like I can trust you."
"I see," Walsh sounded unnerved. "Let's move on. Who is your next of kin?"
"Uh, I don't know how easy it's gonna be to get a hold of him but, uh... here, lemme spell it," he suggested eagerly. "It's B - A - T - M - A - N."
The sound of Walsh's pen hitting the tabled rattled through the intercom, followed by an indignant huff.
"Batman is your next of kin?"
"Very well," Walsh blustered, his voice taking on a shrill quality that always meant he was at the end of his rope. "Let's move on to—"
The Joker started to giggle then. His eyes widened and his shoulders hunched up like he was trying to smother the laughter building in his chest. Then his body spasmed, his head flew back, and a hysterical, inhuman howl ripped its way out of his throat. It was the sound from the TV, the sound his surviving victims described. It was chilling and cruel, and when he flung himself forward with another hoarse cackle, Walsh jumped out of his chair and stumbled backward, landing on his ass.
Chavez and Fogerty darted forward to restrain the Joker just as a swarm of armed guards flooded the interrogation room. Harley couldn't see who stabbed the Joker with a hypodermic needle full of tranquilizer, but when the swell of guards moved back he was no longer attached to the table, and his limp body was being dragged from the room.
Once the room was clear, Annie and Rosa rushed forward to help Walsh. Harley and Blakely hung back in observation, both of them thinking the same thing but feeling vastly different about it.
"I guess one of us will finish his interview," Blakely said weakly, doing a poor job of hiding that he didn't want to be the one to do it. "There's no way Murphy will go back in with him after that."
Harley didn't rely. She didn't know what to make of the fact that she was thrilled about the prospect of taking over for Walsh.
Rosa and Annie ushered Walsh down to the infirmary, taking the stairs because no one used the rickety death trap elevators anymore, while Harley and Blakely trailed after them at a distance. Harley's heavy workload was now the farthest thing from her mind, and it seemed Blakely was in a similar mood
"That bastard broke my arm!" Walsh huffed indignantly.
"Sprained, maybe," Annie corrected, prodding his hand. "Can you move your fingers?"
Walsh scowled and wiggled his chubby fingers.
Did you hear the sounds that came out of him? He's inhuman! My God, they really need to cart him off to Guantanamo Bay."
"I just hope to God they pass this Dent Act soon," Rosa worried, crossing herself.
"You're damn right, Rosa," Walsh blustered. "He attacked me! Did you see that?"
Harley was about to point out that Walsh had fallen over, not been attacked, but then she spotted the folder with the Joker's interview form and background information on the infirmary bed. She nipped forward to pluck it up and plastered on her most calm, professional frown as she began to read. There were notes from six psychologists who'd been to see him while he was at Blackgate.
All six agreed he was anti-social, narcissistic, pathologically untruthful, and lacking empathy. A psychopath, in other words. In terms of diagnosis, they all disagreed somewhat. Two thought he was a paranoid schizophrenic, a third claimed he was bipolar, two more saw signs of acute past trauma, and the last didn't give any opinion. She'd been attacked during their session and had to be taken to hospital for a broken nose and a concussion before she'd delivered a report.
"None of this is right," Harley complained, drawing Walsh's attention.
"What on earth are you saying, Quinzel?" he huffed.
"He doesn't hear voices, and he's not bipolar. He seems cognitively sound and like he's in control of his faculties."
"Did you hear the sounds he made!" Walsh blustered.
"I did," Harley replied flatly. "He was obviously trying to scare you. And it worked."
An awkward ripple passed through the room as Walsh glared at Harley. Rosa made an excuse about needing to get back to the nurse's station, and Annie focused on fitting Walsh's wrist in a brace.
"I'll finish the interview," Harley announced.
Walsh laughed bitterly. "You will, will you?"
"I assume since you're injured," Harley said drily. "That you'll be passing the interview over to Blakely or me to complete."
"Neville," Walsh nodded at Blakely, his tone spiteful. "You'll be finishing the interview with him. Quinzel doesn't have the experience."
Harley's cheeks grew hot, and she had to bite her tongue to keep herself from saying something she'd regret. Her insufficient 'experience' was Walsh's favorite excuse to use when he wanted to control her, and nothing infuriated her more than that.
Blakely reluctantly waded into the argument. "I'm sure Harleen can handle it if she..."
"No, she can't," Walsh clambered to his feet with Annie's help. "Neville, you'll complete the interview. That's final."
Annie shot Harley an apologetic look as she helped Walsh out of the infirmary. As if falling on his ass and spraining his wrist meant he wasn't able to get back to his office on his own. Harley took a deep, shaky breath to calm herself down.
"Fine," she said shortly, passing the Joker's file to Blakely.
"What's changed your mind about him?" He asked warily.
Harley licked her lips, a perfect picture of the Joker searching for her behind the two-way mirror forming in her mind's eye.
"His... mannerisms," she said haltingly, another half-truth. She'd already begun cataloging each of the small but fascinating ways his face moved when he was emoting—playing coy, unimpressed, triumphant, bored. "He's more interesting than I gave him credit for."
"I thought this might happen," Blakely admitted uneasily. "That you would... take an interest in him."
Harley knew he was thinking about her relationship with Crane and felt a twinge of annoyance that Blakely was so goddamn judgy. He was less openly antagonistic than Walsh, but in his own stodgy grandfatherly way, he was just as controlling and infuriating. It was absurd that Harley had to answer to either of them when she was their peer and equal. She was a celebrated psychologist, published more times in the last year than either of them combined. It made her so angry that she had to stop herself from snarling outright.
"That isn't any of your business, Neville," she snapped brusquely, knocking the file out of his hands with her elbow as she brushed past him.
She wanted to go back to her office to think about what she was feeling, but she had deadlines to meet and patients to see, so she pushed on with her day.
The interviews with the inmates on Elliot drugs seemed to take longer than they usually did, and Harley's mind continued to drift. First and foremost to the Joker's eyes. Not just when he looked at her, but at the exact moment he saw her, acknowledged her. Then there was the way he taunted Walsh—it had been smart, devious, and far more intellectually rewarding than any of the dribble her patients shared. But most of all, she couldn't get past the very human, male quality that was so lacking in the cartoonish macabre he presented to the world.
She needed to know more.
After her final Elliot trial, Harley skipped her usual ritual of painstakingly entering the data she'd collected into her computer. Instead, she paced around her office, smoothing back loose pieces of hair coming free from her bun as she tried to decide what to do.
There was a strong but unsavory impulse to convince Blakely to let her take over the interview. It wouldn't be hard, but it would be a slightly heavy-handed move, and she didn't want to admit to herself that she wanted to talk to the Joker that badly.
Then she remembered that Commissioner Gordon had given her his card with his personal number scribbled on the back, and she frantically dug the card out of her desk.
Harley met Commissioner Gordon in the reception area of the MCU, trying to focus on shaking his hand instead of the fact that all the building's windows were covered by plastic tarps waving in the early autumn breeze.
"We still can't afford to get those fixed," Gordon admitted with a tired sigh. "City Hall is tight with the purse strings at the moment. We're just one of many Joker clean up projects that need to be funded."
He showed Harley down a short hallway, past two interrogation rooms toward a decent sized but messy office.
"How did it go today?" He asked once Harley had been offered coffee and positioned in one of the mismatched chairs facing the desk.
"Not well," Harley admitted. "But not terrible either. He baited Walsh, scared him into tripping over his own feet, and that was the end of it."
"That's pretty low caliber for the Joker," Gordon said, looking concerned.
"Walsh showed fear," Harley shrugged. "The Joker jumped on it."
Gordon nodded like he knew all too well what watching that scene unfold would look like.
"And how can I help you, Dr Quinzel? Our understanding is Arkham won't be treating the Joker. He'll just be held at your institution for the time being."
"Of course," Harley agreed quickly. "I'm here more for... my peace of mind, I suppose. I need to understand him if I can."
"Understanding the Joker," Gordon shook his head. "I don't know if I can help you there. Did you read the court psychologists' notes?"
"All of them are wrong," Harley rolled her eyes and Gordon's eyebrows lifted in surprise. She scrambled to fix her misstep: "I mean, I disagree professionally. What little I saw of him today, he seemed in control of his emotions, very aware of what he's saying and the meaning behind it. Even when he... he laughed, you know, that laugh. It was deliberate."
Gordon shifted uncomfortably. "Part of what makes him so difficult to pin down - what made him so hard to catch - is how capable he is," he explained. "I don't know if it will give you peace of mind to know that I still feel like I'm three steps behind the Joker even after he's been in custody for a month."
Harley nodded solemnly. "Maybe you could tell me... when you first met him, how did he make you feel?"
"How did he make me feel?" Gordon sat back in his chair, looking pensive. "Angry. Scared for my family and the city... The first time we caught him, he set us up. He wanted to get caught. I sat across from him thinking, I've got you, you sonofabitch, you're done. But he was exactly where he wanted to be, and things only got worse. My advice to you, Dr Quinzel, is never to underestimate him and most of all don't forget," he leaned forward, his expression grim. "He can get in your head. Even without bombs or guns or his goons, he is dangerous enough just having a tongue in his head."
Harley's eyes widened, not expecting such a candid answer. She hadn't realized how personal it was between Gordon and the Joker, but couldn't help thinking he may as well have been selling the same story the papers were. That the Joker was some sort of evil wizard capable of impossible feats when he was just a man.
Gordon offered her USB stick containing the files from their investigation. Harley affected it graciously, and he walked her out of the station, telling her to call if she had any questions or insight.
It was late when Harley got home, but not as late as she usually finished work. She ordered Chinese - enough to feed her for lunch the next day too - and turned on Real Housewives of Gotham as she plugged the USB stick into her laptop.
Multiple zipped files appeared on the screen, the first titled "A/V External," which contained two video files dated to August. Harley muted the TV before she selected the first video. It was a close-up shot of the Joker, his face paint smeared, his eyes hooded, his teeth bared. She started the video, and his voice washed over her, mocking and cruel as he taunted a man dressed up like the Batman against the backdrop of a meat locker.
"LOOK AT ME," he bellowed, sounding almost demonic. Then he swung back to the camera, playfully scolding Gotham for trusting the Batman.
Harley played the video again and unzipped another file, this one full of the administrative documents that painted a much larger picture. Witness statements, warrants, crime scene profiles, police reports for a constellation of arrests, including two for the Joker. There were also mugshots. One set from the night he attacked the MCU in full face paint, the hint of a grin on his face. The second from his admission to Blackgate, minus the paint and plus a lot of facial bruising. He looked less entertained in the second photo, and different from how she remembered him earlier that day.
The second video was taken from a GCN broadcast interrupted by the Joker. He spoke about the mob, about the Batman, and called for the people of Gotham to murder Coleman Reese. Harley remembered that one. Ordering citizens to hunt down their fellow man had cut through even her extreme ambivalence toward the Joker.
She kept reading while the video played on a loop. Under victims, they'd broken down the list into crime scenes, of which there was one almost daily for the two-week-long 'Reign of Terror.' Before that, there had been multiple bank robberies attributed to him, and before that, armed robbery and homicides. All of it stemmed back a year earlier when Joker cards began appearing at crime scenes. Before that, there was nothing.
The next zipped folder she opened looked like a long-running investigation, and after squinting at a few pages of legal documents, Harley realized it was a City Hall investigation into something called the 'Falcone Crime Family.' The same names kept appearing, names Harley didn't recognize: Salvatore Maroni; Fyodor "The Chechen" Dimitrov; Michael Gambol Jr.; Tomaso Panessa; Santo Cassamento; Franco Bertinelli; Mickey Sullivan.
Harley set the laptop aside and considered the picture these documents helped paint. A man who appeared out of nowhere to terrorize the city. And his motivation? Still unknown, hence the opinion columns and Vicki Vale's weekly diatribes.
It was well past midnight, but Harley knew she'd never sleep. She pulled on her tennis shoes and some leggings, and headed back down to the lobby before taking off into the night. She ran and ran, feeling foolish for finding the Joker so compelling. Now she knew almost everything the police knew, and it should have been enough.
She promised herself it was enough as she sprinted down the street, her blood pounding in her ears.
The next morning at Arkham, Harley was running on black coffee and fumes. She'd arrived early to finish the work she'd put off the night before, then read every Gotham Globe article on the Joker she could find.
When Blakely arrived, she was waiting for him outside his office, a file full of print-outs tucked under her arm.
"Morning, Neville," Harley beamed
Blakely frowned as he unlocked his office. "My granddaughter looks at me like that when she wants money. What's going on, Harleen?"
"I don't want anything," Harley reassured him, following him into his office. "I went to see Jim Gordon last night, and he gave me some background from their investigation. The Joker wasn't on their radar at all until the Batman showed up."
"Everyone knows that," Blakely sighed, exchanging his jacket for his lab coat. "Freaks in masks breed freaks in masks."
"It's nowhere near that simple," Harley insisted, pushing the file into Blakely's hands. "Greg Olsen at the Globe has this incredible theory that the Joker is a vet suffering from PTSD. And Steve Lombard at the Gothamite thinks he might be ex-CIA. And Vicki Vale thinks..."
"Harleen," Blakely ran a hand over his tired eyes. "We don't need to find out his life story, just the most basic facts about his mental health history."
"He will not answer your questions," Harley pushed back. "He's a pathological liar—you can't just be straight with him."
"If he lies that's what I'll write," Blakely shrugged. "My job will be done, and we can all move on."
Harley pursed her lips unhappily and watched Blakely slump away down the hall.
If he thought she would drop it, he was sorely mistaken.
A few hours later she was loitering outside the session room in D Wing, making small talk with a guard called Kelly. The guards' reactions to the Joker seemed to be split— half of them were pissed off, half of them were terrified. They'd put him in a straitjacket when he was unconscious to make moving him easier—and less scary—for everyone.
"Harleen," Blakely frowned when he saw Harley waiting for him. "What are you doing here?"
"I was thinking about how you should approach this," she said quickly. "The Batman. That's how you get him to talk."
"Thank you, Harleen. I'll take it under advisement," Blakely sighed and swiped his ID card over the session room's keypad, unlocking the door.
Harley should have left then, but she lingered instead, asking Kelly mundane questions about the staff parking lot until the stomp of multiple pairs of boots echoed down the corridor. Kelly jumped into position, while Harley crosses her arms over her chest and attempted to project impassive calm.
The Joker was looking worse for wear. Overnight he'd developed an angry black eye and the straitjacket they'd put him in looked a size too small on his wiry frame. His face was composed in the same bored, sleepy guise he'd worn the last time he'd been frogmarched around Arkham. Like his mind was far away on something much more important than what was currently being forced upon him.
Then he spotted Harley, and she felt rather than saw his eyes roll over her, examining her from head to toe before finally landing on her face. Their eyes connected again, and her pulse leapt just as it had the day before. Harley ground her teeth, determined to be clinical and not emotional.
They eyed each other warily, right until he stepped over the threshold of the session room and the guards forced him to turn away.
When the door shut again, Harley continued to stare past it, imagining his face as Chavez and Hassan chained his feet to the floor. She licked her lips, fighting the urge to linger until the session was over, and after a few false starts, she bid Kelly farewell and headed back to her office.
The next morning, Harley found herself in Walsh's office with Blakely, the three of them listening to the recording of Blakely's session with the Joker from the previous afternoon.
He taunted Blakely, just as he had Walsh, but this time there was something decidedly sinister and vastly more personal in his verbal attacks. Blakely physically paled listening to the interview veered off course with the Joker reverse questioning Blakely about his family, then delivering a monologue about how easy it was to pull out a child's baby teeth. And when Blakely asked, in horror, why someone would pull out a child's teeth, the Joker simply responded: "Uh... dental records apply to the kids too, Doc."
"That wasn't very productive," Walsh complained when the tape finished. "Jesus, Neville, you can't just let him railroad you like that."
Blakely was looking gray in the face as he said, "I think Harleen should finish the interview."
"No," Walsh spat, shooting Harley a bitter look. "Quinzel doesn't have enough experience to deal with someone like this!"
Blakely tried to finish the Joker's interview again that afternoon, and the next day they had a similar meeting in Walsh's office. This time Blakely argued—with more energy than Harley had ever seen him exert before—that he was uncomfortable putting himself through another round of interrogation by the Joker about his grandchildren.
"Harleen is more than capable, Murphy," he insisted, twin pink spots appearing on his weathered cheeks.
"No!" Walsh said again. "Goddammit, Neville, grow some balls!"
The third morning was a similar story. They listened back to the interview, which quickly devolved beyond the point of no return with Blakely begging the Joker to stop talking about his family and fleeing the room before the session finished.
"I'll do it," Harley announced over the sound of the tape hissing when it appeared no one else would say something. "Let me do it," she gave Walsh a smile she hoped was eager and a little beguiling, something to make him feel good about himself for passing the case on to her.
"You let him get in your head, Neville," Walsh complained, looking disgusted, apparently forgetting they'd seen his failed session with the Joker. "He picked up a thread and ran with it, and you didn't try to stop him."
"Harleen is exceptionally good at getting inmates to talk," Blakely said calmly. "We should give her a shot."
"Fine," Walsh snapped, throwing his hands up. "Fine. Christ alive! Quinzel, you better get him to talk."
Harley did not allow herself to feel triumphant about the fact that she was interviewing the Joker. She prepared as she would have for any other inmate, re-reading her notes and deciding on her line of questioning carefully. When she went to the gym that night to train, she thought of nothing except how she would have responded to the sly, destabilizing way he'd handled Blakely. And when she got ready for work, the next morning it was with a sense of deliberately not putting any more or less effort than she usually did into how she looked.
It could be argued he was already in her head, but that just meant she had to be extra careful around him, and that meant strategy.
The first half of her day was a wash. She got virtually nothing done while waiting for the clock to tick over to 2 PM. Rosa gave her a pep talk at lunch, telling her she was a better doctor than Blakely and Walsh combined—something Harley agreed with her on—and wouldn't let the Joker get to her like they did.
Harley wasn't worried about that. She didn't scare easily, and she certainly had a stronger stomach than her older colleagues. But she was nervous about how thoroughly the Joker had consumed her thoughts since the moment she laid eyes on him. She could only hope after a few sessions spent teasing out some details that would help her understand him, her curiosity would be satiated.
Under all the theatrics and odd looks, he was just a psychopath. And Harley was an expert on psychopaths.
She gathered her notes and headed for D Wing, running a little late intentionally. Kelly and Hassan were standing guard outside the session room, having already deposited the Joker inside. Kelly gave her a supportive thumbs up while Hassan frowned uneasily.
Harley swiped her ID card against the keypad. The buzzer rang- WAHHHH - and the locking bolts slammed back, then the heavy door swung open for her.
The Joker was waiting for her at a square steel table in the middle of the room; his head cocked to the side as he tongued the inside of his bottom lip and pretended to hide a smirk.
"Oh," he cooed, the smirk sliding firmly into place. "I was hoping they'd send you."
A/N: There you have it. I hope you keep reading! We won't be stuck at Arkham for long...
Updates on Sundays. 32 chapters, so buckle up.
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