The Ballad of Harley Quinn
Author's Note: It's been cheering to see all the new Harley Quinn fanfic popping up inspired by Christopher Nolan's more realistic take on the Joker in The Dark Knight. I thought it might be interesting to do something similar, but from her point of view--from inside Harley's head, as it were (eeek!). Fans will notice bits and pieces gleaned from Harley's comic and from other publications; however, I am not an expert in DC lore, so any errors/omissions/alterations are entirely my own.
I know there will be people out there who say I don't deserve my own story.
Because I'm a criminal.
Because I'm deranged.
Because I work for the Joker.
It seems to be the last bit that really sticks in the craw. Apparently being a sidekick, or henchwoman (and those are just the polite terms I've heard) to the Clown Prince of Crime puts me in a whole different category. I'm not your everyday female criminal in a mask and bodysuit.
I'm OK with that. Lord knows Gotham has plenty of those already.
But I'm writing this anyway, so people will know. So they'll know I wasn't always as I am now.
And that I am not a victim.
It had been my idea to treat the Joker.
I was in my first year of psychiatric residency after completing my degree at Gotham University. Doing the rounds at Gotham General--schizophrenics who couldn't afford their meds, the occasional suicidal intake.
I hadn't gotten into psychiatry to hold people's hands and pour pills down their throats.
I wanted to be the next Freud, the next Jung, the next B.F. Skinner.
I wanted a challenge.
And in Gotham City, if you want a challenge, it's right there in the Narrows.
Arkham Asylum. A place that both Gothamites and the American Medical Association have tried to forget. And it was just full of the kind of extreme cases I'd written about and studied for years.
Pamela "Poison Ivy" Isley. Harvey "Two-Face" Dent.
And "the Joker." Just "Joker." No real name, no date of birth, no other identifying information of any kind.
If I was going to carve out a name for myself, Arkham was the place to begin.
Dr. Bates, the latest in a long line of Asylum administrators, didn't see it that way..
On the phone he was quite polite. I was too young, he said, too inexperienced, no matter what my dissertation was about. Try again in a few years.
A few years, my fanny. I wanted that job.
And I always get what I want. Didn't I have a shelf full of trophies (track and field, gymnastics, skeet shooting, debate) at home to prove it? Hadn't I talked my way into Gotham U's graduate program, even though I'd spent more of my undergraduate years in the local bar than in the library?
I deluged Bates with phone calls. Faxes of my resume went out daily. I twisted the arms of my former advisors until they took up my cause, if only so I would stop haunting their offices. I mailed him multiple copies of every article I'd written. The article on shared psychotic disorder, much better known in the literature as folie á deux. The one on extreme personality disorders, using the infamous "Barbie and Ken" killers as a case study. My most recent one, on psychopaths as cultural touchstones in Gotham City.
It took a few months, but I broke him. I knew I would.
I got the job.
It turned out that I wasn't the only new gal in town. Dr. Bates hadn't been completely honest with me.
The other doctors were almost as green as I was, because Arkham went through staff like water through a sieve. The poor conditions, the stress, and the lack of funds, not to mention occasional bodily harm at the hands of the patients, meant most tours of duty there were short. The orderlies were usually the most experienced staff around. Many of them, I suspect, stayed on because they were sadists who took a little too much pleasure in the job. But then I'm not one to judge.
During my first week at Arkham, Dr. Bates took me and the other staff psychologists and psychiatrists on a tour of the facility.
The upper floors of the facility were not that different from Gotham General, except that there were better external locks on the patient doors. Otherwise it was the same bad lighting, the same sickly paint colors, and the same acrid smell of disinfectant.
But the lower floors were what interested me. High security patients were kept here. There were bars on each landing, and staff members to control access on and off each floor. After one too many escapes, the individual cells had been outfitted with thick, bullet-proof glass instead of doors. It made it easier for security cameras to capture every move the inmates made.
Bates paused before each cell, introducing the cell's occupant to each physician in turn.
Some of the inmates (or "patients," as Dr. Bates insisted on calling them) cowered as we passed. Others were oblivious or unresponsive. The serious expressions and solemn glances of the white-coated doctors went largely to waste.
I can't say I was impressed with any of them. And the patients weren't much to look at, either. Bum, bum, bum. Anyhoo…
On the lowest floor, behind not one but two locked gates and three different sets of guards, were the most dangerous of all of Arkham's charges.
The Joker was kept here, at the far end, as far away from the access doors as they could get him.
He was standing in his cell as if waiting for us. I knew he'd been here for many months. At that time I imagined he knew the routine almost as well as the staff did.
I would later learn that he actually knew it better.
"Hello, Joker," Dr. Bates said to him.
"Good morning, Dr. Bates."
The Joker smiled, a small one, just being polite. But the Glasgow smile carved into his face made it appear the grin was stretching from ear to ear, as scar tissue on both sides of his mouth pulled taught.
Even without the make-up, it was fearsome site to behold.
As Dr. Bates began the introductions I took a moment to study the man.
Joker was wearing the same orange jumpsuit as the other inmates, but it looked spotless, as if it had just been cleaned and pressed. He wore the same standard issue black shoes as well, but his were polished. I knew from reading his files that he used to wear custom shoes with an exaggerated toe, so he could carry blades in them. Those had been confiscated, along with dozens of others knives, when he was admitted.
His greenish hair was lank, and he appeared to have lost some weight on an already lean frame. But he was enough like the photos I had carefully examined that I was pleased.
Here, I was certain, was my ticket to greatness.
It was that first day that the Joker also noticed me. Not romantically, I don't think, not yet, but he did notice me.
Dr. Bates kept going through his spiel, rattling off each of our names in turn.
The Joker had not yet had an assigned therapist who'd lasted more than a few weeks. Two he had badly injured, and the other two had given up in frustration due to the patient's lack of progress. Dr. Bates often worked with Joker now, when he had the time. Otherwise Joker's therapist was whichever doctor was unwise enough to be caught without a full case load.
Mr. J must have known that one or all of us was going to end up opposite him in the therapy rooms. So he showed mild interest, but no more than that.
The other staff was careful not to make direct eye contact with him as they were introduced. They only nodded warily at him through the glass.
But I stepped right up when my turn came.
"And this is our newest staff member, Dr. Harleen Quinzel," Dr. Bates said.
The Joker's face lit up, or at least as much as such a pale complexion could light up.
"'Harleen Quinzel'! You know, if you lost a few letters you would be Harlequin."
I wasn't surprised that Joker made the connection. The one—and possibly the only—thing those who had examined Mr. J could agree upon was that he was intelligent. Very, very intelligent
Dangerously so, in fact.
"Do you know Harlequin?" He asked me.
I wanted to let him know I wasn't afraid of him.
"Yes. The 17th century Italian clown," I told him with a nod. "From the Commedia dell'Arte. I've heard that before."
His grinned widened, showing more teeth.
The two of us stood there for a moment, staring at each other across the barrier glass.
Now, of course, the part of me that loves Mr. J thinks that this was the first great moment in our epic romance. The part of me that hates him thinks this is where everything started to go wrong.
We must have stood and stared at each other for several minutes, because finally Dr. Bates cleared his throat.
"Ahem. Moving on then…"
I lingered behind for just a moment. It was terribly frustrating, to be so close to my object of interest but to not be able to stay.
Dr. Bates and the rest of the group were waiting for me.
"Goodbye, Mr. Joker," I said finally said.
"Goodbye, Harley," Joker drawled.
I don't know why he chose that moment to re-christen me. Perhaps he felt he could have a joke at my expense because everyone else was out of earshot. Or perhaps my name had already drawn his personal interest. I had known it would.
Either way I continued on the tour feeling quite pleased with myself.
The next step in my grand plan was to get assigned as Joker's therapist.
Let me be absolutely clear here. I may have been fresh out of medical school, but even then I knew there was no chance for rehabilitating Joker.
And, boy howdy, I sure know it now.
But I felt certain then that I could get through to him. Or at least through enough to give me what I wanted.
Data. Research material. Then fame.
I laid low for awhile, being a good employee, taking the routine cases I was assigned, biding my time.
I finally got my chance at a staff meeting. The battered conference table was piled high with case files, and everyone was arguing.
That's Arkham for you. Even the doctors are a bit cracked.
One of the psychologists, Dr. Nguyen, was complaining about Joker.
"All he does is talk in circles," Nguyen huffed. "How am I supposed to treat someone who can't keep his own stories straight? One session he tells me that he cut his own face, the next it's the story about a vat of chemicals."
"I got the story about the father," Dr. Lipinsky added. "He must know I'm a Freudian. One step forward, two steps back."
"Yeah, well, he bit me." Dr. Justi said loudly. A small woman, she shuddered and rubbed her forearm as if the wound hadn't healed properly. "And that was with two armed guards in the room."
Dr. Bates was the only relatively calm person there. He had been ignoring us and was shuffling papers from one pile to another.
"You know Joker prefers his past to be multiple choice," he now said patiently. "You have to humor him."
"I've been humoring him, but I can't take much more." Dr. Nguyen slumped back in his chair. "I'd rather sit with Killer Croc—at least you know where you stand with it. Uh, him."
After the new cases were distributed and the other staff members had begun filing out, I made my move.
"Dr. Bates, do you have a moment?" I leaned over him, making sure my white coat gaped alluringly at the neck. Hey, a girl's got to use all her weapons.
"Yes, Dr. Quinzel?"
"Dr. Bates, I was wondering if I might try a therapy session with the Joker. See if a fresh approach…"
Bates cut me off. "No."
"But I really think…"
"It took eight stitches to close the wound in Dr. Justi's arm," the administrator said shortly. "And Dr. Malone still can't see out of his right eye. The Joker's a killer, Dr. Quinzel."
"I know. And that's why I want to speak to him. My work on extreme personalities…"
"…has been largely theoretical up until this point," he corrected. "I don't think you know what you are dealing with here. I'm not sure I know what we are dealing with, and I've been a psychiatrist for more than twenty years."
"Dr. Bates, with all due respect, this is what my whole career has been preparing me for. Just one session, that's all. I'll have security right there."
Seeing the skeptical look on his face, I used my ace in the hole.
"You saw how he reacted to my name, to the whole 'Harlequin' connection. I think I may have an in there. How many new doctors has the Joker actually had a conversation with? A real conversation, not just 'tell me about your mother'?"
"A few sentences are not a conversation, Dr. Quinzel."
He took off his glasses and massaged the bridge of his nose. I knew I had won.
"All right. It's against my better judgment, but I'll give you your shot. One session."
"Thank you, sir," I gushed. "You won't be sorry."
"No, I won't," he said flatly. "But you may very well be."
Arkham was a pit. The hole at the end of the universe. All seven levels of Date's hell rolled into one. But it was still an asylum, and we still had to "treat" our patients, as best we could.
There were special meeting rooms for therapy sessions with high security patients. Rather than risk bringing them upstairs, and thus exponentially increasing the danger to the staff, there were two grimy, windowless spaces set aside for such a use. They were outfitted with two chairs, a small table that had been nailed down, and an overhead light that buzzed incessantly. The only other light came in through a small glass panel set high in the steel door. It wasn't much. The hallway outside was windowless, too.
In other words, they were just like every other institutional therapy room I'd even been in. Working with psychotics and sociopaths doesn't lend itself to cushy surroundings.
I was in one of those rooms waiting, with pads of paper and specially-made, blunt-tipped pencils stacked on the table. I'd considered bringing my voluminous files, but had decided at the last minute that those could wait.
There would be other sessions. I would see to that.
The Joker was brought in wearing handcuffs. Two orderlies with necks as thick around as my thigh were on either side of him.
Mr. J ignored them and sat down one of the plastic chairs. Its metal feet scraped like fingernails across the tile floor.
I smiled sweetly at the larger of the two orderlies. His badge read "Smithee," and there were guns strapped to either side of his hips. Loaded, I'm sure.
The top of my head barely reached his shoulder.
"Wait outside, please."
The mound of a human being peered down at me in surprise. "'Scuse me, doctor?"
I smiled again. "I have clearance from Dr. Bates for a private session. I'm sure you must have gotten the memo?"
The orderlies exchanged confused glances.
"Of course, if you want to trouble Dr. Bates you may certainly call upstairs." I looked thoughtful. "Although as I understand it he is in a meeting with one of our donors and may not like being interrupted. Mr. Joker is handcuffed, after all, and the panic button is right over there if I need it." I pointed to the grimy white button next to the door.
It took several seconds for the larger orderly to process what "interrupting" Dr. Bates might cost him, weigh that against my argument, and to decide in my favor.
"We'll be right outside the door if you need us," he finally offered.
The other orderly, whose tag read only "Jed," gave Joker a look filled with loathing.
"Don't take off his cuffs, no matter what he says," he told me.
Joker cocked his head and batted his eyelashes at the orderly. Jed took a menacing step forward before his friend grabbed his shoulder.
"Right outside," Smithee repeated to me.
The two men left, and the steel door closed with a resounding clang behind them.
We were alone.
"Hello again, Mr. Joker. My name is Dr. Harleen Quinzel. We were introduced a few weeks ago. Remember?"
Joker seemed to have temporarily run out of mirth. He just looked at me.
"You called me 'Harley"? As in "Harlequin'? Well, anyway, I'm a psychiatrist and Dr. Bates thought you might like to speak to me."
Even to my own ears my voice sounded a little weak.
Joker now smiled at me. But it was quite unlike any smile I had ever seen before. There was no joy in it, no real human expression at all. It was an empty smile, like the Cheshire Cat after it had faded away, leaving only its grin behind.
I was losing his attention. Snap out of it Harl, I ordered myself. Don't blow this!
"My colleagues tell me you're quite the talker, and that you like to argue philosophy. I was always very good at that subject."
In an attempt to seem engaging I sat down on the edge of the table, so I was closer to Joker's eye level. "Perhaps you'd care to argue philosophy with me?"
"Oh, I don't think so, Dr. Quinzel."
And before I could ask him why, or why he was back to calling me 'Dr. Quinzel,' the Joker had lunged forward and grabbed my neck in his hands. Even with his hands manacled together he had absolutely no trouble squeezing my windpipe until my breath was gone.
He slammed me backwards against the table. I hit my head and saw stars.
Stupid, stupid move, Harley, a little voice said. You got too close, didn't you?
Mind if we argue about this later? I'm dyin' here.
My vision was swimming, and little starbursts of light were darting across the backs of my eyelids. Dying cells, squeezing their last bits of electricity into my body.
Joker was still smiling down at me. Even though I had my hands on top of his there was no way I could pry them free. He was too strong, far stronger than he appeared.
The panic button was three feet away. It might as well have been a mile.
His thumb shifted for just a moment, and I was able to suck in a small breath.
And then I laughed.
I couldn't help it. I don't know why I laughed.
I still don't.
Joker looked startled, and his grip loosened.
Gasping in another, deeper breath, I laughed so hard that Joker let go of my throat.
Limp as a rag I fell off the edge of the table and landed on the cold tile floor. I felt a sharp pain in my ribs, but I didn't care. I had never realized oxygen was so intoxicating.
I took in another rattling breath, and nearly choked as I started to laugh again.
"You're…you're really predictable, you know that?" I spluttered.
I couldn't see Joker very well through the haze of tears in my eyes, but he looked confused. And a little hurt.
He turned away from me.
"It was just a joke," he said sullenly.
I coughed again and again, trying to clear my throat. By that evening it would be so bruised I would barely be able to swallow. I rolled onto my side, and then onto my knees.
There was banging on the door.
"Dr. Quinzel? Everything all right? Thought we heard something."
I laughed again. The thick steel had muffled everything that had just taken place.
I pulled myself to my feet using the edge of the table. I was shaking badly, but managed to get to my chair and sit down.
"Everything's fine," I croaked. "Just knocked something over, is all."
Never mind that there wasn't anything in the room to knock over, except me.
I looked at Joker again. He still had his back to me, like a cross child whose game had been spoiled.
I thought about apologizing for laughing. I decided not to.
He finally turned his head and looked at me, really looked at me.
His eyes narrowed as if he wasn't certain what he was looking at, or he hadn't decided whether or nor he liked what he saw.
I tidied up the pads of paper and folded my arms on the table.
It wasn't an auspicious beginning, but I'd take it.
"Shall we begin again, Mr. Joker?"
He stared at me for another second or two. Then he threw back his head and laughed, loudly and, I think, genuinely. He sat down again in his own chair and imitated my posture, also folding his arms.
"Fine, Harley Quinn. Let's begin again."
And we did.