Doctor Joan Leland folded her hands in her lap to disguise her disquiet and looked with a veneer of calm at the newly committed patient sitting strait-jacketed opposite her.
"Doctor Quinzel," Leland was practiced at speaking in a clear and steady voice no matter what horror was before her. But even she could not fully suppress the tremor in her words as she spoke the name. "I want to help you."
Her new patient poked her tongue out and stuck her nose up in the air. "This kinda help I can do without! My nose is itchin'!"
Leland stayed silent for a moment, not missing the way her patient's voice had become higher in pitch, accessorised by messy blonde pigtails and hummed nursery rhymes.
"You hurt Doctor Andrews very badly," she pointed out steadily, then calmly picked up the nearby glass of water and took a slow sip. Her throat was becoming dry and she didn't trust her voice not to crack with her next words. "We had to restrain you in case you attacked someone else."
Her patient rolled her blue eyes exaggeratedly. "It was just a joke," she said in exasperation and Leland's nails dug into her palms.
She could not help the girl by becoming emotional.
And she truly did want to help her.
"Doctor Quinzel," and now there was an unmistakable trace of sadness in Leland's voice as she spoke the title, remembering that not so long ago this woman had been a colleague, a promising young psychologist determined to blaze a trail of glory. "Harley – " her voice softened and now her patient seemed to stir, shifting her clear, childish gaze onto the older woman's face. "We were friends before this, remember?" Her patient blinked and shifted a little, the corner of her mouth edging up in smile tinged with the friendship of old. "I want to help you. I want to help you get better."
Something angry flickered in Harley's blue eyes and she was gone again, the little smile replaced with a pout.
"I am better. I'm better than I've ever been in my whole darned life! I don't need no fixin'!"
Her voice pitched upwards, fringed with hysteria and Leland moved quickly to defuse the mounting tantrum.
"So you feel you shouldn't be here then, Harley?" she questioned her gently and Harley stopped wiggling about to ponder the question.
"He's in here, isn't he?" Harley answered in a small, reverent voice, her eyes rolling up to the ceiling. Her face become suddenly illuminated, as though infused with light, the passion in her eyes unmistakeable. They held the gleam of religious fervour and Leland suddenly realised it was far, far worse than any of them had anticipated. "They got him too, right? I'm supposed to be anywhere he is. I've gotta be. But – " and her voice sharpened, her eyes snapping onto Leland once more. " – I ain't sick."
Leland nodded, holding Harley's gaze as the girl pouted determinedly at her. She let the silence grow for a moment, taking it as an opportunity to process the intensity of what had just appeared on Harley's face when she spoke of the Joker. The last time she'd seen it's like had been on the face of a man who had ritually gassed a hundred small children rather than subject them to the horrors of a cruel world. He claimed he had been charged by God to do so and spoke with zeal on his holy mission.
"Doctor Quinzel," Leland used the title again, in waning hope it might filter through the girl's clouded psyche. "I want to understand, but I need your help. Couldn't you please tell me how it began?"
Yes, how, her mind screamed behind the calm wall of her face. How, in God's name, did we let this happen to you? How could I not have seen what was going on? How did that monster corrupt you like this?
Harley stared at her, chewing on her lower lip before suddenly sitting up straight and smiling, a beaming smile that transformed her merely-pretty face into something splendid.
"Of course I will, Joan!" Harley sounded ecstatic, truly delighted to be invited to share and unconsciously, Leland leant forward in her chair, her brow creasing in distressed anticipation.
"I've often wondered this myself," Harley continued, as though they were simply having a conversation over coffee in the staff kitchen. "Tried to pinpoint the exact moment the magic began. And I think I figured it out. It all started – " and Harley's smile grew as her eyes grew misty with recollection. " – on the monkey bars."
Leland blinked and sat back, confused. "Pardon me?"
"The monkey bars!" Harley repeated excitedly. "When I was five," she suddenly shucked a shoulder, tiling her head down. "I didn't get a whole lot of attention growin' up," she confessed softly, then lifted her head and plunging on. "But this one time my Aunt took me to the park and there were these girls there on the monkey bars, hangin' from one leg and swinging side to side and everyone was lookin' at them. Everyone. Even my Aunt. And I figured – I figured I'd give it a try, you know? I figured even if I couldn't do it, I'd fall off and then someone would notice, right?"
Leland was listening with a still expression on her face, her lips softly parted, not understanding where her patient was going.
"Well, I didn't fall off," Harley continued. "I hung there just as neat as you please and it was – it was kinda easy you know? And I liked it – liked being upside down with all that blood rushing into my head. And then these other kids mom was talking to my Aunt and asking who my coach was."
Harley paused, her face growing bright and wondering. "Next thing I knew, I was going to gymnastics after school every day, five days a week." She giggled and squeezed her eyes shut, wiggling about. "I remember it like it was yesterday. All red and white with the biggest trampolines I ever seen and girls swinging round and round thin little poles like they could fly. And I watched them and knew it was what I wanted to do more than anythin'."
Leland recalled a detail from her patient's file: her admission to Gotham University had been on a gymnastics scholarship. But Harley had never mentioned the sport the whole two years she'd been working at Arkham.
"It wasn't long," Harley continued her story, "before they were talkin' about the Olympics." She said the words matter-of-factly, no trace of conceit. But then she sat back and smiled up toward the ceiling, a dreamy look misting her features. "And I knew I could bring home gold. But just in case, I trained harder than ever. Extra hours. Weekends too."
Leland had seen that same compulsive focus and commitment in Harley's approach to the Joker case. Working back day after day, growing thinner and more distracted, the Monday morning stories of her weekends spent with friends gradually growing less then stopping altogether. Leland had noticed straight away that Doctor Quinzel was immature and unsophisticated in her theories, a strange contradiction to her soaring grades – but she'd recognised in that frightening dedication the capacity to succeed in whatever it was Doctor Quinzel intended. How could she worry about the girl's ambition when she herself knew not just the barriers against women, but women of colour? So she hadn't let herself worry.
What a mistake.
"But then I busted my knee," Harley sighed and shifted in her chair, tucking her legs up underneath her, jerking her arms about in the confines of the straitjacket. "And there went a whole year. And when I got back, Coach said I wasn't up to Olympics no more. I just never was quite the same."
Leland thought she saw a glimmer of regret in those glassy blue eyes and knew suddenly what it must've felt like to watch as those hours and hours of pain and training and sacrifice go rushing away from her, all of her dreams and her hopes snatched away. It had probably felt much the same as it had when after spending countless hours in research and study, turning her back on a social life, devoting every free minute to pushing and promoting herself, Leland had been told time and again she didn't have the "right background" anytime she applied for a position higher than 'Treating Psychologist'.
But then it was gone and Harley was smiling again, a secretive little smile as she drew her knees up to her chest and rested her chin on them, suddenly appearing to be no more than a child.
"I was seein' a shrink to help me process the disappointment," how casually she spoke of it, like none of it had mattered when she couldn't have been anything but profoundly disturbed by the tragedy. "'Cos that's all I'd ever done, you know, was be a jock and now I didn't know what I could do. I mean, I hadn't been studyin' so hard, you know?"
Leland nodded, felt her forehead crease in sympathy.
"And this shrink had all these framed certificates on the wall and she'd published all these books and everyone called her Doctor – " Harley's eyes were shining once more and she was gazing off across the room, enraptured in her childish impressions. " – and everyone listened to her, you know when she said somethin' people would stop and be quiet and listen and she was so respected. People thought she was just somethin'. And all those certificates kinda reminded me of my trophy shelf. And I figured I could be a Doctor."
Harley paused for a moment then stretched her legs out in front of her, spreading all ten toes and arching her back. "Course I didn't have the grades. But even though I wasn't Olympic level no more, I still wasn't too shabby. I got my scholarship and I went to uni." She paused and finally snapped her eyes back onto Leland, smiling proudly.
Leland nodded softly, knew better than to engage directly with the history. "What happened after that, Harley?" she queried and Harley pouted.
"You're not calling me Doctor Quinzel no more," she sniffed and Leland regarded her thoughtfully.
"When we worked together I called you Harley," she pointed out, not mentioning it had been at the girl's request – she might interpret that as accusatory. "Would you prefer me to call you Doctor Quinzel?"
Harley shrugged, thin shoulders lifting beneath the thick canvas of the straitjacket. "Nah, it's okay. Everyone's always called me Harley." She sighed, then continued. "Thing about Gotham is it's like no place else on earth, what with the special cases we got here. There were lots of classes about them. Lots of books and studies and essays and stuff. I mean, I knew as much as anyone did about them but those classes got me thinkin'. Everyone noticed those guys, in their bright costumes and their funny little tricks and their obsessive, fixated little minds," Harley was giggling as though she thought it was all very silly, seeming to have forgotten the fact she'd been stripped of a red and black clown costume when she'd been admitted, begging them not to take her away from her "Puddin'". She stopped giggling abruptly and became thoughtful, chewing on her bottom lip and staring blankly into her lap. "They were so – so glamorous. Like celebrities, really. Everyone knows their names."
She snapped her eyes back onto Leland, her gaze suddenly disturbingly intent, her eyes seeming to grow larger and larger until they consumed her face. "If I'd won Olympic gold, I would've been written in the history books," she whispered fiercely. "And everyone would've known my name."
A vivid portrait was beginning to form out of Harley's words and Leland felt a sinking sensation begin about the place where her heart beat, steadily dropping to her gut.
Harley shook her head briskly and sat up straight again. "That's when I got the idea. The idea that would make me famous. Get me respect." She paused once more and Leland waited with parted lips.
But Harley said nothing, just stared at the bookshelf that lined one wall of Leland's office.
"What idea was that, Harley?" Leland prompted gently.
Harley did not answer for a moment, and when she did her voice was quiet. "I studied, you know. It wasn't easy for me, but I did study. Maybe not enough, but I did. I didn't know – " her voice trailed off and Leland waited, body tensed. " – I didn't know it would be so – so much. I had a deal with one of the girls in my class. She would tutor me and I'd train her in gymnastics. But I never could get it and she never was able to hold a handstand. But I think she was top of the class."
Leland blinked. "You were top of the class, Harley."
Harley darted her gaze back to Leland contemplatively. "Yeah," she said after a moment, as though she'd just remembered. "You see, I had to come here. The whole idea depended on me being able to come here. So it was a no-brainer in the end. I just did what I had to do."
Leland felt her eyebrows pucker together in a little frown of confusion. "Are you saying you cheated, Harley?" she kept her voice calm and non-accustory and was slightly unsettled by the glimmer of amusement in Harley's gaze.
"Yeah," Harley said after a moment. "Yeah, I guess I did."
"What was your idea, Harley?" Leland asked her evenly whilst within pieces were dropping quickly into place. She'd noticed – the awkwardness, the fumbling, the seeming difficulty at grasping certain concepts. But Arkham was starved for staff and someone with her grades, well – Leland had just put it down to inexperience and nerves.
Harley tittered a little, rested her head against the back of the chair. "These famous super-criminals," she mused, "people just couldn't get enough of them. All the books and television shows, all the media frenzy any time any of them escaped. I knew if I could get inside – could get their trust and then get all the hidden little stories no one else knew, I could make my name."
Leland bowed her head. Harley seemed not to notice.
"I'd be famous after all," Harley confided. "And people would respect me because I would be the Doctor who got into the minds of the most famous, most glamorous criminals in all the world. And when I first saw him, I knew he'd be the key. He'd unlock every door that had ever been shut on me. The most famous and mysterious of them all. The big kahuna. If I got his secrets, I'd be made for life."
"Oh, Harley…" Leland's voice was barely a whisper in the still office, her gaze fixed on her lap, watching her hands entwine with each other over and over again.
The silence between them grew and Leland waited for the rest of the story, the full profundity of her neglect dragging her shoulders further and further down. She should've protested more when Arkham gave her the Joker case. Should've been more vigilant in debriefing their sessions. Should've probed more when Harley had started withdrawing. She'd failed the girl, and the consequences – the consequences were one more contribution to the city's growing gallery of lost souls.
The moments dragged past and still Harley said no more. Finally, Leland lifted her face and stared at the girl and Harley chuckled and shrugged her shoulders.
"So – here I am," she finished.
Leland's eyes narrowed a little, she tilted her head. "But what about after that, Harley? You've described to me what brought you to Arkham but you haven't yet told me how – you came to – be seduced by the Joker. " She had almost said how the Joker broke your mind.
Harley's eyes widened slowly, growing bigger and bigger before she abruptly burst out laughing, staring at Leland in disbelief.
"Are you serious? Do you really not get it?" she giggled and Leland drew in a calming breath before responding.
"Explain it to me, Harley" she requested.
Harley shook her head and sighed, then smiled gently at Leland. "Don't you see? My whole life was leading up to this. Up to Him. Everything that happened was all to bring me here. To him. I was never meant to go to the Olympics or write some dumb book. That was just – a path, I guess. The road I had to skip down in order to find him at the end of it. And with him I found everything else – everything else I've ever wanted."
Leland was unaware she was staring at Harley in mute distress until Harley chuckled again and sat forward, leaning towards Leland with zeal transfixing her face.
"He's what I've been waitin' for, my whole life. All that other stuff needed to happen just to bring us together, but it's not what it's all about. He is. He's – he's – everything. He's everything and I'm his," Harley's voice was fervent with passion, seeming to savour every word that came from her mouth. "Completely. He's my purpose. He's my glory. He's my love and my life and there's nothing else. Nothing else anymore and no need for anything else ever again."
Leland found she was speechless, staring at Harley as she became fully aware that the task she faced ahead was hopeless and the Joker had claimed another victim.
And that this one had been willing.
"I think that's enough for the day, Harley," Leland's voice was hoarse but she disregarded it, shuffling her notes together, unable to look at her patient any longer, her heart thudding hollowly in her chest. "I'll ring for the guards to take you back to your cell.
"They'll write books about me, won't they," Harley said dreamily, head tipped back against the couch, eyes glazed. "About us. About our love. There's never been anything like our love. I'll be in the history books as the Joker's girl. No one else understands what it takes. I'm made for life now. No one will ever forget me. He chose me. He told me his secrets because I'm different. I'm special. I'm like him. I got his secrets now, but you know what? I'll never tell anyone. Anyone." Her voice had dropped to a fierce whisper. "They're mine and I'm his. Folks can ask, but I won't tell."
Leland found herself asking the question before she could stop, not wanting to know the answer but needing to know it anyway even as her stomach twisted with nausea: "What will you tell them, Harley?"
Harley blinked and slid ardent eyes onto her new Doctor, her face lit with a fanatical glow. When she spoke her voice was clear and unhalting, fired with the faith of the zealot.
"I'll tell them I was made for him. I'll tell them I did it all for him. And I'm not sorry," a strange, wondering little smile slid up Harley's face and her eyes misted as she said her final words:
"It was my destiny."
NaNoWriMo is gonna make you guys extremely sick of me. I pumped out six fics this week but I'm trying to pace the release of them so as not to wear down your generosity and patience. Should I wait a bit longer before releasing them? The end of NaNo is going to see me with a huge body of JxHQ fics, you see!
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this one. Please let me know what you think, I always value your thoughts and crits. Thank you!