A/N: I am exhausted. But I have finished. This is complete. It gets fairly weird (I think) towards the end, because my metaphors and similes got away from me, but I accept this for what it is. As far as pairings go there is much innuendo on the behalf of Joker/Batman (more one-sided), some Harley/Joker, some Joker/Crane (which is what started this whole thing), and a little subtle Crane/Harley (which I like more and more as I write it). Enjoy! And Cat (slantedwonders), you're buying me a frozen caramel at Panera tomorrow.

Disclaimer: In the few hours since I posted the first chapter I have magically bought the rights to the entire Batman franchise. (sarcasm)

II.

Experimentation

Crane nearly jumps out of his skin when there is a soft sound behind him. He whirls around, finger hovering over the dispenser for his fear toxin. One touch of a button and an intruder would be screaming on the ground. He almost presses the button out of instinct when he sees the outline of the man standing in his ratty apartment, but when he recognizes the features he pulls his hand back.

He stares at the Joker, who looks around the apartment with a look of amused interest, that crazed grin bursting on his face. His heart is racing, first from the shock of the intruder, now from the rush of fear that comes with close proximity to this man. He has never been in the same room as the clown with no boundaries between them; their interactions have always taken place within the confines of a cell, with barriers separating them. Even then their interactions were tense and high-strung; the Joker is an unpredictable element of chaos, and Crane almost shudders to think of what might occur now.

"How did you get in here?" He asks, pleased to find that his voice is even and smooth.

The Joker's gaze stops shifting around the room and settles on him. A shiver runs down his back, because it's as though he's staring into the face of death's incarnation. The clown nods his head towards the balcony window, which is wide open.

"I heard our little straw-man made a disappearing act. Poof!" What is most unsettling about conversing with the Joker is the way he speaks. He speaks in the manner of a child, full of enthusiasm and excitement, drawing out words and enunciating in an up and down manner that gives to an animated dictation. Yet there's always that undertone of danger, a current of unpredictability, leaving one without accurate assessment of the man's mood.

"I escaped from Arkham, yes." He says, keeping his tone neutral.

The Joker's eyes—they're green, Crane notes, though a subdued, muddy variation of the color—glitter with what he hopes is amusement. Though, with the Joker, amusement is just as dangerous as other emotions, if not more. "Told ya the world could use a little more mad-ness, didn't I?" He seems oh-so pleased with himself, and Crane feels irrationally irritated.

"My escape had nothing to do with your words or your own escape," he begins to protest.

He cuts off when the Joker throws back his head and lets out a trill of high-pitched laughter. Crane presses his lips together and stares. When the laughter dies off the Joker is grinning, oh is he grinning.

"A'course not, Doctor Scare-crow-man." He rolls the 'r's in the word scarecrow, drawing it out like a purr. "A'course not." He chuckles, as though those words are an inside joke that only he knows.

Crane folds his arms. "Why are you here, Joker?"

The Joker takes a step forward and he automatically flinches. It's a reflex, trained into him through his little exposure to the clown and his own paranoid instincts. He sees the glow of pleasure in the Joker's eyes; the man derives pleasure from seeing fear. Much like himself, actually. Although, his pleasure is gained from a purely scientific standpoint.

Ah, Dr. Crane and his denials.

"Methinks that the scare-crow has been watching."

He freezes. His brain shuts off, refusing to provide him with an explanation or a denial, leaving him standing there, gaping, scrambling for some excuse. His hand creeps over to the toxin dispenser button, because he's sure that the Joker will launch at him any second now. He's sure that he'll die with that leering red and white grin bearing down upon him.

But the Joker just grins and grins. Then he turns and walks towards the balcony, stopping only when he reaches the railing, then turning halfway. "Come in next time, Scarecrow. We can play a little game."

Then the clown jumps over the balcony and falls out of sight. Crane doesn't bother to rush to the window; he knows perfectly well that the Joker has some trick up his sleeve, some way of saving himself, some way of causing chaos. Sure enough, a few minutes later there is the sound of an explosion and the apartment shudders a little.

As he leans against the wall, eyes staring blindly at a water stain on the ceiling, he thinks that he can hear the fading sounds of laughter.

He wonders what kind of games the Joker has in mind.

_____

Despite the Joker's…ahem, invitation, he remains outside, watching from the shadows. He's a scientist, an observer, not a participant. The next time he interacts with the Joker he wants it to be on his terms. (And he knows that is impossible, which is why he's still out here, lurking out of sight.)

Poor Harley gets tossed unceremoniously out of the building again. Crane can't quite tell what she did to piss the Joker off this time—although, quite honestly it could have been something as simple as breathing a little too loudly—but she lands hard on the ground, and when she stumbles to her feet her arm wraps around her midsection. The white paint that covers her face is smudged, as though fingers have been dragged forcefully across her cheek, which is probably true. There are tears running down her cheeks, cutting tracks through the white and pulling black lines of mascara down, as though the black mask is melting on her face. She glances over her shoulder at the door, staring for a long moment. He hears a choked sob, and a mutter of something—"Last time, Harley, this is the last time"—and then she stumbles away.

He watches her go, and for half a moment he contemplates going after her. He wants to touch her cheek, place his fingers gently where those smears are, run his thumb across the curve of her cheekbones; he wants to bring her into her arms. And then he wonders where in the hell that compassionate compulsion came from. Perhaps it's the vulnerability that she presents, which is so different from the rest of this shadowy world they exist in. Perhaps it's that he recognizes himself in her, in the person so drawn to madness that she—he—becomes it.

He takes one hesitating step in the direction that she has gone, and then the explosion of sound from within the building draws him back. There's a bang and a growl and the shrill sound of the Joker's laughter; Crane races back to the window and peers through the dirty pane and his heart races. The Batman is right there, a form of fluid moving shadow that crouches on the ground and then moves to a standing position. The Joker is still laughing, is laughing so hard, in fact, that he's holding onto the table in order to keep from falling over. And then his lips move, but the sound is muffled; the laughter is so clear through the glass and wall that separates, but the words are too muffled to be heard clearly.

He has to get in there. Forget all of his reservations about entering the building; there is no force on earth that will keep him from being able to hear the conversation between the Joker and the Batman. He will get in there. He has to.

By the time he does get in there he knows that he's missed something. Something vital, something of terrible power, some word, some look; the air is charged, like there is a thunderstorm hovering in the atmosphere of the room. There's murder in the Batman's eyes; Crane can see it even though those eyes are shadowed within the mask that the man hides behind, and he recoils at it. He's seen anger in the Batman's eyes before; he's seen anger and righteousness and something primal and dark, a good old touch of madness, but he's never seen this pure desire to destroy. He recognizes it though. It's the look that haunts the back of the Joker's green eyes, never ceasing. And this, he realizes, is the power of the Joker, the power to bring this man—the Batman—to the brink, to the edge, the point that he so struggles to stay away from.

"'Course, Batsy didn't kill Harvey. He couldn't have. That's one of his rules. Oh, but he'll break it, before the end. He's no different from us, Batsy, just as soon as he gets past that stubborn little rule of his. And he will, oh he will." He remembers the Joker's words, remembers them and shudders to see the look in the vigilante's eyes, and to know that the Joker just might achieve his goal….

The Joker grins, broad and wide, showing all his teeth. He tilts his head to the side a bit and grins, grins, grins. "Well, Batsy? It's your move, sweetheart."

Apparently the word 'sweetheart' is the key to making the Bat absolutely snap. The black-armored vigilante flies at the Joker, all force and fury and Crane is fascinated. For a moment he's frozen in the shadows, just watching, because he literally cannot move. It's like being witness to a battle of nature, like watching a war between a tornado and a volcano. Joker is the whirling black funnel cloud of chaos and fury, while Batman is the volcano, the earth-shattering force lying deep underground, that when it erupts it tears the world asunder. He knows, instinctively, that anyone caught in the crossfire of their feud will suffer a fate worse than death.

And yet, when the Batman knocks the knife—which appeared from the folds of that purple velvet suit, and there are probably more sharp edges hidden in every soft crease—from the Joker's hand and then knocks the clown backwards, bearing over the man with those dark hands coming to clasp around that white-painted neck…Crane is terrified. Terrified for the Joker, terrified that this is the moment where the Batman tumbles over into the abyss and snaps the Joker's neck and becomes exactly what the clown wants him to be.

The Joker isn't laughing now, because those hands are cutting off his air supply, but he's trying to. Even from across the room Crane can see that mad amusement flickering. And the Batman just bears down, like molten lava sliding over the sides of a mountain towards the inevitable goal of the sleepy little town. There's nothing in his eyes—which are so dark, like the depths of his (their) soul—that says he's about to let go, nothing that says he remembers those rules (silly little rules, the Joker would say) of his.

Crane stands in the shadows and fears—knows—that he's about to see the volcano open up and swallow the tornado whole. He's about to see the earth shatter open and consume the air; he's about to see the world destroy itself.

He can't let that happen.

Dr. Jonathan Crane is not a hero. This is quite obvious given his penchant for torture, pain, and the occasional murder. So one can certainly say that Crane is not a hero, but one cannot claim he is completely without his moments of foolish bravery. And he's full of foolish bravery when he launches himself out of the shadows towards the Batman. He knows perfectly well that he's no match for the Bat in physical prowess, and the man is immune to his original fear toxin. But he does have a few more tricks up his sleeves.

And as he throws his arms around the Bat's neck he punches the button for one such trick.

The stream of highly compressed gas goes straight into the Batman's face. The man's hands fly up to hit Crane, who holds on firmly. The vigilante chokes, then stiffens and slumps to the side, sending Crane tumbling off, hands sliding on the black plated armor. Beneath them both the Joker shifts, not laughing, ominously silent in fact. Crane scrambles away and the Joker extracts himself from beneath the Batman, and as Crane turns he finds that it's his turn for hands to latch around his neck and squeeze.

Any fear the Joker has inspired in him before pales in comparison to now. Up close the white paint is cracking and he can see the pale peachy flesh underneath; the scars are curling and raised and the absurd red paint makes it seem as though the wounds are perpetually bleeding. The Joker's eyes are so dark, not in a physical sense of color but in the depth of what he finds there. And the anger takes his breath away…although that might also be from the hands which are literally choking the life out of him.

"What did you do?" The Joker hisses.

"I-It's sleeping gas. Just unconscious," he manages to gasp out. "Wake in ten mi-minutes."

The Joker's hands relax, still resting on his neck but not choking anymore. He shivers, too aware of the heat—the Joker's skin seems hotter than a normal human, hot like a fever—and of the rough calluses on his palms and of the blunt, rounded tips of those yellowed fingernails. The clown presses close to his face, and Crane is transported through memory back to when those red lips pressed through the bars of the cell and crushed against his. "Next time," the clown says, "don't interfere."

There is the sound of the door opening and they turn automatically towards the entrance. "Hey, I heard banging, what's going on—?" Harley Quinn pauses in the doorway when she sees them, and Crane has an automatic image of what she probably sees: the Joker with his hands resting on Crane's neck, their faces close together, Batman unconscious at their feet. A hysterical giggle bubbles up in his throat, but he squashes it down. Harley frowns, her eyes showing suspicion as they flicker over him, then lighting up when they turn to the Joker. "Aw, puddin'! Now why wasn't I invited t' the festivities?"

The Joker pulls away and Crane finds that he can breathe again, his lungs inflating and the pain that he hadn't even noticed easing. He's sure that there will be a ring of fingerprint shaped bruises around his neck, tangible evidence of the Joker's mark on him.

"Harley, darling," the Joker purrs, and Crane sees her melt a little. "The Batman decided to crash our little party, and the Scarecrow decided he didn't want to miss out on the fun either. Fetch me some rope, won't you, dear?" She bobs her head and runs off to find the rope, and the clown turns back to him. "Here for the games, are you Scare-crow?" And then he grins, all of his anger gone as quickly as a child's temper tantrum fades. "You won't be disappointed."

_____

Harley delivers a coil of rope which the Joker—grinning, giggling like some demented version of a school girl—wraps around the Batman, tying the vigilante to a chair. She and Crane had helped to lift the Batman into the chair—he had seen Harley's fingers twitch towards the man's mask, the quick desire to know who is under there—and then they are banished. They aren't allowed to participate in the bondage; the Joker gives them a clear look that should they even think of touching the Batman he'll shove a bomb right down their throats, and so they retreat. He finds himself standing next to the black and red costumed woman, their shoulders almost brushing. She glances at him while the Joker skips around the Batman, stringing the rope around and around.

"You're Jonathan Crane. I remember you, from Arkham."

He nods. "And you, Harleen Quinzel."

She jerks her head to the side. "Don't say that name, not around him."

He turns his head and looks her over. "Alright, then, Harley Quinn." He says her name slow, drawing it out, though he's not sure why he says it that way. She smiles a little.

"All done!" The Joker proclaims, tying the knots in the rope tightly. He says it with the proud accomplishment of a boy scout who has just earned his newest merit badge. Crane and Harley jerk apart, putting distance between themselves as they walk towards the clown. And then the Joker plops himself down on the Batman's lap, sprawling himself over the man like a child settling himself on Santa's lap. The Joker now seems less like a force of nature and more like a perverse child, delighting in his newest toy. Harley's jaw clenches and Crane feels his stomach lurch, and wonders at it.

"How long 'till Batsy wakes, eh Dr. Scarecrow?"

"Any minute now," he says. He reaches into the folds of his suit and pulls out his mask, slipping it over his head. He craves the safety of his alter ego now, when the volcano begins to wake. The Joker giggles and runs his hands over the armor covering the vigilante's chest. And like magic, the Batman begins to wake. The Batman groans low in his throat, then shakes his head from side to side as though dislodging an unwanted thought; his arms flex and when they meet the ropes his eyes fly open.

The shock in the Bat's eyes when he sees the Joker's grinning face so close to his own is almost comical.

"Getoffme!" The words have no separation between them, becoming one single word roared with a violent fury. The volcano is about to erupt. Crane takes a step backwards, and Harley flinches, but the Joker…no, he has no weak human reaction. He's a force as great as the Batman, and the sky is not afraid of the earth. The Joker wraps his arms around the man's neck, but his manner isn't hostile. It's almost…loving, if such a thing is possible.

"Oh c'mon Batsy, don't get your panties in a twist. Let's just have a little fun."

The Batman recoils, disgust plain on his face. His eyes flicker over the Joker's shoulder, landing on where he and Harley stand. A sneer crosses his lips as he stares at them. "Crane," he growls, and he shudders. No, he's not Crane right now; he's the Scarecrow. He's hiding in his mask, or perhaps…he's bringing out his true face. His eyes dart to Harley and his eyes are softer, almost sympathetic, though his voice is no softer. "And I see you've got your pet here."

Harley shifts, her eyes dangerous, tension in the lines of her body; he sees the beginning of motion, as though she is going to take a step forward and he lashes out, catching her arm. She looks at him, dark lips parting, and he shakes his head, a silent warning.

"It's a party, just for you," the Joker croons. He's not paying attention to anyone except the Batman. It's as though the rest of them don't exist, all of his concentration bent to the incarnation of both bat and man and shadow.

"Thanks," the Batman says, "but I'd rather we take the festivities elsewhere."

The Joker laughs. "Of course, Batsy! Why don't you whisk me away to your cave and do naughty things to me in the dark?" The clown bends in, red lips pressed into the hollow of the Bat's neck. "No one has to know," he says in a stage-whisper.

Crane frowns. It's almost as though he's purposely doing this just to try and evoke some kind of response from them as well as from the Bat. The Batman growls—it's the volcano rumbling, Crane thinks—and there's fire in his eyes. "I was thinking somewhere more like Arkham."

"By all means, Bats! Arkham would be delightful, if your there."

"This time I'll make sure you get put away for good."

The Joker pouts. "Now, now, Bat-man. Arkham's only fun if you're there too."

Crane sees the tense before the movement actually occurs, and in a flash—too fast to think—he knows what's going to happen. "Not today, Joker!" The Batman roars, and then it's as though he's growing spikes, black spikes that jut out of his armor and cut through the rope. With his arms free he sends the Joker sprawling. The clown hits the concrete and just laughs and laughs, while the rest of the world goes to hell.

Harley is screaming and the Joker has a knife in his hand—it flashes silver and deadly and seems like a spear of light as he thrusts it into the dark vortex that is the Batman—and Crane just stands there, unable to think, unable to breathe. He doesn't even know what happens, doesn't even comprehend; he blinks and finds that the Joker is slumped, unconscious in the Batman's arm and Harley is silent and it's as though the world has paused for a moment before stuttering on.

Harley moves to run towards the Batman—and towards her puddin'—but he catches her by the arm again, pulling her away. "Let me go!" She says, and he's not sure if it's a whisper or a scream. He shakes his head.

"We've got no chance against the Batman. Run, NOW." He pulls her along, stumbling as they race towards the door. He keeps expecting an avalanche of black to come rushing down on them, but it doesn't. At the door he dares to glance back over his shoulder, and instead of seeing the darkness right behind him he finds that the scene is virtually unchanged. The Batman pulls the rope from the chair and binds it around the Joker, but his eyes are looking towards them.

He lets them go. Crane knows this instinctively. He doesn't pause to wonder if it's because the Bat has forgiven him (fat chance) or because of that soft sympathy that was in his eyes when he looked at Harley or because he just doesn't feel like chasing them when he already has the big catch of the day. He thinks of these things later, but now he just runs, never loosening his grasp on Harley, afraid that if he does she might spin like a needle on a compass and run straight back towards the Joker (her North, because the needle always points north and Harley always runs back to the clown).

Blocks away he finally loosens his grip and she wrenches away from him, her eyes distraught behind that black mask and that white paint. "Why did you make me leave him?" She shouts. He leans against a wall and pulls the mask from his head and his lungs pull in the crisp, cool air.

"If I hadn't you'd be in a cell right next to the Joker."

"So?" She screeches. "Maybe that's where I want to be!"

He realizes, looking at her, that she's just a scared little girl wearing face paint and a funny red and black costume. She's completely lost without the Joker, because she doesn't really belong in this world. Not by herself, not now. In a few years, after she's been hardened by constant exposure to the clown, well then she'll fit in seamlessly. But not now. And she knows it. He sees it in her eyes, that primal fear of a trapped animal.

Well, everyone knows that Crane has a thing for fear.

So, when she stumbles towards him and folds into his arms—apparently seeing something in his eyes—he doesn't wonder why his arms close around her. She's scared and he's strong(-er) and he just wants to be a first-hand witness to her fear.

It's always science with Jonathan Crane.

That's why he pats her back and lets her hold him (he holds her back) and whispers to her: "We'll get him out."

After all, he can't very well observe his star subject if the man is in Arkham, now can he?

_____

Breaking into Arkham, it seems, is even easier than breaking out. Particularly when there are two of them. He and Harley work as a well-coordinated team. It's funny, really, how their minds work in such similar ways. Of course, they do share the same background in psychology. Getting into the insane asylum—especially when they both know the corridors so well—is a simple matter. They take out the guards they need to and then they're both standing outside of the Joker's cell.

Harley flutters her eyes and wraps a hand around one of the bars and purrs: "Well hey there, puddin'."

The Joker jumps to his feet and grins wide. They burst the lock open—a localized miniature explosion does the trick—and the Joker bursts out. He grabs Harley and swings her around and plants a big kiss right on her lips. And then, when she's leaning against the wall, cross-eyed and floating a million miles away, the man turns to him. He finds himself being pressed up against the wall, with fingernails grazing gently across his cheek, around the curve of his jaw, and then lips are against his and a tongue slips into his mouth and he knows exactly why Harley has that euphoric look on her face.

He's not sure that it's physically possible for his heart to keep racing that fast without faltering.

When he comes back to himself he finds Harley handing the Joker the red and white face-paint, and for a second time—like some kind of déjà vu—he witnesses the birth of chaos. Only this time, he's on the other side of the bars. He's on the outside. (Where he belongs, because he knows now.)

They make their escape, and this time there is no hesitation. He follows the Joker and Harley, because he is bound now.

This is more than simple science. He's not sure what it is, but he's going to find out. He has to know. He's standing beneath an open sky; arms spread wide, and now the only question is whether the wind will carry him away or the earth will swallow him whole.

He hopes that it's the wind.


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