Summary: "The scars were terrible, Harley, and I mean no disrespect to you by saying it, but when we saw them we all knew he'd come for revenge that night, come looking for a way to call in the debt he thought you were owed." JxH, Circus themed origin story.
Rating: M for violence, bloodshed, multiple murders, and swearing.
Quick Notes: Just to preemptively clear up some confusion, this story takes place shortly after the events of The Dark Knight. Also, it falls within the murky lines of an AU. (I say murky only because it's a little hard to make such distinctions when The Dark Knight: 1. Didn't give The Joker a past, and 2. Didn't introduce Harley Quinn as a character.) Yes, the circus thing is clichéd, but I'd like to have my turn anyway; sometimes clichés can be fun. (Also, I don't jive with the ever popular "Red Hood meets a vat of chemicals" origin stories, which I don't think would have been feasible in the Nolan-verse anyway, so this was my stab at eliminating that step from the equation.)
This story touches on a lot of sensitive issues like mental health, discrimination in the workplace, addiction, and murder. If you are bothered by these subjects, then this might not be the story for you.
For those of you who have read my previous Dark Knight stories, you know I like to favor a Joker-mash up between Mark Hamill's voice acting and Heath Ledger's performance. For this story, however, I tried to stay more within The Dark Knight characterization—this is, after all, an origin story.
Whatever Doesn't Kill You
"My darling Miria, I could not love you more than I do this very moment," a sandy haired man murmured, gazing down in adoration at the blonde woman in his arms.
The woman wilted in despair, breaking away from her lover. "My father will never allow us to be together, Isaac!"
He puffed up, dramatically saying, "Then let's run away together!"
"They'd find us, my love," she whispered sadly.
"Oh, for the love of god," Harleen groused at the Shakespearean-inspired melodrama unfolding on her television, "just kill yourselves already! At least that would put the audience out of its misery."
"Then I suppose we were doomed to fail from the very start," the man wailed.
"You think you've got it bad?" Harleen asked the screen. "Who's got it worse: the dopey couple stuck in a tragic love, or the people stuck on the other side of the television who have to watch the tragedy?" She huffed, bouncing on her threadbare sofa. "Do you have any idea how depressing it is to realize you've got nothing better to do with your life than sit around watching cheesy soaps?"
It was really time that she faced the facts: if she was arguing with her television, her life wasn't depressing, it was in shambles. Not long ago, she had been Harley Quinn: Acrobat Extraordinaire, a bright and promising talent at the Gotham City Circus, but now she was just Harleen Quinzel, a scared and scarred woman who was hiding from the world. Her life had gone from a brilliant Technicolor production to drab gray monotony in the blink of an eye.
Well, no, that wasn't entirely true. She was away from the flash and sparkle of the circus, but there was still one small part of her life that throbbed a violent red. Whenever she saw The Joker's twisted smile stretch across her television screen, the gray haze of her daily existence seemed to fade away, replaced by tenderness and pain and so many other conflicting emotions. The problem was that she knew him; not in the sense that other Gothamites knew The Joker, but that she knew him—knew his favorite foods, his favorite movies, knew his name. And guilt burned at her for it; she wanted to hate him the same way everyone else did, she wanted to see him as a monster, but every time she saw his face she could still see the man that he had been. Her sweet Jack Napier—coworker and friend—was on a psychotic rampage and she couldn't help but wonder if it was her fault.
More than once she'd tried to approach the police with information—The Joker hadn't sprung up out of nowhere, and maybe he would be easier to catch if they knew that—but The Incident hung heavy on her mind. She'd already lead to Jack's downfall once, she couldn't do it again. And she wasn't the only one keeping her silence; as far as she knew, no one from the circus had stepped forward. Maybe they all felt guilty. In some ways, she knew that they had all tried to pick their lives back up after The Incident, but were waiting for Jack to show up one night, ready to collect the debts he felt were owed to him.
And that was the problem, wasn't it? She owed Jack more than anyone, but did she owe him blood or…?
Her eyes darted to the low coffee table in front of her couch. There was a small package lying on the worn surface; it was flat, thin, and completely unopened. She'd nearly cried when she had noticed that it was addressed in Jack's writing—it was like seeing a ghost before her very eyes—and she'd thrown it onto the table in a fit of nerves. It had remain there ever since, mocking her weakness, tempting her to look inside. Nearly a year had drudged by since she'd last heard from Jack, since anyone had heard from Jack, and the package beckoned her like a lighthouse to a storm-tossed ship.
Her fingers closed around the box, playing with the edges of the tape. She worried about the contents—who wouldn't after everything that had been in the news?—but, after two weeks of wondering, her curiosity finally won out. The tape came off in one quick pull, the flaps of the box springing open to reveal a book.
A book? She'd spent two weeks worrying that he'd sent her a bomb or a severed limb, and it had been a book the whole time? It was so anticlimactic that Harleen almost forgot to be relieved it hadn't been anything terrible.
A brown, leather-bound journal nestled on a bed of brightly colored paper, the scent of greasepaint and machine oil clinging heavily to the cover. It was the scent of the circus, the scent of Jack, and suddenly Harleen felt like she was back under the blinding lights, performing one gravity-defying trick after another, like she was cruising on that familiar adrenaline high. Like she wasn't damaged. It was strange how something so insignificant as a smell could take her back through time, pull her away from weeks and months of hopelessness and bring her back to a time when the world had been at her fingertips.
Carefully, she picked up the journal, so lost in her own thoughts that she almost didn't notice the note that had hidden beneath it. 'I'm dead,' it began without preamble. Harleen frowned. Jack had never been particularly tactful, but that was just a downright strange way to start a letter, not to mention untrue. She'd seen another one of his horrible videos on the news that morning, hadn't she? He couldn't be dead if he was still threatening the city at large. With that thought in mind, she continued to read. 'I can't imagine this falling into your hands for any other reason, so it must be true. You were the one who convinced me to write this journal in the first place, so it's only fitting that you should get to read it once I'm gone.' An inkblot marred the page, creating a tangible pause and, when the writing continued once more, it was different, sloppier and erratic. 'You're probably sitting in that broken-down apartment of yours, wondering what happened. Allow me to fill in the blanks. Our story begins, as these stories often do, with an innocent piece of advice.'
Harleen set the note to the side, gingerly picked up the journal, and settled onto her couch for a long read.
Diaries are peculiarly feminine, so when a friend, who happens to be a woman, suggests that you start to keep a diary, it is simultaneously an affront to your masculinity, and endearing because she doesn't know any better. "Fine, a journal then," she suggested, as though there were any difference. "You can pretend it's a captain's log, or something equally manly."
I was inclined to keep arguing against it—pouring out my thoughts and feelings to a book seems a little too 'I'm a twelve year old' for me—but she had a point: I needed some outlet for my stress and, trust me, I've been under a lot of stress lately. And most of it, ironically, is because of her.
By now you're probably wondering who 'she' is—although maybe not, because you're an inanimate object. (That's another problem I have with this whole business: when I say 'you' just who the hell am I talking to?) Anyway, 'she' is Harley Quinn, the whipcord Queen of the Spanish Web. I've never seen an acrobat quite like her: lean and pretty and talented. She can flip a trick that would make Olympic gymnasts green with envy. She's also a coworker and my best friend, which makes things pretty awkward because—let's face it—I love her. Most people wouldn't consider that a bad thing—romantic interests are healthy, after all—but loving Harley is a painful affair. The problem is, to her I'm Just Jack: the guy she spends all her time with, but might as well be her brother for all the sexual interest she expresses in me. I've made the classic mistake of getting to know a woman too well before expressing interest, and now we're stuck firmly in the 'good friends' phase. And why not—it's fitting really. After all, what would a blonde sweetheart like her see in a sarcastic, cynical average Joe?
How quickly I devolve into a twelve year old! Less than a page into this venture and I'm already spinning a tale of tragedy. Let's start this over, and do it properly this time.
When I say 'you' I suppose I am writing to the spirit of the journal, but that still doesn't sit well with me. I'm not writing to myself, because I already know my problems, and I don't like the idea of pouring out my thoughts and feeling to some unwitting recipient that I will never confront. So, I suppose, in the face of three options I do not care for, I will combine them into one, unfitting solution: I will write to myself, to an ambiguous 'you', and to specific people, however the mood strikes me.
I can't imagine that this endeavor will last particularly long; I'll grow bored with it sooner or later, Harley will stop asking about the journal eventually, and the whole project will fall by the wayside. But, in a show of good faith, I'll start this book in the tried-and-true method of self-introduction.
My name is Jack Napier and—I'm rolling my eyes as I write this—I'm a Jack-Of-All-Trades at the Gotham City Circus. Mostly, I juggle in the side rings, but I also perform card tricks before the show, and I have a knife-throwing act with Harley. I've become know as the Casual Clown among some of the other performers because, even though I wear the face paint, I've never been part of the clown routines; my talents have always clearly laid with juggling and tricks of the hand rather than in bad jokes and pratfalls.
I don't care to remember much of life before the circus, to be honest. An intelligent boy from a troubled family, I originally joined the circus as a way of putting myself through college. I was seventeen that first summer, and they paid me under the table for a full time job as a janitor. Being a custodian wasn't the greatest job I'd ever held down—although it was certainly the messiest—but I got to see the shows for free, and that was definitely more than any other job had offered me. It wasn't until I returned the next summer, after a brutally unsuccessful year at the State University, that I was discovered as performance material. As a little boy, I had taken up juggling and sleight of hand tricks as a way of coping with stress—there's something indescribably relaxing about a difficult trick pulled off just right—and I had honed those skills over my disastrous year at University. I shudder to think what might have happened if management hadn't caught me doing card tricks for a couple of kids during one of my breaks.
My career evolved slowly after that: I started out as a wandering entertainer, someone who would perform a short routine for people who were waiting in lines, then I became a side ring performer, part of the show but not a focus. I rather liked the inattention, to be honest; I could get away with a lot more than the show-stopping performers, and I wasn't under nearly as much stress.
Until the knife throwing act.
Knife throwing is always a risky business because, no matter how many times you practice, there's always the chance that you might miss. And when missing means stabbing a coworker, the pressure to make the act perfect is pretty extreme.
I was opposed to the act from the very beginning; too many things could go wrong when performing with knives, and I liked my gray zone in the side ring. Becoming a center ring act was outside my comfort zone, especially when I saw who they wanted me to work with. She was a new performer, a sweet little thing with blonde curls and wide blue eyes, no older than nineteen and painfully shy. I'd seen her around a few times before, and she had always called to mind a lost and lonely waif.
"I'm Harleen," she introduced herself in a smoky, tender voice, peering up at me with hesitant eyes, and I felt my heart go out to her in that moment. "This is my first job here," she bit her lip nervously, but quickly stopped and offered a shy smile. "I hope we work well together."
Poor kid, I thought, she hadn't even cut her teeth in the business and they were already throwing her into dangerous acts with people she didn't know. "We'll work hard," I promised, "and start off slow. In time, we'll have them eating straight out of our hands, you'll see."
She smiled again, a flash of white teeth and glittering blue eyes, and I think, maybe, that I lost a part of myself to her that day.
Harleen stared at the end of the entry in wonder. She had known, especially toward the end, that Jack had been interested in an intimate relationship and, if she hadn't been such a coward, she would have returned those sentiments. But she had been a coward, and their relationship had suffered for it.
There were a lot of things, though, she'd just learned about Jack that she hadn't known before. She hadn't known how or when he had come to work for the circus, and she also hadn't known that Jack had tried to go to University—he'd been in his early to mid twenties when she'd met him, and he had obviously already closed that chapter of his life by the time they'd been acquainted. It was strange to think that she had been friends with him for years—silently lusting after him for nearly as long—and yet hadn't really known anything about his life aside from the time they had shared together.
The phone rang, startling her out of her thoughts. A moment passed, then two as she debated whether to answer it or not; it was probably just another 'friend' who had decided to take pity on her. She let the call go to the answering machine; if it was important, they'd leave a message.
Reality was a rude slap in the face, she decided as she turned back to the journal. She'd known Jack better than anyone, and yet it now seemed as though she'd hadn't known him nearly as well as she'd thought.
She was nervous at first, and who could blame her? I certainly wouldn't have trusted someone I barely knew to throw a knife at me and miss. She was prone to flinching in those early days, which was hell on me because I could never predict which way she would jerk.
"How do you keep such a steady hand," she asked after practice once, "when you don't know where the knife is going to end up once it leaves you?"
"That's exactly how I stay steady," I replied. "I have no control over that knife once it's in the air; I can't make it dip or turn with my thoughts, so I have to exert all of my control in that one moment of release. If I can control it then, I'll know where it's headed, and if it's likely to hit you on the way there."
"I'm sorry I can't keep still," she apologized lowly. "I mean to, but then I see the blade sailing toward me, and…" She shrugged helplessly.
"It's human nature," I soothed, "you just need to learn how to master it." Which I didn't see happening any time soon. Harleen was timid beyond compare; I'd rarely seen her talk to anyone without lowering her eyes submissively, she was constantly apologizing for things that were not her fault, and she seemed to keep primarily to herself when she wasn't in practice with me or a few of the tumblers.
She frowned, a miserable look shadowing her eyes. "It isn't that I don't trust you," she said pointedly.
An idea struck me then, horrible and dangerous, but if it worked then it would be a huge step in the right direction for our performance. "Do you trust me?" I asked pointblank.
She paused, her frown deepening. "Yes," she answered slowly.
"Explicitly?" I challenged.
Suspicion entered her eyes, but she nodded.
It was a sick idea, but the only way to control her response was to control her perception. She couldn't jerk away if she had no idea the knife was coming. I pulled a handkerchief from my pocket, folding it in half as I slowly approached her. "I'm going to blindfold you," I explained gently, suddenly feeling like I was working with a frightened animal instead of a young woman.
Her eyes widened in panic, but she never pulled away as I tied the ends of the cloth behind her head. "I trust you," she repeated, although I wasn't sure who she was trying to convince of that fact anymore. When I finished, she stood still as a statue, a fine tremor shaking her hands as she visibly started to sweat.
I retook my position across the practice area—a tall wooden board stood ten to fifteen feet away, her rigid body right in front of it—and waited for a moment, taking in the situation. It was cruel, but I would be a liar if I said I didn't enjoy it; the poor girl had no idea when or where the knife would hit and, without the benefit of sight, jerking out of the performance field could very well be deadly. I was forcing her to trust me, to do the trick right so that we could move on. In that moment I held absolute power: my hand alone would decide the outcome of this stunt. For a few brief seconds, chaos danced before me like a drunken illusion, and it was the sweetest pleasure I had ever known.
I threw the knife.
Later that night, when I couldn't get the look on her face out of my mind—her eyes wide and watering as she whipped the blindfold off and stared at the still-quivering blade that had imbedded itself in the wall, a scant two inches from her ear—I would try to drink it away. It wouldn't work; the memory of her shock and horror, and my momentary delight in her uncertainty, haunts me to this very day.
We started to call it The Fear, although for vastly different reasons. Harleen was eternally afraid that I would hit her, though she never flinched away from a knife again after the incident with the blindfold. For my part, I was always worried that the sick pleasure would return, that I would get drunk on the moment and forget to be careful with her life. That one moment had changed the both of us, suffused us with The Fear, but the sensory deprivation had had the desired effect; after that, Harleen faced the knife with a bravery I hadn't even witnessed in the animal handlers. She threw herself into the routine from that moment forward, urging the both of us to practice more dangerous stunts as we got a better feel for how our act should generally be performed.
"A couple of almost-hits, that's all I'm asking for!" she pleaded during practice, her body completely motionless, save for her mouth.
I raised an eyebrow disbelievingly. "I can't help but feel that this is a desperate cry for help."
She looked like she wanted to stomp her foot at my stubbornness. "I'm not suicidal," she snapped. "If we got our timing down just right, you could throw a knife that looks like it will hit me, and I'll duck out of the way."
"No," I shook my head, approaching her so that I could pull the spent knives from the wall. "Our timing could be off, my aim could be wrong, you could dodge in the wrong direction… there are too many factors at work here."
"Lighten up, Jack," she frowned. "We can do this, I know we can! And it would be a crowd pleaser, too. There's nothing interesting about a man who's perfect."
"And there's nothing entertaining about an eager assistant accidentally getting stabbed in the middle of a performance," I returned seriously.
This time she did stomp her foot. "I know you can hit closer than you have been," she pointed to a knife that had landed nearly a foot from her shoulder. "When you blindfolded me, the knife you threw was only this far from my face," she held up two fingers, an inch or so of space between them, "but you didn't hit me. Your aim is phenomenal. All you have to do is land the blade a little closer, I jerk in the appropriate direction, and the audience will think they've seen someone escape death."
I sighed heavily. "I'm more worried that they won't see someone escape death."
"If we script the entire act out, it's all just a matter of memorization and timing," Harleen pushed.
"I have been uncomfortable with this act since the moment it was proposed," I admitted lowly. "So long as we're using real knives, it's too inherently dangerous. And now you want me to make it even more dangerous?" At the back of my mind The Fear bubbled. How was I supposed to take her life into my hands and not succumb to that twisted euphoria I had experienced the last time? "I refuse."
She won in the end, though. When our knife act debuted, it was to a shaky start, and it wasn't until Harleen went to the managers with her idea of near-hits that our performance gained any sort of attention. In the early days, when I was first forced to do the more dangerous act, I thought of quitting, of going completely back to the side ring. The Fear ate away at me, leaving me a mess before and after every performance, but Harleen was so confident, so unwittingly brave about the whole thing that I found I couldn't step away.
I showed up to practice, like usual—we practiced everyday in an empty field just outside the circus proper; it had probably been used for archery competitions, way back when—but the moment I arrived I could tell something was off. Harleen was sitting in front of the board wall, a lumpy duffel beside her. Panic struck at me; people left the circus all the time once they realized that it wasn't a fast track to stardom, and the thought of her leaving tightened my chest. Though we rarely saw each other outside of performances and practice, I had grown to treasure her reluctant smile; I valued her company highly, and the small moments we shared together were precious to me. Life at the circus was unpredictable, with people constantly coming and going, but in a few short weeks I had come to expect her presence.
She looked up at my approach, and what I saw glittering in her eyes wasn't the usual bitter sadness that burned at the performers who left the business. No, her eyes were determined. "You have a drinking problem," she said by way of greeting.
I stopped short, surprised. "I have never showed up drunk to a practice or a performance," I said carefully.
"That's true," she agreed, "but you seem to spend the rest of your time at the bottom of a bottle."
"I have a few drinks to unwind after the shows," I shrugged uneasily. "It's no big deal."
Her eyebrows nearly shot up to her hairline. "A few drinks?" she asked disbelievingly, opening the duffel by her side. "You call this a few drinks, Jack?"
Bottles of every shape, size, and brand laid in her bag, each one a guilty weight on my conscience. "Where did you find those?"
"There was a veritable liquor graveyard building up behind your trailer," she replied quietly. "Did you really think that no one would notice?"
No one had noticed. I'd struggled with the bottle before, and it had only gotten worse as The Fear plagued me, but most performers had their little vices on the side and left each to their own.
"You're going to drink yourself into the grave," she said seriously.
This was so far outside my comfort zone, so far outside my normal interaction with Harleen, that I wasn't sure how to respond at first. Slowly, I replied, "Everyone needs a crutch once in a while."
She frowned and kicked the bag away, ignoring the tinkle and shatter of breaking glass as she stood. "I don't know what you're running from," she murmured, drawing close, "but I do know that sometimes it's easier to face your fears." Her small hand pressed against my shoulder, a little gesture of comfort. "You taught me that, when you blindfolded me. Will you let me return the favor?"
And from that moment forward, she tried her damnedest to be my crutch. It was beyond annoying at first, despite the fact that I held a fondness for her. She was like a shadow, always one step behind me, no matter where I went.
"I don't understand what the appeal is," she said one day, after she had infiltrated my trailer to dig out and dispose of any liquor she could find.
"It's hard to explain," I replied, bemusedly watching her snoop through my dresser; somehow Harleen had gone from a timid little mouse, to a hellcat with no shame. "You have this and that grinding away at you, chipping off pieces bit by bit, and alcohol…" I shrugged. "Alcohol is a lubricant. It doesn't get rid of the problems, but it lets them run smoothly by you for a while."
She made a face as she pulled out a lime green tie. "You have the weirdest sense of fashion."
"You can get away with anything when you're a clown," I laughed.
"Anyway," she returned to the original topic of conversation, "I don't see what could possibly be so horrible that you can't talk your problems out with someone instead of soaking your heels in whiskey."
"Alright," I returned easily, leaning back in my chair as I continued to watch her poke around my stuff, "you show me your scars, and I'll show you mine."
"What?" she stopped, turning around to face me.
"Why are you here?" I asked bluntly. "Why did Harleen Quinzel run away to join the circus?"
She gave a surprisingly bitter laugh as she sat down in front of the dresser, idly playing with the bright tie she still held. "This wasn't my idea," she explained slowly. "I was planning to move in with a friend and get a nice, boring job somewhere."
"But?" I urged, genuinely interested.
She hunched her shoulders a bit, seeming to fall into herself. "Have you met Mr. Charmich?"
"I should hope so," I replied lightly. "He is one of the managers, after all."
"He's my uncle," Harleen grumbled. "He said it would be nice to have some family around, and my parents thought the experience would be good for me. So… here I am." She shrugged, not meeting my eyes.
I studied her for a moment, cocking my head to the side. "You're old enough to make you own decisions, to live on your own—if you didn't want to work here, why did you listen to you parents?"
She frowned, finally looking up at me. "Because they're my parents," she responded, as though that fact alone somehow answered everything. "What else was I supposed to do?"
It was my turn to shrug, "Told them how you felt."
A curious gleam entered her eyes, but she shook her head and murmured, "They were too pleased with the arrangement; I couldn't be the one who ruined that."
"At the expense of your own happiness?" I asked seriously. "Don't let other people live your life for you, Harleen, or you'll find yourself quite bitter in the end. And anyway, what makes them think this environment," I waved my hands in an encompassing gesture, trying to take in the whole of the circus, "would be so great for you?"
"I don't know," she said, looking away, the gleam in her eyes dying. It was a lie, there was more there, more than I could guess, but she didn't want to share it.
"It's The Fear," I stated suddenly, before she could fully turn away from me.
"What?" she asked, a frown marring her brow.
"You asked me what was so horrible in my life that I would resort to drinking." I shrugged nonchalantly, "It's The Fear."
She looked stricken for a moment. "I know you said you thought our act was too dangerous, but surely that alone wouldn't drive you to drink so much."
I straightened in my seat, silent for a moment. "I don't think you realize the magnitude of my responsibility here. Every night we perform, every day we practice, your life is in my keeping. A lethal weapon is put in my hands and I'm supposed to throw it at you close enough to get a gasp out of the audience, knowing that even the slightest tremor on my part could mean serious injury for you. There's no room for mistakes; it's an unforgiving act. That's enough to make any man drink." That wasn't the whole of it, although I did often worry that I would hurt her. No, the real reason I was drowning my free time in alcohol was because I enjoyed that moment of uncertainty where her life hung in the balance.
It was in that moment that I realized how well we suited each other: we were both trying to reach out to one another, and yet we were secretive about our own problems. There was something odd about seeing another person in pain—it could elicit any number of responses, and it always resulted in action. We had discovered kindred spirits in one another and, just as Harleen had resolved to become my crutch, that afternoon I resolved to become hers.
Two days later, Harleen reinforced my decision so firmly that I don't think I could have left her alone anymore, even if I'd wanted to.
After discovering my alcoholic binges, Harleen had taken to meeting me after every performance. Her intuition on this was infallible—I couldn't bring myself to drink in her presence, not when I was so terrified that I might drunkenly reveal what The Fear really was for me. She already monopolized most of my days, and now that she was searching me out after shows, I barely had time enough to work on my juggling, let alone lift a couple of bottles to my lips. It was strange how someone so seemingly disconnected from everyone else around her was so keenly insightful when it came to me. I wanted to hate her for it—after all, the less time I spent thinking about my sadistic predilections, the better—but I couldn't. She was too endearing, too naively hopeful to be angry at, and I sensed a disquiet in her that I could not ignore.
Which is why, two days after our powwow in my trailer, I was worried when she didn't seek me out after the performance. She had been everywhere in my life lately, and to so abruptly feel her absence then was unsettling—like stumbling around blindly in what should have been familiar territory. With a curiously tight chest, I set out to find her, alcohol far from my mind.
It was night already; small lights cast strange colors throughout the circus grounds as patrons slowly poured out from the show. A cacophony of voices pulsed at me from every direction—shouts and cries and tuneless melodies—but I still managed to pick out her laugh. It was clear, velvety, and full of a painfully honest joy. My worry easing, I ducked behind one of the outbuildings, knowing Harleen couldn't be far.
And that was when I caught my quiet assistant doing back flips for a lonely child. At first, I didn't understand what I was seeing—I couldn't connect Harleen to this carefree and limber creature before me—but, slowly, it began to filter through. The blonde haired woman twisted and flipped, her body working in ways that most people could never hope to emulate. I had known that she worked with the tumblers and the acrobats on occasion, but I hadn't realized at how basely talented she was; her muscles rippled and she moved with the exact precision of someone long experienced—this was not something she had learned in the short time she'd been at the circus. And it made sense because she was happy, truly happy; I knew, without a doubt, that this had something to do with the dark shadows I'd seen lurking in her eyes, this had something to do with the reason she was here.
Harleen landed perfectly, and took a bow to the wildly clapping child, then she looked in my direction. Her smile vanished as soon as she caught sight of me, a guilty look dimming her eyes. I hated that reaction, hated it so completely that it surprised me. But, then again, I had promised to become her crutch, hadn't I? I needed to know these things if I was ever to help her like she was trying to help me.
Several awkward moments passed between us as we both watched the child meander off to find his parents. She made no move to approach me, her eyes guilty and averted, so I decided to break the ice. Maybe, if I shared a little of myself and my own problems, she would feel compelled to do the same.
"My parents truly hated each other," I told her abruptly, coming to stand beside her. "Of course, it didn't start out that way; they fell madly in love, got married, and had me within a year. Some of my earliest memories are of them holding hands and whispering to each other in that special way lovers have. For those few years, I don't think anyone loved deeper than they did," I reminisced, but my voice was already tinged with the darkness that laid ahead. "It didn't last; maybe passion like that can't—maybe it has no choice but to burn itself out eventually. All I know is that one morning things were different—there was anger and yelling, and that became a permanent part of our lives. From that day onward, love was just a memory."
She looked simultaneously relieved that I wasn't pursuing what I'd just witnessed, and troubled at what I had chosen to talk about instead. "That must have been hard on you," she replied sympathetically.
I shrugged uneasily. No matter how much time went by, I still hated to talk about that particular chapter of my life. "It's one of the reasons I learned to juggle and do card tricks; I needed something I could become engrossed in, something that would block out the bitterness and the raised voices."
"What was the other reason?" she asked—Harleen was quick, and she knew enough about me to know that my concern hadn't been entirely about myself.
"My brother," I answered, then sighed. These memories still hurt, but I was committed to sharing them now. "See, I was already thirteen by the time my parents came to hate one another, so it hurt, but I was old enough to face the reality of what was happening to our family. Bret, on the other hand, was only seven; he couldn't figure out why mommy and daddy were yelling at each other, and it scared him," I shook my head, already seeing Bret's frightened eyes in my mind. They had gotten to me every time, and they haunted me still. "Every time they started in on one another, he would turn to me, tears in his eyes, and I knew I had to do something to take his mind off of it. At first, I'd just take him out of the house; we'd go to the park or visit a friend, anything to get away from our parents. But they haunted us, even when we weren't near them; Bret became quiet and fretful—we both did, really—and I knew that just distancing ourselves from the problem wasn't enough, we had to separate our minds from the issue as well. That's when I started juggling. I was terrible at it in those early days, but my fumbling amused Bret to no end so that was alright and, when I finally started to get somewhat decent, he was kind enough to be awed."
She took my hand and began to lead the both of us to our practice area. "And the card tricks?"
"A young kid can only be distracted by the same routine for so long.," I shrugged. "When juggling started to lose his attention, I turned to sleight of hand—Bret had always been amazed at the magicians on television, so I knew it would keep him entertained."
She smiled, letting go of me as she settled down against the board where we spent most of our time. "Did he laugh when you practiced that, too?"
"Ah," I waggled a finger, "you see, the thing about magic tricks is they're only magic if you don't know how they work. I couldn't practice in front of my brother if I wanted him to pay more attention to the trick than our parents. For a while, I think I spent more time secretly learning card tricks than doing my homework or sleeping, but it was worth it in the end and I found I had an affinity for the cards. I guess I should thank my parents for that much, at least."
"Did you hate them?" she wondered, her eyes sad. Harleen's empathy never ceased to amaze me.
"Eventually," I nodded, sitting down a few feet in front of her. "At first I was just scared and sad, like my brother, but I began to resent them as time went by, until I was just as angry at them as they were at each other. And then, when they finally divorced and I thought the nightmare was over, they separated my brother and me. My mother took custody of Bret and moved halfway across the country, while my father took custody of me and stayed here in Gotham. I hated them for that more than anything else. Wasn't it bad enough that they had tainted our home with so much negativity and doubt; did they have to take away the one thing that had been constant through all that time? Bret was a touchstone for me; no matter how bad things got, I knew that he would always be there, ready to watch the newest trick I had mastered. And they took him from me, gone in the blink of an eye; of course, we still saw each other after that, on holidays and vacations, but we inevitably grew up and apart."
A heavy silence fell over us. For my part, I was trying to suppress the bitterness that still welled up within me when I thought of my family. Distantly, I was glad that Harleen was there, because I knew that if she weren't, I would have been drinking that bitterness away.
"I was a gymnast for a long time," she finally said after a while, returning my unspoken question about her past. "I was deadly serious about it, too; it wasn't a hobby for me, but a way of life." She laughed, but the sound was a little dark. "Sometimes, looking back, I can barely remember a time when I wasn't cartwheeling or jumping over the vault. I used to spend hours at the gym, thinking up new routines. It was amazing," a smile briefly flitted over her lips, "learning all the different things my body could do, the different ways I could contort or flip and how I could hone those skills. It was heady, too; up on the balance beam or the uneven bars you could twist and flip and defy gravity. For a while, I was addicted to that rush, especially on the uneven bars."
I cocked my head; that was so unlike the girl I thought I knew. "Why's that?"
"Up there, on the bars, it's like flying," she whispered reverently. "One minute, you're hanging on, bending this way and that, and the next minute you're soaring through the air. In that one moment you're free… free from everything."
I didn't like where this was suddenly going. "So what happened?" I asked, because there had to be an inevitability somewhere.
"I fell once," she answered, a certain despair entering her eyes. "Just once but, sometimes, that's all it takes. I was leaning a new dismount, but my spotter wasn't paying attention and I didn't do it quite right." She shuddered suddenly. "It was like spinning out of control, the world was rushing around me and I couldn't stop it; that wasn't flying, it was diving. I nearly landed on my head."
"Must have been terrifying," I offered. And I knew it had to have been—I'd seen enough of the acrobats lose their nerves, or get into accidents, to have an idea of what she had gone through.
"I never learned to do that dismount properly; as a matter of fact, I started to downright fear the bars entirely." She gave a bitter laugh. "Slowly that fear grew, until I was afraid to do almost anything; I'd just freeze up, terrified that I was going to do something wrong." For a moment, a fierce pain reflected in her eyes, but she quickly shut them and forced the feeling away. "I had to give up gymnastics in the end; I couldn't perform anymore. The very feats I had once reveled in learning filled me with despair; I sunk so far into depression that I rarely left the house those days. Of course, I had no siblings and my parents were rarely ever home, so for the first time I was truly alone, in a time when solitude was the last thing I needed." She shrugged. "I started clinging to my parents whenever they were around, letting them rule my life because, at least that way, it wouldn't be my fault if something went wrong."
"It wasn't your fault," I told her immediately, almost angrily. "Mistakes happen, Harleen—even people who know how to do a trick mess it up completely from time to time."
"That doesn't make the fear go away," she replied evenly. "When a mistake has no choice but to end in pain, that fear will always live inside you."
In a flash, I could see it, see the trail of the conversation bending in just such a way that I could use it to motivate her. "You're right, but that doesn't mean you can't continue to do something because of it. I live with The Fear that a simple waiver of my hand is going to hurt you, and while that's not a personal pain it still boils up my emotions—and you," I drew the word out, gesturing toward her, "live with The Fear that I'm going to make that mistake and you'll be forced to face the consequences. And yet the both of us still do the knife act every performance." I could see that this was making her uncomfortable, but she needed to hear it. "Just because it's an old hurt doesn't mean it can't be overcome."
She shook her head immediately. "I don't think—"
I held up a hand to cut her off. "You saw something in me worth saving, Harleen, and now I'm returning the favor because I've seen something more than worth saving in you," I said quietly. "You were exhilarated just now, when you were doing back flips for that little boy—I've never seen you so happy or carefree; it's like you were a different person entirely. And you're going to let that slip by you because of one mistake?" Snorting derisively, I shook my head. "I won't let you."
"Jack," she pleaded, but her voice failed her and nothing was said for a while. I could see the pain and despair etched in the lines of her face—it was obvious that she missed gymnastics, that it's absence from her life was a pain she lived with daily, but the fear was so great that she didn't know how to overcome it. After a few minutes had gone by, she cleared her throat and tried again, "Don't give me hope, Jack. I couldn't stand it if you made me want it anymore than I already do. Everyone around me keeps saying that I should get back in the saddle—that's why my parents sent me here in the first place—and I want to, but it's not that easy."
"I understand," I soothed. "There's a lot of emotional baggage that you need to deal with here, and I respect that. But let's make something clear: I'm not telling you that you should start practicing again, I'm telling you that you will—and unlike all your other well-wishers, I'm going to help you do it." I had fast come to the decision that Harleen was best suited to her former lifestyle; gymnastics gave her a joy that nothing else could replicate—our act wasn't enough, she had to start working with the acrobats more.
Becoming someone new is a difficult and painful process. Harleen was timid, but I knew that change was the only way to save her—she had to become that hellcat I'd glimpsed full-time if she were to have any hope of reclaiming her passion. But that meant I had to change too, become more forceful and aggressive in my dealings with her; there was no room for passivity in our lives anymore. I think we butted heads a lot in those early days because neither of us really knew how to change but, after a while, we got the hang of it.
And that was when the curiosity began—we had set out to change one another, but we hadn't truly meant to become new people ourselves. From both of us emerged new figures, characters that we slipped on like masks and lived as for a time. Harleen unleashed her hellcat nature whenever she was intent on curbing my alcoholism, and that side of her became known as Harley Quinn. I let go of my apathy whenever it came time to encourage her to practice her gymnastics more, and that part of me became known as The Joker. They weren't names we had given to each other or had decided on ourselves—other members of the circus watched us in bafflement, and the monikers came from them.
It was easier to understand how I became known as The Joker, though it was cruel in a sense. I was well known for always having a deck of cards on me, so a card comparison was inevitable, I suppose. They began calling me The Joker because I was the useless one of the pair—the recovering alcoholic who could only encourage his friend rather than truly work with her as she reclaimed her own art.
Harley Quinn, however, was a name of circumstance. One of the acrobats had noticed that Harleen looked like a porcelain doll when she was in the clown-makeup, so he had started to call her dollface. And when it became known that Harleen and I were with each other almost constantly, dollface suddenly became Joker's Harlequin. From there, it was almost logical that she became Harley Quinn; it was both her nickname, and a shortening of her real name.
It wasn't always easy for us to cope with our new personas, however; at times it seemed as though they were both trying to overcome our innate natures. Sometimes The Joker came to me without thought, and sometimes I had to drag him screaming to the surface. Those times were painful, because with The Joker came a mess of thoughts and emotions, and if I had to force him out then it meant I wasn't ready to deal with that baggage. He did have one intensely surprising benefit, however—I found that through the eyes of The Joker, it was easier to deal with The Fear.
At the time, I didn't realize that The Joker was a part of The Fear, so deeply ingrained in it that he was only fueling the problem.
Under the mask of The Joker, chaos became like a religion to me. It started out simply enough—for Harley to move on and get past her fear, she had to embrace the unknown, the fact that she couldn't control what would happen and she would just have to accept it if she was to have any hope of healing. For a while, I managed to ignore that the unknown was the cause of my own Fear, but it wouldn't stay down for long. My mistake came in trying to embrace the philosophy that I had preached out to Harley—by embracing the chaos that had spawned The Fear for me, I created an adrenaline-fueled monster within myself. The Fear turned into a secret ecstasy, and a bigger problem than I could often cope with.
I wanted to turn back to the bottle.
Harleen had known Jack struggled and slipped a lot in those days, but she hadn't realized that it had been because of her. She had really tried her damnedest to be a haven for him, but all along she had only been adding more friction.
It was difficult to read this last passage—to see Jack's slow descent into the terror he'd become, and to know how she'd played a part in it. She had already known when and how he'd become known as The Joker, but she hadn't realized how quickly the mindset had come to him, how early on he'd already been falling apart. Even before he'd picked up the infamous moniker, he'd had thoughts like The Joker. As early as when they'd first started working together, Jack had been finding pleasure in chaos. She knew with absolute certainty that his desire hadn't been to hurt her or in the possibility that she could be hurt, but in the freedom that came from not knowing what would happen next.
Harleen had to admit that she hadn't always understood Jack's feelings, and she certainly didn't understand The Joker's philosophies, but this journal went a long way in explaining how one had transitioned into the other. But what had been the appeal? That was still something she couldn't wrap her mind around. Had Jack simply been predisposed to this way of thinking, or had it been a product of his past? Had it been the environment of the circus, or something he had learned to embrace it during his brief stretch in college?
They were uncomfortable questions that she had no way to answer without Jack's help.
Without going into any horrific detail (or really any detail at all), let it be known that Harley and Joker's push and pull went on for close to two years before it finally paid off. She worked hard to tame her fear, and eventually got to the point where she was willing to perform once more—which was handy, because she was so innately talented that the management wanted to put her in nearly half a dozen acts. In no time at all, she began working the ropes, doing gravity-defying tricks on thin wires and hanging ropes. She was an instant success, which I think put her off at first and made it doubly hard to push down her fears, but as her fans and praises increased, so did her courage. Harley had gone from a timid mouse in a small act to a show-stopping cornerstone of the circus.
Which brings us up to the present, I suppose. Harley and I are thick as thieves now, rarely apart anymore than we have ever been. We still perform our knife-throwing act and we're still constantly pushing each other to change. I imagine that's how things will stay for quite some time, so the future of this journal is rather uncertain—maybe there's a further tale to tell, maybe there isn't, only time will let us know for sure.
A/N: There is another half to the story, already written, and I will have it posted tomorrow (most likely).
All my other notes and the full disclaimer is in the second half.
Short Disclaimer: I own nothing.