"You killed the Joker," said Tetch quietly, later that night. He and Crane were alone and seated in his cell. Crane was nursing a strong glass of whiskey, staring straight ahead, lost in the horror of what he had had to witness. He had had to watch the woman he cared for suffer a complete mental breakdown, and it was enough to put him off fear for the rest of his life. The terror in her eyes, the agony, the pain, made the very thought of forcing others to suffer seem completely unbearable. He was thinking very seriously of giving up the fear obsession and returning to teaching college kids. But no matter what he did in the future, he could never forget the agony Harley had been in. He could never drown out the sound of her screams, and her sobs, which still rang through the empty halls of Arkham. He could never forget her face, the indescribable agony in her face, the cruelest torture he could ever have imagined. He wouldn't have wished that on the Joker, let alone on Harley. But it had all gone wrong. Because he could never win. Because he was a loser, and could never do anything right. He deserved this, for trying to be anything else.
"Can't say the bastard didn't have it coming," he muttered, downing his glass.
"Oh, nobody will shed any tears for him, except Harley," replied Tetch. "Still, not the result you desired, I believe."
"No," agreed Crane. "But then I rarely achieve the results I desire. I don't know why I bother even trying sometimes. Nothing ever works out the way I want it to. It sometimes seems as if there's some sort of curse on me, dooming me to perpetual failure."
"We are men of science, Jonathan," said Tetch. "We don't believe in curses."
"But you have to admit, it does seem that way sometimes, doesn't it?" he asked. "Why do we always lose, Jervis? To Batman, to everyone? Why does life seem to want us always to fail? Why can't we ever get what we want, just once? I don't think I've ever accomplished a successful scheme against the Bat. Nor, for all his talk, did Joker, really. But he's right – at least he got the girl. A taste of happiness neither of us will ever have. Why must we remain unrequited, Jervis?"
He was silent. "Well, in my case, it's the way my story is written," said Jervis at last, quietly. "I'm the Mad Hatter. There could never be anything between him and Alice. My character isn't meant to be happy – just mad. Which does make one happy in a way, I suppose. But we all have stories, Jonathan, and set parts to play within them. We're not all the heroes of our own stories. We're not even all the villains. Sometimes we're the comic relief, the sidekick, the unrequited lover. It's just the way we're written. I'm not a man who believes in fate or destiny or anything like that – I'm a scientist. But I do believe that you can't alter your path in life. Oh, perhaps in little ways you can. But there's no escaping your identity, there's no changing who you are. And it's no good wishing you were someone else. People will tell you you can be anything you want to be, but you can't really be anyone else than who you are, you see? If that's the hero, you must accept that, and be the hero. If it's the villain, you must accept that too. There's no good fighting who you are, or trying to be someone else. I am the Mad Hatter. I have accepted my role, and I am happier for it. You are Scarecrow, the Master of Fear. You mustn't try to be Harley's lover – that's the Joker. Or it was, before you killed him, and now her path is one she walks alone. You and I, we're tragic figures. And we must be forever alone. That is our role. Don't fight it. Just accept it."
Crane nodded slowly. "At least it will spare me the pain of hoping things can be different," he murmured.
"Indeed it will," agreed Jervis, nodding. "And our lives are painful enough with adding hope to them. Best to let it go."
"I wish it were that simple, Jervis, I really do," sighed Crane.
"I know it isn't," he murmured, quietly. "But try your best."
He stood up. "Try to get some rest, too. Things will look better in the morning."
"Do you think Harley will be able to sleep tonight?" murmured Crane.
"No. But there's no reason for you both to suffer," replied Tetch.
"It's my fault," replied Crane. "All my fault."
"Yes, it is," agreed Tetch. "Accept that, and move on. As Harley will have to, because that is the turn her path has taken, and she cannot change it. None of us can. Goodnight, Jonathan."
"Goodnight, Jervis," replied Crane as Tetch left his cell. Crane poured himself another drink and thought over what Tetch had said. He tried not to listen to Harley's sobs, but there was no way to drown them out. At last, he lay down and closed his eyes, trying futiley to fall asleep.
It must have worked, for he awoke to the sound of silence. Harley had stopped sobbing. He hoped the poor woman had fallen asleep at last. Grateful for small blessings, he shut his eyes again.
"You wanted me to drink something earlier. What was it?" said a quiet voice from the darkness.
Crane sat bolt upright and saw Harley appearing from the shadows of his cell, her arms folded aross her chest. There was a strange look in her eyes, red from sobbing, a mad glint he hadn't seen there before.
"How did you…get in here?" stammered Crane.
"What was it, Johnny?" she repeated.
"It was…um…an…an…antidote," he stammered.
"An antidote for what?" she murmured.
"For the fear toxin you gave me and Mr. J, was that it?" she asked, quietly. "It was in his cup, wasn't it? You didn't mean for me to drink it, you only meant to scare him. And you did, Johnny. You scared him to death."
"I thought it might have been the fear toxin at first, 'cause that's the thing that scares me most in this world, the thought of Mr. J dying," she continued. "But it's real. It's really happened. And it's all your fault."
"Harley, you don't understand…"
"Didn't I tell you to stay out of our business?" she growled. "Didn't I warn you not to come between us again?! And now he's dead because of you! Do you have any idea what I'm going to do to you, Johnny?!"
"I'm going to kill you! But I won't make it short and sweet, Johnny, not for the man who killed Mr. J! I'm gonna make you suffer just like he suffered at the end, terrified and begging for your life! I'm gonna make you regret even thinking about hurting him! You may think you have mastered fear, but I'm gonna make you face a whole new kinda terror! I'll start by crippling you, so you can't escape," she said, withdrawing a gun. "Guys can live a long time with bullets in their legs, y'know. But of course you know! You're the master of fear! How does it feel now?! To realize that everything you are is just one big joke nobody laughs at?! Tell me how it feels!"
"It feels…utterly terrifying," whispered Crane.
She aimed the gun at his leg. Crane shut his eyes tightly, his heart beating in terror.
And then he heard a laugh. A maniacal, hysterical laugh, a laugh that he knew. "Gotcha, Johnny!"
He opened his eyes in astonishment to see the Joker standing beside Harley, gently patting her head. "Great job, Harley girl!" he exclaimed, grinning at Crane. "I was scared of you myself for a second there!"
"Really, Mr. J?" asked Harley, excitedly. She was beaming in happiness at him.
"No, not really," he retorted. "But it did the trick for the Professor, didn't it, Johnny?" he laughed.
Crane blinked, thinking that either this must be a dream, or he had gone truly mad.
"Nope, ain't a ghost, Johnny boy!" laughed Joker. "Go ahead, pinch me!" he said, holding out his arm.
Crane obeyed slowly. "What in heaven's name is going on?" he gasped.
"Well, either I'm Jesus come back from the dead, or I wasn't really dead to begin with," replied Joker, grinning. "And I don't think it's the former – the big J and I don't really see eye-to-eye on a lot of things. That whole 'do unto others as you would have them do unto you' thing – not really my style. Although funnily enough, in this case, it is!" he chuckled.
"I don't understand…" began Crane.
"It's a joke, Johnny!" he exclaimed, throwing up his arms. "Don't you get it?"
"A…joke?" stammered Crane.
"Yeah! A real killer gag too!" chuckled Joker. "See, I was really intending to kill you for what you did and said to me. But then Harley came and begged me not to, and I just can't say no to the little minx when she gives me those big, pleading, baby blues," he murmured, tilting her chin up. Harley squeaked and leaned forward to kiss him, but he pinched her nose and continued. "But I did need some kind of revenge, you see? So I thought about old Mr. H. Christ, and what he said about giving as good as you got, and that gave me an idea! You'd said to me that I wasn't funny, that my persona as the Joker was all a lie, so I decided to make that happen to you and let you see how it felt! I decided to terrify the so-called Master of Fear so that he became a scared, shaking mess! Not only would it be hilarious, but it would teach you a lesson about name-calling too!"
"But…the fear toxin…" began Crane.
"Oh, please, Johnny, you are so predictable!" laughed Joker. "What else would you have used for your own little petty revenge but fear toxin? And when you suggested drinking, it didn't take me long to discover where you had hidden it. But see, the thing about liquid poisoning is that you have to swallow it so it interferes with the system. And if you'll recall, I rubbed mine off on Harley by kissing her, and she wiped her lips. And after you ran out of the room, we began the show. My Harley girl is just the greatest little actress anyone could hope for, and I like to think I'm not so bad an actor myself. Good enough to fake my own death anyway. And after that, all it took was threatening one of the attendants to go tell you the good news. It really couldn't have been simpler!"
Crane stared from him to Harley. "So that…breakdown…was just an act?"
"Well, yeah and no," replied Harley, frowning. "See, I sorta forgot about the fear toxin and accidentally licked my lips before I wiped them. So I had a really vivid experience of Mr. J dying. It took a lot to convince me he wasn't dead, even after he appeared in my cell. An awful lot. But it's ok, I believe it now, and he's here, and everything is just great!" she exclaimed, embracing Joker. "I'm really sorry about having to threaten you and stuff, Johnny, but it was either this or watching Mr. J kill you, and so I went along with the game. I hope you can forgive me."
"Oh…yes…I'm sure…in time…I just need a moment, if you wouldn't mind," said Crane, sitting down on his bed.
"Sure, I understand, Johnny," said Joker, patting him on the back. "Hard to accept you've lost again, isn't it? I'd think you'd be used to it by now though, really," he chuckled. "But like I said, Professor, there are winners, and there are losers. And the winners are going to go leave the losers to their solitude. Bye bye, Johnny boy! C'mon, baby, let's see if we can find that attendant who was so rude to you and torture him."
"Oooh, yeah, Mr. J, sounds like fun!" giggled Harley. She embraced Crane. "Bye, Professor Crane, see you tomorrow at breakfast!" She kissed his cheek and followed Joker out of the cell, giggling.
Crane stared after them, then put his chin in his hands, reviewing everything the Joker had said. He was half-relieved he was free of his guilty conscience, and also half-furious that he had, as the Joker rightly said, lost again. Been outsmarted by that demented maniac. It just wasn't fair.
He suddenly heard a scream, and then Joker laughing again, with Harley echoing him. The one upside of this whole experience, thought Crane, was that he found that his feelings toward Harley had cooled somewhat. It was hard to love someone who had threatened to kill you. Well, obviously Harley didn't think so, but Crane certainly did. They were just too different. It would never have worked out between them anyway. In a kind of ironic way, Crane had won in the end. He had had a problem, and it was now solved in a way that was satisfactory to everyone. That had never happened before.
Crane smiled, and lay back down on his bed. He may be a loser, but he had this one victory. It may have been small, it may have been against himself, rather than someone like Joker or Batman, but it was a victory nonetheless. And he was going to be proud of it.