A/N: This story was initially written for the askthesquishykins Free For All Fic For All, but it grew beyond all my wildest expectations for it and turned into a massive multi-chaptered beast before I knew what happened. Sometimes I feel less like a writer and more like a dictaphone: the characters do what they want and I just transcribe what happens. I'll be updating regularly, as it's technically finished, but I'll be tweaking this and that as I go along and perhaps even adding to what is now the ending.
Be forewarned that the tone of this piece is a little up and down. This is intentional due to the mercurial and opposite natures of the characters involved. This story also plays with continuity a bit, so though it was originally intended to fit neatly with Mad Love, it's most definitely alternate universe. It still fits with the bulk of Harley's history, but it veers off and does its own thing. Even I'm not quite sure how I feel about the directions it takes and the implications for the character, but it demanded to go where it went, so I let it.
Trigger Warnings: I'm not quite sure how to warn for this. This contains depictions of fear toxin, which is an emotional and physical violation with traumatic after effects, and this could potentially be very triggering. There are some very warped ideas about interpersonal relationships that develop herein as well. Additionally, though there is no non-consensual sex, there is a scene that may still be triggering for those with non-con triggers. A warning for very brief ableism should be tacked on, too.
Please, please, PLEASE proceed with caution.
There were few places on Gotham University's campus that were less popular than the Psychology classroom, due in no small part to the very unpleasant professor who taught there. The closest contender for the undesirable title of most hated location on site was the lecture room…but even so, it was universally loathed only when it when it had the aforementioned psychology professor in it. It was not an unusual occurrence to see some student reluctantly dragging their feet toward the psychology department, downtrodden and surly about their misfortune of having a conference with him, or even just going to class. It also wasn't uncommon for a passerby to extend their condolences to the unlucky soul who had to go see him for whatever reason.
Nobody liked Professor Crane, including those who didn't have classes with him. Certainly, some feared him or sucked up to him, some even respected him, but nobody liked him. Everyone wanted to spend as little time around him as possible: the bare minimum necessary to secure the college credits that would help them complete their degrees. He was so despised, in fact, that after his first year of teaching, the Dean exiled him to the only building on campus that housed just one classroom, evidently to keep him far enough away from the other professors that he couldn't infect them with his ill temper. His colleagues couldn't stand to be around him for anything more than the monthly University staff meeting, and some even called in sick to those.
All this was well known.
So when Harleen Quinzel, a plucky, bright eyed psychology student, confidently made her way across the quad on a Monday afternoon with what might have qualified as a spring in her step, eyebrows rose and whispered gossip started circulating almost immediately. From the moment she passed the old oak dubbed the Writing Tree, where superstitious students went to finish their term papers, to when she sashayed across the lawn in front of the legal library, jaws dropped and an adult game of telephone began with speculative rumors being passed from person to person.
"You don't think—"
"—to see Crane?"
"—never seen anybody looking so happy to go to the psych department—"
"—must be drunk or somethin', man. Gotta be—"
"—whatever she's on, I want some—
"Do you think—"
Though not used to being gossiped about on so large a scale, Harley had been the subject of enough talk over the course of her academic career that she gave no outward indication that she noticed she was being gaped at and muttered about. Being an attractive young woman who was known to have something of a wild streak—the sort of wild streak that gave a girl a good-to-some-bad-to-others reputation—as well as being a fairly popular member of the University's gymnastics team, it was pretty much expected for someone to be saying something behind her back at any given time.
Harley acknowledged nothing going on around her as she walked, just continued on her way towards Professor Crane's classroom. She hummed a little tune she'd picked up from somewhere and seemed, despite every observer's shock, to be in a perfectly pleasant mood. Her footfalls were self assured to every outside observer, and inside, she was relatively calm, considering what lay ahead of her. Of course, in this case, "relatively calm" was generally considered to be anything less than screaming and rending her clothes in terror and anguish.
"Hey, Harley!" From the corner of her eye, Harley saw one of her teammates approaching, running to catch up to her. She didn't stop walking, though she did slow down a little.
"So, uh, hey…" Sarah said awkwardly, falling into step next to Harley. "Going to see Crane, huh?"
"You in trouble?"
"Well, that's comforting." Sarah released a sign of relief. "He cost us our best powerhouse last year."
At this, Harley actually bothered to look up at her companion for the first time since she'd jogged over. "Yeah?"
"Oh, yeah. It was brutal. She had a nervous breakdown. Failed her right out of her scholarship." Sarah scratched her neck absently. "So…uh…just wanted to make sure you're…you know…okay and everything."
"Don't worry," Harley said, tapping her temple with her finger, "No screws loose here!"
"Good." Sarah bobbed her head a few times in what may have qualified as an uncertain nod. "So…you going to see him about, like, an internship or something?"
"Nah." Harley waved her hand. "Extra credit."
"Oh. Rough." Sarah patted Harley's shoulder. "I'll pray for you. Break out the rosary and everything."
"See you Saturday for the Phi Beta thing?"
"Excellent. Bye, Harley!" Sarah broke off and returned to the group of friends she'd left when she popped up to say hi, and Harley heard her start chattering at them immediately. Though she couldn't hear what was being said, if she had to guess, it was likely that Sarah was reassuring everybody that she wasn't off her nut or about to get failed so hard she'd be forced out of college life forever more.
As Harley got closer to the psychology department, the other students started to thin out and the whispers finally began to subside. It was pretty far away from the most central area of the University, down a small stack of stairs that continued the path where the ground became sloped at the edge of campus. The building itself stood next to a small faculty parking lot that nobody really used and there wasn't much in the way of places to hang out nearby, so eventually, almost all trace of her peers disappeared. The only mark that anyone left all the way out here was along the small concrete wall beside the stairs: spray painted graffiti of a bunch of penguins sliding down the handrail.
Harley took the steps two at a time, kissed her fingertips and touched them to the last penguin for luck, in accordance with school tradition, and continued down the walkway to the psych building.
It was around this time when, despite her best efforts to the contrary, her carefully maintained veneer of tranquility slowly fractured and the butterflies started to flap around in her stomach in earnest.
The gravity of the situation finally started to hit her. Extra credit work for Professor Crane, and of an unknown nature to boot. This could be either very good or very, very bad, she knew, if the talk of what he put extra credit students through was to be believed. There'd been rumors of all manner of cruel and unusual punishments at the hands of the psychology professor, from tests involving shock paddles and being left in the dark for hours to other, more bizarre forms of psychological torture.
One student Crane considered to be in need of discipline told horror stories about his experience, wherein he organized Crane's extensive library of psychology books, both current and horrendously outdated, according to author, only to be told immediately after he finished that Crane wanted them re-sorted by subject. When that was done, he demanded they be sorted according to year and when thattask was completed, he changed his mind again and forced the poor guy to organize them by their place in the Dewey decimal system. This went on for several days until Crane was satisfied with his performance, right around the time when he was threatening to break down in tears, and he sent him on his way. The tactic worked—the student in question did become more disciplined—but he had to take two weeks off school to recover from the mental exhaustion of the professor's seemingly nonsensical demands.
Harley tried to quiet her rapidly fraying nerves by rationalizing that it probably wouldn't be all that bad, whatever fate had in store. Crane seemed to like her—at least, he liked her as much as he liked anyone. Granted, his affection for other living beings seemed to top out at the "not likely to slaughter them indiscriminately" level, but, she reasoned, it could have been worse. Somehow.
By the time she entered the psychology building, Harley was nervously tapping her fingers against the sides of her thighs as she walked, causing her short skirt to flutter a bit. When she reached Professor Crane's classroom door, she steadied herself, took a deep breath and swept into the room, doing everything in her power to keep from shaking.
"Hiya, Professor Crane," she chirped with more cheer than she actually felt.
Crane stood hunched over a stack of notes on his desk. He didn't bother to look up at her. "I believe it is customary to knock before entering a room, Miss Quinzel."
"Oh," she said sheepishly. "Sorry."
"Additionally, you are late," he continued as though she hadn't spoken. "I will not accept such tardiness in the future."
"But my watch says—"
"Your watch is wrong." He flipped a page and continued reading from the stack.
"I…" Harley looked up at the clock above the blackboard and saw that her watch was indeed a full ten minutes slow. "I guess it must be."
For a long moment, the only sound in the classroom was the ticking of the clock. It was torturous, which she suspected he knew full well. Upon flipping another page, Crane finally looked up at her for the first time since she entered the room. His face remained a stony mask without emotion, but his eyes focused immediately on the top of her head and widened almost imperceptibly.
"You have changed your hair."
Though she had to admit the difference was drastic, Harley was honestly shocked he noticed or bothered to say anything about it. She didn't think he was the type to take note of such things, no matter how obvious. It…pleased her, in a strange way.
"Yeah," Harley said, absently twirling a coil of the straw blonde hair around her finger. "Do you like it?"
Like a balloon poked with a pin, her ego deflated.
"I assume that you committed this chemical butchery within the past twenty-four hours," he said, folding his arms over his chest. "If so, you will be unable to assist me today."
Harley's mouth dropped open in shock. "What? Why?"
"I am working on a formula for an experimental psychotropic drug," he said. When she smirked against her will, he raised a finger and continued, "—nothing recreational, I assure you."
"I believe you," she said with a nod, though she didn't entirely. He wouldn't be the first professor on campus to make a little extra scratch selling wacky pills, though he might have been the first to design his own. "I didn't know you were a chemist."
"I am a man of varied talents," he said dully. From anyone else, the phrase might have carried with it an innuendo. From him, it carried no such thing. "Be that as it may, any chemical substance in the environment—such as the residue from a hair bleach—could react…poorly, should it get into the formula."
"I can wear gloves," she offered hopefully.
He stared at her a moment.
The clock ticked.
Harley shifted awkwardly from one foot to the other.
"Miss Quinzel, even if you hadn't stripped your hair of its pigment you would have been required to wear gloves. This is a scientific endeavor in the field of chemistry. I had no intention of letting you touch potentially dangerous chemicals with bare hands," he said, and looked her square in the eye. "I am not an idiot, you see."
"You know, I realize that was kinda dumb," she said hotly, "but I think I would have preferred it if you'd just called me stupid."
"Which is precisely why I did not." He went back to perusing his notes, waving her off dismissively. "You may go."
"But…" Harley's shoulders slumped. Was he really going to just…cancel the whole thing because she'd decided to go blonde on a whim? "My grades…"
"Come back Friday evening." He picked up a pen and scribbled something on one of his papers. "Between now and then, wash your hair twice a day."
He sighed in a long suffering way. "Let me guess. You have a date."
"Well…" Harley plucked at the corner of her shirt sleeve and looked at her shoes.
He turned his attention back to her fully, his eyes hooded. "If you would prefer to be pawed by one of our positively dismal halfbacks in the back of a Trans Am rather than improve your grades, by all means, do so. Be aware, however, that I do not take on extra credit students often, and my offer to do so for you will expire at eight o'clock sharp on Friday—and I do mean eight o'clock sharp."
Harley frowned. "I don't—"
"The choice is yours."