AN: UGH. Guys. Sorry this one has taken so long, but this chapter has really kicked my butt. I hope you have way more fun reading it than I had writing it, and I'll try not to let myself get so intellectual in the next chapter so maybe it won't take as long. Happy reading!
"...but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; for vilest things
Become themselves in her..."
- Antony and Cleopatra, II.2.965-967
The women's restroom on the west corridor of Arkham's forensic floor maintained a steady temperature of about minus seven degrees, give or take a couple when the door was being opened or closed – at least, that was what Harley's internal thermometer told her on the unfortunate occasions she was forced to use it. There was no good reason for it to be that cold, and Harley was sure that the hand controlling the thermostat had to belong to a man, someone who never sat down on a toilet seat except at home and who had never needed to stick a tube of cold plastic into any of their body cavities. A tampon was enough of an insult when it wasn't a popsicle. A woman would have thought about that. Harley held her hands under the warm water at the sink a little longer than necessary, hoping her fingernails would pink back up and she could avoid frostbite. Of course, it was warmer out in the hall than it was in the bathroom, but once she went back out there she'd have to go back to doing rounds, and she wasn't exactly thrilled about that prospect either. Her feet were too swollen to tolerate many more cycles of standing and walking, walking and standing. She wanted to sit down. She wanted to lie down. She wondered how long it would take Leland to notice if she went to her office and took a nap under the desk.
And if you lie down and take a nap, you can finish that dream you were having just before your alarm this morning.
"We said we were going to stop thinking about that…," Harley hissed, and she shut off the water abruptly and went to dry her hands. They were about to do rounds on the Joker's side of the corridor, and the last thing she needed in her brain right before seeing his face in real life was seeing his face the way it had been in her dream. Not that the dream had focused on his face all that much – it had been mostly inspired by the heat of his hands on her wrist in their last session, and that damn V-neck shirt that had let out just enough chest hair to be dangerous. She shivered as she wiped her hands dry, balling up the paper towel and tossing it a little harder than necessary into the wastebasket, then shouldered the door open irritably and marched out into the hall.
"Practicing your door-slamming in case Burton mouths off again?"
"JESUS, Mary, and Joseph!" Harley yelped, almost jumping back inside the restroom. James had been standing just outside the bathroom door, and she had heard him speak before she even saw him. He was holding back chuckles even as Harley pressed a hand against her chest to make sure he hadn't given her an arrhythmia or something. "Don't DO that," she spat, and a little snort of laughter escaped McKnight's nose.
"Sorry," he grinned, clearly not sorry. Harley sighed.
"You know, just once in this place I'd like to open a door and not have somebody waiting to ambush me on the other side. I expect it from Leland, but I thought you were safe."
"I am safe," James protested as they started walking away from the restroom. "I'm very safe. I'm too safe, actually. Probably why I can't get a date. Safe, Boring, Law-Abiding James, and all the women I'm attracted to are hybristophiliacs."
"Please," Harley scoffed. "You can't get a date because medical professionals aren't allowed to have real lives. All we have time for when we leave here is sleeping. The only people we see often enough to have relationships with are the patients and each other."
"God, don't I know it," James lamented. "Anyway, I wasn't intentionally trying to ambush you. I just came to tell you that Leland wants you in Arkham's office to talk about the Joker's case."
"Arkham's office? Not hers?" Harley gaped, stopping abruptly in front of the first two cells on the corridor. Behind her, Rhonda was steadily licking the window like a Tootsie-pop, and James tried not to make eye contact.
"Yeah, I think she just spent the morning explaining herself to Arkham after forcibly removing Burton as lead yesterday. My guess is, assuming Arkham agreed with her because he usually does, that they want to go over their rules for what it means to have an intern basically running the hospital's most difficult case."
"Are you coming too?"
"Nooo, no, no," James shook his head. "Us lowly non-celebrity docs still have to get rounds finished."
"Shut up," Harley said, punching him lightly in the shoulder, and he grinned.
"Hey, I'm serious, this is big news. By the time that Gotham General benefit rolls around, all the investors are going to be more interested in my escort than in me."
"Oh, God, I forgot about that," Harley groaned. "I can't believe I agreed to go to an event that requires heels. I don't even own a formal dress."
"Hey, we had a deal, no take-backsies," James reminded her. "But it's still a few weeks away, so don't panic."
"I hate fancy shopping," Harley pouted, and James shrugged.
"You want my mom to pick something out for you?" he suggested. "Nothing gives her more pleasure than shopping, and since I'm not likely to be sending her wedding dress shopping with anybody any time in the next few years, she'd probably jump at the chance."
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah, I can just give her your measurements. It'll be the most fun she's had in weeks, trust me." He pulled a block of Post-It notes from his coat pocket and handed them to her. Harley looked at him dubiously, but she scribbled down the numbers.
"That waist size is on a good day, mind you – and I'm five-one, so don't you dare let her turn me into a cupcake. I listened to my mother about my prom dress and ended up looking like a Weeble."
James took the Post-Its back and nodded reassuringly. "Relaxed waist, and don't put the short girl in a cupcake. Got it."
"And NO orange," Harley added sharply. "It makes my complexion look weird."
"Orange cupcakes to be avoided at all costs. Roger that," James grinned. "Now go on, before Leland comes looking for you. I told her I'd send you straight there when you came out of the restroom."
"Yeah, okay," Harley nodded, and she straightened her coat before heading back toward the east corridor. "Wish me luck," she called over her shoulder.
"Lately it doesn't seem like you need luck," James grinned, and Harley grinned back, wishing she had his confidence.
Dr. Arkham's office was at the far end of the administrative hallway, past Harley's own and on the opposite end from Dr. Leland's. Harley had never actually been in it before, although she had seen it through a partially open door a handful of times, getting the vague impression of a room that was somewhat dim and green and stuffy. Now, sitting inside the office on a green leather nailhead chair that squeaked any time she fidgeted, Harley saw that it was very dim and green and stuffy. The walls were papered with a green brocade that hadn't been replaced (or maybe even wiped down) since the early 1980s, there was an elderly green Persian rug on the floor, and the Tiffany desk lamp that Arkham was inexplicably using instead of the natural light from the window had a shade of green cut-glass leaves. Sitting in the pool of yellow light in the middle of the green office, Arkham looked even more like a frog than he usually did, and Harley had to work hard to keep from dwelling on it.
"I hope you understand," Arkham was saying, "what an extreme risk we are taking, letting you lead on this case. The liability involved…." He trailed off, shaking his head stiffly. His jowls pudged out of his collar and wiggled as he did so, making the frog comparison even harder to ignore; Harley fidgeted to keep her face straight, and the chair betrayed her loudly.
"But liability or not, you're the first person who's ever even come close to rattling him into a halfway-honest answer," Dr. Leland said, almost as much to Arkham as to Harley, as she leaned against a filing cabinet. "And we couldn't leave things the way they were with Burton."
"No, indeed," Arkham mumbled, clearly irritated to have been asked to make this kind of decision in the first place. Harley got the impression that Dr. Leland usually handled all of the unpleasant decisions at the hospital herself, and that Arkham liked it that way. "Doctor Burton has behaved quite unprofessionally, and we all hope this change will be an improvement for both doctor and patient." He was squinting at Harley as if trying to read her, and she realized after a moment's consideration that he was probably desperately hoping she had no plans to file a formal complaint against Burton, thus absolving him of more unpleasantness.
"If a solution can be as simple as matching a patient with a different therapist, then that's the kind of solution we should always be looking for," Harley smiled, and Arkham visibly relaxed against his chair.
"You will, of course, be on a short leash," he said, and Leland crossed her arms.
"Very short," she reiterated, and Harley nodded obediently.
"That's understandable, given my experience level," she acquiesced. "I assume you're about to go over exactly what that leash looks like?"
"It looks mostly like paperwork, Doctor Quinzel," Arkham grimaced, adjusting his glasses fastidiously. "You will now be responsible for all of the case reports, which I can only hope you will complete the day of instead of writing them all at the end of the week like your predecessor. You will keep detailed accounts of each session, and these, along with any tape recordings, will be reviewed promptly by Doctor Leland." He pulled an untidy folder from his desk drawer and began attempting to straighten the papers that were hanging out of it; Harley was staring at a coffee-ring on one of them when the implications of his statement hit her.
"Doctor Leland will be reviewing the tapes and my reports?" she asked slowly. "As opposed to directly watching the session?" She turned to Leland, who seemed to be very intently examining the corner of Arkham's desk instead of meeting her eyes.
"You'll still have Officer Cash immediately outside the door, in case the Joker turns rabid on you," Leland said, and then, grudgingly, "but no. We won't be behind the glass. You'll be in the non-teaching therapy room – audio and video recorded, but no babysitters." Harley's face must have registered a wild mix of surprise and excitement, because Leland crossed her arms even tighter and gave her a cautionary look. "I have agonized over this decision, trust me," she warned. "And I'm still not crazy about it. But you've held your own for two sessions, and I'd like to know how he behaves when our presence is less tangible."
"He's not stupid enough to think you won't be recording us," Harley pointed out, and Leland shrugged.
"Oh, I know. But he might relax a little without the big wall of glass behind you, at least subconsciously, and I'm curious to see how that affects his demeanor. That's one of the things I want you to be paying close attention to in your next session."
"And… when is that?" Harley asked. Dr. Arkham pulled a book from a different desk drawer and plunked it down on top of the still-untidy folder, passing them both across the desk to her.
"As soon as you get done reading this," he said as though he was glad to be rid of the clutter and, hopefully, her too. "He picked it out of the library cart last night." Harley put the folder on the corner of the desk, wincing at the grimy surface, and examined the book. It was a weathered and velvety-edged copy of Antony and Cleopatra, complete with gray thumb marks along the pages from years of turning and a few scraps of what used to be library labels on the spine. When she fanned through the pages, a yellowed scrap of paper fell out into her lap, and she hurriedly stuffed it back into the book before Leland or Arkham could see it. She had recognized the handwriting on it.
"Ah, I was wondering when we'd get back around to Shakespeare," she said, grinning to hide the rush of her adrenaline and holding the book tightly closed so the scrap didn't fall out again.
"Yes, and let's hope your Shakespeare discussion goes a little better than McKnight's did," Arkham murmured, clearly thinking that was unlikely. And since he followed this statement by waking up his aged computer and turning his back to them to pull files from a cabinet, Harley and Dr. Leland took that as their cue to leave.
"We'll see you in Group at eleven," Leland said as they closed Arkham's door behind them. "Until then, take some time to go through that mess of a folder Burton left. See if you can get it into something resembling order."
"Boy, you have high expectations," Harley chuckled, grimacing at the coffee-stained papers, and Leland actually gave her a conspiratorial half-grin before stomping off toward her own office. Harley waited until she was out of sight; then she flipped open the book and pulled out the piece of paper that had fallen into her lap. It was a triangular scrap that had been torn from a printed page of some kind – based on the words that were still intact, Harley guessed it was the corner of an old TV Guide page from maybe ten years ago, probably some relic the Joker had found lying in a corner of the rec room. The writing had been scrawled in hard-pressed pencil, written heavily and with repeated passes until the letters were shiny and the paper slightly curled. Harley had a momentary flash of wonder that someone had left a pencil within the Joker's reach, which seemed a little dangerous given his ability to turn mundane objects into weapons. Then she pushed that out of her mind and read it. The word FATE? was written on one side of the triangle, along the bottom side with the tip pointing upward, in the Joker's characteristic slanted capitals; when she turned it over, she saw the word GRAVITY? written in the opposite direction, with the tip of the triangle pointing down.
"Gravity always wins," she murmured to herself, remembering what the Joker had said in the previous day's session, and as she said it she understood what his note meant. He wanted her to think about fate when she read Antony and Cleopatra – and he wanted her to think about it in the context of the discussion they had already had. "Alright," she said to herself, tucking the scrap of paper back into the book. "I can do that. One essay on fate and gravity, coming up." Harley let herself into her office and tucked the book into her purse, then sat down to try and impose some kind of order on Burton's chaotic session reports.
Before she left for the group therapy session, she tucked the little scrap of paper into the pocket behind her ID badge, where it nestled up against the vintage playing card. She couldn't afford to have it fall out of the book where someone could find it.
On Saturday morning, Harley did something she hadn't done since she was a hungover undergrad. Fighting the urge to spend her day off sleeping until lunch, she forced herself into her car around nine o'clock and drove west, across the river at Chelsea and into the southern fringes of the Palisades, where she pulled into the familiar and nostalgic parking lot of Pauly's Diner on Summit Avenue. She ordered the old breakfast of champions, which was everything Pauly sold for breakfast swirled together in one plate, and ate it with a smile while watching a booth full of desperately hungover guys across the restaurant doing the same. Pauly was behind the counter, flipping eggs with a cigarette dangling from his mouth and dropping ash onto the flat top, and the smell of the grease and the smoke made Harley feel like she was back in her freshman year, drinking gallons of Coke to stay awake and trying to make sense of her Composition notes. It was a calculated move on her part, having breakfast like this; the last time she had studied any Shakespeare had been in her second semester at GSU, and if she was going to be doing that again, then she'd have to get her brain back into the right gear for it.
When she finished her breakfast, Harley drove even further west until she hit the GSU campus. It was the beginning of the semester, and while there was a flurry of activity around the dorms and administrative buildings, the academic side was mostly quiet. There was a little landscaped square formed by the sports complex, the library, the theater, and the School of Education, with several picnic tables and a fountain at the center, and it was here that Harley settled herself down to read. She picked a table with some shade, where she wouldn't be hit by any flying mist from the fountain and could watch people come and go from the library between pages. At the top of her notepad, she wrote the question: What does Antony and Cleopatra have to say about fate / gravity? Then she put her go-cup of coffee on the notebook to stop the wind blowing the pages and opened the book to read.
After the first page, she remembered why she didn't read Shakespeare. It was an awful lot of work, making sure you were catching all the nuances of four-hundred-year-old jokes and slang that no longer existed. She had to keep interrupting the flow of the story to read the footnotes – something she was sure the Joker wouldn't like, but he hadn't marked them out, and how else was she supposed to know what a "garboil" was? By the time she had made it to the third act, her mental image of the story had gone fuzzy around the edges, and more than once she found herself staring into the soft white haze of spray around the top of the fountain with her mind somewhere else entirely. It had started with a parenthetical thought about what she was going to microwave for dinner, and then an innocent rehashing of Friday's group session – Jervis Tetch had needed to be removed from the room after repeatedly using sexually explicit language, and the Joker had spent the whole session behaving so suspiciously well that it had actually made Leland nervous. Of course, what Leland hadn't known was that the Joker had also spent the session having whole conversations with Harley using only his eyes – conversations that were a whole lot dirtier than anything Tetch had said out loud. And that thought, of course, had led Harley right back into thinking about the dream again.
Like what you see, Doc?
The dream had taken her back to Tuesday, to the near-strip-tease the Joker had done while putting on his clean clothes; but in that fuzzy, laissez-faire way that dreams often dealt with time and space, the cell in her dream had been close and narrow, almost claustrophobic, and she had been inches away from the Joker's bare chest. Dr. McKnight had been there at the beginning of the dream, when it was still a memory, but some time between the Joker standing up and meeting her eyes, James had disappeared. Dream-Harley had barely noticed his absence.
You're allowed, you know. Dream-Joker hadn't bothered to put on the clean clothes, but had stepped closer to her just as he was. She had been in the middle of the room but was now standing with her back against the wall, vaguely aware that there should be a door on her right but that there didn't seem to be one anywhere. You're allowed, dream-Joker had said, to like what you see. His dream-voice was still sing-songy, but somehow deeper and steadier than she remembered. Seeing something and liking it… probably the most normal thing a person can do. Natural. It's only unnatural to ignore your nature. The dress slacks she had been wearing had suddenly felt like they were made of something gauzy and yielding, and he had been standing so close that she could feel the heat from his thigh creeping through the fabric to her skin. If she hadn't been looking right at him, she would have sworn that his hand had been on her – long fingers toying with the soft flesh of her inner thigh and the heel of his palm pressing up against the projection of her pelvis, the diminishing fabric of her slacks offering less and less resistance – but she could see that he wasn't touching her except with his eyes, and God, that was enough. She had felt like she was swelling up inside herself, her essential substance becoming too much for her body to support and pressing against her skin to get out. They had been at the window then, across the room, the light becoming purple and juicy with sunset and the dream-Joker standing at her back, baking her with his heat. He hadn't been touching her, but the warmth of him was so strong and so vital that he might as well have been pressing his whole body against her, chest to neck, stomach to back, the swell of his crotch at odds with the swell of her buttocks. His closeness had been so electric that it made the touch unnecessary. He had known her imagination would do all of his work for him. Well? he had rumbled from behind her, his arms stretched out on either side of her to rest on the window frame, walling her in on all sides. The heat behind her had made the whole front of her feel cool and exposed, and there had seemed to be a breeze even though the window had been closed. It had wicked around her, more like a current of water than of air, and the gauzy feeling of her slacks had almost melted into nothingness as the breeze slipped between her legs and made her startlingly aware of the wetness there adhering the cloth to her skin. And then he had been touching her, but not in any of the ways she had expected. Your move, he had said softly, and his lips had brushed the top of her ear, silky and hot and with so little force that she would not have felt it if her whole body hadn't been alive with adrenaline. His breath fell into her ear and against the small, wispy hairs at the nape of her neck, and it felt like hot water trickling onto her scalp. It's your move, Harley—
Harley snapped back to reality. The book was drooping dangerously low in her right hand, the metal weave of the table was digging into her left arm, and the breeze had almost blown her pen off into the grass. The guy who had just spoken to her – rudely cutting off the dream just like her alarm had done Friday morning – was standing on the sidewalk on the other side of the table, one hand in his pocket and the other gently waving to see if she was alive or dead.
"Earth to Pretty Lady. Do you copy?" he chuckled, and Harley cleared her throat and crossed her legs, desperately grateful that she hadn't been acting out the dream with her face. The guy on the sidewalk was long and skinny and looked like someone who was getting a head-start on being a starving artist, with hair down to his shoulders, a Johnny Depp goatee, and a ratty canvas backpack that looked like it would rather be discussing Jim Jarmusch in a hostel in Europe than mingling with the unwashed rabble of GSU. Harley cleared her throat again, looking for her voice. She had to come across as normal and boring, or she might end up as a caricature in something this guy wrote for his modern theater class.
"Wow," she laughed, trying for casual and landing on tired. "I, um… I guess I zoned out while I was reading."
"Hey, if it's that bit in the middle where we don't hear from Cleopatra for like five pages, I don't blame you," he chuckled, judging accurately by the dull look in her eyes that she didn't even remember what scene she had been reading at all. "I'm Chris, by the way. You need some help? Like, on a paper or something? I'm a theater major, and… well… by the way you're staring at that page, I'm gonna guess you aren't."
"I'm Harley. And I'm… not even a student," Harley admitted, sticking her pen into the book to mark her place and putting it down. "Not anymore, anyway. This is for… well, I guess you'd call it a book club."
"Weird choice for a book club," the student said, but he was grinning.
"Yeah," Harley smiled back, noticing her coffee was cold and tossing it into the trash can behind her. "I'm supposed to talk about fate in the context of this story, but…." She trailed off, shrugging and waggling her hand at the book in front of her. "But I can't seem to keep my mind on it, and… and honestly, I can't really find many places where it actually mentions fate."
"It doesn't," Chris replied, "not in so many words. You have to know how to read between the lines. And I can tell you why you can't get plugged into the story."
"Oh, yeah? Why?"
"Because you're reading something that was meant to be watched." Harley pondered that for a minute, knowing that he had a point but not really sure if the Joker would approve of her watching the homework instead of reading it. Chris must have seen something of her thought process on her face, because he stepped closer and smiled. "Why don't you come to the theater department office with me?" he offered. "The GSU student theater did Antony and Cleopatra a couple years ago, and we keep a master tape of all the performances for teaching purposes. And don't worry – it's verbatim and directly follows Shakespeare's stage directions, so no fancy adaptations or anything that will influence your interpretation. I should know, I was in it."
Harley dithered for a few moments, weighing her options. On the one hand, she was pretty sure the Joker wouldn't be happy about her watching the play instead of directly engaging with the text. But on the other hand, she'd never get through the stupid text if she kept staring off into space thinking about a dream she wasn't supposed to have had. At least if she was watching a tape, she wouldn't be sucked back into that train of thought. And she didn't have to tell him.
"Alright, Chris," she decided, tucking the book and the notepad under her arm. "Throw in some popcorn and you've got yourself an audience."
Chris led Harley through the Massengill Building into a maze of corridors behind the stage and dressing rooms, where there were classrooms and rehearsal spaces that Harley had never known were there. She had been joking about the popcorn, but Chris actually stopped at a row of vending machines and bought them some snacks before taking Harley to a small office beside the props storage room, where he pulled a VHS tape from a cabinet and a key from a hook on the wall. He then took her down a short hallway to a classroom, where he plugged the tape into an old cart-mounted TV/VCR combo and pulled up some folding chairs, turning off all of the lights except the one nearest the classroom door. That had gotten Harley worried that this had all been an elaborate scheme to trick her into a date; but to her relief, Chris turned out to be more helpful than any professor she'd ever suffered through. He kept the remote in his hand the whole time and paused the tape every so often – a few times to make sure she was following the action, and once to point out his own helmeted self portraying Enobarbus, but mostly to stop and discuss important lines of dialogue or questions raised by the characters. He talked about things that would have gone shooting right over her head simply because she didn't have any background in Roman culture or Shakespearean drama, and Harley scribbled furiously in her small notebook as they talked, stopping sometimes to ask him a question or make a connection between two things she had written.
"You said you were supposed to talk about fate?" he said during one pause, leaning back in his chair. "Well, fate would mean something very different to a Roman like Antony than it does to you and me. A whole different connotation."
"How so?" Harley prompted, flipping to a new page. Chris rolled the remote control back and forth between his hands, gathering his thoughts.
"To us…. People in the modern West, we see fate as something we're supposed to struggle against or conquer. It's either a prize we have to fight for and win, or it's a monster we have to defeat. It's part of our Western cultural narrative. But to a Roman – or even a Greco-Egyptian like Cleopatra – fate was something comforting that you were supposed to surrender to. Like how you have to relax to float in water."
"But what if you didn't like your fate?" Harley asked, scribbling as she talked. Chris shrugged.
"If you didn't like your fate, you weren't a good Roman," he replied. "Part of the dignity and discipline of Roman virtus – that's like… their notion of manly honor – part of that was knowing what the gods had foretold about you and having the courage to accept it simply because it was your fate. People who ran from their destiny or challenged it weren't brave like we would see them – they were making fools of themselves and a mess of everything around them. Like Antony. He spends the whole play oscillating between different versions of himself instead of relaxing into his most basic nature, and the other characters feel like they suffer because of that."
"You can go down fighting, or you can just go down, but gravity always wins," Harley mused quietly, prodding the corner of her mouth with her pen cap. Chris raised an appreciative eyebrow.
"Yeah, exactly that," he assessed. "Was that you, or was that a quote from something?"
"That was…," Harley began, not sure how best to explain without giving anything away. "That was from the guy who picked this book assignment," was what she finally said. "He said it last week during a different discussion."
"What was last week's book?" Chris chuckled, and Harley sighed.
"Is this guy okay?" he laughed. "Sounds like he needs therapy." Harley bit her lower lip to stop herself from getting the nervous giggles at that.
"You have no idea."
It turned out that Antony and Cleopatra was like a whole different story once Harley could see it through the lens of what Chris had told her, and she actually asked him if she could stay in the empty classroom and watch it again while he went to do whatever he'd come to campus to do. He told her to knock herself out, and that he'd be in the office printing his professor's syllabi when she was done with the tape. Harley rewound it and started again, pausing every ten minutes to scribble more notes until the little spot on her ring finger started to ache and the ink in her pen started to clog. By the time she returned the tape to Chris and thanked him for all his help, she had almost seven pages of ideas that she knew she might not even get to discuss – after all, the near-essay she'd written on Anthem had been shot down by the Joker almost as soon as she'd started talking. But it never hurt to be prepared. And if she managed to memorize everything she'd scribbled down, then wherever the Joker decided to take the conversation on Monday, she would be able to follow him.
The non-teaching therapy room was on the other side of the corridor from the one Harley was accustomed to, and she went straight there on Monday morning, sitting in the quiet to do her paperwork in an attempt to acclimate herself to the new space. She was already much more comfortable here; without the observation window, it felt more like a real room instead of a fishbowl, and somebody had thoughtfully chosen a warmer shade of white for the walls. The table was wood instead of metal – it still had a soft rubber cap running around all four edges, but you couldn't have your cake and eat it too. The window was lower in the wall and looked out to the other side of Gotham, which meant that when the smog was thin, she might even be able to see the tops of a few trees off in Cobble Hill. And happily, the camera – a three-hundred-year-old relic that still recorded to VHS – was at her back, buried in the wall so that it couldn't be used as a weapon. The lens was made to look like an old rubber doorstop stuck into the plaster of the wall, and if she had tried hard enough, Harley supposed she could have convinced herself she wasn't being recorded at all. Maybe the Joker wouldn't behave any differently without Leland behind the glass, but Harley knew she would, and that could make all the difference in the world.
As if summoned by Harley thinking about her, Dr. Leland opened the door and came in to stand at the corner of the table, glancing down at Harley's notebook.
"I take it you're all set for us to bring him in?"
"Yes," Harley replied solidly, tucking her pen away and getting in one more sip of coffee. "Funny enough, I'm actually looking forward to this one. I kind of enjoyed the story."
"Yeah, well, if he catches wind of that, he'll try to ruin it for you," Leland said helpfully. "I just wanted to run over a few things before we let you loose in here. Camera's behind you, focused on the patient chair. You've got the remote." She placed a small grey clicker on top of Harley's notes and waited for her to take it. "Keep that hidden in your lap. We don't want to waste tape, so you hit the record button once he's in here and you're ready to start, and you hit the stop button when you're done. See the indicator light on this wall?" Leland pointed to a black speck on the wall above the patient chair that Harley had thought was a dead bug. "That'll light up red when the camera's recording. If it doesn't come on or you see it just go dark while you're in a session, then there's something wrong with the camera or you're out of tape, and you'll need to let the guard at the door know so somebody can fix it."
"Right," Harley nodded, absolutely sure that camera failure was bound to happen at least once a week, knowing this place.
"Now, you feel free to set your own pace, but try not to keep him too long past an hour even if he's talkative. That's about as long as I trust him to behave himself, and anyway, he's got Group before lunch. If you get past the hour mark, quit while you're ahead. You got it?"
"Yes, ma'am," Harley nodded again, wishing Leland would just go so she could get started before she lost all the calm she'd built up that morning.
"You want me to take your thermos back to your office for you?" Leland offered, and Harley started to hand it over; then she changed her mind.
"Actually, no," she said thoughtfully, putting the thermos on the far corner of the table. "I want to give him the impression that I'm at ease in here talking to him, and that I'm not actively afraid of him weaponizing everything."
"I am afraid of him weaponizing everything," Leland grimaced, "but it's your funeral. If he beats you to death with your own coffee cup, then it's on your head." She gave Harley a severe look, but Harley thought she saw something else underneath it – was that maybe optimism? – as Leland turned and went back out into the corridor.
The door was closed for only a moment or two, and then it popped open again sharply to admit Officer Cash's huge form, walking backward as he led the Joker inside. Harley took a deep breath to begin speaking, and then forgot how to let it out – he was in just the white V-neck again, and now she knew he was doing it on purpose. Was she imagining it, or had he stretched out the collar a little to show just a few more centimeters of chest hair? She let the breath out finally, and it came out as a stuttering sigh that she was sure the Joker could hear and that she hoped Cash couldn't. Her dream was slipping back into the front of her thoughts in spite of all the prep she'd done this morning to keep her mind elsewhere. And naturally, the Joker was staring at her under half-closed lids as he took his seat, looking like he already knew what her dream had been about and was ready for the sequel.
"Morning, Doc," Cash was smiling as he transferred the Joker's chain from his belt to the table hooks. "How are you today?"
How am I? Well, actually, I'm trying to have a conversation with my patient without picturing him naked, but thanks for asking.
"I'm good, thanks," she smiled back, mirroring his nod as he slipped back into the doorway.
"Be right outside if you need me," he said, and then he let the door fall shut with a soft click.
The silence in the therapy room was suddenly so complete that Harley could actually hear a bird perched on the window ledge outside. This room controlled noise better than the observation room, and there were none of the usual corridor sounds Harley was accustomed to bleeding through – no heel clicks or wheels or slamming doors or chatting nurses. She wondered why she couldn't even hear the sound of her own breathing, and then realized that was because she wasn't. Her stomach was a tight knot, and she had been holding her breath without realizing it. She tried to let it out, and for a moment it wouldn't go; for the first time, she was completely alone with the Joker – not even being watched by a camera – and her body had started reacting to that fact even if her brain hadn't gotten the memo. He's not breathing either, she realized after another second of silence. The room was so quiet she would have heard his breath as well as hers, but he was like a statue. Her eyes flicked over to his chest in that dangerous V-neck shirt, which was so still that she could see one brassy curl of hair coiling its way up and over the collar like a beckoning finger.
Then he breathed, and the shirt crept imperceptibly over his expanding chest before slipping back into place again, and Harley could have cursed aloud as she felt the wave of heat that ran all over her body just under the skin. Damn him, she thought, he was holding his breath on purpose. He had waited for just the right moment so she would watch him take that breath. The session hadn't even started, and he was already playing her like a piano. Harley dragged her eyes up from his chest to his face, and for a second she thought that might actually be worse. The Joker was staring at her, unblinking, and his eyes were dark and hot and liquid and absolutely empty of any of their usual sharp cunning or violence. Looking at her like that, she could almost forget what he'd done to get himself into Arkham. Looking at her like that, she could almost forget everything but that dream. You're allowed, you know, she heard dream-Joker whisper at the back of her mind, and she gripped her portfolio with white knuckles until it passed. Across the table, the Joker's lips parted slightly, and the tip of his tongue crept forward to touch the small Y-shaped scar at the center of his lower lip; then he grinned, softly and knowingly, and Harley felt the locked-down muscles of her thighs turn to mush.
"Hi," he rumbled, lifting his chin a fraction so that his jaw caught the light, and Harley felt herself flush violently from forehead to knees. Damn him, she thought again, a little sharper this time, and reflected for the second time that day that she was glad the camera was behind her and not catching her face.
Shit, the camera.
Fumbling in her lap for the clicker, Harley finally found it and hit the soft rubber button so hard that it almost stuck. The click was audible, and when Harley looked back up at the Joker's face, there was an expression of blissful innocence plastered on it. Every bit of what had just passed between them was gone, and it had happened so quickly that nobody would ever question the fifteen seconds between the closing of the door and the beginning of the recording. He had stolen that fifteen seconds and turned it into an hour's worth of wordless communication, and nobody would ever know except the two of them.
Above the Joker's head, the little red light came on, and Harley (with a monumental effort) pulled herself together and began to speak.
"Um… this is Har— ah, this is Doctor Harleen Quinzel, in session with patient number AH-08-62-43, inmate number 72108-099, alias The Joker; Monday August 18th 2008, beginning session at 9:34 a.m." She rattled off the numbers a little nervously, trying not to look at the red light on the wall – but it was easier knowing the camera couldn't see her eyes. She tucked the clicker up under the corner of her portfolio and took a sip of her lukewarm coffee; the Joker watched her with bland disinterest, but she could tell that he was making a note of the fact that she'd left a blunt object in his line of sight. I'm trusting you not to grab that and screw this up for both of us, she said to him with her eyes. Then she took out the book and laid it in the center of the table.
"Well?" the Joker said after letting a beat or two pass, and Harley shrugged amicably.
"I liked it," she answered honestly. "We did Romeo and Juliet in high school, and I hated that, but this was much more my style." The Joker made a face, lifting his eyebrows and pulling his cheeks inward in a way that Harley knew meant his teeth were toying with his scars.
"Ah… allow me to… blow… your mind," he said amusedly, "but isn't Antony and Cleopatra just Romeo and Juliet except with fully-grown adult eMOtions?"
Harley opened her mouth to answer and then shut it again, taking a moment to consider. It sort of was, she realized, when you really thought about it. It was two people – a Roman triumvir and an Egyptian queen instead of kids – who were trying to be together when they weren't supposed to because of various reasons – in this case, politics and prior relationships instead of family – and who ended up dead (along with a bunch of other people) because they were more interested in each other than in their own better judgement.
"You know, that's a good point," she said finally, scribbling the thought down on the first blank page after her reading notes. "I guess it didn't hit me the same way when it was a couple of whiny teenagers essentially starting a gang war over a crush. It comes across a lot better on adults."
"Per-SPEC-tive is, ah… transformative, hmm?" the Joker prodded, still looking like he was trying not to smirk at her, and Harley felt herself relaxing into the conversation as she caught hold of the word he had used.
"AH," she said, pointing her pen at him. "Perspective. That's the first thing I have in my notes, let's talk about that."
"Mm-hmm…" the Joker demurred, looking (as usual) like he already knew what she was going to say but couldn't wait to hear her say it. Harley crossed her forearms on the table and leaned over her notes.
"The Romans had a different perspective on fate than modern readers do," she began. She had been about to say than we do, but she didn't think the Joker shared a perspective with anyone but himself. "Fate in a Roman story is something totally different than in a work that would be written today. Right?"
"And who told you that?" the Joker rumbled, a little suspiciously but not yet accusing. Harley sighed.
"A theater student," she admitted. The Joker's face darkened suddenly, and Harley put up her hand to hold him off. "And I didn't read any commentary or rely on his opinion, before you start scolding me. I was reading on campus. He saw that I was struggling to get through the reading, and he offered to let me watch a tape of the GSU performance." She hadn't intended to tell the Joker about that, but things had a way of just falling out of her mouth when she talked to him. She followed it quickly by adding, "An unedited, all-original text performance. Not an adaptation. Afterward, I asked him about fate in the story – because, as I assume you know, the text of the play doesn't mention it a lot, but when it does, both the quotes I wrote down say the same thing: that you should let fate have its way, basically. I asked him, and he explained it."
The Joker eased back into his seat, but he crossed his arms as best he could over his handcuffs. "Be glad I don't consider that cheating… Doc," he murmured, sucking on the inside of his cheek peevishly. "Well? Go on."
Harley went on, rehashing what Chris had said about the disparity between the modern view of fate as something to struggle against and the Roman view of it as something to relax into. "I repeated what you said in our last session," she concluded, "about how you can go down fighting or you can just go down, but gravity always wins? And he said yes, that was exactly the point of this story. That Antony wasn't weak because he surrendered, he was weak because he refused to surrender."
"But I suppooooose you fuNdamentally disagree?" the Joker teased, one eyebrow raised. Harley took a moment before she answered him.
"I… I don't know. On the one hand, I can see the merit of knowing who you are and leaning into it, but it also seems a little too passive to just do nothing when things aren't going well for you."
"I'm not doing nothing," the Joker offered, splaying his fingers against his chest in mock daintiness. "Do I look like a guy who's doing nothing?"
"You look like a guy who's been blowing up buildings for fun," Harley replied, making a point to look at his eyes and not at the little dimples his fingertips were making in the white cotton of his shirt. The Joker scoffed.
"Yeah," he said flatly, and then he smirked at her, both at her words and at her refusal to look at his chest. "See, em-BRA-cing who you really are opens up a whole RANGE of new things you can do." His fingers flickered in the air as he said it, something Harley was beginning to realize meant he was comfortable in the conversation, one of the very few physical tells he had. "Do you wanna know… why… I'm always in charge of every room I'm in? Hmm?"
"I think Doctor Leland might disagree with that statement," Harley cautioned, although she knew precisely what he meant – how when Cash brought him in for sessions, even though Cash was the size of a planet, even though the Joker was in chains, it always felt like the Joker was the one leading. How he seemed to suck all the air out of a room just by taking a deep breath. The Joker knew she understood, and he rolled his eyes at her statement before plowing on.
"It's the saaaame reason Cleopatra is always the star of every scene, even scenes she isn't in," he said, pressing one long finger into the cover of the book between them. "The powerful characters in this story, Cleopatra, Caesar, even Enobarbus for a while… they're powerful because they've accepted their fate as it is, and they're not yanking at the seatbelt trying to get out of it. Antony, though?" The Joker made a little impatient clicking sound somewhere in the back of his mouth. "Antony is weak because he's pulling so hard at the leash that he's choking himself. Every time he tries a new direction, it cuts deeper into him. Every time he spins around, he wraps one more coil of it around his own ankles. He spends so much energy fighting gravity that he doesn't have any left for anything else."
"And Enobarbus starts out strong, until he tries to change his own fate by switching sides," Harley mused, thinking of one of the most unexpected moments in the play. The Joker shifted in his seat a little, and Harley thought he might actually be suppressing a giggle as he nodded for her to keep talking. "Okay," she nodded back at him. "So you believe everyone would be better off if they acknowledged what their… well, fate seems like an antiquated word, but… their gravity, let's say. You believe we'd all be better off if we acknowledged what our specific gravity was and just let ourselves fall into it without protest."
"Pre-CISE-ly," the Joker rumbled, tucking his cuffed hands between his knees and leaning over the table. Harley knew she was being baited and kept her eyes on his forehead and not his chest.
"Do you think people always know they're fighting gravity?" she asked. "Or can they be pulling at the leash without realizing it?"
"Did Antony know he was lying when he said he'd be a good husband to Octavia?" the Joker shot back, and Harley stopped to think about it.
"No," she said softly after a moment or two, "no, not really. I think when he said it, he really thought he was going to do his best. Maybe he did do his best, but his best wasn't good enough – and the lie he was really telling was to himself, convincing himself that it would be."
That didn't seem to be the answer the Joker had wanted, because he closed his mouth abruptly around a reply. There were a few seconds of silence before he spoke again. "Here I am Antony: yet cannot hold this visible shape," he quoted slowly, and Harley noticed with some surprise that he was looking at the table, or maybe the spine of the book, instead of at her. It was the first time he had broken eye contact with her in session, and suddenly she was afraid to speak and disturb whatever moment he was having with himself. "Clouds …that mock our eyes with air," he continued flatly after a few seconds, and when he looked up at her again she nearly jumped in her seat. His dark brown eyes were still hot and powerful, but there was a glassy, pained expression in them that she hadn't seen before. She thought back to the scene he had quoted – in which Antony, staring at cloud formations, had concluded that his own concept of self was just as nebulous, and just as unreliable, as the cloud shapes – and she thought now, as she met his eyes across the table, that the Joker had once had this same realization about himself and that her words had yanked him suddenly back to that moment, internally kicking and screaming.
"So half the time Antony doesn't know he's pulling at the leash because he's lying to himself about who he is?" Harley asked cautiously after a minute or two had passed in silence. She was trying to scribble notes in her folder without the sound of the pen intruding on the atmosphere. The Joker sat back in his chair slowly, the chain on his handcuffs clinking against the metal seat of his chair.
"He knows," he said quietly, his voice still flat even though the glassy look had left his eyes. "He knows because he had to come up with the lie in the first place. If you're telling a lie, you have to know the truth first. But the longer you tell it, the bigger the impact will be when the bomb finally drops."
"And in this case, Antony's entire image of himself is a lie?" Harley posited. The Joker scoffed, a little puff of breath escaping his nose that was not quite a laugh.
"His image of himself isn't even his. First it's Caesar's, then it's Cleopatra's. Antony doesn't even have a self-image that he came up with himself."
Harley looked down at her notes, focusing on her scribbles about the last act and Cleopatra's death scene – how she'd described Antony in terms that only her love could have produced, in a way that didn't match the real man at all, and how nobody had wanted to point out the disparity to her in her grief. "And he couldn't live up to any of the images in the end," she said softly, and the Joker nodded, bringing his arms back up to the table.
"That's… the big… lie," he expounded. "The il-LU-sion, the DE-lusion, that he could ever be capable of living up to Cleopatra's image of him. And he gets so comfortable in the lie that he doesn't see the bomb until it hits him. It's the lie before the storm."
"And if he'd just admitted that he couldn't live up to the image, then he could have had a little peace before he died?" Harley prompted.
"Well," the Joker shrugged, tucking his face to one side wryly, "I, ah… I don't think peace was an option. But at least he would have been something real." He was meeting Harley's eyes without blinking now, and she marveled at how human he could look – when he wanted to.
"Do you think if Antony had surrendered to his own gravity, that he could have won the battle at Actium?" She thought she knew what his answer would be, but she wanted to ask anyway. The Joker half-closed his eyes and let his head fall back at a slight angle.
"No. But he might not have been in the battle in the first place." Harley was writing his answer in her notes, and now she stopped and tilted her head to the side, unsure of what he meant. He sniffed irritably, adjusting himself in his seat again and making the chain rattle. "Antony held onto that …idiotic …lie …about who he was right up to the end," he went on, "and that's what dragged him into battle. Maybe if he'd let go a little earlier, he could have gotten out of the game. Out of politics, which he wasn't good at; out of combat, which he wasn't good at anymore; out of the marriage he didn't want to be in and the triumvirate he didn't want to be in and the culture… he didn't want to be in. Maybe he could have just stayed there in Egypt as nothing more than Cleopatra's lover, with no politics or power, or maybe she could have handed over her throne and they could've run off together somewhere they didn't have to worry about Antony living up to anybody's ideas of him. Maybe he could have died an old man in Cleopatra's bed instead of choking on his own blood on the floor of her mortuary temple because he was so weak he couldn't even kill himself on the first try."
There was a sharp, bitter edge to his tone that suddenly made Harley uncomfortable, and even as she warned herself not to do it, she looked up at his scars. Her stomach wobbled a little as her brain began to put together two scraps of an idea, using the bitterness in his voice as the cement. Choking on his own blood. The way one scar stopped in the middle of his cheek, jagged and hesitant. Couldn't even kill himself on the first try. The pinched, puckered corner of that scar. The two halves of the idea came together and slammed into her like a slow two-handed punch.
Jesus, he did that to himself.
Harley sat frozen, her pen soaking a little pool of red ink into the paper like blood. It wasn't a new thought, and she wasn't the first person to suggest it, but all of a sudden Harley knew it as a fact and not just a speculation; the Joker had given himself those scars. Now that she had seized on the thought, it was the only thing that made sense. The first scar had been a clean cut, and the second one – jagged, hesitant, unfinished – had been an aborted attempt. Too much pain, too much blood loss, maybe too much fear, whatever. But if someone else had been doing it, they would have held him down, and the scars would have matched.
Across the table, the Joker was watching her carefully, and Harley picked up her pen and clicked it shut; she would have loved to scribble down everything she'd just been thinking, but she had a feeling that the Joker could read upside down. Not that he really needed to, she thought after a moment of watching him in return – Harley got the distinct impression that he knew what she had just realized, and that the next thing she said might be critical. Everything she had been planning to say now seemed a little dangerous, and so she instead went with the first stray idea that floated past, hoping it was a safe one.
"Did he really love her?"
"What?" the Joker spat, and the startled look on his face was so genuine that Harley felt the absurd urge to apologize.
"Cleopatra," she said gently, and watched as his face relaxed again. "I just wondered what exactly it was that Antony was so attached to, why he had to kill himself as soon as he thought he lost her. You said earlier that even his own concept of self really came from her. So… was it really her he was in love with? Or was it the image of himself that he saw in her eyes?"
"Isn't that what most 'love' is?" the Joker sneered. Harley shrugged.
"Not necessarily. But I certainly think it can be," she acquiesced. "Maybe Antony felt like he had to die because if he no longer had Cleopatra, then he no longer had a mirror that showed him the Self he'd gotten accustomed to believing in."
"He was better off without it," the Joker countered, and Harley shrugged again.
"Maybe. If the object here is for him to surrender to his fate, his gravity, then maybe. But how can he surrender if he doesn't know what he's supposed to surrender to?" The Joker raised an inquisitive eyebrow, and Harley took that as an invitation to elaborate. "I don't think Antony knows who the real Antony is," she said, speaking slowly to make sure she was saying what she meant. "The whole play, we see all these pictures, right? Caesar's picture of who Antony is supposed to be, Cleopatra's airbrushed picture of him, the picture Enobarbus paints of him for the audience, Antony's picture of himself… but…." She paused a moment, putting together exactly the right words. "There are all these pictures of Antony, but nobody seems very concerned about, or very sure of, the authentic Antony. There's even a line where the third triumvir says that Antony's faults are hereditary and not purchased or chosen – I know he's intending that to mean that Antony is a good guy who doesn't willingly screw up, but what it really means underneath is that not even Antony's mistakes really belong to him. If even his mistakes aren't authentically his, then is anything? How is he supposed to know what gravity to surrender to if he doesn't even know which way is down? How can he lean into being the real Antony when he doesn't even recognize himself in the mirror?"
The Joker had leaned back in his seat again, and he was watching her with a gaze that was dark but cool, with all of the bitterness and caution and startlement gone, replaced by that avid intelligence that she had first seen in his eyes when they had met. Whatever internal upheaval he'd been feeling was now put aside and forgotten, and he was looking at her – as he had the last time they'd talked – like her forehead was glass and he was getting genuine pleasure from watching her brain jump through hoops.
"Well, if he wants to recognize his own reflection," the Joker said, suddenly sitting up straight, "then he'll have to take off his mask."
Stop me if you've heard this one before, Harley thought wryly. Aloud, she said, "And how is he supposed to do that?"
"Ah… somebody has to help him." His eyes were glittering now, and there was a hint of a grin beginning to tug at the corners of his mouth. "Until he can see who he really is, then he'll aaaaalways be giving in to somebody else's image of him and not his real self. He can't see it unless he takes off the mask. And he'll never take off the mask as long as he's com-for-ta-ble in it."
"So somebody has to make him uncomfortable enough to acknowledge his own reality?" Harley asked, and the Joker's eyebrows wiggled in what she assumed was agreement. "Is that what Cleopatra is trying to do when she gets all melodramatic on him?"
"Oh, she doesn't just get melodraMAtic," the Joker grinned. "She gets bitter and sharp, and sometimes even a little cruel. Sometimes she says things she knows are going to hurt him. She does it because she has to. She has to stick needles in him to force him to make real decisions. She has to try and wound him just to make him feel something that's real, that's uniquely his."
"Is it pain that makes you real?" Harley mused, quoting the lyrics of "Long Way Down" and wondering how they'd managed to make it back around to that song again. The Joker cocked his head and narrowed his eyes, but his look was a mixture of surprise and genuine amusement. He leaned down over the table, this time not pointedly showing her his chest but actually leaning closer to emphasize his words.
"Well, for most people it is," he rumbled, a little grin tugging at his mouth again. "They've gotta feel some kind of pain before they realize what's real and what isn't."
"And is that what you see yourself doing in Gotham?" Harley said, leaning her own head an inch or two to mirror his pose. "Goading people and making them uncomfortable so they'll take off their masks and be authentic?"
This time, the Joker did grin – not just a ghost-smile but a real one that reached his eyes and changed all the contours of his face. "What do you think?" he prodded, and for a moment Harley didn't trust herself to answer. The smile had done something extraordinary to his eyes, and in those quiet few seconds she began to be overwhelmed by the terrible, wild, dangerous beauty of him. They were leaning closely enough that she could smell the hospital detergent on his clothes, the hospital shampoo in his hair, and – oh, God, this can't be good – the quick, warm smell of his skin that was somehow both subtler and stronger than everything else. Harley felt her stomach turn over on itself and all of her joints turn to hot water at that smell. God, what is he doing to me? she thought in a little flutter of panic, knowing she should sit back in her seat, that Leland wouldn't like seeing them that close when she played back the recording, but almost unable to move in spite of her best instincts. She had never been so blindsided, so absolutely paralyzed, by desire simply from smelling someone before, and the raw power of the feeling unnerved her. I'm going to be absolutely useless in a minute if I don't lean back and get some distance, she thought; I have to get myself past this or he's going to ruin me.
Something about the thought reminded Harley of the play again, something in her words mirroring a concept or a line she had heard spoken, and the mental effort of searching for the connection was enough to rescue her from drowning in his scent – but only just. She fished around in her brain until she latched onto it, a line from somewhere in the middle of the performance during the rush of scene changes portraying battles and troop movements, and she used it to pull herself back into the reality of the conversation they were having.
"I think you've missed something," she answered him finally, a little grin of her own trying to creep onto her face. The Joker hadn't expected that answer, and his eyebrows bobbed up and back down dubiously; his tongue flickered around the curved course of his lips in a way that said he would be irritated if he didn't find her so amusing.
"Oh, ah… have I?"
"Yeah, you forgot how gravity works." Harley watched him for a reaction to this, but all she got was a slight narrowing of his eyes as he pulled back from where he had been leaning, so she went on. "I was just remembering a line from the play. 'The noble ruin of her magic.' Somebody says that when Antony and Cleopatra are losing the sea battle, and it came back into my head just now. And I was thinking about how Cleopatra was ruined by her love for Antony."
"Ah…," the Joker corrected, extending one long finger as if he would point out her mistake, "that line was actually referring to Antony. How the soldiers thought he had been RU-ined because he'd been seduced by the queen instead of sticking to his Roman fate."
"Yeah, I get that," Harley acquiesced, waving a hand impatiently and leaning back in her chair. "But where does Cleopatra end up by the last scene? She's dead, her kids are going to be killed so her bloodline will end, and her country is turned into a Roman province. Doesn't that sound ruined to you?" The Joker didn't comment, staring at her and waiting for her next words, so she kept going. "I think you can – and should – read the line either way. Because both of them have an affect on each other. I mean, gravity doesn't just exist as an independent entity; it's two things, each one pulling on the other one, and we just usually forget they're both pulling because we only see the pull of the one with more mass, like a planet. Antony and Cleopatra are both affecting each other, and it's just that Cleopatra is – metaphorically – so much more massive a character, and her pull is more visible – at least, up until the end."
"Does this science lesson have a point, Professor?"
"Mass determines gravity, right? Well, mass can change."
There was a silence in the therapy room again, almost as complete as it had been in the moments after Cash had closed the door. This time, though, Harley could hear both of them breathing – her own breath, a little shallow and full of adrenaline, the racerback hook on her bra creaking against itself as her shoulders tensed; and his breath, slow and measured and nearly inaudible save for the quiet press of his ribs against his crossed arms, making the chain clink. The Joker tilted his head to the side, regarding her the way an animal might look at an unfamiliar object; Harley had once seen her friend Danielle's pet terrier examine a remote-control car like that – as if trying to decide if the thing in front of him had been a toy, or prey.
"People… don't change," he said finally, his voice daring her to keep going. Harley took the dare.
"Maybe not on a large scale, but they can grow or shrink. And if your mass can change, then your gravity would change with it. So if Antony and Cleopatra were able to affect each other enough to cause an appreciable change in their characters – which I think does happen – then by doing that, they've changed what each other's fate, each other's gravity, is."
"You think that… one person… can affect another person so much… that it can shift their gravity, hmm?" The Joker still hadn't uncrossed his arms, but now he sat back up and started leaning toward her again. Harley couldn't afford to let her train of thought get derailed, so she stayed fully against the back of her chair, keeping as much distance as the bolted-down seat would allow.
"Yes, and it begs the question – if you've already surrendered to your gravity… what do you do if that gravity changes? What happens if you suddenly have a new gravity, pulling you somewhere else? Do you have to surrender all over again?" This was a legitimate question that she honestly wanted to see how he would answer. The Joker seemed to ponder the idea, pushing his tongue around inside his mouth as if the thought was something he could taste.
"On the, ah… rare… ocCAsion… that someone was that much affected…," he rumbled grudgingly, "then yeah. I guess you'd have to learn to float again. Then must thou needs find out new heaven, new earth. New gravity."
Harley smiled a little at the glib smoothness of the quote, and the Joker's eyes flickered in what she realized was almost a return of her smile, smothered at the last instant. She let the silence fall between them again, this time comfortable instead of tense, and they stayed that way until it felt easy to ask the next question.
"So, who are you in this story, Joker? Are you Antony, or are you Cleopatra?" She thought she knew both what he would say and what was really true, but she wanted to give him the chance to surprise her. The Joker sat up again and adjusted his white t-shirt, straightening it fussily like a businessman fixing his tie as he neared the end of a long meeting.
"Ah, isn't it OBvious?" he quipped, making sure she got a good look at his collarbone as he fiddled with the placement of the shirt on his chest. "The dread queen herself. Cleopatra and I have both let gravity have what it wanted; and now, we can help show other people who they really are."
"And this is who you really are?" Harley kept her face still, watching carefully for any signs that she had pushed too far and needed to retreat. "The bombs, and the elaborately staged chaos, and the social experiments – and whoever you were before, that's just the mask you took off? The whole essence of a person, distilled down into philosophy and high explosives?"
"What else is there?" the Joker said slowly, looking half irritated and half like he really wanted her to tell him what else she thought there was. Harley shrugged, as though what she was asking wasn't one of the more dangerous things she had said to him today.
"Well, what if you're wrong?"
"Wrong about what?" His tongue clicked against his teeth, an early warning like an animal's ears going backward. Harley took a deep breath.
"How do you know you surrendered to the right gravity? How do you know this is really who you are?"
"Experience," the Joker rumbled, not really angrily but a little unpleasantly. The bitterness was there again, just below the surface, and Harley had to resist the urge to apologize again. Surrendering might have made him feel free, but it isn't making him happy, she thought. Is he even able to feel happy? There's the real question.
"Okay, fine," she relented, keeping her voice soft. "But what if you could change your gravity? Do what Antony said, find out new heaven, new earth? Would you want to do it? Would you change who you are if you could?"
"I'm an immovable object, Doc," the Joker replied, not answering the question she had really asked him. "Lost cause." He looked at her openly and directly as if that statement was a challenge that he knew she couldn't walk away from. Harley sighed and tried to make it sound like a normal exhale. Did it count as taking the bait if what you wanted was the hook in the first place?
"Even things that can't be moved can be eroded," she said, giving him the ghost of a smile. "And if you're eroded for long enough, that'll change your mass. Change your mass, and you change your gravity."
"D'you wanna change my gravity, Doc?" he asked softly; the theatrical lilt was in his voice but not in his eyes, and Harley thought she could see two different versions of the Joker fighting for control of the one face. He leaned in again, and the soft fall of his curls around his face sent another wave of scent in Harley's direction, threatening to unbalance her again. "Didn't your mother ever tell you not to try to change a man?" he whispered. He had said it so softly that Harley wondered if the camera speakers would pick up his words, and maybe that was how he wanted it; his tone had become suddenly heavy with temptation. Well, two could play that game, Harley thought – especially since the camera was behind her today. She leaned in until their faces were almost touching.
"Mostly, my mother just told me that only bad girls wear push-up bras, so I guess I'll have to learn this lesson for myself." She had kept her voice low as well; Leland might blow a circuit over it, but matching him tit for tat right now was the only way out of this conversation alive. As she said it, she adjusted her arms to push her breasts further up into his line of sight, and she saw his eyes flicker over her cleavage before he could stop himself. There's a taste of your own medicine, she thought wryly, and it forced a grin out of her in spite of herself. The Joker stared at her blankly for a moment, unable to process the way she had bookended the conversation with his own tactic; then he grinned back, and the grin broke apart into giggles.
"Aahh, you win, Doc," he said, leaning back in his chair and stretching his legs under the table. "I, ah… I surrender. For now." He pulled his legs back to his own side, but not before letting the toes of his slippers brush lightly against Harley's ankles. It made her shiver, and she covered by picking up the book and putting it back inside her portfolio, turning over her notebook to the back of her page of notes.
"Does that mean you surrender to my one personal question I get to ask you?" she smiled wryly. "You didn't forget, did you?"
"If I was a bargaining man," the Joker said amiably, "I'd call what you just asked your, ah… one personal question… for the day."
"But?" Harley prodded, and the Joker rolled his eyes.
"Buuuutttt, since it was in the context of the reading, I suppose you still get one un-re-LA-ted question. So ask, before I change my mind."
"Okay. How are you sleeping?"
The Joker blinked slowly, like he wasn't sure he'd heard her properly. "That's it?" he said flatly. "You sure you wanna waste a chance to, ah… probe my inner darkness on a question like that?"
"I don't think it's a waste," Harley shrugged. "Sleep is an important factor in mental health, so as your doctor, I think I should know about yours. You know – how much sleep are you getting, whether you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, that sort of thing."
"I'd get a hell of a lot more sleep if I had a pillow thicker than my shirt," the Joker spat, and Harley thought it might be the most honest thing he'd ever said to her. For someone who liked to blow up lawyers for funsies, his vocabulary was always surprisingly clean. Melodramatic, but clean. When he cursed, it felt more like the truth, somehow. Harley tilted up her notebook so he couldn't see what she was writing as she answered him.
"You think your environment is hindering your ability to get adequate sleep?"
"You try it," he sneered, cracking his neck as if to prove his point. "I've slept in more comfortable cargo vans."
"And what about other issues? Any restlessness or sleepwalking?"
"In order to sleepwalk, you have to be a s l e e p," the Joker grimaced, and Harley gave him a wry smile.
"What about dreams?"
"What about them?"
"Well," she pressed, "are they frequent for you? Are they vivid? Maybe even nightmares? Or are you the sort of person who seldom remembers their dreams?"
"I think that's technically a second question, Doc," the Joker rumbled, and the edge that had crept back into his voice was subtle, almost imperceptible to anyone who wasn't listening for it. It was a tone that said Are you sure you want to be asking me about dreams, Doc? – and for the second time that morning, Harley had the distinct and prickly sensation that somehow, the Joker knew exactly what sort of dreams she had been having that weekend. She sighed.
"Alright, that's fair," she conceded. "We can talk about dreams in particular some other time, then. In the meantime, why don't I see if I can get you a prescription for an extra pillow? If you're sleeping more, then maybe you'll have some extra material to discuss in the future."
"Oh, I'm SO looking forward to it," the Joker mocked, sounding like he had never looked forward to anything less in his whole life. But the idea of another pillow did seem to mollify him a little, and Harley wrote it down before closing her notes entirely.
"Well, it looks like it's time to get you out of here and get you ready for Group, so if there isn't anything else you want to discuss, I think we can end the session here." She lifted an eyebrow to give him an opportunity, but the Joker's face had gone slack and expressionless now that the exchange was over, and Harley nodded to herself and picked up the camera remote. "Alright, then. Thank you for your time, Joker. Session ending at…." She glanced down at her watch. "At 10:12 AM," she finished, and she clicked the button to stop the recording. The little red light above the Joker's head blinked out, and Harley got up to let Officer Cash know they were finished.
Harley stopped with her knuckles hovering above the metal door she had been about to knock on. She didn't drop her hand, but she did turn to look at her patient. The Joker was looking at her with that same dark, hot, liquid gaze that had greeted her before the camera had been turned on.
"Tell you my dreams if you tell me yours."
He said it conversationally, without the lilt or theatrical quality that made his voice so recognizable, and somehow that was almost worse. If her eyes had been closed, it would have been the most normal voice in the world. If her eyes had been closed, it would have been soft and almost romantic, the invitation of a lover.
Harley reminded herself that her eyes were open, steeled herself against whatever the hell it was she was suddenly feeling, and signaled for Cash to open the door.