"There he is!" exclaimed Harley, spotting Joker through the swarm of people milling around the gym. She held her parents' hands as they pressed through the crowd. "Mr. J!" she cried, trying to get his attention. "Over here!"
He noticed her and smiled, heading over to her. "Quite a crowd!" he chuckled. "Who knew so many people would wanna sit through a boring graduation ceremony?"
"Are your parents here yet?" asked Harley, looking around.
"Nah, not yet. You look beautiful," he said, changing the subject quickly.
"Thanks," she said, smiling at him. "I'm still not used to dressing up."
"Well, no need to get used to it," he said, kissing her gently. "I like the old Harley better anyway."
She squeaked happily, kissing him. "Good to see you both again, Mr. and Mrs. Q," said Joker, nodding at her parents.
"You too, J," said Mrs. Quinzel, hugging him. "Do you know where your parents are gonna be sitting? We'd love to sit next to them."
"Uh…no, they didn't tell me," he said, frowning. "I wouldn't worry about it, Mrs. Q. But you'd better hurry if you wanna get good seats – it's a madhouse in here!"
"Ok. See you both after the ceremony," said Mrs. Quinzel, heading off into the audience with her husband.
"Your parents are coming, right, puddin'?" asked Harley, concerned.
"Yeah, I'm sure they'll be here," muttered Joker. "But they're late for a lotta things. C'mon, sweetheart, let's go find our seats," he said, heading toward the stage where the graduates sat.
Harley was going to press him for more information, but he didn't seem to want to talk about it. The ceremony began, with Principal Leland giving an encouraging speech about the graduates' future of possibilities. About halfway through this, the gym door opened and a man and a woman entered, shuffling to the back of the auditorium. Harley saw Joker's face harden into a frown as he noticed the pair, and then returned his attention to Principal Leland.
"And now I'd like to pass you on to our valedictorian, Jonathan Crane, who's prepared a short speech," said Principal Leland, nodding at Crane. He took the stand to rapturous applause.
"Thank you very much," he said. "I've been advised to make this brief by our class president, J," he said, nodding at Joker. "I think advised sounds better than threatened, anyway." There was laughter at this, and Crane smiled, continuing. "And actually I don't have much to say. My experience of life is dreadfully limited – I've just finished high school, for goodness sake, and I sincerely hope the rest of my life is better than that was. It would be difficult for it to be worse," he said, and the audience laughed again. "Anyway, I have no business trying to lecture my peers on how to live their lives," he continued. "One thing this school teaches you is that people come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and each one can be incredibly different from another. So no piece of advice is going to apply to everyone, since everyone's life is going to be individual, different, and unique. I have read a lot of books, and what I've learned from them is that life is whatever you make of it, but it can sometimes be a lot easier if you bear certain things in mind. Remember who you are at heart, and be proud of it. Don't let anyone change you into something you're not. Be truthful, and honest with yourself, no matter what anyone else thinks. And whatever happens, don't let fear hold you back from doing what you want. Find out what makes you special, and do it. I hope if we all do that, we can all find some measure of happiness in our lives. I wish everyone the greatest luck in that endeavor. Thank you."
The applause as Crane took his seat was deafening. "Great speech, Johnny," said Harley, leaning over to smile at him. "You're great at holding an audience. Have you ever thought of being a professor? You'd make a fantastic lecturer."
"I hadn't," replied Crane, smiling at her. "But I will definitely consider it."
After the speeches came the presentation of degrees, and Harley had never felt prouder than when J's name was called, and he shook hands with Principal Leland (without his joy buzzer, to her relief) as he accepted his degree. Except for when she collected her own degree, which contained a note from the committee awarding her scholarship, congratulating her on her academic success and containing an address to write to them at when she had decided on which university she would be attending.
"Congratulations, baby!" exclaimed Mrs. Quinzel after the ceremony was over.
"Thanks, Mom," said Harley, hugging both her parents. She looked over to the back of the auditorium, where Joker was conversing with the two people who had entered late. "You think we should go congratulate Mr. J, or is he gonna come over here?"
"No, let's go over to him," said Mr. Quinzel, taking her hand. As they approached, Harley could see something was wrong – the man and woman, upon closer inspection, weren't dressed for a graduation ceremony. They weren't dressed up at all. And they looked ill – the woman swayed unsteadily on her feet while the man leaned on the chair, glaring at Joker with something like hatred in his eyes, something that should never have been seen in the eyes of a parent toward their child.
"…why didn't you tell us it'd be a waste of goddamn time?" muttered the man, as Harley approached. "You think I ain't got better things to do than sit through some sorta boring, pointless ceremony?"
"No…sir," stammered Joker, glaring back at him. "I just kinda thought you might be proud of me, for once."
"Proud?" repeated the man. "Of you? Don't make me laugh, J," he muttered, lighting a cigarette.
"Uh…hi," said Mr. Quinzel. They all turned to face him, and he held out his hand to the man. "It's nice to finally meet you."
The man studied him, confused. "I'm sorry, who are you?" he asked.
"I'm Mr. Quinzel, Harley's Dad," he said, gesturing at Harley.
"Harley?" repeated the man, still confused.
"Uh…your son's girlfriend," replied Mr. Quinzel, nodding at Joker.
"I didn't know my son had a girlfriend," he retorted, looking at Harley in a mixture of astonishment and disgust. "I can't imagine what any girl would see in him. You are using protection, aren't you, J?" he asked, turning back to his son.
"Dad…" hissed Joker, angrily.
"It's important," his father interrupted. "You don't want a little accident to happen, after all, an unwanted, disappointing accident that you're stuck with for the rest of your life."
He said this pointedly, eyeing his son in loathing. Harley saw Joker's hand tighten into a fist, and she slid her hand onto his, twisting his fingers around hers instead.
Mr. Quinzel put his hand on Joker's shoulders. "You must be very proud of your boy," he murmured. "I know I would be, to have such a fine son."
"You can't be proud of a mistake, Mr. Quinzel," retorted the man, exhaling a cloud of smoke. "No matter how hard it tries to please you."
"Joe, can we go?" muttered the woman. It was the first time she had spoken – she had a hand held to her forehead, and her eyes were squeezed shut. "All this noise is giving me a headache. And I ain't had a drink in about an hour."
"Yeah, babe, we'll go," he muttered. "See ya around, kid," he said, turning to leave his son without another word.
Joker watched them go, shaking in fury. "Mr. J…" began Harley.
"Well, you got your wish," he interrupted. "You met 'em now. Ain't they a prize pair? Did I hit the jackpot or what?"
"Mr. J…" she repeated, but he stormed off suddenly. "I'm gonna go after him," murmured Harley to her parents. "Back in a second."
She followed him out of the school and onto the football field, where he climbed on top of the bleachers and sat there. "Can I join you?" she asked.
He nodded curtly. She took his hand and he pressed it gently, but didn't say anything else, staring off into the distance. "I'm sorry," she murmured. "I kinda understand now."
"You can't understand," he murmured. "You have no idea what it's like to be treated like a screw up every single day of your life."
"No," she agreed. "But I think I can understand how that prompted you to act out. You did all the jokes and pranks as a cry for attention. And you didn't ever believe in yourself because nobody ever believed in you. Nobody said you were important or special. And you wanted to prove you were. And you are, Mr. J. You are. I love you so much," she said, kissing him.
He was silent for a long time. "Ever thought of being a shrink, toots?" he murmured at last.
"A shrink, huh?" she repeated, smiling. "Might be interesting. I need to see if they have a psychiatry program at Gotham University. That's where I'm going, y'see."
"Yeah?" he asked, looking at her. "Why's that?"
She kissed him again. "Because I wanna stay here with you, silly," she murmured. "I don't wanna go off to some faraway college and lose everything we have. No education could possibly be as precious as you are to me. So I'm staying here."
He smiled at her. "Y'know, I've got a little money saved up from those fake IDs," he murmured. "You think your parents would mind if we got a small apartment somewhere near the university? Just the two of us? You study while I get a job somewhere?"
"I'm sure I could convince them," she said, nodding. "Sounds like fun, Mr. J."
"Yeah," he agreed, touching her face. "Yeah, I think we'll have a lot of fun together."
They shared a lengthy kiss. "Now c'mon," said Harley, taking his hand and pulling him down the bleachers. "Dad's gonna wanna get some pictures of us."
They returned to the front of the school, where the recent graduates and their parents were milling about. Everyone was gathered around Crane, congratulating him on his speech. "Johnny, you got a way with words," said Joker, clapping him on the back. "And you're pretty funny when you wanna be, y'know. Still, I'm the class clown here, so nobody forget that! I even got the award to prove it!" he chucked, pulling out his certificate.
"I don't think anybody's gonna fight you for that, J," retorted Bruce Wayne.
"Well, you certainly won't, my hall monitor buddy!" exclaimed Joker. "Aw, c'mere you!" he said, embracing him suddenly. "I'm really gonna miss busting people's fun with you, you know that?"
"Get him off me," muttered Bruce, looking incredibly uncomfortable.
"Let's have a picture with everyone now!" said Mr. Quinzel, gesturing at them. "If you all wanna gather around the sign, maybe?"
The students obeyed. "I wrote that," said Crane, nodding at the graffitti which read Abandon all hope, ye who enter here! "It's from Dante's Inferno, and it seemed entirely appropriate when I first arrived here. But I can't say that I won't miss the old place now that I'm leaving. Still, I'm looking forward to really starting my life. This is only high school, after all. I'm sure we'll all grow up to be healthy, normal, productive citizens."
Joker laughed, draping an arm around Harley and kissing her cheek. "Yeah, sure we will!" he chuckled, as they all smiled for the camera. "Nice joke, Johnny! Nice joke."
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