"97?! 97?! Oh God, how could this day get any worse?" groaned Crane, storming into the library after school.
"What's up, Johnny?" asked Harley, as she, Nygma, and Tetch looked up from their respective textbooks.
Crane threw the paper down on the table. "I got a 97 on my history exam! A 97! Can you believe it?!"
"Great job…" began Harley, but the other two started laughing.
"See ya later, Sal!" chuckled Nygma.
"Sal?" said Harley, confused.
"Short for salutatorian," explained Tetch. "Only the second highest academic achiever, and therefore a failure at life."
"Shut up, Jervis," growled Crane, grabbing a piece of paper and doing some quick calculations. He breathed a sigh of relief. "Even with such a grade, I'm still in the running thanks to that 107 I got on my psychology paper."
"What did they knock off the three points for?" asked Tetch, examining the test.
"I was asked what caused the first World War," replied Crane. "So I explained the truth to them: fear. Fear causes everything – it is the motivation upon which all people and nations are shaped. It was the fear of every European country before the first World War that all other nations would outstrip them in terms of wealth, power, and empire. It was fear of losing face that caused them to side with their allies. It was fear of the victory of unfriendly powers that persuaded the United States to join the war. The whole incident was caused, fought, and perpetuated by fear. But it turns out the answer they were looking for was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. As if I'm a mind reader and I'm meant to know they wanted a simple, one-word summary!"
"There is only one line for the answer," said Harley, slowly. "And you kinda gave them an essay. Did you even mention Archduke Ferdinand?"
"He was a tiny cog in the giant machine of fear!" snapped Crane.
Nygma snorted. "Pathetic," he muttered, returning his attention to his book.
"Actually, I think a 97 is pretty good," said Harley. "I'd certainly be proud of a grade like that."
"I think, Harley, that you may not be quite familiar with how ruthless and cutthroat a competition this is," said Tetch. "The prize is valedictorian – official recognition from an authoritative source that you're the most intelligent student in the school. High 90s will not do. Hundreds or better are the standard among the three of us. It is an intense rivalry."
"And I've never scored less than a hundred on a test," retorted Nygma.
"Really? Never? In any subject?" asked Harley, astonished.
Nygma smiled. "I'm incredibly intelligent, what can I say?" he sighed. "And I will prove it to the world at graduation, when I am named valedictorian."
"In your dreams, Edward," snapped Tetch. "That title is clearly mine!"
"If Alice asked you to bow out, you would, wouldn't you?" asked Nygma.
"That is entirely beside the point!" snapped Tetch. "First of all, she would never ask me to do such a thing! And second of all, I daresay she'll be so impressed when I am valedictorian, that she will be unable to help herself falling in love with me. I have the motivation of love, so I am destined to win," he said, simply.
"You know that's not really how life works, right, nerdlinger?" said a voice from the doorway. They all turned to see the Joker standing there, grinning.
Tetch and Nygma dived under the table. "What are you doing here, Joker?" demanded Crane, coming over to stand protectively in front of Harley.
"Harley invited me," he said, pulling out a chair and putting his feet up on the table. "Said she'd help me study."
"You think you've earned my help?" asked Harley. "You think I've just forgiven you for that pie incident?"
He shrugged. "You ask me to go, I'll go," he said. "The last thing I wanna do is force my company upon people who don't wanna hang out with me. But there's a math test tomorrow, and I'm kinda gonna fail it without help."
"I don't see how that's any concern of ours," snapped Tetch, peeking up over the edge of the table. "You've never sought help from us before – you've only tormented us!"
"Well, nobody ever offered to help me before," said Joker, shrugging. "But now Harley has, so here I am. I'll go if she wants me to," he said, looking at her.
Harley shrugged. "You can stay if you wanna. Although I warn you, I ain't the greatest at math myself. You'll need one of these geniuses to help you with that," she said, nodding at Tetch and Nygma, who had climbed slowly back into their seats.
"Edward's the math genius," said Tetch, pointing hastily at him. "Jonathan and I are more adept with the arts and sciences…"
"Huh. So I'm gonna be stuck with Eddie as my study buddy if I stay, is that what you're saying?" asked Joker.
"Yep," agreed Harley, failing to repress a grin.
Joker grinned back. "All right, Eddie, you're on," he said, coming over to sit next to him. "It's math time!"
Nygma looked helplessly at his companions, sighed, and pulled out his math textbook. Harley continued to grin, returning her attention to her own work. She occasionally glanced up to see Nygma frustratedly trying to explain basic math problems to Joker, who didn't seem to be getting it. He would occasionally glance up to meet her eyes, and smile back.
"So that's algebra, huh?" asked Joker, after about half an hour of being lectured by Nygma.
"That was multiplication!" snapped Nygma. "You need to learn this basic stuff before we can move on to more complex systems of numbers!"
"Oh, God!" groaned Joker, slamming his face resignedly into the open book in front of him. Harley giggled.
"It ain't funny, toots, it's torture!" snapped Joker. "And this nerd ain't being very sympathetic!"
"Why should I be sympathetic to a man who's given me innumerable wedgies?" demanded Nygma.
"Here, Eddie, let me try," said Harley, taking the book from him. "Why don't we try phrasing these problems in ways you're gonna understand, J? See, now if you have ten cherry bombs, and x is the number of 'em you flush down the toilet, and you're left with four cherry bombs, what is x?"
Joker began counting down on his fingers. "Six," he said.
"Uh huh," said Harley, proudly. "And they're gonna cause a lotta plumbing damage."
He chuckled, moving closer to her. Crane watched them both with narrowed eyes over the top of his book.
"When are you going to ask Harley about prom?" asked Tetch as they left together after study group was over. Joker and Harley walked ahead of them, talking and laughing. "You mustn't let fear hold you back, you know, Jonathan."
"I don't believe I'm the man Harley would be interested in going with," muttered Crane, glaring at the couple ahead of him.
Tetch laughed. "My dear Jonathan, you're talking nonsense! You don't need to fear competition from that delinquent! He has all the charm of the Queen of Hearts! And he upset Harley frightfully today."
"I think she's forgiven him for that," growled Crane. "I'll never understand women, you know."
"Do you honestly think the Joker is interested in going to the prom with anyone?" demanded Tetch. "The man doesn't take anything seriously! Especially not the prom, the ultimate ritual of conformity! He probably won't even be attending it! And even if he does, if you ask Harley first, you can beat him to the punch! And just think what a victory that would be, after all those times he flushed your head down the toilet!"
Crane nodded slowly. "Yes, you're right, Jervis."
"Ask her now," said Tetch, shoving him gently forward.
Crane cleared his throat, interrupting Joker and Harley's conversation. "Um…Harley…could I have a quick word?" he asked.
"Sure, Johnny, go ahead," said Harley.
"Uh…no…in private," said Crane, glaring at Joker.
"Oh," said Harley, surprised. "Uh…sure. I'll be back in a second…" she said to Joker, but he caught her hand.
"Look, before you go, there's something I've kinda been wanting to ask ya," he said. "Do you wanna go to the prom with me?"
Crane grew furious – clearly Joker had anticipated his question and was keen to thwart him. But he was surprised, and so was Joker, when Harley just stared at him, hurt. "Why…why would you say something like that?" she whispered. "It's not a funny joke, J. It's just hurtful."
"It's not a joke!" exclaimed Joker. "I really wanna take you!"
She ripped her hand out of his and stepped away from him, tears in her eyes. "Then you're very cruel," she murmured. "Very cruel, to get my hopes up like that when you know there's no possible way I can go to the prom. I told you about my family's situation. How can I expect them to buy me a nice dress and shoes and go through all that expense just for some silly dance? How can you expect me to ask them to do that?"
"Look, Harley, you tell me you wanna go and I'll take care of all the expense…" he began.
"I don't want your charity!" she snapped. "And I don't wanna go to prom with you! Or anyone! I'll see you later!" she said, storming off.
Crane let out a sigh of relief. "Well, thank you for sparing me that tongue-lashing, J…" he began, but Joker grabbed him around the throat, lifting him off his feet.
"Another word outta you and your head goes in the toilet!" he hissed.
Crane nodded vigorously. Joker slowly lowered him to the ground and left the building. "Serves me right for being serious, I guess," he muttered, kicking a passing can. "Serves me right for caring."