Light and sound flitted in and out of her consciousness. Sharp flashes of purple and white, snatches of laughter and shriekings that drew no discernible line between dreams and waking. Her whole body felt swollen and tender, skin prickling at the slightest touch as though every inch of her was bruised and beaten raw.
When she was cognizant enough, when her base instincts temporarily overcame the fever that wracked her, she would lower herself gingerly to the ground and crawl towards the bathroom, the sensitised skin of her legs shrieking as though the carpet was razor wire. She would have to frequently pause and wait for her head to stop swimming; several times she was so disoriented she found herself crawling straight into a wall or the furniture.
When she finally reached her destination she would haul herself up onto the toilet and let nature take its course, slumped over her knees, her eyes shut against the sickening waves of vertigo that overwhelmed her.
She forced herself to have showers but could do no more than switch the water on and sit in the stall under the hot spray, her head tipped back at the neck to feel the soothing heat work her aching joints.
Lifting her arms hurt. Stretching hurt. Shifting hurt. Swallowing hurt. Breathing hurt.
So mostly she just lay still and hoped it would go away.
She didn’t know how much time had passed. In her state it was impossible to tell. The room she was ensconced within was constantly dark and she didn’t have the energy to drag herself beyond the bathroom to investigate what was going on in the rest of the lair.
She tried not to care.
Anytime she started to worry, about where he was and what he was doing, if he was eating properly and had clean shirts, if his scheming was going well and the henches were performing their best, the throbbing in her head would grow stronger until it overwhelmed her altogether and she gave way to dreams so vivid they were more likely hallucinations. She watched him unravel before her, his skin peeling off like a thread until he was completely undone and his insides spilled everywhere and she screamed and cried, stumbling around and trying to reassemble him, weeping all the while that she was so sorry for letting him down.
She limped down alleyways, the aching muscles of her fevered body following her into dreams, her brain twisting them into horrific injuries administered by claws and teeth, while close behind her the ghastly flapping of giant leathery wings sounded louder and louder.
She wasn’t even sure how she’d gotten so sick. All she could really remember was the last couple of weeks at Arkham she’d needed to sleep several hours in the afternoon instead of going to the rec room. She’d been so damned tired she didn’t even care about missing hang-out time with the others.
Shortly after they busted out, she’d found herself overwhelmed with a blinding dizziness whilst they were out “shopping” late one night. She’d literally been barely able to stand; her knees shaking and the bag of money had slipped from her grasp, spilling wads of hundred dollar bills in all directions.
He’d been furious he had to drive the car back to their hideout.
The kicks he’d levelled at her as she’d stumbled inside had barely registered against the ache fast consuming her muscles and glands. She’d crawled into a small ball in a corner of the hallway, and passed out.
She’d recovered enough after that to make it to bed and it was there she had stayed.
If he’d once slipped in beside her, she hadn’t been aware of it. Occasionally she heard him tearing through drawers or throwing things around as he pursued whatever frenzied train of thought was currently hurtling through his mind. Now and then bursts of laughter broke in from the other rooms of the house as did the blare of the television set or the shriek of a hapless henchman made the punchline of the moment’s joke. They filtered through her consciousness like snatches between static on the radio, blaring clear before being obscured.
Several times she woke, anticipating the motion of a hand through her sweaty locks, a soft kiss tickling her cheek. Her horrifying hallucinations merged into yearning dreams where he brought in chicken noodle soup – assuring her it was kosher – spoon feeding her gently, scooping the spoon under her lip to catch any dribbles of the broth, clucking at her tenderly.
His large, strong hand gently unbuttoning the buttons of her pyjama top, slender fingertips tenderly rubbing vapour ointment between her breasts. Scooping her up into his embrace, carrying her to a hot bubblebath where he carefully washed every inch of her before massaging her aching back with his articulate, soothing hands.
In those dreams, he never left her side, but lay beside her, snuggling her beneath his protective arms and whispering funny stories into her hair so that she giggled despite the ache in her sides.
Then consciousness would choke her out of that sweet land and she would open her sore eyelids and find herself still alone in that dark, musty room, shivering with cold and clammy with fever sweat, her throat screamingly dry and her stomach empty, her body a wrenching mess of aches and pains.
It even hurt to cry. So she tried not to care about that, either.
A twisted face streaked white and black contorted through her blurred vision; a voice echoed in her ears as though through water. She blinked and slowly woke, her swollen glands immediately making her yearn for oblivion once more.
“Come on, Harley, this silliness has gone on long enough,” The Joker was saying snappishly above her. She stirred her head against the pillow and squinted up at him. He was pouting down at her discontentedly, his brows furrowed together and his lower lip protruding, looking most put out. “I’ve been very patient and tolerant with you, but it’s time for you to get up and pull your weight.”
She opened her mouth to speak, to apologise for her uselessness, but all that came out was a high, thin whine.
Joker scowled further, gripped her painfully by the shoulders and shook her. She whimpered, louder, the shooting pains in her muscles as sharp as knife wounds.
“You know I hate dilly-dallying!” Her beloved snapped above her. “I have important things to accomplish and you need to do your part!”
Harley had never been a good patient. Being sick thieved any cheeriness she might’ve retained in any other situation. Her inability to explain herself then broke the last of her endurance down and she began to snivel, hot tears spilling down her tender cheeks.
If only he would wrap his arms around her, kiss her and tell her it was all right, he understood. She wanted to get up. She really did. She hated thinking of how useless she was to him in this state, how frustrating he must find it. Please, just this once, let him see. She wasn’t being bad, she really wasn’t. She wanted to get up, she wanted to so badly but her limbs were dead weight, sacks filled with wet cement and the interior of her skull seemed filled with fireworks ricocheting off bone and brain matter. She’d never do this to him on purpose, never ever ever. Let him say it was all right, never mind about the rest of it. It could all wait until she was better and he’d be right here to see that she’d get there.
She wanted it so much it rose as wretched an ache in her heart as in the rest of her, burning so badly it intensified and exacerbated her other soreness until agony was all she knew and her whole body seemed to thrum with it, vibrating with pain.
She whimpered, felt her eyes burn bright and then her head rang as he whacked her first in one direction and then the other, the echo of his slap like a shuddering peal of bells spinning round her head, her feverish cheek smarting. She sagged backwards, even the motion of curling herself up seeming too unsurmountable, and lay there with her eyes shut, hot tears trapped behind her lids, his cruel fingers jabbing sharply into her shoulders.
She felt him pause to regard her for a moment, her delirious passivity and lolling head, and then he roughly let her go, throwing her back against the pillow and storming away furiously.
“Rocco! Henshaw!” She heard him shriek in the distance as her body trembled with agony, “time to earn your living, boys!”
She passed out again.
A small part of her mind reasoned she was hallucinating again. She was rocking back and forth and her limbs felt restrained. No, not just restrained. Confined. Trapped. Her arms against her body. She murmured and tried to shift, ignoring the pain. She couldn’t move.
She was ensconced in something, wrapped up tightly. She felt herself jerk and jolt, the sudden cool of damp night air on her face, the only part of her that had escaped her trap.
In scant seconds she felt herself tip downwards, the air shifting and becoming warmer and less fresh. She was placed atop something firm and then there was the sharp click of a car door slamming shut. Two more followed in short succession, she heard the rubbery hiss of seatbelts being fastened and then the burr of an engine.
Her body continued to ache with every motion of the car as it pulled away from the lair, a lone street lamp flashing bright across her eyes for a split second. Rocco and Henshaw were silent in the front seats, the purr of the engine the only sound enveloping her.
She wanted to cry out, to protest that she was better, could get up and make herself useful, but couldn’t muster the energy. It was hard enough to keep her eyes open. Not even the prospect of her imminent death could rouse her out of the cocoon of pain and fever she was snared in. She moaned softly, sorrow twisting in the hollow of her chest, every fibre of her being crying out for her Puddin’ one final time.
She felt herself lifted and carried, their footsteps crunching against gravel. The air was colder, as though they were further from the city. She agonised over the banality of it with what consciousness she had, wishing he’d wanted to do it himself.
There was a shuffling and she was placed clumsily down, their voices murmuring softly in a strained argument. A strange electronic beeping noise, the scrape of gravel kicking up as they ran, car doors slamming and the roar as they fired up the motor and peeled away.
The light was so fierce it scorched her eyes even though they were shut. She felt her brows furrow painfully together and opened her lids a crack. The light above blazed unforgiveably and she winced and twisted her head away.
There was a soft whirring sound; it reminded her of the gurney wheels sliding across linoleum tiles at Arkham. Something cold and wet was swabbed against the crook of her elbow.
“Get that IV drip into her,” an echoing voice was saying, “she’s dehydrated.”
Owwwww! She felt the prick of the needle sinking into her tormented flesh. It wasn’t fair. There weren’t supposed to be needles in Heaven! Unless this was Hell… uh oh.
“What on earth has happened to her?”
Harley stirred, the familiarity of the voice pricking through her consciousness. It sounded like Doctor Leland.
Harley struggled to open her eyes again, the fierce burn of the light above having faded to a muted red behind her eyelids. It still glimmered brightly but was nowhere near as overwhelming as she slowly blinked her eyes open. She could almost make out the features of Doctor Leland above her, peering down anxiously into her face, blurred and running at the edges.
“We found her ten minutes ago at the front gates, wrapped up in a blanket. Initial prognosis is mono.”
Harley’s heart began to beat faster as they fixed the drip into her arm. She shifted a little and felt the give of a mattress beneath her, the rustle of a hospital gown against her flesh.
Doctor Leland seemed to be frowning confusedly, the blur of her face distorting inwards, her voice sounding as though it echoed from a distance. “But that doesn’t make sense. Look at the state of her – she could never have got here by herself.”
Then Harley’s heart leap and her agony momentarily subsided in the wake of the sudden bright joy that flooded her.
Doctor Leland and Doctor Bartholomew were exchanging disbelieving glances at the foot of her cot.
“You don’t think he – ?” Bartholomew began and Leland shook her head briskly.
“Let’s worry about that later. I don’t think I could handle the concept right now and Harley needs antibiotics. Get Doctor Fitzgerald down here.”
Harley felt her feverish muscles begin to relax, a peaceful unconsciousness softly start to creep over her. She shut her eyes again and sniffled. But this time her tears were of joy and the aching hollow in her chest was filled with a delirious gratitude towards her own sweet Puddin’.
To that bewitching sense of peace she softly faded out again, knowing that when she woke she would be well and whole once more.