Time at Arkham Asylum seemed to run at its own contradictory pace – days often seemed to stretch out into weeks, but there were still never enough hours to get everything done.
Dr Joan Leland had just come to the end of a particularly frustrating shift. Officially it had finished several hours earlier, but patients in the middle of psychotic breaks were rarely appreciative of such things as staff rotas and she hadn't felt comfortable leaving the unfortunate medical students who were covering the evening shift until the violently disturbed man was safely sedated. The net result of this unpaid overtime was that she felt even more shattered than usual and was due back at work in less than seven hours. Plus she strongly suspected there were still bodily secretions of some kind in her hair. Driving home, getting showered and then snatching a few hours of sleep were all she could focus on.
The Arkham parking lot was dark at this late hour, with a few dozen staff cars clustered near to the main entrance. Her anonymous grey sedan was where she had left it so many hours and countless cups of coffee ago; parked at the end of the lot and partially concealed in shadows cast by the security lighting that surrounded the building. Juggling an armful of files and rooting around in her purse for the keys, it wasn't until she was within the last few feet that she noticed the fragments of glass that littered the ground next to the driver's side door. The window had been smashed.
Pushing her tiredness aside Joan took a few cautious steps closer and peered in through the broken window. The cheap factory-basics stereo was still there and nothing seemed to have been taken; even the 'whimsical' nodding dog her aunt had given her last Christmas was unfortunately still sat on the dashboard. Looking back towards the main building all the other vehicles seemed to be untouched, and she could see no suspicious figures loitering in the shadows, bricks or baseball bats in hand.
Jon shuffled the fragments of glass with the toe of one shoe as she mulled the situation over: befitting the isolation required for an asylum they were miles from anywhere, so what sort of vandal would travel all the way out to Arkham just to smash her car window?
It was then that she spotted the figure curled up in the backseat. They looked to be wearing the patient-issued pale blue pyjamas, and although their face was turned to the cushion of the seat she thought she saw a protruding blonde pigtail. With a sinking feeling Joan tapped firmly on the rear window. The figured started, then sat up blearily rubbing their eyes. At her motion they rolled down the window.
"Hey Joan," Harley greeted her airily through a yawn, as though they were making small talk at the beginning of a treatment session. "This isn't your car is it? When did you get rid of that ol' yellow VW Rabbit you had?"
Her weary brain couldn't think of anything intelligent to say beyond answering the question: "It needed a completely new transmission system last year – fixing it up would have cost double what the car was worth."
Joan wasn't sure why she was letting herself get drawn into this discussion and not calling the switchboard on her cell phone and asking for security. Following protocols. Maybe because they were the same protocols that already seemed to have let her patient get out of her cell and the building un-noticed? Another stunning success for the asylum security team.
"That's a shame," Harley replied. "I always thought it was really cheerful colour – sorta canary yellow mixed with sunshine yellow." She shifted to sit cross-legged on the backseat, showing no signs of getting out of the car any time soon. "You should think about paintin' your office the same shade. It couldn't hurt to brighten the place up a bit."
Joan placed the stack of files she'd been carrying on the top of the car and knelt down slightly so that she was at the same level as her former colleague through the open window. "Harley, what are you doing out here?"
"Tryin' to get a ride into the city. I was gonna borrow someone's car but I didn't exactly think things through," she talked matter-of-factly but all the while fidgeted with one dangling pigtail. "Usually the boys boost cars when we need 'em for a job, but Mistah J showed me how to hotwire a car just in case. He made it look easy, but then he makes everythin' look easy… an' I guess it helps to be usin' a screwdriver rather than this," she held up the bent remains of a plastic cafeteria spork.
These were the sorts of conversations that they never taught you how to deal with at medical school. "So you were trying to steal my car?" she asked calmly, deciding to take this one step at a time.
"I didn't know it was yours, Joanie, or I wouldn't have picked it – honest! Most of the other cars round here are too new and got fancy alarms and stuff." She leant forward conspiratorially, "someone should really look into how so many orderlies can afford turbo-charged muscle cars on their minimum-wage salaries."
Joan remained silent, but inwardly rolled her eyes. As if the board didn't know full well about and silently condone the underground deals, so long as it helped to reduce the number of maimed and killed staff that ended up splashed all over the news. It was quite likely that Harley herself had contributed the cost of a spoiler or two in making sure she would be able to get this far without a security alert being raised.
"Anyways," Harley continued, shifting to sit up on her knees, "I figured since hotwirin' wasn't working I could just wait until someone showed up with the keys and take it from there. Sure it's low tech but it's hard to mess up a basic carjack, y'know? But your car's a lot more comfy than the Arkham minus-two-star facilities, and I guess I musta dozed off." She flexed her neck with an audible creaking noise.
Joan decided that it was best to ignore the calm frankness with which Harley had mentioned carjacking, and to try not to think about what might happen if she decided to still follow through on that plan. She was one of the least unpredictably violent patients categorised as 'high security', and Joan often found it difficult to reconcile the petite, innocent-looking woman she had so often shared coffee with in the staff lounge with the crimes she committed while under the malign influence of the Joker. That didn't mean it was a good idea to wilfully antagonise her.
"I can't let you take my car, Harley," she paused, wondering how best to communicate the situation as clearly as possible. "Let's be realistic: you know I can't let you leave the hospital. It's contrary to the terms of the court order you're under and I could lose my licence if I allowed it, not to mention that you would most likely be picked up and brought back by the police or, uh, other unofficial night-based individuals, before breakfast time tomorrow." Joan offered her an encouraging smile. "If you come back inside with me, we'll settle you down with some extra orderlies on the high security wing for tonight and we can sort all this out tomorrow."
"But I've gotta go, Joan!" The hair-fidgeting was back, but now as a more forceful tugging that betrayed her anxiety as clearly as the desperate edge to her voice. "I know this looks bad, but it's not – really. It'll only be temporary. A flyin' visit, then I'll come back voluntarily. I promise!"
"What's this all about, Harley?" Joan frowned with concern. "You didn't mention anything about untoward in our session this morning; what's happened since then?"
"The orderlies left the TV in the rec room on the news channel by mistake," Harley said, the undertone of misery at the memory plain to hear. "They had cctv footage of Mistah J knockin' over some high-tech lab at the university yesterday. It was awful Joanie – his jacket was all rumpled and his socks didn't even match!" From Harley's expression of shock and horror it was clear that this practically amounted to him walking around with one arm hanging on by a thread, bleeding copiously and at risk of fairly imminent death.
"The poor thing looked worn out," she continued, "an' he's clearly not lookin' after himself. The boys try their best but they don't pay enough attention to the little things, and Puddin' gets so wrapped up in his work he needs to be reminded to eat and take a nap so he doesn't burn himself out." She gazed imploringly through eyes that threatened to well over into tears at any second. "He needs me, Joan. I've gotta go and look after him – even for a few hours, just to help him through this brainstormin' patch."
It was clear that this wasn't going to end well, and Joan resolved to find out which imbecile of an orderly was responsible for allowing the patients access to the news channels so she could make sure they were put on bedpan duty in the infirmary for the next six months. Dammit, there was a reason why the channels were restricted to generally harmless chat shows, quizzes and cartoons – amongst the high profile patients there was proven reinforcement of delusions and inappropriate activities when exposed to news footage about their criminal exploits, not to mention riots and disturbance every time Bat-related events were featured. And for Harley, separated from the Joker and in the best possible conditions to improve her mental health, several months of good progress in therapy could be undone by the merest snippet of news about grinning corpses.
"C'mon, we used to be pals, didn't we?" Harley wheedled, since Joan hadn't responded. "Couldn't you just lend me the keys? I promise I'll only be gone for one night – 24 hours max. You can even drop me off on your way home if you like – I'll walk the rest of the way. I'll come back tomorrow and check myself back in, cross my heart, hope to die," Harley drew an X over her heart and gazed up at Joan with beseeching puppy-dog eyes. "The day after that at the very outside."
Playing on their former relationship as colleagues, equals and – yes, friends – was a low blow but one Joan could hardly blame Harley for. The poor girl could hardly have asked to become ill and manipulated by a grinning, narcissistic sociopath with an unfortunately twisted sense of humour. From that point onwards they were stuck solely as doctor-patient, even if Harley was a patient Joan felt particularly frond of and protective towards. As the authority figure she was obliged to take the hard decisions where Harley couldn't, but she suspected some ground was going to have to be conceded.
She took a deep breath. "Harley, I'm sorry but I can't let you leave. However-" Joan continued before Harley could fully absorb and react to the refusal, "how about this for a compromise – just as a one-off, you can write to him. I'm sure there's an address you can reach him at, although I won't ask what that is."
"For real?" Harley asked somewhat dubiously, as though she suspected this unexpected generosity had to hide a catch of some kind. "You'd let me write to Mistah J?" Her face hardened in suspicion. "What next – phone calls and conjugal visits?"
"No, this is a one-off take-it-or-leave it deal." Firm matter-of-factness was the only way to play this. "You get one letter, and I'm going to schedule three extra therapy sessions a week until we've made up some lost ground. You can remind the Joker about eating regular meals and sleeping and give him all the laundry instructions you like. It will have to be proof-read before you send it, just to make sure you're not arranging for him to come and visit," Harley's enthusiasm dropped a notch at the addition of that rule, but she still remained significantly less mutinous-looking than she had before, "other than that it's up to you. If we make enough progress with your therapy then the situation can be reviewed in a few months and we'll see if a more regular and structured letter writing permission can be granted."
Privately Joan suspected that the Joker would either tear up or ignore any letters that issued instructions on how to do laundry and reminded him to brush his teeth, and she was certain that he needed no such mothering attention to function perfectly adequately as he waged a violent campaign of 'hilarious' destruction across the city, but his well-being wasn't her focus. Harley's was, and if one-off permission to write a love letter full of reminders on the importance of regular meal times helped to prevent her making more immediate escape attempts that would only lead to her hurting herself – either in the attempt, or if she succeeded then once she found her way back to the damaging influence of the Joker – then this was a worthwhile compromise.
"Are you suuuuure I can't just go an' see him for a day or two?" Harley wheedled as she clambered out of the car, grabbing the stack of files that had been sitting patiently on top of the car and trailing Joan back into the building. "Maybe a long weekend?"
Joan gave a long-suffering sigh and prepared for many headaches to come in the next few weeks. "Ask me again when I've got your discharge papers to sign, okay?"
Undeterred Harley moved on to eagerly plan her vital letter-writing mission as she bounded up the steps. "Can I use pink notepaper d'you think? An' I used to have some scented gel pens, but which one should I use – chocolate, strawberry or vanilla? Mistah J likes chocolate best but brown doesn't go so well with pink, so maybe the strawberry…"
Handing Harley back over to the custody of some of the more trustworthy members of the security team, completing an incident form for Dr Arkham to review in the morning and checking which idiot orderly had been in charge of the afternoon recreation period would all take time. Joan's shower and bed beckoned temptingly, but the night was still young. She quietly wondered why her eight-year-old self had fixated on doctor rather than vet, trudging up the steps with a chattering Harley in her wake.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
Author's Chapter Notes:
Written for the livejournal batfic_contest prompt "Drive" in more than 500 words; first posted there on 26 April 2010.