Disclaimer: Batman and related characters are the property of DC Comics.
Author's Note: The following chapters of this fanfic are currently in pieces all over my bedroom floor. This has no real relevance – I'm just apologizing for any disjointedness.
Gotham General Hospital, 2.53 a.m.
"One more question….can you keep a secret?"
Extract from the diary of Ari Kelly, 32 years old, doctor of this parish:
Hot damn yeah I can keep a secret.
Batman. Holy shit. Batman. And I thought I'd pulled a raw deal with the graveyard shift this week. All my life I've lived here, and I've only ever seen him once. From a distance. Well, I thought I saw him, but to be honest I wasn't too sober at the time…but this time he's right in front of me, with the cape and the belt and the little pointy ears and everything, asking me that question. I always said that if I ever met him I'd have to make fun of his outfit - but somehow with him right here, it doesn't seem like such an amusing fashion statement any more. You wanna know the weirdest thing? On him, it just looks practical.
So I tell him yes, sure, I can keep any secret, hey, I'm good at 'em, and he gets me to hold the fire door open while he goes back to his car (Batmobile, Ari, Batmobile) and when he comes back he's carrying…
Jesus fucking Christ, it's never the goddamn Joker.
"No-one must know he's here," Batman says as he brushes past me with the freakin' Joker slung over his arms like wet washing. "That's the secret. Can you keep that secret, Doctor Kelly?"
I nod, unable to speak. And just what the hell would I have said if I could? "No, Mr Batman, you're not bringing that guy in here, cos he's the single baddest motherfucker in the valley and just the sight of him scares me half to death?"
Besides, my medical instincts are kicking me in the back: it may be the Joker but he looks just about as sick as I've ever seen anyone look, and I took an oath. I have to examine him.
So I lead the Batman to one of our private wards, one of the poky little nasty ones near the morgue that the fat cats won't pay for, and he lays the Joker down on the bed. The mad guy is barely conscious. He's shivering like he's caught in a Canada winter, and his eyes as they roll open and stare past me are heavily bloodshot. I can't help it - I stare at him for ages, because although you see these faces on TV and in the papers you'd never believe it until you're this close, this close…
I guess that anyone apart from Batman who gets this close to the Joker usually doesn't live to remember the sight. He's not as monstrous as I expected him to be. Weird. The pictures you usually see of him, he's laughing. Most folks, they laugh, their faces and eyes light up, they seem more natural. This guy? His laughter makes him hideous.
Well, he's sure not laughing now.
The green hair is amazing, it's like Astroturf. Nothing natural about that tint. Behind the threading of red veins his eyes are the same, virulent and synthetic. I peer into those eyes with the penlight, trying to concentrate on the pupil reaction. Damn. The contact lens people would kill to make lenses this colour.
I snap out of it and throw myself into routine. Blood pressure, temperature, pulse. All wrong. All very wrong. He's sweating and clammy and you could cook eggs on his forehead.
I draw off a blood sample because I think this is really going to need a closer look. My first instinct was influenza with complications, like the kind we see in old people in midwinter when their houses aren't heated well and they've been living on cold tinned beans for a month: but the more I examine him the more I think it's something more sinister. The intense white of his skin seems almost translucent as I tap the bend of his elbow to draw up the vein - although his blood is hugely dark and red in contrast, just like anyone else's.
"Has he vomited?" I ask Batman. The cowled head shakes once: no. "How long has he been like this?"
"About two hours now."
Wow. That's ridiculously fast incubation.
"And he was fine before that?"
A brief tilt of the mask. "If you count unconscious as fine."
It's just possible that was what passes for humour in Batman's estimation. I check the various bathed and bandaged wounds on the Joker's face and arms. They've been well treated.
"His arm is fractured, did you know that?"
Another nod from the cowl.
"Doctor Kelly. What is wrong with him?"
Well, there's the sixty-four thousand dollar question. God, I hate this moment. Even when it's a mass murderer rather than someone's saintly gran'ma, it still doesn't make it easier to admit that -
"I don't know…I want to run some tests on his blood."
There is a pause. The masked man opposite me seems to have become a statue, a waxwork. I struggle to fill the suddenly gaping silence. Jeez, they could rent him out to AA meetings. You'd find yourself confessing to being a three-litre vodka drinker just to fill that oppressive, cloying void of sound…
"I think…y'know, maybe…he's been poisoned…drugged…"
The needle mark on the guy's white neck hadn't escaped me, but I'd kinda assumed he'd picked that up while trying to escape or something. I press my fingers into the hollow of his distorted, angular jaw line, checking the lymph glands. He moans. His neck is obviously sensitive, although I'm drawing a negative on inflamed glands. Aware of the cowl's scrutiny on my back, I turn away quickly and take the opportunity to personally whip the blood down to the lab. To be honest? I'm really glad to be out of there, even if it's only for a moment. When the door closes behind me I'm almost happy to believe that none of this is real. I spend almost a minute just leant against the wall outside the room, as the body bags rattle past on their gurneys to the morgue, trying to recover my sense of reality.
The boys in the lab aren't best pleased to be dragged away from their game of crib: the witching hours are kind of their own, usually. Drive-by shootings, muggings, and the occasional alcohol poisoning doesn't tend to tax the bloodwork guys. Still, after I swear at them a little to get them moving, they assure me they'll get on it immediately.
When I get back, Batman is trying to get my patient to drink a cup of water from the cooler, and he's not having a lot of luck.
"Look," I say, "he's dehydrated: gimmie a moment and I'll hook him up."
The Joker is conscious enough to watch me as I fix the needle into one of the veins on his chalk-white hand. He doesn't flinch, doesn't fight. I get the impression he's used to this: hell, I'm almost surprised there isn't a socket in his vein to fix the drip into. He blinks as the needle slides in. His sharp, distorted face is drawn with weariness.
"Don't move," I tell him, and because it's what I tell everybody, I add, "you're gonna feel better in a bit."
To my amazement the scarlet lips draw back from the expanse of vicious teeth and he gives me a pale shadow of that infamous grin that's been splashed across the papers during the last fortnight, since he's been loose from Arkham.
And I recoil from him, feeling suddenly quite cold: I'd managed to sink myself in routine and being baffled by his symptoms so much that I'd almost forgotten who I was dealing with.
The Batman's shadowed, intent eyes are on me again, and I know he knows what I'm thinking. I back away from the man on the bed, very slowly, and feel Batman's attention shift again to my patient.
"Joker," he says, quietly and calmly. "Over here."
The Joker's head lolls to look at him.
"Who did this to you?" Batman pursues.
There is a long pause, during which I start to get really worried. Then the Joker coughs harshly, breath rattling in his throat.
"Here it is, Batsy…your starter for ten…with a side order of who-the-hell-knows…" he croaks, eyes watering and rictus grin twitching.
I wonder if I'm the only one who can see how much of an effort it's cost him just to get those words out. I grab my spatula, tilt his head back, and press down his tongue. He gags. There's a lot of old scarring in his throat: but horrendous though that is, it isn't the issue right now. In the short time he's been lying here, the soft tissue in his throat has swollen up and become inflamed. Ouch. Whatever this thing is, it believes in striking hard and fast.
I release my grip on him and he sinks back against the pillows. When I turn around, the Batman is already halfway out of the room, cape catching lightly and silently on the end of the bed. My heart leaps in horror. If this room had been a little bigger or had a window or something, I bet I wouldn't even have seen him leave, I'd've just turned around and bam! he'd've been gone. "Hey, wait! No way are you leaving this guy here…!"
The eyes behind the mask fix me steadily. "I have something I have to see to. How long before the results of the blood test are back?"
I shrug, darting a nervous glance at the bed. "About a half hour…maybe less…look, please…"
I'm ashamed of the pitiful fright in my voice. But Christ, I can't be left here with Public Enemy Number One in my wards. I'm just a kinda tired, kinda strung out on caffeine, run-of-the-mill overworked medic. The Batman shifts his weight, and in that tiny movement I can feel that whatever it is he's going to do is far more vital than anything I could imagine. I save maybe fifty lives in a week: he has the look in his eyes of someone who sees saving fifty lives as a drop in the ocean. He saves cities.
"Doctor," he asks, still calm, still quiet. "is it your opinion that this man is likely to recover sufficiently to be any threat within the next half an hour?"
I give my secret patient a brief, unhappy glance.
"I guess…I guess not."
The cowl nods back at me, and I find a pair of heavy, modern-looking restraint cuffs being slung into my hands.
"He will not be very happy if he starts feeling better," is Batman's parting shot as he turns and sweeps from the room.
And I'm left alone with the handcuffs, the Joker, and a very real sense of foreboding…so I do the only thing I can do. I cuff the Joker's free hand to the bed frame, leaving the one with the IV attached hanging limply over the covers, and flatten myself against the far wall to watch him.