Author's note: So I've seen The Dark Knight twice already (once regular, once IMAX), and I'm planning to go see it a third and maybe even fourth time. As most people will agree, I think Heath Ledger's performance was absolutely captivating, and the Joker is the reason I'm watching the movie over and over--there are so many obvious things about him that are fascinating, but I think the smaller details are even better. For instance: the truck's edited slogan during the chase scene. Anyway, I had to write a fic starring him; I'm sure more fics will follow, because it's my current fixation. Let me know what you think.

The Best Medicine

"Here you go, boss. Everything you requested," mutters one of the henchmen (although he likes to refer to them, very affectionately, he thinks, as his ducklings—it is certainly a more accurate descriptor, anyway). The man's face, like the others, is already masked—a happy clown, this one—but the Joker can tell that he is uncomfortable. All of them are: It is in the way they stand tensed and slightly hunched, the way they speak so softly and carefully, the way their eyes dart uncertainly this way and that behind their masks.

Is it the scars? he wonders. It's probably the scars. Maybe he should tell them a story, make them feel easier. He doesn't want a bunch of nervous ducklings, after all. Maybe a nice story would remind them of better times, when they were little and Mama would come and read them a bedtime story to ward the darkness away.

Once upon a time, when I was just an innocent little tot watching television on my Daddy's knee, he told me to scurry on over to the kitchen and get him a beer like a good lad. You see, Daddy was a drinker, and he needed that beer. But I was a clumsy child, and on the way back I tripped and dropped the bottle. Well, Daddy didn't like that—not at all. So he comes over to where I'm crying, trying to gather up the broken glass, and he says, "You need to stop worrying so much, son. Why so serious?" And he picks up a shard of glass and puts it in my mouth. "Why so serious? Let's see you smile!" And…

A short burst of laughter escapes him (several of the men flinch back, which just makes him laugh harder) and he turns to inspect the goods.

They had done well, his little ducklings in a row: There is a veritable arsenal here, handguns, grenades, crates of ammunition, machine guns, even (the Joker smiles and allows himself a small caper of delight) a bazooka. Now where did they find that, he wonders, the clever little ducklings? He crouches next to it, runs his fingers along the cool bright metal, croons something to it that makes the men nearby shift nervously.

He stands back up after a moment, almost too imposing for such a slight, wiry man, and turns to face the men. "Very good, my ducklings," he purrs, and a small hiccup of laughter bubbles up to the surface. "A gold star for all of you!"

He licks his bottom lip, an abrupt, compulsive gesture. He holds up one long, slim finger. "But wait," he cautions, and the men freeze, eyes riveted on his face. He sees their terror as though it is written in the air around them, and his heart pounds with excitement. But he doesn't let it creep into his voice. "I think you forgot something, ducklings."

The Joker glances around and then raises his eyebrow at the men, a bemused parent humoring his misbehaving children. "Where are my trucks?"

One of the ducklings—a drowsy clown, this one—takes a stiff step forward and murmurs, "Over here, boss. We got 'em specially for you." Drowsy giggles, but the sound emerges too strained, high and staccato like a machine gun's shots, to be called true laughter. (But the Joker appreciates his effort, really, and gives his duckling a reassuring smile. The man's giggling immediately subsides, and the Joker revels in the terrified silence, still ringing with the echoes of thin, pealing laughter.)

A fluorescent light suddenly flickers on in a distant corner of the dark warehouse. In its stark, unforgiving light, he spots the silhouettes of two massive trucks.

"Now, that's more like it," he growls, pleased, and ambles over to get a better look.

One of them is a fire truck, and he can't help it—he throws his head back and laughs and laughs until his sides ache and his throat burns and his eyes tear. So his little ducklings have a sense of irony, after all. He is more impressed than he wants to admit as he pictures the truck where it will be placed, a heart-wrenchingly beautiful mass of flames.

The men, following him at a cautious distance, shuffle closer. They are still frightened—perhaps more than ever—but they have also relaxed very slightly upon seeing his delighted reaction to their handiwork. Like moths to a fire, they are drawn to him against their wills, unable to care that the closer they come to him, the likelier they are to burn.

A clown (the Joker can't tell, in the sole flickering light from the lamp far above, which one it is) ventures, "If you like that one, boss, wait'll you see the other."

"Hmm. 'Wait'll I see the other,' he says," the Joker repeats quietly, glancing over his shoulder at the men. His white makeup glows like a ghost in the darkness, and the crimson paint of his overextended smile looks like a smear of fresh blood. The guttering half-light merely accentuates the topography of the terrible scars slashed across his face. His eyes have all but disappeared amidst the black circles; only the whites of his eyes are visible.

His gaze rakes across the loose group of men; when he notices one of them trembling, he bares his teeth in a skeletal grin.

"'Wait'll I see…,'" he muses. He wets his lips and circles around for a better look at the second truck. His hands etch stories, promises, threats into the air before him. "'…the other.' Now, what could my darling ducklings have up their sleeves this time, I wonder?"

It is a standard eighteen-wheeler, completely unremarkable to the casual observer. But he sees immediately, and understands why they had gotten this particular truck for him. The slogan on the side of the truck reads, LAUGHTER IS THE BEST MEDICINE.

It is perfect—almost.

The Joker stands very still for a moment, contemplating this, head tilted to one side, one of his feet tapping out a chaotic rhythm. Behind him, his ducklings stir and then settle again, uneasy; he smiles to himself and delays a little bit longer. He knows that they are expecting the kind of mirth he had displayed minutes ago upon seeing the fire truck. But he isn't laughing, and they're trying to decide if they had been mistaken somehow?

And, most importantly, what will be the consequence?

But then his shoulders twitch, once, and the laughter they wanted—anticipated—erupts, unbidden. He whirls, and now they can just barely distinguish the dark eyes, glossy and glittering, from the dark circles of paint.

"Does anyone have a bottle—" he pauses to lick his lips and cock his head at them "—of spray paint?" When no one immediately volunteers, he advances toward them, shoulders bent inward and hands extended in a gesture of supplication, the way a beggar might approach a rich man on the street.

"Come on, my ducklings, surely one of you has some paint to spare," he drawls. He stops about three feet away from the group, and looks around expectantly, waiting.

The men shift again, and he can almost hear their brains tick-tick-ticking in confusion: No one carries extra bottles of spray paint around with them—they're the mob, after all, not some street gang who spends Friday nights painting graffiti in subway tunnels. They're…prestigious, above that sort of juvenile nonsense, hm?

One of them finally offers, "We don't got any paint, boss. We could go steal some for you, though, if you want."

The Joker extracts a watch from his pocket and inspects it. He shakes his head, making small tsk-ing noises in the back of his throat, and gazes at them with regret. "Not enough time, gents, unfortunately."

Without warning, he surges forward and seizes the man who had spoken last by the throat. His momentum carries the pair into a nearby stack of crates; the Joker rips off the hapless man's mask and then pins him with his left hand, leaning toward him, panting and giggling with excitement. A knife no one had seen him draw gleams silver in his right hand. It hovers next to the man's cheek.

No one speaks, or moves to stop the Joker, although his victim appeals to them for help in a thin, pleading voice.

"You know," the Joker comments lightly, as though he is chatting with an old acquaintance. He ignores the man's attempts to dislodge him. "You know, I think you do have some paint."

"I swear I don't, I swear—"

"Everyone here does," he continues. "But you were the only one who lied about it. I used to lie, too, you know." He licks his bottom lip and gestures to his face, waving his knife carelessly in the cramped space between himself and his victim. He likes the way the man's face distorts, the way his wide eyes follow every movement of the blade. "That's how I got these scars. Do you want to know how?"

"No," the man whimpers. "No. Please, boss. I ain't lying, please, let me go."

"Well. My father, you see, was a drinker. And when he drank, he got—" the Joker's eyes narrow dangerously and his next word is a hiss "—angry. One night, after he'd drank a few beers, he started knocking Mommy around, because she'd come home late from work. When he was done with her, he looked over at me and told me, 'Son, you need to lighten up a little. Aren't you happy?' I was crying, but I told him that yes, I was very happy." The Joker wets his lips again and leans closer to the man, who has stopping struggling. Silent tears stream down his face, which is frozen into a mask of horror. He reeks of fear, and the Joker has to swallow the laughter fizzing up through his chest.

"Well, he could tell I was lying. He grabbed me and pulled out his knife, and he pointed at Mommy and said, 'Now, son, there's only one thing I hate more than whores like her. And that's liars.' He said, 'Now, all I want is to see you happy, son. All I want—'" the Joker pauses one more time and presses his knife against the soft skin at the corner of his victim's mouth, "'—is to see you smile.' And he puts his knife just like this, and—"

The man writhes as the blade bites into his skin, drawing a single bead of blood. The Joker removes the knife from the man's mouth and scrutinizes the blood, to all appearances utterly disinterested, although his heart has started to pound with anticipation again. The man has relaxed ever so slightly, thinking that the worst has passed, and that is the funniest thing yet.

Fighting to keep his composure, the Joker growls, "Now I see the irony; now I'm always smiling. And now you," he continues, jostling the man a little bit against the crates to emphasize his point, "can see the irony too."

He holds his knife up for display, the bead of blood running down the surface of the blade. "You see?" he asks eagerly, like a small child who has proven something very obvious. "You do have paint, just like I thought."

And then he does something intricate and brutal with his knife, and the man whimpers and sags inward. The Joker watches his face intently until the life drains out of him; he sneers at what he observed there, and lets the body crumple to the ground, laughing and giving the dead man a final kick for good measure.

Still laughing, he saunters toward the eighteen-wheeler, until he realizes that no one is following him. He quiets the laughter, although he cannot quite keep the ghastly smile from his face; he turns around and makes a gesture of indignant confusion, arms out and shoulders raised in a shrug.

"Something wrong, ducklings?" he drawls. No one answers; no one has moved since he first attacked their comrade. They are stunned, he sees, afraid to step out of line and risk making themselves a potential target. He sighs and rolls his eyes toward the ceiling. Like he could afford to waste any more of his time killing them. They're hardly even fun to kill—too easy, and not enough explosions.

"Come on, I don't have all day here," he coaxes, motioning. "Bring him over, already. I promise I won't bite." His grin widens and he raises his hand in a mock salute. "Scout's honor," he promises, and another burst of laughter rips through him.

Reluctantly, they start to move; two of his braver ducklings approach the dead man and hoist him up. At the Joker's direction, they dump his corpse next to the truck.

"Now, can someone get me a ladder?" the Joker requests. Someone scurries into the darkness, returning seconds later with the desired item. The Joker props it up against the side of the truck, peels his gloves off, and coats his handkerchief with the dead man's blood. Humming cheerfully, he carefully begins to paint something next to the slogan; after a few trips back down the ladder for more blood, he finally finishes.

He climbs down to inspect his work: a large red "S" now completes the slogan.

"Slaughter is the best medicine," he reads quietly, nodding to himself. Now it's perfect. He licks his lips and turns to face his ducklings once more.

"Now," he announces, rubbing his hands together. A chuckle slips out of him. "Time to get to work, gentlemen." And then the laughter wells up and outward again, and he allows it to convulse his body as his men hurry to do his bidding.