This one-shot offers an insight into a boy's mind in his pre-Joker days. It was inspired by the song Map of the Problematique by Muse. More precisely, inspired by a sentence that a critic said to describe what the song is about. "About a set of likely challenges the world might face in the near future."

Two sentences come from the song They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Ha by Napoleon XIV.

Passages in italics mark conversations between other people in the not so distant past, overheard by our "hero".

DISCLAIMER: I don't own the Joker. He belongs to DC COMICS. I only own this one-shot.


Problématique

"How are you feeling today, John?"

John, as in John Doe. We found no documents on him. He doesn't remember anything. So, for the time being, we refer to him as John. He does not mind it. In fact, he speaks so rarely. I do not even think he is with us, if you know what I mean.

His back was turned to her, his shoulders hunched and his arms dangling freely, frozen to the sides of his body, unmoving. She was sitting on her usual chair, her body moulded into her usual pose – hands on the desk, her legs crossed, with her right thigh arching over her left leg, her head slightly tilted to the left, her ears ready and eager to listen. But no words came from his mouth, they never did.

"John, are you with me?" she asked nicely, as if speaking to a demented child. "Do you hear me?"

Come on, stay with me, boy. That's right, try to keep your eyes open. Keep them open, no matter what, do you hear me? Are you with me? That's good. You're safe, you're in a hospital. You'll be fine, I promise.

What's his name?

We don't know yet.

Okay, we'll try to get his name tomorrow. Right now, our primary concern is to sedate him and stitch him up. God, who would do that, and to a kid? He can't be more than eighteen.

His BP is dropping pretty fast. And he's lost a lot of blood. I want to know his blood type, asap.

Why the hell is he laughing?

He's in shock, obviously.

Oh, Jesus, can someone please sedate him already? Okay, boy, stop doing that, these need to stay in. Come on, will you give me the syringe already? He's tearing the tubes out of his skin!

Here we go...and you're out. He's calming down. Let's do this.

He curled all of his fingers but the index finger into a loose fist. He looked at his index finger as if he was studying it and then, he slowly lifted it towards his mouth and touched his skin. It was not very soft and even like the skin enveloping the rest of his flesh like an ivory cocoon. It seemed ragged and rough, like bark, but strangely tender. He prodded a spot with his index finger and it indented smoothly, like normal skin stretching over normal flesh.

He positioned his finger below his left ear and slowly moved it along the fleshy ridge, across his lips and across another fleshy ridge. He repeated the action, tracing the distorted, mangled skin from his right ear back to his left ear. It was an interesting sensation, very real and straightforward. He did not remember much, but he remembered feeling things, and this sensation felt like the best thing he had ever felt and experienced in his life. He chuckled silently, caressing the interior of his mouth. It felt the same, only that the flesh was slippery and deceptively soft. He could feel every professional stitch holding his skin together, and the funny thing was, he really wanted to fall apart.

"What is so funny, John?" she asked him nicely, smiling with him. "Are you remembering something pleasant?"

He looked into the faded mirror hanging on the wall before him, to look at her. She was so full of herself.

He licked his dry lips, tasting some of his blood that was still embedded in the thread of the stitches. It tasted good. How would she react if he told her that? He chuckled again, amused at the idea.

She sighed, giving up as she did every day, realizing over and over again that he was impenetrable. And every day, she tried a new approach, hoping to coax him out when he felt so good inside.

"Do you like the clothes we gave you? They are similar to those you were wearing when you were admitted to this hospital, but they were of no use anymore, so we had to throw them away. Do you mind that we did that?"

He was starting to believe that he had done it to himself, like they had suggested it at one point soon after he first woke up from a drug-induced sleep. He was ready to believe it because of the way he felt. They wanted to pull him out on their shore and fix him, but on those rare occasions he allowed them to grab his hands and drag him across to their side, he felt vulnerable and uncomfortable, like that world was not for him. Like he was a fish and they were forcing him to live in a desert. He only felt good and real inside, where he was now, in his world. So what if they thought that was not normal, that his behaviour made him sick in their eyes?

He didn't give a flying fuck.

Well, you see how he is. He could stand in front of that mirror all day long and do nothing, just stare at his face and touch the scars.

Is he going to get better?

I have no idea, honestly. He has no memories of his life before that day. And even if he did, what can I do? He won't speak. It seems like catatonia, for the most part, but honestly? I've never seen anything like it. I am sure of one thing, though – it's not shock. He was most probably mentally disturbed before he was brought severely injured to this hospital.

What do you suggest?

Look, he either did it to himself or someone did it to him. He's in danger either way. If he did it to himself, he may be suicidal. If someone else did it to him, this kid has been involved in some sort of crime. Mobsters and gangs are known for carving Glasgow grins into their victims' faces. This boy needs treatment, no matter the truth. He is very sick. I have a few colleagues at Arkham. They are wonderful doctors and would be able to help our John Doe.

Arkham? But he's a kid!

Do you have a better idea?

He closed his eyes to meet the black canvas of himself. He saw pictures, very brief and flashy, snippets of colour and hair and laughter. He smelled sweet perfume, felt soft flesh under his hands, threads of hair touching his chin. He had no idea if it was real at all, but it seemed real enough and he could definitely live with that. He saw himself standing in a park, the leaves of lush green trees rustling in the wind, and ducks were swimming in a small pond. He was staring into the water, and it was not blue, or gray, or greenish like it used to be. It was crimson, like goulash they ate at school the other day, or like...like blood. He was holding a Swiss knife in one of his hands, he couldn't say which exactly. But it didn't seem important whether it was the left hand or the right hand; what mattered was that he felt absolutely elated and alive. The knife was a gift, from that girl who smelled like flowers and tasted like cherries.

His eyes snapped open and he looked into them through the silver of the mirror that reflected his own gaze back to him, offering a story. He thought his eyes looked hazel, but that was before he closed them and then opened them. They seemed very dark now, darkened by a memory that seemed to speak of horror, but it did not frighten him at all. It made him smile, a double smile. One smile of before, and one smile of now, both plastered together with one pair of lips. The past and the present stretching over the same face, mingling together, slowly becoming one. He did not know who he was before he woke up in a starch-white room of a hospital, but he could feel that now he was not the person he was before. He could feel the flow of subtle change crawling through his veins and it should have felt shocking and scary, but it was neither.

He leaned his forehead against the cool surface of the mirror, looking into his eyes from a very short distance. They held a story, he knew. The one thing that remained from his old self, not washable, a defining memory, the only memory he had kept and it would stay his.

He looked into his eyes from the short distance for so long that it began to hurt, but he did not care. Only when his eyes began to tear up from the shock of dry air and the damaging closeness to an object did he close them, offering himself to the only memory he had.

In the memory, he still had a face, and there was that girl, a faceless silhouette that he just knew was too beautiful to look at.

He remembered saying to her, "Remember when you ran away and I got on my knees and begged you not to leave because I'd go berserk? Well...You left me anyhow and then the days got worse and worse and now you see I've gone completely out of my mind!"

She was crying; he could hear her hiccoughing sobs, and he could swear she called his name, but he did not catch it. He did have this one memory, but it was far from perfect, like the day when he said those words to her and she cried and begged and yelled at him to put that damn knife down because this was just not so funny anymore. Suddenly she thought it was a joke and so she laughed and laughed; she laughed when he said that losing her would make him flip his lid.

He really liked her, too much, but she just laughed, at him, and that. Pissed. Him. Off. And then, the imperfect day became stunningly perfect, as opposed to his memory. Suddenly, she was silent, and the knife was loud, and his hand was covered in her elixir of life. She did not taste like cherries anymore, nor did she smell like flowers. Now she was just copper and decay, rotten cherries and fading flowers. She floated on the surface of the pond and he laughed, he laughed so hard that his belly started to hurt and his laughter turned into loud hiccups. And then, he ran, far away, doing a winner's marathon. He threw the knife into a garbage can far away from his dark act of perfection, and then he ran further until his lungs were contracted in pain and he had to stop to rest.

He felt so very ecstatic. He could not stop laughing. Rain began to fall and it cleaned him of her completely. Then, he ran further, unable to stop, he did not know why. Suddenly, he did stop and he tore the necklace from around his neck, the one she gave him. A razor pendant dangling from a thin chain. She said it was hip and it looked feral, like you meant business, but he hated her now. And then...he could not remember anymore.

The only thing we found was a deck of cards in one of the pockets of his jeans. Sort of.

What do you mean?

Well, it's more like a collection of Joker cards from various card decks.

What do you think this means?

I don't know yet. It could mean everything, or nothing. We have yet to figure it out, figure him out.

He chuckled aloud. "Figure me out," he rasped, popping his lips playfully.

He saw her twitch, her face all alert in the mirror.

"John, did you say something? Please, John, can you repeat that?"

He shoved his left hand into the pocket of his jeans and fished out the "strange" deck of cards, as they had labelled it.

"John? Do you realize you are going to be taken to Arkham tomorrow to be treated?" She sighed. "Do you understand this, John?"

He pulled out a Joker card and focused on it. Again, his memory failed him, but he could feel that these cards meant something to him. There was an idea he had yet to remember, or maybe figure out it anew, but it was there, dormant, waiting to be released. Whatever it was, he wanted it. It felt right and releasing. He wanted to be free and touch the other side, the one that called to him, the one he knew would fit him like a tailor-made glove. Where he would belong so perfectly.

She walked to his side, putting one hand on his right shoulder, something she had never done before. His face twitched and he afforded her a vicious look, emitting a low growl from his throat.

"Let. Go," he ordered softly, the softness of his voice merely masking the anger inside him, the sort of anger that could kill.

She obeyed, smiling. "See? You can talk!"

He tore the Joker card in half, imagining he was tearing the annoying doctor in half. He wanted his hateful gaze to scare her and make her cringe, but she did not seem disturbed. The frustration at his own inability to act right was horrible. It made his fingers shake and he knew that if she touched him again, he would jump at her and wipe that pleased smirk off her fucking face.

She took a step back, her soft eyes battling the thunder raging in his dark, feral orbs.

"What do you see in these cards?"

Her hand waved at the deck of Joker cards he was holding in his hands.

He never answered her questions, but this time he did. He did not know how or why, but the answer just presented itself and rolled off his tongue smoothly.

"A set of likely challenges that the, uh, the world...might face in the near future."

He grinned to his image in the mirror, the annoying doctor forgotten. That was it, the idea he'd lost. He could taste it in his mind and it was mouth-watering, delicious and inviting.

"John?"

He ignored her.

He focused.

Inhaled.

Struggled to see, suspect, deduct, guess.

He had the feeling that it was up to him to think of those challenges someday, but he did not know why, or how, or when.

He just knew it would have to happen; it was inevitable; and he wanted it. He wanted to touch the other side, however it looked, whatever it was.

"Goodbye, John."

She sighed and left. As always.

He closed his eyes and imagined.

As always.


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