Pearls of sweat glisten on his temples like jewelry, running down to his heated cheeks and gulping throat in smooth rivulets. His chest heaves and sinks in fractured rhythm, every intake of air followed by the slick sound of tongue draped over teeth.
He holds his head with one hand while clutching his stomach with the other. His eyes have lost their bright vividness merely one hour ago, replaced by a dull curtain of mistreated apathy and pale, damp white. I’ve witnessed the moment it happened and still I watch his further reactions while pretending to read a journal about Catoptrophobia. I flip the pages but every word is easily drowned out by the occasional huff of surpressed agony falling from his reddish mouth. They are soft as autumn leaves carried by the wind.
It has begun in the morning and none of us know what trigger is responsible for it. The symptoms have been light first, his refusal to finish his breakfast, the forced bites he swallowed, his unusual quietness as hours stretched and sunrise turned to noon, his missing rush of productivity, no numerous notes scattered across the table and his board. I knew something was wrong then but I stayed silent, waiting of what to come. I was in my lab when I heard something shatter. Mere months ago I hadn’t paid any attention to it, continuing with my research as ever, but past is past and the present forced me to put the test tubes aside and run to see what had happened… wait, no, I didn’t run. I walked. Fast. Maybe faster than intended. My breath was calm when I got there anyway.
A broken cup and spilled coffee on the tiles stang my sight. Edward next to it leaning against the kitchen unit, features painted in a sour contour of ache, arms wrapped around himself so tight it almost bordered to strangulation. His inaudible sob as he saw me. His whispered Go away. Go away. Don't look. cutting my throat like a thorn.
I didn’t go. I came closer and he flinched by my touch. And I was angry, so angry at that. I’m not sure why. The shock? He didn’t flinch at me for a very long time.
“Don’t look at me like that. I’m dying here!” he grumbles later, breathing laboured as he tilts to the side, his wavering glance holding onto my face like some sort of anchor in roaring sea. The comparison isn’t too far from reality as his body shakes to its core yet again. And still he clings to me with these haunted eyes. I can’t forget the fright in them when he spotted me earlier. Can’t mute the purring echo of his plead beneath my skull. This fright, a raw kind. A young kind. Dangerous for the both of us.
It was difficult to drag him to bed but I managed it nonetheless. I wrenched his smothering clothes off and he hates me for it, leaving him in nothing but his underwear and crippled pride, blanket pulled to his chin in defeat, his precious suit and tie thrown on the floor like trash. It’s not that I haven’t undressed him before but this is of different matter. It’s like I took his protection from him. This unscratched shell he created. I’m aware but do I regret? No. He was too close to boiling already, I didn’t want him to be cooked like a lobster just for maintaining his appearance. Sighing, I close the journal, a desolate scream of paper in our void.
„You’re not dying Edward. Not as far as I’m concerned.“
„What do you know? You’re not even a real doctor.“
„I had my fair share with sickness and physical injuries and you my dear will be just fine.“
„Said he and wondered as I stopped breathing.“ he says drily. The need to roll my eyes is huge but I don’t give in. I can’t risk him getting in a lather in such condition though the image tempers me. It would bring back fire into his haze. Severity into the delicate cord he once called his voice.
„Say, what exactly makes you uncomfortable about the way I look at you?“ I ask instead, adjusting my glasses in therapist manner. „How do you feel then?“
He bites his lower lip, shining with saliva, thinking thinking as best as possible. “Like prey.” he croaks, and it sounds like a victory in his ears I bet.
A faint smile tugs on my face. Prey. How mundane. Primal. He’s losing his level when he’s sick. It must be torture to a brain like his not to function as it’s used to. All those conceptions and threads darned in a spasming tangle with no way out, no escape provided, held captive in anonymity and spite. I knit my brow. It could indeed be the closest hell he’s ever set foot in. Gotham is a hell too but one we’ve grown fond of at time and circumstance. And still, he looks at me. Poutish and unhappy, troubled and poor but he does. I’m his paddle and his ship.
He’s a discarded, feeble thing. Bones too frail, flesh too meek, brilliant and foolish in his never-ending struggle. But he’s mine. And he knows and hates that too, as much as he likes to pretend he wouldn’t.
We’ve got a lot to learn. I guess we'll never learn enough.
“I’m neither animal nor hunter, Edward. But I can’t deny the… appealing impact your vulnerability has on me. You rarely display yourself like that on demand.”
„Fuck you.” Fair to say it stood on his tongue all this time. He moans, shuts his eyes pressing two fingers on his forehead. A headache probably. He often has when strain takes over. “I’m in pain and you’re amused by it. I don’t even know why I’m surprised. I should’ve known.”
“You’re in no state to know but to feel.” I answer, ignoring the tenous affront. „And you despise the feeling of helpnessless more than anything. Powerlessness. Realizing what I could do to you, laid bare and open, being unable to keep a coherent thought.” A quick pause to focus his quivering attention. “You don’t have to fear me. You know me. My intentions are of harmless nature.”
“I doubt they’re without toxin too because I know you. You told me you wanted to practice on affected subjects three days ago! How can I be sure you're not responsible for this misfortune of mine?”
„The unnecessary stress your worry causes won’t be beneficial for your recovery. A shame though, I thought we already were beyond that point of suspicion.”
Ah, his favourite curse, his need to hurt what hurts him even when it doesn’t. I stand up, putting the journal on the nightstand. The paper sighs, muffled by wood. He’s hopeless like that. And I’m stuck with this hopelessness. I can’t let it go. …Maybe I don’t try enough.
„I will leave if you wish me to. You just have to say it.” I turn my back on him, walking towards the door with nagging pace, a tongueless hole leading me to other, more welcome facility. The bedding crumbles as limbs are shifting. People are so predictable when they’re scared. Sow the seed and wait for thunder. And thunder, it always arrives in time. Like a soldier ready to battle.
„… Wait. Jon. Jon!” Loathing in every letter. I taste his despair in my mouth.
Ever seen the beauty of the broken? No? If you haven’t, I should feel sorry for you: You can never be complete.
I stop my steps when I’m about to cross the threshold. My hands have balled into fists without permission ages ago, torn nails scrubbing against my palm, wrought iron on stone.
„What? Could it be that the infamous Riddler has changed his mind?” I look behind my shoulder, my gaze intense as a gunshot. He drops back into the pillows like a bale of hay, gritting his teeth, back curving, jittery weight balancing on jittery elbows, head held high and miserable. He’s on edge, caught in a cacophony of tremors and tries to keep up the talk, rule it, proving he’s right – whatever this right might be. I admire that. I admire and abhor and treasure more than I should. It’s one of the reasons that land him in difficulties so often. But he wouldn’t be such a praised enigma if it didn’t, would he?
„How dare you making me act like that! How dare you embarrass me.” he hisses. His little games. But I won’t play along this time.
„I don’t have to make anything. You dare yourself. It’s your decision to act that way, you’re not powerless at all. It’s a lie you tell yourself to justify the actions thrown upon you. So tell me, Nygma : Do you want me to stay or not?”
„I won’t beg. I’m- I’m not -!“
„A child? Oh dear, you've never been anything else.” My voice grows dark. The beast crawls in the back of my conscience, grinding its claws. It’s been sleeping too long. „Does it feed on you? The compulsion to hide your weakness in fear it will be used by others? The naked dread to lose your feigned superiority in exchange for a chance to be taken care of? To let someone in that deep to see the real you even when you’re nothing more than a crying, smarting mess?“
His expression has become erratic, the daze changing into something else, something… confused. He’s pretty, intoxicating like that but he’ll never know. I’ll never tell him. This is my riddle for once and I'll take it to his grave.
„Jonathan stop it! I made my decision, get out! Get-” My hands are still fists as I walk to his bedside and his demand rings in my ears. They are not anymore when I grip his wrists and press them into the pillow above his head. He yelps, a petty, involuntary noise in between. I should have wondered about how easy this is, should be terrified by its revelation but I’m not. How could I? I’m Scarecrow. I don't wonder; I use.
His pulse beats against my fingertips like wings. If you listen closely, you can hear the ragged tune of it all - a symphony composed by blood. His eyes are marbles dipped in blue, moving and fleeing to places I don't see till they refocus again. The vein on his neck throbs with the stroke of a metronome. All this plays for me.
“You’re sick, Edward. You are feverish and disoriented, you can barely get out of bed without tumbling, I’m the only one in reach to take care of your pathetic state and you have the nerve to send me away? How can you name yourself a genius and be so shamelessly dumb!“
His revolt is disappointingly meager, not even near to lash out or kick me. Yet another proof of my hypothesis. It must be the first time in years that I'm not content about being right. He's not content about it either but that's plainly carved into the label of his existence.
„It’s not fair! You should be the sick one not I. I’ve done nothing wrong!”
His flushed face looks up to me. He can be so stern when defending himself. 'Nothing wrong'. Well, depending on what one defines as wrong here... we both share no healthy life-style to begin with. But I admit, the constant exposure to my toxin has not done any good to my condition in the past nor will it in the future. It has drained me from antibodies and other defense mechanisms but to my luck I've never been one to get ill quickly. Not like him.
„True.“ I admit. „I should be the sick one, but I’m not and here we are.”
He wants to say something as his expression changes, pupils dilating slightly.
The what forms on my tongue when his breath turns hasty, chest contracting. Heavy gulping.
I let go and bow aside, reaching for the bucket I’ve placed next to the bed hours ago in foreshadowing.
Eight seconds and he coughs up, spittle and yellowish vomit splashing against plastic. He’s shaking in my grip as I lead him further, a hand on his burning forehead, the other on his stomach to encourage his act.
The first surge is the one he resists most, then his body gives in to the excruciating procedure and leaves him to a gagging, autonomous rhythm. Tears without sorrow fall from his eyes and mingle with the liquid. I mutter slurred praise against his temple and he whimpers at that, another torrent of the indefinable broth on its way. I can’t stop it, but at least I can help to endure and clench my teeth. I hate it. I didn't suspect it to be this bad.
I have seen grown men drooling, wailing, cutting limbs and scratching their face off while testing my toxin. Nothing of it all, the crying, the pleading, the desperation clothing my nights affected me. Their suffering kept me warm, their fright was my feast.
It’s different with him. Layered. His fright I know too well. And I've come to realize that I don’t like him suffering beyond my command. I want this control and I'm not fond of it being snatched away by some hideous virus conquering his body without permission.
After a few more outbursts only bitterness leaves his mouth and he spits several times to wipe out the taste and numbness taking over. He leans against me then, limbless and mute, catching chunks of air, lids fluttering. The pungent scent of bile and sweat shakes the room. I don't care, all I feel is this unbearable heat glued to my chest and his scalp combusting under my chin. I wrap my arms around him, pulling him closer. A life between my hands. Another possibility to end it. Is he aware? He melts into me nonetheless.
„You’re hot.” I say quietly, more statement than complaint. His laugh is hoarse.
„Always am.”. I’d shake my head if I had any space left he doesn’t fill. The joke is lame and his tongue slow, petulant blabber. Something in me curls at that. We remain in place till I'm certain he's well enough to leave him alone.
Carefully guiding him to rest on the mattress I get up and-
Did I calculate the hand clutching my sleeve so flimsily? As if it would break like a branch soon as I’d tear away too harsh?
Maybe I have. Maybe I tested, otherwise I'd have told him. And a better person should loathe themselves for this test but I’m not, I’m really not.
And while I turn to see his derailed expression I know I’ll never want to be.
„Jon.“ A curse almost. Fingers delve holes in fabric, my name on his lips like he’d need me and oh how much he cloys such need. He might have liked to bite his tongue at that if it wouldn’t feel like a wrung out sponge otherwise. His ridiculous attempt to sit up is quickly stopped by my hands on his shoulders pushing him down. Again, so easy.
„I’ll be back. Don’t move.“ He thinks for a moment.
„How long?“ he drawles.
„Fifteen minutes.“ He considers that, a stray tear bending its route across the bridge of his nose. None of us mentions it.
„Ten minutes. Hurry.”
The fingers in my sleeve loosen and I'm able to leave the room, his eyes like daggers in my back the whole time.
Twelve minutes later I return with painkillers, a glass of water and an ice-pack. He has rolled on his back, head tilted to the side and hands folded on top of the blanket.
„This is all your fault. You provoked me.“ He sends a scornful glimpse to the bucket as if it cared. I put my chattel down and take the bucket to the bathroom. I think his stomach doesn't keep anything worth to be thrown up a second time. When I come back daylight shines through and illuminates some tear tracks that have wreathed in his dishevelled hair, leaving stains of salt and diamond in brown. It grew thicker since he took his bath in the Lazarus Pit but still feels as soft as it did before. His mouth is the next thing I acknowledge, shaped to a straight grim line as his gaze falls upon the painkillers. He is no fan of medication in general, relentlessly claiming they dull his perception. I nudge him to rise a little, bring the water to his lips.
„Drink.“ Without flinching once he does as he’s told. I put mint in it to soothe his discomfort.
„I hate this.“ he says after he’s gargled, taking another greedy sip till the glass is emptied. The painkillers he rejects but I won't argue with him now. I brush his cheek with my knuckles before I put the glass down.
„Sometimes I hate you.“ he continues in the same, prosaic tone.
I bring the icepack to his forehead. A sharp breath while the cool cubes meet the barrier to his brain. I take one out of the package and let it wander over his features, leaving trickles of water on his too warm skin. He’s got fever still, a mild one. I can work with that. He finally leans in as a few droplets touch his throat, groans.
„You do?“ I ask. The cube moves from there to the edge of his shaved jaw, then straight to his lips lingering above. He’s acting unfazed yet can’t hide the sudden hint of turmoil in hooded eyes. At least they’re not glazed anymore.
„I asked you a question, Edward. Do. You?“ The cube melts to a sliver between my fingers. His focus on me, hands burying themselves in the sheets. A blink.
„Of c-“ I give a small push and the cube slips into his mouth, past his teeth. He shudders but swallows nonetheless, surprise and instinct blending into each other. What a wonderful blend. I swipe my thumb across the wet shine to seal, feeling the silkiness I’ve bitten through so often and pull back just before he bites me in return.
„Liar.“ I smile at his growl. „Do you want me to stay now?“ He grimaces, the reflex of a cornered animal.
„Well, it’s not that I ‘want’ you to but-“
„If not I’ll gladly return to my lab. You seem quite stable at the moment and I have very important work to do.“ I try to get off the bed but he catches my wrist in time. I hide my thoughts under a monotonous mask.
„Stop playing.“ Dramatically he lays down, an arm draped half across his face. „Don’t you see I’m exhausted? Have you no mercy?” He breathes, eyes sweet and dizzy, cheeks still painted with the shade of burgundy. What a charade. He never fails to amuse me.
„I’d be blind if I didn’t. You’re the only one who enjoys playing coy and mercy is not my forte.”
„Come here.” Eyes not that sweet anymore, voice rather annoyed. Shards of his old self peek through. I missed it already. I take the icepack from his forehead denying him the short relief he barely got used to.
„Choose. The ice or me?” Moans of anger.
„You.” He sighs in frustration, shutting his eyes. Finally. „You. I want you, asshole.” I allow myself a grin.
With a cube between my lips and a waft of victory I bow down, kissing him while his eyes are still closed. They fling open with a jolt as it falls, leaving wet traces on chin and tongue. Any complaint is muffled by my mouth. When we part he wraps his arms around my neck, wedging a hand in my hair. I guess I won't have permission to leave a third time. Not that I wanted to.
„Always knew you had a cold heart.” he whispers against me, voice a little winded. I laugh.
„I’d be disappointed if you hadn’t figured that out by now.” My hands cup his face, search for any creases to smooth, points to pressure. He hasn't much but they hide deep in his skin, some gathering around his eyes. He likes to joke about them but I know he can't stand the idea of getting older. It means that time runs and time is always short for us. „How do you feel?”
„Ants scuttle through my veins. The enemy within takes hold. I can’t even think of an appropiate riddle.”
„So wonders do happen then.“
„Eager to ruin the moment eh?“
„Not at all. Wonders are short-lived, they wouldn’t be wonders otherwise. You’ll continue solving your crosswords soon.“
„Mmh. Will you lay beside me eventually or do I have to threaten you first?“
„You're not in the position to threaten me.“
„I could go for a chokehold right now."
„So could I."
„Don't give me ideas.“
„Don't tempt me.“
„You define temptation.“
„Are you flirting with me, doctor?“ Lazily he fumbles with the hem of my shirt, pulling on a thread which has been hanging loose anyway. I have lots of them. "I must say I'm astonished you're not disgusted by... this. It's so human.“
„Only gods and monsters are spared from sickness. We are none of both my dear.“ I give in and settle next to him before he manages to dissolve more fabric. He slips under the arm I present making himself at home as ever, his own arm firmly tugged around my waist. I let him. He needs something to hold onto. What else if not me? „Also I’ve stayed with you when you told me you had cancer.“ I add. „This is less than nothing in comparison to what we went through that time. I thought I had made myself clear back then that I’d never abandon you just because your body refuses to function. Or your mind. Remember, you’ve survived worse.“
„…I have indeed.“
„You’ll survive me too one day. As you said – I should be the sick one, not you.“ Silence. Then he stirs and buries his nose at my throat, groaning in exasperation. I rub his back in musing manner.
„Don’t say that. It’s no consolation to me and you fuckin know.” A low chuckle from my side.
„No?” I chide. His nails are sharper than I remember. Nevermind the imprints… they’ll be lovebites later.
„No! It’s horrible. My head’s exploding and you can’t stop poking me!“
„It’s a fact.“
„I don’t want to think about facts.“
„Then don’t. Just feel.“
„I feel like shit.“
„You will go when I fall asleep right?”
The question is unexpected. I force a smile. „I have to. You need medication and I’d need a prescription to mix one for your specific treatment.”
I feel his pout, then his smile sprawl in mischief.
„Can’t you be my medication?”
„Flattering. But I doubt I can. I’m not prone to heal people with what I do. My attempts on that have been kinda… desastrous.”
„Start with me. I’ll be your new number one patient.”
My hands halt in their task. A suspicious shiver climbs up my spine, daring to interpret. (My spine or Scarecrow's ? I can't decide). Is he aware of the appalling offer he makes? No. He can't be serious. He shouldn't be. My rub changes to cautious tapping.
„And, as I know you, my only patient...?” He purses his lips at that.
„Well, I don’t like sharing.” I sigh. Of course he doesn’t. A trait we have in common. I plant a rough kiss on his head. He savors the treat, clueless about how close I was to put a needle through his cranial bone for one second. My hand flattens, grip tightening on his flesh but he only seems to relish further in this. It's a game, it's a game. A game till it's not.
„I could do anything to you, Edward. I restrain myself but I can't deny the urges I have. Usually you’re aware of that more than I. It’s the sickness talking, corrupting your judgement.” And what dolce venom this sickness spreads. If I had less patience I’d probably take his words and ruin everything we have. What a frightening thought. „It might be better you take precautions.”
„I took precautions all my life.” he says in the snippiest way he’s able to. „If you can bear to hold me while I resemble a defenseless zombie I have no use for them.”
„This apparent lack of safety could and will kill you.” I say, sterner this time and pulse throbbing faster. He flinches but doesn't learn. A genius has no need to learn I suppose.
„Safety is a lie in itself. No one’s ever truly safe with each other. It would bore me if it were.“ He nestles under my chin. „You said I survived worse. But I don’t look forward to survive you.”
The sad thing is, he might tell the truth. Or his version of truth at least.
„It’s amazing how tame a little nausea can make you. Tame and venturesome. You should be sick more often.“
Don't. Don't be.
„Shut up or I will.“ he chuckles weakly.
I do. As energetic as his chatter seems to be, he is tired and worn out. It takes minutes on my chest and he sleeps tight, promiscuous prattle drifting to mumble, fatigue the caterpillar he weaves in. I comb through his hair with my spider fingers and guard the gentle breeze of his breath.
He could be gone for months now, I think. If the Lazarus Pit didn’t exist I’d lie in this bed and stare at the ceiling alone. If I’d stay in his apartement anyway… Such hollowing thoughts the man has when left on his own. He’s clamped tight around me, so tight. It's like I had two hearts to fail me.
Maybe he’s right. Being sick is human. It’s so ordinary, just like we were those people with desk jobs and briefcases. People without the trouble of being chased by the Bat. People with houses, families. Children. Worries beyond conundrums and beatings.
It's not the first time I think about it. But the concept never fits right with me, no matter how often I try to imagine. I wasn’t born to be… that. Edward wasn’t too. But what if? If we had a decent upbringing, who could we be? Who would we be...
He murmurs and it almost sounds like my name. I listen, holding my air while he spends his. Does he dream of me? Do I haunt him in the darkness of his slumber, does my voice sing in the cavern of his bones? He’s the only one who wouldn’t call them nightmares after. The only one who invites me to exist there in his smorgasbord of knowledge and fancy. It's a privilege I would kill for. His subconscious reacts by shifting closer to me. My arms are too long, my legs too thin, my body an awry kneaded wick and yet he finds ways to fold into my strange embrace like he was made for it. The lost piece fitting into my puzzle, that's what he'd call it.
Why? Why me?
We would’ve never met.
I know this as I know the sun is blending and moonlight cold. If we had been led on different path, been born under more gracious stars we wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t miss either for you can’t miss what hasn't happened. You can only wonder, only riddle. Gods and monsters don't care about the future. We are none of both.
But would he be happy? Happier than this? Happier without someone like me?
Oh Jonathan, of course he would. If he had been accepted and praised like he was meant to the world would love him more than you ever could. They'd give him the prizes he deserves, write his name in golden letters on every surface of town. They'd cherish him in ways that don't include your favourite fear or his tears or his desperation when he smiles at you and the honesty in his eyes, the drunken purity of his touch that makes you scream inside. He wouldn't need you like that, like now. There'd be thousand hands to cool his skin when the fever builds and they'd all be more gentle than yours, more sacred and nice and capable. You never were a man to mend things, you are a destroyer, a breaker. You can't heal him, can't keep him together. But he keeps the illusion alive he can heal you and that's the biggest tragedy of them all, isn't it? Has anyone of you been whole in the first place?
I don't know. It's a question I don't crave an answer for. I don't need it now, and when he says my name and reaches out for me with this undoubtful bratty demand and these clingy fingers and this insatiable mouth I won't need it further. I won't ask for more. It's already more than I ever had.
... He is more than I ever had.
I should go. Get the medication. He might feel bad again when he wakes up. But he’d wake up when I move, so I don't. I can stay for a little while, filter his noises and motions, tell him a few riddles and tales when he quivers. It won't hurt him and won't hurt me. I'm here. He's here. A little while. It's not like he'd die. It's not like he'd die.
I bury my nose in his hair and inhale the heat, the life there. Fold it around my core like a web. Like metal bars. Reality.
It's not like he'd die. We had that already. Right?