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Tear Me To Pieces

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And they say, "I saw the Devil with a smilin' face"
I wanna be where the shotguns spray
Where God gets high and the priests don't pray

 


 

 

How did I get roped into this? Sure, I was broke and kind of desperate for money, but I didn't know if I wanted to stoop this low to make some decent cash. Okay, yeah, it's not like I was working the street corner or anything. 

 

But catering? 

 

I had worked as a waitress before but only if you count a four hour shift during a Friday dinner rush at an Outback Steakhouse. It only took a table of douchebags who complained about everything in hopes of a free meal and an unruly toddler who deposited his mac and cheese right on my brand new shoes to convince me that waitressing just wasn't for me. I didn't care about the promise of great tips. Nothing was worth that kind of hell. 

 

So I guess the old saying about choosing beggars is wrong. Or at least it was before I moved out of the comfortable lifestyle of relying on my parents to help me financially. I was from a small town, one of the countless suburbs outside of Gotham and at 19, I thought I knew exactly what I wanted. 

 

Be on my own, find a job in some hip coffee shop and maybe meet one of those obscenely wealthy men. We'd fall in love, he'd whisk me off to Paris, propose under the Arc de Triomphe and I'd have my happily ever after. Well, it's been three and a half years and I'm no closer to that fantasy than I was the day I moved out. 

 

What I was close to was eviction. Which meant my previous attitude toward choosing beggars was no longer valid. I was currently complaining to myself as I tried to close the gap between the two buttons of my white, uniform shirt. Of course, at such short notice, I'd been only able to borrow a white button-down from my friend and temporary coworker, Abby. Her chest was nowhere near as...well, for lack of a better word, ample as mine was. It was a curse, not a blessing as I'd been told all my life. Don't let them lie to you. Big tits were far more trouble than they're worth.

 

I blew out a frustrated sigh and looked up at my reflection in the  bathroom mirror. It was almost funny how ill-prepared I was to do this job. I would be required to balance trays of fancy hors d'oeuvres and weave in and out of a crowd of ultra-wealthy elites when I could barely even get my damn shirt buttoned. It was official. I was a mess.

 

At the door, a knock made me jump and I smoothed my hair back, hoping the catering company didn't frown upon the bun I'd thrown it up in. I had tried to make it a fancy bun by tying a red ribbon around it with a bow. With a deep breath, I wrenched the door open and let it out a sigh at Abby's smirking face. She leaned a shoulder against the doorframe and looked down at my attire. "Hey, you clean up well, Jacobs."

 

I rolled my eyes and pointed to the open gap right where my chest stretched the fabric the most. "Yeah, real nice."

 

Abby laughed and pulled me by my elbow out of the bathroom and into the main foyer of the penthouse suite. The caterers had arrived an hour before the party was scheduled to begin to get everything ready. As waitresses, Abby and I were responsible for one thing and one thing only: not dropping our trays. 

 

She'd given me the rundown earlier in the day. Smile, be friendly, only speak when spoken to and whatever we do, do not drop our trays. Which only made me more nervous. I wouldn't say I was a klutz, but I had my fair share of trips and falls in my life. And when I had a ball of nerves in my stomach as big as the entire city of Gotham, anything was possible. 

 

Looping her arm around my elbow, she steered me through the entrance of the suite, around a sleek, black wall, and into the ultra, modern kitchen. A team of chefs were busy preparing the bite-sized treats and they barely looked up at us as we weaved around the sleek, marble island in the middle of the room.

 

Abby plucked one of the treats from a pan, ignoring the glares from the chefs, and popped it into her mouth. "Don't look so worried, Nat." 

 

"Easy for you to say." 

 

I sighed and followed her to a small room, possibly an office though for now it was designated for the crates of champagne and catering supplies. She turned to glance back at me with an arch of her slender brow. "How so?"

 

"You're used to this. Rich and famous people don't intimidate you anymore."

 

"That's because I don't let them. They're just people, Nat. They all pick their noses and they all shit just like us." 

 

I crossed my arms over my chest and watched her rummage through the tiny, black purse she had carried in with her. She plucked something out of one of the inside zipper pouches and turned to face me. A little silver needle caught the light and I took a step back away from her. With a scowl, she pulled me closer and took my shirt in her fingers. 

 

"Look, just concentrate on keeping that tray from spilling and by the time these assholes are all drunk, we'll sneak away and drink their fancy champagne in the closet." She winked and secured the gap in my shirt with the safety pin she'd conjured from her purse. Once she was finished, the pin well hidden, I looked down to admire her work. 

 

"Thanks," I mumbled, smoothing my hand down the front of the shirt. "I could use some of that champagne right now, I think."

 

"Yeah right. You'd be stumbling around like a drunk after one glass. You know you're a lightweight." 

 

I rolled my eyes and turned as she made her way back into the kitchen, grinning at me from over her shoulder. "You're never going to let me forget it, are you? I told you a thousand times, I'd never drank tequila before."

 

There was no way in hell I was going to be able to defend myself. Especially not in front of the snooty chefs still preparing their little pastry puffs and caviar crackers that probably cost more than a month's rent for me. They eyed us as we crossed back to the foyer and found the other waiters and waitresses waiting for the host to come out and greet us. As we waited, Abby ducked her head toward me.

 

"There's no chance in hell I'll let you forget it. You flashed the bartender and tried to get the cop's phone number--"

 

I waved a hand at her. "Alright, alright. I've heard the story thank you very much. Let's just get this night over with."

 

Abby straightened as an older gentleman, already dressed in a classy tux introduced himself as Bruce Wayne's butler. He was at the front of the room and we kept our distance at the back of the crowd. As he thanked us all for being so professional, Abby leaned down toward me with a smirk. "Just think of that cash you're gonna get."

 

I looked down at her rubbing her thumb and first two fingers together and rolled my eyes with a smile. Why else would I be wearing this shirt that was a size too small for my chest, uncomfortable Mary Jane's, and pantyhose? The cash was literally the only thing keeping me from bolting out the door. That and the threats I'd received from my roommate earlier that morning about paying my half of the rent.

 

I straightened and looked at the older gentleman as he informed us that we could use the bathroom in the back hall, as the main two restrooms would be for guests. His voice was friendly, accented and calming to listen to. Still, I couldn't help my thoughts drift off as he talked. 

 

Maybe tonight would be the night that fantasy would come true. With all the millionaires in attendance, maybe I'd attract at least one of them. Hell, Bruce Wayne might even fall in love with me and offer to move me into his penthouse. The thought was laughable and I ducked my head to stare down at the scuff marks on my Mary Jane's. 

 

All I had to do was get through the next five hours. By midnight, I'd be four hundred dollars richer and not facing eviction. And to think, all I would have to do was smile and balance food on a silver platter for it. Hopefully, I'd get through the night in one piece, snag me a millionaire, and pay my half of the rent.

.

.

The party was in full swing by 7:45, though no one had seen Mr. Wayne yet. Calling him Bruce felt too informal like I wasn't allowed. I hadn't spoken to a single soul aside from Abby and the other members of the wait staff since the party started. Not like I actually believe I would see or talk to him, but hey, a girl can always dream right? 

 

What I had expected out of the night, was not what happened. Abby had been right. These were just people and I had no reason to be nervous around them. Mostly because I had no time and they basically saw me as a floating tray of champagne flutes and caviar. No one looked me in the eye, no one offered a thanks when they snatched up the goodies I was carrying. 

 

But like I said, I really didn't have time to care. 

 

As soon as one tray was emptied, I was right back in the kitchen to reload another and get back out there. And let me tell you, the uber-wealthy of Gotham city absolutely loved these tiny puff pastries. I didn't know what was in them, nor did I care. It must have been something equivalent to crack judging by how many they shoveled in their mouths. The more champagne they drank, the more they ate.

 

The only time of the night I did get a break, to stand at the edge of the kitchen, quiet as a mouse, was when Bruce Wayne did finally arrive. I couldn't see him through the crowd, but had heard the whispers from the group of women near me that it was him. He made his spiel about Harvey Dent, giving him a glowing declaration of support and as soon as the applause picked up, I was on the move again. 

 

Half an hour later, Abby found me in the crowd. Her tray was empty and mine was getting close. Only two more champagne glasses to go. She eyed it with a quick glance and steered me back to the kitchen. "C'mon," she said with a sly smirk. "We get our break now."

 

Once we had disappeared from the crowd, she took my remaining champagne glasses and handed one to me. "Cheers!" 

 

She downed it in one quick gulp and I did the same, glancing cautiously to the entrance of the kitchen just in case someone would see. Would Mr. Wayne get upset if he caught us drinking the champagne he paid for? Thankfully, no one caught us and I was able to gulp the entire contents in two swallows.

 

Abby glanced over her shoulder and dipped a hand into the opening of her shirt. When she pulled it back out, she had a small, rolled paper tube between her fingers. My eyes lit up and flickered up to meet hers. "A joint? Where did you get that?" 

 

She ushered me into the room we had been using as a supply closet and shut the door behind us. A simple shrug of her shoulders made me arch my brow in suspicion and Abby rolled her eyes. "You never let me have any fun. Brad gave it to me."

 

"Brad? The head waiter? Wouldn't we get in trouble?"

 

Abby pinched the end of the joint between her lips and pulled a lighter from her pocket. She spoke out of the corner of her lips before clicking the flame on. "How else do you think we get through these things?" 

 

She took a deep drag and held it in before passing it to me. It wasn't like I hadn't ever smoked weed before. When I first moved to Gotham, it was my favorite way to pass the time. But it got more expensive the less money I got and I hadn't had a chance to partake in quite a while. My tolerance would be low after the past eight months without it. 

 

But as she held the joint out to me, blowing the smoke from her face, I figured what the hell. Half the people out there were drunk, probably had their own drugs hidden up their sleeves as well, and would never notice one measly joint shared between two people in a closet. I held it to my lips and took a drag, much bigger than I had intended. 

 

Abby nodded with a grin. "Hell yeah! That's what I'm talking about." She took another drag and I blew mine out with a giggle.

 

For the next ten minutes, we passed it back and forth while impersonating all the snooty people we'd encountered so far. As she finished up a particular scathing impression of one of the ladies out in the party, I laughed and hung my head. 

 

"You know," I started, feeling quite buzzed from the champagne and weed, even as low quality as it was. "I had this fantasy or whatever that I'd meet some millionaire tonight and he'd fly me to Paris and I'd live happily ever after." 

 

Abby snorted and shook her head. "I've thought about that so many times at events like this. It never happens."

 

"It'll happen to you faster than it'd happen to me." I didn't know whether it was the weed or champagne that made me feel so down on myself. "You practically look like you fit in already."

 

"Oh, shut up." She set the joint down on one of the crates of champagne and stood from her seat to lean toward me. "You're gorgeous, you just have to tweak your look a bit."

 

Before I could stop her, she pulled at the strings of the ribbon and loosened the bun on top of my head. My hair fell around my shoulders and I blinked down at the dark, messy strands. Abby circled behind me to comb her fingers through my hair, dragging it all over to my left shoulder. She twisted the elastic band back around it to make a side ponytail and tied the ribbon back into a bow. 

 

"Here," she said, holding out a tube of lip gloss over. "Use this."

 

I was much more compliant with her demands when I was tipsy and feeling nice and buzzed from the weed. No argument at all from me, which was rare. But my usual standoffish attitude had been dulled by drugs and I pulled the applicator from the tube with a slick pop that made me wrinkle my nose. The gloss was sheer, with a hint of pink hue and I spread it across my bottom lip before rubbing them together. 

 

Abby moved in front of me once more and scoffed. "How are you going to get a millionaire sugar daddy with your shirt buttoned all the way to your neck. Gotta show them some of the goods, Nat."

 

I stared down at her fingers as she released the top two buttons of my shirt, which should have been enough and honestly, at the moment, I wasn't too concerned about. But she went one lower and my cleavage shown out from beneath the camisole I was wearing beneath it. "I can't show this much! They'll think I'm like a floozy or something."

 

"No one under the age of 65 says floozy anymore. And no one is going to care. These guys want to see some cleavage."

 

My breasts never had any place in my fantasy of meeting my future millionaire husband, but then again, maybe that's why it was still a fantasy and not reality. I only wish I had worn my nice, lacy bra instead of the one I had picked up at Walmart the last time I went home. Which was a year ago. This bra had been through it, but it was comfy and I didn't exactly expect anyone to see it tonight. 

 

Abby put a glass of champagne in my hands and clinked hers against it with a smirk. She knocked hers back and I sipped, not wanting to risk tripping over my own feet and spilling a tray of food on some wealthy woman's designer dress. I didn't have the luxury of waiting for Mr. Millionaire to notice me tonight. I had rent to pay by tomorrow.

 

I opened my mouth to speak but was abruptly cut off by the sound of a blast from the party. My first guess was that someone had knocked over the pyramid of glasses that had been delicately perched for the centerpiece earlier in the night. Thank God it was someone else and not me.

 

Abby cursed and slipped the roach back into her bra, waving her hand quickly through the air. "God, Wayne is probably making a drunken spectacle of himself. C'mon, we better get out there and see what's up." I nodded and hurried out into the kitchen, snatching my silver tray from where I had set it on the island. I balanced the champagne flute I had sipped from on it and spotted the gloss around the lip. 

 

Abby hurried on ahead of me and I paused right near the wall separating the kitchen from the rest of the party to swipe my thumb across the smear of lip gloss. I'm not sure why, but at that moment, I thought that was a better course of action than to grab another glass and replace it. The alcohol and weed had seriously clouded my judgment. 

 

The party had gone silent and I shook the fallen hair from my face as I rounded the corner of the wall. Abby was nowhere to be seen, but I figured she moved to get a better view of whatever was happening. A woman and a man in front of me stepped to the side, as if they were shrinking back into the wall out of fright, and I was given a sudden front row view to what was going on.

 

My gasp was the only sound in the room and I stared, eyes wide and glossy lips parted in complete and utter surprise. A small crowd of men had moved into the penthouse. Most of them had masks on; clown masks, to be exact and they were all toting guns or various weapons. But it was the man right in front that drew my attention and refused to let it go. 

 

"Where is Harvey Dent?" His voice was like gravel and it immediately made my fingers tighten around the tray I carried. This was the guy people had been talking about, the one who had robbed the bank and walked away with millions of dollars. "Hmm? Where is he?"

 

The Joker turned in a full circle and plucked one of the shrimp skewers from a plate. He popped the garnish it into his mouth and chewed noisily while strolling down the line of people who gaped at him in terror and shock. He was too close to me. Only a few feet away and I tried to inch back on my heels but was stopped by the woman behind me. She didn't want me to move seeing as how I was shielding her from the Joker's attention. 

 

My head was swimming. I could feel my heart thumping against every pulse point on my body and if I survived this, I swore to any deity above that I would never smoke weed or work catering again. I wanted to squeeze my eyes shut and pretend that this wasn't happening but he was making his way up the line and he reached up to take a man's face in his hands, turning his head this way and that while questioning him on Harvey Dent’s whereabouts.

 

He released him and I watched his hand, gloved in black leather, drop down to where I held the tray in front of me as he moved closer. The champagne flute was snatched roughly from where I held it and the majority of the contents spilled out. A few drops caught across my jaw but I barely noticed, too scared to even feel at that moment. I stared as the Joker brought the glass up to his lips--scarred and swollen and so red --and then he paused. The smell of him was suddenly everywhere and no matter how hard I tried to keep myself from breathing him in, it was useless. Sweat and gunpowder and something I couldn't quite recognize, though it was familiar to me. It was the strangest combination of smells I had ever experienced and it was unrelenting.

 

It may have only been half a second, barely any time at all, but for me, in my inebriated state, that half a second seemed to stretch into oblivion. My eyes lifted from the glass, still resting against his bottom lip, and met his dark gaze cutting right through me. How could someone's eyes be so black? It wasn't natural and as he narrowed his gaze and turned his head to face me, I felt my stomach drop while my heart leapt into my chest. 

 

It was my chest that had caught his attention. The Joker's gaze fell from my face, pausing briefly to the droplets of champagne rolling down my jaw before he spied the loose buttons of my shirt and the cleavage beneath. It was only a sweeping glance, no ogling or lecherous gaze, but it was enough to make me feel as if I were suddenly twice as small. Like a mouse that spotted the cat stalking it. His tongue quickly swiped at the corners of his mouth and it surprised me that it was just as red as the paint on his face. And just when I thought I would pass out from the lack of air in my lungs, he tossed the glass over his shoulder and in the same motion, reached up to wipe away the drop of champagne on my face with his thumb.

 

I swallowed tightly and time returned to normal in a rush of sound that was like a freight train in my head. A man was speaking a bit further away, trying to be brave in the face of so much terror, but I barely heard a word of what he said. I was frozen to the spot, trembling from head to toe while the spot on my chin where his glove had brushed against felt as if it were on fire. 

 

I gulped in a breath that did little to calm me and the need, some desperate, primal urge to run was so strong inside me that it left me feeling nauseous. I turned with my tray still in my hands and shoved my way backward into the group of women who were cowering together. They could stand there and cower. I had to get out of here, had to breathe air that didn't smell like him. 

 

Behind the group of women, a hand gripped my elbow and I gasped. Thankfully, it was Abby's face I stared up into and she put a finger to her lips, wrenching me back toward the kitchen. "We have to leave," she hissed. “It’s only a matter of time before they start killing people and I don’t want to wait around for that.”

 

I could feel how hard her fingers were shaking around my elbow. I didn't argue with her. I wanted to leave just as badly as she did.

 

Why did I agree to this job? 

 

I could be at home, packing my things and moving back home to my parents as a failure. As a safe, alive failure. Yet, this was where I had found myself; a penthouse suite, dressed in a ridiculous uniform that showed far too much skin, unable to get the smell of him out of my head. 

 

Abby steered us behind the kitchen to the hallway where we had been designated to use the bathroom. Perhaps there was a back door, an emergency exit that we could use to escape, to run away and never look back. 

 

"Hey!" A voice, rough and deep, called out from ahead of us, and I looked up with a gasp. One of the men in a clown mask marched toward us, shotgun barrel aimed right for me and while I still held the tray in front of me, I doubt it would offer any protection in the event of a blast to my chest. "Get back in there!"

 

"I'm sorry," Abby said with a sniff. "We were just trying to--"

 

"I know exactly what you were trying to. Get back in there."

 

We turned on our heel and let him push us back into the main area of the party. Something was happening, a fight from the sounds of grunting, and I shook my head. I didn't want to go back. 

 

I looked down at the tray in front of me and had a brief thought that if I could turn fast enough and hit this bastard in the face with it, I could maybe get the gun. But then what? He wouldn't be knocked out by it and he was twice my size. He'd kill me just for trying to fight him. 

 

A gunshot rang out and Abby screamed beside me, her hand flying to her mouth. Glass had shattered and the sound of the fight had come to a grinding halt. With the barrel of the shotgun at my back, I stumbled forward and found the sleek, black wall separating the kitchen from the living room. The henchman who had found us broke away and I sighed in relief to not feel his gun at my back. 

 

And then the screaming started. It was everywhere and I hugged the only security I had found to my chest, hoping that the silver tray would at least slow any bullet down if I were to be struck by one. A man, pulling at the elbow of a woman in a gold gown, came around the corner of the wall and knocked into me hard. I spun and stumbled back, my hands reaching out to catch myself before I could fall. The tray fell to the ground in a clatter that seemed twice as loud as the screaming. 

 

Behind me, a shotgun blasted in the air and a rush of men in clown masks pointed their guns at the crowd to get away from the elevator doors. But it was who strolled behind them that I was suddenly hyper-aware of. He moved as strangely as he looked, all hunched and slow as if he were in no hurry to actually leave. And judging by him taking a moment to pick up another shrimp skewer from an abandoned tray, he apparently wasn't in a hurry. 

 

His eyes, those impossibly black eyes, swept across the hall and found me once more, making every muscle in my body seize tight and refuse to budge. I pressed myself hard into the wall at my back and as much as I tried to get it to swallow me up, I remained in place until he was right in front of me.

 

Every tiny breath I sucked in brought his scent into my head, assaulting my mind and etching itself into my memory forever. He towered over me and I could only just make out the shotgun he held loosely at his side out of the corner of my eye. His narrowed eyes swept over me, studying me, watching and waiting. 

 

When they flickered back up to meet my gaze once more, he smiled . It was just a quick twitch of his mouth that I tried not to stare at and an even quicker flick of his tongue that brought my gaze to it. There was no warmth to his smile whatsoever. It was the kind of smile someone gives when they know a secret. 

 

With his free hand, he reached up and curled his fingers around my ponytail. I half expected him to jerk my head back and put the shotgun beneath my chin but he didn't. His fingers moved around to the bow Abby had tied in my hair and I watched as he pulled at one of the red, silk strands until it loosened and fell away from me. And with that, he turned and I was left to stare after him.

 

He didn't look back.

 

His men rushed around him, threatening anyone who tried to interfere with their getaway with a gun pointed at their face. No one tried to stop them. 

 

My mouth had gone dry as a desert and my head was swimming with dizziness. I was safe, now that he had left me alone and they were leaving. But I didn't feel safe. I felt as if he had taken a part of me with him.

 

As he stepped into the elevator and turned to face the crowd once more to say his goodbyes, I could only stare at the strip of red ribbon hanging from his hand. It stood out in contrast against the rich purple of his jacket, like a flag waving back to me. And though I had no way to know for sure, I could feel it deep down...It wasn't goodbye

 

It was until next time. 

 


 

Chapter Text


 

That makes me anxious, gives me patience, calms me down
Lets me face this, let me sleep, and when I wake up
Let me breathe


 

It was after midnight by the time I made it back to my apartment building. Abby had insisted on seeing me home. It must have been written on my face how rattled I was by what had happened because she took one look at me outside the catering company and refused to let me leave alone. I was thankful. 

 

My head hurt, my knees still hadn't stopped shaking and I had no idea how to process something like that. We'd heard from the others that the Joker had dropped a woman out of the window, only for her to be saved by the Batman. There was no way I could even process that at the moment so I pushed it out of my head. It was hard enough processing the brief, strange encounter I had with the man. 

 

And god, his smell was still in my senses. It had permeated through my clothes like I had been soaked in it. Even after changing back into my own clothes, I could still smell it. I had stood in the bathroom at the caterer, staring down at the white fabric bunched on the sink, my thoughts unable to slow down. And I'm not sure why I did it, morbid curiosity possibly, but I brought it up to my nose and inhaled. 

 

Just to see if he had rubbed off on it or something. 

 

The shirt smelled like my deodorant and whatever detergent Abby used and I frowned, lifting my face to stare at my reflection across from me. A faint whiff, as if he had walked through the bathroom moments before, met my senses and I quickly wrenched on the black t-shirt I had been wearing before. 

 

Abby met me outside the front door and handed me an envelope with the cash I was owed. I was relieved that it was cash and not a check. I didn't want to even think about getting up to run errands in the morning. All I wanted was to sleep tomorrow away. Maybe my head wouldn't be so cloudy after getting enough rest. 

 

The entire cab drive to my neighborhood was spent in silence. Both of us kept our faces turned to the window, watching the streets pass us by and I wondered if she was looking for the same thing as me; any sign that the nightmare we had encountered wasn't over like we had thought. 

 

The ride was uneventful and when the taxi pulled up to the curb, I threw the strap of my bag over my head and turned to Abby. She offered a sympathetic smile and let out a soft laugh. "I don't suppose you'll want to work many more jobs like this."

 

It was nice to laugh and joke and I shrugged. "I'm sure I'll need rent money next month so I'll be calling you. Maybe no more jobs with influential people in attendance." 

 

"Got it," she said with a laugh. "Weddings and boring banquets only for Natalie Jacobs." 

 

I wanted to say more, even apologize, though I wasn't sure why. None of it had been my fault, but I still felt sorry that we both had to experience it. Instead of saying anything, I reached over and gave her a quick hug before paying for my share of the cab fare. 

 

With a final glance around my surroundings, finding no Jokers creeping in the shadows, I hurried up the steps and into the building. The apartment I shared with my roommate, Chelsea, was on the second floor of an old house that had been turned into several two bedrooms. A block of six mailboxes was set up just inside the foyer and though I hadn't checked the mail in the last few days, it would have to wait until tomorrow. 

 

I barely had the strength to carry myself up the stairs. I had never felt so mentally exhausted before.

 

Our door was at the top of the stairs and to the left. 2B. I pulled the ring of keys from my pocket but before I could even put it in the lock, the door opened quickly. The wind from it blew my hair across my neck and a shiver erupted down my arms, bringing with it the faint smell of sweat and gunpowder. 

 

Chelsea blinked at me, her blue eyes wide with surprise. "Oh good. You're alive." She didn't sound very enthusiastic about it. 

 

"Um, yeah. Barely."

 

"I heard about the party. It's all over the news." She stepped away from the door and I walked inside, dropping my keys and bag on the table near the door. 

 

In the living room that was barely big enough to fit a chair and entertainment space, Chelsea's boyfriend sat sprawled out with a blanket over his lap. It made me wrinkle my nose as I turned toward the kitchen. He was here far too often without paying a share of the rent, but the lease was in her name and I had no real say in the matter. 

 

"You were there, Nat?" He asked, making my sneer deepen. I pulled the fridge open and snatched the orange juice I had bought a week ago. Barely had a glass of it and it was almost all gone. And since Chelsea was on the latest cleanse diet and wouldn't touch anything so sugary, I could only blame one person.

 

"Yeah, I was, Greg . Did you drink my orange juice?"

 

He ignored my question and hopped up from his seat on the couch, the blue blanket flying from his legs. Chelsea rolled her eyes and sat down on the arm, watching her boyfriend cross quickly into the kitchen. "Oh, man. What's he like?"

 

It was impossible to ignore the sparkle in his eyes and I recoiled. My hands tightened around the neck of the bottle as I blinked at him. "What do you mean? He was…he's awful . Terrifying. He threw a woman out the window, Greg! How do you think he's like?"

 

They stared at me and after a moment he scoffed and shook his head. "No. I meant Batman ."

 

"Oh." Awkward silence filled the small space and my pulse quickened. Flashes of those dark eyes sprang into my head, piercing through me seconds before he reached up to brush his thumb across my jaw. The wicked smile on his face as he pulled at the ribbon in my hair. Even now, hours later, I was breathless and suddenly, I remembered Greg was still waiting for an answer. "I'm not sure. I didn't see him."

 

His face fell and he lifted an eyebrow with a glance back to his girlfriend. She shrugged and sat down on the couch before picking up the remote. "Can we finish this movie?" 

 

"Yeah, sure." 

 

I was left alone in the kitchen, left to stare down at my juice and I closed my eyes as that smell, that acrid scent that I couldn't quite place, returned to assault my senses. No matter how much I wanted it gone, it still lingered. I had to take these clothes off, wash them or burn them. Whichever got rid of it the fastest.

 

With my juice in my hands, I crossed to my room and paused just outside the door to dip my hand into the bag at my side. I grabbed the envelope Abby had given me and tossed it on the desk pushed along the wall. "There's the rest of what I owe for rent. I'm going to bed."

 

Neither Chelsea or her boyfriend offered me goodnight and I didn't care. I shut the door behind me and stood just inside the room, pulling the elastic band from the ponytail still hanging over my leg shoulder. I raked my fingers through it and piled it into a bun on top of my head, swearing to never wear it to the side again. 

 

And even though it was off the side of my neck, a shiver ran down my arms at the memory of his fingers curling around the strands. No. I was done thinking about this. I was ready to put it behind me, forget it happened and continue on with my life, a little more thankful that I had a life at all. 

 

First things first, I wrenched my shirt up over my head and tossed it into the hamper full of dirty clothes and hoped the smell wouldn't rub off on anything. I wasn't exactly sure how it had lingered for so long on me anyway. I hadn't even been wearing this shirt. Why did it smell like him? 

 

I hurried out of my pants and tossed them as well, not even bothering to pull on my pajamas. Despite the fact that whatever movie Chelsea and Greg were watching was incredibly loud, I crawled into my bed and wrapped the blankets around me like a cocoon. I started at the wall and listened to the sounds of explosions and gunshots coming from the television, wishing they were watching something else. Anything else.

 

I was having a hard enough time distracting myself from what had happened without the noisy reminders every five minutes. But even after the movie was over and the two of them went to bed, I wasn't able to sleep. Every time I closed my eyes, he was there, right in front of me, reaching for the ribbon in my hair and I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to distract myself from it no matter what I tried. 

.

.

I had been true to my word and slept right through the next day. Not even Chelsea making noise going to work that morning had woken me and the sky outside was growing dark by the time I finally opened my eyes. 

 

In our apartment, she got the master bedroom with the big closet and that was fine. She lived here before I did and her name was on the lease. She could take whichever room she wanted. And while mine was much smaller and I had no closet at all, what I did have was the window with the view. 

 

When I moved in, the bed had been right beneath it and one of the first things I did was rearrange the furniture so I could see the sky while lying down. Today was one of those days I was thankful that I did it. Despite it nearly being sundown, the sky was one of those brilliant swathes of color. Blues and bright orange painting the bottom of the clouds floating between the buildings across the street. I laid in bed, blankets wrapped around me like a burrito and I watched as the blue sky slowly faded into violet. 

 

And I would have laid there to watch it turn completely dark, but the pressure in my bladder was unbearable. I groaned as I stood from the bed and quickly dressed in pajama pants and a tank top. Usually, I wouldn't care to throw on some shorts and go to the bathroom in my bra, but there was no telling if Greg would pop in and he'd already seen me in enough compromising situations. 

 

The first time I met him, he thought it was Chelsea in the shower and threw the curtain open to surprise her. It wasn't Chelsea. It was me and I had screamed and tried to hit him with the shampoo bottle, thinking he was an intruder. From that moment on, I could hardly stand him. 

 

Out in the living room, Chelsea was home from work,  sitting at the desk, working on her weekly calendar and she lifted her head to me as I walked out of the bedroom. "About time. Were you going to sleep the day away?"

 

I didn't respond the way I wanted to. I wanted to ask her if she was trying to be a bitch, or if it came naturally. Instead, I mumbled that I had to pee and shuffled to the bathroom at the end of the hall. It sucked having to share such a tiny space with someone as big a bitch as she was, but I had no other options. Moving out just wasn't in the cards for me at the moment and I didn't exactly have any plans to make it happen. 

 

It’s not like I had a steady job to save up enough for a deposit on my own place. 

 

I finished in the bathroom and turned the light off before shuffling into the kitchen. By now, Chelsea had moved to the living room and was sitting on the edge of the couch. The television was on with some kind of breaking news story, but I didn’t care. The last thing I wanted was any reminders about what kind of shit went on in this city. Particularly, the person behind most of the recent shit that had happened.

 

But my roommate hadn’t picked up on my mood quite yet and turned around to face me as I pulled open the door to the fridge. “Are you seeing this?”

 

I was most definitely not seeing it since my head was currently ducked into the bright interior of our fridge, trying to find something to eat. With a shake of my head, I grabbed a cup of yogurt and moved to the utensil drawer, kicking the fridge shut with my foot. 

 

“That Joker guy killed some judge and the police commissioner last night.”

 

Just the sound of his name had my entire body tensing up so tightly, my fist tightened around the plastic yogurt cup and a glob of it popped out of the lid. It hit the floor at my foot, but I barely noticed. I turned to the television and swallowed at the sight of a still frame image of the Joker, laughing down into a handheld camera. The quality of the image made him blurry, but the wide grin on his face made me shiver as if he were standing in my living room.

 

Chelsea turned to look at me and I quickly turned back to the task of finding a spoon for my evening breakfast. If she noticed the strange look on my face, she didn’t mention is and I was thankful. “So, like, you saw this guy?”

 

“Yeah,” I grumbled, snatching a spoon from the drawer before slamming it shut with a bump of my hip. The yogurt didn’t even look appetizing anymore but I felt like I had to occupy my hands and mind with a simple task. Dip the spoon in, put it in my mouth, swallow and repeat. It would be something to concentrate on, something to distract from the screen where his face was still frozen. 

 

God, why did the news have to show things like this constantly? It’s like they wanted the whole city to live in a perpetual state of fear for some reason. It was annoying.

 

“Was he as creepy in real life as he is on TV?”

 

“Pretty much,” I mumbled into the first bite of yogurt. The taste did nothing for me but the cool temperature on my tongue gave me some relief. Chelsea shook her head and looked back at the screen, leaning forward to put her elbows on her thighs. She was still wearing her work clothes, which was another reminder that I had to find a job this week. No more lying in bed until five in the evening, no matter what I had been through the night before.

 

As I dipped the spoon back into the cup, not wanting my thoughts to drift back to what had happened last night, Chelsea sighed. 

 

“I bet he smelled good.”

 

The shock made my grip falter and the spoon dropped back into the cup with another splatter of peach flavored yogurt across my hand and pajama pants. “ What ?” I asked, eyes wide as I stared at her in disbelief.

 

“I said I bet he was. I mean, look at his face and that makeup. Only someone with mental problems would do that.” She grabbed the remote and tapped the volume button to turn it up and I could only stare after her. What the hell? Was my mind playing tricks on me? Maybe I hadn’t got enough sleep after all. After another moment the story on the Joker of Gotham city wrapped up and I was thankful that his picture was taken off the screen. I looked down into my yogurt cup.

 

My appetite was definitely gone now.

 

Chelsea stood up and tossed the remote back onto the couch. “I’m going to take a shower. Greg said the bank his mom works for will be hiring a new teller in the next week or so. You need to take your resume down there soon.” 

 

I nodded, watching her move around the couch. She plucked the earrings from her ears and pulled her bright, red hair from the clip she had pinned it up with. It was clear that she was done dropping hints about me finding a job. I nodded again and picked up the spoon, hoping I looked as normal as I was trying to appear.

 

“Yeah, I will. That would be a good job.”

 

“Put Greg down as your reference,” she called over her shoulder before disappearing into the bathroom. The sound of the faucet turning on, the knobs squeaking as she spun them, and I stared down into my breakfast, fighting the nausea.

 

It was bad enough that I was smelling scents that weren’t around me, but now I was hearing things as well? Was this a product of some mild form of post-traumatic stress? I mean, sure, I had been scared as hell last night, but I don’t feel traumatized by what had happened. Looking back, I couldn’t even remember much of it at all.

 

Just bits and pieces that stood out brighter than the rest that all seemed to fade into the fog of my mind. And what did stand out, were the memories I didn’t want to have. 

 

Frustrated and fed up with my thoughts, I hurried to the kitchen and dumped the yogurt cup into the trash. I hated wasting food, especially since I didn’t have the funds to replace it most of the time, but the thought of trying to eat anything at the moment was just too much for my stomach. I needed to move on from this and focus on how I would be paying the next month’s rent and half of the utilities. 

 

If I was going to take my resume into the bank and ask for a job, then I was going to have to spruce it up a bit. Sure, lying on your resume was never ideal, but desperate times call for desperate measures and honestly, would anyone ever check to make sure all the facts were...well, facts?

 

I saw at the desk with Chelsea’s laptop and figured she would only get a little annoyed for me using it. As soon as she saw that I was working on getting a job, she’d shut her mouth. As the computer booted up, I pulled my feet into the chair and chewed on the corner of my thumbnail, a thought popping into my head.

 

Did I even want to work at a bank? What if he decided to come in and rob it while I was working? God, what if he recognized me? 

 

That was ridiculous. He had barely looked at me. He was just trying to intimidate anyone he could find and I happened to be the one who had fallen into his sights. And the thing with my ribbon? 

 

I shook my head, not wanting to think of him still in possession of something of mine. Even though I had no emotional hold on that particular ribbon, hell it hadn’t even been mine --it was Chelsea’s, it still felt personal somehow. Like he was out there, in whatever hole he hid in between appearances, with something I had on my body, something I chose to wear and just knowing it was with him now made me feel...strange.

 

The sound of the water shutting off with another shriek of the knobs made me jump and blink down at the computer screen. I hadn’t even realized I had spaced out for so long. But thinking about it again put me out of the mood to get anything done and before Chelsea could come out of the bathroom, I closed her laptop and hurried into my bedroom. 

 

My head was still too loopy, still too foggy from everything. I obviously hadn’t gotten enough sleep so that was the only thing I wanted at that moment. My resume and job search would be waiting for me when I woke up in the morning and hopefully these stupid, unrelenting thoughts wouldn’t be. 









 

Chapter Text


 

I shouldn't be here right now
But you got me figured out
Pushing my pieces round
I know this game


 

My bedroom floor looked like a cyclone had touched down and tore through my drawers, scattering clothes in its wake. A shirt hung off the knob of my underwear drawer and I frowned down at it. Twenty minutes ago, I had decided against wearing the top on the basis that the color washed my complexion out. I don't even know why I bought the damn thing. Yellow looked terrible on me and even if it was in style at the moment, that didn't mean I could make it work. 

 

I snatched it off the knob and threw it back in the drawer, moving to the rolling rack I used for my more nicer pieces of clothing. These were what I would wear to job interviews or dates...if I ever had either of those two. It had been seven months since I had lost my job and even longer than that since I actually had a date. Of course, I blamed that on the lack of eligible men in this city but the truth was, I didn't have the energy. 

 

The men of Gotham required so much attention and pampering of their egos and I just was not into that kind of thing. That begged the question; what was I into? I didn't have an answer for that question. 

 

My track record of men was an abysmal account of just how low a girl will lower her standards to have a boyfriend. One boyfriend had been the guitarist of an indie band that was always on the verge of being discovered. He had been the tortured artist type and I thought he was the end all be all when I was seventeen. Thank god I grew up and saw him for what he really is; a mopey dude who wanted a groupie instead of a relationship. 

 

By twenty, I hadn't learned much though and decided to look on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. I dated a "Chad" type for about six months and while he had enough money to spoil me rotten, he also had the attitude and anger problem to ruin our relationship. It was like throwing off a wet blanket the day I dumped him, though he said I would regret it one day. 

 

And I did. Every time I had to pay rent.

 

But I didn't want a sugar daddy or to live in the back of a van while my boyfriend toured dive bars for the next ten years. I wanted…

 

With a sigh, I stared at the rack of clothes and shook my head. I wanted something decent to wear. That's what I truly wanted. What clothes said, "hi, I'm responsible and desperate, please give me a job"?

 

The only option I had that didn't immediately disgust me was a dress that was three years old. It was a dark blue, almost navy, with a line of tortoise shell buttons down the length of the front. It was sleeveless but I had a decent cardigan that I could pair and make a decent looking outfit with. Not too short, not too low cut, and while I thought it made me look a little too much like a kindergarten teacher to wear on a date, it was good enough to job hunt in. 

 

I slipped it on and found the gray cardigan, hoping no one would see the missing button on the bottom. I wore it open anyway. After pulling my hair into a ponytail that looked too much like how I had worn it that night , I pulled it down and combed through it with my fingers. It would have to do. 

 

With my feet in a pair of flats, I moved into the living room to grab the small stack of resumes I had printed off earlier that morning. Chelsea, being the ever responsible and organized woman she was, found me a folder to keep them in and promised me it made me look professional. 

 

The door to the apartment opened suddenly, making me jump and throw my hand to my chest. Greg smiled as he moved into space and kicked the door shut behind him. He held up a small, red toolbox. "I hear there's a leak in the bathroom."

 

"Oh, yeah. The faucet on the sink. You scared the shit out of me." I pushed an earring into my ear and scowled at him as he chuckled to himself. 

 

"Sorry about that. You going on a job hunt?" He pointed to the folder lying on the desk and I sighed with a nod. "Good luck! Be sure to ask for Brenda. That's my mom." 

 

He moved past the kitchen and headed down the hallway toward the bathroom and I watched him for a moment before taking a deep breath. Might as well get this day over with. I scooped up the folder and grabbed my keys from the bowl on the table before calling back to Greg. "I'll be back later."

 

"You might want to avoid downtown. That funeral procession is today." 

 

I was out the door just when his words hit me and I frowned down at the deadbolt before twisting my key into it. What funeral? It took ten blocks for the answer to hit me and I felt monumentally stupid for forgetting that the Gotham City police commissioner had been murdered by the man I was trying very hard to forget about. I had been so focused on the tiny moment he and I shared that I forgot people had lost their lives because of him. And here I was, complaining because he smelled good.

 

My steps faltered and I tucked my hair behind my ear, glancing back to see what I had tripped over. There was nothing on the sidewalk and I refused to let myself think about that little admission, pushing it down to the depths of my thoughts where other nasty little ideas and musings laid like dust swept beneath a rug. 

 

The closer I got to downtown, the busier the streets were. It seemed that everyone and their mothers had come out to attend the funeral and everyone that was left was stuck in the traffic on the streets. Horns honked and people craned their heads out the windows to shout at one another, though it did no good to move the cars along. I crossed between a backed-up line of cars and hurried down the sidewalk to the 12th Avenue Trust Bank. 

 

The doors were heavy, with thick glass and metal frame. I pushed my way into them and made my way through a set of revolving doors just inside. Beyond them, the marble floor stretched down the length of the lobby and a row of ten or fifteen tellers sat behind a sectioned counter. 

 

There was an office set up down at the other end of the lobby for credit and loan appointments and I looked around for any sign of Greg's mother, Brenda. Was she a teller? A loan officer? Why hadn't I asked him to give me more details about her? 

 

"Hi, may I help you?" The teller closest to the end smiled brightly to me and I waited for a man to step aside before I took his place.

 

"Yeah, I'm looking for Brenda Dunn?"

 

The woman gave me a bright smile and folded her hands together on the counter. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Dunn is in a meeting all afternoon. Can I take a message for her?" 

 

"Oh," I said, shoulders falling in disappointment. "I'm a friend of her son's and he suggested I bring her my resume in case they're hiring."

 

"I do know we aren't hiring right now, but we can always take your resume and keep it on file. Would you like me to do that or you can come back tomorrow when Mrs. Dunn is free." 

 

I opted to leave my resume. It was better that she had it as soon as possible. After she has it, I can just call back for questions about the job. No need to come all the way back down here. The teller took the paper with a smile and though I didn't exactly see her turn to give the paper to Brenda, I hoped she would. 

 

Once I was back outside among the honking horns and angry shouts, I let out a sigh of annoyance and set off once more. I had passed by a boutique earlier and retail may have been a shit job, I couldn't exactly turn my nose up at anything at the moment. A job was a job. 

 

The woman behind the boutique counter wasn't as friendly as the teller at the bank, but she took my resume and slid it into a file while I stood there. It didn't make me feel much better about the prospect and I set off once more. I figured I could work my way from the top to the bottom of the job ladder. Put my resume in at banks and nicer clothing stores, and when that didn't produce any results, I'd try grocery stores and chain retailers. And if that didn't work...gas stations and laundromats. Not that there was anything wrong with working those places.

 

It's just I was already twenty-three. I needed to find something that could be more permanent, more opportunity for me to advance. 

 

My stomach rumbled after I had dropped my resume off at a department store where a woman older than my grandmother ran the customer service counter. She had taken my resume and promised to put it right on top, but I doubted she would remember me the second I stepped away from her. I was starving and feeling a bit hopeless and with only one more resume to hand out, I decided it was time for a little food. 

 

And if I didn't feel like going anywhere else, I could always leave it for the restaurant. I had experience waitressing. Surely fast food would be similar. 

 

I crossed back over onto 11th avenue and hurried along, the grumbling of my stomach pushing me to pick up the pace. There was a slice of greasy, cheese pizza calling my name from several blocks away and if I could just make it around this funeral parade, I could get to it and fill my empty stomach. 

 

There was no going through the parade route. The police had barricades set up down the entrance to every alley that would cut through it and one of the men, who was quite unfriendly, told me to go around. An extra five blocks. There was no arguing with them and honestly, I should have been a bit more understanding. 

 

Their fellow police officer, commissioner and possibly their friend had been killed in a brutal way. I turned away with a frown and blamed my attitude on my hunger. I had never been very good at controlling my annoyance on an empty stomach. But it's not like I was the Joker. Did they honestly suspect me of wanting to cut through the alley to cause trouble? 

 

I just wanted some pizza.

 

Through the alleyways, I could see the uniformed policemen standing in procession on the next block and the Mayor’s voice echoed over the microphone. He was giving some speech, calling for a boost of morale from the citizens of Gotham in the face of a terrorist and I was thankful for that. I truly was. But I didn’t exactly believe his words or believe that it would do any good for us. 

 

The damage had been done and people were running scared. Too bad they weren’t leaving their jobs behind for those of us who couldn’t exactly leave the city. 

 

The Mayor’s speech came to an end and I glanced down the next alley to see the officers raise their hands in a salute. The next building blocked my view and I turned my thoughts back to pizza. I wondered where I could find a decent Margherita pizza on this side of town that wouldn’t cost me too much money. I was already running low on my rainy day fund as it were. 

 

A round of shots was fired from the next block over and I listened to the sound echo between the buildings. I hadn’t been expecting it but since no screams or shouting followed it, I figured it was part of the ceremony. Another shot rang out and I came closer to the next alley. Just a few more steps and I’d be able to see the head of the parade. 

 

But immediately following the next shot, the screaming did break out and I dug my heels into the sidewalk. Had I been hearing things? Horns honked loudly and I spun around to face the way I had come. The police at the barricades were rushing down the alleyways and the screaming grew closer as more shots rang out.

 

A small crowd jumped the blockade and a man in one of the cars popped his head out the window. “What’s goin’ on?!” He shouted, throwing his hands up.

 

“Someone shot the mayor!”

 

Someone…

 

I wasn’t too stupid to know that someone was more than likely him

 

My pulse raced and I turned back to the direction I had been going. I clutched the folder to my chest and raced down the street, hoping I was far enough away that I could get somewhere safely. I could duck around the corner and find a business that would let me in to hide. Or maybe I should just keep running. 

 

I didn’t know which was a better choice. Both seemed wrong somehow but all my body could do at that moment was keep going. 

 

I stepped off a curb and hurried past an alley that would have led right to the end of the funeral procession. And just as I looked to the right to make sure I wouldn’t see anything I didn’t want to see, I slammed right into someone racing toward me. I yelped and stumbled backward but a pair of hands reached out and took hold of my elbows to keep me steady. 

 

A curtain of dark hair fell in my face and I blew it away, cursing myself for not securing it in a ponytail after all. I quickly blew it out of my eyes and shook my head to clear the rest, intent on telling whoever I had run into that I was sorry. The dark gaze that stared down at me was rimmed in black like they had hastily wiped makeup off and in just a fraction of a second, I concluded that whoever they belonged to was quite handsome.

 

But the smile that stretched across his lips pulled my eyes downward to his lips and the jagged scars that ran along his cheeks and I felt my stomach drop to the ground. Oh, no...No, no, no! My fight or flight instincts kicked in and I struggled against his hands to no avail. He kept his grip tight and he glanced over my head, eyes darting around the street, before steering me up the avenue. I noticed, with fear gripping my spine, that he was wearing a black, military jacket buttoned up to his throat. The gold stitching and buttons stood out in contrast and I focused on them to try to keep me from passing out. 

 

“We gotta stop meeting like this, sweetheart,” he said, somewhere between a purr and a growl, and I tried to jerk away from him again. He adjusted his grip and brought be back against his chest, leaning down to press against the side of my head. “What’s everyone going to think, seeing us like this?”

 

Ahead of us, a van screeched to a halt and I managed to catch the side of the door before it slid open. It was a painting company’s logo on the side and I opened my mouth, hoping that whoever inside was someone intent on being a hero. But the clown mask on the driver’s head quickly shut my mouth and my eyes went wide. 

 

The Joker dropped one hand from my arm and pushed it against my back, propelling me forward. I stumbled into the van, putting my hands out in front of me to stop my face from smashing against the window and just as I whirled back to face the door, it slid shut. And he was sitting right beside me on the bench seat. 

 

I scrambled as far away from him as I could get and watched him smack the driver’s seat twice with his palm. The driver peeled away from the curb without any questions as to who I was and I looked from his mask in the rearview mirror to Joker sitting next to me. He wasn’t looking at me, as if I were a ghost that had got caught in the van. 

 

The driver peeled his mask from his face and took a deep breath, tossing it to the floor with a string of curses under his breath. “Damn thing makes it hard to breathe.”

 

Hearing him speak must have signaled something in my brain and I opened my mouth before I could stop myself from uttering a sound. “Please let me go.” Neither of them even glanced my way. Had he killed me in the alley without me realizing it? Was I truly a ghost? “I won’t tell anyone, I promise--”

 

The Joker slowly turned his head toward me and narrowed his eyes. It wasn’t a glare of anger or annoyance. Just a curious, searching stare that immediately made my throat clamp around any word I wanted to say. Oh, why had I even said anything at all? Having him ignore my entire existence was better than him looking at me this way. 

 

It was too similar to how he had stared at me while reaching up to tug at the ends of the ribbon in my hair. It felt like he was looking through me like his eyes were cutting into me so deep that I couldn’t move or breathe. 

 

The van screeched to a halt, snapping me out of my daze enough that I was barely able to put my hands out on the seat in front of me to keep from smacking my head on it. The passenger door opened and I blinked up at the sight of a man jumping into the seat. He ran his hands over his hair several times and bounced his leg with erratic, nervous energy that wafted off of him like a bad smell. 

 

Three against one now. I didn’t like these odds. Especially since I had no idea how to fight. I’d never even so much as slapped someone in my entire life. How was I going to fend off three guys, one being the goddamn Joker ?

 

My eyes darted up to the man who had climbed into the van last and he swung his head around to look at me as well. His eyebrow lifted as he let his gaze slither down the length of my body and I quickly pulled my skirt down to my knees. “Who’s the chick?” He asked with a scoff, abandoning his hair to slide his finger and thumb over the patchy goatee surrounding his mouth. 

 

Beside me, the Joker was still staring at me and I looked at him, expectedly, as if I were waiting for permission. My cowardice made me sick. 

 

“He asked your name, sweetheart.” 

 

I closed my eyes and nodded, taking a deep breath through my nose to try and calm my racing pulse. “N-Natalie.”

 

When I opened my eyes, I found a scarred smile on the Joker’s face. He turned back to the man in the front and leaned an elbow against his seat. “ Natalie ,” he said my name, rolling every syllable over his tongue. “Was at the fundraiser for Harvey Dent-ah. She was passing out drinks to Gotham’s elite and wealthy.”

 

“Yeah? Well, what’s she doing here?” The man in the front asked, holding onto the seat as the van took a sharp left. I slid along the leather seat and couldn’t catch myself in time before my hip met the Joker’s. He didn’t say anything or attempt to move down and I scrambled back against the window.

 

“I-I don’t--” Again, my words were cut off. The Joker waved his hand to the man and tutted. The man shut his mouth but didn’t turn back around. He simply dropped his eyes and stared down at my skirt, as if he could see through it. I lowered the folder onto my thighs and frowned. 

 

Joker noticed the folder suddenly and pointed down to it with a tight, forced polite smile. “May I?” He took it from me before I could answer. Not that I would have denied him. At that moment, I could barely breathe through the terror. He flipped the folder open and plucked one of my resumes from the front pocket. “Hmm. Natalie Jacobs. Highly motivated individual seeking employment… what a coincidence,” he turned to me with a grin that exposed his yellow teeth. “We have an opening on our staff.”



What ? I must not have been hearing him right. I knew he was toying with me, just trying to scare me, but I couldn’t process any of this right now. There were no rational, sane thoughts in my head. Just fear and the overwhelming need to get out of this van.

 

“Oh,” I said quietly, swallowing to clear my throat of the lump that had found its way inside it. “I-I’m flattered but I don’t know if I’m the right fit--” What the fuck was I even saying?

 

“Have you ever used a gun, Natalie ?” Why did he have to say my name like that? No one had ever said it like that, like every single sound of it filled his mouth and he was tasting it. I never wanted to hear it again. I looked up at him as he leaned forward and peeled the coat away from his upper body. “Ever killed anyone?”

 

He had on a plain, white shirt beneath it though it looked a little worse for wear as if he wore it a lot between washes. There was a faint, pink stain near the collar and I hoped it was the paint from his makeup and not blood. I blinked up at his face, eyes still piercing through me, and shook my head. “No, I’m a pacifist.”

 

He scoffed with a slight roll of his eyes and reached back to grab something from the waist of his pants. When he pulled out a pistol, my eyes widened. God, he was about to kill me. I might as well make peace with it and try to absolve all my sins. Not that I really cared about all that, but I didn’t know what else to do. 

 

Joker ran a hand over his hair, still tied back behind his head, and he held the gun out in the palm of his hands for me. I glanced quickly to it and back up into his eyes with a shake of my head. He sighed and snatched me by the wrist, barely batting an eye at my struggle to take my arm out of his grip. The gun met my hand, heavier than I was expecting, and he closed his fingers around mine to make me take it. I blinked up at the man in the passenger seat, finding him still staring at me, still smiling like he could see my body through my clothes and I grimaced. 

 

“Don’t be nervous,” The Joker soothed closer than I was expecting. He gestured to his face. “Is it the scars?”

 

“No,” I answered truthfully, eyes darting to the man in the front seat. The scars aren’t what bothered me with the Joker. It was his eyes, and how he seemed to be able to look right into my soul. But at the moment, the man leering at me was what made me flinch. Joker looked at him and jutted his thumb toward the seat.

 

“He’s making you nervous? Don’t mind him. No one ever taught him any manners.” He turned to face the man and sighed. “Do you mind? I’m in the middle of an interview.”

 

With a curl of his lip, the guy gave me one more glance over before turning to face the front and I swallowed down a gasp as the Joker turned back to me. “Now, where were we? Oh yes.” He lifted my wrist and the gun with it, closing his other hand around mine. “You were saying something about being a pacifist. No one is a pacifist, by the way. You've either killed someone or haven't had the opportunity yet. Let me show you."

 

He slid closer to me, his thigh pressing against mine and I glanced down to where our bodies met. I hadn’t expected him to be so...warm. It was almost feverish and for the first time, I noticed how much I was sweating. It collected on the small of my back and between my thighs and I clamped my teeth around my bottom lip as he tilted the tip of the gun up to the ceiling of the van.

 

I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t speak. All I could think about was how my life was about to end with a bullet through my head. I wasn’t even the one pulling the trigger, despite my hand holding the gun. But it wasn’t my head the Joker pointed it to. It was his

 

He set the end of the barrel right between his eyebrows and looked up at me through his lashes. I watched, slightly in awe, mostly in terror, as his tongue, so much brighter than I imagined it would be, darted out to lick the sides of his lips. My tongue was dry as I tried to swallow and I quickly looked back up to meet his eyes. 

 

“Now, you look like a smart girl,” his voice went a bit deeper and I pursed my lips tightly together. “I’m sure you’ve been watching all of my exploits playing endlessly on the news and you’re aware that I’m not a nice guy . You hold the power to stop all of this in your hands. No more people will die if you just pull...the... trigger.

 

I could feel my eyes widen but all rational thoughts flew right out of my head. Was he being serious? There was no way. He wouldn’t put that kind of power in my hands, even if he was trying to prove a point to me about being a pacifist. There was some kind of catch. There always was when it came to him. I had seen enough about him on the news to know that.

 

The cool metal and plastic of the window pressed into my back as he shifted in the seat, leaning closer to me. His fingers adjusted around mine and I noticed the length of his fingernails. Definitely long enough to scratch me. The thought made me tremble harder for some reason. 

 

The van rolled over a bump and I gasped, taking my finger quickly away from the trigger just in case it was sensitive enough to fire at such a small touch. As fucked up as it was, I didn’t want to kill him. Not because I thought he didn’t deserve to die but because I shouldn’t be the one to do this. It wasn’t supposed to be me. It was supposed to be the police, or Batman, or someone better. 

 

I was just me. 

 

Why did this fall to me?

 

After a moment that seemed to stretch into eternity, he seemed to realize that I wasn’t going to do it. I didn’t fall into whatever trap he had laid for me. With a sigh, he sat up and wrenched the gun out of my hands and once his touch left my body, it was like a switch had been thrown.

 

With time still moving slowly, my eyes cut to the two men in the front seat. They were concentrating on the road ahead of them and with a quick glance, the Joker was occupied with slipping his gun back into the waist of his pants. My body moved before I could second guess myself and I launched myself across the van, over his lap and my hand grabbed the handle of the door. I could hear the folder and my last remaining resume fall to the floor. 

 

Even if I couldn’t escape, maybe I could open the door and scream for someone to help me. At the very least, maybe they would remember my face and tell the police that I was kidnapped and probably dead. That way my family wouldn’t be left wondering. 

 

But while my hand grabbed the handle of the door and wrenched it back, the lock was firmly in place, preventing it from opening. A sob at the back of my throat quickly turned into a scream as a pair of arms circled around my waist and hauled me back up. I didn’t find the seat beneath me again. This time, it was something worse.

 

My back pressed into the Joker’s chest and he wrapped one arm around my neck as the other looped around my arm and held it back far enough to make pain shoot through my shoulder. That was enough to scare the piss out of me. The knife at my throat, however, nearly made me faint. Dizziness swam through my head as the blade pressed against my skin and I had no choice but to lean my head back against his shoulder to relieve some of the pressure. 

 

At my ear, I could feel his warm breath and it made me shut my eyes tightly. “You know, I almost thought you wouldn’t try to fight at all. I’m glad you changed your mind.” His laugh made my skin crawl and I winced away from him. “It’s a shame you couldn’t pull the trigger. Could’ve saved a lot of lives. I suppose not everyone can handle that kind of power ,” he whispered into my ear, making all of the struggle in me suddenly stop. The tip of the blade pushed upward into my jaw and I bit my lip hard enough to taste blood. “Or maybe you just prefer someone else to have it all. Hmm? Is that it?”

 

In the rearview mirror, I caught the stare of the driver and whimpered. He didn’t look at me with sympathy or even pity. It was nothing but a passing glance as if this was another Friday afternoon for him. And next to him in the passenger seat, the other one was back to staring at me. His eyes were on my lap once more, looking right up the front of my skirt that had become bunched around my thighs.

 

I clenched my legs shut tight and the sudden movement pushed my ass down into the lap I was sitting on. My eyes widened and my hands froze around the Joker’s wrist. He was... hard .

 

Terrifying thoughts of rape sprung to my mind, nearly clouding my vision with horror, but I didn’t have time to focus on it because he shifted beneath me and I could feel him even more now. My mouth opened to gasp, but I could find no air to suck in. Still gripping the handle of the knife at my throat, he reached up and took my chin in his fingers, turning my head to the side. I kept my eyes shut, not wanting to look at him, knowing that what he was doing, this game of intimidation was turning him on. 

 

“Open your eyes,” he snapped, making me flinch. “Look at me.” The harshness of his demand scared me more than looking at him and I slowly opened my eyes. His breath came out in warm puffs across my face and he stroked his thumb down the side of my cheek, scraping my skin with the edge of his fingernail. I could practically feel his gaze moving across my face but I was too distracted by the quick flick of his tongue. When he spoke, my entire body shivered against his. “Ah, that’s exactly what it is.”

 

The tone of his voice made all the fight and struggle inside me fade away and for the first time since meeting him, I relaxed. His arm loosened around my elbow and the ache in my shoulder remained, but I could at least move it now. He reached up and pushed my hair from my face with the free fingers of his hand, the rest still gripped around the knife. 

 

For a moment, just a quick, single beat of my heart, him staring into my eyes and finding whatever it is that he thought he had found, I thought he might kiss me. Anyone normal would have at that moment, suddenly spiked with so much tension that it sucked the breath right out of my lungs. Then again, anyone normal wouldn’t have thrown me in the back of a van, put a gun in my hands, and held a knife to my throat.

 

My lips parted and again, I glanced down to his mouth, watching his tongue dart out and back in between his lips. He made a sound, something between a groan and a hum deep within his throat and the next thing I knew, I was back on the seat, nearly toppling over. He had dropped me as quickly as he had grabbed me and I looked up to see him tap the driver’s seat the same way he had when I got in the van. 

 

The tires came to a quick stop with a slight shriek of the rubber on the pavement and I shrank back as the Joker reached across my body. A part of me thought he was grabbing me again, but I blinked in surprise when he took the door handle and wrenched it open with a slight grunt. 

 

His hand was at my back, practically shoving me out of the van and I stumbled forward on trembling, wobbly legs. I spun back around in confusion and stared at him, pulling the edge of my cardigan back up around my shoulders as he dumped my purse out on the ground. Joker offered me a quick, sly grin and tilted his head to the side. He braced one hand against the frame of the door while the other still had a hold of the handle. 

 

“Well, Natalie --” It made me shiver again and I hugged my arms around my waist. “It was nice to meet you. We’ll call you if you’re the right fit for our... organization .”

 

And with that, the door slid shut once more and the van took off down the street. I followed it with my eyes, too stunned, too traumatized to do much else. It turned a corner and disappeared around a warehouse taking up the block. In the seconds after they drove away, abandoning me in a part of town I had never seen before, I could only focus on one thing; breathing.

 

Deep breaths in, slow breaths out. I had to repeat it several times, concentrating on nothing but the air coming into my lungs and slowly leaving through my nose. It helped calm my pulse but the adrenaline was rapidly fading and it’s absence left me trembling from head to toe. I had no idea my scalp could even shake like this, but it was. 

 

I felt as if they had hit me with the van, backed up, and ran me over again. Every muscle was tense and sore and I could barely keep myself standing on my feet. I wanted to scream, wanted to cry and ask the gods why, why me? I couldn’t though. 

 

What I did manage to do was reach down for my purse and pull out my cell phone. Why hadn’t I even tried to grab it when I was in the van? For years, I had listened to my parents warn me about being out late at night in the city, and to never ever get into a car with someone I didn’t know. They drilled it into my head what to do in case I was abducted or attacked and all of that advice had flown right out of my head the moment I looked up into that pair of dark eyes.

 

He had caught me completely off guard and seeing him there, towering over me with his hair pulled back and without makeup had been such a shock. One that I was still trying to process, one that was making me react in ways I never dreamed I would. 

 

Somehow, my fingers had found the number to the nearest cab company and I stared down at the screen as it displayed the call. A moment later, a bored sounding voice answered and I could barely think to put the stupid thing up to my ear. 

 

“Hello? Gotham City Taxi Company,” he repeated, making me lift the phone to my ear to speak. 

 

“I-I need a cab.”

 

“What address?”

 

I turned and looked up at the warehouse behind me. It didn’t have a name that I could see but on the corner, I spotted the street names. I told the dispatcher where to find me and he hung up after a promise that the cab would be here in about fifteen minutes. I didn’t want to be alone for fifteen minutes. Not here, not exactly where he had left me. My eyes kept darting to the corner he had disappeared around, expecting that white van to pull back around and finish what they had started.

 

Nothing happened, which scared me just as much. Why? Why did he do any of this? Why me? 

 

When the taxi pulled up to the curb, I almost wanted to tell it to go on, that I didn’t want to get in just in case it was another one of his tricks. But the older gentleman behind the wheel looked at me, then to the street and rolled his window down. “Hey, you alright?” He asked with concern evident in his voice.

 

My shoulders relaxed...not much, but just enough and I swallowed with a nod. “Yeah,” I croaked, reaching up to put a hand to my throat. My finger pressed into a tender spot and I flinched. Had he cut me with the knife after all? 

 

I climbed into the back of the cab and sat on the seat, wishing it hadn’t been leather. It felt too similar to the seat in the back of that van. The driver turned and looked me over once more, obviously not believing my lie. “You sure? You look like you might need to see a doctor.”

 

Was I pale? I felt pale. I didn’t need a doctor though. I needed to go to the police station to report this and give them everything I knew, which was...nothing that they didn’t already know. I could give them the name of the painting company on the side of the van but whoever it had originally belonged to was probably long gone, bought by the Joker, or dead. 

 

As I shifted on the seat and pulled my skirt down as far as it would go to my knees, I frowned and finally noticed that the dampness between my legs that I had shrugged off as sweat felt a bit different. I knew it wasn’t my period...which left only one other thing and I refused to acknowledge that possibility entirely.

 

“No,” I finally said with a shake of my head. “I just want to go home.”


 

Chapter Text


 

Are there some aces up your sleeve?
Have you no idea that you're in deep?
I've dreamt about you nearly every night this week
How many secrets can you keep?


 

It was strange that after the Bruce Wayne party, I had been so exhausted that sleeping an entire day away hadn’t felt like enough. Nothing had even happened to me aside from having a psychopath pull my ribbon out of my hair and yet, it had drained me emotionally and physically. But being thrown in the back of a van, tormented by that same psychopath, made to fear for my life, hadn’t exhausted me in the slightest.

 

If anything, I felt wound up, too nervous or too scared to sleep. I didn’t know which. All I knew was that after tossing and turning for three hours the night before, I had given up on the thought of sleep and decided to clean everything

 

It was long overdue. My drawers were stuffed with clothes I had been holding onto since high school and there were still boxes beneath my bed that I hadn’t yet unpacked from moving in last year. The sun wasn’t even up when I got started with the clutter beneath the bed but by dawn, I had cleared most of it out. 

 

It took two garbage bags, stuffed with a ton of things to give away to goodwill and I felt better to be rid of it. Like I was shedding the skin I had been holding onto for far too long. Next came the dust that had been gathering at the baseboards and after that, I organized all of my shelves and books. 

 

A little part of me was aware that I was doing this so I wouldn’t have to think about what had happened and I was alright with that. I didn’t want to think about it. I didn’t want to remember the way he had looked down at me in that alley, the dark of his eyes piercing through me and how for just a fraction of a second, I had found him to be handsome.

 

No.

 

I wasn’t going to think about it. 

 

Not when I could be busy doing something productive. By the time Chelsea was getting ready to leave for work at 8 that morning, I had moved out of the bedroom and into the kitchen. We kept things relatively clean, but wiping out the fridge and freezer or organizing our cabinets had never been a top priority. Until today.

 

“What’s gotten into you?” She asked, slipping her feet into her heels as I dumped the two garbage bags on the living room floor. 

 

“I just feel like cleaning. It’s overdue anyway.” I ignored the look she was giving me and passed her to move into the kitchen. At the fridge, I ducked my head down to peer into the shelves and sighed. “Is there anything you’re sentimental about? I’m tossing anything out of date.”

 

“No, that’s fine. Just don’t clean my room.” She called over her shoulder and headed to the front door. “I’ll bring some takeout home tonight. Greg’s coming over so--” She waved her hand toward my clothes and I glanced down to my t-shirt and shorts. “--put some more clothes on.”

 

Without waiting for my response, she let the door shut behind her and I blinked at the spot she had been standing. I should have stormed to the door and shouted down to her that it was her boyfriend who had walked in on me in the shower. He was the one who stared when I wore what was comfortable for me. 

 

I rolled my eyes and turned back to the fridge, taking a seat on the floor in front of it before grabbing the first container. It was some fad, vegan butter that she’d bought a few weeks ago, swearing it was just as good as the real thing. It had sucked and without even checking the date, I tossed it into an open trash bag beside me. 

 

It took an hour to get the fridge really clean. And I could have stopped after tossing the outdated things and wiping down, but I couldn't let my mind drift for one single second. Each time I slowed down to take a break or just close my eyes for a second longer than a blink, there he was. His smiling face, the press of him beneath me, his hands curling around mine as I held that gun. It was all there behind my eyelids, replaying over and over any time I stopped to rest. 

 

So I didn't. I kept going, taking all the drawers and shelves out, wiping up every spill or drop that had sat for too long in the fridge. The freezer got the same treatment and after I was done, it looked brand new. There was no time to stop and admire my work. The rest of the kitchen needed to be done and I spared no dusty corner.

 

It was four in the afternoon when I stood up from scrubbing the bathtub and stared down at my work. I had conquered my bedroom, kitchen, living room and now the bathroom was finished. Peeling the gloves from my hand, I tossed them beneath the sink and washed the cleaner off my hands.

 

The faucet was leaking still, despite Greg's attempt at fixing it and I figured, if all else fails, that could be my next project to keep these thoughts out of my head. I gathered my supplies and put them back where they belonged and once I was back in the living room, I sat down in front of the small entertainment center holding our tv.

 

I busied myself with organizing our DVD collection and CDs but twice, I stopped to read the description on the back of two of the movie cases. It was a mistake. A flash of the Joker's laugh fluttered through my head, making me flinch and the second time, I could almost feel his hand on my face again, forcing me to look at him. And his voice, so deep and gravely that it was unsettling even now echoed through my head. 

 

Open your eyes… look at me.

 

I could still hear it just as clearly as I had while sitting on his lap. With a sigh of frustration, I threw the DVD case back onto the shelf and cursed at myself for letting my thoughts drift. I had been so good up until now. Why was I letting him get back in my head? 

 

From my bedroom, a shrill ringing made me lift my head and I hurried to find my cellphone where I'd left it. The screen lit up with Abby's number and I almost let it go to voicemail. If she was calling to talk about that night, I would hang up on her. 

 

"Hello?" I asked after a moment's hesitation.

 

"Who needs money?" The sing-song tone of her voice made me laugh and it felt good to do it. "Because I got a job for you."

 

"More catering?" 

 

Abby sighed. "Well, yeah. It's nothing glamorous so we don't have to worry about shotgun-toting clowns or anything." My teeth gnashed together at the mention of clowns but I didn't hang up. I needed the money after all. "It's some science convention this weekend. Two days so the pay is going to be worth it. Oh, and it's buffet style so we get paid to stand there."

 

"This weekend?" Not like I had plans. I never had plans. With a glance around the apartment, I realized I should have probably kept some cleaning to do tomorrow or the next day. There was nothing left to distract myself. "Okay, I'm in." 

 

"Good. I really didn't want to have to call Rebecca. She thinks she can just stand there and get paid while everyone else works. You're much more fun!"

 

I laughed and reached up to scratch my eyebrow. It was nice hearing Abby joke around and try to be her normal self. Then again, she didn't exactly go through what I had dealt with the day before. It made me wonder if she had been in that alley yesterday, would he have recognized her and thrown her in the back of the van? Would he have teased her and forced her into his lap? 

 

Something bizarre swelled through me and I swallowed tightly. Was I actually jealous ?

 

"Nat? You still there?"

 

"Y-yeah! Sorry. I was just lost in thought. What should I wear?" 

 

"It's the usual uniform this time. I'll pick you up at your place Saturday morning and bring you an extra shirt." She didn't seem to notice my sudden bout of strangeness and I decided it was probably a good idea to ignore it as well. Trying to figure out what the hell I had been thinking was going to be too much for me at the moment. 

 

We said our goodbyes after agreeing to meet up at 9 on Saturday and by the time I hung up, the key was twisting in the deadbolt. Shit. Chelsea and Greg were home already and I was still wearing my shorts and t-shirt. I quickly shut my door just as they came in and sighed. 

 

It wasn't like I cared what she thought. I really didn't. But I didn't exactly like Greg gawking at me either and if he couldn't keep his eyes away from my body parts, then I'd have to cover myself up. Or I could smack him in the head, but Chelsea would more than likely kick me out of her apartment if I did that. I wasn't trying to be homeless any time soon. 

 

So for the time being, I had to comply with her wishes. I pulled on a pair of pajama pants and a long-sleeved t-shirt, despite the rising temperatures outside. I felt better in it anyway; hidden, not so vulnerable. 

 

When I strolled back into the living room, Greg was at the table, lifting boxes of takeout from a plastic bag. He lifted his head and looked at me with a smile. “Just in time,” he commented and I didn’t let him see me wrinkle my nose at their food.

 

They never considered my preferences when ordering takeout and didn’t exactly expect them to this time. But I was starving and the smell of fried rice and steamed veggies was making my stomach growl in protest. With Chelsea changing out of her work clothes in the bedroom, I snuck a bite of broccoli. The sound of a snicker made me look up, holding my hand in front of my mouth while I chewed.

 

Greg shook his head as he opened a pack of soy sauce and dumped it over his rice. “She doesn’t mind if you eat with us.”

 

“Yeah, right,” I mumbled around the bite of broccoli. “I’m already a burden without having a job and all, but eating your food without paying? No thanks.”

 

He shrugged and took a seat at the small, round table in the kitchen, not offering me any more of their food. I leaned against the counter and only momentarily regretted not taking him up on it. It seemed that another peanut butter and banana sandwich was in store for me for dinner, even though it’s exactly what I’d had for lunch. 

 

Chelsea blew out a sigh before shutting her bedroom door behind her. She didn’t smile at me or even look my way but that wasn’t exactly rare. She usually treated me like a minor inconvenience and I looked around the apartment, wondering if she even noticed the effort I had put into cleaning it up. 

 

“Oh,” Greg said, dabbing the corner of his mouth with a napkin. “Mom looked at your resume today. They won’t be hiring until the end of the month, but I think you’ve got a good chance. They actually need a good worker…”

 

His voice kept going but I could hear nothing but the sound of my own heart pounding in my ears. I could see myself in my memory, handing the bank teller my resume, handing it to the woman at the boutique and then at the department store. Each time I had handed it to someone, I had looked down at my name at the top, center of the page…with my address typed out beneath it. And now he had a copy.

 

My hand was trembling as it came to my mouth and I could feel tears start to burn at the back of my eyes. How could I have been so stupid? Why hadn’t I thought of it before? I had been so busy trying not to think, trying not to remember any details about yesterday that I completely forgot the one thing that could potentially risk my life.

 

Ignoring the looks from my roommate and her boyfriend at the table, I turned to stare at the door. The deadbolt was in place and the knob was locked as well, but that wouldn’t stop him. If he wanted to find me, he’d have no problem kicking down the door. But why would he even want to? 

 

I was nothing to him. Just a momentary plaything, caught in the heat of the moment at the wrong place and wrong time. I had nothing to offer him.

 

“Nat?” Greg asked, setting his chopsticks down on the edge of his plate. I looked at him and then to Chelsea who had a bite of chicken positioned right at her mouth. They were both staring at me as if I had just grown a second head. “You okay?”

 

They deserved to know. If it were the other way around, I’d want to know that there was a possibility that a psychotic terrorist clown could burst into our apartment at any moment. But what would they think? What would they say to me or do? They would kick me out, or possibly move out and leave me behind. 

 

When I found my voice, it was barely a whisper and I cleared my throat. “Y-yeah. I think the bleach fumes got to me.” I needed to get away from them and their confused stares. I couldn’t think when they looked at me like that. “I need to take a shower.”

 

I was in the bathroom before Chelsea could even take a bite of her sesame chicken, back pressed against the robe hanging on the back of the door and breath coming out in quick, shallow puffs that left my lungs aching. I was panicking, dizzy and light-headed. I needed something to distract myself.

 

The shower turned on with a loud shriek of the metal knob and I twisted it to the hottest setting, needing the steam to fill the room. My head was filled with images of him breaking down the front door, or his goons coming to snatch me from my bedroom to bring me back to him and my stomach lurched. I dropped to my knees in front of the toilet and threw up the peanut butter and banana sandwich I had eaten for lunch. 

 

It didn’t help my nausea and I reached up with a shaking hand to flush the toilet, hoping no one had heard me throwing up. There was only so much I could blame on bleach fumes. With a groan that I tried to keep as quiet as possible, I sat back on the fuzzy rug beneath me and swiped the back of my hand across my mouth. 

 

With a glance to the door, I swallowed the taste of bile on the back of my tongue. I couldn’t tell them. They would take me to the police and get me deeper into this nightmare than I already was. There was no guarantee that he would even seek me out again anyway. He’d had his fun with me. What point would there be to coming back for more?

 

It was a lie I was telling myself, a lie that I would cling to and clutch like a lifeboat on an endless sea. 

.

.

I had suggested, a day later, when Chelsea was on the phone with Greg, that we get a gun for protection. She thought I was being ridiculous. What did any of those criminals want with either of us? They were going after the people who mattered most to the city, not two, random women who meant nothing. 

 

Greg assured her that with him being there most of the time, there was no need for a gun, that he would protect us. It had been an attempt to make the conversation light-hearted but all I could think about was how easily the Joker would slaughter Greg if given the chance. The subject was dropped with Chelsea turning back around to face the television and her conversation picked back up with her boyfriend about his sick aunt. 

 

If I couldn’t have a gun, then I would keep the next best thing on me at all times. At least when I was in the house. I knew exactly where I had organized the knives in our kitchen, and knew exactly which one was the biggest and sharpest. I kept it under my mattress for the next two days, right beneath my head so that I could grab it at the first sign of an intruder breaking into the apartment. Maybe they would come to my room first and I could fend them off before they got to Chelsea.

 

It was safe to say that by Saturday, I was exhausted from the lack of sleep. I had tossed and turned every night and when I did sleep, my dreams were so bizarre and alarming that they woke me up with a gasp and kept me awake. 

 

And I knew the exhaustion was written on my face the moment I opened the door to Abby’s face blinking at me in surprise. She took one look at me and winced. “Damn, Jacobs. You feeling okay?”

 

“Yeah,” I mumbled, stepping out into the hallway with a bag of clothes hanging from my shoulder. With a twist of my key in the deadbolt, I turned back around and forced a smile. “I just haven’t been sleeping very well.”

 

She nodded her head and I could see by the look in her eyes that she understood and maybe she was experiencing the same sleepless nights. If she was, she didn’t mention it. We turned to make our way down the stairs and out to the taxi waiting for us. I didn’t even want to think about the price of the fare after this trip. 

 

The convention was right outside the city and would take at least half an hour to get there, not to mention the trip back. There goes the last of my rainy day fund. Hopefully, I would be able to take Greg up on his offer to share takeout with me, even if Chelsea would disapprove. 

 

As we climbed into the back of the cab, Abby handed me a bundle of black material and I straightened it out to see a button-up shirt. I groaned. “Don’t tell me it’s too small for me.”

 

“It should fit this time, but I brought a safety pin, just in case.”

 

I changed in the cab, not even caring about whether or not the driver could see me in just my bra from the rearview mirror. Abby didn’t seem to mind. She opened her compact and dabbed a bit of powder over a blemish on her cheek with a sigh. I quickly buttoned the shirt up to my chest, ignoring the little voice in the back of my head reminding me about cleavage, and was pleased to find that there were no gaps made by my chest. 

 

I pulled my hair out of the collar and sat back against the seat, eyeing the makeup she was pulling out of her bag. At least I wasn’t the only one who wasn’t prepared for the day. 

 

It took about an hour to get to the convention center thanks to all the traffic on the bridges. It seemed that more and more people were abandoning the city in the face of the Joker's threats and antics. More than once the idea of going back to my parent's house crossed my mind. At least until this nightmare was over. 

 

The Joker couldn't keep this up forever. Eventually, he was going to piss Batman off enough that he'd put a stop to it once and for all. At least, that's what I and the majority of Gotham citizens were hoping for. 

 

Abby and I were immediately given tasks upon entering the convention center and since we showed up a few minutes late, Brad had saved us the honor of carting trays of food back and forth from the kitchen to the banquet hall. It wasn't like the Wayne fundraiser. These weren't petite little hors d'oeuvres arranged prettily on a platter. This was enormous, buffet style trays full of piping hot food to be served in the next hour or so. 

 

My arms had acquired quite a few burn marks after just the first few trips from the kitchen to the banquet hall and by the time we had finished, Brad sent us right back out to serve the food. Abby stood at one end of the long buffet and I was at the other, ready to scoop vegetables onto plates for the many people in attendance. 

 

Most of them had white coats on and I assumed those were the doctors, separating them from the regular folks in suits and ties. The reporters were in normal clothes and took their time snapping photos and grabbing quick interviews while a line formed for lunch. I did my job with a polite smile and hoped my exhaustion didn't read clear on my face. 

 

It was bad enough that Joker was infiltrating my sleep, but now I had to worry about how awful I looked while doing my job because of him? Why hadn't I just stayed home? Why did I have to go out that day and at that time? I was always making the wrong choices, always doing the wrong thing. I hid a yawn behind my arm and glanced up the buffet line to Abby.

 

She was bright and bubbly like always, making friendly conversation with the people in front of her. I was jealous of her attitude. If only I could have slept a decent night's sleep just once the past few days without worrying about a terrorist clown man coming into my bedroom to torment me. Just the thought of it made the fear and panic start to bubble beneath the surface and my eyes darted around the room. I was paranoid, beyond paranoid actually. What if he was here, planning an attack for God only knows why? 

 

"I know that face," a feminine voice said to my left, nearly making me drop the serving spoon in my hand. It belonged to a woman who was a few inches taller than me, wearing a white lab coat. Her hair was a fiery red and piled into a bun of messy curls on top of her head. She was strikingly beautiful and I couldn't help staring at her for a moment while she smiled at me. 

 

Finally, I found my voice. "I'm sorry, do we know each other?" 

 

The woman shook her head with a laugh. "No, but I recognize the look on your face. Trouble with a boyfriend?"

 

Heat flared up the sides of my face and I ducked my head, looking down at the vegetable casserole I was serving. It shouldn’t have made me react like this like I was a twelve-year-old whose crush was just revealed to everyone. I quickly shook my head and cleared my throat.

 

“Ah, so no boyfriend,” the woman said, holding her plate out for a small helping of the casserole. “Girlfriend?”

 

“Oh, no. I’m not... He’s not my boyfriend. He’s just…” A psychopath, a terrorist, evil, insane, possibly trying to kill me--

 

“Toying with you?”

 

Her words made me blink at her. I wondered how she could be so astute. Sure, he wasn’t my boyfriend, thank god , but apparently my feelings about the situation had been written clearly across my face for anyone to see. Maybe I was just that transparent. As she sidestepped down the buffet line, she brought her finger to her nose and tapped it twice to indicate she understood though I didn’t confirm her suspicions. 

 

“They’ll get in your head if you let them,” she said with a smile that didn’t make me feel any better. “Boys aren’t worth all that anguish.”

Before I could respond a man stepped up to her and put a hand to her shoulder. “Dr. Isley, I’ve been meaning to find you to chat.”

 

“Great,” she said with a tight forced smile. She gave a glance back at me and rolled her eyes playfully as if her previous statement to me was relevant as ever. With a wink, she turned back around and followed the man down to where the drinks were being poured and I was left to serve the next person stepping up. 

 

Even after she was gone, I couldn’t help repeating her words in my head. Boys definitely could get in your head, but this was no ordinary boy. If he were, I’d have dumped his ass by now and moved on. But how can I move on when twice now, he’d popped up into my life and left me feeling violated and stripped and vulnerable? I’d only spent half an hour in his presence at most and he had me terrified and paranoid.

 

I just had to hold onto the hope that he would forget about me and that my resume was still lying on the floor of that van, trampled and forgotten. 

 

By midnight, I was exhausted, starving, and still feeling as if every few minutes I had to look over my shoulder to make sure I wasn’t being followed. Abby didn’t join me for the cab ride home, unfortunately, but I was able to take a plate of food home. The entire drive back into the city, I had been stealing little bites of roll and couldn’t wait to get back inside and heat up my leftovers. 

 

After paying the driver, I hurried up the front steps and gave a good look around the main floor of the building. There were no shadows lurking beneath the stairs and though I had a heavy plate of food in my hand, I kept my keys between my fingers of my other hand. If anyone tried to sneak up on me, I’d at least be prepared to stab them with keys.

 

But there was nothing waiting to reach out and snatch me. The apartment was quiet when I got in and I sighed and stared into the darkness. I had forgotten that Chelsea stayed with Greg on the weekends and I almost wanted to call Abby and ask her to come stay the night. She lived a bit far away and we both had to get up early for the next day of the convention.

 

There was no way to avoid it. I would be alone tonight. 

 

I dropped my purse onto the table and kicked the door shut behind me, hurrying to the kitchen drawer to grab the quickest knife I could. With it gripped tightly in my hand, I went through the apartment, turning on the lights in each room and checking closets, under the beds, and behind the shower curtain. 

 

If he was in here, he was hiding well. And I was much too hungry to keep searching. After I kicked my pants off and shed my button-up shirt, I strolled back into the kitchen in just my panties and camisole. I didn’t abandon the knife, even after pulling my food from the microwave and taking a seat in front of the television. 

 

I avoided the news stations. No point in freaking myself out with stories about what Joker’s done this time. Then again, it might help me put my mind at ease knowing he was out there, not thinking a single thought about me. 

 

Instead, I settled on late night cartoons, something mindless that I didn’t have to focus on while I ate. The food was a bit bland, but I ate it as if it were the most delicious thing I’d ever had in my life. Hopefully tomorrow, I could snag a few more plates and wouldn’t have to spend any of the money I made on groceries. 

 

With my stomach nice and full, I laid on the couch for another hour and channel surfed. It helped take my mind off of things and while I kept my knife as close as I safely could, I still wasn’t ready to sleep. Even with the idea of waking up early to get ready. And though I wasn’t ready for sleep, my body was.

 

My eyelids drooped and I had to stifle the hundredth yawn into the cushion before I succumbed to the idea and decided to move to the bedroom. I wedged a kitchen chair beneath the front door that might hopefully stop an intruder, and armed with my knife, I shuffled into my bedroom. The mound of pillows and blankets was calling my name and I wedged the weapon beneath my mattress with the other before collapsing onto the bed. 

 

I reached over to the alarm clock sitting on my nightstand and pulled it toward me, not wanting to even lift my head to see the time. But before I could set the alarm to go off at 7 the next morning, my fingers brushed against a slick piece of paper and I peeked out from behind my eyelid.

 

Just beyond my hand, sitting propped against my lamp was a bright red ribbon tied into a neat little bow. My entire body froze and I stared at it with no air entering or leaving my lungs. It hadn’t been there before I left. In fact, I had no other red ribbon and after Chelsea’s had been taken, I was pretty damn sure she didn’t own any more either. 

 

Slowly, I rose up from the pillow and could see beyond the black box of my alarm clock. The ribbon was tied around a single playing card; a Joker playing card. The sight of it made the food I had eaten threaten to come back up and I quickly clamped a hand over my mouth to stop it.

 

I didn’t dare pick it up. Just seeing it was enough to terrify me. But it was hard to ignore the haphazardly typed words on the front. 

 

One for me

One for you


 

Chapter Text


But I think I got the devil hiding in the driver's seat
He's staring at me like I'm good enough to eat


 

 




This wasn't happening. This was not happening. There was no way this was real. I must have fallen asleep on the couch and was experiencing a hyper-realistic nightmare. Because if this was real, if somehow, he had been in my house, in my bedroom , then I was going to pass out and possibly die of fright. 

 

I had never experienced terror like this. It gripped me by the spine with icy fingers and refused to let me go, refused to let me just breathe. And so, for far too long I sat on the edge of my bed, staring at that horrible little playing card like it was a sign from the devil himself. In a way, I suppose it actually was. Because he certainly wasn't human. 

 

He was a demon.

 

Wicked and hateful and terrifying and he had been in my home, leaving it tainted and wrong. Even the clothes I was wearing felt different. I wanted to strip them off my body, strip my sheets from the bed and burn everything he might have touched. 

 

But I couldn't. All I could do was sit there and stare at the words he had typed on the front of that card. I wasn't sure how much time had passed, even with my alarm clock sitting beside it displaying the time in glowing green numbers, because all of my thoughts were on the fact that he had been in my room . God, just thinking about him possibly going through my things, walking through my room, peeking into my drawers...it was enough to make me finally turn away from the card.

 

I put a hand to my mouth, shut my eyes tight to fight back the urge to throw up and stood to pace the length of the floor beside my bed. I had to go to the police. There was no avoiding it anymore. I should have gone the day he had forced me into that van. I should have told Chelsea and Greg and figured something out because now…now I was alone and had no idea what to do. 

 

A groan rose up into my throat and I let it out with a sob, lifting my hands to comb them through my hair. I didn't know what to do, but I knew I had to take this down to the police station and see what they could do about it. At the very least, maybe there were fingerprints or something to give them a clue as to who the hell he is and where he came from. 

 

Aside from the pits of hell. 

 

I dressed quickly, throwing on a t-shirt over my camisole and stepping into a pair of gym shorts. I snatched my zip-up jacket from the hook behind the door and slipped my arms through it, trying to glance around the floor for my other sneaker. It was hiding behind the door and I pushed my foot into it before turning back to face the bedside table. Right where I’d left it, too afraid to even touch it, was the ribbon and card. 

 

God, I could barely look at it. How was I supposed to pick it up and carry it with me? How was I supposed to put it in my pocket and know something he had touched and left for me was so close to my body. I couldn’t. I spun on my heel and hurried to the kitchen while dialing the number to the cab company. With one ride to the police station and back, I would be officially broke, but this was imperative. I had to turn this in and get help. 

 

As the dispatcher picked up the phone, I told them my address and grabbed a sandwich bag from one of the cabinets. It felt safer to put it in something rather than just carry it in my pocket. Besides, I didn’t want to even touch it. I ended the call and hurried back into the bedroom, using the plastic Ziploc bag to wiggle the card and ribbon into it. I sealed it and shoved it into the pocket of my jacket.

 

It would take a while for the cab to pull up and my body refused to sit still. Anywhere I touched felt wrong, like it could have been touched by him and if I brushed against it, it would be like I touched him. My fingers shook as I reached up and pulled my hair into a ponytail. For some reason, I was shaking as if I were cold but every inch of skin on my body felt flushed and warm. 

 

There was a ton of nervous energy sinking into my fingertips and toes, catching at my joints and leaving me jumpy and fidgety. A strand of hair fell from my ponytail and brushed against my cheek and I jumped, convincing myself it was a finger reaching out to brush my face. When I whirled around, there was no one there. No one but me.

 

I was alone in an apartment that he had invaded and the walls were closing in on me. Ignoring the wave of shivers down my spine, I crossed to the window and pulled the curtain to the side to peer down to the street. No cabs, no headlights turning the corner, nothing but the cars parked on the curb. It wasn’t too hard to believe. It was close to three in the morning. 

 

Even in a city like Gotham, with seemingly never-ending night life, no one in their right mind would be out this late. Not when the Joker was terrorizing the city. 

 

My fingers curled around the fabric of the curtain and I had to resist the need to reach into my pocket, pull out the card and rip it to pieces. I wish I could be that brave. I wish I could toss it in the trash and prove to him that he didn’t scare me, that I wouldn’t allow him to bully me into terror like this. 

 

But I couldn’t.

 

I wasn’t some heroine from a story who stood up to her cruel attacker and saved herself. I was the girl who had a mild fear of horses thanks to a particularly bad experience at summer camp in middle school. I was the girl who was too nervous to call and make my own doctor appointments. And for some reason, now I was the target of a man that scared me so badly, my entire body felt as if it were paralyzed. I wish I could be that heroine, but I’m not.

 

A horn honked outside on the street and I leaped an entire inch off the floor, my hands flying to clutch at my chest. It was a perfect example of my previous observations about myself and I tried not to let it bother me as I spun on my heel and raced out the door. I paused to lock the deadbolt, though what was the point? The one person I was afraid of didn’t exactly need a key to break in.

 

The proof of that was sitting in a plastic sandwich bag in my pocket. 

 

I ran out the front door of the building and down the steps to the cab. Metal music poured out of the car as I threw the door open and the driver reached to turn it down just enough to hear my directions. With a nod, he pulled away and drove through the city, taking me right to the Gotham City Police Department. 

 

I had never been in the police department before, never had a reason to. I hated that he was my reason now. It wasn’t fair. Why was this happening to me? What did he want with me? Just to get in my head and annoy and terrify me? He didn’t need to leave his card for that. One thirty-second experience in his presence had done enough damage.

 

In a way, I blamed myself for the van incident. I shouldn’t have been in that part of town, should have fought more, should have just stayed in bed that day. I had walked right into him and what happened was all my fault. 

 

Of course, he didn’t have to snatch me up, force me to hold a gun to his head and put me on his lap. 

 

My teeth clamped hard over my bottom lip and I shook the thoughts out of my head. The last thing I wanted to think about now was sitting on his lap, feeling him beneath me and the way he had made me turn to look him in the eyes. And his eyes... god , those eyes. They were so dark, two unfathomable abysses that were both closed off and told me everything I needed to know about him at the same time. 

 

They were the reason I had been having so much trouble sleeping lately. Every time I shut my eyes, every time I let my mind wander and start to relax, there they were, right over my shoulder, watching me and staring so deep into me I felt as if I were suffocating. 

 

Exactly how I felt right now.

 

Even with the AC blasting from the vents of the cab, even with the window cracked right beside my head to let in the fresh air, I felt as if I were breathless. I let my head fall back against the headrest and blinked at the city lights passing us by. As the light ahead turned green, the taxi turned to the right and pulled to a stop just outside a block of a building. I stared up at the small set of concrete stairs and the double doors at the top. Letters spelled out GCPD above the doors and the cab driver turned to look back at me. 

 

"Need me to wait?" He asked in a gruff voice that made my body twitch with surprise. I shook my head and handed him enough cash for the fare before stepping out of the car. 

 

When the cab pulled away from the curb, I almost turned around to call it back. I wasn't sure what I was so afraid of. It was almost like I felt as if telling someone else, saying what I had been through out loud, would have made it more real. If I kept it bottled up inside, it was easier to convince myself it had all been in my head. 

 

My hand flattened against the pocket of my jacket and just beneath the material, I could feel the card and plastic bag I had put it in. This wasn't my imagination. It was real and I had to put a stop to this tonight. 

 

I hurried up the steps and pushed my way into the doors. A night security guard slowly stood to his feet with a sigh as I paused at the two metal detectors just inside the building. "Put your cellphone, keys, wallet or purse in the bin," he instructed, stepping around the conveyor belt to pass his wand over my body. 

 

After he had deemed me clear of any weapons, I stepped through the metal detector and took my cell phone back from him. He didn't offer much else and as he returned to his metal, folding chair behind the conveyor belt, I hurried into the lobby and glanced to the small seating areas on either side of the room. The chairs were set up in an L shape and there was a crowd of people sitting in various positions around it. I hadn’t expected to see so many faces and my steps slowed as I took in the nearest group sitting closest to me.

 

Three of the women looked to be prostitutes and with a quick glance down to their very short skirts and knee-high boots, I turned back to the reception window. It was a thick pane of glass that could slide open and just inside, sitting on a seat in front of an aging computer, was the receptionist. She was in a dark blue uniform that resembled the one the security guard wore and I stepped up to the counter and cleared my throat. She didn't look up from whatever she was typing. 

 

"Excuse me," I said, knowing my voice was muffled behind the glass. "I need to speak to someone about...about a break-in." 

 

The woman reached for a clipboard beside the computer and slid it to the window before pushing the glass to the side. I managed to grab the clipboard before it could fall to the floor and a second later, the woman handed me a pen. "Fill these out and when you bring them back up, I'll need a state-issued ID."

 

I opened my mouth but the glass panel slid back into place, making me blink down at her. Maybe I should show her the card. Surely it would get her attention. 

 

I scrambled to pull the sandwich bag out of my pocket and managed to hold it up to the glass before tapping my fingernail against it. "You don't understand," I started, glancing at the card. It still felt wrong to be touching it. "I need to see someone who can help me with this. It's the Jo --" 

 

The woman stood up and snatched a page that had just printed off before turning her eyes to me. She didn’t even glance at the Ziploc bag I was still pressing into the glass. “Ma’am, we’re a little busy tonight. Everyone has problems. If you fill out the report, someone will be with you as soon as they can.”

 

Without another word, she turned on her heel and stormed to the back of her office where a series of filing cabinets were set up. She wrenched one open and kept her back to me, letting me know that there would be no arguing with her. I took the clipboard and turned to find a seat. I picked the empty one beside a hooker that was dozing off with her head resting against the wall and crossed my legs.

 

The plastic bag was situated between my leg and the clipboard and I tried not to think about it’s close proximity to me as I filled out the information. For some reason, I skipped the basic information, not wanting to give them anything until I knew they could help me. The less I was tied to him, the better. 

 

I jumped to the important parts. There was a larger box with ‘Reason for Report’ and I quickly scribbled in that the Joker had broken into my apartment and left me a card. But as I finished the sentence, my pen stilled on the paper. Would they even believe this? It was too complicated to explain in a little box on a piece of paper. I needed to be face to face with someone who would listen.

 

My eyes lifted back to the reception window and I frowned. It was obvious that the woman wouldn’t give me a chance to explain. This was my only option if I wanted help at all. I quickly filled in the date and estimated time of the break-in and sighed. Once more, the pen in my hand came to a stop and I stared down at the black letters on the page.

 

A voice, so sinister and echoing right in my ear, whispered through my head and I closed my eyes. Or maybe you just prefer someone else to have all the power... He did this because he knew I was weak. He knew I would let it happen, knew I would cower at the apartment, possibly cry and sweep it all under the rug. 

 

He wanted me to be powerless.

 

My teeth clenched and I lifted my head to look back at the window. The woman had returned to her computer and was typing away once again. Before I could stop myself, I jumped to my feet and made it back to her in three quick strides. She didn’t look up at me as I dropped the clipboard onto the counter. It was only when I slapped the sandwich bag, card and ribbon against the glass did her head whip up and eyes go wide at the sight of me. Her mouth was open before I could even speak. “I know you’re not beating on my window like that!”

 

“I need to speak to someone now . The Joker left this for me.”

 

For a few beats of my heart, the woman blinked between the card and my face before she slowly pushed her chair back and stood to her feet. She cursed beneath her breath and reached over to slap her hand against a button on the wall. A few feet away, a thick steel door buzzed and clicked open, making me stumble back in a bit of a surprise.

 

I hadn’t exactly expected her to do anything but snap at me again, but apparently mentioning the Joker was what I should have done in the first place. Before she could change her mind, I scrambled through the door and found her walking out of the office with quick steps. She didn’t look back to see if I was following and I clutched the sandwich bag tight against my stomach. My fingers were trembling so badly that I thought I would drop it. 

 

We stepped into an elevator that took us up two floors and when the doors opened, she stepped out without a backward glance. I had no choice but to follow her and I did with quick steps. The hallway opened up into a large room with a half-wall partition separating an area of desks from the heavy traffic areas. A few detectives and other officers stood around, sipping coffee or looking over paperwork and I tried not to stare too long.

 

But as I said, I’d never been in a police station before and didn’t quite know what to expect. The woman pushed through a swinging door on the partition wall and I barely caught it before it could slam into my knees. I scowled at the back of her blonde head as she took a left and stopped in front of a messy, cluttered desk. “Hey, Marshall. Got a live one for you.”

 

A man, who was looking as frazzled and hopeless as I felt sighed and peered up at the woman, a frown pinching in bushy eyebrows. “What now?”

 

The woman finally looked back at me as I stepped up to the desk and she crossed her arms over her chest. “She says the Joker left her a card.”

 

He glanced at me with a scoff. “C’mon, Francine. We’re just believing any person that comes in off the streets about this guy? You know we’ve been flooded with calls that never check out.”

 

“I’m not lying,” I said, wishing my voice didn’t crack halfway through it. I held out the sandwich bag and he snatched it from my hands with a sigh that blew out his cheeks. Francine stepped back to let me get closer. “He knows where I live and when I came home from work tonight, I found this.”

 

Both Francine and Marshall looked up at me with looks of doubt and I felt my hopes starting to fade. But they had to believe me, right? It was their job to believe me. I blinked down at the detective, watching him swipe his palm across his face before his eyes lifted to meet mine. 

 

“Why would he want to leave you his card?”

 

Shit. I really didn’t want to answer this question, but it was inevitable. I crossed my arms over my chest and shifted from one foot to the other while trying to think of the best way to explain all of this. “Well,” I started, figuring it was best to go back to the beginning. “I was at the fundraiser party that Bruce Wayne held, as a caterer. I guess, the Joker thought I was an easy target to torment. That ribbon--” I leaned over the desk to point down at the red strip inside the bag. “I was wearing it that night and he pulled it out of my hair and left with it.”

 

They shared a look, eyebrows arched in disbelief and I knew that if I didn’t convince them soon, they were going to kick me out the front door. So I launched into the full story, from the day of the funeral parade, getting snatched up and interviewed by him, leaving my resume and coming home to find the card and ribbon on my nightstand. All the while, the two of them stared at me, unblinking and unresponsive.

 

When I finished, glancing between them for any sign that they believed me, I found Francine throwing her hands up in front of her with a shake of her head. “I gotta get back to work,” she scoffed. “She’s all yours.”

 

Wow.

 

What a bitch.

 

She pushed her way through the swinging door and I let my arms fall to my side. The detective sat back in his chair and tossed the bag onto his desk. “You’re telling me that the same guy who is targeting specific people in the public eye all over the city has also set his sights on a random caterer?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Marshall sat back up and shook his head with a laugh that made me narrow my eyes into a glare. “You know, we got a call two days ago--a psychic--she told us the Joker is actually Elvis Prestley who has come back from the dead to seek revenge on Gotham.”

 

My jaw clenched tight and I swallowed back the urge to cry. God, I hated being an angry crier. With my hands tightening into fists at my sides, I blinked down at him and ignored the burn at the back of my eyelids. “I’m not crazy. I need your help, okay? Isn’t it--I don’t know-- illegal to ignore evidence? That is my ribbon. He pulled it out of my hair and gave me half back. His card is a threat ! What if his fingerprints were on this or some other evidence and you just ignored it?”

 

The detective sighed again and scrubbed his hands over his face before standing to his feet. For a moment, I thought he was going to walk away, tell me to get the hell out of there and walk away laughing. But instead, he pointed a finger at me and shook his head. 

 

“Stay here, don’t move.”

 

I nodded but he was already walking away, heading deeper into the precinct. The room was lined with small offices toward the back that were mostly dark for the night. He hurried past them into a part of the station I couldn’t see and once he was out of my sight, I lowered myself into one of the chairs in front of his desk. 

 

My legs bounced with that same nervous energy from before and I pulled my jacket tighter around me. Despite the warm night, the inside of the police station was kept chilly and I was regretting shorts. Goosebumps trailed down the length of my legs and I glanced at the plastic bag still sitting on Marshall’s desk.

 

It was the first time I felt alright to actually look at it. The black letter J in the top left corner and the printed Joker figure in the center pulled my eye across it to the words he had typed. One for Me. One for you . Before I could stop myself, I reached out and took the corner of the bag, sliding it toward me.

 

The bow he had tied was prettier than I could make and I let out a scoff at the thought. Each loop was even and the ends fell against the card as if he took his time to make sure it was close to perfect as it could get. Which was a bizarre thought. Everything about him seemed messy and chaotic, from the way he stormed into Bruce Wayne’s penthouse to the makeup smeared across his face. Why would he put so much care into this?

 

Maybe he likes you

 

A voice piped up in the back of my head, making me wrinkle my nose and shake my head. I tossed the bag back onto the desk, turning my head away from it. Apparently, my lack of sleep the last few nights was making me a little crazy. 

 

From the other side of the room, a policeman’s radio hissed with static and a moment later, the last remaining officers in the room hurried down the hall where Marshall had disappeared to. Seeing them in such a rush left my stomach clenching with nervousness, but honestly, what could happen here? 

 

This was the safest place in Gotham at the moment.

 

I just wish I could find a little bit of peace in knowing that. Fear and dread still sat within me and left me jittery and paranoid. And with every passing minute that Detective Marshall didn’t return, the worse that paranoia became. 

 

What was taking him so long?

 

It had to be passed four in the morning by now. The adrenaline was starting to wane and my body was begging for the crash. After the past four days of barely any sleep, it was starving for it. There was no way I would be able to work tomorrow and I wondered if I should leave Abby a message now.

 

I pulled my cell phone from the pocket of my jacket and pulled up my text messages. She had already commented on me looking like shit. Maybe a generic ‘I’m sick’ excuse wouldn’t be too far-fetched for her to believe. 

 

If only I wasn’t missing out on good money. 

 

Once it was sent, I put the phone back into my pocket and sat back in the chair with a sigh. Twenty more minutes, and I was going to get up and leave, no matter what he said. I could understand if it was in the middle of the day, but this was--

 

Shouting toward the back of the room, exactly where the police officers and Marshall had disappeared to, pulled my attention and I sat up in the chair. My heartbeat like a drum as it grew closer and I could hear several people shouting threats. Through the darkened offices along the back of the room, there was a rush of commotion and I blinked at the sight.

 

Several detectives and uniformed officers had their guns drawn and were pointing it right to a figure holding something to a man’s neck. Not just any figure though...Even in the darkness of the office, I could see his messy hair and smeared, white face.

 

Every drop of blood in my body ran cold and I felt that same terror seep from my head down to my toes. He was here. 

 

“What do you want?” Someone shouted, making all the sound rush back into my ears. I stood to my feet, the back of my legs knocking into the chair I had been sitting in. 

 

I turned on my heel and hurried to the swinging door. Before I could kick it open and flee, something stopped me. I turned back and stared at the bag still sitting on the detective’s desk. What if Joker saw it? What if he found it and knew I was here? He would come looking for me.

 

I rushed back to the desk, my sneaker slipping on a piece of paper on the floor and my knee went down hard on the tile. I managed to keep myself from falling all the way and reached over to snatch the bag. And just as I shoved it back in my pocket, the entire building was rocked.

 

An explosion ripped from the back room and I felt myself screaming before I could hear it. The force of it shook the walls and sent me to the floor on my hands and knees, the bag still clutched within my fist.

 

I blinked down at the tile beneath me as the lights flickered before going off. At the exits, the emergency lights came on and the smoke detectors came to life and the sound pierced my ears. I put my hands over them and stood up, turning to face the offices where he had been. They seemed empty upon first glance but a shadow moved in front of the window, pulling my eyes toward it.

 

Everything faded away and time slowed to a stop. The erratic shrieking of the alarms, the sprinklers going off down the hall, it all disappeared the moment he turned the corner and spotted me. His gaze, quickly flicking down the length of my body froze me to the spot even from across the massive room. I could only stare, my lips parted and throat clenched tightly around a sob as he darkened the doorway and lifted the corners of his lips. 

 

“Well, hello again,” he said and even through the constant beeping of the smoke detectors, the sound of his voice made me flinch. There were a thousand things I should have said, but I could barely form a thought let alone a sound. And when his eyes fell to the bag I held down at my side, my knees started to shake. 

 

He didn’t say anything else but didn’t exactly have to. The slow grin that stretched across his mouth told me he knew what it was, knew what I was doing there and that I fell right into the trap he had set. Without waiting around for me to finally regain my ability to speak, Joker turned to the left and pushed his way into the emergency exit, leaving me to stare at the space he had just occupied. 

 

As soon as he was gone, whatever trance he had over me lifted and I stumbled back on my heels. I should have checked to see if everyone was alright if anyone needed my help. But I couldn’t think beyond getting as far away from this building, far away from him as I could get.

 

I didn’t look back. I ran to the elevators, ignoring all of the warnings that in case of fire, take the stairs but I was more afraid of what was on the stairs than a fire. Luckily, the elevator still worked and I slapped the ground floor button over and over until the doors were sliding closed. In the reflection of the metal, I could just make out my face and how ghostly pale it was.

 

As soon as the doors opened, I ran. I shoved the heavy steel door open and ignored the security guard on his feet, speaking to an emergency dispatcher. Even as he shouted at me to stop, I burst out of the front doors and ran as fast as I could, as far as I could. 

 

I never looked back.

 

I was too afraid that if I did, he would be there, following me. I wasn’t safe at home, I wasn’t safe surrounded by police...I wasn’t safe anywhere. 





Chapter Text


 

Don't be afraid of the monsters
Or the vultures in the sky
See the static on the TV
Feel the violence of the night


 

 

 

The glowing light of the television began to fade as the sun rose higher over the buildings across the street. I watched the shadows move across the walls and the sunlight catch the crystal prism that Chelsea had hung in the window for ‘good vibes’. It cast a rainbow across the wall and I watched the colors slowly stretch as the sun rose higher.

 

Good vibes.

 

There were no good vibes today. 

 

All I felt was the complete opposite. Bad vibes. Terrified, horrified, disgusted vibes. No amount of crystals hanging in the sunshine would get rid of this feeling. 

 

For the thousandth time since I made it back to the apartment, I looked back at the front door and swept my eyes from the deadbolt twisted in place. The chain was secured as well and just for good measure, I had wedged one of the kitchen chairs beneath the knob. Whether it would work to keep anyone out, I wasn’t too sure. But I had to do something.

 

The police were far too busy putting out the fires that had exploded in three separate areas of the city overnight. Fires that the Joker had been the cause of. Just thinking his name made my fingers curl tighter around the pillow held to my chest. 

 

For the past two hours, every local news station was replaying the events of the night nonstop. His alias was all over the place. Everywhere I turned, there he was. I couldn’t leave the apartment, didn’t feel safe staying here, and if that wasn’t bad enough, I couldn’t even close my eyes without seeing him there.

 

Standing in front of the destruction he’d caused inside the police station, that slow grin stretching one side of his mouth as he spotted me...Or the way he had stared down at me in that alley after colliding with him. It was always there behind my eyelids. A constant reminder that even when I was alone, he was lurking close by. 

 

As the news switched briefly to the death of a district attorney named Rachel Dawes and the attack on Harvey Dent, I snatched the remote and muted it. I didn’t want to hear anymore. It was too horrible to even try to comprehend. I didn’t understand a bit of it.

 

It was easy to figure out why he had targeted both of them. Dent was someone all of Gotham pretty much trusted to do the right thing and Joker wanted to get rid of him. His girlfriend had been unfortunate enough to be caught in the crossfire. But knowing that the two of them were relatively important people in the grand scheme of Gotham’s future only made me wonder…

 

Why the fuck was he targeting me ?

 

I meant nothing to the city. I wasn’t even a Gotham native for god’s sake! And if he killed people like Harvey Dent and the police commissioner and judges, then what could he possibly want with me? Was my fate the same as Rachel Dawes’? Was I just caught in the middle of Joker’s crossfire with the entire city?

 

I didn’t like that thought.

 

I didn’t want to be anywhere but far away from him. 

 

Which meant I was going to have to figure out a way to get back home. And while that meant listening to my parents give me the typical ‘we told you so’ lecture about my poor life choices to move to the big city and follow my teenage dreams, I was alright with that. In fact, I would welcome it at this moment. 

 

Maybe if I had listened to them, I wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place.

 

It was too early to call them. Sunday was my father’s relaxation day and he and my mother usually spent it fishing or taking a drive around the countryside. Besides, if I called this early, they would assume something was wrong and would attempt to come to get me. I couldn’t risk them coming into the city.

 

Not when he was still running amuck. 

 

I would just call them and tell them that I’ve had no luck finding work, I’m broke, and there’s no other choice but for me to move back home. Hopefully, by tomorrow, I could be riding a bus out of this city and safe where he couldn’t track me down. I would be back home, back in the small town where I could work at the local grocery store and live peacefully.

 

I’ve had enough of the city life.

 

The news segment shifted back to the fire and explosion that rocked the police department and I winced at the death and injury toll. A part of me felt bad for fleeing the scene when there were dozens of injuries but I had been running on pure adrenaline at that point. There was no way for me to ignore my fight or flight instinct forcing me to run. 

 

And besides, I didn’t exactly want to stick around and answer any more questions about my involvement with the infamous Joker. 

 

My eyes cut to the jacket I had stripped off hours ago and tossed onto the arm of the couch. It still laid right where I had thrown it and I knew that in the depths of the pocket, the ribbon and playing card were sitting patiently for me to pull them out. I had refused to look or even think about them since I got home, not wanting any other reminders of him. But now that time had passed and I was in the quiet of the apartment alone, I felt the stirrings of curiosity inside me.

 

Pursing my lips, I reached across the couch and pulled the jacket closer to me. The top corner of the plastic sandwich bag poked out of the pocket and I could see the top loop of the perfect bow he had tied. It was such a stark contrast against the card; bright red on white. 

 

I traced the edge of the plastic with my finger and dipped them into the pocket to pull it completely out. Behind me, I could hear keys at the door and a second later, they slid into the deadbolt and twisted it. My blood ran cold and I scrambled off the couch, reaching for the butcher knife I had kept at my side all morning.

 

The lock on the doorknob turned and with a twist, the door hit against the chair I had wedged beneath the knob. I heard a whispered curse from the other side and before I could let out a sigh or relief at the familiar irritated sound, Chelsea knocked on the door. “What the hell? Natalie, are you in there?”

 

I hurried around the couch and tossed the knife onto the kitchen counter before pulling the chair away from the door. It opened in a puff of air that blew my hair back and I quickly looked around her into the hallway to make sure she hadn’t been followed. Chelsea backed into the door and stared at me like I was a crazy person. 

 

“What are you doing?”

 

“Nothing,” I sighed, pushing my hair away from my face as I ducked back into the apartment. I twisted the locks and turned to face her with a smile. The look of fatigue on her face, sitting heavy in the dark circles beneath her eyes made the smile vanish and I blinked at her. “What’s wrong?”

 

“Greg’s aunt died last night.”

 

For a split second, I feared she had been caught up in the explosions that had rocked Gotham, but the memory of Chelsea mentioning that his aunt had been in the hospital for several months sprang back up. I crossed my arms over my chest, not sure whether to reach out and comfort her or not. I opted against it. “I’m so sorry to hear that.”

 

Chelsea shrugged out of her sweater and draped it across the back of the kitchen chair I had used to bar the door. She moved to the fridge and opened it to grab a bottle of her expensive organic juice that I was forbidden to touch. “She had been sick for a long time. But we’re leaving around three for the funeral.”

 

“Oh.” I felt as if the wires in my brain weren’t firing correctly. I blinked at her as she took a long sip from the juice bottle. “You’re leaving today?”

 

“Yeah,” she said. “I’ve taken the week off so I can be with Greg and his family.”

 

“Why do you have to leave today?”

 

Chelsea narrowed her eyes on me and twisted the cap back onto her bottle. “Because it’s going to take several hours to drive up to where she lived in Vermont. Greg’s picking me up in a few hours after he gets everything settled with work.” She put her hands on her hips as she closed the fridge. “Are you alright? You look like you’re tweaking or something.”

 

“What? No, I’m not tweaking ...I just don’t like the thought of being here alone for a week.”

 

“Well, I can’t help that.” Her eyes fell to the counter where the knife still sat and I shifted from one foot to the other. “I’m sure you’ll be alright. I have to get ready and pack for the week.”

 

Before she could disappear into her bedroom, I took a step toward her and gestured a hand to the television, still muted and still playing the same repeated news stories. “Haven’t you seen the news? It’s crazy out there.”

 

Chelsea pushed her hair over her shoulder and scoffed. “Why do you think I’m looking forward to getting away for a week? Maybe you should do the same.”

 

Except I didn’t have a boyfriend who could just take me out of the city or a job to provide the funds to pay for the cab or bus fare. Which reminded me that in addition to informing my parents about coming home, I’d have to ask them to wire me some money to actually get home. They weren’t going to be too happy about that, but I figured I could use the attacks on the city to gain some sympathy points.

 

It's not like my parents didn’t care about me. It was more like they were still upset that I chose to live away from them and haven’t really kept in touch for the past three years. I winced as I remembered that I had ditched the last few holiday get-togethers without so much as a phone call. 

 

With a heavy sigh, I watched her move into her bedroom and let my shoulders fall in defeat. There was no way around it. I was going to be alone for the next 24 hours. Hopefully, in that span of time, the Joker would be far too busy planning his next move on the city or laying low to even think about me.

 

And while Chelsea was here, I was going to try to catch up on some sleep. I would need to be alert and awake after she left. I asked her to wake me up before she left and though she seemed a bit preoccupied with her suitcase, she gave me a nod and a dismissive wave over her shoulder. I hoped the few hours I would get of sleep would be enough to hold me over until I could get out of this city as well.

.

.

Though it was the last thing I wanted to do, I slowly blinked my eyes open to the sound of the fridge opening out in the kitchen. I wasn’t sure how long it had been since I had practically passed out as soon as my head hit the pillow but it couldn’t have been too long since Chelsea was still home.

 

It felt longer than a few hours though.

 

My mind was still incredibly foggy from exhaustion and the muscles along my shoulders ached in protest as I peeled myself up from the mattress. With a groan that turned into a sigh, my feet found the floor and I rubbed at the sleep in my eyes. Upon opening them once more, I caught sight of the late afternoon sun streaming in through the window across from the bed. 

 

Odd.

 

I could have sworn Chelsea said Greg would be picking her up around three. Stifling a yawn behind my arm, I turned to the alarm clock on my bedside table to check the time. I ignored the momentary panic that touched my chest knowing the last time I looked at it I had found the ribbon. Thankfully, there were no more surprises. Well, not from the Joker anyway.

 

The green, digital numbers were surprising enough, however. It was nearly 5:30 in the afternoon. Why was she still here? Had their plans changed? It was awful of me, but I kind of hoped they had. I didn’t want to stay here alone.

 

I stood to my feet and straightened my T-shirt around my torso after it had gotten twisted up in my sleep. Since Greg’s boisterous voice wasn’t echoing through the entire apartment like usual, I figured he wasn’t here yet and decided not to pull on a pair of pants. Besides, Chelsea had seen me in my underwear plenty of times and I’d seen her in hers as well. 

 

My hand was on the knob, pulling my bedroom door open to the living room just as I opened my mouth to speak. “I thought you were leaving at--” 

 

The words died on my mouth in an instant. Actually, my throat had clenched tightly all of a sudden, not letting a single sound or breath out of my mouth at the sight of a figure that was quite clearly not Chelsea standing in my kitchen. At first, in the dim light of the room, all I could tell was that they were hunched over with their head ducked in the fridge and if I thought that maybe, just maybe , he hadn’t heard me, I was sorely mistaken.

 

Slowly, he pulled his head out of the fridge and straightened to his full height. Well, as close to it as he was going to get with his shoulders hunched up around his ears. 

 

My entire body was frozen to the spot though my brain was begging for me to run to the front door as fast as I could. It was no use. No amount of screaming in my head was working and I felt the color drain out of my face as his eyes skated down the length of my body. My very exposed, half-naked body.

 

“Mm, well,” he started, letting the fridge door shut behind him. The color of his tongue was brighter than I was expecting and I watched with wide eyes as he wet the corner of his lips. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see he had an apple held in his palm and he pointed a finger at me from the same hand. “If I knew you were going to dress so comfortably , I wouldn’t have tried to be so formal.”

 

By the time he made it to the table in the center of the kitchen, a switch was thrown inside me, swapping the urgency in my brain to my body. Tension was coiled tightly in the muscles of my legs and I used it to propel me forward, right to the front door. Of course, it was much easier to run across the tile floor while not wearing socks, but it would seem that my streak of making careless mistakes was still going strong. 

 

I scrambled between the table and the couch and reached out with one hand for the doorknob. The tips of my fingers brushed along the cold brass, reminding me of the last time I had tried to flee away from him in the van. And just as he had then, he easily crossed the distance between us and looped an arm around my waist. In an instant, his scent, the smell I had tried so hard to forget, came flooding back into my senses. 

 

“No!” I snarled, bringing an elbow back to slam into his side. He was further from me than I anticipated and I only managed to touch him. “Let me go !” 

 

Joker whirled me away from the door and the living room spun past me in a blur, my socks gliding over the floor they had tried so hard to run across a moment ago. He kept my feet dangling up off the floor with his arm still gripped around my midsection. And in addition to the panic and horror already coursing through me, he leaned his head forward and brought his face right against my neck. 

 

“Where did you think you were going to go?” There was an edge to his voice as if he were trying not to laugh in my ear. I squeezed my eyes shut at the feel of the warmth of his breath against my neck. “Am I going to have to tie you to the chair, Natalie ?”

 

My head was shaking before I could even process what he was saying and when he nodded, I could feel the scars of his face brush against my ear. “Good.”

 

Once my feet hit the floor again, I was facing the table and he shoved me toward one of the chairs. I managed to grab the back of it before toppling over the table and quickly shook the hair from my face before whirling around to face him. For some reason, it surprised me to see him still holding onto the apple. He hadn’t even dropped it. 

 

My eyes lifted to his face and he turned his head away from me though his gaze stayed true to me. It instantly made me swallow tightly and I backed away from him as he pulled a chair out from beneath the table and positioned it between me and the door. Again, he pointed to me with the hand occupied with the apple while reaching into his pocket with the other. 

 

“Sit,” he commanded. Though it was the exact opposite of everything I knew I should do, I did as he told and lowered myself into the chair across from his. My knees were shaking so hard I had to put my hand between them to keep the bones from jarring. From the depths of his pocket, he pulled out a small knife and my eyes went wide at the sight of the blade. 

 

Before I could stop myself, my voice returned from the depths of my throat, apparently no longer too terrified to speak. “Where’s Chelsea?”

 

Joker glanced around the kitchen in confusion before turning back to face me, his brows pinched in a frown though his lips were curled into a smile. “Who? It’s just us in here sweetheart.”

 

Hearing him call me that brought a scowl to my face and I glanced down to his hands. He pushed the blade into the apple and began to peel it and when I lifted my gaze back to his, I found him looking amused. Not only was I still terrified, sitting in my kitchen with the Joker, but I was furious as well. How dare he do this! How dare he barge into my life and just think he can do whatever he wanted!

 

His voice broke through my thoughts and I blinked as he wagged the tip of the blade toward me. “I like that look in your eye. Quite feisty .”

 

“Why are you here?”

 

His eyebrows lifted and he shifted in the chair, reaching up to pop a slice of the apple into his mouth. He chewed it quickly and shook his head as if I should just know why he was here. When he swallowed, he leaned an elbow onto the table and looked me over again in one of those looks that made every inch of my skin crawl. 

 

“I figured we could have a little chat. Seeing as how you and I are always bumping into one another.”

 

“A chat…”

 

He didn’t elaborate, much to my annoyance and continued to sit across from me like we were old friends catching up. He sliced another small chunk of apple off and popped it into his mouth before finally noticing me again. I watched him offer me a bite and I shook my head, staring at him in disbelief. 

 

Joker shrugged and set the apple down onto the table at his right, though he kept hold of the knife. As he cleaned the blade on the side of his pants, his attention momentarily off of me, I took the moment to look at him. The color of his suit, so purple and garish, stood out against the white countertop and appliances of the kitchen behind him. 

 

Even the pattern on his tie clashed against the one on his shirt. It was as if he chose it all to be as off-putting as possible, though it did look as if it were made of quality material. It even looked soft to the touch. Not that I knew what quality material was and not that I really cared if his suit was soft or not--

 

“Like what you see, sweetheart?” He asked without even looking up from his knife.

 

My lips snapped shut and I quickly looked away from him, focusing instead on the late afternoon sun slipping behind the buildings. I could feel the burn of embarrassment touch my face and I wasn’t sure if I was more upset he caught me or the fact that he was still calling me sweetheart.

 

“Don’t call me that.”

 

“Alright, Natalie --” That wasn’t much better to hear, to be honest. I looked back in time to see him adjusting his coat as he sat back against the chair with a quick flick of his tongue over his bottom lip. “I can tell you’ve got something on your mind, so go ahead and say it. I’ll wait.”

 

There was irritation in his voice and it was a bit alarming. I knew if I didn’t keep him busy and interested, he was going to get bored of me and slice me with that knife soon. I shifted on the chair, wincing at the sweat building up between my thighs and the wood, and cleared my throat. 

 

“I guess I’m...just confused about why you’re doing all of this. I mean, you’re obviously extremely smart so why not use your intelligence for good?” That’s it, Natalie. Compliment him. Feed his ego. Maybe if I keep it up, he’ll go easy on me and leave me alone. 

 

Joker barely let the question sink in before he was answering. “Well, who says I’m not ?”

 

“You’re killing innocent people.” 

 

“Innocent? No, no one is innocent, Natalie . I'm giving people a choice. When they make the wrong choice, there has to be consequences." His words made me blink in surprise and I found myself sitting forward just a fraction of an inch. 

 

“You’re playing god. Why should you have that kind of power--”

 

The knife was a blur in the air, making my voice die in the back of my throat with a whimper as the tip of the blade drove into the wood of the table. In the echo of the thump, I swallowed and fell back against the chair once more. And thankfully, because he took the opportunity to lean toward me. Even with the same amount of distance between us as before, he felt too close to me and I wished I could shrink away from him more.

 

“Look, I didn’t come here about right and wrong, Natalie. You think there's a clear line between the two, I think it's all one big sandbox to play around in. Let's agree to disagree, hmm? " He gripped the chair between his legs and slid it across the floor, bringing him much closer than before. His knees touched mine and I let my hands fall away to grip the seat on either side of my hips. When his eyes met mine, I could tell he was annoyed and waiting for my response and I nodded shakily. The smell of him, gasoline and something burnt, was making me dizzy.

 

“O-okay. Why did you come here then?”

 

It was the one question I had wanted to know from the moment I saw him rooting through the fridge, but I wasn’t sure I was ready to hear the answer. Joker looked at me, his tongue darting out to flick against the corner of my lips and for a flash of a second, I was distracted by the color of it. 

 

“I think I had you pegged all wrong .” His voice went just a touch deeper and my eyebrows lifted before I could stop them. “See, at first, at that little party , you caught my attention and I wasn't quite sure why. It's rare for anyone to catch my eye, but you did."

 

Another flick of his tongue.

 

I narrowed my eyes slightly as he did it and wondered if it was a type of nervous tick as a result of his scars or something he did to intimidate whoever he was talking to. It was unsettling for sure, but I found myself distracted by the sight of it each time. 

 

"I thought you were just a scared little girl in the wrong place at the wrong time. And then we found one another again . This time, it had to be a coincidence, serendipity, if you will. But then--” He wagged his finger at me, coming much too close and again, I backed as far into the chair as I possibly could. "Then, after being locked away in Gordon's cells all night, I come out and to my surprise there you are . Standing there, staring at me and at that moment it dawned on me. It isn't a coincidence at all. You seek me out. "

 

“I had no idea you would be there. At any of those places.”

 

Thankfully, he sat back and I felt as if I could let out the breath that was starting to make my lungs burn. I blinked as he shrugged a shoulder. "Doesn't matter. You may not have consciously sought me out, but something in there did." He pointed to my forehead making me scowl and I had to resist the urge to reach up and rub the exact spot he was pointing to. "You see Natalie, people aren't that complicated. They may think they're special, putting up walls and masks to hide behind, but who they really and truly are always come out when they're afraid. Fear strips down those walls and peels back those layers to show what they really feel. And that's exactly why you caught my eye. It was what was lying right behind that fear in your eyes. Would you like to know what it was?" 

 

I didn’t know when he had grown so soft-spoken, only that his last question was barely a whisper and it slithered through my veins like the ice of panic. It took a moment for all of his words to sink into my head and for me to process what he was saying. I didn’t want to know what he saw. I didn’t care what he saw.

 

Did I?

 

I was already nodding before I could stop myself and the smile that stretched his lips was quick and startling. It was clear that he knew I wouldn’t have answered any other way. With a quick tap of his fingers on the surface of the table, he stood to his feet and I sucked in a sharp breath, watching him until he was towering over me. 

 

“How about I show you?”

 

My heels dug into the tiles and I scrambled back as quickly as I could, nearly stumbling backward over the chair. The legs scraped over the floor, filling the sudden silence with the sharp sound though he paid no attention to it. “Why can’t you just tell me?”

 

“Because Natalie --” The tip of his tongue caught my attention yet again. “Showing you would be much more enjoyable.”

 

“For you or for me?”

 

His laugh was shrill and sudden and I found my hands nearly reaching to cover my ears. I backed away from him, though it didn’t stop him from advancing toward me, and I wished I had been smart enough to reach for the knife still stuck in the surface of the table. When my back hit the wall behind me, I gasped and thought briefly about trying to overpower him. It was a ridiculous thought--he had held me back easily with one arm--and I quickly pushed it down in my mind. 

 

Joker struck his hand out and I squeezed my eyes shut, expecting to feel his fingers around my throat. When there was no pain, I peeked out from behind my eyelids to find his hand against the wall beside my head. He ducked his head toward me, making my eyes meet his and I didn’t know what was worse; seeing him smiling at me or seeing him staring so intensely into my eyes that I felt my legs tremble. 

 

Ah , there it is.” With his free hand, he reached up and brushed the back of his leather glove down the length of my cheek. I hadn’t realized how bad my entire body was shaking until he did so and I tried to push myself deeper into the wall-- anything to put distance between him and me. "So small. Makes me wonder if you even know its there at all."

 

“Please,” I hated the way it sounded on my tongue, hated the way it tasted to beg him.

 

“Mm, begging already?”

 

“Please, don’t hurt me.”

 

Hurt you? Oh, sweetheart,” Joker murmured in a mocking tone. He stroked his hand down my cheek once again and I squeezed my eyes shut. “It’s all I’ve wanted to do since I first saw you. But not tonight.”

 

His touch, his closeness, the smell of gasoline and burnt paper lifted away all of a sudden and I sucked in a deep, quivering breath. With a flutter of my eyelids, I watched him back away until he was back at the table, reaching down to pluck the knife from the surface. “You don’t seem like an old fashioned type of girl to me, Natalie. The kind who needs romance and flowers.” He slipped the knife back into the pocket of his coat and I tried to make sense of what he was saying. “But you see, I like all of that. I like the process of courting and I think you are in need of a proper courtship.”

 

Courtship ?

 

What did he mean by that?

 

What the fuck?

 

My confusion was written across my face and I knew he could see it, but that was exactly what he wanted. He wanted me scared and confused and irrational like it was his goddamn fetish or something. I was still pressed as hard into the wall as I could possibly get, even as he put more and more distance between us, and once he reached the door, he grinned. “Friday,” he said, twisting the knob to pull it open. “I’ll show you exactly what you’ve got going on in there.”

 

He pointed a few times toward my head, gesturing to me exactly what he meant by ‘ in there’ . I could only stare in terrified bewilderment as he backed out into the hallway, pulling the door shut behind him. Before I could let out a breath of relief he pushed it back open to reappear. “Oh, and I wouldn’t try to leave the city if I were you. You see, I’ve got some things planned and I wouldn’t want you caught up in the chaos. Not yet anyway.”

 


 

Chapter Text


 

Here I come to find you
Hurry up and run
Let's play a little game and have fun


 

 

I wouldn't want you caught up in the chaos…

 

Too late.

 

I was as caught up as I wanted to be and I didn't even want this much. My thoughts over the next few days were mostly the pitiful, woe is me, depressing types that usually circled one's mind when they were in a situation as fucked as the one I'd found myself in. But by Wednesday, I was exhausted. Mentally, physically, and emotionally.

 

I was running on very little sleep, just enough to keep me alive really, and after dozing off unexpectedly on the couch and waking several hours from a nightmare that felt too close to home, I'd had enough of this. How long could I lurk around my apartment, crying and asking the universe 'why me'? I knew the answer to that question. I had just been at the wrong place at the wrong time and apparently, in a past life, I had done some shit to warrant this chaos I'd been thrown into.

 

There was nothing I could do to change the why of the situation. It was what it was.

 

What I could change was what would happen next.

 

If he thought for one minute that I was just going to wait around, twirling my hair around my finger, for him to show back up on my doorstep, he was sorely mistaken. While I did believe his threat not to leave the city, he said nothing about hiding within the city. And I'm not exactly proud of myself for what I did, but I was currently backed into a corner that limited my choices.

 

I was scared and I was broke.

 

The money I made from the one day working with Abby was enough to hide me away for a night or two, but I needed something more. I needed a week...or at least until the police or Batman could put Joker away where he belonged. Who knew how long that would be though? I had to think ahead and plan for the things I couldn’t control.

 

I couldn't take a chance and rely on people that might not be able to help me. So I did what anyone else in my situation would have done.

 

Several weeks ago, I'd been sleeping in my bedroom and woke to the sound of Greg and Chelsea talking from the front door. They hadn't noticed I was home and now, I'm thankful for that. He had been scolding her for being careless with her money and ever the stubborn, pigheaded woman that she is, Chelsea had ignored his advice to take her rainy day fund and open a savings account with it. She felt she was perfectly safekeeping it locked away in a box beneath her bed.

 

Which was convenient for me.

 

I had found it easily and broke into it with one of the few tools we kept around the place. The box did not survive my hammer assault and I knew when she got back and saw what I had done that I would no longer have a place to live, but that was fine. I didn't want to live on Gotham anymore anyway.

 

With my meager $225 and Chelsea's stash of about $1300, I threw some clothes into a duffel bag and left. I wouldn't leave the city, but I was going to hide my ass in the furthest hotel away from this apartment. I found a place with decent security that I didn't have to leave a name or credit card to rent a room and dressed in sweats, sunglasses and a baseball cap, I holed myself up on the third floor of the Gotham Motel.

 

I didn't sleep until Thursday afternoon and only then it was because my body just couldn’t stay awake any longer. I had spent the morning pacing the length of the motel room floor, trying to figure out how I was going to get through this. Tomorrow was going to be hell. I already knew I wouldn’t sleep a wink until Saturday morning. Even then, there was a chance he would come for me and he would be pissed.

 

I was prepared for that.

 

In case he did come for me, I had brought along my trusty kitchen knife and it would be with me at all times. I wouldn’t be caught by surprise again. And since he liked knives so much, he’d appreciate my choice of weapon to defend myself with.

 

Dwelling on what he would think of anything to do with me made me feel strange and I shook the thoughts from my head. I had to focus on more important things at the moment like calling the police.

 

They hadn’t been much help the last time, but that wasn’t necessarily their fault. It’s not like they could have anticipated being blown halfway to hell. So after forcing myself to eat vending machine food for lunch, I sat on the bed in the dingy motel room dialing the number for the police department on the phone.

 

A man picked up after the fifth ring, right before I was about to give up and as soon as I heard his tired voice on the line, I blinked. "Hello? Gotham Police?"

 

"Um, I need help."

 

"Ma'am, if this is an emergency you need to hang up and dial 911."

 

"It isn't an emergency, but I need to talk to someone." I squeezed my eyes shut and stood up from the bed. If I sat still for too long, it was like my energy had nowhere to go. I had to get it out of my body and pacing was the best way to do that.

 

From the other end of the line, the man sighed and I heard him shuffling something around. "What do you need help with?"

 

Before I could stop myself, I let out a laugh that sounded half-crazed. "This is going to sound crazy, but I'm being targeted by the Joker."

 

Silence was my answer and I blinked, pressing the phone closer to my ear. I could still hear the sounds of the busy precinct from the receiver and just as I opened my mouth to ask if the guy was still there, he laughed. I reeled back. It was hard to believe, but I didn't think he would laugh at me.

 

"Lady, you know how many calls we got just this morning about that guy?"

 

"I know it sounds hard to believe but--"

 

"Unless you have something real, we can't help you."

 

"But, it is real! He came to my home, he stole my ribbon and--" My lips snapped shut and I put a hand to my forehead, knowing I sounded like a psycho at the moment. "He's been leaving me messages and he threatened me, in my home a few days ago."

 

"Threatened you with what?"

 

"With a--" Again, I clamped my mouth shut and stared at the dusty curtains covering the window across from me. What could I say to that? That he threatened me with a date? He had pointed a knife at me and grabbed me, but that wasn't exactly anything I could report, was it? I shook my head and spun around to face the bed. "He said he would be back at my house Friday. I left but I think if someone is there at my apartment, they might could ambush him or something."

 

"Lady," the man said with an annoyed sigh. I could hear the frustration in his voice and knew he wasn't going to believe me. "You're not the first person who called us about this guy today, telling us something similar. We can't send the entire force to your apartment. If you're in a safe place now, I suggest you stay there and call us if you have an emergency."

 

"No, please, don't hang--"

 

The click of the phone from his end cut my words off and I pulled the phone away from my ear to stare down at it in disbelief. I hadn't expected them to send the army to help me, but I at least figured they would take my name down and do something ! What good were they if they were just going to ignore someone's plea like this?

 

Feeling angry and helpless, I slammed the phone back down on the receiver and continued to pace the length of the floor in front of the bed. At least I didn't feel guilty about leaving the scene of the explosion anymore. If this is how they treated the citizens they were meant to protect, then...

 

I didn't want to finish that sentence. They didn't deserve to be punished just because they wouldn't -- couldn't -- help me this one time. Too easily, the sound of his voice echoed through my head, repeating the words I had sat in the kitchen, listening to him say to me. ' I'm giving people a choice. When they make the wrong choice, there has to be consequences'.

 

It was disturbing how even now, days later, I could hear the exact tone in which he spoke, could even see the way he carefully slid the blade through the apple peel. I brought the heels of my palms to my eyes and pressed down until I could see stars dancing across the back of my eyelids. I wanted to see anything besides his eyes looking at me.

 

As soon as I dropped my arms to my side and tilted my head back to blink through the dark spots dancing through my vision, the exhaustion hit my body like a truck. Just standing there, breathing and blinking, felt like too much effort.

 

I let out a sigh and turned to the duffel bag on the floor. The flap was open and a few of my clothes were hanging out. I had packed just enough to do me for the next few days, but I didn't have any plans to go back to my apartment. What I had was what I would take with me out of Gotham once all this was over.

 

Just beneath a few of my T-shirts, rolled up in a pair of pajama pants, was the butcher knife I had brought with me from home. It had been my security blanket the past week or so and I wasn't going to forget it this time. I clutched it in my fist and stared down at the silver blade, catching the reflection of my exhausted eyes in the metal.

 

I had never stabbed someone before. I didn't even meat for god's sake. But I knew it I wanted to survive this, I was going to have to do something . And if that meant stabbing him in the chest the next time he came near me, then I was willing to live with that.

 

I managed to crawl into the bed and dip my legs beneath the scratchy sheets and thin blanket that the motel provided. It wasn't comfortable, but at least it smelled and felt clean. My eyes were closed by the time my head hit the pillow and while it was probably not exactly safe to sleep while clutching a butcher knife, I didn't dare let it go.

.

.

It wasn't my intention to sleep for 16 hours, but that was what happened. Friday morning, I had woken with a start to the sound of housekeeping knocking on my door. Sweat had immediately beaded up beneath my armpits and I stumbled to the door to tell the poor woman to come back later. She had shaken her head and turned her cart away to move to the next room.

 

I shut the door behind her and made sure the deadbolt and chain lock was in place before letting my forehead drop to the cool surface. It did little to calm my nerves but slowly, my pulse was returning to a normal pace. It was then that I realized in my shock from the noise at the door that I had left the knife in the bed like a moron.

 

I crossed the room and found it tangled up in the sheets. It was a miracle that I hadn't accidentally stabbed myself in the face since I was being so careless. With a roll of my eyes, I lowered myself down on the corner of the bed and put my head in my hands. It felt as if the days before, my weeks and months and even years I've spent on this Earth all happened so fast and only now was time moving slowly.

 

Each second passed by like minutes and though it felt like hours with me sitting on the bed, staring at the knife in my lap and the old, frayed carpet between my feet, only ten minutes had truly passed. I knew there was no way I could sit there and waste the day just staring. My body was way too wound up for that, like any sound outside the door was going to make me burst.

 

Several times I thought about just running.

 

How would he stop me from leaving? There was no way he would be able to find me if I just left .

 

But this wasn't just anyone I was talking about. Even if it didn't seem possible, I couldn't risk it. Another thought that occurred to me was that I could stay within the city but keep moving. I could get in a cab and drive it from one side of the city to the next, always stay on the move. It wasn't a good plan, but it felt better than just sitting here.

 

Sitting here was going to drive me crazy.

 

I wonder if the housekeepers would let me help them clean for the day, just to occupy my hands and do something !

 

In the end, I opted to take a long, scalding hot shower. I hadn't thought to bring my shampoo or soap but for some reason, I had grabbed a razor and shaving cream. Thankfully there were the tiny soap bottles stocked on a tray in the corner of the vanity and I managed to get my hair as clean as possible. And for some reason, I shaved my legs.

 

Halfway finished with my left leg, I paused and stared down at my legs still covered in shaving cream. I realized that this was my routine for an actual date, even though it had been months since I had been on one. I would sit around the day of, trying to occupy the hours and eventually spend far too long in the shower preparing.

 

But this wasn't a date.

 

This was some kind of fucked up hostage situation. Even though he wasn't even near me, I still felt a hostage to his threats, to the fear he instilled in me.

 

I couldn't shave my legs for this. That was far too fucked up and I refused to do anything like this for him. I tossed the razor out onto the toilet seat and applied conditioner to my hair, rinsing off the soap and shaving cream from my legs. Was it worse that I let him control me yet again? What if he expected this of me?

 

He would get such a kick out of knowing I tried so hard to do the opposite of what he wanted of me and the last thing I wanted was to get amuse him. I growled between clenched teeth and scrubbed the conditioner from my hair before snatching the razor once more. I shaved quickly, not caring at the tiny nicks I left around the curve of my knee or ankle, no matter how much it stung.

 

As I finished shaving my thighs, I stared down at my body, to the other patch of hair that I had been neglecting lately. I frowned and glanced at the razor. No . I wasn't going to do that for him. Not that I was doing any of this for him. It was for me.

 

Just to be safe, I tossed the razor over the curtain rod and once again, rinsed the shaving cream off of my legs. By now the water was starting to grow cold and I knew I would no longer be able to hide there. I turned the faucet off and stepped out, listening for any sign that someone had come into the room beyond the bathroom. When all I could hear was the television echoing through the walls from the room next to mine, I stepped out and grabbed one of the towels sitting on the vanity.

 

With it wrapped around my chest, I poked my head out and looked around the room. Everything was exactly how I left it and I let out a small sigh. The butcher knife still sat on the counter of the sink, right next to where I had tossed the razor. Just knowing it was there, an arm's length away in case I needed it, helped calm my nerves a bit but not much.

 

I was still trembling, though it wasn't out of terror. It was just in anticipation. My entire body was ready for a fight that I didn't even know if I would face or not. And now that I was out of the shower, dressed in a pair of comfy shorts and a t-shirt, I had nothing to occupy my time, my hands, or my mind.

 

The vending machine trip I had taken the day before yielded a lot of snacks to choose from but I was starving for a warm meal. I stared at the small stack of potato chips and candy bars and knew it was better to eat the crap I had than to risk being seen taking a trip to snag some fast food. So I sat at the table, next to the noisy air conditioning unit, chewing my chips and watching the parking lot from a small slit in the yellowing curtains.

 

Several cars pulled in over the next hour or so that I sat there and each time I heard the familiar engine sounds, my back would tense and I would lean a little closer to the curtain to peek out. Each time it was typical people; a woman and a man who looked to be tourists (though they certainly picked a wrong time to visit the city); a businessman who looked as if he was smelling the worst fart ever, judging by the wrinkle in his nose; and a man who sat in his car for forty-five minutes.

 

He was the one who made me the most nervous. I took down his tag number and waited for him, wondering how long I should wait before calling the police. They said not to call back unless it was an emergency or if I had something to actually tell them. Was this something? Or was I being paranoid?

 

Eventually, the man got out and hurried around the building. It didn't make me feel any better to know he wasn't where I could see him.

 

What if Joker had spies? What if they had watched me leave my apartment Wednesday and knew exactly where I was?

 

No. That was ridiculous. Why would he go through such lengths just to torment me? Even though...he had already done exactly that.

 

Oh, god.

 

I was fucked.

 

I paced the length of the room, any spare space not covered in furniture, for the rest of the day. By sundown, I armed myself with my trusty butcher knife in one hand while I had the thumbnail of my other hand between my teeth. I chewed it until it hurt and after that, I moved onto my next finger. None of my nails were safe today.

 

Once the sun had completely set and the street lights in the parking lot came to life, I took my place at the front door with my eye peering right into the peephole. I didn't care if I had to stand there all night. I wasn't going to let anyone have the upper hand on me this time. Time ticked by as slowly as it had all day, with the seconds stretching into hours and still, I stood.

 

Anytime someone walked by the door, my fingers would clench tighter around the handle of the knife and I would hold my breath. It was close to eight before I saw another housekeeper. She was different than the one I had seen earlier that day, but that wasn't exactly suspicious.

 

What was suspicious was the fact that she stopped right outside my door and stared up at it. I held my breath until my lungs ached and clamped my bottom lip between my teeth until I could taste the bitterness of blood. What was she doing? Could she see me?

 

After a moment, she turned and went back the way she came and though I was still trembling with anxiety, I let my shoulders relax. Maybe she was confused. Maybe it wasn't anything sinister like my mind immediately went to. I was being overly paranoid.

 

And all for what? There very well could be nothing coming for me. No sinister plans, no nefarious villain coming to sweep me out of my hiding spot to torment me. This could have been his plan all along. Terrorize me into living in fear, just like the rest of the city; a punishment for going to the police after he left his card on my nightstand.

 

I hoped all of this was true, but a small part of me, a part that I would never admit to, would be almost...offended if he didn't try something. At the very least, he could--

 

Through the peephole, the woman returned and I gripped the knife harder, moving closer to the glass. She looked up at the door and I stood on my tiptoes to look down at whatever she was holding. The little white card, the same size as a credit card, made my eyes go wide and I sucked in a breath.

 

It was a key card to get into my room.

 

Didn't they have to announce they were coming in? That's what the other woman did. I had to say something to her.

 

I swallowed before opening my mouth. "No, thank you!"

 

She jumped at the sound of my voice so close to the door and her head whipped up to stare into the peephole. She was older than me by two decades easily. There were lines etched into her face and she held a little pudge around her jaws and cheeks. Her eyebrows were pinched into a frown and after a moment with the both of us standing there, staring at one another through the glass of the peephole, she lowered her head and sighed.

 

"I'm...I'm sorry," she said quietly, but loud enough for me to hear it. Her tone, so torn and so desperate, would haunt me for months.

 

My eyes went wide at the card as she reached up and slid it into the lock. The handle beeped and I shoved myself away from the door.

 

Fuck!

 

What was I going to do?

 

My fight or flight instincts were starting to kick in, jumping my pulse up and making me frantically look around. The door opened behind me but the chain caught, stopping her from entering the room but by that time I was already dropping in the narrow space between the bed and the wall. There was no room to slid in beneath the bed and I cursed quietly, trying to lower myself as far as I could into the floor.

 

What I wouldn't give for it to open up and swallow me whole at that moment.

 

I could hear voices from outside and I held my breath, squeezing my eyes shut. There were two males and a female who I was guessing was the maid. She was struggling to say something, more than likely to get them to stop, but it was pointless. The chain snapped with a metallic ping and the doorknob hit the wall behind it, making me flinch.

 

I stared down at the tip of the knife digging into the fibers of the carpet. My mind was oddly calm. I knew that I was about to be attacked, possibly dragged out of here by my hair, but I could only see what I needed to do to protect myself. I would stab whoever I needed to.

 

The sound of heavy footsteps thumping over the carpet echoed through my ears and I took a breath. I saw the tip of the boots before anything else and the guy must not have been expecting me. Though his pants weren't that garish purple I had been expecting, I imagined they were as I sat up on my knees, the knife slicing down through the air as I did so.

 

The blade sunk into the thick muscles of his thigh and didn't stop until it hit bone, jarring my hand so suddenly I let go of the handle. I whipped my head up to stare into a man's face. His mouth opened and he stumbled back as a scream ripped through the room. He held the handle of the knife as blood seeped out from the edges of the blade and his eyes bore right into mine with a fury I had never seen on anyone's face before.

 

For a moment, just a lightning-quick second, I had the horrifying thought that I'd stabbed an innocent person, that it was just a maintenance man coming to check on me and my mouth dropped open. An apology was on my lips but I never had the chance to utter a sound.

 

The butt of a shotgun connected with my jaw with such force I felt the skin break. Stars exploded across my vision and I spun in the small space I had been hiding in. The rough paint on the wall scraped against my shoulder as I went down and the only thought circling my head was how stupid I had been. I hadn't even checked to see if anyone else was coming in behind the first guy. 

 

My head was swimming and pain radiated from my jaw out across my body. The guy with the knife still wedged in his upper thigh was hissing and panting while the other one stepped over my head. I blinked my eyes open, staring into the bathroom. The fibers of the carpet tickled my forehead and I wondered if the feeling of something dripping down my face was blood or if I was imagining it while I slowly bobbed in and out of a daze.

 

"Shit," the guy above me said. "That looks bad."

 

"No shit! Its fucking deep, man. I-I think I need to go to the hospital." 

 

For a moment, they paused and I could faintly hear the second guy curse beneath his breath again. I lifted my head and ignored the tilt of the room as I did so. He was wearing brown work boots, similar to what a construction worker would wear and I knew if he kicked me with those, I'd be out for good. But I couldn't just sit there and let them do this. 

 

Shakily, I pushed off the floor enough that I could see over the bed. The door to my room was wide open and beyond that, the parking lot was dark. If I wanted to survive this, I had to run. No more fighting. 

 

I scrambled over the corner of the bed and managed to find my feet back on the floor, back on the rough carpet. I didn't get very far. A hand snatched me by the hair, fingers twisted at the damp strands so hard I could almost hear them rip out if my scalp. I cried out as the guy wrenched me back and tossed me back onto the mattress. Even through my hazy vision and tears burning the corner of my eyelids, I got a good look at him. 

 

He was the same guy that had been leering at me in the van that day Joker had snatched me from the alley. Seeing him now, so close and with his gaze still lecherous across me, I felt sick. Before I could try to make another run for it, he turned the shotgun in his arms around and pointed it right at my face. 

 

"Don't make me decorate this room with your brains. Because I will."

 

I nodded. I believed him. 

 

He took one hand away from the barrel of the gun and reached into his jacket pocket, pulling out a cell phone. In the corner directly behind him, the guy I had stabbed was glaring at me. He was sitting, kind of wedged really, between the wall and the television stand. The front of his pants was soaked with blood and it was starting to drip onto the carpet. 

 

"Get in here," the guy with the gun said into the phone. "She stabbed Kenny." 

 

Without another word, he ended the call and returned his hand to the gun. My eyes moved from the barrel to his face and out of the corner of my eye, I could still see the parking lot beyond the door. Someone had to be out there. They'd see this happening and they would come to help me. 

 

The guy stepped closer to me, pressing the cold metal of the gun to my forehead. I squeezed my eyes shut tight and tried to keep myself from fainting out of terror. It was strange how much different I felt with these two men than I did when it was just the Joker and I alone. As horrified as I had been to be alone with him, this felt worse somehow. I didn't understand it and the thought, mixed with the feel of the metal on my skin and the sounds from the guy still wedged between the wall and television stand made me feel sick to my stomach. 

 

If they kept me like this for much longer, I was going to throw up all the vending machine snacks I had forced myself to eat earlier. 

 

"What the fuck happened?" An all new voice sounded from the doorway and I opened my eyes with a sharp gasp. The shotgun fell away from my face and my body trembled hard as it desperately tried to relax. The new guy coming into the room looked pissed, a bit surprised, and he pointed a finger at the man who had put the gun to my head. "This was supposed to be simple. Grab the girl and get the hell out!"

 

"How was I supposed to know she had a knife?"

 

They both turned to face the guy, now white as a ghost and shaking as well, before the new guy turned to me. He pocketed his gun and reached down to snatch me by the elbow. I lifted off the bed and the room swam around me. The dizziness was still lingering in my head after being hit and it did little to help the roll of sickness through my stomach. 

 

"Get him. We'll deal with that after we deliver the package."

 

Package?

 

Was that me?

 

The guy brought both of my hands behind my back to tie them together and the force of it sent pain shooting up my shoulder. My bones weren't used to these angles and no matter how much I tried to wrench free of his grasp, he held tight. Before he could move me toward the open door, a strip of fabric fell over my face and caught right between my lips. It was tied tight around my head and a sob bubbled up from my chest.

 

With no time to adjust to the sudden intrusions in my mouth and around my wrists, he shoved me out the door and across the narrow lot where a van sat waiting. The windows were blacked out and whatever logo had once been painted on the side was scrubbed away. The door slid open and my eyes went wide, terror gripping me by the spine and squeezing me tightly. I was expecting to see that painted, scarred face waiting for me inside the van, but it was empty. 

 

The guy at my back shoved me headfirst into the van and I slid across the dingy, metal floor until I toppled over onto my side right behind the driver's seat. Behind me, they dumped the wounded guy and all crawled in before sliding the door shut. The lights from the motel and parking lot were blocked and for a moment, I stared into the darkness. 

 

I felt the guy crawl over my legs to find the driver's seat and a moment later, the engine came to life. The van peeled out of the spot with a quick squeal of tires and the guy I had stabbed gave a sharp hiss of pain. 

 

"Can you at least try not to drive like an asshole?" 

 

"We're already late," the driver snapped, taking a left sharply and sending me sliding to the opposite side of the van. "You really wanna keep Joker waiting?"

 

The sound of his name made an involuntary groan rise from my chest and I quickly tried to swallow it down. I didn't want any of these assholes knowing I was scared or nervous to be back in front of their boss. But it's not like they wouldn't understand. From the way the three of them shut their mouths at that, it was easy to see they felt the same way about him. 

 

How had no one stood up to him yet? How had he not pissed off the right person who could end this?

 

A boot kicked out and hit the side of my leg, making me whip my head around to stare at the two men who were thrown in the back of the van with me. The injured one was still pale and looked to be struggling to keep his bleeding steady. But it was the other one that pulled my attention. 

 

He sat on a toolbox, leaned over with his elbows on his knees and his eyes narrowed into slits, staring right into me. The greasy hair on top of his head was slicked back, making his face appear more snake-like. In the shadows of the van, the angles of his face were too sharp. He definitely looked like a guy I would want to avoid, even in the daylight. 

 

"I remember you," he said. 

 

I wanted to roll my eyes and tell him it hadn't been that long since we had been in a van together the first time and him remembering me wasn’t that much of a feat. The gag around my mouth prevented me from saying anything, leaving me with the only option of glaring at him. He laughed and reached over. I tried to slide away from him but couldn't fast enough. His fingers curled around my ankle and his thumb brushed quick circles on the inside of my leg. My eyes went wide as he slid his hand further up my leg and I hated myself for shaving them. 

 

"Hey!" A voice from the front seat made both of us whirl around to stare at the driver. He was glaring at the greasy guy from the rearview mirror. "You think that's a good idea?" 

 

"Don't see why not."

 

"It'll be your head if you touch Joker's girl, I guarantee."

 

I didn't know what was worse; being called a package or them referring to me as his girl . What the hell did that mean? Did he... like me? Did he talk about me like that to his men? 

 

If anything, I was thankful that the driver's threats seem to work. The greasy guy pulled his hand away from me and I pulled my legs as close as I could to myself. Still, I never took my eyes off the guy. If he tried to touch me again, I'd kick him. I doubt it would do much good seeing as how I was completely barefoot and he was much larger than I was, but the thought of him touching me again disgusted me.

 

All too soon, the van lurched to a stop and I slid along the floor until my shoulder slammed into the back of the driver's seat. I was barely able to sit up before a pair of hands grabbed my elbows and hauled me backward out of the van. My heels hit the concrete hard and I winced as the guy behind me help me up until I could stand on my own.

 

I blinked and took a look around at my surroundings. We had stopped inside a garage, possibly underground judging by the echo that the slamming doors made. It was empty aside from two other vans and an SUV parked a few spaces down. For some reason, I knew he was in one of those vehicles. I could just feel it deep inside my bones.

 

I could practically feel him already staring at me and no matter how much I tried to dig my heels in the grease-stained concrete, the man at my back pulled me along. Once we stopped near the other van, two other guys stepped out. They were both armed and they nodded to the van we had just left. 

 

"Kenny's hurt bad. She managed to stab him in the thigh." I didn't like how proud I felt about that. "He's bleeding out." 

 

One of the new guys nodded and took over, looping his hand around my elbow to drag me toward the SUV. Even though the windows were tinted impossibly dark, I stared into them and could practically feel his eyes watching me as we drew closer. They followed me, bore into me and watched as the guy opened the door with one hand and shoved me forward with the other.

 

I managed to stumble into the backseat without falling into the lap of the man already sitting inside. The sight of his garish, purple pinstripe suit made me recoil against the window and I lifted my head to stare at him once and for all. 

 

So, he'd found me after all. No amount of preparation and hiding and planning had saved me in the end. And judging by the look on his face, he wasn't exactly pleased with what I had done. 

 

The makeup was just as haphazardly applied to his face as always, with the black circling his eyes and making them look twice as dark. He smacked his lips and without signaling to the driver, the SUV pulled out of the space and left the others behind. I turned to stare out the window, watching several men pull the injured guy out of the back of the van. As fucked up as what he was involved in was, I didn't want him to die. Not just because I didn't want it hanging over my head, but I genuinely didn't believe I deserved to be the one to take his life. Or anyone else's for that matter.

 

With another smack of his lips, I turned back to face Joker and swallowed the saliva pooling up in my mouth behind the gag. It was uncomfortable and the taste of the fabric was starting to dry my tongue out. He was still staring at me in the same way; eyes slightly narrowed, disappointment written quite clearly across his face. He reached over and slipped a single gloved finger between my cheek and the gag around my face. It pulled free and I winced from the sting on my jaw from where I had been hit. 

 

Joker noticed it as well and brushed his thumb across it before shrugging as if I had gotten what I deserved for trying to run from him. I waited for a few breaths for him to say something to me, for him to say something twisted that would make my blood curl, but he remained quiet. All he did was stare through the windshield of the car, swaying this way and that with each turn of the wheel.

 

A few times I noticed him suck his bottom lip into his mouth before licking the corners. I knew he could feel me staring at him, though he didn’t react to me at all. Was this what he wanted me for? To sit beside him and take a drive around the city? 

 

With a roll of my eyes, I turned away from him and faced the window. It wasn’t exactly comfortable with my arms still tied behind my back, but I wasn’t about to ask him to help me out. I didn’t want him to think I needed him at all. 

 

Why the hell was he so quiet? All the other times we had seen one another, I couldn’t shut him up. And now he was doing this. It was maddening and if he was trying to be annoying, he was succeeding. I opened my mouth and turned to face him, wanting nothing more than to tell him that I wish it had been him to walk into that motel room first. I wish he had been the one to face my wrath instead of the random henchman.

 

But I didn’t say any of it. I snapped my lips shut again and turned away. He wouldn’t have reacted anyway. This apparently was the game he was playing tonight, trying to coax me out of my terror and into anger so that he could lash out at me properly. Well, I wasn’t falling for it. He wasn’t going to corner me again, wasn’t going to get the upper hand this time.

 

I was tired of being his little pawn, his package to whisk me around the city at his convenience. At this point, my sanity was to the brink of collapsing and if he planned to kill me...well, I was willing to accept that. Having him attack me was better than this.

 

Even the two men in the front seat of the SUV were silent. There were no directions, no instructions. Just quiet driving through parts of Gotham I had never been before. The streets on this side of town were a little dingy than the streets I frequented. Trash piled up on the corners, overflowing in the cans, and the buildings all looked a little worse for wear.

 

We weren’t in the Narrows yet, but we were close. I had never been before. I had always been told to avoid it if possible and with my lack of funds and friends, I never had a reason. After what had happened last year, I didn’t exactly want a reason to cross into this part of Gotham. 

 

The SUV took a left and a few liquor stores were open ahead and a small Italian bistro sat on the corner to the left. I was surprised when we pulled to a stop outside of it. My eyes widened at the place. It looked old as if it had been in business for several decades. There was a neon ‘open’ sign in the front window and I could see red and white checkered tablecloths covering the tables inside.

 

Wait.

 

So, this was an actual date?

 

I slowly pulled my attention away from the window to face Joker again and sucked in a breath once I did. He was no longer looking out the windshield. His dark gaze was focused on me and in the shadows of the car, the sight of his face was...I didn’t know how to describe it. Frightening, yes, but there was something else, something strange in the way he was looking at me. It made me swallow tightly and whatever question that I had been wanting to ask him completely slipped out of my mind. 

 

My mouth had gone dry as if I were still gagging on the strip of fabric, and I was so caught up in the look in his eyes that I didn’t notice the headlights pulling up in front of us until it was nearly blinding. The van from the garage, or one exactly like it, stopped beside the curb and I turned to look at it through the windshield. Three men climbed out of it and as if on cue, the two men in the front seat of the SUV did the same. 

 

I waited, expecting the door beside me to open up where I would be yet again, hauled out onto the sidewalk, but while four men walked into the bistro, one stayed behind. Which meant, I was alone with Joker.

 

The feel of leather gloves at my wrists made me start and I glanced over my shoulder. Joker was leaning toward me, making quick work of the knots keeping me bound. My joints were crying out in joy but every muscle in my body had grown tense for an all new reason. The last time he had been this close to me, he was backing me against the wall...and the time before that was when he had pulled me into his lap and I had felt--

 

The knots came free and I quickly pulled my arms around to the front, rubbing at the tender spots across my wrist. I ducked my head but still turned back to face him with warmth flooding my face. “Thank you,” I said quietly, my voice barely a whisper.

 

Before I could look up into his face again, he took me by the hand and pulled me across the seat. I slid easily over the leather and my breath caught in the back of my throat. It was alarming how strong he was. He spun me until my back pressed against him and I could feel how hot he was. His body, not him . And the temperature of his body!

 

He snatched my hand and opened my palm and I blinked down through a thin curtain of my hair to where he had a hold of me. “I just want you to know,” he whispered at my ear, making my eyes shut tight and my skin ripple with chills. “This wasn’t what I wanted. This was what I thought we could avoid, Natalie .” 

 

Fuck .

 

There were no other thoughts aside from that in my head.

 

Something strange met my palm and Joker closed my fingers around it. It was awkward to hold and beneath my middle finger, I could feel a trigger of some kind. It was different that the kind on a gun, which I had only felt because of him. This was more like a button, a switch that I was now squeezing. 

 

When I opened my eyes, I looked down at the device and my brows came together in confusion. It looked like pieces of different electronics pieced together. A wire ran from the trigger beneath my finger to the top of the device and I gasped. Oh, my God

 

It was a detonation device.

 

My hands immediately trembled and I let out a pathetic whimper that didn’t match the self assurance I felt only moments ago on the drive over. Before I could release my hold on it, his hands closed around mine once again and the warmth of his breath blew a few strands of hair over my earlobe, making me duck away. 

 

“Look at me,” he snarled, reaching around to turn my face toward him. I forced my eyes open and blinked up at him. “I gave you a choice and you chose wrong and now I have no other choice but to make you face the consequences. Understand? Of course you do. Now--” he paused again and squeezed his hand around mine again, making me glance down at the device we both held. “ This little contraption isn’t rigged for you, or anyone you know really. Unless you happen to know a sweet old lady and her two grandchildren who are asleep in the building across the street.”

 

“Please don’t do this.”

 

“Begging again? Oh, Natalie,” the sound of my name filled his mouth and I felt a shudder roll down my body. “If only you knew how much I liked that.”

 

He leaned around me and pulled the handle, making the door pop open. With my hand still gripped in his, he shoved me forward until we were both standing on the sidewalk. The man who had stayed behind shut the door behind me and Joker spun me around to face him. By now the trembling had spread through the rest of my body and my knees were practically liquid by now. 

 

“Now,” Joker smacked his lips and I caught sight of his tongue. “I’m sure I don’t have to explain to you what happens if you let go of that button, correct?”

 

I stared at him, wishing I could think of something brave to say. I wished I could try to fight. In the end, he wasn’t feeling patient enough to wait for me to build up the courage. His fingers snapped in front of my face and I jumped, closing my eyes as my head nodded quickly.

 

“Good. You like Italian?” He asked, leaning toward me with a smile stretching his crooked scars. Again, I could only nod and he let go of my hand that still held onto the device. My fingers, cold now from the sudden absence of his warmth, remained squeezed around it and I felt tears burning the corner of my eyes. 

 

At my back, he placed his hand along the line where my shorts were resting and with a gentle push, I stepped toward the restaurant. Beyond the windows I could see the other men who had gone on ahead of us. They were armed and pointing their guns at someone sitting at a table in the center of the dining area. 

 

Apparently Joker liked to kill two birds with one stone when he took a girl out, mixing business with pleasure. I just hated that I had found myself caught up in one of those things and I didn’t know which was worse. 

 

But I had a feeling he was going to show me tonight.

 


 

Chapter Text


 

I'm uncontrollable, emotional, chaotically proportional
I'm visceral, reloadable
I'm crazy


 

It’s a strange feeling, seeing your life flash before your eyes. And it’s especially strange when it happens in a way that lets you see exactly what you did wrong to lead you to the fucked up place that you’d find yourself in currently. Which was what happened to me as I was led into the quaint little bistro that, under any other circumstance, would have been quite charming. 

 

The tables were covered in red and white checkered tablecloths and the chairs were red vinyl with a metal back. Totally cliche but it worked. Very old school Gotham and despite the fact that I was still clutching a detonation device rigged to blow the building across the street, I found thinking about the decor was much easier. 

 

My life hadn’t yet flashed before my eyes but I couldn’t help but think back to the last day I had worked a proper, full-time job. It was a secretary position at a Construction company that handled several accounts throughout the state. The men I worked for were chauvinistic, the construction workers constantly harassed me for dates, and the pay was absolute shit. I had happily handed in my two-week notice and walked out with my head held high on my last day.

 

What an idiot I had been. 

 

That was the single stupid decision that led me here. I had met Abby through that job when she worked as a temp in our sister location downtown. We had both toasted one another leaving that job behind and laughed. We had laughed, saying we might not have jobs, but we would never have to face something as shitty as that job.

 

How could I have known this would be what that decision would lead to? How was I supposed to know that several months after slapping my two-week notice on my boss’ desk that I would be caught up in the Joker’s schemes, that I’d have his hand at my back as he walked us into that little Italian bistro as if we were on our first date? God, in a fucked up way, we kind of were.

 

I didn’t know how to actually feel about that and before I had time to think anything, I finally noticed the man sitting at one of the tables near the back of the dining area. His lip was split with a drop of blood hanging out of it and the look in his eye as he watched Joker step near was murderous. My eyes darted to the men standing guard near the kitchen door, their guns held against their chest in a display of intimidation.

 

Sitting in a chair behind the man with the busted lip was a woman. The look on her face was a mix of worry, panic, and what a small animal would look like if it were being cornered. She wanted to run. I felt the exact same way and wondered if my face mirrored hers. 

 

Beside me, a chair pulled away from the table, the legs scraping noisily over the floor and I jumped. My finger twitched but didn’t lift up from the trigger in my palm. I squeezed as if my life depended on it and knowing Joker, it very well could.

 

He had told me it would trigger in the building across the street, killing innocent people, but could I really believe a guy who kidnapped me out of my hotel room while I was trying to hide from him? 

 

His hand moved from my back to my elbow and he quickly pulled until I was sitting in the chair. The vinyl seat was cold against the back of my legs and for a brief moment, it stole my breath away. From my new position, I was facing the woman but she didn’t look at me. Her eyes darted from the man still seething quietly at my left to Joker who took a moment to unbutton his suit jacket before taking a seat. Despite the dim lighting, I could see just how dilated her pupils were and I felt my eyebrows lift.

 

She was high. 

 

I had never smoked, snorted, or taken anything more than the occasional anxiety pill or a little bit of weed and now, I never would. Even if I lived through this, the woman across from me, stuck between her high and the situation she’d found herself in, was a walking after-school PSA about the dangers of doing drugs. 

 

How bizarre that commercial would be. ‘This is your brain...and this is your brain after smoking crack and accidentally finding yourself in the presence of a domestic terrorist wearing clown face.’

 

“Well, well, well,” the voice jerked me out of my thoughts and I squeezed my fingers tighter around the device. “Isn’t this a cozy situation we’ve found ourselves in.” 

 

Joker unbuttoned the jacket of his suit and pushed it back as he lowered himself into the chair next to mine. The woman’s eyes darted back and forth between him and the man with the busted lip and I wondered if she had even noticed me yet. When it was clear that neither of them was going to speak, Joker smacked his lips and leaned forward to lay his arms over the table.

 

“I suppose I should introduce myself--”

 

“I know who you are,” the man said, making me turn my head to look at him. The look on his face hadn’t shifted at all and I knew if he had the chance, he was going to try to kill Joker. And possibly me as well. Hopefully, he would see that I’m just an innocent bystander in all of this.  

 

“Oh.” There was so much humor in that little one-syllable word that it made me cut my eyes back to Joker. I wasn’t surprised to find him smiling. He lifted his eyebrows and sat back in the chair. “I’m flattered. But I, unfortunately, cannot say the same for you. Which strikes me as odd, seeing as how you’ve taken quite the interest in my work.”

 

The man snorted and reached up to wipe the drop of blood from his chin. “Your work,” he repeated with a shake of his head. “I’m not interested in your work .”

 

“I heard through the grapevine that you’ve got some big --” Joker held both of his hands out, mimicking an explosion and my fingers tightened over the trigger. “--ideas for improvements. Did I hear right?”

 

When silence was his answer, Joker sighed and leaned forward, glancing at the woman sitting there, chewing her cracked fingernails down to the quick. I could see his eyes skate down her body and I glanced to do the same, taking in the sight of her mini skirt and fishnet stockings for the first time. I didn’t want to be too judgemental but my first thought was that she was a prostitute. 

 

“Listen, Nico,” Joker said with a quick flick of his tongue, finally pulling his eyes away from her to find the man once again. “I’m a reasonable guy.” I quickly swallowed back my scoff and ducked my head to avoid the look he sent my way. “Some people may not think so, but I am. If you’ve got suggestions to make things run a bit more smoothly, then I want to hear them. That’s what you’ve been telling your little pal Sal, isn’t it?”

 

“Sal is my cousin. He’s family.” I looked up at the man. “You think I’m gonna sit by and let him ruin everything he’s built because of some fucking clown? No. Fuck you .”

 

This time, the silence that stretched through the room was full of tension and I could practically feel the heat of it rolling off Joker. It made sweat build between my legs and the vinyl seat beneath me and I shifted uncomfortably. Across the table from me, the woman was bouncing her leg and her eyes were wide and on me. I looked away from her and found myself turning to Joker. Slowly, his mouth spread into a smile that in no way reflected the look of fury burning across his eyes. 

 

“You know, I never had much of a family. Always fighting, always screaming and violent. So forgive me if I don’t understand this little blood bond between you and Sal. Especially considering the both of you aren’t exactly saints --”

 

Nico let out a short laugh. “The Maroni’s don’t fuck each other over. So whatever you plan to do to me, why don’t you just get it over with. You kill me and Sal is out.”

 

“I respect that.” Joker nodded and wagged his finger at him, leaning forward. “I admire a man who can act bravely in the face of his own violent death. But you see, what I don’t admire, is people scheming behind my back. So, before you die, I want you to tell me exactly what you told our dear, old Sally .”

 

“Fuck you.”

 

That’s what you told him?” Joker scoffed and turned to look at me with an amused look on his face as his tongue flicked along the corner of his lips. He smirked and for some unknown reason that I will never be able to fathom, the muscles in my face twitched to return the smile. I quickly pursed my lips to keep them from curling up and he faced Nico once more. He opened his mouth to make another sarcastic remark but never had the chance.

 

In a flash, Nico shoved the table toward the Joker and I quickly slid my chair away as the two men jumped to their feet. I held the device close to my chest and was surprised by how agile Joker could be in all the layers of his suit. He was out of his chair, kicking it back with his heel while steering the table to the side away from us. 

 

The two men standing guard rushed forward and in the few split seconds he had, he pulled out a switchblade from the inside of his sock. The short blade was buried into the neck of one of the gunmen before I could even see it coming and the sight of the blood had the prostitute screaming. 

 

She scrambled over to another table and I looked to the door behind us. It wouldn’t take long to reach it. I could be out and running away in a matter of seconds. Sure, I would have to fight through the men waiting outside but I should at least try.

 

With a thud, Nico let out a grunt and he hit the floor at my feet, pulling my attention back to the fight. The prostitute was still screaming, blood was still pouring out of the guy’s neck, and I was still just standing there, frozen to the spot and helpless to do anything at all. Joker shook his head and moved to where Nico now laid on the tile. He had a new cut along his eyebrow from where the guard had knocked the butt of his gun into his head, but he was already starting to sit up.

 

“Hey!” The guard yelled, turning to the woman who had cornered herself into one of the booths. “Shut up!”

 

Joker lowered himself into a squat and slapped Nico’s jaws a few times, making the man glare up at him. He let out a short, peal of laughter. “You really think that was gonna work? Where were you going to go, hmm?” 

 

My throat clenched as those words echoed through my head. It was almost the same thing he had told me once when he had cornered me in my apartment. Even now, a week later, I could practically feel the warmth of his breath against the back of my ear as he said it. Goosebumps rolled down my arms and legs and I watched him stand back up. 

 

The guard scooped Nico off the floor and shoved him toward another one of the tables. He barely managed to catch himself and slid into one of the chairs. Joker paused to look at the gunman laying on the floor, blood pulsing out of his neck around the blade still jammed in his flesh. It was clear by the pallor of his face that he wasn’t going to make it. He was already sputtering and gasping for breath and without a second glance back, Joker moved to the new table where Nico sat.

 

He snapped his fingers at me and curled them. I wanted to be annoyed that he was calling me like a dog, but my feet were already carrying me across the tiles. I lowered myself back into the chair and started to look at Nico. The hand suddenly on my knee, however, made me turn the opposite way. 

 

I could feel the heat of his skin through his gloves and it immediately stole my breath away. My lips parted and I let my head fall forward so I could stare down at his hand. It wasn’t the first time he had touched me. Hell, his hands had been in more intimate places than this before but this was different. This was a gentle touch, reassuring almost as if to comfort me and it conflicted with all of the vile, horrible things he had done not only to me but anyone else who had ever come in contact with him.

 

I hated it. 

 

No.

 

I hated that I didn’t

 

“It seems,” Joker said, pulling my attention to his face. I found him staring at me out of the corner of his eye and the look he was giving me did little to help me find my breath once more. He looked away from me and took his hand away all at once and I felt the air rush back into my lungs. “We all got off on the wrong foot, so why don’t we try this again, hmm? I’d like you to meet Natalie.”

 

My eyes widened and I glanced at Nico, catching his eyes as they darted to meet mine. It was the first time he had even acknowledged me and the sudden attention on me had my stomach twisting into a dozen knots. 

 

Joker moved his hand to my chair and he pulled me closer to him. The sound of the legs scraping over the tiles made me flinch and a moment later, he gripped my wrist and lowered my hand to the table. “She’s got a little something special in her hands, right here. Do you know what it is?”

 

Nico didn’t answer but he looked down at the device I held. 

 

“I’ll assume you’ve got an idea. Now,” he smacked his lips and turned to look back at the front windows of the building, draping one arm over the back of his chair. “This neighborhood has been in your family for generations. There’s a Maroni parked in every building along this street and if I’m not mistaken, that one, right there --” He pointed to the one across the street and turned back to face Nico with a grin. “Is rather important to you, hmm?”

 

Fuck you .”

 

“So you’ve said before.” Joker turned to face the table and once again, took my wrist in his hands. “You can either die knowing your two daughters and mother are safe and sound in their beds right now, while their father chose to-- ahem -- partake in a little late night fun.” He gestured to the prostitute still sitting in the booth and she flinched. “Or, you can die while watching them blow into the sky.”

 

I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe.

 

This was monstrous. He wouldn’t-- couldn’t --be serious right now. Not even he was that heartless, was he? With wide eyes, I watched him hook a finger around my pinky and pry it away from the device. “No!” I tried to wrench my hand away but he held on tight.

 

One little piggie,” Joker said with a laugh that would haunt me for the rest of my life. His finger hooked around another one of mine and I struggled away from him again. 

 

“Nico, just tell him!” The prostitute cried, pulling herself to the edge of the booth. 

 

My ring finger was pulled away from the device and held down by Joker’s strong grip. He laughed again, making me shut my eyes tight. “ Two little piggies!”

 

“Are you fucking kidding me?” I turned to Nico and stared in disbelief. A father shouldn’t have even let it get this far! What kind of a monster was he ? “Tell him what he wants to know!”

 

My middle finger slipped off the trigger easier than the last two. Sweat had already started to build along the inside of my palm and I wouldn’t be able to hold on much longer. Not when he was somehow so strong. It was only my first finger left around the trigger and I could not be the only one standing between three innocent lives ending. “ Three little piggies.”

 

Tears stung the back of my eyes and I gave up on trying to convince Nico to do the right thing. I looked up into the smeared, painted face beside me. He wasn’t looking at me. His eyes were narrowed and dark as they looked to the man across the table from him and I shook my head. “Please, don’t do this. They’re just kids! They don’t deserve this!”

 

To answer me, he curled his finger around my last remaining one and I let out a sob that made my entire chest ache. It felt as if my heart were caving in, pulling all of the air from my lungs. I sucked in a breath but it did little to ease the burn. 

 

Across from me, the woman hurried to the table and slapped her hand across Nico’s face. He turned away but never spoke. He didn’t have to. She faced Joker and lowered herself onto her knees, reaching to where our hands were still joined. She pulled at his wrist but it didn’t budge away from mine. “He told me their plan! They were gonna set you up!”

 

“Lauren, shut up! ” Nico found his voice once more but there was no stopping her now. She shook her head and scrambled away from his hands swiping at her. 

 

“At the docks, him and Sal. They were schemin' to ambush you, to kill you and take your share of the money!”

 

The tears I had been trying to hold back spilled over my eyelids and fell in fat drops down my cheeks as I blinked at her. Joker moved his eyes from Lauren’s face back to Nico and with a slow smile, his finger fell away from mine and I squeezed the trigger as hard as I could. A breath of relief left my lungs but the ache hadn’t lifted from my chest just yet. 

 

“Now, was that so hard?” He asked quietly, pulling me by the wrist once more. He tugged one of the wires connected to the top of the device and wrenched the whole thing out of my hand. I braced myself anyway, just in case he was lying and would blow the building up anyway. The explosion never came and I let out a trembling breath, my shoulders relaxing a bit.

 

My fingers were aching from being squeezed so tightly around the device for so long and I flexed them as I sat back in the chair. Lauren the prostitute let out a sob and fell back onto the floor, bringing her trembling hands to rake through her bleached hair. Joker and Nico, however, were still locked in a glare and I swallowed as I looked between them. 

 

I had never seen the look on his face before. It was terrifying. A completely new level of terrifying that I didn’t know could be reached. It made me shift in my chair and I watched as he licked his lips slowly, the red of his tongue so dark compared to the smear of red across his mouth. 

 

“I’m a man of my word,” he said, his voice deep and gravely. I swallowed tightly, knowing nothing good ever came after hearing him speak like that. 

 

Time slowed and I could hear each beat of my heart through my ears as I turned to face Nico once more. He was still glaring at the man across from him, his face twisted in fury but it was the man behind him that drew my attention. The last gunmen left standing behind the table we all sat around stepped forward. I watched him draw a pistol out from the holster at his side and my lips parted as he aimed it right at the back of Nico’s head. I never got a chance to warn him.

 

The shot was louder than anything I’d ever heard before and my entire body jumped. A hole erupted from right above Nico’s ear and I felt the warm splatters of his blood spray across the left side of my face. He slumped over and hit the ground beside my chair and I stared down at the puddle of blood forming a halo around his head. 

 

Lauren was screaming again and I could slowly hear it behind the ringing still left in my ears. The gunman turned toward her and I blinked down at the blood splatters across my body. It stained the T-shirt I wore and a few flecks had landed on my legs. I wanted to scream as loudly as Lauren, wanted to run as far away as I could, wanted to hide and cower away. But I couldn’t do anything except sit there and stare down at the mess Nico’s blood had made on me.

 

A gloved hand curled around my elbow and pulled me to my feet, turning me so I was now staring at the hexagonal pattern on Joker’s shirt collar. He lifted something to my face but I closed my eyes before I could see what it was. The feel of one of the cloth napkins dragging across my jaw wasn’t exactly what I expected. 

 

Slowly, I opened my eyes and spotted the guard dragging Nico’s body toward the other one laying at the back of the dining room. I couldn’t help wondering what they were going to do with the bodies--possibly dump them at the docks? When my eyes moved back up to meet Joker’s, the guard was moving toward Lauren. She was still cowering against the booth, halfway between hyperventilating and fainting altogether. 

 

“Don’t kill her,” I said quietly, making his eyebrows lift in surprise. He turned to glance over his shoulder before facing me once again. “Please?”

 

He made a humming sound in the back of his throat and abandoned his attempt to clean the blood from my face. He tossed the napkin onto the table and reached up to brush his thumb across my cheek. I wasn’t exactly sure how , but despite the prostitute, the gunman, and the two dead bodies lying on the floor, it felt as if he and I were the only two people in the room. Hell, possibly the world at that moment.

 

It felt so similar to the very first time I had seen him, standing in Bruce Wayne’s penthouse, watching him brush drops of champagne away from my face. I felt just as scared now as I had then, possibly more so, and he smelled exactly the same, penetrating my senses and not leaving much room to smell much else. So much was different though. I wasn’t afraid of him possibly killing me. That fear wasn’t gone, of course; it was always in the back of my head, but now…

 

I was more afraid of him kissing me. 

 

And I was terrified of the realization that in some cosmically fucked up way...I wanted him to. In the last hour, I had been dragged out of my hotel room, thrown into the back of a van, scared half to death, and had nearly been an accomplice to the murder of three innocent people all because of one person. This man standing before me, his hand wiping away drops of blood from the man he had murdered, was the sole reason behind all of the terror I had been through and yet…I found myself glancing at his lips, wondering what it would feel like.

 

Before anything could happen, thankfully, Joker turned on his heel and clucked his tongue, making the gunmen stop moving toward Lauren. She was peeking up at him through the spaces between her fingers and he raised an eyebrow to his boss. 

 

“I suppose, even a whore has her uses.” He gave her a tight-lipped smile before taking my wrist once more and pulling me to the door. I didn’t know exactly if that meant he wasn’t going to kill her or not, but with a glance back at the dining room, I was glad to see the gunman sigh and secure his pistol at his side once more. 

 

Back out into the night, Joker paused at the top of the steps leading into the bistro and took a deep breath. He curled his lip, as if he were disappointed in the lack of smoke and ash on the fresh air, and turned his face to me as his tongue traced his top lip. “Shall we?”

 

“Shall we...what?” The tremor in my voice was frustrating, but I was still in too much shock to care.

 

Joker took a step down and I followed him on autopilot, watching the two men waiting by the curb move toward the front doors of the SUV we had arrived in. As the back opened for me and Joker stepped aside to let me in, I glanced up at him with a frown. 

 

Apparently, our evening wasn’t over just yet. 

 

He pulled me closer to him, the heat of his body radiating down my side, and as he brushed the hair from my face, he leaned toward me. His breath on the shell of my ear made me gasp and I reached out to grip the door beside me to keep my legs from giving out. “You and I have some unfinished business.” 

 

I swallowed the whimper that threatened to escape my mouth and slowly climbed into the back seat. Running away was impossible now. I may as well accept my fate, watch my pathetic life flicker before my eyes, and let whatever was going to happen, happen. 

 

The door shut behind him and I let my head fall back against the seat, half out of frustration and half from exhaustion. I stared out of the dark tinted windows and watched the street lamps pass by. I focused on the lights, counting them as we drove by. Focusing on anything else, on the look of Nico’s eyes going blank and lifeless would have been too much for me to handle right now. I was still having trouble forgetting Lauren’s screaming or the multiple tense moments I had somehow lived through the past hour.

 

And just as surprising as it had been in the restaurant, the feel of Joker’s hand on my knee snapped me from my thoughts and I lifted my head. His hand was resting there, just above my knee as if I were a part of the seat that he had let his hand fall onto. Neither of us moved, stuck in the sudden limbo of what he was doing and I blinked a few times to make sure I wasn't imagining it. He curled his fingers a bit, digging them into the flesh on the inside of my leg and while I didn’t want to look away, I could feel him staring at me. As exhausted and as confused as I was at that moment, I needed to see the look in his eyes. 

 

Swallowing down my fear, I turned and looked up at him and if I had any breath in my lungs at that moment, it would have left me in a single puff of air. He was staring at me like he wanted to devour me. There was a hunger in his gaze that I had never seen on a person and it terrified me. It was the only thing that filled his dark eyes, pushing back all of the chaotic evil I usually saw there. And somehow, this was worse.

 

I felt as if I were shrinking beneath his gaze, entranced by it, sucked into the pull of it and I wouldn't escape no matter how much I tried. When his hand slid higher up my thigh, my lips parted in a quick exhale that drew his attention down to my mouth. How was it possible that even through leather, I could feel the warmth of his palm? It left me feeling feverish and sweat was already starting to make my shirt stick to the small of my back.

 

All this time, I had wondered if he wanted to kill me or fuck me, and now that I was finding the answer, I wasn’t sure it was the one I preferred. 

 

His fingers squeezed around my thigh and I sucked in a sharp breath. My body betrayed the disgust I wish I felt. I was angry with myself for how easily I gave into this. I let my head fall back once again and stared up at the ceiling of the car, watching the passing street lights momentarily light the interior before fading away. My own hands dug into the leather seat beneath me and I pursed my lips, turning away from him.

 

I couldn’t like this. I couldn’t want this--whatever it was. Maybe it was a strange symptom of shock, I didn't know. All I knew was it was wrong and exactly what he wanted from me and the last thing I wanted was to give into him. But god it was disturbing how good it felt to be touched like this by him. It had been a while since I had been touched by anyone but even then, it didn't have this level of intensity. I shouldn’t be acting like this though. It was wrong on every single level! He had murdered people, nearly murdered children, and he would more than likely kill me as well and I was giving into him like some wanton whore.

 

I was disgusted with myself. 

 

Mustering up the last ounce of courage and energy I could, I shoved his hand away and slid as far as I could against the opposite side of the car. I refused to look at him this time. I didn’t care what I’d find behind his gaze. I didn’t want to see it. 

 

I just wanted to go home. 

 

I wanted to go back to my life before I ever quit that stupid job and found this fucked up path I had stumbled upon. 

 

The familiar sting of tears to the back of my eyelids was annoying. I didn’t want him to have the satisfaction of knowing he caused them. He didn’t really. I did. My stupidity, my failures, my poor decisions, and my fucked up head caused them. And mostly, the fact that there was some part of me that wished he was still touching me caused the tears to slip out and roll down my cheeks. I didn’t bother wiping them away.

 

They wouldn’t be the last tears I cried in his presence tonight.