Part lV

Can't switch this off. Can't crush it. Can't.

Wake up with it, burning me.

Think I'll crack open I want him so much.

Sarah Kane

They stay in and watch TV for the rest of the night. Order takeout. Their little room is starting to feel like home to her, and she's comforted the moment they step inside. She feels safe here, surrounded by all of their things, the memories they've made. The two of them exist within this small space of organized chaos, and she likes it that way. The room is almost never clean, but Taylor knows exactly where everything is anyway.

Even the mussed sheets and their unmade bed bring her a level of comfort she hadn't ever taken the time to consider before now. There's an indentation leftover on their pillows from where their heads had been, and it warms her to see it, to remember the way they had laid together in bed that morning—and every morning—with her spooned inside of him, his warm breath on the back of her neck and his arm curled around her waist, sometimes her chest. She likes that best, she thinks, when his arm is snaked between her breasts. It's especially difficult to slip away from him in the mornings when he's holding her like that, and it is its own little thrill, trying to squirm out of his grip when he's so intent on keeping her close.

Just that morning, she'd begged him to let go through a series of giggles, trying to wriggle free in a way that had made the space between her thighs throb with heat. "Mr. J, please, I have to pee!"

He'd grunted in response, a dismissive sound. She could feel him tighten his hold on her, then the bump of his nose when he skated it through the tendrils of her hair. She giggled because it tickled, but then she felt the mangled flesh of his right cheek against the side of her neck, pressed against the pulse there, and it made her still just to feel it, to feel that ropey, bulging skin against hers.

Mr. J is sitting now with his back to the headboard, long legs stretched out, crossed at the ankle, while Taylor sits Indian-style at the end of the mattress, occasionally glancing back at him, smiling shyly when his eyes stray from the TV to look at her. She can't help always wanting to look at him. She likes to see his reaction to the things they watch together. She doesn't think he realizes sometimes the goofy faces he pulls when he's confused or annoyed by something on TV, but then she'll giggle as she looks at him. When he notices, straightening his face, she'll grin, knowing she's seen this side to him that nobody else ever has.

In the morning they play mini golf at The Pirate's Cove (which Mr. J is really, really bad at) and then they go for a late breakfast—Denny's—and she orders extra whipped cream and rainbow sprinkles for her pancakes. Mr. J is in an especially playful mood, and he takes her by surprise when he grabs her by her upper arm and redirects her before they sit down, makes her sit on the same side of the booth as him, so she's trapped between him and the big glass window. It's different, the first time he's ever done something like this, but she doesn't question it; she feels flattered that he wants to be so close to her, and she tries not to blush as he slides into the seat next to her.

Their booth is tiny, forcing the two of them together, and their hips and thighs touch, something Mr. J seems to pay no mind to, but Taylor is hyperaware of. They play footsies under the table—a game that starts accidentally, at first—but becomes increasingly more competitive and silly as it goes on. It makes her laugh to have their limbs all tangled together, the way Mr. J so aggressively tries to pin her feet to the floor with his own, only stopping when the waitress comes by to take their order—an older, tired looking woman who seems unperturbed by their under-the-table antics—which for some reason makes it even funnier. Mr. J puts on an affected air, his expression shifting into something sober and overly-serious, and Taylor tries not to giggle as he tells the waitress what they'll be having. She manages to hold off her laughter until after the waitress leaves, and then Mr. J goes right back to resuming their game.

A few minutes later, the waitress deposits their drinks, then leaves a set of waxy crayons and one of those coloring sheets with the crossword puzzle and a maze on the back—per Taylor's shy request. Mr. J slips his arm along the back of their booth, leans in close and talks lowly into the shell of her ear as she draws.

Nestled there, in a cozy, sun-lit booth, with the smell of Mr. J's black coffee, the promise of fluffy pancakes, and the soft music playing overhead, she feels safe. Safer than she's felt in a long time.

She scoots a little closer to him, snuggling under the crook of his arm. She can feel his eyes on her drawing as she works, and he leans down low to murmur into the shell of her ear as she shades in the inner lines and whorls of the rose she's sketching—a pink one she had spotted in the flowerbed outside right before they came in.

He says nothing, really. Talks smack about their miniature golf game, which makes her grin, and she listens to him try and explain all the ways in which she won because of beginner's luck, and how he was just having an "off day".

"Maybe I can give you some pointers for next time," she quips, and he says, "Oh, you think so, huh?"

Their back-and-forth ribbing is playful. Fun. But having him so close, and talking so quietly into her ear, it makes her cheeks feel hot and her toes curl inside her sneakers, makes it feel as though they're doing something in public that they shouldn't. Her breath catches every time his lips brush the outer shell of her ear, and it becomes harder to ignore the rush of arousal that pulses through her lower belly with each beat of her heart.

Taylor's drawn a complicated-looking tangle of leafy vines in the naked outer margins of the paper, complete with thorns and all. She turns the paper horizontally to fill in the next margin and add some more roses. With his arm still draped over the back of the booth, he lowers his hand, reaches for one of her French braids and gives it a little tug before looping it around his loose fist. Then he leans closer, and goose bumps flood over her arms and legs when she hears him lick his lips right next to her ear.

"Look at you," he murmurs, "so pretty in your outfit today, aren't you?"

Taylor's crayon strokes slow, heart beating loud and slow as his words sink in. Her mouth goes dry, tongue tangling around a reply that her brain hasn't even had a chance to fully formulate yet. She's not sure why he says it—she's just wearing jean shorts and a tank top—but the compliment thrills her all the same, temporarily lays to rest her mountain of teenage insecurities.

Mr. J thinks she's pretty, and that's all that matters.

It feels like a pool of molten heat between her legs, and she periodically squeezes her thighs together and clenches down, just for the barest hint of friction. Just to feel some relief. She's so worked up, she thinks if he were to slip his hand inside her shorts right then and there, she'd let him. She has to blink away the sudden fantasy: the image of him, arm slung over the back of their booth, his other hand inside her shorts, and his long, warm fingers, slipping and sliding almost leisurely through the soaked lips of her sex, stroking over her clit in a way that has her keening, arching into his touch. He'd lean in close and shush her, remind her that she has to be quiet, they're in public after all, and does she want other people to see? Or maybe you'd like that, wouldn't you? he'd murmur.

She realizes she didn't hear what he just said when her fantasy dissolves, and a moment of silence between them stretches on. She flushes and has to ask him to repeat himself.

So he says it again. Tells her that he might want to go swimming with her later, and she turns to face him, full of hope, and says, "Really?", which draws an affirmative hum from him. She goes back to her drawing, smiling even bigger than before.

After breakfast, they weave through crowded sidewalks lining bustling streets—streets which have been blocked off for a Forth of July parade—and Taylor's heart flutters when Mr. J reaches for her hand, pulls her along behind him as they navigate through the growing crowd. Independence Day isn't technically for three more days, but because it's Saturday, the parade is already in full bloom, and Taylor looks on in excitement.

Motorcycles and souped-up sports cars come rumbling down the street, cruising slow, so that everyone can take in all their polished chrome and sleek paint jobs, the way everything glints underneath the hot bed of the noontime sun. It's a sea of red, white, and blue, with American flags perched from the back of every vehicle. Patriotic-striped bunting sags across the street, strung up from one streetlamp to the other, and everyone around them is similarly dressed, waving miniature flags. Some people even have their faces painted, and Taylor kind of wishes she was one of them.

It smells like gasoline and sun-baked asphalt, French fries soaked in vinegar from where the sidewalk vendors are lined up, and something sweet and sugary, maybe donuts or powdered sugar funnel cakes. Taylor takes it all in with wide eyes, wanting to memorize every detail. She keeps stopping to watch the parade, the big, colorful floats rolling by, each decked in a different theme, interspersed by a marching band and pretty girls in patriotic dresses, dancing and waving to the crowd. A float topped with a trio of circular platforms rolls by, one platform with a trapeze swing, and the other two with a tall, horizontal bar, where two gymnasts in matching star-spangled leotards swing from each one. Her mouth parts in awe as she watches them swing and flip and hold themselves up above the bar on just one hand. She could never do something like that.

The parade pauses periodically to allow the bystanders time to take everything in, and Taylor feels a sudden pang of embarrassment to realize that the marching band is made up of kids her own age, students from a local high school, probably. Seeing them is a potent reminder of all her secret inadequacies, adolescent insecurities she has never overcome. She was never taught to play an instrument in school, or how to do gymnastics, or even how to excel at sports. All she's ever had is this one thing—her art—the one thing that Mr. J said she'd never be very good at.

She watches the marching band with a sort of melancholic longing, maybe regret. It feels like everyone in life has been served such a different hand than her, a better one, and she used to wish—pray, even—for the chance to start over, to go back in time under a different set of circumstances. Things could've been so different for her.

Mr. J's hand tightens around hers, and she cranes her neck to look up at him, where he's watching her closely. He always seems to know when her mind has wandered, when she's somewhere deep within her own thoughts, somewhere she's not supposed to be.

Still, sometimes she wonders what it would be like to actually be able to do that—to start all over, under a new family, with a different name. A new origin story. She could be a Chelsea, or maybe an Allison. She imagines having two parents instead of none, and growing up under one roof. Imagines having love. Stability. The promise of food. What it would feel like to go to bed every night knowing that she was wanted, that she wasn't just an accident, or a waste of space. To know that she wasn't just another burden, or somebody else's problem.

But then she thinks about how she wouldn't have met Mr. J, and a life without him would be unbearable, is practically unthinkable. He's her whole world—he has been, from the very moment they first met—and a life without him is not a life she's interested in living. He's everything. The only thing that will ever matter.

It's impossible to hear over the din of the crowd, the trumpets and cymbals and the drums that seem to resonate inside her, make her belly warble with vibration. Mr. J jerks his head, tugging on her hand, and Taylor follows after him without question. She can tell he's hot from the triangle of sweat that has dampened the back of his dark t-shirt, and as she trails behind him, she becomes momentarily distracted in watching the sharp jut of his shoulder blades moving beneath his shirt. It's just another startling reminder of what he is: muscle and man, sweat and musk. Powerful. Dangerous.

All hers.

She wants to reach out and touch his back, feel the tightness of his muscles there shifting beneath her fingers, the warmth of his skin. She remembers his smattering of half-healed scars and puckered bullet holes, wounds she shamefully wishes she could soothe over with her tongue.

Mr. J pulls her along, winding them through the crowd. They walk several blocks until finally ducking inside a dark arcade. The cool air is an instant relief, and when Taylor looks up, she immediately feels transported. They step onto cushiony, glow-in-the-dark carpet with funky shapes printed all over, and she grins as her eyes trace the strips of neon lights lining the edge of the ceiling and walls—orange and green and aquamarine. It smells like buttery popcorn and stale sweat, and that old, overheated computer smell, like when there's too many electronics plugged into the same outlet or something. She grins as she takes it all in. She's always wanted to go to one of these places as a kid, but never had the opportunity.

In middle school, some of her classmates used to have big birthday parties at arcades like these, and all the kids in her class the next day would be jittery from the party as they talked about it. Wearing and trading their colorful rubber wristbands they had redeemed with all their hard-earned ticket stubs from playing so many arcade games. Showing off their stick-and-press tattoos, debating who was the best at laser tag, all while their bellies were still full of pizza and cake from the night before. Taylor sat at her desk and kept her head down, sketched in her notebook and tried to ignore the hunger pains roiling through her empty belly. She pictured pizza slices and cheeseburgers and a big frosted cake with chocolate icing and rainbow candles. Just once she wanted to be invited to somebody's arcade birthday, even if she didn't have money for games, she knew she could be content to just stand and watch the others play. That wasn't too much to ask, was it?

But now? Now she's smiling so big she feels like her face could split in two. Mr. J follows her around the expanse of the dark, neon-lit room and regularly slips her a generous helping of quarters to feed into the slots of all the game machines, and she's ecstatic. It's all she's ever wanted, fulfilling this middle school fantasy. Maybe she can even find those rubber bracelets she had always wanted when she was little?

Mr. J watches her play games for over an hour, and sometimes he plays, too, like the motorcycle game where they sit side by side on separate imitation Harleys, inside a dark square cube with the curtains drawn shut to make it extra dark. Mr. J keeps crashing his motorcycle into hers, and she laughs so hard she cries.

"Mr. J, be serious!" Tears are streaming down her cheeks—the good kind, for once—shining in the white light that's reflected back at them from the giant screen in front of them.

"I am serious."

They play the game over and over again, and when he's not purposefully trying to crash his bike into hers (or into the crowd of spectators to create a fiery explosion), Taylor realizes that he's actually really good. Like, surprisingly good… like maybe he's owned a motorcycle before.

When he wins the race for the fourth time, Taylor turns to look at him, flushed from the exertion of the game, belly muscles sore from laughing so hard, and full of curiosity.

"How do you do that?"

Mr. J looks at her, then makes a show of peeking around the black curtain-cubicle that surrounds them, like he wants to make sure they're completely alone. When he leans over and hauls her over onto the front of his bike, she squeals in surprise. She hears the clink of coins hitting the bottom of the slot container as he feeds it more quarters, but she's too stunned to talk. He reaches around her to the pad of buttons on the front of the bike, selects 'single-player' and 'speed trial'.

"You have to lean into it," he says, his hot breath on her ear, his chest pressed to her back, his thighs warm and heavy, slotted on either side of hers. He reaches around her to grip the handle bars, and she shivers, planting her hands on the curved portion of the seat in front of her. "Like this."

The game starts, and Mr. J guides their shared motorcycle over smooth blacktop. The setting is different this time, a night level, and he weaves their bike effortlessly through dark city streets—streets that remind her of Gotham. Glittering skyscrapers crowd overhead, and she gasps when they hit a speedbump—it feels so real—but so is the way Mr. J squeezes his thighs around hers, as if to remind her he's still there. He's still in control. She notices the music for the first time, something moody and atmospheric, the raspy voice of a female singer:

Something that you did will destroy me

Something that you said will stay with me

Long after you're dead and gone

Mr. J accelerates as they enter a long, dark tunnel, illuminated along the sides by a blur of soft, orange lights that seem to speed by impossibly fast, as if they were moving too. Taylor thinks the only thing missing in this moment is the feel of the wind, but she can imagine it all the same.

When they exit the tunnel, Mr. J winds them around a tight curve, and he leans his body to the right, the bike tilting with him, and she mirrors his movements.

"See?" His voice sounds directly in the shell of her ear as they shift to the left, and goose bumps erupt over her forearms. "Not so hard, is it?"

He reaches the checkered strip of finish line drawn over the pavement, and the music and the cheer of an invisible crowd swells before fading away. For a moment, neither of them move, not even when the screen turns black, then flashes back to the main menu when no more quarters are put in.

She swallows, shifts back against him. He feels so good behind her, like that.

He releases the handlebars in front of them, drops them to each of her bare thighs instead, right below the hem of her shorts, and gives her thighs a gentle squeeze.

"I think we'll make an expert rider of you yet," he hums. His breath is so hot on her ear, and she turns her head to the side so his lips brush up against it. She stares at his hand on her left thigh, and she feels it when he exhales.

"Would you buy me a motorcycle, Mr. J?"

She feels the vibrations rumbling through his chest when he chuckles. "Not a chance."

She cranes her neck back further, looking at him this time, feigning hurt. "Why not? You don't trust me?"

"I trust you," he assures, arching a brow, daring her to question him. "It's them I don't trust." He jerks his chin, gesturing to the 'start' screen as it spans over a crowd of animated, cheering bystanders sitting in the bleachers.

"Oh," she says, face falling, but only for a moment. "Well, I'd drive so good and so fast, nobody else would even see me," she grins. "I'd practically be invisible!"

He chuckles again, and Taylor feels good for making him laugh. Warmth pools in her belly, and she stares at him from under her eyelashes.

"Invisible, huh?" he asks, and she nods, turning briefly back to look at the screen as it flashes in front of them. He nuzzles into the side of her head before she can turn back around. "Don't want you to be invisible," he murmurs, his nose bumping along the outer ridge of her ear. "Think I'd miss you too much, hm?"

The admission is almost unbearably heady, coming from Mr. J. Her breath leaves her in a slow, quiet shudder, and she hopes he doesn't notice.

"I—I'd miss you too," she says, stupidly. She doesn't know what else to say, only that it's true. She would miss him. Sometimes she misses him when he's still in the same room, like she can never really get close enough to him.

She feels the way his thumbs have started stroking over the skin of her inner thighs, feather-light, and it makes that earlier sensation return to her lower belly again, filling it with liquid heat. Her cunt clenches down on nothing, and she's overcome with the desperate urge to rock her hips, to rub up against the pleather bike seat she's straddling.

The urge is maddening, and filthy, and all she thinks is, God, what is wrong with me? Why does he always make her feel this way? They're not even doing anything.

But his thighs are so big and so warm on either side of hers, and she feels—she feels enveloped by him. And the way he is breathing in her ear, nosing into her hair. She swallows the hard edge of desire that's lodged in her throat, the thick, sharp coating of it almost impossible to get down.

She knows he feels it too; she's felt him, sometimes, during nights where he's laid curled behind her, when he thought she was asleep. She'd felt the hard press of his cock against her underwear, or against whatever pair of flimsy cotton shorts she was wearing. Mr. J always runs hot, but it surprised her to know that that part of anatomy was equally as warm, if not more so, and that when she pretended to be asleep and pushed back against him, she could feel his heat seeping through their layers of clothes. It made her feel powerful to know that she could affect him in that way, but it also filled her with guilt to think that she was leaving him unsatisfied, that they hadn't… done it yet. Had sex.

She knows it's the natural next step in their relationship, that it's something they both want, and she no longer lives in fear of him rejecting her, even if a part of her has wondered why he hasn't just taken it from her, like he has in so many other aspects of her life. But another part of her is glad that he hasn't, like maybe he senses that she isn't quite ready.

Because she is afraid. Afraid of being hurt, afraid of hating it, afraid that she won't be good for him, which terrifies her most of all. If she's not good for him then he won't want her anymore, and if he doesn't want her anymore, she'll have to leave, and if she has to leave then where will she go? She's almost eighteen, now, just on the cusp of aging out of the system. She has no one else to turn to. No one else she can trust. Nowhere to go.

But there are other things, too. Things she wishes she could talk to him about, but doesn't know how to verbalize. How can she tell him that what happened to her—what Nathan and his friends did to her—how can she express to him that it was the most painful thing she's ever experienced in her entire life? How can she tell him that she lives in constant fear of reliving that experience, of feeling that pain again? It's humiliating just to recall the memory of the aftermath. The way she could find no relief in sitting, or standing, or lying down. It hurt everywhere, all of the time. It hurt in places inside her that she didn't know were capable of hurting. It felt like she'd been split in two. And in the days after, how she had cried because she was so hungry, but also too afraid to eat, terrified of her bowels moving, afraid that it would hurt beyond what she could bear. How could she possibly tell him all of that? It was too intimate to share. Too disgusting.

She thinks and dreams about the rape all the time now, especially after whatever Mad Hatter did to her, whatever it was that he gave her… it seems to have made her nightmares so much worse than they already were. In her dreams, only being with Mr. Hatter in Wonderland ever felt good—a discovery she had not yet shared with Mr. J—and now that she knows he's dead, now that Hatter is missing from her dreams entirely, chasing after him is a futile effort, making her dreams feel even more hopeless than before.

Would it anger Mr. J to know that? Would he be upset with her for her inability to excise her own demons?

Taylor climbs off the faux motorcycle on shaky legs and feels a little sick to her stomach. She can feel the weight of Mr. J's eyes on her, but she flashes what she hopes is a convincing smile, and he follows her over to the next game.

She reminds herself that she wants this, that she has wanted it for a very, very long time. She's loved him since she was a little girl, since that day they'd first met, nursing what could only be described as a cotton candy-sweet baby crush, like the way little girls sometimes think that when they're all grown up they're going to marry their daddies. It was so innocent then. He was the first man she'd ever had in her life, the first person who had ever truly taken care of her. Of course she had clung to him. Adored him. Even now she remembers when she used to pretend that they were married, playing 'mommy and daddy' and 'house'; it's hard not to wonder what her younger self would think of her now. This isn't just a schoolgirl crush anymore. This is true love. Fate. Maybe even destiny. She doesn't think she could put a stop to it even if she wanted to. It was just like Mr. J had said, that night on the couch, right before he'd brought her to release, given her pleasure unlike anything she'd ever felt before.

We're not going back after this.

At the time it had thrilled her—she didn't want to go back. She only wanted what he was offering to her right then and there.

But now it's frightening, knowing the safety net is gone. He'd looked at her differently after that—or maybe she was just more aware of his intentions now, in a way she could never have imagined before—and suddenly the game they were playing was a new one, different in a way that made it almost impossible for her to keep up. It felt like there were so many things happening that were beyond her control, like the way he always made her so wet, the way her body almost seemed pre-programmed to respond with arousal from just his sheer proximity. The way her anxiety skyrocketed whenever they were apart, how it was almost physically painful to have to be separated. Or the way she so often needed his touch, had been driven near senseless with desire, but was too afraid, too shy to outright ask him for it.

She knows they're going to have sex. She knows it. But when she glances at him from over her shoulder, looking into his dark, hungry eyes, she just hopes he'll be gentle when they do.

After the arcade, they go sight-seeing, taking their time as they wander up and down the sidewalk, traipsing through little novelty shops and storefronts, whatever catches her eye. The Fourth of July parade has long since dispersed, and all that is left behind in its absence is the leftover trash littering the streets, napkins and streamers and the lids from plastic cups.

Mr. J lets her buy some more things—a sketchbook and some pencils, because it's been a long time since she's drawn anything, and she misses it—and some beach-themed stickers, too; she wants to put them on her art box and maybe stick some to the bathroom mirror when they get home, if Mr. J will let her. She gets a keychain as well, one with a little dolphin on it, and then she finds a coffee mug that says, 'Life's a Beach'. Her favorite purchase is a miniature, stained glass beach scene, with the blue ocean and yellow sand, red and white beach chairs and a green palm tree. As they stand in line at the register, she strokes her fingers over the ridges of the glass, mesmerized. When they get back home to Gotham, she'd like to hang it in the window above their bed, so when she's lying there and the sun is setting, she can watch all the colors scintillate around the room.

Thinking about their bedroom makes her miss Gotham a little bit—but not enough to want to return. Not yet. There's still so much to do here, so many more places to explore, and things to see. Not to mention how nice Mr. J is being to her, all the things he's bought for her and the things he's done; this is the most uninterrupted time they've ever spent together, and she's greedy for more. She goes to sleep at night knowing that he'll be there in the morning, ready to spend the day together, and it fills her with a kind of contentment she's never known. She wants every day to be just like the last one, wants to wake up knowing that he'll be there beside her. She likes rolling over in bed in the early hours of the morning—before the sun's even risen—and burrowing herself into the warmth of his chest, nuzzling into the soft fabric of his shirt, smelling him. She thinks it's instinctual, the way his arms always come up to encircle her, pull her that much closer. Nothing could be better than that, than knowing she's wanted by him, maybe even needed.

When they get back to the motel, Taylor carefully puts away her new things, even though her fingers itch for her pretty new sketchbook, a spiral-bound Strathmore, with that thick paper she likes, the kind that won't tear or bleed when she gets a chance to user her charcoals on it. It's a relatively new medium for her—and a messy one, at that—but she kind of likes the way the charcoals stain her fingers after, and the smell of it on the paper, the way it smudges and smears. There's a lot of room for error, and she thinks she might like that a little, too.

They spend the rest of the afternoon at the pool, and she swims for an hour, maybe two, until her belly starts to growl with hunger. They go back to their room to change, and Taylor takes a brisk shower to wash off the chlorine, humming to herself under the lukewarm spray. It's been a good day. Maybe even one of her favorite days here so far.

After blow-drying her hair, she changes into a pair of jean shorts and a light pink crop top with puff sleeves, puts her hair into matching pigtails at the top of her head, and then loops each one into a messy bun. She spends a little time primping in the mirror once she's finished with her hair. She's gotten really tan during the time they've spent here, and her hair is almost white-blonde from all the time in the sun. She carefully dots a dewy, cherry-colored blush onto her cheeks, tapping it into her skin with her fingers, and then dips a finger into the pod of blush and dabs it on her lips as well, rubbing them together to evenly distribute the color.

Mr. J is sitting on the edge of the bed, waiting for her, when she steps out. She braces her hand on the doorframe as she slips on her white Keds, doesn't miss the appreciative way his eyes sweep over her body, from top to bottom to top again. It makes her cheeks flush to have caught him staring like that, and she smiles shyly at him from over her shoulder as she tugs the back of her shoe up over her heel. He looks handsome, too. She thinks he even combed his hair, and his curls lay neatly underneath the rim of his baseball cap.

"Are you ready to go?" she asks. She crouches to the floor so she can tie her shoe, but he beckons her forward with a jerk of his head.

"C'mere," he says.

She blinks at him. He's staring at her with his head cocked to the side, looking at her so curiously, and she thinks there might be a small smile tugging at the corner of his mouth, like he's amused, or maybe pleased. It makes arousal swell in her belly, to have his attention like that. To feel so seen.

She tries to finish tying her shoe before she goes to him, but he shakes his head.

"Ah, ah, ah," he tsks, "I said, come here."

This time his eyes are dark, full of warning, and Taylor releases her laces, rising from the floor almost cautiously. It feels like times slows, as she pads the short distance across the carpet until she's standing in front of him.

He jerks his chin this time, gesturing to her leg. "Give it here."

Taylor's brows draw together in confusion. "What—?"

He makes a show of rolling his eyes, then reaches forward, cups his hand behind her right knee and lifts her leg until her foot is planted on the bed—right between his spread legs.

She has to do a little hop to regain her balance, and her cheeks flush as she glances between his face and her shoe, the latter of which is nestled precariously close to his crotch.

His hand is around her ankle, holding her leg steady, and he waits for her to settle before he redirects his attention to her shoe, taking up the white laces between his long, dexterous fingers.

She blinks at him, stupefied.

She watches his fingers move, watches him tie a surprisingly neat, tidy bow, tightening the laces until the loops are even on both sides.

It's over as quickly as it began, and he gives the side of her shoe a little pat-pat to indicate that he's done. She starts to lower her leg from the mattress—still a little flushed, especially because of where her foot is—but not before Mr. J's fingers encircle her ankle, a divot forming between his furrowed brows. He slides his palm up and around until he's cupping the back of her ankle, his thumb skirting gently over the protrusion of the outer bone—the malleolus or something. She has a vague memory from her anatomy class during junior year.

His thumb dips into the little hollowed space behind the bone—that spot she always misses when she's shaving—and the skin's more sensitive there. Ticklish. She jerks her leg on instinct, and he smirks at that, fleeting, and then he's leaning forward, inspecting her leg so closely, as if looking for something in particular.

She can only blink at him, watch as his eyes trail over every inch of skin. She notices the way he studies the white, raised, barely-there scar on her shin, given to her when she'd been shoved face-first into the fireplace by a foster mother so coked out that she could barely stand. Taylor had clipped her shin bone on the sharp corner of the brick fireplace, and it took three days for her foster mother to finally bring her to the ER to get stitches, when the gash wouldn't stop bleeding, and eventually became infected. She was eight.

And then there's the intersecting scar on her knee, when she accidentally broke a vase in the living room, and her foster father had made her kneel in the broken shards and clean up every piece of shattered glass with her bare hands. She was six.

And there's the tiny mark on the back of her thigh, a pink circle of semi-healed skin, but there's no memory attached to that one, just the knowledge that she's had it for as long as she can remember. It's practically a birthmark.

She is not without blemish, something of which she's painstakingly aware of.

She studies Mr. J's face, the scars on either side of his mouth. Perhaps there's something special in knowing they both have scar stories, that their bodies are a living memorial to their own battle wounds.

She watches as his eyes trail farther up, pausing when they reach a still-tender bruise above her kneecap. It's taken longer to heal than the others, a putrid shade of yellow that refuses to fade, like it's mocking her or something, her constant reminder of what she's endured. She feels its presence every time she bumps into a piece of furniture, or kneels, or when the water from the showerhead hits it just right, or when an ocean wave splashes over it.

Mr. J leans even closer, hovering over the bruise and looking at it in a way that mystifies her, like her bruise contains all the mysteries within the universe. Still, she doesn't speak, not when the silence stretches on, and not when his hand slides higher, up the back of her calf, and then cups her behind her knee.

He bends her leg at the knee—making her have to hop a step closer, so she doesn't lose her balance and fall—and then he is leaning down, pressing his mouth over the bruise.

It's not a kiss. Not really. Just the warm press of his lips on her skin.

She stares at his closed eyes, the fan of his eyelashes, and she is awe-struck. Mesmerized. What is he thinking right now? What is he feeling?

She exhales when those eyes open, when he rolls them up to meet hers, staring at her from beneath his brows.

His mouth lingers for a long moment before he finally pulls away, and Taylor feels the warm exhale of his breath against her skin when he does.

She blinks at him, dazed, as he releases her leg, lets her lower it back to the floor.

"You—you didn't do the bunny ears," she says, stupidly. For some reason, it's all she can think of to say.

Mr. J's eyebrows rocket skyward.

"The, uh, 'bunny ears'?" He looks at her, and then chuckles. "Should I do it over?"

She takes a step back, vigorously shakes her head. "No, no—that's okay," she squeaks. Her cheeks are burning as she determinedly avoids his eyes, shuffles to the front door. "We should get going."

She can feel Mr. J grinning from behind her when she opens the door. He reaches over her head to pull it open wider, following her out.

"After you."

The next day is spent at the beach.

It's another bright, hot day. All around, Atlantic City is busy preparing for the Fourth of July, only two days from now. She can feel the excitement, the anticipatory buzz that thrums through the city. The beaches have become even more crowded, and it seems like every storefront within a two-mile radius is emblazoned with American flags. On the boardwalk, Taylor is handed what looks like a shimmering, miniature pom-pom on the end of a small plastic stick, given to her by a boardwalk vendor. It's silver and blue, and it glints in the sunlight when she waves it around. She tucks it carefully in her beach bag to take home, another precious souvenir.

She feels a little more on edge than usual from how crowded the beach is, and it only continues to fill up as the day wears on. She sits on her beach towel for a long time with her knees pulled up to her chest, her beach cover-up still on as she chews her nails and studies the busy crowd of beachgoers around her. Mr. J seems as indifferent as ever, though it's hard to tell what he's really thinking since she can't see his eyes from behind the shade of his sunglasses. He doesn't press her though, or ask her what's wrong, even though she's sure he already knows, or at least senses her growing anxiety. She can feel the weight of the sidelong glances he casts her every once and a while, but she pretends she doesn't.

When the heat becomes unbearable, she strips off her cover-up and finally pads through the sand and into the ocean. She wades in up to her knees, then dives beneath an oncoming wave, emerging on the other side with her hair slicked back, legs kicking beneath the water. The shock of the cold feels good on her overheated skin. Refreshing. From the shore, children scream and laugh, and she swims farther out to escape the noise.

When she eventually stops to rest, panting for breath, she spins around and looks back towards the shoreline, surprised to discover she's farther out than she's ever been before, maybe even farther out than most of the other swimmers. The beach is a cornucopia of color, a maze of umbrellas and beach towels and pop-up tents and chairs all clumped together in the sand; she can't even see Mr. J anymore. The realization should be frightening, and it is a little scary—but something about the fear is liberating, too. She turns back towards the horizon and treads water, bobbing along in the waves, watching them gather in the distance as they swell towards her.

When she was little, she used to imagine that the earth was flat, that if someone could just swim far enough, that if they really, really tried, they could reach the edge of it, fall off the map, down an endless waterfall and into some other mystical plane. Another dimension, maybe. It was a fantastical idea—an impossible one—but it comforted her to think there was some other secret place that lie in wait for her, that if she just tried hard enough, she could one day get there, she could escape to the ether. This better place, somewhere where she could feel safe, maybe even wanted.


It's an enticing thought, even now, even knowing that such a place does not and cannot exist. But she still imagines it, tries to visualize herself in a place where she could be allowed to start over; a place where she's a good person who hasn't done terrible things.

She's overcome with emotion suddenly, her thoughts careening towards Nathan at breakneck speed, before she can even comprehend the direction her brain has spun her in. In the dark cavern of her mind, she can still hear the telltale creak of the floorboards when he would move down the hallway towards her room, the only warning she was awarded before the door would be slowly pushed open. Sometimes even now, the creaking of floorboards in the middle of the night—even if she knows it's just Mr. J—makes her heart race and her palms start to sweat.

Back then, whenever she heard those creaking floorboards, she used to try and barricade herself under her covers, as if they could offer her the protection she so desperately sought. She remembers the pitiful sounds of her own whimpering when Nathan would yank down her shorts. Her underwear. Rut between her ass and thighs like a dog, whispering to her what a slut she was, how she was asking for it, that this was all she was good for.

She remembers how she used to believe him.

In the darkness of her bedroom, his voice seemed magnified, like it was coming from inside her own head. She'd hated that darkness, how there was nothing else for her to focus on, no focal point for her to cling to, to take her somewhere else, to relieve her from the moment. The darkness kept her grounded, so that she only had his voice, and the sounds of his body slapping against hers, and his heavy breathing. Sometimes he'd grab her breasts through her shirt, squeezing them so hard she cried, then shame them for being so small. Fucking worthless tits. She'd think about the women in the posters on his wall, their breasts so much bigger than hers, like they'd been filled with helium. Would hers ever grow to be that big? Would she still matter even if they didn't?

And all the times he used to corner her in her room during the middle of the day when no one else was home, or the bathroom, the one place where she should have been allowed a modicum of privacy. That time he had made her strip and kneel on the bathroom rug, how shameful it felt to be naked in front of him. When he'd slapped her face, then grabbed her chin in his hand and made her look at him as he fisted his cock, made her look until he came all over her face and chest. And in the shower, after, how she used to scrub herself raw trying to get him off her. The smell of him. The taste.

Ironic, she thinks, how the only locks in the house that actually worked were the ones that kept her out of the pantry.

She remembers meeting with her social worker at the three-month mark, and then three months after that, sitting in a sweaty, leather chair, in a dank basement office that smelt like deodorant sweat, flowery and full of musk, and damp carpet.

"How are you getting along? Do you like it there? Miss Sanders has graciously offered to extend your placement through the end of your sophomore year. How does that sound?"

She remembers her thighs shaking, cold sweat dampening her underarms. Biting her lower lip so hard she thought it'd bleed.

I'll rip your cunt out through your asshole.

That's what Nathan had said to her if she ever told on him.

She'd thought about it. So many times she had sat in that office, felt the weight of the words on her tongue, right there on the tip, threatening to spill out. It'd be so easy to say them, but then, what would she say?

Was it rape, if he didn't penetrate her? Would they think she was lying? Would they punish her if they thought she wasn't telling the truth? Would they demand evidence she didn't have?

More than any of it, more than anything else, she remembers his friends—the day that changed her forever; sticky leather seats, the car pungent with the stink of sweat and come and urgency. She remembers the drone of cicadas and crickets on the walk home, after, which took an hour instead of twenty minutes, because she'd had to hobble.

Later, the memory of the motel pool with all that dirt collected on the bottom. Desert mountains in every direction, and so much dust, the air thick with it. Nathan bound and gagged in the bathroom. The nauseating stench of blood, warm and coppery, and the heavy weight of Mr. J's knife in her hand. Nathan's sweaty, struggling body, then his suddenly lifeless one. How he'd lain there, after. Pale. Motionless. She hasn't thought about this memory in a long time—hasn't allowed herself to. Even now, so much of her memory from that time is hazy. She can only picture it in stops and starts. It comes to her more as a fever dream than a memory.

And then there were the terrible things she had done before she was barely even old enough to retain memories; "Imagine—all that bloodlust in a child. You were insatiable. I'd never seen anything like it. Never seen anything so disgusting." Mr. J's words come ricocheting back to her, pieces from a memory she knows she'll never forget. He'd made sure of that. His promise to save her, to make her good, because only he could.

The branding.

And she thinks of Ben, and Ruby, and Hank, and the girls in the cages, and the men in the rabbit-masks; the clumpy tufts of fur on their faces, the whiskers, their beady black eyes. She thinks of the man in the skull mask, too, the one with the shiny black shoes, the one who had looked at her like she repulsed him, like he wanted to shoot her in the head right there. Like he would've delighted in crushing her skull, afterwards, just to make sure the deed was done.

Alice, Alice, Alice. And Wonderland. Running from something she couldn't even visualize, not fully. Just some shadow creature, something that wanted to tear her limb from limb, lick the blood from her bones, break them in half with its teeth, until the spongy marrow could be sucked out from the insides.

Most of all, she remembers him.


She stares hard at the horizon, at the uninterrupted plane where the sky meets the sea, she stares until it merges into some amorphous blue blob, blurred by her own tears. There are so many memories that haunt her, some that are too heavy to even dredge up from the murky depths of her brain. But these ones are certainly the most recent, the ones that have brought her here to this exact moment in time.

She still remembers the relief she'd felt upon first being reunited with Mr. J back at the orphanage, when she was just fifteen years old. This man she'd been unknowingly searching for for more than half her life. She'd spent eleven years trying to remember him, the only thing grounding her to him the necklace he'd given her all those years ago, shortly after they'd first met. But even that had been taken from her, probably at the insistence of some child psychologist, one of the many who had helped to wipe her brain of the memory of Mr. J's existence.

She thinks of her mother, too, tries desperately to recall her face, the sound of her voice, the way it must have felt to be held by her. The softness of her hands, or the way she might've trailed a finger down Taylor's chubby baby cheek, the way loving mothers always do. But did her mother even love her, or had Taylor been impossible to love, even then, even as a baby?

Maybe that's the problem, she thinks. Maybe she was just born unlovable. Maybe when God made her, he forgot to put the light inside her, accidentally left it dark instead, and now there's this—this impenetrable void.

Suddenly, something drags her backwards, pulling at her from behind.

Taylor shrieks, because she's not sure what's happening—her hindbrain screams shark—but her rationale brain kicks in a half second later, registering the warm embrace of two arms surrounding her middle. The feel of a hard chest behind her.

"Well," Mr. J says, his mouth and face wet, dripping onto her shoulder, "fancy meeting you here."

"Mr. J!" she gasps, heart still racing. "You scared me." She spins around to face him, and he lifts her, coaxes her into wrapping her legs around his waist, hooking her ankles behind his lower back. She braces her hands on his bare shoulders, letting him support her weight as they bob in the waves. She smiles a little as she stares at him, searching his eyes even though her own are blurred with unshed tears.

"You do know how to swim," she says, quietly triumphant.

He grunts, and she's not sure if he's amused or annoyed. "Lucky for you." His fingers dig into the backs of her thighs, and he brings her even closer. "Where do you think you're going, hm? You trying to swim all the way to China?"

She laughs, except it comes out sounding choked from the tears still lodged in her throat. She sniffles and looks away, hoping he'll think her cheeks are wet from the ocean, and not her own tears.


"No," she says.

When she lifts her head to look at him, she sees him clearly for the first time, and it nearly steals her breath away.

She realizes she's never seen him like this—all dripping wet, completely soaked, hair plastered to his face and neck, so much longer than when it's dried. She's struck with the ridiculous urge to card her fingers through the wet strands, lovingly tuck it behind his ears, like he sometimes does with her.

His lips all wet and pink, and the taut, gnarled scar tissue rippled across his cheeks, shiny and glistening, and for some reason that holds her attention for longer than it should. He's beautiful, and terrifying—all in the same breath. She blinks and finally meets his eyes, startled by how dark they are, framed by wet lashes. She can't believe he's in the ocean with her.

She stares at him for a long time, gently trailing the tips of her fingers against the nape of his neck while she works up the courage to speak. He seems to know that something's on her mind—like he always does, like he has a sixth sense for these things—and he waits for her to speak.

She chews on her bottom lip, tasting the salt of the ocean, and looks at him with furrowed brows. "Mr. J?" she starts, a little hesitant. "Do you ever feel… I mean, have you ever felt like… like you feel things too much?" She pauses to look at him—really look at him—but his eyes betray nothing, only his uninterrupted focus on her. "Like, sometimes I just feel things so… so strongly, and sometimes I like it, or I don't mind it, I guess. But sometimes… sometimes it hurts. Sometimes I feel too big for my body. Like… maybe I was supposed to be something smaller. Maybe I was supposed to be a—a flower, or a blade of grass."

The sun beats down hard from above, and she bites her lip as she searches his eyes. She feels nervous, for some reason, afraid that he won't understand, or that he'll think she's stupid, or whiny, or ungrateful. But this isn't about him, or all the things he's done for her. It's about… everything. Everything that's happened to her, and everything that's happening now. How she's oscillated on this spectrum of emotion, from one extreme to another; from night terrors and panic attacks to beachside bliss. And Mr. J, who is suddenly giving her everything she's ever wanted, as if it's some kind of consolation prize for her collective traumas or something. It's overwhelming, and her brain doesn't know how to process it, the good and the bad, how the two are supposed to coexist in a way that doesn't make her feel like she's going crazy.

Maybe she is going crazy.

Mr. J shifts her weight again, one arm slipping up her back, to pull her upper half closer to his. A wave glides smoothly over their shoulders, making them both bob in the momentary swell.

"Y'know," he says, in that casual way he does, "I think you're supposed to be exactly what you are—and you just let me worry about the rest. Hm?"

Taylor searches his eyes, as if looking for the catch, the secret tell that he's joking. But his eyes are dark. Serious.

"But what if… what if what you are—what I am—is too much?"

"You're not," he says, in a voice that frightens her, makes goose bumps scatter over her arms. She swallows as his arm tightens against her back, feels like a bar of steel. "You're just what I want you to be," he says, lowly.

Taylor doesn't know what to say.

His expression leaves no room for disagreement, so she swallows, and then nods. But when he prompts her again, raising his brows—he's been insistent lately about her using her words—she manages to croak out a feeble, "okay," and only then is he appeased.

Beneath the waves, his hand strokes along the length of her spine, and it makes her shiver, goose pimples popping up all over her arms. She becomes acutely aware of the proximity of their bodies, then, and the fact that he's not wearing a shirt; her bare belly is pressed tightly to his, her breasts pushed up against his chest, her legs slip-sliding around his waist, just above the space where his swim-trunks fall. She wonders if he's registering all this skin-to-skin, too. With their mouths so close, they practically share the same breath, and it makes her want to lean in even closer, press her lips to his, seal the moment with the tenderest of kisses.

The thought alone has her cheeks turning pink, and she forces herself to push free of him instead, needing distance, and her eyes glimmer as she pants, treading water.

Mr. J arches a brow at her, curious.

"Bet you can't catch me," she taunts, grinning, as she swims backwards, away from him.

He grins. Lunges for her.

She squeals and turns onto her belly, swimming faster, and when he grabs her from behind, spins her around and holds her to his chest, lifting her partially out of the water, she's struck with a flash of déjà vu, like this very same thing has happened to her before. The sun bears down on them, and Taylor squints at him, smiling.

He stays in the water with her for a long time, and she makes the most of his attention, splashing and teasing him, making up games for them to play. She swims in circles around him and squeals whenever he reaches for her, her cheeks flushed with more than just a sunburn every time he pulls her to him, holds her close. When his back is turned towards her, she loops her arms around his neck from behind, clings to his back and makes him swim in whatever direction she commands him. Something about being in the water with him emboldens her to touch him more—maybe because she can't see the parts of him she's touching, can only rely on feel alone. Their bodies are slippery and wet in all the places where they touch underwater, and when she's clinging to his back, she rubs herself against his lower spine once, maybe twice. She knows she can get away with it because he'll think she's just shifting her position, but it feels so good to grind up against him like that, even if it shames her to do it. She exhales into his ear and then hooks her chin over his shoulder, wraps her legs around his waist and mumbles something about never letting go, and she feels it when he grins, the stretch of scar tissue brushing against her cheek.

She's exhausted and a little sunburned by the time they swim back to shore and she collapses onto her beach towel. She whines about being too tired to walk back to the motel, and he lets her curl up between his legs again, caged between his thighs and his long arms, her towel pulled loosely over her shoulders. They watch the sunset like that, with her head on his chest, so she can feel the steady thump of his heartbeat in her ear.

She wakes to darkness and the sound of ocean waves crashing on the shore. Mr. J is nudging her shoulder where she'd fallen asleep with her head pillowed against his chest. Her swimsuit is still damp, and her teeth clatter as she sits up, her towel slipping from her bare shoulders as she works the kink out of her neck.

Mr. J packs up their belongings, and she makes a half-hearted attempt to help, but she's just so tired. Her limbs are all stiff and ache-y, and her skin feels tight. The walk to the boardwalk is long. Dark. The sand is cold, and it squishes between her bare toes. She slips on her jelly sandals when they reach the boardwalk, but she doesn't put on her clothes, just clutches her towel around her shoulders and shuffles at a snail's pace behind Mr. J.

It's quiet at this hour—whatever time it is—and most of the shops along the boardwalk are closed. Even the amusement park at the very end of the boardwalk is dimmed. It's strange not to see the ferris wheel lit up; she assumed it stayed lit all night. Why did he let her sleep for so long?

The motel lobby is dark when they get in. The little bell rings over the door, but nobody comes to greet them. There's a radio on somewhere behind the main desk, the muffled sound of a male voice and a news broadcast. Her shoes clip-clop against the floor as she trails behind Mr. J down the long, carpeted hallway. When she looks up, face contorting in a yawn, she sees Mr. J's face cloaked in blood red, illuminated by the glow of the EXIT sign at the end of the hall.

He holds open the glass door for her, and she shuffles past, glancing only briefly at the neon lights that shudder over the pool's surface.

Taylor feels cranky from being woken up. Zapped of her energy. She doesn't think she's ever been this tired in her whole life. She makes it only a few paces further and then huffs, plops herself down on the very bottom step of the metal stairwell. She folds her forearms over her bent knees and then plants her head there.

She hears Mr. J pauses halfway up the staircase, like maybe he's turned to look at her.

"I can't go any further," she whines, voice muffled from where her head is bowed.

It sounds pitiful even to her own ears. She knows she's acting like a baby.

Still, her exhaustion outweighs any fear of judgment or retribution from Mr. J, and it's only a moment later before she hears him trudging back down the steps, the vibrations of the staircase making her thighs jiggle.

One second she's sitting there, nodding off into her own folded-up arms, and the next Mr. J is right there in front of her, and she gasps softly as she is woken, then scooped up and into his arms. She wraps her legs around his waist and rests her head on his shoulder, just like she had in the ocean earlier that afternoon. Her towel slips from her shoulders when he picks her up, falling to the ground, and she doesn't think about the fact that she's only in a bikini, practically naked, or that his forearm is nestled underneath her ass and thighs. He bends to scoop up her towel, but doesn't drape it over her. She's nodded off again by the time he's reached their door, and in her sleepy haze she hears the sound of jangling keys as they're fished from his pocket.

She hears the thud of her bag hit the floor just inside the door. It's dark inside, at least until he carries her to the bathroom, flicks on the overhead light and sets her on the counter. She groans because the light hurts her eyes and the countertop is freezing against her thighs. She's reluctant to unwind her legs from around his waist once he pulls away, and she buries her head into his chest and tries to cling to him, petulant. He peels her hands from his shirt.

"Get changed," he says, and leaves.

Taylor pouts as she slips off the edge of the counter. She shuts the door most of the way, tugs off her bikini bottoms (how is there always so much sand in there?), then falls asleep while sitting on the toilet. She comes to what can only be a few seconds later, when she tilts sideways and nearly bangs the side of her head on the counter.

She scowls at the countertop in retaliation, then stands and gingerly starts to peel off the rest of her swimsuit; she doesn't realize just how bad her sunburn is until she's trying to pull her top off and over her head, and it hurts. She wants so badly to take a hot shower, but she knows the water will burn, so she waits for it to turn tepid instead before climbing in under the spray, hissing through her teeth as the water pelts her skin.

She's a little bit more awake once she's done, and she takes her time applying lotion to her face and brushing her teeth and hair. After she's toweled off, she pulls on one of her new matching pajama sets, but the elastic shorts dig into her sunburnt belly, and the little frills on the neckline and sleeves make her itch, so she strips and throws on one of Mr. J's clean t-shirts instead. Even wearing underwear hurts, but she picks the softest pair she can find, too embarrassed to go without, especially not without shorts.

She looks up just as she's about to pull his t-shirt over her head, catching the reflection of her naked body in the mirror, and it draws her to a pause. She's definitely a little sunburnt—wasn't as diligent with applying sunblock today—but she's also surprised by the fullness of her thighs, the slight roundness of her belly, something of which she's never witnessed before. Even her hair is blonder, and her milk-white breasts and the little triangle of pale skin between her thighs stand out in stark contrast to the rest of her tanned skin. She stares, mesmerized, by the sight of her own body, hardly recognizing herself. She turns her back to the mirror and cranes her neck over her shoulder, eyes sloping down over sunburnt shoulder blades, the pale globes of her ass cheeks, before finally settling on the brand. It's a relief to see it, and a comfort to remember why it was given to her, and who she belongs to—the inherent warmth that comes from knowing you belong to someone at all.

Mr. J is sitting in his usual chair in the corner when she steps out, hunched over the newspaper that's spread out over the little round table. He's always reading the paper, she thinks. She wonders if he's looking for something in particular. She watches as his gaze turns to her, and he chuckles as he takes her in.

Taylor huffs, feeling irritable and tired as she plops herself on the edge of the mattress, her back turned to him. "I know it's bad," she says, so he doesn't have to say it. Her skin tingles, hot to the touch. Her shoulders and upper back are maybe the worst, but her whole body just aches. She hears the chair groan when he gets up.

"On the contrary…" Mr. J purrs. He rounds the bed and comes to stand in front of her, nestles his finger underneath her chin and tilts her head up. "Never seen such a cute cherry tomato in my whole life."

Taylor flushes, which makes her sunburn tingle even more, and she pulls her chin out of his grasp, flopping dramatically onto her back, legs dangling off the edge of the bed.

"I've been so good all weeeek!" she whines. She's been nothing if not dutiful about applying sunscreen, just like the bottle instructed. She frowns at him suddenly, as if a thought has just occurred to her. "Hey, how come you're not sunburned?"

Mr. J just shrugs. "Guess the sun just likes you better, baby."

Taylor groans, rolling her eyes to the ceiling and purses her lips in an annoyed scowl.

He chuckles again, and then he's stepping forward, standing between her spread legs, and there's a dip in the mattress when he leans over her, when the flat of his palms rest on either side of her head.

She swallows as she looks up at him.

"Poor angel," he coos, studying her face. Taylor's heart flutters at the endearment—and his proximity. "What are we going to do with you, hm?"

She doesn't answer, but her throat bobs when she swallows. She can feel the heat from his body radiating off him in waves, and it makes her already-hot skin turn tingly and warm. She tries not to squirm as she looks at him, even if all she wants to do is scoot a little closer to the edge of the mattress, rub herself off against his thigh.

She reaches up and covers her face with both hands, then parts her fingers and peeks out at him through the gaps. "Are you sure I'm the cutest cherry tomato you've ever seen? Not the second cutest?"

She bites her lip and smiles, and then feels a ripple of pleasure wash over her at the way a grin momentarily splits his cheeks.

"Oh, I'm very sure," he says, all seriousness. She lowers her hands from her face, and her lips part when he reaches down with one hand, rucks up her shirt to reveal the red, flat plane of her belly. She tucks her chin to her shoulder and looks down, following his gaze. A pained sound escapes from her throat when he presses down with his thumb, then lifts it away, revealing, for a brief moment, the flash of a white thumbprint. He tsks.

"Why don't you be a good girl for daddy and lie down," he says, almost genially, like it's a simple request. "On your belly."

Taylor's heart does more than flutter this time—it skips a beat entirely. She blinks at him.

She watches him stand, and then his hands are on her waist, helping her to turn over. She's too stunned to resist, and she pulls her limbs up and onto the bed as if on autopilot. She scoots towards the top of the mattress, then turns and looks at him when she's lying on her side, biting her bottom lip, suddenly wary. Does he really want her to lay on her belly? It feels so—so vulnerable.

It's the position Nathan always took her in whenever he violated her, when he wanted to rut. Always face down, so he wouldn't have to look at her.

Worthless cunt.

But it isn't just Nathan she's thinking about in this moment. Her brain catapults her back to another memory, the one of when Mr. J had made her stand against the wall, ordered Ressling to spank her until her ass and thighs had welted, searing with pain. She'd stood there for what felt like hours, each sharp crackof the leather belt feeling like a slap to the face. It was more than just painful. It was humiliating.

She doesn't like to have her back turned. Doesn't like not being able to see what's going on, not being able to anticipate what's going to happen next, not being able to brace herself, or prepare—

"Am I in trouble?" she asks, trying and failing to keep the panicked edge from her voice, the tendrils of anxiety already unfurling in her belly.

She watches as a familiar spark seems to flash behind his eyes at her question—almost like he's pleased that she asked—and she squirms underneath the heat of his gaze.

"Of course not, baby doll," he coos. "Daddy's just going to help you feel better."

Taylor swallows, unsure, but then slowly eases herself onto her front, hissing a little because her belly and the upper swell of her breasts are especially tender and red. She lays her cheek on the pillow, then nervously shifts her gaze behind her as Mr. J retreats into the bathroom.

He returns a moment later, the mattress dipping from his weight when he sits down next to her on the side of the bed.

"There we are." She feels the tips of his fingers skating up the back of her thigh, stopping just below where the hem of her t-shirt falls. "Wearing my clothes again," he murmurs.

"Yeah," she agrees, a little breathy. "Softer," she says, by way of explanation. She keeps trying to gauge his expression, but is entirely too distracted by the hand on the back of her thigh, toying with the hem of her shirt.

"Okay, baby," Mr. J says, giving her thigh a little pat. "Just lie still."

When he starts inching her t-shirt up her back, she whimpers in confusion, squirming. "Mr. J? I—"

"Easy," he says, and something about the low vibrations of his voice comforts her, makes her draw still, even as he slowly shucks her t-shirt up her back, until he pulls it over her shoulder blades, rests it just below the base of her neck. She whimpers again and tucks her arms close to her sides, hiding her breasts from view.

She hears the plastic pop of a cap opening, then something cold drizzling onto the middle of her back, and she hisses, her spine arching a little from the shock of it on her overheated skin.

"Cold," she mumbles, settling back down, cheek squished against the pillow. She tries not to think about Mr. J seeing her in just her underwear—a plain pink cotton pair, with a little white bow on the front—but it's not like he hasn't seen her in a bikini at this point, so she tries not feel self-conscious about it.

Mr. J swirls the lotion across her back with just one finger, creating a slow, swirling spiral that fans out across the expanse of her back, growing larger with each swirl. The lotion smells sweet and summery, like coconut and banana. She nervously peers over her shoulder to look at him, surprised to find him watching her face and not her back, like she had expected. She stares at him as he rubs the lotion into her skin, using his whole hand, now, making sure every inch of her skin is covered. She sighs into her pillow, the lotion immediately relieving her hot, irritated skin. Goose bumps prickle over her forearms, still tucked close to her sides, but the lotion feels so good. It's exactly what she needed.

She forgets how big his hands are, sometimes, but she's hyperaware of their size now, and she can feel how his hand encompasses the entire width of her back. She flinches at some of the more sensitive areas, and then holds her breath when his fingertips skim the top of her underwear, dipping just below the waistband, even though there's no need to, because her bikini bottoms were mostly high-waisted, and her burnt skin doesn't extend that low.

His gaze shifts after a while, and he spends a long time smoothing the lotion over her brand, that white, raised scar tissue, tracing over the shape of his initial, almost reverently, she thinks.

She feels keyed up and exhausted all at the same time. A part of her feels like she could combust from the combination of sensations. But gradually, her eyelids start to grow heavy, and she can't keep them open any longer, no matter how hard she tries. She shifts her head on the pillow, nuzzles into it until she finds the comfiest spot. Her body aches, but it's the good kind of ache, the sort of bone-tired that comes from swimming in the ocean all day, all that salt and sand and sun. Behind her closed lids, she's already replaying a scene from earlier that day, when she had snuck up behind him in the water and jumped on his back, giggling, and he had hooked his elbows behind her knees to keep her there.

"Sleepy?" Mr. J asks. He already sounds so far away. She still feels his hand working over her back, so gentle, gentler than she ever thought he could be capable of being.

She mumbles an affirmative in response, then blearily cracks open an eye to see him watching her, staring so intently at her face, almost as if he were waiting for something.

But then her eyes flutter shut, and she sleeps.

It's nearly noon by the time Taylor wakes, and the bed is empty.

She sits up and rubs her eyes, squints at the sunlight slanting in hot and bright through the cracked blinds. Panic momentarily seizes her heart, at least until it doesn't; she slides her gaze to the corner, sees Mr. J is in his usual chair by the window, and she relaxes.

She has a vague memory of him hovering over her during the night, when the lights were out and it was dark and she was lying on her belly, clawing the sheets. She thinks she might have been crying. Her nightmare filters back to her in flashes of color and sound. Gunfire and blood, the thud of Ben's body when it hit the ground; Ruby, in the distance, laughing, while smoke billowed from the barrel of her shotgun. The masked men who were holding her back suddenly didn't have masks anymore, and instead had materialized into Nathan and his friends. They had pushed her to the gravel and raped her, and Ben's lifeless body had lain so close she could have reached out and touched him. Then Ruby was there, telling them to fuck her harder, give it to her, and they did.

"Well, there she is," Mr. J says, putting down the paper. "Thought you were gonna sleep the whole day away."

Taylor licks her dry lips, trying to summon moisture into her mouth. Her voice comes out raspy.

"Did you come to bed last night? Did you sleep at all?"

She doesn't remember him joining her, doesn't remember turning over and burying her head into his chest, or finding comfort in his arms, only the vague shape of him, and his voice in her ear, trying to hush her back to sleep.

"Think you slept long enough for the both of us," he says, in lieu of a real answer, and Taylor frowns.

She doesn't understand how Mr. J can continuously function on so little sleep, especially when he exists in such infuriating contradiction to herself; Taylor is neither a morning nor a night person. Mr. J is somehow both.

She rubs her eyes again and yawns, then blushes when her belly emits an audible growl, loud enough for Mr. J to hear.

"Come here, hungry girl." He beckons her over with a jerk of his chin. Picks up his phone. "Let's get you something to eat."

Taylor slips off the bed and goes to him, still rubbing sleep out of her eyes with her fists. She sighs as she hangs over his shoulders from behind, her arms hooked loosely around his chest and her chin nestled on his shoulder as they browse through the app on his phone, and she tells him exactly what toppings she wants on her taco.

"And don't forget the churros," she adds. "For dessert." She presses a loud, smacking kiss to the side of his neck, just below his ear.

"Hm..." His thumb hovers over the selection of churros on the screen, and he turns his head to the side, looking at her from the corner of his eye. "It's going to cost you."

Taylor bites down a little smile, her cheeks flushing, but she winds her arms a little tighter around his neck. "Cost me what? More kisses?" She giggles and bends to plant another kiss along his neck, and then another, and another, until she can feel him grinning against her cheek.

Mr. J answers the door when their food arrives, keeping her shielded from view, and only opens the door just wide enough for the food to slip through. For some reason that bothers her, like he doesn't want her to be seen or something. She feels silly for being annoyed by it—it's probably only for her safety, after all—but sometimes she can't help but feel like it's because he's embarrassed to be seen with her.

She stares at the floor while they eat at the little table by the window, bathed in the afternoon sun, trying to chase away the remnants of her dream from earlier. If Mr. J notices her shift in mood, he doesn't say anything.

When she's finished, she cleans up in the bathroom, picks out something soft and flowy to wear—a loose cotton sundress—so it won't aggravate her sunburn. She takes her time slathering on a generous layer of the same after-sun lotion that Mr. J had spread all over her back last night, and her cheeks warm as she thinks about it, remembering the way he had looked at her, and that lingering moment when his hand had laid on the back of her thigh, so heavy and warm.

He's still sitting by the window, reading the paper, when she exits the bathroom, and she gnaws on her bottom lip, feeling needy for his attention. She goes to him and wordlessly sets the bottle of after-sun lotion on the table next to him, prompting him to look at her over the rim of his paper. He arches a brow and folds up the paper, and she takes the opportunity to climb into his lap, pulling her knees up to her chest.

"Can you rub my back again? Please?"

He stares at her for what feels like a long moment, but then his warm hand slides up her back, rucking her dress up to her shoulders, and he rubs the lotion into her skin again in the same soothing circles he had done last night, while she hunches over her own knees, chin resting on her kneecaps.

The rest of the day is lazy and unhurried. Easy. Taylor alternates between eating snacks, watching TV, and napping in bed.

She's glad to stay in, even if her skin throbs with the constant reminder of her negligence, and even if Mr. J seems distracted for some reason. He has several newspapers stacked on the table, and when he goes to the bathroom, Taylor slips silently off the bed and lifts up the corner of each one, curious. They're all Gotham papers, she realizes, and she wonders why she hadn't noticed before. Where did he even get these?

Later, he steps outside to make a phone call. Taylor allows it only because he promises that she can watch him from the window, just like she did last time. She turns onto her side in bed and watches him from there, through the gaps in the slightly downturned blinds, and tries to guess at what he's saying. Who he might be talking to.

It unnerves her more than it should, but she can't help but sense a restless energy radiating from him—a feeling like he doesn't want to be here anymore—and it makes her nervous. Afraid. She doesn't want to him to get bored, doesn't want to give him any excuse or reason to leave.

When the sun's low enough in the sky that it won't exacerbate her burn, she announces that she wants to go for a walk along the beach, hoping that it'll be the distraction he needs, and he acquiesces. Taylor thrills at being able to intertwine their hands together, and him letting her. She snuggles into side, enjoying the cool ocean breeze, how good it feels on her overheated skin. They walk barefoot in the wet sand, and the calming lull of the ocean waves soothes her, coats some of the sharp edges of her frayed nerves. They eat pizza on the boardwalk when it's dark, on a little outdoor patio under twinkling string lights, then they walk back to the motel, and Taylor changes into her swimsuit to go for a night swim.

She tries to cajole him into getting into the pool with her, but he still seems so far away, like he's thinking about something else entirely, even though he's looking right at her.

Taylor knows she has to do something, something that'll redirect his attention. Maybe even something drastic.

She just doesn't know what.

Independence Day, and every forecaster on the weather channel within a fifty-mile radius seem both shocked and morbidly delighted to report it's a record-breaking day, the hottest in Atlantic City since June of 1969.

Taylor has yet to make a full recovery from her sunburn, but she is determined not to waste the day. She slathers on a generous helping of after-sun lotion, then waits for it to dry before glopping on SPF 50. She's not taking any chances.

She pulls on a pair of white shorts that are cuffed at the hem, and a checkered-patterned blue and white sleeveless top that ties in a knot at her belly-button; she does her hair up in matching buns using red scrunchies, and when she looks in the mirror after, she feels satisfied with her choice. It's a special day, and she wants to look the part.

Taylor has carefully been monitoring Mr. J's mood ever since she woke up this morning, and she notices, curiously, that he smells a little bit like cigarette smoke. Had he gone out early this morning to smoke while she was still asleep?

The boardwalk is packed when they arrive, and the overwhelming crowd of bodies makes her feel a little anxious. She holds tightly to Mr. J's hand, trailing slightly behind him because it's almost impossible to walk side-by-side.

Breakfast is something light, a shared smoothie and one half of an everything bagel for each of them, eaten while standing under a coveted spot of shade.

Mr. J is wearing a baseball cap and dark sunglasses, and every time she looks at him, she can't help staring at herself, at the reflection looking back at her inside the dark rectangle of his lens; the figure staring back at her is a more petite and yet elongated version of her, like she's farther away from him than she actually is. She wonders if that's how she actually looks to him.

To beat the crowds—and the heat—they spend the earlier half of the morning at the Atlantic City Historical Museum. Taylor flits around the museum as if pulled from one section to the next on an invisible string. It's exciting to be here, to learn about the past. She's always liked history, even if it's hard to remember the names and dates of stuff sometimes. They sit down to watch a short movie about the history of the city and the boardwalk's inception, and she learns about a devastating fire that damaged the pier in 1981, how the blaze was determined to be 'suspicious' in nature, and a cause was never found.

She gets up before the little educational movie can finish. Even with her skin still radiating heat from her sunburn, she suddenly feels ice-cold. She's always hated fires, ever since a foster's family home went up in flames, just weeks after she'd been displaced and moved somewhere else. It's a memory that haunts her to do this day. She still doesn't know why her social worker had felt so compelled to tell her about it, something both sinister and borderline arrogant in her tone when she relayed the news to Taylor, the way she'd done it with pursed lips and a razor-thin arched brow, as if to say, "Well, aren't you glad I got you out of there just in time? Hm? Sounds like something you should be thanking me for. It could've been much worse."

Taylor remembers that one of the children had survived. Inexplicably, and against all odds, it had been the youngest out of the seven of them, a three year-old boy. He'd suffered burns over seventy-five percent of his body. Taylor had spent a lot of time wondering what it must have been like, at just three years-old, to wake up in a hospital bed and find yourself mummified in sterile white gauze, to come to and realize that you are no longer on fire, but it still feels like you are. The lick of phantom flames. The singed nerves, maybe even charred bone. Pain that defied definition.

Mr. J eyes her curiously when she gets up, and it's a moment before he gets up too, goes to where she's standing at the back of the little theater, her arms wound tight around her abdomen in a self-administered hug, her back turned towards the screen. He puts a big hand on the middle of her back and leans down low, so she can whisper what she needs.

"Can we go? Please?"

He pulls away to look at her, then at the movie screen, where the old man's historical narration continues, and where a flurry of dust particles hang suspended in the air, caught in the projector's spherical cone of ashy light.

Mr. J eyes her again, as if he's trying to parse something out, but he merely nods, leads her out of the theater with a guiding hand on her back.

The heat is brutal when they exit the museum, the kind that seems to lay so heavy and thick in the air it's almost a tangible thing, casting a blurry, warbling mirage in every direction she looks. Taylor's grateful for it, for once, and the heat grounds her, brings her back to the present.

The boardwalk is even more crowded than before, and they leave it in favor of exploring the city on the other side of it. There's a go-cart race track not far from where they had played mini golf that one time, and Mr. J leans against the metal fence beneath a shaded, bright blue pavilion as he watches her race around the multi-level track. Taylor begs him to race with her, knowing that he won't, but it's still fun to have him watch anyway. She smiles big and waves to him every time she speeds by, sometimes sticking out her tongue, or making some goofy face, and Mr. J just watches with his dark eyes, though she swears she catches him smiling from time to time.

She's sweaty and full of adrenaline by the time she's done, as if she had actually competed in a real race, and Mr. J tugs on one her droopy pigtails after she pulls her helmet off, chattering a mile a minute. Did you see how fast I was going? Did you see it when I almost skid off the track? Did you see when that kid hit the back of my car? That was so crazy!

Mr. J just looks up in lieu of answering her questions, peering at the leader board above her head and squinting as he assesses the results. "Number four," he drawls. "Not bad for a first timer."

Taylor beams, hugging her helmet to her chest. "I was thinking about what you said, when we were riding that motorcycle at the arcade." She shifts her weight to her other foot, blushing a little to remember it, not sure if the memory is as intimate for Mr. J as it is for her. "About leaning into it."

Mr. J arches a brow, looking amused. "Were you?"

She nods enthusiastically, then juts her chin up. Proud. "Uhuh," she says.

It's still early in the afternoon by the time they make it back to the boardwalk to finally explore the Steel Pier. She squeals and bounces up and down on the balls of her feet the closer they get, holding tight to Mr. J's upper arm as they navigate through the sea of bodies. She's pleased to realize she fits right in with everyone else, dressed up in her red, white, and blue. She can't wait for the fireworks tonight. That's always the best part.

Taylor can't help smiling in awe as she takes it all in. She's never been to a carnival before, never seen any place like this, except for in movies. She'd begged and pleaded to go to the circus in Gotham as a child, and the city fair, held every year in the month of October, but she has only ever been able to view them in passing. It seemed like whenever she'd saved up enough money to go by herself, something would come up that would prevent her from going, or she was forced to use her money for something more important.

She's amazed by the variety of food, more than anything else; hot dogs and popcorn, funnel cakes and cotton candy and caramel apples dipped in chocolate chips or sprinkles. There's deep-fried Oreos and Snickers bars, snow cones and grilled chicken tender baskets and loaded cheese and bacon fries. Taylor wishes she could have one of everything, but in the end, she settles for a little basket of breaded shrimp poppers and salt and vinegar fries, and a fresh-squeezed lemonade. Mr. J gets her cotton candy too, and that's maybe the best thing. She's shocked by the way it dissolves on her tongue, the way it seems to disintegrate into thin air.

"It disappears!" she squeals. "Did you know it did that?!" She shoves more airy, chunky puffs of cotton candy into her mouth just to be sure, just to make sure she's not imagining things, and sure enough, it dissolves on her tongue just like before.

She squeals, and then sticks out her tongue for Mr. J to assess. "Pink or blue?" she asks.

She watches his eyes lower to her outstretched tongue, where he stares at it for longer than she expects him to, like he wants to reach out and grab it. "Hmm," he hums, then says, "looks more purple to me."

Taylor beams at him. Pleased.

After she finishes with her snacks, they walk farther out onto pier. It's even bigger and longer now that she's actually on it, and she can hear the waves crashing on either side of it. They stop periodically at little booths to play some games, try to win a prize or two while Taylor works up the nerve to ride the giant ferris wheel at the very end of the pier.

Taylor is drawn to the large display of plush animals stacked along the walls and hanging from the roof of one little booth, a game where you're provided with an air gun and are tasked with shooting an array of different targets lined along the back wall, most of them moving, making them harder to hit.

It's three dollars to play, which seems expensive to Taylor, but Mr. J hands over the cash and Taylor bites her lip as she hands it to the attendant, and he lets her pick the gun. It's attached to a metal chain, so you can't run off with it, even though it's plastic, and Taylor lifts the butt of it to her shoulder, like she's seen them do in movies, and squeezes one eye shut so she can squint through the other.

She startles when she feels Mr. J stepping up to her from behind.

"Widen your stance," he murmurs, nudging her legs apart with the toe of his shoe. "And straighten your shoulders, watch this elbow…." He guides her body into position, talking lowly, so only she can hear. "That's it. Good girl."

Taylor exhales, glancing nervously at the booth attendant, who is standing off to the side and out of the way, his head hunched low over his phone, thumbs bumping rapidly across the screen.

She can feel Mr. J behind her, hear his voice in her ear, and her face turns hot. The way he's talking, it's like he's guiding her through sex, talking her through it, like the way she has always imagined he would.

"There you go," he says. "Now you're ready."

She squeezes the trigger.

There's no recoil, because it's not a real gun, but the release of the sharp 'POP!' of air still startles her. She knows Mr. J is probably smirking behind her, and she hunches up her shoulders in shame and cranes her neck behind her to see.

"No, no," he chides, gently. "Don't look at me. Look at them." He nods to her targets—a collection of flat, wooden rubber duckies with red and white targets painted on their sides. All of them moving, shuffled forward on an invisible conveyer belt, until they fall off the edge of the 'pond' and are forced to repeat the cycle all over again.

Taylor secretly wishes the ducks could be some other animal, like a bear or something, so she wouldn't have to feel so guilty for having to shoot them.

Mr. J guides her into position again, and Taylor squints through one eye and takes aim.

This time she doesn't stop for his assessment, and she keeps shooting until the timer runs out and the trigger sticks.

She whirls to face Mr. J when she's done. "Did you see that?! How many did I hit?" She turns back to the attendant, beaming. "Did I win anything?"

He looks up from his phone, bored, and scratches at a patch of stubble beneath his chin. "You have to hit at least thirty to get a prize."

Taylor's face crumbles.

She turns again to look at Mr. J, surprised to see the slight curl to his upper lip—only perceptible to her—because she knows when to look for it. She can always sense his quiet rage.

He reaches into his pocket and slaps another three bills onto the counter. Picks up the same gun she had been using.

"Start the game."

The attendant raises a brow, starts the game, and then picks up his phone again.

The ducks have barely started their conveyer-belt march before Mr. J is taking aim, and the 'THWACK!' of the ducks being knocked on their backs—one right after the other, in rapid succession—echoes through the little carnival tent. Mr. J even manages to hit the little gophers that pop up at random intervals, disappearing almost as fast as they had come.

He makes quick work of the ducks at the top shelf next, then saves the bottom one for last. The music is still playing by the time he's finished, and there are no more targets to shoot.

"Jesus," the attendant says. He squints at Mr. J, eyeing him up and down. "You a cop or something?"

Mr. J lowers the gun from his shoulder, lays it calmly on the table. Works his mouth in that way that always makes Taylor squirm. Like the way he tends to do when he's considering what sort of punishment he's going to dole out when she's in trouble.

"Do I, uh, look like one?"

The attendant looks unnerved enough not to reply, and Taylor takes the opportunity to press herself against the countertop, standing on her tiptoes, as she hungrily eyes all the different plushies and stuffed animals dangling from the ceiling and walls.

"Do I get a prize now?"

"Yeah," the attendant says, frowning. "You get the big one."

Taylor's mouth parts when he starts to pull one of the biggest teddy bears off the wall that she's ever seen, which is bigger than her, and maybe even Mr. J. He struggles to get it unhooked, and Taylor presses her lips together. Works up the courage to ask for what she really wants.

"Actually, can I—can I please have the little one there? The baby whale?"

She points to a miniature stuffed whale, a white one, with the funny looking bump on its head.

The attendant plucks it from a corner hook, near the back wall. "This one? You sure?"

Taylor nods, smiling shyly, as he hands it to her.

She hugs it to her chest as they leave, and Mr. J looks at her. "Why that one?"

"Because he looks like he's smiling," she says, excited that he asked. "See?" She holds the whale up for him to see, shoving it so close to his face he has to push it away so that he can see it properly. She giggles and hugs the plushie back to her chest. "Now Ollie will have a friend," she says, a little shy. "Maybe I'll name this one Wally. Like Wally and Ollie, isn't that cute?"

They walk around the carnival for a while, moving from one booth to the next to take everything in. Taylor is excited to watch a caricature artist paint a picture of a little girl with colorful beads in her hair and a dark mountain of intricately woven braids.

"We had to do that once, in art class," she tells Mr. J as she stops to watch from a distance. "Except we had to draw ourselves. And she said we had to exaggerate what we thought were our worst features, and then she made us go around the class and compliment each person on their worst feature, and say what we liked about them."

Mr. J quirks a brow. "What was yours?"

Taylor's hand moves instinctively to cover the spot in question, her palm laying flat over her forehead, as if to shield it from his view. "My forehead," she says, wrinkling her nose. "Because it's so big. And, I don't know… my lips, I guess." She looks down. "Everyone always used to ask me if I was stung by a bee. And they said other things, too…." She feels her cheeks turning hot, recalling some of the more explicit things were said about her lips, things she was too naïve to fully understand at the time. She remembers a particularly brutal insult that had involved an entire group of kids at recess, and how she had left school early that day, only to cry about it to Mr. J when she got home. She wonders if he remembers that.

She pulls him away from the artist after that, and they weave deeper into the crowd, working slowly towards the giant ferris wheel that rests at the end of the pier. She begs and begs him to get on it with her, and finally he relents, but in a way that makes her feel like he had been planning to go on it the entire time, but he just wanted to listen to her please her case.

The line for the ride is long, and standing still under the intense heat only makes it worse. But Taylor finds ways to keep herself entertained, such as making kissing noises every time Wally makes contact with Mr. J's bare skin. She makes a game out of it, making Wally 'kiss' him when he least expects it. She giggles every time he glares at her, and she is made to stop only when he spins her around and grabs her by the waist and tickles her, forcing her to fold in half to try and escape as she begs him to stop. The rest of the time is spent with her leaning back against his chest, so she doesn't have to support so much of her own weight. She tilts her head back against his chest to look at him, realizes she can see straight up his nostrils, and she giggles. When he looks down at her, curious at the source of her laughter, he reaches up and fits his hand at her throat, cupping her jaw, tells her he thinks she's spent just a liiiittle too much time in the sun, which only makes her laugh even more. After a while, she leans back against him once more and pulls his arms over her shoulders—even though it's hot and it makes her sweat to be pressed up against him—and spends a long time playing with his arms, his hands. She swirls her fingers around the blond, curly hairs on his arms, then traces the tip of her fingers over each of the veins in his hands, his wrist, traveling up his forearm. It's soothing, in its own strange way, to touch him like this, to feel the source of the blood rush inside him, to feel and to touch the parts of him that are keeping him alive. It's a reassurance she didn't even know she needed.

Mr. J temporarily leaves the line to get her a soft pretzel—she watches him from her spot the whole time—and when he returns, she shares it with him, breaking off soft, salty chunks, so buttery they almost melt on her tongue.

It isn't until the shadow of the ferris falls over them that Taylor starts to get cold feet. She turns to Mr. J and swallows.

"Maybe we shouldn't do this," she says. She can feel her brows furrowing together, and she hopes she doesn't look as nervous as she feels. "I mean, it's not going anywhere, right? We could always come back tomorrow."

Mr. J knows looks at her in that way that he always does. So knowing. Like he knows everything there is to possibly know about her.

She folds her arms across her stomach a little protectively, hugging Wally to her chest, and Mr. J reminds her they've been standing in line for over thirty minutes, and what is she so afraid of?

"C'mere, baby." He pulls her into his side, looping a long arm around her waist. The metal podium is right there. She can hear the mechanical whir of the ride as the little metal carriages are spun into the air. He leans down close to her ear to whisper. "You wouldn't want me to have to do it alone, would you?"

She doesn't have time to answer, not before the next carriage is lowered, the door is opened, and then the two of them are stepping onto that metal platform. It warbles underneath her feet in a way that makes her legs feel like they're made of Jell-O.

Mr. J gets into the carriage first, and Taylor climbs in after him, one hand clutched around Wally and the other clinging to the back of his shirt.

The ride attendant—an old man who looks like he'd rather be anywhere else but here—slams the door shut behind her, before she's barely had a chance to sit down. Then they're being lifted into the air, and Taylor whimpers, stone still, too afraid to try and bridge the gap between her and Mr. J.

She hears Mr. J chuckle, then take matters into his own hands when he pulls her closer into his side. His arm comes up to rest over the back of the carriage, so casual, like he rides ferris wheels all the time or something, and Taylor still doesn't move as the ride stops and starts. Stops and starts, as more people are let on and others step off.

She doesn't realize she's been holding her breath until she asks, "Do you think we'll get stopped at the top?" The words come out rushed, in a gasp of released air.

Mr. J hums, inclining his head towards the very top of the ride, all the little carriages that dangle above them. Taylor watches the Adam's apple of his throat bob when he speaks. "Dunno, baby." He glances at her from the corner of his eye. 'Think you can handle it if we do?"

She doesn't really have a choice.

They inch higher into the sky, and Taylor whines, buries her head into Mr. J's chest so she doesn't have to see. She thought she'd like being up so high, having a bird's-eye view, but now all she can think about is all the horrible things that could wrong and result in their deaths.

Their little car swings in the air once the ride is drawn to another halt, this time right at the top of the ferris wheel, just as she feared, and Taylor clings to Mr. J's shirt and squeezes her eyes shut.

"Just tell me when it's over, okay?"

Mr. J chuckles again. "Open your eyes," he says. "You're going to miss it."

Taylor cracks open one eye. "Miss what?"

"The view."

After a moment of silent deliberation, Taylor does open her eyes.

They're surrounded by bright blue sky, and even from all the way up here, she can hear the sound of the waves on the shore. She sits up a little straighter, still clutching Wally close, and dares to lean over Mr. J, so she can peer over the side of the carriage and into the ocean on his right-hand side.

"Wow… it's beautiful."

Taylor's mouth parts in awe. The ocean is even prettier from up here—even bigger than it is from below—and on a clear day like today, she can see for miles. The ocean could almost look gold, from the way it glitters underneath the late afternoon sun. She doesn't know if the goosebumps prickling her arms are from the view or from Mr. J's arm suddenly draped over her shoulders, but she shivers a little anyway.

"Everything's so pretty from up here. So small." She turns to look out the other side of their carriage, at the carnival below, where everyone is so tiny.

"See, not so bad, is it?" Mr. J's hand cups her shoulder, gives it a squeeze, and she blushes, embarrassed that she was so afraid.

"No, it's not so bad," she softly agrees.

The enjoy the rest of the ride in silence, and it feels especially good once they get going and don't have to stop, then she can enjoy the cool relief of the breeze, and the momentary shadow of hulking metal and steel that shades over them both when they're at the bottom of the ferris wheel. Mr. J's fingers stroke gently over the bare skin of her shoulder, and she grins to herself, snuggling into his side, holding her new stuffy close.

She never wants to forget this high.

It's only six thirty by the time they make it back to the motel, after a quick dinner not far from the boardwalk, some hole-in-the-wall they hadn't tried yet.

They had been seated at a dark booth towards the back of the restaurant, well past the bustling bar in the centerfold. Taylor had wanted appetizers before their meal, then batted her eyelashes at him and begged him for the fruity cocktail on the front cover of their laminated menu. He'd ordered it for her, because of course he had, then managed to coax her into sitting in his lap while she sipped on her little strawberry vodka, her cheeks already flushed a delicious shade of pink, the alcohol working fast. He'd watched her mouth with rapt attention when she'd taken the pineapple wedge nestled along the rim of the glass, sucked it between her teeth, little dribbles of juice running down her chin. Then she'd bitten off a chunk, giggling as she fed him the other half. His tongue had briefly caught the tips of her fingers, and he'd had to resist the urge to grab her wrist to hold her still, suck her fingers into his mouth like he'd wanted to.

His sweet girl, so blissfully unaware of the affect she was having, pressing her face so close to his, burying her face into his neck, her breath so hot there, her lips wet and sloppy on his jaw as she struggled not to slur her words. Humming the song on the radio, then dissolving into giggles halfway through. Stupid shit. Sucking sticky pineapple juice off her own fingers, then licking the strawberry syrup off the rim of her glass, syrup that leaves her lips stained red. Squirming around in his lap with one arm slung over his shoulders, completely ignorant of the hard length of him snaked down his thigh. Talking a mile a minute and smiling so sweetly at him, pupils dilated wide from the alcohol. Not quite drunk, but more than halfway there. He lets her finish her drink but cuts her off after that, despite her protests for "just one more".

"Maybe we could share?" she'd asked, grinning, and her nose bumped against the ridge of his righthand scar when she shifted on his lap, trying to get comfortable, trying to read the menu upside down from the other side of the table. "We could, um, get the one with the cherries in it…."

Funny. The only cherry he was interested in was the one he had yet to pop between her legs.

He's been half-hard ever since, pent-up in a way he hasn't felt since Christmas Eve, that night he'd given her a cell phone and then prompted her for a kiss; when she had shyly dodged his mouth at the last second, kissing his cheek instead.

He watches her now, closing the door behind him as she skips towards the bed.

"Best. Day. Ever!" she exclaims, flopping onto the mattress with a satisfied little sigh, smiling up at the ceiling, her new stuffed animal clutched in the crook of her arm.

The Joker stares at her, eyeing the flat plane of her belly where her shirt has ridden up, and then trailing down, over the expanse of her long, tanned legs dangling over the edge of the bed. Her soft calves. Her toes wiggle and flex from where they peek out from the white, leather straps of her sandals.

He unbuttons his shirt as he takes her in, shrugging out of it and dropping it to the floor to reveal the white wifebeater underneath. Her drink has mostly worn off, he thinks, which is preferable.

He wants her sober for this.

He licks his lips, staring at the golden halo of her hair. The sunset is red-orange, bleeding through the slats in the blinds. The bed looks like a bonfire, and she the sacrificial offering, lying right in the middle of it.

He takes a few lumbering steps closer, his mind made up. He's going to do this, whether she wants it or not.

"And to think that I haven't even given you your birthday present yet…" he muses.

Taylor sits up immediately, struggling only a little bit to find her balance. Maybe the alcohol hasn't entirely worn off yet, but that doesn't matter. He won't push her all the way. He just needs a little taste, something to wet his palate until she's ready. She might even need this extra nudge, something to help her in the right direction.

"You—you remembered my birthday?"

Of course he remembered. He also remembers her tearfully telling him—on the day of her sixteenth—that she hated celebrating her birthday because it always made her think of her mother. Made Taylor miss her. He'd known for some time now that Taylor's birthdays were meant for mourning, not for celebrating. Not until today.

Her green eyes are bright with hope as she looks at him. "And you got me a present?"

He smirks, takes another slow, lumbering step closer, until his knees brush hers. He tips his head down to look at her. "I sure did, baby," he says. His eyes don't leave hers as he casually shrugs off his suspenders. "Why don't you be a good girl for daddy and lie back. Let me give it to you."

Taylor's mouth parts, and she blinks at him.

Oh, this is a look he lives for, he thinks. The shock in those big green eyes, and the nervous bob of her throat when she swallows.

"O—okay," she says, voice barely even a whisper.

She eases back onto her elbows, watching him, and it pleases him to have her rapt attention, to know she is so carefully tracking his every move. He kneels to the floor on one knee, then pushes her thighs apart, making room for the bulk of his shoulders. He can already smell her.

His mouth waters, and his cock swells inside his pants, and he hasn't even started yet.

Taylor's eyes widen as she watches Mr. J sink to the floor, down on one knee.

This can't be happening.

They were just supposed to relax for a while once they got back to the motel, maybe change their clothes before heading back out to the beach to find a good spot to sit and watch the fireworks.

But now….

She's been fantasizing about this ever since their first time, when he'd worked his fingers inside of her and touched her clit in a way she never has. In a way no one has.

She hardly dares to breathe when he nudges her thighs apart. There's no misinterpreting his intensions here, the hunger in his eyes. She's fixated on them, even as he reaches for the button of her shorts, starts easing down the zipper. She can't help staring at his eyes, at the way the sunlight has turned his eyelashes golden, how his brown eyes are almost the color of honey. Like liquid gold.

Her hips seem to lift off the mattress of their own accord, and he pulls her shorts the rest of the way down her legs, discarding them to the floor. Then he spreads her legs again, his palms so warm on the inside of her thighs, and she watches him close the distance between them, watches him inhale as he breathes her in. Watches his eyes roll back.

She releases a trembling exhale when she feels his hot breath on her, feels his nails digging into her thighs. She tries to close her legs, just to see if she can, just to test the waters, to see what would happen—but Mr. J holds her open, and his eyes roll up to meet hers. They're impossibly dark all of the sudden, devoid of any of the previous warmth she had just witnessed only moments ago.

Dark, and full of warning.

"Lie still for daddy," he says, voice guttural. Thick. She's only heard him talk like that a handful of times, and each time it'd made her hairs stand on end.

His eyes lower to her cunt, and then he's leaning in, the hard bridge of his nose pressing between her legs. She grips the comforter in both hands, and she keens when his tongue is on her, flattened against her cunt, trying to taste her through the barrier of her underwear.

She's already wet—she's been wet, since he stood so close behind her at that carnival game—but he keeps licking the crotch of her panties until they're soaked with his spit, until the seam of her lips is visible through the fabric. He spends a long time running the flat of his tongue up and down, then pausing, briefly, to angle his head to the side, his tongue hardening into a point as he attempts to drill it inside her, pushing it through the fabric as far as it will go.

She gasps, squirming. When she digs her nails into the comforter, gripping it between her clenched fists, it's only because she has to, because she feels like she'll float away if she doesn't.

She's already panting and he's barely even started.

She can't stop looking at him, can't stop watching his head moving between her legs, the sensation of his mouth on her. No one's ever put their mouth there before. It's already so different from the time before, when he had used his fingers. If she had known it was going to feel like this, she would begged for him to do it ages ago.

He takes his time with her, alternating between lapping at her and tonguing around the bud of clit through the cotton barrier of her underwear. She whimpers and whines through it, feels her eyelashes fluttering closed of their own accord, drunk off the heat of his mouth, like fire.

Outside, she can hear children screaming from the pool area. The sound of splashing water and delighted shrieks of laughter. The sound of the pipes shifting in the walls, the water running from the room next door when the toilet flushes. But none of it matters, none of it even registers when she feels his fingers hooking over the elastic waistband of her underwear, starting to tug.

"Mr. J—" she starts, surprised by the sound of her own voice, how breathy it is. "I—"

I want to come, she thinks.

"Shh…" he says. He finally looks at her, lifting his head from between her thighs, and his eyes are glossy and pitch black, pupils blown wide. It's a look that frightens her, and suddenly she can't remember what she had been about to say.

When he stands to his full height, towering over her, her gaze lowers instinctively, and she stares at the long, hard bulge straining inside his pants. It looks huge, much bigger than anything she could possibly fit between her legs. Seeing it sends a shrapnel of fear slicing through her gut, but it also makes her cheeks turn hot to know that she did that to him. To know that she's the cause. Maybe she could try and fit him in her mouth, maybe that would hurt less—

The mattress dips when he kneels onto it, and then his hands are on her waist, pulling her farther up the bed in order to make room for himself. He lifts her like she weighs nothing, like she's made of paper. It makes her shiver to be manhandled by him like this, to be positioned exactly how he wants her. Her eyes are wide, chest heaving, as she stares up at him from where he hovers over her. Distantly, she realizes that Wally is still clutched tightly inside the crook of her elbow, but as embarrassing as that is, she can't bring herself to let him go.

The corner of Mr. J's mouth lifts as he looks at her, and for the first time she notices how wet it is, how his mouth and chin are shiny, gleaming in the golden orange light that floods the room.

The mattress groans when his weight shifts, when Mr. J leans back on his haunches, and then he's reaching for the waistband of her underwear again, hooking his fingers underneath the band.

He pulls them down slowly, and she lets him, helpless to put a stop to what is already in motion. He stares at her cunt as it is slow revealed to him, and she bites her lower lip and whimpers when she feels the sodden fabric being peeled away from her. She can hear it, and for some inexplicable reason it makes her even more wet.

She turns her head to the side and squeezes her eyes shut tight, too embarrassed to gauge his reaction. It's so much different than the first time. When before it had been so rushed and urgent—right off the heels of one of the most explosive fights they've ever had—here it feels reverent, almost, like this time he wants to take everything in. Like they've got all the time in the world.

"Look at you," he says, just like he always does in her fantasies, and Taylor cracks her eyes open, turns her head to look at him. She jumps when his finger parts the lips of her cunt, dragging all the way down, bringing all her slick along with it. "Look at this pretty, pink pussy."

Taylor whimpers, blushing so hard her vision momentarily fuzzes around the edges.

He thinks she's pretty. He thinks that part of her is pretty.

She suddenly feels dizzy with want. Desire. It ricochets down her spine, makes her cunt throb when she clenches down on nothing.

His fingers slip-slide leisurely through her sex, and she can feel herself leaking onto the mattress. She watches his face as a gush of slick slips out of her, and he tracks the movement, all the way down the crack of her ass. Something about that is so mortifying, to be so spread open like this, for the evidence of her arousal to be so visible. But at the same time she wants him to see. She wants him to know what he does to her.

Mr. J's eyes burn when he looks at her cunt. Looks at her.

"You needed this, didn't you, baby?" he asks, lowly. He finds her clit and circles it with the pad of his finger, and some sound escapes her mouth, something high-pitched and desperate. Mr. J nods when she doesn't answer, donning a look of sympathy, as if this pains him, too. "Poor girl," he says. "So pent up. So needy."

Taylor whimpers, because all of that is true.

She bites her lower lip, eyebrows pinched together, her hips arching just slightly. He coos and places his left hand on her hip, forcing her back down.

"I know," he says, placating. "Needed it this whole time, didn't you?"

Taylor's cheeks turn hot, because that's true, too.

He moves away from her clit, and then the warm, thick fingers of his right hand are parting the folds of her labia. It's the most spread open she's ever felt. She whimpers when she feels him prodding at the small opening of her with his middle finger, feeling. Testing. Somehow it's both too much and yet not enough. They both watch his finger move between her legs, and when he starts to push in, just the faintest bit, Taylor clenches down and whines.

His eyes snap up to hers.

"Always making daddy have to take when you could've just asked…" he growls, and the edge to his voice makes the hairs on her arms stand on end. She pulls Wally closer to her side with the crook of her elbow, her arm folding across her belly almost protectively, then watches as Mr. J suddenly reaches for something above her head. When his arm slips underneath her lower back, it's to shove a pillow underneath her ass, lifting her for him.

The new angle makes her legs fall open, as if in welcome for whatever it is he plans to do next.

"Please—" she whimpers, watching him, watching as he forces her legs up, so her thighs are bracketed against her own tummy, "—p-please be gentle."

Her words seems to draw him to a momentary pause, and she sees it in real time, when he looks at her and the color returns back to his eyes.

He licks his lips, his voice full of gravel.

"Just lie still, angel. Daddy will take care of everything."

He shifts down the mattress, and then his mouth is on her. Between her legs. His tongue flattens so he can lick a broad, fat stripe, right up the center of her cunt, and Taylor's head falls back against the mattress.

Oh, God, she thinks, exhaling. Nothing has ever felt this good.

His tongue is soft, and wet, and warm, and she's never felt anything like it. Not even humping her pillows could compare to this, or that time she tried to grind against the slippery ledge of the bathtub. Even the softness of her own fingers could never compare.

He starts slow, at first, lapping at her with his tongue, like he's just after the taste of her, like he wants to savor it. When his tongue parts her folds, she plants her feet flat on the bed, her knees bent, and arches her hips up for him. Wanting him closer.

He spends a long time tonguing at the opening of her, and it's even better now that the cotton barrier of her underwear is gone. She can feel his tongue circling her, then hardening into a point when he attempts to work it inside her. His nose bumps her clit while he works, and she whines, spreading her legs even wider for him, her fingers twisting in the sheets.

Mr. J growls.

The vibrations of his voice sends a solar flare of pleasure zinging along the length of her spine, like an electric current has zapped her nerve endings, set them alight. She barely has time to bask in it before he's shifting closer, growling as he hooks his arms underneath her thighs.

Then he's lapping between her legs like a dog.

There's no finesse to it, just him grunting and sucking and drooling between her legs with a fervor unlike anything she's ever seen.

She gasps, tipping her head back and reaching up to flatten her palms over her face. Just for a moment. Just so she can focus on the sensations. She can feel the heat of her cheeks against her own hands, but in the next moment, she's propping herself back onto her elbows, needing to watch him between her legs, needing to see.

There is no part of her he leaves untouched. His tongue parts through every fold, every crevice.

The sounds he makes are embarrassing, more animal than human. He sounds like a bear, or a bull, huffing and grunting as he makes a mess between her legs. It wasn't like this in any of the porn that she's watched.

It wasn't like this at all.

But it's nothing compared to the wet sounds of his mouth. She never thought anything could sound so obscene. She flushes beet red, her head falling back against the mattress again as she covers her face with both hands and moans, high and needy.

He finds her clit, swollen and aching, and sucks it into his mouth, hollowing his cheeks, and she could cry it feels so good.

When he scrapes her clit with his teeth, Taylor cries out, jolting upright.

Mr. J comes up for air, looking at her, his eyes so dark, the whites of his eyes gone entirely. The gravel in his voice chills her to the bone when he says, "Lie back."

She does as he says, blinking up at the ceiling as he pushes her thighs back towards her chest, opening her impossibly wide. The heat of his mouth returns, and her chest heaves as she pants, brows pinched together as he works her towards an impossible finish. She can feel it building, the telltale tightening in her belly that has her straining against the hands bracketed against the backs of her thighs, keeping her spread open. Wally is crushed inside the crook of her elbow, forgotten.

Taylor whimpers when he suddenly pulls away, and that coil that had been tightening in her belly startles to slowly unravel. She lifts herself onto her elbows, confused, but then her lips part when Mr. J turns his head to the side, gently sinks his teeth gently into the meat of her thigh as the ropey, mangled flesh of his right-hand scar is pressed flushed against her cunt.

Something inside her snaps.

She's desperate to return to the high he had abruptly stolen from her, and now she ruts against the side of his face. Ruts against it like an animal. It feels like the filthiest thing she's ever done, but his low, drawn-out groan spurs her on, and she moves even faster, the sensation of that rough, textured skin sliding between the slicked-up lips of her cunt unlike anything she's ever felt. It feels so wrong—like when she'd rubbed herself off against the length of his forearm when he'd been sleeping—but also so right. So fucking right.

She closes her eyes and moans, so close to pleasure, so close she nearly tastes it in her throat. On her tongue.

"Mr. J," she whines, still moving her hips, stilling rubbing herself against his gnarled scar tissue, "I f—feel—"

She feels close.

It's a shock to her senses when he pulls away—the entire right side of his face wet from her slick—but then the warmth of his mouth returns to her, and his tongue works now to build her up a steady rhythm against her clit, and she's lost to the sensation, helpless to stop it, knowing she couldn't even if she'd wanted to.

"J," she pants, "don—don't stop," she says, her voice cracking. "I think I—I'm—"

Her body tightens, hips arching towards his mouth, her thighs squeezing tight around his head, and she comes.

The pleasure is white-hot—an electric current that zips all the way down her spine—and she cries out, reaching down to fist her hands in his hair, yanking hard. She hears him groan, feels the vibrations of it, but the sound is almost entirely lost to the white noise ringing in her ears. Black, fuzzy stars burst behind her closed lids, and that's fitting, she thinks, because the pleasure feels intergalactic. Otherworldly.

It feels fucking good.

She pants, open-mouthed, as she comes down, riding the crest of pleasure all the way to the bottom.

She whimpers to feel Mr. J still lapping between her legs, more gently now. Her clit feels tingly—oversensitive and a little numb—and she weakly tries to pull away.

"One more," he growls, "one more for daddy."

Taylor moans, squirming, as he holds down her hips, feels the stretch of one of his fingers trying to slip inside of her. She couldn't possibly come again.

"W—wait," she whimpers, struggling to sit up, but her belly muscles and thighs feel so weak, wrung out. She can barely support her own weight.

"Be a good girl," he says, lowly. "You can take it. Open up."

She whines, and keeps whining, as his middle finger works its way inside her. She clenches down around the intrusion, feels him slide just that much deeper when she does, like she's trying to drawing him inside.

"That's right, angel. Good girl."

Her heart soars at his praise, then his mouth returns, finding her clit again, as he slides his finger in and out, periodically curling his finger, prodding at the spongy wall of tissue just inside her.

He slowly adds another finger—his tongue still working her clit—and the stretch is excruciating. Perfect.

He stretches her open, and she feels overwhelmed—full—and she knows he's meant to be inside her, like he was made for this, to fill her up. To bring her to this crest.

The sensation in her belly returns, and she can't believe he's working her towards another orgasm when she just came, didn't know it was possible to feel this way in such quick succession.

When she comes, it's with a shocked cry. Trembling thighs. The feeling is different this time, less intense than it was before, but no less pleasurable. Her body feels limp. Like he took everything from her that she possibly had to give.

He pumps his fingers inside her once, twice more before slowly withdrawing, and she whimpers as he does, briefly feeling the sticky ropes of wetness that tether her cunt to his soaked fingers. She is already missing their loss. Their warmth.

She can hear his labored breathing when he sits up, and her eyes briefly crack open to catch him wiping his mouth with the back of his wrist, watching her.

She wills her limbs into motion, even if the best she can do is weakly throw her forearm up over her eyes, Wally finally released from the prison of her arm. Her cheeks are burning hot. She feels wrung out from pleasure. Impossibly sated.

"Is… is it always like that?" she asks, panting and out of breath.

She hears him shifting on the bed. Imagines his self-satisfied smirk. "Only with me."

Taylor's mouth stretches into a sleepy half smile, and she stares up at the popcorn ceiling, dazed. Her limbs have never felt as deliciously tired as they do now.

She cranes her neck only when Mr. J lies down next to her on his side, his head propped against his hand, so he can look at her.

She blushes, because she's still naked below the waist, but when she moves to cover herself with her hand, Mr. J stops her halfway, grabbing her wrist.


She looks at him, searching his eyes, and when he releases her wrist, she places her hand on her belly instead. Flexes her fingers a little nervously.

She watches his eyes drift down to her cunt, looking at it like he wants to touch her again, like maybe he's thinking about the possibility of fitting three fingers inside her, instead of just two. She commandeers the strength to roll over onto her side before he can act on those thoughts, burying her head into his chest, wrapping her limbs around him as she nuzzles her nose into his t-shirt. She can smell her arousal on him. The unique mixture of her scent intertwined with his. He lays a hand over the dip of her waist.

Distantly, she realizes he's still hard.

It's quiet for a long time. The room is noticeably darker now, and only a sliver of orange sunlight is left above the horizon. Taylor's never been more content than she is now to just lay here beside him, snuggled so close. She wants to lay here forever, until their bones fuse together, until they merge into one entity. Let her soul converge with his.

"You know," she says, in a small voice, her voice cracking a little, "I used to have a crush on you."

She cranes her neck up to look at him when he doesn't immediately answer, and she watches as he quirks his brow at her, almost imperceptible in the darkness that slowly descends upon the room.

"Used to?"

"Yeah," she says, smiling a little, "like… like when I was little."

"Ah." His hand leaves her waist, so he can skirt his fingers over the rounded ball of her shoulder, fingertips ghosting across her flesh, trailing a little lower down her arm, circling the bend of her elbow, and his touch emboldens her. She goes on.

"I think I… I've always loved you," she says. She looks down after she's said it, swallowing and then staring at some invisible point on his chest. She absently fingers the jut of his collarbone, tracing her fingers over it. Thinking. "I used to draw you these pictures when I was little. I think I thought that if… if I drew something really pretty for you, then you'd like me back, that you… you'd want to be with me, too." She smiles to herself a little at the memory. "You probably don't remember—"

"I remember."

Taylor looks at him, biting her lower lip, trying to gauge his expression. Even now, his eyes are so dark, so intense. She presses her head back down against his side, and he resumes stroking her shoulder.

"I think everything I've ever drawn has been for you," she whispers.

Mr. J doesn't reply.

Maybe he doesn't think her art is very good, but if he knows she does it because of him, for him, then maybe that won't matter. Maybe it doesn't have to be good, maybe it's okay just being what it is. Her art is her love letter to him—all one-hundred plus pages of it, stacks upon stacks of spiral-bound notebooks, sketches scribbled in margins, on napkins, on grocery store receipts. Her secret cry to the world: For Mr. J. I love you.

"Mr. J," she whispers, "do you believe in soulmates?" She waits a moment for him to answer, but it's okay when he doesn't. She's used to his silence. She knows it means he's listening.

"I do," she whispers again, swallowing. She leans forward and up, presses a tender kiss to his jaw. "I think you're mine."

Taylor sleeps until noon.

She wakes to gray skies and the sound of thunder, like a rumbling bellyache.

Mr. J is in the bathroom—she can hear the sink running—and she turns onto her side to watch the dark storm clouds through the cracks in the blind, looming heavy and low in the distance.

The weather dampens her mood only a little; she had wanted to play at the beach today, but after everything that happened last night—and how sore her limbs are—she thinks maybe it's better that she doesn't.

She reaches across the bed to touch the empty space Mr. J had occupied earlier, a little surprised to find that the sheets are cold. He must have been up for a while now.

She sighs contentedly, nuzzling the side of her face deeper into her pillow. There's a pleasant ache in her bones, like the kind she gets when she's spent the whole day prior walking around outdoors, or has done something particularly strenuous.

But there's a pleasant ache between her legs, too. She smiles to herself to remember his mouth between her legs. His fingers inside her.

A part of her still can't believe he did that to her, that he put his mouth on her. A wave of heat rolls through her just from the memory alone, and she unconsciously clenches down on nothing, like her body is already so desperate to remember the sensations, the way he'd made her feel, that incredible high. The fullness of his fingers inside her, scissoring her open, the way he'd lapped at her clit with his tongue and sucked it into his mouth, the fireworks that'd rocketed up her spine when he'd clipped it with his teeth….

After, when the sky had turned dark, and the pop and fizzle of fireworks had lured them from the bed, they went outside to watch the show from the balcony, leaning against the metal railing, Mr. J caging her in from behind, her back pressed to his chest. It was achingly romantic, watching the colors burst across the dark sky.

Taylor jumps when something slams onto the countertop in the bathroom, with enough force to make the bathroom door rattle inside its frame.

She sits up just as Mr. J yanks open the door and steps out, his expression instantly making her recoil. He's muttering to himself, head down, and doesn't even seem to notice her until a moment later, when he jerks his head up and lays his dark eyes on her. The way he looks at her, it's like he forgot she was even there.

She pulls the sheets closer to her chest, as if it could act as a shield.

For a long moment, he doesn't move, just stares at her.

She squirms and tries to keep the panic out of her voice. "Is everything alright, Mr. J?"

She watches him tongue at the inside of his cheek for a long moment, his left scar bulging in a way that makes goose bumps scuttle over her arms.

"Everything's just peachy," he says, in that strange, nasal lilt she doesn't really like. She hunches up her shoulders and bites her lower lip, still feeling unsure.

He goes to her then, and Taylor flinches when he reaches out to cup her face in his hands. She knows he notices, and there's a brief flicker of annoyance that crosses his features before the lines creasing his forehead smooth out, and the angry furrow between brow disappears.

"What about you?" he says. "What's with the long face, baby doll?" The rough pad of his thumbs smooth over her cheeks, then shift lower to tug the skin around her mouth down, exaggerating her frown. "Daddy didn't give it to you the way you wanted last night? Hm?"

Taylor flushes, pulls her face away from his hands. "N—no," she mumbles, "No, of course not." She looks down, too embarrassed to meet his eyes. "I liked it." She flushes hard, briefly glances up to see Mr. J's self-satisfied smirk.

"Well then, nothing to worry about it, is there?"

Taylor nods, and Mr. J pats her cheek—maybe a little too roughly to be considered pleasant, or even affectionate, but she brushes it off, cupping her own cheek in her hand as she watches him turn away.

Mr. J's mood seems to worsen as the day drags on. Taylor tries not to let it get to her, tries not to let her doubt and insecurities creep in, but she can't help wondering if his sour disposition has to do with last night, with what they did. Is he upset that she didn't… didn't get him off?

She'd thought that it was okay that she hadn't. That he'd understood she wasn't ready for that step yet, even if they hadn't really discussed it yet. She'd hoped that he'd understood that she'd wanted to, but was still scared. Maybe she should've offered to use her hand on him, or her mouth, even—she's certainly fantasized about it enough—but the memory of when he had slapped her hand away the first time she'd tried to reach for him still weighs heavy in her mind. He clearly didn't want that.


They find some place out in town to have a late lunch, another diner. It's two PM, so it's not busy. Taylor orders French toast and two links of sausage. Mr. J orders black coffee, and nothing else.

It's silent while she eats. The only sound comes from the soft jazz playing over the speakers, and the clank of silverware and dishes being washed in the kitchen. It reminds her of Ben, and then she's too queasy to eat, especially since Mr. J's not.

"Not hungry?"

Taylor looks up from her plate, from where she had skewered a chunk of French toast onto the tines of her fork and was swirling it in a sticky pool of maple syrup, making sloppy figure-eights.

"You're not eating, either," she points out, trying not to sound as accusatory as she feels. She thinks she catches Mr. J's eyes narrow, but it's gone before she can really tell.

"Well, baby, that's because I'm still full from all that pussy I ate last night," he quips, and Taylor nearly chokes. Her face turns beet red, and she takes a big gulp of orange juice—mostly just as an excuse to hide her face from him.

She finishes her breakfast at his insistence, even though it unsettles her that he won't eat himself. She knows Mr. J to be the kind of person who can go days without a real meal—she's seen it with her own eyes—but that was in the past, when she didn't use to prepare meals for him or regularly cook dinner.

Usually if he skipped a meal, it was because he was too busy to eat, or too distracted; she could always tell when something was weighing on his mind, when his brain was working in that hyper-focused mode, the one that that prevented him from thinking about daily tasks like eating and bathing. Those basic human needs didn't even seem to register to him until whatever it was he had planned had come to fruition. Maybe he thinks she doesn't see that, but she does. She's the only one who does sees it.

She wonders about that now, as they settle into the back of a dark movie theater. There's only three other people, a couple close to the front and an elderly man sitting alone, in a middle row off to the side.

It hasn't escaped her notice that Mr. J has been on his phone a lot more than usual today. He's been checking it periodically, where normally he doesn't really look at it all, at least not when she's around. It's almost always out of her sight, too, either hidden away in the pocket of his slacks or tucked beneath the stack of newspapers he keeps on the table, newspapers he retrieves daily, without fail, and pours over with the sort of feral concentration that makes the hairs on her arms stand on end. What he's looking for, Taylor doesn't know.

Somehow, she's able to relax during the movie, and she finds her anxieties slipping away the longer it goes on. They're in one of those dollar theaters, the kind that only plays old movies, like the theater she used to go to in Old Town because it was all she could afford. Mr. J let her pick the movie, because he always does, and something about sitting here in the dark, with him, makes her feel safe. At ease.

The movie is funny, too, something both heartfelt and kind of silly, and by the time they leave the theater, Taylor feels much better, and Mr. J seems more relaxed, too.

She chatters about the movie nonstop in the car. She tells him she liked the part where one of the characters sang on the school bleachers and was chased around by the school cops.

"He kinda looks like you," Taylor says, turning to face him. She definitely thought the guy in the movie was cute.

"That guy?" Mr. J juts out his chin, looking doubtful. He's holding onto the steering wheel with one hand. "Nah. I'm the real deal, sweet cheeks. Way more handsome than that chump."

Taylor giggles, turning in her seat to face him as much as her seatbelt will allow. "Mr. J, you could practically be twins! I can't believe you don't see it." She pauses, watching his face, and then barrels on. "Did your hair ever used to be dark like that? I mean, did you look like that when you were younger?"

Mr. J side-eyes her, arching a brow. "You calling me old, little girl?"

Taylor flushes despite herself. "No! I was just wondering what you used to look like. I mean, I've never seen any pictures of you when you were my age." Taylor pauses, sitting back in her seat and studying her hands in her lap. Outside, rain starts to patter gently against the windshield. "Do you think you would've liked me back then?" she asks, turning to look at him. There's a touch of anxiety to her voice, and she knows it's because she's afraid of the answer. "I mean, like, if we were the same age, and if we had gone to high school together or something… do you think you would've liked me?"

It feels like it takes a long time for him to respond, like he's thinking very carefully about his reply.

She watches the corner of his mouth curl into a smirk. "Cute little thing like you?" he says. He turns his head to look at her, and Taylor's heart flutters, a little nest of tangled butterfly wings. "Oh, I think we would've gotten along juuuust fine." She watches the veins in his hand bulge when he curls them over the steering wheel, a pleasant rush of arousal turning her insides all warm and gooey. "I would've been chasing away all the other boys with a stick," he says.

Taylor rolls her eyes, but she's smiling. "There are no other boys, Mr. J."

"Well—" he starts, but then doesn't get to finish.

His phone rings.

Taylor stares at him, because she's never heard his phone ring. Not even once.

Mr. J swerves the car to the side of the road. It happens so fast the tires screech, and Taylor is slammed against the passenger door, her heart beating fast.

He answers the phone so fast it's practically a blur when the phone reaches his ear.

"What?" he growls, and Taylor knows, she knows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that whatever honeymoon-like bubble they've been existing inside these past few weeks has irrevocably just snapped.

She watches him with bated breath, her anxiety stretched tight as a bowstring. Her heart thuds in her ears. Something's wrong. Something's really wrong.

She tries to make out what's being said on the other line, but it's raining too hard now for her to decipher anything. It drums against the windshield and roof of the car, so heavy she can't see through the windshield anymore.

It's a long time before Mr. J says anything, but she can hear the gears in his brain turning, the cacophony of his thoughts, an invisible plan shifting into motion. His whole body is tense, rigid in that way it only gets when he's excited, when something big is at hand. She knows the signs. She's learned to despise them.

"I'll be right there," he says, finally, then abruptly ends the call. Drops the phone into the empty cupholder in the center console.

He turns to look at her, and his eyes are full of acid.

"Get out of the car."

Taylor's mouths parts in shock. Ice freezes her veins.

"W—what?" she breathes.

"I said, get. Out. Of. The car." He enunciates each word through gritted teeth, like he's talking to a stupid child.

Taylor stares at him, wide-eyed. Uncomprehending.

"Mr. J," she whispers, "I—I don't—I don't understand," she says, voice cracking pathetically. "Did I do something wrong?"

"Get out, get out, get OUT!" he barks. She flinches when he reaches for her, unclicking her seatbelt. He reaches across her and violently rips open her door.

Taylor gapes at him, horrified. Everything is happening so fast. She doesn't understand. Rain beats against the sidewalk, and it mists her skin when the door is thrown open, sending a shiver of goose bumps crawling up arms and legs. Her heart pounds like a drum in her ears.

"Mr. J—what—please," she begs, "just tell me what's happening!"

He shoves her out of the car, onto the sidewalk, where she stumbles onto her bare knees, scraping them. When she looks back at him from over her shoulder, he's tossing a key at her. It clatters onto the sidewalk.

"Go back to the motel. Stay there."

She barely has time to inch away from the door before he's reaching across her seat and yanking it shut.

The tires screech as pulls away from the curb, and she watches him leave.

She watches him leave.

Taylor makes it back to the motel.

Her hands tremble when she fits the key into the lock. Her clothes are soaked, and her teeth clatter so hard it feels like they'll shatter.

She can't breathe.

The moment the door closes behind her, she collapses against it, gasping, finally releasing the torrent of tears she'd been holding back the whole one and a half hours it took her to walk home. She'd gotten lost in the rain, couldn't remember the name of the motel when she finally stumbled inside a convenience store, ignoring the questioning stares of all the patrons inside, and the Indian man behind the counter. She kept her head down as she asked for directions back to the boardwalk. She didn't have money for a cab. She didn't have anything but the motel key, clutched in her tight fist.

With her back to the door, she slides down it until she reaches the floor with a thud.

Then her chest heaves, and she wails.

She sobs harder than she ever thinks she's sobbed before. She doesn't understand what just happened. Why he'd kick her out of the car like that.

"I'll be right there," he'd said.

But where? Where was he was going? Back to Gotham? Had something happened?

She pulls her knees up to her chest, wraps her arms around her arms around them, hugging herself, crying so hard she can't even see straight. Their room is a trembling blur of gray through her tears, and her heart is lodged somewhere high in her throat, beating inside the tight column of it, choking her. She wants to rip it out and throw it across the room. She wants to crush it with her bare hands.

Taylor tries to slow her breathing. Tries to remember that trick one of her old therapists had taught her.

Count backwards, count backwards until you can breathe.

She does that. Starts at one-hundred and works her way back. She bobs her head forward and back with each number, doesn't realize she's banging the back of her head against the door—hard—until she reaches thirty-seven. Only then does the pain register, the excruciating tenderness as the back of her skull.

She slumps against the floor, lying on her side, her chest heaving, vision fuzzy around the edges. Why is it so hard to breathe? Why can't she fucking breathe?

She doesn't know how much time has passed when she gets up from the floor, only that she's still trembling, and her clothes are still soaked. She puts her hands over her temples and presses down hard, pacing back and forth in front of the end of the bed.

How is it possible that just hours before, Mr. J had been kneeling here, working her towards the most incredible pleasure she'd ever felt?

Had that all been a dream? Had she imagined this whole vacation as some weird coping mechanism? Was any of it even real? Was she going crazy?

Her heart hammers away inside her chest as she paces, her brain scrambling to piece together all the events that led up to the moment. It couldn't have been something she'd said or done, could it? Surely it had to be something else?

But then why kick her out the car? Why had he reacted so violently? Why couldn't she go with him? Where was it that he was going?

She tries to find a modicum of comfort in his instructions to return back to the motel. Telling her that must mean he was planning on coming back for her, right?

Taylor sobs some more, still pacing back and forth, even as her eyes dart across the room, as if in search for clues, something that could have alerted her to what was going to transpire.

She pauses, seeing the newspapers stacked on the table by the window.

She goes to them and tears through them with trembling hands, searching for clues, for anything that might explain where he's gone. What's happening.

At first there's nothing. She scours the headlines on each page, not sure what she's looking for, not even sure what she hopes to find.

She puts down the newspaper and reaches for the next one, but not before noticing something scribbled on the back of the first paper. She stares at it, squinting. She knows Mr. J's sloppy, chicken-scratch handwriting like she knows the back of her own hand.

Two initials, and a date.

B. G.


That was just a few days ago.

She flips through the next paper, tearing through each page and finding nothing—until she reaches the back.

Another set of initials. Another date.

A vicious chill rattles down her spine, washes over her whole body and makes her shiver.

She drops the newspaper. Steps back from the window.

She'd never noticed him writing in the newspaper before. What did these names mean? And what was the significance of the dates?

Taylor is still shaking when she goes to the bathroom, finally peels herself out of her wet clothes and puts on something dry.

She closes the blinds over the window when it gets dark. Her belly growls with pangs of hunger, and she's almost surprised at it, surprised that she had forgotten this sensation. She feels like a traitor to her own body, to have become so spoiled rotten to have not remembered such a familiar ache. She got too comfortable. Too used to Mr. J taking care of her of her every need.

You're so stupid, she thinks.

She sits on the edge of the bed and rocks back and forth. Digs her nails into her thighs, leaving crescent moons. She wants to rip open her skin and peel it all back. She wants to touch her nerve endings. Light them on fire. She wants to feel anything else but this. The pain of abandonment. Of being unwanted. Again.

It's the middle of the night—two AM—when exhaustion finally takes her.

She sleeps fitfully, hugging Mr. J's pillow, then tossing and turning, legs tangled in the sheets. At one point she turns feverish, whimpering, hair plastered to her forehead, sweating bullets, until finally managing to kick off the covers. Then she's goose-pimpled and shivering, curled up in a tight ball on Mr. J's side of the mattress, the one closest to the window.

She has strange, bizarre dreams. The kind of dreams that defy logic and sense, in only the way dreams ever can. In one dream, the police are knocking at their door back home in Gotham, pounding so hard it rattles the whole frame, demanding her to open up. They're here to take her away, to take her to jail, because they know about her relationship with Mr. J. She hasn't done anything wrong, she tells them, but she's with the Joker, and in her dream, her association is crime enough.

"No, no!" she cries. "I didn't do anything! Leave me alone, please! Don't!"

But the pounding on the door persists, and that's when she realizes.

The pounding on the door is real.

She gasps awake, plastered in sticky sweat, jerking upright in bed.

A milky, blue pallor washes over the room, and she looks blearily at the TV, which she'd turned at some point, flipping between Gotham news channels, waiting. Hoping, although she didn't know what for.

She'd sat on the edge of the bed and rocked herself for hours.

She didn't know what was worse: seeing him on TV, or not seeing him at all.

The pounding on the door persists, and she's frozen, sitting ramrod straight in bed, gripped with terror.

"Taylor? Taylor, if you're in there, open the door!"

Her blood turns cold.

She knows that voice.

Her heart thuds wildly in her chest. She sits up on the edge of the mattress, slowly.

"Taylor? Open the door."

She hears the doorknob jangle, and she prays to any god that will listen that it won't budge.

Maybe if I don't answer, he'll go away, she thinks. But then what is he even doing here? Gotham is nearly three hours away. And what if he has information about Mr. J? What if Mr. J is hurt?

She rushes to the door—accidentally trips over a pair of her own sandals in her haste. There's a thud as she hits the floor, landing on her hands and knees. She hisses in pain, her knees raw from where she'd scraped them on the pavement, when Mr. J had forced her out of the car.

She hobbles the short distance to the door, standing on her tiptoes to peer out of the peephole.

She gasps in shock to see another figure looking in, and she rears back from the door as if physically struck.

It is him.


"Taylor!" he says, then she hears a mumbled, Jesus Christ, like he's relieved or something. "Taylor, I know you're in there. Just open the door. Open the door right now."

She shakes her head—even though he can't see—and backs away from the door, hugging herself.

"N—no," she croaks, her voice barely audible. "No," she says, this time louder, trying to keep the whimper out of her voice. "What are you doing here? Where's Mr. J?"

"Taylor, just open the door, I'll explain everything. Please."

Taylor shakes her head again. Swallows back the burgeoning tears already lodged in her throat.

"No. No! I don't want you here. You're not supposed to be here! Go away!"

Ressling's fist slams angrily against the door, and she jumps.

"Taylor, I swear to God if you don't open this door right now, I'm gonna break it down."

She lowers her arms to her side and screams. "GO AWAY! I want Mr. J. I WANT MR. J!"

She breaks down and sobs, hands over her face, hyperventilating through the gaps of her own fingers.

Ressling mutters something outside the door, and she hears the doorknob jiggle again.

Belatedly, she realizes he's breaking in.

The door swings wide open, banging against the wall, and Taylor gasps, stumbling backwards. She's wide-eyed as she stares at Ressling in the doorway. He quickly closes the door.

"When I tell you to do something, you fucking do it!" he shouts.

Taylor's features instantly harden. The light from the TV catches on the tear-stained tracks on her cheeks. She hates him. She hates him so fucking much.

Full of adrenaline, she goes to him. Shoves him hard in the chest, where he infuriatingly doesn't even budge.

"Get OUT!" she screams. "You can't be here. This is me and Mr. J's—" she doesn't finish, can't find the word she's looking for. Her and Mr. J's what? Their house? Their room? Does that even carry meaning anymore now that he's gone? "—You're not supposed to be here!" she cries.

She goes to shove him again, full of righteous anger, and he grabs her by the wrists, yanks her closer only to hold her at bay.

"Knock it off," he snaps, looking down at her, his eyes hard and cold and dark, searching hers in the semi darkness. She's so close she's practically stepping on his boots. She can smell him, she realizes, and he smells just like he has all the other times before. Cigarette smoke and damp leather. Rain, icy-cool aftershave, and woodsy cologne, something with a sharp bite to it. Something that makes her head throb.

He releases her wrists after a long moment, and she stumbles back, nostrils flaring.

"I'm here to take you back. Pack your stuff."

He moves past her, goes straight to the closet, yanking the trifold door back, and pulls out Mr. J's empty duffel.

Taylor gapes at him.

"You can't touch that!" she shouts, just barely managing to curb the urge to stomp her foot. "That's Mr. J's!"

He doesn't even look at her. Starts pulling clothes off the hangers. Shoving them into the bag.

"We're leaving in fifteen minutes," he says. "Pack your stuff."

Taylor shakes her head, dumbfounded. She can hear her breath quickening, the way it's suddenly so hard to take a deep breath.

"Leaving where?"

He looks at her, really looks at her, like he's taking in her appearance for the first time. She shifts uncomfortably, suddenly feeling self-conscious standing there barefoot, in Mr. J's t-shirt, so oversized on her, and her stupid frilly pajama bottoms, barely peeking out from below the hem of her shirt.

Ressling looks at her, and his shoulders seem to sag, even as a muscle in his jaw twitches.

"Gotham," he says, finally, breaking the silence that had fallen over the room.

Taylor's face crumples, and she can feel the tears gathering in her eyes, no matter how hard she tries to will them away.

Of course back to Gotham. Where else?

"Is Mr. J alright?" she asks, hating the telltale crack in her voice. "Please… please just tell me the truth."

Ressling's mouth thins into a straight line, as if he's considering his next words very carefully. His voice is so quiet, Taylor almost has to strain to hear him.

"Get packed," he says. "I'll explain everything."

Author's Notes: The music playing during the scene where Taylor and the Joker are playing the motorcycle game is As Heaven is Wide by Garbage. I felt this was important to share because when you Google the lyrics I included in the chapter, a different song entirely comes up, and that's a little bit of a bummer. Anyway, I have very fond memories of listening to this song while playing Gran Turismo on our old PS1, and it was easily my favorite song from the game.

If you could possibly find it in your heart to leave a comment (even just a tiny one) it would be so very appreciated. I love hearing from you all and your feedback/excitement for the story is the greatest fuel. Thank you so much for all of your support thus far.

Also, if you're interested in sneak peeks, headcanons and mini fics written by me, as well as fan-made videos, gifs, art, and playlists for Burn… check out my Tumblr, where I go by engagemachine.