Thanks to everyone for the support and reviews, especially those of you returning fans! It's great to have you back and I'm glad you weathered the storm, as it were (the storm being my silly hectic life). Because I leave for college in a few days, and my school happens to be cross country, it goes without saying that updates will definitely become scattered between now and September. You know, adjusting to my new life and all that. So bear with me through the moving, settling and schooling process. But I have to say, I'm finding it very hard to stay away - I don't think I've ever been so invested in a fanfic. Well, lucky you!

P.S. Reviews are greatly, greatly appreciated, from everyone on every topic. I love getting critiques so don't be afraid to hand them out! It's the only way I grow as a writer and therefore the only way the story can get better! So feel free to drop me a little line!

Birds of a Feather

IX - Maroni's Ace

"You know, I really shouldn't be telling you this," she teased, her voice laced with laughter. His response, an exasperated sigh, crackled through the earpiece, distorted by the poor cellular connection. "Alright, alright, don't get your...cape in a twist." She giggled openly, amused with herself and her ability to taunt the man who scared the most cold-blooded of men. "We have a deal, correct?" Her tone, still blissfully light, deepened slightly. There was business to attend to.

"You tell me what you know, I get his preliminary trial moved up."

She licked her lips in and absentminded fashion. It had become somewhat of a habit, as of late. The dry air, maybe? "Have you spoken to Miss Dawes about this."

"Not yet, but I will."

"And you're sure she'll do it?" she pressed, her laughter gone. "I'm not giving up what I know without a guarantee."

"Sorry I didn't have time to put it in writing, " Bruce replied, sounding unamused at best. She, on the other hand, chuckled lowly. He wasn't rasping away today, a fact that put her in a very good mood. The Batman voice always was annoying and a tad over the top. "I'll get you what you need. You have my word."

"I'll hold you to that," she warned, leaning back against into her new leather couch. A few feet away, the nanny occupied Saffron with a few expensive, colorful toys.

Bruce nodded, acknowledging her threat. "I know." He paused and, on Sakura's end, he could hear tiny peals of laughter. The baby. "So what did you hear?"

"Besides the uninteresting BS that made up 90 percent of yesterday?" In his mind, he laughed rather loudly. She wasn't swearing, not in front of the baby. How responsible. "Well, quite frankly I'm surprised Gambol hasn't been taken in yet. Guy's so stupid, even the cops could get him. The Chechen doesn't care if you shoot his guys-."

"You shot someone?"

"Not important," she breezed, shrugging it off like a worn-out jacket, "And I met your Joker."


"So he's a real nut. I'm talking straitjacket, solitary and a cell for a hundred life sentences."

Bruce clucked his tongue. "That bad?"

"The guy crashed a meeting comprised primarily of the hardened criminals he just stole sixty-eight million dollars from. So yeah, I'd say he's more than a few screws loose."

"So Bank of Gotham is one of yours?" He tried his best to sound curious, innocent even, though he knew she'd never tell him, not about something so close to her.

She scoffed, "Focus, Bruce. Anyways, this Joker says he wants to help us get back to the way things were."

"Before Batman." It wasn't a question.

"Bingo. What's it like to be the root of all evil to the...evil people?"

On the other end, a thousand miles away, Bruce Wayne didn't laugh or even smile at her playful jibe. "You can crack jokes after you spit out whatever you're dancing around."

"Well, the Joker's offered his services." As she spoke, she felt herself shudder but in fear or excitement, she couldn't tell.

"To do what?"

"Kill you," she chirped, nonchalant and playful. Her voice, that is. Her eyes, which Bruce could not see, darkened with distaste. The nanny looked at her sidelong, hardly daring to barely glance her way. Sakura understood and dismissed her with a wave of her hand. The girl didn't want to hear anything more. "And he wants half."

"Half?" Bruce sputtered, "Half of what?"

"The money Lao's taken with him to Hong Kong. I told you, the guy is crazy."

"But you're going to pay him."

"They're going to pay him," she corrected. "I don't keep my money in Mob banks and I wouldn't trust that Chinese guy with a single dollar. I'm not completely stupid." Separate but equal. "Speaking of Lao, what are- what's Batman going to do now that he's gone back to Hong Kong?"

He smiled and leaned back in his white chaise, an untouched drink in his other hand. "You don't read the papers much, do you?" As if on cue, a chorus of girlish giggles and a tropical breeze accompanied his voice.

"Where are you?"

Again, he laughed. She could now hear Alfred in the background and the roar of a plane engine. "Sorry, but I've got to get moving. Can we finish this another time?" he matched her light and airy tone, incensing her wildly.

"What about Jon? Our deal?" She sounded desperate. Right where he wanted her to be.

"As far as I'm concerned, you haven't told me much of anything. Just another madman's gunning for me."

"But this is the madman," she growled. "I'm telling you, he's an animal and he's just been let out of the cage."

"You did it, it's your problem," he snapped back. "I'll call when I'm finished. Maybe you'll have something worth saying then."

And then he hung up. You'd think Bruce Wayne would have learned some manners by now.

This wasn't like the last time. No grotty kitchen, no metal detectors and no Gambol. The police report, hastily filed and quickly closed, didn't go into the nitty gritty, but she didn't need the details to understand what happened. "Carved like a fucking pumpkin", as a police mole so eloquently put it, was explanation enough. In life, Gambol always complicated things and in death, well, it was quite the opposite. No inquiries, no weeping widows. No one of any importance would be sending any flowers to his very small funeral. Not the Chechen, not the Falcones. Especially not the Falcones. Gambol had been a lot of trouble, much more than he was worth, and almost everyone was glad to be rid of his dead weight.

The murder was not without reason. The Joker had made his point and made it loud and clear. He meant business. He could follow his word. He could kill the Batman. That, more than his sinister laughter, more than the image of Gambol's shredded face, scared her straight. This wasn't just a thug running his mouth. This was very real and very, very close to the man she reluctantly called a friend.

Lao's capture in Hong Kong, at Batman's hands no less, forced Sal Maroni into a corner. He hated being forced, but he hated being cornered more. The boss remembered the Joker well but now, instead of seeing a madman, he saw an escape. An opportunity. A chance.

"I'll risk it," he said, his lips pursed and jaw set. Sakura sat back in her dining chair, hoping his unfounded bravado wouldn't rub off on her. "He'll do it, we'll pay him the money. And then things go back."

"Please," she rolled her eyes, "Even if- when you kill him, things won't go back to the way they were before. They can't. He's changed too much."

Maroni sighed. "He'll be dead. That's change enough."

"And what about the Joker? What happens after he goes through with it?"

"Hell if I know," he shrugged, "and hell if I care."

She snorted, less than amused. Enough time with the currently jailed Jonathan Crane had taught her the basics of crazy. Rule number one: letting the monster out of it's cage is much easier than putting it back in.

"You're going to regret this," she sing-songed. Her fingers splayed, reaching for a cigarette she knew wasn't there. Damn habits. So hard to break. Thankfully, the occupants of the secluded second-floor dining room, that is the Falcones, the Chechen and their thugs, had wisely elected not to smoke. Even those who didn't speak English got the picture after what happened to their comrade some days before. There wasn't even an ashtray in sight, Sakura noted, an indication of the wait staff's dedication to her comfort. Her family did own the place, after all. "You know," she continued, miffed at her uncle's indifference, "I'm not wrong. Just because I'm a woman doesn't mean you can't admit that."

Maroni pulled back from his meal, a scowl twisting his features. Insubordination would not be tolerated. "That's enough-."

"Carmine Falcone was man enough to accept a woman as his best," she sneered. Her hands spread on the table top, itching for the thrill she had long been without.

"And look where it got him!" Maroni gestured to her. "Unless I'm mistaken, your boyfriend is the reason he's got life in the loony bin." He sipped his wine slowly, allowing his words to sink in. They fell on her like hammer blows, pounding into her brain. "So excuse me for not hangin' on your every word. I'd like to keep my sanity, if ya don't mind." His gaze, fixed on her face, hardened until his eyes resembled stone. "And if you'd like to keep your boyfriend alive, you'll sit back and shut the fuck up."

Sakura felt her defenses crumble as she succumbed to Maroni's word. It stung, being rebuked, but not so much as the notion that she, Sakura-Fucking-Falcone, meant next to nothing. She had no pull, no power, and no sway over the Falcone boss; her greatest asset, Mob might, was all but gone. Maroni had put her in her place, publicly, reducing her to little more than a decoration. She felt like one of those animal heads, nailed to the wall, a symbol of the wild brought low to quietly watch the world pass by. Her lion's heart, her reckless nature had failed. Maroni had his ace, his trump card, to hold over her: Jonathan Crane. They had revealed their relationship, his location, to Maroni; their first in a long line of mistakes.

Okay, this was not meant to be so short but I wanted to put at least SOMETHING out before I left for school. I'm 99 sure this will be my last post before the move, so I have no idea when the next update will be. Don't count on anytime soon, but you never know.