I do not own and never have owned the Batman series. The originals and their many interpretations belong to a whole bunch of people, and I'm not one of those. Sorry. However, Em and this particular narrative do belong to me, so you know the drill- no taking without permission, no uncredited/undisclaimed copying, etc, etc. Here's hoping you enjoy!
I'll laugh until my head comes off,
I swallow till I burst—until I burst.
Before this very moment, I've never known how painful my own heartbeat could be. Right now, it's pounding so fast it feels like it's about to burst out through my chest, and it actually hurts. This combined with the fact that my stomach currently feels like someone ripped it out, tied knots in it, and shoved it back in makes things very uncomfortable for me.
Wasn't our fault. Wasn't our fault. Why the hell did they decide to blame us?
I've always had a fear of clowns. I don't know; I guess it was that face paint that got to me. It's not natural for something to be so happy all the time. The one exception to the rule was Tim Curry in It. I know, right? The most notorious "scary clown" movie ever, and I wasn't scared of it because the main character was an actor that I would always associate with Long John Silver of Muppet Treasure Island and then, later in my life, Dr. Frank-n-Furter of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
These clowns are more terrifying than most. I actually have a reason to be scared of them.
It's so cold.
I just picked the wrong day to go to the bank. Like most people nowadays, I try to avoid actually going into the bank—the drive-throughs at the little branches around the city and the ATMs usually took care of it for me. But I'd recently misplaced my debit card and wanted to get a new one sent out to me. I suppose I could have done it on the internet—should have—but the building was on my way to school. So I stopped.
Now I'm in the back of a van, blindfolded and terrified, listening to the harsh breathing and whimpers of the other hostages.
Memory blurs when I try to pin down exactly what happened in that bank. The clowns burst in, there was a lot of screaming… I remember looking for him among them, their leader, the man the media definitively dubbed the Joker—a man that the citizens of Gotham are terrified of nowadays.
I guess he was busy—he's probably moved on from bank robbery, too much of a big shot to trouble with the dirty work anymore. He still needs funds, though, right? So his people get to steal to their hearts' content. It's just my luck that they picked my bank on the one day I needed to visit it.
There was a gunshot, though. More screaming. And the clowns were suddenly pissed. Just like that, they gunned down half of the hostages. They warned us to shut up or we'd be next. It was a powerful threat, what with a dozen dead bodies backing it up. We shut up.
While laying flat on the ground amidst other the hostages, my adrenaline-pumped mind was able to somewhat process what had happened. One of the hostages—maybe a bank employee, it wasn't clear—had a gun. They'd killed one of the clowns. I couldn't see the body, but I heard the whispers around me and put two and two together.
Too soon, they were done in the vaults. Still no sign of the cops—I had no idea what was taking so long, or if they'd even been called. They killed half of the surviving hostages. I didn't focus on the bodies—I couldn't, not if I wanted to stay calm and stay alive. I was one of the lucky ones. There were only six of us left—a mother with her little girl, an old man, and two other people my age, clinging tightly to one another. And then there was me.
The smell of the blood and shit and vomit (and there was plenty of each) was burning in my nose. There were bloodstains on my jeans and on the brown suede jacket that I'd wanted so much and now just wanted to burn. Everywhere I looked there were bodies. And I stayed calm.
I tend to do this in the face of a crisis. I don't cry, don't scream. I look around, I take note of whatever I can, and I scheme to get out of the current mess. I was a little surprised this habit apparently carried over to such a crisis, but even so, despite the severity of the situation, I couldn't let myself lose it. Half the hostages were having quiet freakouts already, and it didn't seem to be doing them much good. The survival instinct was kicking in—I had to do whatever I could to get out, and I figured not getting on the clowns' nerves by sniveling and crying was the best way to start.
Blindfolds were produced. We were hustled into a van—where are the police?!—and crammed together, shoulder-to-shoulder, in the back.
Now we're driving.
Any attempt to speak is silenced harshly by our guard—one of any number of clowns that could be back here, but then, it could just be him. If it is just him, if I ripped off the blindfold and attacked, could I overpower him?
I catch myself and smother the thought. It's crazy, exactly the sort of desperate, reckless shit someone who's been through a traumatic experience might come up with. I'm stronger than that. If I play along, I might live through this.
But chances are I won't, I think before I can quite stop myself. These are the Joker's men, after all. He isn't known for his mercy. Odds are that I'll have to play some sick game and then I'll die.
Really positive thinking, there, totally encouraging. I need to think about something else.
I'm freezing. Why the hell don't they have heat back here? They're human too, aren't they?
I have my coat. My hands are ice cold, though, as well as my nose, my mouth, and all my extremities. I can barely feel my chill is getting physically painful. I need to get out of here. Why didn't I hide under the bodies?
On a normal day, the thought would have repulsed me, but today's not a normal day. Today, adrenaline is pumping through my system and thoughts are flying through my skull in rapid progression, some of which seem more than a little sociopathic.
It's something I've always hated about myself, to the point that I tend to overcompensate for it. When I'm not in the midst of a crisis, I try to be entirely selfless, to take care of everyone. Maybe it makes up for the fact that I immediately begin calculating and conniving when I'm in trouble. I can still muster up some form of sympathy for children when I'm in trouble, or animals, things that can't defend themselves without some kind of help, but as far as other people go, it's a dog-eat-dog world and I am not above being grateful when they get the shit instead of me.
I'm worried right now. The kid isn't making any noise at all. She's not even crying. She's too young to know that being quiet might keep her alive longer; she can't be more than four or five years old. If she's in shock, she needs to go to a hospital.
The van lurches to a stop, sending us tumbling to the floor of the van. Someone falls into me. The clown in the back with us swears and the blackness behind my blindfold lightens a bit as the van door opens.
We're muscled out of the vehicle. I want to walk carefully, because I don't think whoever has me by the arm is going to be very careful guiding me through doorways and such, but I'm getting jerked forward violently and insistently, so I just stagger along as quickly as I can. Hopefully my prompt obedience will help.
My heart is racing. My stomach keeps twisting, making me feel even sicker, and I'm freezing cold. It feels like we're going inside, but you wouldn't guess it from the temperature. Suddenly, I'm released. My blindfold is ripped off. We're in a dim, cold room that looks like it might have once been a conference room in a storage building or a warehouse or something. My hands are free, but I'm not about to try anything. They still have their guns.
There's a fire burning in an oil drum in the center of the room, the only source of heat, from what I can tell, greasy fumes of smoke drifting up from it in wisps to escape through the cracked windows lining the top of the walls. A few of our captors are warming themselves next to it; the rest of them are watching us. I look around. The other hostages look about as lost as I am. None of us seem to know what's expected of us at this point.
I venture to sit cautiously on the floor, wanting to see if I'll get yelled at. One of the clowns sneers in acknowledgement, but he doesn't do or say anything. One by one, the rest of my fellow captives follow suit.
Time crawls by. The clowns fight in hisses amongst themselves—probably about what to do with us, judging by the fact that they're bothering to whisper. I suppose I should feel encouraged that they're even fighting—means we've got someone who thinks they should keep us alive, for whatever reason. After a while, I turn to look at the little girl. She's shivering, and her mother is trying to keep her warm, but her hands are turning blue. As selfish as I want to be, as selfish as I would be if she were even just a few years older, I can't help but feel a twinge of conscience. She's so young.
Slowly, carefully, I get up. One of the clowns watches me warily as I walk over to the mother and child, stripping my coat as I go. Underneath I'm only wearing a thin, long-sleeved green shirt—I'd picked it out so carefully this morning because it went with my eyes and set off my red hair, and I had my eye on the new teacher's aide. Thinking about it now, I feel a pulse of loathing for my past self. You couldn't have picked anything warmer, could you?
I briefly, privately mourn the loss of my coat, but I've decided to move past it by the time I reach the little girl, and I tuck it carefully around her. Her mother gives me a wide-eyed look of fear. "What's happening?" she whispers. They're the first real words I've heard in hours, and I can only shake my head. I don't know.
I'm starting to feel the cold again, and the chill seems to go twice as deep this time—I'd gone a little bit numb, sitting there and not moving, but getting up apparently got my blood flowing again and my body's decided to remind me how miserable it is. My teeth start clicking together convulsively. Before I can move back to my spot and try to settle down to hope for that comfortable numbness again, though, the door bursts open. Two more clowns walk in. And then—him.
I can see him better now than I've ever been able to on GCN. Usually we get blurry, scattered shots of him, shaky video… not enough to really see.
I'm seeing him now.
Honestly, I could probably look at him for hours, from the hair (which may have been plain brown one crappy dye job and eight missed washes ago) to the shoes (brown dress shoes, perfectly functional but maybe a little old, no shine to them). It's similar to my old fascination with serial killers—this person is responsible for some of the worst crimes committed in Gotham City in the past year. How could he possibly be human? Is he human? What would it be like to sit down and have an actual conversation with him, just him?
No, Emma, don't even think that; take it back right now. Now. You don't want a conversation with him. He will kill you, or worse, given the slightest provocation—or, considering who this is, no provocation at all. Don't attract attention. Do not…
But I can't seem to stop staring. His makeup is smeared, running in places, probably last touched up over twenty-four hours ago. Beneath his eyes, the black's coming off. His skin looks purple underneath. I can't tell if it's from injury or lack of sleep. Probably both. His eyes are drooping a little bit and his movements are jerky, but maybe he's always like this—I wouldn't know.
"Well, well," he drawls, striding in and not even glancing over at us, as if coming home to find a group of hostages huddling in the corner is a perfectly normal occurrence (and let's face it—for him, it probably is). "How'd it go?"
One of the clown speaks up, a tattletale's whine in his voice. "They shot Lou."
"They shot Lou?" demands the Joker, his tone incredulous. I'm not sure, but it sounds like he's mocking his henchman.
"Yeah, they shot Lou," the clown repeats, seeming a little unsure.
The Joker produces a weapon out of nowhere, some sort of automatic handgun—I've never spent time around guns, so I can't identify it, but it doesn't matter, it's scary regardless of what kind it is. His tongue darts out, snakelike, as the barrel of the gun swings around towards us. "So these bastards pulled the trigger on Lou, huh? Should we… get rid of 'em?"
"What?" The clown looks confused. "No—no, boss, it wasn't them. They're just hostages; they're just here 'cause we were waitin' to see what you wanted us to do with 'em."
"What I want you to do with 'em?" repeats the Joker, deadpan, holding completely still, then he halfway lowers the gun. "They're hostages. Play with 'em. Kill 'em. I don't care whatchya do."
The gun swings back up. He compresses the trigger and bullets fly. "It's as easy as that."
My hands clutch at my middle automatically for a split second before I realize I didn't get hit, and then I turn to see who did. It's the old man. He slumps over, blood staining his shirt. The little girl starts crying, finally.
His head whips around. He sees us, really sees us, for the first time. For a moment, a terrifying millisecond, his eyes rest on me, but even as I freeze beneath them, they slide sideways to the girl instead.
"Aw, whassamatter?" he asks, shoving the gun into his henchman's chest and then striding over to us. The mother screams as he tears the little girl from her arms.
"Don't cry!" he says, throwing her up into the air and catching her again. "Have fun!" He repeats the process, sucks in a breath and then lets out a shrill cry: "Wheeee!"
I feel the foolish urge to burst into hysterical laughter. There is something absolutely sick about this, and I can't help myself. I reach out. His faded blue sleeve is rolled up to the elbow, and before I know it, my fingers have closed around his bared forearm.
He turns, apparently completely forgetting that he's just hurled the girl even higher into the air and she's on her way back down. I flinch, but the mother manages to catch her daughter just before she has an untimely meeting with the concrete floor.
He stares at me, expressionless, licks his lips, and then, very quietly, he asks, "Yes?"
This was a very bad idea. Scratch that—this ranks among one of the worst ideas I've ever had, but there's no going back now. So much for flying under the radar. I clear my throat, and softly, I ask, "What… what do you want with us?"
"Me?" His face splits into a wide, incredulous grin. "Me?" He gestures to himself. "I don't want anything with ya! I didn't bring you here, did I? No, no, your fate is up to… these—" and he swings his hand around to gesture at the clowns—"gentlemen."
Although his lips are closed, I can see movement through his cheeks, his tongue probing at the insides of his cheeks, the other sides of his scars. The realization makes me vaguely sick. He's staring at me, contemplating something. I wish I knew what he was thinking, but I'm too scared to ask.
He abruptly turns away. He strides off, stopping only for a second to mutter something to a clown. I hear the words "that one," spoken a little louder than the rest, and, just so there can be no confusion, he turns and points at me. He sees me staring and flashes a quick grin at me. I want to glare defiantly at him, but my blood's running cold at this new development and I'm sure I just look stricken (and anyway, defiance isn't a good way to go if you want to survive).
Then, he just leaves the room, slamming the door shut behind him. There's a collective relaxation, as if everyone's catching their breath now that he's gone.
Clowns suddenly hurry past me. Before I can do much more than blink, they've grabbed the other hostages and removed them from the room, hustling them through the door into a larger room beyond. Two other clowns get the body of the old man, one grabbing the wrists, one grabbing the feet. Once the flurry of activity is over, there's only one clown left in the room with me. He's holding a gun in plain view, an unspoken warning against foolishness, so I don't think it's wise to try to escape, despite the feeling that something horrible is imminent creeping up my spine.
"What's going on?" I ask flatly, almost forgetting that I should be afraid of him. Turns out, once you've faced the living terror that is the Joker, his lackeys lose a little bit of their shine.
The clown grunts. "Boss wants it."
My heart skips a beat again, and just when I'd thought that it might settle down a little bit. "It?"
"This," he growls, waving a hand around. "Everything here is according to his plan. All of it is always, always according to plan, no matter how smart you think you are, so let me give you some advice, lady—cooperate. Don't try to outsmart him. You ain't got shit on whatever's happening inside that skull of his."
Well, I hadn't planned on trying to outsmart him. Then again, I also haven't been planning to see him ever again, but apparently, that's far too much to hope for. As if you really had hope to begin with. "What is going on?"
He sighs. I can see his internal struggle playing out over his face—does he want to indulge me and therefore commit the probably-mortal sin of acknowledging me as a human being, or does he want to threaten and growl and look tough and continue to be bored until whatever's about to happen happens? "He doesn't sleep," he says finally. "I dunno if he can't or just doesn't. Lives on coffee for about six days and then finally crashes hard around the seventh. When he does sleep, he tends to do it best with some kind of a… security blanket."
"Security blanket," I repeat flatly.
He doesn't answer me, because the two guys who carried out the body are coming back in and he apparently has to re-establish his credibility as number one mute, macho henchman, so he just grunts and turns away from me.
It's cold. I rub my arms, trying to coax some warmth back into them. Minutes crawl past.
Finally another clown comes in and points at me. "You. Come with me. No funny business."
I want to mutter rebelliously under my breath, something about how hypocritical it is, no funny business coming from a fucking clown. Want to, but don't. I imagine the survival rate for hostages tends to drop drastically with each new smartass comment. It'll be better for everyone if I keep them to myself. He makes me walk in front, which doesn't really reassure me, but what choice do I have? We walk down one or two dark hallways, and then he points with his gun to a closed door on the left.
I stare at him, and then I knock.
There's a second of silence, then that silky, dangerous voice oozes through the door—"Come in."
I carefully push the door open and, knowing that I'm probably walking to my own doom, I step inside.
Shitty digs for a rich criminal, is my first thought. It's worn-down, cold, no furniture but an unoccupied desk and a cracked mirror on the wall. The only thing that makes me think anyone could possibly live in this space (or sleep here, at least) is the bundle of blankets shoved into a corner.
In another corner there are scattered notebooks, newspapers, and pictures. Batman. His obsession. Everyone in Gotham knows about it since he showed up last year and started tormenting Batman, using the news networks to pull a reluctant Gotham into the game. Only now, Batman has vanished, which apparently means the Joker's got time to burn screwing around with hostages.
The Joker's standing at the mirror, loosening his tie. He's no longer wearing the purple gloves he had on earlier, and he glances at me. "Shut the door, come in." I don't move, and he chuckles at his reflection. "Don't stand there like a lamb being led to the slaughter. Come in!"
Slowly, warily, I shut the door. He gets the tie off and tosses it into a corner, and then prowls in my direction.
He stops a foot away from me. "You look terrified," he says. There's a hint of glee in his voice—not overt, but it's there. "Why?"
He doesn't wait for an answer before he starts to circle me, like some predatory animal. I don't like this—not at all. He's behind me now, out of my field of vision, and I'm too scared to turn my head to keep him in my line of sight.
Fortunately, in seconds, he loops back around in front of me. I take advantage of the opportunity and move backwards, quickly, until my back is against the door. Immediately after I move, I regret it. Before, with open air behind me, I had the illusion of some sort of freedom. Now, with the door pressing into my back, I'm trapped. I know it.
He cocks his head at me, another move that brings to mind an animal more than a human being. His hands are clasped behind his back and he stills for a second. Then, in one fluid, sudden movement, he lunges at me. "BOO!"
I'm half-expecting it, but it still startles me, triggering all kinds of survival instincts. I let out a yelp and bring my hands up in front of my face, hopelessly trying to ward him off. It doesn't work.
He bursts into laughter, hysterical, hyena-like, and grabs me by the wrists. With a quick jerk, he pulls me off-balance, forcing me forward into his chest, and then he locks his arms behind me to hold me there.
"Dance with me," he says as he sways back and forth.
Oh, fuck that.
My arms are trapped between our bodies. I manage to free up my hands a little bit and I wedge them between our chests, and then try to shove him away, but I can feel the strength in his arms and body, and I'm not exactly a UFC champion. My resistance doesn't get me anywhere, and it's also hard to fight someone who's almost a foot taller than yourself (and accordingly, has more arm with which to keep you imprisoned).
He frees up a hand and grabs my hair, jerking my head back painfully and angling it so that I'm looking straight up at his downturned face. "You know what's wrong with you?" he asks, keeping his arm around me tight. "You've lost sight of what's fun in life. You need to loosen up a little, Em."
He tugs on my hair, but suddenly, I'm incapable of feeling the pain. What… what did he call me?
He notices that I've frozen, and he grins. "You don't mind if I call you Em, do you? Ya look like an Em." After a few seconds pass, I realize that he's waiting for an answer, and I just barely manage to shake my head. "Ahh, good."
He continues on with his bizarre dance, and I finally give in. Cooperation is the best way to survive, I remind myself. I move with him—nothing complicated, just a drunken sort of sway, back and forth… back and forth. He lets go of my hair and grabs my left hand instead, stretching it out with his, and the other hand loosens a little on my back.
After a second, I blurt, "Are you going to rape me?" Immediately, I'm horrified that the fear at the forefront of my mind managed to get past my mouth so easily. If he hadn't been thinking it, he is now—but I couldn't help it. I want to know what's in store for me, if I should even bother hoping.
He lets out a sharp bark of laughter, harsh enough to hurt my ears, and then catches himself, angling his head down to look at me. "Uh… why, do you think I should?" he asks, seeming to make an effort to sound serious. "I mean, it's not part of the plan, but I could make an exception if you think it's a good idea."
I can't shake my head fast or hard enough. He peers down at me, pulling an utterly fabricated wounded face. "You sure? Cause, ah… believe it or not, Em, there are girls lining up for a shot at this handsome mug."
I don't care who's lining up, I do not want any part of that, I think. The matted hair, the lurid colors of his face paint and clothing, the yellowed teeth, the fact that his very presence indicates a threat to my life and safety—I'm repulsed by him, and if he's giving me a choice, I'm choosing the option that doesn't include sexual assault. However, I'm not convinced it'll be that easy. Seeing as I didn't get hurt last time I dared to ask a question, I try again: "If… that's not your plan, then why do you have me here?" Maybe it's a stupid question. Maybe I'm reminding him that I'm supposed to be dead already, but I'm tired of this, the stalling, the dancing. As horrifying as the answer may be, I want to know: will I be alive or dead when this is over?
He sighs. We're still swaying back and forth, feet scuffing along the floor as we move in a distracted circle. "Ya need to relax," he says authoritatively. "I mean, look at me. I have responsibilities, you know? Things could get so… stressful if I let 'em. But you never see me frowning! Surely your life can't be that bad."
I dunno, man. It's looking pretty bad from my point of view.
The next question pops out of my mouth the moment it forms in my brain. "Why do you do what you do?" I'm immediately mortified by my lack of control in a situation where control is very important, but when I open my mouth to take it back, to tell him never mind, I find that I can't make myself speak the words. Despite everything, I really am morbidly curious about this man, one of arguably the two most mysterious men in the city, and since he's proved thus far to be amenable to answering questions (well, "answering"), I'm going to get what I can out of him. God knows this situation needs some kind of silver lining.
"Ahh… now what do I do?" He rests his chin on my head, and I freeze up for a second, but when he doesn't follow the movement up with a knife blade to my belly, I relax fractionally again—at least, as much as I can with him so close to me.
"Kill people. Hurt people… damage this city even further than it's already been damaged." I don't even know if I'm making sense, but he seems to follow.
"Well, you see, I'm sure there's a long and complicated explanation of it that would satisfy you… something involving a bell curve and good and evil and how my Mommy sent me off to some school where pain was gospel and they carved these scars into my face," he says directly. "But it simply wouldn't… be… true."
"Then what is the truth?" It's easier to ask the difficult question when I'm looking at his waistcoat instead of his face.
There's a pause, and then he says, breathing heavily as if the response is taking a physical toll on him, "I just… want to."
I draw back from him finally, and he lets me, releasing my hand but still holding his arm loosely positioned against my back, keeping me from making a break for it if the thought should strike me. I look up at him. "That's fucked up."
He howls with laughter, finally letting go of me in order to stumble backward away from me, pressing his palm to his stomach and laughing as though this is the funniest thing he's ever heard. I'm not amused. I don't see anything funny about it.
As the moment stretches, I realize again how uncomfortable I am. Unlike most other people's laughter, his isn't contagious. It's just eerie.
"Well," he says, gasping for air, "well… well, I guess it really… it really depends on your point of view. But sure. I'll humor you. I'm fucked up."
Uh-oh. This is not where I want the conversation to go.
"So how do you feel about me now?" he asks, his head snapping up, and he's suddenly looking me dead in the eyes. All traces of laughter are gone; the only smile on his face is the gruesome Chelsea grin carved into his cheeks. "Feel the urge to… fix… anything?"
I squeeze my eyes shut. The fear and adrenaline and focus have kept the urge to cry at bay thus far, but now, I feel myself growing close. I do not want to see his reaction to tears, though. Something tells me that it won't be good.
When I open my eyes, he's somehow closed the five-foot gap between us in utter silence and is standing right in front of me, his ghastly-white face hovering inches away from mine.
I start to scream, but clamp my own hand over my mouth to cut it off before it can really form. Stop it. Stop being so weak. I muster up some anger, even though I'm suddenly very, very tired—fear takes a seriously physical toll, and I've been afraid for… oh, hours.
I drop my hand abruptly. "Will you stop that?!"
"Stop what?" he asks, looking puzzled, still toying with me.
"Just—just tell me. What do you want with me? Please, just tell me."
"Oh!" He has the gall to look surprised, leaning in just a bit closer. "Well, you know," he says, squinting chummily at me, "you could have just asked."
I bite my tongue. Snapping at him will do more bad than good, I'm sure of it.
He leans back, letting the silence fill the space between us for a few seconds. "Take a nap with me," he says finally, spreading his arms wide as if to say "that's all."
I blink at him. "You're kidding."
"Me?" He chortles. "Never!" I give him a look, and he holds up his hands, palms facing me, head tilted slightly down. "Okay, okay. You caught me, that's a lie. But I'm not… kidding… about this."
"You want me to take a nap with you."
"Yeah." Quickly, calmly, he answers my statement as though it was a question.
"A nap. With you."
He looks hurt. "Well, what's wrong with me?" He's playing with me again. Does he ever stop?
I decide not to risk answering that one. Instead, I look long and hard at him. I'm going to throw the thought that this is an impossible situation right out the window, because I'm in a room with the Joker, and I'm getting the increasing feeling that no situation is impossible with this man.
Still—"A nap? That's all?"
"Cross my heart 'n hope to die," he says, drawing an x on his chest with a finger and then lifting his left hand, palm out.
I am not comfortable with this. I do not trust the word of a man who looks like he pushes grannies into rush hour traffic for fun. However, the way I see it… I have very little choice.
I move hesitantly to the corner with the wadded-up blankets in it, unsure of what, exactly, I'm supposed to do. He sees that I'm completely flabbergasted and seems to enjoy it. "What, here?" I ask.
"It's shabby, but it's a bed. Well. Sort of," he says, shrugging, his face telling me that he figures there are more important things to consider than having a comfortable place to sleep.
He walks over jerkily, joining me. "Go on," he says, putting a hand on my shoulder. "Sit down."
A sudden, forceful push sends me sprawling down on the floor. He's giggling as I sit up. I am not comfortable with this. I have to tilt my head all the way back to look at him, and he's looking straight down at me, head cocked to the side, hands in his pockets, and a self-satisfied smirk on his face.
"Stop… bullying me," I say, my throat getting that thick feeling that directly precedes tears.
"Aw," he says, a look of mock concern on his face, and he slowly lowers himself to my eye level, squatting with his hands clasped together between his knees. "Am I hurting your feelings?"
I don't say anything. I don't really trust my voice at this point. I'm terrified and exhausted, and I just want to go home.
"Well, I do get a little grumpy when I'm tired," he says pensively. "Come on then," he adds, grasping me by the shoulder. "Down we go!"
I hit the floor hard with him. I don't move, don't struggle to fight him, defying all the instincts currently telling me to punch him in the balls and run, damn it. My eyes are tightly closed in an attempt to fight off the rising tears, and I hear him moving behind me. After a second, he throws a musty-smelling blanket over us.
And then, unexpectedly, he wraps his arms around me, the right positioned underneath my neck and supporting my head, the left draped over my waist. I draw a sharp, stifled breath at this turn of events, and I can feel every inch of him stretched out against me, the thin chest pushed hard against the back of my shoulders, the sharp angles of his hips pushing into my lower back, totally invading any pretense at personal space I've had up till now and totally inescapable.
For a long second, there is no sound but our respective breathing, mine erratic and loud, his quick and soft.
And then I feel sudden heat and moisture on the side of my throat, and—teeth. His teeth, biting and bruising, tearing into my skin as his grip tightens on me. I want to scream—he's hurting me and I don't understand why he's doing it, and I'm only able to keep from shrieking out because I'm somehow convinced that if I make a sound, then he won't stop biting till he's torn my throat out.
A few seconds, minutes, hours—I don't know—pass. He pulls back as suddenly as he started, and the cold air rushes in, making the bite hurt even more. I can tell he broke the skin, but… I don't think I'm bleeding. What the hell was that? I think shakily.
"There," he says, breath hot in my ear, sounding exasperated. "I've already bit ya; now that you don't have to worry about that anymore, will you just relax? Life would be a lot more fun for you if you just learned to do that."
I don't answer. The pain is fading away, or at least turning from sharp to dull, and I let myself sob once, twice. Then, my trusty old survival instincts kicking back into play, I force myself to calm down.
Breathe. Just breathe.
I focus on steadying myself. He's still flush against me, and I can feel his stomach shifting as he breathes—quick and soft. I can't breathe as fast as he can and still be comfortable, but I still time my breathing according to his—one long breath for each of his two quick ones. It works.
The pain's gone except for a slow ache. I'm utterly worn out and I have tear tracks on my face and blood on my clothes. I'm also warm.
I realize that I'm warm for the first time since this whole ordeal started. One benefit of his frenzied lifestyle seems to be his high temperature—his sleeves are rolled up, he's not wearing a coat or gloves, and he's still burning up. He'd be too warm for comfort if I wasn't so damn cold already.
Maybe he's sick.
The thought is unwelcome. I'm too worn down, don't want to think about the fact that he could be carrying something, exposing me to something. I focus instead on his forearm, locked carelessly around my waist. His skin is ashen white, darkened a little by a sweep of hair. The hand attached is big, with long fingers, reddened and a little bruised at the base of the knuckles. The fingernails are trimmed short and square, but they're dirty.
Whatever's beneath his thumbnail is the color of rust. I squeeze my eyes shut.
I don't want them touching me—I don't want him touching me, and I want to lock up and tear myself away from him one piece at a time, but I'm afraid that if I do that, he'll bite me again, or worse. Fighting the urge to flee is exhausting, this whole ordeal has been exhausting, and before I know it—
—lost my train of thought, and I open my eyes abruptly. Alarming, that happens when I'm falling asleep, and I can't fall asleep.
I have to wait for him to fall asleep, and then—and then find some way of…
…it's very warm here. He's not threatening. He hasn't said another word. The pain in my neck is so dull now, easy to ignore if I just don't think about it.
Can't go to sleep. He'll slaughter me. String me from the Clock Tower. Eat me alive. I can't—
He'll do those things anyway. Doesn't need me asleep for any of it. Probably would prefer me awake, as a matter of fact.
And if I sleep, I can escape him. Just for a while.
I take a deep breath and close my eyes.
I wake up.
The first thing I realize, after a few seconds of incomprehension, is that I'm in my own bed. It's dark beyond the windows; someone turned on my bedside lamp and to me it looks like the light has a fuzzy halo, like I've had too much to drink. I'm groggy, my body feels weighted down.
Have I been drugged? I think hazily. I've never been drugged before, but if I'm in my bed…
My bed. That means he knows where I live. I recognize the realization as a shocking one, but I don't feel shocked, just slow, sleepy, incapable of panicking.
Just a dream?
I sit up. The movement causes a powerful throbbing at my throat, and I close my eyes again and draw in a slow, full breath. No. He bit me. Not a dream. The lingering soreness proves it.
The soreness, and the fact that I have something in my hand.
There are several things, actually. I can feel them. They're hard and sharp… and little. I have a sneaking suspicion. I don't want to look.
I can't help it. Carefully, I curl back my fingers. The Joker's parting gift lies in my palm.
Four baby teeth. They look like they had belonged to a little girl.
A/N - Part one revised and updated on 08-05-2012 as I prepare to rework and finish this story. This was initially supposed to be a one-shot, a sort of prep project as a precursor to Bad Jokes, but a few years later, I received some encouragement from a friend who read it and enjoyed it and wanted more, and I was inspired to pick it up again, only to abruptly abandon it once more sometime last summer. With any luck, though, this will be the final run leading to a final conclusion to this story. Stay tuned, and as always, any reviews or comments are more than welcome!