Warnings: Rated for a little bit of implied violence

Disclaimer: I don't own any of these characters at all or the world they're in

Distortions

The End had been averted. The riders did not quite have the vested interest of Up Above or Down Below, but they felt a little cheated nonetheless. Such petty emotions were beneath them, of course, but spending time around humans and being shaped by their belief had consequences.

For a while they had languished in the collective consciousness of humankind, dissatisfied and agitated. But they were not going to go quietly, not until they had had at a bit of fun and stirred up some trouble. They needed a place where hope had been shattered. They needed a place where The End seemed closer than it had ever been.

Such a place where minds were open and despairing of the apocalypse attracted the riders like water up the side of a glass container. Though it was not really The End, for the people of Gotham, it certainly felt like it. For the riders it was more than enough, so three horsepersons rode fourth. The last rider did not need to ride with them. He was already in Gotham. A city that contained the Joker necessarily contained him.

Chapter 1: Carnelian Whisper

It had taken a month for the Joker to become bored with Arkham. During the first few days he was content to reflect on his experience and what he'd learned about the Batman. Following that, the straitjackets and electronic locks had presented an amusing challenge, at least for a while. After that, the psychiatrists and inmates had provided entertainment during those times when his interactions weren't limited due to 'disruptive behaviour'. But eventually he ran out of people to tell scar-related stories to and after he gave his first psychiatrist a breakdown, the rest of them became sort of wary.

The last thing that held his interest was therapeutic arts and crafts. He was limited to arts and not-crafts after the unfortunate incident involving the supposedly harmless safety scissors. The Joker had thought it rather unfair at the time. He had only been expressing his creativity and he had been led to believe that that was the point of the exercise. It took him three days to escape once he became bored. The delay was due to the second helping of dessert the Asylum allowed on Wednesdays. There was no way he was going to miss that.

The city had changed in his absence. His capture and the various setbacks the mob had endured had left a sort of vacuum of power that all the petty little criminals had rushed to fill. The most noticeable symptom was the gang warfare. Gotham had always had a problem with graffiti, now, instead of random, chaotic, offensive and often anatomically implausible phrases and pictures, the street art had become a statement about which gang owned which patch of alley way. There were now complicated symbols of warnings, alliances, threats and invitations. It was like a public noticeboard with bad spelling. The Joker passed through no less than three vicious street fights and turf wars involving rival gangs. Two of the gangs had failed to recognise him and had tried to make their fight his problem. There had been few survivors.

However he wasn't wandering through the Narrows just for kicks, at least not tonight. He had things to do, places to go, and stuff to destroy. What he needed right now were people to take care of the mundane, boring little details like getting supplies and raw materials that he could forge into chaos. While these sorts of people seemed to gravitate toward him without much effort on his part, right now he needed lots of them in a hurry. Consequently, he was going to a particularly disreputable establishment that tended to stock the sort of people he used.

When he entered the bar, the atmosphere was peaceful, although this was out of a sense of apathy rather than affability. People in varying states of decay were hunched over drinks or, in one case, over a deck of greasy playing cards. The grime on the windows let through very little light. Despite the late afternoon sun glaring outside, in the bar, it seemed to be early evening.

The Joker didn't want any attention quite at that moment. It would be best to pick and choose recruits at his own pace rather than having the patrons start fleeing in terror. Surprisingly, he could make himself a part of the background if the situation demanded it. It helped that people were basically blind and tended to see what they wanted to see. He took a seat in a shadowed corner and let his gaze wander over the occupants. It would not take long to identify likely applicants.

While the Joker's entrance had gone practically unnoticed, the next individual to cross the threshold drew every eye in the establishment. Now the Joker was a good judge of character. As far as he was concerned, there wasn't all that much variety to humanity once you understood the archetypes. People were predictable and obvious and completely lacking in any originality or creativity. They should honestly be thanking him for shaking things up in their grey, drab little world.

The first impression the Joker formed regarding the newcomer was that she was the tough-girl type. She was strutting into a seedy bar with an unconcerned air. Her cleanliness and attire suggested that was also stupid and would likely be regretting her choice in, oh, about five seconds. The Joker giggled to himself. These days you didn't see much of the terminally stupid in Gotham. This should be fun.

Then a moment later, the Joker noticed something that set his discoloured teeth on edge. The way she walked was odd. It was not a gait that he had seen on anything that walked upright and lacked lots of pointy teeth or a long stripy tail. A second glance confirmed that her appearance was similarly discordant. Her hair was a genuine deep auburn and far too long and sleek. Her lips were too red in way that was only loosely based on her makeup. The Joker's eyes narrowed. No one should be able to stalk in high heels.

The Joker's perceptions and thought patterns could be politely described as unique. His instincts were telling him that there was something fundamentally wrong with this individual. It wasn't just that she didn't belong in this bar; she didn't belong in this reality. That was what his instincts were telling him, but he had no sense of what that actually meant.

The woman in question sauntered toward his corner. His smile widened as she approached his table. It wasn't so much an inviting or pleasant expression as much as a baring of his teeth. He was keenly aware of the position of every knife on his person. It was hard to tell against the background levels of his aggression, but the desire to disembowel someone seemed somewhat higher than normal. It wasn't that she was threatening per se, it was just that her presence made him want to cause a bloodbath, even more so than usual.

The being—the thing—in red slid into the seat opposite him. At least her shape blocked his visage from the other patrons. He had the unsettling feeling that even if this wasn't the case, they'd still be more likely to look at her.

"Sorry to bother you," she began, "but that is a lovely shade of red. What lipstick are you using?"

The Joker blinked. What ever he had expected her to say, it wasn't that. As for the question itself, he honestly had no idea. He had grabbed the lipstick off an unfortunate bystander after he had broken out. His black and white greasepaints had been in his coat where the asylum workers had sequestered it. However, he had just run out of the red stuff before he had been captured. It hadn't seemed important at the time, but he was surprised at how much he had missed having his makeup done correctly. He was so pleased at finding a woman applying lipstick, only streets away from Arkham, that he had let her live. Well, she was probably alive. If she had bled out before she found a phone that was hardly his problem.

The feeling of violent tension was shoved aside to make way for bemusement. The Joker raided a coat pocket and withdrew the lipstick. He looked at the label. "Uh, 'Carnelian Whisper', apparently."

The creature nodded to herself. "Thanks, I'll remember that."

The Joker grinned. "You're not human, are you?" he asked on impulse.

The woman tilted her head slowly. "You don't happen to have my sword, do you?"

"I might have, what does it look like?"

She laughed. The sound was the tinkling of shrapnel. "Never mind, you'd know if you had it. It's functional. It's designed for chopping people into little pieces rather than for flourishing and catching the light. It's practically unique."

The Joker snorted. "Right, right," he said dismissively. His demeanour changed lightning fast as he leant forward in a way that usually caused hardened criminals to lean back and sometimes fall out of their seats. "Who are you?"

"Scarlett."

An unaccustomed frown found its way onto the Joker's face. His question had been the politer version of 'what the hell are you?' and she (it) was just being uncooperative. His favourite knife was in one of his hidden coat pockets, resting just above his heart. It seemed to hum.

A sudden crash jolted the Joker out of whatever violent course of action he was about to decide on. One of the drinkers had broken a chair over his neighbour's back. It was so delightfully cartoon-ish, that the Joker burst into laughter. For the rest of the bar, the violent act was like striking sparks onto his favourite flammable substances. The bar erupted into a chaotic brawl. Even the most depressive, near catatonic drinkers were suddenly roaring at the top of their voices and breaking furniture. It seemed the tension in the room hadn't been exclusively focused on him.

The Joker watched with a mixture of fascination and perplexity. He knew that people were animals and had no hope of escaping their innate desires for violence, but usually they required at least a bit of encouragement before they'd act out like this. It was as if someone had found their aggression buttons and then punched them repeatedly. He was more than a little annoyed that he couldn't take credit for it.

The Joker's smile widened again as various ideas sparked and flashed through his brain, bringing a stark clarity of thought. He turned back to the whatever-she-was sitting across from him, only to find that she was making her way to the door. She seemed to sense him staring thoughtfully at her shoulder blades. Scarlett turned back.

"By the way, if you see Sable, tell him I said hi," she called.

The Joker's eyes darted back to the fight for a moment before he answered. "Sure, why not."

After all, the Joker was used to humouring those individuals that were clearly a few swords of short of an army. His brow furrowed for a moment as he wondered why that particular simile had sprung to mind. While he thought, Scarlett left the building, possibly to look for that sword of hers.