Author's Notes: This chapter is dedicated to SillySpring and also SavvyJackie, who both left me two of the most incredible and enthusiastic reviews, an enthusiasm I found contagious. Thank you both so much for your kind words.

Some of you have voiced questions about the Joker's age, and I wanted to say the following: the Joker has aged since Clockwork, but not by much, or rather, physically speaking, the change in the Joker is nothing significant. He's not an old man as he ought to be, considering the time jump between the two stories. I know that realistically speaking, this is impossible/unrealistic—but because I've always seen the Joker as a sort of immortal villain, I've chosen to keep his age close to the one he was in Clockwork. I sincerely hope this will not put anybody off—I simply don't want the age difference between Taylor and the Joker to be too drastic. Also, I cannot fathom seeing the Joker walking around with wrinkles and a cane, and that's obviously a picture I did not want to create.

With all of that being said, if you have questions, concerns, or just comments, please feel free to leave them. I love hearing back from you all. Your support is inspiring.

Chapter Seven

At the police station, when Austin had returned with an overnight bag, Gomez drove them to the hotel just down the street and helped them to their room. It was a small room, with pressed maroon floor-to-ceiling wallpaper and dark cherry furniture. The bedspread was green, the color of pine needles.

"Here's my number, if you need it directly," Gomez said. "My partner and I will be stationed outside in an unmarked car if you spot anything suspicious."

Austin thanked her and closed the door with a gentle click, sliding the lock into place. He turned to find Taylor sitting on the edge of the bed, looking at the floor. It was the first time they'd been alone since this whole ordeal began. He desperately wanted to know what was going on in that head, what she was thinking. He left their bags by the door and went to her, a bit hesitantly, at first, not even sure where to begin. He eyed the spot next to her on the bed but knelt down on the floor in front of her instead, wanting to see her face.

"Hey," he said, softly, trying to get her to look at him. "How are you feeling?"

"I don't know," she said honestly. Her voice was hoarse, cracked, no doubt from all the crying she'd done today. Her eyes were bloodshot, and he could see the tracks that her tears had cut through her face and chin. She scrunched up her nose and squeezed her eyes shut suddenly, trying to fight off an onslaught of fresh tears.

"I'm so sorry I wasn't here. I never should have left you alone."

She shook her head and then raised it, finally looking at him. "You couldn't have known, I—I didn't know. I'm still trying to… process all of this. That I'm alive." She paused to lick her cracked lips, to swallow. "He tried to kill me. He swung… he swung an ax at me. I just barely rolled away….. "

Austin closed his eyes, imagining the scene and grimacing. He didn't want it to be real.

"Taylor, you have to tell me what happened. The detectives—they wouldn't tell me anything. How did this happen to you?"

She did break down into fresh tears then, holding her face in her hands. Austin got up to sit beside her and wrap his arms around her, pulling her into him, letting her sob into his chest.

"I'm so sorry," she cried. "I should have told you. Everything… it all happened so fast."

"What happened so fast? Tell me, please." He just wanted to understand, didn't want to feel so in the dark about everything that had transpired, further exacerbating his feeling of uselessness.

She told him everything, the whole story, from the beginning. It came out in a tangled heap, the strange symptoms, the pharmaceutical company, Remcon, the cover-up, Dr. Bishop and Jason, the forged documentation. She didn't know why the Joker was involved, that was the big mystery. Still, for Austin, much of it was difficult to wrap his head around.

"Bishop is killing people, Austin. And I have no proof. Who will believe me?"

"Baby, if he really is hurting people, the police will find the evidence. If anything you helped point them in the right direction."

She took a shuddering breath. She didn't believe his words for a second. Taking this matter to the police was exactly what Jason had instructed her not to do.

He'll close up like a clam, he'd said. Bishop had hidden his tracks too well, and using Andromeda to take the fall, to blame all the side effects, the deaths on Remcon… it was too easy. She had nothing to offer the police. Nothing. Even the cipher, when she'd mentioned it, was pushed aside, despite it having been such a vital part of the story. It was why she was in this mess, why they'd brought her to the Joker in the first place. She didn't understand why they hadn't shown more interest in it. Perhaps because she no longer had it, didn't have physical evidence of it anymore.

She still didn't understand the connection between Bishop and the Joker, though. That plagued her more than anything.

"You didn't tell my dad, did you?" She's turned to him suddenly, sniffling, wiping the snot from her nose. The thought was more than she could bear—he couldn't know, not now, possibly not ever. She couldn't place that kind of stress on his heart.

"No, I didn't call him. I hadn't even thought of it."

They sat in silence together, Austin rubbing circles into her back while she cried until she could cry no more, until it felt like every last tear had been spent. Eventually he led her into the shower, helped her wash off the dirt and grime, washed her hair for her, scrubbing his fingers through her scalp as she leaned back into him, closing her eyes.

She got out of the shower first and sat on the closed lid of the toilet after she dressed, waiting for him to finish. She watched the mirror fog, watched the steam rise over the white curtain, and then bowed her head to hold it in her hands. She was exhausted and sore all over, like every muscle in her body had been held taut for the past two days, without relief.

Neither of them said anything until the shower had turned off and they were both slipping under the scratchy hotel sheets. They lay on their sides, facing each other, with the covers pulled up only to their hips. It was too hot outside to cover anything more.

"I don't want to go to sleep," she whispered.

Austin touched her face, moving closer. "I know, baby. I know."

Sometime later, as Austin snored softly beside her, she lay awake staring at the ceiling, fighting sleep but also half wishing it would come and just take her. She was so tired, and yet so afraid—both of everything that would transpire, but also of slipping into a nightmare she couldn't get out of. She couldn't bear to be faced with the Joker again, not even in the relative safety of a dream.

So she laid awake as the night wore on, listening to the air conditioning vent beneath the window as it shuddered and convulsed each time it cycled on and off, watched the headlights from cars pry themselves between the crack between the closed curtains, pale beams momentarily sliding along the wall before vanishing into the darkness. It felt as if morning would never come.

It was close to noon when they received a knock on the door—from a police officer Austin hadn't seen before, Gurillo—who was to escort them back to the MCU to meet with Dr. Shaw.

Taylor was quiet as she dressed—had barely uttered more than three words to him—but was noticeably on edge and flighty. He could see the dark circles under her eyes and knew she hadn't slept at all; he had barely slept himself, though he could only imagine the thoughts plaguing her mind, the monsters keeping her awake.

Later, when he reached out to touch her arm, to help her into the backseat of the unmarked police car, she jerked away as if he'd burned her. She apologized after—clearly startled—but he felt as if he should be the one apologizing. He hadn't meant to frighten her.

After they arrived at the station, they were once again led into separate rooms. He didn't understand why they couldn't just talk to the two of them together. There was nothing they said to her that they also could not say to him. It made his mood turn sour. He'd rolled over for everyone yesterday—and given the shock of the ordeal, he could hardly blame himself for that—but today he was standing he was standing his ground; he wanted answers and he was going to get them.

This time, when one of the officers offered him a cup of coffee, he accepted. Taylor had declined the continental breakfast at the hotel when he'd asked, but Austin needed something in his stomach to help it settle, to keep all that nervous, anxious churning at bay.

He took a seat in the same chair he'd sat in yesterday, a sense of déjà vu washing over him as Bullock and Dr. Shaw took seats opposite him.

He was too impatient to feign an exchange of pleasantries. "Did you find out anything new?"

Shaw shifted in his chair despite having just sat down, as if already uncomfortable. Bullock was pointedly not making eye contact, instead staring at some identifiable spot somewhere on the table top.

Shaw pressed his lips together and then cleared his throat after a beat of prolonged silence had passed. "Mr. James, I don't think you're going to like what I have to tell you."

Now it was Austin who was uncomfortable. He felt himself stiffen. Suddenly the coffee he'd just downed felt like it'd turned to stone inside him. "And why is that?"

"We think that your wife may have suffered an episode of psychosis, on the night the alleged attack occurred."

Austin's brows drew together in confusion. Psychosis? What the hell is that supposed to mean? "What do you mean by 'alleged'?" he asked instead.

This is where Dr. Shaw calmly leaned forward and folded his hands on the table, looking remorseful, as if it pained him to have to say this. "All of our evidence points to our belief that your wife was never kidnapped at all." Austin's mouth fell open in surprise, not sure if he felt relieved or angry, but having no time to interject as Dr. Shaw continued on. "We found no fingerprints, no signs of a forced entry, or of a struggle. There were no foreign substances on her."

"That's impossible," he breathed.

The doctor leaned forward even closer. "Is it really?" he asked, his eyes narrowing. "Did you not find it odd how in-tact the house was, or that when questioned, the neighbors never reported any suspicious activity? No screams for help, and no loss of electricity, as your wife claims. It seems odd that during a storm, she'd be the only one to lose power, no?"

"That's your evidence? That's what you're basing this—this theory on?" he asked with a look of sheer incredulity. "There was a storm! Of course they wouldn't be able to hear her."

"What's further," Shaw interrupted, "is that we spoke to Dr. Bishop—who we investigated thoroughly—and could substantialize none of your wife's claims. He was open to our investigation and aided us heavily. He had nothing to hide."

"So you want me to believe that Taylor lied—about all of this—that this was just some crazy story she concocted because she's—she's…." he didn't know how to finish. He could not fathom using the word 'crazy' to describe her.

"Think about this, Mr. James. I implore you to push your emotions regarding this matter aside and listen to the facts we are presenting to you. It is not uncommon for relapses of the psych like this to happen. I am sure you are familiar with what her childhood was like, the foster care, the abuse."

"But that's—what about the bruises? Where did she get those?"

"Mr. James, given her psychiatric history… the bruises around her neck are ligature marks, consistent with that of a rope."

Austin's mouth turned dry, at a loss for words. "What are you saying? That she tried to kill herself?"

"Taking into account her past attempt, do you not find it likely?"

"She wouldn't… I—it was the medicine, last time. It changed her. She's not on those anymore."

"Given the state of psychosis she was in, this is not uncommon. She denies the attempt, of course, but individuals who suffer from a traumatic past such as hers often recreate unfavorable scenarios during times of stress."

Dr. Shaw was being unreasonably calm about everything, Austin thought, and it made his anger boil even hotter.

"So you think... you're trying to tell me that she made this all up? That's she crazy?"

"That's not what we're saying, Mr. James, it's not what any of us are saying. We are simply presenting you with the facts of the situation. Have you noticed if she's seemed stressed or anxious of late?"

"I don't know," he said, running a hand through his hair. She was always stressed, he wanted to say, it came with the job. And her anxiety, the nightmares, those lived with her, she carried them with her every day. "I mean... no more than usual..." He paused then, remember how nervous she'd been acting just a few days ago after they'd left her father's house after dinner. He'd left her alone in the car while he went to retrieve groceries, remembered the way he'd spooked her when he came back, almost as if she had been expecting someone else, but also how she'd gripped his hand till her knuckles turned white, all the way home.

"You're remembering something," the doctor said, perhaps a bit too knowingly for Austin's liking.

He rubbed his jaw, which suddenly ached because he'd been clenching it so hard.

"I know this must be upsetting for you," Shaw went on, leaning back in his chair. "But I do not believe she is crazy, none of us do. While in this state of psychosis, it's almost as if she were acting out an uncontrollable daydream or nightmare—as if under the effects of a hallucinogenic—entirely unaware of her own actions."

It was a long time before Austin was able to speak. He didn't know what to think, what to say; he barely knew how to feel. Glad, maybe, that the Joker really hadn't kidnapped her? But it was practically unthinkable for him to even consider that everything Taylor had told him had just been a figment of her imagination, a strange trance-like state, some kind of bizarre relapse into past trauma. She had sobbed in his arms, she had told him the Joker had tried to bludgeon her with an ax. She had told him in explicit detail the strange circumstances regarding several deaths at the hospital, her conversations with her coworker, Jason, and the conversation she'd overheard between Bishop and someone who worked for the Scarecrow. The paper with the strange symbols. How on earth could she make something like that up? Something so detailed?

Austin's voice broke a little when he spoke. "What would you have me tell her?"

"The truth," Bishop said, his eyes like blunt knives as he stared straight at Austin. "We are going to tell her the truth."

"She's not going to believe you," he said, quietly. He didn't know if he believed it himself. All he could think about was last night, in bed with her, sitting on the edge, listening to her as she spoke with such conviction about the things she'd seen, all the thigs she'd felt.

"I will be scheduling her to meet with a psychiatrist that specializes in this sort of behavior that she should see no less than three times a week. And we'll be contacting the hospital, to place her on mandatory medical leave until a psychologist has been able to determine that she is not a threat to herself, or to others."

Austin felt his jaw clenching tight again, this time in an effort to hold his tongue. It sounded selfish to protest and tell the doctor that they were already scrambling to make ends meet as it was, that even with both their salaries combined, they were still struggling to make the mortgage, the electricity, the phone bills, his college loans and her medicals expenses. But he didn't. This was about Taylor and her need for recovery, to fix whatever damn had broken inside her that had caused all of this pain and fear to break loose, this massive deluge.

He knew then that he was willing to do whatever it took to make sure that Taylor got the help that she needed, even if it meant crawling back to his parents, begging for the kind of money he knew they had more than enough of.

"She would never hurt anyone," he said after a moment, his voice full of conviction, the kind where you just know something, deep in your core.

"Perhaps not intentionally, Mr. James." Bishop cast a wayward glance at Bullock, who had once again, been entirely silent. "An episode like this, however, directed outward instead of inward, might tell a different story."

There was a part of Austin that wanted to punch him for saying that, the mere suggestion that Taylor would ever inflict harm on another person, but truthfully he felt scared. What if she was capable of that, even if it was in this other subconscious state?

"This can't be real," he muttered, more to himself than anyone else. He removed his glasses and rubbed at his eyes, suddenly exhausted despite having just woken up not long ago.

"I am sorry to have to tell you this," the doctor said, breaking the silence. "But it is better than what we originally had feared, is it not?"

He was talking about the Joker.

Austin wearily nodded in agreement.

"If you have no more questions, I will retrieve Mrs. James now," Shaw said, pushing back his chair. The door clicked as he left.

Austin had a thousand more questions, but he didn't know where to begin. The information, everything Shaw had just told him, it all felt like the world's cruelest joke, all of it told at the expense of Taylor. And more than that, as the realizations began to sink in, he couldn't help but feel at fault, for all of it. He knew Taylor's nightmares had been getting worse, he knew that, and yet he'd left her alone for days without anyone to be there for her. Why hadn't he taken her to her dad's house? Why hadn't he insisted that she stay the night there? Maybe then none of this never would have happened. Now she was damaged, worse off than when she'd ended those psychiatric sessions all those years ago. Were they really back to square one, just like that?

He sat folded over in his chair, his head in his hands, until his muscles became strained and tired from maintaining the same position for so long.

"It's not your fault, you know," Bullock said. He seemed to want to reach inside the pocket of his jacket for a cigarette, and then thought better of it, as if he realized how inappropriate it would be given that they were indoors. Austin stared at him. Bullock was picking a piece of lint off his lapel. "Seen that look before a thousand times, kid. Some demons you just can't fight."

Austin sat up straighter. "What do you know about demons?"

Bullock laughed, like he couldn't believe he'd just asked that. "I'm a cop, kid. I got a thousand of them." He seemed to rethink the cigarette idea and pulled one out, snapping the lighter a couple times before the flame burst into view.

Austin didn't reply. The only demons he was worried about now were the ones causing Taylor so much pain. He'd fight them all himself if someone could only tell him how. He would do anything to rid her of them for good, he'd sell his own soul, if it came to it. Show him the devil's dotted line, and he'd sign it.

In the pervading silence and the cascade of cigarette smoke, he could hear the approaching footsteps out in the hall.

He sat up straight and took a deep breath, feeling less ready than he ever had in his life.

He craned his neck to look at her when she entered, flanked by two officers and Dr. Shaw, who escorted her to the empty seat next to Austin's. All he could think about was the purpled ring of bruised skin around her neck. It was hard to fathom that she had entered a state that would have prompted her to inflict that sort of physical harm on herself, that she had tried to kill herself again—he could barely stand it.

He reached out for her hand when she sat down, her gaze flitting between him, Dr. Shaw, and Bullock with wide, frantic eyes, looking every bit like a deer caught in the headlights. She could sense that something was wrong, that they were about to tell her something she wasn't going to like, that she'd have to leave her job, that she and Austin were going to have to leave Gotham for an indefinable amount of time, that they could not keep her safe here. That she would have to leave her father, her friends, her entire life, start over somewhere else.

"What's going on?" Goose bumps rose over her flesh, and she rubbed her arms to make them go away as she leaned forward in her seat. "What did you find?"

"Mrs. James… " Shaw began, "we've reviewed the forensic findings from your home from the night of the alleged attack—very thoroughly, I might—and there was… nothing," he said, carefully, slowly. "No fingerprints, signs of a forced entry, hardly even a speck of dust."

Taylor brows pinched together in confusion. She looked at Austin for some sign of explanation. "I don't understand."

Austin took a deep breath to steel himself. How on earth was he supposed to tell his wife that the trauma she'd been through had been nothing but a figment of her imagination? How was he supposed to tell her that she'd made everything up in some kind of bizarre attempt to combat her stresses and anxieties?

Shaw leaned forward then, folded his hands atop the table—perhaps a habit of his when he was about to deliver shattering news—and told her everything he'd told Austin earlier, that her kidnapping had been nothing more than an a hallucination, that'd she'd unconsciously created the scenario in an attempt to combat her PTSD and the mental and physical trauma from her past.

Taylor looked horrified.

"W—what?" she said, hardly daring to breathe. "That's impossible, I—you think I'm lying? That I made all of this up?" Austin grimaced at the hysteria in her voice, the utter disbelief laced within her words, yet he remained silent, his vocal cords failing him. "What about Bishop?" she challenged. "Didn't you question him? And the forged documentation, the Remcon side effects, its killing people—"

"Mrs. James, I'm going to need you to calm down, try and take a deep breath," he encouraged. "We thoroughly investigated all of your claims, including Dr. Bishop's involvement—"

"Then why isn't he here? Why haven't you arrested him?" she cried.

"—and quite frankly, were unable to substantialize your claims. He's as clean as a whistle. We searched both his office and his home, as well as any and all electronic devices."

"What?" She looked to Austin, who could offer her nothing but a look of the deepest remorse, and back to Dr. Shaw, who she thought looked far too calm given the situation. She straightened in her chair, hands falling out of her lap, and Austin could see her heart thudding against her ribcage, the color drain from her face. "But the Scarecrow—"

"—Has been in solitary for six months," Shaw said. "He has no access to the outside world. It's impossible that he could have contacted Bishop, let alone someone from within the asylum to relay any sort of messages to Bishop."

Taylor swallowed, could barely believe what she was hearing. "Didn't you talk to Jason? He knows, he knows!"

"Taylor," Dr. Shaw said, ever-so-calm, "he is denying any existence of ever having spoken to you about this matter, about Remcon. He's just as in the dark about all of this as Bishop is, as we all are."

"No!" she cried. Not Jason. How could he? Why? "That's not true. There's some kind of mistake." She was breathing hard now, just on the verge of hyperventilating. "That's—I—did you listen to his phone? I left him a message on his phone on the night they came for me, if you could just listen to it I know that—"

"We did search his phone, Mrs. James. No such message ever existed."

"This is ridiculous," she breathed. "How can… how can you say this?" Her chair scraped against the floor as she pushed it back, but she did not stand. She turned to Austin, with all her disbelief, all her rage, looking at him like he'd just shoved her in her coffin and nailed the lid shut. "I don't—I can't—" She broke off into a sound that was something between a sob and a choked breath, pressing the flat of her palms against her temples, applying enough pressure to make her skull feel as though it were about to crack. "Do you think I'm crazy?" She asked the detectives. She looked up sharply then, staring at Austin as a sudden wave of cold, paralyzing fear washed over her. "Do you think I'm crazy?" She fumbled as she stood, suddenly dizzy, her legs threatening to give out beneath her. Fear swam in her peripheral. "Do you think I'm insane?"

"No!" Austin stood too, nearly as startled by the intensity of his voice as Taylor was. He swallowed and lowered his voice. "No, no, I don't. Taylor, please, you have to understand—"

He was stumbling around, tripping over his tongue for useless words, for any words, but Taylor shook her head to stop him, tears spilling from her eyes. "It was real, Austin," she cried. "It was real, I swear it." She looked at Bullock, at Shaw, pleading, begging for them to see what she had. Her trembling fingers instinctively reached for her neck, touching the purpled bruises there, were she could still feel those hands around her neck, crushing, suffocating.

She felt herself moving, needing distance, needing space, and was startled when she'd backed herself into the wall. "I'm not crazy, I'm not."

Austin felt his heart shatter as she pressed her hands to the wall. She looked every bit ready and willing to sink into that plaster, to try and escape him. He moved towards her, despite the fear in her eyes, and shook his head as if to erase her doubts.

"I know that, I know," he insisted, voice pitched low so only she could hear. "We all do. We know you're not crazy. But you—we have to consider the evidence."

"The pieces all fit if you'd just put them together," she cried, tears stinging at the backs of her eyes until she could hold them back no longer. "I did not make this up Austin, please, tell them, tell them."

Austin put his hands on her arms, steadying her, holding her still, talking quietly to her to try and make her understand. "I want to believe you," he said, more heartfelt than he'd ever been before, "but it seems... possible that you could have hallucinated this because you were frightened. We need to consider that." Austin struggled to keep his tone collected, but it hurt seeing her like this, looking at him like he'd just stabbed her in the heart and intended to leave her for dead. He could see the trust slipping from her eyes, and it was the most painful thing he'd ever witnessed.

When they'd first met, it had taken months to gain her trust, to build a stable friendship between them and for him to convince her that he was not going to hurt her or use her like so many had before. It was months before she even allowed him to touch her.

He remembered the first time she had, in the dim lighting of the movie theater, her hand seeking out his with an almost childlike shyness. She carefully intertwined their fingers as the movie started, and Austin had never felt so ecstatic, so giddy. And they didn't look at each other, didn't exchange pleased little glances, but he held onto her hand for the entire movie, fighting back smiles, and refused to let go even when they were in the car and he was driving her back to her dorm. In that first initial moment of contact, he knew he had gained her trust, and it was something he never wanted to lose.

And yet, he was losing it, right now, and guilt flourished at the thought that he was the one who had caused this breakdown. If he would have just stayed, if he hadn't of left her alone, if he would have asked her to spend the night at her dad's, or invite a friend, then maybe she wouldn't have hallucinated, she wouldn't have hurt herself. She wouldn't have tried to kill herself again.

She shook her head at him, frantic. "It happened, Austin! I did not—I did not do this to myself." Her hands reached for her neck again, to show him—all of them—that she had not inflicted these wounds herself. "I'm not like that anymore," she pleaded. She looked at Austin, begging him to understand. "I wouldn't try to do that again."

He desperately wanted to believe her. He turned to Dr. Shaw, silently pleading for him to intervene, to say something. It was only the second time in his life he'd ever felt completely unequipped to care for Taylor, felt like he couldn't break through all of her barriers and reach her, make her understand.

"I need to talk to Jason," she said suddenly, looking at Dr. Bishop. "I have to talk to him."

"Mrs. James," Shaw began, "I'm not quite sure that would be appropriate at this time."

"I NEED TO TALK TO HIM," she shouted, taking all of them off guard. Even Austin was taken aback, who'd never heard her raise her voice like that, not even when they fought, and never with such venom. Her face was streaked with tears, but she was no longer crying now, her distress replaced with a panicked determination. "I have to get out of here," she said, not looking at any of them anymore, having entered some place deep within her own head.

Shaw stood from his chair, prompted by her outburst, while Bullock remained seated, as if he'd seen this a million times before and couldn't muster the strength to be concerned.

Austin was frightened. He'd never heard her talk like this before, with such disregard for authority, like she was spaced out, in her own little world.

"Taylor, you need to stay here, we need to talk about this—" he heard himself saying.

"NO!" she screamed. "People are going to die and you're all just sitting there!" She was hyperventilating now, her chest heaving so hard she could no longer catch a full breath. She paced the floor, hands clenched into tight fists she held near her temples. "I have to go, I have to go," she said, over and over again in between gasping for lungfuls of air. "I have to stop this. I have to—" She went to the door to try to open it.

"She cannot leave," Dr. Shaw said. This time Bullock did stand, as if readying himself to act if need be, but Taylor found herself flanked by the two police officers who'd been standing off to the side instead.

"Get out of my way!" she screamed. "I have to get out of here. You can't keep me here!"

"Taylor, I need you to step away from the door," Dr. Shaw said. "Come back this way."

She ignored him and tried to push through the officers. "I HAVE TO GET OUT. LET ME OUT!" she screamed, pounding on the door.

Austin shared a worried glance with Shaw and then rushed to her, trying to hold her back. "Taylor, please, you need to calm down. Look at me, just look at me!" He wrapped his arms around her waist, trying to pull her back, but she fought him hard, trying to tear herself of his grip while he struggled to hold her. "Let go of me! LET ME GO!"

She continued to fight him, shouting and writhing in his arms as the officers attempted to intervene and lower her to the ground. Distantly, she heard the scrape of a chair and felt more than saw the shadow of someone new standing over her as she continued to struggle, and then there was a sharp pang in her thigh.

A needle, and then nothing.

She woke feeling disoriented. She recognized her bedroom, but could not recall how she'd gotten there or for how long she'd been there. The curtains were open, letting in the early gray light of morning.

She tried to sit up on her elbows, as if that would award her some clarity to the present situation, but found she was too weak to do so. She turned onto her side instead, just in time to catch the bathroom door creaking open, allowing a streak of yellow light to slice through, where it straddled a small sliver of carpet as Austin entered. He looked surprised to find her awake. He bit his lip and went to her almost cautiously, as if approaching a skittish animal.

"Hey," he greeted gently. He knelt down next to the edge of the bed. "How are you feeling?"

She looked at him, trying to remember something, anything, her mind flipping through pages upon pages of blank nothingness. Austin waited patiently, allowing her time to collect herself.

And then it came, everything, all at once. Sheets of rain. Those hands around her neck. The Joker, the way her body tensed as she rolled away from his ax as it came crashing down next to her, splintering the floor. The GCPD, and Dr. Shaw. The sound of her screams echoing off the walls in her hysteria to get out of there, to find the evidence she needed to prove that she was right.

Taylor swallowed to find her voice. "Numb." That was all she could muster in reply, hoping it was enough. Her throat felt raw, well-used, and her eyelids heavy.

"Dr. Shaw said it would be a while before you felt back to normal." She caught the moment of hesitation in his movements before he reached up and ran his hand up and down her arm, comforting her. She squeezed her eyes shut.

It all… it all had felt so real. How could it be possible that something that felt that real was all just a dream, some strange hallucination?

She opened her eyes. Looked at him. "Am I going crazy?" she whispered.

Austin's pained look was answer enough. "No," he said, "No, no, no, of course not." He was crawling into bed next to her, holding her, rubbing his hands up and down her back. "You're not, baby. This is just… just a setback. We're going to get through this, just like we always have."

You wanna know what I think, hm? I think you worry too much. I think you need to lighten up. Smile a little bit more.

She froze. It was that voice again, the one she'd heard in the hospital, when she'd been talking on the phone to Austin. Goose bumps prickled over her skin, that strange feeling of déjà vu settling over her like a heavy mist, like this familiar memory if only she could see the details more clearly, could figure out who that voice belonged to. She felt her heart thudding in her chest and tried to talk a calming breath.

Austin sensed her discomfort, hugged her tight. "We're going to get through this, okay? I promise you. I don't think you're crazy. I know you're scared." He was babbling, he knew, but he continued to grapple for more words. He felt instead as if he were sifting through grains of sand. "I'm not going to let this happen again."

Taylor shook her head. "It—it felt so real, Austin." Her brows were pinched together, thinking back to the paralyzing fear she'd felt at being alone in that room with the Joker, knowing he was intent on murdering her, the way she'd felt pinned beneath him, the sobering heaviness of him, solid and hard. He could've snapped her like a twig. "The Joker… he spoke to me as if… as if he knew me." She turned in Austin's arms to look up at him. "Why would he do that?"

"It wasn't real, Taylor. Don't do this to yourself, don't dwell on… on this stuff. This is your reality. This—" he nodded to the room around them "—this is real." He cupped her face in his hands, gently, bringing their foreheads together. "I love you. I need you to know that. I love you so much."

She nodded, but could not muster the energy to whisper the sentiment back to him. Nothing felt real anymore. Was she going to be trapped forever in this unforgiving dreamscape, unable to differentiate between fiction and reality? How was she supposed to live like this, in this constant, potent cocktail of fear and paranoia? How wasAustin supposed to cope with this? He was suffering too, she couldn't continue to put him through that. And what if she tried to hurt him just like she'd tried to hurt herself, however unconsciously it may have been?

She reached up to trace the bruises around her neck, still tender, and winced.

The bed shifted with Austin's weight as he moved into a more comfortable position. "I have to work today," he said, quiet, "I think my boss is on the verge of trying to replace me." She could hear the annoyance in his voice. "Says I'm not 'putting in the time'." That obviously wasn't true, and Austin usually worked more hours a week than she did, even if he did sometimes have the luxury of working from home. "I was going to take you to dad's house to spend the day with him while I'm at work. Will you… will you be okay without me?"

She certainly wasn't going to say no and force him to stay. No, she just wanted to sleep, wanted this to be the nightmare that she'd soon wake from, that she'd wake in bed and suddenly be awarded the clarity she so desperately craved. She wanted all the events that had led to this moment to have been a fabrication, a terrible nightmare.

But even now, she wasn't so sure, wasn't sure if this truly was reality. She felt as if she'd been caught in a riptide and was being tumbled beneath the waves, unable to tell up from down, unable to breech the surface and gasp for air.

"I'll be ready to go in fifteen minutes," she said.

It was hot, the kind of blistering heat where you just wanted to sit inside all day and do nothing, or maybe lounge in a bathtub full of ice just to keep the sweating at bay. Even with the overcast sky and the early hour of the morning, the heat was unbearable. The air conditioner in the car, set to full blast, seemed to struggle as it sputtered and kicked. Taylor closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the seat as the weathercaster from HITS 102.5 reported a heat index in the 120s, warning that there was a weather advisory in affect to stay indoors if at all possible.

Austin turned the radio off, tired of it, and managed to snag a parking spot across the street, only a couple houses down. It was always packed this time of morning. He turned the car off and tugged the keys out of the ignition, handing them to her.

"I'll leave the car with you in case you and dad need to go anywhere. Don't want you out walking in this kind of weather."

She nodded, and they both were silent, looking anywhere but at each other, the car suddenly feeling heavy with everything there was to say, all the things that had transpired. She was the first to break the silence.

"Did you tell him?"

Austin lifted his glasses to rub his eyes with his knuckles. She used to find that endearing when he did that, back when they were in college, it reminded her of a little kid. Now she only felt a stab of guilt because of how exhausted he looked, because of her. God, sometimes she wondered how he didn't just hate her, for everything she put him through. How was he not sick of her?

"I didn't say anything, just that you were taking the day off and wanted to relax." He wiped the lenses of his glasses off on his shirt before putting them back on. "I told him I'd be dropping you off early and you'd still be tired and would probably want to sleep."

Sleep. Not likely. But she didn't know what she wanted. Everything just felt wrong, all mixed up. How humiliating not to be able to tell up from down, black from white, real from imaginary. How could she have let it get this bad? Why did the past have to dig its claws into her so adamantly? When would it all just end?

And even now, when the police were telling her that it had all been a dream, a delusion, she still couldn't bring herself to believe them. How could something that'd felt so real been just a figment of her imagination?

But maybe she didn't want to admit the truth because the implication of what that meant was too much to bear: that she was losing her mind, that she'd finally done it, finally slipped into that place of no return, that place that got you a padded room, a handful of pills every day at six, and a Dixie full of water. Maybe Austin would stop by daily at first, maybe he'd stay two hours, or three, and then as time wore on it'd be one hour, and then fifteen minutes, and then it'd be once a week, and twice a month, and she wouldn't even blame him, would have no one to blame but herself. She'd lose him, and then she'd die there, alone, with the people who heard voices telling them to kill babies and the people who thought the government had implanted microscopic chips in their arm and were following their every move, listening to their every phone call. She shuddered at the thought that that could become her life, that if she let this spiral out of control as it had already begun to do, that could become her new reality.

She didn't respond, got out of the car without saying anything, hating herself for acting so cold and distant towards Austin, for treating him this way. She knew she was punishing him for not believing her, for not standing up for her to the detectives, to the police. But she couldn't lie to herself, could not go on pretending as if he hadn't hurt her on a level she never would have thought possible from him. He had always been her biggest supporter, staunch in his efforts, even when no one else was. She felt betrayed by him, even as she grappled with the truth, whatever that was.

She jaywalked across the street, and Austin had to jog to keep up with her.

"Hey, hey," he said, reaching for her arm when they were on the sidewalk, holding her still so she was forced to look at him. "Don't do this to me, Taylor. Don't shut me out. I know you're hurting."

Hurting. That wasn't even the half of it. She looked down when someone walked past, talking on their cell phone, paying them no mind. "Austin, please… I just want to go inside."

He let go of her, and they walked the short distance to the front door. Austin stopped at the top of the small stairs, realizing she was still at the bottom of the steps. She was touching her neck, where she'd tried to cover the bruises there with makeup. It hadn't worked.

"Is it obvious?" she asked, looking up at him, looking so sad and broken. His heart clenched.

"No," he said. "You can barely tell."

William greeted them at the door, dressed and wearing a full smile, happy to see them as he ushered them inside. Taylor gave him a long hug as Austin closed the door behind them, shutting out the oppressive heat.

"Hi, daddy," she said, pulling back to kiss his cheek. "How are you feeling today?"

"Better now that you're here," he smiled.

When they pulled apart, she stepped aside to take off her shoes, and Austin noticed the way William's brows furrowed together in confusion at the bruises around her neck, a question forming on his lips. Austin quickly shook his head, a silent plea begging him not to ask.

"Hey, could you grab me a water bottle from the fridge before I go?" he asked Taylor. "I'm just going to call a cab."

"Oh… sure."

He didn't miss the way she looked between the two of them as he made a point of pulling out his cell phone, but she left without saying anything further.

William waited until she was out of earshot. "What was that?" he asked, concerned.

Austin spoke quietly. "Just a small accident," he said. "Will you do me a favor? Keep an eye on her today?"

"Is she alright?"

"She will be. She's… she's had a rough couple of days." That was probably the understatement of the year, but he wasn't going to divulge the details when Taylor obviously did not want him to know.

"Okay," William nodded, and Austin felt grateful for that, for not asking questions and simply trusting him. For as much as he wished things were different, wished that William would get on with his life, would stop dragging Taylor down into his quarry of pity, where he knew he could always keep her—however unconsciously it was done—he did think William was a good man. He wished William could be there for Taylor in all the ways she was for him, how she doted on him and cared for him—even refused to leave this toxic city because of him—because they both knew William would be dead by now if it wasn't for her. She was his last guiding light in the world, a duty she did not take lightly.

But William knew Austin had her best interests at heart, that was why he didn't push, even when he could see that something wasn't quite right. He knew that Austin had cared for her—and would continue to care for her—in a way that few others could; he loved her more than he loved himself.

When she returned, he ignored the proffered water bottle and pulled her to him instead, surprising her.

"Will you be okay here?" he asked, quietly. "Do you need me to stay?"

"Please, go," she said, realizing after that it sounded like she didn't want him here. "They'll give your byline to Dave if you don't," she said, attempting a small smile.

Austin kissed her. "I'll call you at lunch, okay?" He paused to hold her face in his hands, looking at her, trying not to glance at the bruises of her neck. He didn't want to think about those. "I love you so much."

He kissed her again, and she watched him from the small rectangular window next to the door as he got into a cab.

William was standing quietly off to the side with his hands clasped behind his back.

"Want me to make you some breakfast?" he offered.

She smiled at him. "I'd love that."

He cooked her eggs and toast, and they sat in the kitchen with the sun coming up, where it flooded through the sliding glass doors that led out into the small backyard. It almost felt like old times, for a second. She could see Terrence sitting beside her in that empty chair, her mother still at the stove or at the counter, because she wouldn't sit down and eat herself until she was sure that everyone had all the food they needed, that the glasses were full and the toast buttered and their lunch boxes packed for school. Taylor smiled.

"It's hard not to picture mom when I'm in here," she said, shifting the eggs on her plate back and forth with the tines of her fork. "Feels like she's all over the place in here." She looked up to gauge his reaction. She hadn't spoken about her mother in years, not to her father. Clara had always been that elephant in the room they didn't address, that unspoken rule, like she was so sacred that mere words couldn't begin to touch the person that she once was, or the memories she'd left behind.

William wiped at his mouth with his napkin. "It does, doesn't it?" he agreed. "I like to think of her in here," he said, in a rare glimpse at one of his innermost thoughts. "I think she was happiest when she was serving others... very much like you."

Taylor felt her heart swell. If she could be even half the woman her mother was, she would consider herself lucky. And wasn't it hard not to miss her in times like these? When she felt as if she were all around yet was nowhere all in the same breath. She wondered if that's how her father felt all the time, like the woman he loved was right there, only just out of reach, like the closer he got, the farther she became, like chasing after your own shadow, or the way it dog chases its own tail.

"Taylor," William began, drawing her out of her thoughts. He was looking at her. "I don't know what's going on with—with all of this," he gestured to his neck, and Taylor felt her face heat up, because of course he would notice, he always saw everything, even when you thought he didn't, "and I know I haven't said this to you, not nearly as often as I should have… but you should know your mother would've been proud of you. That I'm proud of you."

She was at a loss for words. "I'm proud of you" would have been the words of her old father, the one she used to know, before all this sadness. Hearing him say those words now meant the world to her, like a small thread of his old self had finally come back. She reached across the floral tablecloth and held his hand in hers, tears filling her eyes, so grateful for him, for her mother, for Terrence, for rescuing her when she needed it most. There was a lot wrong with her, that much was obvious, but she knew she would've been a lot worse off if it hadn't been for them, for the new life they gave her.

She was grateful when he squeezed her hand, letting her know that he knew, that she didn't have to say a thing.

When she stood to clear the dishes, William jumped into action, waving her off. "Why don't you let me clean up the mess this time? Austin said you were feeling tired… you want to go lie down for a bit?"

In all honesty, she wasn't tired anymore, but she could sense that this interaction had taken a lot out of him, and that if anyone was tired and needed to recharge, it was him.

"I think I will rest for a bit." She went to him at the sink and kissed his cheek, didn't miss the way he looked at her like she was the sun. His small, proud smile.

She climbed the stairs as she had hundreds of times before and opened the door to her bedroom, where the sun was coming in warm through the blinds, her quilted, frayed bedspread looking so inviting.

She laid down on her side on top of the covers and fell asleep almost instantly. It was the most peaceful sleep she'd had in weeks. She woke blinking back the rays of the sun, slanting across her face through the blinds. The fuzzy purple alarm clock on her dresser read 12:03. She sat up and stretched her arms over her head, wondering if her father was still asleep downstairs in his recliner. Maybe she'd go out and get some groceries and prepare a late lunch for when he woke.

She stood and went to the window, overlooking the street at the front of the house, stretching her arms behind her back now as she peered through the blinds.

Then she saw it.

The black van, the same one she'd seen that night in the store parking lot. Her heart skipped a beat, and then another, and another, her breath seizing in her throat like someone had shoved their fist down it, blocking her airflow.

It can't be….

She immediately backed away from the window, out of their line of sight, grabbing the edge of her dresser for support. She couldn't see if there was anybody in it, the windows were tinted too dark, but she knew that it was the same van from that night.

What if it was him, the Joker? What if he had come back for her? What if he'd decided he wasn't finished? That he did want to kill her after all? Oops, so-rry, she could hear in that nauseating high pitch lilt, changed my mind about you.

She thought of Jason, then, realizing they hadn't spoken since everything that had happened. Dr. Shaw had said he'd denied everything, but if… if she hadn't dreamt up everything, if it was all real… then why would Jason say that? What if he was in danger? What if he was just trying to save his own skin?

Her mouth felt dry all the sudden. She couldn't believe she hadn't thought of that before. She had to see him. She had to talk to him.

She tried to steady her breathing as she descended the stairs. In the living room, William was passed out, snoring softly, the TV on. It looked like he'd cleaned some, the blanket folded over the back of the couch, the magazines stacked neatly on top the coffee table, the coasters arranged, everything in its right place. She went to the kitchen and wrote a quick note, I'll be back soon, and ripped it from the memo pad to leave next to his recliner so he'd see it as soon as he woke. She slipped on her sneakers, found the keys she'd left on the table in the foyer, and peered out the window next to the door. The black van was gone.

You are going crazy, Taylor.

She had seen it though, she had. This was not some figment of her imagination. She knew she'd seen it. Now it was just a matter of wondering where it had gone.

She left the house quietly, locking the door behind her, and jogged to the car. It was burning hot inside, making her sweat instantly. The steering wheel was almost too hot to touch, but she didn't have time to let the air conditioner run. She pulled up Jason's address on her phone. It wasn't far, maybe fifteen minutes with traffic.

She couldn't get there fast enough, her heart racing the whole the time, looking down every side street for that black SUV.

When she reached her destination, she parallel parked on the opposite side of the street, leaning forward in her seat so she could look out the passenger window, assessing the complex. It looked old and unassuming, easily blending in with the other red slabs of concrete housing on either side of it.

She unbuckled her seatbelt, got out, and waited for the traffic to thin before jogging to the other side of the street.

She was disheartened to find a buzzer nearing the entrance, suddenly afraid that he wouldn't let her in if he knew it was her. Maybe he didn't want to talk to her. Maybe he thought she was crazy.

A bald, middle-aged man came jogging around the corner then, dripping with sweat from his workout, and as Taylor watched him punch in his code and open the door, she waited until it was almost closed before silently slipping in after him. He took the stairs leading below and disappeared out of sigh. Taylor's destination, however, was up, and after casting a sidelong glance at the questionable-looking elevator, she took the stairs two at a time, mumbling Jason's apartment number under her breath so she wouldn't forget it.

On the third floor, the carpeted halls were quiet as she padded down them; she could hear the distinct buzz of a vacuum from a floor above, soft contemporary playing from somewhere further down the hall, the sound of a talk show host on TV, the elated laughter of the audience. None of it was quite as loud as her heart, beating in her ear, like she could hear the blood pushing and shoving through all the valves and chambers. She paused in front of Jason's door, looking both ways before knocking.

She waited a long beat, but nobody came to the door.

She tried again, louder this time, but still no answer. Frustrated, she turned away, running her hands through her hair, feeling at a loss. Maybe he was working? She should have called the hospital first, maybe she could have reached him there.

Something nagged at her though, a feeling she couldn't explain. She turned back again and tried the door—just to see if it was locked—and was surprised when the knob turned, opening up for her.

Unbelieving of her own luck she entered, closing the door softly behind her with a click.

The apartment was dark, blackout blinds drawn shut, and Taylor blindly groped the wall for the nearest light switch. When the lights flicked on, her eyes scanned the apartment eagerly.

It lay in ruins before her, like a tornado had swept through. The couch was flipped on its side, the cushions strewn about the floor with its stuffing pouring through the torn-open holes, like little puffs of snow all over the carpet. Broken plates, cups, and other kitchenware littered the linoleum in the kitchen, and the bookcase, entertainment system, and desk had all been knocked to the floor. Pages from books were strewn everywhere, a graveyard of tangled stories and words.

She tried her voice, to call for Jason, but the words would not leave her throat. She knew immediately that something was not right.

Everything in her was telling her to leave, to run away while she still had the chance, but the curiosity in her burned. She had to know.

She padded to his bedroom, where the furniture and his belongings were in a similar state of disarray, and then into the small bathroom, where the door was ajar and the light was on.

And that was where she found him—hanging from the shower rod courtesy of a home-made noose, a thick leather belt.

She gasped, clapping her hand over her mouth in shock. The belt dug with a vice into Jason's neck, leaving welts that contrasted sharply with the ghostly pallor of his face. With his mouth open—as if frozen in an attempt to gasp for air—and his glazed, vacant eyes directed skywards, Taylor felt bile rise in her stomach at the sight of him.

Sobbing into her hand, she drew back and forced herself to look away, but it was too late, the image already burned into her memory.

Near the sink, she spotted a sheet of paper torn from what looked like the back page a book. She gripped the edges of the counter and pulled herself to it, not trusting her legs to hold her steady.

On the blank side of the paper, in shaky pen, was written, Dear Julia, but the letter had not been finished.

A suicide note?

But what had made him change his mind? Who was Julia? Why had he not finished it? And what had compelled him to destroy his apartment beforehand?

Or had it been destroyed by someone else?

It was with that burning thought that Taylor's blood ran cold, a sudden surge of ice through her veins that forced her heart to stop in its tracks.

"Oh, God."

She was breathing hard as she stared at the unfinished letter. Her eyes drifted towards the opened medicine bottles sprawled across the glossy counter, where pills had been spilled in a hurry. She grabbed for one and read the label. Digoxin.

It had been prescribed to Lydia Goodman. Taylor did not recognize the name, but she was familiar with the drug and knew that it slowed the heart if you took too much.

She gripped the edges of the counter hard, until the bare bones of her knuckles were white, and looked down, into the sink, squeezing her eyes shut, willing everything to go away, for this horrible reality to be dream, a hallucination, anything. She wanted that hard. She wanted to be wrong suddenly. She wanted all of this to be a nightmare. An episode of psychosis.

Then she heard a voice behind her.

"Hello there."

The sound made her eyes shoot open and her heart stop, point blank. She kept her head bowed, paralyzed with fear, but she recognized that drawl instantly, the slow, sickly-sweet sharpness of a voice she had hoped to never hear again.

Her eyes crawled slowly, slowly up to meet his, sliding up the mirror until she saw him there, standing behind her in all of his glory—tall and menacing and terrifying so up close, punctuated by the blinding white fluorescents. She stared at him. She couldn't breathe.

He took a step closer and leaned into her before she could stop him, arms sliding against either of hers, trapping her against the counter. She felt the length of his thighs pressed solidly against the backs of hers, and she leaned forward, in an attempt to distance him, but he only followed her motion, draping his chest across her back. And he was hot, with blood on fire and a body that reeked of smoke and gasoline, making her eyes burn with tears from the stench of him alone.

She watched in the mirror—speechless and horrorstruck—as his mangled, blood-red mouth descended towards her ear. His tongue, a serpent's tail, flicked across the cartilage there in his efforts to wet his own lips.

His breath on her skin was searing.

"They're coming to kill you," he whispered, and she had to grip the rim of the sink to keep from collapsing into it. "But I've come for you first."

She gasped, suddenly twisting to get away, but the Joker's gloved hand gripping the back of her neck gave her no time to react. Before she could brace herself and offer resistance, he slammed her head into the mirror with a brutality that stunned her. The pain was unparalleled to anything she'd ever felt. She cried out, a choked gasp tangling in her throat. The left half of her forehead took the brunt of the impact, and she heard glass shattering around her, falling onto the counter as the smaller pieces slid down the bowl of the sink and crackled like fireworks as they collected in the drain.

She was blind. Blood marred her vision, its coppery warmth sliding over her left eye, her nose, her lips. Blood filled her mouth when she opened it to cry, and it tasted warm and sour and metallic, liquid hot metal that had been left too long in the sun.

A thousand black stars burst behind her lids when the Joker's fingers curled around the back of her neck—readjusting his already impossibly-tight, spine-damaging grip—and yanked her backwards, away from the mirror. She could feel the chunks of glass embedded in her forehead and she sobbed, lifting her arms that felt like deadweights, trying to grasp for something, anything, to keep her steady.

When the Joker spun her around, moving his hands to grip her upper arms, her head lolled back without his support and she was helpless to stop it.

"Oh, I have missed you," he growled, even as her head lolled back and her neck felt as if it might snap from the angle. "You just couldn't stay away, could you? Could you?!" he giggled, shaking her in time with his words. "No, no, no. You and I… we're not done yet."

Taylor's world spun. She could hear him speaking, but his voice was a roar in her ears, like ocean waves crashing against the shore. Her vision swam in a sea of red.

"Please," she felt herself mouth around the torrent of blood that had flooded her mouth. She felt herself falling, falling, falling, and she reached out to grasp the lapels of the Joker's suit, gripping until her knuckles were stained white. She could not lift her head and blood was sliding down her throat, giving her no choice but to swallow it down or else choke on it.

Something must have caught the Joker's attention, because his head snapped to the side, towards the open bathroom door, and his mouth broke into a slow grin.

"Time to pla-y," she heard him sing-song, sounding far too chirpy and pleased considering the amount of blood gushing from her forehead and sliding down her face.

Her world somersaulted and the ceiling dipped then rose as the Joker shifted her again, turning her around so her back was once against pressed against his chest. He supported her this time by cupping an arm beneath her ribs, forcing her into him. Her head lolled forward and she struggled with all of her might to lift it, even as a wave of dizziness threatened to blacken her vision. With her body draped over his, she felt like a shield.

And it was at that moment, when another figure entered, pointing a gun at them—that she realized she was a shield.

"Dr. Bishop, is it?" the Joker said, and she felt herself blanch at the name, her heart dropping into the pit of her stomach. "So good of you to join us. Do you want to play a little game?"

"I don't happen to be very fond of those,"Bishop said. She heard the sound of the rack slide back, the gun cocked and ready to fire, aimed straight at her. "I've got a better idea."

The Joker cocked his head, hummed in consideration. "She has something we both want," he said, and Taylor couldn't stop her head from lolling forward, as blackness crowded around the edges of her vision, "but it seems since I arrived first," he emphasized, "well, as they say... you snooze, you lose."

"Trite," Bishop replied, not missing a beat. "But I'll blow a hole through you both. You're not in a position of power over me," he snarled.

The Joker frowned, his face a mockery of confusion. "Aren't I? You see, I've. Got. The girl. And the girl has what you want. Right here." He tapped his gun—which he had discreetly pulled from his jacket—against the side of her head. Dr. Bishop eyed the weapon with narrowed eyes. The Joker continued on. "Now... I can kill her right here—" he jabbed the barrel into her skull, making her cry out, "—and your work will be for naught. Or," he said, "you can follow by my rules, and maybe I won't put a bullet in her skull… or yours," he added.

For a moment, silence reigned.

"And why would I do that?"

The Joker cracked an ear-splitting grin. "Because," he said as he lowered his gun, clicked open the chamber, and emptied the bullets onto the hardwood floor, where they fell in loud clatter. "I'm about to make you an offer you can't refuse."