The sound of gunshots echoed all along the street, the flashes of muzzle like lightning in the darkness.
Someone screamed, a high, wordless cry of pain, only to be cut short by another gun shot.
Red and blue lights flashing in the distance.
Just another night in Gotham City.
You wished that you could close the curtains to it all, put it in some earplugs and forget the rest of the world. But the very thought of doing so caused a sliver of ice to crawl up your spine.
The curtains should remain open. Always.
That feeling of doom lingering in the back of your head, that little voice telling you that if you don’t do things the exact way, the right way, then something terrible would happen. A meteor would fall on Gotham City. Victor Zsasz would break out of Arkham Asylum and leave a blood trail in his wake. A train would explode during the morning rush hour.
You didn’t know. Something.
So the curtains stayed open.
Water dripped from your fingers, making soft plinks as they hit the bottom of the sink.
Behind you, the kettle began to whistle, a high, thin note that drowned out the gunshots, at least for the moment.
You set aside the steel wool that you’d been using the scrub yourself and poured the hot water into mugs. And once again, that scratching in the back of your head reasserted itself.
If you didn’t pour the water just right and the exact level then--
You paused, watched the last of the water droplets trickle out of the spout, feeling your heart hammering in your chest. You had measured it beforehand, of course. But it still made you nervous, every time.
Normally, you drunk everything cold. It was easier that way. It didn’t make your heart race or your fingers shake the way boiling water did.
For some reason.
No one ever said that mental conditions had to make sense.
But today had been a rough one. The visions had been terrible. They had always been, of course, but the ones you had last night had you shooting out of your bed and running to your studio, eager to recreate the scene with paint.
Maybe it was some sort of sick fascination or maybe it was a way of purging, but you always felt better after you had painted the visions in your head. Like sucking the venom out of the snakebite.
Today’s painting had taken nearly twelve hours.
So you decided that a treat--hot tea--was in order.
The shooting outside had stopped. You could hear the murmur of the police as they talked to each other. It’s not exactly like your landlord paid for soundproof walls.
Arranging the mug in the center--exactly in the center--of a plate you headed to the living room. Maybe you’d find something good on t.v. tonight, one that didn’t involve whatever hell some escaped inmate of Arkham was raising.
You opened the door to your living room and stopped. The mug rattled against its plate as the hand holding it shook.
You were finding it hard to breathe.
The red and blue lights of the police car were still flashing outside your apartment, but most of its color was blocked by a man sitting on your windowsill.
The brown leather jacket he was wearing was lopsided and spotted with blood. He was breathing heavily, as if he had run a long distance. Or more likely, just came out of a fight. What called your attention though, was the red mask he wore, gleaming even in the dim light of your apartment.
It was, you noted, almost the same color as the blood on his jacket. You were sure that it wasn’t his.
When he spoke, his voice had a mechanical tinge, “Can I crash here for the night? Black Mask’s men are hot on my tail and I need to shake them.”
You opened your mouth to speak, but no sound came out, just a small sound in the back of your throat.
Instead, you gestured to his jacket, hoping that he would understand.
“Hm? Oh right, sorry.” The man on your windowsill adjusted the jacket, not even minding the blood splattered all over it, so that it hung perfectly straight. “Better?”
Without waiting for an answer, Red strode into your living room and sank down onto your couch. If the plastic curtains that you had draped over them bothered him, he didn’t say so.
You grimaced. Blood was a biohazard and your head was swimming with thoughts of AIDS and hepatitis and all the things you could catch from just a drop of blood. And Red was just...sitting in it.
You made yourself push away the thought, telling yourself that you’d burn the curtains later, the way you always did every time he visited.
It wasn’t that you didn’t like him. It was just...disgusting. The word bubbled up in your head without your permission. Human beings were, on average, positively crawling with bacteria. And you couldn’t help but think of all the ways that you might get contaminated.
Your throat felt dry. It was hard to swallow. You made yourself take a sip of tea to calm you down.
“So can I?” Red’s voice broke you of your thoughts.
“Can you what?”
“Stay the night?” He inclined his head towards you and his helmet gleamed. You found yourself wondering, not for the first time, what he looked like underneath it. His name wasn’t really Red, of course. But he never told you his name and you needed something to call him so while he stayed in your apartment, his name was Red.
You shrugged. “Just promise to use a door next time. It’s not like you don’t have a key.”
“And bring the cops down on this place? Hell no.” Though he said it casually, you didn’t miss the way his helmet moved around, taking in the small living room.
Once, Red had told you that as part of his training, he was expected to process an area’s exit points and possible strategic vulnerabilities at a glance. You had responded by telling him that the only thing you were good at processing was how dirty a place was.
The idea of cops coming into your apartment, of busting the door open and letting in all sorts of dust into your living space made you shiver. Who knew what kind of diseases they carried? All it took was one deadly disease to poison your lungs, sink into your skin and just...end it. One mistake. That was all it took.
“You really think the cops will find this place?” you asked softly. You lived in what could only be described as the ass-end of Gotham, so far away from the heart of the city that you could barely even see the towering figure of Wayne Enterprises, a beast of the skyscraper that loomed over the entire city.
To his credit, Red paused a bit before answering, showing that he actually gave your question some thought. “Doubt it. It’s too far away from anything to be of interest. Still, never pays to be prepared.”
“That would explain the chest Tazer,” you muttered. Some time ago, you had walked into your bedroom to find Red collapsed on your floor.
When you had tried to help him up, touched the red bat symbol on his chest, a shock of electricity had gone through you. You made no claims to bravery; you had run out of the room, screaming and filled with the certainty that you were going to die.
A snort sounded strange when it was all distorted like his was. You wondered how he would sound like without it. Was his voice deep and rich, like a narrator in a storybook? Or was it rough and gravelly to fit the rough vigilante image?
You were so lost in your thoughts that you didn’t realize that Red had swung himself off his seat and sauntered over to your studio.
His voice floated over to you. “So is this the new one or...?”
It took you a second to process what he was referring to.
“Oh no, please don’t!” you yelped, nearly spilling your tea all over yourself--Burns, your mind screamed. If the tea spills on you, you’re gonna get burns--as you raced to the studio. “I-it’s not yet finished. You shouldn’t be looking at it.”
For some reason, you felt upset at the idea of Red seeing an unfinished painting, a work of art that was less than perfect.
That had been a recent development.
Lately, you had found yourself worrying a little more about the state of your apartment, wondering about the acrid smell of disinfectant and what he thought of you, holed up in this little place, far away from the rest of Gotham.
But Red dismissed your concerns with an impatient wave. “It looks fine. You saw this, right? In your dreams?”
It still amazed you how he said it so casually, so calmly. As if this was the sort of thing he dealt with every day.
Well, considering how strange Gotham was, you didn’t doubt that there was someone else like you out there.
“Yeah. I saw that last night.” You had set the painting in one of your bigger canvases, large enough that you could work on the details without losing sight of the bigger picture. Your art had been featured on several of Gotham’s art galleries, though most people found it too unsettling for your paintings to ever be anything famous.
While others had said that your paintings held a mirror to Gotham and showed the citizens its darker side, others have said that your art aimed for cheap horror at best and voyeurism at worst.
But of course, none of the critics ever came to the real truth.
The only one who ever came close to the real truth was a man in a red hood, who had broken into your home a couple of months ago, and woken you up with a gun to your face.
Your art was, quite simply, life.
Your latest creation was a painting of a grand ball, the kind that you would often see in the movies but never in real life (and not least because you almost never left the house). A crystal chandelier glittered in the room’s ceiling, its light seeming to sparkle off the canvas. Women wearing their best dresses, reds and yellows and blues so rich it almost hurt the eyes to look up.
Gotham’s richest and finest, immortalized on canvas.
It wasn’t a happy painting, however. Blood flowed down the golden steps like a carpet, the wide glass windows were shattered, pieces of it embedded in the patrons’ flesh. The moon peaked out from the broken window, just a sliver of light, like the night itself was smiling at the carnage.
Men and women were strewn on the the floor, their beautiful clothing stretched and ripped as their bodies contorted into unnatural positions. All the while their faces were stretched into wide, perverse grins.
Beside you, you heard Red suck in his breath and you had to struggle to keep your mind off of airborne diseases and all the things that you could catch just by standing near him.
“I saw it about twelve hours ago,” you supplied. “Do you think...?”
Do you think it had already happened? Do you think these people are already dead? Do you think we’re too late?
Red shot you a look. “Relax. It’s not for another two weeks, maybe more.”
“How did you...?”
He bent down and pointed at the moon with a gloved finger, its silver body peeking out amidst the shards of broken glass in the window.
“Crescent moon. We’re at first quarter now. Waning crescent’s not for another eighteen days.” He paused, studying the painting further. “Some of these people are Penguin’s. Could be in the Diamond District.”
You didn’t know who Penguin is or where the Diamond District was, but you’ve known Red long enough that the two of you had established a routine.
You waited while he puzzled and muttered over your painting, occasionally touching a person or an image. Waited and ignored the trembling in your fingertips, the urge to scrub the room clean again.
It was easier, this time around. Easier than the first time Red had visited you in the middle of the night, held a gun to your face and demanded that you tell him about your paintings and why your latest piece seemed so much like the bombing at Gotham bank. You had spent hours, scouring your bedroom, scrubbing it clean until it no longer contained any trace of him.
That first time he had visited you, with that red helmet looming at you in the dark, you had cried. You weren’t a superhero and though it shamed you to admit, you had cried. Cried so hard that even the hardened vigilante had leaped out of your bed in shock and scrambled for a way to stem the flow of tears.
And when he had touched you, you had cried even harder.
“Right,” Red said, straightening. “Got anything for me that isn’t on here? Voices, faces, anything?”
You shivered, remembering the cold, high voice in your dream, Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. For tonight’s entertainment...
When you told Red about the voice, however, he tapped one of the victim’s faces. She grinned at you, the smile wide enough to show all of her teeth.
“Joker venom. It’s a bit of a signature for him. Makes his victims laugh until they suffocate. That sick son of a bitch is going to get what’s coming to him one of these days.”
You blinked, surprised at the heat in his voice. He’d cursed around you sure, but never with such raw...hate.
He seemed to have caught himself. Steadied. “Yeah?”
He grunted in response. “M’fine. Just old memories. What about you?”
“Me?” you asked, confused that he would ask that. It’s not exactly like you had a fast-paced and unpredictable lifestyle. And you liked it that way.
“Earthquake just outside of Metropolis this afternoon. Affected some parts of Gotham, too, including the East End.” Red glanced at you out of the corner of his eye. “You doing okay?”
“I’m fine, didn’t feel a thing around here.”
“Good,” he said, in a tone that told you he meant it.
You were still staring at the woman and though you were the one who had painted her, you could feel the skin around your shoulders tightening at the sight of bloodied smile.
“I never get to see it, you know.”
Red, who had been on the verge of moving back to the living room, paused and turned to you. “Never get to see what?”
“My death.” You didn’t know why you were telling him this; you’ve never told anyone. “Every time I close my eyes, I see someone in Gotham getting killed. But I’ve never seen myself...you know, die before.”
Red didn’t say anything, but you could feel him listening, feel his eyes burn a whole into your back.
“It should be a relief, shouldn’t it? I see people die in my dreams, then they die in real life. So, maybe seeing myself die is a good thing. But it’s always like...waiting for the other shoe to drop, you know? Like not knowing makes it scarier. Cause at least if I see it in my dreams, I’ll know what to expect.” You traced the woman’s face with your finger.
The future wasn’t set in stone; Red had proved that many times over, on the occasions that he had used your paintings to stop a crime before it ever happened.
“Is that what all this is about?” Red asked and even without looking at him, you could tell that he was looking across the hospital-clean rooms, the plastic curtains on the sofa, the floors scrubbed within an inch of its life, the red marks on your arms and hands from scrubbing yourself too long and too hard.
“You don’t know how you’ll die, so you’re doing everything to prevent it?”
You sucked in a breath. “I don’t know.”
“Cause let me tell you, sweetheart, death’s not as bad as you think.”
Out of the corner of your eye, you saw Red tilt his head, as if amused.
“Really?” you asked, not quite looking at him. “It’s not that bad?”
He let out a hollow laugh. “I got beaten to death by a crowbar. It’s every bit as bad as you think, and then some.”
You stared at him, deflating like a balloon. He had told you the story before.
And while other people would be compelled to doubt him, someone like you, who saw people’s death in her dreams, would be more compelled to believe him.
“I don’t make a point of locking myself in my room because of it, though,” he added.
Heavy footsteps as Red went back to stand behind you.
You wished that you could say that it was the painting he was staring at, but you knew he wasn’t.
Words tumbled out of your mouth before you could stop them; bitter words, ones you wished you could take back almost as soon as you said them.
“Yeah, well. I’m not a superhero.”
Underneath the helmet, you could’ve sworn Red was grinning. “Neither am I.”
You shot him a glance. “So you dress up like a loon and beat up bad guys for fun, huh?”
“You said superhero, last I checked, I’m not wearing a bat costume. And I’d look terrible in tights,” Red argued.
Now that conjured up all sorts of unwelcome imagery and you suddenly wished that you still had your teacup to hide behind. Because in your opinion, Red wouldn’t look terrible in tights, oh no.
Only the exact opposite.
“You saved me once,” you said. “You. Not Batman. Or like, Superman.”
Several months ago, Red had given you a burner phone, with the instructions to call him if you ever needed any help.
You had tucked the phone away, thinking that you’d never need it.
But you lived in Gotham, of course, and crime was never far away.
When your once-in-a-blue-moon trips to the bank turned into a hostage situation, it had taken Red all of five minutes to respond to your frantic call, crashing through the glass doors with his motorcycle.
The fight had been fast, loud and utterly brutal.
Or so you’d been told.
You’d been too busy following Red’s advice and hiding behind the largest piece of furniture you could find, as frightened by the gunshots as you were of the possible diseases you might have caught from the people who shared your shelter behind the counters.
The cop who interviewed you said that it was pure luck that the Red Hood hadn’t killed anyone.
Later that night, after he had climbed through your window (again), Red had told you that it was only a truce with Batman that stopped him from shooting to kill.
You gave him the key to your apartment soon after the incident.
Not that he ever used it.
Red shrugged, as if to say it was nothing, but somehow, you could tell he was pleased behind the mask.
“It’s the least I could do.” He paused. Shifted uneasily. “Hey. You know I’d keep you safe, right?”
That was a weird question to ask.
“Sure?” Every two months or so, Red replaced the phone he gave you, though his instructions remained the same.
He gestured to the painting. “Have you thought about what I said?”
“Oh.” You felt your heart drop to the floor, surprised that it made no sound as it shattered on the concrete.
“You’ll be fine--”
“No.” You were already shaking your head, fingertips trembling, hard and you curled them into fists. “Red, no. I can’t.”
“If the Joker is involved we need as much information as we can get,” he argued. “If there’s even the chance that I’m right--”
“I can’t. Please don’t make me. Red. I really, really can’t.”
Several weeks ago, Red had told you that psychics would sometimes get visions when they’re near the scene of a crime. Something to do with the implanted emotions or something, you had been sleepy when he brought it up.
And had been jolted awake when he suggested that the two of you try it on one of your, visions. He had suggested taking you to the future scene of the crime and seeing if you could glean some information there.
You had shut him down. Hard.
You hadn’t meant to, of course. Back then you thought that you’d do damn near anything for the man.
But the idea of going to a place you saw in your dreams, a place where you know people would die--no, that was too much. More than the fear of bacteria or germs or some rare, virulent disease, was the fear of encountering the people who caused so much death. What if they were scouting the place for information the same night you and Red were?
Your friend might wear bulletproof armor and could shrug off injuries like broken bones and dislocated joints, but you were...Well, you weren’t him. You weren’t the sort of person who could waltz in a drug lord’s lair and beat everyone there with your bare hands.
No, you were the sort of person who hid in her apartment, away from the supervillains and the fighting and saving people who deserved it.
The sort of person who’d scrub her apartment clean every morning because nothing scared her more than the thought of dying sick and alone.
The sort of person who could never be anyone’s hero.
You shook your head again; a second refusal. You thought of the blood flowing down the carpet, the men and women’s hysterical laughter, even as their faces turned blue from lack of oxygen, the high cold voice laughing right along with them.
Beads of sweat began to form on the nape of your neck, cold as ice.
“I’m sorry, Red,” you said, and if you hadn’t been so scared, you would have been ashamed. “I can’t.”
Red didn’t say anything for a long, long time.
When he spoke, his voice was calm, composed. A stark contradiction to the tight fists his hands made, the narrowed eyes behind his mask.
“The Joker scares me too, you know,” he said. “Always has. But just because I’m scared doesn’t mean I’m going to let him do whatever the hell he wants.”
Well, can you say to that? Even if you did have something to say, Red was already back in the living room.
“Do you mind if I used the guest’s bedroom? I’m kinda tired. Don’t worry, I’ll clean it up in the morning.”
“Okay,” you said, and your throat felt like sandpaper.
You told yourself that it was exhaustion that was causing the burning in your eyes. But there was no explaining away the pit of shame in your stomach, the sensation of being stuck in a skin that chafed at your very core.
What can you say, really?
You wanted to be brave.
But wanting, as you were well aware, was almost never the same as being.
You stayed in your studio for a long time, before your own exhaustion drove you to your bed, sure that Red would no longer be there when you woke up.