A/N: So this is my first story for Gotham and I'm really excited to be venturing into this fandom! Ever since I first started watching the show I've wanted to write a story in this universe, and I've always had a fondness for Nygma. This first chapter takes place during the episode "How the Riddler Got His Name" and while it's pretty compliant with the events of that episode, the story will eventually be pretty canon divergent. This fic will definitely be OC centered, meaning that it will be based on her own journey and development. There will eventually be some form of romance, but it'll be a slow burn. Also, this story is cross posted from my A03 account, Ked. Lastly, there's no beta on this fic, so just let me know if you see any terrible errors. Thank you for reading, and I hope you enjoy!
They say the days are gloomier in Gotham, but in Clover's opinion, this didn't stop the nights from being any less abysmal. After being a resident of Gotham for over 5 years, one would think she'd be accustomed to the grey skies and bleak atmosphere the city held, but her distaste for it always managed to persist. Now that the sun had set, the city's true griminess could come out to play.
Strolling down the poorly paved concrete, it was easy to be reminded how much of a sinkhole the city really was. The sounds of sirens and honking cars pressed in from every corner, and the skyscrapers stood like oppressive giants, ready and willing to squash the city's poor inhabitants. Or at least that's Clover always thought they were akin to.
She could've gone on for hours listing the ways that this dingy city disgusted her, but her true priority was to make it back to the university before Professor Smith could chastise her for being late. Clover, who was beginning to deeply regret enrolling in a chemistry class, was up-taking an opportunity for extra credit provided by the head of the chemistry department, Professor Smith. The task was simple; become a lab assistant and aide him in one of his experiments, and the sweet grade bonus would be hers.
Most would think that flocks of desperate college students would be eager to take this opportunity to earn a grade boost, but those people weren't familiar with the eccentricities of Professor Smith. The man had a tendency for camping out late nights in his lab tinkering away with a chemistry set, and on top of that he was one of the most scatter-brained professors on campus. After rumors about his reputation of starting lab fires multiple times, and the indecent of '79 in which a student actually caught fire, spread no one was eager to be in a lab alone with him. Unfortunately for Clover, the promise of extra credit was too enticing.
She was by no means failing chemistry, but the sight of a 'B' was enough to make her take the bait. This was the reason she was now hurrying along the streets of Gotham so late at night, a steaming espresso held between her two hands. Some would say venturing out into Gotham after dark for a coffee was a risky move, but Clover knew she would need it for the night of lab assisting that was to come. The scent and steam of the drink curled into her nose, and it calmed her for the chaos that was to come.
She came to a halt at a crosswalk, shivering from the breeze created by cars whisking by. Despite it being early fall, the nights in Gotham were much too cold for anyone's taste. Clover envisioned her father at home, lounging on their ratty sofa with an old robe on and a beer ever present in his hand. 'I bet he's not shivering right now' Clover thought bitterly as the light changed and she made her way across the street.
As she reached the other side, a yowl echoed from a nearby alley, and a furry black figure scampered between her legs causing Clover to trip and fall. The contents of her drink were now pooling on the sidewalk and her palms were burning and raw from scraping against the concrete. Huffing, Clover looked up just in time to spot a mangy black cat scurry across the street.
"I hope you get run over you stupid cat!" She cried in frustration as she slowly picked herself up.
Clover sighed as she stared at her fallen drink. Now she was running even more late and she didn't even have a beverage to show for it. Where was her miraculous luck that had earned her namesake? She let out a sigh, giving the puddle of coffee a resigned look, then continued on her way.
Finally arriving at Gotham U. (after passing many questionable street corners with even more questionable people), Clover grimaced at the sight of the endless stairs leading to the front entrance. Not for the first time, she cursed the grandiose design of this building as she began her trek up the figurative mountain. By the time she had reached the top, Clover was slightly out of breath but still determined nonetheless. The front doors were closed, but luckily she was able to flag down a night janitor to let her in.
Clover's shoulders sagged in relaxation as she entered the university, the effects of the cold bitter wind outside being negated by the comparatively warmer air inside. After a long moment of soaking in the warmth, Clover thanked the already retreating janitor and began to make her way towards Professor Smith's personal lab. The taps of her worn sneakers against the tile floor echoed throughout the empty building. It was almost eerie to be in a place usually teeming with life when it was so empty. But Clover hadn't come this far to be turned back by a creepy feeling. Despite her intuition telling her this was far from a good idea, she persisted.
Upon arriving at the professor's office, Clover gave two sharp knocks on the door and waited. After a moment she knocked again, only to be met with silence once more. Clover sighed and bent over to check the crack at the bottom of the door. It was pitch black and presumably empty inside the office.
"Maybe he's waiting in the lab..." Clover wondered aloud, turning towards that area briskly. She was already running late due to her desire for coffee, so it was possible he had just gone ahead.
Clover briskly walked down the hallways, past the empty offices and classrooms. Some lights were still on, indicating the presence of other night owls, but most rooms were vacant. Eventually she made it to the lab, silently bemoaning all the power walking she'd done that day. Exercising was definitely not what she was paying her college tuition for. As she opened the door and entered the large room containing the lab, Clover was surprised to hear a voice that didn't belong to professor Smith. She halted in the doorway and listened intently. It might be awkward if she walked in on a private conversation.
"Knowledge can't be shared, Professor?" The voice asked, his tone one of slight disbelief an exasperation.
Clover's view of whoever was speaking was blocked by two tanks of chemicals, but she could see the edge of Professor Smith sitting down. The mystery man continued to speak, his voice incredulous.
"Really? You are the chair of a chemistry department. You've spent a career SHARING KNOWLEDGE! NO!"
Clover knew that this moment should've been the moment she left. It should've been the moment she called the police or made her presence known or ran. Unfortunately, Clover's curiosity had always been her downfall. Something in her wanted to know why someone could be so aggravated with her slightly annoying, yet well meaning professor. In an impulsive moment, all she could think to do was quickly hide behind a desk stationed near the door, hoping that whatever argument was happening was just two colleagues settling some dispute. She could hardly hear over the sound of her heart thundering in her ears.
Clover listened to the man sigh and pace for a moment, before speaking up again. "I apologize. I'm not myself nowadays." Then a rubbery stretching sound. "Hands please."
'Could that be... rope?' Clover wondered. She peaked over the desk, trying to figure out what was happening in the dimly lit lab.
From her new angle she could make out the two men in the lab. Professor Smith was sitting in a chair, eyes wide and full of fear. A tall, formally dressed man was standing in front of him, wrapping rope around his wrists. The situation looked far from a disagreement between two Professors, although the tall stranger did look like he could work at the university.
'Shit, I need to get out of here.' Clover thought as she contemplated running for the door. But the fear that the man would discover her had her rooted to the spot, knees aching from her kneeling position. She quickly tucked herself below the desk again, her back pressed against the cold wood.
"I can be a member of a group, but I can never blend in. What am I?" The main asked. He sounded calmer than before, but there was still an edge to his voice.
Despite her fear, Clover raised an incredulous eyebrow. 'Did he just ask...a riddle?'
Professor Smith fumbled over his words trying to answer. It was clear that he was unsure. "I...uh...a shadow?"
The was a tense pause, and Clover shivered. The situation seemed ridiculous in thought, but somewhere in the tall man's voice was an implication of danger. Like there was something bubbling to the surface that wanted to snap Professor Smith's neck in clean halves. Clover's hand unconsciously came up to cradle her own.
The man finally spoke again. "The answer is an individual. Duh! I expected more." He spoke like a parent disappointed in their child for doing something naughty.
"But then," He continued as Clover heard the sounds of him pacing around the lab, "None of the others did very well either."
"Oh you'd know them. One was an artist, one was a writer, one was a philosopher."
Clover heard the flicking of a spark lighter, and the faint sound of a flame as a bunsen burner ignited. If her heart hadn't been racing at the speed of sound, it would have stopped. This man, who she had already classified as dangerous, was lighting a fire. Clover was trembling with terror, and another emotion she didn't care to identify. What was this man going to do? Would Professor Smith make it out alive. Would she?
"The stars of Gotham's intellectual and artistic constellation. Fallen stars now."
Clover had to press a hand over her mouth to muffle her gasp. In the last week several members of Gotham's elite community had been found dead, in increasingly strange ways. After the first two murders there had been suspicion that they may be connected. Then again, murder wasn't exactly a rarity in Gotham. However, after the most recent crime, there had been no doubt that all three had been murdered by the same person. And now Clover was here, in the same room as the man who had committed these horrifying acts. Her mind was telling her she was an idiot, that letting her curiosity get the better of her had royally screwed her this time. She should have run while she had the chance. Now all that was left was to wait and see what the killer would do.
"W-why are you doing this?" Professor Smith asked with a trembling voice.
The man sighed. "My best friend recently said there was no me without him. I shot him and dumped him in the river." Clover couldn't believe her ears, but the psychopath sounded almost…regretful.
"He was a sort of guide to me on my journey. You see, I know who I am Professor. It's how to...be him...that is eluding me. I seek guidance" He abruptly clapped his hands and began another riddle.
"I feel your every move, I know your every thought, I'm with you from birth, and I'll see you when you rot. What am I?!"
"I don't know!" Professor Smith cried in frustration, and Clover cringed at the thought of what would be done to him after he'd just outright admitted defeat.
"Well, that's just too bad." The killer said, his words follow by the hissing sounds of the nozzles and valves on the tanks.
All of a sudden an image flashed through Clover's mind. It was the red diamond label on the front of the twin tanks. It read "flammable". The memory of the man lighting the bunsen burners echoed faintly, and Clover felt nauseous. Professor Smith began to cry out "No! No!" but the thud of the lab doors closing and locking was the most chilling sound. The professor's cries continued, but the sound of the man coming closer to her hiding spot was all Clover could focus on. The desk was positioned between the lab and the door, and the man would walk right passed her. He would see her, and he would kill her.
All Clover could do was hug her legs to her chest and stare with wide eyes as the man rounded the corner of the desk. She clenched her eyes tight and buried her face in her knees when his towering figure halted next to her. If she hadn't been so frightened, Clover would have been embarrassed by the frightened squeak that escaped her mouth. After waiting a moment and realizing she wasn't dead, Clover peaked up at him.
The man was an imposing figure from her angle, impossibly tall and equipped with dark brown eyes made of steel. He didn't look like a common thug or vagrant criminal. His clothes looked expensive and were expertly tailored and his hair was slicked back in a stylish fashion. This was the look of danger. Of a criminal genius. If Clover had been in her right mind she might've even thought he was attractive. But all she could do is clench her hands into the fabric of her sweater.
The look he gave her was a mix of surprise and annoyance. Clearly he hadn't meant for someone to be overhearing his little chat. Yet there was also a sort of clinical curiosity in his eyes. All of a sudden, Clover felt empathy for any specimen that found itself under the microscope of a clinical scientist, because that's what being the subject of his gaze felt like. Like she was a tiny rat and he was a surgeon ready to begin the vivisection.
After a moment that seemed to last hours but realistically could have only been seconds, the man raised an eyebrow and gestured towards the door.
"You should probably run," He said, a smirk gracing his lips, "it's about to get rather hot in here."
Clover didn't need to be told twice. She rose up quickly, stumbling once or twice as the blood flow to her legs was restored, then took off. There were no thoughts of confronting the man, or calling the police, or even warning the other occupants of the building. There was only the echo of his voice, 'You should probably run'. If she had bothered to look back, she would've seen the man casually saunter behind her, watching her figure disappear into the distance with a smirk. The girl fleeing, after all, did look quite amusing in his eyes.
Clover tore through the halls and into the lobby. She pushed through the doors with all of her might, ignoring the concerned looks of the night janitor. She burst out into the cold air and took a few greedy breaths, before she continued to run. Clover's legs ached, but she couldn't feel safe until she was miles away from the place. She would only turn around when she had made it a few blocks away. When a large booming noise echoed through the alleys of the city, their occupants startled by the noise. Panting and still, she could only watch as flames engulfed the large dome of Gotham University in the distance. As she leaned against the brick wall she had stopped by, her eyes focused only on the flames.
After a while Clover could hear the sirens of police cars and ambulances. By this point her legs had given out, and she sat with her thighs pulled to her chest and her arms tiredly hanging over her knees. The fear from her previous predicament was replaced by an oppressive numbness. The entire world seemed murky, like she was submerged under water. Everything smelled like smoke and ash and burning. Clover stared at the ground intensely, knowing that if she closed her eyes she would see his face again, cold and cunning.
After her faculties returned to her, Clover contemplated calling the police. She had seen the man's face and could possibly identify him. But the killer had also seen her face. If she went to the police, the was no telling what this man might do to her, or her sick father. Clover's mind wandered to her father. Was he home right now, watching the flaming Gotham University on the news? Was he afraid for her? Would the criminal she met today come after him if Clover went to the cops?
She thought of the hard look in his eyes again. Absolutely. This man would burn her and anyone she loved to the ground if she went to the police. For her father's sake, Clover would say nothing.
It was with this thought in mind that Clover slowly picked herself up, wiping away the tears she hadn't even realized she'd been crying. She could still hear the sounds of sirens distantly and estimated it must have been at least an hour since the whole debacle. She had to get home before the serious night prowlers came out.
As she walked home, Clover wondered how the streets she had walked a few hours ago could look so different to her now. She had always had a dislike for Gotham, but somehow the night seemed darker in light of her circumstances. Professor Smith was undoubtedly gone, but she also felt as if though something was missing from herself. As if some light inside her had also been burned away in the explosion, and whatever remained was a deteriorating black husk.
Clover trudged up the steps to the apartment she shared with her father. It was a fairly decent apartment in a fairly decent part of Gotham. The living space was meant for four people, but was rather spacious for the only two that lived there. The lime green paint on the door used to be a comforting color, but now the shadows just made it dismal. The shadows darkened the color. She stopped in front of the door, a thought in her mind halting her with an electric pulse.
Shadows. Clover let out a huff, and then a humorless chuckle. That was the answer to his last riddle. Something that feels your every move, and knows your every thought. Something that is with you when you're born, and follows you into death. The answer was a shadow. Clover closed her eyes and shook her head, her trembling hand resting on the doorknob. Just like a shadow, the knowledge of what happened tonight would always be with her. That terrible murderers eyes would always follow her, like a shadow, knowing what she had seen and what she failed to do. She could never escape.
Clover took a steadying breath, then slowly turned the doorknob, entering an apartment full of shadows.