The light is falling into the dim apartment and through the flimsy curtains, resting gently on the kitchen sink, fading and flickering but still sitting still. Arthur has cut up his mother's food, has tucked her gently into bed, and he's staring out of the window, now, the pain in his ribs and under his spine tickling at him. He's humming a tune under his breath, though, as he cleans the dishes, his feet stepping along to his own beat every so often, his hips moving and drifting to the beat.
And then, in the dull kitchen light, when the world is quiet apart from Arthur's song... that's when the phone rings. A shrill, aching sound in the peaceful night, that makes Arthur jump and spill suds down his arms, and makes him nervous. There can be nothing good coming from that phone. Maybe he's finally being fired from his job, maybe his social services officer has given up on him, or the mental health funding has been cut, or-
He holds the phone at an arms length, for a moment, sways with it, and then huffs and answers it.
"Is this Mr Fleck?" A woman asks. Mr Fleck. Arthur smiles smugly to himself. The words make him feel powerful, and responsible, and like a professional. Mr. He likes that very much.
Arthur nods before realising she can't see him.
"Speaking." He says, because he'd heard that on the television earlier and thought it sounded very smart.
"Hi, this is Jenny, I'm from Gotham Hospital. Your social services officer has indicated to us that you might need more specialist mental health treatment, as you talked to her about problems with your medication, correct? Would you be willing to come in for an appointment?"
Arthur stands in silence for a moment, his hands covered in soap, a dangerous flame of hope flickering in his chest.
"A more detailed assessment can help us figure out how to help you properly. I would completely recommend-"
"Yes!" Arthur yells. He kisses the phone. "Yes, yes, yes!"
Jenny laughs. "Alright then, what's the best date for you? We have Wednesday free."
Arthur does a little dance in the living room when he's hung up, his hands thrown out into the air, his eyes continously darting to the useless little pill bottles sitting on the counter. Help, he thinks, euphorically, with relief, help, help, help. Perhaps soon, he can smile at a little kid on the bus, and everything won't turn out so horribly wrong.
And the light falls into the living room, and Arthur dances.
In the waiting room, his legs bounce up and down and up and down, and his face is pale. Arthur hasn't slept well, lately, and he feels restless and wrong, the bruises on his skin now turning green, the memory of his sign broken on the floor and the feet of those kids in his ribs as vivid in the waiting room as they had been in that ally.
He hums a tune under his breath, and the room shifts into focus.
A woman with glasses opens the door.
"Mr Fleck?" She calls out.
Arthur jumps up.
"Speaking." He drawls, and walks into the hospital room.
Arthur leans against the side of the elevator, his head cold against the metal. The assessment had been exhausting - so many difficult questions, and so many obvious ones. Do you think about death? Did he thinks about anything else? His hope that had flickered starts to die again, the thought of going back to the apartment and checking for post and caring for his mother an exhausting, soul wiltering ritual.
Sophie slips into the elevator, tugging her daughter with her. She smiles a little at Arthur.
"Rough day?" She asks, after a little while. Arthur blinks at her.
Silence in the rumbling elevator. Then, eventually, he makes his hands into little ears on the top of his head.
"Woof day." He grumbles, as if a dog, and Sophie's daughter giggles.
Sophie rolls her eyes.
"Hilarious." She drawls. But when they're out in the corridor she smiles at Arthur and says a polite goodnight and that's enough.
"Goodnight." He calls, down the worn, dark corridor, and barks. Sophie's daughter giggles all the way to their apartment. Success, he thinks.
"Wait, wait. What's your name?" He yells.
She leaves. He skips into his own apartment.
"What are you singing about?" His mother calls, and Arthur does a spin.
"I had a good day." He calls back.
"He offered me a gun," Arthur explains, his knees bouncing in the uncomfortable chair.
The psychologist (an actual one, this time) raises an eyebrow, scribbling something onto her notebook. Arthur tries to read upside down.
"And you took it?"
Arthur's legs go faster.
"He said it was for self defence."
"Do you have it with you?"
"In my trouser leg." Arthur smiles. "Clever, right?"
"Can I have it?"
Arthur thinks of it's power, and the control he could have with it, but then he thinks of accidentally hurting someone with it (his mother, maybe, or Sophie's tiny daughter), and he brings it from his left trouser leg with a flourish.
"Thank you, Arthur." The psychologist smiles at him and locks it safely in a drawer. "Now, let's talk about your job. Do you like it?"
" Like it?" Arthur considers this. Nobody's ever asked him that before. He thinks of the rude people, and the cold atmosphere. "Well, I like making people laugh."
"Yes?" The psychologist smiles fondly down at his journal. "It says here you want to be a stand up comedian."
"Mhm. I want to bring joy and laughter to the world." Arthur looks out of the window. "My mother always said that it's why I'm here."
"So why are you working there, then, if you have a dream?"
"Gotta pay the bills somehow."
"If you're unhappy," She starts, "Surely there's other work you could do?"
A laugh rises in Arthur's throat, unwanted, and he struggles to push it down.
"It's alright. Take your time." She says, and nobody's ever said that to him, before, either, and grateful tears flicker in Arthur's eyes.
"I, um," Arthur chokes, "Nobody else would want me."
"Well-" Arthur laughs, a little, and then a little more, and the psychologist smiles (Doctor Parker the nametag reads) patiently at him until it's over and tears are slipping down his cheeks. "I didn't finish school, I was locked in the hospital, I haven't had jobs before, I-"
"You've got a lot of experience with your current job." The psychologist considers him, tapping her pen on her chin. "What else do you like, apart from comedy?"
"Music. Kids." Arthur smiles. "The Murray Franklin Show."
"My wife loves that show," She grins at him. "How does the theme tune go again?"
Arthur hums it, and the psychologist throws back her head and laughs.
"You know," She says, "I think I know the perfect job for you, Arthur. Let me pull a few strings..."
That's how he finds himself walking back to his apartment after an interview, his carefully ironed smart suit that had sat covered in dust at the back of his wardrobe hanging neatly around his shoulders. He'd stumbled through the interview, shaking and fidgety, aware through all of it that they probably thought he was a freak, but when it had come to the practical work, he'd shone.
In the elevator, he does a little tap dance, and Sophie raises her eyebrows at him.
"Hot date?" She asks.
"Interview." He announces proudly.
"Oh, really?" She grins. "Nice. You getting a new job, then?"
"I'm going to be a children's entertainer." He straightens down his suit, and does a happy little kick. "I won't give up on the stand up, of course, but I'm excited."
"Great." She laughs.
(Because in the practical part of the interview, the kids had laughed, and laughed, and laughed at his moves, and his lines, and his happy, happy face, and this is where he had been normal and golden. The children's party company couldn't resist employing him, after that, not out of pity but because no one else had the positivity and the enthusiasm that Arthur did.)
At his new job, his clients are always wary of him. Before the children's parties, he moves strangely, and withdraws, and he's a little too thin, looks at people for a little too long, laughs loudly and inappropriately sometimes and gives them that little slip of paper that says sorry for my laughter, I have a condition .
But it's at the parties, when he's in his zone, that his clients shift their view, smile at him, and understand. Because Arthur is so good with the kids, so funny and so light, dancing around in a ridiculous sort of way and saying the cheesiest jokes that are only funny because of the way Arthur says them and the kids laugh and laugh and laugh.
Sometimes it goes wrong, and his laughter bubbles away horribly in his throat, but when it ends he's back in the zone and it's okay.
And alright, he's still a little strange, but he's alright. He makes their kids happy, distracts even the parents from the tensions in Gotham city, and that's enough. Yes, he's weird, he's so very weird, and yet...
There are good kinds of weird, they decide, when Arthur throws back his arms and gives a deep bow. There are.
"You look healthier these days." Sophie says to him, one night in the apartment corridor. She's holding a bag of chinese food that fills the corridor with a glorious smell, one that makes Arthur's stomach rumble. He's never been big on eating, but nowadays he eats more, he gets hungry , and the spaces around his ribs and the bones of his limbs are starting to fill.
"You look healthier these days." Her daughter repeats solemnly.
Arthur straightens proudly.
"I do, don't I?" Arthur pretends to check his appearance in an imaginary window, pouting and running a hand through his hair, and Sophie laughs.
"You want Chinese?" She asks, carefully, "We have a lot. Too much for two. This one would eat it all, if she could."
Sophie pulls one of her daughter's pigtails. Arthur stiffens in surprise.
Sophie rolls her eyes.
"Going once, going twice..."
"Yes, yes!" Arthur blurts.
Sitting with Sophie in a companionable silence, sitting in her small living room and watching kid's cartoons, Arthur wonders if this is what it's like to have a friend. He feels warm and accepted, and he eats, and the world feels gentle. Even the cars on the street outside. Even the bruises healing on his stomach.
"Thank you." Arthur says, gently, when he leaves. He doesn't lean forward to kiss her, and he doesn't do anything rash, because he doesn't need to, he doesn't need fantasies like that, his world like this is enough.
"Get out of here." Sophie rolls her eyes. "You ate all my food."
"Not that much." Arthur whines.
"Shoo!" She shoves him out the door, but she's smiling, and Arthur mumbles Frank Sinatra songs all the way back to his apartment, shutting the door behind him with a lightness he's never felt before, that's not even dulled by the quiet sound of the door clicking shut.
He's never been on a 'night out' before, but all of the 'guys' from work are asking him to come with them, smiling at him, and Arthur just nods dumbly and wonders what on earth he's gotten himself into.
It's not so bad. He doesn't drink ( bad for the brain, Doctor Parker had told him, and addictive ) and he mostly listens, trying his best to smile in the right places, trying ever so hard to be normal. His legs bounce under the table, the room feels so very small, but he sits, and he listens, and Arthur tries. He does.
They nudge him, laughing, and it feels like having friends, a little. Arthur mimics their laughs, leaning over the table.
"You're not so bad," One of the guys says, throwing his arm over Arthur's shoulder, and Arthur doesn't like the touch but he doesn't mind, feels a little proud when the guy continues: "A little weird, but you're a good guy."
This night, perhaps, this strange night out that makes him feel more normal than he should is probably what gives him the bravery to call Gary when he gets home.
"Arthur?" Gary asks. Arthur shifts from foot to foot. "Alright?"
"Sorry. For all the times I laughed at those guys... they're not fucking funny, right? Do you want," Arthur asks carefully, "To be my... friend?"
"Sure, mate." He says.
And Arthur lies on the sofa that night, and he sings, and he kicks his legs in the air in a kind of jig.
"Are you dependent on your mother?"
Arthur plays with a thread of his new sweater, his feet shifting on the carpet, his eyes darting up to meet Doctor Parker's eyes, and then down again. Eye contact, she'd said, made you more approachable, but he was still getting used to it.
"I dunno. I mean, I love her." Arthur starts. "I take care of her."
"A little too much, don't you think?"
"Maybe." Arthur pulls the thread, and it snaps. "But if I don't do it, who will? She's my mother. "
"There's help you can get her, you know," Doctor Parker smiles, "You deserve a life too. You don't have to give everything up for her."
"Huh." Arthur shifts nervously. He can't imagine a life without those rituals.
"Your new job is getting you enough money to move, isn't it? Don't you want to get out of there?" Doctor Parker smiles wider, "You both deserve better homes."
Arthur imagines a large home, a big one where he can dance and he can sit by the window and write lines and imagine things, where he can relax and go home to with a spring in his step and invite people round. And he imagines his mother being cared for, but away from him, and he decides that he likes it.
A nervous laugh bubbles underneath his skin.
"Will I be safe on my own?" He asks.
"You're doing so well." She says, and she rests a gentle hand over his, and the touch makes him want to cry. "Don't underestimate yourself."
"I'm going to fail." Arthur laughs, hard. "I'm going to fail, and I'm going to lose my job, and my- my friends, and the meds are going to stop working, and I'm going to fail and I'm going to hurt myself or somebody else and I'll-"
"No." Doctor Parker squeezes his hand. "You won't. You won't, Arthur. Tell yourself that. You won't. I promise you, it's never too late to start again."
The cheap care home he finds for his mother is better than nothing. She has a nice room, small but with a view, and she looks comfortable in her chair, staring absently out of the window.
"You're leaving me behind?" She asks. Arthur leans down to kiss her forehead tenderly.
"Not leaving you." He says, "Just moving."
"That's the same thing." She whispers, in tears. "Did I hurt you, Happy? Why are you leaving me? I didn't mean to hurt you. Don't leave me. Get Thomas Wayne to help us, to help me get better, I-"
Arthur takes her cheeks gently between his hands.
"Listen to me." Arthur says, "Forget Thomas Wayne. The people here are going to look after you. And I'll visit you as much as I can, okay? This is better for both of us. It's going to be great. It's going to be great."
Arthur smiles, and rests their foreheads together.
"You look so happy," His mother whispers, in awe.
"Not yet." Arthur says. "But I'm not sad, either. You don't have to be happy, all the time. You don't have to be happy at all, if you can't be. You just have to try."
"My clever boy," She murmurs. "Bringing so much happiness to the world. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Happy. You're all grown up."
He doesn't know that behind her eyes, the image of him tied to a radiator is flickering, he doesn't know that he was hurt by her so long ago. But Arthur doesn't remember, and perhaps that's better, perhaps that's more comfortable for the both of them.
Arthur weeps in the apartment kitchen. It's his last night there. He rests his head against the fridge, and he cries for everything he felt here, every horrible thought and feeling, every kick and bruise, every scar living and breathing around him and telling him goodbye. For a moment, he relives his past self, the pain old and familiar and inviting. He is moving on from this, tomorrow. He lets it swallow him for now.
There's a knock at the door. Arthur rubs his eyes and answers it with a forced smile that doesn't even become real when he sees Sophie standing there.
"Hey, Arthur," She says gently. "I heard about your Mom. I'm sorry."
"It's okay." Arthur's voice cracks. "I'm moving tomorrow."
"You're moving ? You mean, you're leaving this place? " Sophie shakes her head, envy flitting across her face. "Wow, man. Good for you."
"You could too."
"Get a new job, get your daughter a better school-"
"It's not that easy. Really."
"It's never too late," Arthur says, slowly, "It's never too late to start again."
Sophie looks at him, and then there are tears in her eyes too.
"Can I hug you?" She asks, and Arthur nods, and she wraps her arms around his middle.
He hasn't been hugged for so long, and the tears start to flow again, buried in the curve of Sophie's shoulder. She sniffles, too.
"I'm your friend, Arthur." She says. "I'm here for you, okay? No matter where you are."
"I'm sorry." Arthur whispers. "I'm sorry I'm so weird, that I didn't leave you alone, that I'm not normal, that I'm not a good friend-"
"You're alright." Sophie says. "You're alright the way you are, Arthur, okay? I'm glad I met you"
"I feel like," Arthur pauses, and starts again, not used to starting conversations, even less used to talking about his feelings, "I feel like I get. Fantasies of people in my head. I imagine them... to be something they're not?"
Doctor Parker nods.
"Give me an example?" Arthur shrugs, and Doctor Parker raises an eyebrow. "Murray Franklin?"
"Yeah." Arthur smiles.
"Why do you think that is?"
"Because..." Arthur pauses, his knees knocking together, twisting a pen between his fingers. "Because he's like... a father to me?"
"Good." Doctor Parker scribbles something down. "Do you think that's because of the lack of a father in your life?"
"Yes. And because, well, it's always been me in the house, looking after my mother." Arthur struggles with his words. "Maybe I just wanted someone. Who... loved me. Who gave me some warmth. There's nothing wrong with wanting a little bit of warmth."
"You know something?" Doctor Parker sets down her pen. "You don't need to do that anymore. You have people who love you, don't you, Arthur? You have people who give you warmth. You tell me about them all the time. Sophie, Gary, the people at work, those kids adore you. You can let go of all the fantasies, because you don't need them anymore."
Arthur considers this. He considers living in reality, instead of in the dreams that saved him from the darkness of his mind.
"Am I happy?" He asks.
"I can't decide that for you. But if you want my opinion, happiness is overrated," Doctor Parker smiles, "You don't have to be happy. You can be happy if you can manage it, maybe always or maybe just some of the time. But you don't have to be happy. You just have to move forward."
Arthur pauses. He has a song stuck in his head, and it's a cheerful one, and he feels a little more alive than he did yesterday, and he's sure he'll feel a little more alive tomorrow, too.
"What if they all betray me?"
"You can find other people. You already did it."
"What if I hurt someone?"
"Do you want to?"
"Right now?" Arthur considers it. Maybe in another life, violence would've given him power, but he has found the strength in himself and his friends not to need power like that. "No. But in the future-"
"You can't predict the future. Who knows what's going to happen?"
"I'm scared." Arthur says. "I don't want to go backwards."
"You're back on top." Doctor Parker says, and Arthur sings back on top in his head, "If you fall, you have people to catch you, now. I'm proud of you."
(No one's ever been proud of him before).
Arthur cries, again.
And so ends their last appointment.
These are the way Arthur heals himself, just a little (not completely, because that wouldn't be possible, and it is never about being healed, anyway, it is just about being better):
- He eats. He eats in Indian restaurants with Sophie while they laugh over spice and he eats in the pub with the guys from work and he eats with Gary in his new living room and he eats with his mother in the little room in the care home and his body fills out at the edges and he eats and feels more alive.
- He works. He makes the kids laugh and chats with the parents when he feels up to it and when he feels slightly uncomfortable or the laughter tickles at the corner of his throat he excuses himself until the feeling subsides and he works more.
- He has hobbies. He writes comedy lines until his fingers hurt and his mouth aches from laughing at himself too much. He takes up karaoke with Sophie's daughter and they have fierce battles in front of the television. He gets little plants and sticks them by the windows and gives them names and talks to them and they watch him dance.
- He takes his medicine, specifically prescribed and only 2 pills, and he sets an alarm on his new phone to make sure to take them at the exact time, and he feels a little better.
In this world, where mental health is taken seriously and treated properly, and kindness is living in your friends and in your own shoes, Arthur lives and he is not different he is just himself, but safe and loved and warm. He isn't successful, he doesn't stand on stages as a famous comedian (because really, he isn't that type of funny) but he makes the kids laugh and gets a giggle from the adults sometimes and that's enough for him.
(He doesn't know that in another world, the ending for him is much more grim, and he is not better, he is different. He doesn't know that in that universe he paints his face, and gets power from violence rather than love, and takes joy in chaos and not music, and he doesn't know that in that world he is the hero and the villain and the joker, and in this world, the world where he heals, he is just Arthur).
On his way to work one morning, Arthur dances down his few front steps, and sways his way through the gate, his insides covered in laughter and his wide smile ready for another day.
(On another day, far away, a dancing Joker prances down a long flight of steps, outside that old apartment, his insides covered in blood and his painted smile ready for nothing but a shotgun and a riot)