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A gray drizzle falls from the gray sky.  Two people are fucking in the backseat of Travis’s cab.  Typical day in Gotham.

 

They’re trying to be quiet about it, but it’s pretty obvious.  He politely keeps his eyes on the road.  Not like it’s the first time this has happened.

 

The man looks like some kinda rich business guy—nice coat, nice watch, gray hair.  The woman is (Travis is pretty sure) a prostitute.  He’s taking them to a hotel, but apparently they couldn’t wait that long.  The woman is sprawled across the backseat, the man pushing away at her, grunting like a bear.

 

In the past, Travis has tried telling passengers that they can’t do that stuff in here.  Getting the stains out of the seats is a bitch.  Travis owns his own cab now—he managed to save up enough money in New York to buy one in Gotham—so he doesn’t have a boss breathing down his neck.  But still.  Spending his evenings scrubbing some guy’s jizz out of the upholstery isn’t his idea of a good time.  Some passengers get nasty when he tries to lay down the law, though.  Usually it’s easier to just let them fuck.  Let them do whatever they want, as long as it’s nothing violent.

 

The woman’s moans of pleasure sound fake, almost bored, but the guy doesn’t seem to care.

 

Travis turns a corner.  “Your hotel’s comin’ up in a few blocks,” he says.

 

“Great,” the man gasps.

 

It’s amazing, what people will do in front of taxi drivers.  Travis has grown accustomed to the invisibility of it.  To them, he’s part of the cab, just a thing that gets them from point A to point B.

 

If he knew who this guy was, he could decide to blackmail him—threaten to tell his wife or something.  He’s got a wedding ring on his finger, didn’t even bother to take it off.  You’d think the guy would be worried about that, at least.

 

He waits for them to finish, waits for the woman to pull up her lacy black panties.  He sees the man reach up beneath her skirt, smirking, holding a couple of twenties, and stuff them into her underwear like she’s a stripper at a club.  “There’s more where that came from,” he says.

 

He glances at Travis, as if remembering he exists.  He pays the fare and says, “Hey cabbie, forget about this.”  He tosses an extra twenty onto the front seat, like Travis is just another whore.

 

He thinks about saying, What, you’re not gonna stuff it in my underwear, asshole?  But he says nothing.

 

Whatever.  They’re both adults.  None of his business.  But he feels a twinge of the old contempt as he watches them walk into the hotel.

 

He keeps driving.  Maybe he’ll give the twenty to a homeless person later, or something.  He doesn’t want it.

 

In the streets, he sees two women fighting, really clawing at each other, like wildcats.  He sees an old guy sleeping on the sidewalk, newspapers spread over him like a blanket, people stepping over him. 

 

It can wear a man down, Travis thinks, seeing this stuff day after day.  Suffering and dirtiness with no salvation in sight.

 

Another man flags down his cab.  Travis stops, and the man gets in.

 

He looks a little like Sport—one of the pimps he killed in New York.  Same hair, same stupid hat.  Sunglasses hide his eyes.  It’s a coincidence, of course.  Sport is dead.  But Travis’s hands tighten on the steering wheel.

 

“What are you looking at?” the man asks.

 

“Nothin’.  Where to?”

 

“Just start driving.  Straight ahead.  I’ll tell you where to let me off.”

 

“Whatever you want, pal.”

 

He starts driving.  The pulse thrums in his neck.

 

The Sport-lookalike just sits there, staring at him in the rearview mirror.  Unnerving.

 

Travis’s gaze cuts toward the glove compartment.  He keeps a gun in his taxi.  A .38.

 

He told Arthur that he got rid of all his guns when he left New York—that he hadn’t touched one since coming to this city.  Which was true.  But sometime after that conversation, he bought a new handgun.  It’s not hard to buy a piece in Gotham, even without a permit.

 

After the incident with the pimps, after he began to question certain things about his life, Travis swore to himself that he would never point a loaded gun at someone again, not even to defend his own life.  He’d rely on his fists.  If he got shot, so be it.  He was done with killing.

 

But the equation has changed.  He has someone to protect now.  In this world, sometimes fists aren’t enough.  And old habits die hard.

 

He keeps driving, aware of the man behind him, aware of the .38, wondering if he should find an excuse to grab it.  Say, hang on, I’m just gonna get a breath mint and then discreetly retrieve the gun and put it somewhere close to his hand.  Just in case.  But if the guy sees him, and he happens to be carrying as well, that might spook him into doing something.

 

Nothing to be jittery about, he tells himself.  The guy just happens to look like a dead man, that’s all.  Not even that similar—the jaw is different, and the hair’s a lighter shade.  It’s not Sport’s ghost for fuck’s sake.

 

“Here,” the guy says.  “This corner.”

 

Travis slows to a stop.  The guy hands him a wad of cash, gets out, and walks away.  And that’s all.

 

Nine times out of ten, when Travis gets that tense, uneasy feeling that violence is about to happen, it turns out to be nothing.  But there’s always that one time.

 

He exhales, pushes the unease aside, focuses.

 

He’s going to Pogo’s tonight.  Going to see Arthur’s show.

 

He doesn’t quite know what to expect.  Doesn’t know how the audience will react.  Arthur is on a different wavelength than most people.  Travis thinks about the contents of Arthur’s notebook—the surreal images pasted together from magazine photos, the drawings.  A half-naked woman riding a smiling cat, a woman in black leather with a cat’s head and upper body, a faceless head with arrows sticking out of it.  The staggering scrawl of his handwriting.  The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you DON’T.  Even the jokes, while pretty tame by most standards, hold hints of darkness.

 

When he opened up Arthur’s journal for the first time that night, after they swapped, he had this funny feeling—like he was looking at the man’s soul.  Arthur’s soul trembles and flutters like a candle flame, one that’s on the verge of going out, but that keeps coming back, flaring bright and sharp again just when you thought it was about to fade.

 

Travis doesn’t normally think in those terms.  He’s not much of a creative type.  But at times, when he looks at Arthur, he can see that.

 

Most people don’t see it.  Most people don’t see Arthur.

 

But maybe they will, tonight.  Who knows.

 

There is a power in Arthur, buried and hidden in his candle-flame soul.  The power to reach people, to change them, to create something.

 

What that something is, Travis doesn’t know.  But it’s there.  He can feel it, even if Arthur himself can’t.  Maybe tonight will be the night he shows it to this city.

 

* * *

 

Backstage at Pogo’s, Arthur paces, smoothing his hair every five seconds.

 

When he came in, he scanned the room for Travis.  The lights were too dim for him to get a good look at the audience’s faces.  Arthur didn’t see him.  But he’s there, surely.  He said he would be.

 

He adjusts his shirt-collar for the twentieth time and glances up at the ceiling-mounted TV showing the stage.  The current act is drawing to a close. 

 

“Awright, you’re up in a minute,” the announcer calls.  “You ready?”

 

“Yes.”

 

He’s not ready.  He’s never felt less ready.

 

He’s envisioned this moment over and over.  He’s practiced hundreds of times in the bathroom, over the years—striding in as though he’s striding onstage, beaming into the mirror at the imaginary crowd, fine-tuning his facial expression and posture, rehearsing the words:  Hello, it’s good to be here.  Reading his jokes aloud.  Imagining the reaction.

 

A sudden conviction fills him like a boulder:  that none of his jokes are funny at all.  That no one will laugh, not even once.  Or if they do, it will be for all the wrong reasons.

 

Fine.  Let them laugh, or let them stare at him in icy silence.  Let each joke land with an audible thud as crickets chirp in the background.  Whatever happens, he’ll face it. 

 

The one thing that really scares him is the idea that he won’t be able to speak at all.  That he’ll start laughing and never stop.  He touches his throat, his voice, and wills it to do what he wants, just for one night.

 

Please.  Please, please.  I need this.

 

It’s time.

 

He walks down the hallway, up the stairs, toward the hazy red lights and through the doorway, toward the stage.

 

“All right, this next comic describes himself as a lifelong Gotham resident who, from an early age, was told that his purpose in life was to bring joy and laughter into this cold, dark world.  Um, okay.”

 

A ripple of laughter from the audience.  The boulder inside Arthur grows bigger and colder.

 

Don’t laugh, he thinks to himself.  Don’t laugh.

 

“Please help me welcome Arthur Fleck!”

 

I’m here, he thinks.  I’m here.

 

He climbs onstage, stumbling a little, and takes the microphone.

 

The lights dazzle his eyes, blur his vision.  He blinks, staring out at the crowd.  He can’t focus on their faces.  He knows Travis is out there somewhere, but he can’t see him.  He stretches his lips into a smile.  He’s shaking.  Sweating.  The microphone picks up his ragged, frightened breathing, amplifying it, projecting it through the room.  The room fades in and out.  His stomach hurts.

 

Maybe he won’t even have time for a laughing fit.  Maybe he’s just going to vomit and pass out facedown in the puddle.  Great act, Arthur.  Great fucking act.  Standing ovation!

 

He tries to say hello and the word comes out as a barely audible squeak of air.

 

Stupid voice, he thinks.  Stupid frightened little voice.

 

He forces it through on the second try:  “H-hello.”

 

Already, he feels a laugh expanding inside his chest, filling it like a balloon.  It crawls up his throat, builds in his mouth, presses against his clenched teeth.  It pries his jaws open, forcing its way through.  He buries his face in the crook of one arm, trying to muffle the outburst.

 

Laughter echoes back from the audience.  It’s not malicious, exactly—not yet.  Just confused.  Like they don’t quite know what’s going on or how they’re supposed to react.

 

This isn’t off to a good start.

 

“H-h-hello!  It’s good to be here!  You know, I h-h-hated school as a kid…”  More laughter.  When the fit finally ends, he’s shaking, and his throat burns and his chest aches.  A croak emerges from his mouth.

 

It physically hurts.  Like a bad coughing fit.  His lungs feel scraped out, raw.  Every breath stings.

 

He tries again, his voice cracking:  “I hated school as a kid.  My mother would always say—” he goes into a high-pitched impersonation of Penny, which he’s only practiced after she falls asleep—“‘You should enjoy it.  Someday you’ll have to work for a living.’  No I won’t, Ma.  I’m gonna be a comedian.”

 

He’s amazed he managed to get that entire line out without breaking down again.  But his stinging, watering eyes have adjusted to the brightness now.  He can see the crowd—their blank, puzzled expressions.  A few are smiling, but uncomfortably.  Exchanging glances, whispering into each other’s ears. 

 

Arthur hiccups and croaks again.  His face burns.

 

This is a lost cause.  There’s no way he’ll be able to get through fifteen minutes like this.  It’s over.

 

Then his eyes find Travis.

 

He’s sitting in the back, a beer in hand.  Their gazes meet, Travis’s calm and steady.  And suddenly they are the only two people in the room.  Everyone else is air.

 

Travis’s gaze holds him from across the club.

 

There are no words for the expression on his face.  An onlooker might call it blank.  Arthur has known him long enough to see more.  Travis’s face is never blank—there’s so much going on there, in the small, subtle movements of his mouth and eyes.  He is a language most people don’t bother to learn.

 

His eyes say, I’m here and I love you and Whatever happens is okay.

 

Arthur sees him.  And he is seen.  They are mirrors reflecting each other across time and space.  There are a thousand tiny threads between them winding through both their hearts, knitting them together.  Nothing can ever hurt him again, because they have found each other.

 

Arthur closes his eyes.  Inside him, something shifts and opens.  He tenses, resisting briefly, reflexively—then relaxes into it.

 

* * *

 

Travis sees it happen.

 

He sees Arthur about to dissolve, to give up.  And then Arthur’s eyes close.  Travis hears his breathing slow, sees his body relax and loosen.

 

Then Arthur moves—one foot sliding out in a graceful half-circle.  One arm lifting over his head, head tipping back.  Slow and controlled, like a ballet dancer.

 

A man in the audience mutters, “What the fuck?”

 

Arthur holds the pose for a few seconds, then moves again, eyes still closed, upper body turning.  His arm sweeps out, fingers spread, stroking the air.  The audience laughs in confusion.  He doesn’t seem to hear.  He is alone in the spotlight, in his own reality, moving to music that they can’t hear.  They can’t touch him.

 

When Arthur’s eyes open again, they’re different.  There’s an unearthly shine, an over-brightness.  A smile spreads across his face—not the frightened bared teeth he showed when he first stepped up, but a smile of wonder and delighted surprise, as though he’s astonished to find himself there.

 

He’s gone under. 

 

For a moment, Travis wonders if he should do something.  Intervene somehow.  There’s a chance this could go south in a big way.

 

But this is Arthur’s big moment.  This is what he’s been waiting for.  There’s a deliberateness to the way he gave himself over, the way he surrendered control of his own mind—shutting off his own guilt and fear and inhibitions.

 

The Other is—has always been—Arthur’s protector.  Not good or bad.  Just the one who steps in when he’s at his limit.  And this time, Arthur made the choice to let him.

 

Travis feels a weird kind of jealousy.  He thinks of himself as Arthur’s protector.  But there are things he can’t do.  He can’t literally climb inside Arthur’s head and pilot his mind, and even if he could, that would probably be a bad idea.  The Other can, because the Other is Arthur.  Something deeper and more primal, but incomplete.  Something both more and less than him.

 

And now it’s onstage.  It has the microphone.

 

* * *

 

A warm buzzing fills Arthur’s skull.  The tightness in his chest recedes.  His mind unclenches, unfurls.  His limbs are weightless.  He might drift up to the ceiling like a balloon at any moment. 

 

The fear is gone.  Just like that.

 

He pulls a cigarette and lighter from his pocket.  “You mind if I smoke?”

 

More ripples of bewildered laughter.

 

He didn’t plan on saying that.  The words just came out.

 

He lights the cigarette, raises it to his lips, and puffs.  “That’s better.”  He closes his eyes, exhales slowly.  “Mmm.”

 

Awkward chuckles.

 

“You know, they say these things will kill you, but I’ve been smoking them for most of my life and I’m still here.”  His voice sounds different.  Steadier, but also higher and brighter—sharper, somehow.  “The cigarette companies should be required to put something about that on the package, don’t you think?  ‘Warning:  death is not guaranteed.’”

 

A few more chuckles from the audience. 

 

He takes another drag on the cigarette, and when he opens his mouth again, the breathy Southern belle voice comes out:  “Ahh.  That is the bee’s knees.  I think I was born to smoke.”  He flicks a bit of hair from his face, then slides back into his regular voice:  “That was the worst thing about Arkham—they rationed out cigarettes so carefully.  They only gave them to you as a special treat, if you were good.  And who wants to be good all the time?”

 

Silence.  He senses their uncertainty.  They aren’t sure if he’s serious or if this is the setup for a punchline.

 

“The food was awful, too.  Arkham is a lot like high school.  Or maybe high school is a lot like an insane asylum.  It even smells the same.”  He’s still smiling.  “Do you remember that smell?  It gets way up into your nose and makes everything taste like despair.”

 

Somewhere in the back of his head, he’s aware that he’s totally lost control.  He has no idea what he’s about to say until the words leave his mouth.

 

This is worse than crying or laughing, worse than fainting, worse than he could have imagined.  He’s having a full-blown mental breakdown onstage, in front of all these people, spilling his most shameful secrets.  And he can’t stop smiling.

 

He takes another puff.  “Sorry, am I making you uncomfortable?  I do that a lot.  I really don’t try to.  I should tell some normal jokes.  Oh, hang on…I have this book…”  He places the cigarette between his teeth, fumbles his notebook out from his jacket, and flips through the pages.  “Here’s one,” he says, talking through the cigarette.  “Why are poor people always so confused?  Because they don’t have any common cents.”

 

Silence.

 

“You know.  Cents.  Spelled with a C.  Like money?  I guess that doesn’t work as well when you say it out loud.  Should I make some jokes about sex?  Those always get a laugh, even when they’re not funny.  But until recently I wasn’t having a lot of sex, or any really, so I couldn’t think of any good jokes about it.”

 

A few giggles.

 

“There, see?  I just said the word ‘sex’ a couple of times and you laughed.  Sexy, sexy sex.”  He flips through his notebook, to a page with a glossy pasting of a naked magazine model, legs open, playing with herself, a sultry expression on her face.  “Oh, here’s a good one.”  He shows it to the audience.

 

A few startled gasps.  Nervous titters.  One wolf-whistle from a man up front.

 

“You like that?  I like that one too,” Arthur says.  “She has a pretty face, doesn’t she?”

 

“That’s the part you’re looking at?” the wolf-whistler calls.  “Are you a fag?”

 

Laughter from the crowd.

 

“Well, it’s sweet that you’re interested in me that way, but I’m already in a committed relationship,” Arthur says, flipping through the pages again.  “Hang on.  There’s a joke…I know it’s in here.”

 

His vision is still blurry—the lights are so bright.  He holds the journal a few inches from his face, then at arm’s length, trying to bring the words into focus, which makes the crowd laugh again.  He laughs along with them, carried and buoyed up by warm currents.

 

A small, cold voice whispers in the back of his head:  They’re not laughing because they think you’re funny.  They’re laughing because they think you’re a freak.

 

But they’re laughing.  Everyone in the room is looking at him.  And in his fuzzy, altered state—despite the terror buzzing like an insistent mosquito in the corner of his brain—he enjoys it.  The attention is like a drug, fizzling and dancing in his bloodstream.  He’ll say anything if they’ll keep laughing.

 

“Knock knock?”

 

He waits for someone to call out who’s there?  No response.

 

“Knock knock!  Hello?”  He plucks the cigarette from between his teeth.  “I’m knocking on your door.  But it looks like you’re not home, so I’m coming in.  I’m in your house.  I’m going to rearrange your things while you’re gone.  What do you think about that?  Maybe I’ll eat some of the food in your fridge.  Maybe I’ll look through your photo albums.  Maybe I’ll tell bedtime stories to your cat.  That’s what happens when you don’t say ‘who’s there.’”

 

Every eye in the room is fixed on him.  They’re mesmerized.  They can’t look away.  He smiles.  He is outside himself watching himself, as though on a TV screen.  He has become bigger than his body; he is spilling out through his own skin, expanding to fill the room.  He wishes he had his makeup on.

 

“God, it’s hot in here, isn’t it?”  He looks down at his shirt, which has gone nearly translucent with sweat.  He shrugs off his maroon jacket, dropping it to the stage, then undoes the first two buttons of his shirt with one hand, the cigarette still clasped in the other.

 

A few women in the audience shriek.  One covers her eyes.  More nervous laughter.

 

“Relax, I’m not going to strip.  There’s only one person in this room I’d strip for.  The rest of you just get a little tease.  Now, where was I?”  He shakes his damp hair out of his eyes and looks around for the book—he can’t remember where he put it.  His gaze drops.  It lies open near his shoe.  “Oh, I must have dropped it.  Well, that’s fine.  I’m doing more of an improv thing.”

 

He takes another, slow puff on the cigarette.

 

“There is something about being a comedian that’s a bit like stripping in public, isn’t there?  Putting yourself on display, warts and all.  Opening yourself up to ridicule.  I guess I’m a filthy exhibitionist at heart.  I’m hungry for your attention.  Oh, it’s frightening—normally I could never do this.  I’m shy, you see.  You can laugh, but it’s true.  I’m a scared little mouse.  All I want is for other people to look at me, but when they do, I skitter away and hide.  Maybe that’s how it is for everyone.  We put on other faces.  We hide our real selves because to be seen is so scary.  And to look at someone else, really look—a part of us always wants to look away, because it’s like staring into an open wound.  It’s ugly, unless you happen to find wounds beautiful.  I find that so funny, though.  The way everyone is so hungry for the one thing we avoid.  The way we walk past each other in the streets.  The way we avoid talking to each other in elevators or on the bus, and get nervous when someone does talk to us.  And all the while we’re thinking about how lonely we are.  That’s a great joke.”

 

He undoes another button of his shirt.  More gasps.

 

“What?  What’s so shocking?  I told you, I’m not going to strip.”

 

Someone gets up and walks out of the room.

 

“Leaving already?  I’m just getting warmed up.”  He takes another drag on the cigarette.  “Oh, since we’re talking about stripping, here’s a funny story.  Like I was saying earlier, I hated school as a kid.  One time a group of other boys cornered me in the bathroom and pulled off my clothes and ran off with them, laughing.  They left me there, naked.”

The wolf-whistler in front—an aspiring comedian himself, apparently—calls out, “Is that why you’re a fag now?”

 

A few laughs.

 

“Who knows?  I’m not a shrink.  Anyway, I hid in one of the stalls.  I didn’t know what else to do.  I wasn’t going to walk out like that.  People came in and out and I didn’t make a peep, I just stayed there in the stall, hiding, for the rest of the day.  Even after the school closed down.  A janitor finally found me and lent me a jacket and drove me home.  I said, ‘Ma, Ma!  The other kids stole my clothes.’  And she said—” he goes into his nasally impersonation of Penny—“‘Well, why did you let them do that?  Don’t you know those cost money?’”

 

Silence.

 

“That was the punchline.  Not very fun-nay?  Oh well.”  He rolls the cigarette between his fingers, places the end against his lips, then between them.  “Sweet poison,” he says.  “It is killing me, little by little.  I know that.  But the human body isn’t made to die that easily.  It’s stubborn.  Our bodies want to keep living, no matter what our minds have to say.  Even when I cut my wrists, I didn’t die.”

 

One woman in the audience cackles, then the laughter abruptly stops, like a tape being shut off.  As though she suddenly realized what she was laughing at and was mortified.

 

“It’s fine, you can laugh.  It’s comedy.  There’s no shame here.  I’m happy that you’re happy.  I got a laugh!  Callooh Callay!”

 

Silence fills the club.

 

“Have you noticed how lunatics always laugh?  It must be fun, being crazy.  Well, I know it is.  Do you want me to tell you more about that?  About the time I spent in the loony bin?  I laughed so much.  Oh, one time, this group of other patients pinned me down in the hallway—”

 

A voice says, “Joker.”  It’s not loud, but it carries, in the silence.

 

The word hits him like a splash of ice-water.  He snaps back to the front of his head.  And Arthur is standing there, blinking.  The faces of the audience swim into focus.  Their expressions—shock, disgust, confusion—fill his vision.

 

He opens his mouth and a faint croak emerges.  The silence stretches out.  His notebook lies open near his feet, facedown.  Slowly, mechanically, he bends and picks it up.  “Th-thank you,” he whispers, the words barely audible.  He turns and walks off the stage.

 

The announcer steps up.  “Uh, I guess that’s it.  Let’s hear it for Arthur Fleck.”

 

Two or three people applaud.

 

Moving like a sleepwalker, Arthur retreats through the door, down the stairs.  He makes it halfway before he has to stop and lean against the wall.

 

He can still hear the announcer.  The man clears his throat.  “Well, that was…different.”

 

The audience laughs.

 

“I thought I was gonna have to call the police when he started stripping.  Like damn.  Someone’s off his meds.”

 

More laughter.  Normal laughter, relieved laughter.  They are back in familiar territory—the announcer is telling them how to think and feel about what they just saw.  Helping them dismiss it. 

 

“What was up with the dancing, anyway?  Was that his way of getting in the crazy-zone?”

 

Does the announcer know that Arthur can still hear him?  Does he care?

 

He manages to make it down the stairs.  He’s shaking so hard his teeth rattle together.

 

He can’t bring himself to go back through the club.  Can’t face the people there.

 

He walks toward the glowing red EXIT sign and out through the backdoor, into the alley behind Pogo’s.  A pair of rats scurry away.

 

He keeps walking.  His feet carry him forward.  He doesn’t know where he’s going.  It doesn’t seem to matter.

 

A cold rain sheets down from the sky, quickly drenching his hair and shirt, plastering it to his body.  He walks and walks through the darkness, past a flickering streetlight.  He’s still carrying his notebook.  He drops it into a garbage can as he passes.

 

* * *

 

As soon as Arthur walks offstage, Travis stands up.  He hurries forward, weaving between tables.  Before he can even make it across the room, though, Arthur has vanished through the door in back.  Travis follows down the hall, down the stairs, and shoves open the emergency exit, revealing a garbage-choked alley.

 

Arthur is nowhere to be seen.

 

Travis circles around to the front of the club and runs down the block to the metered spot where his taxi is parked.

 

This is bad.

 

He should have stopped it sooner.  There’s no way Arthur would’ve spilled all that personal stuff to strangers, if he was in his right mind.

 

But Arthur wanted this so much.  Wanted to get up on that stage.  Wanted to be heard.

 

He gets into his taxi and starts driving, scanning the streets.  He circles around the block.  Arthur can’t have gone far.

 

He spots a lanky form walking down the sidewalk, drenched, hair plastered to his face.  Travis stops the cab and gets out.  “Hey.”  Arthur keeps walking.  Like he can’t hear him.

 

He strides up and grabs Arthur’s arm.  “Hey.”

 

Arthur turns slowly toward him, blinking.  “Travis?” he says in a small, faraway voice.  His sodden shirt clings to his too-thin body.  He’s shivering violently, though he doesn’t seem to notice.  He looks around, brow furrowed, like he’s trying to figure out where he is.  “What…”

 

“You’re soaked.  Get in.”  Travis pulls him toward the cab.

 

Arthur gets in.  He sits, staring straight ahead.

 

Travis rests a hand on his back.  He can feel Arthur’s heart racing.  “Talk to me.”

 

Arthur draws in a shaky breath.  He runs a hand down his wet face.  It’s blotchy, red.  He’s been crying.  The first few buttons of his wet shirt are still undone.  “I made a mistake,” he says in a small voice.

 

“I didn’t know if you’d want me to stop it.  I thought—”

 

“No.  No, this wasn’t your fault.  I was the one who decided to go up there.”  He lowers his head.  “I let them see me,” he whispers.  “That was what I always wanted.  For people to see me.  I finally did it.  And they hated me.”

 

“They didn’t hate you.  They were confused.  They weren’t prepared for what you gave them.  I know what it took for you to get up on that stage, Arthur.  You were incredible.”

 

“Please don’t say that,” he says in that small, barely audible voice.  “I know it isn’t true.  It was a nightmare.  I humiliated myself.”  A stiff, painful smile spreads across his face.  “I guess I learned my lesson.  My mother was right.  I’m not cut out to be a comedian.  I’ll never be able to show my face in the club after this.  Or any club.  You don’t have to lie and tell me that it went fine.”

 

“I’m not lying.  You were beautiful, up there.”

 

Arthur covers his eyes and laughs.  “Beautiful.”  He says the word like it’s a joke.

 

“I couldn’t look away from you.  No one could.”

 

“Because they thought I was a freak.  That’s what it was.  A freak show.  You heard the announcer.”

 

“He doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about.  He’s a shithead.”

 

Arthur lowers his hand slowly from his eyes.  “Sometimes I wish you weren’t so kind to me,” he whispers.  “It confuses me.  It scares me, how kind you are.  Sometimes I wish you would be cruel…at least a little.  That you’d get angry at me and call me stupid and tell me how much trouble I am.  It would make more sense.  It would be easier to understand.”

 

“Is that really what you want?”

 

“No.  I don’t know.”  His hand slides away from his eyes and drops to his side.  “I’m not making any sense right now.  I—I can’t think.”  He sniffles and wipes his nose on his sleeve.  “I’m sorry for leaving the club without telling you.  I probably scared you.  I was just—ha-ha!  Ha-ha-haaa!”  He clamps his hand over his mouth. 

 

Travis sits there, feeling helpless.  “You’re shivering.  You’re wet.  Let me take you somewhere warm.  You want me to drive you back to your apartment?”

 

He doesn’t respond.  He sits there, face blank.  That blankness worries Travis.

 

It makes sense that the experience in the club would’ve rattled Arthur.  But there’s something else.  He can feel it.


“Arthur.  What’s goin’ on?”

 

“They cut my program,” he says.

 

“What?”

 

“My social services program.  I just found out today.  I got my counseling through that program.  And my medication.  I—I have some left.  Enough for a month or two, maybe.  But after that…I don’t know what’s going to happen to me.”

 

Travis squeezes the steering wheel in both hands.  He takes a breath.  “I have some cash stashed in my mattress.  Not a lot, but—”

 

“I can’t ask that of you.”

 

“I’m offering.”

 

Arthur shakes his head.  “It wouldn’t make a difference, in the long run.  The drugs are just too expensive, and there are too many.  Even if I could come up with the money, I’m not sure if they’ll keep filling my prescription.  Everything was through the program.” 

 

“Maybe you’ll be okay without the meds.”

 

Arthur gives him a sad, weary smile.  A smile that makes Travis feel like he just said something ridiculous.

 

“I mean, you don’t know, right?” Travis says.  “We’ve got time, anyway.  We can figure something out.”

 

Arthur rests his forehead against the window.  “It’s going to be hard, Travis,” he whispers.  “Not just for me.  For you too.  I’m going to get worse.  And you’ll have to deal with it.”

 

“We’ll get through it.”

 

Rain drums against the roof of the cab, echoing through the inside.  “It doesn’t seem fair,” Arthur says, “asking you to deal with all this.  I just…I can’t help thinking that…”  He stops.

 

“What?”

 

“I can’t help thinking it would’ve been better for you if you’d never met me.  I know you’re going to say that’s not true.  But the way things are going, now…”

 

Travis rubs his hand slowly over the steering wheel.  The familiar texture.  “I wasn’t doing so good before I met you, Arthur.  You know that.  You’ve read my journal.  You know what goes on in my head.  You know the crazy shit I’ve done.”

 

“I know you’re hurting.  You’re hurting all the time.  I can see it.  But you deal with it.  You’re strong.  Much stronger than I am.  You’re the one who saved me, that day you found me in the alley, and you’ve been saving me ever since.  You saved me again tonight.  It would’ve been even worse if you hadn’t stopped me.”  That troubling blankness hasn’t left his eyes.  Like he’s retreated, gone somewhere else.  “I need you so much, but I can’t do anything for you.  I’m like a child.  I can barely even have sex without needing you to hold me and calm me down when I get scared.  Maybe…maybe you feel useful when you have someone to save.  Maybe that’s why you like me.  And…I’m grateful.  But it doesn’t seem right.  Making you do all this work.”

 

Travis’s fingers tighten on the wheel.  “Is that how you see it?”

 

“That’s how it is.  Isn’t it?”

 

That’s not it at all.  Not even close.

 

God dammit, he wishes he were better at these kind of talks.  Wishes he knew how to explain.

 

He runs a hand over his hair, struggling for words.

 

“I was a dead man, for five years,” he says.  “The night I killed those pimps...I felt like I died that night.  I was ready to die.”

 

The windshield wipers swish, cutting through the rain.  The neon blur of lights bleed into the water, red and green and orange. 

 

“I had these thoughts.  Like maybe I was dead and I was in hell.  That hell was Earth, but with no end, and I’d be driving this fuckin’ taxi around for the rest of time.  Nothing changing.  No relief.  Just this zombie life.  This damnation.  And then when I found you…when you looked at me…it was like…”

 

Back and forth.  The wipers swish.  The rain keeps falling.

 

“I’m the one who needed saving,” Travis says.  “I’m the one who keeps getting saved.”

 

Arthur swallows.  The skin of his throat shines with rain and sweat.  “I just…don’t understand,” he whispers.  “How do I do that for you?  Why me?  I’m nothing.  I’m just another broken person.  I’m not special.”

 

“You’re the only Arthur,” Travis says.  “Well…there’s other guys named Arthur.  But you know what I mean.”

 

Arthur lets out a shuddering little breath, and his face stretches into a pained smile.  “You’ve only known me on my meds.  Once they wear off…I don’t know what sort of person I’ll become.  I know that while I was in Arkham—maybe even before that—I hurt people.  I’m afraid that the real me is a bad person.  Over the next few months…even if I wean myself off the drugs slowly, it’s going to hurt.  A lot.  And when I come out the other side I don’t know who I’ll be.  I might be a monster.”

 

“If you’re tryin’ to scare me off, it’s not gonna work,” he says.

 

“I don’t want to make you sad,” Arthur croaks.  “I hate the thought of making you sad.  And—I’m scared.  I’m scared all the time that you’re going to leave me…that I’ll make too many mistakes and you’ll get sick of all my stupid shit, because anyone would, and—I keep thinking it’d be better for it to end now, while I’m still myself, before—”

 

“What do you think this is, Arthur?”  His voice comes out low and flat, almost cold.  “You think this is some little crush?  You think I’m playing around?”

 

“We haven’t known each other that long.  You—you can’t know—”

 

Travis takes Arthur’s face between his hands and looks into his eyes.  They’re still pink-tinged from tears, his face still flushed and damp.  A few strands of hair cling to his cheek.

 

He’s beautiful like this.  Raw and open. 

 

“You’re the only thing in this filthy world that matters,” Travis says.  He holds Arthur’s face tighter, squeezing it between his hands.  “The only thing.”

 

Arthur stares at him with those lost, helpless eyes.

 

Travis leans in closer—closer, closer, until they’re breathing the same air, lips nearly touching, foreheads pressed together.  He turns his head a little, so his right eye is a hairsbreadth from Arthur’s and he can feel the brush of those long lashes against his own when Arthur blinks.  His hand curls around the back of Arthur’s neck, anchoring him there.  He kisses him—hard—and tastes sweat, tears and smoky Gotham rain.

 

Arthur makes a small, pained, hungry sound, deep in his throat.  “Travis…”

 

“I’m not letting go,” he says.  His fingers slide into Arthur’s hair and grip.  “I’ll hold you and keep you.  No matter what happens.  No matter who you become.  If you try to run away I’ll track you down.”

 

Arthur’s arms come up, slowly, and wrap around him.  Holding tight.  Clinging to him.

 

He’s still shivering.  Soaked to the bone, and not even wearing a jacket.  Heart pounding, breaths coming hard and fast.  Alive.  So very alive.  He burns so bright, so warm, and Travis has been in the cold so long he’d almost forgotten what that felt like.  He can't lose this.  Can't lose him.

 

“I need to take you someplace warm,” Travis murmurs.

 

“Your apartment,” Arthur whispers.

 

“Okay.”

 

They can talk more about this once they get there.  He turns up the heat in his cab and pulls away from the curb.  Once they’re there, he can get Arthur into some clean, dry clothes.  Warm him up.  Get some food into him.  Knowing him, he probably hasn’t eaten since this morning.  And then…

 

They’ll figure it out.

 

He drives.

 

It is true—everything he said.  He exists for Arthur, now.  Arthur is the blood in his veins and the air in his lungs.

 

Maybe it’s not healthy or normal, feeling this way.  Probably isn’t.

 

Travis knows he is not a good person.  Even when he loves, it gets twisted up.  He does bad things.  He stalked Betsy.  Probably scared her.  Hell, he’s stalked Arthur.  Creeping around Ha-Ha’s, peering in through the windows.  Circling past his apartment late at night.  And Iris…a better man would have found some way to save her without slaughtering her captors right in front of her.  But Travis is not that man.  He is a killer, an empty shell, a selfish, stunted animal.  He will chain Arthur, if that’s what it takes to keep him.  And he will do whatever it takes to protect him.  He will burn down this city if that’s what it takes.  He is already damned.  Maybe Arthur is his salvation, or maybe salvation is beyond him.  Beyond them both.  I might be a monster, Arthur said.  He doubts that, but even if it's true, so what?  If Arthur is bound for hell then they will plunge into the depths together, holding onto each other.

 

They’ve come too far to go back, now.