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Helms Pharmacy is quiet, save for the radio playing faintly in the back of the store.  Billy Joel croons, You may be right—I may be crazy—but it just may be a looooonatic you’re looking for…

 

“What can I do for you?” the pharmacist—a small, wiry, gray-haired man—says.  He has an accent that Travis can’t quite identify.  Something European.  Maybe Polish?  He’s writing on a notepad in front of him.  He doesn’t look up.  Doesn’t see the gun pointed at him.

 

Travis has never really talked to the guy, but he’s seen him interacting with customers.  Always seemed nice enough.  And Helms, he knows, is an independent pharmacy. 

 

He doesn’t feel good about doing this.  But he’s already made the decision.  No backing out now.  “I need some drugs,” Travis says.

 

The pharmacist looks up.  “Do you have—” he freezes.

 

Travis stands with his arm close to his side, so that the handgun won’t be easily visible to anyone looking in through the store windows.  But he keeps it aimed squarely at the man.

 

“I don’t want to hurt anyone.”  Travis keeps his voice calm, almost casual.  We’re all cool here.  Just a robbery.  No big deal.  “And I don’t want money.  Just drugs.”  He approaches, fishes a list out of his pocket, and pushes it across the counter.  “These.”

 

It occurred to him, earlier, that Arthur takes a very specific combination of medications and that if the police do decide to get off their asses and investigate this, they could use that combination to narrow down the list of suspects.  So Travis added a few extras to the list—mostly painkillers and antibiotics, which always come in handy, anyway—to throw them off.

 

The pharmacist stares at the gun.

 

“I can be out of here in five minutes, if this goes smoothly,” Travis says.

 

The man gulps.  “We may not have all of the drugs in stock.”

 

“Just give me whatever you have.  As much as you have.”

 

The pharmacist turns and begins rummaging through the shelves.  His hands are shaking.  He grabs pill bottles and tosses them into a paper bag.  Over a dozen bottles.  Good.

 

The pharmacist pauses, casting a wide-eyed glance at him.

 

“You’re doin’ fine,” Travis says.  “Got any more?”

 

“That’s all.”

 

“Give me the bag.  Keep both hands where I can see ‘em.”  The pharmacist pushes the bag across the counter.  Travis takes it.  “Sorry about this,” he says.  Maybe at some point in the future, when he’s had a chance to save up some money, he can slide an envelope full of cash under the pharmacy door as an apology. 

 

“Just go,” the pharmacist mutters.

 

“Right.”  He takes a few steps backwards, toward the door.

 

This is going well, he thinks.  Maybe God or fate or whatever decided to give him a break, after all.

 

Behind him, the bell dings.

 

Shit.

 

He spins around, gun raised…and finds himself staring down the barrel of a revolver.

 

A man—thirty-something, bald, with a neatly trimmed beard—is holding the revolver in both hands. 

 

“Drop the gun,” the man says.

 

He’s wearing a blue cardigan kind of similar to the one Arthur has.  The detail distracts Travis.  Unnerves him.  But he holds his voice steady:  “Can’t do that.  Sorry.”

 

They stand, facing each other.  Travis sizes the man up quickly.  He’s holding the weapon like he knows how to use it, like he’s used it before.  Even so, he’s scared.  The revolver shakes slightly in his hands.

 

“Relax,” Travis says.  He fights the urge to look behind him and see what the pharmacist is doing.  If he has a gun too, Travis is fucked.  “I just want what I came here for.  I’ve got it now, right here.  This bag.  See?  I’m about to leave.”

 

“Drop the gun, motherfucker,” the man says.  He’s trying to sound tough.  But his voice shakes, too.

 

“You don’t want to be a hero.  Trust me, it’s not worth it.  Just step aside and let me walk out that door.  No one gets hurt.  We all go on with our lives.”

 

“I said drop the fucking gun.

 

Talking isn’t going to get them anywhere.  This will come down to reflexes.  These things usually do.

 

They stare at each other, guns aimed.  Waiting to see who blinks, who flinches first.

 

Travis doesn’t want to hurt this guy.  But he can’t get arrested.  Not now.  Not until he has a chance to get these drugs home.  Arthur’s life is on the line.

 

“One last chance,” Travis says.  “Just walk—” he fires.  In almost the same instant, the other guy’s gun goes off.

 

The man lets out a ragged cry and clutches his arm.  Travis lunges for the door.

 

Even wounded, the guy turns and fires again, but the bullet goes wild, hitting the wall.  Travis bursts through the door, clutching the bag of pills, and runs like hell.  It’s raining now, a heavy, icy rain, almost sleet, turning the thin dusting of snow to a gray mush.

 

It takes him a minute or two to realize that he’s bleeding.  That he’s been shot.  It doesn’t even hurt—adrenaline floods his system, blocking the pain.  The arm of his jacket is drenched in blood.  He ducks into the alley where his cab is parked, takes the jacket and ski mask off and shoves both into a dumpster.  He ditches the gun, too.  He takes a few seconds to examine the injury in the flickering glare of the streetlight.

 

The bullet ripped right through, leaving a tunnel in his flesh.  It’s worse than a graze—it looks pretty deep, actually—but he can still move the arm.  Just hurts like hell.  He presses his hand against the wound, trying to staunch the flow of blood.

 

He can’t hear any police sirens.  Not yet, anyway.  But people probably heard the gunshots.  He needs to get out of here.

 

He slides into the cab, hastily changes into his usual jacket, and drives away.  The bag of medications sits on the seat next to him.  He opens the glove box and stuffs it inside.

 

He’s still bleeding.  He keeps one hand pressed against the wound, steering with the other.  His shirt-sleeve is soaked through, and some of it’s dripped onto the seat.

 

If he gets pulled over, he’s in trouble.  He can’t worry about that now though.  He has to get home.

 

Most crimes in Gotham go unsolved, he reminds himself.  The rain will wash his blood from the sidewalk.  No trail.  The odds are in his favor.  He’s lucky, too, that the bullet went through clean…though those painkillers and antibiotics are gonna come in handy.

 

He wonders if the would-be hero deliberately aimed for a nonlethal spot, as Travis did.  Maybe both of them were striving to disarm instead of kill.  Or maybe the guy’s hand just twitched at the wrong moment.  Travis will never know if it was mercy or dumb luck that saved his life.

 

But he’s alive.  And he got what he needed.  He prays that it’s enough.

 

Dizziness rolls over him, and his vision goes fuzzy.  He’s still losing blood.  Too much.  The cab veers to one side, and someone honks at him.  He course-corrects.

 

Focus, he thinks.  He just has to stay conscious a little longer.  If he passes out behind the wheel now, it was all for nothing.

 

* * *

 

Alone, bound and shivering on the bed, Arthur hallucinates.

 

His mother leans over him, whispering, You were born dead.  Hoyt sneers down at him.  Fuckin’ sissy. 

 

He shuts his eyes tight, but he can still hear them.  He can’t block his ears.  It wouldn’t make a difference anyway.  Their voices are deeper, circling around and around and around in his skull.  He whips his head around and slams it against the wall behind the bed.  A burst of sickening pain swims behind his eyes.

 

He wants to scream.  But some dim corner of his mind knows that this would be a bad idea.  He doesn’t want anyone in this building to call the police.  He doesn’t want to be found in this state.  Not by them.

 

Travis…where is Travis?

 

“Help me,” he whispers.

 

And then Travis is there, stroking his hair.

 

“It’s okay, Arthur.  I’m here.”

 

“Help me…stop the voices, please…”

 

“I will.  Just relax.”

 

Warm hands slide over his skin.  Warm lips are on his.  He tastes like sunlight.  Like hot honey.  His forehead presses against Arthur’s, and a heavy, warm calm settles over him like a blanket.

 

“Are you real?” he whispers, dazed.

 

“I’m as real as you want me to be.”

 

He closes his eyes and shivers with pleasure as a gentle tongue licks over his eyelids and cleans away his tears.  “You’re just in my head,” Arthur murmurs.  “You’re a dream.  You’re not really touching me right now.”

 

“When someone touches you, you feel it in here.”  A finger taps gently against his temple.  “Everything that happens in your head is real.”

 

There’s something wrong with this reasoning, but Arthur is too disoriented to pick it apart.  He just wants Travis to take the pain away.

 

“Roll over,” Travis says.  “On your stomach.”

 

He obeys.  Then Travis is on top of him, pushing into him.  It happens suddenly—an aching, splitting pleasure.

 

Even knowing it’s a hallucination, he can feel it.  Travis’s erection is huge and solid inside him, stretching him open.  Arthur moans and bucks wildly on the bed, stomach-down, rubbing his swollen cock against the sheets as Travis thrusts into him again and again and again.

 

And then Arthur feels the cold barrel of a pistol against the back of his skull.

 

He’s so happy, so relieved, that he wants to cry.  Travis has come to free him, after all.  He’s going to put a bullet through Arthur’s brain while still inside him.  The thought triggers a dizzying burst of heat.  Pressure coils deep in his belly and lower, behind his cock, tightening all his muscles, then there’s a flash of blinding pleasure and he cums inside his pants.

 

And then Travis vanishes like smoke and he is left alone, stranded inside his own head.  He can still feel his cum drying against his thigh, gluing his underwear to his skin.

 

He shuts his eyes and buries his face against the pillow, which is already drenched with his sweat.  He laughs and laughs and laughs. 

 

And then, for a while, he blacks out.

 

Someone is standing over him, breathing hard.  Tugging at his bonds.

 

He floats back up through the murky waters of semi-consciousness, opens his eyes, and sees Travis hovering over the bed, face pale, eyes glassy, one shirt-sleeve drenched in blood.  He’s cutting through the duct tape bonds with a pair of scissors. 

 

Arthur wonders if he’s hallucinating again.  Probably.  There is a hazy, dreamlike quality to his vision.  His gaze latches onto the bloody sleeve.  “You’re hurt.”  His own voice seems to be coming from far away.

 

“It’s not bad.”  Sweat shines on his forehead and neck.  “I got your meds.  You’re gonna be fine.”

 

“What happened to you?”

 

“Got shot.  The bullet went right through me.”

 

Definitely another hallucination, Arthur thinks.  Travis sounds way too calm for having been shot.  “Oh.” 

 

Travis slices through the last of the tape.  The restraints fall off.  “How are your hands?  Can you feel them?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Listen.  I’m kinda shaky.  Lost a lot of blood.”  Travis crawls into bed beside him and lays there, chest heaving.  “I’m gonna need you to help me patch this up.”

 

“You want me to bandage your wound?”

 

“Yeah.”  He shifts and flinches, the breath hissing between his teeth.  “Ah—shit.”

 

Arthur smooths Travis’s hair back from his brow.  “It’s okay.  Don’t move.  I’ll take care of you.”

 

Travis rarely needs him like this.  Seeing his lover so vulnerable makes Arthur feel protective, which isn’t a way he’s accustomed to feeling around Travis.  It’s almost nice.

 

Of course, he wouldn’t like it if Travis were really hurt.  But for a hallucination, it’s not bad.

 

“Just tell me where the supplies are,” Arthur says.

 

“There’s some rubbing alcohol under the bathroom sink,” Travis says, voice weak and hoarse.  “Gauze and tape.  I…”  He stops and closes his eyes, breathing through his open mouth.  “Get that stuff.  Then cut the sleeve off with those scissors.” 

 

Like a sleepwalker, Arthur rises from the bed.  His body seems to be floating.  The carpet beneath his feet shifts and wriggles, as though the floor is made of bugs.  He opens his eyes again, and the bathroom stretches out like taffy, then snaps back into place.

 

Everything feels—off.  Objects are more three-dimensional than usual.  They vibrate with an aggressive, hyper-real quality.  The faucet is a silver dragon snarling in his skull.  The shower curtain is an alien landscape.  He licks his paper-dry lips and his tongue tingles with icy sparks.

 

He remembers hallucinating like this in Arkham, sometimes, but he hasn’t had an episode this intense for years.  Maybe it’s the stress—maybe it’s because he skipped his meds that morning.  Both, probably.

 

As he rummages through the cabinet beneath the sink, a disturbing thought occurs to him:  that maybe this is actually happening.  For the other hallucinations, he never left the bed.  His hands and legs always remained bound.

 

He returns to the bedroom holding the brown bottle of alcohol and the first aid kit.  His ears ring and his vision fades in and out as he cuts the blood-soaked sleeve away.  When he sees the wound, his stomach clenches.

 

Raw meat.  His mind flashes to cadavers and animal carcasses hanging upside down in butcher shops and terrified cows crammed into cages.  Black and white photos of bodies in mass graves.  The stark reality of flesh.  He stares into the glistening canyon of the wound and sees muscle tissue, and a stringy, grayish-white thing which he’s pretty sure is an exposed nerve.

 

This is real.  Arthur is in the middle of a full-blown psychotic episode.  And Travis is wounded.

 

Panic surges in his chest.  He shuts his eyes and sees dancing rainbow cubes.  Phantom spider webs brush against his face.  Then a foggy dreamlike calm slides over him.  He opens his eyes.

 

Arthur’s body moves automatically as he twists off the bottle’s cap.  A soft sound like a gasp escapes the bottle along with a swirl of silver smoke.  “I just…pour it on there?”

 

“P-put something between my teeth, first.  My belt.”

 

Arthur fumbles around, finds a belt on the floor.  The belt wriggles in his hand like a live ferret—whoa there!  Down boy—then it goes limp, compliant.  He folds it and slips the leather between Travis’s teeth.

 

When Arthur pours the clear liquid onto the wound, Travis’s head snaps back, and a strangled scream escapes his throat.  He clenches down on the belt, teeth making deep indentations in the leather.  His eyes roll back in his head.

 

Arthur waits.  Travis remains motionless.  A low humming like a damned choir fills Arthur’s ears.

 

“Hey.”  Arthur pats his cheek.  “Hey.  Travis.”

 

His eyelids flicker open.

 

Brown eyes.  Like wood, like earth, like the cover of his old notebook, creased and worn and familiar.  He misses the notebook.  He thinks about it in the trash somewhere and feels a pang of almost unbearable tenderness and regret.  As though he abandoned his only child.

 

He shoves the chaotic noise of thought away, wills his mind to stay still and focus. 

 

“The wound is pretty deep,” Arthur says.  His own voice sounds strangely calm and normal.  Detached.  “You need stitches.  I think I should call an ambulance.”

 

“No.  No doctors, no hospitals.”  Travis blinks a few times.  He seems to be struggling to hold onto consciousness.  “Can you sew?”

 

What a strange conversation.  Are they in Wonderland?  Is there going to be a tea party?  “I’ve mended rips in my clothes before.  My mother taught me.”

 

“You can stitch me up.  There’s a sewing kit in the closet.  Top shelf.”

 

“Okay.”

 

Sew the wound shut, he thinks.  Right.  It can’t be too hard, can it?

 

Arthur finds the kit without much trouble, despite the way the closet keeps wobbling and stretching like a reflection in a funhouse mirror.  Threading the needle is a lot harder.  His hands are shaking so violently.  Fog presses in around the edges of his vision.  He’s weak, disoriented.  And his head hurts.  It’s hard to think.  Hard to see.  He blinks, and his eyelids make weird clicking sounds in his head.  “Travis,” he says.  “I don’t think I can do this.”

 

“Doesn’t have to be pretty.”

 

“I’m hallucinating right now.”

 

Travis doesn’t respond.  He’s passed out again, his eyes rolled back, showing only white.  And he’s still losing blood.

 

Arthur puts a hand against the side of his head.  Think.  Think.  Think.

 

He could seal the injury with duct tape—he’s heard that’s possible, in emergencies—but attaching sticky tape directly to an open wound feels like a bad idea.  And Travis told him to use the needle.  Travis probably knows what to do in this kind of situation better than he does.

 

He dips the needle in the alcohol, hoping that will be enough to sterilize it. 

 

Travis is bathed in sweat, muttering under his breath, his eyes rolling beneath his flickering lids as he fades in and out of consciousness.  Blood stains the sheets.  So much blood. 

 

A shrill laugh erupts from Arthur’s throat. 

 

Oh god.

 

The wound grins up at him, a bloody mouth.  A mass of tiny red snakes slither inside it, over and around each other, then vanish.

 

Arthur pinches the gash’s lips together with the fingers of one hand and, with the other, pushes the needle through the skin.  He tries to imagine that he’s stitching a rip in his jacket.  But clothes don’t bleed, of course.  Clothes don’t feel pain.

 

Travis’s head rolls to one side.  His face contorts.  He whimpers.  Arthur has never heard such a small, lost sound coming out of Travis’s throat.

 

“It’s okay,” Arthur murmurs.  “It’s okay.  I’m fixing you now.”

 

This is a dream, Arthur tells himself.  It’s all happening inside his own head.  He has to believe that, or he’ll lose his nerve.

 

The thin thread isn’t meant to hold flesh.  The wound keeps pulling open again.  He keeps stitching, jabbing the needle through the edges of the wound and making sloppy X’s.  Just keep moving.  A bead of sweat rolls into his eye, and he blinks it away.  The phantom spider webs brush over his cheeks and against his neck.

 

Travis is unconscious.  Probably a mercy.  Though it worries Arthur, seeing him so still and unresponsive.  The breath rasps faintly in his throat.

 

Faintly, he hears squeaky little voices singing, “Stitch, stitch, stitch, stitch.”

 

A row of fuzzy gray mice stand on the edge of the bed, swaying in rhythm.  Singing mice.  He can only see them through his peripheral vision.  When he looks directly at them, they disappear.  But their voices worm their way into his skull, a repetitive, irritating melody.

 

“Shut up,” Arthur mutters, pulling the thread tight.

 

They sing louder.

 

“Go away.  Just fucking go away.”

 

It doesn’t stop.  They jump and scamper around on the bed, giggling, flickering through the corners of his vision, trying to distract him.  He slams his head against the wall, and stars bust behind his eyes.  The mice pop like tiny balloons and vanish.

 

Finally, the wound closes and stays closed.  Arthur snips the thread and ties it off.  He tapes some gauze over the messy stitches—they look like something from a horror movie, but they’re holding—then winds bandages around and around Travis’s shoulder.

 

“There,” Arthur says.  “It’s done.”

 

No response.

 

“Travis.  Please say something.”

 

Still nothing.  Arthur lifts one eyelid and sees only bloodshot white.

 

Not knowing what else to do, Arthur kisses him.  He tastes sweat-salt.  Travis’s eyelids flicker.

 

“Arthur,” he whispers.

 

Arthur lets out a soft breath of relief.  “I’m here.”

 

Travis blinks a few times.  Sweat gleams on his face and throat.  His tongue creeps out to wet his lips.  “Painkillers,” he rasps.

 

Arthur’s gaze strays to the paper bag on the bed.  He rummages through until he finds a bottle of oxycodone.  A glance at the rest of the bottles tells him that most of them are psychotropic.  His meds.  Several bottles of each.  A lot more than he had before. 

 

“Travis…how…?”

 

“Later.”  He grimaces.  “Hurts.”

 

“Hang on.”  Arthur squeezes the childproof cap and twists it off.  He fishes one of the oxycodone tablets out.  “Here.”

 

Travis’s eyes are unfocused, heavy-lidded, his breathing labored.  He’s trembling.  “Do me a favor.”

 

“Yes?”

 

“Give it to me with your mouth.”

 

This doesn’t feel like an odd request.  It seems to him that, somehow, the medication will be more potent that way.  “Okay.”  Slowly, he places the pill between his own lips, holding it carefully in place as he leans down.  He places his lips against Travis’s, feeling the flutter of his breath.  Travis gazes at him through half-closed eyes as Arthur pushes the pill into his mouth with his tongue.  Travis dry-swallows.

 

“You take yours now,” Travis says hoarsely.

 

Arthur stares at the array of amber bottles. 

 

He made up his mind to stop.  To give himself over to the madness.  He decided that he was done.  He would blaze brightly, for one brief moment, and then wink out like a candle.

 

“Take them,” Travis says.  “I’m going to watch you do it.”

 

There is freedom in surrender.  He was so ready to just…stop.  Stop pushing forward, stop trudging up the endless staircase only to get knocked back down again.  To just be, to embrace the fleeting joy and sensuality of existence without the restraints of sanity and morals and common sense.

 

But he knew what that meant.  He knew there was no going back.  To accept that fate and die at the hand of the one he loved before losing himself forever…that was the best future he could envision.

 

But now, Travis is telling him to keep living.  To keep struggling, to keep clinging to sanity—to himself.  No matter how much it hurts.

 

Travis got shot in order to bring him these pills.  Arthur can’t say no.

 

He puts a hand over his eyes, tears rolling down his face.  He wonders if Travis has any idea how cruel this is—binding Arthur to life.  Chaining him to a body and mind that hurt so much, when all he wants to do is disappear.

 

“Arthur.”

 

“I know.”

 

He takes the pills.  He doesn’t bother to divide them.  Just takes one from each bottle.

 

When he’s done, he sinks down to the bed next to Travis.  They lay there in the tangled, sweat-damp sheets, both of them exhausted and aching and drenched from head to toe in sweat. 

 

Travis reaches up with his good arm and strokes Arthur’s cheek.  Chalk-white greasepaint comes away on his fingers.  “Thank you.”

 

Arthur’s eyes fill with tears.  He closes them.  Rainbow lights still dance behind his eyelids, making him nauseous.  But he chokes back the bile in his throat.  He can’t lose the pills.  “What’s going to happen now?”

 

“We’ll worry about that tomorrow.  Just…stay close to me.”  The muscles of his throat move as he swallows.  “Don’t go anywhere.”

 

Arthur inches closer to Travis’s side.  He drapes an arm across his chest, careful not to jostle his injured shoulder.  “I’m here.  I won’t leave.”

 

They lay together in silence.

 

“I was scared,” Travis whispers.  “When you disappeared.  I thought I’d lost you.”

 

Arthur’s chest aches.  A deep, splitting pain.  “I’m sorry.”

 

“It’s okay.  We found each other again.”  Travis rests a hand on his hair.  He turns his face toward Arthur’s.  Their foreheads touch.  “I told you, didn’t I?  That I would hold you and keep you.  No matter what.”

 

He remembers.  The night of his failed comedy routine.  You are the only thing in this filthy world that matters.

 

Arthur looks at his lover.  His wounded, blood-spattered, pain-dazed lover, who just did something crazy for his sake.  A wave of emotion washes over him—tenderness and wonder and fear, all in one.  “I love you.”

 

“Love you too.”  Travis’s voice is faraway, hazy.  The painkillers are taking effect, pulling him down into a deep, drugged sleep.

 

Arthur looks around the room.  The hallucinations have quieted, but the fear remains.  He hurts down to his sore, weary, trembling soul.  When he rubs his hand over his face, his fingers come away smeared with white, red and blue.  By now, his face paint is probably just a blur of color, like a tie-dye shirt.  He rests his head on Travis’s chest.  The steady thump of his heart is calming.  And Arthur is tired.  So very, very tired.

 

He lets go.  Surrenders to whatever comes next.

 

They fall asleep like that, pressed close together in a tangle of bloody, sweat-soaked sheets.

 

* * *

 

Sunlight seeps in through the blinds and dances across the floor.

 

Arthur blinks a few times.  Rubs the sleep from his eyes.  Travis snores softly beside him.  A few spots of blood have leaked through the gauze on his shoulder and dried to a dull rust color.

 

A glance at the alarm clock tells him that it’s almost 3:00.  The light bleeding in through the window has a warm amber tint.  They slept through the morning and into the afternoon.  His body is hollow, scraped out.  Weak.  His dry tongue moves in his dry mouth.  It feels like a wad of chewing gum covered with lint.

 

He sits up slowly, pushes his tangled hair from his face, and rests a hand on Travis’s forehead, checking for fever.  His skin is warm, but not hot.  Arthur takes his pulse.  Steady.  His breathing is regular.  He doesn’t seem to be in any immediate danger.

 

For a few minutes, Arthur just sits on the edge of the bed, watching him sleep. 

 

Last night and the day before are a chaotic jumble in his memory.  Losing his job.  Reading the file from Arkham.  Wandering the streets in a daze until he found a secluded alley.  Pressing the tip of a long, jagged glass shard against his throat and staring blankly into space.  How long did he sit there, willing himself to slash his own jugular open?  And in the end, he hadn’t had the courage.  He wanted to see Travis one last time.

 

Had he actually believed, in his warped state, that Travis would be willing to kill him?  Or had he come here because some part of him still wanted to be saved? 

 

His stomach growls.

 

It’s been so long since he’s had an appetite.  He almost doesn’t recognize the tightness and rumbling in his abdomen.  His body, at least, still wants to live.

 

He goes into the kitchen and drinks several glasses of water.  He eats a piece of bread, then another.  He pours himself a bowl of sugary cereal with milk, sits at the table, and starts shoveling spoonfuls into his mouth.  He’s hungrier than he’s been for a long time.  His appetite always seems to wake up when he’s at Travis’s place.

 

He should call his mother.  Tell her he’s all right.  But the thought fills him with dread.  After what he almost did…

 

His stomach jerks and heaves.  He has to stop eating for a minute or two.

 

He remembers walking to her room in a trance, holding a pillow and standing over her.

 

He wanted to kill her, he recalls, not because he was angry—though he was—but because leaving her alone seemed cruel.  As soon as he read the file, he knew he needed to die.  How could he abandon Penny, after he promised he would always take care of her?  The kindest, most logical thing would be to kill her and then take his own life.  Or at least, that was how it seemed, in the moment.

 

Then she stirred and murmured, “Happy?”  He dropped the pillow and left the room without a word.

 

He came so close.

 

He pushes the memories away, finishes his cereal, and checks on Travis again.  Still asleep.

 

Arthur tugs at his shirt.  He’s filthy—his clothes smell of dried sweat.  They’re stained with Travis’s blood.  His sleeves and pants still have bits of duct tape clinging to them.  And his underwear…better not to think about that.

 

He strips and showers, soaping himself off, then changes into a clean set of Travis’s clothes—baggy cotton pants and a plaid button-down shirt.  In the kitchen, he brews some coffee.  He’s craving a cigarette.  He has a pack stashed in the duffel bag near the couch, the one he brought from work.  It contains his makeup and clothes from work.  And the file.

 

He fishes the pack out, lights a cigarette and turns on the TV, keeping the volume low.  He sits on the couch, smoking and sipping coffee, and watches commercials.  After everything that’s happened over the past twenty-four hours, seeing something so mundane and benign as this—advertisements for dish detergent and cat food—feels like a dream.  After the supernatural vividness of his hallucinations—that rainbow sparkle, that candy-coated hell—ordinary reality is as flat and two-dimensional as a newspaper.

 

But it’s a relief to be back.  He tastes the familiar, hot bitterness of coffee, mingling with the smoke in his mouth, and he wants to cry.  Or laugh.

 

Behind him, he hears movement.  He turns to see Travis in the hallway, leaning against the wall.

 

Arthur’s heart lurches.  “Travis.”  He sets down his coffee and cigarette, hurries to his lover’s side and props him up with an arm around his waist.  “You should be in bed.”

 

“I smelled coffee.”  He’s pale, sweating, but his eyes are clear. 

 

Arthur helps him to the couch and sits next to him.  “I’ll bring you some.  Don’t move, okay?  If you start walking around, you’re going to pass out again.”  Arthur studies his face.  “How do you feel?”

 

“Hurts.  But I’ve survived worse wounds.  You?”

 

“Same, I guess.”

 

“You were in bad shape last night.”

 

Arthur lowers his gaze.  “I know.”  He doesn’t want to think about last night.  One knee bounces.  He places a hand on it, trying to still it.  Then he stands.  “Do you want toast, or something?”

 

“I could eat.”

 

“Okay.  Just…stay still.”  Arthur heads into the kitchen.  It helps, having something normal to do.  He watches his hands walk through the familiar tasks.  Putting the bread in the toaster.  Pouring the coffee.  It anchors him in reality.

 

When he returns to the living room holding the plate and cup, Travis is watching the news.  Arthur sits beside him.

 

There’s a story about a robbery at Helms Pharmacy.  The culprit, the newswoman says, was a white man in a red ski mask and neon green-striped jacket, but no one can seem to provide any descriptions beyond that.  Another customer happened to walk in during the hold-up.  The man (an off-duty cop, described by the newscaster as a local hero) was armed.  He shot the robber in the shoulder.

 

The man, too, was shot—also in the shoulder—but is in stable condition and is expected to be discharged from the hospital in a few days.

 

Travis stares at the TV, chewing a mouthful of buttered toast.

 

They interview the pharmacist.

 

“The robber didn’t want any money,” he says.  “Just drugs.”

 

“Why do you think that is?”

 

“Maybe an addict who needed a quick fix.  Who knows?”

 

Arthur takes a drag on his cigarette.  He doesn’t need to ask if the culprit was Travis.  He already knows.

 

“I never would have asked you to do this for me,” he says softly.

 

“I know.”

 

“The police are going to be looking for you.”

 

“They don’t have any leads.  I was careful.  No one saw my face.  I ditched the clothes and the gun, and I wore gloves.  Didn’t leave any prints.  Though…”  He clears his throat.  “There are other reasons the police might be looking for me.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“I, uh.  I sorta beat up your boss yesterday.”

 

Arthur stares.  “Hoyt?  Why?”

 

“I was lookin’ for you, at the time.  I thought he might know something about where you were, but he wasn’t telling me.  And he pulled a gun on me.  A .38.”  Travis looks away.  “It was stupid, I know.  I shouldn’t have done it.  I lost my head.”

 

Arthur rubs his forehead.  It’s so much to absorb.  He’s still struggling just to get his bearings.  He feels like he’s returned from another dimension.  They shouldn’t be talking about this so casually, should they?  The world has been upended.  Should he be panicking?  Maybe he’s just too worn out.  “I didn’t know Hoyt kept a gun at work.”

 

“He said he got it after you…after he fired you.”

 

Arthur holds the end of the cigarette between his lips.  He focuses on the taste of the smoke.  The burn in his throat.  “You said it was a .38?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

Arthur thinks back to the gun in the paper bag, the one Randall tried to sell him after the beating he took.  He’s pretty sure that was a .38 too.  Arthur doesn’t know the difference between one handgun and another, but he remembers hearing Randall call it that.  Is it possible that Randall sold the gun to Hoyt, after Arthur grabbed him and stormed out?

 

If that’s how Hoyt got it, he might think twice about going to the police.  Even so…

 

“How badly did you beat him up?” Arthur asks.

 

“Bad enough that he’ll need to go to the hospital.  I think I broke one of his ribs.”

 

Arthur winces.  God, what a mess. 

 

But they’re alive.

 

He realizes—somewhat to his surprise—that he’s glad to be alive.  Glad to be here, now, in this room, drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette, with Travis at his side.  A lump rises into his throat.  And all at once, he’s on the verge of tears.

 

“Thank you,” he whispers.  “You saved my life.  Just…please, never do something like this for my sake again.  You could’ve been killed.  If that happened…if you died because of me…I couldn’t keep living.”

 

“I don’t think I’ll have to do this again.  I don’t have a gun now, anyway.”

 

“Promise me.”

 

“I will.  If you’ll promise not to disappear again.”

 

Arthur’s shoulders tense, drawing inward. 

 

Of course, he thinks.  This all happened because of what he did.  Because he ran off and vanished, setting off the chain of events that led to this.  Because his stupid brain can’t function for even a day without seven different kinds of pills.

 

All I do is hurt other people. 

 

And not just Travis.  A man was injured because of him.  Well, two men including Hoyt, but Arthur can’t bring himself to feel too guilty about Hoyt.

 

Still. 

 

“I’m sorry,” he says.

 

Travis puts a hand on Arthur’s back.  “You lost your head for a little while.  It’s not your fault.”

 

“I shouldn’t have opened that file on my own.  I knew what it would do to me.  I should have just called you.”

 

“If you wanna blame someone for all this shit, blame Hoyt for firing you.  Blame the city for cutting your program.”

 

“I still made that choice.  And you almost died, because of it.”  He lowers his head.  He can’t bring himself to meet Travis’s gaze.

 

“Hey…”  Travis tucks two fingers beneath Arthur’s chin and lifts it.  “Look at me.”

 

He can’t.  He’s too ashamed.  If he looks at Travis now he’s going to dissolve.

 

“Look at me, Arthur.”

 

He obeys, almost against his will.  There’s no trace of regret or sadness or fear in Travis’s expression.  It’s as calm and clear as a cloudless sky.

 

“I made choices, too,” he says.  “I did what I did because I wanted to.  Because I decided to.  And if they track me down, you’re going to tell them the truth—that you had nothing to do with this.  This was all my idea.  If one of us has to take a fall, it’s gonna be me.”

 

“Travis, no.  I wouldn’t even be alive right now if not for you.  If they come after us, I’m not going to abandon you.”

 

“Arthur.  If they get you too, then this was all for nothing.  I can survive prison, if it comes down to that.”

 

“I survived Arkham.  Prison can’t be that much worse.”

 

Travis’s jaw tightens.  “There’s no point in you going through that.  There’s nothing for you to confess, anyway.  You’re innocent.”

 

Innocent.  He wonders if there even is such a thing. 

 

Besides—he has no future without Travis.  What else is left for him?  He lost his job.  He lost his social services program.  He can’t go back to Penny, knowing what he now knows.  If Travis goes to prison, it won’t be long before Arthur winds up back in Arkham.  And if that happens, he doubts he’ll be coming out again.

 

There is a sense of freedom in that, too—in having nothing left to lose.  There is only this.  This moment, this warmth.  And so he will cling to this with everything he has.

 

“If they come after you, we’ll escape together,” Arthur says.  “We’ll leave the city, if it comes to that.  But it might not.  We’re in Gotham, remember?  The police don’t do anything.  How many times have you heard people say that?  It’s the truth.  I can’t count the number of times in my life I’ve been beaten up and they’ve done nothing about it.  I’m tired of being a victim.  I don’t want to be innocent.  I want to be with you.”

 

Travis cradles Arthur’s cheek in one hand.  “Arthur…”

 

Arthur lays his hand over Travis’s and presses a kiss to his palm.  “Whatever happens, we’ll face it together.”

 

Travis lets out a small sigh, surrendering.  He nods.

 

Arthur closes his eyes, holding Travis’s hand against his face, savoring the sensation.  They can worry about the future later.  For now, they’re safe.  It’s enough.

 

“In other news,” the woman on TV says, “the so-called super rat epidemic is still going strong, and several citizens have reported receiving bites from these unusually large and aggressive rats.  Animal experts say that the rats are adapting, growing stronger and smarter in response to repeated attempts to wipe them out.”

 

Arthur remembers suddenly—sitting in an alley after his collapse in the children’s hospital.  Watching a huge, greasy rat eating a pizza crust.  The rat didn’t seem aggressive.  But rats will bite when cornered.  Like any other creature, they do what it takes to survive.

 

Travis glances down at himself and plucks at his bloodstained shirt.  “I should probably shower, after I finish my coffee.” 

 

“You’re going to need help washing up, with your arm the way it is.”

 

“Lucky I’ve got you here.”

 

Arthur smiles.  He takes another drag on his cigarette and finishes his coffee.

 

His heart beats, announcing its existence:  I’m still here.  I’m still here.  I’m still here.