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Arthur shuffles down the aisle of the convenience store, shoulders hunched, hands stuffed into the pockets of his brown jacket.  He’s wearing a knitted cap with a poof-ball on top, pulled down over his ears.  One hand drifts up to scratch at his scruffy, week-old beard stubble.

 

He hates it—it itches like crazy, and it comes in grayish, making him look older.  But doing something to change his appearance seemed like a good idea, all things considered.  So he stopped shaving.  He thought about wearing sunglasses too, but decided sunglasses on a cloudy winter’s day would just attract more attention.

 

The police haven’t come knocking at their door.  Not yet, anyway.  Arthur’s been watching the news in every spare moment, but there’s no mention of suspects or leads in regards to the pharmacy robbery—just a short follow-up story about the injured cop being released from the hospital.

 

Still, he doesn’t dare let down his guard.  He and Travis are outlaws now.  But they’re also low on food. 

 

He grabs milk, eggs, bread, canned soup, a few TV dinners and some bagged broccoli from the frozen food section.  And a newspaper, which he tucks under one arm.  The front page story is about a young woman shot dead on the subway.  Another day in Gotham.

 

As he carries the items toward the register, he stops.  There’s a small assortment of pantyhose and stockings near the front of the store.  His gaze catches on a pair of black, thigh-high nylon stockings with lacy tops, folded up in a clear plastic package.

 

They’re pretty cheap.  Just a few dollars.  And there’s something about them…

 

A little hiccup of laughter escapes his throat.

 

Don’t be ridiculous.

 

He tears his gaze away.  He has to be careful with money—even more so than usual.  Travis can’t work, with his arm still healing and the police still actively investigating the robbery.  They’ve got a little bit of cash stashed in their mattress.  Enough to carry them through a few more weeks, if they budget carefully.  This isn’t the time for impulse buys.  What is he even planning to do with a pair of lacy stockings?

 

A flush rises up his neck, into his cheeks.  He starts to walk past them.  Stops again.  Before he can think better of it, he grabs the stockings and carries everything to the front register.

 

The clerk—a bored-looking twenty-something girl with a green streak dyed in her dark hair—rings him up.  He hands her a ragged twenty and then waits, rocking back and forth on his heels, hands balled up in his pockets, as she digs through the register for change.

 

She glances at the stockings, then at him.  “Is that like—a present for someone?”

 

His blush grows hotter.  “Sort of.”  He scratches at his beard.  “Are they, um.  Are they nice?  I’ve never bought something like this before.”

 

“Word of advice.”  She leans in and lowers her voice:  “If you’re gonna get something like this for your girlfriend, I’d go a little higher end than four-dollar grocery store stockings.”

 

“Oh.”  His heart sinks a little.  So they aren’t nice.  His ears burn.

 

The girl smiles a little.  “Guys never know how to pick this stuff out.  Just take her to a lingerie store or something and ask her what she wants.”

 

He gulps.  “It’s not really—I don’t have a girlfriend.”

 

She stares blankly.

 

Why did he say that?

 

A shrill giggle bursts from his throat.  Her eyes widen, and she pulls back a little.  He claps a hand over his mouth and mutters, “Sorry.”

 

“Uh.  No problem.”  A pause.  “So do you want them, or—”

 

“Yes.”  At this point, he just wants to get out of the store.  He clenches his teeth against the laugh swelling in his chest, grimacing with the strain of holding it back.

 

She shoves everything into a paper bag and pushes his change—a dollar and seventy-five cents—across the counter.  “Have a nice day.”

 

“Th-thanks.”  He grabs the change and groceries and quickly walks out.  At the end of the street, he stops and doubles over, laughing.  When the fit finally tapers off, he places a hand over his racing heart, panting for breath.

 

Stupid.  He should have just grabbed the food and gotten out as quickly as possible.  He can only imagine what she thinks of him.

 

As he walks, a faint silvery glitter flits across his vision.  He tenses.  For a moment, he wonders if he’s hallucinating again—but no.  It’s just snow.  A light, powdery snow, like ash drifting down from the sky, catching the gray early afternoon sunlight.  It settles on the tattered red bows and Christmas wreaths festooning the street lights. 

 

Arthur takes his meds religiously every morning.  He knows he should halve them and try to stretch them out as much as possible, but he’s not eager to revisit his withdrawal symptoms.  Later, maybe, he can start weaning himself off again.  For now he’s back to a full dose, and his mind is back to normal…or his own version of “normal,” anyway.

 

He walks a short distance, then stops and pulls out the newspaper, scanning through the contents.  Inside, he sees an article about an arsonist who torched a police car, and a human interest story about the Wayne family.  He lingers on that for a moment.  “The studious and well-mannered young Bruce, only child of the Waynes, told an interviewer that rather than taking over the family business, his dream is to become a chiropterologist.”  The photograph shows Bruce with a blank, guarded expression.  He has the same expression in all the Wayne family photos Arthur has seen.

 

Bruce has everything that most people dream of—famous parents, wealth, stability—but he doesn’t seem like a happy child. 

 

Arthur pushes the thoughts aside and turns a page.  After combing through the paper, he finds no mention of the robbery.  Well, it has been almost two weeks.  By Gotham standards, a guy stealing some drugs from a pharmacy just isn’t that interesting or unusual.  And—as Arthur keeps reminding himself—the police don’t have any clues to connect the crime to Travis.  Arthur has already scrubbed the blood spots from the seat of Travis’s cab, scouring the upholstery to remove every trace. 

 

Of course, there’s the incident with Hoyt, too.  If anything, that seems more likely to cause problems, because Travis was searching for Arthur at the time, and Hoyt has Arthur’s old address.  If Hoyt goes to the police…if they question Penny…if she tells them Travis’s name…

 

Would she?

 

He hasn’t even spoken to her since he left home.  She hasn’t called.  Maybe he should be grateful for that, but it worries him.  Not counting his time in Arkham, this is probably the longest he’s ever been apart from his mother.  But being around her isn’t safe, right now.  Not for either one of them.

 

Arthur folds up the newspaper and keeps walking.  The convenience store is only a few blocks from Travis’s apartment, so he doesn’t have to take the subway.

 

He passes a pay phone and stops, clutching his bag of groceries under one arm.  Snow flurries spiral down around him.  His breath forms tiny clouds in the air.

 

He doesn’t particularly want to talk to Penny.  But he needs to, at some point.  If nothing else, he has to find out if the police have questioned her.  This won’t get easier with time.

 

With a shaking hand, he digs some change out of his pocket, deposits it into the slot, and calls.

 

She picks up after one ring.  “Hello?” she says in a faint, scratchy voice.

 

He opens his mouth to reply, and a lump fills his throat. 

 

“Arthur?  Is that you?”

 

He starts to shake.  A faint croak escapes his throat.

 

“It’s you, isn’t it?  Please say something.  Are you all right?  Where are you?”

 

He sees a police car parked on the other side of the street, a man sitting in the driver’s seat, drinking coffee.  He isn’t looking at Arthur, but panic jabs his chest. 

 

He hangs up, picks up his bag of groceries and keeps walking.

 

He walks past a homeless man huddled under a ragged blanket.  An empty paper coffee cup sits in front of him.  Arthur tosses the last of his change in.

 

* * *

 

“I’m home.”  He enters, shaking snow off his boots.

 

Travis is sitting up on the couch, watching an old Western on TV.  He looks over one shoulder.  “Welcome home.”

 

“I got food.  And a paper.”  The lacy black stockings are still tucked into his pocket, but he’s not planning to mention them.  He’s embarrassed, now, that he ever thought they were a good idea.  “I looked through the news stories.  Nothing about us.”  He hangs up his jacket, puts the groceries away, walks back into the living room, and sits down next to Travis.

 

Travis leans in, takes Arthur’s face between his hands, and kisses him.  If he minds the scratchy beard, he doesn’t show it.

 

“I missed you,” Travis says.

 

“I was only gone an hour,” Arthur replies, a little breathlessly.

 

“I know.”  Travis stares at him intently.

 

“I missed you too.”

 

Travis leans in to kiss him again.  Arthur closes his eyes and loses himself in the warmth of Travis’s lips against his.

 

No matter how many times they kiss, a small part of him can never quite believe that this is real.  That he’s not dreaming it.  One hand wanders up to stroke Travis’s hair.  It’s gotten a little shaggy—he should probably trim it for him, one of these days.

 

He touches Travis’s shoulder.  “How’s your arm?  Does your gauze need changing?”

 

“Seems okay.”  Travis flexes the arm and winces.

 

“Be careful.”

 

“It’ll heal up stiff if I don’t move it.”

 

“You’ll tear the stitches if you overdo it, though.  Let me see.”  Travis is wearing one of his plaid button-down shirts.  Arthur undoes the first few buttons, tugs off the sleeve, and peels the tape off the gauze pad so he can lift it up and examine the wound.  He’s been cleaning it every day, washing it off with warm, soapy water and swabbing the makeshift stitches with alcohol.  He makes sure Travis takes his antibiotics twice a day, too.

 

On the second night after the robbery, the flesh around the wound reddened and swelled up alarmingly, and Travis developed a high fever, sweating and shivering in bed.  He kept muttering that he was cold, despite the layers of blankets Arthur piled on top of him.  It got bad enough that Arthur thought about calling an ambulance, even knowing the consequences.  But the fever broke the next morning.

 

“It looks pretty good,” Arthur said.  “The swelling’s gone down some more.  I’ll put fresh gauze on it, anyway.  But first I’m going to shave.”  He scratches at his face.  “I know that going out is safer if I don’t look like myself, but I can’t take it anymore.  I feel like I have a hedgehog living on my face.” 

 

Travis runs his thumb over the prickly stubble.  “It’s kinda growin’ on me.”

 

“Well, take one last look.  It’s going away in a few minutes.”  Arthur kisses him again, then goes into the bathroom, splashes water on his face, and smears some shaving cream on.  “I got some microwave meals for dinner,” he calls, running a razor down his cheek.  “And frozen broccoli.”

 

“How ‘bout French toast?” Travis calls back.

 

“We had that last night.  You need more vitamins.”

 

“Vitamins are a hoax.”

 

“You’re not serious,” he says, still staring into the mirror.

 

Travis’s reflection appears in the doorway behind him, smiling.  His shirt is still half-open.  “A government hoax,” he says, “made up to sell broccoli.  Because they knew no one would eat it otherwise.”  He wraps his arms around Arthur’s waist from behind and drops a kiss on top of his head.  “I told you that green stuff and I don’t get along.”

 

Arthur hesitates.  “Is it like spaghetti?  I mean—”

 

“Nah, doesn’t bother me that way.  It’s just gross.  All mushy and stringy.  I refused to eat it even as a kid.  Drove my mom nuts.”

 

Arthur guides the razor along the contours of his jaw.  “Broccoli isn’t mushy if you prepare it right.  I bet she just overcooked it.”

 

“You gonna make me eat my vegetables?”  

 

“At least a bite.”  He shakes the razor, flicking foam into the sink.  “You’re still recovering.”  He shaves another track down his jaw.  “Your body needs real food.”

 

“Yes, Mom.”

 

His hand twitches.  There’s a sharp flicker of pain, and blood oozes up from a small cut on his chin.  “Ah—damn.”  He grabs a tissue and blots the cut.  His hand is shaking.

 

“Hey…”  Travis’s arms slip away from his waist.  Lightly, he touches the back of Arthur’s wrist.  “You okay?”

 

“Yeah.  Fine.  I just…”  He stares down at the mess of foam and beard-hairs in the sink.  He thinks about Penny’s frantic, hoarse voice on the phone, and his vision goes blurry.  He sets the razor down and focuses on breathing.  The familiar, squeezing pressure mounts in his chest.

 

Travis rests a hand on his back, rubs gently up and down through his sweater.  He doesn’t push, doesn’t ask questions.  Just waits—a quiet, calm presence behind him.  Travis has witnessed plenty of his panic attacks, by now.  He knows that sometimes, Arthur just has to weather the storm until it passes.

 

A fat drop of blood falls into the sink.  It slides into a mass of shaving cream, and red swirls through the white, mixing in like paint.

 

Arthur grips the edge of the counter, struggling to breathe through the boulder in his chest.  After a few minutes, the pressure eases.  Enough for him to gulp in some air, at least.  “Sorry.”

 

“Wanna talk about it?”

 

He shakes his head.  “It’s nothing.  Just…a brain-hiccup.”  He wipes some of the pink-tinged foam from his face and picks up the razor.  Maybe he should wait until his hands are steadier.  But that might take a while.  He resumes shaving.  “We should go over our story again.  In case the police show up and question us.”

 

“The story’s simple.  We were both here the night of the robbery.  I left for a little while to pick up some stuff from your apartment, then came right back.”

 

“Should we even tell them that part?  Or just say you were here the entire time?”

 

“Well, Penny saw me that night, so.”

 

His hand twitches again, though he manages to avoid cutting himself this time.  “Right,” he murmurs.

 

“Just be vague on details,” Travis says.  “If you’re not sure what to say, say you don’t remember.  You overthink it, you’re gonna screw yourself up.”

 

“I guess so.”  Arthur finishes shaving and washes his face.  He examines himself in the mirror.  He looks more like himself, now.  He dabs at the cut on his chin again.  “I just want to make sure we’re ready, if it happens.”

 

“This is Gotham, remember?  Best city in America to be a criminal.”

 

“That man is a cop, though.  The one who shot you.  They’ll take it more seriously than usual.”

 

“Yeah.  Just my luck.  Still, if they don’t have any evidence, there’s nothin’ they can do.”

 

He knows that Travis is downplaying the risk to ease his fears.

 

Arthur wonders, at times, if they should just leave the city.  Just pack the essentials, load them into Travis’s cab, and drive straight out of Gotham.  What’s keeping them here?  Arthur’s never going home again—he’s already made up his mind about that.  Travis owns the cab.  He can be a taxi driver anywhere, or at least, any big city.  They could start fresh somewhere else.

 

“Just say the word, and we’ll drive away together,” Travis says.  “Tonight, if you want.”

 

“Sometimes I think you can hear my thoughts.”

 

“I see ‘em in your face.”  He tucks a lock of Arthur’s hair behind one ear.  “I mean it, you know.”

 

“Your arm…”

 

“Still hurts, but I can drive.  And I can teach you, so you can take the wheel if I need a break.  It’s not that complicated.”

 

“I don’t have a license.  If we get pulled over…”

 

He shrugs with his good shoulder.  “Well make do.”

 

There’s a certain appeal to the idea of just driving off into the sunset.  Leaving this whole mess behind them.

 

But Gotham is Arthur’s home.  The only home he’s ever known.  It’s like an extension of his body.  The idea of abandoning it, never to return…it would feel like hacking off a limb.  He keeps finding excuses to stay a little longer and a little longer.

 

“I keep hoping that all this will just go away,” he says.  “That they’ll just drop the investigation.  But it isn’t that easy, is it?”

 

Travis pulls him into a hug and rests a hand on his head, holding it to his shoulder.  “One day at a time.”

 

Arthur closes his eyes, and hugs him back.  He presses his now-smooth cheek to Travis’s chest and listens to his heartbeat.  Travis’s heartbeat is always slow and steady.  Arthur sinks into its rhythm, lets it wrap around him.

 

It’s nice, Arthur thinks, to not be exhausted and in withdrawal.  Nice to just live day to day, taking care of someone he loves and being cared for in return.  Nice to hold Travis—to breathe in the smell of his skin and the faint tang of aftershave.  He’s warm.  Solid.

 

He finds himself thinking back to the time before he met Travis.  How he used to fantasize about being hugged by Murray Franklin.  Imagining that sense of safety and acceptance.  Imagining even little details, like how he might smell.

 

He never told anyone about those fantasies.  They were weird and embarrassing, like so many things about his inner life.  But it’s sort of uncanny, the way Travis smells almost exactly like Murray did, in his mind.  And of course they look sort of similar, despite the difference in age.

 

It’s silly.  Superficial.  But he sometimes wonders if one of the reasons he bonded to Travis so deeply and quickly, in the beginning, was because he subconsciously reminded Arthur of his idol.  Of course, Travis and Murray are two separate people—in terms of personality, they couldn’t be more different.  And hugging Travis feels even better than his fantasies.

 

After a few minutes, he pulls back, collecting himself.  “I still need to clean your wound and get you a fresh bandage.  Then we’ll make some dinner.  And you have to at least one piece of broccoli.”

 

A smile quirks at the corner of Travis’s mouth.  “What happens if I refuse?”

 

“I’ll tie you up with duct-tape and force-feed you.”

 

“Fair enough.”

 

* * *

 

They microwave a couple of TV dinners—turkey and stuffing with mashed potatoes.  Arthur steams the frozen broccoli in a sauce-pot, adds a bit of salt and pepper, and melts some yellow cheese onto it.  Travis wrinkles his nose a little when Arthur serves it up, but he dutifully tries a bite.

 

He chews slowly, a small furrow between his brows, and swallows.  “Okay.  It’s better than I remember.”

 

“See?”

 

“The cheese helps.  Cheese helps anything, I guess.”

 

They sit on the couch, watching TV as they eat.  Arthur flips through the channels.  “The news should be on now.”

 

Travis eats another bite of broccoli and cheese.  “You sure you wanna watch that stuff?”

 

“I have to.  Not knowing is worse.”

 

He lands on the news station and sees Thomas Wayne’s face.  Arthur tenses up. 

 

Thomas is sitting in a chair, across from a young woman in a blue pantsuit.  An interview?

 

“Gotham has seen a recent surge of crime, high even by the city’s usual standards,” the interviewer says.

 

“Yes.  Of course, this is just part of a larger ongoing problem.”

 

“So what do you view as the cause?”

 

“Well.”  He folds his hands.  “Many citizens have told me that police protection in Gotham is inadequate, and they’re right.  That isn’t the officers’ fault, of course—they’re doing an admirable job under the circumstances.  There simply aren’t enough of them to cope with this epidemic of crime.  I can promise that if I’m elected mayor, I will funnel more money toward keeping our city safe.”

 

“Increasing the police force, you mean?”

 

“Yes.  And I’ll fight for stricter laws and longer sentences for offenders, as well.”

 

“There was a recent incident,” she says, “a robbery at Helms Pharmacy.  But the culprit took no money, only medications.”

 

Arthur’s stomach tightens.  He reaches out and takes Travis’s hand, squeezing it.

 

“I’m aware of the incident,” Thomas replies.  “My heart goes out to the officer who was injured, and to his family.  I hope his recovery is swift and that the culprit is brought to justice.”

 

“Some have suggested that the city budget cuts are responsible for that crime, and for the recent crime wave in general.  Many citizens were dependent on those programs for their medical care, including prescriptions.  What’s your opinion on that?”

 

Thomas Wayne frowns.  Or rather, his permanent frown deepens.  “Well, first of all, I take issue with the wording of that statement.  Even if that was the criminal’s motive—which is questionable—the budget cuts aren’t responsible.  The only person responsible for a crime is the individual who commits it.  Whoever did this made a choice.  To suggest otherwise is just excuse-making.”

 

Arthur’s breathing quickens.  One knee jiggles.  He glances at Travis, who stares at the TV, a forkful of broccoli in one hand, his expression unreadable.

 

The interviewer leans forward.  “But if someone needed that medication for survival…you don’t think Gotham’s politicians share some of the blame, for creating these circumstances?”

 

“Not at all.”  Thomas’s expression is grim.  “To suggest that some people can’t deal with the slings and arrows of life without resorting to crime is, I think, profoundly insulting to the many good and law-abiding citizens of this city.  Violence is never acceptable.  Make no mistake—if I’m elected, those who prey on the honest and hardworking people of Gotham will be punished.  Actions must have consequences.”

 

Travis puts another piece of broccoli in his mouth and chews slowly.

 

Arthur shuts the TV off.  His legs won’t stop bouncing.  A short, bitter laugh escapes his throat.

 

“Hey…”  Travis sets his plate and fork down.  “You’re not worried about him, are you?  He’s not even mayor yet.  He might never be.  He’s just talking tough.”

 

“I know.  It just makes me angry.  Hearing him say those things about us.”

 

“About me.  I’m the robber.  And I mean—he’s right about one thing.  It was a choice I made.  I don’t regret it.”  Travis takes a swig of his beer.

 

Even if Travis is the one who robbed the pharmacy, Arthur is the cause.  Thomas is talking about both of them.  Judging them for doing what it takes to survive.  Condemning their very existence.  After everything he’s done…

 

Thomas Wayne isn’t actually his father, he reminds himself.  That was all a delusion.  So why does this bother him so much? 

 

“He’s full of shit, anyway,” Travis says.  “He says violence is never the answer, but I saw an older interview of his once where he came out in support of the war.  What does he think we were doing in ‘Nam?  Handing out flower baskets?  This guy doesn’t have any real beliefs.  He just says whatever he thinks will sound good for the camera.”

 

Arthur stares at the floor.  He knows Travis is right.  But Thomas’s words still burn in his gut.  A sour, sickly mix of anger, resentment and worry swirls inside him.

 

He rubs a hand over his face, thinking about Penny.

 

He hasn’t told Travis about any of that—not her story about Thomas, or the revelation that it was all a lie.  After that brutal psychotic episode and everything that went along with it, Arthur’s mind is still bruised and inflamed.  Tender.  Any attempt to mentally poke at his own wounds brings searing, paralyzing pain.  He’s like a shattered vase, the pieces held together with weak glue. 

 

Travis seems to sense that.  He hasn’t asked about the contents of Arthur’s file, which still sits at the bottom of the duffel bag behind the couch.  They haven’t really talked about what happened that night—not in depth, anyway.  They just live, day to day.  They eat together and watch TV together and fall asleep huddled close under the blankets.  They shower together, wash each other.  Healing together.  

 

The inside of Arthur’s head is still a mess, still knotted up with confusion and complicated, tangled feelings about so many things.  Sooner or later, he knows, he’ll have to sort through all that, or at least try. 

 

But he doesn’t know how long this fragile peace will last.  He wants to savor every moment.  He doesn’t want to ruin it by falling apart again. 

 

“Do you think I look like Thomas Wayne?” he asks.

 

Travis’s forehead scrunches up.  “No.  Not really.  Why?”

 

“Just wondering.”

 

* * *

 

That night, Arthur lies awake, listening to Travis’s soft snores.  The painkillers make him groggy, so he usually drops off to sleep right away, spooning Arthur and hugging him like he’s a giant teddy bear.

 

Travis talks in his sleep, sometimes.  Most of it is nonsense.  Random strings of words, fragments of dreams.  He says Arthur’s name a lot.

 

He has bad dreams sometimes, too.  Arthur has learned to recognize the way his breathing changes, so he can wake him right away.  Once, he woke to the sound of Travis crying quietly in his sleep.  When Arthur roused him he seemed panicky and disoriented.  He kept clutching Arthur’s arm and asking if he was real.  It took a while to calm him down.  The next morning, he seemed to have no memory of it.

 

Arthur has bad dreams, too.  Fewer than he used to.  But both of them, he suspects, will be dealing with nightmares for the rest of their lives.  However long or short a time that might be.

 

He glances at the clock.  Penny’s voice keeps echoing in his head:  Please say something.  Are you all right? 

 

He can’t just leave things like this.  He knows he won’t be able to sleep until he deals with her.

 

Slowly, Arthur extracts himself from Travis’s arms.  Travis murmurs and shifts, frowning a little in his sleep.  His eyes open a crack.  “Arthur?”  His voice is slurred.  “Where you goin’?”

 

“I’ll be back in a few minutes.  There’s just something I need to take care of.”  Arthur strokes his hair and kisses his forehead.  “Go to sleep.”

 

“Do that again,” he murmurs.

 

Arthur presses another soft kiss to his forehead.  He feels the little furrow there, feels it smooth out beneath his lips.

 

Travis settles down again, drifting off.

 

Arthur walks quietly into the living room and stares at the phone.  He can’t put this off any longer.

 

It’s unplugged; they’ve been leaving it unplugged a lot, lately.  He plugs it in and dials.  The phone rings once, twice, three times.

 

She might not even be awake now, he thinks.  Penny usually goes to bed early.  He’ll let it ring six times, he decides, and then—

 

There’s a click.  “Hello?” 

 

He swallows.  “Hey Mom.  It’s me.”

 

“Arthur…”  She lets out a small, choked sob.  “Oh, thank god.”

 

“I’m sorry I didn’t call sooner.  But I’m fine.  I just wanted to check on you.”

 

“Are you coming home soon?”

 

He closes his eyes.  “No.”

 

Silence.

 

His throat tightens.  He swallows again, trying to loosen it.  “I’m sorry, Mom.  But I’m not coming home again.”

 

“Why?”  Her voice breaks.  “I know you’ve been going through a hard time, but…I just wish you would talk to me.  Have I done something to upset you?  Are you angry?”

 

A muscle in his jaw twitches.  His breath comes faster.

 

“Happy?”

 

He already decided that he wouldn’t talk to her about the contents of his file.  He can’t trust anything she says.  He doesn’t want to hear her explanations or excuses.  But the words slip out now without his permission:  “I know, Mom.  I know everything.”

 

“What are you talking about?”

 

His fingers tighten around the phone.  “I saw copies of the adoption papers.  In my file from Arkham.  I saw a lot of other things, too.  You’ve been lying to me all this time.”

 

Silence.

 

“Well?”

 

“Happy…”

 

“Don’t call me that.”  He stares down at his feet, eyes blurred with tears.  “I wouldn’t have cared, you know.  About being adopted.  If you’d just told me the truth from the beginning, it wouldn’t have mattered.  But you hid it from me, and you told me that ridiculous story about Thomas Wayne being my father, and—” his throat knots up, cutting off his voice.  It takes him a moment to recover.  His voice drops to a whisper.  “I saw the pictures.  From when I was little.  I saw the bruises.”

 

Silence.

 

He can’t stop the words now.  They pour out of him in a flood.  “You let that happen.  You let those men hurt me.  And then for years after, you acted like nothing was wrong.  You tried to pretend that I had this happy, normal childhood.  And when I told you that I was depressed, that I wanted to die, you never wanted to hear about it, because then you would have to face the truth, wouldn’t you?  You’ve been lying to me my whole life.”

 

Her breathing shudders at the other end of the line.

 

“Say something, for god’s sake!”  He tries to keep his voice down.  He doesn’t want to wake Travis.  But it’s hard.  He wants to scream.

 

“Those were bad times,” she whispers.  “Awful times.  I didn’t think you remembered.  I didn’t see what good it would do.  Dredging it all up again.  I thought it would be easier to just let you forget.”

 

His stomach hurts.  He presses a hand against it.  He’s had bad dreams his whole life, and he never knew why.  Never knew what was real and what wasn’t.  He doesn’t want to talk about that, though.  Not now.  “I want to know why you lied about Thomas Wayne being my father.”

 

“It wasn’t a lie.”

 

“I saw the papers.  I saw them.”

 

“Everyone tried to tell me that I adopted you.”  Her voice is faint, but steady.  “They showed me those papers, too.  But I have memories of being pregnant with you.  Of giving birth.  I know that I sometimes get confused.  That I forget things.  But I don’t think I just…made all that up in my head.”

 

In the past, whenever he caught Penny in a lie, she would just dodge his questions.  Or start crying and accusing him of being angry.  Now, for once, she stands her ground.  But it can’t be true.  Can it?

 

“You’re saying—what?  That Thomas faked the adoption papers and somehow convinced everyone to lie for him?  I don’t think even he could get away with that.”

 

But he wonders.  Men like Thomas Wayne can get away with a lot.  If he knew the right people…

 

“I’m saying that I told you what I believed was true,” she says.  “And I still believe it.  I can’t prove anything.  Maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe I’m crazy, like they always told me.  But I remember what I remember.”

 

A dull ache fills his chest.  “Why should I trust anything you say?”

 

Moonlight filters in through the half-open blinds.  Snow piles up softly on the windowsill.  He rests his forehead against the glass, his breath fogging it.

 

“I haven’t always been a good mother.  I know that.”  Her voice is flat, detached.  A little slurred, like she’s drunk.  “If you don’t believe me about Thomas, I guess I can’t blame you.”

 

“I don’t know what to believe anymore,” he whispers.

 

“I know it doesn’t change anything,” she says in that same empty tone.  “But I never had any good examples, growing up.  No one ever taught me how to be a mother.  How to love someone.  Everyone I ever loved just used me and threw me away.  Except you.  You’re the only person in this world who’s ever really loved me.  I didn’t want to let that go.  I didn’t want him to take you away.  But it’s too late, now.”

 

Arthur feels a laugh, like a sob, swelling inside his chest.  He presses a hand to his mouth and squeezes his eyes shut.

 

Doesn’t she understand that he would have stayed, even with Travis in his life?  He would have still been there for her, if she hadn’t forced him to choose.  If she hadn’t resorted to so many cruel tricks.  But explaining won’t do any good.  He can’t make her understand, no matter what he says.

 

Even now, a part of him wants to forgive her.  Wants to go back and take care of her.  That impulse is so deeply ingrained.  So strong.

 

Slowly, he lowers his hand.

 

“I can’t come home, Mom,” he whispers.  “I’m sorry.”

 

The snow builds up on the windowsill, forming little hills and valleys.

 

“Well, you have your own life now.”  The empty tone is gone, and there’s a forced brightness in her voice.  The change is abrupt, disconcerting.  “The baby bird has to leave the nest sooner or later.”

 

He sits on the couch.  His hand wanders to the sole of his foot.  He can still feel the scar there, from where he stepped on the broken glass in the kitchen.  The glass that she left for him.  “Do you have enough to eat?” he asks.  “Do you need groceries?”

 

He shouldn’t be giving her an in like this.  But he knows she has no way of getting to the store on her own.  He can’t just let her starve.  Even after everything—he can’t.  Maybe he can stop by and drop a few things off outside the door…

 

“I’m all right, for now,” she says in that over-bright tone.  “Sophie picked up a few things for me yesterday.”

 

“Sophie?”

 

“The neighbor down the hall.  She’s very sweet.  She’s been bringing me my mail, too.”

 

As far as he knows, Penny’s never been on friendly terms with their neighbors before.  She rarely left their little apartment.  It was probably frightening for her, just venturing into the hallway to knock on someone’s door.  Now that she doesn’t have Arthur to lean on, maybe she’s actually started talking to other people in the building.  “That’s—that’s great.”

 

“I invited her over for lunch earlier today, actually,” Penny says, “and I offered to babysit her little girl this weekend, since she has work.  It’s the least I can do.  Daycare is so expensive, these days.  And she doesn’t have a man to help her.”

 

Arthur is a little nervous at the idea of Penny babysitting.  She doesn’t exactly have a stellar track record when it comes to childcare.  Of course, the circumstances were different, then.  She can probably manage for a few hours.  And he’s relieved that she has someone to call on if she needs help, at least.

 

“I’m glad,” he says.  “That you’ve made a friend, I mean.”

 

There’s another long pause.  Then she says, quietly, “Is he nice to you?”

 

“Yes.  Always.”

 

She draws in a slow, unsteady breath.  “You can come back anytime you want.  But even if you don’t…”  Her voice wavers.  “I’ll survive.”

 

He opens his mouth, but he can’t speak past the lump in his throat.

 

For once, she’s not trying to manipulate him.  Not trying to guilt-trip him into coming home.  Maybe she just recognizes the futility.  Maybe she senses that clinging will only push him further away.  But he’s grateful, anyway.

 

“I love you,” she says.

 

The words twist inside his chest.

 

What makes it hurt, more than anything, is that he knows she’s telling the truth.  She does love him.  She loved him even when she passively stood by and allowed him to be beaten and starved—among other things—by a series of abusive boyfriends.

 

A part of him wants to say that that isn’t love.  Not real love.  A part of him wants to believe that she only ever used him, that she never felt anything real for him.

 

But he knows, too, that it isn’t that simple.  Because he loves her too.  He loved her even when he stood over her with a pillow in his hands, contemplating murder.

 

So much pain—so much darkness.  But there were small islands of warmth and light.  Watching the Murray Franklin show with her.  Hugs.  Breakfasts.  The times she remembered his birthday.  Simple gestures of affection.  Sometimes those things feel small and empty, compared to the pain.  But it was enough.  Enough to keep his damaged soul alive through those long, dark years.

 

The love she gave him was dirty water.  It made him sick.  But for a child dying of thirst, even dirty water is better than nothing.

 

“I love you too,” he whispers. 

 

“Will…will you at least come to visit me?”

 

Arthur hunches his shoulders.  The lump in his throat prickles.  Like he swallowed a ball of razor-blades and it got stuck somewhere between his mouth and stomach.  “I just need some space right now.  I need to think.  I can’t make any promises yet.  But I’ll call again.”

 

“All right.”

 

More silence.

 

“Mom…”  He bites the inside of his cheek.  “Did—did anything happen, while I was away?”

 

“Like what?”

 

He thinks about asking directly if the police have come to her apartment.  But if they haven’t, asking will just lead to more questions—questions he doesn’t want to answer.  Has she seen the news reports on the pharmacy robbery? 

 

“I don’t know,” he says.  “Just wondering if anyone’s said anything to you.  Or asked you any questions.”

 

“Sophie’s the only person I’ve been talking to, since you left.”

 

He thinks about asking, Did you tell her anything?  About me, or where I am?  But that would sound suspicious.  So he says nothing. 

 

He hears her sniffling quietly at the other end of the line.  “Mom?”

 

“Oh, go on,” she says.  “Just go.  I’ll be fine.”  She hangs up.

 

He stares out the window.  Watches the snow settle over Gotham like a blanket. 

 

There’s no direct evidence to link Travis to the robbery, Arthur reminds himself.  Or the beating.  Arthur still hasn't seen or heard anything about Hoyt in the news.  The guys at Ha-Ha’s can give a description of Travis, but they don’t know his identity—unless one of them happened to catch the license plate of his cab, but if that were the case, Travis would probably be in jail by now.  All they can tell the police is that he was looking for Arthur.

 

Penny is the only person who knows both Travis’s name and his connection to Arthur.  If the police do put the pieces together and decide to question her, she could lead them straight to Travis’s doorstep.