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Travis wakes to the sight of dim, early morning sunlight spilling through the blinds.  Arthur isn’t in bed.

 

It’s cold.  He shrugs into a t-shirt, wincing a little at the flare of pain in his arm, and tugs on a pair of jeans before walking into the living room.  Arthur sits on the couch, shirtless and smoking, his head bowed.

 

“Hey.”

 

Arthur looks up.  His eyes are red-tinged.  There's a fuzzy, disconnected look in them.

 

Travis approaches and slowly sits down next to him.  “Did you sleep at all?”

 

Arthur shakes his head, holding the cigarette clasped between his first two fingers.  He raises it slowly to his lips.  “I think we should leave Gotham.  Today.”

 

Travis isn’t opposed to the idea.  Leaving is probably safer, all around.  But before now, Arthur’s always seemed reluctant.  And with how suddenly this came on…

 

“Did something happen last night?”

 

“I called my mother.”

 

That explains it.  Talking to Penny always has an effect on Arthur, and usually not a positive one.  “Have the police been talkin’ to her?”

 

“No.  At least, she didn’t say anything about that.  But if they do question her…it could be bad.  I don't trust her.”  He stares into space.  “I don’t want anything to happen to you.”

 

If they leave, he wonders, where will they go?  Back to New York?  No—someplace where no one knows them.  Maybe just start driving west.  Of course, leaving won’t solve all their problems.  They still have to figure out what to do about Arthur’s medication.  The supply he has now won’t last forever.  But it’s not like there are any easy solutions here, either.

 

No, there’s nothing tying them to Gotham.  Except that it’s Arthur’s city.  His mother is here.  And in spite of everything, he knows, Arthur still worries about her.

 

Travis notices a red mark on the back of Arthur’s hand.  Gently, he grips Arthur’s wrist and lifts his hand, examining the mark.  A fresh cigarette burn.

 

A flush rises into Arthur’s cheeks.  “I don't do it for attention.  Honest.  I'm trying not to.  It just...makes me feel calmer.  Sometimes.”

 

“You had a rough night.”  He touches his thumb lightly to the burn-mark.

 

“I’ve been stupid, making us wait this long.  We should get our things packed.”

 

“In a little while.”

 

Muscles bunch and tighten in his thin back.  “Why?”

 

“Because there are things we need to talk about, first.”

 

“Like what?”

 

“That file from Arkham, for one thing.”

 

The sharp blades of Arthur's shoulders tense and draw inward.  “What good will that do, now?”

 

“Whatever you saw in there, it messed you up pretty bad.  And we never talked about it.”

 

Arthur swallows and turns his face away.  Travis can’t see his eyes, but he can see the flicker of his lashes as he blinks.

 

“Talk to me."

 

Arthur bows his head.  “I don’t know what’s real anymore," he whispers.  "It’s like the world keeps turning inside out.  Every time I think I understand, it changes.  Like one of those—those pictures that can look like two different things at once.  I don’t know what anything means, anymore.  I don’t know who I am.  But if we leave, it won’t matter.  If we just drive away, then nothing that happened to us here will matter.”  He meets Travis’s gaze, his eyes filled with raw desperation.  “Take me away from this place.  From Gotham.  I don’t need anything here.  I just need you.”

 

It’s a temptation.

 

But something about it feels too easy.

 

“I think we need to untangle some of those knots in your head,” Travis says.  “Then we can decide what to do next.”

 

Arthur grips his arm, short nails digging in.

 

“If you still wanna leave Gotham by tonight, then we’ll leave.  Just not right now.”  He stands.  “I’m gonna make some coffee.”

 

Travis heads into the kitchen to start a pot of coffee brewing.

 

When he returns to the living room, holding two cups, Arthur is still sitting on the couch, the red file from Arkham on the coffee table in front of him.  He doesn’t look at it.

 

Travis sits next to him and passes him a cup of black coffee.  Arthur takes it but doesn’t drink.

 

“There it is,” Arthur says.  He flicks a bit of ash from his cigarette, into a glass tray on the coffee table.  Travis doesn't smoke, but he bought the tray a while back, after Arthur started coming over.  “You want to know what's in there?  Read it.”

 

Travis picks up the binder and holds it in both hands.  It’s heavy.  Thick.  “You’re okay with that?”

 

Arthur exhales a cloud of smoke.  “It’s easier than me trying to explain.”  His face stretches into a pained smile.  “It isn't pretty.  But I guess you know that.”

 

Travis has seen some bad things.  Seen, and been through.  In the war, and later in New York.  He knows full well what human beings are capable of doing to each other.  He remembers taking Iris out for lunch and listening to her casually talk about the man who was raping her and renting her out to other child molesters.  Talking about his horoscope sign and bullshit like that.  Like it was all normal.  Like she’d been living in hell so long she didn’t even know she was in hell. 

 

He doubts that anything in here will shock him.  Still. 

 

His palms are damp with sweat as he opens the file.

 

* * *

 

Arthur’s heart pounds.  His stomach is a tight, shriveled ball.

 

There's a small, cold spot of dread, buried deep in his chest—the dread that maybe this will be the thing that finally causes Travis to pull away in disgust.

 

It’s absurd.  He knows.  After everything Travis has done for him, everything they’ve been through together, every shameful secret that Arthur has confessed, how can he still doubt?

 

But it’s not that easy to undo a lifetime of conditioning.  The world has taught Arthur to expect rejection.  Everything else in his life has fallen apart; every other bond has broken, every shaky and fragile source of self-worth has collapsed.  If he loses this, too...

 

A shameless part of him wants to beg.  Don't stop loving me.  Don't shatter me.  Please.  I can't live without your love.  But he keeps his mouth closed.  Waits.  Takes another drag on his cigarette.

 

Travis leafs slowly through the pages.  His expression remains mostly blank, but there’s a subtle tightening around his eyes and mouth.

 

Arthur looks away and smokes, trying to ignore the growing pressure in his chest.  The silence goes on for a long time.  Or at least, it feels like a long time.  He hears a soft inhalation from Travis, and his breathing grows strained.

 

Arthur wonders what he’s looking at, now.  He doesn’t ask.  Doesn’t quite dare.

 

Finally, Travis closes the binder and sets it on the coffee table.

 

Arthur sits, saying nothing, his shoulders hunched.

 

“Fucking shrinks,” Travis says.  His voice is flat and cold.

 

Arthur stares at his bare, pale feet.  His toes clench, digging into the carpet.  "You're angry at them?  Why?"

 

“The way they talk about you in here, like you’re some kinda specimen…I can’t stand it.  Makes me sick.  All these fancy fuckin’ words they throw around.  The way they judge you.  ‘Bizarre sexual fixations.’  Like they’re so goddamn high and mighty.”

 

Arthur remembers that particular phrase from one of the reports.  Though he’s not even sure what they’re referring to.  His fantasies about being restrained?  About wearing clown makeup during sex?  Did he actually tell them that?

 

“I guess I must have said some things when I was hypnotized.”  He nurses the end of his cigarette, though he hasn't touched the coffee.  The muscles in his stomach are still clenched tight.  Even liquid would probably be too much.  “You know me.  I have a dirty mouth when I’m in that state.”

 

He can imagine his Other smirking and holding a cigarette to his lips with his manacled hands, enjoying the expression of barely-restrained discomfort on the doctor’s face.  You know, Doc, you’re not bad-looking.  I’ve fantasized about sucking you off, have I ever told you that?  Would you like to include that in your report?  What are your theories about that?  Stockholm Syndrome?  You are sort of my captor, after all.  Or something with the word “Freudian” maybe?  You seem to like that word.  What about you?  Have you ever fantasized about fucking one of your patients?

 

He hopes it didn’t happen like that.  But it wouldn’t surprise him.

 

“Seems like they get off on writing these reports and looking down their noses at the people they’re supposed to be helping,” Travis says.  “Bunch of fuckin’ creeps.  I’ll show them ‘violent and erratic behavior.’”

 

Arthur remembers that phrase, too.  Along with others.  They flicker through his head now.  “Unpredictable, irrational rages…delusional psychosis…irreparable brain damage…stunted, child-like patterns of speech…cognitive and emotional impairment.” 

 

The last report is blunt:  Medication and shock treatments have helped bring the most severe symptoms under control, but it is unlikely that Arthur Fleck will ever live a normal life.

 

That report is from someone named Dr. Stoner, sternly advising against his release, saying that he’s an imminent danger to himself and others.  Arthur vaguely remembers the old man—the same one who recommended having him lobotomized.

 

All his flaws, all his damage, laid out in black and white.  If so many medical experts believe that he’s dangerous, that he’s broken beyond repair, how can Arthur say they’re wrong?  Isn’t it their job to recognize these things? 

 

And there are the pictures.  Photos of a blank-eyed little boy, battered and bruised.

 

“You saw the reports,” Arthur says.  “I attacked a lot of people in Arkham.  Doctors.  Nurses.  Other patients.  It’s pure chance that I never murdered anyone.  I would have, if there weren’t people waiting to drug and restrain me whenever I got violent.  When they were taking me in for shock treatment, once, I grabbed a pencil from a doctor’s pocket and tried to stab him through the eye with it.  Did you see that part?”

 

“I saw it.”

 

“When they asked me later why I did it, I told them ‘his jokes weren’t funny.’  What sort of reason is that?”

 

“Maybe that’s what they say.  But I don’t trust their version of what happened.  That night you came to me, you were scared to be sent back to Arkham.  Really scared.  Those people were hurting you.  Anyone can snap if they’re pushed to the edge.”

 

Dr. Kane said something similar to him once.

 

Arthur wants to believe it.  But there’s still that voice in his head, whispering that he deserves to be locked up for the rest of his life.  That there’s no excuse for the things he did.  That even if they were hurting him, he should have just kept taking it and taking it, because that’s what good little boys do.  That inner voice sounds suspiciously like Thomas Wayne.

 

Travis sits with his head down, elbows resting on his knees, hands laced tightly together.  He opens and closes his mouth several times—as if trying to say something.

 

Arthur takes a drag of smoke, hand shaking.  He can feel a laugh building up.  His throat and chest stiffen.  “What?” he croaks.

 

Travis’s gaze remains fixed on the floor.  “One of the reports said something about…about sexual abuse.  When you were a kid.”

 

“Oh.  That.”  Arthur slides a hand into his own hair, fingertips pushing against his scar. 

 

He wonders, sometimes, if that scar is visible on his brain, too.  If someone were to open up the top of his skull, would they see the ravaged tissue wandering over the surface of the damp pink folds?

 

“Did that happen?” Travis asks.

 

His tone is hard to read.  Arthur's left eyelid twitches.  A tiny, meaningless muscle spasm.  “Who knows?  I don’t remember most of what happened to me, when I was a kid.  I don’t remember telling the doctors about that, either.  But I guess I must have said something.”

 

Travis looks at him, his expression unreadable.

 

He turns the cigarette over in his fingers.  “My mom had a few different boyfriends when I was young.  It could have been one of them, I guess.  If it even happened.  Maybe it didn’t.”  He places the cigarette between his lips again and puffs.  “Maybe I made it up as a joke.”

 

“It doesn’t really seem like a joke.”

 

“It does to me.  It’s like a punchline.”  He hears the edge in his own voice, feels the smile tightening the muscles in his face.  He’s trembling.  His eyes feel dry and hot.  He blinks rapidly.  “What did the battered, starving little boy tied to the radiator get for Christmas?  Raped.”

 

“Arthur…”  His voice sounds tight.  Like he's in pain.

 

“You have to admit, it’s a little bit funny.  I mean, on top of everything else…it’s just one more thing.  It all blurs together.  Like a spinning kaleidoscope.  I can’t even keep track anymore.  It’s just pain piled on top of pain on top of pain.  I can’t even remember.  Does it even matter?  Does any of it matter?”  A sharp, choked giggle escapes his throat.  He drops the cigarette and covers his face with his hands.

 

He hears the squeak of the couch springs, feels the cushions shift as Travis moves closer.  “Look at me.”

 

Arthur keeps his face covered.  Beneath his hands, his lips are still pulled tight in a smile.  No joy, just bared teeth, like the grin of a skull.  “Does it bother you?  The idea that maybe I wasn’t a virgin, after all?  That I wasn’t as pure as you thought?  Maybe I’ve been dirty from the beginning.”

 

“You aren’t dirty.”

 

But he feels dirty.  Feels damned, marked, tainted by everything that ever happened to him.  Like there are greasy fingerprints all over his mind and soul, soaked so deeply into his being that he can never fully separate himself from the stain.

 

Whether the abuse was sexual or not, the violation is there.  His abusers gouged themselves into his brain-tissue.  Crippled him.  Twisted up his insides.  He is a creature of pain.  His identity has grown around it, shaped by it.  Without it, there would be nothing left.  He would collapse into the empty hole inside himself.

 

He barely even remembers Penny’s old boyfriends.  They’re faceless shadows in his head.  She was the one who was supposed to protect him.  And she never did.  He knows she was scared, too.  If she fought back, they might have killed her.  She couldn’t protect even herself, let alone a child.  But maybe that’s why.

 

He hates her for being so weak.  For being like him.  He shuts his eyes tight, hiding in darkness.

 

“Arthur…look at me.”  Travis grips his wrists, pulls his hands away from his face.

 

Arthur’s eyes remain screwed tightly shut.  "I can't," he whispers.

 

“Please.”

 

When he finally looks, he sees tears standing in Travis’s eyes. 

 

“You aren’t dirty," he says.  "Being hurt doesn’t make you dirty.”

 

Arthur stares.  It’s only the second time he’s seen Travis cry.  When he’s awake, anyway.

 

Travis touches his cheek with gentle, careful fingertips.  “I wish you’d come to me,” he says.  “Instead of reading this thing alone.” 

 

“I didn’t want you to see it.  I…”  His lips stretch into another pained smile.  His breathing hitches.  “I’m sorry.”

 

Travis wraps his arms around Arthur and pulls him close.

 

Arthur remains limp in the embrace, a marionette with its strings cut and tangled.  His own arms won't move; they hang heavy at his sides.  He should be relieved, shouldn't he?  Travis has accepted everything.  All the dirt, all the scars.  All the ugliness.  He's still here.  He's bathing Arthur in love, holding him tight, so tight, like he wants to fuse their bodies together, like he wants to melt into Arthur's skin.  His love is a solid, unbreakable fact, a mountain, a bottomless lake.

 

But the cold, dead spot remains deep inside Arthur.  Like the nerves in his heart have burned out.  Maybe that spot is too deep to be touched.  Maybe some hurts can't be reached, even by the purest love.  He stares into space.  Unresponsive.

 

Travis cradles the broken puppet in his arms, strokes it and kisses its face.

 

Arthur hears his own voice, coming from another place.  “When I looked inside there for the first time and saw…I wondered if I was worth saving.  If there was enough good in me to be worth the pain.  And I couldn’t see it.  It felt like my whole life was a mistake, and the only way I could fix it was to disappear.  To just wipe all this away.  Wash it all clean.  I know it was wrong, asking you to do that for me.  I know it was unfair.  It was selfish and cruel.  But…I…”

 

“I’m glad you came to me, that night.  I’m glad you didn’t disappear.”  He holds Arthur's head to his shoulder.

 

A tremor runs through Arthur's body.  His hands twitch.  He wills his arms to move.  They quiver, then lift and slowly slide around Travis's waist.

 

Travis didn’t even mention the adoption papers, he thinks.  Didn’t even ask about that.  Maybe it’s not surprising.  There’s just so much. 

 

His body shudders and spasms.  A short, harsh bleat escape his throat.  Then another.

 

He can’t even cry properly.  It sounds like he’s laughing.  Maybe he is.  Maybe joy and pain have become so tangled together inside him that he can’t separate them anymore.

 

“She—she told me that Thomas Wayne was my father,” he blurts out.  "And then I saw—” he gulps.  Laughs harder.  “Wh-what does it mean?  Why am I even alive?  I can’t—” his voice cracks.  “I don’t know anymore.  I don’t know if my life is a tragedy or a comedy.  It’s all just so…”

 

Travis’s lips press against his, swallowing the words.  His hands come up to frame Arthur’s face.  “I want to burn that file,” he says.

 

Arthur’s not planning to read it again.  There’s no point in keeping it.  But burning it won’t erase what happened to him.  It won’t heal the scar in his head.  The damning words inside the pages will stay lodged in his memory.  “You can burn it if you want.  It doesn’t matter.”

 

“I want you to burn it.”

 

“It won’t change anything.  It’s the truth.”

 

“No.  It’s not.  It’s just a story.  Even if some of the things in there really happened…it’s a story they’re telling about you.  That’s all.”

 

He wonders.

 

There’s so much he still doesn’t know.  So much he will probably never know.  Whether he’s the illegitimate son of Thomas Wayne or just another abandoned child from nowhere.  What exactly was done to him in that filthy hell of an apartment.

 

Just a story.

 

Penny told him a story about how he was put here to bring joy and laughter to the world.  The doctors at Arkham told a story about how he was dangerous and incurable.  Arthur told himself a story about how he was going to be a famous comedian like Murray and prove to the world that he was worth something after all.  All shadows.  They dissolve in the light.  Where is the real Arthur?  Does he even exist?  And if he doesn’t, what does that mean?

 

Travis tells him a story, too.  That he’s beautiful.  That he’s clean and good.  That he’s someone worth protecting and cherishing.  He wants to believe in that, more than anything—he aches for that, thirsts for it—but in the end, he’s not sure he believes in anything.  Arthur Fleck is an empty space.  A lump of clay that can be molded into anything.  Maybe everyone is.

 

If he accepts that, if he embraces it—what is that?  Is it freedom?  Is it power?  Or is it oblivion?

 

The file still sits on the coffee table.  Just words.  Just paper.

 

“Let’s burn it,” he whispers.

 

* * *

 

They set the file in the shower stall and douse it with rubbing alcohol.  Arthur tosses in a lit match.  It blazes up with a whoosh of flame.

 

They stand in the bathroom and watch together as it burns, pages curling and blackening as the flames lick up around them.

 

Arthur thinks of the snow piling softly up on the sidewalks, the streetlights glowing through the gloom, the taste of last night’s dinner, the low hum of the heater in the living room.  He thinks, again, of the rat in the alley eating the pizza crust.  He thinks of all the patients in Arkham, the men and women with their scarred wrists and scarred heads, and the people sleeping in the streets of Gotham and the way everyone yells and screams at each other.  The newspapers filled with murder and rape and fire and the way that the men on top try to paper over it all with a thin layer of logic and morality.  Even they're afraid, because they sense how fragile it all is, how precarious their own position of safety and comfort is.  They know that at any moment they could be toppled from their thrones and dragged down into the fire of humanity, into the hail of blood and bullets.  So many angry, scared people.  The dirt covers everything.  Gets inside everything.  It mingles with the snow, turning it gray.

 

Some have been hurt more than others.  But everyone has been violated by this broken world.  Everyone has been stained.  Only a lucky few can pretend otherwise, and they too are humbled in the end.  Everyone is swimming in the same sea of pain.  Sometimes it seems there’s nothing else. 

 

And yet.

 

He could have killed himself in that alley, with that piece of glass, and a thousand other times as well.  But he didn’t.

 

Even if there is no real Arthur, even if it’s all smoke and funhouse mirrors, all shadows and puppet-shows, something inside him resists that emptiness.

 

He takes Travis’s hand and squeezes it.  Travis squeezes back.

 

* * *

 

Arthur makes fried eggs and toast for breakfast.  They eat at the kitchen table.

 

He still aches inside.  But it’s a lighter, cleaner ache.  He feels like he’s vomited out something rotten.  Maybe burning the file was a good idea, after all.

 

The eggs taste good.  Buttery and salty.

 

Once they’re finished eating, Travis says, “I got something for you.  I mean…I bought it a few days before the whole robbery thing.  I was gonna wait ‘til Christmas, but…”

 

“You got me a Christmas present?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

He’s never gotten a Christmas present from anyone except his mother.  Something flutters in his chest, like a wounded bird trying to fly.  It's not dead, after all.  “I wish I had something to give you.  If I’d known—”

 

“Don’t worry about it.  Wait here.”  He leaves the kitchen and returns holding an object, the size and shape of a book, wrapped in shiny red paper.  Arthur takes it.

 

He opens it carefully, not wanting to tear the paper. 

 

It’s a new notebook.  The cover is blue. 

 

“It’s not much,” Travis says.  “But I figured, since you got rid of your old one...I know you said you were done with jokes, but you don’t have to use it for that.  You can use it for anything.”

 

Arthur opens it up and riffles through the fresh, untouched pages, like a field of new snow, clean and bright.

 

A soft, choked laugh escapes his throat.  He feels fresh tears welling in his eyes.

 

Travis watches him uncertainly.  “I mean, if you don’t want it, you can just throw it away too.”

 

“I want it.”  He leans across the table and kisses Travis softly.  “It’s perfect.  Thank you.”

 

He smiles a little.  “Merry Christmas, Arthur.”

 

Arthur strokes the notebook's cover with his nicotine-stained fingertips.  He wants to give something to Travis.  Maybe he can go out to the store later today…

 

Are they still going to leave Gotham?  Does he want to?

 

His mind flashes to the stockings tucked into his jacket pocket.  He told the clerk that they were a present for someone.  Which was sort of true.  He bought them for himself, yes—but also because he wanted to look nice for Travis. 

 

He moistens his lips with the tip of his tongue.  “Is there anything you want for Christmas?”

 

“I, uh.  I could think of a few things.”

 

Arthur brushes his thumb across the inside of Travis’s wrist.  “Like what?”

 

He feels Travis’s pulse quicken a little.  He opens his mouth, then closes it and clears his throat.  “Maybe a new jacket.”

 

“You were about to say something else.”

 

Travis’s gaze focuses briefly on Arthur’s lips, and his ears go a little pink.  He almost never blushes, and when he does, it’s subtle.  But Arthur notices.

 

“Go on,” he says.

 

Travis meets his gaze.  “I want to see you in your makeup again.”

 

That surprises him.  The last time Arthur was wearing makeup, he was losing his mind.  He asked Travis to kill him.  He thought for sure that would ruin it—that Travis would never want to see him that way again.

 

But the truth is that Arthur misses wearing it.  Misses being a clown.  It’s a part of him.

 

“You brought it with you, didn’t you?” Travis asks.

 

“Yes.  From Ha-Ha’s.  It’s in the duffel bag.”

 

“I’d like to watch you put it on.”  Travis reaches across the table and touches a fingertip to Arthur’s cheek.  He traces an invisible red smile around his mouth.  “If you’re okay with that.”

 

Arthur’s heartbeat quickens.  “Yes,” he whispers.