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Gotham burns.  Silhouettes dance around trashcan bonfires and flaming cars.  Thick, choking black smoke fills the air.  People throw bricks, smashing through windows.  Arthur watches, laughing.  It’s all falling apart.

 

Let it fall. 

 

The shadows swarm around him, lift him up on their shoulders, carry him through the burning streets as sirens and screams echo through the air, and he knows—somehow—that this is all happening according to his will.  That he struck down Gotham in his judgment.

 

He is a mad god, a king.  The flames are his soul.  He burns, and so does the city.

 

This was always the end of his path.  Sanity is a fleeting dream.  The world is in free fall.  People can hide the truth from themselves for a little while, but the nature of life is this—a mad scramble to grab whatever you can, and to shove others out of your way, before the jaws of death close around you.  The meek and gentle will only be trampled underfoot.

 

The fires close in around him, swallowing him, and he lets it happen.  He’s sinking.

 

The world vanishes.  The rush of exhilaration fades, and he finds himself staring into the naked black despair that dwells at the heart of everything.

 

He is alone. 

 

This is how it ends.  In darkness and cold.  No comfort.  No laughter—not even the laughter of madness.  There is only the nothing to which all things eventually return.

 

Someone.  Anyone.  Travis…Mom…please…

 

This is how Arthur Fleck ends.  A silent scream in the void.  Words unheard, unseen, as he fades away.

 

Then a hand reaches through the darkness and grabs his, hauling him out.

 

* * *

 

He can’t feel his own skin.  He’s still half-convinced this is a dream.  One last, good dream.

 

He lays on the bed, watching through veils of mist as Travis pours some alcohol onto the corner of a clean, folded dish towel and dabs it onto the punctures on Arthur’s thigh.  Numb flesh awakens, tingles and stings.

 

The pain jolts him.  Makes it real.  And with the sense of awakening comes memory.  His mother is dead.

 

But he’s here. 

 

“You did this with a fork?” Travis asks.

 

“I guess so.”  His memories of the past few days are jumbled.

 

Travis dabs the wound again, cleaning away the dried blood.

 

“I can do it,” Arthur says.  It feels selfish, making Travis take care of him when he did this to himself.

 

“I want to.” 

 

Travis’s voice is hoarse.  Arthur blinks a few times, trying to clear the haze from his eyes, and looks at him more closely.  His hair is shaggy and unkempt, his jaw bristly with stubble, his eyes ringed with bruise-dark flesh.  “Travis…what happened to you?”

 

“Long story.  Not so long, I guess.  I drove around the city for a while.  Then my cab got towed.  I couldn’t get into my apartment.  Rent was overdue, so they locked me out.”

 

“Where have you been sleeping?”

 

“Around.  On benches, in alleys.”

 

“Oh my god.”

 

“I’m fine.”  Travis tapes some gauze over the injury, then turns his attention to the burn marks on Arthur’s chest and stomach.  “I should clean these, too—”

 

“You’ve been homeless?”

 

“Just for a few days.”  He swabs one of the burns, and the breath hisses between Arthur’s teeth.  “Sorry.”

 

“It’s okay.”  Arthur lays still, chest rising and falling, staring at the ceiling, as Travis cleans and bandages the burns one by one.

 

Travis always downplays his own struggles.  Always brushes them aside.

 

“I’m gonna check you over,” Travis says.  “Make sure I’m not missing anything.”

 

Warm hands glide over him, touching him here and there and maneuvering his body around on the bed.  The hands settle at the base of his ribcage, on the curve of his waist.  “You look all right."  Travis wraps him up in blankets again.  "Any pain?”

 

“The inside of my mouth.”  He pushes at the sore spot with his tongue.  “I think I might have bitten it.”

 

Warm fingertips touch his jaw, tilting his face up.  “Let me see.”

 

Arthur opens his mouth, and Travis leans down, peering inside him.  “Looks like you’ve got a burn in here, too.  Inside of your left cheek.  Might wanna swish out with some alcohol.”

 

He burned the inside of his mouth with a cigarette?  He vaguely remembers that, now.  The pain on his skin wasn’t enough.  He wanted it deeper.  Wanted to swallow the fire and feel it blaze through his insides and purify him.  But even that wasn’t enough.

 

“I’m sorry,” he whispers. 

 

“For what?”

 

“You lost everything.  Because of…”  He stops.  He knows Travis doesn’t like it when he talks bad about himself.

 

Travis sighs.  “You didn’t do this to me, Arthur.  It happened because I spent days driving around in circles.  Around the hospital.  Your apartment.  I kept passing under your window, hoping you would see me.  Hoping I would see you.”

 

Arthur thinks about all the time he spent staring out the window, hoping for exactly that.  They kept missing each other.  He takes Travis’s hand, squeezes it.

 

“I shoulda come here sooner.  Shoulda just rung the buzzer,” Travis says, “but I couldn’t make myself do it.  I wasn’t thinking straight, I guess.” 

 

“I’m just glad you’re here now.”

 

Travis looks at him for a moment, his fatigue-reddened eyes damp.  “If I’d lost you…”

 

Arthur wraps his arms around Travis, pulling him down to the bed.  “I’m here,” he whispers.

 

They lay side by side, holding each other.  Arthur nuzzles against his shoulder.  His jacket, he can’t help noticing, is a lot dirtier and grimier than usual.  And he smells—there’s no nicer way to put it—like garbage.  Like someone who's been living on the streets.

 

“When’s the last time you ate?” Arthur asks.

 

“I had a cheeseburger the other day.  And, uh, I ate some pizza out of a Dumpster.  Probably not a great decision.  It looked okay—it was still in the box—but I got sick after.”

 

Dear lord.

 

“Let me fix you something,” Arthur says.

 

“You should rest.  You don’t have to—”

 

“Please.”  Slowly, Arthur sits up, letting the covers slip away from him.  He's still naked, pale and shivering.  He grabs a shirt from the dresser.  His body aches, but it’s bearable.  “I need to clean up the kitchen anyway.  I left food all over the floor.”  Some of it will have to be thrown away.  But the bread should still be good.  He’ll make a sandwich.  Travis needs to eat.  “I’ll feel better if I’m doing something.”  Arthur leans in and kisses him.  “Take a shower.  You need one.  No offense.”

 

Travis glances down at himself.  “Yeah, I guess I do.”

 

* * *

 

Travis takes the first hot shower he’s had in almost a week.  He shaves.  Trims his shaggy hair as best he can, using a pair of scissors he finds in the drawer.  Pulls on the sweatshirt and clean pajama pants that Arthur leaves for him.

 

When he steps out of the bathroom, into the kitchen, there’s a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup waiting for him on the table, along with a cup of freshly brewed, steaming coffee.  A lump fills his throat.  He swallows it.

 

Arthur sits at the table, a cup of coffee in one hand, wearing sweats and a t-shirt.  He’s wiped off most of his makeup, though a few traces of white greasepaint still linger on his jaw.  His color looks more normal now.  When Travis first pulled him out of the fridge he was an alarming ashy-gray.  Now there’s a little bit of pink in his cheeks.  “How was your shower?”

 

“Good.”  Travis sits down at the table.  He feels…disconnected.  Like he’s stepped from a nightmare into a dream.  Colors and sounds are all clearer, sharper.  “Feeling a little more human.”

 

Arthur smiles in an odd, unfocused way.  “Is that what it means to be human?”

 

“Maybe.  I dunno.”  He did feel kind of like an animal, when he was wandering around the city losing his mind.  Gotham is a jungle.  It has a way of neatly and brutally stripping away pretenses and leaving only a primal core of fear and self-preservation. 

 

He takes a bite of grilled cheese.  Warm, buttery, crisp.  It might be the best thing he’s ever tasted.  He swallows, washes it down with a swig of coffee.  “What about you?  When’s the last time you ate?”

 

“I don’t know.”  Arthur rubs his abdomen.  “My t—my stomach hurts.”  He grimaces.  “I almost said ‘tummy.’  I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

 

“Been a rough week.”

 

Arthur’s face twitches, contorts.  “Yeah.”  He coughs out a short, sharp laugh.

 

Travis doesn’t know what to say.  It’s going to be okay.  We’ll get through this.  All those phrases feel hollow.  

 

Arthur spent his whole life at Penny’s side.  Travis has never been around anyone that long.  He left his own parents when he was pretty young.  Never felt all that close to them.  And they’re both still alive, anyway.  Despite all the death he’s seen and dealt, this is something beyond his experience.

 

“Is she…”  He clears his throat, gaze downcast.  “I guess there’s not gonna be a funeral.”

 

Arthur stands, slowly.  He walks out of the room, returns with a small box of white-swirled pink marble, and sets it on the table.  PENNY FLECK, BELOVED MOTHER.  The words are engraved onto its surface, along with the birth and death dates and a tiny image of a rose.  “She went in her sleep,” Arthur says.  “It was peaceful.”

 

“I’m glad,” Travis says.  He means that he’s glad it was painless, but it sounds like he’s saying he’s glad she’s dead.  Which is not what he wants to say.  “I mean…”

 

“I know what you meant.”  Arthur rests his fingers gently atop the box.  Pets it, like it’s a small creature.  “She never told the cops about you, you know.  Never gave them your name, or anything.”

 

That catches him off guard.  “You sure?”

 

“Yes.”

 

He doesn't quite know what to feel.  Travis never really liked Penny, and she never liked him either.  Still…she was hurting too.  It couldn’t have been easy, raising a kid on her own in a place like Gotham.  Maybe she did the best she could.  It’s easier to feel sorry for her, now that she’s in a box and can’t hurt Arthur anymore.

 

And in the end—in spite of everything—she was on their side.  She had a chance to screw them over, and she didn't.  Thanks, he tells her silently.  I mean it.

 

“She helped me, too, when the cops came to question me.  It’s sort of a funny story.”  The corners of Arthur’s mouth twitch in a smile, but it fades quickly.  His eyes lose focus.  “Sometimes I hated her,” he whispers.  “But even when I did…I never stopped loving her.  I am who I am because of her.  I don’t know who I am without her.”

 

Travis reaches across the table and takes his hand, rubs his thumb over Arthur’s knuckles.  “You’ve got time to figure it out.”

 

“I don’t know.  I don’t really know what’s going to happen now.  I haven’t checked the mail for a long time.  I’m afraid to.  I don’t know how I’m going to pay the hospital bill, or the fees from the funeral home, or anything.  And there’s rent.  It’s due in less than a week.  I should probably be more scared.  But it doesn’t seem real.”

 

Right.  Money is the main concern, now.

 

“If I can get my cab back, I can start working again,” Travis says.

 

“Is that…safe?”

 

Probably not.  But he doesn’t have much choice.  They can’t go anywhere or do anything, without money.  If he doesn’t earn some cash, they’ll be out on the street again in no time.  And driving a cab is all that he really knows how to do.  “If I’m careful, it should be okay.  But the towing service wants fifty dollars for the cab.”

 

“Mom had a little emergency money stashed away in her sock drawer.”  Arthur lights a cigarette and raises it to his lips, then glances down at the food on the table.  “Eat your sandwich before it gets cold.”

 

Travis picks it up and takes another bite.  As he eats, he watches Arthur’s face.

 

He looks exhausted, hollowed out.  Frail, like a strong gust of wind might knock him over.  There’s a tremor in his hand.

 

He puffs the cigarette.  “I can pawn off a few things, too.  She has some old jewelry.  I doubt it’s worth much, but…”

 

“You sure you wanna do that?”

 

“There’s no point in keeping it.”  He barks another laugh.  “Everything here reminds me of her.  The place even smells like her.  I feel like I can’t even breathe, there are so many memories.”

 

“I’d take you to my apartment, but—well—”

 

“It’s okay.”  Arthur takes another drag on his cigarette.  “You know, you still haven’t asked me why I was in the fridge, wearing a dress.”

 

“It didn’t strike me as something that needed explaining.”

 

Arthur smiles, eyes wet.  “I guess not.”  His gaze drops to the table.  “I’m glad you came back,” he whispers.  “But it probably would’ve been better for you if you’d left Gotham.”

 

“If I’d done that, you might still be in the fridge.”

 

Arthur says nothing.

 

“Hey.”  Travis reaches across the table, places two fingers beneath Arthur’s chin, and lifts it.  Arthur’s gaze meets his.  Travis doesn’t say anything.  Just stares, long and hard, into his eyes.  He can feel Arthur’s soul there, a flame trembling and fluttering in the darkness.  He imagines cupping his hands around it, holding it, warming and sheltering it.  I’ve got you.

 

A flush rises into Arthur’s cheeks.  The pulse quickens under his jaw.

 

“You feel that?” Travis asks.

 

“Yes,” Arthur whispers.

 

Travis holds his gaze a moment longer, fingers touching his chin.  Then he lowers his hand and takes another bite of his sandwich.  “You should eat, too.  Cigarettes and black coffee aren’t a meal.”

 

Arthur raises the cigarette to his lips again.  “I disagree.”

 

Travis dips the crust in the tomato soup.  “Have some crackers at least.” 

 

With a little more coaxing, Arthur eats some oyster crackers and half a piece of toast.  It’s something.

 

* * *

 

That afternoon, Arthur finds a few folded bills tucked away inside a tattered paperback—a copy of Alice in Wonderland—in the bottom drawer of Penny’s dresser.  Just over thirty dollars.

 

He was hoping it would be enough.  Despite what he said, he doesn’t like the idea of pawning his mother’s things so soon after her death.  It feels…cold.  But if they want to get Travis’s cab back, he has no choice. 

 

He gathers up all of Penny’s old jewelry, what little there is, then gets dressed and pulls on his winter coat.  He hasn’t left the apartment since the day he returned here with his mother’s ashes.  He buttons up the jacket, fingers trembling.

 

Travis puts a hand on his shoulder.  “You don’t have to do this.  Let me.”

 

Arthur bites his lower lip…then shakes his head.  “This is something I need to take care of.” 

 

“You’re shaking.”

 

“I know.”  He pulls a knitted cap over his head.

 

“I don’t like the thought of you going out there alone right now.”

 

It would be easy to let Travis take care of everything.  To just hide in the apartment.  Arthur is an open wound.  He doesn’t want to face the harshness of Gotham.  But waiting won’t make this easier.  “This won’t take more than an hour.”

 

“At least let me go with you.”

 

Arthur forces himself to shake his head again.  “It’s better if we’re not seen together.”  He doesn’t think the police will bother him again, but it’s never a sure thing.

 

Travis’s hands remain on his shoulders.

 

“Travis…”

 

“When I found you, your skin felt like ice.  For a moment I wasn’t even sure if you were breathing.”

 

He stares at the floor.  “I wasn’t trying to die, believe it or not.  If I wanted that, there are easier ways to do it than refrigerating myself.  And I don’t want to die now.”  Not now that Travis is here, anyway.  Travis needs him.  He has nowhere else to go.  Arthur forces a smile.  “I’ll be okay.”

 

Travis rests a hand against Arthur’s cheek.  “You be careful out there.”

 

“I will.  I promise.”  Arthur kisses him and walks out the door.

 

* * *

 

He takes the subway to the nearest pawn shop.  It’s a short ride.  He trembles the whole time, head bowed, hood up and shoulders hunched, clutching a shoebox full of Penny’s old jewelry.

 

A part of him wishes he had accepted Travis’s offer to go with him.  Just having him here, sitting next to him, would do a lot to keep him calm.

 

Stop it.  You’re a grown man.  You’ve spent your entire life riding subways.  You can do this.

 

He tugs his hood down a little further around his face, hiding.  A laugh itches in the back of his throat.  He chokes it down.  Sometimes it’s easier to just let it out and deal with the stares.  But right now, if someone so much as gives him a mean look, he’ll fall apart.  That’s the last thing he needs.  So he clamps his jaws firmly shut.  I will not laugh.  I will not laugh.

 

It’s exhausting, being this way.  Not just the laughing.  Everything else, too.

 

Sometimes, he misses counseling.  Even if it didn’t always help, it made him feel like he was doing something about his issues.  Now, all he can do is keep taking the pills until they run out.  And what then?

 

He and Travis are together now.  But none of their problems have gone away.

 

I could make them go away.

 

He tenses, pulling the air in sharply through his teeth.

 

It’s not a hallucination.  Not really.  The voice is more like the voice of his own thoughts.  But there’s an unnerving separateness to it, all the same.

 

Leave me alone, he thinks.

 

How?  I’m your own mind.  I’m the part of you that you don’t want to deal with.  All those feelings—they have to go somewhere, don’t they?  When you push them down and wall them off in a little corner of your brain, is it really so strange that you start to feel a bit…split?

 

“Don’t do this,” he mumbles aloud.  “Not now.”

 

I’m not doing anything.  It’s you, Arthur.  You’re fantasizing me.  You claim not to want me, but you keep calling me back to comfort you.  It’s a way of avoiding responsibility, isn’t it?

 

He thinks about the Other’s hands on his body, the sensation—imaginary, yet so real—of warm breath against his neck.  The dreams of fire and laughter.  It would have felt so good, to just give in.  To let the pretense of control fall away.  There were moments when he couldn’t even remember why he was resisting.  Freedom comes when nothing matters, when there is nothing to lose.  Despair is a kind of power. 

 

But he held on.  Anchored to himself by a slim, fragile thread—by the hope that Travis would come back to him.  And he did.  He did.

 

But that was a close thing, wasn’t it?  And now you’re beating yourself up about needing to be rescued again.  How long are you going to play the victim?

 

The temptation is still there.  The desire to let go.  To break open the cocoon that is Arthur Fleck and become…what?  A swirling rainbow chaos with a set of grinning fangs.  A butterfly dripping with paint and blood.

 

If only there was a way to have both.  To taste that freedom without losing his humanity.  But things are never that easy.

 

He notices a woman across the aisle giving him an uneasy look.  Has he been muttering to himself?

 

Arthur presses his lips together.  He doesn’t want to make her uncomfortable.

 

Oh god, who cares?  This is why you’re miserable.  Why do you give a shit about the feelings of some stranger who’d probably step over your corpse if you died on the sidewalk?  You’ll never see her again after you step off the train.  Let her be afraid.  Better to be feared than ignored.

 

Shut up, he thinks.  Shut up.

 

* * *

 

He gets off the subway, walks the two blocks to the pawn shop, goes in and places the shoebox on the counter.

 

The owner—a man with long, greasy hair and a pair of round dark glasses—opens the box, examines the contents and says, “I’ll give you fifty.”

 

“F…for all of it?”

 

He shrugs.  “You’re welcome to try another store.”

 

“The earrings are real pearls.”  At least, that’s what Penny always told him.  She was proud of those earrings.  Arthur always thought they were pretty—the little glints of iridescence.  But maybe they’re just cheap knockoffs.  He wouldn’t know the difference.

 

“Fifty bucks, take or leave.” 

 

Trying another store means spending more money on the subway or bus.  Every cent counts.  And he doubts anyone will be willing to offer him much more.  Deep down he’s always known the jewelry isn’t worth much.  “Okay.”

 

As he waits for the man to retrieve the cash, his gaze wanders to a rickety card table of cassette tapes and old movies, their covers faded and worn.  A sign says, $1 EACH.

 

One of the VHS tapes—hand-labeled in red marker, not even in a cardboard sleeve—is titled JOKER.

 

Arthur stares.  A cold prickle crawls up his spine.  “Excuse me.  What is that?”

 

“Hmm?”

 

“That.  On the table.”  He points.

 

“Oh, that.  This girl brought it in with a bunch of other tapes.  Some comedy thing.”

 

A ringing noise fills his head.  “Why is it called Joker?”

 

“No idea.  I just bought the whole box from her.  Didn’t watch it myself.  One dollar, if you want it.”

 

Arthur swallows, throat tight.  “You said it’s a comedy?”

 

“Yeah.  You know, standup.  I’ve seen a few copies of it floating around, actually.  Thrift stores, garage sales, that kinda thing.  Guess it must be pretty funny.”

 

The ringing in his head gets louder.  “So there are more copies of this.”

 

“Yup.”

 

Joker.  Travis shouted the word from the crowd, toward the end of Arthur’s routine.  Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but he doubts it.

 

He wonders if he wants to subject himself to this.  But he has to know

 

He buys the tape.  Stuffs it inside his jacket.

 

* * *

 

“Hey,” Arthur says, pushing the door open.  His cheeks are still stinging from the cold.

 

Travis is eating cereal on the couch.  He puts the bowl down, goes to Arthur and hugs him tight.

 

Arthur closes his eyes, savoring the pressure of Travis’s arms around him.  It steadies him.

 

Travis pulls back.  “How’d it go?”

 

“I have money.”  He pulls the cash from his pocket and tosses it to the coffee table.  “Not much.  But enough to get your cab back, at least.”  Arthur sits on the couch.

 

Travis sits next to him.  “Hey.”  He puts a hand on Arthur’s arm.  “Did something happen?”

 

Arthur hesitates, then pulls the VHS tape out of his jacket and sets it on the table.

 

Travis goes still.  “What’s this?” he asks quietly.

 

“I found it in the pawn shop.  I’m pretty sure it’s my comedy routine.  From Pogo’s.”  Arthur gives him a stiff smile.  “The guy there said he’s seen other copies around.”

 

Travis eyes him uncertainly.  “Is that bad?”

 

“Yes, it’s bad.”  He rubs his hands over his face.  “I don’t want anyone to see this.  I don’t want to see it.  But I need to know for sure.  I might as well get it over with.”

 

“You sure?”

 

His leg jiggles.  His fingers dig into his knees.  “Just put it in.”

 

Travis hesitates, then slides the tape into the VCR.

 

The video starts after the introduction.  Arthur is on the stage, laughing into the crook of his arm.  The image is fuzzy, but it’s unmistakably him. 

 

Arthur’s throat tightens.

 

Pogo’s records all their routines.  He knew that.  But he never expected anyone to watch the tape, much less copy it.  How many people have seen his disastrous show, now? 

 

Isn’t this what you wanted?  To be seen?

 

He chose to get up on that stage.  What right does he have to complain?

 

But he didn’t want this.  His humiliation, his pain, bought and sold on cheap card tables in the secondhand stores and pawn shops of Gotham.  People passing it around under the table, snickering at it, like children snickering at a dirty magazine.

 

He knows, of course, that people aren’t watching it because they think his jokes are actually funny.  Arthur is the joke.  Hey everyone, get a load of the weirdo retard freak.  He thinks he can do comedy!

 

“I h-h-hated school as a k-kid…”

 

* * *

 

They sit side by side, silent, as the tape plays.

 

After a few minutes, Travis stops watching the TV and starts watching Arthur’s expression.  The color has drained from his face; the muscles are drawn tight.  Wide, haunted eyes reflect the glowing square of the screen, tiny images of himself.  One hand drifts up to rub at his mouth.  His finger strokes the groove on his upper lip.  A repetitive, unconscious motion.

 

“Arthur,” Travis says.

 

Arthur doesn’t react.  Doesn’t even blink. 

 

“Arthur, I think we should turn this off.”

 

Still, he doesn’t respond.  Travis grabs the VCR remote and stops the tape.  Arthur sits motionless, shoulders slumped, hands hanging between his knees.

 

Travis puts a hand on his back.  Tries to think of something to say.  “The tape starts after the intro.  No one knows it’s you.”

 

“Yeah.”  His face remains blank.

 

“Are you—”

 

“I’ll be okay.  It’s just…strange.  Seeing myself like this—from outside.  The way others see me.”  He smiles without making eye contact.  “You should get your cab.”

 

“They’re probably closed by now, anyway.  It’ll still be there tomorrow.”  He rests a hand on Arthur’s back.  “We should talk.  About what we're going to do now.”

 

Arthur rubs his forehead with two fingers, staring straight ahead.  “I'm not feeling good.  I think I just need to get some sleep.”

 

 

* * *

 

Moonlight filters in through the blinds, forming silvery bars on the floor.  Travis stares at the ceiling.  He's warm.  It's good to be warm, he thinks.  Good to be indoors, in a place with running water and food, a place where he's welcome.  Living on the streets, even for a short while, gave him a taste of just how bad the alternative can be.

 

He lays next to Arthur in the bed that once belonged to Penny.  Sleeping in here feels a little weird.  But it’s not like they have other options.

 

In the darkness, he sees a faint gleam.  Arthur’s eyes, catching the faint moonlight from the window.  “Didn’t know you were awake,” Travis murmurs.

 

“It’s so dark.  How can you even tell my eyes are open?”

 

“They shine.”  Travis strokes Arthur’s hair, tucks a lock of it behind his ear.  “Can't sleep?"

 

“No.  I keep thinking about...things."

 

"That video?"

 

"Sort of.  Seeing the way it happened...the way I changed..."

 

Travis just waits, listening.  Arthur’s breath tickles warmly against his collarbone.

 

“He’s so close,” Arthur whispers.  “Always.  Since she died…I can feel him there all the time, waiting.  When I was in the refrigerator, I dreamed I was him, and everything was burning.  I did things.  Bad things.  And I enjoyed it.  When you came back to me, I thought it would stop, but it didn’t.  On the subway today, I heard his voice again.  Even now…he’s watching.  I feel him.  Under the surface.”

 

“I can handle him,” Travis says.  “He doesn’t scare me.  Not anymore.”  That’s mostly true, anyway.

 

Arthur curls in closer against him.  “You can’t be around all the time.  I can’t rely on you for everything.  And I don’t trust myself.  I’m not…strong.”

 

“You were strong enough not to give in to him when you lost Penny.  You were here alone for days.  And still you held out.”

 

“I came close.  If you hadn’t come back when you did…”  He swallows.  Travis feels the flick of long lashes against his neck as Arthur blinks.  “Will you do something for me?” Arthur whispers.

 

“Anything.”

 

“Will you just…lay down on top of me?”

 

Travis’s heartbeat quickens.

 

“Please.”

 

Travis climbs on top of Arthur and stretches out, chest to chest, stomach to stomach.  For a minute or two, he just rests there, letting Arthur breathe in his scent and feel his weight, his heartbeat.  Their faces are close together, foreheads touching.

 

Arthur’s wearing only a pair of loose pajama pants, and Travis is in his boxers.  Being this close to him, skin pressed against skin, makes Travis’s body react in predictable ways.

 

They’re in Arthur’s dead mother’s bed.  In her room.  That should probably be a turnoff, shouldn’t it?  He feels weird about getting a hard-on, here. 

 

But Arthur needs this, right now.  Needs the closeness.  Needs to be reminded that he’s not alone.  So Travis just lays there on top of him, letting him feel it.

 

“I belong to you,” Travis murmurs.  “You know that, don’t you?”

 

Arthur’s heartbeat quickens against his.  One hand slides up, cupping the nape of Travis’s neck.  Arthur's palm glides over over his back.  Over the scar.  His fingertips trace the rippled, puckered flesh.

 

Travis’s eyes have adjusted to the dark, enough that he can just make out Arthur’s expression.  His lips are parted, his breaths quick and shallow.  Travis feels a stirring against his thigh.

 

He tells himself that this isn’t the time.  Even if they're both aroused.  Arthur's just desperate for touch, right now; a physical reaction doesn't necessarily mean he's in the mood.  He should resist.  Pull back.

 

But life is so short, so unpredictable.  Even now, they don’t know what tomorrow will bring.  Being in Penny’s room just reminds him of that fact—how quickly it can all end.  It makes him want to cling all the more tightly to this warmth, this moment.  He closes his eyes.  "Listen...Arthur..."

 

Arthur’s hips arch up beneath him, pushing up against him.  Rubbing.  Travis groans, low in his throat, and buries his face against the pillow next to Arthur's head.  Arthur’s leg hooks over his hips, pulling him closer.

 

Arthur’s trembling a little beneath him.  His muscles are tense.  He presses his face against Travis’s neck, wraps his arms around him.

 

Travis waits.  His body quivers with the strain of waiting.  His hips push down a little—involuntarily, instinctively—pushing into the warm hollow of Arthur’s stomach, dragging against it.  Arthur’s breathing hitches.  Travis pushes down again, feels the head of his cock slide over the slight dip of Arthur’s navel.  Arthur’s dick pulses against his thigh, hot and urgent.

 

He could cum just like this.  Thrusting against Arthur’s belly.  Grinding away at him like an animal.

 

Maybe he should just finish himself off.  The way he is now it wouldn’t take more than a minute.  He’s burning up.

 

Arthur’s fingers close around him, and every muscle in his body goes tight.

 

“I can do this if you like,” Arthur whispers.

 

If Arthur just touches him, it should be okay.  Shouldn’t it?  That would be easiest—safest.  Let Arthur soothe the ache with his hand.  Take care of him in the same way, once his head is clear.  They can go slow.  Control it.

 

But he feels unspoken words between them.  Hovering there, thick in the air.

 

“There’s something else you want,” he murmurs.  “Something you need.  Isn’t there?”

 

A pause.  Arthur’s hand remains where it is, holding Travis’s cock.  Not moving, just wrapped around him.  “I don’t know if I should—”

 

“Tell me.  Please.”

 

Arthur gulps.  An odd, squeaky sound escapes his throat, a hiccupping whimper.  “I—d-don’t even know how to say it.”

 

“You want me to touch you?” he whispers huskily.

 

“Yes.”

 

“Where?  How?”  He needs to be clear.  Needs to know exactly what Arthur is asking for.

 

Arthur’s chest heaves against his.  Soft, raspy breathing echoes through the silence.  In the moonlight, he smiles a strange smile—lets out a little shivering laugh.  His hand drifts up to his head, a finger pointing at his temple.

 

Travis tenses.  “Hey…”  He grips Arthur’s wrist again.  “What’s with the gun?”

 

“It’s not a gun.  I’m telling you where I want you.”

 

He frowns.  “Your head?”

 

“Yes.”  His voice sounds off.  Disconnected, like he’s sleep-talking.  “In my mind.”

 

“You want me in your mind,” he says slowly.  Trying to understand.

 

“I want you to take me under—as deep as you can—and then bring me back safely.”

 

Travis stares. 

 

“Give me more than I can take,” Arthur whispers.  “Until I come apart.  And then bring me back.”

 

He struggles to focus his thoughts.  It’s difficult.  In the daylight, it's easier to see how things fit together.  In the darkness, the heat of their bodies feels like the only real thing.  “That seems…dangerous.”

 

“I know.”

 

“Are you sure you want that, Arthur?  Now?”

 

“Yes.  I need to know that I—that we can control it,” he whispers.  “Him.  I can't keep fighting myself.  I can’t keep living like this.  I'm afraid of him...of me.  My own thoughts.  But if you're there with me, I can face it.”

 

This is definitely dangerous.

 

They have the word, sure.  But it doesn’t always work.  That night when Arthur came to his apartment and asked Travis to kill him, Travis tried to snap him out of it.  And he couldn’t.

 

“If I take you too deep, you might not be able to come back right away,” he says.

 

“I know.”  Arthur’s heart thuds against his.  “I don’t know what he’ll—what I’ll do, if I lose control.  That’s why—” he gulps.  “Y-you’ll have to restrain me.”

 

Travis falls silent.  Everything inside him goes still.  Arthur is still hard, pressing against him.  Even though he’s obviously scared of this.  Hell, Travis is scared of this.

 

This isn’t about sex.  It’s bigger than that.  Deeper than that.  But the Other responds to sex.  It draws him out. 

 

“You asked me what I need,” Arthur says in a small voice.  “I think this is what I need.  I've been thinking about it for a while.  But you can say no, too.  I know that I ask a lot of you.  I know you never wanted or expected any of this.  I mean, when we first…became close…you probably didn’t think it would be so complicated.  Loving me.  You’ve already done so much, and…”  His voice breaks.  “I can never just make things normal…

 

“I don’t want normal.  I want you.”

 

Arthur's eyes widen in the darkness.

 

They’re so close.  He imagines himself melting into Arthur, blending into him.  Slipping under his skin.  Drowning inside him.

 

“You,” he whispers again, hoarsely.  “This.  This is what I want.”  He kisses Arthur’s lips, his cheeks.  Tastes the salt of tears.

 

Arthur is right.  This is something they need to do. 

 

Take me under and then bring me back safely.

 

He touches Arthur’s face in the darkness.  “I’m going to take you to the edge.  And I’m going to hold you there for a while.  Until you can’t take it anymore.  You might forget that you can stop it, if you want.  So I’m going to keep reminding you.  I’ll be there with you the whole time.  You understand?”

 

“Yes,” Arthur whispers.

 

He is holding Arthur’s mind in his hands.  His beautiful, broken mind.  This man, this person that he loves more than anything.  Arthur’s pain, his confusion, his joy, his hunger. 

 

It isn’t safe.  He knows that.  Even with the code-word, even with both of them trying their best, they can get hurt. 

 

But Arthur needs this.  Travis needs it, too.  He doesn’t fully understand why.  His own mind is such a tangled mess of dreams, illusion and reality.  But he feels within Arthur the answer to a question in his own soul.  Something he’s been seeking his whole life, without knowing what or why.

 

The blood thrums in his veins.  Every nerve is alive, awake.

 

God, don’t let me fuck this up.

 

Travis leans over and picks up his belt from the floor.  “Put your wrists together.  Over your chest.”