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He can accept being nobody.

 

He can accept the leaky pipes in his apartment, the cheap reheated pasta and chemical-laden TV dinners night after night, the sense of being a ghost.  He can accept the reality that the only woman who ever has or probably ever will love him is his mother.  Some people don’t have even that.

 

His pain is not special or rare.  He knows, he knows.  The world is awash with suffering; it builds up in the streets, accumulates like the garbage that keeps piling up on the curbs.  He sees the same flat despair in the eyes of people on the bus, the men sleeping on park benches.  His misery is not an aberration, it is mundane, it is everywhere, and this makes it harder, not easier to bear.

 

Shared misery does not make people kinder to each other.  It makes people hard, cruel.  It makes them cling to the crumbs they have and burn with resentment toward anyone whose misery threatens to take attention away from theirs.  If he dares to speak his pain, angry voices will rise up to shout over it, to declare that he is being selfish and unfair to those who have it even worse than he does.  Knowing that, he keeps his misery silent and small, balled up in a dark corner of his chest.  Nothing good can come from letting it out.

 

But he can accept this if the world will just let up and—for one day—stop finding new ways to twist the knife.

 

The world never does.  And he has to admit, it is kind of funny.

 

* * *

 

Arthur lies on the pavement, still in his full clown get-up.  His bruises ache.  In the distance, he can still hear the laughter and whoops of the teenagers who beat him.

 

Slowly, painfully, he sits up and pulls off his wig, letting his limp, sweat-damp hair tumble free.  He removes the red Styrofoam ball from his nose.  With shaking fingers, he pulls a cigarette from his pocket and lights it; it is a struggle to hold the flame steady.  He sits with his back propped against the brick wall of the alley and smokes, his wig balled up in his other hand, resting in his lap.  The dull roar of traffic fills his ears.  Outside the alley, pedestrians walk by.  A few people glance at him, but no one stops.  He doesn’t really expect them to.

 

Arthur closes his eyes and holds the cigarette between his lips, one hand pressed against his aching side.  He’ll be fine.  He’s been jumped before.  If there’s anything Arthur Fleck knows how to do, it’s take a beating.  He’s more worried about the sign.  He knows there’s a good chance he’ll be blamed for losing it.

 

“Hey.  You okay, pal?”

 

He opens his eyes.  There is a man standing before him.  Early thirties, brown hair, dark brown eyes, clean-shaven.  His expression is hard to read.

 

“I’m fine,” Arthur says quietly.  He keeps his eyes downcast.  He doesn’t sense any hostility from the man, but it’s always difficult to be sure, with strangers.  An outstretched hand can easily become a slap.

 

The man surveys the fragmented pieces of wood below.  “What happened here?”

 

“Some kids grabbed my sign and ran off with it.  I chased them, but…they jumped me.  Smashed the sign.”  He takes another unsteady drag on his cigarette.

 

“They hurt you?”

 

“Just a few kicks.”

 

“Want me to take you to the hospital?  I’ve got a taxi.  Parked right over there.”  He jerks a thumb over one shoulder.

 

Arthur hesitates…then shakes his head.  He can’t afford a visit to the ER.  The last thing he needs is more unpaid bills piling up on the counter.  He doesn’t even have any money for cab-fare.  “They’re only bruises.”  He hopes that’s the case, anyway.  There’s an alarming, sharp flare of pain on the left side of his ribs each time he breathes in, making him wonder if one of them is cracked.

 

The pain is funny, somehow.  Of course, by now he is accustomed to laughing at his own pain.  His feelings, too—sadness, humiliation, fear—all these absurd animal reflexes pulling him like a marionette.  Life is a melodramatic puppet show, yet there is no moral or unifying theme, no punchline.

 

He starts to laugh.  The laughter wrenches itself from him in spasmodic bursts.  It hurts his chest, but he can’t stop.  “Oh god…”  He keeps laughing, even as tears blur his vision and trickle down his face.

 

“Uh…you okay?”

 

He presses a hand over his mouth and nods, hoping the man will just leave.  He doesn’t want to explain this.  He doesn’t have his card with him, either; he left it in his regular jacket.

 

“They hit your head or somethin’?”

 

Arthur shakes his head, muffling bursts of laughter against his palm.  More tears roll down his cheeks. 

 

The man hunkers down in a crouch and leans forward, until their faces are mere inches apart.  Arthur blinks a few times, confused, hiccuping laughter, hyper-aware of this stranger who is now firmly in his personal space.  Arthur can smell the coffee on his breath, and the sharp mintyness of gum, which doesn’t quite cover it.  “Wh-what—” he uncovers his mouth and giggles.  “What are you—?”

 

“Checking your pupils.  To make sure you don’t have a concussion.  You’re acting a little screwy—no offense.”  He holds up a lighter from his pocket and moves it back and forth.  Arthur’s eyes follow it.  “Good.  Any pain?  Dizziness?”

 

He gulps in a breath and manages to blurt out, “No.  I’m not—this isn’t—” he squeezes his eyes shut.  His throat constricts.  “My head is fine,” he says, speaking slowly and carefully.  “The laughing—it’s normal.  For me.  It’s a medical condition.”

 

The man raises his eyebrows.  “That’s a funny medical condition.”  After a half-beat he adds, “I wasn’t tryin’ to make a joke there.”

 

“It’s…rare.  B-but it’s a real thing.”  The doctors at Arkham called it pseudobulbar affect.  Often a result of brain injury or stroke.  But sometimes it had no definite cause.

 

He shrugs.  “Okay.”  He fishes a few tissues from his pocket and offers them to Arthur.  “Here.  They’re clean, promise.”

 

Arthur exhales a shaky breath.  “Thanks.”  He takes the tissues and wipes the tears from his cheeks, smearing his makeup.  “Sorry I’m such a mess.”

 

The man remains where he is, crouched, arms folded loosely over his knees, brown eyes looking at Arthur uncertainly.  He opens his mouth, then closes it and looks away.  “Do you want me to go?”

 

Arthur clutches the red-and-blue stained tissues in his hand.

 

“I don’t like walking away from someone who just got the shit beaten out of him,” the man says.  “Doesn’t feel right.  If you need help, I’ll help.  But if I’m makin’ you nervous, I’ll go.”

 

Arthur hesitates.  A part of him wants to be alone.  He can feel the hot itch of laughter building up in his chest again, and he doesn’t like losing control in front of other people.  But there is another, deeper part of him that wants to beg the man, Stay.  Please stay.  The man’s voice isn’t warm, exactly, but it’s low and calm.  Calming.  “You’re a taxi driver?” he asks.

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Will you—will you please just drive me to the nearest payphone?  I need to call work and tell them what happened.”

 

“I can do that.  Sure.”

 

He snuffs out his half-finished cigarette on the pavement and tries to stand.  His legs give out, and he slides back down, gasping at the hot skewers of pain in his back and sides.  He can feel his breakfast (plain oatmeal and black coffee) shifting uneasily inside him, and wonders if he’s going to throw up.

 

“They really did a number on you,” the man says.  “Look, if you won’t let me drive you to a doctor, at least let me take you to a place you can lie down, or somethin’.  You live around here?”

 

“My apartment is a twenty-minute drive away, at least.  And I only have a few dollars with me.”

 

“I’m offering.  I’m not gonna charge you.”

 

Arthur doesn't want to go home.  Not yet.  He doesn't want his mother to know about the attack.  She'll just worry.  “Just take me to a payphone,” he repeats in a faint voice.  “Please.”

 

“Okay.”  The man offers a hand.

 

After a few heartbeats, Arthur takes it.  The man’s skin is warm.

 

He pulled Arthur to his feet.  Arthur stumbles a little, and the man puts an arm around his shoulders, steadying him.

 

It’s been a while since anyone except his mother has touched him in a friendly way.  Another bubble of laughter rises up from his chest and bursts from his throat before he can stop it.  The man—perhaps mistaking the reaction for discomfort—pulls his arm away, and Arthur feels a pang of regret.

 

The man opens the door of a yellow cab.  Arthur slides in and sits, clutching at his wig, along with the wadded-up tissues.  The man gets into the driver’s seat and pulls onto the road.

 

“What’s your name?” he asks.

 

“Arthur,” he murmurs.  “Arthur Fleck.”

 

“Travis Bickle.”  Brown eyes flick toward him in the rearview mirror.  “So.  You’re a clown?”

 

“Yes.”  He leans back in the seat, trying not to get makeup on the faux-leather, though it’s not very clean-looking to begin with.

 

“Kids’ birthday parties?  Stuff like that?”

 

“Sometimes.  Mostly just standing outside stores.  Spinning signs.”

 

“It’s work,” Travis says.  “People gotta take what they can get, in this world.”

 

“Well…I’m not going to be doing this forever.”

 

“Got plans?”

 

He stares out the window, watching the gray blur of Gotham slide past.  “Sort of.  I—” he stops.  He has only shared that goal with his mother and counselor.  He hasn’t told any of the guys at work, because he knows exactly how they’d react.  Are you shitting me Arthur?  Your jokes aren’t even funny.  Stick to spinning signs.

 

But he’s probably never going to see this man again, after today.  He might as well tell him.  “I’m trying to become a stand-up comedian.  I know it’s a tough business to break into.  But I’ve been doing research.  I go to Pogo’s—you know, the comedy club—every Friday after work.  I take notes.  I think I can do it.  I think my material’s pretty good.  Though I haven’t really shown it to anyone, yet.”

 

“Well…good luck.  This world needs a few more laughs.”

 

Arthur met Travis’s eyes in the rearview mirror.  “Did you hear about the man who died of laughter?”

 

Travis shakes his head.

 

“They say it’s the best medicine.  But apparently it’s really easy to OD on.”

 

A smile quirks at the corner of Travis’s mouth.  It’s a small smile, but it’s something.

 

Travis drops him off at a corner payphone.  Arthur fishes through his pockets and realizes, with a sinking feeling, that he doesn’t have any quarters.  “Um.”  He holds out a wrinkled dollar bill.  “Do you have any change?”

 

Travis hands him four quarters and waves the dollar bill away.  “Just take it.”

 

It’s just a few coins.  But that small kindness—on top of the tissues, the ride, and the half-smile—pushes him over the edge, and suddenly he’s on the verge of tears.  Pathetic.  He clutches the coins, head bowed, trying to get a hold of himself.

 

Travis hangs back, hands in his pockets. 

 

“Thank you,” Arthur says.  “For being nice to me.”

 

“It’s a rough old world.  Might not be so rough if people stopped and helped each other once in a while.”  He shrugged.  “I used to be kind of a loner.  Still am, mostly.  Not so good with people.  But I try to help out when I can.”  He took a step toward the cab, stopped, and turned back toward Arthur.  “Anything else you need?”

 

For a moment, Arthur is sorely tempted to ask him for a hug.  But he stops himself.  The last thing he wants is to ruin the moment by making it creepy.  So he shakes his head and extends his free hand.  “It was good to meet you, Travis.”

 

“Nice to meet you too, Arthur.”  Travis grasps his hand and shakes it once, firmly.  His grip lingers for a moment, then slides away.  He studies Arthur’s face, his gaze strangely intent.

 

“What’s wrong?” Arthur asks.

 

“Even if you don’t go to the doctor, try to take it easy for the next few days.  If you got a cracked rib in there, pushing yourself is gonna make it worse.”

 

“I—I’ll try to take it easy.  But I have to go to work tomorrow.  I’ll just take some aspirin, if I need to.”  He kneads his wig in one hand.

 

Travis frowns, and Arthur wonders uneasily if he’s made him angry.  Dim memories echo down the corridors of his brain—memories of a deep male voice shouting, a fist thudding into flesh—

 

“If you say so,” Travis says, snapping him back to the present.  “See you ‘round.”  He starts to turn.

 

“Come to Pogo’s tomorrow night, if you’re free,” Arthur blurts out.  “I’ll buy you a drink.”

 

Travis gives him another half-smile.  “Maybe.”  He raises one hand in a wave and gets into his cab.  As he disappears around the corner, Arthur watches, knowing they'll probably never see each other again.

Chapter Text

Murray’s smile is warm and infectious, as always.  The audience loves him.  They respond to every joke with wild peals of laughter:  Ha-ha-ha!  Ha-ha!

 

Normally Arthur would laugh along with them.  Now he is silent, lost in thought. 

 

Hoyt deducted the cost of the sign from his paycheck.  That means their budget will be stretched even thinner than usual.  He tries to ignore the dull, bitter burn of rage simmering in the back of his head.  To calm himself, he thinks about the pressure of Travis’s arm around his shoulders, holding him up.

 

Already, he’s starting to wonder if he hallucinated that entire experience.  It’s been years since he’s had a hallucination that vivid, that complete, but the memory feels suspiciously like one of his fantasies—like something his brain engineered to comfort him.  But then, how did he get to the payphone?  He couldn’t have walked that far, not in such a short time.

 

“What’s wrong, honey?” his mother asks.  “You’re quiet.”

 

The two of them are eating TV dinners, sitting side by side on the bed and watching the show.  “I’m just a little tired.”

 

“You’re worried about something.  I can tell.”

 

He stares down at the grayish blob of Salisbury steak, smothered in grayish sauce.  He’s managed to eat only a few bites.  The medicine affects his appetite even on the best days.  Sometimes food is a lost cause.  “I’m not worried.  I’m just thinking.”

 

“Life’s too short to worry.  Eat your dinner.”

 

If Travis was a hallucination, then what does that mean for him?  Is he losing touch with reality?  Is he going to end up back in Arkham?

 

Would that be so bad?

 

He’s always had the sneaking suspicion that someday he’ll lose his tenuous grasp on sanity and be sent back.  Maybe it would be better to just get it over with.  Except who will take care of his mother, if not him?  She’s getting older.  She gets confused sometimes.  The other day he found her slippers in the refrigerator.  God knows why.  And sometimes she leaves candles burning too close to things that could catch fire, and—

 

“Arthur, eat.

 

He forces himself to have another bite of Salisbury steak, which has the consistency of boogers baked into a patty and smothered with lukewarm cum.  His throat constricts.  He chokes it down.  He imagines he can taste the suffering of the animal that died so that it could be processed and compressed into this disgusting mass, this gelatinous substance that barely resembles food.  “Next time I should buy the chicken casserole dinners.  I’m not sure I like Salisbury steak anymore.”

 

“Really?  You used to love it so much when you were a little boy.  You would ask for it every night.  That or cheeseburgers.”

 

This might be true.  He has no way of knowing.  His memories of his childhood are few and hazy—a side-effect of the shock treatments, probably.

 

He keeps eating, keeps thinking about Travis.  His hand strays to his pocket, slips inside and touches the tissues that Travis gave him.  They’re still wadded up in his pocket, stained with face-paint and tears.  He must be real.

 

Does it even matter?  They’re not going to see each other again.  It’s not like Travis is actually going to show up at Pogo’s.

 

His mother falls asleep, snoring softly against the pillow.  He tucks her in, presses a kiss to her forehead, and then goes to scrape the rest of his dinner into the garbage disposal.  He feels guilty wasting food when they have so little money to spare (he thinks again of the cow, the bolt-gun slamming through its brain, ending its short, bleak existence, its body then stripped apart and processed into unidentifiable gray blobs).  But he’s not going to save it.  He’s tried reheating TV dinners before and they’re twice as disgusting.

 

* * *

 

Later, he sits on the couch, smoking, trying to ignore the sharp flashes of pain in his ribs.  On the TV is another news story about the garbage in the streets, and Thomas Wayne droning on about how the strikers are betraying the city with their selfish demands for a living wage.

 

Not that Thomas Wayne has anything to worry about.  He can afford private garbage pickup.  If the city would just agree to the garbage collectors’ conditions, the strike could be over tomorrow.  But the people in power don’t care.  What does it matter to them if the city beneath their feet drowns in filth?

 

Arthur lets his anger build, embers smoldering in his chest.

 

He has a headache.  Not unusual.  He gets them a lot.  Like storm clouds roiling in his brain.  Flickers of lighting dancing behind his eyes, jabbing hot sharp little fingers of pain into the soft meat.  It feels somehow connected to his anger, as though some large, dangerous animal is shifting restlessly in the confines of his skull, all bristling fur and razor-edged claws.  He rubs two fingers against his forehead.

 

On impulse, he presses the smoldering end of his cigarette against the pad of his thumb, and his breath hitches.  His eyes roll back, and a warm shiver ripples through his body.  His bare toes dig into the dingy carpet.  His tongue darts out to slick his lips as he grinds the end of the cigarette harder into his thumb, until the pain is blinding, whiting out his thoughts.  He drops the cigarette to the ashtray on the coffee table, raises his trembling hand to his mouth and runs his tongue over the burn. 

 

He never lets his mother see him doing things like this, of course, but pain is such a constant in his life, it’s oddly soothing to be the one inflicting it on himself.  It gives him a semblance of control back, a sense of ownership over his own body.

 

He looks at the burn-mark on his thumb, bright red against the pale skin, then writes in his notebook, Someday I’ll make them pay.  I’ll make them see me.

 

He doesn’t mean the kids who beat him up.  He means the men behind desks, the men behind walls, insulated from the hell around them.  Men like Hoyt.  Like Thomas Wayne.

 

He looks down at the words and scribbles out I’ll make them pay, so violently that the pen tears through the paper.

 

I don’t want to hurt anyone, he writes beneath it.  I just want to be seen.

 

* * *

 

The next evening, after work, he sits at a table at Pogo’s.  It’s amateur night and there’s a new comedian on, one he hasn’t seen before, a guy perhaps a few years younger than himself—sandy hair, square glasses and a rumpled polo shirt.  The jokes are the usual raunchy fare.  Arthur laughs along with the crowd and jots down observations in his notebook.

 

He catches a flicker of movement from the corner of his eye.  He looks up, and his heart jumps.  Travis is sitting at a table across the room.  He makes eye contact, raises one hand in a wave.

 

He’s here.  He’s here.

 

Travis doesn’t move.  Just waits, maintaining eye contact.

 

Slowly—as though in a trance—Arthur rises to his feet, tucks his notebook under one arm, and approaches the table.

 

“Hey,” Travis says.

 

“H-hey.”

 

“You promised to buy me a beer if I came.  That offer still good?”

 

“I, uh.  Yeah.  Sure.”  He stands awkwardly for another few seconds, then pulls out a chair and sits.  It’s easier to interact with people when he’s wearing face paint.  When he’s hiding behind a persona.  He feels naked without the paint.

 

Arthur pulls out a cigarette and lights it.  It’s something to do with his hands, which are currently shaking a little.  He feels Travis’s gaze on him.  Focused on him.  His head spins.  He came here.  To see me.

 

He’s gotten so accustomed to moving invisibly through the world, becoming the center of someone’s attention is always a little frightening.  He feels doubled, split in two.  There is the Arthur sitting in the chair, the Arthur he inhabits, and the Arthur inside the other man’s head, reflected in his wood-brown eyes.

 

“What kind of drink do you want?” Arthur asks.

 

“Just beer.  Whichever is cheapest.”

 

When the waitress comes around, Arthur orders two, because it seems rude not to drink if Travis is drinking.  The beers arrive shortly, tall brown bottles beaded with moisture.

 

“Not that funny, is he?” Travis asks, glancing at the stage.

 

“He’s okay.  The crowd seems to like him.”

 

“Guess I don’t have much of a sense of humor.”  He takes a long swallow of his beer.

 

Arthur takes a tentative sip, then another, bigger sip.  It tastes sour and unpleasant, but it tingles in his stomach and warms him in strange ways.  Arthur smokes like a chimney, but he rarely touches alcohol.  It doesn’t play nicely with the various medications popping and fizzing through his synapses.  But one beer probably won’t hurt.

 

“How are you feelin’?” Travis asks.  “Your bruises, I mean.”

 

“They still hurt.  But less than yesterday.”  He swallows more beer.  It’s easier if he drinks faster, without letting the sourness linger on his tongue.  “My boss made me pay for the sign.”

 

“Shit.  Really?”

 

He nods.  “I tried to explain to him what happened, but he didn’t believe me.”

 

“I don’t think I like your boss.”

 

“I don’t think I like him either.”  Arthur lets out a loud, shrill giggle, hiccups, and giggles again.  “Sorry.”  The mix of carbonation and laughter seems to have dislodged something in his chest, and now it feels like there’s a big bubble trapped inside him, and he can’t stop hiccuping and giggling.  His eyes water.  “I, uh.  I think I’m drunk.”

 

Travis raises his eyebrows.  “You can’t possibly be drunk yet.”

 

“I d-don’t—ha ha ha!—drink much.”  A flush rises into his cheeks.  He hiccups again.  Oh god.  Already he’s making a fool of himself.  He presses a hand over his mouth, aware that he is breathing too fast.  This was a bad idea.  Muffled by his palm, his laughter comes out sounding like a whine.

 

“Hey.”  He feels a hand on his arm, a light squeeze.  “Relax.”

 

Once Arthur’s gotten a hold of himself, he removes his hand from his mouth and takes a shaky breath.  “I’m sorry.”

 

“You’ve got a condition.  I get it.  It’s fine.”

 

“I’m weird.  I know.”

 

“So am I.”

 

Arthur looks at him from the corner of his eye.  “You seem normal to me.”

 

“Trust me, Arthur,” Travis says, “I am not a normal person.  I just hide it better.”

 

Maybe that statement should worry him.  It calms him.  “You don’t think I’m a creep?”

 

“I dunno.  I mean, I don’t know you too well.  You might be, you might not.  But even if you are, that’s okay.  I'm a pretty creepy guy myself.  I’ve learned to accept it.  Gotten comfortable with it, even.  I figure if that's who you are, embrace it.  Make it your thing.”

 

A short laugh escapes Arthur’s lips.

 

“That was it,” Travis says.

 

“What?”

 

“Your real laugh.  It sounds different.”

 

“Does it?”  A warm, mellow glow seeps through his veins.  Maybe it’s the beer.

 

For a few minutes, they drink in comfortable silence.

 

Arthur puts his head down on the table.  He smiles, flushed and fuzzy-headed.  “Hey.  You know those Garfield comics in the papers?”

 

“Sure.  The one with the cat.” 

 

“I always thought they’d be funnier without the cat.  You know.  ‘Hi, I’m John Arbuckle, and this is my cat, Garfield.’  Except there’s no cat.  Just empty space.  And you wonder, what going on with this guy?  Is he hallucinating?  A comic about a schizophrenic guy alone in his house, talking to an imaginary cat, because he has no one else.  I think that would be funny.”  He hiccups again.  “I’m babbling.”

 

Travis gives him a long, searching look.  “You know, I’ve talked to a lot of people in my life.  Being a taxi driver, you meet all kinds.  I can safely say I’ve never met anyone like you, Arthur.”

 

“I don’t know if that’s a compliment or not.  But thank you.”

 

“It’s a compliment.  A sense of humor goes a long way toward staying sane in this world.”

 

“It gets me in trouble sometimes.  I laugh at a lot of things that most people don’t find funny.”

 

“Like what?”

 

Arthur raises his head and pushes his hair out of his face, wonders how much to say.  He takes another drag on the cigarette.  It’s killing him slowly, but it soothes him, steadies his nerves.  His lips start to move, almost without permission.  “The garbage in the streets.  The rats.  Ugly graffiti on bathroom walls.  The fact that we’re all going to die someday, and most of us will die without ever doing anything important.  Billboards.  Porn.  Cancer.  Sometimes it all strikes me as funny.”

 

There is another long silence, and Arthur is aware that he’s just engaged in what his counselor once called self-sabotaging behavior, that he started forming a connection with another human being and then immediately said the craziest thing he could just to scare the other person away—to end it before the inevitable rejection could occur, and thus keep the pain within his locus of control.  She occasionally makes a good point…or used to, before she decided he was a lost cause and retreated behind a bland professional mask.

 

Travis drains his beer.  “I’m going to get us a couple more,” he says.  He stands up and walks away, toward the bar.

 

Arthur suspects that he’ll just keep walking.  He stares straight ahead, at the stage, where a musician is now strumming clumsily on her guitar.

 

This is fine, he thinks.  It didn’t go as badly as it could have.  He managed to have an actual conversation with someone, for once.  He knows he will fantasize about this later, pathetically, as he has revisited every moment of physical contact and every friendly word, storing up those moments in his soul as ammunition against the temptations of oblivion.  This was not a bad night.  Just as well that it ended, before—

 

“Here you go.”  Travis sets another brown bottle in front of Arthur.

 

He’s still here.

 

Arthur’s breathing quickens.  He rotates the bottle between his fingers.  Because he doesn’t know what else to do, he keeps drinking.

 

By now his head is a little spinny and he’s having trouble focusing his eyes.  An unnerving feeling of vulnerability comes over him.  “I should go home,” he says.  “It’s late.  My mother will wonder where I am.  I don’t like to make her worry.”

 

Too late, he realizes that he—a grown man over forty—has just admitted that he still lives with his mother and effectively has a curfew.

 

“Mama’s boy, huh?” Travis says.  He’s smiling, but it’s not a cruel smile.  There’s something warm and teasing in his eyes, almost affectionate.  “Shoulda guessed.”

 

Despite his gentle tone, Arthur flinches a little.  “Do I seem like a Mama’s boy?”

 

“Yeah, you do.  It’s not a bad thing.  But you’ve got this…I dunno.  This gentle way of talking.  Like you were raised to be polite.”  He picks at the corner of the label on his beer.  “I haven’t seen my parents in years.  I write ‘em a card every so often, let ‘em know I’m okay.  Every once in a blue moon I’ll call them.  But they don’t know where I live or what I do.  Guess I’m afraid to disappoint ‘em.  Being close to your folks isn’t a bad thing.”

 

“It’s just my mom.  I never knew my dad.”

 

Travis’s gaze flicks up, meeting his briefly, then lowers again.  “I was a lucky kid.  Two-parent household, white picket fence, all that.  Feels pretty far away now, though.  Like that was another person.”

 

Silence hangs between them.

 

Arthur doesn’t move.  He knows he should go, but he doesn’t want to.  His gaze focuses on Travis’s hand, resting on the table near his, and he suddenly wants to touch the back of it, to feel the tickle of those small dark hairs against his fingertips, touch the tiny scar on his knuckle…

 

He squeezes his eyes shut.  He’s drunk, that’s all.  He’s having weird thoughts.

 

“Did you do that to yourself?” Travis asks.

 

He blinks a few times.  “What?”

 

“This.”  Travis reaches out.  Warm, calloused fingers brush the edge of Arthur’s thumb, the one he burned the cigarette out on earlier.

 

Panic jabs through the cotton around his brain.  He jerks his hand back, hides it under one arm.  “I…”  Suddenly, it’s hard to draw a full breath.  Stupid.  Why hadn’t he put a bandage over it?  “I don’t know what you mean.”

 

“Never mind,” Travis says.  “Dumb question.”  He stares off into space and takes another swig of his beer.  “I’ll see you around.  Thanks for the beer.”

 

Arthur gulps.  He starts to stand, stumbles a little, and steadies himself with a hand on the back of the chair.

 

“Whoa.”  Travis stands.  “You need some help?”

 

Losing his balance after two beers…and he hadn’t even finished the second one.  Ridiculous.  “Maybe.  A little.”

 

He feels a hand on his back, a warm anchor, and feels himself going weak and shivery, his already unsteady limbs turning to liquid.

 

“Let me walk up with you,” Travis says.  “Those stairs are a bitch.”

 

Arthur nods, his face burning.  Travis walks behind him, up the steep and narrow stairs leading out of the club.  At one point, Arthur stumbles and grabs for the railing, and Travis puts a hand on his back again.  He presses against a bruise, and a strangled cry escapes Arthur’s throat.

 

“Shit.  You okay?”

 

“Yes.  It’s nothing.”  He clings to the railing for a moment, waiting for the pain to fade.  Then they keep going, out through the main door, into the cold and rainy evening.

 

“My subway stop is just down the street,” Arthur says.  “I’ll be fine from here.”

 

“All right.”  Travis stands, hands in his pockets.

 

Still, Arthur doesn’t move.  Icy rain kisses the back of his neck and slides under his collar.  If he stands here too long he’ll get soaked.  But he can’t quite bring himself to walk away.  “I was worried you were a hallucination,” he blurts out.  “After the first time I met you.  I thought that I made you up.”

 

“I’m real.  But I guess that’s just what a figment of your imagination would say.”  He gives Arthur that crooked half-smile, showing no teeth.  Something about it makes Arthur ache.

 

Again, he thinks about asking for a hug.  But even with his inhibitions softened, he can’t quite bring himself to do it.  He grips his burned thumb, squeezing it, and the sharp pain is like a knife cutting through the fog.

 

Travis is still very nearly a stranger to him.  Arthur doesn’t know what he wants.  He would like to believe that Travis just likes him—that maybe, for once in his lifetime, he’s making a friend, like a normal person—but the world has let him down too many times for him to give himself over to that belief.  Travis could be a serial killer, for all he knows.  Maybe he’s scoping out new victims, planning to lure Arthur into his apartment and cut him open…

 

That might not be so bad, he thinks.  To be killed by someone nice.  Someone with warm hands.  There are worse ways to go. 

 

“Ha-ha.  Ha-ha-ha!”  He presses a hand to his mouth.  “Sorry.”

 

“You apologize a lot.”

 

“It’s a reflex.  I’m s—” he bites his tongue, hard enough to hurt.

 

Travis gives a little shrug.  “Nothing wrong with it.  Just an observation.”  They stood in the rain, in the bleary yellow glow of the streetlight, looking at each other.

 

“I probably shouldn’t say this,” Travis says.  “But those guys who beat you up…I want to hurt them.”

 

Arthur stares.  “What?”

 

“Not saying I will.  I mean, I didn’t even see their faces.  No idea who they are.  Just sayin’, part of me wants to.  You’re still in pain.  I can tell.  I hear it in your breathing.  I hate that those shitheads did that to you and got away with it.”

 

Arthur clutches his arm.  “They were just kids.  They probably grew up in Gotham.  In these streets.  They’ve never known anything else.  This city is cruel.  It makes people cruel.  It’s—it’s not their fault.”

 

“I want to hurt your shithead boss, too.”

 

“Well, that I’m okay with.”

 

Travis smiles.

 

Arthur gulps, takes the plunge:  “Can I see you again sometime?”

 

“Sure.  I’ll be around.  Maybe I’ll come back here tomorrow.”  He turns.  “I’m gonna go back in and finish my beer.”

 

“Okay.”

 

Arthur turns and begins to walk.  When he nears the end of the block, he glances over his shoulder, and Travis is still standing outside the club, watching him.

 

* * *

 

He takes the subway home in a daze.  There’s a warm, not unpleasant buzz in the back of his head.  He feels as though he’s floating.

 

He finds himself replaying the conversation with Travis in his head, his lips shaping the words as he repeats them softly to himself. 

 

He steps off the subway—the last train of the night.

 

Only after it pulls away does he realize that he left his notebook at the club.

 

Chapter Text

“Arthur, where is your journal?”

 

He sits in Dr. Kane’s office, hands clasped in front of him.  One knee jiggles.  He can’t hold it still.  “I lost it.”

 

She raises her eyebrows, a silent question.

 

“I left it at the club,” he said, “and then I went back to check the next day, and it was gone.  I asked around, but no one knew where it was.  Maybe someone just threw it out.”

 

That’s the best case scenario, anyway.

 

“Well,” she says.  “Maybe you can start a new one.”

 

“I guess.  But I had a lot of stuff written in my old one.  A lot of jokes.  Material I don’t want to forget.  It bothers me that I don’t have it anymore.”

 

“I’m sure you’ll think of new jokes.”

 

The lost material isn’t the biggest issue, though.  The notebook is also filled with his private thoughts, scrawled in his messy but still legible handwriting.  He knows the regulars in Pogo’s have seen him writing in its pages.  Whoever found it there might have recognized it, connected it to him.

 

He’s pretty sure there’s nothing in there that could land him in jail—no threats against specific individuals.  But he’s written things like, Sometimes I want to watch this city burn. 

 

And of course there are the women—images cut from blearily printed men’s magazines he buys at the gas station, pasted into the pages.  On some of them he scribbled out the eyes, leaving empty black holes, and drew sharp fangs in the mouths.  Others are disfigured, their heads or limbs snipped away by scissors.  He thinks of it as a type of art, reflecting his own painful and conflicted feelings around sex—his counselor did encourage him not to censor himself—but he’s pretty sure a casual observer would take one look and assume he’s some kind of sadistic monster.

 

A random stranger finding that would be bad enough.  But it could be worse.  Travis might have picked it up. 

 

What if he’s horrified?

 

Arthur’s knee jiggles harder.  His fingers itch for a cigarette, but he’s been trying to cut back.

 

“Have you been having any negative thoughts?” Dr. Kane asks, distracting him.

 

Arthur prods his self-inflicted burn with the forefinger of the other hand.  The mark is still visible, a glaring pink weal in the center of his thumbprint.  “A few,” he says.

 

She glances down.  Her lips tighten slightly, and he knows she sees the burn, but she just looks away.  “Anything you want to talk about?”

 

He presses his finger harder against the burn, until the pain makes his eyes water.

 

There was a time when their sessions felt more like actual conversations, when she seemed to take an interest in him as a person.  But then something changed.  He doesn’t know what.  It might have nothing to do with him.  For all he knows, she could be going through a messy divorce, or dealing with the death of a parent. 

 

Or maybe she just realized the truth—that he’s a hopeless case.  That pouring her time and effort into him is like pouring water into a bucket full of holes, because he’ll never get better.  Whatever the reason, their sessions now feel like a series of scripted lines.

 

“I’m just worried about the notebook, mostly,” he says.  “And I worry about my mother.”

 

“Your mother?”

 

“I mean…if anything happens to me, she’ll be all alone.”

 

“What do you think is going to happen to you, Arthur?” she asks with polite blankness.  And then, because she’s required to ask this, too:  “Are you having suicidal thoughts again?”

 

He hesitates.

 

Arthur's last attempt was years ago, and he doesn’t remember that time well, anyway.  Now, he has an aging parent who rarely leaves the apartment, who depends on him to do most of the shopping.  His mother is easily frightened, and the constant onslaught of violence in the news has made her afraid to ride the subway or the bus.  If he disappears she’ll just curl up on the couch and hide from the mounting bills and keep writing pointless letters to her old employer until the landlord evicts her.  Death is a privilege he can’t afford.

 

“I’m not planning to die,” he says.  “It’s more just…fantasies.”

 

“Fantasies.”

 

It’s really annoying, the way she just repeats everything back to him.  A parrot or a tape recorder could do her job, at this point.  “Yes.  Just mind-games I play with myself.”

 

She clicks her nails together.  When he says nothing else, she says, “All right, then.  If there’s nothing else, I guess we’re done for the week.”

 

Their session isn’t over yet.  He has just confessed to having fantasies of suicide.  And she’s dismissing him.  A vein pulses in his temple.  “Can I ask you something?” 

 

“Yes?”

 

“When you stopped giving a damn about me, and why?”

 

Her shoulders tense.  For an instant, her blank mask slips, and he sees a flash of hurt and anger.  “I have a lot of clients, Arthur.  Later this afternoon, I’m seeing a girl who was repeatedly raped by her own father.  And after her, I’m seeing an old woman who is in danger of being evicted from her apartment because her son keeps extorting money from her, refusing to let her see her only grandchild unless she funds his heroin addiction.  I’m doing my best.  But this program has limited resources, and this city has a lot of people in pain.  I’m doing twice the work for half the pay.  By the time I get home at night, I’m so tired I can barely see.”

 

Arthur drops his gaze.  “I—I’m sorry.”

 

She exhales.  Silence hangs between them.  “No.  I’m sorry,” she says quietly.  “I...shouldn’t have told you all that.  It's been a rough day.  But you have a right to expect professionalism from me.  And I will try to be more attentive.”  She gives him a strained smile.  “Is there anything else you wanted to talk about?  You still have a few minutes left.”

 

He considers telling her about what happened at work.  A coworker tried to sell me a gun, but I said no.  Partly because Arthur doesn't have a license to carry, but mostly because he's afraid that a gun would be too much temptation—that he might turn it on himself on a bad night.  Maybe Dr. Kane would be proud of him for refusing.  Maybe it wouldn’t matter.

 

“No,” he says.  “That’s all.”  He walks out.  A bitter knot aches in his chest.

 

He knows he’s lucky to have this program.  It’s not like he could afford any of this help on his own.  His counselor just confirmed what he already knew:  he is a burden on an already strained system.  He’d be doing both her and the city a favor to just blow his brains out.  One less mentally ill sad sack sucking up resources.

 

But he’s not ready for that.  Beneath the pain there is a small, hot flash of defiance.

 

The world wants him to disappear.  If he gives up and dies, the world wins.

 

A pack of whooping, laughing teenagers walk past to his left, and he flinches a little, out of habit, muscles tensing in a fight-or-flight response…but they continue on their way, taking no notice of him.  Arthur exhales.  He almost wishes he’d taken the gun from Randall.  Maybe he’d feel safer just carrying it around with him.

 

A short, jagged laugh escapes his throat.  A clown with a gun.  There's a joke in there, somewhere.

 

* * *

 

He has a job that day at the children’s hospital.  He tries to forget the notebook, tries to lose himself in the act, to become Carnival.  He tells jokes, sings and dances.  He does magic tricks and twists long balloons into flowers and dogs.

 

“What’s your favorite animal?” he asks a little girl with hazel eyes and a bald head.

 

“Brontosaurus.”

 

“Oh, I love dinosaurs.  Brontosaurus…that’s the one with the big long neck and tail, right?”  He knows how to make a giraffe, which he figures is close enough—he can just leave some extra on the end for the tail.  The balloon squeaks as he bends and ties it.  “Do you think those long necks of theirs ever got tangled together?”

 

She giggles.  “Maybe.”

 

“They were so tall.  If you ever threw your Frisbee too high and it landed on the roof, I bet you could just ask one to reach up and get it for you.”

 

“There were no Frisbees back then, silly.”

 

“Really?  I guess you’re right!”  He finishes the balloon dinosaur.

 

The girl takes it and hugs it to her chest.  “Thank you.”

 

And for that moment, at least, his existence has a purpose.

 

* * *

 

That night, as he’s heating up some tea for his mother, the phone rings.

 

Arthur freezes.  It’s rare for the phone to ring.  When it does, it’s usually the landlord calling about late rent…but he paid on time this month.  Even if he has no idea how he’s going to manage next month.

 

Slowly, he reaches for it, presses the dingy plastic to his ear.  “Arthur Fleck.”

 

“Hey,” a familiar voice says.  “It’s Travis.”

 

Arthur’s mouth opens.  For an instant, everything inside him goes still.  “How did you—” he glances into the other room, where his mother is watching TV, and lowers his voice to a whisper.  “How did you get my number?”

 

“I looked up ‘party clowns’ in the phone book.  There are only two clown agencies in Gotham.  I called them both and asked if there was an Arthur Fleck working there.  The one called Ha-Ha’s said yes.  I said I had a personal item I needed to return to you and that I’d rather give it to you myself, and I asked if they had your home phone number on record.  The guy gave it to me.”  A brief pause.  “I guess it’s a little weird, me calling your home like this.”

 

“No, it’s…wait.  Personal item?”

 

“Your notebook.”

 

His heart lurches.

 

“I found it at Pogo’s.  On the table.  I went back there a few times but I didn’t see you around.  And I didn’t want to just hand it over to your boss at Ha-Ha’s.  So, figured I’d get in touch with you.”

 

“Did you—” Arthur’s voice cracks a little.  He swallows.  “Did you read any of it?”

 

“I glanced inside once.  Didn’t look too close.  I just held onto it for you.”

 

Arthur closes his eyes and exhales a soft breath of relief.  “Thank you.  I’ve been worried sick since I lost it.  I—”

 

“Happy?” his mother shouts from the living room.  “Who are you talking to?  Is that the landlord?”

 

“Hang on.”  He covers the receiver with one hand and shouts back, “No, it’s fine, Mom!  It’s…someone I know.”  He uncovers the receiver and says breathlessly, “Sorry.  Can we meet somewhere?”

 

“Sure.”  A pause.  “Everything okay?”

 

“Yeah.  Just my mom.  Anyway.  There’s a restaurant down the street from Pogo’s.  A diner.  Maybe I can meet you there.  Tomorrow morning maybe?  Or…”

 

“I know the place.  I can be there in twenty minutes.  If you’re free.”

 

“Arthur, are you still on the phone?”

 

“I’m hanging up now, Mom!”  He winces, knowing how this must sound to Travis.  “Sorry.  Yes.  I’ll be there.”  He hangs up.

 

He lights a cigarette, stares at his hand, and sees it trembling a little.

 

He walks into the living room, grabs his jacket from where it’s draped over the couch, and puts it on.

 

“Where are you going?” his mother asks.

 

“Just out.”

 

“At this hour?  I thought we were going to watch Murray.”

 

“Sorry, Mom.  This is kind of important.  I’ll be back later tonight, but don’t wait up for me, okay?  If you get sleepy, go to bed.”

 

“Arthur, what is this about?  Who were you talking to on the phone?  You’re acting strange.”

 

“It’s hard to explain, but everything is okay, I promise.  I just need to get something.  Love you, Mom.”  Before she can protest further, he hurries out of the apartment.

 

* * *

 

When he arrives at the diner, Travis is already there, sitting in a corner booth, a cup of coffee in one hand, the notebook on the table in front of him.

 

Arthur stands motionless, holding his breath.  It’s been several days since he last saw Travis.  A confusing rush of emotions sweeps over him—giddiness, fear, and other things, too complicated to name.

 

Travis is staring out the window.  He doesn’t see Arthur yet.

 

“Hey,” Arthur says.  His voice comes out a little thin and breathless.

 

Dark brown eyes lock with his across the room.  Travis smiles, a warm, relaxed half-smile.  “Hey.”

 

Arthur approaches and sits.  He stares at Travis, and it strikes him—even though this is just their third time meeting, there’s something deeply familiar about his face.  It feels like a face he’s seen thousands of times, a face he’s known for years.  Why?

 

“Here.”  Travis pushes the notebook toward him.

 

Arthur clutches it, hugging it against his chest.  “Thank you.  I really appreciate this.  More than I can say.”

 

He nods.  “Want something to eat?”

 

“Maybe just coffee.”  His stomach is churning too much for anything else.

 

Travis waved to the waitress.  “What would you like, hon?” she asks, pen poised over her notepad.

 

“I’ll have a slice of apple pie with melted cheese.”

 

“Cheese?” she asks, frowning.

 

“Yeah.  Just put a slice of American cheese on top and heat it in the microwave.  Arthur?”

 

“Coffee for me.  Thank you.” 

 

“Okay, pie and a coffee coming right up.”

 

After the waitress leaves, Arthur says, “I’ve never had cheese on apple pie.”

 

“Must be a New York thing,” Travis says.  “I got it all the time up there.  But here in Gotham, every time I ask for apple pie with cheese, people look at me like I’m some kinda alien.  It’s good though.”

 

The waitress returns and sets a cup of coffee in front of Arthur and a plate in front of Travis.  Bright orange cheese drips over the edges.  Travis stuffs a bite into his mouth.

 

Arthur pours some powdered creamer into his coffee and takes a sip.  His fingertips glide over the worn-out surface of his notebook.  “You went to a lot of trouble to get this to me.”

 

“It wasn’t much trouble.  Just a couple of phone calls.”

 

The pie smells good.  Arthur’s stomach gurgles.

 

Travis glances up, then pushes the plate toward him.  “Here.”

 

He can’t resist.  He takes a bite, then another.  “Oh,” he says.  “That is good.”

 

“See?”

 

Arthur smiles.  The smile fades a little.  “You really didn’t read it?”

 

“No.  Why?  What’s in it?  Plans to assassinate Thomas Wayne?”

 

A strangled sound escapes Arthur’s throat.  “What?  No!  I—I wouldn’t—”

 

“Relax,” Travis says.  “Just a joke.”

 

“Oh.”  He exhales.  “Sorry.  I’m a little jumpy right now.  It’s just…there’s some really personal stuff in there.  I haven’t shown it to anyone except Dr. Kane.  My therapist.”  He pauses.  “Why Thomas Wayne?”

 

“I mean, nothing in particular against him, it’s just that his waxy mug is on TV every day and I get kinda sick of it.”  Travis takes a sip of his coffee.  “But anyway, it’s like I said.  I just glanced inside.  I mean…don’t get me wrong.  I was curious.  But reading someone’s journal without their permission is like spying on them naked.  I draw the line at that.”

 

Arthur feels heat rising into his face.  Of course, Travis had to reach for the most awkward analogy possible.  Arthur retreats into humor, tossing his hair over one shoulder and affecting a high-pitched, feminine voice with a breathy Southern accent:  “Well, I'm glad to know there are a few gentlemen left in the world.  As it happens, I never show my journal to anyone before the third date.”

 

A smile grows from one corner of his mouth.  “I didn’t know this was a date.”

 

Arthur’s face burns hotter.  His right knee starts jiggling beneath the table.  “I, um.”

 

“Just another joke.”  Travis eats another bite of the pie.  “I should warn you, though—I’m not actually much of a gentleman.”

 

“You are, though.  You stopped and helped me after those guys beat me up.  And you brought me back my notebook.  You wouldn’t have done those things if you weren’t a decent person.”

 

Travis cracks a smile, though it fades quickly.  “Guess I’m a sucker for a clown in distress.”  He stares down at his plate.  “I don’t like seeing people hurt other people.  It makes me want to do things.”  He pokes at the remains of the pie with his fork.  “Were you ever in the war, Arthur?”

 

Well, that was an abrupt topic change.  “No.”

 

“I was in ‘Nam for a few years.  Long time ago.  I was nineteen when they drafted me.  I ask because…I dunno.  Your eyes kinda go blank sometimes, like your mind is in another place. I noticed it the first time we met.”

 

He wonders how much to say.  He never talks about this.  Not with anyone.  He wets his lips with the tip of his tongue and jiggles his knee.  “I was in Arkham.”

 

Travis goes still for a few seconds.  “The hospital?”

 

“Yes.”  Arthur gives him a strained smile.  “I didn’t do anything violent,” he adds quickly.  “I was just…in a pretty bad place.”  He lights a cigarette, take a slow puff.  “I didn’t have to worry about being drafted, at least.  I guess there are some benefits to being crazy.  I would’ve made a terrible soldier anyway.”

 

“I was a good soldier.  At least, people told me I was.  But I don’t think being a good soldier made me a good man.”  He shreds his napkin slowly.  “I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of.  I’ve hurt people.”

 

He wonders if Travis is talking about the people he fought in the war, or something else. 

 

Again, Arthur dampens his lips with the tip of his tongue.  “I think about hurting people, sometimes.”  The words slip out of his mouth before he has a chance to stop them.  “I’ve never done it.  But I think about it.  I hate that part of me, but I can’t help it.  I get so angry sometimes, I can barely breathe.  There are so many awful people in this city.  I know that sometimes they’re awful because they’ve been hurt, or because they’re scared or don’t know any better, but…so many people are just mean.”  He swallows.  “I worry that I’ll become like that too, someday.  That I’ll hurt people.”

 

“You don’t strike me as a violent person.”

 

“You haven’t seen what’s inside my notebook.” 

 

He starts to raise his coffee cup to his lips and stops.  “Do you want me to read it?”

 

Arthur’s body jerks, as though an electric shock has passed through him.  “What?”

 

“I would like to see it.  If you give me your permission.”

 

Arthur nervously twists at a button on his shirt.  “Why would I want you to read it?”

 

“Because you’re lonely.  Because you want someone to understand you.”

 

He opens his mouth to respond.  His lips tremble, and he presses a hand over them.  He’s not going to start laughing.  Not now.

 

“I’ll read it right now if you want, right in front of you.  Or you can give it to me and I’ll take it home.  Or you can get up and walk away right this moment, and I won't call you again unless you want me to.  Or we can just sit here and keep having pie and coffee and forget about this entire conversation.  I’ll order another slice of apple with cheese.  Maybe some soup.  Whatever you want.”

 

Arthur sits motionless, not breathing.

 

He feels seen in a way that is both exhilarating and terrifying.  Because Travis is right:  he wants to be understood.  To be opened up.  His heart and mind are in those pages—all the messy ugliness and the yearning and the confusion and self-hatred and impossible dreams.  Arthur has gone through most of his life wondering if he even exists.  He’s grown accustomed to never being seen, not even by his mother, because he hides the worst parts of himself from her.  Her nickname for him, Happy, is like a bad joke.  To Dr. Kane he is just another client, another demand on her time and energy.  But to Travis…

 

He doesn’t even know what he is to Travis.  He doesn’t understand this at all.  But he doesn’t want it to stop. 

 

“I want you to read it,” he says softly.  “But I…I’m scared.  I’m afraid you’re going to hate me.”

 

Travis hesitates…then reaches into his brown coat and pulls out a plain black notebook.  He slides it across the table.  “Here,” he says.

 

Arthur stares.

 

“It’s my old journal,” he says.  “I kept one, a few years ago, back when I worked in New York.”  His fingertips rest atop the cover.  “I’ve never shown this to anyone.  Thought about throwing it out, more than once.  There’s some pretty ugly stuff in here.  A lot of anger.  I'd like to say it's not the real me, but who the hell even knows what that means.  Anyway, I figure if you’re gonna show me yours, it’s only fair.”  He pushes the notebook toward Arthur.  “You should know what sort of person I am.”

 

Slowly, Arthur takes the journal.  He slides his own journal across the table toward Travis, and Travis takes it.  His fingers brush across Arthur’s knuckles, and there’s a jolt deep in Arthur’s gut.  Electricity coils at the base of his spine.

 

“You want the last bite of that pie?” Travis asks.

 

* * *

 

They leave the diner shortly afterward.  They stand in the yellow pool of the streetlight.  Arthur holds Travis’s notebook tucked under his arm.  He hasn’t looked inside yet.  Travis slips Arthur’s notebook into one of the capacious pockets of his coat.  Arthur feels like he's just handed Travis a part of himself.  A window into his head.

 

He stares at Travis’s face, and suddenly, he realizes why it seems so familiar.  “Has anyone ever told you that you look like a young Murray Franklin?”

 

Travis shuffles his feet, hands in his pockets.  “Yeah, I get that a lot.  No relation, though.  I don't even watch the show.  You like him?”

 

“He’s my hero.  Ever since I was a kid, I dreamed about being on his show.”  He hesitates.  “Can I…?”  He drops his gaze down to his shoes.  “Never mind.”

 

“Say it."

 

He takes a breath and looks up.  “Can I give you a hug?”

 

Travis’s expression remains unreadable, and Arthur wishes he could grab the words and stuff them back inside his mouth.  Now he really has ruined this.  Now Travis will turn away, and—

 

“I haven’t done this for a while,” Travis says.  “I might be a little rusty.  But I’ll give it a shot.”  He opens his arms.

 

Arthur takes a tentative step toward him, then another.  He sinks into Travis’s embrace and wraps his arms around him.

 

He’s warm.  He smells like cigarettes, but beneath that is something musky yet pleasant, almost sweet.  Arthur closes his eyes.  Travis’s arms tighten around him.  He can feel the tickle of breath against his neck.  It’s good.  So good.  Travis’s arms are like a warm cocoon enveloping him, keeping him safe. 

 

A car blasts past, headlights glaring.  Someone shrieks, “Hey faggots!”  A bottle flies out of the window and shatters with a tinkling crash against the diner wall.  Arthur gives a start.

 

Laughter fills the air, then fades as the car veers around a corner and disappears.

 

Arthur gulps.  He pulls away, draws an unsteady breath and wraps his arms around himself.

 

“Arthur?”

 

He blinks rapidly, his eyes slick with unshed tears.

 

He doesn’t want it to bother him.  But it’s not the first time he’s been called that word.

 

It’s not like he’s ever been with a man.  He’s never been with anyone in that way.  He’s only (well, mostly) attracted to women but still…he’s different.  He knows it.  He’s never been able to quite erase the almost feminine lilt from his voice, the way it wobbles and goes high-pitched sometimes, and a part of him wonders if the reason he became a clown in the first place was because it was the only socially acceptable way for him to play with makeup.  He wonders if other men can smell that on him.

 

He wonders if Travis would be disgusted, if he knew.

 

Or…

 

“Arthur.”  Travis places a hand on his arm, and he gives a start.  “You okay?”

 

“Yes.”  He forces a smile.

 

“It doesn’t matter what those assholes think.  They're no one.”

 

“I know.”  But suddenly, he can’t quite meet Travis’s gaze.  He giggles, chokes.  His pulse thunders in his head.  “I, uh.  I should go.”  He walks across the street, clutching Travis’s notebook.  His own rapid breathing echoes in his ears.  He cackles again, louder, and bites down on his wrist, trying to stifle the sound.  When he opens his mouth, his teeth have left a ring of deep imprints in his skin.

Chapter Text

When Arthur gets home, Penny is still awake, waiting for him.  She faces him, arms crossed over her chest, her expression tight.  “Where were you?”

 

He freezes.  She’s upset.  It’s obvious.  He hates seeing her upset.  “Out with a friend.  I lost my notebook.  He found it and gave it back to me.”

 

“Why have I never heard about this friend?”

 

He fiddles with a button on his shirt.  “I just met him a week ago.”

 

“Well, I think it’s strange.  You getting phone calls late at night and disappearing for hours.  It’s not like you.”

 

“Mom.  I’m a grown man.  I can go out at night if I want.  I can’t be here all the time.”

 

“You aren’t buying drugs from this man, are you?”

 

“Of course not.”

 

“If you buy things off the street there’s no telling what it could do to you.”

 

“I’m not doing drugs, Mom.”

 

“I don’t want you to have a breakdown like you did before.  I couldn’t bear that.”  She is sniffling now, wiping at her eyes.

 

“Mom…”  He takes a tentative step forward.  “Please don’t cry.  There’s nothing wrong.”

 

“I thought they were never going to let you out of that awful place.  All those crazy people…”  She hugs herself, shaking her head.

 

“I’m not going back to Arkham.  You don’t have to worry.”

 

“You didn’t belong in there, Arthur.  You were just a little sad, that’s all.  And they locked you in with murderers and child molesters and god knows who else.”

 

A muscle at the corner of his eye twitches.  “I wasn’t just a little sad, Mom,” he says quietly.  “Don’t you remember what happened?”

 

“Nothing happened.”  She bows her head and puts her hands over her ears, like a child.  ”It was all just a misunderstanding.”

 

A part of him wants to keep pushing, to make her acknowledge it, to say, Mom, I ended up in Arkham because I tried to kill myself.

 

He did a sloppy job of it, cutting the stupid way—across the wrists rather than down—so he failed.  Still, there was a lot of blood.  His mother found him.  She screamed, called an ambulance.

 

Now, she seems determined to pretend that entire incident never happened.  Maybe she actually had forgotten, blocked it from her mind.

 

He lowers his gaze.  Talking about his mental health problems just upsets her.  There’s no point in dredging up the past now.

 

“You’re happy now, aren’t you?” she asks in a small voice.

 

“Sure I am, Mom.  I promise, I'm fine.”  He loves her, but it’s so exhausting, sometimes.  Having to pretend.  Having to constantly reassure her that he’s okay when he’s not.  “Come on…let me get you a glass of water, and then you can go to bed.  It’s late.”

 

* * *

 

After his mother finally falls asleep, Arthur sits on the couch, staring at the cover of Travis’s notebook.  He touches the ragged edges.

 

He thinks about going to bed, reading it tomorrow.  But he knows he won’t be able to sleep.  His pulse thuds in the hollows of his wrists.  Travis told him there were bad things in here.  But it can’t be worse than his own journal, can it?

 

Slowly, he opens it.

 

May 10th.  Thank God for the rain which has helped wash away the garbage and the trash off the sidewalks.  All the animals come out at night.  Whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, venal…someday a real rain will come and wash away all this scum off the streets.

 

Arthur’s stomach tightens a little at the words—buggers, queens, fairies—and his mind flashes to the laughing men driving past on the street, the crash and tinkle of the thrown bottle breaking against the wall.  Hey faggots!  He feels a pained laugh building up in his chest, scratching at the inside of him.

 

Then his gaze strays to the margin next to this paragraph, where there is another message, scrawled in a different colored ink:  Travis, you piece of shit.  You’re the real trash.

 

Arthur is confused for a moment.  Has someone else written this in response?  No.  It’s the same handwriting.

 

He keeps reading.

 

Loneliness has followed me my whole life.  Everywhere.  In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere.  There's no escape.  I'm God's lonely man.

 

Written in the margin next to this:  No wonder you’re fucking miserable.  You’re obsessed with your own misery.  You keep sucking on it like it’s a tit, like it’s a cock.  You’re misery’s whore, Travis.  That’s who you are.  You’re a goddamn cock-sucking whore.  You can’t get enough of misery’s cock up your ass.  God's lonely man, give me a break, Travis.  Losers like you are a dime a dozen.

 

Arthur keeps reading, turning pages.

 

I first saw her at Palantine Campaign headquarters at 63rd and Broadway.  She was wearing a white dress.  She appeared like an angel.  Out of this filthy mess, she is alone.  They cannot touch her.

 

The margins reply:  You sure fucked that up didn't you?  Taking her to a fucking porno theater, what were you thinking, Travis?  You pathetic creep.  No wonder she didn’t want you.

 

Another entry:  All my life needed was a sense of someplace to go. I don't believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention, I believe that one should become a person like other people.

 

The response, scrawled across the entire page, overlapping with the letters of the original entry:  WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU TALKING TO

 

Entry:  Now I see this clearly.  My whole life is pointed in one direction.  There never has been a choice for me.

 

You fucking pussy, replies the margin.  Blaming fate for the shit you’ve done.

 

Every time Arthur has seen Travis, he has always seemed so calm and confident, so in control, exuding an easy-going charm.  Travis, he thought, is the total opposite of himself:  a man comfortable in his own skin, a man unafraid of the world.  Now Arthur sees that that is a mask, no different than the crimson smile he paints onto his mouth when he becomes Carnival.  Travis is a broken person. 

There is something about the back and forth dialog, the frantic grasping for meaning and identity, the vicious self-repudiations and self-disgust, that feels so terribly familiar.  Arthur has heard the same dialog inside his own head.  He recognizes it all.  The anger, the isolation, the hunger, the insecurity.  It hurts to look at.

 

It is as though he and Travis have shared the same soul their entire lives and never known it.

 

He keeps turning pages, mouth dry.  He reads the entire journal.

 

At the end is one final entry, in the same blue ink from the margins:  I would like to burn this, because I hate this person I see in the pages.  Still, I know that destroying this journal would be an act of cowardice.  Because it's the truth.  I am this man.

 

I don’t know how to be a good person.  I don’t know if there is even such a thing as good or bad people, or if there are only good or bad choices.  If so, then I think the only good choice I ever made was to save Iris.  But the path to that choice is covered with blood and mistakes.  Maybe I saved her for my own selfish reasons, but if she is safe then my life has not been a complete waste.  Knowing that is what gives me the will to keep living.  I have decided to have no further contact with her, though, as it would only remind her of bad times.

 

People say I’m a hero for killing those pimps.  You’d think that would make me happy.  But it just makes me sick, because I know the truth about myself.  Lying here in the hospital with nothing to do but think, looking back on my life, I know that if they could see the real me, they would be sick too.  I didn’t kill them to save her.  I killed them because all I know how to do is kill.  I can't see a use for myself outside of that. 

 

Hate follows me everywhere—self-hate most of all.  I am not strong enough to stand against the ugliness of this world.  It has seeped into me and infected me.  I am a mirror reflecting only ugliness.

 

I will keep driving my taxi.  But I can’t stand to be in New York anymore.  I’ll go to another city where no one knows me, where I am not a fake hero but just another man with no face.  I will live out the rest of my life quietly with the will to be the sort of person who pays his rent on time, who is kind to animals and children, and who stops to pick up an empty beer can on the street, and who never tells an untruth.  I will have no goals beyond that.

 

Travis Bickle

 

There is a phone number written in the bottom right corner of the last page.  Written there for him?

 

With a shaking hand, Arthur dials.  It rings once, and someone picks up.  "Travis Bickle."

 

“I read your journal,” Arthur says.

 

"Oh."  A pause.  "Shit.  I mean...it's fine, I just..."

 

"That stuff in the margins.  When did you write that?"

 

“Later.  After…after what happened.  A near death experience tends to change a man's perspective on a lot of things, I guess.”  Another pause.  “I finished reading yours, too.  Sat down and opened it as soon as I got home.”

 

“Do you think I’m awful?” Arthur asks.

 

“No.  No, I don’t think you’re awful.  Not one bit.”

 

“I don’t think you’re awful either.”

 

Travis gives a hoarse, strained chuckle.  “You sure about that?”

 

“I know that you’re a kind person.”

 

There’s a soft hitch of breath.  “I’m not—” his voice breaks off.  “I’m a killer, Arthur.”

 

“I know.  I read in your journal.  You…you killed pimps…”

 

“I killed other people too.  In the war.  And later.  I shot a man who was trying to rob a store.  And I was planning…I was planning to do something pretty bad.  I didn’t go through with it, but that was pure chance.”

 

“But you saved someone.  Someone named Iris.”

 

“Yeah.  A kid.  Twelve years old.  The pimps were renting her out.”

 

“Jesus,” Arthur whispers.  “That’s horrible.”

 

“I was planning to die that night, when I went after those men.  It was supposed to be my big suicide mission.  I guess…like you said.  I wanted my death to make more cents than my life.  I survived by accident.  Everything about my life just seems like an accident, now.”

 

“But you did save her.  Didn’t you?”

 

“Last I heard, she’s doing okay.  Back with her parents, going to school.  I guess she’d be in high school now.”

 

“I’m glad.”

 

Silence descends.  There is so much that Author wants to say, but he doesn’t know how to say it.

 

“I tried to kill myself once too,” Arthur says at last.

 

Travis listens.

 

“That’s how I ended up in Arkham.  I wanted them to lock me up.  I was afraid of myself.  I felt safer in a straitjacket.  It was almost like getting a hug.  Even when they gave me shock treatments, even when I forgot parts of my life, I didn’t mind.  It was better than trying to pretend to be normal.  The whole time I was there, I couldn’t stop laughing.  Funny, isn’t it?  I guess I must have been having a good time.”

 

“Sometimes, when you laugh, it sounds like you’re crying,” Travis says.  “I think that’s just how you cry.”

 

Arthur squeezes his eyes shut.  A bit of poetry floats through his head:  I shut my eyes and the world drops dead.  I think I made you up inside my head.  From Sylvia Plath, he thinks.  “This is real, isn’t it?” he whispers.  “I’m not imagining you.”

 

“I’m real.  I’m sitting here in my living room, talking to you.”

 

He can feel a laugh itching and bubbling in his throat.  He hiccups and chokes it down.  He doesn’t want to wake his mother.

 

Travis’s breathing rasps softly in his ear.

 

Arthur remembers the warmth of Travis’s arms around him, the softness of Travis's jacket against his cheek, the way he smelled.  And suddenly he feels…funny.  “I, um.  It’s late.  I don’t want to keep you up.”

 

“Well, you can hang up anytime if you need to.  But I think I’ll stay on the line a little longer.  I have trouble sleeping sometimes, and I think tonight is one of those nights.”

 

“I don’t sleep well, either.”

 

“You mention that, in your journal.  You mention bad dreams.  I have those too.  Mostly about the war.  But sometimes I have these dreams where I wake up and there’s no one else in the world.  All the buildings are empty.  Nothing’s destroyed, the city is still there, but everyone is gone.  It’s just me.”

 

“God’s lonely man.”

 

"God's delusional fuckup, is what I am.  The punchline to God's joke.  What do you get when you cross a moody kid from New York with a pointless war in a stinking jungle, show him human bodies being blown apart like toys, then bring him back to the civilian world and put him in a taxi?  This screwhead."

 

“Travis..."

 

“That journal...I don't want it back.  You can keep it.  Or chuck it in the trash if you like."

 

"I wouldn't do that.  I think some parts of it are beautiful."

 

"Yours is better.  It’s got jokes.  And tits.  Though I gotta say, I prefer women with heads.”

 

“Oh no.  I forgot—” he covers his face, memories of decapitated and dismembered magazine models flitting through his head.  “I swear I’m not a serial killer or anything.”

 

A soft, deep laugh vibrates from the phone.  That laugh tickles along Arthur's spine like warm fur.  “It’s okay.  I was just tryin' to be funny.  Though I'm not too good at that.”

 

He can feel Travis’s breath in his ear.  That funny feeling has gotten stronger—a tightness in his gut and his groin.  He can’t ignore it anymore.  He looks down at his fully erect cock tenting the thin cotton of his loose drawstring pants.

 

The realization doesn’t shock him as much as it probably should.  He feels oddly disconnected, as though he’s floating somewhere above himself.  Once, In Arkham, a doctor put him under hypnosis and asked him questions.  Arthur doesn’t remember the questions, or what he said in response, but he remembers the feeling—like dreaming while awake.  Nothing would have seemed strange or surprising to him, in that state.  The doctor could have grown a pair of iridescent dragonfly wings and he would’ve accepted it at face value.

 

“Arthur?”

 

The way Travis says his name sends a liquid heat rippling through his stomach.  “I’m here.”  His hand creeps down to touch the bulge in his pants, and he sucks his breath in.  His cock is exquisitely, almost painfully sensitive.  He pulls his hand back, as though he has touched fire…then, slowly, he curls his fingers around it, feeling its heat through the cotton, feeling it pulse in his hand.

 

I’m in a trance, he thinks.  I have no control.  So it’s okay that I’m doing this.  Isn’t it?

 

“This will sound strange,” Arthur says, “but will you…will you just say my name again?”

 

“Arthur.”

 

His cock jerks in his hand.  As though he’s holding a live animal, one that is struggling to escape his grip.  He bites down on his lip to keep himself from gasping.

 

This is wrong.  Touching himself while talking to someone on the phone, without their knowledge.  It’s the sort of thing a creep or a pervert would do.  He struggles to control his breathing, holding the receiver away from his mouth so Travis won’t hear him panting like a dog in heat. 

 

“Keep talking,” Arthur whispers.

 

“What do you want me to talk about?”

 

“Anything.”

 

“Okay.  Well.  I really liked having pie with you tonight.  I like seeing you.  You’re good to talk to.”

 

Travis’s voice hums in the center of his head, in the marrow of his bones.  Arthur’s fingers move slowly up and down the length of his cock.  He can see a small spot of wetness soaking through the front of his pants, precum leaking out.

 

He shouldn’t be so turned on right now—he knows that.  They’ve discussed depression, attempted suicide, murder, and sex-trafficking.  Not what most people would consider a sexy conversation.

 

But just the sound of Travis’s voice, the feeling of being connected to him through the wires of the phone, despite the distance…it’s like he’s sitting right there.  If Arthur closes his eyes he can almost feel the other man's breath against the side of his neck.  He is acutely aware of his own body, the pressure of the couch against his back, the beat of blood in the hollows of his wrists.

 

“I understand, you know,” Arthur says.  “What you mean when you say loneliness has followed you everywhere.  It’s easy to feel lonely even when you’re around other people.  Like you’re a ghost just moving through the world, and no one can see you."

 

“Yeah.  Like you can't really...touch anyone."

 

Arthur’s hand slips into his pants, beneath the elastic waistband of his boxers.  He rubs his thumb over the tight, swollen head of his cock, trying to pretend that it’s Travis's hand.  “Yes," he whispers.

 

"I think maybe I've avoided touching people.  Because, I dunno.  I thought they wouldn't like the real me, or somethin'."

 

"People put on masks," Arthur whispers.  "It's safer behind a mask.  Behind the paint.  Sometimes it feels more real than the real me.  It's hard, being myself."

 

“Isn't that the truth.  You can see through the mask by looking at someone’s eyes, though,” Travis says.  “I believe that anyway.  There’s a power in eyes.  In that moment when you’re looking at someone and they’re looking back at you.  There’s a certain nakedness.”

 

“You…you think so?”  His voice comes out ragged and breathless.  His hand slides up and down.

 

“When I first saw you—you were wearing all that clown stuff.  But I could see your eyes looking out at me.  I could see you there.  The you inside your head.  Your soul, if you want to use that word.”

 

“M...my soul?"

 

"Yeah."  His voice is low, hoarse.

 

Arthur head falls back against the back of the couch.  His chest heaves.  He’s jerking off furiously now, his breath coming in little hitching gulps as he tries to stifle his moans.  He knows that Travis must be able to hear it—it must sound like he’s crying, or maybe trying to hold back laughter.

 

“For the rest of that day, the rest of that night, I kept thinking about your eyes.  They change in different lights, you know.  Sometimes they look blue or gray.  In the sunlight they’re almost green, with these sort of…little flecks of copper…”

 

“Travis—I—”

 

“When I’m with you I can’t stop looking at you.  I see how you move.  You draw in your shoulders like you’re trying not to take up space, but there’s this energy in you that you’re always trying to hold back.  Like a fire.  It bursts out sometimes and you move like you’re dancing to music in your head.”

 

A tiny sound, half moan and half whine, escapes his throat.

 

“I hear the flutter in your voice when you’re trying not to cry or laugh.  I see you.  Arthur.  I see you.  I see you.”

 

He drops the phone, grabs a pillow and shoves it against his face to muffle his cry as he comes inside his pants.  The pillow tumbles to the floor.  He goes limp, panting, bathed in sweat, his bony body draped over the couch.

 

After a few seconds, he picks up the phone with sweat-slick fingers and places it against his ear.  “Sorry,” he whispers breathlessly.  “I, uh.  I dropped it.”

 

“No problem."  Travis sounds a little breathless.

 

Arthur's face is burning.  Travis surely knows what he just did.  He surely heard Arthur’s breathing getting faster and faster.  He knows that Arthur just got off to the sound of his voice.  Oh god.  “Travis?”

 

“I’m right here.”

 

He closes his eyes.

 

He’s confused.  His throat feels tight.  He doesn’t know what’s happening—what this thing is, between them.  It’s been so long since he’s even had a friend.  He doesn’t know how any of this works.  But he’s pretty sure that what they just did on the phone is not something that platonic friends do.  It’s hard to even say what they did.  Does it count as phone sex if Travis didn’t actually say anything sexual?  Was he even...

 

“Arthur.  Are you okay?”  There’s a hint of uncertainty—of insecurity—in his voice.  “Did I…should I not have said all that?”

 

“No.  I mean yes.  I mean—” he laughs, muffling the sound in the crook of his arm.  He feels shaken, unsteady, exhilarated.  Raw.  “I don't know."

 

“I don’t want to fuck this up,” Travis says.  “When I like someone, I have a habit of ruining it.  I come on too strong.  I do crazy things.”

 

When I like someone.  Arthur laughed.  It came out high-pitched and unsteady.  "I can be a little crazy, too.  Have you noticed?"

 

From the other room, he hears his mother’s voice, slurred with sleep:  “Happy?  Are you on the phone again?”

 

Panic flutters in Arthur's chest.  He lowers his voice.  “My mother is awake.  I need to go.  Can I call you tomorrow night?”

 

“Absolutely.  I’ll be here.”

 

“Goodnight, Travis.  Thank you.  For…for seeing me.”

 

“I’ll see you anytime.”

 

“Sleep well.”

 

“You too.”

 

Arthur hangs up.  He sprawls across the couch, staring at the ceiling through wide, dazed eyes.  The warm, drugged glow of orgasm is still seeping through his veins.  It occurs to him that he should probably change his pants, but he doesn’t want to move.  The warm stickiness against his thigh is proof that it happened.

 

“Happy!”

 

“I was just watching TV, Mom!”  He hurries into the other room to get a fresh pair of boxers.

Chapter Text

When Arthur arrives at Ha-Ha’s the next day, there is a bouquet of bright yellow daffodils on his desk. 

 

He stands for a moment, staring.  Slowly, he picks it up.  There is a small card attached to the string around the stems.  It says simply, FOR ARTHUR.

 

Randall smirks at him.  “Hey, what’s this?”

 

“I—I don’t know who these are from.”  Though he has an idea.  “When did they get here?”

 

“A delivery service dropped them off about an hour ago,” Gary says, brushing on his white face paint.  “Said to tell you they were from ‘a friend.’”

 

“Friend, my ass.”  Randall slaps a chummy, overly aggressive hand on Arthur’s back, making him flinch.  “Come on, Arty.  Don’t hold out on us.  What’s this all about?  You got a girl?”

 

“Honest, Randall, I don’t know who they’re from.”  His face blazes.  He’s a terrible liar.  He doesn’t dare make eye contact. 

 

“What, you embarrassed?” Randall said.  He leans in and guffaws.  “Holy shit, you’re turning red.”

 

“Let him be,” Gary said.  “It’s none of our business.”

 

“What, are they from you, short stuff?  You two gals got a little side-thing going?  You like to sneak out after a gig and honk each other’s horns?”

 

“Fuck off, Randall.”

 

“I love it when you swear, Gary.  It’s kinda cute.  Like getting cussed out by a teddy bear.”

 

Gary rolls his eyes.  “Eat shit, you fat wanker.”

 

Randal laughs again.  “Nice.”

 

Arthur clutches his flowers.  His lips twitch a few times…then a shriek of laughter bursts out of him, echoing through the dressing room.  It doesn’t last long, fortunately.  He sets the bouquet back on his desk.

 

He has another gig today.  He needs to focus.  He sits down and applies his makeup, smoothing red paint over his lips and around his mouth.  But his gaze keeps darting to the flowers.  No one has ever sent him flowers before.  He’s still trying to process what happened last night—what it all means—and now this.  His head is spinning.

 

Of course, he doesn’t know for sure they’re from Travis.  But he can’t think of anyone else.

 

He feels someone leaning over him and tenses. 

 

“Hey,” Randall whispers, “you thought anymore about what I asked you the other day?”

 

Arthur’s tongue nervously darts out to lick his lower lip, tasting face paint.  “I told you, Randall.  I can’t carry a gun on the job.”

 

“Keep your voice down.  It’s not a big deal, you know.  This is Gotham.  Everyone has a piece.  Even little old ladies carry one.”

 

“Not everyone does.”

 

“I’m just trying to look out for you, Arty.  You’re my boy.  What happened the other day, with those animals who beat you up…it could happen again.  This city’s a fuckin’ jungle.  Every man for himself, know what I mean?”

 

Arthur tells himself that Randall is just trying to be helpful, but he doesn’t quite believe it.  Despite Randall’s surface friendliness toward him, Arthur has always gotten the sense that the man dislikes him.  There’s something disingenuous and condescending in his smiles, something that doesn’t quite mask the shark-like glint in his eyes.  Buying anything from Randall seems like a bad idea.

 

He paints a blue diamond around his left eye, staring into the mirror.  “I already told you no.  Please stop asking me about it.”

 

There’s a pause, then Randall says in a sharper voice, “Y’know, this is why the other guys don’t like you.  Someone tries to do you a favor, and you act all high and mighty.”  He walks away.

 

Arthur stares into the mirror.  He traces another diamond around his left eye, blinking back tears.  If he lets them fall, it will smear his makeup.

 

This is why the other guys don’t like you.

 

He shouldn’t care.  He shouldn’t care.

 

“Is Randall giving you trouble again?” Gary asks, jolting him from his thoughts.

 

“Oh…no.”  Arthur gives him an awkward smile.  “I mean, yes.  Kind of.  But it seems silly to complain.  It’s Randall.  He’s even ruder to you.”

 

“I can handle him,” Gary says, shrugging.  “Been dealing with guys like that all my life.  The wisecracks about my height, all that—I’m used to it.”

 

“I know I shouldn’t laugh at his jokes,” Arthur says.  “I don’t want to make you feel bad.  It’s just…”

“I know.  It’s different.  You can’t help it.”  He glances at the flowers.  “Seriously,” he says, “whoever they’re from…congratulations.”

 

Arthur feels his face growing warm again.  But he’s smiling, now.  “Thank you.”

 

* * *

 

Gotham is a lot like New York, except filthier.  The rats are bigger and more aggressive.  The stink of garbage (like old cabbage cooked in piss) is stronger.  There are more homeless people huddled in the alleys and on steps and benches.  Men, women…even children.

 

The sky feels different here—heavier, smoggier, enveloping everything in a gray gloom, like an unending twilight.  Gotham is New York’s depressed younger brother.  Gotham is New York with its pretenses stripped away.  New York has the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island—all those bullshit symbols of hope.  Gotham has no such symbols.  It is naked in its despair.  Even the name sounds like a fucking funeral home.  There’s something in that honesty that Travis can appreciate.

 

He sits in his taxi, drinking coffee and staring out the window.  All around him, people walk past without looking at each other, all wrapped in their own private cocoons of worry and distraction.

 

City life is lonely.  Surrounded by people, you can’t ignore how separate everyone is.

 

He came to Gotham to start over, to become a new man.  But already he can feel himself slipping back into bad habits.

 

Hunting down Arthur’s personal phone number could be rationalized, on account of the notebook.  Sending the flowers to his workplace was an impulse—risky, but it’s not like he signed the card.

 

Sitting outside Ha-Ha’s in his taxi, watching Arthur through the window, is definitely crossing a line.  He shouldn’t be here.  He knows that.  But the itch to see Arthur again—even from a distance, for a few minutes—was so strong, he finally gave in.

 

Arthur is sitting in front of a mirror, carefully applying his clown makeup.  If he looked down he would see a yellow cab parked by the curb, indistinguishable from all the other yellow cabs in Gotham, but he would not be able to see Travis’s face through the tinted windows.  Travis is wearing sunglasses, too.  He is hidden behind two layers of dark glass.

 

Travis has always enjoyed the experience of seeing someone who is unaware that they are being watched.  People look different, when they think they are alone and unobserved.  They take off their masks.

 

He would have liked to see Arthur’s face at the moment he first saw the flowers, but the angle isn’t great.  He can’t quite make out Arthur’s expression, from this distance.  But he sees him do a curious thing—putting his fingers into the corners of his painted mouth and pulling it up into a smile.

 

He looks away.

 

“You’re a fuckin’ creep, Travis,” he mutters.  Hovering around, lurking like a vulture.  This is exactly the sort of shit he promised himself to stop doing when he left New York.

 

He pulls the cab away from the curb and parks a little further up the street, where he can no longer see Arthur in the window.  But he keeps staring over his shoulder at the building.

 

He keeps thinking about Arthur’s breathing in his ear, over the phone.  The little shuddering hitches and gasps, faster and faster…

 

He swallows a mouthful of coffee.  It’s already cooling.  Bitter dregs swirl at the bottom of the cup.

 

* * *

 

Several years ago, after the incident with the pimps, Travis spent some time in the hospital and emerged to find himself a local celebrity.  And for a little while, at least, he enjoyed the experience.  He cut out newspaper clippings, tacked them to his wall.  HERO TAXI DRIVER.  He couldn’t deny that he felt a thrill of something when he looked at those words, even knowing they were a crock of shit.

 

The glow of his heroism faded quickly, like a drug high wearing off.  He started to hate it when passengers recognized him.  Hey.  You’re that guy!  The guy in the papers!

 

No, he said.  You’re thinkin’ of someone else.

 

No, I’m sure it’s you.  You're the one who saved that kid.

 

And they always wanted to talk about it.  Like he wanted to relive that night.

 

The old bitterness started to creep back into him, curdling in his stomach like a cancer.

 

Travis has always been alone, but alone is not a good state for him.  Left to his own devices, he deteriorates, spirals down into the dark tunnels inside his own head.  He has no center.  Just this void in the middle of him, this black hole sucking away at his essence.  Maybe he came into the world lacking some vital piece of his soul, or maybe the war killed it.  He’s not sure.

 

Either way, he is a man who needs a purpose.  A focus.  Since an early age, he’s had the feeling—an almost supernatural feeling, like a compass in the center of his chest pointing him one way or the other—that he was put on this Earth to fill a certain role.  To protect someone, maybe.  To save someone.

 

For a while he thought that person was Iris.  He thought that once he rescued her the void would disappear, either through death or inner peace.  But she’s gone now, living her own life, and Travis is still here, still empty, still hungry and lost, still searching.

 

He told himself that he came to Gotham to live out a quiet life and avoid trouble, but deep down, he was always searching.  And then…

 

Those eyes.  Like a flash of lightning.  Those wide, green-copper-blue-gray eyes, staring at him out of a face covered in smeared clown makeup.  The need in those eyes hooked into his soul and pulled.

 

It wasn’t long before the drumbeat of obsession started in the depths of his skull:  Arthur, Arthur, Arthur, Arthur, Arthur.

 

It’s strange, feeling this way about another man.  But it’s not a total surprise.

 

Back in New York, in that space of time between the incident and his departure, he thought a lot about his own thoughts.  About the monologue that ran through his head every hour of every day, narrating his dissatisfaction with the world.

 

Travis’s disgust for humanity was expansive, all-inclusive.  Men and women, politicians and druggies, every race and nationality, they all fell beneath the umbrella of his judgment.  But certain patterns jumped out at him…like how much he brooded and complained about the fairies and queens prowling the streets at night, the rent-boys with their tight little pants hugging their tight little asses and their shameless wiggle-walks and their pouty suck-you mouths.  Degenerates, he thought.  At times it seemed he could smell their tomcat musk seeping in through the windows of his cab, coating the seats, so that later he felt compelled to fumigate the interior with cheap pine-scented air freshener.

 

Now, when he remembered the taste of his own contempt—rolled it across his tongue like wine—he detected notes of suppressed lust, of self-hatred, of…a kind of envy.  What would it be like to live so unafraid of society’s judgment?

 

And there had been a boy once, hadn’t there?  Danny.  The one in ‘Nam.  Just a kid, a year younger than Travis, himself only nineteen at the time.

 

Not that they’d ever done anything.  A hand on the shoulder, a smile, that was all.  But the feelings, the dreams that came to him at night…

 

And then a stray bullet caught Danny in the neck and that was that.  Life was cheap out there.  Cheap everywhere.  Easy not to think about what it all meant, when everything could disappear so quickly.

 

And now this. 

 

So I’m queer, I guess.  Maybe half-queer.  Whatever.

 

It was like he told Arthur on the phone—a near-death experience had a way of putting certain things in perspective. 

 

Someone knocks on his window.  A woman with a scarf wrapped around her face, hiding her mouth.  “Hey!  You open for business?”

 

Travis shakes his head.  “Sorry.  I’m waiting for someone.” 

 

She wanders off.

 

He remembers the way he used to follow Betsy, sitting in his cab outside Palatine’s campaign headquarters, hoping to catch a glimpse of his angel of salvation.  She seemed so pure and untouchable, so distant.  Beyond human.

 

Arthur is all too human.  He sweats and laughs and smokes and trembles.  He exudes humanity out of every pore.  So much that it hurts.  And here Travis is again, obsessing, following the compass needle in the center of his chest.

 

Bad habits, he thinks.  Bad habits.

 

The door to Ha-Ha’s swings open and Arthur emerges, now in full makeup with his green wig on.  Travis watches him in the rearview mirror as Arthur makes his way down the street.  Travis turns the car and slowly follows him, hanging back at a discreet distance, but never letting him out of his sight.

 

He ought to be working.  He’s got rent to pay.  Instead, he’s stalking a clown.

 

But he keeps thinking about the first time he saw Arthur, sitting in an alley, bruised and bloodied, the broken pieces of his sign scattered around him.  And Travis knew, just looking at him, that that wasn’t the first time he’d been beaten up.  That this guy was accustomed to getting kicked around.

 

Arthur is someone who needs protecting.  Someone who needs watching over.

 

Travis knows he’s rationalizing his own obsession.  But he doesn’t think he’s mistaken, either.

 

* * *

 

Another store closing.  Another sign-spinning gig.  Arthur has practiced the movements hundreds of times.  He twirls the sign through the air, moves his body in time to the music.

 

He couldn’t take the whole bouquet with him, but he tucked one of the daffodils into the front of his shirt.  It peeks out from his pocket.

 

The piano player pounds on the keys, and a jaunty ragtime tune rises above the dull hubbub of traffic.

 

Across the street he glimpses a cluster of teenagers lurking, watching him with smirks on their faces, and his stomach sinks.

 

They can’t be the same ones who beat him up, can they?  He’s in an entirely different part of the city. 

 

He keeps spinning and dancing, watching them from the corner of his eye.  They cross the street, moving toward him, and his chest clenches. 

 

No.  Not again, please.  His bruises haven’t even healed yet.

 

He should have taken the gun.  Maybe if he just fired a warning shot they would leave him alone.  Too late now.  What is he supposed to do?  If they grab his sign, Hoyt will take it out of his paycheck again.  Worse, he might get fired.  Hoyt didn’t believe him the first time—why would he now?  He can't afford to lose this job.

 

Arthur’s own ragged breathing fills his ears.

 

The teenagers advance toward him, grinning like hyenas.

 

Arthur’s breathing comes faster and louder.

 

“Hey,” says a familiar voice.

 

Arthur freezes, clutching his sign.  There’s a cab parked by the side of the road.  Travis steps outside it, wearing sunglasses and his usual brown jacket.

 

“Hey,” he says again, pointing at the gang, “you screwheads.  I’m talkin’ to you.”

 

The teenagers stop, turn toward him, frowning.  “What?”

 

“Stay the fuck away from that clown,” he says.

 

“What’s it to you?” the largest boy shouts.  He swaggers toward Travis.  “You his bodyguard or somethin’?”

 

“Or something.”  Travis bares his teeth in a smile.  “Just back off.”

 

You back off!  There’s four of us and one of you.  What the fuck are you gonna do?”

 

Travis's teeth remained bared in that tight, mirthless smile.  “You wanna try me?”

 

Arthur’s chest tightens.  If Travis gets hurt on his account he’ll never forgive himself.  “Travis!  Just go!  I’ll be fine!”

 

Travis glances in his direction.  “Don’t worry,” he says.  “This won’t take long.”

 

Passers-by give them a wide berth, instinctively avoiding the confrontation.  In Gotham, the usual response to street violence is to avert one’s eyes and quickly keep walking.  People who get involved get hurt.

 

Arthur stands rigid, frozen, mind racing in every direction.

 

The boy lunges at Travis and swings a fist.

 

Travis catches it easily and yanks the boy’s arm behind his back.  The boy howls.

 

The others rush at him, all at once.  Travis’ leg shoots out in a blur of movement, and in an instant one of them is on his back, gasping like a beached fish.  Travis spins and knees the other one in the groin, and he stumbles back, clutching himself, his mouth twisted in a grimace of pain.

 

The first boy wrenches free of Travis’s grip, moaning.  “You asshole!  You broke my fuckin’ arm!”

 

“No I didn’t.  Don’t be a pussy.”

 

The boy pulls out a switchblade, and it springs open.  His eyes gleam, wild and white-edged.  He rushes at Travis, blade in hand.

 

“Travis!” Arthur shouts.  “Watch o—”

 

Travis steps casually to one side and sticks a foot out.  The boy trips with a yelp and goes flying.  The switchblade flies from his hand and skitters across the pavement, disappearing beneath a parked car.  The boy falls facedown on the street.  A car honks and veers around him as he staggers to his feet, his nose bloodied and mashed from the fall.

 

“You done?” Travis asks.  “Or you wanna dance some more?”

 

The boys hesitate, staring at him.

 

Travis flexes his wrists, cracking the joints, his smile still fixed in place.  "Your move," he says.

 

The gang scatters like a flock of sparrows.  “Psycho!” one boy yells over his shoulder, his face flushed and shiny with sweat.  "Freak!"

 

Arthur stands, clutching his sign.  The accompanying piano player has stopped and stares with his mouth open.  Travis approaches calmly.  “Were those the guys who hurt you before?” he asks.

 

“I—I think so.”

 

“Well, I don’t think they’ll bother you again.”  Travis takes his sunglasses off and slides them into his pocket.  He glances at the daffodil peeking out of Arthur’s pocket, then meets his eyes.  His gaze is steady, his expression calm.

 

“Thank you,” Arthur says, breathless.

 

“No problem.  Anyway…didn’t mean to interrupt your work.  Go on.”

 

“Wait.  Did you—did you come to see me?  How did you know I was working here today?”

 

Travis hesitates.  He shifts his weight.  “I followed you.  From the building.” 

 

Maybe that should worry Arthur.  But he just avoided a probable beating, thanks to Travis.  It’s hard to complain.  He opens his mouth to ask if Travis is the one who sent the flowers, then closes it.  “Do, uh…do you want to do something tonight?” he asks instead.

 

“Like a movie or somethin’?”

 

“Sure.  Like that.”

 

“When do you get off work?”

 

He fumbles with his sign.  “Six.”

 

Travis nods.  “I’ll meet you back at Ha-Ha’s then.  How’s that?”

 

“Okay.”

 

“I’m gonna go get a cinnamon roll,” Travis says.  “With extra icing.  I haven’t had breakfast yet.  You want one?”

 

“I’m all right.  Thanks.”

 

Travis nods, start to turn, and stops.  “Your wig’s crooked.”  He reaches out and adjusts it, then walks to the curb and gets into his cab.  Arthur watches as it pulls away.

 

* * *

 

When Arthur leaves Ha-Ha’s, later that afternoon, Travis is already parked and waiting outside.

 

Arthur hangs in the doorway, clutching his bouquet of daffodils in one hand and staring at the idling yellow cab.  He can just make out Travis’s silhouette through the windshield.

 

Already he can feel Travis’s presence taking up an inordinate amount of space in his life and heart, expanding to fill every corner of his awareness.  The journals, the phone call, the flowers.  Travis showing up out of nowhere to rescue him from the street-punks.  Now this.  No space to catch his breath or process it all.   It's intoxicating.  Frightening.  For so long, Arthur lived each day feeling invisible, never even sure if he really existed.  Travis makes him absolutely certain of his existence.  He has never felt so seen.

 

He called his mother earlier, before leaving work, to tell her he would be home late.  I’m going to see a movie.  That was all he said.

 

The cab window rolls down.  Travis extends an arm to wave to him.

 

Arthur approaches the cab.  “These are from you?”  He holds up the daffodils.

 

“Yeah.  They’re from me.”  He leans over and pats the passenger seat.  “Get in.”

 

Arthur opens the door and slides in.  The cab smells of cigarettes and pine-scented air freshener.  Beneath that is the faint smell of Travis himself.  Arthur runs his fingers over the faux-wood interior of the cab.  Travis cranks up the heat.  It’s cold out.

 

Arthur wonders if they’re going to talk about last night.  About…any of this.  He wets his lips.  Every nerve feels alive, hyper-aware.  He jiggles one knee.

 

“Here.”  Travis hands him something.  Arthur’s journal.  “Figured you’d want it back.”

 

“Thank you.  I didn’t bring yours.”

 

“That’s fine.  I told you to keep it, remember?”

 

The cab is still in park.  Raindrops spatter onto the windshield.  The wipers swish, smearing them.  The neon glow of the signs and stoplights bleeds into the water.  Arthur’s gaze keeps flicking to Travis’s profile.  Lingering on his lips. 

 

“Oh hey,” Travis says.  “You’ve got a little—” he reaches out, and one warm, calloused thumb brushes the corner of Arthur’s lower lip.

 

Arthur gives a start.  “What are you—?”

 

“Paint,” Travis says.  “You had some red paint there, on your mouth.”

 

“Oh.  I guess I wiped my makeup off in a hurry.”  Arthur checks his reflection in the rearview mirror.  His heart is beating rapidly.  He can still feel the brush of Travis’s thumb on his lower lip.  The touch was light, almost ticklish, but the memory of it echoes through his whole body, down to the marrow of his bones.  He smooths his shirt self-consciously.

 

“You’re good at that stuff,” Travis says.  “The clown stuff.  Dancing, spinning that sign.  That takes some skills.”

 

“What you did was pretty impressive, too.”

 

Travis shrugs.  “Not really.  Hurting people is easy.  Making them smile—that’s tough.”  He grips the steering wheel, eases the cab into the flow of traffic. 

 

“Where are we going?”

 

“Figured we could grab a bite to eat before the movie.  Unless you want to just get something there.  They sell hot dogs and popcorn at the theater.”

 

“I’d be fine with that.”  He doesn’t have much of an appetite.  His stomach is fluttering too much.  “Travis…last night…was that…”  He trails off, not even sure what he wants to say.

 

“You jerked off, right?”

 

A strangled sound escapes Arthur’s throat.  He ducks his head, face burning.  He had a feeling Travis knew, but still.  He didn’t expect him to say it that bluntly.  “Yes,” he replies in a small voice.

 

“Thought so.”

 

“I…is that okay?  You’re not…you don’t think I’m disgusting?”

 

“If I thought you were disgusting, would I be taking you out to a movie right now?”

 

“I guess not.”  Arthur swallows.  He keeps smoothing his shirt compulsively, adjusting the collar, fiddling with the sleeves.  “Travis?  Can I ask you a personal question?”

 

Travis nods.

 

“Is this…normal…for you?  I mean…”  He trails off.  He’s not even sure what he’s asking.

 

For a minute or two, Travis is silent.

 

“I’m used to being alone,” he says at last.  “Haven’t had any action at all for the past few years, to tell the truth.  Not since that whole thing back in New York.  And even before that…I mean, I had a couple of girlfriends since I came back from ‘Nam, but nothing that lasted.  Nothing real.”  His gaze remains fixed on the road ahead.  “It was like the war broke something in me and I didn’t know how to be with another person anymore.  Maybe I never really knew.  Before that, all I had were high school flings.  Two kids fumbling around in the back of a car.  That sorta thing.  I’ve never really been a person who has relationships.  Sounds pretty pathetic when I say it all out loud like that, but there you go.  So to answer...no, whatever 'this' is, it isn't normal for me.  You?”

 

“I’ve never…”  Arthur’s voice catches in his throat.  He wonders for a moment if he really wants to confess this.  But if not now, when?  It won't get less awkward with time.  “I’ve never been in a relationship at all.  I’ve never…been with anyone.  In that way.”

 

Travis looks at him.  His expression is hard to read.  “Never?”

 

Arthur shakes his head.  He desperately wants a cigarette, just to have something to do with his hands, but he doesn’t have a pack with him.  He rubs the back of one hand across his lips.  His stomach is a tight, hard ball. 

 

Travis stares out the windshield.  His breathing has gone a little funny.  Unsteady.

 

Arthur chokes out a cackle and presses a hand over his mouth.  He hunches over, struggling to breathe through his laughter, waiting for it to pass.

 

He knows that it’s weird, being a virgin at his age.  It’s a sign that something is deeply wrong with him.  The laughing doesn’t help.  But it’s more than that—even when he manages to control his laughter, girls always seem to find him creepy.  Off-putting.  His early experiences with dating were traumatic.  They always, always ended in humiliation.  At a certain point he just stopped trying.  It hurt too much. 

 

When the laughter finally tapers off, he leans back in the passenger seat, chest heaving.  “Sorry.”

 

“Don’t worry about it.”

 

“So what movie are we going to?” Arthur asks, trying to sound casual.

 

Travis clears his throat.  “Anything you wanna see?”  His voice comes out a little husky.

 

“I don’t even know what’s out right now.  What about you?”

 

“Ah…well, there’s one I got in mind.  But it might not be your thing.”

 

“I’m sure it’s fine.  Unless...it's not too gory, is it?  I don't watch horror movies.”

 

"No.  No gore."  Travis wets his lip with the tip of his tongue.  “Theater’s coming up ahead.  Let me find a place to park.”

 

Chapter Text

Arthur stands in front of the theater, staring at the marquee.  “The Fox and the Hound?”

 

“Yeah.”  Travis stands next to him, hands in his pockets, awkwardly rocking back on his heels.  “It’s the new Disney flick.”  He clears his throat.  “Like I said—if it’s not your thing, there’s other stuff playin’.  Or we could just go eat.”

 

“You aren’t worried that people will think it’s weird?  Two grown men watching a kids’ movie?”

 

“Who cares what they think?  It’s a free country.  We can goddamn well watch a talking animal flick if we want to.”

 

Travis keeps finding new ways to surprise him.  A sharp little laugh escapes his throat.  “You know, for a moment back there, I thought you were going to take me to…um…”

 

“Somethin’ with more nipples?  Well, there’s an adult theater right down the street if that’s more your speed.”

 

“Oh no, n-no.”  Sure, he looks at that sort of thing in private, but the idea of sitting in a theater with other people—with Travis—and watching people have sex on screen…the mere thought makes him want to hide his face.  “I couldn’t.”

 

“I figured.”  He smiles.

 

But now Arthur's curiosity is piqued.  He looks around to make sure no one is standing nearby.  His voice drops to a whisper.  “Do you go to those kinds of movies?”

 

“Sure I do.”

 

“What are the people there like?  In the audience, I mean.”

 

“Just regular people.  Guys like me.  Sometimes couples.”

 

“Women go to dirty movies too?”  He feels so naive, asking questions like this—things that are probably common knowledge—but he knows Travis won’t laugh at him.

 

“Sure.  Usually with their boyfriends though.  Not alone.  They probably worry if they come in alone they’ll get hit on by creeps like me.”

 

“You aren’t a creep.”

 

“No, trust me, I’m the biggest creep you’ll ever meet.  I actually tried that once, you know, when I was younger.  Hitting on a girl at a dirty movie.  ‘Oh, you like porn?  I like porn too, we must be soulmates, let’s get some coffee sometime.  Don’t worry, I’m a real fuckin’ gentleman.’  That’s not word for word, but it was about that bad.  She was like, ‘uh, hang on, I’m gonna go get some popcorn’ and then never came back in.  And I’m sitting there wondering why she ditched me.”

 

“Oh god.”  Arthur is laughing harder now, muffling the sound with one hand.  “I could never do that.”

 

“That’s a good thing.  You’ve got some common sense.”

 

Arthur hiccuped out a last giggle.  His face felt flushed, his lips still stretched into a smile, but it’s an actual smile—not the pained grimace that accompanies his compulsive laughing-fits.  “No…I have no common cents at all.  I’m just not that brave.  That’s all.”  His smile fades a little.

 

It’s not like he’s any better at talking to women.  He vaguely remembers, in the months leading up to his suicide attempt and his time in Arkham…there was a pretty girl who worked in a nearby diner.  She was nice to him.  One day he had a fit in front of her and showed her his card, and she said, “Oh, I’m sorry,” and put a hand on his arm.  He’d started fantasizing about her, going to the diner just to see her, even following her after work, rationalizing that he was just making sure she got safely to her subway stop.  Gotham was a dangerous place, after all.

 

Unsurprisingly, she hadn’t felt safer with a mysterious hooded figure tailing her through the darkened streets.  One night she called the police from a payphone that happened to be near the station.  The police showed up and arrested him, brought him in, kept him locked for hours in a tiny cell-like room with a bright light that hurt his eyes, questioned him about why he'd been following that woman.  He laughed and laughed through his tears.  Somethin' funny, you asshole?  He gave them his card with one trembling hand and pleaded, telling them that he wasn't planning to hurt her, he just liked her, that was all, he hadn't meant to frighten her, he’d never do it again, he was sorry, he was so sorry.  They grimaced at him with pity-tinged disgust, as though he were a diseased rat dying in a trap.  Fuckin' creep.  The woman didn't press charges.  They let him go after one night.  But he remembers the shame, the burning knife of shame, knowing he’d brought it on himself, his mother crying when she found out…

 

“Arthur.” 

 

His breath catches.  Travis’s hand rests on his shoulder.  "Wh...what?"

 

“Your eyes got that look again,” Travis says.  “Like you were in another place.”

 

“I—I’m fine now.”  He keeps his gaze on his feet, struggling to control his breathing.  “I just remembered something…something bad I did.  It wasn’t…I didn’t hurt anyone, I just…scared her.  I didn’t mean to.  I was lonely, and…”

 

“It’s okay.  You don’t have to talk about it.  Unless you want to.”

 

He shakes his head.

 

Travis’s hand lingers on his shoulder.  “It’s in the past, whatever it is.”  Travis gives his shoulder a brief squeeze, then releases him.

 

Arthur takes a breath.  His memories have a way of ambushing him.  His own brain is such an unpredictable, turbulent place—one moment he’s smiling and having fun, the next he can’t stop shaking.  “So, uh…we’re seeing Fox and the Hound?”

 

“If you're okay with that.  I haven’t seen a Disney movie since I was a little kid.  I just figured, y’know.  Somethin' clean.”

 

“I would like to see it.”

 

They buy their food—two hotdogs, a large popcorn with extra butter and a package of Goobers—and find a pair of seats in the back of the theater.  Travis hands him a foil-wrapped hotdog.  Arthur unwraps it and takes a bite.  His stomach shifts a bit, then settles, deciding to accept the food.

 

A forest scene unfold across the screen, all warm, muted colors and birdsong.  A fox is fleeing through the woods, carrying her cub in her mouth.  The barks of hunting dogs echo in the background.

 

The fox mother hides her cub near a fence at the edge of the farm, then dashes off into the forest, leading the hounds away from him.  A shot rings out.

 

The opening credits have barely finished rolling and the parent has already died a violent death, leaving her offspring alone and shivering in a hostile world.  Well, it is a Disney movie, after all.

 

“You want Coke?” Travis asks.  “I got Coke too.”

 

“Sure.”

 

A kindly widow finds and raises the orphaned fox cub, who befriends a hound pup owned by the neighbor—a bushy-bearded hunter.  The movie’s gentle, ambling pace and easygoing charm masks a looming sense of tragedy and injustice that itches under Arthur’s skin.  The hunter is a trigger-happy, vindictive bully, forever trying to shoot the fox—now a domesticated and harmless pet—for no real reason, except that he can, because foxes have no rights.  But the man is presented as just lovably cantankerous and quirky enough that Arthur knows the story will not punish him too harshly for his actions.  He’ll get away with it, because that’s how it happens in real life.

 

Even watching the fox and puppy frolic in the grass, there is a bittersweet melancholy, a sense that it can’t last.  They are not supposed to be together.  The two of them have to hide, sneaking around to avoid the hunter, snatching a few precious moments of play when no one is looking.

 

Travis puts a hand on Arthur’s knee.  Arthur’s heartbeat quickens.

 

It isn’t exactly a sexual touch, but it’s not platonic, either.  There is a strangely casual intimacy in it, as though Travis has done this a thousand times before.  Arthur breathes low in his throat.  His entire awareness contracts to that point of physical contact, the warmth and shape of Travis’s fingers, separated from his skin only by a thin layer of cloth.

 

He wants to put his hand atop Travis’s, to interlace his fingers with the other man’s.  But he doesn’t quite dare.

 

“Relax,” Travis murmurs, close to his ear.  “No one’s lookin’.”

 

He’s right.  It’s dark in the theater, and they’re in the back, and everyone is focused on the movie anyway.  No one so much as glances in their direction.  Still.

 

Arthur tries to focus on the screen, where the fox and the hound are splashing innocently in a forest pond.  But something stirs and awakens within him, licking like a flame in his lower belly.  A tension, a restless tightness.  He keeps thinking about last night.  About Travis’s voice in his ear, the sound of his breathing…

 

Arthur gulps.  Just feeling that hand on his knee makes his whole body warm.  His other knee jiggles.

 

Oh god.

 

He’s getting an erection.  In a public theater showing a Disney movie.

 

He knows his reaction is completely invisible to everyone except possibly Travis, and his pants are forgivably baggy, but there are families and kids sitting in front of them, and the very idea of anyone seeing the bulge is almost enough to trigger an onslaught of hysterical laughter.  He’ll be thrown out, he’ll be arrested and hauled away in cuffs.  It will be front page news.  DEVIANT CLOWN’S ERECTION TRAUMATIZES THEATER FULL OF CHILDREN.  It will be on television.  Mothers across the country will shriek in horror and cover their children’s eyes so they won’t be scarred by a glimpse of the revolting pervert who committed this crime against humanity, this genocide against innocence and decency.

 

Children’s laughter echoes through the room at the antics of the bird sidekicks hunting down a wily caterpillar.  Before he can stop himself, Arthur wonders what would happen if he gripped Travis’s wrist and moved his hand directly onto his rigid cock.

 

Of course he won’t.  But he could.

 

Don’t think about those things.  Don’t—

 

Even amidst the mounting panic, he can’t help but find the whole situation funny.  His throat constricts, and his chest hurts.  Pressure builds inside.

 

Oh no.  No, no, no.

 

The movie has moved onto a more quiet, serious moment.  If he laughs now...

 

Travis’s hand lifts from his knee.  Maybe he heard the frantic escalation of Arthur’s breathing.  But it’s too late.

 

Arthur shrieks out laughter.  The sound ricochets like a bullet through the darkness of the theater.  Heads turn toward him.  A woman scowls and puts a finger to her lips.

 

He can’t stop.  He ducks his head and buries his face in the crook of his arm.  A ripple of disapproving murmurs passes through the crowd.  Angry voices hiss.

 

“What’s so funny?”

 

“Keep it down!”

 

Travis leans toward him.  “Just ignore them.”

 

But Arthur can’t.  “S-sorry.  I…I need to…”  He lurches to his feet and stumbles toward the exit.

 

Out in the hallway, he doubles over, face still buried in his arm, gasping and whooping with laughter.  His stomach squirms, and for a moment he thinks he’s going to throw up right here in the hall, and wouldn’t that be a charming end to the evening.

 

The laughs pour out of him, sounding more like moans or sobs.  At the end of the hallway, a janitor is sweeping trash into a dustbin.  She stares at him for a moment, then hurries away, disappearing into the lobby.

 

Arthur feels a hand on his back.  Travis.  “You okay?”

 

Arthur’s eyes burn with tears of humiliation.  He squeezes them shut and shakes his head.  “I c-can’t…ha ha ha!  I can’t…s-s-stop.”

 

By now, he thinks, Travis must be getting impatient with him.  He already had one near-panic attack outside the theater, thinking about something that happened years ago, and now…

 

Travis pulls him into a hug.  One hand slides into his hair.  The other rubs up and down his back.  “I got you,” he murmurs.

 

They might be seen.  The hallway is quiet and still for now, but anyone could walk past them.

 

A distant memory echoes down the corridors of his brain, a man’s voice growling, Fucking little fairy.  Whose voice, he has no idea.  He doesn’t remember half of the bad things that happened to him when he was younger, and that’s probably a mercy.  But his body remembers.  His muscles tense as if bracing against a blow.  His stomach muscles contract.

 

“Ah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!”

 

In the theater, dimly, he can hear the owl character singing to the fox:  Ka-blam, elimination!  Lack of education!  If you pal around with that Copper hound, you’ll wind up hanging on the wall…

 

He buries his face in the hollow between Travis’s neck and shoulder and laughs some more.  Travis holds him through it.  When it finally tapers off, he feels weak and shaky, hollowed out.

 

“We can leave if you want,” Travis says.

 

It’s tempting.  Right now, he just wants to hide.  The idea of walking back into the theater, facing the judgmental looks and whispers, is terrifying.  If he were alone, he would leave now, quietly, without making eye contact with anyone.

 

But he’s with Travis.  Travis wanted to take him out to a movie.  And Travis will be sitting next to him in the theater.  Arthur’s mind flashes back to the group of teenagers who beat him up, the calm, competent, almost casual way Travis dealt with them—neutralizing the threat without actually injuring anyone.  Well, one had gotten his nose bloodied, but the ground had technically done that.

 

Travis won’t let anyone hurt him.  He feels that in his bones.

 

Arthur steps back and wipes his eyes.  “I’m okay now,” he says.  “I want to see the rest of the movie.”

 

“You sure?”

 

He manages a small smile and nods.

 

Travis hesitates.  “Did I do something I shouldn’t, in there?”

 

Arthur shakes his head.  “It felt nice.  Sometimes the laughing just…happens.”

 

Travis nods uncertainly.  They walk back into the theater, take their seats.

 

He makes it through the rest of the movie without incident.  Somehow, Arthur finds the courage to reach out and takes Travis’s hand.  Travis looks at him with a hint of surprise, and Arthur smiles.  No one can see them, after all.  They sit there in the darkness together, holding hands, watching as the fox—now grown up and handsome, but still naïve and clumsy—makes a fool of himself in front of the girl fox.  She laughs, and he storms off in a fit of wounded pride, then returns holding a flower of apology in his mouth.  The soulful-voiced owl sings a song about mutual attractions and natural reactions.  And because it is a Disney movie and the boy and girl always wind up together, everything works out.

 

* * *

 

Later, as they walk out of the theater, Arthur asks, “What did you think of it?  The movie.”

 

“Not bad.  I liked that woodpecker, what was it, Boomer.  And the other bird.  It was funny how they were obsessed with hunting down that one caterpillar—like, what makes that one different from all the other caterpillars?  Just that it kept getting away, I guess.  That was kinda funny.  The songs were weak as shit though.  They don’t write ‘em like they used to.  I mean, ‘When You Wish Upon a Star,’ Jiminy Cricket?  That’s a fuckin’ classic.  What’d you think?”

 

“It was good.  Just...kind of sad.” 

 

Travis stopped, tilting his head slightly.  “It had a happy ending though, didn’t it?  The fox and the dog, they both turned out okay.”

 

“Yes, but…they weren’t together."  They couldn’t be.  They still loved each other, but it wasn’t enough.

 

Travis shrugs.  “They had their own things going on.  The fox got a girlfriend.  Probably gonna have a bunch of little…what do you call baby foxes, pups?”

 

“Cubs, I think.”

 

They linger together outside the theater.  Rain patters softly around them.  It always seems to be raining in Gotham.  Arthur wraps his arms around himself, shivering a little in the chill.  "It reminded me of certain things about the world, I guess."

 

“Hey listen, I didn’t mean for it to bum you out,” Travis says.  “I guess I don’t have very good luck picking out movies.”

 

“It’s not like that.  I enjoyed it.  I’m glad you brought me here.  I just wish it had ended differently.”

 

“Well, who knows.  Maybe they’ll make a sequel.”

 

He thinks about Travis’s hand, resting on his leg—the gentle, possessive familiarity.  He thinks about his own reaction, his instinctive fear of being seen.

 

“You want me to drive you home?” Travis asks.

 

“Sure.”

 

* * *

 

Shortly after, the cab pulls onto Arthur’s street.  “Here it is,” Arthur says.

 

Travis peers out the window, surveying the drab, prison-like apartment building.  “This is where you live?”

 

“It’s not the nicest place, I know.”

 

“Mine’s no better.  Probably worse, actually.”

 

“I doubt that.”  Arthur gives him a small smile.  “I’d invite you up for coffee, but…my mother is probably still awake, and…”

 

“I get it.  I’ll just walk you to the front door.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

They walk up to the main doors of the building.  Arthur hesitates outside, clutching the bouquet of daffodils at his side.  He and Travis stand there, looking at each other.

 

“Thank you,” Arthur says.  “For taking me out.” 

 

“So polite.”

 

“What’s wrong with that?”

 

“Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.”  Travis takes a step toward him.  “You want something, don’t you?”

 

“I—” he gulps, then blurts it out before he can lose his courage:  “I want to…k-kiss you.”

 

“You know, I like it when your voice gets all soft and quivery like that.”  Travis takes another step forward.  His own voice has dropped to a hoarse whisper.  “I like it a lot.”

 

His hands come up to frame Arthur’s face, cupping his cheeks.  Arthur stares up at him, heart thundering in his chest.  Travis’s thumb touches the corner of his mouth, then travels up to brush across the little groove running from the side of his upper lip.  “You’re beautiful.  You know that?”

 

“I—”

 

Before he can say more, Travis’s lips are on his.

 

The kiss is soft.  Almost chaste.  Arthur closes his eyes, and a tremor runs from the base of his spine, up through his back.  Warm.  So warm.

 

The kiss lingers a few breaths longer.  When they separate, Arthur’s head has gone blank.  A pleasant buzzing fills the space between his ears, a faint electric static, like he’s just awakened from a smooth and painless shock treatment.  This, he thinks, is what it’s supposed to feel like.  He has been found.  Slowly, like a sleepwalker, he reaches up to touch Travis’s cheek.

 

“I am so glad I met you,” he whispers.  “I never knew that something like this was possible.”

 

“Same.”  He’s still holding Arthur’s face, palms warm against his skin.  “You believe in fate?”

 

Arthur hesitates.  He doesn't think there's a plan to any of this, really.  He suspects that all the people in the world are just billiard balls bouncing around, ricocheting off each other and shooting off in every direction.  Maybe it's like that with him and Travis, too.  If one or both of their angles had been slightly different they would have missed each other, and their lives would have gone off in two separate directions, and they would have lived out the rest of their years never knowing how close they had come to connecting.  It's a frightening thought, one that makes him want to believe in fate.  But he says, "No," because it's the truth.

 

“I believe in fate,” Travis says.  “I believe in God too.  I don’t know which one.  But I think there’s something there.  Something watching us.  I believe we're all born with a purpose.”

 

Arthur doesn’t believe in God, either.  Maybe he’s seen too many kids with terminal cancer in his line of work.  Maybe it’s just easier not to.  To him it’s always felt like the world is in free fall, like there’s nothing holding it all together, no greater purpose.  His mother always told him that he was put on this Earth to spread joy and laughter, but if that’s true, he hasn’t done such a great job.  It seems more likely that he wasn’t put here for any reason at all.

 

“I think we’re alone,” he says quietly.  “I think all we have is each other.  Human beings, I mean.  That’s…that’s why I never understood why so many people are so rude.  So cruel.  If there’s nothing else, then we have to be good to each other.  We have to take care of each other.  No one else will.”

 

Travis’s thumbs brush over his cheekbones, sending tingles feathering through his nerves.  “I want to take care of you.”

 

Rain drips softly from the concrete roof overhanging the main doors.  Arthur doesn’t move.  He doesn’t want to.  He wants to stand there for the rest of the night, feeling Travis’s hands on his face, being seen.

 

“You’re a virgin,” Travis says, as though to confirm.

 

“Yes.”

 

“You’ve never been touched.  By anyone.”

 

“No.”

 

Travis drags in a slow, shivering breath.  “If…if I start pushing too hard and too fast, you gotta tell me.  Okay?  I don’t wanna hurt you.  I don’t wanna ruin this.”

 

“Travis…I know I’m inexperienced, but I’m not a kid.  I’m older than you are.  You don’t have to treat me like I’m made of glass.”

 

Travis’s thumbs caress his neck, slide behind his ears.  He smiles.  There’s a twinkle of something canine and hungry in his brown eyes.  “You sure?  ‘Cause I can be kinda rough.”

 

Arthur’s pulse quickens.  Vague, half-formed fantasies flit through the back of his head.  Thoughts he’s never allowed himself to dwell on.  “Maybe I wouldn’t mind,” he whispers hoarsely.

 

Travis’s breathing grows harsher, more ragged.  His eyes dilate, turning smoky and dark.  He reaches out, gathers a fistful of Arthur’s shirt in one hand, and pushes him up against the wall.  Then Travis’s lips are on his again, but this time the kiss is neither soft nor chaste.

 

Arthur’s eyes widen, then roll back.  The daffodils slip from his hand and tumble to the pavement.  And then his arms are around Travis, and his back is scraping against the rough bricks of the building, and his mouth is open and his brain is sparking and fizzing like a mass of frayed wires.  He barely recognizes the needy little sounds coming from his own throat.  Like a baby animal, blind and hungry.

 

“You taste like smoke,” Travis murmurs against Arthur’s lips.

 

He starts to say sorry but before he can get a single syllable out, Travis’s tongue is dipping into his mouth.  Arthur laps at him hungrily, clumsily.  He doesn’t know how to kiss.  Not like this.  He feels like he’s doing it wrong—he’s a slobbering spastic mess, no control or finesse, hands grabbing and pawing at Travis’s hair and jacket as he melts into the wall.  His cock strains against his pants, a trapped thing trying to burst free.

 

He wants to touch himself.  Needs to.  But some distant warning bell sounds in the corner of his head.  Anyone could see them here.  They’re right in front of the building, clearly visible from the street.  “Travis,” he gasps.  “Around…b-behind…”

 

That’s about as articulate as he can get, right now, but Travis seems to understand.  He grabs Arthur’s wrist, and they dash around to the side of the building, into a narrow, shadowed alley.  A rat scurries away and disappears behind a bag of garbage.

 

Travis promptly pins him against the wall again.  His mouth latches onto Arthur’s neck, sucking his skin, drawing it up between his teeth.  Arthur grabs Travis’s hair and pulls his head up for another kiss.  Their teeth clank together.  Arthur’s hips buck into the air.

 

And then Travis’s knee is between his thighs, rubbing against the aching center of need there.  Arthur moans, long and shuddering, and Travis swallows the sound.  Arthur arches against him, his cock trapped between Travis’s knee and his own belly.  His body moves of its own accord, hips bucking and pushing forward, grinding against Travis’s leg.

 

“Arthur,” Travis growls into his mouth.  “Fuck…I, I wanna…”

 

Travis’s fingers are tangled in his hair.  Their mouths are fused together.  Arthur could cum just like this, riding Travis’s knee.  His balls are painfully full and tight, pulsing in rhythm with his heartbeat.  He feels swelled, stretched like a balloon filled with too much air, on the verge of bursting. 

 

It’s happening, he thinks, dazed.  I’m about to—to—

 

His hips thrust forward again, and that’s enough to bring him over the edge.  He explodes.  His whole body jerks with a shock, warmth filling his boxers.  His teeth lock down on Travis’s lower lip, squeezing, and hot copper-sharp blood splashes onto his tongue.

 

They break apart, gasping for breath.  Travis’s eyes are wide and dazed.  Blood trickles from his torn lower lip.  Slowly—as if in a trance—he reaches up to rub a finger over the cut, spreading it over his lips like makeup.

 

Above, a moth beats itself against the glass of a streetlight.  Tap, tap, tap.

 

“I’m sorry,” Arthur says, breathlessly.  “I didn’t mean t—”

 

A warm, rough palm covers his lips, cutting off the apology, then slowly slides away.  Travis leans forward, resting his forehead against Arthur’s.  He kisses him again—softly.  Arthur licks his lips and tastes Travis’s blood on them.

 

Hot cum trickles down his leg.  He wonders if every encounter with Travis is going to end with his boxers sticky and wet.

 

He leans against the wall, head tipped back, panting.  Sweat trickles down his sides and neck, tiny bullets of moisture turning to ice in the cold air.

 

“Arthur?”

 

He doesn’t respond immediately.  His heartbeat thunders through his body.  He feels like someone has just pulled all the thoughts from his head, stuffed them into a blender, set it to puree, and then returned the scrambled contents to his skull.

 

Many times, over the years, Arthur has fantasized about his first sexual experience.  He never imagined it like this.  Pushed against a wall, another man’s knee pressed up against his cock…it all happened so quickly.

 

“Arthur.  Talk to me.” 

 

“I’m fine,” he says.  “Just…catching my breath.”

 

Travis touches his face, tilts his head carefully forward and leans in to look into Arthur’s eyes—a long, careful, worried look, like a doctor examining a patient for signs of trauma.  The comparison is a little too apt, and Arthur starts to giggle, which just deepens the worried look on Travis’s face.

 

“Hey,” he says.  “Hey.  Did I hurt you?”

 

“No.”

 

“Because I know I got a little carried away—”

 

“Please.”  He’s smiling, floating somewhere above his body.  A bit of a Southern lilt creeps into his voice.  “I told you.  I’m not that delicate, soldier-boy.  I can handle a little manhandling.”

 

“You’re crying.”

 

“Am I?”  Arthur blinks a few times.  Sure enough, his eyes are wet.  He laughs again, softly, rubbing at his face with the heel of one hand.  “I’m just…feeling.  A lot.  Right now.”

 

“What do you need?”

 

He lets his head fall back against the wall again and breathes slowly, chest rising and falling.  He feels altered on a cellular level—reconfigured, reborn.  He touches his own neck, his cheeks and lips, refamiliarizing himself with himself.

 

“I think I should go inside,” Arthur says.  “My mother is probably waiting for me.  She worries when I stay out too late.”

 

“Okay.”  A pause.  “I’ll see you real soon.  Call me whenever you want.  Okay?  You’ve got my number.”  Another pause.  “If I don’t answer it’s probably ‘cause I’m out working.  But I’m usually home in the mornings.”

 

“All right.  I’ll—I’ll call you.”

 

They walk back to the front of the building.  Still shaky, he picks up the daffodils he dropped and unlocks the main door to his apartment building.

 

“Oh wait.  Here.”  Travis presses something into his hand.  Arthur’s journal.  “Don’t forget this.”

 

“Thank you."  He tucks it into his jacket.  "I’ll see you soon, Travis.”

 

He walks inside.  His feet don’t seem to touch the floor.

 

When he opens the door to his apartment, his mother is awake and sitting on the living room couch.  The TV is tuned to an old gameshow.  “Hi, Mom.”

 

She turns toward him.  “You were gone an awfully long time.”

 

“I just went to see a movie.”

 

“Those flowers…”

 

He glances at the bouquet in his hand.  For a moment, he considers just telling her the truth.  Sooner or later he will.  But he’s in no state right now for that conversation.  “I bought them,” he says.  “After work.  I thought it would be nice to have flowers in the house.”  He fetches a tall glass from the kitchen, fills it with water, and puts the daffodils inside.  He sets the glass on the coffee table in front of her.  “They brighten up the place, don’t they?”

 

“They are pretty.”  She sounds doubtful, though.

 

He still feels weird.  Detached.  Disassociated.  As though his soul has been knocked loose inside him and is drifting around, untethered.

 

He’s suddenly, acutely conscious of the warm spunk in his pants, still trailing down his leg.  “Um.  I’m going to get changed.  I’ll be right back.”

 

In the bedroom, he hurriedly strips off his clothes and slips into a t-shirt and sweatpants.  He balls up his boxers and shoves them to the bottom of the laundry bin so the stain won’t be visible.  Heat burns in his ears and cheeks.

 

When he returns to the living room, his mother is still curled up on the couch, watching the TV.

 

“I missed you today,” she said.  “I missed watching Murray with you.”

 

“I’ll watch it with you tomorrow.  I promise.  It’s late, now.  You should get to bed.”  He lifts her in his arms and carries her into the bedroom.

 

Arthur is not especially strong, but she’s easy to pick up, as though she’s made from dry straw.  She’s gotten thinner.  Frailer.  He tries not to worry about it.  There's not much he can do.

 

“Did you check the mail?” she asks him as he tucks her in.

 

“Mom, are you still writing those letters to Thomas Wayne?  It’s been so long since you worked for him.  If he hasn’t replied by now, I don’t think he’s going to.”

 

She sighed.  “He’s not receiving the letters.  I know it.  Someone in the house probably checks the mail for him—maybe his butler.  He must be throwing the letters away.  If Thomas just sees one, I know he'll at least take the time to write back.”

 

“Maybe.”  No point in getting her agitated before bed.

 

“I realize that he’s very busy, but he’s a good man.  If you knew him the way I know him, you’d understand.”

 

“If you say so.”

 

It bothers him, her fixation on Thomas Wayne.  It’s been half a lifetime since she last saw him in person.  And Thomas Wayne has hundreds of people working for him.  To him, Penny was just one of the cleaning staff.  The idea that he would even remember her after all this time, much less care about their plight, strikes Arthur as a fantasy.  A delusion, even.  His mother has always been a little eccentric, but what if this letter-writing obsession is a symptom of something more serious—the early stages of some type of dementia?

 

It’s ironic, he realizes.  Arthur himself is not exactly the picture of mental health.  He recognizes echoes of himself—his own obsessive and delusional tendencies—in her.  And that worries him too.

 

“Are you sleeping here tonight?” she asks.

 

Sometimes Arthur sleeps on the living room couch.  And sometimes, when his back is bothering him, he sleeps in the bed next to his mother.  This is another fact of his existence which he realizes would seem bizarre and creepy to anyone who knew about it, but what are they supposed to do, living in this cramped one-bedroom apartment?  Even buying a second mattress would be a strain on their meager income, and he’s not sure where they’d put it.

 

“I think I’ll stay up and watch TV a little longer.  I’ll keep the volume low so I don’t wake you.”

 

“Don’t stay up too late.  You need your sleep too, you know.”

 

“I know.”  He starts to straighten.

 

She reaches up and touches his neck.  “Happy, what’s this red mark?”

 

He freezes.  In a flash, he remembers Travis’s mouth latched onto his neck.  “It’s…probably just face paint.  From work.”

 

Her brow furrows.  “I don’t think it’s paint.”

 

His mother can be disconcertingly observant at times.  She notices these details, and yet she managed to completely forget Arthur's suicide attempt, and the night he spent in the police station, and a dozen other things.  She sees and remembers only what she wants to.  He sometimes wishes he had that ability, himself.  “I’ll take a look in the mirror.”  He switches off the light.  “Sleep well, Mom.”

 

He walks out of the bedroom, shutting the door, and exhales.

 

He checks his reflection in the bathroom mirror.  Sure enough, there’s a love-bite, standing out like a brand against his pale skin.  He’ll need to find something to cover it with so his mother won’t ask about it at breakfast.  Maybe he can use some of her makeup.

 

In the living room, he finds a letter on the coffee table, addressed to Thomas Wayne, already sealed up.  Arthur picks it up.  He’s never actually read one of his mother’s letters.  He just takes them down the mailbox.  He wonders, not for the first time, what exactly she says to this man.  He starts to slide his thumb under the seal…then stops.  He lets the letter fall from his hand, back to the table.  Reading it would be a violation of her privacy.  She keeps her eyes off his journal, and he stays away from her letters—that’s the unspoken agreement between them.

 

What difference does it make, anyway?  He doubts Thomas Wayne has read a single one.

 

He sits down on the couch, lights a cigarette, and stares at the flowers.

 

He has been in love before.  But it’s never been returned.

 

Easier to watch someone from afar.  Easier to fantasize.  Easier to sit in a corner of a diner staring at the pretty waitress who was nice to him once, imagining what it would be like to love and be loved by her, and then touch himself later in the relative privacy of his apartment.  There’s no possibility of rejection, no risk of loss, if it’s not real.

 

Travis is real. 

 

If I do something to ruin this…if I lose him…

 

Already, he needs Travis so much.  And though he doesn't quite understand how or why, Travis seems to need him, too.  It's confusing.  Overwhelming.  It might be the best thing that has ever happened to him, but if it goes wrong, it will destroy him.  Destroy them both, maybe.

 

He opens his journal and writes, I am in love.  And I’m scared.

Chapter Text

Forty-eight hours, Travis thinks.  Two days since he’s heard from Arthur.

 

Travis works late.  He drives and drives, losing himself in the maze-like tangle of Gotham’s streets.  Garbage everywhere, piling on the curbs, teetering in mountains.  The strike is still going on.

 

Fucking unions.  Like kids throwing a tantrum until they get the toy they want, and fucking up the whole world in the process.

 

He recognizes that these are bitter and unkind thoughts, the sort of thoughts he’s been trying to get away from.  But the thoughts follow him.  They swell and fill his head like tumors.

 

He passes a wall splashed with graffiti.  Lots of FUCK YOUs, a few racial slurs, a big dripping dick sketched in swoops of hot pink spray paint. 

 

Sometimes when he drives these dingy and garbage-choked streets he feels like he’s driving through his own head.  Like the city is a large-scale reproduction of his brain, his heart.  He cannot escape himself.  He is locked in a cage behind his own eyes.

 

In the back of his cab, a pair of businessmen in five-hundred-dollar suits are cackling, swapping filthy jokes and filthy remarks about the secretary at their bank or firm or whatever, talking about her bouncy tits, talking about her ass, talking about what they want to do to it.  Travis looks into the rearview mirror.  He sees a smear of white powder—cocaine—beneath one man’s nose.  They’re grinning and snickering like apes, like oversized little boys smearing boogers on their desks, writing dirty words on the bathroom walls.  Dirty little boys sniffing little girls’ panties, their tongues lolling out like snakes.

 

Trash, he thinks.  These Wall Street types are trash, no better than the thieves and the druggies and gutter rats, except they’re worse, because they think they’re better.

 

Travis is trash, too.  But at least he knows it.  Does that make him better?  Probably not.

 

The sour, dark acid-burn in his stomach churns, sinks its roots deeper into him.

 

His thoughts stray again to Arthur.  To the night before last night. 

 

He drops off the businessmen at their subway stop.  As he drives away he glimpses a cluster of figures on a shadowy corner, under a burned-out streetlight.  There’s a girl.  Young.  Under eighteen, probably.  Skimpy outfit, too much makeup.  A pair of laughing men.  One of them grabs her wrist, which is so bony and frail it looks like it might snap under the pressure. 

 

Her voice floats over the roar of traffic—“Let me go you asshole!”  She tries to pull free, her tone going shrill in panic.  “I said back off!

 

“Come on, baby, don’t be cold.”  More laughing.  “You said you like it a little rough, didn’t you?”

 

“I wanna go home!”  Tears smear her heavy makeup.

 

Travis goes still inside.  He stops the cab.  Gets out.

 

The men turn toward him.  “What the fuck are you looking at, cabbie?” one asks, still gripping the struggling girl’s wrist.

 

The other says, “Mind your own business.”

 

Travis pastes a smile on his face.  “Hey, sorry to bother you.”  He walks toward them, hand extended, grinning.  The men stare at him in cowlike befuddlement.  “I was just in the neighborhood and I wanted to say—”

 

While they're still gaping, Travis’s hand shoots out, grabs the nearest man’s hair, and slams his head twice against a wall.

 

The girl screams.  The other guy shouts, “What the fuck!”

 

The man struggles in Travis's grip, flailing.  The other guy comes at him, yelling incomprehensibly.  Travis releases the first man and shoves him toward the other to buy himself a few seconds.  He bends and picks up an empty beer bottle from the sidewalk.  He swings, smashes it against the attacker’s forehead.  Blood flies through the air, speckles Travis's cheek.

 

Sobbing, the girl turns and runs away—glimpsing her from the corner of his eye, Travis thinks that she really shouldn’t be running in those three-inch purple heels, she’s gonna trip and brain herself on the pavement—then he turns toward the guys, but they’re already running away too.  One of them is stumbling a little, maybe concussed.  The other is shrieking like a siren.

 

They disappear around the corner.  He glances down at the broken, bloodstained bottle in his fist, then he looks around to see if there are any witnesses—more out of idle curiosity than anything.

 

No one is looking.  This is Gotham, after all.

 

There are no trash cans to deposit the broken bottle into.  Every Dumpster is overflowing.  The garbage oozes up out of the city’s seams and spills over everything.  Travis tosses the bottle into a nearby alley, wipes the specks of blood off his cheek with a crumpled napkin from his pocket, and gets back into his cab.

 

He sits there for a few minutes and reflects on how oddly calm he feels.  He just injured two men.  They were about to hurt that woman, but still—his heart should be racing.  He should be sweating, freaking out.  But his heartbeat is steady, his breathing calm.  Violence has no physical effect on him.  Not anymore.  It comes naturally, automatically, like he’s a machine designed for it.

 

He remembers reading an article in the paper, once, that said psychopaths have slower heartbeats than the rest of the population.  They seek out more and more extreme forms of violence because that’s the only way they can feel anything.  Because they're dead inside.  Travis wonders if the writer was talking about him.

 

But he does feel.  When he had Arthur against the wall, his heart-rate sure as hell went up.  Even sitting in the theater with him, holding his hand…there was this warmth, deep in his stomach and chest.  Would a psychopath feel that?  Do monsters experience that warmth?

 

He doesn't know.

 

* * *

 

Five AM.  The sun peeks through the clouds, a smeary, pale glow.

 

Travis makes himself a dinner (or is it breakfast?) of instant macaroni and cheese in a saucepan and washes it down with cheap beer.  He knows he’s not getting his nutrients.  He doesn’t eat too good.  But he’s always been a lousy cook, and he can’t afford decent ingredients anyway.  Mostly his diet consists of instant mac, peanut butter sandwiches, and takeout.

 

He checks the answering machine:  no messages.

 

He touches the phone on his counter, sliding his fingers over the orangey-brown plastic.

 

He wants to call.  He wants to drive back to Arthur’s apartment building and wait there, so he can catch a glimpse of Arthur leaving for work.  He wants to do a lot of things.  But he has told himself he won’t do these things.  He will wait.  He will accept whatever happens.

 

He wonders why Arthur hasn’t called.

 

You know why, asshole.

 

It’s his own fault.

 

He knew Arthur had no sexual experience—no relationship experience either, not that Travis has much in that department himself—and still, when it came time for a goodnight kiss, he shoved Arthur against the wall, rammed his tongue into Arthur’s mouth and ground his knee against Arthur’s groin with all the grace and charm of a dog humping someone’s leg.

 

Afterward, Travis felt like an animal.  Like a rapist.  But that hadn’t stopped him from jerking off later to the memory of Arthur’s gasped breaths, the way his body writhed, pinned between Travis and the bricks.

 

Arthur seemed to enjoy it, sure, but Travis didn’t trust his own perceptions there. 

 

A virgin…shit.  Why did that thought get him so revved up?  The idea of claiming some part of Arthur that no one else had touched…

 

God, he wanted to fuck Arthur right there against the wall, out in the open.

 

Not gonna happen now.  You fucked it up.  Like you fuck up everything.  You hurt everyone you get close enough to touch.

 

These are self-pitying thoughts, unproductive thoughts.  Leeches attached to his brain, sapping his energy.  He’s trying to be less negative.  It’s like trying to swim upstream in a river of liquid cement.  His thoughts congeal around him, like spilled syrup or ketchup drying and hardening in a puddle on the floor of a dirty diner, sticky to the touch, attracting flies.  His brain is a wasteland of barbed wire and shrapnel and dried cum mixed with blood and beer—an urban nightmare with patches of wet, foul-smelling jungle growth bursting up through the cracks in the pavement, rats running through it all.

 

It’s so dark inside his head.

 

Back in the olden days, when people rode horses and fought with swords and said thee and yonder, doctors dealt with mental illness by using a crude hand-drill to bore a hole into a patient’s skull.  Let the pressure out, the sunlight in.  Give those demons an escape hatch.

 

It didn’t actually work, of course, but Travis has always found it an appealing fantasy.  More so than the modern alternatives.  The idea of lobotomies creeped him out—too invasive, too much like castration—but having a sun roof installed in his skull?  That isn’t such a bad thought.

 

Of course, there’s always a bullet.  That’d let some sunlight in, for sure.

 

But that is not an option.  Not now.

 

He picks up the phone, starts to dial Arthur’s number, and stops, putting it down again.

 

He made up his mind that he will wait.  That he will stop pushing.  Arthur will get in touch if he wants to.  And if he decides he never wants to see Travis again, then Travis will respect that.  He will not repeat the mistakes of the past.  He might make new ones, but he can at least try to learn.

 

But this waiting…it’s like pulling out his own fingernails, one by one. 

 

He rinses the orange slime of cheese from his plastic bowl and leaves it on the counter to dry.  Then he sits back down at the table.

 

Christ, don’t just sit there staring at the phone.  Go take a nap.  Go watch TV or something.

 

He stares at the phone.

 

Bad habits.

 

* * *

 

Travis is half-asleep at the kitchen table, a puddle of drool forming beneath his mouth, when the phone rings.  He lurches up, a marionette whose strings have been grabbed, and seizes the phone.  “Hello?” he croaks, wiping his mouth with one sleeve.

 

“It’s me.”

 

That voice.  He closes his eyes, breathing in, and feels the sunlight flood into his head.  “Arthur.  Hey, man.  Good to hear from you."

 

“I’m sorry it took me so long to call.  I wanted to do it last night, but I didn’t have a chance.  I promised my mom I’d watch Murray with her, and then by the time she finally went to bed I was exhausted, and then I had a gig at a birthday party, and—”

 

“Don’t worry about it.”

 

There's a pause.  He’s unprepared.  Fumbling for words. 

 

“How are you?” Arthur asks.

 

“I’m okay.  You know.  Just working.  How’d the gig go?”

 

“It could’ve gone better.  I was doing magic tricks and a little boy threw a handful of frosting at my face, and some got in my eyes.  I tripped over the family’s cat and fell on my face.  I’m lucky I didn’t break anything.”

 

“The kid sounds like an asshole.”

 

“Well, it did make him laugh.  So it wasn’t a complete loss.”

 

“Glad you’re okay, anyway.”

 

Silence.

 

Damn it.  He’s been waiting for this call, holding his breath for the past two days, and now he’s drawing a blank.  He pushes a hand through his hair and wishes—not for the first time—that he were better at being a person.  Better at feelings, better at knowing what to say and when to say it.  “It’s good to hear your voice.”

 

“It’s good to hear yours too.”  Arthur swallows; Travis hears the click in his throat.  “Travis, I…I’ve been thinking a lot about…the other night.”

 

Travis closes his eyes.  A fresh wave of shame rolls over him when he remembers his own roughness, his complete lack of control.  But his dick is already hard, just thinking about it.  Somehow the guilt just seems to intensify the arousal.  Shame and lust are both forms of heat—they both make his skin and blood burn.  At times, they seem to blur into each other.  “If you’re pissed, I don’t blame you.”

 

“Why would I be angry?”  Arthur’s tone is soft, puzzled.

 

Of course, Travis thinks.  It wouldn’t even occur to Arthur to be angry.  Even if he was freaked out, even if it traumatized him, he’d probably just blame himself.  “I mean…shit.  I don’t know what to say, Arthur.  The way I just…grabbed you and did that…”

 

“I’m the one who told you not to treat me like glass.”

 

“I don’t think that’s what you were expecting.”

 

“I wasn’t sure what to expect.  But it felt good.  Better than good.  I…”  His voice drops to a whisper.  “When I showered the other night, I…touched myself, thinking about it.”

 

Travis’s dick jerks in his pants.  Down, boy, he thinks.  Easy.  He wets his lips.  “I was worried,” he murmured.  “I thought it mighta been too much.”

 

“It was…intense.  But not in a bad way.  I keep daydreaming about it.  About you.  I can’t stop.”

 

He likes the sound of those words.  Despite all his self-admonishments about respecting personal boundaries, all that high-minded bullshit, his animal brain sure enjoys the idea of Arthur being bound to him, unable to resist.  “Yeah?” he whispers hoarsely.

 

“You know, this morning, before work…I went to the library and looked through some of the newspapers, and I found an article about you.  About what you did in New York.  I hope that’s okay.  I was just curious.  I guess seeing that kind of made it real for me.  You are a hero.”

 

Travis winces.  He’s been trying to get away from everything that happened back there.  But it’s public information now.  “Don’t believe everything you read.”

 

“I know you don’t think of yourself as one, but I believe that you are.”

 

There’s a shy admiration in his voice that stokes both Travis’s arousal and his shame.

 

He considers telling Arthur what he almost did—that before he saved Iris, he spent several weeks plotting to assassinate a politician.  Not for any real reason.  It wasn’t like he even disagreed with the guy’s policies.  He didn’t follow politics that closely.  It just seemed, at the time, like something he needed to do. 

 

During that period of his life, Travis felt moved by some power—God or destiny or whatever.  He’d been a vessel animated by forces greater than himself, a figure standing at the nexus of a thousand interwoven strands of fate, pulling those strands along with him.  In retrospect he recognizes the mindset of delusional psychosis.  Insomnia, depression, isolation, a man predisposed to violence, trained as a killer—the alchemy of the human brain transforming these ingredients into a nonsensical plot to change the course of history by assassinating some random asshole. 

 

If Travis succeeded at his plan, he would’ve become a monster in the public’s eyes.  It was pure chance that he failed.  Despite all his talk about fate, so much of his life feels like the outcome of a dice-roll.

 

“There aren’t any heroes in this world,” Travis says.  “Or maybe the difference between heroes and monsters is just how you look at it.  Maybe we’re all just animals trying to survive in this jungle.”

 

“You told me you believed we all have a purpose.”

 

“I still believe that.  But I think it’s not for us to decide.  We’re just moving pieces.  Fuck, I dunno.  The older I get the more confused I am.”

 

“Me too.”

 

“I think certainty is a sign of insanity,” Travis says.

 

A soft laugh, hardly more than an exhalation.  “Then I guess we must be getting saner.”

 

God, he loves that laugh.  Arthur’s real laugh.  “I wanna see you again,” he says.  “You free tomorrow?”

 

“I don’t have a gig, but I’ve got an appointment with my counselor.  I should be out by four.  Maybe you can pick me up?”

 

“Sure.  Where is it?”

 

“Just down the street from Arkham.  If you know how to get there.”

 

“I do.”  Everyone knew where Arkham was.  The famous asylum.  Gotham’s Statue of Liberty, its Empire State Building.

 

“Maybe we can eat at that diner again…”

 

“I wanna take you to my apartment.”  The words slip out of him before he knows what he’s saying.

 

Arthur’s breath flutters.  The implications are clear.  In Travis’s apartment, they’ll have privacy.  They can do whatever they want.  The thought makes him dizzy with need.  God, the things he wants to do to Arthur. 

 

When a few seconds of silence pass, Travis forces himself to say, “Just an idea.  We can go see another movie or do somethin’ else, if you want.  My apartment’s kind of a shithole anyway.”

 

Another agonizing few seconds.  And then—in a whisper—“I would like to see your apartment.”

 

Travis’s heart thunders in his chest.  It’s becoming a struggle to control his breathing.  Just a few hours ago, in the cab, he felt like a machine.  Now his body is flooded with so much feeling he can barely stand it.  Arthur has awakened him.  His soul was on life support, dormant and comatose in a corner of his head for years, and now it opens its eyes.  He is made anew.

 

“Great,” he croaks.

 

“You know,” Arthur says, “I’ve been thinking a lot about the first night we talked on the phone.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“I liked that.  I liked it a lot.”

 

Travis looks down at the bulge in his pants and wets his lips.  “Your mother’s gone to bed, right?”

 

“Yes.  Don’t worry about her.  I can be very quiet when I need to be.  I’ve had a lot of practice.”

 

The idea that Arthur has to restrain himself to avoid waking his mother—the idea of him biting down on his lip to suppress a moan, covering his mouth with one hand to stifle his cries—just makes this hotter. 

 

With one sweating hand, Travis unzips his jeans, slides a hand in and grips his dick.  “Close your eyes,” he says.

 

“Okay.”

 

In his head, he sees Arthur leaning back on the couch, eyes closed, chest rising and falling.  “Now tell me something you’ve never told another person before.”

 

A swift intake of breath.  “Y-you mean like…”

 

“Anything.  As long as I’m the first one to hear it.”

 

Another few heartbeats of silence pass, and for a moment Travis wonders if he’s screwed this up already…then Arthur whispers, “You remember I told you about…when I was in Arkham?  How I liked being in a straitjacket?”

 

“Yeah.  You said it felt kinda like a hug.”

 

“I wasn’t kidding about that.  I enjoy being restrained.”

Travis’s grip tightens on his dick until it almost hurts.  He slides his hand down the length once—a slow, languid stroke.  “Keep talking.”

 

“It makes me feel…secure, I guess.  It calms me.  But it kind of…excites me, at the same time.  I don’t know why.”

 

“You’re saying it turns you on?”

 

A nervous little bubble of laughter escapes his mouth.  “Maybe?  I don’t know.  It’s complicated.  I mean…at the hospital, it was hard to really enjoy it in that way.  I was in a bad state.  I was on so many drugs I barely knew what was happening, half the time.”  There’s a pause, a faint sucking sound, a rush of breath, suggesting that Arthur just took a puff off a cigarette.  “When you’re in a place like that there’s this complete sense of helplessness.  They can do whatever they want to you.  Lock you in a room.  Inject liquids into your veins without telling you what they are.  It’s frightening.  But it’s also kind of a relief.  Because there’s nowhere left to fall.  You don’t have to pretend.  You don’t have to act happy or try to keep it together or worry about what people think.  They expect you to scream and kick.  They expect you to be crazy.  If they think you’re about to do something violent, or to hurt yourself, they just bind your arms and let you rage.  Let you struggle and cry until you’ve used up all your energy and you can just go limp and exhausted and empty.  There is a kind of freedom in being completely helpless.  I…miss that, sometimes.”  There’s another little flutter of breath at the end of the line.  “Sometimes when I have a really bad day, I lie down with my arms behind my back and imagine someone binding me up in a straitjacket.”

 

“We can work with that,” Travis says, his voice low and husky.

 

Travis has called phone sex hotlines, on occasion.  When he was especially lonely.  When he just wanted to hear a woman’s voice.  Sometimes they didn’t even talk about sex.  But he knows how it goes.  There is a certain mental state, a sort of self-hypnosis that allows you to believe it’s really happening, that when she says, I’m touching your cock you actually feel it.  Like a magic trick.

 

“Where are you now?” Travis asks.  “Are you on the couch?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Eyes still closed?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Good.”  Travis gives himself another slow stroke.  “I’m there with you.  Next to you.  Can you feel me?”

 

“Y-yes.”

 

“I’m holding your wrists.  I’ve got them pinned together behind your back.”

 

He hears Arthur’s sharp inhalation.

 

“It doesn’t hurt,” Travis says.  “I’m just holding them there.  But you can’t break free.  I’ve been trained in this.  I know how to immobilize someone when I need to.  I’m holding your wrists pretty tight.  I can feel your pulse.  It’s going very fast.”

 

A soft whine.  “I can’t…”  His voice breaks.  “I can’t reach…”

 

“You wanna touch yourself, Arthur?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Not yet.  I’m going to hold you like this for a little while.  Keep your eyes closed.  You can’t move.  But you’re safe.  You can struggle if you want to.  But you won’t break free.”

 

Of course, there’s nothing physically preventing Arthur from touching himself.  His arms aren’t actually behind his back; he’s holding the phone, after all.  This is happening in their heads.  Shared illusion is a kind of reality.

 

He thinks about what it might be like to do this for real.  To pin Arthur to the couch and…

 

One thing at a time.

 

Whatever Arthur says, Travis knows he has to be careful.  There is a risk of hurting him if he pushes too hard, too fast.  And Arthur has already been hurt too much.

 

The phone is safe, though—safer, anyway.  Arthur can hang up if he wants to.

 

“Please…”  Arthur’s voice cracks.  There’s a rustle of movement as he shifts.  “Please, Travis…I need to…”

 

“Not yet.  You’re struggling pretty hard, Arthur.  I’m going to have to hold you a little tighter.”

 

Half-formed fantasies of ropes and blindfolds flit through Travis’s head.  He thinks that maybe the reason he’s always been so judgmental toward the deviants and sex fiends of the world, the reason he obsesses about degeneracy in all its forms, is that he knows deep down he’s the biggest degenerate of all.  He wants to dominate this man, to own him, body and soul.

 

“I like feelin’ you struggle,” he rasps.  He’s jerking off now, quick sure strokes.

 

Arthur moans sweetly.

 

“Good.  That’s it.  Let me hear you.  That breathing…god, you’re breathing so fast…beg me some more, will you?”

 

“Please.  Please.”

 

“That’s good, Arthur.”

 

“Travis…”

 

“I want all of you.  Every part.  I want to have it all.”

 

Arthur’s breathing shivers in his ear.  “I…”  His voice quivers.  He lets out a strangled little groan, like he’s about to cum…

 

Then he laughs.  Shrilly, suddenly.

 

It’s not like his real laugh, but not like his compulsive fits either.  There’s something different about it.  Alien.  A chill feathers down Travis’s spine.  He freezes in mid-jerkoff.  “Arthur?”

 

“Are you sure you can handle all of me?” says a high, lilting voice.  “You may get more than you bargained for.”

 

For a moment, Travis is disoriented.  It’s Arthur’s voice, yet not. 

 

“You think I’m a good boy,” says Arthur-not-Arthur.  “You think I’m clean.  But oh, if you could see what’s behind these eyes…it’s so very dirty in here.”

 

He doesn’t sound ashamed, though.  There’s a sly, dark joy in that voice, a wicked playfulness.  Like a pair of feline eyes peering out of the shadows.

 

Travis opens his mouth to reply, but his voice stops in his throat.  He swallows, aware that his mouth is dry.  “Arthur…”

 

He giggles.  “You want to fuck me, don’t you?  You want to stick your cock inside me and fuck my crazy little brains out.”

 

God this is weird.  He can’t deny that it’s hot, hearing Arthur talk like that, but it doesn’t sound like the sort of thing Arthur would say.  “Y-yeah,” he whispers.  “I want that.”

 

“I’d like you to fuck me while I’m wearing my makeup.  What do you think of that, soldier-boy?  Would you, could you, with a clown?”

 

“I.  Uh.”

 

“Oh dear.  I can feel you blushing through the telephone wire.  I didn’t take you for the shy type.  Dear little Travis.”

 

This is really starting to mess with his head.  He’s heard Arthur do voices before, but this is different.  It doesn’t feel like an act. 

 

There’s someone else in there with him.  The thought comes to him with eerie clarity.  He can feel a presence.  Something of Arthur, but not him—as though someone else has taken the steering wheel in his head.

 

“What else do you think about, Travis?  Do you want me to wrap my lips around your cock?  I bet I’d be good at that.  I have what the shrinks call an oral personality—it’s why I can’t stop sucking on cigarettes.  Oh, but you’re still holding my wrists, aren’t you?  Mmm.  I bet you could do some real damage if you wanted…”

 

“Arthur, seriously, what’s with that voice?”

 

Arthur laughs again, long and shrill.  The sound breaks off in a fit of coughing.  “Travis.”  It’s his normal voice again.  He sounds breathless, a little confused, as though he’s coming up for air.  “I…I’m sorry.  What happened?”

 

“What do you mean, what happened?  You don’t remember?”

 

“I…I do, but…I don’t know.” 

 

“You started talking in this…voice.  I mean, it was your voice, but.  You sounded like another person.  You’re saying you didn’t do that on purpose?”

 

“My head went funny for a minute.  It…felt like I was dreaming.”  He sounds dazed.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to scare you.”

 

“It’s fine.  You didn't."  Maybe just a little.  "Are you…okay?”

 

“I think so.  I don’t know.  Maybe…maybe I should go, for now.”

 

“I, uh.  I’ll see you tomorrow?”

 

“Yes.  I’ll see you then.”

 

Arthur hangs up.  Travis is left sitting in the kitchen chair, fly open, dick in hand.

 

“What the fuck?” he says.

Chapter Text

“You haven’t written much in your journal lately.”  Dr. Kane leafs through the pages.

 

“I’ve been busy.”  He has been writing, actually.  A lot.  But he tore out the most recent pages, because he knew she’d be looking at them, and they were filled with personal thoughts.  Thoughts about Travis, which he doesn’t want to share.  He doesn’t know how she’d react.

 

She notices the ragged edges of the torn pages and stops.  Frowns.  Looks up.

 

Arthur jiggles one leg.  “Did you ever ask the doctor about increasing my medication?”

 

Dr. Kane closes the journal and taps her fingers on the cover.  “Arthur, we’ve talked about this.”

 

“I know.  I’m on seven different pills.  I don’t mean add another.  I mean just increase the dosage of one.”

 

“I take it you’re still struggling.”

 

He smiles without mirth.  “I’ve never not been struggling.”

 

“Something must have prompted you to ask, though.  Has your depression worsened recently?”

 

He has to give credit where it’s due—ever since he confronted her about her inattentiveness, she’s been making an effort to listen and ask more specific questions.  “Actually, I…I wanted to ask if they could increase the antipsychotic.”

 

She sits up a little straighter.  “You’re having hallucinations?”

 

“Not exactly.”  He rubs his forehead with two fingers, crosses his legs and uncrosses them.  “It’s just that sometimes I feel like I’m getting crazier.  I used to think the world was getting crazier.  But maybe it’s me.”

 

“You’re already on a very high dosage,” she says.  “And you smoke, which complicates things.”

 

“I could try to cut back, I guess.”  Though he’s tried before.  The cravings made him want to crawl out of his skin.  He started burning himself more frequently—holding a lighter to his forearm until the skin blistered and he smelled burning hair.  It helped distract him, but the guys at work started noticing the marks, so he went back to cigarettes, a more socially acceptable form of self-harm.

 

“I’ve already discussed this with the physician,” Dr. Kane says.  “Increasing the dosage any further could result in dangerous side-effects.  Elevated blood pressure, lowered white blood cell count, seizures…”

 

He shifts in his chair, scratches his eyebrow.  He can’t sit still.  “What if I was willing to take the risk?”

 

“Tell me what’s going on, Arthur.”  She adds, more quietly, “Please.” 

 

He lowers his gaze, swallows, and grips his restless knee.  “Something happened to me last night,” he mutters.  “It was like…I had no control over what I was saying.  The words just came out of me.  I don’t even remember half of what I said, now.”  Though he remembers enough to make his face burn.

 

“This was a frightening experience, I take it.”

 

“While it was happening?  No.  But…I scared someone else.  Someone I care about.  I don’t want it to happen again.”

 

“Can you describe the conversation leading up to the episode?”

 

The blood surges up his neck, into his cheeks and ears.  His face burns hotter.  “It’s sort of…personal.”

 

Her lips tighten, and he knows he’s trying her patience.  But she speaks in a calm, measured voice:  “When this occurred, did you say anything violent or threatening?”

 

“No.  I don’t think so.” 

 

She nods.  “Okay.”  She folds her hands.  “The notes in your file say that you had dissociative episodes in the hospital, as well.”

 

“I guess so.  If that’s what they call them.”  Arthur’s memories of his stay at Arkham are patchy, at best.  There are gaps.  As though some internal censor took a black pen to the transcripts of his life, redacting certain portions.  He always blamed it on the shock therapy, but maybe there’s more to it.

 

He’s never seen his own file.  He doesn’t know what he did or said during those gaps.  “Dr. Kane?”

 

“Yes?”

 

“Did I…did I ever hurt anyone, when I was in Arkham?”

 

A brief pause.

 

“I did, didn’t I?”

 

“Once.  Though, based on the account, I’d regard it as a case of self-defense.  Apparently a group of other patients attacked you in the hallway.  Pinned you down.  You have no memory of this?”

 

He shakes his head.

 

“Just as well.”

 

“What did I do?”

 

“Arthur…I’m not sure this is productive…”

 

“Please.  Tell me.”

 

Another pause.  “You injured two of your attackers.  Broke one man’s arm.  Scratched another one’s eye.  You were laughing when the orderlies showed up.  And…singing, apparently.”

 

He feels a laugh building up in his throat, trying to burst free, and presses a hand over his mouth.  He’s shaking.

 

She’s confirmed his suspicions:  last night isn’t the first time that other presence inside him has shown itself.  Even if the incident was self-defense, it’s proof that he is capable of violence.  Not just capable.  Apparently, he enjoyed it.  “Does that mean I’m dangerous?”

 

“Anyone can become violent if pushed hard enough,” she says quietly.  “Everyone has a breaking point.  That doesn’t mean you’re a fundamentally violent person.  The doctors wouldn’t have released you if they didn’t believe you were capable of reintegrating into society.”

 

His nicotine-stained fingers dig into his arm. 

 

“I want to go back to this recent episode,” she says.

 

Of course—now that he’s brought it up, she’s not going to let it go that easily.  He almost misses her indifference.  “Okay,” he mutters.

 

“Was it triggered by anything in particular?  A stressful event, maybe?”

 

“N-no.  Stressful is…not the word I’d use.”  He bites the inside of his cheek.  “Is it possible for a good feeling to trigger something like that?”

 

“It’s possible, yes.  Any intense emotions, even positive ones, can be overwhelming…particularly for someone with a history of trauma.  Considering—” she stops.  Clears her throat.

 

“What?”

 

She shakes her head.  “So, then…you were enjoying yourself when this happened?”

 

“Something like that.”

 

She stares at him for a moment, waiting, but he doesn’t volunteer anything else.  “You know, I am trying.  But I would be able to give you better advice if you would just talk to me.”

 

“Um.”

 

“I realize I haven’t always been as attentive as I should be.  But it’s difficult to get you to open up, sometimes.  Frequently, you talk around what you really want to say.”

 

His face grows warmer.  He hopes that lighting is dim enough that she doesn’t notice.  “I know.”  His whole life, opening up has resulted in being hurt.  Until Travis, every vulnerability he’s ever shown the world has been harshly punished.  He survives only by keeping parts of himself walled off, protected.  He’s not about to tell her that he was having phone sex with another man.

 

Still, if he’s going to have any chance at getting his dosage increased, he knows he needs to say something.

 

“I’ve been seeing someone,” he murmurs.

 

She blinks.  “Romantically?”

 

He tries not to be offended at the obvious surprise in her tone.  “Yes.  I was talking to this person on the phone last night.”

 

“This conversation…was it intimate, in nature?”

 

He fidgets, pulling one leg up, gripping his ankle.  His heart is pounding.  “Yes.”

 

“I see.”

 

He feels his lips stretching into a half-grin, half-grimace.  He covers his mouth.  “I’m s-s-suh—” he bursts out laughing, wheezes, and chokes down another laugh.  She waits.  “I’m s…scared that I ruined everything.”  He takes a few seconds to breathe, getting himself under control.  “I r-ruh—really don’t want to ruin this.  I don’t want to lose…this person.”

 

“Hmm,” she says.

 

Maybe she notices his avoidance of the word “him.” 

 

“How much does ‘this person’ know about your condition?”

 

“Some.  I’ve talked about my time in the hospital.  I never thought anyone could accept me this much, but still, I…”  Arthur stares at the floor.  “I know it’s a lot.  Asking anyone to deal with…all this.”  A lump fills his throat, making it harder to talk.  He squeezes the words past it.  “Please.  I don’t care if it’s risky.  I want a stronger dosage.  I want this thing inside me to go away.”

 

A small sigh.  “I’ll make a note that you asked.”

 

Arthur nods, head still bowed.  He’s afraid that if he tries to talk, he’ll start crying or laughing.  He’s so sick of that.  He just wants to feel in control of himself, for once.  To stop being such a mess.  To stop doing things that make other people frightened or uncomfortable.  “Thank you,” he manages.

 

She jots a few notes down on her pad of paper.  “It might take a week or two to get the medication adjusted—and they may say no.”

 

“I know.”

 

“In the meantime, if I may give you a bit of personal advice?  Try talking this through with your…person.  Sometimes, just talking can help.”

 

He almost laughs again.  He doesn’t even know how to talk about something like this, how to explain it to Travis.  “I’ll try.”

 

Their session is nearing its end.  She studies his face in silence for a moment.  “A few weeks ago, you mentioned you were pursuing a career in standup comedy.  How is that going?”

 

“Well, I haven’t actually performed anywhere, yet.  I’m just working on my material.”  He hesitates.  “Would you like to hear a joke?”

 

“All right.”

 

“Knock knock.”

 

“Who’s there?”

 

“No one.  You’re hearing things.  You’d better see a doctor.”

 

She stares blankly, waiting.  “Is there a punchline?”

 

“That is the punchline.”

 

“Oh.”  She gives a forced smile.  “Yes…I get it now.  Sorry.”

 

He smiles, eyes downcast.  “That’s okay.” 

 

She’s trying, he reminds himself. 

 

He takes his journal and stands.  “I’ll see you next week.”

 

“Take care.  And Arthur…”

 

He stops, looking over his shoulder.

 

She smiles—just a quick twitch of her lips, but it’s more genuine, this time.  “I’m glad you found someone.”

 

“Thank you.”  He smiles back without making eye contact.

 

He appreciates the sentiment—he really does.  But he wonders how long this will last.  From the beginning, a part of him has been waiting, bracing himself for the inevitable moment that Travis realizes how broken he is and decides to leave him.  He wonders if that moment has already come.

 

* * *

 

Travis is parked near the corner, engine idling, a Styrofoam cup of coffee in one hand.  He stares at the brick office building on the corner and drums his fingers on the steering wheel.

 

Nerves.  He’s been on edge ever since last night.  Didn’t sleep much.  And when he finally drifted off, he had a ‘Nam dream—the first in months.  Bad one, too.

 

In the dream, Danny had been blown in half by a land mine, but both halves were somehow still alive, writhing on the ground like two pieces of a worm even as his guts spilled out of him in a slick shiny tide.  He was crying, begging, Kill me, kill me please, make it stop.  It took everything inside Travis to put the gun against his head and pull the trigger, but he didn’t die.  Just kept crying and writhing in agony, blood and bits of brain leaking from the hole in his head.

 

Travis woke to the faint light of dawn bleeding through his curtains.  He barely made it to the bathroom before throwing up the instant mac-and-cheese he had before bed.  He knelt in front of the toilet for a long time, forehead on the cold rim, muttering, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

 

In real life, Danny's death wasn't like that.  It was quick.  Over in a flicker.  But Travis saw other guys who weren't so lucky.  He thinks maybe he did shoot someone who was begging for death.  Was that the first time he killed?  He's not sure.  It's hard, at times, to separate his real memories from the nightmares.

 

He thought about calling Arthur, then.  He needed to hear his voice.  Needed it bad.  But after the way that last call ended…

 

It rattled him, more than he wants to admit.  He still doesn’t quite know what happened.

 

When Arthur comes out of that door, will he be himself?  Or…

 

He pushes the thought away.

 

Beyond the office building, Arkham looms, a monolith of pale stone.

 

He takes a slow sip of coffee and thinks about the people inside.  People in straitjackets, people strapped to beds—do they still do that in the loony bins?  They still do shock treatments, he guesses.  Arthur mentioned being on the receiving end of a few.  He wonders if the patients are conscious for that—if they feel the juice going through their brains, or if the doctors put them to sleep first.  He could ask Arthur, but that would feel like crossing a line.  There are certain things a man doesn’t like to talk about.  For him it’s the war.  For Arthur, maybe, the hospital.

 

Though, come to think of it, he doesn’t know much about Arthur’s life before the hospital either.

 

The door swings open and a lanky form in a brown leather jacket steps out.  Travis sits up straighter.

 

The man turns toward him, his eyes wide and uncertain, and Travis knows right away that it’s Arthur—his Arthur.  He exhales a quiet breath of relief.

 

Travis cranks down the window and waves to him.

 

Arthur approaches, his journal tucked under one arm, and slides into the passenger seat.

 

“Hey,” Travis says.

 

“Hey,” he says in a soft, slightly breathless voice.

 

Even knowing it’s him, Travis can’t resist leaning in to look a little more closely.

 

In the dim Gotham afternoon sun, Arthur’s eyes are half green and half gray—they seem to catch and hold the light, like church-windows.  Travis stares into them, as though he might see something peeking out, might glimpse that other presence, the beast lurking inside the secret forest of Arthur’s head.  He sees only his reflection.

 

Arthur fidgets.  “What?”

 

“Just lookin’ at you.”  Travis averts his gaze.  “How you feelin’?”

 

“All right, I guess.”

 

“The meeting went okay?”

 

Arthur folds his hands together in his lap, gaze downcast.  “It wasn’t bad.  My counselor’s been listening to me more lately.”

 

“So she wasn’t before?”

 

“Not so much.  I think I make her uncomfortable.  I make a lot of people uncomfortable.”

 

Travis has never been to a shrink, but it's their job to listen, isn't it?  They ought to at least be good at that.  "Can you switch?  If the two of you aren’t clickin’?”

 

Arthur shakes his head.  “I’m on a city program.  I can’t afford to be picky.  It’s fine, though.  She gets me my prescriptions.  That’s all I need.”

 

“If you say so.”  Travis pulls away from the curb, into traffic.  “Where to first?  You hungry?”

 

“I was going to ask if we could make a stop at Helms Pharmacy.  I need to pick up my medications.”

 

“Sure.  Sure, we can do that.”

 

Travis knows the place.  He knows most places in Gotham, by now.  It's starting to feel like his city, like the map is etched into his bones.  He pulls up to the curb in front of the rundown building with the flickering neon sign.

 

“It might take a few minutes,” Arthur says.

 

“I’ll wait.”

 

Arthur disappears into the pharmacy.  Travis is left sitting with his thoughts again.  He was expecting Arthur to bring up what happened last night.

 

Does he even remember?

 

On the corner across the street, two men are shoving each other, shouting.  It seems to be escalating toward a fist fight.

 

None of his business.  He turns on the radio, cranking up the volume to drown out his thoughts.  His palms are damp with sweat.

 

Is he scared?  Of Arthur?

 

It’s not exactly that.  He doesn’t believe Arthur would hurt him.  But he’s all tense and jittery.  First-date jitters, almost.  The anxiety of being with other people—an anxiety he hasn’t felt around Arthur, until now.  Fuck, he doesn’t know how to talk about this.  Relationship advice columns don’t cover this kind of stuff.  Not that he reads them anyway.

 

Arthur emerges, clutching a paper bag.  He slides into the passenger seat.  As Travis watches, Arthur takes out a plastic amber bottle, twists off one of the childproof caps, shakes two little white pills into his palm, and dry-swallows them.  He proceeds to do the same with several more bottles.  Travis can’t tell how many different bottles he’s got in there.  At least four, maybe more.

 

Arthur notices him looking and gives him a strained smile.  “Do you want to know what they’re for?”

 

“I mean…I wasn’t gonna ask.  Seems kinda personal.  But if you wanna tell me…”

 

Arthur upends the bag into his lap, and seven pill bottles spill out.

 

“This one is a mood stabilizer,” Arthur says, pointing.  “This one is an antidepressant.  This one is for anxiety attacks.  This one helps me sleep.  These two…I can’t even remember, honestly.  And…there’s the antipsychotic.”

 

Antipsychotic.  He doesn’t know exactly what those do, but the name seems pretty self-evident.  Might as well call them Crazy-B-Gone.  “You have to take all those every day?”

 

“Four of them.  Three of them I take twice a day.”

 

“Jesus.  Those doctors are keepin’ you pretty doped up.  I mean, do you really need all that?”

 

Arthur tenses.  “They’re not giving me these for fun.”  There’s a sharpness to his voice, a bristling tension.  “I wouldn't be taking them if I didn't need them."

 

“Do they help?  I mean…do they make you happy?”

 

“Happy?”  He smiles, as though the word is a kind of joke.  “No.  The goal isn’t ‘happy’ so much as ‘not screaming all the time.’  The pills don’t make the hurting stop, but without them, I’d still be locked in a padded room.”  He turns his face away and stares out the window.

 

“Okay,” Travis says.  “If you say you need ‘em, I believe you, it’s just…you're not worried about side-effects?"

 

“Oh, the side-effects can be pretty serious.  My blood pressure's already bad.  And the cigarettes don’t help, as my counselor keeps reminding me.  I may end up dying of a stroke before I turn fifty.  Who knows.  But without these, I’d be back in Arkham in less than a month.  And I made up my mind that I wasn’t going back there.”  He returns the bottles to the bag, one by one.  “Someone has to take care of my mother.  Without these, I’d be too sick to take care of anyone, even myself.”

 

Travis isn’t sure what to say.  Arthur’s in a bad state.  That much is obvious.  And he doesn’t know how to make it better.  “Okay,” he says at last, quietly.

 

He pulls away from the curb, into traffic.

 

As they drive, Arthur remains slumped in the seat.  His jacket is loose around his bony shoulders, making him look smaller, frailer.

 

“Arthur?”

 

“I’m sorry,” he says in a small, watery voice.  “I didn’t mean to snap at you.”

 

“You didn’t.”

 

He closes his eyes and rubs at his eyelids.  “Maybe you should just drive me home.  I’m not feeling very good right now.”

 

“Because of what happened last night?”

 

Arthur’s shoulders tense, drawing inward.  His Adam’s apple bobs as he swallows.  He clutches at his shirt-collar.  “Travis…”  His voice creaks like a rusty hinge.  “I…”

 

“Because I’m not upset about that or anything.”

 

Still, Arthur doesn’t look at him.  “You were scared.”

 

“Well, so what?  I got a little freaked out, yeah.  I’m over it now.  So what?”

 

“What do you mean, so what?”  His knee starts to bounce up and down.  “The way I acted, it wasn’t…normal.”

 

“Who gives a fuck about normal?”

 

“Everyone does.  I do.  I hate being this way.  You don’t have to pretend that it doesn’t matter.  I know it does.”

 

“You think I’m the normal one, here?”

 

“Isn’t that obvious?  You’ve seen all the pills I have to take just to keep myself barely sane.  It’s not fair to you.  All of it.  You didn’t ask for this, you didn’t expect this.  And after last night…”  His fingers dig into his knee.  “I can’t blame you if you don’t want to deal with any of it.  With me.”

 

“What are you sayin’, Arthur?”

 

He rests his forehead against the glass of the window.  “I’m saying if you want to walk away now, I’ll understand.”

 

Travis keeps his eyes on the road, hands locked tight around the steering wheel.  A muscle in his jaw twitches.  “You wanna know what I did last night?  Before we talked?  I smashed a guy’s head against a wall, and I broke a beer bottle on another guy’s face.  Because I saw them bothering a girl.  I mean, maybe I did it to help her, or maybe that was just an excuse.  Maybe a part of me just wanted to beat the shit out of those guys.  And you…what?  Talked in a funny voice for a minute or two?  And I’m the normal one?”  He makes a left turn, a little too fast.  Someone honks at him.

 

“It’s different,” Arthur whispers.

 

“You ever killed anyone, Arthur?”

 

“N-no.  But—”

 

“I need both hands to count how many people I’ve killed.  I’d need more to count how many I’ve hurt.  Really hurt.  I haven’t touched a gun since I left New York.  I got rid of every one I owned.  But I can’t stop hurting people.  It’s just in me.”

 

“That’s not…”

 

“And by the way, since I haven’t told you yet, I tried to murder Senator Palatine.”

 

“Wh-what?  Him?  Why?” 

 

“Why?  Who knows?  Sometimes you want apple pie at three in the morning, sometimes you want to kill the guy runnin’ for President.  If you’d asked me back then why I wanted to do it, I would’ve spouted a bunch of bat-shit stupid fuckery about corruption and God and filth in the streets and the fuckin’ Zodiac signs.  I’m the loony here, I’m the one who should be takin’ all those pills.  After everything I’ve done, everything you’ve just taken in stride, all my bullshit, you think I’m gonna run away from you the moment things get weird?  Give me a little bit of fuckin’ credit.”  He gulps in a breath, a little shocked at the flood of words that just poured out of him. 

 

There’s a slight shininess to Arthur’s eyes.  The whites are tinged pink.  His face twists up, as though he’s trying to hold in a sneeze.  Then he throws his head back and lets out a long, jagged shriek of laughter.

 

Travis winces.  “Shit.  I’m sorry.”

 

Arthur buries his face in the crook of his arm.  “Ah-ha-ha-ha!  Ha-ha…haaa…”

 

“Shit…hang on, let me find a place to park…”

 

Travis pulls into an alley—probably illegal, but he doesn’t see any cop cars around—reaches over and lays a cautious hand on Arthur’s back, feels his too-thin body shaking and convulsing with laughter.  “Arthur…I shouldn’t have yelled, I shouldn’t have said all that, I screw everything up—”

 

“I d-don’t—ha-ha-ha-ha!—I don’t—want to lose you,” Arthur gasps.

 

“I’m not goin’ anywhere.”  He leans over, awkwardly wraps his arms around Arthur, and holds him tight as he laugh-cries.  “You’re stuck with me.”

 

Arthur buries his face against Travis's shoulder and rides out the waves of laughter.  Travis hides his face in Arthur's hair.  After a few minutes, the laughter trails off into hiccups, then silence.  He’s gone limp in Travis’s arms, his breathing soft and raspy in Travis’s ear.

 

God it feels good just to hold him.  Before Arthur, he never thought just hugging someone could feel so good.  The animal warmth of it, the smell of hair and skin, the feeling of Arthur’s heartbeat slowing as his panic subsides.

 

Being able to scare someone, he’s used to that.  Taking someone’s fear away…that’s new.  Addictive.

 

“I promised myself I wouldn’t do this today,” Arthur croaks.

 

“Do what?”

 

“Fall apart.  I feel like I do it every day.  It’s going to get old, you know.  I've been sick for so long.  I want to be better.  But I don't know if that's possible.”

 

"Either way, it's fine."  Arthur's face is pressed against his neck.  Travis can feel the wetness of tears, the warm pliancy of his long limbs.  He slides his palm up Arthur’s spine, into his hair, and rubs his scalp in slow circles.  There's something there.  A scar.  It meanders along the top of Arthur’s head in a rough ridge.  He wonders where it came from.  “You got nothin’ to be ashamed of,” he murmurs.  “Not those pills, not the laughing…not last night either.  Nothing.  I shoulda said that right away.”

 

Arthur lies limp and shaking in his arms for a moment longer.  His arms slowly slide around Travis, squeezing.

 

Then he pulls back.  "You really tried to..." he trails off, eyes wide, as though Travis's earlier confession just fully sank in.

 

"Yeah."  Travis looks away.  "Showed up at a rally with a handgun under my jacket, got chased off by some Secret Service guys before I could even pull it out.  They never caught me.  And that was that.  I don't want to kill the guy anymore.  Don't feel much about him, either way.  That time in my life, it's...like I was sleepwalking or somethin'."

 

Arthur's teeth tug at his lower lip, pulling it in.  "I don't think you would have gone through with it."

 

"I would've."

 

Arthur stares straight ahead for a moment.  Then he gives a small, almost imperceptible nod.  Accepting.  Just like that.

 

“Travis,” he says, “are you okay?”

 

His mouth opens.  He thinks about the pieces of Danny writhing on the blood-drenched ground, and an invisible hand squeezes his throat.  “Had a bad dream,” he murmurs.  “Nothing to do with you.  Just war stuff.”

 

“I’m sorry.”  Arthur leans in, presses his cheek against Travis’s and rubs in a strangely childlike, strangely catlike gesture of comfort.  “Do you want to talk about it?”

 

"Not really."  But just hearing Arthur ask takes the sharp edge off the dream.  Makes it easier to bear.  "What about you?  You want to talk about...last night?"

 

"I don't know what to say."

 

Travis hesitates.  He wets his lips with the tip of his tongue.  “Who is he?  Does he have a name?”

 

For a few seconds, Arthur doesn’t respond…then he shakes his head. 

 

“Was last night the first time?”

 

"In Arkham,” he murmurs.  “It happened then, too.  I guess…I was attacked by some other patients, and he…hurt them.” 

 

He protected Arthur, then.  Came to his rescue.  Whatever this otherness is, it can't be all bad.  “You remember this?”

 

“No.  I just found out today.  It's in my file.”

 

It makes sense.  For years, Arthur was alone.  No one to keep him safe.  Places like Arkham kept some pretty rough guys—criminals, killers.  Someone like Arthur, with his soft voice and polite words, would’ve been a target there.  Maybe he created a protector for himself.  Maybe that was the only way he could survive.

 

“My counselor calls them dissociative episodes,” Arthur says quietly.  “I can’t promise that it won’t happen again.  I asked if the doctor could increase my medication, but I don’t know if he will.  I don’t know if that would even do anything.”

 

“Whatever happens, we’ll work with it.”

 

Arthur just looks at him for a moment.  There are no words for the expression on his face.  At least, none that Travis knows.

 

Behind them, someone honks.  “Hey asshole, you can’t park here!  This is an alley!”

 

“Ah, hell.”  Travis pulls back and shifts the cab into drive.  He pulls through.

 

They drive in silence for a few minutes.  But it’s an easier silence.

 

“If you still want me to take you home, I will,” Travis says.  “But I was sorta lookin’ forward to spending some time with you.”

 

“I don’t want to go home,” he says.  “But I don’t know if I want to be out in public right now, either.”

 

“I can take you to my place.  That was the plan, wasn’t it?”

 

“You…you’d be okay with that?”

 

“It’s not far from here.  Just a few miles.”

 

Arthur nods.  After a few seconds, he starts to laugh again.  It sounds more like his real laugh, but there’s a manic, breathless edge to it.  “Oh god,” he gasps.

 

“What?”

 

“I just remembered…last night…”  He croaks out another laugh, covering his eyes with one hand.  “I asked you to f-fuck me in my clown makeup.”

 

“Yeah.  You did.”

 

“I can’t imagine what you think of me now.”

 

He shrugs.  “I’ve heard weirder.”


“Really?  Like what?”

 

“I’d rather not repeat it.  But being a taxi driver, you overhear lots of things.  People do all kinds of crazy shit in the bedroom.  A little face paint?  That’s no big deal.  Hell, I’ve jerked off to crazier stuff than that.”

 

Arthur lets out one last, convulsive whoop of laughter and leans back in the seat.  His ears are bright red.  “Then...y-you…”

 

“I’d skip the wig—I like your real hair—but sure.  Bring it on, man.  I'm open.  Though, uh.  I’ve got a few ideas of my own.”

 

“Like?”

 

He thinks about binding Arthur’s wrists behind his back.  Or in front of him, maybe.  Bending him over the bed.  Arthur’s head between his legs, lips stretched around him…

 

But there are other things, too.  Things he feels a little more hesitant about saying out loud.

 

“Uh…I dunno, maybe…”  His cheeks grow warmer.

 

Arthur leans toward him.  “You can tell me.”

 

“Later.”

 

Arthur's leg jiggles.  He presses a hand down on it.

 

"Arthur?"

 

"If we go to your apartment...are we going to have sex?"  His voice cracks a little on the last word.

 

"Only if you want to."

 

"I want to.  But..."

 

“You’re worried,” he says.  “That it might happen again.”

 

"Yes."

 

“I told you I want all of you,” Travis says.  “I wasn’t lying about that.”

 

Arthur’s eyes glisten.  A tear spills from one, trails down the side of his nose.  He wipes it quickly away.

 

He tears up so easily.  That’s not a bad thing, though.

 

Travis can’t actually remember the last time he himself cried.  It isn’t a point of pride for him.  It isn’t a matter of willpower.  It was like, after the war, his body just forgot how.  Once, years ago, he sat at his kitchen table jabbing the tip of a scissor-blade into his forearm, trying to make himself do it, just to prove to himself that his tear ducts still worked.  It hurt, sure—hurt like a bitch—but his eyes barely watered, even when a half-inch of blade disappeared into his flesh.

 

“We’ll go slow,” he says.  “Take it one step at a time.  Nothing happens unless you want it to.  If you wanna just sit on the couch and watch TV together, that’s fine by me.  Okay?”

 

Arthur nods again, slowly.  “Okay,” he whispers.

 

Chapter Text

Before he met Travis, orgasms were not a regular part of Arthur’s life.  The medications clogged up his sex drive and made achieving climax a slow, laborious process.  His hand usually started getting tired before he managed to bring himself off.  Sharing a tiny apartment with his mother didn’t help matters.

 

He took care of his occasional urges alone, quietly, in the shower, with the hiss of the water to drown out his heavy breathing.  He would think of the women in the magazines, or the girl who lived down the hall…smooth thighs parting, accepting him, fingers trailing through his hair, a voice whispering, I love you, Arthur.

 

Afterward—as he watched his cum disappear down the drain—he would feel a rush of confused guilt, as though he’d done something predatory. 

 

With every passing year he remained a virgin, the idea of romance and relationships felt more and more unobtainable.  He was a depressed party clown inching dangerously closer to middle age.  In the unlikely event that someone ever did want to have sex with him, he wondered if he’d even be able to perform.  Maybe he was too broken by this point—too riddled with insecurities and hang-ups.

 

Arthur knew himself.  Despite his childhood dream of becoming a comedian, he’d never mustered the courage to get up on stage at Pogo’s during amateur night.  The idea of being seen—the spotlight on him, the faces of the crowd—was too intimidating.  The idea of sex with another person kindled the same stomach-tightening performance anxiety.

 

At times, during those long, empty years of isolation, he found himself wishing he didn’t even have a sex drive.  He barely even enjoyed jerking off, those days, so what was the point?  The need for physical intimacy was like an aching hole in his center, a hunger that could never be truly fulfilled.  A few times, he’d actually considered asking his counselor if there was a drug that could just shut off those desires entirely.  Even if it wouldn’t kill the need for love, it might make the lack of other things easier to bear.  But he was fully aware of how weird that would sound—how pathetic.

 

That was before.

 

Since meeting Travis, he’s been jerking off every chance he gets.  At least six times over the past two days, he’s brought himself off to the memory of that hasty grind against the wall.  He cums with enough force to shake the couch, and the orgasms—unlike his earlier ones, which brought an aftermath of shame—leave him relaxed and refreshed, pleasantly warm.

 

Maybe Arthur’s not as broken as he always thought.  Maybe he is capable of having the things that other people have.  A relationship.  Intimacy.

 

But the idea of actual sex still triggers that old rush of anxiety.

 

He wants this.  Yes.  But this is an unexplored frontier for him—a world he’s only glimpsed through the distorted lens of porn and occasional snatches of overheard banter from the guys at Ha-Ha’s.

 

It scares him.  The idea of taking off his clothes, bearing all his imperfections.  Touching someone without barriers.  He is afraid he will disappoint Travis, that he will do it wrong.  Afraid that it will hurt.  Afraid that his body won’t cooperate, despite his desire.  Afraid that he’ll panic once the moment comes.  Afraid of so many things.

 

And still he wants.

 

It’s more than a physical craving.  The hunger to be touched, to be seen, to give and receive pleasure, to feel another person’s—Travis’s—skin against his own…it is a spiritual need.

 

As they drive to Travis’s apartment, he imagines what penetration might feel like.  Because that’s what he wants, specifically.  To be taken.  To feel Travis’s lust as a presence inside him, so that his body will understand what has so long seemed like an impossibility:  that someone he wants also wants him.

 

* * *

 

Travis’s building is, if possible, even more rundown than Arthur’s.  They walk up a set of creaking, rusted metal steps and down a hallway carpeted in threadbare brown, past mysterious stains and webs of cracks in the plaster walls.

 

Travis unlocks the door to his apartment.  The hinges squeak.  “Make yourself at home.”

 

“Should I take my shoes off?”

 

“Up to you.”

 

Arthur steps inside and looks at the faded and yellowed walls, the thrift-store furniture, the tiny TV.  The place is clean, which is about all that can be said for it.  No décor, no knick-knacks, nothing to mark it as a human living space, aside from a pair of dirty socks draped over a chair.  And a sign on the wall that says, SOMEDAY I’LL GET ORGAN-IZ-IZED.  Which is ironic, considering the sparseness of the apartment.

 

The door closes.

 

Arthur’s pulse thuds in the hollows of his wrists.  He’s alone with Travis.  Really alone, for the first time.  No chance that anyone will see them, no risk of being interrupted.

 

His mind flashes to the moment when Travis pinned him against the wall in the alley next to his apartment building.  The pressure of Travis’s knee grinding against his cock, the urgency and hunger of Travis’s lips against his…

 

Thinking back on it, now, it seems he could feel that other presence close to the surface then, too.  That moment when he came, and immediately after—that sense of floating, of being outside himself, that total loss of control, that hunger and need which overwhelmed him and shook his sense of self to the core, allowing some deeper part of him to rise up…

 

Their eyes meet, and he sees the heat there, the awareness.  For a moment he thinks it’s going to happen right now.  Travis’s hand is going to grab a fistful of his shirt and yank him close, his mouth is going to crash into Arthur’s—

 

“You want anything to drink?  There’s water and beer.  Or I could make some coffee.”

 

“Water is okay.  Thank you.”

 

Arthur suddenly craves a cigarette.  He starts to reach for the one tucked into the pocket of his jacket, then stops himself.  He did promise his counselor he would try cutting back.  But his mouth and hands feel restless, empty.  Even more than the soothing rush of nicotine, he craves the taste of smoke, the cylindrical shape of the cigarette between his lips, the sucking sensation as his cheeks pull inward, drawing more of the sweet poison into his lungs.

 

Travis walks toward the kitchen and Arthur’s gaze catches on his belt.  He imagines himself fumbling the buckle loose, yanking his jeans down—

 

We’ll take it slow.  That’s what Travis said in the cab.

 

And Arthur knows, rationally, that this is a good idea.  He doesn’t want to lose control.  He knows he has to be careful.  If phone sex was enough to bring on a dissociative episode, what will the real thing do?

 

At the same time, he wants Travis to shove him against the nearest wall and fuck him.  Consequences be damned. 

 

Travis leads him into the kitchen—a tiny room with blotchy floral wallpaper and a curling linoleum floor—and fills a glass from the tap.  “If you’re hungry, I think there’s some leftover Chinese in the fridge.  It’s from last week though, so smell it first to make sure it’s okay.”

 

Arthur opens the refrigerator, mostly out of morbid curiosity.  There’s a six-pack of cheap beer, a Styrofoam takeout container filled with a slimy, suspicious-smelling mound of noodles and rice, a bottle of ketchup, and an open bag of white bread splotched with blue and green mold.

 

“Um…”

 

“That’s not all my food.  I’ve got mac-and-cheese in the pantry, and cereal.”

 

Arthur knows his own diet isn’t much to brag about.  He and his mother survive mostly on microwave meals, spaghetti with meatballs, and Hamburger Helper, but those things at least have protein, and the occasional recognizable vegetable.  This refrigerator is a deeper level of food hell.  He has a sudden, powerful impulse to serve Travis a giant plate of steamed broccoli and make sure he eats it all.

 

“I, uh, I probably shoulda gone to the store this morning.  I’m not prepared here.  Don’t eat those leftovers.  I could order a pizza, if you want—”

 

“It’s okay.”

 

“Here.”  Travis hands him the glass.  Ice cubes clink against the sides. 

 

Arthur glimpses a flicker of movement from the corner of his eye and turns his head.  A mouse peeks out from beneath a row of cabinets.

 

“Ah shit,” Travis says.  “There he is again.  Little fucker.  Hey you, get outta here, I got company.”  Travis tosses a dish towel at the mouse, which scuttles away and squeezes itself into a crevice between the wall and floor.  “Sorry about that,” he says.  “They got a mouse problem in this building.  I set traps out for ‘em at first, but one morning I found one stuck in a trap still alive, with its back broken.  Had to kill it myself, and that…I didn’t like that, so.  I just live with ‘em.  You’re not scared of mice, are you?” 

 

“No.  They don’t bother me.”

 

Travis stands awkwardly, shuffling his feet.  “Like I said, this place is a shithole.”

 

“It’s…not that bad.”

 

“I picked the cheapest place I could find when I moved here.  I’ve never had anyone else in here before.”

 

“No one?”

 

“Yeah.  You’re the first friend I made in this city.”  He clears his throat.  “So…you wanna sit down or somethin’?”

 

Back in the living room, they sit together on the couch, which squeaks and sags alarmingly under their weight.  Arthur sips his water, which has a faintly metallic taste.  He runs his fingers along a rip in the couch cushion, works one fingertip inside, feeling the stuffing.

 

“I could show you around, I guess,” Travis says.  “But there’s not a lot else to see.  Except the bedroom.”

 

His pulse jumps.  “M-maybe a little later.”

 

You could kiss him.

 

His gaze flicks to Travis’s lips, then away.

 

He knows that Travis is waiting for him to make the first move.  Waiting to see what he’s comfortable with, how far he wants to go.  But Arthur’s never been good at taking the initiative.  And he still feels raw, shaken and hollowed out from everything that’s happened since last night, and from his earlier breakdown in the car.

 

There’s a record player on the floor next to the TV stand.  A small pile of records sits next to it.

 

Travis notices him looking.  “Feel free,” he says.  “I don’t have too many records, though.  I bought that player when I moved here, figured I’d spend more nights listening to music instead of just staring at the TV.  But I don’t use it much.”

 

Arthur sets the glass on the coffee table, crouches and sifts through the records—nothing he recognizes.  Obscure bands, mostly from the sixties and early seventies, judging by the covers.  His gaze catches on an album called Jackson C. Frank.  He skims the list of songs, and an astonished smile breaks out on his face.

 

“I heard this song on the radio the other day,” he says.  “’My Name is Carnival.’  I remember, because Carnival is my clown-name.”

 

“No kiddin’?  Well, it’s a good record.  I picked it up at a thrift store a while back.”

 

“Can I put it on?”

 

“Sure.”

 

Arthur slides the vinyl out of its sleeve, places it gently on the record player, and lowers the needle.  Soft guitar music fills the living room.

 

“Catch a boat to England, baby.  Maybe to Spain…”

 

Arthur turns to Travis and extends a hand.  “Dance with me.”

 

“You’re lookin’ at the world’s worst dancer.  I’ll step all over your feet.”

 

“My feet will survive.”  Arthur takes him by the hand and pulls him to his feet.  “Come on.  No one is watching.”

 

“If you really want to…”

 

“I’ll lead.”  Arthur interlaces the fingers of his right hand with Travis’s right hand and places his left hand on his hip.

 

Travis doesn’t step on his feet, though he does stumble a few times.  His movements are stiff and mechanical, and he stares down at his own feet, a small furrow of concentration between his brows.  His expression reminds Arthur of a little boy building a model airplane or working on a puzzle. 

 

“Don’t concentrate so hard.  Just relax into the rhythm.  Your body will start to move on its own.”

 

Travis half-smiles.  “I got no rhythm.”

 

“Everyone has rhythm.  It’s in your soul.”

 

“Maybe I got no soul.”

 

“Of course you do.”

 

“Well, I musta misplaced it.”

 

“Then I’ll help you find it.”

 

Travis steps on Arthur’s toes and winces.  “Sorry.  I’m trying.”

 

“Close your eyes.”

 

“Won’t that make it worse?”

 

“Just try it.”

 

Travis obediently shuts his eyes.  His movements loosen up almost immediately.

 

“Good.  That’s it.”

 

“Been a long time since I’ve done this,” he says, eyes still closed.  “I can’t remember the last time, actually.  Maybe at some high school dance.  It always seemed like the sort of thing other people did.”

 

The singer’s voice floated from the record player:  “When I’m not drinkin’, baby, you are on my mind…when I’m not sleeping, honey, when I’m not sleeping mama, when I’m not sleeping, you know you’ll find me crying…”

 

Gradually, Travis relaxes into the music.  His eyes remain closed; the small furrow between them smooths out.

 

“See?  You do have rhythm.”

 

“You’re a good teacher.”

 

They glide around the living room in slow circles.

 

“Living is a gamble, baby, lovin’s much the same…”

 

Travis’s hand slides down, his thumb rubbing over the slight protrusion of Arthur’s hipbone.  Even through his pants, the contact sends a ripple of heat through him.

 

They’re alone in Travis’s living room, the blinds drawn.  They are locked in this private space, moving together, their bodies connected by invisible threads.  The music—sad but beautiful, filled with humanity and yearning—enfolds them in a cocoon.  The outside world with its casual cruelty and indifference cannot harm them here. 

 

A warm, unfamiliar sensation expands to fill Arthur’s chest.  It takes him a moment to recognize it for what it is.

 

I’m happy.  This is what happiness feels like.

 

They dance and dance and dance, swaying in tandem.  Travis opens his eyes and stumbles.

 

“It’s weird,” Travis says, “as long as I keep my eyes closed, I can move okay.  But if I watch myself doing it, I start screwing up.  I don’t like looking at myself, I guess.”

 

“I like looking at you.”

 

A smile quirks at the corner of Travis’s mouth.  “You’re pretty easy on the eyes yourself.  A man could get used to lookin’ at your face.”

 

A flush creeps into Arthur’s face.  “Thank you.”  He lowers his head to Travis’s shoulder.  Travis’s cheek presses against his.  His breath tickles Arthur’s ear.

 

“This guy,” Travis says, “the one who wrote these songs…he had a rough life.  Lost his girlfriend in a fire when he was just a kid.  Got burned pretty bad himself.  Grew up and had a son who died.  He had a mental breakdown.  Never made another record after this one.”

 

“I guess that’s why the music sounds so sad.”

 

“Yeah.  I used to listen to this a lot.  When I first moved here.”

 

“It’s beautiful, though.”

 

Arthur wonders—if those terrible things hadn’t happened to the singer, would he still have written music like this?  Or could some forms of beauty only come out of the ugliest pain?

 

“Last night, after that dream, I wanted to call you,” Travis says.  “That was my first thought.  Every time I wake up I start thinking about you.  I—I think—” he stops.

 

I’m in love with you, Arthur says in his mind.  He wants to say it out loud.  He doesn’t quite have the courage.

 

Travis stops dancing, as if overhearing the thought.  Arthur stops, too.

 

Travis stares at the wall.  “I don’t know how to be happy, or…how to make someone else happy,” he says.  “I don’t know what I’m doing.”

 

“Me neither.”  Arthur’s tongue creeps out to wet his lips.

 

Their bodies are inches apart.  They are almost the same height.  It’s easy to lean in and kiss him.  He can feel the slight prickle of stubble against his lips—Travis is normally clean-shaven, but he must have missed a day.

 

Travis kisses him back…softly, almost tentatively at first, then firmly.  Those warm, slightly-rough lips move down to his neck.  Arthur’s breathing flutters.  His eyes slip shut as Travis undoes the first button of his shirt and slips a finger beneath the collar.

 

“I left a bite on your neck last time,” Travis murmurs.

 

“I remember.”

 

“Seems to have healed up.”  He brushes a finger over Arthur’s pulse.  “Did your mother see it?”

 

“Yes.  She asked.  I lied and told her it was paint.”

 

“I liked doing that.  Marking you.  I’ll try not to do it again though.”

 

“You can if you want.  Just not in a place she can see it.”

 

His breathing quickens.  “Yeah?”  He undoes another button of Arthur’s shirt, then another.  His finger brushes over a spot just to the left of his right nipple.  “If I did it here…would anyone see this?  Anyone except me, I mean.”

 

Arthur swallows, aware that he is hard.  Their bodies are pressed close together, now, and he knows Travis can feel it.  “I—I change at work sometimes, too.  The guys might see it.”

 

“Would they give you shit about it?”

 

“Maybe.  Randall asked me questions about the flowers.  I didn’t mind so much, though.”  He shifts, and his hip rubs up against Travis’s erection. 

 

“I could pick another spot.  Somewhere even they won’t see.”  His hand wanders down.  Two fingers press against the inside of Arthur’s thigh, close to his cock.  “Here, maybe…”

 

“If you want.”  It’s becoming a struggle to hold his breathing steady.

 

“Though I kinda like the idea of other people seeing it, too.”  He licks his lips.

 

“Oh?”  The word comes out oddly squeaky.

 

“I’m a pervert,” he says.  “I know.”

 

Arthur lets out a short, sharp laugh.  “A—after everything you’ve seen in my journal, everything I’ve said to you—you’re still worried I’m going to judge you about that?  Trust me.  My fantasies are much weirder than yours.”

 

“I dunno about that.  I can get weird.”

 

The words slip out of Arthur before he’s made the decision to say them:  “Prove it.”

 

Travis meets his gaze, eyes dark and hungry.  Then he moves, and in an instant, Arthur’s back is against the wall.  The impact shakes the record player, and the needle skips once, then the music resumes.  Arthur’s mind has a moment to register the song—“My Name is Carnival”—and then Travis’s hands are undoing Arthur’s belt, yanking it loose, his mouth on Arthur’s.  Hot, rough hands slide up under Arthur’s shirt, along the underside of his ribcage.

 

His mouth latches onto Arthur’s right nipple, sucks, and bites.  There’s a sharp sting, a jab of pain.  A strangled cry escapes Arthur’s throat.  When Travis raises his head, there’s a bright red mark forming where his mouth was, and Arthur knows immediately that by next day there’ll be a dark, garish bruise there.

 

Before Arthur can even react, Travis is undoing Arthur’s belt.  A warm hand dives into his boxers, and Arthur gasps as strong fingers curl around his cock.  “You like that?”  Travis gives him a quick, hard stroke, and he groans.

 

Travis’s head dips down, and he latches onto a spot of smooth skin just beneath the first mark.  He sucks the flesh between his teeth, his hand sliding up and down Arthur’s dick as he marks him again.

 

Arthur’s knees have gone weak and watery.  If Travis keeps doing this, he’s going to cum within minutes.  He doesn’t want this to be over so quickly.  “Wait,” he gasps.  “Wait.”

 

Travis releases him.  “What?”

 

With shaking hands, Arthur undoes Travis’s belt, tugs down his zipper.  His cock pokes out through the slit in his boxers.  The dark pink head gleams with precum, the skin tight and shiny, so engorged it looked almost painful.  Arthur curls his fingers around it, feels it pulse in his grip.  A low groan escapes Travis’s throat, and his hips twitch forward.  Arthur rubs his thumb over the head, smearing the clear, glistening fluid over and around it.

 

He wets his lips again.  “I want this in my mouth,” he says.  The words come out shy, whispery.  “Can I do that?”

 

His cock jerks in Arthur’s grip.  “Yeah,” he breathes.  “Fuck, yeah.”

 

Arthur hastily switches positions with him, pushes Travis’s back against the wall, and drops to his knees.  A warm buzz seeps through his veins.  He feels drunk, high.  He tugs the waistband of Travis’s boxers down, fully exposing him.  For a moment, he just stares.

 

Travis waits, breathing heavily.

 

Arthur rubs his cheek against Travis’s cock, smearing more of the leaking precum over his skin.  He wants to cover himself in it, to wear it like makeup.  He brushes his lips and nose against the rigid flesh.  He breathes against it, inhales the salty tang of flesh and need.  The feel and smell of him is addictive.

 

He looks up at Travis, who stares down at him, face flushed, eyes wide.

 

Arthur opens his lips and takes him in.

 

He gulps too much at once, coughs, and has to pull back for a second or two to catch his breath.  Then he parts his lips and tries again.  He rolls his tongue over and around the mouthful of flesh, tasting the sweet sweat-salt.  He sucks, cheeks pulling inward.  Travis groans, his hips shuddering and rocking, pushing forward.  He grabs a fistful of Arthur’s hair and holds on like a drowning man.

 

In and out.  In and out.  His head bobs.  His lips tug and pull.  There is something almost hypnotic about the repetitiveness of the movements, how easy it is to fall into that rhythm.  Mouths are made to suck; it is the first thing they do, the primal infantile means of gaining sustenance.  There is something base and mammalian about it.

 

He wishes he has his makeup on.  For this, he wants big, wet, blood-red lips.  A broad crimson sickle-smile.  He imagines a smear of grease-paint on Travis’s cock.

 

It’s strange, how much he wants that.  To do this with another face.  But he won’t be Carnival, no—Carnival does not have such thoughts.  There is a third.  The awareness tightens muscles low in his stomach.

 

He draws back, catching his breath.  Closes his eyes, centering himself.  Licks his lips.  Then he goes back in, latches on, and forgets everything except the taste and feel of Travis.

 

One hand is still fisted in Arthur's hair.  Travis’s other hand drifts down to touch his face.  His thumb touches the corner of Arthur’s mouth, moves up to rest against his cheek, feeling the movement there, the way the flesh pulls in with each suck.

 

Arthur is on his knees, hands against the wall, his mouth working and working.  One finger slips beneath Travis’s full, heavy balls and traces tiny circles on the underside.

 

Uh—”

 

Yes, he likes that.

 

“Holy fuck—Arthur—”

 

Yes, he thinks.  This is his power.  He is good at this.

 

And then Travis’s fingers tighten in his hair and pull his head back.  Arthur blinks up at him, disoriented, like a man awakening from a dream.  He feels a flicker of fear—has he done something wrong?  Has he displeased him?

 

“Bedroom,” Travis whispers hoarsely.

 

* * *

 

The bedroom is just as sparse as the rest of the apartment.  Bare walls, a bed and a dresser, nothing else.

 

Travis stands, breathing heavily, his cock still poking out from his open fly, rigid and dark.  He’s flushed, a hot wolfish gleam in his eyes.

 

Arthur is off-balance, a little dazed.  He looks at the bed.  He knows why Travis brought them here, rather than letting Arthur finish him off.  He wants more.

 

Arthur’s belt is still open, his pants bunched around his hips.  He wonders if he should take them off. 

 

“I want you to do somethin’ for me,” Travis says, low and husky.

 

“Yes?”

 

“I want you to take off all your clothes and just lie down on that bed, on your back.  Let me look at you.”

 

Arthur’s chest constricts in a sudden, paralyzing flash of fear.  He clutches at his pants.  Every insecurity about his own body looms large in his mind.  His awkward, gangly marionette’s frame, the way his ribs stick out, the pallor of his skin, way none of his joints seem to fit together properly—

 

“Your shirt, first,” Travis says.

 

Hands shaking, he unbuttons his shirt and slips it off.  He feels the heat of Travis’s gaze on him.

 

“Now the rest.”

 

He slowly steps out of his pants.  His boxers join them on the floor a moment later.  He stands, skin exposed to the air, shivering.  He stares at Travis, waiting.

 

“Bed,” Travis says.

 

He lies down on his back.  His cock is still hard and aching, pointing straight up.  His cheeks burn.  His eyes are shut tight.

 

He can feel Travis’s gaze against his skin like a physical pressure.  Travis is younger than him, and more handsome.  And Arthur can tell, even without seeing him naked, that he’s in better shape.  More muscle, more tone.  What does he see when he looks at Arthur’s wasted body?

 

Hands touch his chest.  Warm, calloused thumbs slide along the hollows between his ribs.

 

“Open your eyes.”

 

He does.

 

Travis, still fully clothed aside from the erection sticking out of his open fly, climbs on top of him, grips his wrists and pins them down to the bed.  His knee slides between Arthur’s skinny thighs, pressing up against his balls.  He stares straight down into Arthur’s eyes. 

 

“I want you like this,” Travis says.  “On your back.  I wanna be able to see your face.”

 

A small, hoarse moan escapes Arthur’s throat.  His body arches off the bed.  Travis’s grip tightens around his wrists.

 

“I wanna be inside you.  I wanna hold you down and be inside you.”  The words escape him in a rush.  “Can I do that, Arthur?  Will you let me?”

 

“Yes,” he hears himself whispers.

 

Travis releases his right wrist, and Arthur immediately misses the pressure, the tightness…and then Travis pushes two fingers into his mouth.  “Get them wet for me.”

 

The faint saltiness of skin tingles on his tongue.  It’s the most natural thing in the world to wrap his lips around Travis’s knuckles and suck.  The fingers move inside him, stroking the inside of his cheek.  His tongue swirls over and around them.  The memory of Travis’s cock in his mouth is still fresh.  He drools and sucks and drools some more.

 

“Good,” Travis says, voice low and husky.

 

He pulls the fingers from Arthur’s mouth and slides them behind his balls, between the cheeks of his skinny ass.  There’s an unexpected jolt of pleasure as he brushes against the smooth, sensitive bit of flesh behind his balls—Arthur twitches, hips bucking.  Then Travis finds his opening.  The shock of pressure and wetness against that part of him makes him tense up a little.  He breathes raggedly.  His free hand twists on the bed and grips a handful of sheets.

 

More pressure.  And then the tip of Travis’s finger is inside him, working slowly deeper.  Arthur sucks the breath in between his teeth, and Travis freezes.

 

“Am I hurting you?”

 

“N-no.  No.  It’s just…different.”

 

Travis’s head drops down to rest against his shoulder.  He whispers close to his ear, “You’re tight.”

 

Arthur stares at the ceiling, breathing slowly, trying to relax.  He knows he’s clenching up, and that’s making this more difficult.

 

“I—you’re really tight.”

 

“Keep going.”

 

Travis works the finger deeper into him, eases the tip of a second finger inside, and stretches.  There’s an increasing sense of pressure, a sharp sting.  Arthur shifts, trying to get used to the unfamiliar sensation of movement inside his body.  The spit doesn’t give much in the way of lubrication.

 

But he can feel a strange, dark pleasure unfolding there, beneath his belly.  It’s different than the sensation of pressure against his cock.  It is a new pathway, a sense of dormant nerves awakening and responding.  He is being opened.  It almost hurts.

 

He wants more.  He pushes forward…

 

And Travis pulls back.  His expression has shifted, the dark, hungry look giving way to uncertainty.  “I shoulda bought some of that stuff,” he mutters.  “That slippery stuff.  Maybe we should—”

 

“I’m okay,” Arthur says, breathless.  There’s an odd buzzing sensation inside his head.  His consciousness is slip-sliding, going fuzzy and then sharpening again.  He really wants Travis to keep fingering him.  But Travis’s fingers slide out of his body, leaving him cold and empty.

 

“There’s other stuff we could do,” Travis says.  “I mean—like we did before.  If I try this without using the stuff, it’s gonna hurt you.”

 

“Hurt me.  Please.”

 

Travis’s shoulders tense.  “What?”

 

Arthur licks his lips.  That warm, tipsy buzzing still fills his skull, muffling his thoughts.  “I like pain.  Sometimes.  You saw the burn on my thumb, the first time we went out together.  You asked me if I did it to myself.  I did.”

 

Travis’s expression is unreadable.  “I don’t want to hurt you.”

 

“I think you do.”

 

Travis goes still.  His gaze remains fixed on Arthur’s face.

 

“That’s what you fantasize about, isn’t it?  That’s what you were afraid to tell me in the car,” Arthur says.  His own voice seems to be coming from somewhere else.  “You want to hurt me.  Pain is exciting.  You like it.  You just think you shouldn’t.  I’m telling you that it’s okay.”

 

Travis draws in a ragged breath.  “Arthur…what makes you think I want that?”

 

“You enjoyed leaving those bruises on my chest.  I think you’d like to do even more.”

 

There’s a faint glimmer of fear in Travis’s eyes, and something deep inside Arthur goes cold.  What am I saying?  There’s a moment of sickness, of confusion…then it slides away.  The buzzing sensation hasn’t left his head.  He’s falling, falling.

 

It’s happening again.  He’s dreaming awake.  He’s in a trance, his body talking without the permission of his ego.  As though someone else is speaking through him.  He wonders if he will even remember this conversation, later.

 

“This is your first time,” Travis says slowly.  “Our first time doing this.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“A person’s first time shouldn’t be rough.  It shouldn’t hurt.”

 

Arthur laughs, sudden and sharp.  “Who says?”

 

“It’s common sense.”

 

“Oh, common cents.  Society.  All the good, normal, respectable people of the world.”  He laughs again.  “They’re not watching us, Travis.  They don’t give a shit about us, anyway.  What has their morality ever done for people like us?  They don’t care if we live or die.  So why let them into your head?  Why let them tell you about right and wrong?”

 

“I don’t give a shit about them.  I give a shit about you.  You’re not talking like yourself right now.”

 

“You said you wanted all of me.”

 

“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean I’m gonna fuck you like this.  You’re not in control.  It’s like you’re drugged.”

 

The smile never leaves Arthur’s face.  “What if this is the real me?”  He reaches up to trail a finger along Travis’s jaw, down his throat, to the vulnerable hollow between his collarbones, where his pulse races.  Arthur undoes the first button of his shirt.  “What if everything else is a mask?”

 

That idea rattles him.  Arthur can see it.

 

Travis grabs his wrists and pins them down again.  He straddles Arthur’s naked body with his clothed one, holding Arthur’s arms immobile over his head.  A muscle twitches in his jaw.  Arthur shivers with pleasure.

 

He feels as though he’s falling backwards, falling into himself, slipping down a dark well.  He’s turning inside out.  It should be frightening.

 

It’s exquisite.  Sexy.  It would be so easy to surrender completely, to fall under the spell and let the everyday Arthur—the depressed loser, the one who curls in on himself and hides, the one who is afraid to ask for what he wants—dissolve like sugar and coffee.  To vanish into this sweet warm darkness unfurling from within him.

 

He wonders if he will be able to come back, this time.  He wonders if he even wants to.

 

Still, he holds on to some fragment of himself.  He doesn’t disappear.  He floats like a ghost behind his own eyes, watching through the twin windows.  Watching from a deeper place.  He has surrendered control to the Other, but he still feels everything.  Feels more.  He watches a bead of sweat trail down Travis’s temple and drip to the bed.

 

“What would you use, I wonder?” Arthur-not-Arthur asks.  “What do you think about using on me?  A whip?  No—that’s not your style.  Too much like a prop, isn’t it?  It wouldn’t feel natural.  You’re much more comfortable with a gun, but that would be overkill.  No pun intended.”  He giggles.  “And you said you don’t touch them anymore, anyway.  Hmm…maybe your hands.”  He goes into his breathy Southern belle voice—“Such big strong hands.  You could do plenty with just those, I’m sure.” 

 

The muscles in Travis’s throat moves as he swallows.  His forehead gleams with sweat; his eyes are wide.

 

“What’s wrong?  Afraid I might…bite?”  He lunges up.  His teeth catch on Travis’s lower lip, scraping over the soft flesh, almost hard enough to draw blood.

 

Travis jerks back, but still doesn’t release his wrists.  “Jesus,” he gasps.  “Arthur…”

 

“Come on,” says the Other, grinning with Arthur’s mouth.  “What are you so afraid of?”  He hooks his legs around Travis’s hips, pulling him closer.  “Do it.  And make it hurt.”

Chapter Text

Back in '73, after Travis was discharged from the Marines, he saw a doctor.  “I can’t sleep,” he said.  “I’ve been having kind of a hard time.  Bad thoughts.  I can’t relax, you know?”  He just wanted some sleeping pills.  Something to help ease him through the rough nights.

 

The man’s smile was faintly condescending, and he nodded and listened to Travis with the air of a parent listening to a child talk about monsters under the bed.

 

After some questions, the guy diagnosed Travis with post-traumatic stress disorder, a fancy new term that the docs were throwing around lately.  The war had just ended. Lots of young guys coming back from 'Nam with their heads all fucked up.

 

In the old days they called it shell shock.  Back when his dad was young and in the military it was combat stress reaction.  They kept changing the words, adding more syllables.  Probably to make themselves feel smarter.

 

The doctor gave Travis some pills—which he later threw away, because they made him feel like a zombie—and a recommendation to see a therapist, which Travis ignored because he didn’t have the money.  Didn’t see how talking was supposed to help, anyway.

 

Post-traumatic stress disorder.  Travis hated the phrase, and he hated the glib way it rolled off of the slick young doctors’ tongues—guys who’d never seen combat, but thought they understood because they’d read a bunch of books.  As though books could tell you anything about what it actually felt like to point a gun at another human being and pull the trigger, or to stare down the barrel of someone else’s gun, into the eye of oblivion.

 

Not that the descriptions didn’t apply.  Hypervigilance.  Hostility.  Mistrust.  Insomnia.  Nightmares.  Flashbacks.  He has those things, sure.  But calling it a disorder never sat well with him.

 

In this world, those who can’t fight don’t survive.  Even before the war there were hints of this reality.  He was a short, scrawny kid.  Bullies saw him as easy prey, and he quickly proved them wrong.  His dad had taught him how to throw a punch, how to hurt someone with his hands, and the best way to avoid being shoved into a locker was to bloody someone’s nose once or twice.  After that they left you alone.

 

A mind shaped by violence is not broken.  It has seen how reality is and adapted.  Only the luckiest and the safest of men can escape that violence, and why should they get to decide what is sickness and what is health?

 

That’s what he thinks most days, anyway.  But there are some nights—waking up from bad dreams, puking out his guts—that he feels sick.  Feels broken.

 

But this, too, seems like a reflection of reality.  All around himself, wherever he goes, he sees brokenness and horror and blood and filth.  To be well in such a world is a form of self-deception.  Those men, the ones in air-conditioned offices behind desks and behind their books and their fifty-dollar words about things they’ve never felt, are the ones living in a fantasy.

 

So when he hears Arthur’s words—what has their morality ever done for people like us?—it hits him in the marrow of his bones.

 

Because Arthur knows.  Even if he was never in the war, he too is a man shaped by pain. 

 

* * *

 

Travis could do it.  He wants to.

 

He’s already got Arthur naked and pinned to the bed.  If he disregarded any thought of consequences it would be easy to fuck him—to push himself into that waiting hole, that tight, virgin, untouched hole, and fuck and fuck and fuck it until it’s raw and sore, until Travis has emptied himself inside Arthur and claimed him.  Despite the fear, despite the unease, despite the voice inside telling him that this is all wrong…

 

He is close to what he wants, the head of his cock nearly pressing up against it.

 

A memory flashes through his head:  the first time he ever saw Arthur, sitting with his back up against the brick wall of the alley, his clown makeup runny with tears, a trembling cigarette perched between his lips.  The uncertainty in his wide eyes when he looked up at Travis’s outstretched hand.  The way his voice wobbled when he said, Thank you for being nice to me.  And Travis thought, here is a man who has been broken by the world, and yet there is something clean about him.  Something untouched.  Innocence wasn't quite the right word.  No one could stay innocent for long in Gotham.  Still, there was a sense that some part of his soul remained intact, some part that Travis himself had sacrificed long ago.

 

As he got to know Arthur, the thought that kept coming up in his head was, Don't let me ruin this.  Don't let me break him.

 

Travis knows that he’s not prepared for this.  When he stuck his fingers inside Arthur he felt like a man trying to perform open heart surgery while wearing a pair of oven mitts.  He felt the dryness and resistance and realized what he should have already known—that an ass doesn’t work the same way as a pussy.  This is new territory.

 

That, and he has never been with a virgin before.  Even his first time.

 

If he’s going to do this, he needs to at least know that Arthur is himself enough to say yes.

 

“Arthur,” Travis says softly, “look at me.”

 

“I’m looking.” 

 

“I want you to wake up.”

 

“I’m wide awake.  I’ve never been more awake.”  He smiles.  There’s a bright, manic shine to his eyes.  They’re widely dilated—black pools edged in blue-gray.  Bottomless wells.  He’s breathing faster than usual, and there’s a flush in his cheeks.

 

He even looks drugged.  It’s Arthur—some part of him, anyway—but whatever he says, he’s not in control of himself right now.  He might not even remember all this afterwards.

 

“Arthur comes back or this isn’t happening,” he says.

 

“I am Arthur.  He’s right here.  He can hear you, see you.  When you touch me, you touch him.”  Arthur smiles and pushes his hips upward, rubbing his cock against Travis’s belly.

 

“Don’t.”

 

Arthur laughs, tipping his head back.

 

“Laugh all you want.  I’m not doing anything until that funny look goes out of your eyes.”

 

“Why?”

 

“I already told you why.”

 

His body wriggles on the bed, hips writhing.  “You can be such a square.”

 

Iris said the same thing to him, once.  “Yeah, that’s me.”

 

“Come on, Travis.  Stop listening to those pesky little noises in your head.  Your dick wants this.  You already know what a filthy slut I am.  I suck cock like a natural, don’t I?  I like it.  Having you between my teeth—the way you moan and shiver—”

 

The words send a fresh jolt of heat to his groin, and he twitches.  His fingers tighten around Arthur’s wrists.

 

Arthur squirms and twists.  He’s surprisingly strong, considering how skinny he is.  His body arches off the bed.  He lets out a shrill, breathless laugh and lunges.  His teeth catch on Travis’s shirt.  He throws his head back, yanking.  A button pops off, and the fabric rips.

 

“Oh dear, that was a nice shirt, wasn’t it?”

 

“You’re tryin’ to get me mad.  It’s not gonna work.”

 

“I’m just so tired of behaving myself.  I’ve been a good little boy my whole life, and it’s never gotten me anything except stepped on and ignored.  I’m going to be as bad as I want, and I’m going to enjoy it.”  He giggles.  “And if you punish me, I’ll enjoy that too.”

 

In one swift movement, Travis flips him over onto his stomach and locks his wrists together behind his back, holding them there with both hands.  Arthur kicks, and Travis pins Arthur’s legs together with his knees.  “Oh, you want me like this now?  You like it when I put up a fight?”  He bucks beneath Travis, rubbing his ass against his erection.  “Oooh, please don’t, please don’t stick that big, hard, thick cock in my hungry little—”

 

“Enough.”  The word comes out low and hoarse. 

 

He presses Arthur down into the bed, holding him immobile.  Arthur’s chest heaves—his whole body heaves.  His head is turned to one side, face half-mashed against the pillow.  His visible eye rolls up toward Travis.  “You’re scared,” Arthur says.  “That’s all it is.  You’re afraid to let go.”

 

Travis is breathing hard, face flushed.  “You keep talking all you want.  I’m just gonna hold you here until you’re back to normal.”

 

Arthur is still smiling, lips stretched wide, showing teeth.  Then he starts to laugh again, shrilly and wildly.  “I’m sorry,” he gasps.  “The—the look on your face—it’s so funny.”

 

“Arthur,” Travis says, his voice ragged, “I love you.”

 

Arthur goes still.  For a moment, his soft, shuddering breaths echo through the room.  He blinks a few times, face still half-mashed against the pillow.  His visible eye is wide.  “You…what?”

 

“I love you,” Travis says.

 

He’s breathing faster and harder now, almost hyperventilating.  “I—”

 

“I love you.”

 

His eye rolls up, squeezes shut, then opens.  He looks dazed, half-awake.  A little scared.

 

There he is.

 

He whispers, “Oh god.  Travis…”

 

“It’s okay.”

 

Arthur starts to tremble.

 

Travis releases his grip on Arthur’s wrists, rolls him onto his back and pulls him into his arms.  He hugs him tight for a moment, face buried against Arthur’s neck.  Then he pulls back to hold Arthur’s face between his hands.  “Do you remember?  What you were saying just now?”

 

“I remember,” he says.  “I was there, the whole time.  I could hear you.  I could hear myself.  My voice.  I…”  He flinches, his eyes losing focus.  “I said—”

 

“Stay with me.”  Travis squeezes his face.  “Stay right here.”  He strokes Arthur’s hair.  “I need to know what you want right now.  What you need.”

 

Arthur’s gaze flicks down.  Travis is still hard.  They both are.  He swallows.

 

“Please,” Arthur whispers.

 

“Please what?”

 

He’s shaking.  “Please just—just do something to me.  I can’t—I—”

 

“Say it.  I need to hear you say it.”

 

He lets out a choked sound, a laugh or a sob, it’s hard to tell.  “Fuck me.  I need you to fuck me.”

 

Travis pins his wrists to the bed again.  Arthur is on his back beneath him, naked.  Travis shifts, and the head of his cock presses between Arthur’s buttocks.  His hips roll forward, and his cock slides up and down the dry cleft, dragging over his asshole.  He pushes and feels the resistance.

 

He slicks his own fingers with his saliva and smears the wetness over his dick, then spreads more of it over and around Arthur’s hole.  Spit doesn’t help much, but it’s something.

 

He keeps pushing, not quite penetrating, but thrusting against him, the head of his cock pressed snugly up against the tight little ring of muscle.  His still-clothed stomach rubs against Arthur’s cock.  Arthur lets out a small sound halfway between a whine and a moan.

 

“I got you,” Travis says hoarsely.

 

He gives another push and feels a shift, muscles stretching, opening, allowing him to slide forward.  Arthur gasps, eyes widening, head tipping back.

 

I’m in him, he thinks, dazed.  I’m in him, it’s happening.  I’m here.

 

Arthur is so goddamn tight, so hot and tight, hugging Travis’s dick like a glove.  It almost hurts, the way Arthur’s body grips and squeezes him like it doesn’t want to let go.  But he doesn’t mind the pain.

 

Arthur’s mouth is open, panting.  His eyes start to go glassy and roll back, and Travis squeezes his wrists tighter and says, “Stay with me.”

 

Arthur’s eyes roll back into view, snap into focus.

 

“Good.  That’s good.  I got you.”

 

“Don’t let go,” Arthur whispers.

 

“I’m not gonna let go.”

 

He wants Arthur here—the Arthur he found that first day in the alley, with his shy smile and hunger for simple kindness. 

 

He knows that other Arthur is there too, watching from within.  He’s always there.  But the Arthur he knows and loves isn’t a mask.  They’re both real.  And he wants them both. But now—this first time—he wants this one, wants him awake, in control of his own voice. Wants him to remember every second of this.

 

“I love you,” Travis says again.

 

Arthur is crying now, tears sliding down his temples as he pushes back against Travis, but they don’t seem to be pain-tears.  “I love you too,” Arthur whispers.

 

Travis thrusts one last time, deep, and lets out a strangled cry.  He goes limp and shuddering atop Arthur.  He’s gasping for breath, flushed, sweat trickling down his back, hair in a disarray. 

 

“Travis,” Arthur whispers.  “Please…”

 

Still inside him, still shaking from the aftermath of orgasm, he reaches down and grabs Arthur’s cock.  A few more quick strokes bring him over the edge.  Cum squirts across his naked stomach, drips down to his thighs. 

 

He pulls out and flops down onto the bed next to Arthur.  His chest rises and falls as he stares up at the ceiling.  “Holy shit,” he says.

 

“Yeah,” Arthur says, his voice creaky.

 

Travis rolls onto his side and lays a hand on Arthur’s chest.  His heart thumps rapidly beneath his palm.  “You okay?”

 

“Uh-huh,” he replies in that creaky little voice.

 

Travis glances down at the smear of red on the sheets.  “You’re bleeding.”

 

Arthur reaches down to touch his opening, and his fingers come away with spots of blood glistening on them.  He rubs his fingers and thumb together.  Lazily, sensually, he smears a streak of blood on his own cheek.  “I don’t mind,” he says.

 

“Does it hurt?”

 

“Not right now.”  His head lolls to one side, and he stares at Travis.  “I feel like I’m floating.”  He lets out a small, soft laugh.  There’s wonder in the sound. 

 

A few rays of sunlight fall through the crack between the curtains covering Travis’s bedroom window.  The amber glow of sunset illuminates Arthur’s face.  He’s smiling.  Radiant.  His eyes are bright and wet with tears. 

 

“You’re so beautiful,” Travis says.

 

“You are, too,” Arthur whispers.

 

Travis wipes his brow.  His eyes are stinging—he must have gotten some sweat into them.  His vision blurs as more salt-water fills his eyes, but it’s not sweat.  “Huh,” he says.  “I guess they’re not broken after all.”

 

“What?”

 

“My tear-tubes.  Or whatever you call ‘em.  Ducts.  I guess they still work.”  He lays there, experiencing the unfamiliar sensation of warm water filling up his eyes and sliding down his cheeks. 

 

Arthur reaches out, touches his face.  “Travis…are you all right?”

 

“Yeah.  Yeah, I’m good.”

 

The tears keep sliding down.  It’s weird.  There’s no urge to sob, no sniffles, just lots of water.  Like a wound has been lanced and now two decades’ worth of pent-up tears are spilling out.  It’s a relief.  The pressure lets up a little.  He feels like metal purified in fire.  He’s going to sleep well tonight; he can already tell.  There will be no bad dreams.

 

“What do you need?” Arthur asks, echoing Travis’s earlier words.

 

Travis reaches out and pulls Arthur into his arms again, drawing Arthur’s head to his shoulder.  He closes his eyes, savoring the warmth and realness of him, the smell of his hair and skin.  “Just let me hold onto you a while.”

 

* * *

 

That night, Travis drops Arthur off in front of his apartment.

 

They face each other in the flickering glow of the streetlight.  Travis sits in his cab, one arm resting atop the steering wheel.  “Goodnight, Arthur,” he says.  “I’ll call you tomorrow.”

 

“Goodnight, Travis.”  He hesitates only briefly before adding, “I love you.”

 

“Love you too.  I’ll wait here ‘til you get inside, okay?”

 

“Okay.”

 

Arthur walks up to the front door, unlocks it, and steps through.  He watches from inside the building, the door half-open, as the cab pulls away.

 

Automatically, he checks the mail.  Empty, of course.  He walks toward the elevator.

 

His hand drifts up to touch the smile on his face.  He feels light.  Weightless.  He is a little sore down there—he has a feeling it’ll be worse tomorrow morning—but he doesn’t mind.  The pain is proof that it was real. 

 

I love you.  Amazing, how three words can calm all his fears, ease all his doubts, make him feel as though he’s flying yet standing on solid ground.

 

He steps into the rickety elevator.  As it hauls itself up, Arthur sings softly to himself.  He puts a hand on his chest and feels his own heart beating beneath his palm.  He is alive.

 

Already, he can’t wait to see Travis again.  He is excited about tomorrow, and the tomorrow after that.  So many days still ahead of him, each one a gift.

 

When he opens the door to his apartment, his mother is lying on the living room floor, curled into a fetal position.  He can’t see her face.

 

In an instant, the joy evaporates.  Vanishes.  Like a bubble popping.  His stomach plunges into his feet.

 

“Mom!”  He rushes to her side, drops to his knees and grips her shoulder.  “Mom, say something.”

 

She stirs, groans.  Her face turns toward him, eyelids fluttering open.  “Arthur…”  Her voice is small and tearful.  “I fell.”

 

“How long have you been lying here like this?”

 

“I don’t know.”  She sniffles.  “I’m afraid to move.  I think I might have broken something.  I…I couldn’t reach the phone.”

 

“Do you want me to call an ambulance?”

 

“Just help me onto the couch.  Please.”

 

He slips an arm around her and helps her to her feet.  She stumbles a little and leans against his side, limping as he walks her to the couch.  He eases her down.  “Where does it hurt?  Is it your hip?”

 

“I think so.”  She rubs it.  “My shoulder, too.”

 

“I’ll call the hospital.”

 

“Don’t.  We can’t afford it.”  She gives him a tight smile.  “I’m going to rest here for a few minutes.”

 

“Do you need anything?  Water?”

 

“Yes, please.”

 

As he fills a glance from the kitchen tap, a surge of guilt overwhelms him, so strong that his breathing quickens and tears prickle in his sinuses.  He’s been leaving his mother alone more and more often lately, spending time with Travis.  There’s no telling how long she was lying there on the floor, in pain, while Arthur was busy getting fucked blind.

 

He brings the water into the living room.  She starts to take it from him, but her hands are shaking, so he lifts the glass to her lips.  She drinks.

 

“Thank you.  I was very thirsty.”

 

“How’s your hip?”

 

“It hurts.  But I don’t think it’s broken.  Just bruised.”

 

“I’ll get you some aspirin and an ice pack.”  He fetches the pills, and she swallows two of them, holding the blue plastic ice pack against her hip.

 

“I was scared,” she says.  “I had no idea when you’d be back.  You just said ‘tonight.’”

 

“I’m so sorry, Mom.  I didn’t know how long I’d be gone.”

 

She raises her head.  “Where were you?”

 

He freezes.  Earlier, when he left, he told her that he was going to the comedy club after his appointment.  Now, remembering the lie brings a fresh rush of guilt.  He’s gotten in the habit of lying, because telling her about Travis—even if he were to leave out certain details—would invite more and more questions, and he’s not ready for those questions.  But he can’t keep sneaking around forever.  He takes a breath.  “I…made a friend, Mom.  I was with him.”

 

“A friend?  Who?”

 

“His name is Travis.  He’s a taxi driver.  He found my notebook after I lost it at the club, and since then we’ve been spending time together.  I—I like him a lot.  We have a lot in common.”

 

“Why didn’t you tell me about this person before?” 

 

“I don’t know.  I was afraid it wouldn’t last, I guess.  It’s been so long since I’ve had a friend.”

 

She stares at the floor.

 

“Mom?”

 

“I’m glad for you.  I am.  It’s good to have friends.  But I need you here, too.  I never see you anymore.”

 

“That’s not true.  We spent the other night together.  I can’t be here all the time.  I need to have a life.”

 

“Am I a burden to you?” she asks, her voice tight.

 

“You know you’re not, Mom.  I want to help you.  I want to take care of you.”

 

“Well, you have a funny way of showing it.  Leaving me on the floor for hours…”  She covers her eyes with one hand, her lips trembling.

 

He tenses.  “Mom.  I didn’t know.  I had no way of knowing.”

 

She pinches the bridge of her nose.  “You’re right.  I’m sorry.  It’s just…I’m not used to being alone so much.”

 

He has a sudden thought—a wicked, treacherous thought—that maybe his mother wanted him to find her like that.  Maybe she did fall, but she doesn’t seem to be injured.  Maybe she could have gotten up but chose instead to remain on the floor until he came home.  Because she wanted to scare him, wanted him to feel guilty.

 

He doesn’t want to believe that she’d do a thing like that.  But now that the thought is in his head, he can’t dislodge it.

 

He takes a slow breath.  “I’m not going to stop seeing Travis, Mom.”

 

“I never said you had to.  It’s just that I don’t know anything about this man.  And you haven’t known him for very long either.  These days, you have to be so careful.”

 

“What are you talking about?  Careful of what?”

 

“Everything.  I watch the news.  You hear about all these awful things happening.  It seems sometimes like the world has gone crazy.  You never know who you can trust.  I worry about you, that’s all.”

 

Arthur’s pulse drums in his head.  He squeezes one hand into a fist.

 

He tells himself that she’s just concerned.  She worries a lot.  She’s always been that way.  And of course she misses him when he’s gone.  She’s more or less trapped in this depressing little apartment, unable to get around on her own thanks to her bad hips and her morbid (though not unjustified, in Gotham) terror of crime.  If she’s become a bit manipulative, it’s just out of desperation.  But everything about this conversation makes him sick to his stomach.  For the first time in his life, Arthur has found someone who likes him—loves him—the way he is.  And his mother is trying to sabotage it.  Trying to plant seeds of doubt.

 

“Happy?”  Her voice is small and timid.  “Are you angry?”

 

“I just…need a minute.”  He goes into the kitchen and faces the wall.  He wants to punch something, wants to sweep the dirty dishes off the counter and watch them shatter on the floor.  Instead, he breathes in and out slowly, counting to three each time the way his counselor told him to, pushing the anger back down.

 

He’s had a lot of practice at this.  Pretty much every conversation with Hoyt ends with Arthur doing meditative breathing in the men’s room and trying not to scream.

 

He knows this is partly his own fault.  He should have been open with his mother from the beginning.  He’s given her almost no information about Travis, so of course she’s confused and suspicious.

 

And a thought occurs to him. 

 

He walks back into the living room.  “Do you want to meet him, Mom?”

 

Her brow furrows.

 

“Travis,” he says.  “I could invite him over for dinner.  Maybe sometime this week.”  They don’t have to tell her everything.  Not right away.  But maybe just meeting him, having a face to put to the name, will ease her worries.  “You won’t have to cook.  I’ll do everything.  I think you’ll like him, if you meet him.”

 

“Oh Happy…I don’t know.  We haven’t had anyone over for dinner in such a long time.  And this building…I don’t like anyone seeing this place.  It’s embarrassing.  I feel like people are always judging us.”

 

“Trust me, he won’t.  He’s not that sort of person.”

 

“I don’t know,” she says again.

 

Frustration bubbles up in him.  A moment ago she was complaining that she didn’t know anything about Travis, and now she’s skittish about meeting him.  “Just think about it,” Arthur says.  When his mother doesn’t respond, he adds on impulse, “He’s a big fan of Thomas Wayne.”

 

His mother looks up, eyes brightening.

 

This is, of course, a complete lie.  Travis has specifically stated that he doesn’t like Thomas Wayne.  Immediately, Arthur wishes he could take the words back.  But the lie works like a charm.

 

She puts her hands together and smiles.  “Well…I suppose it would be nice to have company.  It does get so quiet here sometimes, with just the two of us.”

 

“I think it will be nice.  I can make spaghetti.”

 

“And we can talk about Thomas and his run for mayor.  Oh, that reminds me…did you check the mailbox on the way up?”

 

“Yes, Mom.  There was nothing.”

 

“Can you check it again?  Just in case you missed something?”

 

“Mom…”

 

“Please?”

 

He sighs.  “Fine.”

 

As Arthur trudges down the hall, it occurs to him that he probably should have run this by Travis first.  But then, he and Travis are a couple now—aren’t they?  If they’re going to be a part of each other’s lives, Travis has to meet Penny at some point, doesn’t he?  Arthur has already been over to Travis’s apartment.  It only makes sense to invite Travis here.

 

Still, he can’t help wondering if he’s made a colossal blunder.

 

Why did I have to tell her he likes Thomas Wayne?

 

He checks the mailbox for the second time that night.  It’s empty.  It always is.

Chapter Text

Arthur lies on the floor.  Carpet scratches his cheek.  A rope scratches his wrist.  A sour throw-up smell hangs in the air.  His tummy hurts and his mouth tastes bad.  He hasn’t had any food or water for a long time, but he doesn’t feel hungry or thirsty anymore.  He just wants to lie here.  He watches the sunlight from the window, shining between the blinds, watches it move in little flickers across the floor.

 

A spider skitters into his vision.  He watches, not moving, as it crawls over his hand and then under the humming metal thing on the wall.  Hot air blows out onto his face.

 

In the kitchen, far away, a deep voice growls and yells, and Mommy is crying and shouting.  The voices echo like they are coming down a long tunnel.  Thud-thud-thud, and Mommy yelps and then is quiet.

 

A shadow comes out of the kitchen.

 

It stands there, looming and dark, breathing heavily.  Its footsteps are slow and heavy, thud-thud, closer and closer.  He can’t move.  His body is glued down to the floor, melting into it.  Even the fear is faraway, like he is watching a movie.  The shadow leans down and he feels its hot breath and smells beer.

 

“What are you looking at?”

 

A hand reaches out.  Something hurts.  For a while the pain is the only real thing.  Red lightning flashes, and then blackness.

 

Then he is opening his eyes and the world shifts and blurs  The carpet is warm and wet.  Mommy sits next to him, her face mottled black and blue, her lip split and bleeding.  She is smiling, eyes full of tears, singing quietly under her breath.  “Gray skies are gonna clear up…put on a happy face…”

 

He feels her fingers poking into the corners of his mouth, pulling up.

 

* * *

 

When Arthur wakes on the couch the next morning, the dream is already fading from his mind.  He knows that it was bad, but beyond that the details are blurry.

 

He silences the beeping alarm clock.  For a few minutes he just lies there on his back, staring up at the ceiling.

 

His ass hurts.  More than he thought it would.

 

Last night the discomfort seemed small and unimportant—even pleasant, like a sore muscle after a good workout.  Now a dull throb radiates up through his lower back.  He winces, moving slowly and stiffly as he sits up and lights a cigarette.  He’s wearing loose drawstring pants and a t-shirt, covering the marks on his chest.  Hazy gray sunlight filters in through the window.

 

His mother is already awake and making coffee.  He can hear her in the kitchen.  He doesn’t particularly want to talk to her at the moment.  He thinks about the sight of her lying on the floor, and the idea that he can’t let go of—the idea that she fell deliberately, to hurt him.

 

He exhales a mouthful of smoke.

 

The high has faded.  He feels…raw.  Unsteady.  The pain is disconcerting.

 

What did you expect?

 

Travis wanted to stop, he remembers.  Arthur was the one who insisted they proceed without lubricant, and then started talking crazy when Travis continued to balk.  A burning heat creeps up into his face.  He still remembers everything he said, in that state.  Every taunt, every shameless remark.  How, in that moment, he wanted Travis to get angry at him and hurt him.  Wanted to prove…something.  He is glad, now, that Travis held back until Arthur was in control of himself again.  But it bothers him that it happened a second time.  What sets it off?  It's not just lust.  It didn't happen the first time they had phone sex, and it didn't happen that night after the movie, either.  Something else. 

 

He sits on the edge of the couch, breathing in and out, feeling the dull aching pulse from inside his rectum.  Everything feels more complicated now, even his own body; his skin doesn't seem to fit right.  He pushes a hand through his hair and the texture of it, greasy and limp, makes his skin crawl.  An all-too-familiar knot of worry and guilt and confusion fills his chest, and a sludge of dark thoughts gums up the inside of his skull. 

 

He can outrun his depression for a while, but sooner or later it always catches up to him.

 

He closes his eyes and remembers Travis’s voice saying, I love you.  The knot inside his chest loosens, just a little.

 

He takes his morning meds, feeling the slight flutter as the pills pass down his throat.  He imagines them dissolving in his stomach, seeping into his veins, riding the train of his blood to his brain where they begin the busy work of making him semi-functional for another day.  He’s going to Ha-Ha’s in an hour.  Arthur’s probably in no condition to be dancing around and clowning right now, but he can’t afford to miss work.  Afterwards, he’s meeting Travis at the diner.  They arranged it last night.

 

Arthur needs to tell him about what he said to Penny.  About dinner.  About Thomas Wayne.

 

He stands, wincing, and walks into the kitchen.  He makes a mental note to take some Tylenol before he leaves.

 

His mother sits at the table, a cup of coffee in one hand.  “Good morning, sleepyhead."

 

He pours himself a cup of coffee.  “Morning, Mom.  What do you want for breakfast?”

 

“Oatmeal would be nice.”

 

She doesn’t bring up last night.  He is grateful.

 

* * *

 

As soon as he arrives, he finds himself facing Randall.  “Hoyt wants to see you.”

 

Arthur freezes.  Usually, when Hoyt calls him in, it’s not good.  “Is he upset?”

 

“Doesn’t seem like it, but who knows, with him?”

 

Minutes later, Arthur stands in Hoyt’s office, back stiff, hands folded in front of him.  “You wanted to talk to me?”

 

“Yeah.  Hang on.”

 

Hoyt spends about twenty seconds shuffling through the papers on his desk before he deigns to look up and make eye contact with Arthur.  “We got another gig at the hospital today,” Hoyt says.  “Apparently the kids liked your act last time.  A couple of ‘em even asked for you by name.  Wanted to know if you were coming back.”

 

“Really?”  His voice comes out a little breathless.  “That—that’s great.  That’s wonderful.”

 

“Can't stand hospitals, myself.  You don’t find it depressing, being in a place like that?”

 

“No.  Not at all.  The children are nice.”

 

“Yeah.  Carnival’s real popular with the sick kids.  I guess ‘cause you’re a pretty sick kid yourself.”

 

“What?”

 

“Nothing.  It’s a joke.  So you up for it?”

 

“Yes.  Of course.”

 

“Because you seem kinda stiff today.  You were limping when you came in.”

 

Arthur tenses.  Is it that obvious?  “I’m fine.  I just…over-exerted myself a little.”

 

Hoyt smiles, but there’s something cold and unpleasant in his eyes.  “Had some fun last night?”

 

Arthur’s chest tightens.  For a moment he just stares, aware of the glazed, panicked expression on his own face.  He drops his gaze, flushing.  “That’s not appropriate,” he mumbles.  “You’re not supposed to ask me things like that.”

 

“Jesus, Arthur, lighten up.  I’m just messing with you.”

 

“I know.”  But it didn’t feel like a joke.  “It’s still not appropriate.”

 

“Whatever.  Go get yourself changed and painted up.  If you’re doing the gig, you need to be at the hospital by noon.”

 

* * *

 

Arthur changes into his clown clothes in the men’s room.

 

Yesterday, in the heat of the moment and the privacy of Travis’s apartment, the thought of someone seeing the love-bites on his chest struck him as deliciously naughty and exciting.  Now, the idea terrifies him.

 

Had some fun last night?

 

His breathing quickens.  His fingers tremble as he buttons up his shirt.  He grips the edges of the sink and leans over it, feeling a little sick.  He lifts his eyes to his own reflection.  The muscles are drawn tight in his face, the bags under his eyes more visible than usual.

 

He has the urge to slam his forehead against the mirror, but resists.  He can’t show up for his act with a bloody head.

 

The children asked for him by name.  He has to be there.

 

He pushes his tangled feelings down, balling them up and stuffing them into a corner of his head.  Hoyt is just being Hoyt, he tells himself.  He doesn’t actually know.

 

He needs to think of an act.  This whole thing was short notice.  He could just do one of his standard routines, but he feels like he should try something new.  Something a little more special.

 

Riding the subway to the hospital, he watches the city through the window and thinks.  There’s a little girl there who likes dinosaurs, he remembers.

 

And inspiration strikes.

 

* * *

 

Arthur arrives with a wide smile fixed in place.  He honks a horn and throws a handful of sparkling silver confetti.  It bursts through the air in a glittering cloud.  “I-i-i-i-it’s Carnival!”

 

“I am not sweeping that up,” a nurse mutters behind him.

 

He faces the room, arms open.  Smiles greet him.  Always good to see smiles.

 

“It's so great to be here again!  I brought a friend with me this time.  I hope you don’t mind.”  With a flourish he pulls a fuzzy brown T-Rex hand-puppet from one of his capacious pockets.

 

On the way here, he stopped at a novelty store and bought the puppet.  He’s done a little ventriloquism in his acts before.  He’s not very good at it, but he doubts the kids will notice or care that much if his lips move sometimes.

 

Of course, coming up with a name and voice on such short notice wasn’t easy.  He reached for the first thing that came to mind.

 

“This is Travis the T-Rex.  He followed me here today.  He might look a little rough and tough but he’s a big softie.  Isn’t that right?”

 

The puppet’s head swivels toward him.  “Yeah.  You know, it gets kinda lonely bein’ a Tyrannosaurus,” says the dinosaur in a gruff little New York accent.  “These big chompers tend to freak people out.  Every time I try to talk to the other dinosaurs, they start runnin’ for the hills.”

 

“Well, that’s a shame.  Everyone needs friends.”

 

“Sometimes I just want a hug.  Though it’s not too easy with these stubby little arms.”  The puppet wiggles its limbs.

 

“Aww.  I’ll give you a hug!”

 

“Really?”

 

“Sure!  Ow, hey!  You bit me!”

 

The kids laugh.

 

“Ah—sorry about that.  Your nose just looked so delicious, I kinda lost my head there.”

 

* * *

 

Later that day, Arthur gets off the subway and walks the block and a half to the diner.  He’s early—Travis isn’t there yet.  Arthur waits in the corner booth, staring out the window.  He’s washed off his makeup and taken off his wig, though he’s still wearing the checkered jacket and orange vest.

 

The gig went well.  The kids loved the ventriloquism routine.  He got a lot of laughs.

 

So often, Arthur gets only lukewarm reactions to his routines.  Most kids these days, he supposes, think clowns are corny.  But every so often he is reminded of why he loves this job.  Why he chose it in the first place.

 

He pulls the T-Rex puppet out of his pocket and stares at it.

 

In retrospect maybe it’s a bit strange, naming it after his—what is Travis to him, now?  “Boyfriend” doesn’t sound right.  Lover?  Even that doesn’t seem to cover it.  There is no word for what Travis is to him.  Maybe it’s just hard for Arthur to wrap his head around the idea of having a lover.

 

The bell over the door jingles and he looks up to see Travis enter.  Their eyes meet.  Arthur stashes the dinosaur in his pocket.

 

Travis gives him an uncertain smile.  For a moment he hangs there just inside the door, hands in his pockets, looking almost shy.  Like he doesn’t quite know what the rules are, now.

 

Arthur smiles back.  The knot inside his chest loosens a little more.

 

This is Travis.  The man who stopped and helped him after Arthur was beaten and left in an alley.  The man who held him after his breakdown in the theater.

 

Travis approaches, and sits down across from him.  “Hey.  How you feelin’?”

 

“Pretty good.  I just had a gig at the children’s hospital.  That’s why I’m still wearing this.”  He gestures at his outfit.  “It’s a little silly to be dressed like this in a diner, I guess.”

 

“It looks nice on you.”  He fiddles with the cuff of his jacket.

 

He’s thinking about last night.  Arthur can tell.  His pulse quickens.

 

“How’d you sleep?” Travis asks.  “I slept like a log.”

 

There’s a flash inside Arthur’s head, an image.  A shadow.  He is in a dirty apartment, tied to something…

 

“I slept…okay.”

 

Just a bad dream, he thinks.  It doesn’t mean anything.

 

Brown eyes search his face.  Travis’s smile fades.  “You all right?  You seem a little…I dunno.  Off.”

 

Arthur hesitates, wondering how much to say.  “Something happened with my mother last night.  I came home and found her on the floor of our apartment.  She fell.”

 

“Shit.  She okay?”

 

“Yes.  She’s not hurt.  Not badly, anyway.  It just scared me.  I guess I’m still a little shaken.”

 

Travis reaches out and lays a hand over Arthur’s.  His thumb rubs back and forth over his knuckles.  Arthur’s throat tightens.  Just that small touch and he’s on the verge of tears.

 

What’s the matter with me?

 

The waitress approaches.  Arthur pulls his hand back before she sees.

 

“Hey, I’ve seen you two in here before.  Welcome back.”  She smiles and turns to Travis.  “What’ll it be, hon?”

 

“Pancakes, two eggs over easy and coffee.  Black.”

 

“Toast,” Arthur says.  It’s all his stomach can handle at the moment.  He didn’t have much appetite at breakfast, either.  His mom got on his case for only eating half his oatmeal.

 

The waitress pours coffee for both of them.  They sit in silence, sipping.  This shouldn’t be so awkward.  Nothing has changed.  Except everything has changed.

 

The food arrives.  Arthur takes a bite.

 

“There’s something else, isn’t there?” Travis asks.  “Something on your mind.”

 

Arthur stops chewing.  The lump of mushed-up toast sits in his mouth.  The texture makes him a little ill.  He forces himself to swallow.  “I told my mom about you last night.  About us.  I mean—not everything.  I told her that I met a friend.”  He takes a breath.  “I wondered if you would like to have dinner at my place sometime this week.”

 

“You want to introduce me to your mother?”

 

“If you’re okay with that.  I know it’s kind of soon…”

 

“No, it’s fine.”  Travis cuts off a square of pancakes.  “I’ve been wanting to meet her.”

 

“You have?”

 

“Well, sure.  She’s your mother.  She’s part of your life.”

 

Arthur’s leg jiggles beneath the table.  He puts a hand on his knee, stilling it.  He isn’t sure what he expected, but he didn’t expect Travis to accept the invitation so casually, so readily.  “Great.”  His voice comes out a little raspy.

 

“Should I bring anything?”

 

“You don’t have to.  I’ll take care of dinner.  I’m not much of a cook, but I can make spaghetti.”

 

“Spaghetti, huh?”

 

“If that’s something you like.”

 

He pours more syrup on his pancakes.  “I haven’t had spaghetti in a long time.  My mom used to make it.  Always loved it when I was a kid.  Fuck, I coulda lived on spaghetti.”  He takes a bite of pancakes.  “Any house rules?  I mean, anything I should avoid while I’m there?”

 

“Maybe don’t say ‘fuck’ in front of her.”

 

“I’ll do my best.”

 

Arthur takes a sip of water.  “Also…my mother is a little eccentric.”

 

“You remember who you’re talking to, right?”

 

“Yes.  But I thought I should warn you.  She’s obsessed with Thomas Wayne—you know, the guy running for mayor?  She writes him letters all the time.  She talks about him like she knows him personally, but she doesn’t, really.  She worked for him a long time ago.  Decades.  I’d be surprised if the two of them ever even had a personal conversation.”

 

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

 

“Also, I, uh.  I told her that you were a big fan of him.  Thomas Wayne.”

 

Travis stares blankly.  “I’m not.”

 

“I know.”

 

“So why’d you say it?”

 

Arthur stares down at his plate.  “She gets nervous about meeting strangers, and I thought she’d feel better about it if you and she had something in common.  I just blurted it out.”  He laughs a little, muffling the sound against one fist.  “It was a stupid thing to say.  I know.”

 

“I don’t know if I can pretend to like Thomas Wayne.  I don’t know anything about his policies.  To me he’s just some rich asshole on TV.”

 

“I know.  I put you in a bad position.”  He swallows, throat tight.  “Maybe I should just tell her that I lied.”

 

“No.  You don’t have to do that.  We’ll play it by ear.  But if she asks my opinion, I’m gonna give it to her straight.  I think he’s full of shit.  I mean, I won’t say it in those words, I’ll be polite about it.  But if I try to put on an act, it’s not gonna be convincing.  I’m no good at that sort of thing.”

 

“I know.”  Arthur lights a cigarette.  His hands are shaking.

 

“Hey…”  Travis’s brow furrows.  “It’s not a big deal.  Is it?”

 

“Probably not.”

 

He gives Arthur another long, searching look.  “What’s your mother like?  I mean, aside from the whole Thomas Wayne thing.  What sort of person is she?”

 

“She’s a good mother.  She loves me very much.”  Even to Arthur’s ears, the answer has a rehearsed, sing-song quality.  “I don’t really know how she would react though.  If I told her…you know.”

 

“Like you said, we don’t have to tell her everything right away.”

 

“Right.”  He takes a drag on his cigarette. 

 

“What are you worried about?”

 

Travis’s voice has gone quiet and serious.  The question isn’t rhetorical.

 

Arthur knows the answer to that question:  I’m afraid if she doesn’t approve of you, she’ll forbid me to see you again.  But he also knows how ridiculous that is.  She has no power to forbid him.  He’s an adult.  The apartment technically belongs to her, but it’s not like she’s not going to throw him out on the streets.  Of course, she could decide to make his life difficult in lots of little ways, but that’s nothing he hasn’t dealt with before.  She’s as dependent on him as he is on her—more so.  He’s nervous, that’s all.  “I don’t know.”

 

“Look.  It’ll be fine.  I’ll have dinner at your place.  Tonight, if you’re free, or whenever.  We’ll keep it casual.  If your mom and I have different opinions about things, it’s not the end of the world.  We’ll work with it.”

 

“You’re right.”

 

Silence hangs between them.

 

“Hey,” Travis says.

 

“Yes?”

 

“I’m going to ask you something, and it’s probably a dumb question, but I need to know.  Has she ever hurt you?”

 

The muscles in Arthur’s back tighten.  “What do you mean?”

 

“Just what I said.”

 

“Wh-why would you think that?”

 

“Because you seem scared.  You’re breathing funny.”

 

“My mother would never hurt me.  We love each other.”

 

After a moment, he nods.  “Okay.”

 

But Travis’s words shake him.

 

Arthur doesn’t think about his childhood.  Doesn’t remember much of it.  But he knows that it wasn’t happy.  Knows that some bad things happened to him.

 

He tries, not for the first time, to remember what Penny was like when he was a kid.  His few memories feel oddly disconnected, islands floating in a sea of fog.  He remembers watching Murray and eating TV dinners with her, even then.  He remembers telling her that he hated school—that he was afraid to go to school—and her replying, You should enjoy it.  Someday you’ll have to work for a living.

 

But so much is lost.  He doesn’t even really recall what her face looked like, back then.  He only knows her as she is now.  It feels as though they’ve been this way forever, frozen in time in their drab little apartment. 

 

In a sense, his own mother is something of a stranger to him.  And because she forgets so much, he is something of a stranger to her, too.

 

He smiles without making eye contact.  “I shouldn’t be scared.  There's no good reason.  It’s all in my head.”  He takes a drag on his cigarette.  “I’m mentally ill, remember?”

 

“So am I, according to the shrinks.”

 

Arthur meets his eyes.

 

“Yeah, I saw a couple of ‘em when I got back from the war.  I didn’t like it much.  Not my thing.”

 

“What were you seeing them for?”  He adds, after a second or two, “You don’t have to answer that.”

 

“I was having some rough nights.  You know.”  He holds Arthur’s gaze with his, points a finger at his temple like a gun, lowers his voice.  “Almost pulled the trigger a few times.”

 

A short, startled burst of laughter escapes Arthur’s throat.  He claps a hand over his mouth, eyes watering.  “I’m sorry,” he whispers through his hand.

 

“It’s okay.”

 

After a few seconds, he lowers his hand and places the end of the cigarette between his lips, mouth frozen in a pained grin.  “I’ve never owned a gun,” he says.  “Probably a good thing.”  He places a finger against his own temple and mimes shooting himself.  His head falls to one side.

 

Travis just looks at him.

 

“It’s funny,” Arthur says.  “A guy at work tried to sell me one, not long ago.  For protection, he said.  By then, I’d already met you.  If I hadn’t, I think I would have taken it.  When I said no, h-he…”  Arthur giggles.  “He got angry at me.” 

 

Something in Travis’s expression shifts.  He slowly chews a mouthful of pancakes.  “This guy.  Who is he?  What’s his name?”

 

Arthur shakes his head.  “It doesn’t matter now.”

 

* * *

 

They leave the diner.  Arthur tries to walk naturally, but Travis notices the stiffness of his gait.  He stumbles a little. 

 

“Hey.”  He catches Arthur’s arm.  “You’re hurt.”

 

“It’s nothing.” 

 

“Did you get beaten up again?”

 

“No.  It’s…not like that.”

 

He freezes.  Arthur sees the shift in his expression as realization sinks in.  “It’s because of last night.”

 

Arthur stares at the pavement.  “I’m a little sore, that’s all.”

 

“Arthur…I…”

 

“Please don’t apologize.  I wanted it.  I begged for it.  I don’t want you to feel guilty.” 

 

“You’ve been sitting there in pain this whole time and you’re worried about making me feel guilty?  Shit.  I should’ve been more careful.  Should’ve taken things slow, like I said I would.  It was your first time."

 

Arthur raises his head.  “Don’t try to take all the responsibility on yourself.  I told you before, I don’t want you to treat me like I’m made of glass.  I know what I can handle and what I can’t.  I’m not that weak.”  His voice cracks, embarrassingly, on the word weak.  As though to prove him wrong.

 

“I know you aren’t weak,” Travis says quietly.  “But I don’t feel good about hurting you.”

 

“I asked you to do it.  And I told you.  I'm okay."

 

Travis is still holding onto his arm, still giving him that long, deep look.  As though he can see past everything Arthur is saying, into his true feelings.

 

Arthur breathes quietly, shallowly, trying to keep himself under control.  They’re standing outside a diner, in public.  He can’t fall apart here.  He scans the parking lot, making sure that they’re alone, that no one is looking.

 

Travis notices.  “You want to get in my cab?  It’s a little more private.  We can talk about it.”

 

A part of him does want that.  But he’s just too worn out.  He’s not ready to be opened again.  Not ready to try to sort out everything inside him.  If they’re having dinner with Penny tonight, he has to keep himself together.  “Please,” he whispers.  “For now…just let me go.”

 

Travis hesitates.  For a moment, Arthur expects him to hold on.  To keep pushing.  He wants that.  He doesn't want that.  He doesn't know what he wants.  His thoughts swirl around in his brain like scraps of paper in a windstorm.

 

Travis releases his arm.  It seems to take an effort.  He stands awkwardly.  “See you tonight, then?”

 

“Yes.”  No point in waiting.  “Six o’clock?”

 

“Sure.”

 

“I’ll see you then.”  Arthur limps away, toward the subway station.

 

He doesn’t want Travis to have any doubts about this.  About them.  For once in his life, he wants things to be uncomplicated.  He wants to prove that he’s stronger than he believes.

 

They’re going to have dinner with his mother tonight.  It’s going to go fine.  There’s absolutely nothing to worry about.

 

He repeats those words to himself as he walks.

Chapter Text

Arthur wipes his hands on a dish towel and scans the kitchen, making sure everything is place.  There’s a checkered cloth on the table, silverware and plates laid out, a pot of noodles steaming on the stove, sauce simmering beside it—even a dollar-store candle burning in the center of the table.  He wonders if that’s overkill.  But he wants the place to look nice, or as nice as possible, anyway.

 

Arthur glances at the clock.  5:56.

 

He walks into the living room, where his mother is watching the news.

 

“More murders,” she says.  “It never ends.”

 

Arthur sits next to her and lights a cigarette.  He took some more Tylenol earlier—the soreness had receded to a distant, occasional twinge.  “It’s not good for you to watch that stuff all the time.  It’ll just depress you.”

 

“Well, what else am I supposed to do, sitting around here all day?”

 

“I don’t know.  Read a book?”

 

“Nobody writes good ones anymore.  It’s all trash.”

 

“How would you know, if you never read them?”

 

“I read reviews.

 

Their bickering is automatic, more habit than anything.  Arthur keeps glancing at the door.

 

“You seem awfully nervous,” his mother remarks.  She seems a little on edge too, rubbing one hand over the other in the way she does when she’s antsy.

 

“I’m not nervous,” Arthur lies.

 

He just wants this to go well. 

 

There’s a buzz at the door.

 

“That’s probably him.”  Arthur stands.  “I’ll let him in.”

 

* * *

 

When Arthur opens the door to the building, Travis is standing there, dressed in a plaid button down shirt and a maroon jacket.  It’s a nice jacket—the sort of thing Arthur himself might wear on a night out.  Travis is smooth-shaven, hair freshly washed and soft-looking.  He’s holding a store-bought pie and a bottle of wine.

 

“It’s cheap wine,” he says.  “But I felt like I should bring something.”

 

“I’m sure it’s fine.”

 

Arthur is struck, all at once, by how painfully handsome Travis is.  Deep wood-brown eyes, thick brows, perfectly balanced features.  A part of Arthur wants to pull Travis into his arms and kiss him right there, but he holds back.  Everything feels so shaky and fragile right now.  And he doesn’t want to risk being seen by one of their neighbors.

 

He hates that he’s so paranoid about the opinions of others.  But there are many people in this world who express their opinions with their fists.

 

They get into the elevator. 

 

They are alone.  Arthur thinks about pulling Travis close and kissing him, but he doesn’t.  He’s not even sure why he holds back.  There’s no risk of being seen, here.

 

“You smell nice,” Arthur says.  “Are you wearing cologne?”

 

“Yeah.  That stuff with the ship on the bottle.”  He glances down at himself.  “It’s okay?  Not too much?”

 

“You’re perfect.”

 

Travis gives him a half-smile.  “You too.”  The elevator slowly climbs up—there are a few alarming stops and starts, a few labored grinding noises.  Arthur fidgets.

 

Travis sets down the wine and pie and turns toward him.  His hands slowly rise to frame Arthur’s face.

 

A tiny, hiccupping laugh escapes Arthur’s throat.  He thinks Travis is going to kiss him, then.  But he just cradles Arthur’s face between his hands—those calloused killer’s hands, touching him so carefully, so gently—and studies his face.  One palm slides down to rest against the side of his neck, and two fingers press lightly against the spot just beneath his jaw.

 

“Wh-what are you doing?” he asks, breathless.

 

“Checking your pulse.  I want to know where you’re at, right now.  In your head.”

 

“You could just ask me.”

 

“Sometimes you say you’re okay when you’re not.  But I’ll ask.  How are you feelin’?”  His fingers still rest against Arthur’s pulse, which flutters like a trapped hummingbird.

 

“A little nervous.”  That’s not the only reason his heart is beating faster, though.  If Travis keeps touching him like this, he’s going to get…excited.  He gulps.  “A lot, maybe.”

 

“It’s not too late to call this off.”

 

“She’s expecting us.  I want to do this.”  He gives Travis a strained smile.

 

Travis lowers his hand from Arthur’s neck, but his other hand remains where it is, cradling his face.  His thumb brushes over Arthur’s cheekbone.  “Then we’ll do this.”

 

The elevator stops.

 

They walk down the hallway.  Arthur knocks on the door to the apartment, then opens it.  “Mom?”

 

She looks up, still sitting on the couch.

 

Travis hangs back.  “Pleased to meet you, Miss Fleck,” Travis says.  “Should I call you that?  Or—”

 

“Penny is fine.”  She hesitates.  “You’re Travis?”

 

“Travis Bickle.  That’s me.”

 

“I’m sorry for not getting off the couch,” she says.  “My hips are hurting.”

 

“That’s fine.”  He looks around.  “Your place is nice.”

 

She smiles.  “It’s not, really.  But you’re sweet to say so.”

 

“It’s nicer than my place.”  He hovers just inside the door for another few seconds, then enters.  Arthur closes the door behind him.

 

“You brought wine,” Penny says.

 

“Yeah.  You drink?”

 

"Occasionally."

 

Arthur clasps his hands together in front of him, then behind his back, then in front of him again.  “Dinner’s almost ready,” he says.  “I just need to finish a few things in the kitchen.  There’s coffee right now, if you want some.”

 

“Sure.  Coffee’s good.”

 

* * *

 

Travis sits in an armchair across from Penny, holding a mug of coffee in one hand and listening to the clink of utensils in the kitchen.  Penny clutches her own mug and watches him with a disconcerting, nervous intensity, like a squirrel having coffee with a hawk.  Like she’s afraid to take her eyes off him.

 

There’s not much of a physical resemblance to Arthur—not that he can see.  But she’s got the same tense, contained energy.

 

“You’ve got your place pretty well-organized,” he says, mostly to fill the silence.  “I’ve never been too good at that.”

 

“I tried to tidy up for tonight,” she says.  “I can’t always do as much as I’d like.”  She sips her coffee, her gaze never leaving his face.  “You’re a taxi driver?”

 

“Yes ma’am.  Used to drive a cab up in New York, now I do it here.  I’ve gotten to know Gotham pretty well over the past few years.”

 

“It’s terrible what’s happening here, isn’t it?  All the garbage in the streets.  And the rats.”

 

“New York was pretty bad, too.  But yeah, if I had to pick, I guess Gotham is worse in that department.”

 

“The smell alone gives me headaches.  I don’t even want to open the windows anymore.”  She sighs.  “I’m sorry to be so negative.  I try to keep a good attitude.  But it’s all you hear about on the news, these days.  Everything seems to be falling apart.”

 

It’s kind of spooky, how familiar her words sound.  “I used to get headaches, too.”

 

“I just pray that Thomas wins the election.  He’s the only one who can clean things up.  He’s going to end the garbage strike and crack down on crime, really take a stand against all the things that are ruining this city.  He’ll make Gotham respectable.”

 

“Yeah.  Well…”  Travis clears his throat.  “To be honest I don’t follow politics very closely.  I’ve never been what you’d call book-smart.  I don’t know what his stances are.”

 

“Oh, I don’t think you have to understand all the political details in order to judge someone’s character.  I just know that he’s an honest person.  That he cares about the people of this city.  You can tell just by his face, by the way he talks.”

 

Travis sips his coffee and thinks about Thomas Wayne’s dead trout eyes, sour expression and condescending tone.  “I guess so.  You can tell a lot about people by looking at their eyes.  I was talking about that with Arthur once.”

 

“He has lovely eyes, doesn’t he?”

 

“Arthur?”

 

“Thomas Wayne.”  Before Travis can think of how to respond to this, Penny continues:  “I used to work for him, did Arthur tell you that?”

 

“He did mention it.  I guess you must know him better than I do.  Wayne, I mean.”

 

“He always treated me so well, back then.  Even though I was just the help, he made me feel like family.”

 

“Well, I’m glad he was decent to you.”

 

“It makes such a difference.  That common decency.  So many people are just awful these days.”

 

And then, for no apparent reason, she starts to cry.  Almost silently.  She hunches her bird-thin shoulders and covers her face with one hand as her body shakes.

 

Travis sets his cup down.  “Hey…”

 

“I’m sorry.”  She sniffles, wiping at her face.  “Goodness, you must think I’m a basket case, falling apart like this in front of a man I just met.  I’m normally not so emotional.”

 

He hesitates, then sits next to her on the couch and awkwardly pats her shoulder, because he’s not sure what else to do.  “Don’t worry about it.”

 

“We’ve been struggling for so long.  I don’t know how much Happy has told you.”

 

“Happy?”

 

“Oh, that’s what I call Arthur, sometimes.”  She smiles, eyes watery.  “He was always such a cheerful little boy.  Always laughing.  My ray of sunshine.”

 

Travis hesitates.

 

Penny has to know about her son’s medical condition.  She has to know that Arthur sometimes laughs because he’s in pain—that he’s been struggling with depression for years.  Doesn’t she?  “Arthur’s a good man,” he says.  “I guess you must’ve done something right, since you raised him.”

 

“Thank you.”  She pulls out a handkerchief and blows her nose.  “It was difficult, being on my own, but I did my best.  A positive attitude makes all the difference.  When things were hard, I just reminded him to keep smiling.”  She pokes her fingers at the corners of her mouth, pushing her lips into a smile.

 

Travis remembers looking through the window of Ha-Ha’s, seeing Arthur in front of the mirror, pulling the corners of his painted mouth upward.

 

There’s something off about Penny Fleck.  Something that makes him uncomfortable.

 

Granted, Travis is kind of off, himself.  Most people would say the same about Arthur.  And Travis has just met her, after all.  He shouldn’t judge.

 

But the way Arthur talked about her before, in the diner…he keeps thinking about that.

 

He sips his coffee.  “I’d like to know more about what Arthur was like as a kid.”

 

Her eyes cloud over, but her smile remains in place.  “Like what?”

 

“Like what did he enjoy doing?  What kinda hobbies?  Did he have friends?”

 

“Well, of course he had friends.  Why wouldn’t he have friends?  But I was always his best friend.  And he was mine, too.  He always liked watching the Murray Franklin show with me.  We still watch it.”  Her gaze focuses on Travis.  “Oh!  You know, I just realized why you seem so familiar.  You look—”

 

“Like Murray?  Yeah.  I’ve heard that before.”

 

“I don’t suppose he’s a relative?”

 

“Not that I know of.” 

 

Awkward silence descends.

 

She clears her throat.  “So, how long have you been driving a taxi?”

 

“Almost five years, now.  I got into the business a few years after I came back from the war.”

 

“The war?  You were in the army?”

 

“Marines.”

 

“Oh my.  Arthur never mentioned that.”

 

“It’s not important.”

 

“It is, though.”  She smiles.  “Thank you for your service.”

 

“You’re welcome.”  He smiles back, awkwardly.  Being thanked for his time in ‘Nam has always makes him feel a little weird.  It’s the same uneasy feeling he got back in New York, when the papers started calling him a hero.   Like he's an imposter.

 

“You know,” she says, “earlier today I was watching an interview with Thomas, and he was talking about the military, how important it is, how much he respects the sacrifice of our soldiers…”

 

Travis half-listens as she goes on about the interview.

 

His fears about being unable to fake a liking for Thomas Wayne, as it turns out, are unfounded; Penny doesn’t seem to require or even want much in the way of response, she just wants a chance to babble about the guy in someone else’s general direction.

 

She’s in love with him.

 

The realization brings a fresh wave of discomfort.  He recognizes the mental architecture of one-sided obsession.  He recognizes it well.

 

Arthur appears in the doorway, flushed from the kitchen heat.  He’s wearing a dark blue sweater that Travis has never seen him in before tonight.

 

He thinks about sliding his hands up beneath the sweater, along Arthur’s sides and over the xylophone of his ribcage.  He averts his eyes, because these probably aren’t thoughts he should be having while Arthur’s mother is sitting a foot and a half away from him.

 

“Dinner’s ready.”  Arthur pauses.  “Everything okay?”

 

“Yes.”  Penny beams.  “I’ve just been talking to Travis.  He’s a good listener.”  She pats Travis’s knee.  “Well, come on, let’s eat.”

 

* * *

 

They sit around the kitchen table.  Arthur pours the wine and serves up plates of steaming spaghetti with meat sauce.

 

Travis did love spaghetti as a kid.  He didn’t lie about that.  But ever since the war, it turns his stomach.  Not the taste—he still likes that.  It’s the way it looks.  The redness of the sauce, the meaty chunks, the slippery tangle and swirl of the noodles, like mangled brains or spilled intestines.

 

He probably should have said something to Arthur.  He’s never liked making special requests, though.  His parents always taught him that if you had dinner at someone’s house and they were nice enough to cook for you, you ate whatever they served.  You didn’t fuss.  And this is the first time Arthur has cooked for him.

 

He takes a bite.  It’s delicious.  Garlic, tomato, herbs.  If he doesn’t look at it, he’ll be okay.  He takes another bite, and a bit of noodle falls onto his shirt.  He picks it off, still without looking down.

 

“I had another gig at the children's hospital today,” Arthur remarks, cutting up his noodles.  “I guess they liked me, there.  They requested me.”

 

“That’s nice,” Penny says distractedly.  “I do wish you’d look for something a little more stable though.  Your job is so unpredictable.”

 

“I love this job, Mom.  And I’m lucky to have it.  There’s not a lot of work in this city.”

 

“It wouldn’t hurt to look.  You can’t be a party clown forever.”

 

“I know.  That’s why I’ve been working on my standup material.  It’s almost ready.  Pretty soon now, I’ll start doing my routine in clubs.  And once my name is out there, maybe I’ll start getting some better chances.”

 

“Happy, you’ve been saying that for months.  What makes you think it’s going to be that easy?”

 

A flush rises into his face.  “I know it’s not easy.  But I want to try.  You’re the one who always told me that I’m supposed to bring joy and laughter to the world.”

 

“When did I say that?”

 

“When I was a kid.  You don’t remember?  You said it all the time.”

 

“Well, if I did, I was probably talking about keeping a positive attitude.  Being a comedian isn’t something that just anyone can do.”

 

Arthur lowers his gaze.

 

“You know I only say this because I worry about you,” Penny adds.

 

“I’ll figure something out.  Please don’t worry.”  Arthur glances at Travis, then down at the table as he turns his fork over and over in his hand.  His leg bounces beneath the table.  “Can we talk about something else?”

 

“Well, what would you like to talk about, Mr. Picky?”

 

“Anything.”

 

Travis is starting to understand why Arthur gets so agitated when he talks about Penny. 

 

She is Arthur’s mother, he reminds himself.  And he promised Arthur he would be on his best behavior.  But he doesn’t like the way she talks to him. 

 

“Travis,” Penny says, “what sort of pie did you bring?”

 

“Cherry.”

 

“That sounds wonderful.  We can have it with vanilla ice cream later.  There’s some in the freezer.”

 

Arthur stares down at his plate, rolling a meatball around with his fork.

 

“How’s the new act goin’?” Travis asks Arthur.  “At the hospital, I mean.”

 

“Oh.  It, uh.  Involves a dinosaur puppet.  Sort of a ventriloquism routine.  I’m trying to come up with some more material for next time.  I could tell some dinosaur jokes.  ‘What did the T-Rex say to the Triceratops?  Nice to eat you!’”

 

“That joke seems a bit morbid for children,” Penny remarks.

 

“Nah, kids love that sh—stuff,” Travis says.  “You’ll do fine.”

 

Arthur smiles. 

 

“I wouldn’t mind hearing some of your standup either,” Travis says.  “Those jokes in your journal, they were pretty good.  I couldn’t write stuff like that.”

 

Penny takes another sip of wine, watching them over the rim of the glass.  “He never shows his journal to me.

 

Probably a good thing.  He can just imagine her reaction to Arthur’s doodles and pasted magazine photos.  “Well, I found his journal.  After he lost it.”  Travis starts to eat another bite of pasta, then stops, because he accidentally looked at it.  In a flash he sees red-drenched soil, red-spattered leaves and chunks of flesh.  Human meat.  He sets his fork down.

 

At his side, beneath the table, his hand clenches and unclenches. 

 

He wishes he hadn’t gotten cherry pie.  It seemed like a safe choice—who doesn’t like cherry?—but he should have just brought apple.

 

Some red foods are okay.  It’s a little unpredictable, what sets him off.  But he knows, already, that he won’t be able to stomach more than one or two bites of pie.  The cherries will look too much like globs of flesh, the flaky, pale crust like bone fragments swimming in a mass of jellied blood.  In the echo-chamber of his skull he hears explosions, gunfire.

 

He feels a nonsensical urge to reach for his boot, where he used to keep a knife strapped—his body reacting to a threat that’s not there.

 

A vision explodes in his head—Thomas Wayne emerging from a stinking wet jungle with a machete in one hand, scowling, beady eyes murderous.  Travis opening fire on him, watching his body flail around like a ragdoll, blood spraying from a torn neck…

 

“Travis?” Arthur says softly.

 

He realizes he’s been muttering under his breath, staring at the spaghetti.  He’s not even sure what he was saying.

 

He can shoot a man in the gut without flinching, but put a plate of pasta in front of him and his brain goes haywire.  Stupid.  Get a grip on yourself Travis, you fucking stupid cunt, you screwhead, get your shit together—

 

“Travis, are you all right?” Arthur asks quietly.

 

“Yeah, think I’m just fightin’ a bug or something.  Stomach’s a little funny.  Spaghetti’s good though.”

 

“You don’t have to finish it,” Arthur says.

 

“You made it for me.”

 

Beneath the table, where Penny can’t see it, Arthur puts a hand on Travis’s knee.  “It’s okay.”

 

Travis focuses on the sensation, and his breathing slows.

 

“Who wants dessert?” Penny asks brightly.  She doesn't seem to notice Travis's lapse.

 

He smiles, a tightening of his lips.  “I think I’ll just have some of that ice cream.”

 

Arthur brings out bowls and plates.  Penny slices up the pie and scoops some ice cream into a bowl for Travis.  She glances at his unfinished plate of spaghetti.

 

“You put too much garlic in the sauce,” Penny remarks, turning to Arthur.  “I keep telling you, a little goes a long way.”

 

“Last time you said the sauce didn’t have enough garlic.  I guess I went overboard.”

 

“No, I keep telling you it’s too much.”

 

“The sauce was fine,” Travis says.  “It wasn’t that.”  He takes a bite of ice cream.  His stomach clenches.

 

“Is it all right?” Penny asks.  “It has been in the freezer for a while, but I think it’s still good—”

 

“The ice cream is fine.  It’s not that.”

 

“Well, what’s wrong?” her fingers work nervously at her napkin.  “I can tell something is wrong.”

 

I don’t like the way you fuck with Arthur’s head.  For a moment, he thinks about saying that.

 

Instead he replies, “I’ve got to be honest with you, Penny.  I don’t really like Thomas Wayne.”

 

Penny blinks at him, her face blank with confusion.  “Arthur said you were a big fan.”

 

Arthur winces.

 

“I think I gave him the wrong impression,” Travis says.  Already, he wishes he had just left it alone.  But it was eating at him.  He had to say something.

 

“Well, if not Thomas, then who do you support for mayor?” she asks.

 

“I don’t know.  I don’t really support anyone.  Not for that.”

 

“But someone has to do something,” she says.  “Someone has to clean Gotham up.  The way things are now…we can’t live like this.”  She clutches her napkin.  “I’m afraid to even go outside anymore.  The garbage just piles up everywhere.  There are drug dealers on every corner, and people are getting robbed and raped and murdered every day.  Someone has to take a stand against the criminals.”

 

Travis slowly sets his spoon down.  “I killed a robber once,” he says.  “In a store.  He had a gun pulled on the store owner and was telling him to hand over the money.  I walked up behind the guy.  Said ‘hey.’  When he turned around, I looked him in the eye and shot him.”

 

For a moment, Penny doesn’t seem to know how to respond.  She flushes, looks down, fidgets.

 

Travis doesn’t know why he said that.  There are certain topics that aren’t appropriate to bring up at the dinner table, especially when meeting your lover’s mother for the first time, and “that time I killed a guy in a convenience store” is one of them.

 

“The store owner was grateful,” he says.  “I guess that was the fifth time that year he’d been robbed.  Or it would have been.  The police weren’t doing much to help him out.”

 

“Well, there, you see?” Penny says, still fidgeting with her napkin.  “That’s what happens when there’s no law and order.  The store owner was lucky you were there to help him.”

 

“Maybe.  Maybe it woulda been worse if I’d done nothing.  But I think about that guy sometimes.  The one I shot.  He knew he was about to die.  I could see it in his face, right before I pulled the trigger.”

 

“He was dangerous,” Penny says softly.

 

“So am I.  I’ve made mistakes, too.  I’m not so clean.  I don’t think any of us are.”  In the ensuing silence, he takes another bite of the melting white mass in his bowl.  “It’s good.  The ice cream.” 

 

“I just don’t understand,” Penny says.  “If you’ve seen how things are, if you know what kind of jungle we’re living in, how can you not believe that this city needs help?”

 

“I’m not saying it doesn’t.  We need a lot of help.  I just feel less sure about things these days.  I don’t know what it means to be a good or a bad person.  To be dirty or clean.  Who decides.”  He looks Penny in the eye.  “I don’t trust Thomas Wayne to make those kind of choices.  I don’t think he’s ever had to get his own hands dirty, living the way he does, in his big house with his big gates.  And when he talks about cleaning up the trash, I get the sense he’s talking about people.” 

 

Penny averts her gaze.  The muscles in her face are drawn tight.  “Some people are trash.”

 

“I used to think so too.  I don’t know anymore.”

 

Travis glances at Arthur, who hasn’t touched his pie.

 

“Happy, eat,” Penny snaps.

 

Arthur shovels a forkful of cherry pie into his mouth and swallows.

 

“What do you think about all this, Arthur?” she asks.  “What do you believe?”

 

“I agree with Travis.”

 

Silence hangs over them.

 

“Well,” Penny says, “I guess I’m the odd one out, then.  I guess I’m the only one here with some moral standards.  I still believe in decency.”

 

“I do, too,” Travis says.  “I think we just have different ideas about what that word means.”

 

“Yes.  I suppose we do.”

 

They eat the rest of their pie and ice cream in silence.

 

* * *

 

Afterward, Arthur walks Travis down to the spot where his cab is parked.  They haven’t spoken since they left.

 

“I guess I screwed that up,” Travis says.

 

Arthur stops.  His breath fogs in the air.  “No.  No, I’m glad you said it.”

 

Travis stands beside him, hands in the pockets of his jacket.  “I didn’t like the way she talked to you.”

 

“She means well.”  He rocks back and forth on his heels.  “She’s not wrong.  About my career.  We’re barely scraping by, between her social security and my clown gigs.  It’s not enough.  And I have been talking about doing standup for a long time, but I still haven’t tried it even once.  I go to Pogo’s every week, but I’ve never gotten up on the stage.  I think I’d panic.  I’d fall apart.” 

 

“If you ever decide to do it, I’ll be there.  Just give me a date and time.  But you’re doing fine, Arthur.”

 

“I should be doing more.  I know it’s pathetic, not having a real career at my age.  It’s just…hard.  I get so tired.  Sometimes just getting up in the morning and going to work takes everything I have.”

 

“You’re doing fine,” Travis repeats.  “You’re doing great.”

 

Arthur blinks rapidly.  There’s a shine in his eyes.  They reflect the glow of the streetlight.  “Thank you,” he whispers.

 

They haven’t kissed since last night.  Haven’t even hugged each other.  Travis looks Arthur over, taking in his body language.  Hunched shoulders.  Arms wrapped around himself as he shivers in the cool air.  He’s drawn in on himself, looking small.  Lost.

 

Travis takes a step toward him.  His hands settle on Arthur’s shoulders and run down his arms, thumbs stroking the insides of his elbows through his jacket.  He studies his expression.  “Does it still hurt?  You know, down there?”

 

Arthur ducks his head.  “A little.  I don’t mind, though.  I think I’ll feel better tomorrow.”

 

Travis remembers the sight of Arthur limping out of the diner.  Moving in those small, careful steps, the same way he moved after those guys beat him up.

 

Looking back, it’s easy for Travis to see the mistakes he made that night.  He should’ve just let Arthur finish him off with his mouth—he seemed really into that—then maybe stroked him off.  Just touched him and let him get used to being touched by another person.  Instead, Travis practically dragged him into the bedroom, told him to strip, then crawled on top of him and fucked him dry, like a goddamn caveman.  Even if Arthur doesn't regret it...

 

Arthur has already been hurt so much.  The world has handled him roughly.  Travis wanted to be different.  But gentleness has never come easily to him.

 

“Travis,” Arthur says.  “About the spaghetti…”

 

“That’s on me.  I should’ve asked you to make something else.  I was just…I dunno.  It sounds stupid, saying that spaghetti sets me off.”

 

“It’s not stupid.  I want to know about those things."  A pause.  "Is it just spaghetti?  Or..."

 

"Anything with noodles or red sauce is kinda iffy.  Ketchup is okay though."  It comes out thicker, more plasticky-looking.  Not much like blood.

 

"I'll make something else next time.”  Arthur takes his hands.  “Travis?  I love you.”

 

Travis looks down at their joined hands, squeezes tighter.  “Love you too.”

 

He’s still getting used to saying that out loud.  The words feel clumsy on his tongue.  But it’s a little easier each time.

 

He leans in.  “I wanna kiss you,” he says.  “Can I do that?”

 

“You don’t need to ask permission.”

 

“I want to.  I like hearing you say it.”

 

There’s a flicker of heat in Arthur’s eyes.  “Then…yes.  Please.”

 

Travis leans in and presses his lips to Arthur’s.  He tastes like cherry pie.

 

* * *

 

When Arthur opens the door to his apartment, Penny is sitting on the couch, a cigarette between her fingers.

 

She hasn’t smoked in years.  She quite when Arthur was just a kid.  “Mom?”

 

She smiles at him vaguely.  “Well, the pie was good.”  She brings the cigarette to her lips.

 

Arthur approaches slowly and sits down next to her.  “It was.”

 

“I was afraid he would judge us.  And I did feel judged.  Just not in the way I expected.”

 

Arthur hesitates.  “He can be blunt, sometimes.  But once you get to know him, he’s a kind person.  A good person.  Even if he doesn’t see himself that way.  Back in New York, he was sort of a local hero.  He saved a girl who was being hurt by some bad people.”

 

She takes another drag on the cigarette, eyes unfocused.  “He scares me.”

 

“He’s not dangerous.  Whatever he says.”

 

“I don’t mean physically.  It’s just…his eyes.  I didn’t notice at first.  But his eyes are very strange.  Looking into them…I don’t know how to describe it.”  She meets Arthur’s gaze then, an oddly helpless expression on her face.  “He’s more than a friend, isn’t he?”

 

Arthur’s back stiffens.

 

There’s so much Penny chooses not to see, not to notice.  Why did she choose to see that?

 

He knows immediately that he won’t be able to hide the truth.  More than that, he doesn’t want to.  He’s tired of hiding.  “Yes.  I’m in love with him, Mom.  And he’s in love with me.”

 

Her gaze slides away.  She stares blankly into space.

 

“He’s probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me.  No—there’s no ‘probably.’  He is.  Sometimes I’m scared of how much I need him.  I’m scared that it’s going to fall apart, that we’ll end up hurting each other without meaning to.  I’m scared that I’m too broken for this to work.  But I can’t ever go back to the way things were before.  And I don’t want to.”  He sits with his hands tightly interlaced in front of him, his elbows resting on his knees.  “My whole life, I never even knew if I really existed.  But I do.  That’s how he makes me feel.  Like I exist.”

 

Still, she doesn’t reply.  Her mouth hangs open slightly, as if she’s a machine that someone turned off.

 

“Mom?”

 

She blinks a few times, holds the cigarette between her lips, but doesn’t inhale.  “There’s something I need to tell you.  About Thomas Wayne.”

 

Arthur’s throat tightens.  She’s talking about that man now?  Again?  “Mom.  Did you hear a word of what I just said?  For once in your life, can you please listen?”

 

She looks down and puts a hand against her head.  “I’m sorry, Happy.  I can’t focus.  I’m very tired right now.”  She gives him another unsteady smile.  “Will you help me to bed?”

 

He chokes down the lump in his throat.  There’s no point in starting a fight.  Who knows if she’ll even remember this tomorrow?  “Okay.”

 

He helps her up, and they walk to the bedroom.  He tucks her in.

 

“Happy,” she says.  “You won’t leave me, will you?”

 

“No, Mom, I won’t.  I promise, I’ll always take care of you.”

 

She smiles.

 

He turns off the light and retreats from the room.

 

Chapter Text

Arthur sits in front of the mirror at Ha-Ha’s and paints his face.  The brush caresses the contours of his cheeks, his forehead and chin. 

 

He has another gig at the children’s hospital today.  It’s becoming a regular thing.

 

He rolls red over his lips, presses them together, draws a broad crimson smile and colors it in.

 

He takes out his dinosaur puppet and practices in front of the mirror:  “What did one fossil say to the other?  I got a bone to pick with you!”

 

“Talking to your puppet again?”

 

He tenses a little at the sound of Randall’s voice behind him.  Then he raises the puppet and swivels its head toward Randall.  “You got a problem with me, you screwhead?”

 

Randall snorts.  “Mouthy little bastard.”

 

“I bite, too.”

 

Randall rolls his eyes.  “Get a load of this joker,” he says.  “Are we gonna have all our conversations through the fuckin’ dinosaur now?”

 

“I’m getting ready for my act, Randall.  And what’s wrong with making jokes?  We’re clowns.

 

Joker.  That’s not a bad clown-name, come to think of it.  The wild card, the prankster.  Though he’ll stick with Carnival.  It sounds more cheerful.  He laces up his shoes and heads for the door.

 

“Hey, Arthur,” Gary calls, “me and some of the guys are going out for drinks after work.  You want to come with us?”

 

Arthur hesitates, looking over his shoulder.  A few of the other guys make frantic waving motions in Gary’s direction—don’t invite the weirdo!  As soon as they notice Arthur looking at them, they stop.

 

It doesn’t hurt as much as it normally would.  He already knows that most of the guys find him creepy.  Gary is just trying to be nice, making an effort to include him.  Still, he appreciates that effort, and for a moment he’s tempted.  Maybe if he tries to be friendlier with everyone, more open, he can win them over.  If Travis likes him, if the kids at the hospital like him, maybe it’s possible for other people to like him too. 

 

But he shakes his head.  “Thank you for inviting me.  But I’ve got something else going on tonight.  Maybe next time.”

 

“Hot date?”  Randall smirks.

 

He’s being sarcastic, of course—none of them know about Travis, and Arthur would prefer to keep it that way.  The only one he’d consider telling is Gary, but even that’s risky.  He might let something slip.

 

“Maybe,” Arthur says. 

 

“You gonna get freaky with the puppet?”

 

A ripple of laughter.

 

“Knock it off, Randall,” Gary says.

 

“Hey, I’m not judging.  What people do behind closed doors is their business, you know?”

 

“I’m going now,” Arthur says.  He walks out the door.  Hoyt is coming up the stairs; Arthur hurries past him without saying anything.

 

Hoyt hasn’t said anything inappropriate since the first time, but whenever he looks at Arthur now, there’s something in his expression that makes Arthur uneasy.  He catches Hoyt watching him sometimes with a half-sneer, as though to say, I know what you are, and it makes me sick.

 

Maybe it’s his imagination.

 

He walks out into the cold, crisp air.  His breath forms little white clouds.  Travis is picking him up from the children’s hospital today around two, and then they’ll have the rest of the afternoon and evening to spend together.  Travis would probably have driven him there, too, if he asked, but he knows Travis has to work.  So Arthur walks toward the subway stop.

 

Thin, dirty gray snow covers Gotham like a tattered blanket.  The first snow of the season.  Before long there will be strings of colored lights glowing on the storefronts—islands of warmth and cheer in the gloom.

 

Arthur has always liked the lights. 

 

He is part of this city.  It is his world, the only home he’s ever known.  He wouldn’t know how to exist anyplace else.  Though he sometimes hates Gotham, he can’t help loving it.  He feels an aching tenderness toward this broken miserable place full of broken miserable people.  So seeing the city dressed up in its holiday clothes, looking a little prettier, a little brighter, always makes him happy for it.

 

And this Christmas will be different from all the rest.  His first with Travis.

 

* * *

 

He and Travis have been taking it slow, since that dinner with Penny.  They haven’t had sex since their first time.  Arthur wants to.  But the fear of losing control—of his other self coming out again—is enough to make him hesitate.

 

As much as he might like to deny it, Arthur knows how fragile his own mind is.  He has to be careful.  And Travis doesn’t push.  He is waiting.  Waiting for Arthur to give a sign that he’s ready to try again. 

 

He touches Arthur all the time though.  A hand on his knee under the table in a diner, or resting against the small of his back when he walks him to the door of his apartment building.  Fingers curled around his arm.  Always gentle.  Undemanding.  But there’s a possessiveness to those touches, all the same.  Not that Arthur minds. 

 

Some days, they spend hours just sitting together on Travis’s couch, watching old movies and cuddling, Arthur’s head resting against his shoulder while Travis strokes and plays with is hair.  Just that—those simple, affectionate touches—feels so unbelievably good, he almost can’t believe it’s real.  Once, they spent the afternoon curled up chastely in his bed together.  Travis dozed off and Arthur spent over an hour just watching him sleep.  Watching the rise and fall of his chest, listening to his breathing.

 

They’ve started talking on the phone a lot, too.  Late at night after Penny is asleep, or in the early morning before she wakes up.  Sometimes their conversations are just conversations.  But more often than not, they end with Arthur flushed and sweaty, muffling his moans against a pillow as Travis whispers all the things he’d like to do to him.

 

He tries to be quiet.  If Penny has ever overheard him, she’s tactful enough not to say anything.

 

Things are a little odd and strained with his mother.  She’s been quieter lately, more withdrawn.  They haven’t talked about their dinner with Travis, or their conversation afterward.  He’s a little worried, but he supposes she’s still processing it.  Maybe she just needs time.

 

Despite that, things are better than they’ve been in…maybe ever.  His job is going well.  He’s in a relationship with someone he loves, who loves him.  Even his counseling sessions are much more productive than they used to be.  He still has bad days, but they’re fewer, the lows not quite so low.

 

It’s almost unnerving.  He’s not used to feeling this good.  He can’t shake the feeling that one day it’s all going to explode, like an overfilled balloon bursting. 

 

* * *

 

Travis takes a sip of coffee from a Styrofoam cup, watching the front door of the children’s hospital.  For the past half-hour, he’s been parked outside the building, waiting for Arthur.

 

Last night’s snowfall is already melting into a gray slush, like a dirt milkshake with garbage sprinkles covering the city.  Gotham doesn’t get snow too often, and when it does, it’s like this.  The city seems trapped in a perpetual rainy October.  Never warm enough to be comfortable without a jacket, never cold enough to really bundle up.

 

Someone knocks on his window, and he rolls it down a few inches.  “Excuse me,” a curly-haired woman in a nurse’s uniform says, “I notice you’ve been parked in this spot a while.  Want to tell me what you’re doing here?”

 

Travis pulls down his sunglasses and smiles, trying to put her at ease.  Though he’s not good at reassuring smiles.  When he tries it in front of a mirror it always looks like he’s about to kill someone.  “Waitin’ for a friend of mine.  Goes by the name of Carnival.”

 

“Oh.  The clown?  You know him?”

 

“Yeah.  I’m picking him up today.”

 

“Well, he should be out any minute.”

 

“You know, I’d like to see his act.  Would it be weird if I came in and watched sometime?”

 

“In the children’s hospital?  Yes, that would be weird.”

 

“No problem.”  He slides his sunglasses back into place.  “I’ll just hang out here then.”

 

The woman goes back into the hospital.  A few minutes later, the door swings open and Arthur emerges in his clown costume and wig.  He’s wearing a checkered jacket, and beneath it, an orange vest with a striped tie tucked into it.

 

Travis has always liked the way he looks in that outfit.  It’s not like he has a thing for clowns in general—before Arthur, he never felt anything about them one way or the other.  But something about seeing Arthur in that paint…

 

It’s the way he carries himself.  There’s a little more of a swagger when he walks, a little more bounce, a little more confidence in his expressions.  Arthur’s at home in the makeup.  At the sight of Travis’s taxi, he brightens and raises one hand in a wave.

 

Travis opens the door for Arthur, who slides in.  “Hey,” he says breathlessly.

 

“How’d it go?”

 

“Pretty good.  I got a lot of laughs.  I’m coming back again next week.”  Arthur plucks off his red nose, pulls his wig off and combs a hand through his long, sweat-damp hair.  “It makes me happy.  Having a regular gig here.”

 

“They like you.” 

 

“I’d like to think so.”  He shines so bright when he’s smiling.  Really smiling.

 

“So, what do you wanna do?” Travis asks.  “Food?  Movie?”

 

Arthur sits with his arms in front of him, shoulders drawn in and fingers interlaced between his knees.  The blue diamonds around his eyes make them stand out, make them look even bigger than usual.  “I was wondering if you had anything in mind.”  Arthur’s voice is soft.  Almost shy.

 

Travis’s pulse escalates.  He tells himself not to read too much into that tone.  “I, uh.”  He clears his throat.  “I’m open to anything.”

 

“We could just go back to your apartment.”

 

“Sure.  Order some takeout, watch TV.  Or whatever.  I got a taste for egg rolls.  You?”

 

“That sounds good.”

 

Travis pulls away from the curb.  His mind flashes to the memory of Arthur on his knees, lips stretched around Travis’s cock.  He wonders what it would be like to have him like this.  With the makeup.  He tries to push the thought down, but it keeps bobbing back to the surface of his mind.

 

If someone had told Travis a few years ago that he’d be getting a hard-on over a guy dressed as a clown, he’d have called them a fuckin’ loony.  But here he is.

 

He turns a corner, driving past a faded Thomas Wayne poster glued to the wall of a building.  Someone has drawn a big red X through it and scrawled the word PIG.  Travis’s mind wanders.

 

A few days ago, he bought some of that stuff.  That lube.  He should’ve started buying it years ago, because it feels twice as good when he jerks off using that.  Way better than Vaseline.  The bottle is stashed between the couch cushions now.

 

We’re not doing that today, he tells himself.  Probably.

 

What Arthur seems to need, more than anything else, is simple human affection.  Touch.  Kindness.  He soaks that stuff up.  So that’s what Travis has been giving him.  Before Arthur’s visits, Travis always spends a few minutes jerking off in the bathroom so he won’t be distracted by a hard-on when they cuddle.

 

It feels almost like they’ve hit the reset button and gone back to…what would you call it?  Dating, courtship?  Even though Arthur has never asked him to prove his intentions, Travis feels a need to do that—to show that he wants all of Arthur, not just his body.

 

* * *

 

When they get to the apartment, Travis holds the door open for Arthur. 

 

“You want anything to drink?” he asks.

 

He’s been trying to do a better job of stocking his kitchen.  He has eggs now, and orange juice, and canned vegetables.  Some of that instant tea mix, too.

 

“No thanks,” Arthur says.  He stands in the living room, hands interlaced behind his back, still in his clown-clothes and makeup, minus the wig and nose.  He seems suddenly unsure.

 

“You want a towel?  To wash that stuff off?”

 

“I thought I might leave it on for now.”

 

Interesting. 

 

“No problem.”  Travis sits on the couch and reaches for the phone.  “So, Chinese food?”

 

Instead of answering, Arthur approaches and sits next to Travis, folding his hands in his lap.  “You know,” he says in that soft voice, “you’ve never kissed me when I’m wearing my makeup.”

 

Slowly, Travis puts down the phone.  “I haven’t?”

 

“I don’t think so.”

 

“Could get messy.  I’ll probably smudge it.”

 

“I don’t mind.  If you’re worried about the taste of paint, it’s not that bad.”

 

“You know what it taste like?”

 

“I use it a lot.  I’ve gotten it in my mouth before.  It’s a tiny bit bitter, but not in a bad way.  Like having a flower petal on your tongue.”

 

This implies that Arthur has put flower petals on his tongue before.  Which seems like the sort of thing that Arthur would do, somehow.  “Oral personality,” Travis murmurs.

 

“What?”

 

“You told me once that you had an oral personality.”

 

“Did I?”  He blinks.  “I don’t remember.”

 

Right—that was the first time the other Arthur came out, on the phone.  “Doesn’t matter.”

 

He wonders if that means Arthur’s lips are more sensitive than a regular person’s. 

 

Travis touches a thumb to the corner of Arthur’s mouth, lets it glide along the seam of his painted lips, parting them.  He feels the wetness, the tip of his tongue.  “This’ll be my first time.”

 

“First time what?” Arthur whispers, his voice scratchy.

 

“Kissing a clown.”

 

Arthur laughs, scarcely more than a gust of breath.  “You’ve been kissing a clown all along.”

 

“Guess so.  A man becomes what he does.  Someone told me that once.”

 

“I don’t know,” Arthur says.  “I think it’s just what I am.”

 

“Well, either way.”  He leans in.

 

Like Arthur said, the greasepaint tastes a little bitter, but not bad.  Beneath it lies the subtler, sweeter taste of Arthur himself.

 

When he pulls back, Arthur’s eyes open, soft and dazed.  Slowly, he licks those red lips.  “That was nice.”

 

“Yeah.  I could get used to that.”  Travis’s gaze focuses on the off-center groove on Arthur's upper lip, running from the side of his nose to his mouth.  A scar maybe, or just a physical quirk—he’s never asked.  It’s harder to see with the paint, but when he touches a fingertip to the spot he can feel it.  “I like this,” he says, stroking the mark.

 

“What…that?  Really?”

 

“Sure.” 

 

“I never liked it.  It’s weird.  I got teased in school for it.  And for a lot of other things.”  He smiles, but it doesn’t quite reach his eyes.

 

“Kids can be brutal.  I wasn’t too popular either.”

 

“You weren’t?”  Arthur sounds genuinely surprised.  Like the idea that anyone might not like Travis is incomprehensible to him.

 

“Nah.  I was always a loner.  Didn’t make friends easy.  Sometimes the guys at school gave me a hard time.  I came home with a black eye more than once.”

 

Arthur flinches.  He lays a hand over Travis’s.  “I’m sorry.  That sort of thing happened to me too.”

 

“Sometimes I was the one who threw the first punch.  My dad always taught me that if other guys start giving you shit, pushin’ you around, that’s the fastest way to stop it.  Hit first and hit hard.  Guess it worked.  But I think I developed some bad habits.”  He looks away.  “People just avoided me, after a while.  I’ve always been a little screwy.  The war made it worse.  But even before that, I was sorta bad at…I dunno.  Being a person, I guess.”

 

Arthur’s brows knit together.  “How do you mean?”

 

Travis stares into space.  For a moment, he doesn’t know how to answer, because he’s not sure what he means.  He probably shouldn’t have even brought it up.  “Last time I visited my parents’ house—that was years ago—I remember seeing these old black-and-white pictures of me as a little kid.  Riding a wooden horse, holding a pair of toy guns with a big cowboy hat on my head.  That kinda thing.  And I’ve always got this look on my face.  Just blank.  Staring off at nothing.  I was that way in school too.  I think I came off the assembly line with a few parts missing, if you know what I mean.”

 

Travis is not used to talking about himself this way.  It makes him feel a little weird.  But Arthur just listens.  Waits.

 

“I never made friends, growing up.  Not real ones.  I didn’t know how.  I never figured out how to enjoy the things other people enjoyed.  Parties just gave me headaches.”

 

“There must’ve been something you liked doing.”

 

Travis thinks for a moment.  “Riding my bike.  I had a blue ten-speed.  Rode it all around Brooklyn.  I had a paper route for a while, but mostly I just liked to ride.  It was…peaceful, I guess.”

 

There were moments—usually when he’d been pedaling for hours, when his body was sore and exhausted and his mind was blank—when the sun would strike the amber shard of a broken bottle, or glimmer on the hazy gray-blue ocean in the distance, and he’d feel a burst of joy in his chest, like a symphony.  He’d lift his feet off the pedals and his hands off the handlebars, coasting, weightless for a few seconds.

 

In those moments, he could see through the fog of everyday existence into something greater, something more real.  He could feel the compass in his chest pointing him toward the Something he was seeking.

 

But he doesn’t know how to say that stuff out loud.  It would come out all wrong.

 

“I think you’re wonderful at being a person,” Arthur says.

 

“I feel more like a person when I’m with you.”  He strokes Arthur’s painted cheek with the backs of his fingers.  He leans in and kisses him again, taking his time with it.  He lets his teeth graze Arthur’s lower lip and feels Arthur’s intake of breath.  He likes a little bit of teeth.

 

Travis feels an unexpected brush of fingers against the bulge in his pants, and his body jerks.

 

And then Arthur starts to tug down his zipper.

 

Travis catches Arthur’s wrist, stopping him.

 

Arthur tenses.  His gaze searches Travis’s face.  “You don’t want it?” 

 

Of course he wants it.  But he holds back.  “I wanna talk first.”  He struggles to hold his breathing steady.

 

“It’s me,” Arthur says.  “I promise.”

 

“I know.”

 

Though he wonders, sometimes, if the boundary between the two Arthurs is all that rigid.  He looks into those eyes and sees a flicker of…something.  The green in them stands out more, shines brighter.  Maybe it’s the sun from the window hitting them just right, maybe it’s the blue paint bringing out the color, but his eyes have never looked so green.  The copper flecks are like fires in underbrush.

 

“What’s wrong, then?” Arthur asks.

 

“Last time we had phone sex, you started to go under a little,” Travis says. 

 

Arthur tenses.  “I didn’t,” Arthur says.  “I was me the whole time.”

 

“You were right on the edge.  I could hear your voice changing.”

 

Arthur swallows.  His eyes lower, hiding under a screen of long lashes.  “I’m sorry.  I…I try…”

 

“That’s not what I mean.  It’s not like that.”  Damn it, already Travis is fucking up this conversation.  “I know it’s not something you do on purpose.”

 

“Do you hate him?” Arthur asks softly.

 

The question catches Travis off guard.  He is still holding Arthur’s wrist.  He feels the rapid pulse under his fingers.  “No.  I don’t hate him.  But I know he comes out when you’re scared.  That’s what it’s like, isn’t it?  If he shows up, it means I’m doing somethin’ wrong.”

 

There’s a pause.  “It’s…more complicated than that.  It’s not just fear.  My counselor once told me that positive feelings can trigger an episode, too.  Sometimes I am scared, but I want to keep going anyway.  It was like that when…when you were about to take me.  I wanted it so much.  I wanted more and more.  And then suddenly it was too much.”

 

“You can tell me to stop.  You know that, right?”

 

With his free hand, Arthur picks at the edge of the duct tape on the couch cushion, the makeshift bandage holding the stuffing in.  “Sometimes it’s hard for me to do that,” he whispers.

 

“To say stop?”

 

“I know that doesn’t make any sense.  I know it’s ridiculous, and—”

 

“No.  No.  I get it.”

 

With everything Arthur’s been through, it shouldn’t surprise Travis.  He doesn’t know what Arthur’s childhood was like, but having met Penny, he suspects there was some weird shit going on.  All through his life, Arthur’s been told what to do—by his mother, the doctors at Arkham, the social workers, his shithead boss.  He’s been conditioned to keep his head down and cooperate.  To please others.

 

Following orders is a hard habit to break.  Back when Travis was a soldier, it became a reflex.  Your commander barked and your body moved before your mind even registered the words.

 

“Travis?”

 

“I’m thinking.”  His thumb absently strokes Arthur’s wrist as he stares into space.

 

In the Marines, they used a lot of code words.  Like a private language.  Being in combat situations meant being ass-deep in chaos, the world exploding around you.  It meant split-second decisions.  It meant needing to communicate quickly and clearly at a moment’s notice, even when you were freaking out—being dependent on your fellow soldiers for survival, and trusting them to know what you meant and to react accordingly.

 

“We should have a code,” Travis says.

 

“What?” 

 

“A code word.  Something that means ‘I’m not fuckin’ around when I say stop.’  Emergency brakes.”

 

His brow furrows.  “So…I say this word, and whatever we’re doing, we stop?  Just like that?”  Like he can’t believe it’s that simple.

 

“Yeah.”

 

“And the same goes for you?”

 

Travis nods. 

 

“You’d be okay with that?  Really?”

 

“Seems easier than tryin’ to guess.  I like to know where you’re at.”

 

After a moment, Arthur nods slowly.  “What should it be, then?”

 

“You decide.”  He figures it’ll be Arthur using the word, mostly.  Though it couldn’t hurt to have a way for Travis to put the brakes on, either.  They both have their fair share of landmines in their heads.

 

And, if he’s honest, there are moments when the other Arthur freaks him out a little.  Last time he was able to pull Arthur back to himself by saying I love you, but they say that to each other every day now.  There’s no guarantee it’ll be enough to jar him out of it a second time.  Maybe this will.

 

Arthur stares into space.  His teeth catch on his lower lip, tugging.  “Joker,” he says at last, softly.

 

“Joker?  Like the playing card?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Travis thinks about asking, why that?  But Arthur doesn’t volunteer a reason, so he leaves it alone.  If that works for Arthur, then he’ll go with it.  “Joker it is.”

 

Travis releases his wrist.  Arthur doesn’t immediately reach for his cock again; instead, his hand wanders up to Travis’s chest and rests there.  Feeling his heartbeat, maybe.  He rolls a button of Travis’s shirt between a thumb and forefinger. 

 

Travis moves in for another kiss.  He focuses on that shallow groove again, presses his lips to it.  Knowing Arthur is self-conscious about it just makes him like it more.  He wants to take all the parts that Arthur is embarrassed about, everything the world sees as weird or off putting, and worship each one in turn.  Claim it.  He runs the tip of his tongue along the mark, bites at it gently.  Arthur’s breathing quickens.

 

Travis is still hard.  So, he notices, is Arthur.

 

He runs a finger lightly down the bridge of Arthur’s painted nose.  “You know you’re sexy like this.”

 

“You think so?”

 

“Yeah.  You want me to call you Carnival?”

 

He shakes his head.  “That’s for work.  Just call me my name.  I like it when you say my name.”

 

“Arthur.”

 

Arthur inches closer, until his thigh is pressed against Travis’s thigh.  His fingertips brush, again, over the bulge in Travis’s pants.  His thumb toys with the zipper, but doesn’t pull it down.

 

“Your move,” Travis says quietly.

 

Arthur swallows, Adam’s apple bobbing in his skinny throat.  “Can I take your shirt off, first?”

 

It’s a little strange, but Travis has never actually taken his shirt off in front of Arthur before.  His clothes are a shield.  He feels exposed without them.  Which, yeah—that’s stupidly obvious, he realizes.  The fact that being naked makes him feel, well, naked.  But he’s always felt a little uncomfortable stripping in front of other people, even for medical stuff.  He’s got a pretty big scar on his back from when someone had a go at him with a machete.  He doesn’t like anyone seeing and asking questions.

 

But this is different.  This is Arthur.

 

“Sure,” he says. 

 

Arthur undoes the buttons, one by one, and slides Travis’s shirt off.  His gaze catches on the scar, but he says nothing.

 

Travis has never asked about the scar on Arthur’s head, either, though he’s had plenty of opportunities.  Arkham’s always struck him as having a pretty Medieval approach to treating mental illness—it wouldn’t surprise him if they’d tried to scrape the demons out of Arthur’s brain with a scalpel—but it’s too messy to be a surgical scar.  Some kind of injury.  An old one.

 

Travis keeps his hands on the couch, sitting upright, just watching as Arthur slides down Travis’s zipper and maneuvers his cock free.  It’s swollen, tight and shiny and dusky pink, all raw nerve-endings pulsing urgently, demanding touch.

 

Arthur kneels on the floor in front of him, puts his hands on Travis’s knees, and looks up at him.  His gaze flicks down, focusing on his erection, then up again.  He wets his lips.

 

Travis is breathing hard, fingers digging into the couch cushions with enough force to make the veins stand out on his arms.

 

The first time, both of them were so overwhelmed by need, they barely knew what they were doing.  This is different.  There’s more caution, more awareness.  But he wants it bad.  Real bad.  He shuts his eyes, taking a few seconds to rein himself in.  Take it easy.

 

He opens his eyes, reaches out and brushes his knuckles against Arthur’s cheek.  “I like the blue around your eyes.  And those red lips.  They’re pretty.”

 

“You think I’m pretty?”  He says it with a half-smile, like it’s a joke, but Travis can see the longing in his face.

 

Travis has called him beautiful before, but never pretty.  It’s different, he guesses.  Pretty is soft and gentle and girly.  Jewels, silky dresses.  He doesn’t think Arthur wants to be a girl, exactly.  But maybe he wants to feel that way sometimes.  Like something precious.

 

Travis traces a finger along the line of his jaw.  “Pretty Arthur,” he says.  “Sweet Arthur.”

 

Arthur stares raptly up at him, pupils widening.

 

Yes.  He likes that.

 

Travis winds a lock of Arthur’s hair around his finger and gives it a tug.  “Pretty little doll.”

 

Arthur groans, low and helpless.

 

“Little painted doll.  I’m gonna keep you and play with you.”

 

“Wh-what are you going to do with me?”  His voice comes out faint, almost inaudible.

 

“I want to see what your mouth can do.”

 

Arthur gulps.  His gaze drops, focusing on Travis’s cock again.  He licks his lips again, making them shiny.  Crimson and glossy, like melting red candle wax, like blood.  They part.  And then that slick, wet mouth is around Travis.  He groans, head falling back.  His fingers slide deeper into Arthur’s hair.

 

Arthur’s lips glide down, engulfing more of him.  His fingers curl around the base of Travis’s erection, squeezing gently.  Travis’s body quivers.  He wants to push up, to push deeper into the hot, silky depths.  His hips twitch, but he holds himself steady.  Arthur is the one calling the shots now.

 

A tooth catches on the edge of him, and he lets out a sharp hiss of breath.

 

Arthur raises his head.  “I’m sorry,” he says, breathless.  “Did I hurt you?”

 

“No.”  It did hurt, but just a little, and he doesn’t want Arthur to stop.  It takes everything he has not to push Arthur’s head back down onto his dick.  “J-just…keep going.”

 

After a few agonizing seconds, Arthur lowers his head and engulfs Travis again.  His mouth works its soft, wet magic.

 

Travis’s fingertips massage his scalp in slow circles, feeling the now-familiar bumps and ridges of the scar, tracing its path as he stares down at Arthur’s head between his legs.  That long, wavy hair spills around his face in a curtain as his mouth tugs.

 

“Pretty, pretty Arthur.”  The words escape his mouth in a hoarse whisper.  “So damn pretty…”

 

Travis’s vision blurs.  Heat pulses in his balls, coils low in his belly and groin, like a spring.  He’s right on the edge, but he just hangs there, dizzy and weak with it.  Something about not being in control, not being able to thrust forward or stroke—it’s frustrating, seeing the finish line but not being able to get there.  And yet the frustration just makes it more intense, heightens every sensation.  He is a prisoner of Arthur’s mouth.  Arthur toys with him, rolling him around on his tongue like a piece of candy, sucking at his leisure.  Holds him there, trapped.  It’s not even on purpose—Arthur’s too inexperienced to know how to hold off someone’s climax like this.  But that somehow just makes it hotter.

 

Arthur has no idea what kind of power he has over Travis.  How completely he owns him.

 

“Uh…Arthur…fuck…”

 

His fingers tighten on Arthur’s hair.  His control slips, and he pushes down.  Arthur takes in another inch of him.  He gags a little, and Travis loosens his grip, but Arthur doesn’t stop.  Travis claws at the couch cushion with his other hand, groaning.

 

Swallow me, he thinks.  He wants to slide down Arthur’s throat, into his stomach.  Wants to curl up inside him, down where it’s dark and warm.

 

Travis is talking, muttering under his breath—babbling—but he can’t make out the words coming from his own mouth.  The part of his brain that does language seems to have shut down, yet his lips keep moving without his permission.  It’s a little scary.  He wonders if this is what Arthur feels like when he goes under.

 

He’s saying Arthur’s name over and over and over.

 

Then his hips jerk, and his head goes empty again.

 

His climax seems to surprise Arthur.  His head jerks back.  He swallows some of it, but it goes down the wrong pipe and he doubles over in a fit of coughing, one hand pressed to his mouth. 

 

“Shit—sorry.  Are you—?”

 

“Fine.”  He catches his breath and looks up.

 

Even with the paint, he can see the flush in Arthur’s skin, the pink glow in his neck and ears.  His eyes are heavy-lidded and unfocused, almost drunk.  A bit of semen dribbles out, over his painted lips.  Pearly white on red.  Travis watches, hypnotized, as a drop slides down Arthur’s chin.  He wipes it up with one finger, pushing it back over Arthur’s lower lip, into his mouth.

 

The makeup is smeared.  Red blurs into white.  One blue diamond bleeds down his cheek.  It looks even better, messy.

 

His gaze drifts down.  Arthur’s hard.  He can see that, despite the baggy clown-pants.  “Tell me what you want right now,” Travis says.

 

Arthur slowly stands.  He fumbles with his own belt.  “W-will you…”

 

“Anything.”

 

He just stands there another moment, still gripping his belt—then seems to come to a decision.  He tugs his pants off and removes his jacket and vest, stripping in quick, efficient movements, leaving only his white button-down shirt and boxers.  He faces Travis like this, shivering, skinny legs exposed to the air, cock jutting through his boxers, the outline clearly visible, straining against the dark blue cloth.  He doesn’t seem to know what to do with his arms.  He folds them over his chest, then holds them stiffly at his sides.

 

Then he crawls into Travis’s lap and sits, facing toward him.  It’s a little awkward—the couch isn’t that big.  Arthur folds his legs up, knees bending, ass firmly nestled against Travis’s groin, and interlaces his fingers behind Travis’s neck to anchor himself in place. 

 

“T-touch me,” he says.  “Please.”

 

Even though he just came, the sensation of Arthur’s ass rubbing against his spent cock sends a twinge of pleasure through him.  “You want me to stroke you off like this?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Travis slips one arm around Arthur’s waist, giving him some extra support.  He wraps his fingers around Arthur’s cock, feeling the heat of him through the thin cotton.  He can already see a wet spot leaking through.

 

“You want to stop, you say the word.”

 

“I’ll try not to need it.”

 

Travis holds his gaze.  “You want to stop, you say it.  Promise.”

 

“I—I promise.”

 

Travis strokes him through the cloth for a minute, then slides his hand inside Arthur’s boxers.  He cups Arthur’s balls, rolls them across his palm.  One finger slips behind them and brushes against his hole, and Arthur tenses—Travis feels his balls tighten, drawing up a little toward his body, retreating.  He freezes.  But Arthur says nothing.  Just looks at him with those wide, wide eyes.

 

He goes back to stroking Arthur’s cock.  Arthur’s breathing goes heavier, shuddering a little in his throat.

 

“Hang on,” Travis mumbles.  He pulls his hand out of Arthur’s boxers, fishes between the couch cushions and pulls out the bottle of lube.  “This’ll make it feel better.”  He squirts some into his palm, wraps his hand around Arthur again, and resumes stroking.

 

“Oh.  Oh.

 

Arthur grips his shoulders, fingers digging in, and groans.  His hips rock back and forth.  “Travis…” 

 

He’s already so close.  Straining, quivering, making those little hicupping sounds.  He’s about to fall apart.  Just a few more—

 

Then he turns his head and murmurs, lips moving against Travis’s ear, “Put your finger inside me.”

 

Travis’s heartbeat quickens.  “You want that?”

 

“Yes.”

 

He grabs the lube again, coats his fingers with it.  “Get up on your knees.”

 

Arthur shifts positions, kneeling on the couch so he’s directly over Travis’s lap instead of sitting in it.  “Like this?”

 

“Good.”  Still stroking Arthur’s cock, he slides his other hand down the small of Arthur’s back, under the waistband of his boxers, between the cheeks of his ass.  He pushes a finger slowly inside him.  There’s a lot less resistance, this time.  It’s smooth—like fingering a wet pussy, just tighter.  Lube is amazing stuff.  Right up there with airplanes and telephones, as far as human achievements go.

 

He works his way deeper.  Arthur twitches.

 

Travis pulls back a little.  “Bad?”

 

“More,” Arthur whispers.

 

He pushes back in.  Pushes harder, aiming for that spot, the one that made him twitch.  He has to strain to reach it, but he can feel something there.  A smooth swell.  When he presses it, Arthur makes that little hicupping sound again.  God, he loves that sound.

 

He keeps teasing the spot with the tip of his finger as his slippery palm moves up and down Arthur’s cock in slow, firm strokes, stimulating him from both ends.

 

Arthur’s eyes are open, unfocused.  They move back and forth, like he’s seeing something in another world.

 

“That’s good, Arthur.  Just feel it.”

 

Travis can focus better, like this.  With his own need sated, he can enjoy all the little expressions moving across Arthur’s face.

 

Travis licks his cheek, tasting paint and sweat.  He kisses Arthur’s lips, his forehead, the bridge of his nose, his fluttering eyelids.  His lips linger on the right eyelid, feeling the gentle rolling movement beneath, like the eye of a sleeper lost in dreams. 

 

He works another finger inside him, past the tight ring of muscle.  Arthur whines a little, and opens his mouth, and Travis stops, ready to pull back…then Arthur pushes down, against his fingers, bringing them deeper.

 

He cums inside his boxers.  He cums with a long, thin, quivering wail—a sweet, unearthly sound.  Then he slumps against Travis, limp and panting and shivering, shirt drenched with sweat, makeup smeared and runny with it.

 

“Good,” he murmurs against his ear, stroking his hair.  “Good.  You did good, Arthur.”

 

He carefully slides his fingers free of Arthur’s body and hugs him close.

 

“My pretty Arthur.”

 

* * *

 

For a while, Travis just holds him there on the couch, and Arthur doesn’t want to move.  Even when the fluid in his boxers dries to a sticky crust against his thigh, he doesn’t budge.

 

He is suspended in a fragile bubble of time, head quiet and clear, body sated and relaxed.  Languid.  He is a cat sprawled in a patch of sunlight, a baby in a cradle, in a womb.  He is safe.  Protected.  Cherished.  Travis’s arms are warm around him, hugging him close.

 

And it is a relief.  To know that he’s capable of this—of giving and receiving pleasure without losing control, without pain.

 

He wishes he could stay here forever, that he could keep this feeling.  He holds it inside him.  He presses the memory of this moment deep into his mind, trying to etch it all there—the feel of Travis’s skin, the smell of his hair.  His heartbeat.  Even the shiny piece of duct tape on the couch cushion.

 

Again, he feels that shadow of dread at the edge of his mind—the sense that this can’t last.  That it is too good.  Something has to go wrong.

 

But maybe that’s just because he’s not used to this.  He’s so conditioned to expect pain and disappointment that he distrusts the lack of it.  He’s reflexively bracing himself for the blow to come—for the universe to punish him for the sin of being happy—but maybe the blow won’t come.  He allows himself to seriously consider that thought.  To let it sink in.

 

Maybe he is allowed to be happy.

Chapter Text

Travis’s shower is smaller than the average closet.  Arthur examines the stall.  Reddish-brown stains splotch the edges and run in streaks toward the drain.

 

“I didn’t murder anyone in here,” Travis says.  “It’s just rust.”  He stands there, a towel over one bare shoulder, still in his jeans and boxers and nothing else.  “You can take the shower first, if you want.”

 

Arthur starts to unbutton his shirt and stops.

 

Just looking at Travis makes him ache.  Not for sex—it’ll be at least a few hours before his batteries recharge.  He just wants to feel Travis’s body against his.  The heat of his skin.  “I, um.  I think we’ll both fit.  If you want to do it together.”

 

“It’s gonna be a tight squeeze.  Like sardines in a can.”

 

That shouldn’t make him blush, after what they just did together.  But he feels heat creeping up into his face, anyway.  “I don’t mind.”

 

There’s a pause, and Arthur lowers his head.  Maybe Travis just wants to wash himself off in privacy.

 

“All right,” Travis says.  He reaches out and undoes another button of Arthur’s shirt.  Arthur watches, holding his breath, as Travis slips the buttons free one by one.  He slides the shirt off, then hooks his thumbs beneath the waistband of Arthur’s boxers and tugs them down.  He steps out of his own jeans and boxers.

 

It’s the first time Arthur’s seen him completely naked.  The first time they’ve both been naked together.

 

The bathroom lights are bright, harsh and unforgiving, throwing the shadowed hollows of Arthur’s body into sharp relief.  He looks at Travis’s smooth, flat abs, the cords of lean sinew on his arms.  He’s not heavily muscled, but he’s trim and fit.  He obviously works out.  Arthur stands there, naked, scrawny and shivering, hair disheveled, face still covered in messy paint.

 

Travis’s hands settle beneath the curve of his ribcage, then slide down his sides to rest against the knobs of his hipbones.  He says nothing, just looks at Arthur, his gaze resting on each part of him in turn, taking in everything, as though consciously trying to brand each detail into his mind.  One hand glides around, the callused palm rough against his skin, to curl around the small of his back.

 

“You’ve got goosebumps,” he says.

 

“So do you,” Arthur murmurs.

 

“The hot water’s not always that hot.  It’s kinda hit and miss.  Just to warn you.”  He turns on the spray.  “Pressure’s lousy, too.”

 

Arthur steps into the stall.  Travis slides in behind him.  They’re both sticky with sweat and other things.  Arthur lets the weak spray run down his face and watches the swirl of red and blue and white-tinged water circling the drain. 

 

The water is warm, but not quite hot.  Travis’s front presses against his back.  The heat of his body helps.  But it’s…distracting.

 

“Told you it’d be a tight fit.”

 

“It’s not bad.”

 

Travis reaches past Arthur, grabs a bar of soap and lathers up his hands.  His palm settles on Arthur’s chest, slides down over the hollow of his stomach, between his thighs.  Spent though he is, the sensation of warm, soap-slick fingers against his cock sends a thrill through him.

 

“This okay?” Travis asks.

 

“I—I don’t know if I can again.  Not yet.”

 

“I know.  I’m just washin’ you.”

 

“Oh.”

 

He watches, oddly fascinated by the sight of Travis handling him, soaping the traces of sweat and cum off his skin.  It’s not sexual—Travis isn’t trying to get him hard again.  It’s just…intimate.  He keeps touching Arthur, rubbing soap over his thighs, between his buttocks, on his back, under his arms.  Arthur closes his eyes.  Even if he’s not aroused, exactly, the amount of physical contact is overwhelming.  All his nerves are dialed up, the sensations more intense than usual.

 

He feels something pressing against his ass, and his eyes snap open.

 

Of course, he thinks.  Travis is younger, healthier.  He recovers faster.  He’s already rock-hard again.

 

Arthur’s heartbeat quickens.  He squirms a little, naked slippery flesh rubbing against flesh, and the air hisses softly between Travis’s teeth.  He groans, low and hoarse.

 

It wouldn’t be impossible, Arthur thinks, for Travis to fuck him like this.  It would be awkward, squished together between the narrow stall walls, and soap probably isn’t the best lubricant, but they could do it.  If Travis just shifted a little…

 

But he doesn’t.  He grabs a bottle of shampoo, squeezes some into Arthur’s hair, and starts scrubbing it in, fingers massaging his scalp in slow circles.

 

Arthur’s eyes slip shut again.  It’s been a long time since someone has washed his hair.  These days he cuts it himself, to save money.  He’s helped his mother wash her hair many times, but he almost forgot how good it feels to have someone doing it for him.  “That’s nice,” he murmurs.

 

“Never done this for someone else before.  Let me know if I’m pullin’ too hard or anything.”

 

“It’s fine.”  Better than fine.  Warm little ripples of pleasure travel down his neck and spine, feathering under his skin.  His knees wobble.  If Travis keeps this up for much longer, he thinks, he’s going to melt.  He lets out a half-sigh, half-moan.  “Yes…just like that.  Oh…”

 

Travis chuckles, deep and warm.  Arthur can feel the vibrations of it in his chest.  “If I’d known you would enjoy this so much, I’da done it sooner.”

 

“Just keep going.”

 

Travis keeps working the suds into his hair, and Arthur leans back against him.  It’s hard not to notice the heat of Travis’s dick pressed up against his ass.  Even if he doesn’t make any moves.

 

After another minute, though, the water starts to lose its heat.  Arthur reluctantly rinses the suds out of his hair.  “Where’s your conditioner?”

 

“I don’t have any.  Never understood what it was for.”

 

“It just helps with tangles.  I guess people with short hair don’t need it as much.”  He combs his fingers through his wet hair, working out the snarls.  “Did you even get a chance to soap off?  I’ve been hogging the water this whole time.”

 

Travis lathers up again and quickly soaps up and rinses the essential spots.  “There we go, done.”

 

The water is lukewarm now.  Arthur feels a twinge of regret.  He wanted to do the same thing for Travis—to scrub his hair, help him wash up.  Take care of him.  “You do so much for me.  I want to do more for you.”

 

“I liked washing you.  I like doing that kind of thing.” 

 

He shuts off the water, reaches past the shower curtain and grabs a towel.  He’s still half-erect.

 

Arthur thinks about reaching down, touching him, feeling him come fully to life beneath his fingers.  Before he can do anything, Travis puts a towel over his hair and starts rubbing it dry.  Arthur lets out a breathless laugh.  “You don’t have to dry me off too.  I’m not a puppy.”

 

“You like it, though.  You like attention.”

 

“You make me sound spoiled.”

 

“Nah.  I get the sense you’ve never had anyone spoil you.  You’re not used to this.”  He rubs the towel over Arthur’s shoulders and back.  Gently, carefully.  Like he’s made of glass.  “When someone treats you nice, you always seem surprised.  Even now.”

 

Arthur swallows.  A lump rises into his throat.

 

The towel moves lower, over his stomach—at the contact, the muscles tighten slightly.  “It makes me want to learn,” Travis murmurs.  “How to be better at this.”

 

“You’re already pretty good at it.  Amazing, really.”

 

“I dunno.  Maybe it just seems that way ‘cause you’ve got nothing to compare it to.”

 

The towel brushes over his cock, making him shiver.  “I like this,” he murmurs.  Impossibly, he feels himself stir and start to rise again.  He leans back against Travis’s chest.  “I liked what we did earlier, too.”

 

“Yeah.”  Travis voice goes a little lower, a little huskier. 

 

Arthur can’t help wondering, sometimes, how he compares to Travis’s past lovers.  Or, for that matter, who his past lovers were.  It’s not the sort of thing he’d ever ask.  But he’s keenly aware of his own lack of experience, aware of the fact that Travis has been patient with him.  Even if Travis has never been with a man before Arthur—even if it’s a first for them both, in that regard—he’s done some things.

 

“Travis…”  He stares up at the ceiling of the shower, head tipped back.  “You remember the second time we talked on the phone?  And I told you about h-how…how I like to be…”

 

“You like being restrained.”

 

His heartbeat quickens.  “Yes.”

 

“I think about that conversation a lot,” Travis murmurs.

 

He wonders if Travis has ever done anything like that before.  Ever tied someone up.  He knows there are people who do that sort of thing.  In the magazines he furtively bought and paged through, over the years, he’s seen women in handcuffs, women with their wrists and ankles tied, even gagged or blindfolded sometimes.  Arthur always felt drawn to those images.  They hooked into some deep, primal part of his brain.  But whenever he tried to fantasize about tying someone else up, it felt…off.  He especially felt uncomfortable with the idea of doing it to a woman.  Maybe because it stirred up his old fears that society was right about him, that he was a creep and a pervert.

 

Or maybe because—on some level—he knew that he wanted to be the one tied up.  Having someone else’s attention completely focused on him, like that…

 

“How would you do it?” Arthur whispers.  “If you…if we…you know.”

 

“I’d use my belt.”

 

"Y-you mean..."

 

The towel falls from his grip, drops to the floor.  His hands glide down Arthur’s arms to encircle his wrists.  “I’d loop it around your wrists.  Buckle them together like this—” he moves them to the front of Arthur’s chest, presses the insides of his wrists together—“and have you on your back.”

 

Arthur stares down at his own hands, pinned together directly over his racing heart.

 

“But then, just tying your hands might not be enough for you.  You said you liked being in a straitjacket.  You like pressure around your whole body.  Like this—” Travis’s arms slip around him, encircling him, and tighten.

 

A faint sound escapes Arthur’s throat.  Like he’s one of those rubber toys that squeak when squeezed.

 

“I could keep your arms pinned to your sides like this.  Or behind your back.  If you struggle, I could belt your ankles together.  But I want you to be able to spread your legs.”

 

Arthur’s hard, now.  His vision has gone a little blurry.  The lights in the bathroom seem brighter, blinding.

 

And then Travis’s hand covers his eyes, and the world goes dark.  His other arm remains wrapped tightly around Arthur’s chest, binding him.  “I wouldn’t need to blindfold you,” he says.  “I’d do it like this.”  His voice, close to Arthur’s ear, has dropped to a hoarse whisper.  “Just like that, you can’t move.  You can’t see.  All you’ve got is my voice.”

 

Arthur’s breath comes short and sharp.  He’s aware of Travis, fully erect again, pressing against him.

 

“If you really want a straitjacket, I could probably find a way to get one,” he says.  “But I’ve got everything I need right here.”

 

His voice buzzes deep inside Arthur’s ear, in the center of his skull.  It fills up his consciousness, overwhelms him.  There’s no pain; Travis is just holding him tightly, just covering his eyes.  But he’s suddenly, acutely aware of his own helplessness.  Heat swirls low in his belly.  Pressure builds behind his groin, in his balls, which are already growing tight and full.

 

He’s getting dizzy.  His breathing comes so fast and hard, he wonders if he’s hyperventilating.  This happened so fast.  Are they actually going to…?

 

A weak croak escapes his throat.  His hips twitch, pushing into the air.  His arms are still pinned to his sides; he can’t reach his cock.  He starts to struggle a little, instinctively, and Travis’s arm tightens.

 

His brain goes fuzzy, and he’s sliding backwards.  Pressure builds in his chest, and a laugh scratches at the inside of his throat.  He’s damp, shivering, naked, disoriented.  He’s losing his sense of time and space—they could be in the bathroom or floating somewhere near Neptune.  He’s coming loose inside his own head. 

 

In a flash he’s back in Arkham, leather straps digging into his shoulders and knees and chest, a hard metal table beneath his back.  He’s laughing shrilly, painfully.

 

Faces stare down at him, expressions grim, a little sad, a little frightened.  It’s so funny, how serious they are, how seriously they take all of this.

 

“Hold still, Arthur,” a man with a neatly trimmed gray beard says.  A hand comes down on his forehead.  A bright light shines into his eyes, blinding him.  Her jerks his head away.  “I said hold still—” there’s a hint of impatience now, of anger.  The hand grips his chin.  It hurts.

 

He bites, teeth sinking deep into a plump wrist.  He holds on even when the man screams and pulls.  Arthur laughs through his clenched teeth.  He keeps laughing even as a needle slips into the vein of his arm and a heavy gray fog steal his thoughts—

 

Someone is holding him.  Holding him tight.

 

He hears his own voice babbling at the edge of his consciousness, far away, and he doesn’t even know if he’s thinking or talking out loud, What are you waiting for?  Stick it in me, just stick it in me, fuck me blind, fuck me until I’m crying, fuck the bad dreams out of my head—

 

He fumbles through the darkness of his own mind, searching.  He’s not there.  It’s not real.  There’s a word—

 

He grabs on, a drowning man clutching a rope.

 

“Joker,” he gasps.

 

Travis’s grip loosens, his hand slides away from Arthur's eyes, and Arthur blinks a few times, breathing heavily.

 

Hands grip Arthur’s shoulders, turns him around, cradle his face, and there is Travis, looking him in the eye.  “You okay?”

 

“I…”  He’s shaking.  Was that a memory or a hallucination?  Did he actually bite someone?  “I went under.  I couldn’t hear myself.  Was I talking?”

 

“Your lips were moving, but I couldn’t make out the words.”  Travis wraps a dry towel around him, covering him, and rubs his arms through it. 

 

“How long?  How long was I—?”

 

"Just a few seconds, I think."

 

Arthur feels the urge to apologize, even knowing he did nothing wrong.  “It felt good, at first,” he whispers.  “What you were doing.  It’s just…my head, Travis, my head is so…”

 

“Shh.  You don’t have to explain.”  Fingers massage his scalp in slow, gentle circles, the way Travis did when he was washing him.

 

He focuses on the sensation, grounding himself in the moment.  The tension eases out of his shoulders.  Already, the memory is fading. 

 

It worked.  He felt himself going under and he stopped it.  He said the word, and Travis listened.  This force within himself is not a demon inhabiting his body—it’s an extension of his own feelings.  It’s something he can control.

 

“Lemme grab some clothes for you—get you covered up.  You’re shivering.  Your Carnival clothes are kinda sweaty, so I’ll lend you some of mine.  They should fit okay.”

 

Arthur nods, hugging a towel around himself, and feels his body moving like a sleepwalker’s as Travis places a hand on his back and guides him into the bedroom.  He retrieves a fresh t-shirt and sweats from the closet, and Arthur numbly slips into them.  He’s still a little shaky, but his head is clearing.  Warm arms slip around him, hugging him—firmly, but not hard enough to immobilizing him. 

 

Arthur leans his head against Travis’s shoulder and breathes slowly, in and out.

 

“There you go,” Travis murmurs.  “Nice, deep breaths.”

 

“I’m sorry I panicked.”

 

“Don’t be.  I need you to tell me when you're on the edge.  You did good, Arthur.”  Travis kisses his temple.  “I love you.”

 

“Love you too,” he whispers.  His eyes slip shut.  For several minutes, they just hold each other.

 

Arthur’s stomach rumbles, catching him off-guard.

 

“When’s the last time you ate?”

 

“Breakfast.”  And breakfast was just a half-bowl of oatmeal with raisins.

 

“No wonder.”

 

Still, feeling hungry is a rarity for him.  Normally, eating is a chore.  He has to push himself to do it, and if he eats too fast or too much he gets nauseous, because his stomach is finicky.  He still weakens and tires if he doesn’t eat enough, like anyone.  But even when he’s shaky for lack of sustenance, there is something vaguely repulsive about the act of putting food in his mouth and chewing.  He lives on black coffee and cigarettes.  Now, though, a big plate of chicken and rice sounds amazing. 

 

“Let’s order some dinner,” he says.

 

* * *

 

Travis orders takeout over the phone.  Eggrolls, rice with vegetables, noodles, sweet and sour chicken.  He hangs up and walks into the living room.

 

“It’ll be here in fifteen minutes, they said.  You want a beer while we’re waiting?”

 

“Maybe just some tea.”  It hasn’t escaped Arthur’s notice that Travis has a wider range of food and beverages in his apartment now.  Probably a response to the fact that Arthur’s been visiting more often.

 

“Sure.”  He disappears back into the kitchen and returns with a glass of tea made from the heavily sugared instant mix he keeps in his cabinet. 

 

Arthur drinks.  The sugar helps settle his rumbling stomach.  He was probably dehydrated too, come to think of it.  Immediately, he feels steadier.

 

As they sit on the couch—Travis nursing a beer, Arthur gulping down tea—he notices a stack of VHS tapes next to the TV.  He picks them up and glances through them.  A couple of pornos (both of which, judging by the titles, involved anal sex), a Bruce Lee movie called Fists of Fury, and a cartoon version of The Hobbit.  “When did you get these?”

 

“Last night.  New video rental place just opened up down the street."

 

“I should get a VCR," Arthur remarks.  "Mom would probably love it.  Renting movies.  And we could tape the Murray Franklin show.  Better than watching the news all day.”

 

“How’s she been?”

 

“Oh…same as always, I guess.”  Though, come to think of it, she hasn’t been talking about Thomas Wayne as much lately.  Which is an improvement, but still odd.

 

"We can watch one of those if you want.  Don’t know if there’s anything there you’d be into, though.”

 

Arthur glances through the tapes again.  If he tries to watch porn with Travis, he’ll probably spend the entire time blushing and squirming.  And he’s not especially into martial arts movies.  Arthur’s tastes run more to musicals and comedies.

 

He holds up The Hobbit.  “What made you pick this?”

 

“I read the book a long time ago.  In high school, I think.”

 

“I never would've pictured you reading Tolkien.”

 

Travis shrugs.  "I didn't read a lot of books, in general.  But I like that one.  Or I did back then, at least.  Can't remember much of it now."

 

Arthur slides the tape into the slot and sits next to Travis on the couch. 

 

The door buzzes.

 

“Hang on, that’s probably the food,” Travis says.

 

He retrieves the plastic bags filled with white paper cartons and foil and tips the delivery man.  They dish the food out onto plastic plates and sit shoulder to shoulder, watch the camera pan across the idyllic green hills of Middle Earth.

 

Arthur scoops a forkful of lo mein noodles into his mouth.  Salty, greasy, delicious.  His appetite is better than it’s been in a while.  He takes a few bites of the fried rice with vegetables. 

 

The movie's plot begins rather abruptly—with a robed, bearded wizard appearing in Bilbo’s front yard and inviting him on a grand adventure.

 

“Dear me, no,” Bilbo says, pipe in hand.  “Adventures make one late for dinner.”

 

The wizard responds by summoning a dramatic crash of thunder and lightning and shouting, "I am Gandalf, and Gandalf means me!" which seems to have a persuasive effect.  A scene later, he and Bilbo and all twelve of Gandalf’s dwarf-friends are eating dinner in Bilbo’s house.

 

“Gandalf is more of a dick than I remember,” Travis remarks.  “He shows up at this guy’s house out of nowhere, like, ‘Hey asshole, get packed, you’re going on a quest with me and my buddies to help us steal some treasure from a man-eating dragon.  Don’t worry, we’ll cover your funeral expenses if you croak.’”

 

“Well, yes.  But Bilbo still decides to go with them.”

 

“What, like he’s gonna say no to a guy who can call down lightning?”  Travis dips an egg roll in a puddle of gooey orange sauce.  “This is why we have the Second Amendment.”

 

“Because a wizard might come to your house and force you to go on a quest?”

 

“I’m just sayin’, if Bilbo had a .44 Magnum, people would think twice before pushing him around.” 

 

Arthur giggles and muffles a snort with one hand.  He’s already had two glasses of the heavily sugared ice tea mix, and a pleasant, mellow giddiness buzzes in his head.  He doesn’t have sweet things very often, so sugar tends to hit him pretty hard.  “Wizards have magic.  He could just turn the bullets into flowers or something.  Or make the gun disappear.”

 

“Not if Bilbo had the element of surprise.  No one ever expects a gun in Fantasy Land.”  He mimes pointing a pistol at the TV.  “Suck on that, you magic fuckers.”

 

Arthur laughs again, so hard he starts wheezing.  It’s not one of his usual fits though—doesn’t have that pained edge.

 

Travis eats another bite of his eggroll.  “Funny story, I had a passenger once…”  He trails off.  “Never mind.  That’s not actually a funny story at all.”

 

Arthur looks at his face and decides not to ask.  He twines his fingers between Travis’s and squeezes gently, instead.

 

A song plays as the opening credits roll:

 

The greatest adventure is what lies ahead

Today and tomorrow are yet to be said

The chances, the changes, are all yours to make

The mold of your life is in your hands to break

 

Arthur wonders if that’s true.  He would like to think so.

 

* * *

 

By the time the movie ends, it’s after nine o’clock.  Arthur is sprawled on the couch, his head resting in Travis’s lap.  He got chilly at some point, so Travis grabbed an olive-green blanket and wrapped it around him.

 

“You’d think that dragon woulda just put a patch over his weak spot,” Travis remarks.

 

“Mm.”

 

“It was pretty good though, overall.  The story.  Not quite like I remember, but good.”

 

He should probably head out soon.  He told his mother he would be back late, told her not to wait up for him, but still.  She always waits up for him.

 

He doesn’t want to budge, though.  He’s wrapped up in a warm cocoon, pleasantly sleepy.  He’s full of delicious, starchy food and sugar and for once, being full is a good feeling, a glow like hot honey seeping through his veins.  Travis idly strokes his hair.  The TV is dark and a soft rain patters against the window.

 

He finds himself thinking about the pressure of Travis’s arms around him, pinning his own arms to his sides—the warmth and roughness of Travis’s hand over his eyes, blocking his vision.  A different sort of heat stirs in his belly.

 

Not tonight, he thinks.  But maybe soon.  If it didn’t happen so suddenly, if he had more time to prepare, he might have really enjoyed that.  He did enjoy it.  Next time, he thinks—if they ease into it, let his mind warm up and stretch first…

 

There’s a place right at the edge, where everything is fuzzy and he’s floating inside his own head, his usual fears and inhibitions softened to the point of dissolving, but close enough that he can still come back if he wants to—still remember everything, later.  He likes being in that place.  Likes being held there.

 

There are so many things he wants to try.  Not just sex things…though that’s part of it.  He wants to go to an actual carnival with Travis.  Wants to dance with him again.  To exchange Christmas gifts and birthday gifts.  Come to think of it, he doesn’t even know Travis’s birthday.  He needs to ask.  He has so many questions to ask.  About his family, his favorite foods, his plans for the future.  He wants to share all the things that he could never share with anyone before.  Maybe sometime they can go on a road trip together, see the world outside of Gotham.  They can sleep in motels and try new restaurants and take turns driving while the other naps.  Arthur doesn’t actually drive, has never owned a car, but he could study up and get a license.  It can’t be too hard, can it?

 

The words from the song echo in his head again:  The mold of your life is in your hands to break.

 

“Travis?”  He raises his head.  “You said you would come see me if I ever did my standup at Pogo’s?”

 

“Yeah.  Sure I will.  You been thinkin’ about that?”

 

“I want to try it.  Tomorrow.  Seven o’clock.  It’s open-mic night.”

 

“Then I’ll be there.”

 

He half-expected Travis to caution him, to ask him if he was really ready.  “I know it’s sudden.  I guess I just want to prove to myself that I can do it.  That I can get up on that stage.”

 

Part of what’s kept him from trying is his mother’s doubt.  But why should he let her decide what he can and can’t do?

 

“I mean, the worst that happens is they don’t laugh,” he says.  “Or…that I embarrass myself.  Or that I start to laugh and can’t stop, or…”

 

Already he’s having second thoughts.

 

He sighs.  “I don’t know.  I’m just tired of hearing myself talk about how I’m going to be a comedian but never taking the next step.  I have enough jokes for an act.  I don’t have any excuse to keep waiting.  If I want to prove that I can do this, I have to just do it.”

 

He feels Travis’s fingers in his hair again, rubbing his scalp.  “There’s nothin’ you need to prove to anyone,” he says.  “If this is something you need to do, then do it.  But do it for you.  Whatever happens is okay.”

 

Arthur nods.  If he can just take that first step…just get up on the stage and make it through the act without breaking down…if he can face the crowd…

 

The phone rings.  Once, twice, three times.  Arthur’s stomach tightens.  He sits up.

 

“I should probably answer that,” Travis says.  “Dunno who the fuck is calling at this hour though.”

 

He stands, walks over to the kitchen and picks up the phone.  “Hello.  Travis Bickle.”  A pause.  “Uh…hey, Penny.”

 

The bubble of warmth in Arthur’s chest shrinks.

 

“Yeah, he’s fine.  He’s with me.  How’d you get this number?”  Pause.  “Oh, right.  Makes sense.  Yeah, hang on.”  He sets the phone down, lowers his voice and says, “She wants to talk to you.”

 

Arthur sits up, the blanket falling off him.  “Does she sound upset?” he whispers.

 

“A little.  If you don’t wanna talk now…”

 

“It’s okay.”  He gulps and takes the phone.  “Hey, Mom.”

 

“Arthur.  What’s going on?  You said you would be home for dinner.”

 

He rubs his forehead with two fingers.  “No.  I said I’d be home late.  I said not to wait up for me.  I made you egg salad sandwiches if you need something to eat.  They’re in the fridge, next to the—”

 

“You said by dinnertime.  I’m sure of it.”

 

He closes his eyes and pushes a hand through his hair.  “Mom, I’m not going to rush home."  He can't keep the frustration out of his voice.  "You can have dinner without me.  It won’t kill you to eat alone for one night.”

 

There’s a long pause.  “You never used to talk to me like that,” she says, a quaver in her voice.

 

He pinches the bridge of his nose.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to snap.”

 

“You’ve changed, Arthur.  I don’t like what’s gotten into you.  All I’m asking is for you to come home when you say you’re going to come home.  When you disappear for hours on end with no explanation, I worry.  I can’t help it.”

 

He focuses on breathing, struggling for control.  “Mom.  I know that I told you I would be home late.  I remember, because when I said it, you complained that I’ve been staying out late too much lately, and that you had no way to contact me if there was an emergency.  So I gave you Travis’s number and said to only use it if it was an emergency.  That was this morning.  You don’t remember that?”

 

“You’re accusing me of lying now?”

 

“No!  I just—” he stops, takes a breath.  “Just tell me, please.  Tell me if you remember that conversation.  This is important.  I need to know.  Tell me what you remember me saying.  The exact words.”

 

“Arthur, what is this about?  I feel like I’m being interrogated.  All this distrust.  All this suspicion.  Why are you doing this to me?”

 

Arthur’s breathing escalates.  “Why am I doing this to you?”

 

“You’re doing it again.  Talking in that tone.  You’re angry.  You’re so angry.”  She sounds like she’s on the verge of tears.

 

“I’m not angry, Mom.  I’m upset.  I’m confused.”

 

“I don’t like arguing on the phone, Happy.  I hate it.  If—if I could just see your face…”  She sniffles.  “Please…just come home.”

 

He presses a hand to his mouth to stifle a laugh.

 

“Arthur?”

 

He lowers his hand.  “Mom,” he says quietly.  “I need to hang up now.”

 

“No.  Don’t do that.”

 

“Have dinner without me and go to bed.  Please.  We’ll talk more in the morning.”

 

“Arthur!”

 

He hangs up.  Immediately, the phone starts ringing again.  Arthur paces, clutching fistfuls of his hair.

 

Travis unplugs the phone.

 

Arthur sinks down to the couch, fingers still buried in his hair.  He’s shaking.

 

He lets out a sharp laugh.  “I love my mother,” he says.  “But sometimes she drives me crazy.”

 

Slowly, Travis sits beside him.

 

“I’m sorry I gave her your number without asking,” Arthur says.  “That was probably a bad idea.  But she was so worried.  I thought…”

 

“No big deal.  We can always just unplug it when we need to.”  Travis rubs his back.  “I think you should stay here tonight.”

 

“She’s really upset.  I can’t leave things like this.  If I’m going to spend the night, I need to at least call back and tell her, or—”

 

“I don’t want her in your head right now,” Travis says.  “I don’t like what she’s doing to you.  I want you to stay here.  We’ll leave the phone unplugged.”

 

It’s tempting.  Arthur really doesn’t want to go home.

 

But if he stays, Penny might try to find some way to retaliate.  She might have another “fall.”  She might actually get hurt.

 

He buries his face in his hands.

 

How long is this going to go on?  Penny can’t seem to let go of the fear that Travis is going to take Arthur away from her.  No matter what Arthur does to try to reassure her, to show her that she’s still important to him, it’s never enough.  He feels sorry for her.  He knows she’s lonely and unhappy.  That’s why she’s doing this.  But he’s starting to feel angry, too.  She’s his mother.  Shouldn’t she want him to have a life?  To have his own happiness?

 

“I don’t know what to do,” Arthur murmurs.

 

Travis’s hand rubs up and down his back.  “Stay.”

 

“You don’t think I’m being selfish?  I mean…if I feel guilty, doesn’t that mean I’m doing something bad?”

 

“No.  It means she knows how to push your buttons.  If you really want to go home, I won’t stop you.  But you’re not her dog.  You don’t need to come running whenever she calls.”

 

The sickening ache of guilt still fills his chest, but he knows Travis is right.  Arthur will never abandon his mother, but he needs to set some boundaries.  Something needs to change.

 

Travis’s hand keeps moving up and down Arthur’s back, a steady, soothing motion.  Arthur closes his eyes.  He slowly fills his lungs, lets the air out through his nose. 

 

Travis traces the contours of his scar on his head, strokes it absently.

 

It’s just as well, that he’s never asked about it.  Arthur doesn’t know where it came from.  He’s had it as long as he can remember.

 

“I need to go home tonight,” he murmurs.  “It’ll be worse if I don’t.  But…I’m going to talk to her.  About this.”

 

Travis sighs quietly.  “Up to you.”

 

Arthur stares at his feet, chest aching.

 

“Hang on a minute.  I got something for you.  Almost forgot.”  Travis leaves the room, returns, and presses something small and metal into Arthur’s hand.

 

A key.  “Travis…is this…”

 

“You can come here whenever you want,” he says.  “Even if I’m not here.  If you just need to get away.”

 

Arthur looks at him.  He opens his mouth to speak, but there are no words.  So he tries to pour all his feelings into his eyes.  “Thank you,” he manages to whisper.

 

* * *

 

Arthur doesn't leave right away.  He arrives home a few hours later.  It’s after midnight.  The apartment is quiet.  No sign of Penny.  Maybe she went to bed.

 

In the morning, he’ll fix her some box-mix pancakes and eggs.  If she’s still angry, maybe having a nice breakfast ready for her will help calm her down.  He doesn’t want a fight.

 

But he intends to tell her, in no uncertain terms, that he’s going to be spending a lot of time at Travis’s place in the future, and she needs to get used to it.  She can be as upset about it as she wants, but it won’t change anything.  He’s not going to compromise his own happiness.

 

Arthur slips his shoes off, hangs up his jacket, and walks into the kitchen in his sock-clad feet to get a glass of water.  He flicks on the light as he enters.

 

Pain shoots through the sole of Arthur’s foot.  He gasps and stumbles.  The pain pulses up his leg.  He leans against the table and slowly raises his foot.

 

Blood soaks through the bottom of his sock.  A two-inch shard of glass protrudes from his sole.  With a trembling hand, he pulls out the bloody shard and drops it to the tiles.  Other, smaller pieces of glass glitter around it.

 

There’s a note taped to the refrigerator:  Be careful!  I dropped a glass.  I tried to sweep it up but my back was hurting.  If you could clean it up for me I’d be grateful.  Love, Mom.

 

He stares at the words, then down at the broken glass, mouth dry.

 

She didn’t do it on purpose, he thinks.  If she had, she wouldn’t have left a note warning him.  But then, why didn’t she tape the note somewhere he’d see it before he went inside the kitchen?  She could have put it on the front door, or the wall outside the kitchen.  Why didn’t she throw a towel over the glass?

 

Maybe she was tired.  Maybe she didn’t think it through.

 

He feels sick to his stomach.  For a moment, he's certain he’s going to lose his dinner.  He breathes slowly, breathes through the pain.

 

Favoring his injured foot, he checks the bedroom.  She’s there, sleeping soundly, soft snores echoing through the room.  He eases the door shut.

 

Limping, he heads into the bathroom to swab the cut with alcohol.  It’s deep, still bleeding.  He tapes some gauze over it.  Ignoring the dull throb, he grabs the broom and dustpan from the pantry, sweeps up the glass, and deposits it in the trash.

 

He sits on the couch, pulls the key from his pocket, curls his fingers around it, and holds it tight, like a talisman. 

 

Arthur has lived here in this apartment with his mother for what feels like forever.  The idea of leaving is unthinkable.  Or it has been, until now.  He’s never had anywhere else to go. 

 

He holds the key tighter.

Chapter Text

When morning comes, he finds Penny in the kitchen, mixing pancake batter.  There’s coffee brewing.

 

Penny almost never cooks, these days.  Standing for any length of time is hard on her hips.  She smiles at him.  There’s no trace of anger in her expression, but she avoids eye contact.  “Good morning, Happy.  I’m feeling better today, so I thought I’d make breakfast.  I haven’t done it in so long.”

 

Arthur hangs back in the kitchen doorway.

 

“Thank you for cleaning up the glass.  Did you see my note on the fridge?  I did try to sweep it up myself—I felt so nervous, leaving broken glass on the floor—but my back was hurting too much.  I worried that if I pushed myself, I might fall again.”

 

“It’s fine,” he mutters.

 

“I had a taste for pancakes.  Do you want smile-cakes?  I used to make those when you were little, remember?”

 

He remembers.  Pancakes with raisins for the eyes, raisins in the shape of a smile.  “Regular pancakes are fine.”

 

“I hope you’re not upset with me.  I know I raised my voice last night, on the phone.  I was just worried.”

 

“I know.”

 

“I was tired, too.  I wasn’t thinking clearly.”  She spoons the batter onto the griddle and turns toward him, her eyes moist.  “Can I make smile-cakes for you?  I would really like to.”

 

His throat tightens.  “Okay.”  He pulls out a chair and sits.

 

She serves up the golden-brown circles, raisins carefully arranged in curved lines.  Tiny dark eyes stare up at him from the plate.  He drizzles syrup on the pancakes and eats, barely tasting.  His foot throbs.

 

Did you put that broken glass there for me to step on, Mom?  Because I hung up on you?  He knows if he voices the question, she’ll break down in tears and ask him how he could accuse her of something so horrible.  She’ll say that she loves him, that she would never hurt him.  And maybe she’ll even believe it.  Because even if she did do it deliberately, she’s already rewritten things in her memory.  That’s how it always goes.

 

Or maybe it was an accident after all.  She does get easily overwhelmed, and her mind grows foggier every year.  Basic chores have become a struggle for her.  He can see her dropping the glass and staring at the shards in frightened bewilderment, reaching for the broom and giving up after a brief attempt.  Accident or not, she clearly feels guilty now.  That’s what this breakfast is about, isn’t it?

 

He just doesn’t know anymore.

 

Penny scares him, sometimes.  He’s fairly sure that there have been other incidents like the broken glass, or worse, over the years—incidents that live in the dark spaces between his memories.  He thinks about Travis asking, Has she ever hurt you? 

 

He doesn’t know how far she would go.  But if he moves out, if he leaves his mother alone in this place, she won’t last long.  There’s no one else to take care of her.

 

What are you supposed to do, when the person hurting you is dependent on you for survival?

 

An aching knot fills his chest.  It’s an effort to get the food down.  He sets his fork on the table.

 

“Mom,” he says.  “I’ve been meaning to ask.  What was it you were going to tell me about Thomas Wayne?”

 

A pause.  “What do you mean?”

 

“After we had dinner with Travis, you said you were going to tell me something about Thomas.”

 

“Oh…I’m afraid I don’t remember, now.”  She gives him a faint smile.  Still, she doesn’t look him in the eye.  “I suppose it can’t have been all that important.”

 

He doesn’t believe her.  Penny forgets a lot, but she has never missed an opportunity to talk about Thomas Wayne.  Why is she avoiding the subject now?  Frustration bubbles inside him.  Is this some new mind game? 

 

If that’s the case, he’s not going to take the bait.  He drops the subject.  He manages to finish a few more bites of pancake, then pushes the plate away.

 

“Try to have a little more.  Please?  You’re so thin.  I worry about your health.”

 

“I’ll put it in the fridge and have it later.  I need to go.  I have an appointment with my counselor today.”

 

She stares at the floor.  “All right.  Have a nice time, Happy.  I love you.”

 

After a few seconds, he replies quietly, “I love you too, Mom.”

 

Because it’s true.  In spite of everything.

 

* * *

 

Later that day, Arthur sits in Dr. Kane’s small, dimly-lit office, facing her across the desk.  He hands her his journal.  “I tore some pages out before, because I wasn’t ready for you to see them,” he says, “but I taped them back in.”

 

He sits, fingers interlaced tightly in his lap, as she looks through the pages detailing his relationship with Travis.  She turns each page slowly.  He tries not to fidget.

 

She looks up.  “This man,” she says, “he’s the one you mentioned during one of our previous sessions.”

 

He bounces one knee, despite his efforts to hold still.  “Yes.  My person.” 

 

She nods.  She doesn’t seem surprised.  She probably suspected, already, that he was seeing another man.  Why else would he conspicuously avoid mentioning his lover’s gender?

 

“I didn’t know what you’d think,” he says.  “I didn’t know how to tell you.”

 

“I’m not here to judge.”

 

But people do judge, of course.  Even when they’re not supposed to.  He can’t quite tell how she feels about it, or if she feels anything in particular.

 

She closes the notebook, fingers resting lightly against the cover.  “You don’t have to answer this,” she says.  “But is this the first time you’ve been in a relationship with another man?”

 

“This is my first relationship.  So…yes.”

 

“I see.”

 

Now that she’s aware, there’s no reason not to talk about it.  “I guess I’ve always known I was different.  Even if I liked women, there were always…other thoughts.  I kept them to myself.  The last thing I needed was to give the world another reason to hate me.”  He smiles, a brief tightening of his facial muscles.  “Before this, when I imagined myself in an actual relationship with someone, it was always a woman.  But when I met him, it felt…right.  Like we were connected.”

 

“This is very significant for you,” she remarks.

 

Significant doesn’t begin to cover it.

 

“I introduced him to my mother recently.”  Arthur raises a cigarette to his lips.

 

“How did she react?”

 

“Okay, I guess.  It went better than it could have.”  He wonders about that now.  But he’s not ready to bring up all the issues with his mother.  Maybe next session.

 

It’s funny—he had no idea how Penny would react to him being with another man.  She’s never voiced any strong opinions on the subject.  He recalls only one offhand comment she made a few years ago, in response to an article about gay pride marches in San Francisco:  “I don’t really understand homosexuals.  What do they even do together?”  Even at the time, Arthur could have mentioned a few possibilities, but it wasn’t exactly a subject he wanted to delve into with his mother, so he simply shrugged.

 

Of course, what he and Travis do or don’t do in the bedroom isn’t the issue, with her.  She just doesn’t like sharing him with anyone.  Maybe a woman would’ve been easier for her to accept, maybe not—he suspects not.  Arthur is a man approaching middle age, but to Penny he’s still her darling little boy, and she wants to keep him that way.  The whole situation is absurd.  He lets out a short, choked laugh, grinning despite the throb in his foot.  He should’ve taken some painkillers this morning.

 

“Arthur?”

 

He sucks on the end of his cigarette.  “I keep thinking that this can't last.  That it's too good to last.  But I need to stop being so negative.  There's no reason I can't be happy.  Right?"

 

“I’m glad you have something positive in your life.”  But her tone sounds a little strained.  When she smiles, it’s forced.

 

Is he imagining it?  He doesn’t get the same feeling he does with Hoyt.  There’s no disgust or contempt in her eyes.  But she seems uncomfortable, still.  Or…is something else bothering her?

 

It doesn’t matter.  He did what he promised himself he would do today:  he told her. 

 

“There’s another thing I’ve been wanting to talk to you about.”  He exhales a mouthful of smoke and taps some ashes into the glass ashtray on the desk.  “I wondered if it’s possible for me to get a copy of my own file.  The one from Arkham.  You have it, don’t you?  You’ve talked about what’s inside it, so you must have read it.”

 

A pause.  “Yes.  I do have a copy.”

 

“There are a lot of things I don’t remember.  It bothers me.  I want to know more about myself.  To know why I’m…this way.  Especially now that I’m with someone.”

 

“That’s understandable.”

 

He waits.  “But?”

 

“Based on your records, you seem to relapse when you focus too heavily on the past.  Particularly your childhood.  Previous attempts to recover your memories haven’t been helpful.”

 

Muscles tighten in his stomach.  “You mean…I’ve tried before?”

 

She drums her fingers on the desk, as though debating how much she should say.  She does that sort of thing a lot.  He’s become familiar with her silences.  “During your time in Arkham, you had several sessions of hypnotherapy.”

 

“I know.”  He doesn’t remember why though, or what he talked about during those sessions.  Just the feeling of being in a trance.  Being aware, but not in control of his voice.  Going under.  “What about it?”

 

“The last one ended badly.”

 

His mouth has gone dry.  “Badly how?”

 

She doesn’t answer.

 

“Dr. Kane.  What did I do?”

 

“You panicked.  You had to be kept in a padded room for a while, to ensure you didn’t hurt yourself.”

 

But he knows there’s more to it.  If that were all, she wouldn’t be so hesitant to tell him.  “You told me that during my time in Arkham, I was only violent once.  That it was self-defense.  I need to know if that’s the truth or not.”

 

A quiet, resigned sigh.  “You threw a chair at the doctor’s head.  Broke his glasses.  But he wasn’t injured.”

 

A laugh claws at the inside of Arthur’s chest.  He chokes it down.  He hasn’t just attacked people in self-defense, then.  He lashed out at someone who was trying to help him.  And the fact that he doesn’t remember means there might have been other incidents, as well.  A flicker of memory rises from the darkness inside his head, the same memory from last night—Arthur’s teeth sinking into a doctor’s wrist.  The hot copper splash of blood.

 

“You weren’t in control, at the time,” she says.  “You aren’t to blame.  But all things considered, I would be cautious about any further attempts to recover your memories.  Often, the mind buries things as a way of protecting itself.  Like scar tissue forming over a wound.  There are psychologists who would disagree with me, but…sometimes it’s better to leave these things alone.”

 

Arthur’s jaw tightens.  He runs one hand up and down his arm.  The cigarette is still clasped in his other hand.  It trembles slightly.  “Did you ever ask the doctor about increasing my medication?  The antipsychotic?”

 

“About that…”  Another sigh. 

 

“What?”

 

Her expression crumples.  “I’m sorry, Arthur.  I’ve been trying to think of a delicate way to break the news, but there’s no easy way to say this.  Our funding has been cut.  The program is being discontinued.”

 

The words don’t register.  He stares blankly.

 

“It happened abruptly,” she says.  “I wasn’t given much warning, either.  The city’s slashed funding across the board.  ‘Emergency budget cuts,’ they’re calling it.  This office is going to be closed down within a week.”

 

“Then…I won’t be able to see you anymore?”  His own voice sounds very small.

 

“Today will be our last visit.  Obviously, this isn’t what I want.  But I have no control over these decisions.”

 

A faint, high-pitched ringing noise fills his head.  He struggles to hold his tone steady:  “I get my medications through this program.  I can’t pay for them on my own.  They cost more than my rent.”

 

“I recommend weaning yourself off them as slowly as possible.  Cut your remaining pills in half.  Take the half-dose daily for a week, then cut back to every other day.  It’ll ease the effects.  But you’ll likely still experience withdrawal symptoms.”

 

He hears himself ask, “Like what.”

 

“Mood swings.  Increased anxiety.  Possible hallucinations.  Basically, the symptoms you experienced before your stay in Arkham.  They may become less severe after a while, once your body adjusts, but…I won’t lie, it’s not going to be easy.”

 

Arthur’s ragged breathing echoes in his ears.  The walls seem to be moving toward him.  His chest is caving in, his lungs constricting.

 

For the first time, his life had started going well.  But without the medication, it will all fall apart.  Without the medication, his fragile stability will dissolve.  He’ll dissolve.

 

“I need those drugs,” he says.

 

“I know.  I wish the situation were different, but—”

 

“What am I supposed to do?”

 

“That’s up to you.” 

 

He sits, staring blankly at the wall.  He stops thinking, stops feeling.  Lets his mind go numb.  That’s the only way to stop the oncoming panic attack.  He can at least avoid the indignity of losing control.

 

“I hate to end our last session on this note,” she says.  “But I have a long list of patients to deliver the bad news to.  I’m not looking forward to it.”

 

He closes his eyes briefly.  There’s nothing he can do.  Rage or tears won’t change this.  “Okay.”  He snuffs out his cigarette in the ashtray.  “I guess I’ll go, then.”

 

She studies his face for a moment, then opens a drawer of her desk and pulls out a faded red folder.  “Your file.”

 

Arthur stares at the folder. 

 

“It’s up to you, whether you look inside or not.  I still don’t recommend it.  But you deserve the choice.  I’ll just need you to sign a couple of forms.”

 

He wonders if he really wants to see what’s in it.  If it’s that bad…

 

But how can he be okay with not knowing?  How can he go through the rest of his life unaware?

 

Penny has not told him the full truth about his own childhood.  That much, he’s certain of.  She doesn’t seem to remember much of it herself.  And he has bad dreams.  So many dreams.  He needs to know what’s real and what isn’t.  If his mother is hiding something from him…

 

If he doesn’t take the file now, he’ll miss his chance.  There’s probably a copy at Arkham, too, but there’s no guarantee they’ll give it to him if he asks.

 

He reaches out, slowly.  The folder is heavy.  Thick.  More of a binder, really.

 

Numbly, he signs the papers she puts in front of him.

 

She stands and extends a hand.  “Goodbye, Arthur.  I wish you the best.”

 

He stares at her hand.  His face twists.  His chest hurts.  Don’t laugh.  Not now.

 

He takes her hand and shakes it once.  It’s the first time they’ve actually touched.  Her skin is warm and dry.  “Goodbye, Dr. Kane.  Thank you for listening.”

 

With the folder tucked under his arm, he turns and walks out of her office for the last time.

 

* * *

 

Arthur sits on the subway, the folder in his lap.  An older woman sits next to him, reading a paperback.  Arthur’s fingers tighten on the folder.  His breathing quickens. 

 

He tries to keep it in.  But the pressure builds and builds until he bursts out laughing.  It hurts.

 

The woman looks up in alarm, blinking.

 

“I’m s-sorry…”  He gasps, pressing his hand to his mouth, tears leaking from his eyes.

 

She inches away from him.

 

He fumbles for his card.  “I have a—”

 

But she’s already standing, backing away and clutching her book in front of her like a shield.

 

“I’m not dangerous,” he says between bouts of laughter.  “It’s a c—ha ha ha!—a condition.”

 

She hurries away, through the door and into the adjoining subway car.

 

Arthur stares down at his folder, face burning.

 

He tells himself that he shouldn’t take it personally.  Maybe the woman has had bad experiences in the past, and that’s why she’s scared.  Arthur himself gets twitchy and nervous around groups of men or teenage boys, especially when they’re being loud and boisterous, because experience has taught him that groups of men can hurt him, and sometimes they will.  But many of them are probably nice people.  He has no way of knowing who’s dangerous and who’s not.  No one does.  Everyone is afraid.  Everyone is just trying to survive.  People make snap judgments about others because they can’t help it.  Because that’s life.

 

He knows all this.  But that doesn’t make it hurt any less.

 

He laughs and laughs, trying to ignore the way the other passengers are staring at him.

 

* * *

 

He gets off the subway, walks a few blocks to a payphone, and calls Travis.

 

The phone rings and rings.  Travis is probably out working now.  And he doesn’t have an answering machine.  Arthur stands there for several minutes, letting it ring, before he finally hangs up.  He leans his forehead against the glass of the phone booth.

 

He’s scared.  Exhausted.  Confused.  He badly needs to hear Travis’s voice, to feel Travis’s arms around him.  He’d give almost anything just to have Travis holding him right now, even just for a minute or two.  He closes his eyes and hugs himself, trying to imagine that it’s Travis—tries to conjure up the smell of his hair and clothes, the solid warmth of him—but the illusion isn’t very convincing.  His own arms don’t feel the same.

 

He puts another quarter in the slot and tries calling one more time.  When it becomes clear that no one is going to pick up, that the apartment is empty, he hangs up and keeps walking.  He trudges slowly up the long set of stairs and down the street to his apartment.

 

He finds Penny sitting up in bed, watching TV.  She looks up at him with wide, anxious eyes.  “How did it go?”

 

He opens his mouth, then closes it.

 

If he tells her the truth, she’ll panic.  He’ll end up having to do the work of reassuring her, convincing her that everything is all right, even though it’s not.  There’s nothing she can do, anyway.  He knows how little she has in savings.  Her social security checks are eaten up by her half of the rent, by food, and by her own medications, mostly painkillers for her hips.  Even between the two of them, they can barely cover the essentials.

 

“It went fine, Mom.”  He leans in and brushes a kiss across her forehead.  “I’ll heat up a couple of TV dinners.”

 

“Thank you, Happy.”  She catches his hand and squeezes it.  “I appreciate everything you do for me.  I hope you know that.  I don’t say it enough.”

 

“I know.”  He rests a hand briefly on her head, then leaves the room, favoring his injured foot.

 

His sock feels hot and wet—the cut has started bleeding again.  Not surprising, considering how far he walked on it.  If she notices him limping, she chooses not to say anything.

 

* * *

 

That evening, while Penny is napping in her chair, Arthur sets his pill bottles in a row on the kitchen table.

 

The red folder is currently wedged under a stack of old manuals and other documents atop a kitchen cabinet, where Penny can’t reach it and won’t think to look.  Arthur hasn’t opened it yet.  A part of him wants to just set it on fire and watch it burn.  He can’t afford any difficult revelations right now, not with the way things are going.  But he can’t bring himself to destroy it, either.

 

He empties his remaining pills out into little piles and counts them.  He has just under a month’s worth.  Enough for two months, maybe, if he weans himself off them like Dr. Kane said.

 

He gets a knife—the sharpest one in the drawer—and painstakingly cuts each pill in half.  With the smaller pills, he has to be careful.  They tend to crumble apart if handled too roughly.  But he wants to do this now, while he still has the focus and clarity.  He doesn’t know where he’ll be a few weeks.  Even going down to a half-dose will affect his mental state.

 

He stares at the phone on the counter, wondering if he should try calling Travis again. 

 

Arthur stands, reaches out, touches the phone…then stops.

 

He doesn’t want to have this conversation with Penny napping in the other room.  Doesn’t want to risk her waking up and overhearing.  Maybe once she goes to bed.  But the waiting is agonizing.

 

He just needs to hear Travis’s voice.

 

He somehow feels numb and scared at the same time.  The panic is there, but it’s distant, muted, as though he’s insulated from his own feelings by a layer of cotton.

 

He returns the halved pills to their bottles and sits, staring at the amber tubes.

 

He tries to tell himself that he will get through this.  This is a setback, but it’s not the end of the world.  He’ll figure something out.  But he doesn’t quite believe it.

 

His gaze wanders to the clock.

 

In a flash, he remembers:  he told Travis he would be at Pogo’s at seven o’clock tonight.  It’s almost six.

 

The idea of standing onstage now, facing an audience, is unthinkable.  But if he doesn’t show up, Travis will be left sitting there alone, wondering where he is and what happened to him.

 

Arthur should just go to the club, find him and explain.  Tell him what happened.  Tell him why he’s in no state to do a standup routine tonight.  Travis will understand.  He won’t be disappointed.

 

But the thought leaves a bitter taste in Arthur’s mouth, anyway.  He promised himself that he would do this.  Last night, he was actually looking forward to it, feeling a heady mix of nerves and excitement at the idea of having an audience, having a voice for the first time.  He was finally going to take that step, to show himself to the people of Gotham…or at least a small roomful of them.  And now…

 

Now, it will probably never happen.  Because of the city’s “emergency budget cuts.”  

 

A muscle at the corner of his eye twitches.

 

This is what they want, isn’t it?  For him to quietly disappear.  Because he’s too expensive, too troublesome to deal with.  Just a broken part in a machine, a part that can be easily thrown out and replaced.  In the eyes of those in power, the ones who shuffle the numbers around and decide how to ration out the city’s limited resources, that’s all he is.  They wouldn’t care if he died in the streets.  People die in the streets every day, after all.  They don’t want to hear his voice.  They don’t want to see him.  They want him quiet, meek, undemanding—grateful for the scraps he has.  They want him too ashamed to speak, too afraid to stand in the spotlight.  They want him to fade politely into nothing.

 

He won’t.

 

Arthur pushes himself to his feet.

 

He puts on one of his nicest outfits—a white, long-sleeved shirt with a maroon vest.  He combs his hair, smoothing it out.  In the bathroom, he practices his smile.  It doesn’t look right.  The terror shows around the edges of his eyes.  His mouth contorts in the pained grimace that often accompanies his laughing fits.

 

A voice inside whispers, What are you doing?  This is stupid.  Desperate.  Why does it matter, anyway?  He’s never going to be a famous comedian.  What is he proving, just by doing fifteen minutes of material at a minor comedy club for one night?

 

But he’s already decided.  He has to try.  His life is still his own.  His mind is still functioning normally (or as close to normal as he ever gets), at least for now.  There won’t be a better chance.

 

Travis will be there.  That will give him the strength he needs.  Even if he falls apart, someone in the audience will know how hard he’s trying.

 

He pokes his fingers into the corners of his mouth, pushing them upward.  His eyes are wet with tears.  He blinks them away.

 

Smile, he thinks.  Smile, smile, smile.

 

He will walk onto that stage tonight and be seen.

Chapter Text

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Great,” the man gasps.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Nothin’.  Where to?”

 

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

 

“Whatever you want, pal.”

 

He starts driving.  The pulse thrums in his neck.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Here,” the guy says.  “This corner.”

 

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

 

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

 

He exhales, pushes the unease aside, focuses.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

But maybe they will, tonight.  Who knows.

 

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

 

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

 

* * *

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Yes.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Please.  Please, please.  I need this.

 

It’s time.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Please help me welcome Arthur Fleck!”

 

I’m here, he thinks.  I’m here.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Stupid voice, he thinks.  Stupid frightened little voice.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

This isn’t off to a good start.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Arthur hiccups and croaks again.  His face burns.

 

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

 

Then his eyes find Travis.

 

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

 

Travis’s gaze holds him from across the club.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

* * *

 

Travis sees it happen.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

He’s gone under. 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

* * *

 

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

 

The fear is gone.  Just like that.

 

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

 

More ripples of bewildered laughter.

 

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

 

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

 

Awkward chuckles.

 

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

 

A few more chuckles from the audience. 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Silence.

 

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

 

A few giggles.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Laughter from the crowd.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Knock knock?”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

He takes another, slow puff on the cigarette.

 

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

 

He undoes another button of his shirt.  More gasps.

 

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

 

Someone gets up and walks out of the room.

 

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

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

 

A few laughs.

 

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

 

Silence.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Silence fills the club.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Two or three people applaud.

 

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

 

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

 

The audience laughs.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

* * *

 

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

 

Arthur is nowhere to be seen.

 

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

 

This is bad.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Arthur gets in.  He sits, staring straight ahead.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Is that really what you want?”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


“Arthur.  What’s goin’ on?”

 

“They cut my program,” he says.

 

“What?”

 

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

 

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

 

“I can’t ask that of you.”

 

“I’m offering.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“We’ll get through it.”

 

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

 

“What?”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“That’s how it is.  Isn’t it?”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

He’s beautiful like this.  Raw and open. 

 

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

 

Arthur stares at him with those lost, helpless eyes.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Your apartment,” Arthur whispers.

 

“Okay.”

 

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

 

They’ll figure it out.

 

He drives.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

They’ve come too far to go back, now.

 

Chapter Text

Arthur breathes.  In and out.  It’s easier to focus on breathing than to think about what happened in the club.  He closes his eyes as the taxi's vents blast warm air against his face.  If he allows himself to dwell on the incident for too long, the panic starts to claw its way up from his chest.

 

Still…he did it.  He did what he promised himself he would do:  he got up on the stage and delivered a complete standup routine (if you can call it that) without breaking down into convulsive fits of laughter.  And now it’s over.  He allows himself to feel a quiet, sad pride in the fact that he tried.  Dr. Kane told him once that he should attach his sense of success or failure to his own efforts—to things he can control—and not other people’s reactions.

 

That’s a hard thing to do, though.  Other people’s reactions matter. 

 

“Where’s your notebook, anyway?” Travis asks.

 

“I threw it away.  When I left the club, I shoved it into a garbage can.  I don’t remember where.”

 

“Ah.  Shit.”

 

“It doesn’t matter.  I only started journaling in the first place because my counselor told me to.  And I’m not going to counseling anymore.  There’s no point.”

 

“You wrote a lot of stuff in there, though.  Jokes and ideas.”

 

“I’m done with that.  Done with comedy.”

 

It’s better this way—to try and fail, to know for sure that it’s beyond his reach, rather than to keep dreaming about a future that can never be.  It hurts.  But it’s better.  Maybe this is growing up.  Accepting reality.  He’ll never be Murray Franklin.  He’ll never even be a guest on Murray’s show.  It’s almost a relief, to let go of that empty hope. 

 

Travis looks at him from the corner of his eye.  “Being a comedian’s something you’ve wanted for a long time.  You told me about it, the first time we ever met.  You’ve wanted it since you were a kid.”

 

“It was a silly dream.”

 

“I know things went too far tonight.  But it was your first time trying standup.  Nothing goes great the first time.”

 

In his lap, Arthur clutches his left hand with his right, nails digging into his wrist.  “You still don’t get it, do you?  That wasn’t standup.  It was just…a crazy person falling apart in front of everyone.”

 

It would’ve been less humiliating if he actually did strip naked onstage, instead of telling them all those things about his past.  The mind is so much more personal than the body.  And he flaunted his mind, his naked pain.

 

Arthur laughs, a cracked, harsh sound.  “Do you know what I feel like right now?”  His voice has gone high-pitched and wobbly.  “I feel like a slut.  I feel dirty.  Like I just…whored myself out for all those people who don’t even give a shit about me.”

 

“You aren’t a whore,” Travis says quietly.

 

His face twists, lips stretching in a grimace.  “No, I’m worse.  I’m a man so desperate for attention that he’d give up his last bit of dignity for a few cheap laughs.  Who’d stand in front of a bunch of strangers and…cut himself open and show them all his ugly, ugly insides even if it disgusts them, even if it’s creepy.  Because I’m that fucking pathetic.  They were laughing at what a loser I was and I just kept going, kept making it worse.  I couldn’t stop.” 

 

Travis keeps driving.  He’s silent, the muscles drawn tight over his face.  Like he’s in pain.  Or angry.

 

“It doesn’t matter now,” Arthur says.  “It’s over.”

 

The headlights cut through the rainy night like yellow knives.  He turns a corner.

 

“I’ve been to that club a few times now,” Travis says.  “The guys who go on that stage…their routines are all the same.  Everyone laughs on cue, like they’re sleepwalking through it.  They go there to stop thinking.  They go there to get drunk and feel like they’re having a good time, even if they’re only laughing because everyone else is laughing.”  Water drips down the windshield.  The wipers slice through it.  “It’s like you said up there—we all put on masks.  Because we’re scared.  We walk past each other, never really seeing each other, just caught up in our own bullshit.  But you weren’t bullshit.  You woke them up.  Got in their heads.”

 

“I didn’t even know what I was saying.  I lost control.”  No, he thinks—that’s not exactly right.  He gave up control.  Gave up his fear.  Because that was the only way he could get through it, the only way he could use his voice.  But he paid the price.  If that's the cost of unlocking his own tongue, it's too steep.

 

They stop at a red light.  The crimson glow bleeds into the water running down the windshield. 

 

“I know it didn’t work out so good for you,” Travis says.  “You’re hurting.  I don’t want you to do things that make you feel dirty.  If you never want to stand up on another stage for the rest of your life, I get it.  But those people…in a few months they’ll forget everyone else who got up there and told the same old jokes.  But you’re gonna stick in their minds whether they want it or not.  That’s a power.”

 

Arthur wishes they would forget.  Wishes he could just erase that whole experience.

 

Does he?  Would he, if he could?

 

He doesn’t know.  His head aches with confusion.

 

He stares out the window, his right thumb rubbing at his left wrist.  There are no visible scars.  But he remembers vividly the way his skin split under the razor, the bloody meat beneath, the way the exposed vein felt like a buttered noodle.  Except it was surprisingly tough.  It seemed to squirm out from under the blade when he tried to cut into it.

 

His body wanted to live.  It defied his attempts to escape it.  He remembers getting nauseous, passing out, and waking up on the blood-sticky bathroom tiles to the sound of his mother’s screams.  He remembers crying, crying with frustration and heartache because he was still alive, crying in guilt for hurting her, crying in shame because he failed even at this.

 

Why was it he wanted to be a comedian in the first place?  He can’t even remember now.  Because Penny told him he was supposed to bring joy and laughter to the world?

 

No—because of Murray.  Because watching the Murray Franklin show with her was, for a long time, the only bright thing in his life.  The thing that let him get through another day and another, the thing that gave him some bit of comfort.  For a half-hour each evening, all the pain and sadness stopped and he and Penny laughed together like a normal family.  He wanted to be a healer, like Murray.

 

Can he do that?  Or is pain and darkness the only thing he has to offer the world?

 

“Did you ever have a dream, Travis?” he asks.  “Something you wanted to be?”

 

“Well…I wanted to be an astronaut as a kid, but I don’t know if that counts.”

 

“An astronaut?  Why?  Did they even exist then?”

 

“Well, no people had been to space yet, but everyone was talkin’ about going there.  Beating the Russians to it.  Those guys had already put a dog in space.”

 

“Laika,” Arthur murmurs.

 

“Yeah.”

 

She died up there.  Probably confused and terrified, never knowing how important she was, never knowing that she was on the news and that everyone was talking about her, never knowing that she was the first living creature to escape the pull of Earth.  There was something so cruel in that—dying for a cause and never knowing what it was.

 

“I wanted to do that,” Travis says.  “Go to space.  Maybe I just thought the world was too noisy.  Too crowded.  I wanted to go someplace quieter, so I liked the idea.  Being out there in the stars.”

 

“It sounds lonely.”

 

“I was lonely on Earth too.”

 

Of course.  You can be lonely in a crowd.  Sometimes it’s lonelier.

 

He closes his eyes, focuses on the dull roar of the heater and the patter of the rain.  Travis was born in 1950, he thinks, so he would have been seven years old when they sent Laika up.  Arthur was already a teenager.  It's strange, sometimes...the awareness that Travis is younger than him.

 

A few minutes of silence pass.  Then Travis asks, “That story about…about what happened to you in school, and what Penny said when you got home…that was all true?”

 

“It’s true.  I didn’t actually remember it until I brought it up tonight, but I remember it now.”

 

“It’s pretty fucked up.  What they did.  And the way she treated you.”

 

“I think she was going through a bad time.  We both were.  I remember…”  He stops.  His brow furrows.  “She had a black eye that night.  When I came home.  I…I think she had a bad boyfriend, for a while.  One who hurt her.  Maybe more than one, over the years.”

 

“Sorry to hear that.  Doesn’t mean the way she treated you was okay, though.”

 

“She never tried to be cruel.  I don’t think she really understood how bad it was.  The bullying.  I didn’t know how to tell her.”

 

“Seems to me like it was pretty obvious.”

 

“I don’t want to talk about this right now,” Arthur mutters.

 

After a few seconds, he replies, “Okay.”

 

They are silent for the rest of the drive.

 

* * *

 

Travis is pretty sure he fucked up again.

 

Arthur sits with his shoulders hunched and his body twisted to the side, away from Travis, his forehead pressed up against the window.  And Travis starts to feel that sick feeling in his stomach, the one he gets when he hurts Arthur without meaning to.

 

Maybe he shouldn’t have brought up the thing with Penny.  Maybe he shouldn’t have said all that stuff about Arthur’s standup routine.  Maybe he should have just left it alone.  But it was true, everything he said.  It seemed important.

 

At age thirty-one, he’s still learning how to be a person. 

 

He took some piano lessons as a kid—one of his mother’s failed attempts to civilize her wild, strange, moody son.  He practiced, but he never got good at it.

 

Learning to be close to someone is like learning to play piano…except that there are a lot more keys, and every time you hit a wrong note it delivers an electric shock to the person you love most.

 

Things were simpler in the military.  There were a lot of rules.  A lot of orders.  You just had to follow them.  You had to become like your rifle—a machine that fired on command.  No thinking required.  After the war, he became his job.  A driver.  Living in union with a machine once again, functioning as required.

 

This is different.  The rules aren’t clear.  They’re both learning as they go along.

 

He thinks about saying, I’m trying here.  But that feels like making excuses, and he was raised not to make excuses but to act and to keep his mouth shut otherwise.  Maybe that’s another bad habit.  But Arthur doesn’t seem like he wants to talk right now, anyway.

 

So Travis retreats into silence.  Thinking.  Processing.

 

* * *

 

Once they’re in Travis’s apartment, he brings Arthur some sweatpants and a loose flannel shirt.  Arthur’s fingers are shaking pretty bad, from the cold—it seems like a struggle for him just to unbutton his shirt.  Travis helps him.  He peels the wet fabric off Arthur’s skin and hands him a towel.  Arthur dries himself, moving slowly, like his body hurts.  His hair is dripping.

 

A bead of rainwater trails down his bare chest, down the ladder of his ribs and into the valley of his stomach.  Travis watches the drop as it slips into his navel and disappears.  Imagines himself as the raindrop.  If he could just vanish into Arthur like that...

 

He turns away while Arthur finishes changing.  He’s not sure why.  It’s not like Travis has never seen him naked.  But it still feels kind of pervy to stand there staring at him while he strips off his pants and underwear.

 

“I’m done.”

 

Travis turns toward him.  The shirt hangs loose on his skinny frame.  The towel is draped around his shoulders, under his wet hair.

 

“Thank you,” Arthur says, eyes downcast.  “For the clothes.”  There’s a bead of rainwater trapped in the lashes of his left eye.  Or maybe it’s a tear.

 

“You want coffee?” Travis asks.  “I could use something hot.”

 

Arthur nods.

 

Travis goes into the kitchen.  When he comes back, carrying two cups of black coffee, he sees that Arthur has taken his shoes off, and one of his socks is soaked through with blood on the bottom.  The blood has already dried and hardened, turning rust-colored.

 

Travis sets the cups down on the coffee table.  “What happened to your foot?”

 

Arthur peels off the sock, wincing.  There’s a wad of blood-soaked gauze taped to the sole.  “Last night my mother dropped a glass on the kitchen floor.  It was dark, so I didn’t see it.  I stepped on one of the pieces.” 

 

Travis goes still inside.  “She just left it there?”

 

“I know what you’re thinking.  I had the same thought.  But I don’t know if she did it on purpose.”

 

He doesn’t deny that it’s a possibility, though.

 

A red rage swims through Travis’s brain, blinding him.

 

The idea that she might have done this to Arthur as some kind of revenge for staying out late…that she cut him…

 

For an instant Travis thinks about how easy it would be to snap the fragile bird-bones of Penny's arm.  He smothers that thought.  Beating up an old lady won’t fix this situation—it’d just make things harder on Arthur.  There’s nothing Travis can do about this except what he’s already done.  If Arthur leaves that apartment, it has to be his decision.

 

He presses the cup of coffee into Arthur’s hands.  Arthur wraps his fingers around the mug and takes a sip, then looks up.  That bead of water is still clinging to his eyelashes.  A tiny diamond, catching the light.  Wet hair hangs around his face like a curtain.  “May I stay here tonight?  With you?”

 

“Sure.”  Travis sits next to him.  “You’ve got a key now.  This is your place, too.”

 

Arthur reaches out and takes his hand.  His thumb brushes across Travis’s palm.  “You’re—you’re not mad at me?”

 

“No.  Why would I be mad?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“I thought you were mad.  Or upset, or I dunno.”

 

Arthur shakes his head.  He takes another sip of coffee and sets the cup down, then gathers a fistful of the shirt and presses it against his face.  “The clothes smell like you.”

 

“I mighta worn that shirt once or twice since last time I washed it.  Sorry.”

 

“It’s not a bad thing.”

 

Travis slides a little closer and puts an arm around Arthur’s shoulders, drawing him to his side.  Arthur’s head falls against his shoulder.

 

He drops a soft kiss on top of Arthur’s head and rubs his arm.  “You’re still shivering.”

 

“I’m warming up.”

 

Travis sits with him for a few minutes, running his hand up and down Arthur’s back, feeling the ridge of his spine through the flannel shirt.  Gradually, his shivering subsides.  The tension seeps out of him, and his body melts against Travis’s.  His hand wanders up to stroke Travis’s hair.

 

Travis hasn’t had a lot of that sort of thing in his life.  Just being touched, gently.  Partly because he’s avoided it—casual, unexpected touches are a jolt to his system.  In New York, whenever one of the other cabbies would clap him on the shoulder or back, trying to be friendly, he had to clamp down on his body’s fight-or-flight response.  He had an old girlfriend once—didn’t last long—who broke up with him because he flinched whenever she touched him too suddenly.  Touch is easier if he’s the one in control. 

 

But the feeling of Arthur’s fingers in his hair wakes up some half-forgotten, deprived part of his brain.  Makes him crave more.  He thinks about taking off his shirt and asking Arthur to kiss the scar on his back—he wants to feel the press of lips against that nearly-dead tissue, to feel the nerves waking up beneath it.

 

Maybe later. 

 

Arthur’s gaze wanders to the record player.  “Can we put on some music?”

 

“Sure.  What do you want?”

 

“Something soft.”

 

Travis puts on a jazz record.  “Hey, you had dinner yet?”

 

“No.  You?”

 

Travis shakes his head.  “I’ve got cereal.  And there’s instant mac…”

 

Arthur rises from the couch.  “I’ll help you fix something.”  In the kitchen, he investigates the fridge and says, “You’ve got eggs and milk.  Do you want French toast?”

 

French toast for dinner?  Well, why not?  “Sounds good.”

 

Arthur cracks eggs against the edge of a bowl, discarding the shells one by one, and mixes in the milk.  He dips the bread in the golden mixture and fries it up in a pan with sizzling butter.  Travis watches, strangely entranced.  He's never actually seen Arthur cook before.  It seems like a sort of alchemy.  Like a magic show.  The way his hands move...  “You’re good at that.”

 

“It’s just French toast,” Arthur says.  He flips one of the pieces in a smooth, practiced motion.  “I make it all the time.  Do you have syrup?”

 

He doesn’t, so they sprinkle some sugar on top, instead.  They sit at the kitchen table, eating together.  Arthur takes small, careful bites—his stomach is always sensitive, Travis knows.  Probably all the meds he takes.  Or just anxiety.  Soft jazz piano drifts in from the living room.

 

“This is the best French toast I’ve ever had,” Travis says.

 

“You’re exaggerating."  But he smiles, anyway.

 

“Seriously.  I could eat this every day.  When I try to make food like this, I burn it.  Or I get little bits of shell in it, or somethin’, and they get stuck in my teeth.  That’s why I stick to the instant stuff.”

 

“I make pretty decent pancakes too.  I mean, from a box mix.”

 

“Still counts.” 

 

They finish eating and rinse off the plastic plates.  Afterward, they sit together on the couch, watching TV—some black and white cowboy show—with the volume turned down low.  The record is still playing, so they’re watching a shootout on horseback to the tune of relaxed jazz.  Somehow it works, transforms the images of violence into a dance.  Arthur’s head rests against Travis’s shoulder.

 

“You wanna rent a movie?” Travis asks.  “We could go to the store together.  Pick something out.  I’ll even watch a musical if you want.”

 

“Last time we did that, you made a face every time they started singing.”

 

“It's not really my thing.  But it’s fine.”

 

Travis can’t quite wrap his head around musicals.  Songs feel less out of place when they’re in a cartoon, because the characters don’t look real anyway.  But last week, he and Arthur watched a movie called The King and I, one of those Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, and it was like being in some other universe where people would just randomly start singing about their feelings.  They didn’t even seem to know they were doing it.

 

He couldn’t stop thinking about how fucking weird it would be if people in real life did that.  If he just woke up one morning and started singing to the empty apartment, My name is Travis Bickle, I drive a cab in Gotham City.  I wish a rain would come because these streets are kind of shitty.

 

“I don’t think I’m in the mood for musicals right now, anyway,” Arthur says.

 

“We could get a comedy.  I think they’ve got some Three Stooges.”  He wants something that’ll cheer Arthur up, make him laugh.  Ever since they left the club, he’s looked so serious.  Almost sad.  “Anything you want.”

 

“I just want to sit here with you,” Arthur says.

 

Travis strokes Arthur’s cheek with the backs of his fingers.  “You still worried about the meds?”

 

“I keep thinking about how much time I have left.  How I can space them out.  Even going down to a half-dose…I don’t know what it’s going to do to me.”  Arthur swallows.  Travis hears the click in his throat.  “Travis?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“I want you to know…this past month, with you, has been the happiest of my life.  Whatever happens…I’m so thankful that I had this time.”

 

It worries him, hearing Arthur talk like that.  Like he’s going to die or something.  “There’s gonna be lots more time.”

 

“I hope so.”  Arthur stares into space, his expression slack.  Blank. 

 

A knot forms in Travis’s chest.  He turns off the TV and lays a hand over Arthur’s.  “Hey…”

 

“I don’t want to hurt anyone,” he whispers.  He’s started trembling again.  “That’s what I’m most afraid of.  That I’ll hurt people.  That I’ll hurt you.  If that’s going to happen, it would be better for me to just—” he stops.

 

The knot in his chest tightens.  “Just what?”

 

“Nothing.”

 

“Arthur.”

 

He looks away.  “When I saw Dr. Kane for the last time, I asked her for my file.  From Arkham.  She gave it to me.  It’s back at my apartment now.  I haven’t looked inside it yet.  I’m afraid to.  But I know that I have to look, sooner or later.  I can’t—I don’t want to be like my mother.  She only remembers the things that don’t hurt.  I have to know who I am.  Even if I don’t like the answer.”

 

“That file isn’t who you are.  That’s just your past.”

 

“It’s what I’m like, off the meds.”

 

“You’re not helpless.  You have a say in what sort of person you are.  You can choose.  Even without them.”

 

“I wonder about that.”  He sits with his hands interlaced in his lap, gaze downcast.  “I remember how bad it was before I got on the drugs.  When everything hurts so much that you can’t breathe or move or even think, then what does free will even mean?  It just…feels like a joke.”  He smiles, eyes hiding beneath his lashes. 

 

Travis doesn’t know what to say.

 

Humans are creatures of free will.  That’s what he was taught, as a kid.  That people are different from other animals because they have self-awareness.  Souls.  But the soul, he understands now, is a fragile thing—wrapped in the chains of flesh and brain-meat, pushed and yanked around by the grinding wheels of society, like that guy in the Charlie Chapman film, stuck in the machine.  Sometimes it feels like humans are all playing a rigged game of cards and damnation is the price of losing.  Like free will is just a dead leaf plastered to the windshield of a truck plunging off a cliff.

 

A choice is so small.  It happens in a split second.  A flicker of lightning through the storm-cloud of the brain.  The pressure of a finger on a trigger.  An outstretched hand.  And yet that one instant can change everything, and there’s no going back.

 

“Maybe you’re right,” Travis says.  “I don’t know.  Things haven’t made sense to me for a long time, if they ever did.  Everything I’ve ever believed in has just fucked me up, in the end.  But I know that I love you.  I hold onto that.”

 

He takes Arthur’s face between his hands, kisses the bridge of Arthur’s nose, then his eyebrow, then the cleft in his upper lip.  Arthur’s eyes flutter closed.  Travis kisses his lips, soft and slow.  Reverent.

 

"I'm so scared," Arthur whispers.

 

“Put your head in my lap,” Travis says.

 

Arthur slides down to the couch, his head coming to rest in Travis’s lap.  Travis strokes his hair.  “Just take it one day at a time.  And if you ever start feeling like it’s too much, like you can’t take it anymore, you talk to me.  Don’t try to face this on your own.  Promise me.”

 

He gazes at Travis raptly, like he’s trying to burn every feature into his memory.  “Okay," he says quietly.

 

Travis keeps stroking his hair as jazz piano plays softly in the background.  After a few minutes, Arthur’s eyelids slowly drift shut, then blink open.  It happens again, then again.  He’s struggling to stay awake.  Clinging to consciousness.

 

“You can drift off if you want,” Travis says.

 

“This is nice.  I don’t want it to be over.”

 

“I’ll still be around in the morning.  So will you.  Nothing is gonna be over.”  He strokes Arthur’s cheek with his thumb.  “Close your pretty eyes.”

 

Arthur’s ears turn faintly pink.  “Put your hand over them,” he says.  “Like you did before.”

 

Travis covers his eyes.  Within moments, Arthur’s breathing slows and evens.

 

"You're so good," Arthur murmurs.

 

Arthur always tells him things like that.  That he's kind.  That he's a hero.  But he’s not sure Arthur sees him all that clearly.  Sometimes Travis wonders why Arthur isn’t more afraid of him.  Arthur has his own darkness, sure.  But it’s a cleaner, warmer darkness.

 

In the car, Travis told him that if he tried to run away he would track him down.  That isn’t how the heroes talk.  That’s a line for a villain. 

 

And it’s the truth.  If Arthur pulls away out of self-doubt or self-loathing, Travis will drag him back as many times as it takes.  If Arthur tries to hurt himself or flee into oblivion, Travis will bind his limbs.

 

But if Arthur ever stops wanting him—stops loving him—Travis will simply go.  He’ll fade away.

 

* * *

 

Arthur drifts, hovering on the verge between sleep and waking, not wanting to surrender his last fragment of consciousness.  Right now, he is safe.  It won’t last.  But he wants to hold onto this feeling.

 

He knows that love can’t always save people.  Inexperienced though he is, damaged though he is, he’s not a child, but a man approaching middle age.  A man who has seen enough, been through enough, to know that a heart can be mistaken.  That sometimes even love can’t stand up against the world in all its brokenness and horror, that it can become tangled and poisoned; it can fail.

 

But now—here—it is enough.

 

This moment, this love.  This is real.

 

No matter what happens, this is real.

 

The record stops.  The gentle music fades into crackling white noise, so faint it's easy to mistake for silence.  The sound of outer space, of thought.  He floats in darkness, with only that sound.

 

Chapter Text

Arthur pirouettes and sings through a painted smile:  “When I was smaller and people were taller, I realized that I was different.  I had a power that set me apart.”

 

The song is from the movie Pufnstuf—the part where Mama Cass’s character sings about being a witchArthur has always liked it, and it seemed like a good choice for his act.  All kids feel different sometimes.  Everyone worries about it.  And, of course, some kids really are different and need to be told that it’s okay.

 

“I learned to take it, to use it to make it.  It’s not so bad to be different.  To do your own thing and do it with heart.”

 

His head throbs and his limbs shake, but he holds his smile in place.

 

He’s been on a half-dose of his medications for a week and a half now.  Weird, electric zinging sensations shoot through his foggy brain every time he turns his head.  His sleep has been rocky and plagued by bad dreams.  His muscles ache.  With each passing day, just getting dressed and leaving the apartment is more and more of a struggle. 

 

Concealing it from Penny is a strain, too.  He still hasn’t told her that they cut his program.  Eventually she’ll figure it out, but for now, he just tells her that he’s got a stubborn cold.  She keeps giving him orange juice.  It hurts his stomach, but he keeps drinking it, because it seems to reassure her.

 

The room blurs in and out of focus.  The kids clap their hands along with the rhythm.

 

“Different is hard, different is lonely.  Different is trouble for you only.  Different is heartache, different is pain, but I’d rather be different than be—”

 

The world goes black.

 

Arthur swims through murky darkness, struggling toward the light.  A sickly buzzing fills his skull.  When his vision clears, he’s lying on his back and there’s a nurse hovering over him.  “Mr. Fleck?  Mr. Fleck!”

 

“What’s wrong with him?”

 

“Might be a seizure.”

 

Someone pats his cheek.  “Can you hear me?”

 

“I’m fine,” he manages to croak.  His tongue feels thick and clumsy.  “I just…passed out.”  He hopes it wasn’t a seizure.

 

One of the kids is crying.  Arthur lifts one hand in a weak wave.  “I’m okay!”  Slowly, he sits up.  Nausea rolls over him, and for a few seconds he's sure he’s going to throw up.  He holds it in.

 

“Do you want to go down to the ER?” one of the nurses asks.

 

“No.  No.  I think I might have to cut my act short though.  I’m sorry.”  He gives the kids what he hopes is a reassuring smile and says, louder, “I just have a little cold, that’s all.  I’ll have some chicken noodle soup and be back to normal in no time.”

 

Lisa, the girl who likes dinosaurs, leans over the side of her bed.  Her head is swathed in bandages.  “It’s okay, Carnival.  I’ve been fainting this week a lot, too.  New medicine.”  She scrunches up her nose.  “The side-effects are pretty rough.”

 

She sounds too old for her age.  It makes his heart ache.  “I hope you’re feeling better soon, Lisa.”  He picks himself up off the floor.  He realizes his wig has fallen off.  He lets out an embarrassed little clown-shriek, grabs it, and shoves it back over his head.

 

She giggles.  “You’ll be back next week,” she says, clutching a stuffed pink Stegosaurus.  “Right?”

 

“I think so.”  He wishes he could promise.  But he has no idea where he’ll be then.  He probably shouldn’t be working at all in his condition, but he has no choice.  Rent is due next week. 

 

He forces another smile.  “Bye-bye for now, everyone.”

 

They wave goodbye.

 

One of the nurses follows him out of the room, down the hall.  She clears her throat.  “Excuse me.  Mr. Fleck.”

 

“Yes?”  He turns toward her.  Dolores—that’s her name.  Bushy hair and glasses.

 

“Maybe it’s none of my business, but…I think you should stay and let a doctor take a look at you.  At least check your vitals…”

 

“N-no.  No.  I’d rather not.”  He can’t afford it.

 

She sighs.  “Let me check, then.  You won’t be charged.”  She takes him by the hand, drags him into an office with cartoon penguins on the walls, and points to a stool.  “Sit.” 

 

Arthur wishes she would just let him leave, but he’s never been good at refusing orders.  He sits meekly, still in his clown clothes and wig, gloved hands folded in his lap.

 

She takes his pulse, his blood pressure, places a cold stethoscope against his chest and listens to his breathing.  She shines a light into his eyes, tells him to say “ah” and peers down his throat.  Then she steps back and crosses her arms over her chest.  “Well, your blood pressure is pretty high.”

 

“I know.”  He fidgets.  "It's always high."

 

“Do you have any idea why you passed out?”

 

He hesitates, then nods.

 

“It’s happened before, then?”

 

“Yes, ma’am.”  He looks down. 

 

“If this is anything contagious…”

 

“No, no.  Nothing like that.  I would never come in here if I thought there was any risk of making the kids sick.  Well, sicker.  I’m just going through a rough time.  But it’s sort of…personal.”

 

He’s weaning himself off seven different medications at once.  No doctor would recommend that.  All things considered, it’s amazing that he’s still functional at all.

 

Dolores waits.  When he says nothing, she sighs again.  “You don’t have to tell me.  But I do recommend seeing a doctor.  Especially if this has been going on for a while.”

 

“I don’t think that would help.”

 

She frowns.  “Mr. Fleck…”

 

He stares at the floor.  After collapsing in front of everyone, he supposes he owes her some sort of explanation.  “You know about the city budget cuts?”

 

“Yes.  We’re all feeling the pinch, in one way or another.”

 

“Until a little while ago, I took medication, for…for pain issues.”  It’s close enough to the truth.  “But they cut the program I got it through.  So I had to stop taking it.  That’s why I’ve been…not my best lately.”

 

“I see.  I’m sorry to hear that.”

 

He gives her a strained smile.  “I’ll be in better shape when I come in next week.  I think.” 

 

Her dark eyes search his face.  “If you're losing consciousness regularly, you shouldn't be working at all."

 

Her tone is sympathetic.  But the words send a trickle of ice through his veins.  “I need this job.  Please, don’t tell anyone what I told you.”

 

“I won’t.  But I don’t think it would make a difference, either way.  If this keeps happening—regardless of the reasons—they’ll replace you.  Better just to take some time off and recover.”

 

“But…”  He trails off.  What can he say?  She’s right.  Of course the hospital doesn’t want a clown who’s going to pass out on the job.

 

She pats his shoulder.  “Go home.  Get some rest.”

 

He nods, numb.  When he hears the crinkle of cellophane, he looks up.  She’s holding out a small, red lollipop in a wrapper.  “We give them to all our patients.”  She smiles wryly.  “You look like you could use one.”

 

“Thanks.”  He takes the lollipop, unwraps it, and puts it numbly in his mouth.

 

He’d rather have a cigarette.

 

* * *

 

His head throbs dully as he trudges down the sidewalk toward the subway station.  He wiped most of his makeup off in the bathroom, but when he rubs a jacket-sleeve against his cheek it comes away with traces of white greasepaint.

 

When he goes into work tomorrow, Hoyt will probably chew him out for leaving the hospital early.  But he’ll deal with that when the time comes.

 

As he walks, a faint unease awakens in the corner of his mind.  Something off.  Like one of those dreams where he knows—somehow—that he is being followed.

 

A man bumps into his shoulder, jostling him.  “Watch where you’re going!” the man snaps.

 

“S-sorry,” Arthur mutters.

 

“Asshole.”  The guy keeps walking, hands shoved into his pockets.

 

The journey back to his own apartment feels so long.  He’ll have to make it to the subway station, then ride back to his own stop and hope he doesn’t have a panic attack on the way, then trudge up the endless stairs and walk the last few blocks to his building.  And then he’ll have to put on a smile for Penny and pretend that everything is okay.  He needs to fix dinner for her, help her with her bath.  He needs to do laundry—it’s been piling up lately—and wash the growing pile of dishes in the sink.  He needs…he needs…

 

His thoughts spiral inward, collapse.

 

It’s important to keep moving.  To keep up the momentum of his daily life, even if what he wants is to curl up under the covers and hide there for the next month.

 

Arthur’s heart pounds.  The creeping sense of anxiety grows.  He looks at the people around him, the passers-by with their blank faces, and is suddenly terrified of them all.  They could hurt him, if they wanted.

 

He ducks into an alley and presses himself against the wall, one hand over his racing heart.  You’re safe, he repeats to himself.  You’re safe, you’re safe.  It’s all in your head.

 

It doesn’t help.  His body insists that he’s dangling over the edge of a cliff, that he’s trapped in a cage with a hungry lion—that he is going to die at any moment.  His breathing comes hard and fast, making him dizzy.  He drops his bag and presses both hands over his mouth, trying to stifle the laughter that rips itself out of his throat.

 

It’s just another side-effect of withdrawal.  He knows that.  Paranoia.  Increased agitation.  The anxiety is always there, a low hum in the back of his skull.  It doesn’t take much to set it off.  Sometimes waves of fear hit him out of nowhere…when he’s just lying in bed at night, or in the shower.  This will pass.  He just has to weather the storm.

 

He crumples into a ball, hands still clamped over his mouth, and huddles in the alley, trembling.  Sour, hot bile rises up his throat, and he chokes it back down.  He wonders if he’s going to pass out again.

 

A rat huddles nearby, in the shadow of a Dumpster, eating a pizza crust.  It’s bigger than a kitten, covered in greasy black fur, its tail a long pink worm.  It eats methodically, turning the crust around and around in its clever paws, nibbling away at the edges.  Somehow, watching it calms Arthur a little.  He fixes his gaze on the rat and pushes everything else off to the side.  Or tries, anyway.  His own thoughts press in on him, squeezing him.

 

As he often does in these moments, he imagines Travis’s arms around him.  His scent.  His voice, the low vibrations of it.

 

You’re okay, Arthur.  You’re doing good.

 

Fingers in his hair, stroking.

 

I won’t let anyone hurt you.

 

A few days ago, he spent the night in Travis’s apartment.  For most of that time, he just slept in Travis’s arms—a deep, blank sleep, mercifully free of dreams.  He sleeps better there than he does in his own home.  He conjures up the memory, now.  The sense of peace.  Drifting off, warm and protected.

 

Arthur leans his head back against the rough bricks.  The rat scampers off, the last bit of crust clamped between its jaws.

 

He thinks about finding a payphone, calling Travis, just to hear his voice.  Otherwise, he’ll have to wait until his mother goes to bed.  But as tight as money’s been lately, he can’t even justify spending his spare change on a phone call.

 

After what feels like an hour, he rises to his feet.  His stomach clenches, and he closes his eyes, waiting for the nausea to subside.  His knees are like jelly.

 

He knows that part of the weakness is hunger.  He didn’t eat enough for breakfast, as usual.  Keeping down food is even harder than usual, these days. 

 

He keeps walking, staring straight ahead, trying not to think.

 

* * *

 

“Happy, did you check the mail?”

 

“Yeah.  We got a phone bill.”

 

“Nothing else?”

 

“Nothing.”  He trudges into the living room, where Penny is curled up in her chair, wrapped in a nest of blankets.

 

She frowns at him.  “Have you lost more weight?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“Your clothes are hanging off you.”

 

He sinks to the couch.  “I haven’t had much appetite.”

 

“You’ve been under the weather for a long time.”

 

“Don’t worry.  It’s just a stubborn cold.  One of the guys at work had it too,” he lies.  “It took him weeks to completely get over it.”

 

“I wish you would see a doctor.”

 

One knee bounces.  “We don’t have the money.”

 

“That’s why I keep telling you to look for a better job.  Ha-Ha’s doesn’t pay you enough.  I know you like it there, but you have to think about the future.  What are you going to do when I’m gone?”

 

“Please, Mom.  Not now.  I had a bad day.”

 

“Why?  What happened?”

 

He rubs a hand over his face.  He can’t tell her that he collapsed.  “Nothing happened.  It was just a very long day.”

 

“Well, something must have happened.”

 

On the TV, a news reporter drones on about the never-ending garbage strike and the ongoing negotiations between the union and the city.

 

“I wish you would talk to me,” Penny says.  “You used to tell me everything.  I don’t know what changed.  I—I don’t know if it’s something to do with that man…”

 

“It’s not Travis, Mom.”  That man.  She rarely brings up Travis at all, and when she does he’s always that man.  “He’s not the problem.  He’s been good to me.”

 

Penny kneads the edge of her blanket, twisting it around her fingers.  She says nothing, but she radiates disapproval.  Or is it just his paranoia acting up again?

 

He tries to clamp down on his frustration, but it bubbles up.  “You keep saying that you worry about me.  About the future.  You should be happy that I have someone taking care of me.  Why aren’t you?”

 

She presses her lips together.  “Men aren’t reliable.”

 

“I’m a man.”

 

“You know what I mean.”

 

“What?  I don’t count?”

 

“You’re my son.  I raised you to be a good man.  But most men aren’t good.  Even if they seem kind at first.  Even if they say they love you.  Most of them will disappoint you, in the end.  I just don’t want to see you get hurt.  I don’t want to see your heart broken.”

 

“Just because you’ve had bad experiences doesn’t mean it will be the same for me.  Anyway, if men are so unreliable, then why are you so obsessed with Thomas Wayne?  Why are you so convinced he’s going to help us?”

 

“Don’t bring him into this.”

 

“Why not?  You talk about him every day.  You keep writing to him and asking me if he’s written back.  Why am I not allowed to bring him up?”

 

“Thomas is a good man.  He’s going to help this city, I know it.  He—” she stops.  Her face contorts.  She hides her eyes with one hand and shakes her head.

 

“Mom?  What—”

 

“Nothing.  It’s just…there's a reason I'm cautious, you know.  When I was young, I put too much faith in the man I loved, and it cost me.  He left me when I needed him most.”

 

She’s talking about Arthur’s father, he realizes.  The one he’s never met.  The one he knows nothing about.  She’s never even told Arthur his name.

 

“I don’t want you to make the same mistakes I did,” Penny says.  “To end up in the same situation I did.”

 

Well, I don’t think I have to worry about getting pregnant, he considers saying, but decides against it.  He’s too tired to keep arguing with her, and he doubts it would make much difference. 

 

He knows what she’s doing.  Using her own pain, her own heartbreak, to try to undermine his relationship with Travis.  He won’t let her.  By now, he’s familiar with her tactics, enough that some of their power has worn off.  Still…even if she’s trying to manipulate him, her pain and heartbreak are real.  Someone betrayed and abandoned her.

 

A thought occurs to him.  No, he thinks.  Ridiculous.  But now that it’s there, he can’t let go of it.

 

“Mom…who is my father?”

 

“What does it matter?  What would it change?”

 

“I think it matters.”

 

She turns her face away.  Her expression is empty, slack.

 

His chest tightens.  “Mom.”  He takes her hand.  “If you want me to be more open with you…if you want me to trust you…then trust me.  Tell me.”

 

For what feels like an eternity, she says nothing.

 

“Tell me,” he urges again, quietly.

 

When she speaks, her voice sounds faraway.  “He said he loved me.  He said that even if we couldn’t be together, he would always take care of me.  That I’d never have to worry about money or anything else.”  She wipes at her eyes.  “I knew it was wrong.  Getting involved with a married man, and one who was so…so far above me.  But I was young.  I believed that our love was strong enough to change everything.  And now look at me.  Look at us.  He threw me aside like trash.  They made me sign some papers, promising that I wouldn’t tell anyone.  So I had to keep the truth a secret.  Even from my own son.”

 

Sweat dampens his palms.  “What are you saying?” Arthur whispers.

 

No response.


“It’s him.  Isn’t it?”

 

Still, she doesn’t reply.  But her silence is answer enough.

 

Thomas Wayne.  His father is Thomas Wayne.  For a moment, there's nothing but white noise inside his head.

 

Is this real?  She wouldn’t make up something like this, would she?  He knows Penny’s grasp on reality is sometimes shaky.  She forgets things, or modifies things in her head.  But she’s not so far gone that she’d invent such a crazy story out of thin air—not about something so important.  And it would explain a lot. 

 

“That’s why,” Arthur says quietly.  “That’s why you keep writing him letters, even though he never answers.”

 

She wipes her eyes.  “Our relationship ended badly.  I got tired of being his dirty little secret.  I threatened to tell everyone the truth if he didn’t leave his wife for me.  After everything fell apart…he gave me some money, in exchange for signing those papers.  It was a mistake, agreeing to that, but I wasn’t thinking clearly.  He probably resents me now.  I’m sure he does.  But he’s our only hope.”

 

Arthur puts a hand against his head.  He wonders if, on some level, he's suspected this for a long time.  The pieces were all there.  He just never put them together.  Maybe he didn't want to.  Maybe he was afraid of what it meant.

 

Still…even if it’s true, what does it change?  After all these years, it’s not like they can take Thomas to court, and even if they could, he would just hire a team of the city’s best lawyers to rip them to shreds.  If they try to confront him, he’ll crush them like ants.  That’s the sort of man he is.

 

“If he hasn’t helped us by now, then I don’t think he will,” Arthur says quietly.

 

“He has to.  I’m doing this for you, Arthur.  Can’t you see that?  I want you to have a decent life.  And you won’t, without his help.”

 

Arthur flinches.  He wants to protest that he can take care of himself.  That he doesn’t need money from some man he’s never met.  But he’s been fighting so hard just to keep his head above water, ever since they cut his program.  Even if Penny doesn’t know that, he does.  What can he say in his own defense? 

 

“I don’t know how much longer I’ll be around, Arthur.  You need someone to look after you, once I’m gone.”

 

“Travis…”

 

“Is as poor as we are.  What can a taxi driver do to save us?"

 

Arthur’s jaw tightens.  “You look down on him.  Because he’s not rich.  Because he’s like us.”

 

“It’s not just that.  Happy, he isn’t…normal.  He isn’t stable.  And you’ve only known him…what, a month?  Two months?  What makes you think he’ll be around in another year?”

 

“He’s here now.  So what if he’s not normal?  You think I’m normal?  He understands me, better than any normal person ever could.  I’d rather put my faith in him than in your old boss who you haven’t even spoken to since the fifties.”

 

“Thomas is your father.

 

“No.  He’s not.  Maybe he got you pregnant, but he’s never been a father to me.  He doesn’t care about us.  If he hasn’t answered the last two hundred letters you wrote him, what makes you think the next one or the next one will be any different?”

 

“Don’t you feel anything towards him, knowing the truth?”

 

Arthur wonders.  There was a point when he might have latched onto the idea.  For so long, he was so desperate to be seen, to matter in some way.  The revelation that he was the son of someone famous, even an ass like Thomas Wayne…he can see himself obsessing over that, becoming consumed by it, the same way he obsessed over any woman who gave him a scrap of kindness or attention.  But now…

 

Arthur knows what love is.  He’s felt it.  And it changes everything.

 

“We don’t need Thomas Wayne,” he says.  He gives her hand a squeeze.  “We’ll find another way to survive.” 

 

Her lower lip quivers.  “How?”

 

“I don’t know.”  But he feels less hopeless, somehow, than he did earlier.

 

It’s anger, he realizes.  Anger at Thomas for abandoning him and Penny.  Despite the pain in his head and the aches in his body, despite the worries crowding his skull and the fear crawling through his spine, he feels the heat of that anger pulsing through him, giving him strength.

 

That’s what anger is for, he thinks.  It gives people the energy to keep fighting.  To keep moving.

 

“No more letters, Mom,” he says.

 

“But…Arthur…”

 

“Please.”  His voice softens.  “Let go of him.  It’ll be better for you.  For both of us.”

 

She looks at him, eyes brimming over with tears.  Her fingers tighten on his.  “I’ll try.”

 

* * *

 

That night, after she’s gone to bed, he calls Travis.

 

“Hey.  Arthur.  How are you holdin’ up?”

 

God, it’s good to hear his voice.  It steadies him.  “I’ve been better.  But I’m surviving.”  He sits on the couch, a cigarette dangling between his fingers.

 

“Rough day?”

 

“I collapsed at the children’s hospital.  I just feel so…weak.  Like I have a flu that won’t go away.  I keep getting this static in my head, and I had another panic attack on the way home, and…”  His voice cracks.  He pauses, breathing.  “I’m okay now.  But…it’s hard.”

 

“You’ll get through this,” Travis says.  "It won't feel like this forever."

 

“I know.  I keep telling myself that.”  He raises the cigarette to his lips again.  His hands are shaking.  They shake almost all the time, now.  “You’re only as healthy as you feel.  Right?”

 

“Ah…don’t quote my journal.  I’m not nearly as clever as I thought.”

 

“I don’t know.  I think there’s some truth to that.”  He smiles a little.  The smile fades.  “I had the strangest conversation with my mother.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“She told me something.  About…my father.  I’m not even sure whether to believe it.  Or how to feel about it, if it’s true.”

 

“What’s that?”

 

He turns the cigarette over and over in his fingers.  “I’m...not sure if I’m ready to talk about it.  I think I just need to let it sit in my head a while.”  It’s the sort of thing he’d rather tell Travis face to face, anyway.

 

“Okay.  I’m curious, but I can wait.  What do you wanna talk about?”

 

“Tell me about your day.”

 

“It was a day.  Rude passengers, bad traffic.  The usual.  Some kid spilled a milkshake on the seat, and I'm still trying to get the stain out.  Better than cleaning up random guys' jizz-stains, I guess.  Or blood."

 

"Have you actually had to..."

 

"Oh yeah.  Anyway.  I tried making myself some French toast for dinner, but it wasn’t as good as yours.”  A pause.  “I thought about you a lot today.”

 

“I thought about you too.  I miss you.”

 

“I haven’t gone anywhere.  I’m still here.”

 

“I know.  But…”

 

They haven’t made love since that day.  That amazing day, when he wore his Carnival makeup with Travis for the first time.  They’ve only had phone sex once since then.  So much has happened.  The program being cut, and that disastrous night at the comedy club…ever since Arthur cut himself down to half-doses, his focus has been on getting through each day.  He’s been too tense, too jittery for sex.  When they’re together, he just wants to collapse into Travis’s arms and hold onto him like a rock in a river.

 

Still…he misses it.

 

“I liked wearing makeup for you,” he murmurs.

 

“You should wear it next time you come over.  Even if we don’t do anything…I just like seeing you in it.”

 

He smiles a little, touches the unlit end of the cigarette to his lower lip, and rubs slowly back and forth.  The tip of his tongue presses against the small cylinder.  “I can do that.”

 

“I was thinking about that today.  About you on your knees, wearing your makeup.”

 

Arthur closes his eyes.  The words send a ripple of heat through him.  “I felt so alive, that day,” he murmurs.  “I…”

 

I wonder if I’m ever going to feel that way again.

 

“Sometimes when I think about you, it’s like you’re right there,” Travis says.  “Like I can feel you in my head.  I can feel it when you’re thinking about me.  Do you believe that, Arthur?  I know it sounds crazy, but…I felt that today.”

 

“I was thinking about you.”  But then, he thinks about Travis all the time.  “On the way home.  I fell apart.  And I thought about you holding me.”

 

He wants that right now. 

 

“I could come and pick you up,” Travis says.  “I could come over right now.”

 

“If we go to your place, I’ll probably just fall asleep in your arms again.”

 

“Fine by me.”

 

God, he wants it.  He aches for it—for Travis’s quiet, undemanding presence, his warmth, his scent.  He imagines Travis’s fingertips on his brow, smoothing out the worried creases there.  His lips against Arthur’s neck…

 

But he doesn’t want to leave his mother alone right now, either.  After that conversation, she’s probably still emotionally raw.  Shaky.  Arthur knows what it’s like to feel that way, how scary it is.  She finally gave him the truth about his father, and she told him that she would stop writing letters.  If she means that, it’s a huge step forward.  He wants to be there for her.

 

If she can let go of Thomas, then maybe she can accept Travis.  Maybe she can change.  But change isn’t easy.  He knows that, too.

 

“Tomorrow, maybe,” Arthur says.  “I’ll give you a call after work.”

 

“Got another gig?”

 

“Yeah.  Sign-spinning.”  He’s not looking forward to it.  He knows that passing out again is a real possibility.  But he has to keep trying.  “I should try to get some sleep.  I’ll talk to you soon.”

 

“I love you, Arthur.”

 

“I love you too, Travis.”

 

He hangs up.

 

Arthur stretches out on the couch.

 

Sleep doesn’t come easy.  It never does.  And the insomnia is worse, since he reduced his dosage.  Despite his exhaustion, restlessness seethes and itches under his skin.  His legs want to move.  There’s a name for it—akathisia.  A side-effect of the antipsychotics, though it’s paradoxically gotten worse since he cut back.  Sometimes fatigue presses down on him like a leaden weight, crushes him, and sometimes energy crackles through his muscles and nerves like a live wire.  Sometimes both at once.

 

He gets up, paces around the living room, and collapses back onto the couch.  He sits up and lights a cigarette.

 

He finds himself staring at the pale flesh of his arm.  Like a blank canvas.  It’s been over a month since he’s burned himself.  The temptation looms.

 

He resists, with difficulty.

 

Instead, he paces and paces.  He scratches at his shoulder until his nails rip through the skin and leave a bloody patch.

 

Finally, he dips into his dwindling supply of sleeping pills, takes two of them, and drops into an empty sleep like death.

 

* * *

 

The alarm clock wakes him up four hours later.

 

Moving like a man underwater, he pushes himself off the couch and shambles into the kitchen to start the coffee.

 

Just keep moving.  One step at a time.

 

He breaks eggs into a bowl.  He cracks one of them against the edge of the counter and watches the yolk slide down to the floor.  Absently, he pokes it with his toe.  His head feels like it’s stuffed with cotton.

 

At breakfast, Penny is her usual self, chatting brightly about the news and the weather.  She doesn’t mention Thomas Wayne.

 

“Are you all right, Arthur?  You’ve barely touched your oatmeal.”

 

“I didn’t sleep much.”  He forces himself to eat a bite.

 

“Do you still have that cold?  Let me pour you some orange juice…”

 

“How about some tea?”

 

“You need vitamin C.  That’s the best thing for colds.”

 

“Tea’s better for my stomach, Mom.  If I drink orange juice I won’t be able to keep it down.”

 

She frowns.  For a moment, he thinks she’s going to argue with him.  She opens her mouth, closes it.  Then she gets up, retrieves the instant tea mix, and stirs some into a glass.

 

He lets out a quiet sigh of relief.  “Thanks.”

 

* * *

 

He manages to keep his breakfast down, but his limbs still tremble with weakness during the walk to the subway station, and then to Ha-Ha’s.  A lightning storm dances inside his skull.  He drags himself into the building, so tired he can barely see.

 

“Artie,” Randall says, “you look like a bucket of shit.”

 

“You do look a bit peaked,” Gary says.  “Still fighting that cold?”

 

Arthur struggles to remember what he’s supposed to say in response to a remark like that.  “Yeah.  I think so.”  The words come out slurred and thick.  His tongue is a dead slug connected to his brain by a single frayed wire.

 

“Maybe you should take the day off.”

 

“Can’t.  Have to keep moving.”  He shuffles over to the dresser, sits, and applies a streak of white paint to his cheek.

 

“Oh, by the way,” Randall says, “Hoyt wants to talk to you.”

 

Arthur freezes. 

 

Well, he knew this was coming.  No point in putting it off.  He shoves himself to his feet and walks out, not bothering to wipe the line of white paint from his cheek.  He stops outside the closed door to Hoyt’s office and smacks his own cheeks a few times, trying to wake himself up.  Focus.  Hoyt will give him a lecture.  Arthur will endure in silence and smile and smile and smile.  It’s happened before, plenty of times.  He’s so tired now, he probably won’t even register the words.  He just has to stand there and take it.

 

Arthur enters the office and folds his own hands in front of him, standing at attention.  Hoyt’s expression is unreadable.  “You wanted to see me?”

 

“I’ll get right to the point.  I’m gonna have to let you go, Arthur.”

 

Arthur stares.

 

No, he thinks.  Not this.  Not now.  "But...I have a gig today."

 

"One of the other guys can do it.  You're free to go."

 

The storm in his head crackles.  “Why?” he whispers.

 

“Why do you think?  You passed out in the middle of your act.”

 

“I was sick.  It won’t happen again.  If you just give me some time—”

 

“I’ve already given you time.  I don’t know what’s going on with you, but every time you show up for work you’re shaking and glassy-eyed.  Like a junkie needing a fix.  This isn’t just a flu.  I don’t know what it is, but I’m done dealing with it.”

 

“Hoyt, I…”  He stops.  Takes a breath.  “I swear this is temporary.  I will get better.”

 

Hoyt sighs.  “Look.  Arthur.  The thing at the hospital, it was just the last straw.  This is a long time coming.  It’s not working out.  You aren’t a good fit for this job, okay?”

 

A high ringing fills his ears.  Clouds of static buzz in the back of his brain.  “Please.  I love being a clown.  I know I've been a lot of trouble lately, but—th-those things aren’t my fault, and I don’t see why—”

 

“You know why.  I’m not going to spell it out for you.  This isn’t a debate.”

 

Arthur’s breathing rasps in his throat.  “Spell what out,” he hears himself ask.

 

“You know what I mean.”

 

His heartbeat thuds dully behind his eyes.  He thinks about the coldness in Hoyt’s eyes, his voice asking, Had some fun last night?  The subtle sneer on his face every time he looked at Arthur after that.

 

“This is because you think I’m gay,” he says.  “Is that it?”

 

Hoyt gives him a long, flat stare.

 

“That’s why,” Arthur says.  “That’s why you don’t like me.”

 

Hoyt taps the pen against the desk.  “Doesn’t help.  But hey.  I’m a live and let live kind of guy.  As long as people keep their freaky shit behind closed doors I’m happy to look the other way.  Except it’s not just that, Arthur.  It’s everything.  It’s you.”

 

Shadows dance and writhe at the corners of Arthur’s vision.

 

“I hired you because I felt sorry for you.  Because you seemed like you needed a break.  And I cut you shitloads of slack.  But I’ve got my limits.”

 

The shadows grow, expanding, thrashing like a nest of snakes.  A vein in his right temple pulses.  The room warps and shimmers.  “If you just tell me what I’m doing wrong, what you want me to do differently—”

 

“I’m not your shrink.  I’m not here to help you fix your fuckin’ personality.  We’re done.  Clear out your locker.”

 

“This...this isn't fair.”  His voice wobbles.  “I can’t help what people think about me.  I can’t help it if you’re uncomfortable with who I am.  I’m not doing anything wrong.

 

“What, you gonna cry now?  Jesus Christ, this is what I’m talking about.  You’re a grown man but you act like a goddamn kid.”

 

He struggles to hold his voice steady, even as the shadows eat away at his vision:  “I’m upset because of the way you’re treating me.  Why is that childish?”

 

“Don’t play the victim, Arthur.  You think you’re special?  People get fired every day.  It’s life.  You can find another job.  Hell, apply to another clown agency if you want.  But you’re done here.  Now get out before you start bawling and embarrass yourself.  Fuckin’ sissy.”

 

The dull hammer of blood behind his eyes pounds harder and harder.  Something snaps.

 

He lunges.

 

He sees the flash of surprise in Hoyt’s expression as Arthur seizes two fistfuls of his shirt and hauls him up from his chair.  The blood drains from his face.  “Let me go,” he says.

 

Arthur’s grip tightens.

 

“Let me go, you freak!  Hey!  Hey!  Someone!”

 

Arthur releases him and steps back, breathing hard, eyes burning with tears.  A voice—Randall’s—calls from the hallway, “What’s going on?”

 

Arthur turns and walks out of the office.  Walks past Randall, through the main room and down the stairs.  He doesn’t look at anyone, doesn’t even stop to grab his stuff from the locker.

 

His head hurts.  Everything hurts.

 

He keeps walking, out onto the street.  A scream builds up in his throat.  He walks and walks, his feet carrying him to the subway station, into a dingy public bathroom.

 

He slams his head against the wall.  Again, then again and again, until there’s a smear of blood on the tiles.  His knees give out, and he slides down, dizzy and nauseous and laughing.

 

Chapter Text

Arthur lies on the bathroom floor.  Above him, the light bulbs flicker.  His nose is leaking, his face a mess of tears.

 

Fuckin’ sissy, Hoyt jeers in his head.

 

Maybe this was inevitable.

 

He doesn’t want to move.  There’s something soothing about the cool tiles against the back of his head.  But he can’t stay here.  Wincing, he pushes himself to his feet.  Pain flares in his head.  He grabs a handful of toilet paper, wipes the worst of the blood from the cut, and shuffles out.  His vision keeps blurring.  He’s not sure if it’s the withdrawal symptoms or if he gave himself a mild concussion, banging his head on the wall.  Wouldn’t be the first time.

 

On the way to the subway station, he stops at a payphone, drops in a few coins, and dials Travis’s number.

 

There’s a click.  “Travis Bickle.”

 

“Hey,” Arthur croaks.  “It’s me.”

 

“Arthur.  What’s wrong?”

 

He lets out a cracked laugh and covers his eyes with one hand.  “Everything.”  He leans his bloody head against the glass wall of the phone booth.  “I...I don't know how much longer I can do this.”

 

A brief pause.  “I’ll come pick you up.  Are you at home?”

 

“A payphone.”

 

“Where?”

 

Arthur opens his mouth to tell him.  Then he catches a glimpse of his reflection in the glass of the phone booth.

 

His eyes are sunken and glazed, the flesh beneath them dark and bruised-looking.  His skin is waxy, his cheeks hollow, his wrinkles deeper and more pronounced than they’ve ever been.  Greasy, stringy hair hangs down around his gaunt face.  He looks like a skeleton with a wig.  Like a dried-out husk draped in saggy skin.  Blood still oozes from the cut on his forehead, and white greasepaint streaks his cheek.

 

Arthur’s never considered himself attractive.  He’s all too aware of his many physical imperfections, and he knows that Travis loves him in spite of—maybe even because of—those imperfections.  It is Travis’s love that makes Arthur beautiful to him, like a magic spell.

 

But right now, he’s hideous.  There’s no way around it.  He doesn’t want to be seen like this…not even by Travis.  Especially not by him.

 

But it goes deeper than that.

 

Travis has seen him lose control before, but he’s never seen Arthur at his absolute worst—never seen him having a full-blown meltdown.  Arthur doesn’t want to inflict that on him.  And he's so close to falling apart.

 

“You don’t have to come here,” he whispers.  “I just…needed to hear your voice.  That’s all.”

 

“I don’t think you should be alone right now.  Where are you?  Which payphone?”

 

“I’m fine.  I can get home.  I’m almost to the subway station.”

 

“The phone near Ha-Ha’s, on the corner?”

 

Arthur doesn’t answer.

 

“Stay there.  I’m coming to get you.”

 

“Travis…I can’t.”

 

“Just wait.  I’ll be over in—”

 

“Don’t!”

 

Travis falls silent.

 

Arthur struggles to control his voice.  “I’m telling you, I need to be alone.  You aren’t listening.  Just—just stop.  Stop pushing so hard.”

 

More silence.

 

Arthur squeezes his eyes shut.

 

What’s wrong with him?  His mind is coming undone, and he’s pushing away the one person who’s trying to help him.  But he just…can’t.  He can’t be seen this way.  “I’m sorry,” he whispers.  “I’m in a really bad place right now.  I shouldn’t have called.  I know I’m being awful.”

 

“You’re not being awful.”  But Travis sounds uncertain.  Off-balance.  “Sorry.  I know I’m pushy, sometimes.”

 

“You’re trying to help.  I'm just...I need to get home.”

 

“Okay.  Call me back soon.  All right?”

 

“I will.”  He swallows, throat tight, and hangs up before he can dissolve into a laughing fit.

 

He didn’t mean to hang up without saying I love you.  He didn’t want to end the conversation that way.  But he can’t think clearly right now. 

 

He walks out of the booth, head throbbing.

 

* * *

 

When he opens the door to his apartment, Penny asks, “What happened to your head?”

 

He touches the cut on his forehead.  He spent the entire subway ride with a wad of tissues pressed against it, trying to staunch the bleeding, ignoring the stares of the other passengers.  It’s mostly stopped, now.  “I ran into a door.”

 

“A door?”  She scrunches her brows together.  “How did that happen?”

 

“It was a glass door.  I didn’t see it.”

 

“That cut looks pretty bad.  You should clean it out.  Put some alcohol on it.”

 

“I’ll do that.”  He walks toward the bathroom.

 

“How was work, by the way?” she calls.

 

He pretends he doesn’t hear her.  He retreats into the bathroom and shuts the door before she can ask him any more questions.

 

He cleans out the cut as best he can, tapes some gauze over it.  Shivering, he strips off his sweaty clothes and gets into the shower.  He sits on the floor of the stall and lets the water beat against his back.  He stays there even after the spray turns cold.

 

He knows he’s making this worse.  Pulling away from everyone, spiraling deeper and deeper into a black pit of self-loathing.  But he can’t bring himself to talk to anyone or touch anyone right now.  It hurts too much.  He feels as though his skin has been peeled away, leaving him a raw, disgusting mass of naked meat and exposed nerves.  Any contact brings pain.

 

He curls up, draws his knees to his chest, and presses his hands against the sides of his head.

 

When he finally gets out of the shower, he heats up a TV dinner for his mother and brings it to her on her tray.  He avoids eye contact.

 

“Happy…what’s wrong?”

 

“I’m just having a hard time, Mom.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because I’m mentally ill.  Because I’m depressed.”

 

She looks down.  She doesn’t like hearing this, he knows.  But he needs her to hear it.  "You don't seem depressed, most of the time," she says.

 

“I’ve been this way for years and years.  Sometimes I have bad days.  I’m having a bad day now.  Just leave it at that.”

 

After a few seconds, she nods.

 

He knows he should tell her that he lost his job.  But he knows, too, how she’ll react.  She’ll want him to start looking for a new one right away.  Which, of course, is what he should do.  He should open up the paper and start reading through the help wanted ads tonight.  There’s no time to waste.

 

But the thought makes him so tired.  What good will it do?  The very idea of anyone hiring him—an aging, emaciated, depressed party clown—seems like a joke.  They’ll take one look at his spotty job history—with the several-year gap he spent in Arkham—and reject him outright.  And even if they don’t, even if he somehow makes it to the interview stage, he’ll be pale and shaky, he’ll lose control and start laughing.  He was lucky to get the job at Ha-Ha’s, and he was in better condition, then.  Why put himself through the humiliation, the rejection?

 

“Watch TV with me.”  Penny pats the bed.

 

“I’ve got a headache.  I might just go to bed early.”

 

“Are you sure?  Murray will be on any minute.  Watching him always makes you feel better.”

 

He forces his lips into the shape of a smile.  “Tape it for me.  I'll watch it tomorrow.”  He bought a VCR recently, and some blank tapes.  Now, he wishes he’d saved his money.  He doesn’t know how they’re going to make it through the next month.

 

He curls up on the couch, listening to the familiar sounds of the Murray Franklin show from the other room.

 

He thinks about calling Travis back.  Then again, he usually waits until Penny is asleep, and he’s not sure he can stay up that long.  Tomorrow morning, maybe.

 

He doesn't want to worry Travis.  He feels like he's worrying and disappointing everyone right now.  But everything is just...too much.

 

He touches his face, feeling the grooves and looseness of his own skin.

 

Hoyt’s voice echoes in his skull:  You’re a grown man but you act like a goddamn kid.

 

Anger burns a hole in Arthur’s gut.  A part of him wishes he’d done worse than grab Hoyt’s shirt.  In that moment, he wanted to hurt Hoyt.  Really hurt him.  But he’s terrified, too, of his own rage.  Of what it’s capable of.  If he ever really let go—went under and didn’t come back—what would happen?

 

He descends into a foggy half-sleep plagued by troubled dreams.

 

* * *

 

Penny shrieks from the other room, jolting him awake.  Arthur bolts upright.

 

It’s dark outside.  In the faint light from the hall, he can just make out the clock.  Two-thirty in the morning.

 

Penny wails again—a long, tremulous, pained sound.

 

He leaps to his feet and runs to the bedroom, mind racing.  Did she fall on the way to the bathroom?  Did she—

 

When he turns on the bedroom light, she’s sitting up in bed, gasping, face streaked with tears.  Her eyes stare blindly into space.

 

“Mom.  What—”

 

“I was pregnant,” she whispers, her voice wavering, “with you, and…I was in the hospital, giving birth…and…the baby, it was…”

 

He sits on the edge of the bed and puts a hand on her shoulder.  She flinches.  “You had a bad dream.”

 

She looks at him, her gaze unfocused.  “He was dead, when he—when you came out.  The baby.”  Her face contorts.  She starts to sob.  “You were born dead.”

 

A chill runs through him.  “I’m not dead.  It was a bad dream.  I’m right here.”

 

But she keeps sobbing.  She won’t stop.  It scares him.

 

He wraps his arms around her, drawing her head to his shoulder.  She bawls like a small child—helpless, primal sounds.  “It didn’t happen that way, Mom.  It's not real.”

 

“Arthur, why is everything this way?  Why does it hurt so much?”

 

“I don’t know.  I don’t know.”  He hugs her, not knowing what else to do.

 

After what feels like an eternity, the sobs taper off, and she falls back asleep.  He turns off the lights and leaves her there in the bedroom.

 

His hands shake.  The air whistles in his throat.

 

He can’t hold still.  Can’t even sit down.  He paces the living room, pulling at his hair until the strands come out, clinging to his fingers.  He lights another cigarette and puffs at it in the darkness.  His gaze strays to the naked, wax-white skin of his arm.

 

He grinds the lit end of the cigarette into his skin, and his eyes roll back at the warm, shuddering wave of pain that rolls through him.

 

But even that doesn’t bring much relief.  Not for long.

 

He wants to bang his head against the wall.  Wants to punish his own brain for being so broken and useless.  The only thing that stops him is knowing that the sounds will wake Penny.  So instead, he burns himself again.  Then again, and half a dozen more times, until the red burn-marks wander up his arm like tiny footprints.

 

Hell is not a place, he thinks.  It is in the brain.

 

You were born dead.

 

He sits on the couch, grabs a pillow and shoves it against his face, muffling his laughter.

 

He’s so close to breaking.  He can feel it.  He’s starting off the edge of a deep, dark chasm, and all he has to do is jump.  A part of him wants to.  Maybe it won’t be so bad.  Maybe he’ll discover that he can fly.  Or maybe he’ll plunge into nothingness and be swallowed.  Either fate sounds preferable to this.  This skin-crawling horror.  This cage of flesh and anxiety.

 

His gaze strays to the phone.

 

If he hears Travis’s voice, he’ll be able to hold on for a little longer.  Travis will pull him back from the edge, hold his pieces together.

 

But he can’t keep relying on Travis forever.  There will come a point when Arthur breaks.  Sometimes, he feels like he’s just delaying the inevitable.

 

If he jumps…what then? 

 

The most basic definition of sanity, he thinks, is being in control of your own actions.  Lunatics are sent to Arkham and regular criminals are sent to prison, because crazy people can’t be held accountable for what they do.  They’re too broken. 

 

Or maybe the idea of being in control is an illusion to begin with.  Maybe sanity is a mass hallucination, and the whole world belongs in a lunatic asylum.  But if the doctors are mad, too, then who will be the madmen’s keepers?

 

No, no.  He has to believe there is a difference.  He has to believe there is a version of himself, a sane Arthur that is in control of his own actions.  The sane Arthur is like a set of restraints on his mind.  A list of rules wired into him.  Barricades and locks.  An emotional shock-collar that gives him a jolt of guilt when he does something bad.  It keeps him tame.

 

But there is another Arthur, a deeper Arthur, like a vast, shadowy form beneath the surface of a lake.  When he is not restrained, he hurts people.  He’s done it before.

 

He thinks about the file.  The one Dr. Kane gave him.  He hasn’t opened it even once. 

 

The truth is there.  His past.  Everything that took place in Arkham.

 

He stands.

 

A pain has taken root in the back of his neck, like a hot metal rod fused to his spine, so just turning his head sends skewers of red lightning through the muscles and nerves there.  Pains everywhere.  They fill his body.  What is Arthur Fleck?  A skin-suit stitched around a man-shaped mass of pain.  Yet there is something beneath the pain. 

 

He has to know.

 

He can’t keep putting this off.

 

That file isn’t who you are, Travis told him.  It’s just your past.

 

But the past can’t be cast aside that easily.  It roils beneath the surface, always.  It pushes its way up.

 

He opens the cabinet and retrieves the file.  He sits down at the kitchen table.  Slowly, deliberately, he lights another cigarette and takes a drag, fingertips resting on the red cover.  The file seems to pulse with dark energy.  It whispers.  The whispers slither like black snakes up his arms and through his skin, twining through him.  Beckoning.

 

He opens it.

 

* * *

 

Travis stares at the phone, rubbing one hand over the other.

 

It’s been over a full day since he last heard from Arthur.  He didn’t call last night.  Morning came and went.  Travis was out working for most of that time.  Now, afternoon inches toward evening.

 

Travis wanted to call his apartment last night, but he held back. 

 

He keeps thinking about the panic in Arthur’s voice.  Just stop.  Stop pushing.

 

He thinks about Betsy.  About the fear in her eyes when Travis showed up at her workplace after she stopped answering his calls.  His own voice, unhinged and ragged:  You’re in a hell.  And you’re gonna die in a hell.

 

He knows the monster inside himself.  By now, he’s familiar with its whispers, its rationalizations.  So when Arthur told him to stop pushing, he stopped.  Ignored his instincts.  He held back and held back.  He stayed awake last night listening for the ring of the phone that never came and he fought the temptation to call.  He’s fighting even now.

 

But it’s been too long.  Something is wrong.

 

He is already reaching for the phone when it rings.  He grabs it.  “Arthur?”

 

“Travis?”  It’s Penny.

 

“Oh.  Uh.  Hey.  Listen—”

 

“Is Arthur with you?” she asks, her voice breathless and a little frantic.

 

His insides go still and cold.  “No.  I thought he was with you.  He’s not there?”

 

“When I woke up this morning he was gone.”

 

“Does he have work today?”

 

“I don’t think so.  Anyway, if he did, he should have been home by now.  And it’s not like him to leave without saying goodbye.  We usually have breakfast together.”

 

Shit.

 

“You haven’t seen him at all?” she asks.  “He hasn’t called you?”

 

“I talked to him on the phone yesterday morning.  I haven’t heard from him since then.”  He tells himself not to panic.  It hasn’t been that long.  But he knows Arthur’s in a bad state.  His instincts are screaming that this is serious—that Arthur is in some kind of danger.

 

“What about you?” he asks.  “When’s the last time you saw him?  Or talked to him?”

 

“Last night.  He went to bed early.  Then I woke up in the morning and he was gone.”

 

“He say or do anything unusual?  How’d he seem?”

 

“He seemed…sad.  He said he was having a hard day.  He wasn’t himself.”

 

Travis takes a slow breath.  “All right.  Listen.  I’m going to Ha-Ha’s.  I’ll find out if anyone there’s seen him today.  Can you think of anywhere else he mighta gone?”

 

“No.  I was so sure he’d gone to you.  I thought…”  Her voice wavers.  “Do you think he’s angry at me?”

 

“Why would he be angry?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

Come to think of it, Arthur mentioned a conversation about his father, the other day.  Does that have something to do with this?  But he didn’t seem all that upset, when he talked about it before.  Then when he called Travis yesterday, he was a wreck.  Something else must have happened.

 

“I’ll call you back in a couple hours,” Travis says.  He hangs up and heads down to his cab.

 

* * *

 

Travis parks his cab in a metered spot outside Ha-Ha’s and walks in through the front door.  It’s not locked or anything.  Lax security, he thinks—especially for Gotham.  Though he supposes not many people would want to rob a clown agency.

 

He walks up the stairs and finds himself in a—he’s not sure what to call it.  A dressing room?  There are mirrors, guys in clown makeup sitting around tables.  Lots of clown stuff on the walls.  A few heads turn toward Travis.

 

He stands there, wearing his usual brown jacket and a pair of sunglasses.  “I’m looking for Arthur Fleck.”

 

A stout, balding man frowns, looking him up and down.  “You with the police or somethin’?”

 

“I’m a friend of his.”

 

“Didn’t know he had friends,” a guy calls from the other side of the room.

 

A few of the others snicker.  A muscle at the corner of Travis’s eye twitches.

 

“So, if you aren’t a cop, what makes you think you can just waltz in here?” the balding man asks.

 

“Door was unlocked.  Don’t want people walkin’ in, maybe lock it.  So where’s Arthur?  He workin’ today?”

 

“I guess you didn’t hear,” says a soft voice with an accent.  Travis looks around for the source of it.  Then looks down.  A dwarf stands nearby, a Styrofoam cup of coffee in one hand.

 

“Didn’t hear what?” Travis asks.

 

“Arthur got fired yesterday.”

 

Travis’s shoulders tense.  “Fired?  For what?”

 

“Not sure.  He left right after Hoyt gave him the bad news.  Seemed upset.”

 

“Upset?”  The balding guy snorts.  “That’s one way to put it.  He nearly killed Hoyt.”

 

“Doesn’t surprise me,” another man chimes in.  “I always had a bad feeling about that guy.  He just put out a creepy vibe, you know?”

 

“Yeah, gotta say, I won’t miss him,” another clown says.  “That fucking laugh.

 

“Well, there’s zero chance of him coming back after he flipped out like that,” the balding man says.

 

Travis’s hands tighten into fists in his pockets.  “What did he do, exactly?”

 

“Arthur just grabbed Hoyt’s shirt,” the dwarf says.  “Didn’t hurt him.  Randall was exaggerating.”

 

“You still defending that prick?”  The balding man—Randall?—snorts.

 

“I’m not saying it was all right, what he did.  But he wasn’t trying to kill anyone, for god’s sake.”

 

“You must be Gary,” Travis says.  “Arthur’s talked about you.  He didn’t mention you were a dwarf though.”

 

Gary raises an eyebrow at him.

 

“I mean, nothin’ wrong with being a dwarf.  But it is kinda noticeable.”

 

“Wait,” Randall says, “if Arthur didn’t mention that, how’d you know it was him?”

 

“’Cause he said Gary’s the only one here who isn’t a cunt.”

 

Arthur didn’t use those exact words.  He said that Gary was the only one who was always nice to him.  Close enough.

 

Randall scowls.  “Get the hell out of here.”

 

“I will, in a minute.  So Arthur didn’t come in at all today?”

 

“He showed up this morning for a few minutes, just to grab some of his stuff from the locker,” one of the other guys says.  “Didn’t say anything to anyone.  After yesterday, no one was too keen on starting a conversation with him.”

 

So he was here.  “Where’s the boss?  I wanna ask him a few things.”

 

“Why?  What’s going on?” Gary asks.

 

“I don’t know where Arthur is right now, and neither does his mother.  And last time I talked to him, he was in a bad state.  Just trying to figure out where he might have gone.”

 

“Look,” Randall says, “you’ve got a lot of nerve—”

 

“Hoyt’s office is down the hall,” Gary says, pointing.

 

“Gary!”

 

“Thanks.”  Travis turns and strides out of the room.  He can hear Randall muttering behind him.

 

The door to the office is open.  He finds Hoyt at his desk, leafing through a magazine.  A porno, judging by the naked redhead sprawled across a bear-skin rug, spreading her thighs.  Travis steps into the room and eases the door shut.  Hoyt doesn’t look up.  He moves quietly, sidling closer.  “Hey,” he says.

 

Hoyt gives a start and looks up.  He shoves the magazine into a drawer.  “Who the fuck are you?”

 

Travis smiles, just a tightening of his lips.  “Sorry to startle you, sir.  Just spoke to your boys in the other room, and they directed me to you.  I wanna ask a few questions, then I’ll be out of your hair.”

 

Hoyt frowns.  He seems unsure.  A little nervous.  Good.

 

Randall mistook Travis for a cop.  Maybe if he plays the part, Hoyt will answer him without giving him any shit.  Travis leans over the desk.  “When’s the last time you saw Arthur Fleck?”

 

“Yesterday.  When I fired him.  Why?  He do something?”

 

“No.  He’s missing.”

 

Hoyt inches his chair backwards.  “Look, can you back up a little?”

 

Travis takes a step back.  “I’m just looking for any information.”

 

“I don’t know where he is.  What are you?  Some kinda PI?”

 

“Somethin’ like that.”

 

“Yeah.  Well.  Sorry.  Can’t help.”

 

Travis studies him through his shades.  “If you don’t mind me askin’, why did you fire him?”

 

Hoyt snorts.  “God.  I could give you a list.  He was bad news.  Shoulda known that from the beginning.  But the official reason is that he collapsed during the latest gig.  Came into work the next day lookin’ like roadkill.  Sweating, shivering…just a mess.”

 

“So you fired him for having health problems.”

 

Hoyt squints.  His lip curls in a sneer.  “You aren’t a PI.  What’s this really about?” 

 

“I’m just trying to find Arthur.”

 

Hoyt stares back at him—a long, searching look.  An unpleasant smile creeps across his face.  “Oh.  I think I get it.  You’re the reason he was limping when he came into work that one time.  Is that it?”

 

Travis says nothing.

 

“Holy shit, I’m right, aren’t I?”  He chuckles flatly.  “You got some pretty weird tastes, I’ll tell you that.”

 

Travis takes a step toward him.

 

“Ah-ah-ah.”  Hoyt pulls a .38 from his drawer and waggles it at Travis.  “Decided to take some precautions, after Laffy Taffy flipped out on me.”

 

Hoyt doesn’t know how to handle that gun.  Travis can see that.  Probably never fired one in his life.  He’s just waving it around for effect.  Armed or not, this man doesn’t scare him.  He’s a yapping little dog.  “Fine, I’ll keep my distance.  Just tell me exactly what Arthur said to you, before he left.”

 

“Why should I tell you anything?  I don’t give a shit if you find your butt buddy or not.”

 

Travis’s molars scrape together.  “He’s depressed.  He might be a danger to himself.”

 

“Great.  I hope he does the world a favor and jumps off a bridge.”

 

A dark fog boils behind Travis’s eyes.  “Arthur is a good man,” he says. 

 

Hoyt snorts.  “Some twink walks in off the streets and thinks he can lecture me?  For firing that loony?  What, you think the jacket and shades make you intimidating or something?  Yeah, I’m real scared.”  He raises the .38, smirking.  “Now get out, or I put a hole in your fucking skull.”

 

Travis stares down the barrel of the gun.  He smiles tightly, baring his teeth.  “Thanks for your time.”  He starts to turn.

 

Then, in a flash, he lunges forward across the desk and slams his fist into Hoyt’s teeth.  The impact knocks him backwards in his chair, and his head slams against the wall behind him.  The gun flies out of his hand, slides across the floor and lands in the corner.

 

“Fuck!” Hoyt gasps.  He scrambles toward the gun on all fours, mouth dripping blood.

 

Travis kicks him in the chest, knocking the wind out of him.  Hoyt lies on his back, wheezing, fingers scrambling at the floor.  His eyes rolls up toward Travis.  “Help,” he tries to shout, but his voice is a hoarse gurgle trickling out through a mouthful of blood.

 

He opens his mouth again, and Travis steps on his face.  He shoves the heel of his shoe into Hoyt’s mouth, forcing his jaws wide open.  Hoyt lets out a muffled cry, flailing and clawing at Travis’s leg.  Blood and froth drools down his chin.

 

Travis could kill him.  It would be easy.  He wants to.  But that won’t help the situation.  Hoyt is trash—he’s nothing.  He’s not even worth killing.

 

He removes his shoe from Hoyt’s mouth and presses it down on his throat instead.  “Where’s Arthur?”

 

“I don’t know,” he wheezes.  “I don’t know anything.”

 

“You sure?”  He presses down a little harder.

 

Hoyt’s eyes bulge.  He croaks out, “I s-swear.”

 

Travis studies his terrified expression.  Decides he’s probably telling the truth.

 

Travis gives him another kick—he hears the crack as a rib breaks—then turns and strides out of the office, down the stairs and out the door.

 

He gets into his cab and starts driving.

 

Probably shouldn’t have done that.  He didn’t give any of them his name, but still, they could give the cops Travis’s description.  It could complicate things.

 

Well, he can claim self-defense.  Hoyt did point a gun at him and threaten him, after all.

 

What now? 

 

He could check Pogo’s.  Would Arthur actually go back there, after what happened last time?  Worth looking, anyway.  Worth asking around, seeing if anyone’s seen him.

 

He drives there.  Surveys the room.  No Arthur.  He asks a few people if they’ve seen a skinny guy with shoulder-length, wavy brown hair and greenish eyes.  They shake their heads.

 

He gets back in the cab and keeps driving.  He drives past the diner where he and Arthur first exchanged journals.  He checks the theater where they saw Fox and the Hound together.

 

God.  That feels like so long ago now.  Like another lifetime.

 

He even checks the alley where he first found Arthur, after his beating.  No sign of him.  He could be anywhere in Gotham.

 

Travis drives and drives. 

 

* * *

 

The sky is dark.  A light snow falls, settling onto the streetlights and awnings.  Pedestrians are bundled up, wrapped in coats and scarves.  The temperature is dropping rapidly.  It’s not officially winter yet, but it’s supposed to be near freezing, tonight.  Arthur is out there somewhere, wandering around in the cold.

 

And of course, the cold isn’t the only threat in Gotham.

 

He stops at a payphone and gives Penny another call.  “Has he come back?”

 

“No.  You didn’t find him?”

 

“Not yet.  They saw him at Ha-Ha’s this morning, though.  He went in to collect his stuff.  Got fired the other day, apparently.”

 

“He didn’t tell me.”

 

“Didn’t tell me, either.”  He rubs his forehead.  “Listen.  I’m gonna keep looking.  I’ll check back in another two hours.  Call the police, if you haven’t already.”

 

He hangs up.  He doesn’t actually expect the police to do anything.  The cops in Gotham are a joke.  They only get off their asses to investigate a crime if the victim is rich and famous, or well-connected.  But it can’t hurt to put out a missing person’s report, anyway.

 

He keeps driving.  With each passing minute, the weight in his stomach grows heavier.  If something’s happened to Arthur…

 

He pushes the thought away.  Keep searching.  That’s all he can do.

 

* * *

 

By the time Travis returns to his apartment, it’s close to midnight.  He checked in with Penny again, about twenty minutes ago.  No Arthur.

 

Travis didn’t sleep last night.  His reflexes are shot.  If he keeps driving around in this condition he’s liable to get into an accident.  He’ll nap for a couple of hours and then go back out. 

 

He trudges up the stairs.  Unlocks his door.  Steps in and shuts it behind him.  He looks up.

 

Arthur is sitting on the couch.  He’s facing away, so only his shoulders and tangled brown hair are visible.

 

Travis takes a step forward, almost afraid to believe in what he's seeing.  Somehow, it never occurred to him to check his own apartment.  Even though Arthur has a key now.  “Arthur.”  His voice comes out hoarse.  Weak.

 

Slowly, Arthur’s head turns.

 

He’s wearing his makeup.  But it’s different.  Red paint on his nose.  The same blue diamonds, the same red smile, but without the black outline.  Somehow the simple lack of an outline makes that crimson mouth look…feral.  Like his lips are smeared with blood.

 

“I was starting to think you’d never come home,” Arthur says softly. 

 

Chapter Text

Arthur stands and turns.  He’s wearing his long-sleeved white shirt with his familiar brown jacket.  His makeup is messy, a line of blue running from one eye.  His brown hair hangs damp and loose around his face.  A cigarette hangs between two fingers.  His eyes…

 

They’re wide and brilliant.  Shiny, glittery, wet.

 

He smiles.

 

Travis hangs back, half-afraid to approach.  He doesn’t know what kind of state Arthur is in right now.  His instincts clang an alarm bell, as though he’s in the apartment with a tiger—one that might be wounded or hungry.  Or both.

 

“How long have you been here?” Travis asks quietly.

 

“A while.”

 

“Your mom is worried.”

 

“I know.”  He raises a cigarette, places it between his lips, and draws in a mouthful of smoke.

 

“What’s going on?”

 

“I wanted to see you.”  Arthur sets the cigarette down on the scarred coffee table and approaches.  Travis stands, rigid, as Arthur drapes his arms around his shoulders.  “I’ve missed you.”  Arthur kisses him with those red, red lips.  Slowly, softly.  His lips are warm, and taste faintly of greasepaint—that flower-petal bitterness.

 

Travis feels himself weakening.  Despite the questions churning in his brain, he wants to wrap his arms around Arthur and pull him closer.

 

But something is deeply wrong.  That much is obvious. 

 

He lays his hands on Arthur’s shoulders and holds him there, just far enough away to look him in the eye.  “Why the paint?”

 

“You asked me to wear my makeup the next time I came over.  What’s wrong?”

 

“Arthur…”  He speaks slowly.  “You disappeared.  You didn’t tell anyone where you were going.  I’ve been driving all over the city, looking for you.  Why did you vanish?”

 

“I was confused.  I’m not anymore.”  He reaches up to touch Travis’s cheek.  “I should never have pushed you away.  I was just scared.  When we talked on the phone, last time…I didn’t want you to see me.  Because I felt ugly.  Inside and out.”

 

“You’re never ugly.  You’re the most beautiful person I’ve ever known.”

 

Arthur’s smile softens, and his long lashes lower, veiling his eyes.  “Thank you.”  He strokes Travis’s cheek, fingers gliding slowly down the line of his jaw.  “It’s strange to see you with stubble.  I like it, though.”

 

“I forgot to shave.”

 

“I know.  You’ve been busy.  Because of me.”  He grips Travis’s wrist, lifts Travis’s hand to his face, and kisses the knuckles.  “I’m sorry.”  He rubs his face against the back of Travis’s hand, catlike.

 

He’s still not quite sure how to process this.  Any of it.  “Are you…okay?”

 

“I am now.  Everything is so much clearer.”  He gazes dreamily at Travis.  His eyes shine a brilliant glass-green in the lamplight.

 

He’s smiling.  But there are tears on his cheeks.  Arthur doesn’t even seem to know they’re there.

 

“You’re pretty far under right now, aren’t you?” Travis asks.

 

“Under and over and over and under again.  I don’t know where I am anymore.  Wonderland, maybe.”  He smiles wider, lets out a soft gust of laughter. 

 

“You’re crying.”

 

“It doesn’t hurt.  Nothing can hurt me, now.”  Arthur takes Travis’s hands in his.  “Will you dance with me?”

 

“I think we should talk more, first.”

 

“Please.”

 

Travis hesitates, searching Arthur’s face.

 

He thinks about using the code-word, trying to snap him out of this.  But he has the sense that Arthur is on the edge of some internal cliff, and if Travis pushes too hard, too fast, he’ll lose the chance to reach him, to pull him back.  If he wants Arthur to talk to him—really talk to him—he needs to move slowly.  Carefully.

 

Travis cradles the chalk-white cheek in his palm.  “That’s what you want right now?  To dance?”

 

“Yes.  I would like that very much.”

 

“Okay.  Let me put on some music.”  He selects the first record they danced to together—the Jackson C. Frank one.  “This all right?”

 

“The second side,” Arthur says.  He picks up his cigarette and takes another drag.

 

Travis puts the record on, settling the needle into the groove.

 

Gentle, sad guitar fills the living room.  Arthur sets his cigarette down again, drapes his jacket over the back of the couch, offers his arm, and bows.

 

“You’ll lead?”

 

“Of course.”

 

They dance—a slow, swaying rhythm.  Travis’s left hand rests on Arthur’s hip.  The right is intertwined with his, their fingers locked together like pieces of a puzzle.

 

Arthur leans his head against Travis’s shoulder and sings along with the music, softly into his ear, in his clear, sweet tenor:  “Gold and silver is the autumn, soft and tender are her skies.  Yes and no are the answers written in my true love’s eyes.”

 

It’s beautiful.  It sends a chill down to the marrow of Travis’s bones.

 

It feels good just to be near him, to touch him, to breathe in the scent of his hair and skin.  After a day of driving and searching, a day of wondering if he was ever going to see Arthur again, having him here—warm, alive, pressed close against him—feels like a miracle.  Still…

 

“Your heart is beating so fast,” Arthur whispers.  “Are you scared?”

 

“Yeah,” he whispers.

 

“I won’t hurt you.”  He presses closer.  “I don’t ever want to hurt you.  My brave, kind Travis.”

 

Travis focuses on the rhythm of Arthur’s heartbeat, his breathing, the way his muscles shift.  He listens to Arthur’s body.  Feels the subtle tension and trembling in his limbs.  He’s in pain.  But he doesn’t know he’s in pain.

 

No…it’s not quite that.  He feels everything.

 

There are certain drugs that allow a person to feel pain but not care.  It’s more like that.  He’s detached himself from his own fear and suffering.  He smiles even as his body keeps crying.

 

What happened to him?  He lost his job, of course.  But there’s something else.  Something more.

 

“I feel so safe with you,” Arthur says.  “I always have.  Sometimes I wish I was very small—like a butterfly—so you could hold me in your hand.  So I could curl up there in the warm hollow of your palm and be completely surrounded by the scent and feel of your skin.”

 

“You want that?” Travis murmurs against his cheek.

 

“I do.  But of course, then you couldn’t put your arms around me.”  He lets out a soft sigh.  “It’s such a wonderful feeling.  Being held.  I like it even better than orgasm.”  He nestles against Travis’s chest.

 

Travis’s already-fast heartbeat quickens.

 

“You know, while I was waiting for you, here, I touched myself.”  One finger trails down Travis’s cheek, along his neck.  “I thought about you.  No…more than that.  I hallucinated you.  With all five senses.  I felt your hands on me, as though you were right there.  You touched me…here.”  He brings Travis’s hand around to his stomach, up under his shirt, and presses it there against the hot hollow of his abdomen.  “Your hand sank inside me, through my skin, and up under my ribcage until you were touching my heart.  I felt it beating in your grip.  And then you flowed into me like smoke.  You were everywhere, melting into me.  Merging with me.  I wanted to cum.  It was so hard not to.  I held back, though.  I didn’t finish.  I wanted to wait for you.  I waited and waited.  And now you’re here.”

 

Travis puts his lips against Arthur’s ear and whispers, “Arthur…did you take your meds this morning?”

 

“No.  I’m done with all that.  Done with the sane game.  I can’t do it anymore.  I’m letting go.”

 

“Of what?”

 

“Everything.  All my fears, all my guilt.  All those little voices in my head telling me I’m worthless.  Gone,” he whispers, lips almost touching Travis’s.  “It’s the most incredible feeling.  Like I’m soaring high above everything.”

 

“You’re still crying.”

 

He laughs softly, tears shining on his cheeks.  “I know.”  He slides a hand up into Travis’s hair and leans in to kiss him again. 

 

Travis pulls back.  “Arthur…”

 

“I’m free,” Arthur says.  Travis glimpses his tongue.  It’s white, a ghost-flame.  He painted even his tongue.  “Let me free you, darling.  Let me take away your fear.”  Arthur kisses his jaw, kisses his way up to Travis’s ear.  His tongue darts in, hot and slippery, and Travis groans.  A wave of liquid heat rolls through him, making him weak.  Arthur’s teeth press lightly against the edge of his ear, nipping.  His tongue strokes it again, swirling deftly around, a wordless promise.

 

He’s hard, now.  So is Arthur.  Travis can feel him, pressed against his thigh.  His expression is soft and open and hungry.  The tears trickle slowly from his eyes, down his cheeks, smearing blue and white together.

 

“Make love to me,” Arthur says.

 

God help him, a part of him wants to.  “We’ve got things to talk about.  You’re in no state—”

 

“You don’t have to be so noble.  It’s like I said.  Nothing can hurt me anymore.”

 

Travis’s jaw tightens.  This has gone far enough.  “Joker,” he says.

 

Arthur shakes his head.  “I’m beyond that.”

 

Travis releases him, walks over to the record player, and stops the music.  “Joker,” he says again.

 

His smiles fades a little.  “I can’t come back.  Not anymore.”  He stands with his gaze downcast, arms wrapped around himself.  “I just…wanted to see you again.  One last time.”

 

The muscles in Travis’s stomach tighten.  “You’re not going anywhere.”

 

“I have to.  I’m sorry, my love.  What I’m becoming…I can’t control it.”

 

“What are you talking about?”

 

“Please, Travis.”  A tremor creeps into his voice.  “I don’t want to waste this precious time talking and explaining.  I want to be with you.  I want to feel your skin against mine.  I want to give you everything I have.  Everything I am.  I won’t hold anything back.  It’s all yours.”   

 

Travis grips Arthur’s face, anchoring it between his palms.  “Tell me what happened.  Tell me what did this to you.  No more games.”

 

“Are you angry?”  Arthur presses closer, links his arms around Travis’s waist and rubs the length of their bodies together.  “That’s fine.  You can be rough, if you like.”  He’s writhing, grinding his hips against Travis’s.  Travis closes his eyes, fighting for control.

 

Arthur tries to kiss him again.

 

Travis grabs his chin, stopping him.  “I said no more games.”  He squeezes Arthur’s face, thumb pressing into his cheek with near-bruising force, trying to wake him up.

 

A shiver runs through Arthur, and his eyes go heavy-lidded and dark with pleasure.  “I like it when you hurt me.”

 

“This isn’t funny.”

 

Arthur’s smile disappears.  He looks up at Travis with wide, uncertain eyes.  “You really are angry.”  He lowers his gaze.  His hands curl into loose fists.  He holds them against his chest, wrists together, as though he’s manacled.  Vulnerable.  Sensual.  It’s hard to tell if that’s intentional or if it just comes naturally to him.  Maybe both.  “I’ve made you upset.  I didn’t want that.  I don’t like when you look at me so coldly.”

 

Despite the meek contriteness of his tone, there’s something about the way he talks and holds himself that feels like a performance—like his act at Pogo’s—yet somehow raw and unfiltered at the same time.  He’s naked like this.

 

Arthur steps forward, puts a hand on his chest.  “Tell me what I can do to fix it.”

 

“Come back.  Wake up.”

 

“Please believe me—I would come back for you, if I could.  But I can’t.”  Pain bleeds around the edges of his smile.  “Won’t you just let me love you?”

 

It takes all of Travis’s willpower to grip his wrist and pull Arthur’s hand away from his chest.  Because this version of Arthur—this strange, wild, sensual creature who is somehow both submissive and completely in control—is unnervingly beautiful.  Travis knows that if he just lets go, just gives himself over, Arthur will show him things that Travis can’t even imagine.  He’ll take him to another universe.  And a part of him wants to go.  Wants to surrender.

 

But he knows better. 

 

“We’re not doing that,” Travis says, still holding his wrist.  “Not tonight.  Come and sit down on that couch with me and tell me everything.  Everything that happened since I got off the phone with you yesterday.”

 

He lets out a soft, raspy laugh.  “I don’t think talking is going to help much, at this point.”

 

“Then what will?”

 

The tip of Arthur’s tongue creeps out to wet his lips.  “There is…something else I wanted to ask of you.  A favor.  A big one.”  He lowers his gaze, hiding under his lashes again.  “I was going to wait until after.  I didn’t want to spoil the mood.”

 

“Tell me.”

 

“I don’t think you’ll want to do it.  It’s a lot to ask.”

 

A ragged edge of desperation creeps into his voice.  “Arthur, stop fucking around and tell me what you need.”

 

“I need you to kill me.”

 

Travis stares.

 

“I was planning to do it myself, earlier.  I found a piece of broken glass in the street and tried to run it across my throat.  But I couldn’t go through with it.  It wasn’t the pain.  I wasn’t afraid of that.  It was the loneliness.”  Arthur folds one hand around Travis’s and gives his fingers a squeeze.  “I know it’s cruel, asking this of you.  I know it’s unfair.  But the Arthur you know is going to disappear, either way.  I can feel him getting smaller and smaller inside me.  He’s almost gone.  But there’s enough of him left to ask you for this.  What I want—what Arthur wants, more than anything, is to be in your arms when he dies.  Looking into your eyes.  You can use your gun, if you like.  I know you have one.  Put it wherever you want.  Against my temple.  Under my chin.  In my mouth.”

 

So this is it.  He came here intending to die.  To have one last, perfect night and then to end it all.

 

There’s a ripping pain inside his chest.  He pushes it away.  Walls it off.  Right now, he can’t afford to let feelings overwhelm him or cloud his thoughts.  Arthur is staring into the abyss.  Travis needs to pull him back.

 

He takes a breath.  “I’m not going to kill you, Arthur.”

 

Arthur nods slightly, as though he expected this.  “It’s all right.  I understand.”

 

“You aren’t going to kill yourself, either.”

 

For a few seconds, he's silent.  A shadow slips across his eyes.  “I can’t go home again.  I can’t.  And I don’t want to go back to Arkham.”  His red lips are parted, trembling slightly, almost imperceptibly.  “They still do lobotomies there.  Did you know that?  They were going to do it to me, if the shocks didn’t work.  And I forgot so many things, after the shock treatments.  I didn’t care what they did to me before, because I had nothing to lose.  But I don’t want to forget you.  I’m afraid that they’ll cut you out of my brain.  I’d rather die knowing you than forget you.”

 

Arthur is shaking now.  He’s terrified.  And still he smiles.

 

“Please,” he says.  “Don’t let them take me.”

 

Travis breathes in again, slowly.  “You’re not going back to Arkham.  But you’re not going to die, either.”

 

“If I don’t die, I’ll become something horrible.”  He leans in, his cheek brushing against Travis’s, and whispers into his ear, “I almost killed my mother last night.”

 

Travis’s muscles tense.  “Why?”

 

“Because I know the truth now.  I know who I am.  I saw everything in that file.”

 

The file.  He looked in that damn file.  They should have burned the thing.  “You didn’t kill her,” Travis says.  “She’s fine.”

 

“I came so close.  I went into her bedroom and I watched her sleeping, and I thought about smothering her with a pillow.”

 

“But you didn’t.”

 

“It was pure chance.  She started to wake up.  And I left.”

 

“Have you hurt anyone else?”

 

“I attacked Hoyt.”

 

“I heard about that.  You just grabbed his shirt.  He deserved worse.”  And Travis gave it to him—but bringing that up now probably won’t help.

 

“I know what I did in Arkham,” Arthur says.  “The people I’ve hurt.  It was worse than my counselor made it out to be.”

 

“That was then.”

 

“It’s still in me.  That darkness.  That evil.  There’s a part of me that wants to give myself over.  It feels so good.  If I don’t die—and soon—then I’ll embrace it, and I’ll never be able to come back.”

 

Travis understands, now.  He sees why Arthur disappeared, why he came here, why he asked for this.

 

Arthur is fighting so hard.  Trying so damn hard, despite being in so much pain that his mind has fragmented.  He’s still clinging to the last thread of control.  He’s putting all the blame on himself, prepared to lay down his life before the shadows consume him.

 

Most people will never have any idea how hard he tries.  They don’t see.  There is rage and darkness in Arthur—of course there is, after everything the world has put him through.  But there is a deep gentleness, too.  A deep humanity and goodness.  It’s there, now—a candle-flame struggling to stay lit.  Arthur and the Other are both dancing there in his eyes.  He’s balanced on that razor edge.  Travis can see it.  The dance between sanity and madness.  The battle Arthur lives through every waking moment of his life.  He’s exhausted and sore and bruised and wounded, a lone soldier holding an army at bay, digging deeper and deeper into hidden reserves of strength, trying to shut out the siren song of oblivion.  It’s been like this ever since he was a kid.

 

Travis has never loved Arthur as much as he does now, in this moment.  Every time he thinks that love can’t get any stronger, it does.

 

He places his hands on Arthur’s shoulders.  “You aren’t evil,” he says quietly, firmly.  He holds Arthur’s gaze as he says it.  He wants the words to sink deep into his mind.  “You’re hurting and scared, now.  That’s all."

 

Arthur blinks a few times.  This possibility—this acceptance—was obviously something he didn’t plan for.  “No.  Travis.  You don’t understand.  I can’t go back.”  His breathing comes harder and faster.

 

He reaches out and grips Arthur’s wrists, tight.  He can feel the pulse drumming under his fingers.  “Do you have your meds with you?”

 

“No.  I left them in my apartment.  I told you, I’m done with—”

 

“I’m going to get them.  And you’re going to take them.”

 

“It won’t help.”

 

“We’ll see.”

 

“No.  I need to die.”

 

He’s struggling now.  Trying to pull out of Travis’s grip, breathing so fast he’s almost hyperventilating. 

 

“Easy.  Easy.”  Travis drags him into an embrace and squeezes him tight.  “Shh.  Arthur.  I’ve got you.  It’s gonna be okay.  Just calm down.”

 

Arthur keeps struggling, thrashing like a wildcat.  He shouldn’t be this strong.  He’s so thin, so worn out.  But it’s all Travis can do to hold onto him.

 

Think.  He can’t leave Arthur alone in this state, and taking him with probably wouldn’t work either.  He could call Penny and ask her to bring the meds, but she never leaves the apartment.  Arthur said her hips make it a struggle for her to even get down to the mailbox.  He doubts she’ll be capable of getting here on her own.  Besides—considering what Arthur just revealed, he and Penny probably shouldn’t be anywhere near each other right now.  And Travis can’t call an ambulance, because when the doctors see what kind of state Arthur is in they’ll ship him straight back to Arkham.

 

They would keep him alive, at least.  But he suspects that Arthur is right.  They might end up damaging him beyond repair.  The system doesn’t give a shit about people like him.  They’d prefer him quiet and complacent, even if they have to carve out pieces of him.

 

Travis can’t risk that.

 

There’s only one solution that he can see.  He doesn’t like it.  But words of love aren’t going to be enough, right now.  Arthur needs those meds.

 

He releases Arthur’s wrists and grips his waist, instead.  “I’m about to be a little rough,” he says.

 

He wraps his arms around Arthur, hoists him off the floor and fireman-carries him into the bedroom.

 

“Wh-what are you—?”

 

Travis tosses him onto the bed.  He grabs a roll of duct tape from the closet floor, pins Arthur down, and winds the tape around and around his arms and wrists.

 

“Travis…”  Arthur trashes on the bed, panting.  A tendril of hair sticks to his sweat-damp face.

 

Travis binds his legs, too.  Then he pulls a pair of clean socks over Arthur’s hands, like mittens, and duct-tapes them in place.  He tries not to get any tape on Arthur’s skin.  He doesn’t want it to hurt when he takes the bindings off, later.

 

If he had bedposts instead of just a mattress, he could secure Arthur to the bed.  As it is, he might be able to roll off and wriggle around on the floor, worm-style.  But as long as he can’t use his hands, he can’t hurt himself.  And he can’t leave.

 

Arthur’s chest heaves as he takes frantic little gasps of air.  “You’re—you’re kidnapping me.”

 

“Somethin’ like that.”  He winds more tape around Arthur’s legs.  “Should’ve asked if you had to use the bathroom first.  Sorry.”

 

Arthur tips his head back and laughs.  He keeps laughing and laughing.  Tears leak from his eyes, smearing his makeup. 

 

“Here’s what’s going to happen,” Travis says.  “I’m going to give you some water, since you’re probably dehydrated, and I might be gone a little while.  Then I’m going to get your meds from the apartment.”

 

Arthur’s laughter has trailed off.  He stares at the ceiling.  “Aren’t you going to gag me?  You’re not afraid I’ll scream for help?”

 

“You can scream, if you want to.  But I don’t think you will.”

 

Though, if that does happen and if the police actually show up for once, Travis will be stuck in the awkward position of trying to explain to the cops why he had a man in clown makeup bound up in duct tape on his bed.  Whatever.  He’s not going to gag Arthur and leave him here—that’s too risky.  He needs to be able to breathe easily.

 

Arthur lets out another weak laugh, his face half-pressed against the pillow, his shoulders shaking in small spasms.

 

“I’m gonna get you something to drink.  Hang on.”

 

Travis fills a glass with water from the kitchen tap.  As an afterthought, he mixes in some of the sugary instant tea that Arthur likes, then returns to the bedroom.

 

Arthur lays still, on his back, chest rising and falling.  He didn’t have much fight left in him.  The wild, otherworldly energy he exuded earlier has burned away.  He’s exhausted.

 

Travis sits on the edge of the bed, sets the glass on the nightstand, and helps him sit up.  “Here.”  He holds the glass to Arthur’s lips.  “Drink.”

 

Arthur doesn’t respond.  Travis tips his head back and trickles the liquid between his slack lips, spilling a little.  Arthur coughs.  He swallows, and—after a moment—starts drinking on his own. 

 

“Good.  That’s good, Arthur.”

 

Once the glass is empty, Travis gathers him into his arms and hugs him close.  “I’ll be back soon.”

 

Arthur lays limp and unresisting in his arms.  “You’re going to just…leave me like this?”

 

“For a little while.  Sorry.  But I can’t risk you hurting yourself while I’m gone.”

 

He stares up at Travis through a tangle of damp hair.  “My mind is on fire,” he whispers.

 

“I know.”  Travis wipes a line of tears away with his thumb, smearing the makeup.

 

Arthur’s face stretches into a pained grin.  “I really scared you, didn’t I?  I really caused a lot of trouble.”

 

“Don’t worry about me.  Don’t worry about anything.  You’re the one in pain.  Just focus on surviving.”

 

He swallows.  Another tear trickles from the corner of his eye, down his temple.  “Maybe I belong in Arkham.”

 

“You don’t want to go there.  You said so.  You’re scared of them.”

 

“Yes.  But…”  His grin remains in place, but his voice is small and soft.  Broken.  “I don’t want to hurt anyone.  Maybe it’s better for me to be locked up.”

 

“After what you told me?  You really think I’m going to let them lobotomize you?”

 

“It might not be so bad.  Maybe it feels nice.  I don’t know.  I had a roommate there it happened to, once.  He stopped screaming.  He…he didn’t talk much, afterwards, but…”

 

“Fuck that.  I’m not letting those butchers near you.”

 

Arthur laughs hoarsely.  “Even if you bring the meds and make me take them, they’ll run out soon.  It won’t matter.  I’m tired of counting the days until I go mad.  If it’s going to happen, I just want it to be over with.”

 

“I’m not letting you give up.  You hear me?”  Travis smooths his hair back and kisses his forehead.  “I’ll be back soon.”

 

No reply.  Arthur’s face has gone blank.  He stares straight ahead, almost catatonic. 

 

“Arthur.  Can you hear me?”

 

His eyes are empty rooms.  Wet marbles reflecting the glow of the lamp.

 

Not good.  Travis hates leaving him alone in this state.  He wonders, for a moment, if he should just stay here for the rest of the night.  Arthur is so close to the edge right now.  Travis’s instincts say to hold him, to cradle him in his arms and keep talking to him.  To give him a light to follow, to lead his mind out of this dark place.

 

But there’s a limit to what words can do.  Maybe the meds won't fix everything, but missing another dose will definitely make things worse.

 

Travis gently lays him down on the bed.  He kisses Arthur’s unresponsive lips, very softly.  “Hold on.”

 

He walks out of the bedroom.

 

It occurs to Travis that he should give Penny a call and let her know he’s coming.  Let her know that Arthur is here.

 

He walks to the phone and dials.

 

Penny answers.  “Hello?”

 

“It’s me.  I found him.  He’s at my place, now.”

 

She sobs.  “Oh, thank god.  Thank god.  Is he coming home?”

 

“Not yet.”

 

“Let me talk to him.”

 

Travis hesitates.  “He can’t really talk right now.  He’s in a bad state.”

 

“I don’t care what sort of state he’s in,” she says, voice shrill and frantic.  “Put him on the phone.”

 

“He’s not himself right now.  He needs his meds.  I’m coming over to get them.  I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”

 

“You think you can just decide whether I’m allowed to talk to my son?  You think that I’ll just—”

 

He hangs up.  Goes back into the other room.  Arthur is still laying on his back, motionless and silent. 

 

Just a short trip, he thinks.  Fifteen minutes there and fifteen minutes back.  “Wait for me, Arthur.”

 

He walks out.

 

* * *

 

When he arrives at the apartment, Penny buzzes him up, then lets him in.

 

She’s wearing a pink terrycloth bathrobe.  Her hair’s a mess, her eyes red from crying. 

 

“Hey.”  Travis steps in, closing the door behind him.

 

She stands, arms crossed over her chest, watching him warily.  Her fingers press into her own arms with enough force to whiten the skin around her nails.  “You have Arthur?”

 

“He’s at my place now, like I said.”

 

“You should have brought him here.  This is his home.  He needs to be home.  With me.”

 

“He’s in no state to go anywhere, right now.”  Something occurs to him.  “Did you call the police?  I mean, before?  When he was missing?”

 

She rubs her arms.  “I tried.  They just brushed me off, though.”  Bitterness creeps into her voice.  “The man I spoke to told me they would file a report, but it was obvious that he didn’t care.  They never actually do anything to help people like me.  Or Arthur.”

 

Probably just as well, at the moment.  After the whole thing with Hoyt…well, he’ll worry about that later.  He has bigger concerns.

 

“I want to talk to my son,” Penny says.

 

“He can’t come to the phone.”  Plus Arthur almost smothered her with a pillow last night.  Even if he weren’t catatonic, he probably wouldn’t be in the mood to talk to her.  Of course, if Travis tries to tell her that, she won’t believe him.  “Maybe in a few days…”

 

“A few days?”  Her voice rises shrilly again.  “This is ridiculous!  You think you can just—hold my son hostage?”

 

Travis rubs his forehead.  “Arthur showed up at my place on his own.”  Though, given the current situation, the word hostage feels uncomfortably close to the truth. 

 

He doesn’t have time for this.  He walks past her.  “Where are his meds?”

 

“I’ve hidden them.”

 

Travis freezes.  Slowly, he turns toward her.  She must not like what she sees in his face, because she flinches back.  Still, she holds her ground.

 

Damn it.  He should have anticipated this.  He should have just shown up, instead of letting her know he was coming.  Everything happened so quickly, he didn’t have time to think.  And maybe, in spite of everything, he didn’t believe Penny would do something like this.

 

“Penny.”  He struggles to hold his voice steady.  “Arthur needs those pills.”

 

“And he can have them.  If you just bring him here.”

 

“He doesn’t want to be here right now.”

 

“According to you.  How do I know you’re telling the truth, if you won’t even let me talk to him?” 

 

Travis’s jaw tightens.  He turns away from her and starts searching the living room.  Removing the couch cushions, checking underneath them.  Peering under the couch itself.  He walks into the kitchen, starts checking the cabinets.

 

Penny follows.  “You won’t find them.  I’ve hidden them in a place you’ll never think to look.”

 

He’s confident that he could find the meds, given enough time.  It’s a small apartment, with limited hiding places.  But Arthur is currently wrapped up in duct-tape on his bed.  He’s scared.  Alone.  Hurting.  Travis doesn’t have time for these games.

 

He turns toward Penny and slowly approaches.

 

She backs away.  “If—if you think you can intimidate me—”

 

He grips her shoulders, squeezes.  Not with enough force to hurt her.  Just enough to remind her that he can.  “You’re going to tell me where the meds are.”

 

“Or what?”  She quivers underneath his hands.  “You’ll break my arm?”

 

“I won’t have to.  I know plenty of ways to cause pain without injuring someone.”

 

She tries to pull away.  He tightens his grip.  She sobs, a strangled bleat.  “You’re a monster.  You’re like the rest of them.”

 

“Tell me where the drugs are,” he says.

 

“No.”

 

“Arthur is very sick right now.  He’s in a lot of pain.  He was talking about dying.  He came close to slitting his own throat with a piece of glass.”

 

“No!”  She moans.  “No, no.  You’re lying.  He wouldn’t do that.”

 

“You want him to end up back in Arkham?”

 

“He promised he wouldn’t leave me!  He promised!”  She’s sobbing now.  “This is all your fault!  Everything!  Arthur and I were happy together!  We didn’t need anyone!  You’ve ruined him!  Give my son back to me!  Give him back!

 

A hot, sharp pain throbs behind his right eye.  He raises a hand.  She falls silent and cowers, covering her head.  He lets the hand fall to his side.

 

“Penny,” he says, keeping his voice as quiet as he can, “you’re right about me.  I am a monster.  But I love Arthur more than life itself.  Believe me when I say that if bringing him here would help him, he’d be here now.  But he doesn’t want to be here.  He’s afraid of you.  Do you understand?”

 

“No,” she whispers.

 

“If he sees you now, it will only make him worse.”

 

“He loves me.  I know he does.”

 

“Yes.  He does.  But he doesn’t want to be here right now.  You’ve been knocked around before.  So you know what it’s like, maybe.  You can love someone and still be afraid of them.”

 

Her expression goes blank, slack.  “I never hit him.  Not once.”

 

“Not with your hands.  But there’s more than one way to break someone.”

 

She hangs her head.  Her shoulders tremble.  Her eyes have gone empty.  “The pills are in the tank of the toilet,” she whispers.

 

Travis lets out a quiet breath of relief.  “Thanks.”  He releases her and heads to the bathroom.

 

The tank of the toilet.  Did she really believe it wouldn’t occur to him to look there?  She must think he’s an idiot.

 

He pulls the ceramic lid off the tank.  And his stomach clenches.

 

Instead of sealing the bottles up in an airtight plastic bag, the way you normally would when hiding something in water, she just dropped the amber tubes directly into the tank.  And the caps obviously weren’t secured very well, because several of them have come loose.  At least three bottles are open and have sunk to the bottom.  The tablets inside have dissolved into a white cloud, billowing slowly out through the water.

 

Travis leans his head against the wall.

 

Fuck.

 

He fishes the bottles out, one by one, and inspects them.  Three are still intact, one has leaked a little bit might still be salvageable, at least in part.  Three are ruined.  The labels have gone blurry, but he can still read them.  By now, he knows the names of all the medications Arthur takes, just from hearing Arthur talk about them.  Two of the ruined bottles are the mood stabilizer and the antipsychotic.  Probably the most important ones, given his current condition.

 

He gathers up the bottles, even the empty ones, and shoves them all into his pockets.  He stands there for a minute or two, thinking.

 

There is another solution.

 

He walks out of the bathroom, across the living room, toward the door.

 

Penny stands there in her fuzzy slippers and bathrobe, wringing her hands.  She flinches as he walks past.

 

He doesn’t even glance at her.  He strides out the door, shutting it firmly behind him.

 

* * *

 

Travis parks his cab a few blocks away from Helms Pharmacy, in an alley.  He shrugs out of his brown jacket and puts on a baggy winter coat—black with neon green stripes—and a red ski mask with a pattern of tiny snowmen.  From his glove compartment, he removes the .38.

 

The jacket and ski mask he bought over a week ago.  He kept them stashed in the trunk of the cab.  He had a feeling that he might need them, sooner or later.  He wasn’t consciously thinking that he might have to rob a pharmacy, but maybe in the back of his head, he always recognized this as a possibility.

 

He’ll ditch the clothes in a garbage can once he’s finished.  He deliberately went for the tackiest and most attention-getting outfit he could find.  Potential witnesses will remember the crazy coat and the ugly ski mask.  With luck, they’ll forget basic stuff like his height and what his voice sounds like.  He’s wearing a pair of thin black gloves, to avoid fingerprints.

 

He gets out of the cab, gun hidden beneath his coat, and starts walking.

 

He’s been inside Helms before, more than once.  At night, there’s only one guy working behind the counter, and the store is usually pretty dead.  No security cameras.  Even if someone sees him and calls the cops, he’ll be gone by the time the boys in blue show up, if they show up at all.

 

He’s counting on the general lawlessness of Gotham, tonight.  The main risk is that another customer with a gun will show up and decide to be a hero.  Lots of people carry, in Gotham.

 

Travis is aware of the irony.  He’s been on the other side of this scenario before.  And he remembers how that ended—with the bad guy dead on the floor.  Travis is the bad guy, now.  He’s aware, too, that he’s leaving a lot to chance.  If this goes badly, he’s fucked.  And so is Arthur.  It’s not just his own life he’s risking.

 

But Arthur is already on the edge of the abyss.  And Travis can’t keep him tied up forever.  Can’t watch him forever.  Without the drugs, there's no hope.

 

There might be a way to get cheaper versions of the drugs through illegal channels, but he doesn’t know any dealers in Gotham.  No reliable ones, anyway.  There are lots of people peddling basement-brewed, knock-off poisons.  Finding a source for safe medication is a lot harder than buying a gun.

 

He has to take this chance.  And he has to do it now.  There won’t be a better time.

 

He thinks about everything he’s done over the past twenty-four hours.  Beating the shit out of Arthur’s old boss.  Tying Arthur up with duct tape and leaving him on the bed, alone.  Threatening Penny.  And now this.

 

What Arthur will never quite grasp is that, between the two of them, Travis is the crazy one.  Because he did all those things without a second thought, and he doesn’t regret them. 

 

Several people walk past him, and a few give him curious looks, but the night’s cold enough that the ski mask isn’t too out of place.

 

He passes a small, grubby church sandwiched in between a Laundromat and a hotdog restaurant, recognizable as such only by the lit-up cross in the window.  A deep, soothing blue.  Like the diamonds around Arthur’s eyes.  A hymn drifts from within, gentle and ethereal and somber.  A lullaby for the soul.

 

In spite of himself, Travis stops for a few seconds to listen.  And he prays.

 

God, let this work.  Let me save him.  You can do whatever You want with me.  Cast my soul down into hell.  Just give me this.

 

He is aware of the arrogance, the hypocrisy of this—praying for his robbery to go well.  He knows, too, that the world doesn’t work that way.  God takes and gives, but there is no bargaining.  What is, is what must be.  He’s heard that phrase somewhere—a book or movie or something.  He can’t remember.

 

I’m not bargaining.  I’m just asking.  Let him live.  He's been hurt too much already.  Let him live in the light.  Even if it’s without me.

 

He approaches Helms and lingers outside.  There’s a woman in the pharmacy, at the counter.  He waits until she leaves and the store is empty.

 

Here goes.

 

There’s a buzz at the base of his spine.  It travels slowly up his back, spreads through his body—a tingling warmth, which gives way to cool clarity.  He’s very aware of his beating heart, but it’s not racing.  Thump, thump, thump.  Steady as a metronome, pushing the blood through his veins.  The inside of his head is as still as a windless field.  He feels the weight of the moment in his bones.

 

It’s amazing how calm he feels.  His own purpose has never been clearer.  Right or wrong, good or bad, this is what his whole life has been leading up to.  He told Arthur once that certainty was a sign of insanity.  If that’s the case, he’s gone over the edge. 

 

He enters, the bell dinging softly overhead, and pulls out the handgun.

 

Chapter Text

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The pharmacist stares at the gun.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“That’s all.”

 

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

 

“Just go,” the pharmacist mutters.

 

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

 

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

 

Behind him, the bell dings.

 

Shit.

 

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

 

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

 

“Drop the gun,” the man says.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“I said drop the fucking gun.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

* * *

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Travis…where is Travis?

 

“Help me,” he whispers.

 

And then Travis is there, stroking his hair.

 

“It’s okay, Arthur.  I’m here.”

 

“Help me…stop the voices, please…”

 

“I will.  Just relax.”

 

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

 

“Are you real?” he whispers, dazed.

 

“I’m as real as you want me to be.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And then, for a while, he blacks out.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“What happened to you?”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Yes.”

 

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

 

“You want me to bandage your wound?”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

His eyelids flicker open.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Okay.”

 

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

 

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

 

“Doesn’t have to be pretty.”

 

“I’m hallucinating right now.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

A shrill laugh erupts from Arthur’s throat. 

 

Oh god.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

They sing louder.

 

“Go away.  Just fucking go away.”

 

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

 

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

 

“There,” Arthur says.  “It’s done.”

 

No response.

 

“Travis.  Please say something.”

 

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

 

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

 

“Arthur,” he whispers.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Travis…how…?”

 

“Later.”  He grimaces.  “Hurts.”

 

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

 

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

 

“Yes?”

 

“Give it to me with your mouth.”

 

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

 

“You take yours now,” Travis says hoarsely.

 

Arthur stares at the array of amber bottles. 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Arthur.”

 

“I know.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

They lay together in silence.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

He lets go.  Surrenders to whatever comes next.

 

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

 

* * *

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

His stomach growls.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

He came so close.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Same, I guess.”

 

“You were in bad shape last night.”

 

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

 

“I could eat.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

They interview the pharmacist.

 

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

 

“Why do you think that is?”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“I know.”

 

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

 

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

 

“What do you mean?”

 

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

 

Arthur stares.  “Hoyt?  Why?”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Yeah.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Arthur winces.  God, what a mess. 

 

But they’re alive.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Promise me.”

 

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

 

Arthur’s shoulders tense, drawing inward. 

 

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

 

All I do is hurt other people. 

 

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

 

Still. 

 

“I’m sorry,” he says.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Look at me, Arthur.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Lucky I’ve got you here.”

 

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

 

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

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

Arthur sits in the bathroom, on a chair facing the mirror.  Travis stands behind him, watching.  Arthur’s heart pounds as he applies the white greasepaint to his cheeks in broad, sweeping strokes.

 

He’s done this hundreds of times.  And of course, Travis has seen him this way before, more than once.  But this is the first time Travis has watched him transform himself.  It feels…intimate.

 

He covers his face in white, rolls red over his lips, then paints himself a smile, a broad swath of crimson across the lower half of his face.  He reaches for the smallest brush, prepared to outline the smile in black paint—then stops.

 

“You like me this way?”  He watches his own lips move in the mirror as he speaks.

 

“Yeah.  I do.”  He watches intently.  “You like it too, don’t you?  Wearing it.”

 

He licks his lips.  Begins applying a blue diamond around one eye.  “I’ve liked makeup ever since I was a little boy.  I never understood why girls got to play with it and boys didn’t.  When I asked my mother, she said, ‘Because girls are expected to look pretty all the time.  Be happy you don’t have to bother.  It’s a nuisance.’  But to me, it wasn’t a nuisance.  It was transformation.”

 

He finishes one diamond.  Starts painting another.

 

“Penny didn’t wear makeup all the time.  When she did, it was usually for a special night.  And she seemed almost like another person when she put it on.  She smiled more.  Laughed louder.  Maybe it was just an act.  A mask.  But I wanted that for myself—to have that glow.  It broke my heart that I couldn’t have it.”

 

He puts the finishing stroke on the second diamond, traces a red eyebrow above it.

 

“When I realized that clowns wore makeup, too, it felt like I had discovered a loophole in the system.”  He turns his head to one side, examining himself in the mirror as he applies the second brow.  “I guess that was one of the ‘bizarre sexual fixations’ they mentioned.  It isn’t just about that, of course.  It wasn’t about that when I was working.”  He rubs a finger slowly over his ruby-painted lower lip.  “But sometimes…”

 

“It turns you on?  Seeing yourself like this?”

 

“Yes.”  Even now, admitting it—saying it out loud—fills him with a heady cocktail of excitement and fear.  He feels exposed.  Like he’s standing in a spotlight.

 

“You painted your tongue, too.  Last time.  I saw it.”

 

“I like the taste.”  He opens his mouth, sticks his tongue out, and runs the broad white brush over it.

 

Travis leans forward a little.  His breathing has grown subtly heavier.

 

Arthur adds a smudge of red to his nose.

 

Currently, he’s wearing old jeans and one of Travis’s shirts—an ordinary, plaid, button-down shirt.  It’s a little loose on him.  But he likes the looseness.  It makes him feel smaller.  Delicate.  Sometimes he hates the narrowness of his own shoulders, the lack of muscle definition.  But sometimes he takes pleasure in it.

 

“Your eyes change color, you know,” Travis says.  “When you’re excited.”

 

Arthur’s heart thuds against the wall of his chest.  “They do?”

 

“Watch them.”

 

His gaze remains fixed on his own reflection in the mirror as Travis—still standing behind him—reaches around and slowly undoes a few buttons of his shirt.  He slides a hand underneath, caresses Arthur’s ribcage, his sides, his stomach.

 

He feels himself starting to go under.  Just a little.  Feels the shift inside his head.  It’s nothing like it was last time—he’s still himself, still in control.  But he feels…tipsy.  Feels his inhibitions softening.  A languid warmth seeps through him.

 

“See?  They just got a little greener.”

 

“Oh,” he whispers, breathless.  He didn’t actually notice.  He’s hard, his cock straining against his jeans, pulsing against the tightly stretched denim.

 

Travis’s hand starts to move between Arthur’s thighs…then stops.  “Do you want this, now?”

 

Arthur bites the inside of his cheek.  It’s been so long.  And he’s missed this.  Missed feeling this way.  He’s still so raw and shaky, in so many ways.  But he does want it.

 

“Yes,” he whispers.

 

Travis unzips Arthur’s jeans.  His hand curls around his erection, stroking him slowly through the thin cotton of his briefs.

 

“I’m just going to touch you like this,” Travis murmurs into his ear.  “That’s all.  If you want me to stop, you say the word.”

 

Arthur’s eyes slip shut.  The contact is so intense, it makes him lightheaded.  He can feel the heat of Travis’s skin even through the layer of cloth.  Travis’s other hand remains on his chest, directly over his heart, as his fingers move up and down his cock.

 

“Keep looking at yourself.”

 

Arthur’s eyes drift open.  A painted face stares back at him.

 

Travis whispers into his ear as he strokes him:  “You know you’re beautiful, don’t you?”

 

“I am to you, maybe.”

 

“Not just me.  Other people notice it.  Sometimes when you and I went out to eat together, I saw them staring at you.  Women.  Men, too.”

 

“People stare at me because they think I’m weird.”

 

Travis’s hand slides up to sprawl across Arthur’s throat.  His palm caresses Arthur’s jaw and tips his head to one side, exposing his soft, vulnerable neck.  Posing him like a doll.

 

“Look at yourself, Arthur.”

 

Arthur’s breathing quickens.  He watches his own Adam’s apple bob as he swallows.

 

“Look at that face.  Those big green eyes.  Those mile-long lashes.  You’re a knockout.  You’re gorgeous.”  He keeps stroking him as he talks.  Arthur’s legs open a little wider.  “People see that.  Maybe they don’t even know why they’re staring at you.  But they can’t help it.”  His thumb strokes the racing pulse in Arthur’s throat.  “There’s a light in you.  You try to hide it.  You curl in around it.  All closed-off.  But it shines out anyway.  It’s in your face and the way you move.  The way you dance.”

 

Arthur tenses a little.  In a flash, he remembers dancing on the stage at Pogo’s—the mocking laughter, the burning shame, the nakedness…

 

“Stay with me.”

 

Arthur snaps back to the front of his mind, eyes focusing on Travis’s reflection in the mirror.

 

“Sometimes I look at you and I can hardly believe you’re mine,” Travis says, close to his ear.  His hand moves up and down, up and down.  “I don’t know how I got so lucky.”

 

He laughs, soft and choked.  “You’ve got it backwards.  I’m just—”

 

“Don’t.”  Travis gently tugs a lock of his hair and kisses his temple.  “That’s a bad habit you got.  Puttin’ yourself down all the time.  Don’t start.”

 

Arthur smiles.  His head’s gone fuzzy and warm.  His thoughts are spinning and sliding around.  “So strict.”

 

“I can be strict when I wanna be.”

 

“Oh?”

 

In the mirror, Arthur’s eyes have taken on that wide, over-bright look.  Travis is right—they are greener than usual.

 

He sprawls back in the chair, thighs wide open, head tipped back, staring up at Travis.  “So what are you going to do if I start talking like that again?  Spank me?”

 

There's a slight hitch in Travis's breathing.  “Not today.”  He leans in closer, until his lips brush against Arthur’s ear, and gives his cock a squeeze.  “But I’ve fantasized about that.  Don’t think I haven’t.”

 

Arthur’s pulse quickens.  “You wouldn’t dare.”  His voice goes breathy and Southern.  “A gentleman would never do such a thing.”

 

“Now you’re really tryin’ to tempt me, aren’t you?”  He hooks a finger under the waistband of Arthur’s briefs, tugs them down, and curls his hand around his dick again, without the barrier of cloth this time.  At the sudden shock of skin on skin, Arthur’s head falls back.  Travis just holds him for a moment, Arthur pulsing in his grip.  “You know I’d like that.  Spanking you red.”

 

The words send a pulse of heat through Arthur’s body.  It coils low in his belly, behind his balls.

 

His mind skates, briefly, to the red file.  Now ashes.  But still there in his head.  He wonders if Travis is thinking about it too.  Its unspoken presence hovers between them.  A bit of cold slips through the heat.

 

He doesn't want it to change things between them.  But how can it not? When they do things like this...talk about things like this...

 

Travis tugs on his erection, lightly.  “Like I said. I’m just gonna touch you until you cum.  Right here in front of the mirror.”  A bottle of lube sits on the counter.  Travis grabs the bottle, squirts some into his palm, and goes back to stroking Arthur, spreading the slippery liquid over sensitive, tight flesh.  Arthur’s hips buck, pushing up into his touch.

 

Arthur tips his head back, dizzy.  “You know,” he says, his voice thin, “this is more of a Christmas present for me than you.”

 

“Oh no.  I’m enjoyin’ this.  I like watching you.”

 

It’s been so long.  And it feels so good.  Those warm, strong, calloused fingers moving up and down the length of him.

 

“You’re a tease,” Arthur murmurs.  “Talking about spanking me red and then being so gentle with me.”

 

Travis smiles, just a tug at one corner of his lips.  “You know, if I wanted, I could hold you right on the edge for a while.  Keep stroking you until you’re almost there, then stop and watch you squirm around in the chair and listen to you beg me with that pretty mouth.”  His voice has dropped, going deep and husky.  “I’d like that, too.”

 

“I…”  Arthur gulps.  His chest tightens.  “Oh god…”

 

Maybe Travis hears the slight flutter of fear in his voice, the way it breaks over the last word.  He stops.  His eyes search Arthur’s.

 

“Keep going,” Arthur whispers.

 

Travis resumes stroking.  He pets Arthur’s hair, cradles his chin in one palm.  He brushes a thumb over Arthur’s lower lip…then pushes a little harder, parting those scarlet lips, running his thumb over and around and inside them, stroking Arthur’s white-painted tongue.  Slowly, Arthur wraps his lips around the knuckle and sucks.  He hears the hitch in Travis’s breath.

 

Watching it all happen in the mirror somehow makes the sensations more intense.

 

Travis’s thumb slides free of his mouth, wet and glistening.  A soft ripple of laughter escapes Arthur’s throat, then a groan, and his back arches in the chair.  He feels his mind slipping deeper into itself, opening wider. 

 

Already, Arthur’s on the verge of coming apart.  He closes his eyes and gold sparks dance behind his lids.  Just little lights—not full-blown hallucinations.  Still.  The sparkles make him nervous.  He opens his eyes and they’re still there, drifting lazily across his vision like fireflies.  His gaze moves back and forth, following them.

 

He knows he can stop this, if he wants.  They still have the code-word.

 

It didn’t work last time.  At the memory, his throat stiffens.  Travis said it to him, that night.  But he couldn’t come back.

 

His breathing comes harder and faster.  “Joker,” he blurts out.

 

Travis stops again.  Releases him. 

 

There’s another shift in his head.  The world sharpens and clears.  Arthur sprawls limp and panting in the chair. 

 

“You all right?”

 

“I think so.  I just—need a moment.”  He closes his eyes.  Feels Travis stroking his hair.

 

He’s gotten his breathing under control.  The pressure in his chest eases.  The sparkles still drift lazily across the backs of his eyelids.  After a moment, they dissolve into blackness.

 

He remembers intense sexual fantasies during his last psychotic break.  He came in his pants, while he was tied up on the bed, alone.  And now, arousal seems to be triggering his hallucinations.  What if something happened inside him, that night, and the crazy parts of his brain have gotten tangled up with his pleasure centers?  What if he can’t achieve orgasm anymore without losing his mind a little?

 

The thought is frightening.

 

“Arthur.  Talk to me.”

 

“I…was hallucinating a little, just now.  I saw…sparks.”

 

“You’re still in control,” Travis says quietly.  He rubs Arthur’s scalp in small circles.  “You stopped it.”

 

“Yes.”  That thought calms him.  It’s not like before.

 

He’s learning how to manage it, little by little.  To go under and then come back safely.  He was getting better, before they took away his meds and he had that crash.  He’s slowly finding his feet again, now.  It helps, having Travis there to guide him.

 

“Is it strange?” he whispers.  “That so many things scare and excite me at the same time?”

 

“It’s not strange.”  He rests a hand atop Arthur’s head.  "I think that’s just what being a person is like."

 

Maybe it is.  Living inside his own mind is like trying to ride a half-wild, bucking horse.  He never knows what’s going to set it off.  Fear and joy alike can push him over the edge.  A random word or touch can send him spiraling down.  But he can’t just avoid anything that gives him pleasure.  Trying to live that way really would drive him crazy.  “Can we…keep going?”

 

“If you’re ready.”

 

“I think so.”  His erection has faded, but only a little.

 

Travis wraps his hand around Arthur’s cock again and keeps stroking him.  Smooth, sure strokes.  Within less than a minute, he’s hard again.

 

“You’re so nice to me,” Arthur murmurs.

 

“You make it easy.”

 

“I don’t know if I do.”

 

“Shh.”

 

He lets himself fall into the rhythm.  Lets his head go empty.

 

“So pretty,” Travis murmurs.

 

His balls tighten, growing fuller.  Travis’s other hand moves down to touch them, tracing small circles on their surface.  A finger slips behind them to brush over his opening—not pushing, just stroking.  Stimulating the sensitive flesh around it.

 

Arthur’s breathing comes in jerking, shaky little gulps.  His gaze remains fixed on their reflection in the mirror.  The painted face, the vivid blood-red smile cutting across his cheeks, hair tumbling loose and soft around it.  Who is that?  It can’t be himself.  Because this man is beautiful.

 

His eyes are wide and shiny inside the blue diamonds.  He sees his own face reflected in those eyes, inside the mirror, staring back at him.  Reflections of reflections—the self beholding the self beholding the self.  He feels his consciousness pulled back and forth, seesawing.  He’s spiraling down corridors of mirrors.  Spiraling down into himself, then out again.  In and out. 

 

“Almost there.”  Travis’s lips move against his ear.  His voice, husky and deep, vibrates inside Arthur’s head.  Anchors him.

 

His vision blurs, then goes dark as he feels his eyes rolling back.  His universe narrows to the sensation of Travis’s hand on his cock.  He is his cock, his whole body engorged and sensitive and wrapped up in those strong fingers.  His whole being, reduced to sensitive nerve endings and pulsing flesh.  No sight, no sound, just touch.  It’s intense.  Almost unbearable.  He quivers on the verge of explosion.

 

One last, hard stroke brings Arthur over the edge.  He cries out.  Cum drips over Travis’s palm and onto Arthur’s thighs.  He leans back in the chair, damp with sweat, breathing in small, shuddering gulps.

 

Travis drapes his arms around him from behind, kisses his temple.  “You okay?”

 

Arthur nods.  His gaze loosely fixes on his reflection.  Disheveled hair, falling in loose waves around his face.  Slightly smeared red makeup around his lips.  A few strands of hair stick to his cheek, one clinging to the corner of his mouth.  Half-unbuttoned shirt hanging loose from his frame, worn jeans bunched up around his hips, spent cock hanging out, still dripping. 

 

He feels drunk.  Sated.  He can taste the paint on his tongue and lips.  Its bitterness is like the bitterness of black coffee or smoke or alcohol.  The taste buzzes in his brain, making him want more.  “That felt good,” he whispers.

 

“I’m glad.”

 

“I didn’t do anything for you, though.”

 

Another little smile tugs at his mouth.  “I’m gonna be thinking about that look on your face the next time I jerk off.  And probably the next ten times after that, too.”

 

A warm shiver ripples through Arthur’s body.  The remark makes him wonder just how often Travis has been jerking off lately.  His gaze wanders to the erection tenting Travis’s slacks. 

 

He reaches out.  Starts to tug down the zipper.

 

Travis inhales, short and sharp.

 

Arthur pulls the zipper down a little more and slides a finger under Travis’s boxers.  He eases them down, freeing the head of his cock.  Flushed, round, dark.  Ripe fruit.  Lazily, Arthur turns his head and wraps his lips around the swollen cock, taking it into his mouth.  Arthur’s lips tug, and a soft groan slides from Travis’s throat.  His cock is heavy.  Warm.  Arthur runs his tongue along the underside, over the slit at the tip, tasting the salt of precum.

 

Travis’s fingers slide into his hair, gripping.  His breathing’s grown heavy and raspy.

 

Arthur probes the little slit with his tongue.  His teeth scrape, very lightly, over the head.  He nuzzles the hard flesh, leaving little smears of red paint.  Breathes in the tang of arousal.  The taste and smell of him.

 

Then his mind wanders, again, to the stockings.  He pulls back, a little, so his lips are just barely brushing against the tight flesh.  “I want…”

 

“Yeah?”  Travis’s voice comes out a rough whisper.

 

Arthur swallows.  “I want to wear something for you.  S-something I bought today.”

 

“What?”

 

Arthur wonders if this is a good idea.  He thinks about the girl in the store, telling him that the stockings are cheap and that he should get something better.  Of course, he can’t afford really nice lingerie.  Even if he could, would it make a difference?  Maybe he would look absurd, regardless.

 

He thinks about the man he saw in the mirror just moments ago.

 

Arthur knows that—whatever Travis believes—most people don’t see him as beautiful.  But it doesn’t matter what they think.  Most people don’t truly look at him, anyway.

 

He touches the corner of his own mouth with one finger.  “Go into the bedroom and wait,” he says.

 

* * *

 

Travis stands in the bedroom, burning with restless, feverish need.  The anticipation is killing him.  The head of his cock still pokes out through his unzipped fly.  He resists the urge to start stroking himself.  If he does, he’s not gonna last much longer.  The memory of Arthur’s face in that moment when he went over the edge, the way his body arched up out of the chair—he could cum just thinking about that.  Bring himself over with a few strokes.

 

Arthur pokes his head in through the doorway.  “Turn around.”  His voice is soft, nervous.

 

Travis turns away.  He listens to the soft creak of footsteps as Arthur enters the bedroom.  The whisper of cloth as Arthur changes into something.

 

“You can look now.”

 

He turns around.

 

Arthur stands by the bed.  His makeup is a little messy, his hair loose and tangled.  Despite the feral look of that painted red smile, his body language is all Arthur, his hands folded modestly in front of him, his eyes wide and uncertain, lips slightly parted.  He’s still wearing Travis’s half-unbuttoned plaid shirt, though he’s taken off his jeans and briefs, and his socks too.  Instead, he wears a pair of sheer, black nylon stockings topped with bands of dark lace.

 

Travis stares, mouth dry, heart thumping.

 

The stockings are a little loose on him, bunching up in folds around his knees and ankles.  Arthur fidgets, hands tightening on each other.  “I saw them in the store, and I just…thought I would try them.  I know they don’t fit very well.  This was the only size they had.”

 

Travis’s hands tremble.  His cock is so hard and tight it almost hurts.  He wants to grab Arthur and push him onto the bed. 

 

“Tell me the truth,” Arthur says, his face downcast, his voice cracking a little.  “Do I look silly?”

 

“No.”

 

Arthur raises his head.  Their eyes meet.  His breathing quickens.

 

Travis takes a step closer.

 

Arthur wets his lips.  Then, slowly, he lowers himself onto the bed, onto his back.  He props himself up on his arms, one leg bent, the other stretched out.  There’s a shy hunger in his expression.  A dark little gleam.

 

Travis crawls onto the bed, on top of him, breathing heavily.  His hand slides down to caress Arthur’s thigh.  The nylon is smooth and silky against his palm, the lace just a little rough and scratchy.

 

“Are they nice?” Arthur whispers.

 

Travis brushes his finger over a loose fold of cloth on the underside of Arthur’s knee.  “Yeah.”  It’s the only word he can manage to get out.

 

He kisses Arthur, hard and deep, devouring his mouth.  Arthur wraps his arms around Travis’ pulling him closer, lips moving against his.

 

He squeezes Arthur’s skinny thigh, fingers digging in, and Arthur’s head falls back.  His lips part, eyes going glassy and dazed.  He stares up at Travis through a messy curtain of hair, chest heaving.

 

Travis’s throat feels tight.  Like he’s going to cry or something.  It’s a little hard to breathe.  He stares down at Arthur, feeling strangely helpless.  So beautiful.  Just looking at him makes him ache.  He feels clumsy, incoherent with desire.

 

“Arthur…”  He gulps.

 

It’s hard to think.  He wants to say the words, the right words, the ones that will make Arthur understand how he's feeling right now.  But all he can do is stare.

 

Arthur hooks a leg over his hips, pulling him closer, and kisses him again.  His hands slide up and down Travis’s back, into his hair, as Arthur writhes beneath him.  Panting, Travis fumbles at the buttons of Arthur’s shirt, undoing the rest of them and pulling the shirt off so that Arthur’s wearing nothing but his makeup and those lacy black nylons.  Travis caresses Arthur’s back, his sides, his legs, rubbing and squeezing.  He can’t get enough.  Their bodies slide against each other.  Their legs tangle together.  Travis tugs his jeans off, kicks them aside so he can feel the slickness of nylon against his skin.

 

“You want me?” Arthur murmurs against his lips.

 

“Yes.  God, yes.”

 

“I want you.

 

The lube is on the floor, next to the bed.  Travis brought it in earlier.  He grabs it now, slicks his fingers, and slips one behind Arthur’s balls, pressing against dry, hot flesh.  He feels the ring of muscle constrict.  It’s small, tight and closed.  Like a flower bud.  He stops.

 

They haven’t done that since that first time.  He remembers the sight of Arthur limping the next day, walking in those small, painful steps.  The furtive way he looked at Travis.  How much that shook him, knowing he’d torn up the inside of Arthur’s body and mind.

 

This is different.  They’re prepared now.  Still.  He’s so revved up, it’s hard to think.  His whole body vibrates with need.  His balls pulse, achingly full and tight.

 

He thinks about the red file.  The photos.  The bruises.  It's like a cold splash.

 

Arthur caresses his face with his free hand.  “It’s all right, my love.  I won’t break.” 

 

Travis takes a breath and pushes.  His finger slides in.  Tight flesh presses in around it.  The inside of Arthur’s body is fever-hot.  He moves his finger in and out, works another inside, stroking the inner walls, stretching and loosening him.

 

Despite the fact that Arthur just came, his cock stirs and starts to rise again.

 

Travis finds that spot—round and firm, a little springy—and presses.  Arthur’s hips jerk.  His eyes flare briefly wider.  Travis pushes a little harder, and Arthur moans. 

 

It’s so easy to make him react.  It’s addictive.  Find those spots, the ones that ache to be touched, and press them.  Make him breathe faster, make his eyes roll back and disappear into his head, make him squirm around and pant for breath and gasp and tremble.  He’s so hungry for touch. 

 

He pushes harder, deeper, right into the center of Arthur’s need.  Arthur writhes, his legs pushing against the bed, heels digging into the sheets.

 

Travis gasps for breath, flushed and sweating.  He can’t wait any longer. 

 

He pulls his fingers out, grabs Arthur’s wrists, and pins them to the bed.  Arthur stares up at him, wide-eyed.

 

“I need to fuck you,” Travis whispers hoarsely.

 

He sees the brief flicker of fear—then a hot haze of desire slips over Arthur's eyes.  He nods.

 

Shaking, Travis positions himself.  He grips Arthur’s thighs and hoists them up.  Presses against his entrance.  So tight, so tight.  He groans, pushes forward, sliding into him.  The pressure coils deep in his belly, behind his balls, tightening.  Travis pulls back, thrusts—

 

His vision fuzzes out, and a ragged cry escapes his throat.

 

He stops, dazed, blinking.  Did I just…

 

He looks down.  He’s barely even inside Arthur.  Sticky cum leaks out of him, coating the cheeks of his ass.

 

Heat rises up into Travis’s face.  All that build-up.  And then he just exploded on contact like an over-excited teenager.

 

He tugs himself free, his face still burning.  “Sorry,” he murmurs.

 

“For what?”

 

“You know.  We were gonna—and then—” his head drops down to the pillow beside Arthur’s.  He can't look him in the eye.  “Kind of a letdown for you.  It’s just…seeing you like that, I sorta…lost my head.  If you give me some time I can try again—or I can—”

 

Arthur frames his face between both hands and kisses him.

 

“I’m happy,” he says, lips moving against his.  Travis can feel him smiling.  “I’m glad you like the stockings.”

 

“They’re amazing.”  He gathers Arthur up into his arms and hugs him close, tight.  “You’re amazing.”

 

Arthur’s arms slip around his waist.  He presses his face into the hollow between Travis’s neck and shoulder.  “Thank you,” he whispers.

 

He rubs Arthur’s back.  “I should get you a towel.  I got you all messy.”

 

“Just hold me a little longer.”

 

* * *

 

A few hours later—after they’ve showered, changed, and eaten—Arthur says, “We should start packing our things.”

 

“You still wanna leave Gotham tonight, then?”

 

“It’s time.”

 

He made up his mind last night, after the call from Penny.  No more delaying.  The longer they stay here, the greater the risk.

 

Arthur doesn’t want to lose this.

 

They pack.  He throws a few set of clothes into a suitcase.  He pauses and turns toward the window, parting the blinds with his fingers.  Moonlight seeps through.  Outside, Gotham is blanketed in snow.  People and cars move through the streets. 

 

This city.  His city.  The place that has been his only home since birth.  For most of his life, he’s been unhappy here.  So why does the thought of leaving make him feel a ripping line of pain down the center of his chest?

 

For better or worse, his soul is tangled up with Gotham’s.  Or maybe Gotham is his soul.  He doesn’t know how to survive outside of it.  He’s heard about fish who live deep at the bottom of the ocean—how they explode if they’re taken to the surface.  They can only exist in darkness, under miles of water.

 

But he has Travis, now.  If they’re together, they’ll be all right.  Somehow.

 

He turns away from the window.  If he thinks about this too much, he’ll panic.  He needs to keep moving.  He grabs his new notebook, slips it into the suitcase, and zips it shut.  He surveys the apartment.  There’s nothing else they need to take.  “Should we bring the TV?”

 

“Nah, it’s old.  We can get another one once we’ve got a new place.”

 

Arthur nods.  A new place.  He’s gotten attached to this apartment.  It’s started to feel like home, even more than his old one.  But that’s only because Travis is here.  Anyplace is home, he thinks, if you’re with someone you love.  “Oh…I need to grab my toothbrush.”  And his meds.  Of course.

 

Is there anything else?  Not really.  It feels like they must be forgetting something.

 

Travis zips up his suitcase.  “You sure about this?”

 

“Yes.” 

 

Arthur is low on sleep, a little unsteady, but he can nap in the cab.  They’ll go west.  To where, he’s not sure.  Someplace warm, with ocean and palm trees and decent social service programs.  The future is vast and open.  And all they have to do is drive toward it. 

 

The phone rings. 

 

Arthur freezes.  A weight settles into his stomach.

 

“We don’t have to answer that,” Travis says.  “We can just walk out that door.”

 

Arthur stares at the phone.  His insides have gone cold.

 

He doesn’t want to answer it.  But the phone pulls at him.  Exerts an almost physical gravity.  It hooks into his brain.  There’s another ring, and another.

 

He has to at least see who it is.  He can always hang up.

 

On the next ring, Arthur picks up the phone.  “Hello?”

 

“Arthur?” says a soft female voice.  It’s vaguely familiar.  “Is this Arthur Fleck?”

 

“Yes.  Who is this?”

 

“I think we may have spoken once or twice before.  My name is Sophie Dumond.  I live in your building…or the building you used to live in.  Penny is your mother…right?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“I found this number written on a notepad in her apartment.  After…”  Sophie takes a breath. 

 

As she speaks, her voice fades to a faint hum in Arthur’s ears.  Certain phrases bleed through.  Found unconscious…wasn’t able to wake her.  He stares into space.  Blackness eats away at the edges of his vision.

 

“They said it might have been a stroke, but they aren’t sure.  When the paramedics were here they asked some questions that I didn’t know how to answer—about her health history, things like that.  They wanted to know if she had any family in Gotham.  I didn’t have your number at the time, but—”

 

The hum in his ears grows louder.

 

Then he hears the word police, and his mind snaps to the present.  “Wh-what?  What’s that about the police?”

 

“Oh.  I don’t know if it matters, but I thought I should mention it.  A pair of officers showed up at her door the other day.  They were asking her some questions, I guess.  I don’t know what it was about.  I didn’t pry.”

 

“She—she didn’t say anything?  About why they were there?”

 

“No.  Just that they were asking questions.”

 

A laugh swells in his chest like a balloon.  “I see.”  He presses a hand to the side of his head.  “Thank you.  For telling me.  I need to go.”

 

“Arthur?  Are you—”

 

He hangs up.

 

His own breathing echoes in his ears.  The black haze swallows more and more of his vision.

 

This is his fault.  It happened because he told Penny he wasn’t coming home again.

 

Part of him knows that this isn’t a rational thought.  Penny has been in poor health for a while.  There’s no reason to believe that he triggered this.  Sometimes these things just happen.

 

Then another thought occurs to him:  that maybe it wasn’t a stroke.  Maybe she felt guilty, after Arthur confronted her about everything she did.  Maybe she had a rough night and decided to take an entire bottle of her pain-pills.

 

But she’s still alive.  In what condition, he has no idea.

 

“Arthur.”  A hand touches his shoulder, and he gives a start.  The haze clears.

 

Travis stands at his side.

 

“Arthur, what is it?”

 

He opens his mouth to explain.  But nothing comes out.  Not even laughter.

Chapter Text

When Arthur got the call, Travis knew right away that it was something about Penny.  He could feel it.

 

His first thought was to hope that she’d died.  Something painless and quiet, like an aneurysm in her sleep.  Because that would tie up a loose end.  They wouldn’t have to worry about her talking to the cops.  Then he immediately hated himself for hoping that.  It might not have made much difference, anyway, since—as Arthur tells him—the cops paid Penny a visit before the stroke.

 

This complicates things.

 

Of course, Arthur isn’t going to just hightail it out of Gotham without even stopping to see her.  Despite all the shit she’s put him through, she’s his mother.  More than that—his only friend.  Or she was, until a few months ago.  Those kinds of bonds don’t fade easily, no matter how twisted up and painful they get. 

 

So after Arthur explained things to him, Travis just grabbed the keys and said, “Let’s go.”

 

“Where?”

 

“To the hospital.  We’re gonna see her.  Aren’t we?”

 

After a brief hesitation, Arthur nodded.

 

Now, Arthur sits in the cab, hands folded in his lap, as they drive.  Travis watches him from the corner of his eye.  It worries him, how quiet Arthur has been.  He doesn’t like the empty, unfocused look in his eyes.

 

“Hey,” Travis says.

 

No response.  He stares straight ahead, face slack.

 

“Arthur.”

 

He blinks and turns his head.  “Yes?”  His voice is soft, detached.

 

“Whatever happens, we’ll deal with it.  Okay?”

 

Arthur’s hands tighten into fists in his lap.  “She talked to the police.  They might have your name and address.  The apartment’s not safe anymore.  We can’t go back.”

 

He’s right.  It’s not a great situation.  But they have their things packed up, their suitcases in the trunk of the cab.  They're prepared.  As prepared as they can be, anyway.

 

“One thing at a time,” Travis says.  Snow flurries spiral down from the sky, melting when they hit the windshield.

 

He glances at Arthur again.  Glazed eyes.  Pulse beating rapidly under his jaw.  He’s sitting on his hands, hunched over, curling in on himself.

 

When they arrive at Gotham Hospital, Arthur unbuckles his seatbelt and says, “Wait here.”

 

“You sure?”

 

“You shouldn’t be seen right now.  It’s not safe.  Just stay in the cab.  I won’t be long.”

 

Travis’s eyes search his face.  “Are you…”  He trails off.  Asking if he’s okay seems kind of ridiculous.  Of course he’s not okay.

 

Arthur clutches at his jacket collar.  “It’s better if I’m alone for this.”

 

Travis hesitates.  He reaches out, touches Arthur’s cheek with his fingertips, turning Arthur’s face toward him.  Searches his expression.  “What are you thinking about, Arthur?”

 

“Nothing.”

 

“Because we can just keep driving.  That’s an option.”

 

“I don’t know if it is.”

 

“We can be out of Gotham in an hour.  Maybe two—depends on traffic.”

 

He shakes his head.  “I have to see her.  I have to know.”  For a moment, it seems like he’s about to say something else.  Then he closes his mouth and looks away.

 

“I don’t like leaving you alone for this.”

 

“I’m not going to do anything crazy.”

 

“That’s not what I mean.”

 

Arthur smiles.  Just a tightening of muscles under his skin.  “I’ll be okay.”

 

He steps out of the cab, into the gray, snowy morning, and walks up to the automatic glass doors.

 

* * *

 

Arthur’s movements are automatic.  Robotic.  A dark haze has slipped over his vision.  At the front desk, he gives the receptionist his name, and she directs him to Penny’s room.

 

He takes the elevator to the third floor, walks to the door of her room and stops, his hand on the knob.  He’s shaking.

 

“You’re her son?”

 

He turns to see an older woman in a white coat standing behind him, holding a clipboard.  “Yes.”  He wonders how she knew.  Maybe Sophie told the paramedics that Penny had a son living nearby.

 

“I’m Dr. Moraine.”

 

“Pleased to meet you,” he mumbles.  “H-how is she?”

 

“Her vitals are steady, but she hasn’t regained consciousness.”

 

He stands with his hands curled into tight fists, buried in his pockets.  “What caused this?”

 

“We aren’t entirely sure, yet.  We need to run some more tests, but…”

 

The doctor’s voice fades in and out of Arthur’s consciousness.  She uses a lot of words Arthur doesn’t understand.  They blur together in his head, garbled, like a bad tape.  She starts talking about scans, and the phrase brain damage jumps out at him.

 

“Damage?  How bad?”

 

“We won’t be able to determine the full effects until she’s conscious.  And we don’t know when that will be.  She may wake up tonight.  Or…”

 

“Or never.”

 

A small nod.  “It’s mostly watching and waiting, at this point.”

 

Arthur’s vision has gone fuzzy.  The lights in the hallway seem far too bright.  His own breathing whistles in his ears.

 

“I’m sorry,” she says, “I wish I had some more conclusive answers for you.  But it’s still too early to say anything for certain.”  A pause.  “I did have some questions, about her health history—”

 

“Okay.”

 

She asks if Penny has ever had a stroke before this.  Asks if she takes any medications.  He answers numbly, automatically.  Dr. Moraine jots down some notes on her clipboard.  A nurse calls her, and she glances up.  “I’ll check back in a little while.”

 

She leaves.  Arthur opens the door.

 

The room has only one bed.  There’s a TV, though it’s not on.  Penny lies motionless in the bed, IV tubes trailing from her arm, a heart monitor hooked up to her chest.  Her eyes are closed, her face slack.

 

He sits in the chair beside her bed.  For a few minutes, he just looks at her.  Listening to the steady beep of the heart monitor.

 

Arthur reaches out and takes her hand.  Its limp, her skin dry and papery.  “Hi Mom,” he whispers, his voice hoarse.  “Can you hear me?”

 

No response.  He wasn’t expecting one.  Her breathing rasps softly in her throat.  He releases Penny’s hand, and it flops to the bed like a dead bird.

 

He stares blankly into space.  What is he supposed to do now?

 

Even now, the police might be searching for them.  For Travis.  They have to leave today.  The time for hesitation is over.  This doesn’t change anything.

 

Penny’s voice echoes in his head:  You’re the only person in this world who’s ever really loved me.

 

What will happen to her, if he leaves her like this?  The doctor said she suffered brain damaged.  And there’s no one else to take care of her.  She has no friends, no other family.  Sophie might have been willing to do a few errands for her, but that’s all.

 

Arthur imagines his mother waking up, unable to walk or talk.  Alone.  Confused.  Terrified.  Surrounded by strangers who see her as just one more patient.  Another number in the system.  What would they even do with her?  Put her in some sort of institution?  Some cold, barren warehouse for unwanted people who can’t take care of themselves? 

 

I take care of my mother.  For so long, that was his identity.  His only worth as a person.  It was what he clung to in the face of a world telling him he would be better off dead.  To reject that now, to throw her aside like some piece of trash and drive off toward the horizon with his lover, to lounge on a beach with him somewhere while Penny remains here alone, hooked up to tubes, silently screaming within the cage of her body…

 

Or maybe she’ll wake up tomorrow and be perfectly fine.  But he doubts that.  Life is never that easy.

 

He slumps, covering his eyes with one hand.  If they just had more time…

 

But they don’t. 

 

Arthur is trapped.  He feels the walls of the cage closing in on him.

 

He knows what this means.  He doesn’t want to face it, but there’s only one choice.

 

There’s another way, a voice inside whispers.  You could—

 

He shoves that thought down before it can fully form.

 

* * *

 

Travis checks the clock on his dashboard again.  It’s been half an hour.  He’s worried.  Arthur told him to wait here.  But he doesn’t like this.  He’s got a bad feeling.

 

Snow piles up on the pavement, blanketing the hospital parking lot in soft white.  Travis runs his hand over the steering wheel.

 

He’s on the edge of going in when the main doors slide open and Arthur steps out.

 

Travis gets out of the cab and walks across the parking lot toward him.  “Hey.  What’s goin’ on?”

 

Arthur rakes a hand through his hair.  “She’s still unconscious.  They—they don’t know when she’s going to wake up.  Or if.”  He bleats out a laugh, coughs, and clutches his throat.  “They said the scans show some brain damage.  If she does wake up, she probably won’t be…the same.  But they don’t know how bad it is.  They don’t seem to know much of anything.”

 

“Shit.”

 

“Yeah.  Shit.”

 

Silence falls.

 

“So…what do you wanna do?”

 

Arthur bows his head.  “I can’t leave her like this.”

 

“Hey.  It’s okay.”  Travis puts a hand on his shoulder.  His mind races.  This isn’t good.  But they’ll figure something out.  They have to.  “We’ll stay.”

 

But Arthur shakes his head.  “You can’t.  It’s too dangerous.  You—” he closes his eyes.  When he speaks, his voice is small and soft, but calm.  Resigned.  “You have to leave Gotham without me.”

 

His stomach tightens.  “That's not happening.”

 

“You have to.  It’s the only way.  You won’t be safe until you’re away from here.”  The muscles of his throat constrict as he swallows.  He doesn’t meet Travis’s gaze.  “It’s not forever.  Just for now.”

 

“We’re in this together.  I’m not leaving you.”

 

Arthur steps back and hugs himself, shivering, snow settling onto his hair and eyelashes.  He’s not dressed for this weather.  Neither of them are.  “I need you to be safe,” he whispers.  “I can deal with anything, if I know that you’re safe.  This is my fault, I know—we should’ve left sooner, but I just kept putting it off, and now—” he drags in a breath and puts his hands against the sides of his head, as though trying to squeeze a thought out of his skull.  “We don’t have much time.  If they find you…”

 

“What about you?  Never mind the police.  What are you gonna do for money?  Where will you live?”

 

“I’ll live in my old place.  I’ll get a job.”

 

“What happens when your meds run out in a few months?  What about the hospital bills?”

 

“I’ll figure it out.”

 

Travis stares at him, the muscles drawn tight over his face.

 

“You have to go,” Arthur says.  “It’s not safe.  It’s not—it’s not—”

 

“Then come with me.”

 

“I told you.  I can’t.”  His voice cracks.

 

Travis feels like a piece of shit, telling him to abandon his mother.  But he doesn’t back down.  “You don’t know if she’s even going to wake up.  Maybe she’s already gone.”

 

A shrill laugh escapes his throat.  He clamps a hand over his mouth.

 

“Hey.”  Travis grips his shoulders.  He can feel them trembling through Arthur’s heavy jacket.  “I told you.  If you wanna stay, we'll stay.  If we can't go back to the apartment, I can get a hotel room or somethin'.  But I’m not leaving you to deal with this alone.”  He hears the edge of desperation creeping into his voice.  “I can’t do that, Arthur.”

 

“J-just—just go,” he gasps, grinning, tears leaking down his face, blind panic in his eyes.  “Just g-get in your cab and drive away.  Get out of this city.  F-forget about me.”

 

His grip tightens.  “Don’t.”  His voice goes flat.  “Don’t tell me to forget you.” 

 

Arthur’s ragged breathing echoes through the silent, snow-covered parking lot.  “Travis,” he says softly, face still frozen in a grin.  “It hurts.”

 

He freezes.  Looks down at his hands, digging into Arthur’s frail shoulders with near-bruising force.  He releases him and takes a few steps back.  His insides go cold.

 

Arthur stands, arms wrapped around himself, head bowed, hair hanging around his face.  His breath steams in the winter air.  Slowly, he raises his head and gives Travis another pained smile through his tears.  It reminds Travis of the way he smiled that night when he showed up at the apartment in makeup, asking Travis to kill him.  “Don’t worry about me.  I’ll be fine.  This—this isn’t goodbye.  It’s just…”

 

They stand, snow drifting slowly down around them.

 

“I love you,” Travis says.  The words feel small in the silence.  They touch the air and dissolve into clouds of white.

 

Arthur lowers his gaze.  “I love you too,” he whispers.  “More than anything.  But…I can’t leave with you.  Not now.”  A tear drips to the pavement.  “I know that I can’t make you leave, either.  I just want you to be okay.  I don’t want anything bad to happen to you.  So I’m asking you.  I’m asking you please.  Go without me.  Find somewhere safe.”

 

Travis doesn’t move.  Doesn’t blink.  His mind has gone still.

 

Arthur doesn’t know what he’s asking.  Leave him behind…walk away from him now, when he’s in so much pain, when he’s struggling just to hold himself together…

 

And then the thought rises into his head:  I could just take him.

 

He could pull Arthur into the cab and drive off with him.  He wouldn’t even have to physically overpower him.  If he orders Arthur to do it—if he pushes hard enough—Arthur will give in.  He feels that.

 

Arthur is still bound to his mother—to the woman who has caused him so much pain.  Because he’s a kind person.  At this point, she might be no more than a shell, but he won’t abandon her, even if it destroys him.  And it will destroy him.  Arthur’s sanity is like a house of cards, right now, and this is the gust of wind that will knock it over.  Travis can see that.

 

Easy, he thinks, to just override Arthur’s judgment and decide what’s best for him.  He’s already done that once, tying Arthur up on the bed and robbing a pharmacy for him, chaining Arthur to this life against his will.  Chaining him to Travis’s side.  Making him a criminal, an accomplice.  A prisoner.

 

He could do it again.  Make Arthur his, completely.  He has the power to tame this beautiful, wild, dangerous creature—he has already proven that.  Arthur will forgive him, in time.  He forgives everything, from Travis. 

 

What has he got to lose?  His soul is already damned.  Easy, to fully embrace the monster.  To become it.

 

He wants to hold Arthur close and tight.  To keep him.  He aches for this man with every cell of his body, every fragment of his killer’s soul.

 

It takes everything in him to turn away. 

 

“Travis…”

 

Like a zombie, like a wind-up toy, he walks toward his cab, opens the trunk, and pulls out the suitcase filled with Arthur’s things.  He shuts the trunk again.

 

“I’ll call you,” he says.  “When I can.”  He tries to say more, but the words get stuck in his throat.

 

Arthur stands looking at him, snow trapped in those long, long lashes.  “I’m sorry.”

 

“You got nothin’ to be sorry for.”  His voice comes out wooden.  He hates the sound of it.  He doesn’t want to sound that way.  “I get it.  You can’t leave her like this.  And I can’t stick around here.  You’re bein’ smart.”  He tries to smile.  Can’t quite manage it.  “I’m just not as good a person as you are.”

 

“I’m not a good person,” Arthur whispers.

 

Slowly, he approaches.  Wraps his arms around Arthur and hugs him close.  But gently.  Loose enough that he could slip out, if he wanted. 

 

Arthur hugs him back, pressing his face to his shoulder.  “It seems like all I do is hurt you.”

 

“You never hurt me.”

 

Arthur lets out a small, choked laugh.  “I know that isn’t true.”

 

He could say, What about all the times I’ve hurt you?  Like it’s some sort of contest.  But he says nothing.  Just puts his hand on the back of Arthur’s head.

 

Arthur’s chest hitches against his.

 

He pulls back, takes Arthur’s face between his hands and holds his gaze.

 

He wishes—not for the first time—that he was better with words.  That he was the sort of guy who could write love poems and songs.  Arthur is the kind of person who should have poems written about him.  But if Travis tried to do that, it would come out all wrong.  He doesn’t even know how to say what’s in his heart right now.  So he tries to pour everything into his eyes.  He strokes Arthur’s cheeks with his thumbs, then leans in and kisses him.

 

The kiss is soft.  Almost chaste.  Controlled. 

 

He can’t afford to lose control, right now.  That dark instinct is still pulling at him, telling him to take Arthur and leave.

 

He releases him.  Steps back.  Arthur starts to reach out for him again, arms open, eyes pleading—then he folds his arms over his own chest and hunches.  Draws in on himself.

 

“I’ll talk to you soon,” Travis says.  “It’s like you said.  This isn’t goodbye.”

 

He opens the door.  Gets behind the wheel.

 

As he drives away, he watches Arthur’s form recede in the rearview mirror.  He stands alone in the hospital parking lot, arms still wrapped around himself.  Small and forlorn.  Then Travis turns a corner and Arthur is gone.

 

He can’t feel his heart beating.  That’s a little weird.  He knows that it is beating.  But there’s just this dead space in his chest.  He resists the urge to take his own pulse and make sure he’s still alive.

 

He’s shutting down.  He feels it happening—feels his insides start to go dead and dark, like a city losing electric power, block by block.

 

As he drives, he finds himself thinking about the dog in space.  The one the Russians sent up all those years ago, when he was a kid.  Dying alone in a metal box, untethered from the Earth’s gravity, surrounded by miles and miles of cold emptiness.

 

* * *

 

Arthur watches the cab disappear around a corner.  He stands there shivering in the parking lot of the hospital.

 

He thinks about what he has now.  Some cash in his pocket.  A few hundred dollars, maybe.  Almost everything they had left—did Travis take any?  There’s the suitcase containing his clothes.  The keys to his old apartment, the one he shared with Penny—and to Travis’s place, though he can’t go back there now.  And, of course, there’s Penny herself.  If she's even still there.

 

He puts his hands over his ears, then his eyes.  As though he can block out reality that way.

 

From Travis’s perspective, it must feel like Arthur is choosing Penny over him.  Like he’s betraying the promise between them.  Maybe that’s exactly what he’s doing.

 

He tells himself that this is the right thing.  But maybe the deeper truth is that, after a lifetime of living with his mother, taking care of her and being taken care of, he’s too weak to leave her side.  Too scared and uncertain to embrace a future outside of Gotham.  His old habits are too ingrained, the conditioning too deep.

 

When Travis’s fingers dug into his shoulders like a hawk’s talons, when he saw that brutal, pragmatic coldness in Travis’s eyes, it scared him.  But on a deeper level, it reassured him.

 

He knew in that moment what was about to happen.  Travis would say, That’s enough, Arthur.  He would drag him across the parking lot and into the cab.  He would spare Arthur the sin of leaving Penny by removing the choice entirely.  By making Arthur his.  Arthur could feel the Other stirring and rippling beneath the surface, in that moment, licking his lips in dark delight.

 

Yes—yes.  Do it.  Take me and drive away.  Fuck it all.  Fuck obligation, fuck common cents, fuck boundaries and respect, fuck this city, fuck Penny, fuck the police, fuck Hoyt and fuck the man who shot you, fuck Thomas Wayne, fuck the meds, fuck healing.  Fuck all of it.  I want us to drive away leaving nothing but a plume of smoke, wearing sunglasses and laughing in contempt at the world.  I want filthy sex in filthy motel rooms, I want us to rob gas stations together when we’re low on cash.  I want to drive down country highways past faded billboards while you nap in the backseat, and I want to kiss you awake when it’s your turn to drive.  I want greasy fast food at three in the morning and apple pie in lonely, poorly lit diners with cum-stains on the bathroom floor.  I want to be hunted animals together.  I want to wear my paint and fire a machine gun and die in your arms while the world goes up in flames around us.  Kiss me and put a bullet in my head, my love.  I don’t want the endless trudge up the stairs.  I want the blaze of glory.  But Arthur won’t cut that cord, Arthur won’t leave his poor Mommy, Arthur is a good boy, Arthur takes his medicine and tries not to make any trouble, Arthur just keeps taking the shit the universe throws at him, so go ahead and stuff a gag in his mouth and just FUCKING TAKE ME—

 

But Travis just held him and kissed him.  So sweetly.  And then he drove away.

 

This is what he wants, Arthur reminds himself.  This is what he asked for.  This is the right choice.

 

He lights a cigarette and lifts it to his mouth.  He smokes without tasting it.

 

I betrayed him.  I pushed him away.  Again.  Because I'm a coward.  And now he’s gone.

 

He knows that isn’t true.  Travis said he would call, that this isn’t goodbye.  Why does it feel like goodbye?

 

He starts to giggle.

 

Help me, he thinks to no one in particular.  Help me, help me, help me, help me, help me, help me, help m—

 

* * *

 

A nurse comes in, draws some blood from Penny’s arm, and asks Arthur if there’s been any change—if she’s opened her eyes or said anything.  Arthur shakes his head.

 

“We’ll keep monitoring her,” the nurse says.

 

Arthur sits, hands clasped.  He asks the big question:  “How much do you think this is going to cost us?  The hospital stay.”

 

“That depends.  What sort of insurance do you have?”

 

“We don’t.”

 

She taps a pen against her clipboard, pressing her lips together.

 

He runs a hand down his face.  With his fingertips, he feels the smile there.  “We’re fucked, aren’t we?”

 

“I wouldn’t use that word.”

 

“What word would you use, then?”

 

“There are social service programs—”

 

“They cut those.  Remember?”

 

A pause.  “That’s unfortunate.”

 

That’s the same word Thomas Wayne used, isn’t it?  Unfortunate.  Like bad weather.  The city giveth and the city taketh.  The city works in mysterious ways.  “Yes.  Yes it is.”

 

Another pause.  “You’re probably tired.  I’ll let you get some rest.  Let me know if you need anything.”  The nurse’s tone is sympathetic, but there’s a certain distance in it, as well.  A professional, I’m-sorry-but-this-is-not-my-problem-and-I’m-very-busy tone.  Dr. Kane used to sound like that a lot, before Arthur confronted her about her inattentiveness.

 

Well, who can blame her?  Everybody’s got a head full of their own problems.  There’s no room for anyone else’s.  What can this random nurse possibly do to help him, anyway?

 

She walks out, closing the door softly behind her.  Arthur sits in the chair next to his mother, listening to the beep of the heart monitor.

 

He closes his eyes.

 

Within the space of hours, his world has fallen apart.  The small, fragile happiness he built for himself has been shattered again.  A part of him has been waiting for this moment, bracing himself for it.  It’s almost a relief.

 

Did he really think that he and Travis were just going to drive off into the sunset and start a new life together?  Did he think it would be that easy?

 

“Mom,” he whispers.  “Please open your eyes.”

 

She remains limp, inert.

 

She’s not going to wake up.  Who is he kidding?  Why is he even here?  Why is he still trying to be a good son, after he made up his mind to never go back to her? 

 

He covers his eyes, staring out between his splayed fingers.

 

Help me-help me-help—

 

He feels fingers in his hair, stroking.  Gentle, loving.  His breath catches, and his heart leaps.  “Travis—”

 

He looks up.  It’s not Travis.

 

It’s a man with Arthur’s face, painted in his makeup.  Green hair, slicked back.  “It’s not too late,” the man says softly.  “You could do it now, while she’s asleep.  You could finish what you started.”

 

Arthur stares, strangely unafraid.  “Who are you?”

 

“You know who I am.”  Those fingers keep stroking his hair.  Steady.  Soothing.  “If you want, I could do it for you.  I could take over.  All you have to do is let me.”

 

A chill ripples through his bones.  “Let you kill my mother, you mean.”

 

“It will be best for her too, in the long run.  You know it will.  The two of you can’t survive this way—not for long.  Not without help.  You were barely surviving before, and things will be much harder now.  Maybe if you had lots of money…but you might as well wish for wings.”

 

He lowers his head.

 

“She won’t live much longer anyway,” the man says.

 

“You don’t know that.”

 

“It might be another month or it might be another few years, but look at her.  She isn’t going to recover.  Not from this.  So what’s better?  A quick death?  Or a slow, drawn-out, painful one?  Which would you prefer?”

 

Arthur knows the answer to that question.  Still.  “That's her choice.  Not mine.”

 

“She’s a bit beyond choices right now, isn’t she?”

 

He stares at Penny’s helpless, peacefully sleeping form.  He rubs the thumb of one hand slowly over the knuckles of the other.  “If we do,” he whispers, “what then?”

 

“Then we find Travis.  We leave Gotham together, like we planned.”

 

“He’s already left.”

 

“Maybe.  Probably not.  Would you leave the city without him, if he told you to?”

 

“It’s different.  He—”

 

“Is as broken as you are.  Haven’t you noticed?  The poor boy’s head is not very organiz-ized.  He doesn’t know where to go or what to do, without you.  He’s a lost puppy who thinks he’s a wolf.”  The man gently tucks a lock of hair behind Arthur’s ear.  “You want to be with him, don’t you?  We both do.  She’s the only thing keeping you here.  You can’t leave her to suffer alone—I understand that.  So do what you must.”  The man lowers his head and murmurs into his ear, “Let me help you, my poor Arthur.  I know better than anyone how much you’ve endured.  I’ve been here with you the whole time.  I feel what you feel.”  He drapes his thin arms around Arthur’s shoulders and rests his cheek atop his head.

 

Arthur thinks about the red file.  All those incidents in Arkham.  “If I give you control, you hurt people.  You do bad things.”

 

“Good and bad are a matter of perspective.  Even when I hurt people, it was never without cause.  All I want is to protect you.  To ease your burden a little.  That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”

 

“You’re not even real.  I’m not talking to anyone right now.  This is a dream, or a hallucination, or—or something.  I made you up because I was lonely.”

“It’s true that I only exist in here.”  He taps a finger lightly against Arthur’s temple.  “And it’s true that you created me.  But that doesn’t mean I’m not real.”

 

Arthur listens to the slow, steady beep of the heart monitor.  “It hurts so much,” he murmurs.  “Everything.”

 

The man says nothing.  Just waits, a quiet, warm presence at his back.

 

“I hate that I made Travis sad.  I hate that I keep making things hard for him.  I don’t know what to do.  I don’t know what’s right.  I know that if I just…d-do what you say I should do, it would make everything simple.  But…”  His fingers tighten on the arm of the chair. 

 

It’s so hard to think.  He’s so tired.  So very tired.

 

“If you want to go to sleep, after this, I can become you.  You can stay hidden away in the womb of your brain, in the quiet place.  You’ll still be able to feel.  But you’ll be protected.  Curled up inside me, all warm and snug, like a baby bird inside an egg.”  Gentle hands stroke his chest, his face.  Soft lips touch the side of his neck.

 

Arthur finds himself leaning into the touch.  Needing that affection, even if it’s from a shadow inside his own mind.  The man’s lips caress his ear as he whispers, “I’ll give you only the pleasure and take away the pain.  I will step inside you and be your hands.”

 

Arthur stares at the floor through tear-filled eyes.  “If I do this, I won’t be able to come back.  I won’t be me anymore.”

 

“Wouldn’t you?  I guess it depends on what you think it means to be ‘you.’  Maybe you would be more you.  Maybe there is no you or me.  The mind is a beehive.  Which bee is the hive?  All of them are, and none of them.”  His arms remain draped around Arthur’s shoulders.

 

If that’s true, Arthur thinks, if there is no him, no Arthur, then what does it even mean to be a good or bad person?  It all seems sort of silly.  Good and bad is a fairy tale, an idea that any child can knock down with a stick.  You don’t even have to be particularly smart to do it.  Anyone can see the truth, if they try.  But people don’t, because they’re scared of what it means.  Scared of the nothingness at the heart of it.  Scared of the loneliness.

 

To exist is to be fundamentally alone.  To be an empty space.  A thing without boundaries, without shape.  Everything, yet nothing.  Arthur Fleck is no more than a brief dream.  A series of fleeting feelings and images. 

 

If he lets the Other permanently take control of him, that would be a sort of soft death.  But maybe there’s no such thing as death.  Only change.  If that's true, then he wouldn’t really be killing Penny, either.  Just…setting her free.

 

It wouldn’t take long.  A few minutes, at most.

 

What if someone walks in and sees?

 

It’s a risk.  But the doctors and nurses are busy right now.  They don’t check very often.  And if Penny’s heart stops in her sleep, well…that wouldn’t be too surprising.  She’s very old and sick, after all.  He could do it.  And then slip away.  Arthur doesn’t even have to be aware, while it happens.  He can go into that otherspace in his head.  That space where he’s dreaming and awake at the same time.  It won’t feel like he’s smothering his mother.  Already, he’s in a trance.

 

“Just say the word,” the man whispers.

 

Hasn’t he suffered enough?  Sacrificed enough?  He’s been so miserable for so long.  And now, finally, he has a chance at happiness.  Or something like it, anyway.  And all he has to do is hold a pillow over Penny’s face until the little beep-beeps of the machine stop.

 

It’s a mercy, really.  Travis doesn’t have to know.  Arthur can just say that Penny died in her sleep.  Close enough to the truth.

 

Slowly, Arthur stands.  He picks up the chair, wedges it under the doorknob.  Carefully, gently, he slides the pillow out from under Penny’s head.  She stirs a little, but doesn’t wake.  He stands over her as he did once before, the pillow in both hands.

 

The heart monitor beeps.  Steady, steady.

 

A lump fills his throat.  His hands tighten on the pillow.  He’s shaking.

 

“Just let go, sweet Arthur,” his own voice whispers in his ear.  Warm arms link around his waist.  The Other presses up against his back.  His own body, its familiar contours, the ladder of his ribs, the valley of his stomach.  “Open yourself.”

 

He feels it happening.  Feels his mind relax and loosen, dilating like an eye in darkness.

 

And then he feels the Other’s body start to melt into him.  He looks down and sees a hand splayed on his stomach, sinking through the shirt, into his abdomen.  The Other is sliding inside him, under his skin, through his bones.  Wearing him like a costume.

 

Arthur fades into the back of his head.  He watches his own arms lowering the pillow.

 

Then he stops.

 

No.  If I’m going to do this, I need to do it as myself.

 

“Why?” his own voice whispers.  “Why put yourself through the hurt?  What does it prove?”

 

I owe that much to her.  I made a promise that I would take care of her.

 

“No one owes anything to anyone.  We’re all just drifting.”

 

He’s right, of course.  Everything is so fragile.  So transparent.  Like smoke.  

 

Except…

 

I can't live that way.  It’s too sad.

 

Silence.  Then, “I don’t understand.”

 

You don’t need to.

 

He whispers the word Joker to himself, and there is a shift.  He feels his consciousness rising to the surface of his mind.

 

He wouldn’t have survived this long without the Other.  For that, Arthur is grateful to him.  But he can’t become him.  Not fully.  He won’t run from this.  He’ll do this with his own two hands.  Aware.  In control.

 

He starts to lower the pillow once more.

 

Even before it touches Penny’s face, he knows that he can’t go through with it.  His lips start to tremble, and a laugh balloons in his chest and presses against the back of his throat, and hot tears burn his eyes.  He can’t kill his mother.  Arthur can’t.

 

Maybe he’s too kind—maybe he’s too weak-willed. 

 

He lets the pillow slip from his hands and sinks to the floor, crumpling into a ball.

 

He feels the Other’s arms around him again.  “Is that your choice, then?”

 

Arthur nods.  The heart monitor keeps beeping.  Like links in a chain.  “What will happen to me?”  His voice cracks.  “To us?”

 

“Anything is possible.  You said it yourself.  The world is in free fall.  That means no one is ever truly safe—that tomorrow is never a guarantee.  But it also means there’s always hope."  He smiles sadly.  "Despair is a type of certainty.  And certainty is a sign of insanity.  Isn’t that what he said?”

 

He kisses Arthur’s temple, a soft, cool brush of lips.

 

And then he’s gone, and Arthur is alone once again.

 

He rubs his dry, fatigue-gritty eyes.  Slowly, he picks himself up, drags the chair back, and sinks into it.

 

He aches so deeply.  More than anything, he wants Travis’s arms around him.  Travis’s fingers in his hair.

 

But Travis is gone.

 

He’s just started to nod off when he hears a knock on the door.  "Excuse me...Mr. Fleck?"  The nurse's voice.  "There are two men here to see you.  Detectives.  They say they have some questions."

 

The police.  They found him.  How?  Did they go back to the apartment and discover that Penny had been taken to the hospital?

 

It doesn’t matter.  He has no way of knowing what Penny told them or didn’t tell them.  All he can do is stick to his story and avoid revealing anything about Travis.

 

He stands up.

 

Time to face the music.

Chapter Text

“I’m Detective Garrity,” says a stout, mustachioed man with thinning hair.  “This is my partner Detective Burke.  We’re with the Gotham City Police Department.  We’d like to ask you a few questions.”

 

Arthur rocks back and forth on his heels, hands in his pockets.  He’s trying to stay still.  It’s not easy.  “This isn’t a great time.”  He scratches the side of his neck.  “My mother just had a stroke.”

 

“Yes.  We’re aware of that.  This won’t take long.”  Burke—a taller man with medium-brown hair—takes out a notepad.  “Would you prefer to talk outside, or—”

 

“We can do it here.”  They’re standing in the hallway outside Penny’s room.  A nurse with a cart bustles past them.  It’s not the most convenient place for a conversation, but maybe that’s a good thing.  Maybe they’ll hurry through the questions.  He can hope.  “I don’t want to go too far from her.  In case she wakes up.”

 

“All right, then,” Burke says.  “We’re investigating an assault and battery.  We spoke to your boss down at Ha-Ha’s?  The clown agency?  Until recently you worked there, correct?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Your boss—Mr. Hoyt—says he was attacked by someone claiming to be a friend of yours.  Apparently this guy came in, started asking questions about your whereabouts, and went nuts when Hoyt couldn’t tell him.  Hoyt was badly beaten.  Two broken ribs, cracked teeth.”

 

“That’s awful.  I—I didn’t know.”  His fingers itch for a cigarette.  He fights the urge.  “When did this happen?”

 

“About a day after you stopped working there.  Can you tell us why you were fired?”

 

“I was sick.  I collapsed at work.”

 

“According to Mr. Hoyt, it’s because your behavior made the other workers uncomfortable,” Garrity says.

 

Arthur fidgets, scratches his arm, then clutches it, trying to force himself to be still.  The urge to move crawls under his skin like centipedes.  “I have a condition.”

 

“Yeah.  He gave us one of your cards.  But he said it was about more than that.”

 

A laugh pushes at the back of his throat.  A little hiccupping gulp escapes him, and a smile stretches across his face, as though there are invisible wires pulling at the corners of his mouth.  The two men shift uneasily.

 

Arthur takes a breath.  He needs to get himself under control.  He gives in, lights a cigarette and takes a puff.  It helps a little.

 

“Hoyt didn’t like me,” he says.  “He was always rude to me.  It doesn’t surprise me that he said those things.”  The tight smile remains on his face.  He speaks slowly, carefully, through bared teeth.  “It’s true that some of the guys at work were uncomfortable with me.  P-people sometimes think I’m weird.  I know that.  But I was a good worker.  I showed up on time.  I did everything I was supposed to.  I can’t help it if they had a problem with me for something that’s not my fault.”

 

He lets out a quiet breath, surprised that he managed to get all that out without laughing.  He raises the cigarette to his lips again.

 

“I see,” Burke says, his tone unreadable.  He jots something down.

 

Arthur fights the urge to lean over and peer at the notepad. 

 

“Anyway,” Garrity says.  “The suspect was described by several employees as a man in his late twenties or early thirties.  Dark hair, medium height, clean-shaven.  He was wearing a brown jacket, sunglasses and jeans.  Sound like anyone you know?”

 

Arthur’s palms are sweating.  He balls his hands up in his pockets.  “I don’t think so.  No.”

 

“You sure?  You answered that pretty quick.  Think about it for a moment.”  Burke is watching his face carefully.  “It’s a very general description.  Could apply to a lot of guys.  Oh…and they said he had a New York accent.  Guess that narrows it down some.”

 

Sweat beads on Arthur’s forehead.  Maybe he should have gone outside with them, after all.  In the glaring fluorescents of the hallway, they can probably see every leaking pore.  “I d-don’t know—” a muscle twitches at the corner of his mouth.  He brays out a laugh.  “S-sorry.”  He clutches his chest.  The laughter breaks off in a coughing fit.  They wait for him to finish.  “Can I leave?” he asks, voice scratchy.  “I’d really like to go back to my mother now.”

 

“Just a few more questions.  See, we talked to your mother the other day, actually.”

 

His back stiffens.

 

“We were looking for you.  We asked her where you were, but she said she didn’t know.  Said you’d been gone a few days.  Can you tell us where you were staying, at that time?”

 

The words sink in slowly.  Penny didn’t tell them.  She didn’t give them Travis’s name, or his address.  She protected him.

 

There’s no time to wonder why.  He needs to say something.

 

“Mr. Fleck?” Garrity says.

 

“I wasn’t staying anywhere.  I was upset about being fired.  I just sort of wandered around the city.  Rode on the subway.”  Arthur is getting dizzy.  The fluorescent lights press against his skin, bright and hot.  “Can I go?”

 

“Mr. Fleck…Arthur.  You’re not being accused of anything,” Burke says.  “We have no reason to believe that you instigated this event.  But there’s got to be something more you can tell us.  The suspect was searching for you.  He mentioned you by name.  It has to be someone you know.”

 

“Maybe Hoyt lied.”

 

“And the other employees?  They lied too?”

 

A bead of sweat rolls into his eye, stinging.  God, he’s so bad at this.  They’re not even being particularly mean; they’re just probing for answers.  Just doing their job.  All it takes is a little bit of pressure and Arthur dissolves into a quivering mass of human jelly.  His face burns.  “What do I have to say to make you believe me?”

 

“No need to get upset.”

 

“My mother had a stroke.  I’m not feeling very good right now.  Why don’t you go catch real criminals instead of bothering people who are minding their own business?”

 

Garrity gives him a thin smile.  “This is how we catch criminals.  By investigating.  By asking questions.  So I’ll ask one more time.  Can you think of anyone you know personally who fits that description?  Doesn’t have to be a friend.  Just anyone you’ve had contact with recently.  Anyone who might have had a reason to be looking for you.”

 

Arthur can feel another laugh bubbling in his throat.  His face keeps twitching.  He takes a drag on his cigarette, staring at the floor, mind racing.  His stomach hurts.  “No.”  Another laugh bursts out, sharp and jagged.  The two detectives flinch back.

 

“S-sorry.”  He presses a hand over his mouth.

 

Even if they’re aware that the laugh is a medical condition, Arthur knows full well how it sounds to other people.  It makes him seem crazy.  And crazy people are treated with suspicion. 

 

Maybe he should’ve gone under before this and let the Other handle it, but Arthur doesn’t really trust him to talk to the police either.  He’d probably blow smoke in their faces and tell them to go fuck themselves.  Or each other.

 

“I d-don’t know anything.  I don’t.

 

Burke and Garrity exchange a look.  They seem to come to some decision.  He can see the shift in their demeanor.  There’s an intentness in their expressions, like terriers who’ve just cornered a rat. 

 

“Arthur…”  Garrity steps closer.  His voice softens, taking on a faintly condescending tone.  As though he’s speaking to a child.  “We’re not out to get you, here.  We aren’t the bad guys.  We just want answers.”  He leans forward.  “Are you in some kind of trouble?  You get mixed up with some bad people?  Maybe took out a loan you couldn’t pay back—something like that?”

 

“I—I don’t—”

 

“Why don’t we take him down to the station?” Burke asks.

 

Arthur’s breathing comes harder and faster.

 

He’s been taken to the police station once before.  After they caught him following that woman—the one he had a crush on, all those years ago.  He knows what they’ll do.  They’ll lock him in one of those tiny, claustrophobic interrogating rooms with the blinding lights.  They’ll keep him there and hammer away at his mind until he’s too exhausted and confused to even know what he’s saying.

 

Can they actually take him there against his will?  Or do they have to have some cause to arrest him first?  He wishes that he understood these things better.  He doesn’t know his own rights, doesn’t know what they can and can’t do to him.  His vision starts to go fuzzy.  Shadows wriggle and dance around the edges.

 

He takes a step backwards, away from them.  “I need to go.”

 

A hand—Burke’s—comes down on Arthur’s shoulder, anchoring him in place.

 

He goes rigid.  The touch doesn’t feel friendly.  His nerves scream and writhe under his skin.  Arthur tries to pull away, and Burke’s hand tightens on him.  The walls seem to be moving toward him.  Ringing fills his ears.  “Please don’t touch me,” he whispers.

 

“Relax.”  His hand remains on Arthur’s shoulder, the fingers digging in just slightly.  His smile is white and sharp.  “Why don’t you just tell us what you know?”

 

“I don’t…”  The cigarette slips from Arthur’s fingers and falls to the floor.

 

Suddenly, he’s afraid to move.  His muscles have locked up.  A primal part of his brain—the part beneath reason—is convinced that if he fights back, if he resists or tries to escape, they’ll hurt him.

 

He feels himself sliding backwards into his head.  He’s lying on the floor in a dirty apartment, his cheek pressed to the rough, scratchy carpet, hunger burning a hole in his stomach.  He’s trembling as heavy footsteps come closer and closer and a shadow falls over him.  He holds very still.  Barely breathing.  Hoping that he can turn invisible. 

 

“Arthur?”

 

He feels the Other bubbling up inside him, pressing against the back of his teeth, snarling, trying to escape.  He clamps down.  If he loses control now, it’s all over.  But he can’t stop it.  The fluorescent lights glare, brightening, whiting out his vision.  The pressure builds and builds.  He wants to bite the hand clamped down on his shoulder, wants to sink his incisors into the knuckles and feel them grinding against bone.  He’s splitting open, spilling out of his own skin—

 

Then a voice says, “Let him go.”

 

He turns his head.

 

Penny stands in the hallway, in her hospital gown.  Her stick-thin, bare legs quiver.  An IV tube trails from her arm, the needle still embedded inside her.  She must have ripped the tube from its bag.

 

She’s holding a pink plastic bedpan in both hands, the runny contents sloshing inside.  Her face is pale, sweat shining on her forehead, her eyes wild and white-edged.

 

Garrity and Burke stare at her blankly.  Burke’s hand remains where it is, on Arthur’s shoulder.

 

Then Garrity takes a step toward her, positioning himself between her and Arthur, and holds his hands up.  “Ma’am, we’re detectives.  We’re just—”

 

“Get your filthy hands off my baby, you bastards!”

 

She flings the contents of her bedpan at Garrity.  He yelps and jumps backwards, but some of it splashes onto his shirt anyway.  The rest lands on the floor.  “Agh!  Damn it!”

 

Penny whirls toward Burke, eyes blazing.

 

“Stay back,” he says.  “I’m—” he fumbles for his badge.

 

She marches toward him, empty bedpan raised in both hands like a club.  Burke shrieks.

 

His fist shoots out, slamming into her face.  She flies backwards like a scarecrow hit by a truck and lands on her back, arms and legs splayed.

 

There’s a clatter as an approaching nurse drops a tray.  She stands there, hands over her mouth.  Nearby, a pair of doctors stare, jaws hanging open.

 

Penny lays motionless on the floor.

 

“Mom!”  Arthur rushes to her side and drops to his knees.

 

She moans and stirs, eyes opening.  One side of her face is already starting to swell up where Burke punched her.

 

“Mom.  Are you all right?”

 

She sits up, cradling her face.  “I think so.”

 

The nurse is approaching now.  “Let me see her.”

 

As the nurse examines Penny, Arthur stands and turns toward Burke, who’s standing motionless, face sheet-white.  “You punched my mother!”

 

Burke’s mouth works soundlessly for a moment.  “She came right at me!”

 

“Does she look like a threat?”

 

“She had a weapon!”

 

“It was a bedpan!”

 

Garrity stands motionless, the front of his shirt dripping with shit.  He pulls a tissue from his pocket and dabs at the mess, then grimaces.  “Seems there’s been a misunderstanding—”

 

“Is that what you call it?” Arthur snaps.

 

Burke flushes. 

 

Arthur turns toward the nurse, who’s helping Penny into a sitting position.  Her legs kick weakly.  “I can move,” she croaks. 

 

“Can you count backwards from ten?” the nurse asks.

 

“Why would I want to do that?”

 

“Why don’t you just tell me your name?”

 

“It’s Penny.  Penny Fleck.”  She points.  “That’s my son, Arthur.  That man grabbed him.  He threatened him.”

 

“I put a hand on his shoulder!”

 

“And then when I tried to stop him, he hit me.”

 

“Yes, I saw,” the nurse says.  “Listen, I’m going to get a wheelchair.  I think you need to get back in bed.”

 

“I don’t need a wheelchair.  My hips are bad, but I can still walk.  I might need some ice for my face though.  Arthur, honey, are you okay?”

 

“I’m fine, Mom.”  His voice sounds like it’s coming from far away.  Is this really happening?

 

“I think we should use the wheelchair,” the nurse says.  “You just woke up from a coma, ma’am.”

 

“Oh.  Is that why I feel so strange?”  She looks around.

 

Another nurse wheels the chair up.  “We need to do some tests.  Mr. Fleck, why don’t you wait out here?  This will just take a few minutes.”

 

The two nurses help her into the wheelchair and wheel her down the hallway, toward her room.  “Don’t let those bastards touch him!” she shouts at no one in particular.  “You keep an eye on them!”

 

Garrity dabs at his shirt again.  His voice drops to a mutter.  “Christ.”  And then, louder, “Let’s continue this conversation later.  I need to get cleaned up.  Where’s the nearest bathroom?”

 

“Wait a minute,” Arthur says.  “You think you can just walk away after that?”

 

The flush in Burke’s face deepens.  “I warned her.  It was a clear case of self-defense.”

 

“Then you won’t mind me telling your bosses at the station what happened.”  The words rush out of him.  He isn’t scared anymore.  He’s angry.  He clings to the anger, fans the flame.  It steadies his voice.  “And it’s not just my word against yours either.  Other people saw.  I’m sure the doctors aren’t too happy about you hitting their patient.”

 

Burke glares at him.  “We’re investigating a serious crime.  We don’t need this bullshit right now.”

 

“No, I guess you don’t, do you?  Most people already hate the Gotham Police Department.  They think you’re useless.  I guess it wouldn’t be too good for you if people knew you went around punching old ladies in the face.”

 

“We don’t—”

 

“You talked to her right before the stroke, too.  Didn’t you?  Did you do something to her then?  Are you the reason she’s in the hospital now?”

 

“No!  Jesus!”

 

“And another thing.  You grabbed my shoulder.  I told you to stop and you didn’t stop.  That’s why she came at you.  Because you were hurting me.”

 

“You weren’t cooperating—”

 

“I keep telling you, I don’t know anything!  What’s wrong with you people?  You think you can treat us however you want?  That we’ll just sit there and take it?”

 

Burke takes a step toward him.  “Listen, you—”

 

Garrity lays a hand on his arm.  Shakes his head.  Burke falls back, reluctantly.  “Okay.  Everyone just take a deep breath and calm down.”

 

“Your partner just hit my sick mother in the face and you want me to calm down?”

 

“She came right at me—”

 

“Burke.  Shut up.” 

 

Burke falls silent and crosses his arms over his chest.

 

Garrity sighs.  “Look.  We’re dealing with a lot right now.  We’ve got a huge backlog of unsolved cases—murders, assaults, robberies—and whatever people say about the Gotham police, we do care about solving crimes.  We’d prefer to be free to focus on our work.  This whole thing—it’s a PR headache we don’t need.  You’re right about that much.  So.  What do we have to do to put this behind us?”

 

Arthur’s mouth opens, then snaps shut.  His mind reels.  He’s asking me what I want?

 

Somehow, he has the upper hand.  He’s not quite sure how it happened.  Somewhere in between Penny throwing her shit at Garrity and the nurses taking her away, the detectives lost their power and went on the defensive.

 

No time to question his good luck.  “Just leave us alone,” he says.  “I don’t want you coming around here and upsetting my mother again, and I don’t want to have to talk to you or anyone else from the police.”  He leans over and picks up his cigarette from the floor.  “I already told you everything I know.  If you don’t believe me, that’s your problem.  I’m done talking to you.”

 

“Okay,” Garrity says.  “Fair enough.”

 

Burke scowls but says nothing.  They turn and start to walk down the hallway.  Arthur watches them, holding his breath.

 

Garrity stops, glances over his shoulder.  “Hang on a second.”

 

Arthur’s shoulders tense.

 

Garrity faces Arthur and gives him a long, careful, measuring look.  Sizing him up.  He clears his throat.  “When you’ve got a chance, do you think you could come down to the station and sign an NDA?”

 

“Wh…what is that?”

 

“A non-disclosure agreement.  Meaning you wouldn’t talk to anyone about, uh—what just happened.  And in exchange we’ll agree not to press charges against your mother for…this.”  He glances down at his shirt.

 

Arthur stares.

 

“It’s in both our best interests,” Garrity continues.  “We might even be able to get you a little bit of compensation.  To help cover your mother’s medical expenses.  How does that sound?”

 

If I just sign something, they’ll pay her hospital bills? 

 

In a flash, he remembers Penny saying that Thomas Wayne made her sign some papers promising not to tell anyone about their affair.  That she agreed to it because she needed money.

 

He doesn’t even know if any of that is true.  Even so.

 

Arthur doesn’t trust his own ability to understand legal documents.  Whatever they give him, it will be worded to benefit them, not him.  And even without an agreement, he doesn’t believe they’re actually going to sue Penny.  She’s old and frail.  She ruined Garrity’s shirt, but she didn’t actually hurt anyone.  Going after her now will make them look bad.  It will make them look weak.  They’re more likely to leave him alone if he still has some power to hurt them…or their reputation, at least.

 

They’re trying to buy him off.  To keep him quiet.

 

“I’m not signing anything,” he says.  “Just leave.”

 

Garrity eyes him for a moment longer, then says, “Your loss.”  He glances down at himself again and grimaces.  “I need to get out of these clothes.”

 

“I swear,” Burke says, “this whole city is a fucking nuthouse.”

 

He and Burke walk away, disappearing around the corner.  A janitor approaches and starts mopping up the mess on the floor.  Arthur stands motionless, dazed.

 

Did he just win?

 

* * *

 

He finds Penny curled up in bed under a sheet, an ice pack pressed to her face.  The nurses have replaced her IV.

 

He sits in the chair next to the bed.  “May I see?”  Gently, he moves the ice pack aside.  Already, there’s a bruise forming.  He winces.  “He really hit you.  I’m sorry, Mom.”

 

“I’ve had worse.  Did they go away?”

 

“Yes.  They’re gone.  I don’t think they’re going to bother us again.”

 

“Good.”  She presses the ice pack to her cheek again.  “The nurses told me that I had a stroke.  I guess I must have.”

 

“How much do you remember?”

 

“Before waking up here?  I don’t know.  It’s all a blur.”

 

“Do you need anything?  Water, or—”

 

“Just sit with me for a while.”

 

“Okay.”

 

They sit.  He holds her hand.

 

His mind is still whirling.  Within the course of a few minutes, everything has changed.  Again.  His mother is awake.  She seems okay—at least, from what he can tell.  She didn’t give up Travis’s name, or any information about him.  And the police have agreed not to bother her or Arthur anymore.  At least for now.

 

“I wonder if they can bring me some pain medication,” Penny says.  “I have the most awful headache.”

 

“Do you want me to find someone?”

 

“No.  Stay with me.  I’m sure someone will come in soon.  One of the nurses said they were going to get the doctor.”

 

The TV is on, but muted—the nurse must have turned it on earlier.  Thomas Wayne is on the news, being interviewed by a reporter.  Penny stares blankly at the screen.

 

“Do you want to turn on the sound?” Arthur asks.  “They’re asking him about something.”

 

“Who?”

 

“Thomas Wayne.”

 

“Is that the man on the TV?”

 

Arthur blinks.  “Yes.  You know.  Thomas Wayne.  You worked for him.”

 

She rubs her head.  “When?”

 

“A long time ago.  More than thirty years.”

 

“Oh.  Well, no wonder I don’t remember.”

 

Arthur stares into space for a few seconds.  Then he puts a hand on his face and laughs.

 

Penny tilts her head.  “What’s so funny?”

 

“N-nothing.  Everything.”

 

“Well, sometimes you have to laugh, I suppose.”  She sighs.  “Let’s change the channel.  The news is always so depressing.”

 

He switches the channel to a cooking show.

 

She watches the woman onscreen chopping radishes.  He watches Penny from the corner of his eye.  “Mom—do you remember the police questioning you?”

 

“Yes…I think so.  A little.  I don’t know what it was about, but I remember their faces.  I don’t like those men.  They’re pushy.

 

Does she even remember Travis?  He has the urge to ask, but restrains himself.  He doesn’t want to risk being overheard.  And if she doesn’t know who Travis is, now, it’s probably better to keep it that way for as long as possible.

 

“They were asking about some crime, I think,” she says.  “Some man was beaten.  Goodness, do I look like someone who goes around beating people up?”

 

“You dealt with those two detectives pretty well.”

 

“Well, I had to do something.  I woke up and heard your voice, talking to them.  You were scared.  I could tell.  I couldn’t just sit here.”

 

A lump rises into his throat.  He starts to laugh again.  This time, the laughter sounds more like crying—soft, shuddering laugh-sobs.

 

“Honey, what’s wrong?”

 

He shakes his head.  “Thank you, Mom.”  He wipes at his eyes.  “Sorry.”

 

“Goodness, don’t apologize for crying.  Everyone cries.  Lord knows I’ve done plenty of that.”  She pats his arm.  “But life gets better when you least expect it.  Life loves to surprise you, in good ways and bad.  That’s what my mother used to tell me, anyway.  She said that God is a prankster.” 

 

“I guess so.”  She seems…different.  He wonders if it will last.  “I think the Murray Franklin show is on.  Do you want to watch it with me?”

 

“Oh, Murray.  That would be nice.”

 

They flip through the channels again.  Murray beams at the crowd and saunters across the stage.

 

“He’s handsome, isn’t he?” Penny asks.  “I’ve always thought so.  I bet he was a real heartbreaker when he was young.”

 

“Yeah.  I bet.”

 

Dr. Moraine comes in a few minutes later.  She asks Penny some questions, looks her over.  When Penny complains of her head hurting, the doctor injects some pain medication into her IV.  It must be potent stuff, because she drifts off to sleep almost immediately.

 

The doctor examines the bruise on Penny’s face and shakes her head.  Her lips tighten.  “Imagine.  A police officer doing this.  I know she caught them off guard, but still…a man who can’t deal with a situation like that nonviolently shouldn’t be carrying a gun.  This is a hospital, for heaven’s sake.”

 

“You saw it happen?” Arthur says.

 

“Not personally, but quite a few people did.  Everyone’s been talking about it.”  She glances at him.  “What were they questioning you about, anyway?”

 

“Oh…I don’t know.  It doesn’t matter.”

 

The doctor shrugs.

 

Arthur watches Penny sleep.  “Is she all right?”

 

“Well, her memory seems to have been affected—both short and long term.  Some of that may improve with time, though.  Overall she’s doing remarkably well.  Of course, she’s not out of the woods yet…and I’m sure being hit in the face didn’t help.  I’d prefer to keep her in the hospital for at least a few more days and monitor her condition.”

 

“Okay.”

 

She checks Penny’s vitals again, then says, “You don’t have to stay the night.  She’s stable, and we’ll be keeping an eye on her.  And I know those chairs aren’t very comfortable to sleep in.”

 

“You really think it’s okay to leave her?”

 

The doctor nods.  “Get some rest,” she says.  “You can come back in the morning.”

 

* * *

 

He walks to the train station, takes it to the stop closest to Travis’s apartment, and walks the remaining few blocks.  He still has the key in his pocket.  He lets himself in, walks up the creaking set of steps to Travis’s floor, and approaches his door.  He knocks.  “Travis?  Are you there?”  He knocks again.  “Travis?”

 

No response.  He unlocks the door, opens it, and steps inside.  He checks the living room, the kitchen, the bathroom, the bedroom.  No sign of him.

 

Arthur sits down on the bed.  The springs creak softly beneath him.  He picks up the pillow and holds it to his chest.

 

Travis said he would call.  He will.  But there’s no telling when that will be.

 

He’s safer outside of Gotham anyway.  Even if the police don’t have Travis’s name, even if they don’t question Arthur again, they’re still investigating.  They won’t give up that easily.

 

I should have gone with him.

 

He thinks about the warm pressure of Travis’s arms around him.  That feeling of safety and acceptance.  Of love.

 

It’s enough, Arthur thinks, to have experienced that sort of love, even once.  So many people will go their whole lives without ever finding something that right, that real—a fleeting burst of light, like a firework, exploding in a riot of joy and then fading softly into darkness.  No matter what happens, the memory of that light will stay inside him forever, imprinted on his heart. 

 

Stop thinking as if he’s gone.  He’s not gone.

 

One day soon—maybe tomorrow—the phone will ring, and it will be him.

 

He lays down on the bed and hugs the pillow, curling around it.

 

He knows he shouldn’t stay here.  He should go back to Penny’s apartment.  But he doesn’t want to leave.  Travis’s scent—the tang of his aftershave, the warmer, subtler smell of his skin—still clings faintly to the sheets and pillowcase.  Arthur presses his face against the pillow, breathing in deeply.

 

When he finally does go, he takes the pillowcase with him, balled up in one pocket.

 

* * *

 

Arthur spends the next few days in the hospital, taking care of Penny.  It’s an easy habit to slip back into.  He cuts up her food for her, helps her out of bed when she needs to use the bathroom, combs the tangles out of her hair.  They watch TV together.

 

Sometimes she sings, quietly, under her breath.  Old songs.  Sometimes he sings along.

 

Her condition doesn’t change much.  She’s detached and forgetful, even by her usual standards.  But she’s warm.  At one point he breaks down into tearful laughter, and she holds him and strokes his hair, smiling a sweet, foggy smile.  “It’s okay, honey.  Mama’s here.”

 

She doesn’t call him Happy anymore.

 

She keeps complaining of headaches.  The doctors keep giving her pain medication.  There’s another scan scheduled for tomorrow.  She sleeps a lot.  Arthur sleeps, too.  The chair is hard and unpleasant, so the nurses bring up a cot.

 

He tries not to think about the hospital bill.

 

When Penny drifts off that night, leaving him alone with his thoughts, he feels the tug of anxiety and loneliness in his chest.  He pulls the balled-up pillowcase from his jacket pocket and presses it against his face, eyes shut tightly.  If he concentrates, he can still catch a lingering whiff of Travis.  But it’s so faint, it’s hard to say whether it’s really there or just in his imagination.

 

He drifts off, clutching the soft cotton, as Penny’s soft snores echo through the hospital room.

 

* * *

 

Penny dreams.

 

She and three-year-old Arthur are having a picnic in an open field.  Crows caw in a raucous chorus, circling in the gray, overcast sky.  Arthur has skinned his knee and is crying.  She picks him up and kisses the scrape.

 

My baby.

 

She knows, of course, that he’s not really hers.  Her baby died.  She remembers that now.  One gasped breath, and then nothing.  And yet…

 

I chose you.  You are more mine than flesh and blood.

 

Arthur stops crying and smiles.

 

Even adopting an abandoned child, she knows, was a selfish act—a way to run from her own grief, to convince herself that it never happened.

 

She remembers, too, how badly she failed him.  How she curled up into a ball and hid while the monsters tore him apart.  She made herself forget that, for so long, because the shame of it would have destroyed her.  So many mistakes.  So many failures.

 

But the love—the love is real.  And now, she’s been given another chance.

 

She holds her child in her arms, standing in the middle of the field.  She is young again and she’s wearing a red dress.  It flutters in defiance against the cold wind.  Overhead, the cloud covers breaks, and the sun shines through, bathing the green grass in sweet golden light.  She laughs.  Arthur laughs, too.

 

Everything is clean and new.  The world is theirs.  They are together, and they are going back to the beginning, back to the time before everything went wrong.  She’ll protect her little boy, no matter what.  She’ll give him the sort of love that she should have given him all those years ago, the sort of love that she herself never had.  She’ll—

 

* * *

 

At 5:26 AM on a snowy Sunday morning—Christmas Eve—Penny Fleck dies.  She dies quickly and painlessly, in her sleep, from a blood clot in the back of her brain.  She dies with Arthur napping in the chair beside her bed, holding her hand.

 

* * *

 

Muted sunlight slants in through the curtains.  Arthur stares at the empty bed.  A few gray strands of hair still cling to the pillow.

 

“Sign here,” someone says.  He signs the paper, not bothering to read it.  “Sorry for your loss, sir.”

 

He doesn’t respond.

 

The day passes in a dark blur.  A procession of strangers express their condolences and then ask Arthur questions and read him lists of prices.

 

Dying, as it turns out, is expensive.

 

A funeral is out of the question, of course—it costs too much.  And there would be no one there except Arthur, anyway.  Caskets are expensive.  Burials are expensive.  Tombstones are expensive.

 

People keep drifting into the room asking him questions.  Their voices buzz in his ear like insects.  He wishes they would go away.  He floats somewhere above himself, a balloon tethered to his body.

 

In the end, he opts for cremation, which he can’t afford either, but which is less unaffordable than the other options, and because he has to choose something.

 

He picks a marble box for her ashes instead of a basic urn—the only extravagance he allows himself. 

 

He knows it makes no cents.  It’s not like her ashes will be comfier in a nice box.  And he doesn’t believe in an afterlife.  He doesn’t think she’s watching him from heaven or hell, and even if she is, he doubts she’s paying attention to the type of container he chooses. 

 

But in the end, he can’t bring himself to pick the cheapest option for his mother’s remains.  So—still floating in a haze—he agrees to spend money he doesn’t have on a block of pink marble with the words PENNY FLECK, BELOVED MOTHER engraved on top.

 

He knows there is more to the story than that.  More to her.  Beloved daughter, cherished friend…something.  She had a life before Arthur, before Thomas Wayne.  But he knows so little about that life.  On the few occasions he asked her, she would just say, It’s not a happy story.  And of course, he’ll never have the chance to ask again.

 

So beloved mother is all he can give her, now.

 

And just like that, Arthur is alone once more.

 

That evening, after it’s all done, he leaves the funeral home and rides the subway back to the apartment he once shared with Penny, holding the pink marble box in his lap.

 

He pulls the pillowcase out of his jacket pocket and rubs it against his cheek, not caring that people are staring at him.  He presses it to his nose and breathes in.  But Travis’s scent has faded to nothing.

 

* * *

 

Alone in the apartment, he places the marble box on the dresser, then looks through the closet.  He finds one of Penny’s good dresses in the back—one she hasn’t worn for years, perhaps decades.  One she always saved for special occasions.  It’s bright red, sleek and simple, with thin shoulder-straps.

 

She wore this once for a date, when Arthur was very small.  The man turned out to be as bad as the others, but he seemed nice at first.  Arthur remembers her standing in front of the mirror, humming as she applied red lipstick—a perfect match for the dress—her eyes bright with hope that this time everything would be different.

 

He remembers the man arriving with flowers for Penny and smiling at him, crouching down to meet him at eye-level, asking his name.  He seemed very interested in Arthur.  Very attentive. 

 

Is he the one who…?

 

It doesn’t matter now.

 

He takes three times his usual dose of anti-anxiety meds.  He changes out of his old clothes and puts on the dress, relishing the silky softness against his skin.  In the bathroom, he paints his face white and reddens his mouth with Penny’s lipstick, scribbles of scarlet like a child’s crayon drawing.  He smokes a cigarette and dances around the living room to imaginary music—slow, graceful, head tipping back, arm sweeping out behind him.

 

Here is your funeral.

 

His thoughts swirl and soften and blur and run together, until his vision swims and he sinks softly to the couch.

 

He raises the cigarette to his lips and blows a puff of smoke, face stretched into a smile, eyes filled with tears.  “Merry Christmas, Mom,” he whispers.

 

God is a prankster, Penny told him after she woke.  God is a joker.  The world is a grand comedy, and they’re all unwilling players.

 

He hopes that isn’t true.  Better no god at all than a cruel one.  Though he supposes that would explain a lot.

 

He wonders where Travis is right now.  Driving?  Sleeping in a motel room?  Or maybe…

 

He stands.  His legs carry him to the window.  He feels like he’s floating.  He looks out at the snowy streets of Gotham, sugary-white, a balloon of anticipation rising in his chest, and scans the street outside his apartment for a glimpse of the familiar yellow cab or a lone figure standing on the sidewalk, looking up at him.

 

But of course, there’s no one there.

 

So he decides to take a hot bath.  That’s one thing he missed, when he was living with Travis—there was no bathtub in his apartment.  He fills the tub with water, adds some dish soap for bubbles, and puts a record on the player in the living room.  He sinks into the sudsy water, still wearing the dress and makeup and holding the cigarette between two fingers.

 

He lays there in the tub, the dress floating around him in a wispy red cloud, raises one leg into the air, and sings along, his voice crackling and wobbling.

 

“There’s a saying old that love is blind…still we’re often told, seek and ye shall find…”

Chapter Text

When Arthur told him to leave Gotham, Travis knew it was the right call.  The safe thing.

 

He thought about it—driving to some city in the next state over, someplace he could work and save up money.  And then, once he got himself a place to live, they could get in touch.  Find each other again.  Hopefully by then this whole thing with Penny would be settled, one way or another.

 

Just leave.  That would be the smart thing to do.

 

But he doesn’t do that.

 

* * *

 

Travis has been driving in circles for a long time now.

 

He can’t go back to his apartment.  Not with the cops looking for him.  Too risky. 

 

So after he left Arthur standing in the hospital parking lot, he just started driving around the city.  And kept driving.  And driving and driving some more.  When the exhaustion became overwhelming, he parked in an alley and slept in the backseat for an hour, then went on driving.

 

He tries to call, to see how he’s doing.  A few times, he picks up a payphone and dials Arthur’s old apartment, the one he shared with Penny.  But each time, it just goes to the answering machine.  Arthur’s still in the hospital with her.  Probably.

 

He doesn’t dare leave a message.  Because a message is evidence.  What if the police search Arthur’s place, listen to his messages?  He can’t risk that.  Travis doesn’t want anything tangible connecting him to Arthur.  If they get Arthur…

 

No.  Travis can’t allow him to go to prison.  They’ll do terrible things to him, there.

 

He keeps driving.  Circles the hospital and then Arthur’s apartment, haunting him like a ghost.  Starved for a glimpse of him.

 

He never sees him.  But he keeps coming back again and again.  Circling and circling the same places because he doesn’t know what else to do, where else to go.  He can’t hold still and he can’t leave the city—can’t bring himself to take that plunge—so he just keeps moving in the same patterns.

 

Travis remembers reading about a lab experiment on rats.  The scientists wired electrodes to the reward centers of their brains and then gave them a lever to press that would stimulate those places.  The rats just kept pressing the lever over and over and over, neglecting food and sleep.  Caught in an endless loop until they keeled over and died from self-neglect.  After a while, Travis thinks, they probably didn’t even get any pleasure out of the lever-pushing.  But they couldn’t stop.  Addicts.  Obsessives.  Slaves to a hunger they didn’t understand.

 

Circling, circling.

 

He calls Arthur again, late at night.  Still no answer.

 

Staying overnight in the hospital, then.  Or maybe…

 

He doesn’t want you anymore, says a small, cold inner voice.  He’s figured out that he’s better off without you.

 

He has heard that voice before.

 

Years ago, when Travis first came to Gotham—before he met Arthur—he had a few very bad nights.  He heard that voice (his own voice, really) whispering, Just take a dive out the window.  What are you hanging on for?  Who’s gonna miss you? 

 

He thought about calling his parents.  But he hadn’t spoken to them in almost eight years.  And the last few letters he sent them were filled with lies about how well his life was going.  He didn't even know what the hell he would say to them, if he had them on the phone.

 

Once or twice, he considered checking himself into Arkham.  Telling them he was on the edge.

 

But what were they going to do for him?  He’s tried pills.  Tried talking to shrinks, when he first came back from the war.  None of it ever helped much.  It felt sort of like the phone sex hotlines he sometimes called back in New York, when he was starved for intimacy.  Maybe it took the edge off for a little while, but the despair was always back, like a shadow hovering in his doorway.

 

Or maybe the problem was Travis himself.  Maybe he never learned how to heal, and now his old habits were too deeply ingrained to change.

 

He had no one.  God’s lonely man.  That was the story he told himself about his own life.

 

And then, Arthur.  A break in the pattern.

 

Travis kept thinking that it was too good to last.  That he was going to fuck it up somehow, the way he fucked things up with Betsy, with everyone else.

 

But no matter how many mistakes he made, Arthur stayed with him.  Kept loving him.  Travis started to believe, a little, that this could work.  That he could have a life with another person.  That maybe he wasn’t too broken, after all.

 

Now, though…

 

You saw how scared he was when you grabbed his shoulders.  He sees the monster in you, now.  He sees you for what you really are.

 

The voice of self-hatred, or the voice of reason?  It’s hard to say, sometimes.  They sound pretty similar.

 

He’s out of cash, now.  But he can’t work.  He’s a wanted man, after all.  It would be stupid to start taking passengers.

 

He parks his cab and begs some change off of strangers, just so he has enough for a cheeseburger and gas and some quarters for parking meters.  He walks to a diner for some food.

 

When he gets out, the cab is gone.  Towed.  He must have forgotten to feed the meter.  Must have left it there longer than he thought.  There is a note taped to the meter with an address.

 

He finds the cab there, parked in a fenced and padlocked lot.  They want fifty dollars from him for its return.  He doesn’t have fifty dollars.

 

A man is what he does.  Without the cab, he is nothing.  A cowboy without a horse is just an asshole in a silly hat.

 

He walks around for a while.  Wanders the filthy streets.

 

He could go to Arthur’s apartment building and ring the buzzer.  What’s stopping him?  Except…

 

You’re not good for him.  You know it. 

 

For a while, Travis played the knight in shining armor.  Protected Arthur.  Scared off some street punks.  Showed him some attention, a little kindness.  That was all it took—just some basic human decency, nothing special.  And Arthur looked at him like he hung the moon and stars.  Like he was a hero.  Him—Travis Bickle, the loser fuckup, the nobody, the pathetic loner.  For a while he got to feel like someone.  Of course he got hooked.

 

But he could never shake the feeling that he was using Arthur.  Exploiting him in some way.  Not for sex, but for something more primal.  It took him a while to figure out what that something was.  Maybe just that Arthur made him feel like a good person.  Which he knows he is not.

 

Bad people don’t get happy endings.  Sooner or later, Travis will fall.  For a while he thought maybe Arthur was like him, that they would fall into hell together.  Didn’t seem like such a bad fate.  To die hand in hand.  To have one good thing before the darkness closed in.  Maybe that’s the best a man like himself can hope for.

 

But Arthur is better than that.  He chose to stay with Penny—not because she deserved it, but because she needed him.  If it’d been up to Travis…

 

If you stay with him, you’ll drag him down into hell with you. 

 

Arthur told him to go.  To leave Gotham without him.

 

He can tell himself that there are reasons for that, sensible reasons.  But right now the reasons don’t seem real.  The only thing that seems to matter is, He told you to leave, which slowly warps into, He doesn’t want you.

 

Travis keeps wandering.  Loses track of where he is.  It starts to rain.  He goes into a library to get out of the cold and wet and sits for a while in the corner, staring into space.  Once or twice, he catches himself muttering under his breath.  The librarian calls the police because he’s freaking people out.  He guesses he looks pretty unhinged.  He hasn’t had a chance to shave or shower for a while.

 

With the last of his change, he catches a bus back to his own apartment.  He knows it’s dangerous, going there when the cops are probably looking for him, but he has to get out of this rain.  When he tries the door, though, he finds that the lock has been changed.  There’s a note.  His rent is overdue and he’s not getting back in until he pays it.

 

He missed rent?  Well, there’s been a lot going on.

 

No cab.  No home.  So he keeps walking.

 

* * *

 

As a child, Travis had all the things children are supposed to have.  Food.  A roof over his head.  Two parents who treated him pretty well, all things considered.  They spanked him when he acted up, sure, and a couple of times his dad took the belt to him.  But that was normal.

 

As a child, he didn’t know he was unhappy.  Didn’t think about it much.  He didn’t have anything to compare it to.  He just went through the motions.  He did have some troubles at school.  Didn’t really have friends.  He felt like he could never really talk to anyone—like the words got scrambled up somewhere between his brain and mouth and what came out wasn’t what he wanted to say, or else people heard it wrong.  It was easier just to be alone.

 

The one time he tried talking to his dad about it, his dad said something about the human condition and about God and Original Sin.  Life was a series of trials and tribulations.  He made it sound like it was kinda just normal to feel that way.  So Travis accepted it.

 

He remembers going to church with his parents, who were (still are, as far as he knows) strict Lutherans.  He remembers dressing up in his good clothes, which felt stiff and uncomfortable against his skin, and sitting in the pew, listening to the hymns and the droning sermons.  He would always squirm, and his mother would mutter for him to sit still.

 

In the front of the church was a big statue of Jesus dying on the cross.  Travis and his parents always sat near the front, so he could see every detail.  The emaciated body, naked except for the loin cloth, limbs contorted in agony.  His forehead weeping blood from the thorns.  His hands and feet, violated by nails.  Scary stuff.  But His face was full of tenderness.  Love.  Even for those who hurt Him.

 

Travis always felt strange, sitting there in the pew.  Restless.  Feverish.  He would stare.  He kept getting these sort of hollow tingling feelings in his stomach.  But he didn’t think about that much, either.  Maybe he sensed, even then, that questioning those feelings would lead to other, more difficult questions.

 

* * *

 

At school, when he was around thirteen, he started noticing a girl named Megan—yellow hair and blue eyes, a dusting of freckles on her nose.  He sat a few desks behind her.  She wore these loose billowy shirts with long sleeves, and sometimes she would raise her arm to tuck a lock of hair behind one ear and her sleeve would fall down to reveal her thin wrist and the silver bracelet around it.  The sight of that always made him weak with a need he half-understood.

 

She never looked his way.  She was a good girl and he was a troublemaker, so he never said anything to her.  Didn’t feel like he had a right.

 

But there was one moment—on his way to his locker he overheard crying in the girl’s bathroom, and he hesitated outside the door.  She came out, eyes still pink and sparkly with tears, and her head turned toward him and they stood there for a moment looking at each other.  And then she hurried away.

 

It was just a few seconds.  But it felt like a window opened between them and they could see each other.  Really see each other, past the skin, into the soul.  He always wished he’d said something to her, then.

 

But they never spoke.  He just watched her from afar.  When she walked past he caught a faint whiff of something like peaches, like springtime.  He watched her pin up her hair in class, watched the sunlight from the window touch the vulnerable nape of her neck.  It felt to him like they were connected in some way.  Like she felt him there.  Felt his eyes, his heart.

 

Travis was lonely, even then. 

 

Then one day he saw her kissing another boy in the hallway.  A big blond guy.  He felt sick.  Felt betrayed. 

 

That night, at home, he grabbed a screwdriver and gouged the word WHORE into his bedroom wall, near the floor.

 

He guessed it didn’t make much sense, doing it to his own wall like that.  It was like he was calling himself a whore.  He wasn’t thinking clearly.  He pushed the dresser a few feet to the right, hiding the word.

 

He knew that he had no right to be angry, no right to think those things about her.  There was never any connection between him and Megan.  She barely even knew who he was.  It was all in his head. 

 

* * *

 

After that the weird feelings in church just got stronger.

 

Sometimes he thought about running his hands up the ladder of the statue’s bruised and aching ribs, pressing the length of his body against it.  Stroking His face, wiping away the blood.  Soothing the wounds with his touch.  He kept those thoughts to himself.  They didn’t seem exactly normal.

 

When he thought about kissing someone, it was Megan…or at least, it had been, before he saw her with that other guy.  So that meant the thoughts he had in church couldn’t be what they seemed like.  Could they?  He’d never met a real boy who stirred those kind of feelings in him.  He told himself that maybe he was just very devout.  Christians were supposed to love Jesus.  Maybe everyone felt like this and just didn’t talk about it.

 

He remembers the hymns, like a caress:  Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me.  Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.

 

At night, sometime, he imagined Jesus as a boy his own age.  Maybe a few years older.  Someone who would be his friend.  Someone who wouldn’t judge him because He already knew him down to the marrow of his bones, knew the depths of his darkness and loved him anyway.  Mostly, Travis’s fantasies were just that.  Talking.  Imaginary conversations.  Sometimes hugging.  It never went past that.  But sometimes he wanted it to.

 

His troubles at school got worse.  The teachers talked to his parents a lot about his Behavioral Problems.  One teacher went so far as to suggest that his parents should consult a doctor.  He overheard whispered conversations between his mother and father at night.  Apparently, Travis had an uncle on his mother’s side, who he had never met—Uncle Hector, who believed that the government was beaming messages into his brain and who lived in an institution and punched anyone who tried to touch him.  There was talk that Travis might be A Bit Like Hector.  Not as bad, heavens no, but a few drops of the same poison.  At least, that was his mother’s concern.  As he listened through the door, Travis could hear her pacing, could imaging her smoking and twisting her earlobe in the way she did when she was nervous.

 

His father—perhaps luckily, perhaps unluckily—had no respect for the opinions of shrinks.  Travis, he said, was a normal boy.  A bit willful maybe.  All he needed was discipline.

 

His troubles at school only got worse.  Seemed like everyone had a problem with him.  Everyone wanted to start something.  He came home with black eyes or bloodied lips more often than not.  Things at home were not so good either.  His mom drank too much and argued with his dad.  Travis always got the sense that it was his own fault, somehow.  Even when they weren’t arguing about him, they were arguing about him.

 

In the midst of all this, the family dog, a black and white collie named Lady, had a stroke and needed to be put down.

 

They didn’t take her to the vet though.  Travis did it himself, with his dad’s old hunting rifle.  Because his dad told him to.  To teach him about responsibility.  To teach him that a man had to do hard things, sometimes.

 

He remembers the way Lady lay limp on her side, mouth open and tongue lolling out.  The way her one visible eye rolled toward him as he pressed the mouth of the rifle against her head.  She couldn’t move anymore.  Couldn’t do anything but lay there.

 

When it was over, his dad—not usually an affectionate guy—put a hand on Travis’s shoulder and said, “You did well, son.  You were very brave.”

 

He didn’t feel brave.

 

* * *

 

There were some bad nights.  In his dreams, he relived the moment of Lady’s death over and over.  The flat, strangely hollow bang and the slowly spreading pool of blood.  He dreamed that he was locked in a white cell with no door and no windows.  He dreamed he was a rat being dissected.  He dreamed about hell.  Not fire and worms like in the stories, but a black pit, an empty place where no one could hear him screaming.

 

On one of those nights, Travis couldn’t take it anymore.  He left the house and rode his bike to the church, broke the lock on the door with a chunk of rock and went in.  It was empty and dark.  He went to the statue in front and got down on his knees and cried and prayed and begged.  Help me.  I’m sick.  Heal me.

 

The eyes gaze down on him with tenderness.  With acceptance.

 

Somewhere in the midst of the crying and praying he became conscious of another need.  And he was seized by the feeling that he had to release it—release the pent-up poison, the hunger tightening and aching low in his belly—or he was going to explode.  The fire was going to blaze out of control and consume him.  Gasping, sobbing, he fumbled at his belt.

 

He jerked off at Jesus’s feet, panting and flushed, and then he ran out, leaving a small white line of spunk on the floor.

 

That night when he got home, his dad was awake and sitting in a chair in the living room.  He was a large man, gray hair, small wire-rimmed spectacles.  He had a folded belt in his hands.  Slowly, with a grunt, he rose to his feet.  “Let’s get this over with,” he said.

 

Travis stood frozen.  “Why—”

 

“You know why.”

 

Of course, his dad couldn’t possibly know about what he had just done in the church—not so soon after.  Maybe it was just the fact that he came home so late.  Or maybe his parents found the word WHORE on his wall.  But maybe it wasn’t that, either.  He never found out the real reason. 

 

The leather bit into his back again and again, but Travis never once cried out.  He’s still proud of that fact.

 

He wonders now, though, if that was where the real trouble started.  He has always been different.  But that night—lying in bed after the beating, his back burning—was the first time he felt the anger and shame and confusion of differentness begin to harden into a bitter and permanent knot inside his ribcage.  A cancerous lump of self-hate.

 

It wasn’t the pain itself that bothered him.  He could endure a just punishment for a knowable sin.  It was the fact that his dad never told him why he was being beaten.  It felt as though the reason was everything and nothing—some deeper, undefined evil.  Something he could never escape because it was part of him.

 

That night was also the last time he ever set foot in a church.  After that he stopped going with his parents.  They didn’t push the issue.  Not even his dad, surprisingly.

 

Travis is still a believer, even if the specifics of his beliefs are fuzzy.  But he wonders sometimes what it all means, wonders what it is exactly that he believes in.  It’s not like he really lives by the Bible.  Thou shalt not kill.  That’s a pretty important rule, isn’t it?  And there’s no footnote saying “unless it’s for the U.S. government” or “unless they’re robbers or pimps.”

 

Certainly he’s done a lot of things that the God of the church—and his parents—would consider grounds for damnation.  He knows they wouldn’t like him being with Arthur, either. 

 

Travis regrets many things in his life.  Most things, maybe.  But he’s never once regretted loving Arthur.  Holding him, he felt closer to God than he ever did in all his sordid life.

 

But now, he wonders how much of that was in his head.

 

Travis’s first two experiences with love were delusional.  A girl who didn’t even know his name and a fucking statue.  And it kept happening after that.  The stuff with Betsy.  The sense that they were fated to be together…it was all bullshit.  Just Travis imposing his own feelings on another person.  Just his own loneliness and desperation.

 

Did he only imagine what he had with Arthur, too?

 

Oh, Arthur is real, he’s sure of that.  Travis couldn’t invent someone like him.  He’s not that imaginative.  They time they spent together was real.

 

But the love, the sense of rightness, the sense that Arthur really, truly wanted him in spite of (or maybe even because of) his flaws and his fucked up brain—did Travis make that up?

 

* * *

 

If he sits too long on a bench someone tells him to move along.  If he goes into a diner and doesn’t order anything right away, they ask him to leave.  He has to keep moving, despite his exhaustion.  There is nowhere he can be.  You need money to be anywhere, in a city.

 

Kind of amazing, he thinks, how quickly a person’s entire life can spiral down the toilet.  It hasn’t even been a full week since he left Arthur standing in the parking lot.

 

Or maybe it has.  He’s lost track of the days.  His sense of time, too, is dissolving.

 

He should’ve left Gotham when he had the chance.  In another city, he could’ve worked, at least.  Now it’s too late.  He fucked around for too long, circling and wandering, with no more sense or logic than a rat with a wire in its brain.  Couldn’t bring himself to make a move, to choose a path.  And now all his paths are blocked.  He’s trapped on the edges, in the shadows, floating through this empty space where he is no one.

 

He sinks silently into the dark, spongy rot of the city.  Its decay swallows him whole.

 

There are homeless veterans in Gotham.  Homeless veterans everywhere.  Men with brain damage and stumps for legs.  Men with physical and mental scars, gibbering and screaming or lost in a liquor-haze, used up and discarded by society like old tubes of toothpaste, tossed out in the street with the other trash.

 

Maybe it was always his fate to become one of them.  Maybe it was just a matter of time.

 

He falls asleep in an alley, hidden behind a Dumpster, and wakes to the sound of heavy breathing and the sensation of hands grabbing and clawing at him, pulling at his clothes.  He blinks his eyes open.  What…?

 

A shadow hovers over him, wild, bloodshot eyes and wet teeth gleaming in a dirt-grimed face.  The rough hands fumble at his jacket.  Travis reacts on instinct, grabs the guy’s left hand and bends it backward until he screams.  Travis scrambles to his feet and runs away while the guy doubles over, cradling his injured wrist, howling and sobbing.

 

He runs for several blocks before he slows.

 

He doesn’t know why the guy was grabbing at him like that.  Looking for cash?  Trying to rape him?  Having a bad drug trip?  Whatever.

 

He leans against a wall, shivering, his breath fogging in the cold air.  All he has is his jacket.  He’s got a warmer winter coat, but it’s in the trunk of his cab along with most of his clothes.

 

He keeps walking.  He doesn’t recognize the part of the city he’s in.  Doesn’t know where he’s going.  He just keeps putting one foot in front of the other like a machine.  Like a windup toy.  Sooner or later he’ll wind down and there will be no one to turn the key on his back.  He’ll just stop.

 

A thin sleet falls from the sky, melting into the gray slush that covers everything. 

 

He finds himself in front of a church.  Out front is a tacky, life-sized plastic replica of a manger, complete with Mary, Joseph, sheep and donkeys.  They’re all gathered around a plastic baby Jesus in a bed of plastic hay.  Christmas is over, but they haven’t taken it down yet.

 

It’s cold.  A deep, penetrating cold.

 

He stares at the manger, his throat thick.  He listens to the soft swell of hymns from within the church.  But he doesn’t approach the doors.  They would probably just kick him out anyway.  He looks like what he is—homeless and on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

 

An electric light glows at the base of the manger, illuminating everything in a warm, holy glow.

 

He’s so cold.

 

Numb, he curls up next to one of the plastic sheep and drifts off.

 

* * *

 

Travis floats in outer space.  The Earth is a shining blue marble swirled with white.  From this distance, it is so small he can cover it with his hand.  He feels himself drifting further and further away.  He doesn’t mind.

 

Nothing can touch him, out here.  Nothing can hurt him.  And he can’t hurt anyone else.  A deep hush surrounds and enfolds him like a womb.  He curls up, tucking his knees against his chest, and watches everything and everyone he has ever known grow smaller and smaller.

 

He glimpses movement from the corner of his eye.  A small brown-and-white mongrel dog floats beside him.  Are you my master? she asks.

 

No, he replies.  Sorry. 

 

I had someone, once, the dog says—though her mouth doesn’t move.  She seems to be thinking the words at him.  I was in a warm place with good food.  And then they sent me away.

 

Are you Laika?

 

That was my name, yes.

 

The distant points of stars wink all around them.  They are probably the only two living creatures for thousands, millions of miles.

 

Except Laika is not alive at all.  She died up in space.  He’s talking to her ghost.  He looks down at his own hands, then, and sees them slowly turning transparent.  Of course—nothing can survive up here.  Not for long.  He’s fading slowly into nothingness.  Maybe that won’t be so bad.

 

Did you have a master? Laika asks.

 

I don’t know.  I think…

 

There was someone.  Wasn’t there?  But now there’s only an empty space in his head.  Why can’t he remember?  Is he already dead?  Do the dead forget their lives on Earth?

 

Someone…

 

He awkwardly dog-paddles through space, trying to turn himself back toward Earth. 

 

It’s no use, Laika says, spinning slowly in the emptiness.  Once you’ve come untethered, you can’t go back.

 

Maybe that’s for the best.  He lets his eyes slip shut.  He can’t feel anything.

 

It’s better this way.

 

Then a voice speaks in his head:  Travis, where are you? 

 

His eyes snap open.  That voice.  He knows that voice.

 

Travis.  Come back to me.  Please.

 

There is a cord.  A glowing thread, leading out of his chest and through the blackness, back to the planet of garbage and fast food and porn theaters and miserable, confused humans.

 

Arthur.

 

Memories blaze through his mind, one igniting another, then another.  Meeting Arthur in the alley.  Going to Pogo’s and waiting for him there.  Finding his journal.  Reading it later, running his fingertips over the pages, tracing the grooves left by the pen.  Holding Arthur.  Sleeping next to him.  Making love to him.

 

He didn’t make any of that up.  That was real.  He knows it was real.

 

Arthur needs him.

 

God, he thinks, what the fuck have I been doing?

 

He knows exactly what he’s been doing:  wandering around in a daze of self-pity and misery while the love of his life cries out for him in the darkness.

 

“I have to go back,” he says.

 

Laika blinks damp brown eyes at him.  It’s too late.

 

“No.  It isn’t.”  He grabs onto the shining cord with one hand and takes Laika’s paw in the other.  “Let’s go home.”

 

* * *

 

Something pokes his side.  A man’s voice says, “Move along.  You can’t sleep here.”

 

Travis groans and rolls onto his back.  His eyes crack open, and he winces at the glare of sunlight.  An older, well-dressed man stands over him, holding a broom.  He nudges Travis with it again, like he’s trying to chase off a raccoon.

 

Travis looks around, then back up at the man.  “Awright, awright.  Stop poking me with that thing.  I’m going.”  He picks himself up and brushes dirt and bits of dead grass off his jacket and pants. 

 

Chasing a homeless man out of the manger, he thinks.  And on Christmas.  Okay, technically it’s a day or two after Christmas, but still.  Not very Christian. 

 

He glances down at his cold-reddened fingers and flexes them, wincing.  Probably just as well the guy woke him up.  If he laid there much longer in the cold, he might’ve gotten frostbite.  He blows on his hands and rubs them together, trying to warm them.  The man stands stiffly, arms crossed over his chest.

 

Travis digs through his pockets, feels only a bit of tissue and a loose peppermint candy wrapper.  “Hey, uh.  You got any change?  I just need enough for bus fare.”

 

* * *

 

An hour or so later, he approaches the front door of Arthur’s apartment building and rings the buzzer.  No response.  He rings it again, then sits down on the steps outside the front of the building.  Maybe he’s not home.  Travis will just wait here, then.

 

He sits for a while, shivering.  He hears footsteps and raises his head to see a young woman approaching, holding a little girl’s hand.  “Hey,” he calls hoarsely.

 

She freezes, eyeing him warily.

 

“I’m looking for Arthur Fleck,” he says.  “He lives in this building.”

 

She hangs back.  “May I ask who you are?”

 

“His friend.”

 

The little girl watches him with bright, curious eyes.  Travis smiles awkwardly.  She smiles back.  The woman doesn’t smile.

 

“Are you Sophie?” he asks. 

 

“How do you know my name?”

 

“He mentioned you, once or twice.  Said you lived down the hall.”  Travis rubs his stubble-roughened cheek, his gaze downcast.  His jacket is filthy.  He can’t blame her for being suspicious.  Travis would be suspicious of him, in her shoes.  “I just want to see him.  I’m worried about him.  The last time I talked to him, he was in kind of a bad place.  Guess I am, too.  Just…do you know when he’ll be coming home?”

 

“As far as I know, he is home,” she says.  “He hasn’t left the apartment much since…you know.”

 

“Since what?”

 

“His mother died.”

 

Travis stares.  “Penny?  When—”

 

“A few days ago.”

 

Travis’s stomach sinks.  Arthur’s been grieving, alone, since then.

 

“He didn’t tell you?” she asks.

 

“I haven’t talked to him in a while.  I kept calling but he didn’t pick up.  I knew she was in the hospital, but…”  He swallows.  Stands.  His legs shake a little.  Been almost a day since he’s eaten.  “I know I’m askin’ a lot of you, since we don’t know each other and you have no reason to trust me, but…I tried the buzzer and he’s not answering.  You’re his neighbor, right?  When you go in, could you knock on his door?  Talk to him?”

 

She bites her lower lip.

 

“Please.  If Penny is dead…he’s got no one else to check up on him.  Just knock on his door or somethin’.  Make sure he’s…”  Alive.  “Okay.”

 

She hesitates, her dark eyes searching his face.

 

“Mommy?”  The little girl tugs her hand.

 

She sighs.  “Come on.  I’ll let you in.”

 

He lets out a breath of relief.  “Thank you.”

 

He follows her to the front door.  She unlocks it, and they go in and take the elevator to Arthur’s floor.  Travis stands in the corner, his gaze averted, his hands in his pockets, trying not to make her nervous.  The elevator stops, and they get off.

 

“Good luck,” she says.  “I don’t really know Arthur, but I was friends with his mother.  At least for a little while.  She always said he was a good man.”

 

“He is.”

 

She lingers for a moment.  Opens her mouth, as if to say something else, then closes it and turns away.  Clutching her little girl’s hand, she disappears around the corner.

 

Travis knocks on the door.  “Arthur?”

 

Silence.

 

Please, he thinks.  Please, please, please.

 

He knocks again.  “Arthur.  It’s Travis.”  God, why the hell didn’t he come here sooner?  What the fuck was wrong with him?  He keeps knocking.  No answer.

 

He tries the knob.  Unlocked.

 

He enters the apartment.  Everything is pretty much as he remembers it.  It looks empty.

 

He goes into the kitchen.  The floor is covered with food.  Bagged bread, broken eggs from a tipped-over carton, a jug of milk, a bottle of ketchup.  There’s a plastic drawer filled with old, bruised-looking fruit and sliced cheese.

 

He opens the refrigerator, and there’s Arthur, curled up inside with his knees tucked against his chest, his face smeared with the remnants of makeup.  He’s wearing a red dress.

 

“Arthur,” Travis says.

 

He doesn’t move.  Doesn’t open his eyes.

 

Travis pulls him out of the fridge and cradles him in his arms.  Arthur hangs there limply.  He’s ice-cold.  He feels like clay.  “Arthur!”  Travis shakes him.  No response.  He takes his pulse.

 

It’s there—slow but steady.  Thank God.  When he puts an ear to Arthur’s lips he can hear the faint rasp of his breathing.

 

Travis carries him into the bedroom and bundles him up in blankets.  He sits on the edge of the bed and cradles him close.  He says his name softly, over and over, stroking his hair.  Arthur’s eyelashes flicker.  He moans faintly.  A small, lost sound.

 

Travis rocks him gently, hugging Arthur against his chest.  “It’s okay.  I’ve got you.”

 

Arthur draws in another raspy breath.  His eyes open a crack.  “Travis…”

 

Travis holds him tighter, closer.  “I’m here.  I’m here, I’m here, I’m here.”  He cups Arthur’s cheek with his palm.  “I heard your voice, Arthur.  I heard it inside my head.  You pulled me back.  You saved me.  I’m here now.”  He presses a kiss to Arthur’s forehead, then his lips.

 

“Am I dreaming?”

 

“No.”

 

Arthur’s face contorts, and he lets out a small, choked laugh.  Slowly, one arm slides out from within the cocoon of blankets, and he reaches up to grip a fistful of Travis’s hair.  His eyes fill with tears.  “D-don’t leave me.”

 

“I won’t.  I won’t.”  Arthur is shivering now.  Travis rubs his arms, trying to warm him up.  Arthur’s dress, he notices, is damp.

 

He undoes one of the straps, and Arthur’s breathing speeds up a little.  Confusion fogs his expression.  “Are you…”

 

“You’ll warm up faster if I get you out of that wet dress.  I’m just gonna take it off and wrap you up again.  Okay?”

 

After a few seconds, Arthur nods.  Travis lays him down on the bed and peels the dress off.  Arthur is naked beneath.  Travis can see fresh cigarette burns on his arms, his chest and stomach, and another injury on his inner thigh—a row of small punctures, smeared with dried blood.  As though Arthur stabbed himself there with a fork.  Travis stares.

 

Arthur’s breathing speeds up, and panic flashes in his eyes.  He covers the injury with one hand.  His other hand flies to his chest, then flutters over his abdomen, as though trying to hide all the burn-marks at once.  “Don’t look,” he whispers.

 

“It’s okay.  Here.”  He pulls the blanket over him again.  “I’m covering you up.”  He’ll clean the punctures out and bandage them later.  Right now the important thing is keeping him warm and calm.  “How long were you in the fridge?”

 

“I don’t know.  I think I fell asleep.”  His speech is slow, slurred.  His body twists under the blankets, and he winces.  “Hurts.”

 

“Your muscles are stiff.”  He keeps rubbing Arthur’s arms and sides through the blanket.

 

“I’m sorry,” Arthur say.  “I know it was stupid, getting in there—”

 

“Don’t apologize.”  Travis voice comes out rough, almost angry, and Arthur tenses up.  “No, no…it’s okay.”  He gathers Arthur up in his arms again.  “It’s not you I’m angry at.  It’s me.”  He swallows.  “Sophie told me.  About Penny.”

 

A tear slips from the corner of Arthur’s eye, down his temple.  “She died on Christmas Eve.”

 

“If I’d known…”

 

“It’s not your fault.  I told you to leave.”

 

“You were trying to protect me.  But I couldn’t go.  Not without you.”

 

Arthur curls a little closer against him.  “He came to me again,” he whispers.


“Who?”

 

“My other self.  He came to me in the hospital, and again last night.  He was wearing my paint.  He…he touched me.  He ran his hands over me.  Inside me.  He kissed me.  It felt good.  He begged me to let him take away the pain.”  His voice has taken on a soft, faraway quality.  “I wanted it.  I was so tempted to just…let him inside me.  Let him take control and do what he wanted.  But I knew if I did, I would never come back.”  His hand slides down Travis’s jaw.  “I told him that I was waiting for you.  That you would come back for me.”

 

Travis’s throat swells shut.  It’s a struggle to speak.  “I should have come sooner.”
 

Arthur rests his head on Travis’s shoulder.  “You’re here now,” he whispers.  It sounds almost like a question.  Like he’s afraid to believe.

 

Travis holds him tighter.  “I’m here.”

 

Arthur reaches up slowly and touches his face, sliding his fingertips along the roughness of stubble on his jaw.  His other hand comes up.  He frames Travis’s face between his palms and leans up to kiss him.  Travis closes his eyes and melts into it.

 

This is real, he thinks.  It's all real.  And he's not letting go.

 

Chapter Text

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.”

Chapter Text

Arthur’s gaze focuses on the glint of the belt buckle.  He swallows.

 

He can hear Travis’s breathing in the darkness.  But he can’t see his expression.

 

“C-can we turn on a light?”

 

The lamp flicks on.  Arthur blinks and squints as his eyes adjust.

 

Travis kneels on the bed, straddling Arthur.  He looks…uncertain.  Tense. 

 

He grips the belt tightly in both hands, the veins standing out in his arms.  He takes a slow, deep breath, closes his eyes, and remains that way for a moment, motionless.  Like he’s meditating—clearing his head.  His eyes open.  The pulse drums hard and fast in his throat, but his face has gone calm and blank.

 

He wraps the leather strap around Arthur’s wrists, loops it around in a sort of knot, tightens and then buckles it.  “I’ll leave your legs unbound for now,” he says.

 

Arthur pulls at the restraints, but can’t slip free.  Travis knows what he’s doing.  His breathing quickens.

 

In a flash, he’s back at Arkham.  An orderly is binding his arms behind his back, slipping the leather tongues of the straitjacket through the buckles, tightening them as Arthur laughs and laughs…

 

It’s strange, he thinks, how being bound makes him feel scared and secure at the same time.  The sensation of pressure against his skin, squeezing him, even if it’s just his wrists—

 

Normally, Arthur always feels the urge to move.  To fidget, to jiggle his knees, to scratch at his neck and arms.  When he’s restrained—when he can’t move—it seems to flip some switch inside him, and the urge to squirm around quiets.  His muscles go loose and pliant as a sense of primal helplessness washes over him.

 

Travis lowers himself to his hands and knees, his body hovering atop Arthur’s, his gaze utterly focused on him.  Like a spotlight.

 

Travis kisses his forehead.  The corner of his mouth.  The groove in his upper lip.  His throat.  His collarbone.  Arthur’s eyes slip shut as Travis trails kisses down the length of his body, down his stomach, onto his thigh.  Worshipping and claiming each part.

 

It’s…nice.  Gentle. 

 

“You doing okay?”

 

Arthur nods.

 

They could just keep doing this, he thinks.  Touching.  Kissing.  It could feel good, he thinks, for Travis to bind him tightly, hand and foot, and then just hold him.  He’s fantasized about that before—being tied up and cuddled, skin to skin.  Cradled in strong arms, helpless yet safe.

 

But that’s not why Arthur asked for this tonight.

 

He thinks about how close he came to smothering Penny with a pillow.  Both times.  And then after her death…

 

Arthur has had several complete nervous breakdowns over the course of his life, but he’s never felt like this.  As though he and the Other are engaged in a struggle for control over his mind and body.  Every waking moment, now, he’s walking a narrow ledge.  A gust of strong wind could topple him over, and if he falls, the abyss will swallow him.  Something has to change.  Inside him.

 

He doesn’t know why this feels like the answer, but it does.

 

Or maybe this is a terrible idea.  Certainly, it has the potential to go horribly wrong.  Opening himself up and allowing someone else to fiddle around with the control panel of his mind—that’s insane, isn’t it?  They could make things worse.

 

“What are you going to do with me?” Arthur asks in a faint, creaky voice.

 

Travis stops short of the erection tenting Arthur’s pants.

 

“There was something we talked about before,” Travis says.  “When you were sitting in front of the mirror.  You remember that day?”

 

“Yes.”  He could never forget it.

 

“You mentioned something.  But it wasn’t the right time.”

 

“Yes,” he whispers.  He knows what Travis is talking about.  A laugh quivers in his throat.  “Y…you’re going to spank me?  Is that it?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Have I been bad?”

 

“That’s not what it’s about,” Travis says quietly.  “Roll over.”

 

Heart pounding, Arthur rolls onto his stomach.

 

“Up on your knees.”

 

He gathers his knees beneath him, hoisting his ass into the air.  Travis hooks a finger beneath the elastic waist of his pants and tugs them down.  They fall, crumpling into folds around his knees.  Travis tugs them off the rest of the way.  Arthur’s not wearing any underwear.  A flush creeps into his face.  Everything is exposed.  He feels his balls tighten and pull against him, like they’re trying to hide.

 

It’s happening.

 

Once, as a child, Arthur went on a roller coaster at a fair.  He remembers the car climbing up the track, ka-chunk ka-chunk, and then plunging down.  He feels that same drop in his stomach now.  Except there’s no track.  He’s plunging into empty space.

 

“Spread your legs a little.”

 

He does.  He’s panting, chest heaving, breath coming in short, sharp gulps.

 

“You’re hyperventilating.  Slow down.”

 

He closes his eyes and focuses on slowing his breathing.  “S-sorry.”

 

“No apologies.”  Travis’s hands settle on the cheeks of his ass.  “You’re not in danger.  You can make it stop.  Even if it’s just to catch your breath.”

 

“I know.”  He wonders, though.  His head already feels…strange.  He’s slipping.  Even if they stop now, that might not stop it.

 

Travis’s hands settle on the cheeks of his ass, then part them.  A tiny, choked sound escapes Arthur’s throat.

 

He remains as he is, kneeling, head down, face mashed up against the pillow, as Travis just looks at him.  His hands withdraw.  Then Arthur feels a lube-slicked finger slide inside him.  A soft groan escapes his throat.

 

“I—I th-thought you were going to—”

 

“I’m going to do this first.  I want you really hard.”

 

Arthur bites the pillow as the finger works itself in and out of him, spreading the lube all over the inside of him.  He finds himself pushing back against it.  His dick was already erect—now he feels it tightening almost to the point of discomfort, flesh straining and aching.

 

Travis rests a hand against the small of his back, rubbing.  “Deep breaths.”

 

Arthur nods.

 

The fear is still there, a cold tingle deep in his gut.  If he lets his mind slide deeper, the anxiety will go away.  But then he’ll lose control of what he says and does.  He’ll make a fool of himself, or worse.  The video from Pogo’s flashes through his head.  In the moment it felt so good being up on that stage, having everyone’s attention on him, but after—

 

Another finger enters him, working and stretching the tight ring of muscle.  Opening him.  There’s a little jab of pleasure as a fingertip presses against that sensitive spot deep inside him.

 

He closes his eyes.  His throat feels tight.

 

Travis is talking to him.  Murmuring softly.  Somehow, he can’t focus on the words.  He strains his mind, and Travis’s voice comes into focus.  “…going to start, okay?”

 

“Okay,” he whispers.

 

And then the fingers withdraw.

 

“You ready?”

 

He’s not sure he is.  But he nods.

 

The first blow is a shock, like landing in cold water.  A hard, open-handed slap on the left cheek of his ass.  Arthur cries out, burying his face against the pillow.  His dick jerks.

 

It’s happening.  It’s happen—

 

Another stinging blow, in the same spot, before he’s even had a chance to recover from the first.  He gasps…then sighs.  His muscles loosen and go quivery.

 

Pleasure is sometimes unnerving.  Pain is reassuring.  He understands it.  He knows how his own body responds to pain.  His nerves are a familiar roadmap.  He knows the sharp flare of a burn on his skin, the dull numbing pain of his head slamming into a wall.  This is somehow both at the same time.

 

He hears Travis’s slow intake of breath—then a third blow lands on the same stinging spot.  Crack.  Arthur cries out again.

 

It’s not a playful little slap.  Travis is really hitting him.  And Arthur’s ass is skinny, like the rest of him—there’s not a lot of cushioning.  He feels the impact of each blow down to the marrow of his bones. 

 

Crack.

 

It’s strangely fascinating, the way the sensation changes from moment to moment—the hot-cold sting of the slap mellowing into a slow pulse.  His brain perceives it as color, a bright red core cooling to a deep purple that travels outward in rippling waves, spreading through his entire body.  The pounding urgency of fear is still there, but different.  It swells beneath him.  He can ride it, like a wave.

 

He starts to lower himself to the bed, to rub his swollen dick against the sheets, but Travis says, “No.”

 

Arthur goes still.

 

“I don’t want you to touch your cock, or rub it against anything.  Not yet.  When the time is right, I’ll touch you.”

 

He stares into space, breathing raggedly.  “Okay.”

 

“You want me to keep going?”

 

He gives another small nod.

 

Travis’s hand comes down again, on the same spot.  Crack.

 

His mind reels.

 

Crack.

 

His dick jerks again.  Tears sting the corners of his eyes.  “Unh…” 

 

Travis’s warm palm rubs over the stinging flesh, soothing it.

 

“Arthur.”

 

He blinks.  “Yes.”

 

“Look at me.”

 

Arthur’s face is still half-buried against the pillow.  He turns his head a little, and his one exposed eye rolls toward Travis.

 

There’s a blank, focused intensity in Travis’s face.  So serious.  Like he’s a doctor performing a delicate and crucial surgery and Arthur is his patient, helplessly spread open on the table, glistening ruby innards exposed.  It’s almost funny, how serious he looks.

 

“Where are you right now?”

 

Arthur blinks a few times.  It strikes him as an odd question.  “With you.” 

 

“You remember the word?”

 

A brief pause.  He has to fish for it, but he remembers.  “Yes.”

 

Travis waits.

 

He’s clearly waiting to see if Arthur wants to stop.  Does he?  He doesn’t know what he’s feeling right now.  His dick is hard, aching, his balls full and pulsing.  His body seems to be enjoying itself.  His mind—

 

He’s spinning around and around.  His thoughts are all soft, fuzzy static. 

 

Arthur wanted this.  He asked for it.  There’s a reason for that.  But he’s having trouble remembering what the reason was.  He can feel his consciousness starting to fragment.  It’s becoming harder and harder to form words, even in his head.  His gaze wanders.  Travis is naked; he must have taken his boxers off at some point.  His cock is flushed and swollen and jutting out, and Arthur thinks about how good it would feel to wrap his lips around that and suck it like candy.

 

“Arthur.”

 

Travis wants a decision from him, but the idea of making a decision right now feels so absurd.  “I…”

 

I, I, I.  A strange little word.  Everything he is, contained in the single stroke of a pen, a short gust of sound.  He thinks about writing it in his journal.  I want people to see me. 

 

There is a pulse deep in his belly.  Pleasure coils and crawls under his skin, a thing with a life of its own.  His hips move blindly, thrusting into space.

 

“Do something for me,” Travis says.  “Take ten deep breaths.  I’ll count them for you.”

 

“Okay.”  He breathes in.

 

“One.  Two…”

 

He feels himself sinking.  Sinking, sinking.  Something shifts.

 

“…ten.”

 

Ten already?

 

“Arthur.”

 

He feels his lips stretching into a smile.

 

He’s here.  Under.  This is where they usually stop.  This is where Travis pulls back and tries to draw Arthur to the surface again.  But not this time.

 

He arches his ass higher into the air.  He’s seen alley cats in heat doing this—lifting their tails, displaying themselves like furry little sluts.  “Keep going.”

 

Travis hesitates. 

 

Arthur giggles.  “You’re not going to chicken out on me now, are you?”

 

Travis’s expression closes off.  The uncertainty vanishes.  A dark gleam enters his eyes.

 

His hand comes down again.  Crack.

 

Arthur’s body lurches, and he moans, high and soft.  Oh, that feels nice.  The firecracker of pain, the slowly radiating heat, the languid shockwaves of pleasure shivering through his balls and cock.  He rubs his face against the pillow, dimly aware that he’s drooling—he can feel the damp spot against his cheek—and sticks his ass up again, begging wordlessly and shamelessly for more.

 

Crack.

 

He can feel the impact deep inside his body, jarring that hungry little spot in his ass, that pocket of need tucked behind his cock.  “Oh, Travis…”  He sighs and moans, wriggling.  “Harder.”

 

“You’re already red."  He's struggling to control his breathing, now.  "You’re going to feel this tomorrow.”

 

“Good.”

 

Travis rests a hand against his ass.  He’s breathing heavily.  He squeezes, fingers digging in.

 

He loosens his grip, rubs Arthur’s ass in a slow circle…then crack.

 

Stars explode behind Arthur’s eyes.  The blow is like a spike driven straight into the pleasure center of his brain.  For an instant his entire body seems to lift off the bed.  He feels his balls tighten, feels the muscles in his sphincter clench.

 

He could cum just like this, without Travis even touching his dick.  It would be so easy. 

 

When he’s not under, orgasm is like a goal at the top of a slippery glass slope, and there are always things in the way—intrusive thoughts, fears and insecurities, inner landmines to avoid.  Now it’s just there, like a balloon swelling inside him, ready to burst at the slightest pin-prick.  Like a big red button just waiting to be pushed.  Another blow and he will explode in sticky wet ecstasy.  His body is too small to contain the pleasure.

 

He feels hands sliding along his body, warm and knowing.  But they’re not Travis’s.

 

You see how good it can be? whispers a voice.

 

Vertigo washes over Arthur.

 

Just a hallucination.  Still, there’s the fleeting, disconcerting sense that he is in bed not with one, but two other men.

 

The Other’s hand—ghostly, yet warm—curls around his cock and gives him a slow stroke.

 

This…this is weird.

 

You’re still holding back, Arthur.  Still clinging to your fears and doubts.  You don’t need them.

 

“T-Travis…”

 

Crack.

 

He cries out.

 

He feels something pressing between the cheeks of his ass.  The round head of a cock butts up against his opening, rubs over it, up and down.  Vertigo washes over him.  He has no idea whether the sensation is real or just in his head.

 

Let me fuck open your mind, Arthur.  I’ll expand you.  Wider and wider.  I’ll pave the way.

 

The cock slides into him.  He knows it’s not real, now, because there’s no twinge of discomfort, no ache of stretching, just a curious sense of fullness.  He feels the Other’s body bearing down on him, chest pressed up again Arthur’s back.

 

He’s wearing some kind of suit.  Arthur feels the rub and scratch of the fabric against his skin as skinny hips rock against his ass, thrusting in and out.  Arthur blossoms open.  He groans, clawing at the sheets with his feet, his bound hands sandwiched between himself and the bed. 

 

The Other slides deeper—impossibly deep.  His cock is a snake swimming in a river, long and wriggling.

 

Hands—Travis’s, this time—glide along the length of his body.  He feels the hard little studs of calluses on his palms, scraping over his ribs, his hips.

 

Strong fingers circle his erection and stroke.  The Other pounds into him again—

 

Wait, he thinks, wait, but no sound comes out of his open mouth.  He didn’t expect this.  He wanted Travis inside him, not the Other.

 

You told him to take you deep, didn’t you?  To hold you on the edge.  That’s what’s happening.

 

Travis keeps stroking him, long, slow strokes.  Every time Arthur starts getting close to the edge, he stops.  He's hovering.  About to fall.

 

The invisible cock is expanding inside Arthur, pushing organs aside, sliding against bones, swelling to fill his skin.  His eyes roll back.

 

It’s too much.  His thoughts spin, rainbow fireworks wheeling in his skull.

 

Flash.  He sees a dingy white hall in Arkham.  He is on a cart being wheeled into the room where he has his shock treatment.

 

Flash.  He’s on the dirty floor of his apartment, ropes chafing his wrist.

 

Flash.  Someone is stroking his face, his hair, whispering that he’s a good boy.

 

Flash.  His teeth clamp down on an ear, and a scream fills his ears.

 

Why, why, why are you showing me these things?  Why are you doing this?

 

I’m not doing anything.  They’re just thoughts.

 

STOP!

 

Release yourself.

 

His throat clenches—then loosens.  And suddenly, all those memories—even the scary ones, even the bad ones—are just tiny points circling around a nuclear explosion in the center of his being.  The white-hot center expands, consuming him.

 

He felt this way before, he recalls.  When he came to Travis’s apartment that night.  When he asked Travis to kill him.  The fear fell away, and it was as though a door deep inside his mind opened and otherworldly sunlight flooded in.  Galaxies unfold inside him.  He’s beyond under.

 

He’s here again.  In Wonderland.

 

He feels the surface of his mind stretching, straining—like a party balloon!  It’s happening.  He’s going to burst…

 

Then Travis is maneuvering him around on the bed, turning him over.

 

Arthur stares.  Warm golden flames surround Travis, writhing and dancing.  He is the sun.  “Oh,” Arthur whispers in wonder.

 

“Hey…”  Travis’s hands frame his face.  He leans in close.  He seems worried.

 

Arthur wonders what his own eyes look like right now.  He imagines twin gauges with needles quivering in the red zones, melting technicolor whirlpools, shattered glass. 

 

Arthur starts to reach up, to stroke Travis’s face, then remembers that his hands are bound.  He pulls at them a little, but the bonds hold.  He laughs.

 

“Talk to me,” Travis says.

 

Arthur wriggles on the bed.  Travis glows so brightly, like a phoenix.  “What’s wrong?” Arthur asks.  “Why did you stop?”

 

“You were saying ‘stop.’”

 

He said that out loud?  “I wasn’t talking to you.”

 

Travis’s brows knit together.

 

“It doesn’t matter now,” Arthur says.  “I’m fine.  Better than fine.”  He sits up.

 

Travis kneels on the bed, flushed and messy-haired, his cock jutting out.  Arthur lowers himself to his hands and knees and gives it a long, slow lick from base to tip.  It twitches under his tongue.  Travis gasps.

 

Arthur opens his mouth and starts to take him in, but Travis grabs his hair and pulls his head up.  “Not now.”

 

“Why?” 

 

“This is about you.  I need to—stay focused.”

 

“You’ll have to be a little more forceful if you want me to stop.”  Arthur licks him again, soft and wet.

 

Travis drags Arthur into his arms, holding him from behind, his chest against Arthur’s back.

 

His cock is hard against Arthur’s stinging ass.  Arthur pushes against it, rubbing and squirming around.  A low, helpless groan rises from Travis’s throat.

 

Arthur keeps rubbing against him, feeling Travis’s dick slide up and down the crease of his ass.  “I’ve never felt you this hard,” Arthur says.  “You’re ready to explode.  How can you even talk?”

 

“God…Arthur…”

 

“You like spanking me, don’t you?  You like discipline.

 

Travis tenses.  His arms loosen enough for Arthur to twist around in his embrace, bringing them face to face.  He brushes his lips against Travis’s ear, catches the earlobe between his teeth and squeezes lightly.  His mouth drifts down to Travis’s neck, to the pulse racing just beneath his jaw.  “I think you’re addicted to discipline,” he whispers.  He lowers his bound hands to Travis’s stomach and brushes a finger over his abdomen, feels the hard muscles contract.  “How many sit-ups do you have to do every day to keep these so tight?”  He traces a circle around Travis’s navel.  “You haven’t been a soldier for years, but your body is still a weapon.  Why don’t you put those muscles to good use?  Pin me down…”

 

Travis slides his fingers into Arthur’s hair and grips, holding his head in place.

 

“It’s all right, my love.  You can’t hurt me, right now.  Nothing you do tonight can be wrong.”

 

Travis’s breathing echoes through the silence of the bedroom.  “You can still feel pain,” he whispers hoarsely.  “Even when you’re like this.”

 

“If you’re the one hurting me, it’s fine.”

 

Of course, when he comes up for air again, the shame is always waiting for him.  When the high fades there’s only the bruises and dirt.  But he’s so sick of living in fear of that moment.

 

Travis looks at him steadily, his expression unreadable.

 

Then he grabs Arthur