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Soundful Souls

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His words came out a whisper. Arthur wasn’t sure if Hoyt heard them. He wasn’t sure if anyone heard anything he said. Or maybe he’d said nothing. The silence was a corrosive shadow, eating away at his chest. It bled black, tainting the surrounding flesh. As the hollowness encroached, he said those words again, louder this time.

“…why would I keep that sign?”

“How the fuck do I know? Why does anybody do anything?” Hoyt shot back with twice the volume and three times the bravado. His gaunt face was one of scrutiny. A lifetime of false smiles had carved chasms into his cheeks. Any form of speech tugged at them. The lines morphed between a broker of order and an anagram of misery. On bad days they were both.

“If you don’t return the sign, I got to take it out of your pay-check. Are we clear?”

Hoyt was still talking. Arthur no longer registered the words. Meaningless syllables entered his ears. They fell from the opening, into his chest, and bounced in the emptiness. Dust danced beneath the fluorescent light. It was high noon, but no sunrays shone into Hoyt’s office. It was as if his very existence chased away the light. Arthur stood in the centre of the cramped cell, silent and unmoving. He hadn’t been allowed to sit.

It’ll be quick, Hoyt had said.

Why had he said that?

Arthur never allowed himself to think he was good at guessing other people’s thoughts. He couldn’t make sense of his own head. But as the stench of ink and stale cigarette smoke invaded his nose, something occurred to him. Hoyt hadn’t wanted to find out what happened. He wanted someone to pay for the missing sign. Arthur was the easiest candidate.

A desire, nameless but familiar bloomed in the darkness. It pushed his organs aside and filled his ribcage. Arthur could never make sense of this feeling. It came and went as it pleased, often during the worst of times. Just another small thing to assure him he was loony. Arthur clenched his fist. The desire was telling him to do something he was certain to regret. If he did that then Hoyt could no longer pay him.

He needed this job. It was the closest he has ever got to reaching his dream. His mom needed this job. He saved what he could for her, but between the tolls of life, his pay-check stretched thin.

Arthur clenched his fists tighter. The bruise on his shoulder ached.

“Why are you still here? Don’t you have something to do?” Hoyt said as he scrunched up the resume on his desk. He nudged his chin at the door. “Scram.”

The bottled feeling simmered into something equally morbid. It started as a single note, a sound that could be ignored. As the seconds ticked by, a trickle of notes escaped his clenched jaw. Arthur bit it down, but what he swallowed returned twofold. Then he was laughing. He clamped a hand over his mouth. The hideous noise couldn’t be subdued.

“Freak.”

Arthur fled from Hoyt’s office, the word a parting dagger on his back. He pushed past Gary on the stairs and burst through the door. He hobbled along the footpath, as quickly as his closed lungs allowed. The back alley was lined with dumpsters. The sour stench of rot fuelled his sickness. He laughed it out among the rubbish, wheezing and choking at nothing.

He was born to bring joy and laughter into the world. The thought was not at all funny. It had been the one thread binding his frayed mind together, his first and last straw. He laughed, nonetheless. People laughed at things he didn’t find funny, so why couldn’t he laugh at that?

Arthur leaned against the dumpster. He looked to the grey sky. His legs caved and he slid to the asphalt. Arthur buried his face in his knees. They felt naked without the makeup. Darkness claimed him, and the world dissolved. Arthur didn’t know how long he stayed there. The alley was the same the next he opened his eyes.

Without the laughter to spur him, he sagged against the dumpster, his shell a punctured balloon. The chills of Gotham caressed his skin from his open collar and untucked hem. His stomach rumbled. Arthur stared at the two wet spots on his trousers, from where he had buried his face. The moisture stained the fabric dark brown. The colour was a perfect match and the placement close enough.

Enchanted by a strange force, Arthur brought his hands up. His fingers traced the seam of his trousers. He placed them over the stained fabric, a thumb over each spot. The wetness matched the sensation he had envisioned. Arthur recalled Hoyt’s face, starting with his dark brown eyes. He made sure he placed every laugh line right.

The fabric and flesh gave way to his thumb. Hoyt screamed. The man who appeared to look down on Arthur even as he sat begged for mercy. Arthur didn’t let go. He pressed deeper. His thumbs sank into the man’s eyes. The two brown orbs became two black holes. Hoyt thrashed about but Arthur pinned him down. Arthur pressed and pressed and pressed, until Hoyt stopped screaming.

The desire in his chest did not subside. If anything, the imagery roused it. Alone and unbothered, Arthur sprung from the asphalt. He turned to the nearest trash bag and sank his foot into it. The bag morphed into the kid who had smashed the sign across his face. Arthur kicked him, as hard as he was kicked. Then with every passing stomp of his feet his movement increased in ferocity. His stomps became harder, meaner. The bag ripped. Rubbish flew from the gash. The food scraps turned to mush beneath Arthur’s foot. Sour liquid splashed onto his face, as wet and sticky as something that would splash from a human.

The adrenalin died when the bag could no longer be recognised. Arthur was confronted by the sickening mess. He heaved against the dumpster. Nothing came out except stomach acid. He hadn’t eaten since last night. Arthur gagged as his innards convulsed. His stomach stilled after he emptied the last of the acid. He ran a hand down his face, wiping it free of juices. A small chuckled escaped his throat.

Hoyt was right about one thing.

He had a job to do. It was time he returned to it.

 

 

----------

 

 

The rest of the day passed in a mind-numbing lull. Arthur planted himself in the middle of the street. He smiled and spun and twirled, handing out flyers, with the exhaust fume in his lungs, and the grime of Gotham on his back. People passed him. Some furrowed their brows, others mocked him. Those had been the better ones. Many more walked past without sparing him so much as a glance.

It was as if he didn’t exist.

When the sun set, Arthur washed off his makeup and trained from the city. He stopped by the drug store for his pills. Despite her many faults, Arthur was thankful for his psychiatrist. Without her he’d never be able to afford his meds. He accepted the white bag from the clerk. The pills collided against the acrylic tubs. He dry swallowed two as he walked home. He must’ve chucked up his medication too. There were things talking in his head. He’d ignored them throughout the afternoon, but he wasn’t sure if he could last any longer.

The steps were always harder to climb then they were to descend. His thighs hurt, and the bruise on his shoulder throbbed. Arthur focused on placing one leg before the other. His feet took him up the steps, down the rubbish laden streets, and through a trio of brick arches.

Arthur slugged into his apartment building. The cage to the mailboxes was unlocked. P. Fleck, the metal face said. Arthur opened and closed it. Nothing. He wasn’t sure why his mother kept at it. Thomas Wayne was the richest man in Gotham. A man like that must have countless things to do. Why would he spare a second to write to someone like them? Then again, Arthur wasn’t sure why he kept falling for false hope either.

Emptyhanded save for his pills, Arthur rode up the elevator. He had memorised the rough spots. The sudden tumble no longer surprised him. The hallway in his floor was as damp and colourless as it had been that morning. Arthur could navigate it with his eyes closed.

The same mind-numbing lull stretched on. Arthur dragged his feet along the length of the floorboards. He walked to his apartment. Then a soft noise broke the lull.

The apartment opposite his had been empty for some time. An old man used to live there. He passed away on a sunny afternoon, while Arthur was at work. Heart attack, or so they said. His body wasn’t discovered until weeks later, after someone complained about the stench. Arthur hadn’t paid it much attention, or he’d agonised over it but conditioned his mind to forget.

The old man had been close to no one. He was a lone stoner. His only companion had been hand-rolled cigs and weed. He lived with empty eyes, as if nothing mattered. There was no joy or laughter in his world, and he’d given up on searching for it. He was an uncanny mirror, or perhaps a portal into the future. He made Arthur uneasy, and Arthur would be glad he was gone if it wasn’t for the way he went out.

Since then the apartment had stayed empty. Now the door was ajar. A sliver of light shone from the opening. The hallway was silent, as if Arthur had imagined the noise. Slowly, he pressed his palm against the door. It was real, so Arthur pushed. The door swung open with a creak. A pair of eyes met his.

“Oh, hi. I mean, sorry. I should’ve knocked.” Arthur backed away from the door. The apartment was blinding. He’d peered into it before. It had been dim like his own, lit by a measly lamp. Now the overhead light was on. The shade had been removed, exposing the brilliant globe.

“Hey, that’s okay. My name’s Jordan. I moved in this morning.” They stacked the box they had been holding on top of another. Jordan wore a white shirt and brown plaid pants. Arthur couldn’t help but notice the lustre in their hair. For a hellscape like Gotham, they seemed remarkably well-fed.

Jordan walked up to Arthur and offered their hand. Arthur stood frozen in the hallway. After a brief pause, his hand shot up, colliding with Jordan’s. The two of them shared a firm shake. “I’m Arthur. I live across the hall.”

Jordan’s face lit up in a dazzling smile, its radiance shadowed the shinning globe. “You must be the son of Penny. I met her while I was unpacking, lovely lady.”

Arthur smiled. “Yeah.” The day’s events chose that moment to reassert themselves. The thought of his mother made Arthur feel better. After a pause, he added: “she’s all I have.”

Arthur regretted those words the second he said them. It was pathetic, even to his ears. To his relief, the brilliant smile on Jordan’s face mellowed, but didn’t disappear. The curve softened into something wistful. “Your mother cares a lot for you too. We were talking about you. She said you worked in entertainment.”

That was a nice way of saying he was a clown. Arthur nodded stiffly. He decided he liked this new neighbour. It was more attention anyone had given him in a while, let alone kindness.

Jordan invited him in. Brown grocery bags lined the entrance. Arthur navigated the space on his toes, careful not to step on them. The apartment was even smaller than his, another one-bedder. Most of the furniture was in place. A bone coloured couch took up half the living. Before it was a coffee table and TV cabinet of light oak. The other half was covered in boxes, the dining table and its four matching chairs pushed to a corner. A dozen potted plants crowded the kitchen counter. Arthur couldn’t tell their species, only that they were lush and healthy.

“Uh, so…you new around here?” Arthur asked as he cupped a leaf bigger than his palm. He angled it to his face and watched the stem bend. The leaf slipped from his grasp.

“New to the city. I moved from Metropolis,” Jordan said as they rummaged through a box. “This flat was the first that caught my eye. The rent was dirt cheap, almost too good to be true.”

Arthur decided to spare them the truth. “From Metropolis? Why would you do that?”

Jordan laughed. It was an infectious sound. “You know, you’re the third person to ask that today, and I’ve talked to a grand total of three. I thought it was time for a change. Gotham can’t be that bad.”

The question unearthed memories Arthur would rather burry forever. The familiar feeling returned. Arthur squashed it down. “Guess you’ll find out.”

“I guess so.” Jordan emptied the box. They scratched their hair, which had been tied into a small but neat bun. “Damn. I was so sure I had it. Should’ve numbered these bloody things.”

“What are you looking for?” Arthur rounded the kitchen counter. He squeezed past the boxes, coming to stand behind Jordan.

“The screwdriver. The front door is loose. I’ve been trying to close it all day. Thought I knew where it was. I should’ve bought one from the shops.” Jordan sighed. It was all Arthur needed. He told them to stay put.

Arthur crossed the hall and turned the keys to his apartment. He greeted his mother. Before she could tell him about the lovely addition to their floor, Arthur grabbed their toolbox and crossed the hall again.

He gave the box to Jordan, whose eyes widened at the sight of it. Only then did Arthur stop to take in the state of the box. The toolbox had been bright red once. Most of the paint had chipped from the metal. What was left coated the box in an orange smear. Jordan opened it. One of the hinges was missing, and the lid hit the floor lopsided. The tip of Arthur’s ears burned. He had a habit of making a fool of himself. He never stopped to consider if what he had to offer was good enough.

The state of the toolbox didn’t seem to bother Jordan. They plucked the screwdriver from the top shelf and headed for the door. Despite having scant between skin and bone, Arthur had a large frame. He helped Jordan lift the door as they tightened the hinges. The door closed with a soft click.

“Thank you. I thought I was gonna have to sleep with the door open.” Jordan smiled again. Arthur couldn’t help but return it. The two of them stood in the doorway, facing each other in the confinement. It was the distance people didn’t like him to be in. Jordan showed no signs of discomfort. Before Arthur could think of something clever to say, Jordan crooked their head to the side. “Say, are you free later?”

“I—yeah. Yes I am.” They were so close, their eyes were sucking him in. A lightness filled his lungs. He was levitated by it.

“Are you in the mood for takeout? My treat.”

“Oh.” The light feeling drained from Arthur. What wouldn’t he give to stretch this meeting just a little longer. “I’m sorry, but I have to cook for my mother.”

The smile on Jordan’s face never faltered. “Don’t apologise. It’s a noble thing to do. Your mother’s lucky to have you.”

“She is?” Arthur latched onto those words. He cursed his eagerness.

“Of course. I’d be over the moon if my son cooked for me. Not that I have one.” Jordan opened the door again. Arthur shuffled to his side of the floor. He lingered in the hallway, the toolbox heavy in his hands.

Jordan cracked their neck. “Guess I’ll return to this mess. There’ll be a place to sit next time you visit, I promise.” A hint of lightness returned to Arthur at the prospect of ‘next time’. They were being polite, but he wasn’t shown that often.

“Okay…” Arthur bit his bottom lip. He pretended to turn the handle of his apartment. “Have a good evening.”

“You too, Arthur.” Jordan winked and closed the door.

Arthur stared at the wooden panel, noting its dull grain. He wasn’t sure if he had imagined the whole thing. How could someone like that exist in Gotham, let alone his apartment building? But the weight of the tools in his hands was real, so Arthur held onto that.

Could he see them again tomorrow? Or was that too soon for ‘next time’? Arthur held the toolbox up to his chest. He stayed in the hallway and stared at the other apartment, long after the door was closed.

Chapter Text

All it took was one bad day.

The gun fell from his pants. Arthur knew it was over the moment the cold metal slid down his leg. He dived for it. His oversized shoes collided with the gun, kicking it further from him. The gun bounced against the tiles. It wasn’t until the third attempt that Arthur caught it. By then, everyone had seen the glistening barrel.

“Hoyt, please. I love this job.” Arthur clutched the receiver close to his chest. The phone-booth stank of chemicals and stale urine. It made him sick, but so did every other part of Gotham.

“Arthur, I need to know why you bought a gun into a kid’s hospital.” Hoyt had always been eager to brush him off. He never wanted to spare him his time of day. Annoyance laced their conversations. Tonight was worse. Arthur knew he had close to no chance of explaining himself, but he tried.

“It’s a prop. It’s a part of my act now.” He prepared another reason. Hoyt cut him off.

“That’s bullshit. Bullshit! What kind of clown carries a fucking gun? Besides Randall told me you tried to buy a .38 off him last week.”

The hole in Arthur’s chest trembled. Its edges caved and fell into the black pit, widening it. Something stirred in the darkness. “Randall told you that?”

“You’re a fuckup, Arthur, and a liar. You’re fired.”

The line died. The receiver slipped from Arthur’s grasp. He pressed his head against the glass. Hoyt’s face materialised in his mind. Their parting words echoed in the darkness. Arthur recalled the sensation of turning those loathsome eyes into something that matched his insides. This time Randall was there too. 

The thoughts filled his head to the brim, squeezing his brain. It hurt. Arthur slammed his head against the phone-booth. The glass cracked. A different pain pulsed from his head, shattering the images.

The ride home was the same as it had always been, except this would be the last time Arthur took the route. The train rocked with every seam in the tracks. Lights flickered overhead. Arthur withdrew his gaze from the blackened window. There was nothing outside.

His faded clown gear sat next to him, along with his cards and his pills. He had shoved them all in his bag in a haphazard frenzy. The men from the hospital hadn’t listened to his pleas, only gave him a hard shove then sent him on his way. Arthur ran his fingers over the woven plastic. It was frazzled in the corners. The cheap print stained his palm every time he grabbed the handle. It did its job, but it was coming apart at the seams.

How was he going to pay the bills now? How would he feed his mother? The rent was due in nine days. Arthur had put enough aside for the next month, but they lived pay-check to pay-check. The landlord would evict them if they fell behind.

The train rolled to a stop. Passengers jumped to their feet, eager to hop off. They were getting to the outskirts. Two of them were left in the carriage, him and a woman. The woman sat opposite him, further down the aisle. She wore a thick, brown coat. It looked warm.

Arthur had wanted a coat for winter. He had been saving up for it through autumn. But each time he thought he had enough, an incident would take it from him. A leaking tap here, a broken bulb there. He never did replace the bulb in their living room. Thinking about money hurt his head, so he tried to focus on the graffitied walls.

“I’m telling you, she wanted my number. We should’ve stayed.” As the doors closed, three men pushed in. They wore suits. The first slumped onto the bench opposite the woman. He shoved a french fry into his mouth.

“You’re kidding, man. She wasn’t interested. At all.”

“You’re nuts. Did you see how close we were dancing? She was into me.”

“She couldn’t wait to get rid of you.” The second man tugged at the third, who was laughing. “Ryan, Ryan am I crazy? Tell him what you saw.”

“Hey, you want some french fries?” The first man said to the woman. He shook his bag of fries at her.

The woman had a book on her lap. She continued to read, ignoring the man. Arthur understood her instantly. He, too, hoped his problems would go away on their own.

She was bound to be disappointed tonight. “Helloooo?” the man drawled. “I’m talking to you, hey.”

“No, thank you,” the woman said. She spared him a small smile then returned to her book.

The first man chuckled. His friends watched with folded arms and wide grins. “You sure?” He took out a single fry and looked at it as if he was offering the world. “They are really good.”

The second man sat beside his friend. “Don’t ignore him. He’s being nice to you.”

The first man made a projectile noise and shot the fry at the woman. It landed on her coat. She looked to Arthur, her face a mixture of disgust and thinly veiled panic. Arthur saw the plea in her eyes. Something sinister brewed in his chest.

Oh no.

Arthur clamped a hand over his mouth.

The man threw another fry at the woman. Arthur’s laughter shot down the third. It sliced through the air, raspy like an off-tune recording. It wasn’t how he felt or what he wanted to do. Why did it always come at the worst of times? Arthur wanted to cry. He wheezed instead. Tears brimmed in his eyes. The lights flickered, and darkness embraced the carriage. His laughter was distracted by the thick night. Then the lights returned.

Hideous laughter boomed in the carriage. The first man stood. “Is something funny asshole?”

Arthur shook his head. His cheeks were wet. The woman left the carriage quickly. “Bitch!” The first man threw the bag of fries after her. It missed her by a mile. The golden strips scattered on the floor.

A cold hand wrapped around Arthur’s heart. Now he was alone. He had been here too many times to misread what would follow. His mind couldn’t think of a solution, so his body responded in the only way it knew how. It laughed.

The men surveyed him, their smiles mocking. The first stood and did a twirl, mushing the fries beneath his oxfords. “Isn’t it rich?” he sang. “Aren’t we a pair?” Delirious laughter doubled on top of the song. Giggles joined the choir. A lifetime of listening to it made Arthur recognise the loudest one as his own. He shook his hands at the approaching man. His stomach ached as he laughed.

“Me here at last on the ground, you in mid-air…” The man spun around a pole. He was upon Arthur.

Send in the clowns.”

Darkness. Then light. Arthur’s laughter nailed him to the spot. “Isn’t it bliss? Don’t you approve? One who keeps tearing around, one who can’t move…” The third man removed Arthur’s green wig and placed it on top of his own head. Too late did Arthur remember he was still in makeup.

“Where are the clowns?” The first man opened his mouth in a silent roar. The third laughed alongside Arthur, mimicking the sounds that hurt his throat. “There ought to be clowns?”

“Something funny?” The first man stopped singing. “Tell us what’s so fucking funny.”

“Nothing,” Arthur choked out between fits of laughter. He patted himself down. Where were his cards? He reached for his bag. “I have a condition.”

“I’ll tell you what you have, asshole.” The first man tore the bag from his grasp. He threw it to the second. The third held him back.

“Hey, stop!” Arthur kicked. It was a futile attempt that barely grazed the approaching man.

“We got a kicker, huh?” The first man looked at Arthur with a feral gleam in his eyes.

“Hold him! Tell him to stay put!” The second cheered them on, Arthur’s bag in his hands.

Arthur struggled against the third man. His grip was an unshakable vice. The first steadied himself, then swung his fist in a wide arc. It landed on Arthur’s nose. Blood rushed into his mouth. Arthur crashed against the floor. His world spun in a maddening swirl. Something screeched from the hole in his chest.

“Stay down! Freak!”

A foot landed on his shoulder, then his ribcage, his stomach, his spine. Arthur choked as the air was kicked from his lungs. The thin ring of dirt binding the hole together cracked.

Freak.

What’s so fucking funny?

Don’t sweat it Arthur, no one has to know. You can pay me back some other time. You know you’re my boy.

Randall told you that?

You’re a fuckup, Arthur, and a liar. You’re fired.

With each kick, pieces of himself flaked away. It fell into the black abyss. The lights flickered. With a final foot in his face, the ring crumbled. His chest caved unto itself. The thing reached from the hole and pulled him in. Arthur spiralled downward, or was it upward?

Bang.

Red splattered on the ceiling. The first man fell to the floor in a limp heap. A hole sizzled on his head. The second screamed. Arthur raised his arm and aimed. The vibrating metal felt exactly as it did in his apartment.

Bang. Bang.

Two red flowers bloomed on the second man’s shirt, adding some colour to the dreadful white. The third ran for the next carriage. Arthur scrambled to his feet. Bang. The bullet sank into the man’s calf. He opened the door and limped away. The train braked as it rolled into the station.

Arthur panted. His lungs were on fire. His world wouldn’t stop spinning. He aimed the gun at the first man, who hadn’t budged, aimed at the second, who stayed where he was. He aimed at the third head in the carriage, only to realise it was his own.

Arthur grabbed his bag. The man’s scream echoed from the next carriage. He was calling for help.

The doors opened. Arthur rushed out. He had never allowed himself to think he was good at guessing other people’s thoughts, but in that moment, his mind whispered to him.

He’ll see you. Then he won’t leave the train. Stay.

Arthur backtracked his steps. With his bag in one hand, and his gun in the other, he concealed himself behind the open carriage. He watched the man look front and back, then hop off the train. He limped for the stairs, a red trail behind him. Arthur sprung after him, his gun raised. He couldn’t aim while he ran so he walked as quickly as he could. His thighs were stiff. His heart hammered against his ribcage, but his hands were still. Bang. The man collapsed at the foot of the steps. Arthur caught up to him.

“Help…” the man groaned. He crawled for the exit.

Arthur watched him, watched the hole on his leg, and the red trail it left. Now he was the one begging for help. He couldn’t hurt Arthur anymore. Arthur could let him go.

Or could he?

The man had seen his face, knew he had killed. Arthur was struck by a spout of clarity, unprecedented in his life of confusion. The persistent fog that clouded his mind parted. Arthur thought he’d have trouble making the decision, but as it turned out, he’d made it before he stepped off the train.

Bang. Bang. Bang. Arthur emptied the clip into the man’s back. He continued to pull the trigger. The howling winds masked the soft clicks. A persistent ringing haunted his ears. Could’ve been the gunfire, could’ve been the kick to the head. When the ringing subsided, he was once again alone. Arthur panted in the silence. He lowered the gun, and the reality of what had come to pass caught up with him.

“S…shit.”

Arthur ran, up the steps, across the platform, and into the streets. He ran as quickly as his legs would take him. He ran as if something was about to devour him, but the few times he looked, there was nothing behind him. Arthur ran down the side of the park and found a restroom. He slammed the door shut behind him.

He was alone in the tight space. It stank of unflushed waste, continuing the assault on his senses. The walls were tiled a deep emerald green, with a large mirror above the basins. The floor was wet with unmentionable liquids. Arthur panted. His chest was empty, yet it had never been more full.

The darkness tugged at him. He ceased to struggle. The colour of the night was comforting, warm and mellow. He embraced the boundless void, and his consciousness began to ascend. He rose above his body, above the restroom, above this hellscape of a city, and for the first time in his life, Arthur felt alive.

Darkness enveloped him. The silence was his tune. His feet moved to it, enchanted by its majesty. His limbs, thin but strong glided through the air. The cold light cast a pale halo over his hair. His arms reached to either side like a magnificent swan spreading its wings. He looked in the mirror, seeing his reflection. The white skin, blue eyes, and red smile emanated a mesmerising radiance. He had never before seen that on himself.

He basked in the glory of his reflection, but like everything good in his life, the radiance didn’t last. He began to sink. Before he was ready, his feet touched the floor, his body began to ache, and he was back in the vile depths of Gotham.

No. Arthur clutched his head. Take me back.

The darkness ignored his plea. Arthur clawed at his chest.

Not here. Take me back.

His reflection stared at him in mockery. The face of beauty had morphed into something else entirely. The white was flaking away, the blue a terrifying smear. The red was shadowed by the blood from his nose, and even that had turned a deep brown.

Arthur shattered the mirror, bruising his knuckles. He ran from the restroom.

The walk back to his apartment was the longest he had ever had. The bone shattering cold returned some sense to him. Arthur dug around his bag for the pills, flinching when he touched the cold barrel. He found the acrylic tub with shaking hands. The cap bounced from his fingers, rolling down the street and out of view. He grabbed a handful of pills and reached for his face. None of them made it into his mouth.

He couldn’t stop the shake. Pain, anger, and arousal spun him in circles. He was a pinball, flung from top to bottom and left to right in a glass box. His mind was tearing apart. Oh god, what has he done?

Something bad.

No. Something good. Something spectacular, and he’d do it all again in a heartbeat.

Those guys didn’t deserve to die.

No, they did. Not only did they deserve to die, they deserved to die in the darkness. They deserved to die in the foulest and most godforsaken gutter, pumped full of lead by the likes of him. They had smiled as they bought him pain. Why couldn’t he smile as their blood coated his hands?

It was wrong.

It was right—

“Arthur?” Arthur jumped at the sound. A person stood under the streetlight, a brown grocery bag in their arm. They were about to turn into his building.

Recognition dawned on him. Please. No.

Jordan squinted under the yellow streetlight. Arthur could pinpoint the moment their eyes adjusted to the darkness. “Arthur!” Jordan dropped the groceries. They ran past the brick arches, coming to a halt before him. “My god, what happened? Do you need to go to the hospital?”

They surveyed Arthur with barely concealed horror. The concern pinned him to the spot. He hadn’t wanted them to see him like this. They had been the only person to show him a sliver of decency. He had been meaning to get to know them. There was even a ‘next time.’

Now they were seeing him like this. Beaten. Bloodied. Pathetic.

Moisture welled in his eyes. If this was his life, why was it so cruel?

“Arthur? Are you alright…? Oh!” Jordan noticed the pills in his hands, still shaking from the cold. “Do you need to take them?” They looked up to Arthur. “May I?”

They hadn’t run for the hills yet, so Arthur nodded. Jordan took the tub from his hands, gentle as if one false move and he would crumble to pieces. They asked how many. Arthur said two. Jordan plucked two pills from the tub with slender fingers, then fed them to Arthur because his limbs were frozen stiff. Their finger touched his tongue. His heightened senses magnified the sensation. His pants became uncomfortably tight.

“You’re freezing.” Jordan unbuttoned their coat. It was ankle-length tweed. A nice coat. It would be a shame if Arthur ruined it.

“You don’t…” Arthur protested, but Jordan placed the coat on his shoulders, along with their warmth.

“Let’s get you inside. Or should we take you to the hospital?”

“I…inside,” Arthur choked.

Jordan gathered their groceries. They placed their spare hand on the small of his back. Arthur shivered at the touch. Having misread the reaction, Jordan hugged him closer. The ride up passed in unbearable ecstasy. The two of them were so close they could be locked in an embrace. Jordan was counting the floors, their lips parting and closing. Arthur imagined kissing them. He imagined pushing them against the wall and tearing apart what was left of their clothes.

Arthur clenched his fists. Now would be the worst time to lash out. He had to keep himself under control. They were showing him kindness. They didn’t deserve to be treated like this.

It could be the pain from his purple knuckles, or his bruised shoulder, or his bloodied nose, or any other part of him really. The discomfort helped to keep him at bay. Or perhaps it was the placebo effect, his pills were never that effective, but Arthur felt more placid after he’d swallowed them. With Jordan by his side, he was warmer than he had been all night. The shaking stopped, and the bulge in his pants went away on its own.

“What happened?” Jordan asked quietly.

“I got…um…jumped.”

The elevator stopped. The two of them walked into the hallway. “Careful.” Jordan never removed the hand on his back. The kindness was too much. Arthur told them everything.

Everything except the gun in his bag.

“Oh, Arthur…” The look on Jordan’s face was one of raw rage and heartbreak. Arthur could tell they were having a hard time processing the events, but they kept it together for his sake.

Arthur lingered in the coat’s warmth. The walk to his door was over in a heartbeat. With the aged wood in his face, Arthur took off Jordan’s coat. The cold pounced, biting into his shoulder. “Well, this is me. Thank you.”

The crease between Jordan’s brows deepened. “It’s still early. Your mother’s probably awake.” They looked to their door, then touched the dried blood under Arthur’s nose. “Do you want to stop by mine first? We’ll clean you up and fix you something to eat. Have you had dinner?”

“No…” He wasn’t going to cook tonight; there were leftovers in the fridge. His mother would’ve eaten without him. Arthur swallowed. “I’d like that.”

Jordan unlocked their apartment. It had been less than forty-eight hours since his last visit, yet the place already felt like a home. Most of the boxes had been cleared, and the dining table set up. A plant shelf was propped in front of the window, displaying the smaller species. Larger plants were scattered throughout the apartment. Framed artwork brought life to the austere walls.

“Bathroom’s down the hall,” Jordan said as they boiled the kettle. “Yell out if you need help.”

Arthur closed the door behind him. Alone with his thoughts, his fingers grew slack. His unzipped bag slipped from his grasp. Dirtied clown gear spewed onto the tiles. The gun remained hidden, so Arthur paid it no mind. He turned on the faucet, splashing cold water onto his face. He watched the discoloured run-off drip from his chin.

The face in the mirror was the stuff of nightmares. It was old, tired, and caked with grey batter. Any trace of elegance had vanished. He had been here a moment ago, standing in a bathroom, staring into a mirror.

Something bubbled in his chest. Arthur washed his face quickly. A lifetime of washing paint from his face told him he’d leave stains on the next thing he used, so he wiped his face dry with his sleeve. Arthur slugged to the toilet and sat. He ran a rough hand down his face. When that wasn’t enough, he buried his head in them.

Stay down, freak!

That’s bullshit. Bullshit! What kind of clown carries a fucking gun?

Bang.

Arthur! Are you alright?

The soft voice pierced the chaos. His meds were making him drowsy. Arthur looked up. The tiles were mint green. His favourite colour. They were so different to the deep emerald tiles from the park, and the peach ones from his apartment. The voices in his head breathed something hushed and sensual. At first, Arthur couldn’t make out their words. Then he heard them. They were singing.

Isn't it rich?
Are we a pair?
Me here at last on the ground,
You in mid-air,
Where are the clowns?

His dirtied clown gear lay where he’d left them. The carnival colours were jarring against the soft green hues.

Carnival. That was his clown name.

“Ha…” Arthur clamped a hand over his mouth. No. Not here.

The voices ignored his plea.

Isn't it bliss?
Don't you approve?
One who keeps tearing around,
One who can't move,
Where are the clowns?  

There ought to be…clowns?

“Ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha!” Arthur scrambled for his pills. He needed more. He needed a higher dose. They couldn’t see him like this.

“Ha ha ha ha ha ha!”

“…Arthur?” There was a hesitant knock on the door. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah—ha ha ha ha ha ha!”

Arthur shook his head. No. This wasn’t what he wanted. Where were his pills? He emptied his bag. The acrylic tub was nowhere to be seen. The mess had buried it. Where was it?

Arthur supposed it was comical that while everyone, including himself thought he was crazy, he still had the sense to wrap the gun up in an old wig and shove it back inside his bag. The humour caught him off guard, and he laughed louder. His throat caught, and he began to cough.

“Arthur, I’m coming in.”

No.

No. No. No. No. No.

The handle turned. The door opened. Jordan’s eyes locked with his. They froze in the doorway, paralysed by the sight of him. It was too late, so Arthur gave in. He lay on the ground, on top of his clown gear and laughed. The ugly sound erupted from his chest. It bounced against the walls with hysterical glee.

Any second now, they would recover from the shock and ask him to leave. Arthur would obey. He owed them that much. It would be hard to never speak to them again, but Arthur would do it for their sake.

Something soft warmed his shoulder. “It’s okay, let it out.”

Arthur whipped around. Jordan had placed a hand there. They held a piece of laminated paper to their face. It was his card.

Forgive my laughter:

I have a condition.

More on back.

Jordan was reading the back, facing the front toward Arthur. Despite the card stating for people to return it, most never did. Arthur had a stack of them printed and laminated. They were scattered on the tiles like confetti.

Arthur choked at the sight of them. “Hey, it’s okay. Let’s take it slow. You’ve had a bad day.” The hand on his shoulder lifted then returned in a gentle pat. Jordan watched him. When he leaned into the touch, they rubbed his arm in long, soothing strokes. As if by magic, the laughter subsided.

“I’m sorry.” Arthur turned his back to Jordan. He had envisioned a thousand ‘next times’. None of them played out like this.

“You’re always apologizing,” Jordan sat next to him on the tiles.

“Yeah, sorr—” Arthur cut himself short. He turned slowly. Jordan had a small grin on their face. Arthur thought his laugh had returned, but all that came out was a giggle.

“I came to tell you I made some cocoa, and turkey sandwiches with salad and peanut dressing.”

“You sound like a French restaurant.”

Jordan chuckled. “I’m almost certain they don’t serve turkey sandwiches. And I forgot to ask if you’re allergic to anything.”

“If I’m allergic?”

“Yeah. Some people can’t eat peanuts. It makes their skin itchy.”

Jordan continued the small talk. They didn’t ask about Arthur’s laugh, nor did they point out how the two of them were on the floor. Arthur took a couple of deep breaths. He couldn’t drag them down to his level. Slowly, he picked himself back up. The two of them returned to the living with Arthur’s arms firm around his bag.

Jordan had set up two portions of turkey sandwiches and cocoa. They sat around the table. Arthur clutched the steaming mug with both hands. The ceramic warmed his fingers. A sweet aroma filled his nose. Arthur realised how hungry he was. Hunger had been his only companion as a child. It was a sharp knife that carved into his stomach, building a deep ache that never fully went away. Arthur took a sip of the cocoa. The milky beverage seemed to fill in the cracks.

Jordan tore into their sandwich. They told him about their day, mostly cleaning and job hunting. It wasn’t until they were done eating that Arthur brought up the subject.

“Thank you.”

“Don’t sweat it. Though I might try a different brand of turkey next time. That was a bit starchy.”

“For the food, and also for earlier.” Arthur looked into Jordan’s eyes. “People call me bad things when I laugh.”

“Shame on them,” Jordan said, as if the revelation had been a personal slight. “They’re better than that.”

No, they really aren’t. Arthur kept the thought to himself. It must be hard for someone to imagine savagery when they are the personification of joy.

“Oh, I forgot to tell you.” Jordan’s lips parted into a smile. “I found a job.”

“Already?” Arthur had never doubted they’d find a job, they were gorgeous, but the speed surprised him.

“Yeah. At the florist two blocks north, the one with the green roof. I start tomorrow. The owner needed another pair of hands. She’s a nice lady, reminds me of your mother.”

Arthur spun the mug in his hands. His mother…how would he support her now that he has lost his job? If only finding a new one could be this easy for him too. His legs began to bounce. He pushed the thought aside. There were plenty of opportunities for that, alone in his apartment. He wanted to enjoy his time with Jordan.

“It must be your dream job.” Arthur took in the potted plants.

The smile on Jordan’s lips flattened, as if Arthur’s words had crushed them. Before Arthur could apologise, they walked to the plant shelf. “My dream is to start a plant nursery.” Jordan caressed a heart shaped leaf. It was bigger than their face and velvet in texture.

“Not a florist?”

“No. I don’t…like to cut flowers.” They turned apologetically, as if they knew what they were saying was weird.

“Why? They’re beautiful.” Jordan didn’t seem to enjoy the topic. Arthur didn’t know why he pressed. Maybe it was because Jordan reminded him of flowers, something indisputably beautiful, adored by all.

They pondered the question. “Wasted potential, I suppose. And flowers are beautiful, don’t get me wrong. I’d be the first to admire them, just not severed from their stem, placed in a jar for amusement then left to wilt.”

“But everything wilts. Flowers, I mean.”

“No…” Jordan shook their head. “Left intact, they transform. The petals fall but the bud remains. It grows to bear fruit, continuing life in another form. A cut flower is frozen in time then spurred to a premature ending.”

“Admired, then left to die,” Arthur murmured.

“I’m sorry?”

“Nothing. So you keep yours alive?” Arthur kept his eyes trained on Jordan. His unblinking stare made people nervous. It was another one of his lesser qualities that didn’t seem to bother Jordan at all.

They blushed. “Yeah. They’re from the tropics. I have nowhere to plant them, but someday I’ll save up enough to build a greenhouse.”

Their smile returned. Before Arthur knew it, he was smiling too. The two of them sat in comfortable silence. Arthur glimpsed at the clock and sighed. It was getting late. He mustn’t overstay his welcome.

Jordan walked him to the door. As he unlocked his apartment, a thought came to him. “You know, I do stand-up comedy. You should maybe come see a show sometime.”

“I’d love that. God knows Gotham could use a sense of humour,” Jordan replied without a moment of hesitation, like they genuinely believed he was, or could be funny. Not even his mother believed that.

How were they real? Maybe they weren’t. Maybe he’d imagined this all in his head.

Jordan yawned while Arthur tried to make sense of the situation. “Well, I have an early start tomorrow, so I’ll head off. Good night, Arthur.”

Despite his aching body, Arthur offered the brightest smile he could muster.

“Good night, and…sweet dreams.”

Chapter Text

His hands were shaking. They haven’t stopped shaking since his last meeting with his psychiatrist.

“I think most women look at sex like buying a car.” Muffled laughter drifted through the curtains. Arthur paced back and forth in the narrow hallway.

The backstage of Pogo’s was dark, the air humid like the insides of a beast. There were three of them cramped at the entry. The hall led to a shallow wait area, with a twenty-inch telly nailed to the wall. Sam was up. His voice from the box doubled with the one drifting through the curtains.

“You know, can I see myself in this long term?” More laughter. “Is it safe? Is it reliable? ...could it kill me?”

The Jewish comedian was popular with the ladies. Marriage didn’t dampen their enthusiasm. Arthur skimmed his notes. He couldn’t keep still. The words jumped on the page. He pressed his head against the wall.

“And most guys look at sex like parking a car, like there’s a spot. There’s another spot; that could work. Oh, I have to pay? Never mind.” Laughter boomed in the club. The thin walls trembled as if the beast had snarled. “Handicapped? Hope nobody sees this.”

Arthur closed his notebook. He had rehearsed in his living room a thousand times. He was as ready as he’d ever be.

“Alright, that’s my time. Thanks very much guys.” Thunderous applause.

“One more time for Sam Murale, y’all.” The host strolled on stage, exchanging places with Sam.

With one last look at the telly, Arthur crossed the hall. He hid behind the exit, waiting for his cue. Sweat coated his forehead. The overhead lights were blinding.

“Alright, the next comic describes himself as a lifelong Gotham resident, who from a young age, was always told his purpose in life was to bring laughter and joy into this cold, dark world. I dunno. O…kay? Please help me welcome Arthur Fleck y’all.”

Arthur walked out to a loose string of claps. The sole of his shoes had been worn thin. He could feel every bump in the floor. With three careful steps, he was on stage. He shook hands with the host, steadied himself, then turned to face the crowd. It was a full house. He wished the lights were brighter.

It was the start of his segment. The audience was focused. Arthur used the precious seconds to scan the expectant faces. He didn’t need long. Jordan was seated front and centre. They caught Arthur’s gaze and beamed. Arthur returned the smile. It was a small one.

He recalled the lines he had memorised. Seasoned show goers were unforgiving. He needed to hook them with his opening joke. “Hello—” He barely squeezed the word out. His throat closed. Arthur clutched it with shaking hands. Hello. He tried again. The word rang in his mind, but not on the stage.

“Heh.” Arthur squeezed his eyes shut. The familiar urge was fighting to resurface. “Hello, it’s good to be h—heh, heh, heh.” He turned his back to the audience, something he was told to never do. “Ha ha ha ha ha!”

Arthur dug his nails into his throat. His heightened senses were having none of it. It had been a week since the city cut funding to all health services. He was on seven types of medication. The pills alone would drain what little cash he had left. He had no choice but to do without. Arthur couldn’t tell if he was feeling better or worse. His episodes occurred less frequent but lasted longer with each passing day.

He stole a glance at the audience. Their eyes were cold, and their lips set in a thin line. Some had lit a cigarette. Arthur returned to the mic. He had to keep it together. This was his one and only shot.

He spent the next minute cackling at nothing. The audience was losing interest. Arthur locked gaze with Jordan again. They looked worried but gave Arthur an encouraging smile.

“Heh I hated—hated school when heh I was a kid,” Arthur choked. Jordan moved to the edge of their seat. They nodded eagerly and rolled their hand in a forward motion, urging Arthur to continue.

“My mother would say,” Arthur took a deep breath. He mimicked her high-pitched voice. “You should enjoy it! One day you would have to work for a living!” The smile on Jordan’s face calmed some of his nerves. Building confidence, he prepared his next line. “No, I won’t, ma. Heh heh. I’m going to be a comedian.”

In hindsight, Arthur wasn’t sure what he had expected.

Maybe he’d expected the evening to play out exactly as it did. Or maybe, somewhere in the jumped-up depth of his mind, he’d fooled himself into believing that just for a second, the audience would be astounded by his performance, and he would be offered a permanent place at Pogo’s, kicking start his career as a comedian.

It was like his mom with the letters.

He lit a cig and took a long drag, his back pressed against the club’s backdoor. The steel radiated a persistent chill. It pierced his vest, spreading goosebumps on his flesh.

The alley was deserted, lit by nothing but the neon club logo above the door. The steel door blocked all sounds, sealing laughter inside an impregnable bubble. Arthur exhaled. The smoke was white from his heated breath. He watched it rise high then become one with the night.

He sat there for a while, feeling the cold on his back, drawing in the darkness with smoke. Arthur wasn’t against being cold. It numbed his bruises. His skin had turned interesting shades from his train venture. The darkness smoothed his tangled mind. He stared at the purple patch on his wrist.

He had killed three people.

He’d thought it would bother him.

It really hasn’t.

Arthur doubted he’d be bothered if he killed again. He recalled a few faces from the audience, the ones that had booed him off stage. How easy would it be to push his gun into their mouth? He’d shove the barrel deep down their throat. He’d enjoy their cries, then slowly pull the trigger, feeling the gun’s vibration. Their intestines would splatter onto the wall, like paint on canvas. Or he’d bring a knife to their mouth. He’d put a smile on their face, turning that frown…upside down.

Arthur inhaled. The smoke sat in his lungs, warming it. His calloused fingers stained yellow from a lifetime of balancing cigs were cool against his lips. The smoke tasted different when he let it out, as if his lungs had leeched the nutrient from it.

“Arthur.”

Arthur jumped at the sound. The person at the end of the alley stood with their back against the light. Arthur couldn’t make out their face. He didn’t need to. There was only one person in the world that would be where they were and call him by his name.

“What are you doing here? There’s two more after me.” Arthur tried to stand, but his legs had given out. Thousands of tiny needles pricked his calves. He grunted and tried again.

Jordan tip-toed down the alley, navigating the rubbish with careful steps. Before Arthur could come to them, they’d joined him on the wet steps. “I want to make sure you’re alright.”

“Why wouldn’t I be?” Arthur pulled his lips into a smile. “I got my big show. I’ve never been better.”

“Arthur…it’s okay to be not alright. You don’t have to be happy all the time.” Jordan said bluntly, like they had been preparing for it.

Arthur took another drag of his cig. It wasn’t his intention to remain silent, but he had no other way to put it.

Happy. That was what his mother called him.

Happy little Happy.

Laughter followed him. Literally. It was his purpose to bring joy. Without happiness, what was he?

Arthur finished his cig quicker than he would’ve preferred. Jordan didn’t strike him as the type to smoke. They always smelled heavenly. He crushed the butt on the step, then opened his notebook.

“Hey, you want to hear a joke?”

Perhaps he should ask them if they enjoyed the show, but he wouldn’t like the answer either way. They were too nice to hurt him. Arthur had never been one for empty reassurances. His performance earlier had been his biggest, but it hadn’t been his best. He’d stuck with the ‘safe’ jokes, omitting his darker material. It was too late for regret, though Arthur couldn’t help but think his segment could’ve ended differently.

Art was self-expression. He had been dishonest, and his audience responded to him like a deserted bog. He had at least some lines worthy of an audience. He just knew it. Now a member of the audience has presented him with a second chance.

He wanted to hear genuine laughter, at least once on his big night.

Jordan looked like they wanted to press the previous topic, but nodded after a while. Arthur cleared his throat. “A priest asked the convicted murderer at the electric chair, ‘do you have any last requests?’” He paused for dramatic effect. “’Yes,’ replied the murderer, ‘can you hold my hand?’”

Had he blown it? There was no reaction from Jordan. Their face, ever so bright and lovely was a stone wall. Seconds ticked by. The silence was suffocating. Then the wall cracked. Jordan snorted. They tried to hold it in, but their shoulders shook from muffled laughter.

“I shouldn’t be laughing at that! That’s so inappropriate!” Arthur had caught them, and they knew. Jordan gave up their act. Arthur flipped his notebook to the next page. He wasn’t done yet.

“Okay, here’s another one. When can someone you hate bring you joy?”

“I have no idea.”

“When you push them down the stairs.”

Instant laughter. Louder this time. Arthur shot his jokes in rapid fire until Jordan doubled over. It was nothing like his vigorous, but empty laughter. Jordan’s laugh was full of life. The sound was melody to his ears. Arthur watched them, sitting in the trash filled alley, laughing at his jokes. What he had done to deserve them?

“Ah, that was great! Is that your jokes book?” Jordan peered at his notes.

“It was meant to be a journal. My psychiatrist gave it to me. She said I should write my thoughts down. I’ve been using it for my material. Do you want to see it?” Arthur had never wanted to show his notebook to anyone, but with Jordan, he felt as though they would understand.

He handed them his notebook. It was bent in half lengthwise to fit in his pocket. Jordan flipped through it, blushing at the nude cut-outs. Arthur would admit he didn’t warn them on purpose. Jordan went through several more pages, reading the content and laughing to themselves. Then the soft giggles stopped. Jordan traced their fingers along the fuzzy words.

“‘I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.’”

Arthur ran a hand through his hair. He wanted another cig.

“Arthur…” Sure enough, Jordan turned to him, their eyes filled with the same damned concern that made him jittery, flustered, and thankful all at the same time.

“It’s nothing. I wrote them on a bad day,” Arthur said as he chewed his bottom lip, slurring his words. He took back his notebook. They sat on the steps in silence. Distant sirens disturbed the stillness.

“I live across the hall,” Jordan said suddenly.

“Yeah, I…noticed?” Arthur fought the urge to laugh. It was inappropriate, but he had no idea why Jordan was stating the obvious.

Not even the darkness could hide their red cheeks. “What I meant was, we live pretty close. The next time you have a bad day, come see me. If you want to, we can go for donuts or something.”

Jordan cast him a hopeful look. The sincerity scorched Arthur. He tightened the grip on his notebook. “We don’t have to wait for a bad day. We could go for donuts anytime.” The irregular beat of his heart was making it difficult to speak. He wished he could stomp the jitters. “When I find a job, let me take you somewhere nice.”

“I look forward to it.”

Jordan’s smile was addictive. There was something different about the way their eyes curved. Their pupils emanated an inner glow. Blood pumped painfully through his heart. His veins throbbed on the verge of rupture. No one alive had made him feel like this before, let alone repeatedly. Jordan did things to him. He wanted to wrap his arms around them. Kiss them. Tear their clothes apart. Press them against the nearest surface—

Arthur dug his nails into his thigh, on the side further from Jordan. He grabbed the flesh and twisted. He must’ve found a bruise. The pain pulsed up his spine. His eyes watered. It wasn’t until he regained control of his body that he dared to look Jordan in the eyes again.

The heat was still there, too hot to touch but too pleasurable to bury. The urge flirted with him. Arthur couldn’t contain it anymore. The emptiness was corroding his soul. He’d killed three men. It didn’t matter which would find him first, but if he was to die in the next second, he wanted to have this now.

“Can I ask you a favour?” There was a slight shake to his voice. Most people would ignore it.

“Of course.” The damned concern proved yet again they weren’t ‘most’ people.

“…would you wrap your arms around me?”

Jordan responded with action. They smelled of new leaf and sunlight, a perfect enactment of his memories of spring. Arthur placed a hesitant hand on their back. When they didn’t flinch away, he wrapped both arms around them and felt their body mould against his.

Good things in his life came few and far in between, but Arthur knew pleasure. The carnal, the sensual, the mysterious. Many of them he would kill for. Some of them he would die for.

But this, this he would live for.

He buried his nose in their hair. They swayed in sync with his wobbling legs. Jordan rubbed small circles on the back of his neck. He bit his tongue to stop his whimpers.

In a rare moment of control, Arthur won the wrestle with his voice. Though this time it was his eyes that betrayed him. Jordan withdrew at the wetness. They bought a hand to his face, wiping away the moisture. More dripped from his eyes. He must’ve made a pathetic sight.

“Oh…Arthur…” Jordan cupped his cheek with warm fingers. “It’s okay. Let it out.” They embraced him once again, this time tighter.

Jordan was light, soft, but at the same time impossibly strong. No harm could befall him when he was nested in their arms. The thought debilitated him, stuffed him with a strange substance that the all-consuming void couldn’t corrode. Arthur was paralysed. Did he have the right to hold them? Why was he feeling this way?

Arthur hadn’t won many battles in his life. Keeping quiet had depleted his strength. Instead of trying to make sense of his state, he gave in to it. He buried his face in their shoulder and cried. It began as silent sobs, which quickly grew into a harrowing wail. Jordan ran their hand through his hair, smoothing the tangled strands. His mother used to comb his hair. She stopped when he became of age. No one had touched it since.

It wasn’t until the lights to Pogo’s died that Arthur stopped crying. He could at last move. By then he had ruined Jordan’s jacket. The two wet patches his eyes left had combined into one sloppy mess. Jordan perked up when he took half a step back. Arthur ran his thumb over their cheek. Blurred by the remnants of his tears, their face was dressed by a veil of haze. Arthur had never seen someone so beautiful.

“Are you real?” he whispered. The question hurt, but he needed to know.

Jordan’s eyes widened. “Of course I am.”

His breath mixed with theirs. Arthur traced the outline of their lips with his thumb. “I’ve…done this before. Seen things that weren’t happening. Felt people that weren’t there.”

Jordan’s hand doubled on top of his. The touch sent a shockwave down his spine. “…can you feel this?”

“Yes,” Arthur murmured.

Inch by inch, their hand slid down his arm, then across his shoulder. It came to rest on his neck. “What about this?” they whispered.

“Y—yeah.”

Jordan’s lashes shimmered under the starlight. Their gaze shifted to his lips. “How about…this?”

His lips were sealed by something soft, something electrifying. His heartbeat stopped. He didn’t dare breath, didn’t dare blink. Jordan’s lashes fluttered. They tasted him hesitantly. The care snapped Arthur to his senses. He tightened his arms around them, deepening the kiss.

He had never been kissed before, let alone shared a kiss with someone he adored. Jordan sighed, the vibration heavenly against his lips. He rubbed their cheekbone with his thumb. His chest was so full, it threatened to split with every jagged breath. He could live in this moment forever.

When the two of them parted, Arthur traced the outline of their jaw until his fingers rested on their lips.

I’m in love with you. He confessed in silence.

Completely, hopelessly, madly in love.

Jordan kissed his fingers. “So, have I managed to convince you, Mr. Fleck?”

Hearing his last name roll off their tongue created a painful bulge in his pants. “I dunno. I think I could use a little more evidence.”

Jordan threw their head back in laughter. Arthur chuckled too. The sounds layered in perfect harmony. From the mouth of the alley, music drifted into his ears.

-

The tables are empty

The dance floor’s deserted

You play the same love song

Like a hundred times you’ve heard it

-

Frank Sinatra. It came from the bar across Pogo’s. Sometimes Arthur would stay late enough to catch their final song. The bar always turned their music up.

-

That’s the beginning

Just one of the clues

You’ve had your first lesson

In learnin’ the blues 

-

“I love this song!” Jordan’s eyes snapped to the bar. They linked hands with him and did a small twirl. “Dance with me, Arthur.”

Arthur didn’t need to be asked twice. He had been waiting for this invitation his entire life. He placed one foot before the other, turning from left to right and right to left. His shoulders dipped in tune with his steps.

-

The cigarettes you light

One after another

Won’t help you forget her

And the way that you love her

 

You’re only burnin’

A torch you can’t lose

But you’re on the right track

For learnin’ the blues

-

The two of them swayed to the rhythm. Their movement mirrored each other in perfect harmony. Arthur slid down the alley. He raised their linked hands, and Jordan jumped over the trash bag, landing back in Arthur’s arms. The impact knocked the air from his lungs. He couldn’t contain it anymore. The sound that left his throat sounded nothing like him. It was light and booming and full of joy, the joy he so desperately wanted to spread.

-

When you’re at home alone

The blues will taunt you constantly

When you’re out in a crowd

The blues will haunt your memory

 

The nights when you can’t sleep

The whole night you’re cryin’

But you can’t forget her

Soon you even stop tryin’

 

You’ll walk that floor

And wear out your shoes

When you feel your heart break

You’re learnin’ the blues

-

Jordan switched roles with him, taking the lead. They spun him in a circle. The walls of Pogo’s vibrated with muted laughter. Arthur no longer cared.

He wasn’t a clown. Perhaps he had never been a comic either. He was an entertainer. And in this moment, he was being graced by a smile brighter than anything he could’ve imagined.

As the song played on, the world around them dissolved.

The two of them danced to the music, under the pale moonlight.

Chapter Text

Two weeks, that was how long Arthur had gone without work.

Pogo’s never called him back, and for once, Arthur hadn’t expected otherwise. He took to the streets the next day, visiting each clown-for-hire by foot. There weren’t many in Gotham, and the few that managed to scrape by were scattered among the grim streetscape.

Despite his experience, no one spared him an interview. Word travelled fast among the circus freaks. By the end of the first week, it had become clear he wasn’t going to find work as a party clown again. He spent the next three days scouring the lamp posts for ads. He offered to wash dishes, mop floors, scrub toilets. Some decided to give him a chance but showed him the exit after his first laughing fit.

Arthur closed the door behind him. His bones ached. He slumped on the couch and couldn’t lift a finger to switch on the telly. His mom had gone to bed, a common sight as of late. His mother rose late and slept early, whereas he left at the crack of dawn and returned only after the shops were closed. It was hard, pushing himself like this. Each rejection was a dagger to his heart, but he didn’t regret it. A promise was a promise. When he found a job, he would take them somewhere nice.

The thought filled him with renewed strength. It had been two weeks since their dance in the alley, yet every detail remained vivid, every moment lucid. Their warmth as they swayed, pressed against his body. The soft peck of their lips. The way he came alive under their touch.

Arthur groaned. He clamped a hand over his mouth. The hallway was still, but his mother slept light. With some hesitation, Arthur shifted until he leaned against the armrest. The apartment was a one-bedder. He had been sleeping on the couch since they moved in. The living room was his when his mother slept.

Arthur closed his eyes. He was transported to the back alley of Pogo’s. The street was wet, and the air cold. The pale moon hung high in the sky. They were there, waiting by the steps to the back door. Arthur unzipped his trousers. He slipped a hand beneath his briefs. He was already hard.

Jordan smiled at him. They were beautiful. If people were crafted by the same maker, why were they so different? They beckoned for him to come closer. Something in Arthur snapped. He crossed the alley with three wide strides. Jordan had a slightly smaller frame, a perfect size for him to hold. He freed them of their jacket and tore open their shirt, popping all the buttons. The belt should add resistance, but in his feverish state, he ignored it. With a hard tug, they were naked from the waist down.

They cupped his face with their hands and kissed him. The sensation doubled with the one in his memories. Arthur lifted them by their thighs, pressing them against the back door. They wrapped their legs around his waist. The moonlight shone silver on their skin. They looked to him with nothing but naked adoration. Taking his time, but not without force, Arthur pushed into them. They threw their head back, exposing a stretch of long, elegant neck. Their flesh tasted like flowers beneath his tongue. Arthur played with the skin, marking them.

He stroked himself, hard, then gentle, then hard again. They were so hot, so tight, wrapped around him. This was where they belonged, inside his arms. Arthur thrusted into them. Their back rattled against the steel door. A surge of heat rushed down his belly. As he choked back his gasp, Jordan moaned into his ear.

Arthur.

He came, harder than he’d ever come before. His limbs convulsed from the aftershock. Jordan gave him one last longing look then became one with the darkness. Arthur opened his eyes. He panted as his eyes refocused on the off-white ceiling. The cushions beneath him were stiff, and his cum sticky on his palm.

Arthur laid there for some time, counting the mould spots on the ceiling. The emptiness returned. There was a hollow cavity, where his organs should be. Arthur had half a mind to saw himself open. He was sick to the core.

With no one to witness his shame, Arthur rose quickly. He washed his hands at the kitchen sink, watching the white residue disappear down the drain. As he scrubbed his hands, his gaze drifted to the door.

They were right there, behind two panels of wood.

Arthur let out a deep breath. No, it was late. He shouldn’t bother them. And while they had seen every possible outburst of his to date, he still wanted to scrape together a shred of dignity and preserve it. He’d see them again when he was back on top. Well, as ‘on top’ as his pathetic life allowed.

He circled back to the couch and flicked on the telly. It was too late for the Murray Franklin Show. It didn’t matter. He needed some noise to fill the silence. His mind drifted to unsettling places when it was left alone. The first thing that came on was a song. The mellow tune calmed his racing heart.

Arthur lit a cig with shaking fingers. He should get to sleep. Tomorrow would be another gruelling day. Unfortunately, common sense didn’t dissuade insomnia. He took a long drag and blew tiny smoke rings into the air.

Had his apartment always been this quiet? Arthur rubbed his eyes. God, he missed them. Missed them so much his hollow chest wailed. He never knew it was possible to feel so full. Now that he discovered the feeling, oblivion couldn’t make him turn back.

But they couldn’t see him like this. They deserved so much better. What if they finally saw him for what he was and left? They weren’t together, but this thing between them…it was something.

The pain came sudden. His cig had burned without his notice. Ash severed from the red tip, burning his fingers. Arthur reached for the ashtray. That was when he saw the letter.

It was the same white envelope his mother always used. He must’ve sent a hundred of them by now. Not once did they receive a reply. Why would they? Thomas Wayne was the richest man in Gotham. Surely even his manservant had better things to do.

Arthur pinched the letter from the coffee table. His mother had left it here, in front of his makeshift bed. She wanted him to post it. First thing in the morning, as she would say. Arthur scoffed. When would she learn? The rich didn’t care about people like them, least of all Thomas fucking Wayne.

The pristine envelope caught light from the telly, emanating a pale glow. It was folded ceremoniously, its perfection mocking. Arthur stole a glance down the hall. The bedroom was quiet.

He tore open the letter, the top flap crumbling to pieces. He plucked the pages from the jagged opening. There was a stack of them. His mother wrote in cursive. There was a lot of content to go through.

Arthur’s skimmed down the page. His heartbeat stopped.

We need your help. The letter pleaded. The next words were underlined, as if his mother knew her letter wouldn’t be read in its entirety. If someone had read her writing, she wanted the next sentence to stand out.

Your son and I need your help.

The pages slipped from his grasp. His hands were shaking again. Arthur threaded his fingers together and held them to his forehead. He hadn’t eaten anything past noon. Could that be the reason for his nausea?

Your…son?

Thomas Wayne was his father?

But how could that be? The two of them couldn’t be more different. How dare this letter suggest he had lived in squalor for all these years, when his father was the richest man in Gotham?

Arthur stood from the couch. Nausea claimed him. He spiralled downward. The pages were smooth, pressed against his cheek. His world spun in a cocktail of blackened colours. He needed answers. Arthur tugged at his hair. His head hurt. He looked to the hall again. His grunts hadn’t stirred his mother.

That was right, his dear ol’ mom. He’d asked about this before, what had been her answer? She said his father walked out on them while he was little. She lied to him.

Arthur curled into himself. Something was threatening to rupture. He’d never forgive himself if he hurt his mother. He had to hold it in. The last time it came out he killed three men. He picked at his skin, trying to distract himself. His headache worsened. There was so much pain.

The pages were cool against his cheek. Arthur clawed at them as if their demise could undo the revelation. All those letters he’d sent. All those lies he had been told. He glared down the hall. How dare she?

No. No. No. He couldn’t think like this. That was his mom. She raised him on her own. She was all he had.

He couldn’t be around her like this, least of all he burst into her room and hurt her. He needed to calm down. What had his psychiatrist told him?

Arthur stayed on the floor, breathing heavily. He clenched then unclenched his fists. When the anger faded, something much worse surfaced. The betrayal was crushing. He was all alone. If even his own mother couldn’t be trusted, who could he turn to?

Only one person came to mind. Arthur crawled for the door. A few wobbly steps later, he was upright again. He opened his apartment, crossed the hall, and came to stand before another panel of wood. He knocked. The hall was submerged in deadly silence. Above him, a wall lamp flickered. There was no movement from the other side. He stood in front of their door, tracing the grain of the wood with his eyes. His knuckles hurt. It could be from the bruises, or the way he clenched them. He knocked again. Nothing. Were they not home?

Laughter bubbled in his chest. With no one to judge him, he let it all out. In the floor above, a man screamed for him to shut up. He laughed louder.

They had told him to come see them, the next time he was having a bad day. Now he was having a bad day. He came to see them, but they weren’t there. What had he expected?

The mess inside him convulsed. He writhed under the strain. Was it despair in his chest, or excitement? He had been right. No one would be here for him. He had known for more than thirty years. The thought was both frightening and liberating. If he was truly alone in this vile city…

A small creak jolted Arthur from his thoughts. He was wound so tight he’d jump at falling dust. The door opened, revealing a pair of tired eyes. A waft of humidity moistened his skin. Their hair was damp, draped over sleepwear. The wetness formed translucent patches on their shirt.

Oh.

“Hey Arthur. Sorry, I was in the shower.” Jordan ran a hand through their wet locks, smoothing the mess. They undid the security chain, opening the door fully. A bead of water slid down their neck. Arthur swallowed. “Must admit, I didn’t think it’d be you. It’s been so long since we last talked.”

“…Jordan.” An escaping rat could’ve muted his call. Their presence squashed the butt of his laughing fit.

He must be imagining things. He had been thinking about them. On some nights he dreamt about them. He even jerked off to them within the last hour, but now that he stood face to face with the person of his deepest, darkest desire, he couldn’t remember a word of the things he wanted to say.

Jordan studied him. Not the passing glance most people spared him, or the judging once-over. They really looked at him, took in every feature on his face. Arthur squirmed under the attention.

“Would you like to come in?” Jordan asked before he could begin to fidget.

Arthur nodded. “I know it’s late, but I…I don’t want to be alone right now.”

Jordan returned a sad smile. They guided him through the door. Their apartment was a mirror image to Arthur’s. Despite the similarities in plan, the two spaces were nothing alike. Jordan’s brimmed with energy. It could be the greenery tricking his eyes, or the organised surfaces in which everything had its place.

Jordan strolled into the kitchen. They hummed to themselves. Arthur didn’t know the tune. It was gentle, soothing, so unlike the chaotic carnival music from work, or the childish melodies he’d sing to himself. He circled the room, pausing before the plant shelf. The window behind it looked onto the alley. Arthur wrinkled his nose at the piled-up rubbish. He focused on the plants again. It was a small, sacred forest, purifying the rubbish laden hellscape.

He found the heart leafed plant he stroked the first time he was over. It sat on an oak stand. He caressed the velvet leaves. They felt…different, as if they swayed to Jordan’s tune. Arthur sighed deeply. Already, he was beginning to unwind. His hands steadied, and the torn letter felt miles away.

The kettle whistled. Jordan called to him. “Have you eaten, Arthur?” They shuffled until Arthur could see them through the opening from the breakfast bar. Arthur nodded on instinct, but they narrowed their eyes in a way that suggested if Arthur lied to them, not only would they find out, but they would be very, very cross. Arthur halted his nod halfway, changing it to a shake of his head.

“I baked some pies for dinner. Would you like one?”

“Yes, please.”

They turned out of sight again. Something was unwrapped. A hard object hit the counter, baking tray. The oven opened and closed. Some clanging later, they left the kitchen with two mugs of tea.

“Chamomile, it’s good for sleep.” Jordan placed the larger mug in his hands. Tiny, circular flowers floated in a bath of steaming water. Arthur watched the petals seep.

They led him to the couch. The two of them took small sips of their beverage. It was Jordan who spoke first. “I heard your laugh. Are you alright?”

Arthur picked at the pills on his cardigan. The gagging sensation returned.

“Hey, it’s alright. You just have to nod or shake your head.”

Arthur shook his head. It was a rough jerk, sudden and strained. Jordan placed their mug aside and offered their hand. Arthur took it. He held their hand close to his chest and squeezed his eyes shut. The two of them waited until the urge to laugh passed. It was nice, but not all he wanted. He had gotten a taste of more.

Inch by inch, Arthur pulled them in. They didn’t resist. The space between them closed until they were pressed flush against each other. His heartbeat became one with theirs. He ran a thumb over their lips. Their lashes fluttered under his jagged breath.

They closed their eyes. That was all the invitation he needed. He cupped their face gingerly and kissed them. It was nothing like his wild, perverse fantasies. Behind closed doors, he was free to imagine, but with them truly in his arms, all he wanted to do was hold them.

Arthur knew he’d missed this, though he’d underestimated how much. There was no substitute for Jordan’s warmth. It was a soul cleansing fire, purging him of filth. Arthur pressed one last kiss on their lips then parted for breath. Jordan looked up, their head resting on his collarbone. They smiled weakly. “And here I was, thinking you weren’t interested.”

“Wha—what?” Arthur brushed a strand of hair from their face. “Why would you think that?”

Jordan sighed. “Arthur, it’s been two weeks. Someone who’s interested will call back after the first date.”

The words ‘first’ and ‘date’ played on loop in his head. “I’m interested! I’ve never been more interested in anything, I swear! I’ve been looking for a job. I wanted to take you somewhere nice.”

Jordan burst out laughing. “Well then, Mr. Very Interested, I’m glad we cleared that up.” They shifted in his arms, pressing their lips against his pulse. “You don’t have to take me anywhere. I like your company, no matter where we are.”

There wasn’t a force in the world strong enough to pull him away. Arthur kissed them again. They slipped down the couch. Arthur followed. He ravished their lips, pressing them into the cushions. Something chimed from the kitchen. Jordan groaned but nudged him away. They returned with a plate.

“Dig in.” Jordan handed him a polished fork. “You need to eat more. You’re bone thin.”

Arthur wasn’t hungry, he rarely was, but the aroma was enticing. He broke the crust with his fork. Fillings flowed from the cut, beef with mushroom. He lifted a bite to his mouth. It was the best damned pie he has ever had. The pie was a decent size and served with salad. Arthur had some of the greens too. Jordan sipped on tea as he ate. Bite after bite, he finished the whole plate.

“How was your day?” Jordan asked as he set the plate down.

Arthur told them about it. How he wondered the streets, how his condition costed him another potential job. They listened, asked questions, and showered him with gentle praise. It was remarkable. Despite not receiving a dime for it, they did a better job at making him feel better than his psychiatrist ever could.

Maybe it was because they cared.

The two of them talked well past midnight. By then, not even Arthur could hide his yawn.

“I should get going. It’s a workday tomorrow,” Arthur said as he rose. He took his plate to the sink. Despite soft protests from Jordan, he washed the evening’s dishes.

Jordan walked him to the door. As their hand turned the handle, their face lit up with realisation. “Hold up, I almost forgot!” They jogged back to the living room, retrieving a white paper bag. It looked oddly familiar. Jordan presented the bag to him. Arthur unrolled the top. Inside the tiny bag were seven tubs of pills.

“You dropped your prescription docket last time you were over. I found it behind the bathroom door.” Jordan averted his gaze. “You mentioned how you couldn’t buy them anymore, and I thought…sorry if I overstepped.”

Arthur had tried to look for the docket after the train ride. He couldn’t find it anywhere. He’d given up the search quickly. He couldn’t afford them, so why did it matter if he still had the docket? The pills weighed little, but Arthur struggled to keep a hold of them. The bag was burning a hole through his palm. He wrapped Jordan in a tight embrace. “Thank you…”

“Don’t mention it.” Jordan returned the hug. “Things will get better Arthur, trust me. I battled chronic insomnia once. I know how bad things can get.” They pulled away a little.

“Hey…I’ve been thinking about it. From what you’ve told me, your previous psychiatrist seemed…average. I know a good one in Metropolis, maybe we can train over on the weekends and…”

Arthur broke the embrace. “No, I can’t waste your money. I’ve had this for years.”

“But—”

“I’m fine.” Arthur didn’t wait for them to finish. This was his problem. He wasn’t about to drag them into the mud with him. “I promise.”

Jordan studied his features. “Alright. Just be careful, and tell me if you think it’s getting worse. I have some savings from my days in Metropolis, like…a pretty decent saving.”

Arthur couldn’t help but ponder their words. He had wanted to know more about them, but Jordan rarely talked about the past. The few times it came up in conversation, they skimmed past the subject quickly.

Jordan’s enthusiasm faded. “I suppose I can’t hide it forever. The truth is, I used to work as a broker.” They turned away, their gaze drifting to the plant shelf, but seeing far beyond it. “We take a cut from the shares sold. I hated that life. All I did was hurt people. I lied to them, sold them bad stock. Everyone in the company was doing it, but it wasn’t right.” Jordan looked down in shame. “So I quit. I came to Gotham, looking for a fresh start. I hope you don’t think any less of me, but if you do, I understand.”

“Maybe you…shouldn’t tell the others about that,” Arthur said hesitantly.

“Yeah, you’re right. It won’t help me make friends.”

“No, not about the job, but about your savings.” Arthur scratched the back of his head. He needed to spin this with care. “Gotham is rough. There are bad people here, especially in this part of the city. I don’t want you to get hurt.” Memories of his time in abandoned lanes resurfaced. Arthur pursed his lips. “People are awful.”

Jordan smiled. “Yeah, but not you.” They pressed another kiss to his lips. “But I’ll keep that in mind.”

Arthur had half a mind to never leave their apartment again. He dug his nails into his palm and forced himself to open the door. As he stepped out, Jordan called to him.

“Arthur.”

He replied embarrassingly fast. “Yeah?”

A light blush warmed their cheeks. “Remember to take care of yourself, and visit when you have the time. I’ll have to kick down your door if you wait another two weeks again.”

Arthur couldn’t hide his smile if he wanted to. “I will. See you soon, Jordan.”

The person beneath the soft lights returned his smile. “See you soon, and sweet dreams.”

Chapter Text

Arthur never told his mother about the letter. He searched the floor for the shredded remains and burned them on the stove. The flame licked the white flecks, covered by scrambled letters. Then all became ash.

He left as usual the next morning, only this time, he wasn’t in search of a job. It was for the best that he dug around Gotham himself. He wasn’t sure if he could trust his mother. After years of hiding the truth, what was to stop her from spinning another lie?

The train ride to Gotham’s wealthiest neighbourhood passed in tense boredom. Arthur had never felt more out of place. He teetered a hair’s breadth from a laughing fit. The people were too bright, too proper, with stiff outfits that smelled fresh from the iron, and jewellery polished to sparkle. The smiles were tight, and the laughter strained. The passenger before him had behind a copy of the morning’s news. Arthur busied himself with reading it. He found an article on the Wayne family.

The boy in the black and white photo had chubby cheeks, a luxury in Arthur’s part of town. His name was Bruce. Arthur took in the boy’s eyes, cold and pinched at the corners. Bruce wore a black blazer, a bowtie, and matching pants. Hidden in his father’s shadow, the boy appeared smaller than ever. Arthur could cheer him up. He had always wanted a little brother, someone to play with, someone to share his joys and sorrows. If he had a sibling while growing up, he wouldn’t have been so alone.

Arthur ripped the photo from the papers. He folded the torn edges onto themselves until the photo was framed neatly. It would go in his journal. He had the perfect spot for it.

The nearest stop to Wayne manor was some distance away. Not even as a publicity stunt would Gothamites spot a Wayne on the train. Arthur hurried down the boulevard, shadowed by ancient oak. Autumn hadn’t stripped the trees of their last foliage. Sunlight dappled the pavement. His cheeks were raw under the cutting wind. It was colder in these parts of town. The population was sparse. Greenery leeched the remaining heat.

Arthur dug around in his pockets until his fingers brushed against a hard case. He popped the lid to the acrylic tub, fished out two pills, and dry swallowed them. These pills were making him anxious. They were supposed to calm him, but having been off meds for so long, he could now tell they were the culprit for his jitters.

As of late, he had been blessed by a state of tranquillity. Nothing was out of reach. He could do anything his heart desired. These pills they…hindered him. He thought more, agonised over the details. Like what would happen after he brought a knife to someone’s face. Whether they would feel pain, or what would happen to his mother after he was caught.

If he was caught.

Nonetheless, he continued his medication. He couldn’t disappoint Jordan, not after everything they had done for him. They cared. That was more than what could be said for everyone else in his life.

The manor stood proud behind a tall wall. Arthur circled the perimeter, taking in the points of entrance. A gardener clipped lazily at the hedges, their lines razor sharp. Arthur waved at her with a bright smile. He hadn’t felt particularly joyful, but he mustn’t greet someone with a frown. The corner of his mouth twitched. The gardener stared as if he was the strangest thing she had seen all week.

He proceeded to the front façade. A playground was built close to the fence. It was there he found the youngest Wayne. Bruce wore an outfit similar to the morning news, as if he had jumped from the photo in Arthur’s journal. Arthur reached into his jacket. His grip tightened around the magician’s wand but didn’t reveal it. He waited for Bruce to notice him, then gave the boy the biggest grin he could muster.

The boy stared at him. What was it with people in this house and staring? Arthur sank below the fence. When he rose, he donned the ball-nose of a clown. The red tip would brighten anyone’s day. Bruce didn’t blink, let alone laugh. Tough audience.

Arthur sauntered to the main gate. Bruce followed. His cheeks were pink beyond the black rods. If Arthur reached past the gate, he could pinch it. Arthur took another step forward, seeing for the first time Bruce’s face up close. They were so alike, the way their nose tapered, the roundness of their eyes. How could they be anything but brothers?

Arthur revealed the magician’s wand. He twirled twice, tapped his toes thrice, then pointed the wand at Bruce. Nothing happened. Of course, that had been a part of his act. He needed to build suspense. Arthur pretended to study the wand. He pointed again. Nothing.

Arthur presented the wand to Bruce, whom accepted eagerly. Upon leaving Arthur’s hand, the wand lost its shape. Bruce took in the floppy gift with furrowed brows. Arthur smiled. The smallest hint of pride swelled in his chest. He had half a mind to tell Bruce, but a magician never revealed his secrets. Bruce returned the wand to him. Arthur ran his hand over the length of the wand, straightening it.

He danced in front of Bruce, the gate between them forgotten. Bruce watched him perform. The pale blue orbs were an exact copy of their father’s. Clowns, Thomas Wayne had called him. Arthur squared his jaw. With a flick of his wrist, a bouquet of plastic flowers shot from the tip of the wand.

Bruce accepted the bouquet with wide eyes. Arthur crouched in front of Bruce, levelling their gaze. “Hi,” he said as he removed the red nose. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Bruce,” the boy on the other side of the gate said.

“Bruce…” Arthur murmured, savouring the name. “I’m Arthur.”

The boy didn’t smile. It was as if he didn’t know how. That was alright, Arthur would teach him. He reached beyond the gate. Bruce’s cheeks were tender, but frozen like ice. Had he, too, been out in the cold? Arthur placed a thumb over each of Bruce’s dimple and lifted. There…that was better.

“Bruce! Bruce!” A man hurried toward them. He was older than Arthur and wore a double-breasted suit. “Get away from that man.” He grabbed Bruce by the shoulders, pulling him away from the gate.

“It’s okay. I’m a good guy.” Arthur stood. His fingers tingled at the loss of skin. He clutched the gate instead. The bars were spaced tightly, no way for him to squeeze through.

“What are you doing? Who are you?” The man narrowed his eyes. He shielded Bruce from Arthur’s gaze. It was alright. This man worked for his father. Once Arthur explained himself, he would understand.

“I’m here to see Mr. Wayne.”

“Well, you shouldn’t be speaking to his son.” The man tore the bouquet from Bruce. “Why did you give him these flowers?”

“No, they are not real.” Arthur accepted the wand from between the bars. “It’s…magic. I was just trying to make him smile.”

“Well it’s not funny. Is it?” The man looked him up and down. “Do I need to call the police?”

“No. Please…” Arthur took a step forward. The man would understand. He had to. “My mother’s name is Penny, Penny Fleck. She used to work here years ago. Can you please tell Mr. Wayne I need to see him?”

The man looked at him, really took him in for the first time that morning. “You are her son…?”

“Yeah. Did you know her?” The gate was cold on his chin. At his question, the man pushed Bruce back as if he was contagious. Arthur got as close to the man as he could. “I know about the two of them,” Arthur whispered. “She told me everything.”

“There’s nothing to know,” the man whispered back. Was it in mockery, or because he didn’t want Bruce to overhear? “There is no ‘them’. Your mother was delusional. She was a sick woman.”

“Don’t…say that.” Arthur stared at the man. Why were they so rude? What had his mother done? What had he done? They treat him like vermin. All he wanted was some semblance of connection, a root to call his own.

“Just go, hmm? Before you make a fool of yourself.” The man’s eyes gleamed with the gate’s reflection.

Words entered and left Arthur’s ears. He stood before the bars, unable to enter and unable to turn away. He had never met this man before in his life. How could he have wronged him? But if the man was cruel without Arthur in the wrong, does that mean Arthur could do whatever he wanted, to whomever he pleased?

Arthur could never tell if it was him acting in these moments, or a strange force mangling his limbs. The urge was all the same. The man was close. His chest rose and fell with his breath. It would be easy to correct that.

The manor in the distance looked on sombrely, its windows squat like narrowed eyes. The left and right wings soared to either side. How could someone live in a place like that and have a use for all the rooms? Arthur couldn’t imagine the luxuries inside. He’d never had a room to call his own, let alone rooms he never visited. “Thomas Wayne is my father,” Arthur squeezed through clenched teeth. His mind drifted to the apartment he shared with his mother, to their empty pantry, and the couch he called his bed. “He left me…to die!”

Arthur wrapped his hands around the man’s neck. It was an easy hold. The man’s grip was weak, his tug feeble. Unlike Arthur, the fool deserved this. He deserved everything Arthur had planned for him.

The man choked, the sound oddly satisfying. Arthur tightened his hold, pressing his thumb into the man’s throat. There was movement in the back. Arthur peered over the man’s shoulder, locking eyes with Bruce. The boy’s face had lost all colour. With a hunched back, he took a few more steps back.

Not here.

Arthur looked from the boy to the fool at his mercy.

Not in front of his little brother.

With a final push, Arthur let go. He turned the other way and ran.

Arthur didn’t dare look back. He sprinted down the boulevard, the dappled sunlight cold on his face. Darkness. Then light. It had been the same the night on the running train.

 

 

----------

 

 

Arthur swung one foot forward. When it landed in front of him, he repeated the process with the other. The sun had set long ago. His shoes scraped against the asphalt. He shouldn’t be doing this. The soles were worn, and he had no means to replace them. He needed to find a job soon.

It had taken all his strength and then some to leave Wayne manor. Why had he wasted his time? He could’ve spent the day in the strip.

Your mother was delusional. She was a sick woman.

Arthur shook the voice from his head. Where was he? Oh, that was right. A job. He’d paid the month’s rent with the last of his savings. If he didn’t find a new job soon, he and his mother would wind up on the streets.

Arthur shuddered at the thought. His mother was defenceless. With his condition, he could only imagine what the streets did to people like them. They wouldn’t last a week.

It became increasingly harder to walk, but he was almost home. Arthur crossed the trio of arches. Red and blue light flashed before his building. An ambulance. The medics carried someone out on a stretcher. Arthur’s heart clenched up. He searched for that tell-tale hint of lustrous hair. What he found froze him in his tracks.

A frail woman lay strapped to the stretcher. Her face was covered by an oxygen mask. “Mom?” Arthur ran for them. Her veins were blue and thick. They popped from her skin. “What happened?” He asked the medics.

“Arthur!” A silhouette yelled from beyond the yellow streetlight. Jordan held their wallet in one hand and a satchel in another. They ran up to him as they pulled a sweatshirt over their head. “Thank goodness you’re back. These men came, asking questions about you. They spoke with your mother, and she…”

“Who are you?” one of the medics spared him a glance.

“Her son.” Arthur rounded the stretcher. The medics circled his mother. He couldn’t get to her.

“Oh great, you can probably help us out inside.”

“Let’s go.” Jordan gave him a light tap on the shoulder.

The medics hoisted the stretcher onto the back of the ambulance. Arthur hopped in. He took a seat next to Jordan. His head hurt. He needed to check on his mother, but his limbs refused to budge.

“Did your mother take any medications?” the medic asked.

“No...”

“Excuse me, I couldn’t hear you.”

“No.”

“Sir, when was the last time you spoke to her?”

“I dunno.”

“Hey…it’s alright. Take a deep breath.” The hand on his shoulder radiated warmth. Arthur did as he was told. The rest of the words came easier.

The ride to the hospital was rough. Gotham rotted with neglect. The streets were riddled with sinkholes. It was no better further into the city. The medics cursed as they rolled his mother into the hands of the waiting nurse.

“It’s going to be alright,” Jordan said to him. Arthur didn’t believe them for a second. Was anything in his life ever alright? Outside of moments spent with them, he couldn’t remember the last time he was happy.

His time at the hospital passed in a daze. He couldn’t think straight. Had he forgotten to take his pills? Had he taken too many? Jordan took care of the paperwork while he waited by his mother’s side. The same officers who had caused his mother’s stroke returned. They asked him questions about the subway murders, his employment at Ha Ha’s, and whether his condition was ‘real’.

How dare they? Arthur looked for something sharp. He found a pair of scissors.

“You can’t be serious!” Jordan’s cry pierced the door. They had taken the officers out of the room for a chat. “He is unwell. His mother is in critical condition. This clearly isn’t the time.”

The two officers mumbled amongst themselves. “We understand,” the sharper of the two voices said. “It’s just...people who’ve had their upstairs messed with tend to be more...”

“Do you have a warrant?” Jordan spoke suddenly, their words clipped.

“No, but we do have the right to investigate.”

“You want to know what he’s like? I’m telling you, Arthur is the sweetest, kindest soul I have met in this disgusting city.”

“I’m glad to hear that, but I’d like you to refrain from withholding information. I’m here to investigate the murder. Any lead that can be used to solve the case—”

“You have the leads. All of it.”

Silence. Then Jordan opened the door. The hallway behind them was empty. They caught Arthur staring. “Don’t worry, they are gone. How’s Penny?”

“She’s stable.” Arthur returned the scissors to the desk. He had his back to Jordan, blocking their view. But if he turned then there was a high chance they would notice. They’d ask what Arthur was doing with a pair of scissors. That was a question he wasn’t prepared to answer.

Arthur emptied his pockets. Wrappers, scrunched up notes, and pill tubs littered the table, covering the shiny instrument. He sat beside Jordan. The benched squeaked under their weight. The two of them watched Penny sleep. The machines beeped to a steady rhythm. The doctors had said she should wake within the next day.

In the corner of the room was a dated telly. It was nailed to the wall, with a screen as small as they came. Muffled sound drifted from it. Arthur’s head snapped up at the familiar voice. It was the Murray Franklin show.

“So, the other night I told my youngest son Billy, you know, the new one, the not so bright one,” Murray said. He presented himself with a swagger Arthur couldn’t master. “And I told him, the garbage strike is still going on, Billy. And he says, and I’m not kidding, Billy says, so where are we going to get our garbage from?”

Arthur chuckled. He turned to Jordan, who looked on with bunched brows. “This is my favourite show.” Jordan returned a tight smile. “What’s the matter? Don’t you like it?”

“I guess it’s alright, I just don’t—”

“And finally, in a world where everyone thinks they could do my job, we got this videotape from Pogo’s comedy club, right here in Gotham.” Murray seemed excited for the next segment. As an experienced host, he was always excited, but wrinkles on his forehead told Arthur this one was genuine. “Here’s a guy who thinks if you just keep laughing, it will somehow make you funny. Check out this joker.”

Strained laughter pierced the room. Arthur could never mistake it. “Oh my god…” He marched to the telly. This was too good to be true.

“Heh I hated—hated school when heh I was a kid. But my mother would say, you should enjoy it! One day you would have to work for a living! No, I won’t, ma. Heh heh. I’m going to be a comedian.” His first and only show from Pogo’s played on the telly. The broadcast was live for all to see.

Arthur couldn’t believe his eyes. He snatched Jordan’s hands, wishing they’d share his joy. Instead, the crease between their brows deepened. Why weren’t they excited? They should be happy for him. Arthur wanted to ask, but the punchline beat him to it.

“You should’ve listened to your mother.”

Arthur’s cheeks ached from his smile. He must’ve imagined it. That was Murray Franklin, the kindest, funniest man alive. Arthur was his biggest fan. Murray wouldn’t do that to him.

“One more, one more Bobby, let’s see one more. I love this guy.” Murray urged as the studio boomed with laughter, laughter Arthur hadn’t wanted to spread.

“It’s funny. When I was a little boy, and told people I was going to be a comedian, everyone laughed at me. Well no one’s laughing now!” In the clip, Arthur spread his arms wide to a silent audience.

“You can say that again, pal—”

The final word was cut short. Darkness replaced Murray’s image. “That’s terrible.” Jordan lowered the remote. Arthur only stared at the black screen. “He’s terrible, Arthur. Don’t listen to someone like that. You have talent he can’t imagine.”

Arthur lowered his glance. With the telly now silent, the sound of machinery returned. He looked to his mother, small and frail and weak. She hadn’t been much bigger in her youth, yet the worst blows in his life had come from her.

Don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian?

“Hey…” Arthur said after a while. “Can I ask you something?”

“Of course.” Jordan was quick to answer.

“Am I…funny?”

“Arthur…I…”

“Tell me the truth.” He took a step forward, cornering them under the blackened telly. Jordan opened their mouth, then they closed it without speaking a word. “Please.”

The seconds ticked by. Arthur was thankful for the little sounds that filled the silence. They were a thin thread, anchoring his mind in place. Jordan ran a hand down their face. “Arthur, I hate to say this…but comedy is subjective. People have varying tastes. I love your jokes, but they might not be right for the average show-goer.”

Pain, worse than anything he had endured before pierced Arthur’s chest. His stomach hardened. Nausea shot through his brain. His heart thumped against his widening lungs. He began to sink. It was as if the floor had dissolved. Arthur would laugh, he would laugh if it had been anyone but Jordan.

“That’s not all though.” A warm hand cupped his face. “You have a gift so rare, I’ve never before seen it in anyone else. When you dance, it’s like you enter another plane of existence. It’s beautiful.”

Arthur looked up. His surroundings slowly came back to him “…you think that?”

“Of course!” Jordan nudged him to the centre of the room. They spread their arms wide and gazed to the ceiling. They paused for a moment, trying to catch something. Then their arms dropped. “Augh, I can’t do it, but that’s what makes it special. I’ve seen ballet, opera, stage plays…the best performances have the same effect. I know you want to make people laugh, but you could do something better, something more. Arthur, you could make them feel.”

Jordan’s words quickened. It was as if his question had opened a flood gate. How long have they been holding their tongue? “I don’t think comedy is the right fit for you, especially with your condition. Crowds in a small room make you nervous. I know you have good intentions, but at times intentions are not enough. That trip to Metropolis is still on the table. We could get you looked at by a proper psychiatrist. It won’t be easy, but nothing worthwhile in life is. In the meantime, you could try self-expression through another medium. Who knows, if you’re keen, we could even enrol you in art school.”

Jordan wrapped their arms around him. They buried their head in the crook of his neck. “I know you’ve been pushing yourself. You don’t have to do this alone. Let me help.”

Arthur returned the hug. It was impossible not to. He breathed in the scent of their shampoo, faded from a day’s wear, but comforting like the yellow glow of home. The aches in his chest lessened. Arthur had a feeling that if he stayed in their arms long enough, the pain would disappear altogether.

“Thank you for telling me the truth.” Arthur ran a hand through their shining locks. It was irony at its best. He had made it his mission to spread joy, but while he tried his damnedest, Jordan could do it without meaning to. The beauty of life followed them. Art school? It was something Arthur wouldn’t dare dream of. He was a high-school dropout. Only someone like Jordan would consider art school a possibility.

“Sorry I didn’t have the guts to say it sooner.” Jordan placed a light kiss on his chin. “But consider it. A psychiatrist isn’t going to break my bank account.”

Arthur nodded. He would never burden them, but he nodded. They shouldn’t have to worry. “Go get some sleep. You have to work tomorrow.”

Jordan yawned. They looked around the room. “I think Penny will be alright. Won’t you come back with me?”

“I’ll stay. There’s another bed.” The room had been meant for three patients. The beds were separated by a paper-thin curtain. As things stood, the room was empty save for his mother.

“Okay. I’ll check up on her after my shift. You should get some sleep too.” Jordan gathered their things. As they opened the door, they glanced at the desk and said: “don’t forget to take your pills before bed.”

Arthur smiled. The door clicked shut. He retrieved the tub from the desk, only to find the seal intact.

Chapter Text

There was a rally outside Wayne Hall, where Thomas Wayne had staged a fund-raiser. When Arthur saw the news, he knew it was now or never.

The train was a mess, even by Gotham standards. Arthur tip-toed around the rubbish. He found an empty spot next to the door and hunched his shoulders. The carriage was filled with people wearing clown masks. It was strange, seeing his face reflected on others. Arthur reminded himself that it wasn’t his face, not exactly.

The people had taken the mantle of the clown and added their personal take. Some favoured brighter colours, others a different shade of hair. Most of them wore hard plastic masks. A few had painted the mask onto their face in flesh. There were hundreds of shades of red and blue. The faces converged into a silent mob. No one spoke, but the air of dissent was loud enough.

There was a writhing force in Arthur’s chest, growing stronger by the minute. The beast was singing. He had been seen without announcing his presence, heard without having spoken. He was understood, through his act, not his explanations. He was important.

Arthur hid in the corner, his eyes darting about. He shouldn’t find this pleasant. It was wrong. He should be disgusted…but who decided what was right and what was wrong? Why should he be disgusted?

Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose, hard. He shouldn’t think about things like these. It only added confusion. He needed today to be anything but. This would be a straightforward trip. He would go to Wayne Hall, confront his father, and explain everything. Regardless of what Wayne had to say, he would be back in the hospital, with his mother by evening. He would see Jordan. With a bit of luck, his mother would wake, and he and Jordan would go home for a meal.

Everything would be alright.

Arthur fled when the doors opened. The flow of protestors carried him from the station. They bought him to Wayne Hall, where the trickles of people had gathered into a simmering pool. Arthur stood at the back of the rally, pressed shoulder-to-shoulder and chest-to-back with the clowns around him. Their cries pierced his ears. It was soothing in the uncanniest of ways. The subdued hum of normality drove him insane, but here, among the chaos and violence, was peace.

Arthur stood still for a while, soaking in the energy. Then he waded through the people. A scuffle with the police broke out near the barriers. Arthur ducked beneath the blockades and snuck through the service door. No one noticed him.

He found a broom closet. Inside was a set of bellboy uniform. He threw the blazer over his hoodie. The corridor was lit by chandeliers. Light filtered through the crystals, casting small rainbows on the oak-lined walls. No ruckus from the rally penetrated these walls. It was as if he had intruded on another world.

The main hall was dark. Men dressed in tuxedos sat beside women in gowns. They were focused ahead. On the glowing screen, a man skated near an unfenced drop. The audience laughed. The man rode toward his death, veering away from the drop at the last second. The audience laughed some more.

Arthur laughed too. He swayed to the cheery tune, watching the man flirt with his own demise. Out of the corner of his eyes, he spotted Thomas Wayne. The man headed for the exit. This was his chance.

He followed Wayne to the bathroom. Arthur recalled a scant amount from his childhood. When others looked back, events or significant moments came forth. With him, the memories were paired with desires. He couldn’t recall the event, but he could recall what he felt.

A strong constant in his life had been the desire to find his father. Why had he been abandoned? Were his abnormalities so obvious, they could tell he was insane before birth? Did his father miss him?

Wayne zipped up his trousers and headed for the basin. He noticed Arthur staring. “Can I help you pal?”

“Hard to say…” Arthur murmured.

He spared Arthur a fleeting glance. “Do you want an autograph or something?”

“No…”

Wayne was a man in his late forties. He maintained his appearance well, both on the public and personal front. His hair was combed back neatly, the three-piece tuxedo cut to hide his bulging belly. He wore the Wayne signet ring on his left pinkie. The rally had been his first political hiccup. It didn’t affect him. Even as he washed his hands, he gave off the air of someone important.

Arthur walked up to Wayne, maintaining a polite distance. “My name is Arthur. Penny Fleck is my mother.”

Wayne regarded his reflection in the mirror. “Jesus…you’re the guy that came to my house yesterday.”

“Yes. I’m sorry I just showed up, but my mother told me everything, and I had to talk to you—”

A scoff cut off his words. Wayne shook his head. “Look, pal, I’m not your father. What’s wrong with you?”

“Look at us...” Arthur took in Wayne’s face through the mirror. They shared the same hair, same hooked nose, same round eyes. “I think you are.”

“Well, that’s impossible, because you were adopted, and I never slept with your mother.”

Water splashed against the basin. For a moment, Arthur thought he’d misheard. “That’s not—”

“What do you want from me, money?” Wayne ripped a paper towel from the vanity and wiped his hands dry. He turned to face Arthur. He was a head taller and much broader.

Arthur squared his shoulders. “No. I wasn’t adopted.”

Wayne looked him up and down. “Jesus, she never told you?”

“Told me what?

Wayne took a deep breath, the mockery in his eyes unmistakable. “Your mother adopted you while she was working for us.” He nodded subtly, as if to back up his own claim.

“That’s not true. Why are you saying that?”

“Then she was arrested, committed to Arkham State Hospital, when you were just a little boy.”

“Wh—why are you saying this? I don’t need you to tell me lies.” Despite his best efforts to appear civil, Arthur slowly raised his voice. “I know it seems strange. I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I don’t know why everyone is so rude. I don’t know why you are. I don’t want anything from you. Maybe a little bit of warmth. Maybe a hug, dad. How about just a little bit of fucking decency. What is it with you people! You say that stuff about my mother?”

“She’s crazy.”

Arthur had tried his whole life to be rid of his laughter, but at times, he was thankful for it. It was an automatic response, a cushion he could fall back on, no matter how prickly the stuffing. His father had called his mother crazy. He said all those horrible things about her.

“You think this is funny?” Wayne took a step forward.

Arthur didn’t try to hush himself. It was funny. Whatever his father’s reasons for abandoning his wife and unborn child, Arthur had imagined he would return one day, like a knight in shining armour. He’d rescue his family from the gutters. The three of them would build a life together. But the benevolent father of his dreams turned out just like the others. Arthur had never heard a funnier joke in his life.

“Dad! It’s me! Come on!” Arthur laughed. A fist crushed his nose.

“Touch my son again, I’ll fucking kill you.”

With those final words, the door slammed shut. Arthur laughed until his lungs hurt. Through the facing mirrors, his mouth was reflected a thousand-fold. Faces grew on the marble tiles. They sang a silent choir. When his world came to a still, he was laying on the ground with his cheek pressed against the tiles. Static rang in his ears. A warm stream of fluid, coppery in taste flowed from his nose.

Somewhere far away, a voice called to him.

“Jesus. I shouldn’t have done that.”

Arthur flipped himself over. The man above him was blurry. He shook his head, and the blur cleared. Wayne had returned. He looked sick with worry.

“Dad?” Arthur murmured. Wayne tried to help him up. The man’s touch was feather-light. Arthur pushed himself against the wall and stood. The blood from his nose seeped down his throat. He coughed. His nose hurt with every wheeze. Red spit splattered onto the cold tiles.

Wayne laid a hand against his breastbone. His brows gathered as he spoke. “I’m sorry, son. The truth is, your mother and I would’ve never worked. She was our maid. The people would talk. I didn’t want that for you. We agreed to go our separate ways and never speak of it. If I had known what the two of you went through…”

“That’s okay, dad.” Arthur smiled. Wayne was fuzzy around the edges. It could be the blow to his head. He swallowed the last of the blood in his mouth.

“I love you, and I’m so proud of you.” Wayne returned the smile. “What a fine man you’ve grown to be. I’m sure your mother is proud too.”

“She’s in the hospital. She had a stroke.” Arthur’s eyes were hot. He bit his bottom lip and tried not to think how easy it would’ve been for him to help her. “Why didn’t you return her letters?”

At that, Wayne fell silent. He regarded Arthur with soft eyes and opened his arms. Arthur reached for him. His hand froze an inch before his father’s face. Behind Wayne was the row of vanities, a mirror paired with each basin. Arthur stared at his pristine reflection, and his hand that reached for nothing.

“Son?” Wayne asked.

Arthur withdrew his hand. The void inside him whispered for him to return his father’s hug.

“Son?”

Arthur reached for his hair and pulled as hard as he could. He walked to the corner of the room and hunched. When that didn’t make him small enough, he got down on his hands and knees and hid beneath the basin. Something dug against his thigh. He took out the tub of pills and picked at the broken seal, popping the lid open. The little white tablets took some time to count. According to the label, thirty had been subscribed. Four were missing. He’d taken two last night and two in the morning.

The relentless beckoning became easier to bear. Arthur let out a breath he didn’t realise he had been holding. He held the tub close to his chest and chuckled. It was hilarious. His father couldn’t care less if he died in the gutter, but a stranger who happened to live across the hall was the one string binding his life together.

The beckoning increased in frequency. At some point another voice joined his father’s. Then another. Arthur ignored them all. The next thing he knew, he was being hauled up by his shoulders. A man in uniform dragged him toward the exit, while another, dressed in a black tuxedo, looked on disapprovingly.

Before the door closed, Arthur craned his neck back to catch one last glimpse.

His father was nowhere to be found.

 

 

----------

 

 

The laughing fits always took more energy than Arthur knew he had. It was a parasite, leeching nutrient from him to strengthen itself. Arthur ran a hand down his face. God, he was so tired. He could fall asleep on the sidewalk and never wake up.

The walk to Arkham State Hospital was exhausting. Arthur forced himself to take it. The money saved from the bus ride aside, he needed time to gather his thoughts.

Wayne had said his mother was ill. He didn’t know what to believe anymore. He had to get to the bottom of this. He wouldn’t last another day without knowing, the what-ifs would drive him mad. Why would his mother lie to him his whole life, just so he could discover another lie? The only explanation would be she was as sick as Wayne claimed. That couldn’t be it.

The wind helped him relax. He bought a discounted sandwich from the convenience store and ate it with his second dose. By the time he reached the hospital, the cold had numbed his bruised nose. He crossed the road, covered by flattened garbage that had been overrun by cars. The crows had gotten into the piled-up bags. The garbage strike was still on. Everyone wanted the strike to end but no one did a damn thing about it. Gotham practically reeked. There was no escape from the foul stench of decay.

The front door of the hospital was smeared with fingerprints. Arthur pushed it open. The receptionist told him records was on level three.

They didn’t call Arkham the nut house for nothing. It specialised in containing the mentally ill. The elevator was lined in steel panels covered with graffiti. Arthur rode up with a guard and a male nurse escorting a patient. The man was strapped to the gurney. He was shirtless, and his bare feet caked with mud. Had he tried to make a run for it? The man screamed as he thrashed against his restraints. Arthur clenched his fists. The sound was maddening, but the nurse ignored it.

Records was manned by a single overworked clerk. Arthur was left alone for the better half of the hour. There were patients on the corridor. They didn’t seem violent. Some mumbled to themselves while others stared blankly at the wall. Nurses loitered about, keeping a loose eye on them. Arthur watched a woman chew at her nails. She’d gotten close to her nailbed when he walked past. She must be drawing blood by now.

“Hey!” Beyond the counter, the clerk returned from around the bend. He carried a large box of records and hauled them onto the desk. “Oof, that was—sorry about that my man. All records ten years old gets stored in the basement, and you’re talking about something thirty years ago, so…"

Arthur withdrew his gaze from the woman. He looked around, nothing but loonies and orderlies. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Sure,” the clerk said as he sorted through the box.

“How does someone…wind up in here?” Arthur peered through the steel screen separating him and the clerk. “Have they all…All the people committed crimes?”

“Yeah, some have. You know, some are just crazy.” The clerk spun a finger around his head. “Pose danger to themselves and others. Some just don’t know where else to go. Don’t know what to do, you know.”

“Yeah…” Arthur nodded. “I hear you brother.” The clerk hummed. “Sometimes, I don’t know what to do. Last time I ended up taking it out on some people. I thought it would bother me, but—” It really hasn’t. The words got caught in his throat. “It really…” He wanted to say it hasn’t. Those men deserved every last bullet. But the more he thought about it, the more the thought jumped at him.

It…has.

It has bothered him, just not in the way he thought it would. He couldn’t care less about those men if he tried, but there were people waiting for him to return. His mother needed him. Jordan wished him well.

The clerk had stopped sorting through the files. Arthur ran a hand through his hair. “I’m sorry. It’s just so hard trying to be…happy all the time.” The screen was cold against his forehead. He pressed against it harder. The wires dug into his skin. “Sometimes…I don’t know if I’m on the wrong side of the wall. I get these…urges. Like I just want to—ugh!” Arthur’s hands shot up. It could be toward the butler from Wayne manor, or dear ol’ Hoyt. He squeezed as if the air was tangible.

The clerk glanced around, his eyes searching for something in the backdrop. He leaned forward and whispered: “hey listen my man…I’m just an administrative assistant, like a clerk, you know. All I do is file paperwork. I don’t know what to tell you, but you should see somebody. You know they’ve got programs, city services, stuff like that?”

“They cut all those.” Arthur fished the tub from his pocket. The seal was still broken, and he’d written the number twenty-four on the label after his lunch dose.

“Shit. These meds don’t come cheap. Worse than coke.” The clerk returned to the box. In the time it took Arthur to pocket his pills, he pulled out a dusty folder. “All right, here it is. Fleck. Penny Fleck. Let’s see…” The clerk flipped through the records. “Diagnosed by Dr. Benjamin Stoner…Oh, the patient suffers from delusional psychosis and narcissistic personality disorder. Huh. Was found guilty of endangering the welfare of her own…child.” The clerk looked up.

“What?” Arthur spat.

“You said she’s your mother?”

Arthur nodded. The clerk cursed beneath his breath. He turned the records front and back, as if reading it again would change the print.

“What is it?” Arthur craned his neck but couldn’t see the text from his angle.

The clerk snapped the file shut. “Eh, I’m sorry man. Like I said I can’t release these records without um, proper forms, or I ought to get in trouble. Look if you want to bring your mom in here to sign, it would be much easier, but I can’t, I can’t let this go without a signature, okay?”

The clerk writhed under Arthur’s glare. The file was within reach. “I’m sorry.” The clerk added as he headed for the box. It would be so easy to just reach out and—

Arthur shoved his fists under the counter. “Please.” The word came out easier than Arthur thought it would. The clerk turned. Arthur made himself as small as possible. Silence filled the space between them. “Please… I’ve lived with her my whole life. I really need to know.”

The clerk glanced from Arthur to the file. “There’s some messed up stuff in here. Are you sure you want to read it?” Arthur nodded. “Well, shit. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” The clerk handed him the file. Arthur muttered a soft thank you. He opened the crimson folder. Black print popped against the yellowed pages.

-

CITY OF GOTHAM

DEPARTMENT OF HOSPITALS

PSYCHIATRIC DIVISION

-1-

 

PSYCHIATRIC HISTORY AND EVALUATION: PENNY FLECK

Admitted:

Statistical information: This is the third Penny Fleck Admission, and one of many psychiatric admissions for this 25-year-old single white female admitted non-voluntarily from Gotham City. The patient was admitted on 11-2-52. The patient’s chief complaint on admission, “I have done nothing wrong.”

-

Arthur shivered. With shaking fingers, he flipped to the next page.

-

CHILD ADOPTION APPLICATION

CITY OF GOTHAM DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH

GUARDIANSHIP AGREEMENT

28, PARSONS STREET, GOTHAM CITY

 

GOTHAM CITY ORPHANAGE       , of         12B BANK STREET

…....

Birth Patent: Unknown (child was abandoned)

Date of Birth: Unknown

……

Adoptive Parent: Penny Fleck

Attention: to be signed in the process of adopting…

-

Arthur flipped through the records. The last segment was filled with newspaper clippings and faded photographs. They showed a boy, beaten beyond recognition.

-

MOTHER OF ADOPTED CHILD ALLOWED HER SON’S ABUSE

By R. R. Smith

 

…The adopted child was found tied to a radiator, malnourished, with multiple bruises across his body, and severe trauma to his head. Arkham State Hospital had confirmed the boy may suffer lasting side effects. Ms. Fleck’s only comment had been that she never heard her son cry. “He’s always been such a happy little boy.”

-

“Hey man, are you…” The clerk had a hand below the desk.

Arthur paid him no mind. He stared at the photos. The boy’s purple face called to him. His childhood was a blur. You forget things when you grow up, his mother had said. Your mind plays tricks on you.

Arthur began to walk, the folder clutched to his chest.

“You need to bring that back after three working days,” the clerk called after him. “Uh, whatever.”

Arthur closed the door behind him. The stairwell was damp from leaking pipes. He descended, before he knew it, he was laughing again.

Was anything in his life real? Had he been cared for, ever? Has someone loved him, even just for a second?

There was a storm outside. Arthur stepped into the haze of rain. The cold had become a part of him. He unzipped his hoodie and shoved the file beneath his shirt. People hurried past. None spared him more than an uncomfortable glance. He stared at the vehicles, waiting for the light to turn green. If he walked now, his life would end. There would be brief pain, then everything would be alright. He would no longer feel a thing, good or bad. He was fine with that.

Arthur walked home with his arms folded across his chest. Night had fallen when he crossed the trio of brick arches. His apartment was dark, silent with stagnant dust. Of course it would be. His beloved mother was in intensive care. His soaked clothes dripped a puddle onto the floor. Arthur unfolded his arms, retrieving the wrinkled file. He looked behind him. A sliver of light crept through the crack beneath Jordan’s door. He was pulled to it. Arthur tested the handle. It was locked, but with a gentle push, the door crept open.

The hinge. He’d helped them tighten it the night they moved in. It was loose again.

Jordan’s apartment was blinding. They’d switched on the heater too. Arthur walked down the entry, leaving wet footprints with each step. They were in the kitchen, their back toward him. Something boiled on the stove. The fresh scent of herbs permeated the space.

Arthur stood by the opening, watching them work. They hurried from side to side, tossing chopped vegetables into the pot. It reminded him of his mother, not because she cooked, but because she never did. He was raised on takeout and microwave dinners. He used to wonder why his mother was not like the others. Children from school would bring neatly packed lunches, while he sat beside them, emptyhanded.

Now he knew, the answer that no one wanted, or had bothered to tell him. It was funny. Only after he saw his mother’s file did he remember these moments. It was as if his mind had buried the memories inside a shallow trench. He’d wanted to forget. Then he wanted to remember.

Beyond the bend, Jordan fetched a porcelain bowl and turned. They yelped when they saw him. The bowl shattered on the floor. “Arthur! How long have you been standing there?” Arthur kept silent, only taking in the shape of their eyes and moving lips. They backed away from him.

“Arthur…you should knock next time. You gave me a fright.” Jordan switched off the stove and removed the apron. They cast him a sideways glance, then took a careful step forward. “You’re soaked. Why weren’t you at the hospital? Your mother woke. She was asking for you.”

“I had a bad day…” Arthur murmured.

“I’m sorry?”

The cold had frozen his lungs. With the last of his strength, he handed them the file.

“What’s this?” Jordan accepted it. Their fingers brushed against his. “Arthur, you’re freezing!” They looked him up and down, then squeezed his jacket, wincing at the moisture. They glanced past him. Both his and Jordan’s front door were open.

Jordan crossed the hall, retrieving the key Arthur had left dangling in the lock. They glanced around his apartment, taking in the mess. He had never invited Jordan over for that precise reason. “Why don’t I draw a bath for you?” Jordan said as they closed the two doors. “It’s been a rough couple of days.”

They guided him to the bathroom. While the water was running, they returned with a hoodie and a pair of sweatpants. “These are mine. I hope they fit. If they don’t, I’ll dash across the hall. Just yell out if you need a hand.” They sprinkled some bath salts into the water and closed the door behind them.

Droplets of water dripped from the tap. Arthur remained still until his legs ached. He climbed into the bath, still clothed. The rain became one with the scented water. Arthur rested his head against the tub. The mint green tiles emitted a soft glow. He was encased by warmth. His limbs began to soften.

Inch by inch, he slid down the bath. The water submerged his neck, then his chin, then his forehead. Arthur took in the green hues through the haze of water. His lungs thawed. Soon it began to burn. Arthur didn’t budge. It was nice here. All he had to do was endure the slight discomfort, then everything would be alright.

As the seconds ticked by, someone appeared in his mind. It was the old man who used to live here. The lack of air was playing tricks with him. Why would he see that man? The two of them had never spoken.

The man’s skin was ashen. His hollow cheeks caved into his face. He gazed at Arthur with two black voids. Arthur blinked, then the man was on the ground. He didn’t make a sound, his final moment unseen, unheard, and unimportant. The sun and moon exchanged places. Day by day his body decayed. It was the police who discovered him. They hauled his bloated body into a black bag, then tossed out his belongings.

Arthur shot up from the bottom of the tub. He wheezed as air rushed into his lungs. The tiles had lost their glow. Arthur quickly drained the tub, wrung his clothes dry, and towelled himself off. Jordan had a smaller frame, but Arthur was dangerously underweight. Their clothes fitted fine.

Jordan was on the couch when Arthur walked out, the file open on their lap. Arthur sat beside them. Jordan had gotten to the end of the file. He took in the newspaper clippings again, pausing when his eyes met with the battered boy in the photo. Something told Arthur he should be upset. Maybe scream and kick something, or at the very least cry. But the truth was, he felt nothing. His chest was calm, and the beast quiet. The thin ring of dirt had long crumbled. The darkness was comforting. It greeted him like a lost friend.

“It’s nothing.” Arthur looked at them and offered them the towel. “Can you dry my hair?” Without waiting for Jordan to confirm, he laid across the couch and propped his head on their lap.

Arthur buried his face into their thighs. For a while, there was no movement. Then something soft landed on his head. It moved in gentle strokes, wicking moisture from his hair.

“Thank you…” Arthur murmured. Then the movement stopped.

Arthur looked up. Tears had welled in their eyes. “I’m sorry,” they said as they rubbed the droplets away. “It’s just…I’m so sorry. You didn’t deserve that. It’s not fair.”

“Hey, I’m alright.” Arthur wrapped his arms around them. Their head rested against his collarbone. Arthur searched inside him again. Nothing.

Jordan gathered themselves quickly. “Look, Arthur, I…I think I’ll take some time off work. Help you sort things out. I can take care of Penny for now. Don’t worry about that.”

“No. I can go. It’s fine.”

Jordan clutched his hand in theirs. “It’s okay to take some time off. I don’t think you’re rea—”

“I am.” Arthur smiled. It didn’t reach his eyes. “I need to talk to her.”

Jordan regarded him carefully. They searched for something on his face, when they couldn’t find it; they let out a sigh of relief. “That’s good to hear. Still, it’s okay if you change your mind. I’ll go with you to the hospital tomorrow. If you want me to, that is.”

“Of course I want that. You’re so good to me.” Arthur traced their jaw with his thumb. He placed a kiss on their forehead. The corner of their eyes crinkled.

“Care to stay for dinner? It’s almost ready.”

Arthur nodded. He watched Jordan return to the kitchen and put on the apron. They switched on the stove and fetched another bowl from the cabinets. Their image doubled with the imagined home of his childhood.

Arthur took a deep breath. The scent of herbs filled his nose.

Peace would have to wait a moment longer.

He had unfinished business.

Chapter Text

They walked to the hospital on a fine winter morning. The winds were still, preserving the heat of the city. Vapour seeped from the sewers, tinted yellow by the morning light. Gothamites strolled the streets with cups of burnt coffee. Jordan tottered along, keeping a step behind him. They clutched the strap of their satchel with white knuckles. Inside sat a folder Arthur had told them not to bring.

The pleasant weather inspired a rare mood in the hospital. The reception was full, but quieter than usual. Those who sat by the windows were content to gaze at nothing. A sunny Gotham was a miracle in and of itself.

Golden rays filtered through the blinds, warming the sterile halls. Arthur’s shoes clicked against the tiles. The walk to his mother’s room was short. She rested on the gurney, with the privacy curtain half drawn. A plastic tube extended from her nose, and another from her arm. She was asleep when they entered but hummed at the sound of their footsteps. Through half-closed lids, her eyes met his.

Arthur didn’t greet her. Her eyes trailed to Jordan. She looked happy to see them. “Ms. Fleck.” Jordan returned a tight smile. They placed their satchel on the desk and said to Arthur: “I’ll give you two some space.”

Arthur walked them out. The door closed with a gentle click. Their fading footsteps clicked once, twice, then halted. They couldn’t have made the corner. They were waiting for him outside the door.

Oh Jordan. His kind, tender Jordan. If only he had met them in his youth. He would’ve done anything, anything at all for them. He’d take that trip to Metropolis, move out of his apartment, leave his entire past behind. Together, they could’ve seen the world. Now they were out of time.

Arthur walked to the far wall, opening the blinds. The sun was warm on his cheeks. He sat on the bench and lit a cig, the last in the packet. After some thought, he tossed the crumpled packet aside. Beyond the curling tendrils of smoke, lay a woman he had known to be his mother.

“Hi Penny. Penny Fleck.” Arthur scoffed. He took a long drag of his cig. It burned on its way down. “I always hated that name.”

The machines beeped a steady rhythm. His mother didn’t respond. Her mouth was open, but she gazed at him with glassy eyes. The stroke did a number on her.

“You used to tell me, that my laugh…is a condition. That there is something wrong with me.” Arthur took in the burning ash of his cig. The red tip crept closer to his knuckles, like a shortening fuse. The ash fell on the armrest with a tap of his fingers. “There isn’t. That’s the real me.”

Weird. Ugly. Unlovable. A total fucking freak. He was all those nasty names people called him. He didn’t laugh because he was sick. He laughed because it was funny.

“Happy…” his mother murmured. It was his childhood nickname. Did she know what she was saying? That was his name when he came home crying. It was his name when he felt so bad, he wanted to curl up and shrivel into nothing. It was his name when her boyfriend tied him to a radiator and beat him.

“Happy,” Arthur spat. “I haven’t been happy, for one minute of my entire fucking life.” He stood and ground the butt of the cig into the tiles. The beds beside her were empty. They were alone in the room.

How do you feel?

His psychiatrist used to ask him that.

What did he feel?

There was a woman on the gurney. Her gaunt face was ghostly, her skin translucent under the sunlight. She wore the face of his mother, but who was she really? She was supposed to care for him. Instead, she was responsible for his worst moments. He turned to her time and again for solace, only to receive pain. Did she see him as her son? Why adopt him if she didn’t love him? Why did she have to ruin him?

Arthur closed his eyes, like his psychiatrist had asked him to. He felt the sun on his hair, the butt of the cig beneath his feet, and nothing inside his soul. “You know what’s funny? You know what really makes me laugh?” He walked to her and ripped the pillow from beneath her head. “I used to think that my life was a tragedy. But now I realise, it’s a fucking comedy.”

Arthur covered her face with the pillow. The stuffing muffled her cries. She thrashed about. Her arms whacked the rail of the gurney. “Arthur?” A knock came from the door. Arthur pressed the pillow harder. Her struggles increased, like the last flight of a diseased bird. The tubes flailed in the air, getting caught on the rail. It ripped the needle from her skin. The knock grew louder. Then the door flung open.

“Arthur!” A pair of arms wrapped around his waist. It tried to pull him away. Arthur fought it. Jordan was deceptively strong, but Arthur was stronger. “No! Don’t do this. Don’t do something you’ll regret!”

Regret? He has never been surer of anything.

“Please, don’t do this!” Jordan tugged harder. Their head was an inch from his elbow. It would be easy to drive his elbow back. Heat flushed through his body in waves. He dug his heel into the floor and held his position.

“I know things have been hard—” Jordan gave their hardest tug yet. A gap formed between his mother’s face and the pillow. She drew in a sharp breath. Arthur ground his teeth and closed the gap. “But you need to think it through! This isn’t like you. She’s your mother! Whatever her faults, she loves you!”

Arthur laughed. She loved him? She was infatuated with her imagined husband, Wayne, but she had never loved anyone, least of all him. Who would watch someone they loved get beaten within an inch of their life?

His mother gagged beneath the pillow. She had been suffocating him for decades. What a slow, painful way to go. It was only right he returned the favour.

“Arthur, listen to me! You’re going to regret this, I swear!” Their relentless tugging opened another gap. Arthur gritted his teeth. It would be over in a moment. Why wouldn’t they understand? She deserved everything that was coming to her. For all the pain she had caused him, he was letting her off easy.

His mother gasped again. Arthur swung his arm back. His elbow connected with Jordan’s head. They fell against the curtains. The fabric tore from the hooks, and they crashed to the floor. Arthur’s arms quivered in sync with his speeding pulse. He pressed with so much force, it felt as if he would flatten his mother’s head.

Something soft broke loose. It began as a sniffle, which grew into quiet sobs. Arthur craned his neck to the side. He couldn’t see them. Were they crying? The damned pillow was ripping at the seams. His mother struggled weakly. A moment more was all he needed. Arthur’s gaze darted about. The voice that had guided him through the shootings whispered anew.

If he didn’t turn back now, his mother wouldn’t be the only person he would part with forever.

He was close, so close. With a grunt, Arthur tossed the pillow aside. He turned to Jordan. The sight froze him in place. They were curled on top of the curtain, a hand pressed over their hip. Blood seeped from their nose. Their eyes were squeezed shut, as if they couldn’t bear to witness the brutality that would follow. Blood and tears combined as the fluids dripped from their chin, staining their collar pink.

What…has he done?

The adrenalin fled like air from a punctured balloon. Arthur sank to his knees. With a weighted chest, he reached for them. They flinched from his touch. “Hey…it’s alright. I won’t hurt you.”

His mother let out a broken string of coughs. Jordan opened their eyes. Their gaze shifted from her to Arthur. He reached for them again. This time they didn’t shrink away. Arthur pulled them into his arms. Jordan sobbed against his chest. He held them in silence, rocking them slowly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you. Not you.”

He kissed their temple. He had known what he came in to do. He wanted that still, but Jordan was the one person he wasn’t willing to hurt. He gave people what they deserved.

Jordan recovered quickly. They wiped the blood away with their sleeve, wincing when they tried to right themselves. “Are you okay?” Arthur looked to the hand they had over their hip.

Jordan nodded. “I fell on it, but it should be fine.” They clutched his shirt with a tight grip, holding him still. Whether it was out of fear or relief, Arthur wasn’t sure. “Listen, Arthur. I know things have been hard, but trust me, this isn’t the answer. We all have our ups and downs. She has been a terrible mother, nothing will change that, but there must be good things too.”

They huffed against his chest, catching their breath. When they spoke again, it was slow, tentative, as if one false move and he would finish what he started. “Please…try your best to remember, because if you can think of something, even the smallest act of kindness, then perhaps…perhaps she doesn’t deserve to die.”

Arthur took in their blood-stained features. He owed it to them to try. Something good…it was easier said than done. The blows to his head messed with his memory. He’d assumed he wouldn’t find anything, but in truth, he didn’t have to dig far, a string of broken images came forth then and there.

He had been a high-school dropout. Before that, he spent most of primary school moving from place to place. His laughter developed early. He made people uncomfortable, and the kids at school made sure he knew about it. The period before he moved was always the worst. He’d walk home every day with fresh bruises.

The day had been like every other. He came home from school, his back sore from the day’s beatings. His mother sat at the table, her boyfriend nowhere to be seen. It was a rare sight. His mother always tended to her boyfriend. Sometimes she was forced to take on the odd job. So rarely did she sit still. Arthur used to feel guilty for wanting her to stay alone. When she was alone, no one was around to beat him.

There was a purple ring around her left eye, and her bottom lip split. She had offered to bath him. It was unusual for boys of his age to still be bathed by their mother, but Arthur agreed. He liked spending time with her. He had no one to talk to at school. If he kept quiet at home too, one day he’d turn mute.

He sat in the tub as it filled. She lathered his hair. The shampoo smelled like plastic flowers. It was too strong for his nose. Arthur didn’t mind. That was the smell of home.

A bucket of water splashed over his head. Arthur yelped. His arms shot up to wipe the water from his face. His mother smiled. She always did, but she wasn’t happy. Arthur could tell. He smiled when he didn’t mean it too. Sometimes it was just an act.

His bruises stung from the water. Did the purple ring around her eye hurt too? The man responsible was out. Arthur prayed he would never return. Why did she stay with him when all he did was beat them? When he grew into a man, he would never beat anybody, least of all his mother.

Arthur reached out and held his mother’s hand. “I’ll help you take a bath one day.” The words were pale. They had been the promise of a boy who craved better but was too weak to seek change.

“Oh?” His mother’s brows shot up. She set the bucket aside. “Happy wants to help me? How come?”

“You always take care of me, so I’ll take care of you when I grow up.”

Tears welled in his mother’s eyes. Her smile grew bigger. Another splash of water covered his head. Arthur squeezed his eyes shut as she rinsed the foam away. When he looked up again, the tears were gone.

He kept his promise. For the decades that followed, he bathed her, fed her, cleaned and cared for her. What happened between them? He used to feel so safe around her. Perhaps he hadn’t known then that a mother was supposed to intervene when her child was beaten.

Arthur looked to the woman on the bed. Her hair had lost its shine. There were discoloured patches on her arms. Her face sagged with age. She resembled nothing of the gentle, stoic woman from his memories.

She only stared at him, with fear that could never be erased.

Chapter Text

As soon as his mother could speak, she told him to leave.

There had been a lot of things Arthur wanted to say. He cycled through them. A thing or two wasn’t enough, but all at once seemed too much. He settled for a final smile, one that froze his eyes.

He returned to her apartment to gather his things. They were grouped neatly, a bag of pills, some stationary, a pile of clothes, the gun from the train. He laid them on the coffee table. The apartment was littered with ramshackle objects, but few belonged to him. He had returned to this apartment every day for years, referred to it as home. Perhaps somewhere deep down, he had always known this was no place to call his own.

Arthur sank into the couch. His makeshift bed reeked of stale smoke. A faint ray of light crept through the crack between the curtains. If he stared hard enough, he could see white specks dancing atop the threadbare cushions. This bed, this apartment, this family, it wasn’t much, but it was all he had.

Now he must leave it behind.

Arthur breathed a little better knowing Jordan wouldn’t let him freeze on the sidewalk. He packed his things into his bag, the plastic one from the train. When he was done, an acrylic tub stared at him from the open zip. Remember to take your pills, Jordan’s voice spoke softly. He did as he was told.

Arthur was scribbling down his dose on the label when the phone rang. He couldn’t have found the energy to answer it if he burnt his husk of a body for fuel. The line rang out, leading the caller to voicemail. A cheery voice chirped after the tone.

“Oh, this message is for Arthur Fleck. My name is Shirley Woods. I work on the Murray Franklin Show.” Arthur snapped his head up. He must be dreaming. Weren’t his pills supposed to curb hallucinations? “I don’t know if you are aware, but Murray’s played a clip of your stand-up on the show recently, and we’ve gotten an amazing response from our viewers. Murray asked me to give you a call to see if you’re—”

Arthur dashed to the phone, ripping the handset from the socket. “Who is this?”

“Oh, hi. This is Shirley Woods. I’m the show-booker from Live with Murray Franklin. Is this Arthur?” The cheery voice chirped with renewed vigour.

“Yes.”

“Hi, Arthur. Well as I was saying, we’ve gotten a lot of calls about your clip, amazing responses, and Murray asked if I would reach out to you to see if you would come on as a guest.”

It took Arthur a while to register the meaning. He shifted from the ball of one foot to another. “Murray wants me on the Murray Franklin Show?”

“Yeah, isn’t that great? He’d love to talk to you, maybe do some of your act? Does that sound good to you?”

“Yeah, that sounds great.”

Pages shuffled on the other end of the line. Arthur breathed deeply. It could be the pills, or the short wait. The rhythm in his chest slowed. Ever since he got back on his meds, his emotional spikes dissipated much quicker, be it joy or sorrow. The excitement brewed inside him until it simmered into a familiar concoction of nothing.

“Can we set up a date right now? Are you available next Thursday?”

Arthur blinked at the wall. He should be happy about this. He recalled Murray’s face after his clip was played. Things that didn’t make sense before beckoned to him from behind a veil of fog.

“Hello? Arthur, are you there?”

“Yes.” Arthur swallowed dryly. He went over the clip in his head. Sometimes things weren’t what they seemed. Other times they were exactly as they seemed. He wished he could go over this with Jordan.

“Excellent. Will next Thursday work for you?”

The words were glued to the roof of his mouth, right there but refusing to be said. He wet his lips with a dart of his tongue. “If Murry wants me on the show, tell him to ask himself.”

There was a pause from the other end of the line. “You wish you speak with Murray in person?”

“Yeah.”

She drew in a shallow breath. “I’m afraid he’s a very busy man. Is there something I can do for you?”

“No. I need to talk to him. Put him on or I’m hanging up.”

“Just a moment, please.”

Arthur sandwiched the handset between his ear and left shoulder. He wanted another cig, but he’d crumpled the packet at the hospital. While he waited, his eyes drifted down the corridor. The bathroom door was open. The tub inside was identical to the one in his memories. If he stared hard enough, he could see a woman in the water. Her hair was a wet fan draped across her back. She looked over her spindly spine, meeting his eyes.

What makes you think you can do that? Don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian?

“Hello?” The gruff voice jolted Arthur from his thought. “You want to speak to me, kid?”

“Mur—Murray?” Arthur fumbled to catch the handset. Murray Franklin’s voice echoed against his ear. Arthur has had thousands of conversations with him. None seemed so real.

“That’s me,” the man said with strained enthusiasm. “I heard you don’t want to be on the show?”

“No—no. That’s not it at all.” Arthur switched the handset to his other ear. The plastic was getting sticky from his sweat. “Sorry. It’s just I feel like I know you. I’ve been watching you forever.”

“Thanks. Uh—listen, kid. I’ve got a meeting in ten. Was there something you wanted to ask?”

Arthur bounced his foot against the floor. His throat was parched. He loved Murray’s show. For the longest time, it had been the only thing he could look forward to. His mother joined him when she was awake, but most days it was just him. He never missed an episode.

There was something captivating about Murray. He was so full of confidence, so charming. He spoke to his guests as if he had known them forever, and to his audience as if they were his dear friend. Arthur has never known someone like that. If he had a father, he wanted him to be just like Murray.

“…why do you want me on the show?” Arthur asked.

“Huh? What do you mean?”

“I’ve seen my clip,” Arthur said through trembling lips. He dug around his pockets. That was right. No more cigs. He ran a rough hand through his hair and steadied his voice. “Why do you want me on?”

The man on the other end laughed. “Son, you’re funny. The audience got a good laugh. Don’t know what else you want me to say. You should come on the show. You’ll get your name out.”

There was a time Arthur would let the laughter take him away. During those lonesome nights, he would sit on the couch or his mother’s bed and laugh at every word Murray said. It was as if his mouth was in sync with the applause signage in the recording studio. Every time the sign lit up, he laughed. He’d envision himself in the audience. Murray would single him out against the rows of guests. He’d answer Murray’s questions with aplomb and be invited on stage to share a hug with his hero.

He had to speak with Murray, had to make sure. But just as the night he executed the third man like a bleeding dog, he knew the answer before he asked.

“You’re terrible, Murray.”

“Oh yeah? I’m terrible? How am I terrible? I’m giving you a chance here. Not everyone can appear on live television.” The man huffed, but beneath his bravado was the indisputable fact that people spoke quicker when they were nervous.

Arthur pursed his lips. “Playing my video. Inviting me on the show. You just wanted to make fun of me.”

The other end of the line went quiet. Murray drew in a breath to say something. Arthur hung up. Without the voice pressed to his ear, the silence of the apartment was unnerving.

Arthur imagined the man’s dumbstruck features. He wanted to shed a tear at his lost years, but he snickered instead. The snicker grew into a laugh. This would be his last time in his mother’s apartment. He would engrave the sound she gave him into these walls, so when she was alone at night, it echoed in her dreams.

He slung the bag over his shoulders. With a final look, he slammed the door shut. One step and he was across the hall. Jordan’s front door was ajar. Arthur slipped in quietly. They were seated on the bone coloured couch. After spending weeks submerged in the grime of Gotham, the pale coverings looked a little worse for wear. Jordan too had a handset pressed over their ear. They went over a brochure on their lap.

“Yeah, that’d be great. Your services were excellent last time.” The other end of the line spoke in fuzzy intervals. Jordan hummed along. “Oh, I haven’t decided where yet. I’ll let you know as soon as I make up my mind. It’ll be long distance, most likely within the coming month.”

The fuzz grew louder. Jordan giggled. “You have no idea how hard it is to find reliable moving services. Thank you for delivering my things in one-piece, but I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to do it again.”

The smile stretched their lips into thin lines. They hadn’t noticed Arthur. He focused on the conversation, deciphering each word exchanged. There was no mistaking it; they weren’t being subtle. It was time they left too, leaving him alone in the darkness.

Arthur wasn’t sure how he should respond. His mother, Murray, now Jordan. He trusted them. Why wouldn’t they tell him what they really thought? Why must he discover the truth in the most humiliating way? If they planned on leaving, why did they tell him they’d be there for him?

Was it fun to toy with him? Was it funny?

His blunt nails dug into his palm. He should walk in, catch them in the act. He wanted to see the shock on their face, to rip the handset from the wall and drag them to the nearest window. He’d dangle them over the ledge, like the way he had been dangling, both feet kicking at nothing, hands pulling at a closing vice on his throat. Then he’d let go. Just like they were about to do to him.

He would jump right after. He’d hit the pavement, hard, but for a fleeting moment he would taste freedom on his tongue. He would feel no pain, no torment, only a bout of elation and the certainty that he existed. Then he would cease to exist.

Arthur took a single step forward, then his feet would walk no more. Jordan sat with the window to their back. The sun shone a warm halo over their hair. They twirled the cord of the handset with slender fingers and laughed with the corner of their eyes wrinkled. He recalled the first time he met them. Their smile shadowed the brilliant light globe. They brought into his life the joy and laughter it had missed. They were his guardian angel, the thread binding his world together. They took such good care of him.

Arthur unclenched his fists. He took in his crinkled palms, red from blood rush. So easily did his hands wrap around things they offered him. Clothes he couldn’t fetch, meals and beverages he couldn’t prepare, pills he couldn’t afford. It occurred to him that he never took them out to dinner.

He had no right to be angry.

More laughter assaulted his ears, then a brief pause. “Thank you. Listen, I’ve got to go over this with someone. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.” Jordan untangled the cord from their fingers. They walked to the phone socket. “Yes, speak to you then. Bye.”

Click. They smoothed their shirt and headed for the kitchen, spotting Arthur along the way. “Hey Arthur. How’s packing going?”

“Good.” The opening cupboard muted his reply. He should be glad that at the very least, they planned to tell him about it.

Jordan retrieved two mugs and dropped a teabag into each. They tested the kettle with their knuckle, flinching at the heat. The mugs were filled and brought to the coffee table. “There’s something I must show you.” They sat and beckoned Arthur to join them. The brochure was pushed into his hands. Palm trees swayed to a backdrop of pale sky and jade lawn. Blocky letters popped from marshmallow clouds.

Sunny California.

“Amazing, isn’t it? We could set up a pair of lawn chairs, right here.” Jordan pointed to a patch of grass. They fiddled with the hem of their sleeve.

“Arthur. I’ve been thinking about this, ever since the first week I stepped foot in Gotham. The truth is…I don’t like it here. The weather’s terrible. Everyone’s up to their own thing. I can’t walk home at night without thinking someone’s going to shiv me. It’s not like that in other cities. You aren’t happy either, and with what happened with your mother…I think it’s time for a change.”

A purple shadow hung from their eyes. It popped against their skin, like stains on silk. Despite the circumstance, they spoke with such burning intensity. They took the brochure from Arthur and listed the pros and cons. With each passing word, their voice gained confidence. Hope lit their eyes ablaze.

Now that, Arthur noted absently, was a person whom life had not yet defeated. They had lived through ups and downs, with their negligence punished and their efforts rewarded. They spoke with vitality and ceaseless faith, as if they were the king of their own hill, and if they so desired, that hill could stretch on endlessly.

With a bit of planning, or simply him out of their life, they would bounce right back. That was all Gotham would ever be to them, a dump wet and unpleasant, but temporary. Arthur had lived here his whole life. He had become one with the city. He was the feet that ground flyers into the pavement, the one-too-many that made train rides unbearable. He was the grime and unpleasantness, and every time he stopped to contemplate a world outside, the city would slap him from his foolishness.

“You want me to come with you?” Arthur placed a hand on theirs.

Only then did Jordan stop babbling. “Of course.”

“…why?” he whispered as he surveyed their face. He didn’t want to miss the smallest detail.

Their free hand doubled on top of his. Jordan traced the veins that popped from his skin. Their touch was soft. Each stroke sent a jolt of electricity down his spine.

“Because I love you. And I want you to be happy,” they said after a long pause.

Each word was a bullet to his heart. In that moment, it didn’t matter if what they said was a lie. It was as if his life had been leading up to this single moment. Arthur buried his face in the crook of Jordan’s neck. If he held them a little tighter, he could fuse their bodies together and they would never be apart. Something sharp but tender tore through the blanket of nothing. He couldn’t help the moisture that welled in his eyes.

“Yes. I’ll go anywhere. Take me with you.” Arthur clenched onto them. He laughed when he wasn’t happy. It was right that he cried when he wasn’t sad.

Jordan tucked a strand of hair behind his ear. There was a slight crack to their voice. They painted a picture of California with their words. In his mind, the breeze was warm on his face. Seagulls cawed above the distant shores. They lived in a brick house behind white picket fences. He listened to Jordan describe the land of his dreams and realised he didn’t want to be in Gotham a second longer. If he were to die, he wanted to die on the path to salvation.

It was dusk when Jordan proposed they prepare a bite to eat. Arthur laid the brochure on the coffee table, then pulled them to their feet.

“Can I take you out to dinner?” he asked tentatively. The bulk of his savings had gone to caring for his mother. With her out of his life, he could scrape together enough for a meal.

“Arthur, you don’t have to.” Jordan headed for the kitchen. Gently, Arthur caught their wrist.

“Please,” he whispered in the thickening darkness. “It was a promise.”

Jordan met his eyes. Arthur doesn’t beg, but it was close. They nodded after he fetched their coat. With joined hands, the two of them marched down the dim hallway, across the rubbish laden courtyard, and through the trio of brick arches. At the top of the great flight of steps, Arthur stopped to take in Gotham city. The sun was bleeding red. Slowly, it drowned below the horizon, the tip of its sphere swallowed by the sawtooth of overlapped buildings.

Under the dying light, protesters crowded the streets. Dissent rippled through them in waves. Arthur tightened his hold on Jordan. He guided them through the crowd, shielding them from the rough limbs. A man knocked him aside. He wore a white clown mask, with blue eyes, green hair, and a red smile.

Arthur could do nothing but stare. He felt like he knew them. It was as if he was standing face to face with Carnival, or someone much more sinister.

“Arthur?” Jordan tugged at their joined hands.

Arthur mumbled an apology. He began to walk away. As he neared the crossroads, he couldn’t resist the urge for a final look. Protestors passed them by, hurrying toward one riot or another. The clown looked on with hunched shoulders. He remained perfectly still, his smile halfway between joy and madness.

 

 

 

Soundful Souls

-  Fin -