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All Afire with Me

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

I can be given or received, but never owned. I can bring joy or sorrow, but never indifference. I am pain and suffering for an individual, but pleasure for a pair. What am I?

Correct: Love.

Now, riddle me this:

Is there anything more satisfying than overcoming all the things that threatened to destroy you?

Finally, riddle me this:

What could stop us now?

¿?

“Ed, where are my cufflinks?” Oswald shouted in the general direction of the bathroom.

Over the sound of the shower, a muffled voice shouted back: “wardrobe, three drawers from the top, right hand side.”

Oswald sighed long and loud. “Thank you.” He shouted back, struggling to his feet from where he was crouched on the ground, looking under his bed. He limped to the wardrobe, trying to work the stiffness out of his leg, and pulled open the drawer.

There, in neat rows, organized by colour, were his cufflinks.

He sighed again.

He’d never considered himself a particularly free spirit until Ed had come to stay. Ed was a creature of precise and unrelenting habits and compulsions. Compulsions that did not always mesh well with Oswald’s decidedly more… improvisational living style.

Suddenly, everything from undergarments to gloves were kept folded and ironed, days were organized in a calendar the size of an encyclopedia set all written in code, and clutter evaporated as though the house were haunted by a particularly fussy ghost. Oswald could barely throw the newspaper down on a chair before it had been scooped up, refolded, and placed in a basket in the centre of the coffee table.

And then there was the morning—if you could call 3:24am morning—he’d woken to an empty bed and the sounds of what had turned out to be Ed organizing Oswald’s walk-in closet in a “rhizomatic system.”

“Laterally, Oswald,” he’d said, splaying out his fingers in a fan like that was supposed to explain why he was sitting on the floor organizing tie-pins by flashlight. “Laterally.”

Oswald had run his fingers through Ed’s hair and said, “come back to bed” as gently as he could manage at 3:30 in the god-forsaken morning, but Ed had shaken off his hand with a full-body shudder and said, “it’s not done.” They had looked at each other in silence, for a moment, as Oswald’s foggy mind had tried to conjure some kind of response. Then, Ed had whispered “I’ll come back when I’m done, Oswald.” And Oswald had kissed him on the forehead and shuffled back to bed to curl up under the covers and wait until, just as the dawn broke over the distant Gotham skyline, Ed had slipped back under the covers beside him, sufficiently exhausted to catch a few hours of dreamless sleep. 

Arkham was always waiting for them, just beyond the dark corners of the night. Sometimes, it was easier not to close their eyes and let the memories overtake them.

So, Oswald had learned to let Ed cope the best way he knew how and tried his utmost not to get frustrated with the fact that he could find absolutely nothing in the mansion anymore. From tea sets to detonators, ammunition to light bulbs, nothing was safe from Ed’s late-night adventures in “non-hierarchical data paradigms.”

And now, apparently, Ed had gotten to the cufflinks; it had only been a matter of time.

Oswald picked out the set shaped like tiny umbrellas—a gift from Ed to honour the occasion of breaking ground on their new nightclub—and attempted to fasten them. His hands shook, a frustrating intermittent tremor had developed after Dr. Strange’s treatment at Arkham Asylum, one he couldn’t seem to be rid of. He fumbled and dropped the cufflinks.

Long, pale fingers reached out and caught them before they hit the ground. Oswald felt another hand at his waist, and hot breath on his neck.

“Good morning, Ed,” Oswald said.

“I am the last place you look, x marks the spot, if I am here, lost you are not. What am I?”

“Found.”

“Very good.” Ed leaned down and kissed his neck. Oswald couldn’t stop the smile that crept across his face. “You’re getting better.”

“It was an easy one,” Oswald said, leaning in. “And I hear a dozen riddles before breakfast every morning; if I wasn’t getting better, there would be something very wrong with me.”

“It was an easy one,” Ed admitted, pressing another kiss to his collarbone.

Oswald allowed himself to slump back against Ed, who was still loose and warm from the shower. Ed wrapped an arm around his waist and pulled him closer. Ed was not precisely comfortable to lean against; his boney limbs and sharp angles were always jabbing into something, but the sheer rightness of it was undeniable. Some of the tension went out of Oswald’s leg.

“Did you sleep?” Oswald spoke softly. He could hear rain outside the window.

Ed made a non-committal noise that certainly meant “not at all” and rested his forehead on Oswald’s shoulder. Oswald reached up and ran his fingers through Ed’s hair. That explained the cufflinks.

“You can come in later; I can send Gabe back with the car for you.”

Ed shook his head. “I’m fine.”

“You need to sleep.”

“Not as much as you might think,” he said. “I’m well-acquainted with all-nighters—I have a graduate degree.”

“You do?”

“Mhm,” Ed hummed into his shoulder and went back to lazily kissing his neck. “From Gotham University.”

“In what?”

“Criminology.”

Oswald’s laugh startled them both. “I don’t think that’s meant to be a how-to degree, Eddie.”

“Says you.”

“Always full of surprises.” Oswald could feel Ed’s smile, warm against his skin. At moments like these, when Ed mentioned little slivers of his past, that Oswald remembered how new their relationship still was. They had skipped the awkward, first-date phase and gone right into the sort of domestic partnership they had both always craved, but it had left so much unknown.

“Light as air, brilliant as the stars; I power the world but can’t light a room. What am I?”

Oswald didn’t know. In fact, he rarely knew the answers to Ed’s riddles.

“Thought, Oswald,” Ed said, gently, after a moment of silence. “Thought. What are you thinking about?”

“We should go on a date,” Oswald said, before he could think about it too hard.

Ed laughed and Oswald could feel it in his whole body.

“Don’t you think we’re a little beyond that?” He gestured in front of Oswald at their shared room, evidence of two lives that had become so quickly and completely entwined. Two ties—one green, one purple—lay over the back of a chair in the corner. On the bookshelf, a stack of chemistry textbooks and a book of riddles neatly stacked beside Elijah van Dahl’s collection of murder mysteries. In the closet, an explosion of violet and emerald. Glasses on one bedside table, painkillers on the other. A cane with a heavy silver handle propped up against a wing-backed chair.

“What, I can’t take my…” Oswald stumbled on the word. Boyfriend? Lover? “Chief-of-staff, for dinner?” He wanted to hit himself in the face.

“That feels like inappropriate workplace conduct, Mr. Mayor,” Ed said, sarcasm dripping from every word. “But I suppose I can let it slide just this once.”

“8 o’clock?” Oswald asked. Ed nodded. He kissed Oswald on the temple and withdrew his arm.

“Where are we going?”

“I’ll send the limo,” Oswald waved his hand airily, as though he had this planned already. “Will you be at the construction site today?”

Ed nodded and wandered into the closet to peruse his clothing options, depositing the cufflinks on top of the wardrobe as he went. “I need to speak with the contractors. We have a meeting after lunch.”

“Maybe I should join you?” Oswald could almost see Ed’s answering frown.

“That’s not on the schedule.”

“Of course,” Oswald said. “My mistake. What am I doing today?”

“Nothing until noon,” Ed said, holding up two ties to compare. In the half-light of the closet, Ed’s sharp features looked almost inhuman. “Then… Two meetings, back to back, about the new ramp legislation.”

“Right. And what time is it now?”

“7:08am,” Ed answered without consulting any timepiece. He didn’t need to.

“So, what you’re saying is,” Oswald said, pitching his tone in just the right way to make Ed turn around and tilt his head at him. His robe—Oswald’s robe, actually, judging by how short it was in the arms and at the hem—was open at the neck, revealing a strong collarbone with a dark purple bruise just visible past the material. A memento from the previous evening. Oswald swallowed and martialed his thoughts to finish the sentence: “we have nowhere to be for the next few hours?”

Ed grinned—an expression sure to send shudders down the spines of any law-enforcement officials who saw it, and that sent an entirely different sort of shudder through Oswald. “That’s correct.”

“So, you could come over here and help me fasten these cufflinks…” Oswald trailed off, not making any motion to retrieve them from the top of the wardrobe.

“I sense an option two forthcoming?”

“Under covers but exposed, in bed but not asleep, what am I?” Oswald asked, tentatively. He had been saving that one for quite some time, waiting for the right moment to test it. The answering smile nearly split Ed’s face in half.

“Oswald, was that a riddle?”

Oswald shrugged.

It took three quick steps for Ed to cross the room and sweep Oswald up into his arms, and a further two to fall onto the tangle of covers on their unmade bed.

The Mayor of Gotham City and his chief-of-staff were not late for their engagements that afternoon, but it was a near miss.

¿?

Oswald’s good mood lasted all the way to City Hall, up the steps—he was having ramps installed next week; the accessibility in this city was atrocious—across the foyer, and into his office. It even kept him civil when he opened his office to find waiting for him—

“James Gordon—to what do I owe this rare pleasure?” he said, barely resenting it at all. “I must say, I’m not quite in a position to do any… how would you put it… dirty work for you at the present time. As you can see, I’ve turned over a new leaf.” He was impressed with himself that he managed to say it with a straight face. He made his way around the desk and threw himself into his chair without making eye-contact.

 “What do you know about the Court of Owls?” Jim growled, foregoing any small-talk or attempt at politeness. But Oswald was in a good mood—a good enough mood to tease rather than immediately have Jim removed from the premises and fire his secretary for allowing this kind of rabble to just wander around.

“I’m well, of course,” he said, ignoring Jim’s glower. “And Edward is well. I’ll tell him you say hello, shall I?”

Jim smiled sarcastically: “great.” He said. “Now…”

“Yes, yes, Court of Owls. Never heard of them. Does the GCPD manage to do any police work now that Edward no longer works there and I’ve turned away from a life of crime?” Oswald was thoroughly enjoying himself and looking forward to recounting this interaction to Ed.

“Penguin, if you’ve turned from a life of crime, it really would be new day in Gotham.”

Oswald shrugged. “So suspicious, Jim. When have I ever lied to you?”

“Should I make a list?”

Oswald made a tsking sound in his throat that sounded so like Fish Mooney he even startled himself. “So little faith, Jim. Always so little faith in me.”

“Penguin—”

“No, Jim, I have not heard of the Court of Owls,” Oswald sighed. He was getting bored. When had meeting with Jim become so boring? He used to look forward to their banter and relish the time they spent together, however brief.

A moment’s consideration was enough to remind Oswald that he knew what had happened, truthfully. Rather than wasting his days with foolish pining after Jim—more ideal than man, if Oswald were being honest with himself—he had found someone who truly understood him. And, now that he had, Jim’s sanctimonious self-righteousness seemed exactly as tedious as it had always been. Back then, Oswald had just been too starry-eyed to notice. He suppressed a cringe at the memory of his own voice simpering Jim! My old friend!

“Nothing? Not when you were with Fish or Falcone?” Jim pressed.

“Well, if you would tell me who or what they are then I might be able to help you, if I were so inclined.” He rolled his eyes, remembering the last time Jim had graced City Hall with his presence. Ed had been there, that day, leaning stiffly against the front of Oswald’s desk, looming over Jim. Oswald had relished the uncomfortable looks Jim had kept shooting Ed, and Ed’s presence had made Oswald himself feel taller, steadier.

“They’re a shadowy agency that controls Gotham,” Jim said. “City Hall, the mob, Arkham, everything.”

Oswald laughed. “Jim, I think you’ve been listening to one too many bedtime stories.”

“Oh, they’re real,” Jim said, his brow furrowed as though he were trying to see through Oswald to catch him in a lie. “And if you haven’t heard from them yet, you will. Well, either that or you’re not as powerful as you think you are.”

Jim was baiting him, Oswald could tell, but his blood boiled at the implication. He had risked everything to get here—he had been beaten, thrown in a river, shot, tortured, and had nearly died a thousand times all to get to the seat he was in now, and Jim was suggesting he didn’t have all the power?

“And you don’t have as much leeway with me as you think you do, Detective Gordon. Now, I’m very busy, kindly remove yourself from my office.” Oswald knew his voice was shaking and his face was flushed. He knew he had let Jim Gordon get under his skin. He didn’t care. He just wanted to finish his work and go home to Ed.

Jim stood up to leave. “Think about it, Oswald.”

“Goodbye, Jim!” he all but shouted.

The door swung shut behind Jim, leaving Oswald alone in his office with a stack of papers and the beginning of a tension headache in his temples.

Who are the Court of Owls? He thought. Who is more powerful in this city than me?

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

I am a promise, metal-forged. A trinket, yet priceless. Steel or gold, my value is the same. What am I?

Correct: A Ring.

Now, riddle me this:

How do you know if you’re ready to spend your life with someone?

Finally, riddle me this:

Will you ever be ready?

¿?

 

Ed had just enough time for a necessary second shower before bolting out the door for his meeting. The limo was already waiting in the driveway. It wasn’t until he’d settled in the backseat and the driver had started the engine that Ed realized, in his state of pleasant distraction, he must have used Oswald’s soap. The familiar smell clung to him and made him smile a little to himself.

In the seat across from him, Victor Zsasz was knitting—a long-standing hobby of his, apparently, but one that Ed had not been familiar with until recently. That day’s project was a long scarlet scarf peppered with small black circles that Ed suspected were meant to look like bullet-holes. Ed wished he were driving so he could have something to do with his hands as well.

Ed missed driving. His little car with its creaky doors, faulty engine, and blood-stained passenger seat, was long gone. Sold, he imagined, along with his poor green-lit apartment, to cover his legal fees. Not that they’d bothered assigning him a half-competent attorney, anyway. Harvey Dent had talked circles around Ed’s floundering public defender. The only concession he’d been able to wrangle was a sentence to Arkham Asylum, not Blackgate Penitentiary.

Hardly a concession worth mentioning, all things considered.

If Ed ever met Harvey Dent again… Well, things might turn out rather differently. He amused himself for a moment with plans for how he’d hide Dent’s body and send his two-headed coin to the GCPD accompanied by a singing telegram revealing the body’s location through a riddle that would take them weeks to solve.

He filed it away for future use.

In the ever-more-frequent quiet moments of paperwork and basic logistical organization, especially when Oswald was busy in meetings or giving interviews, Ed found himself planning these little puzzles, if only for something to do with his excess mental energy.

The stifling anxiety of awkward silence had been building in the back of the limo for some time, now, and having decided how to make sure his singing telegram was untraceable, Ed could no longer ignore it. Zsasz seemed perfectly content to sit and look out the window in silence, knitting without even looking at the yarn, but after another minute dragged by, Ed couldn’t stand it anymore: “what’s green and red and goes ‘round and ‘round?” The words—a nervous impulse more than thoughtful speech—spilled out of his mouth before he could stop them.

Zsasz’s face lit up and he turned to Ed.

“Uh… frog in a blender!” he said, after a moment of consideration.

Ed’s eyebrows shot up. “Yes!” he said.

“Knew it!” Zsasz extended his gloved hand for a high-five, which Ed tentatively returned. Zsasz’s gloves were tight and stylish, but softer than they looked. They were probably very comfortable. He wanted to ask where Zsasz had gotten them, if they came in green, and whether blood stains washed out easily.

The limo pulled up at the construction site and Ed shuffled out awkwardly—he’d never get used to the long back seat. The gleaming, charcoal-black limo looked as desperately out of place on the dry, dusty construction site as Ed himself. His meticulously tailored green suit clashed violently with the neon construction vests and hardhats worn by the workers.    

The Iceberg Lounge, such as it was, bore a stronger resemblance to a tinderbox than a nightclub. Half-finished walls and beams rose above the streets in the Diamond District, forming a scaffold around what would eventually become the centre of the Gotham crime word.

Walking around the construction site, observing the nightclub he and Oswald had designed together coming to life, took his breath away. It wasn’t until after he’d seen the entire site that he stopped to ask the Foreman for a status update.

“It ought to be finished by the end of next month, Mr. Nygma,” the Foreman said, looking at her clipboard. Ed frowned at her.

“The end of next month?”

“Based on my timeline, yes,” she said. “Your nightclub will be up and running by the 30th.”

Ed looked back at the Iceberg Lounge. Ed licked his chapped lips; the air was so dry in here. “A nightclub,” he repeated. He was building a nightclub… At least, that was the shape the bricks and mortar and beams were taking. But it felt like more than that, somehow.

“Is the timeline a problem, sir?” The Foreman asked, after a moment of silence.

“Can’t you speed up the process?”

“The wait is for the inspectors, to make sure everything’s up to code. Better safe than sorry.”

It hit him: He didn’t want to build a nightclub with Oswald; he wanted to build a life.  And why wait? Why wait to start the rest of his life?

“No,” Ed said. “No, I don’t want to wait. Give me the numbers for the inspectors. And hire more crew. I want it done by the end of this month.”

“But sir, we need more time to—”

Ed cut her off.

“You need the time I say you need. Get me those numbers, and get it done.”

“Yes sir,” she said. “Of course.” She walked away to rejoin her crew, leaving Ed to wander through the rest of the site, observing the people at work.

Soon the club would be finished, and he and Oswald would manage its opening and, after a brief but necessary power struggle with Sirens, it would ascend to its rightful place as the jewel of the Gotham underworld. Oswald would continue as Mayor and Ed as his chief-of-staff. He would spend his mornings negotiating extra time under the covers, and his evenings in front of the fire. Soon, the piano Oswald had ordered would arrive and they would have more than just the record player for music. Maybe a little car with a squeaky door-hinge and a flickering tail-light would emerge in his future.

“What’re you looking all misty about, Riddle Guy?” Ed jumped at the voice outside his head; it did not belong to Zsasz or one of the builders. He looked down to see Selina Kyle leaning against an unfinished wall.

“Hello Cat,” he said. “I haven’t seen you since…”

“Since we broke out of Arkham?” she offered. “Looks like you’re moving up in the world. Word is you’ve shacked up with Penguin.”

Ed shrugged, “things are looking up.”

“Building a club?”

Ed nodded.

Cat laughed. “Just what Gotham needs, another club. I bet it’ll be better than Penguin’s old one.”

“Penguin’s old one?”

“Yeah, Oswald’s,” Cat said, putting the name in air quotes. “Used to be Fish’s and then he took it over and it lasted like… Twelve days and folded.”

Ed had never heard of Oswald’s before. Had never known that Oswald had lived his dream of running a club of his own, if only for a moment. What other lives had Oswald lived without him?

No more, he thought. No more lives without me.

“Mr. Zsasz,” Ed began, loudly, over the noise of construction. Victor wandered over from where he’d been leaning on a pile of girders and Ed was momentarily overwhelmed with self-consciousness.

“You know, Boss, you can call me Victor,” Zsasz said, with a shrug.

“Victor—” Ed amended, barely tripping over the name at all. “What do you know about high-end jewelry?”

“Smuggling, forging, or stealing?”

Ed managed a nervous laugh without vomiting out his own heart. “No, no, nothing like that. Buying.”

“Buying? Must be something special. What’d you have in mind?”

Ed looked from Zsasz to Cat and knew he was turning scarlet. “Uh,” he said. “Actually… Rings, mainly.”

“Hot damn!” Zsasz’s whoop made Ed jump. “Pay up, kid.”

Ed turned to look at Cat and was utterly mystified to see her digging through her pockets. She produced a handful of crumpled bills and held it out to Zsasz, looking daggers at Ed: “come on—I was so sure it was going to be Penguin.”

“But it wasn’t.” Zsasz plucked the bills out of her hand and tucked it into his breast pocket. “I know you’d come through for me, Boss.” He clapped Ed on the shoulder. Ed had only recently begun to allow such a companionable gesture (and it was still on something of a probationary term) and, consequently, staggered a bit in surprise.

“Are you two taking bets on us?” he asked, pushing his glasses back up his nose and straightening his jacket.

“That’s why they say you’re the smart one, Riddle Guy,” Cat said, rolling her eyes at him. “Couldn’t you have waited? I’m sure the big man would have asked you in a few weeks anyway. You could’ve saved me fifty bucks.”

“If you help me find a ring, I’ll happily reimburse you,” Ed heard himself saying.

Cat narrowed her eyes at him. Ed rolled his eyes; interactions with Cat often left him feeling like the long-suffering older brother of a juvenile delinquent.

“With a finder’s fee, of course,” he added.

“I know some stuff about rings,” Cat shrugged, trying to look nonchalant. But Ed knew he had piqued her interest. “Used to hock them in the narrows… Alright, I’m in.”

“I know a place. Gets robbed a lot so it must be quality,” Zsasz added.

“Lead the way,” Ed said, his head spinning with the vertigo-inducing terror of what he was about to do.

The ride to the little store was quick and, when they arrived, Cat confirmed that it was a good place—she was the one who robbed it so often.

By the time they got into the building and stood among the little glass cases full of delicate rings on individual velvet cushions, Ed had worked himself into a proper panic. A clamor of voices demanded alternately that he call Oswald and propose immediately before Oswald fell in love with someone else, that he change his name again and leave Gotham forever, and that he check with someone to make sure his life for the last few months wasn’t a delusion brought on by trauma and he wasn’t still shivering in the corner of a cell in Arkham Asylum. 

“I don’t like the gold ones much,” Cat said, frowning at one of the cases.

“They’re not the boss man’s style,” Zsasz agreed. “Silver’s nice.”

I’m going to die alone. Ed thought.

Now that’s my idea of justice, Kristen whispered.

He could hear music, or maybe it was laughter, jingling nearby.            

“Hey Riddle Guy,” Cat said, and Ed looked up at her. “Your phone.”

“Right!” Ed pulled it out of his pocket, the metallic jingling of his ringtone getting louder as he did and flicked it open. “Edward Nygma,” he said.

“Ed, it is so good to hear your voice,” Oswald’s voice sighed from the other end of the phone. “It’s been such a long day.”

“It’s 2:04 in the afternoon, Oswald.”

“And the last two hours and four minutes have been hell, what’s your point?”

Ed laughed, loud in the tiny shop, and had to cover his mouth to muffle the sound.

“James Gordon decided to pay me visit,” Oswald continued, and Ed could picture him pinching the bridge of his nose with his fingertips and closing his eyes. “How did you survive working in the same building with him for two years? I would have filled his locker with body parts, not the M.E’s.”

“I possess preternatural self-control,” Ed said. “I’m almost done here; do you need me to come get you?”

Oswald sighed in a rush of static. “No, no, I’ll see you at home in a few hours. I just wanted to hear your voice. I have a meeting to go to and everyone who’s going to be there is a moron.”

Ed hummed thoughtfully. “Yes, you need better staff.”

“I have better staff; he’s building my nightclub.”

Staff?

“You may want to be careful who you call staff, Mr. Mayor.”

“Partner, best friend, love-of-my-life,” Oswald amended. “How are those?”

“Much better.”

He could hear Oswald’s laugh in the distance. “Alright, alright, I have to go. I’ll see you tonight. I love you.”

“Love you too.” Ed hung up the phone. He looked up to see Zsasz and Cat staring at him.

“See,” Zsasz said to Cat. “Look at his stupid grin. It was always going to be him.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever. No need to rub it in,” Cat rolled her eyes and turned back to the glass case.

“Can’t outsmart the master, kid,” Zsasz said.

Ed ignored them both and stepped up to the case on the far left of the shop. One near the back of the case caught his eye.

Oh yes, that’s perfect.

The owner who had, for the duration of their visit, sat quietly behind the till, obviously sizing them up for spending potential, now spoke: “You work for the Mayor’s office?”

“Yes,” Ed said. “I work quite closely with Mayor Cobblepot.” Cat laughed. Ed ignored her. “So, I think you’ll find that money is no object. I would like that one—” he gestured into the glass case.          

As the owner removed his choice and placed it in a small black box, Ed found the panic had been entirely banished from his mind. Because now he had a job to do, a plan to make.

And plans were his specialty.

¿?

By the time he had reached the manor, the proposal plan was fully-formed in his head. It was perfect, poignant, appropriate, everything he had hoped. He still had three hours and thirty-three minutes before Oswald arrived home, and now, he was bored.

He couldn’t experiment with something new for dinner—they were going out tonight. He had organized Oswald’s schedule for the next two months down to almost the minute. He had the entire roll-out of the Iceberg Lounge planned from construction to opening night to first-quarterly reports. He’d re-reorganized Oswald’s wardrobe three times—Oswald kept thoughtlessly reverting to the far less functional hierarchical organizational scheme. And he’d solved ten crimes he’d picked up on the police scanner without any effort at all.

For such a large, empty house, the manor certainly felt small. Ed had paced around it four times in the last hour, searching for an outlet for the restless energy that crawled under his skin.

He pulled a book off the shelf in the drawing room at random. He flipped through a few pages and found it was an old-school detective story. He settled down in Oswald’s chair to read it.

After only ten pages, he remembered reading this particular story at the library when he was seven. He tossed the book aside and drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair, wondering when the driver would arrive to pick him up.

He tried four more books before deciding to take a scalding shower, in the hopes that the hot water would drive the restless energy out of his bones.

Instead, in the haze of hot water and steam, Ed began to plan something far less innocent than a proposal. And, by the time the limo pulled up in front of the mansion, the scaffold of a plan had begun to form.

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

I am kept closer than a friend, but there is no joy when we meet. What am I?

Correct: An enemy.

Now, riddle me this:

In a city as big as Gotham, how do we keep running into people we know?

Finally, riddle me this:

Will we ever be rid our past?

¿?

Oswald was waiting for Ed in the back of the limo. He had raised the privacy shield, sent his usual security detail home, and told the driver to take the long way to the restaurant.

“I have a price but I am priceless, I am wordless but contain volumes. What am I?” Ed asked, sliding awkwardly into the back seat and pulling the door closed behind him.

Oswald was not in the mood for word games. His skin positively burned with the need to have his hands on every part of Ed as soon as possible. “I don’t know,” he said, without giving it much thought at all.

“A picture,” Ed said. “You look like a picture.”

Oswald almost felt bad for being annoyed. He grabbed Ed’s tie and tugged him across the seat toward him. “Flattery will get you nowhere,” he whispered.

“All evidence suggests the opposite,” Ed replied. “I question your methodology.”

That was Oswald’s limit for patience. Thankfully, Ed seemed in no mood to chat at the moment either. Careful not to jostle Oswald’s leg—always so careful, his Ed—Ed straddled him, then paused, looking at him with the same face he made when constructing a riddle.

“Ed…?”

“Just remembering what you look like now,” Ed said, his tone casual but his grin wicked. “We’re going to have to put you back together when we reach the restaurant.”

“Is that a threat?” Oswald tried to sound light and airy, but Ed was looking at him like he’d enjoy nothing more than his unraveling, and the words came out more like pleading.

“A promise.”

¿?

They did just barely manage to get both of their outfits back in order by the time the driver pulled up in front of one of the newer restaurants in Gotham’s Diamond District. Ed exited first, with as much grace as he could muster, and offered Oswald his arm for support.

The Diamond District—Gotham’s poshest neighborhood by a wide margin, and future home of the Iceberg Lounge—was another world to Oswald. His mother had always tried to give him every opportunity for refinement, every little luxury she could afford, but even so, he hadn’t set foot in the Diamond District until he had done so on the orders of Fish Mooney.

The street glittered like its namesake, shining with spotlights and gleaming sequined dresses. To have a club in the Diamond District… The very thought made Oswald shiver in delight.

He had come a long way from scraping pennies for rent and the occasional pair of dress shoes from the thrift store.

He glanced sideways at Ed, whole looked at the crowds, slightly stunned. They had both come so far in so little time. Where would they be this time next year?

The restaurant they were bound for was called The Green Monster, so named for the feeling people experienced when you told them you had eaten there. Normally, Oswald would have been entirely unable to get a reservation on such short notice, but a few well-placed threats had worked magic. So, when they stepped inside the towering oak doors and into the candlelit interior, far too chic for its own good, they were immediately whisked away to a secluded table tucked into an alcove.

Ed, expert in all things wine and food related, made the choices with barely more than a cursory glance at the menu.

“So, Oswald, to what do I owe this rare pleasure of an evening off?” Ed asked, while their wine was being decanted.

“It just occurred to me that we never get… out, unless it’s for work. And tomorrow is the Founders Dinner, then a weekend of trying to push through common-sense accessibility legislation and…” Oswald trailed off.

“Well,” Ed raised his glass. “Then, here’s to a night off.”

Oswald raised his in a mirror image, then drank; it was truly good wine, as it always was when Ed made the choice.

“So,” Oswald said, trying and failing to sound casual. “When did you go to graduate school?”

Ed laughed, looking startled. “Is that what this is about? Worried you don’t know enough about me?”

“You know my whole life, Ed,” Oswald said. “Everything I’ve done. But I barely know the first thing about you.”

“Oswald,” Ed reached out and covered Oswald’s hand with his. “You know more about me—who I am, who I was—than any other human being on the planet.”

Oswald hadn’t considered that possibility. He had known, of course, about Ed’s past romance with the late Kristen Kringle, but had not stopped to consider that, while Ed had been in more romantic entanglements than him (though it was not a hard-won contest), he had never had someone to confide in before. Oswald had always had his mother, had Fish Mooney, had his father, ever so briefly.

He was it for Ed. It was a heavy responsibility.

“But, if it’s bothering you, I did a Master’s degree after my Bachelor’s and before taking the job at the GCPD.”  

It did make Oswald feel better.

They discussed school, briefly, until the appetizers arrived, then turned to more cheerful topics. Like Oswald’s short-lived nightclub and his time with the Gotham mob.

“Maroni was a moron, though,” Oswald said, after a brief summary of his time in that particular crime family. “Couldn’t see what was right under his nose.”

“Didn’t have much of a problem breaking yours, though.” The surprise of hearing Jim Gordon’s voice just behind him made Oswald’s heart nearly launch itself out of his mouth.

For a moment, the memory of the sound of his nose had made crunching against a table and the taste of hot blood pouring down into his mouth echoed in the air.

“Honestly,” Ed managed to say evenly, his eyes fixed on a place over Oswald’s left shoulder. “Apparently they’ll just let anyone in here to harass honest citizens.”

Oswald turned. Jim Gordon and Leslie Thompkins, dressed up in what was likely their best clothes, loomed behind him. Leslie, at least, had the grace to look uncomfortable.

“If you two see any honest citizens,” Gordon said, “let me know.”

“Charming, Jim,” Oswald said. “Is there something you want?”

“Stopping to say hello to some old friends,” Jim said. “And to let them know there’s someone in the building with his eye on them.”

“Oh, come now,” Oswald snapped. “What are we going to do? Rob the place? I think we’re rather beyond that.”

“Have the GCPD stopped giving you cases, Detective?” Ed asked. “Do you have to go out and stir up your own?”

“How’s life as a sidekick, Nygma?” Jim shot back, and the cruelty of it struck Oswald dumb for a moment. “Finding it fulfilling to organize Penguin’s schedule?”

Oswald risked a look at Ed.

His face was horrifically blank. Oswald realized with a twist in his gut that the animosity between Ed and Jim ran deeper than he had suspected. Jim did not so easily forgive Ed’s attempt (and very near success) at destroying his life.

“Oswald,” Ed said, his tone carefully flat, “I think it’s time we returned home, don’t you?”

“Edward, I couldn’t agree more.” Oswald signaled the waiter and handed off his credit card. “Good evening Jim, Dr. Thompkins.”

“Gentlemen,” Leslie said, though she looked directly at Oswald and refused to meet Ed’s eyes. Oswald remembered in that moment that the woman Ed had strangled had been Leslie’s friend. They walked away to find their own table, and Oswald nearly sighed in relief.

They paid the bill in silence, and a similar pall hung over the drive back to the manor. Ed’s face was stony and unreadable as he stared out the window. Finally, when they had made it back to the manor and started a fire in the grate, Oswald thought he’d try to salvage the evening.

“Ed,” Oswald said, as the small fire tried valiantly to warm the lofty room. “You don’t actually believe Gordon, do you? You don’t think…”

Ed waved his hand to silence him. “Certainly not. No, I don’t put any stock in the word of Jim Gordon. Your opinion of me is the only one that counts.” His voice was flat, controlled. Oswald didn’t know how to read it. Ed stood up. “I’m going to make us some tea.”

Ed swept to the kitchen and Oswald stayed where he was, staring into the fire. One of the logs slid off the other and the flames dimmed. Even if Ed required his help, which it was very clear he did not, Oswald would not have wanted to get involved in the altogether too-complicated process. Instead, Oswald busied himself coaxing the fire to burn brighter and chase some of the cold out of the drafty rooms.

After some attention, it was soon crackling merrily. Oswald warmed his hands for a moment and enjoyed the sight of the dancing flames.

He heard the screech of the kettle in the next room. He tried to stand, but his leg—already cramped from the long day and worsened by kneeling at the hearth—buckled under him and he fell forward. He stuck out his hand to break his fall and grabbed the grate in front of the fire by mistake. It took him a couple breaths to realize how hot it was.

He swore loudly and withdrew his hand.

“Oswald?” Ed appeared in the doorway immediately, his brow furrowed with concern. “Oh no, oh dear.” He rushed over. Oswald was still sitting, stunned, and looking down at his scorched hand.

Ed lifted him to his feet—Oswald was constantly surprised by how strong Ed was—and helped him over to the sofa.

“It’s alright, it’s alright, I’m fine,” Oswald muttered, trying to wave Ed off even has his hand started to throb. “I’ll just put some ice on it.”

Ed rolled his eyes at him.

“You can’t put ice on a burn, you’ll get frostbite. Fire and ice don’t just cancel each other out. Let’s go put that under running water.”

The burn wasn’t bad—at least, that was Ed’s verdict after Oswald had held it under the tap for long enough to get impatient and had, grudgingly, allowed Ed to wrap gauze around it. But, all the same, he was glad it was his non-dominant hand. It’d be hard to sign legislation with an injured hand. Or, more to the point, operate a weapon.

Ed, for his part, was treating the burn with the same careful attention that he might treat a severed hand.

“Ed, it’s fine, I promise.” he said, after the third time Ed checked to see if the gauze was properly in place.

“I’m just trying to make sure it doesn’t scar,” Ed said. “You have enough scars.”

“You’d know—” Oswald said, trying to suppress the smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “You’ve certainly catalogued them all quite thoroughly.”

“Oswald, be serious.”

“I’m always serious, Edward.”

Ed laughed and kissed Oswald’s temple.

“Founders Dinner tomorrow,” he said, pouring tea into two cups. “Or, rather, later today at this point. Are you ready?”

“Talking to a few Gotham stuffed shirts with empty heads and full wallets? I was born ready, my dear,” he said, still thrilling a little that he was permitted the use of such an intimacy. “Besides, with you on my arm, what could go wrong?”

“So, we’re going together, then?” Ed asked, sharply.

Oswald’s brain kicked into overdrive and had managed to catalogue worries about everything from “Ed doesn’t want to be seen with me” to “Ed is leaving me” before Ed amended, seconds later: “I mean, we’re telling the whole city that we’re together?”

He sighed, the cloud of panicked thoughts dispersing as quickly as they’d formed. “I’m ready if you are.”

Ed grinned the type of smile that sent a pleasant shiver down Oswald’s spine: “It looks like Gotham City has a new power couple.”

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

Enemy of rest, father of action; patience’s test, begs distraction. What am I?

Correct: Boredom.

Now, riddle me this:

If you finally have a good life after so long, why do you crave chaos?

Finally, riddle me this:

Why can’t you just be happy?

¿?

4:48am saw Ed Nygma pacing the mansion like a caged animal. Oswald was sound asleep and, given the night they’d had, likely wouldn’t wake for several hours.

Due in part to how long the day had been, and in part to some truly spectacular sex, Ed had managed to sleep—ever so briefly—but it hadn’t been long before the memories had overtaken him. Memories of locked doors, crackling live-wires, damp stone tunnels, the feeling of his hand breaking against tile, had forced him into consciousness. He gently disentangled himself from the bed and Oswald and once again took up his nightly vigil of organizing the mansion.

Except he was done organizing it.

Except he had nothing left to do to distract himself from the wild laughter that had been encroaching on the edges of his consciousness since Jim Gordon had called him a sidekick.

So, he had picked up a pad of paper and a pen and had begun to sketch out his plan. Just for something to do. But now it was done. Planned to the second.

To perfection.

And it was such a damn shame to leave it trapped on the pages. A work of art like that ought to be displayed. Ought to be appreciated.

4:56am saw Ed Nygma putting on his coat and grabbing keys to one of the less conspicuous cars. He was just going to look, he told himself, to see if the plan would work after all. Just a look.

He closed the door gently behind him.

Elijah’s old car was the only one on the property that wasn’t a limo, so he took that.

The day he’d gotten his first real paycheck from the GCPD he’d gone directly to the bank to cash it and then to the used car lot to buy his first—and only—car. The train ride from his place to the GCPD headquarters downtown was well over two hours with Gotham transit, and he was in desperate need of private transportation. It had cost him $200 in cash and the promise that he wouldn’t sue them if the engine exploded. He had driven it off the lot and had made it nearly all the way to his apartment under the train tracks before it broke down.

He had gotten out books on engine repair and car maintenance from the library and studied for a week before he felt confident enough to fix the problem. For the first year, it had broken down at least twice a month. By the time he had gotten it running semi-reliably, Ed had felt that it was thoroughly his car. He knew every inch of it, which windows stuck in the cold, which dials on the dashboard didn’t work, which tail-light flickered intermittently.

Elijah’s sleek black Bentley, with functional fuel-gauges and an air conditioner that didn’t smell like sawdust, was entirely foreign to him.

He shifted into reverse and backed slowly out of the driveway. The engine didn’t growl in protest even once.

He started the engine and felt it hum into live underneath him—that was a rush all on its own. He just sat there for a moment, enjoying the feeling of control as he shifted into drive and gripped the steering wheel. In the distance, the lights of Gotham City burned bright. Ed smiled. It was time to see what he was made of.

¿?

Gotham Central Bank was quiet at 5:19 in the morning. It would be another 3 hours and twenty-one minutes before it opened.

There were, of course, alarms to worry about, and security cameras, but he had figured those out years ago, when the GCPD had investigated a murder committed in one of the vaults.

One of his first. Back in the days of being “that brilliant kid in forensics”; back in the days of being charmingly odd, rather than dangerously so.

A long time ago.

He had been so nervous. His hands hadn’t stopped shaking all morning, since he’d gotten the call from Detective Bullock—look alive, kid, we’ve got a locked-room homicide at Gotham Central and it ain’t pretty. He hadn’t been sure if the shaking was from fear or nerves until he had stepped into the vault and seen the man with half his face caved-in, lying beside a blood-soaked gold brick. Then he had known what he was feeling: exhilaration. This, he had thought, this is what I’ve been waiting for.

He had taken to the job like a fish to water, cataloguing, filing, taking evidence from under fingernails, from the gold bar flecked with blood, from the contents of the victim’s pockets. He had excitedly babbled thoughts and theories to Bullock and the other detectives, unable to wipe the wide, toothy grin from his face. He had never felt so alive.

In retrospect, that had been the moment the detectives had started to withdraw from him.

Too excited. Too unaffected by the blood and gore surrounding him. Too weird. Ed the freak.

Back then he hadn’t dreamed he’d be using the information he was filing away for anything other than solving crimes. Pathetic.

This, he thought, staring up at the bank, is always where I was heading. I was meant for this.

Ed used to wonder what his life would be like if he hadn’t killed Officer Dougherty and sent his life spiraling out of control. Would he have stayed with Kristen Kringle? Would they have gotten married? Moved out of Gotham to live in the countryside? Had a few kids and gotten a cat? Would he have gotten his PhD after all, and taken a job teaching forensics at Gotham University? Would he have spent his evenings teaching little Edwards and Kristens how to work a children’s chemistry set?

Who would he have become, in another life? The images would chase each other through his head—asleep or awake—taunting him with what might have been.

Now, with Oswald, he wondered less. It didn’t matter what his life would have been—that Ed would never have known what it was like to love Oswald.

Loving Kristen had been like turning on a light in a room he’d never realized was dark. At the time, it had been blinding. But Oswald… Loving Oswald was like starting a fire. The artificial glow of a lamp couldn’t even begin to compare.

I hope you burn, hissed Kristen.

Ed didn’t answer. Instead, he slipped the lock-pick set out of his inner jacket pocket and got to work.

¿?

Dawn saw Ed Nygma slipping quietly back into bed in the Van Dahl manor.

“Better?” Oswald mumbled, still half-asleep.

“Much,” Ed answered. His stomach contracted a little, as though acknowledging the omission. Oswald thought he had been pacing and organizing. He thought… Well, he certainly didn’t suspect where Ed had been.

But his heart was still pounding with the thrill of what he had done, of what would happen in less than an hour when the bank finally opened up properly, that he couldn’t bring himself to regret what he’d done. It was like finally scratching an itch that had been plaguing him for weeks.

He rolled over, threw one arm around Oswald’s waist, and tugged him closer. He took a moment to just enjoy this; the feeling of everything falling into place. Of finally being ready to be happy.

He resolved to ask Oswald tomorrow. It was time.

He fell into a dreamless sleep.

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

I am a mask that is dangerous to remove once donned. With a word I flatter and betray and obscure. What am I?

Correct: A lie.

Now, riddle me this:

How can I begin to understand a mind like yours?

Finally, riddle me this:

What have you done?

¿?

Oswald didn’t wake Ed for work, that morning. He had felt him crawl back into bed at an ungodly hour after almost no sleep the previous night and had decided to let him sleep as long as possible. They’d both need to be firing on all cylinders for the Founders Dinner in the evening.

So, when he woke to find Ed miraculously still sleeping, he wrote a short note saying he’d gone into the office to finish up some work and he’d see him in the evening, got dressed quietly, and crept out to go to work.

He managed to make it all the way through a morning’s worth of meetings before finally seeing that day’s newspaper over lunch.  

Gotham Central Bank Robbery, it read in bold block letters. Oswald pulled the paper closer to him. Valerie Vale had the byline. She wrote, In the early hours of the morning, Gotham Central Bank was broken into, and one of the vaults was completely cleared out, without a single alarm being triggered. The GCPD have no leads so farthose responsible haven’t left anything behind in the way of physical evidence, only a piece of green paper with what appeared to be a riddle written on it in gold ink. The GCPD have refused to release the contents of the riddle, but…

Oswald stopped reading. A chill raced down his spine.

The bank robber had left behind a riddle.

A riddle.

Oswald stood up and grabbed his coat off the hook.

Ed still wasn’t awake when Oswald returned home barely a half hour later. He sat on the couch and tried not to think too hard about the article.

He had a headache

Maybe it was someone else, he thought. But even he didn’t really believe that. A meticulously executed bank robbery where the perpetrator had left behind a riddle, of all things? Well, that had Ed Nygma written all over it. What Oswald didn’t understand was why? They had money; they didn’t need to resort to petty crime to get by.

Had he been neglecting Ed? Making him feel like he needed to contribute to the finances? He couldn’t imagine that he had—his father had left him more than enough for two people to live on, and the criminal enterprise was bringing in more every day. And, of course, they both drew a salary from City Hall. Why rob a bank? What was the point? If not money, then was it power? But surely they had enough of that as well? Oswald had accumulated as much power as there was to have in Gotham City. What more did Ed need?

Oswald stared into the still-glowing coals of the fire, wondering.

He didn’t realize that he’d fallen asleep until he heard: “Oswald…” and felt a kiss on his forehead. He made a humming noise and didn’t open his eyes as Ed began to run his fingers through his hair.

“You’re back early. Why do you insist on falling asleep on the couch? You know what it does to your leg.” Ed sighed, but he didn’t sound terribly upset.

“Because when I fall asleep on the couch, I wake up to this,” Oswald muttered, still half-asleep.

“You wake up to this when you fall asleep in our bed,” Ed said, and Oswald could practically see him rolling his eyes.

Oswald could feel a pink flush warm his cheeks. He opened his eyes. He had the perfect view of Ed staring into the fire, the flames reflecting in his sharp eyes and flickering across his sharp, pale features. For a moment he looked inhuman, demonic even, in the orange light. Oswald’s breath caught in his throat.

Ed turned to look down at Oswald, and he smiled the kind of smile Oswald had come to associate with a scheme brewing. The kind of smile that frightened and intrigued Oswald in equal measure. He wanted to ask, then, about the newspaper. About the robbery. But, before he could, Ed spoke.

“Riddle me this.” Ed said—he had been saying that a lot, lately. Flames danced in Ed’s eyes as he spoke, carefully. “A rope-less knot, a two-word eternity, gold given not bought, inked fidelity. What am I?”

Oswald thought about it, but he still had a headache and the words got tangled in his head. He still couldn’t cut through the misleading language to the truth on instinct like Ed could. He sighed. “I don’t know, Ed. What are you?”

But Ed didn’t rush to answer, clapping his hands with glee and demanding “do you give up?” like he usually did. Instead, he just smiled a little wider and said: “that’s okay. Think about it. I’ll wait.”

Oswald didn’t have time to reflect on what Ed could possibly mean by that, because Ed was standing up, still wearing a dressing-gown, and offering Oswald a hand up. Oswald took it, cringing at the pain in his leg as he moved out of the awkward sleeping position. He allowed Ed to help him to his feet and support him up the stairs and to their room.

He shuffled into the shower and, as he got undressed and stepped under the stream of hot water trying to wake himself up, he tried again to parse the riddle. As much as Oswald found the word-play opaque and frustrating, the way Ed lit up whenever Oswald managed to solve one was usually worth the effort. But it was no good, he was too tired, too distracted, and the water was too hot—the tap was broken again and he couldn’t adjust it.

The frustration drove the newspaper article from his mind.

By the time he left the bathroom, robe pulled tight around him and the riddle and article alike shelved for a quiet moment of contemplation later, Ed had started the process of determining what they would wear. Gloves and tie-pins and pocket squares were laid out across the room in delicate patterns as Ed examined each of them.

Ed had really taken to fine clothes. In addition to the first suit Oswald had given him, he had gotten seven others in various shades of green from forest to a vaguely alarming lime and had amassed a small collection of ties and waistcoats. Oswald had always thought his own wardrobe was bold and striking, but his tastes were positively conventional compared to Ed’s flair for colour and shine.

“What do you know about the Court of Owls?” Oswald asked, the thought suddenly surfacing as they sorted through clothes and tried to lay out something complementary without being too obviously coordinated.

“Not actual owls, I presume?”

“Not as far as I’m aware, no.”

He recounted Jim’s comments. By the time he had finished, Ed was practically vibrating with excitement. “A shadowy organization operating in secret at the highest level of Gotham society? Oswald, I will solve this riddle. You can count on me.”

“Be careful, Ed,” Oswald warned. Something about that tone, the excitement promising to tip over the edge into obsession at the slightest provocation, worried Oswald. It was like watching someone lean toward a fire, staring into its depths, insensible to the danger of falling in.

“I’m always careful,” Ed said. It was an obvious lie, but Oswald didn’t comment. “The purple looks better on you, by the way. It’s your colour.”

He held up one of Oswald’s purple ties, and they lost the thread of the Court of Owl’s conversation, turning instead to strategies for the Founders Dinner.

Ed had, since the mayoral campaign, taken to helping Oswald dress in the mornings. Oswald suspected that Ed liked the precision of the ritual; his long fingers deftly straightened Oswald’s tie, fastened his cufflinks, and smoothed the creases in his jacket. Since… Other events… Ed’s hands always lingered, teasing or pacifying as the moment demanded. Tonight, Ed’s hands found the tension coiled in Oswald’s shoulders and tried to coax some of it away.

“Oswald, what are you so worried about?” Ed whispered in his ear, pressing his lips to Oswald’s neck. Oswald felt some of the tension let go. “You’re wonderful at this sort of thing. I’m supposed to be the one who gets anxious at dinner parties.”

“My dear Ed,” he said, allowing Ed to knot the purple tie at his throat. “This is the event in Gotham society. Tonight, will make or break my tenure as mayor.”

Ed’s face, as he straightened the knot then wandered across the room toward the green part of the tapestry of clothes, betrayed what was coming next. Oswald didn’t sigh; he was getting much better at that. Ed was in a fantastic mood this evening—there were certain to be more riddles forthcoming.

“I am far from my opposite, but you get me the same way. I can make a King of a suitor or a star of a student. What am I?” Ed was moving dangerously close to the rather extreme part of his wardrobe. Oswald made an abortive motion to shoo Ed toward the green-and-purple pinstriped number that they’d bought just last week, and away from the one with the jacket that shone like a gaudy Christmas ornament, but Ed wasn’t looking at him.

“I don’t know, what are you?” Oswald asked. He couldn’t focus enough to think through the riddle since half his brain was occupied with trying to phrase please don’t arrive at this dinner looking like a leprechaun in a way that sounded passably diplomatic.

“Success!” Ed clapped his hands and grinned. “You cannot achieve it without risking failure.”

Ed tilted his head at Oswald and smiled.

Oswald was momentarily struck by Ed’s beauty. Dusk had already fallen and the lamps they’d lit cast flickering shadows around the room, and bathed Ed’s face in the warm yellow-orange glow of the fire. Oswald thought he could see flames dancing in his eyes.

He turned away and a shadow threw the sharp lines of his face into relief. For an instant, he looked positively lethal.

Oswald stared until he couldn’t anymore; until it felt like the razor lines and wicked smile he loved to distraction were flaying him alive. He shuddered and looked away, heat rising on his cheeks. He wished, sometimes, his face was less expressive; he would like to be able to wear his heart somewhere other than his sleeve.

Ed reached toward the row of clothes and Oswald heard himself say, “not the bright one, Ed.” The moment melted away.

So much for diplomatic.

“What?” Ed’s brow furrowed, squinting at Oswald in the half-light.

“Just…” Oswald floundered. “Maybe something a little less… loud… might be more appropriate for the evening.”

A look that Oswald didn’t know how to interpret arced across Ed’s face, like lightning in the clear sky. Oswald took a half-step back. It was gone just as suddenly.

“Of course,” Ed said, his tone carefully flat. “Quiet and unobtrusive.” His eyes flicked up and down Oswald’s body, so fast he almost missed it, before he turned back to his clothes. 

Oswald returned to his selection of pocket squares. The mix of anxiety and fear that he would botch the dinner, that he’d said the wrong thing to Ed, that all this would fall apart, burned in the back of his mind.

But, when his shaking hands failed for the third time to adequately fold his pocket square, long fingers tugged it gently from his hands, folded it, and tucked it gently into his breast pocket.

“Oswald, take a breath,” Ed said, kissing his cheek. “Everything is going to be fine.”

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

Why is a raven like a writing desk?

Correct: Poe wrote on both.

Now, riddle me this:

If you are going to base your persona on rhyming couplets, shouldn’t you at least have a basic level of poetic competence?

Finally, riddle me this:

Who is this guy?

¿?

 

It had not taken Ed long to resolve that, tonight, he would spend the dinner discovering who the Court of Owls were. What better opportunity than a dinner with the elites of the city to find out who was pulling the strings? Kristen and the nameless others had quieted, now that Ed had something to focus on.

Oswald leaned slightly on his arm when they came to the stairs.

“How’s that ramp legislation coming?” he muttered, as Ed supported him up the stone steps.

“Going to committee on Monday.” Ed whispered back.

“Can’t come soon enough,” Oswald grumbled. But his smile slid back into place as soon as the butler opened the door and they stepped inside.

Ed had never been good at mingling, in his previous life.

He distinctly remembered the holiday party that had happened in his first year working at the GCPD. It had been before Lee or Jim had started working there, so the only people Ed had known were Harvey (drunk before Ed had even arrived), Captain Essen (surrounded by uniformed officers looking for a promotion), and Kristen (with whom Ed had yet to make verbal contact). He had hovered, awkward and stressed, around the food, trying to make eye-contact with someone he recognized so that they could start a conversation.

In the end, he had gone home after less than half an hour. He had been more comfortable sitting in his pajamas at home with a cup of tea and a book, anyway.

Now, walking into a roomful of strangers all chattering softly amongst themselves by candlelight, the same awkward, nervous feeling threatened to creep up on him. But then he heard Oswald whisper,

“While I don’t stand on ceremony, and I find rules about hats indoors archaic, I think I’d be willing to make an exception with that one.”

Ed looked down at Oswald who nodded in the direction of a tallish man with truly unfortunate hair, a top hat, and a red plaid suit. He couldn’t help the laugh that bubbled out of him. Oswald winked at him and squeezed his arm a little. 

“It’d be rude to wear that anywhere,” Ed whispered back. Oswald buried his answering laugh in Ed’s sleeve. The hat in question approached.

“This is why you can’t wear the lime green suit,” Oswald muttered. A spark of irritation arced through Ed.

“It’s not the same as that travesty,” he hissed back. Oswald patted his hand, running his thumb over Ed’s knuckles, and the spark extinguished.

“Why,” the man said, with far too much unearned flourish, “if it isn’t Mr. Nygma and the mayor, here to make the people stare.”

Ed was only saved from laughing at the sing-song tone of voice by the suspicion that they were being mocked.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Oswald snapped, his ire already up.

Ed put his hand on Oswald’s arm, warning, but his heart wasn’t really in it. It would be exciting to watch Oswald drag this guy out into the hedge maze behind this mansion and gut him like a fish.

“Please, no offense is met, my good sirs. I simply mean you cut striking figures amongst the rather drab crowd, this evening,” the stranger continued. Ed nearly sighed in disappointment.

“I’m sorry, I’m afraid I don’t know your name,” Oswald said. Ed smiled at the bite in Oswald’s voice.

“Ah, my mistake,” the stranger extended his hand, not to shake, but to offer a business card. “Jervis Tetch—I’m called ‘The Great.’”

With a woeful couplet like that, Ed highly doubted it. Not even the same number of feet in each line. Sloppy, that’s what it was. He took the card, careful not to touch Tetch’s hands, and slid it into his pocket.

“A pleasure,” Oswald said, with impressive composure. “Great at what, precisely?”

“Magic,” Tetch replied.

Tragic, Ed thought. He bit his tongue to stop a laugh from bubbling out. He could feel Oswald’s hand on the small of his back and knew he was being warned to keep his composure.

“That’s lovely,” Oswald said through his teeth. “Ed, my leg is acting up, would you mind if we found some seats?”

“Of course,” Ed managed, the smooth professional tone taking over. “Mr. Tetch, if you’ll excuse us.”

“Enjoy your evening, gentlemen; nothing will ever be the same again,” he replied.

“Right.” Ed didn’t trust himself enough to add more syllables to that sentence.

He supported Oswald, who leaned theatrically on his arm without putting much weight on it, around the corner into the drawing room. They lasted about eleven seconds before collapsing into helpless laughter.

“Shh, shh,” Oswald hissed through giggles. “He’ll hear us.”

“Using what? His magic?” Ed whispered back.

“Stop it,” Oswald leaned his head against Ed’s chest, covering his mouth with his hand to stifle his laughter.

Ed grinned. This event was already more fun than he had imagined. He looked down at the top of Oswald’s head and just barely managed to resist running his hands through his hair, messing up the perfect spikes. He couldn’t stop smiling.

In the other room, an Amy Winehouse song played on a record player.

He took a moment to catch his breath. He rested his hand on the back of Oswald’s neck and thought, if he’s with me, I’ll be alright.

He looked up, and someone whose whole bearing screamed “important” caught his eye.

“Mmm, important-looking woman with a stern up-do, six o’clock,” Ed whispered, catching the woman’s appraising stare over Oswald’s head. Oswald straightened up, brushing off the front of Ed’s suit where he’d wrinkled it.

“How do I look?”

“Ravishing.” He did. He always did. Beautiful, stormy eyes highlighted with dark liner, staring up from under jagged spikes of dark hair. Freckles—Ed wondered how many people had been close enough to pick them out, splashed across Oswald’s nose and cheeks.

Cheeks that were now turning scarlet. Ed winked at him, then put his hand on Oswald’s arm and guided him toward the woman.

“Mr. Mayor,” she said, in the type of affected, generically posh voice that Ed could only think meant private school. “I’ve been eager to meet you. And…” her eyes swept over Ed, unseeing, unimpressed. “You are?”

“This is my chief-of-staff, Mr. Edward Nygma,” Oswald supplied smoothly while Ed seethed. Does she live under a rock? How does she know about Oswald and not me?

Because no one cares about the chief-of-staff, of course. Oswald’s the real star.

“I’d be completely lost without him, I’m embarrassed to admit,” Oswald said, hooking his arm through Ed’s.

Ed smiled at the woman and knew it looked stiff and forced.

“I’m afraid I haven’t had the pleasure,” he said.

“My name is Kathryn,” she said, extending her hand, which Oswald shook and Ed ignored in favour of putting his other hand on Oswald’s arm. He didn’t think he could touch someone else’s skin right now, he felt like his own was crawling off him. He should’ve taken Oswald’s offer of gloves before they’d left.

Ed, there will be a lot of people trying to take your hand, maybe you’ll want them, he had said. But Ed, riding high on constructing the perfect riddle for his proposal and his morning at the bank, had waved him off. He was regretting it, now.

He pulled himself back to the present, where Oswald and Kathryn were discussing infrastructure.

“Accessibility is just so important in any city, but particularly Gotham, with so many old buildings and narrow stairwells. It can be alienating, I think, to those of us who don’t find it so easy to get around.” He tapped his own foot with his cane. “And honestly, everyone can use a ramp, but only some people can use stairs. So why have stairs in the first place?”

Ed smiled, genuinely this time. He’d heard Oswald give this speech a few times, but it never lost its passion.

“You’ve certainly been busy, Mr. Cobblepot,” she said. “We’ve had our eye on you for some time.”

That got Ed’s attention.

“Who’s we?” He said. It sounded more like a demand than a question.

“I’m part of a group that oversees things,” she said, weighing her words. Ed’s mind was spitting out thoughts faster than he could follow it. Oswald’s question from earlier in the evening echoed loud in his ears: what do you know about the Court of Owls?

“What sort of things?” He had hoped to find the Court of Owls tonight, but he hadn’t expected them to just walk right up and introduce themselves. It was as suspicious as it was positively electrifying.

“Everything that matters in Gotham,” she said, with a sneer that suggested Ed was not one of those things. He clenched his fists and opened his mouth, a caustic retort gathering in his mind. You wouldn’t be saying that if you knew what I was capable of.

But the sound of the dinner bell, softly in the distance pulled Ed’s attention, and before he could reply, Kathryn had said softly to Oswald, “we’ll be in touch, when the time is right. Enjoy your evening.”

She walked away her, eyes raking up and down Ed as she went. He shuddered. He turned to follow and Oswald held his arm. “Ed, we have to go in for dinner.”

“Oswald, I think she’s a member of the Court of Owls,” he whispered, he could feel the grin stretching his cheeks. “I can solve this riddle.”

“Ed, solve the riddle later, we have an appearance to make,” Oswald hissed back.

And something in Ed’s mind went blank. The room and the guests and the prestige and the candlelight, none of it mattered to him as much as following Kathryn out of the party and to wherever she was going. 

“Right, of course,” he heard himself say to Oswald. “I’ll meet you in there, I’m just going to find the restroom.”

He wasn’t sure if he had fooled Oswald—he didn’t stop to check—just disentangled his arm from Oswald’s and walked away.

Catch her before she disappears, follow her, where is she going? Is she high up in the Court? Would they send anyone important out in public like this? Why are they revealing themselves so easily? Solve the riddle.

What are you doing?

Solving the riddle.

Get BACK there.

She’s going to get away.

Oswald needs you!

Solvetheriddle.

You promised you’d be there for him.

SOLVETHERIDDLESOLVETHE-

He was outside.

It was surprisingly quiet, only the sound of feet on gravel—his own—and the ever-present sound of distant rainfall. He stopped and listened. Nothing, for a moment, and then…

“Edmond, was it?” Kathryn’s voice made him jump and turn to see her, stepping out of the shadows behind him.

“Edward,” he said, his voice steadier than he was expecting. The clamor in his head had vanished now that his blood was pumping and his mind was racing with possibilities.

“Are you looking for something?” She didn’t sound threatening or threatened and that annoyed Ed. He should be a concern to the Court of Owls. He was a threat, he was…

The chief-of-staff at City Hall.

Right.

He wasn’t a high-profile crime boss. He was barely a high-profile bureaucrat. 

This was Gotham City—his brief stint at Arkham for multiple homicide probably didn’t even register with her.

“Uh, you, actually,” Ed said, laughing nervously. “You mentioned you were a part of a group that ‘oversees things’ and I couldn’t help but be curious. Could you elaborate on what you mean?”

“No.” Kathryn arched her eyebrows at him.

The blatant rudeness left Ed wrong-footed.  He opened his mouth to respond but no sound came out.

“Edward,” Kathryn continued. “Take some advice. You may be the mayor’s chief-of-staff, you may even be his, I don’t know, his paramour, but you are far out of your depth here. Learn when to let go.”

A bullet to the chest would’ve been kinder.

“You have no idea who you’re talking to,” Ed managed through gritted teeth.

“No,” Kathryn said, brushing past him. “I don’t. And isn’t that rather the point?”

Before Ed could reply, she had swept to her car, opened the back door and slid inside much more gracefully than he ever could. The sleek black limo purred into life and slipped down the driveway and into the night. Ed watched the retreating tail-lights, two luminous eyes peering from the darkness at him, and felt inexplicably hollow.

He turned and walked slowly back toward the house, feeling exhausted and worn thin and wanting nothing more than to crawl between the covers in the enormous bed at the mansion.

The sound of tires on gravel made him freeze, his hand inches from the side door he’d left from. He couldn’t see the whole sweeping driveway of the regal old house from the side, but by the lights he guessed at least four cars had just pulled up and parked. He crept toward the corner of the house, wondering if Kathryn had come back with reinforcements. Instead, he saw six squad cars, “GCPD” emblazoned proudly on the sides, and two dozen offers huddled around Captain Barnes, who was making speech and gesturing at the house.

Ed’s first thought was to warn Oswald that the GCPD were on their way, before he remembered they were both at the party in their official capacities and Oswald at least hadn’t done anything illegal pretty much all day—they’d been far too busy getting ready.

And the GCPD would have no reason to look for Ed here if they wanted to arrest him for the bank robbery.

So that only left one possibility—something had happened inside.

Ed was back at the side door before he realized he was moving. He forced himself to slow down, to pull the door open gently and peer into the room before stepping back inside and closing the door equally gently behind him.

“And if we don’t?” Ed immediately recognized Oswald’s voice in the dining room—spitting defiance like fire. He crept closer, listening.

“Change, my friends, is nigh,” came the reply in the sing-song voice of the magician, Tetch. “Drink the wine—” the safety clicking off a gun “—or else you die.”

Poison. He’s trying to poison them.

You IDIOT! How could you leave Oswald alone in there?

It’s much better to be out here where I can DO something.

What are you going to do? Hide here until he’s dead and collect his corpse?

Riddle me this: why are you such a coward?

“What’ve you done with Ed?” Oswald demanded. “Where is he?”

“Your gentlemen friend has met an untimely end,” Tetch sing-songed back and Ed wanted to scream it isn’t true, I’m right here! over Oswald’s pained gasped. To Ed’s ears, it sounded like he’d just been shot in the chest. Ed crept closer.

“I’ll kill you for this. Slowly. You’ll suffer for—”

Ed searched his pockets and his hand closed around his knife.

“—you will beg me for death by the time I’m done with you!” Oswald’s voice was reaching a dangerous pitch.

The safety clicked off a gun.

“Drink the wine, Mr. Mayor,” Tetch lilted. “While these lovely people stare.”

Ed’s heart nearly threw itself out of his mouth. He forced himself to peak around the corner before moving. Tetch had his back to Ed, and a gun levelled at Oswald’s heart. Ed flicked his knife open.

In two steps, he was behind Tetch. He wrapped his arm around Tetch’s neck and pressed his knife hard to his Adam’s apple.

“You’ve already used that rhyme,” Ed hissed.

“Glasses down, now!” Harvey Bullock’s voice shattered the tension in the air as the GCPD rushed in through another door. A gunshot, and Ed pushed Tetch away from him to drop to the ground. The knife might have drawn blood, he wasn’t sure.

Confusion, another gunshot. A panicked rush of bodies, running in every direction. Ed didn’t notice, though. He only had one person to look for.

“Oswald!” he shouted over the crowd. Somewhere to his left, Captain Barnes had tackled Tetch. Bullock was still shouting orders.

“Oswald!” he shouted again.

“Ed!” the answering shout was ragged around the edges.

Ed was pulled into an embrace so tight he couldn’t breathe. He wrapped his arms around Oswald, rested his chin on top of his head, and breathed in the now-familiar scent of cologne and hair products.

“It’s alright,” he said, sighing heavily. “I’m here. We’re okay.”

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

The more will you have, the harder I am to turn from. The more love you have, the more I break your heart. What am I?

Correct: A fight.

Now, riddle me this:

Do violent words spoken in anger, in the heat of the moment, mean as much as pleas spoken into cold silence?

Finally, riddle me this:

Can words ever be unsaid?

¿?

It didn’t take long for Oswald to get fed up with talking to the GCPD.

“Detective Bullock,” Oswald said through gritted teeth, trying to ignore the stiffness in his leg from sitting too long on the stone steps leading up the house. “I don’t know what you’re implying, but does it make any kind of sense that I would set myself up to be poisoned by a second-rate lunatic in a top hat?”

“You may think I’m second-rate,” Tetch called as a pair of uniformed officers dragged him out of the mansion toward the waiting squad cars. “But others know that I’m the Great.”

“Boo,” Ed droned at Tetch, not moving his head from Oswald’s shoulder. “Get off the stage.”

“Penguin,” Bullock continued. “Nothing you do makes any kind of sense to me.” He glanced down at his notebook, which likely had his grocery list on it, based on how much he had added to it since the beginning of this interminable conversation.

“Harvey, can you at least attempt to do something productive? Or is harassing us the only joy you get in your day?” Ed stood up and brushed the wrinkles out of the front of his jacket. “Unless you’re planning to press charges, we’re ready to get out of the cold.”

He offered his hand to Oswald, which he gratefully took and allowed Ed to help him up.

“Yeah, alright then,” Bullock sighed. “But don’t think this is over. I’m watching you both.”

“Harvey,” Ed’s voice was serrated, deadly. “We worked together for almost five years. If I wanted to commit a crime, you are the last person who’d be able to catch me.”

Ed, what are you doing? Oswald wanted to say. Don’t taunt him. Be subtle. Instead, he tightened his grip on Ed’s arm a little, but Ed ignored him, choosing instead to lock eyes with Bullock.

“But I did catch you, Nygma,” he said, hitting Ed in the chest with his notebook. “Sent you to Arkham hat in hand. And I’ll do it again, you know why?”

Ed never could stand an unanswered question; he opened his mouth to respond, but Harvey beat him to it.  

“You’re arrogant. Like that stunt you pulled at Gotham Central this morning.” Oswald’s heart hit the gravel driveway. He had nearly forgotten about the robbery in all the excitement, had nearly convinced himself it had been someone else.

Ed started to speak, but Bullock cut him off.

“Oh, I can’t pin it on you yet,” he said. “And sure, maybe I won’t figure it out—but Lucius Fox is a damn sight smarter than me, and he’s on the case, so you’d best watch your back. That’s your problem, you think you’re smarter than everyone. And that’ll be the end of you.”

A truly terrifying expression of mingled fury and loathing crossed Ed’s face.

“I am smarter than everyone, Harvey,” he spat. “Certainly, smarter than you.”

Bullock shrugged. “Then how’d I catch you?”

“Luck.”

“Arrogance,” Bullock answered. “Arrogance makes you sloppy.”

Oswald wanted to go home. Wanted to hear Ed say it wasn’t true, that Bullock was making things up, that he was content with the life they had together and didn’t need to spend his nights robbing banks and leaving riddles for the GCPD. He could feel Ed’s muscles tensing under his fingers and worried he was going to hit Detective Bullock. That would be no end of trouble. Ed was getting dangerously unpredictable.

“It’s not arrogance when it’s true.”

“You could learn a thing or two from him,” Bullock nodded at Oswald, who desperately did not want to be included in this conversation. Ed’s eyes flicked to him. He wore an expression of such complete confusion that Oswald felt a little… offended. It hadn’t been so long ago, after all, that Ed had been looking for a mentor.

“What do you mean?” Ed’s voice was sharper and shorter each time he spoke.

“At least I have to work at it to pin something on him. You? You practically sign your name.”

“Alright, Detective Bullock, it’s been lovely chatting but we’re going home,” Oswald cut in before Ed could reply. “Ed?”

For a heartbeat, Ed didn’t move, and panic constricted Oswald’s throat. And then Ed turned. “Of course,” he said. “Good evening, Harvey.”

“Bye, Ed,” Bullock said. “Mr. Mayor.” And, somehow, he managed to make it sound like an insult.

It wasn’t until they were in the car, privacy screen up between them and the driver, that Ed snapped, “I’ll show him.”

Oswald watched the flush grow on Ed’s face and thought he could feel heat rise in the back of the limo. For the second time that evening, Oswald felt like he was looking on helplessly as Ed leaned closer and closer to a blazing fire.

“What do you mean?” He asked.

“I mean, I’ll show him. I’ll commit a crime so entirely brazen and obvious that he’ll just know it was me and he won’t be able to catch me,” Ed’s eyes burned. Oswald’s mouth was dry; he couldn’t swallow. “Blow up Gotham Central Bank, that ought to send a message. Or, maybe a theater opening, kill the lead actor right on stage.”

Ed laughed and a sharp grin twisted his face, the same grin that enthralled him, scared him, made him feel flayed.  

“He’ll know I’m guilty but he won’t be able to do a thing.” Ed turned to Oswald. “Fitting revenge, don’t you think?”

Oswald, his mouth nearly too dry to form the words, ventured, “Ed, why did you rob Gotham Central Bank this morning?”

The fire reflected in Ed’s eyes flared up and devoured him.

¿?

Oswald was pretty sure he was the one who had shouted first, but Ed was louder, so it probably evened out, in the end. They were both crying, so at least that was a tie. The fight had started in the back of the limo, carried them all the way to the mansion, up the stairs, and into the foyer. Oswald’s leg ached from standing, pacing, walking behind as Ed stormed hectically around the entranceway, waving his hands.

“I can figure it out, Oswald, just let me get their attention!” Ed shouted, for what must have been the eighth time, storming away through a doorway that led to the living room. Oswald shuffled after him, his voice echoing back loud in his own ears.

“That doesn’t make any sense, Ed! You can’t just go off and commit elaborate crimes because you’re bored, or stressed, or mad at a detective; you work for City Hall!” Oswald’s eyes burned and blurred. He couldn’t make Ed understand, couldn’t even make himself understand what Ed was thinking.

His plan, which had started as revenge on Harvey Bullock and had since morphed into a strategy for capturing the attention of the Court of Owls, was, as far as Oswald was concerned, beyond the pale. It was ludicrous—leave a series of clues, announce himself to Gotham, challenge the Court to meet him face to face. And, in Oswald’s ears, it sounded like insanity. And not the kind that Oswald could plead in court to dodge a cold cell in Blackgate, the kind that set your mind on fire until you choked to death on the smoke. And he didn’t know what to do to stop it.

“Let me do this my way, Oswald.”

“Your way is going to get you arrested and me impeached!” Why couldn’t Ed see that? Why did they keep going around in circles? “Even if you do find the solution, which you won’t, what good will it do either of us from Arkham?”

“It will solve the riddle!” Of course, that was the part of Oswald’s plea that Ed latched on to.

He pinched the bridge of his nose and made a sort of growling noise of frustration in the back of his throat.

“No, you’ll just be leaving more riddles for the GCPD to solve. I don’t see how this helps us, Ed. All it does is undermine my position as Mayor. You’re on my staff, you can’t just blatantly break the law to get the Court’s attention!”

“This isn’t about your position as Mayor. And for the last time, I am NOT YOUR STAFF!”

“But you are, though, Ed! There is no you without me!”

Silence burned through the room, consuming all the oxygen and leaving Oswald breathless. Regret rushed in to fill the vacuum. He shouldn’t have said it, but he couldn’t find the words to take it back. Oswald saw the glowing coals in the fireplace reflected in the lenses of Ed’s glasses. They lay on the couch with his jacket and tie, haphazardly thrown off sometime during the pacing and shouting that felt like it had been going on for hours.

“Excuse me?” Ed whispered, and the ice on his words sent a chill down Oswald’s spine.

“What—What I mean…” Oswald stammered. But he couldn’t think around the seething mantle of anger, guilt, and frustration simmering under his skin.

“What you mean, Oswald, is that you’re happy to have me around as long as I’m helping you. But you can’t stand to be with someone who can think for himself,” Ed’s voice cut through him like a scalpel. “But I’m not one of your underlings like Butch, or Gabe, or Zsasz. You can’t push me around like a pawn in some chess game.”

Oswald felt heat bubble up through the haze in his head.

“You can’t stand to not be the centre of attention!” he shot back. Ed stumbled backward as though Oswald had physically attacked him. But Oswald couldn’t stop. “We don’t need money, Ed, we don’t need to rob banks. You’re just doing this so that people will notice you!”

I can’t stand it? Me? Really, Oswald? Take a look at yourself.”

“I’m the Mayor, Ed! The attention is on me whether I like it or not! And any completely insane thing you do to taunt a shadowy criminal cabal jeopardizes my power.”

“Insane? INSANE?” Ed spit the word like it was caustic. Oswald was suddenly grateful he hadn’t eaten anything at dinner as his stomach twisted itself into a knot. His mouth moved, but he couldn’t make a sound.

“You’re unbelievable,” Ed hissed, picking up his glasses and shoving them back on, his eyes still ablaze with firelight. His hair stuck out at odd angles to his head and Oswald caught himself just before he reached out to fix it.

Oswald was seized with terror that Ed was about to walk out the door and never come back. “Wait!”

Ed stopped halfway through the motion of leaning down to pick up his coat.

“Don’t wait up for me.” He turned and stormed out.

The door slammed in the distance.

The dying fire in the grate flickered one last time, and went out.

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

I can raise arms and raze cities. I define your home but can also destroy it. What am I?

Correct: Fire.

Now, riddle me this:

What can I say that will make you understand?

Finally, riddle me this:

What happened to us?

¿?

Ed found himself staring up at the tinderbox of the Iceberg Lounge as twilight descended on Gotham City. The streetlights flickered on one at a time, casting pallid glow on the oil-streaked street.

He looked down. He didn’t know where or when he had gotten the gasoline and the matches, but there they were, in his hands. Judging by the weight, the gas can was empty. He could guess what he had done with its contents. There were people out, wandering the streets, but none paid him any attention.

Just another day in Gotham City

The Iceberg Lounge loomed before him, a massive, towering monstrosity. Imposing, just as Oswald had demanded and Ed had gleefully designed, announcing its supremacy over the Diamond District. But also fragile, just a scaffold of rickety beams stretching up in the darkness, not yet the seat of all power that it was to become.

And when they put in the chair like a throne, towering over the peasants who come to supplicate at the foot of the King, who will sit in it? And who will sit a few feet behind, swallowed up by the shadows cast by the King on his throne? Who will disappear into the obscurity that gathers at the edges of the spotlight? The voice in Ed’s head was not quite his own, nor was it quite someone else’s. A shudder raced through him.

How does it feel being a sidekick? Jim had asked.

“Suffocating,” he said aloud.

“I hope you aren’t talking about me.” Oswald’s voice directly behind him wasn’t a surprise. Ed didn’t respond.

“Ed?” Oswald said softly.

“What do you want, Oswald?” Ed demanded.

“I want you to come home out of the cold.”

Ed shook his head and couldn’t help the soft chuckle that escaped him. “Can I rob a bank?”

“We can talk about that in the morning.”

There it was. The truth. Oswald wasn’t planning on letting Ed have his way. Wasn’t planning on shifting an inch to make Ed happy.

“What’s to talk about?” Ed demanded. “I don’t fit into your plans anymore.”

“What do you mean?”

“Oswald, you will never care about me more than you care about your Empire.”

“That’s not true.”

Ed dropped the gas can. It clanged loudly off the ground.

“What is that?” Oswald’s voice went from placating to sharp in an instant.

“I ask the questions,” Ed muttered.

“Why do I smell gas?”

Ed finally turned toward Oswald, and the sight of him looking absolutely wretched, tie half-undone, no jacket, holding his arms around his chest for warmth in the biting winter air, nearly brought Ed back to himself.

Nearly.

“That’d be the gasoline, I expect,” he said, raising the box of matches to show him. Oswald’s eyes went wide.

“Ed, just come home and we can put this behind us.” he was begging, now.

“You still don’t get it!” Ed shouted – had he been shouting this whole time? “Nothing would change because you can’t understand! Why should I go back?”

“I—Because—You—Because I love you!” He had said it before, and Ed had always felt something tight and warm in his chest. But now…

“Do you, Oswald?” Ed demanded, spitting the words like they burned his tongue. Oswald stared at him, slack-jawed.

“Of—Of course I do, Ed, what are you saying?”

Ed wasn’t finished: “Do you love me? Love is about sacrifice! It’s about putting someone else’s needs before your own. But you wouldn’t know anything about that, Oswald, would you?”

“Ed, I love you. I would do anything for you. I promise.”

“Anything?”

“Yes!” Oswald sobbed and Ed didn’t want him to cry, didn’t want to hurt him, just wanted to go home. But he needed to know. Who was he to Oswald? Would Oswald love him, even when he was inconvenient? Would Oswald love him, even when they had nothing? Would Oswald love him, even if he didn’t want to stand in the shadows anymore?

He struck a match.

Oswald stopped—Ed thought he was even holding his breath.

“Take it,” Ed’s voice shook.

“What?”

“Take it, light the gasoline, burn it down.”

They locked eyes, and Ed knew what Oswald would say before he said it.

“Why?”

Ed sighed, and he felt the rush of air in his entire body.

“Because, Oswald, love is about sacrifice.”

Ed threw the match.     

The heat of the flames reached him before the sound of the screams and the distant wail of sirens. He watched a moment longer, the orange glow and the taste of ash working their way into his body, burning, burning, burning.

Oswald might have spoken, might have grabbed Ed’s arm to try to hold him there, to demand why he had done it. But Ed didn’t notice. And anyway, he didn’t have an answer; he only had questions.

He turned away, crossed the street, and ducked into an alley, allowing the dark and the smoke to embrace him.

?

Ed Nygma had spent most of his life alone.

At first, he had sought out the solitude. The days his father had been away from the house to work, to drink at the bar down the street, or just to get away from Ed, had been his favourite times. He had been able to use the kitchen to make increasingly elaborate meals, to tune the crackly old radio to a jazz station and hum to the music, to walk without tiptoeing. In the dark and quiet of his room, he filled up book after book with riddles and answers of his own design—games made by and for him and him alone.

He had been happiest with his own company. Even if, in that dark and the quiet place, the voices in his head had begun to whisper. They were alright company too, most of the time.

But at Gotham University, he had begun to see groups of his fellow students, laughing, talking about class, going for dinner, meeting in the library, and he had begun to wonder how it would feel.

How would it feel to know someone more than casually? To meet for coffee in the afternoons and stay up late into the night drinking too much and laughing about nothing? How would it feel to ask a riddle, and have someone there to answer it?

And with that curiosity, came the slow realization that a riddle had two essential components: a question and an answer, and two essential people to provide them.

A riddle was a game that required a partner to play.

He had not met with much success at school. Some of the students were cruel, some callous, some indifferent, and some kind but ultimately unenthusiastic.

He had not been deterred.

Upon starting work at the GCPD, he had thought he might find a partner there among people who had made it their life’s work to solve mysteries. He had been marginally more successful, even occasionally getting correct answers from fresh-faced young officers, before every last shard of curiosity or joy had been ground to dust on the cruel streets of Gotham City.

Kristen Kringle had been a revelation. A spark of what it might mean to meet someone who not only could answer the riddles, but shared his enthusiasm for them.

And he had killed her.

Her death still tasted like ash in his mouth. He had killed before and since, but those had been deliberate. Kristen, well…

Oh, save it for someone who cares, Eddie, Kristen hissed at him from somewhere deep and cold inside his own head. I’m not your tragedy. I’m my own.

Oswald Cobblepot. He had been something else entirely. Oswald would always be singular, standing out in Ed’s mind, burning bright against the dull grays of the life he had led before that night in the woods, full of blood and sweat and the beginning of something… seismic. 

So, then what am I doing out here? Ed looked around. He was standing, inexplicably, on the street outside his old apartment. He didn’t remember driving here, but the keys to the probably-stolen car parked by the curb behind him were certainly real.  

And what would you know about what’s real? A Voice demanded.

Police crime scene tape formed a big yellow “x” across the doorway, partially obscuring a sign that read “condemned.”

His footsteps echoed loud in the empty street. In the distance, the train rumbled. He pulled the table from the door and pushed it. The lock—what used to be a massive steel deadbolt—was gone, as was the entire handle, so it swung open easily.

A thick layer of dust and grime coated the floor, and he could hear rats and pigeons scuttling about in the dark corners. He could barely see a few feet ahead of him, but this was home, he knew the way. Up the stairs that groaned under his weight and through the narrow hall to another metal door covered in yellow tape that read police line: do not cross. He ripped it down and slid the heavy door open. He sighed happily at the familiar scrape of metal.

But his relief was short-lived.

The apartment was bare.

Everything, from his keyboard, to his kettle, to his bed had been auctioned off while he was incarcerated, leaving only an empty room bathed in cold green light from the sign flickering outside the window.

Ed pulled the door closed behind him, trying to shut out the panic buzzing through his head.

Gone, it’s all gone. There’s nothing left.

One of the windowpanes was smashed, and the cool night air gusted in, making him shiver. He stood in the center of the room, vaguely aware that he was shaking, and slowly lowered himself to the floor.

His clothes smelled like smoke and his mouth tasted like ash. 

He dreamed in red.

                Red swirling down the shower drain, washing away the signs of guilt.

                Red burning all evidence that Edward Nashton had ever existed.

                Red cells under a microscope late into the night.

                Red evidence in tubes, spinning and spinning and spinning.

                Red hair tied in a ribbon.

                Red lips so very close to him.

                Red stains on worn car seats.

                Red flowers in a dark lab.

                Red marks on freckled skin. 

“Ed, I love you. You know that. Some part of you has to know that,” Oswald is crying. Tears streak down his face and from red-rimmed eyes. Somewhere in the depths of his consciousness, a voice—meek, fading—whispers

don’t cry.

“So, you need to listen to me, when I tell you that by doing this… it will change you.”

“Liar,” whispers a much louder voice. “He’s a liar. He doesn’t love you. His love is selfish. He doesn’t care for your happiness, only for his own.”

“I’ve killed before.” Oswald’s name sticks in his throat like he has no right to punctuate his sentence with it.

“Not like this!” Oswald begs.

“For his own life, he doesn’t care about yours.” This voice sounds like his own. He tightens the grip on his gun. The ground pitches beneath him like the earth itself is shaking apart and he struggles to stay upright.

“This won’t be a crime of passion or… or self-preservation…” Oswald’s voice is so LOUD, Ed wishes he’d be quiet so he can hear himself THINK. “This will be the cold-blooded murder of someone you love.” His voice cracks on the last word, and it sent a ricochet of voices through Ed’s head, all whispering and screaming

I love you.

 “I—” he begins. A ghost of a memory rises like smoke to meet his words. “I love you too; can we go home?” But it catches fire and burns up. He swallows and blinks a few times, wondering why his eyes hurt so much.

“I. Don’t. Love. You.” The words are ripped from him and fall, one-by-one, into the space between them. He had stabbed Officer Dougherty, strangled Kristen, hit the man in the woods with a shovel—all intimate, personal crimes. Life crushed out of them beneath his unyielding hands. But he cannot reach across the space and touch Oswald. Oswald reaches out and, for a horrifying moment, Ed is certain that, if they touch, his skin will catch fire and burn away into ash. He uses the gun to smack Oswald’s hands away.

“Ed,” Oswald sobs. Loud, so loud. Why couldn’t he just think? “You need me, just as I need you! You cannot have one without the other!”

“Love is about sacrifice.” The only thing he knows is true hisses from his mouth like steam, scalding his tongue as it goes.

“Ed!”

 “You can’t talk your way out of this! You suffer, as I’ve suffered. You sacrifice.”

Ed shudders, dislodging the thought like an insect.

“Ed, I’ve loved you since that day in your apartment… Remember? We drank wine, you told me stories, we ate dinner? You told me who you were and you looked at me like I was real, like I mattered. Please, Ed, don’t let them take that away from us! I am the only one who truly sees you as you are… You’re the only one who sees me as I am… We can still become great together. Please, Ed, you can’t do this.”

Come back to bed, Oswald. It’s cold outside.

Ed, I have to go to work.

You can work later.

Kill him, Ed. Kill him for what he took from you. Shoot him between the eyes, so he won’t get up again.

Ed reels as shards of memory burn through him.

It’s just a burn.

You have enough scars.

He wanted to collapse to the ground and scream until he couldn’t feel or hear anything anymore.

“Ed, are you listening to me?” Oswald shouted. “Can you hear me? This isn’t you!”

“I’m listening.” The words are outside his head, he is almost sure.

“Say something,” Oswald begs.

“Love is about sacrifice,” he says, slowly, Oswald’s name sticking in his throat again.

Shoot him in the HEAD.

NO.

He hears the gunshot, and sees Oswald’s eyes snap wide open. Ed watches, numb, as Oswald clutches his chest, looking down at his own hands, soaked scarlet, then up at him, pleading. His eyes burn. He watches his own hand, puppet-like, reach out to seize Oswald’s tie, but he can’t touch. The voice demands don’t touch. Oswald staggers backward, unbalanced, and falls down, down toward the cold of the Gotham River, completing the work James Gordon had failed to complete years ago in this very same spot.

Ed thinks he can hear James Gordon’s voice on the wind, whispering “never come back to Gotham.”

Oswald hits the water.

James Gordon had been a fool. Gotham runs in Oswald Cobblepot’s veins. He could no more leave this city than the streets themselves could get up and walk into the sea. The only way to be rid of the Penguin is to kill him. To let his decaying body feed the river that runs through the city like blood through veins.

He watches Oswald sink beneath the water, his hands reaching up for someone no longer there, sees the plume of scarlet flow after him, staining the river.

                Red stain spreading in water as a body falls away from him into the cold dark.

?

Ed woke screaming Oswald’s name into the dark.

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

I lurk in the corners of your home, waiting for the quiet moments to devour you. I am an ache in your chest and an emptiness in your heart. What am I?

Correct: Loneliness.

Now, riddle me this:

How did it all go so wrong?

Finally, riddle me this:

Why won’t you come home?

¿?

Oswald tasted ash on the air.

He didn’t know why he’d stood here so long. Had he expected Ed to return? But, of course, Ed wasn’t there, and Oswald’s leg had gone far past aching to numbness and back to aching again over last hours standing here, watching the fire.

Now, as dawn broke grey and smoky, GCPD cruisers and fire crews crawled over the smoking wreckage, dousing the last of the flames. Only one wall—scorched charcoal-black—remained standing.

He couldn’t tell if it was the ash, or the crushing realization that Ed may not come back to him that was curling around his throat, suffocating him. Tears stung his eyes.

Shall I start the fire?

Oswald is standing next to the couch, absolutely soaking wet from a freak storm in the middle of the day. A smile twitches at the corner of Ed’s mouth. His glasses are fogged up and his hair is plastered across his face, but he somehow makes it look artful. Though, Oswald had once been told that art was in the eye of the beholder.

Please. Oswald sighs, and watches as Ed leans down and puts a few logs on the warm coals. It’s less than a minute until the flames leap up in answer to Ed’s careful attentions. Fire dances across the lenses of his glasses.

We should get changed, Ed says, unmoving.

Yes, we should, Oswald agrees, stepping closer to Ed and away from the staircase up to their bedroom. You should start with your shirt.

Ed laughs, loud and startled, but tosses away his jacket and peels off his soaked shirt nonetheless, pulling it off over his head without bothering to unbutton it and throwing it behind the couch with his jacket.

Oswald shivers as Ed leans down to press a kiss to his neck. He puts his hands on Ed’s sides, pressing his fingers into sharp hipbones.

You next, Ed breathes in Oswald’s ear. Oswald can hear the laughter in Ed’s voice. He stands still as Ed works off his drenched jacket and waistcoat, and entirely fails to repress a shudder of pleasure as Ed’s hands work their way under his shirt, pushing it up and over his head and discarding it somewhere behind the couch. Hello handsome.

Oswald’s cheeks burn and the fire catches the tinder, sending up a cascade of sparks. He gently removes Ed’s glasses, placing them reverently on a side table.

The fire crackles and blazes in the background, and the storm howls outside the dark windows, and soon the rest of their clothes join the pile of jackets and shirts behind the couch. And, when Ed leans over him, wild grin on his face and something like joy in his eyes, Oswald sees the flames reflected there, burning, burning.

And everywhere Ed’s hands touch, his skin ignites until he is engulfed in flame.

And now, he looked that the crumbling beams in front of him, all that remained in the ash-heap that was once the site of the future Iceberg Lounge.

“Mayor Cobblepot?” Valerie Vale’s voice pierced the haze enveloping him and he turned to see her standing just behind him, notebook and pen poised to take notes.

“Yes?” Oswald barely managed to stop himself from snapping what do you want. He needed to maintain his composure, he was the Mayor.

“Care to comment on the destruction of your nightclub-to-be?” She asked.

“No.” Oswald didn’t really expect that he’d deter Vale by being taciturn, but he couldn’t trust himself to speak much, right now. He didn’t want his inevitable meltdown on the record. He didn’t want Ed to read about it in the paper.

“This was a passion project for you and your partner, Ed Nygma, wasn’t it?” Vale pressed.

Light-fixtures like upside-down umbrellas, Ed says, clapping his hands in delight and writing it down. I love it.

They’re still sitting in bed, their coffee getting cold on the nightstands, files spread out over the covers. Oswald can’t stop looking at Ed, can’t stop staring at the spark in his eye as he looks over the plans.

Ed’s here, Oswald thinks. He’s here in my bed, and he hasn’t left.

I am a window with shutters that open and close; I have no glass, and water can flow from me, yet I do not let in the rain. What am I? Ed speaks without looking up from his files.

I… I don’t know, Oswald says, afraid for a moment that it will bother Ed that he doesn’t know.

Ed just chuckles.

Eye, he says. An eye. I can feel you staring at me, Oswald.

I just, Oswald whispers. I can’t believe this.

Ed turns to look at him and his smile is broad and toothy. Me neither. He says it like a confession. No one’s ever made a plan with me before.

Oswald pulls him close and when they kiss Oswald can hardly believe they did this for the first time only a few hours ago.

“Yes,” Oswald managed to tell Vale. “Yes, it was.”

“Do you know anyone who had a motive to destroy it?”

For a moment, Oswald could see the wild look in Ed’s eyes when he threw the match on the gasoline.

“I have made rather a lot off enemies in my time, Ms. Vale,” he sighed.

“So, you do think it was arson, then?” Vale pushed.

Oswald’s heart dropped to his shoes. He hadn’t been paying attention to her questions, not really. He was too absorbed with his own wretched misery to even bother. And she had caught him out, knowing more than he was supposed to. The last thing he needed was the scandal of the previous night to blow up across Gotham.

Break-Up Burn-Up at City Hall, the headline would read. Or, something equally tasteless. Oswald would look a fool, and Ed… Well, he didn’t know. But if the truth came out it would be very clear who was left and who did the leaving.

“Excuse Ms. Vale,” Oswald said, after far too long of a pause. “I really have to go.”

He turned and walked away from the scorched ground, ignoring Vale’s calls after him and the sound of the last remaining wall of the Iceberg crashing to the ground and joining the ash-heap.

¿

In the warmth beneath heavy covers, Ed runs his fingers along the long, jagged scar on Oswald’s arm. Where is this from? Knife, I think. Ed makes sound of distress. You think? You don’t know? Oswald laughs. I’ve been stabbed quite a few times, Ed. One tends to lose track, and that’s an old scar. Ed presses his lips to the scar, then to the side of Oswald’s neck. Oswald runs his fingers through Ed’s hair and kisses his forehead. They’re just scars, Ed. Things that didn’t manage to kill me. Ed whispers against his skin, I’ll kill anyone who gives you another scar.

¿

Fish Mooney always straightens his tie when he arrives at work. Oswald, it’s important to dress carefully. When you take the time to make sure your clothes are in order, you show the world that you’re uncompromising and precise. You remind people you are not to be trifled with. He nods and says yes Miss Mooney, enthusiastically, every time. But still, she straightens his tie every day for nearly a year. Finally, one morning, he arrives to work early, approaches Fish’s booth. She looks him up and down and a smile flickers at the corner of her mouth. Excellent, Oswald. Today, you may hold my umbrella.

¿

Your heart is beating so fast, Ed whispers, his palm presses against Oswald’s chest, under his unbuttoned shirt and waistcoat. Are you alright? Oswald wants to laugh at the absurdity of the question. Instead, he reaches up, removes Ed’s glasses and places them reverently on the vanity. Ed, I’m fine. I’m just nervous. Ed tugs him a little closer, and his breath catches in his throat. No need to be nervous, Ed whispers. I’m right here with you.

¿

The road that leads from the gates of Arkham to Gotham is long. Sometime in the grey early morning, he twists his ankle in a pothole hidden beneath the snow. The wind whips against the exposed skin on his face, and he falls into a snowdrift. Pain flares in his leg, knocking the air out of his lungs, and the tears streaking down his face half-freeze on his cheeks. He considers just surrendering to the cold and the exhaustion. But he sees the lights of Gotham City shining in the distance and he’d thinks: home is so close, I just have to hold on a little longer.

¿

He loses his first real fight, in the schoolyard at Gotham Academy, the school to which his mother had given every last penny. What are you looking at, freak? The boy says. Oswald turns toward the voice, to be met with a hard punch to his stomach. All the air is forced out of his lungs and he collapses onto the pavement, wheezing. Stay out of my way, freak. A foot to his gut and the last air in his chest leaves him. Spots drift in front of his vision. His breath whistles in his ears. He is certain he is dying.

¿

The water shocks Oswald into consciousness and the pain in his newly-broken leg keeps him there. Air, he needs to breathe. Oh god, it’s cold. So cold. The air is cold, too, rushing into his lungs as icy as the water. The rocks on the shore are cold and sharp and jagged. His fingertips are blue and his hands shake. When he opens the throat of the hapless fisherman, the blood on his face is warm.

¿

He can’t breathe. Shaking, shaking with cold fear as a metal cage of wires is forced down over his head, blinding him. Ed is coming back for me. Electric current burns through him.

¿

Oswald stands in front Ed, reaching toward him, trying to speak but unable to make a sound. Ed’s face is cold and hard as he reaches toward Oswald’s throat with long, pale fingers. Oswald grabs Ed’s hand, scratching at his skin in a vain attempt to restrain him. He can taste salt tears in his mouth.

Ed, he tries to beg in silence. Don’t do this. Please.

I’ve killed before.

This will be the cold-blooded murder of someone you love.

I don’t love you, Ed’s reply is like a blow to the chest, so hard Oswald barely hears the crack of a gunshot, barely feels the bullet in his chest. As he falls backward, away from Ed, his only thought is:

I knew he’d be the death of me, in the end.

He sinks.  

¿

Oswald woke from a sleep like death in the cold, lonely dark of the Van Dahl manor, with Ed’s name on his lips. For a moment, he just breathed—in, out—as the memory of the fight, the fire, the ash, crashed in around him like icy water, cut through him like a razor, leaving him bleeding out and breathless.

“Ed,” he said aloud, half in the hopes of banishing the silence in the manor, half with the wild conviction that, to say his name, would conjure him here, but it accomplished neither. Some foolish part of him wondered if Ed had returned sometime in the night, but he knew it wasn’t true.

If he had returned, no matter how angry he was, he would have woken Oswald up and told him not to sleep on the couch and aggravate his leg.

Nonetheless, Oswald hauled himself off the couch and around the house, looking into every room, just to see, just in case.

The house was empty. 

The cold air tasted like ashes.

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

I’m with you every day, I infect your every thought, you cannot get away, I am here until you rot. What am I?

Correct: Guilt.

Now, riddle me this:

Why are there no people of intelligence in the god-forsaken city?

Finally, riddle me this:

Who am I?

¿?

He stood in the lab, staring out of one of the glass panels in the wall, waiting. The others had failed him. His search for a mentor had, largely, been a disappointment. Gotham was a big city; how could it be that it hadn’t produced a single person worthy of guiding him in this crucial and final stage of his transformation?

And like the butterfly, I’ve come to realize that I cannot be a caterpillar one again.

He shook his head to dislodge the sound of his own voice, echoing from out of time. It had been weeks since he’d seen Oswald, weeks since the fire and he still couldn’t stop thoughts of him from surfacing at the most inconvenient moments. And they were getting louder.

Ed Nygma—the forensic analyst, the Arkham inmate, the dutiful chief-of-staff—had to be left behind. Had to make way for…

Well, he wasn’t clear on that, yet. 

But there was no time to think about it now. The Professor pulled open the door and walked right past him to sit on his stool in front of his board of equations.

He rolled his eyes and pulled out his gun.

“Greetings, Professor,” he said, his voice came out in a smooth growl, reminiscent of Jim Gordon’s. He wasn’t sure if that was a good thing.

“Oh! Somebody help!” The Professor shouted.

This was not starting out well. He cocked his gun.

“The building’s empty. No one’s coming to help.” The Professor really should have known this. He tried to smile, but he already knew this wasn’t going to work out. Oh well. At the very least, he would get some practice smoothing out the routine. “Have a seat.”

The Professor sat. Not a total imbecile, then.

“Wh-Who are you?” He asked. High, jingling laughter shot through him.

Oooo, right for the heart, Kristen whispered. He’s asking the real questions.

“That…” he said, turning and hitting his gun against one of the tanks that lined the lab. Flammable, it read. “… Is an excellent question.”

And you don’t have the answer, another voice—a gravelly, heavy one that sounded like his own—answered.

“But I get to ask the first one,” he said, over the voices. He put the gun on the bench and resisted the urge to adjust his mask. It wasn’t actually inhibiting his field of vision any more than his glasses normally did, but the violence of the violet colour was distracting. He didn’t want to think about why he had chosen it, instead of his characteristic green.

He stretched his arms out wide to curb the impulse to touch his mask.

“I can fill a room or just one heart,” he began.

What’s your heart full of? Kristen asked.

Ice, the voice answered.

“Others may have me, but I cannot be shared,” he continued, trying to block out the noise in his head with volume and increasingly elaborate gestures. “What am I?!”

“What?” The Professor looked like a dog that had just run into a glass door. They were clearly handing out PhDs like penny-candies these days.

“It’s a riddle,” he sighed. “Answer the riddle.”

“Uh… I…” The Professor stammered.

Ooo, real Einstein here, Kristen whispered.

“Knowledge?’ The Professor asked.

The answer was so monumentally stupid he wanted to shoot the professor now and save himself the time. “Knowledge can’t be shared, Professor? Really? You are the chair of a chemistry department. You’ve spent a career SHARING KNOWLEDGE! NO!” The voices chime in on the last word, and cackle in the distance.

He sighed and turned to lean against the tanks—flammable.

He breathed in and out a few times, reminding himself not to kill the Professor before the game was over.

This is a colossal waste of time. You can’t replace Oswald.

He shuddered, dislodging the voice, and turned. “I apologize,” he said, unable to stop himself from adjusting his mask, just once. It was hot in the lab. Too hot for the number of layers he was wearing. He took off his jacket, trying to steady his breathing.

“I’m not myself these days,” he muttered aloud.

Not anyone else, either, from the sounds of it, Kristen muttered in his ear. He bit is his lip to avoid screaming at them all to leave him alone. He hung his coat on the board of equations and picked up the coil of cord he’d brought with him.

“Hands, please,” he demanded.

You’re lucky that he’s so slow, Kristen whispered as he wound the cord around the Professor’s wrists. Because you left your gun on the bench, and he’s bigger than you.

Stupid, stupid, he thought, and didn’t know if it was Kristen’s voice or his own. He dropped the cord.

“I can be a member of a group,” he said, hoping that getting back to the riddles would help him focus, “but I can never blend in. What am I?”

“I… Uh…” The Professor stammered. “A shadow?”

He barely managed to repress the snarl of anger that bubbled up inside him. “The answer is an individual,” he sighed. These riddles were not difficult! How had they all failed? “Duh! I expected more.”

Duh? Kristen giggled. How old are you?

“But then,” he continued, “none of the others did very well either.”

“The others?” The Professor was really starting to annoy him with his useless questions.

He walked around the bench to the Bunsen burner and turned on the gas. The smell sent him back, for a fraction of a second, to college—this college—not so long ago, to long nights alone in the lab working on his research. He had hoped the Professor, a fellow chemist, would understand. He had been wrong. He used the sparker to light the burner and a flame caught with a woosh.

“Oh, you’d know them,” he said. “One was an artist, one was a writer,” he lit another burner, “one was a philosopher.” He walked to the glass wall of the lab and looked out into the dark. “The stars of Gotham’s intellectual and artistic constellation. Fallen stars now.”

So much the better, if they couldn’t even solve simple riddles.

“Wh-Why are you doing this?” The Professor asked. Finally, a question worth answering. He sighed.

“My—” He began, then swallowed.

He began again. “Someone recently said there was no me without him. I burned down a building and left him. He was a sort of guide to me on my journey, among other things,” he continued, ignoring the chorus of angry voices in his ears. “You see, I know who I am, Professor.”

Could’ve fooled me, Kristen laughed.

“It’s how to…” He didn’t know why he was telling the Professor this, other than that he was be dead soon because there was no way he was getting the final riddle. “… be him… that is eluding me. I seek guidance.”

Well, seek elsewhere, Kristen laughed.

He clapped his hands to dispel the noise.

“I feel your every move, I know your every thought, I’m with you from birth, and I’ll see you when you rot. What am I?!” He demanded.

“I don’t know,” the Professor sobbed.

Shocker.

“Well, that’s just too bad,” he sighed and walked back to the gas tanks. Flammable. He whistled, if only to drown out the noise. He scooped up his jacket and a piece of pipe, left the lab, and used the pipe to secure the door.

“No, no!” He heard the Professor shout.

He was outside and walking away from the University, his head spinning with possibilities as to what he should do next.

He barely heard the explosion.

?

Old, abandoned warehouses were always thick on the ground in Gotham City. It was a dangerous place to live and do business, and most legitimate establishments turned over quickly, sometimes leaving fascinating amalgamations of detritus behind, just waiting for a new owner.

He could have waited until the antiques dealers moved out of their own accord.

He could have.

 He hadn’t.

Instead, he had kidnapped the owner’s husband and made it very clear that she could either leave town forever with him, or stay forever without. There had been riddles involved, but she hadn’t solved any of them. People were disappointing like that.

And so, he had suddenly come into a warehouse full of knick-knacks to act as a base of operations. It suited him. As did the disco ball he had hung from the chandelier in a fit of whimsy. Everything he did these days seemed to happen in a fit of whimsy. Now that he had something to occupy himself, living in perfect, rigorous tidiness didn’t seem so essential.

Heist after heist saw cash stacked in disorganized piles on stolen hotel luggage trolleys. Riddle after riddle went unanswered. Night after night passed haunted by frantic, half-remembered dreams and visions of stormy eyes filling with tears and falling away into icy darkness.  

He stopped sleeping. Or, at least, he tried to. Between caffeine pills and the increasingly frequent doses of Ritalin, he found it easy to chase away the darkness that clawed at the corner of his vision late into the night. It was rather like being in college, though with even more voices in his head telling him he was a loser and a freak.

And sometimes those voices became frightfully embodied. Kristen was there almost all the time, now. And someone else. Someone who flickered in the shadows, just outside his vision.

It was becoming difficult to focus.

Not so difficult that he couldn’t come up with riddles, but certainly difficult enough that the warehouse he’d taken over looked more like a magpie’s nest than an imposing lair.

You need him, Kristen whispered, one evening after he’d thrown a lamp across the room just to hear it shatter against the back wall. You need him or you’re going to lose yourself completely.

“I don’t need him!” He snapped. “I don’t! I’m… I’m much better off without him. He’s such a killjoy.”

Yes, it looks like you’re having a wonderful time, Ed. She laughed. She was sitting atop a pile of unopened crates of antiques. Such a ball, without him burdening you.

“I am NOT Ed!” He shouted, and couldn’t think why he’d said it.

That’s where you’re wrong, the other voice said. You can’t take yourself apart like this, Ed. You are a whole person. The halves will come back together in the end, no matter how hard you try to stop it.

“You’re WRONG!” He threw another lamp, just to make his point. The sound of shattering glass was muffled by the sound of laughter. “I will leave him behind!”

Just like he left you behind? Kristen whispered.

He looked up. She was waving a newspaper. The headline read: Mayor Cobblepot Introduces Gotham to new chief-of-staff.

“What?!” he demanded. “What does he think he’s doing? I’M the chief-of-staff!”

Oh yes, and you’re doing so well at it, she said. Really whipping this city into shape.

“Go AWAY!” He shouted. “Get out!”

You might be able to get rid of me, Kristen said, as she began to fade. But you can’t escape yourself.

She vanished, leaving him with the sound of distant laughter, and the whispers clamoring to take her place. He lowered himself to the ground and sat hugging his legs, begging for quiet.

?

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

I bind a Priest to a god, a dog to its master, a knight to a King. What am I?

Correct: Devotion.

Now, riddle me this:

Despite everything that’s happened, why can’t I turn on you?

Finally, riddle me this:

Why are you doing this?

¿?

Oswald was late most mornings, now. Since Ed had left, he couldn’t seem to motivate himself to get to the office on time. Days of meetings, press briefings, legislation, none of it seemed quite so much fun without Ed there to make wry comments under his breath that only Oswald could hear. Walking around City Hall without what the staff had taken to calling his “green shadow” felt wrong, like he was missing one of his arms.

But he couldn’t self-destruct; he wouldn’t give the City the satisfaction. It had been bad enough dealing with the press when Ed went missing and the Iceberg Lounge-to-be burned down in the same night. Speculation—much of it all-too accurate—ran rampant, and it took Oswald over a week to convince Valerie Vale that Ed had not been responsible for the fire. Or, at least, he had convinced her to stop asking him about it.

He pushed his way through the revolving door leading into City Hall, his hand unconsciously going to his phone in his pocket. He withdrew it again. He couldn’t call Ed—he wouldn’t. He didn’t need him. He took the stairs quickly, gritting his teeth against the pain in his leg and trying not to think that Ed would have had painkillers in one of his pockets.

At the top of the stairs, an intern with a high voice whose name he did not remember stopped him, “Hey! Ooh,” she said, waving nervously.

“What?” he snapped. Her face fell.

Emily, his brain supplied, too late.

“Mayor, the press have assembled in the conference room,” Emily said, gesturing behind her. “They are requesting your presence.”

Oswald’s heart hit the floor. He was exhausted—he hadn’t slept properly since, well… And he wasn’t at all prepared to make nice with Gotham’s vultures.

“The press? Why?” His voice betrayed far more than he wanted it to.

“The latest figures are in,” she said. And Oswald should have known; of course, he should have known. But Ed always…

He set his jaw. He didn’t need Ed, he could do it on his own.

“Fine,” he hissed. “Let the vultures have at me.”

He held out his cane and Emily took it, laughing nervously. Ed had always tsked at him for not using his cane in press conferences, but Oswald was not about to give tabloid reporters who always lurked in the crowd anything to spin into a health crisis. Not if he could help it.

He walked into the room, trying to keep his step straight.

Applause greeted him the moment he crossed the threshold. He took a few shaky steps forward, tentative hope blooming in his chest. Had the figures really been that good?

“They’re through the roof across the board,” Emily, who had followed him into the room said as they walked to the front of the room to the sound of flashing cameras. “Yeah, jobs are up, market’s up. Crime way, way down. You did it! Enjoy the moment, sir.”

The new chief-of-staff, the one who always wore too-dull suits and talked too slow—Tarquin—pushed through the throng of reporters to the front of the room to join them.

“Praise well deserved, Mr. Mayor,” he said, waving at the cameras. He kept talking, but Oswald didn’t hear him. For a moment, he was back at his victory tour, sitting on top of a car with Ed leaning in to whisper in his ear, enjoy this, you deserve it.

“I wish Ed were here,” he said, before he thought to stop himself.

“My job as your new chief-of-staff is to serve you with the exact same zeal and smarts as Mr. Nygma would,” Tarquin said, smoothly before stepping forward to close the press conference.

Oswald very much doubted that was entirely possible, given the precise nature of his relationship with his previous chief-of-staff. He looked at the ground, not bothering to join Tarquin and Emily in shaking reporters’ hands.

If I kissed you now, do you think it would make the front page, Ed whispers in his ear. Oswald knows he’s turning pink, but doesn’t stop smiling politely and waving at the cameras as they stand beside a shovel poised to break ground at the Iceberg Lounge.

Be serious, Ed, Oswald hisses back.

I’m always serious.

“Margaret Hearst,” Tarquin said, drawing Oswald back into the room. “Know her?”

“Of course,” Oswald wasn’t in the mood to be condescended to by some slick-haired kid.

“When I saw these numbers come in, I thought who better to help us capitalize on this than Margaret Hearst? The whole city—no, the whole country—watches her show. She can take you to a whole new level, solidify your legacy on a national scale.” Tarquin had somehow gotten ahold of Oswald’s cane and used it to gesture impressively.

“National scale?” Oswald heard himself ask. His phone rang, sharp and loud. He pulled it out of his pocket and saw Ed’s name on the display. His heart leapt into his throat.

“She’s in my office and she is dying to meet you.” Tarquin said, over the sound of the ringtone. “Turn her down now, she won’t come back, like… ever.”

Ed, the little rectangular screen proclaimed, in green letters. Ed calling.

“What do you say?” Tarquin asked, offering Oswald his cane.

Oswald looked from the phone to the cane. Ed would call again, surely. They could talk about whatever he needed to say another time.

He took the cane.

“How’s my hair?”

Tarquin clapped his hands in delight. He took the phone from Oswald and deposited it in his coat pocket. “Follow me.”

Oswald had not given Tarquin Ed’s old office. He hadn’t been able to give it to anyone. Instead, they walked down to the far end of the hall and into a high-ceilinged room with big—if grimy—windows.

“Mayor,” Tarquin said. “This is Ms. Hearst.” 

“Perhaps you’ve truly found your calling in office, Mr. Cobblepot.” She turned and smiled and Oswald thought, for half a moment, that she didn’t seem so threatening. “Or perhaps, you just know how to show people only what they want to see. Hmm?”

Oswald felt a chill race down his spine.

“Either way,” she continued, “I plan to get inside your head and share what I find with the citizens of Gotham. Does that deter you?”

“Please.” Oswald tried not to roll his eyes but didn’t quite succeed. People had tried to get inside his head before—it had never gone well for them.

“Then I think the exclusive interview should happen,” Hearst said.

The time was negotiated for a month later at City Hall. Oswald had wanted to conduct it at home, in his own turf, but Hearst hadn’t budged on the location. He had wanted to get it over with soon, but she had been too over-booked reporting on a string of robberies at museums and art galleries in Gotham and didn’t have the time.

And so, he’d agreed.

He wondered if Ed would have been able to negotiate a better agreement. But it didn’t matter because Ed wasn’t here and, judging by the two men he found in his office upon returning there, he wouldn’t be able to call Ed anytime soon to see what he had wanted.

“Harvey, Mr. Fox,” Oswald said, trying to smile. “Hello.”

“Penguin,” Harvey said. Lucius simply nodded.

“Please, sit,” Oswald sighed, walking around his desk to sink into his chair. He didn’t hiss in pain but it was a near thing. Weeks of sleeping on the couch had left every muscle burning for most of the day. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“Where’s Nygma?” Harvey demanded.

Oswald must have looked as surprised and confused as he felt, because Fox cut in, much less abruptly: “We were hoping you would have some information as to Edward Nygma’s whereabouts. We need to ask him some questions.”

Oswald laughed.

“You’re serious,” he said. “What makes you think I’d have anything to tell you?”

Harvey and Fox exchanged a significant look.

“We thought,” Fox began delicately, but Harvey cut in.

“Nygma burned down your club and dropped off the face of the Earth, we thought something must have happened and it might be high time for a little revenge.”

Revenge. It hadn’t even occurred to Oswald, not for the Iceberg—it had been as much Ed’s project as his. They’d built it together, and as long as Ed was gone it only seemed right it stayed a heap of ash scarring the Diamond District.

Oswald raised his eyebrows. “You thought wrong.”

Fox pulled out a handful of papers and spread them across Oswald’s desk. They were all files from various crime scenes.

“We suspect Nygma of having a hand in over a half-dozen robberies in the last two weeks. Mostly art galleries, museums, that sort of thing. Always the most valuable piece missing, and a riddle left in its place. And, on top of that, we suspect him of being involved in at least six murders of high-profile intellectuals.”

Oswald stared at the files. He felt a little light-headed. Splayed out in front of him he could see the lime-green spray paint of riddles on museum walls, like they spelled out Ed’s complete breakdown. What had happened to him in the few weeks since they’d parted?

“What evidence do you have that Ed was involved in any of these?” Oswald snapped. He could feel panic rising in his throat. He needed to get out of here so he could think for a moment.

“You’re not the only one in this town who knows Ed Nygma,” Harvey cut in. “This has him written all over it.”

You know more about mewho I am, who I wasthan any other human being on the planet.

“I flatter myself that I know Ed a little bit better than you, Detective,” Oswald said, sarcasm dripping from every syllable. “And I can say he wasn’t involved in any of these crimes.”

“How’s that?” Harvey demanded.

Oswald pointed at the dates in each of the files. “Ed was with me.” He lied.

Why am I doing this?

Harvey and Fox’s eyebrows shot up.

“Nygma was with you?” Fox asked. “All of these nights? All night?”

“That is generally how these things work, Mr. Fox, yes,” Oswald snapped. “Ed was with me.”

“I thought you and Nygma were on the outs,” Harvey said.

“As I said earlier, Detective, you thought wrong. Now please, I have quite a lot of work to do.”

Oswald pulled one of his own files toward him and opened it as though reading intently. Fox gathered up the files on his desk, and he and Harvey left but not before Harvey got in a parting shot: “I don’t know why you’re doing this, Penguin, but he wouldn’t do the same for you.”

Love is about sacrifice, Ed’s voice whispered in his ear. Oswald didn’t look up. The door shut behind him.

It was several minutes before he remembered that Ed had been trying to call him, earlier. He looked around for his phone, then remembered handing it to Tarquin.

“Tarquin!” he yelled, on the off-chance he was lurking nearby. No answer. He sighed, pushed himself to his feet, and grabbed his cane.

The door to Tarquin’s office was slightly ajar. Oswald had pushed it open and stepped inside before the contents of the office had fully registered.

On the floor in a growing pool of scarlet blood, was Tarquin. On the floor beside him, in green spray-paint were the words: an emerald demon, a damning feeling, a distorted reflection, a covetous yearning, what am I?

Oswald let out a rush of breath, half a sigh, and whispered: “Goddamnit, Ed.”

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

An emerald demon, a damning feeling, a distorted reflection, a covetous yearning, what am I?

Correct: Envy.

Now, riddle me this:

How could you replace me so easily?

Finally, riddle me this:

Why can’t I get you out of my head?

¿?

The chess tournament had been a joke. Just a little fun to bother the GCPD and taunt Jim Gordon for calling him a sidekick.

But nonetheless, something had happened that he had not been expecting.

Shorter than Bullock, but more striking in a well-cut black coat and deep blue shirt, was none other than Lucius Fox. Maybe the GCPD hadn’t given his job to a total imbecile after all. He had felt a smile spreading across his face.

“Oh, how interesting,” he had whispered.

On his way home, he’d taken a detour to finish moving the last of his things to his new hideout. The warehouse district was absolutely crawling with Penguin’s people, and he had no interest in Oswald finding out about any of his extra-curricular activities at the Gotham museums and art galleries, not when he was so close to finishing.

By the time he arrived back at his apartment, he still hadn’t determined what to do about Lucius Fox. He slipped off his jacket and his mask to hang them by the door.

The sound of his ringtone made him drop everything.

“I’m just calling to hear your voice,” Oswald says, and Ed can’t stop the stupid grin that spreads across his face.

“You saw me two hours and forty-eight minutes ago,” Ed says, pinning the phone between his ear and his shoulder as he wires a bomb bound for one of the less-cooperative Gotham crime families.

“Ages,” Oswald says.

“Eons, practically,” Ed agrees.

Back in his apartment Ed took a moment to breathe deep, trying to stop the shaking in his hands as he picked his fallen mask and jacket up again and hung them on the hook. Fatigue, he supposed. He hadn’t slept in… It didn’t matter. He would take another caffeine pill when the conversation was done, or maybe crack open another one of the bottles of Ritalin he had stashed in the drawer by the sink. He leaned against his kitchen counter, steadying his shaking legs.  

He answered the phone, dropping his voice to a low growl: “You’re late: he lied. “I expected this call seven minutes ago.” He hadn’t been expecting it until morning at the very earliest.

The voice that answered didn’t surprise him in the slightest: “This is Lucius Fox of the GCPD.”

“I know who you are, Mr. Fox,” he barely avoided sighing. This conversation was already tedious. Maybe Fox couldn’t pass his test after all. For a moment, he longed for Jim Gordon’s angry snarl. “And by the way, it’s bad manners to intercept other people’s mail.”

“You mean the telegram you sent Gordon. He’s not here. Who is this?”               

He nearly laughed at the audacity of the question. “You don’t actually expect me to answer that, do you?”

“Then tell me why you killed Professor Dyson and the others. I know it was you.” Fox wasn’t mincing words—he appreciated that.

“I had no choice. They failed my test. Now it’s your turn to try.”

“And if I don’t accept the invitation?”

Don’t play hard to get, Foxy; I’m not in the mood.

“There are lives at stake, Mr. Fox,” he growled. “Not just your own.” That ought to hook him. Heroes were so easy. “Now, listen closely. Tomorrow, when the pawn’s on queen, you’ll find my next target in the belly of the beast. Solve my clue, Mr. Fox, and you’ll be one step closer to passing my test.”

He hung up the phone.

“Do you take constructive criticism?” Oswald asked. Ed’s heart nearly stopped. “Because I have notes.”

He turned to see Oswald lounging in the wing-backed armchair he had scrounged up for his barren living room. With his long violet coat with an enormous fur collar, his blood red gloves, and his hair—had he dyed part of it purple?—standing up in perfect spikes, he looked like the King of some hidden fairy realm holding court in Ed’s living room. For a moment Ed was seized with a dreadful fear that he wasn’t real and another member had been added to his chorus of hallucinations.

“No,” He snapped. “What are you doing here? And how did you know where to find me?”

It was a stupid question, and Oswald arched his eyebrows to indicate that he would not be answering it.

“Well, Ed,” Oswald pushed himself to his feet using a cane Ed didn’t recognize and stood facing him across the kitchen counter. “Someone killed my chief-of-staff, this morning. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”

Oh, that. Ed had nearly forgotten.

“I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about,” Ed snapped. He wanted to turn away, but Oswald’s eyes held him in place.

“Oh,” Oswald said, in a falsely-magnanimous voice. “Of course. Of course. Wouldn’t have any clue who left a body and a riddle in my office? Nothing to do with you?”      

Ed shrugged.

“Uh huh,” Oswald nodded. “I see.” he raised his eyebrows and sighed.

“I’ve been looking at your plans, while you were off playing chess,” Oswald said, turning away to gesture at Ed’s wall of photos and blueprints. “This is a mistake, what you’re doing.”

“I don’t recall asking you.”

“I showed you how to be Ed Nygma, a man who could run the underworld and operate in plain sight. What you are planning is madness.”

An echo of a conversation ricocheted through the room: any completely insane thing you do to taunt a shadowy criminal cabal jeopardizes my power…

He shuddered. Oswald still didn’t get it. Even now, he was trying to keep Ed quiet, keep him out of the spotlight.

“No,” he spoke to chase away the echo of his own voice answering INSANE? “It’s a way forward. And the fact that it scares you, gives me all the confirmation I need.”

Oswald turned back to look at him. “Ed, you are not sleeping. You are acting erratically. You’re taking drugs!  Just admit that you are lost without me!”

Ed opened his mouth but couldn’t think of a response.

“And then there are your extracurricular activities,” Oswald continued. “How many are we up to now? Five? Six? There was the curator,” Oswald counted them off. “The writer—pretentious ass. You must be the first person in history to go on a killing spree in order to find a life coach.”

“So frustrating,” he muttered, over Oswald. “They all fit the profile—High I.Q., driven, creative. Yet each one failed.” He strode to the board and violently crossed out the Professor’s face.  

“Perhaps you should ditch the riddles,” Oswald suggested.

“No.” This was non-negotiable. “A good riddle reveals the asker. To solve it is to solve the mystery of the person posing it. If I can find someone to solve my riddles, I can find someone to help me.”

“Do you really think you’re gonna find someone who can teach you how to be a villain?” Oswald demanded.

“Yes!” Ed shouted, stepping forward and finding himself so close to Oswald’s face that he could see beads of water—had Oswald been crying?—clinging to his long eyelashes. “Of course I am. I know who I am. But knowing who I am… and knowing how to be him—those are separate things.”

“Ed, villains do not have teachers!” Oswald snapped. “I made myself into the Penguin when I threw Fish Mooney off a building. I didn’t have anyone’s help.”

“Oh, how interesting.” He could feel his mind spinning with this new information. “Perhaps I’m thinking about this all wrong.”

“Obviously,” Oswald sighed, leaning against the wall and crossing his arms.

“I don’t need a teacher,” he said. “I need an enemy.”

“No, that is not…” Oswald began, pinching the bridge of his nose.

“The greatest villains have always been defined by the men that try to stop them! And I know the perfect man.” He could feel the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end. He was onto something.

Yes. If he needed an enemy, he could do better than Oswald’s sloppy seconds. James Gordon, a corrupt cop with less conscience than he gave himself credit for, was hardly worth the effort. No, he’d expend his time and energy matching wits with none other than the incorruptible…  

“Lucius Fox,” he said aloud.  

Oswald sighed long and loud and straightened up, adjusting the front of his jacket. It was such a small, intimately familiar gesture that it made Ed’s chest ache. He turned away.

“Be careful, Ed,” Oswald said, and for a moment he sounded so sincere that Ed couldn’t help but turn back to look at him. “I mean it. There are people who would still use you to try to get to me, Fox and Bullock have already been asking questions, and I didn’t have a hard time finding you.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Ed snapped, retreating to safety behind the kitchen counter. “What does it matter to you what happens to me?” the question was an unfair one, designed to hurt, to throw Oswald’s condescending concern back in his face. Oswald’s expression shattered and turned to stone again in an instant.

“Call it a professional courtesy, then.”

“I don’t need your pity or your help, Oswald.”

“It wasn’t so long ago you were asking for my help, Ed,” Oswald snapped. “Don’t forget that.”

“Enough!” He slammed his hands down on the countertop. He was alarmed to discover his eyes stinging with unshed tears. “I will find a way forward no matter the cost. I will be born anew! And I will leave you behind.”

“I see you, Ed,” Oswald whispered, leaning close enough that Ed could see the mingled anger and worry in his eyes. “I’m the only one. You need me! There is no Ed Nygma without the Penguin!”

Ed seethed. “I don’t need you! I am my own person. Just because you’re lost without me doesn’t mean I feel the same way.”

He had never told a bigger lie.

“Who exactly do you think you’re dealing with, Ed Nygma?” Oswald snarled; Ed stepped back slightly, not accustomed to the full force of Oswald Cobblepot’s considerable ire being directed at him. “You are not as clever as you think you are, and you’re certainly not smarter than me.”

Ed laughed. “I’m smarter than everyone.”

Oswald’s face flushed scarlet and several expressions flickered across it in quick succession until an incredulous one settled there.

“Bullock was right, Ed.” When Oswald spoke it was in a low, threatening whisper. “You are arrogant. You think you’re better than everyone and that’s going to get you into trouble.”

Ed made a scoffing sound that reminded him too much of Oswald so it died in his throat halfway through.

Oswald shrugged. “Fish Mooney, Don Falcone, Don Maroni, they all thought they were smarter than me, too. And look where they are now.” His voice had raised to a threatening snarl. “So you can play around with the GCPD all you like, but don’t you test me, Ed Nygma, or you’ll regret it.”

“Are you threatening me?” Ed demanded. No part of him believed that Oswald would hurt him, but there are a lot of things you can do to a person without ever drawing blood or breaking a bone.

“I’m warning you,” Oswald said. “Call it a professional courtesy.”

He turned and left the apartment, letting the door slam against the wall behind him.

Ed didn’t know how long he stood in the dark, listening to the silence, after Oswald’s footsteps had faded away.

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

An eye lost and taken, karmic consequences hastened. Newton’s third, Hammurabi’s word. What am I?

Correct: Revenge.

Now, riddle me this:

Is there a difference between pettiness and teaching someone a lesson?

Finally, riddle me this:

What happened to the last person who underestimated me?

¿?

Oswald seethed.

“Who does he think he is?” he demanded, pacing back and forth in front of the empty fireplace. Victor Zsasz, the only person unfortunate enough to be in the house when Oswald had returned hours before, sat in an armchair knitting while Oswald ranted.

“What does he take me for?” Oswald continued. His leg burned but he couldn’t stop pacing. “Does he think I’m a moron? How does he think I got this far? Just because I can’t answer his stupid riddles…”

He stopped by the side table, breathing heavily, to pour himself a drink from a heavy crystal bottle. His hands were shaking so badly that he slopped liquor over his sleeve. Victor took the bottle out of his hands and set it safely on the side table.

“Who even cares about riddles?” he sighed.

“I like the riddles,” Zsasz said, half to himself.

“Why?”

Zsasz shrugged. “Keeps things interesting.”

Oswald closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Go home, Victor.” He didn’t open his eyes again until he heard the front door close behind him.

He lowered himself into Victor’s abandoned chair and rubbed his temples. He wasn’t crying, for a change. Maybe he just couldn’t work up the feeling. Or maybe he had other things to think about.

He let out a long, low breath, stood up, and shuffled to the kitchen. In Ed’s absence, the newspapers from the last weeks had piled up on the kitchen table, along with the dishes in the sink. He flipped one open and something else caught his eye:

No Leads in Riddle-Robber Case.

“What have you been up to, Ed?” Oswald muttered to himself, flattening the paper to read the whole story. The longer he read, the more he began to sense Ed’s design. From the sounds of it, no one had put it together, yet, but Oswald knew Gotham City and he didn’t need a map to see the pattern. At the end of the story, he got up to make himself a pot of tea—he had yet to make an attempt to use Ed’s coffee-maker.

It was the patterns, they always gave Ed away. In all their time together, Oswald had never known Ed to be capable of stopping a task halfway. Everything from reorganizing the house to designing the new filing system at City Hall had to be completed in precise and exacting fashion. These robberies, art galleries and museums all over Gotham City, weren’t about money any more than the bank robbery had been.

It was about the game. And Ed would play that game to completion. 

The kettle began to whistle.

A good heist isn’t about stealing anything, Oswald, Ed says, over the screaming kettle. He’s wearing an old t-shirt and washing dishes and he’s almost entirely soaked in dishwater. It’s about making people think you’ve stolen something and watching them flounder.

Ed, that doesn’t make sense. Oswald takes the kettle off the stove and fills the teapot. Don’t you want to use the things you steal?

What’s the point of that, Ed laughs. When we have so much here? We don’t need any money.

Then why steal anything at all?

For the fun of it, of course.

But, you’re not actually planning on stealing anything, are you? Oswald says, putting the kettle down.

…No, Ed says. No of course not. He wraps his arms around Oswald from behind and kisses his neck. It’s just something I think about.

Oswald took the kettle off the stove and turned off the element. Suddenly, he didn’t feel much like tea. He put the kettle on the counter and sat down at the table again. He shuffled through the papers until he found the one from the day after the bank robbery. The one that had published the riddle.

He tore it open until he found the words: I house hidden selves, dirty secrets, forgotten shelves. A place to hide, what’s lost lies inside. Where am I?  

And, for once, the answer came to Oswald after only a few minutes of thought: closet.

Ed hadn’t taken the money from the bank at all. He’d just moved it—hidden it in plain sight to embarrass the GCPD—to a supply closet of all places.  

It was as ridiculous as it was brilliant. He could see the grin twisting Ed’s face as he came up with the plan, intoxicated with his own cleverness. Oswald loved that look… He shook his head—no good ever came from those memories.

Instead, he turned back to the museum heist reports. He was certain Ed was doing the same thing with these new robberies, but where was his closet? The GCPD hadn’t released any of the riddles from the crime scenes, but it didn’t matter. Ed had said himself a good riddle reveals the asker. This wasn’t about solving a word puzzle, it was about knowing Ed, and in that, Oswald could not be beaten.

Everything he’d stolen so far was from a high-profile institution—well maintained, well attended—but Oswald wasn’t foolish enough to think Ed would stick to the valuable artifacts. That wasn’t what he cared about; Ed carried about making a pattern, playing a game, proving he was clever. He would be hiding all the artifacts together, a collection to admire when he was finished.

But where?

His first thought was a warehouse by the docks, but that was far too pedestrian for Ed and his new persona. No, he’d want it to be poetic. Like the bank’s money hidden in their own supply closet (a place wealthy bank owners would never visit), Ed would hide the artifacts inside one of the museums.

And it came to him: the police museum.

It was a rundown building on the edge of the Narrows—underfunded and falling apart, it had a few wings that were considered too structurally unsound to continue operating, and even the part that still accepted visitors saw very little activity. In fact, a request for more funding from the museum had crossed his desk just last week, and he had ignored it.

Until now.

Oswald could feel a grin curling the corners of his mouth upward.

“Not as clever as you, Ed?” he said to himself. “We’ll see about that.”

¿

In the end, it only took two phone-calls. One to the museum, and one to the GCPD. Oswald put on his best jacket, the one with the wide fur collar and violet tails, and brought the cane with the knife in the shaft for the ceremony announcing plans to renovate the crumbling wing.

He had insisted on the opening happen that very evening. They would cut a ribbon, take some photos, and the construction could get underway immediately.

No time for Ed to react.

Oswald grinned to himself as he settled in the place of honour at the opening.

“Mayor Cobblepot.” Lucius Fox lowered himself into the chair beside Oswald.

“Hello Mr. Fox,” he said. “How are you today?”

“I’m well, thank you,” he said. Oswald could hear trepidation in his voice. He bit back a smile.

They sat in silence for a moment.

“Why exactly am I here? I was told you requested me personally for the opening.” Fox spoke carefully; the directness of an interrogator and the tact of a diplomat.

“I found myself in need of a spokesman capable of commanding a great deal of respect, Mr. Fox,” Oswald said, equally careful. “And my options at the GCPD are rather limited in that vein, if you take my meaning.”

Fox lapsed into silence. Oswald could tell he didn’t believe him. Of course he didn’t; Fox was brilliant, that was why Ed was so obsessed with tricking him. And why this would bother Ed so much.

They sat through the speeches thanking Oswald, thanking the GCPD for their donations of artifacts throughout the years, thanking everything they possibly could, until the time came to cut the ribbon and open the doors.

Oswald stood up and took the enormous scissors from the woman at the podium. He and Lucius Fox stepped up to the door and turned for a moment to look out on the audience. In the back of the room, he saw him, failing spectacularly to blend in with some forest-green drapes. Oswald smiled broad and wide.

“It is my pleasure,” he said to the room at large, “to announce the official beginning of construction on the Oswald Cobblepot Discovery Wing of the Gotham Police Museum. May it be a memorial to all the cases solved and soon to be solved.”

He cut the ribbon, and Lucius Fox pushed open the door.

A gasp ran through the crowd. Oswald turned to look and had to school his face into something resembling shock, as a giddy grin threatened to tear it in half.

“Your move, Edward,” he whispered to himself.

He turned back to the crowd, and the figure in green was gone.

¿

It took Oswald several hours to make it back home, what with statements and interviews and feigning shock at the sudden appearance of every missing piece of art from the recent string of robberies. It was late by the time the limo driver dropped him off at the manor and he stumbled inside on aching feet and legs.

“I suppose you think that was funny.”

Oswald wasn’t surprised to find Ed in his living-room, sitting in the very chair Victor had occupied the night before.

“I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about, Edward,” Oswald said. He kicked off his shoes, unsure if he’d be able to bend down and unlace them without help that was certainly not forthcoming, and shed his jacket before gingerly lowering himself onto the couch and turning to look at Ed. He wasn’t wearing his mask or his stolen bowler hat.

Ed stood up and straightened his jacket. The room was dark, only the moonlight through the window shone on Ed’s green jacket. His eyes glinted cold in the half-light.

“How did you know?” he asked.

Oswald didn’t say anything. If Ed couldn’t figure it out, he wasn’t going to make it easier on him. Ed was supposed to like puzzles, after all.

“You found my plans, didn’t you?” he said, after a moment.

Oswald laughed and got to his feet again.

“No, Ed,” he said. “I didn’t need to.”

“You knew that I’d rob every museum.” Ed stepped closer, squinting as Oswald as though trying to see through him. “You knew I’d hide everything in one of them.”

“And all I had to do was remember which one had a closed wing,” Oswald finished, stepping forward so that they were inches apart. Ed smelled like mint and coffee-grounds, and disinfectant. “I know you, Ed.”

Ed’s eyes were watery and wide behind his glasses. He looked like he hadn’t slept in weeks.

“I may not be able to answer your riddles,” he continued. “But I know you and you are brilliant, but you are driven by something so very predictable: a desperate, compulsive need to complete what you’ve started in exacting fashion.”

“Why didn’t you just turn me in, Oswald?” Ed demanded. And Oswald was almost hurt by the insinuation.

“Because you think I’m weak, driven by emotions, unable to see the patterns and riddles, but you had to know: I beat you. And living with that knowledge is far more fitting revenge than rotting in Arkham.”

I would miss you, he didn’t say. I would be so alone without you.

“You underestimated me, Edward,” Oswald said, his voice a half-whisper. “I want you to remember never to make that mistake again.”

Ed’s pupils contracted ever-so-slightly and his eyes flicked down to Oswald’s lips.

Oswald knew what he was thinking. He had been thinking it too since he arrived home to find Ed back in his proper place in the living room.

But he wouldn’t let love weaken him. Not this time.

“Go home, Ed,” Oswald said, stepping back, trying not to see the hurt flicker across Ed’s face. “You can have your revenge on me tomorrow.”

Oswald turned away and walked out of the room.

“Oswald!” Ed called, but he didn’t turn back. He mounted the stairs, his victory burning ice-cold under his skin. “Oswald!”

He reached his bedroom—the one he’d used before he and Ed had set up their own space in the master—stepped inside and slammed the door behind him.

He sank to the floor, his back against the door, listening to the silence in the house as the night grew cold around him.

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

I am yours but rarely used except by others. What am I?

Correct: Your Name.

Now, riddle me this:

Now that I know my name, will the confusion finally end?

Finally, riddle me this:

Who am I?

¿?

He was very emphatically not thinking about Oswald. He was running dozens of potential outcomes for the day through his head simultaneously, very much not thinking about how long he’d stood in the living room of the Van Dahl manor, torn between anger and arousal, wanting to break a window and set the house on fire and follow Oswald upstairs, before he’d simply picked up his hat and disappeared into the cold night to drive through the streets in listless circles until he was exhausted enough to catch a few hours of sleep.

Yesterday had been an unqualified catastrophe. To have his hoard seized before he could complete the robberies disturbed him on a more profound level than he liked to admit. He felt twitchy, uncomfortable in his own skin like it was crawling all over him. He needed to start again, and soon. But first things first, he needed to embarrass the GCPD.

Saving face was important at this delicate stage when his reputation was being established. There would be time to plant stolen art in Oswald’s office another day.

He arrived at the cadet graduation just before the speeches.

The sight of Harvey Bullock, nervously rehearsing his speech, nearly made him laugh aloud. The only thing stopping him was the burning need to make a truly spectacular entrance. He had always fantasized about having one-up on Bullock. Killing him, now that would be easy—a brilliant opponent he was not—but humiliating him, making him suffer like he had suffered back in the days when he was Ed Nygma, now that would be truly sweet, and a balm to his wounded ego

He didn’t know whether Bullock would live or die through the day—that was up to Lucius Fox—but either way Bullock’s dignity would not make it out of the building intact.

He started to clap, slowly, as sarcastically as possible, at the punchline of Bullock’s insipid speech. Bullock turned to face him, and the look of apprehension on his face made him grin with glee.

“Who the hell are you?” Bullock demanded.

“Well,” he began, trying to get his giddy excitement under control, the mask was working beautifully, “isn’t that just the question?”

“Listen, I don’t have time for this right now. I have to make an address. So, either tell me what you want or piss off.” Bullock spoke with an impressive attempt at conviction.

The sound of a phone ringing cut through the air.

“Oh,” he said, plucking the phone from Bullock’s hands and transferring it to his inner pocket. His fingers caught on the chloroform-soaked handkerchief tucked in there. “Lucius Fox. Must be about me.”

It was the work of moments to slap the handkerchief to Bullock’s mouth and nose and drag him into the wings of the theater. Moments more to tie him up and shove a gag in his mouth. The power he felt manhandling someone a now-dead version of himself had always been afraid of, was absolutely intoxicating. And this was only the beginning of what he had planned for Bullock. But, his theatrics were not yet complete—Bullock would have to wait.

He may not have known who he was, may not even have had a name, but he knew one thing: he belonged on stage.

He approached the mic and tapped it with one long, purple-gloved finger. How a man in a mask could step up to the podium without a single cop-ling thinking to call in backup eluded him, but he supposed it explained something of why Gotham was such an easy city for a career criminal to make his start.

“Hello, cadets,” he said, liking the sound of his voice reverberating back at him, loving the eyes glued to him. He wondered how Ed Nygma had lived all those years shirking notice: the spotlight looked good on him.

“I’m… Well, it doesn’t matter who I am. Captain Bullock’s… tied up.” He never could resist a pun. “What a day. Eh? You all look just dandy in your uniforms. How do I look?”

The only thing I like better than you in a suit is you when you’ve taken it off. Oswald’s voice echoed at him from not-so-long-ago.

He laughed, nervously.

“I have one question for all of you.” This was his favourite part. The question. The moment between question and answer, when a miracle was possible—when a bright light in the crowd could send him packing with a single word. “Light as a feather, yet no man can hold it long. What am I?”

A murmur went through the crowd. And silence.

“Well.” He shouldn’t have been surprised, let alone disappointed. “No future commissioners here. The answer is…”

He slipped the canisters from his pocket and rolled it down the aisle, irrationally disappointed that not a single cadet thought to shout clear the room or anything remotely useful. The sparks of the canisters igniting and the hiss of the gas were his queue:

“… your breath.”

Honestly. Cadets these days—they were just letting anyone into the academy.

He pulled on his gas mask and went to collect Detective Bullock.  

?

Right on time, his phone rang.

“Hello,” he said into the phone, pitching his voice low so that it was almost a growl. Foxy hadn’t disappointed him. Maybe he was a worthy opponent after all.

“Only one person refers to me as Foxy.” His voice was level—calm. Unaccusatory.

He knew Lucius couldn’t identify him to a court. It didn’t matter. Besides—Ed Nygma was dead.

Oh, don’t be so dramatic, Kristen whispered.

“I have gassed a room full of folks with a deadly toxin.” He looked at Bullock, hanging over the banister of the staircase, experiencing the sensation of falling without the satisfaction of hitting the ground. “I cordially invite you to come upstairs and play a game with me for the antidote. This is a game between me and you. Come upstairs alone, or the cadets and Bullock die.”

An exaggeration—about the cadets, at least—but a worthy one. It heightened the tension. Bullock made a sound like a dying animal. He nearly laughed at that. He leaned over the banister of the stairs to wait, looking at the spiraling steps down, down.

Bullock struggled and kicked beside him, clearly too stupid to realize that getting free meant falling to his death.

He was spared the necessity of telling Bullock this when Lucius Fox burst onto the landing.

“Well,” he said, excitement burning in his chest. “Look who it is. I’m so glad you decided to play.” He brandished his gun, almost as an afterthought, keeping Fox on the steps below him.

“Are you okay, Harvey?” Fox asked.

He nearly rolled his eyes. Bullock nodded—a lie, but a brave one. He wouldn’t be brave for long, though.

“Look at him,” he sighed. “He’s fine.”

“I want to hear Harvey say he’s okay.” Foxy was practically reading from the textbook on hostage situations. He sighed and rolled his eyes to the ceiling. But, he’d bite. It wasn’t as though Bullock could help him with the riddles.

 He pulled the tape off Bullock’s mouth.

“Don’t try and outsmart this lunatic, Lucius!” Bullock shouted.

He didn’t hit Bullock, but it was a near miss. He gripped the banisher tighter.

“Cadets’ lives are at stake,” he reminded them.

“Let’s begin.” When Foxy spoke, he was suddenly reminded why precisely it was he called him Foxy. Clever, certain, and so very good.

“Wonderful,” he hissed. “I will give you three riddles.”

You are ridiculous, Kristen whispered.

“For every riddle you get wrong, I cut a rope.”

You were never this dramatic when we were together. A quieter kind of weird.

“You get three wrong,” he continued over the sound of her voice, opening his knife to underscore his point, “and this excuse for a higher primate and the antidote,” he tapped the bottle of grape juice around Bullock’s neck, “around his neck…” he whistled low and long and was gratified to see Foxy swallow nervously. “… fall over the ledge.” He looked down. It was rather a long way. “Wow.” He whistled again. “Am I clear?”

“And if I get them right?” Foxy—always asking the right questions.

Careful there, Eddie, Kristen whispered. The bird’s going to get jealous.

“Everyone lives!” He shouted in response. And I have purpose again. I have an enemy.

Everyone lives, Kristen laughed. Everyone except me, you mean.

“Even if you get just one,” he added. Clearly three was beyond Gotham’s best and brightest. “Can’t say fairer than that.”

“Okay,” Foxy nodded slowly.

He retracted the knife and shoved it in his pocket: “wonderful.”

He drummed his hands on the bannister but stopped when he heard Kristen’s laugh from somewhere behind him.

“First riddle…”

It was going fine. The script rolled off his tongue easier than it had before. He was suddenly glad he’d had so much practice. Expansive gestures, good rhythm, he was a born showman. Everything was fine until:

“The answer’s love.”

I’m worthless to one but priceless to two. I can’t be bought but I can be stolen with a glance, what am I? The memory knocked the wind of him.

He is sitting at the end of his bed, looking at Oswald, half-asleep, moonlight on freckled skin. He is making a heart in the air with his fingers, and his own heart pounds like a jack-hammer in his chest. He is waiting for an answer. Waiting.

“What?” he breathed. “No. No!” he shouted as if he could shout the memory away. “The… the answer is…”

He is standing next to the burning Iceberg Lounge, trying to breathe through the ash…

“Loneliness!” A word so much a part of him now that he felt as though it rushed out of him with every icy breath. “How do you not know that?!”

He couldn’t hear Bullock’s protests as he cut the rope. Couldn’t hear anything over the sound of another voice in his ears whispering, tentative… is the answer love? … Did I get it?

“Ask me another,” Foxy demanded.

He took a steadying breath.

“Okay. Second riddle.” He shook himself a little. “I can be a member of a group, but can never blend in. What am I?

“A snowflake.”

It is snowing outside of Arkham as Oswald half-walks, half-carries him to the getaway car, hidden around back. Snowflakes spiral down, down, building up on the fur collar of Oswald’s coat, and clinging to his eyelashes as he looks up at him, it’s just a little further, Ed, I promise. I’m taking you home.

“A sn—” he swallowed and snapped in a voice that cracked. “No! No! No! The answer is an individual!”

“Wait!” Fox shouted. “Snowflake is also a suitable answer. No two are alike, making them by definition, individuals—therefore and answer befitting your riddle.”

Snow falls softly onto his shoulders and onto the top of the grave in front of him. What do you think, Gertrud? he asks the grave. Where is he? he thinks. Why am I so alone? The stone reads, in large block letters: Gertrud Kapelput.

He squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed them with his fingers as best he could considering the mask.

“Okay,” he snapped, dragging himself back to the surface. “I don’t think you grasp how this works.” He flipped out the knife again and briefly considered jamming it into the side of Bullock’s neck and feeling the heat of the arterial spray on his face. He was suddenly so cold. “You have to give my answer.”

He cut the second rope.

“Oswald was right,” he muttered to himself.

I know you, Ed. Oswald’s voice whispered in his ear.

“He’s the only one…” he trailed off. It was a complete sentence. “No.” He breathed deep. This was his debut as a criminal in his own right. No more riding the Penguin’s coattails. His game, his riddles, his rules. He stormed back to the banister. “It’s just you! You aren’t a good enough enemy!” He was brandishing a gun at Fox before he realized he’d taken it out of his pocket. “No. No.” this wasn’t right. There were RULES for a REASON. He retreated back up the stairs, the image of snowflakes caught on long lashes flashing in front of his face. “No. Three riddles. Three answers. Those are the rules. Okay. Final riddle.” The gun was no longer in his hand. “I feel your every move, I know your every thought, I’m with you from birth, and I’ll see you rot. What am I?”

“What did you do, Ed?” Fox asked, his voice so soft he almost missed it.

“That’s not my name,” he said. Nearly a reflex.

Wow, that mask is working great, Kristen whispered.

“What happened between you and Penguin?” Fox tried again.

Fire. He had been cold and now he was burning. So much fire. Ashes on his hands, on his arms, all over his body, burning into his soul. The smell of smoke would never come off, not even if he flung himself into the river.

He shuddered, trying to right himself.

“Something happened, didn’t it?” Fox was still talking.

He couldn’t see, there was smoke in his eyes. He tried to rub it out, but he couldn’t see.

“Did you burn down the nightclub?”

Love is about sacrifice.

“You did, didn’t you?” Something in Fox’s voice sounded dangerously like pity.

He exhaled. Back to the script. “I feel your every thought—”

Well, that much is true, Kristen cut in.

“I feel your every move,” he corrected himself.

That too.

“I know your every thought.” If he just kept talking, Fox would answer the riddle and he could stop feeling so confused. He just needed someone to answer the riddle. “I’m with you from birth, and I’ll see you rot. What am I?”

“A reflection.”

His own face, leering back it him from the mirror in his bedroom wearing a grin not-quite-his. He feels the mask burning into his skin around his eyes, but in the mirror it is still Ed Nygma looking back at him.

But, he breathed out slowly in relief. An answer.

“Correct.”

Bullock’s scream and the sound of a snapping rope reminded him that there was a third person in the room.

“Oops,” he managed, as the chair pitched forward, threatening to send Bullock to an untimely and undignified death at the bottom of a staircase.

But, none of that mattered. His work was done. He had an enemy.

He turned and fled the scene.

He took a long walk through the city, avoiding the smoking crater of a nightclub in the Diamond District, and the cries of gulls along the docks. Instead, he would his way through the Narrows, pacing. Thinking. What did he know about Lucius Fox? The reflection that gave his criminal career meaning. The angel to his demon.

And what did that make him?

Who are you?

Fox’s car wasn’t hard to find, but he didn’t reach it until the sun was already setting over the tops of the tall towers that loomed over the center of Gotham. Breaking in was almost comically simple.

Waiting was… Less so. His gangly limbs did not fold easily into the back of the tiny car. But he managed. He rested his head on the seat and waited. If he were a different sort of person, he might have drifted off to sleep.

He didn’t.

It wasn’t long before Fox arrived.

“Hello, Foxy,” he spoke softly. This was it. It was finally time to reveal his new identity to the world. He chuckled and held up his gun. Fox didn’t look nearly frightened enough.

“So,” Fox said, like the two of them were sitting across from each other in a cafeteria, “the antidote around Bullock’s neck, that turned out to be grape juice.”

He laughed. It had been one of his better ideas. Purple always seemed like such a dramatic colour.

Hmm, why is that, do you think? Kristen asked.  

“And the deadly toxin: plain old knockout gas.” Fox sounded confused. “Why the charade?”

“Well, the point wasn’t to kill a bunch of cops,” he sighed. Fox was a worthy opponent, it was true, but he had only solved one of the three riddles. “The point was to have you play my game.”

Eddie, this is pathetic, Kristen sighed.

“But you killed Penguin’s chief-of-staff; that was you, wasn’t it?” Fox said, and there was that note of pity again. “And you killed Professor Dyson and the others. Why?”

He knew entrapment when he saw it, so he asked a question instead.

“Have you always been Foxy, Foxy?” he realized what it sounded like after it left his mouth.

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“All my life…”

Oh, here we go, Kristen sighed. Pull up a chair, we’ll be here for a while.

“… I felt like there was someone inside of me, someone stronger and… and smarter.”

Not looking that way from here, Eddie.

“Someone that people would fear.”

Get to sleep kids, or the Chess Killer will sneak into your rooms and organize your closet rhizomatically.

“No one else saw that.”

“Except Penguin?”

“Except Oswald.” He breathed it like a confession, and for once Kristen was silent. The roaring loneliness inside his head was almost deafening.

“So why did you leave him?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Foxy.” The answer came out of his mouth like someone else had said it.

“With Oswald gone, is that the role I’m meant to fill? To be your reflection?”

“No.” He could feel the excitement building inside him. It was time. “Because I know who I am. I know how to be him. And you helped that. So, thank you.”

“Ed,” Fox said, and turned in his seat to face him. “Or, whoever you are. You killed six people.”

“I’m not Ed.”

“Seven, including Penguin’s chief-of-staff.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Ed,” Fox continued. “If you’re still in there. If there’s any part of your mind that is not insane, listen to me. You need help. Turn yourself in.”

“My actions seem… mad to you?”

YES, Kristen was back, shouting over Fox’s more measured: “to anyone.”

“I… I just…” they were so LOUD, Kristen and the other unnamed voices screaming in his ears. “Destroyed the best life I have ever had.”

Come back to bed, Ed, I’m cold! The feeling of gentle hands on his shoulders, guiding him under warm covers.

“My search for a teacher or an enemy,” he wanted to cry, to curl up in this car seat and sob until the memories stopped burning through him, “that was just me trying to hold onto it for a little bit longer.”

Reaching down, down, down into the ice water. Please come back. Oh god, what have I done? “But now I know who I am without him.”

“So, who are you now?” Fox asked. Pity. So much pity in the eyes of the man he was holding a gun to.

“Oh, come on, Foxy,” he said, his voice so thick with anticipation he nearly couldn’t speak. Anticipation to finally speak the answer to the riddle that had plagued him since he had watched the Iceberg Lounge go up in flames, perhaps for his entire life:

“I’m the Riddler.”

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

When you are alone, I am burden, though I am weightless. On the court I am worth nothing but valued at jewels and gold. What am I?

Correct: Love.

Now, riddle me this:

What is it about love that makes us do things that don’t make any sense?

Finally, riddle me this:

Why am I doing this?

¿?

Oswald heard about Ed’s new little club a week before it actually opened its doors. He convinced himself he didn’t care about it, pretended he wasn’t interested when Cat brought him news about the plans, but still sent her away with a handful of cash and the instructions to “keep me updated, if you want to, not that it matters, really” which earned him and eye-roll and a “sure thing, Penguin.”

After it opened, he ignored it for nearly five whole days. But, in that time, it became the talk of the Narrows and he told himself he could no longer ignore something so important to his constituents.

On the 6th day, a Friday night, Oswald got dressed and went to the Narrows. Ed wasn’t the only one who could dress for attention. That was how he ended up opening the doors to a damp, run-down, underground club wearing what Fish used to call his battle armour. A black suit that shone deep purple when the spotlights hit it, enough eyeliner to stop a derisive stare in its tracks, violet gloves that drew the eye to the heavy diamond head of his cane.

He stepped inside and those at the back of the room turned to look and immediately stepped aside to let him pass. He held up his hand to signal to them—wait, not yet. The spotlight turned on as Ed took the stage. It was a patch-work set-up, certainly, but Oswald couldn’t help but notice that it was absolutely packed with people all suddenly silent, as Ed prepared to speak. How had he gotten such an enthusiastic crowd so quickly?

Ed put on the bowler hat—Oswald’s hat.

“What time is it?” he shouted to the crowd.

“Riddle time!” they shouted back. Oswald nearly laughed out loud. Riddle time?

“What time is it?” Ed shouted again.

“Riddle time!” they chorused again. Oswald looked around, baffled. These were the people of the Narrows, the toughest of Gotham’s underworld, the most jaded in a city of cynics, and here they were playing a parlor game with Ed Nygma?

“That’s right! It’s riddle time at… The Riddle Factory!” Ed shouted and the crowd shouted with him. Oswald could just barely see through the crowd that Ed was wearing his mask. He was here as the Riddler. And these people were here to see him.

“Our first contestant is… Lars!” Ed gestured at an enormous man in a leather jacket taking the stage. “From the now defunct biker gang, the Street Demonz. It’s been a rough go of it lately, huh, Lars?”

“I’ve fallen on hard times,” Lars admitted.

Oswald was mesmerized. He couldn’t fathom where this was going.

“But I’m damn happy to be here with you, Riddler!” he said.

“It’s still a ridiculous name,” Oswald muttered under his breath.

“That’s the Narrows spirit I love,” Ed said. “Now, you know the rules. I ask a riddle. You answer correctly, you ask me one. You win ’em both, and you’re walking out of here with cold hard cash!”

The crowd cheered and, Oswald had to admit, Ed seemed to have them all wrapped around his finger. He was a natural showman.

“Lila,” he said to the woman Oswald had only just noticed shared the stage with Ed. “Prepare the timer.”

A hush fell over the room and Ed picked up the hat again, resting it only partway on his head. The spotlight illuminated his sharp cheekbones beneath the domino mask.

“I am heavy forward, but backward, I am not. What am I?”

A ton. Ed says, straining to maneuver the bookshelf into place beside the bed. This thing weighs a ton.

The woman started the timer.

Lars didn’t know the answer, that much was painfully obvious. He repeated pieces of the riddle to himself on a loop, sweat pouring from his face, as though it would come to him if he just said it enough times.         “You got this, Lars!” someone from the crowd shouted. But it was plain he did not.

“Okay, wait. Wait, wait, wait,” he said. “Wait a minute. No, no. I know this.”

Oswald smiled to himself. Ed wouldn’t acquiesce to him begging for more time; that would be against the rules.

The time was running out and Lars still wasn’t answering. Ed stood like a statue with his back to the crowd, waiting. Oswald could imagine all too easily the disappointment burning in them.  

“It’s the hourglass!” Lars finally shouted.

Oswald chuckled.

Ed turned to face the crowd, his arms spread wide. The silence in the room was palpable.

He pointed his thumbs down like a Roman Emperor and, in the distance, a buzzer sounded. Wrong.

The crowd groaned in sympathy, but Oswald could sense their excitement, barely buried, and wondered what would happen now.

“The answer is ton. T-O-N. Backwards, I am ‘not.’” the sound of Ed’s voice explaining the riddle was so familiar. Oswald shivered. “Sorry, Lars.”

“Spin the wheel! Spin the wheel!” A few in the back began the chant and soon the whole place with shaking with it. “Spin the wheel! Spin the wheel!”

Ed touched his finger to his ear and they screamed louder.

Was this what Ed had wanted all along? Cheering, applause, attention? Was this all he had been asking for?

“You hear ‘em, Lars? It’s time to spin The Wheel of Misfortune!” Ed shouted. “Lila, please.” And the woman spun the enormous wooden wheel at the back of the stage.

It clicked to a stop and Ed grinned.

“My personal favourite,” he said. “Rabid sack of rats!”

The crowd applauded and a few laughed. Ed laughed too and a pair of guards dragged Lars offstage. He was soaking up the adulation, the cheap thrills for a cheap audience. Oswald had seen enough. He stepped forward.

“Enough!” he shouted. The crowd parted like a sea in front of him and someone swung a spotlight to point at him. There was an audible intake of breath and whispers of my god, is that Penguin?

Ed, to his credit, took his appearance in stride. “Mayor Cobblepot,” he said, in his smooth stage voice, so different than the excited babble that comprised most of Ed’s daily commentary. “What brings Your Majesty down to our rabble?”

Oswald shrugged. “Just checking in. Haven’t seen you since the museum opening; thought I’d drop by.”

Ed stepped down from the stage to stand in front of him. “Well, I’m doing far better than Lars, that’s for sure… The rats are a metaphor, of course. He’s fine.”

Oswald could still see bags under his eyes, but at least he no longer appeared to be shaking.

“Oh, and I’m far better than your chief-of-staff. Poor man. What was his name, again?”

Oswald had suddenly had enough of the pleasantries.

“What the hell is this? Operating an unauthorized gambling den in my city? Whatever you’re doing here, it’s over.”

Ed grinned and Oswald only just barely managed to hold his ground. “Oh, I don’t think so, Oswald. These used to be your people, but you forgot about them when you took City Hall—and you left them free for the taking.” He stepped back onto the stage: “People of the Narrows,” he said. “Our king has just informed me he wants to shut us down. How do you feel about that?”

He put his hand to his ear as the crowd booed. He walked back to Oswald and whispered: “you hear that? That’s the sound of democracy. The people have spoken.”

Oswald rolled his eyes. But now he was stuck. He’d made the mistake of demanding something he couldn’t achieve and now he had two choices—either insist and get beaten by an angry mob of quiz-enthusiasts or walk away and endure the loss-of-face that might lose him key support in the Narrows.

Or…

“Okay,” he said, before he could think too hard about this mad plan. He pushed past Ed and mounted the stage. “You want to be entertained?” He shouted to the crowd. Ed might be a showman, but he was still new at this, and this was Oswald’s city: “Then I’ll beat him.”

The crowd inhaled as one.

“You can’t be serious,” Ed hissed. “You realize what happens when you lose?”

“Yeah, the wheel. That was pretty clear.” Oswald shrugged again and leaned forward on his cane, right into Ed’s space. “But if I win, you shut this place down… And while you’re at it, surrender any prophets you made this week to me.”

The crowd erupted into chaos—money changed hands like lightning. Shouts of “Riddler! Riddler!” and “I’ve got good odds on Penguin!” filled the room. Oswald met Ed’s eyes. He smiled a little to himself and stepped up beside him.

“We have our next contestant!” he shouted, gesturing dramatically at Oswald. Oswald rolled his eyes.

“People of the Narrows,” Ed said to the hushed crowd. “A gauntlet has been laid at the Riddler’s feet. Our illustrious Mayor, and less illustrious leader, Oswald Cobblepot, wants to take us over and shut us down.”

“Please, let’s get on with this.”

“Your wish is my command.” Ed winked at him, then shouted to the crowd: “What time is it?”

“Riddle time!”

The spotlight was hot on Oswald’s face and his overworked, overanxious mind had finally caught up with his body. Maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea after all.

“What time is it?”

“Riddle time!”

“Lila...” Ed paused. He looked at Oswald for a moment and Oswald saw something like worry flash across Ed’s face. He didn’t have the brain power to interrogate what it was going there. He needed to focus.  

Oswald tried to breathe deep, to focus, and to look bored all at the same time.

“I can be broken…” Ed began. “Without being held. Given and then taken away. Some people use me to deceive, but when delivered, I am the greatest gift of all. What am I?”

He turned and pointed directly at Oswald. The timer turned with a loud thunk. And Oswald’s mind went entirely blank.

Oswald watched the green sand run and looked down at his own hands gripping the podium.

This isn’t about the words, this is about Ed.

“You stumped?” Ed asked.

“Of course,” Oswald snapped sarcastically. “You are the Riddler after all.” Ed’s eyes widened slightly when Oswald used his assumed name.

“So, you give up?”

And Oswald saw it—like lightning across a clear sky, there and gone—fear. Ed was worried he wouldn’t pass.

“No,” he said, a smile turning up the corner of his mouth. “I don’t. You won’t let me lose.”

Ed laughed. “Really? That’s your play? What makes you think that?” But he looked off-kilter.

“Because deep down, you don’t want me to.” Oswald said. He was gambling big here; his whole body felt like a tinderbox ready to go up in flames at the snap of Ed’s fingers.

“Oh,” Ed chuckled. “So that’s your plan? To appeal to…” He trailed off and pointed at his head. “Well you played the wrong hand, Mr. Mayor. Those days are over and I will not be manipulated by you anymore.”

“I didn’t manipulate you,” Oswald said. “I loved you.”

“No.” He snapped. “No. You used me. You… You just wanted… You didn’t…” He growled in frustration, looking for a moment as though Oswald was the one asking the impossible riddles. “You promised you loved me and you failed the test. I believed you. I believed you.He turned away and spoke again to the crowd. “Okay, you have ten seconds left to find your answer.”

But Oswald had found it. Ed had given it to him.

“So prepare to lose, Penguin.”

“But I know the answer, now.” Oswald said, sadly. “You just gave it to me.”

“What are you talking about?”

“A promise,” Oswald said. His throat was hoarse and his voice constricted, but it carried well enough. “That’s the answer. A promise.”

Ed didn’t turn to the crowd, didn’t break eye-contact with Oswald, just stuck out his arm, and turned his thumb up. Oswald breathed a sigh of relief.

“Well played, Oswald,” he muttered, just barely audible over the cheers. “We’re only halfway through. And I assure you, you will not stump me.”

You’re not playing the game, you’re playing Ed.

Oswald wasn’t going to beat Ed. He could barely solve a riddle given a week to think about it and several tries, let alone write one in the spur of the moment.  

But he didn’t need Ed to not know the answer. He needed Ed to not say the answer.

C’mon, do you give up? Ed’s chin rests on his folded hands and he blinks owlishly at Oswald, who has not had nearly enough coffee to be having this conversation. But he isn’t totally irredeemable. He knows this one.

Oswald nearly smiled. He would have, if his chest didn’t ache so much.

“Need a little time to think, Mr. Mayor?”

“No,” Oswald said, leaning harder on the podium. “I’m ready.”

Ed’s eyebrows shot up: “Then ask away.”

“What three words are said too much… Meant by few, but wanted by all?” It was one of Ed’s riddles. One Oswald had heard many times. And it was a dirty trick. But Ed didn’t fight fair, so neither would he. He watched what colour there was drain from Ed’s face.

“That’s your riddle?” he was trying to make it sound like a scoff but it came out a little more strangled than that.

Oswald nodded.

“You’re kidding, right?”

He shook his head. “What the answer, Riddler?”

“Easy,” Ed whispered. And then stopped as though he’d choked on the words. He looked down and back up again. “The answer is…”

“Is what?” Oswald pressed.

“You tricked me.” Ed breathed. And Oswald couldn’t tell if he was impressed or furious or somewhere in between. “You’re trying to awaken something that’s… It’s gone, Oswald.”

“If it’s gone then say it,” Oswald shrugged. “No big deal.”

“No.”

The jeers from the crowd reminded Oswald there were other people in the room. Oswald shrugged. “Time’s up.”

The sand ran out.

“I didn’t beat the game, Ed,” he whispered the name so that only Ed could hear. “I beat you. And don’t you forget it.”

Ed turned and walked offstage. The crowd cheered for Oswald who rolled his eyes.

“Go home,” he shouted at them. And then, to himself: “I need a drink.”

In the car outside he told the driver to go to Siren’s.

“So,” Victor said from the seat across from him. “How’d it go?”

“Shut up.”

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

I am told by hands and forgotten by hearts. I stretch the space between heartbeats and the length of the universe. What am I?

Correct: Time.

Now, riddle me this:

What if I didn’t have to do this all on my own?

Finally, riddle me this:

Can I have a second chance?

¿?

“What is he doing with him?” Riddler muttered, not as under-his-breath as he had intended, because it caught Tabitha and Barbara’s attention.

“Aww, poor baby,” Barbara teased, sticking out her lip in a pout. “Get upstaged by Jim Gordon?”

“I know the feeling,” Tabitha said.

“Never, baby.” Barbara leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. Riddler couldn’t help but glance at Oswald, who was leaning ever-closer to Gordon, whose face he could not see.

Riddler had gone straight from the Narrows to Siren’s and ordered three consecutive rounds of something green and fizzing. The next night, he came back and did the same thing. And the night after. Sometime in the middle of the second round on the third night, Oswald had made his entrance and gone immediately to the corner booth that housed none other than a particularly broody-looking Jim Gordon. Every time the two of them leaned closer together to speak, Riddler wanted to rip Gordon’s arms off and feed them to him. 

Just as he was thinking this, Gordon stood up to go.

“Why haven’t any of us killed him yet?” he asked. It was only partially rhetorical.

Tabitha shrugged.

“Those big sad eyes,” Barbara sighed. “They get me every time.”

Riddler frowned.

“Why don’t you just talk to Penguin?” Tabitha sighed. “This is pathetic.”

Riddler turned to glare at her.

“I’m not jealous!” he said. Judging by the unimpressed grimaces Barbara and Tabitha shot him, it sounded just as much like a lie to them as it did to him.

Riddler waved his hand airily at them and left the bar, but only to circle around to the entrance just in time to intercept Gordon. He grabbed Jim by the elbow. “A word, detective?” he hissed.

Gordon threw his head back in what looked like a mixture of despair and resignation.

“Sure, Ed,” he sighed, and Riddler steered him into a dark alcove and pushed him against the wall.     

“What do you want with Oswald?” he demanded.

Gordon rubbed his eyes and sighed. “Nothing, Ed.”

Riddler laughed. “I don’t believe that.”

“That’s not my problem.”

Riddler pushed him a little harder. Gordon didn’t react.

“Why are you talking to him?”

“I thought you two were on the outs,” Gordon said. “If you care so much about what he’s doing with me, why don’t you talk to him?”

“That’s not,” Riddler stammered. “It’s not the… Listen… You’re not… I’m…”

“Mhm…” Gordon said, pushing Riddler’s hand off his shoulder. “Take care of yourself, Ed.”

Riddler stood there, staring at the place Gordon had been, as Gordon walked away.

He wasn’t ready to talk to Oswald. Nothing had changed. They were still antitheses—Oswald never could see the beauty of making trouble just for the sheer joy of it. And he certainly couldn’t see the beauty of Riddler’s plans for Gotham City.

All the same, something in his chest ached terribly, looking across the bar at Oswald.

No, he told himself. That was Ed Nygma. You’re better than that. You’re not controlled by your emotions like he was.

You’re a bad liar, Eddie, Kristen whispered.

He lifted a glass off a table on his way back into the bar and tilted the rest of the drink—something blue and filled with tequila—into his mouth, trying to drown the memories of piano-playing into the late evening and laying under warm covers as the sun rose over the City.

He put the glass down and tried to look anywhere but at Oswald.

“Can I buy you a drink?”

“Pardon?”

Riddler turned toward the voice, and his heart nearly stopped.

“Miss Kringle?” He said it before he had really thought about it. But certainly, it was her. For an instant, Riddler was launched back to the moment he’d first opened the door to the GCPD record-room to introduce himself to the new archivist.

The less of me you have the more I’m worth, what am I? He blurts out nervously, and she turns around, startled.

Excuse me?

It’s a riddle. He stands in the doorway, afraid to advance any further, holding his file-folder in front of him like a shield. His heart pounds hard and fast and he feels light-headed. Do you… do you know the answer?

Uh… No.

Friendship! He says, and then laughs his forced, nervous little chuckle. I hope we’ll be friends, Miss…

Kringle. Kristen Kringle.

Kristen Kringle, KK. Ed, is my name. Nygma.

Hi.

She had white hair, swept back in an elegant knot, not a curly red ponytail, and she wasn’t wearing glasses, but she was Kristen Kringle.

“No,” she answered. He felt the room was tilting slowly on its axes. A profound sense of vertigo overwhelmed him. “Oh, no. My name’s Isabella. Um, I’m sorry to bother you; I don’t usually talk to people. There’s just, um, something about you.”

She turned to walk away and he found his tongue.

“No, no, please. There’s… There’s no need to apologize. You just… You remind me of someone that I used to know. A long time ago.”

So long. Another lifetime, another him. He looked into his glass. How much had he had to drink? Surely not that much. He ran through the periodic table in his head—still sober.

“You struggle to regain me. When I’m lost… you struggle to obtain me. What am I?” she asked and looked up at him through long eyelashes.

“Time,” He answered. And, for the first time since he’d walked out of the Van Dahl manor those weeks ago, he felt a flicker of something other than the oppressive fear and loneliness that had wrapped around his chest. “I’m Edward,” he said, barely stumbling over the name at all. “Edward Nygma.” He smiled.

They talk for… It could have been hours or minutes, he wasn’t sure, but it must only have been minutes, because the bar was still packed with people when he went to get drinks for the both of them. Isabella was a librarian, she did the crossword every morning, and she loved riddles. She had answered all three he’d told so far correctly—not even Kristen had managed that.

He started back and heard something that nearly stopped his heart.

“Really, I should thank you for brightening Ed’s spirits. He has been so down since he got out of Arkham.”

Oswald.

He pushed through the crowd in time to hear Isabella reply, “Edward… was in Arkham?”

“You don’t know? It was front-page news.”

“Oswald!” He cut in, putting a glass down for Isabella and downing most of his. “So good to see you. What are you doing here?”

“Oh, just speaking with your… friend.” Oswald cast a derisive glance at Isabella.

Oswald looked good tonight. The deep purple pattern on his waistcoat gleamed subtly under the lights in Sirens. He cursed himself for noticing it.

“Yes, I can see that.” His voice was clipped.

“Uncanny how much she looks like the last one, isn’t it?” Oswald said, flashing him a grin that Ed—no, Riddler—despised for making hot desire pool in his gut: the grin Oswald always wore before playing his winning hand. “It’s that swan-like neck. You do love a neck, don’t you, Ed?”

“Oswald, can I speak with you alone, please?” He grabbed Oswald by the upper arm. “Excuse us.” He said over his shoulder to Isabella, who rubbed the back of her neck nervously.

He dragged Oswald—gently, at a pace that wouldn’t hurt him, he wasn’t a monster—around a different corner into a darker alcove and pushed him against a wall. The knife in his hand pressed against Oswald’s collar, not his skin, and Oswald’s didn’t even seem to notice it.

“What the hell are you doing?” he demanded.

Oswald’s smirk was equal parts infuriating and arousing.

“Don’t you think she should know all the facts before getting involved, Ed?” Oswald said. “It only seems fair.”

Ed—no, Riddler—no, Ed—he couldn’t even be certain of his own name around Oswald anymore—gritted his teeth and looked at the ceiling as though it would offer him advice.

“Ed?” Isabella’s voice carried to where they were and Ed froze. He looked up just in time to see her turning the corner to their hiding spot. “Are you alright?”

“She’s persistent, I’ll give her that,” he just barely heard Oswald mutter.

“Isabella,” Ed sighed. “I’m terribly sorry. This is… This is my ex.” The word fell heavy between them and Ed almost couldn’t finish his thought. “It really was a pleasure to meet you, but you had better leave so he doesn’t try to kill you.”

Isabella’s eyes widened. Oswald smiled serenely at her. “Yes, you’d better,” he added. Ed nearly kicked him.

Barbara emerged from the crowd like Aphrodite from the sea foam to wrap her arm around Isabella’s shoulders: “come with me, honey, you don’t want to tangle with these two lovebirds.”

Ed wanted to protest, but Barbara raised her eyebrows at him and Ed was suddenly very aware how compromising this position was. He said nothing.

“A-alright,” Isabella stammered. “I’ll… I’ll see you around, Ed.”

“Sure,” Ed said. Barbara winked at them and swept away, Isabella under her arm. Ed turned back to Oswald. “Happy now?”

Oswald shrugged.

Ed rolled his eyes. “So, what, you can make fluttery eyes at Jim Goddamn Gordon all night but I can’t talk to a librarian? Is that how it is?”

“Pretty much,” Oswald said.

Ed pressed the knife harder against Oswald’s neck. Oswald’s green eyes stared unwaveringly into Ed’s.

“Are you going to kill me, Ed?” Oswald raised his eyebrows—a challenge, one he knew Ed would not rise to.

“Why are you doing this?” Ed asked, the words coming out more as a resigned sigh than a shout of anger.

Oswald didn’t answer. Instead, he wrapped his hand around Ed’s tie and pulled Ed so close that the smell of Oswald’s cologne overwhelmed him. He whispered in Ed’s ear, hot breath on his skin, “because I can.”

“You’re playing a dangerous game, Oswald.”

“I know.”

Ed made a growling sound of frustration in the back of his throat, let the knife clatter to the floor at their feet, pinned Oswald to the wall with both hands, and kissed him.

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

I spread like a fire that does not burn, a virus that doesn’t make you ill; I should never be spoken and yet many know me. What am I?

Correct: A Secret.

Now, riddle me this:

Why can’t I think straight when you’re near me?

Finally, riddle me this:

What are we doing?

¿?

Oswald dropped his cane immediately to reach up and pull Ed closer to him. He didn’t hear it hit the ground and suspected Ed had reached out and caught it, like he’d done dozens of times before, just out of habit.

This is dangerous, the last reasonable part of him whispered. You still love him. But then Ed made a desperate sound in the back of his throat and clenched his fists, grabbing at Oswald’s jacket as though frantic to tear it off, and the reasonable part of Oswald burned away under the hot club lights.

In the blue-green light and the heat, surrounded by the heavy velvet of the curtain they’d hidden behind, the feeling of Ed’s body pressed up against his, Ed’s tongue in his mouth, and Ed’s hands working under his shirt nearly overwhelmed him. Memories of every time before collided in a single moment, leaving him light-headed.  

Nothing felt real until the lock to one of the washrooms clicked behind them and the dark violet lightning flickered on. How they had gotten there, Oswald couldn’t quite recall. His fingers were digging bruises into Ed’s sides under his shirt and Ed’s pupils were blown wide in the half-light.

“You’re not drunk, are you?” Ed asked, sounding completely winded.

Oswald wished he was, then he’d have an excuse. He shook his head and raised his eyebrows at Ed to indicate the same question.

Ed shook his head.

The question hung in the air between them as they breathed heavily, bodies pressed too close not to notice where they were headed: then why are we doing this?

But Oswald didn’t want to think about it, didn’t want to talk about it, didn’t want to rehash old arguments and open old wounds. He wanted Ed anyway he could have him. And, from the look in Ed’s eyes, the feeling was mutual.

“We don’t have to mention this again,” Oswald said, quietly. “After tonight, I mean.”

It was a weak argument, a desperate proposal, and they both felt it.

Just once, whispered the back of Oswald’s head. Just once couldn’t hurt.

“I have to go,” Ed said. And he was gone, leaving Oswald to stare at the bathroom door and try to catch his breath and recover from what had almost happened.

¿

The second almost was barely a week later. Oswald was expecting a shipment of weapons at the warehouse on the docks and instead arrived to find an empty building with a green question mark spray-painted in the centre of the floor.

He was at Ed’s building within the hour.

Outside the front door, lingering under a flickering streetlight, was the white-haired woman from the bar.

“Isabelle?” Oswald asked.

“It’s Isabell-ah, actually,” she said, smiling sweetly. Oswald suppressed a shudder. “What brings you here so late at night, Mr. Mayor?”

Oswald was suddenly very certain he did not want to confirm that Ed lived here.

“Professional courtesy,” he said, for lack of a better answer. He smiled with all his teeth.

“You’re here to see Edward, aren’t you?”

“Why would I be looking for Edward here?”

She gave him a skeptical look: “I’m not a fool, Mr. Mayor.”

“Then you’ll know it’s in your best interests to walk away,” Oswald said in his most dangerous voice.

She set her jaw and straightened her back—she stood several inches taller than Oswald in her high-heels: “fine, but this isn’t over.”

She turned and stalked away into the dark.

Oswald stared after her, a sense of unease gathering around him. There was something not quite right about her. He waited until she’d vanished into the ever-present Gotham fog, before entering Ed’s building.

The air hung musty and damp, like rotting wood, and a cold wind rattled all around him as he mounted the stairs.

Oswald can’t see clearly. He doesn’t know where he is, all he knows is that he’s in pain—blinding, burning. He’s been shot, he thinks. He needs to find help. He tries to move but something pins him in place. Oh no, Mr. Penguin, Ed whispers. I’ll be taking care of that. Hold tight. To what? Oswald thinks. And the floor falls away beneath him. He nearly panics but feels two arms holding him tightly in place. He’s being carried. Through the door, into a musty hall, and slowly up some stairs. Oh, I’m glad you’re so small, a voice mutters, winded, in his ear. Before he can protest, Oswald blacks out again.

He reached for Ed’s door, prepared to barge straight in, but decided against it at the last minute and knocked loudly.

Nothing.

Oswald sighed.

“Ed Nygma, if you don’t open this door for me I swear—”

The door slid open.

“Oswald. Do come in.”

Ed stepped aside and Oswald walked past him into the still sparsely furnished apartment. He’d fixed the window, at least, but the air still hung bitterly cold and damp.

Ed was a wreck. His shirt untucked, waistcoat undone, hair sticking in every direction, eyes wild behind his crooked glasses. Papers lay strewn all over the living room floor with text and images circled furiously in emerald pen.

Oswald glanced at it all, then back at Ed, and raised his eyebrows.

“You’ve been busy.”

Ed nodded, dropped the knife Oswald hadn’t noticed he was holding, and walked to the kitchen as it clattered to the floor.

“Wine?”

“This isn’t a social call, Ed,” Oswald snapped as Ed uncorked the bottle anyway.

I know exactly how this night will end if I take that glass from you, Oswald thought. I know the second I let my guard down…”

“Have it anyway,” Ed said, holding out a glass—the snake in Eden incarnate.

Oswald took it.

“Where are my weapons, Ed?” Oswald sighed.

“Didn’t you get my riddle?” Ed took a drink and strode away to stand amongst his papers. The glow of the sign bathed him in green light and Oswald forced himself to ignore the thumping in his chest.

“I didn’t need to,” Oswald said, taking a drink. “I knew where to find you.”

Ed frowned. “That’s cheating.”

“No, it’s not,” Oswald suddenly felt like he needed to drain the rest of the glass in one. So he did. “I didn’t need to solve the puzzle, I just needed to solve you.”

Ed went very still, then slowly turned to fix Oswald with an astonished look. “What did you say?”

“You heard me,” Oswald said, putting the glass down. “I know you, so I don’t need the words to solve the riddles.”

Glass shattered and burgundy wine exploded over the floor, sending scarlet-soaked shards in every direction. Ed had dropped his glass, but he didn’t seem to care.

He walked across the shattered glass to Oswald and stopped when they were toe-to-toe.

“Why are you here?” he demanded.

“You stole from me.”

“What do you want?”

“Compensation, revenge, my weapons back—take your pick, Ed!”

“I am not Ed!”

That threw Oswald for a loop.

“Of course you are.”

“I’m the Riddler.”

Oswald laughed before he could stop himself. He looked down at the tops of their feet and back up.

“Uh, no.”

Ed picked the knife up off the floor and brandished it half-heartedly.

Oswald laughed again.

Oswald holds the knife pressed against Ed’s throat—his hand, his whole body, shakes. He wants someone to pay for what happened to his mother, and it may as well be this lunatic. A man with nothing he loves, Ed speaks levelly around the knife and Oswald is impressed despite himself, is a man who cannot be bargained, a man who cannot be bought… A free man.

Ed meets his eyes and Oswald can see the mingled fury and sadness in them. The air between them begins to heat up. Ed’s pupils dilate.

“No.” Oswald said. “No, Ed.” He set the wine glass down on the countertop, turned and walked out of Ed’s apartment. His hands and legs shook as he walked down the stairs and out the door, but Ed didn’t call after him.  

¿

The third almost was Ed’s fault entirely.

Sure, Oswald had been the one to quietly pass legislation that all bank assets must come equipped with dye-packs, but Ed was the one not keeping up with local government, and the one to try to clean out Oswald’s safety deposit box at the bank.

When Oswald, unable to sleep and killing time by sitting up in bed reading one of Elijah’s crime novels, heard the shower turn on down the hall, he just smiled to himself and turned the page.

An hour or so later he heard footsteps in the hall moving toward the stairs.

“Couldn’t have showered at your place?” Oswald said to the dripping figure sneaking through his house.        

Ed froze.

“No, not exactly,” he said. “No hot water. Oh, you’re out of nail polish remover, by the way.”

Ed stepped into the lamplight and held up his hands—scrubbed absolutely raw but still bearing an unmistakably green tint.

“Well played, Oswald,” he muttered.

Oswald tried not to preen. “It was, rather, wasn’t it?”

He laughed.

Ed grimaced at him: “a little over the top, don’t you think?”

“Oh yeah, I’m over the top.”

“You’re beginning to get on my nerves, Oswald,” Ed stepped further into the room and Oswald slid out of bed.

“You’re the one who tried to rob my safety deposit box, Edward.” He took a step closer.

“I look ridiculous,” Ed gestured at his shirt. Ed’s entire outfit was drenched in dye—Oswald hadn’t noticed at first since Ed’s wardrobe tended toward the lurid anyway.

Oswald reached out and picked up the hem of his shirt. “I don’t really see the difference.”

“You’re unbelievable.”

Oswald didn’t let go of Ed’s shirt. It was dark—the only light in the room came from an oil lamp burning on the table right beside them. The flame glowed in Ed’s eyes. His hair, still damp, dripped on his neck. His glasses started to fog up.

Oswald tugged on the shirt just slightly. Ed turned white as a ghost and backed away.

Oswald let him go.

He pretended to sleep while Ed snuck out the door and down the stairs holding an armful of his clothes that still hung in the master bedroom’s closet. He must have actually dozed off because he woke to the sound of the doorbell.  He shouted for someone to open it before he remembered he had entirely failed to hire any staff after Olga had quit out of sheer exasperation. Ed loved to cook, he cleaned to decompress, having staff doing it would have caused him (and, judging by Olga’s departure, the staff as well) undue stress. Oswald, on the other hand, could really use someone to get the door.

The bell rang out a second time.

He sighed, pulled on his dressing gown, and shuffled down the stairs to the door and pulled it open.

“What?” he demanded before he saw who it was. “Isabelle?”

“It’s Isabella,” she said. “May I come in?”

Oswald shrugged and threw open the door. “Why not?” Yes, he thought as she walked past him into the foyer. This may as well happen today.

“What can I do for you?” he asked, trying to sound just shy of gracious.

“I was hoping to talk to Ed. I tried calling him but he didn’t answer. Is he okay?”

It took Oswald a moment to parse that comment. “Um… Why are you here?”

“Looking for Ed, of course; doesn’t he live here?”

“No.”

“I just thought because I saw…”

Saw what? Had she been following Ed?

“Never mind,” she said, waving her hand. “If you see him, can you tell him I’m worried?”

“Stay away from him.” Oswald said, his ire rising immediately. What had been going on between her and Ed since the bar? What had Ed not told him about this woman?

“Excuse me?”

“Leave him alone.” Oswald pronounced each syllable sharp and short. He didn’t know what had happened between them, but he knew he did not like it. “Do not try to contact him.” This is for Ed’s safety. “Do not speak to him.” It’s a professional courtesy. “Have a nice life.”

He pushed open the door and gestured toward the driveway.

She gasped and clutched at her chest—a dramatic gesture worthy of Ed: “oh, my.”

Oswald looked around, trying to find someone to explain what was happening here. “It’s a shock, I’m sure… But besides your deeply odd resemblance to his ex, a certain facility with riddles, compulsion for order… what is it you really have in common?”

Is she… crying?

“Edward is a person of exceptional intelligence and imagination,” Oswald couldn’t seem to stop talking. He shouldn’t be saying this, but he wanted her gone. He wanted her hands off Ed. “He deserves to be appreciated by someone on his own level. And you, my dear, with your petty obsession, are simply not.”

He knew he’d gone too far as soon as he said it, because a spark of defiance seemed to light in Isabella’s eye and she turned to look at him with an expression that made Oswald want to take a step backward. But he held his ground and the expression slipped into something more neutral.

“You’re right,” she said. “I don’t deserve him. But I’m not going to let him go. He loves me, I know he does.”

Oswald’s heart dropped through the floor.

“And I love him,” she continued. Oswald couldn’t breathe. “Do you know how rare that is, Mr. Mayor?”

Ed’s eyes are so bright under soaking wet hair plastered to his face. He is laughing far past the point of elegance—something high-pitched and wild—and Oswald cannot help but laugh too, even as his mascara runs down his face in the downpour. Ed, Ed stop, we have to go inside, he says through laughter. We’re getting soaked. Not yet, not yet, Ed says. I just want to see them run around a little more. They’re standing in an alley watching as the GCPD crawl all over Siren’s, looking for stolen jewels that are sitting in a box under Ed and Oswald’s bed at that very moment. You’re terrible, Oswald whispers, laughing again. Maybe, Ed shrugs, but it is fun. He smiles at Oswald, and in the rain and cold and dark, Oswald is happy.

Isabella’s look of pity was nearly more than he could take.

“Of course you do,” she said. “Because you love him too. I can see it.”

Oswald wished the building would collapse on them both so he could get out of this conversation.

“I’m not even jealous,” Isabella said.

“I—I—” Oswald wanted to threaten her. He wanted to kill her now. He wanted… “I am telling you one last time. Let. Ed. Go.”

“No.” She stepped into his personal space and the height difference, while slight, made Oswald feel like she was looming over him. “I’m not going to let him go.”

She turned on her heel and marched out the door, leaving Oswald staring dumbly after her.

¿

“Are you sleeping with her?” Oswald demanded, before Ed could even open his mouth. Oswald was sitting on the couch in his living room, watching Ed try to sneak into his house.

“Who?”

“The girl. Isabelle.”

“Is-a-belle-lah,” Ed corrected.

“Yes. The girl from Siren’s with the crazy eyes. Are. You. Sleeping. With. Her?”

“I don’t see how that’s any of your business.”

Oswald threw up his hands, trying to ignore the part of him that took it as a confirmation.

“Fine!” he said. “Whatever, don’t tell me. But don’t be surprised if she turns up on Dr. Thompkin’s slab—I am sick of her coming here to threaten me.”

Ed looked mystified: “Why is she doing that?”

Oswald wanted to knock some sense into Ed. “I don’t know,” he shouted. “Jealousy, maybe? She seems pretty keen on keeping you to herself.”

“But she’s not…” Ed babbled then recovered; hope bloomed in Oswald’s chest. “We’re not… Never mind. What’s your point?”

“Call off your stalker! She’s absolutely crazy.”

“Worried about me, Oswald?” Ed leered, leaning in close.

“Stop. Talking.” Oswald snapped. “Just stop. Get out of my house and don’t come back. Goodbye, Ed.”

The fifth almost was the last.

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

A shadow, yet unseen I follow; a prologue, but unread by many. What am I?

Correct: The Past.

Now, riddle me this:

Is it safe to accept a drink from a ghost?

Finally, riddle me this:

What’s the worst that could happen?

¿?

“Ed?” The voice startled him out of his half-doze in his latest bolt-hole down in a warehouse by the docks. The voice continued: “it’s your old friend, Barbara. You called me and begged me for information.”

Barbara Kean had wandered into his warehouse, a terror in blue silk and fur.

He’d forgotten completely. It wasn’t like him to forget… Anything. He got to his feet, shaky, and adjusted his tie and collar. He buttoned his waistcoat but couldn’t find his jacket or coat. He grabbed the bowler hat he’d stored on top of a bronze statue, just for something to do with his hands.

“I didn’t beg, I asked. And I’ll allow you to call me Ed,” Riddler said, his voice gravely from yelling at the phantoms in his mind all morning. “Because we have history. But my name,” he put the hat on his head, trying not to think of who it belonged to, “is the Riddler.”

“So the headlines say.” Barbara brandished a newspaper at him RIDDLER STRIKES, it read.

He laughed and removed the hat. “Now,” he said. “What have you got for me?” There was really no point in small talk. Barbara didn’t just drop by—he didn’t have friends, despite what she said. He had contacts and, occasionally, allies.

“When you and Penguin were an item,” Barbara began—Riddler ignored the way it went through him like a knife— “he seriously didn’t tell you one thing about this mysterious group? Didn’t think to mention who controlled the levers of power in Gotham from the shadows with total impunity?”

I will solve this riddle.

“No,” he lied.

“Sure, Eddie,” Barbara rolled her eyes. “I’ve been listening to the loose lips at my bar, but no one in town seems to know a thing about them. Except, of course, our dear old friend Jim.”

Of course. Jim fucking Gordon, at it again.  

“And what’s his interest in all this?” The question barely required an answer. Jim Gordon had a way of becoming interested in anything he would do well to stay clear of—it was in his nature.

“He didn’t say. But he did ask me to investigate a shipment coming into Dock 9C yesterday. The harbormaster was protecting a crate from Indian Hill.”

A hundred terrified voices screaming in his ears. Lights flicker. Searching the crowd for the shock of black hair and the hitched step he so desperately wants to see.

Riddler steadied himself, struggling to keep his expression neutral.

“What was inside?”

“I don’t know. Before I got a chance to find out, some masked assassin slaughtered half my men. So suddenly I find myself wondering, what do you know that you’re not telling me?” Barbara demanded, punctuating each syllable by tapping her finger against a bronze bust. Clearly Riddler’s attempts at appearing unconcerned had failed.

“I… I don’t…” the words caught in his throat.

“Save it.” She held up her hand to silence him. “You, Eddie, are a bad, bad liar. I know the bird sang. Question is, how much?”

Ed wouldn’t be baited into revealing his hand, not this easily. “I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about. Thank you, Barbara, for bringing this to me. When I find something out, I assure you, you’ll be the first to know.”

He had been trying to solve this since he’d followed Kathryn out the door at the Founders Dinner weeks ago, and he had come up empty.

But this… a masked assassin, this was a lead.

“I don’t need drama in my neighborhood, Eddie,” Barbara said. “You said you’d deal with it.”

“I will find the answer,” he said, ignoring her exaggerated eye-roll. “But I will do it in my own way.”

“You’re gonna make a big production of this, aren’t you?” Barbara sighed.

Let me do this my way, Oswald.

“Oh yes.” Riddler grinned at her. “Only someone with power and connections would have information on this group. I need to speak with Gotham’s elite. And nothing brings out the bourgeoisie quite like opening night at the theater.”

You’ll fit right in, Kristen whispered. Because you’re such a goddamn drama queen.

?

A bit basic of them, Kristen mused, as Riddler dragged the unconscious actor playing the ghost behind a curtain in the wings. Hamlet, I mean. They do know Shakespeare wrote other things, right?

Riddler rolled his eyes.

I prefer the Tempest, myself, Kristen continued. Don’t you think? A fever of the mad. Can you relate, Ed?

“Since when were you into Shakespeare?” Riddler snapped.

“Since I got into your head—it’s all crammed with stuff in here,” Kristen said.

“Well stop it,” Riddler snapped. “Just, go away.”

Yeah, Kristen whispered, laughter in her voice. I made you miss your cue.

“I say, Ghost, speak your business,” a voice echoed from the stage. Riddler swore under his breath and picked up the sword from where the ghost had dropped it.

“…Or I shall go no further!” the actor finished.

“My business is not with you, Prince of Denmark.” Riddler liked how his voice boomed through the theatre as he entered. “But with your audience.”

He strode across the stage, wondering if shrinking-violet Ed Nygma would ever have been able to do this.

“I’ve come to address you, the ruling class of Gotham,” Riddler spoke over the voice. “You’ve kept a secret for far too long. But tonight, I will expose the truth. So, spread the word to all your friends:”

He swung the sword in a few wide arcs, just to see if he could, before planting it firmly on the stage.

“The Riddler. Is. Coming.”

He should have known better than to actually expect the gasps and sobs of fear that he had been hoping for. Clearly, they needed a bit of a push.

“Also,” he turned to Hamlet, still standing, gaping at him. “I found your performance to be wooden and unrealistic.”

It wasn’t easy to drive the sword through his chest—prop swords aren’t exactly kept properly sharpened—but the gasp of the crowd was worth it. He pulled off his hat with a flourish and bowed.

“And scene.”

In his excitement he nearly forgets to leave behind the puzzle box for the GCPD.

Nearly.

?

“Bad day, Eddie?” Barbara asked, several hours later, leaning over the bar to refill his drink.

“An unmitigated disaster,” he slurred back.

“Well it all looked very impressive, didn’t it Tabi?” Barbara asked.

“Impressive isn’t how I’d put it,” Tabitha called from the other end of the bar. “Ridiculous, maybe.”

Barbara shrugged. “I think it had flair.”

“It was a little embarrassing,” Tabitha said.

“Nothing happened,” Riddler whispered into his drink. “No one called. Nothing.”

“Aww, poor baby,” Barbara giggled and tapped Riddler on the noise with one long manicured nail. He recoiled, raising his hand to fend her off. “You’ll find them.”

“Where are they?” he demanded.

Riddles have answers.

Tabitha shrugged.

Riddler gestured vaguely at his drink. “Another one.”

Barbara rolled her eyes and tipped a bottle into his glass. “There you go, Eddie. Me and Tabi gotta go and deal with better paying customers but you have fun. Besides,” Barbara’s sharp eyes caught on something over Riddler’s shoulder. “Someone’s here to see you.” She smiled and swept away.

“What?”

“Ed? Is that you?” A tentative voice asked. He turned and stopped breathing. His heart stopped. The noise in the room turned to static.

Kristen Kringle stood beside him at the bar.

She looked so like the Kristen he saw in the mirror—wide eyes, a soft smile, red hair tied in a ponytail and glasses with black frames—that he thought she was a hallucination.

“Miss Kringle—I mean—Kristen—I mean—Miss Kringle—I mean—” He stammered; he couldn’t draw air into his lungs.

She smiled. “Where have you been, Ed?”

His lungs felt like crumpled paper. He couldn’t think.

“I—Barbara!” he called over his shoulder. “Barbara can you see her?”

But Barbara was at the other end of the bar, talking to a group of women in sharp business suits, and Tabitha had disappeared entirely. He turned and seized the arm of a woman sitting next to him. She jumped and he demanded: “can you see her?”

The woman tugged her arm out of his reach and rushed away.

“Eddie,” the apparition said, seizing his shoulder and nearly making his heart stop. Her hand was warm, substantial. “Don’t you recognize me?”

“Kris—Miss Kr—Kristen?” the words managed to make their way out of his mouth in the right order.

She leaned in close to him and whispered in his ear: “I could be.”

“Isabelle—Isabella?” he breathed. “Is that you?”

She winked at him. “Do you like the new look?”

He didn’t know how to answer, so he said nothing. 

“Come on, Ed,” she whispered in his ear, her hot breath on his neck, Kristen’s perfume nearly overpowering him. “Let’s get out of here.”

She offered him her hand. He stared at it.  

“I—I don’t know if that’s a g—” he began, but she cut him off.

“Shh,” she said. “What could one night hurt? For old time’s sake?”

“I—”

“I come after a mistake, but before a failure. A blessing of circumstance and a possibility for the future. What am I?”

“A second chance,” he whispered.          

He took her hand.

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

Brutus to Caesar, Judas in Gethsemane; a blade behind you, a lie ahead. What am I?

Correct: Betrayal.

Now, riddle me this:

What would I give to get you back?

Finally, riddle me this:

Who can I trust?

¿?

“Nobody knows who set the fire, but the GCPD’s experts have already concluded that it was arson.” Oswald woke to a voice sing-songing the news at him. For a moment he forgot where he was, and reached blindly to the space beside him, looking for Ed.

His hand caught empty air and the everything came back to him in a sickening lurch. He cracked open his eyes and squinted toward the voice.

Barbara Kean was in his living room.

“Whether the absent Mayor Cobblepot or his erstwhile chief-of-staff Edward Nygma know anything further about the fire remains to be seen.”

“What are you doing?” he mumbled. He wanted to go back to sleep—back to forgetting about Ed and this whole mess.

“I’m reading.” Barbara turned the paper to show him the headline: Arson at the Iceberg. “Clever, huh?”

She kept reading. “As of press time, neither the Mayor nor his chief-of-staff…”

“That paper is from weeks ago.”

“…were available for comment…”

“What do you want?”

“…nor have they been seen in the nearly two weeks since the fire. Begging the question: who is running Gotham?”

“Barbara, why are you here?” Oswald heard himself say. Had he been drinking, the previous night? The empty bottle and half-filled glass beside him suggested he had been.

“You need to fix this situation.”

“Who cares what people think of the mayor? The city runs itself.” Or maybe, Ed runs the city and you just don’t have to think about it—a part of him whispered.

“I’m talking about your other job. The real one. Someone burns your club down, you and Nygma vanish and, like you said, this was weeks ago. Things are heating up, Ozzie. People are starting to smell blood in the water. And, like I told Nygma, I don’t like drama in my neighborhood unless I’m the one causing it.”

“Who?”

“Tommy Bones. The Duke. The East Side gangs are holding, but South of the Narrows, the docks, there’s chatter. The king is dead. Or soon will be. That kind of chatter.”

Oswald put his aching head in his hands. “Since Ed left things have been…”

Barbara hit him with the rolled-up newspaper and he was momentarily too stunned to do anything but yelp in pain.

“Listen to me,” she said. “Ed’s not here! He was no good at helping me, and he’ll be no use to you either. You and I need to fix this ourselves. I will call a meeting of the heads of the family, you will come, you will be your old self and the rumors will stop.” Barbara’s eyes pinned him to the spot as she spoke.

“Why are you helping me?” He managed, finally.

“Because people think you like me, Ozzie,” she whispered. Ah, there it was. The truth. Or, something resembling the truth. “And as long as they’re scared of you, I get to keep breathing.”

She threw the paper down.

“Do you know who burned it down?” she asked.

Oswald looked away into the empty grate. “Ed did,” he whispered. “He burned it down.”

Barbara made a half-sympathetic noise in her throat.

“One o’clock,” she said. “My place.” She swept out, leaving Oswald to listen to the sound of her heels clicking through the house and, eventually, the door swinging open and shut.

He stared at the ashes in the fireplace through the empty glass, trying to wake up.

He looked at the newspaper Barbara had left behind. It had fallen open to the second page headline: Philosopher Dies in Mysterious Workplace Accident. He considered using it to light a fire, but ultimately just left it on the coffee table.

It had been less than a month since Ed left and already the inside of the Van Dahl mansion looked like a slightly less ashy version of the wreck of the Iceberg Lounge. How had Oswald so quickly come to rely on Ed to keep things clean and organized? Ed had kept the whole city running smoothly and now… Oswald sighed. Barbara was right. He needed to get up and set things right.

It wasn’t until he was in the shower that Oswald’s brain really kicked in. He yelped when ice water poured over him and rattled the taps—nothing. He growled and hit his head on the tile wall in frustration. “Fine,” he snapped. “Fine, fine, fine.” He washed in record time and, as he stepped out and reached for a towel, he found himself running over Barbara’s speech in his head.

Barbara had never acted like she relied on Oswald’s protection before now. In fact, it was Barbara’s protection that was keeping the murderer Tabitha Galavan alive. So why was she suddenly so concerned for his well-being and his empire?

He shivered as he dried himself off and wrapped himself in a robe.  

Someone smelled blood in the water alright, but it certainly wasn’t Tommy Bones or The Duke.

Two hours later, when Oswald walked into Sirens, all his suspicions were confirmed. It was empty. Not a soul in sight. Except, of course, Barbara.

“My, my,” she said, as he walked to the bar. “You scrub up nice.”

“Am I early?” he asked. It didn’t hurt to play along, just for a little while, to see if she’d reveal any more of her plan.

“About that… I sent out the word. Said you wanted to see everyone, express summons, et cetera, et cetera. And… See for yourself.” She gestured at the empty bar.

She was a good liar, Oswald would give her that. And the plan was a good one—but it relied on him being completely off his game, and he may be newly heartbroken, but he certainly hadn’t received a traumatic brain injury recently, so she was simply going to have to try harder next time.

“This is a rebellion,” he said.

“Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you. But, I did warn you.”

He smiled. He did so enjoy being underestimated. It offered the perfect opening to turn the tables. That was where Ed could never quite grasp the nuance of being a successful criminal in Gotham. Ed was so desperate for everyone to know how clever he was that he forgot the advantages of people thinking he was a joke.

“You have been such a friend, Barbara,” Oswald sighed. “Tell me, what should I do now?”

“Well,” Barbara said, and Oswald could practically smell how prepared her answer was. “If it were me, I would pick one of them, the Duke, maybe, or Tommy Bones, and teach them a lesson.”

Barbara was smart, but she was oh so new at this. Next time, she’d know when she was being maneuvered into revealing the purpose of her deception. Next time.

“They don’t respect you, Oswald,” she said. And Oswald suspected that much was the truth, but he didn’t like to think about it. “In fact, you probably want to kill Tommy Bones and the Duke. Just clean house.”

Oswald couldn’t keep a straight face any longer. He started to laugh. “I’m sorry,” he said, smiling sympathetically. “Just…” He laughed again. If Ed were here, he’d say some riddle, and when no one knew the answer he’d say betrayal, and look pointedly at Barbara.

Stop thinking about Ed.

“Well, I’m glad you can find the humour in it,” Barbara said. A valiant effort to salvage the situation.

The phone on the table next to Barbara rang, piercing the tension in the room. They both looked at it. Barbara picked up the receiver on the second ring.

“Yes? He’s right here.” She handed Oswald the receiver. “Tommy Bones.”

Now this was a development he had not been expecting. Laughter died in his throat and doubt began to worm its way into his chest. He took the phone.

“Yes?”

“You get the message?” the voice on the other end of the line was, undoubtedly Tommy Bones. “We don’t work for you no more. your day is done, freak.”

“How dare you?” Oswald snapped. Even if it wasn’t a full-on rebellion, Tommy’s voice on the phone told him that at least a few people other than Tabitha and Barbara were involved. “I will gut you!” he added into the receiver, just to relieve some of the emotions twisting in his chest. “I will hang your entrails from every lamppost in Gotham!”

“Then Nygma dies.” Oswald’s heart nearly stopped.

“What?” he hadn’t heard from Ed since that night in the manor when they’d fought about Isabella… Hadn’t heard anything about his whereabouts until…

“Walk away quiet. Maybe we’ll send him back in one piece.”

The image of Ed tied to a chair, staring at a knife blade, filled his mind’s eye, turning his blood cold.

And then, another thought followed. A shrewder one.

“Let me talk to him,” Oswald said, making his voice waiver slightly, an impression of the scared umbrella-boy he had played the part of for so long. “Please, just, let me hear his voice.”

Silence.

Ha, Oswald thought. What now?  

The receiver clicked, and the line went dead. Just has he had thought.

Oswald hung up the phone and turned to Barbara, who was doing her best to look unconcerned.

“Did you really think I would be so easy to manipulate?” He asked. He pulled the knife out of his cane and slammed it on the bar top. He didn’t intend to hurt Barbara—she was right, he did like her—but the statement was important. “They don’t have Ed at all. What was your plan? Take advantage of me while I was in a… weakened state? Trick me into attacking my subordinates so they truly did rebel? Inciting war, so that you could pick up the pieces?”

Barbara’s expression was confirmation enough.

“My dear,” he sighed. “You are tragically out of your depth.”

He turned on his heel and stormed out of the Sirens before Barbara could respond.

He called Victor Zsasz first.

“Victor,” he said. “Tommy Bones, the Duke, Barbara Kean, all of them are conspiring against me. They’ve pretended to kidnap Ed to extort me.”

“Ed as in your Ed?” Victor asked.

Not anymore, Oswald thought.

“What? Yes! Of course, what other Ed is there?”

“Okay, just makin’ sure,” Victor said. “But Boss, why would they kidnap Nygma? Everyone knows what happened with the two of you…”

“I don’t know what they know or how they think, Victor. This is an open rebellion. Just find them and kill them! Understand?”

“Sure thing, Boss. Anyone else you want me to have a little talk with?”

Ed’s probably the one planning this whole thing. The thought drifted, unbidden, through Oswald’s mind. Surely he isn’t that cruel. But Oswald remembered the look in Ed’s eyes as he had thrown the match to set the Iceberg ablaze, and he wasn’t so certain.

“Find Ed. Tell him to try a little harder, next time,” he said.

“You got it.”

The phone clicked.

Oswald barely made it three steps closer to the car before his phone rang again.

“What?” he demanded.

“Mr. Mayor—” the voice belonged to his assistant, but he couldn’t recall her name. “Where are you? the interview…”

Oswald cursed. The interview. An interview his chief-of-staff—what’s his name, who Ed had killed—had set up weeks ago with the woman who wanted to show Gotham the real Oswald. It was in less than two hours.

 “Yes, I’m on my way,” he snapped. “Traffic.” He hung up and slid in the backseat of the limo. “City Hall,” he told the driver.

?

News channel cars swarmed the streets outside City Hall. He had a headache already. His assistant met him at the door.

“Ms. Hearst is all set up and ready for you, sir,” she said, her voice clipped and professional.

“I can manage myself, thank you,” he snapped when she offered him her arm, trying to tamp down the memory of Ed’s voice whispering it’s just me, Oswald. Just me as he had helped him to the kitchen.

She withdrew his arm, allowing Oswald to drag himself up the stairs, silently cursing his useless leg with every step.

Ms. Hearst was waiting for him in the great hall. As he approached Hearst, she eyed him like a panther stalking prey.

This would make or break his tenure as mayor. This was his moment to solidify his power once and for all and stamp out upstart rebels like Tommy Bones and the Duke, and even Barbara Kean.

He wished he had brought his cane to help with his posture but it was too late now. He was already crossing the room to shake hands with her. She smiled at him, baring her teeth.

Oswald almost laughed. Any other day this interview would be a breeze. This was what he did best. But he hadn’t slept in what felt like years. His bones felt brittle, hollow, like they might snap under the weight of holding him upright at any moment.

He was barely worth Hearst’s effort at this point: dead man walking.

He straightened his back. No, he thought. This is my moment. I’m not going to let Ed destroy it for me.

He settled himself in the chair across from her, feeling like a sacrifice on a pyre. He wondered if his skin could burn under the hot lights—he certainly felt as though he were being scorched.

“I hope you’re ready, Mr. Mayor,” she said as he swatted away the intern attempting to fasten his lapel mic. “The world is watching.”

 If you knew what I’ve been through already, he thought, for a moment seeing Hugo Strange, Don Falcone, Fish Mooney, looming in front of him. You would know better than to try to intimidate me.

“And we’re live in 3-2” a voice called from behind the cameras. A click, and then...

“Mayor Cobblepot,” Ms. Hearst began, the picture of sweetness… And Oswald felt himself drifting away from his body, answering on auto-pilot. The first few questions were easy. He was doing well. And then—

“By now the people all know the story of your incarceration in and subsequent release from Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane—” Ms. Hearst began. Oswald started to muster the usual speech about being wrongly accused, about the injustice in the system that allowed patients to be experimented on with impunity, but the second half of his sentence sent him reeling. “An experience you shared with your enigmatic chief-of-staff, Edward Nygma.”

Oswald’s blood turned to ice. He did not want to talk about Ed—not with this woman.

Not now.

But she barreled ahead: “Mr. Nygma was released under highly suspicious circumstances during the mass riots at the Asylum earlier this year. No formal evaluation by an accredited psychologist has been done since then—on either of you. So, what I’m asking is, how do you think the people of Gotham can be expected to have confidence in City Hall when one or perhaps even both of its head administrators should be undergoing drastic psychiatric or neurological treatment?”

The vivid memory of Ed’s body, limp in his arms, head slumped against his shoulder, overwhelmed Oswald. Ed’s vacant eyes stared up at him, unknowing. Her could hear the sound of Ed’s scream as his mind burned in the electrical fires set by Dr. Strange’s drastic psychiatric treatment.

He saw red.

“You leave Ed out of this.” His voice was a snarl. But, of course, that just encouraged her.

“What is the nature of your relationship with Mr. Nygma?”

“Excuse me?”

“What is the nature of your relationship with known felon, former chief-of-staff, Mr. Edward Nygma?” she repeated. “And how are you to keep the faith of the people of Gotham while carrying on an affair with a dangerous criminal?”

I love you, Ed’s voice, sleepy and happy, drifts toward him. What? Don’t look so surprised. You knew that. Come here…

Oswald was talking before he had a moment to think about what he might say:

“I resent your implication of scandal or impropriety, ma’am. Edward Nygma suffered at the hands of the criminal Hugo Strange. He overcame that hardship to become the most competent and capable chief-of-staff in recent memory and a dedicated public servant to the people of Gotham.” Oswald could feel his face getting hot with fury. He spit each word like acid. “And all of that has nothing to do with the fact that Edward and I a—were in love. There is—was no scandal, no affair. It is not a secret. We had a relationship and have since parted ways. I’m not ashamed of him.”

That stunned her for a moment. Oswald couldn’t revel in the victory. Not with blood pounding in his ears and the memory of his own voice saying not the bright one, Ed, scratching at the inside of his head. He wasn’t ashamed of Ed, but he had certainly acted like it.

Now that he was talking, he couldn’t stop. “You can berate me and my policies all you’d like. You can insult me and attack me and destroy my name in the presses, but you have no right to attack Edward. Or have your journalistic standards sunk to the level of a gossip column?”

He was flushed and breathing heavily. He was sure he looked quite deranged.

What are you doing? He thought. Are just going to throw away everything you’ve worked so hard for? For what? To defend a man who doesn’t even love you?

His phone vibrated in his pocket and he looked down to see the led screen light up with the message from Victor: can’t find Nygma.

“Am I boring you?” Hearst demanded. But Oswald didn’t hear.

The memory of the spark in Ed’s eyes when he had a plan, the sound of his laughter crackling through the mansion, the burn of his fingers on Oswald’s skin… He knew what he was giving everything away for.

For the chance. The chance that this is real and Ed’s in danger. The chance that he’ll be okay. That he’ll come back, even if he doesn’t come back to me.  

He remembered Galavan. Galavan and his promises that if Oswald just played along, everything would be alright, his mother would come home safe. Galavan and his lies. And he remembered the feeling of holding his mother in his arms as the light went out in her eyes.

He had done everything he could, and still he had not been able to save her.

The thought of finding Ed only to watch the life snuffed out… He rubbed his face with his hands, trying to dispel the image imprinted behind his eyes of Ed staring up at him, unseeing, unknowing.

He could live without his power. He could not live in a world without Ed Nygma.

And he could only pray he had not discovered that too late.

 “Answer the question, Mr. Cobblepot,” Hurt said, tersely. “The people of Gotham have a right to know who their Mayor is consorting with.”

If he had to go down, at least everyone would know it had been for love.

Oswald stood up: “to hell with the people of Gotham,” he hissed, pulling off his mic and throwing it to the ground. He dragged himself of camera and down the stairs, pushing past reporters and staffers indiscriminately until he got to his car.

He called Victor again.

“Change of plans,” he said, without preamble. “Gather everyone at the manor—we’re going to find Ed.”

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

When I am true, I am living silence like death, I am immovable as a mountain, as reliable as the sunrise. Forged in blood or water, I withstand all. What am I?

Correct: Loyalty.

Now, riddle me this:

If I die here, will my body ever be found?

Finally, riddle me this:

Will I ever make it back home?

¿?

Who are you?

I told you—whoever you want me to be.

He drifted. The green lights of the city melted and blurred. Drugs, a distant part of his brain screamed. You’ve been drugged. But he can’t keep hold of it.

Where am I?

Gotham City, Ed. Where else would people like us be?

Limbs too long and heavy carried him forward. He stumbled. Hands like a vice held him up.

Kristen—? The word slurred its way out of his mouth.

That’s right. A voice. Hot breath on his ear.

His head and eyelids felt like lead.

He could hear the buzzing of every light in the street, feel every drop of rain hit his skin and slide down into his clothes, soaking him through.

Hands on his arms steered him, stumbling.

He tripped—

and toppled forward—

his head hit the concrete

A figure in green, flickering behind his eyelids, his voice booming in his ears.

PATHETIC. YOU’RE PATHETIC. GET UP.

Chorused with the voice of his father, and a voice that may have belonged to Officer Dougherty:

FREAK.

And the jingling laugh of Kristen Kringle reverberating.

YOU KILLED ME. YOU’LL KILL AGAIN.

He screamed. He could feel hands all over him, hitting, pulling, grabbing.

“Don’t touch me!” He shouted, his voice ragged. “STOP!”

History will repeat itself. You’ll kill the one you love.

“I won’t! I won’t do it! I won’t hurt—”

“Who, Ed? Who won’t you hurt?”

“I won’t hurt… Kristen!”

Too late! Guess again, Riddle Man!

 “Leave me alone.”

If you’re going to kill me, could you get on with it?

“OSWALD.”

“He’s not here.”

“Don’t TOUCH me!”

“You cannot escape it. Because it is inside of you.”

“Leave me alone.”

“You will kill him. You are a danger to him.”

“I won’t.”

 “You will. You’ve killed before.”

 “I… I… I won’t…”

Archive. Bright eyes behind square glasses.

Bar. Blue light framing her head like a halo.

Hair fire-red.

Ash-white. A face that…

What’s your name?

Kristen. Kristen Kringle.

Kristen Kringle, KK. Ed, is my name. Nygma..

Miss Kringle?

Ed, you have got to call me Kristen.

Of course, of course, MissKristen.

Nervous laughter.

Remember? My name’s Isabella.

Purple bruises on pale skin, blue lips, dead eyes.

You remind me of someone that I used to know. A long time ago.

You struggle to regain me, when I’m lost, you struggle to obtain me. What am I?

Time.

                                Time.

                                Time.

Time

Slipped.

Waking, not daring to move, as the light, filtered green through the sign in the window, fell on her face, so close to his.

Grey light through netted curtains. Dusting of freckles on pale skin. Wild eyes relaxed in sleep.

Sleep? No. He was cold. Too cold.

“OSWALD!”

Bruises like fingerprints on skin.

“NO!”

What can’t you have for breakfast or lunch?

Dinner. Chez moi. 8 o’clock.

Burning behind his eyes.

Hands grabbing at his arms, on his neck, on his face.

I can make a body disappear.

Do you believe in fate?

What must be broken before it can be used?

Hearts.

Wrong!

Eggs.

Correct! As always.

Glasses, so like the ones that had sat on his bedside until… Until…

Why did you keep them in the first place?

You look like you’ve seen a ghost.

I would’ve thought you would’ve been used to seeing people in mirrors.

“STOP IT. LET GO OF ME.”

What’s black and white and red all over?

Correct! A Penguin with a gunshot wound.

Hands. Covered in blood.

Hair—fire again—done up in a ponytail.

Glasses perched on her nose.

What’s green and then red? Frogs in a blender!

You’re an odd man Mr. Nygma.

Hands on a pale throat.

Who are you?

I know you won’t hurt me.

 “Let me GO!”

I am forcing you to face your fear.

I’m worried I’m going to kill you.

The light of the fireplace reflected in stormy eyes.

I don’t know if I should be flattered that you don’t want to hurt me, or insulted that you think it’d be easy.

Hands against a pale throat.

A body on the M.E. slab. Cold, blue-lipped, hidden.

A saw reducing the corpse to limbs, hidden in a trunk, bound for the woods.

Light winking out of stormy eyes.

“NO!”

I love you.

Do you? Love is about sacrifice.

Of course.

But love is about sacrifice.

What have you sacrificed, Ed?

?

He opened his eyes and the darkness did not vanish, instead it pressed in closer—damp, empty, cold. He tried to stand and found he couldn’t move.

He gasped in shock and tried to look around and get his bearings. But the darkness was too complete. He could feel heavy rope across his chest, shins, arms, and wrists binding him to a large metal armchair.

He was back in Arkham, in Strange’s machine. He didn’t scream. He forced himself to take deep breaths and wait for his eyes to adjust to the dark, but they didn’t adjust. There was no light to adjust to.

He strained his ears to try to hear where we was but only the drip-drip-drip of water was audible in the distance.

“Hello?” he asked, tasting blood in his mouth as he spoke. His own voice echoed back at him like the harsh whispers in his head and he flinched. Any moment, the cage of wires would descend and electricity would burn him away. A full minute ticked by in silence.

He remembered the bar… Remembered a stumbling walk through the green-lit rain… Had he really had that much to drink?

He remembered a voice in his ear and hot breath on his neck.

“Isabella?” he asked the darkness. A light—bare-bulb, incandescent—flared into life above him for a half-second, just enough time to reveal two people in the corner of a small stone cell.

His heart lunged into his throat.

“Who are you?” he demanded. The light flared on again and a man in a mask was standing over him.

He cried out in surprise and pain and then stifled it on instinct. The light stayed on.

The man’s face was like stone—impassive, uncaring. Ed forced himself to break eye-contact and look at the woman, still in the corner.

He knew this woman. Everything was still a little hazy. Chloroform, a distant voice offered. Yes, thank you for that, I do know SOME things.

“Edward Nygma?” Her voice echoed.

There was no point denying it. The Riddler would never have let this happen, after all. Ed stayed silent.

“We have a proposition for you.”

Who’s “we”? Ed looked at her—blurry without his glasses—certain he had heard her voice before.

“Funny way of making it,” he muttered. Clarity was returning rapidly. His eyes darted around the room, searching, cataloguing—cement floor and ceiling, no windows. Damp. Cold. Underground? How had he gotten here?

You’ve done it now, Eddie.

“I assure you, Edward,” she said, and he knew. Kathryn, the woman from the Founders Dinner. The woman from the Court of Owls. “I’m not here to kill you. I’m here to make you an offer.”

“I’m not interested,” he said.

“Oh, you will, be” Kathryn made it sound like a promise, rather than a threat, though it was certainly both. “What if I told you we could make you the King of Gotham?”

Ed laughed.

“I assure you, Mr. Nygma, I’m quite serious.”

“You’ve got the wrong one. I’m just the chief-of-staff, remember? Or, I was.”

“We underestimated you,” Kathryn said, walking toward him. The masked man didn’t move. “We admit it. We didn’t realize you were the brains of Mr. Cobblepot’s operation.”

The masked man stood directly between Ed and the only door. Not that he could move, much less fight off a bodyguard.

“Without you, Gotham is falling apart. The mayor is losing control. And we need control—at least for now. And so we’ve come to you.”

Ed turned his head to meet Kathryn’s eyes.

“We help you becoming King of Gotham—the position you were made for—and you help us kill the Penguin.”

Ed’s body turned to ice.

“What?”

“He still cares for you, that much is obvious. You can get close to him and get rid of him. You’ve done it before. And then you will take his place.”

Kill him, a voice whispered. Take what you deserve. Take back control.

No.

“What I’ll do,” he said, slowly over the sound of the voice swearing at him, “the poor have, the rich need, and if you eat it, you’ll die.”

He remembered is own voice—alien to him, now, after so long—sing-song. He remembered crackling with excitement and the thrill of his own cleverness, constructing the perfect riddle on the fly to earn the thoroughly confused look Oswald—Mr. Penguin, in those days—had given him. Remembered looking at him, a striking figure with his sharp features and sweeping black coat, and thinking, wow.

“Now, now, Mr. Nygma,” Kathryn said. “Don’t be foolish. We know that your relationship with the mayor has… dissolved. What can be gained from protecting him?”

Riddle me that, Eddie, Kristen whispered.

“Mr. Nygma, your refusal to help us will not save Mr. Cobblepot,” Kathryn said.

“I will not help you destroy him.” Ed spat each word.

“Then we will destroy you,” Kathryn sounded bored. “It won’t be difficult, Edward. We’ve done it before. But you have a wonderful mind—I wouldn’t want to risk destroying it in the process. Think on it, before you make your final decision. We will only ask you one more time. We’d like to do this with your cooperation. But we will do it without if we have to.”

“No.”

Kathryn sighed and opened the door revealing a long, dark hallway beyond. “So much loyalty. And for what? I’ll give you some time to consider your opinions.”

She and the masked man stepped out of the room. The door slammed behind them and the light flickered and went out.

The scrape of a key, the sound of metal on metal. He slumped forward, wishing he could topple over and press his face onto the concrete floor. The sound of metal crashing behind him and a lock engaging sent him spinning back to cold terror in the heart of Arkham Asylum.

Cold and dark and damp and alone and afraid.

Ed almost missed the sound of Kristen laughing in his head.

But all he was left with was the silence.

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

In and out of love, from power, and for fools. What am I?

Correct: Falling.

Now, riddle me this:

If I cannot find you, in the ashes of the town I destroyed in the search, what is left for me here?

Finally, riddle me this:

Where are you?

¿?

Oswald didn’t know who to yell at.

He didn’t know what he’d yell, either, once he figured out where to direct his ire.

Consequently, Oswald had yelled whatever he was thinking at anyone and everyone who had come within ten feet of him since he’d arrived at the manor hours ago.

There was no sign of Ed anywhere. Gabe, a spectacularly dull look on his face, lumbered up to him. Gabe was, if it were possible, even stupider than Butch Gilzean. Suddenly, Oswald knew who to yell at.

“Gabe! Where is Ed?”

“I dunno, Boss, I haven’t seen him.” Gabe shrugged. And it was probably for the best that Oswald didn’t have a weapon in hand because he was in a shoot-the-messenger kind of a mood.

“And what have you done to FIND him?” Oswald shouted. Normally shouting burned nervous energy, siphoned some of the stress building behind his eyes, but now it just seemed to be making it worse. He continued to raise his volume anyway. “Let me rephrase that, Gabe. Tell me how many of my people are out looking. If the answer isn’t “all of the them” then you can start looking for a new job immediately and count yourself grateful I’m not holding my gun.”

“Everyone’s canvasing, Boss. He’ll turn up, we’ll find him.”

“Canvasing? What are we, cops? Tell them not to bother with pleasantries! I want every CORNER of this city searched. Burn this place down, if you have to.” He could hear his own voice getting hoarse.

He has my mother, Butch. His own voice, from a lifetime ago echoed back to him. Gertrud had been found, but she had never made it home. Oswald would die before he let that happen to Ed.

ED! He feels his hands clutching green lapels. ED! Hears the rattling gasp of breath that nearly stops his heart.  

“We have to go,” Oswald snapped. “I have to get out of her. Gabe, get the car. We have to go.”

“Where to, Boss?” Gabe asked.

Oswald paused for a moment. He genuinely did not know. His people were turning the underworld inside out already, he’d just exhausted what little good will he’d had with Barbara, and now, there was no one for him to turn to. No one who’d care that known criminal Edward Nygma had disappeared.

Except…

“We’re going to the police station,” Oswald said, limping toward the door. “We need to pay Jim Gordon a visit.”

“Ok, Boss,” Gabe said as they walked out of the club to the car. “Except, didn’t Nygma get Gordon locked in Blackgate?”

He had. Ed had done his level best to ruin Jim Gordon’s life and probably would do it again, if given the chance. And, for any other cop, that would be an insurmountable obstacle to Oswald’s gambit succeeding.

But Jim Gordon wasn’t just any cop. He had a heroism complex bigger than any Oswald had ever seen and had barely enough self-preservation instincts to fill a teaspoon. Jim Gordon couldn’t turn his back on anyone, not even if that person was likely to stab him in it.

“Did I ask for your opinion? Just get the car!”

The last good man in Gotham. Let’s see how true that is.

¿

He had to wait for Jim to arrive. It was 5:30am by the time Oswald made it to the stiff wooden bench in the GCPD bullpen, staring into the middle distance in the vague direction of the holding cells that he knew far more intimately from the inside than the out. He had shouted himself completely hoarse at the night shift officers, but the fact remained that Jim could not be found. He would just have to wait until 6am, when he usually arrived.

He’d sent Gabe home to sleep, less out of benevolence than the desire to be free of his constant attempts to say comforting platitudes. Even he didn’t think he could get away with shooting Gabe in the middle of the GCPD bullpen. So, he was alone, still in his outfit from the interview, beginning to feel the effects of fatigue and panic burning in his shaking limbs.

Oswald, you should sleep. Ed runs his fingers through Oswald’s hair, leaning over his shoulder to peer at the documents stacked on the table in front of him. You know I’ll take care of it, so it’s all done on time. There’s no point working yourself into an illness.

I’m trying to set up a scholarship to Gotham Academy. Oswald answers, even though Ed knows what he’s doing. Ed always knows. So kids don’t have to… Well, so it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to get an education. But I have to hide where the funds are coming from. I can’t have it traced to our… extra-circulars down at the docks.  

I know, Ed says. I know. But you’re tired. Rest. Strong fingers press into his stiff back muscles, loosening the knots. He sighs and leans into it. Upstairs, Ed whispers in his ear. Come with me.

And Oswald follows. Of course he follows. He can never deny Ed anything.

Except his ambitions, a treacherous voice whispered. Those were too much for you.

As much as Oswald wanted to protest, he didn’t have the energy.

For the last time, I am NOT YOUR STAFF, Ed shouts, tears streaming from his eyes, blurring their sharpness.

You are, though, he fires back.

Bile burned in the back of his throat. He pressed the heels of his hands hard into his eyes, blocking out the cops moving chaotically around him.

“Penguin, what are you doing here?” A familiar voice said. Later, when this was over and Ed was home, Oswald would find the time and energy to hate himself for the hope that bloomed in his chest at the sound of Jim Gordon’s voice. Now, he had work to do.

“Ed’s missing,” he said. No point of pleasantries. Time was of the essence.

“Eh?” Detective Bullock sidled over. “What’s that?”

“Ed. Is. Missing.” Oswald spat each word like poison. I drove him away and now I’m afraid something terrible has happened and I’ll never see him again.

“Did you fill out a missing persons report?” Jim asked. The headache in Oswald’s temples continued to build.

“Yes! When I arrived.”

“Then that’s all you can do, for now.”

Rage burned white hot through him. “That’s not GOOD ENOUGH!” Harvey and Jim stepped back, and Oswald couldn’t even pause to savor the pleasure of realizing that Jim and Harvey were still afraid of him, even after everything.

“Ed is GONE, TAKEN, and you want me to fill out FORMS?!” he stood too fast and hissed in pain at the weight on his stiff leg, but he managed to stay on his feet. “It’s your job to find people! So, find him!”

“Penguin, we can’t just drop everything because lover boy skipped town. We’ll get to it when we get to it.” Harvey turned and wandered away across the bullpen toward his desk.

“Jim,” Oswald demanded, grabbing his arm before he could retreat. “Jim, you have to help me! He’s… If something happens…” I’ll never forgive myself. I’ll never recover. I’ll die knowing this was all my fault.

And there it was, that flicker of pity that used to infuriate Oswald beyond belief, but that now was exactly what he had been hoping to spark. 

“I’ll see what I can turn up,” Jim sighed, and Oswald released his arm.

“Find him,” Oswald demanded. “I will burn this city down to bring him home, so the faster you bring Ed back to me, the less clean-up you’ll have to do.”

He turned on shaking legs, exhausted from the night that had felt eternal, that felt as if it was still going even now. Some days it felt like the sun never truly shone on Gotham City. He picked up his cane and limped across the bullpen and out of the GCPD without waiting for Jim to respond.

He hears, just as he’s leaving, Harvey Bullock’s voice: “what’s the money on this being Nygma’s latest scheme?”

And Jim’s reply: “wouldn’t put it past him.”

Something cold gripped Oswald’s chest like claws. He stumbled, recovered, and hurried out of the GCPD.

In the limo, on the way back to the mansion, Oswald found himself drifting off for brief snatches. He was lulled by the motion of the vehicle and overwhelmed with physical and emotional exhaustion. He drifted.

Ed’s voice echoed in his ears. Oswald! Oswald help me. Oswald it’s so dark in here, it’s so cold.

Leave me alone. Get away from me. I’m done with you.

I never want to see you again. 

The crunch of tires on the gravel leading up the manor’s driveway startled him awake. He stumbled out of the backseat toward the door and shuffled inside. He tried not to look at Ed’s jacket, crumpled at one end of the couch in front of the cooling fire.

He shuffled upstairs, thinking maybe some sleep would clear his head.

Oswald stopped on the threshold of the master bedroom, trying to will himself to go inside and get some rest.

He is sitting in bed, working on a crossword puzzle from the previous day, his brow furrowed in concentration.

What are you doing, you silly bird? Ed asks from the doorway. Oswald looks up and meets Ed’s eyes. He smiles indulgently and leans against the doorframe, hugging one of Oswald’s robes tight around him. The sleeves and hem of the robe fall far too short on Ed, and his plaid pajama pants clash horribly with the gold paisley pattern on the robe.

Doing the crossword puzzle, Oswald says a touch defensively. Ed grins like his face is going to split in half. Don’t laugh at me, Oswald grumbles.

I’d never do that. Are you going to just stand there and stare? Oswald says, throwing the paper and pencil aside, or are you going to get into bed?

Just going to stare, for a moment, if that’s alright.

Like what you see?

Love is the word you’re searching for.

Dozens of little memories like that one—moments in a shared life that had only just begun—crowded around Oswald every time he tried to rest. Memories of lazy mornings, of stumbling out of bed to rush to City Hall wearing each other’s ties by mistake, of crawling under the covers after hours at the office, and of lying wrapped in each other’s arms until waking at 2am feeling overheated.

Memories of their first night.

Memories of their last.

Oswald turned away from the door and resumed his frantic pacing through the halls. He wouldn’t be sleeping that night.

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

From the shelf to the floor then whole no more. What am I?

Correct: Shattered.

Now, riddle me this:

How long can I keep going, feeling like I’m made of broken glass?

Finally, riddle me this:

Can I ever be whole again?

¿?

The light flickered on and she was there, looming over him. He turned away, trying not to look at her.

“Who are you?” he demanded.

She grinned. “Don’t you recognize me?”

“Kristen?”

“That’s right. Did you miss me?”

“You’re not real,” Ed said, more to himself. “You can’t hurt me. You’re not real.”

A high laugh, the one that had taken up residence inside his skull, echoed through the room. He closed his eyes.

“You’re not real,” he repeated.

“Now, Eddie,” she whispered, “what makes you think that?”

A hand curled around his throat, and his heart stopped. The light flickered again, and Ed met her eyes. She squeezed her fingers, her nails digging into his skin. He tried to draw breath and she tightened her grip and smiled.

Ed holds Kristen closer, her hand at the small of her back, as she laughs and removes her glasses. He reaches up to take off his own. Her hands close on his collar and his chest is ready to burst.

The Kristen in front of him released his neck and he inhaled sharply.

“I killed you,” he gasped. “You can’t be here. I buried your body in the woods.”

“This is Gotham,” Kristen said. “What’s dead doesn’t stay dead.”

She tugged down her high collar and Ed saw dark bruises around her neck.

His own fingers tighten—crushing—as she struggles.

“What do you want?” he tried to say it as a demand, but it came out as a plea.

“To show you who you are, Ed.”

Who am I?

“You’re a killer,” he said.

Ed laughed. “I know that. I’m the Riddler.”

“The Riddler believes in rules. In order. You killed me by mistake, Ed,” she whispered, drawing a knife from her sleeve—long, thin, and glistening sharp. “What kind of man does that make you?”

“I—”

I can make a body disappear.

“And if you killed me, what will stop you from killing him?”

“I would never hurt Oswald.”

“You already have,” Kristen laughed.

The smoke of the Iceberg Lounge rises in front of his eyes.

“I wouldn’t—”

“You’re a psychopath, Eddie. You don’t do these things for fun or power—you do them because you can’t stop yourself.”

That is not true! That’s not who I am!

“You think you wouldn’t kill him?” She laughed. “You’ve already imagined it.”

Oswald’s body sinks away from him into the cold of Gotham River.

“It isn’t true,” he lied. It had been a nightmare, he couldn’t control his nightmares. But it had been his nightmare.

“It is,” she said. “Give in, Ed. Help us.”

“No.”

She scraped the knife slowly down his cheek, then pressed hard. He screamed. She peeled the top layer of skin off as hot blood poured down thick and heavy.

“You’re a monster, Ed,” she said. “You don’t even know who you are. You’ll kill him, in the end, and won’t even remember doing it.”

She plunged the knife into his thigh, buried to the hilt, and yanked it out again before Ed could make a sound. He bit down on his tongue to stop himself from crying out again.

I don’t love you. His own voice filled his head along with the sound of a gunshot.

It was just a nightmare.  

Kristen cut open his shirt with the knife, leaving his chest bare and cold, and pushed it from his shoulders. She stepped back and looked him over. Ed suppressed a shudder. She crossed her arms and tapped the knife to her nose, thoughtful, leaving a drop of blood behind.

She ran her fingers over his shoulder, gripping it possessively. He looked away from the red nails on his pale skin, digging in deeper, deeper. The knife slid under the skin of his bicep and he inhaled sharply.

Don’t scream.

“Can you even love anything?” she asked, peeling back a layer of skin.

Ed’s eyes began to water.

“You left me with bruises, you’ll leave Oswald with burns,” she said, pushing a little harder.

I’ll kill anyone who gives you another scar.

Ed heard the blood dripping onto the floor and was certain, for a moment, it was Oswald’s—hot, scarlet, covering him, drowning him.

“Just give up,” she said, her voice so soft as she flayed the skin off his bicep. “Give up and help us burn this City to the ground.”

She released his shoulder and pressed the tip of the knife to his Adam’s apple. “The Court of Owls is asking for your help, Ed. You should be honoured. Stop holding on to this delusion that you’re in control of yourself. Give up. Let the Court take over.”

Ed could only sob.

Kristen sighed and waved the knife slowly back and forth in front of him like a pendulum.

“Well then,” she said. “Don’t say I didn’t try.”

Cut the ropes from his left hand, seized his wrist, and with a flick of her knife, severed his ring finger.

Ed couldn’t scream. He slumped forward, staring down onto the floor, covered in blood spatters like a Rorschach Test: he saw an umbrella.

“Don’t be like that, Eddie,” she whispered, put her hand on his face, brushing his hair out of the way. He tried to flinch away, but she gripped his chin and wrenched his head upward. She smiled.

“What’s the matter?” She leaned in close and forced her mouth to his. She pulled back—her lips red with Ed’s blood. “I thought you loved me.”

He whimpered—a small, pathetic sound in the close, damp room.

?

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

Below the head of the card table, beside the head of state. A history of beheading me to get ahead won’t stop me from using the head on my shoulders to leave you history. Who am I?

Correct: A Queen.

Now, riddle me this:

At what point does absolution become impossible?

Finally, riddle me this:

Why did I think this was a good idea?

¿?

“Saw your interview.” It was the early hours of the morning, and Zsasz had surely been up for hours, yet still looked wide awake. “Not your best.”

Oswald didn’t have the energy to get angry. He threw off his jacket and collapsed onto the couch, his leg aching and his head throbbing. He closed his eyes and put his head in his hands.

“What have you found, Victor?” The question came out as a sigh. The resignation in his own voice echoed cold and hollow.

“Nothing, Boss. Rattled cages all over. No one’s seen him.”

Oswald opened his eyes to stare into the fireplace—unlit, growing colder and colder with each day. He couldn’t muster the energy to stoke the fire.

“Has Gabe reported anything?” Oswald asked, knowing what the answer would be.

“Nothing.”

“And Barbara? Did you find her?”

“Sorry, Boss. But this was on the doorstep when I arrived.”

Oswald looked up, and Zsasz handed him a letter and a long thing box. He tore the envelope open. A single-page typed letter fell onto his lap. Inside was a single sheet of cardstock with a few typed lines: an address in the Narrows, a time, a date.

It was sealed with a stamp that looked horribly like…

Like an owl.

Oswald stared at the box, a horrible premonition that he did not want to open it.

In one violent motion he tore of the paper and cracked open the lid. He nearly dropped it in shock and revulsion.

On a scarlet cushion lay a single long, pale finger.

¿

Oswald dressed carefully.

Clothing is armor, Fish’s voice reminded him.

You always dress so well, his Mother’s added, from oh-so long ago.

Purple is your colour, whispered Ed’s, as he knotted the purple tie at his throat.

He looked in the mirror. He was dressed like he was going to a funeral. He tried not to consider the possibility that, if he didn’t succeed, a funeral may be in his near future.

His blood turned to ice. 

Oswald, what are you worried about? The memory of Ed’s voice was so close it was almost like he was still in the room. I’m not going anywhere.

Then where are you, Ed, Oswald thought. Where are you?

“I’m going to bring you home, Ed,” Oswald said aloud to the silence. “Whatever it takes.”

The car ride to the place he will meet Fish Mooney is sobering. Oswald is a teenager, going to Fish’s club—newly opened—for the first time. He opens the doors and steps into gold and scarlet, like a ruby set in a wedding band. Fish shines like the crown jewels themselves—her rings and necklace and sharp nails catch burning candlelight and scatter it across the room.

He is acutely aware of his ungainly gait as he walks across the club full of taller, more beautiful people, gleaming like gems in their own right. In his cheap suit and old shoes, he feels like coal dust among diamonds.

And, when he offers Fish the letter with shaking hands and downturned eyes, he is nervous enough to feel his heart stuttering in his throat. But Fish says, not exactly gently, but not harshly either, “what’s your name?”

“O-Oswald Cobblepot, ma’am,” he stammers.

“Oswald,” she rolls his name across her tongue like it’s music, not ungainly and awkward like he is. “Thank you.”

“You’re… You’re welcome, Ms. Mooney.”

He turns away and walks out into the street with one thought in his head: he needs to get close to Fish Mooney. He has to learn anything she’s willing to teach him. He had known, then, that he had just been in the presence of the future Queen of Gotham.

The once and future Queen, perhaps, Oswald thought, as the car pulled up outside a greenhouse on Gotham’s outskirts. He got out of the car, careful to take his cane with him. He would need all his armor for this particular battle.

It was dark in the woods around the greenhouse, and Oswald could hear his own feet crunching on the gravel that wound its way up to the front door. Behind him, he could hear the driver pull away—there was no point in waiting around; either he’d die here, or he and Fish would leave to find Ed tonight.

Out of options.

The moonlight gleamed off the shattered glass of the greenhouse. He knocked on the cracked door, wondering why, when he’d called and asked her to put him in touch with Fish, Cat had chosen here of all places for this meeting. It was strange to simply knock, like he was an old neighbour, checking in after time away, not a murderer visiting his resurrected victim.

The person who answered the door might have frightened Oswald if Ed had not told him about Strange’s experiments that had escaped and left with Fish. He was… Blue, from the looks of him, with white hair, and a rudimentary sort of suit that made him look like a lost astronaut.

“Who are you?” he demanded, leveling a weapon of some kind at Oswald’s face.

“My name is Oswald Cobblepot,” he said. He took a steadying breath, then, with Ed’s face in at the forefront of his mind, swallowed his pride and said: “And I’m here to beg a favour of Fish Mooney.”

¿

“You don’t look so good, Penguin.” Cat was sprawled on a rusting metal patio chair, staring at him. A tall red-haired woman drifted around the plants in the back of the room, watering them and casting glances in Oswald’s direction. They were clearly his guards. He sat on a stiff wrought-iron chair in the middle of a massive greenhouse, waiting. Clearly this place was lived-in, despite what the exterior suggested. The air was heavy with the perfume of flowers and damp soil.

Oswald had lived his entire life in Gotham City; he had never been around this much green in his life. It felt warm and alive.

When Ed comes back, we’ll clean out the old greenhouse in the manor. We’ll plant some herbs.

If Ed comes back.  

“Thanks,” he snapped at Cat, trying to muster a sarcastic smile, but it felt more like a grimace.

“Where’s Riddle Guy?” she asked. “He okay?”

Oswald looked up, surprised. She was staring at him intently—genuinely concerned, it appeared. He remembered Ed’s story of his escape from Arkham. In fact, it was a part of that story that brought him here. He remembered the role Selina had played in helping him get out safely the first time, and wondered if he wasn’t the only person in Gotham who saw that Ed was a person worth caring for. It made him feel less alone.

“... He…” Oswald began, then found his words caught in his throat. “He’s…”

“He’s not dead, is he?” Cat twisted around to sit properly in the chair, her eyes boring holes into Oswald.

“No! No…” he said, but even saying the words made him less sure. “I don’t… He’s… He’s gone. We have to find him,” Oswald said, more to himself than to Zsasz or Cat. “He’s out there. We have to find him.”

“Penguin,” Cat said, after a moment of grim silence, “not that I care or anything but… What happened? You two seemed… Good. Like, better than good.”

It was a reasonable question, but it infuriated Oswald. He wanted to yell at Cat, to swear, to tell her she was a child and couldn’t understand…

But suddenly he was so very tired. And the sounds of a fight by the waning fireplace in the Van Dahl manor screamed in his ears.

“I…” he said. “We fought. He thought… He thought I was trying to control him. And then he left. And they took him. And they did something to him. And now… Now I may never get him back.”

Were you trying to control him?” Cat asked.

“… Yes.” His own voice was small and so much more honest than he’d ever been. “I was. He just wouldn’t listen. I am—was the mayor. I had responsibilities and he just… He wouldn’t see reason!” He sounded unreasonable, even to his own ears.

“Your relationship with him was like a tree,” the red-head said. “But it should’ve been like ivy.”

“What?” Oswald turned to her. She was staring at the smoking wreck and biting her lip.

“Not me Ivy, the plant ivy. Well, a particular sort of ivy,” she continued, tapping her chin. “They grow rhizomatically, not hierarchically.”

“What did you say?”

“Rhiz-o-mat-i-cal-ly.” She rolled her eyes. “Is the word too big for you, Penguin? Poison ivy grows laterally. A shared root structure—that’s how it spreads. Sneaks in where you’d least expect it, takes over before you know it. Sounds like you could learn something from it.”

Laterally, Oswald, laterally.

“That’s something Ed used to say—he’d organize our house ‘rhizomatically.’”

“You two are freaks,” She said, cheerfully.

Oswald glared at her.

She shrugged. “Nothing wrong with being a freak. But freaks have got to stick together. Sounds like you were treating Riddle Guy like a lackey, not a partner.”

“You don’t know anything about my relationship with Ed.” Oswald felt cold fury burn through him. Ivy just shrugged.

“I know it went wrong.”

“Don’t listen to Ivy, Penguin,” Cat said. “She talks too much.”

Oswald wanted to snap at her in anger but found he couldn’t speak. Ivy was right. It had gone wrong. It had gone wrong before the Court of Owls had even gotten involved.

Love is about sacrifice.

But hadn’t he sacrificed enough? Hadn’t he… But what had he sacrificed? Rescuing Ed from Arkham had given him the voting base that had propelled him into the office of mayor. Bringing Ed into his home and his life had been an adjustment, but hardly a sacrifice by any stretch of the imagination. But Ed had abandoned his ambitions to help Oswald get into power, had administered his empire, had been his right hand…

Had been unhappy.

I’m bored, Oswald. I need something to keeprunning smoothly.

Bored. Of course, he had been bored. Ed was a genius whose talents Oswald had been happily wasting on administrative tasks. And for what? To keep perfect control over Gotham? At what cost?

Love is about sacrifice.

He needed help. He needed resources. He needed someone who could not only get to Ed, but undo whatever it was the Court had done to him. He needed Fish Mooney.

But Fish wasn’t going to help him.

Unless…

“Selina, tell Fish I’m ready to talk terms.”

“Are you, now?” the voice that sliced through the room sent a shiver down Oswald’s spine. A confusing mixture of fear and relief washed over him. A hundred memories of that voice calling out orders, advice, saying: come here, Oswald, let me see… Oh it’s only a bruise from those boys at the docks, you’re alright. Come here and sit by me.

He would have given a great deal of the power and wealth he had accumulated since those days to be able to sit by Fish while she told him what to do. But he’d given up that privilege long ago. Now he could only kneel by the throne of the Queen in supplication.

He stood, his whole body shaking with fear and fatigue.

“Sit, Oswald,” Fish said as she swept into the room, looking like a candle flame in shimmering red and gold. “Rest that leg.”

Oswald sat back down, choosing to ignore the violent sense-memory of a chair breaking over his leg and the sound of a snapping bone that had never healed properly. Now was not the time to engage in a battle of wills. Now was the time for every ounce of contrition and charm that Fish herself had taught him—and some that he’d learned since they’d parted.

He’d talked his way out of death enough times. Surely he could talk Ed’s way out of captivity as well. Fish settled herself in a chair beside Cat, who was staring at Fish and Oswald with a furrowed brow.

“Fish,” Oswald began, his voice slipping easily into the deferential register he’d used for so long.  “How are you?”

“Alive. No thanks to you.” She said, raising her eyebrows at him. “And only my friends call me Fish.

“My apologies, Ms. Mooney,” Oswald said. How could he have forgotten something so simple? He was getting sloppy. He should have taken sleeping pills last night to ensure he got some proper rest.

“You aren’t here for small talk, Oswald. What do you want? And what makes you think I won’t just kill you? An eye for an eye, and all that.”

Cat was watching them talk like a spectator in a prize fight.

“I think we both know, that if you were going to kill me, you would have done that already.”

“Don’t be so certain.”

Oswald shuddered. Her voice scraped against his bones like fingernails under his skin, peeling back layers of confidence and charm to reach the frightened umbrella-boy underneath it all. For a moment, his mind went blank. He couldn’t reply.

Fish spoke again: “what do you want, Oswald? Satisfy my curiosity before I decide what to do with you. You must be truly desperate to risk visiting me.”

“His man’s missing,” Cat said, when Oswald failed to respond a second time. “Riddle Guy.”

Fish raised her eyebrows. “His man? Oswald, don’t tell me you’ve found yourself a man. That’s very unlike you—you were always so focused.”

She was right. Oswald could hear the echo of his own words to his mother: I don’t even date. And maybe he still didn’t; he hadn’t exactly dated Ed. They’d gone from first meeting, to reluctant roommates, to political partners, to cohabitating, to love, to heartbreak, all in very rapid succession. In the first few months of actual time they’d spent together—when neither of them was in Arkham or brainwashed—their relationship had leapt over the uneasy, early stage and directly into the kind of steady partnership Oswald had always craved in his life. He didn’t have time to date—but he had time for Ed.

Still. Perhaps he could have taken Edward for dinner once or twice, or to the theater. More than that disaster at The Green Monster. Oswald wondered what it would be like to spend an evening on something that wasn’t business, to kill time and pursue pleasure rather than power. He tried not to think that, even if he did succeed in rescuing Ed, he might never get the chance to find out.

“Will you help me find him?” he asked, finally, hating how shattered his voice sounded, even to him. “Please.”

“Why would I do that?” Fish asked, sounding more curious than threatening. “You killed me.”

Clearly not well enough, one part of him snapped. I’m sorry, another whispered.

“Because…” Oswald trailed off. Because if you don’t then I don’t know what else to do? Because if I can’t save him you may as well just kill me? Because I love him and you loved me once?

“You owe him one,” Cat said. Oswald turned to frown at her; he had been arriving at that.

“Selina, you might be confused, I don’t owe Oswald here a damn thing. He owes me a few months of my life I lost in Strange’s lab.”

“Not him,” Cat said, looking pointedly at Oswald. “Riddle guy.”

“Who?”

“Ed.” Oswald nearly shouted it. “Edward Nygma. He helped you escape from Arkham. And now he’s in trouble. You’re right, Miss Mooney, you don’t owe me anything. But you owe Ed. Don’t… Don’t let him suffer for my misdeeds.”

Fish’s eyebrows had crept higher and higher as he spoke. She looked from Oswald to Cat and back. “Edward Nygma is your man, Oswald? The odd young man from the asylum?”

Oswald nodded. “I know I have no right to ask anything of you, Miss Mooney. But I beg of you, for the love I had for you, for any love you might once have had for me, help me save Edward. I have no one else to turn to.”

He could feel himself beginning to tear up and, not for the first time, cursed his inability to control his emotional outbursts.

“Well, well, well, this is certainly an unusual dilemma,” Fish said. “I do owe dear Edward a debt of sorts, and yet I owe you, my little Penguin, a one-way trip to the bottom of the Gotham River. So, which one is it to be?”

“Do whatever you want to me, after Ed is safe,” Oswald heard himself say. “Just… please.”

“Oh, Oswald, don’t lie to me. We both know you don’t mean that. The moment you have Edward back you’ll worm your way out, just like you always do.”

“I assure—” he began, but Fish raised her hand to silence him.

“Don’t insult me by begging, Oswald. But a debt is a debt. I may not like you, but your taste in men does wonders to recommend you. I’ll help you find Edward. But once we’re square, don’t think for a second you are safe from me.”

Oswald could have fallen at her feet and wept with gratitude. Instead, he said: “I understand.”

They both rose and crossed the floor. Oswald opened to mouth to speak but Fish’s hand darted out and grabbed his neck, her fingers constricting his windpipe and her nails biting into his skin.

“Do you understand, my little Penguin?” She whispered. Oswald tried to nod, but he couldn’t move his head. “Or am I going to have to remind you the meaning of the word ‘loyalty,’ because it didn’t seem to take the first time around.”

“Miss Mooney, I beg of you,” Oswald managed to garble the words out around the pressure on his windpipe. She raised her hand, nearly lifting Oswald’s feet off the ground. He had forgotten how strong she was.

“Oswald,” she sighed—he could see flecks of gold in one of her mismatched eyes—and tightened her grip, “you fooled me once. Don’t think for a moment you can manage it a second time.”

“Yes, Miss Mooney,” Oswald wheezed. Fish let go. He stumbled, nearly falling to his knees, and gasped for air.

“Then we understand each other,” Fish said. “Good. So, Edward’s favour is enough for me to find him for you. But to get him out, well that’s something else entirely. You said you were ready to talk terms. Tell me, my little Penguin, what are your terms?”

Oswald took a deep breath.

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

The spectre of death, a noise in the dark; stealing your breath, stopping your heart. What am I?

Correct: Fear.

Now, riddle me this:

How do you hold onto yourself when all the fear lurking at the corners of your mind begins to take over?

Finally, riddle me this:

Who will I be when this is over?

¿?

He woke from a half-daze to an empty dark room.

His head spun.

Blood loss, a first-aid class from a lifetime ago offered.

With far more effort than it should have taken, he swung he left hand toward him and cradled it against his chest.

Look at you. The Voice was back, and when Ed opened his eyes, there he was: the Riddler, standing in front of him in glistening green, eyes hidden behind a violet mask.

“What do you want?” Ed slurred.

You’re pathetic, the Riddler said. Slumped here sniveling. I’m ashamed of you.

“Leave me alone.”

Hmm. The Riddler tapped his chin thoughtfully with a violet-gloved index finger. No, I don’t think I will.

“Why? Haven’t you gotten what you wanted? I’m alone, I’m miserable. Leave me alone.”

What I wanted? This isn’t what I wanted! I wanted to have fun! I wanted to be free! I wanted power!

“How’d that work out?”

This is YOUR fault! The Riddler snapped. You had to stick up for the bird after all he did to you. What’s so difficult about just killing him? They’re going to do it anyway while you sit here bleeding

“Shut up.”

Shut up? You’re telling ME to shut up? Newsflash, Ed, you’re nothing without me. The Riddler splayed his hands out in front of him like a stage magician saying ta-da and Ed noticed something strange about his left hand.

It was missing a finger. He looked down at his own hand—bloody, mutilated, and missing a finger—and suddenly, it made sense.

“I’m nothing without you?” Ed asked.

Can’t you hear? Or do I need to do that for you too? I’m the real brains here, Ed. We both know that. I’m better than you.

“What happened to your hand, then?” Ed asked.

The Riddler looked down at his hand and frowned.

“I’m not nothing without you,” Ed said. “But all that confidence, all that power... It’s mine. And all that… All that love that wouldn’t let me kill Oswald, that’s yours.”

It’s not.

“It is. I lost my finger, and you lost yours. What’s mine is yours, what’s yours is mine. I am you. And you’re me.”

The Riddler looked stunned for a moment then smiled, slow and wide. He leaned down toward Ed and extended his hand: Caesar before the fall, leading dancer at the ball; ship’s rudder at the keel, both hands on the steering wheel. What are you?

Ed looked down at his hand and realized for the first time that it wasn’t tied up. He loosened the bindings on his right hand, over his chest, and his feet. He looked up to the Riddler and smiled back, meeting his own eyes behind the violet mask. He knew the answer. 

“In control,” he said, and took the Riddler’s hand.

The Riddler pulled him to his feet and Ed stood up alone in an empty room. His leg burned where Kristen had stabbed him, and the places she had stripped off skin were beginning to go numb, but he was on his feet.

He looked at the door—locked—and smiled: he loved a challenge.

?

The lock was easy to pick using the bobby pins he kept in his sock at all times since Arkham; perhaps the Court were not as omnipotent as he had been led to believe.

Don’t get cocky.

I’m not cocky, I’m clever.

What you are is exhausting.  

He opened the lock, flinching at the echoing clang of the bolt disengaging. He gently pushed the door ajar with his right hand—his left hand was still bound tight with cloth from his thoroughly destroyed shirt. He clenched his jaw and tensed his muscles at the scream of the hinges. He opened it just enough to slip out into the shadows of the long hallway. Icy moonlight cast an eerie glow across patches of the floor, making the whole hall look like it was under water, and the skylight was a sheet of ice, floating high above.

He crept away from the cell toward another door standing ajar at the end of the hallway.

“—fix the toxin?” Kathryn’s voice was barely audible. Ed stood very still, listening.

“No,” another, unfamiliar, voice replied, drifting in and out of auditory range. Pacing, perhaps? “—failed.”

“You’re certain—wasn’t—?”

“—very persuasive.”

“Have—Hugo Strange?”

“No—”

“Then how do you p—weapon?”

Ed shook his head and pressed his ear closer to the door, certain he had misheard.

“—have a new candidate for a weapon,” the unfamiliar voice said. “A gas. —Crane.”

“Where—?”

And the answer sent a chill deep into Ed’s bones.

“Arkham.”

What are you DOING here? LEAVE.

Listen. Wait. Solve the riddle.

Get out of here!

No, I

You have to warn Oswald.

Ed moved.

The door slammed open and he flattened himself against the wall, trying to sink into the shadows and disappear. Kathryn and yet another domino-mask-wearing sidekick stormed through the door past Ed, toward his cell. Before the door could shut behind them, Ed slipped through.

The door slammed. Ed jumped and nearly tripped over the metal chair he had been tied to, by his count, five hours and twenty-one minutes earlier.

Calm down. Think. Relax. Pull yourself together.

You’re patheticcan’t even escape from prison.

Shut up, I’m thinking.  

You should’ve thought BEFORE picking the lock.

They’re going after Oswald. I don’t have TIME.

Ed crossed the room—lit with the sickly glow of a fading incandescent light bulb—to the other door, and listened for voices or movement beyond. He stood for a moment, trying to calm his thundering heart, waiting.

You should get a weapon.

Where, exactly?

You’re in a secret underground bunker. I’m sure you’ll be able to find one.

A shout from behind him, muffled by the closed door, electrified him into action. They had noticed his empty cell. Ed threw open the door in front of him and stepped into what looked like a lab.

A lab full of researchers and domino-mask-wearing guards.

“Oh dear,” Ed breathed.

He ran.

The next few minutes raced by in fits and starts of adrenaline and fear. He was like a rat in a maze. The compound, which must be mostly underground judging by the complete absence of smashable windows, was a maze of interconnected rooms that Ed ran through one after another after another, searching for something that looked even remotely like a way out. His lungs and limbs burned as he pushed past researchers in labs full of bubbling flasks.

His heart pounded hard and desperate against his throat as the cold certainty of recapture descended on him. The stone walls around him flickered in and out, replaced with the memory of stark white Arkham corridors that haunted his rare moments of sleep. He wanted to drop to his knees and drive the heels of his palms into his eyes until he couldn’t see anymore.

He wanted to give up.

He didn’t.

He kept running.

The familiar rush of near-capture overtook him and he suppressed a laugh, ducking into another open door along the hallway and slamming it shut behind him. Footsteps thundered past outside. 

An alarm began to blare.

He jumped, startled, and knocked beaker off a lab bench. The green substance hit the floor and instantly vaporized. 

The label on the bench read: toxin trial one – Crane.

Gas, Ed. It’s the fear toxin, Crane’s fear toxin. You remember Crane. Use your head, while you still can.  

Ed tried to hold his breath, but he knew it was futile. He held it until his eyes started to sting, until his vision started to blur, until his burning lungs forced his mouth open and he inhaled like a half-drowned man pulled from a river. It only took one breath. One breath for the entire world to melt into hell.

Ed burned.

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

I can make you a king, or end an empire; I can be stolen but not owned; I can conquer but cannot be conquered. What am I?

Correct: Love.

Now, riddle me this:

What if you’re finally ready to make sacrifices, but it’s too late?

Finally, riddle me this:

What wouldn’t I give to have you back again?

¿?

Oswald met Kathryn in an abandoned parking lot on the edge of town. The cloak-and-dagger routine all seemed rather unnecessary, as did the hoard of masked guards she had brought with her. He supposed he should be flattered that Kathryn thought bringing him in would be so difficult, even after he had willingly surrendered.

He rolled his eyes and stepped away from his car, waving at the driver to leave—he wouldn’t be going back that way.

“Did you really need all five of them to bring me in?” Oswald asked, stepping forward, hand white-knuckled on his cane. “I’m flattered, I truly am.”

“We have no intention of underestimating you, Mr. Cobblepot,” Kathryn said, raising her eyebrows at him. “And we will not be leaving here without you.”

“Where’s Ed?” Oswald demanded, knowing it was foolish and futile to hope they might honour this deal, to trade Oswald’s freedom for Ed’s.

“Elsewhere,” Kathryn said. “Don’t worry, Mr. Cobblepot, the two of you will have plenty of time to… reconnect.”

“You said you’d let him go,” Oswald snapped. “You said he’d be safe.”

“And you believed me,” Kathryn shrugged. “More fool you.”

Two pairs of hands seized Oswald’s arms, another fist hit him hard in the chest. He wheezed and dropped his cane in surprise.

More guards than I thought.

He let his knees buckle and he fell out of the guards’ grip. He lunged for his cane—there was a knife in the handle—but a high-heeled boot came down hard on his fingers. He felt something inside his hand shatter like glass the moment before the pain hit. He screamed.

Someone lifted him into the air and he struggled but they held fast. He tasted blood and wondered if his nose had been broken. For a few desperate moments, everything was chaos. His jacket was ripped off, and rough hands bruised and twisted limbs searching for weapons. A metallic screech hit his ears. He fell. He was too startled to cry out before the landing sent what little air he had left rushing from his lungs. He curled in on himself, shouting with pain when his injured hand collided with his knee.

A beat of silence, then an all-too-familiar clunking sound followed by darkness and a revving engine.

He cradled his hand close to his chest and bit back a sob. He didn’t need to open his eyes to know what claustrophobic, dark space they’d thrown him in. He’d been here before.

Oswald was once again in the truck of a car, bound for certain death. And this time, there would be no Jim Gordon to save him.

¿

He screamed and swore and struggled mostly for the show of it. He cursed them and called them traitors and liars as though he had actually expected that their offer to free Ed had been in good faith. As if he had that much faith left.

Though, clearly he had had a little too much faith that they’d accept his peaceful surrender… well, peacefully. And perhaps too much faith that Fish, resurrected from the dead, would honour her word like the Fish he had known would have. Perhaps. Only time would tell.

It was sheer luck that he didn’t break anything else when they threw him into the cell; as it was, his injured—broken, it’s definitely broken—hand hit hard against the bars and his vision went white for a heartbeat. No matter, he thought, as the sound of the cell door slamming echoed in his ears; he was in and so was the tracker embedded in the sole of his shoe.

He sat up and hissed in pain—bruised ribs, maybe—and shuffled backward to lean against the bars.

The cell next to him was empty. In fact, the whole block of cells—birdcages, something in the back of his mind whispered—stood completely empty.

Where are you, Ed?

In the distance, he could just barely make out the sound of dripping water. He shivered, hugging his knees to his chest as best he could, considering his broken hand and whatever had happened to his ribs. He must have looked an absolute mess. His mouth tasted like blood, his shirt was torn and bloodstained, his hand hurt so much he didn’t want to look at it for fear of what he’d see… And he was alone.

So long ago, he’d stood at the end of the pier and begged Jim Gordon for his life. He hadn’t needed to call up fake tears, or manufacture a tremor in his voice; the shot he had taken had been a long shot. A leap of faith in a man he didn’t even know—a desperate move from a desperate man.

And here he was again.

He wanted to cry, to shout that it wasn’t fair. All he’d wanted was just a sliver of happiness to call his own, and now, well he didn’t even know if Ed was alive.

It all felt so… cold. The big house on the edge of town with its high cold ceilings and empty fireplace, the drafty office at City Hall that always left him chilled, no matter how warm he dressed, the frosty silences before he spoke at meetings of the heads of families.

What was the point of it all, in the end? What did they matter, when all he wanted was the feeling of Ed’s warm breath in his ear as he whispered something infuriating and confusing far too early in the morning for Oswald to even hope to decode it?

“Ed, where are you?” he said aloud.

As if in answer, a door in the gloomy distance creaked open and a gangly figure staggered in.

A spark flickered in the cold dark.

The figure was talking to himself animatedly, flinching at every sound and gesticulating wildly.

The spark caught, and searing relief rushed through his aching chest. Oswald breathed out in a sigh that seemed to shake the entirety of his being:

 “Ed.”

The door in the distance swung shut. Oswald struggled closer to the bars.

“Ed!” he said again, louder.  Ed flinched, but did not look at Oswald. “Ed, it’s me.”

No response.

Oswald didn’t know if he should be concerned or annoyed. “Ed…” he tried again.

Ed made a noise that sounded horribly like a whimper. “Please leave me alone. I didn’t mean to kill you. I didn’t mean…”

Oswald tried to reach out with his uninjured hand, but Ed was too far away.

Oswald had never been good at this—what to do when something in Ed’s head broke loose and threatened to consume him. But he had to do something.

“Edward Nygma,” he said in his loudest, most commanding voice—never shout, Fish had said, make yourself heard, but never yell. “Look at me.”

Ed stopped shaking and turned his head to squint at Oswald. A shaft of light from above fell across him, illuminating his body for the first time since he’d walked into the room. Oswald inhaled sharply.

“Oh Ed, what happened?”

Ed’s shirt was gone, his shoulder a grisly mass of blood and muscle. His glasses were also missing. Wild and bloodshot eyes—stark and bright against the deep bruises beneath—darted around trying to find something to focus on. Blood leaked from the corners of his mouth, from his forehead, a nasty cut on his cheek, and from his nose. His face, already pale to begin with, looked positively ghostly under the dirty skylight.

“Oswald?” he said. His voice scratchy and raw. “What are you doing here? I don’t normally see you.”

“Wha—never mind. I’m here to break you out.”

Ed laughed, harsh and loud, and Oswald was almost offended. “I am.”

“He’s not here,” Ed said, throwing his head back to stare at the ceiling. “He wouldn’t come here, he hates me. I burned down his club, I killed his chief-of-staff,” he laughed again—high and cold and half a sob— “and I told him lies and ruined his empire… Destroyed it all… Oh god, it’s all…”

“Ed!” Oswald shouted to get his attention. “I’m here.”

Ed looked at him again and shook his head, “you can’t be. She’s the only one here. The only one who can even look at me anymore.”

Oswald didn’t ask who she was.

“Ed, what did she do?” Oswald kept his voice very carefully level, trying not to betray how very much he wanted to teach whoever it was the consequences of not handling something precious with due reverence.

“You’re in MY HEAD,” Ed shouted, suddenly furious, tapping violently on his temple. Oswald withdrew his hand sharply from where it had been, reaching, all this time. “You SAW IT. You saw what she... You saw me… YOU WERE THERE.”

“Ed, I wasn’t there,” Oswald said. “Because I’m NOT A HALLUCINATION!”

If cajoling wouldn’t work, maybe shouting would. If it didn’t, well, he would have exhausted all the tools in his arsenal and didn’t know what he’d do from there.

“It’s really me, Ed!”

“Why would the real Oswald rescue me, after everything?”

There it was. The question he’d been dreading.

“You know I’m terrible at riddles,” he said, smiling weakly. “Call it a professional courtesy.”

Ed laughed softly, coldly. “Oh I wish I could believe you,” he said. “I wish I could see him again.”

“Goddamnit, Ed,” Oswald grabbed onto the bars. “It’s me. We’re getting out of here. We have to be ready when the signal comes.”

Ed shook his head and gestured vaguely at Oswald, “you’re a projection of the fear gas, and my subconscious need to atone with Oswald before I die. You’re not fooling me.”

Oswald made a growling sound under his breath.  “You are not going to die!”

He still couldn’t reach Ed, couldn’t touch him to make him see that he was real. Instead, he pulled off one of his shoes and lobbed it at Ed. It hit him square between the eyes and bounced away. For a moment, Ed didn’t react, just blinked dumbly at Oswald and the shoe.

“Oswald?” he breathed, finally.

“Yeah,” Oswald said. “Hi. Ready to get to work now?”

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

After a failure, I am worthless unless actions atone. What am I?

Correct: An Apology.

Now, riddle me this:

After everything I’ve done, can I ever go back home?

Finally, riddle me this:

Can you forgive me?

¿?

You know I take back what I said before, you two are perfect together. So. Much. Drama. Kristen whispered as Ed stared at the blurry outline of Oswald, willing himself to believe he was real.

He reached out through the bars and tapped Oswald sharply on the top of the head.

“Hey, what was that for?” Oswald snapped.

“Just making sure you’re real,” Ed muttered. “You’re really here. Why?”

He’d already asked, but the question deserved reiteration. After everything they’d done to each other, why had Oswald felt obligated to listen to the Court’s demands?

“They said they’d let you go if…” Oswald trailed off. “Obviously, it was a lie, or we wouldn’t both be here.” He spoke as though daring Ed to voice the unsaid question that hung in the air…

What did you do?

“We can talk about this later,” Ed said. “For now… I never want to see the inside of this place again. So, do you have a plan?”

He thought he could just make out the blur of Oswald’s dangerous smile. Or, perhaps, he just knew it was there.

“I thought you were the one with the plans,” Oswald said. “Riddler.”

Ed shuddered and a cold voice in his head laughed. Well hello, Penguin. Finally ready to play?

“I’m stepping out of my comfort zone,” Ed said. “Tell me you have something.”

“You really think a little steel and concrete can stop me?”

“Perish the thought.” Ed could feel himself smiling. “Alright, Oswald, you have my attention. What’s the plan?”

?

“Fine,” he said, when Oswald was finished laying out the details. “I’m sure we can handle working together, just this once.” He regretted saying it. Regretted everything he said that wasn’t I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, please just tell me you still love me. Take me home.

Instead, he extended his hand to shake and Oswald inhaled sharply.

“Oh, right. Did you get my finger in the mail by any chance?” Ed asked.

“Put it in the freezer.”

“Wonderful.”

You two are such freaks, Kristen whispered. Or, no… Because Oswald reacted to the voice as well.

“Big talk for a woman with a stolen face,” Oswald said. “Isabelle.”

“Isabell-ah,” Ed said—a reflex. He shuddered.

“It’s not stolen,” she said. “It’s just… an homage.”

Ed was so grateful his glasses were broken. It was much easier to remember that she wasn’t Kristen when he couldn’t see her clearly. The effects of the fear gas were rapidly wearing off, but real fear was rising to take its place.

“Eddie likes it,” she said, and suddenly Ed wanted to sit down to make the room stop tilting beneath his feet. “Don’t you, Eddie?”

“I…” he mumbled.

Come on, she is your type. Ed couldn’t have reliably said where that voice came from or who it belonged to.

“Ed, listen to me, she’s using you,” Oswald said. “Focus.”

There it was, his cue. He lunged toward the cell, reached through the bars, and grabbed the blurry shape of Oswald’s collar. “Don’t talk to me!” he shouted, shaking Oswald as gently as he dared while still looking convincing. “You don’t get to talk to me after what you did!”

“You think I want to be here?” Oswald shouted back, grabbing Ed’s wrist. “You think I’m glad to be stuck in a cell because of an ungrateful lunatic like you?!”

Any completely insane thing you do to taunt a shadowy criminal cabal jeopardizes my power, echoed around the room, silent.

“You’re just lucky they took my knife or I’d teach you that even Penguins can be gutted like Fish!” Ed shouted, and he could have sworn he heard a half-smothered snort of laughter from Oswald that was quickly turned into a snarl.

“Oh we’ll see who’d win that one, Ed,” Oswald snapped. “Get into a lot of fights in the GCPD forensic lab, did you?”

Isabella cleared her throat. “Gentlemen,” she said. “I can see I’m interrupting something. But I’m here to take Eddie back to his room, and our former Mayor to have a little talk with the powers that be.”

Former Mayor? What happened? Ed tucked it away in the back of his mind to examine later. Right now all that mattered was making sure she didn’t take Oswald away to pump him full of fear toxin or something else… whatever the other weapon they were testing was.

Now or never. He pulled the improvised knife from his pocket.

“I’m not letting you kill him,” Ed snapped, reaching through the bars, wrapping his good arm around Oswald’s neck from behind and pinning him against the bars with his injured arm wrapped around his chest. “He’s mine.”

“Help!” Oswald screamed. Ed could feel his pulse pounding under his fingers and suppressed the memory of the last time he had been close enough to feel it.

Ed couldn’t see Isabella clearly, but he heard the unmistakable sound of a gun safety clicking off. A door in the distance slammed open and another two guards barreled in.

“Let us both out of here,” Ed growled. “So I can kill him properly.”

“Easy,” Isabella said. “Ed, you’re just confused. It’s okay, you don’t need to kill him.”

Keys rattled and the door to Oswald’s cell creaked.

“What are you doing?” he demanded. “Listen to me!”

Keys again. He wished he could see! He felt so helpless. The two guards leveled guns at him from Oswald’s cell, close enough that Ed could see the barrels pointed at his head.

“Shoot him, what are you waiting for?” Oswald sobbed theatrically. And, that was Ed’s signal. He squeezed tighter, just for a moment, with his injured arm, trying to convey, I’ve got this, don’t worry, and pulled the knife across his palm. He shoved Oswald forward at the guards and stepped back—right into the barrel of another gun.

“Take it easy there, Eddie,” Isabella whispered in his ear. Her breath was hot but he shivered nonetheless. “Don’t get too worked up. It’s alright, I’m here.”

Oswald collapsed and the guards leaned over him.

Ed couldn’t see the fight in detail but it was short. And there was Oswald, standing pointing his gun at Isabella over Ed’s shoulder.

She laughed and sighed. “I should have known. Working together. Tsk tsk. I wondered why Ed was so… Difficult to seduce, even after the two of you parted ways. Never seemed even a little bit interested. Even after the glasses and the hair, and honestly the face should have been enough, don’t you think?”

Ed could feel the gun barrel digging into his back.

“I put in so much work and all this time it wasn’t me that was the problem. It was you, Penguin. I never stood a chance. That is, until you stopped returning his calls. Needs to be needed, don’t you, Eddie?”

Ed couldn’t answer, he could barely speak let alone think.

“Oswald,” he said. “I—” but what was he going to say? I was never with her, I never even wanted her, I just wanted you back… Hardly fitting last words, however true they were. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, instead.

“Ed—” Oswald began, and an explosion shook the room.

Ed felt the gun barrel slip and he didn’t hesitate. He turned and grabbed the barrel, forcing it upward. Isabella kneed him hard in the gut and he doubled over.

A gunshot split the hair. Ed wheezed. She had hit a bruise—ugly and yellowing—forming on his side from who-knew-when. He fell, but didn’t hit the ground.

“Hey, I’ve got you.” It was Oswald.

“Where’s—?” he couldn’t get the word out.

“She ran. She’s gone.”

“Wha—”

“It’s Fish Mooney. I called in your favour with her, I hope you don’t mind.”

“I think I’ll learn to cope.”

Oswald chuckled and helped him to his feet.

“Are you alright? Can you walk?” he asked. Ed could picture the concern in his eyes, even though he couldn’t see it.

Ed nodded. “I’m fine, I—”

He trailed off. Oswald hadn’t taken his hands off Ed’s waist where he’d caught him. Ed’s arm was still draped over Oswald’s shoulder.

Ed knew he must look like a wreck—bloody, hollow-eyed, covered in dirt and grime—and from what he could make out, Oswald didn’t look much better. They needed to move, needed to get the hell out of here and back somewhere safe.

You’re home, I’m with you, Oswald had always said, those nights he woke screaming. Home. With you. They were the same thing.

“Why did you come back for me?” Ed asked.

“Come on, Ed,” Oswald sighed, in a reasonable imitation of Ed’s own voice. “You know this one.”

Oswald tugged Ed into a kiss.

It felt like like clear oxygen after stumbling from a burning building. Everything tasted vaguely of blood and Ed thought he might collapse from fatigue at any second, but for the first time in weeks, his head cleared.

Another explosion rattled the building and Ed would have been tempted to ignore it had a voice not jolted them both back to the real world:

“Oh for—guys come on. We gotta get out of here.” Ed looked up to see Cat standing in the doorway with a tall red-head in green, and Bridgit the Firefly, flamethrower and all.

The redhead clapped happily and smiled so brightly she seemed to belong in a completely different room than this dreary damp cell-block.

“Time. To. Go.” Cat snapped her fingers on each word, when Oswald and Ed didn’t immediately move toward her. Ed stepped toward them, helping Oswald, who didn’t seem to have a cane handy.

“Hello Cat,” Ed said.

“Riddle Guy.”

“How do we get out of this dump?”

Before she could answer, Ed heard, through the open door, Kathryn’s voice, loud and commanding.

“I don’t know who you think you are—”

And Fish Mooney’s voice cutting through it like it was made of nothing more substantial than the air itself. “Who I am? I’m Fish Mooney, bitch. And as far as I’m concerned, there’s only room for one queen in Gotham, and it isn’t you.”

A single gunshot echoed through the building, turning Ed’s blood to ice. A body hit the floor with an unceremonious thump.

For a moment, there was silence, and then, finally, someone spoke:

“The queen is dead,” Fish Mooney said. “Long live the queen.”

They stumbled through the door. Oswald could barely walk and Ed, though trying his best to help, was not much better off. Fish Mooney stood over Kathryn’s body, holding a gun and looking bored. All around her, bodies of the Court’s guards lay bleeding, burnt, or frozen. In the dark stone room, surrounded by bodies in black, Fish shone like fire springing up in the ashes, gleaming red and gold and impossible to look away from.

“Oswald,” she said, looking them up and down. “I must admit, I was prepared to kill you, but it does not appear you were lying. Edward, how are things?”

“They’ve been better,” Ed managed. “How are you?”

Fish shrugged. “Moving up in the world,” she said. She gestured at the people still standing in the room—the redheaded woman in green, Cat, a man in what looked like a blue spacesuit, Bridgit Pike, and others Ed vaguely recognized from Strange’s experiments— “It seems to me like it’s high time for the rise of the freaks. What do you think, Oswald?”

Ed looked down and, to his shock, Oswald appeared to be taking this in stride. “Of course, Ms. Mooney,” he said.

Fish smiled. “That’s right, my little Penguin. It’s a new day in Gotham City.”

“Long live the queen,” Oswald said.

Ed—exhausted, in pain, and losing a lot of blood since his bandage had come loose in the fight—took that moment to give in to the darkness clawing at the edges of his vision and collapse.

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

A place to rest, a place to wake, a place to stay the night. Mine and yours, four walls and doors, your arms around me tight. Where am I?

Correct: Home.

Now, riddle me this:

How can we pick up the pieces after all that we’ve lost?

Finally, riddle me this:

Can we start again?

¿?

Upon waking, the absolute last person Oswald wanted to be faced with was Hugo Strange and yet, here is was, leaning over him and peering at him from behind circular pink glasses. He yelled and lashed out, trying to fling himself backward but found he couldn’t move. He was well on his way to a full-on panic when a sharp voice cut through the room:

“Hugo, back up, you’re scaring the man,” Fish said, and Hugo Strange stepped back to reveal what was certainly the ceiling of Oswald’s own living room in the Van Dahl manor. Fish Mooney stepped forward. “Oswald, you’re awake.

“What happened? Where’s Ed?”

Fish raised her eyebrows at him and he fell silent. She inclined her head to the left and Oswald turned to see Ed asleep on what looked like a gurney next to him, buried in a forest of wires and tubes.

“Is he okay?” Oswald demanded. “What are you doing to him? If this is another one of your experiments I swear…”

“He’s asleep. I reattached his finger,” Strange said, stepping back up beside Fish. “Ms. Kyle found it in the freezer while looking for something to eat. The nerves were rather tricky, but Ms. Mooney objected to my attaching a claw in its place.”

Oswald tried to sit up, but whatever drug they’d given him made him feel heavy and lethargic. He looked around at the makeshift hospital in his living room, and the band of Fish’s freaks wandering in and out, looking into cupboards and down halls.

“We had a deal, Oswald,” Fish said. “And I intend to honour it. No harm will come to your man while I’m here, isn’t that right, Hugo?”

“Yes, Ms. Mooney.”

“That’s right. Now, Oswald, rest. You look tired. There’s nothing for you to do now, no city to run. I’ll be taking care of that from now on.”

The King is dead, Oswald thought, as exhaustion began to take over. Long live the Queen.

¿

It was several days before Ed was well enough to move anywhere further than the kitchen a few feet away. Oswald didn’t want to know what Strange had done to accelerate the healing process in both of them, since his broken hand was already improving and Ed’s previously-severed finger had started moving again.

In fact, Oswald had a burning desire to never see Hugo Strange again. As far as he was concerned, this little favour of reattaching Ed’s finger and making sure neither of them died was no more than he owed them for their torture in Arkham. And, despite Fish’s assurances that Hugo worked for her now, Oswald still didn’t like him creeping around or leaning over Ed to check his pulse.

He knew that he and Ed would have to leave, and soon. This was his house—or, it had been his father’s—but it didn’t feel much like home anymore since Fish and her group had moved in and begun to make themselves comfortable. It felt like the seat for the Queen of Gotham, not her underling and his… well, whatever Ed was to him, now.

Not an enemy, hopefully.

He didn’t know—Ed hadn’t spoken much since waking up, only occasionally muttering something incoherent in his sleep about water and fire.

By the fifth day, Oswald was beginning to feel uneasy about their status in the house. He had well and truly expended all his remaining goodwill with Fish and he was beginning to suspect some of Strange’s creations weren’t all that fond of him either. That’s what happened when you campaigned for Mayor under the false pretense of ridding the whole city of people like them. Looking back on it now, Oswald had some regrets.

So, when Victor Zsasz made an appearance to check on him early the next morning, he sent Zsasz away with clear instructions to get us out of here as soon as possible.

In the middle of the night he woke to a text that just had an address and apartment number and the words “keys are under the mat.”

Who would have thought an assassin would make such an efficient real-estate agent? Well, maybe not just any assassin. Victor Zsasz was, after all, the exception to many a rule.

He slid out of bed—he’d moved upstairs to his old room after the first night—grabbed his cane and crept into the hallway. Ed’s old room, where he’d stayed for the first few weeks of his residence here so many months ago, was at the end of the hall.

As he approached Ed’s room he was seized with a moment of horrible doubt. What if Ed didn’t want to go with him? What if that kiss in the cell had been like the one at Siren’s? A moment of passion, unthinking, regret?

Life only gives you one chance at love, Oswald, his mother says. He’s twelve years old and they’re eating a dinner that isn’t quite enough for either of them, though Oswald suspects his mother has given him more than she took for herself. He suspects she’s been doing this for some time. She looks wistfully out the window into the alley below their house and he can tell she’s miles away, sometime far in her past with a man he never met and she won’t tell him the name of. Yes, she sighs and repeats herself: if you remember one thing, remember fortune favours the brave. Life only gives you one true love, Oswald. When you find it, run to it.

How will I know? He asks, wondering if he should be writing her answer down.

You’ll know, she says. And when the time comes, don’t be afraid.

He opened the door.

Ed was asleep, looking pale and drawn amongst the emerald covers. Oswald closed the door behind him, grateful for the moonlight illuminating his way to Ed’s beside. Ed mumbled and twitched in his sleep.

“I’m sorry,” he muttered. “I’m sorry, I didn’t… Please… I…”

“Ed,” Oswald whispered, reluctant to touch him. “Ed, I need you to wake up. Ed!”

But, as always, Ed slept like the dead. Oswald sighed and stepped closer. He bit his bottom lip, thinking… Perhaps shaking him was a mistake, he didn’t want to jostle any injuries. He opted instead to brush some hair out of Ed’s face and say, “Ed?”

His eyes snapped open immediately and he grabbed Oswald’s wrist with his good hand.

“Oh,” he said. “It’s you.” He let go. “What?”

“Zsasz texted. He found me a place and…” Oswald swallowed, his throat was suddenly tight. Fortune favours the brave. “Do you want to get out of here?”

“Oh my god, yes, they’re starting to freak me out,” Ed sighed and closed his eyes, rubbing his temples. The little gesture of relief and frustration was so familiar that Oswald wanted to kiss him again right there. But now was not the time. He wasn’t offering Ed a place to guilt him into coming back to him—he was offering Ed a safe place as a friend.

“Great,” Oswald said. “Let’s go.”

“Now? Don’t you want to take any of your stuff?”

Oswald shrugged. He didn’t, actually. Not really. He had found Elijah’s watch in the dresser in his room yesterday and now that it was nestled safely in his pocket, nothing else seemed to matter all that much. “I’ve got everything I need.”

He felt his face turn scarlet as the implication hung in the air. But Ed just smiled and picked up his glasses off the nightstand—a spare pair he’d left in the drawer before he’d moved out. “Alright,” he said. “Lead the way.”

¿

In the end, they thought it best to take a couple changes of clothes from their old closet and sneak out through the back door into the garden.

“Should I call Zsasz to come get us?” Oswald asked, as they walked around the side of the house toward the garage. “I can’t drive.”

“I can,” Ed said quickly. “I’ll drive.”

“Are you sure, Ed? You’re well enough…?”

“Oswald,” Ed said firmly. “Let me drive.”

“Alright.”

They took Elijah’s car—he kept the keys under the visor and, thankfully, kept the tank full. Ed slid into the driver’s seat and sighed in contentment. He turned to grin at Oswald in the passenger seat: “Where to?”

Zsasz’s directions brought them through the Diamond District, past the ashes of the Iceberg Lounge. Oswald looked at his hands, folded in his lap, to avoid making eye-contact with Ed as they drove past it. They didn’t speak for the entire drive to the address in Gotham Village—a small bohemian area wedged between the far more expensive Diamond District and Fashion District—or when they parked the car outside the old stone building. Ed wordlessly helped Oswald up the cement staircase and found the key under the mat.

He pushed open the door and they stepped inside and immediately Oswald thought: Zsasz deserves a raise.

It was neither as grand as the Van Dahl manor, nor as practical as Ed’s apartment under the train tracks, but something in between. High ceilings and big windows along one wall made the studio look vast and lofty; a small kitchen tucked in the corner under a warm yellow light practically begged for Ed to stand there and fuss over a complicated baking project; a stone fireplace set into the left wall stood waiting, inviting them to sit on the long soft couch; through an open door, a deep bathtub with claw-feet and brass taps stood; against the left wall, a king-sized bed covered with what looked suspiciously like the quilt from Ed’s old apartment.

Ed let out a low whistle as the door slammed shut behind him.

“You should pay Zsasz better,” he said.

Oswald laughed and let the bag of clothes in his hand fall to the floor. Ed scooped it up immediately and whisked it away along with his own to the closet. Oswald stood at the threshold and watched Ed hang each shirt and pair of pants in the closet by the bed and felt something tight and warm in his chest.

“Do you think Zsasz left us any food?” Ed asked, his head in the closet, organizing shoes. “Or even just some ingredients? I could make something…”

“Um,” Oswald said around the lump in his throat. “I, uh… I don’t know. I’ll check.”

The kitchen was indeed well-stocked. How had Zsasz had time to organize all this? But, Oswald supposed, Zsasz was rather persuasive. He had likely enlisted help. And a lot of it, from the looks of the place.

“Can you get a kettle going? Tea seems like a good idea. It’s a little chilly in here.”

It was chilly. Oswald hadn’t noticed before Ed pointed it out. He looked around through the cupboards until he found a cast-iron kettle to fill with water and set on the stove. He lit the burner under it, the smell of the match lighting gas taking him back for a moment to the burning Iceberg Lounge and the cold dead look in Ed’s eyes.

“Ed,” he said, tentatively, and Ed emerged from the closet, glasses askew, to look at him. “I… What is—” he gestured vaguely from himself to Ed. “This?” he finished, somewhat lamely, looking at Ed to bail him out of this sentence and perhaps this conversation.

“What do you mean?” Ed asked.

So much for that hope, then. Oswald sighed. For such a smart man Ed could be so very dense.

“I mean,” Oswald said, trying to keep the tremor out of his voice, “what are we doing? Are we… Is this…” He couldn’t figure out how to say it without breaking down into tears. Ed still looked mystified. “Should I be making up the couch to sleep on?” he finally said, and Ed’s eyebrows shot up, finally understanding.

“You have a bad leg,” he said. “I’d never make you sleep on the couch.”

Oswald rolled his eyes even as his heart dropped a little.

“Then if you wanted you could…” he trailed off. “What do you want, Ed?”

Ed laughed, a little hysterically. “Are you seriously asking me that?” he said, dropping everything he was holding and walking across the room to stand in front of Oswald. “After everything?”

“Well,” Oswald could hear the bluster in his voice and knew Ed could hear it too. “I mean, we never talked about… Well, anything, really. I mean…”

Oswald stopped mid-sentence when Ed reached out and brushed his thumb across Oswald’s cheek.  

“Silly bird,” Ed sighed, what looked like tears gathering in the corners of his eyes. “As though I wouldn’t… It’s not… I come before forgiveness, and after failure. I can mend a bridge, or leave it in ruin. What am I?”

Oswald nearly said he didn’t know. But he did know: “an apology.” he said. “Ed, you have nothing to apologize for, I should be…”

Ed shook his head. “I shouldn’t have done… Oswald I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“I shouldn’t have tried to control you,” Oswald said, taking Ed’s other hand in his, despite the bandages on both their hands making the gesture awkward and difficult, it felt good. “I shouldn’t have tried to make you into anything else. You’re who I care about, not the power or the money or the fame. You.”

“Me,” Ed said, looking at Oswald like he was trying to see directly into his thoughts. “Even after I destroyed your club and killed your chief-of-staff? After you did whatever you did to get me out? I don’t know the details but Isabella called you the former mayor? And Fish has your house and…?”

“And my empire, yes,” Oswald nodded. “What was left of it, anyway.”

“After all that! What are you left with?”

“You, Ed,” Oswald said. “I’m left with you. You were right, love is about sacrifice. I wasn’t ready, then. But I am now. And I love you, all parts of you: Ed and the Riddler and anyone else who’s in there.” Oswald reached up and tapped on the side of Ed’s head, smiling a little. Ed and started to cry properly, now. Silent tears ran down his cheeks behind his glasses.

“Oswald, I…” Ed said. “I shouldn’t have… I should have trusted you. I should have known…” He breathed deep—in and out—and fixed Oswald with one of those intense looks that made him feel flayed. “Love is about sacrifice. And I wasn’t willing to sacrifice anything. I should have stood behind you. I should have been right behind you.”

Oswald shook his head. “I don’t want you to stand behind me, Ed. I want you to stand beside me.”

Not trusting himself to speak any more, he gripped Ed’s tie in his good hand, and pulled him into a kiss.

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

I heal all wounds, I mend all hearts; I change all things, I have no end, no start. What am I?

Correct: Time.

Now, riddle me this:

Can we be ourselves again?

Finally, riddle me this:

How long does it take to rebuild a life?

¿?

Rebuilding would take time. New growth always appears after a fire destroys a forest—the deep roots under the ash do not crumble—but it takes time to see the shoots of green poking through the wasteland. Clearing away the remnants of what was, of mistakes made, of injuries regretted, forgiven, forgotten, all that would take time. But that first night, Ed didn’t think about that. Didn’t think about all the shame and regret, all the words he hadn’t meant and the hurt he’d carried. For once, he didn’t think about the distance he still had to go, didn’t plan two, three, ten steps ahead.

Instead, he let himself be. Let himself feel whole, like he wasn’t Ed-and-the-Riddler, at war with himself in a single body, like he was Edward Nygma: the Riddler—if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both. Because Oswald loved him, all of him. He knew the fight would not be won tonight, that he too would take time to become whole again, but that night every press of hands or lips on his skin in the dark of their apartment under the watery moonlight felt like being put back together.

“I love you,” he heard himself gasp, breathless, into Oswald’s skin. “I love you so much.” He had said it before, and he had meant it then. But he’d never quite understood it until this moment. Love is about sacrifice, he’d said, as though he had understood what that meant better than Oswald. As though he had known. But now, in a little apartment in the Gotham Village—no empire, no City Hall, no resources, no allies but each other, beaten and scarred—he knew he finally understood what it meant: I would die for you.

“I would do anything for you,” he said, later that night as they lay tangled together under the covers of their new bed, looking out at the faint light of the dawn breaking. “You know that, right? You can always count on me.”

“I know, Ed,” Oswald said, brushing his hand over the bandages on Ed’s shoulder. “I know.”

He ran his fingers through Oswald’s hair because he could, finally, after so long. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“You couldn’t even stay away when you were angry with me, Ed,” Oswald said. “I know.”

Ed laughed and kissed the top of Oswald’s head. “You stopped paying attention to me.”

“Never,” Oswald said, chuckling. “I never could take my eyes off you.”

“Hmm,” Ed said. “You cut a rather distracting figure yourself.”

“Even when she…” Oswald trailed off, his voice suddenly very quiet. And Ed didn’t need to ask for clarification.

“Especially when she was around, Oswald,” he said. “I never… Nothing happened. I couldn’t…” he sighed, trying to figure out how best to explain it. “I loved Kristen, once. Or, I thought I did. And she tried to make me want that love again. But after…” He swallowed. He needed to say it, needed Oswald to know, but the words came slowly. “After I knew what it was like to love you, how could I go back to loving anyone else? I’m not that man anymore, and I never want to be him again.”

Oswald pressed a kiss into Ed’s shoulder.

“I wanted to kill her,” he said. “But I thought it might upset you.”

“Admirable restraint,” Ed laughed. “Truly, I’m impressed.”

“Well, love is about sacrifice,” Oswald said, only a little facetiously.

“Shh,” Ed said, kissing the top of his head again. “You’re ruining it.”

“I may kill her if I see her again,” Oswald said, seriously.

“Hmm,” Ed hummed. “Jealous?”

“Vengeful.”

“I love you.”

A few hours later, the mid-morning sun shining through the windows performed the double-duty of telling them that morning had come and that they seriously needed to invest in some curtains if they were going to be here for a while.

“Mmm, Ed, turn off the light,” Oswald mumbled into his pillow, turning to bury his head in Ed’s side.

“Hmm, I haven’t quite worked out how to turn out the sun,” Ed answered.

“Thought you’d do ‘anything’ for me,” Oswald muttered. Ed could feel his grin against his skin. He laughed.

“My apologies,” he said. “I’ll get to it presently. Unless there was another way you wanted to spend the morning.” He ran his fingers down Oswald’s spine gently, teasing.

“Flirt,” Oswald said.

“Guilty.”

When hunger eventually drove them both out of bed some time later, it was to a rather cold apartment.

“Shall I start the fire?” Oswald asked.

“Last time you did that, you burned your hand,” Ed said. “Let me do it.”

“Last time you started a fire you burned down a nightclub,” Oswald said, but he was smiling. “I think I can manage.”

Soon a fire was crackling merrily in the hearth and Ed was scrambling eggs on the gas stove. Over breakfast, Oswald told him the particulars of his deal with Fish Mooney and Ed tried not to feel sick with guilt over the whole thing.

“Honestly, Ed, it was a small price to pay. We’re both here, aren’t we?” He said.

“Your whole empire, though. And revenge against the court. And the house… Everything.” Ed muttered into his eggs. “You gave up everything.”

“I did,” he said. “But I’ve lost more than this and bounced back. Ed, when we met—the second time, not that time at the GCPD—I had less than nothing. I was a wanted man, I’d just lost my mother, I had not a friend in the world. And you were there. All I needed. And we got it all back and more, together.”

“We’ll do it again,” Ed said. “All we lost and more.”

Oswald grinned at him, resting his chin on his folded hands—a habit he’d picked up from Ed. “Will we?”

Ed nodded, he could see the challenge in Oswald’s eyes and feel the grin spreading across his own face. “Yes,” he said. “Oh yes, Mr. Penguin. We will.”

“Might I expect help from the illusive Riddler?” Oswald asked, taking a sip of his coffee and pointedly not looking at Ed.

“I think that could be arranged.”

“Wonderful.”

Rebuilding takes time, Ed thought, as he cleared away the dishes and Oswald shuffled to the closet to get dressed. But maybe not as much as I thought.

“Oswald,” he said, over the sound of running water.

“Hm?” Oswald shouted from the closet to indicate he was listening.

“We’re going to need a source of income shortly,” he said. “Now that… well…” he waved around him to indicate their general circumstances.

“I suppose that’s true,” Oswald said.

“I hear clubs are particularly lucrative in this part of town.”

Oswald stepped out of the closet—shirt unbuttoned, tie draped over his shoulders. “What are you suggesting?”

“I’m suggesting we… Look into our options.”

“What about robbing banks?”

“That’s an option too,” Ed said, shrugging and looking away to examine his hands submerged in the sink. 

“You know,” Oswald said, and Ed could tell he was choosing his words carefully. “I’ve heard clubs are a great way to launder stolen money.”

Ed’s face nearly split in half with the grin that stole over it. “Do you think so?”

“I do. And I’ve been thinking,” he continued. “That a bank robbery… Or something equally… loud… would certainly keep the GCPD occupied. If someone were to want to… Move goods in another part of town. Wouldn’t it?”

“Yes,” Ed said, turning back to meet Oswald’s eyes. “Yes, I think it would.”

Oswald smiled back at him, and Ed couldn’t help it, not when he smiled like that—dangerous and brilliant; not when he could feel something new and thrilling taking root deep in his chest. He had no choice but to abandon his dishes, cross the apartment, and kiss Oswald like his life depended on it.

¿?

As it turned out, the investigation into the fire had finally closed and the land on which the Iceberg had stood had gone to auction last week, when the both of them were… indisposed. The man who had bought it was a Diamond District developer responsible for, among other things, The Green Monster where they’d gone on a date some weeks ago.

A friendly offer to buy the land had been met with a terse, if not completely rude, response that excited Ed more than anything.

“He’s not being terribly cooperative,” Ed said, unable to hide his grin.

“I take it you have a plan?” Oswald asked.

“I might.”

“Would you like my help, or would you prefer I wasn’t involved?”

“Get your coat.”

Less than two hours later, the owner of The Green Monster stood behind the podium in Ed’s old club in the Narrows, shaking like a leaf as Oswald stood beside a timer, watching the green sand run through.

“Honestly,” Ed said, looking at Oswald knowingly. “I gave him an easy one.”

Oswald shrugged: “education these days.”

Ed laughed. This was fun, more fun than it had been alone with a cheering crowd surrounding him. Having someone in on the joke, someone to smile at and catch his eye when the answer was particularly stupid.

Someone to, as Oswald did in that moment, inhale sharply when the sand ran out. Oswald made a loud tsking sound. “Looks like time’s up,” he said.

“What’s it going to be?” Ed said, circling around to put his hands on the man’s shoulders. He yelped in fear and surprise. “Take your chances with the wheel? Or walk away from your land deal?”

“You can have the land!” he sobbed. “Please, please just take it. Don’t hurt me.”

Ed clapped his hands together. “Atta boy!” he shouted. “Thanks for playing!” He pulled a chloroform-soaked handkerchief from his jacket pocket and clapped it over the man’s mouth and noise, holding him until he collapsed to the dirty concrete floor. He dusted off his hands and suit and turned to grin at Oswald, who was leaning on the timer and smiling at him.

Ed stepped over the body and offered Oswald his arm.

“You know, this is a little inconvenient all the way out here,” he said, tapping his chin thoughtfully as they strolled out of the warehouse onto the street. “And we hadn’t figured out what to put in the basement of the Iceberg, yet…”

“Have I told you how much I love you?”

“You may have mentioned it, yeah.”

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

A rope-less knot, two-word eternity, gold given, not bought, inked fidelity. What am I?

… Good Question.

Now, riddle me this:

How do you ask someone to spend the rest of their life with you?

Finally, riddle me this:

Why wait when we can start forever today?

¿?

Construction of the Iceberg Lounge and the illicit Riddle Factory beneath it continued for the next few weeks. Other than the occasional trip to check on the site, they mostly stayed in the apartment. They cooked food, Ed played the keyboard they set up in the corner, they read books and sat by the fire, they lay wrapped in the bed sheets late into the morning watching the few brave rays of sun filter through the blinds onto them. Oswald had never done so much nothing in his life, and he suspected Ed hadn’t either.

But perhaps, it wasn’t nothing. It felt more like healing.

Though Oswald still woke some nights with the crushing feeling of smoke and ash rushing into his lungs, and Ed still woke shouting frantically for Oswald or trying to wash blood off his hands, something had slipped back into place. And so, they continued on, reforming old habits and forging new ones.

Waiting for their club to be complete felt like a vacation. But, by the time the building was constructed, and it was time to design the interior, Oswald could tell they were both feeling the beginnings of boredom scratching at the backs of their minds. A temporary reprieve from the real world, to live in the oasis of the apartment in the Gotham Village, away from Gotham City politics and petty rivalries, had been a blessing, but it was beginning to get close to the time to return.

Walking into the Iceberg Lounge for the first time, unfinished and bare though it was, was breathtaking. It felt like coming home. Oswald could envision the lights they’d hang from the tall ceiling, the circular bar in the center of the room wrapping around an enormous fountain, the crackling fireplaces set into the wall all around the perimeter—fire and ice together. He grinned.

Ed clapped his hands in delight. “Excellent. This is perfect,” he said. “The contractors really did a spectacular job.” Ed moved his hands like an orchestra conductor as he spoke, as though his words could speak his thoughts into being.

Oswald smiled at him, indescribable fondness blooming warm and comfortable in his chest. He had almost lost this. Almost destroyed everything for power. He wouldn’t make that mistake again.

Ed leaned down to kiss Oswald quickly, before wandering off to examine the construction of the low booths around the outside of the dance floor.

“Do you think Barbara and Tabitha are going to be mad that we’re starting a club so near to theirs?” Ed called to him. Oswald honestly hadn’t considered it.

“It’s possible,” he said. “They’re not terribly forgiving.”

“And Butch probably still holds a grudge. Though why they keep him around I have no idea, he adds nothing to their little ensemble, in my opinion.”

Oswald snorted inelegantly, watching Ed running his hands across tabletops. “It’s nice to have a pet around the house?” He suggested.

That got a full-bodied laugh out of Ed. “Yes, Barbara and Tabitha and their pet gorilla. Maybe if they train him right he can be ring bearer when they finally tie the knot.”

Tie the knot. The phrase connected with something in Oswald’s head. An echo. A memory.

Riddle me this: a rope-less knot, a two-word eternity, gold given not bought, inked fidelity. What am I?

Tie the knot. A rope-less knot.

Oswald’s heart hammered in his throat. “Ed,” he said, his voice coming out more scratchy and uncertain than he had meant it to.

“Mhm?” Ed muttered. He was standing on a stone table, examining a light fixture for who-knew-what.

“Ed, I’ve solved the riddle.”

“What riddle?” Ed was still distracted. Oswald could tell he was preoccupied with something he’d found on the light fixture.

“A rope-less knot,” he began. That got Ed’s attention. His head snapped around to Oswald. He took it as encouragement to continue.

 “A two-word eternity,” he continued, his voice shaking. Ed stepped off the table and strode toward him, looking like a mixture of terrified and electrified.

“Gold given not bought,” Oswald’s voice was nearly a whisper, as Ed dropped to his knee, there on the concrete-dust covered floor of their soon-to-be-nightclub. Oswald could barely speak around the lump in his throat, but he knew he had to finish, or Ed wouldn’t be able to ask the question.

“Inked fidelity,” Oswald concluded.

“What am I?” Ed asked, his voice at least as shaky as Oswald’s as he reached into his coat pocket and withdrew a small green box.

“Marriage,” Oswald whispered.

Ed’s grin nearly split his face in half. His eyes sparked and lit up and he opened the box, revealing a gleaming emerald set into a chaotic band of black metal. It looked, well, it looked like exactly the kind of thing Oswald would wear.

“Oswald,” Ed said, slowly. “Will you do me the honor of marrying me?”

Oswald didn’t know if he could breathe, let alone produce words. He nodded enthusiastically, his throat completely constricted with a rush of confusion and joy and love that he’d rarely experienced before. Ed sprang to his feet and swept Oswald into a kiss. Oswald curled his hands into the front of Ed’s jacket, tugging him closer for a moment, wanting to preserve the complete feeling of euphoria closing in around him for as long as possible.

“Yes,” he said, when they finally pulled apart, his voice breathier than he would have liked. Ed laughed and gently picked up the ring between his fingers, letting the box fall unceremoniously to the floor. He took Oswald’s left hand in his and slid the ring onto his finger.

“Yes, I surmised as much,” Ed said, leaning down to kiss Oswald’s hand like a knight approaching a prince. “Do you like the ring?”

“Yes,” Oswald nodded. “Yes, I do.”

“I thought you would.”

“Have you been carrying that around since…?” Oswald asked, letting the implied question hand in the air.

Ed shrugged and smiled. “You never know when a riddle might finally get an answer.”

“I’d say that I can’t believe you proposed to me with a riddle…”

“But?”

“But I honestly should have expected it.”

¿?

The wedding itself was a quiet affair, though rather less quiet than either of them had anticipated. Honestly, they had expected it to be both of them at the courthouse with Zsasz there as their witness, but Zsasz must have gotten tipsy at the Sirens the previous night, because, when Ed and Oswald arrived, they were greeted by a small crowd of people including Barbara and, somewhat more reluctantly, Tabitha, as well as Cat, Bridgit Pike, Ivy, and, of all people, Fish Mooney.

“Fish…?” Oswald began, unsure how to even begin to ask all the questions on his mind.

“You think I wouldn’t come to this just because you and I were enemies, Oswald?” she said, touching the side of his face in the same way she had always done. “You work for me again, my little Penguin. And, as long as you do, you’re family.”

It was both incredibly sinister and oddly touching.

“Can’t believe you’re getting married, Riddle Guy,” Cat said. “It’s a crazy world.”

“Yes, I suppose it is,” Ed said, adjusting the buttons on his waistcoat and turning scarlet.

“I made you a bouquet,” Ivy said, cheerfully. There was nothing in her hands.

“Where is it?” Oswald asked.

“I made her throw it away,” Cat said. “It was full of poison ivy.”

“It was a metaphor, Cat,” Ivy rolled her eyes. “Duh. Some people just don’t get it, do they, Penguin?”

“Sure,” Oswald said. “Whatever you say, Ivy.”

“I love weddings,” Ivy continued happily. “They’re just so… Joyful. Like, if two weirdos like you can get together, there’s hope for the rest of us freaks, right Selina?”

Cat rolled her eyes. “Speak for yourself.”

Oswald was oddly touched. Even when Cat had to stop Ivy from offering Ed poison ivy for his buttonhole.

They had just been there to sign a contract and exchange rings, really. But there were people watching, waiting for something with a little more of their characteristic fanfare.

And neither of them were the type to ignore a waiting crowd.

“Ed,” Oswald began, determined to keep this short because he did not intend to cry in front of any of the people present. “You are my closest friend, my only confidant, the person I rely on more than anyone else in the world. I would… I would be lost without you. And I want you to stand beside me, as my partner, until death.”

Ed was smiling so wide that Oswald couldn’t look at him directly, for fear he’d lose his composure.

“Oswald.” Ed took his hands. “You are my partner, my ally, my first and only true friend… Without you, I would be lost. I will be by your side until death and, if we’re so lucky, beyond.”

¿?

Back home, in the privacy of their apartment, with the firelight flickering gently over the covers and illuminating their bare skin to the point where it almost glowed, Oswald whispered, vowed, and shouted all the things he hadn’t said in the courthouse, and Ed followed in kind.

No one else would ever know what they said, and there was a certain kind of power in that, in knowing that they would only ever be fully known to each other.

In life, in love, and frequently, in crime, Ed and Oswald were partners.

Chapter Text

Midnight in Gotham saw Jim Gordon and Harvey Bullock reluctantly approaching the Iceberg Lounge in Gotham’s Diamond District. They jostled against drunken revelers as they walked away from the squad car toward the door.

“I’ve gotta say, it’s not too bad,” Harvey said, surveying the property appreciatively. “Classy joint, Penguin learned some style from Fish after all.”

Jim frowned at him. There was something unsettling about the whole thing. Penguin, stepping down as mayor, swearing loyalty to Fish Mooney, of all people, content to lay low in his club: it wasn’t like Oswald at all. When he said as much to Harvey, Harvey just shrugged.

“Love makes you do all kinds of weird things, brother,” he said. “Take me, for example. I’m here with you at midnight on a Saturday, when I should be out on the town with a beautiful lady.”

“Cute,” Jim muttered, smiling sarcastically at Harvey.

“I’m serious, that new waitress at Siren’s has been making eyes at me,” he said.

“The one who looks kinda like…” Jim said, trailing off halfway through his sentence.

“Yeah I thought it was weird too,” he said. “But she says she doesn’t know her. Weird, isn’t it?”

“Only in Gotham,” Jim sighed.

As they walked up the ramp toward the club and approached the bouncers at the entrance, Harvey grabbed his elbow: “don’t flash your badge. Let’s go in casual. No need to cause a scene.”

“Fine, fine.” Jim privately wished they could kick down the door, just so he could see Oswald’s face turn purple, but he repressed the impulse. After the last few months, it probably wouldn’t take much to push Oswald completely over the edge.

“Name.” The bouncer said.

“James Gordon,” Jim replied, preparing to reach into his pocket for the badge, but the bouncer looked at his list, squinted at him and said:

“Of course, Detective, go ahead.”

“Oh, and he’s with me,” Jim said, gesturing at Harvey. The bouncers nodded and opened the doors.

Music poured out onto the street. Not the grating rock of Oswald’s or the pop-punk of Siren’s, but what sounded like a cover of Burning Love played by the live band on a stage just out of sight beyond the entrance.

He and Harvey exchanged a meaningful look and stepped inside. The doors closed behind them with a ringing boom that was immediately swallowed up by the music and the noise of the patrons. The club was packed with young, oddly-dressed members of the Gotham elite and underworld (and both), dancing, drinking, sitting on tall stools next to spindly tables, or lounging in low chairs and on couches. The blue and purple and green light came from umbrella-shaped fixtures on the ceiling. The walls looked frosted with blue and white, and in the centre of the club, encircled by a wrap-around bar, was an enormous fountain.

To the left, on a raised stage, was the band. Directly across from the entrance, behind the bar were two sweeping staircases cordoned off by blue velvet rope, and a glass elevator guarded by two men in black, all of which lead up to a balcony overlooking the entire club. The sleek black couches and ice bucket of champagne identified it as the VIP area. Currently it only had two occupants. That was where Jim and Harvey headed, pushing through the crowd as efficiently as possible without making a scene, to the foot of the ramp. They stepped over the velvet rope on the right-hand ramp, and climbed up to the VIP area.

Oswald Cobblepot and Edward Nygma stood out, even among their eclectic patrons. Ed—always striking with his bright eyes and razor-sharp cheekbones, even when they’d been hidden under bad haircuts and over-sized lab coats—cut an impressive figure in an immaculately tailored green suit that gleamed bright under the club lighting. His long arms spread out across the back of the couch like a green stain on the black leather. His pale, spidery fingers caught on the collar of Oswald’s fur coat. Oswald—much smaller though no less imposing for it—sat like a King surveying his subjects. Both hands folded on the silver head of a mahogany cane, resting rather than leaning. Ed’s arm around him looked like armor.

“Well, would ya look at that,” Harvey muttered beside Jim.

“What?” Jim asked, not sure he could take much more today.

“I thought you were supposed to be the good detective, Jim. Look at their hands.”

Once he saw it, Jim didn’t know how he’d missed it. Both Ed and Oswald had on their left fingers, a ring of some spidery-looking black metal with a large stone set in it. Ed’s gleamed deep purple, and Oswald’s bright green.

Unconventional, perhaps, but unmistakable nonetheless.

“It’s actually kinda sweet,” Harvey said. “Or it would be, if it wasn’t so damn dangerous.”

“Sure, whatever you say,” Jim said, starting toward them.

“Aww, come on, Jim,” Harvey teased, following after him. “There’s someone for everyone in this crazy town.”

Jim rolled his eyes, but couldn’t help but agree. He watched Ed lean down—Jim was constantly struck by how different Ed looked now, just by shedding the fearful, deferential expression from his GCPD days—and whisper something in Oswald’s ear. Oswald laughed and nodded in response, reaching up to run his finger down Ed’s cheek. His expression was so hopelessly fond that Jim was seized with the thought that he should look away. But then Oswald turned and met Jim’s eyes. He beckoned them forward; the emerald on his finger caught the light and scattered it across the room.

Jim and Harvey walked toward them—it felt like approaching the King’s throne. But Gotham didn’t have a king anymore, Jim reminded himself.

Gotham had a queen.

Just before Jim and Harvey were close enough to hear what they were saying, Oswald tilted his head up to whisper in Ed’s hear and Ed flashed a shark-grin in response. He was so much sharper than he’d ever been at the GCPD. Jim found himself thinking, absurdly, that Ed reminded him of broken glass: shining and deadly and shattered beyond repair. 

“Jim, Harvey,” Ed said, in a voice like a snake. “It’s so good to see you. Please, sit.”

“Welcome to the Iceberg Lounge,” Oswald added, as they settled awkwardly onto the low couches. “What do you think?”

“Nice digs, Penguin,” Harvey said.

Oswald smiled and nodded appreciatively. “It is, isn’t it? We designed it ourselves. Built it from the ground up.”

Well, they would have had to, thought Jim. Nygma had burned it to the ground only a few months ago, not that they’d been able to prove that. As much as he hated to admit it, it was truly amazing how much they’d managed to rebuild in such a short time.

“And what about you, Jim,” Ed asked. “What do you think?”

“It’s nice,” Jim said, attempting a half-smile. Ed just pinned him with those sharp eyes and grinned his shark grin at him. His long fingers hadn’t stopped moving up and down on the back of Oswald’s neck—possessive.

“Let’s dispense with the pleasantries,” Oswald said. “We all know you two gentlemen aren’t here to offer your congratulations on our opening. You want something.”

“Good instinct,” Harvey said. “There was a break in at Gotham Central Bank last night.”

“How unfortunate,” Ed sighed, turning his attention to a loose thread on Oswald’s collar.

Jim had a sinking feeling that this was not going to go well for him or Harvey.

“The thief took all the money in the cash drawers and left a riddle written in bright green paint on the wall,” Harvey continued, pulling the photos out of his pocket and laying them on the table. Ed peered at them, a slight smile twitching at the corner of his mouth.

“Do you need help with the riddle?” He asked, the condescension dripping off his words.

“Lucius Fox figured it out,” Jim cut in.

“Oh Foxy, what a smart cookie,” Ed sighed, then his eyes flicked up to lock with Jim’s. “How long did it take him?”

“Seconds.” Harvey was baiting him, but Oswald put a hand on Ed’s knee and he leaned back, the very picture of detachment. “We found the money all stacked neatly just where the riddle said it would be in record time.”

“That’s why they call him Foxy, isn’t it?” Ed said, shrugging. “The thief will just have to get trickier, next time.”

Wonderful. Great work, Harvey. Jim tried to communicate it with a look, but wasn’t sure was successful.

“You wouldn’t know anything about this, Nygma, would you?” Harvey asked, gesturing at the riddles. “Witnesses said they saw a tall, scrawny guy in a green suit. Sound familiar?”

“Sounds like half the men in Gotham, Detective.”

“Does it? What part of Gotham do you live in?”

“Detective, what are you insinuating?” Oswald demanded. “Because if you’re here to accuse Ed of something, I suggest you do it and get it over with.”

“Where were you last night between the hours of midnight and 2am?” Jim asked, without much hope of catching Ed in anything.

“With me,” Oswald said, making unflinching eye-contact with Jim.

“Could he has left without you noticing?” Jim was basically just asking out of habit, now.

“That would have proven incredibly difficult,” Oswald said, deadpan.

“I see,” Jim said, trying to find a tell-tale anything in Oswald’s eyes that would betray him as the bold-faced liar he was.

“Anything else we can do for you, gentlemen?” Oswald asked, the picture of magnanimity.

“Yeah. You can answer a question that’s been buggin’ me. What’s your angle, Penguin?” Harvey demanded.

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean,” Oswald said. And Jim could no longer tell if he was lying. He wondered if he ever could.

“Swearing loyalty to Fish?” Jim cut in. “Opening a club? Sitting on your hands while she takes over the Gotham mob? It’s not like you. So, what’s going on? Is something bigger coming? What are you planning?”

Oswald laughed. The sound was more condescension than mirth, and it set Jim’s teeth on edge. He didn’t like it when Penguin knew something he didn’t. That never ended well for him.

“My angle? Jim, you have so much to learn.” He snapped his fingers and a waiter swept over to pick up his empty glass and spirit it off to the bar. “I have no interest in toppling Ms. Mooney’s house of cards. Not right now. Right now, I am content to sit in my bar, keep my head down, and run a legitimate establishment.”

That didn’t sound right at all.

“Come on, Oswald, that just doesn’t sound like you.” Harvey tried to snap his fingers for a drink, but the waiters ignored him until Ed gestured at one of them to get Harvey a glass. “Now, what does sound like you, is you giving us the dirt on what Fish is up to, so that you can rise up through the ranks in the chaos you created.”

Oswald leaned forward to glare at Harvey: “people change, Detective Bullock. Circumstances change.”

A green glint off the emerald ring shone across Harvey’s face, and Jim had a moment of clarity: the ring, Ed’s look like broken glass, the quiet (well, relatively quiet) lifestyle choice. It all made sense if he just factored in the thing he’d been missing.

“Fish can have her kingdom,” Oswald said, settling back against Ed’s arm. Long fingers closed around his shoulder, like Ed was checking to make sure he was still there. “I am content with mine.”

Oswald reached his hand up to cover Ed’s on his arm.

Content. The word didn’t seem to belong with Oswald. Or in Gotham, for that matter. Content, stable, happy; words like those belonged to cities with white picket fences and neighbourhood watch committees, not to a city with alleyways like arteries that pumped the lifeblood of crime, corruption, and struggle through it. He sat back a little, stunned.

And then, with a glint in his eye that looked all too familiar to Jim, Oswald added: “for now.”

“So, wage your war on crime,” he continued. “And corruption, and whatever else makes you feel purpose, and don’t worry about us. When it’s time for you to be worried, I assure you, you’ll know.”

Jim’s looked over at Ed for a second and was astonished by the undisguised tenderness in his expression. It was the look of someone who had finally found his place. Jim couldn’t bring himself to begrudge Ed that, not even after everything that had happened between them.

He looked back to Oswald.

“If you hear anything…” he began, and Oswald raised his hand, cutting him off.

“I’m sure you’ll be among the first to know,” he said.

Jim and Harvey stood up. Harvey drained his glass—which had appeared some time when Jim had been distracted—and made an appreciative noise before setting it on the elegant side table beside the champagne bucket. They turned to leave, and just as they stepped off the platform, Oswald spoke again:

“There’s a war coming, Jim,” he said. And, for a moment, Jim could feel the wind at the Gotham docks blowing across his face and taste blood on the air. “A terrible war. There will be chaos. Rivers of blood in the street.”

Jim turned back to look at Ed and Oswald, sitting like Kings in exile, biding their time, healing, gathering strength for another fight.

“There’s always a war coming,” Jim said. “This is Gotham, after all.”

Oswald smiled and took Ed’s hand in his. “And to the victors, the spoils.”