As far as dreams went, this one was pretty choice, Oswald reflected. He sat in an armchair, his mother at his right side, his father in front of him. A faceless man with a familiar voice occupied his left side, his hand gently resting on top of his. The room smelled like his mother’s goulash and the wood of the fire. Tenderly, he let his thumb trace little circles on the knuckles of the faceless man, wondering what he would have to do to get him to speak again. Just another few words and perhaps he could discern who he was.
The man turned his face to Oswald, and though he couldn’t see for sure, he knew he was smiling.
“What is it, darling?” the man asked, in a voice Oswald could never forget.
“Hey – hey, you gotta wake up,” someone was shaking him roughly by the shoulder, and Oswald blinked awake, squinting past the dusty sunlight pouring in through a frosted window. He was sprawled on the linoleum tile of a bathroom, cramped and small, with a claw foot bathtub and no shower curtain.
The woman shaking him leaned back when she saw his eyes open, her gaze searching his face and neck. “Are you okay?”
She was just barely familiar. Oswald sat up more completely, wincing and feeling the back of his head. “What happened?” he asked. “Where are we?”
“Uh…my bathroom,” she replied sheepishly. “What do you remember?”
“Your bathroom?” he exclaimed. “Why are we in your bathroom?”
“I asked you a question first,” she pointed out. “I know you’re used to getting answers, as the Mayor, but this is my bathroom.”
Suddenly, he knew where he’d seen her face before. “You’re that reporter, aren’t you?” he asked. “The one who asked me if I was challenging Aubrey James. You’re Valerie Vale.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Surprised I made your radar,” she acknowledged. “Now, what do you remember?”
He dropped his gaze to the linoleum as he tried to put the pieces together. “I was…I was at the Mayor’s office. Ed was rearranging my schedule, trying to find time to make a statement about the Red Hood Gang –”
“Do you remember how they got you?” she asked, pulling herself to her feet as gracefully as possible and inching toward the cabinet to her left. For the first time, Oswald’s eyes dropped to the shackles, one around his good ankle and one around her right one. “Did they drug you or hit you?”
Oswald gently touched the back of his head. “I’m going to assume it was a hit.”
“How did they get to you?” Vale asked, pulling a cup of manicure tools out of the cabinet and rifling through them quickly. “Don’t you have security? Staff?”
“Of course I do,” he snapped. “What in God’s name are you doing?”
She held up a thin sliver of silver. “My dad was a cop. He taught me how to pick locks. I’m trying to find something thin enough to do it.”
“Who grabbed us?” Oswald asked, leaving her to measure her cuticle pusher and file without comment. “Do you know them?”
Vale settled on the cuticle pusher and lifted her ankle. “Yeah. Jervis Tetch.”
“Tetch?” Oswald repeated, testing the name in his mouth. “The hypnotist?”
“Yeah,” Vale turned the cuticle pusher carefully. “He was trying to find his sister, hired Jim Gordon to help him. The reunion went poorly and the sister died. Apparently there’s some sort of virus in her blood. Allegedly.”
“How have I not heard of this?” Oswald exclaimed.
“You’ve been running a mayoral campaign,” Vale shrugged. “Tetch is trying to get revenge on Jim, as far as I can tell.”
Oswald groaned. “And what exactly does that have to do with us?” he asked.
“Well, I’m his girlfriend,” she said easily. “My connection with Jim is pretty clear. As for you –”
“My connection with James has been well documented in the papers,” Oswald deflected.
Vale finally brought her eyes up from the shackle. “Your historical connection, sure,” she pointed out, “but not your emotional one.”
Oswald bristled. “I don’t know what you mean.”
She surveyed him closely, her eyes narrowed. “Of course,” she said finally, turning her full attention to the shackle, the cuticle pusher deep in the lock by now. “You know,” she murmured, turning the instrument carefully, “I’ve always wanted to get an interview with you.”
“You do know we could die, right?” he asked.
“My job doesn’t end until I do,” she replied easily, the cuticle pusher finally turning decisively with a loud click. The shackle around her ankle fell to the floor, and she yanked the little device out of it. “Here,” she said, passing it to him. “I can talk you through it.”
He reached for the pusher as she yanked it back. “If you give me an interview when we get out of here.”
“Seriously?” he asked. She raised her eyebrows at him again, a silent affirmative. “Fine. An interview,” he said firmly. “But I get to read the piece before it’s published, and I have final say.”
She considered his offer. “Fine,” she said, passing over the makeshift lockpick.
Jim checked his rear view window again as he pressed harder on the gas. The dark sedan behind him was undeterred, matching his speed easily, not bothering to hide. Jim wasn’t entirely surprised that he was being followed; how else would Tetch know that he was following his orders? Vale’s apartment, he thought, wracking his brain. What else could Tetch possibly do to him that he hadn’t done already? He forced him to be an accomplice in the death of multiple people, he took away his power, and now he was going to take away Vale.
But was he? That seemed too easy, and not at all like Tetch. So far, he had thrived on forcing Jim to make the hard choices, on making him feel like no matter what he did, he was still a killer. So if he had Vale, what was the choice?
He flew around the corner, laying on the horn as the car in front of him slowed to a leisurely stop. He could see headlight after headlight ahead of him. A traffic jam.
“Screw this,” he muttered, throwing the car into park and shoving the door open. Let his car get left behind.
He trotted through the cars, ignoring the honks and the yells that poured out of the open windows. He could see Vale’s street, just half a block ahead.
Jim wasn’t sure how much time he had left on Tetch’s deadline, but somewhere, he heard a grandfather clock chime. He pressed forward, zig zagging through cars, no longer bothering to look behind him to make sure he was still being followed.
He was breathing heavily when he reached Vale’s door, a small little townhouse in Midtown, flowering plants beside a light green door.
“Right on time, James,” the door swung open and there was Tetch, dressed head to toe in the same tartan pattern Jim was used to seeing, his top hat perfectly straight. “Come in, the tea party is about to begin.”
Jim stepped forward, his hand drifting toward his gun, but Tetch’s tut stopped him. “If you must insist on pulling that out, I have a place it might go, without a doubt,” he pointed to a tray, with an immaculate place card that read “Gordon’s gun.”
“No way,” Jim protested. “I’m not –”
“You will, you will, or her blood I’ll most certainly spill,” Tetch was practically stomping his feet now, and Jim saw more clearly that the man was as mad as a hatter.
Still, he considered the possibilities. If he didn’t give up his gun, he could blow his way through Tetch and get to Vale. But Tetch said her blood would spill, which meant he had to have his meathead cronies in there guarding her. Could he fire enough rounds to subdue them all before they fired one at Vale? Probably not.
With a resigned sigh, he passed over his gun. Tetch grinned and passed the tray off to someone behind him, motioning for Jim to follow.
At the little dining room table was an elaborate tea party set up, with two empty chairs, one for Jim and one for Tetch, presumably. But in the other two chairs –
“Oswald?” Jim asked as Tetch motioned to the seat with his name on the place card. “What –”
“If I knew, I could’ve gotten out of here by now,” Oswald said coolly.
Jim turned to Vale, who was watching them both closely. “How are you?” he asked.
“I’ve been better,” she said plainly.
“Now that we’re all here, the tea party can finally begin,” Tetch said, his loud stage voice immediately quieting the room. “But first, would anyone like tea?”
“I’d rather die,” Oswald sniffed.
“Pass,” Vale replied.
“You know what?” Jim said. “I’ll have some.”
“Very good, James,” Tetch said approvingly, passing a tea cup down the table to him. “Apologies for this hideous china,” he said almost as a whisper. “I suppose Vale has bad taste in men and dishes.”
The tea was lukewarm and bitter, but Jim took a sip to avoid answering Tetch’s taunt.
“Now, a story,” Tetch said, one sip of tea apparently enough. “Once upon a time, there was a brother and a sister, who loved each other dearly. An angry world tore the siblings apart, and the brother searched for his dear sister for years. Finally, he enlisted the help of James Gordon, white knight, to find his beloved Alice. And in return, James poisoned her mind and turned her against her dear brother. In return, James Gordon murdered her. Isn’t that right, James?” Tetch’s teeth seemed even larger now, overlapping and predatory.
“Sure, why not,” Jim said with a shrug. The story didn’t matter anyway, he thought vehemently. All that mattered was finding a way to get Vale and Oswald out of here in one piece.
“So you admit it?” Tetch asked, practically salivating. “You admit your guilt?”
Oswald’s eyes were on Jim, brow furrowed. Jim felt, momentarily, like Oswald was seeing through all of his plans, all of his placating answers. Oswald knew.
“I admit that your sister was terrified of you,” Jim said. “I admit that I tried to keep her away from you because of what you did to her. She would rather be dead than be with you.”
“She killed herself because she’d rather be dead –”
An echoing gunshot rang through the room, and dust from the ceiling fluttered down on the tea party, landing in the open glasses. Jim blinked past it toward Vale, who was watching Tetch closely, and back to Oswald, who was still looking at him.
“It’s going to be okay,” he said to him, and Oswald rolled his eyes.
“I’m not a damsel in distress, Jim,” he said haughtily. “Just make sure you know what you’re doing when you poke the bear.”
“Duly noted, Oswald, thanks for the advice,” Jim replied dryly.
“You know how the game goes from here, James,” Tetch said, his teeth clenched so tightly they were grinding against each other. “I brought these two here because they’re the two halves of Jim Gordon’s heart.”
Oswald’s eyes finally left James and turned sharply to Tetch. “Ex – excuse me?” he spluttered. “Are you sure you didn’t pick up the wrong brunette today? Perhaps you meant to grab Lee Thompkins.”
“Oswald –” Jim said, a warning.
Tetch considered the offer before shaking his head. “No, Mr. Mayor, I knew exactly who I was choosing.”
Vale, across the table, exhaled a shaky laugh.
“Something funny, Vale?” Oswald snapped.
Vale met his eyes unflinchingly. “Of course not, Mr. Mayor, I just like to enjoy being right.”
Oswald, usually prepared with a snarky response, had none. Instead, he dropped his gaze to the empty tea cup in front of him. Jim watched him closely, looking for the accusations of deceit that would surely come. But nothing did. The silence stretched thinner and thinner, Tetch smug, Vale observant, and Oswald’s mood just beyond Jim’s reach.
How could Tetch have known? Jim didn’t exactly make his penchant for the crime boss-now-mayor public knowledge. In fact, he told no one about his confusing feelings for Oswald, including Harvey, who was probably his closest friend, or Barnes, his mentor. He had figured Barbara had given Tetch the information about Valerie Vale, but had she told him about Oswald as well? How could she know if Jim didn’t understand it himself? They were his feelings, after all.
If she knew, who else knew?
“Choose, James,” Tetch’s voice shook him out of his spiraling thoughts. “Vale or Cobblepot?”
“No,” Jim said firmly. Beside him, Oswald’s head jerked up. “I won’t choose.”
“If you don’t choose, they both die,” Tetch reminded him. The gun in his hand turned slowly, deliberately, to Oswald. “Choose who you love.”
“I’m not playing this game anymore,” Jim insisted as the gun barrel shifted toward Vale. “You can’t make me choose.”
“Jim, after all we’ve been through today, you have to think about it?” Tetch asked incredulously. “Was the married couple not enough? The reporter and the politician? You let them all die, and you still want more blood on your hands?”
“Jim, just choose,” Oswald interrupted. “You don’t have to put on a show to save my feelings.”
“This isn’t about saving your feelings,” Jim snapped. “I won’t choose. I’m not giving this terrorist the satisfaction.” He let his eyes leave the moving gun, still tracing a clean line between Vale and Oswald. “Neither of you are going to die. I won’t let you die.”
Tetch chuckled, the gun finally pausing in its slow haunt. “I’ll make it easy for you. Tell me who to kill.”
“You have to the count of three,” Tetch held up three fingers, the gun pointed squarely at Vale. “One,” he turned the gun to Oswald, “two,” he shifted back to Vale –
“Kill Oswald,” Jim said firmly.
To his credit, Oswald’s surprise was kept solely to his face. He said nothing, didn’t gasp or protest. Instead, he snapped his eyes up to Jim’s, his eyebrows raised. In that one tense moment, Jim knew that this chess move had not been lost on him. He knew what Jim had done.
And then the gunshot rang out, and it was Vale who was bleeding from the stomach. In a matter of moments, Tetch and his cronies were out the door, and Vale was sliding to the ground, her eyes wide with shock.
Jim was by her side immediately, pushing her hair out of her face. Oswald appeared beside her, his hands steady and sure. “She needs more pressure on the wound,” he said sternly, pressing Jim’s hands more securely into the bleeding mass of flesh. He left his hands on top of Jim’s for just a moment, the blood pulsing around them, before he pulled away and yanked his phone out of his pocket.
“We need an ambulance,” he barked into it, spitting out the address like he lived there himself. Jim didn’t look at him, didn’t say anything. What mattered now was Vale, not who he chose and why. Oswald had to understand that.
He found Oswald sitting in a chair far from the waiting room, a cup of coffee in each of his hands, his cane resting on the arm of the chair beside him. Jim hadn’t intended on looking for him, but the waiting room was full of Vale’s parents, her brothers, and the GCPD. It was a suffocating room full of accusation and blame.
“I was wondering how long it would take you to find me,” Oswald said without looking at him, passing him the coffee cup. “Black, two sugars,” he said.
Jim took it, suppressing his surprise that Oswald knew his coffee order, bland as it was. “Thanks. Vale is still in surgery,” he said even though Oswald hadn’t asked.
“I know,” Oswald said. “I asked the doctor about ten minutes ago.”
“Oh,” Jim had nothing else to say. Perhaps he should go back to the waiting room, away from what he felt increasingly was about to be an uncomfortable conversation.
“You know what I’ve always admired about you, Jim?” Oswald asked.
“It’s a short list, I’m sure.”
“Don’t be cute. I’ve always admired your mind,” Oswald replied. “Even when I was just an umbrella boy, I knew most of the people I was dealing with were imbeciles. They were playing checkers, but you and I were playing chess. Everyone else thought they were one step ahead, but we were always three. You and I had that in common.”
Jim felt a dawning sense of unease. “I’m not sure where you’re going with this.”
“You know exactly where I’m going with this,” Oswald snapped. “You told Tetch to kill me.”
“I’m sorry –”
“Because you knew he would do the opposite of what you said,” Oswald finished.
Jim stared at the top of his coffee cup, the one he hadn’t even taken a sip of yet, and didn’t respond. He knew Oswald was waiting for him to say something, but none of the words floating around in his head would do. So he settled on saying nothing instead.
“You’re not even going to deny it?” Oswald pressed.
“Would you accept that?” Jim asked.
“I didn’t think so.”
Oswald sniffed indignantly. “So is that what you’re going to do, then?” he asked. “Find an excuse and stick to it?”
“I – well, if I’m being honest, I hadn’t really thought about it yet –”
Oswald lurched to his feet, his hand scrabbling for his cane. When he missed, Jim grabbed it and gently guided it to his hand. “You have thought about it, Jim, because when it came down a gun pointed at my head and Vale’s, you chose to sacrifice your girlfriend for me. She could have died.”
“And so could you.”
For a moment, no one spoke. Jim met Oswald's eyes unflinchingly. Let him see what he's looking for, he thought.
“And in that moment, my life was more valuable to you than hers,” Oswald said firmly.
“I cannot do this right now,” Jim said, standing to meet his gaze. “My girlfriend is fighting for her life –”
“Don’t tell me this means nothing,” Oswald was practically pleading with him now, Jim could see it in the set of his brow. “I know you, Jim.”
“Then I don’t know why you’re asking me for confirmation.”
“Mr. Mayor, you must eat dinner,” Olga’s heavy accent jolted Oswald out of his sullen reverie. “You eaten nothing all day.”
“Your English is improving marvelously,” Oswald replied, hoping she’d drop the subject of eating. Ever since he got out of that apartment and that dreadful tea party, he had no appetite. All he could think about was that cup of tea with plaster floating in it, the sound of the gunshot, the blooming blood on Valerie Vale’s abdomen, and Jim’s insistence the he just couldn’t talk about it right now.
“Eat,” she ordered, but her eyes sparkled at his compliment.
She left him alone for a while after that, clinking around in the kitchen, washing dishes and wiping the counters. Oswald let himself get lulled back into a daydream by the sound of her work, and an undetermined amount of time later, she yanked him rudely back to reality.
“Detective Gordon to see you,” she said.
“I’m busy,” he replied.
“I said already. He insist,” she shrugged one shoulder and turned to leave. “Maybe you tell him to eat.”
“Traitor,” Oswald hissed to her retreating back as Jim stepped into the room. “How’s Vale?” he asked.
“She’s…fine,” Jim nodded, not meeting his eye. “She got out today, I think.”
“Then what are you doing here?” Oswald sniffed, poking at his cold food to have something to occupy his gaze.
“You know what I’m doing here.”
“I think, James, we’ve established that I apparently know nothing about why you do things,” Oswald sneered. “So instead of proving my point, why don’t you go and leave me to my dinner.”
“The dinner you’re not eating?” Jim asked, stepping further into the room.
“It is preferable to having the same conversation we had at the hospital for a second time,” Oswald pointed out.
“I actually came here to talk to you about what we said at the hospital,” Jim said, his eyes very firmly on the centerpiece, hydrangeas and lilies.
“You mean about what I said,” Oswald corrected him. “Because, frankly, you didn’t say anything of merit.”
Oswald dropped his fork to the plate with a loud clank. “Fine. Speak.”
Jim, with the opportunity to speak, opened his mouth…and nothing came out. Oswald watched as he struggled to begin, his mouth agape like a fish.
“Whenever you’re ready,” Oswald prodded.
“God, just – just give me a minute,” Jim snapped.
“Is it really so hard for you to say that you have feelings for me?” Oswald exclaimed. “Are the words so hard to force out of your mouth that you just can’t spit them out? Is your attraction to me that repulsive?”
“That’s not it –”
Oswald shoved his chair back, the legs squeaking against the floor horrendously, and stood. “Then what is it?” he asked. “Because you’ve had plenty of opportunities to be honest, and yet you just can’t seem to do it.”
Jim looked positively tortured, his shoulders slumped and his eyes downcast, but if anything, that made Oswald feel worse. How dare he look so miserable while Oswald was just as unhappy?
“I just – I don’t know how to say something I’ve never said out loud,” Jim said. “I’ve – I’ve never talked to anyone about it, so I haven’t exactly practiced this.”
“Try improvising,” Oswald replied.
Jim glanced back up at him, the ghost of a smile on his lips. “Okay,” he acknowledged. “When I thought about Tetch shooting you, all I could see was me holding the gun to your head at the docks. The first time I tethered your life to mine. And the thought of losing you was…unbearable.”
“I didn’t – I couldn’t talk about it at the hospital because I felt guilty. I spent all of this time with Vale, and I wanted to be with her, but that was because long ago I convinced myself I couldn’t have you.”
Oswald wanted to smile, to say something that would make Jim feel less like he was giving a speech and more like he was having a conversation, but he was too busy focusing on what Jim was saying, what he was implying.
“You and I are both targeted, every day,” Jim continued. “And having Tetch point that gun at you made me realize that the only reason I can’t be with you is because I’ve never gotten brave enough to ask if I could.”
Oswald laughed, a relieved exhalation that Jim caught.
“What?” he asked.
“James,” Oswald said, reaching for the other man’s arm. “You know it really was so simple.” Jim stepped easily forward, close enough that Oswald could reach his hand. “All you had to do was ask.”
He wasn’t sure who kissed whom first, just that Jim was impossibly gentle, as if Oswald was the one who had gotten shot. His lips were soft, pliant, and probing, as if making sure he still had permission. Oswald took this rare opportunity to touch him, fingertips just barely tracing over the fabric of his jacket, under the jacket and over the shirt, all the way up to his scruffy neck.
Jim pulled away first, but kept his eyes closed. “Os,” he said quietly. “I have to ask you something.”
“Ask away,” Oswald said.
Jim pressed a quick kiss to his lips and stepped back. “Will you please eat your dinner now?”