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Guaranteed Neutrality

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Gotham’s finest have said that an invitation to the Penguin’s New Year’s Eve party was an early Christmas gift, while others of the same stature have called it a curse. Either way, it was a social event to behold, wrapped in gold and laden with opportunities for connecting with the richest—in cash or in crime—that Gotham had to offer.

The Penguin himself was always a rather gracious host, choosing to forgo his usual cold, calculated persona in favor of a warm greeting for every party-goer. One of the main attractions of the party was, after all, a guaranteed neutral zone. Everyone involved—attendees, hosts, and staff alike—agreed to a few hours of precious neutrality. No weapons, no assaults, no menace.

Threats were perfectly okay, though.

It was held every year in a grand mansion on the outskirts of Gotham, one of the nicest venues the city had to offer. Not Penguin’s own mansion—hosting any neutrality-guaranteed party in one’s home was suicide. Not the Iceberg Lounge, either. Penguin instead prided himself on hosting a party in a shared venue that he owned no part of, and therefore no stake.

He stalked the perimeter of the party now, cane in hand as he scanned the crowd. Everyone seemed to be having a good time, but one could never be certain with these things.

Everyone on the guest list had shown up, though, save for the usual no-shows. Jim Gordon wasn’t exactly known nowadays for associating with the Penguin, though Bruce Wayne had been gracious enough to make an appearance for an hour or two. That winged fool Batman hadn’t even bothered to show his face, but really, who was surprised?

Now, at 11:43 PM on New Year’s Eve, it seemed that all those who had wanted to come had come. Midnight crept ever closer, and Oswald was forced to concede that this year was another failure.

He paused by the banquet table, adjusting his lapels. His typical toast at midnight wasn’t a lengthy affair, but he did want to make sure he knew what he was going to say before he had to say it. A toast to friendship? No, that wouldn’t go over well with Gotham’s underworld. To new beginnings? Might be seen as a passive-aggressive remark on Batman’s crusades.

As he pondered, fidgeting with his cane, he glanced over the crowd once more, eyes catching the glittering gowns, the sparkling champagne, the flash of a green jacket.

Wait.

Oswald peered through the crowds, looking through dancers and chatters and all those in between, hoping (hopelessly) that his eyes hadn’t betrayed him.

Nothing. Hmph.

He turned to grab his wine glass from the edge of the banquet table and his eyes met another’s, hidden behind a familiar pair of glasses.

The Riddler grinned at him across the table. He was clad in his usual green, though his suit was a tad less sparkly than usual and his tie was an uncharacteristic shade of purple. He held a small plate in one hand, which he had already begun piling with sweets.

Oswald couldn’t help the smile he granted Riddler in return. He had sent the invite on a (repeated) whim to his former acquaintance/friend/enemy on the foolish hope that Riddler might show and follow the neutrality rules. Oswald had grown tired of their constant fights and make-ups over the years.

It seemed Riddler had, too, with the way he walked toward Oswald now, a clear spring in his step.

“Penguin,” he said in greeting.

“Riddler,” Oswald replied.

He took up place at Oswald’s left side, much as he had when they used to be mayor and chief of staff so, so long ago. The memory jarred Oswald, left him unsteady and off-kilter as he looked up to meet Riddler’s gaze.

“I didn’t think you’d show,” Oswald said, in a rare moment of honesty.

“I didn’t think I would, either,” Riddler said, glancing over the crowd. “Parties aren’t really my thing. I prefer gate crashing.”

Oswald snorted. “As you’ve shown time and again with your schemes. How goes the latest?”

“The Bat won’t know what hit him,” Riddler winked.

The two of them looked out over the party together, a strangely comforting silence hanging over them.

“And you?” Riddler asked.

“Oh, just the usual business dealings,” Penguin said. “This party takes up so much of my efforts, I can’t be bothered to plan anything else this time of year.”

“Shame,” Riddler said. “Perhaps we should team up sometime. I could plan, and you could sit back and take the credit.”

“I didn’t take you for a generous man,” Penguin said, glancing up.

“I can be,” Riddler said, winking down at him again. “Speaking of…”

Riddler held out his hand. Oswald glanced at it, confused.

“Would you care to dance, Mr. Penguin?” Riddler asked.

To say Oswald was thrown would be an understatement. The question, combined with the ancient name a much younger Ed used to call him, had Oswald rapidly trying to figure out Riddler’s game. Showing up at his party was one thing, but this?

“I… didn’t think you were a dancer. You’ve proven to be a singer in the past, though,” Oswald said. Teasing Ed was a safe route, a familiar one. Dancing, on the other hand…

Riddler smiled. “I’d like to consider myself a scholar of all sorts. I don’t just limit myself when it comes to the arts.”

For a moment, Oswald considered it. He imagined the two of them, dancing out in the middle of all those people. Ed would guide his steps, tease him for not already knowing how to dance, be considerate of his bad leg as always…

But the Ed he imagined was a much younger one, and the Oswald he imagined much more hopeful.

Oswald gently pushed Riddler’s hand away.

“I’ll pass this time,” he said, throwing those last two words in for his own selfish needs.

“I’m looking forward to next time,” Riddler said, the gentle smile never leaving his face.

“Excuse me, Mr. Cobblepot,” a staff member—Craig, was it?—said, approaching the pair. “It’s almost midnight.”

Oswald glanced at the clock on the wall and realized, yes, it was only two minutes to midnight. How had the time slipped away so easily?

“Your people await,” Riddler said. “As do I.”

Oswald quickly grabbed his wine glass and a nearby fork and walked away, shaking his head in exasperation. What was Riddler’s game?

He strode to the front of the room, taking a step up to the small platform he’d installed. He hit the glass with the fork, gesturing to others around the room to do the same. Soon the large room was filled with the sounds of ringing glasses.

Oswald glanced at the clock—one minute.

“Everyone!” he called out. “Let’s count down together! 60!”

The room all counted down, and as they approached the inevitable 10, Oswald looked to see if Riddler was counting down too.

Riddler’s eyes were fixed on Oswald, that damned smile still on his face.

Oswald regretted looking his way at all.

Finally, the last few numbers trickled by, and everyone shouted, “Happy New Year!” Kisses were shared, drinks were sipped, and Oswald’s eyes were inevitably drawn to the tall man in green.

Oswald hit his glass a few more times to indicate his speech, and when the room had finally quieted down, he realized he still didn’t know what to say.

Glancing at Riddler once more, he found the words.

“To old friends,” he called out, “and fresh starts.”

The room cheered, but Oswald was looking right at Ed.

He stepped down after the cheers had died and the music had resumed, conversations bubbling up again. Oswald made his way back to Riddler, trying his best not to stare or grin and failing both spectacularly.

“Lovely speech,” Riddler said.

“I had some inspiration,” Oswald replied.

They grinned at each other like schoolchildren. There was something in the air, something inevitable, and Oswald couldn’t help but read too much into it and wonder.

“Be honest with me,” he said. “Why did you come tonight?”

Riddler’s smile slunk away. “Truly?”

Oswald nodded.

“To see you.”

Oswald frowned. “After… after everything?”

Riddler shrugged, glancing away. “It’s been years, Oswald. I know you want to move past it all as much as I do.”

He looked back at Oswald, that mischievous glint back in his eyes. “And I do so love to scheme with someone who understands me.”

Oswald gave a sharp grin of his own. “The Bat will never see it coming.”

Riddler laughed before placing a hand on Oswald’s shoulder. “I’m sure your guests would love a New Year’s greeting from you, so I’ll let you go.”

Oswald nodded. “Of course. It was good to see you.”

“You as well, old friend,” Riddler said. He took his hand away and turned back to the banquet table, picking up more sweets than was really necessary.

Oswald himself headed out into the crowd, mind already replaying everything that had passed between them. If all Riddler wanted was a partner in crime, then why all the pretense? Why the phrasing he used, why the blank honesty?

Even as he wished each of his attendees a happy year, he couldn’t help but be stuck on thoughts of Riddler, questions he wished were answered. Oswald tried to be present—this party was one of the most important of the year—but he was farther away than he could help.

Even as the party unwound, even as the attendees filed out, even as the staff began to clean up leftover plates and scattered champagne flutes, Oswald’s mind was on one man.

Taking a final lap around the floor, eyes out for any stragglers, Oswald spotted a familiar shade of green out on the balcony. Two glass doors lead out to the small balcony that looked over Gotham’s sparkling city lights. It wasn’t the best view, but it was nice, and it had been left unlocked for any smokers or attendees needing fresh air.

Riddler was leaning up against the railing now, gaze seemingly out over the city.

His head didn’t turn when Oswald opened the doors and walked over. The cold night air didn’t quite hit him, but instead crept into his aging bones, making him shiver. He ended up at Riddler’s right side, again mirroring their younger selves.

“I never did wish you a happy new year,” Oswald said, unable to help himself and break the silence.

Riddler gave a little snort. “Neither did I.”

“Good thing you stuck around, then, I suppose,” Oswald said, glancing over. Riddler’s eyes were still on the city.

“Do you ever,” Riddler started. He paused for a moment, hands winding and unwinding.

“Do you ever wish it had all happened differently?” he eventually said. His voice was slightly hoarse, and Oswald was once again thrown for the third time that night.

But he thought he knew what Ed was referring to.

“Sometimes,” he said. “But then I realize that only the future is amenable to change.”

Riddler finally looked at him. His gaze behind his glasses was unreadable.

“Ed,” Oswald said, “why are you still here?”

“To see you,” Ed replied. “I… I wanted…”

He glanced down. Oswald waited. After this long, he could afford to be a little more patient.

Ed breathed in once, sharply, before looking up to meet Oswald’s gaze. “I wanted to be honest with you at least once. A neutral zone seemed as good a place to start with that as any.”

“Then shall we be honest with each other?” Oswald asked, voice quiet.

Ed nodded.

Oswald breathed in too, taking a moment before disregarding everything, throwing out all the years and the baggage and the sheer weight of it all.

“I wish, beyond anything else, that we could revive the close friendship we shared for too little a time,” he said. “But part of me still… yearns for more than that. And if we are to be friends again, I want to be honest with you about that. Given time, I could move on, but I just…”

Oswald trailed off as Ed began to grin. Grin?

“Are you… are you serious?” Ed asked.

“As I’ll ever be,” Oswald said, hesitant.

“Oh, good,” Ed said. “Sorry, I—wait, I, um—let me just—”

And then Ed leaned down toward him and Oswald, startled, leaned back, and somewhere in the middle their lips met briefly and Oswald couldn’t comprehend that.

“Wh—” Oswald started, right as Ed said, “Sorr—”

The two of them paused, gazing uncertainly at one another.

“You first,” Ed said.

“I thought you… You said you didn’t love me,” Oswald said.

“I didn’t,” Ed blurted. “Well—that is… I didn’t. But there’s always been something that… drew me to you. Something I couldn’t explain, something that made me think of you when I’d stopped thinking of Isabella, or even Kristen.”

Oswald was startled to hear the names of Ed’s old… flames, he supposed, after so long. They weren’t as charged with anger or grief as they used to be—now, Ed merely sounded… distant.

“Then are you… sure that isn’t friendship?” Oswald asked, ever hesitant, ever uncertain with Ed, even now.

Ed laughed, abrupt and a little strained. “Oswald, I just… know. Didn’t you too, before?”

Oswald blinked. “I… I suppose.” He laughed, too, glancing down. “I’m sorry, Ed, truly, it’s just… hard to believe after so long.”

Oswald felt a hand graze his cheek and he looked up to see Ed oh-so-hesitantly moving closer.

“You said only the future is amenable,” Ed said, voice so soft Oswald had to lean in to hear it. “Ringing in the new year with you seems as good a place to start as any.”

He leaned down once more, but this time Oswald met him halfway. Ed was so… tentative, so careful, and Oswald wanted nothing more than anything to catch him in all these moments of insecurity, to hold him when he inevitably fell.

A sudden shiver made Oswald part his lips, and oh, that was nice. Ed was a remarkably good kisser. Then again, Oswald supposed, he had had some practice.

A second shiver made Oswald pull away, but Ed wrapped his arms around him, pulling him close. Oswald couldn’t help the smile he gave, the arms he wrapped around Edward in turn.

“How about that dance?” Ed asked. “I waited until next year to ask again.”

Oswald rolled his eyes. “Only you would make that joke. But… yes. I’ll take that dance now.”

Ed didn’t move his arms but instead began to sway slowly back and forth, guiding Oswald on a slow walk about the balcony.

“This is dancing?” Oswald asked, a smile in his voice.

Ed winked. “Only the best for you.”

The two of them laughed, and if Oswald held Ed a little bit closer, and they kissed a few more times, well, no one was around to know.