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Inches and Miles

Chapter Text

“Why is one of the FBI agents who was supposed to die from the ‘accidental gas leak’ this morning lying in our bed?”

“Because the guest room isn’t ready for him yet.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“Dr. Spencer Reid and I go way back. I’m being practical, though, not sentimental - there’s a ton of potential there. Wouldn’t you agree, Spencer?”

Spencer didn’t move or open his eyes.

“Come on, I know you regained consciousness minutes ago.” There was a slight edge to the words, but Edward Nygma otherwise sounded cheerful.

Ed had been watching him before Other Voice showed up, then. Spencer opened his eyes and tried to sit up. And lit up with pain. Ed rushed over to gently nudge Spencer back down. “Careful. You’re heavily bruised and have first and second-degree burns. I treated them, but they’ll take time to heal.”

“Oh. Um, thank you. Where are my clothes?” He was dressed in unfamiliar pajamas.

“I threw them away. They were singed, and very unfashionable. I thought G-men wore suits on the job.” Ed was in relaxed, though still slightly nice casual clothing, complete with a green sweater and indoor slippers instead of shoes. His companion was still dressed very formally, including gloves, though they were unusual in being purple. He’d likely just arrived home from an event.

Spencer finally noticed the bandages on his limbs and torso. He couldn’t lose sight of Ed having spared his life at the risk of angering at what sounded like a superior, at least professionally. Then he recognized Oswald “The Penguin” Cobblepot, controversial but reasonably well-liked mayor of Gotham, standing by Ed’s side. Until he had a better grasp of the situation, it would be best to stay on both men’s good sides. So he said in the politest tone possible, “I’ve heard a lot about you, Mr. Cobblepot. I have no idea why I’m in your home either.”

All Spencer remembered was walking down the hall to the conference room, a hand clamped over his mouth, and being dragged backwards from an explosion. He must have been pulled just out of the fatal blast radius at the last minute. There’d been a lot of pain until the forced injection, and he’d weakly protested against narcotics as things went dark.

Oswald didn’t reply to Spencer. He angled his body towards Ed, getting into his personal space, making the most of his short stature in comparison to Ed towering over him. He was doing his best to remain calm but his microexpressions spoke of distress. “So how many unconscious guys have you brought back to your home to nurse back to health?”

“You were my first and he’s the only other one, I promise. What plant grows deep with branches high, but needs blood rather than the sun in the sky?” Ed draped an arm over Oswald’s shoulders.

Ah. Spencer’s hypothesis that Ed was still capable of attachment since he'd become a murderer had been decisively proven. In an unexpected way. Spencer felt a bit happy for him, then remembered he was in the company of two men who casually spoke of blowing up several people. Spencer tried moving his legs. One of his ankles was chained to a bedpost.

Oswald still seemed upset, and Spencer noticed his gloved right hand clenching into a fist. Romantic jealousy? “A family tree. Ed’s my cousin.”

“Second cousin,” said Ed. They’d always shared a tendency to be pedantic, but Spencer’s team had gradually coached Spencer into suppressing it when it wasn’t helpful. “I don’t have any pictures of us during the time we spent together as children, but if you sanctioned me breaking into a medical lab, I could demonstrate that Spencer and I share mitochondrial DNA, which is passed completely intact from mother to child. Fortunately, the two of us are linked entirely through maternal relatives: our mothers were cousins, and they were related through their maternal grandmother. There’s no reason to feel threatened by…”

“I’m not happy with how attractive he is,” Oswald mumbled. Insecure. Abandonment issues. Still recovering from the loss of a loved one, perhaps, and had few genuine connections other than his romantic partner. “I know I’m overreacting, but, but, second cousins aren’t that close.”

Spencer was ready to start laughing hysterically, but instead he said, “There’s something called the Westermarck Effect in which if children who spend formative years regarding one another as family, they are unlikely to develop sexual or romantic attraction to each other as adults. The rates of attraction between adoptive siblings who were raised together since before adolescence are low. On the other hand, there is a disproportionate likelihood of siblings unwittingly separated at a young age to become attracted towards one another, due to a different phenomenon that I can go into later if you’re interested, which is one of the reasons why monitoring sperm bank donations is so impor-”

“Close enough,” Oswald declared, his aggressive posture fading away. Ed beamed at him. “But what’s the plan? The FBI is going to look for him. Maybe we should talk about this elsewhere.”

“It’s good for him to know this part. Hey, Spencer?”

“Yes?”

“One of our junior staffers used a few unacceptable slurs when talking about us, when he thought I wasn’t listening. He was your height and build. I made sure he was thrown into the room just before the ‘gas leak’ proved fatal. Nobody smelled the gas beforehand because of the garbage being burned at the nearby landfill, of course. There are always inconveniences about setting up in an office building on the edge of town. It’s not the Mayor’s fault he didn’t consider that when he offered to clear the building for them, near the crime scenes, so you’d all work in peace. Not at all.” Ed came closer and sat on a chair near the side of the bed. He clasped his hands together and tilted his head while observing his younger cousin. Second cousin.

”Stop being pedantic, Dr. Reid, you were closer to him than you were to any of your first cousins. He was the only one who understood you, and I know how much you value understanding,” Reid imagined Amanda saying, wreathed in smoke in the high-security psych ward where he’d sent her, where they let her grow her hair long in respect of this personality’s gender. ”That’s why I will never let you see Adam again.”

“You don’t need to do this,” Spencer said. Standard line, but it had to be said.

”You do get abducted or held hostage or shot or beaten, infected with anthrax an awful lot, don’t you? They should call you Agent Job,” said Tobias, sad and yearning, thankfully not a hallucination. Just a figure in his mind’s eye. A needle in his hand, to make it stop hurting. If he were a hallucination, he might turn into Raphael, or worse, Charles.

Ed smiled with gentle patience. “I do need to do this, Spence. You see, I was like you once. A caterpillar among worms. I had something inside me that they never did, and never would. After my metamorphosis, I could finally fly, be what I was meant to be. Happy. You’ll realize it soon. Because you’re free now. No small-minded bureaucrats to impress. No need to worry what anyone thinks of you. Your mother doesn’t know what month it is much of the time, she won’t be affected much. I’m sorry I was so brusque with you when you were kind and came to Arkham, bearing gifts. It was a difficult time for me. In retrospect, I realized that my parting jab had a grain of truth to it. You’re teetering over a threshold. I want to help you over it, and you can be the closest thing I have to a younger brother all over again.”

”Remember all the bullying when you were a kid? Remember what it does to you? Ever wanted to get back at them?” Owen in his head, just a boy, just a desperate and tormented boy with a gun.

This wasn’t the time to imagine what Ed would consider useful for “helping” Spencer over the “threshold”. Spencer had been certain all along that the releases of both men had nothing to do with any lasting reformation of character. “I appreciate you wanting to help me, Ed, but…”

“Shh. You’ve had a stressful day, you need rest.” Ed turned to Oswald. “Is that okay with you? I’m sorry I didn’t consult with you beforehand. By the time I realized he was among the group, I had to act quickly, and then when I got him back here you were in endless meetings.”

Oswald smiled, not without some work, but it didn’t appear fake, either. With what little Spencer knew about them, and what he could piece together from this interaction, Oswald was learning how to love more unselfishly, rather than mostly out of infatuation and need. And was finding it an uphill climb. “If it’s what you want. We have the space. We’ll have to tell Olga something.”

“I’m protecting my cousin from being sent to Arkham by keeping him under house arrest instead. My poor, delusional cousin, who justifies his massacre of cops by making himself think he used to be one, and that someone else killed them. We pay her enough to not overthink things.”

“That’ll probably work, if we can get her to understand it. Who’s fixing up the guest room?”

“Annie Wu. Remember her? The one with prosopagnosia, who accidentally killed the wrong person twice so we took her off assassination duty?”

Oswald raised his eyebrows. “Why is she still on the payroll?”

Ed pointed at Spencer’s face. “Wu’s face-blindness means that she cannot recognize someone from a picture, unless they have unusual scars or something. Bland cuteness makes no impression. Such as a ‘Have you seen this man, who we think is dead but we’re just checking!’ sort of picture. She only recognizes you by your voice and gait, by the way. If you stood still and didn’t say anything, she would have no idea who you were. In case you ever need that to happen. By the way, you promised you’d get her birth certificate fixed. The stupid officials put down the wrong letter just because of her body and nobody realized it for years, including her. Can you imagine? Must be worse than me taking so long to realize what I am. Also she’s great at certain types of remodeling.”

Oswald walked his characteristic walk over to Ed, and put a hand on his shoulder. “Remind me tomorrow. He’s going to that room before bedtime, right? Because you owe me. Lots. Please change the sheets once he’s gone, too.”

“Mm hm. I’m looking forward to paying you back.” Then Ed patted Spencer’s knee under the covers. “You won’t be chained up forever, just until I’m confident that you’d rather stay with me that try to go back to your miserable old life. I’m looking forward to having someone around who shares so many of my interests. The ones Oswald doesn’t share, I mean. Different parts of the Venn diagram. You’ll get a few things to amuse yourself for when we’re gone, but right now you need to rest and get better. I’ll bring you dinner. There’s a bottle of water just under the bed, in reach. Do you need to use the bathroom? We’ll switch to a longer chain later, but anyway you’re hurt, you’ll need help getting there…”

“I’m going to go talk to Wu,” Oswald said.

“Wu who?” After Oswald had acknowledged the joke and left, Ed said, “I think he’ll like you. Eventually.”

“Woohoo,” Spencer said dryly.

He had one advantage over Ed, though, and he’d keep it close to his chest. The team that had died this morning was not Spencer’s team. He’d been on loan because the UnSub (who presumably worked for his hosts) had been poisoning people with a mysterious compound. They’d requested the one fully qualified agent they knew of who had a Ph.D in chemistry.

His real team was alive and as well as they ever were. Even if they stopped looking for him, though he knew they’d try at least, if he knew they were out there, he wouldn’t give up.

Spencer thought of Nathan. “He’s right that there’s darkness inside you. Why’d you think I came to you for help? Nathan, who tried to kill himself rather than become the monster he feared.

***

Wu helped Ed move a sedated Spencer to the new room. Ed had gone through his pockets before tossing the clothes, and found a Narcotics Anonymous medallion. Spencer had faded track marks, too. So he made sure to sedate Spencer with something not part of that drug family. He could use it for leverage later, when Spencer was conscious and Ed could gauge his reactions. The Penguin’s criminal empire moved plenty of heroin and such.

That night, after Ed had compensated for the recent inconveniences, Oswald said,“If he becomes a threat, are you willing to kill him?”

“Absolutely.” Clearly some cuddling was in order, if Oswald was thinking such dark thoughts.

Chapter Text

The bedroom had a bed, a chair, a small table, and a very high window letting in sunlight and a scrap of sky. No way could Spencer reach it, even if he got the chain off. As promised, it was long enough that he could make it to the toilet and sink of the en suite bathroom. He couldn’t reach the shower.

Spencer had woken shortly before dawn, still groggy from being sedated twice in short succession, and carefully explored what he could. Thankfully, outdoor lamps gave him some light before the sun rose. Then the pain from his burns had become too much and he’d returned to bed.

Ed knocked and entered, flicking the light switch near the door. He was in an undershirt, green-striped flannel pants, and a black-and-gold dressing gown, and he carried a tray of food and had a large canvas bag slung over one shoulder. “Good morning, Spencer.”

Spencer carefully sat up, and said, politely but firmly, “Thank you for sparing my life, but I want to leave.” It didn’t seem like anything subtler would get through Ed’s mental framework.

“I know. But you need to be here.” Ed put the tray on the table and deposited the bag on the floor. He gestured at the door, and said airily. “If nothing else, in the interest of domestic harmony, I had to promise Oswald that I’d kill you if you left the premises before he agrees with me that you can, and that there’d be very strong sanctions for attempts to leave, hurt us, or contact the outside world. We can’t buy out or threaten the FBI like with the GCPD, and you’re supposed to be dead.”

Spencer intentionally spoke at a higher register, with softer, more childish phrasing. “Please, Ed, I’m your cousin. I know you. I’d speak up for you. I’d explain. You could get real help, not the abusive debacle of Arkham.” Yes, he used the word ‘debacle’ as a child.

Ed got on his hands and knees and reached under the bed. “Second cousin. And I believe you, but even if I found that an acceptable compromise, you wouldn’t be willing to pull strings for Oswald. Enough. I need to check your injuries.” He emerged again with what turned out to be a chest full of medical supplies.

As this was the only medical care Spencer was likely to get for the foreseeable future, he went along with it without protesting anything. At least Ed wasn’t stripping him while unconscious. Spencer suspected that was still on the table if he did put up a fight.

“I’m well-versed in what fatal burns look like, and these are not it, so it’s a good start,” Ed said finally, packing everything back again. “I brought you cereal and milk and juice, two sandwiches for lunch since I’ll be unlikely to be able to come back, and an empty cup you can fill with the clean water from the sink. If you want a shower I’ll help you this evening; sorry for the inconvenience.”

“It’s okay.” Spencer put his shirt back on - Ed had checked the burns in sections, so he’d only had to take one article of clothing off at a time - and sat up. If Spencer’s only source of care was disregarding Spencer’s desire to leave, it was important to continue to play along rather than risk angering him. “What’s in the bag?”

Ed clapped a few times in nervous enthusiasm, then started taking things out of the bag and placing them on the table. “Oswald inherited this house less than a year ago and has been exceedingly busy since then, so neither of us was sure what books were available in the library. I know you read hyper-fast and I know you’ll get through these quickly, but your lifesaving abduction was a bit spur-of-the-moment. I brought as much of what I thought might interest you as I could carry. There’s also a small chess set, if you still play. When I have a moment you can defeat me at it again. I remember you can have fun playing against yourself, or at least you could. Again, there’ll be more intellectually stimulating options in future...I’m doing my...my best..”

“I appreciate the effort,” Spencer said, because he remembered Ed sometimes getting so stressed over doing things badly that he ended up not doing them at all.

“Great. Uh. See you sometime this evening. Do you want a clock? I can get you a clock, later. You’ll have to make guesses today. At least there’s sunlight. Are you still afraid of the dark?” Ed observed Spencer’s face. Suddenly his voice went deeper and slightly hoarse. “You really shouldn’t be, you know. It’s a pathetic weakness.”

Spencer’s fingers curled around bunched-up bedsheets. If he said yes, that might be mocked or punished or used against him. If he said no, Ed might cheerfully deprive him of all sources of light when it was time to sleep, as a way to “help” him sleep soundly. Spencer had noticed that the bathroom had no light of its own, that the light bulb had been removed from the low lamp. The mirror had been removed from the wall, as well, and the food was in a paper bowl with a plastic spoon and plastic cups. The bedroom had a very high ceiling with light bulbs beyond Spencer’s reach, but the switch itself was out of Spencer’s chained range. Spencer had no control over illumination.

“LO-O-OVE, YOUR BACON’S GETTING COLD!” Oswald shouted from downstairs.

Then Ed was sweetness and rainbows again. His body language went back to being open and friendly. He smiled and got to his feet. “I’ve got a busy day ahead, unfortunately, but I will absolutely stop by the moment I get home. We need to talk properly, both serious things and catching up. Despite what I said when I was trapped and, and miserable, and extremely frustrated in Arkham, where I resented you claiming to still be family but not helping me - which I have more perspective on now, and forgiveness - I really have missed you.”

***

“Mr. Nygma, there’s some teenage girl wanting to see you.”

Ed looked up from his work. “Is she wearing black clothes and superfluous goggles and carrying a large rectangular object wrapped in brown paper?”

“Yes.”

“Let her in.”

Selina “Cat” Kyle entered, removed the brown paper, placed the small suitcase on the floor in front of of Ed, and held out a fingerless-gloved hand. There were some risks in hiring her for the job, attitude among them, but she excelled at sneaking into places and petty theft in the middle of the night. Besides, she knew how to play the game and it was unlikely that he’d need to kill her, which he preferred not to. She knew enough to be persuaded by less blunt means. “Pay up, Forensics Guy.”

“I need to check that it’s the right one, Street Trash Girl.” Ed said, with something resembling affection. Anyone who tries to help you escape from Arkham (even as part of a bargain) and has never subsequently done you wrong counts as a friend. He’d made inquires and verified that it had been his own sloppiness at replacing the air vent cover rather than betrayal that got him caught. She’d even explained to him, when he hired her for this job, why on Earth Jimbo and Foxie had hauled him out of his cell to show them the secret elevator. “Turn around.”

“Really?”

“Do you want to be paid or not?” When she was looking away, Ed used a multitool to cut off the combination lock holding the zippers together. He took a peek inside. He observed the clothing style, the thick book on neurology, the contact lens care kit, the spare glasses, an amount of stationary suitable for someone who wrote letters several times a week, if not daily - and oooooooooh was that a briefing packet? Oswald was very understanding about Ed not wanting Spencer to be interrogated, but understanding did not mean happy. This would be an alternative way to learning what the FBI knew.

The girl cleared her throat. “So…”

“It’s what I wanted. Well done. This is between you and me, remember.” He shut the suitcase and handed the cash over her shoulder.

“Whose bag is it?”

“Part of the payment is for no questions. Don’t spend it all on feeding random kitties.”

***

After accompanying Oswald to yet another charity luncheon, then sneaking a kiss before Oswald had to go supervise someone’s face being pulverized, Ed had some downtime to quietly go through the mail and decide what was worth bothering Oswald with. Oswald didn’t trust anyone else to do it, even if it was more of a secretarial task. Ed fully agreed that nobody else could be given the job, not when the mail was inevitably a mix of TO MAYOR COBBLEPOT and TO THE PENGUIN.

“I know I was one of the very few friends you've ever had, but you don’t seem to understand how real friendship works,” said a voice from behind him.

Ed grabbed a knife from the desk drawer and whirled around. Then stifled a yelp.

It was eight-year-old Spencer Reid. Blondish hair that hadn’t fully darkened yet, proportionally enormous glasses, solemn expression for a child. “I never thought you’d do something like this to me, Eddie.”

“That’s because neither of us understood how the world really works and the lies grown-ups told us,” Ed snapped, returning to his reading and sorting.

“Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

“I never liked Tolstoy.”

“A Dostoyevsky fan? We could talk about crime and punishment.”

“Hush, kid. Busy.” He needed to stay calm and professional.

Thankfully, child Spencer did, and Ed worked in peace until his four-o’clock appointment with a representative from the Tourism Board.

Chapter Text

Ed got his partner settled in his dining chair before moving to take his own. “How was your day, Oswald? After our paths diverged, I mean?”

Oswald gave one of those thin, yet genuine, smiles meaning that the outside world had been trying, but Ed’s presence were improving his mood. With the majority of people, Ed could only discern the broadest of emotions on their faces, though he was adept at determining their buttons and switches from their actions and words. Oswald, though, had shown him a vast sample size of expressions in a face Ed already liked looking at. Ed could probably write a dissertation on Oswald’s face and body language by now.

“Meetings, the extraction of a suitable apology, giving a statement about the tragic loss of life from visiting federal law enforcement, and writing a recommendation for an admittedly stellar intern. The one who thought quickly when the person whose apology I got today made his reckless move last week. She hit him with a paperweight.” Oswald reached to serve himself parts of the various dishes. Ed restrained himself from helping, even if Oswald looked tired and paler than default. They’d talked about this. It would be acceptable for him to suggest pain meds after the meal, and to encourage either a cane or his arm.

“We could use someone like that in City Hall Records. People keep sneaking in unauthorized to dig up information and scaring off whoever’s on duty. It’d be useful to have someone with more backbone down there.”

Ms. Kringle wouldn’t have allowed any stranger messing with her files like that, he thought with a stab of nostalgia and melancholy. During a recent escapade, lwhen there was a serious possibility of dying while protecting Ed, Victor Zsaz had said something about missing a henchwoman he’d had to put down for betrayal. He that this was normal, and that he was at peace with having some regret to carry quietly with him. Ed hadn’t given the normally obnoxious man the satisfaction of knowing how validating he had accidentally been.

“I’ll give you her information and you can make her an offer for after she graduates if you want. What’s wrong? You’re making a face. Something wrong with the food?”

Since embracing a more confident, less restricted lifestyle, small things that used to bother Ed more troubled him far less. Such as scratchy fabrics, which he’d fortunately become more tolerant of before facing Arkham and its near-burlap uniforms and thin, stiff blankets. Not that he would touch them with a ten-foot-pole given a choice, but it hadn't been the torment it might have.

(That said, Oswald’s gift of a buttery soft sweater just his size had been the object of private hugging and petting after Jim Gordon had used him to open the secret elevator and rudely tossed him aside without the decency of an explanation. And after every time he had to use his strategic words and performative eccentricity to ward off a brutish inmate who was too interested in him. Calmer, he could plan how to use his allies for sending a more permanent message. He didn’t get up the courage to tell Oswald this until more than after a month of being lovers. The self-soothing technique had been more embarrassing than the reasons for it, but Oswald had been nothing but supportive.)

Now he could better hide when he was bothered by sensory matters, as well. But he was at home, and he’d had a lot of mixed emotions recently. His walls were down. “If you cut my flesh I'll stab your eyes. I'll fight my wounds by making you cry. She usually remembers."

Oswald frowned. "I'll remind Olga about your distaste for onions. I know there are leftovers we’re saving for her day off, if you want to swap out your entree…”

“I’ll be fine. The pieces are big. I can use my fork; I don’t even need tweezers.” He smiled encouragingly. “I have good news for you.”

“Oh?”

“I got someone to fetch Spencer’s suitcase, and there’s a briefing packet containing everything the FBI knew before that team started the investigation. I’ve skimmed it and will read it soon. I know that’s not the full amount desired, but…”

Oswald finished chewing and swallowing before replying. “That’s fine, that’s good, Ed, that’s good news. I know you’re against questioning your cousin because you need your cousin to actually like you, or at least not dislike you more than necessary. I understand. I have good news for you, too.”

“Yes?” The potatoes were excellent, at least.

“Well, a blessing in disguise. It turns out that one of the agents had a stroke of inspiration and ran out to chase a lead just before the explosion, and that he’s still in Gotham, trying to prove it wasn’t an accident. He’s got a few scraps of evidence, but that’ll blow over soon. I’ve sent Zsaz to fetch him and escort him to our pros. If it turns out he's succeeded in reopening the case, I have another team ready to frame this survivor for going rogue, blowing up his own team, and fleeing. Do you think you or I or both of us should be there?”

Ed shook his head. He finished his sip of water - he was encouraging Oswald to drink less, and it was only fair to participate - and said, “I definitely shouldn’t. Spencer’s perceptive. I know that having an interaction like that with someone Spencer finds important will cross wires in my head, worrying if he’ll figure it out, and that conflict might show and make him figure it out. Then he’ll clam up and resent me in a more concrete way than just because we play for different sides now. Me abetting blowing up abstract law enforcement is different from participating in cold-blooded torture. He can forgive the one more easily than the other, once he starts to understand.”

“And what about me?”

“If it’ll help, yes, but there’s still that possibility, especially if Spencer talks with you anytime soon.”

Oswald reached across to pat Ed’s hand. “I’ll tell them what to ask about. Besides, if they don’t wait for me, they can start right away. In my experience, the longer you wait to question someone, the more likely a bunch of their pals or a bunch of authorities will storm in just before you get anything done.”

“Good thought. You know, torture is an alright way to get information, but especially in trained subjects it’s unreliable for getting truthful information. Maybe you could tell them to tell our escapee that we’ve got a colleague of his and will hurt him, too. I can supply a few personal details about Doctor Reid that the colleague might know. No need for anyone to know that it’s a double bluff of sorts.” Ed started safely digging into the meat, onion bits in a tidy heap on the side.

“I think that’s a great idea, but in that case it would be better if I provided those details in person. The more middlemen you have when it comes to sensitive matters, the more room for error.”

Mutual smiles of admiration, then both ate in silence for a few minutes.

“I spent almost an hour with him after I got home.” His relationship with Oswald wasn't hidden, but they’d learned if he accompanied Oswald to certain types of things, legal or criminal, people spent more time gawping at the two of them than getting things done. At least this gave Ed built-in Oswald-less time to spend on his individual endeavors without neglecting him.

Spearing a vegetable with more force than usual, Oswald asked pleasantly, “What’d you do?”

Ed had specifically chosen something he liked to do and Oswald didn’t, to soothe the undercurrent of jealousy. Oswald might believe that he had no romantic intentions towards Spencer, but Oswald wasn’t used to sharing anyone’s love with anyone else, no matter the type. “Played chess. Haven’t played in a long time. Lost twice, then paused another to come down for dinner. I think he’s grieving. I’m going to have Caroline take me to pick up some medieval literature from the library for him tomorrow. I’ve carved out a space during lunchtime. It’s comfort reading for him.” He suddenly didn’t want to turn his head, for fear of a phantom eight-year-old lurking.

Oswald studied Ed’s face. “Dearest, that creepy Isabella woman you find upsetting works there, especially since you won’t let me pull strings for her to have a car accident.”

“I’m not up for killing people out of misplaced romantic feelings,” Ed muttered.

“Give a list to Caroline herself, and have lunch with me at the Indian place around the corner while she’s running the errand. I can spare an hour and a half. I know you’re comfortable with her and she’s very discreet.”

“Thank you.”

***

After dinner, Oswald asked about how Ed’s experiments were going. Ed took him along to show him. Recognizing both that Ed had truly enjoyed his forensics work - just not how little others had appreciated it - and how useful it was for a mob boss to have someone who could figure out any unsanctioned kills, Oswald had worked with Ed to create a small but respectable laboratory in their own home.

“My protege's been doing well. Ed pointed at an assortment of containers full of liquids he knew Oswald didn’t understand but didn’t feel a need to. “I’ve been too busy to do as much field testing as he has, but between what I’ve managed with humans and more consistently with rats, I’ve done enough.” Ed indicated the preserved rats and plucked out the latest human heart from the fridge. From last Sunday. “The result's stayed constant, His victims aren’t having conventional cardiac arrest. They’re in such a state of terror that their heart rate spikes beyond safe capacity. All he needs to do is refine the formula so that it can create a similar, temporary, nonfatal state that someone can recover from with no lingering physical evidence.”

Oswald had learned the art of interrupting Ed in a way that sounded interested and not impatient. “Is he close? Is the formula close, when you recreate it?”

“Getting closer, but he’s had to stop for now. I had him sent to lie low at his grandmother’s house.” Not with his grandmother. At her house. Though he was almost old enough for it to be his house, according to the miraculously but seamlessly edited will.

The teenager had a tendency to scream incoherently under certain kinds of stress. He’d spent months being able to do nothing else. Jonathan’s estranged grandmother reluctantly took custody of the "devil child" afterwards. Then the grandmother had an accident. Old women fall, and subsequently have scavengers like crows pick at them. Grisly. Ed might have lent a hand with tidying away that whole business. Jonathan was interesting. Jonathan in turn had told Ed and Oswald his vision, and asked for guidance. He wasn’t looking to make a profit for its own sake, but promising profit meant getting sponsorship and protection. Smart cookie. Full ride scholarship to look forward to. Hopefully he’d get over those episodes soon.

“Will you be my Valentine?” Ed asked, holding up the heart playfully.

“In a few months on the actual day, maybe, but only if real hearts are not incorporated at all.” Oswald took a seat on one of the two chairs. “I know this is not your preferred M.O. I know you like a bit of flair and fun, and that you’re not actually a fan of kids dying, fake death threats to orphan billionaires notwithstanding.”

With a sigh, Ed sat across from him. “Yeah. It has to look like only one person did all of it. Jonathan even agreed. Said if it goes south, might as well only have one person get locked up, and a minor with a publicly known sob story would be treated more gently. My three to his dozen-odd wouldn’t make a huge difference in his sentence, either. He killed the kids, though, not me.”

“I’m glad. I know he needed to check the variables and that it being children is not something he gets a kick out of, and they were terminally ill anyway, but...I prefer that you didn’t go against your own principles like that.” Oswald leaned over to peck him on the lips. He sat back with a rueful half-smile. “In hindsight, maybe you should have told him not to do that, though, since that’s what got the GCPD riled up enough to call the feds. Too showy. But that’s the thing about hindsight, yeah?”

“Hey, speaking of showy, did you have to send Zsasz? He’s not exactly subtle. Even if he doesn’t get caught in person or on camera, he’s loud and messy. Plus he gets disgruntled if he has to do a job and doesn’t get new tally marks out of it.” Ed stopped to ponder. “I suppose you could have him do the disposal after.”

“Yes, he’ll get the final shot. Zsasz being showy is the point. Surely the FBI didn’t sent all their behavioral analysts on a single mission, and if they’re a bunch of cops who are also psychologists, they will spend a LOT of time trying to figure him out. Especially if he brings along a Zsaszette or two. I’ve never learned any of their names. Do you think they and their leader all live together in an over-the-top assassin mansion?”

“I tremble to think of the decor." They both laughed at that.

“Don’t worry, I’ve thought about it. If I wanted subtle, I’d send someone like Mr. Dang.”

“What? Mr. Dang leaves a small plastic cup of red fruit punch with a straw in it right next to his kill.” One of the benefits of switching sides meant that Ed had finally learned who the heck had been doing that. Captain Essen (who’d deserved better than she got) told him to test the fruit punch each time. There’d been nothing wrong with it. In fact one time he was exhausted from irresponsibly playing a new video game much of the night and accidentally drank it, though only after running tests.

“He doesn’t do that if you tell him not to. It’s part of his belief system that the spirits he’s dedicating this sacrifice to also like a sweet blood-colored beverage to go with the meal, but they’ll be understanding if it’s not always feasible to include. It’s not a compulsion to leave a signature or clues like some people.”

Ed felt cold inside. Oswald found out, and he’s angry, and it’s all your fault. Maybe the FBI knows now because of your stupid need to show off.

Oswald’s eyes widened. “Oh god, I’m sorry, that wasn’t meant to be casting aspersions, dearest, I was thinking in generalities and wasn’t even...oh no...come here. Come here, I’m going to show you again what I really think of you.”

The kisses were warm and sincere beyond thought. Arms around him. Increasingly less gentle sighs. A wonderful, simple thing in a complicated day. “You want to take this somewhere less...clinical?” Oswald whispered.

Then Ed stepped back, a rush of near-panic. “Crud, I forgot to feed Spencer.”

Oswald pouted with intentional adorableness. “C’mon, it’s not even nine, he can survive another hour or so.”

“I promised I’d bring him food right after we ate or right after we got home from eating out if we at out, always, I promised, he will never come to like me and agree with me if I don’t keep my promises.” Ed ran towards the kitchen.

***

Spencer didn’t have a clock. All he knew was that it was dark outside, though Ed had left the overhead light on. He’d taken the two Tylenol pills left for him that morning, for the pain of the healing burns, and applied soothing ointment. He’d had to remove his contact lenses as they were drying his eyes, and Ed had provided a small dish to place them in, absent a contact lens care kit. He’d asked Spencer’s prescription to order him a pair of backup glasses if need be. Spencer had popped them back in when he first heard the sound of the front door closing, not wanting to be taken off-guard.

Over chess, Spencer had politely asked Ed for paper and writing materials. If he couldn’t have much external stimulation for the time being, writing would help him organize his thoughts, and the ritual of the daily letter to his mother might be reassuring. Even though he doubted he’d be allowed to send any. Ed had promised to bring them with dinner.

One of the things he thought about was the profile of the killer. The seventeen bodies had been chopped up, wrapped, and weighed down, but by sheer coincidence a ship full of valuable cargo had sunk nearby and they’d been discovered by salvagers. The bodies all had the same strange chemical residues in their system and had all had certain organs and glands removed, but had varied across physical type and age.

Dr. Reid, holder of a suddenly useful ph.D in chemistry and on loan from Aaron Hotchner’s team, had noticed something the others had not: Three of the bodies were different from the others. They’d been dismembered less haphazardly and more efficiently. They were completely naked, while the others had been at least partially dressed again after whatever organ removal had been done, despite being about to be dismembered. Often a sign of remorse or sympathy. The two children had been fully dressed, as shown when the fabric scraps had been pieced together again, and one had the remains of a teddy bear chopped up and bundled with her. Teddy bears were generally comforting to children.

On the other hand, the three unusual corpses were all men who worked or had worked at Arkham Asylum. And each one of them had an index fingernail covered in the water-washed remnants of green nail polish. The finger you point with. The finger with which you accuse.

This meant most likely two UnSubs, likely male, likely well-educated and well-versed in anatomy and at least a semblance of medical research practices. One less experienced, less choosy, more mission-based. Might have experienced treatment akin to that of his victims, so while feeling that his actions were justified, he also saw himself in them, and felt for them. A strong lead would be to work with the local medical examiner to determine not only what had been done, exactly, but also try to find records of any similar cases in the past. Nonfatal attempts in a similar vein.

Then there was the other. This man was less empathetic, in fact there were markings on the skin that may have been from rage-induced blows, and faded marks around the throat, showing both more anger and possibly more physical strength than his partner. This one was choosier about his victims, and cared more about the class of victim than about producing a varied sample. Research showed that all three men had been accused of inmate abuse: one for excessive force, one for not following up complaints of both attempted and successful inmate-on-inmate sexual assaults, and one for delaying or withholding delivery of meals to those barred from communal mealtimes. None of them had suffered penalties. This UnSub was either avenging someone or had himself suffered abuse in Arkham.

Unfortunately, Dr. Reid had been moments away from sharing his findings when he was forcibly removed from the imminent explosion. Any other team that took this case, if the FBI decided it was worth the red tape and resources to pursue, might realize these things as well. Hopefully.

A knock at the door. “It’s me.”

“Hello,” Spencer said.

“Sorry it’s a little late, I got caught up in a discussion about important things. But I come bearing dinner and some clothes and whatnot of yours I got someone to fetch for you. And also paper and pens, like you requested.” Ed smiled hopefully as he entered. Ed had always wanted approval above all else, even above having an intellectual equal. And - many white horses upon a red hill. First they champ, then they stamp, and then they stand still."

“Thank you.” Spencer got up to help carry the tray so Ed could concentrate with the suitcase. "And it's teeth. Tolkien, though you changed a word. You got me a toothbrush?"

“Uh huh. I remember you telling me your read it at age three. It’s because of me that you can’t get stuff on your own yet, so, you know, just being responsible.” He kept making it sound like Spencer was incapacitated from illness rather than a prisoner. That might well be what it was to him. “Plus, you brought me those gifts when I was in Arkham.”

Spencer looked Ed up and down. He was dressed in mostly green, with touches of brown. In footage and in person, Spencer had seen that whenever Ed had a choice in clothing, he always wore at least some green. Even if it was just a tie.

Spencer started eating, as he was very hungry and also needed to collect his thoughts. “I’ve researched Arkham’s history of corruption and questionable practices. I’m still sorry that I didn’t have the pull to get you transferred somewhere better.”

“It’s a lovely thought,” Ed said. Spencer was using the chair and desk, so he sat on the edge of the bed. “Are you in pain? I’ve brought two more tablets for you.”

“Not right now, but please leave them here.”

“Sure thing!” He sat and smiled.

One may smile, and smile, and be a villain, Spencer heard his mother read aloud to him, in his mind. As she sat in a bathrobe at three in the afternoon, eyes vague and tired but a book in her hands and room for him in her heart, even when her mind failed.

“Were you ever treated badly by the staff?”

For less than a second, Ed’s eyelid twitched. “Let’s talk about something more pleasant. You seemed surprised that Oswald and I were together. It was in the papers.”

“The papers have also reported that Oswald has five love children, you are the secret offspring of a well-known comedy actor they coyly never name, some pimp with superpowers is manipulating the ages of girls and women to suit customers with different kinks, and that Bruce Wayne was temporarily replaced by a clone. I took it with a grain of salt,” Spencer said.

Ed laughed - open, friendly, genuine.

Spencer knew he’d be wondering if Ed was the second UnSub all night.

Chapter Text

“Oh no. You...it’s infected. I didn’t clean it right yesterday morning, and you didn’t have any medical supplies to use on your own because I didn’t leave them for you. No. No. I will be right back. Stay still.” A pale, guilt-stricken Ed fled, though he remembered to lock the door behind him.

Spencer lay quietly, reading a mystery novel one-handed, distracting himself from the pain he’d been in since before dawn from one particular burn on his upper left thigh. Ed had rushed through that one out of apparent deference to Spencer’s embarrassment. He didn’t seem to count unconscious and conscious nudity the same way, perhaps having been desensitized to the former by dealing with corpses. Last night when he’d removed Spencer’s chain from its usual mooring and reattached it closer to the bathroom so Spencer could carefully wash himself, he didn’t allow Spencer to close the door, but he’d turned his back.

Breakfast had come with the gift of a watch. A child’s watch, all rounded edges and plastic. Spencer knew that Ed knew that if given the opportunity, based on Ed’s psychology, Spencer would want to try hurting himself badly enough that Ed would be forced to seek outside medical assistance. Thereby opening a chance of escape or at least communication. Spencer knew Oswald thought he might try attacking Ed, but Spencer wouldn’t do anything aggressive unless he had a reasonable certainty of success, and follow-up escape or imminent rescue. Besides, he knew full well he’d hesitate to harm Ed, even if Ed would hesitate to badly wound him.

Thanks to the watch, Spencer knew it was more than twenty minutes before Ed returned with a back of fresh, sterile gauze and a plethora of other items. And wearing a lab coat. He noticed that Ed had slicked back his hair in a different way than a few minutes ago.

Ed set up by the bed and snapped on a pair of black latex gloves. He sighed. “I’m really super sorry about that, Speedy, my bad, full responsibility. Let’s have a look-see. We stocked up on antibiotics, both ingested and topical, so that’s good. Oh dear. Ohhh dear, you’ve got gross discharge, we’ll need to fix that, and also make sure none of the other burns are going the same way. I’m gonna need you to inch down your boxers. By the way, always let me know when you want anything laundered. I’ll do it for you. Olga’s loyal but I don’t want her knowing any more about you that necessary. The others would be mad.”

Spencer cooperated with Ed’s ministrations, but he saw something odd about Ed’s facial expressions. They were so much more tentative and transparent than earlier. More like the Ed he’d known. Who had occasionally called him Speedy.

Slowly, hoping not to distract but needing answers, Spencer asked, “Who else helped you stock up on antibiotics? Oswald? Annie Wu?”

“No, no, they were busy and they don’t know anything about that stuff. Do you like video games? I like video games when I’m sick. I used to play them more often before getting into other hobbies, and especially after taking on everything I do these days. I wouldn’t miss the games much, is what I’m saying. I could bring you my console.”

This was both creepy and bizarrely endearing. “I’ve never really played. Who else helped you?”

Ed froze. “I said ‘we’?”

“Yes.”

“You’re going to think I’m crazy. I have a certificate saying I’m not.”

“I realize that. You know I’m not an insensitive bully.” Spencer hoped to play on the idea of the two of them against the bullies of the world.

“No, you’re not.” Ed resumed his care. “I’m not sure if we count as a me or we, really. He used to talk to me in reflective surfaces, then he didn’t need those as pretexts anymore, just standing and moving like anyone, you know? Well, not talk. More like goad and agitate and tempt. One time he hijacked my body to set up a...scavenger hunt. I eventually agreed to stop treating him like someone else and embrace the parts of me he represented. I thought we were done, that we were one, except for him acting as a caustic Greek chorus every once in awhile, almost always a mental voice, only rarely an auditory or visual hallucination. Just a jab here and there like he’d been doing ever since I was...ever since...anyway. He didn’t become a major presence until after the first time.”

Spencer didn’t need to ask what the first time was. “Do you want to keep me here against my will as much as the other aspect of you does?”

Ed looked like an underfed puppy in the rain. “Not as much, no. It hasn’t ever been just me acting since before Oswald, you know. I think he’s emotionally exhausted and sleeping, like I was when he did it.”

“You have choices, Ed. You know I would help and protect you as much as I can, especially in light of this discussion.”

“A librarian refuses to lend an obviously depressed man a book glorifying suicide. Why?”

This was probably not the answer, but: “Because that would be unethical.”

“Wrong.” Ed looked up and to the far corner of the room. “I assume you see nothing over there. Something you might recognize. It’s the height of a child. Like, an eight-year-old child.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t.”

Ed closed his eyes and counted to five. Pointedly not looking over to the corner again. “Because she thinks the book won’t get returned.”

***

“Mr. Nygma?”

Ed felt himself being gently nudged away. He opened his eyes. “Olga?”

“Floor is not for sleeping. I know I am not to come in lab room, but I hear talking then long silence. On day I know you are home and sick from work, I must see.” She was a sturdy woman and had little difficulty helping Ed onto his feet.

“Why am I in my lab? And in a lab coat? What time is it?” The last thing Ed could remember was finding out Spencer had developed an infection and coming down here for the stash of extra medical supplies. This couldn’t have been later than seven in the morning.

“Past two. You should have soup. I make soup, simple soup, no onions. Extra for your insane cousin upstairs.” She was a singularly matter-of-fact woman.

“Thank you,” Ed said faintly. Olga nodded firmly, yet maternally in her own way, and trundled off.

A replica of him, but in the uniform and mannerisms his GCPD doormat days, waved to get his attention from the corner of his eye. “It wasn’t my idea, but you’re scary to Spencer when he’s hurt, so I was the better choice. Be nice to him. Remember what it was like, being me.”

“Like the upside-down question mark in Spanish that tells you a right-side up one is coming,” Ed muttered, fighting down the sense of horror.

Chapter Text

Ed brought both bowls of soup to eat with Spencer, and asked him his perspective on what happened. Spencer told him. He asked Ed about context. Ed told him.

And told him.

And told him.

Eventually Ed was lying on his side next to Spencer on the bed, atop the covers. He wanted a hug but didn’t know how to ask. “What do you think it is?”

Spencer was sitting up against the headboard with his legs sprawled out, looking at Ed with more sympathy than he deserved. “I’m not a psychiatrist.”

“You know a lot about criminal psychology, though, and I’m sure you’ve researched mental disorders heavily.”

“ People with mental disorders are much more likely to be victims of a crime than the general populace, and also far less likely to be perpetrators,” Spencer snapped. “The majority of the UnSubs we catch do not present with a specific clinically diagnosable illness, unless you count being people who do bad things for reasons we have managed to discern.

Don’t talk to me like that, snarled inner words that Ed pushed away. He said in his real voice, “I meant because of Aunt Diana.”

Spencer closed his eyes for a moment and sighed. “Right. Okay. You’ve been in contact with actual psychiatrists.”

“There wasn’t anyone in Arkham who actually cared about my health. Just the ability to brag that they were the ones fixing weirdo cop-killer Nygma with their pet quack techniques. Or just checking the boxes for the bare minimum of upkeep.” Ed resisted the temptation to check Spencer’s infection yet again.

“Fine. For what it’s worth, I’m not sure if it’s a true case of Dissociative Identity Disorder, or Multiple Personality Disorder if you prefer the older, less accurate term, and assuming you don’t believe in the theory that DID is solely induced in suggestible patients by incompetent therapists. The theory has some compelling evidence, but I have personal experience that rules out the solely part, regardless. ”

“I had the problem before I dealt with incompetent therapists,” Ed drawled, drawing what appear to be random slashes in the air. Really, though, he had plans for when Jonathan decided he needed more help with testing. The execrable Dr. Walsh had a predictable evening commute.

Spencer eased himself into a more horizontal position, though he still wasn’t fully lying down. “People with anxiety and depression often berate themselves in the second person, saying things, 'How could you be so stupid?'. Sometimes aloud. It doesn't have to be literal. Additionally, the ‘Ed’ I interacted with wasn’t significantly different than you now except in mannerisms, and perhaps the amount that he listens to his conscience. And people with DID don’t tend to hallucinate one of their alters, who proceeds to fill in what they missed, or at least give clues on how to do so.” Spencer hadn’t eaten much of his soup. Ed should check his temperature soon.

A flash of memory: Arkham, convincing an inmate that another inmate's fifth personality "Rosie" was an mean ghost. That Ed had scolded and had a shoving match with. Simpler times. Worse, but simpler. “Then what else would it be?”

“Well, you might share my genetic predisposition to schizophrenia, for a start, and you would have definitely been playing with fire all those times you misused prescription drugs in an attempt to maximize your performance in college and occasionally during busy times at the GCPD. That would help account for the manifestation of hallucinations under stress.” Spencer pondered for a moment, chin in hand. “This is only the second time it’s happened.”

“To my knowledge, yes.”

“And the other time was when you accidentally killed Ms. Kringle, the only person you didn’t mean to, and the only kill you have regretted. For emotional reasons, not because of deciding it had been impractical in hindsight.”

“Yes. Are you in pain?”

Spencer smiled ruefully. “A lot. The Tylenol does only so much. Thanks, though.”

Time to gently poke at something he was curious about. “What if I got you something stronger?”

“No.” Spencer froze for a second, knee-jerk instinct, then regained control of himself. “I appreciate the gesture, but no. Am I the only other person you deeply care about that you’ve accidentally harmed more than you intended, in an effort to make them stay with you, love you, accept you, not run off and tell on you? And do you realize that you’ve just clenched the front of my shirt in both fists?”

Ed looked down, and not only was that accurate, but Spencer was flat on his back and Ed was leaning over him. He immediately let go and lay back on his side, the air knocked out of him. “Oh dear.” ”At least it wasn’t around his neck, said Ms. Kringle in his head.

“Do you need a break from this conversation?” Spencer asked gently. He probably got into situations like this often in his job - old job, former job - or worse.

“No. If I...if I start doing something like that again, you have permission to hit me in defense, and I won’t punish you or let Oswald punish you. Finish what you were going to say.”

“I think in both times of crisis you’ve repressed the aspects of yourself that you believed would be detrimental to the situation.” Spencer wavered. “Um, I’m a little cold.”

The conversation paused yet again so that Ed could tuck Spencer in. He was probably doing more than Spencer needed him to, but he only had so many ways to apologize for keeping him and being irresponsible about it. He lay on top of the covers, though, because he was no longer an eleven-year old who didn’t like that the guest air mattress wobbled, and Spencer was no longer a small, frail boy who could scrunch up tiny against the wall. They’d flung the covers of the guest bed around every morning so the adults wouldn’t notice.

“You were saying.”

Spencer licked his lips. Did he need some Chapstick? “It’s not among the most common symptoms, but it is entirely possible for people with PTSD to have memory problems for the immediate period of time after being triggered. You don’t need to pretend to have no idea what I’m talking about, Ed.”

“I know I’d never fool you.” Spencer never forgot things that he’d read, and there had been times where Ed had poured his heart out into letters to him for lack of other safe options.

“I remember you told me about things your father said about your mother, and you then told me what Officer Dougherty said about Kristen - did you consciously realize how similar they were? And you told me how you felt when your mother -”

“Told me he just lost his temper. And she didn’t step in when it was me. Me that had bruises, too, because she was scared.” Ed’s jaw was clenched so hard that it hurt. His voice had the pace and cadence of stricken prey, but the pitch and gravel of the hunter. “She excused it until the day she died in a drive-by, and I wanted to find out who’d done it, and I looked at the bullet tracks and researched angles of ricochet and I saw things that Forensics hadn’t but the police said...said...”

“It’s okay. It’s okay.”

“No, it isn’t, and it will never be.”

Spencer reached up and put a hand lightly on his shoulder. “I mean it’s okay to feel things.”

Ed had nothing to say to that.

Spencer was unafraid, in his element. His words were an implacable truth. “A woman you loved took the side of a man who’d harmed both of you, instead of taking your side, when all you’d done was try to protect and help both her and yourself. Again. So you retaliated much more forcefully than you needed to, without realizing it. When you realized what you’d done, you were at a crossroads. You could toe the line and turn yourself in. What good had that ever done you, though? Better to silence every part of you that was useless in that moment. Better to push down and repress everything that was soft, everything that you felt had led you along that same path all over again. You didn’t kill your mother, sure, but you’d been a good boy and did what everyone said and she’d died anyway.”

Ed stared up at the ceiling and counted the cracks in the plaster. “You think the stress of that made me forget what I’d done?”

“Consciously. Then the projection of your unconsciousness informed you. On the other hand, with me…”

“The hallucination said I was scaring you, and he was the better choice.”

Perhaps wisely, all Spencer did in reaction was shift himself and his pillow. “It’s a false dichotomy, though. If there was really a separate Sweet Ed and Dark Ed, Sweet Ed would have let me go, and your occasional flashes of talking in a deeper register and more harshly and bluntly would also turn into you, I dunno, threatening to turn me over to Victor Zsaz for reprogramming.”

“How do you know about that?” Zsasz’s time-consuming side project wasn’t something he advertised much. Special clients only. Ed would never, because the conditioning on Butch hadn’t held indefinitely, and because Butch hadn’t genuinely cared for Oswald. The idea of extinguishing Spencer’s embers of family love instead of fanning them brighter was horrifying.

“Since I visited Arkham, I’ve researched you and all your associates, and all Oswald’s known associates once I found out he got you released. A friend helped.” Spencer was slightly paler with pain. Not enough time had elapsed since the previous tablets. Though it could have been the mention of a friend might have thought was dead, too. “Have you heard of the concept of the Mandate of Heaven?”

“No.”

“For a time in Ancient China, there was the belief that if the country was prospering, the gods were smiling upon the emperor and showing their approval. If things went wrong, whether it be losing a war or crops failing or an earthquake, this meant that Heaven had withdrawn its approval, and it was time for someone else to be in charge. I don’t think you have separate personalities, but I believe you have separate personas. If you think of them as co-emperors…”

“I get the picture.” Ed was thirsty but didn’t want to get up to refill his glass in the sink.

Spencer carefully turned onto his side and smiled conspiratorially. “I use the concept for TV writers, to to explain why I refuse to consider certain episodes of Star Trek canon. They’ve lost the Mandate of Heaven.”

“I’ve done that for one of the movies,” Ed said, giving him a tight half-smile.

He knew what Spencer was doing on two levels: as the second cousin trying to cheer him up, and as the profiler who was playing nice with the killer beside him for his own safety. Right now, though, he’d settle for it. Ed didn’t want to be alone until Oswald got home and could give Ed absolution and physical affection. At least Spencer could discuss with him what the Doctor from Doctor Who would think of the Federation.

He should do something nice for Spencer when he himself felt more stable. Like help him overcome his fear of the dark. Spencer would be grateful eventually.

Chapter Text

Ed wasn’t asleep, even though he was in bed with the covers over his head. The bedroom door opened. “Dearest? Olga told me you’ve been sick all day. I thought you were just staying home to take care of Spencer’s infection.”

“Until I was five, I believed that monsters couldn’t perceive anything that was under a blanket,” Ed said, enunciating to make up for his voice being muffled. “I liked the weight of it, too. It was soothing. It still is, to a degree. What is more than matter, but you don’t do it when you don’t care?”

The bed dipped and a hand came to rest on Ed’s side. “Physics?”

Ed didn’t laugh. Oswald was trying. “I can see where you got that. The answer is ‘mind’. Mind over matter. I don’t mind. Today ended up being a mental health day.”

“Of course. Makes perfect sense. You’ve been stretching yourself thin lately, what with being chief of staff, Jonathan’s mentor, that vendetta of vengeance against your Arkham abusers…”

“Nice alliteration.”

“Thank you. Then there’s you being my partner in crime bossing, and now there’s Spencer. I’m glad you took a day to rest. You acted like you didn’t deserve one.”

“Wait, I told you I was going to take a day off? In person?” Ed had no memory of that. He poked his head out to look at Oswald. “How was I acting?”

Oswald thought about it. “Meek?”

“Crud. I think I need to tell you everything.”

When the story had been told, Oswald said with impressive calm, “Maybe you should spend less time with Spencer for a day or two.”

“It wasn’t his fault, and he needs my help with the infection.”

“I wasn’t saying it was his fault. I wasn’t suggesting you not spending any time with them, especially when there’s medical necessity. It sounds like he cares about you. Him being around seems to be kicking up a lot of dust, though, and I think you would benefit from time to process that. I could get better acquainted with him, if you’re worried he’ll be lonely.” Oswald started undoing his necktie, without taking his eyes of Ed.

Ed picked up his glasses, fiddling with them. “Will you be nice to him?”

“I will. Friendly bonding, that’s all. Maybe don’t put them on just yet? C’mere.” Oswald placed his tie on the nightstand and demonstrated that kisses were even more grounding than a stack of blankets.

Eventually Ed was relaxed and feeling sufficiently secure to draw away and ask, “Would you be willing to help me do something cathartic after dinner? I've had it all planned out for the next time I needed a pick-me-up, and we should still be able to get to bed at a reasonable hour.”

***

“Good evening, Dr. Daniels! I’m afraid I don’t understand a word you’re saying through that tape gag. Did you miss me? Do you recognize me without the black and white stripes? Seriously, dude, these questions are rhetorical.”

”Is there any particular reason you only say ‘dude’ when you’re in your ‘Riddler’ role? If you ever take it out to the general public, you’re going to have to try harder to keep people from figuring out it’s you, Ed.”

“Yes, dear.”

“It’s constructive banter. I love you and your verbal idiosyncrasies.”

“I love you too. See, I’ve never been happier, Dr. Daniels, no thanks to you. It’s said that living well is the best revenge. I consider it adequate revenge if you can’t do better. Let’s go the distance. I’m going to take this tape off in a moment. If you don’t answer my riddle correctly, I will kill you in a cruel and unusual manner. Are you listening?”

“MM!”

“What do certain ducks, the farm-raised ortolan bird, Roman consul Manius Aquilius, and you in a few minutes from now have in common?”

”I don’t know.”

“That’s not the answer.”

”Please, I was just doing my job.”

“Not the answer!”

”Please, please, please I have a granddaughter, I love her very much, I know you’ve got a human side, you clearly love your partner, please…”

“Since you asked so nicely, I’ll give you a hint. In my fourth month at Arkham, you prescribed me a cocktail of medications. I told you that they weren’t helping me and that the side effects were horrible. You didn’t care.”

“Mr. Nygma -”

“So I got desperate and started vomiting them up as soon as I could after each dose. They were already making me heave my guts out all the time and making me have no appetite anyway, inasmuch as anyone can have an appetite for the food inmates get there. Then I got caught at it.”

”I was trying, I was trying to help -”

“Oswald, no matter what I’m about to say next, we stick to the plan. I do the honors. Agreed?”

“I don’t like the sound of that.”

“Agreed?”

“...Yes.”

“Oswald has protective instincts that I appreciate in general but in this case would spoil the ending. So. This is what it’s like to be sedated and wake up strapped to a table, Dr. Daniels. Such fun, right? That’s your hint.”

“You were becoming malnourished. You must understand. Mr. Cobblepot, it was only for the -”

“Don’t talk to him. No more talking to other people about me instead of addressing me. If only intravenous forms of hydration and nutrition existed! If only there were some magical concept like listening to your patient and being willing to adjust dosages and combinations so that there might be some potential of recovery rather than just a descent into a deeper circle of hell than that place already is! Now what’s the answer? Last chance! Do you genuinely not know, or are you, against all evidence to the contrary, capable of shame? You’re in a lot of danger. One could say you’re in Jeopardy. Doo-dee-doo-dee-dee-doo-dee-doo ...you have until I’m done singing the theme song…doo-dee-doo-dee-do! Dee-do-dee-do-dee ... ”

“Force-feeding? I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. It was arrogant and callous, I know it now. I’ve learned a valuable lesson and I won’t tell a soul.”

“Hm. In the spirit of Jeopardy, you should have answered in a form of a question. I’ll do it properly: ‘What is fatal force-feeding?’ Hand me the funnel, my love.”

”B-but you said…”

“I said I would kill you in a cruel and unusual manner if you didn’t answer my riddle correctly. I didn’t say if and only if . Didn’t you learn any formal logic before getting into med school? Tsk. I’m an Edward Nygma, tall and smug, here is a funnel, and here is a jug.

“You should sing more. You have a wonderful voice, even with nursery rhymes.”

“Why, thank you. So do you. We should dust off that piano and it’ll be like old times. Help me hold this steady. Apology not accepted, Doctor, but thoroughly relished.”

****

Most of the time, going on a date like that with Oswald would lead to magnificent sex afterwards, but neither of them were in that state of mind. Instead, after cleanup, they curled up with spiked hot chocolates in front of the fire.

“That didn’t happen to me,” Oswald said quietly. They were seated lengthwise on the sofa, Oswald with his back to Ed and leaning his head on his shoulder. Oswald had initially offered to be the one doing the holding, but Ed had explained that he wanted to hold onto .

“Good. I suspect Strange wouldn't have wanted his experiment to have undue interference.” Ed pressed a kiss to just behind Oswald’s left ear. “Thank you for your support.”

“The only part that felt like an imposition was you not letting me do anything to Daniels either.”

“I didn’t want to go quite as far, though I freely admit plenty of my style is still learned from you.”

“You’re a smooth talker.” Oswald stared into the flames for a moment, then turned to look Ed in the eye.

“What?”

“You can learn from someone’s style without going quite as far. Just an idea, but I can help you with a cover story.” Oswald glanced at the phone in in the charging stand a few feet away.

***

Victor Zsasz returned the call at the crack of dawn. “I wouldn’t normally let an outsider come into my home - but for that price, and because it’s not like you can easily ask Strange what he did to your partner and nobody wants Penguin to crack from lingering aftershocks under pressure - sure. Are you free the day after tomorrow? You don't have to go into the office on Saturday, right?”

Ed was so sleepy he could barely keep his eyes open. He spoke quietly to disturb Oswald as little as possible. "Is calling back at this hour a form of revenge?” Someone with a feminine voice had picked up the phone last night and told Ed to “fuck off until sunrise at minimum”. Ed accepted it as a downside of calling Zsasz’s personal number when his business number failed to reach him.

“You wake me, I wake you. Let’s talk scheduling and terms. You’re going to be driven there with a bag over your head.”

“What? You know where I live, what’s the difference?”

“It’s about my family, Ed. I have to keep them safe.”

“They’re all assassins. They must be even better at taking care of themselves as Oswald and me.”

“Are we going to be grumpy string beans this morning, or are we going to talk scheduling and terms?”

Spencer had told Ed over their most recent game of chess that Spencer had once been called “a pipe cleaner with eyes” by a violent redneck, so the comment didn’t irritate Ed as much as it might have before. “Give me a second, I’m going out to the hallway to talk.”

Chapter Text

Ed had become hypervigilant and decided that hot water and soap would be dangerous for the burns, so this morning he insisted on getting up even earlier than before and giving Spencer a sponge bath. When Spencer declined, Ed said in his rougher voice, “I have more chains, and I will use them if necessary.”

Spencer sighed and took off his shirt. “Can’t I do it myself?”

Back to Ed’s baseline voice. “Difficult angles, I’m afraid. You won’t have the most accurate view.”

“Then can we compromise and let me keep my underwear on?”

“Briefs, yes, undershirt or boxers, no.”

To distract himself during the awkward procedure, Spencer said, “An extensive memory doesn’t guarantee quick retrieval of those memories, but last night I managed to remember the name and lyrics of the song you were humming while looking over my injuries in your...other persona. It was a kid’s song called ‘Miss Susie Had a Steamboat’.”

“I don’t remember anything about that song. Sit up more, please.” Ed had brought a large bowl of fairly warm water, at least.

“I know it from spending time with my godson.” Thinking about Henry hurt, but it was useful to subtly remind Ed that he was keeping Spencer from his rich and full life. “He has a recording of common children’s songs which he loves to listen to ad nauseum. His mother thinks it’s a little rude for his age, but his father’s from New Orleans.”

“I see. Self-explanatory.”

“When you were a kid your regular babysitter got fired for teaching you the clapping game that goes with the song, because your father didn’t like her encouraging your ‘girly traits’. She'd taught you that because she noticed that you liked wordplay, and you liked to make big gestures with your hands when you were excited.”

Ed went still for three seconds. “Why are you bringing that up?”

“You asked me for help understanding your shifts and blackouts.” And a lot of post-murders Ed’s aggression was learned out of defense, not innate. If Ed could reach that epiphany, maybe...

“I suppose. What kind of communication requires an ear, but can be just as satisfying when no one else hears?”

“Singing.”

“Mm hm. Turn over. Sing me the first bit; jog my memory.”

Spencer turned over, adjusting his face’s position on the pillow so he could easily be heard. “There are a number of versions, but they tend to begin with: Miss Susie had a steamboat, the steamboat had a bell, Miss Susie went to heaven, the steamboat went to - Hello, operator, I’m calling number nine, and if you disconnect me, I’ll kick you in the - behind the ‘fridgerator, there was a piece of glass, Miss Mary sat upon it, and it stabbed her in the -

Ed interrupted, “Ask me no more questions, tell me no more lies, the boys are in the bathroom, zipping up their - Flies are in the meadow, the bees are in the park, the boys and girls are kissing in the D-A-R-K, D-A-R-K, dark, dark, dark - Dark is like a movie, a movie’s like a show, a show is like a TV show and that is all I know - a brother’s like a cousin, a mother’s like an aunt, an aunt is like a relative who has to rave and rant…

Spencer pointedly did not react. It sounded like young Ed had slightly altered parts of it.

Then Ed faltered slightly. The next line was a standard one, funny enough. “”I wish I had a nickle. I wish I had a dime. I wish I had a boyfriend who’d kiss me all the time…”

Spencer was about to say something regarding fearfully closeted bisexuality being just as difficult as with any other sexuality, but then there was a knock on the door.

“May I enter?” Oswald called out.

Ed put a blanket on Spencer, which Spencer appreciated, though it would have been nice for him to explicitly ask Spencer’s consent for his answer. “Yes!”

Oswald stuck his head in. He was already dressed to the nines except for tie, cufflinks, and jacket, though his hair wasn’t shaped into its usual configuration yet. He had an uncapped mascara wand in one hand. Spencer wondered if he had any clothing other than formal wear and sleepwear. “At least some wishes can be granted.”

“What?” Then Ed blushed. “Oh. You were listening to the song?”

“Only the song, I promise. You know how I’m lured in by your dulcet tones. Olga wants to know if you’d prefer a frittata or oatmeal. The frittata is actually Ed’s recipe, Spencer, isn’t that impressive? He just cooks less these days because he’s so busy.”

“Which one would you like?” Ed asked, looking down at his cousin.

Spencer decided to roll with all the odd things about this conversation. “What kind of vegetables are going in the frittata? I’m not enthusiastic about onions. If there aren’t any, then yes.”

“Wow, you really are related. Don’t worry about that. I’ll go tell her.” Oswald snapped his fingers. “Ed, did you tell him about the slight change-up?”

“Not yet, thanks for reminding me. I’ll go help you pick out a tie and cufflinks soon.”

Oswald nodded and left.

“We choose each other’s accessories,” Ed said, voice gone tender. He removed the blanket and resumed.

“It’s nice that you have rituals like that,” Spencer said sincerely. “What does he want you to tell me?”

“In light of my, uh, episode yesterday, we decided maybe it would be good for me to spend less time with you for a day or two. Or three. Just to process the recent events and our discussions thereof. Nobody’s mad at you, and I will still check in and hope to go back to our regular schedule later. Almost done. A little to the right.”

“Oh.” Unnerving but amiable company was better than none at all. Hours of isolation stretched out before him. Solitude could be welcome under normal circumstances, but only on Spencer’s own terms, and not for most of multiple days.

“Oswald thought this would be a good opportunity to become better acquainted.”

“Oh.”

Ed handed Spencer a dry towel and took out more bandages. Spencer knew it’d be between two and four weeks for them all to heal fully, depending on severity. “I know you’re nervous about that. He’ll warm to you. You’re too much like me for him not to.”

“If you think so.”

“He’s not going to hurt you unless you try to physically hurt him, send out a message, or escape. I give you permission to use your judgment as the only criteria in what to say about me - with and only with Oswald, that is.”

Oswald was clearly devoted to Ed, and records of him indicated that he was well-organized and capable of doing significant good. He was also someone who’d shoved an umbrella down a man’s throat. The medical examiner had been unable to determine whether this had definitely been post-mortem. Yes, Galavan was responsible for the death of his mother, but - especially for someone a physically disabled person Oswald’s size - this spoke of capacity for immense rage.

Ed talked about completely different trivia for the rest of their time together. His last words were, “I suggest carefully walking around the room to keep your muscles from atrophying, but not overdoing it. Let me know if you want a haircut.”

***

“Hello? Mr. Nygma?”

“Jonathan? Are you alright? Wait, I need to move to a more private location.”

“Okay.”

“Just a second.”

“How about now?”

“Now. How are you?”

“Fine, still laying low. Like, doing all my homework and like, you know, a big history paper. I might need some help with paperwork proving that I’m financially stable enough to stay an emancipated minor. They think I’m just living on what I inherited, which is not much. If they make me go live with my uncle…”

“Don’t worry. I’ll get someone to establish a cover story for why you’re getting a salary.”

“Thank you, Mr. Nygma. There’s something else.”

“What?”

“I got a call from a cheerful woman who said her name was Penny and that she was doing a paper on the fight, flight, and freeze responses and hoped it wouldn’t be too, like, intrusive to ask for an interview about my father’s ‘unorthodox research’.”

“Ah.”

“I pretended to cry until she hung up.”

“Not bad, under the circumstances.”

“Another woman - white, dark hair, athletic build - came by that same day and asked for help jump-starting her car. She tried to chat with me. I apologized and said I couldn’t, but told her she could park in ‘our’ field until help came. Looked with binoculars. Virginia license plate. Two hours later a friend of hers came. Black man, shaved head. Well-dressed. Looked strong. Helped her. A-also Virginia license p-plate, FBI’s in Quantico Virginia, m-mostly..”

“Stay calm, Jonathan. All you need to do is keep a low profile for now. I’ll take care of the rest.”

“You promised the, you promised the FBI would…”

“Breathe before you pass out. It might all be coincidence.”

“We have a deal! You promised they would stop! I’m having dreams, now, dreams about when Gordon shot my dad, I heard it, I heard it but I could only see the s - “

“You’re brilliant and brave, you’re past this, you’re safe where you are -”

Jonathan Crane started screaming again. He wasn’t afraid of anything except that scarecrow he’d been lying underneath, hiding from the police, when his father panicked and gave him an overdose. But counterproductively, acute stress could make him see it right in front of him. He was working with a psychiatrist to fix that. Jonathan put a lot of faith into psychiatry. Such was the faith of someone who’d been a hospital patient, not an Arkham inmate.

Ed counted to five, then hung up. The teenager would be incapable of conversation for the next ten minutes at least. It used to be longer, but nobody hit or shouted at Jonathan anymore. It was impossible not to feel for a brilliant and scientifically-inclined young man with no friends among his peers and who had been deeply damaged by his father, but Ed had only ever been good at comforting Oswald.

More coffee, then back to work. Ed should go to bed early tonight. Popping pills for energy and focus wouldn’t please his loved ones at home.

***

“What are your intentions towards my Edward?” It was the first thing Oswald said since entering the room for his first solo visit and taking the sole chair. And staring at him for five full seconds.

Closing the book he’d been reading, Spencer replied cautiously, “I want to enjoy the parts of being in his company I am able to enjoy, and I want to not make him angry.”

“If you were rescued and he got caught, what would you do?”

“I would negotiate for him to receive psychiatric treatment at somewhere far better than Arkham.”

“He’s not insane.”

Spencer made gentle, accepting eye contact with Oswald. The only way to understand someone, in his experience, was to have some measure of empathy. Find the part of yourself that could understand a part of them. “He’s not insane. I don’t know what’s going on with Gotham but ‘insane’ is a sweeping, damaging, inaccurate perception. He’s hurting . He’d be far worse off without you, and I’m grateful that you love him, but I know from experience that you can love someone with all your might and not be able to protect them from everything. You know?”

Oswald bit his lip, then recovered and spoke in a teasing tone. “I should have expected you to be good at this.”

“I’ve put a lot of practice into it.”

“I bet.”

“I’m not of a mindset where I want either of you to be ‘punished’. I want to go home, I want you to stop killing or otherwise harming people, and I want…” None of Spencer’s display was fake; he was simply channeling all his genuine emotions in the most strategic manner. So he buried his face in his hands. “When I was eight years old, I wanted to save Ed. I couldn’t. You know?”

“I can imagine.”

Tick tock.

Tick tock.

Time to break the tension. Spencer looked up again. “Tell him thank you for getting me Beowulf in the original Old English, by the way. I find it nostalgic. ”

“He told me that for you it was like getting to reread The Cat in the Hat.”

Spencer gave him a half smile. “He’s exaggerating. One of the last classes my mom managed to teach was on Beowulf, and she was declaiming it all over the house while planning lectures. She’d explain as she went. I picked up Middle English more easily. She used to read me Chaucer when I was. Uh. Sad, I suppose.” His father had criticized her for making him even odder and out of place among other children.

“I heard you write her often. I’m sorry I can’t let you mail anything to anyone.” Oswald sounded partly sincere. “Ed said you asked for pen and paper anyway.”

“We all have our rituals.”

“Who else do you write to?”

Spencer squirmed.

Oswald smiled and cocked his head winsomely. “If you tell me, truthfully and without hedging, I’ll tell you why the cuff around your ankle has duct tape wrapped around it. I bet you’re going nuts wondering.”

“I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but I’d rather not.”

“And I’ll tell you the current state of the FBI investigation.” The smile showed teeth now.

A quick mental analysis of everything Spencer had learned about this man made him decide that there was a high likelihood of Oswald holding up his end of the bargain under these circumstances. “On a less regular basis, I write to my friend Lila, who has been an on-and-off lover for a few years. I also write to my college friend Ethan, who has been an on-and-off lover since I was old enough.”

“Didn’t you start college when you were twelve?”

“Yes. He’s a genius and he could have done any number of things, but he’s a musician. I don’t judge him, but it led us onto different paths.” Spencer hoped that was enough candidness to satisfy Oswald.

“It has duct tape wrapped around it because there’s a whole packet of glitter tucked inside, so that we would easily be able to tell you tried to tamper with the lock. Which is a combination lock, incidentally. Ed’s excellent at lockpicking and we aren’t risking you being the same.” Oswald leaned forward in his chair. “As for the investigation, the explosion has been ruled an accident, and the FBI has decided that their personnel are stretched too thin on more important cases to continue leading the investigation. It’s back in the hands of the GCPD.”

“I see.”

Tick.

Tock.

Tick.

“Why were you and Ed singing a children’s song this morning?”

Spencer stretched and got out of bed. He wanted to go sit in the patch of sunlight on the floor that was streaming through the high window. “He’d hummed it the previous morning and couldn’t remember either singing it or the lyrics, when I identified the tune.”

“He said I hummed in my sleep last night. This isn’t out of the ordinary for me, but he’s usually able to determine which song it is. This time I can’t, either, but I definitely know the melody.” Oswald demonstrated.

“Oh. Interesting.”

“What?”

Spencer sat in the patch of sun. Sunlight was good. It would reduce his risk of becoming more depressed. “This is an absurd campfire or folk song. ‘Go Get the Ax’. There are two most famous versions. The main difference is the beginning of the third verse.”

Oswald made a ‘go on’ gesture. A dark part of Spencer told a dark joke about this being better than his attempts to placate Charles Hankel by reciting Bible verses, and that this time he probably wouldn’t get beaten and drugged and go into a seizure and nearly die. Probably.

Singing a silly song with Ed was different than doing it with Oswald. Spencer had been silly with Ed before, in a pleasant context. Also, knowing that Oswald was only keeping Spencer alive to make his partner happy put him on edge by default.

So Spencer recited the lyrics instead of singing them. “Peeping through the knothole of Grandpa’s wooden leg. Who will wind the clock when I am gone? Go get the ax, there’s a flea in Lizzie’s ear. For a boy’s best friend is his mother. I fell from the window, the second story window. Why do they build the shore so near the ocean? Who cut the sleeves off dear old Daddy’s desk, and dug up Fido’s bones to build the sewer?”

“Something about a buzz saw. Something. Ohh.” Oswald sang softly. He had a good voice. Spencer wondered if the two ever dueted. “I have lovely buzzsaw, a hand-embroidered buzzsaw. Oh, who will wind the clock when I am gone? Go get the ax, there’s a fly in Lizzie’s ear. For a boy’s best friend is his mother.”

“The most famous version is from a 1945 Bugs Bunny cartoon, but what you just sang is from a 1930 film called Alaska , which is part of a series featuring a character you might have watched as a child.” Spencer looked at him expectantly for a moment. When Oswald didn’t reply, he told him, “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.”

Oswald raised his eyebrows. “Your brain is fascinating.”

Spencer let the pain that was returning to him just seep into his bones, accepting it. It was too soon to take something for it. You don’t want Dilaudid. You don’t want it. You don’t.

(Yes, I do.)

“Have you two been testing whether I’d figure out or not that you’re married? I thought you simply didn’t feel like explicitly bringing it up, but your subtle finger tan lines suggest that you wear rings at least much of the time.”

Oswald laughed. “I might be persuaded to like you. And yes. It was a quick courthouse appointment, low profile.”

“Sorry I didn’t send a gift. I know Ed’s always wanted a high-quality food processor.”

“Has he?”

“Yes.”

“You’ve just reduced the number of Christmas presents I have to figure out. Thank you.” After that, the conversation became almost friendly for real.

***

Ed had passed an early dinner to Oswald while Oswald was with Spencer, and then gone to take a short nap until Oswald woke him for their dinner. Afterwards, they took the cover off the old piano and started experimenting in a different way than usual, but pleasant. Ed stepped away when his phone rang.

The conversation was short. He looked at Oswald, softly lit and trying to remember what his left hand what was supposed to be doing. He closed his phone, and lept.

“Dr. Daniels has been declared a suicide!” Ed exclaimed as he swept Oswald into an embrace. They’d carefully not killed him during Ed’s catharsis session, then hanged him instead. Oswald had provided good feedback on how to make the scene convincing. Ed had done his research. Daniels had a severe gambling problem. With everything else going on, especially with Gordon too busy chasing after what he didn’t know was Jonathan’s doing (and wouldn’t it be funny if he did, and knew it was partly his fault for not taking down Gerald Crane sooner?) nobody was inclined to look too closely.

Oswald kissed his neck. “Well done.”

“Well done us.”

“Tomorrow’s Saturday. Can I keep you up all night?” Oswald leered playfully.

“We-ell, someone’s picking me up at two to go to the House of Zsasz for ‘coffee’.” Ed’s stomach knotted with both anxiety and curiosity. How much literal coffee this would involve, he had no idea. “But otherwise you have my - the word’s like an herb and rhymes with a rhyme.”

“Time?” The context had thankfully made it easy and not irritating for Oswald.

Parsley, sage, rosemary and a true love. Dr. Daniels was gone, and perhaps Ed wouldn't vomit so much in his nightmares anymore. It was okay to feel things. “Time. As much of it as I can give, always.”

Chapter Text

Saturday morning was everything Ed could ask for, barring breaks in the laws of reality. He and Oswald woke late and tangled together, and agreed that they were interested in another round, but both brushed their teeth first. Husbands as opposed to boyfriends, right there. Nothing wrong with that.

When Ed went to see Spencer, he brought him some books on particle physics, astrophysics, and criminology. For a change. Spencer seemed to appreciate that, and his infection was subsiding and his burns otherwise healing on schedule. Oswald went to talk to him while Ed went to the kitchen. He enjoyed cooking, when he had time, after all. Olga either got all weekend off or only came in for a few hours on Saturday.

“I want to see you being really gentle to yourself,” Oswald said over breakfast. “Have you seen anyone who wasn’t there since we last talked about it?”

Ed shook his head. A relatively humorous dream of eight-year-old Spencer doing an autopsy under Ed’s guidance while Leslie Tompkins sat on a shelf and trimmed her fingernails - and Harvey Bullock subsequently chasing all of them out with a flaming baseball bat - didn’t count.

“I found a book of sheet music in my father’s room,” Oswald said, looking down at his food while he spoke. The room had become a museum except for Olga occasionally dusting it. He only went in there to sit quietly and think. Ed often accompanied Oswald to visit both his parents’ graves, but having actual objects to look at, objects someone had placed there and planned to move again, had a different significance. Oswald removing something from that room was fraught with symbolism. Sharing something from his family with Ed, even if it stung.

Ed reached across and took Oswald’s hand for a moment. “Well, then, I think that takes care of us until lunchtime.” Oswald had some “Penguin Business” for today, but he’d promised it could wait until Ed went off on his own quest.

“I’m very good at washing dishes,” Oswald said with a half-smile. It was good that he could joke about that time in his life and the more menial and humiliating aspects of clawing his way to the top. Spending time in this kitchen meant something as well. Oswald had explained one night, a night of trading vulnerabilities, that he had some terrible memories associated with it.

Hearing the story, Ed had been impressed that Oswald had such knowledge of butchery. He was grateful that Oswald hadn’t actually eaten his step-siblings, though, just implied it in order to disturb his stepmother after he fed them to her. A singular dramatic stunt was fine. Enjoying cannibalism - even when it was people who’d killed his father in a failed effort to kill him and then forced him into servitude - would have been a deal-breaker. In that same conversation, Oswald had absolved Ed of not helping him more during that time, and Ed let that residual guilt go.

While tidying up, Oswald said, “Spencer told me that everyone was wrong and neither of us are psychopaths in the clinical sense and that ‘Arkham staff probably think trepanning is a state-of-the-art cure for headaches, given what you two have been telling me.’ What is trepanning? I didn’t want to interrupt the flow.’”

“It’s drilling holes in the skull, first seen in prehistoric human remains.” Ed felt a bloom of validation. “Why, because we can feel love?”

“Actually, psychopaths can feel love, in their own way. They might not, but they have the capacity to love specific individuals and want them to be happy, though usually they do not intuitively understand how to make someone happy. Loving humanity abstractly is a bit much to ask. What they can’t feel is remorse, empathy, and caution, which Spencer says we have all the signs of. We might not feel all of those as much as ‘normal’, but we feel them. Psychopaths are pathological thrill seekers regardless of who else is affected.”

“Like, say, Jerome Valenska.”

“Now that you mention it...now I even more intensely resent people who lumped us in with him. In any case, they have to learn how to act as though they had those emotions artificially, if they do at all. Spencer said the brain activity of a real psychopath is empirically and measurably different from anyone else’s.”

“I like your brain activity.” Ed kissed the top of Oswald’s head.

Oswald smiled and waved a dish towel at him. “You are so sappy I am going to die. Where was I? He also said that the signs of future psychopathy can be seen in childhood, though it can’t be diagnosed until adulthood given growing brains being different. Growing up in a loving family, especially with access to therapy, can give a psychopath a decent chance at turning out stable. This better-case scenario might not refrain from murder because it’s wrong , but because his nurturing has managed to drill it into his head that would lead to undesirable personal consequences and cause distress to the individuals he loves. And so on. Then I asked what he thought I was, if not a psychopath. Don’t worry, I reassured him that I wouldn’t take offense.”

“What did he say?” Spencer had been very kind and humble in tentatively saying what he thought might be going on with Ed, so it made sense that Oswald didn’t seem to be upset about the outcome of the conversation.

Indeed, Oswald seemed cheerful when describing Spencer’s educated-amateur assessment. “His first guess, as a non-psychiatrist, was maybe Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which has gotten worse and worse because my environment is tailor-made for it. He said that from what he’s seen and read, I’m obsessed with power, respect, material things, and physical appearance. My history shows that I’m happy to manipulate and ruin people for my own purposes, and that I lash out excessively whenever my self-esteem is bruised. If I face more than a trivial setback to my self-image, I fall into severe depression. I have no empathy for people I consider beneath me, though I am capable of appreciating their role in my life as long as they suit my purposes. My friendships can fall apart over small slights. I desperately seek approval from the rare person I consider above me…”

Like Jim Gordon, for far too long, or in the end, Fish Mooney, Ed thought but did not say.

“But! When I form a deep and lasting connection, it’s because, against the odds, I recognize that they’re as amazing as I am, and I fixate on and glory in their successes.” Oswald looked Ed up and down. He winked. “How about that.”

***

Oswald happened to be in the bathroom when the car arrived, but he shouted, “I love you! See you tonight! Zsasz is not going to hurt you! Remember to describe the décor to me when you get home!”

The car was unfamiliar, but the driver was not. Ed stared at her for a moment.

Caroline Fowler, Ed’s regular driver for both legal and illegal business, rolled down the window and waved. “Hi, Mr. N. It hasn’t been a misunderstanding. Victor asked us to carpool with you today. Backseat, please?” She had the slightest sunburn on her cheekbones today. A few weeks ago she’d taken Ed’s knee-jerk lengthy spiel about skin cancer rates among red-haired people with good humor, saying that it was nice to know he cared about her health. He only peppered people with trivia anymore when he was fond of them and staving off anxiety about something else.

In the backseat was none other than “Vee” Aragon, the calmly capable gunrunner and gun-for-hire who’d become more and more valuable since Ed became Oswald’s partner in every sense of the word. The only thing one might consider whimsical about her, at least on a superficial level, was her recently refreshed blue hair dye. It now stood out even more prominently against her dark skin than it had the last time Ed saw her.

Vee motioned him in. “If I’m sitting next to you when you have a bag over your head, we don’t have to tie your hands to make sure you won’t fiddle with it.”

They waited until Ed had fastened his seatbelt before Vee did the honors. Ed took a deep breath. He wasn’t afraid of the dark in and of itself, like Spencer, but he wasn’t a fan of someone else restricting his vision. Conversation would be helpful. “I hope your windows can go dark. This might be odd to explain.”

“We invested in smart glass, no worries,” Caroline replied.

“We?”

“I don’t need my own car full-time. Just being efficient.”

Ed had speculations about whom she shared it with, but he didn’t have enough data to be sure. Besides, he’d feel guilty if he overstepped in terms of Caroline. And mildly frightened if he overstepped in terms of Vee. Just because they used to work together in the Narrows and Caroline referred Vee to Oswald didn’t have to mean anything. “How do you know the way? Do you...live there?”

Vee coughed rhetorically. “Casa del Zsasz is bit raucous, and they don’t have enough rooms for real privacy.”

“Imagine the Zsasz Family as a series of concentric circles,” Caroline suggested. “First you have Victor, who we’re all grateful decided to be a hit man rather than a cult leader. Then you have Zsaszettes, who take their own jobs from time to time but prioritize backing him up, and their live-in support. Then there are the tenants, one or two (usually) guys who pay rent and help out in an emergency. Then there are the family friends, who do not live on the premises but visit often, and get involved in teamwork and mutual assistance back and forth.”

“It sounds like a gang, really.”

“Gangs don’t have movie nights and ladies-only-except-for-the-puppy cocktail hours and all get together for major holidays,” Vee said, dryly amused.

“And minor ones. Remember last Arbor Day?”

“I was hoping to forget.” Then, in a softer voice, Vee said, “I appreciate being around multiple like-minded women sometimes. Ones who don’t have an agenda.”

Caroline replied in a tone that sounded very unguarded, like both of them had forgotten Ed was there. Either that or driving him to something more unofficial had changed the rules slightly. “Yeah.”

***

“I am what I am, and what I am is I am. What am I?”

“We’ll be there soon, Mr. N. Are you okay?”

“I am.”

***

Ed had never seen Zsasz in short sleeves before, let alone a navy blue t-shirt. With gray jeans. And barefoot.

Zsasz shrugged. “I’m not getting dressed up for you in my own home, Nygma. Come in. The girls are itching to start but they didn’t want to start without you, Cee and Vee. Don’t tell them if you’ve never seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show before. They believe in tradition. Though if you do end up running a lap around the entire house in only your underwear, I can’t say I’ll complain. I’m sure Ed will remember his dear birdie and cover his eyes like a faithful gentleman.”

Ed tried not to think about what he’d just heard. He spared a moment to take a look at the exterior. “Did this used to be a barn?” It was certainly a brick barnlike structure, aged red-brown and with moss and ivy on the walls.

“A long time ago, yes. We use the former farmhouse for other things. It’s much smaller. Come iiiiiiin, it’s gonna raaaaaain.”

When Ed was inside, Caroline gave a glance at him as if to ensure he wouldn’t panic and run out the door. When he nodded she joined Vee in rapid conversation with a tall, dark-skinned woman with a magenta streak in her hair. A young man took their jackets and shoes and exchanged a few words with them before going to put everything away. This was when a certain thing became obvious…

“Is there are rule against wearing black at home?” Ed asked. He was dressed in his preferred green and black - with touches of white or brown - palette.

“Only for us. Makes laundry easier, and helps enforce a bit of work/life separation. Besides, there are plenty of people who enjoy a certain aesthetic when they’re out on the town who don’t actually enjoy wearing dominatrix outfits all the time.” Zsasz made a sweeping gesture indicating the living and dining area. “Voila. You were curious, admit it.”

There was no guiding scheme to it at all. It was cozy . Lived-in. There was a paperback on the arm of one armchair, something by Terry Pratchett. There were throw blankets on the couch. There was a fireplace with a sign on it saying, “CHECK FOR SANTA BEFORE LIGHTING UP. IMAGINE THE RANSOM IF WE TAKE HIM ALIVE!” There was a row of cushiony-soft house slippers and moccasins lined against one wall, right next to a row of boots, and a smaller sign saying, “The Agony -> The Ecstasy”. The colors were warm and the styles of furniture and pictures on the walls very eclectic.

“See you later, Mr. N,” Caroline called out as she went up the stairs. An Asian-looking woman with just one eyebrow, the other shaved off, walked past with a large bowl of popcorn. She smacked Zsasz on the ass on her way, a substantial smack with the flat of one hand. He called after her in a language that wasn’t English, and she laughed and gave him the finger.

“It’s nice, actually,” Ed said. Then he turned and saw the dining table and raised his eyebrows. This was more to his expectations, yet it still felt unexpected.

The dining table was covered in a dropcloth and about eighteen different guns. The young man who’d taken the jackets took a seat at the head of the table and it looked like he was stripping, cleaning, and oiling his way through each one of them. Then Ed noticed the open weapon-filled chest next to him. He’d either been at this for awhile or was going to be at it for a long time.

“He’s learning by doing, not just giving the rest of us a break,” Zsasz explained, before raising his voice slightly. Not in an angry way, just to be heard. “Good work ethic, puppy, but I invited Nygma here and offered coffee.”

“Yes, Mr. Zsasz. Sorry.” He didn’t sound frightened, which was good, because having Spencer around was making ghosts in Ed’s mind closer to the forefront than usual. Flinching in Zsasz’s company was not his preference.

Zsasz made a ‘it’s all good’ gesture with his left hand. “Don’t worry about it, just do it. But finish with that pistol first.”

“Yes, Mr. Zsasz.”

Taking a seat and patting a seat where he wanted Ed to sit, Zsasz said, “This puppy’s going to finish his apprenticeship soon, and unlike most of them after they’re done he’s going to stay with us as his forever home. He’ll start getting paid and we’ll use his name and everything.”

“So it’s what you call the role, not him specifically?”

“Hey puppy, why are you called that? Tell our guest.”

Without stopping his task, “the puppy” said, “Because referring to someone as ‘our bitch’ is misogynistic and demeaning and the ladies here have strong feelings about that. ‘Puppy’ also sounds like something you care about and train.”

“And your case, you’re cute as a fucking mini muffin.”

He paused for a moment and gave them a tiny smile. “Thank you, Mr. Zsasz.”

While waiting for the coffee, Ed observed Zsasz’s arms as discreetly as he could. Zsasz’s habit of cutting a tally mark into himself for each kill was common knowledge, but few got to see more of his skin than what was on his neck, head, and sometimes hands. His left arm was getting full. It would definitely be the easiest place to make precise cuts. There were two on his right bicep, but more experimental than out of immediate necessity. Maybe he had more elsewhere.

When the young man came with the tray and set it down on the coffee table, Zsasz leaned forward and took his face in his hands. “Good puppy. Back to your assignment, now.” Then Zsasz kissed him, chastely but unmistakable in backstory.

“Have you had this system long?” Ed asked, watching him go back to his lesson in gun maintenance.

“Fairly long. Getting involved with any of us isn’t mandatory. Oh, we’ve got non-dairy creamer if you like, as well as half-and-half. One of our friends is lactose intolerant. Really intolerant. One of us got her a normal latte instead of a soy latte once. We were all traumatized, to tell you the truth.” Zsasz took the lid off the sugar bowl and grabbed a spoon. It was a perturbingly large spoon to use for sugar. It approached a ladle. “Don’t you just hate it when just because you’re frequently seen with the hottest, baddest chicks in all of Gotham - who aren’t all straight, by the way - people assume that is the sum totality of your type?”

“Of course,” Ed said, deadpan. “I certainly loathe it.”

Zsasz switched to a more serious tone. “The puppy isn’t allowed into the secret basement, you know. It’s not a place for the fresh-faced and hopeful.”

“Um…”

“Consider putting more sugar in your coffee.”

Chapter Text

“NEFYN!”

Floor was hard. Head hurt. Damp. Dark.

“What?”

Zsasz was kneeling beside him, peering closely. “Lie still.”

Running feet, and a voice Ed had heard before but couldn’t immediately place, said, “Mr. Zsasz?”

“Go run and get Doc and Leonara. Discreetly. No need to ruin the ladies’ night just yet. Tell them to come down here.”

“I could -”

“No. There are rules, and it’s not dire enough to break them.”

“It’s dire enough that you used my name!”

“I said go.”

“Yes, Mr. Zsasz.” Running feet, away again.

Ed whispered, “I can’t see.”

“You’re in a dimly lit room, and your glasses fell off. I’ll find them for you when you’re in better hands.”

“...You’re not wearing a shirt.”

“It’s easier to get blood out of a t-shirt than off the floor. Don’t fret. You were only out for a minute or less, and scalp wounds bleed like crybabies compared to the rest of the body.” Zsasz smiled in what as probably meant to be a reassuring manner.

Ed had many other questions, but the one that came out was, “Nefyn?”

“Puppy thinks his mom might gotten it from a guidebook on the U.K. seaside she had, but he never got to ask. Candy says he’s lucky it wasn’t Blackpool.”

“Candy sounds like…” words were floaty, and everything was dreamlike. “She sounds like quite the card. Around here.”

“I hope we don’t have to make her stop watching the movie, because she’s the only one who does a good Tim Curry impression.”

Then the two women requested arrived. The rather petite Doc directed Zasz and Leonara in how to best get Ed up the stairs and into their “medbay”. Nefyn - Ed was not referring to anyone in this house as a puppy if he could help it - had been running around getting things as ready as possible.

Zsasz accepted another t-shirt from Nefyn’s outstretched hands. “If you don’t need me, I’ll go back to find those glasses. Just toss the shirt. Don’t worry about the wrath of Penguin, we’re cool.”

When a client wanted something to look like an accident, Zsasz sneered upon personal involvement and passed it along to another member of the household. Zsasz deliberately trying to hurt Ed and passing it off as an accident was no more likely than Ed getting through an entire vengeful abduction and murder with no riddles or showboating.

“Wait, so I fainted?” Ed called after him, to check. The others got him lying down on the table.

“Yeah. You seemed really enthusiastic, surprisingly enthusiastic, until I showed you the Quiet Closet, then you just said, ‘oh’ and collapsed. Doc’ll patch you up.”

Leonara said, “Oh my god, I nearly killed you at the GCPD when we went to go fetch Jim Gordon. Back when everyone had just found out Gordon hadn’t killed Penguin.”

“That’s terrible bedside manner,” Doc said. She shone a small light in Ed’s eyes. “And you didn’t, so what’s the point of bringing it up?”

“You hadn’t left the building, which was technically not following our orders, and you were kind of in the way, theoretically, but you were also hiding under a desk and looking cute and sad, so…”

Doc cleared her throat. “Puppy, I need…[many items with very technical names, spoken too quickly for an injured Ed to follow]. They’re in the farmhouse, in the green bin with the red lid, and I only want the ones marked with purple tags, not the brown tags. Definitely not the brown tags. Can you go get them for me?”

After a pause, Nefyn said in a frustrated voice, “No?”

Leonara snorted. “I’ll go. He’s better at being your pretty assistant anyhow.”

Now there were three. Doc asked Ed if he wanted local anesthetic for the two stitches he needed. He gave his assent.

“Are you going to have to wait for anything you need?” Ed asked. His throat felt dry.

“No, I don’t need anything. Leonara was making you tense, but if I just told her that she’d amp it up, because they’re playing a drinking game up there and that’s how she gets. I don’t drink unless we have no guests and everyone is home safe. To make it less obvious that I was getting rid of her, I gave instructions she thinks I forgot the puppy can’t follow. Prep the injection while I finish cleaning this area up.”

“I’m colorblind,” Nefyn explained quietly.

“What kind?” Learning things was, as ever, a balm. Almost as good as solving puzzles.

“Red-green.”

“Deuteranomaly or Deuteranopia?”

“It’s….Doc?”

She snapped on her gloves. “It’s Deuteranopia. I swear, Edward, if I can call you Edward, half these people don’t even know their own blood types.”

Ed was less dazed and therefore more aware of his pain now, so this conversation was the only thing he had for the moment. “Deuteranopia? Oof, that’s the actual worst.” Green-blind. The only thing that wouldn’t look white, black, or dully washed-out variations on beige for Nefyn was vivid blue.

“Yes. It removed a lot of legal paths for me to use my talents. But Mr. Zsasz says everyone bleeds the same color.”

“He has to take our word for it,” Doc teased. There was a deep pinch when she administered the anesthetic, but afterwards it was just pressure.

“Is that another reason for the rule about not wearing black at home?”

“Yes, Mr. Nygma. Work clothes and home clothes are cared for separately and differently, so it’s a big help to me if I can categorize by black or not black. Sometimes Dr. Kali labels things for me.”

“Don’t sound like that isn’t just basic decency.” Doc reached up to adjust her lamp. “Sorry to gabble on. I do my best to take care of these people despite their best efforts.”

“Sounds like.” If enothing else, at least his visit had shown him that “Zsasz Family” emphatically meant something that “Falcone Family” and “Maroni Family” did not.

“Get a sippy cup and fill it with cool, but not cold, water for our patient.”

“Yes, Dr. Kali.”

Ed caught a glimpse of Nefyn on his errand. Ed hadn’t noticed before, because it hadn’t been significant. Nefyn was wearing cobalt jeans, not just regular blue jeans, and his shirt was azure.

Without active conversation, Ed could hear the television and tipsy singing along from upstairs.

When Eddie said he didn’t like his teddy, you knew he was a no-good kid, but when he threatened your life with a switchblade knife, what a guy! Makes you cry! AND I DID!

“What are they watching, again? Sorry to keep you from it.”

“I’ve watched Rocky Horror many times, you’re fine. Briefly, a nice, normal young couple take shelter at a creepy manor during a storm, upon which they encounter a bunch of intimidatingly peppy humanoid aliens of unconventional sexualities. And there’s seduction, murder, singing, dancing, general depravity, and outfits. ”

All Ed could say was, “I understand how that might be popular in this household.”

“It’s not just any movie. People gather to laugh at it, act out scenes, and shout at the screen in a ritualistic manner. So yes, it is. I must say it was fun watching Vee for the first half hour, because she hadn’t seen it, but by this point she’s three sheets to the wind and acting like the rest.”

Nefyn returned with a drink for Ed, and Leonara returned with a drink for herself in one hand and a large box of condoms in the other. “Hey, I couldn’t find the stuff. He’s gonna be okay though, right?”

“We’ll make do,” Doc reassured her. “Thank you. You can go join the party again. I thought you promised Candy a shoulder massage if Vee didn’t spit out water the first time Dr. Frank-N-Furter showed up.”

“She almost did. It was soooooooo close. But yeah, I’ll. Go. I got. These.”

“I hadn’t heard an orgy with numerous toys was breaking out upstairs,” Doc said. Ed almost choked on his water.

“No, woulda told you. It’s for puppy. Kickin’ up a notch. Candy's started fuckin' him one-on-one, not just when sharing, and it’s funny because she’s the only person who’ll fuck 'im but won’t fuck Vic…”

Zsasz came to the rescue and wound an arm around Leonora’s waist. “This isn’t so much a conversation we have with guests here, darlin’. Thanks for your help. You’ve earned a rest.”

“I’m glad I didn’t kill you...forensic...penguin-hubby...dude. You gave Butch what was coming to him, and you’ve got a nice face. Though you should grow your hair out again. I liked it longer.” She waved at Ed one last time and let Zsasz escort her off.

“Sorry,” Nefyn mumbled.

“Not your fault. You’ve always respected my personal ‘men are icky except as patients’ standpoint. We’re both sorry on her behalf, Ed.”

“It’s immaterial. I think I’d like to go home as soon as I can, though. Could you tell me the story about running your next-door neighbors out of town last month? Zsasz alluded to it over coffee without elaborating.”

 

***

Their one current 'lodger' arrived home not long after Ed had been permitted to sit up. Zsasz greeted Jésus at the door and chatted with him for a minute before doubling back and asking if Ed was in condition to travel. Doc insisted on riding back with Zsasz to send Ed home. She said that even though he didn’t show signs of a concussion right now, it would still be bad to not be able to see his face and evaluate his state. So she sat in the backseat, and after some negotiating Ed lay down on the seat with his head on a pillow in her lap. He wasn’t allowed to look out the window.

After giving him a bunch of care instructions, she said, “I can make a house call to remove the stitches in three days.”

“For money,” Zsasz added.

“Yes, of course, thank you. Is Kali your first name or last name?”

“Neither. I prayed to Kali, the war goddess, before battle, and my fellow medics started calling me Dr. Kali. She’s the most warlike of all goddesses, but my grandmother taught me that she is also the most protective of those she loves.”

“Yoona broke a man’s nose for not telling you when you asked if there was beef stock in that soup you bought from the farmer’s market,” Zsasz said. “Does that make her Kali?”

“That makes her Wonderful but Excessive,” Doc said.

Zsasz chuckled. “Hey, Nygma?”

“Yes?”

“Speaking of care instructions - I know it’s not my place, just friendly advice, but think the Mayor and the Chief of Staff should remove some fingers from some pies before this all goes splat.”

“Wait, what?”

“I’ve been thinking on it for months. I wasn’t going to say anything, but you passing out right in front of me’s making me need to. You’re both best at the crime. You don’t need the superficial roo-rah of people you’ll only show a tiny sliver of yourself to, making you have to walk the line.”

“Also, please don’t let your husband think we did this to you.” Doc shifted so that Ed could be more comfortable.

***

Oswald was not happy, but he accepted the explanation.

“So do you know if any other ‘persona’ of yours took over?” he asked when they were alone again.

“I don’t know. The main one hasn’t come to talk to me. It might just be a PTSD reaction, if Spencer’s right. How is he?”

“Fine. He told me about molecular gastronomy. Sounds appalling. What can I do for you now?”

Ed felt very fragile and barely there, so he said, “Tie me up?”

“In your condition?”

“Tie me up and just...kiss me. Please. Tightly. That’s all. I’ll tell you about the décor and the Zsasz clan and everything they said to me, and you’ll tell me I’m not weak for failing to find out what Zsasz does to make people obey him. I never really wanted that anyway, but I still feel weak. Closer I’m bound, freer I feel. Please?”

***

Ed brought Spencer his dinner, and said the bandage on his head was from a fall. There were faint ligature marks on his wrists, but Spencer wasn’t worried about the combination overmuch. Ed profiled as naturally submissive. Among other things, his planned killings were towards flawed authority figures. Oswald was a good match in that respect, as he would enjoy tangible proof having someone’s complete trust and faith.

It was more worrying how desperately Ed hugged Spencer, and that he asked him if he’d ever written to Spencer about often being locked in a small closet. For a long time.

Yes, he had. It had been upsetting enough that Spencer had run to his mom about it. She’d been upset too, and ready to intervene, until the ‘ultrayellow’ beams from space hit the house again and she had to rub olive oil on the walls to protect herself and her son.

“You’ve locked me in a small room,” Spencer said, with featherlight, but audible, disapproval.

“You’re not being punished, you’re being protected,” Ed argued, squeezing harder.

Spencer decided not to argue back for now. He returned the hug.

Chapter Text

“Thanks for coming to get me again, Mr. Nygma,” Jonathan said after he put a large bag full of supplies in the trunk. He had a smaller backpack for his overnight stay at the mansion.

“No problem. You know it would look suspicious if your car was seen parked at my house.” Ed didn’t start the car until Jonathan had taken a seat and buckled up.

“I’ve become more organized about the rats I raise in the shed for experiments. It’s good methodology to feed them all a consistent diet and know approximately how old they are. If I could go off-topic for a sec…” He groaned and lightly banged his head on the seat in a very adolescent way. “You know how I had to repeat a grade because I spent so much time hallucinating in a hospital bed? I’m older than everyone else now and I am. So. Bored. If I didn’t have this to do I think I would scream and scream for a whole different reason.”

“I was bored at school a lot too. But hey, you know the city is going to be footing your college tuition.”

A few years ago, Harvey Dent had argued on behalf of a girl whose parents had been accidentally killed in a GCPD raid that her inability to continue paying for college tuition was their fault. Mostly through embarrassment, a scholarship had been created by City Hall in which someone who lost at least one parent as a result of GCPD operations, directly or indirectly, could apply for sporadically available merit-based scholarships of varying tiers. The application could be done by any eligible candidate starting at age fifteen. It was a decent gesture, but spoke it volumes that such a thing had become common enough for reparations to seem necessary. Ed was glad to no longer be working with such aggressive dolts. Though if Captain Essen were alive again, and Dr. Tompkins didn't hate him, he wouldn't have minded working with them.

In any case, Jonathan had won the only full ride on offer for the next eight years without any other candidate coming close. “College is better, right?”

“You pick your classes, there are some decent clubs, and it’s easier to dodge bullies, so yes.”

“I’m not afraid of bullies anymore. Well, I’m not afraid of anything except one thing, but you know what I mean. I think about what they’d be afraid of, and imagine them faced with it. I’m told it comes across as a creepy stare.” Jonathan maintained that his anxiety was a whole different situation.

“So have you only tested your breakthrough on rats?”

“Two homeless men as well. Don’t worry, I wore my mask and was more careful with the body disposal.”

Ed stopped at a stop sign, because traffic laws were for everyone’s safety. “But it wasn’t the serum that killed them. You just had to kill them to examine the bodies and cover your tracks.” Since Jonathan had limited knowledge of biology and anatomy, Ed had coached him in what to look for.

Jonathan gave one of his rare smiles. “I’ve found the way to keep them from dying. I need access to your more professional lab and your help to make it more sophisticated, though, and there’s another aspect that I want to look at.” Granted, it was piggybacking on samples he’d found of his father’s fear serum when he went back to his old house - mostly to destroy that creepy scarecrow - along with his father's notes, but Jonathan's work was impressive nonetheless. The house had been and remained abandoned. Nobody wanted to live there when they knew its history.

“Exactly. We have a guest room ready for you.” Ed needed to warn Jonathan from finding out about Spencer, but he didn’t want to pique his curiosity. So he said, “Don’t check out any of the upstairs rooms except that one, okay? Sometimes Oswald and I...uh...like variety.”

“OH MY GOD.” Jonathan buried his face in his hands. “Yeah. Sure. Ugh, need brain bleach. Not because you’re men, but because you’re - like - I dunno, parental.”

“Really?” That was simultaneously alarming and sweet.

Jonathan looked up and shrugged. “Since my mom died, I haven’t been spoiled for choice. I love Dad and hate Dad and oh so much therapy about Dad. Someone who helps me with violent science and also makes sure I have enough to eat is an improvement. How have you been? Saw in the news that you’re taking a leave of absence for your health.”

“It’s just a cover for all this crime I’ve been swamped with,” Ed lied. “This thing all things devours, birds, beasts, trees, flowers; gnaws iron, bites steel, grinds -”

“Time. I’ve read The Hobbit, Mr. Nygma,” Jonathan drawled, playing with a mood ring on his left pinkie finger. It was touching, if irritating, when he behaved like a normal teen.

It was because of this that Ed tolerated his rare rudeness. “Okie dokie then. Well, if this seems promising but you need to come back, there are other weekends coming up before you hit the week before exam week and need to shift focus.”

***

Weeks passed.

Spencer was healing.

Ed wasn’t.

***

“You’re having a nightmare. Wake up, wake up, stop crying my dear, wake up.”

Yes. Yes, he had been. Ed whimpered and folded his taller frame so he could nestle against Oswald. It was still dark outside. “You and Jonathan were with me in Arkham, and we were going after everyone who’d ever hurt me. But they kept being replaced by duplicates. No matter how many we killed, there were always more. Then I turned around and Jonathan was suddenly in his thirties and in a suit, and he said he was the director of Arkham now, and that you were being ‘fixed’. Also he looked a bit like that Irish actor? With the interesting eyes?”

“Who?”

“Name’s on the tip of my tongue, but I can’t...never mind. He grabbed me and was hauling me towards a cell. Except it wasn’t an Arkham cell. It was Zsasz’s ‘special’ basement. Except it was also the basement of my childhood home. At the same time, like things are in dreams.”

Oswald pressed a kiss to where Ed’s jaw met his ear. “My poor Edward. Maybe we’ve been going about this the wrong way.”

“What do you mean?”

“Picking off your Arkham abusers is unsustainable, and frankly, inefficient. What if we just sued them? The payout doesn’t matter. We can humiliate them and ruin their careers. We can’t sue them in a way that throws our ‘cured’ certificates into question, but you know how I told you that they didn’t give me painkillers for my leg, and didn’t give me a cane because it could be used as a weapon?”

Ed couldn’t help but gently place his hand on that leg now. If Oswald had been able to access proper care after Mooney broke it, it might have mended properly, but instead he’d been forced to both swim and walk great distances shortly afterwards. Anyone who didn’t think Oswald was one of the toughest people in Gotham was a fool. “If Barbara Kean happens to not hate us right now - I have trouble keeping track - she might be willing to join in. I’m sure she has something. Or can make up something. We can try consulting Harvey Dent, see what he thinks. He’s sympathetic to ‘repentant’ criminals, and he’s got Jim Gordon’s white knight syndrome without the accompanying self-righteousness.” Ed suspected Dent wasn’t neurotypical. Look at him using a special coin as a security blanket to help him make decisions.

“Exactly. And if I’m devoting time to that, it gives me an aboveboard excuse to step down as Mayor.” It was dark and Ed wasn’t wearing glasses, so he couldn’t read Oswald’s expression, but Oswald snugly embraced him when he gasped. “You knew it was coming. Zsasz was speaking truth when he suggested we have our fingers in fewer pies. He can be excessive in just about every way, but he’s perceptive. This way I can take care of you, too, because you’ve been busy taking care of Spencer and neglecting yourself.”

“I need to take care of him.”

“I’m not disagreeing. But you need someone taking care of you. If I stroke your hair, will it help?”

“Yes.” Ed eventually drifted off again.

****

“It’s been a long time since I’ve read so much fiction and poetry written in the past century. In English, I mean. This isn’t a criticism.” Spencer was on the floor with a big pile of books surrounding him, methodically absorbing them with dizzying speed.

“What other languages can you read?” Ed asked, placing the tray of food on the floor and sitting just outside the radius of books.

“Romance languages, German, and Russian. I can comprehend them reasonably well but have little practice in speaking. I still want to go home, Ed.”

“You are home,” Ed said. Not harshly, but with finality.

Spencer looked up and gave him sad eyes. As he’d become physically stronger and emotionally less afraid of Ed, he’d tried reasoned arguments, and emotional arguments, and with no success. Now he just looked sad at him. When he saw they still didn’t affect Ed, he said in a different tone, “Have you heard of nominative determinism?”

“Names determining?”

“Yes. I was thinking specifically about people either living up to or directly subverting their names in ways the parents could not have predicted. Think of Wordsworth, a poet who knew the worth of words.”

“I could make a joke about Longfellow. Heh. Then there’s how your name could be an imperative statement. Spencer, read!”

“Yes. I’ve heard that one.” Spencer gestured in a way that seemed to indicate the whole city. Ed wondered how much of it Spencer had actually seen before his world became this room, two visitors, and whatever he found in books. “You’ve told me about a few instances recently. There’s the news reports on Victor Fries, which is an eye rhyme for ‘freeze’. There’s those unproven allegations of human trafficking and organ theft by someone named Dr. Dulmacher - allegations of putting together body parts, like a dollmaker. There’s Ivy Pepper - are you ever going to tell me what Oswald contracted her to do? - who has grown unusual plants. There’s your new friend Nefyn, who has an enthusiasm for knives. Even the fact that he’s almost at the end of his tenure as Zsasz Family apprentice in a position they refer to as ‘the puppy’, while you say he’s young, endearing, eager, and colorblind in the same spectrum dogs are suspected to be. Your name is E. Nygma, and you like riddles and puzzles. ”

“It belongs to me, but other people use it more than I do,” Ed agreed. “Eat up, Spencer, I’d like to play a chess game or two before we call it a night, if you don’t mind.”

Spencer ate and chatted, and they played chess and chatted. Even though Ed and Oswald had more flexible schedules now, they deliberately rationed Spencer’s time with visitors to keep Spencer appropriately lonely and glad for company, and want their time to be unmarred by unpleasantness. “Ms. Kringle” had appeared to him once in a mirror to tell him he was being an asshole, and he’d said, “I’m sorry, Kristen, but I need to make him agree with me before he can be happy.”

Then, as prearranged, Oswald came in with duct tape and black garbage bags.

“W-what are you doing?”

“Relax, we’re not packaging you up,” Oswald said. “You can stand on the chair, Ed, but only if I’m there to spot you. You’re two heavy for me to drag to help, Olga's gone home for the night, and I don’t want paramedics in here.”

“What are you doing?”

Ed got up and took the supplies from Oswald. “You’ve been a wonderful confidante these past weeks, Spencer, just like you used to be long-distance. You’ve listened to and discussed my fears with me, as well. I want to do something for you.”

“We’ll uncover the window every morning so that you get your Vitamin D,” Oswald reassured him.

Spencer tried to get to the part of the wall under the window, though he surely knew by now that the chain wasn’t long enough. “Fears should be faced on our own terms.”

“The dark is not something you’ll always be able to avoid,” Ed said. “I’m not sorry.”

***

Oswald accompanied Ed to listen at Spencer’s door, and peek in if necessary. “Remember to be steadfast about this,” he murmured as they made their way down the dark corridor. They only had Ed’s flashlight for illumination.

Ed remembered being locked in a small, dim closet, and scratching puzzles into the wall as a way to keep from panicking even more. There’d been just enough light peeking under the door. (He’d gotten into another set of trouble for scratching the wall.)

Spencer was in a spacious room with a comfortable bed, though, and he knew when he was going to see light again. He didn’t need a sliver of light from under the door. It would defeat the purpose. “I won’t succumb to pity.”

As they got close, they could hear Spencer miserably reciting a poem Ed recognized as “Invictus”.

“Out of the night that covers me, black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul…”

Chapter Text

During Jonathan’s sleepovers, he and Ed worked like a symbiotic organism. (LATERALLY, said an old voice in his mind, accompanied somehow by that silly hand gesture.) Olga was not allowed in the lab, so Oswald checked on them from time to time to make sure they ate, hydrated, and took breaks. Oswald often had Penguin business, but if that was the case he texted or called to check in.

Before Spencer, Ed had generally gone to Jonathan’s haphazard little lab in order to teach Jonathan how to use it to his best ability while unsupervised. Now, though, Jonathan was right that he needed better equipment. They needed a more refined product at this stage. The mansion had better security, too, and Jonathan really didn’t need anyone stumbling onto his work.

The reason Ed didn’t tell Jonathan was that this way he could go feed and bond with Spencer according to their regular schedule. Jonathan knew Ed had many other endeavors that it was safer for him not to get mixed up in. Ed let Jonathan assume that he was spending those hours in his private study. Jonathan was smart enough to mostly go ahead on his own and save questions for later.

Now that Jonathan was sleeping over sometimes, it was easier to notice certain things about him. He took medication like clockwork at breakfast, dinner, and just before bed. The bedtime ones gave him sound, dreamless sleep, which Ed envied, except it also meant he had to sleep eight hours a night. Ed didn’t have time for that. Jonathan had an hour of therapy every other Friday. Jonathan wanted to be a psychiatrist himself one day, and said a decent number of good mental health professionals had suffered mental health problems themselves.

“It makes me live more easily,” Jonathan said when Ed asked about it.

“You do still kill people,” Ed said. He’d taken off his safety goggles to wipe the fog from his glasses. Standing a safe distance away, of course.

Jonathan gripped his pipette more tightly, but not as tightly as he spoke. “Yes, but I do it for science and understanding. One day this’ll help people in the long run. You know I don’t do it because I want to create a nifty new interrogation technique. I’m just selling it that way so your partner will sponsor it.”

“Artists need patrons,” Ed agreed. He put his goggles down for now, wanting a break from the sensation of an elastic band, and refilled the water bottles of the two cages full of rats they were keeping on hand. They were separated by sex. Rat babies looked like wiggly tumors and Ed did not need that in his house. All the rat breeding happened at Jonathan’s place. Ed kept the cages scrupulously clean to keep Oswald from complaining and Olga from wanting to interfere.

He never expected to one day be taking care of three humans and a score of animals. It was a good thing he didn’t have to show up at City Hall anymore. Though he did accompany Oswald on crime boss business from time to time, supporting him and not losing touch with that field, and there was the early stages of a lawsuit to work on as well. Busy was good; busy on his own terms was even better. He’d only wanted to be Chief of Staff in order to be of use to Oswald, and he had that now in an even more agreeable fashion.

Resuming his business with the array of test tubes, Jonathan continued, “Mr. Nygma, if I didn’t have this, I bet I’d be killing people just because I felt like it. I would want everyone to be afraid as I was for so long. That’d be bad for everyone but especially me. Also, I’ll never be allowed to study psychiatry if I can’t demonstrate a track record of having worked on my issues. I’ll need letters of recommendation and I need to pass tests. I don’t talk about our crimes, but I have issues that I genuinely want to work on.”

Ed told Jonathan a weak joke as an apology, and let the subject be. He would stab anyone who came at him with a prescription, but Jonathan had only ever been treated kindly by doctors. The difference made sense.

Jonathan sometimes went into fugue states for up to two hours, near-catatonic except for the ability to follow basic instructions and go where he was guided. Ed made him drink something with electrolytes, take off his lab coat and shoes, and lie down on an air mattress Ed started keeping in a corner of the lab after Jonathan warned him it might happen.

“It’s a new thing. My current medication regimen means I get this instead of the screaming fits,” Jonathan had explained. “I prefer it. I’m aware of what’s going on, but it’s like I’m lying at the bottom of a hot bath and seeing everything through water. I can breathe, though, and things are quiet and far away. I’ve seen the Scarecrow once or twice, but it doesn’t like water. It’s a fire creature inside all the straw, so it can’t touch me, and I know it. If it happens, which it doesn’t every day, it only happens after I’ve taken my dinner meds, so it’s nice and regular and doesn’t interrupt school.”

A thought struck Ed. “Fascinating. I wonder…”

****

Spencer had become less and less afraid of the dark as the weeks passed. The first few nights were what he thought was Hell, but it turned out to be Purgatory. Purging him. Ed had been...correct. Spencer had mixed emotions about this.

Instead, he started thinking more and more about his team. He couldn’t ask about them without revealing that the FBI agents they’d killed were only friendly acquaintances to Spencer. Ed was under the impression that half of Spencer’s heart had been torn out, and was clearly trying to fill up the void. As long as he believed that, his measures to coax Spencer along a similar journey that Ed took would remain gentler than otherwise. Whereas if Oswald knew they were alive, he might sent people after them. Oswald was a scorched-ground strategist unless there was a powerful reason to spare someone.

But he couldn’t help thinking about them. Had any of them gotten hurt on a mission? Had Garcia taken Kevin as her date to that sci-fi convention she’d been interested in? Had Prentiss really taken up yoga, or had that been all talk? Had Rossi started writing another book? Had Morgan bought that new car he’d had his eye on? Had Hotch found more chances to spend time with Jack? Had JJ and Will taught Henry how to ride a bike?

How had they grieved? Had they picked up the pieces yet, turning him from a gap in their lives into a shiny pebble in their pocket, that they bumped into from time to time with brief and fond melancholy? Had they replaced him yet? Spencer didn’t mind if they had. He didn’t want them to stay broken because of his absence.

He steered his mind away from any thoughts of his mother. That was too much to bear. He hoped that his team were making sure she’d be cared for.

Did Lila know? Morgan knew about Lila, and he was conscientious, so he’d probably told her. Their relationship had been more of a fling, but she was still a friend. Not the closest of friends, but a friend. She wouldn’t be devastated, but she’d probably mourn, at least a little. No matter what, he’d always have saved her life.

Ethan, though...

Shit, shit, SHIT had anyone invited Ethan to the funeral? He had never told them how much Ethan meant to him. Not out of shame, but out of wanting something private to treasure when surrounded by profilers who were all older and more world-wise them him. If they remembered his few mentions of Ethan at all, it would be as ‘Reid’s old college buddy in New Orleans’. Not the sort of person you invite to the simple, intimate ceremony Spencer’s will requested. If they remembered him at all. Oh God. What if it made Ethan relapse into one of his many addictions? Ethan himself had given Spencer simultaneous acceptance but also a no-holds-barred callout when Spencer visited him, struggling with Dilaudid. Ethan had given him a needed kick in the pants during many a phone call as he got clean. When was the last time they’d talked, let alone seen each other?

When he got into these thoughts he would pace, or do a few of the calisthenics in a book Ed purchased for him as a gift to help him stay healthy. Or he’d mess around with Fermat’s Theorem, or mess around with prime numbers. He had plenty of paper, and Ed replaced any pens that went dry. Or he’d read. Ed supplied him with a rotation of books, borrowed from multiple libraries to give him a wide selection.

Ed and Oswald were consistently their definitions of kind, for a pair of abductors. But it was just a few drops in a deep dry well of lonely, lonely, lonely. The only ways out were being rescued, Ed and Oswald believing he wouldn’t turn on them, risky escape attempt, or death.

For the last one, even if he had tools available, Spencer wouldn’t choose that option. It’d be a betrayal. His team, his mother, and Ethan might never know, but the one thing he could do for them from here was love them and miss them. The wound to Ed, meanwhile, would make him far worse than he was now. If Spencer lived, perhaps Ed might slowly come around to realizing his delusions, and perhaps he would become willing to seek help. If Spencer died, he would probably never.

Sometimes Spencer cried.

****

For once, Ed had brought Spencer something truly engaging for his intellect. The Zsasz Family, frequent employees and allies of Oswald and Ed, were concerned that a recent series of hits would be attributed to them. Apparently the sloppiness of the hits annoyed them and they didn’t want it ruining their reputations. Plus two of the hits had been on minors, which was against their code, and they didn’t want people trying to hire them to do more. Ed had brought Spencer all the information he could find on the subject. He made it clear Spencer wouldn’t be punished for not coming up with anything, but would be rewarded handsomely if he could produce a useful profile.

This had pleasantly engaged Spencer for most of the day. There were moments he forgot that he wasn’t in the records room of a small police station, and that, say, JJ would come in any second. “Ugh, I need to do a press conference in negative two minutes - tell me you’ve got something, Spence.”

Then his stomach growled and he saw that it had been two hours past his usual dinner time. If Ed and Oswald were planning to be gone for long, they would leave him sandwiches and cut up fruits and vegetables, to tide him over. In his old life he had often skipped meals, but he’d become conditioned to eat three small meals a day. He’d surmised that they might be small meals in order to foster greater dependency.

Ed would have a contingency plan for if something happened to both of them, right?

Then the door opened. It was Olga, whom he’d heard about and sometimes heard vacuuming directly downstairs. She had a tray, and was shaking her head as she entered.

“They go to meet with lawyer, and lawyer likes talking and talking. Then they leave you alone until this hour, which I cannot accept. They say is better that you are here than in Arkham, but even Arkham does not make people starve.” She closed the door behind her and placed the tray on the desk. Then she spotted a book in Spencer’s sturdy book fort (this particular holder of a Ph.D in Engineering been very bored yesterday). “You read Russian?”

Cautious hope swelled inside Spencer. His spoken Russian was very poor, but his comprehension was excellent, and speaking someone else’s language created greater empathy. It might help make her believe Spencer’s story of unjust imprisonment over Ed’s fiction of Spencer being in protective custody. She might not speak Russian, though. Her accent could be from another country, and she could simply be impressed. He tested the waters and picked up the book, pointing at the poet’s name on the cover. “Tebe...nravitsya...Anna Petrovna Bunina?” He was almost certain he’d asked whether she liked that author.

***

“He’s going to be hungry,” Ed fretted. They were stuck in traffic and had moved only a few inches in the last twenty minutes. Likely a crash up ahead.

“He’ll survive,” Oswald whispered for the sixth time. He pressed the button to push down the dividing screen. “Ms. Fowler, do you have an idea how much longer this might take?

“Did you two just get a dog?” Caroline asked. “Mr. N’s raising his voice. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop. Thought it’d be best to come clean.”

“Just dogsitting,” Oswald said, an adept liar as always. Now they wouldn’t have to explain the lack of a dog later.

(Ed was only decent at lying when he knew the other person well. Otherwise his lies were farcical. Witness: “I’m arresting Jim!” when Gordon was arresting him , and “I’m lost, please escort me to my cell,” when he was caught wandering around Arkham corridors. The latter had only worked because of his sheer audacity stunning the dimwitted guard.)

“What kind of dog? Vee would love a dog, but it wouldn’t suit our lifestyle.”

“What breed would you get if you could?” Ed asked with interest. His understanding of Caroline and Vee’s relationship was a jigsaw puzzle he enjoyed slowly assembling. He used the ambiguity of ‘you’ on purpose. Besides, distracting Caroline from his indiscretion was good.

“I’m not sure how long it will take to get out of this jam, to answer your question. And mutts are the best, in my opinion. Mixed breeds are such individuals, don’t you think?”

“Mixed,” Oswald said. “He’s mixed.”

****

Olga met them at the door. “I gave your cousin dinner. You hide keys badly.”

Oswald looked to Ed for how they should respond. At first Ed was relieved - it was probably time that they stop forbidding Olga contact with Spencer - then icy horror stabbed his chest. Spencer knew Russian. He could be more persuasive with her.

Ed took a deep breath. “What did he say to you?”

“He said you lie, and he’s FBI agent kept here because he knows too much. He said Mr. Nygma spares him because your mothers were cousins. He wrote on paper, names and phone numbers of his friends, begged me to call.”

Pale as a sheet, Oswald asked, “Did you?”

Olga rolled her eyes and handed Oswald the scrap of paper. “I know your ‘Sane’ certificates are pretty decoration. Perhaps you were never insane, but you are no more sane than you were. I wash blood of others from your clothes. I hear you talk. You think I know nothing of it? You think I do not understand? I see your friends and employees: gangsters and thugs and...that Jon boy, whatever he is. None of this make me leave. I tell him, if what he says is true, he should feel himself lucky that your love of family keeps him alive.”

“Vacation whenever you want, and, and a raise,” Oswald said immediately.

“We didn’t meant to question your loyalty, Olga. It’s just that it’s such a sensitive subject and close to my heart.” Ed bowed, chivalrous and debonair at the same time. “I am sorry to have doubted you.”

Olga showed them a hint of a smile, then looked towards the stairs meaningfully. “My uncle in Mafia always advise breaking no bones, if you want to keep a man long and have no real doctor. Hard to heal. I go home now. I expect overtime pay.”

****

The noises had died down. When Ed entered the room, Oswald was standing beside the bed, leaning on his cane. Spencer was laying on his side, in a fetal position. Oswald had made him take off his shirt and pants, leaving only a pair of Doctor Who themed boxers. The bruises showed that Oswald knew how to put his cane to alternate use. It probably wasn’t so much the pain itself as Spencer’s fear that it wasn’t over yet.

Ed felt himself sway, felt the pull of another blackout, but Oswald put an arm around his waist and steadied him. This was why Ed didn’t enter until now, didn’t see Oswald do this. It wasn’t like with Ed’s father, Ed told himself. Spencer needed to learn. He wouldn’t be safe and would never become happy one day if he didn’t learn to listen to them. They’d very clearly warned him to make no attempt to escape.

“Dr. Reid has something to tell you,” Oswald said.

“I...I’m sorry…I tried to escape, and I let you think you killed my friends.”

“How unfortunate,” Ed said quietly. He sat on the edge of the bed and petted Spencer’s hair. It was getting long. Spencer didn’t move. “I’m sorry that I can’t let you contact your friends.”

“Mm.”

“You must miss them terribly.”

“Mm.”

“I know you miss something else.”

Spencer lifted his head and looked at Ed, though he didn’t make eye contact. “What?”

“Help me,” Ed said to Oswald.

Though unenthusiastic, Spencer didn’t resist being held down that much. Until Ed revealed the syringe. Then he started trying to twist out of their grip. “No, no, please no, I’m done with that, it was so hard getting clean, you have no idea how hard it is to get clean! If you love me at all you won’t do this. Please hit me more, please starve me, please hold my head underwater, please take away everything in this room and just keep me in a bare cell. Just don’t do this. Not this. Please.

Oswald, who was partially sitting on Spencer to keep him in place as well as using his hands, took out a knife and touched it lightly to Spencer’s ear. “Threatening your life doesn’t work when you know it’s a bluff, but I will Van Gogh you if you keep carrying on. That’ll last a lot longer.”

Spencer went limp except for the trembling. He let Ed take his wrist and unfold his arm, let Ed undo his own necktie and tie it around Spencer’s arm to raise the veins. “Don’t worry, I won’t miss. Your old track marks are showing me the way.”

In the corner of his eye, he could see eight-year-old Spencer glaring daggers at him. He ignored it. Real Spencer said, voice hollow and crumbled, “You don’t know how to love someone who isn’t as fucked up as you.”

Ed saw Oswald gearing up to slap Spencer for that, and shook his head. Too much. Oswald nodded and put his hand back on Spencer’s chest. Ed tapped the needle for bubbles and then gracefully sank it in.

Spencer was trying so hard not to cry that it came out as more of a hiccup. They stopped holding him down, and he undid the necktie himself but didn’t hand it back. He lay still. Ed knew the effects weren’t instantaneous, so he took the opportunity to encourage Spencer to get into sweatpants and a soft tee. All Oswald had done was bruise him, so it should be all right.

Then Spencer was obviously under the drug’s sway, along with that of the extras mixed in. Ed kissed Oswald goodnight. They’d agreed that Ed would babysit Spencer during this high. It wouldn’t be all night, but Oswald wanted to get some rest. Ed removed most of his own clothes. He still had his white undershirt and the green boxers with the question marks that Oswald had given him last Christmas. He turned off the light, though there was light from the uncovered window.

He’d asked Oswald if he’d be jealous if Ed spooned Spencer after dosing him, and Oswald had said it wasn’t his favorite thing, but he understood the rationale and would accept it under these circumstances. So he did. Right now Spencer was very much like Jonathan was in his fugue states, but with more ability to speak and with a more doll-like, posable quality.

“This...is...different…” Spencer said with difficulty.

“It’s different from what you’ve had before,” Ed said. “Shh, you’re okay. Everything will be fine.”

Chapter Text

“Hello?” thwack

“How are you, Nefyn?”

“I’m a little stressed out, to tell you the truth, Mr. Nygma.” thwack “I’m impatient because I don’t get to stop being the puppy until I’ve successfully recruited the new puppy, and Mr. Zsasz turned down the fourth one last Tuesday. The household has to agree unanimously on his choice, but he holds the interviews and auditions. I’ve found another candidate. I think he could be a friend, too, given how well we clicked. But I’m going to have to convince Mr. Zsasz that it would be worth it to provide the boy’s hormone treatments and that he can run just fine while wearing a binder. Mr. Zsasz is accepting of all genders in general, but he can be ruthlessly pragmatic.”

“I hope the list of contacts I paid you with is helping, at least, since you aren’t allowed to earn your own money until you...de-puppify.”

“It’s helping plenty, thank you! It gives me a lot more options. I wouldn’t have found this one without it. Right now he’s doing sad, regrettable things to get treatment. I can’t kill that doctor - there are so few who do what he does, and so many people who need it - but I might scare the hell out of him one day.” thwack

“Am I going to regret asking you what you’re doing?”

“Just throwing knives at a target in the backyard, Mr. Nygma. I happen to need practice throwing them while multitasking, and if you’re not offended this is a perfect opportunity. Mr. Zsasz says if I insist on a gimmick I should also carry a gun I’m skilled with, just in case, and be damn good with the knives. He’s amazing with knives, actually, but most people don’t know it because he doesn’t think they’re practical for most hits. I’m already great at the stabbing and such. Throwing is a fine art. Imagine being able to offer a client the novelty of their enemy getting a dagger in the face from ten feet away. Gotta have a niche, you know? Especially if you’re disabled, even in a minor way. Though did you know that in my case it makes me better at noticing camouflage than color-sighted people?” thwack

“I’m not offended. How do you feel about Jonathan today?”

“Neutral. Same as before.”

“How do you feel about me?”

“It’s faded, but I still have a stronger sense of you being like, the estranged and troubled but kinda cool cousin who sweeps in from time to time. Than I used to. Sorry if that’s insulting.” thwack

“I asked you to be honest about this. It’s fine. How about Dr. Kali?”

“I’ve been hugging her a lot, and I made her favorite cupcakes, a flavor nobody else here likes. For the first day I was trailing after her and telling her how wonderful she was, but I’ve calmed down.”

“Zsasz?”

“The excessive lust ended pretty quickly, thankfully. He was getting annoyed by the end. I’ve noticed that I was less resentful of him rejecting my most recent puppy candidate than I was with the others. No rational reason. I just didn’t feel that resentment. Still feel less than I expected."

“That’s useful data. All right. I have business to attend to, but good luck with your practice.”

“Do you have a riddle for me?”

“I can be in the mind, I can be written down, I can be sent by sound. Without me, you’ll be left behind. What am I?”

“Uh…”

“It’s -”

“No, wait, give me a moment! Oh! Information. Or knowledge.”

“They’re sufficiently synonymous. Take care.”

***

When Spencer woke, there was an orange, Raisin Bran cereal, and two thermoses: one keeping coffee hot, and one keeping milk cold. His big reusable plastic bottle for containing tap water was full, with a few ice cubes added.

There was also a plastic whistle, and a note in Ed’s handwriting. If you want help accessing the bathtub, blow the whistle. I’m nearby

Spencer ate slowly - Ed did get so upset when he didn’t finish his food - and considered. He looked at the crook of his arm as if expecting to find answers. He didn’t feel like he’d come down from a high. It hadn’t felt like a normal high, even. At first he’d been terrified of the Dilaudid debacle happening all over again, and felt betrayed, and worried that Oswald was going to hit him some more. He wondered how deliberate it was that they’d combined a punitive beating with being forcibly shot up. Ed had read the story, after all, even if the media hadn’t been granted access to certain details.

”Do you think I’ll get to see my mom again?” Tobias asked the FBI agent who’d shot him, whom he thought he’d been helping by sharing his precious drug stash. Dr. Reid, Agent Reid, scared sinner Spencer who nearly died - perhaps did die - in that shed and saw those warm welcoming lights.

In fact, the high had felt like those warm, welcoming lights, a relief from the pain and fear of “Charles” hurting him and “Raphael” forcing him to decide who would die tonight. And Ed had held him securely but gently. These mixed feelings were giving him a headache.

He picked up a book. Eight minutes later, he’d reread the whole thing. He swallowed his pride and blew the whistle.

Ed entered less than thirty seconds later. “How are you feeling?”

“Why don’t I resent you for injecting me with Dilaudid when you know full well how I felt about that?”

“Because I didn’t inject you with Dilaudid.”

Spencer sat up. “What?”

“Your papers on the case you were working on, that brought you to Gotham? They weren’t lost. I stole them. I read your encoded scribbles in the margins. They took me a few hours to figure out, good for you, but I know you were much farther along in the case than the others were. I helped orchestrate the explosion to protect Jonathan.”

Spencer had not written down his additional suspicion that a different UnSub had been solely responsible for three of the killings, nor that he thought it might be Ed. Yet when he visualized Ed finding out, he didn’t have that fear he once did. “Why did he do it?”

“Did you hear about the Gerald Crane case?” When Spencer shook his head, Ed took a seat. “Gerald Crane’s wife died and he blamed his fear for keeping him from saving her. He killed several people after putting them through their worst fears in order to harvest their adrenal glands at maximum production. He wanted to create an ‘inoculation’ against fear. He wanted to feel so much fear at once, in a controlled setting, that he’d be immune forevermore. He wanted this for his teenage son, too. When the police came for him, he rushed and made a mistake. He was shot by the police. Jonathan spent months in restraints because he was experiencing an overload of pure, horrific fear.”

“Oh God. But he recovered?”

“He did. Smart young man, too. He stumbled on samples of his father’s work, and decided he wanted to understand fear, but in a different way. He came to me. During his father’s case I was still working for the GCPD, and my understanding of his father’s paper on the matter was integral to catching him. By this point my allegiance had shifted. Jonathan wants to be able to have control over fear in other people. In order to get sponsorship, he proposed to us that a fear serum could be used as a torture technique that would leave no lasting physical damage. That’s attractive not only for our own use, but something we could sell.”

“That’s why various glands and the heart were missing. So Jonathan could study them. With your help.” Why was Spencer barely upset about this? He felt grief and compassion for the victims, and he was quietly disturbed by Jonathan’s actions. Though given his tendency with killers who were abused, damaged youths, especially of high intelligence and potential, he felt grief and compassion for Jonathan, too. But he felt no anger towards Ed.

Ed nodded. “I wasn’t a medical examiner in title, but I was fully capable to act as one. They weren’t just dead because we needed to autopsy them. The first few generations of the formula were a blunt instrument that induced cardiac arrest within minutes. Jonathan’s original idea was to create a version sufficiently diluted that the effects weren’t deadly. He did, but the effects went on and on with no predictable endpoint. Don’t worry, all of the trials was done on rats first. There weren’t a bunch of other bodies the FBI missed. At the time.”

“Small favors,” Spencer said dryly.

“Then he decided to explore the possibility of a separate antidote. In conversation about his now-unique brain chemistry, I said he would not have a standard reaction to the fear serum. He can feel anxiety, but he doesn’t feel fear unless he's hallucinating. Of course, because he's a teenage boy who doesn’t feel fear, he did something stupid.”

“He injected himself with the fear serum, unsupervised.” Spencer took a sip of water that turned into gulps.

Ed nodded. “I wanted to shake him. He’s not repentant, because it led to a breakthrough. The serum does nothing to him. We were prepared to have him react more mildly. If nothing else, we thought he'd get at least some of the various side effects like tingling limbs that were reported by the people who survived the later trials.”

“Those people are dead now.”

“Yes.” Ed leaned in close and examined Spencer’s face. “How do you feel about that?”

“I feel sorry for them, and I disapprove of Jonathan's actions, but I feel nothing about you. I feel like I would feel if you told me you’d played a game of tennis. Raising eyebrows internally because I didn’t think you were interested in tennis, but not shocked. That is not how the real me would feel. I am also not angry at you for inducing this bizarre emotional reaction. Why?”

“In due time. We analyzed his blood. It creates enzymes that destroy the active ingredients of the fear serum. Teasing out how that works on more of a superficial level is beyond my expertise. Whatever the overdose of the inoculation did to his brain the rest of his body found a way to neutralize chemically-induced fear. External help has played a vital role, but without this adaptation he might still be in that cornfield with the scarecrows every waking moment. So, long story short, we cultured his blood samples. We combined derivations from prescription drugs that have helped him with the enzymes we have isolated from his blood.”

“This is impressive, but it doesn’t answer my question.”

“We checked to see if it was safe to give the antidote by itself. See what would happen. After a few dozen rats were fine, and after three prostitutes who thought I had a strange fetish just ended up a bit stoned, happy, and floaty, I had Jonathan test it on me. With proper safety measures.”

“What happened to the three prostitutes?”

Ed patted Spencer’s head. Spencer would normally find this patronizing. “Don’t you worry, they're alive, well, and well-compensated. I don’t kill people when I don’t have to in order to accomplish my goals. I’m sure you’ve profiled me as a murderer.”

“I just wanted to be clear.”

“Anway. Stoned, happy, and floaty, no fear. A powerful sense of calm. The weird thing is that I felt intense affection for Jonathan. Everything about him that annoys me or worries me still registered on an intellectual level, but I lacked accompanying emotions. When I told him this he tested it by insulting me and putting my vinyl records collection in the wrong order. It took days before this irritated me. We’ve tried it on a few more people with informed consent. Not Oswald, because he’s triggered by the concept of being a test subject. I explicitly promised not to ask."

“Wait a minute…”.

Ed held up a hand. “There will be a Q&A portion at the end. There has to be  a pre-existing bond, and it’s only between you and the person who injected you with the drug. I injected myself, and I liked myself better, and all my hallucinations were nice to me for days."

"Oh, Ed."

"Between strangers, nothing happens. The nature of the bond remains the same. It’s just less weighed down.”

“You want me to feel that way towards you.”

“It’s not permanent,” Ed said sadly. “In a week or less, without another dose, you’ll be almost back to normal. A very small boost at most. I’m not going to continually dose you. That wouldn’t be real to me, and there might be unforeseen consequences for long-term use. Plus we can only make small batches for now before the enzymes degrade and we have to wait for it to be safe to take more blood from Jonathan. However, you’ll remember what it was like not to resent me. How pleasant that was."

"Oh, Ed." What else was there to say?"

"Want help with a bath? Hot water will help with what Oswald did.” Ed got to his feet with a grin that made Spencer think of the one he'd known. 

Ed had to relocate the end of the chain so Spencer could reach the tub. It was unfortunate that it hadn't been possible for the chain to be chain long enough for Spencer to reach the tub/shower on his own while also being too short for him to reach the door or directly under the window. After bruise inventory, Spencer said from the tub, “I’m feeling a number of negative feelings towards Oswald, but please don’t have him inject me.”

As usual, Ed had moved the chair closer but was turning his back. It was a compromise for the bathroom door having been removed. “He wouldn’t. Any participation in this sort of thing would be deeply upsetting to him.”

“Why let me think it was Dilaudid?”

“Tricking you was part of your punishment. Don’t do it again. I really don’t want to have to kill you.”

Spencer sank further into the embrace of the water. “Yes, Ed.”

“Jonathan wants to call the antidote Paper Crane, in reference to cranes being symbols of peace in Japan, and the belief that folding a thousand paper cranes will grant you a wish. And yes, because of his ego.”

“It’s a nice name. Might be dangerous if that name leaks out and people figure it out.”

“The cops aren’t going to prioritize cracking down on a drug that simply causes mellowness and a temporary increase of irrational emotional affection among people who already like each other to some degree. As you may have noticed, it doesn’t change your rational thoughts. You’re not my helpless pawn. No sign so far of it being addictive on the chemical level. Maybe as an emotional crutch.”

It’s amazing how much discomfort one doesn’t notice until that discomfort is lessened. Oswald had done a number on him. “I was more thinking of people snatching your active ingredient dispenser.”

“Paper Crane is just a convenient and confidential working nickname, definitely, especially until we find a way to make the enzymes without having to harvest them,” Ed said in a hurry. Interesting to see Ed forming a new attachment. Spencer had missed the initial progression with Oswald. “Neither of us are interested in calling the other one a cute name. Fear's fear.”

“Does he ever watch horror movies with other people? That would be funny.” What was he doing? This was a serial killer. But Ed clearly loved him, and Spencer could not currently doubt Ed’s wisdom in loving or mentoring anyone. Paper Crane seemed to have a minor ability to create more indulgence towards secondary individuals.

Ed was right. It was pleasant not having reservations towards him.

Ed let out a surprised laugh at that. “I expect you’ll meet him one day, when things are less...sensitive."

****

Several days after Spencer’s escape attempt, Ed heard voices as he came downstairs. Female voices.

“I do like those new curtains.”

“Too frilly for my taste.”

“You never find frills to your taste.”

“I like the ones on that new teddy of yours, Barb.”

“Why are you in my parlor?” Ed asked, mostly politely, but with a growling undertone. He didn’t bother asking how, because if Tabitha Galivan had sufficient motivation to break both into and then out of Alcatraz she probably could. He and Oswald relied on her girlfriend reminding her how much Tabitha coming after them would upset the balance of power. Ed imagined asking a Zsaszette if they ever bumped into Tabitha while shopping at Dominatrix-ish Killer Department Store. It was probably next to where that Merc store had been rebuilt. He wouldn't ask Tabitha. Zsaszettes could be intimidating, but they'd never shot Oswald. 

Barbara Kean, dressed like she’d run through multiple itty-bitty chic boutiques covered in glue and bought what stuck, gave him her best performative smile. “What makes you think this isn’t a social call? You’ve been scarce recently except for when Oswald needs arm candy.”

“I’m amused by the idea that you consider shooting traitors in the face to be a standard activity for ‘arm candy’, but on the other hand, I suppose your lady here finds them mutually inclusive. Seriously. What.” Ed draped himself across the sofa with all the insouciance he could muster. “Olga’s got the day off today, and I don’t feel motivated to offer you refreshments."

“Leaving public office means you don’t have to dial back the bitchiness anymore, huh?” Barbara perched on the arm of the very same sofa. “We’re on the way to a social gathering in any case, and I thought you might find it relevant that in the process of deciding whether to join your lawsuit or not, we noticed some of the meaner members of Arkham staff have been disappearing one by one.”

“Keeping Tabs on them, as it were? No?” Ed spread his hands. “Do you want me to do something in light of you having said this? I lack understanding of finer social cues.”

Tabitha snorted. “Finally, he becomes slightly self-aware.”

“Are you going to go after Dr. Walsh?” Barbara’s grip on her clutch purse tightened, even as she looked and sounded the same otherwise.

Ed looked at Tabitha, whose face was still. Tabitha had heard stories, then. He looked back at Barbara. “Eventually. I have to space them out. He’s got a predictable commute, but he parks inside his driveway.”

Barbara leaned towards him and said, “I know the combination to his home security system.”

Ed leaned back until she got out of his space again. “Do you now?”

“You get all sorts of people at our club. Including people who install home security systems. Who get drunk easily. And are afraid of whips but fond of money. We’ve got a whole notebook full of combinations now.”

“Intriguing. What do you want for this information?”

“Proof of death and proof he was afraid,” Barbara said. She met Ed’s eyes.

****

“Was my profile of the Zsasz copycats useful?” Spencer asked.

Ed put down the tray of dinner. “Yes, it was. Like you said, identical twins and only one of them was heterosexual, both dishonorably discharged from the armed forces, and they yearned to open a jazz club together. I said I would reward you.”

“What happened to them?”

“The Kobiyashi Clan had a beef with them, so the Zsasz Family handed them over. The Kobiyashi Clan are a small, up-and-coming gang, but they always repay favors, in full, when the time comes. That’s what’s special about them. It’s worth more than money. After that I do not know. Speaking of.” Ed put two boxes on the desk. “I promised to reward you.”

The first box had an e-reader, loaded with hundreds of public-domain books. “I think this is a gift for both of us. Less hauling for you.” Spencer’s smile was real.

“If you want more, give it to me and I’ll download more for you. The other box, you are free to not accept. Your choice. I’m afraid that Oswald needs me for a business negotiation in a few minutes, so I can’t stay.” He left without looking.

In the morning, the needle inside the box was empty. The tiny green paper crane Ed had folded and placed inside the box had been placed on the floor, as close to the window as Spencer was capable of reaching, if he lay down and stretched out his arm and very fingertips.

****

“I am a firm believer in two old people, one shotgun shell, but really? Really?” 

“Really. Well, in about a week. I have to plan.”

“This will be a make-or-break moment.” Oswald put a hand on Ed’s. “I support this, but make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. And for God’s sake don’t involve that Paper Crane stuff. It’ll defeat the purpose.”

“I agree.” Ed leaned over to kiss him, and that put a stop to sustained serious conversation for awhile.

****

”There are other ways of getting people to like us,” said Ed’s reflection in the rearview mirror. ”We don’t need to rehash how we first started bonding with Oswald.”

”This is different,” Ed whispered.

”Why are you whispering? Dr. Walsh can’t hear us from the trunk even if he wakes up prematurely.

“Would you just shut up and let me concentrate?”

”Fair enough. Toodle-oo.”

Oswald had offered to help, but Ed didn’t want Oswald to be a part of this. It wasn’t easy to get the deadweight into the lab, but he managed it. He got the camera rolling just before waking him up.

“Mmm?!”

“Good evening, Dr. Walsh! You're on camera. I regret that you can’t smile while gagged so thoroughly, but try to have some sense of stage presence, all right? Now, I force-fed Dr. Davies before staging his suicide, out of nostalgia from our previous time together. Yes, that was me. Look at his shock, viewers! I can’t easily replicate what you did to me. And others. Except for the fear. That is something I can replicate. Tenfold. This won’t kill you. That’s for later.”

Since developing the non-fatal but indefinitely-acting fear serum, neither Ed nor Jonathan had let anyone suffer from it for more than half an hour, for fear of damage to the organs they wanted to study later. Time to see how long it could actually go.

****

“What is this? What are you doing?”

Ed had quietly turned on the overhead light, then brought Dr. Walsh into Spencer’s room and tied him to a sturdier chair than the one Spencer had been using. Spencer had been sleeping soundly and required a nudge to wake.

Dr. Walsh had gone for just over an hour before Ed made the executive decision to end it. He needed the man not to be a gibbering vegetable for Phase II, plus watching to see if he was about to accidentally asphyxiate was getting tiresome. After receiving the antidote, some hydration, and a bit of time to breathe, Walsh was capable of begging using real words.

Ed had responded calmly, “You should have thought of that before you did it,” and taped his mouth up again.

Now everything was nicely set up. Spencer’s second dose of Paper Crane was long out of his system. Dr. Walsh was struggling and whimpering piteously.

“Dr. Walsh here has this passionate belief. He’s a visionary. A voice crying out in the wilderness. No modern psychiatric theory will hold him back, no sir.” Ed patted the man on the back. “He believes that every mentally ill person should be reborn. I can see the logic in that. I see less logic in the idea that the best way to do this is to simulate burying them alive for at least four hours. For me it was more than twenty. I was such a bad patient, running off like that, so I needed more 'help' than others."

Spencer didn’t look as horrified as some might, but Ed knew this was because Spencer’s old job had desensitized him to learning about horrific deeds. He did look upset. “I’m so sorry, Ed.”

“Action speaks louder than words.” Ed walked towards Spencer and handed him a knife. Spencer’s eyes went wide.

“You can’t be serious.”

“He’s well within your radius.”

“He’s helpless.”

“So was I. Don’t you love me? You’ve killed killers. He kills parts of people. Parts they don’t get back. Ever.”

Spencer held the knife like it was a cockroach. “They were about to kill many other people, or me. And it was with a quick gunshot. You want me to draw it out.”

“Yes.”

Spencer threw the knife across the room. Out of his own reach.

Ed sighed. Time for plan B, which was more dangerous. “I understand. Knives, hands, and other objects requiring direct contact are so much more intimate and intense. Is the hardest part the he’s tied to the chair?”

“The hardest part is that you are asking me to do this. I agree that the deserves severe punishment. Turn him in. Expose the whole system. It will effect more change!”

“This is Gotham, and you’re the only law enforcement who hasn’t let me down. At least not yet. The helplessness thing is tough, right? That’s unfair to you. I don’t want to force you to break through too many mental barriers all once.”

“Ed?”

“I am sorry about this. It’s only because I love you.”

“I don’t...what are you going to do, Ed? Let’s talk about it. Please.”

Ed took out another knife. His favorite. He saw two futures stretching before him: one where Spencer didn’t do what Ed wanted, and one where he did. The two futures would take them very different places. Nothing for it.

He leaned down and whispered into Dr. Walsh’s ear, “If you kill him, I’ll spare you.”

And cut the ropes.

Chapter Text

Everyone talks about fight-or-flight. There is a third option which gets less press. Spencer freezes.

Then Dr. Walsh is upon him, clawing and hitting and kicking and. And. Spencer remains frozen.

Ed does not let it go too far. Ed does not let him die. He deals with Dr. Walsh himself, and holds Spencer and says I’m sorry, that was too soon, I’ll wait. I’m sorry. I’ll mend it.

And he asks a riddle, to lighten the mood. Spencer answers correctly. Ed is pacified enough for now. He cleans the blood from Spencer’s face. Spencer has trouble moving.

***********************************************************************

[Criminal Minds opening goes here.]

***********************************************************************

“I can run from the law, I can run from myself, I can run for my life, I can run into debt, I can run from it all, I can run till I'm gone, I can run for the office and run for my cause, I can run using every last ounce of energy, I cannot, I cannot, I cannot run from my family - they're hiding inside of me.” - Amanda Palmer

******

[Months earlier...]

Penelope Garcia believed in the power of information. Facts. Records. Data. Get enough of it, you could fix any problem except one. And you could show that the problem you had might not be that one.

She went to Derek Morgan first. She hadn’t had as much energy for the fun nicknames lately. Morgan listened to all of it. “Baby girl, are you saying you believe someone knew the blast was coming and grabbed Reid first?”

“Yes.”

He nodded. “Let’s bring in Prentiss and JJ. I know they’ve been thinking along the same lines.”

Because putting together presentations could be soothing, Garcia made a handy powerpoint to show the others. Her heart ached looking at the three of them.

Jennifer Jareau hadn’t genuinely laughed since Reid was declared deceased. Telling Henry that his godfather wasn’t coming back had been so hard on her that Will spent more time comforting her than their son. She’d also taken point on fending off reporters looking to profit from the tragedy.

Emily Prentiss had volunteered to fly out to Las Vegas and break the news to Reid’s mother. It had taken some time for it to sink in. Then Diana had screamed that she was lying and thrown a pillow at her. Subsequently, there’d been a postcard addressed to their office apologizing, and thanking them for being so good to her son, and that she wouldn’t mind meeting any of them again.

Spencer Reid’s will stated that whichever members of the team felt most up to the duty would be the ones to settle his property and affairs. Aaron Hotchner took care of the FBI-related matters and ensured Reid’s mother would continue to be cared for at Bennington Sanitarium no matter what. His face had gone tighter, his shoulders even stiffer, and he’d followed protocol with the utmost conscientiousness. David Rossi had organized the funeral and personally paid for the gravestone, and gave a speech that left nobody dry-eyed.

Meanwhile, Morgan made a difficult phone call to Lila Archer. She audibly held back tears and thanked him. She regretfully declined an invitation to the funeral, as she was filming some action TV show in Tunisia and would be in breach of contract to leave just for a friend's funeral. She said she would come visit the grave when she could.

Morgan also volunteered to deal with Reid’s possessions and apartment. After sitting on Reid’s couch and thinking, and aching, aching, he passed the hat for several months’ rent and came around to check on it from time to time. He hadn’t been ready to call it a day, no matter what the higher-ups said. Selling or donating Reid’s things would cause a lot of consternation if it turned out he wasn’t really gone.

The first slide showed the hook that had sunk into all four of them, small as it was. Garcia couldn’t find records on Reid’s wisdom teeth being removed, unlike that corpse’s. She remembered bantering with him about him having extra space for wisdom. The remains also added up to a man who’d be two centimeters too short.

“I called up Dr. Leslie Tompkins, medical examiner for the Gotham City Police Department. Once I made it clear that we were seeking closure and not to vilify her, she was willing to go the extra mile. I asked if there were signs of a healed gunshot wound to the leg. She couldn’t tell for sure, given the damage and the limited time she’d spent with it, but there was reasonable doubt. I asked if she could get a viable DNA sample, but she said they’d been lucky to get as much of the skeleton as they had, and it had already been whisked away before my call. By order of higher-ups. Very fast, mind you. Zoom.” Garcia clicked the presentation and showed Dr. Tompkins’ official ID.

“Gotham’s only a few hours’ drive. It wouldn’t be hard to drop in when we had time off,” JJ said. She’d pleaded to have Reid listed as MIA, if the larger case couldn’t be reopened, to no avail.

“Leave that to us,” Prentiss said, leaving through the briefing packets Garcia had also put together. Garcia had to occupy herself when she couldn’t sleep in her lonely bed. She and Kevin were “on a break” because of her emotional unavailability. “You’ve got a sweet little boy who’s experiencing the loss of a parent figure for the first time. Focus on him while also taking care of yourself. We’ll let you know if we need you.”

JJ nodded, relieved.

“Go on,” Morgan prompted.

“Okay, so having found our evidence that the body isn’t our Boy Genius…” her voice hitched, “we have the question of motive. Everyone remembers that time he visited Gotham on his own and said it was for a consultation at Arkham Asylum, right? And how he came back subdued for a few days, right?”

“You think he may have visited someone involved in this case,” Prentiss said.

“Yes. Maybe not involved directly, but in a position to know more about it than the police do.”

Morgan sat up a little more. “Any idea who?”

“I looked up who’d been recently sent to Arkham at that time, especially ones who Reid might take an interest in, or be called in to consult about. I found this guy.” Next slide. Both mugshot and normal ID photo, from before. “This is Edward Nygma, former forensic analyst for the GCPD. The stories about his arrest mention that he was a bit of a joke among the department for his behavior. Take a look at them. I collected the best bits. I’ll wait.” She took a seat and had a long drink of water, and some deep breaths.

Prentiss finished first. “High intelligence and on the autistic spectrum. Read between the lines, and he was bullied for it, and had likely been bullied and mistreated for it previous to that. Given his vindictiveness towards alpha males in authority, his father likely rejected having a ‘strange’ son’.”

“He pleaded guilty to three first-degree murders but maintained that the death of his girlfriend Kristen Kringle was the accidental result of a fight between them,” JJ noted.

“Detective James Gordon witnessed him apologizing to her body before moving it, and when she was exhumed, her remains had been arranged neatly in a high-quality and newly-purchased storage chest rather than in a heap like the hunter or garbage bags of shattered bones and dissolved flesh like Dougherty,” Morgan said as he traced the relevant parts of the text with a finger. “That’s remorse. That supports his claim. It’s not really explained why he was sent to Arkham rather than Blackgate.”

Prentiss hummed thoughtfully, and glanced at the later pages. “It might have been part of his plea bargain, and the details could have been kept from the public as a concession to privacy. An autistic-spectrum, non-heterosexual cop-killer would already have trouble in mainstream prison without factoring in any other mental health issues. Looks like Mayor Cobblepot pulled strings to have him declared ‘cured’, installed him as Chief of Staff, and became romantically involved with him shortly after.”

“So he’s got a lot of influence now.” JJ looked up at the screen. Garcia obligingly clicked. There was a timeline of Cobblepot’s career in both crime and politics, compared to a timeline of Nygma’s.

“It’s possible that the experimental ‘reformation’ procedure by stereotypical mad scientist Hugo Strange didn’t work as advertised, and that Cobblepot is still a crime boss. Various mob factions essentially run Gotham. It sounds like the police don’t have the resources - or motivation - to go after one of the big boys without undeniable evidence. The UnSub in the case Reid was helping out with may or may not have been hired by Cobblepot, but if the rumors are true, you can bet your shiny patent-leather boots that Cobblepot would have known about it.” Garcia knew exactly what the next question would be.

Her darling dashing Derek didn’t disappoint. “Speaking of motivation, let’s say I’m Edward Nygma. This FBI agent has come to visit me. The visit upsets him, but I want to see him again. I want to see him again so very much that I convince my partner to let me rescue him and keep him hidden for an extended period of time, against his will. Why?”

“If Nygma’s got a romantic or sexual fixation on Reid, Cobblepot seems too possessive of him to allow a move like that,” Prentiss said. “It’s platonic, but it’s an interest created in a very short time.”

“Nygma’s not used to having another intelligent person with interpretable-as-autistic traits reaching out to him,” Morgan said. “He’s craved it all his life.”

JJ’s eyes widened. “Maybe…”

“Yes?” Garcia coaxed

“Maybe it’s not an interest created in a very short time? Spence was very upset.” Nobody commented on JJ’s slip into her nickname for him when they weren’t being Agents with a capital A. When he was being her friend and her son’s godfather. Just like she called Garcia “Penelope” when she was being JJ’s friend and Henry’s godmother.

Prentiss picked up the thread. “To our knowledge, Nygma lived peacefully for almost thirty years before Officer Dougherty came along as a stressor. Dougherty ignited his pent-up feelings of inadequacy, underappreciation, and victimhood. He was also a romantic rival, but that strikes me as secondary. Maybe Reid went to Gotham and found someone he’d known for years being not the person he’d known. Who could we contact that knew Reid before the Bureau?”

“I’m not sure how much we could get out of his mother, and we would upset her more than I want to,” Garcia sighed.

“What about Ethan?”

Everyone else looked at JJ. “Who?” Prentiss asked.

“Remember the case that led to me meeting Will? In New Orleans? And Reid broke off to go visit an old friend from his student days, and spent so much time with him that he missed the plane the next morning? He said his name was Ethan.”

“No last name?” Garcia asked.

“No, but Ethan applied for a job at the Bureau once. He turned down an offer at the last minute. Can you do something with that?”

“You know I can.”

“Will and I are taking Henry to visit his grandparents in New Orleans in two weeks. If you can get me some way of contacting Ethan before then, maybe I could go talk to him.” Face-to-face interviews were more productive when possible.

“That’s a good lead,” Morgan said. “It’s a bad idea to go after Nygma directly unless we have a lot of evidence, especially since this unofficial.”

“What if we try to follow the case Reid was working on, as well? I know who to ask for the files. Maybe you and I could start with that, Morgan,” Prentiss said.

“I’ll gather as much information on everything that might be relevant,” Garcia said.

Then there was a knock on the door. Hotch opened it, and the amount that everyone froze like naughty children would have been funny under other circumstances. “I know it’s after hours, but you might want to talk a little quieter.”

“This is all on our own time,” Garcia said, clutching a folder to her chest. “No department resources are being appropriated, and, and, and we’re not breaking any laws or falsely representing ourselves when interviewing people.”

Hotch chose his words carefully. “I would love it if you turned out to be right, and if he’s alive and you can bring him home. I don’t actually think you’re right, and if I did, you understand that I’m your superior and am therefore under much more scrutiny. Be sensible about this and I’ll do my best to cover for you, though. Because I...I would give a lot for you to be right.”

“Yes, sir,” Prentiss said with feeling.

“Rossi thinks you’re all in dangerous denial and setting yourselves up for a fall. I’ve persuaded him to turn a blind eye. Leave him out of it.”

Nods all around.

“Hold fast to dreams,” Hotch said, unusually poetically for him. Then he closed the door again and left.

*****

Prentiss and JJ both went to the restroom before heading to their respective homes. “Are you worried about Garcia?” Prentiss asked while washing her hands.

“She hasn’t answered the phone while calling herself the fount of all knowledge lately. It looks like she hasn’t been sleeping well.” None of them had been sleeping well. Will slumbered like the dead, and JJ would lay beside him and stare at the ceiling, almost hoping Henry would have a nightmare so she could go fix something that could be fixed. “She hates not knowing things, let alone something this important.”

“Maybe we should do something fun again. The three of us. We could go to a comedy show of some kind? Maybe?”

JJ turned and put an arm around her friend’s shoulders. They both inhaled. Exhaled. “Yeah. Something. Maybe.”

*****

Time passed. They couldn’t spend all their time on Reid. There was work, and people they knew for a fact were alive and could be saved. None of them were so selfish as to think that he was worth more than those people. He was worth the same. Even if it tore at them to abide by that principle.

Still, they made progress.

Here’s what Prentiss and Morgan learned, with help from Dr. Tompkins: The M.O. on the victims Reid had been investigating had certain similarities to that of the late Gerald Crane, whose son Jonathan Crane was alive and functional, in fact doing well academically, but massively traumatized. They did their best to glean scraps of information on Jonathan despite him refusing their undercover efforts to talk directly, and despite the extra complication of him being an emancipated minor. Being accused of harassing him could sink their whole investigation.

Here’s what Garcia learned: Mayor Cobblepot and Chief of Staff Nygma had both resigned in order to pursue a lawsuit against Arkham Asylum for insufficient accommodation of Cobblepot’s physical disability having resulted in long-term effects. She’d learned that Arkham really was a fustercluck. Also, how to contact Ethan.

Here’s what JJ learned: Ethan had been grieving just as hard, and he had some liquor in him when she visited even though he knew she’d be there. He ended up crying on her shoulder, because he was drunk and sad and nobody else he knew now had ever known Spencer. Nobody had known to extend a funeral invitation. Reid had told him he was going to Gotham on a case. Ethan had heard about the explosion shortly thereafter from the news. The agents' names had not been released, but it didn't take a genius. JJ gave him a heartfelt apology.

He forgave her, said better late than never, and said that Spencer had always been circumspect about lovers. JJ hid her expression. She wasn’t perturbed that Spence was evidently pansexual or bisexual, likely demiromantic either way. She’d observed his interest in women once in a blue moon. But, well, Ethan was a bit of a bohemian Byronic heartthrob, and the combined power of them walking down the street holding hands would probably scorch the pavement. If they’d all known this in happier days, Morgan would have affectionately ribbed Reid about it. Pretty Boy’s got a hottie homeboy, I’m so proud.

“He mentioned an Ed a few times,” Ethan said in the calm after his storm. “Don’t know if it was that one. He mentioned an Ed who was nearly as smart as we are, but with a far worse life. He was afraid Ed was gonna break and felt guilty for falling out of touch with him. I told him he had to fasten his own oxygen mask first, you know? Should I have told him something else?”

JJ reassured him and promised to keep him in the loop. While she was fetching him some water and tissues, she sent out a text to her three co-conspirators. Gotham. ASAP. 

Chapter Text

Detective Jim Gordon rubbed his face. “I’m sorry. I could have saved you a lot of effort if I’d known you wanted to know. Soon after Nygma was first apprehended, Dr. Reid came to me to make sure he could get to see him without a fuss. Said their mothers were cousins, and that they’d been close as kids. I promised to keep that confidential.”

“You didn’t consider that there might a link?” Morgan asked.

Gordon sighed. “With all due respect, this is the kind of city where serial killers literally come back from the dead, but this time with superhuman powers, and cult monks try to ritually sacrifice a teenage billionaire. We believed ourselves to have done due diligence for your agents while also trying to hold our city together. Every day.”

At Prentiss’ subtle but unmistakable look, Morgan said, “My tone may have been a bit harsh.”

“Wait, you think Nygma might have made it look like your guy’s dead so he could keep him as a pet? That’s sick.” Captain Harvey Bullock gestured in a nebulous but passionate manner. “Good at his work, can’t argue with that, but what a basket case.”

Morgan saw red. In a split second where he didn’t give a damn about consequences, he slammed his hands on the desk. “If you had bothered to care about a hardworking and genius likely autistic man who’d been mistreated for the majority of his life, who wanted nothing more that sincere acknowledgement rather than mockery - or at best pity - from people he admired and adored? Either of you? Any of you, other than maybe Dr. Leslie Tompkins? He would have had a better chance of not turning out this way.”

“What makes you think that?” Jim asked, face blank.

Prentiss folded her arms. At first Morgan thought she was going to scold him for chewing out local law enforcement they needed to work with. Instead, she addressed the LEOs. “Because what you just said about Edward Nygma is exactly what people have said about Spencer Reid all his life.”

Bullock looked like a Morgan’s dog Clooney had the first time he walked into a glass door. Gordon looked like Clooney that one time he bit down on a pine cone instead of a treat.

After a long pause, JJ said gently, “Our emotions are running rather high, just as yours would be if you’d lost, say, each other, and had the same suspicions we do.”

Humanized by JJ liaising like her usual boss self, Bullock looked down at the floor for a moment before flicking his eyes up in a small gesture of acknowledgment. Jim’s mouth was slightly twisted in what might have been shame. He asked, “What do you need?”

She continued, “We realize that you can’t issue a warrant on what we’ve just told you on its own, and that upsetting the Penguin can have serious repercussions. Could you help us find out what happened to Dr. Reid’s suitcase? We’ve found out that it was the only one unaccounted for. I know you’ve seen a lot of the Penguin’s methodology. Do you have any idea who he might go to if he wanted a bit of stealthy petty theft done?”

****

Selina Kyle was plowing her way through a spread of only the finest junk food in one of the two motel rooms the agents had rented. When they declined to give her as much cash as she’d initially demanded, she’d asked for the food, help from Garcia in looking for her mom, and complete anonymity and immunity from prosecution for what she was about to tell them. They’d agreed.

“I’m not scared of these guys, but they’ve been cool enough, you know?”

“All we need you to do is either deny or not deny,” Morgan said. He held up a picture of Cobblepot and Nygma together, and a picture of the same type of bag as Reid’s. “Did either of these men hire you to steal a suitcase resembling this one?”

Selina ate a french fry with great solemnity, and denied nothing.

****

Garcia called Prentiss while they are all at breakfast in a local diner on Sunday, her voice frantic. “He called me!”

Prentiss got up immediately. “What? What’d he say?” She saw Morgan drop his fork.

“He said he’d get caught any second, and then the line went dead. I suppose he did. Get caught. I’m trying to trace it now, but you’re already pretty sure, right?”

The warrant hadn’t been ready yet, due to obstruction and corruption, but a cry for help combined with their evidence would go far. “Okay. Thank you. You call Hotch, Morgan and I are going in, and JJ will pay our bill and liaise with the GCPD.” Prentiss hung up, then grabbed Morgan’s arm and yanked him along. JJ could take care of herself.

****

“FBI! FREEZE!”

If a Mexican Standoff was one where multiple people pointed guns at each other in a stalemate, perhaps this was a Latin American standoff, given the number of components.

Morgan and Prentiss had guns pointed at Cobblepot and Nygma. Cobblepot had a gun pointed at Reid, who was in a fetal position on the floor. It looked like he’d deliberately smashed his ankle in order to be able to bend it enough to get out of a manacle, and then crawled until he reached a phone. It was a mangled mess and Prentiss couldn’t bear to look at it. She’d lose focus if she did.

Nygma moved first in that agonized silence. His nose was bleeding copiously, suggesting that Reid had ambushed him. Slowly, without dropping his own gun but without pointing it at his second cousin, he went down on his knees. He carefully gathered up the dryly sobbing Reid in his arms at such an angle that Cobblepot would not be able to get a clean shot.

Cobblepot whispered, “What are you doing? We need leverage!”

Nygma raised his gun to his own head, ignoring Cobblepot’s gasp. “We’re all in a riddle now. I can’t let you take us. If I die, Oswald has no reason not to shoot Spencer. You’ll have Oswald, maybe, but that’s not much of a consolation prize. So you’re going to back away and leave us now, and we’re going to go away as well. Now you know Spencer’s alive. Except for what he just did to himself in panic, see how well he looks. I take good care of you, don’t I?”

Reid clutched at Nygma’s shirt, his sobbing less dry now. He said nothing.

A desperate edge entered Nygma’s voice, and he tried to squeeze Reid soothingly. “Don’t I? Spencer? I could have stood by and let you die with the rest, but I didn’t. I treated your burns. I took care of you. I love you. We’re family. I love Oswald with all my heart but only you understand my mind. Spencer, please Spencer, tell your friends to go. I can’t lose either of you. I can’t go to Arkham or Blackgate. I would rather die. Please -”

“You’re getting blood in my hair, Ed,” Reid managed to say.

“I’ll help you wash it out. I’ll fix your foot. I’m not angry at you. Tell your friends to go.”

“They’re also my family.”

Nygma made an anguished noise at that.

Reid’s speech was through gritted teeth and his face had gone so pale that Prentiss worried he’d pass out. “Ed, please, it doesn’t matter how far you run. Your personal hell is in your mind, and it’s not Oswald or me that can save you if you keep running from these demons - your memories, hallucinations, blackouts, Kristen, Arkham, your father - like this. You can’t run from them. They’re hiding inside of you. You need professional help, and that’s something I say with love. I’ll keep you out of Arkham or Blackgate. Both of you.”

“Promise?”

“ED! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”

“I’m sorry, Oswald. I love you both equally. In different ways, but equally. I’m just so….do you promise?”

“I promise. I’ll do my best to keep you from being separated.” Reid let out a hysterical, wobbly laugh. “Since you got out of Arkham, you’ve conspired to kill federal agents and have been holding a federal agent prisoner. It’s out of GCPD hands.”

Prentiss wanted to tell Reid he might not be able to keep promises like that, but anything to get Nygma to stop clinging to him and threatening suicide.

“You said, you said you knew better places.”

“Yes.”

“Where we won’t get hurt like that again.”

“Yes.”

“I’m just so tired.”

“I know.”

Nygma’s eyes were damp as he put down the gun. Blood, sweat, and tears, all for Spencer Reid. Reid used the last of his strength to shove the gun away.

As Nygma was still shielding Reid with his body, Cobblepot had lost the standoff. He put his own gun down and put his hands in the air. “It’s going to take me a long time to forgive you for this,” he muttered to Nygma.

Reid accepted Prentiss holding his hand and dabbing at his face with a pocket square swiped from Cobblepot. Morgan handled the prisoners as they all waited for the ambulance and whoever JJ was bringing with her. “I heard them fighting about what to do about you, so I knew I had to act today,” he whispered. “I used...a hardback collection of...Shakespeare. I missed you...Emily.”

Oh, Spencer Reid, never change. “You did great,” Prentiss said, wanting to crush him to her chest and never let him out of her sight again.

“Lemme...talk t’ Pen’lope? She was so scared…”

They found out later that Garcia screamed and Kevin came running, and that Rossi didn’t mind her yelling at him while also laughing and crying, and Hotch put a hand lightly on her shoulder and told her to take the rest of the day off. Get some rest. Well done.

*****

Reid's BAU family was concerned when he explained the extent of what he wanted, and asked for him to be evaluated for Stockholm Syndrome and any chemical residues that might be affecting his judgment. When he passed the evaluation, they relented. They helped him assemble a legal team that included an excellent psychiatrist. They contributed every trick in the book, and some that weren’t even on the bookshelf, to get their miraculous Reid exactly what he wanted.

The Van Dahl/Cobblepot fortune helped fund the defense. Neither Cobblepot nor Nygma were on trial for anything they’d done before Arkham, as that would be double jeopardy. Nobody chased any speculations other than what they’d done to federal agents.

With all her media expertise, JJ worked tirelessly to make sure that Nygma and Cobblepot’s abduction of Spencer never got publicized. Garcia hacked and deleted anything the media dug up before they could do anything with it. Their baby bro had been through enough. As far as the public knew, Ed and Oswald had conspired to kill FBI agents in order to cover up Jonathan Crane’s attempts to create a fear serum, and that was the end of it.

Nobody could find the fear serum. Spencer had reason to believe that the last instructions to Olga in this contingency had been to destroy all the samples of it. He kept this to himself. Olga had vanished in any case. Spencer was glad that aspect of Jonathan’s work could not be duplicated by anyone else.

On the other hand, Paper Crane made a sensation. Its creation had caused no harm to humans. It had revolutionary pharmaceutical potential. Jonathan got a shorter, lighter sentence with the ability to take online college courses in exchange for helping develop Paper Crane as a new psychiatric medication. In deference to his youth and literal brain scarring, Jonathan Crane's story was suppressed on a national level to a certain extent, but in Gotham there was uproar. A number of headlines screamed about Jonathan getting away with his crimes just because he’d come up with something of medical interest. A guest on Margaret Hearst's talk show compared him to Unit 731. Jonathan sent in a letter expressing his offence at being compared to pardoned war criminals who made Hugo Strange sound like a Care Bear. The letter was sold for thousands of dollars at auction, none of which went to him. "Typical."

Jonathan also claimed that his mentor, Nygma, as they became closer, had confided in him about the tortures he’d experienced in Arkham. He said this was why three of the bodies found had been those of Arkham employees. He and Ed listed what those three and many others had done, and what suicide and accident victims Dr. Davies and Dr. Walsh had done. (There was no reliable evidence that the respective suicide and accident rulings had been inaccurate, despite their convenience.)

Barbara Kean, under witness protection, corroborated a few of the Arkham horror stories. Jervis Tetch testified in exchange for a real hat of his choice and a plastic tea party set. Five testimonies being treated seriously emboldened a number of those still kept within its walls, and the reports began rolling in. A massive federal investigation began.

On a smaller scale, what Jonathan said made Nygma and Oswald’s conspiracy to commit murder more sympathetic. Why wouldn’t a pair of victims wish to protect someone avenging such deep wrongs? It also pushed forward the notion that being institutionalized would constantly remind Ed - who had suffered worse than the average patient because of his disobedience - of that abuse. There was the even greater mitigating factor of Nygma saving Reid’s life twice. They offered a guilty plea, willingness to choose a lighter form of incarceration rather than a shorter sentence, and his detailed testimony when it came to convicting Jonathan.

Nygma’s fate was unorthodox and ended up setting new legal precedents. It was a lengthy sentence of being a day patient at an appropriate facility, but otherwise being under house arrest. He was to be cared for by a relative and victim, albeit one who had taken the witness stand but not personally pressed charges. What helped sell the choice of guardian to the judge was Spencer Reid being an expert in criminal psychology, and a stellar FBI agent. Reid relocated to a house near the facility. There was some assistance from that fortune again, sullenly given. Cobblepot wanted the best for Nygma despite his feelings of anger and betrayal.

Reid would have had trouble being an active agent again anyway. He had a permanent limp now. Besides, he was done with getting into new serial killers’ heads. Getting into the heads of two of them was enough work, even if he loved one and found the other one likeable when he wasn’t hitting Reid with a big stick.

Cobblepot had fewer mitigating factors than Nygma, but he snitched on everyone who’d helped blow up the FBI agents. This didn’t work with Annie Wu, who had gone off to start a new life as a law-abiding stuntwoman in Toronto shortly after Cobblepot had her birth certificate fixed. However, the other conspirators added up to quite the bargaining chips. Also, the defense claimed that since Cobblepot had been subjected to an experimental “morality” brainwashing treatment in Arkham, created by a man who turned out to also be creating superpowered monsters out of dead people, Cobblepot’s subsequent ability to determine right from wrong was in question.

Nygma had shown that he would not allow Reid to die, even if this cost him his freedom. Cobblepot had shown willingness to kill Reid if that would free himself. Reid would have assistance in maintaining the house arrest, but it was too great a risk even so. Cobblepot, therefore, ended up being a full-time resident at the same institution for the duration of his sentence. Between that and spousal privileges, they were able to spend a decent amount of time together. As former partners in crime, they would not have been allowed to room together regardless, so Ed might as well not be constantly triggered.

Reid picked up his life again. He kept himself busy with part-time consulting for law enforcement, academic research, and guest lecturing at nearby universities. Explaining to his godson and his own mother that he wasn’t dead after all proved to be a challenge, but the good kind of challenge. He also rekindled something still non-exclusive yet far more serious with Ethan. Unfortunate that the logistics of being in different cities and Reid being his second cousin’s jailer were constant hurdles.

But Ethan had just shrugged and said, “It’s much better than it was with you gallivanting around the country all the time. I’d rather deal with Ed than the BAU. He’s got a tracker ankle bracelet and hotels are a thing.”

****

Both of them were half-asleep and sticky from half-assed cleanup, but Spencer worried that if he didn’t say it now, he never would. “Ethan?”

Ethan yawned and stretched like a big cat. It was the middle of the afternoon, while Ed was still safely at treatment. “Yeah, babe?”

“I did a bad thing and I’m not sorry, but I feel sorry for not feeling sorry.”

“Oh?”

“Ed killed Dr. Davies. He wanted me to kill Davies for him, as a test, but when I couldn’t do it Ed finished him off. Also I think Jonathan Crane took the fall for three more people than he had to, because he’s a juvenile with no previous offenses and will get treated more lightly than Ed would for it. They were all men who contributed to Ed and others being abused in Arkham, and I feel no compassion for them. Is this really me, or did Paper Crane do something permanent after all? If anyone else obstructed justice like that, I’d tell them that vigilantism is misplaced and ultimately unaccept -AWK!”

“What’s the rule we made?”

Spencer squirmed, not unpleasantly, in the loose tackle. “If you’re obviously - hee! - thinking too much and it’s not helping anything, you get - eee - tickled.”

“Uh huh. Talk to your therapist about it if you need to. She’s not allowed to report anything except for plans to cause harm or recent abuse of a minor. You can tell her. Meanwhile, here’s my take: we’ve both done illegal drugs. You lifted your first dose of Dilaudid off the corpse of a man you’d just shot. Along with shit just as shady, I’ve also been a cheating slut on everyone I’ve tried to be monogamous with. It was hard enough getting him treated the way you think he needs to be. You’re the best person I know. I’m not half-bad. Life is complicated.”

With a decisive nod, Ethan then curled around Spender and nuzzled at his neck. Paper Crane was no substitute for that feeling.

*****

“How are you, Ed?”

“My current medications are working pretty well, except for the drowsiness and reduced appetite.”

“Is the doctor going to work with you on that?”

“Yes. I'm working on a plea to be permitted to cross state lines for a visit to Jonathan. We're pen pals. Our letters get read first to make sure we're not plotting. Spencer goes the extra mile and check for codes, which turns it from irritating to oddly flattering. Jonathan's doing well in his online Organic Chemistry course. Naturally.”

“That’s nice.”

“I’m so-”

“No more apologizing. It’s done. Our sentences are long but finite.”

“How’s your therapist?”

“She’s okay. She reminds me of Olga, with better English. No-nonsense but caring. How’s your cuz?”

“He’s visiting his mother. She’s very ill. I don’t like my substitute supervisor very much. I mean, he doesn’t try to bury me alive, but that’s a low bar.”

“Oh, you pooooooor thing, being trapped in a house. A real house.”

“Sorry. I love you, Oswald.”

Oswald closed his eyes, opened them, and took Ed’s hand. “Heaven help me, you may have shot me in the gut and thrown me to the sharks, but...I love you too.”

******

It was one year, ten months, one week, and five days since Ed's surrender. Spencer was on his seventh week of wearing black for his mother. Ed had not been allowed to fly to Nevada - his plea to see Jonathan two states away had been denied, let alone going so far. He listened to a late night phone call filled with Spencer ranting about having to put up with his suddenly present father, and how there'd been an argument about whether his father even deserved to be there. "Where were you when I, a ten-year-old, had to take care of her as much as she took care of me? Where were you when she was institutionalized? Where were you when she was dying? I don't want to see you at the FUCKING wake."

Spencer had apologetically asked Ed not to attend the small, secondary memorial service near where they lived. Not to make Spencer have to juggle Ed's presence with the presence of Spencer's former team, who were still his other family. Or the presence of Ethan, who tolerated Ed but kept smirking at him. So Ed had later gone with Spencer to the tree that had been planted in Diana Reid's honor, and place lilies at its base, like he had for Oswald's mother's grave. Diana had wanted to be buried in her hometown. He had been wearing black with only a small green accent, such as a tie pin or his hunter-green wristwatch. At home, he had been playing what he thought would be comforting music on the keyboard Spencer bought him.

Ed made a lot of visual riddles in his art therapy class these days. His therapist understood that riddles helped Ed occupy his frenetic mind and attempt to bond with people. Now Ed thrust a forest-green/emerald-green origami box into Spencer's hands and removed the lid. It was full of exactly one thousand tiny white paper cranes, made of one thousand tiny white flags for his heart to fly. He waited, unable to speak.

Spencer looked at it, and looked, and placed the box on the dining table. "Making a thousand grants you a wish. You told me. Oh, Ed. You want me to forgive you, don't you? I forgave you the moment you put the gun down." He stepped forward and wrapped his arms around him.

“It's a paltry gesture,” Ed said, tightly hugging back, a catch in his throat.

“I’ll take it. Give me an inch, and I will take a mile.”

**************************************************

The wound is where the light enters you.

Jelaluddin Rumi

Chapter Text

Everyone talks about fight-or-flight. There is a third option which gets less press. Spencer freezes.

Then Dr. Walsh is upon him, trying to get his hands around Spencer’s throat. All the revulsion Spencer has for him, knowing what he did to Ed, what he did to others, rises as a ball of energy to push through that barrier of caution and morality that kept him from killing a helpless man tied to a chair. As if planned, as if destined, Spencer grabs a massive hardback collection of Shakespeare and bashes his head in. It takes multiple blows.

There’s a moment where Ed just stares at Spencer, and Spencer is just grinning at him endlessly because oh, he is so alive. He might start giggling soon. He feels it bubbling in him. It’s like the time he drank too much cheap champagne in one draught and the fizz went up his nose.

Ed checks Dr. Walsh’s pulse, shoves him away, and wipes the blood from Spencer’s face. He asks tenderly, “Do you know the ancient Persian god of the sun, justice, contract, and war?”

Everything comes together. From adrenalin to peace. Like an injection of Paper Crane. Spencer leans into the touch, with more smiling. One may be a villain, and smile, and smile.

“Spencer? Do you need a moment? Water? It can be a bit of a shock, killing at close quarters.”

He can’t find his own words for a moment, so he chooses three lines from a Kipling poem:

Look on Thy children in darkness. Oh, take our sacrifice!
Many roads Thou hast fashioned – all of them lead to Light!
Mithras, also a soldier, teach us to die aright.

“My dear Spencer. Correct.” Then Ed cuts through the tape on the cuff and turns the combination on the lock. It clicks open.

Yet there is still an FBI agent inside, and Spencer will not truly extinguish him, only add to him. He looks Ed in the eye. “I won’t kill any of my loved ones from my old life for you, and I won’t let you or Oswald hurt them. If you need them to be put off a scent, help me plant false clues until they give up. In general and when possible, I will be allowed to try nonviolent options first before you try otherwise in any shared effort. Those are my terms. Otherwise put that shackle right back on.”

“I have no problem with that if you can make it work, and I have great confidence in your ability to make things work.” Ed holds out his hand. “Join us?”

Champagne in his mouth and mind, and so what if it is stinging his sinuses? So what if he feels dizzy? Spencer almost shakes hands, but instead he clasps Ed’s in both of his. “To borrow from James Joyce, ‘and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.’”

***

[Gotham opening goes here]

***

 

[Months later…]

Harvey Bullock dropped a sack of pastries on Jim Gordon’s desk. “I know you’re a bit glum about that date with Mystery Lady not going well, so I stopped by a bakery that’s got these things that are sort of doughnuts and sort of croissants. I’ve never had one, but I saw the sign and I thought it’d be worth a try.”

He privately thought that maybe it was good for Jim not to date, at least for another year or so, because his previous three ladies went nuts, died, or left him for a man who went nuts and then died.

Jim gave him a half-smile. “Thanks, Harvey. Did you get any for yourself?”

“Yeah, obviously. Hey, is Lucius still giving out lessons in how to use the shiny new computers donated by Bruce Wayne? I want to learn how to cross-reference different times of digitized records.”

Jim didn’t have time to answer before some punk in all black strolled into the station with a duffel bag slung over one shoulder. Boots, leather, gloves, a sleek jacket with silver zippers, the whole shebang. Except the kid looked like he was AWOL from a college drama program and regularly cried if a sad song came on the radio. He looked like the little bit of a beard he had going on had taken about two months of no shaving. His dark brown hair was tied back into what wasn’t quite a ponytail. Maybe a chipmunk tail.

Kid had the nerve to stand up on a desk that didn’t currently have someone working at it. “Hello everyone! My name is Nefyn P-”

“Go home, sweetheart,” Officer Santiago said. She had a weird mothering instinct towards delinquents and hooligans.

A knife flew through the air and embedded itself into a far wall. A hush fell. Upon further inspection, his belt had a black-on-black holster that held a gun on his left hip and a circle of throwing knives around his right thigh.

“Let’s start again. Hello everyone! My professional name is Knifepoint, if you like that better. I have been sent personally by The Riddler and his associate on a matter of deep concern to them, so please be respectful. In this bag, I have a letter for every single one of you. Not just the police officers.”

“He’s imitating the speech Zsasz gave when he came here for me,” Jim muttered.

Lucius insisted that Nefyn (that was the least silly option, which said a lot) be the one to open each envelope, at a distance from anyone else, before handing it over.

“Right, like the anthrax thing? I can lick the inside of the envelopes for you after I open them, if you want.”

That was faster than having all of them screened for toxins, and when the Riddler sent something to the cops it meant shit was going to go down shortly. It made this whole situation even weirder, though. They were on green paper, which made sense given the Riddler’s green fetish. The words were printed in red ink. Which made less sense.

Turns out that former Commissioner Loeb’s Treasure Trove O’Blackmail? There was a complete set of duplicates, and the Riddler and his team had found it. Turns out each letter had enough detail to prove this about each person’s file to the relevant person. Now, at first Harvey thought everyone hired after Loeb resigned was exempt, but it also turned out that there were hints about dirt on everybody. Those tidbits must have been discovered by other means. Some people got a two-for-one combo.

A lot of people immediately shredded their letters after, and Harvey didn’t try to dissuade them. He might say something if too many people started using their lighters. That could get out of hand.

“Does yours analyze your personality as well?” Harvey asked Jim.

Jim looked like he’d accidentally swallowed a pebble. “Y-yeah. Does yours have a Pablo Neruda quote at the end?”

“No, mine’s got a Laura Esquivel, whoever she is. ‘Each one of us has our past locked inside.’”

Jim made Nefyn put the rest of the letters down and hauled him to the interrogation room. Nefyn didn’t protest.

***

After making him surrender one pistol and a lot of knives (one balisong, one Swiss Army, a Bowie, and seven more throwing knives), they left Nefyn to sit and stew for a bit. Jim asked Lucius to find out there were any files on him under that name went around and asked everyone for all the non-incriminating details of their letters. All on green paper with red type, all with references to dark facts about them, all finished off with a different but thematically appropriate literary quote.

Harvey went into the room and sat in the chair across from the kid. Jim lurked in the corner behind Nefyn, to throw him off-balance. “What’s your full name?”

“Nefyn Ponder Pontiac, sir, and every possible joke has been made.” Nefyn gave a sheepish smile. “I’m hoping ‘Knifepoint’ will catch on. I admit that I’ve only just started out. Mostly running errands at this...point.”

“There aren’t any riddles in these,” Harvey said.

“That’s because the Riddler didn’t write these, sir.”

“Who did write them, then?” Both Harvey and Jim suspected that the Riddler was actually Edward Ngyma flailing around for attention, given all the riddles in the clues he deliberately left, and the fact that he seemed hellbent on making cops look dumb. If it was Nygma, he was likely backed by the Penguin. This didn’t seem like Penguin’s style, though.

“Am I being charged with anything, sir? I suppose I threw a knife at the wall, but that’s vandalism at most, and I’m happy to pay for it to be fixed. I just wanted to get you to take me more seriously.”

Jim said, “That depends if you knew what was in the letters. That’s being complicit in blackmail.”

“I didn’t, sir. You saw that the envelopes were sealed.”

“You could have read them before they were sealed.”

Nefyn’s face was perfectly innocent. “No, sir. I couldn’t have.”

A knock at the door, and Lucius came in with a few printouts. “Hope I’m not interrupting?”

“If you’ve got something useful, come on in,” Harvey said. Nefyn twisted around to see. Harvey noticed that the kid’s hair tie was the only thing he was wearing that wasn’t black. It was a bright, rich blue. The knife he’d thrown into the wall, unlike his others, had an equally blue handle. Maybe it was his signature knife.

Lucius, as usual, was cool and collected and sounded compassionate. “Nefyn Pontiac, right? Age twenty-one?”

“Yes, sir, though I’ll be twenty-two in two weeks.”

“Congratulations. You applied to the police academy the moment you were old enough.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You got turned down for two reasons. First because you’d spent time in juvenile hall for, well, knifing a man…”

A hard look flickered across Nefyn’s face. “I was fourteen. I did warn him not to touch me, and I called him an ambulance before I got on the bus I was waiting for. They didn’t appreciate my wordplay.”

Harvey could see a soft look flicker across Jim’s face. It was good Nefyn was busy looking at Lucius. Especially since in Lucius’ printout, it said Nefyn had thrown the severed dick down a manhole. “The other reason?”

“Total red-green color blindness." Lucius paused, likely taking a moment with the other two to appreciate the irony of Nefyn having green eyes that could not see green. "These letters look like solid brown to him. The only way he could read any of it was if he’d gotten a glimpse of the computer screen. If the Riddler went to all this trouble with the paper and ink to protect them from the messenger, that’s unlikely.”

“Apparently, the Riddler’s not the one who wrote these, just someone in cahoots with him,” Harvey said, feeling a headache coming on.

“He doesn’t want the Riddler to get arrested, sir, even when you become sure who he is. Which, frankly, I think you will, because the Riddler isn’t great at keeping a low profile. He wants the Riddler to be treated like you treated Falcone, and Maroni, and the Penguin. And will continue to treat the Penguin, now that he’s given up being Mayor.”

Well, that confirmed Penguin being up to his old tricks. Ugh.

Jim stepped closer to Nefyn. “Who. Is. He.”

“The Reader.”

Harvey groaned. Another one of those gimmicky types.

****

Lee found Jim leaning against the wall of the alleyway behind the building. The same place where Barbara once had him beaten to a pulp by a pet thug.

“Hey,” she said softly.

He closed his eyes. “We had to let Pontiac go. He had a license for the gun and all his knives are either legal for concealed carry in this state, or he wasn’t concealing them according to the legal definition. He didn’t say anything else useful, and when he was asked for an alibi about something we thought maybe we could pin on him, to keep him around longer, guess what the alibi was?”

“What?”

“He says he was making home videos, which are automatically stamped with time and date on the camera they used. Explicit videos. One with a Zsazette and one with Zsasz himself.” Harvey said later that he was going to be haunted by that mental image until his dying day.

She made a face. “Okay, I want to be clear that it’s not that they’re both men, it’s that one of them is Zsasz.”

“I wouldn’t think the former, not of you.” Jim looked at her, so very tired. “‘If you’re going to yell at me about me being an asshat last night when you were trying, really trying, please rip off the band-aid.”

“No.”

“No?”

She didn’t show him what the Reader had shown he knew she’d done - and yes, she’d done something, everyone had done something, even if it wasn’t illegal it was something shameful - but she held up the letter. “After some discussion of me on my own merits, it says I look for powerful, decisive men who I put on a pedestal, and I feel betrayed when they don’t stay there. It says I like to be the one who humanizes them. When I find out they were already human, in ways that I dislike and I can’t fix, I get angry.”

“In the interest of non-asshattery, I will not comment. You really care what this Reader guy says about you?”

“Broken clocks are right twice a day, and from what people will tell me, it’s almost like he reads minds.” She reached out and touched his shoulder. “The world is a messed up place. Today was a powerful lesson in that every one of us has something we’ve done. Does that make sense?”

He stopped leaning against the wall and leaned into her touch. “I think it does.”

“Would you like to try again, again? What with Jerome and now this one, it seems even the bad guys are invested in this.” She smiled with self-deprecation.

“Yes, please.” Jim reached up, carefully, to take her hand. He followed her out of the alley, into the sunlight.

****

Ed nearly skipped down the basement stairs as Spencer followed. “You are a wonder. This is the perfect way to celebrate. Though I have to ask, what’s the point of trying to get Dr. Tompkins and Jim Gordon back together? She could do better. How about Harvey Dent? Not Harvey Bullock. Harvey Dent. He’s handsome and idealistic, and one of these days I just know he’s going to snap and go on a themed rampage but still care about his loved ones. A sexy quality in a man. From a purely detached standpoint. Um. Don’t tell Oswald I said everything I just said.”

Last Wednesday, Spencer had promised not to tell Ed about a drowsy Oswald waxing poetic regarding the aloof mystique of Victor Fries. This couple overestimated each other’s romantic insecurity. “I won’t. Be that as it may, the more content Gordon is with life, and occupied with love, the less he’ll be obsessed with coming after us.”

Spencer hung back as Ed unlocked the door of the special part of the basement, separate from the rest. They’d discovered it recently, and gathered that Oswald’s father had used it to store a trove of marijuana. They’d moved the drugs elsewhere so they could use the space for an even less legal storage. It had been kind of funny when Oswald’s view of his father shifted, but it had proven useful for when Oswald’s leg was hurting more than normal.

Their lawsuit against Arkham was ongoing. They were deliberately dragging it out to cause Arkham the most stress possible. Spencer was trying to figure out a way to spark a thorough federal investigation of Arkham without drawing attention to any member of this household. He hadn’t completely lost his sense of altruism. He’d simply adjusted how much this motivated his actions, and how much he’d sacrifice for its sake.

Ed opened the door. The moaning and whimpering became more evident. “I supposed keeping Jimbo distracted is worthwhile.”

“Is everything ready?” Spencer followed Ed inside.

“Yes. I had him relieve himself about half an hour ago, and he hasn’t had anything to eat or drink in quite some time. I learned my lesson with Mr. Leonard. I should’ve remembered what often happens at the moment of death.”

“Good thinking.” This man had been given plenty of chances. Spencer regarded the gagged and blindfolded figure with an undercurrent of loathing and an overcurrent of focusing on Ed. How Ed was feeling. How his hands were shaking. “Don’t you want your husband here?”

“No. I love him, and I know he’s willing to, but he can’t empathize with the situation. Even if your experience wasn't the same, not in degree, you weren’t….well, you understand more, and you were an indirect witness for years. Not having someone who’d really understand to back me up is one of the reasons why I didn’t do this earlier.”

“If you’re sure.” Spencer and Oswald got along well now, but he still treaded carefully to avoid upsetting the marital dynamic.

Ed turned and smiled at Spencer. The dim light was reflected in his glasses. They’d both dressed in casual, easily laundered clothes. “It’s fine, we’ve done this sort of thing together plenty of times. I had him help me arrange it, as well. He won’t begrudge us this.”

Spencer flicked on the overhead light and closed the door behind him. Ed took a few deep breaths. He punched the man in the gut. Then took out the noise-cancelling earplugs. Then he cut away the blindfold. For a moment, just a moment, Ed faltered under that stare, and didn’t seem to be able to move. Chilled. Struck.

Spencer touched Ed’s shoulder lightly, and began the tweaked version of a classic riddle that Ed was planning on using. “Brothers and sisters have I none…”

Ed closed his eyes, and when he opened them, it was the Riddler, sent by a little boy who’d died a thousand times and would be avenged today. He removed the gag and growled, “But a father like this deserves no son. Scream for me, Dad."

***

“Ed, I know you don’t want medication, and I respect that. But if I find a therapist who we can trust, whether inherently or because they don’t dare report you, would you consider…”

“If you can. You know about these things. It seems to help Jonathan.”

“Good. Because I still worry about you. I don’t want you to not be you, I just want you to breathe easier. Your father being dead doesn’t mean he isn’t still in your head. Let alone what they did to you in Arkham.”

“I appreciate it. We can discuss that more later. I can fill up a room, I will evade every touch, but if there’s too much, it will spell your doom. What am I?”

“I take it you want us to put our gas masks on now, against the fumes.”

“The chemicals I am about to pour out are extremely powerful. I know you have a doctorate, but you don’t have real-life experience with these particular tough customers.”

“Aw, dammit.”

“Spencer?”

“I’m fine. I just realized I missed the best opportunity I’ll ever have to make a pun based on the colloquialism ‘say uncle’, as in 'announce that you yield in defeat'. Oh well. You promised to teach me this disposal method. Mask time!”

Chapter Text

A catlike burglar, a plant-obsessed nature witch, and a flameproof firebug walk into a dining room…

The housekeeper lady, Olga, insisted on all three girls eating lots. Selena had no problem with this. Bridgit’s face was a bit pinched, too. She had clearly been struggling to make ends meet lately, which broke Selina’s heart, but Bridgit had also gotten to slap her boss in the face with, like, hot coals while announcing that she quit. Badass.

“So do you think you’ll accept?” Bridgit asked, crunching a habanero like it was a stick of celery. She liked a lot of hot peppers in her food these days. A LOT. Nygma had found this interesting and gone on and on about capsaicin and chemical burns until his hubby tactfully stopped him.

“Part-time, yes.” Ivy was eating her salad at a pace that made Selena wonder if she’d get a cherry tomato stuck in her windpipe any minute. It was still weird seeing her look like she was in her twenties. “It’ll be cool to develop my control perfume and the medical uses for the plants, but I still want time to take care of my own greenhouse.”

“I’m going all in,” Bridgit said. “It’s the best offer I’ve got in...my life, I think. My whole life. Cat?”

“I’m not giving up my freedom, but I’m okay with being on call.” Selina watched Olga approaching. “Is that two pies?”

“You girls are thin, no mothers to feed you. For shame.” Olga placed the pies on the table. “Apple here, berry here. I spend hours on pastry.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Bridgit said, eyes depressingly big in wonderment. Selina probably couldn’t get away with calling her the Little Match Girl.

Selina drank her chocolate milk thoughtfully. It’d be nice seeing her friends more often.

****

“Dr. Reid?” Jonathan asked from the doorway. Spencer had a bigger en suite bedroom now, with a large window that let him see the sunset.

“Oh, hi, I didn’t know you were here. Come in.”

“Mr. Cobblepot let me in.”

“Take a seat. How are you?”

Jonathan did. He started twisting the pinkie-finger mood ring he frequently wore when he wasn’t in the lab or working with test subjects. Spencer had some unvoiced ideas about the story there. “So, you’ve been a big help with making stored Paper Crane last longer.”

“I do have a PhD. in chemistry. You’re welcome. Ed and I are going to work on blueprints for nifty booby traps soon, to let me use my engineering doctorate.”

“Cool. I’m here because I wanted to thank you. I did art therapy for a bit, and I made a mask to express myself. It’s my scarecrow mask. After the FBI came to town, I ended up wearing it when looking for involuntary test subjects on my own. I feel, like, stronger with it on. Also, I know you’re having this problem where you’re supposed to be dead, so that restricts where you can go without the risk of being recognized.”

“Ed and I were discussing that just this morning,” Spencer said. He’d done the hair dye and the low-key beard, and this sufficed for a low-profile quiet walk in a park, for example. Especially if it was bright enough outside that it didn’t seem odd for him to be wearing sunglasses. For notable crime, though, he needed a disguise. In general the Reader needed a look, but he hadn’t settled upon one. Ed had been the one to retrieve the blackmail files, and Ivy and Selina had collected the other compromising data for Spencer to aggregate. The Reader was still an idea. Noncorporeal.

“It’s fine if you don’t like it, but I’d run out of homework and I was thinking about the Reader. As an identity. I thought about what you said about irises being caught on camera as a good way to identify someone, too.” Then Jonathan pulled a mask out of his bag and offered it to Spencer.

It looked like papier mache, made out of aged and overlapping petals of pages from an old book. The words were in...Romanian? Many of the edges were burnt, reminding him of the burns he’d sustained and Ed had healed. There was a strip of black lace stretching across the eyes, which would prevent any clear view of his irises but had wide enough gaps so that Spencer would be able to see reasonably well once accustomed to it. There was a strong cord to tie the whole thing in place. It would only cover his forehead and the top half of his face, but the image was so arresting, and his real identity so surprising, that people were unlikely to put two and two together.

It was utterly perfect.

“The book was from a yard sale by a family about to move to another state, and paid for in cash. Maybe the language would be a red herring if someone tried to figure out who you are based on it. I coated it several times, with lacquer and also something I cooked up to distract myself from an anxiety attack a few months ago. It’s sturdier than it look. It’s waterproof, too. It should still be light, though. I had to make an educated guess about your facial dimensions.”

“I love it,” Spencer breathed. “Let me pay you for this.”

“Nope. You and Mr. Nygma have been great mentors, and Mr. Cobblepot has me on the payroll already.”

Spencer tied it on, and he looked in the mirror. “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

“Who’s that by?” Jonathan had gotten used to both constant riddles and constant quotations.

“Oscar Wilde. Thank you again, Jonathan. I won’t forget this.”

“I also made you some pinback buttons. I know a girl who sells customized ones to save for college and asked to borrow the machine. I thought maybe it could bridge the gap between the meanings of your new name.”

The pins said: “YOU ARE AN OPEN BOOK.”

“This is superb. Can I hug you?”

Jonathan cleared his throat. “Can you not? It’s not personal.”

Different neural pathways. Different ways of processing emotions. Unlike anyone else in the world. What was it like, being Jonathan Crane? Spencer held back curiosity and asked, “Fistbump?”

“Okay.”

They fistbumped.

****

Oswald was idly practicing scales on the piano. Spencer had suggested it as a way to take his mind off pain in his leg when for one reason or another he didn’t want to reach for pills (or some of his father’s surprising stash that reminded him how little he actually knew Elijah Van Dahl). Music was proven to distract from pain better than anything else non-medical, according to both these incurable nerds he’d ended up acquiring.

“Do you like my new mask?”

“GAH!” The exclamation was from being sneaked up on, not from the mask itself. When Oswald got over the shock, he could see that the mask was attractive and suited him well.

Ed had learned not to sneak up on Oswald, so he came towards them with the cheerful announcement, “I just saw Jonathan off. He’s invited us to his high school graduation.”

“They grow up so fast,” Oswald mused. He turned in order to face the others. “You should probably be the one to go, dearest. You’ll cause the least of a stir.”

“He made me a mask. I like masks. Do you like my mask? Did you know that there was a campaign, with some success, to deter tigers in India and Bangladesh from attacking people, without having to shoot them, in which people wore masks on the backs of their heads? Tigers don’t like approaching prey from the front.”

“Neither does the Reader, apparently,” Ed teased. He slung an arm around Spencer’s shoulders. “We’ve just passed the momentous culmination of months of hard work, most of it Spencer’s, though Oswald’s assistance in finding out that Loeb had that second set of files in the first place was invaluable. We should celebrate as a trio. Also, that’s a great mask. You should wear a hat with it.”

“I was thinking a coachman’s, but on second thought it’ll be practical if I can tuck my hat into a bag, along with the mask, if I’m out and about and had to pretend I wasn’t the Reader. Like how Spiderman has street clothes to wear over his suit. Maybe a black newsboy cap? They’re more common than bowlers or coachman’s, too, so if I lost it there wouldn’t necessarily be a connecting of dots.” Spencer looked from Ed to Oswald and back. “As a trio would be nice.”

Oswald appreciated the ‘as a trio’. Yesterday Ed and Spencer had celebrated by killing Ed’s father in a way that made Mr. Leonard’s fate seem like gentle euthanasia, and Ed and Oswald had celebrated that celebration by doing every filthy thing that Oswald could imagine commanding him to. Ed didn’t just get ligature marks, he got rope burns. While Ed slept for the following ten hours, Spencer and Oswald had celebrated with quiet drinks, discussing the history of menswear and how Oswald’s likely personality disorder had affected Oswald’s life. Spencer was a lightweight and soon switched to cranberry juice and soda water, leaving him coherent enough to provide Oswald with a number of non-judgmental insights.

By the time Ed killed his father, he had been awake for far too long, trying to live on jitters, jugs of coffee, and morsels of food. Now that Oswald knew about Dr. Davies, he’d scaled back his attempts to make Ed eat and told Olga to do the same. Unless he was concerned about Ed fainting any second, he stopped at reminding Ed it was a mealtime. After Ed left his flow states, Oswald plied him with lots of rich dishes and Spencer steered him towards catching up on nutrients. Ed’s own worries about Spencer eating right had been a source of leverage for Spencer to make mutual pacts of better self-care. No matter the snags, having Spencer around really had made Ed better in the long run.

Spencer continued, “Actually, I have two rather more serious things to discuss at the moment.”

“I’m all ears,” said Oswald.

“The first is that I’m considering moving out. Not far, and not because of any dislike, but because I think we could use breathing room. Especially you two. From me.”

Ed frowned. “Spencer -”

“Let me finish. Oswald’s been biting his tongue because he knows how much you need to have me in your life, and until recently you couldn’t have me in your life without also having me stay in this house. Now we have a certain amount of protection from the police. We’ll have to be careful in not attracting federal attention, but that’s something I feel we can do without having to be so drastic, especially given how insular Gotham tends to be. I have faith in you two when it comes to keeping the criminal underworld off my back. I need to move out before Oswald’s friendship with me crumbles from feeling like he’s been made a third wheel. Am I right, Oswald?”

Oswald hesitated, then nodded. Ed came to sit next to him on the piano bench. “I didn’t realize.”

Putting a hand on Ed’s thigh, Oswald said, “You’re great at manipulating people. Not at handling them. It frustrates me on occasion, but that’s who you are. Spencer reads people for a living.”

Ed looked at Oswald for a long moment, then back at Spencer. “Will you stay if we have a major project?”

“Of course. I’m not planning to go far. The Zsasz Family chased their nearest neighbors off more than a year ago and have been looking to bring in someone who has no problem with their work. Or lifestyle. I’ll be allowed to tell you the address, since it’s mutually assured exposure.”

Taking the core members of the Zsasz Family into their confidence when it came to Spencer had already been necessary for the Reader’s inaugural operation. This would keep that information in-house. Very clever.

“What’s the other thing?” Oswald asked.

After a period of silence, Spencer removed the mask. His face was red and eyes watery. How long had it been so? “I just got a text from one of my informants. My mother grieved for me relatively normally, you know, whenever she was lucid. She still took an interest in life. My old team’s been checking on her.”

“Well, that part’s good,” Oswald said, trying to broadcast sympathy. Spencer hadn’t stopped loving anyone, he’d just stopped agreeing with them. No longer agreeing was compatible with loving.

As for Spencer’s team, Spencer’s knowledge of them as individuals as well as BAU tactics made him successfully organize a series of false clues that made even his most tenacious found-family give up their unofficial search for him. Thankfully Jonathan had been appropriately wary of people with Virginia license plates and area codes asking him questions. As time went on, Spencer would be less and less cautious about living as “Nicholas Anderson”, the new legal identity he was nearly done constructing.

Ed and Oswald tolerated Spencer discreetly keeping an eye on his team’s well-being, as well of that of his former lover Ethan. Though it had been milder, Oswald remembered back when he was often worried for Jim Gordon, regardless of being on the opposite side of the law. As for his mother, Oswald couldn’t begrudge Spencer that.

Spencer let out a laugh-sob. The mask dangled from one hand. “But Mom was recently diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer. She tried to kill herself. They've moved her out of her comfortable rooms into something suicide-proof. She’s miserable.”

“We need to do something about that,” Oswald said.

Ed took Oswald’s hand, but made eye contact with Spencer. “Aunt Diana was very kind to me, and very accepting, all while your father was obsessed with normalizing you before he threw up his hands and abandoned both of you.”

Oswald knew that Spencer felt cold apathy towards his father by this point. Not worth the effort of anyone traveling to Nevada. His mother, though - she might be.

***

[Weeks later…]

Dr. Kali and Yoona had done an excellent job with a discreet extraction, with a minimum of distress for his mother. She’d been left conscious as much as was feasible. Dr. Kali had only gone through a bit of trauma counseling training, but she had a knack for reassuring people, and Spencer had thoroughly briefed her on his mother’s likes, dislikes, and common delusions. Yoona, meanwhile, had a license to fly private aircraft, on top of all her other classic Zsaszette skills, and was capable of doing a job wearing street casual.

The women delivered his mother and then went to return the plane, along with the adulterous love letters than had convinced the plane’s owner to let them borrow it. The Reader liked to start with blackmail, and if need be progress to psychological dissection, before resorting to violence. He hadn't given them instructions on how to cover up the kidnapping, only stipulated that there be no collateral deaths or injuries in the process, and no major property damage. Zsasz had said that Yoona was the best of all of his Family at making a disappearance not seem suspicious. There would be time to debrief and learn the details later.

Spencer stayed patiently by her side until the sedative wore off. “Mom?”

She sat up and peered at his face. There were more lines on hers than he remembered. “Are you the private investigator? Your assistants said you can find my son. The federal government told me he was dead, but they said it might be a lie, and that he might have just been kidnapped for knowing too much. He’s a genius.”

Spencer swallowed the lump in his throat. He knew he couldn’t count on her recognizing him. She often didn’t when she was deep in a delusion, and if he challenged her delusion head-on rather than letting her regain awareness on her own, it would just make her scream at him to leave. At least she was reacting to him positively.

“Yes, I’m here to help. I hope your nap was refreshing. I’ve set a table with dinner for us, if you’re hungry.”

“I suppose I am, thank you.” She let him pull the chair out for her.

He could hardly eat, but if he didn’t eat she might get suspicious. He took small bites and chewed slowly.

She didn’t have much appetite either, but she looked at the spread with appreciation. “These are all my favorites.”

“Wow. How fortunate.”

“If he’s alive, he’s got to be in terrible trouble. He wouldn’t stop writing to me or visiting me otherwise. He would never. A mother knows.” She took a sip of her drink. “This is even my favorite wine. I haven’t had wine in a long time.”

“I’ve heard you’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness. I’m sorry to hear that.”

She rolled up her sleeves, revealing long, jagged scars that were still healing. “They won’t let me hurry it along. Fascists.”

“What would you tell your son about this?”

“I’d tell him that I love him, and I was willing to suffer anything so that he’d grow up and be the best he could be. He did, though. If I get to talk to him again, it’s so I can make sure he’s okay, and so I can say goodbye and ask for his help ending it. It’ll break his heart, but I know he’ll help.” She shook her head. “You’ve provided this lovely meal. Let’s focus on it.”

He let her eat for awhile, but then he just couldn’t anymore. “Mom, it’s me. I’m Spencer.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Nice try. Spencer doesn’t look like that.”

“I’ve had to change my appearance so that the FBI doesn’t come after me. It’s really me, Mom, please.” He thought about listing a bunch of childhood memories, but his mother’s conscious memory of their lives was fallible during an episode. Emotional memory, though, went deeper. Studies showed that songs and poetry also went deep.

He took her hand and said, using the pronunciation she’d taught him, what she’d taught him when he was so very small, and when the world had not yet taught him there was anything wrong with either of them:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye,
So priketh hem Nature in hir corages,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

"...Spencer?”

Spencer wasn’t sure at what point he’d gotten out of his chair and ended up kneeling at her feet. “Yes, Mom, it’s me. I got into some trouble, like you figured out, and I haven’t been able to mail letters to you, but as soon as I could I asked some friends to go get you. To bring us together.”

She cupped her face in her hands. “But you’re okay?”

“I am. Better than. I’ve got a good job, and good friends, and I’m exercising my intellect, and I’m even eating better than I used to.”

“Are you angry at me for wanting to leave?”

“No.” The Reader part of him pointed out that no longer having her as a vulnerability would benefit him as well, but Spencer shushed it. “Do you want help?”

Her eyes were red-rimmed and shining. “Yes. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. You’ve given me every part of you that you had to give. Now everything we need is ready. It’ll be like going to sleep. I’ll hold your hand.”

She sighed with relief. “My young knight. My Percival. I love you.”

“I - I l-love you too, Mom.”

****

Ed heard the whistle and he hurried to the room and entered the door. Diana Reid lay cold on the bed, her face peaceful. Spencer was still holding her hand, face made of stone. The plastic whistle had fallen to the floor.

They’d already established what Spencer would need. Ed took him by the elbow. They left the room Spencer had been imprisoned in, but did not go to Spencer’s current bedroom. They didn’t want Spencer to associate this first breakdown with his own bedroom, even if soon it would only be the one he occupied during visits.

Instead, Ed took Spencer to the room that had been Ed’s before he started sharing with Oswald. It still had Ed’s personal possessions from his old apartment, and he slept in it from time to time when he and Oswald were cooling off from an argument. He sat Spencer down on the bed next to him. He put each pair of glasses safely on the nightstand; Spencer found tears and contact lenses to be an aggravating mix.

He said, “It’s okay to feel things.” Then he held Spencer like a child as Spencer cried and cried and cried and cried and cried and cried.

After Spencer paused to rehydrate and go to the bathroom, Ed held up a box with a needle in it. “Paper Crane? I mixed it up special last night with something to help you sleep. Up to you.”

“Thank you, but the least I can do for her now that she’s gone is mourn with all my heart. ‘I will not say do not weep, for not all tears are an evil.’” The Tolkien quote sent Spencer off on another wave, but Ed stayed with him until Spencer wore himself out.

Oswald had given permission for Spencer and Ed to sleep platonically in the same bed for the second time. “If it keeps him from sneaking off and shooting up with opiates, and if it keeps you from tossing and turning all night and wanting amphetamines in the morning, then yes.”

In the corner of Ed’s eye and the edge of his hearing, eight-year-old Spencer cried too, and eleven-year-old Ed held him, in parallel. In Spencer’s childhood bedroom, where his mother had been just two rooms away. He accepted their presence and let them be.

***

Oswald waited until he heard footsteps in Ed’s “bachelor” room before he knocked.

“No food yet, please,” Spencer called out.

“No food, promise. May I?”

Spencer was only in his underwear - including an undershirt - but this didn’t seem to register with him. “Did Zsasz-affiliates take her away?” Spencer had made it clear how desperately he wanted someone other than him to deal with the remains.

“Ed decided he wanted to pay his respects in his own fashion. You said cremation was an acceptable option but weren’t sure about the discretion angle.”

“To turn a human body completely into ashes isn’t something your average arsonist can do.”

“Bridgit ‘Firefly’ Pike is neither an average arsonist or average human. He’s meeting her at a secret location. She doesn’t know details, just that this is someone whose body mustn’t be found, yet someone Ed holds in high regard. Otherwise she might not go about her business with the proper gravity.”

“Ah.” Spencer looked about ready to crawl under the covers.

“I got something for you. It’s fine if it’s not to your taste, but I am versed in very few ways to cheer people up.” Spencer didn’t want flowers, jewelry, fine wine, food, a certificate of sanity, a job promotion, the blood of his enemies, or sex with him. That had left only one tried-and-true tactic. “You don’t even have to pretend to like it. Just humor me. Put on the clothes I left laid out for you on your bed, but don't look into a mirror until you’ve put everything on.”

Spencer drifted towards his room like an absentminded ghost. Oswald waited outside. One of the false clues tossed at the BAU had required exact measurements of their missing agent, and Oswald had repurposed that data. The mask and newsboy cap had been a guide to the overall aesthetic.

Spencer didn’t like wearing suits, but he liked sweater-vests, which was only a tiny step from a nice charcoal waistcoat that had more and stealthier pockets than most. Spencer liked jackets, so Oswald had gotten a different tailor to alter a weather-proofed black and subtly off-white woven herringbone tweed. Lots of pockets. Black elbow patches.

Spencer had plenty of appropriate gloves, pants, shirts, and a bewildering collection of patterned socks that he deliberately mismatched. Oswald, therefore, had instead sent Nefyn to sneak into a clothing customization shop after hours to alter two neckties and two scarves. They were all originally plain ivory or cream, but now each one had a slogan silk-screened on it in black letters. The same one Jonathan had put on a bunch of pins. In the ensuing discussion, Oswald discovered that Nefyn's ironically-green eyes saw Spencer and Ed's costumes as basically the same set of hues, while also seeing a vaster range between their shades of dark hair and his own than others would. Something symbolic in that.

Some time later, the Reader stepped out. Fully formed. Mask and all. He bowed. “Thank you for knowing what I needed.”

****

Mayor Aubrey James supposed that this was better than being ambushed by Barbara Kean and/or Tabitha Galavan, but this Reader guy would just not stop telling him uncomfortable conclusions about his childhood and personal relationships. Aubrey was starting to wish he’d just gone ahead and signed over a plot of newly available, prime real estate rather passing the deed as a gift to one of his major supporters like it was supposed to be.

Instead, he’d argued. Then the Riddler had pulled a gun on him. Then Victor Zsasz had poked his head in and told Aubrey that he really liked Aubrey’s policy on supporting the performing arts in public schools, and that he thought this was a good outlet for kids. And then run out again. And there’d been the sounds of smashing and cut-off yelps, punctuated by, “I! Said! If! You! Stayed! Down! You! Wouldn’t! Get! Hurt!”

“How do you know all this?” Aubrey asked when he could get a word in edgewise. He considered asking why they wanted him to do this, but in some ways they were doing him a favor by granting him deniability.

“I know, right? I'm impressed too." The Riddler had his gun trained on Aubrey in a perfunctory manner, like he was just following maniac etiquette. “The powerhouse of the cell only accounts for so much similarity.”

The Reader frowned at his partner in crime. “That riddle is dangerously revealing. If it’s a riddle.”

“Of course it’s a riddle! Any puzzle can be a riddle if you do it right, like a cake with a throwing star in it. That can be riddle.”

“I don’t know, it’s more of a kenning than anything.” The Reader said this like he expected everyone in the room to know what a kenning was.

“Fine, smartypants. But he’s not going to get it.” The Riddler gestured dramatically in Aubrey’s direction with his free hand. “Are you going to get it, Mayor James?”

“He’s not going to get it, Riddler, but be careful of how far you’ll go to show off your cleverness.”

The Reader went back to staring at Aubrey. All in black with ivory accents, he was a skinny streak of nothing, groomed like a poet and with a mask that was the creamy color of old paper except for the burnt bits. A mask covered in small black typeface and a strip of lace stretched over the eyeholes. It met the brim of his black newsboy cap. He was quite the restrained contrast to the Riddler’s shiny emerald suit with matching tie, black bowler hat, and purple velvet domino mask. The latter mask, frankly, didn’t do much to obscure the 85% likelihood of this being former Mayoral Chief of Staff Edward Nygma. The Reader’s obscured his forehead and cheekbones, and from this distance and in this lighting you couldn’t tell for sure what color his eyes were.

“I’d prefer it if you didn’t undermine me in front of people, Reader ” the Riddler muttered.

The Reader held up both his hands in apology. “‘He who reigns within himself and rules his passions, desires, and fears is more than a king.’ John Milton. This goes for all of us here, but with varying levels of success.” He chuckled.

The two smirked at each other and just stood there like this was enough of an answer. Aubrey cleared his throat. “I’m not sure what you mean.”

The Riddler groaned. “Allowing this dunce back in charge is the worse thing that the Penguin’s ever done. Worst.”

“Let’s not be needlessly unkind.” The Reader slid his left palm against his right, and suddenly he had a pen in his right hand. Simple magic trick. He pressed it into Aubrey’s hand. “In future, Mayor James, either be more transparent about your dealings in this office of your own volition, or make it less obvious that those security cameras are usually turned off. Free advice. Sign, please.”

“And keep this between us three,” the Riddler added. “Well, four, counting Zsasz. It’s no shadier than, as the Reader put it, your dealings in this office of your own volition.”

“Fine. Just stop...describing me.”

The Reader took back the pen when Aubrey was done, and made it vanish with his sleight-of-hand. “In answer to how I knew all that about you...” He tapped the pin on his lapel.

“It’s not just you,” the Riddler said, grinning like the Reader was his creation.

“True. To me, everyone is an open book.” The Reader retrieved the documents and flipped through them to make sure everything was in order. “If we shadows have offended, think but this, and all is mended: you brought this on your cowardly corrupt self. As Shakespeare would say if he had to deal with you. That was not needlessly unkind, by the way.”

***

Ed wasn’t thrilled about starting to help Spencer pack tomorrow, but he was proud of him, and Zsasz seemed giddy about the deed. The ownership would change hands through a few proxies first, for anonymity. “I hadn’t seen you do sleight-of-hand in years! We need to take you to a mob poker game when you’re ready. So now you’ll get the cottage and garden gratis from Casa del Zsasz, as Vee calls them?”

Spencer removed the mask and wiped both it and his face with one of the moist towelettes he kept in the glove compartment. “Except for utilities, yes. They never technically owned it in the first place, but the point is moot. Good fences make good neighbors.”

“Haha.” Money laundering joke. Again, proud.

“That was unintentional wordplay, but yes. They want to build a safehouse in the city itself in case one of them is hurt or being chased and can’t make it all the way home.”

“We’ll always be your safehouse, if you want us to be.”

His second cousin - cousin - friend - brother patted his shoulder, and beamed at him, lighting up the dark night. “You’ll never get rid of me now. I gave you an inch and you took a mile.”

Chapter Text

On Monday, Reid was on the panel for a dissertation defense. It involved mathematical proofs of the Theory of Parallel Universes. He went for a quick forty-minute session with his trauma counselor afterwards. Ed made dinner as usual that evening - his idea - but was rather quiet. Anniversary of Kristen’s death, he said over dessert when prompted. He said this had been the menu on their first date, which had been dinner at his place. Was that unhealthy? Spencer told him to ask a professional, but for what it’s worth, it was delicious.

On Monday, Spencer took the calculated risk of going to a store as "Nicholas Anderson" in broad daylight, because he needed to pick out some new furniture. The house he lived in now had come with adequate furnishings, but he wanted better chairs, a rug, and more tables to put lamps on. Perhaps a settee if he could find a good deal. It was a mob-owned store that owed fealty to Oswald and Ed, which reduced the risk. As few people were allowed to know where Spencer lived, Candy and Nefyn came in a pickup truck to provide help moving things. They also gave thoughts on interior design. Candy’s advice was helpful once she figured out that he wanted “cozy professor aesthetic”. Nefyn’s advice was extremely unhelpful and had an odd fondness for tassels. Candy asked Nefyn if he suffered from taste-blindness as well; Spencer told her that the word for literal lack of a sense of taste was “ageusia”. While choosing a rug, Spencer called Ed to ask how easy it was to get blood out of certain fibers, but Ed didn't pick up.

On Tuesday, Reid’s ankle hurt him terribly. Ed said it was likely a storm coming. Changes in barometric pressure. Ed said he would check on Oswald today, too, when they had time together. He said this while rubbing a salve of some sort on Reid’s ankle and helping him with the brace. He said he didn’t mind not going for a walk in the park this evening. Knowing that he couldn’t leave Reid’s property or the institution without authorized supervision. Reid said no, they’d still go to the park. He could sit on benches if need be. He used a cane that day, just to be sure he could keep his promise.

On Tuesday, Ed invited Spencer over for lunch with Oswald, followed by Spencer providing input on a bit of delicate negotiation planned for tomorrow. Oswald’s leg was hurting him terribly. He didn’t say it outright, but Spencer saw it in Ed’s face whenever his husband got up or took a step. The way he leaned on his cane more heavily. Spencer wondered what it would be like to live with that kind of pain. He said nothing about it, but he listened to the plan and told them things about Mr. Kelly, Fish Mooney’s trusted amputee underling. How Kelly would act after having lost his boss and then so Strangely (Oswald rolled his eyes as the other two high-fived) regained her. Spencer declined an offer to stay any longer, as he had furniture to arrange. He also needed to organize even more books he'd recently bought through proxies to replace the collection his presumed-deadness was keeping from him. The e-reader Ed had given him was great for impulse buys and having something he could slip into a jacket pocket that would last him more than a few minutes, but he wouldn't truly feel at home until he'd recreated his library.

On Wednesday, Reid met up with the re-retired David Rossi for drinks. Reid was in frequent contact with others, but they were too busy to come see him often. Especially not in force. Ed kept Spencer’s life in a narrow radius except for emergencies. Like mothers dying. But Rossi didn’t talk about that. He talked about the new book he was working on, and asked Spencer about his upcoming publication in an academic journal, and he talked about an upcoming trip to Rome, and he talked about best of times, worst of times, old times. Rossi didn’t say he was sorry for being the only one against looking for their lost little brother. Reid heard it in his words, saw it in how he said and gestured. He didn’t protest when Rossi insisted on picking up the tab.

On Wednesday, Spencer returned to the mansion in the late afternoon and worked with Jonathan in Ed’s home lab for two hours before Ed could make it. Ed told them that negotiations had resulted in a qualified success. One of Oswald’s more disposable gunmen had been shot in the head for making light of the Dollmaker’s victims. Using the profile Spencer had given, Oswald was able to smooth away Kelly’s anger and salvage the meeting. Once home, Ed was excited to change into more casual clothes and safety gear to help do more tinkering with Paper Crane. Spencer had asked not to be involved with the fear serum in any way. Jonathan seemed baffled by this but hadn't voiced any objections. Ed assured Jonathan that he enjoyed sometimes spending time just between the two of them, "like the old days".

On Thursday, Ed didn’t want to come out of his room. He was emphatic and teary about this. Ed was allowed a certain number of sick days without a doctor’s note before there were legal consequences. He didn’t get sick very often. Spencer offered a deal where Ed needed to show evidence that he’d eaten, but didn’t have to interact with him. Later, when Spencer was going through the first draft of an engineering textbook he’d been asked to review, he noticed that Ed had silently crept up to the nearest chair and was picking at a pasta salad. Spencer didn’t remove the cloths Ed had put on all the mirrors and large reflective surfaces. He didn’t comment when he heard Ed shouting about how much he hated ‘you’, though as per arrangement he made note of it for if Ed’s therapist asked.

On Thursday ,Spencer woke in his designated bedroom at the mansion. The lab work had gone very late and Oswald had insisted on nobody going anywhere at that hour. Jonathan didn’t have class on Thursdays. Spencer found him sitting at the dining table, methodically peeling an orange. When Olga mourned Jonathan eating ‘like a bird’, Spencer regaled her with interesting facts about the actual voraciousness of most bird species, and the opportunistic omnivorousness of both cranes and corvids. She told him that he should speak Russian to her, and not speak Encyclopedia. Ed appeared in order to say goodbye to Jonathan and check on Spencer, but then he went to his Bachelor Room. Hanging a Do Not Disturb sign, stolen from a fancy hotel, on the door. A concerned but space-giving Oswald asked Spencer into his home office and talked over a few more profiles relevant to Oswald together, as there had been such ample proof of their utility last night.

On Friday, Reid came home from his two-hour guest lecture and took Ed grocery shopping with him. They also went to a nearby department store bought Ed some more of the long, soft socks that helped Ed bear the sensation of the tracking bracelet around his ankle. The dry jokes about how the tables between them had turned had all dried up after the first few months. Ed wanted a haircut as well, and Reid had been thinking about going back to what JJ, Prentiss, Garcia, and Morgan had all called his “boy band cut”. Ed put on a subtly green suit and less subtly green tie with the question-mark cufflinks Oswald had given him when they were still just dating. Ed had successfully filed a plea for an occasional scheduled 48 hours with Oswald, including sleeping in Oswald’s room. His suitcase was all ready to go. He helped Reid look his best, too, before Reid dropped him off. Then Reid, heart thumping, went to the airport.

On Friday, Oswald had to go collect protection money from a few recalcitrant shop owners. These things could usually be delegated, but some particularly disrespectful remarks meant that Oswald needed to make a personal appearance and set an example. This could get messy, so Zsasz, Leonara, and Yoona were all going along with. Oswald gave Spencer his blessing to be the one to help Ed get his Riddler on. Ed did likewise for Spencer. They had a gangster to intimidate, and they needed to look their best. While getting ready, Spencer ran the qualifications of a potential therapist by Ed, and told him what pressure points could be exploited to keep everything confidential if Ed liked seeing her.

On Saturday, Ethan and Reid had barely had breakfast when Ethan bundled Reid back to bed. Ethan usually called Spencer ‘Reid’ - or pet names - which was a relic of both knowing another Spencer when they first met. But he called him Spencer, among other things, when tying a soft scarf around his wrists and making already-tender places wonderfully more so.

(Not far away, Ed woke Oswald with his mouth and lax throat, and Oswald gasped and sighed and called him Edward, and held him close as Oswald’s hand repaid the gesture.)

On Saturday, the Reader and the Riddler escaped The Pit of Despair - the Reader had snorted at the name - when Selina Kyle threw them a rope ladder. When they emerged, Nefyn was pulling all his throwing knives out of the bodies into which they had gone, and carefully wiping them clean before sheathing them. Dr. Kali was waiting at the new Safehouse of Zsasz. Both were banged-up, mildly chilled, hungry, and thirsty. The Reader had twisted his ankle, but she said it would be good as new if he rested it. Between sips of a vividly orange rehydration formula, the Reader joked that the important thing was that all their accessories had made it through unscathed. Selina's various scoffs, and the way she held out her hand for cash without even looking at them, made the Riddler complain to the Reader. He said Nefyn and Bridget were sweet and appropriately deferential, Ivy was eccentric but endearing, and you couldn't blame Jonathan for how he was, but Selina didn't seem to take him seriously.

The Reader quoted, "I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words. When I was a boy, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly irreverent and impatient of restraint."

"I like that. Who's it from?"

"Hesiod, 8th Century B.C." The Reader almost dodged the immature swat.

On Sunday, Spencer woke up far too early to drive Ethan to the airport and...they were there. Hotch. Rossi. JJ (with Henry!). Prentiss. Morgan. Garcia. Wait, no. No. Aaron, David, Jennifer, Emily, Derek, Penelope. Those were the ones who were there. Yes. Yes. Ethan admitted he lied, and didn’t need to leave for another nine hours. None of them needed to.

(Ed let Spencer hug him when they reunited that night, and Ed’s meds didn’t make him dizzy that night, and the intensity of their Scrabble battle could shake the foundations of continents.)

On Sunday, just before Spencer left the mansion to get out of the way of his relatives’ I’m-so-angry-yet-relieved-you-idiot sexathon, Olga flicked on the TV. In Russian, she told him that Oswald had requested she show Spencer the special bulletin on the surprise, particularly nasty and painful death of a prominent gang leader. Whose body was found in something his people called “The Pit of Despair.” Spencer laughed, thanked her, and put on his sunglasses. He promised to call, and to come back soon.

“It felt like a family reunion for the family I'd never really known, a homecoming at the place where I was always meant to be but hadn't known how to find.” - David Levithan