There was a twisting feeling in Ed’s gut.
His mind quickly classified the feeling and brushed it away: Revulsion. The mess of snot and tears on Oswald’s face was mixing with the chilly drizzle and running down his face. It was disgusting.
“I loved her Oswald.” Ed spoke simply, the words the only thing that made it through the all-consuming fog of his anger. The gun disconnected from the rest of his body. “And you killed her.”
A gunshot split the air. He hadn’t even felt his finger move.
Oswald began to crumble, gasping down at the blood seeping between his fingers. Ed’s eyes darted to the blossoming red stain as he stepped closer. His free hand reached out, latching onto the collar of the man who ruined his life.
His body ached as he pulled Oswald closer.
Ed wanted to see the despair in the man’s eyes, see the pain that he felt when Isabella died reflected back at him.
Instead he just saw fear. Oswald was terrified.
Bile rose in his throat. This isn’t what he wanted. Even in his last moments Oswald managed to defy his every expectation, disrupt his plans.
Ed shoved Oswald away.
The icy water swallowed the body up in moments. It was over.
The anger leeched from Ed’s system, in slow, shuttering breaths. His mind, finally able to focus on something besides his revenge, became suddenly hyper-aware of the twisting ache that was still burning through him.
He bent over at the shock of it, falling to the ground in a choked gasp. An especially bad pulse of pain ran up his arm and temporarily blinded him. The gun rattled to the concrete as he grabbed his forearm in an attempt to stop it.
His skin prickled, and he began to pull at his sleeve, trying to get to the pain, to somehow stop the burning. He yanked the sleeve back to his elbow and froze, wide eyed.
The letters were the same inky black as the water.
Ed felt his stomach drop, and he nearly gagged as he realized what was happening.
The curling script was still slowly, viciously, burning its way up the inside of his arm, but he already knew what it would spell:
He stared at the words, frozen to his spot, until they finished their cruel crawl; only then, when they filled nearly his entire forearm, did the pain ease a little, leaving him with a throbbing ache.
All of Ed’s anger burned up and spent, he felt empty, with no sense of direction or time.
The grey clouds made their tired path across the sky. The rain and wind tugged at his clothes and spit at the tender skin of his revealed arm. The knees of his pants grew damp from where they rested on the cement.
Something distant at the back of his mind spoke up, and told him to dispose of the gun, destroy the evidence. Nodding to himself, Ed reached for the revolver. His fingers curled around the metal and shoved it in his pocket.
He stood up and pulled his sleeve back down, covering the most damning piece of evidence from the world, and from his own darting gaze.
Without a backwards glance, he left the dock and walked back through the abandoned warehouses of the waterfront.
Ed didn’t turn around or stop until the familiar brick building rose up in front of him. He had no memory of getting here; his feet had carried him to his old apartment building out of instinct.
The apartment was actually still his. He had kept the monthly payments up, discreetly, even after he had moved into the mansion. It was important to have a backup plan, to prepare for all contingencies.
The lock stuck a little, and there was a fine layer of dust on everything, something he never would have tolerated when he had lived here, but it was still familiar.
The comfort of it was a strange, almost alien, feeling after the events of the day.
Fishing the gun out of his pocket he tossed it onto the counter, where it landed with a heavy clunk. Stripping off his coat and shoes next, he carefully hung his damp clothes over the end of a chair. His glasses were wiped clean and his socks peeled off.
The cabinet above the sink still squeaked a little when opened. Ed reached for a glass, but froze as his sleeve pulled back a little and the black letters began to peak out.
He stared at them for a moment before forcing his gaze away. There were things he needed to do.
First, food and water, then sleep, and in the morning he would dispose of the gun and cover his tracks. There was no way that he would let this operation get sloppy, especially in its last moments, when he was so close to complete success.
“Pull yourself together.” He said to himself, shaking his head to clear it, “It’s not important.”
“How can you say that?”
Ed whirled around, a kitchen knife already in his hand.
The familiar face stared back at him. It wasn’t quite like looking in a mirror, there was always something different, a little off, about the recreation. This one looked lost, staring at him with dark, bleary eyes.
“Why are you here?” He asked it, turning away and placing the knife onto the counter, “I got rid of you.”
“No, you didn’t get rid of me,” There was something different in its voice, something that made Ed stop and listen, “You got rid of him—” he turned around a little more, watching as the hallucination began to flicker away, “You became him.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Ed asked the empty apartment, glancing around, frustrated.
He didn’t have time for this. Pressing the heels of his hands into his eyelids, he quickly pulled his mind back to the present. Each little distraction was forcefully shoved to the back of his mind, itemized for later inspection.
After some looking, he found a can of soup in the back of his pantry. He dropped it into a saucepan with a grimace, and clicked a burner on the stove to life.
It was a meager dinner, but enough; the warm soup started to settle his gut and made him feel a little less empty. The feeling was almost immediately counteracted when he finally shucked his shirt off.
Standing in front of his bed, in just an old pair of pajama bottoms, he brought a tentative finger up to touch the words, flinching as the tender skin reacted to the pressure and sent a shock up his arm. He pulled his other hand back and blinked down at the mark.
No one ever said it was supposed to hurt.
“Maybe it’s punishment.” Ed jumped a little as the not-quite-him flickered in and out behind him.
“No, it’s nothing.” He gritted out, squeezing his eyes shut. Sleep. He needed sleep. Tomorrow was a big day, an important piece in his plan.
When he turned around, it was gone. He breathed out, gazing around the room for a moment to make sure.
He pulled back the blankets and climbed into bed. The sheets were cold to the touch, making him shiver, but cooling the warm throb in his arm. Drawing the covers over his head, he cut himself off from the light and sound of outside and after an infuriating amount of tossing and turning, fell into a fitful sleep.
-- -- --
“This is getting ridiculous Eddie,” his mother said. She put a damp cloth in his hand, and he began applying it to his bloody nose, “It’s time you grew up and realized that things aren’t so simple.”
She involuntarily rubbed at the spikey text across the back of her hand for a moment, and then went back to washing dishes.
“What did he do now?” His father asked, walking into the kitchen and looking up from his paper, “Another fight? Jesus Christ, when are you going to wise up? Or are you just too stupid to see-”
“I am not stupid.”
The words had gritted out before he could stop them, and Ed squeezed his eyes shut in sinking regret and fear, already knowing what was coming.
But when he opened his eyes, he wasn’t surrounded by the stifling darkness of the locked closet below the stairs. He was on the dock.
He looked to where Oswald should have been, but instead only saw his younger self, grinning up at him with his bloody nose.
Ed smiled at him, forgetting for a moment all the times that grin had been whipped off his face by someone bigger. He looked so hopeful, his big eyes shining through oversized glasses, the only ones his parents had been able to afford.
A gunshot split the air.
Gasping, Ed looked down at his hand in horror. He hadn’t even felt his finger move.
When he looked up, it was Oswald standing at the end of the dock, dripping, and covered in the trash from the bottom of the river.
Oswald’s eyes bored into him, dark as the water. Dark as the words.
Ed jolted awake with a gasp.
He sat up in bed, and fumbled for the nearest light. Finally letting out a breath as the darkness was illuminated, Ed’s head dropped into his hands.
His arm throbbed in time with his growing headache.
-- -- --
The chaos of the City Hall was a relief.
Ed was in his element here, putting out fires, organizing search efforts, and simply lying to everyone in sight. Everything was going smoothly, none of the fools from the media even suspected foul play yet, and the “witness” he had paid was putting on a perfect performance.
According to the homeless man currently giving his statement to Detective Gordon, Mayor Cobblepot had gotten in a dark, unmarked car near the Pioneers Bridge.
It wasn’t much, but Ed knew it would keep them chasing their tails for days. Long-enough for any lingering evidence to be squared away, while the body began its decomposition in the bottom of the river.
By the time Gordon and his lackeys got around to searching the river, there would be nothing left to tie Ed to the crime.
“And where were you when the Mayor decided to take this impromptu vacation?” Bullock asked him, pulling Ed back to the interview, “I don’t think I’ve seen him without you since he was elected, whispering in his ear or whatever it is you do.”
Ed blinked, putting on his best distraught-friend face, and said, “I have been taking a leave of absence since the tragic death of—of my girlfriend, Isabella.” He looked away, removing his glasses and rubbing his eyes dramatically. “If only I had been here, I might have been able to help Oswald somehow.”
Bullock looked at him, a disbelieving frown creasing his face. “Sure.” A glance back towards Jim, who waved him over, signaled the end of the tedium, and Ed let out an internal sigh of relief.
Bullock nodded towards his partner then said, “You know the drill Ed, don’t leave town, call us if anything new comes up.”
As Bullock finally left, with one final glance over his shoulder, Ed let his caring facade fall away. He glared at the back of the Detectives’ heads, making sure that they were leaving for good.
His stare was so focused that he didn’t even notice the temp running up the stairs towards him.
The hot coffee went everywhere on impact, making Ed jump back, as the other man’s papers spilled across the floor, already soaking up the fallen drink.
“Oh my god, Mr. Nygma, I’m so sorry!”
The scalding hot liquid burned his still very tender arm. Ed hissed and clenched his fist as the pain made his whole limb ache again, the shock reminding him of all the things he was trying to forget.
“Clean this up immediately! Then, you clean out your desk and leave.” Ed said, viciously turning on his heel and marching off to the bathroom.
Once alone, Ed ripped his coat off and pulled back the sleeve of his shirt. Breath rushed through his clenched teeth, the anger building inside him as he stared at his arm.
“Why?” he spit out, fingernails digging into his palm as he clenched his hand even tighter, “Why him? Why now?”
“He loved you.” His eyes whipped up to the mirror above the sink. The hallucination was hovering behind him, looking sadly down at the letters. “No one else would, but he did. I guess that means-”
“No.” Ed braced against the counter and jabbed at the delusion in the mirror with his other finger, “It could- It should have been Kristen, or Isabella, they loved me.”
The not-him shook its head sadly, like it knew something he didn’t, angering Ed even more.
“You’re just a figure out of my mind, you don’t exist!”
It flickered behind his shoulder, looking him directly in the eyes.
“Then why can I do this?”
Ed bent double in pain as his arm exploded in pain.
He leaned his head against the cold tile, until he finally caught his breath enough to stand.
The mirror was empty except for own sweaty, taunt face.
Still gasping through the pain, Ed looked at the arm and swore under his breath.
-- -- --
A police cruiser roared down a distant street.
The clock beside his bed said 3:45 AM.
Soft green light shone through his window, making his pale skin glow.
He held his arm, the only other part of his body sticking out from the covers, perpendicular to the bed so he could see them.
All he wanted was sleep.
But every time he closed his eyes it was the same. The dock. The gun. Oswald staring at him with those black eyes. Sometimes he even spoke. The same phrase, over and over again. Ed shivered slightly at the memory.
He lay awake for hours, as his mind drifted listlessly from thought to thought, staring at his arm, at the root of all his trouble.
It was all so unfair.
From the moment, as a kid, his brain became aware of the concept, he had dreamed of the words.
He read every book he could find on the theories behind the phenomenon; it was one of the few puzzles doctors hadn’t been able to really pin down.
The marks were beyond science, an inexplicable singularity, so they became a kind of higher concept in his mind.
On some nights, when he was feeling really brave, Ed would sneak out of bed and check every inch of skin for letters, just in case. In school, he would watch careful, noting each kid he met, making sure to talk to everyone, in hopes that someone’s words would be the ones.
This, of course, didn’t win him any friends.
But Ed persisted. He had to find that one person, because when he found his soulmate, he would finally have someone who cared about him, someone who wouldn’t shut him in closets, or yell at him, or ignore him.
His soulmate would make everything okay.
Rolling over, Ed buried the arm under the covers and out of sight. He screwed his eyes shut and started running over his multiplication tables to distract himself.
That had been a childish fantasy, a naïve hope built on too many stories. He knew the truth now. This was real life, where soulmates could be betrayers and liars, where they could break your heart.
“You did break his.”
Ed put both his hands over his ears and pulled the covers over his head.
No. That’s not how it went, that’s not what happened. He was my friend and he betrayed me. I hate him and I’m glad he’s gone.
There was a dark laugh. “Keep telling yourself that.”
-- -- --
After just the first few days, it had become very apparent that new management was needed.
It was either elect an interim mayor or let the city fall into an even deeper chaos. Ed had obliged, not wanting to bring unnecessary attention to himself, even as that fumbling buffoon Aubrey James was brought back in.
Then, of course, as if fate hadn’t already had its fun with him, Acting-Mayor James saw that he was quickly and quietly removed from office.
“I’d rather have my own people around me,” He had said, barely containing his dislike, “You understand Mr. Nygma, don’t you?”
“Of course,” Ed had managed to say around his harshly uncomfortable smile, “It’s only reasonable.”
“Good.” The other man said, dismissing him by returning to his work.
Ed’s smile melted the instant Mayor James looked away. He began listing every terrible way he could inflict pain on the man as he strode out of the room and out of City Hall.
With nothing to occupy him during the day, and barely any sleep at night, he ended up in this disgusting bar. He normally hated drinking, it dulled the senses in a way he found profoundly unsettling, but it had been a particularly bad night and some clouded thoughts was about all he could handle right now.
“—as the second week of search begins for the mayor, police—”
“—I think the one question all of Gotham is asking—”
“—acting Captain Harvey Bullock—”
“—stay tuned for the latest here on—”
“—reports from Metropolis are finally coming in, with no results—”
“—where is Mayor Cobblepot?”
The bartender finally stopped flipping through the channels, and Ed glared up at the grimy screen.
“You know what I think?” the burly man asked, pointing the clicker towards Ed, the only other person in the bar, “I think he’s run off to—”
“I don’t want to even imagine the stupid theory your little brain has come up with,” Ed said, “I’ve already heard it all.”
Grimacing at him, the man sniffed and walked away to do whatever it was bartenders do at two in the afternoon.
Ed looked down into his drink, pushing it away with a tense sigh.
“So you’re not going to drink that?”
“Shut up.” He hissed under his breath.
The hallucination ignored him and shrugged, “Allow me then.”
It leaned over the counter and grabbed the glass, drinking it in one go. Ed could feel the burn, knew his own hand was the one moving, but did nothing to stop it.
The television flickered behind its mesh cover, the news changing to some trivial talk show. A man in a cheap suit stood in front of a cheering audience.
Ed watched, his keen eyes picking up every detail. The man’s sweaty face shone with glee as he basked in his fame. All those suckers paid their hard-earned money just to see him; he was nothing more than a con man, playing with their expectations.
Something about it made Ed pause.
When someone as stupid as that, as stupid as Mayor James, the GCPD, and the rest of this city’s mental detritus could get that much power, what could he achieve?
He was so much smarter than all those other fools. Already, he had managed to systematically and successfully manipulate so many people; he had practically run Oswald’s empire for months. It made so much sense.
Oswald had tried to explain it to him, on that dock, what he had become, and what he could be—
Ed shook himself, pushing the memories to the back of his head. That was the past, and it wasn’t important.
Standing up, Ed checked his reflection in the mirror above the bar, pulling his coat closer around himself, running a hand through his hair, and walked towards the door.
“Hey! You’ve still got the pay me!”
Ed paused for a moment, not even gracing the bar-tender with a glance backwards. “I don’t think I do actually.” He said, “Because your boss probably wouldn’t be too happy to hear that you’re skimming from the till.”
Ed grinned, and placed his hand on the door handle.
“If everyone is as easy to read as you—,” he pulled the door open and stepped onto the sidewalk, “This is going to be fun.”
-- -- --
The suit was perfect. Dark green and slim fitting, it was exactly what he was looking for.
But it was missing something.
Ed looked around the shop. The tailor, gagged and bound in the corner, looked on fearfully as Ed perused the accessories display.
“Oswald would know what you needed.”
Ed glared across the rack of vests at the hallucination.
“We both know that it’s true.” It slid up on the counter and lounged back, “He always had great taste.”
Turning away from it, Ed pulled out a drawer of cuff links.
“He bought you that first proper suit, remember?”
Ed remembered. Of course he remembered. “That was before he ruined my life.” He said, not caring anymore what the tailor thought.
“It was also before he made you his second hand man, gave you a home, a sense of direction, the push needed to become,” It waved in the general direction of the suit he was laying out, “whatever this is going to be.”
“You can stop me any time you want, I am a part of you stupid.”
Ed breathed out tensely, squeezing his eyes shut and started listing the presidents backwards. A distraction would make it go away.
“Okay, okay, fine. I can take a hint.” It said, jumping off the counter and disappearing into the air.
Sighing, Ed looked around one more time, his eyes lingering for a moment on the canes in a case near the back, before finally landing on the hat rack with a grin.
-- -- --
The Police Academy banquet went exactly to plan.
And then the Mayor’s sabotaged party did even better.
After the puzzle at the Gotham City Bank, Ed even started getting calls from fans, asking if he was for hire.
With each successful crime, the world around him solidified just a little more. He was living the life he had always been destined for, proving once and for all that he was smarter than them all.
He even tried sleeping again, instead of just staring at his arm. The smell of gunpowder and freezing rain still clung to his memory when he woke up, but he got better at quickly brushing it away each morning.
He was quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with in the Gotham underworld, and the last thing he needed getting in his way was his stupid dreams. Or his aching arm for that matter.
People were finally paying attention to him. The cops hated him, the government feared him, but the press loved him.
“The Riddler, huh?” Barbara said, raising a perfectly sculpted eyebrow over the newspaper in front of her.
“Catchy.” Tabitha deadpanned from behind the bar.
“Thanks,” Ed said back with a razor-sharp grin, “But that’s not why I’m here.”
“Of course,” Barbara said, gracefully sliding off the bar stool and walking into his space a little more, “Business first, teasing later.”
“What do you need Nygma?” Tabitha said, crossing her arms across her chest, making it only easier to see the cursive running up her bicep.
Ed’s eyes lingered on her mark for probably a second longer than it should have, but he quickly pulled himself back together.
“Well,” he pushed the bridge of his glasses up his nose and shot her a bright look, “I’ve recently come into some money, and was looking for a smart investment.” Pouring all of his confidence into his mannerisms, he leaned against a nearby chair and tilted his hat back on his head a little with his free hand.
Always look at ease, especially when in dangerous territory. Oswald had taught him—
His arm throbbed once, but he managed to tool his reaction down to a jaw clench. He had been practicing.
“As you very well know, I’ve started to gather quiet a string of people who want me dead.” He continued, “And I was hoping you ladies would help me with some protection.”
“What, now that Penguin’s gone, you’re getting tired of actually watching your own back?” Tabitha said.
Ed stare was direct and cold, all of his fake mirth gone. “This doesn’t have anything to do with him.”
“Oh poor baby,” Barbara said, pouting at him and patting his arm, “You miss your little friend don’t you?”
Ripping his arm out of her reach, Ed plastered on his most severe smile. “Caring doesn’t look good on you Barbara, stick to what you actually know.”
Barbara backed off, making a surprised, approving noise. Even Tabitha seemed impressed.
The meeting went smoothly from there, and they assured him that they would arrange the “security.”
Not that he really needed it. Ed had already started consolidating his existing blackmail material into a fail-safe network that would ensure his protection from any attempted political or judicial attack.
What he really wanted was a distraction while his computer software hacked into the Sirens’ camera system. It was one of the last major underworld locations he needed to finish his CCTV map of the city. Soon, he would be able to listening in on nearly every shady deal and secret meeting in Gotham.
Giddy with success and adrenaline, Ed returned to the street and started towards his new hideout. It was on the other side of the city, but he enjoyed the walk. He was able to revel in the secrets he would someday have over each and every citizen he passed. The sheer power of it made him light headed.
“He would be so proud of you.”
His heart beat faster again, but without the thrill of action fueling it. Without drawing extra attention to himself, he glanced over his shoulder at the hallucination, narrowed his eyes and kept moving, quicker this time.
“You can't outrun me stupid, I’m a part of your subconscious.”
“I’m not stupid.” The words were loud and harsh, fighting out of his mouth before he even recognized what he was saying. Other people the sidewalk looked over at him, pulled their coats tighter around themselves and shuffled along a little quicker.
Ed grimaced, his good mood ruined.
“He really would,” the Not-Him continued, “look at how much you’ve grown already.”
“He wouldn’t care what happened to me.” Ed said under his breath, bitterly watching the hallucination stroll along beside him.
“What, because you killed him?” It said with an incredulous look, “Please, you were soulmates; he would have forgiven you anything.”
Ed clenched his hands into fists, the muscles tensing under his sleeves.
“Either way,” It continued, skipping around an old lady with a bag of groceries, “He would still be proud of you.”
Grimacing, Ed pointedly ignored the way his gut wrenched at the thought.
“He dreamed of what you could become.”
“I don’t care. This was my dream, none of it was for him.” Ed said, losing his patience. Anyone left on the sidewalk scuttled off as he glared at what looked like, to them, thin air. “I didn’t love him.” The words were instinct at this point.
It shot him a disbelieving look.
“Soulmates don’t have to love each other, it’s a simple fact.” Ed said. The pounding of his heart matched the pulses of pain going up and down his arm.
“You’ve already admitted he was your friend.”
“That doesn’t matter—”
“You’re only friend, I might add.”
Ed was practically shaking. “He killed the woman I loved!”
“Let’s be real, was she really that great?”
“She was perfect!”
“And how boring is that?”
Ed stopped yelling, trying to catch his breath while processing what it had said. That can’t be true. They were meant to be—
His arm flamed up, a reminder of just who “fate” thought he was meant for.
Ed pointed a gloved finger at the Not-Him. “Never talk about her again.” He said, enunciating every word.
It shrugged, obviously not listening to him, and began to flicker away.
Ed glared at the empty space it had just occupied, gritting his teeth in frustration. He turned back to his walk and pushed his hands deep into his pockets so that no one could see them shaking.
-- -- --
“So, Ed- wait no, I’m sorry. I forgot,” Bullock paused dramatically, putting on a silly show for the cameras and his own ego, “You’re ‘The Riddler’ now.”
“Fun name,” Gordon added, leaning onto the table between them, “Did you come up with it yourself, or did you steal it from a bad movie?”
Ed laughed, bringing his fingers together. “Are you done?” He tapped the watch on his left hand. “I’ve got an important meeting that I can’t miss. You know how it is.”
Crossing his arms and grimacing, Gordon said, “That’s not going to happen.”
“Yeah,” Bullock added, pointing a greasy finger towards Ed, “You’re going to go away for a long time when we’re done with you.”
Ed raised both his eyebrows at that. “Oh really? And what crimes are you trying to pin on little ol’ me?”
“The murder of officers at the Police Academy banquet for one,” Gordon said, laying a case file on the table, followed by a stack of others, “Then there’s the robbery of the Central Gotham Bank, the jewel heist last week, the blackmail of—”
Stopping him with a waved hand, Ed said, “I have alibis for all of them, I can assure you.”
“We thought you’d say that.” Gordon continued, nodding to Bullock, who opened the door to the interrogation room, “Luckily for us, there was some blood left at the last crime scene.”
For a second, Ed’s heart stopped.
Brushing aside the momentary lapse, he plastered on a grin and mentally went over his checklist of backups. He had plans for this, ways to get out of things. There was no chance it was his blood anyway. He was too careful for that.
Dr. Thompkins wheeled in a cart with a blood sample kit.
She watched him pointedly as Jim stood up to give her a chair. Ed smiled back, showing all of his teeth. “How wonderful to see you Doctor.” He said, paying close attention to her stoic response to Gordon’s chivalry. “You two still aren’t getting along? Only makes sense, since he did kill your—”
“Don’t even start Nygma.” She shot back. Then she grabbed his arm and starting to fold back his sleeve.
Every alarm bell went off in Ed’s head at once.
He jerked back as much as he could with the handcuffs, and everyone else in the room stopped moving.
“What is it, scared of needles?” Bullock asked, looking at him incredulously.
“No.” Ed said sharply, watching, almost painfully, as Dr. Thompkins rolled back his sleeve. She paused a little, as the first black “S” appeared, and looked at him curiously. But then she kept going, and soon the entire phrase, so stark against his pale inner-forearm was visible to everyone in the room.
“Huh.” Gordon said, breaking the brief, strange silence that had fallen over them.
Ed glared at it. None of them could have any idea what it meant. But it had been his secret for so long, his last piece of—
And now all these idiots, these people he hated, knew about it.
Bullock leaned back and watched as Lee rubbed disinfectant over the inside of his elbow. He huffed a little and said, “Didn’t really think you’d be the kind to have a soulmate.”
Ed’s eyes flicked towards the man, his gaze hardening to a razor, sharp glare. “Me? If memory serves, Detective Bullock, you already disappointed and abandoned your soulmate. Or am I remembering wrong?”
Taken aback, Bullock shook off his shock in a second and started to step towards him. “Now listen here, you worthless--!”
Gordon jumped up and held him back, while Lee ignored them both with a pointed focus on her work.
“You don’t know anything about me, Nygma.” Bullock finally said, pushing his partner off of him and leaving the room with a slam.
Reveling in his one small victory, Ed turned his gaze back to Gordon. “Do you have something you’d like to add about my mark?” he said, “Because I’ve got even better comebacks for you.”
Gordon’s eyes involuntarily flashed to Lee for a second. Simply nodding and crossing his arms again, he said, “No I’m fine.” After a moment of hesitation, he, almost reluctantly, added, “It can be a complicated thing sometimes.”
It wasn’t the response Ed had expected. He was thrown for an even greater loop when Lee, laying a bandage to his arm, spoke up as well.
“I’m sure you care about them, in your own way.” She said, her gaze never leaving the surgical tape she was applying, even as Jim’s eyes flicked back to her.
This was obviously a larger debate between them. Interesting. Ed would have to look into this more--
“Wait. Was it Kristin?” His train of thought totally halted, as Lee looked suddenly up at him. There was a new kind of anger in the intensity of her stare, something Ed hadn’t seen in her before.
“Good.” She nodded, satisfied, and stood up. “I’ll get the results back to you when I can.” She said, not even looking at Gordon.
“Thanks.” He said, trying to smile at her as she brushed past him. Once she left, Gordon sighed, looking back to Ed.
“Honestly, I’ve got nothing to hold you for right now.” Back to business as usual, burying his emotions in the job, Ed thought. Some things never change. “So I’m going to let you go, but don’t even think of leaving the city.” Gordon said, unlocking the hand cuffs.
“Wouldn’t dream of it Detective Gordon.” Ed quickly rolled his sleeve back down, thankful to have it hidden again, safe against his skin.
“One more thing Ed.”
Rubbing his wrists to return circulation to them, Ed looked up curiously at Gordon.
“Have you heard anything about Oswald lately?”
“No.” Ed said, putting as much sincerity in it as his voice would let him, “Haven’t even thought of him in weeks to be honest.”
A laugh echoed through the room, one that Jim clearly couldn’t hear. “That’s almost as good as the line you gave Bullock.” It chuckled from its spot next to Jim. “You do realize you were describing yourself when you told him all that?”
Ed grimaced and quickly stalked out of the room, not even nodding to the officer that handed him his coat.
-- -- --
Ed smiled down at the plans, maps, and blueprints spread out before him. “It really is, isn’t it?”
“I can’t wait to see it in action.”
Grinning into his mug of tea, Ed said, “Soon.”
Oswald hummed, nodding and stepping around the table as he looked over the whole wonderful mess. He stopped walking when he was next to Ed again.
Putting down his teacup, Ed wrapped an arm around Oswald’s waist and pulled him into his side. His arm buzzed warmly where it touched the other man. A contentment silence fell over the room as they leaned into each other.
Ed looked down to soak up the sight of Oswald, but jerked back at what he saw.
Oswald’s face was ashen grey, with dark, sunken eyes. His hair was dripping wet and his coat was covered in the slime of the river.
Ed’s eyes flew open. He sat up in bed and tried to tug off the covers tangled around his feet. The sheets stuck to his sweaty skin, and his head pounded.
With a sigh, he fell backwards in exhaustion and rubbed a hand over his face.
Absentmindedly, he started running his fingers over his mark, a habit it had picked up to calm him down.
It was the second time this week he’d had that dream. Somehow, this one was so much worse than the dock. This one made him feel good, really good, until the reality brought it all crashing back down.
“Maybe you should stop lying to yourself.”
At this point, the hallucination garnered little more than a groan. Ed had become begrudgingly used to it, no matter how upsetting that was.
“About what?” he asked the empty room.
“You miss him.”
After everything he had achieved, all that there was still to do, why would he miss Oswald? His death had done so much for Ed, propelled him to where he was now.
Silence stretched on around him, broken only by the soft noises of his own breathing and the city outside. No hallucination. No voice trying to poke holes in his excuses and explain his own thoughts.
Maybe the answer was just too plain obvious for even his subconscious to point out.
-- -- --
The uneven cement dug into Ed’s back as he was roughly pushed against the wall of the alley.
Putting his hands up in surrender, Ed said, “Calm down Detective. You don’t want me to file brutality charges.”
“Fuck that.” Gordon was snarling, his face contorting into an angry mask, “You’ve killed too many people Nygma. I’m tired of playing your games.”
The punch sent Ed’s glasses flying, as he landed painfully on his hand and knees.
Gordon stood over him, ready to deliver another, and asked, “What have you done to Harvey?”
Ed spit out some blood, gently touching the split on his lip. “Jimbo, I haven’t seen your partner since the last time you dragged me into that smelly interrogation room. You should really think about getting it cleaned, it—”
Another punch knocked him back into the wall. The next sent blood flowing from his nose.
“Okay, okay.” Ed held up a hand to stop the next blow. “I may have heard something, but I had nothing to do with it. Believe me.”
Gordon stopped, stepping back and shaking out his hand. “Tell me.”
“Barbara has some convoluted plan, very tasteless I can tell you, to get back at you lot for sending poor Tabby upstate.”
Gordon cursed, squeezing the bridge of his nose. “Of course it’s Barbara.”
“Well, can you blame her?” Ed stopped and flinched back as Gordon’s eyes turned back to him. “I’m just saying, could you forgive someone who hurt someone you love?”
“What do you think?” Detective Gordon’s face was inches from Ed’s, close enough that he could see the pale scars scattered across his skin, “Could you?”
Ed stared into Gordon’s eyes. The anger, the frustration and rage, he saw there was so familiar. Something about it made him answer honestly.
“Yes.” Ed said, realizing the great truth in his words as he spoke them, “If they were acting out of love as well.”
Gordon made a disgusted noise, oblivious to the meaning of the statement. He plowed on, grabbing Ed by the lapels of his jacket. “If I don’t find Harvey alive and happy, I’m going to personally make your life a living hell.”
Gordon released his grip on Ed with a shove and angrily stalked off. Wiping the blood from his face, Ed watched him go.
A morbid laugh escaped from his busted lips.
“Trust me Detective, it already is.”
-- -- --
In the mirror above the sink, Ed watched his reflection breath raggedly. The bags under his eyes stood out starkly against his ashen face.
When he finally got the courage up to look back down, he let out a pained breath, trying to hold back his tears.
The porcelain was stained red with blood.
A mess of blood and hasty bandages covered his arm. Ed began carefully pealing back the layers of ripped shirt, wincing as the caked blood ripped at his skin and hair.
The shot had thankfully missed the important tendons and bones, but Ed still had to clean, sew, and dress the wound before he bled out.
Somewhere Jim Gordon was cursing his bad aim, and Ed reveled grimly in the little satisfaction.
The last layer of bandage finally came free with some water.
Ed knew he needed to get to work immediately to minimize the damage, but he couldn’t seem to move.
A large part of the “thi” in “something” was obscured by the gun shot damage. Gone forever. The skin would heal, but the words would never be complete again.
At first, he had thought about removing them, hiding them away with scars or tattoos, but had given up on the idea after backing out a third time. And now that he saw the curving script actually disrupted, a wave of sadness washed over him.
For weeks he had traced the letters with his finger and his eyes, memorized them. They had become a part of him.
But, Ed felt his muscles tense at the thought, they were something else too.
They were the only piece left, the only tangible thing that Ed hadn’t been able to burn or throw out that reminded him of Oswald.
A great fatigue fell over him. “Stop.” He said to himself, none of the usual harshness in his voice, “Fix it. Do not die.”
Biting his lip to keep from yelling out, he went to work cleaning up wound, and sewing the hole closed. Carefully wrapping his entire arm in clean bandages, he covered up the incomplete phrase so he couldn’t see it anymore.
Letting his hands do what he needed to get done, Ed watched, as if from a distance, as he shoved the remaining evidence of his failed puzzle plans into the garbage disposal, then bleached the sink clean of stains.
There was still blood under his fingernails and he scratched at them with a brush until his skin was raw.
His apartment finally clean, Ed sat down heavily on the floor and checked his arm for any signs of a strained stitch.
Leaning his head against the wall behind him, Ed closed his eyes and let out a long breath. Everything was getting too complicated.
When he started it was all so easy. Tell a lie, leak a secret, plant an explosive. He hated Oswald.
Now things were getting too messy and confusing. The GCPD was trying, albeit clumsily, to dismantle his network and follow his clues. And sometimes, like today, they got lucky.
Meanwhile, his hate had settled, leaving him empty with nothing but an aching soulmark.
His dreams didn’t help either. They only showed him a future he would never have, with Oswald, alive, and beside him.
Ed opened his eyes and tried to shake the images away. They were just dreams, impossible thoughts. Oswald was dead. Ed had killed him, and there was nothing he could do about it.
He only realized he was crying when the tears dropped onto his cheeks. Rubbing his free hand across his face, Ed looked at the dampness on his fingers.
For his entire life, he had thought that his soulmate would make everything okay, that they would be happy together.
Now he didn’t have a soulmate, or a friend, or anyone at all.
“Fine.” He said to the empty room, as something very close to guilt settled in his gut, “I miss him. I admit it. I haven’t even thought about Isabella in weeks, but I can’t get Oswald out of my mind.”
The room didn’t respond, but Ed could feel the stare, feel the other part of him watching.
“I miss him. I miss the way he always believed in me, and the way he could control a room with just a glance. I miss his stupid hair, and his stupid suits, and his terrible sense of humor.”
The tears were falling freely now.
“I miss him.” He said again, looking down at the bandage over his arm, “Are you happy now?”
His hallucination didn’t even grace that with a response. Ed pulled his hand across his snotty face, and he laughed a little. Even his own crazy mind had left him alone now.
-- -- --
It rained at the funeral.
Ed stared at the sky, at those familiar grey clouds that seemed to mock him, reminding him of why he was here.
The search had petered off after a month or so, as the public lost interest and the police got bogged down with more pressing issues. But Oswald was only officially declared dead recently, Mayor James ready to put the issue away forever.
James insisted on holding an honorary service, claiming that it would bring closure for the public. But Ed knew it was to put any of Oswald’s remaining fans in their place.
It couldn’t have been at a worst time. The Sionis job had to be postponed, and he was missing tons of opportunities to get dirt on Warren White, the up-and-coming mob boss.
But, Ed still went. There was never a thought of not going. It was his friend’s funeral after all.
And, he thought it might finally settle his arm, bring him some sense of closure, seeing what he had done right before his eyes. Maybe he could begin to forgive himself now.
That’s very hopeful thinking, he thought bitterly.
The Rabbi started another verse of the reading and Ed turned his attention back to the plain, pine box standing out starkly against the black mass of mourners. There was no body, but at least James still had the decency to follow the proper traditions.
Ed would probably have had to kill him if he hadn’t.
While all the polite or hired grievers left, hurrying into their cars and out of the rain, Ed watched as the coffin was lowered into the dark hole.
“I miss him too.”
Ed looked up, surprised to hear something other than his own maddening voice after the last few months. Gabe stared at him from his spot a few feet away.
They watched each other for a minute. Then Gabe took one last look at the grave, opened an umbrella, and walked down the hill to his car.
Ed blinked, his hand absentmindedly going to his arm. There was a time, when he would have spit at Gabe’s words. Now he just rubbed the mark, feeling the prickle under his skin.
He wondered for a moment where Oswald’s mark would have been. Maybe along the collar bone. The though made Ed smile a little, only making the pain of reality worse.
Finally, stepping away from his vantage point, Ed began wandering around the rows of grey stone. His jacket slowly became soaked through and heavy, while his feet slipped slightly on the slick grass, but he kept going.
It took the entire length of his walk for him to even admit to himself what his destination was.
The pale white stone was simple, with just her name and two dates carved into its surface.
Ed rubbed his arm again, the pain of his healing wound and the words combining to make a bone-deep ache.
“I’m sorry.” He said, even though he knew the words meant nothing.
From all that Oswald had said about his mother, Ed probably should have been able to think of something else to say. But all he managed was another quiet, “I’m sorry.”
The sky opened up and thunder rolled through the air. Ed stared at the grave until he couldn’t see through the sheets of rain.
-- -- --
Ed didn’t return to the cemetery for a long time after that. Every time he got to the gate, he would look out over the rows of graves, while rubbing his arm, and then turn around.
Instead, to distract himself from all the guilt and loss that crowded his head, he poured himself into his work.
At this point The Riddler was practically a house hold name. The only things getting in the way were the others, the posers and copy cats that had started cropping up. Ed had to actively work around them, they were so annoying and gaudy.
There was no class to it anymore, no style. Nothing that could even compete with what Oswald had once accomplished. No one would ever be able to compare to Oswald, not even him.
It was a small consolation, but one that Ed held close to his heart.
Ultimately, it was the simplest thing that pushed him to return.
Ed was walking down a street, a file of very compromising photos under one arm and a camera slung over the other, when a wave of sweet, florally smells hit him. He looked up and found a blooming flower display spilling onto the sidewalk.
Spring must have arrived. He hadn’t even noticed.
He kept walking, his mind briefly flitting over the scientific names of the flowers as he passed them. Paeonia. Antirrhinum. Lilium-
Ed stopped mid step.
Turning slowly on his heel, his eyes landed squarely on the bucket of lilies. A memory, of Oswald sitting behind bars with his back to Ed, flashed across his eyes for a moment.
“Can I help you?”
Ed jumped a little when the young man spoke. He blinked at the flowers for a moment, then, before he could think, he turned to the florist.
“I’ll take a bunch of the lilies.”
On his way, Ed stashed his case file and camera in a safe drop point. He wasn’t going to bring work to something like this.
Then, without ever letting his mind settle on what he was doing for long enough to really think about it, he finally managed to step past the gate, his lilies in hand.
After that, it became a ritual.
Every week he’d buy two bunched of lilies. One was for Gertrude, which he placed next to the gravestone with a whispered, “Sorry.”
The other was for Oswald.
“This new guy is really crazy.” Ed said, hands in his pockets as he stood before the grave, “He thinks he’s a descendant of Zeus.” Ed chuckled, “I bet you would like him though. He’s got a better sense of flair than some of these other idiots.”
Looking at across the skyline, Ed sighed.
“Sometimes I think about what we could have done together, and I just—” He ran a hand through his hair. “I took away that chance, I was so short sighted.” His fist clenched, but there was no anger behind it, just a tired sense of regret.
“I think I love—”
The entire world stopped.
Ed turned around deliberately, slowly, as everything around him seemed to hold its breath.
When his eyes landed on Oswald, everything came back into focus with a jolt. Ed stumbled back, catching himself on the gravestone for balance.
“No.” He said, his breath gasping out from his lungs, “This is too much, this is too far.”
“Ed,” Oswald—no it wasn’t Oswald, it couldn’t be—started to reach for him, stopping only when Ed flinched back, “Are you still mad?” It said, fear flashing across his face, “I saw the flowers and thought—”
“You’re not real, you can’t be real.” Ed grabbed his arm, waiting for his daily pain to flare into the fiery ache that always came when he hallucinated, “I killed you.”
“It’s me, my old friend.” Oswald carefully stepped forward again, “Please believe me.” He looked so different, his cloths simple and his hair close shaved, but there was a desperation in his eyes, a pleading nature in his outstretched hand, that made Ed reach out to meet it.
When Ed’s fingers brushed solid skin and bone, something extraordinary happened. His arm didn’t hurt. There was no ache, no burn, no throb of pain. Ed had forgotten what that felt like.
He latched onto the hand and pulled Oswald into him. He wrapped the smaller man in his arms, tried to totally surround him, to make sure he was solid.
He pulled back finally, and saw the shock on Oswald’s face. Ed immediately let go and backed off.
“I’m sorry.” He said, “I didn’t- I don’t know what came over me.”
Oswald blinked, bringing his hand up to Ed’s shoulder tentatively, drawing Ed’s gaze back to Oswald’s face.
“Why aren’t you angry with me?” Ed asked, trying to understand, “You survived, but you didn’t try to kill me? After what I did to you—”
Oswald held up a hand to silence him. He looked so calm, almost unreal. “I could hate you, believe me. I’ve killed people over less.”
They both smiled slightly at the memories that phrase brought.
“But then I realized that you were only acting out of love.” Oswald continued, his eyes flitting away, looking out over the city, “And that’s a motive I can understand completely.”
Ed swallowed thickly, feeling tears threatening to escape. This was too much, all at once. He had no idea what was happening. Only that Oswald was in front of him, doing the impossible, forgiving him.
“I came to the same conclusion.” He said, his mouth working on its own accord as his brain searched for a sense of reality.
Surprise, and a sliver of hope, shone on Oswald’s face as he looked up at him.
“I have so many questions.” Ed said.
“I know.” Oswald said, glancing to a nearby bench. Ed nodded and they walked over in an indescribable silence.
They sat like that, each waiting for the other to break the uncertain tension, until Ed finally pushed his glasses up his face and asked, “How?”
“I washed up down river, where,” Oswald chuckled a little, “Fish Mooney found me.”
Ed nodded. It made sense that one of her followers had a healing power.
“She saved me, but, it took a long time.” He absentmindedly ran a hand over his close-shaved head. “I wasn’t ready to return until recently.”
“But you still came back.”
Oswald smiled knowingly at Ed. “Of course. This is Gotham. There’s no place like it.” He looked out at the skyline, “It’s home.”
“How did you find me?”
Shaking his head, Oswald glanced over at the grave with the bouquet of lilies. “Morbid curiosity I suppose. I came to see my own grave, and found that someone had been taking care of it, and even leaving flowers. Lilies.” He turned back to Ed, “You remembered.”
“Of course.” Ed’s mouth was dry, but his head had finally stopped spinning.
Oswald was alive. He was right next to Ed, talking and breathing and here.
There were so many things he needed to say, so many apologies and feelings to explain, but he couldn’t seem to find a place to begin.
“Ed.” Oswald began, hesitating and biting his lip a little, as the fear crept back into his eyes, “There is something I should have told you a long time ago. Before any of this.” He paused one more time, seeming to make a decision. “I’ll show you.”
Reaching for the hem of his sweater, Oswald began to tug up his shirt, revealing pale skin.
Ed gasped as he realized what was happening.
“I can't be bought, but I can be stolen with a glance-” Oswald began, as the words, stacked neatly along his ribcage, came into view.
“I'm worthless to one, but priceless to two. What am I?" Ed finished, wide eyed.
“I was so scared that it was a mistake, I couldn’t find a way to tell you.” Oswald said, staring at the words for a moment before letting his sweater drop back into place, “I always thought that I would never find a soulmate. Then, I- I started falling for you.”
Oswald was looking away, across the bay, but Ed was still searching his face, noticing every pained detail in his expression.
“Then you met—” Oswald stumbled over the name, unable to repeat it, “I realized she would, of course, be your match. It only made sense.” Oswald shook his head, looking down at his clasped hands. “I couldn’t take it. I’m sorry Ed, it wasn’t my place to presume who would make you happy.”
Ed could see the regret in every line of Oswald’s body.
“It wasn’t her.”
Oswald’s shocked gaze met Ed’s.
Without speaking a word, Ed rolled back his sleeve.
Oswald gasped, his hand reaching out. His fingers stopped and hovered over the words, unsure of whether he could touch.
“Say something. That’s…”
“The last thing you said to me.” Ed said, the sad irony of it almost making him laugh.
“That means…” Oswald’s wide eyes swung up to Ed’s, searching and full of hope.
Ed reached forward tentatively, his fingers brushing Oswald’s cheek. His dreams had shown him this moment so many times, but it was always a cruel, imaginary scene, created out of guilt and regret.
This was real.
Oswald leaned in a little, his breath softly brushing against Ed’s face.
The kiss was soft, their lips just brushing together before they both pulled back and watched each other wide eyed.
Oswald started to tear up, even with a grin spreading across his face. Ed carefully brushed the tears away with his thumb. Together, they soaked up each other’s presence, grinning like the lucky fools they were.
In the end, he didn’t need to say anything at all.