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Silent Partners

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People will talk. Oswald hears these things — people tell him things, or people tell other people who are all too happy to report back to the Penguin. People come to the club to talk, to ruminate over drinks or to shake off the memory of an old flame. They come there to enjoy themselves. They come to watch as much as to be seen. They've seen enough for his liking — the doors are shut, and Oswald is alone.

Cobblepot is one of Gotham's many enterprising entrepreneurs; nothing that happens within Gotham city limits is outside of his area of expertise. He wants to know everything and everyone. Jim Gordon has come and gone tonight already; he's spooked the revelers and rattled the glasses behind the bar with his empty threats. People don't like law enforcement sniffing around when they're trying to dance — in the old world they knew what that meant, but in Oswald's new one they aren't so sure. The man didn't even stay for a drink, for God's sake, and if there's one principle of doing business in this town it's that no one turns down free refreshments. The man won't come when invited, but he'll stroll into Oswald's place the moment he needs a nudge in the right direction. On nights like tonight, he might not ask for anything outright without something else to sweeten the pot — but Oswald might still let Gordon know where he might find something if he's discreet. As a sort of friendly gesture. They'll be talking about that in town for a day or two, but on the geological scale of suspicious events in Gotham their association warrants barely a tremor.

(The poor man's sniffing cautiously around Victor Zsasz. God only knows what that impetuous boy gets up to on weekends — a couple rounds at the Foxglove Club might be the best bet, but there are limits to even Oswald's information-gathering, and he doesn't think he cares to know. In that case the friendliest thing to tell Jim might be to leave well enough alone.)

Playing the host is thirsty work — Oswald has said the evening's last goodbyes, kissed the last cheeks and clasped the final hands, shooed out all but the most necessary armed guards, and sat down his best muscle with a packet of cigars and a stack of those detective novels. He has sent the heavily-pierced barback home to her bed only to rifle her workspace for an early-moment taste of solitude — curling up to the Art Deco bar with a couple of bottles and an assortment of small implements that wouldn't look too out-of-place in a torture chamber. The rattle of glass on the countertop is music to his ears. It's the wrong glass, at that, too tall. But it'll do.

Jim Gordon is the fly in the ointment. If it had been any other fool with a badge not bearing Gordon's blessing, they'd have been politely but firmly shown the door, and if they'd pressed the matter they'd have been given a brief tour of Gotham's most scenic alleyways. But when Gordon comes around without so much as taking off his hat he gets whatever he asks for and more — and the muscle have started to notice. And who could blame them? Some bull with a badge coming around during business hours asking to see the boss and getting the red-carpet treatment, getting ushered into the backroom for a drink he won't touch and a little talk. No visible suggestion of favors exchanged, no nothing.

What is it about Jim Gordon that makes his heart beat faster?

Oswald is a man of business. No one can take that away from him. But Jim is an agitator, an honest man making the Herculean effort to remain on the straight and narrow. Maybe the satisfying part of their acquaintance is the pleasure of knowing deep down he's got a few bends and twists of his own. Gotham's greatest detective. Other people see the shiny brass and the uniform and the accolades, or they see his women and his track record and turn aside. But for Oswald, the two of them are linked. Bound. More than that.

Of course, Gordon is photogenic, and Oswald is not. It he'd turned up on the Cobblepots' doorstep a year ago and rung the bell, Gertrud would have offered him cake and tea — unless he was there seeking Oswald, of course, in which case she'd have gone stony-silent and unresponsive. She would have liked Jim under other circumstances — if he were a vacuum salesman or a grocer or anything but a policeman. Gordon makes for an appealing public figure and Cobblepot does not, but if living under Fish Mooney's thumb has taught him anything it would have to be the value of making a striking impression.

And, of course, Gordon is on the other side, at least most days. He's the hero. The glamour of heroism still hangs heavy on Jim — aggressive, forthright, naive, more often than not finding himself between a rock and a hard place. A thug with a conscience. But that same conscience makes him easier to lean on than a man without one. He lacks a rudimentary grasp on local politics. An authentically crooked policeman would have his own demands to make. He'd be the one pushing for a string of favors, he'd be brave enough to try to shake Oswald down if he thought he wasn't getting a fair cut. Whatever transpired between the pair of them would be grudging at best, and if it did happen to cut both ways they'd both be impatient to end it.

But when Jim Gordon came to him for that first favor, Oswald was only too happy to give it. He liked the way it sounded, to be in a position to give favors without expecting reciprocity in kind. And then again, and then again, each time seeming more impossible than the last. Friendship, trust, respect. They both enjoy the theater of it, of pretending Jim doesn't want his help, and he's always bristling and dragging his feet and one bad morning away from putting an end to their acquaintance permanently. His reluctance puts Oswald in the position of playing gracious host and benefactor, and the pair of them can pretend this arrangement isn't to their mutual advantage. These offers are made in the spirit of friendship. Oswald is a civilized man who's ready to play ball with the police, and Jim Gordon is a pragmatist who's found the city's lesser evil. Oswald never thought he'd like being the lesser evil.

A habitually corrupt officer would have considered their score settled long ago. A habitually corrupt officer who fancied himself a paragon of virtue would have brazenly declared that he didn't do business with gangsters and scampered off to find some pettier criminal to fleece. What admirable restraint Jim's conscience might allow him to bluster and make threats, but he doesn't mean anything by them — they're token gestures of the roles the pair of them play. Oswald has a willingness to cooperate that makes him the lesser of two evils relative to the old bosses — and Jim has scruples that won't allow him to seal the deal and sell Oswald out, and that set him apart. He isn't just any square-jawed jackass with a badge. It's about ethics.

Jim Gordon is only a little crooked, and he hasn't learned how to turn a profit on it yet. He's too accustomed to being the unsung hero, making difficult decisions on a daily basis with aplomb and panache and only occasional fanfare. He knows that he's necessary. Oswald has been a small-timer all his life, waiting for an opening. It's too late for people to like him, but it's enough to know that they need him. Oswald finds it flattering. Jim Gordon must too, or he wouldn't keep coming back. Sweet, really, like a stray cat.

An empty nightclub is about as hospitable as a tomb, and as conducive to distractions from deep contemplation. There's an agitation he can't shake that makes all his movements sharper and closer to violence than he might intend — and he can't keep his thoughts from Jim now, when all the neon has flickered out and the litter has been swept up. All the petty debris of business and pleasure in the city goes straight into the ashcan come closing time. Oswald's knuckles stand out white as he goes about shattering a sugar cube into oblivion with a glass muddler and crushing flat half a dozen syrupy cherries — it won't be a good cocktail, but the nervous compulsion for something sweet is hounding him. He's been through an awful a lot of trouble to get the good stuff, but he has no real appreciation for things that are purposefully bitter. It's not enough to dampen the protestations of his bad leg, or the pain in his head.

What drives Jim Gordon? There's a streak of brutality in him that is well matched with Oswald's own appetite for cruelty, but it is not the same — he carries around some narrowness, a core of something essentially inflexible and incapable of radical reinvention. If the city fell tomorrow and the GCPD were scattered to the four winds, Gordon wouldn't quit being a detective, and it's almost enough to feel sorry for him.

Gordon loves this city despite everything it is. He loves Gotham's blind alleyways and its broken windows and its firetrap tenements. He loves its sullen orphans and its shivering old women, its chiselers and junkies and nuns. Gordon would redeem them if they could. Oswald doesn't see the point of it, but it's a nice idea. Oswald loves these things because they're his own; they are the geographical features of his city as much as the skyline or the street grid and he's known them all his life.

When it snows in Gotham you've got about five good minutes of it staying white and clean and fluffy before the city's hard-earned patina of filth soaks up from beneath to reclaim it, or the endless footsteps of Gotham's populace churn it into slush — and that's part of the city's charm, who wants to live in a picture postcard anyway?

The ice cubes rattle into his glass, one by one. A solitary sound. If Jim were here, he'd offer him a drink — for old times' sake, won't you take a seat? Like a friend. If Oswald can't shake off this blues and quick he'll be plotting felonies just to maintain the interest of Gotham PD. What will Gordon spend tonight once he finishes up his beat? Some cop bar that still tosses sawdust on the floor, some rat-trap apartment now that his silver-spoon paramour's cut him loose. That will be the next order of business — it'll be Oswald paying him a visit, just like old times. No red carpet. Jim can cope with the fallout however he likes.

An honest man in Gotham stands out like a diamond ring in an ashtray, and after the breakneck turns and reversals of fortune that have characterized the last few months Oswald is starting to think that Gordon might be so hard he's bulletproof, maybe untarnishable. Even if he'd been a Congressman or a schoolteacher or a low-down chiseler himself something in his essential core would have kept him a cop. And Oswald would have been a freak just the same if he were the son of a senator. For his own part he fell in with crooks back when Jim Gordon was still playing cowboys. It was the natural progression for someone like him, who wasn't normal and didn't have the knack for hiding it. Oswald was never good enough with numbers to be a bookie, never intimidating or quick on his feet at the age where that would have mattered — and he's certainly not now, courtesy of Fish Mooney. Fish had been the best thing to happen to him in twenty years; she'd seen his potential and plucked him up out of the crowd. And at her side he'd learned all kinds of things. He'd learned what power looked like. He learned how to gladhand with anyone and how to send a message and where to put a body when you don't need it any more — but it wasn't a position with what you'd call advancement opportunities. The highlight of his position had been the occasional temporary promotion to hired muscle — those days when Fish would let him work someone over. That was one way to gain respect — to put in your time, and to move up the ranks through patience. He'd come to hate the word.

And then something wonderful had happened. Thomas and Martha Wayne were shot dead in the street like a couple of tourists. There's a tired old saying about crisis and opportunity — Oswald played lookout for a few summers for an old man who had that on a piece of paper thumbtacked to the wall of his private office. You know, in China their word for crisis's the exact same as opportunity? he'd tell him like he wasn't sure Oswald could read, every time he had him cornered into that little stinking office, and he'd count hundred dollar bills and shed gnawed fragments of cigar into the envelope containing Oswald's cut. Never mind that the old man had never been closer to China than Blackgate. Sweet guy, dead now, of course. So, a crisis — and then the rest of it.

The rest of it was history now. For someone with Oswald's skills, everything is an opportunity. He's a businessman. He has connections. He knows things — he knows a good angle when he sees one, he can fabricate a half-decent one in a pinch. And if you want to get anywhere, you've got to be willing to learn. Some day Oswald might need a man of his own to hold his umbrella. A bigger man would have found it beneath his dignity, but with Jim, Oswald is confident he can bring him to heel some day. A little faded, maybe, with the gilt rubbed off, but it's something to look forward to. It's nice to have a little something to yourself.

When he was a small boy, Oswald Cobblepot stole things. He couldn't say why — only small things, from the other boarders mostly and from his classmates as a last resort. A silver cigarette case from the monocled lady in apartment 3B, who wore three-piece suits and never locked her door. A mismatched deck of playing cards from the teacher's desk drawer of classroom contraband. A plastic bottle that once held brandy, a narrow two-color comic book missing its staples, a paperboard box full of insects on pins. When mother found his stolen things she palmed the cigarette case and tossed the rest down the garbage chute to burn.

He never saw the case again; it had been full of sickly-sweet cigarettes wrapped in black paper with a gold band. Maybe mom took it to the pawnbroker's. Maybe she even brought it back. He wouldn't know. That wasn't how a good boy ought to behave, and she knew her Oswald was a good boy — Oswald knew that he was awful and backward and lived to bedevil her with new difficulties. Most things were difficult for his mother, delicate as she was, with her constitution to deal with— but he was her sweet boy, her only son. On some level mother must have understood it; it was only the threat of trouble that she disliked. Having something simply to have it, keeping it in your pocket and knowing the weight of it was there wherever you were, huddling in fear knowing you were invincible so long as nobody told you to turn out your pockets. It never felt like a vice. It felt like security.

He wants to steal Jim Gordon. Piece by piece or all at once, it doesn't matter. Maybe it's backward. It's a little perverse — not that perverse, since Gordon is no angel. Neither of them can help the way they're made. Maybe Oswald can teach him a thing or two.

It had been all in fun, back then that first day, when they'd first laid eyes on each other like a couple of stray cats cringing through the same alleyway. The glass itches against his palm, and he remembers swinging a baseball bat in a back-alley, feeling it skip off pitted bricks and tremble bone with every strike. So maybe part of the charm was meeting Jim under such unprepossessing circumstances, and managing to make a comeback regardless. The incongruity again, the diamond and the ashtray again. And if he'd met the detective differently maybe the cards would have fallen differently for the pair of them — without a bat in his hand, though it'd felt good to deal the blow and he'd been reluctant to let it drop. If he didn't owe Jim something, if Jim hadn't come back around to him, neither of them would be where they are now. They'd never have been friends. Maybe it would be Jim thinking of him on a Sunday night with a smudged highball glass and an ache under his ribcage he can't isolate to any particular blow.

If Jim had put a bullet in a stranger's brain the way he should have — and the way Oswald would have, if the positions had been reversed and it were some trembling no-name GCPD enforcer at his mercy — the old order would still stand, whole criminal empires would still have their roots firmly planted in the fertile soil of Gotham City and environs, and neither of them would have had time to develop this interesting acquaintance. If Jim hadn't felt pity and let him swim for it on a bad leg.

It hadn't seemed like much of a mercy on the long trip back into the city, but all things considered — it had set a precedent for Oswald's luck taking a turn for the better. It's only polite to spread some of that good fortune around, and to let Gordon taste some of the fruits of his newfound prosperity. He wouldn't have made it half this far without Jim Gordon's idea of mercy. He wouldn't be here, drinking sugar water by yellow light; he'd be fish food, spending a long night in a cold dark place. Without Jim Gordon's small mercies Oswald wouldn't be plotting his next course of action — whose glass to fill, whose toes to step on. Oswald holds his glass up to the light, and fixes his eye on the layer of syrupy mess that settles to the bottom in swimming waves, muddying the whiskey into something else.

A toast to Jim Gordon and his scruples.