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Ed’s parents were stupid; a sad but true fact.

 

His mom spent most of her days on the couch, or on the floor, and always on pills. White ones and blue ones and ones with stripes. Ed had looked up each of their names and had studied them, paying particular attention to which neurotransmitter was inhibited or agonized. He noticed, with some irony, that sometimes the pills should have cancelled each other out. There must have been a never ending cataclysm in her brain, down to the smallest, confused cell in her tiny head. How fitting.

 

His father put himself forward as a smart man, but he cheated at cards and at work and on taxes and on his wife. He lied so much that he saw it as the truth, and the biggest and most untrue lie was the Ed was as dumb as he was.

 

True, he wasn’t doing well in school. But it was difficult, so difficult, to listen to the inane blather coming out of his teacher’s mouths. If it was a matter of memorizing material, it wouldn’t be so bad, but every instructor tailored exams to his or her own lesson, with his or her own logic. And the logic was wrong. And the tests were shit. And true, if Ed just paid attention he was sure to master the tricks to getting good grades, but he didn’t want to. Would prefer to gather knowledge at his own pace, which happened to be lot quicker than his peers, and much too fast for his teachers to keep track of.

 

That didn’t matter to Ed’s father, no matter how many times Ed tried to explain it. The proof, snarked his father right back, holding his child’s D+ test aloft, should be in the “fucking pudding.”

 

(Ed wanted to know what a fucking flavored pudding tasted like.)

 

(Ed’s father had almost broken his jaw.)

 

So he had to endure it. From home, in school, on the street- it was a small town. And there was already so much material on him without it. Besides for being too tall and too thin and too pale with a shitty haircut hey did your mom cut your hair for you, dumbass? Shithead ? Retard? You gonna answer me, stupid four-eyed freak?

 

(One time Ed’s mom was going to cut his hair and thought it would be a good idea to have a glass of wine, which turned into four, and the neurotransmitters in her skull scattered like frightened rats and she almost took half his  ear off. He got a cut on his temple instead that he’d hoped would scar. It didn’t.)

 

Everything changed after The Test, of course, the one which put him in the special-honors-fast-track-to-college.

 

He remembers it still, looking up from his doodles for once as his homeroom teacher made the announcement. The new placement test created by new school district rules. Based on percentile placement and not points, it didn’t matter how well you did- it mattered that you did better than anyone else.

 

His classroom had quickly become a battleground after that. Formulas spat at each other like ammunition. Logic test prep  books absent from bookshelves, now prisoners under the quicker students’ beds, never to return home. Parents became paranoid of an eating disorder epidemic as students stopped eating, or ate too much, or emptied their stomachs hours later, tears running down their noses because of a misspelled word. Bruises lined most student’s eyes, classrooms now resembling nests filled with baby racoons.

 

Each study spot became a marked territory for different groups, the nerds taking over the library, the popular-but-smarts staking out the quiet spot behind the auditorium stage. Not that friends mattered so much, when it really came down to it. From the hushed but obviously inflamed bickering that arose as The Test grew nearer, Ed was certain that friends were more a hindrance than anything else.

 

In the end, the bloodshed and broken minds had been for naught. Because a week after that dreaded exam, the curious group of students surrounding the ranking board very nearly became an angry mob; for how could the most coveted spot, a guaranteed ticket out of this hellhole, possible go to that dumbass Edward Nygma?

 

Of course, everyone thought he’d cheated. Every one of his teachers. His classmates burned holes into his head with their glares, sneering fraud - a new vocab word they had just learned that week. The principal made him take it again to be sure. Tiny room, light glinting off his glasses, proctor not taking her eyes off him for a second. And even then, his father wasn’t convinced.

 

Nevermind it would have taken a genius to cheat both times in such a monitored environment. There was no way on god’s-green-earth that Ed had two good brain cells to rub together. Couldn’t be, because there were only the stupid and the stupid-sly that got ahead by cheating. Ed’s father had come from a long line of stupid-sly hicks from the border of upstate New York and the The Hills of north Jersey. He expected his son to be no different.

 

But no matter how many time Ed’s father beat him (something like eighty- no. Seventy? He couldn’t quite remember. Head injuries will do that to you.) or how many times Ed chewed over his tongue when he cried yes, you’re right dad, I did cheat, I’m an idiot cheating liar scum- he still didn’t drop out of the program. Held on tenaciously until a diploma was in his hand, graduating a full two years early. Listened to the commencement speaker talk about hard work paying off and tried and failed to suppress a giggle.

 

Because, funnily enough? He had cheated. Both times.

 

---

 

Ed didn’t altogether see the point of having friends .

 

Ironic, since he called half of the people he knew “friend” to their faces. “Thank you for the tip, friend!” “I’ll be sure to look into it, friend!” A little white lie which soon grew into a bad habit.

 

Habits were becoming, well... habits for him, to say the least. An odd turn of phrase written here. A slip of the tongue there. The riddles, once a source of pride, now crawling out of his mouth like misbehaving children.

 

Not to mention, the killing.

 

It would be so easy - so easy! - for him to be caught! A slip up in his story. A missed blood splatter in his apartment, easily identified under blacklight. Or more likely, a riddle out of his very own traitorous mouth: What’s pale and bruised and red all over?

 

Funny how killing the love of life had opened his eyes  to the truth. Because, if she couldn’t appreciate him? After all he did for her? No one did. His coworkers took and took and took from him with their greedy hands and empty little heads and gave him nothing in return besides a snarky insult or a condescending pat on the back.

 

But he would still play along- perhaps not as willingly- out of necessity. It was useful, he knew, to be a fake sometimes.

 

The wool had been lifted from his eyes, it was true. He had never felt more free, more so even than when he left home for college. He had never felt more alone either, even though it was already a too-familiar constant ache.

 

Except.

 

Penguin, despite his general snark and somewhat violent tendencies, had warmed up to Ed enough to call him “my friend.” And while at first it may have been in gratitude, it was soon said often enough to be a nickname. A promise.  

 

My friend , Ed repeated to himself, late at night.

 

My friend. My friend. My friend . Almost like a song, it lulled him to sleep.

 

No, Ed had never seen any need for a friend. But he was nothing if not ideologically flexible.

 

--

 

The news buzzed its way through the precinct like a cloud of gnats, no nook or cranny safe from its touch.

 

It started in Records, as most gossip was want to start, worked its way up to Narcotics by early morning, and to Sex Crimes by noon. By the time that juicy piece of gossip hit Forensics, it was already half past three.

 

The Penguin had been released from Arkham.

 

He’s been declared sane!

 

Ed almost dropped the vial he was holding, which would have been bad. As it was, he fumbled it in his grip. Lee glanced over at him, clearly concerned. Usually the most he did, when faced with shocking news, was pause in surprise. A raised eyebrow if he truly felt scandalized.

 

“Ed-?” she started, but he certainly did not want to hear it. Not now.

 

“I’m fine.” He cut in. Perhaps a bit too sharply. Her eyebrows knit and he tried to smooth them over with an innocuous smile.

 

She didn’t say anything else to him. He tried to focus on his work, some sort of plant poisoning, but the chemical equations he had been working on blurred before his eyes. Perhaps a lack of oxygen to the brain? His pulse pounded in his head, throat suddenly feeling constrictive-

 

The  next moment he was aware of was in the bathroom, slapping cold water into his face. He breathing was slow, but labored. God, he hoped he hadn’t run through the halls to get here.

 

“You shouldn’t act like such a coward, you know,” said his reflection.

 

Oh, great. And now this was happening again.

 

“Afraid that he’s forgotten you, somehow?”

 

Ed sneered at the mirror, adjusting his glasses back onto his face.

 

“No? Are you afraid he’s better than you now?”

 

Ed resisted the urge to headbut the glass until it shattered. Only a crazy person would do that.

 

“Oh, to be sane again…” he called in an obnoxious schoolboy’s sing-song to Ed’s retreating back.

 

When he returned to his desk, he noticed Lee talking to Jim across the room. Discussing a case, or- no. They were talking about him. Whispering about how he had lost his mind. That he was acting too suspiciously. He ought to go over there and- No. Focus. Don’t give them any more ammunition.

 

He tried to zero in on his latest conundrum- how chemical x was turned into y- but his concentration kept breaking. His mind throwing him back toward less savory thoughts. Would Penguin be any different? How different? Had he even changed at all?

 

Well, had he? Changed at all?

 

His pencil nearly snapped in his grip. Of course.

 

He was being so silly. Oswald Copplepot was renowned for his superior deceptive techniques. He had simply beaten the game, was all. Pulled the wool over his therapist’s eyes, acted the stooge, weaseled his way out of the establishment.

 

He smiled in relief.

 

The rest of his day went rather smoothly. He solved the problem, delivered the answer to Jim on a silver platter like some sort of hired help, and smoothly dodged any questions Jim shot his way. Perhaps some of Penguin’s deceptive skill was rubbing off on him.

 

Ed didn’t know for certain where Penguin would be, but he had his suspicions. He would invite him over. Cook him dinner- no doubt he was wanting of a decent meal after all that crap hospital food. It would be the same as before.

 

--

 

Yes, the same as before, he hummed to himself in the market. It was a little hole-in-the-wall venue in Chinatown, but the best place for the most potent of spices. Having long gotten sick of Mr. Chow’s mediocre lo mien, he was now in the middle of Asian cuisine phase.

 

His envisionment for dinner was becoming more and more elaborate as he continued to shop. Did he have time to prepare duck? No, that would take hours, and he wasn’t sure how keen Penguin would be on eating his feathered cousin. Pork, then. But what to do for sides ?

 

A mellow, happy evening spread out before his mind’s eye. He and his friend laughing over wine over the fools at Arkham, in the GCPD, all over the city. How Penguin had already thought up a plan to make him pay and- would Ed mind helping, this time? He couldn’t take Jim like last time, because Jim had exposed himself as a liar and a fake, and Ed was his only true friend now. They would conduct it together. An elaborate orchestra of destruction to make way for Ed’s criminal debut, the city flickering green flames behind them. Oh, how they would mourn underestimating them-!

 

His heart was beating in excitement. Or- his heart was beating rapidly, and he perceived it as excitement. Either way.

 

He had placed a call right after leaving work, only to be met with the mechanical gratings of a voicemail system. No matter.

 

In fact, he was just weighing out a parcel of star anise when his phone chimed.

 

Great will c u there at seven - OP

 

Odd. He wasn’t even aware Penguin knew how to text, recalling his phone blowing up over every little thing found lackluster in Ed’s humble apartment. Maybe he had finally learned some phone etiquette. Maybe it was a life skill they had taught him at Arkham.

 

He flicked an obviously moldy spice pod out of his bag in distaste.

 

--

He stood in the doorway nervously clutching a decent bottle of wine. Ed wanted to laugh.

 

Well, it was kind of funny, wasn’t it? That hair, once elegantly styled, now lay plastered against his skull. Like a wet dog’s fur. His eyes were recently melted icecaps, watery and much too warm.

 

“I visited your mother’s grave,” Ed said with some forced disinterest, buffing his nails in his vest.

 

“My…” Penguin’s mouth made a tiny O and his eyes brightened. “My mother! Oh, yes!” He began to try and force entryway into the apartment.“How is she?”

 

“She’s...fine?” Ed said, letting Penguin past and shutting the door.

 

“That’s- that’s good.” He muttered. He stood in the middle of the living room, clutching the wine like a lost child clutching his blanket.

 

Ed turned away on instinct. He had food on the stove to attend to. It wasn’t as if- he didn’t want to see.

 

“We should open that wine.” He called from the kitchen.

 

He could hear Penguin’s padded footsteps behind him, softer than they ever were before. He didn’t turn around.

 

“Bottle opener’s in the middle drawer.” He said shortly.

 

He heard the drawer open and close, and the soft tinkle of glass. He stayed intent as ever on the work before him. Getting the flavor profile just right was dependant on just the right amount of heat. An over-full glass of wine slid into view near his elbow. It seemed that even in his current state, his friend was as perceptive as ever.

 

“Thank you,” he said, ducking his head into his chest.

 

He found that while he was preparing the finishing touches on the meal, Penguin had set the table. He had never done that before, usually lazing on the couch and shouting at Ed to hurry up.

 

Ed had never hated him for it, back then.

 

He went back for his glass once the dishes of food were situated. When he returned, Penguin was sitting in his usual spot, looking up at Ed with a cowed expression. Ed cleared his throat awkwardly and took his seat.

 

“So,” said Ed, eagerly reaching for the chow fun. “Mr. Penguin. What-”

 

“Actually,” Penguin interrupted him, his voice too loud. “I- I’d prefer to be called Oswald now.”

It was Ed’s turn to stare at him wide eyed. “...Oswald?”

 

“Yes,” affirmed Oswald, reaching for a napkin. “This whole ‘penguin’ thing, it’s…” he trailed off with a weak flutter of his fingers.

 

Ed remembered that there was food in his openly hanging mouth and promptly shut it. He stabbed his fork into a stray piece of broccoli.

 

“Well.That’s an odd development.”

 

Oswald looked at him sharply, scandalized. It was a familiar expression. Ed suddenly felt a little heart sick.

 

“It is not .” He growled, fist clenching around his knife. “I’m cured now, Ed,” voice rising, he straightened up in his seat. “And you can just-” he stopped mid-speech, mouth snapping shut, and sagged back down into his chair. “I’m sorry,” he said softly, avoiding Ed’s eye. “I shouldn’t have…”

 

Ed swallowed, unable to look back at Oswald either. They ate in considerable silence for the rest of the meal, eyes on their own plates. Despite the spices the food didn’t taste like anything.

 

“Ed…” Oswald broke the silence as Ed was clearing up. Ed looked at him eagerly, but Oswald’s eyes remained drilled into the table.

 

“Yes, Mr- uh. Oswald?”

 

“Thank you for the lovely meal.”

 

“You’re most very welcome,” said Ed, shoulders sagging.

 

“Do you...”he chewed slowly on his lower lip. “Do you still think about killing people?”

 

Ed’s face instantly brightened. “Why, yes.” He said, words suddenly almost on top of each other in his eagerness. “Was there someone whom you wanted to kill...?”

 

Oswald shook his head, stilted, like a rusty machine. His face was now turned away from Ed completely. “I see,” he sighed. He gathered his coat and limped toward the doorway, finally turning around with his hand on the knob.

 

“You should think about checking into somewhere,” he said, still not looking Ed in the eye. “Arkham, or somewhere else. It-”

 

Ed let out a hiss, so suddenly filled with anger that he couldn’t even speak. “Get out,” he finally managed, tongue heavy as molasses.

 

“Listen, Ed, I’m not-”

 

“Get out .” He yelled in the voice of his father, finger pointed toward the door. He was a raging inferno, he was a dragon, bomb, intent on destroying everything, he was-

 

The door shut with a click, so quietly that Ed almost didn’t hear it over the blood pounding in his head. The anger drained out of him suddenly, red water swept up into a black, dark sea. He stared at the closed door in silence, then slowly turned to look at the empty table with its plates of food only half eaten, the dirty pots in the sink, the completely empty bottle of wine. And he stood there stock-still and waited, until he heard Oswald finally move from the other side of the door. He waited until he could no longer hear his shuffling down the hall before sinking down into his couch, lump now too heavy in his throat for him to take. He sobbed painfully in earnest pity, though for which of them he did not know.