Riddle me this:
What’s black and white and red all over?
Correct: A Penguin with a gunshot wound.
Now, riddle me this:
What’s black and white and red all over and wearing your plaid pyjamas and bleeding on your bedsheets? And what do you do when he wakes up?
Finally, riddle me this:
Once you’ve managed to make a friend, how do you keep them?
That was his first thought upon entering the lab, greeted as he was by a bouquet of roses sitting on his desk. He glared at them – wary – and crossed the floor to pluck a small white piece of cardstock from the elegant vase. He turned it over in his long, pale fingers, examining the spidery, jagged script. One side the card read Mr. Edward Nygma , and on the other, in place of a signature or explanation, there was a couplet:
Our time may now be at an end,
but I remain your feathered friend.
Ed could feel a grin stretch across his face. It was a riddle. Halting. Simple. But a riddle nonetheless.
“Until next time, then, Mr. Penguin.” He said to himself, tucking the card into the breast pocket of his lab coat.
Oswald had been gone 27 days (not that Ed was counting; numbers just had a way of sticking in his head) and the silence in Ed’s apartment – broken only by the whir of the fan and the hum of appliances – was already insufferable. Oswald hadn’t been the best of roommates: demanding, cranky, high-maintenance, and intermittently bleeding… But Ed missed him. He flipped on the police scanner in the corner of the room to listen for news of the manhunt – or bird-hunt – currently turning Gotham upside down.
He was used to being lonely – or, he had been. But then there had been Jim and Lee and their soft – sometimes exasperated – smiles. Until he discovered that they were thin guises for them to hide behind while they laughed at him.
They wouldn’t be laughing much longer.
And, of course, there had been Kristen Kringle and her musical laugh and bright eyes: she hadn’t lasted. Ed had regretted her, at first, but now he was certain that her sacrifice had been necessary to his metamorphosis. Still, he wasn’t thrilled at the loss of her glasses. A memento of a different time, a different Ed.
But Oswald – well, he was something else entirely, wasn’t he? Oswald Cobblepot and his wicked grin and scorching temper who saw Ed, really saw him – not just the nervous forensic analyst or the oddball riddle man – but the real him.
He got the sense that it might be quite a while until he saw his small feathered friend again. The roses would be a welcome reminder of their time together.
Until they fade . He thought, morosely, but brightened almost immediately as he asked himself: “I burn without heat, heal wounds, and stop hearts: what am I?” and he answered himself: “correct! Ice.”
He had the vat of liquid nitrogen out, the roses neatly stacked beside it, and the protective gloves on by the time he heard voices in the hall outside the lab. He flicked off the scanner – it had only yielded news of the quotidian parade of b-and-e, aggravated assault, and public intoxication arrests anyway – and listened instead to the voices of Detectives Gordon and Bullock growing closer.
“—not going to put money on this.”
“That’s because you know I’m right.”
The door to the lab swung open and the Detectives entered, still arguing.
“Ed!” Jim said. “Settle this for us.”
“Good morning Detective Gordon, Detective Bullock.” Ed said. “What can I do for you?”
“Dr. Fries’s machine—it uses liquid nitrogen, right?”
That startled a laugh out of Ed before he realized that it wasn’t a joke. “No. No, it…” he sighed. Why must he be constantly surrounded by useless amateurs? These men were supposed to be detectives. “Watch.”
As Detectives Gordon and Bullock approached the table, Ed selected a rose for his demonstration.
“Got a secret admirer, Ed?” Detective Bullock asked, attempting a sort of jocular intimacy that they certainly did not and would never share. Ed frowned at him.
Better than an admirer. A friend.
“They’re from Ms. Kringle,” he lied – each lie was a little easier, a little smoother, than the last. His gut twisted a little with the thrill of it. “A farewell, I imagine.”
Detective Bullock had the good grace to look apologetic. Ed pursed his lips at him, biting back the sudden compulsion to laugh wildly in his face.
“No word from her Ed?” Jim asked – he sounded genuine, but Ed knew better.
“Only insofar as flowers constitute words.” The little piece of cardstock in his pocket burned against his chest.
“Sorry about that, buddy.”
I am not your buddy, James Gordon . The voice in Ed’s head was loud and insistent, spitting the name like venom.
He smiled, letting the corners of his mouth curl up past the point of comfort and into something he knew resembled a shark-grin. Detective Gordon looked unsettled.
“Well, things happen.” He said. “Now watch this.”
He lifted the rose and lowered it into the bubbling nitrogen and held it for a count of one… two… three… four… five… before raising it out again.
“Interesting. It took nearly five seconds to freeze this rose using liquid nitrogen.” He said. And by interesting, I mean so obvious I want to scream.
“So?” Detective Gordon demanded.
“So,” Ed replied, calling on all the patience he possessed. “It would take a human body significantly longer depending on mass and body fat, of course.”
“So why would a cop stand around for hours waiting to get frozen?” Detective Bullock asked.
It was all Ed could do not to scoff at him.
“She wouldn’t.” he said, trying to school his face into something that didn’t look like disdain but not certain if he was succeeding. “Which means your suspect wasn’t using liquid nitrogen; he was using super-cooled liquid helium. It’s one of the most effective substances in the world for rapid temperature reduction.”
Ed looked down at the frozen rose in his hand and remembered two nights before, when he had cooked homemade pierogis and borscht and opened a bottle of wine he had been saving for months and Oswald Cobblepot had told him the story of how he had met James Gordon.
“He was supposed to kill me.” Oswald had slurred, half the bottle of wine down. “Take me out to the end of the docks and put a… a bullet in my head.” He had mimed a gun to his temple and then barked a laugh at Ed’s look of horror. “But he couldn’t!”
And Ed had leaned forward, resting his chin on his laced-together fingers, and asked. “Why not?” And Oswald had flashed him a wicked grin.
“Because,” he had said, trapping Ed with his eyes, so green in the darkness of the apartment. “Because even if he won’t admit it to himself, he realized that walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.” And Ed had felt something electric race down his spine.
Detective Gordon startled Ed back to the present with a direct question: “This liquid helium, where do you get it?”
“Why do you need it?” Ed asked, trying to reorient himself to the conversation as a vision of the smiling man in front of him holding a gun to the head of a beaten and shaking Oswald Cobblepot flashed before his eyes.
“He doesn’t, dummy.” Detective Bullock cut in – and hot fury seized Ed. “He just wants to know where it comes from so we can track down the guy that blasted our colleague with it.”
Ed heard the rose shatter before he even realized he had clenched his fist, and heard his own voice growl, “I don’t like being called names, Detective.”
For a moment, he had the intense pleasure of seeing raw shock on Detective Bullock and Detective Gordon’s faces, before they recovered their composure enough to respond.
“Easy, Ed.” Gordon said, placating. “I’m sure Harvey was just being colourful.”
“Yeah,” Harvey chuckled nervously. “I was just being colourful, Ed, I’m sorry.”
Ed was certain he had, for just a moment, frightened Gordon and Bullock. Good, they should be afraid of him.
Then he looked down at the fragments of shattered scarlet in his gloved hand and felt inexplicably hollow.
“It’s extremely rare and expensive,” Ed continued, peripherally aware that his hand was grinding the rose into smaller pieces as he spoke. “I can’t imagine there’s more than one or two producers in Gotham. I could research manufacturers if you would like.”
Detective Bullock may have spoken again, but Ed didn’t hear. He was thinking of pale, freckled fingers brushing against his cheek and watery green eyes and a voice saying “you’re a better friend than James Gordon ever was, Edward” and a warm, tight feeling in his chest.
When he looked up, Bullock had gone, and Detective Gordon was closing the lab door and looking at him with an expression that Ed might almost have thought was concern.
“Listen, Ed, there’s something I wanted to talk to you about.” He said.
Ed could see the roses on the table behind Jim and knew what Detective Gordon wanted to say: “Penguin.” Ed supplied.
“You want to know the nature of my relationship with him.”
“Because you’re concerned I aided and abetted a known criminal.”
I saved his life. He ate my food. He drove me up the wall. We drank wine together. We laughed. He sent me roses. “I found Mr. Cobblepot wounded, and dying in the woods. I nursed him back to health. He owed me his life, which is why I trusted him when he said he had changed his ways. It was an innocent mistake.” We drank wine. I played the piano, he sang. He laughed at my jokes and looked me in the eye and smiled. He sent me roses.
“We got him!” the shout from outside startled him into motion and he was lunging for the door before he quite knew what he was doing.
“I wonder what that is,” he said, belatedly, but he was already on his way out of the lab. Ed heard the applause before he even got to the bullpen. He knew what had happened. It didn’t take a detective to put it together, and Ed was decidedly more competent than even an above-average detective.
He heard Captain Barnes yell “silence!” and the applause stop, and Barnes may have started a lecture – as he was wont to do – but Ed wasn’t listening. He rounded the corner to find the entire GCPD on their feet looking at Captain Barnes and his prisoner.
Pale, unwell, and defeated, Oswald Cobblepot nonetheless held himself with undeniable dignity. He stood beside Captain Barnes as though he was there by choice and might leave if the conversation began to bore him. Even bundled in Ed’s heaviest winter coat – Ed was not a big man, but his coat was still almost comically large on Oswald – and his warmest wool hat and scarf, Oswald seemed somehow grander than the officers standing around him.
The King of Gotham indeed.
Barnes continued to rant as he strode between the rows of desks, dragging Oswald with him.
He has a bad leg. You can’t do that . Ed thought, suddenly furious, watching Oswald limp along beside Barnes, head held high.
“This is just one sad, pathetic skell,” Barnes snapped and the hair on the back of Ed’s neck stood on end.
Don’t you know who you’re talking to?
“There are plenty of scumbags out there, plenty,” Barnes continued as they approached the holding cells. Ed felt himself take a step forward, the words “stop!” and “don’t touch him!” on the tip of his tongue before he composed his face into what he hoped was a mask of polite interest bordering on indifference.
“Yes, stare all you want,” Oswald said, still trying to command the room even as he was being forced into a cell. “Big whoop. You got me. I’m cool.” A grunt of pain as they pushed him into the cell. Ed felt his mouth twitch with the effort of remaining expressionless. “It’s all good.”
Ed watched Detective Gordon make eye-contact with Oswald, and saw the half-smile Oswald gave him in return and Ed could almost hear Oswald’s slightly tipsy voice saying: “You know I always think he’s my friend. That next time he’ll come through when I need him. Next time he’ll be there. He’s never there, Ed. Never comes when I need help. But I just keep going back. Why is that?”
Ed had suspected why, and now, looking at Oswald’s hopeful eyes, he was sure. And he knew that Oswald was about to do something very very stupid.
Oh Mr. Penguin , Ed thought, sadly. I told you: love will always be your most crippling weakness.