Actions

Work Header

Some Tricks of Desperation

Chapter Text

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?

¿?

Red.

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.

No matter.

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.

The genius.

The artist.

The killer.  

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.”

“No, because…”  

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.

Excellent .

“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.

“Yes.”

“You want to know the nature of my relationship with him.”

“Yes.”

“Because you’re concerned I aided and abetted a known criminal.”

“Did you?”

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.

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

Where can you find a lock with no key, and a sentence with no words?

Correct: Prison.

Now, Riddle me this:

What’s the likelihood that, as a 5’5’’ scrawny man with a bad leg, you will survive more than a week locked in a building with dozens of Gotham’s worst criminals, many of whom have personal grudges against you?

Finally, riddle me this:

Is it smarter to fight to the bitter end? Or to take a fall so that you can choose where you land?

¿?

Oswald was warm. All things considered, that was something to be grateful for. The interrogation room walls were cold, unwashed concrete, and Ed’s winter coat hung too large and heavy on his shoulders. But it smelled a little like coffee grounds and disinfectant and the smoke of Gotham’s industrial sector, and it was warm.

He looked around at the bleak stone walls and thought of the green glow in Ed’s apartment and the unfamiliar feeling of something like comfort wrapping its tendrils around him.

He could hear footsteps in the hallway and a small, desperate part of him hoped it would be Jim Gordon, coming to let him go free, saving him from having to fall on his sword.  

But it was Captain Barnes who opened the door and Oswald felt his face contort into smug defiance and his heart harden as he prepared, once again, to talk his way to deliverance.

Barnes swung the chair around, the metal scraped against the stone floor and for a moment the sound sent Oswald back to the table by the window in the apartment at the wrong end of town, before Barnes’s words pulled him back.

“Alright Cobblepot. Tell me what happened at Galavan’s that night.”

“Well, a lot of things happened.” If he was going down, he was going down with dignity. Well, as much as he could muster considering the circumstances.  

“Why don’t you start with the moment right after you knocked me out with that vase?”

Oswald could almost hear Edward’s delighted laugh when he had shared that little detail with him, and he couldn’t help but smile a little.

“I’m sorry for that. Such an exquisite vase.”

“This is my amused look. Keep talking.”

“I took Galavan to the river and I killed him. Slowly.” Perhaps Edward was right: there was something thrilling about a bold confession. It did feel good to say it out loud and watch shock, confusion, and suspicion dance across Barnes’s face.

“You confess to murder?”

“Yes I do.” Damn, that was a rush. A high like the feeling of chugging champagne and running his fingers across the bar-top in the club that had belonged to him for one glorious moment. “Proud of it. I’m not a criminal, you know. I’m just… insane.”

“What did James Gordon do?” Barnes demanded. There it was: what they were both really here for. Why was everyone so obsessed with James Gordon?

Why are you obsessed with him?  

“What did he do when?” Oswald asked, feeling the power in the room gather around him.

“What did he do after you knocked me out?”

This was the moment. Oswald could destroy Jim Gordon right here. Gotham’s last good man was on the edge of knife – a flick of the wrist and Oswald could gut him like a fish. But then the idea of a trial, and a thousand uniformed officers tossing their way through Oswald’s things to discredit him as a witness, and going to prison anyway at the end of it all… And the echo of a memory of feeling like he and the last good man in Gotham weren’t so different after all: “What does he say he did?”

“I’m asking you.”

Oswald leaned forward and rested his chin on his hands.

“It’s all a bit of a blur, Captain Barnes, I must have lost track of Detective Gordon in my haste to destroy Mayor Galavan. I didn’t see him after I left the building. And who knows what he gets up to when he’s left on his own? Really. You should keep better track of your detectives.”

“He didn’t help you kill Galavan?”

Oswald laughed harshly. “Now why would an upstanding member of the GCPD do that?”

“Why are you covering for him?”

Good question .

“I’m not.”

“Penguin…” Barnes growled and Oswald could hear Ed’s voice whispering conspiratorially so, Mr. Penguin, how did you come by your name?

“Is James Gordon under arrest, or am I?”

“Oh you’re going down, Cobblepot, but the question is: will you take Gordon with you?”

And he was back in Ed’s apart and Ed was slurring a little, cheeks flushed from the wine, and saying “he shouldn’t treat you that way, you know, Mr. Pen—Oswald. He acts all… all… all high and mighty but he’s a… a… terrible friend.” And he was reaching across the table and brushing his hand against Ed’s cheek and saying “you’re a better friend than James Gordon ever was, Edward” and meaning it.

“Would that I could, Captain Barnes.” Oswald said, shrugging. “Alas. I often find myself confused… intoxicated by the smell of blood… dizzy with the thrill of murder… that sort of thing.” He fixed Detective Barnes with a wide-eyed stare and stretched his face into a violent grin.

Barnes didn’t recoil from him, but it looked like it took effort.

“Why are you doing this?” Barnes asked, leaning forward, lowering his voice as though that made them co-conspirators. “Why are you covering for him? Is he threatening you? Does he have something on you?”

That startled a laugh out of Oswald.

“No, Captain,” Oswald said. “I appreciate the concern, but big bad Jim Gordon doesn’t scare me. Clearly, though, he scares you. Now why is that, I wonder?”

Jim Gordon has a frightening knack for making people love him , he had told Ed. For making people want to believe that they can be more than they are. And for making you throw away your life to help him .

Barnes got to his feet, looking at Oswald with the sort of blatant disgust that didn’t really surprise him anymore.

Maybe someday I’ll kill you . He thought, grinning back at Barnes. Maybe this face will be the last thing you ever see.

Barnes left, slamming the door behind him, leaving Oswald no more than a few moments of contemplation before a pair of uniformed officers entered to escort him back to his cell.

“Escort” was perhaps too gentle a word to describe the journey through the maze of halls that lead back to the bullpen. “Violently drag” felt a little more on the mark. His leg was hurting him. Well, his leg was always hurting him, but in that moment, limping to keep up with the long strides of the two uniformed gorillas dragging him through the bullpen (to the general amusement of the officers therein), it felt as though the bone had shattered like glass and the shards were shredding the muscle and skin from the inside.

By the time they pushed him into the cell and he collapsed on the bench, he was winded. His whole body felt brittle and it was taking a great deal of effort for him to stop himself from shaking.

Maintain dignity at all times . He thought, in a voice that sounded alarmingly like Fish Mooney’s. Sit up straight, don’t betray your weaknesses. He remembered her long scarlet nails gently pushing his hair – back then in had been longer and apt to fall over his face – out of his eyes and guiding his chin upward. He remembered the lilt of her voice as she said his name as though he were someone who mattered. You may be small, but if you hold yourself right and get some fire in your eyes you can be a giant, Oswald .

Fish always seemed like a giant. Oswald wondered if anyone would ever be able to say the same about him. Right now he felt so very small.

¿?

It had been nearly an hour since he had given up his posture in favour of rounding his shoulders and curling in on himself, trying to will the shattered feeling out of his leg.

“Psst,” he thought he heard someone hiss behind him and, before he could turn, another, more insistent, “PSST.”

He turned to find himself faced with a familiar profile and his heart did a sort of half-flip into his throat. “Ed?”

“Shh, Don’t look at me, I’m not supposed to be talking to you.”

Oswald turned back around, sorry to look away from a friendly face.

“You doing okay? You look kinda funky.” Ed continued.

Oswald allowed himself a little breath of laughter and a half-smile. For a moment, he remembered the feel of oversized flannel against his skin and the sound of a sharp, gleeful laugh in his ears, and he forgot the pain cutting through him.

“I confess I’ve felt better,” Oswald said, wishing he could turn around and meet Ed’s sharp eyes.

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

And they were back in Ed’s apartment and Ed was peering at him skeptically over tented fingers and drawling “can I get you anything else, Mr. King-of-Gotham, or do you think you can find the shower on your own?” Oswald had frowned and rolled his eyes and insisted that he was perfectly capable of escorting himself. Ed had grinned at him and walked to the sink to start washing up to make breakfast. Oswald had wondered if this was what it would have been like to have a roommate. Or a friend, even? He didn’t hate it.

“I’m beyond help,” he said. Feeling the truth of it in every inch of his aching body. “Forget me, my friend. But… if you would take care of my mother’s grave, I’d be very grateful. If you’d visit occasionally, tell her I’m thinking of her.” She would have liked you, Edward . He didn’t say. You’re kind to me.

For a moment a vision of a future that would never be swam around him; of sitting around a table with Ed and his mother, and Ed saying quotidian things like “pass the salt” and “this is a lovely meal, Ms. Kapelput.” And then it was gone.  

“I will,” Ed said.  

“She likes lilies.” And Oswald thought he might cry because he could picture the lilies at the lonely grave and the chill in the air and he hoped that his mother would forgive him for not being able to visit.

“Occasional visits. Lilies. Check.”   

“Thank you,” he sniffed, risking another glance around and catching a glimpse of a blue-gray lab coat.

Oswald felt something warm settle in his chest, only to be dispelled by the sound of a guard at the cell door saying “on your feet, Cobblepot” and opening the door with a rusty whine.

“What’s going on? Where are you taking me?” he demanded, risking a glance at Ed, who had gone completely still with his hand in the filing cabinet, listening. Goodbye, my friend .

“Arkham. You are insane, right?” Oswald couldn’t argue with that logic. After all, it had been his idea.

He let himself be led out of the police station and into the back of a prison transport van. He held his coat tighter around his shoulders and sat with a rigid back, staring straight ahead.

It’s better than Blackgate . He told himself. At least not everyone in Arkham wants to rip my tongue out… Or worse.

He could control the people in Arkham. He was the King of Gotham, after all. He could handle a building full of lunatics.

The ride to Arkham was shorter than he thought it would be, and soon he found himself being jostled out of the transport and hauled through a courtyard of loose stone and dying grass into a building that looked like Strawberry Hill gone to seed.

The air in Arkham Asylum was stale and dusty and the clunking ventilation system pushed around pathetic gusts of air that seemed to only make it colder. There was mould in the walls, he recognized the smell from the apartment he and his mother had lived in for most of his childhood, until Oswald had discovered his particular talents for less-than-savory work and started making proper money.

He was escorted into a stone room off the main entrance, past heavily armed guards, and pushed down onto a metal bench. Another Arkham guard entered with a folded pile of black and white striped cloth that she put down on the bench beside Oswald.  

“You know stripes really don’t flatter my figure,” Oswald said. “And, if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather keep the coat, it is a tad drafty in here.”

“I thought penguins liked the cold,” she said, with a little smirk that sent Oswald reeling back to his days as Fish Mooney’s umbrella boy when the other members of her entourage had sneered the name Penguin like it was an insult. But it wasn’t an insult, not any more. It was a name to be feared and respected. It was his name.

“Careful,” he said, leaning forward and grinning his most unsettling grin, “they still haven’t managed to remove the umbrella out of the esophagus of the last person that crossed me.”

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

The less of me you have, the more I’m worth: what am I?

Correct: Friendship.

Now, riddle me this:

If the justice system is corrupt, does trying to dismantle it make you a hero?

Finally, riddle me this:

What if you would have done it anyway? What if you tasted the chaos and you liked it?

¿?

Ed used to love his job.

He would wait in the lab every day for uniformed officers to come to him with puzzles to solve and he would take his time parsing each one – peeling back layers of hidden information to get to the truth. And when he solved it, Captain Essen would say “thank you, Edward,” and she’d mean it. Sometimes, early on, the detectives would even clap him on the back and say things like “good job, Ed” or “wow, that was impressive! How’d you figure that out?” and they’d at least pretend to listen as he explained himself. He had felt like he was useful and maybe even liked.

A new beginning after… well… after before . A chance to help people and to make friends and to use his talents to make Gotham a better place.

He had even gotten along with Harvey Bullock, in the beginning.  

Harvey would come down to the lab so see what Ed had found, and Ed would ask Harvey a riddle, and Harvey would chuckle a little and say “I don’t know, Ed, what are you?” and Ed would tell him. And it was... comfortable.

But, if Ed had learned anything in his nearly thirty years of life, it was that he was not the type of person that others liked , he was the type of person that others tolerated , if he was very lucky. And Harvey, like the rest of them, had started to lose patience. His answers quickly degraded to sharp “not now, Ed”s and “shut up, I’m trying to think”s.

Now, Ed was done tolerating them – all of them. He was done with their incessant noise and their casual cruelty and their incandescent stupidity. And he was certainly done being called names. He didn’t like being called names.

And, lately, the feelings of anger and frustration and violence constantly boiling just under his skin had been severely limiting his job satisfaction. So maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if these people and this place just went away.

And if that meant they stopped asking difficult questions about the whereabouts of one Kristen Kringle, well, so much the better. Because James Gordon was starting to irk him; everything from his insincere smiles to his falsely-friendly questions made Ed’s skin crawl. And his too-many-questions made Ed begin to suspect Jim was onto him. Trying to outsmart or outmaneuver him.

I don’t think so.

So, when Lee Thompkins came into Ed’s lab to collect some samples from the fridge, Ed made his move. It would be a cold day in hell when James Gordon out-thought Edward Nygma.  

“Dr. Thompkins,” Ed began, finding the nervous bluster was not hard to fake. Lee smiled at him, so he went on: “would you like a cup of coffee?” He glanced down at her just-starting-to-show pregnancy bulge and amended: “decaf, of course.”

Lee looked surprised, but smiled gently and said, “sure, Ed, I’d love to. Just give me a minute to wash up, okay?”

Ed almost felt bad, deceiving Lee. She was kind, and considerate, and let Ed use the coroner’s room, and she smelled nice.

She just had terrible taste in men.

That’s why she likes you, he thought. And really, Ed couldn’t argue with that logic.

¿?

They had truly excellent coffee at a place across the road, called In Hot Water . Ed and Lee (and, until recently, Kristen) had started coming here on their breaks to sit in uneven chairs on the uneven floor between the walls of peeling-paint. Ed allowed himself a moment of regret that today would likely mark the end of that fledgling tradition.

“How are you holding up, Ed?” Lee asked.

Ed held his coffee to give his hands something to do instead of tapping uneasily on the table. I’ll be better when I know how much information you have.

“Oh, you know,” Ed said, “taking it day by day.”

“You seem to be doing alright.”

Do I? Is that why they suspect…

“Ed?” Lee prompted.

They know! You idiot, you gave yourself away.

“I—I apologise Dr. Thompkins,” Ed stammered, “I just, didn’t expect you to…”

Lee’s phone rang and Ed was surprised the shaking cup in his hands didn’t shatter under his fingers. He got away with only spilling a little coffee over his wrist as Lee pulled the phone out of her bag and said, “I’m sorry Ed, it’s Jim, I should take this.”

“Of course,” Ed said, watching the gold-brown coffee bleed into his cuff. They know. They’re coming to take you away to Arkham and lock you up and throw away the key and the people in there will tear you apart – you’re a FOOL. He felt himself sway a little on the spot. He started to turn to look for the grinning apparition that watched him from mirrors and followed him down silent hallways, but he remembered Lee was there and stopped halfway through the motion. He could hear wild laughter in his head and, for a breathless moment, he wasn’t sure if it was coming out of his mouth or not.

The world spun. Ed wondered if he might just fall off.  

Lee hung up the phone and turned to face Ed, grimacing.

“I’m so sorry, Ed, I have to go,” she said, “Jim needs me. Something to do with Nora Fries. They want to take her to Arkham?” Lee looked distracted and unhappy.

That’s what you want me to think.  

“Of course, Dr. Thompkins, I entirely understand,” Ed said, setting the cup down and cursing the saucer for rattling as the back of his mind clawed at itself: they know!

“I’m so sorry,” she said again, and touched Ed’s arm briefly – Ed imagined her meticulously clean fingernails closing around his forearm and dragging him away to a freezing cell with no windows and only the screaming and that thing in his head for company – and then she was gone.

Ed sat staring at the peeling wall, breathing slowly,  as the room slowly righted itself and his coffee got cold.

By the time he was ready to put his coat on and walk back across the chilly street to the lab, he had begun to build the scaffold of a plan to solve his Jim Gordon dilemma.

¿?

Ed’s shopping list was decidedly more interesting than usual. Now, instead of tea, coffee, pineapple, spicy mustard (Oswald had eaten it all during his brief residence in Ed’s apartment), it was crowbars, detonators, spray-paint, and explosives. Not that it was an actual physical written list – he may be new at this, but he wasn’t a complete juvenile. No, he kept the ever-growing list at the back of his mind as he filed paperwork, ran tests, and briefed detectives. He was cleaning test-tubes while weighing the potential risks against the possible rewards of rigging actual explosives in the museum’s grenade-sculpture when Detective Bullock’s voice in the hall outside the lab caught his attention.

“I dunno, Jim, he seemed pretty out-to-lunch,” Bullock was saying.

Ed crept toward the door to listen as they passed.

“Strange told us they had to sedate him, it’s probably just the meds,” Gordon replied.

“Look I know you and Penguin got friendly,” Bullock said – Gordon made a noise of protest that Bullock ignored, “but I’ve known that kid for years and I’m telling you those quacks at Arkham scrambled his eggs good.”

Ed’s heart lurched against his ribcage.

“Well,” Jim said, as their voices got further away, “maybe it’ll be good for him, its—”

Ed couldn’t hear the end of the sentence, but he could hear their laughter echo back down the hallway.

It wasn’t until he felt something warm in his hand that he looked down to see blood leaking around the shattered glass of the test-tube.

“Oh dear,” he muttered; a memory bubbled up inside him, of his own hand – smaller, younger – holding blood-soaked glass. Of a voice screaming at him: idiot, dummy, half-wit . He forced it back down.

He let the rest of the bloody glass in his fist fall to the ground and walked over to the sink to wash out the cuts criss-crossing his palm. He took a pair of tweezers off the shelf to pull out the shards as the conversation between Harvey and Jim churned in his mind.

You’re not going to be able to forget this. You’re going to have to know. Just admit that now and start planning.

His hand hurt, and was bleeding rather a lot, now. Please don’t hit me, I’m sorry , it was an accident, screamed a young voice – his voice – in his ear, and he forced it down again.

He finished picking glass out of his hand, washed it, and wrapped it in gauze from the cabinet. As he cleaned up the blood and glass he began to add to the scaffold in his head – something was happening in Arkham, and he was going to find out what it was.

Forget me, my friend . Oswald’s voice echoed in his head. I am beyond help. And Ed wondered if it would upset him if Ed disobeyed his instructions. But, Ed reasoned, I’ve upset the Penguin before and I’m still here. He could still feel like cold blade of a knife at his throat and Oswald’s breath on his face and his heart pounded a little harder with the memory of the rush of adrenaline and some foreign feeling twisting in his chest. You’ve saved him from himself before, and made a very powerful friend doing it. Why not again? Ed could hear the thinness in his own argument, but already he was taking off his lab coat and searching for his keys.

In minutes, he was in his car on the way to Arkham Asylum on the edge of town.

As he drove, he remembered the heart-pounding night drive with the Penguin in the passenger seat. There had been blood and dirt and sweat everywhere. All he had heard were fevered, heaving breaths interspersed with sharp, pained noises and breathless half-formed words, echoing all around him. Help . Stop. Where am I? Who are you? And Ed had done his best to answer. You’re okay. It’s okay. Stay still. But there had been so much blood. When Ed had stopped at a traffic light, he had gently placed his gloved hand on the Penguin’s head and had felt him shaking – from blood loss, pain, or exposure to the elements he couldn’t have been sure. He had tried to make calming, comforting noises and, when the light turned green, he had put the pedal to the floor and arrived back at his apartment a full eighteen minutes quicker than he should have.  

The gates of Arkham where fast-approaching. He fumbled to get his GCPD badge out of his pocket.

They let him in and he parked the car a little to the right of the entrance in the gravel patch that served as a parking lot. He got out of his car and looked around.

He shivered, and wondered if Oswald found it cold at night in his cell.

He inhaled slowly, trying to dismiss the growing certainty that he should not be here. Ed had been to Arkham once before, before it was open, and he had found the empty buildings and smashed windows eerie. Now, as he stepped out of his car onto the frozen-out lawn and into the frigid wind that carried the mingled noises of screams and manic laughter, he wished it would go back to being empty.

There was something about this place that felt wrong – like the air itself was laced with some noxious chemical that rotted and warped his brain every time he breathed.

Arkham wasn’t a prison, but it wasn’t a hospital either. Something was happening to its patients – or, at least, to one in particular – that had managed to unsettle Harvey Bullock. Ownership of the building had changed hands a half-dozen times in the last year alone, and there had once been a body set on fire in this very courtyard.

Arkham Asylum was the ultimate riddle.

And a riddle demands an answer . He thought.

So, Edward Nygma crossed the lawn, opened the heavy front door, and stepped over the threshold into Gotham City’s biggest riddle.   

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

I cannot be taken but I can be shared, too much or not enough of me can kill. What am I?  

Correct: Warmth.

Now, riddle me this:

Is it wrong to be so happy to see someone that you don’t care if it will get them into trouble in the end?

Finally, riddle me this:

How can one person make even hell seem endurable?

¿?

Oswald’s head hurt, and he couldn’t remember why. Come to think of it, his whole body ached as though he had spent the previous day lifting weights when really he had been…

Actually, what had he been doing yesterday?

He opened his eyes and, in doing so, discovered that he was curled in the fetal position in the corner of his cell. His bed sat, untouched, in the opposite corner.

He was cold, and thinking in a straight line was proving a challenge. After a moment of trying to grasp at the dissolving flashes of memory from what he assumed was the previous day – the sound of clanging bars, a shower of electrical sparks, the feeling of soul-deep dread – he thought perhaps he had better stand up.

He unfolded himself slowly, finding dozens of both sharp and dull pains in his joints. He tried to get to his feet and his bad knee, stiff and weak after a night sleeping on the floor, buckled under him. He collapsed, slamming his cold hands into the stone, jarring his elbows, and sending the wind rushing out of his lungs. He gasped and heaved for a moment, trying to suck the frigid Arkham air into his lungs.

Everything hurt.

“Mr. Cobblepot, you have a visitor.” The guard’s voice outside his cell startled Oswald – Cobblepot means me. How did I forget that? – and he scrambled, shaking to his feet.

“I’m…” he stammered, “I’m… I have a what?”

He heard the key scrape in the lock and the door banged open, rebounding off the back wall with a clang . Oswald jumped at the noise and felt his hands shaking and didn’t know why.

“A visitor,” the guard said again, in a drone.

“There, there must be some mistake,” Oswald said. Who would want to visit me?

The guard didn’t respond. Instead, they stepped forward and said, “hands.”

Oswald stuck his hands out in front of him. The guard cuffed him with cold, biting metal, grabbed him roughly by the elbow, and began to drag him out of the cell.

Oswald put up a token struggle, but everything inside and out hurt and he couldn’t muster the will to engage in a fruitless fight against the much larger, heavily armed guard. So, he allowed himself to be marched through the winding Arkham halls, through a few sets of metal doors and peeling-paint corridors that he hadn’t seen before, and into a large room with a half-dozen sets of tables and chairs that were all made of flimsy tin and bolted to the floor. In the corner farthest from the guard, sat a tall, thin man in a grey cardigan. He was cleaning his glasses.

Ed.

Oswald felt a warm tingling sensation that might have been relief or gratitude race across his skin, and he barely heard the guard say “I’m watching you, don’t try anything funny,” before he was limping toward Ed’s table.

Ed placed his glasses back on, carefully pushing them up into place, and looked up, just as Oswald was approaching. Ed’s face stretched into a familiar too-wide grin when he saw Oswald, and Oswald felt himself smiling for the first time since he had crossed the threshold of this wretched building.

“Hello Mr. Penguin,” Ed said, as Oswald sat down. He flinched as Oswald’s handcuffs clanged loudly against the table-leg.

“Ed,” Oswald breathed out the name, “you have no idea how good it is to see you. But,” he said, suddenly remembering why he had told Ed not to come in the first place, “you shouldn’t be here.” He lowered his voice and continued, “you’ll get in trouble for associating with me. It’s not worth the risk.”

Ed put his elbows on the table, laced his fingers together and rested his chin on top of them, pondering for a moment, before replying with a little smile: “Oh, I wouldn’t say that.”

That startled a shaky laugh out of Oswald.

“I can’t say I’m sorry you’re here,” he admitted, “but… why?”

It was then that he noticed that Ed’s smile was a little strained, there were dark grey-purple circles under his sharp hazel eyes, and his fingers were twitching. He looked frayed – like the knit sweater he had given Oswald, still warm, still a comfort, but worn thin and on the verge of coming apart at the first pull of a thread. He missed that sweater; he wished the guards hadn’t taken it away.

“Are you okay, Ed?” Oswald asked, as gently as he knew how. Which, granted, was perhaps not very gently at all.

A pained look darted across Ed’s face before he seemed to force a little laugh, “I’m supposed to be asking you that. I’ve been…” he dropped his voice to a whisper, “hearing things. Is everything…” Ed looked at something behind Oswald and trailed off.

Oswald glanced over his shoulder and saw that the guard had crept closer and was steadfastly pretending not to be listening.

“I’m well, Ed,” Oswald said, careful to catch Ed’s gaze and hold it, “truly, I feel myself… improving. They’re as hospitable here as…” he paused, choosing his words carefully so as not to give himself away, “Theodore and his sister were to my Mother.”

He saw Ed’s eyebrows creep upward, subtly, and knew that he was understood.

“I often feel,” he continued, “that my time here will end as well as my first… encounter… with our dear old friend Jim.”

Ed’s eyebrows crept even higher before his face melted into something more neutral. Oswald felt Ed’s hands find his under the table and grip them tightly. He thought for a moment that his heart had stopped – Ed’s hands were warm and there was power in his thin, bony fingers. He squeezed Ed’s hands back, trying to convey all the gratitude he felt without words. He felt Ed’s thumb brush across his knuckles.

“I’m so glad that you’re well, Mr. Cobblepot,” he said, earnestly, “and that you’re seeing the error of your ways. Just know that you have my support in this difficult time.”

I hear you, I’m here for you, I’ll get you out – Oswald could hear the promise in Ed’s words and he wanted to rest his pounding head on Ed’s shoulder and cry.  

Instead, he gripped Ed’s hands a little harder and tried to crush the selfish hope that he would stay here with him.

“Thank you, Ed, for visiting me,” Oswald said, his voice wavering slightly, “it’s so lonely here I sometimes can’t tell one day from the next.” Like yesterday. “I get so turned around.”

Help me before I lose myself entirely.

“Well then let’s hope for a speedy recovery,” Ed said, the corner of his mouth turning up a little and a mischievous glint in his eye. It was the same look that had been in Ed’s eye as he handed Oswald the silver pocket-knife, and a muted version of the wild, blood-spattered grin that had stretched his sharp features as he had systematically dismembered the corpse of Mr. Leonard. Systematically and beautifully, as Oswald recalled: Ed was inexperienced, but he had the makings of a true artist.

Oswald could see the idea spark behind Ed’s eyes and catch from a flame to an inferno in moments. Watching it happen was breathtaking.

Ed had a plan.

Everything would be okay.

“How are you, Ed?” he asked again, and this time he felt Ed flinch through their joined hands.

“I’ve been spending a great deal of time with our mutual friend, James,” Ed said, rolling his eyes to the ceiling, “he’s always so interested in my… relationships. So considerate, our James.”

He released Oswald’s hands and Oswald could barely restrain himself from lunging forward to take them back.

He was so cold.

“How… How is James? You two seemed to be growing rather close,” Oswald said, swallowing the voice in his head demanding, please take my hands back and remind me I’m a person.

“Closer every day,” Ed said, and Oswald could see the tension in his jaw.

“I wish I could be there with you,” Oswald said. I wish I could help you. I wish I wasn’t stuck in here. I wish we were back in the green apartment with the sound of jazz music in the background and nothing to worry about but the poor plumbing.

Ed smiled tightly, his eyes betraying the unraveling happening behind them. Oswald wanted to reach out and grip his shoulder in comfort, or touch his knee, or brush the errant strands of hair out of his eyes. He looked so tired.

“I wish that as well,” Ed said, softly, and earnestly, “but I’m sure one of the doctors here will be able to help you navigate the prison of your mind.”

“I’m sure they will,” Oswald said, certain Ed had just made him a promise to rescue him, “I trust them.”

He nearly fell out of his chair when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He looked up at the guard, who glowered down at him and grunted, “time’s up, Penguin.”

No, no, please, let me stay here.

Oswald looked back to Ed and knew he must look terrible because Ed’s brow was wrinkled in a frown. He tried to smile at Ed, tried to be reassuring, but didn’t know if he succeeded. He stood up, and Ed did the same. The chairs scraped. Oswald shuddered.  

He limped around the table to offer Ed his hand to shake in farewell, but found himself enveloped in a warm, tight embrace. He curled his hands into the front of Ed’s shirt and closed his eyes, taking a moment to inhale the vague scent of coffee grounds and cleaner that always clung to Ed’s clothes. For a heartbeat, he felt the heat of the green apartment and heard the whir of the fan.

He felt Ed’s hot breath on his ear and heard him whisper in a barely-there rush: “I’ll come back.”

Then he pulled away, nodded politely, turned, and walked away. Oswald watched a guard let Ed out, saw Ed step through the doorway, and flinched as the heavy door slammed back into place.

Please…

The guard grabbed his upper arm again, and dragged him out of the visitor’s room. Oswald felt every step jar his knee and he grit his teeth against the pain of it.

But the guard didn’t bring him back to his cell.

He turned down another set of halls that Oswald couldn’t remember but that made his scalp prickle and cold sweat spring up on the back of his neck. It wasn’t until they reached a towering metal door and the guard started keying in a code that he started to panic.

He couldn’t remember this room, he didn’t know where he was, but he knew that terrible things happened in there and that he couldn’t go inside.

He couldn’t draw a full breath, his lungs wouldn’t inflate, his heart was thundering against his ribcage, and he was certain he was dying.

The door opened with a low pneumatic hiss and revealed a chair on a pedestal in the middle of lab.

Someone was screaming.

The guard pulled him into the room and shoved a hard piece of metal into his mouth and the screaming stopped.

He felt hands pinning his arms to his side and lifting him into the chair. Heavy leather straps were secured to his wrists and he thought his heart would have flung itself out of his throat if the bit between his teeth wasn’t in the way.

His body was shaking, rattling the chains pinning him down. He couldn’t breathe or move or think and, as a hard metal cage of wires was forced over his head blocking out his vision entirely, the last thought before the searing electrical current pulsed through him was:

Ed is coming back for me.

Ed is coming back.

Ed is.  

Ed.

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

If you get caught breaking in, you have to stay. Where am I?

Correct: Prison.

Now, riddle me this:

If the doctors are making people sicker, is it really a hospital?

Finally, riddle me this:

How do you hide in plain sight?

¿?

Nothing was better than a game.

As a kid, Ed had played as many games as he could get his hands on which, granted, was not very many. But he had loved Clue . He had tried to modify the rules so that he could play by himself, but it was never quite as much fun as he had imagined grappling with a skilled opponent would be.

Becoming a forensic analyst had offered some such opponents – people he thought of as friends he’d never meet, setting up puzzles for him to pull apart, making moves on an invisible chessboard for him to parry.

Those games had been diverting – pleasant, even. But Ed had still chafed for a true challenge, an opponent he could look in the eye and smile at as they matched wits.

But this game, where he got to set the board and choose the players and move the unruly pieces at will, was exactly what he had always craved. Oswald’s predicament had forced his hand a little more quickly than he would have liked, certainly, but Ed still felt himself equal to the role of Game Master.

He checked his watch. Noon.

He pulled his scarf up over his mouth and nose, flicked the trigger on the smoke bomb, and made his first move.  

¿?

Ed wished he could have kept the stolen painting. He had placed it carefully in the desk drawer of the uniformed officer who was prone to greeting Ed with a cheery “hey, freak” every morning. All the same, he would have enjoyed hanging it up in his apartment.

Mad Grey Dawn? You just couldn’t resist, could you?

Ed smiled to himself. No, he couldn’t resist. No more than he could resist spray-painting the neon green question mark at the crime scene in the place where the painting once had been. He had kept the can of spray paint and it was now sitting in a duffel bag in the closet that had once housed a very distressed Mr. Leonard.

He would be using it again.

The crowbar from the bombing site, on the other hand, was safely tucked away in the evidence locker, covered in Jim Gordon’s fingerprints.

Jim hadn’t been as thrilling an opponent as Ed had hoped.

Perhaps that’s for the best; you have things to do, he reflected as he watched a uniformed officer handcuff Jim Gordon while Harvey Bullock shouted. He didn’t smile in satisfaction, but it was a near thing. You have a bird to set free .

And Arkham Asylum, now that was a puzzle worthy of Ed’s considerable talents. In all his research, he’d been unable to find any clear information at all – every answer he uncovered just raised more questions. None of the blueprints on file seemed to quite make sense – halls that went nowhere criss-crossed across the page and none of the sets of plans matched each other.

So, he had done some more digging, and had found files from the coroner’s office. Bodies transferred quietly to Arkham, disappearing into the system. The worst of the worst in Gotham: Fish Mooney after her body was found in The Gotham River, Theo Galavan with the Penguin’s umbrella lodged in his trachea – he had laughed a little at that – the firebug Bridgit Pike’s charred body, and (Ed shivered) Jerome Valeska’s still-grinning corpse. All sent to Arkham. But where? There was no cemetery, no crematorium, no morgue on any of the blueprints.

What the hell were they doing in there?

I can’t think of anyone better to figure it out.

Ed slipped away to the sounds of Harvey Bullock’s curses, and went back to the lab. Lee Thompkins wasn’t there – she was busy shouting at Captain Barnes – so Ed wasn’t concerned about being interrupted. He carefully folded one of his spare lab coats and placed it in his bag. He slung the bag over his shoulder and slipped into the hall. It was empty – Jim must be making quite the spectacle in the bullpen.

You can always trust James Gordon to make a scene .

With any luck, the mess upstairs would last long enough that no one would notice that Ed wasn’t where he was supposed to be. One crime serving as alibi for the other – he liked the symmetry of that.

He slipped out the back door to his car, tossed his bag in his trunk, and within a few minutes, was on his way to Arkham. A little way out of town he parked the car on a side-road, got out, and opened the trunk.

He put on his lab coat, clipped his stolen Arkham ID badge to the front, and slipped his glasses into the breast pocket. It had been frighteningly easy to take the badge off the guard on the way out of the building the last time he had visited, and nothing about the security apparatus he had seen inside had suggested that it would be at all difficult to pull off this part of the plan.

It’s rather troubling, part of him thought as he put in his contact-lenses. It’s very convenient , thought another.

He fished a comb out of his bag and used it to slick his hair back. He had briefly considered using cornstarch or flour to whiten his hair and really throw off anyone who might have seen him there visiting Penguin, but visions of a trail of white powder following him through the asylum made him abandon that idea. No, the change of clothes and demeanor would have to be enough.

As he tucked his bags away with the spare tire, he found himself trying to adjust his glasses a few times and finding no frames to touch.

He inhaled and exhaled slowly, forcing himself to stand straight, throw his shoulders back, and hold his head high. He wanted to walk like the man who sometimes stared back at him from the mirror, or shadowed his steps shouting abuse. He had confidence, and charm, and could lie…

You need me , that part of him hissed, gloating.

Ed ignored it.

He closed the trunk, got back in the car, and drove the rest of the way to Arkham. He parked the car outside the gates, and walked up the drive to the Asylum. The gates were locked, but flashing his stolen badge at the security guard was enough to get her to unlock the padlock and unwind the chains to let him inside.

Ed nodded at her in thanks but said nothing. If he opened his mouth right now, he might vomit-up his own pounding heart.

You need me, hissed the voice again.

I AM you , he thought. With a deep breath, he let that knowledge sink in. He was the slick, suave, confident liar that leered out of mirrors and hid bodies in plain sight and hands in vending machines. He could be calm and confident and in control, and he could use that to his advantage.   

And when he opened the Asylum door and slipped inside, he said “how’s it going” to the guard while waving his badge.

He felt alive.

The guard buzzed him into the Asylum proper. The door clicked and Ed pulled it open and stepped inside.

The noise hit him in the gut.

Nails-on-chalkboard screams rattled through the halls, echoes mixed shrieks of wild laughter that shook through Ed’s bones. He stifled a full-body shudder of something between horror and excitement, and started into the maze of ancient halls.

I can’t see them, but I can hear them. Our meetings are at mercy of time and chance. What am I? Ed asked himself, trying to remember that this was all just a diverting puzzle.

Correct! He answered himself: A Birdwatcher. Not his best riddle, perhaps, but accurate.

Now, riddle me this: how do you find a flightless bird lost in a maze?

He didn’t know. But, he was patient, and meticulous, and more than a little clever – so he’d soon find out. And, in the meantime, the search itself was thrilling. In some ways, it was more thrilling than the art heist – more variables, less time to prepare – a proper test of his skills.

He thought back to visiting Oswald. He remembered that the number on this striped prison clothes was B-113. He looked at the doors he was passing and found them unlabelled. There was also nothing in the way of medical charts or documentation to be seen.

Hospital. Sure.

Ed recalled the heavy purple circles under Oswald’s eyes and his twitchy movements, and ice-cold hands that Ed couldn’t seem to warm with his own, and he felt a hot spark of fury deep in his chest.

They’re supposed to be helping people.

The sound of screams and manic laughter drew Ed forward. He didn’t have far to go before he turned a corner and found himself staring into a massive cell that seemed to function as a sort of common-area. A few dozen inmates were inside, along with some tables and chairs, and what looked like food.

And they were in the middle of an all-out brawl.

Fists, food, chairs, and tables flew through the air, colliding in a confusion of skin and stripes. Inmates cowered in corners, calling out to the indifferent guards who stood with their backs to the cell, unflinching, and completely unaware of the imposter in their midst. Ed swallowed the excited giggle that bubbled up in his throat.  

If I weren’t busy, I’d find the time to kill you both.

Past them and under the arms of a massive, muscular man, curled in a ball on top of a table with his arms over his head to ward off blows, was Oswald.

Maybe I’ll kill you both anyway .  

Ed strode toward the guards – back straight, head up, frown of derision, air of detached superiority – and stopped at the door to the cell.

“Get me inmate B-113,” he said.

The guards looked at him, then at the brawl, then back at him, incredulous. Ed thought one of them looked alarmingly familiar, and tried not to make eye-contact.

“You heard me.” Ed hoped the words had every bit of confidence he didn’t feel. And then, for effect, he added, “I don’t have all day.”

The guard on his right grimaced at him, but unlocked the cell and stepped inside. Ed’s stomach twisted with pleasure as he watched the guard wade into the brawl, brutally knocking aside patients who got too close. Ed stood with his spine straight and his hands clenched behind his back as the guard shoved aside the inmate currently trying to bash Oswald’s head in to grab Oswald by the collar and haul him out of the cell.

The guard shoved Oswald toward Ed, who had to dig his nails into his hands to stop himself from reaching out to prevent Oswald from collapsing in front of him. Instead, he waited for Oswald to struggle to his feet, before taking him firmly by the elbow and steering him out of the room.

Oswald didn’t look up as Ed marched him through the hallways – he just hobbled along beside Ed, looking pained, as they passed by doctors and guards. Ed pulled him into an abandoned hallway – a dead end, no reason for anyone else to come this way – and looked around to see if they were alone, before whispering, “how do we get out of here?”

Oswald looked blankly back.

“Quick, we don’t have much time!”

“I know you…” Oswald said, his voice far away.

Ed’s heart dropped through the floor. “Yes, Oswald,” he said, “it’s me. It’s Ed.”

“Ed…” Oswald said, slowly, scrunching his face in confusion.

Oh hell, they’ve done a number on you, haven’t they?

Ed was feeling murderous again and the excitement was curdling into fear in his stomach.    

“Alright, plan B,” Ed said, “let’s go. We’ll go right out the front. It’ll be fine. I promise, I’m a friend.”

“Walking with a friend…” Oswald said to himself.

“Right…”

“Hey, what are you doing?” a voice from down the hall made Ed straighten up quickly and turn to see the guard – the familiar one, the one he now recognized as the observer the day he visited Oswald – walking quickly toward them.

“Stay here,” Ed said, walking forward to meet the guard and reaching into his pocket to curl his fingers around his knife.

“Hey,” the guard said, “don’t I know you?”

“I work here,” Ed replied, stopping just within reach of the guard.

“No, I know you from…” And Ed saw recognition click behind the guard’s eyes.

Oh dear.

In one motion, he flicked open the knife and sunk it deep into the guard’s neck. He only had time to look surprised before Ed pulled out the blade and he dropped, twitching and hemorrhaging blood, to the ground.

Looks like I did have time to kill you after all . Ed chuckled a little, the thrill of a disaster averted racing under his skin.

He pocked the knife, trying to wipe the blood off his hand onto the underside of the lab coat and knowing that it would do nothing for the white sleeve now spattered in scarlet. He walked back to Oswald, who was staring at him like he’d never seen another person before.

“Ed?” he asked, tentative.

“Yes. Good to see you. Let’s go.” Ed grabbed Oswald’s elbow again and they began to walk down the hall. They only got two steps before another guard turned the corner ahead and stopped, staring at Oswald, Ed, and the body behind them.

He moved to grab the knife out of his pocket and felt Oswald grab his arm. He looked up to find a guard and two doctors in his path, and another guard on the radio, calling for backup.

You’re not getting out.

Ed wanted to run but the guards had drawn weapons and there was more each time he looked. He felt Oswald’s grip loosen and looked over in time to see a pair of doctors dragging him away.

He raised his hands.

“Oh dear.”

¿?

The GCPD bullpen looked different from the inside of one of the holding cells that lined the walls.

Perhaps it isn’t the room that looks different. Perhaps it feels different because you used to be invisible here, and now everyone is staring at you.

And they were staring – all of them. Every detective and uniformed officer openly stared (or sneered) at him as he sat, shivering in a thin shirt (they had taken his bloody lab coat as evidence) alone in the cell.

“Psst,” Ed heard a noise behind him and, before he could turn, a high-pitched voice hissed, “Hey! Forensic guy!”

Ed swung around to see a little girl leaning against the filing cabinet beside the cell. She was dressed all in care-worn black clothes and wearing a knit black beanie and a pair of goggles crammed down over a head of curly hair – she couldn’t look less like a cop if she tried.

“I’m sorry,” Ed said, adjusting his glasses and squinting at her, “do I know you?”

“No,” she said. “But the cops are all talkin’ about you. You broke into Arkham.”

“Yes.” Ed said. “So?”

“So,” she said, and Ed could tell she was barely avoiding laughing at him, “you’re not supposed to break in to prison, dummy. You’re supposed to break out.”

“I’m aware of that, thank you.”

“So why’d you do it?”

“I was breaking in to break someone else out , if you must know.”

“Someone special?” she said. Was she… teasing him? She knew he’d killed at least one person, right?

“I…” Ed didn’t know how to respond to that. He supposed Oswald was someone special in that he was Ed’s only remaining friend. But he sensed that wasn’t what she meant.

“So it is ,” she sat down, cross-legged beside the cell and looked at Ed, expectantly. He put his feet up on the bench and leaned back on his hands so that he could see her better.

“Who are you?”

“Stop avoiding the question,” she said. “Why’d you do it?”

“I think they’re experimenting on my friend.”

“That’s kinda paranoid, isn’t it?”

“No,” Ed sounded petulant even to himself.

She raised her eyebrows at him.

“I had proof,” he said. “Files. Rumours.”

“’Bout what?”

Ed looked around and lowered his voice. “About bodies going missing and winding up there. Weird things happening to patients.”

“Bodies?”

Ed nodded. “Galavan, Fish Mooney, Jerome Valeska, some girl called Bridgit Pike…”

At the last name, the girl sprang to her feet so abruptly that Ed nearly fell off the bench.

“Say that again,” she demanded.

“Bridgit Pike?”

“She was taken to Arkham?”

“That’s what the records—” Ed began, but the girl was already running. She dodged around a filing cabinet and disappeared.

Before Ed had time to react, Harvey Bullock approached the cell. He scrambled to his feet and stood, straight-backed, facing him, schooling his face into a mask of detached calm. Someone in the distance was laughing, though that might have been inside his own head.

“Detective Bullock,” he said, smiling a little.

“Nygma,” Bullock said, “I always knew you’d snap one day. See, Barnes thinks Penguin messed with your head. But you and me, we go back. And I think you’ve always had a few screws loose.”

“Do you have a point, Detective?” Ed said, hoping even a fraction of the disdain he felt showed on his face.

“Well,” Bullock said, “you see, Ed, I know you.”

Ed scoffed before he could stop himself.

“Nah, I do.” Bullock interrupted him. “I know you and you think you’re smarter than everyone else, and that makes you careless. So, that got me thinking – what might I find when we search your apartment?”

Ed’s blood ran cold.  

“You’ve been busy, Ed,” he said, pulling an evidence bag out of his jacket pocket.

You idiot, you should’ve thrown it away. What were you thinking?

The can of green spray-paint stared at him from the clear bag.

“Taking up art in your spare time, Ed?” Bullock asked.

Come in here at say that, I’ll cut that smile off your smug face.

“It’s a passion,” Ed said, forcing a tight-lipped smile.

“Right, right. Arts and crafts. Like… Newspaper cut-outs?” another evidence bag that nearly stopped Ed’s heart. The newspaper with Jim Gordon’s picture in it, and a green question mark drawn over his black-and-white face.

WHY DID YOU LEAVE IT BEHIND, YOU IDIOT?!

Why did we draw it in the first place?

“You know they secretly record everyone who calls in to IA?” he said, conversationally. “They’re cleaning the tape of the guy who called in the tip about Gordon and Galavan. Wonder what we’ll find there.”

Is this what a heart-attack feels like?

But Bullock wasn’t done. He held the bags holding the spray can and the newspaper clipping in one hand, and fished in his jacket pocket again. He pulled out another bag.

“Oh dear,” Ed breathed.

The bag held two things: a handwritten note and small purple envelope with a green question mark on it.

Ed could barely hear Bullock over the clamour in his head as angry voices shouted at him.

“So tell me, Ed,” Bullock said, his face grim, “because we’re all dying to know: where is Kristen Kringle?”

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

I am touchless but leave you breathless, I am insubstantial but inescapable, I am triggered from without but exist only within. What am I?

Correct: Fear.

Now, riddle me this:

Is it wrong to be grateful for a friend if it means they’re stuck in hell with you?

Finally, riddle me this:

If you both die here, will anyone care?

¿?

This was what it felt like to have your brain flash frozen and then smashed with a hammer, Oswald thought.

Everything was pain and blinding lights and the buzz of electricity—

And Oswald surged into wakefulness at the sound of a tray falling off a table in the corner of the common room. He could hear his heart thundering in his ears and his breath coming in short gasps and, for a moment, he didn’t know where he was.

And then he saw the prison stripes and remembered – Galavan, the river, Jim Gordon, the lie, and Arkham Asylum. He took a deep breath. He had just dozed off, that was all. Just dozed off…

He felt a heavy hand on his shoulder and jumped, looking up to see a leering man twice his height and breadth.

Oh no. Oh no. Please go away.  

“H-hello,” he said, “am… am I in your spot?”

“We have a score to settle, little man,” he growled.

His heart was pounding in his throat.

“Score?” he asked, softly. “I’m sorry, you must have me confused with someone else. I don’t – I don’t think I know you.” He did. He knew the man and knew that if he made him angry, Oswald would find himself smeared across the wall. He wanted to curl up under the table and avoid eye-contact with everyone.

He was shaking.

The man growled and grabbed him by the front of his shirt, lifting him into the air. He didn’t struggle against his attacker – he thought maybe he had forgotten how. The aching pains in his back and neck and knee were suddenly sharp and nearly blinding.

“P-please, please, my friend, I beg of you…”

The man shook him again and he shouted in pain.  

“Pardon me, sir, we don’t know each other – I’m new here. But, as I was on my way in, I couldn’t help but overhear the guards referring to you as ‘that idiotic oaf’ and I just thought you should have a chance to address that directly.” The voice was angled and precise, the words surgery. The man stopped shaking him immediately. Something rang a faint bell in the back of his mind.

“So if you’d just set my friend down,” Surgery continued, “you can catch the guard before he leaves. Doesn’t that sound good?”

A spark of challenge in hazel eyes and a smile turning up the corner of a mouth and the surgery voice saying isn’t that neat? in the same faux-cheery chirp.

And Oswald felt the terror bleed out of him.

Ed.

And he was back in the green apartment and Ed was making a joke at Jim Gordon’s expense and Oswald was startled by how funny Ed could be and Ed was checking his stitches with gentle but firm touches and frowning at him for pulling a few.

The man holding him dropped him hard onto the table, jarring his aching body and making him cry out in in surprise and pain. But Ed’s hands were there immediately, helping him off the table and guiding him to sit on the bench.

Ed’s hair – usually meticulously combed – was unruly, and he looked pale and drawn, as though he hadn’t been eating properly. Oswald could see a long red scrape across his forehead and the shadows of bruises on his face and neck, disappearing under the collar of –

Oh no. Oh Ed.

– a striped Arkham uniform.

“Ed, what happened?”

Ed raised his eyebrows at him, and adjusted his glasses, “you were there for at least part of it.”

Oswald’s head hurt.

“I don’t… I think…” he stammered. “Things are a little… hazy since I got here. I’m sure after a day or two I’ll get used to…”

“A day or two?” Ed cut him off. “Oswald, how long do you think you’ve been here?”

“A day? Two days?”

“Try nearly two weeks.”

“N-no, I… I… No, that’s not…”

He felt nauseous. Like the floor had suddenly tilted sharply underfoot and he couldn’t get his balance again. Two weeks? I’ve been in this torture chamber for two weeks? He couldn’t catch his breath. How am I still alive?

Ed put his hands on Oswald’s shoulders, “Oswald, look at me. Take a breath.”

He met Ed’s eyes. They were warm and hazel and reminded Oswald of coffee grounds and piano playing. Safe.

“I’m going to figure this out,” Ed said.

“This isn’t one of your riddles, Ed,” Oswald said.

Ed tapped his index finger gently on Oswald’s temple and smiled, “oh but it is. Every problem is just a puzzle, Oswald. And puzzles are my speciality.”

Oswald laughed at Ed’s theatrical flourish of his wrist. The floor righted itself.

“It is good to see you, old friend.”

Ed opened him mouth to talk but, before he could speak, a cell door slammed. Oswald startled and turned around to see two guards walking toward him.

“B-113,” one of them said, in an emotionless growl, “it’s time for your treatment.”

The warm, safe feeling evaporated, leaving him shaking. Ed’s hands tightened on his shoulders for a half second before he let go and stood up to face the approaching guards.

“No.” Oswald said. His voice was meant to be decisive and firm, but it came out in a desperate croak. Ed’s eyes flicked down to him and back to the guard.

“What kind of treatment?” Ed’s voice was steel, but the guards didn’t even turn to look at him or acknowledge that he’d spoken.

“Now,” the other guard said. The guards grabbed Oswald’s upper arms and began to walk him out of the cell. Something in the back of Oswald’s muddled brain screamed NO , and he began to fight and kick. He was vaguely aware of Ed speaking again and then the sound of knuckles hitting flesh and a sharp cry of pain.

No, stop, no, stop, NO, STOP.

He tried to turn around to see Ed but they were dragging him away and he only caught a glimpse of a pile of stripes and limbs on the floor and the other inmates converging.

“Ed!” he managed to shout, before he was pulled out of the cell and into the hallway. “Ed!”

But he was being pulled out of the room and away from the other inmates through a winding maze of halls and doorways. Every time his right foot hit the ground a jolt of pain shot through his whole body. He tried to turn his gasps of pain into growls of resentment or disapproval, but didn’t know how well it was working.

Another door opened, revealing daylight and a burnt-out courtyard and deteriorating cement parking lot. Oswald knew that nothing good would come of this. He kicked and fought against the guards as they marched him – too quickly for his bad leg – out the door and across the courtyard.

Movement by the menacing iron gate caught his eye. He saw a familiar man in a trilby and trench-coat, Harvey Bullock, which meant –

“Jim!” he shouted, his heart leaping into his throat as hope surged through him. Jim Gordon is the last good man in Gotham. Jim Gordon owes me a favour. Jim Gordon will stop this. Jim Gordon won’t let them hurt me, even if I deserve it. Jim Gordon is a good man . “Jim!” he called again. He has to hear me . “Jim, my old friend!” His voice sounded ragged and desperate even to his own ears.

The guards were dragging him away, “Jim!” he called again, “help, please!”

There was a heart-stopping pause as Jim watched him go by for a second before shouting, “wait! Wait.”

Oswald sighed and he felt a little light-headed with relief as the guards turned around and marched him toward Jim.

I must look an absolute mess. I don’t even remember the last time I slept.  

He came face-to-face with Jim Gordon, who said “give us a minute” to the guards, who released Oswald’s arms, leaving him momentarily off-balance. He considered grabbing Jim’s arms for support, but thought the guards were unlikely to look kindly on it.

“Thank god you’re here,” Oswald said. It slipped out before he could stop himself; he couldn’t hide the desperate relief he felt at seeing the man Oswald considered his – somewhat reluctant – guardian angel. He forged ahead: “You have to help me – they’re torturing me.”

Jim Gordon’s eyes were dead and charcoal-grey instead of hazel. And when he replied, with a small shake of his head, his voice was ice: “torture is what you do.”

I’ve only taken a few people’s fingers now and then. And that’s not the POINT .

“The doctors here are trying to help you.”

No, he HAS to understand. He HAS to help.

“No,” Oswald said, louder this time, “it’s torture, I’m telling you!”

Jim’s eyes flicked up and down Oswald’s body. “I don’t see any signs of it.”

Oswald felt like his whole body was crawling with it – the feeling of wrongness and jittery fear – but Jim’s gaze was cold and distant and unseeing.

“It’s mental torture,” Oswald hissed. What could he do to make Jim understand?

“It’s therapy,” Jim whispered back. “You’re insane, remember? That’s what your lawyer said, anyhow.”

A slap in the face would’ve been kinder. The shock of Jim’s disdain knocked the breath out of him and he made a few inarticulate noises as Jim nodded for the guards, who grabbed his arms to pull him away again.

“Goodbye, Penguin,” Jim said.

The rage that coursed through his body was white hot, and he found his voice again to shout over his shoulder in his best approximation of his former power: “You owe me, Jim Gordon.” I thought you were my friend . “I lied for you!” I’m here because of you! “He killed Galavan!” Oswald shouted, not caring who heard, just needing to speak the truth of the depths of Gordon’s betrayal. “Not me! It was him! It was him! It was him!” the guards weren’t listening.

No one was listening.

He closed his eyes and remembered the night by the water. He thought… He thought when he had looked into Jim’s eyes and seen the darkness inside, that they had shared something. He thought they were connected, now even more than they had been since the day at the docks when Jim had spared his life. He had thought… hoped… that something would change. That… Well, he hardly knew what he had hoped for.

A friend to walk with in the dark .

He had trusted Jim, trusted his honour and his sense of responsibility. And Jim had cast him aside as soon as he was no longer useful.

He felt raw and bloody. His business was betrayal, but he hadn’t expected…

I’ve been a fool .

“Jim Gordon is not to be trusted, Oswald,” Ed had said, pinning Oswald down with that intense, piercing stare across the table in the green apartment. “Be careful.”

I should have listened to you, Ed . Oswald could feel hot tears streaming down his face and realized he no longer cared. The guards were dragging him the last few feet toward the heavy white door that hid something that made him want to scream until his lungs were as bloody as his heart.

He wanted it to be over, wanted to go back to the green apartment with the strange, sharp-featured man whose smile transformed his whole face, whose razor wit shredded enemies in a few precise words, and whose sharp eyes seemed to see Oswald more clearly than he saw himself.

He wanted to go home.

He wanted a home to go to.

He wanted a friend.

The door opened.

Oswald blacked out.

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

I am the foundation and the summit, I can hold decades and skyscrapers, and to destroy me is to lose yourself. What am I?

Correct: Memory.

Now, riddle me this:

What good is it to try to pull someone out of a hole if you just end up falling in too?

Finally, riddle me this:

Now what?

¿?

Ed didn’t hit the stone floor hard enough to break anything, but he would definitely be feeling bruises on his arm and face for weeks. He lay on his side in the fetal position, wheezing and coughing and listening to the sound of a struggle as the guards dragged Oswald out of the room, and the slam of the cell door.

He made a pathetic half-whistling sound as he tried to suck cold, stale air into his burning lungs. Time slipped into a loop of coughing, trying to breathe, and shooting pain, until gradually he was able to roll onto his back and consider getting up.

He looked up to see a blurry ring of faces staring down at him. He blinked, but the faces didn’t come into focus.

“You okay?” a gruff, smoker’s-voice asked.

“Glasses,” Ed said, “did anyone see my glasses?”

There was the sound of movement, followed by a smallish blur pressing glasses into his hands.

“Thank you,” Ed said, putting them on. The confused, concerned, and curious expressions of the other inmates came into focus. Ed sat up. They moved away – a few went back to what they had been doing before. The large man who had been shaking Oswald earlier stayed hovering near Ed’s feet.

“The guard hit you pretty hard,” he said – the gruff voice belonged to him.

Ed nodded tentatively as he got to his feet, wincing at the sharp pain in his ribs.

“Me too.” The man said, holding up a bleeding hand. Ed made a sympathetic face. “Sorry about your friend.”

Ed squinted at him. He was twisting his hands in front of him and looking at the ground – by all appearances genuinely contrite.

“I just get so angry sometimes,” he said, “and I can’t… I just can’t THINK, and your friend said some things…”

A memory of his phone buzzing for the eighteenth time in two hours and the feeling of bone-deep exasperation and frustration as Oswald’s voice on the other end of the line asked him how to work the blender flitted through his memory.

Ed held up his hand to stop the man from speaking.

“Believe me, I know the feeling,” he said. “But, to make it up to both of us, you could answer some questions.”

¿?

Ed had always suspected he might understand people. He had never quite been good with them, but he had understood them – the little things that fit together like machine parts to make them tick. And now that he wasn’t quite so… reluctant… to exercise a little manipulation here and there, he found himself discovering that he may in fact be rather good with people after all.

He had, after all, managed to befriend the most dangerous and volatile man in Gotham, hadn’t he? He may have killed over a hundred people, but he didn’t kill me, so I must be doing something right .

So maybe it wasn’t all that surprising that it only took a little under a half hour to get the majority of the other inmates to sit in a circle with him in the corner of the communal cell and offer information about Arkham, Dr. Strange, and what exactly happened to Oswald when he went for “treatment.”

“He was loud and angry when he first came here,” one of the women said in a whisper. And yes, that certainly did sound like Oswald. “But,” she went on, “he’s gotten quieter, and quieter every time he comes back. Hardly says anything now.”

“I asked him his name once and he said he didn’t know,” said a twitchy, nervous man, “said he couldn’t remember. Are they going to make us forget too? I’ve been here six months and I remember my name.”

There was a general murmur of agreement around the circle.

Ed looked at the ceiling, thinking. The fluorescent lights flickered a few times. A fly buzzed around the one directly overheard, getting closer, and closer until, with a hiss and a slightly unpleasant smell, it burned up. Ed grimaced, and looked back at the circle of people around him.

“Have you noticed anyone else lose their memories since coming here? Or change their personality?” he asked. “Even someone who used to be here but isn’t anymore?”

The inmates shook their heads.

“Just B-113?”

Nodding.

“Sometimes people go missing, though,” said the woman. “Strange takes them and they don’t come back.”

“He said they’re released but I don’t believe him,” agreed the twitchy man.

“But no one else has come back without memories,” growled the man who had been beating up Oswald. “But… maybe they have and we just don’t remember.”

He makes a fair point.

What the hell is going on in this place? Why target Oswald?

His own thoughts came back to him: the most dangerous and volatile man in Gotham . Strange wants to show that he can rehabilitate the most dangerous and volatile man in Gotham, and doesn’t care how he does it .

Ed felt sick. He didn’t know what exactly Strange was up to, or even if he could trust the testimony of the other inmates – if they had been brainwashed too they might not even know it. All the same, none of the possibilities were pleasant.

“Alright everyone,” he said to the assembled group, “thank you very much, you’ve all been very helpful.”

A few of them got up to leave, but Ed stopped the small woman with long brown hair. “Sharon,” he said, under his breath, “can you do something for me?”

She squinted at him but didn’t leave.

“I need bobby pins,” he said. “Can you steal some for me?”

A grin stretched across Sharon’s face and she nodded a few times.

“Thank you, Sharon,” he said, as she hurried away. Maybe these were his people after all. Kleptomaniacs and killers, and violent psychopaths, sure, but so far all of them had been kinder to Ed than most of the uniformed officers at the GCPD.

He only had a moment to stand there and consider what exactly that meant, before a familiar voice outside the bars caught his attention.

“Oh no,” Ed muttered to himself, “what is he doing here?”

James Gordon was walking past the bars with Detective Bullock. Ed leapt to his feet to walk parallel to them.

“Hello Jimmy,” Ed said, falling into step beside him. But for the mesh of wire between them, they might have been walking in step through the halls of the GCPD.

“Go to hell, Ed,” Gordon growled in response. Ed grinned – he loved how easy it was to get under his skin.

“Oh you’ve already put me there. Here.” Ed laughed breathlessly. “But not for long, my friend. I’ll find my way out. Because this place is just one big puzzle, and puzzles are my forte. Nobody beats me.”

Gordon stopped and turned to face Ed. Ed curled his fingers through the wire mesh between the bars and smiled his most deranged smile.

“I did,” Gordon said, smiling right back. Ed wished he had gotten the chance to kill Gordon. He’d have to put it on his to-do list for when he got out of this dump.

Detective Bullock cleared his throat.

“So did Harvey,” Gordon amended.

Ed sneered at them both.

“Not for long,” he said. “I’ll get out of here, and when I do, all they’ll find of you is Harvey’s ridiculous hat.”

“This hat is a classic,” Bullock said. Ed was thrilled to see him looking rather put out. “And it looks a damn sight better than your stripes, Ed.” He sneered. “They’re not very flattering.” Ed was left floundering to find a retort as Bullock and Gordon turned to walk away.

All he managed was half-hearted a parting shot: “great detectives, letting prisoners get tortured on your watch.”

Gordon and Bullock didn’t turn around.

“Great job protecting the people!” Ed shouted.

A door slammed in the distance. He sighed a full-body sigh that hurt his definitely-bruised ribs.

Sharon came up behind him and tapped him on the shoulder. She turned and she held out her hand. Two bobby-pins sat in her palm. He smiled.

“Thank you, Sharon,” he said, and took them.

“What are you going to do with them?” she asked. Ed looked around to be sure no one was listening in and found that there weren’t even any guards posted in front of the cell. This is the worst hospital on the planet . Thankfully, it’s also the worst prison.  

“I’m going to go find my feathered friend,” he said, attaching the bobby pins to the front of his uniform.

Sharon frowned. “Be careful,” she said. And Ed was touched by the concern of this woman he barely knew.

“Of course,” he said.

He briefly considered breaking out now and going to look for Oswald in the Arkham maze, but decided against it when he considered how little he knew the lay of the land and how likely he was to get caught and, consequently, get the bobby pins confiscated. Or worse. No, it was better to wait until they were all back in lockup for the night.

He lowered himself to the ground in the corner of the cell and sat with his back to the stone wall, wondering where he had gone wrong.

You shouldn’t have killed the guard, that was sloppy.

I had to kill the guard, he caught us.

Then you should’ve hidden better .

The thoughts chased each other around his head until the guards arrived to escort him them all back to their cells – Oswald still hadn’t returned. Ed allowed himself to be marched through the halls, trying to memorize each twist and turn and match them up with his partial mental map of the building, but it was a beehive of blind corners and dead-ends and he couldn’t be sure he was situated where he thought he was in relation to the exit.  

His cell was sparsely furnished – a bed (bolted to the floor), an end table (bolted to the floor), and a lamp (bolted to the end table). The bed had one thin sheet and a thin pillow.

It was cold.

Ed shivered as the door slammed and the lock scraped loudly. After a moment, all the lights in the cell block went out, leaving only the moonlight filtering through the steel mesh over the window to light the cramped room.

Within moments, the screaming began – hair raising, echoing noises throughout the cell-block, interspersed with the noises of bodies slamming against doors and walls.

Ed sat down hard on the bed and tried to steady his breathing and remember the hum of the fan in his apartment that had lulled him to sleep every night since he had moved to Gotham nearly a decade ago. But he couldn’t conjure the sound; instead the noises around him seemed to get louder, closing in around him, and panic burned his throat like acid. He took off his glasses and rubbed angrily at his damp eyes.

Look at you, you’re pathetic . Get a grip!

Ed wanted to go home. He wanted to see a friendly face. He wanted to know what the guards had done with Oswald.

The only friendly face you have left .

Whose fault is that?

A shock of fear raced through him as he considered the possibility that something irreparable had happened to Oswald – that he wouldn’t return.

What if you’re all alone in the dark, Eddie? What then?

“I’m – I’m sorry, but, where are you taking me?” Oswald’s voice cut through the haze of growing panic and Ed sat up straighter in bed, listening to the unsteady rhythm of Oswald’s hitched step as he struggled down the hall.

“Who are you?” Oswald asked again, sounding desperate and frightened. “Who am I?”

“Oh no,” Ed heard himself say.

The guards flanking Oswald brought him to the cell directly beside Ed’s. Ed listened as they opened the door, and thrust him inside, not responding to his shouts of “please, please tell me where I am! What’s my name?” as they slammed the door and locked it.

Ed stayed very still as the guards walked past his cell and out of the cellblock.

He could hear Oswald’s heaving sobs as clearly as though they were sitting side by side. Something deep in his chest ached.

Watch yourself – you’re getting a little too attached for your own good.

He’s a valuable ally, that’s all.

You’re awfully fond of this ally.

He’s my friend!

Ed shuddered, trying to dislodge the voice.

Maybe he should just try to sleep.

“Please, I’m so cold,” Oswald whimpered from the next cell. Ed stood up.

Fine. FINE. I’ll go over there.  

He waited for a slow count of ten, calming his breathing, before getting to his feet, and arranging the covers on his bed to look as though someone was curled up underneath them.

The lock was pitifully easy to pick with one of the bobby pins, so it was only moments before he pushed the door open and crept out. He felt exposed in the hall, but no one was there monitoring them, and the surveillance equipment all seemed to be focused on the perimeter. In a few seconds, the lock clicked, and Ed slipped into Oswald’s cell, closing the door softly behind him.

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

What’s more infectious than a question, deeper than a mystery, and at the heart of every riddle?

Correct: An enigma.

Now, riddle me this:

Who do you call when nowhere is safe, and you fall asleep to the sound of screams and you don’t know if they’re yours?

Finally, riddle me this:

What is there to hold on to when you can barely remember your own name?

¿?

If B-113 knew the answer to any of those questions, perhaps he wouldn’t be in the mess he was in right now.

It’s an Enigma, he thought, despondently, staring blankly at a mouse trying to scrounge crumbs from the corner of the dark stone room. There wasn’t much to find. B-113 felt bad for it, and then felt vaguely ill for feeling that way. All the feelings were wrong, lately. Wrong type wrong size wrong… something… colour, maybe. Enigma . He couldn’t think – trying to hold onto a thought or a word was like stumbling about in the fog.

He knew some things.

  1. He was a bird. But not one that could fly, or he would already have flown out of here.
  2. He was important. And important bird. King of the birds, perhaps? To be determined.
  3. He needed to get the hell out of here before he forgot numbers (1) and (2) as well

But what was there to do? An Enigma .

Penguin! That was his name. One of them. The bird one. Yes, Penguin. It was something, at least. Everything was an Enigma.

Why couldn’t he get that word out of his head? It rattled around like a coin in a dryer and would not leave him alone.

Leave me alone! Echoed his own voice – the ghost of a memory of a voice – accompanied by a flash of the colour green and the sound of a...was that a fan? He tried to hold onto it but it flitted away from him, leaving him cold and alone, and with nothing but another Enigma for him to solve.

He slowly started to realize that his whole body ached. His back and his legs especially and his face were sore. He poked at his cheek with his index finger and hissed in pain – bruised, perhaps. How?

It’s an Enigma . What does that MEAN?

He wasn’t entirely sure where he was. Prison , he thought, looking despondently down at his own striped jumpsuit. But why? What did I do? A sick feeling washed over him along with the certainty that he deserved everything that was happening to him. He deserved to be afraid, and to not know who he was, and to be in pain – he knew it with chilling certainty.

     4. He was a bad person.

B-113 looked down and saw that the prison bars and walls had vanished and now he was standing – when had he stood up? – on a rock, surrounded by rough, dark water on all sides. The wind tore around him, cut through him, and screamed in his ears.

The rock shifted under his bare feet and he looked down to see that it was scaled and pulsing with cold life. He opened his mouth to scream into the darkness for help, but the rock fell sharply away underfoot, dragging him down, down.

The dark water swallowed him. The cold knocked the air out of his lungs as he rushed away from the surface. He no longer knew which way was up.

B-113 drifted suspended in icy darkness. He stared into the gloom and saw that out there, in the murky water, something behemoth was moving and circling closer. He tried to kick away, breathed water into his lungs, and was immediately pitched, coughing and retching, into a waking world of blinding light and disorienting pain, and he couldn’t remember his name.

He was moving – or perhaps being dragged – through echoing halls. He thought he could hear speaking somewhere in the distance and tried to reply but he couldn’t tell if any sound had come out of his mouth or if his lungs were still too full of water.

What is my name?

Shards of icy pain shot through his leg each time his foot hit the floor and he thought perhaps he was crying. His chest was still heaving and he could taste salt on his tongue.

The world spun in drunken, staggered circles. Long hallways lined with cells and flickering lights that stung his eyes winked in and out of existence, folding in on themselves and turning inside out. B-113 squeezed his eyes shut and tried to find something to cling to in the dizzying storm of words inside his head.

Where am I? What is my name?

He stumbled, flung his arms out in front of him to stop the fall, hit the stone floor that was pitching and tossing like the deck of a ship at sea. The shock raced up his knees and elbows and the pain of it blinded him for a moment.

When he could see again, he realized it was dark, and he couldn’t remember when the lights had gone out. He heard voices again but they were still so far away. B-113 tasted blood and salt and copper and ash on his tongue and his body was brittle and cracking. He thought if someone touched him the wrong way he might shatter.

But he held himself together as rough hands hauled him up and dragged him forward.

The whole world was spinning and he was staggering along with it until it stopped abruptly, leaving him teetering on the edge of vertigo. He fell to the floor like a puppet with cut strings and this time he knew he was crying and shaking.

“Please,” he heard himself whimper, “please I’m so cold.”

Who am I?

B-113 lay there on the ground for somewhere between ten seconds and a century, his face – bruised and swollen, judging by the feeling – pressed against the frigid stone, and his hands pressed flat to the ground like a sailor trying to find purchase on a rock in the midst of a storm.

WHO AM I?

“Oswald.” a voice out of the darkness. Something about the word or perhaps the voice itself rang a bell deep in the dark of his storm-tossed mind.

“Oswald.” The voice said again, and this time the sound was accompanied by the feeling of a hand on the small of his back. He jumped, startled, and the touch went away.

Come back . Don’t leave me alone. What’s my name?

“Please can you open your eyes?” the voice asked. Nothing touched him this time.

He opened his eyes to the sight of stone through a haze of water.

“There you go, there, see, it wasn’t that hard.” The voice was coming from behind and above him and it wasn’t exactly kind, but it was warm.

“Can I help you sit up?” the voice asked.

Help me. Help me remember who I am .

“Yes,” he heard himself say. “Please.”

“Alright, up you get, come on,” The voice – sharp and precise, like surgery – he knew it from somewhere… Where? Another Enigma. Strong hands guided him off the floor to a sitting position.

“There you go,” Surgery said – his hands were on his shoulders now, warm and bracing.

He blinked. A face – sharp and precise like the voice – hovered inches from his and shrewd eyes blinked at him from behind smudged glasses.

Another Enigma…

“Oswald?” The voice and the person came together. “Oswald are you injured?”

Oswald . That sounded… That sounded right. Yes. Oswald.

“Oswald is… Is that my name?” he said, his voice lilting up at the end, uncertain.

“It is.”

It is . It’s my name. But then, who is the bird? He was certain he was a bird. A Penguin. It was the only thing he knew. He looked into Surgery’s keen hazel eyes and thought, maybe he knew. He seemed to know a lot of things.

“And… And the Penguin? Who’s that?”

The stranger frowned and he flinched away, but Surgery’s hand on his shoulder stayed gentle and steady.

“You,” he said. “You are the Penguin. And Oswald Cobblepot.”

Oswald felt something inside him click back into place.

“I know you.” It wasn’t a question. He knew the sharp, surgery-voiced man in front of him. He knew him like he knew his own name – the knowledge was never gone, only hidden.

“You do,” the not-a-stranger said.

“If you have a score to settle with me, I suggest you get on with it.”

The not-a-stranger, inexplicably, laughed. The corners of his eyes crinkled a little and he shook his head.

“I have no ill intentions toward you, Mr. Penguin.”

The green apartment on the edge of town and the smell of coffee grounds and threadbare pyjamas and warmth glowing in his chest.

“Enigma.” Oswald didn’t ask. He knew. “You’re Enigma.”

Enigma squinted at him; he looked confused.

“Oswald you know me,” he said.

The sound of laughter and scratchy record-music and the smell of blood in the air and a lightness in his heart that he hadn’t felt ever before.

“I know you,” he echoed. “I know you.”

He was much shorter than Enigma, and had to look up to look him in the eye. The man tilted his head to the side a little, watching him.

“Edward,” he said, “Nygma.”

E. Nigma.

And Oswald remembered.

The hot flush of too much wine, the sound of the piano, the taste of blood and laughter. Roses.

“Ed,” he said, in nearly a whisper.

     5. He had a friend. His friend’s name was Ed.

“You’re my friend,” Oswald said.  

Edward Nygma smiled properly this time and Oswald couldn’t stop himself from wrapping his arms around Ed’s neck and pulling him into a tight embrace.

Ed made a startled noise but wrapped his arms around Oswald as well.

Don’t let go . Oswald thought – selfish, he knew, but he meant it nonetheless and he tightened his hold. Don’t leave. He could feel Ed’s breath on his ear and his heart-beat through his ribcage.

Oswald felt Ed gently remove his arms and put his hands on Oswald’s shoulders to push him back slightly. Oswald reluctantly uncurled his fists from the back of Ed’s shirt.

Oswald looked at Ed properly for the first time and his heart sunk.

“Ed, where are we?”

Ed frowned. “Arkham,” he said, “Asylum.”

“Gotham,” Oswald said, instinct more than thought. Gotham City. And a vision of a shining city of opportunity and hope and potential rushed into his awareness. Home. But home was the smell of gun-smoke and the rush of adrenaline and the scream of traffic and burning certainty of belonging – not stale air and phantoms.

And he remembered. “My city.”

Ed started pacing, up and down the floor in front of Oswald. Suddenly he stopped, directly in front of him, and said, apropos of nothing: “did you know that male Emperor Penguins keep their eggs warm by balancing them on their feet? Isn’t that neat?”

Isn’t that neat? Oswald laughed. The sound of it surprised him.

“I remember that,” he said. “I remember you, and Jim Gordon, and…” He trailed off as the memories bubbled up inside him.

Ed smiled at him – like lightning, there and gone.

“I remember my mother.” He saw the knife in her back and the blood on his hands. And his lungs contracted and his vision blurred.

Ed made a noise that sounded like he might be attempting sympathy but didn’t quite know how that was meant to sound. He sat down on the floor in front of Oswald again.

With the memories, resurfaced the hurt, the heartbreak, the fear, everything. But it was anger that cleared the last of the fog. Molten rage burned through him and left him momentarily breathless. He turned to Ed to find that he was watching intently.  

“Hello Mr. Penguin,” Ed said, smiling a proper, twisted smile. “What’s a mobster like you doing in an asylum like this?”

“Hello Ed,” Oswald sighed, “I might ask you the same question.”

And, when Oswald looked into Ed’s sharp eyes, alight with cunning and a spark of chaos, he thought maybe things would be okay.  

Oswald shifted his weight and cried out in pain as his leg spasmed and a vivid memory of a chair smashing into it overwhelmed him.

“Easy, easy,” Ed said, placing his hand on Oswald’s back, “take a breath.”

Oswald took a shuddering breath and exhaled slowly.

“Come on,” Ed said, “let’s get you off the floor. Come on.”

Oswald allowed Ed to practically lift him to his feet and half-guide, half-carry him over to the bed. Ed was scrawny and his stripped uniform was baggy on him, but he was strong and precise and careful not to jostle Oswald’s bad knee as he deposited Oswald on top of the covers. Ed sat down beside him, close enough that Oswald would only have to lean over slightly to touch their shoulders together. He pressed his back to the wall and stretched out his aching leg.

“What… What happened to you?” he asked

Ed followed his gaze to D-171 on his chest and smiled at him ruefully.

“I got caught,” he said. He rolled his eyes to the ceiling and continued, “and then got caught again, and then three more times.”

Oswald frowned at him.

“They found the other bodies.” Ed seemed to think this qualified as an explanation.

“They… Who… What?” Oswald couldn’t even figure out how to frame the question. Everything was so foggy and muddled except for Ed and Oswald and Gotham and the taste of coffee in a warm green apartment – but beyond that everything dissolved into grey mist and he felt like he was falling.

He barely managed to keep from reaching out and grabbing Ed’s arms to steady himself against the rush of vertigo.

“The bodies, Oswald. Miss Kringle, Officer Dougherty, Officer Pinkney...?”

I’ve started killing people. Oswald had a vision of Ed’s carefully controlled expression warping into wild laughter. Two I didn’t much care for.

He knew he was only remembering snatches of a conversation – an important one – but he couldn’t place it.

“I – I’m sorry I don’t remember,” he said. Something about the meekness in his own voice infuriated a part of him that hovered just out of reach.

Ed frowned again, and grabbed Oswald’s chin, and gently moved his head left then right, searching. He poked carefully at the bruises on Oswald’s face with his long boney fingers and his eyes were dark and angry and Oswald’s pulse picked up slightly.

Ed dropped his hand abruptly, staring into the middle distance, and Oswald knew he was thinking – he has a plan . Ed is my friend and Ed has a plan .  

“Not that I’m not glad to see you,” he said, “but how did you get in here?” he asked.

Ed flashed a wicked grin and pointed to a bobby pin attached to the front of his uniform.

Oswald laughed. “Crafty.”

“Brilliant, I thought,” Ed replied, deadpan. “Did you know 28% of all Gotham breakouts are committed using bobby pins? And yet no one thinks to confiscate them.”

They exchanged a look, and Oswald could see a smile twisting the corners of his mouth. And then they were both muffling laughter wiping hysterical tears from their eyes. The laughter subsided, after a moment, leaving a rush of silence in its wake before the screaming of Arkham’s inmates picked back up around them.

Memories flooded in with the noise.

“I’ve killed a lot of people, haven’t I?” Oswald said. Faces and voices scratched at the inside of his mind.

Ed, to his surprise, laughed again, “that’s something of an understatement, Mr. Penguin.”

“Oh,” he said, unable to think of something better to say as he remembered the two deaths of his mother’s killer in quick succession. Conflicting emotions bubbled up inside him only to be doused by a feeling of frigid shame and fear and…

“I mean, so have I,” Ed said, nudging Oswald a little with his shoulder and sending the encroaching cold of hateful thoughts spiraling away.

“Not as many as me, though,” Oswald replied without thinking.

“Oh sure, you remember that ,” Ed groaned. “I told you, I haven’t had the occasion.”

They collapsed into laughter again and Oswald found himself tilting sideways a little drunkenly to rest his head on Ed’s shoulder. Ed didn’t move to shake him off, just slowly leaned his head against Oswald’s.

They sat there for a moment. Oswald thought he could feel Ed’s steady heartbeat. He was warm and solid and Oswald wasn’t certain of much except that he would do pretty much anything to keep him sitting right there. Don’t leave .

“We’ve got to get out of here,” Ed said.

“You’re telling me.”

“I’ll find a way out; this place is just one big puzzle.”

Oswald believed him.

Do you like riddles? Ed’s voice from what felt like years ago came back to him. Oswald had said no , then, but now he thought they might be starting to grow on him.

“Why are you being so kind?” Oswald asked, before he could stop himself. What are you to me? he managed to keep to himself. He could see a wicked grin and feel the warmth and hear the laughter but he was missing… something.

Ed sat up, jostling Oswald’s head from his shoulder – come back – and looked him in the eye, “because you are my friend, Oswald.”

Oswald thought he wanted to hug Ed again, then. To curl his hands into the fabric of Ed’s prison uniform and never let go. Maybe he was just cold, or maybe he wanted to feel Ed’s steady pulse under his warm skin and know that there was someone solid and alive in this lonely world who cared enough to call him friend.  

Instead, he settled for gripping Ed’s arm and saying, “it’s good to be walking with a friend in the dark.”

¿?

Oswald must have fallen asleep. He woke cold and aching, with the memory of warm hands and sharp eyes still lingering around him.

“What good did any of that do?” the voice of the Dr. Strange’s partner, Ms. Peabody, pulled Oswald sharply into the waking world. He didn’t move, just listened to their voices outside his cell door.

“Patience, Ms. Peabody,” Dr. Strange replied, “patience. We’ve learned that Mr. Nygma was indeed the trigger that re-awoke Mr. Cobblepot’s suppressed memories and personality.”

“So…?”

Strange’s voice took on a darker tone: “So, we know how to keep the memories down.”

“We keep him away from Nygma.”

“Far away.”

Oswald’s blood turned to ice as heard the door to his cell open. Booted footsteps approached and he curled more tightly in on himself, willing them to disappear. His last thought before they grabbed him and the world dissolved into panic and screams, was that he had never been so cold.

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

The more people know me, the less I am. What am I?

Correct:  A Secret.

Now, riddle me this:

Is it smarter to save yourself and then go back for someone else? Or to make sure you don’t leave until you both are safe?

Finally, riddle me this:

Once you’ve had a friend, can you go back to being alone?

¿?

A heavy feeling of dread settled on Ed’s chest as he watched the guards drag Oswald away, with Strange and Peabody following briskly behind. As he passed, Strange turned to look into Ed’s cell. Their eyes met and a chill raced through Ed’s body.

He looked away, pretending to adjust his glasses, and when he looked up again they were gone. A heavy door slammed in the distance.

“Oh dear,” he muttered.

Do I have to do EVERYTHING?

So, he waited. He could be patient. He let the guards escort him to the common area, he broke up a fight between Rudy and Helzinger, and he watched. He watched the guards move back and forth along the halls, watched Dr. Strange and Ms. Peabody disappear down a hallway that was certainly a dead-end (he had been quite thoroughly trapped there only a few days before), and not emerge.

Not such a dead-end after all .

He assembled his forces: Sharon the kleptomaniac, Norton the cannibal, and Rudy – not perhaps ideal allies, but they certainly served his purposes. The instructions were simple enough: get bobby pins, ammonia, and the bug-zapper.

And then he had to wait.

He sat on the table in the middle of the room and talked with Helzinger. Well, not so much talked as listened, and filed information away for a later date. He had a fascinating history with Theo Galavan, and the Maniax – Jerome Valeska and Barbara Kean, in particular, fascinated Ed. He had a violent streak that came out when people were unkind to him and, many years ago, he had murdered his family with his bare hands.

It turned out they had a lot in common.

And when he learned that Helzinger had once beaten Jim Gordon up in an alleyway behind the police station, Ed thought that they could become good friends – Helzinger’s feud with Oswald notwithstanding. Besides, Ed strongly suspected the “doctors” here were involved with that particular issue.

He thought perhaps if Arkham Asylum were a videogame, he would gleefully burn hours playing it. The dead-end halls and the incomplete blueprints and the slivers of information hidden in different locations and people – all of it added up to something fascinating and worthy of his considerable talents. But, here in the icy halls and flickering half-light of the Arkham labyrinth, with the screams of the damned a constant chorus in his head, all he really wanted was to go home and curl up in his own bed in the apartment tucked behind the neon sign that cast a quiet green glow over the lonely room.

The apartment is probably gone, by now. He thought, with a deep chill of sadness. Stripped down and auctioned off by the GCPD. He remembered arriving there at 18 – only a duffel bag of old clothes and first semester tuition at Gotham University to his name – and feeling like his life had finally begun.

Now, he looked around at the cell bars and the inmates – each existing in their personalized purgatory – and wondered if Edward Nygma, clinically insane perpetrator of multiple homicides, could even exist in the sleepy green apartment anymore.

He felt skinned to the bone – stripped down like his bare stone apartment: empty.

He shivered.

Not for long. I’ll build myself back up.

But as what?

That remained a riddle. But, looking around Arkham – by all accounts hell on Earth – Ed couldn’t help but feel a certain… thrill, at the prospect of testing his newfound skills in this arena. Proper scope for his abilities at last.

Sharon returned first, standing a little off to the side, bouncing on the balls of her feet, and obviously trying not to look directly at Ed.

Ed waited until he could see Rudy and Norton approaching before sliding off the table, walking to the back corner of the room, sitting down on the cold stone, and crossing his legs.

His troops assembled.

Sharon came up with a single bobby pin – bringing his reserves up to three – and Rudy got the ammonia. Norton – Ed wanted to sigh with his whole body – brought a flyswatter.

One false start.

Ten minutes later Norton was back with the bug-zapper and Ed was ready to go. He didn’t have long to wait until the guards disappeared – the security here was abysmal and Ed genuinely wondered if, without him here to break up fights, the guards would just let prisoners beat each other into oblivion. They probably would. They probably had.

The idea of trying to tell someone about it was laughable .

No one cares about us .    

The lock clicked quietly but the cell door whined as he pushed it open. Ed gritted his teeth and looked behind him, but no one has paying him any attention. He stuck his head out, looking left and right down the hall, before slipping through the crack in the door and closing it behind him.

He felt exposed as he crept along the hall, and every step sounded like a thunderclap in his oversensitive ears.

He felt his breath come quick and short and his heart pounding in his ears and he had to stifle the impulse to laugh madly.  

He felt alive.

The thrill of hovering between success and disaster – with only his wits to save him from the latter – was like a drug. He could feel it racing through him, banishing the fear to a small, contained corner of his brain and leaving behind only sharp clarity.

The dead-end hallway that Strange and Peabody often disappeared down stood empty. Ed crept around the corner and, after a few heartbeats listening for voices or footsteps, began to systematically mist the walls with ammonia and examine them using the light from the bug zapper.

It was time-consuming and tedious. But, Ed was in forensics: tedium didn’t frighten him, not when he had a clear goal in his sights.

And, nearly three-quarters of the way through the process, he was rewarded with the telltale smudge of fingerprints on the wall.

“Aha!” he gasped, tapping at the panel with his fingers until it fell open, revealing a keyhole.

He forced himself to carefully replace the panel, flick off the bug zapper, and creep down the hall to stow it and the ammonia in a supply closet, before practically skipping back to open the panel again. He inserted the bobby pin into the keyhole and turned it until it clicked. The feeling buzzing under Ed’s skin when the false wall slid open to reveal a hidden elevator was euphoric. He pulled open the cage door, stepped into the elevator, and pulled it closed behind him.

A heavy gold lever on the wall was the only adornment inside the elevator, so Ed pulled it. It shuddered and creaked and Ed just barely saw the wall slide back into place before the elevator dropped down into total darkness.

He shivered – with fear or anticipation, he couldn’t tell.

A shaft of cold light broke through near the base of the elevator and grew steadily until Ed could see and shining white hallway lined on both sides with cells and lit by harsh fluorescents. It was colder and cleaner than the asylum upstairs.

Well now, isn’t that interesting?

He pulled back the cage door and stepped out into the hallway.

It wasn’t until the noise started that he remembered what he was doing down there in the first place. So wrapped up in the mystery, he had forgotten that he was conducting a search for a missing person. Though, at this point, even that seemed peripheral to the thrill of peeling back the layers of Arkham’s nefarious dealings and laying bare their secrets for his examination.

The noise began with a moan from one of the cells closest to the elevator. Ed stepped up and peered through the scratched observation window into the tiny cell. It was dark inside and Ed squinted in through the window but could only see a cold steel cot and a thin mattress inside.

A hand – three-fingered, clawed, covered in slime and gore – slammed against the window and Ed reeled back, hitting the door on the other side of the hall. Another echoing boom came from the door behind him and the metal at Ed’s back shook and he jumped forward into the middle of the hall and spun around to see a body covered in long spines throwing itself against the door. The doors of the other cells began to rattle and a cacophony of screams of rage and pain and fear rose up around him.

He was frozen in the middle of the room, shaking.

He was back in the elevator before he realized that he had moved, closing the cage on the bold block letters Indian Hill: A Division of Wayne Enterprises and thinking, somewhat hysterically, I suppose you can’t expect cultural sensitivity from people running a torture chamber.

He remembered Oswald curled up in his cell shaking in fear and pain. The image of him pulled apart on a slab down here with the cold light and the screams, the screams that sounded like Oswald’s pained cries, made Ed want to vomit.

He laughed – the mirthless sound was ripped out of him, scratching his throat on the way out. His face was damp. He was crying. It took two tries and both shaking hands to push the lever and plunge himself into total darkness and silence again for a few quiet heartbeats.

The sound of his wavering breath in the dark was like the roar of thunder.

He could hear them screaming. He thought he’d hear them screaming until the day he died. He covered his ears but the sound was in his head and under his skin.

The shaft of light at the top of the elevator hurt his eyes and Ed pulled back the cage and stumbled, blind, into the hall. He could hear the false wall slide shut behind him. He felt the ground connect with his knees and felt the pain like it belonged to someone else.

Get up! You have to get back into your cell! Get up! Or they’ll drag you down to the basement and replace your fingers with knives and your teeth with nails. GET UP.

He was on his feet and moving before his vision had even properly returned.

Slow DOWN you IDIOT. You’re making too much noise. You’re going to get caught. SLOW DOWN. But his heart was pounding against his ribcage and he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t BREATHE . They’re going to take you apart and put you back together wrong.

The guard came out of nowhere and Ed ran straight into his solid form and fell hard on the concrete floor – heart hammering, hands shaking.

“What are you doing out here?” the guard demanded. Ed raised his hands in surrender and knew that he cut a pretty pathetic figure, sprawled on the floor, shaking and sobbing.

Use what you have .

“I’m—I’m sorry,” Ed barely had to fake the stammer, “I just, I just, I—I got lost. Please, please can you take me back—back to my—my cell?” he put his wrists together and let the guard cuff him and haul him to his feet.

He didn’t say a word as the guard marched him back to his dark cell, opened the door, unlocked his cuffs, and thrust him inside. Ed crumpled to the ground and just lay there for a moment, feeling the cold stone under his face and letting his heart rate even out.

It wasn’t until he got to his feet and resettled himself on the bed, clutching the thin blanket around his shoulders like armour, that he recalled precisely what he had been doing down there in that horrible place.

Looking for a friend in the dark.  

He could taste salt water on his lips and tongue. He could feel acidic panic in his throat. He was alone.

You can’t save him yourself. You need help or you’ll end up down there too .

“I have to get out of here,” he muttered aloud. “I have to get out of here.” This wasn’t fun anymore. He felt sick.

A cold, stale breeze on his head moved his hair out of place. He brushed it back to where it belonged. The breeze moved it again. He twitched his head to flip the hair back. The breeze… the breeze…

Oh.

Ed looked up.

On the ceiling above him: a vent grate.

Oh yes.

Oh that will do nicely.

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

I am an island in a cold sea. I am the box the movers left behind in an empty apartment. I am a child standing by their parents’ graves. What am I?

Correct: Alone

Now, riddle me this:

What is the point of having freedom if you can’t think clearly enough to know what to do with it?

Finally, riddle me this:

How do you start again?

¿?

Everything sounded fuzzy. He walked as though underwater through a world that glowed off-white and hurt his eyes.

He was wearing a sweater and a coat that were too big for him. The guards had given him the clothes in a pile and stood with their backs to him has he stripped out of the Arkham garments in a cold cell and struggled into the heavy knit sweater and threadbare coat.

The clothes were warm and baggy and the faint smell of coffee grounds and disinfectant clung to them. He pulled the knit hat down over his ears and the feel of the heavy wool made his heart ache with inexplicable hollowness.

A guard thrust a bit of paper into his hands and grabbed his forearm. Oswald clutched the paper as he was marched out into the cold. Frosted grass crunched underfoot and the frigid air tore into his exposed skin. He shivered and gently tucked his certificate into an inner pocket of the coat to stop it from getting damp in the slowly falling snow.

He limped across the courtyard, the guard at his elbow, and wondered what time it was. Or what day it was, for that matter. They stopped at the gate, the guard opened it and motioned for Oswald to leave.

“Wh—where should I go?” he asked, stepping outside.

The guard shrugged and slammed the gate, locking it with a large iron key.

“But there’s no one to come get me…” Oswald said. “I don’t have any friends.”

But the guard was already walking away, leaving Oswald alone in the snow, and wind, and the dark at the end of a long gravel road that wound away through the trees. There weren’t any streetlights out here, only a flickering bulb in the lamp-post just inside the Arkham gates.  

It was quiet out here in the snow.

Oswald barely remembered the sound of quiet; it was less of a comfort than he thought it would be. It meant that no one was coming to get him. And it meant he had a long walk back to Gotham.

His stomach growled.

In the distance, far down the road, he could see the blurry outline of the city.

Gotham. Cars and crowds and vermin and neon and the smell of street vendor food and the taste of ash in the rain.

He would know what to do if he could just get back to Gotham, he was certain. He felt a spasm of pain in his knee, but his body felt distant and dull.

He could walk there.

It wasn’t so far.

Home.

¿?

Dawn was breaking slate grey on the horizon by the time he reached the outskirts of Gotham.

His body ached from the cold and the way he held himself to stop his leg from collapsing under him. He had fallen a few times, twisted his ankle on uneven gravel or a pothole hidden beneath snow, and his wrists and knees were raw and starting to bruise. The snow had started to soak into his clothes and onto his skin, leaving him damp and shivering.

He his head felt heavy and foggy and he couldn’t hold a thought properly in his head. Everything was blurry except a deep sadness that constricted his lungs.

I’ve done terrible things. So many terrible things. Hurt so many… Thoughts looped around and around his head as he staggered into the city. You need to make amends.

But to who? Who was left?

The image of a gun barrel pointed between his eyes, a hard jawline, rough hands – the ringing sound of a gunshot and the feeling of water all around him and of being alive .

Jim .

Yes. He would go to Jim. Jim would understand.

His memory was water through a sieve, but his whole self, even his aching and twisted legs, knew their way through Gotham City.

After another hour, or perhaps two, of walking, he had to stop for a rest on the steps of the library to stretch out his leg.

“Penguin?”

Oswald startled at the name and turned around to see a little girl stretched out on the upper steps, staring at him with narrowed eyes.

“Y—yes,” Oswald stammered. “I—I mean, not anymore but… Yes that… that was me.”

She walked over and threw herself down on the step beside him.

“Thought you were in Arkham.”

“I’m sorry, do I know you?” he was certain he did, but things were… well… he was having enough trouble remembering whose clothes he was wearing.

She frowned at him. “Cat. I’m Cat.”

And it came back to him. He saw her sitting at the windowsill in the dining room of his last house, listening intently to rough people around the table report on the progress of their various criminal activities. He saw her running errands for him to collect money and shipments of dangerous weapons no child should know the names of.

She’s just a kid. She’s a kid and I was letting her help me with my criminal empire.

“Cat! Cat, my old friend, I’m so sorry. Things have been rather… mixed up, lately.” He said, wringing his hands nervously. “I must say, I’m glad to run into you. I have some advice for you – from someone who’s made mistakes.”

“Is it advice about how to break into Arkham?” Cat asked; the casual tone took Oswald aback.

“N—no, no that’s… that’s a terrible idea. Don’t—don’t go in there. It’s…” he stammered, floundering before deciding to plow ahead. “Cat, you’re young. You still have time to… to not make my mistakes. Crime and violence are not… they won’t… They’ll lead you to disaster. And I would hate to think that I was a part of that.”

Cat was looking at him with her head tilted to the side and a peculiar expression on her face.

“Damn. What’d they do to you in there?” she asked.

Pain. So much pain and darkness and it was so cold .

“I learned my lesson,” he said. “And you shouldn’t have to learn it too.”

“Right,” Cat said, drawing out the word as she got to her feet. “I’ll keep that in mind. Take care of yourself, Penguin.”

And she leapt off the steps and into the crowd, disappearing into the mass of people before Oswald could reply.

Be careful . He wanted to say. She was just a kid.

¿?

His stomach was snarling with hunger by the time he reached the steps of the GCPD and his legs hurt so much he thought they might buckle under him before he reached the top of the stairs.

But he made it to the top, pulled open the heavy wooden doors, and limped down the hall toward the entrance to the bullpen.

He remembered the feeling of Jim Gordon’s hands – warm and calloused and rough – on his shirt collar, holding him against the wall of a building and the sound of his voice shouting threats. He wondered why the memory felt like a good one. Why he was sure he could trust Jim Gordon.

Because he’s my friend .

He turned the corner and emerged at the top of the steps that led into the bullpen. He was expecting it to be crowded, expecting the smell of gunpowder and too many bodies in one room. He wasn’t expecting a hush to descend and every head to turn toward him, watching as he labored to get down the stairs without falling. He wasn’t expecting every eye to follow him as he limped through the bullpen and up the steps toward Jim Gordon’s desk.

He wasn’t expecting Jim Gordon and Harvey Bullock to be staring, open-mouthed, like he was a corpse that had just staggered out of the morgue (even though he felt like one).

“Hello Jim, Harvey, my old friends,” he said.

And the pain and cold and darkness that were making his head and body heavy suddenly crashed down on him, and he thought he felt himself hit the floor before everything went black.

¿?

He startled awake to the rather jarring sight of a woman he didn’t recognize leaning over him, checking his pulse. She was wearing a lab coat and he was certain he was back in Arkham. He hadn’t gotten out. It had all been another illusion.

He tried to lunge away and shouted. “Please, don’t, no more. Please I promise I’ll be better. Please just don’t hurt me!”

The woman raised her hands in surrender and stepped back a little, which startled Oswald into stillness.

“I’m not going to hurt you, Mr. Cobblepot. You’re at the GCPD. I’m Dr. Leslie Thompkins. You fainted – I’m here to help.”

Oswald’s heartbeat started to slow as he realised he was not, in fact, in Arkham. He was laying on a table in a lab, but there were no restraints on his wrists or ankles. And, instead of gaunt, unsmiling doctors and nurses, the woman – Dr. Thompkins – stood beside Jim Gordon and Harvey Bullock. While none of them looked particularly warm or friendly, at least they were not holding any sharp medical instruments.

He sat up and swung his legs over the side of the table. A bolt of pain shot up his leg and he gasped and clutched at his knee.

“What are you doing here, Penguin?” Harvey demanded.

Oswald wanted to answer, but he honestly didn’t know. Everything was so confusing and he just wanted to see a friendly face again.

“I—” he began, but he was distracted. He was wearing a soft green sweater – it hung loosely around his shoulders and long on his arms and it was dry. His coat was gone. “Where’s my coat?” he demanded, suddenly seized with panic.

It’s mine. It’s all I have.

“It’s drying in the locker room,” Dr. Thompkins said, her tone gentle and conciliatory. “No one will touch it. I was worried you were hypothermic.”

“That – that was very kind of you, thank you,” he said into his hands, hands covered in the too-long sleeves of the green sweater. He liked green. He looked up just in time to see Harvey and Jim exchange a confused, or perhaps skeptical, look.   

“You’re welcome,” Dr. Thompkins said, taking his wrist in her hand and checking his pulse.

“What’s your game, Penguin?” Harvey demanded. He was leaning against a sink and staring at Oswald with narrowed eyes. “What do you want?”

“I… I don’t…”

“What’d you say to Strange to get him to let you out of Arkham?” Jim demanded.

“Did you threaten him? What’ve you got on him?” Harvey asked.

Twin expressions of distrust made something deep in Oswald’s chest ache to make them understand.

“No, I’m… I’m not like that, anymore. I swear I…” he stammered. “Jim, my old friend, you have to believe me. I’ve seen the error of my ways. I want to make amends. I’m sorry I’ve hurt you. I want… I want to be a good person.” He ended in a small voice.

Silence.

“What the hell did they do to you in there?” Harvey asked.

Pain. They fixed me. It hurt but I’m better. I’m sorry.

“They fixed me,” he said. “I’m better now.” But why didn’t he feel like it? Everything was so hazy and bright and confused. All he really felt was sad and alone. The cold light hurt his eyes.

“Better?” Dr. Thompkins’ voice was sharp and concerned. “What exactly did they do to you?”

“Something… I’m not…” and he found he didn’t know. Nothing specific, just the taste of blood in his mouth and the crackle of electricity. “I don’t know.”

Dr. Thompkins exchanged a look with Jim.

“I told you, Penguin,” Jim said, moving toward the door. “Torture is what you do. Lee,” he addressed Dr. Thompkins, “don’t listen to him. Give him his coat and send him on his way.” Jim’s disbelief cut to the bone. Oswald wanted to be better. He wanted to be worthy of the trust of the last good man in Gotham.

“He’s my patient, Jim,” Dr. Thompkins said, coolly. “And I’m going to examine him for signs of torture – if that’s okay with you, Mr. Cobblepot.”

“I—I don’t want to be any trouble,” he said. Why couldn’t he get the tremble out of his voice? “Thank – thank you for your kindness. I’ll just get out of your way. I really am better now. I promise, I’ve changed my ways.”

He slid off the slab onto the ground, gritting his teeth against the pain in his knee.

Dr. Thompkins frowned at him. “I really think I should examine you—” she said, but Jim had already stormed from the room, Harvey close behind, and Oswald just wanted to go somewhere quiet where he could stop feeling like his head was underwater.

“Mr. Cobblepot,” Dr. Thompkins began, and Oswald raised his hand to stop her.

“Please, Dr. Thompkins, call me Oswald. And I’m very grateful for your kindness; truly, I am. But I think I should go.” He moved toward the door just as Jim came back through, holding his sweater, shirt, and coat, and thrusting them at Oswald. He grabbed the armful of wool—still damp—and turned back to Dr. Thompkins.

“I’m sorry, who does this sweater belong to? I can return it to them...?”

“No need,” Dr. Thompkins said, her smile tight. “He doesn’t work here anymore and I doubt he’ll be coming back for it.”

“Oh. Well… Thank him if you see him, please.” Oswald said. He was glad to keep the sweater. It smelled good, like coffee grounds and disinfectant

“Goodbye, Penguin,” Jim growled, holding open the door for him. Oswald shuffled through the doorway and into the hall. He struggled out through the bullpen, up the stairs, and out onto the bright winter street before dropping the pile of clothes on the stone steps and beginning the process of pulling the damp wool over his head.

It was a struggle and everything was uncomfortable and heavy and cold. But, he thought, it was better to keep everything he had together. He checked the inner pocket and was relieved to find his certificate from Arkham there.

I’m sane. At least I have that .

He wanted to sit down on the steps and drift off to sleep – shut out the light that stung his eyes and the thoughts that moved sluggishly through his brain. He was certain that things used to come quicker than this – bolts of insight like lightning, or spider’s webs of information, sensitive to any slight vibration – but now he could barely string a sentence together without feeling like he was wading through quicksand.

But he couldn’t stay here. The GCPD didn’t want him. Where else was there to go? Surely he had lived somewhere before Arkham. An image surfaced from the murky depths of his mind: a roaring fire and a high-backed armchair. He was so cold; a fire would be nice on his aching bones.

He’d go there.

The face of Butch Gilzean swam in front of his eyes. Butch would be there. His old friend, Butch. Maybe he would have a spare room.

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

I’m neither friend nor foe. You need me but you can’t always trust me. Who am I?

Correct:  An Ally.

Now, riddle me this:

What’s the point of a rescue mission if you’re more likely to get caught then succeed?

Finally, riddle me this:

How much acrobatics is being a villain going to involve?

¿?

Ed’s upper-body strength was failing him.

As he hung from the edge of the ceiling-vent in his cell, regretting his historic disdain for pullups, it occurred to him that villainy was going to require a stricter fitness regimen than he was accustomed to.

He growled in frustration.

Puzzles didn’t normally require so much physical exertion. It was aggravating to know what he needed to do but to be unable to do it; like knowing the perfect move in a chess game but having your arms tied behind your back.

A vent was not going to stop him.

His stomach muscles ached and his back ached and his arms ached. But he was tall, and he was determined. And after a few more heaving, heart-pounding moments – fearing someone would walk in on him and drag him down to the basement to die – he heaved his chest up into the vent and braced his arms against the sides.

The noise echoed as he dragged himself forward, inching his legs and feet up after him. Once his whole body was inside he turned (quite a feat in the tight space) and pulled the vent-grate closed behind him before allowing himself a moment to laugh breathlessly – and quietly – with the thrill of his success.

Okay. First move.

Now what?

The vent wasn’t roomy, but it was certainly large enough for him. The dust and cobwebs were enough to explain the staleness of the air in the building – Ed could feel his glasses getting grimier just sitting here. At one point, he thought he saw a rat scuttle past a little ways down the duct and he made the executive decision to not think too hard about what else might be living up here.

At a loss for where precisely to go next, he thought he’d move toward the breeze in the hopes that it would lead him outside, rather than to a boiler room. The general draftiness of the building gave him hope for the former.

He shuffled slowly on his hands and knees, conscious of the way any noise he made would carry through the building. He hoped any dull clunks or creaks as the ducts strained under his weight would be dismissed as the haunting echoes of an old building, and not the slip-ups of a novice fugitive. When he heard inmates or guards moving beneath him he had to stop himself from whispering things like “this is your conscience” and “I am the spirit of the basement-dwellers.” He thought that would be pushing even his considerable manipulative powers. An idea for another time, perhaps.

The first time he crawled head-first through a cobweb he seriously considered going back for a heartbeat. He shuddered and batted the clingy silk out of his hair and scrambled to knock a larger-than-he-was-comfortable-with hairy black spider off his glasses. It fell off and scuttled away down the duct. He shuddered.

“Okay, calm down,” he whispered to himself. “Just a spider web. You’re okay.”

He kept going. The ducts wound around in the same labyrinthine patterns as the halls – including the same confusing mess of dead-ends and forks in the path. Ed tried to follow the coldest air but within minutes he had no idea where he was. Everywhere he turned he could hear shrieks and laughter below him – never getting closer or further away.

You’re going to starve and die up here in the vents you pathetic loser. Unless they smoke you out like a rat first.

Shut up. Just keep going.

Lost in thought and a creeping sense of panic, he turned a blind corner and nearly had a heart-attack when he ran headlong into something solid.

“Ah! Holy cow!” Ed shouted before he could stop himself, scrambling backward away from the…

Well this is rather embarrassing.

The little girl.

“Forensic guy?” she demanded.

The little girl all in black from the GCPD.

“GCPD girl?” he shot back, realizing he didn’t actually know her name.  

She pointed at him, “you got caught breaking into Arkham!”

“And yet, here you are,” Ed snapped back. “I thought you were supposed to break out of prison, not in.”

“I’m here to get my friend. Strange has her and I’m getting her out.”

“Good luck with that. Now, do you know the way out of here?”

“Yes.”

Silence. She stared at him, expectant.

“Well?” Ed demanded.

“I’ll help you if you help me,” she said, her stare hard and certain.

Ed sighed.

“Look you shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t be here. No one should be here.” Ed was talking too much. “This place is crazy.”

She raised her eyebrows at him.

“You, you know what I mean,” Ed sputtered.

She’s just a kid .

“Look,” he said, “I barely know you, but you don’t want to go poking around this place.”

“Why’s that?” she looked unimpressed.

“The basement here,” he started, and the memory of screams rose up around him again, “it’s horrible. Trust me, stay away. Dr. Strange is a very dangerous man.”

“Basement?”

She just wasn’t getting it. Ed tried again: “alive people. Dead people. Dead-alive people. It’s horrible.” he emphasized the last word. For some reason, he thought she wouldn’t react well to him saying “get out of here, little girl.”

“Okay, how do I get there?”

Why won’t she understand?

Because no one listens to you.

“It’s like I’m saying things and you’re just NOT hearing them!”

“I told you,” she snapped, “he has a friend of mine and I’m here to get her out.”

A friend in the dark .

“Now,” she said again, speaking slowly and precisely – she had iron in her small voice – “how. do. I. get. there?”

And she’s brave enough to go looking . What are you doing, you coward? Crawling around here in the ducts?

“How do you know your friend’s even down there?” Ed pleaded.

“She was dead and, back at the GCPD, YOU said Strange took her body. And now you’re saying there’s dead-alive people in the basement. Doesn’t take a genius.”

Ed’s sigh rattled his whole body.

“Fine,” he said. “Fine. Fine. I’ll take you there. I have…” A friend in the dark. “I have someone down there too. I think.”

Did he hope for it? He remembered the screams and he wasn’t sure.

“Still looking for the special someone?” she asked, and Ed could see the teasing smile but was surprised to see no malice in it. All the same, he didn’t know how to respond.

Instead, he asked: “then you’ll help me get out of here?”

“Yeah, sure thing,” she said. “All of us.”

She stuck out her leather-gloved hand to shake. “I’m Cat,” she said.

“Ed,” he said, shaking her hand. “Nygma.”

“That’s a funny name.”

“Funnier than Cat?”

“Mhm.”

She had him in a corner there. He supposed in a city with people called “Fish” and “Penguin,” and “Zsasz,” “Cat” was rather pedestrian.

He settled for rolling his eyes at her.

¿?

Moving through Arkham with Cat had the rather humbling side-effect of reminding Ed just how new he was to this whole subterfuge business. And how, frankly, bad he was at subtlety. Cat would grab his forearm every moment or two and hiss at him to stop moving or to be quiet or to wait a beat as guards passed beneath them.

And their descent back into the halls of Arkham was nothing short of embarrassing.

Cat leapt nimbly out of the vent-grate and landed silently on the balls of her feet in the empty hallway before moving to the side and beckoning him down.

Arkham had high-ceilings.

It was a long way down.

He tried to lower himself out of the vent slowly but, after about three seconds, his upper-body strength failed and he fell. He hit the ground and toppled over, jarring his wrists, knees, and elbows, and getting the wind knocked out of him.

He lay his face on the cold hard floor and wheezed.

Sharp nails pulled on his shoulder.

“Hey, idiot, you’ve just woken up the whole asylum,” Cat whispered. “Come on, get up.”

Ed struggled to his feet, gasping and wheezing. Cat rolled her eyes before ushering him away from the open vent (too high up for either of them to close it) and around the corner.

They followed the sound of inmate noises back to the cell-block, dodging guards and the very few security cameras Strange had bothered to set up.

Ed wondered how old Cat was – no more than thirteen or fourteen, surely. But she had old eyes, and moved through the haunted halls of Arkham like she was the one haunting them. Ed didn’t have a little sister. But Cat, with her sharp mind and sharper reflexes, her easy sarcasm and fearless taunting, was uncannily like that little sister who did not – and would never – exist.

“Alright, where to, Forensic Guy?” she asked. Ed knew she remembered his name, but perhaps this nickname of sorts was her way of maintaining levity. Either way, he appreciated it; it was better than Riddle Man , at least.

As they passed the cellblock – the cell Ed never intended to return to just around the corner – Cat’s arm darted out to stop him. She pushed him back against the wall and clapped a gloved hand over his mouth. He froze just in time to hear footsteps down the hall on the other side of the locked gate. And a rattling noise. He pressed his back to the wall and waited.

“What’s that noise?” one of the guards asked – Ed recognized his voice. His heart was thundering so loud in his ears he thought they could hear it as they approached down the perpendicular hall.

At least there’s the gate between us. That’ll give us a head start . What kind of head start? They’ll sound the alarm and two dozen guards will drag you straight down to the basement to shove needles in your eyes, you moron. And they’ll take that little girl too.

The guards were getting closer.

If Cat’s hand hadn’t been over his mouth he would have screamed when the guard said his name: “hey Ed, what’s that noise?”

His brain caught up a split-second later.

Your cell. That’s your cell. They’re checking your cell. You’re not in your cell.

He grabbed Cat’s arm and pulled. They made eye-contact. He did everything he could to communicate “we have to go, NOW” without a word.

Cat held up a finger.

NOW, we have to go now .

“Nygma!” the guard shouted.

We have to GO!

Cat’s arm still held him in place.

“Sonofa…” he heard the guard hiss and go for his keys. the cell door creaked open. Footsteps.

And Cat seized his forearm and dragged him past the gate to the cellblock, down the hall, and around the corner.

“Where?” she hissed.

Ed forced himself forward into the dead-end hall and flipped open the secret hatch just as the alarm began to sound. He could hear dogs. They were coming. His hands were shaking as he pulled the last bobby-pin from the front of his shirt.

Cat snatched it out of his hand and opened the lock before Ed had even processed what she was doing. The secret panel slid open. Ed pulled back the cage and they leapt into the elevator. He slammed down the lever, and the lift shuddered and slid down into the basement.

Ed had less than thirty seconds to catch his breath. He could still hear the alarm blaring his escape. He could taste the fear and feel his body shaking and hear his blood pounding his in head.

And, in the moment of darkness before the lift emerged into the horrific fluorescent light of the basement, Ed felt an eerie calm descend over him.

It was the same perfect focus he had first felt when trying to cover up Kristen’s murder: the same curious detachment, the same lack of dullness and fear, the same sharp clarity. He sighed.

The elevator creaked and the cold light poured in, brighter and brighter until the lift stopped. The alarms were distant, now. But the patients – test-subjects, more like – down here were agitated. Growls and groans and shouts echoed around.

He looked down at Cat, whose eyes betrayed something of the fear she must be feeling. Maybe it was his turn to bring a little levity – a way to avoid serious thoughts in this serious house on a serious Earth.

He grinned down at her: “what’s both short and tall, both adult and child, and about to ruin Dr. Strange’s day?”

She looked up and raised her eyebrows at him before answering: “we are.”

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

I can be forged with blood or gold, I can be born or made, I can be abandoned but no force can dissolve our ties. What am I?

Correct: Family.

Now, riddle me this:

Who do you turn to when your friends have vanished?

Finally, riddle me this:

Is it foolish to believe you can start again?

¿?

The hunger was really starting to become a problem by the time he reached his old house, and his mouth was so dry it was beginning to get distracting.

Butch will have food and water for me.

He reached up and knocked on the door using the heavy brass knocker. He waited, wondering if he should have brought something to give Butch, until a guard opened the door.

“Penguin?” the guard asked, looking like Oswald had just crawled there out of his own grave.

“Uh, y—yes. I’m here to see Butch?” Oswald said. “I hope I’m not intruding.”

The man glared at him, and then leaned back into the house and shouted something unintelligible. In moments, another two men emerged and grabbed Oswald by his forearms.

“Oh, that won’t be necessary,” he said, laughing nervously. “I just want to see Butch.”

The first guard disappeared down the hall and the ones holding Oswald marched him inside. The house was old and drafty. Oswald had thought being here would sharpen some of the foggy memories, but nothing leapt into focus as he limped down the hall.

The guards dragged him around the corner and the hall opened into a long dining room with the crackling fire at the end. Oswald couldn’t feel the warmth from this far away. As he approached, the guards released him and Butch turned to look at him.

There was a woman with him – he remembered her too. Tabitha Galavan was as sharp and beautiful as the ornate knife she pulled from the table to grip in her long fingers. He knew that knife well, remembered the bloody handle sticking out of his mother’s back, remembered brandishing it at her brother and opening a guard’s throat before dropping it. He felt a distant grief seize his heart, and the echo of a fiery anger pulsed somewhere in the distance.

And then the memory got fuzzy. He didn’t remember where he went after that. The woods , he thought. But how did I get out of the woods? He didn’t remember that either. The gap troubled him.

“Well, well, well,” Tabitha said; Oswald imagined this was what being cornered by a tiger felt like – her eyes were pinning him to the spot as her thumb rubbed up and down the handle of the knife.

“I heard they let you out of Arkham,” Butch sounded less angry, so Oswald turned his gaze to him. Yes, Butch was his friend.

“Yes,” he said. “Happy day!” and then, just to be safe, he added, “I’m sane. Oh, I have a certificate!” Oswald moved to pull it out of his pocket and the click of four guns made him stop and raise his hands.

“I, I hope I’m not intruding,” Oswald said. This wasn’t going as well as he thought it would. The fire was still so far away and he was cold. “I, I just got back in town, thought it’d be rude not to say hello to an old friend.” His voice turned up hopefully at the end of the sentence. Maybe Butch would remember all the good times they’d had in the foggy past.

Butch and Tabitha laughed and Oswald thought perhaps it wasn’t with him.

“An old friend?” Butch asked.

“Well, yes.” Oswald tried not to sound desperate. “I mean, we had our ups and downs, but, on the whole I thought we were friends.” Suddenly he wasn’t so sure. “Weren’t we?” He forced out a laugh. “That’s what I recall, anyhow.” He wished he had brought something to give them. Flowers, food, something. But he didn’t have any money.

Tabitha and Butch exchanged a look and began to advance toward him.

“You killed my brother,” Tabitha said.

The Gotham River, a baseball bat and an umbrella wedged in a throat, Jim Gordon and a gunshot, the sound of bones crunching and feel of hot blood on his face and the copper taste in his mouth .

She gestured at Butch: “you messed with his mind and made him your slave.”

Zsasz’s too-proud grin, the brand on Butch’s forehead, ordering the murder of Fish Mooney .

“Hello!” Butch said, raising his left hand – iron and frozen in position.

The burn of alcohol in the air, the sound of a cleaver hitting wood, an ungodly scream, the smell of blood .

He wanted to be sick. To drop to his knees and beg for forgiveness. Or just clutch his ears to dull the pain of the violent memories tearing through him like shards of glass.

“I guess I was pretty terrible, huh?” he said, meekly. “I want to apologise sincerely; I wasn’t thinking straight.” I was sick but they fixed me .

“Apology accepted,” Tabitha said, her face and tone unreadable.

Oswald smiled, hopeful.

“Let’s kill him,” she whispered.

“Wait, what?” he asked as the guards grabbed his arms and pointed their guns at his temples. “No, Butch, listen! I’ve changed, you have no reason to fear me, I’m…” they had to understand. “I’m a good person now.”

A beat of silence.

“I was thinking about visiting your mother’s grave,” Tabitha said, voice silky, as she paced. The guards released him to let her circle around behind him.

“Oh?” that was nice. Visiting graves was nice.

“I miss the old bird,” she continued. I do too . “Her sobs would often lull me to sleep at night.”

Oswald turned and they made eye-contact, the knife between them, pointing directly at his face. Tabitha looked entirely at ease.

White-hot anger burned through him for a fraction of a moment before it was doused with frigid shame.

“Oswald, Oswald, save me,” Tabitha said in a breathy impression of his mother’s voice. Anger hovered somewhere outside his awareness but every move toward it hurt and he couldn’t quite focus enough to latch on to it. Tabitha’s put-on accent did really sound like his late mother. He laughed weakly at the absurdity of it.

“That does sound like her.”

“You know, I think he’s for real.” Tabitha was back to her normal voice, still holding the knife. “Those loony-bin doctors must’ve done a real number on him.”

They fixed me, I’m better now.

“It’s actually kind of sad,” Butch said.

I am sad.

“Let him go,” Butch continued, and Oswald saw pity when he met Butch’s eyes.

Maybe he did have a friend after all.

“What?” Tabitha demanded, rounding on Butch and lowering the knife.

“You heard me,” Butch said. “Look at him, he’s a pathetic loser. He doesn’t pose a threat to anyone.”

“Are you serious? No way, he has to die.”

“Who’s the boss here?” Butch asked. And it sounded like a genuine question. “I believe in an eye for an eye; we’ve all lost something, including him.” He gestured at Oswald, his expression might have been pitying.

I’ve lost so much I don’t think I have anything anymore.

Butch walked up to him, looked him in the eye, and said, “we’re square, you and me. Understand?”

Hope bloomed in Oswald’s chest.

“Completely,” he said.

Butch turned and walked back to the fire. Oswald wanted to follow.

“Fine,” Tabitha said. “You know I didn’t realize you were so sentimental.” She pointed the knife at Oswald. “He’s not leaving without some kind of punishment.”

Oh no .

She turned back to Butch. “He’s not.”

“Okay,” Butch said, and it felt like he had punched Oswald in the gut; he couldn’t draw breath. “What’d you have in mind?”

¿?

Hot tar did not shake the hollow cold from Oswald’s bones. It did not chase the chills out of his spine or the heaviness from his eyes.

It burned and cracked  and scorched skin where it oozed around his clothes, but it didn’t warm him at all. He could smell the reek of melting synthetic fibres and was oh so grateful that the layers beneath were not synthetic as well – he had never seen someone attempt to remove polyester from skin, but he did not imagine it was pleasant.

After that, the feathers were just an aesthetic addition, meant to add insult to injury, but Oswald’s pride had been burned away in the electrical fires the Arkham doctors had set inside his head. So really, the feathers weren’t nearly as bad as the tar. Not by a long shot.

By the time Butch and Tabitha were done, Oswald felt like he was nothing more than a loose collection of scorch-marks, feathers, and aches.

When they thrust him out onto the street, he was almost grateful for the cooling mist of winter rain falling on his skin.

At least they let him keep his coat and sweaters. It was nice of them, really.

But he couldn’t help but wish he had an umbrella.

Anger pulsed somewhere behind his left shoulder, but he couldn’t touch it. It belonged to someone else. It burned and destroyed and it would swallow him if he got too close. But, if he could keep it far away… Bury it for long enough… Maybe he’d become the type of man Jim Gordon could trust. A good man.

I’m fixed now .

He might be fixed, but he was still homeless. Still lost.

Tabitha’s voice came back to him, “I was thinking of visiting your mother’s grave.”

That was nearby here – he knew that but he didn’t think he’d ever been there. Who had told him where it was? And why hadn’t he visited? He’d been in Arkham… But when did she die? Not while he was inside, surely. He remembered her death. Or, he thought he remembered it. Everything felt so wrong and the inside of his head was a mess of half-memories and hallucinations.   

He limped down the sidewalk toward the edge of town, feeling the heat of the tar pulsing through the sweaters to his skin. At the first dumpster he passed, he tore off the coat – heavy and half-melted and covered in feathers – and the wool hat, and threw them in. He was grateful to see that the sweaters underneath, the heavy one from Arkham and the soft green one from the GCPD, were intact. At least that was something. He knew there were burn-marks and wayward feathers on his neck and back but the rain was cold, soothing, and he thought they could wait until after he paid his mother a long-overdue visit.

What day is it? What month? How long has it been?

He arrived at the graveyard with questions still limping sluggishly through his mind. Something was missing – memories, moments, important somethings all lost. He wondered if he’d ever get them back.

Her grave was small – sturdy grey stone not yet weather-stained by Gotham’s near-constant rain. It was near a tree and the grass around it was green and save for the distant sound of the sky-train, it was peaceful.

“Hello Mother,” he said. He could hear the hitch in his own voice and tried to swallow the grief but he didn’t have any anger left to bury it in. All he had was hollow sadness. “What a lovely spot.”

Why haven’t I been here before?

“I’m so sorry I couldn’t be here for the funeral,” he said, suddenly seized with the horrible thought that, perhaps, no one was. And that his Mother’s body was committed to the ground with no witnesses to cry and bring flowers and hold each other. He powered through: “but I think you’d be proud of me. I’m a changed man.” He could still feel the anger that was threatening to boil over the edge of his awareness and he was ashamed. “Or,” he amended, “at least I’m trying to be.”

And there was no one here in the cold rain and his whole body ached and he was so alone, he just let the tears flow from his eyes and drip down his nose.

“To be honest,” he confessed, staring at the words Gertrud Kapelput: Beloved Mother , “I don’t know if I’m going to make it without you.”

The grave was silent.

“Hello?” the voice came from behind and Oswald turned to see an older man in a well-tailored suit, holding a bouquet of flowers and looking concerned.

Oswald hastily wiped his eyes, embarrassed by his breakdown and his less-than-put-together appearance. He was sure he was shivering in the cold rain.

“I’m terribly sorry,” the man said – he had kind eyes. “I don’t mean to interrupt.”

“Not at all,” Oswald hear himself saying. This man was visiting his mother’s grave, perhaps had planted the flowers beginning to grow in front of the headstone. And he was bringing, “Lilies,” he said aloud.

“Her favourite, if memory serves.” the man said, and he sounded fond and mournful.

“Yes, they were. Did you know her?”

“A long time ago. I found her again only in death, I’m afraid.” And Oswald could see the shadow of his own grief reflected at him. He man offered his hand to shake. “I’m Elijah Van Dahl.”

“Oh,” Oswald took his hand. “Oswald Cobblepot.”

There was a beat of silence after Elijah released his hand.

“Cobblepot? You’re related to Gertrud?”

“My mother.”

“Mother? You’re Gertrud’s son?”

“Yes. I’m sorry I—” Oswald’s brain was sluggish, like he’d been drinking, but synapses began to fire. “How did you know my mother, exactly?”

“How old are you?” Elijah asked, talking over the end of Oswald’s sentence.

“Excuse me?”

“How old are you? Gertrud left—”

“Thirty-one.” Oswald said. He couldn’t see where this was going through the fog.

“Thirty-one years ago, yes. That’s right. Oh, my God. She… She never told me.”

“Told you what?”

“That I had a son.”

Oswald’s world shattered like ice.

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

Find me in Victor’s lab or on a slab, under the bed or overhead, behind the closet door or just off-shore. What am I?

Correct: A Monster.     

Now, riddle me this:

Is it foolish or heroic free Frankenstein’s monsters?

Finally, riddle me this:

Are foolish and heroic just different words for the same thing?

¿?

It was Cat who took the first tentative steps into the basement torture-chamber. Ed stepped out of the elevator behind her and together they crept down the hall, trying to ignore the screams rising from the cells lining the walls.

“You know there’s a good chance we won’t be able to get back out of here once we find them, right?” Cat said, conversationally. “What with you setting off the alarm and all.”

Ed hadn’t even considered that, and the very idea that he’d failed to think that far ahead was beyond galling. They needed a plan: he couldn’t be stealthy, but planning was this forte, the reason he had something to offer the frankly oversaturated crime world of Gotham, and he had failed. And this little street-trash girl had called him out on it.

Not an auspicious start to his career.

“What does your friend look like?” Ed asked, trying to buy himself a second to think.

“She’s – ” Cat started, then stopped dead in front of one of the cells. “Bridgit!” she shouted, slamming her hands against the glass window. She flicked a lock-pick set – far more advanced than Ed’s bobby-pins – out of her jacket pocket and… stopped. She rounded on Ed.

“There’re no locks!”

“Well what am I supposed to do about it?”

“You’re supposed to be the genius, open the doors!”

“Who told you I was a genius?”

“So you’re not, then?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Then open. The. Door.”

Ed found himself unable to argue with that logic. He walked to the end of the hall, pointedly not looking into the cells for fear of seeing Oswald’s pale green eyes staring, unseeing, and wild. And stopped at an important-looking control panel. It was covered in dials, switches, a keypad, and one intimidating red button. He adjusted his glasses and squinted at it.

“Hurry up!” Cat called.

“Don’t rush me, none of these are labelled!”

“Does it matter? Let them all out!”

“Are you crazy?”

“You want to leave them here with Strange? He’s torturing them!”

“We don’t know what they’ll do if we let them out!”

“We know what he’ll do if we leave them here.”

You let more people out, the easier it is to disappear in the shuffle .

Ed’s hand was frozen to the button. His heart shuddered into his throat – he expected many-tentacled creatures to burst into the room maybe breathing fire or exhaling poisonous vapours.

Imagine Strange’s face when he sees what you’ve done. Imagine leading an army of fire-breathing monsters.

His mouth twitched in a half-smile.

He pressed the button.

They moved out tentatively, hesitant steps into the hallway lit with flashing red light. Most of them looked human – or, at least, relatively humanoid, but with bits added on. Talons, wings, and fangs all jockeyed for position in the increasingly crowded hall. Over the heads of the assembled oddities Ed saw Cat embrace a confused-looking girl. She was taller than Cat, but not by much, and every inch of her exposed skin was cracked and scarred-over; Ed had seen that kind of skin in the GCPD lab – burns.

For a moment he could taste the reek of melted polyester in his throat as he looked down at the body of officer Garrett on the slab and could see the grief in the eyes of the officers who came to collect his body for burial.

You just helped Cat bust out the Firefly, nice going.

Oh, don’t be like that! She seems like fun.

Not if she points that flamethrower at us.

She won’t. We’re a friend of Cat’s.

A friend?

An ally, whatever. Besides, this is fun.

We’re supposed to be trying to bust out the Penguin, remember? Not Arkham’s most dangerous.

Whatever, same thing.

No, it’s not, Penguin is far more dangerous that any of this lot .  

Much more dangerous and much more absent from the crowd of frightened inmates. He wasn’t here.

He’s dead, you’re too late .

“Hey, Riddle-guy,” Cat shouted at him – Ed hated that he answered to that name so easily. “Let’s get the hell out of here!”

“How? There isn’t a back way!” Ed shouted back. Honestly, now that the alarm was going and the prisoners were out Ed’s whole plan was starting to fall apart. And Penguin wasn’t here – why couldn’t anyone stick to the goddamn script?

One look at this crowd told him wrangling them wouldn’t be in the least bit easy, it’d take someone with far more charisma and presence that he was capable of –

“Everybody quiet,” the voice wasn’t a shout, but it cut through the air like a gunshot. The noises of the inmates stopped immediately, leaving only the wail of the siren in the background. “Now, these lovely people have given us the opportunity we’ve been waiting for: the opportunity to escape.”

The voice was coming from a woman who didn’t look an inch over 5 feet tall but whose words rang with the authority of a giant.

“And we’re not going to waste it. But we need to work together. Shortly the powers that be will make their way down here to put us down, and we’re not going to let them. So, we need to get as many people up and out of that elevator as quickly as possible. I’ll go first to make sure it’s safe, and to create a bit of a distraction for the good Doctor. Then I will come back for all of you. And you – ” she rounded on Ed who suddenly felt pinned to the spot by the long finger pointed at his chest – “you’re coming with me. Let’s go.” She started toward the elevator at the end of the hall.

Ed didn’t even think to argue. She didn’t seem like the type of person to be argued with.

And, just like that, they had a plan. Ed was rushing to the elevator in the wake of this strange woman with an air of power crackling over her very skin. She held authority in the curve of her spine and the tone of her voice and the domineering flick of her wrist as she gestured at Cat, who was staring at her, ashen-faced.

“My friend Selina is in charge until I get back. Don’t let me hear you gave her any trouble.”

And they were in the elevator, and pulling the grate closed, and Ed was pulling the lever. There was a beat of silence as the elevator ground upward and then…

“Don’t be afraid, dear,” she said – it was gentle but had all the force of an order – “you’re with Fish, now. I won’t let anything happen to you.”

And the connection arched across Ed’s mind in a flash of cold terror.

“Are you…” he stammered. “Are you Fish Mooney?”

She’s supposed to be dead, Oswald said…

Don’t be stupid; you know Strange is bringing people back from the dead.

“Guilty,” she said. “And what’s your name?”

“E-Edward. Edward Nygma,” he managed to say around his heart pounding in his throat.  

The wall slid open to chaos in Arkham – guards and inmates running every which way to the tune of sirens that screamed off-key from every direction – and Ed’s blood was ice in his veins.

You just let out Fish Mooney. If Oswald isn’t already dead, he will be soon .

“It’s good to meet you, Edward. It seems I owe you something of a debt.”

Ed said nothing. Keep that, you may need it later.

Instead, he crept forward into the dead-end hallway and gestured for Fish to follow him. The internal monologue screaming at him that he’d betrayed Oswald by rescuing the definitely-should-be-dead Fish Mooney, faded into nothing as the thrill of being moments away from disaster overtook him. He wanted to bounce on the balls of his feet as he walked and clap his hands with glee.

Instead, he checked that the hall was clear and crept around the corner, trying to move the way Cat had showed him – it was harder than it looked. He thought that, when he got out of this, he’d get into a business that didn’t require this much actual sneaking around. Or, at the very least, he’d invest in hiring someone to do that for him. He wondered how Cat would respond to an offer of a regular payroll.

Focus, you have to get out of here first.

The first guard came from behind. She rounded a corner and grabbed Fish’s forearm. Ed’s heart nearly stopped but Fish just twisted around and grabbed the hand that was holding her arm, and said with perfect calm, “you’re going to lead us to Strange’s office and tell anyone who asks that you’re escorting us back to our cells.”

Ed wasn’t sure what he was seeing, but a flash of red pulsed at the point her fingers touched skin, and the guard’s eyes went glassy and she said in a flat voice: “of course. This way.”

“W-what?” Ed couldn’t even begin to articulate his question. The guard stepped around them and started down the hall toward Dr. Strange’s office.

Fish spared him a sideways glance. She raised her eyebrows in the facial equivalent of a shrug, “I’m a persuasive woman, Edward.”

She’s not kidding.

Ed got the feeling that, even without whatever that burst of red energy was, Fish was accustomed to being obeyed. And he could hardly blame people for following her.  

Oswald’s drunken voice came back to him, honestly, Ed, sometimes I worry I won’t ever be as great as Fish. You know, I bet if she told Butch to jump off a bridge he’d do it twice! And that’s even without any of Zsasz’s tricks. At the time, Ed had told him not to worry, that he would have Fish’s power and influence in no time. He had thought the Penguin was born to wield that sort of easy authority. But now, looking at Fish Mooney in the flesh, Ed wasn’t so sure anyone could command the world to stop in quite the same way that she could. Ed had only known her for a few minutes and even now, if she asked him to jump he’d at least consider asking “how high?”

Ed could hear the sirens and the barking dogs in the distance – looking for you; they’re looking for you – and thought his heart might fling itself out of his mouth before they got to Strange’s office. But they didn’t meet anyone else on their way. Fish ordered their glassy-eyed escort to stand guard at the door while Ed picked the lock on the door. It took Ed much longer than the elevator had taken Cat, but eventually the lock clicked and the door swung open. Together, they slipped into his office.

“Open the cells,” she said.

“Which ones?”

Fish raised her eyebrows at him and Ed felt oddly ashamed of himself.

“All of them,” she said, drawing out the “L” in “all” and gesturing with her long-nailed fingers.     

Is that a good idea?

Do you want to argue with her?

Ed decided that no, he did not care to argue with the former ( and future? Part of him wondered) Queen of Gotham, so he set about an examination of the switch-board behind Strange’s desk.

Unlabelled again? How does Strange remember all of this?

He’s a genius, Genius.

You’re not as funny as you think you are.

Ed twitched, banishing the snide voice mocking him from the back of his head, and re-focused on the panel. Switches and flashing lights stared at him. Ed generally wanted his moves precise, planned, thought-out… but they wanted chaos. So, chaos it was.

Ed looked back at Fish, who inclined her head slightly in a half-nod, and Ed took a deep breath, before flicking all the switches up. More lights began to flash red, another layer of sirens joined the clamour, and the stack of televisions behind the desk all flicked on as one. Ed watched the doors of the cell block spring open and the prisoners tentatively step out. He watched the guards freeze in terror all over the compound.

He wanted to stand there and watch Arkham devour itself.

He wanted to bear witness to the chaos he had a hand in creating.

But Fish had other ideas.

“Let’s go get our people.”

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

Crackling hearth, yours by birth, there is no place like here. Where am I?

Correct: Home.    

Now, riddle me this:

If something seems too good to be true, is it wrong to hope for it anyway?

Finally, riddle me this:

Is it possible that everything can be forgiven?

¿?

By the time Oswald had lowered himself into a hot bubble-bath, hissing a little at the pleasant heat against his achingly cold body, he was thoroughly convinced he was suffering from some kind of extended hallucination. In a haze, he rubbed oil into the tar that had scorched his shoulders and scrubbed it off with a pumice stone. It wasn’t until the hot water began to chase the chill out of his bones that he allowed himself to believe that he may actually have gotten free of Arkham and found something like a new home.

I don’t deserve it. I deserve the cold.

And yet, he couldn’t help but feel, as he washed the tar away and rubbed lavender-scented soap into his skin, that the past was washing away with the grime. Grime that had been building up since that day shortly after his thirteenth birthday. It was mid-winter when the landlord had shut off the heat in his mother’s apartment. She had been sick and couldn’t work enough to pay the bill and the cold was only making her sicker. So, Oswald had gone where everyone in need of money in Gotham went: to one of the Dons. Or, at least, to their people. Oswald had gone to school the next day with a handgun from one of Falcone’s men. He had lured a classmate, someone who had been running drugs for Maroni, behind the bushes, and shot him between the eyes. They had paid him enough to turn the heat back on, and he was in. He had been in ever since.

Now, scrubbing away accumulated dirt in the house of the father he hadn’t known existed, was the first time since that day Oswald allowed himself to think maybe it wasn’t too late for him. Maybe he truly could begin again.

He sat in the bath until the water grew tepid and the bubbles all popped. Only then did he heave himself out of the tub and wrap himself in a fluffy monogrammed towel. He pulled on a paisley robe – too big for him, like the sweaters – and shuffled down the hall to the room that his father had insisted he consider his own.

As he got dressed, he noticed a scar in his shoulder – stark white even against his pale skin – and found he couldn’t remember where it had come from. He prodded it a little. It was roundish.

Like a bullet hole .

How did he not remember being shot? He pulled on a shirt, covering the scar.

That’s in the past. It doesn’t matter, now.

He looked at the dirty sweaters, still slightly damp from the rain, hung neatly in the wardrobe. They were the past, too. But somehow he couldn’t bring himself to be rid of them. They had protected him against the snow and the rain and a good portion of Butch and Tabitha’s hot tar. He still couldn’t remember how he had come by one of them. He closed the wardrobe door, leaving the sweaters inside.

An enigma for another time .

He began his search for the staircase. The house was massive – especially compared to the tiny apartment he had been able to afford for his mother after getting his position with Fish Mooney.

Fish.

The memory of her hit him like a transport truck. Suddenly he was 25 and meeting the great Fish Mooney for the first time. She was holding court in the booth at her club, long gold nails glinting in the red light. Not a hair out of place, not a sequin on her gold dress out of line, Fish Mooney might have been under Falcone, but Oswald had known then that she was the Queen of Gotham. And he remembered thinking, if he got close enough, some of the golden light that seemed to surround Fish at all times might shine on him.

“What’s your name, child?” she had asked, in a voice that wrapped around Oswald’s chest and filled him to the brim with desire to make her happy.

“Oswald Cobblepot, ma'am,” he had answered.

“Oswald,” she rolled his name around her tongue and it sounded like music when she said it. “Oswald, you stick with me and I’ll look after you.”

And she had. She had looked after him up to the very moment she had broken the chair over his leg and snapped the bone. She had looked after him until he had stopped looking after her.

Oswald fell back into the present to find he was gripping the banister of the stairs with white knuckles. Guilt at what he had done to Fish crashed around him, driving the warmth of the bathwater from his bones. He deserved to suffer the jolt of pain that accompanied each step down the stairs. He deserved the sleepless nights to follow, full of nightmares and fear that the mistakes of his past would come back to haunt him.

His head hurt.

“There you are, my boy,” his father’s voice cut through the haze. “I’ve made a pot of tea – you do drink tea, I hope? I can make something else if you prefer?”

“Tea is lovely, thank you.” Oswald gripped the banister of the stairs harder to stop himself from tipping over.

Elijah’s face lit up with a broad smile, then he glanced at Oswald’s shaking hand with a frown.

“You’re not injured, I hope? I can call for a doctor…”

“No, no,” Oswald said, attempting to wave his free hand airily. “No, it’s an old injury. I broke my leg some time ago.” Has it really been that long? It feels like yesterday. Or maybe years ago. Or maybe like it happened to another person. “Never quite healed right, I’m afraid.” I deserve it. A little reminder of my crimes that Fish left for me .

“Oh my dear boy,” Elijah tutted, offering his arm out for Oswald, “I suppose we’d better get you a proper walking stick. An old man’s arm will have to do for now then.”

Oswald took his father’s arm, leaning heavily on him, and allowed himself to be steered to a sitting room and deposited in front of a fire in an ornate, wing-back armchair. Elijah handed Oswald a delicate, floral-patterned teacup before settling in a matching chair across from him.

Oswald began to warm up again.

“So, Oswald, indulge a foolish old man who missed out on his son’s life. Tell me about your childhood. Your mother. Your work.”

Oswald talked. He told Elijah some things, edited others, and left out some things entirely.

He didn’t tell Elijah about the day in the first grade when a little boy had knocked him down and called him names. Or the day after that when he had snuck up behind the same boy and pushed him down the stairs. Or the day after that when he had felt power blossom in his chest at the news that the boy would be in the hospital for weeks while the fixed his myriad of broken bones.

He didn’t tell Elijah about the night when he was fourteen and had been running drugs for one of Falcone’s men. He had gotten home late and heard the shouting in his apartment from down the hall. He had taken the handgun out of his jacket pocket, cold comfort, but comfort nonetheless – even a small man like him could wield it to deadly results. When he pushed open the door, already ajar, to find the landlord shouting at his mother who stood with her back against the kitchen cupboards, shaking, he didn’t hesitate for even a breath. A single shot ended the landlord’s life. Gertrud had never asked what happened to the body.

He didn’t tell Elijah about the day he was first allowed to hold Fish Mooney’s umbrella. And the moment he realized that, if he could make himself invisible for a time, he’d be able to gather enough information to bring down Don Falcone himself.

He didn’t tell Elijah about meeting Jim Gordon. About the bizarre tightness in his chest when they spoke. About the moth-to-a-flame desire to be a better person if it meant standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a man like Jim.

Instead, Oswald told carefully curated stories about Sunday breakfasts and first jobs and rare outings. He skirted the truth like the caustic substance it was – sure to destroy the impossible miracle that his father had never heard of Oswald Cobblepot, the once King of Gotham’s underworld.

So, he lied. He painted a picture of a childhood that, if not rich, was certainly not poor.

It’s not such a sin if it makes him happy. The past is past.

They talked into the evening until –

“Elijah? We’re home!” A woman’s voice echoes through the halls.

“Oh!” Elijah said, his face lighting up again. “Oswald, I’ve been negligent. I haven’t told you a thing about my life. Please, come meet my lovely wife, Grace, and her two children, Charles and Sasha. They’re a little bit younger than you, but I’m certain you’ll all be fast friends in time. You are, after all, family.”

Family. What a concept. If this is too good to be true, I don’t care. Just let me have it for a moment.

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

I am alone but seek no company, I was the hunter but now I am hunted; I am neither captive nor truly free. What am I?

Correct: A Fugitive    

Now, riddle me this:

What’s the point of chasing someone who left you behind?

Finally, riddle me this:

Is there anyone left who will help you?

¿?

Ed found himself reluctant to leave the company of Fish Mooney. She had a powerful presence and a way of making Ed feel like, if he stuck with her, things would be alright.

But he desperately needed to find Oswald and warn him that Fish was once again at large, and that was going to be harder to do if he kept her within an arm’s length. Still, the look of disappointment in her eyes when he said he was leaving was enough to make him uncertain in his resolve.  

“Look after yourself, Edward,” Fish said, embracing him. It felt like a physical effort for Ed to repress the thought like a mother that bubbled up inside him when she kissed his cheek. “And if it ever gets too cold out there, well, you’re a smart boy, you’ll know where to find me.”

Ed looked past her at Cat and Bridgit, sitting across from each other on the stone floor of the warehouse they had all been hiding in for the better part of a week. Cat was telling Bridgit stories from their childhood and trying – with increasing success – to get Bridgit to fill in the missing details.

She looked up and met his eyes – they hadn’t been friends, but Ed had developed a fondness for the little thief, and hoped that she would be alright.

“Look after her,” he told Fish, knowing she would. Knowing he didn’t have to ask.

“Of course,” Fish said, “she’s with me, now. I’ll take good care of her.”

“Bye Forensic Guy,” Cat shouted at Ed, waving a little.

“Bye Cat,” he said, before nodding once at Fish, turning his back on the warehouse full of Strange’s former inmates, and walking out the door.

Why are we chasing Oswald, again? This isn’t another Kristen thing, is it? Because I thought we were done chasing after people who weren’t interested.

It’s not like that; he’s my friend. I need to warn him about Fish.

He left you in Arkham. Some friend.

Why had Oswald left him behind? Even if he had been released, he would have come back to visit, wouldn’t he?

Either he abandoned you, or his body is at the bottom of Gotham River .

Or he doesn’t remember .

And that was the kicker, wasn’t it? Oswald might not even remember Ed existed, let alone that he should go back for him. He might not even remember his own name. And in that case, where would Ed even begin to look for him? In lieu of another option, Ed made for the graveyard – maybe Gertrud’s silent headstone would offer inspiration.

I thought we were the competent one at the GCPD .

Is it “you” or “we” or “I”? Make up your – my – our – mind.

Ed was getting a headache. He tugged the wool hat he had stolen from Arkham a little further down around his ears and adjusted his tattered coat and shirt, trying to shield himself against the harsh winter chill. Nothing fit quite right, and everything was some amount of torn or frayed, but beggars could not be choosers and the room where they kept the inmates’ things had offered limited selection in the “tall and bony” department.

He was reminded of another winter, as cold and dark as this one. He was 18 and the snow blew hard and angry across his face. He had stumbled off a bus – overnight one-way ticket – at 3:08am in the heart of Gotham City. The first thing he had heard was a gunshot. The second was a scream. He had wandered in the cold for hours, lucky enough to look too poor for anyone to bother with. He should have been afraid, but he had left fear behind a thousand miles and a shallow grave ago, and he had just been exhausted. When, at 6:56am, he had finally stumbled on a “4 RENT 4 CHEAP” sign tacked haphazardly to the side of an old warehouse under the train tracks, he had paid his first month’s rent in cash on the spot and signed the lease, writing his name as Edward Nygma for the very first time. He had taken the key and collapsed in the middle of the oil-streaked stone floor. Waking up hours later – sore and stiff from sleeping on the floor – had felt like being reborn. He wondered if tonight would be his second rebirth. He wondered if anyone was lucky enough to be able to get two second chances.

“What do you think, Gertrud?” he asked – he had arrived at the grave, and was frowning down at the pale stone. “I hope you don’t mind me calling you Gertrud. I know we never met, but I feel as though we know each other.”

The wind in the trees and the softly falling snow didn’t answer.

But, the bouquet of flowers, still fresh and half-wrapped in clear plastic, peeking out from under the snow, did offer a reply: someone had been here recently. And who else had known Gertrud but Oswald? A peek at the tag told him they had been purchased at a shop not far from here – a place he had gone to find flowers for Kristen on occasion – and suddenly, Ed had a mission again.

He had time to offer a quick “thank you” to Gertrud’s gravestone, before beginning the walk back the way he had come. He could feel blisters forming where his too-large shoes slid back and forth against his sockless feet. But that didn’t matter: there was a puzzle to be solved.

“Riddle me this,” he said aloud to himself in the cold Gotham morning, his breath curling into the air like smoke, “where has my feathered friend gone?”

He giggled a little to himself and bounced on the balls of his feet, suddenly dizzy with the rush of freedom and the feeling of air in his lungs that didn’t taste like dust and decay.

He arrived at the florists just as it was opening. Like nearly everything seeming-innocent in Gotham, it was a front for something decidedly more nefarious. In this case, one of the many magic mushroom growers dotted around town. Regardless, they still made lovely arrangements. Tasteful, simple, that sort of thing.

“I’m looking for some information,” Ed said to the little girl behind the counter. She peered at him through a wild mane of bright red hair that fell to her back, and held a potted plant in hands hidden beneath the material of a green sweater even more tattered than his.

“Gonna cost you,” she said.

Ed pulled a few bills from his pocket and placed them on the counter: “I’m looking for a friend of mine. Maybe he came in here a few days ago, bought an arrangement of pink lilies with a card that said to Gertrud ?”

She stared at the bills, then back up at him: “that covered the question. An answer is extra.”

Ed made a frustrated noise in the back of his throat and pulled out some more bills. The girl set down the potted plant and slid the bills across the desk toward her.

“Short guy, little bit twitchy, big annoying smile, freckles, pointy nose, funny walk. That your guy?” She asked.

“Yes,” Ed said. He’s not dead , he thought. “Did he say anything to you about where he was staying, any little detail?”

The girl raised her eyebrows. Ed growled and flung two more bills onto the table.

“He was with an old guy,” she said. “Called him father . Got in his car when they left – nice car, too.”

Father?

“I don’t have a father,” the girl said, conversationally. “He’s dead. He wasn’t very nice, though.”

“Same here,” Ed said, distractedly, throwing a few more bills down. “Any idea where they went?”

“Big old house on the hill,” she said. “I followed ‘em. Place is locked up pretty tight though, if you’re looking to steal something, I wouldn’t bother.”

“Thanks,” Ed said, his mind already five steps ahead, racing, trying to plan his next move. Father? Oswald had never mentioned his father, and Ed had always assumed he wasn’t in the picture or, at least, hadn’t been for quite some time. The description was undoubtedly Oswald, but father ? That complicated things.

The shop bell rang behind him as he left and began to make his way up to the manor house on the hill.

What are you looking at, moron ? The voice wasn’t the snide, slick version of his own that haunted his steps. It was older, harsher, gravelly with cigarettes and alcohol and no small measure of other substances. Nothing . His own voice, small but steadier than it had ever been in his 18 years. Nothing at all . And the blank space in his memory between picking up the kitchen knife while his father’s voice shouted what the hell do you think you’re doing over the blood pounding in his ears, and coming back to reality standing over a dead-eyed corpse in a pool of scarlet blood listening to the sound of his own hysterical laughter turning to sobs. The hurried dismembering of the corpse with a saw from the shed. The midnight digging in back garden. The smell of disinfectant as he sterilized the house ( crime scene something had cackled in the back of his head). The scalding shower washing blood and dirt and the memory of a life of terror down, down, down the drain. The thick black smoke of a dumpster in the field behind his house as he burned away the last evidence that Edward Nashton had ever existed. The heart-stopping adrenaline of filling a bag with his few remaining belongings and all the cash in his house, and walking through the night to the bus station. The sound of Gotham on his tongue when the kind old woman at the ticket counter had asked him where he was going.

Fathers , he thought, as he made his way up the hill, complicated things . And, if Oswald was truly hiding out here, with his father, things were likely to get far more complicated than Ed would like.

He didn’t approach the house from the front. Instead, he stayed just off the road, hiding in the treeline, worried that, at any moment, he’d hear wailing sirens searching for him. He needed to find Oswald without alerting anyone else to his presence there. Based on the size of the house, there was at least some staff taking care of the place; someone who might have seen his wanted poster up around town or on TV.

But he was in luck. He only had to wait a few hours before Oswald emerged from the house, hobbling quickly on stiff legs around the garden, looking…

Content. He’ looks content.

It’s not right. He doesn’t have it in him to be content.

Strange got to him again.

And just as Oswald approached the treeline where Ed was standing, waiting, Ed lunged out, clapped a hand over Oswald’s mouth, and easily pulled him into the trees.

He tripped on a root and went rolling backward, dragging Oswald with him. He grunted in surprise, flipped Oswald on his back, and pinned him to the ground with his knees and hands.

They stilled, breathing heavily at each other.

“Oswald,” Ed said, sharply, “do you know me?”

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

Once made I cannot be changed; I can heal you or haunt you; I am yesterday and the beginning of time. What am I?

Correct: The Past

Now, riddle me this:

Why can’t you remember your only friend?

Finally, riddle me this:

Is it possible to hold onto happiness, or will it always slip through your fingers?

¿?

I know you . He thought, staring at the tall man in tattered clothes currently sitting on his chest. I’m certain I know you .

“Oswald?” the man said, expectantly. “Do you know me?”  

“I know you,” he said – his voice was wavering and he was distantly aware that he might cry. I know him. I know him but why can’t I remember?

“What’s my name?”

“I don’t know,” Oswald could feel dampness on his cheeks and he thought he was crying. A distant part of his flared hot with rage, but he flinched away from it.

“How do you know me?”

“I don’t know.”

The man growled in frustration.

“Please don’t hurt me,” Oswald whispered. Pathetic . Pathetic loser. But he remembered the burn of Butch and Tabitha’s tar and he closed his eyes, trying to block out the fear.

The weight left his chest. Oswald blinked, and the man was sitting beside him, now.

“I’m not… Oswald I’m not going to hurt you,” he said, looking pained. “I’m your friend.”

Friend?

“You’re my friend, from before?” he asked. And then his head was tearing itself apart. Gleeful thoughts of my friend! He’s my friend! He can help me remember clashed violently with the burning sensation of he’s from the bad days. he’ll drag you back in. send him away, he’s bad . He clapped his hands over his ears to shut out the noise.

Strong spidery fingers pried his hands away from his ears: “Oswald, I’m Ed. You know me. I won’t hurt you.”

Ed . That name meant something to him. The memory of green and the smell of coffee and disinfectant and the whir of a fan flitted through his mind and he wanted to chase it, but it burned so hot and a voice demanded NO, leave it.

“You know me,” Ed insisted.

“I don’t want to go back there,” Oswald snapped back. “I can’t go back.”

“To Arkham? I’m not going to – ”

“Not to Arkham, not to killing, not to fear and blood, I’m NOT going back,” Oswald wasn’t sure what he was saying, it was like the words were being ripped out of him. “I belong here now, with my family.”

Ed released his hands, and they dropped to his sides to clench fistfuls of cold earth.

“I won’t make you go back, Oswald. But I need your help,” Ed said, and his words slid between Oswald’s ribs like a scalpel. “I need you to help me. You’re the only friend I have.”

Helping is good. Helping is the opposite of what you used to do . Jim Gordon helps people.

“Of course I will help you, old friend,” he said. “Of course.”

A jack-o-lantern grin twisted Ed’s sharp face. And the memory of that grin, covered in flecks of blood and holding out a knife to him to finish him, Oswald, I brought him here for you , knocked the breath out of him.

I can save you from the darkness inside both of us, my friend .

“But you should know, Ed,” he said, seizing Ed’s arm. “Violence and anger are not the answer.”

Ed’s grin stayed firmly in place: “sure.”

Oswald felt accomplishment bloom in his chest. Maybe it would be okay. He could save Ed, and then he would have a friend.

“Please, come inside, I’ll introduce you to my father and we’ll get you a hot bath and some new clothes,” he said. “You don’t have to fight for anything anymore, Ed, you’re safe here.”

I assure you, Mr. Penguin, I have no ill intentions toward you . Ed’s voice came back to him with the feeling of too-large pyjamas and a warm quilt on a creaky bed.

“Let me help you, like you helped me,” he said, pressing his fingers into the scar on his shoulder – the bullet hole. Ed had saved his life. He had a good heart.

He could be saved.

¿?

“So, Edward,” Father said, leaning across the dinner table to get the gravy boat. “Tell us about yourself. How do you know our Oswald?”

Oswald’s stomach churned uncomfortably. The memories had been rushing back in fits and starts ever since Ed had arrived. Memories of midday exasperated phone calls and bad plumbing and home-cooked food mingled with memories of destroying Kristen Kringle’s glasses and dismembering the corpse of Mr. Leonard and watching Ed open the throat of an Arkham doctor. Every moment with Ed was a tangled mess of pleasure and pain all held together by a frightening magnetism that drew his eyes to Ed wherever he was in the room. And now he was here, sitting at his father’s table, wearing the green sweater from the GCPD. Ed’s sweater, as it had turned out. Both of them. Oswald didn’t know what to think about that.

“Oswald and I are old friends,” Ed said, enigmatically, taking a third helping of potatoes. “We used to work together.”

“What sort of work do you do, Edward?” Grace asked.

“I’m in forensics,” Ed said.

Are you a cop? Oswald remembered. And a crackle of laughter. No, I’m in forensics .

“Well that’s fascinating,” Father smiled indulgently at him.

“Yes, I think so,” Ed smiled back. He was charming; slick and sharp and precise, choosing the words to make him a fast favourite of Father’s. Different, Oswald thought, than the stuttering lab tech that had blurted out penguin facts by way of a greeting in the GCPD bullpen.

That Ed had been gentler. Oswald hadn’t appreciated it at the time. In fact, he’d been rude and disdainful. But now… he thought that Ed would be easier to save than this one, whose smiles weren’t as sincere and whose words were like knives.

“I’m fond of cooking,” Ed was saying. “And I do love a challenge.”

“Delightful,” Father said. “Absolutely delightful. Oswald, I’m so glad you’ve invited Edward to stay. We’ll set him up in the room beside yours.”

“Stay?” Grace said. “Surely Edward has his own home to be returning to?”

Grace was so considerate of other people’s feelings.

“Well not since the fire,” Ed said, casting his eyes down sadly. “My apartment is unsafe to return to.”

Lie . He’s a liar .

“My goodness, Edward, that’s terrible,” Father gasped. “You just let us know if you’re in need of anything and you are welcome to stay as long as you need to; isn’t he, Grace?”

“Quite.”

His family was so generous.

“Well thank you so much for your generosity,” Ed said, and the sharp smile was back. “I am truly in your debt.”

“Nonsense,” Father waved his hand. “A friend of my son’s is a friend of mine, after all.”

¿?

That night, just as he was settling in for bed, Oswald heard a tap at his door. He limped across the room and pulled it open. Ed slipped inside and closed it behind him without a word.

“Ed?” Oswald asked. “Is there something wrong?”

“Do you still not remember me?” Ed demanded in a whisper.

“I remember…” Oswald said, tentative, he didn’t want to relive that time. “I remember some of our time together, yes.”

“So then what is this?” Ed waved his hand around at open air.

“What is… What?”

“What’s the deal with you and these people? And the attitude? You’re kinda freaking me out.”

“This is my family, Ed.” Oswald was confused. “I’m happy here.”

Ed’s eyes reflected the flickering light of the lamp on Oswald’s bedside table. “What did they do to you?” he was talking more to himself than to Oswald. “And how do I fix it?”

And Oswald remembered being held tentatively by long bony arms and crying into the front of an Arkham uniform and feeling safe in the cold dark cell. And he remembered the pain of electrical fires and the feeling of a memory being burned out of his head.

“They already fixed me in Arkham,” Oswald said. “Don’t take me back, I’m already fixed. I’m happy.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, you’re brainwashed,” Ed snapped.

“I think you should go back to bed, Ed,” Oswald said, trying to make his shaking voice sound firm and resolute. “Please.”

“Let me fix this,” Ed said. “We need each other. But you’re useless to me like this.” He waved his hand over Oswald and grimaced.

It was like being shot again.

“But I’m your friend,” he said. He could feel tears forming and a distant voice whispered pathetic .

“I don’t know who you are, but you’re not the Penguin,” Ed snapped. “I’ll get him back, though.” And he slipped back out of the room leaving Oswald alone in flickering firelight.

¿?

Elijah Van Dahl collapsed over breakfast, halfway through a laugh, his kind smile frozen on his face under empty eyes.

Oswald’s world crumbled into dust.

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

You cannot see me, touch me, taste me, or smell me, but too much of me will destroy you. What am I?

Correct: Pain.

Now, riddle me this:

If you’ve done bad things, do you deserve to have bad things done to you?

Finally, riddle me this:

Why would anyone want to help you?

¿?

“Oswald listen to me.” The words tripped on themselves in the hurry to leave his mouth. He was holding up his hands in front of him like a lion-tamer. “Oswald you need to listen to me. She’s lying to you. Oswald?”

You need to get through to him .

Oswald was shaking and his eyes were misted over with tears and he was absolutely not hearing Ed.

“I told you we shouldn’t have let him into our house,” Grace screeched as her chest heaved with false sobs.

Can we just kill her?

Oh, that’ll work, that’ll make Oswald believe we didn’t kill Elijah . Besides, we don’t have a weapon.

Glass, use the broken glass.

Ed edged closer to the shattered bottle on the ground; closer to where Oswald knelt, hunched over his father’s dead body, screaming in an agony of grief.

“Oswald! You know me! I wouldn’t do this.” Ed said as he moved closer.

God, you sound desperate. Just get the hell out of here.

The dining room had no windows and Grace and her two children were quite solidly between him and the door. Ed was trapped. But , he thought, as he curled his hand around the largest shard of the smashed bottle, you are not going back to Arkham .

“GCPD, everyone put your hands where I can see them!” Well this was just what Ed needed right now. Jim goddamn Gordon and his plucky sidekick Harvey Bullock.

“Drop the glass, Ed,” Bullock shouted, levelling a gun and his head.

Ed sighed and let the piece of glass fall from his bleeding hand. Slowly, he raised his hands over his head.

“Jim, Harvey, it’s just…” he inhaled sharply and twisted his face into a facsimile of a smile. “Just so good to see you both.”

“Edward Nygma, you’re under arrest for breaking out of Arkham Asylum and probably for the murder of Elijah Van Dahl,” Detective Gordon pulled a set of handcuffs out of his coat and began to fasten them around Ed’s wrists.

“I did NOT kill Elijah,” Ed snapped, louder than necessary. Please, Oswald, hear me . “I did break out of Arkham, that’s true, but I didn’t kill Elijah.”

“We took him into our home and this is how he repaid us,” Grace wept loudly. “I’ll never forgive myself for the horrible indulgence that led us to this tragedy.”

Ed rolled his eyes. “Grace we both know it was you. You poisoned the tea; you want Elijah’s estate. Come on, Gordon, use your brain for once in your life. Why the hell would I kill him?”

“To get me to join you again,” the raw voice was Oswald’s. “You said you’d find out how to get me back. And you did this . You were my friend? How could you?” He collapsed into sobs again.

“Holy hell… Penguin?” Bullock squinted at Oswald. “Okay, I have no idea what’s going on in this damn city anymore.”

“What’s going on is he killed my Father!” Oswald sobbed. “Send him back to Arkham where he belongs!”

Ed’s blood turned to ice.

“Your… Your Father?” Detective Gordon looked mystified. “Alright, we’re going to sort this mess out later. First,” he looked down at Ed, “let’s get him back behind bars where he belongs.”

Don’t take me back there.

“Way ahead of you,” Bullock laughed, grabbing Ed by the shoulder. “Come on, freak, let’s put you back in the nut house.”

“Charming, Harvey,” Ed sneered. “A beacon of sensitivity.”

“And you’re just a sad lonely nutcase who’s about to become the permanent guest of Hugo Strange,” Bullock replied. “So here’s a riddle for you: who came out on top in the end?”

Ed turned and pinned Bullock with his best wild-eyed stare. “But it isn’t the end yet, Harvey, is it?”

Bullock shoved Ed into the back of a police car, hitting his head on door frame (on purpose, he was sure). Ed wanted to snap something at him, but found he couldn’t speak over the lump of rising terror in his throat. Arkham had been a puzzle, then a maze, then a waking nightmare. And he couldn’t imagine what would happen to him in there now that he’d had the audacity to escape... And take all of Strange’s inmates with him. Don’t take me back there.

On the drive out to Arkham, along the winding roads on the edge of town, Ed tried to escape the back of the car eight different times, including jimmying open the lock with the edge of his handcuffs and rolling out the door into traffic.

Each time, Bullock hauled him back in – usually with a punch to the gut or the ribs for good measure.

Ed was frantic by the time they rolled through the ominous gates of the Asylum. The two uniformed officers – Ed didn’t recognize them from his time at the GCPD – had to drag him across the dirt yard, and in through the doors.

He fought and kicked and thrashed but, in the end, they overpowered him. As did the two beefy nurses who manhandled him out of his borrowed clothes and back into the Arkham uniform… And into a straightjacket for good measure.

“Bye, Ed,” Bullock called from the foyer as the nurses dragged Ed away, farther and farther from the tiny square of sun that shone through the heavy outside doors. “If they ever let you out of that straightjacket, don’t bother writing to me!”

“I will get out,” Ed shouted, trying to mask the terror in his voice. “I will get out and when I do you will live just long enough to regret this!”

Only the sound of a slamming door answered him.

And Ed was alone under the flickering fluorescent lights.

¿?

Ed had known that returning to Arkham would be the same as signing his own death warrant. He had known that Strange and Peabody would not easily forgive him for the role he had played in letting loose their most prized test subjects.

He had been prepared for torture and death.

He had not been prepared for Strange’s creatively sadistic methods.

And now, as he screamed his lungs raw and pressed his back against the wall as far away from the roaring sharp-toothed cannibal as was possible in the tiny cell, he was regretting his own lack of imagination.

“Where did they go, Ed?” Strange demanded, in that even, unflappable voice of his. “Where did Fish Mooney take my monsters?”

“I DON’T KNOW!” Ed screamed. “I DON’T KNOW, I LEFT HER.”

“Left her to go where?”

“TO GO FIND THE PENGUIN.” Ed could see flecks of blood on the cannibal’s face, and a piece of skin wedged between two sharpened teeth.

“Did you find Mr. Cobblepot?”

“YES,” Ed sobbed. “YES. LET ME OUT OF HERE.”

The walls were starting to close in on him. He couldn’t breathe, he could only see the snarling maw of the barely-human creature clawing at him.

“Did you undo Mr. Cobblepot’s programming?”

“NO,” Ed didn’t have anything to gain from lying anymore. He needed out and he needed out now, before the last thing he felt was the sensation of sharp teeth piercing his jugular. “NO I TRIED BUT I COULDN’T.”

“Excellent. Excellent. Then the treatment has been effective,” Strange said. “Thank you, Mr. Nygma, you’ve been most instructive.”

“Let me OUT of here!” Ed begged.

“Oh no, I don’t think I’ll do that,” Strange said. “You still have a lesson to learn. And the equipment will take a while to set up, anyway. I’ll see you in the morning, Mr. Nygma. Then then we’ll see just how long it will take to crack a mind like yours.”

“NO PLEASE, PLEASE COME BACK!” Ed sobbed. But Strange was gone. And, for once, the voice in his head that whispered pathetic, loser, freak stayed silent and just let him cry.

¿?

He didn’t sleep that night. How could he, with the possibility of death-by-cannibal just inches away? His cellmate fell asleep at one point, lying sprawled across the middle of the floor and breathing heavily, his arm dangerously close to where Ed was curled up with his legs hugged tight to his chest.

Grace had killed Elijah, he was certain of it. She must have called the GCPD as well – well before Elijah had even collapsed, judging by Bullock and Gordon’s response time. And he was certain she had plans to be rid of Oswald as soon as possible. Maybe she’d stage it as a suicide; driven mad by grief at his father’s death and his best friend’s betrayal. The thought made Ed sick.

Then you’ll truly be alone . No one to walk with in the dark anymore.

It won’t matter, we’ll be dead soon, anyway.

Dead and buried in the dust. No grave.

No one to visit it anyway.

Well if we’re going to die, why are we still sniveling on the floor?

BECAUSE I’m going to die.

Then we don’t have anything to lose now, do we?

No…

You lost. You lost your mother, your father, Miss Kringle, your friends Dr. Thompkins and James Gordon, and now Oswald. You have NOTHING. So, get up off the floor. Die with your dignity.

I have nothing.

And a man who has nothing…

Is a free man.

Ed stood up, wiping his eyes and coughing a little to clear his throat. They had been kind enough – or stupid enough – to remove his straightjacket before throwing him in here. Clearly, they were confident to the point of stupidly.

Ed looked down at the body of the cannibal sleeping on the floor. He looked down at his own hands, cut and bloody from the glass. Hands that had crushed the life out of Kristen Kringle. Hands that could crush the life out of someone else.

Ed looked up into the camera in the corner of the cell. He stared directly into it for a moment, then stepped over to his sleeping cellmate.

In a swift movement, Ed pinned his cell mate's arms to the ground with his knees, wrapped his hands around his throat and squeezed.

Ed wasn’t particularly strong. But he wasn’t a weakling either. And he had the advantage of surprise and leverage. By the time his cellmate woke and began trying to dislodge Ed from his back, he had already crushed his windpipe. All he had to do was wait until the thrashing of the body underneath him got weaker and weaker and, eventually, stopped. The electric thrill of feeling a body go limp beneath his fingers raced through him.

Just as the guards rushed up to the cell door.

Ed stood up and stepped away from the corpse, smoothing the wrinkles off the front of his uniform.

“Tell Doctor Strange he’ll have to do better than that,” Ed said. And, in the back of his mind, a voice was cackling with pleasure.

“A problem to the last, I see, Mr. Nygma,” Dr. Strange’s voice lilted through the cell door before the man himself stepped into view. He had the gall to be smiling slightly. “No matter, this kills two birds with one stone, as it were.” He chuckled. Ed shuddered, but he didn’t break eye-contact.

“I’m sure you’re thinking of rushing out and attacking as soon as we open this door,” Strange continued, that infuriating smile still in place. “But we will simply stun you. So, how about we do this with whatever dignity you have left.”

Ed didn’t answer.

The sound of keys in a lock. The cell door creaked open. Two guards grabbed Ed’s arms and led him in a quick march through the maze of halls.

Ed’s heart was in his throat.

They reached the heavy armoured door of an unfamiliar room in an unfamiliar hallway. Strange pressed a few keys and the door hissed open. Ed barely had time to take in the room beyond before he was pulled inside.

It looked more like an executioner’s daydream than an operating theater. A chair covered in wires and chains stood on a plinth in the centre of the room, surrounded by tables of switches and flashing lights and surgical instruments.

The door hissed shut behind them.

No way out. End of the line.

Ed allowed himself to be strapped into the chair. He tried not to flinch as the metal of the cuffs sliced into his skin and the heavy collar made it hard to breathe. He tried not to think about his life – every thought, every word, every shaky step toward becoming this thing he knew he could become – being snuffed out with the flick of a switch.

He tried not to think about Oswald – the real Oswald, not the hollowed-out shell Strange had sent out into the world wearing Oswald’s skin. Tried not to imagine the way Oswald’s eyes had shone in the green light of his apartment, and the way he had managed to make a spatter of blood across his face look artful. Tried not to think about the magnetic force that drew him toward Oswald whenever he was in the room. Tried not to think about Grace Van Dahl – an amateurish black-widow type with no name and no vision beyond quotidian greed – taking Oswald’s life like he was some sort of common man and not the King of Gotham.

He didn’t want to cry.

He didn’t want to imagine all the lost possibilities. He and Oswald could have ruled Gotham, if they had been given the chance.

Or you could’ve killed each other .

I would never hurt Oswald .

You said that about Kristen .

“Shut UP!” Ed shouted. Out loud, he realized, belatedly.

Dr. Strange was smiling at him in that enigmatic way of his. “Oh Ed,” he said. “You’re so clearly disturbed. Delusions, hallucinations, compulsions… We’ll put you right, don’t you worry.”

“What’s going to be left of me when you’re done?” Ed demanded, trying not to sound as small as he felt.

“Only one way to find out,” Strange said, shrugging a little.

Ed shuddered. There was something truly frightening about Hugo Strange. The cold control he wielded over Arkham and everyone inside - precise, sharp, brutal - was something Ed couldn’t help but admire. On a purely professional level, of course. At the moment, however, he was wishing Strange wasn’t quite so good at what he did.

The nurses were attaching electrodes to his forehead, the contact gel cold and sticky against his skin. He felt a needle in his arm but didn’t open his eyes.

You deserve this. The voice in his head was Kristen’s. You deserve to die this way .

Maybe so, but since when did we get what we deserve? We’re too clever for that. We don’t deserve to live - but we will anyway.

Will I?

He heard a surge of machinery powering up, the crackle of electricity, and white-hot pain seared the voices out of his head.

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

I can sneak up on you, or be right in front of you without you even knowing, but once I reveal myself, you will never be the same. What am I?

Correct: Betrayal.    

Now, riddle me this:

When family deserts you, who do you turn to?

Finally, riddle me this:

How far would you go to protect the one you love?

¿?

Elijah Van Dahl’s death was not like Gertrud Kapelput’s. Gertrud’s death had been the death of the past – of history and stability and foundation. Elijah’s was the death of the future – of possibility and potential and hope.

Between the two losses, Oswald found himself stranded in the uncertain present.

He sat beside Jim Gordon’s desk in the bullpen of the GCPD. He had never seen the station from this angle before. He was intimately familiar with the view from the holding cells that lined the walls, barely an arm’s reach from the officers’ desks, or the cold stone view from the interrogation room, but this – looking down on the bullpen at uniformed officers who kept casting uncertain glances his way but stopped just short of open loathing – was something new.

Jim was looking at him with something approaching sympathy. And that was something new too. He wondered if this was how Jim had looked right before throwing him into the Gotham River with the sound of a missed shot ringing in his ears. It was a nice thought, actually. Oswald liked this look on Jim. It softened the hard lines of his square jaw and dulled some of the sharpness in his eyes.

“The DNA test came back,” Jim said, his voice gruff, but not unkind. “Elijah Van Dahl was your father. I’m… I’m sorry for your loss.”

And he sounded it.

Oswald was sorry too. Elijah had been a good man – kind and generous and everything Oswald was not. It was good to know, in the end, that Elijah had truly been his father. Good to know, but cold comfort, especially when the knowledge that it had been him that had brought his father’s death upon him. His friend, his foolishness, his naïveté, his fault.

And now he was alone.

At least I still have Grace and Charles and Sasha . He thought. Though a part of him wondered if he did in fact have them. If they would welcome him as family, at the end of it all.

“Jim!” Detective Bullock approached the desk holding a file folder. He didn’t look at Oswald. “Jim, the coroner’s report came back and it’s a damn mess. He was poisoned, but a really really low dose. Wouldn’t have killed him unless he had a heart condition. So, he drank some of the stuff and then died of a heart attack.”

“What?” Oswald’s throat felt so raw and scratchy and he was sure he sounded absolutely wretched. His father had been poisoned. Ed had killed his father to get Oswald to rejoin the criminal world. Ed had killed his father.  

“So, it looks like our favourite psychopath didn’t kill your father after all,” Bullock said. “Or, at least, it doesn’t look that way. Unless he’s been swapping out his heart meds for sugar pills for over a year.”

What?

“Then… then who…?” Oswald couldn’t breathe. The fear and grief and rage that had been drifting his out of reach since Arkham, was pulsing white hot.

“My guess?” Bullock continued, still not looking at Oswald. “That gold-digger he shacked up with. Or one of her kids. They’d have to have been planning on killing him for a while – marry rich, kill off the husband, take the money. Then Oswald here shows up like the damn prodigal son and they panic. So, they pop him off before he can put Oswald in the will.”

“And Ed was there hiding out and it made the perfect cover,” Jim said.

Oswald could feel a buzzing in his ears. The burning sensation was beginning to creep closer. It was like voices in his head, whispering, whispering, burning truths at him: Grace killed Elijah. Grace killed Elijah. Grace killed Elijah. Ed didn’t betray you. Grace betrayed you. Elijah was the last family you had left and she killed him .

“Anyway, uniforms are bringing her and her kids in for questioning now so, we’ll soon find out, won’t we? The good money’s on all three of them.” Harvey chuckled a little. “Amateurish black-widow stuff. They’ll crack.”

Oswald turned to the bullpen and looked down on the entrance – where he had stood flanked by guards who had thrown him in a cell to rot and handed him over to Strange to be experimented on like a rat in a lab. The memory of it burned through him like a brand, and the feeling in the back of his mind – locked away – broke free and consumed him.

Paranoia: blue uniforms dogging his steps through the alleys and streets that had once belonged to him. Reduced to scrounging for food and shelter in the Gotham allies.

Pain: Bullock’s rough grip on his shaking arms, forcing him into the trunk of a car. Blinding pain in his leg, crushing darkness.

Fear: Jim’s mercy like icy water surrounding him, filling his lungs and his eyes, burning ice.

Heartbreak: a knife in his mother’s back. The dead eyes of his father.

Fury: looking across the bullpen and seeing the haughty face of Grace Van Dahl and her two parasitic children.

Fury: knowing that Ed was even now suffering at the hands of Doctor Strange for Grace’s crimes. She should be the one left screaming in the dark.

Fury: Butch’s betrayal, his humiliation at the hands of the woman who had KILLED HIS MOTHER, Jim Gordon’s look of pity as though he wouldn’t lock Oswald back up in the cold dark the second he got the chance.

Fury: the Penguin, drowning for so long in the murky depths of Oswald Cobblepot’s subconscious, suppressed by Strange and his machines, finally coming up for air.

“Grace!” the scream was ripped out of him – his heart pounded in his ears pushing blood like liquid steel through his veins. Her head snapped up to look at him, and she reeled back in horror. Oswald wanted to laugh, but he wasn’t finished with her yet. “Grace you should hope they arrest you! All of you! Because if they don’t, then you’ll be stuck out here with me!”

The officers led Grace and her children away to interrogation and Oswald turned back to Jim. The look of shock on his face was better than the pity.

Ed. The green apartment, the strong hands lifting him off the Arkham floor, the tight warmth in his chest.

“We have to get Edward out of Arkham,” he said. He thought his voice sounded jagged and raw and more like his own than he’d heard in weeks.

“Not so fast, Penguin,” Bullock frowned at him. “Nygma escaped from Arkham, remember? He didn’t kill your father but he still killed his girlfriend and two cops. He’s back in Arkham because he belongs there.”

“Strange is going to torture him for escaping. He’s going to kill him,” Oswald was certain. He had suffered under the merely academic curiosity of Hugo Strange. He couldn’t imagine the suffering of someone who had orchestrated the biggest escape in Arkham history. Oh Ed. “Ed escaped and brought the freaks in Strange’s basement with him; he’s been doing illegal experiments and Ed let them all out. Strange is going to kill him! Can you have that on your conscience?”

Jim and Bullock were staring at him with narrowed eyes. For a moment, a flicker of possibility crossed Jim’s face. A ghost of the righteous warrior that would protect Gotham or die trying. And then it was gone, shuttered off and replaced with a far more familiar expression.

“You tried this story before,” Jim said. “Nice try, but I’m not helping you break Nygma out of Arkham.”

Cops. I can’t trust them any more than I can trust the criminals.

“Fine,” Oswald said, getting to his feet and ignoring the surge of pain in his leg. “Fine. If you won’t do your job and protect every citizen of Gotham, then I’ll find someone who will.”

He turned and limped out of the GCPD, confident all eyes were on him.

Who needs the police, when you have the people? Oswald thought.

For the first time in weeks, a plan was beginning to form.

¿?

Valerie Vale was going to become the best reporter in Gotham – Oswald made it his business to know these things. Young, tenacious, stubborn, and brave, she was going to go far. Most importantly, she was smart, too smart for the old boys club of Gotham reporters who seemed prone to try to waste her on reports about Wayne charity balls and the love affairs of the Gotham elite. And yet, even then she managed to find dirt; the real story behind the veneer of respectability. Money laundering, embezzling, bribery – Vale knew where to look and always seemed to be able to find more than she was supposed to.

And Oswald had a story for her.

“Monsters in the basement of Arkham?” She asked, leaning across her desk to stare at Oswald with a mixture of uncertainty and fascination.

“That’s correct.”

“That escaped en masse during the big breakout? And it’s been covered up because they weren’t supposed to even exist in the first place?”

“Yes.”

Vale leaned back in her seat and exhaled loudly: “if this is true… this is one hell of a story.”

“That’s why I’m here.”

“Is it?” her voice was sharp and Oswald bristled a little at being seen through so easily. Perhaps he was rusty. “You’re Oswald Cobblepot. You’re not here to do your civic duty, that’s for damn sure. So what’s in it for you? Why should I believe you?” she leaned in a little, looking left and right in the dingy bar Oswald had selected for the meeting – everyone was far too drunk to pay them much mind. “You can tell me. I protect my sources.”

She did. Oswald knew it. In a very public trial a while back, a judge had demanded she turn over one of her sources for a story on magic mushroom trafficking in Gotham. She had refused. Already, her stubborn silence had given her a reputation as someone who meant business. It was part of the reason she’d go far in Gotham: she was smart enough to realize that if she never gave up a source, the underworld might actually talk to her.

“I was an inmate in Arkham recently,” he said. “And a friend of mine is currently confined there. And I would very much like to ruin Strange’s day, if you take my meaning.”

“Yeah, I’m going to need a little more than that,” she said, pulling out a pen and notebook. “Something quotable, to be precise. You give me that, and I give you a press mob and a police raid big enough that maybe no one will notice you or your friend riding off into the sunset, deal? Oh, and you don’t kill Dr. Strange. I can’t interview a dead man.”

She reached across the desk and offered Oswald her hand. He reached out and shook it, thinking: Valerie Vale, Gotham should be afraid of you .

“Deal.”

¿?

Dawn broke grey and stormy at the gates of Arkham Asylum.

Elijah Van Dahl had died just over 24 hours ago, but it felt like a decade. Oswald was stiff and achy from spending the night pounding the pavement all over town, stirring up fear in the citizens. And now they were here – well on their way to becoming a proper mob with gardening tools and axes and whatever else people had laying around their houses. A few had even managed torches.

Oswald had dressed for the occasion: three piece suit in rich black and purple and a scarf that covered his mouth and nose in case of gas attacks – he wouldn’t put it past Strange to have the whole place booby-trapped – and a bowler hat pulled down low on his head.

A good set of clothes is a suit of armour, Oswald . Fish had told him. And you should never go into battle without your armour. Oswald remembered her scarlet nails at his throat, tightening the knot of his tie and brushing a wrinkle off his jacket. There, now we’re ready to meet Don Maroni .

He’d also brought his umbrella to use as a walking stick; he liked to have it just in case he got the chance to shove it down someone’s throat. Vale’s issue of the Gotham Gazette, with the headline “Arkham Unlocked?” had gone to press that morning: a three page interview with Oswald – an unidentified former inmate – with the promise of a full feature later. Surely she’d been up all night as well, writing it and fact-checking as best she could and now they were here at the gates, and Vale had not let him down.

Reporters with cameras and microphones and flashbulbs crowded the gates and… hell she’s good… there were the police cars driving up the lane.

“Pleasure doing business with you, Ms. Vale,” Oswald said, offering a little bow.

She smiled tightly at him, narrowing her eyes and the mob of shouting Gotham citizens behind him: “this doesn’t mean we’re friends. I’d still happily write a tell-all about any future shady business dealings.”

Oswald gasped in fake affront: “shady? Me? Ms. Vale, it’s like you don’t even know me.” He winked at her and she frowned a little.

“Get out of here, go find your friend.”

“With pleasure.”

¿?

Subtlety was not Oswald’s strong suit. Thankfully, subtlety was also the not the strong suit of an angry mob afraid of a basement full of Frankenstein’s monsters. Once the gates were open, he was free to be swept inside with them, shotgun in hand and bloodlust coursing through his veins.

Oh, it was good to feel properly alive again.

The first pull of the trigger sent a guard sprawling and a spatter of hot blood streaked across his face. Oswald laughed and he knew he sounded absolutely wild but there were alarms blaring and lights flashing and a mob screaming and, well, this was truly home. And once he found Ed, he could show him the truly transcendent pleasure of feeling this powerful.

He knew where the room was. Knew because every time he looked down certain hallways his stomach would clench uncomfortably and his throat would tighten. He couldn’t remember being there, but some baser part of him knew enough to be afraid. And that’s where Strange would have Ed.

He killed four more guards and a doctor before reaching the reinforced door.

Two men in riot gear stood guard on either side. Oswald’s hands were shaking. But he could feel the rage pumping through him, burning away fear.

“Open the door.” It was a command, not a request.

One of the guards tried to pull a gun on Oswald and Oswald shot off his hand.

“Maybe I wasn’t clear,” he said, aiming his shotgun at the other guard, while the handless one screamed and rolled around on the floor, soaking the stone with hot scarlet blood. “Open. The. Door.”

The other guard keyed in the code and the door hissed open a crack.

Oswald heard the scream rip through the air as soon as the seal on the door was open. He shot the other guard in the head and stepped over the body into the lab.

Three doctors in the lab crumpled to the ground with shotgun wounds in their chests before Oswald managed to gather enough self-control to aim his gun at the head of one of them and demand that they shut of the machine. His whole body shook as the sound of Ed’s ragged voice scraped up and down his spine.

“D-don’t hurt me, I’m just doing my job,” the doctor at the end of Oswald’s shotgun stammered.

“Did I ASK?” Oswald screamed – his throat was raw, out of practice. “I said SHUT IT OFF.”

Fumbling, fumbling, fumbling. Oswald shot him in the head. “NEXT!” he screamed, pointing his shotgun at a nurse soaked in blood and gore and shaking.

And finally, blessedly, the machine was powered down and the screams gave way to pained sort of whimpers.

The rest of the staff in the room were dead before they hit the ground. Strange and Peabody were not among them.

Pity , Oswald thought. And then: Ed .

Oswald turned to actually look at the chair for the first time and suddenly his whole body was frozen, like needles driving into his skin and he couldn’t breathe and –

“Help me.” Ed sounded small and brittle.

Oswald tossed the shotgun and umbrella aside and pulled the scarf down off his face. He dragged his leg – which had gone almost completely numb – behind him as he limped across to the plinth where Ed sat slumped like a rag doll in his restraints.

Oswald was not a gentle person; he was made entirely of hard ice and rough edges. But now, he was careful to remove the electrodes from Ed’s head so that they didn’t tear his skin; he undid the restraints on Ed’s ankles, wrists, and neck, and let Ed just collapse into his arms.

“It’s alright, I’ve got you,” Oswald said, unsure what he was meant to say. He wrapped his arms tight around Ed and managed to whisper, so quiet he wasn’t even sure Ed could hear him: “I’m going to look after you.”  

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

I am out of the cold, out of the fire, anywhere and nowhere. Where am I?

Correct: Safe.     

Now, riddle me this:

Is knowing who you are the same as knowing where you’re going?

Finally, riddle me this:

When was the last time you felt like this?

¿?

Ed dreamed about his father.

Dreamed about being five years old and feeling the back of his father’s hand hit hard across his face, knuckles connecting with soft flesh and sending his glasses flying off his head. He saw his own hot tears pooling on the floor into… Blood. Scarlet, hot, thick, pouring from his father’s cut throat and seeping around Ed’s fingers, older now.

When he was dragged back into the world, he was laughing hysterically under his breath. Or maybe he was crying. He was curled up on a chair, hugging his legs, in Dr. Strange’s office. He couldn’t remember how he had come to be there. He was shaking and he wasn’t entirely certain why.

It occurred to Ed that he may have lost some time and, in the process, lost track not only of where he was, but of who precisely was on his side.

He could have sworn the Penguin was his enemy, that he had left him in prison to rot from the inside out and had laughed as the cell walls closed in around him. And yet, that didn’t precisely track with current events.

A curious out-of-body sensation hung around him, making him feel as though he were watching himself from somewhere behind his own left shoulder.

Dr. Strange himself sat behind the desk and Ed found he couldn’t look directly at him without feeling like his skin was going to crawl completely off him. The Penguin stood beside Ed, with one hand resting gently in Ed’s hair – he was peripherally aware that it was warm and he wanted to lean into it – and the other holding a gun to Strange’s head.

The Penguin’s voice came to him as though through water – muffled and distant: “Maybe I was unclear: sign Mr. Nygma’s release certificate, or I will paint a mural on the wall with your brain and see if the next head of Arkham will be more open to negotiation.”

“You will never improve, Mr. Cobblepot, if you don’t let go of your anger,” Strange said, picking up a pen and pulling a piece of paper toward him.

“I do worry about that,” the Penguin said, rolling his eyes and pressing the gun harder into Strange’s temple. Ed distantly felt the Penguin’s thumb moving gently back and forth through his hair and was vaguely aware that he didn’t want it to stop.

The Penguin left you here. He came back for me. He hurt you. Strange hurt me. He… He… I don’t… You don’t…

Ed looked up at the Penguin, who was staring at Strange with open, vicious disdain. His head ached as the disjointed images of loss and betrayal in his mind clashed with the vengeful protector standing over him, covered in the blood of his jailors.

“Mr. Nygma, you shouldn’t trust this man,” Strange’s voice pierced through Ed’s haze to send a jolt of terror through him. His whole body went rigid and his heart started to pound in his skull and he snapped back to his body out of the foggy, muted reality and into a world of noise and pain.

“Don’t talk to him!” the Penguin shouted, pressing the gun still harder into Strange’s temple. “Sign the paper and shut up. Don’t even look at him!”

Ed could feel the Penguin’s hand in his hair and he tried to focus on the sensation of each fingertip on his scalp.

“Ed, listen to me, it’s alright, it’s just me,” the Penguin said. “You know me.”

I know you . You came back for me.

“Of course I know you, you silly bird,” Ed said, his voice shakier and softer than he would have liked.

Oswald didn’t take his eyes off Strange as he finished the release form, but the corner of his mouth curled upward a little.

“Of course, Eddie, my mistake,” he said, quietly.

“Fascinating,” Strange said, now signing his name on the paper. “Now did you come to bond during your captivity? Or was this connection pre-existing? I ask for the purposes of satisfying scientific curiosity of course.”

Oswald hit him with the butt of the gun and he collapsed onto the table.

He looked back at Ed apologetically. “Valerie Vale promised not to send Jim Gordon after us if I left him alive,” he said. “And normally I wouldn’t care to take orders, but…” the look he gave Ed – a gentle sort of concern – made him feel… something undefinable in his chest.

Oswald put down his gun to tug the release certificate out from under Dr. Strange’s head, and tucked the bit of paper into his jacket. He didn’t remove his hand from Ed’s hair, and he was grateful to have another moment of silence and stillness.

“Ed, we have to go,” Oswald said, and he was standing in front of him, framing his face with his hands. “I’m going to get you out of here, okay?”

Ed nodded mutely.

Oswald brushed the hair out of Ed’s eyes, gently kissed him on the forehead, and straightened up, a pink blush spreading across his pale, freckled skin.

Ed’s forehead was warm where Oswald’s lips had brushed over his skin. He moved his hand to press two fingers to the spot.

Get up .

He unfolded himself from the chair and attempted to stand on shaking legs. Oswald held out his arm and Ed seized it to balance himself.

“Lead the way, Mr. Penguin,” he said, trying to smile but certain that it didn’t come off correctly. Oswald covered his hand for a moment before tucking his gun into its holster and picking up his umbrella/walking-stick.

“Ed, I’m taking you home,” he said.

¿?

It was even warmer in the Van Dahl house.

A hot bath – that was just what he had needed. Oswald had been right, of course. Had helped him up the sweeping grand staircase and given him a long silk robe to wrap himself in after he stripped off the grimy Arkham jumpsuit (now burning happily with the portraits of Grace, Charles, and Sasha in the fireplace), and had run a hot bath full of sweet-smelling soap and bubbles.

And, as Ed had sat and soaked and let the heat of the water seep into his bones, Oswald had sat on the tile floor with his back against the tub, and talked. The heat from the steam had driven Oswald to strip out of his jacket and waistcoat, discarding them along with his tie in favour of rolling up his shirt sleeves and pant legs. Ed hadn’t seen him his casual since he’d been recovering from a bullet wound in Ed’s apartment.

Now, he was thinking a little clearer and the knot of tension in his shoulders had loosened just a fraction, he took a moment to thrill a little at being privy to a side of the Penguin that no one else in Gotham got to see: a little rumpled and relaxed and telling stories about being Fish Mooney’s umbrella boy.

Ed wondered what it would’ve been like to meet Oswald then.

The steam was fogging up his glasses, so he took them off and, in a moment of daring – and more than a little giddiness as the reality of his impossible deliverance from certain death began to set in – placed them on Oswald’s head for safe keeping.

Oswald jumped a little and grabbed them off his head before realizing what they were. He laughed and put them back.

“I’m the King of Gotham, you know – or, I was,” he said. “You’re playing with fire.”

“If you rescued me from Arkham just to drown me in a bathtub,” Ed laughed (it felt good to laugh again), “I’d certainly question your choice of recreational activity. There are far easier places to find a murder victim.”

“So not so much the choice of activity but the execution?” Oswald said, and Ed could hear the smile in his voice.

“Precisely. Your lack of efficiency is affecting your performance.”

Oswald laughed. Ed submerged himself in the water to soak his hair, matted as it was with contact gel and blood and sweat, and when he re-emerged, scrubbing soap into his scalp, Oswald was still laughing.

“I’m not that funny,” Ed said, flicking a little soapy water at Oswald.

Oswald made an offended noise and wiped the bubbles off his face. “I see you’re feeling better.” It could have been a taunt, but Ed flushed a little at how sincere he sounded.

“Wonderful,” Ed said, ending the word with a sigh and sinking up to his neck in the water. “Thank you, Oswald, for coming back for me.”

“You’re my friend, of course I came back for you,” Oswald said, waving an airy hand like it was nothing, but the words fell heavily between them. Friends were not common in their line of work. Not real ones, at least.

Oswald was looking away from Ed at the opposite wall and smiling a little. Ed was seized with the sudden desire to reach out and run his fingers through Oswald’s hair to see what he used to keep it standing up the way it did.

He resisted the temptation: he had taunted the King of Gotham enough for one day.

“What are you thinking about?” Ed asked.

“Fish,” Oswald said – half a growl, half a wistful sigh – and ran his fingers through his hair. A few spikes wilted a little. Ed could relate, having finally met the incomparable Fish Mooney for himself. He wished he could have avoided telling Oswald about her return, but it had been the first thing out of his mouth when they were alone, before he was even sure he could remember his own birthday. Fish was going to be a problem they needed to plan for. “She’s planning something. Of course she is. It’s Fish, she’s always planning something. I need to know what she is doing.”

“Do you?” Ed sliced through the worried babble. Oswald half turned around in surprise before remembering where they were and averting his eyes again. In the stunned silence, Ed hummed a little and said: “when Alexander encountered the Gordian Knot – a knot so complex no one had ever been able to untangle it – he just removed his sword, and cut it in two.” Ed laughed a little. It was such a good story – one of his favourites. It reminded him to take a step back when he got too close to a problem, to find the most direct way forward instead of the conventional one. Oswald was still listening. Ed continued: “details can be distracting. Sometimes, a simple solution is best. So, no matter what she is planning, just remember: penguins eat fish.”

That started a laugh and a smile out of Oswald.

“You’re the predator here,” Ed said. “So, let’s prove it.”

“Us?” Oswald asked. It was curious, rather than accusatory. So, Ed felt confident enough to push a little harder.

“Well, if you’re going to take your empire back, you’re going to need a secret weapon,” he said, grinning so wide it was starting to hurt his face, “so, may I present to you Mr. Edward Nygma: a friend in the dark.”

Oswald’s answering laugh sounded a little breathless.

“Pleasure to meet you, Edward.”

In the living room that evening, comfortably folded into pyjamas and wrapped in silk robes and positioned side-by-side on a couch in front of a roaring fireplace, Ed and Oswald began to plan. And, as they worked, drinking a pot of tea between them and breaking only to heat up some truly delicious soup left by the Van Dahl’s cook, Ed felt like the cold of Arkham would never be able to find him here.

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

If people think you have me, then you do, but as soon as they don’t, I disappear again. What am I?

Correct: Power.  

Now, riddle me this:

Is success the same thing as happiness?

Finally, riddle me this:

What’s the point of success without someone to share it with?

¿?

Oswald woke to the smell of bacon and the sound of the kitchen radio playing scratchy swing music. His whole body ached in the sort of way that suggested perhaps sleeping on the couch was not, ultimately, a good idea.

He groaned a little.

“Good morning, Oswald,” Ed called from the other room. “I made breakfast!”

And something deep inside Oswald’s chest clicked into place. He sighed, this time in contentment.

“‘Morning, Ed,” he shouted back in a scratchy voice. “Be right there.”

He eased off the couch, testing his weight on his leg and hissing in pain.

“You’re out of coffee so I made tea,” Ed was saying.

“That’s fine, Ed,” Oswald managed, staring down at his leg and willing it to work goddamn it.

“And I hope you like – oh let me…” Ed had poked his head into the drawing room to check on Oswald and was immediately beside him, offering an arm.

“I don’t need your help, Ed,” Oswald growled. He was fine . He had it under control.

Ed raised his eyebrows at Oswald and made a tsk-ing sound in his throat. “Don’t be ridiculous. Come on, or the eggs are going to get cold.”

Oswald glared at Ed’s arm for a moment.

“It’s just me, Oswald,” Ed said, almost gently. “Just me.”

Oswald took his arm and allowed Ed to support him as he limped to the kitchen. The radio was still playing crackly music – jaunty and, dare he say, joyful. Ed swayed a little in time as he deposited Oswald in his chair before sweeping around to fill Oswald’s cup with tea, then his own, before perching in the chair at Oswald’s right.

The food truly did look amazing. Ed was an incomparable cook, and it ended up tasting as good at it looked. Ed kept piling more onto both of their plates.

“Eat up, we’ve got a big day ahead. I’ve already begun,” he said, beaming.

Only then did Oswald realize that Ed was fully dressed, albeit in a woefully ill-fitting suit. It hurt a little to look at. Whatever Ed had planned, stop one was going to be a tailor.

“Begun what?” Oswald asked, knowing Ed was buzzing to tell him.

“Your campaign,” he said, a wide grin lighting up his whole face. “So eat up, future Mayor of Gotham.”

Oswald could feel himself beginning to smile back. “Alright,” he said, taking another mouthful of whatever delicious concoction Ed had come up with, “but first, we’re going to see my tailor because it’s frankly a crime to put a body like yours in a suit like that.”

He realized what he’d said after it had slipped from his mouth, coaxed out by warm domesticity and excellent food.

Ed turned pink and they both ducked their heads back to their food. “Fine,” he said, after a moment, “we’ll go to the tailor.”

¿?

Something curious was happening in Oswald’s chest as he watched Ed get fitted for a suit. The room at the back of Mr. Fuji’s shop was the same temperature it always was, he was sure; Mr. Fuji was intensely professional and meticulous, it was why anyone who knew their business in Gotham came here. And yet, Oswald was finding it hard to breathe. Everything felt so claustrophobic and warm and his cheeks were flushed.

“The green was a good choice, Mr. Nygma, it brings out your eyes quite spectacularly,” Mr. Fuji was saying as he moved around Ed and pined deep green fabric in various places. “Don’t you think so, Mr. Cobblepot?”

Oswald did think so. He said as much, and then wondered why the words came out a little breathier than he had intended.

“Are you sure the brighter green isn’t…” Ed began.

“No.” Oswald and Mr. Fuji spoke in unison. Oswald was not prepared to parade around Gotham with Ed dressed like the mayor of Munchkinland.

This shade goes very well with purple, I find. The colours make each other just pop,” Mr. Fuji continued. “Sharp and yet, still elegant. Might I suggest a few accents?”

“You may,” Ed said, turning to smile at Oswald. “We’ll match. Fancy that.”

Fancy that, indeed . Oswald smiled at Ed, trying to stop his eye from being drawn to the sharp angles of Ed’s body, finally flattered properly by some well-made clothes.

“You’ve brought me a lovely model to work with, Mr. Cobblepot,” Mr. Fuji teased. “Wherever did you find him?”

“Arkham,” Ed said, laughing.

If Ed had thought that would phase Mr. Fuji, he was sorely mistaken. He just offered a serene “well then welcome back to Gotham,” and continued measuring Ed’s in-seam. Oswald looked at Ed and managed what he thought was an approaching-normal smile and shrug. Mr. Fuji worked with the elite of Gotham and, in this city, the elite and the unsavory were often one in the same: a former Arkham patient was barely worth noting for him.

Ed winked at him.

Oswald’s heart nearly stopped.

Oh no . Oh no. Oh no…

And his mother’s words, from so long ago, came drifting back to him: “life only gives you one true love, Oswald. When you find it, run to it.”

Clarity. That’s what this feeling of mingled elation and terror was, it was clarity. Why he had reached out for Ed in the dark of Arkham Asylum, why Ed’s voice could cut through Strange’s brainwashing, why Oswald’s first thought upon waking up from his brainwashed haze was Ed . Why his chest felt tight and strange when Ed leaned his shoulder against Oswald’s to reach across the table for something, or simply to sit beside him in pleasant silence. Why he couldn’t seem to stop staring.

I am in love with Edward Nygma .

Oswald sat in silence in the corner of the shop until Ed hopped down from the platform and changed back into the clothes he had come in with.

“Rush order, please, Mr. Fuji,” Oswald said, mostly on autopilot. “As you can see, it’s an emergency. And keep his measurements on file, we’ll be back for more.”

“I’ll have it sent around to the house by the end of the day, Mr. Cobblepot.”

“Wonderful, as always.”

“Anything for my most adventurous client,” Mr. Fuji smiled down at Oswald – he was taller even than Ed – and shook Ed’s hand. “Don’t worry about a thing. May I inquire as to the occasion?”

Oswald grinned and winked: “keep an eye on the news.”

¿?

“Ed I have the money, we should just bribe the officials, stop trying to complicate things!” Oswald whined. They were hiding in the pantry (of his OWN HOUSE) to lessen the risk of campaign staff – now a seemingly permanent fixture in the drawing room – overhearing.

“Oswald did you see the crowd at the rally today? You don’t need to bribe them!” Ed had that look he got when he’d figured out a particularly difficult puzzle that had left everyone else mystified.

Oswald sighed. “Ed, we can’t risk it. I want this more than I’ve ever wanted anything!” Though you are becoming a very close second, and gaining ground, he didn’t say out loud.

“That’s what I mean, ” Ed said, taking Oswald’s shoulders and leaning in close, so close. Oswald could feel his breath. “You need to know that you can win this properly.”

“Ed,” Oswald whispered; how could he begin to explain this. Ed was tall and striking and charismatic, of course he didn’t understand the desperate unlikelihood of someone like Oswald winning the Gotham Mayoral race through sheer force of personality. “Ed, I can’t win this without it.”

“You can ,” Ed insisted, practically jumping up and down with excitement. “I ran the last poll numbers myself: Oswald, you’re ahead. You’re more than ahead. You’re going to win this.”

“Unless Mayor James bribes the election officials because he knows how things are done in Gotham ,” Oswald growled. He pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed.

“But don’t you want to know?” Ed asked. “Don’t you want to know if you could do this fair and square? Then go back to deceit and duplicity, but just… try it?”

“Test a theory on the most important thing I’ve ever done?”

“Yes.”

“Ed…”

“Oswald.” Ed’s hands were still on Oswald’s arms and Oswald was seized with the desire to lean up and press his lips to Ed’s. “Oswald, trust me. Believe in yourself. Or, if you can’t do that, at least let me believe in you.”

That’s just cheating. He thought.

“That’s cheating, Ed,” he grumbled out loud.

“I do that,” Ed winked at him. Oswald wanted to either melt into the floor or rip Ed’s new suit off his body right there in the pantry. “Come on, Oswald, think of how it will feel.” Ed’s breath was nearly in his ear and Oswald was thinking about how something else entirely might feel. He leaned forward and pressed his forehead into the centre of Ed’s chest.

“Fine,” he breathed. “Fine. We’ll do it your way.”

For a fraction of a second, he thought he felt a hand brush the back of his head, as though reaching to touch his hair, there and gone. But it was so brief he was sure he must have been imagining it.

He straightened up, pining Ed down with his most terrifying look: “but if this doesn’t work…”

Ed held up a hand to stop Oswald. “Oswald,” he said, an easy grin sliding across his face. “It’ll work. When have I ever failed you?”

“There was that time you tried to rescue me from Arkham…”

Ed snorted loudly. “Yeah I think I paid my dues for that one.”

“I think so too.”

Both knew about the other’s nightmares. If Oswald wasn’t waking throughout the night to the sound of his own screams, he was waking to the sound of Ed’s in the room next door. Two weeks since Ed had left Arkham, almost three since Oswald had left, and he had woken every morning, save for the morning on the couch, thinking he was still there.

Ed reached toward him and Oswald’s heart stuttered a little as he brushed a fleck of lint off Oswald’s jacket.

“Purple suits you,” he said, smiling a little at him. Oswald’s stomach flipped over. He nearly told Ed then – just blurted it out in the pantry with half his staff less than a hundred feet away. Nearly.

For men like us, love will always be our greatest weakness .

But Ed didn’t feel like his weakness; he felt like Oswald’s strength.

“And green suits you,” he managed to say. “See what wonders a good suit can work?”

“Yes, yes, you’ve made a convert out of me,” Ed shook his head. “Silly bird.”

Oswald couldn’t breathe.

¿?

That night, or perhaps early the next morning, long after all the campaign staffers had gone home for the night, Oswald was woken by the sound of Ed’s screams. Ten seconds, twenty… He wasn’t waking himself up. Oswald was out of bed and at Ed’s door before he had really thought it through.

He knocked.

No answer, only the kind of horrified whimpering that Oswald had last heard in Strange’s torture chamber that masqueraded as a laboratory. He pushed the door open.

“Ed?” he whispered into the darkness.

“No, please don’t hit me, I’m sorry,” Ed gasped. “I’m sorry, I’ll do better, I’m sorry.”

“Ed, it’s me,” Oswald said, closing the door behind him. He approached the bed with his hand outstretched like a lion tamer. “It’s Oswald.”

“Please, please not my hand. Please I need to be able to write my exams,” Ed whimpered. “Please I’ll do anything.”

Ed was still asleep. He couldn’t hear him. Oswald reached out and touched Ed’s arm.

In a flash of movement Ed was awake and his hand was on Oswald’s throat, strong fingers crushing his windpipe.

“Ed,” he choked out, grabbing at Ed’s hand. “’s me. You were… bad dream.”

The grip loosened and Oswald inhaled.

“Oswald?” Ed said. “Oswald! Oh dear, I’m sorry.” He released Oswald’s throat and dove for his glasses on the side table. “I’m so sorry! You startled me, I…” He trailed off, putting his glasses on and flicking on the bedside table lamp.

Oswald rubbed his throat; Ed had a hell of a grip.

“You were having a nightmare; I know the feeling,” he said, his voice a little scratchy.

Ed blinked owlishly at him and frowned. “I’m so sorry; I hope that doesn’t bruise.”

Oswald waved his hand dismissively. “I should’ve been more careful, sneaking around in here. I just heard you and…” And I wanted to help , he left unsaid.

“Did I wake you? I’m sorry,” Ed frowned again.

Another hand wave. “I was awake. Sleeping is…”

“Difficult.” Ed finished for him. “Yes. Well, seeing as we’re up now…”

They made breakfast as the sun came up. Ed was an absolute control freak in the kitchen and Oswald couldn’t cook to save his life, so he mostly sat on the countertop and watched as Ed moved around with an easy grace to the sound of the trumpets crackling through the radio. He’d gained a little muscle tone since they’d last stayed in close enough quarters for Oswald to see him in the tank top he preferred to sleep in. Not much, but enough to catch Oswald’s eye as Ed reached past him to pull a frying pan out of an upper cupboard. He also hummed with the radio, and Oswald remembered singing to the record player in the green apartment. He smiled – this was better.  

“I could buy a better radio,” he said, as Ed cracked eggs into a glass bowl.

“Hmm?”

“A better radio, for you,” Oswald tried to keep his tone airy. “Because you like music.”

Ed stopped and looked off into the middle distance, considering.

“Actually…” he began, then stopped.

“What? Come on Ed, it’s not like we’re strapped for cash here. And, if we are, I’m sure we could contrive to make a withdrawal from the Bank of Gotham.”

“Neither of us has an account there.”

“No, we don’t,” Oswald agreed.

Ed’s eyes lit up and he laughed. “Alright, well, as delightful as that sounds, my request likely won’t require any bank robbery. I’d love a record player. That is, if you’re planning on allowing me to stay here…”

Oswald made a dismissive noise at the back of his throat: “I can’t have the head of my campaign commuting into work, that’s ridiculous. Of course you’ll stay here. And of course you’ll have a record player. Just write down the specifications and I’ll send someone out today.” Please don’t leave . He didn’t say. Don’t leave me alone in this big drafty house.

Ed looked so delighted that Oswald had to look away, biting down the I love you on his tongue. Love will always be our greatest weakness . He didn’t want Ed to leave. Not now, when things were so good. So, he watched Ed make breakfast and listened to him explain the chemical composition of various ingredients and speculated with him about how best to kill someone using only the things in the kitchen.

“Just hit them with a frying pan,” Oswald said, reaching across the counter to stick his finger in a bowl of whipped cream. “It’s cast iron. Then dismember the body, bury it, melt down the pan.”

“You can’t just melt down cast iron, the melting point is 1150°C,” Ed said, batting Oswald’s hand away from the bowl and dodging his attempt to paint a streak of whipped cream across his cheek. “Besides, then people are still looking for the missing person, and I know just how much of a hassle that can be. I say you lace their food with something they’re allergic to, then the death is a tragic accident and no one asks anymore questions.”

“That requires your victim to have a deadly food allergy,” Oswald said, licking the whipped cream off his finger. “Elegant, certainly, but not practical.”

Ed twirled his spatula around theatrically: “that is my speciality.”

Oswald laughed. “Don’t try to distract me; I know I’m winning.”

“Ah yes, but of the two of us, who has successfully gotten away with a murder committed in a kitchen?” Ed said flippantly, then seemed to realize what he’d said. He clapped a hand over his mouth and turned deathly pale.

“Ed?” Oswald asked, tentatively.

“I’ve never told anyone that,” he said, and his voice was suddenly so small.

“What did you do, Ed?” Oswald reached out an arm to touch Ed’s shoulder, worried he might just fall over. He looked shaky.  

And Ed laughed. A hysterical, nervous sound that seemed to bubble out of him without his consent.

“Ed?” Oswald didn’t really know what to do but sit on the counter amidst bowls and ingredients with his arm out uselessly.

“When I was 18 I stabbed my father in the neck with a kitchen knife. I cut up his body and buried it in my backyard. I changed my name and ran away to Gotham.” Ed spoke so fast that it took Oswald a few seconds to process what he’d said.

He was laughing again, and Oswald was horrified to see tears streaking down his face. “Oh my goodness that feels so good to say out loud. That old bastard had it coming.”

It was the strongest language Oswald had ever heard Ed use and that in itself was shocking.

“He broke my hand once, you know?” Ed said, through another hysterical laugh. Oswald hadn’t known, and the very thought turned his stomach. Please, please not my hand. Ed had said in his sleep. Oswald felt sick. Parents were supposed to protect their children, to be there for him, like his mother had for him, like his father had tried to be before the end.

“Put me in the hospital a few times too, but it doesn’t matter now because I killed him,” Ed laughed again, and this one sounded less breathy and afraid. “I killed him and now I’m here and he’s still buried in the backyard of that old house.”

Ed looked up and met Oswald’s eyes. He had a streak of batter on his forehead and a dusting of flour in his hair from when the had opened the bag and sent a plume of it into the air. He wasn’t crying anymore, but his eyes were wide and startled behind his glasses, like he wasn’t sure what had just happened.

Oswald thought his heart was breaking. He could feel the kind of rage that would normally lead to sending another body down to the bottom of the Gotham River, but clearly that had already been taken care of in this case. So, instead, he asked: “what… What were you called before?” He couldn’t imagine him as anything other than Edward Nygma.

“Nashton,” Ed said, and shuddered. “Edward Nashton.”

Oswald opened his arms a little tentatively: “Nygma is better.” He said.

There was a beat of stillness where all Oswald could hear was his heart and the radio and he wondered if he’d make the right decision. Then Ed stepped forward and allowed Oswald to wrap him in his arms.

“Nygma is better.” Ed said, a little breathlessly very close to Oswald’s ear, hugging him tight around the middle. “Kitchen knife, by the way. Big one. That’s the best way.”

Oswald laughed. Ed squeezed him a little harder then released him and stepped away to check on the quiche in the oven.

By the time they sat down to eat, the sun had begun to rise in the gray sky.

“Big day today,” Ed said.

“Election day.”

“Are you ready to be the Mayor of Gotham, Mr. Penguin?”

“Mr. Nygma, I was born ready.”

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

The failure to achieve me is the same as achieving my opposite. For you to have me, other must lose me. What am I?

Correct: Victory.

Now, riddle me this:

Is success sweeter when solitary, or when shared?

Finally, riddle me this:

If love is weakness, then why does it feel so much like strength?

¿?

A buzzing electric thrill crackled under Ed’s skin.

Sirens was full with precisely enough people for the event to appear crowded without being stifling. Of course, even this number of people would have been stifling to his former self – to the twitchy nerd who creeped around the GCPD bullpen like a deer trying to cross a freeway. And even now, armoured in a deep green suit that Oswald had insisted brought out his eyes, and shielded with the knowledge that he knew something no one else in the room did, the noise and press of bodies grated up and down his spine, making him shudder.

You’re the game-master here , he reminded himself. This is your audience: put on a good show.

He could see Oswald – now Mayor Cobblepot – across the room talking with Bruce Wayne and his butler. After a moment’s consideration, he decided not to approach. He wasn’t exactly friendly with young Bruce’s hero Detective Gordon, and that butler looked ready to fight at the drop of a hat. So, he stayed on the other side of the room and prayed Oswald didn’t mention him.

He seemed to be doing fine without Ed.

Oswald looked fantastic. Purple was his colour, but honestly nothing looked better on Oswald than power. He wore it in the curve of his spine and the crisp lines of his suit jacket and the slight spark of delight in his eyes at the press of bodies fighting to shake his hand. And, while he couldn’t command a room with a flick of his wrist like Fish Mooney, Ed could see the echoes of her training in every movement.

Well, he thought, watching Oswald’s exaggerated shrug at something Wayne’s butler had said, Fish’s training and a little something else that was uniquely his own. Ed couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but it had something to do with the wild look that occasionally flitted across Oswald’s face and made Ed’s pulse stutter.

Born to be King of Gotham .

And what were you born to do, Ed? What’s our role here? To stand off to the side? Out of the way? Organizing his files?

Maybe. Maybe that is my job.

Oh no, no, no, we’re far past that. We’ve been there, done that, done the grunt work for ungrateful men who take all the glory for themselves. We’re more than that. We’re better.

But he’s my friend.

We don’t have friends.

Then he’s my partner.

Is that what they’re calling it these days?

But as Ed watched Oswald shake hands and smile and drink in the adoration of the public, Ed couldn’t bring himself to resent it. Being liked had never been his strong-suit, and he had stopped wanting it long ago.

“You two make quite the pair, don’t you?” Barbara Kean – elegant and lethal as a jeweled dagger – slid onto the barstool beside him. She looked pointedly between him and Oswald, a half-teasing smile playing about the corner of her pink lips.

“I suppose you could say that,” Ed replied, cautiously, not looking over at her.

“No really,” Barbara turned so she was resting her back against the bar and leaned in a little so that only Ed could hear her. “If I wasn’t so sure Ozzie was soft on me, I’d be worried about this little team-up. Not that you’d be more dangerous than me and Tabi, of course. But still… His oddball charm, your creepy puppet-master vibe… it’s a little scary. I dig it.”

Ed wasn’t sure if he was being complimented, but he didn’t think he was being insulted, so he said nothing and waited for Barbara to continue.

“It’s nice, isn’t it?” she asked.

“What is?” Ed finally turned to look at her.

Barbara gestured vaguely around. “This. Freedom. Fun. Being with someone who appreciates your unique talents. I remember you, from before, you know. Betcha thought I never noticed you creeping around the GCPD, but I did. Thought you were too smart for those self-righteous morons. I should’ve known we were meant for something better than that. And here we are.” She raised her glass – some kind of electric-blue martini – and, despite himself, Ed was charmed enough to raise his lime-green something to clink against hers.

“To being among friends,” Barbara said. And, for a second, Ed was sitting around a table with Kristen, and Lee, and Jim, toasting to friends. Another life, another possibility. And then he was back in Sirens and a grin was creeping across his face as he met Barbara’s eyes, then glanced across the room at Oswald again.

“To the people who understand us,” Ed said. They drank, and Ed almost felt bad for the trick he was about to pull on Barbara’s guests. Almost. Though, a part of him suspected he could set off a bomb in this bar one week and go out for cocktails and gossip with Barbara the next, no feelings hurt.

Maybe Barbara Kean would never be a friend he could trust as far as he could throw her, but maybe that didn’t matter.

They understood each other, and that was enough.

Besides, the Red Hood Gang, the only hitch in his otherwise flawless plan, had to be destroyed. And they had to be destroyed publicly, before Butch could win his way back into Oswald’s good graces. Ed knew Oswald, knew he would forget the tarring and feathering if Butch destroyed the Red Hoods.

He also knew that, if Oswald was ever going to get the respect he craved, Ed couldn’t allow that to happen. So, he’d made some calls, and hatched his plan.

He and Barbara finished their drinks and went their separate ways. Barbara had a club to run, and Ed had a three hundred-pound gorilla to threaten.

¿?

Ed liked Victor Zsasz quite a lot.

He liked Victor Zsasz because he never felt weird when he spoke with him. Ed got the sense that he could say almost anything to Zsasz and his reaction would be one of two things: impassive acceptance, or glee. Victor was that rarest of creatures, a reliable criminal. He had no desire for power or influence beyond what he had; he loved his job and wanted nothing more than to continue doing it until he died. Of all the underworld contacts he had made in the last few weeks, sweeping around Gotham at Oswald’s side, Zsasz was Ed’s favourite.

“Sounds like fun,” was all he’d said about Ed’s plan. “The boss doesn’t know?”

Ed had shaken his head. “And he can’t know. Not until later.”

Easy as that.

And it had gone beautifully. Well, beautifully save for the heart-stopped moments he’d spent with Butch’s metal hand pinning him by the neck to the stage, and the moment when darkness closed in on him and he wondered: was this how it felt to die, Kristen?

But then he had woken to the feeling of Oswald’s hands on his face and a look of wild panic in his eyes, and something familiar had filled Ed’s chest with warmth. Something he hadn’t felt properly since the day, years ago now, when Harvey Bullock had said “hey Ed, go get me that file from the archive, would ya? And say hi to the new librarian. Make sure the boys don’t hassle her too much, okay?” And Ed had opened the archive door to find Kristen Kringle humming his favourite song under her breath as she rearranged files.

Something like devotion. Something like excitement.

Something like love.

And now, on same the couch where they had fallen asleep together on his first night out of Arkham, something like the truth stumbled wildly out of Ed’s mouth before he could stop and consider the possible consequences: “I hope you know, Oswald, I would do anything for you.”

Cold horror pulsed through him, even as Oswald pulled him into a tight embrace. Ed gripped the back of Oswald’s jacket in his fist and listened to the panic pounding in his ears as he realized with gut-twisting certainty that he was telling the truth.

Love will always be our most crippling weakness .

So, when Oswald released him and looked like he was about to say something, Ed muttered something about fatigue and fled up the stairs to his room, slamming the door behind him.

He splashed cold water from the porcelain basin on the vanity onto his face and seized the edges of the wooden surface, heaving like he’d just sprinted a mile and staring at the ripples in the water, slowly subsiding.

“Nervous, Eddie?” The high voice shot through his eardrums and pierced straight into his brain. His head snapped up to look in the mirror.

If someone could die of fright, it would have happened in that moment: the moonlight through the sheer curtains illuminated the face of Kristen Kringle smiling smugly at him from inside the mirror. Ed gasped and clutched at his heart, certain it had stopped beating.

He turned around.

He was alone.

The breeze through the open window rippled the curtains.

He turned back.

Kristen waved at him.

“Oh dear,” he breathed, weakly.

“Aww, I haven’t upset you, have I?” she asked, sarcasm dripping from every word. “I would’ve thought you were used to seeing people in mirrors.”

Ed looked away: “you’re just in my head.” he muttered to himself. “You’re just in my head.”

She laughed. “Like that makes a difference. Did you miss me, Eddie?”

This wasn’t happening. It couldn’t be happening. Ed took off his glasses and rubbed at his eyes with both hands, willing her to be gone when he looked again. But there she was, still grinning at him, triumphant.

“What do you want?” he asked.

“You can’t miss me that much, clearly,” she continued, as though he hadn’t spoken. “I mean… He’s a little bit of a departure from what I’d call your ‘type’ but, then again, maybe your type is ‘people easy to kill.’”

“What do you mean?”

“Come on, Eddie. You can be honest with me. I know you. I know the monster under that pathetic-nerd—got to see him first-hand.” She shrugged. “Last thing I ever saw, actually. Maybe you can fool disco-vampire out there,” she jerked her thumb at the door, “but you can’t fool me.”

A chill ran up Ed’s spine.

“Nice bruises, by the way,” she said, pointing at the yellow-purple marks blossoming around his neck. “I’d say you earned it, but that might seem petty. Besides, if there was any justice in the world, you’d have died. Now wouldn’t that have been poetic? But no, instead you live to strangle the life out of another.”

Kristen let the silence hang there for a moment – Ed could tell she was enjoying this.

“How long do you think he’s going to last?”

Ed glared at her.

“You know,” she taunted, “before…” she put her hands on her neck and made choking noises.

Ed felt sick.

“I would never hurt Oswald,” he said.

“Bet you would’ve said the same thing about me,” Kristen whispered. The words wrapped around Ed’s throat and squeezed. He couldn’t breathe. “Face it Ed,” she said, “you’re a killer. It’s only a matter of time before…”

Ed drove his fist into the mirror. The glass and Kristen shattered as one. Ed breathed heavily for a moment before realizing the hot feeling on his knuckles was blood. He made a strangled noise deep in his throat as the pain finally registered.

He watched helplessly as scarlet blood ran down his knuckles and dropped into the basin of water. His whole body was shaking. All he could see was the light in Oswald’s eyes wink out as his own long fingers crushed the life out of him.

He heard a tentative knock at his door.

“Ed?” Oswald’s voice was soft and unsure. “Ed are you alright? I thought I heard breaking glass…”

Ed didn’t respond. He couldn’t speak.

“Ed, I’m coming in,” Oswald said. The doorknob shook and Oswald pushed the door open and stepped inside. He stood in the door, framed in the hallway light, staring at Ed for a moment before he breathed in sharply and crossed the room to Ed.

“Ed, what happened?” he said, taking Ed’s hand in his. “You’re hurt. We’re going to the hospital.”

“No,” Ed snapped. The thought of leaving the house to stare at sterile walls and explain to strangers what he had done horrified him. “No, I’m fine. I just… I need…”

“Okay,” Oswald said, as he lowered Ed’s hand into the basin. “Okay, no hospital. Let’s just get that cleaned up, alright?”

Ed nodded.

He let Oswald wrap the towel beside the basin gently around his hand and lead him out into the hall and down the stairs to the kitchen.

The lights in here were brighter. He took off his glasses and wiped his eyes with the back of his uninjured wrist.

He looked down at his other hand and could only see the scarlet slowly soaking through the white towel. For a moment, he was twelve years old and on his knees in the dim yellow light of a very different kitchen trying to pick up shards of broken glass with his fingers. Jagged edges caught and sliced through his pale skin, leaving trails of scarlet behind them. He tried to be careful, but everything was blurry. All he could make out the outline of his father’s booted foot pinning the crushed frames of his glasses to the floor. He could hear his booming voice shouting – pick up the pieces, idiot, look what you did . He could taste the words it hurts choked out of his throat, as he looked up at his father’s blurry face. He could feel the hand connect with his cheek and the sting of pain and shame as he lowered his head back down to feel around for the glass.

“Ed?” Oswald’s voice was so soft, brushing the shards of memory away gently. He was back in Oswald’s kitchen. Oswald pried Ed’s glasses out of his shaking hands and put them on the counter.

“I—I’m sorry I,” Ed began, not sure where he would end up, but Oswald interrupted.

“Are you alright? Can I look at your hand? Does it hurt?”  

It did hurt. Quite a lot. The words got lost somewhere, though, so he didn’t say anything, just extended his arm. He let Oswald fuss over him. He could feel his whole body relaxing, the tension coiled in his spine slowly dissipating as he watched him cleaning out the long jagged cuts across his knuckles and fingers, dabbing on antiseptic, and gently wrapping the whole hand in bandages. When the process was done, Ed flexed his hand experimentally. It was still sore, but sharp edges of the pain had been softened and, with them, had gone the raw, exposed-nerve feeling that had been thrumming through his body.

“Thank you, Oswald,” he said. And he meant it. He couldn’t recall ever being cared for so attentively. He wondered, with a slight twist in his gut, if it had ever happened before.

“Ed,” Oswald said, tentatively, “what’s wrong?”

You think you’re going to kill him. You’re right. You will.

Instead of saying it, he moved, intending to walk out of the kitchen and into the living room where the embers of the fire were still glowing, where less than an hour ago, they nearly fell over the edge.

Nearly.

But as he took a step, he felt a gentle hand on his arm and Oswald said, in a firm voice: “Ed. I know something’s wrong. Tell me what’s wrong.”

Tell him to stay away. Tell him you have to leave.

Don’t leave him, he’s the only one who sees me. If he stops seeing me, I won’t be seen. I’ll just disappear .

You don’t need him.

I want him.

You want him too much.

And Ed remembered the feeling of Oswald’s hand on the back of his neck, his thumb gently rubbing circles in his hair. He remembered the avenging angel with a blood-spattered grin on his face and a gun to Dr. Strange’s head. He remembered the warmth.

“I’m worried I’m going to kill you,” Ed said in a rush, looking past Oswald at the glowing coals in the fireplace.

Ed didn’t know what he was expecting, but it wasn’t a surprised bark of laughter. He looked back down at Oswald and glared – he wasn’t taking this seriously and this was serious – before turning his gaze away again.  

“If you’re planning on killing me,” Oswald said, and paused. Ed could tell he was suppressing a laugh as he picked up Ed’s glasses off the counter, cleaned them on his sleeve, and placed them carefully back on his face, “could you get on with it?”

A different room, a different day, and nearly a lifetime apart, but the same two people, and the same conversation… Ed couldn’t stop the slight upturn of the corners of his mouth as the memory of the warm green apartment and the bird with the broken wing in his bed filled him up.

“I assure you, Mr. Penguin, have no ill-intentions toward you,” Ed said. Far be it from him to not know his lines.

“Then what are your intentions?” Oswald asked.

And Ed looked down and met Oswald’s eyes. He saw the glint of a challenge in them and slight smirk at the corner of his mouth. Ed shivered, but he wasn’t cold. The warm feeling that had settled in the chest since moving into Oswald’s house was spreading through his entire body.

“My intentions?” Ed asked. “Well, Mr. Penguin: do you believe in fate?”

“Increasingly.”

Ed quirked an eyebrow at Oswald.

“Ed, I” Oswald said, and stopped, looking like he’d lost his breath halfway through a word.

And Ed knew. The weight of understanding pressed down on his chest and he couldn’t speak. The silence hung in the hair for a moment. Oswald’s fingers were still curled around Ed’s bicep.

“What?” Ed prompted, eventually.

Oswald shook his head and dropped his hand back to his side. He looked like he was in pain. “You know what, I forget. It just went right out of my head.” he laughed. It sounded forced. “Does that ever happen to you?”

Ed was being handed a way out. He wanted to take it, to break the tension in the air and retreat to the safety of his room and never speak of this again. But he thought of the broken mirror. He thought of curling up alone under the heavy covers. He thought of evenings to follow, evenings of sitting beside the warm fire with Oswald that would always end with a cold climb up the stars in the dark after a cool “goodnight.” So, instead of laughing and saying “yes, all the time,” and fleeing up the stairs, he answered honestly:

“No. That never happens to me.”  

Ed looked at Oswald’s dark hair, usually so meticulously styled, falling across his eyes, and he was seized with the desire to brush it out of the way. He reached out with his uninjured hand and pushed the hair with his thumb.

Oswald reached up and covered Ed’s hand with his, holding it there. And, like lightning, a wild intensity arced across Oswald’s face and his grip tightened. For an instant Ed was back in the green apartment with the knife to his throat and the thrill of being on the edge of certain death as he stared down the most dangerous man in Gotham.

“I don’t know if I should be flattered that you don’t want to hurt me,” he said, and Ed had to suppress a shiver as a thrill ran through him, “or insulted that you think it’d be easy.”

Ed could feel the grin stretching his features. He could feel the drum of his heartbeat in his head. He could feel the warmth filling his chest. He could see the challenge in Oswald’s eyes, and he had never been one to back down from a challenge.

“So, Ed,” Oswald said. “What’s it going to be?”

Ed kissed him.

Chapter Text

Riddle me this:

I am worthless to one but priceless to two. I can’t be bought or sold but I can be stolen with a glance. What am I?

Correct: Love.

Now, riddle me this:

If you’ve done bad things, do you deserve to have good things happen to you?

Finally, riddle me this:

What’s next?

¿?

Oswald was warm.

He was woken, as he often was, by the looming spectres of masked doctors and too-long needles and electrical fires, but this time he didn’t wake to cold fear and emptiness. Instead, he woke to a too-hot tangle of limbs and the sound of gentle breathing.

Oswald blinked in the darkness and rolled his head sideways on the feather pillow to look at his companion.

Ed wasn’t any more beautiful asleep than he was awake; Oswald thought the most beautiful part of him was the spark of mischief that danced in his eyes, or the wicked grin that curled at the corners of his mouth. But nonetheless, there was an uncanny charm in seeing the sharp lines of Ed’s face relaxed in the soft vulnerability of sleep. He wanted to reach out and push an errant curl of hair from Ed’s face, but didn’t want to wake him.

They were sprawled across the bed at an odd angle to each other – Oswald was curled up near the headboard, and Ed’s head was parallel with Oswald’s navel, his long limbs stretched across the king-sized mattress.

Suddenly self-conscious, Oswald flicked his eyes back up to the ceiling. His cheeks burned hot enough that Oswald worried they’d light up scarlet in the dark. Visions of the previous night crowded around him.

The first kiss, desperate, and the second and the third and an equally desperate climb up the stairs in the dark.

His fingers shaking as he tried to undo the buttons on his waistcoat and Ed taking his hands and kissing them, almost gentle, before undoing the buttons himself with a few deft movements.

Fumbling and fumbling and breathless laughter.

A voice, surgery turned ragged and pinpoint pupils blown wide.

Promises, whispered, and adoration.

Hands winding into soft brown hair and the press of fingers, strong, on skin.

Want. Closer, closer, closer .

Being on fire.  

His eyes flicked back down to look at Ed and fear wrapped its cold hands around his throat: what would he say when he woke up? Would this be a mistake Oswald would have to spend the rest of his life pretending he’d forgotten about? Would he have to smile tightly at Ed across a negotiating table as they haggled over weapons shipments as though they barely knew each other? Would he have to watch in feigned indifference as Ed laughed and smiled with a beautiful woman, or a taller man with broad shoulders? Would he grow to regret and resent this?

“I can hear you thinking too much, and coming from me that’s saying something,” Ed’s voice was cracked and rough and slurred with sleep, and he blinked slowly in Oswald’s direction. He gestured vaguely with his arm, motioning Oswald toward him. “come ‘ere.”

The whispers of doubt scattered away as Oswald curled up beside Ed and rested his head on his bare chest, listening to his rhythmic heartbeat. He felt a barely-there press of lips to the top of his head before Ed wrapped his long arms around Oswald and his breathing evened out as he dropped off back to sleep. In moments, Oswald was asleep as well.

When we woke again, in the grey Gotham dawn, Ed was gone.

He didn’t have long to sit there worrying that he’d imagined the entire night or that the few brave rays of sun that managed to shine through the window had frightened Ed away. It was only minutes before Ed swept back into the room balancing a stack of papers on top of two mugs of coffee. He was wearing a white undershirt and plaid pyjama pants and still looked delightfully rumpled and sleepy.

“Good morning Oswald,” he said, placing the whole precarious stack on the bedside table before placing the files on the bed, handing on mug to Oswald, which he took carefully – it was still hot – and keeping one for himself. He crawled back into bed beside Oswald like he belonged there, and Oswald thought his heart might lunge out of his throat.

“Good morning, Ed,” he replied. “Thank you for the coffee.”

He took a sip of it and was unsurprised that it was indeed very good. Leave it to Ed to be as meticulous about brewing coffee as he was about everything else. They sat in silence for a moment. Oswald slowly drinking coffee and Ed flicking through the papers, occasionally marking something down with the red pen he kept tucked behind his ear.

The tension of things unsaid grew between them until Oswald couldn’t stand it anymore. He placed his mug on the side table and turned to face Ed. Ed looked up, eyebrows raised, before gently setting his mug aside as well.

Oswald tried to speak, but found the words stuck in his throat. Looking at Ed, a torrent of tangled and conflicted emotions rose inside him – affection and friendship and warmth and fear and confusion and…

“I love you.” It came out before he could stop it, but once it was out he wasn’t sure he would take it back even if he could.

The silence that hung in the air as Ed looked at him, his mouth slightly open, was bone-chilling.

Love will always be out most crippling weakness – hadn’t Ed said that, a lifetime ago in a green apartment on the wrong side of town? Had he meant it then? Did he still mean it now?

“I’m sorry, I – ” Oswald began, but stopped. He what? He didn’t mean it? But he did. He did love Ed. He loved Ed and he wanted Ed to stay here with him, in this bizarre morning-after bliss until the end of time. Or, barring that, he wanted to stand by Ed’s side as they trampled the bloody corpses of their enemies together.

Options.

Ed reached out and put his hand on the back of Oswald’s neck. It was still warm from the hot mug and his thumb rubbed small circles into his skin.

“I… I love you.”

In that moment, the icy loneliness of Arkham was so far away. Ed kissed him and, when he pulled away, he was smiling. And there was that spark of mischief that Oswald loved so much.

“Now can you stop panicking, please?” he said. “Honestly, I thought I was the one with a bad relationship record.”

“I don’t panic,” Oswald said, airily. “Merely get reasonably concerned.”

Ed laughed and adjusted his glasses. “Of course, you silly bird. My mistake.”

Oswald smiled – he couldn’t seem to stop – and went back to his coffee as Ed pulled the papers back toward him and picked up his pen.

“What are you working on?” he asked, after a moment of quiet broken only by the sound of rain outside the window.  

Ed’s grin stretched across his whole face, it was almost vampiric. It gave Oswald chills just to look at.

“Excellent question, Mr. Penguin,” he said. “Riddle me this: what do you get for the man who has a whole city at his command?”

“You know I’m terrible at riddles, Ed,” Oswald sighed. Ed just smiled wider.

“But I’m not. I figured it out.” He pushed the papers toward Oswald a little. Oswald looked down at the lines and scribbled notes.

“They’re floorplans,” he said. “But what – ”

“They’re clubs!” Ed blurted out, clapping his hands together. “I’ve narrowed down the clubs in the city to the five best, and we’re going to buy the best one.”

Oswald’s heart skipped a little. A club? He had ruefully set that dream aside after the fiasco of Oswald’s , formerly known as Fish’s . But somewhere, in the back of his mind, he still wanted nothing more than to open the doors to a club of his own. He looked eagerly at the floor plans and files Ed had made on each of the spaces he was considering. He recognized a few of them.

“What if it’s not for sale?” he asked, knowing Ed’s answer, but just wanting to hear him say it.

“Does that matter?” Ed’s eyes were sharp and wild and whispered it would be more fun that way, anyway. His hand was back in Oswald’s hair, absently curling strands around his fingers.

“Not at all.”

Ed’s laugh crackled through the room like electricity.

“Well then, Mr. Penguin, I think it’s high time the Iceberg Lounge was open for business, don’t you?”

“Ed, I couldn’t agree more.”

Chapter Text

Morning in Gotham saw Jim Gordon and Harvey Bullock reluctantly approaching the Van Dahl estate on the edge of town. Gravel crunched underfoot as they walked away from the squad car toward the door.

“Penguin’s moving up in the world,” Harvey said, surveying the property appreciatively. “Nicer digs than the bottom of the Gotham River, that’s for sure.”

Jim ignored the dig, choosing not to think about how much easier his life would be if he had just done what he was supposed to do on that dock.

They approached the door and Jim raised the heavy brass knocker and knocked three times.

They waited.

After a moment, the door opened, revealing a severe-looking blonde woman.

“We’re here to see Mayor Cobblepot,” Jim said, the word sticking in his throat slightly.

“Come in,” she said – her accent was Eastern European but Jim couldn’t quite place it beyond that.

She led them through a grand entranceway, past a sweeping staircase, through a kitchen that looked… honestly more lived-in than Jim had expected, and into the dining room. Somewhere on the floor above, a shower was running.

The Penguin was waiting for them.

Jim wondered how early he’d have to arrive in order to catch Oswald looking less than perfectly put-together. Fish had taught him well, that much was certain.

“Jim, Harvey, my old friends” he said. “Please, sit!”

He gestured at two of the chairs to his left. Jim and Harvey sat at the long table, and Jim could feel the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end.

Penguin folded his hands and rested his chin on them – a gesture Jim found oddly familiar.

“What can I do for you, gentlemen?” he asked, fixing them with an intense stare.

Why does this feel like meeting a demon at a crossroads?

The shower upstairs turned off.

“We need information,” Jim said.

“Well, Jim, I have quite a bit of that, you’re going to have to be more specific.”

“Fish Mooney,” Harvey snapped – clearly done with the game – “we think you know where she took Strange.”

The Penguin laughed, and leaned back in his chair.

“You think I know where Fish Mooney is, and that I’d tell you? My friends, you flatter me. And overestimate yourselves.”

Footsteps down the stairs in the silence followed by the sounds of someone moving around the kitchen. Who else lives here?

“Listen, Penguin,” Harvey growled, but Penguin held up a hand to silence him.

“No, you listen,” he snapped. “Detective Bullock, Detective Gordon, I’m beginning to think I just pop into existence every time you need some information, or something to blame for your blatant corruption. Our friendship is beginning to feel a little bit one-sided. And why would I continue to help people who aren’t very good friends?”

In the awkward silence that followed, Jim could hear the hiss of an espresso machine in the kitchen.

“But,” Penguin said, “if, in friendship, I were to offer you this information…”

“What do you want, Penguin?” Harvey snapped.

“What I want doesn’t matter; it’s what I’m owed that’s of concern, Detective Bullock.”

“And what –” Jim started, but was distracted by the approaching footsteps entering the room. He turned and lost his train of thought.

Edward Nygma, formerly of the GCPD, swept into the room balancing two cups of coffee on a stack of files. He didn’t look at Jim or Harvey – he didn’t even seem to see them. Instead he set the files down in front of the chair on Oswald’s right, put one coffee cup down beside the files, and one beside Oswald’s elbow. He leaned over, kissed Oswald on the cheek, touched the back of his neck gently, and muttered in a voice still thick with sleep: “morning.”

Jim felt like the bottom had dropped out of the room. Oswald turned scarlet and touched Ed’s arm.

“Good morning, Ed,” he replied, as Ed sat down, flipped open a file, and curled his long fingers around his mug of coffee.

Jim tried to sneak a glance at Harvey, but saw that he was just staring, wide-eyed like he’d been stunned, straight ahead.

Ed didn’t look up, but when he spoke, his voice was clipped: “is there something you want , Detectives?”

Jim tried to reconcile his visions of the shivering, limping man at the end of the dock, and the eager, friendly lab-tech with the two impeccably-dressed, sharp-faced people before him. He had a headache.

He thought, perhaps, he needed to stop letting people get close to him – Ed, Oswald, Barbara – all destroyed and remade in hard angles and shark-grins. He didn’t want to examine why.

“Nygma, what the hell are you doing palling around with Penguin?” Harvey demanded, shattering the silence.

“I believe the euphemism you’re searching for is ‘in bed with,’ detective – ” Oswald choked on his coffee – “I should’ve thought that was abundantly clear. You, on the other hand, have no reason to be darkening our door so very early in the morning.”

“Come now, Ed,” Oswald said – he’s enjoying himself , Jim realized with a jolt of discomfort – “Harvey and Jim are old friends.”

Ed scoffed, still not looking up from his files. He produced and elegant fountain pen and wrote a few notes in slanted letters before speaking again:

“I’m closer than a friend, yet farther away; a smile on my face is a knife in your back: who am I?”

The answer hung in the air, unsaid.

“I reiterate, detectives: what. do. you. want?” Ed finished.

“Information,” Jim growled. “About Fish Mooney.”

Ed raised his eyebrows, still refusing to look at them.

“I was just reminding them,” Penguin said, the soft, indulgent demeanor gone, “information doesn’t come free – and I only do favours for friends.”

“We can be friends,” Harvey said, “I have a lot of friends.”

“A friend,” Penguin said – voice sleek and sinister as a viper – “would know that a favour done is a favour owed.”

Something clenched tight in Jim’s gut as he remembered the last favour he had done for Oswald Cobblepot.

“Of course,” Harvey said, “of course, we know how to play ball.”

The shark-grin on Ed’s face made Jim sick.

“Then, of course, I can tell you where Fish is – as a friend, of course.” Oswald was all smiles, now.

“Of course,” Jim echoed.

“Ed?” Oswald said. And Ed’s eyes snapped up to fix them both with a penetrating gaze.

“Fish was last spotted with a group of Arkham escapees in the warehouse district down by the docks. She’s likely hiding somewhere around there.”

Ed looked back down and continued writing.

Jim stood up – he didn’t want to stay in this episode of the Twilight Zone any longer than he absolutely had to – and Harvey stood with him.

“Thanks,” he said.

“Anything for a friend,” Oswald replied. And Jim suddenly knew who else sat with his chin propped up on laced-together fingers – and he was currently sipping expensive coffee in the Penguin’s mansion.

“Right,” Harvey said. “See you both on board-game night, us being friends and all.”

Oswald and Ed didn’t react. And Jim grabbed Harvey by the upper arm and steered him out of the manor and back onto the gravel drive.

It wasn’t until they were both back in the squad car, and Jim was driving down the lane back toward central Gotham, that Harvey spoke.

“Well, that’s going to be a whole hell of a lot of trouble.”