"I love you."
Such a simple sentence. Three little words, a banal sequence of subject-verb-object. Basic, usual, lacking of subtlety.
"I love you, Eddie.", Jonathan said tenderly one more time.
Then he kissed the tears on his cheeks.
"Shhh, don't cry. It's over, baby boy. It's alright."
He loved it when he got to shush him.
It made him feel... powerful. He wanted Edward to stay like that, crying and begging and being so... hopeless. He was at his best when he was reduced to this dependant state, desperately waiting for Jon to comfort him.
Without stopping stroking his hair, the doctor inquired in his softest intonation:
"You understand why I had to do that, right?"
"Y-Yes.", the younger man nodded shakily, but at least no more tears shined in his eyes. "I'm sorry, Jon. I'll be good."
"Oh, I know.", the other affirmed warmly. "You are not just 'good', Eddie. You are perfect. And I love you so, so much. That's why I need you to be at your best all the time.", he said too, as a teacher who gently reminds his pupil he may is a clever student, if he doesn't follow the instructions like his classmates then his work, although of better quality, will be irrelevant.
What would be such a shame.
"And to do so.", the professor pursued. "I have to correct some habits of yours."
"Y-Yes Jon.", Eddie responded again. "I understand."
This was partly a lie, Jonathan didn't buy it. But for now he could go for it.
Next time Ed will refuse to answer his phone a full day under the guise of chairing an important business meeting however, Scarecrow made himself the promise he'll be more severe with him at his return.
"I worry when you are away.", the psychiatrist whispered afterwards, when they shared a tight embrace. "I am so scared something might happen to you...", he revealed in a weaker tone. "And I would never forgive myself if you got hurt while I am not here to protect you. So the least you can do is answer your phone, child."
"Sorry Jon.", he said with a hoarse throat, his voice coming out pathetic with apologizes.
Just the way Jonathan liked it.
"I don't want you to worry. I won't do it again.", he promised, then gripped the other man more forcefully.
Jonathan held him close that night, stroking his bare shoulders and back. He let his nails dance over the blue and purple spots standing out on Eddie's milky body. There were only four of them, yet even to Jon the patches of damaged skin appeared a little too extended and visible.
To his credit, it simply expressed how much he loved the child and worried about him.
This time the cause of this... lesson, had been a simple business meeting Edward intended with mobsters for a future scheme of his, but which lasted longer than planned. And Jonathan didn't want anyone to believe they could borrow his kid for longer than he agreed upon upstream.
He had never been a big fan of the notion of 'sharing his things', so even less when it came to his most prized possession.
"I didn't want it to end like that.", Jonathan sighed, then knelt close to the sobbing mess on the floor. "I don't control myself when I am angry, you know it."
"I do.", Edward croaked out.
He was at trying to calm down, but for now his efforts resulted in failure.
"Come on, Eddie.", Jon brought back his comforting voice. "It hurts me to see you like that. I hate it when you cry, so even more when you believe I'm the cause of it."
After a focused endeavor, the ginger managed to take back the control of his reactions.
"I... I don't want you to hurt because of me.", he said pitifully, and Jonathan stroked his hair with tenderness, his grip on him so soft suddenly, disturbingly loving while a few instants before he kicked him.
"It's okay, child. It's alright.", he assured. "But you are the one who makes me angry. So I have to react accordingly, don't I? I can't let you defy me without defending myself, do you understand?"
"I was not defying you!", he cried out, and Jon's grip stiffened.
His fingers crooked in Eddie's hair, pulling them in a painful manner what provoked a little noise of unease to escape from him. Jon loved it when his boyfriend produced those kind of small, muffled pained sounds; those were more satisfying and exciting to hear than the screams. And even more appealing than the sight of the tears. They were almost as delicious as the smell of fear provoked by the release of pheromones in Ed's blood when he was afraid.
"But you were.", Jonathan corrected coldly. "And I had no other choice but to react in consequence. You get that? You are clever, I'm sure you can make your peace with the fact I need to be respected and to do so, I have to punish you. Even if I don't like it. I hate to see you down, I wish I wasn't forced to treat you like that. It hurts me. To see you crying because of me. Why do you have to be always so insolent? If you behaved nicely, I won't be obliged to perpetrate things I don't want to do! Why do you have to be so selfish? What good is that for you to control me like that?"
Edward raised his teary light green eyes to him.
"I am not selfish...", he tried to protest, only to be interrupted:
"Then how do you explain your behaviors with me?"
New tears rolled down his cheeks, and Jonathan sighed again.
"I care about you, Edward.", he stated fondly, then caressed the left side of his face with a long angular finger. "More than anything in the world. So why can't you follow what I ask from you? Are those rules... too much? Am I not... good enough for you?", he asked, faking a broken expression, and Ed instantly replied, as if he was terrified of this conclusion Jonathan came to:
"Of course not! You are the best, Jon! The very best! I'm so sorry I disappointed you, I... I'll make it up to..."
"There's no need for that.", the doctor cut, firmly but softly. "You're all forgiven, I don't want us to quarrel anymore. It's too hard for me to bear."
"I'm sorry!", he repeated, all sad and desperate and pleading. "I don't want to fight with you either! I'll get better, I promise! I... I love you, Jon."
The older one returned him a consoling smile.
"I love you too."
Then he kissed him.
Lightly, tenderly, maybe just a little too possessive in the way their mouth and tongue moved together.
"As I say, you're forgiven.", he told him gently when they parted. "Now get up, child. Let's get you clean up."
It would be a shame to put all that blood in bed right away, better let the kid lick his wounds clean like a good kitten in the bathroom instead of doing anything else with him.
He had been through enough for today.
"You were... gorgeous.", Jonathan complimented, in awe of him.
Edward's breathing rate was not back at normal yet. He took four doses of inhaled corticosteroids so he won't have an asthma attack in the incoming minutes, but he was still shaken.
No aftereffects to worry about though. The episode was over.
The professor handed him a glass of fresh water.
"You need to rehydrate."
Edward approved wordlessly, and lost no time emptying the cup.
This formula worked with a reduced amount of product. The session didn't last long, nothing disastrous happened. Some vivid nightmares Ed had at night were actually more violent than this afternoon experiment. But it hadn't been 'pleasant', to say the least. Fear toxin has never been meant to be a lovely experience.
Jonathan kissed him on the top of his head.
"I don't like to see you hurt.", he cooed when nuzzling his hair, then hugged him tenderly. "But I noticed already, and I must say it again: fear is impressively attractive on you. Everything about you is just so... captivating."
Edward relaxed slowly into the embrace.
"I am so lucky.", Jon kept going, stroking his sides and back lovingly. "I won't ever understand how someone like me managed to matter to someone by all means as perfect as you are."
Eddie blushed at the praise, and returned the hug.
"I love you.", he purred.
He remained exhausted, but had now regained his composure.
"I love you too.", Jonathan concluded, burying his smile in his partner's orange hair. "Always keep that in mind, baby boy."
"I love you."
How could such an ordinary, small sentence repeated a million times around the world have a so powerful impact on individuals?
How could it... change someone, direct conducts, control a person's demeanor, hypnotize some, make others believe in dreams, blind them and keep them from seeing the reality as it is and not as they fantasize it to be, even when the truth about their condition is so painfully obvious?!
"I love you too."
The answer must be worst than the first line. The structure of the sentence doesn't change, but sees itself being added a meaningless adverb. As if the person voicing the second part of what could be called a ritual had not enough brain to formulate a different phrasing, and was compelled to repeat the three initial words without variation. To what they manifest their presence in the conversation with the 'too', as to prove they are just as capable as being the one who talks first, and as if they claimed the initial sentence by creating a mirror effect to return it to the person who spoke first.
I love you. I love you too.
The exchange seemed pathetic once considered closely.
It was even more critical when those common words were pronounced by brilliant persons. Doing so made them fall from their superior position to... the average people.
And if there was something Jonathan Crane didn't want to be associated with, it was 'the average people'.
So why was he repeating these sentences so often, why was he behaving like that? If he really hated it and found it 100% 'pathetic', he won't have kept his conduct that way for so long.
"Someone is absorbed in deep thought.", a sarcastic voice cut his internal deliberations, and he turned a blank facial expression to Pamela whom arrived from behind.
"Meditation.", he informed her flatly. "You should try, it helps control anger."
Ivy rolled her eyes.
"Not for me.", she opposed. "Since I don't want to control it. Anger is a strength, not a weakness; and certainly not an enemy. Just like fear and stress.", he completed after a quick consideration. "They give you motivation, powers to be more awake and more able to grasp your surroundings. They provide significant energy supply to perform reactions you won't have done well enough if you were not either angry, afraid or stressed. The enemies to fight are anxiety, defeatism and boredom. Not anger, stress and fear."
Jonathan approved solemnly.
"I'm certain you could obtain a doctorate degree in psychiatry as well."
"Without a doubt.", Pam confirmed, and they shared a somewhat peaceful glance.
They were supposed to meet, not to work on a scheme or to discuss science like they did customarily, but over a more... private purpose.
Ivy had been highly suspicious when he told her he needed advises to help him understand something. This was not the first time the two of them helped each other in areas not related to business and biology, but she had no difficulty deducing whatever bothered Jonathan must be serious this time, for that he seemed so troubled when he evoked the meeting.
Both Jon and Pam were skilled chemists who created revolutionary toxins and poisons.
But they were as precise and qualified in science that they were terrible at cooking, what never failed to amuse everyone among the Rogues Gallery.
Thus they ended up at the Iceberg Lounge to have dinner instead of cooking a dish by themselves. What was a wiser decision. When it was just the two of them they brought food or went out, but they never approached a saucepan. Safety and security precautions there, as their fellow villain buddies mocked.
Hence here they landed, together at a table like two old criminal pals sharing their opinions in a somewhat trustful atmosphere.
Jonathan launched his initial topic somewhere in the conversation:
"Have you ever thought you were wrong?"
"... About Harleen."
This time Pamela frowned, slightly angry already. She didn't like people to speak of Harley when it was not to compliment her, so hearing 'wrong' in a sentence concerning her girlfriend was not something that pleased her.
"Careful when you talk about Harl.", she warned consequently.
Jonathan nodded, used to his esteemed colleague's everlasting aggressiveness; what reinforced whenever what she held most dear was involved.
"It's not exactly about her.", he specified. "But more about... how you situate yourself towards her. Have you already wondered... why you were doing that?"
Pamela's dark green eyes narrowed.
"What happened between you and Edward?", she guessed right away without answering the previous question.
It was evident Jonathan's sudden interrogations had nothing to do with her couple, Harley and her were simply his point of comparison. They both linked their relations from the start, since the two of them were relatively close in matter of personality traits and ways to interact with human beings, while Harley and Eddie were, there again, closer together. The two couples of the main Rogues Gallery had a lot in common regarding their situations. And because the older ones were antisocial freaks, they often compared their feelings to decipher what steps to take and which they most avoid with their lover.
Here however, Ivy had the feeling that their experience was different, that it was not something they could relate about.
"I don't know why, but... it's not the same.", Jonathan confessed after an hesitation.
"You or him?", she asked back, and the professor addressed her an appreciative smile.
"You definitely are a skilled psychiatrist."
"Stop enunciating facts and get to the point, Jonny. I am not in the mood to play pedagogue."
Scarecrow restrained a remark among the lines of "when have you ever been pedagogue with anyone?", and rather chose to accede to her request. That Edward wasn't there with them at the Iceberg Lounge didn't mean someone else should take care of the bratty, smug comments which punctuated a conversation whenever the little redhead was around.
"I love him.", he said so, using once again this ridiculous phrasing that bloomed in his mind and crossed the barrier of his lips so often over the past years.
"But?", Ivy guessed also, her piercing eyes studying him while she took another bite of her dish.
"But.", Jonathan confirmed sternly. "I don't... trust him like I used to. I feel like he is... a bit too complicated for me to fully apprehend."
Pam arched a blood red eyebrow.
"What are you bargaining here?", she jested. "It's Eddie, being 'a bit too complicated' is his nature, don't tell me you discovered that yesterday after more than ten years of him playing around in his question mark costumes!"
"Of course not.", Jonthan grumbled, and she shot him a death glare.
"Then what is it? I don't like loosing my time Jon, and right now this is exactly what you are doing: you waste it by being stupidly mysterious for no reason and unable to formulate a coherent communication."
They stared angrily at each other, as ever during basically all of their conversations for the past twenty years.
That Poison Ivy and Scarecrow managed to stay more or less friends despite their high level or resentment towards everyone, each other included, was one of the miracles that remained unexplained in Gotham.
"It doesn't matter.", Jonathan ended sternly. "As I told you, it's linked to a sensation of not being in control, not like I would be comfortable with. It makes me feel... insecure, I think."
"No, Jon. Not 'insecure'. Angry.", she rectified, plunging her eyes into his. "And this is why you feel like something is wrong. Because even for you, it's not normal to be that angry towards the man you love, so even less to stay in this state while he has done nothing wrong."
"... I don't remember when our roles got reversed."
"You have never been my therapist.", she huffed, unmoved by her colleague's obvious and quite unusal confusion. "That I give you my opinion doesn't make me yours either, so don't talk rubbish."
"Thanks for the support, Pammy.", he said through gritted teeth, what caused her to smirk in a menacing kind of way.
Then her fork picked another bean in her plate, in a conscious manner what looked like she just pierced some voodoo doll with a stake. After what she brought the victim to her equally blood red lips, and ate it keeping eye contact all the time.
Everyone in town noticed how Pamela appeared terrifying even when she performed very simple actions or movements; but unlike most, Jonathan stayed indifferent at her intimidation sessions. So he simply answered to the gestural provocation by staring coldly.
"My pleasure.", she ended later, her unforgiving glance making a clear message circulate between them.
And despite being immune to Poison Ivy's scary attraction, Jonathan felt something like an unpleasant pinch in his mind under the side glance she cast him.
He shouldn't have told her his doubts. This was not like when they compared their love lives to understand Harley and Edward's functioning as well as how to behave like human beings in a conduct they never practiced before: in a romantic setting. Here however, this was him displaying his repressed murderous urges towards Eddie, and no chance she'll leave this information aside.
Because Edward may was Jonathan's boyfriend, he was Pamela's child and she cared about him way more than she worried about Jon, this was no either surprise or secret.
As a result, it just couldn't turn out to a smart move... at all, to tell her he didn't love Eddie like he used to anymore. While the kid remained, as for him, so desperately in love with him.
"And then she punched me so hard she knocked me out again."
Edward arched an eyebrow at the dreaming tone of voice Stephanie used to narrate the event.
"You don't sound resentful.", he pointed out, half-amused half-suspicious.
"Absolutely not!", the blond girl claimed with vigor. "Sure, I wished she would let me come along more often, to arrest thugs and all, but we're becoming a great team! She simply knocks me out when she judges it's gonna be too dangerous. If she had a little more faith in me, I could say everything is going smooth. But I don't blame her, she acts a bit sharp because she's a badass, she's not doing this against me. And every time we train on rooftops, she wins. Like... I can't beat her at anything!"
She sighed, but then her intonation took back this admiring, passionate hint:
"She is so strong, so beautiful and so skilled... She is a real hero."
"Sounds like a crush to me.", he mocked lightly, and she laughed.
"A friendship crush that's at least certain.", Steph validated, all proud of herself. "I'm so glad I finally met her, and let's say it has been... love at first fist."
This time they laughed together.
Stephanie Brown has been Spoiler for over a year before her pregnancy forced her to step out of the vigilante world. Not at first, though; she spent months fighting at nights in the streets dressed with her eggplant costume while a new life grew inside her, before it became too difficult to be both Spoiler and a pregnant teenager. She didn't loose time however, to get back in this life she enjoyed so much as soon as possible.
Over the first year she played hero amateur, she never met anyone else than Robin among the Batfamily. Robin who took the role approaching a friend, if someone who constantly demeaned her and told her she was not worth it deserved the label of 'friend'. And he had been a sorta 'boyfriend' if this title suits a teen who refuses to tell her his identity while he knew hers, openly claims he dates at school and that he doesn't want Stephanie to become more than a distraction he meets outside from time to time when in his sidekick uniform.
She couldn't say she was attached to him by any means whatsoever given the way he treated her; but he was Spoiler's first contact with heroes, and the only bat she interacted with during her beginnings as a vigilante.
But now everything changed.
Once her newborn has been adopted as planned, she took back her costume. After a bit of self-training to be back in full possession of her capacities, she became Spoiler again.
With the massive difference that now she had a supportive friend in Edward, and she met Batgirl with whom everything seemed great so far. She felt alive when with her, in a way she never had before. Although she wished their interactions didn't end up with the Bat knocking her out whenever she evaluated the situation to be risky and wanted Stephanie to stay put not to get hurt.
This was sort of a caring behavior, yet Steph wished Cassandra will show more faith in her abilities.
But well, this was up to her to prove the Bat she could handle the serious business. She was more than determined to progress, and to prove everyone including herself, that she was ready to play with the big boys now.
"Where were you?"
Ed tried to fight the small pit of fear erupting in his stomach at the severe, accusing tone of voice.
"With an associate.", he answered, trying to keep his cool.
He had never been a good liar. But to balance, he was a player and a master of words. Therefore telling an half-truth or answering by something that was not integrally false yet let forsee no glimpse of an exact veracity was a trick he practiced daily.
"Is that a problem?", he proceeded, eying his partner whose expression looked anything but sympathetic.
"I don't know. Is it?"
This time Eddie sighed. He failed to figure out if he was more frustrated or scared at the moment.
"Jon. You need to stop.", he chose to tell him accordingly. "I am not cheating on you or leaving the city forever when I walk outside to spend time with someone else than our close Rogues Gallery fellows."
The doctor huffed for sole response.
He sat on the desk, as he usually did when his lover was in his desk chair.
"I'm serious.", he completed. "You can't be there every day, every minute and participate to everything in my life. You just can't, you have to trust me a little when I..."
"I did.", the professor reminded him dryly. "I trusted you. And as it turned out, it has been a wrong move."
Edward lowered his gaze.
He was not ashamed or sad, he just felt... weary.
Won't Jon ever go past that and stop bringing it back over and over as an argument for... for what, by the way?
Eddie couldn't tell. He was not even sure he recognized Jonathan, at times.
He hated it when he had this thought, albeit the nefarious idea bloomed more and more often in his mind.
It was the opposite of how one is supposed to feel towards his boyfriend. Yet it was the current truth, and it scared Ed out of his mind to be unable to face his feelings, his thoughts and... his general impressions on this man he worshiped and loved more than his life. It shouldn't be like that.
It just... shouldn't. It was unfair, and wrong.
So wrong, when everything should be right.
Edward woke up to the reassuring contact of an arm around his waist. They slept in little spoon that night, and as usually when they did he felt his boyfriend's chest against his back and the top of Jonathan's chin resting in his hair.
Some persons always sleep in the same position, but Ed definitely didn't belong to that category.
When he was alone, most of the time he curled up and slept in a ball like a cat, because it felt... safer, as if he shielded himself from the outside world. It was not his only sleeping position, but the one he practiced the more often. But when in bed with someone, he could sleep... basically in any posture, including very strange positions that never fail to amuse Jonathan dearly when he wakes up before him and takes the time to contemplate the weird stances of his young lover's body.
But this morning Eddie didn't open his eyes to find his arms and legs looking like they just danced the Futterwacken, or his neck at an angle that always gave him a torticollis during all morning.
He slowly removed Jonathan's arm that held him close like some sort of security belt, and, careful not to disturb his sleep, stood up from the bed.
The alarm clock on the nightstand indicated 7:14 a.m. in bright neon green. Not exactly a lazy morning; not quite an early wake-up either since they were in summertime, so the sun rose for over an hour already.
The head shower released water that fell like rain on him when Edward arched his neck to offer his face to the lukewarm liquid. It soaked his ginger hair, making the strands stick to his skin on his temples, the sides of his face, the back of his neck and up to past the top of his shoulders. His usual haircut.
It felt so... peaceful, to let water cover him like that, as a nice, gentle caress over his body.
It almost washed away the feeling of... wrongness.
As if a shower was enough to make him forget, as if the pleasant sensation erased the fresh marks on his body. Those marks which weren't supposed to be there.
The old and newly delivered scars, acquired when confronting all kinds of enemies, were one thing. They were... if not 'normal' at least expected. They were part of his personal history, the imprints what witnessed every event of his life. The eternal reminders branded onto his flesh. He didn't hate them, far from it. Those scars were part of him, he accepted them as an inevitable element forming his personality, and what created his identity.
The other injuries however, disturbed him a lot. Those recent ones that either faded away when they were blows and kicks, cuts eventually, but some burns and needle wounds began to fossilize on his skin.
He felt queasy, and ashamed when he looked at those, they were... wrong, once again.
Strangely, collecting wounds from foes or in specific situations didn't make him feel that way. He won't ever 'like' getting hurt for sure, but... he saw it as a constituent of the many events he regularly faces in the business. He made his peace with that.
While those new injuries were a completely different deal.
Because although they were by no means serious and not many of them stayed longer than a few days, they simply weren't supposed to be there, Edward was aware of it, and it killed him not to share this problem with anyone. But he didn't, he couldn't. Instead, he kept his insecurities for himself, he never told any of his friends about this... change, in the nature of Jon and him's relationship. He was not even sure what it was due to or how it began, what caused this... twist, in their conduct towards each other.
It felt bad, yet Edward couldn't bring himself to fully consider it as only 'wrong'. It was about Jon, so sure thing whatever happened couldn't be wholly negative, right? It just... couldn't. The feeling was very confusing, and Ed honestly hated to be so unsure and lost.
Yet he was certain his doubts were not ungrounded. He may had a hard time seeing clarity in his current thoughts, Eddie was not an idiot: he knew he was not supposed to add to the sight of the old and new scars on his body the ones left by Jonathan.
"You look tired."
Edward addressed her an interrogative glance.
"So?", he asked, not getting what she wanted to obtain. "I didn't sleep much last night, that's it. Since when is my health on your preoccupations list?"
Ivy's sharp gaze seemed to see right through him, as ever, and pierced his mental shield as easily as a steel blade would cut paper.
"There's something else.", she stated in a chilly tone, playing her act of being an emotionless creature.
Even if no one among her close friends believed her heart was made of stone, she still wore the mask and wanted Gotham to remain persuaded of this.
"And it's not the first time I see it, only the first I point it out.", she emphasized using a threating voice. "There's something wrong with you."
"... On that point, you make it very hard for me to belie you. And breaking news: all the Arkham staff already arrived to this diagnosis!"
"I have no time for silly jokes.", she grumbled, infuriated already. "Now let's get done with this and stop the mysteries, just answer the question. What's wrong, Edward?"
"... I'm a bit tired.", he echoed her earlier words with the firm intention to stay evasive. "It's... just a phase, I suppose."
He forced a smile on his lips.
"And you are going to protest or deny immediately, but: thanks mom, I appreciate your concern."
Pamela growled in response, what was totally predictable, and Edward laughed.
"Get out of here, brat.", she concluded, only to obtain from Ed that he teased her some more.
Although she didn't broach the topic again today, Pam saved her suspicions for later. She needed to verify her theories, but vexing the kid by asking him bluntly won't do any good, so better stay discreet for now.
She must find evidences before anything else.
"Red, ya are bein' paranoid there.", Harley laughed. "There isn't anythin' weird with Jonny! Not more than the usual!", she chuckled.
Pamela shook her head.
"Come on, Harl.", she required. "I can't be the only one who sees that!"
Harley put her hands on both her girlfriend's shoulders and looked up to the taller woman.
"There is nothin' ta see.", she assured, obviously trying to sound reassuring. "Jonny and Eddie are ma friends too! If there was a problem, I'll be with ya to try understanding what's happenin'! But ya're worrin' about somethin' that's not there. Kitty doesn't see anythin' wrong either?"
"No.", Pam conceded. "I asked her if Ed doesn't look... tired, but to her it's nothing different than when he is working."
"So what are ya tryin' to discover?"
"... It doesn't matter."
She removed Harleen's hands from her shoulders.
"You're right, I must be just a bit... paranoid."
Great, now Harl was the concerned one. As if Pamela needed her to worry.
Therefore she forced herself to seem relaxed in appearance. Harley didn't believe her. Selina, even if she deeply cared about Riddler too, didn't even begin to get what Ivy alluded to when she tried to make Catwoman open her eyes over some of Edward's reactions that weren't there before. The others? She didn't talk to Jervis about that, since he won't understand would he be faced with an explicit scene. Then her contacts with other rogues who were Ed's friends were way too limited for that she told them anything or tried to investigate without it looking very suspicious.
And the last thing she wanted was to have the child realize she spied on him or anything akin to that. This could be taken very bad, and she must avoid a confrontation.
"I thin' ya just need a li'l distraction.", Harleen said then, grinning at the prospect. "Been a while since we last went on a mission outa Gotham, just the two of us against the rest of the world."
Pam returned a smile.
"I admit this sounds..."
She leaned forward and put a chaste kiss on her girlfriend's pretty pink lips.
"... really tempting.", she ended, a soft sparkle shining in her dark green eyes, and Harley let out a victorious yelp.
"Then let's go for a ride!", she claimed, her pigtails bouncing, and the two of them shared a smirk.
"You ask me to do what?"
Cassandra tilted her head to the side.
"Don't get mistaken, Bat.", Pamela defended casually. "I am not asking you to practice voyeurism. Just... to investigate a little, to help me prove a point."
"Why can't you do it yourself? I don't get it, how could that be a problem for you to hide microphones or even cameras at their hideouts and monitor the area if that's what you want?"
Ivy tried to brush her unease away. This was so... unlike her, to behave like that; she had no idea how to justify her conduct either to Batgirl, anyone else or herself.
"I have a bad feeling.", she elected to explain. "I've always been... very skilled, to detect problems or complications that way, and I always followed this intuition whenever it tells I must mistrust something. But today I can't deal with this on my own. The Sirens don't believe me when I only begin to evoke an eventuality that won't be pleasant for anyone. And I can't do much more alone because of the risk to be caught. You see, it's... Edward. I don't want him to... think of me differently if he notices I spy on him or have... suspicions."
"I'll owe you one.", she proposed then.
The idea of owing a favor to anyone, even a friend like Batgirl, was something that repelled her. Stupid Riddler, if he knew what she was ready to do for him.
"Besides.", she went on. "I am not asking you to watch them all days and nights, only to... take a look here and there, and check on Edward."
"Why?", Cass asked again, because although she had no problem with achieving the task itself, she failed to figure out the reason behind Poison Ivy's obvious concern. "What are you expecting to find?"
"... What I expect doesn't matter, for once. I just want the truth. But I won't obtain it from Ed or Jonathan, no one else gets there is a problem and Harl thinks I imagine things. So I need the mediation of an external helper."
One of the advantages of her mask covering her full face was that it was harder, near to the impossible even, to get when she was confused. Like right now, for example.
"Okay.", she agreed, curious enough to answer her pal's request. "But I'm doing it my way."
"Very fair.", Ivy approved.
Then she acknowledged internally it couldn't kill her to tell something nice, so she added:
And addressed her a somewhat friendly smile, what Cassandra returned.
Even if with her mask it looked very creepy, it was friendly too, no doubt about it.
One would be lying if they said the rogues and the bats were only enemies and nothing else.
True, for most this was the nature of their bond. But not everyone held a negative opinion on the other side, and this worked both ways.
"Yay, so you're playing double-special-awesome-spy for Poison Ivy and Batman! That's so cool!", Stephanie exclaimed.
"Cool.", Batgirl quoted, slightly disapproving.
She won't recognize it out loud, but to be honest Steph's bright enthusiasm amused her.
The blond girl grinned happily, and went on babbling about their new objective.
"So it's like that, hu? The big guy wants all his rogues to quit being baddies and become goodies?", she asked later. "Because if he is open-minded enough, if we team up and insist like crazy, then there's hope for my brother."
Steph giggled some more, but despite her usual childish behaviors, this was important for her and a goal she truly wanted to achieve, so Cassandra pondered over a response to offer. She had no interest in lying to Stephanie; but she won't, under any reason, betray any of Bruce's rules. Starting by the ones about confidentiality.
Even if well: she met Steph outside, took off her mask during their trainings together, and told her her identity. Spoiler was not just an acolyte who participated at some of her investigations every now and then. Not anymore.
On the contrary, she became... a friend. The first person Cass felt this particular way towards.
"I think there is hope for everyone as long as they let someone help. And this is what Batman wants to do.", she answered as a result, but without giving many details. "It's his ultimate purpose, the real aim he tries to fulfill. I know the feeling all too well."
The younger one addressed her a quizzical look.
"How so?", she asked, genuinely interested.
"... Batman sees himself in the rogues, Stephanie.", she revealed. "Like a mirror reflection. That's why he doesn't hate them, not all of them at least. He sees himself and how he could have turned if a few things happened differently in his past, or if he met other persons instead of the ones who have been his mentors before he put on the cape and cowl. And... that's how I feel as well. I was destined to become like them. Much worse than most, even."
"But you were stronger than that.", Steph argued in a loving tone, then put her left hand on her friend's right one. "You're a hero, Cass."
Batgirl tried to ignore the pleasant warmth blooming in her chest at the words and upon seeing Stephanie's... smile. It was different from the feeling of safety, and the love she felt towards her father, her mother figure Barbara and her second father figure Alfred. Different as well from the sibling relation she shared with Dick and a bit with Tim. If they were her family, Stephanie was... her friend.
But then again, Pamela was her friend too, yet she never felt this specific warmth in her heart when Ivy and her interacted, although she cherished dearly those moments.
No doubt, Stephanie Brown must be related to Riddler, in the sense that this girl was an enigma.
"Eddie always had a crush on Batman.", Steph told her smugly then, and Cass raised both her eyebrows.
"He is dating Scarecrow."
"Doesn't mean he can't look at other guys.", she replied. "He never actually said it openly, but... just hearing him talk about the big guy. He really likes him."
This time Cassandra was the one to smile maliciously.
Confidentiality or not, nothing stopped her from making fun of Bruce.
"You know what?", she reacted so, very amused. "Now you bring that up, I noticed this weird form of denied attraction on my dad's side as well."
And she added with a knowing look:
"I am more than convinced that Batman has a crush on Riddler too."
"I knew it!", Stephanie claimed, victorious, and they laughed together.
They met at various places, but as it seemed their favorite rendezvous points were inevitably rooftops, where they chatted lightly, joked, shared confidences over coffee, trained and practiced fight moves.
Like every vigilante teenagers who meet outside and happen to be friends rather than just colleagues. Steph enjoyed it every time she considered the routine of this special way of life as a 'normality'.
This was her life now. So of course she appreciated all those habits coming with this world.
Her universe, she adopted it. She chose it. And she loved it. No way she'll ever let go of it.
"I can take care of driving Riddler back to Arkham."
"No.", Bruce refused, and Tim narrowed the white eyes of his mask. "I'm in charge of Riddler, go home Robin."
"Then I'll track Julian Day down with Batgirl.", the sidekick opposed, and Batman gritted his teeth.
"Batgirl is in a mission on her own.", he rejected again. "I told you to go home, either you do that or you patrol around, I don't care, but don't interfere in her investigation."
"I won't 'interfere'.", the dark-haired teenager retorted, but without an ounce of annoyance showing; his voice remained as cynical and indifferent as if he performed a scientific analysis. "I'll bring my valuable contribution."
"Go bring your 'contribution' to someone who wants it!"
Finally, Batman snapped.
Edward shared a look with James Gordon who was, as so very often, present when he has been arrested. They were still in the museum where he settled his puzzle, the Dynamic Duo arrived shortly before the police, and the Commissioner just put the handcuffs around his wrists.
In the mean time Batman and the third Robin quarreled, of this very unsettling manner witnessed at many occasions from lots of people already: Robin behaving with a practiced indifference and replying with his cold tone while Batman seemed at the verge of jumping to his throat, wrapping his hands around his neck and squeezing him to death. It was quite scary, sometimes.
But well, not that Edward will object against the demeanor.
"I'll join Batgirl's investigation.", the Boy Wonder ended, unmoved by the absolute rage everyone noticed what made his mentor burn from the inside in response to his collected, clinical attitude. "Being good at fighting doesn't mean she manages to be a detective, she could use some brain to help her deduce obvious links for her case."
Honestly, it was a miracle Batman didn't beat him up after this remark. He clearly wanted to, but performed a huge effort not to give in to his instinct, and Robin showed enough intelligence not to loose time: he fastly left the place instead of pushing the provocation.
"Why do you keep him with you?", Eddie couldn't help but formulate as soon as he was gone. "Why don't you... fire him or something, if you hate him so much?"
He was not judging, only curious there.
It was indeed odd to keep someone who repels you as your work partner while nothing forces you to.
Gordon was obviously wondering over that too, he stared with his frowned grey eyebrows and an evident worry painted on his facial expression.
"I don't have another solution.", he confessed to the two men. "I can't..."
He shook his head.
"It's my problem, not yours.", he argued, more resolute and his tone low and neutral again. "I'm taking Riddler in. We're done here."
The Commissioner seemed about to protest, but must have decided against it, more than aware of how unuseful that was. He had time to learn over more than twenty years, that when Batman decided now was the time to leave, nothing could compel him to stay.
So he didn't object, and let the vigilante go on with the routine: bring Riddler to his Batmobile then drive him back to Arkham.
Once inside the vehicle however, Ed lost no time to relaunch the topic.
He evoked it a few times already, but never obtained a satisfying answer. Perhaps he'll be more lucky today?
"I'm gonna ask about your sidekick.", he warned consequently, leaning comfortably in the passenger seat like he owned it.
"I guess I can't keep you from asking.", the Bat resigned himself. "Nothing forces me to respond, though."
"You have a point.", he conceded. "But what can I say, I am persistent. Therefore Batman... why are you keeping that teen with you while you can't even stand the sight of him anymore?"
Bruce's hands tightened around the wheel.
"We're doing a give and take exchange, then.", he set up rules in a stern tone. "I answer your questions only if you answer mine. No lies, no half-truth."
Then he turned a severe glance to him.
"Deal.", Edward agreed maybe a bit too rapidly, because both surprised by the offer and incapable to resist a challenge.
The Bat nodded, looking back at the streets.
"I keep him by my side so that I can watch him.", he revealed, as promised in all sincerity. "As long as he is Robin and not an indepedent, I am able to keep an eye on his activities. As best as I can at least, because he also works solo a little too much for my liking lately."
"Understandable.", Eddie validated, delighted by the idea of Batman and him having an honest conversation. "But if you really think he is suspicious, wouldn't you rather..."
"One-for-one.", Bruce reminded him. "I answered your question, now you answer mine. You'll ask a second after."
"Alright, go ahead."
Their exchange looked like a game. In other words, Edward found it the perfect way to communicate.
He felt highly cooled off however, by the Bat's question:
"Where does the bruise on the side of your neck come from?"
Of the shape of an egg, not very large, quite discreet too, but it stood out of the collar of his shirt. Edward hadn't noticed Bruce saw it, and even if he did he won't have bet this would awake curiosity.
"Fighting, obviously.", he said, frustrated by Batman's lack of imagination which made him ask this instead of anything more interesting.
"What sort of fighting?"
"We said one-for-one."
"Except that I gave you a complete response instead of two words.", he rightfully pointed out.
"... Domestic fighting.", Ed specified so, because cheating in a game had never been his way to operate. "Jonathan and I had an argument yesterday."
He sounded casual as if it had been no big deal and a simple quarrel as it happens regularly between romantic partners or friends, but Batman knew better. Still he kept his feelings towards this reality for himself. Rather playing along, since after all following rules at a game was the best solution to obtain informations from Edward Nygma.
"Are you the only one in your family who noticed there is something wrong with Timothy Drake?"
A tricky one, without a doubt.
But Bruce wanted truthful answers from Ed in return. So he listed, while being aware saying this to a rogue risked to backfire on him sooner or later:
"No. Alfred understood too, nevertheless he... doesn't want to see it. He prefers to think it's 'just a phase', like when Jason became especially violent during fights against villains. Dick and Barbara don't see it, they are... under his spell. And Cassandra considers it's not an issue as long as he controls himself. She believes having a part of darkness is not a problem, that it's even a strength to use to get better and stronger. As long as it stays 'a part' and doesn't take over."
"Just like for you, then.", Eddie commented softly.
"Exactly. That's why I feel like I'm the only one who sees him as a potential threat, since even those who deduced he is... not quite right, don't think of it as a fatality."
It was almost flattering to hear Bruce talk to him so openly.
Flattering for sure, but a bit disturbing once looked deeper into the subject broached.
"Is Crane hitting you?"
Okay, he admitted he didn't see that one coming, and certainly not so harshly.
"We're together!", he protested, vexed. "Why would he..."
"Edward.", Bruce cut, and granted him a severe glance. "Just answer the question."
Ed bit his lip, uncomfortable. He regretted this game suddenly.
"... It's not what you seem to think.", he eventually stated. "He doesn't 'hit me' like in an... abusive relationship or anything of that kind. He doesn't treat me wrong, or whatever akin to that you have in mind. You can stop thinking it, we are not at war against each other. We simply fight here and there, like every couple, at the difference that he... tends to forget him and I don't have the same limits."
Eddie saw the way Batman's jaw clenched like whenever he was angry or revolted at a situation.
Although he failed to get why Bruce felt that way right now.
"What are you gonna do, the day Drake becomes the second Joker, a sociopath scientist who dissects humans alive, a criminal mastermind or even a crime boss in the mob? Because he has the potential for everything in these categories, but absolutely not either the willingness or the personality to become a hero. And I am dying to see what will be your reaction when a boy who spent years under your mentorship will turn out to be the worst and most violent menace this city ever knew."
Batman's fingers clutched the wheel so strongly Edward thought he was going to break it.
But he didn't do anything else than eye him smugly, his gaze daring him to retort and his whole body language screaming provocation.
Bruce tried to get into his head and spat on his relation with Jonathan? Fine, but he shouldn't be surprised Edward returned the favor by throwing at his face he will be responsible for the birth of a monster. Worse: a monster he brought to his house and welcomed in his family. He may never adopted him and Drake didn't live at Wayne Manor every day, he was a family member despite Bruce's opinions on him. So sure thing, it could only either anger him or hurt him to hear straightforwardly, probably for the first time from someone, that he created a psychopath.
"... If this ever happens.", the caped crusader declared, a pure hatred filling every syllable he voiced. "Then I will react in consequence. At the difference that Tim won't be just a rogue or a mobster, but a traitor. And this is not something I'll ever forgive."
Edward's smile turned into a predatory grin, the one he learned from Selina.
"I like it when good old Dark Knight shows up. I'm gonna tell you one more thing, then: there is a reason why Cassandra and Jason are your favorites. That's because they are perfect to your eyes, they are at the same time your temper and your skills. Despite their past, they managed to fight their inner darkness and become actual heroes. You admire them for that, and deem they deserve your love and respect much more than Richard and Barbara who were saints from the start. They are your precious children because they impersonate the best you can be: a kid with a troublesome past, murderous urges and the potential to be a feared rogue, but who chose the right path and their fight."
Bruce's silence was honestly fearsome, but now he was in 'deduction mode' Edward won't stop there.
"While Drake?", he completed. "He is the contrary: the boy who could have been a good person like Richard and Barbara, the one who had no reason or excuse to be tempted by the other side. His urges don't come from either an education, a trauma or a past spent surviving. They come from his inner self, from what he is deep inside. He has always been like that, and it's just a matter of time before he stops pretending to be good and opens himself to what he really is. You know it, you see it coming, and what is worse is that you know you can't stop it, you can't fight it or do anything to change it unless you take him down before he becomes what he is meant to be. It's in his veins, it's his identity. He won't keep it bottled his all life long. One child in a hundred is born psychopath, but many are only second-rate, they never have an occasion or the real motivation to do their... coming out. But you know about murderers, you know about crazy, madness, violence, thirst for blood and power. You learned for a while how to recognize who belongs to what category among the persons pretending to be 'innocent, normal citizens'."
His smirk increased, in a brash Cheschire cat kind of way.
"Not only he is going to be your failure, Batman.", he accused him with a huge grin. "But he is also gonna be the worst opponent you'll ever face, the enemy within. He is what you fought internally all your life not to become yourself, what you are proud to see in your daughter who fought her own demons and won over her education by making her own choices. So, Bruce Wayne.", he ended, proud of his effect and of just how crushing must be the storm inside his driver's skull at this moment. "Tell me, am I wrong or right about it all?"
Long minutes passed in absolute silence, and Edward thought the Bat won't say another word until they arrived at Arkham. What would have been a pity since his plan took place at a location far away from the asylum, so they needed an additional time to reach the isolated area where the prison stood.
"Tim Drake is my responsibility.", his eldest affirmed finally, just when Ed was about to relaunch a conversation with a frustrated riddle. "I'll make sure I keep him under control, but if I fail... well, everyone in town will know about it if this day comes."
He had a point.
"But since we are at blaming each other over our poor choices in matter of people close to us.", Batman pursued in a somewhat delicate tone. "Why are you letting Crane do whatever he wants with you? This is not the first time I notice, you look... tired. You are not the same anymore, and I may underline it only now, don't believe it's the first bruise I see on you that clearly doesn't come from a combat but from domestic violence."
Once again, Eddie won't have bet the Bat payed attention. He thought the Drake-is-a-dangerous-psycho-do-something-about-it description will be enough to distract him from his initial interrogation, but this was clearly not working. Bruce must have been investigating on his situation, given how he insisted to obtain confirmations.
"Again, you are mistaken.", the redhead countered while his smile faded completely. "There is no violence, only a... lack of appropriate communication from time to time. But it's not a problem, so here comes my answer to your question: we fight a little, and sometimes it goes out of hand. Then we reconciliate and we don't make a scene out of a meaningless argument."
Edward eyed him with disbelief.
"What do you mean 'why'? That's what two persons who care about each other do: they make peace after a fight. Because I love him and he loves me back, he just has... special ways to express it."
"Those 'special ways' are not what a person who loves another does."
"... We are not conventional.", he argued, while slightly more unsure and failing to fully earse his growing unease.
"This is very conventional.", Bruce denied, but although he was openly angry his wrath was not directed at Ed right now. "This is even... the most conventional criterion ever in an abusive relationship. The violent lover taking advantage of the weaker part."
"I am not weak!", he defended instantly, highly offended by the dismissive innuendo. "And don't say Jonathan is..."
"Then quit acting like it.", the Bat cut him off, not bothering to comment the other part of his protests. "Tell him to stop."
It felt like a stranger spoke for him. Why was he talking about this with Batman?! He was about the last person Edward would take as a confidant yet... here he was, he sort of admitted to the vigilante he was aware things were not alright in his couple but was not doing anything to change.
"Why?", Batman inquired again, sounding much more caring all of a sudden.
"... Because I love him."
And Ed lowered his gaze.
I love him, he repeated twice again internally. I love him more than anyone, he is the only person I ever loved that way and who ever loved me back as not a friend or a kid towards whom they feel affection, but as a real... romantic partner.
Bruce tried not to feel too... sad, upon seeing his reaction, but that was not easy.
As he saw it, this was worse than Joker and Harleen, because Harley found an escape when she became friend with Pamela. Friend at first, and she stayed in love with the Joker after this meeting. But then it progressively evolved into... something else entirely. Into one of the strongest relationship in this city. One of the... purest, most sincere love story.
And it was between a crazy jester and a cold-blooded murderer who officially doesn't care for other living beings than plants.
This was something serious.
While Edward and Jonathan...
It began as something serious, as a sincere relation. How it turned into this... mess, was a question Bruce had no answer for yet, but to him it was at least evident Edward must realize none of this should happen.
"It's my fault.", the ginger said quietly as he followed the crusader's current thoughts.
"How could it be your fault?", Bruce replied, frowing. "If Crane managed to make you believe hitting you is the only..."
"No. It's... it's my fault if everything went sour, Bats."
"I am the one who left.", he recalled then, an authentic sadness showing. "And I don't even regret my actions. I am the one who... needed a break, not from Jon but from... this life. I left for over one year and a half giving Jon, Selina, Pamela and the others very limited news and when I came back he was so... He changed.", Ed corrected his initial phrasing. "I can't be mad at him for that. I am the one who destroyed our relationship, not the other way around."
"... It doesn't change a thing."
Edward arched an orange eyebrow.
"About the fact he should not be doing that.", Bruce retorted. "That you screwed up somewhere or not, he has no right to treat you like dirt."
"He doesn't 'treat me like dirt'.", Edward hissed angrily at the insult. "Why would he?! I behave like an insufferable brat with everybody, Jon included, everyone knows that!", he pursued vehemently. "But it doesn't mean he raises a hand against me!"
Batman addressed him a quick glance, then his gloved fingers tightened once more around the Batmobile's wheel.
"You are lying, Nygma.", he stated sharply, eying the road while his indifferent facial expression radiated coldness.
Edward rolled his eyes.
"And how did you come to that conclusion, may I ask? You know what, I don't care.", he added before his driver formulated a response. "Keep your faulty reasoning for yourself, Bat. No one cares about your take on Jonathan and I's private life. This doesn't concern you, and even if for some bizarre reason it did, you don't have anything to say in it. I don't want your opinion, your help or whatever: I am not your child, your buddy or your partner. I have no reason to listen to you, so especially when what you say is stupid. I hate silence, but for once I must recognize shutting up would have been a wiser solution for you than to talk rubbish. Take care of your own business before judging others, specifically when what you believe is anything but true. Don't share sheer nonsenses like those, you look like a rookie trying to play detective. It's lamentable."
And he turned around after these angry words, not wanting to hear anything else from the Bat.
Whom followed closely the evolution of the bonds between his rogues, it was part of his 'job' to watch out and be aware of their team up, their alliances, their fights, who hated and who appreciated who. So he investigated their private lives too.
Bruce may was not the most qualified love advisor around, he knew he had not much to say about relationships, but... Riddler and Scarecrow always seemed odd to him. At first because of the... weird form of jealousy that took over him more than once when they got together, followed by the sentiment of this situation being 'not right' even if his evaluation was purely subjective and possessed no justification at the time.
Until after Riddler's return, he had no occasion to make his reasoning evolve from mere suspicions to tangible deductions. But over the last weeks, given what Cass told him and what he observed by himself as well, he was now convinced: none of what he witnessed in Riddler's general behaviors since he came back in the game will make him change his mind or doubt he was right.
"Don't.", Edward refused when they were at Arkham and the Bat was about to leave him, for the countless time, in the asylum where he'll escape from very soon and will rapidly get back in town. "There is nothing you have to say, I know where to leave my suit and my locker awaits for me to retrieve those lovely jumper uniforms. I could do the walk to my cell eyes closed, yet they keep thinking I must be escorted every time I visit.", he completed, and glared at the guard who arrived to take care of precisely that. "I really don't see what you could add.", he ended aggressively, proving his anger didn't cool off a bit. "Thanks for the ride.", he ended sarcastically.
"... We are not done about this.", Batman insisted.
"But we are.", Edward sneered before going through his Arkham routine, starting by changing from his work suit to the asylum inmates' clothes.
He was so used to every ritual practiced here, they became part of his surroundings.
Bruce thought all evening of that bruise standing out on Riddler's pale skin, what the collar of his purple shirt failed to hide properly. And his exchange with Edward only confirmed what he already deduced over the path his relationship with Scarecrow was going down.
Of that kind of directions what it's very hard, close to the impossible even, to return from unscathed.
"You are about the funniest guy in the circus. Let's drink to that."
And they shook their glasses. That these were filled with ice tea instead of alcohol didn't make it any less feel like a toast.
"Careful, Steph.", Eddie warned, grinning. "I'm gonna get jealous."
They laughed together.
"I must say.", the third occupant of the room admitted. "I didn't expect becoming a Gotham rogue would be so... entertaining."
"Rogues Gallery member.", Ed and Stephanie corrected right away, and Music Meister reacted by a glance of total incomprehension.
"The correct appellation is 'Rogues Gallery members'.", the blond girl rectified with a knowing smirk. " 'Gotham rogues' is out-of-date, don't say that otherwise you'll look like an old chap."
"Or like Victor.", Ed supplemented. "For whatever reason, he still uses that name."
"Fries.", he specified.
"Angsty Ice Cube.", Steph translated, and they laughed some more.
"How come you are not officially a villain too?", the freshly arrived rogue asked her later. "Like, you and Riddler are... a sort of team?"
"One day.", Stephanie professed. "I'll be Batman and Eddie will be my Robin."
"... You don't say anything against that?", Mich demanded again, surprised by the lack of protests, and Edward smiled.
"Not my intention.", he defended smugly. "I already promised more than once, to... a few persons actually, that I'll dress up as Robin some day. And I must say I love the prospect."
He winked, and Steph chuckled.
Music Meister, although proud to claim he joined the rogues, was about the last person she'll consider a 'villain'. And not only because he was so funny and childish it was a delight to speak with him, but also because he... took nothing seriously. He was just playing, and even if he was a few years older than Edward, he managed to behave as more of a kid than her brother did, while Riddler was well-known to be THE brash child around.
"I knew him before.", Ed told her another day after Mich (he had no current civil identity, but liked the nickname Mich as short for Music Meister. Why he chose it stayed mysterious, but it was better to refer to him under a proper name rather than only his villain title) and them spent the afternoon plotting/joking/behaving as little brats. "I met him a while ago."
The two of them where sitting on the rooftop of her house in the evening as they often did, watching the grey sky slowly drifting into the night.
"When I was in high school.", he responded with a strangely husky tone of voice. "We... were sort of 'friends' during a few weeks. He was not in my grade and his family moved rapidly after we met, but... let's say he has been my first amicable contact with a living human being."
"Saying 'living human being' that way is weird, Eddie. I thought we agreed on that: no creepy words making you sound like a mad scientist talking about humanity as if it was a giant stock of test subjects to experiment on. Otherwise you'll never move on."
"Maybe I don't want to move on.", he opposed then, although he thought of it more and more seriously lately. "It's just that it's... puzzling, I think the word fits the situation, to meet a person from my time of before. I didn't think I'll ever be faced with someone who knew the me before Riddler. Selina's case is different."
"It is.", she approved.
Bit by bit, he ended up informing her of... pretty much everything about him. Much more than he revealed to many others, even close friends. She could relate to a lot, and she had this... unique way to take everything with a smile. Traumas? Wounds? Unhealthy habits and self-destructive copying mechanisms? Fine, Steph was not the kind who would mourn or take pity on anyone.
She knew how to listen, she had her own luggage of issues she dealt with, and she was supportive. Never pitying, judging or giving lessons. Those were not the role of a friend, and reacting to everything showing bright enthusiasm and an optimistic view had always been one of the many characteristics that made Stephanie Brown so special.
"Does he remember too?"
"I don't think so.", Edward shook his head no. "I'm not gonna remind him either, I don't especially want this anecdote to circulate, although there's nothing to use against me there. But it belongs to... another life. Another me."
"Not another 'you', Eddie.", Steph countered gently. "Only another time. You may changed and grew up, you are the same person, you can't erase the past. It's part of your evolution, if it didn't exist you won't be there now."
He returned a tender smile.
"You're the best, you know that?"
"As a matter of fact, I do."
She winked and addressed him a mischievous smile, then they giggled like complicit children proud of a team up what successed to cause troubles in the playground.
"I may don't forget anything of what I did, this specific case deals with only a few weeks of interactions which happened over fifteen years ago.", Edward argued afterwards. "I won't remind a former classmate of such an irrelevant information, since he certainly won't have even the beginning of an idea to understand what I allude to. If he brings it on the table by himself, then why not; but I won't remind him on my own this era of when I was ten."
"Ten years old little ginger high school student.", she smirked. "You must have been the cutest."
"If by 'cutest' you mean favorite punching bag at school and home alike, then yes. I was... the cutest."
They laughed at this. Not that it was amusing by any means, but it stayed so much better to laugh than to cry. Not everything was laughable of course, but whenever there was even a small possibility for it to be, better take it rather than pity the memories.
Laughter is a far better way to cope and heal than tears, after all.
"I don't like him.", Jonathan reported, and Ed instantly looked a bit sheepish.
"Jon, there is no..."
"I am not asking for your opinion, Edward.", he cut. "I am sharing my doubts. I don't want you to spend time with this new boy anymore."
"I am not in kindergarten.", he protested faintly. "I can... spend time with people without asking for permission first or..."
"Are you trying to insinuate I don't let you free to do whatever you want?"
Jon raised a sharp glance from his papers on the desk towards the young man in the living room who seemed anything but at ease.
"No...", he denied weakly. "Just that... maybe you could..."
He took a breath before ending, trying to keep his tone steady and to appear less scared than he felt:
"You could trust me a little more."
This was not accusative, in fact it sounded awfully... pleading.
"This is not your place to give me orders, child.", Jonathan rejected curtly, and Edward lowered his eyes.
"Yes Jon.", he answered out of habit.
It's wrong!, a voice screamed at him in his head. Don't look down like that. You shouldn't be scared at your safehouse, shouldn't be walking on eggshells whenever Jon's around and afraid you'll make a wrong move or say something that will displease him!
When had things come to that? To this... what was it? This was not love. And what hurt the most is that it was not like that before. They were in love before and not...
Edward forced himself not to shed tears. It was not easy, but he took another breath and focused to stay collected.
"So.", he relaunched casually. "How... was your day?"
Jonathan looked up once more, then granted the kid a smile.
It was fine by him, they could share a sympathetic domestic evening today. He was in a good mood: his next attack on the city, this time in team up with Jervis, was almost ready; and Eddie was there, all sweet and cute and desperate to please.
He could go for a lazy evening behaving as a conventional couple who enjoys tender moments.
After all, those were also part of the interactions he appreciated to share with the child.
"You should check on him.", Cassandra concluded. "I don't know why exactly, but whenever Crane's not here it's... even worse than when they are living together."
"I will take a look.", Bruce nodded.
Then he offered his daughter a tired smile.
Indeed, he noticed himself that over the last months when Scarecrow was arrested and sent to Arkham while Riddler remained in town, it became a real hardship for Edward to face. Even if they never stayed apart for long.
And it was not just him who cared. His two favorite children had powerful links with the rogues too. Jason used to be best buddy with Eddie, and now Cassandra shared close ties with Pamela Isley. Bruce must say, this worried him at the beginning. He rapidly understood however, that this was not a plan from Ivy or a sick way to attack his family, but genuine affection. Moreover Batgirl was wise enough to take her decisions on her own.
Bruce trusted her with his life.
Naturally, he warned her at first, but she assured she had no intention not to be careful. And her strange bond with Poison Ivy evolved into a real friendship no one could have predicted, including the two main protagonists in question. So Cass saw no problem to lend a hand in order to help her friend when she asked for it many weeks ago, and given the fact her dad was also very emotionally involved whenever it came to Edward Nygma... she felt a bit caught in the middle of a weird love/friendship/family web.
For herself, Ed liked her and was always super nice with her because she was Stephanie and Pamela's friend. Nonetheless the two of them were not really close together. But he was her best friend's big brother, Pammy's son and her father's... love interest? Child by interim? This was kinda confusing, she was not sure what to figure out among those elements. Still, Batgirl had no doubt Bruce's feelings towards Riddler were an in-between of fatherly affection and romantic attraction.
"Today.", she insisted, and pressed her father's shoulder for support.
It was early morning, she came back from a successful arrest of Two-Face and Bruce arrived a few hours later once he put back Scarecrow and Mad Hatter in the asylum. They were together in the Batcave, her in her pyjamas and about to get some sleep and him still in his costume, he only took off his cowl. Cass was convinced that sometimes, her dad kept his armor for days and slept hanged up by the feet on the ceiling of the cave.
The first time she joked about that, Dick confirmed this freaked him out when he lived at the Manor, and he always feared to enter a room only to find Bruce playing Dracula head down and feet up sleeping in a bat position with his cape wrapped around him like leather wings. They had a lot of fun that day, they imagined various spooky vampire things their father could totally be witnessed doing.
"I will.", Bruce promised, his smile warm as he saw his daughter's genuine concern. "But you know you don't have to take care of me.", he reminded her patiently. "This is the parent's role, not the child's."
"Who are you kidding.", she replied, of this sentence Steph used too often for her own good. "Everybody knows you won't survive a day without at least Alfred watching over you, Babs monitoring the area whenever you need help, Dick coming to the rescue and me to save the day."
Then she put a light kiss on the not properly shaved cheek.
"Now take a shower, sleep and eat a bit. Gotham can survive a few hours without Batman in the streets. You have been out for days, you earned a little rest."
He looked at her fondly.
"Alright, Cassie. Whatever you ask."
They shared a complicit glance, then Cassandra left the Batcave. Knowing her dad, he will stay here to watch his computer screens and check with her mom Oracle to be sure everything was alright in town –as 'alright' as Gotham can be–, before finally taking a well-deserved sleep.
It was early morning, he had all day to rest then he'll pay a visit to Riddler.
Probably during the evening, or in the night.
One doesn't change the habits.
"Is everything alright?"
"Um, perfect even.", Edward retorted, scornful. "The Bat is in my living-room while I'm crying and he thinks I'm a little girl or a damsel in distress who needs to be rescued. But yup, everything is 'alright', Batman. No really, you come up with such stupid questions at times."
"I know.", he interrupted.
What else could he say either ways? He just wanted Batman to leave and this day to be over. It was not the first time the caped crusader entered one of his hideouts, either to ask a quick help on a case, to collect an information or just to... stop by, seeing if Edward was planning something. He used to do that much more often when Jason was Robin, but didn't loose the habit afterwards.
So far when doing that, he surprised him and embarrassed him more than once. Like that night when he watched Pitch Perfect with Jason and Stephanie at the golden era when his little brother was Robin and just after he freshly met his little sister. While everything was perfect in his relationship and all his friendships.
This night the three of them were so into the songs they didn't notice Batman's presence until he cleared his throat, making them all jump out of their skin. There was also this day when Eddie desperately fought with a jar of pickles alone in his kitchen: since he arrived, Batman came to the rescue and opened it for him. Or, and this was certainly priceless, that time when he entered his hideout to ask help for a tricky case only to hear Ed was in the bathroom... singing under the shower. The worst was that he was a damn good singer, Bruce had been impressed. Edward threatened he'll kill him if he ever repeated this episode to the other rogues, so he promised to keep his mouth shut. No need to tell the ginger he made an audio recording and everyone at Wayne Manor heard it.
Other similarly funny situations happened regularly, but it was the first time Bruce caught Riddler drinking. And he instantly hated it.
"Edward.", he tried, sincerely worried. "I want you..."
"Aren't we getting a little excited there?"
"... to stop and join me.", Batman ended without taking offence of the intrusive remark.
He took another glup of whiskey.
"Feeling lonely in the Batmobile? You search body heat to forget the cold harsh world out there?"
"Stop it.", the vigilante growled.
"I said, stop."
Bruce took hold of the glass Ed was about to bring to his lips again, and put it back on the kitchen countertop.
"Why have you done that?!", the redhead snapped, frustrated.
"Edward. You deserve better."
Bruce put a hand on his shoulder, and forced him to look at him.
"You are an intelligent person, a resourceful young man and you are twenty seven."
"What are you playing? Enunciating boring obviousness to make a list of some of my basic characteristics?"
"You can do something else.", Bruce said rather than replying to the snark. "You have your whole life ahead of you, don't act as if you were condemned to stay in a wrong situation while the day you choose to change, you'll be supported to become someone else. You know no one would let you down."
"Quit.", he opposed, tired of this endless discussion they had too many times already.
"I won't. Not until you admit this is what you want and think about too."
"If you want us to fuck, Bats, just ask, I'll be happy to oblige.", Ed retorted, irritated by now. "I am in love with you since I'm seven years old and I have been fantasizing about a night with you from the moment I understood what a romantic interaction implies, so please don't feel like you need much preparation and let's get done with this."
Bruce removed his arm, while his confusion reached a peak.
"What are you talking ab..."
"Forget about that.", Ed interrupted again, his cheeks just a little too red for it to be explained by the alcohol effect only. "I'm drunk, it would be a dirty trick from you to take advantage of what I say in this state."
At least he was not a wreck since he only drank a few glasses. But for sure he won't have confessed an element so private if he had been in full possession of his capacities.
Then he sighed again.
"I am not done with Riddler."
"But you are.", Bruce insisted, trying –and failing– to forget what he got a glimpse of, and what explained for just how long Edward has known him. "You left for a reason, and when you came back, nothing was the same."
"... It's not a long run.", the ginger argued, tears forming in his eyes. "It will be... ten years and nine months of activity in Gotham as the Riddler, one year of... before, just entering the underworld, plus one year and a half being out of the city's game in the middle. It's not even..."
"I can certify it's a long run.", Bruce smiled in a reassuring kind of way. "You did so much, set up so many traps and participated to so many events, no one will ever even begin to think Riddler made an insignificant impression. You were fifteen, Edward. We are twelve years later."
"Thanks, captain obvious."
Bruce shook his head.
"Why should it matter to you, anyway?", Eddie huffed and granted him a suspicious glance. "I mean... okay we had some good moments together over the years, but we are not... actually friends."
"You were Jason's best friend. This is not something I'll ever forget."
Edward didn't respond. He never told Bruce and he won't say anything, of course. He swore he'll stay silent and had no intention to break the promise, but under the alcohol effect he felt suddenly a bit guilty he couldn't tell the man his son was alive. At present time Jason was an overactive special member of the League of Shadows after he followed an intensive training provided by Talia al Ghul. He still considered it would be too soon to come back to Gotham for now, but he will someday. There as well, it was planned.
"And I care about you. Always have.", Bruce confessed tenderly, using the fatherly tone he had recourse to at many occasions with Dick, Jason, Cassandra and even Barbara sometimes, although their age gap was only of a few years. "And you need help.", he went on displaying genuine concern. "So please Edward, let me help you."
Eddie wasn't one to drink, usually. He never liked the taste of alcohol, it reminded him painful memories. And what he appreciated even less was the impact of alcohol on the brain: the dreadful way it slowed down his intellectual faculties, made him react very inappropriately and caused him to say weird things after only a few drinks.
Those were either very odd, very depressing or very... gentle words, depending on the mood. Tonight turned out to be 'gentle' time, without a doubt provoked by Bruce's caring behavior.
Edward giggled, and looked up to the tall figure with a smile that could be seen either sweet or a little sad. Certainly a bit of both. Then he told him with teary eyes and his voice brimming with affection:
"Oh, Bats.", he said fondly. "You're gonna miss me so bad when I'm gone."