You could never fully grow accustomed to waking up in places with know knowledge of how you got there, or this was Edward’s experience. Every time, he had to quash the initial panic, stay still try and assess the room for threats before anyone realised he was awake. He attempted to regulate his breathing, hearing the soft rustle of what sounded like paper occasionally. Its regularity suggested someone was reading a book. He was warm, on a soft surface, probably a bed, but fully-clothed as far as he could tell. One of his hands ached and stung through the middle, but he seemed otherwise unharmed. He opened his eyes ever-so-slightly so he could look around through the slits. The room he was in was small and a little on the shabby side, but very uncluttered. By his side was a woman of no more than twenty-two, maybe, leisurely reading a thick, old, hardcovered book. Red curls fell on either side of her face, her expression was calm, her dark brown eyes moving quickly from side to side over the pages. Her clothes were neat and clean, if a little worn, but with a definite vintage flair to them, incongruously bright in the drab room. She wore a white ruffled blouse, a rich purple cardigan and matching trousers. Ed’s eyes moved frantically around looking for a weapon. Noticing the glass of water on the side table he made a grab for it smashing it against the wall before moving to threaten the girl but before he could, she gave a shriek and slammed the heavy book she was reading down on his hand. He dropped the glass onto the floor where it shattered, gasping in pain.
“Damn. I liked that one.” the girl said, looking mournfully at the glass on the carpet. “Is your hand alright? I’d hate to have injured the only fully-functional one.”
She grabbed the hand in question and peered at it.
“Get off!” Ed said, wriggling out of her grip.
“Ah, I knew you’d be a difficult patient.” she said indulgently. “It doesn’t seem serious. It might bruise though. I dropped one of those books on my foot once and jeez, did it hurt! Would you like some soup?” she asked briskly, reaching for a flask that was stowed next to her chair.
“Who are you?” Ed demanded.
“Stephanie, Stephanie Brown.” she said, with a merry smile.
“What am I doing here?”
“Oh, I found you a few streets away. You were passed out and were bleeding quite badly from your hand so I brought you here before someone robbed and murdered you, or something.” she explained airily.
“Why?” painfully reminded of the last time he’d woken up in the presence of a woman who’d ‘saved’ him. At least this one didn’t have a shrine to his villainous exploits covering the walls or was claiming to be some creepy super-fan.
“Is that all the thanks I get? You’re not exactly light, you know, although you do seem a bit malnourished and well, look at me; I’m not exactly build for carrying six foot odd men around, even malnourished ones.” she said, without malice.
“What are you planning to do with me?” he asked.
“Well, I had in mind keeping an eye on you until you’re in better health, but I hadn’t really thought beyond that.” she said speculatively.
“I haven’t had time.”
“I meant why did you bother?”
“Because I’m an unusually nice person.” the girl shrugged indifferently. “I don’t know. I didn’t really stop to evaluate the situation in detail, if I had, you wouldn’t be nice and comfy here.”
She got up, pulling him out of the way to plump up the pillows behind him, forcing him to sit up. She didn’t seem to be of any immediate danger as she hadn’t done anything to harm him whilst he was unconscious, even if she possessed no sense of self preservation. Ed was too tired for a fight, not to mention that he was disinclined to go about attacking someone so young and slight, who seemed to have only been caring for him for some unfathomable reason, even if the situation was disquietingly similar to waking up with Myrtle standing over him, so he merely leaned away from her and glared at her mistrustfully, which only seemed to amuse her.
“Where am I?” he asked.
“The Narrows.” she answered promptly, settling on the edge of the bed and unscrewing the soup flask, offering it along with a spoon, which he pushed away.
“Argh.” he groaned.
“Oi! I’ll have you know people are very proud of what little they have around here. Besides, you’d better be grateful. It’s not everyone who would be prepared to host The Riddler in their home.”
“You know who I am?”
“Well, duh. You have broadcasted yourself on TV, don’t you remember?”
Ed did remember, and for some reason the memories made him feel queasy.
“Don’t you know how dangerous it is-” he began.
“-sheltering you here? Yes, yes. I know.” she said impatiently. “Did you know the woman who broke you out of the ice was killed by the Penguin?” she asked conversationally. “At least, that’s what I heard. Still, I live alone, I’m fairly reclusive and I have no prior connection to either you or the Penguin, so I doubt he’ll even think to come looking for you here. You’re perfectly safe.” Stephanie assured him, which he had to admit wasn’t terrible reasoning.
“Aren’t you afraid for your life?”
“Oh, yes, it’s only wise, but I could probably take you in a fight, given how weak you seem.” she said reflectively.
Ed glared at her dubiously, but then he knew that in Gotham people were often better trained in various forms of defence and attack than they initially appeared.
“I should go.” he said, shuffling to get up, but was hit by a nasty spell of tunnel vision and fell back down again.
“Where to?” Stephanie asked. “I mean, you can if you really want to, but I wouldn’t recommend it. From what I know, you don’t have anywhere to go to, or anyone, for that matter. If you’re determined to, maybe wait until you feel less like you’re going to faint every five minutes.” she suggested.
“You’re not going to stop me?” he said in surprise.
“Why would I?” she said, looking confused.
“You might... you might want to...” Ed struggled to catch the elusive words, “want to keep me for...ransom.”
“I don’t see why. I don’t fancy striking a deal with the Penguin only to have him kill me. I may be a bit on the reckless side, but I don’t have a death wish. I can’t think of anyone else who would pay a ransom for you.”
Ed’s mind fell frustratingly blank, just as he’d opened his mouth to respond. He glanced down at the hand the pharmacist had stabbed which was now clean and neatly-wrapped.
“You saw to my hand.” he observed.
“No, actually. I know a discreet doctor and she tended to it for me and gave me instructions about how to look after you. She was a bit reluctant at first. Said she knew you.” Stephanie explained.
“Dr Thompkins?” Ed asked, wondering why Lee would have possibly tended to him without immediately turning him into the GCPD. “But nobody has seen her in ages.”
“Oh, no. Dr Damfino. She bikes about The Narrows delivering treatment and medicine. Most people just call her The Doc, so if you need her you know who to ask for. Now, come on, have something to eat.” Stephanie said, forcing the soup flask and spoon into his hand.
He peered at it suspiciously. It had been a long time since he’d eaten anything, but he wasn’t about to trust a young woman he’d only known a few minutes. To his surprise she just started giggling at him.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” she said. “It was your face. There’s no need to look like that. I don’t like wasting ingredients. I don’t have any reason to poison you. If I were going to kill you I could have done that while you were unconscious.” she pointed out. “Here.”
She took the flask and poured some of the soup into it’s lid, showing its contents to Ed. She theatrically drank the contents before showing him the emptied lid.
“See.” she said. “No poison.” passing the flask back.
“It doesn’t have onions in it, does it?”
“No. The Doc specifically told me not to put any in.” she said. “Come on. Have some before you waste away.” she encouraged.
He accepted a spoonful or two and decided that the soup wasn’t bad at all. The girl smiled approvingly before re-opening her book and settling back down and falling into a strangely companionable silence. He watched her uncomprehendingly. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen someone so comfortable around him, as generally, even back before he became the Riddler, he seemed to put people on edge and they either seemed to want to get rid of him, or gave unwanted attention. The only person to actually seem to genuinely like him for who he was, was Oswald, but that hadn’t ended well. If anything, she reminded him slightly of Kristen with the red hair and the shape of her facial features and the liking for old-fashioned clothes, but younger. It made him wonder what Kristen’s children would have looked but he quickly attempted to drag himself off of that train of thought. Thinking about Kristen made him feel achingly hollow inside. That lead him on to think about Officer Dougherty, Jim Gordon and Dr Thompkins, everything that had happened at the GCPD, Arkham and Oswald and Isabella and Oswald... Oswald...
It all took on a surreal, nightmarish quality in his memory. His vision was slightly clouded and there were flashes of Kristen’s sightless eyes, Dougherty kneeling, Oswald clutching at his wound staring at him in disbelief. His ears hurt and the back of his throat stung in the effort to stay in control of things. He hadn’t felt like this before, had he? Had he been the one to do those things?
“What ever is wrong?” Stephanie’s voice broke through.
He looked up at her blurry face, unsure when he’d started crying.
“Get out.” he muttered, burying his face in his hands, mortified to be falling apart in front of a total stranger.
“Excuse me? What’s upsetting you?” she said perplexedly.
“Get out! Go!” he said angrily.
Stephanie frowned as she got up, moving across the room, turning back in indecision.
“But can’t you at least-”
“Leave!” he shouted.
Stephanie shook her head and left.
Ed watched the door close behind her before being overcome by a tidal wave of panic.
Flashes of what had happened invaded, every death and injury crowding in trapping him in a horror more overwhelming than any kind of physical pain ever could be.
“God, I thought you were over all of this!” a familiar voice crowed.
“Go away.” Ed hissed, through gritted teeth.
“Surely you’re not feeling guilty now?” his hallucination leaned against the wall smirking.
“Oh, you are. You’re so pathetic, worrying about all those silly little people.” the hallucination laughed.
“I told you to go away.”
“I’m sorry, Ed, but you should have learned by now that hallucinations don’t work that way.”
“How long before she betrays you or you snap that pretty little neck just like Miss Kringle?”
“You really are stupid. Didn’t dad always say how stupid you were?”
“And you have a limited vocabulary. Makes me wonder how Oswald could ever have fallen in love with you. It was funny to see him pleading and bleeding out, though. The shock on his face was priceless.”
“Shut up!” Ed’s voice rose slightly.
“It didn’t last long though, did it? Not long before he tried to kill you. What’s it they say about true love never waning? Maybe Oswald never loved you and that’s why he did it. What were you trying to prove, getting him to give you up to find out if his feelings were real or not? You just have to have validation from people all the time. It didn’t stop him turning on you in the end. Oh well, you’ve still got me. I’m the only one you can depend on.”
“I wish I didn’t. You always ruin everything. I hate you!” Ed shouted at his counterpart.
“Well, that’s nice, I must say. You do know that I am you.”
“Well, I hate who I am, now that you mention it. I hate him so much, because thanks to you, I’ve been put in this mess and I can never undo any of it. So yes, you’re right, I hate me!”
“Well, the next time, remember that you were the one who did all of it. You killed Officer Dougherty, Kristen Kringle, Officer Pinkney-”
“I told you, shut up! Shut up! SHUT UP!”
Ed heard movement in the next room and groaned curling up into a ball as he realised Stephanie had probably heard every word of his argument. She would definitely throw him out on the street now. He broke into sobs of frustration.