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bait and switch

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He wakes to birdsong and sunlight. This is wrong, because he normally wakes to screaming and the occasional bout of gunfire. He groans a little in his displeasure and folds himself into the light, fluffy covers, pillow warm where he nuzzles into it like a child. He'll fall asleep again in a moment. 

"Oswald?"

He jumps upright, head turning to the door and hand reaching for the gun on his nightstand - it's always on his nightstand - and with all his attention focused on the empty wooden surface he barely sees the figure in the doorway---the figure that caused him to lunge for a weapon in the first place.

Ed, dressed in a plain suit that might be olive, might be black, Oswald doesn't care, that's how plain it is. He immediately knows there's something wrong with him; his hair is too neat, he's all too---contained within his lines. He gazes at Oswald with a look of warm concern on his face.

"I didn't mean to startle you," he says lightly, eyebrows rising, "But it is past eleven, and I thought---"

"Stop," Oswald holds up a hand, relaxing somewhat but still put off, "What are you---what are we doing here? Why are you dressed like that?"

But Ed has walked up and taken an all-too-comfortable seat right there on the edge of the bed, by his thigh.

He looks worried.

"Is everything alright?" he asks, glancing between Oswald's eyes with painful sincerity, "Oswald?" He pauses like he's waiting, but Oswald can't fathom where to begin.

He's at his father's mansion, for some reason, in his old bed. With Ed. His pyjamas are warm and cozy, and there is no gun on the nightstand. Neither his cane nor his brace are anywhere in sight, and a new surge of terror floods him at the realisation he can't escape.

This---this has to be a dream. But the longer the moment drags on, the more he understands that Ed actually expects him to speak, and that is not something that happens in dreams.

"What," he enunciates, "Are we doing in my house?"

Ed looks something between hurt and purely shocked. He straightens up, recoiling slightly, his hands reaching to awkwardly adjust his lapels.

"Oswald, you're not making any sense," he says, "We live here."

Then he clears his throat. 

"Are you feeling alright? Do you---do you know who I am?" he asks uncertainly, eyeing Oswald at an angle.

"You're Ed Nygma," Oswald purses his lips.

He feels cold in the creases of his eyelids, around his nose; he must've been sweating at night. Now that Ed asked, he realises he isn't feeling that well at all.

"Oswald, you're scaring me," Ed places a hand on the covers, just above his knee.

He stiffens at the easy touch, backing up against the headboard. Something is very, very wrong.

"Ed, what is with you?" he hisses, "If this is some sort of method-acted riddle, I'm going to---" He shoves the hand away. "Get off me!"

Ed flinches. 

For a second, they just stare at each other. Oswald looks dumbly on as different emotions flick over Ed's face, none of them good; he thinks, then, how long it's been since he saw Ed's expression so raw and unguarded. He thinks, frantic, that this really is completely backwards.

"Are you... mad at me?" Ed asks, squinting as if anticipating a blow.

Oswald just gapes at him.

"I'm perpetually mad at you," he says, smacking his hand down on the covers, "I---it's how we are now. We don't---"

He freezes.

He finally allows the thought to be born, the connection to draw itself; Ed, his outfit and hair, the mansion. His behaviour.

Oswald slowly reaches up to his own hair, expecting an unruly mop. He pales, mortified, when he finds it just barely long enough to curl in small locks over his forehead.

But the conclusion he's drawning---it's impossible. It's so beyond impossible that he can't bring himself to even ask the date.

"Ed," he closes his eyes instead, "What happened to my hair?"

"What do you mean? It's a little messy, but---"

"Ed, I am not joking!" he shouts, shaking his fists. 

"Oswald," Ed catches his wrists and gently holds them still, "Oswald, please, calm down. Everything is going to be alright, just... tell me why you're upset."

Involuntarily, Oswald goes still. God, but he's missed those soft brown eyes; God, but if Ed is playing this part, for whatever fucked-up reason he might have, then he is doing it too well. Oswald doesn't know how to be angry at those eyes.

He blinks, mouth closing, as he considers the situation once more. But it's so like Ed to pull something like this, isn't it? Nonsensical and cruel, designed to confuse and bait a reaction. Oswald won't give him the satisfaction.

"I'm upset," he says slowly, "Because I just woke up in a bed I haven't slept in in years, my hair's been cut without my consent, and you are sitting in front of me acting like none of this is your doing."

Ed looks at him for far too long.

"Oswald," he says finally, "What year is it?"

"I'm not crazy!" Oswald growls, throwing back the covers and searching for his cane.

"I'm not saying you are, but I think that calling a doctor would be---"

"A doctor?" Oswald scoffs, "As if any doctor is available---"

It finally hits, then, and Oswald covers his mouth with his hand, limping, his search for his cane forgotten.

"Ed," he says, turning slowly, "You're serious, aren't you?"

Ed takes his lower lip into his mouth and says nothing, watching him with plain, genuine worry. Then he nods, pure confusion written all over his face. His Ed---new Ed---would never allow himself to look this dumb, even for a riddle.

Oswald barks an awkward laugh.

"Well, I---" he blinks, "I... have you seen my cane?"

Barely looking, Ed picks it up from the foot of the bed and hands it to him. Oswald sighs, leaning on it gratefully.

"Ed, I had... the strangest dream."

*

The two wires burst with sparks when they meet, flashes of white falling on Ed's rubber gloves and immediately going out at the contact.

The circuit is simple. A toy, really, something to play with while he waits for the next shipment of parts. Oswald's men obey him without a hitch now, and it has proven decidedly useful. All in all, allying himself with Oswald is not bad at all; he'd had his doubts, sure---necessary risks---but ultimately, it's all working out. Being alone won't get you far in a city ruled by factions. 

And they can be civil with each other; they're adults. Their history can be set aside, or maybe embraced, whatever it is---Ed is certain that together, they can weather this storm.

"Ed?"

He glances up from his work. There isn't anyone else he could've been expecting, but it still surprises him to see Oswald standing awkwardly in the doorway; he's all... bunched up, like he's trying to make himself seem smaller, and on top of that, he's wearing only his robe. An obnoxious, fluffy thing that covers him from his chin to his ankles, but a robe still. 

His hair is a hurricane of black that falls over his eyes like he's one of those dogs that look absolutely fucking ridiculous. When he pushes it back with a nervous hand, Ed unsurprisingly discovers he's not wearing any makeup.

"Ed," the dishevelled vision repeats, limping closer, "Thank God. Where are we? What is going on?" 

With a deep breath, Ed removes his gloves and adjusts his glasses, getting up from his chair.

"New painkillers?" he asks, understanding.

"What?" Oswald's eyes go wide, "No. No, yesterday I was home, a-and now I'm here---"

"Are you stuttering?" 

Somewhat intrigued now, Ed arches an eyebrow and stalks closed to investigate. Oswald's eyes are frantic, but not glazed over; when Ed unceremoniously moves his head from side to side, he discovers it is not bleeding.

"Ed!" Oswald shouts, pushing his hand away, but his face quickly softens, "Forgive me. I'm... I don't know what's going on. Please tell me where we are."

Ed sighs, but only softly, feeling he's beginning to get annoyed.

"We're in our base," he says, blinking, "We've been here for a week. I'm building us a submarine so we can leave this hellish city. Does that ring any bells?"

Oswald's lips tighten into a line as his eyebrows draw closer in wide-eyed fear.

"No!" he desperately exclaims, fists clenching.

Ed groans. "Well, get your head on straight, because I need you to keep your turf under control so that this building doesn't collapse on my head while I'm working." He groans again when all he reads on Oswald's face is blank confusion. "Come on, let's get you some coffee. Come on."

A few minutes later, he sits him down in their makeshift kitchen and watches with growing concern as Oswald takes small, dainty sips from his mug.

"Why are you dressed like that?" Oswald asks finally, nodding at his work clothes, the same dark one-piece uniform as always.

Ed ignores the question. "Tell me the last thing you remember."

The rational approach seems to reassure the twitchy, frightened thing before him, and Oswald pulls his fluffy robe tighter around himself as he thinks.

"I went to bed as usual," he says finally, mug moving as he nods, "In my father's mansion. Last night, you mentioned something about additional mayoral duties. Then I woke up here. I have no recollection of anything in between."

The Van Dahl mansion? Ed's mouth forms the shapes of a silent 'fuck'.

"But you're here," Oswald's eyes snap to him, and they light up with something Ed hasn't seen since---

Since the two of them lived at the Van Dahl mansion, obviously. Shit, shit.

"And that means you can help me," Oswald is saying, his face bright again, almost childlike in his naivety, "Ed..."

"You're suffering from amnesia," Ed rattles out before he can say anything else, "I'd check you for drugs, but we don't have the equipment. It's possible you hit your head somehow. If it doesn't wear off by tomorrow, I'll get you help." 

Oswald's mouth has fallen open into an 'O' of shock.

"Wh---w---" he struggles for a few moments, and at least that is familiar, and what a relief, "What do you mean? How much time am I missing?"

Ed clears his throat. It's a simple enough question, but he's already thinking about the implications of Oswald's apparent amnesia---if he doesn't get better soon, they're going to have to act like he is, and if this is Oswald from, what, two years ago---well, he's no warlord. Not with that hair.

Ed reluctantly meets his eyes. Unsurprisingly, he finds Oswald already watching him, practically glowing. His eyes are soft and happy, mouth curved slightly in a trusting smile. Ed wants to---make him stop somehow, put a hand over his face. It's not for him. That look isn't meant for him.

"Ed," Oswald urges, though there is nothing of irritation in his tone.

"You're missing two years," Ed tells him, and keeping his voice level comes easily to him, though he notes that he has to make that choice consciously. 

Oswald's jaw drops again. He blinks frantically, like he's chasing away tears. God, he was always crying, wasn't he? But he still does---cry, that is---and maybe he didn't change that much at all.

"Well," he manages through a tight throat, "I suppose it is a consolation that you're here, with me, even after..." he breathes, "Two years." He sniffs, linking his hands on the table. "Tell me what I missed."

*

Breakfast is beyond fucking absurd.

Ed sits at his elbow, chewing on his toast while his eggs go cold off to the side; his eye is on the morning newspaper, and Oswald can see the date clear as day.

He would spike his coffee, if he could just remember where he used to keep the booze.

He is beginning to process the fact this is not, after all, an elaborate riddle set up by Ed. There is no way he could feasibly stage all this, and so---What are his options here? Were the last two years just a very vivid dream? He checked his stomach when Ed finally left him to get dressed, there is no scar from the bullet Ed put there; his leg, though still in bad shape, is better than it's been in--- 

In years.

He opens his mouth, closes it, plain baffled. Finding Ed too distracted by his reading to pay him any mind, he allows his gaze to linger; studies his body language, the look in his eyes. His heart---it does horrible things to itself seeing him again, before it all went to shit. He's remembering, all over again, how easy it was to fall in love with him. 

Is he crazy? Did he go insane? Is that why he can recall two years that, seemingly, never happened? 

What he needs to do is leave the mansion. Talk to someone that isn't Ed, someone who could tell him objectively what the hell is going on in Gotham.

"Ed, what day is it?" he asks innocently, setting down his glass.

"Sunday," Ed replies, glancing at him but quickly returning to he paper, "Which reminds me. Tomorrow, I thought we ought to visit a school. Mayor James used to---"

"Oh, God," Oswald lets slip, against his best efforts.

Ed looks at him, puzzled again.

"Are you sure you're alright? You really... freaked me out this morning," he laughs, a little nervously, and pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose.

Fuck, he's adorable.

"No," Oswald says, letting it go on way too long but unable to think, "No, I just... I am still not feeling well."

Ed puts the newspaper down.

"I can call you a doctor, really," he assures, "It's no problem."

"I'm sure it'll pass," Oswald waves a hand, "I think I'll go into the city."

Ed perks up. "Would you like company?"

Oswald opens his mouth, but yields.

"Sure," he says flatly, "Why not."

When he goes to his bedroom to brush up the details, his gaze catches on a jar of pomade. He sucks his teeth and fights his hair until it's up, meager as his options are.

Feeling a little more like himself, and a little less like the love-struck fool he used to be, he makes his way down to the car.

"I love the new look," Ed chirps once they're on their way.

Oswald clutches his cane hard enough to turn his knuckles white. He could kill him. 

The first destination that springs to mind is the Iceberg---or, well, the Sirens, as Oswald recalls with a cold sweat. Ed keeps up a steady stream of chatter by his ear, and while it should be annoying, it's too familiar to not find pleasant; sinking into it feels like coming home. He catches bits and pieces, and if reality is broken---if time is broken---then he is irrationally glad to have Ed here. His guard is lowered by his distractions when the lift doors open, and so the sight of Tabitha by the bar almost makes him lose his breakfast.

He holds it down with what power of will he has, though the pressure in his throat is only building.

"Ozzie?" Barbara peeks out from behind the bar, then swings her legs over the counter and climbs out. "You should've called."

"What were you doing down there?" Ed asks.

Oswald coughs, trying not to look at Tabitha but failing. 

"Barbara," he says, "Please forgive me for the surprise visit, but I need to speak to you. Privately."

Barbara gives him nothing.

He inquires as delicately as he can (without giving away that he is going literally insane) about her business, then exchanges some idle banter about the underworld, terrified to find he knows the situation inside and out, terrified still when he finds he can map out what is yet to happen down to every move. 

"But you didn't drag me back here to make small talk," she insists, watching him like he's weaving the most complex criminal master plan of the century, when in truth he's just scrambling for an excuse.

"We were in the neighbourhood," he lies easily, "It was only polite."

"Keeping tabs on me, then."

"On your sidekick, more like," Oswald spits. It does wonders for killing her interest. She doesn't say anything, of course she wouldn't, but her face goes dead beneath the smile and now she's just waiting for him to leave. 

He does. 

He needs to prove to himself that he isn't going insane. He needs to write it down. Okay, so---so what happens now? Even if the timeline is slightly shifted, he can still figure out the key points. But if they're going to the school tomorrow---

It means tomorrow---

Ed will meet Isabella.

*

"Okay, let me think," Ed says, mostly to buy himself time. He remembers everything, always, perfectly. Especially, he notices, the look on Oswald's face when he shot him.

"So," he looks at Oswald, but he's still stalling---how much should he tell him? He's bound to discover the gnarly scar in his gut sooner or later. Will he ask? Should Ed lie? He doesn't really want to. Over the years, he's grown somewhat tired of it, when it comes to Oswald. Even if this is naive, lovelorn Oswald, he isn't an idiot. It won't last.

"We fought," Ed says finally, then immediately feels it is insufficient; he looks Oswald in the eye as he continues, "You killed the woman I loved, and in turn I shot you. I thought I'd killed you." He lets his eyelids quiver in cynicism. "We chased each other for a while. Then I---"

"Wait, wait," Oswald raises a hand, "Did you say I---"

"You had Isabella killed," Ed nods, and it comes out so easily now; that wound healed quickly, then got covered with glaze. A beautiful scar, one of the few that made him. "Because you were in love with me."

Oswald flinches at that, breath coming out in tune with his slight shudder. His throat works.

"S-so you... you know." 

Ed holds his gaze until he processes all of it. His face sinks when he does. 

"You shot me?"

Ed reaches across the table and pokes him in the stomach. "Right there."

Oswald shudders again. "I don't---how did we... How did that happen to us?" 

"You happened." Ed closes his eyes for a moment. "But we worked it out. I tried to kill you, you put me in a block of ice for a while, then we worked together, then I betrayed you for Lee..."

Oswald's face goes from white to red, then back again.

"Lee?!" he all but shrieks, eyes wide.

Ed can't help a huff of amusement.

"Yeah, that was fun. And painful. Anyway," he tries a smile, leaning in, "We," he wiggles a finger between them, "Are now allies, and Gotham is no man's land. And we need to get out of here."

But Oswald is staring at him, wide-eyed; his hands are clenched white on the edge of the table.

"I don't even know you," he says shakily, then swallows.

"Oswald, don't be melodramatic," Ed rolls his eyes, "We left the past behind us. We're partners."

Oswald taps his fingers on the table in frustration, biting his lip. 

"But I love---" he cuts himself off, "Loved... you. That changed nothing between us?"

Ed's throat tightens, but he ignores the pain.

"It changed everything between us."

Oswald scoffs. He looks like he wants to get up and leave; go back to his own time, forget all of this like a bad dream. Ed, for one, isn't too pleased with this change either. He sort of likes Oswald the way he is; wants him back, he realises, instead of this heartbroken fool.

Even if there is a certain charm to it. And Ed feels an odd sensation flood him when he thinks, he's in love with me, he doesn't remember any of the bad; he's in love with me. When he looks at me---it's because he finds me beautiful. 

No, but it's two-years-ago Ed that he wants; this Ed might look the same, but they're different people.

"You need to get back to your regular self," Ed announces, taking the two empty cups and placing them quickly in the sink, "Come on. The crash course isn't over."

Chapter Text

It's not that he wants Ed to himself.

This Ed is brilliant, clever and sweet, but in two years he'll be cold and steady, and Oswald will grow to trust him again. 

This man---this is the man who will shoot Oswald in the gut over some girl he barely knows. 

Ah, but then, Oswald doesn't look forward to getting shot in the gut, now that he remembers that particular event. He has multiple possibilities when it comes to preventing it from happening---he could make it so that Ed never goes to buy that bottle of wine, never meets Isabella---he could also let them get together, and let Ed inevitably murder her, something that will leave him with an Ed wholly and newly transformed. Of course, it's... technically possible he might not kill her, but wouldn't that be a travesty? Boring husband and father, Ed Nygma? Oswald shivers. 

Lastly, he could---

He could tell Ed he loves him. Now. Right now. If only to see---just to see what happens. 

And who's to say?

And God, what's it matter, really? Oswald is trapped in a time that isn't his own, and even if he imagined the last two years, he can't just pretend he doesn't remember them. He doesn't want to be mayor, he's done that already; and he doesn't want to confess to Ed, because he doesn't love him anymore.

He doesn't.

That doesn't necessarily change the fact he just wants to know. He just wants to find out if it'd ever been possible. 

Wait, wait, but what then? Ed rejects him, he gets stuck in the past with no one he can talk to and the nagging feeling that comes with missing Ed, no matter the timeframe.

And even if, by some luck, Ed decides he's willing to give him a chance, what'll that do? He frowns a little at the strange feeling; it's not as if he has anything better to get back to, not that he even knows where to begin with getting back. 

Fucking hell, but having his own Ed here would be a help. His Ed would figure all of this out with two blackboards and a some chalk.

"Where to next?" the eerily familiar voice asks as Gotham passes around them, dark green through the limousine's tinted windows. 

The hopelessness of his own situation slowly begins to dawn on him as he sees buildings he knows to be in ruins pass them by; streets that were overflowing with trash and bodies perfectly clean. He swallows his unease, unthinkingly looking at Ed. 

His profile, at least, is the same, and for a second he can almost fool himself into believing he's home. The city outside is unrecognisable, but Ed is here; and everything is right in the world. 

"Ed?" he gulps.

Edward turns to him with a warm smile. 

"Yes?"

How did he not realise? Oswald wouldn't blame Ed for his own feelings, but part of him will always ask how, how does Ed look at him like that when he claims he feels nothing for him? This can't be politeness, for fuck's sake, this can't---

"Ed, I need to tell you something." 

Everything. Beginning to end. Ed won't think he's crazy; if he does, then well, pot, kettle.

"You can tell me anything," Ed urges, tilting his head to the side. 

"At home."

"Oh. I'll..." he blinks, "Over dinner, perhaps? I could pick us up a nice b---"

"No!" Oswald grasps his forearm, all of him going cold, "No, we're going home. You and me. No stops on the way."

Ed laughs a little, cheeks colouring, but he doesn't object. Oswald doesn't think he can recall any one time Ed disagreed with him without it being somehow for Oswald's sake. 

"I'm sorry if I've been acting... odd," he tells him in an attempt to soothe the awkwardness, his lips unused to the shape of an apology. 

"Oswald, it's fine," Ed glances at him out of the corner of his eye, and then---unmistakably---his throat works. "Really, you... you're under an unbelievable amount of stress. A little disorientation is perfectly normal. The... drive helped, I hope?"

Oswald purses his lips and holds his gaze longer than it could possibly be appropriate, savouring this selfishly; using it, to his shame, to stare at Ed as long as he wants without him suspecting a thing. 

These days---in the future, he supposes, dread flooding him again---he can barely glance at Ed without feeling like he ought to avert his eyes. But this is all before, this is all safe and easy and natural.

He nods, throat dry. 

*

Ed steps back from his handiwork. Dressed in some of Oswald's clothes, he looks almost similar, but never quite; his uncertainty is in the line of his shoulders, in the hair falling helplessly over his face. They'll get to that in a moment. Ed points to the brace he's laid out by the bed. "That is for your leg."

Oswald frowns, but bites his tongue on something; his blue eyes snap from the brace to the cane he's leaning on, then back again.

"It's worse," he says nervously, "The leg. I haven't... looked closely."

Ed coughs. "I should think so."

Oswald swallows, brow twitching in fraction of a nervous movement. He's not scared per se; lost, maybe, caught in the moment of suspention before the real panic hits. Ed doesn't feel bad for him. It's a little funny, really. It's---a little sad, too. 

"Fine, sit down," Ed snaps, patting his shoulder. More obedient than he's been in years, Oswald sits on the edge of the bed, feet planted as close together as he can keep them. He looks desperately uncomfortable, an expression that only grows more severe when Ed sighs and kneels in front of him.

He picks up the brace and flings it about to untangle some straps, then places the flexible stabilising part over Oswald's ankle.

"Do you... usually do this for me?" Oswald asks in the sudden silence.

Ed aligns the bolt and pulls the strap too tight; Oswald winces. "No," he replies, looking up. He thinks he might say something else, but everything tastes too bitter, and he---maybe doesn't deserve it. Yet.

"It seems I did something unspeakable to you," Oswald begins through an audibly clenched throat, but Ed is done. He yanks the bottom of his pant leg down so it doesn't crease too visibly under the brace, and---

God, he's falling into old habits. 

"And I would---"

"Stop," he says pointedly, and holds a passive-aggressive finger to his own mouth, "Shush."

"Do you have any idea how I feel?" Oswald shoots back, leaning forward, already confident to put weight on the bad leg. Muscle memory, maybe. 

Ed arches an eyebrow. "I can guess."

Oswald uselessly slaps his hands on the covers, forehead flushing red in something that's very similar to anger, but not quite. Anguish. He huffs when he looks at him. 

He never really seems angry, talking to Ed. Even when he's fuming, there is something so deeply sad in his eyes, like the anger is a match momentarily put out in the expanse of a lake of something much more still and long-lasting.

The gaze breaks. Oswald looks at the wall.

"I am upset."

"There it is."

"Who am I in Gotham?" he slaps the covers again, lighter this time, "What do people make of me?"

Ed takes a step back from the brace and stands up.

"People despise you." He smooths out his sleeve. "Everyone left you. All you have is your thugs, and me."

Oswald stares at him for a moment---and then his lip quivers.

"Oswald---"

Tears spill and a hand is raised to hide the mess, and Ed could kill him, really. 

"Oswald, come on," he forces himself to reach out with his pointer finger and awkwardly touch his shoulder, "Get up. It's time for hair and makeup."

Oswald does pause at that, two blue eyes reappearing to look up af Ed with a spark of curiosity.

Ed doesn't have to bite his lip not to smile. He does have to steel himself a little, though.

He drags Oswald to the bathroom, where he has to physically stop him from picking stuff up and looking at it; he's so wide-eyed at everything, and so trusting, despite everything Ed told him, and perhaps because of all that he didn't.

Ed gets the pomade from where he knows Oswald stashed it in an effort to hide it from him only days earlier. It's strange to think about his Oswald when this one is so familiar, yet so inexplicably distant.

"Just so you have a frame of reference for, uh... tomorrow," Ed justifies, disturbed by the idea that Oswald's sorry state might last even that long. He reaches forward---he doesn't have to reach far up at all---and runs his fingers through the thick black hair falling over Oswald's face, combing it back with a squeeze at the end to force it into place with the pomade.

Oswald lowers his eyes after just a few seconds. Ed has to give him credit, nothing shows on his face---but the tips of his ears have turned bright red. 

"Oh, come on," Ed mutters under his breath. 

He keeps going until the black mess on Oswald's head starts looking familiar again. 

"This is embarrassing," Oswald notes when he's almost done, tone vicious, teeth clicking.

"You got over it," Ed replies, feeling thoughtful. He's styling almost uselessly now; fixing a detail here, adding volume there. Mostly just---touching it. 

His hair is soft. 

"How do you know?" Oswald asks suddenly, moving away from his hand.

Ed freezes; he's so close to looking like himself again. Blindly, he picks up a small, well-used four-colour eyeshadow palette from the sink. The plastic lid has a scrape down the middle.

"This," he hands it to Oswald, "Is your area of expertise. Enjoy."

"Ed," Oswald stops him before he can bolt, sounding alarmingly genuine, "Ed, how do you know I got over it?"

This man. Ed presses down on his eyes under his glasses.

"We joke about it," he says offhandedly, "We talk about it. It's in the past."

Oswald smooths his thumb over the palette. 

"I see."

*

Oswald decides waiting until dinner is not cowering.

There is a stack of papers on his desk, untouched---he briefly considers trying to work, but that activates his gag reflex. What he wouldn't give to have Ed back. He could probably tell all of this to him and he'd just shrug and nod.

Because---just telling someone about the two years he remembers would be a tremendous help. And his only friend happens to he so directly involved that if Oswald told him, he'd lose him for sure, but... there are other ways. Considering how oblivious Ed is, anything short of a declaration is likely to be written off as friendship, but does it have to be The declaration? Or---would it be enough to prompt him if he just---

On the other hand, Ed met Isabella by accident. If Oswald prevents him from bumping into her over the next couple of days, who's to say the issue won't just resolve itself? Infinitely easier than what he'd been thinking about before, letting them get together.

As he's looking for something to do, he catches himself in the large standing mirror in the corner of his bedroom. He stares.

He was in a hurry before, focused on his clothes, his hair, the scar. Now, he finds himself looking into his own eyes, perfectly still. It's strange; he forces himself to stop frowning. He holds his hair down so that it's flat on his forehead.

Like looking at a photo, almost. 

He walks closer, hyperaware of every little detail; his gait, his suit, his own expression. His eyes go wide when he turns, discovering that the weight he put on in the---in the future---is more than he thought. He holds his hands on either side of one thigh and measures. He checks his chin and neck; he doesn't have to pull the skin back to feel better. 

He breathes, unsure if he's in a good mood, or all the more depressed at how much he'd changed in such a short time.

Ed talks a lot over dinner. Not in the way naturally talkative people do---more like someone too long suppressed and shy finally stumbling over everything they've been thinking about over the last five years, set at ease by the company of a person they know won't judge them.

Little does Ed know, Oswald is absolutely judging him.

He's judging him with one elbow on the table, cheek rested in his palm; he's judging him while watching his mouth move, his eyes glitter. What an idiot, to let his guard down. What an idiot to be so charming while talking animatedly about the flaws and benefits of commonly available acids.

"But you wanted to tell me something," Ed remembers after a while, putting his wine glass a little further from his plate, "Oswald?"

"Huh. Yes," Oswald inhales, sitting up, "I did. It's about... the dream I had." He blinks. "It was very disturbing. In fact," he swallows, "In it, you and I had---become enemies."

Ed lowers his fork. 

"That's crazy."

"No, it's true," Oswald knows he's neglecting his food, but he can't help but lose his appetite, "I hurt you first, but you... retaliated."

"Oswald," Ed shakes his head, "There is nothing you could---I would never---"

"No, it was... somewhat justified," Oswald admits, closing his eyes, "And it was, after all, only a dream. No harm done."

Ed clears his throat. "What was I like?"

Oswald hesitates. 

"You don't have to tell me, if you'd rather just forget," Ed offers, though he does sound a little disappointed, "I'm only curious." 

Oswald feels his eyebrow quiver, but he manages not to raise it sardonically.

"You were different," he says, "You didn't much care for me, I'm afraid."

To his surprise, Ed laughs easily into his glass, then takes a sip and sets it back down.

"That doesn't sound very likely," he says as he glances up again, meeting Oswald's eyes. 

That---if that is not purposeful, then---

Oswald looks away under guise of rubbing at his eye, but he can't help the smile; he's giddy like a teenager, his heart in his throat. 

"Amazing what the mind conjures up while we're sleeping, isn't it?" Ed adds. 

Oswald sips his wine. "What do you dream about?"

For a second, Ed is very much a deer in headlights---then he laughs again, strangled and quiet this time, like he forgot to breathe.

"Oh, the---the most foolish things," he blinks, eyes darting off to the side. 

Oswald tilts his head to the side in a semblance of a shrug. "Like what?"

He finds that being at the same table as him, looking at him---it's easier than it was. Not for lack of a pounding heart and cold fingers, but at least he is calm; he's used to Ed's company, at peace with their dynamic.

"Nothing as dramatic as yours," Ed warns, making Oswald huff in amusement, "But---hiding. Being in a small," he opens his hands, mimes a crushing motion with them, "Confined space. They're not bad dreams," he adds quickly, "Not always, anyway. Just odd."

He looks embarrassed almost immediately, tucking his face in his hand and scooping the last few forkfuls of food into his mouth.

*

"Well?"

Ed turns in his chair, glancing up from the blueprints. 

"That seems about right," he raises his eyebrows, gesturing him closer. 

Oswald waddles over, fish out of water. His eyes are more striking, the shape of his eyelids carved out and pronounced thanks to the dark eyeshadow. 

"Okay," Ed breathes, "Now... be loud and irritating."

Oswald perches his hands on his hips and scowls. "I am not lo---"

"Perfect." Ed forms an OK sign with his fingers, "You're killing it." 

Oswald makes a motion with his arms like he's stomping, but doesn't actually stomp, limited somewhat by his bad leg. His mouth is a thin line, blue eyes big; bigger still with the darker colour around them.

"Joking," Ed grins, "But you are loud. Try being yourself, only angrier."

"All this over my broken heart," Oswald grumbles, walking awkwardly in the brace and sitting down on Ed's desk. 

He leans a hand where the desk meets the wall and studies the blueprints, laid out under the stark light of the desk lamp. Ed watches him carefully; with all the details in place, caught like this, he looks just the same. It calms him, irrationally. He pushes the thought away.

"What do you mean by that?" Ed asks.

Oswald doesn't look away from the blueprints.

"What's this for?" 

"It's our submarine. Progress is slow." Ed folds the sheet of paper and shoves it away, crossing his arms on the freed space on the desk. He lets the question go unanswered; he's not sure he wants to know. Oswald scoots further in so that his feet dangle freely over the littered floor.

"Are we really leaving Gotham?" he asks, dubious, "It doesn't seem like something I'd do. Though, if they hate me as you say..."

He looks miserable again, pouty like a displeased child. Ed nudges the side of his thigh with his elbow.

"You haven't been outside yet," he says, "Trust me, you won't like it."

Oswald's eyebrows shoot up.

"When will we go outside?"

"When you get your memory back. You're in no shape to be out in the streets like this."

Oswald grows distant again, eyes somewhere far below the horizon. When he does speak, he voices what Ed's been thinking for hours now.

"What if I don't get it back?" 

"You will," he presses anyway, "Give it time."

Oswald looks like he'd prefer to argue some more, but something stops him. The discomfort is clearly contagious, because now Ed is wondering exactly what he'll do with Oswald, still mostly oblivious to both the situation in Gotham and their history; knowing the facts is one thing, having lived them---another. This Oswald is not the man he would be if he had his memories, and perhaps Ed shouldn't feel an obligation to partner with him when this suddenly became more like babysitting, but he does.

Oswald lets out a long sigh.

"What about the others?" he asks, throwing up a hand, "Victor? Barbara and Tabitha? Butch?" He bites his lip. "Jim?"

Ed counts on his fingers. 

"Alive, but you hate him, alive but hates you, dead by your hand, dead by your hand again, and..." he tilts his head, "Jim is Jim."

Oswald chokes. Ed is already mentally preparing for more shock and anger, but that's not what happens; instead of shouting, Oswald pulls in a breath to steady himself.

He places his hands on his thighs and looks at Ed gravely. 

"I need you to tell me everything. Beginning to end. Every---"

Ed puts a hand on his knee, effectively getting his mouth to snap shut.

"If you're not better by tomorrow, I'll tell you the whole story," he says like he's talking to a child, "But until then, let's not overload your brain. Mmkay?"

Oswald rolls his eyes. "You just don't feel like explaining things to me anymore."

Before he can think of a witty comeback, Ed hears something on the street outside. He turns his head to the plywood-covered window and gestures Oswald to be quiet. 

There are muffled voices, he thinks, and no engine---they shouldn't have been able to get this close, especially on foot. There's supposed to be a sniper nearby.

Ed creeps over to the other window, obstructed by blinds, and pushes them open to look outside through the crack. Within a few stumbling seconds, Oswald is at his shoulder, doing the same thing.

"Is that Jim?" Oswald asks, far too loudly, and Ed slaps a hand over his mouth in a cold adrenaline rush. He holds it there despite Oswald's muffled protests, other hand holding the blinds.

It is, indeed, Jim---glancing around like a man on the hunt, with two armed women following at a small distance, but clearly with him, since they're not shooting at each other.

"What do we do?" Oswald asks, freeing himself of the hand.

"Pretend we aren't home." Ed lets the blinds pop into place and walks back to his desk, pushing his sleeves up.

"But it's Jim," Oswald says, bewildered, like that means something.

"Shut up," Ed points a finger at him, "And don't answer the door." 

Oswald frowns at him and leaves, limping heavily. How long is he going to struggle in the brace? It's supposed to be an improvement, isn't it? Why is he walking worse?

Ed shakes his head. Practice makes perfect. It'll be---

He hears the door open.

In just a few seconds, he's out of his chair and in the main room, just in time to see Oswald talking to a mercenary. 

"Yes, let them up."

"No," Ed counters, rushing up to them, "Absolutely not."

The merc glances between them, but his eyes linger on Ed. Good sign. He doesn't want cops here either.

"I said," Oswald tries to force it, but his voice trembles the second he meets Ed's eyes, "Let them up."

Ed stares back at him. Interesting.

"He's not feeling well," he says, turning to the merc, "Get them to leave."

The mercenary looks between them, confused. "Listen, he's the one paying, so---"

Ed stares him down. He doesn't have to do anything else; the merc glares, scowls, but then goes to do his bidding without another word. Oswald watches the exchange with wide eyes.

"When did you..." he clears his throat, "You... you've made a name for yourself, I understand."

Ed locks the door, then takes him by the shoulder and leads him away from it, gently but firmly. There's indistinct conversation somewhere outside; he lets it flow through the back of his mind, uncaring.

"You could say that."

He catches Oswald giving him a discreet, but still noticeable onceover. His toes curl in is shoes. 

Chapter Text

Over the next few days, Oswald clings to his chief of staff like glue.

It's eerie; visiting schools and hospitals feels like going through the motions, trapped in a constant state of intense deja vu. He finds himself noticing things he hadn't before; one morning, as he's browsing one of Ed's papers, his own last name catches his eye. There's a whole paragraph dedicated to the fact that Gotham's new mayor and chief of staff live together in the former's family home. Nothing is said outright, but the implication was impossible to avoid, and therefore purposeful. He puts the newspaper back where he found it. 

He keeps thinking that if he just remains close to Ed at all times, he won't meet Isabella---but how long is he supposed to keep Ed on a leash like this? When does the window close? And he will have to go to the Founders' Dinner eventually, though Ed has only mentioned it in passing so far. What then?

Granted, Ed's leash is not something he yanks on, exactly. He seems perfectly happy to spend time with Oswald, he doesn't really leave the house except for work, and that too he does with Oswald. The times he does have an errand to run, it's never too difficult to tag along with him. Ed is only surprised the first time; the others, he suggests it.

It is absolutely daunting to realise how much Ed likes him. Genuinely, truly likes him. Oswald is being annoying and he knows it, and yet his company is welcomed.

He knows he's going to have to go down to the library sooner or later. Some part of him imagines that by some luck, he returned to a world without Isabella; that as long as he doesn't see her, she won't exist. That Ed will never meet her.

It's beginning to become more and more apparent that Oswald is going to have to stop reeling Ed in every time he tries to leave. It'll drive them both insane, Oswald first---and if Ed meets her, then Ed meets her. Oswald doesn't have feelings for him anymore, therefore it shouldn't matter to him who Ed's dating, as long as it doesn't interfere with his work.

God. It sounds so rational Oswald wants to write it down and burn it.

And even if he does, slightly, maybe feel an echo of his past crush---he won't acknowledge it as anything more---then that's something to be stomped out, strangled and drowned. He's established that already. He's not risking rejection again, and besides, he needs Ed on his side. 

Then again, it's not as if Oswald can't live without him. He's done it before. He'll just get a dog.

But God, he's not really considering this, is he? He's not actually---

If he's going to let Isabella live to avoid the bullet in his stomach, then he needs to know for sure. He needs to know that Ed would've rejected him regardless of her involvement; he needs to receive something else than "I don't love you', spoken in anger, heard at gunpoint. 

Oswald chews his lip and covers his eyes, hunched over the mayor's desk. 

When Ed told him why he never could've loved him, at no point did he insinuate it was because he's a man, and that's really the crux of it. 

*

It looks like Ed is going to have to think of a long-term strategy of dealing with Oswald, but so far all he has is 'house arrest'.

Oswald hasn't shown any improvement in the last couple of days. Ed attempted to reach Lee, wherever the hell she is, within the first forty eight hours---and received no reply, which could be due to a hundred different reasons, but it's most likely that the courier simply got shot on the way. No way of knowing, not in Gotham. Of course, if it's the second option, then rumours will spread that one of them is hurt; but that much was always inevitable.

Ed hovers over his coffee cup, staring into the swirling brown abyss. Things aren't looking too good. Not good at all, one might say. He searches for the positive; discovers that well, at least Oswald is here, alive, and technically unharmed spare for the amnesia. 

He sighs. That still qualifies as 'not good'.

"Care to tell me a little more, now that we've established I'm not getting better?" Oswald asks sourly, leaning against the counter with his arms crossed.

Ed looks up at him, chilly but resigned. Ignoring the fact things aren't progressing in the direction he wanted them to isn't going to fix anything, and if he is to start working with Oswald as equals again, then they need to be equals in all things. He waves him closer.

He talks for a long time, but not as long as he feared it would take; he tries to be as neutral as possible and keep to the point, but he does find himself reminiscing in the spaces between the words.

He's tired, mostly. Tired and kind of cold, in his shoulders, over his ribs. He talks about his own Oswald a lot. He tells himself it's so that this Oswald can better act the part, but the truth is, it calms Ed down to recall things he does, little mannerisms, gestures, preferences. Things he picked up, things that have been there since before they went to war with each other. He even ends up telling him about the goddamn dog.

Oswald watches him throughout, and his eyes are different by the end than they were when he began. Ed can't quite say what it is, but he almost feels like he accidentally told Oswald a secret; he doesn't know when, or what secret, he just has this uncomfortable feeling of having revealed too much. 

"You miss me," Oswald says when he's done, and he doesn't sound victorious at all, "The me you know."

"Of course I do." Ed scowls into his coffee. "I was counting on your help. We were supposed to be partners."

"No, you like him," Oswald objects, gaze steady and sure and somehow sad, "You want him back."

"It's not 'him', Oswald, it's you," Ed corrects, irrationally angry, "You are you!"

Oswald pulls a face.

"Why do you insist I pretend? I held Gotham in the palm of my hand as I am now. I am perfectly capable---"

"No, you're not," Ed cuts him off, too sharply maybe, but he's angry, "You're blind and weak. I could be planning to kill you this very second and you wouldn't even know it."

Oswald exhales sharply through his nose.

"Well, now I'm led to believe that's rather unlikely."

"That's not the point!" Ed stands up, "My point is---"

He stops, not really knowing why; Oswald's eyes are just so hard, all of a sudden.

"You know," he says, glaring, "I think I believe you now. It's plain to see why I got over it."

Ed grits his teeth so hard he briefly worries he might crack one. "Good!" 

"Good!" Oswald aggressively limps out of the kitchen, leaving the room trembling in his wake.

*

Ed, I love you.

Oswald rolls his eyes and starts swearing again, trying not to think of himself as a coward; he's planning, not stalling. And he doesn't want to do it over dinner, either, he wants it to be quick and simple and over, already. Ripping off a bandaid.

Every day he doesn't tell him, he lives in fear of having Ed come home with that woman's name on his lips. His heart thunders and his palms sweat, and he is past pretending, past hoping, except he can't help but pretend and hope---because until the words are spoken, even if it's a minuscule chance, it's a chance. 

Once Ed says no, everything will be over. And he could wallow forever in this delicious uncertainty, but on a late Friday evening, fate makes the decision for him. 

"Where are you off to?" Oswald asks, glancing up from his papers, and Ed stops by the office door.

"Just to pick up some light reading," he briefly holds up a list with a few titles Oswald can't make out from this distance, "I'll definitely forget if I don't go today. I'll be back soon."

The feeling that floods him is impossible to put words to. It's like nausea, but emotional, fear but---thicker. Oswald's breath comes out in a shudder.

"No," he says without thinking, and rises out of his chair, "I need to talk to you first. I need to talk to you, and then you can go... wherever you please."

Apparently curious, Ed steps back into the office and closes the door behind him.

"What is it?" 

Oswald beckons him over to the window. The street below moves like a stream of red and yellow lights. The rain cuts thin, angled lines across the glass, flattened by the wind; it's going to pour all night long. Oswald fidgets with his cufflink.

The most he can do is learn from his mistakes. He has less to lose, this time around; after all, he's only doing this for himself, his own closure. Ed, if anything, is going to be the one hurt in this and Oswald doesn't care. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he believes Edward deserves it. 

So will it be a lie? Will it be nothing but selfishness, to force Ed to reject him the way he would've if he hadn't been angry, hadn't been in pain---if not for what Oswald did to him first? 

"Ed, we have known each other for some time now," he says softly, watching the traffic, "And what I value most about our relationship is that we know how to be honest with each other." 

He does look at Ed for a moment, just to gauge his reaction, but there is none so far; Ed only nods to let him know he's listening. 

The pause lingers slightly and he blinks.

"Yes, we do," he says, though Oswald hadn't been expecting the confirmation.

"So---," Oswald winces at himself, "In the spirit of honesty, I owe it to you to tell you---," he wants to punch himself in the face, he really does. He exhales, wrings his hands for the first time since middle school. He's said worse that what he has planned. He's poured his heart out, and it'd been easy, and how could it have been so easy to bargain and beg, say those words? How was it ever so easy?

He exhales. He can do it; that's probably the most frightening thing about all of this. He can say it while looking Ed straight in the eye. 

"I have feelings for you." 

Ed stares at him, slack-jawed.

For a split second, Oswald wonders if he actually said it, or just imagined he did. He swallows, confidence gone like a snuffed candle.

"Um, Ed?"

Ed's eyes flick to the side for the moment it takes him to process. He fixes his glasses, clears his throat. Oswald's heart sinks even though he knew this was coming, and isn't that a theme with them. 

"Oswald," Ed raises his eyebrows, "I am... very flattered. And I... I respect you a great deal," he's floundering a little, but he pushes through, "I... care about you a great deal. It's just that---"

Oswald holds up a hand to stop him. "You don't have to say anything else. I understand."

Ed's throat works. His eyes don't leave Oswald's.

"No, but I want to. I want you to know that even though... I don't feel the same, I still value your friendship, and I'd like to... still be friends."

Oswald has the most absurd moment of realization that he's the one who should be saying that. 

"Of course," he says. He's glad to have gotten through this, at the least. Ed manages an awkward smile.

"Do you mind if I take a moment?" as soon as he gets a nod, he all but bolts for the door, no goodbye.

Oswald feels a rush of fear at the notion that maybe that didn't go half as well as he thought it had---but God, what's wrong with him? Is it really so shocking that Ed didn't slap him in the face? Of course he needs a moment; who knows how he feels? Betrayed, maybe? Used? Or just uncomfortable? Isn't it kind that he left to think it over instead? Last time, the circumstances had been different to say the least. Of course Ed wouldn't---Ed cares about him. 

Ed---really does care about him.

Oswald's starting to think he might've fucked up. After all, until this point he'd known everything that was yet to occur; now, he's flying blind.

*

It's night time in Gotham City again.

There are people prowling the streets; scavengers, for the most part. Ed can hear them clearly through the plywood, voices distorted by the distance.

He takes his glasses off and buries his face in his hand. Still blind, he stands up from his desk, stretching aching muscles, and with his glasses held between finger and thumb he makes his way into the main room.

Oswald is sitting in a chair like an angry child, bad leg elevated on a cardboard box and gaze drawn to the book in his hand. He doesn't look up, even though Ed purposely steps on the squeaky floorboard.

"What are you reading?" he asks, moving to the kitchen and opening the broken fridge. It's small, slightly charred on the side, and perpetually empty.

"Great Expectations," Oswald replies, vicious.

Ed rolls his eyes with his back turned to him.

"Where did you find it?"

"There were books at the bottom of the cupboard," Oswald replies, tone still chilly.

He sighs.

"Anything else interesting?"

"Go and look."

Ed closes the fridge and swirls around to face him, irritation gathering in the nape of his neck. "You're a pain, you know that?" he says flatly. 

Oswald purses his lips.

"Then why are you talking to me? I'm not the one you like." 

"Are you..." Ed inhales, "Jealous of yourself?"

"I'm not jealous," Oswald obnoxiously flips the page, "I don't like you either."

"What are you, five?" Ed steps closer. Oswald doesn't look up. "You really don't think you did anything wrong?"

He does hesitate at that, then snaps the book shut and sets it aside. He takes his leg down from the box; it's a foolish, animal impulse, assuming a more defensive position when he isn't in any physical danger. He has to know, no matter how angry Ed gets---

He does know, doesn't he? 

"I admit," Oswald says, "I shouldn't have done it. But I think I'd like to hear my own side of the story. I barely know who you are, after all."

Ed frowns, sitting down by the table. 

"Don't be obtuse, Oswald," he intertwines his fingers, "You know me."

"Do I?"

"Yes," he growls, "Unfortunately for me, you do."

Oswald's eyes linger in his, then shift away. His expression softens and he reluctantly lowers the book into his lap.

He retires to bed about half an hour later, leaving Ed to the couch in his office as usual. It's not a bad couch; softer with a blanket over it, and of course he did have to turn it to face the wall so he wouldn't fall off at night. 

He finds certain confined spaces to be quite comforting.

*

The evening turns into proper night, and Edward is late.

Oswald tries not to worry. He sits in the living room, eyelids heavy with the stress of the day and their exchange, and all he can think is that he's lost him again. Broke it, again. No matter which way he turns it, he always ends up ruining things.

He sips his tea and ignores the dull ache in his foot. Any moment, now.

Five minutes past eleven, he hears the front door open. He turns to look, and is for once not disappointed; Ed rushes in, soaking wet and not grinning from ear to ear like Oswald suspected he might.

"Sorry, sorry," is the first thing out his mouth as he shakes the water out of his umbrella, "I got held up at the office when I got back from the library."

He sets his things aside and sighs, hands fluttering in futile efforts to right himself. Oswald waits with bated breath. 

"They didn't have everything I needed," Ed mentions, removing and hanging up the dripping coat, "At the library, I mean. It would've been strange if they did, I suppose." He clears his throat. 

"Try a different library?" Oswald suggests, too tired to even hook it like a question. 

Ed nods. "Technically, I did. The librarian was very helpful. You know, she---bore the most striking resemblance to Miss Kringle. It was a whole... um, misunderstanding. Anyway, she gave me some recommendations."

He laughs a little, avoiding Oswald's eyes, and maybe for the better---they're so wide they feel like they might pop out any moment. 

"You didn't have to stay up," Ed is saying, like he didn't just drop the Isabella bomb, "I would've called, I was just in a rush." 

Oswald manages to form some words.

"Oh, I couldn't sleep." Not technically a lie.

"Well, I'm exhausted," Ed puts his hands on his hips, then removes them, "I think I'll go upstairs. If you don't mind. Goodnight, Oswald." 

"Goodnight," he mutters mindlessly, thoughts buzzing. 

Chapter Text

"Do we usually sit around doing nothing all day?"

Ed pokes at his sandwich, ignoring Oswald's question. It's gross, to nobody's surprise, and the marmalade on top is a soggy, piss-coloured mess. He closes his eyes. Oswald clears his throat loud enough to wake any hypothetical neighbours. Ed glares at him.

"It's not like I can leave you here," he snaps, pushing the plate away, "You'll fall on your head again, or something."

"I did not fall on my head," Oswald counters, eyes on the ceiling, "Let's just go together."

"I'm not letting you out of this apartment until I'm confident you can handle yourself out there."

"Since when do you give me orders?" Oswald looks genuinely bewildered, "I don't even know why I'm listening to you." He pushes away his own emptied plate and bounces his good leg, eyes somewhere to the side.

"Maybe because I'm the only person in this entire city who doesn't hate your guts," Ed frowns at him.

Oswald scoffs. "My guts will not be thanking you." He indicates the middle of his stomach, where the scar is, and Ed almost gags at that particular memory. 

It didn't hit that hard before.

He fights through the momentary lapse, clears his throat.

"Are you still mad about our history? Would you rather I'd lied?" he gestures widely with his hand, "I have been nothing if not accommodating to you, and I don't---"

"I want to go home!" Oswald slams his hand down on the table, making the plates and cups rattle.

Ed stares at him. "Thanks for that."

He does it again, even harder, and one of the mugs jumps. Ed reaches across and grabs his wrist, and they struggle briefly before Oswald rips it free.

"I," Oswald hisses, "Am still waiting for all of this to be nothing but a bad dream. I'll wake up, I'll go downstairs, and I'll have breakfast with you," his voice wavers and then suddenly breaks, "And everything will be normal again."

Ed grits his teeth, trying to think of something that'll get him to shut up.

"Are you done?" he asks in the end, forcing the tone.

Oswald swallows, then wipes quickly at his nose, head ducked. He sits there, miserable, his shoulders slack; he looks defeated. His sadness slowly morphs into distaste as he rubs at his lip, eyes sharpening.

"Over a girl," he mutters, glare fixed in the wall.

Ed cocks an eyebrow and finishes his food. "It was a very special girl," he says with his mouth full.

He does catch Oswald's mouth quirking at that. 

"We can't go back," he adds, not unkindly, "All we can do at this point is accept things as they are. There's no solid treatment for amnesia, and you might never get those memories back, but I still---"

It glides off his tongue so easily he stops himself in the last possible moment. Oswald is watching him. Ed chews his cheek.

"You may feel like you don't know me," he grants slowly, "But I know you. I cared about you then, and I care about you now."

His eyelids quiver with the honesty. Oswald's mouth opens, and he tilts his head as if in confusion. 

"I thought you said---"

"I did care about you," Ed repeats, clipped, and runs a hand over his hair.

He inhales again.

"When I thought I'd killed you," he puts the plates together in the middle of the table, and it's just desperate, pointless organising, "I... induced hallucinations. Of you. 'Cause I missed you."

Oswald blinks. "What?"

"I took pills."

Oswald makes a strange, choked sound in his throat, then gasps. "Edward!"

He sighs through his nose. "Yeah."

"Ed," Oswald massages his temples, "Ed, promise me you'll never do that again."

He ducks his head, fingers smoothing their way over the short-cropped underside of his styled hair. Ed says nothing.

*

Paperwork is already boring as hell, but it's even worse when you're suffering intense deja vu while doing it. Oswald shoves the papers away and frowns.

Ed does have his own office, but this is the first time he's truly making use of it, not sitting in Oswald's or popping up in doorway every five minutes; and Oswald misses his company, he really does, but he can't exactly blame Ed for not wanting to be around him right now.

What if he's meeting Isabella in secret? Wait--- had he spared him the details the night before because there hadn't been any, or out of compassion? He thought he knew Ed, but they've never been in this situation. He doesn't know, he doesn't, and it's making him want to pick up a baseball bat and wreck something.

Ed came home, though. Late, but he did. Oswald drums his fingers on the desk.

After ten minutes of nothing but stressing out, he takes his cane and limps out and down the hall, ignoring people greeting him.

He finds the right door and knocks, desperately afraid there will be no answer. 

"Come in!"

He remembers to breathe, then enters. 

Ed is at his desk, and just as Oswald is crossing the room, he hears a book close. Ed proceeds to drop it discreetly into an already-open drawer.

"Oswald," he says, "Hello."

"Hello," Oswald echoes, "What are you up to?"

"Nothing," Ed says, too fast, then links his hands under his chin and cocks his head to the side with a smile. "Anything I can do for you?"

"Oh, I was just passing by," Oswald replies, a little flatly, and wanders over to Ed's desk to sit down on the side, "I wanted to make sure you were coming to the party tomorrow. What were you reading?"

Ed's eyes flick over the room. "I'm coming to the Founders' Dinner, of course. And, you know, it's just one of the books I picked up last night. Not very good, though."

Oswald has to laugh. "Is that why you were reading it under your desk like a schoolboy?"

Ed bursts out in giggles, too nervous to be fully genuine, his cheeks and forehead going red. He fixes his glasses, then takes them off, using cleaning them with his pocket square as an excuse to face down. Oswald sees right through it.

He has to ask. 

"You mentioned the librarian," he says, walking on eggshells, "How she looked just like that woman, Miss Kringle?"

Ed looks at him blankly, face returning to the usual colour. He nods.

"Right, yes. Uncanny." Oswald is near burning holes in him, but he can't spot the lie. "Funny, how that happens."

"Was she... anything like Miss Kringle in terms of---personality?" Oswald asks, running out of hints to give without being seen as obsessive rather than curious.

Ed shrugs. "I don't know. She was friendly, but we didn't talk that long."

Oswald closes his eyes. God, he's really going to have to do it, isn't he? A new explanation for this entire mess just revealed itself; Oswald was killed in his sleep, and this is Hell. He can't take Ed dating the woman in secret, or worse still, pining for her because of some misplaced feeling of pity towards Oswald. 

"You know," it's a colossal effort not to grit his teeth, "You reminded me, it's been far too long since I read something other than the newspaper." He forces a cheerful smile. "We should stop by the library before we go home."

Ed lights up like a Christmas tree. It's embarrassing to witness.

"Of course!" he beams, "That would be lovely."

Oswald bites down on his cheek so hard he tastes blood. Hell. It's Hell. 

*

"Oh, look, it's Jim again," Oswald says from over by the blinds, unimpressed. His cheek is flattened against his fist, his bad leg raised onto a small old cabinet.

Ed looks his way, though he can't see anything from his seat. 

"What's he doing?" 

"Just sort of standing there," Oswald picks a stale crisp out of the bag on the windowsill and pops it in his mouth.

Ed wishes he'd stop eating out of boredom, especially given how limited their supply is. 

"Get away from the window," he says as an afterthought, returning to the blueprints.

Just looking at them doesn't really do much, but it helps him not think about other matters.

"Oh, he's walking to the door," Oswald updates.

"Is he alone?"

"Yes, it would seem that way."

Ed frowns. "Odd."

"Do we let him up?"

Ed frowns harder. "Oswald, Jim is not your friend. I've told you before---"

Oswald raises his eyebrows. 

"Well, clearly, he wants something from us," he puts one hand on his hip and gestures with the other, "He came alone. What could possibly be the danger here?"

Ed purses his lips. "He can't know you lost your memory."

"Fine, I'll play the part," Oswald shakes his head, dismissive, "Angry, paranoid, loud. Got it."

"You know what," Ed gets up, "This is a bad idea. He probably wants our help with something, and given your current state---"

There's a knock on the door. Oswald gives him a pointed glare and limps over to answer it.

The same merc as before appears in the crack. "Jim Gordon's here. Alone."

"Let him up," Oswald says, voice slightly harsher, shoulders squared. Very cute, how he tries.

The merc glances at Ed, and receiving no objection, closes the door. A few moments later, it opens once more to reveal Jim---his coat and hair wet, face wan. 

He looks between them. When neither says a word, he clears his throat.

"I heard one of you was hurt."

Ed nods him inside and locks the door behind him, inviting him to sit in the area designated as the kitchen.

"We're fine, as you can see," Oswald says, and he is a good liar---Ed already knew that. "But I doubt you came all this way just to check on our wellbeing."

They sit down as well, closer to each other than they are to him. 

"No, this time I actually did," Jim scowls, rubbing at his jaw, "I thought you might be willing to trade favours."

Oswald laughs a little, and Ed elbows him in the ribs. Jim's brow grows clouded and his gaze sharpens.

"If you weren't hurt, why'd you send for a doctor?"

"Oswald's leg was giving him trouble," Ed lies before Oswald has the chance, "It's better now."

Jim's eyes harden.

"That true, Oswald?"

"Yes," he nods, something odd creeping into the corners of his mouth, "I'd say it's worse than it's been in years."

"But it got better," Ed reminds him with a meaningful wide-eyed look. 

"It did."

The furrow in Jim's brow only deepens.

"I'm getting tired of this. What's really going on?"

"Nothing is going on," Oswald glances at Ed. 

Ed glares back at him and purses his lips, doing his best to convey: do something. 

Jim is squinting at them.

"We could trade you for painkillers," Oswald says out of the blue, turning.

"We have painkillers," Ed snaps back.

"No, we don't."

"What?"

Oswald glares at him, matching his intensity. "My leg hurts."

Ed puts a lid on the unwelcome rush of guilt that brings out, and instead chooses to focus on blame.

"Why didn't you tell me?" he hisses.

"Because you would've said I'm being dramatic---"

"---when did I ever---"

"That I got used to it once, and I would again," Oswald cocks his head to the side, voice climbing, "But my leg hurts like hell!" 

"What does that mean?" Jim interrupts, "Why 'again'?" 

Ed sits back in the chair, staring at Oswald. Oswald pouts at him.

"Jesus," Jim shakes his head, waving a hand between the both of them, "Do you need help or not?" 

"Depends," Ed snaps, "Can you get us Lee?"

"Lee won't help with that," Jim gestures to Oswald's leg, "And you know it."

"Can you get her or not?" Ed parrots. 

"Not if you don't tell me why you really need her in the first place."

"God!" Oswald exclaims, throwing his head back.

Ed doesn't move a muscle. 

"Fine," he says, low, "What do you want?"

"I actually need Oswald's help more than yours," Jim blinks, just a little vicious, then turns to him, "I need manpower. You have it."

Oswald's eyes flick to Ed before settling on Jim again. He's losing his footing, Ed can tell.

*

It's raining when they leave work. It's been a long time since Oswald last carried an umbrella as his cane, but Ed is ever-prepared; he keeps one in his office, for emergencies, he says.

He moves closer to Oswald with a quick, giddy smile, and they go. 

The library in question isn't far. Not for the first time, Oswald misses the brace; but he does have Ed nearby to grab onto should he slip. It's like walking next to a pillar.

They enter in a flutter of wet fabric from the folding umbrella. Ed tucks it neatly in the stand by the door, then leads the way. 

Oswald catches a glimpse of light blonde hair by the second bookcase to the left. He feels the blood leaving his face---he almost pointed her out to Ed, but he's not supposed to know what Isabella looks like, is he?

"Oh, over there," Ed says, and Oswald feels his hand lightly resting on his back as he guides him in the right direction; and... that's new. "Isabella!"

The blonde head pokes back out. She smiles brightly, eyes sparkling, and makes her way over with the quick clicking of heels on wooden flooring.

"Edward," she blinks at him fondly, then moves on to Oswald, eyes wide, "Mayor Cobblepot, what a pleasant surprise."

She looks back at Ed, almost---almost conspiratorial, and Oswald is back on his guard, heart thundering.

"Yes, hello. Well, I think I better have a look around," he says, stepping away from Ed, "Bye."

He hurries to vanish between the bookcases, his chest tight. It won't take much, he tells himself. It didn't last time.

But Ed stubbornly reappears at his side not five minutes later---with no Isabella in sight. 

"Has anything caught your eye?" he asks, leaning down to be face to face with Oswald, voice a polite library-whisper.

"Not yet, no," Oswald replies, instinctively leaning away. He hasn't actually read a single title yet. "I don't think I know where to start."

"That's okay, I'll try to help." Ed smiles again, warm.

"You---," Oswald gestures helplessly in the general direction of where he last saw Isabella, "She is... very sweet, is she not?"

"She's very nice, yes," Ed nods, staring right at him.

It takes every ounce of self control not to scoff, roll his eyes, kill himself. "She seems to like you."

"Oh, she's just doing her job." Ed takes an interest in the top shelf, head tilted back. 

"No, I am confident she---she likes you."

Ed's mouth pulls into a close-lipped smile as he's running his index finger along the spines of books.

"Well, she did help me out with something," his finger stops and falls, disinterested, "Didn't judge. We laughed about it."

Oswald sighs. 

"She looks just like her," he tries.

Ed makes a noise of agreement and nods absently, watching him. Oswald's stomach drops; this---this can not be happening. He's reading too much into it, he has to be wrong, but Ed is still looking at him, wide-eyed and soft around the edges. And it's not a look he's seen before. 

"You've seemed down, Oswald," he says after a moment, leaning his shoulder against the bookshelf, "I hope it's not... because of me. In fact, I've been thinking."

It's only the slightest hint, but Oswald's heart leaps on the opportunity. He's already pictured three different things when Ed speaks again.

"You talked about honesty, and yet I think---I suspect---I wasn't entirely honest with you. That is to say, I thought I was being honest, but I..." He trails off, eyes wandering over the bookcase. "I'd like to talk to you later."

Oswald realises his mouth is hanging open. He closes it.

*

Meeting with Jim was something of a disaster, that much Ed admits. 

In the end, it was a stalemate; they wouldn't tell Jim about Oswald's amnesia, and Jim wouldn't budge regarding Lee. 

It's a whole new brand of luxury, trusting someone in Gotham; sleeping under one roof with them, never once suspecting they might stab you to death in your bed. Eating breakfast they made, knowing it isn't poisoned.

He'd always known it'd be Oswald, really. It's always been Oswald. 

He stays up late reading one of the books that were at the bottom of the cupboard. Not a thrilling tale, but there is something so pleasing about the act itself, it's easy to lose himself in it. When he goes to turn off the lights around midnight, he discovers Oswald is nowhere to be found.

He quietly peeks into his bedroom---the bed stands empty; the bathroom too. 

"Oswald?" he asks the void, pointlessly, his heart slowly sinking. 

God, he didn't leave, did he?

Ed pulls on a coat and rushes out the door. The apartment is in much better shape than the rest of the building it's located in; the corridor is bare and grey, paint peeling off the walls, windows covered in more plywood and in one case, half of a ping pong table nailed over it. Ed goes up the stairs to the roof, skipping two steps at a time; the chain they put on the door there is slack, the door itself ajar. 

Cold air hits him in the face when he steps out on the plain grey rooftop, a vent curling like a great silver snake over to his left. Someone is sitting on it, bundled in a blanket. Ed walks up, wind howling in his ears.

"Get back inside, it's freezing," he says, raising his voice slightly over the noise.

Oswald glances at him over his shoulder, then takes a long, ostentatious sip from a cheap brown glass bottle with no label.

Ed frowns. "You hate beer."

"It was all we had," Oswald slurs. 

Ed lowers himself onto the vent beside him, wrapping his coat tighter around himself. He accidentally knocks over two already-empty bottles.

"If we get shot by someone's snipers, that's on you," he says. 

Gotham spreads out before them, a blur of dark, the occasional fire or generator nothing but a red spot in thr distance. Ed sighs and takes off his glasses, letting the city go out of focus, each lonely bright point a halo of colour; he's always liked doing that.

"My leg hurts," Oswald says, too loud, "My leg hurts, God damn it!"

He kicks out uselessly.

"Because you're in the cold," Ed hints, taking the bottle out of Oswald's hand. He doesn't drink. Surprisingly, Oswald makes no effort to get it back, but then he's already quite drunk, it shows on his face.

Not that Ed has ever seen him this inebriated before. Oswald used to drink regularly, and often strong liquor, but he never slurred or shouted. The change of lifestyle apparently affected him in more ways than one---drunk on three beers, that's an accomplishment. 

Oswald turns to him with a mischievous smile on his face, eyes completely glazed over.

"I could never be cold in your company."

Ed looks away. He could laugh---he almost wants ago---but the slurred speech is making his insides twist and his lungs constrict. 

"Ed?" he feels a hand on his arm, "Ed, don't be upset, I was joking. You said we joke about it. Ed?"

"Just... shut up for a second," he pushes the hand away.

Oswald reluctantly tries to stand up---and immediately falls back on the vent, swearing. Ed feels a wave of nausea so strong he has to take a few steps away, clear his head.

"Ed?"

He looks back at Oswald. 

"You're pathetic," he spits, trying to relieve some of the pressure in his chest.

Oswald dwells on that, corner of his mouth tensed in vague displeasure.

"I've figured you out, you know," he says after a moment, eyes in Ed's again, "You get angry when you're scared."

"I'm not scared of you," he does laugh now, mocking.

"Not of me," Oswald rolls his eyes, smiling too, but then he looks at Ed again, and Ed sees the moment he lets it go. "I'm sorry. Come here. Sit down."

He pats the metal surface next to him, and Ed warily takes a seat, the small distance between their thighs already warming.

Oswald leans his elbow on his knee, and his chin on his hand. His hair is moving in the wind, backlit by the glow of the skyline.

Ed's nose is beginning to leak.

"Ed," Oswald says after a while, eyes droopy and tired, "Tell me honestly. Did I ever have a chance with you?"

It's easy to distance himself when everything is out of focus, but now he puts his glasses back on, feeling his eyes readjust. He looks at Oswald---he's still staring stubbornly into the blackness, almost like he fears the answer. 

Ed exhales. 

"You did."

He kicks the beer over, watching the foaming dark liquid spill across the concrete. 

*

So, the Founders' Dinner is something of an issue.

Nothing truly awful happened last time, thanks to a rare timely intervention by the GCPD, but Oswald is not naive; the circumstances are different, and he is well aware of how the butterfly effect works. Not attending is out of the question. He is the mayor, and judging by how things have been progressing, he will be the mayor for a while yet---he's going to have tip off the police, and, more importantly, keep Ed out of danger. 

He's so focused on planning out different scenarios for the next evening that when Ed touches his shoulder in the manor, it's like a jolt of electricity. Oswald glances up at him, finally acknowledging that he is home, that the day is done; he sighs, and smiles, and wonders why Ed is still looking at him like that.

Expectantly. 

His eyes sparkling and nervous; a question. There was probably a question.

"Oswald," he says. They're both still in their coats, just inside the door, the wet umbrella open and drying on the tiles.

"Yes?" Oswald asks.

Ed dips down and kisses him. 

His heart pounds and his fingers go cold; he's frozen for far too long, long enough for Ed to pull back, but he instinctively follows him and curls his hands into his lapels, dragging him back down. In hindsight, this is much easier than talking about it yet again, untangling words and thoughts and feelings, relying on guesswork. Ed holds onto his shoulders, careful and caring. 

It slowly dawns on Oswald that it's also absolutely wrong.

Ed knows nothing; Ed barely even knows him. Oswald's been pretending, hiding, and this kiss isn't honest; and he has a longing in him, a torch, but it is old and painful and more like a memory than an actual feeling.

And yet, if this is all he gets, then he'll take it; he wraps an arm around Ed's waist and pulls him closer, never breaking the kiss. 

"Oswald," Ed pulls back, face flushed and dark eyes alight with withheld excitement, "Dinner."

Oswald's just smiling at him, he can't help himself. He knows he looks like a lovestruck idiot, but he's already starting to think he might've imagined the whole thing, and he wants a reminder.

"Oswald," Ed's eyes light up even more, and Oswald realises he just likes saying his name.

It's insane; with Ed near, he feels alive, and every glance they exchange over dinner is like trading a secret. Olga's cooking is as delicious as ever, and Ed's company even better. He can't believe his luck. They touch, just light brushes, they smile and talk---all things they've done a hundred times before---and yet it's all different. A new meaning has been given to them both, to all that is theirs.

Oswald is beginning to think he might not have gone down into the fiery pit after all. 

When they finish eating, they move to the sofa in front of the fireplace, and they talk. About work, mostly, but Oswald can feel the undertone; there's more, possibly a lot, that Ed wants to tell him but is still arranging and organising in his mind. And that's fine. They have nothing if not time. 

Around midnight, they split to their respective bedrooms with a disgustingly sweet goodnight. Oswald is so overwhelmed he could cry, and maybe it'd be a relief, but exhaustion lulls him to sleep before he has the chance.

Chapter Text

Ed wakes up bundled in warm, soft covers. When he turns, not yet fully awake, he finds he can move without obstruction; no hard backrest behind him, no wall in front of him. He sprawls his arms and legs out, probing, and finds nothing but more warmth and softness. 

He opens his eyes, very confused now.

His glasses. He looks around, but the room is a blur. Relying on touch more than anything, he lightly pats the nightstand---why is there a nightstand---finds them, puts them on. Everything zooms into focus, and Ed's jaw drops.

He's in his old room. At the manor. Sharp morning light falling in through the window, et cetera.

Still in his pyjamas, he gets up and walks across the cold floor; it really is freezing, so he takes a robe off the chair and pulls it on. The corridor greets him with calm, empty silence.

He goes down the hall, to the master bedroom, and knocks. When there's no answer, he opens the door. Oswald is shifting under the covers, raising himself into a sitting position with his gaze still bleary and his hair a mess; he looks at Ed with one eye squeezed shut.

"What, what's going on?" he asks weakly, running a hand over his face.

Ed hesitates. Oswald is slowly getting over his usual morning grumpiness, something else flooding into his features; fondness, maybe, somewhere about his mouth. He blinks the last of his sleepiness away and smiles, smiles in a way that's all too familiar.

"Oswald," Ed says, trying to keep calm and methodical, but a sharp chuckle escapes him anyway, "How did we get here?"

The smile is wiped clean off his face, and now he stares at Ed with visible concern.

"What do you mean by that?" 

"I mean---literally, how did we get here," Ed gestures about the mansion, "I don't remember." The air leaves him in one sharp, low exhale. "I don't remember at all."

He looks around, trying to think, but his head is spinning. Turning to Oswald again, he finds him already out of bed, and limping closer---he stops only inches away, studying him with his brow furrowed. There isn't a trace of his prior dreamy adoration. He leans in a little further, until they're practically face to face, and then his eyes go wide. 

"Ed?"

"We were in our base," Ed offers, trying to be helpful, "We came down from the roof and went to sleep." 

Oswald opens his mouth and blinks a few times. He looks like he's struggling to speak.

"You mean---you mean Gotham is no man's land?" he chokes out.

"Yes, of course." 

"Ed!" Oswald flaps his hands, shaking all over with anger or excitement, difficult to say, "It's me!"

And Ed knows that tone; he knows---all of that. He blinks, head jerking back.

His Oswald? Here? His---he---

"I don't understand," he adds, quickly, "You remember?"

Oswald shakes his head in disbelief and throws his arms around him, pulling him down. Ed still doesn't understand. Oswald breathes into his neck, fingers digging into his back, and Ed seizes the opportunity to hook an arm around his shoulders and crush him to his chest. It's Oswald; his own Oswald, and it does occur to him then that they haven't been this close in years, that this is not something they do anymore---and, like a lonely child, he missed it. 

When Oswald pulls back, his eyes are scattered.

"Oh, God, it is good to see you. I don't know how I got here either, but I've been---," he stumbles backwards and sits on the bed, "I've been stuck here for days! I thought I'd gone insane! And you---!"

He looks up at him and goes so pale Ed thinks he might faint then and there.

"What do you mean, 'stuck'?" he asks nonetheless, pulling his robe shut, "Who have I been living with for the past few days?" 

"Ed," Oswald tilts his head, "We are reliving our past. And I don't know who---," he stops.

He meets Ed's eyes, and Ed does understand, now.

"You lived with me," Oswald says, unnecessarily, "The me who should be here in my stead."

Ed winces. "So you---"

Something terrible flashes through Oswald's eyes; he turns away, silent, and then just slowly sinks in on himself.

"What?" Ed blinks, "What happened?"

Oswald's not answering, bent in half where he sits, his face in his hands.

*

His eyes are burning.

"So we went back two years," Ed is saying over the breakfast table, studying a stack of newspapers he pulled from the garbage, "You're the mayor, I'm your chief of staff, and Gotham is not a battlefield. Is that accurate?"

It is a little funny, seeing him doing the same desperate little things Oswald did when he got here; Ed's hair is combed back, but not as tightly gelled down, the natural curls showing. He makes no effort to play the part, as it were, having chosen a comfortable sweater rather than a dress shirt.

"You can go see for yourself," Oswald shrugs, sniffling, and pours more bourbon into his coffee, "It helped me when I woke up here last week." 

Ed glances at him.

"Did anything interesting happen?"

Oswald stares at the thin stream of alcohol as it disappears into the swirling depths of his coffee. "Nope."

"So everything is the same?" Ed puts the newspaper down, visibly frustrated, "You just lived here, with the me from two years ago---from... now..." he rolls his eyes, "You know what I mean. And you just went along with it?"

Oswald doesn't answer. His chest hurts; he wants to go back to bed and mourn the loss of something that was never his to begin with. As glad as he is to have Ed back, he really can't stand the sight of him right now.

"It was only a week or so," he says, monotone.

He expects Ed to let him go without further pestering, but instead he studies him even more intently.

"If I'm here, does that mean the me from now is there?" he asks, completely uninterested in the food, "What am I like? Are we---" His eyes snap to Oswald's, suddenly alert, "Isabella."

And to think he really imagined this was as sad as he'd be today. He runs his hands through his hair, combing it back.

"She's fine," he sighs, and he should end it there, he really should, "But you're not with her."

Ed grits his teeth so hard he can see the muscles in his jaw rising and moving.

"Oswald, if you did som---"

"Please!" he snaps, "I played fair this time around, I'll have you know." He cocks an eyebrow. "But if you want to go profess your love, be my guest. Go. Shoo." 

He really would like him to leave, if only so that he can cry in peace, but Ed just keeps watching him, eyes narrowed. 

"Have I... met her?" he asks slowly.

Oswald sighs.

"Yes, a few days ago."

Ed gives him another weird look and folds the newspaper, gaze falling. He looks almost comically grumpy, a furrow in his brow that doesn't fit the bright face, the eyes that aren't bruised by sleep loss yet.

"I suppose we should go to work," he says after a moment.

"Probably." Oswald checks the clock. 

"So," Ed raises his eyebrows, "What are your plans for Gotham this time around?"

"Ed, we're not staying here," Oswald leans over the table, "You can get us home. Can't you?"

Ed throws the newspaper down and laughs.

"What do you want me to do?" he asks, smile falling faster than a blink, "Build us a time machine?"

Oswald frowns, slowly rising to his feet. Work. "I don't know, I---"

"I think I'm going to take the day off, if that's alright with you," Ed looks at him over the rims of his glasses, gaze softening as he tilts his head back and playfully adds, "Mayor Cobblepot."

Oswald gives a weak smile and nods. 

He ends up going to work alone, for lack of anything better to do, and his mind wanders as he stirs the sugar into his tea at his desk. He holds his fingers to his lips and tries to sear every kiss into his mind, every word, every thought, the way he said his name. Funny; his own Ed might as well be a stranger, now. 

He doesn't get a thing done all day. 

*

As soon as Oswald left, Ed began scouring the mansion for clues. Oswald's bedroom yielded no results spare for some useless old trinkets and an abundance of too-expensive suits, but Ed's own---

He stares down at the book of his hands.

Selected Poems of Oscar Wilde.

He opens it in the front page; closes it. Briefly considers tossing it in the fireplace lest Oswald discovers it. It's from the library, though, so all he has to do is go return it. Easy. He can go return it 

Fucking hell.

He settles for hiding the book in the nightstand drawer and locking it, then dropping the little key in the inkwell. This is not good. 

Oswald is being weird. The risk is too high. Best not to consider it, or he'll go insane---but God, is this is embarrassing. He's got no interest in chasing down Isabella, and that much has been true for years now; if he's being honest with himself, this entire situation interests him more than love or romance, so it's cruel fate that all his problems revolve about exactly those things.

Around midday, he does indeed go to the city, and it does come as a shock, but this is Gotham; he has to face it, stranger things have happened, or things of similar strangeness, at least. Resurrection, enhancements, Oswald's ability to forgive and forget, the list goes on. He exhales, centers himself, thinks. It doesn't make sense, but that doesn't make it any less real; and if this is the new real, he needs to learn to navigate it. He needs to find out exactly what happened to make him want to read Wilde, and he needs to find out exactly how involved Oswald is in it.

Meanwhile, there are other concerns---Barbara, most likely, and her backup vocals. If Ed's timing estimate is right, and Oswald didn't mess anything up, then Barbara is plotting while still allied with them, and Butch is tagging along since Ed framed him earlier on. Lastly, the founders' party is tonight, which means he needs to go shopping.

He picks up some essentials, including a tape recorder and a small lithium battery voice changer to use with the phone. Gotham will thank him for it later.

When Oswald gets home in the afternoon, Ed is trying out the device, basic reporter's recorder held with his shoulder as he speaks. He takes it into his hand and plays it back on the headphones.

"Testing, testing," his own warped, lowered voice tells him, "The more of me you take, the more you leave behind. What am--"

"What are you doing?" 

Oswald puts his umbrella in the stand by the door and hobbles over to the dining table, where Ed set up his workspace. He takes off the headphones.

"Preparing to call in a tip," he replies, "So that we aren't both turned into feral animals at dinner tonight."

"You're coming, then?" Oswald throws his coat over the back of the chair opposite from his and sits. 

Ed looks back to the recorder, fiddling with it idly. 

"Of course I am."

"So you didn't go to her."

Ed sighs through his nose. He purposely doesn't look up. "What would I have done, Oswald?" he asks the tapes, exasperated. 

It has the desired effect; Oswald only leans further back and snorts, discarding the subject. 

"So, what is your take on this?" he asks, spreading his hands, "Are we to use our newly gained powers of clairvoyance to save Gotham from its cruel fate?"

"I guess so," Ed mutters, "But our advantage won't last long unless we act carefully."

Oswald frowns, preemptively almost, as Ed turns to him and smiles. 

"We have the police take care of Tetch. You don't kill Isabella---I don't blame Butch," he moves his index finger through the air, drawing lines between invisible points. 

"That doesn't mean Barbara isn't going to be a thorn in our side," Oswald raises his eyebrows. 

"Exactly." Ed lowers the finger. "How do you feel about killing Tabitha again?"

"The timing isn't right," Oswald rolls his eyes, fidgeting into a different position, "As it stands, it would be vastly unsatisfying."

"Good. Then I'll make the call," Ed taps the modified phone, "And you go pick out our outfits."

He snorts. "I'm supposed to choose your clothes for you?"

Ed's eyes close in fond annoyance, then open again.

"We both know you want to."

*

When they arrive, Oswald gets the same goosebumps that always come with entering a place that is crawling with undercover police. The party goes off without a hitch, though, and as early evening turns into night Oswald is beginning to suspect the GCPD actually got Tetch before he even entered the building.

He ropes Edward into some half-assed conversation they both know is only for appearances' sake, and that in itself is novel; a faint echo of the secret he'd shared with---the other Ed.

"Oh, fuck me," Ed whispers suddenly, freezing mid-step and stumbling into Oswald's side.

Panicked, Oswald follows his gaze to the back of the room, where---what do you know---Kathryn is talking with some other woman, wine in hand. 

"One issue at a time, Edward," Oswald grits under his breath, curling a hand around Ed's elbow and hauling him between the other guests. He doesn't stop until they're no longer in the woman's line of sight.

The anticipation gets exhausting; Oswald takes a glass, Ed doesn't. Pleasantries and formalities alike swim freely through the many conversations, and in the stuffy, smoke-filled room, it's easy to forget the danger altogether.

"Cigar, Mister Mayor?" a man asks out of the blue, and for lack of anything more exciting, Oswald takes one. 

Ed doesn't get the same offer, bathed in Oswald's shadow despite being a full head taller. Funny. Oswald thinks he understands better, now. The stranger is then whisked away by a woman who seems far too drunk to be in polite society, and Oswald is left to stare blankly at the cigar. Ed rolls his eyes at him, his back to the room.

"Give me that," he mutters, then snips off the end with a pocket knife. Tucking that away, he produces a lighter, and holds the flame under the end, watching it with a cold look on his face. 

"You don't smoke," Oswald says.

"No, I don't." Ed hands him the lit cigar. 

Oswald dutifully takes a puff and chokes as soon as the tastes the smoke. His throat burns and his eyes water; Ed bursts out laughing. 

"A little help?" Oswald coughs out, wiping at his nose.

Ed takes it back and puffs on it a few times, brow creased. "Filthy habit," he mentions, glancing at him, then hands it back. 

The smoke has changed; it's light grey and thick, heavy, and when Oswald tries this time, it has actual taste. Strong, overpowering maybe, but not entirely bad.

"Do I look distinguished?" he mutters.

Ed smiles so quick it has to be genuine.

"Very," he says.

And nothing happens.

When they get home that night, Oswald receives some of the night's GCPD reports; Jervis Tetch had been apprehended just before the party, armed and carrying samples of his sister's blood. Easy. It was just so easy. It's only fair to ride the high, so Oswald gets more wine from the cellar, face hot and heart aflutter as he laughs, helplessly, at his own drunken struggle up the stairs.

Ed does drink with him, this time. When they sit in front of the fireplace together, he even raises his glass into a silent, devilishly gleeful toast; Oswald clinks his own against it. 

"As insane as our situation is," Ed tells him, touchingly serious, "There's no one I would rather be lost in time with."

"That's very sweet," Oswald says, and he means for it to come out sarcastic, but it really doesn't. 

Ed nods thoughtfully, watching him, his eyes dark and out of focus. He doesn't look like what he did before at all; even with the old hair, the old clothes, there's something about how he holds his jaw, about his eyes, that makes it impossible to forget. Not that Oswald would want to forget.

Ed takes a sizeable sip of his wine and keeps it close to his mouth, staring at the fire.

"I missed you," he adds, absently, so vacant Oswald wonders if he even knows that he's talking, "Did you miss me?"

His tone is so flat it takes a moment for Oswald to even realise the question.

And what a question.

"Of course," he says with a sigh. 

As much as he'd like to pretend there is a line between this Ed and that Ed, he sees now, clearer than ever, that they're just two different shells encompassing the same essence. And it isn't his to argue which one is truer to Ed's nature, which of all his masks was the most or least opaque.

He did miss this Ed, that much is true, but at the end of the day, what's been taken from him is going to leave a mark. Just like the bullet did. 

Chapter Text

Ed doesn't leave the mansion.

The expanse of his cluttered mind map is slowly consuming the dining room, a mess of photos, documents and notes---some scribbles start on the paper and end on the wall itself, but Oswald doesn't seem to have noticed in the chaos.

"Ed, you need to come to work eventually," he points out as he's pulling on his coat.

Ed ignores him. "Last time, how could Barbara have found out about your feelings for me?" he untucks a red string from the map and rolls it between his fingers, "Tell me you didn't go cry on her shoulder, Oswald."

"No, I did not, thank you for insulting my intelligence," he replies sharply, "And I don't know. It's Barbara. For all I know, she guessed."

He scoffs to himself, returning his attention to the mirror. Ed looks back at the map, which is already creeping onto the neighbouring walls. 

"She wouldn't base her entire theory on a guess," he frowns, "Think. Who did you tell?" 

Oswald dramatically rolls his eyes.

"Nobody! Who could I have possibly told, you were my only---," his jaw drops.

For a few seconds, no further sound comes out of his gaping mouth.

"What?" Ed blinks.

It's a joy to watch him, really, or it would be if Ed were in on the secret. But he isn't---so for the next three minutes, it's just Oswald shaking his fists and screaming incomprehensibly, hitting himself in the forehead.

"I'm going to kill her!" comes out at some point, and Ed blinks at him, mouth pursed.

"Oswald," he snaps.

"Olga!" Oswald shouts through gritted teeth, then inhales, eyelids fluttering.

Ed doesn't have to calm him down, surprisingly---he does that himself, shrugging off the coat he just put on right onto the floor. He hobbles over to the dining room table and sits heavily in one of the chairs. 

Then he sighs. 

"You told..." Ed pauses, giving him every opportunity to stop him, "Olga?"

Oswald chews his lips, nodding, his eyes somewhere below the horizon.

"And this has likely already happened, yes?" Ed confirms.

Oswald nods again, still staring at nothing. He looks like he might be, for the first time in God knows how long, blaming himself instead of someone else.

"Well," Ed hooks the string to the name, "In that case, we have the upper hand."

"Tell me, Edward," Oswald drags his fingers down the side of his face, "How is it that we have the upper hand?"

"Barbara thinks she knows something about you," Ed laughs, a little helplessly, "Something that is false. At least, well, partly."

Oswald closes his mouth. Ed feels his hesitation, and something stirs in his hands, his chest. He swallows and looks away.

"Anyhow," he says, and doesn't follow through.

"Okay," Oswald says, and Ed still can't look at him, so he turns to the mind map and plays with it idly.

"I'll find out what Barbara knows," he offers.

"You don't have to do that."

"What do you mean, I don't have to---," Ed spins around, "Oswald."

"Ed---," Oswald brushes a nervous hand through his hair, but gives up halfway, eyes falling shut. "The car is outside. Let's go."

Ed gives it up. They both pull on their coats and scarves, movements automatic. He tries to think, but miserably fails, thoughts constantly circling back to the look on Oswald's face; something is wrong.

He doesn't think he's ever been so eager to see Barbara.

And here's another thing; this is familiar. Them, in the back seat, looking out of their respective windows in thoughtful silence.

So much changed in so little time. What is two years? Feels like it ought to have been forever, to fit all the things that happened to them and between them, but it was just a moment.

"I'll see you later," Ed says when the car pulls up to the Sirens' building. 

Oswald pulls a face. "Yes, darling."

Ed snickers, mostly to hide how embarrassed he is. Of course he'll see him later. He doesn't have to tell him that. Fuck.

The lift takes him up, into what will one day be the Iceberg Lounge. There's a thought. It's still morning, so the place is as closed as it could be, but security lets him up without a word. 

"Mr. Nygma, welcome back," America's sweetheart appears from behind a curtain of red velvet. 

Back. Okay.

Ed decides for sure, now, that he liked this haircut better. 

"Hello, Miss Kean," he smiles, "I'm not intruding, am I?" 

"Not at all." More teeth, shark-like. "What can I do for you?"

So strange, seeing her still in the act. Ed sits down on one of the stools by the bar and crosses his legs---then sighs, deep from his chest.

"I need advice."

Her eyes widen with exaggerated excitement. 

"Trouble in paradise?" she jokes, raising an eyebrow. 

He turns to her, brow furrowed, but she pretends not to notice his apprehension. 

"Say no more," she adds and tap-dances over in her glittered heels, then mirrors his pose on the neighbouring stool, hand tucked cutely under her chin. He purposely doesn't breathe in before laughing, resulting in a nervous, awkward chuckle.

"What do you mean by 'trouble in paradise'?" he asks. 

Barbara tilts her head to the side, eyes narrow and sparkling with glee. 

"Come on, Nygma," she whispers, "I know what you're doing."

Ed blanks slightly at that.

"Do you?" he grins, and it's a desperate bluff. 

"It wasn't that hard to figure out," she says innocently, then looks up and to the side. She really is enjoying is far too much. 

Teeth again, and that glimmer in her eye that spells the opposite of what she says. 

She's trying to goad him, but why does she think it will work? 

He holds up a hand. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

She doesn't bat an eyelid.

"Of course you don't," she smirks at his pause. "I'm not threatening you. In fact, I think it's genius."

He could criticize her source; find out just how much information she's sure of, and how much is guesswork. Something just keeps---distracting him, that thought at the back of his mind. 

She studies him so intently. There's something he missed. Something he ought to know. 

"Why, thank you," he smiles and bows lightly, but his mind is going a mile a minute.

He remembers Oswald, every strange look and mournful sigh, and he short-circuits.

*

It's raining again. Oswald has been staring at the same page since he sat in his chair and opened the book. 

He's not worried. He's nervous. Why is it taking so long? When he didn't show up for work, Oswald assumed he just returned home, but then afternoon came and Oswald found he wasn't there either.

He chews his cheek and forces himself to read a little, but that only succeeds in making him jump when the front door opens and closes with a bang.

"Oswald!" Ed shouts, loud enough that he hears him from the living room.

It chills him to the bone, but he gathers himself and walks to the salon, sucking his teeth. 

"What?" he snaps, mirroring the tone. 

Ed staightens up when he sees him, chin raised. He puts his dripping coat on the hanger, glancing over his shoulder every five seconds, then toes off his shoes and stomps up in just his stocks, quite a funny sight---until he takes Oswald by the lapels and draws him in, jaw clenched and eyes burning.

"What's the foundation of a good relationship?" he asks, light and controlled, but his eyes are still---doing that. That thing they do, when he's furious beyond his black-eyed apathy. "Communication."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Oswald frowns and tries to push his hands away, but he can feel himself getting light-headed. He knows. Ed talked to Barbara, and if Barbara stayed in touch with Olga---

"See, that's exactly what I mean," Ed shoves him back and he stumbles on the bad leg, shoulder blades painfully meeting a wall. Regret flickers over Ed's features, then disappears. "Try again."

"Okay," Oswald is getting tired of this, but he holds his hands up anyway, impatient, "At least accuse me of something, first!"

"No!" Ed's eyes dart between his. "No! You tell me!" He lets go of him, takes a step back, but his gaze doesn't falter. "Tell me what you did."

Oswald jerks back and smooths out the creases he left, making sure to glare at him as he does so. 

"Barbara insinuated we were together," Ed says, calmer now, "Why did she think that?"

He breathes in. 

"Because it was true."

"You and me?" Ed confirms, a little mockingly, and waves a finger between them. Oswald's beginning to get nauseous. 

"Yes, you and me." 

Ed's watching him with his lips pursed.

"When you got here, we were already...?"

"No," Oswald snaps, "Two days ago."

Ed's lips disappear completely, bitten down on. It occurs to Oswald, out of nowhere, that he's somewhat surprised Ed isn't holding him at gunpoint for this.

Then something changes; Ed leans back, eyebrows raised.

"Oswald, that is fucked up."

His stomach drops, because it's true. 

"For your information," he spits, pulling his suit into place with a sharp tug, "You kissed me first."

Ed's mouth falls open, and Oswald laughs at the sheer absurdity of it.

"You did!" he grins, nodding. And he laughs again, because this is hilarious. This is---so poetic it could almost be revenge, if it wasn't breaking his fucking heart.

Ed growls something unintelligible, crowding him with a finger pointed at his chest. His voice is low, his words quick.

"Even if I did---you should've said no. You are not the person I thought you were, back then, you are cruel and selfish, and this only goes to show how much." 

"Oh," Oswald does push him back this time, though mostly succeeds in pushing himself away, as Ed doesn't give an inch, "Forgive me for allowing myself a break from the misery of---of our history, of Gotham in ruins, of everything that you did to me---," his voice dies on the pointed sarcasm, "And that I did to you." 

He raises the heels of his hands to his temples and and squeezes, breathing harshly. His throat hurts.

"I didn't know if any of this was even real," he adds, bitterly, "So forgive me, Edward, for being weak."

When he looks up, Ed is still watching him, brow pinched and eyes conflicted.

Oswald sighs.

"Your ability to... reinvent yourself," he gestures to the whole of Ed's person, "Is not something I share, Edward. I can't just... change."

Ed blinks. If he had a gun, he'd probably be lowering it.

"You are hardly the same man you were then," he says, and adjusts his glasses.

It's in the silence between them. Oswald closes his eyes and faces the floor in something like shame, but not really, not truly.

Then he pulls in a breath and squares his shoulders.

"I will always carry a torch for you, Ed," he says, "But that is meaningless. That is not what you hate me for. You hate me for what I did, and I hate you for what you did." He swallows, smiles. "I understand that. I permit that." He grits his teeth. "And make no mistake, regardless of my feelings, I know very well what we are to each other."

Ed steps closer, slow, swaying into it. 

"And what, exactly," he asks, low, "Is that?"

Oswald's smile widens unprompted, and it is vicious, it is painful, so much that his chest almost splits with it. He doesn't say anything.

Ed clears his throat. His brow creases, and he pats Oswald's shoulder with awkward camaraderie.

"I don't... hate you. We make good friends. Don't we?"

"We do," Oswald agrees.

And he is beginning to catch on. Beginning to understand. He's always known Ed thinks a mile a minute; when he speaks, the words that come out of his mouth are always laced with the ones that didn't. 

It's how he makes it so hard to argue with him.

"If you'll excuse me," Oswald says, "I have to go fire Olga."

Curled up with his back against the nightstand and his knees to his chest, Ed bites his nails and flips another page. He purses his lips and crosses his ankles, practically contorting himself until it calms him down. 

Poetry was one of his more quickly abandoned teenage interests. He never thought to pick it back up---and he's not doing it now. 

Just browsing. 

He turns awkwardly and lifts his coffee off the nightstand, then takes a sip. He tries to pretend nothing has changed. He always wants that which is beyond his reach, rejection as the most familiar of patterns; it's easy to love someone you're convinced doesn't love you back, to be allowed to love secretly and silently. 

Oswald and him are on thin ice with each other, but it hasn't cracked, despite their altercation. They made it through. If that is a testament to the resilience of their friendship or their crushing loneliness, he doesn't know. Now, more then ever, they need to work as a team and keep each other company, or else they'll both go insane inside this endless deja vu. Oswald has to see that. Has to know that this is not the time to take risks with their relationship. 

He snaps the book shut. He's being a child. He's not going to read it, therefore he should return it. There's no reason not to. 

"Oswald," he pokes his head in the kitchen on the way to the door, "I'm going out."

Oswald freezes, hand in the cookie jar---or in this case, wrapped around an expensive-looking bottle of bourbon. He was pouring a glass, almost to the brim.

Ed swallows.

"Well, what are you waiting for?" Oswald urges, too loud. 

He raises an eyebrow, then looks at the glass, then back at him. Oswald faces away, hands braced on the counter top.

"For fuck's sake, Ed, just go."

The rain he steps into is a faint but insistent drizzle, settling over his glasses in a myriad of tiny round droplets.

There's an itch in the back of his mind, and he knows who it is; he closes his eyes and breathes in deeply, ignoring the stench of the street. His feet carry him quicker than he'd like, mind elsewhere, and before he knows it he's at the library. He walks up the stairs, book clutched tightly in a gloved hand, and frantically tries to focus his mind. Growing calmer, he exhales and pulls the door open---only to find himself face to face with a ghost. 

"Edward!" she steps back, smile lighting up her face. She's pulled her scarf up over her hair like a makeshift hood; her hands are raised to hold it in place. 

Ed gapes.

"Isabella."

"I was just heading home, but the library is still open," she points over her shoulder with one index finger, smiles again, "Did you enjoy the book?"

She backs up some more, awkwardly, as if to let him through. Ed hums.

"I was actually hoping to talk to you about something, if that's alright."

Isabella's eyes widen. God, she knows exactly why he's here. 

"There's a café just around the corner," she suggests. 

Ed pulls in a breath and gestures, after you. 

"Well, tell me everything!" she throws over her shoulder after they've ordered, her eyes sparkling.

She drags him over to a table in the corner, and a moment later their coffee is brought to them, steaming-warm. Ed doesn't remember the last time he did anything like this. He opens his mouth, closes it, and hands her the book. Baby steps. 

"I enjoyed it. Thank you." 

Her, across the table, beautiful and glowing and alive. It is the definition of eerie. He isn't angry, or resentful, or even awed; he's just... disconcerted.

"And how are things with your, uhm---," her enthusiasm wanes slightly when she fails to find a word on time, but she recovers, "---object of affections?"

He purses his lips. If every little suggestion of it is going to send him into a panic, he's not going to get far. 

"Do you," he composes himself, "Mean Oswald?"

Isabella smiles, a little blank-eyed.

"Is that too much?" she chuckles, brushing a lock of hair behind her ear. Blonde. He's always remembered her... different. "I'm sorry. I don't really know what's acceptable." 

"'Oswald' will do," Ed says. 

She smiles politely and looks down at her hands, linked on the table. She's every bit herself, but somehow more; she's not just shy, she's actually awkward, and he sees it now---she's supportive, but too much so, too involved. He squints at her. She must have had a truly lonely childhood, to cling to him the way she does. And it's---it makes him chew his lip and furrow his brow, admitting to himself that there really must have been, must be, something wrong with her. He should've known the second she leaned into the kiss. 

"So...," she blinks, "How are things with Oswald?"

And Ed pauses, realising the unique opportunity here. 

"It didn't go well. I lashed out," he says, faking a self-deprecating smile, "I'm starting to think this might not be the time."

She gasps. "Why not?" she asks, brow furrowed in worry. 

"Oswald's the mayor," he gestures loosely, lying off the top of his head, "I'm his chief of staff. It's a big change for both of us. The last thing we need is more uncertainties and distractions putting a strain on our relationship." It hits him in the chest, though he keeps his tone level. "Besides, I don't think he'd be open to the idea." 

Isabella looks confused again.

"Why do you think he'd reject you?" 

"I haven't always---," he swallows, clenches and unclenches his jaw, "Been a good friend to him." 

"Well, what did you do?" she bunches her shoulders, a little unsure. He doesn't reply. "You were so happy last time we saw each other, I don't think I... understand."

"Of course you don't," he bites out, turning his face away and resting his temple on his fist. 

"Edward," Isabella sighs, reaching out to place a hand over his other wrist, "I know it's difficult. In fact, maybe... too difficult," she looks him in the eyes, then down again, "But if you love him..." She trails off and raises her hands almost helplessly, smile forced.

Ed watches her, squeezing his hair in his fingers.

"How do I know that for sure?" he growls, "Let's just say I don't have the best track record."

Isabella chuckles, oblivious.

"I think you're overthinking it."

He clenches his jaw. He feels dizzy, like there's a weight on his thoughts that's slowing them down, blurring them. He slides his fingers under his glasses and presses down on his eyes. 

"What if I hurt him?" 

She stares at him blankly, mouth still stretched in a smile. Then it disappears.

"Edward," she sighs again, "If you're not willing to take this risk, then maybe you should consider---"

"But I'm not taking the risk, am I?" he interrupts impatiently, "I'm risking his---his happiness, his---," he scowls at her confused expression. "I'm his only friend. He'd be destroyed if I put him through this."

She looks like she's trying very hard not to say something. Some of the glow has faded from her smile, and he doesn't know what he did wrong. Then again, nobody ever wants to listen to this kind of whining. After what must be an eternity, her features grow smooth and she tries a new smile, a more pitying one. 

"We are still talking about him rejecting you, aren't we?" she asks gently. 

His breath stutters. He watches her hands fidget. 

"You're right," he mutters when he's confident his voice won't shake, "Thank you." 

"I'll see you soon?" she proposes, tone lifting, but he's already halfway to the door, eyes fixed in the ground. 

Chapter Text

In the morning, there's a glass of water on his nightstand. Oswald drinks it down without pausing to breathe and immediately feels nauseous; he lies back down, groaning, and closes his eyes to ward off the blossoming headache. 

Stress curls in his gut. He remembers Ed left, but can't recall his return. He needs to get up. 

Washed and dressed, he makes his way downstairs. He's desperately trying not to look like he got shitfaced the night before, but his throat feels odd and there's cold sweat gathering over his forehead, in the creases of his eyelids. He really needs to get it together. As he enters the dining room, the familiar shape of Olga emerges from the kitchen with another glass in her hand. 

"Drink," she says, and sets it down with a resounding clink. 

Oswald cringes at the loud noise.

"What the hell are you doing here?" he asks, forcing the anger---he's too tired to even really shout.

Olga looks as unfazed as ever. 

"You call me yesterday on phone. You say you are very sorry. I come back." She gives a bored sort of bow. 

Oswald frowns at her. Fuck, that does ring a bell. 

"What's in the glass?"

"Remedy." Olga looks down at the concoction. "It will put you back on your feet."

Oswald squints at her. She squints back.

"You cry very much for me to come back," she adds, "Like little baby."

He rolls his eyes. "Alright, alright," he picks up the glass and sniffs it---unwisely, because it almost makes him vomit on the spot. He sputters. "What's in this?!"

Olga takes it and impassively sips the mysterious yellow liquid, then gives it back.

"Remedy," she repeats. 

Oswald frowns harder and knocks it back. It does clear his mind, though it truly is disgusting---or probably because of that. He shakes his head and swallows down the lingering taste, scowling. 

"Well, thank you," he says, uneasy. He glances around. "Is Ed home?" 

"Left for work an hour ago," Olga raises her eyebrows. 

Work?

Realizing he's already very late, Oswald skips breakfast and pulls on his coat, all the while giving Olga his stern opinion regarding sharing details of his love life with strangers. Another thought quickly pushes into his heavy mind, even less pleasant - Ed at work, that can't be right. It's strange to imagine he'd be at the office when he arrives, in his ugly brown suit, behind a boring empty desk. He has to be planning something. Maybe he---

Maybe he's not at work at all. 

Where did he go last night? 

Oswald's stomach churns and he closes his eyes again. He's not blind; their friendship is hanging on by a thread, and one false step could land him in some horrifying and deeply ironic reenactment of their initial conflict. He is not willing to sacrifice the semblance of sanity Ed grants him because of his heart's fancy. He will kill it. He's done it before. He will kill it and burn the bones.

*

Ed liked his job as chief of staff then, and he likes it now. Leaving his mind map behind had been a challenge, but it's not as if he actually needs it; the information is all in his brain, it just takes longer to process without the visuals. He can act the part, too, that's not the issue---but he can't get over how they look at him.

They don't stare at him. 

He forgot; but Oswald and him used to be, at least publicly, two regular people. They used to have coworkers, and assistants, and there was no push-and-pull between Ed's selves but a silent, unnoticeable partnership. Both of him, all of him, starry-eyed and focused so intently on Oswald that everything else had blurred, including the line between him and the other him. It would be pathetic to admit, and he never will. Practically a confession, and besides, he refuses to count on anyone but himself to hold the shards of him together. Lee taught him to cut up his own hands, for a change, and he will. He briefly pictures where she might be right now, and his heart wavers. She's not anywhere near his circle. 

Funnily enough, the only person he can somewhat confide in right now is Isabella.

He taps his foot. Just until Oswald gets here, he holds fast under his disguise, smiling, helping out. He's already managed to engage in several quick chats in the corridor, talked to someone called Sally in the break room, and thanked a secretary for bringing him a few letters. It's not impossible. He gets stopped by two lawyers---panics for a moment, then just takes what they hand him and sends them off, only to be approached by a secretary carrying a huge folder under her arm. She's here to catalogue those very same papers. Eerie.

He gets so in character as his old self that he doesn't catch sight of someone limping closer until he's practically at his elbow. 

"Ed," Oswald says in a sharp tone that indicates he's repeating himself.

The secretary greets him, but he doesn't seem to notice. Ed clears his throat. 

"Mayor Cobblepot," he shines with a delighted smile, and for a split second, he sees Oswald's eyes widen in shock. 

It's old, new and flattering all at once, that Oswald would fear his loss. There is a small, cruel part of him that suggests---play along. See what happens. Make him look like a fucking idiot, make him cry. Except that same part of him has a second face; and though the thought is the same, the tone is different. 

You know you want to. 

He kills the temptation.

He hauls Oswald in the opposite direction to where the secretary is going and leans down to his ear. "It would've looked strange if we both didn't show up for work," he mutters, "Act like you've been here all day."

"You scared me," Oswald hisses back, though he seems to relax, "For a moment, I thought---"

Ed's eyebrows fly up, the picture of innocence.

"Well, I'm terribly sorry, Mayor Cobblepot." 

"Stop it," Oswald glares at him, "Stop it."

He reels it in a little, but keeps the pleasant smile. It's time to let him in on the plan. 

Oswald pulls in what is clearly a steadying breath.

"Where were you last night?" he asks.

Ed's jaw works, grin falling. Shit. He needs to redirect. "In the city."

Oswald says nothing, eyes averted. Has he been worrying? Ed feels a stab of guilt when he realizes he doesn't know what state Oswald even woke up in today, he was so busy altering the mind map. 

"Come on," he adds, holding Oswald's shoulder in a manner he prays is comforting, "Let's go."

They head to the mayor's office, their only hideaway. Ed's mood swings back to good within a few seconds, suddenly, he is bold and happy, and he doesn't quite know, or want to admit, why.

*

As Oswald is dragged through the halls, one woman expresses joy at Ed's return to health, and he sighs. Of course. The door closes behind them and Ed waltzes over to Oswald's desk, hands raised in preparation for a speech.

"I've been thinking," he says cheerfully, and looks at Oswald, "You really messed up."

Oswald doesn't have the energy to feed even a prickle of irritation. He hums, flat.

"But," Ed raises a finger, "Since you rehired Olga---we have someone who Barbara considers a trustworthy source. From now on, you need to control what she tells her. If Barbara thinks that we're together, when she plots to get to you, and she will---," he raises his eyebrows, "She's going to try to do it through me."

Oswald scowls. "It certainly worked last time."

Ed gives him a look that clearly says 'you didn't'. "Yes," he angrily admits when Oswald shows no remorse, "But this time, I won't betray you, will I?"

Oswald glares at him and walks over to sit heavily in his chair.

"I don't fucking know."

"What is with you?" Ed rests his hands on either side of Oswald's on the desk, "It's a brilliant plan. We pretend we're a couple, Barbara tries to win me over, I pretend to betray you and then blow up her little plot from the inside." 

"You want to pretend to be a couple?" Oswald repeats, finding himself both angry and amused. 

Ed keeps his eyes closed for a moment, a muscle shifting on his clenched jaw. He leans in, voice low.

"I'm not asking you to give me a tonsil examination in front of her, Oswald, I'm only suggesting we don't correct her in what she already assumes." He glares. "Thanks to your actions." 

"Your actions," Oswald retorts sharply. 

He expects more childish pushing, but Ed relents, leaning away.

"Fine, my actions." 

He silently accepts that, then grudgingly works to think. His brain feels like it's filled with static.

"Why mess with Barbara at all?" he rubs his cheek, "She pays me tribute. She's in no position to overthrow me, and even if she wanted to, my only weakness---," he purses his lips, "---is you." 

Ed leans in.

"Barbara is a threat, Oswald," he hisses, low, "And we need to crush her while we still have the advantage. Without her, there's no fountain of youth nonsense, no Jeremiah blowing up the bridges, and no...," he furrows his brow, "No man's land."

Oswald closes his eyes.

"I'd argue that simply removing Barbara from the equation won't do as much as you think it will."

"She is our primary concern right now," Ed insists, "You think Butch and Tabitha would've gotten half as far without her to boss them around?"

"Butch and Tabitha were idiots," Oswald scoffs before he can help himself, but the realisation dawns quickly, "Are... idiots."

"Agreed." Ed tilts his head to the side, ignoring the slip-up, "They both let love blind them."

Oswald stubbornly pushes that information out the other ear. 

"In addition," Ed tries, "Your plans of getting revenge on Tabitha may be coming along slowly, but you're going to do it, aren't you? That's sure to pit Barbara against you." 

This again. 

"Eventually, I suppose," Oswald admits, "I don't know. I don't think I've ever killed someone twice." 

Ed shrugs. "It does seem like overkill."

There's a moment of quiet, and then Oswald laughs, more startled than actually amused. Ed looks thoroughly disturbed, like he wishes he could go back and slap a hand over his own mouth. 

"Um, those are for you," he says curtly, placing his hands on his hips and looking down at the papers on the side of the desk. "I got bored."

"Perfect," Oswald draws them towards himself, "And what about Barnes?" 

Ed stares at him for a moment. 

"Another tip?"

"They ought to know by now, don't they?" he scowls, "I'm not sure. I didn't see anything in the newspaper."

"If I identify myself as the person who gave them the Tetch tip, they might take it seriously. We can also wait until he goes on his killing spree. It won't be long now." 

"Give them the tip," Oswald instructs, tired. 

Ed smiles briefly at him and lingers by the door before leaving, fingers drumming on the doorframe. Oswald bites his lip and picks up the first page.

*

Now that Oswald is at work, Ed can safely disappear once more. The wisest course of action would be to head home and make the call---then to back to his mind map.

Posing as Oswald's paramour places him exactly where Barbara might come to scoop him up into her vice grip. It's the kind of leverage that puts people in graves, but the game has always been dangerous---and while Barbara may think she has the upper hand, with Tabitha to lose, she is weaker than she could possibly know. What remains is to bring Oswald to the Sirens on a Friday night and make it known within Barbara's circle that they are, in fact, a couple. Ed's dissatisfaction with the relationship and eventual betrayal of his partner will come later---for now, he's a man in love. 

He fiddles with his pen. Getting Oswald to play along might prove a challenge, especially if it does come to a tonsil examination, which it might. He doesn't know. It's unfair to ask, surely, but then again it really is a brilliant plan. Oswald must see that. 

He picks up his phone to call their driver, but hesitates. He closes his leather briefcase with a click, pulls on his coat and discreetly exits, heading for the library. 

It's cold and grey outside, and the buildings look half-abandoned with no bustle in the streets. A detour happens organically; if he wants Isabella's ear, he should at least come bearing gifts. Opening the door with his elbow, he carries two steaming cups of coffee inside and approaches the desk, and the mousy young woman behind it. She glances up at the sound of the door, and recognizes Ed right away---but her only reaction is a polite smile. 

"Hi," he grins back, "Is Isabella in?" 

The mouse stares at him and nods, surprised. 

"She's just outside. Smoke break."

"Thank you." 

If he's going to build a narrative, he's going to have to be consistent, and that means losing some of his honesty with Isabella quite soon. He clenches his jaw and tries not to think about it until the very last moment, as he's rounding the corner into the narrow alleyway. He notices her by a back door, shoulders against the dark brick as she fumbles with her purse.

"Isabella?"

The purse clamps shut. She whips around, flushed, her eyes already sparkling the way he knows they tend to, when she looks at him---and a smile blooms on her face. She is beautiful, he does see that. It's just more knowledge than feeling, now. 

"Good afternoon," she blurts, "Hi."

"Hello." He glances down at the purse. "You smoke?"

She opens her mouth, then closes it, eyes falling. "Um, sometimes, but I lost my lighter. Do you have---"

Ed cuts her off. "No."

Isabella chews her lip. She looks at the two coffee cups, reminding him of their existence. He hands her one, and she's visibly confused for a moment before she figures out how to take it without her fingers overlapping his. Ed strings together some curses in his thoughts, then swallows just the faintest bit of his pride.

"I don't mean to pester you. It's just that it's been---quite a while since I had a friend like you."

Isabella's face glows again.

"Edward, I've told you before, come by as often as you like," she takes a shy sip and smiles at him, "Thank you for the coffee." 

Right. Well-navigated. Normal. 

"I'm actually here because there's been a development," he says, keeping his tone nervously honest, "Oswald and I worked things out. We're together now."

The coffee cup slips in Isabella's grip, making her clench her fingers harder around it; she manages not to drop the whole thing, but coffee sputters from the opening and milky brown droplets pool in the lid. 

"Dear, I'm so clumsy," she laughs, handing the coffee back to him for a moment so she can take a tissue out of her purse.

Something else pokes out, a small notebook. She hastily tucks it back into place and closes the purse. Ed obediently returns the coffee. 

"So, you and him, that's wonderful," Isabella is saying, coughing a little, covering it up with another sip, "How---um, how did it happen?" 

"Oh, you know," he replies and immediately draws a blank. 

His mind works at a snail's pace compared to its usual speed. Every cliche he can think of plays slowly before his eyes like a fever dream, and picturing himself (much less Oswald) in any one of those scenarios makes him want to laugh hysterically. It's nothing short of fucking ridiculous simply because of who they are. He doesn't know what to say. He even briefly considers spinning a yarn based on Lee, but that just sends twinges of pain through his heart. He swallows thickly. 

"It wasn't exactly romantic," he begins, leaning back against the brick wall. He finally starts his own cup of coffee, savouring the pause. 

Isabella mirrors him, head turned to watch his expression. Her shoulders are narrow, bent in on themselves; her spine, curled. She looks like she's cold, even though she's got her coat thrown over her shoulders.

"We have history, as you know," Ed adds, not looking at her, "There's not much room for anything... spontaneous, between us. We talked. Like adults." He sips the coffee again, throat dry, but this time it just makes him feel sick. "We established boundaries."

He hazards a glance, only to find Isabella looking at him with vague worry.

"Not very romantic, indeed," she admits.

Ed half-closes his eyes in frustration, lids fluttering.

"I do care about him, Isabella."

"I don't doubt it---"

"I'm just not very good at it."

She chuckles, quiet and somber, one shoulder rising in a noncommittal shrug. "I always thought it was supposed to be easy."

"Well, it isn't," he snaps, "Not for me."

"Alright." She quietens. 

Ed stares at the other side of the alleyway, the cracking old brick. Cigarette butts and piss stains at the foot of the wall. It was always going to be him, the bastard. And it wasn't some grand plan on his part either. He didn't even have to try.

"I...," Ed says slowly, looking at her, "I don't know how to put him first. I've fought tooth and nail for what I have---what I am on my own. I'm not going to sacrifice a single inch of that. Not even for him." 

She shifts, expression puzzled. 

"Why would you?"

That's new. "What?"

"Is he asking you to change? Make those sacrifices?" Isabella raises her eyebrows, tone odd, almost hopeful. Ed ignores it. 

"No."

She purses her lips. He stares, completely numb, at the spot where the lipstick has smeared ever so slightly into the dip of her cupid's bow. 

"Love is about happiness," she says, "At the end of the day, that's it." 

Isabella looks down at her feet. She's finished her coffee, all too quick; she holds the empty cup in a lowered hand, just with the tips of her fingers. He sees tendons rise in her neck when she clenches her jaw. 

"I have to get back to work," she says, not meeting his eyes, "I'm very happy for you."

She steps closer and puts a hand on the side of his neck, holding him in place for when she rises on her toes and presses a kiss to his cheek.

He freezes, and remains frozen long after she walks away.

Chapter Text

Isabella struggles with the lighter.

Her nail slips on the metal ring and she hisses around the cigarette between her lips, brow furrowed. 

"Could you help me?" she tries to pass the thing to Ed, but he doesn't take it. "I think it's broken."

He exhales in a cloud of vapour. It's far too cold to be standing behind the library like two kids skipping class in middle school.

"Ed," she nudges him lightly.

"Fine, use mine," he snarls and produces the silver lighter he always carries in the inner pocket of his coat. The cold of the metal quickly begins to sting his fingertips.

She blinks in surprise. "I thought you didn't smoke." 

"I don't." He frowns. "I hate the smell." 

Isabella pouts, and after a moment of hesitation, she tucks the cigarette back in the pack and returns the lighter.

Ed remembers himself. It dawns that he might've hurt her feelings; and while he couldn't care less, she's quite literally the only person who'll talk to him that isn't Oswald. He sighs.

"The whole house reeked of it when I was... young," he forces, and holds down the gag reflex that always comes with thinking back to his childhood. He adjusts his glasses, clears his throat. He'd been planning on saying something else afterwards, pre-deflect, but his mind blanks at the scent that bites his nostrils even though Isabella never lit the cigarette.

"Why the lighter, then?" she asks, puzzled.

Frankly, he doesn't know. It comes in useful. Just part of his toolkit, like the folding knife. 

He certainly doesn't carry them so he can start other men's cigars. 

"Let's go back inside," he scowls and opens his mouth to compare the cold to being literally frozen, because he would know; except it hasn't happened yet. The frustration is bubbling up. 

They walk up the stairs and go down the same staff corridor they left through. He remembers the way, but Isabella holds him by the wrist regardless.

"I am my no means kicking you out, but shouldn't you be at work?" she asks, sounding worried. She takes a seat by a desk in the corner of the archive room.

"Who's going to fire me? Oswald?" he shrugs. Actually, who knows if Oswald wouldn't fire him out of spite.

"I suppose," she glances away and begins going through the desk, pulling drawers out, "Though it seems... I don't know, strange. Dating your boss, I mean." 

He'd almost forgotten.

"I try not to think about it in those terms," he rocks on his heels, "Oswald has his job, I have mine. We can be professional."

"Well, yes," she agrees reluctantly. She still hasn't fully sat down, legs to the side and knees together as she lifts piles of papers, puts a stapler aside. "But people don't know that."

Something drops in his stomach. He turns to her sharply, shoulders tensing.

"What?" he doesn't pause, "We're being discreet. Very... discreet."

Isabella blinks up at him innocently.

"Do you want to be discreet forever?"

He chews the inside of his lips.

"That's..." he grinds his teeth, "A good point."

"But it's your decision," she bows her head and sighs.

Ed remembers himself. "Are you looking for something?" he asks, indicating the desk.

"Oh, um..." she flushes red, "No. Just organising." She joins her hands in her lap. 

Ed exhales.

"Well, I should probably go. I---"

"Edward, one moment," she stands up and takes him by the upper arms, exhaling sharply. "I..." she trails off. Her fingers tighten, he can feel their outlines on his skin. 

"Can't it wait?" he asks, "I should go to work."

"Edward, please," she says, breathy, "I have to tell you something."

She licks her lips and swallows, staring at him. He tenses all over.

He should've noticed it sooner, but God, he is stupid. Imagining someone might look at him that way---it makes him pity them, it makes him sad, and afraid, and angry. And desperate. He feels a knife in his stomach and a dull ache in his heart. 

"Don't," he backs up into a shelf, hits his shoulder. Stumbles.

"Ed," she follows. 

"Isabella," he catches her wrists and crushes them together in the space between their bodies. She lets him. "You've been a friend. Don't do this." 

"He's not right for you," she shakes her head, pleading, "Don't you understand? I care about you more, I'll prove it to you," she leans forward, nearing their faces, "I'm always here for you, aren't I? I'm always willing to listen to your troubles. And it's always about him. Please, Ed, I'll do anything."

Anger burns it's way through him like a slow-motion lightning bolt. 

"Shut up," he squeezes until he feels her bones creak under his hands. He's always been stronger than people assumed, and it's always felt good to hold them still.

"You're hurting me," she whispers.

He grinds his teeth and forces himself to loosen his grip, though she doesn't rip free like he expected. Her pale wrists remain where they are, brittle, red where the skin will bruise later. 

He swallows with unease, watching her eyes slowly redden. She sniffles, and he parts his arms in defeat, inviting her closer.

She turns her head aside and rests the warm flat of her cheek against his chest, hands grasping at his back. He wishes he could feel something. 

"I have to think," he says. It comes out stark in the silence, and he wishes he'd whispered. 

She pulls back, one arm still around his waist, and wipes a tear from her face. She smiles. 

*

He overslept.

Ed's gone to work early, if Olga is to be believed, but Oswald can't get her to admit whether he actually said that's where he was headed, or if he just left. 

"Hard to say," she says flatly for the hundredth time, passing him by.

"What do you mean, he---," Oswald spits, but she pays him no mind, making the rounds about the house.

"Jealousy is ugly emotion," she says without looking back. 

"I'm not jealous," Oswald scoffs, "I'm worried. He said it himself, partners communicate. He can't keep disappearing like this." 

Olga just sighs, but by the expression of the back of her head he knows she's rolling her eyes. 

His offense is not entirely unwarranted. What he feels isn't jealousy; neither is Ed his to miss, nor Oswald delusional. The fear in his chest comes from a much crueller, darker place, and has little to do with Isabella. 

Every time Ed isn't with him, Oswald wonders if he's at the Sirens, sharpening a knife. 

And it is irrational; it must be. Ed's entire plan relies on their trust for each other, or rather Oswald's trust for him, and he has sworn not to betray him this time, framed it as something obvious. 

Oswald does trust him. It's not even about Ed, really; it's about the house, and the dining room, and the clothes and the lack of a scar on his stomach. The scar that used to stop him from making the same mistake twice. Here, there is no anchor; his mind plays tricks on him, and it's almost like it wants to forget.

He gets up. There's a knock on the door. He frowns, taking up his cane. He's not used to unexpected guests.

He's started to find Barbara on his doorstep, completely alone. She smiles at him, then stops.

"Can we talk?"

Oswald steps aside and takes the simple beige coat from her shoulders. She's wearing a surprisingly conservative black dress underneath.

"What brings you to my home so unexpectedly, Barbara?" he asks, taking her to the living room. She's got a leather organiser with her instead of a purse. 

"Can we sit down?" she asks. 

"Of course." Oswald sits. She sits beside him instead of taking the seat opposite him by the low coffee table.

"I won't waste your time," she says sternly, tucking a blonde curl behind her ear, businesslike, "And please keep in mind that this is nothing but a..." she does smile, then, "firm affirmation of my loyalty."

She takes out a Manila folder and passes it to him. Completely out of control, Oswald's heart jumps to his throat. 

"What is this?" 

Barbara puts on her best serious face. He sees through it; he's experienced what determination looks like on Barbara, and it is nowhere near this calm.

"You should see for yourself," she nods gravely.

Somehow unwilling to take the folder, he curls a finger under one corner and flips it open. He's immediately greeted with a photo of Isabella kissing Ed's cheek, her arms around his neck. 

Sparks dance in the corners of his eyes. He feels his chest constrict within his ribcage.

Oswald closes his eyes and breathes. He should've known. And to think the fucker only just made him agree to a plan rooted in maintaining the idea they're a couple! 

He looks up at Barbara; she's already watching him, blue eyes cold and impenetrable. She purses her lips and doesn't say a thing, but as the moment draws longer, he notices her gaze flick over his face. Somewhere underneath that mask, she's desperately trying to gauge his reaction. 

Oswald pulls in a shuddering breath. The plan is still on. He has to come up with a response.

"You should think carefully before you baselessly accuse my partner of something as vile as---," his breath hitches, "As what you're suggesting."

He's quite proud of that response, really. He's quite satisfied. He feels tears sting his eyes and harshly forces them down; he can't be crying about it while simultaneously refusing to believe it. 

"Your partner," Barbara repeats curiously. 

She extends an arm and using just her fingertips, spreads the photos out. There's another snapshot of the kiss and several more of Ed and Isabella talking in some back alley, shoulders almost touching. 

"What," Oswald bites out, "He's not allowed to have female friends?" He clears his throat. "Women are affectionate. Should I also lunge at every man he shakes hands with?"

"Is that really what you think?" Barbara asks. She indicates the table, the red of her nails like specks of blood over the black and white analogue photography. Her eyes narrow as she leans closer, "I have more." 

"I know my partner, Barbara," he pushes, but doesn't stop her. 

She takes out a notebook; it's simple enough, small, bound in leather. Barbara cocks her head to the side. 

"Wanna know how she writes about him?" she flips it open on the first page, and Oswald catches a glimpse of a doodle of two figures holding hands. The page around them is covered from top to bottom in neat cursive handwriting. 

He grits his teeth.

"I think you should go." 

She puts both hands forward, calming him. "I can image you're upset. I'll leave," she flashes a smile that's cold to the core. He hates that he called her Barbara instead of a sharper, more pointed 'Miss Kean'---he hates that her hair falls around her cheeks.

As soon as he hears the door, he hides his face in his hands. He sobs harshly, but a sudden wave of anger quells the tears.

He's sick of taking it. Ed only does this to him because he lets him; but they're conspirators, aren't they? Partners. Partners discuss things like this, and if Ed wants to date the once-dead doppelgänger of his dead ex, then he could at least extend the courtesy of letting Oswald know first.

He's going to yell at him. He's going to yell and feel better, and no longer cripple himself with guilt and cry out of sheer helplessness. 

He needs to scream at him.

*

The snow covering the Van Dahl mansion is getting licked away by rain. 

It's surprisingly beautiful, coming home to that sight---the old castle with golden windows, caked in cold white icing. Ed's in a good mood when he comes up the stairs.

"Hi," he smiles at Olga as she's coming down the hallway. 

She turns her nose up at him and walks off without a word.

Slightly confused, but not really bothered, he takes off his coat and shoes and walks to the living room. As expected, Oswald is there, drink in hand. 

"Evening," Ed puts his briefcase down and walks over to sit beside him. He relaxes into the sofa with a sigh, tugs his collar loose, and cranes his neck to look at him. "I hope you haven't forgotten, we're going out tonight."

"Yes, about that, Edward," Oswald scoffs, turning to him sharply. The drink thuds on the table. 

Ed blinks.

"What?" he asks without moving from his relaxed position.

Oswald opens his mouth and shuts it. His eyes grow calmer; he thinks his cheeks might be colouring, but it could be a trick of the light.

"You've been seeing Isabella," he says, remarkably controlled.

His first thought is that Oswald is jealous; his second, that he's been spying on him. They clash and crackle in his mind. He straightens up.

"That's none of your business," he says, hollow.

"It becomes my business when it puts our plan at risk," Oswald snaps, "A plan that, might you recall, you yourself came up with." 

"Adds drama," he retorts.

Oswald throws his hands up. "You should've told me!" 

"Policeman," Olga's voice interrupts them, impassive, "At door."

There's a pause. 

"Jim?" Ed asks, light compared to the tone he'd assumed.

She shrugs. "Handsome." 

Jim, then. He and Oswald look at each other. The mutual irritation fizzes out. 

"I'll get it," he offers.

Oswald looks reluctantly grateful as he lowers himself back onto the sofa, hand braced on the armrest. Ed swallows down some fraction of guilt and walks to the front door, but unable to stop himself from glancing back at Oswald, he catches him combing his fingers through his hair. Preening. 

Another knock startles him back to reality. He pulls the door open. 

"Ed," Jim says, momentarily taken aback.

Edward becomes harshly aware of his own rumpled shirt and undone collar, but Jim's expression settles into his usual determined grit. "Is Penguin home?"

"Yes, he is," he replies, and just stands there for a moment, blocking the way.

Impatient as ever, Jim shoves past him, and Ed pushes the heavy oak closed, cutting off the faint hum of the rain outside. He slaps himself quickly across the face. He needs to get it together.

"Give me that," he lightly yanks on the collar of Jim's dripping coat, "You're ruining the floor."

"I went down to the office, they said you both left early," Jim says, shrugging off the thing and passing it to him so he can hang it up. There's an undertone in his words, but Ed doesn't know what it is. 

"We're heading out again later today," he says.

Jim purses his lips. "I need to talk to Oswald about Jervis Tetch."

Huh. He's not sure whether to be worried, but his adrenaline spikes anyway. "What about him?" he asks, innocent. When a response doesn't come immediately, he sighs and nods him further in.

Jim leads the way to the sofa, where Oswald is waiting.

"James," he greets with a strained smile.

They all sit; the tension from the prior argument is still making the air somewhat thick, but Jim doesn't seem to notice. He's too focused looking warily at Ed.

"James, please," Oswald smiles, "Anything you can say to me, you can say to him."

Smart. Their stories should match up exactly. Ed tilts his head back and obnoxiously does his collar up.

"Twice---," Jim pauses as Olga enters the room with a tray. 

She sets it down on the table, taking her time. She glares at Jim. The silence persists. She leaves. 

"Twice, now, we've gotten anonymous tips related to Tetch," Jim continues, "The running theory is that he had an accomplice who's having second thoughts. I need to know who they are. They altered their voice." 

Ed picks up the teapot and pours.

"Well, Jim, I don't know anything about any accomplice," Oswald says, picking up the cup and taking a sip.

Ed glances up at him, suddenly reminded of the conversation he had not so long ago with a different Jim and a different Oswald, and his head spins a little. He can see the smile beginning to crease Oswald's eyes at the corners. He can feel something shifting.

"But if we did, we would certainly contact the GCPD," he adds, and glances at Oswald to gauge his reaction.

Jim exhales sharply. 

"You want something in return, you name it. I don't have time for games."

"No, truly," Oswald raises his eyebrows, "I've got no idea what you're talking about. Ed?"

Startling, but not unwelcome. Ed pulls a long face and shakes his head, over-dramatic. Oswald catches his faint amusement and glances at him from under his lashes, making his chest flutter. 

"Ed could surely consult for you, though," he offers smugly, "Help clean the tape, maybe?"

Ed coughs on his laugh this time. Jim's gaze grows dark as he looks between them. 

"No, thanks."

He stands, tea untouched. Ed immediately sharpens into cold attention. As fun as having a laugh at Jim's expense is, Oswald can't give any impression of being the wrong Penguin, that has been the rule since day one. And Oswald seems to realise that too---he reaches for Jim's sleeve, catches him. 

"Jim, Jim," he placates, "I'm sorry. We will keep an eye out, certainly." He bows his head in faux humility. "Anything for an old friend."

Jim looks trapped between them, even standing up; his gaze moves slowly from Oswald to Ed, apprehensive. He looks like he's got a question pushing against his lips from the inside, but can't bring himself to ask it. 

"I should get going," he narrows his eyes, "Wouldn't wanna keep you."

Ed grins at him, showing as many teeth as he can.

"Thanks."

*

Oswald is in front of his bedroom mirror when Ed stops by the open door. 

He ignores him, guiding the brush lightly over his eyelid, then wipes the fallout fom his cheekbone and moves over to the other eye.

"You might want to reconsider that look," Ed says, quite gently for such a pointed comment. 

"I didn't ask."

"We may be going to the Sirens, but you're still bound to get recognised," he insists, entering the room, "We're already counting on some discretion." 

There are clothes on the bed, draped out and ready to be chosen from, and that small intimacy is suddenly unbearable. Oswald's eyelids are a dark, velvety purple-grey in the mirror; he sighs and tries not to scurry around, cover up the clothes, the open palette, the closet. 

"Very acute," he says sarcastically, turning to Ed with the brush half-raised, "Thank you for your input." 

Ed scowls. "Oswald---"

"How does it look?" he interrupts sharply. 

Edward hesitates. Clears his throat.

"Flattering."

"Then shut up."

Oswald makes a face and goes back to his work, feeling the swell of satisfaction in his chest. What does Ed care about his image, anyway. If this is how he loses the mayor's office, he's frankly fine with that. 

And it does occur to him, after a moment, that Ed might not care about Oswald's image so much that he cares about his own. And that does make him put down the brush, though he makes no attempt to go back to remove the shadow. He doesn't quite care, he just doesn't feel like adding more. 

"We should go," he says, hobbling over to the bed, "Get dressed." 

He half-expects Ed to opt for something green and glittery, but that's not what happens. He dresses like he does for work---a boring suit, curly hair messily slicked back in waves, a bland pocket square. He doesn't look bad. Just weird. 

"We should go over our story," Ed says in the car, his face turned away.

Light from the street moves in stripes over his chest, the night sky orange with the glow. Oswald feels like someone is plucking at thin strings in his stomach. He doesn't answer.

"Who confessed?" Ed asks, "I say you did."

"Fine, I did," Oswald agrees, annoyed.

Ed faces him slowly, eyes dark in the dim light of the limousine. 

"And why do you love me?"

His throat goes dry. He doesn't say anything.

"Because I'm intelligent?" Ed hints brusquely, "Skilled?"

"You should go first," Oswald crosses his arms. 

"Fine." He cocks his head to the side, watching Oswald with two pools of pure black. "Because you're driven. Charismatic. You stop at nothing to get what you want." His glare softens and a troubled furrow appears in his brow. "But then you can be kind, for no reason at all."

Oswald feels sick to his stomach. How lovely---how very fitting. He feels a familiar heaviness crushing his chest, making him want to lash out, strike so that Ed knows---remembers---pretty words mean nothing to him.

"Well," Oswald purses his lips, "You're tall."

But it doesn't have the desired effect. Ed only smiles, his cheeks dimpling with unquestionable fondness, and Oswald feels hot shame burn his face. 

Obnoxious, season-appropriate music bears down on them in the lift.

"Give me your cane," Ed says. 

"I think not."

"What clearer way to get the message across than having you on my arm?" 

Oswald scoffs, but he can't argue. If this limits the amount of PDA they'll be expected to perform, he'll play along. 

They shuffle around each other awkwardly until they've traded places. Oswald passes Ed his cane, then curls a hesitant hand around the crook of his elbow.

"You're supposed to lean on me, you know," Ed scolds, "That's what this is for."

"I thought this was for appearances," Oswald shoots back, but he does take some of the weight off his good leg, testing. 

Something changes, then. Ed holds fast, doesn't give an inch, and something about that warms Oswald from the inside out. A simple thing, but meaningful. Kind.

The evening goes well. Ed doesn't touch him once. 

Chapter Text

Saturday morning is blurry around the edges.

They don't drink coffee with their breakfast. Ed chews on a single piece of toast, his glasses missing and eyes delightfully hazy. He takes a small bite with a quiet crunch and puffs out his cheeks like a child who dislikes the taste. Oswald sips his orange juice.

They got drunk last night. Not black-out, but close, steadily, over time. Lovingly.

It's been bad weather for weeks now, and today is no different. The rain drums against the windowsills. It looks like it's going to be a slow morning.  

"Are you feeling alright?" he inquires, made curious by Ed's strangely calm state.

He hums. Headaches tend to make Oswald jumpy and irritated, but Ed looks like he simply shut down the part of his brain that's aching. Oswald doesn't remember---everything. His temples hurt.

"What now?" he asks.

Ed picks up his glasses with finger and thumb and fits them onto the bridge of his nose, blinking as if to adjust his eyes. 

"Well, I go to Barbara."

"We also need to look into Tetch."

Ed turns to him.

"Why? We're not targets. The only time you were in danger was the Founders' Dinner."

"Jim's clearly suspicious of us," Oswald points out, "And it was your voice, however altered."

"I have an alibi," Ed squints, "I was with you both times."

Oswald snorts. "Please. As if that means anything."

Ed looks put off, fingers idly running along his jaw in thought.

"We live together in my family home, Ed," Oswald sighs, "That suggests a level of fondness, wouldn't you agree?"

"Shut up, I know," he waves a hand. "I'm thinking." He frowns, visibly backtracks, looks at him. "You'd lie under oath for me?"

Oswald smiles, licking his lips. 

"Don't feel too flattered, that hardly means anything in this city," he laughs a little, "But, yes. Of course."

Ed reluctantly smiles back at him. Then it's gone in a blink.

"We shouldn't have given him the second tip," he mutters, agitated, "Now we have no choice but to pin it on someone else."

Oswald shrugs. "Crane. They're practically joined at the hip."

"Not yet, they aren't!" Ed snaps, "Are you even paying attention?"

He leans back in his chair and braids his fingers over his stomach. "Not really," he admits.

"Barbara it is," Ed says, and Oswald can't help but think he sounds dejected, "You take care of that, I'll go down to the Sirens to lament my woes on Monday night."

Monday.

"And after Barbara," he scratches his cheek and looks away, "We'll still be stuck here."

Ed glances at him and drums his fingers on the table.

"Well, yes."

Oswald sighs. He doesn't quite know how to say this.

"Ed---," and there it comes, already halfway out, "I'm asking about you and Isabella."

Edward looks down at him like he's hoping he'll drop it under a fierce enough glare.

"How much longer are you going to punish me for that? What do you want me to do?" his frown deepens, "Apologize?"

And Oswald doesn't like that tone. 

"Now that you mention it," he says venomously, "For not telling me---yes."

Ed scoffs. 

"Oh, you are such a child. I didn't tell you because I didn't know what you would do," he raps out, "Because I didn't trust you. And if you think that's on me, then you are crazy." 

"Oh, that's rich," Oswald raises his eyebrows and physically bites down on the next sentence, but it's too late. Ed knows him very, very well.

He sits there for a few more seconds, completely silent, waiting for Oswald to take it back. He doesn't. 

"Is that what you think I am?" Ed asks, hollow. "You think I'm crazy?"

It hits something, some old, harsh note that makes Oswald close his eyes and bring his hand to his forehead. He wishes he could go back ten minutes and see that other Ed again, his guard down, his face soft. He can't believe he robbed himself of that.

"No."

"Really? Because, to me, it sounded like---"

"No, Ed," he interrupts harshly.

Edward purses his mouth. 

"I just... want to know what I missed," Oswald says, moving a fist with the words. 

Ed glares at him for a moment. 

"I care about her," he says, sharp and abrupt. 

Oswald closes his eyes when he rolls them, which is the height of his consideration. 

"Contrary to what you might think, I don't actually want to see you miserable," he says.

Ed rubs his forehead. The pause slowly turns into silence.

"I..." he doesn't like the way Ed looks at him; like he knows something Oswald himself doesn't, and maybe never will. "I may have... lashed out at you, and I regret it. I just want you to know that..." 

Ed interrupts him with a jaw-cracking yawn. He sighs, rubs his eye--then, slowly, he lifts a hand off the table and sets it down over Oswald's, fingers curling into the space underneath his palm. He can't seem to meet his gaze until the very second when he speaks.

"I'm not miserable." 

He withdraws, and then he's getting up, straightening his collar. Oswald is keenly aware of the notebook in his desk drawer, the folder with the photos Barbara gave him. He closes his eyes and squeezes the bridge of his nose; and now he's mostly thinking about the warmth and pleasant heaviness of Ed's hand over his knuckles. 

He blinks. 

"So what do we do all weekend?" 

Ed catches his gaze, curious and sweet.

"Chess?"

*

Monday comes around too fast. 

They make their usual arrangements and prepare to leave to their respective duties; Ed to the underworld, Oswald to the mayor's office, and once again that old, scratchy fear claws its way into the back of his skull. And he knows it's warranted, too, because Oswald is watching him like a hawk at the very notion that they should part ways and it is, frankly, a feeling not unlike drowning. 

Does he really not get it? Does he really not know? Oh, but that's hardly Oswald's fault, Ed has declared his lack of affections enough times already. God. Did he really think touches and looks would be enough of a hint, when he's juggling Oswald with Isabella---Isabella, who he already chose once before? He clenches his fists for a moment, hidden in his pockets. The words are much more terrifying than the touches. 

Oswald... doesn't know. This is undeniable. Ed sees it in every sheepish look he gives him, every beat that passes before they touch. He clearly hasn't stopped thinking about Isabella since that first fight they had, before Jim interrupted them. He probably wants denial, but Ed can't give him a definite answer; be it because he can't muster the courage, or because he is unused to the notion of caring about more than one person at a time. More importantly, though, Oswald needs to be able to live with his 'I don't know yet'. Even if---and that is an if, he reiterates---he doesn't take things anywhere with her, he needs to know that Oswald wouldn't have hurt her.

That he won't hurt her now. Old, possessive anger rises in him at the memory. 

He pulls on his coat and leaves before Oswald does, and it's a miracle he doesn't kill himself driving to the Sirens. 

Barbara takes one look at him and pours him a shot of straight vodka. When he shakes his head, she dunks it into a glass, adds a splash of something else and calls it a vodkatini. 

"What's wrong, honey?" she leans her elbows on the counter top and gazes deep into his eyes.

He knows what she's doing; but she is beautiful, so he spends a little too long watching her, appreciative, before he replies.

"Oswald is upset I lied to him."

She chuckles. Dangerous. 

"I've been there," she says, raising her eyebrows at him, "The excitement, the thrill of it. It's not worth it, Eddie."

"Yes, thank you," he glares at her, "For the lesson in ethics, but frankly, my main concern right now is Isabella's safety."

Barbara's eyes widen above an impressed smile.

"Bravo. Ed Nygma makes a choice."

A lie. With the alcohol hot in his throat, it is painfully apparent to him who he would really choose. That's not what he's deciding, though---he's deciding to distrust Oswald to protect Isabella. As long as he doesn't look at it too closely, it fits the narrative. It's fine. 

"Oswald does have something of a possessive streak," Barbara's cold blue eyes are hard enough to cut glass with. "You have a lot to lose."

"Tell me about it." He looks up at her, nursing the drink. This is rushed---undiscussed---but it's organic. A natural progression. "What are you suggesting?"

"Oh," she curls her lips around the sound, "I'm just letting you know, if you find yourself robbed completely of Penguin's support, well... you have other friends."

She's smart, but that's not news. He knows what she's playing at and he is supposed to know---question is, when does he join her? When is he let in on the plan?

Before he knows it, Barbara is making him another drink. And another. Time is slipping through his fingers, vanishing into each new glass.

"Where are Butch and Tabitha?" he asks too loudly, realising their absence far too late, "You should really keep a closer eye on those two, you---"

"You know," Barbara's nails click on the polished stone, "They just got back half an hour ago." 

Ed blinks and puts the drink down, feeling the buzz of his phone in his pocket.

"Huh." He takes it out, flips it open. "That's odd, it's from Olga." 

Come home QUICK. trouble .

Great; just nondescript enough to make it impossible to ignore. The fact it's Olga brings to mind the idea that it is somehow Oswald that's in trouble---and Ed's mind shoots down known paths like water down a brick wall, and he's coming home to his father piss drunk on the bathroom floor, and it hits him harder than it has in years---his head is swimming. Every beat of his heart sends a spike of pain through his veins. He doesn't even know why he's remembering this now, he doesn't know if it's Oswald telling him to get out as he's opening the bourbon.

"Hey," Barbara pats his cheek, "We need to go. Sober up."

"I'm not drunk," he snaps, and pulls in a sharp inhale. He takes his glasses off and runs both hands over his face. It's true, he isn't. He doesn't drink. He doesn't drink this much.

"Ed, this way," she's by his side now, taking him by the arm and guiding him to the lift. "Ed."

Oswald's vision is all black. 

He tries to move; his limbs are heavy, his attempts sluggish. He blinks his eyes open and takes in the vast expanse of the living room floor stretching in front of him.

He doesn't know how he got here.

As more of his senses resurface, he notices a suffocating metallic stench all around him. He tries to lift himself on his elbows and everything spins around him, but he can see the colour of his hands---and as his eyes focus, he seed the blood around his nails, coating his sleeve, his shirt, his tie. He must be bleeding---half-dead, with how much is on him and around him---but he can't feel any pain, even as he checks his torso. 

Growing frantic, he looks around. It seems he never left the mansion, though he remembers closing the door behind him. He turns; and realises, immediately, that none of the blood is his. 

About two feet away from him, dead with her throat slit, lies Isabella. Her blonde hair is loose and dyed red with the same crimson that covers almost all of her face and neck and soaks her dress. Specks of blood dirty her forehead, and he notices the additional stab wounds in her chest. 

The knife is on the floor; one of his, without a doubt, a beautiful, intricately carved thing, but not as handy as a switchblade or razor, and thus rarely on his person. Easy to steal. 

He looks at the body again and finally, his instincts kick in---he needs to take care of this before Ed gets home. Everything else can wait, but Ed cannot see her like this, he cannot. Slow and careful, he tries to get up, but whatever he was dosed with gives him an immediate sense of vertigo and he topples over, hurting his leg in the process. Misplaced irritation momentarily clouds the panic. He searches for something to hold onto and quickly understands that nothing is within arm's reach---as if he'd intentionally been placed in the middle of the floor, vulnerable.

Phone. He swears under his breath, and realises he's stuttering; his heart rate is picking up, pulse throbbing in his ears. He runs his hands down his front, smearing the blood, and finds the cell missing. 

He bites his lips and closes his eyes, trying not to drown in the sheer angry helplessness. Once the drug wears off, he can get up. Edward is at the Sirens. He'll... say she left town, fake a letter, blame this on someone, anything to give him time to find out who actually did this---and hand them to Ed gift-wrapped. It'll be fine.

The sight of the body is almost mundane. He's hardly unaccustomed to the presence of death, but as the inevitable deja vu bears down on him, his breaths grow more shallow and desperate. Ed will find out, he's a fucking forensic scientist; Ed will find out, and when that happens---

He manages to get halfway up onto his feet, but his already-aching leg gives out and he falls with a loud thud, feeling every bone in his body take the impact. He grits his teeth. What the fuck was he dosed with? What time is it, anyway? He could've been out for hours, Ed could be coming home this very second---

Like the universe is playing some cruel joke on him, he hears the front door open, and then footsteps echo through the house; over them, the clicking of high heels. His mind puts the pieces together lightning-fast, and he opens his mouth and gapes, fists clenching on nothing.

There is nothing he can do. They round the corner and suddenly, too suddenly, Oswald is face to face with Ed. Barbara and Tabitha are with him, with Butch further behind, weapon at the ready. He used to see them like this in his nightmares. This---this a nightmare. In a gruesome moment, it takes all his self control not to vomit. He knows he looks pathetic, lifted on his quivering arms, covered in Isabella's blood from head to toe, but there is nothing he can do. He licks his lips, foolishly, and tastes metal. 

Suddenly, Edward flinches like someone woke him up. He draws a handgun; black, gold finish, Barbara's---what fucking irony---

"Ed, please," Oswald closes his eyes and curls his hands into fists in the slippery, thickening blood, "Ed."

The words won't come to him. He can't breathe. 

"Tie him to a chair," he thinks he hears Barbara say, and then Butch and Tabitha loom over him like two thugs.

They take a dining room chair and lift him into it, one of them binds his wrists to the armrests---it happens quickly, too fast to follow. When he finally thinks to strain against the rope, he can't. He's getting more and more lightheaded. 

He sees Ed again, as he's coming back from looking at the body still on the floor. He's got his coat on; his hair and shoulders are wet. It's been raining again. Barbara stands beside him, her hand at his elbow, eyes thoughtful. She dares to look smug, and he can't bring himself to be angry. He thinks he heard rain just this morning. 

He's terrified. 

"Well," she says, "This is just horrible."

The anger flares at that, rises from the ashes. "Edward. She's framing me," Oswald grits, suddenly in control again, "Obviously, she's framing me, tell me you see that." 

Ed's eyes are dark and empty.

"Ed," he tries again, struggling in his too-tight collar, "I didn't do this. Barbara did. She tried to get me to do it, but I didn't, I---"

"You had him followed," Barbara cutely furrows her brow, "You had photos of them taken. Butch?" 

A file lands on the floor, scattering pictures. Ed glances at them, then back at Barbara.

"Oh," Oswald closes his eyes, "You bitch!" 

When he opens them again, she isn't smiling. 

"How did you find out I was seeing Isabella?" Edward asks him, hollow.

He curses Jim's untimely interruption. He wants to spit. So much should've been obvious. Should've been a question of trust.

"Barbara told me! She took these photos!" he snaps, trying to gesture, "She instigated this, because I failed to kill Isabella like she wanted me to!" 

Ed blinks. "I don't..." He doesn't finish. He looks vacant. 

Silence falls over them like a thick mist. Everything becomes muted and far away; Ed's eyes are black and fixed in some distant point beyond Oswald, beyond reality, and slowly he begins to understand that Ed doesn't believe him. That Ed is going to shoot him. Again.

Tears sting his eyes and his throat grows tight, making every second painful. 

"Ed, you need to believe me," he manages, voice damp, as the world begins to tremble.

"You've done it before," Ed says, harsh and low. Barbara squints. "You know how to lie to me."

There is something so profoundly familiar in the way Ed stands, looking down at him, the chafe of the rope against his wrists; it overpowers him. When he tries to speak, a sob comes out, and anger and shame make him bow his head.

"You---," Ed says, voice shaking, "You take everything from me, again and again, until you are all I have left." His lips quiver. "You make me need you, because can't bear the thought of sharing me with anyone."

He closes his eyes. "Ed, please," his tears sting on his hot cheeks. "Eddie..."

"Don't 'Eddie' me!" he shouts, making him flinch.

Butch quietly clears his throat in discomfort. This is their end, Oswald knows; this is the last stand. The plan, the others watching them, it's all meaningless.

"Think about it. I would not make this mistake twice," he sniffles, forcing down the tears, "I am not this stupid and you know it."

Ed changes his grip on the gun and shifts his weight between his feet. Barbara puts her hand on his arm.

"What's he talking about?" she hisses.

"You wanted her dead," Ed says, ignoring her, "Don't deny it."

Oswald kicks out in frustration. "What I wanted doesn't matter!" He pulls in a breath, calms himself. "I wanted to do right by you."

He stays silent, watching the barrel of the gun shake. He can't tell if it only just started, but focusing on anything else is impossible. Ed opens his mouth. 

"Tell me you didn't do it," he says, voice low.

Oswald's heart pounds. He swallows the lump in his throat and straightens up as best he can in the chair.

"I didn't kill her."

He bites his lip. Then, things happen very fast.

In a smooth, fluid motion, Ed turns the gun on Barbara and fires into her stomach. There's a quiet scream as she bends in half over the bullet and falls to one knee, then topples over, clutching the wound. Tabitha rips forward, only to be grabbed and held in place by Butch; the second bullet cuts through the air where she would've been. Ed is facing them now, the only thing between them and Oswald.

"You should get her to a hospital," he motions with the gun, "In the meantime, there's a first aid kit in the bathroom." 

Tabitha's eyes are wide with fear. She glances frantically at Barbara, panting on the floor, blood seeping out from between her fingers.

"I'll kill you," she growls, writhing in Butch's grip, "I'll kill you for this, you spineless, rotten---," for a moment, she looks like she might actually rip free, but Ed dips his head at Barbara again.

"Tick tock, Tabby."

She swallows, jaw clenched, and her struggles cease. She turns to Butch. 

"What are you waiting for?" she growls, "Go get that kit!"

"Ta---"

"Go!"

Once he's gone, Ed pulls a knife from his jacket. Keeping Tabitha at gunpoint, he slices through the ropes, and Oswald wriggles free, barely managing to stand on two numb legs. Tabitha looks beyond furious, but by the way she keeps in place and doesn't tempt him, it's easy to see she's terrified. Briefly, he wonders if it wouldn't be more satisfying to kill her now, when she's defenseless, forced to trust that they won't shoot her while she waits for them to leave. Ed grips his elbow and unceremoniously hauls him away while he's still deliberating; as they turn the corner, Oswald sees Tabitha drop to her knees at Barbara's side, hands falling to press down on the wound. It's a macabre reversal. 

"You didn't kill her," he points out breathlessly once they're outside. There's a sleek black car in the driveway, parked slightly askew. 

"I might've as well, given that we're about to steal their ride," Ed circles the front and gets in the driver's seat.

Oswald tugs the door open and sits down on his side. The keys are in the ignition, Ed's hand suspended above them.

"What are you waiting for?" he snaps, "Go!" 

Ed turns to him, face carved in stone, big brown eyes checking for something. He hisses a curse, then: "Olga."

"Fuck Olga!" Oswald screams, and he doesn't have to tell him twice; the car rips into motion, gravel crunching under the wheels.

*

Ed watches the road. It's pouring. At the heart of it, this is just another afternoon in the long week of rain. The windshield runs with water and small leaves that got caught in the wind---he's going too fast, he knows, but they're alone on the road and there is nothing he wants more than to get away from the mansion. He has to consciously keep himself from looking at Oswald, who's staring out the window, hair falling in sweaty strands over his forehead. He's not even trying to right himself. It's unnerving.

Ed catches a flash of red and blue and swears under his breath, keeping his eyes peeled for a police cruiser. A second later, it flashes past them; another second, and they hear a siren, far behind them now.

Ed adjusts his grip on the wheel.

"Did you go to the GCPD?"

"No," Oswald says. 

Ed nods and returns his eyes to the road. Another police car passes them, then another. No ambulance.

"Looks like Barbara beat you to it," Ed remarks. "Though at this point, it doesn't even matter if she framed you for Tetch. The mansion just became a crime scene." He sighs. "Oswald, are you listening to me?"

He grits his teeth at him and quietens, the uneven road making their stolen Dodge Diplomat wobble. His mind is racing, frantically trying to paint over the image of Isabella on the floor, her throat cut

"You need to call a meeting of the families," he adds.

The lights of the bridge are close now. It'd gotten dark without his noticing, the sky a deep blue, still vaguely lighter at the horizon. 

"Oswald." 

"Can I at least shower first?" Oswald snaps.

"Yes." Ed tries not to think about whose blood covers him form head to toe. "But you need to reassert your authority as soon as possible. If rumours start spreading that I betrayed you---"

"Ed, stop." Oswald closes his eyes and slumps further against the door. "Don't talk about this."

"I know you're upset." Ed says it and immediately regrets it; what is he doing? "But you need to show your lieutenants that I obey you, and that Barbara has been stopped." He hesitates. He keeps seeing the blood. "I should've killed her."

"Why didn't you?"

He shrugs. "It's Barbara." 

Oswald nods, then raises his eyebrows and exhales.

"Well, I'm still killing Tabitha."

Ed sighs. The rest of the drive is calm, the city passing them by like a tapestry. Oswald doesn't seem to want to talk to him about resurfacing; it's slowly becoming a question of what the mayor can do to bury the thing, and how much the Penguin will have to pay for it. He turns into the right street and circles the building to hide the car, then turns the engine off, leaving them in sudden and complete silence.

Neither moves to get out. 

"Edward," Oswald says, "I'm sorry about Isabella."

He can't---speak. His chest hurts.

"It wasn't your fault."

He waits a beat and pushes the door open, and Oswald does the same, limping his way to Ed's side. He obviously doesn't have his cane to lean on, so Ed takes his arm and holds him up as they make their way up a narrow, dirty set of stairs. He lifts a false metal flap and punches in the code, and the door buzzes open, slowly swinging inside. 

"Lucky you still remember that," Oswald says from behind him, "I don't."

Ed takes a step over the threshold and into the dark. 

"I remember all of them."

The door clicks shut. He turns the lights on, illuminating the secret apartment. 

The walls have blinds on them, and the only proper light source in the small living room is a yellow-tinted overhead lamp. Other than that, it's a completely normal flat, if cramped and dim, and it feels---calming.

Oswald stands beside him, taking in the small space. Then, he reaches to Ed's elbow. When he turns to face him, startled, Oswald places an arm around his shoulders and crushes him into a hug. 

He's warm. Ed wraps both arms around him and pulls him closer, resting his cheek against the side of his head. Oswald makes no move to pull away, and neither does he, and though he's becoming vaguely aware how long they've been standing like this already, he lets it drag on another minute, then two. He gives in and closes his eyes so that all he can feel is Oswald breathing. 

"Well," he hears, coming muffled from somewhere close, "I should go wash the blood off." 

"Yes, you should do that," Ed all but jumps away, clearing his throat. 

Oswald keeps a hand on his arm, like he wants to stop him and pull him close again, and Ed freezes. His hand lingers on Ed's elbow, light, reassuring. Then he limps away, swaying violently without his cane, and the bathroom door closes behind him.

The apartment goes quiet; all Ed hears is the soft whisper of running water, eerie in the dim yellow light. Through the blinds, he can tell it's fully dark outside. His gaze drifts to the clock on the cabinet, but it's showing 5:02, and has been for a while. He slowly removes his coat and his jacket, then drops them in a heap by the doorway---Oswald got Isabella's blood on them when he hugged him. Ed might need to shower, too. 

He sits heavily on the bed and takes his glasses off, letting the world fade out into a blend of colours and swirling, shivering dark. He blinks. 

"Ed." Oswald's voice.

"Huh?" 

"Go shower," his hair is wet. Dripping. One cold drop hits Ed's face and rolls down his cheekbone. "Get up. You stink." 

Ed raises himself on his elbows and looks at his blurred face, lit starkly from the right by a single lamp. It carves out the shape of his nose in shadow, lights one eye and casts the other into pure black. The patches of colour and light shift and change. 

"Sorry," Ed mutters.

"Happens to the best of us." 

"No, I'm sorry," he pushes down on his eyes with his fingers and exhales sharply. "There is so much to do. I don't---"

He exhales, his heart in his throat. He can vaguely see his own hands shaking. Oswald takes hold of his wrists and gently pulls them back.

"Edward," he leans in, "Tomorrow."

Ed swallows. The safe house is secure, its location not known even to Oswald's goons---in this room, they don't exist, hidden from the eye of the city.

"Tomorrow," he agrees.

"Now," Oswald pointedly dips his head towards the bathroom door, "Go shower."

They could stay here for days and nobody would know. 

Days.