Characters: Riddler, Scarecrow [Scriddler]
Synopsis: The Lazarus Pit didn't free Edward of his cancer, and now it's back. And this time... it's terminal for real.
There was one photograph.
There was only one, and there only needed to be one, because that was all he needed. It was all the both of them had needed. Jonathan disdained having his picture taken, and Edward, though he loved it, never made a big deal out of Jonathan's distaste. "After all," he would say, that smile curling the corner of his mouth as he laid one finger alongside his temple, "everything I need to remember is right here."
It wasn't anymore.
Hadn't been, for months now. For months then, for months then, Jonathan, he tells himself, because there is no longer a now, there is only a then, it is all over and now no longer exists.
When it started, his memory dripped out of him with the steady pulse of the chemicals moving in, and he was visibly disturbed by his flawless mind developing holes of any sort. But he played it off with a smile and, "Don't worry, I won't forget what's important."
Of course he would, Jonathan. Of course he would.
Jonathan had debated with himself initially whether to keep searching for a solution or to stay with Edward. Both choices seemed of equal weight. But the plain fact that physical properties of the brain were not his strength drove him to decide on staying in the hospital, where he could do his best to mediate Edward's well-being. And that, he knew he could do.
Initially they had put Edward in a room with similarly diagnosed patients, but some family member recognised him from his past career as the Riddler and went to the media with it. For everyone's peace of mind Edward was moved to a private room, which didn't make a difference to Edward. He was a little miffed that his potential conversation partners had been taken away from him, but he had traded it for quiet and an escape from the same tedious list of Riddler-related questions he got from the public when they realised who he was. He didn't mind it from children, and teenagers he would tolerate, but it was the adults he could not stand and the adults who pestered him the most often.
The first time Jonathan saw Edward with most of the complement of medical equipment attached to him, he stood in the doorway and didn't move, a little stunned that it was real. That Edward really was in the hospital because he was dying of brain cancer, and that this wasn't just some grand scheme of his. He'd never really given those up even after he'd 'retired', so to speak; he just didn't enact any of the ones that would have been considered criminal. Edward smiled and waved at him, which broke the spell. He moved into the room and sat down in the chair that would become as much his second home as the bed was to be Edward's. He was more mobile then, but not by much; that was part of why they'd given in and taken him to the hospital in the first place. There had been too many mornings where Edward had lain in bed, too weak to get up, his half-lidded gaze staring blankly at the wall. He had been experiencing severe nausea for several weeks, but during the last week sitting up alone sent him into a fit of uncontrollable coughing. On the day Edward had had his seizure, Jonathan realised they couldn't wait anymore. Edward had to be checked into the hospital that day. When Edward woke up and had had enough time to dispel the disorientation, Jonathan told him it was time to go. Jonathan could easily tell he was worn out, but still Edward smiled and said he agreed and they needed to get the show on the road. He'd only been in the hospital a few days before he already he looked a little better. It wouldn't last. But it gave Jonathan relief for the time being. And Edward, it seemed, as well: he got getting a little energy from somewhere, that was for sure, and while it lasted they argued and played chess and other small regular things they did at home before Edward became unable to do so.
It was two or three weeks before Edward started to fade again.
No. It was two. It was only two, and barely two, but sometimes Jonathan told himself it was three because he found himself trying to figure out how much time they'd spent together and it never felt like it was enough. He kept trying to find an hour here, a day there, a week, even, no matter how brief.
It was a slow fade, which Jonathan had feared. They tried to play it off when Edward's hands were too unsteady to grasp the smaller chess pieces, when Edward suddenly lost interest in an argument because it aggravated the ever-present headaches, when Edward fell asleep without warning no matter what was happening in front of him. Something cold began to gather in Jonathan's stomach. It wasn't terminal. It couldn't be. Edward was just getting worse before he got better.
Sometimes Edward would sleep for days on end, fatigue claiming every inch of his body for itself. The shadows under his eyes remained as dark as if they had been smeared there with a painter's careless thumb. Jonathan would sit and watch and wait, counting each shallow breath against his will. Edward slept on his side now, as he had for all of recent memory. When Edward was well he lay on his back, taking up an admirable amount of space for a man of his height. Jonathan longed to wake up again in the middle of the night because Edward's roving arm had found its way beneath his shoulder, somehow, or because Edward's periodic shifting resulted in his hips colliding rather hard with Jonathan's legs, but he especially yearned to wake because Edward had thrown his hand back and somehow gotten it alongside Jonathan's face. Edward's sleep had become so very still and silent, and on his side, always on his side, because when he was ill he only wanted to be as small as possible. After he had finally woken up one afternoon, ending one of those initial continuous days of sleep, and turned his still dream-filled eyes to Jonathan's face, he had told Edward just how much his behaviour had changed. Edward had smiled the smile of someone who didn't hear the joke but thinks the punchline is funny anyway and said, "At least you don't have to put up with my snoring anymore."
"I wish I could," Jonathan told him, thoughtlessly, and when Edward's brow creased and he turned his head away he realised his mistake. But he couldn't think of anything to lighten the moment he'd so carelessly destroyed, and he leaned forward and grasped Edward's hand instead. Edward looked at him then, so much more sad now than he'd ever been in real life, and still he curled his fingers around Jonathan's own and found something to smile about.
Edward, like anyone else in his situation, had good days and bad days and days so hard where it seemed Jonathan would never glimpse the man he'd known again. Most of them were good because Edward was determined to make them so. He was never quite as vibrant as he was before he became ill, but he did his best, and that was mostly successful. But some days the stress overwhelmed him and he wouldn't speak, wouldn't move, and Jonathan would hold his hand in silence as Edward stared dully at the wall. Jonathan never tried to cheer him up or anything of the sort. Sometimes even the strongest of men had to face their suffering.
And then there were the worst days, the ones where Edward didn't remember where he was or why he was there. He would look at Jonathan in terrified confusion as he patiently explained it though his heart pulsed in his throat, and Edward would shake his head and deny it, saying it wasn't real and it wasn't happening again and it wasn't fair that he couldn't escape it. And he would scream and cry and lash out at Jonathan, insisting it was the damn chemicals, Jonathan, all of those goddamn chemicals, and his voice would be choked with tears as he clenched the sheets in a death grip, the bones of his hand sharp against his thinning flesh. And Jonathan would sit quietly and wait for Edward to burn himself out. He kept as calm as possible, for he knew Edward's words weren't real, they were cried out because he was frustrated and exhausted and in endless, endless pain. He would leave one hand still on the bed, motionless, and when Edward was spent he would take it, fingers clutching for dear life. And Jonathan would get up and fold that fragile body, so much thinner now than Jonathan would ever be, into himself as Edward cried. It hurt both of them, Edward because the dry and gasping sobs were ripped directly from his steadily weakening heart, and Jonathan because there was nothing he could do about them. Edward's body would shudder so powerfully that Jonathan feared it would shatter then and there in his arms. "I'm sorry," Edward would whisper when he had enough of his breath to do so, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," and Jonathan wished he wouldn't. The words burned his ears as none other, because of all the things Edward had done in his life that he needed to feel sorrow for, that wasn't one of them.
Every few days Edward would sit forward in bed enough that Jonathan could sit behind him, and Jonathan would wash his hair with a dry shampoo as gently as possible. Edward refused to let the nurses do it, saying they were too rough and they pulled his hair out, and it was true; Jonathan had seen them. Edward's scalp became painful and irritated no matter how gently Jonathan brought the shampoo through his hair, and when he had finished he would carefully lean Edward into his chest and oh so softly move his hair back the way Edward liked it and had so lovingly combed it every morning before he'd become so sick. They would sit like that quietly until Edward made some smart remark about his thinning hair making him look old and decrepit. Though his once rich auburn had faded to a dull red that looked more like brown, though the once carefully maintained silkiness had traded itself for strands that were coarse and brittle, and though it was almost half again as thick as it used to be, Jonathan would always then remove himself to the chair and shake his head and tell him he was still beautiful. And Edward would smile, because he knew Jonathan wasn't lying.
Edward had refused any pain medication, saying he didn't want his faculties any more impaired than they had to be, and Jonathan respected that decision. He did so even when Edward spent hours at a time staring at the ceiling, silent tears streaming down his face and the only sound other than the general hospital ambience was the laboured sound of Edward's shallow breaths as he fought the pressure in his head. He would grip Jonathan's hand so powerfully at these times the bones of their fingers ground together enough that Jonathan could scarcely tell which of them were his. Sometimes Jonathan's entire arm would go numb, but he never mentioned that to Edward. He waited patiently for Edward to do whatever it was he did that allowed the pain to be bearable, for Edward to exhale one long breath and turn his tired smile to Jonathan and say in the low exhausted whisper that was becoming his voice, "I'm okay." And Jonathan would believe him but he still would not move his hand until Edward was ready.
But of course, though Edward lent every bit of his formidable stubbornness to keeping the cancer from getting the best, it began to overpower him.
There was the day that, body tense and head tilted back against the pillow to brace it, a scream unlike anything even Jonathan had ever heard tore itself from Edward's throat and he went limp as the pain took him. Jonathan's heart had panicked, his hand spasming tighter against Edward's now lifeless fingers, the echo of Edward's frustration and suffering ringing in the silence. It was truthfully the most frightening thing that had ever crossed Jonathan's ears. He sat in the silence for a few minutes, all of his fingers wrapped around Edward's thready pulse, telling himself over and over that it hadn't happened yet, it wasn't now, there was still hope left. But Edward's pain still echoed in his head and he could not convince himself, because what it meant was that Edward was losing and he knew it.
There was the day that Jonathan came back from their apartment, having taken the barest care with himself because he knew that was what Edward wanted, but he didn't wake for hours afterward. When he did, he slowly tilted his head to look at Jonathan and stared at him for a handful of seconds before dropping his eyes again. Jonathan was glad. They had been so very empty, like neglected glass. There was no life, no spark, no Edward, just the smoky green gaze of a man who was dead but whose heart still strove on. There was no welcoming smile of recognition, no matter how fleeting or sad or tired, because he simply didn't know who Jonathan was. And it was horrifying.
There was the day the doctor came into the room with Edward's chart, flipping it over, no doubt wondering at the previous diagnosis of terminal meningiomas and the subsequent miracle recovery. "Edward Nygma...," he said musingly. Edward's brow creased.
"Yes, Nygma. A bit of an odd name but it's the one you gave me."
Edward laughed. "Are you playing a joke on me, Doctor? What kind of a surname is Nygma? My name is Edward Nashton."
Jonathan's stomach felt as though it had been suddenly packed with ice.
"Well," the doctor said, eyeing Jonathan with sympathy, "you can take it up with administration later if you want. I'm here for something else."
And whatever it was he was there for, Jonathan paid no attention, as he'd never imagined it was going to get this bad. He couldn't remember his own name, the one he'd given himself. When the doctor left Jonathan said, "Your name is not Edward Nashton."
"I think I would know," Edward said, smiling because he thought he was in the right, and it was one of the only times it didn't bring Jonathan a little peace. Because he was so horribly wrong.
"No," Jonathan said, his voice tense and desperate. "No, Edward, you don't. You legally changed your name to Edward Nygma when you were twenty-one. You erased all official traces of your old name when you were twenty-three. Edward Nashton is your father's name. Not yours."
Edward stared at him. His eyes were clear. He was listening. "That sounds like something I would do," he said finally.
"You did do it!" Jonathan snapped. Edward looked away, his lower lip between his teeth.
"Edward," Jonathan said, having to know the answer but not wanting to hear it because he suspected he knew what it was, "I need you to tell me who the Riddler is."
"The Riddler," Jonathan said, more emphatically. Edward looked further nonplussed.
"Do you have to yell, Jon? How should I know who the riddler is? Is that even a word? I know there's... hm... well, there are certain wineries that employ a technique called 'riddling' to allow the sediment to gather on the cork, but... even if they do call them riddlers, how am I supposed to know which one you're talking about? I don't know anyone who works in a winery, but you know... I feel like I used to work in one..."
Jonathan rarely felt cold, but there was ice running through his veins when he handed Edward his phone. The phone he had taken that one photograph on. Just the one, he'd said, just the one for his phone. For his lock screen, he'd said. To remind him who the buffoon he woke up next to every morning was. Edward took it, still worrying his lip. "What?"
"I'm pretty sure that's me, Jon." He squinted at the screen. "Where in the hell did I get a green suit? It looks pretty sharp, I must say. And why are you dressed like that? Is this - we can't be going to a Halloween party, there's no way you'd let me - "
"We're not going to a Halloween party," Jonathan interrupted, and God, the pain in his chest - !
Was his heart breaking? Was that it?
"Then why are you dressed like that?" Edward repeated, and Jonathan realised that he was squinting because the tumour on his optic nerve was obstructing his vision. It kept getting worse, and it was all getting worse at once. What was Jonathan supposed to do, with all of this bad news piling up at once?
"We're in costume, Edward! The Riddler isn't a person who works in a winery, the Riddler is you! You are the Riddler, dammit!"
Edward only continued to look at the picture as though he had never seen the subjects before. "What's a riddler? What does that have to do with these costumes? Are you saying I'm dressed like a riddler?"
Jonathan had never felt so helpless in his life.
He leaned onto the bed, his face in his hands. "Do you even know who I am?" he asked hopelessly. He hadn't meant to ask, and when Edward didn't answer he only wished that he hadn't all the harder. He looked up to see Edward still staring at the phone, though now his vision was unfocused. Finally, he met Jonathan's eyes and said,
"I do today."
It was the first time Jonathan left while Edward was still awake.
He heard Edward calling after him, in what was left of his voice, but he couldn't stay. He had to leave, and he had to leave just then, and he managed to hold it off until he stumbled through the front door of the apartment they'd once shared with his vision so blurry he could hardly see. He didn't check to see if he'd closed it, because he couldn't stop it any longer. He collapsed right there in the hallway and cried.
He stayed there for a very long time. Long enough that the sun both set and rose. When he managed to stop crying he was left only with the pain in his chest that seemed insurmountable, and that was worse, because now there was nothing to distract him from it. When he realised it was only going to grow more terrible when the inevitable end finally came and he was alone, for the rest of his life, again he cried because he couldn't stop.
At some point he slept there like that, folded onto the floor with his head in his hands, and when he woke up and his head felt swollen and he saw that the sun had set and risen again, he realised that he'd been gone for an entire day. He had wasted a day. Edward could be gone now, for all he knew, and it was that panicked thought that bade him get off the wood that Edward had so carefully laid there and return to the hospital.
Edward was dozing when he arrived, upright and not asleep but near to, and Jonathan was as quiet as possible so as not to disturb him. When Edward's head lolled a little too freely onto his shoulder he jolted awake, blinking rapidly and looking around, stopping when he saw Jonathan. He smiled.
"Hey," he said, and somehow there was a little more strength in his voice than before. "Listen. They came back yesterday and advised me to take that pain medication. Apparently my uh... pain is disturbing other people. So I let them add that to the rest of the cocktail they've got me on."
Jonathan was afraid of what this was leading to.
"I had a lot of time to think, yesterday. Not just about myself, either, though that's obviously my preferred subject. But in all seriousness, Jonathan... I think it's the time we talked about."
Jonathan swallowed and gathered his fists into his lap.
Edward's eyes were clearer than they had been in weeks. He had made up his mind.
"I'm not going to get any better. There's no last-second miracle this time. I could hang in for a while longer, I suppose, but I'm starting to not see the point. My mind is... it's blank, Jonathan. I can remember things, but I know it's not the way I used to. Something about it isn't right. And that Nygma thing... changing my name must have been a pretty big event, but it's gone, Jonathan. It's gone." He met Jonathan's eyes then. "I'm becoming a mystery, which I have the feeling is some kind of ironic twist, but I don't want to be a mystery to myself. And that's..." He shook his head, wincing. "I don't want to die not knowing who I am. And I think I'm getting close to not knowing." He paused, tongue flicking at his cracked lips as if experimentally. "Do you understand?"
"Yes," Jonathan answered immediately, because he did. It hurt, and he didn't want to understand so that he didn't have to let go, but he did.
Edward's face creased suddenly, and he pressed his fingers to his face as he sank back into the pillows. "I'm so tired," he whispered, but not to Jonathan. "I'm so goddamn tired."
"I'll let you rest," Jonathan told him, and he grasped the hand when Edward dropped it within reach. "We'll do it tomorrow night. Is that too late?"
Edward's eyes fixed on him but refused to focus, no matter how many times he blinked. "It's perfect," he said, and his voice again was weak. "You said it would be like something, I think. I've been trying to remember. I've been trying but I just..." He shook his head the barest bit. "It's just not there."
He wasn't blinking because he couldn't see. It was because he was trying not to cry. Being faced with just how his memory had deteriorated, and then abandoned by Jonathan... it must have been a hard night. Jonathan would forever regret walking away.
"It will be like... slipping into a warm bath," Jonathan told him, and he squeezed the hand as reassuringly as he could. Willing Edward to do what he had to, because if he was going to be dead tomorrow there was no point in holding back tears now. "It won't hurt. It will be pleasant. I promise you that." He could do that for the man he loved, at least. In particular because there was nothing else left to be done.
Edward's face was wet. He would not diverge his eyes from Jonathan's. "With you?" he asked, and despite himself Jonathan somehow laughed. Edward smiled.
"Yes," Jonathan answered. "With me."
And then Jonathan decided, to hell with it, and he let go of Edward's hand and stood up. Edward reached for him, confusion on his face, but Jonathan only moved him as gently as possible and climbed into the bed next to him. And when he gathered Edward to his chest, what was left of the warm and vibrant man he had once been, Edward curled into him and cried. Jonathan held him close, hoping to high heaven that he was being gentle enough; God knew Edward bruised so easily now. But it didn't really matter anymore, did it. All that really did was that Jonathan stayed right there, giving Edward all the protection he had left to give, and it wasn't enough. But Jonathan knew what pain gripped Edward's chest then, and the fear that came naturally when faced with death, and even though it was not enough he would not stop offering what little he had.
"One more thing," Edward said, and Jonathan nodded though it was unseen. "Will you kiss me again? One more time? I can't remember what it feels like."
Jonathan remembered. Jonathan remembered all of them but especially the last one, the one where he'd been ignoring Edward because the man was so damn annoying when he wanted to be paid attention. Jonathan had walked away while Edward tried to talk to him, and Edward had pulled himself out of bed for the first time in days, had pushed him into the couch and laughed and pressed his lips so firmly into Jonathan's, somehow transferring a shadow of his smile onto Jonathan's face. "I knew you wanted to do that," Edward had said, the curl of his lips never wavering as he flicked the end of Jonathan's nose. "I always know best, remember that." And Jonathan had laughed, because oftentimes he did. Somehow.
The next day Edward had collapsed onto the kitchen floor when Jonathan wasn't home, and he had walked into the room to find him crumpled there, unconscious, with blood pooling out of his nose, and before the hot chocolate he'd brought home for Edward had begun to spread across the cold tile he had turned Edward's head skyward and fumbled for a sign of life.
Edward didn't remember that, didn't remember staring dully up at Jonathan or the blood in his mouth or mumbling a confession about a headache that had gone on for days with no sign of relent. He didn't remember leaning on Jonathan's shoulder as he somehow got Edward into bed or rolling onto his side as he slept. He didn't remember waking up and grasping the blanket that Jonathan had draped over his waist where he always put it himself, mumbling the words that told Jonathan even then it was the beginning of the end: "I'm so cold, Jonathan. I'm so tired and I'm so cold."
He didn't remember any of that, barely even remembered his own name, and somehow Jonathan had to fit all of those things and those of so many years previous into one kiss. One kiss left to tell the story, the story of heartbreak, fear, pain and loss. The story of passion, joy, healing and love. Their story, which Jonathan had to remember for both of them because he was the only one left who could tell it. And he tried to do so, tried to tell it to Edward as carefully and as deeply as possible. But when Edward looked at him after there were fresh tears running down his face, and Jonathan knew his best effort wasn't enough. Edward had gotten a glimpse, seen a single page of the text Jonathan had tried to show him, but all it had done was remind Edward just how many pages were lost to him now, forever. And when Edward had leaned his head back into Jonathan's chest and cried for all the things he'd done that now amounted to nothing, Jonathan held him.
Edward didn't wake up in the morning, not even after Jonathan had extricated himself and made Edward as comfortable as he could; his breaths were shallower still than ever before and his heart erratic. Jonathan had to follow through. He hadn't even considered not doing so; this was merely affirmation that he had to. And so he left Edward long enough to retrieve the formula from his chemistry equipment and not a second longer. He hadn't woken by then, so Jonathan left the syringe inside his jacket and sat down, taking one of the thin hands in his own.
Edward never quite woke up, that last day; when the night came and Jonathan knew he couldn't delay much longer for fear of losing his nerve, he woke Edward though he hated himself for disturbing him when he was so deeply tired. It was slow, and nerve-wracking. Finally Edward raised his head a little.
"Jonathan?" he whispered. His voice was so small.
"I'm here," Jonathan whispered. He squeezed the mostly lifeless hand for assurance. "Are you ready?"
"Yes," Edward answered. No hesitation. He wanted it, without a doubt.
And it was hard, to go through with it. It was so incredibly hard to lie down with Edward as though they were at home again and nothing was wrong, as though they were just going to sleep together as they'd done for so long, because it was so far from what was happening. Jonathan had the syringe in his hand and his hand was shaking. It had to be steady or it would hurt Edward going in but his hand was shaking.
Edward was on his chest, like always. One of his hands was on top of Jonathan's, like always.
But it wasn't Edward anymore. His body was too small and his voice too quiet and his breath too timid. It wasn't Edward anymore. Edward had already died, somewhere, sometime, and all Jonathan had left of him was this shell that had betrayed them both.
He took one of Edward's arms and laid it across his chest so he could see the veins there. It wasn't hard. His flesh had gone nearly transparent a while ago.
"Are you afraid?" he whispered into the hair that had once been Edward's.
"No," said the shadow of Edward's voice. "I'm not."
And because Jonathan believed it, he took the syringe and steadily emptied it into one of the veins. When he fully realised what he'd just done he dropped it, biting his lip hard to keep from screaming in regret.
"Did it hurt?" he asked, and his voice was choked back into the root of his throat.
"A little," came the answer. "But everything does."
Because it no longer mattered, Jonathan ran one hand through the remains of Edward's hair, like he used to do before they fell asleep. He searched the strands for some hint of Edward's cologne, which used to cling to him even on the days he didn't wear it, but found only the ugly tang of chemicals and sickness. And he listened as the shallow breaths shortened.
"Does it feel like I said it would?"
"Yes." Barely audible, even when their heads were so close together.
"I'm sorry," Jonathan whispered, the tears spilling over, his mouth set so firmly in sadness he didn't think it would ever return to normal. "I'm so sorry."
The monitor had a different time of death than Jonathan did. Jonathan heard it, heard the moment Edward's tired body failed to draw breath, and he was crying long before the monitor caught up. He was pressing the body far too hard into his own and crying and trying to find some semblance of Edward left inside of it, but he was gone and he'd been gone for so long and it had taken them both too long to realise it. All that Jonathan so desperately held and cried over so hard was not him. It was not him and it was not him and it was not him but god, it had been. It had been.
They said that he stayed with the body until it had gone cold, but they were wrong. His body had gone cold weeks ago, before they had ever brought him to the hospital in the first place, because whatever was left of the warm and vibrant man who had been Edward Nygma remained in their apartment somewhere. He'd left it beneath the blanket the last time he'd gone to bed unassisted. He'd left it in Jonathan's chair the last time he'd invited himself into Jonathan's lap. He'd left it inside the cup Jonathan had given him his last hot chocolate in.
He'd left it in the last smile he had given Jonathan that had been free of sadness or sickness or pain.
And Jonathan tried to find it. He tried to find that last bit of warmth Edward had given him, that last bit of essence that would let him continue on, but he'd lost it. Edward had given it to him to keep safe because he could no longer keep it himself, and now Edward was cold and Jonathan was cold and the world was cold because it was gone.
Jonathan was numb.
It was the coldness. He'd never noticed it before, but now it was everywhere. It seeped up through the ground, and he breathed it in the frigid air that barely made it through his frozen lungs. Sometimes his fingers appeared blue. They weren't. But they appeared to be.
Jonathan looked at the empty syringe in his hand. It had contained the most powerful toxin he'd ever made.
Where was the Scarecrow when you needed him?
He let it drop from his fingers. It was useless. It was all useless. The part of him that was still, somehow, a psychiatrist, told him to go find help. That this was all terribly unhealthy. That he would be all right if he just got help.
But it wasn't big enough. It wasn't loud enough.
He'd been sitting there for a while now. Jonathan knew he wasn't a consequence of any of the chemicals he'd poured into his own veins for the last few weeks in an effort to escape this horrible pain throbbing inside his chest. No, he had appeared before that; initially only in the corner of his vision, causing his heart to jump painfully in hope, but he was always gone before Jonathan could turn around. Jonathan began to see him more often after, feeling his silent gaze as Jonathan tried ever more powerful concoctions to take away some of the pain, just some of it. But he never said anything. Never told Jonathan to stop. Never told Jonathan he was doing the wrong thing. Maybe he couldn't. Maybe Jonathan's actions made him grow stronger. If that were the case, Jonathan would never stop.
He was right there.
"No, I'm not real," Edward said. "I wish I was. You really need help, Jon. And you won't accept it from anyone else, will you."
Jonathan just stared into the grey distance. Every distance was grey now. He couldn't distinguish one from the other. It was all grey, and all cold.
"Can I see it again?" Edward asked. He was talking about the photograph. The one in Jonathan's other hand. Wordlessly Jonathan did as he asked.
"It's a good picture," Edward told him. "The only one we needed."
"Come back," Jonathan whispered. If he closed his eyes tight enough, he could feel Edward's warm hand on his shoulder.
"I did." He could hear the scrape of Edward's expensive shoes on the cement. It was a distinctive sound. All of the ones he remembered about Edward were, because they were all a consequence of Edward. Everything about Edward was memorable and distinctive. Everything. "Because you need me to tell you what you have to do. You won't let anyone else. A fact I was proud of, once upon a time, but not so helpful to you once I'm dead, eh?"
"What do I have to do?"
"What I did." He poked Jonathan's shoulder. "Accept what you want. Even if it's... unconventional."
"What did you want?"
Edward sighed. "It's not obvious? I wanted to let go. It was hard to accept that. It was really hard. Don't tell anyone I said that, by the way. But it was hard. I wanted so much to hang onto life long after I didn't really have one. That day we decided to check me into the hospital in the first place was the day I should have let go. We both knew I wasn't going to get better and we did it anyway, and you saw what happened to me. I hung on long after I was already dead. Don't make that mistake, Jonathan. Don't hurt yourself hanging onto nothing."
"I want to let go of you," Jonathan said to him. "But I can't. You're everywhere. The last time I tried to take a shower I looked at your soap and I broke down. The last time I tried to sleep the blankets smelled like you and I broke down. The last time I tried to put on a clean shirt I saw all of yours and I broke down. What am I supposed to do? Destroy all of those things? Destroy all that's left of you?"
"Would it make a difference?"
"No," Jonathan admitted. "No."
"What do you want to do, then."
Jonathan looked at him. He was so much more vibrant here than in Jonathan's recent memory. The full-colour version of an old grey photograph. Warm and healthy, almost indistinguishable from the grey shadow he had become.
"Would I be a coward if I said I wanted to die?"
He shrugged. "Isn't fear your thing? What say you, Dr Crane? Is it cowardice? Is it bravery? Or is it something else?"
Jonathan looked down at the picture again. The one picture. The one.
"Something else," he answered finally.
"Do you see it, Edward?" Jonathan whispered. Edward regarded him silently. He tapped the screen of the phone with one narrow finger.
"It's here. You left it here. In this picture, Edward. You left the warmth here. You immortalised it. I can't have it, but it will never fade."
"That was the point," Edward nodded. "One moment in time. Just one. I only needed one."
"And if I can't have it," Jonathan continued, tracing Edward's preserved face with that finger, "then this isn't going to end."
He waved his hand. "It's grey. It's all grey, Edward. Everything is grey except this picture and you and some of the things upstairs, but..."
"And what happens then?"
"That's when it will be too late."
"You'll have waited too long. Like I did."
"Don't," Edward said, his voice holding a hint of warning. "Don't wait."
"I miss you."
"I miss you too."
He was most of the way there anyway. He just needed a little bit more of a nudge and that would be that. He provided the excuse and Batman provided the nudge. Jonathan wasn't the first person to do that. He wouldn't be the last.
Batman didn't know how frail he was. Batman didn't care. Batman hadn't come to see Edward, had he, hadn't come to see Jonathan, hadn't given a damn. And when he was finally contained and readmitted to the Asylum, years again after he'd been out, he knew it wasn't really where he wanted to be. But it was home in more ways than the apartment was. The apartment had ceased to be home when Edward had left. Home was where Edward was, and Edward was gone, and so home no longer existed. Jonathan could never find home again.
"Why, Jonathan?" Batman was demanding, his great shadow filling up the doorway. "What have you done? What was the point? Why try to take so many lives now, after all these years?"
Does he deserve an answer, Jonathan asked Edward. He was sitting on the floor next to him, leaning forward, hands clasped.
Yes, Edward said slowly, nodding. Something.
"Riddle me this," Jonathan answered, his vision gone too grey to be useful, and the pain in his chest now was more to do with overwork and the circulation of far too many toxic chemicals than his loss, but that was fine. That was more than fine. There was no riddle to tell, as Jonathan had never been any good at those, but that didn't matter.
Batman did not reply.
Are you afraid? Edward asked, looking over at him. Jonathan pressed his aching head into the corner of the wall and shook it.
No. I'm not.
Sit with me, Jonathan said to him. I'm so cold, Edward. I'm so tired and I'm so cold.
The warmth of Edward's cheek against his shoulder spread through his body, and he relaxed. For the first time in months he felt better. He felt... okay.
Do you remember meeting me, Edward?
Of course I do. His hand was on Jonathan's restrained arm. I told you a riddle and said it was a pleasure to meet you. I do that to everyone. You're not so special. But he was only teasing and Jonathan knew full well how the smile on his face looked, down to the deepening of the creases at the corners of his eyes, though he couldn't see him.
That's what I said to myself, at the time, Jonathan told him. You said it was a pleasure. No one had ever told me that unironically.
I know that now.
I miss you, Edward said.
Give me a minute, and you won't have to.
Haven't you kept me waiting long enough?
Yes. I have.
Then hurry up. Nothing left for you out there. Especially since I'm over here. And since where I am is obviously where it's at, you're clearly in the wrong place.
Clearly. It was almost like he'd really been there the whole time. And maybe... maybe he had been.
It was a nice thought.
God, he was always so impatient. But there was no other way for him to be.
All right. I'm coming.
And he was, he finally was. And there was no greater feeling in all the world than the one he got when he realised he was not alone any longer. He was going to be back where he belonged. Alongside Edward. He would be warm again and the world would have colour, the things Edward had brought to him in the first place that he had not realised he needed. Just as he had not realised he needed Edward. But he did. Oh God, he did, and he was going to have him back. The cancer had taken him away, but Jonathan was going to have him back.