WHO Stephanie and Eddie (Pt 1 of 2). WHAT birthday plans gone bust. WHEN Stephanie's birthday, last Sunday. WHERE around Gotham. a bar, then another bar. WARNING mocking douchebags, politically incorrect tiki bars.
Spring was always a symbol of rebirth, even in a place like Gotham. Flowers began to bloom, birds chirped early in the morning, and the city dwellers shook off the sleepiness of winter to a world just full of possibilities. Crime rose, as it was wont to do in the warmer weather, and vigilantes stretched their wings through the night sky. Spring was simultaneously kind and unkind to the city, but everyone was always at least grateful when the ice began to melt off the rooftops. Wasn’t it just the perfect time for Stephanie and Eddie to return after five years of war? Eddie and Steph, who were tossed into a renaissance of themselves, but not of their own volition, could find the symbolism in coming back home just as the seasons began to change, and life began anew.
Five years could feel like a lifetime if you weren’t careful, and for the two of them, it definitely had. A lifetime of fearing for each other’s lives, of wondering what was next, of losing and losing and losing. But there they were, even if it was five years later, and they still had each other. They could restart their lives, jump in feet first back into their Gotham, and pick up all the things they had missed so, so very much. Trivial things in a world that barely afforded them their lives, but here they could indulge in whenever they wanted. They made it a thing every single day to celebrate their return and the anniversaries, birthdays and whatever elses they had missed or not given proper attention to when they were in that other, war-ridden Gotham. They did all those things they onced loved, a hurricane whirlwind of explorations and bright lights and a foreign kind of happiness they hadn’t had in years.
But, it wasn’t really the same. Stephanie balked at the gaudiness, at the ludicrousness as the week went on, but she kept mum on the subject, worried that she would ruin Eddie’s glee for rediscovering their home and all the pieces that used to make him up. So, she followed along with the birthday plan younger Eddie dreamt up five years earlier for a Stephanie on the cusp of twenty-one. Of womanhood. Now, Stephanie was twenty-six, and as much of a woman as she would ever be. War aged her not just physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. Gone were the days of pettiness and jealousy and insecurities about her body.
A string of places growing bigger and more bombastic and ludicrous culminated in the tackiest tiki bar Gotham had to offer. Talking heads adorned the wall, bartenders slung bright, sugary drinks to awaiting customers, leis were scattered around to be picked up at drunken fools’ discretion, and contemporary music blasted from overhead speakers. It was packed, as most places on weekends were, and such an overwhelming sensory experience that Stephanie felt like she was smacked in the face as they walked in. It was obviously meant to callback to Hawaii; she could see (and appreciate) the intent. But, she had to force herself not to grimace as she turned around to Eddie, and asked, “Drinks?” The desperation in her voice to seem happy was lost in the noise, and all he could see was a smile crawling up her lips, the way her black dress hugged and hinted at her body, the sprinkling of scars and curve of inky stains on her skin. She looked out of place, too dressed up and too much like a soldier trying to play the old roles after returning from a long tour. But she didn’t let that stop her from assuring him with a tug off his fingers that she was obviously thrilled to be there.
Eddie and Stephanie looked like they were dressed for a funeral in the middle of one of the most colorful places in Gotham. And, he didn’t even realize it until he looked down at his new black suit, the pencil thin tie with blossoming question marks in silver and compared it to the gaudy, brightly colored flower print shirt of the guy next to him. It made him laugh a little, a small chuckle to himself that to Stephanie made him look like he was happy to be there. The truth was, even after five years of war, Eddie was an eccentric man. He liked his bright colors and over the top gestures. But, they were usually done in service to fighting the Syndicate. Giant puzzle traps, trails leading to silly dead-ends and oversized pranks made to be dangerous. Those were more his style. This? The “authentic” Hawaiian decor and loud music? Made him a little annoyed.
Still, he wondered if Stephanie actually wanted this kind of thing back. It was one thing to get a thrill from running around as Riddler and Spoiler, but maybe she wanted this twenty-something, brainless party scene? No, Eddie didn’t really believe that. So, what were they doing here? Paying homage to an old and outdated version of themselves? Or trying to recapture the people they were before the war?
“Drinks.” He said with a lingering smile and let her lead him over to a small slice of the bar that was empty. Eddie couldn’t remember the last time he felt crowded when he wasn’t trying to fight people off him and honestly feeling so many bodies brush and push against him made Eddie want to elbow someone in the face.
Eventually, he got the attention of the bartender and ordered two “Lava Lavas” and the second they got there, he gulped down it so fast he got a tiny brain free. Giving her a goofy laugh, he leaned close and whispered. “Do you wanna here a good Hawaiian riddle?” Eddie kissed her shoulder and then looked at her to see if she was ready. “Riddle me this. Ku’u punawai kau i ka lewa. What am I?”
Stephanie, in fact, was annoyed herself as they pressed into the crowd and towards the bar. Maybe if she had spent her defining party years as a co-ed frequenting frat parties, dating college boys with backwards caps, and not fighting crime or dating her riddled man, she might have dug this sort of place. But, she hadn’t, and she’d always been a girl a little off the cuff of most people around her age. Even without all of the years where crowds meant someone trying to kill her, she probably wouldn’t have liked it as much as she should have.
She kept the smile on her face though, and pressed on the bar in the way only a confident woman would. Elbows close together and resting on the bar, chin resting in her hand as she looked at Eddie in amusement, chest and torso pressed against wood. She cocked an eyebrow up as he chugged the frozen drink down, sipping at first before taking one giant gulp of her own. His chuckle brought a giggle out of her, nose wrinkling and shoulder curving away after he kissed it. And, when he rattled off that riddle, she stuck her tongue out in amusement. “Baby, I still have not gotten really good at your riddles.”
He wiggled his eyebrows at her and opened his mouth to repeat the riddle in Hawaiian as if to tease her further, but the music thumped even louder and he knew even if he told it in English, it would sound like mumbo jumbo. What a shame, his Hawaiian was still pretty good sounding. Eddie took another sip of his drink, a big freezing one and then looked around for a way to mime the riddle out for her. His head turned and she could see him quirk an amused look at a man shouting for a girl next to him to give him a lei like it was the most clever pun in the whole world. Inside, the Riddler was crying.
“Okay, look!” Eddie shouted hoarsely over the thumping music and grabbed a nearby water glass and held it up a little above his head. “Water! Above my head!” The music thumped louder and people shoved from all sides. “What am I?” Oh, the riddle was more poetic in Hawaiian. It sounded like it was written on warm sands next to rolling waves. He’d tell her later when his head wasn’t starting to hurt from the people and the music.
Eddie got shoved in the shoulder and what would have knocked the man over five years ago, simply made his arm jerk a little. He set the water down calmly and looked behind him at an empty eye woman complaining about her divorce and how a week ago it didn’t even exist. Complaining about how hard her life was and how she needed a drink. Eddie always loved giving people a peace of his mind and this woman deserved it, but this was Stephanie’s birthday. And, they were supposed to be having fun. So he laughed it off and made room for her and her giant bag.
Stephanie fell into a fit of giggles as he tried to mime out the riddle, trying to forget the douchebags surrounding them and the pervading sense of wrong and annoyance that would ruin Eddie’s fun. Clearly he was enjoying it, right? Better than she was, at least. She took another couple of gulps of the sweet drink, lip turned down slightly at the discomfort of the environment and the overwhelming freeze of that pretty little thing in the glass. Earth-3, when they had booze, was straight liquor or cheap beer or wine, if they were lucky. She licked her lips to try to savor the taste of alcohol and fruity tartness.
Despite her obvious connection to the man in the suit sitting on the stool next to her, some men started to leer, to try to lean forward, and if she hadn’t been trying to keep Eddie happy, she would have turned around and crack their teeth in with her elbow. No questions asked. Still, the laugh caused a flicker of something across her face. Suspicion or maybe a desire to shove away all these people trying to press against them when it was supposed to be a happy day. A flicker in the darkness that could betray her discomfort in all of this completely before she leaned closer to him, hand running up his arm slowly as if to savor the expensive fabric of his suit.
“I appreciate the theme,” she shouted over the loudness of the people and the music, “of trying to remind us of Hawaii. We can’t deny you weren’t a romantic.”
Eddie thought he saw something dark flash in those blues and he wondered if she hated this as much as he did. If she was sick of the smell of spilt booze and heavy perfume and bodies that wouldn’t leave them alone. And, he would have loved this five years ago. He liked loud music, bright colors and the feeling of being smothered by Gotham. But, he had his head almost smashed in too many times by Owlman. He had been in mobs that broke his arms and cut his skin. He had seen people drop dead in front of him suddenly and knew he was next. So, this? This made him jumpy, nervous and ready to bite like a cornered dog. Did she feel the same, or was Stephanie stronger than he was?
He instinctively leaned closer to her in need. “I’m still a romantic.” Eddie insisted with a smirk her way that took away some of the annoyance in his expression. “Though, I don’t know even I can top myself.” Eddie regained that smarmy swagger. “I never thought I’d say something like that.” Most of what he said was lost with the music and he realized it a little too late. “What do we even DO here?” He shouted so loud everyone looked at him.
Her fingers dug into his arm unconsciously as he leaned closer, tugging at him slightly and pulling him even closer. Ever since they started dating, Stephanie always liked to be as close to Eddie as possible, but ever since they had to fight for their lives day in and day out, she had developed a funny, desperate sort of need to have him close whenever she got the chance. Especially when she was uncomfortable. It developed from that fear of losing him at any moment, of treasuring what they had when they did, of that flight or fight sense that knew he would protect her from anything.
She returned his smirk and tried her best to listen to his words, but the consuming loudness drowned it all out. She opened her mouth to tell him just that when he shouted, and she couldn’t stop the wide-eyed look she gave him. But, that quickly melted into a burst of laughter again, and she tugged him once more until he leaned close enough for her to press her body against his side. She looked gleeful, like something might have just clicked in her head. “Baby,” she said with a grin, a real one, but she tried to toe around the subject just in case she was wrong. “You know what goes on here. Whatever these people are doing.” Her blue eyes betrayed how much she hated that idea, and the smile hoped that he felt the same way. That he could read underneath it all and say fuck this, too.
Eddie’s face scrunched up in confusion as she grinned at him, not catching on right away. “I know? Whatever they’re doing?” He took a suspicious sip of his Lavvaa Laavvaa that seemed to go on for days, long enough that a brain freeze could cancel out the headache he was getting from the music. His dark eyes stared at hers, their shared hate for the place finally clicking and he smiled brightly back at her. Dazed and muddled by the mix of booze and ice rumbling in his brain.
Behind him, a man in a flowered shirt got on the stage and stopped the music. He shouted for people to scream how good of a time they were having and cringggeed in response. Waitresses were throwing out cheap leis into the crowd and “tribal” drums played over the speakers. Eddie grabbed Stephanie’s hand suddenly, pushing through the crowd without caring who he shoved and lead them out of the phony tiki bar like they were escaping a bombing. And, that felt good. The adrenaline rush of dodging through people, the sound of drums in his ears and that cool air that greeted him at the door. That made him feel more alive than anything in that bar could ever muster.
Outside was quiet, even with the thumping music inside and occasional passerby. Eddie pulled her close, arms around her shoulders tightly as he laughed and rocked on his feet. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking.” He laughed and kissed her face, her chin, her sugared lips.
Stephanie’s nose wrinkled from the smile when she saw the look of recognition even in the dim light of tacky, hanging shell- and paper lantern-covered string lights. So glad that she wasn’t alone in her hatred of this overwhelming place. She opened her mouth to tell him as much before the drums started and Eddie yanking her from the bar like they were under fire. Maybe they were. A giggle rang through the pockets of noise, and she pushed through the throngs of people unapologetic. There was a certain thrill in it, the kind she hadn’t felt since she’d gotten back to this Gotham. The kind that had her blood pumping into her throat when all she had between she and a murderous crowd was an arrow and her own skills.
Okay, maybe she missed it a little bit.
In his arms, she laughed, too. Buzzing from the adrenaline high and the alcohol in her system, her hand rested on his chest. “I’m so glad you hate it as much as I do,” she replied, grinning at the attack on her face. She caught his mouth with hers, unabashedly deepening it in the middle of the sidewalk as people passed by and tugging on that thin tie. She didn’t know if she should admit how running away from that mess felt better than most of the things they had done that night. So instead she tugged at his tie, one old habit that she readily fell back into. “I’m so, so glad,” she whispered against his mouth. Stephanie felt displaced all of a sudden. Like she was trying to play pretend, fitting into this life that they were supposed to have.
Eddie laughed brightly, head back and eyes closed as if he couldn’t believe that they lasted in there as long as they did. Five years ago he would have pushed through it and proved why it was a good idea or ruined the night trying. Things were different now. He knew time was a precious, precious thing. Why waste it miserable, even if it meant he had to admit he was wrong?
His hands smoothed over her hips and pulled her closer as she deepened the kiss. They were never good at censoring themselves and on Earth-3 it got even worse. The world was falling apart and instead of locking himself up in trying to save the day, he always tried to sneak in a quick makeout session or more wherever and whenever she gave him the chance. That wasn’t going to change. His throat made a rumbly noise. “Oh, but there’s five other things to do on this list.” He pulled a crinkled piece of paper out of his pocket and held it up between them. “Acrobat drinking...” Eddie raised his eyebrows. “I don’t know what that is, but I can guess.” He laughed, mumbling nos at different things on the list and then shook his head with a sad finality.
“Nothing here sounds even remotely fun. It’s all waaaaaayy over the top.” He crumpled the paper up in his hand, rounding it into a nice ball and then tossed it into the nearby trashcan. Eddie grabbed her hand and took a step away. “I don’t want to go home, though.” Eddie gave her a look like a man who was happy to be out in the city without bombs falling. He kissed her knuckles, dark eyes watching her and waiting for agreement.
When her life was on the line, it didn’t really seem necessary to deny herself the chance to get caught up in Eddie whenever she wanted or needed. Earth-3 lowered Stephanie’s inhibitions even further, a woman who had never shied away from PDA in the first place more than willing to concede when he asked for a kiss or something more. Or even push him for it when she felt a twinge of want or need or desperation. It even became a bit of a joke between the UJL members, who had walked in on the two lovebirds plenty of times on missions or other equally inappropriate situations. Steph didn’t want to hide away how much she loved her riddled man. She was never really good at that to begin with; now, the filter almost disappeared.
She stumbled forward easily into his embrace and smirked at the rumble in his throat. “That sounds like stuff we could have done out on the field if we wanted.” Her nose wrinkled in amusement, and she gazed at him as he read over the list, lip curving up to reveal a soft sort of expression that bled affection and adoration. She never hid that anymore either. There wasn’t time for anything like that. She wanted him and everyone else in the world -- whatever world -- to know that she loved Eddie Nashton more than anything else and always, always would in spite of anything. What either of them might have said, or regrets they had, or things that other couples would not have come through on the other side.
Her laugh rang through the street, carefree and loose, and she let go of his tie finally when he stepped away. Wiggling her finger into each brush of his lips, she looked at him with affirmation. “Me either.” Stephanie wanted nothing more than to soak up the Gotham she missed with the man she loved. She tugged against his hand before stepping forward and away from that ostentatious bar. “Let’s go for a walk? Or find somewhere quiet?”
Eddie liked the feeling of her hand in his and he couldn’t remember a time on Earth-3 where they could just stroll down the street without worry. Gotham wasn’t safe, it was lousy with every kind of criminal you could imagine, but he had lived there his whole life. He could handle a mugging or even a random Arkham escapee without much effort and so could Stephanie. To the rest of the world, Gotham was ugly, dark, cruel and dangerous. To him it was simply home. He swung her arm a few times as they walked and then smiled over at her. “We’ll see if a place jumps out at us.”
The street was lined with bars and clubs. Some of them as old as he was, some brand new and flashy. “I kind of miss the Iceberg Lounge.” He admitted, watching young and old trot off to their bar of choice. “Most of the time someone was trying to rob the joint and were subsequently thrown to the harp seals, but the quiet nights were perfect. Fresh seafood, great music and overpriced souvenirs. You couldn’t beat it.” Eddie didn’t spend any time on Earth-3 reminiscing about his old Gotham, one so old even she didn’t remember it. But, these old, brick buildings and the bustling street reminded him of a life and a Riddler that seemed so far away now.
Stephanie smiled, tugging at his fingers after he swung their arms like they were skipping down some sunny, grass-laden lane instead of down a notorious city’s street. It was home though, and god didn’t it feel so much safer when bombs weren’t going off over their heads. In retrospect, when they would lay in bed at night on Earth-3, she realized that all of the muggings and crime and everything she fought against in this Gotham couldn’t compare. Not that she regretted crime fighting or anything like that. But, losing herself amidst a war and even now coming back made everything that came before seem so petty. Wounds from a past life were dug deep, sure, but having time away made it feel so distant.
As they walked down the street, she tugged his arm again until he stepped closer and she could wrap her arm around his waist. As if she was starved for affection any second he wasn’t touching her. “Maybe Penguin will come back one day soon,” she said with a smile, not really that concerned with rogues’ threats as before. It was all so gray before, and now? It had only gotten worse. “It’s a shame Freeze isn’t around now. We could get him to pump some ice into a place and open one of her own,” Stephanie teased, turning to kiss his cheek then drag teeth down his jaw with a mischievous smirk. “We both need jobs now that we’re back, after all.”
His arm wrapped around her shoulder and he pulled her close like two puzzle pieces that fit perfectly together. “Oh, we’d get bored out of our minds running a place like that. Penguin is a lazy ass, that’s why he went grey before any of us had the good sense to do the same.” Eddie rolled his free hand in the air, musing on rogues he hadn’t seen in forever and a day. “You and I may not enjoy the thumping music of a phony, white man Tiki Bar, but we need a little thrill in our day to day lives. Making sure table six has their lobster would make you crazy.” He teased her with a smirk that said he knew he was right. Maybe they didn’t like loud music blaring in their ears and disgusting drunks pushing up against them, but they were born and raised in Gotham. They always enjoyed the thrills.
He turned to kiss the top of her head and then looked down at her. “I think I’m just going to get back to being an information broker. It’s what I like doing. It’s what I did in one lifetime until the mobs died out. This is the city for it.” Eddie knew it wasn’t going to be that simple for Stephanie, but he also learnt to let her just tell him that instead of stating the obvious. His head tilted to the side, big puppy dog eyes asking a silent question of what she wanted.
Her fingers twisted near his hip into the expensive suit jacket , and sighed happily when she settled in his arms. “We’re supposed to want a really, really quiet life, aren’t we? With quiet friends and quiet jobs and quiet everything,” Stephanie teased quietly, reaching to smooth a hand down his chest, slide it around his waist, and fall back to her own side. She couldn’t help herself when it came to touching him, being close to him, showing how much she loved him. “Politically incorrect Tiki Bar is not a thrill either, by the way. A cheap one, if anything. I wouldn’t even compare that tackiness.” A younger, less weary Stephanie might have loved that bar for what she could glean out of it, but there was no point in doing that now. She’d seen too many people’s lives cut short to deal with that.
She didn’t look surprised or displeased that Eddie wanted to go back to information broking. In fact, she had kind of expected it from him. It made sense. She nodded, pulling at his clothes again in approval. “I think that’ll be good. And it’s the best way for us to keep a pulse on the city, y’know?” Because Stephanie, no matter what, always wanted to do that. Always wanted to make sure Gotham wasn’t going to crumble underneath them, especially when they just got it back. But expectation in his puppy dog browns had her rolling her lips together, and she did a little half-shrug.
“I don’t know what I want.” It was the first time in a while that she didn’t have a set plan like that. On Earth-3, she didn’t have time for that, for anything like ambitions and jobs and building a life. Here, obviously, was different, and she longed for the days when everything looked so clear.
He nodded at the shrug and kissed her jaw. “You don’t have to know. I got an easy riddle this time. Yours is a lot more complicated.” Eddie looked up and saw a blinking blue saxaphone in neon. He nudged Stephanie with a smile, breaking loose from their tangled hold and pulled her fingers towards the tiny little jazz bar at the end of the street. The place looked ancient, maybe as old as he was. A dirty, gloved hand that was painted onto the wall pointed down into the cellar where slow, brassy music gently played. The guy at the door (who was twice Eddie’s size and about as old) recognized him instantly and nodded him inside. Most people in Gotham knew The Riddler. He had a job for everyone while being able to pay them back in information, money or destroyed files, and that was how to keep the machine running without losing control. That was why information broker was a natural fit and it always would be.
The inside of the jazz club looked like an old wine cellar. Bricks stacked on each other to create archways high overhead in fanning, messy designs. “This was an old speakeasy called the Blind Hog. There’s a room in the back with a stairway that eventually leads to Wonder City.” Eddie could never help playing the tour guide, even to his own girlfriend in their own city. The walls were decorated with Christmas lights and black and white pictures of old gangsters, celebrities and dirty politicians. Booths were blue plush. Crystal chandeliers that looked stolen hung from the ceiling, damaged and glittering despite it. An old jazz band made up of men with skin cracked by age played piano, trumpet and saxaphone. Couples swayed on the dance floor. Cops looking for an easy night off, mobsters who didn’t want any trouble and everyone in between.
“Wanna dance?” Eddie smiled sweetly and the boy she had met in their shared dream was there in his eyes. That part of him untouched by all the bad things life had hit him with.
Stephanie didn’t mind when Eddie rattled off information like it was his job. Nine times out of ten, it was something interesting and she always felt better for it. Smarter, more well-rounded. Eddie was so good at making her feel like that these days. Maybe when she was younger, she hated how much smarter he was because she felt inadequate, but these days, she appreciated every little thing about him. “How’d you find that out?” she asked, eyebrows high as they walked into the old, but beautiful bar. “Go on a drunken exploration one night when I wasn’t around to keep you entertained?” Something like that seemed so simple, even if that wasn’t really what happened. Something so simple and innocent and real Gotham as stumbling on an underground city instead of hunting for it on an expedition assigned by the greater powers that be for healing pit potion.
“I’d love that,” Stephanie replied, spotting the youth in his smile and couldn’t suppress a smile of her own. Slipping her arm around his, she lead them to the dancefloor, and as the music dipped lethargically, she wrapped her arms around his neck, falling quiet as she took the ambiance in. It was perfect honestly; here, they couldn’t get lost in the loud music and obnoxious douchebags. It was easier to focus on them, and at the end of the day, that was all she wanted out of this night. Or any night for as far into the future as she could imagine.
Catching his eye, she smiled at him softly, stepping a little closer as they swayed to the saxaphone and trumpet and piano. “Remember when we were all in that perfect Gotham? When you and I could dance circles around those other couples?” One of her hands began to curl into the collar of his shirt. “You’re lucky I grew out of my clumsiness, or else I’d be stepping all over your feet right now.” A single fingertip traced lazy, nonsensical lines on the back of his neck, hairline to collar and back again.
“I was here drinking during a meeting with one of Maloni’s guys,” Eddie explained, taking her hand and leading her out to the dancefloor with a gentleman like grace that didn’t come out very often around her. Eddie could still dance laps around anyone in this bar and most of Gotham, but it was best not for a super genius to get caught up on what he could do vs the world. “I needed to use the little boy’s room, so I happened upon the door. It was locked, naturally, so I knocked and when no one answered I assumed some idiot locked it on the way out.” He found a nice little space for them on the dance floor and pulled her close, hands smoothing over her lower back. “I got my tool kit out, cracked the door open and followed the stairs until I found one of my Riddler trophies in old Wonder City.” Eddie smiled, swaying against her with the music. “Maloni’s guy thought I got murdered because I vanished and subsequently believed I was a ghost the next time I saw him. Good times.”
And, even though Eddie didn’t run around in spandex or dream up over-the-top dates for Stephanie, that curiosity of needing to see what was behind a locked door never changed. If there was one thing he learnt from Machina, it was that there were a lot of things in the universe he didn’t know, but not all of it was unknowable. The pursuit of knowledge never had to die even when space and technology sprawled out beyond his understanding. He could get close, he could learn everything about the things he loved and that was more than enough for the riddled man.
“I hated that Gotham. I’d rather lose all my toes to your clumsy ass than go back to that place.” He murmured, leaning into her touch as her fingers trailed down the back of his neck. “I can’t remember ever being that angry. Frustrated, sure. But, I was pissed.” Eddie wondered what it meant to the people he knew now. If what he said and did would be enough for them to never try to talk to him again. “I wonder who wants to go back? Who can’t let that place go.” He voiced the end of a thought, but he knew she could could connect the dots for herself.