It's harder to fight off the crazy when it whispers dirty promises in your ear as you try to sleep. Through their shared vent, Jerome lists off limitless promises of friendship, alliance, power, laughter. He flirts and dances around Oswald's head with something close to malice, but not quite, all in a twisted display of just how far Jerome can reach. He could pull Oswald down from his heights with that much influence. Jerome can make Oswald's time there an absolute hell if he wanted to, or, as he continues to promise, he can make it better. He can crush and squeeze him until all of Oswald's fight drains out of him, or he could lift Oswald up above the clouds and make him a king. Oswald is only a little ashamed to admit that that kind of power excites him.
When Jerome's lackeys try to haul him out in the night and he demands a laugh, Oswald throws his all into a convincing mime performance. He's relieved when Jerome doesn't just stab him. He gets a few good licks in himself before he's escorted back to his cell, Jerome's wild laughter echoing loudly behind him. Oswald hopes his bloodied face stings.
He writes about it in his letter to Edward, wondering if Ed would be proud of him for having the upper hand on someone as crazy as Jerome, even if it was only for a moment. He's written to Ed almost every day since he's been here. It's part of what keeps him sane really. Even if he never gets a reply, it's a good way to get everything out of his system. He asks for forgiveness half the time; other times reminisces over fond memories. Sometimes he just writes about the things he's had to endure there. He never asks Ed to come see him though. That would cross the fragile line that Oswald has drawn between them. Oswald wonders idly if Ed even reads his letters. There's a high likelihood they just go straight into the bin... but maybe he does. Oswald likes to hope.
When Oswald is encouraged (the term used lightly) to join Jerome and his lackeys, he starts by simply hanging around on the sidelines when they gather, content to just make a show of being there and nothing more. As long as Jerome can see that he's there, clearly stating that he's part of whatever plans Jerome's got up his sleeve, he shouldn't have to do much more. He hopes.
But after a couple days of that Jerome grows bored. He calls him over and kicks some random brunette up off the floor beside him before sweeping out an arm to offer the seat to Oswald. His smile is teetering on the crazy side of friendly, and it's obvious to Oswald that he doesn't really have a choice. It's not a friendly offer, its a command. Why he needs to be here rather than pleasantly invisible by the wall, he's unsure. Jerome probably wants to play around with him some more. Oswald is surprised when he doesn't ask for anything more than that for another few days.
There's a day where they all watch one of the inmates, crazy with strength, who likes to eat people, chomp around and threaten everyone. Oswald is startled when he makes a move for Jerome, snapping tremendously terrible jaws just in front of his face. Jerome doesn't even flinch, just laughs and laughs like a death threat is something hilarious. Oswald, on the other hand, does flinch. Incredibly hard. The man makes a move for him and Oswald scoots back, raising an arm in case those insane canines come for his face. Jerome is still cracking up. When the guy turns around to go for someone poking his back with a stick, Jerome sticks his leg out in front of Oswald with a grin.
"If you're scared you can always hold onto me~" he sing-songs.
Oswald looks at him with hatred, insulted. Jerome is mocking him. He sticks up his chin and slips an arm and a leg around Jerome's out of spite, staring up at him defiantly and enjoying the moment that Jerome's laughter dies down. He digs his nails into Jerome's leg hard and it's so satisfying to see a bit of irritation spark in reaction. Oswald expected him to get angry and push him off. Instead, Jerome starts to giggle. He doesn't kick Oswald away either... He slips a hand into Oswald's hair and issues a painful grip that forces him to keep his eyes on the crazy man that's just bitten someone's ear off. Oswald tries not to gag when he spits it out onto the floor.
After that, Jerome starts leaving a leg out in front of Oswald when he sits. He doesn't say anything about it, doesn't order him to take hold of it, but it's very pointedly placed right within reach.
Oswald learns pretty quick that Jerome likes to make sick shows out of the other people in the asylum. Sometimes it's by force, like the night they'd dragged Oswald out of his room, and sometimes he offers them some kind of incentive or reward if they can make him laugh.
There's a woman pulled before them this time who claims she can do ventriloquism. Oswald can't tell if she's here by force or not. She's shaking with nerves, but anyone would be. Jerome is terrifying. The guy giggles like a kid receiving an early birthday present and instructs her to carry on with her act. She points once at oswald, saying nothing until he grows irritated and opens his mouth to ask her what her problem is.
"Honk honk." A voice, not his own-but very close- says before he can get any words out.
Jerome's eyes widen and he stares at Oswald, then the woman. He tosses his head back once with a hoot, clapping his hands as he turns to watch what she'll do next.
Oswald presses his lips thin. He stares her down with a fiery hatred as she smiles nervously, glancing between him and the chuckling Jerome. He mentally adds her to the list of people he needs to kill once he's out of Arkham.
He refuses to open his mouth again, and even when Jerome gives his thigh a light kick he stays stoic. Oswald is not one to let himself be humiliated. He doesn't handle it well. The woman doesn't choose a new victim though, just smiles nervously at Penguin, seemingly ready to wait. Oswald isn't about to give into-
"Awwww, come on Ozzie," Jerome begs, mouth turning down into a split second a pout before flipping right back up.
Oswald isn't expecting to be pulled up by his hair. Jerome encourages him to move with a snicker, smiling as he leads Oswald onto his knee, shifting his hand from Oswald's hair to the back of his shirt to hold him in place. "You can be my dummy!" he cheers, "I've always wanted to try my hand at ventriloquism!"
"I am not-"
"Honk!" goes that irritating mockery of his voice.
Oswald turns his head to glare at her. She merely grins, as if his bickering with Jerome was what she'd been waiting for. He's so angry that he opens his mouth again to yell at her, interrupted by another loud slew of honks and it's so frustrating. He starts to rise from his seat, ready to strangle her right then and there, but Jerome's hand is tightly fisted in his uniform and he can't move.
"Ohhh you funny birdy-boo," Jerome coos, "you are just great for a laugh!"
He cackles, wrapping an arm around Oswald's neck and laughing right into his ear, the sound loud and deafening. Oswald returns the favor with an obviously fake smile, almost leering as he sits there, humiliated and unable to exact any sort of revenge. The entire situation is made worse by the fact that he's sitting on Jerome's lap like a lost child. His cheeks are red and he knows that Jerome catches it. The man breaks out into more laughter and shifts Oswald around a little bit, giggling the whole time.
When he comes back the next day to take his seat on the floor, the seat is taken. He's confused, but doesn't ask questions. Oswald is about to head back for the wallspace he used to occupy, thinking Jerome got bored of him, when he's caught by the hem of his shirt. Jerome's amused laughter feels like more mockery as he pulls Oswald back onto his lap. He sputters, cheeks growing red with embarrassed frustration, and Jerome just continues to laugh.
He doesn't understand what kind of entertainment Jerome is getting out of it until he pinches Oswald's cheek. "Such a pretty color ya got there, bird brain."
And Oswald realises then that Jerome gets off on embarrassing him. It shouldn't be all that surprising, but this kind of teasing catches him off guard. "You're sick," he mutters, spiteful.
Jerome just grins. Ed's gonna think he's a real pushover after today's letter.
Things start to slowly get a little easier on Oswald after that.
At lunch, he's pulled away from the line by one of Jerome's people and plopped down onto a bench before he can grab his food. He's confused at first, thinking he's done something wrong and is getting ready to resign himself to an empty stomach when someone slides a tray in front of him. Oswald is surprised when it's not the boxed mac n' cheese that the cafeteria menu had advertised. It's a monte cristo sandwich. Where he would normally see a pile of messy, canned, undrained and badly cooked veggies, he finds a tasteful cup of French onion soup. There's even a glass of milk to wash it all down. It's not a carton. It's a glass. Oswald is so stunned he almost forgets that he actually gets to eat this immaculate spread.
Before he can ask any questions Jerome drops down onto the bench beside him with a tray of his own, filled with another variety of good food. Oswald is stunned silent. He'd known Jerome had the guards here under his thumb... but his influence went this far? The glasses were even a hazard. One smash and you had a weapon.
"Thought you might like something other than the slop they serve here," Jerome chuckles, plopping a grape from his own plate into his mouth. "Always puts me in a better mood."
"Th-thank you." Oswald is still kind of shocked. His last time at Arkham he'd almost given up eating all together, the food so bland and mushy it came back up more times than he cared to admit. He'd have rather spent the time lying around in the infirmary getting nutrients pumped into him through an IV than go through it all again.
He decides then and there to act a little more grateful towards Jerome. If playing nice means he can eat like this every day, he's more than willing to put on a smile and crack a joke or two.
Oswald totters into the rec area with a bit more pep in his step the next day. He doesn't care to fight it when Jerome drags him down into his lap again, fitting Oswald between his spread legs and crossing his arms over Oswald's head before resting his chin on top. It's a little demeaning, but not exactly uncomfortable.
There's a couple dancing for Jerome today. A sort of ballet. It's very different from the usual acts people put on for them; no blood, crude jokes, or death. The girl swirls gracefully around her partner and he in turn lifts her high into the air by her hips. When she kicks her legs out and nearly hits someone, he wonders if the act is going to involve them hitting some onlookers, but she never gets close enough to do it again. Oswald notices that Jerome doesn't seem too entertained by the whole thing.
They swing around a couple more times before the woman pulls him closer by the arm and places a gentle kiss on his cheek.
"D'awww," Jerome grunts, "isn't that just sweet."
There's something bitter behind his words that makes Oswald tense. They're tight and curt and Oswald briefly wonders if Jerome will have the couple killed just for boring him. He's only a little surprised when Jerome turns to look at him with a grin. "How 'bout it Ozzie?" He taps a finger to his cheek a couple times with a chuckle. "Why don't ya plant one on me?"
Oswald's not sure if it's because of the good food in his belly, the sensual dance or if he just doesn't want to be on Jerome's bad side anymore, but he does just that. It takes a little maneuvering, but nothing too difficult. He shifts his body so that one leg is hoisted up and over Jerome's. His chest is at a right angle with Jerome's when he cranes his neck to finally peck a kiss on his cheek. His scars feel odd under Oswald's lips, but they're not awful. It's kind of intriguing actually... a different sensation. Oswald never liked people that were perfect anyhow.
When he pulls back he realizes that Jerome isn't laughing. He's wide eyed and looking at Oswald like he's grown a second head. He recovers quickly though, tossing his head back with a delighted cackle and Oswald realizes with sudden embarrassment that Jerome had only been teasing. He never actually expected him to do it. Now that he has, he's inspired some kind of intrigue in the clown and Oswald isn't sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing. Probably leaning towards the latter.
Jerome slips his arms around Oswald's waist rather than over his head.
There's another gentle twirl from the dancing pair, then suddenly the girl screams a wild cry of war, pulls something out from behind her back and stabs her partner in the chest. She plunges her crude shiv into him again and again until her face is covered in blood splatter. She turns back to Jerome with a wild smile and bows. He breaks out in laughter. Oswald is sad to see something with real taste go to such waste, but the vibrations from Jerome's laughter behind him actually feels sort of nice.
At dinner there's a small cake waiting for Oswald with his tray and he decides that in today's letter to Ed, he won't add the part where he traded a kiss on the cheek for some dessert.
For the better half of the time, the inmates leave Oswald alone, the fear of Jerome is a powerful deterrent. The ones that don't just don't know any better, usually they're the brain dead ones. Sometimes he's accosted by the patients with personal space issues and it's easy enough to push them off, land a punch or two sometimes when they're especially persistent.
It's a couple months into his time at Arkham before he meets someone he can't handle on his own.
His name is Barrow, an older gentlemen who gets food in his beard when he eats and likes to sniff everyone's hair. Some of the doctors whisper about him making dolls out of the hair he takes from other patients, sometimes he takes it while they sleep, sometimes when they're awake. He's got one of the worst personal space problems there. Barrow had been known to lick people a lot, one time he stuck his tongue up the nose of an inmate who spent his time staring at walls without moving. Poor sap was an easy target.
Oswald is headed back to his room at the end of the day then he's stopped by Barrow. He sniffs at Oswald and trails him until his attempts to dodge Barrow lead to him pressed against the hallway wall. Barrow giggles, crusty beard tickling Oswald's face and when he licks a line from Oswald's chin to his temple Oswald has to fight the urge to throw up his lovely roasted chicken dinner.
"Get off me." he huffs, pushing at Barrow's chest but realizing he's a little stronger than he looks...
He absolutely insists on smelling him, pushing right back until he can get his face right up in Oswald's. "Can I have some?" he asks, voice a little creaky as he lifts a hand to tug on one of Oswald's bangs.
"Absolutely not." Oswald snaps, using one hand to block Barrow's face and the other to try and push at his chest.
"Oooohhhh~" Barrow starts to sing, "Pretty birdy~"
It's in a startling, off key whisper, and Oswald wants to bite the man's nose clean off. He's got his lips curled in a snarl, ready to attack, when Barrow is suddenly stripped away from him. Jerome tosses him onto the floor with his whole body, and Oswald feels a little better knowing Barrow was a heavy guy and he wasn't just too weak to toss him off. Jerome kicks him in the gut, over and over until he's laughing maniacally.
When he pulls away, his laughter has tapered down to a giggle and Barrow is left groaning on the floor, arms wrapped around his stomach in agony.
"Oh boy it's been a while since I've gotten to do that." Jerome spits onto the floor before wiping his mouth on the back of his arm with a chuckle, "Crazy old bastard can't even sing."
Oswald huffs, nervous about how to react, but it's Jerome, so he tries to show his thanks with a joke.
"Guy couldn't carry a tune even if it had handles." He offers, a little amused with himself for it.
Jerome blinks, sputters, and tips his head back into a laugh that makes Oswald grin with pride. He's kind of proud to have made a joke Jerome actually liked. Who knows how many people had accomplished that before. It reminds him of the times he'd make riddles for Ed. He'd once sat down for an hour trying to think up a real good one. Ed was positively beaming at him when he'd finally shared it. Of course, Ed solved it right away, but that bright, beautiful smile had made it well worth his time.
When he writes to Ed, he asks if he's still terrorizing Gotham with his riddles. He ends up spending a little time trying to think of one of his own to send along with it. Not an hour, but a good chunk of time. Ed would probably appreciate it. Maybe he'd send back the answer. Oswald still doesn't know if Ed reads anything that he sends, it wouldn't surprise him if he didn't, but he imagines that same grin on Ed's face as he puzzles together Oswald's riddle. The thought makes him smile as he drops his note into the mail cart.
The guards find Barrow the next day in his cell, tongue lying a few feet away from his body, blood splatter everywhere. Oswald realizes in an amazed moment that Jerome did that for him. At least partly. The sadism behind it was for himself, but the target was for Oswald. It may have been a bit extreme, certainly, but Oswald can't deny he feels a little better knowing he won't have to deal with unwanted licks to the face from an old man that smells like feces.
Oswald's surprised at just how easy it was to become Jerome's... whatever he is. To become okay with it. He's not sure if he's Jerome's bitch, his friend, or just a new way for him to pass time. Maybe he's a mix of all three, but he's not sure he even cares anymore. He's getting good food and has something to do during the days that keeps him away from the doctor's 'therapy' sessions. He's got safety now. People won't fuck with Jerome, and by extension, they won't fuck with the Penguin. He enjoys that knowledge; their fear. Someday soon he'll terrorize everybody here on his own merit, but he's fine with this much for now.
When he's pulled down into Jerome's lap again, the next show about to start, Oswald decides to wrap his arms around Jerome's neck. He keeps his voice low enough that the people around them don't hear his gratefully whispered, "Thank you." Unsure if he's thanking Jerome for killing Barrow or if it's for everything else he's given Oswald. Either way... he's thankful.
When the man who spins plates chokes on the long stick in his mouth, Jerome slips a hand from Oswald's back and rests it at his hip, giggling the whole way.