Chapter 1: Lost in Living
For a split second, Jerome could believe he’d been vaulted back to the moment of his disorienting resurrection on the Medical Examiner’s table at the GCPD. That Groundhog Day time-loop stuff wasn’t real, but a guy could dream.
There were a lot of things he’d do differently. Kill Bruce quick and quiet, on-sight at Wayne Manor, instead of toying with him at the Boardwalk Carnival. Find Jeremiah a whole couple years and change earlier, kill him in his maze of a burrow like the rat he was.
Jerome wasn’t as cold this time, and he could feel that he was wearing clothes. His entire face wasn’t on fire anymore due to most of the skin being missing, so that was progress.
What wasn’t so great was that his arms and legs felt like someone had implanted weights in them. Is that what falling from a four-story building did to you? Shattered everything to jelly?
That couldn’t be right, though. His limbs seemed to be in one piece—stiff, but functional.
Just like that, he remembered. Each detail leading up to his last conscious moment before landing, just like it had been the first time. At least his short-term memory had never failed him, not even through two dalliances with death.
Afraid of what he might see—irritating, that he’d maintained the same capacity for fear that he’d known in childhood—Jerome finally opened his eyes. He recognized the dingy ceiling.
Right, that’s how it was: he hadn’t actually been brought back a second time. He was just in Hell, because hadn’t Cicero always said it was a place of your own making? That you deserved?
Arkham for the rest of eternity, then. Jerome hoped, in the very least, he wasn’t alone there. It’d be no fun without anybody to talk to or torment. But mostly talk to, because he got lonely just like everyone else. Being human was a sick joke.
“It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood,” Jerome rasped, finding it insultingly easy to remember the theme song from some kids’ show his mother used to put on for him and his brother before everything went to shit. “A beautiful day for a neighbor! Would you be mine—”
“Oh God,” said a fascinated, borderline-frantic voice in the next cell over. “You’re awake?”
“It’s rude to interrupt!” Jerome replied threateningly, rolling onto his side with excruciating effort. He could see the rest of his cell—toilet, sink, rug, side table, armchair. Those didn’t used to be standard kit, so maybe Hell wasn’t that bad. “Would you be mine? Could you be mine?”
“Uh…sure?” said the woman’s voice, and something about it was unnervingly familiar. “I can be. I am. None of us really have a choice.”
Jerome refocused his eyes on a weird feature: there was an air vent in the wall that seemed to have some kind of crawlspace between it and the vent in the next cell over. He could see right through the set of grates into the next cell. Was that where the voice was coming from?
“Do you have, like, some kinda…vent in the wall?” Jerome asked, his mania rising. He grunted in pain as he leveraged himself into a sitting position, legs dangling off the bed. “Whew. Wakin’ up like this doesn’t get easier as you get older.”
“Vent?” the woman echoed, by now identifiable as someone he’d once known. “No. Just plaster on all sides. I didn’t know there was a vent between yours and…never mind. All six of the cells in this block are occupied.”
“Wait wait wait,” Jerome said, feeling unpleasantly dizzy. He lay down on his side again, gaze fixed on the vent. “So, I’ve got two neighbors. Adjacent, anyhow. I remember the layout. It’s all coming back. Two cells side-by-side at each end of the block hall, and then two more, one each at a 90-degree angle with two of the end-cells, positioned on either side of the door?”
“Your cell shares one wall with mine, one with…the other, and then your door opens onto the hall when we’re not in lockdown. We all have doors opening onto the hall. Immediately to my other side is the cell-block entrance. Adjacent to that, another cell. Right across from me and the entrance and the other cell, there’s a supply closet housing a boiler, and then communal showers. I should warn you, they use hypnosis. They take us in pairs, or at least I think they still do. Behave yourself at shower time, or you’ll start losing time.”
Jerome felt bitter bile rise in his throat, but he swallowed it and started to cackle hysterically.
“Hat-head’s moved up in the world,” he gasped, wiping his eyes. “That’s comin’ back, too.”
“Jerome, would you just calm down long enough to listen?” the woman implored. “It’s Lee.”
“Why the hell should I?” Jerome asked. “You did your info-dump. Your name doesn’t ring any bells,” he lied.
“Dr. Leslie Thompkins?” said Lee. “We’ve met before. At the GCPD, the first time you—”
“You’re always the first one I talk to when somebody hits the ol’ reset button. What’s up, Doc?”
“Funny,” Lee deadpanned, but Jerome stopped paying attention the second his other neighbor’s face appeared on the other side of the vent.
“Oh, yep,” Jerome said, staring back in utter disbelief. “This is Hell all right. Hiya, Brucie.”
The specter of Bruce made a face that projected sheer fury. It even gave Jerome the finger.
“Jerome, listen,” Lee said urgently. “That person in the next cell over? Isn’t Bruce, trust me.”
“Could’ve fooled me,” Jerome muttered, closing his eyes to collect his thoughts. Was he dead or alive? Undead? Everything about the situation felt too real, too familiar. “Last I checked, having a twin isn’t something Brucie and I have in common.”
“Speaking of,” Lee said, “one of Jeremiah’s devices went off at Wayne Manor. Bruce is dead. Your brother died with him.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Jerome drawled, awash in astonished satisfaction. “Two birds with one bomb. Small mercies.”
“I should catch you up the rest of the way,” Lee went on. “Two weeks before that, Jeremiah demolished the bridges.”
“Give him a detonator and he’ll walk all over you,” Jerome said. “Good for him. We’re cut off, then, huh? Bad for us.”
On the other side of the grate, another flash of movement caught Jerome’s attention. The young man peered through with clear, pale eyes, his curiosity seemingly too great. Jerome could see that he wore his dark hair long. It hung over his shoulder in a loose braid.
The more Jerome studied his face, trying to picture what the grate-slats obscured, the more he realized this doppelgänger wasn’t an exact match.
“Wait,” said the stranger, in a halting voice that was almost nothing like Bruce’s, sticking his fingers through the slats on his side. “Jerome Valeska?”
“That’s my name,” Jerome sighed, grimacing at him in weary surrender. “Go ahead, wear it out. If you’re not Bruce, then what do people call you?”
The young man shifted from his crouch to a sitting position, leaning his forehead against the grate. “Five,” he said. “Guess I’m your neighbor, too.”
Chapter 2: Lost in Knowledge
Over the next week, Five watched the proceedings in the only cell adjacent to his. He’d been so delirious when Strange and Tetch brought him in that he hadn’t recognized the body on one of the two gurneys, next to the young red-haired woman named Ivy.
Five was almost certain she was the same girl who’d been with Selina the first time they’d met, and then again on that rooftop. She’d grown taller and aged more dramatically than the rest of them over the past…was it almost three years? Five had lost count.
Whatever they’d done with her blood to resurrect Jerome, they’d also done in order to heal Five. His nosebleeds and the high fever were gone. He still had his scars, but the properties of Ivy’s blood didn’t go as far as erasing those. Jerome still had his scars, too.
At first, that common ground was what fascinated Five. During his time working security at the Foxglove, living in Selina’s abandoned Docklands squat, he’d followed the news religiously, determined to never be out of the loop again. He knew who the Valeskas were.
Five knew Jerome had died at the hands of Theo Galavan and come back. He also knew Jerome had died again at the hands of Jim Gordon.
The fall had been an accident, according to the Gotham Gazette and several other reputable sources, but Five wasn’t so sure. The article hadn’t been written by Valerie Vale, whose reporting seemed to be the most even-handed. Also, Five didn’t trust cops.
When he could sneak glimpses of Jerome dressing or undressing without catching a baleful glower, he could see the gunshot-wound scar on Jerome’s left shoulder and the other in the palm of his right hand. Those two and the gruesome Y-shaped one the Medical Examiner had inflicted on Jerome’s abdomen looked freshest, healed over and shiny, darkish pink through the miracle of Ivy’s blood.
The scars on Jerome’s face were old, white and faded like the ones on Five’s abdomen, sides, and down the length of his spine. Five had others in places he couldn’t as easily see—shorter parallel ones at the small of his back, on either side of his spine.
Jerome talked to Lee all the time. Sometimes, he attempted to antagonize her. Other times, he just sounded lonely. Five would sit next to the vent and listen, peering through every once in a while. Jerome would glare at him for it.
At the five-day point, Jerome had addressed Five for the first time since regaining consciousness.
“Enjoying the show?” he’d asked, his smile both amused and defensive as he looked up from the tattered paperback he’d grabbed from the side-table. “Am I better than a sitcom?”
“I’ve never seen a sitcom,” Five had replied, picking at the frayed edge of his Arkham uniform’s sleeve. “I mean, I was out of the lab long enough to watch TV, but it was always the news.”
“The lab?” Jerome had echoed, setting down the book. “Let me take a wild guess—Indian Hill?”
Five had nodded, suppressing a thrilled shiver when Jerome rose stiffly from the mattress and came over to sit on the floor next to the vent. He’d leaned closer, and Jerome had done the same.
“You were brought in dead and frozen there. The first time, after Galavan. I didn’t see you, because I was kept in isolation from the rest of the subjects. But I know you were there.”
“That bastard’s fucked with all of us,” Jerome had said, his demeanor darkening. “And here we are again, back in his clutches. History really does repeat, huh? I believe that now.”
Now, with a few more days’ space between them and that tense conversation, Five was feeling brave. He got down on the floor and rapped on the vent, catching Jerome’s attention.
“Have you talked to the others, besides Lee?” Five asked, pleased that Jerome once again left his bed and came to sit close. “They’re harder to hear because they’re further down the hall.”
“I’ve heard them talkin’ to each other,” said Jerome, winking as he raised his voice by degrees. “Doc and Riddler. Must’ve been a nasty breakup.”
“Oh, please!” Lee cut in acidly. “We weren’t together. I only made him think that we were.”
“What was all that talk about offering me something real?” Ed parried. “That was a lie, too?”
“Yes!” Lee shouted. “God, Ed. For somebody as brilliant as you are, you really are dense.”
Five held his breath. He returned Jerome’s expectant, entertained expression, understanding more than ever what people had seen in him. Once, Five might’ve said he understood what people saw in Jeremiah, too—but that had been on the basis of what he’d seen in the press. After days of hearing Jerome vent his grievances against his brother to Lee, Five wasn’t a fan.
“Doesn’t speak highly that we tried to kill each other,” Ed said at length. “If we’re being honest here—we’re totally screwed, so why not—it’s because we’re both in love with other people.”
“I’m done with this conversation,” Lee said angrily. “Did you get what you wanted, Jerome?”
Five covered his mouth to stifle his laughter, watching Jerome theatrically roll his eyes. They shone a dark, vivid blue.
“Yup,” Jerome said dryly. “Clear as mud. Say, while we’re on this honesty kick—are you gonna tell me how you know all the deets about my brother? The stuff about how he showed all that self-control, hiding what the gas did to him for weeks while collaborating with Brucie? Your intel’s entirely secondhand, the stuff about how they died, but you seem to know a lot more.”
Five was about to open his mouth to contribute when one of the occupants from the far end of the hall spoke up. She was fascinating, at least when she chose to join in. Usually, Five couldn’t make out the words that she and Ivy exchanged through their vent.
“It’s ’cause I told her, you dipshit!” Harley shouted. “I’m the witness. I was there for all of it.”
Five watched Jerome’s expression shift again, this time into something close to murderous rage.
“You knocked me out, put me in that cage,” Jerome said, getting to his feet. “You took me to him.”
“Yeah,” said Harley, dreamily, as if recalling a fond memory. “Unfortunately, you regained consciousness during transport. Couldn’t stand your yakkin’ the whole way there, shoulda used the sedative jab on you a lot sooner than when we arrived.”
“You didn’t respond to a single thing I said,” Jerome accused. “Not cool. You didn’t need to take those turns as sharp as you did, either. Say, what’s your name—Ecco or something?”
“Not anymore, asshole. I’m Harley fuckin’ Quinn, and until those jerk-offs dragged here to join you losers, I was runnin’ what’s left of your cult.”
Five beckoned to Jerome. He felt bad he’d even started the whole exchange in the first place. Breathing hard, Jerome came back and sat down.
“I’m sorry,” Five said, grasping the slats. He couldn’t touch Jerome, and…and that was a thing he wanted, after so many days of watching. Admitting that to himself felt less fraught than the time he’d thought he had a crush on Selina. “Anyway, that’s everybody.”
“Minus Ivy,” Jerome replied, sliding his fingers through the slats on his side, too, seemingly without thinking. “She only talks to Ms. Quinn there.”
“Pretty much,” Five sighed. “I’ve tried thanking her, but she never answers. I know she’s why I’m not sick anymore. I know she’s why you’re alive.”
Jerome cocked his head, eyes narrowed. “Wait, you thanked her for that, too? Bringin’ me back?”
Five withdrew his fingers from the slats. “Yes,” he said, rising, hiding himself from Jerome’s sight.
Chapter 3: Ceaseless Idleness
Jerome couldn’t sleep. Forty-eight hours since Five had made his terse confession, and he hadn’t returned to the vent to talk further.
To make matters worse, everyone was tense. Since Jerome had awakened, their captors had only entered the cell-block to shove food through the slots in their doors. Granola bars, packets of nuts, and other pre-packaged junk food were getting old.
Every seventy-two hours, they were permitted to shower. That wouldn’t happen again for another day or so. For whatever reason, each of them was being escorted separately, which was contrary to what Lee had told Jerome when he woke up.
Five was always escorted there and back before Jerome. He was too weak to even think of attacking them, his limbs still too stiff. That order of events was what had led to Five furtively watching Jerome put his clothes back on once he’d been shoved back in his cell.
Jerome had been irked at first, but that hadn’t lasted. The attention was as flattering as it was bewildering. Between the mess of information in his head and the quagmire of emotion in his chest, he didn’t know what to do—except swallow his pride.
“Hey, Doc?” he said, raising his voice just enough to be heard. “Got a sec?”
“I’m trying to sleep,” Lee replied after a few interminable seconds. “What?”
“If they’re so keen to experiment on us, why aren’t they getting on with it?”
“For the hot minute that they trusted me, I found out Crane’s working on something new. I think they’re waiting until it’s finished.”
“If he’s smart, he’ll combine the effects of the fear gas and the insanity gas. But, uh...” Jerome swallowed. “Less than great for us.”
“Any further questions while you’ve got me on call?” Lee asked flatly. “I’d like to get some rest before our sorry breakfast lands.”
“Hmmm, we’ve gotta figure out an escape plan before they’re ready to beta-test. Anyway. Do they know why Bruce and my, uh...why they were out there together in the first place, at Wayne Manor? Was it a murder-suicide mission?”
“Are you sure you want to hear the answer to that?”
“I’m a grown-up now. I can take it. Scout’s honor.”
“In the weeks following your death, Bruce and Jeremiah got close.”
Jerome stewed on hearing that. “What, like—BFFs close, or—”
“They were lovers, Jerome,” Lee cut in, getting short with him.
“Didn’t fall far from the tree, did he? Shameless whore, just like Mom.”
“I never saw them together. How does that make you feel about Bruce?”
“What are you, my shrink? Let’s see. It makes me question his taste in men. Of course, I knew Jeremiah’s taste to a T. Bruce was the perfect honey-trap. I just didn’t think he’d, uh, return the sentiment. Rude. Hey, did I tell you the plans I drew up last time I was in here?”
“Had you been hoping Bruce would…I don’t know, choose you?”
Jerome heard Five’s bed creak. Fucked if he knew why, but it was important to him that Five should hear his response.
“No,” he said. “I didn’t want that from Bruce. Never used to want it from anybody until…”
Five’s bed creaked again, this time the sound it made when he sat up on the mattress.
“Huh,” Lee replied. “You never did strike me as the romantic type. What changed?”
“I met somebody,” Jerome said, “who has none of the stuff I hate in a person.” He hesitated, considering how he might phrase this without offending Five. “They’re relatable. Also real pretty, and smart…and more badass than me. That’s saying something.”
“I’m tapping out of this conversation so you can work through…whatever this is.”
Five’s face appeared beyond the grate. He was staring at Jerome, like he’d heard everything he needed to be sure of…whatever this was.
“I want you to come over,” Five said, opening his side of the vent. “If you want.”
“How long have you been able to do that?” Jerome asked, stupefied. He slid off the edge of his mattress and crawled over to watch.
“Since I got better?” Five said, crawling partway into the space between grates. He gave Jerome’s an impressive shove, knocking it loose enough for Jerome to pry it the rest of the way. “The grates are old, and I’m pretty strong. It’s because of what Strange did to me.” He retreated back into his cell, sitting back on his heels. “You didn’t answer my question.”
Jerome set his grate to one side. There was nothing stopping Five from crawling into his space now—or him from crawling into Five’s.
Five extended a hand into the crawlspace. His hair was loose, framing his face. He made Jerome think of the movies he’d seen as a kid.
“That’d be nice, princess,” he said, eagerly taking Five’s hand. “I’d like that.
Five bit his lip as he helped Jerome crawl through. “Why did you call me...”
Jerome couldn’t help but grin. “You’ve got hair straight out of a Disney film.”
When Jerome was finally clear of the crawlspace and they were both on the floor of Five’s cell, Five took Jerome’s face in both hands.
“That makes you my prince, doesn’t it?” he whispered, tentatively rubbing his smooth cheek against Jerome’s scarred one. “I want you to kiss me.”
“Dunno much about how, but…” Jerome angled his face so he could press their lips together, not doing more than that. “Help me figure it out?”
Five opened his mouth against Jerome’s, swallowing a soft, gut-wrenching whimper.
Jerome reacted to whatever Five did, following Five’s lead, pulling him close with a grunt. It felt better than he’d expected. Kissing had always looked gross, and Jerome considered himself a connoisseur of the disgusting. He could play at being proud of that fact, mostly for the shock value, but at the end of the day? He didn’t really care for half of what bodies could do.
Five nipped Jerome’s lower lip, licking over the spot, raking his fingers through Jerome’s hair. “Will you come to bed with me? We…we can just do this, or…cuddle, I just…” He hid his face against Jerome’s neck. “Want you here.”
“That’s fortunate,” Jerome said, nudging Five’s shoulders until he shifted out of Jerome’s lap. “I wanna be here,” he added, helping Five to his feet.
Less anxious for the reassurance, Five led Jerome over to the bed and sat down. He scooted back so Jerome could crawl onto the mattress with him.
They started kissing, deep and demanding, which made Jerome wonder if he could handle more. He liked the way it felt with Five straddling him.
“Want me to take this off?” Five asked, tugging at the front of his faded, striped uniform shirt.
Jerome nodded, watching Five undo the buttons and shed it with a hint of self-consciousness. His undershirt came next, a slow revelation. He was beautiful, all pale, smooth skin except for the scars on his abdomen and sides. Jerome ran both palms from Five’s hips up to his chest.
“You don’t have to take yours…” Five’s eyelids fluttered when Jerome thumbed his nipples. “Off if you don’t want,” he gasped. “You can touch…”
“Touch what, precious?” Jerome asked, voice too low and rough to make it sound teasing.
“Me,” Five gasped, shivering as Jerome slid his hands back to Five’s hips. “Everywhere.”
Hearing Five like that was all it took. He tugged Five in so he could kiss his chest, and then let go of Five to deal with his own clothes.
“Gonna take mine off,” Jerome panted, shedding his top layers. “All of it. That okay with you?”
“Yes,” Five said faintly, dropping from his knees back to a sitting position so he could take off his pants and underwear in a hurry. His cheeks colored when Jerome turned to look at him, but his eyes filled with unabashed curiosity when he looked at Jerome in turn. “They hurt you?”
Jerome lay back so that Five could run careful fingers over the scars that the Medical Examiner’s office had left him with this time. “Whatever the plant lady’s blood did—Ivy—she healed it all. Didn’t feel a thing at the time, obviously, since I was dead. But the second I woke up…”
“You like pain if you choose it, or if it’s a fight,” Five said cautiously, “but not this kind?”
Sighing, Jerome tugged Five down to lie on top of him. Five’s skin was warm, so impossibly warm. The way they fit together, the way it felt to have tangible proof Five wanted him as much as he wanted Five, made Jerome’s chest ache.
“I never thought about it like that,” Jerome said, encouraging Five’s restless movements with firm hands against his backside. “You would’ve thought I’d work out the distinctions sooner, after what…” He let Five kiss him, relieved. “Mmm. D’you think that you’ll, uh…”
“Come? Probably,” Five whispered, stroking the hair at Jerome’s nape. “Feels really good.”
“They hurt you, too,” Jerome said reproachfully, running his fingers over the scar that ran down Five’s spine. “Way before they ever hurt me.”
“I’d…I’ll kill him for you,” Five murmured, feverishly biting Jerome’s earlobe. “Strange.”
“I think we’re gonna have to share the job,” Jerome panted, the delicious sting making him buck up against Five’s weight, “because I wanna kill him for you, too. Fun date idea, huh?”
Five nodded wildly, moaning against Jerome’s neck. He was shaking with what Jerome hoped was pleasure. He realized Five could feel this even though he couldn’t feel pain. Their bellies were wet.
That was enough to make Jerome groan. He came before Five was even finished, winding his fingers in Five’s lovely hair. Jerome hadn’t realized he still could. He was trembling as hard as Five.
“Yeah,” Five panted, resting heavy and sated on top of Jerome. “It is. I’ve never done that.”
“What…we just did?” Jerome asked, grateful Five’s hair covered their faces. “Me neither.”
“Sure,” Five said impatiently, “but I meant…” He huffed. “I’ve never been on a real date.”
“I’d hate to think you subjected yourself to a fake one,” Jerome said, stroking Five’s jaw.
“Wasn’t really a date,” Five mumbled, endearingly sleepy as he kissed along the scars on Jerome’s cheek. “Anyway, I tried to kiss a girl, and she didn’t like it. Neither did I.”
“But you like this?” Jerome asked, sweeping Five’s hair back and off his face. “Like me?”
Five nodded solemnly as he pressed their foreheads together. “I want to keep doing it.”
“Not like there’s much else to do,” said Jerome, too loudly, wincing. “You read my mind.”
“You went from suggesting we discuss escape plans to this?” Ed groused. “Unbelievable.”
“Jeez, finally!” Harley shouted from the end of the cell block. “Mazel tov an’ everything. Have a cigar. J would roll in his grave if he had one. Now, just go the fuck to sleep, will ya?”
“Please tell me you talked to my bro like that,” Jerome said, hugging Five to his chest.
“Sure I did,” Harley replied, “but only when nobody was around. Which was most of the time.”
“Just the thought of you disrespectin’ him like that warms my cold, dead heart,” Jerome said, and then pressed his mouth to Five’s ear when he realized Five had tensed. “You do, too, precious,” he murmured, inexplicably determined to offer reassurance.
“Would you stop joking around and focus?” Lee demanded unexpectedly. “Ed’s serious.”
Five pulled the covers over his head and held Jerome more tightly, disliking the attention.
Jerome pushed them back so Five could breathe, kissing his forehead. “They have a point.”
“Yes,” Five whispered, “but we won’t get far without Ivy’s help. I don’t know if she’d give it.”
“My princess says everybody’s gotta pitch in,” Jerome announced, “but we get dibs on Strange.”
“Fine. Ivy sleeps like a fuckin’ log,” Harley said. “I’ll ask in the morning. Now, lights out!”
Chapter 4: Irregular Labor
Five had read plenty in the press about how love affairs in Gotham tended to go. Impulsiveness was a trademark of Gotham’s wealthy and nefarious. Nonetheless, he was so smitten with Jerome that he didn’t give a fuck.
Jerome woke Five with slow, tentative kisses. He wasn’t hard like Five, but he slid his thigh between Five’s legs and let Five grind against him until he came. Overwhelming, to realize Jerome would do this for him. Five’s eyes stung.
“Hey,” Jerome said, wiping the slight, watery traces from Five’s squeezed-shut eyes. “I’m gonna come back to you every night we’re in here, got it?”
Five nodded miserably, not wanting to let go of him. “And what about after we get out?”
Jerome just stared at him for a few seconds, like he hadn’t considered what they’d do next.
“Well, we’re gonna see how that first date goes, right?” he asked, winking conspiratorially.
“Right,” Five whispered, letting him rise so he could get dressed. “Anyway, we might die.”
“If we do,” Jerome said, finishing his buttons, “I could think of worse ways to die than with you. Third time’s the charm.”
Five broke into a smile at that, stifling his laughter behind his hand. He couldn’t help it.
“You’re sweet,” he said, once he’d regained his composure. “I didn’t think you’d be sweet.”
Jerome shrugged, crossing the room. “Repeated resurrection changes a guy. What can I say?”
“Maybe you always have been,” Five said, hastily cleaning up before retrieving his clothes. “Underneath everything. Just because you kill people and cause chaos…” He hesitated. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be cared about. Even I want that.”
“If you think I was ever a good person…” Jerome crouched before the opening in the wall, scowling like he resented its existence. “My brother never was. Between him and Mom, the damage was done. Add that to the fact we were all crazy to begin with.”
“I’m not a good person, either,” Five replied, gathering all of his courage for the remainder, “but I want to be sweet for you. Good to you.”
“Assuming we get outta here, and stick together,” Jerome said, “I might ask you to be the opposite of that sometimes. Ask you to hurt me. Do things you wouldn’t wanna do to me. You’ve been called a monster, but something tells me I’m worse.”
Five shrugged. “You don’t know everything I’ve done. Also, you wanting something and asking me to do it is different from me meaning it. I think…” He joined Jerome on the floor. “Remember where I worked? I was only security, but I watched everything. I want to…do things for you, as long as you ask. I might ask you for things, too. Does...does that make sense?”
Now, Jerome kissed him like he was the one who couldn’t bear to part. “I’ve gotta go.”
“I know,” Five said, lifting his grate back into place as Jerome crawled to the other side.
“That is some Romeo and Juliet nonsense,” Edward said loudly. “Don’t you think, Lee?”
“Ed, mind your own business,” Lee shot back, sounding exhausted. “I have no opinion.”
Five lingered next to his grate, watching Jerome lift his back into place. He didn’t look happy about the peanut gallery’s commentary.
“That so, Doc?” Jerome ventured, strolling to his bed. “No concerns? Questions? Comments?”
“Objectively speaking? You might be making the same mistake your brother did,” Lee sighed.
Five felt his heart clench. Was she implying he was Jerome’s mistake, or that Jerome was his?
“Somethin’ tells me I shouldn’t take advice from someone who dated Jim Gordon, a Falcone, and Riddler,” Jerome sneered, “in that order, no less. How the mighty have fallen.” He yawned, stealing a frank glance at Five. “What do you think?”
“We’ll find out on our own, Dr. Thompkins,” Five said, grateful Jerome had deferred to him.
“What is this shit, a soap opera?” Harley demanded. “So much for plannin’ our grand escape.”
“You said you’d talk to Ivy,” Five replied, getting to his feet so he could project. “Did you?”
There was an uncomfortable silence. Jerome started to whistle, and Lee banged on his wall.
“I can do stuff you clowns don’t even know about!” Ivy snapped. “Well, Lee does. She was workin’ on me before they threw her in here. Bad news, I can’t break down walls without plants to work with. Good news, I’ve got some kinda…compulsion?”
“I’d suggest trying it on Crane and Tetch next time they take you to shower,” Lee agreed, “but I have no idea how well that’d work on Crane. His mind’s difficult to overthrow—I’ve gleaned that Tetch’s hypnosis doesn’t work well on him.”
“So, what,” Ed asked, “you’ve got some kind of…mind-control pheromones, or something?”
“Uh, yeah?” Ivy replied. “Looks like. The first time, I did it to Harley by accident. She helped me figure out how it works.”
“Convenient,” Jerome muttered under his breath, for Five’s ears only, and maybe Lee’s.
“Huh,” Five said. “There’s no way it could get to her unless your cells share a vent, too.”
“Duh!” Harley interjected. “Ours down here are exactly the same as yours and loverboy’s.”
“Have you tried removing the grates?” Five pressed on. “Are either of you strong enough to—”
“Nope,” Harley said balefully. “And they’re keepin’ Ivy weak with some kinda injections.”
“Well, Five knocked ours loose,” Jerome said, sounding smug, “but you knew that.”
“Gross,” said Ivy. “Anyway, my mind-control thingie is all we’ve got to work with.”
Five considered the big picture, taking into account every detail that seemed relevant. As far as he could see, there was an advantage at each end of the block: Ivy’s one currently-functional ability, and the fact that he and Jerome had access to each other’s cells.
“You okay over there, princess?” Jerome asked, rolling further onto his side, peering at Five.
“Wait,” Five said, snapping out of his reverie. “We’ve got more to work with than we think.”
Chapter 5: Order of Speech
Jerome had never been the most willing team player, at least not until his second escape from Arkham had necessitated working with Crane and Tetch. They had even proved useful the whole way up through his escape from Jeremiah’s bunker and installation of the gas there.
The fact that those two had allied themselves with Strange was deeply, deeply disappointing. Knowing they were the ones delivering those meager morning and evening meals, as well as escorting them to wash up, stuck in Jerome’s craw like nobody’s business.
Jerome might have remained ambivalent about the fact that Strange had been the one to freeze him the first time around, making it possible for Dwight to resurrect him. He might even have forgiven this new, more invasive resurrection—if not for the fact that he’d decided he was thoroughly sick of living the moment before he let himself plunge to his second death.
Knowing what Strange had done to Five, though? That was a game-changer. Jerome didn’t know if he was falling in love—something he’d assumed wasn’t possible—or if he was finally so sick of being alone that somebody, anybody with enough shared trauma would suffice.
Looking right at Five lying next to him for a second evening running, Jerome was no closer to understanding what had happened. Five wasn’t just intelligent and ruthless. He was attractive in a way that Jerome couldn’t comprehend, what with his breathtaking hair and hazel-blue eyes.
The more time Jerome spent taking Five in, the less he understood why the baseline resemblance to Bruce didn’t put him off. Five was angular in ways Bruce wasn’t, and he was also softer around some of the edges that had always seemed so sharp on Bruce.
“You’re staring like that again,” Five said, hitching Jerome closer with the leg he had draped over Jerome’s hip. The words were teasing, but there was a questioning glint in his eyes. That was one way he felt softer, the wistfulness underlying his glance.
“Like what?” Jerome asked, tucking Five’s hair behind his ear. “I could stare at you all day.”
“Like you’re puzzled,” Five replied, tracing Jerome’s scars from forehead to chin in retaliation.
“Whatever Strange and the Court thought they were doing,” Jerome said, “you couldn’t be more different from Bruce. I mean, heh. You were trained to impersonate him, and you even spent some time around him. The failure of their efforts speaks volumes.”
Five looked relieved at Jerome’s answer. “You’re really here—” he jabbed his finger at the scant sliver of mattress between them, making a face at the scratchy sheet “—because of that difference?”
“Partly,” Jerome said, mind spinning back into tumult over what they were doing. “Other reasons, you heard me mention to Doc…” He kissed Five, pressing close when Five hitched his leg tighter. “It’s just icing that you’re hot, princess. If that’s okay to say.”
“It is, if you promise to stop apologizing for how you look. I used to spend my time around lots of attractive people at the Foxglove. I didn’t…” Five kissed Jerome again, his cheek flushed beneath Jerome’s palm. “Didn’t want any of them like I want you.”
“I could talk a decent game, flirt, whatever,” Jerome said, “to get what I needed. But after this happened…” He guided Five’s fingers back up the periphery of his scars. “Best I could hope for was to scare folks, you know? I can still flirt if I have to, but it’s kind of a relief when nobody flirts back. It was nice you flirted first. What do I know, maybe that helped.”
“I don’t know how to flirt right,” Five said, ducking to kiss and bite Jerome’s neck, not holding back like he had the night before. His teeth were sharp. “It comes off as creepy. I’m glad you could look past…”
“As much as I wanna make you feel good,” Jerome whispered, shivering against him, “d’you think the plan we went over all day is gonna work? Tomorrow’s shower time, our only shot. I mean, this could be the last time we get to, uh…”
Five stopped what he was doing and pressed their foreheads together, his hand moving from Jerome’s face to the base of Jerome’s skull.
“As long as everyone does what they’re supposed to do,” Five murmured, “we have a chance. I put our odds of incapacitating Tetch and Crane at around the same as Ivy’s odds of getting them to obey her. She’s in more danger than we are if it fails. At least we’ll be in the same cell when they arrive and unlock the door, so we can attack them together. If we fail…” He shivered and bit the spot again, breaking Jerome’s skin.
Jerome hated to admit it, but he didn’t like the fact they had no idea which end of the block their captors would open first. They usually started with either Jerome or Ivy, which was why he and Five were spending the night in his cell instead of Five’s.
“I trust you, precious,” Jerome said, abashed when Five lay back with both hands resting above his head and a trace of Jerome’s blood on his mouth, shamelessly inviting. The pain alone hadn’t turned him on, but seeing Five like this…
“I trust you,” Five echoed, taking hold of Jerome’s shoulders, tugging Jerome down. He squirmed until he was fully beneath Jerome’s weight, eyes falling shut. “Jerome,” he gasped, trying his best to keep quiet. “Mark me, too.”
Earlier, they’d given each other blanket permission to draw blood. Jerome was thrilled that at least half their motivation lay in leaving each other with scars they could choose. He wished Five could completely obliterate his existing ones.
“Where?” Jerome asked, hating how the word got stuck in his permanently-damaged throat.
Five lifted his head and licked the old knife-scar, leaving a kiss so soft Jerome’s eyes stung.
“Here,” he replied, indicating the same spot on himself that he’d bitten bloody on Jerome.
Chapter 6: Beauty of Incantation
Five had meant to stay awake all night, stay alert for everyone’s sake, but he must have fallen asleep at some point. Next thing he knew, Jerome was frantically tapping his shoulder.
“Precious,” Jerome hissed urgently. “Five, c’mon. Sounds like they went for Ivy first!”
“Fuck,” Five mumbled, sitting up, rubbing his eyes. He kissed Jerome on the lips, quick and earnest, before climbing over him. “Maybe I can distract them, get them to come over here once they’ve got her door open and—”
At the abrupt, unexpected sound of gunfire and shouting outside the cell-block, Five staggered back against the edge of the bed. When Jerome dragged him back down and flattened them both against the mattress, Five let it happen.
One voice was louder than the others—shrill and furious, giving orders to the rest of the force. Jerome stiffened at the sound of it.
“Zsasz, you keep those two on the ground! Don’t let them out of your sight! Oh, really? Well, I don’t care if Strange ordered you to build a rocket to the moon! Where the hell is he?”
“Oh boy,” Jerome muttered, sitting up, maintaining his hold on Five. “Have you met this guy?”
“No?” Five said, struggling to sit up beside him, realizing the gunfire had ceased. “Who is it?”
“Pengy!” Ivy cried, and the speaker’s utterances devolved into hug-squashed sputtering. “I missed you! Hey, can I take Scarecreep’s keys and let Harley out? I really want you to meet her!”
“Three guesses, first two don’t count,” Jerome said, getting to his feet. He tugged Five with him, angling his body in order to shield Five. “He’s, uh, not too fond of me. I left him in an awkward spot the second time I died.”
“Fine!” Oswald Cobblepot shouted. Ivy and Zsasz exchanged words, but it sounded like Harley’s cell was being opened without a fuss. “The rest of you—get out of here! Find Strange and bring him to me, dead or alive! Now, can anyone tell me where the bodies are?”
“Bodies?” Tetch chortled in confusion. “There are none here, my fine, feathered friend.”
“I second that claim,” Crane rasped, altogether too calmly. “I fear you’ve been lied to.”
“Aha!” Harley said loudly, as if she’d just caught up. “Yeah, no. Strange revived ’em.”
There was silence outside Jerome’s cell for half a minute. Jerome cleared his throat.
“What do you mean?” Penguin asked haltingly, all the bluster and fury gone out of him.
“Here,” Ivy said cheerfully. There was a clink suggesting she’d taken the keys from Zsasz.
Five listened as she opened Ed’s and Lee’s cells one after the other. She opened Jerome’s, too.
Something caused Lee to mutter a disgusted Go figure, and Penguin sobbed audibly.
“This reunion’s touchin’ an’ all,” Harley said, “but you’ll wanna be careful. There’s a human killin’ machine in there with Jerome.”
“I’m—I’m sorry,” Oswald stammered, sniffling as he presumably let go of Ed. “J—Jerome?”
“Here, Doc,” said Zsasz, cocking a firearm, audibly handing it off to Lee.
Five pushed Jerome behind him and stepped ahead as the cell door swung inward, prepared.
Ivy was shielding Harley, Oswald was shielding Edward, and Lee was keeping Crane and Tetch on the ground.
Zsasz was the one who’d opened the cell door, blinking in surprise.
“Huh,” he said, giving Five a cheery little wave. “You worked at the Foxglove, didn’t you?”
“What?” Oswald sputtered, reddening with rage all over again. “Victor, do you mean to tell me you failed to mention the clone we heard so much about was not only alive, but working at your favorite night club?”
“I didn’t connect the dots at first, sheesh!” Zsasz protested. “He doesn’t look exactly like Bruce, especially with the long hair and fashion sense.”
Five wondered if Zsasz had seen him the nights he’d worn skirts and fishnets instead of jeans.
“Dammit,” Jerome said, peering out from behind Five. “Missed my shot at turning this into a knock-knock joke. Mr. Oswald! Long time no—”
“Give me one reason,” Oswald said, gun raised, “why I shouldn’t shoot you where you stand?”
“We’re all going to die anyway, assuming the city stays cut off,” Five said. “Sooner, later—what does it matter? Our only plan was to kill Strange.”
“I can’t believe I’m saying this,” Ed told Penguin, “but they’re telling the truth.”
One of Penguin’s militia barged in. “There’s no sign of the target, boss. I have the team searching upstairs, but we had to bust the access doors open. They were all locked.”
“Strange isn’t up there,” Crane volunteered. “The only keys are now with Mr. Zsasz.”
Fuming, Penguin looked from his footsoldier to Crane to Zsasz, and then back to Five.
“I’ll let you go,” he said, regaining composure, “on the condition that you hunt down Strange and destroy him. I’ll leave the how up to you.”
“Thank you,” Five said solemnly. He loosened his grasp on Jerome, but didn’t let go.
“You’re not gonna regret this,” said Jerome, extending his free hand over Five’s shoulder. “Pinkie swear!”
“Zsasz, leave them,” Oswald commanded, turning to stare down Crane and Tetch. “If you gentlemen are keen on making yourselves useful to the highest bidder, then I suggest you come with us. If you don’t like that idea, tell me so we can get the execution over with.”
Zsasz shrugged at Five and Jerome. “Good luck,” he said before bending to place his gun there as a doorstop, one finger to his lips as he drew another of his many firearms.
Five waited until the crowd filed out. He went and fetched the loose grate, carried it to the door, and replaced Zsasz’s gun with it.
Jerome had gone over to sit on the edge of the bed, panting harshly. “Close one, huh?”
“Yes,” Five agreed, sitting down beside him. “I know where Strange went, but we need to wait until Penguin leaves.”
After an hour, the racket faded. They put on their shoes and left the cell. Five handed Jerome the gun and led him to the function room. He ransacked Strange’s medical supplies, put the nastier looking tools in his pockets, and grabbed a poker from the fireplace.
“The tunnels underground,” he said, “between here and Indian Hill. I remember the hidden elevator from when Ms. Mooney freed us.”
“Lead the way, princess,” Jerome said. He sounded exhausted, but he followed Five without complaint.
“C-block,” Five explained as they walked. “When the elevator that brought us to the surface opened, Fish pushed on the wall, and we were passing cells labeled with C, a dash, and a number.”
“You aren’t just smart,” Jerome said. “You’re some kinda genius, aren’t you?”
“I don’t know,” Five replied, quickening their pace as they neared the hall leading into C-block across from the eerie, caged-in cafeteria, “but I have photographic memory.”
“You’re somethin’ else,” Jerome said under his breath, in faint amazement. “This is the spot?”
Five nodded, continuing along the industrially-riveted wall until he spotted the lock-panel hanging open. He stopped when his foot skidded on something small and flat. He crouched, picking it up with his free hand.
“Jerome,” he whispered, holding up the key, “test the light-switch over there?”
Jerome did as he was told. When nothing happened, he shrugged.
“Okay,” Five went on, still whispering, beckoning to Jerome, slotting the key Strange had dropped into the lock. “Be ready.”
Jerome nodded and raised the handgun, eyes glinting in the semidarkness.
Turning the key resulted in a massive segment of the wall clicking ajar. Five hauled it open, emphatically beckoning for Jerome to stay with him behind the wall-segment for cover.
“Who’s there?” asked Strange, warily, from the non-functional elevator within. He hadn’t been able to reach the tunnels.
“Your past,” Jerome said, rounding the open wall before Five could hold him back, “catching up with you.”
By the time Five sprang into action with the poker raised, Jerome had fired several times, cackling low and vindictive. Strange was on the floor, blood pooling beneath him. Jerome had shot to maim instead of to kill.
“Five,” Strange said, staring up as they closed in, “think this through. He’s poisoned you. I’ve only ever tried to protect—”
Five caught Strange upside the head with the poker. He continued to swing, blow after blow, each impact more satisfying than the last. After around a dozen strikes, he was aware Jerome had stopped laughing.
“Sorry,” Five said, dropping the poker next to a thoroughly mangled, thoroughly dead Strange. “I got carried away. We were supposed to share.”
“Precious,” Jerome said, pulling Five into his arms with a look of dazed wonder, “don’t apologize. When I said share the job, I shoulda been more specific.” He kissed Five, smearing the blood-splash across Five’s lips. “I meant I’d incapacitate him so I could watch you.”
“First date’s a success, then?” Five asked, breaking into an overjoyed grin.
“You know it, princess,” Jerome replied, twirling him. “Let’s get outta here.”