Outlandish as a circus, the ravaged face
parades the marketplace, lurid and stricken
by some unutterable chagrin,
maudlin from leaky eye to swollen nose…
O Oedipus. O Christ. You use me ill.
(The Ravaged Face, Plath)
He should be grateful for the long walk.
Grateful for the time it has already taken Jerome to lead him away from the carnival and into its fringes - forcing Bruce down a dusty dirt path, past towers of outdated rides and equipment - as the sounds of Gotham’s terrified public shrink behind them.
After all, it offers him a chance to plan. Fierce timelines and plots coil in Bruce’s mind, each one depending, then making up for, the last. Scraps of faces and names cram past one another, each one a variant, offering him a different victory. Behind his eyes, he sees Jim Gordon grimacing as he aims a gun. He sees Alfred shifting from cool, easy composure to a fighting stance in seconds, scarred fists raised in warning. He even sees Lucius Fox with a knowing tilt to his head and a daring gleam to his eye. These men could save Gotham while Jerome privated him away.
Bruce believes in them. He knows he does. But belief does nothing to ease the duty he feels to his city or the guilty rise of unease prickling beneath his skin.
He wants to be where Gotham is hurting.
Instead, the quiet progression away from the action only unnerves him more.
“You said it wasn’t very far,” Bruce accuses. His voice is short with suppressed rage, jaw clenched so tightly he can hear the gritty grind of his teeth.
At the back of his neck, Jerome’s gloved hand gives a pleased spasm. His fingers flutter in a wave, no longer tapping out of sync as he hums old love songs in the hush of their walk.
“Don’t worry, pumpkin,” he croons, pulling Bruce closer so their feet nearly tangle in the dirt. “It’s not much longer now. Can’t have ya getting too tired on me. We’ve got a show to put on!”
Bruce sighs, trying to steady himself. Discarded circus equipment towers to their sides, tunnel-like, against a backdrop of sunset. Rusty roller coaster cars guard a broken kissing booth. Stacks of rotten stilts and old food carts pile between enormous pinstripe tents, discarded for too grievous imperfections, even for Gotham.
They follow lines worn into the ground like rivers through a map, land carved down by persistent traction. Jerome’s grip feels hot enough to brand, even through the glove ringing the nape of Bruce’s neck like a lead, forcing him forward.
Flickering lights, so bright once they first began their trek, are dimming on the edges of his eyes. With every step, they leave the carnival behind, its chaos growing more faint the deeper they progress into the towering collections of castaways.
He wants to keep Gotham safe. He wants justice. For now, he can only be patient and that ratchets his frustration several notches higher. His hands shake with restraint, with cursed inaction.
Bruce, however noble, has no taste for patience.
And still, the sun keeps sinking.
“ Heeeeere we are,” Jerome declares with pride and a flourish of his open hand. Before them, Bruce sees nothing that could indicate a show. No stage, no lights, no crowd. Only a tall, pinstripe circus tent, stained and ripped and nearly useless as the rest piled around them.
At his pondering silence, Jerome grows impatient.
“It’s not much, sure.” He taps his fingers along Bruce’s spine, thumb pressing harsh into his jugular, threatening against further quiet. “I know you’re used to all kinds of luxuries, billionaire baby, but it is - ”
Bruce interrupts him, voice stern, pitching more offense than necessary. “This is it? This is where you want to kill me?”
“Private,” Jerome continues as if he hadn’t spoken, marching him towards the tent. “And intimate . Perfect for what we need.”
“I thought you wanted an audience.”
“Oh, of course I do,” Jerome murmurs, his chest to Bruce’s back as he guides him to the small slit in the wall serving as their entrance. “But any good performance requires, hmmm… preparation. Don’t ya think?”
He pushes Bruce through that ragged cut and into the tent. Smells of musty fabric and dry mud press down upon them as they enter. Where Bruce might have expected a spotlight and a stage, he finds oppressive darkness, brightened only by a broken vanity set. It sits slumped in the very center of the tent, mirror cracked like a curse, its yellowed bulbs flickering madly.
Bruce braces himself for the punchline. Waits for the crowds of sycophants and Maniax to pour in, cheering for his demise or praising Jerome, resurrected and impossible and still so brutal. He waits for the red blink of a video camera in action, ready to broadcast his coming suffering throughout all of Gotham City.
And nothing comes.
Confusion blights his impatience for one blinding moment. The privacy, the intimacy , feels so unlike anything he could have predicted Jerome might want, that Bruce is left standing shocked in an unbearable spike of discomfort.
Behind him, Jerome drops the heavy entrance flap, and every outside sound is cut like the wire to a microphone fraying mid-sentence. Other than the hum of the bulbs and the whistle of wind through gashes in the fabric, there is only still, looming silence.
“Alright, Bruce,” Jerome says, and his voice sounds wrong - too flat, too cramped, nothing like it usually does when they are surrounded by people and props, his voice bouncing back to Bruce at odd angles. Here, in the empty tent, his words are hushed and faded as their surroundings. “We’re gonna fix up that face of yours. Take a seat.”
Bruce is forced towards the flickering vanity and into an old barber’s chair, the leather peeling at his back. This close, he can see the multitudes of spidering cracks in the mirror and how they warp his reflection. Atop the vanity are several pots of greasepaint, well used, and a grungy brush with a very fine tip.
“What’s wrong with my face?” Bruce asks flatly, not quite expecting an answer.
With a clatter, Jerome sweeps an arm across the table, shoving the greasepaint aside. He slips atop it to sit so they are facing one another, grinning so widely the skin at his mouth looks close to tearing.
“Oh, nothin’s wrong with it. Surely you know that by now. Haven’t you seen all those Gazette articles? Bruce Wayne - Gotham’s sweetheart, looks just like his father, a darling boy and so handsome too! What a fine, fine bachelor he will make someday…” As if lost in thought, Jerome taps the point of his switchblade against his teeth and looks away. Bruce hadn’t seen him withdraw it, hadn’t heard its telltale click, and he wonders how long it might have been pointed at his back. “You just need a little fixin’ up. I want you to look pretty as can be. Now… stick out that tongue for me.”
In the following silence, Jerome loosens the fingers of his gloves one by one. The demand and the near-predatory way he is being watched, makes cold dread and rage churn in Bruce’s chest. Wordlessly, he refuses.
Once one glove has been removed, Jerome places it to his side without looking, takes his switchblade in hand, and presses it so suddenly against the underside of Bruce’s chin, he hardly has time to react beyond a startled gasp as it pierces the skin and a thin trickle of blood drips hot down his throat.
“Oh, Bruce. You’ve been so good. Don’t ruin it now, okay?”
Jerome lets him jerk away, and the blade tip comes back wet with gore. The cut isn’t deep, but it still bleeds in long trails to the collar of his sweater. Bruce glares, realizing it is only his sacrificed pride needed to borrow his city some time.
Slowly, he opens his mouth and looks Jerome in the face. Shallow, bitter gratitude for his blocked reflection almost makes him squirm.
“What a good boy!” Jerome chirps. His eyes are bright with delight and peculiar heat as he stares into Bruce’s mouth. After that, he whips his other glove off with much less care. Only then does Bruce notice his fingers - the very tips of them purpled as if dipped in wine, proof that he hadn’t escaped death completely unchanged.
Slowly, with the repressed eagerness of a person who has known only misery, Jerome presses two fingers into the wet cavern of his throat, not quite deep enough to make him gag, and drags them forward down the entire length of his tongue. When he pulls them away, his fingertips are wet and gleaming. Bruce spasms despite grappling for composure, his glare narrowing to a wince as his jaw snaps closed.
With a chuckle, Jerome grabs a pot of greasepaint at random and unscrews the lid. “White. A perfect start.”
He dips his fingers into the paint and brings them straight to Bruce’s eyes. It’s intentionally unnerving, he knows, and still it works to make his heart race. Even with Jerome’s touch being uncharacteristically gentle. Even with the hush of the tent and the warm glow of the vanity’s bulbs against the darkness. Even though the paint is cool against the adrenaline-flush of his cheeks. Bruce still braces himself for pain and calamity even as the color is feathered across his eyelashes.
“You know, of course, about my past growing up in the circus,” Jerome says softly, so close Bruce can feel his breath against the sticky trail of blood at his neck. “Believe it or not, I learned a thing or two, and one of those things was makeup.”
The fingers vanish from his face. Bruce opens his eyes to see nothing out of the ordinary - no villains, no traps, no tricks. Just Jerome backlit in gold with the fine brush in his hand, its tip dull and dry. “I could paint ‘em all, Bruce. The Whitefaces, the Augustes, the Harlequins. Done up in all kinds of expressions and colors…”
Slow and steady, he reaches out until his fingers, still wet with greasepaint, brush Bruce’s neck and twist, tangling in the curls at the back of his head. The action, were it not for the tight grip, could be almost loving. Jerome tugs until Bruce raises his chin slightly, the light falling across his face.
“I could paint the perfect slant to an eyebrow… Like this .” Cool, wetness glides across his face, over and above the line of his brow. When it comes away, the tip is covered in paint black as tar. Jerome dips it into a pot at his side, eyes never leaving Bruce’s face. He starts on the second brow with more patience. “I knew juuuust how to color in all that cheer . With all the practice I couldn’t help but pick favorites.”
Jerome fills in the lines of his brows, tracing individual hairs. “I’m gonna be honest. You don’t make the funniest clown. But that’s okay, I liked the sad ones best anyway.”
As always, Jerome has no problem filling the silence. He reflects wistfully on the night they met. Makes bets on Alfred’s survival against his Maniax. Offers insight into death and his experience, which is contradictory and useless. Although Bruce never speaks, he never grows impatient. It seems like his company, in whatever form he gave it, was what Jerome valued the most.
Still, that doesn’t keep him from trying to get a rise out of Bruce.
“Has anyone ever let you know that this sweater looks so good on you? Because it does.” Sharp and gleaming, the tip of the blade scrapes softly down Bruce’s chest. Against his brow, the brush doesn't waver one bit.
A grin spreads slowly across Jerome’s face as an idea takes form. A wicked gleam to his eye is all the warning Bruce gets. He braces himself as the other man purrs, “But you know what would look even better?”
With a single flick, the hem of Bruce’s sweater is split to his navel. Despite his shock and the instinctual urge to react, he is proud that he does not flinch. His scowl only deepens as he refuses a response.
“Six feet of dirt!” Jerome withdraws the blade and the brush with a wicked laugh, so loud and powerful, he nearly doubles with it. “Mountains of flowers from Gotham’s mourning public. Oh! And a nice, heavy tombstone to match Mommy and Daddy’s. I can give ya all that, pumpkin. How’s that sound?”
That nearly breaks his resolve. Fury flashes across Bruce’s face and in his gut, so familiar it is a deeply welcomed alternative to his patience. His hands wrap around the arms of the chair, knuckles white and ready to swing. He starts to stand, but that only makes Jerome laugh harder. His fury is ultimately smothered by his desire to remain as in control as possible. Jerome is trying to force him into action sooner than he wants, and Bruce won’t let him win even that little game.
“You know,” Bruce hisses, hoping to disarm, alarm, distract. Anything to level the playing field. “When someone usually asks what clothes you’d look better in, you expect their answer to be none . That’s the joke and you didn’t even use it.”
Through his surprise, it takes Jerome a moment, but he catches on. That wicked grin, somehow, stretches wider.
“And what would such a chaste and moral boy like you know about somethin’ like that? You really think I’d like to see a pretty thing like you without a single stitch to hide behind? Well…” Jerome, smirking, takes this opportunity to sloppily draw two black hearts on his cheeks. “You’re absolutely right! Look at the brains on you!”
For the very first time, Bruce is glad for the pale paint and the hearts hiding the humiliated blush staining his cheeks. Disgusted with himself, with Jerome, with his momentary powerlessness, Bruce closes his eyes.
When he opens them, Jerome is gone from the vanity. Instead, he is inhabiting Bruce’s reflection, hovering over his shoulder. With a slow shift, Jerome’s arm comes up and around his chest. His cheek brushes Bruce’s painted one, the staples dragging cold where their skin meets. Bruce tries his best to keep very, very still.
“I’m going to hurt you here ,” Jerome’s purpled hand presses flat against his heart. After several moments, it trails down between each rib to slip beneath the frayed slash in his sweater. “And here . And… here .”
Bruce’s breath catches at the feeling of the other man’s fingers on his skin, but it is cut short into a startled choke as that hand slips lower to grope his cock through his slacks.
“ Here too, Bruce,” he murmurs into his ear, breath hot, lips skimming flesh. “I’ll hurt you so good. So sweet.”
Bruce gasps wetly, body stirring with panic and bitter lust, but Jerome withdraws with a snap of his fingers.
“Oh, that reminds me! One last thing!” With a flourish, a thin tube of lipstick appears in his grip. He drops it into Bruce’s lap and slinks to the front of the chair until they are facing one another, trading the same air. Breathing ragged, Bruce glares through a disgusted grimace.
“Don’t look at me like that, honey. I’m no tease,” Jerome says softly, his wicked smirk betraying the velvet in his voice. He rests a hand on Bruce’s knee, skimming upwards. “I won’t leave you wanting. Promise. I’ll touch you anywhere, as much as you beg me. But first! Fair is fair. Come on and do my lips, won’t ya? Pay me back, Bruce?”
Shaking his head, Bruce glances away very briefly to uncap the tube. He half expects a blade to spring free or to trigger a small explosion someplace precious like a hospital or an orphanage. Instead, a simple stick of lipstick is revealed. Its end is rounded and worn with use, candy-red, like the flesh gaping between Jerome’s staples.
“It suits you,” Bruce whispers through his shaky resentment. His execution is firm but tactless. Red rings Jerome’s mouth in wobbly layers no matter how slow he goes. “It’s the exact color of your ruined face.”
There is only a faint flicker in Jerome’s dark eyes.
That is all the warning Bruce gets before he is being kissed.
It’s childishly quick and forceful, a sloppy smack of lips designed to transfer as much color as possible between them. Before he can process through his frayed nerves, Jerome has already pulled away, giggling.
“I promise you, Bruce, that I would die dissatisfied if I never once kissed you. But! Here we are. And,” he adds with a wink. “I won’t be needing to smooch your corpse later. Plus, this color looks much better on you .”
In the mirror, Bruce’s lips are smudged and wet-looking, as if they had been kissing for hours. Chapped and gleaming. He looks debauched. Seduced. Ravaged.
And completely foreign to himself.
He fumbles for words (for excuses or anger or anything but this peculiar melting at the center of his chest - ) and comes up empty.
“Now, let’s go show you off to Jimbo and the rest of the GCPD. How’s that sound, dollface?” Jerome doesn’t wait for an answer before yanking his wrists. The tube of lipstick clatters to the dirt. “Time to go!”
Bruce watches in the shattered mirror as his painted face ripples and slides away as he is dragged to his feet. He’s still recovering from the kiss, his heart racing, and in his reflection he sees something broken with realization, unsparing with affection - an epiphany of the heart.
Mind buzzing with shock, Bruce is shoved towards the fraying doorway and into the night.
Faint screams still mix with the sick cycles of carnival music and sirens not far off. Goosebumps sprout up his spine, and he shivers beneath Jerome’s grip. Somehow, momentarily, he had forgotten that his city was suffering. Forgotten it all as Jerome had taken his face in his hands and touched him so gently. It is unforgivable and Bruce is deeply, painfully ashamed.
“Oh, darling ,” Jerome sighs, nearly breathless in the starlight. His bare hand is soft and warm at Bruce’s neck, fingertips brushing the curls at the base of his skull. Without looking, Bruce feels the unholy, savage love in Jerome’s eyes tracing his body like a reverent touch. “You’re gonna look so good bleeding out in my arms.”
At that, Bruce raises a hand to Jerome’s. He presses his fingers firmly against the ones ringing his throat, a dare and a warning all in one. Bare skin on skin. He can feel every scar on the other man’s knuckles, each fissure and groove. Rage and frustration quiver in his stomach beside a dark, fierce shock of arousal.
“Lead the way.”