The situation had started very much in control.
Lucius had a plan.
Jeremiah had agreed to come with him and Bruce had managed not to stare at him too hard when he saw him in person for the first time. Bruce had managed to speak to him as if Jeremiah wasn’t the brother of the man who Bruce would do all manner of terrible things for if it meant keeping him safe. Bruce had managed to fool everyone into thinking that he and Jerome were no more than enemies who were intent on ruining opposing situations that they would separately consider to be a good time.
Bruce was going to stop Jerome, but he was also going to dig in his heels and put up a fight if anyone tried to hurt him; although how he would get away with such a thing was a mystery even to him. Really, though, Bruce isn’t overly surprised when it starts to spiral out of control. Jerome was always so much better prepared than people wanted to think that he was. They comforted themselves with the knowledge that he was crazy and conveniently forgot that he was also a charismatic cult leader who was more than capable of turning Gotham upside down.
Bruce feels guilty for bringing Jeremiah along with him the moment that it becomes obvious that they played right into Jerome’s eager, waiting hands. The man obviously did not want to come, and Bruce couldn’t blame him, and even if Bruce couldn’t be exactly sure if Jeremiah had gotten his message because his reaction to Bruce’s introduction hadn’t given anything away Bruce had promised to protect him.
He had meant to protect him. And Bruce didn’t make promises that he didn’t intend to keep.
So yes, he does feel the usual amount of remorse for a situation which is not technically his fault which Jerome would no doubt tease him for endlessly while calling him ‘valiant’ and ‘precious’ and other sweet things.
But he feels even guiltier that, when Jerome’s fingers graze his throat as he personally affixes a bomb collar around his neck, movement slightly stilted because one hand is still clutching onto the dead man’s switch, his heart flutters. Jerome has hurt people with these hands, he’s killed people with these hands; the most recent of which happened less than an hour ago and there are irrefutable traces of gore left on the stage from it. Bruce cannot ignore what he’s done, he’s never tried to ignore what he’s done. Bruce should detest him. Bruce should want to never see him or be touched by him again in any capacity. Bruce should want him to get thrown into Arkham and be locked away for long enough that the people of Gotham could forget about the horrors that he’s personally caused.
But Jerome smiles at him, eyes dark, and if he could get away with it right now Bruce would kiss him.
“I’m so messed up,” he admits under his breath, because it’s not as if Jerome doesn’t already know just how twisted Bruce has become. He’s pleased that there’s at least one person in the world who he can talk to about it. He knows Jerome must be pleased about it, too. “You really do bring out the worst in me,” he doesn’t have it in him for his voice to be cutting or accusing. One of Jerome’s greatest strengths was that he was able to bring out the worst in anyone.
Hands that have killed people touch him so softly, and it makes him feel strangely adored.
“Oh, Bruce.” The buckle snaps shut, but Jerome’s hands don’t fall away quite yet. He hooks one finger underneath Bruce’s chin, as if he’s forcing Bruce to meet his eyes even though Bruce had already been gazing there of his own volition. A ploy to further unnerve their audience? Or because Jerome didn’t have it within himself to stop touching Bruce when he was within arm’s reach? Probably both, Bruce decides. Jerome wanted a show, but he also wanted Bruce. “The bedroom talk is gonna turn me on if you’re not careful.”
Bruce bites his lip—he cannot afford to forget that they are not alone, here—but Jerome is able to read him just as well as ever. He leans in quickly, close enough that their noses almost brush, and Bruce jerks back not because he is afraid but because he’s hyper-aware of the muffled gasps from the crowd at his back.
“You deserve a present,” Jerome tells him lowly, “for the lovely little care package you sent me.” He pauses for a moment, lips twitching as if he’s trying to hold back a smile for once in his second-life. “And for your sweet little love-note. Lots of serial killer vibes there, Bruce, you’re lucky that you’re already the most dramatic person that I know. I realized that it was from you right away.”
Bruce blinks. “I’m not dramatic,” he protests, but the ghost of a smile plays across his lips.
He’s glad that Jerome got it.
He’s glad that Jerome liked it.
“Honestly, Bruce, with your level of theatrics? The only person in this city with more stage-presence than you is me. It makes me wanna see if I can make you break character.”
Jerome pushes Bruce roughly into a chair, hands splaying possessively over Bruce’s shoulders once Bruce’s wrists have been tied to the arms. There’s a whole damn live audience of civilians in front of them—and the GCPD, and the Maniax, and other hostages which unfortunately include Jerome’s brother—and cameras are recording and broadcasting the entire thing. Jerome is the opposite of subtle, but if Bruce didn’t know any better even he would think of his looming as a constant threat. They can’t know, there’s no way that they can know, just why Jerome can’t seem to keep his hands off of him. They would never be able to guess that it was because Jerome loved him.
The hand not holding the dead man’s switch moves. A few people in the audience don’t bother with trying to muffle their screams.
The blade of a knife presses between his lips. Starts pushing against the corner of his mouth where a nearly invisible white line already acts as an extension of his rare smiles.
Bruce’s breath hitches, but it’s not from fear.
“Gotta make sure people know that you’re mine,” Jerome whispers into his ear. “That they know I’m the only one allowed to spill your precious blue blood. Not just my Maniax, but everyone in Gotham.” His skin starts to split, he can taste the first tang of blood on his tongue. It brings back so many memories that the sting of pain and the blatant exhibitionism isn’t enough to flood him with dread. If anything it makes his insides clench hotly. “They won’t realize the true significance, pathetic losers probably think I’m marking you for death, but I’m sure they’ll get the overarching point. Besides…”
The angle of the knife changes, the cut turning superficial instead of tearing right through the entirety of his cheek, not that anyone in their audience is close enough to see that Jerome isn’t happily sawing right through him. Blood drips down his chin. More people in the crowd scream. Bruce resolutely keeps his eyes on the sky and tries not to squirm. Fuck, this brings back memories. Jerome’s knife in his mouth, Jerome’s tongue in his mouth, Jerome’s cock in his mouth. Jerome shushing him and soothing him and praising him.
“You know what it all means, don’t you, Bruce?”
“I understand,” he says, feigning detachment because he cannot let anything show on his face right now. The knife cuts just a little deeper into the corner of his mouth as he forms the words. It hurts. It makes his breath catch. It makes him want—
“Such a serious boy,” Jerome sounds so unbelievably fond. Bruce almost wants to lean into the cut of his knife just to see if that would be enough to break Jerome’s composure, but he can’t. He presses his thighs tightly together and holds back the embarrassing noise that’s building up in the back of his throat. “The notoriety of killing anyone is overshadowed by the infamy of being the one who put a permanent smile on your face.”
If he doesn’t stop soon Bruce is actually going to get hard on stage, and that would be…
Jerome’s knife slides out of his mouth, the blade dragging against his skin and making the wound deeper. It must look worse than it feels, or maybe Bruce’s hormones are making the pain more manageable, because he’s sure that Jerome has hurt him worse than this before—and he’s certainly hurt Jerome worse than this before—but the crowd’s reaction seems over the top.
Of course, they probably thought of him as some pampered little darling. They didn’t know anything about him, not really. They were seeing him on stage at the mercy of someone who’d he’d been at the mercy of before, and they were acting as if he were still the child that he used to be. He’s grown up so much since then. The sea of strangers before him had no idea about the things he’s lived through, the things he’s done. Jerome’s laceration was nothing.
Except in that it wasn’t nothing at all.
Bruce feels hot. Maybe, if he’s lucky, people will think that he’s flushing with anger over whatever terrible things they must believe Jerome is saying to him.
“What do you say, Bruce,” Jerome whispers in his ear. Even without looking back at him Bruce knows exactly the sort of smile that must be on his face. Fuck. He wants to kiss him so badly, but he can’t. Jerome was such a tease, doing stuff like this when Bruce couldn’t respond to it without facing the worst backlash in Gotham’s history. “Wanna boost our ratings?”
“Not here,” Bruce murmurs, trying to keep his expression as neutral as possible. If Jerome took things too far he was going to have a whole lot of uncomfortable questions to answer, and Alfred and Detective Gordon might start questioning those instances an age ago where he and Jerome had spent time one-on-one. Might start wondering just how honest Bruce had been with them about what had happened on their second and third dates, as Jerome would undoubtedly refer to them as. “Later,” he says. He thinks about it for a beat before adding, “as long as you don’t make me too mad.”
Jerome chuckles softly. Bruce can feel it rustle his hair. Jerome is still very, very close, and people are still watching, and Bruce isn’t sure how much longer he’ll be able to fake aloofness.
“I do absolutely adore you when you’re angry, darlin’.” He ruffles Bruce’s hair fondly. Then he fists his hand in the curls tightly and draws back Bruce’s head, showcasing the sliver of vulnerable skin at his neck that isn’t concealed by the latest deadly play-threat. If he hadn’t had to put his knife away in order to grab onto Bruce’s hair he’d probably be resting the blade of it against his throat. Bruce feverishly wishes that the bomb-collar weren’t covering the scar that he’d left on Bruce at their first meeting. “But I suppose I like it when you’re all soft and tenderhearted, too.” His rough lips press against the skin just behind Bruce’s ear, a private little kiss that makes Bruce feel like melting, and then he draws away to focus on his brother.
All keyed up with nowhere to go, all that Bruce can do is watch.
There’s a very calculated sort of animosity in the way that Jerome speaks around Jeremiah; it’s more predatory than it is playful, but Bruce knows Jerome well enough—he probably knows Jerome better than anyone—to come to the conclusion that if he really wanted to kill his brother right now he’d be more violent than this. Bruce decides to take a small amount of comfort in that, at least before Jerome’s eyes flit knowingly over to him as he offers out the blade that is still swathed in the red of Bruce’s blood to Jeremiah.
Bruce’s mind momentarily trips up. What exactly was the plan, here? Would Jerome really allow himself to be stabbed to prove a point? Or was there something else—
—did he want to see what Bruce would do if Jeremiah hurt him right in front of his eyes? Did he want to see if Bruce would be just as overcome as he had been in the diner? Did he want Bruce to show everyone that; just as Jerome was the only one allowed to draw his blood, he was the only one allowed to draw Jerome’s?
Did he want Bruce to prove that Jerome was his?
He watches Jeremiah’s fingers curl around the handle of the knife. He holds his breath. Jerome catches his eye and winks in a conspiring manner.
Bruce isn’t sure how he’ll react if—
Jeremiah yells, and heaves himself upwards, and—
Bruce needn’t have worried, Jerome obviously had everything under control. He still feels awful, though, because no matter what he feels for Jerome he’d wanted to protect Jeremiah and he was failing, failing, failing.
And then it all goes very, very wrong.
Jerome gets shot, and Bruce feels dread claw viciously at his insides as his body hits the stage.