Jerome can tell that their time together is coming to an end as if he can sense the change in the air. The longer Bruce stays the more suspicious it will be if he makes it home almost completely unscathed and, even though Jerome dreads saying goodbye again and wonders how many more times he’s going to have to say it, Bruce could only afford so much mistrust being directed his way. Jerome has not been subtle. Jerome cannot be subtle. The cops in this city might be morons overall, but Bruce was buddies with the only one who’d ever given Jerome a run for his money and undoubtedly Bruce’s butler wasn’t just going to forget the things Jerome had done to his charge, or the times that Jerome had taken him before.
Jerome cannot keep him. Not yet. Not until he’s strong enough to make sure that he can continue to keep him.
He doesn’t ask Bruce to stay.
He asks for something else instead.
Bruce kisses the flat of the blade; he looks so sweet, so provocative, so fearless. Then he kisses Jerome’s hand. Then he takes the knife.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” Bruce tells him lowly. “You’ve been hurt enough.”
“I wouldn’t mind being hurt by you,” Jerome says, and he sees Bruce begin to waver. “Please? Think of it like—” He trails his fingers over the faded white line at his own neck, and the faded white line along Bruce’s. Both are practically invisible, now. Jerome wants something that matches Bruce that will last. “Matching marks. Because we’re each other’s. You had my mark while you were missing me, give me something to have when I’m missing you.”
He watches, wonderstruck, as Bruce’s resolve crumbles to dust.
“Okay,” Bruce tells him, ducking down to press a kiss to a bared shoulder. “Okay.” His lips skim a trail across one of Jerome’s collar bones, down his sternum, along his ribs, down, down, until Bruce is kissing a patch of skin that, on his own body, has been marked.
“You’ll tell me if it gets to be too much and you need to take a break?”
It’s absolutely crazy how a little bit of concern from Bruce is enough to make Jerome flustered.
“If that’s what’ll make you happy,” he says, and Bruce presses a fleeting kiss to his lips before drawing back, carefully setting the tip of the knife against Jerome’s skin. It begins to dig in, just enough for a tiny bead of blood to begin welling up, and Jerome’s breath catches in his throat.
“I think that maybe in a perfect world we wouldn’t have an opportunity to miss each other,” Bruce says softly.
“A perfect world? Ha. In a perfect world we never would have met,” Jerome tells him. In a perfect world Bruce wouldn’t have been orphaned. In a perfect world Jerome… Wouldn’t have become the person who he was.
“Maybe in a perfect world we would have met sooner,” Bruce answers. The knife begins to drag down, and through the dizzying, heart-fluttering sting Jerome thinks of what might have happened if someone, even if it were just a stubborn child even younger than he was, tried to save him when no one else bothered to back before everything wrong with him began to multiply and magnify. His own personal white-knight. His own personal hero.
The only hero in Gotham.
“Maybe you’re right,” Jerome whispers, fighting to stay motionless, not wanting to mess up Bruce’s initial.
But Gotham was far from an ideal place, and the world was far from perfect.
Still, something must have gone right for them to have crossed paths, even if the first time was because Jerome was planning on becoming a star by murdering Bruce on a stage at the behest of a man who had decided to use him as a pawn. Even if the second time was because the first thing Jerome could think about upon his resurrection was resolving his unfinished business. It’s like he was cheating fate even before he was aware of it.
Or maybe like fate had always meant to bring them into each other’s orbits, somehow.
Jerome forces himself into stillness as the path of the knife curves once, twice, ends. He looks down at it and he feels a sense of warm belonging already. He’s determined that someday he’ll never miss Bruce for any more than a few hours at most, that someday they’ll always be close, but until then…
“Thank you,” he says, and he means it.
Bruce kisses him again.
It takes a few days for the lingering chaos in Gotham to die down enough that Bruce thinks he can go to where he feels he needs to be. He approaches Jeremiah’s bunker alone, just as he did the first time, and he looks up at the camera and wonders—not for the first time and not for the last time—how bad of a person he is for not doing more to keep Jeremiah from being dragged into a situation that had spiralled out of control so quickly.
He really did mean to keep him safe, even if it was from Jerome.
He licks his lips, trying to find words that won’t seem hollow or overly calculated, but he hears the click of the door unlocking before he can start. He’s surprised at the wordless invitation, because he’d thought that after the fiasco at the music festival Jeremiah wouldn’t want to see him ever again and he’d have to make his proposal outside, speaking into the eye of a camera.
He steps inside and he follows the only path that he knows which had been shown to him by Detective Gordon on the day of his birthday. He stands in front of the office door, feeling more nervous than he thought he would.
He knocks. A voice from inside beckons him in. He opens the door.
Jeremiah is facing his monitors, his back to Bruce. He seems to take a moment—maybe to gather himself before facing the teenager who had not very subtly been the driving force behind Jeremiah ultimately deciding to face his brother—before he turns. Bruce isn’t entirely sure what to expect from his expression, but it isn’t anger, and it isn’t suspicion, and that’s enough for some of his nervousness to settle.
“Mister Valeska,” he greets, and something he doesn’t quite understand filters over Jeremiah’s features. A sort of amusement, maybe.
“Call me Jeremiah, please,” he says, pushing his glasses further up the bridge of his nose and looking at Bruce intently from underneath his pale lashes. “I feel as if facing death together should put us on a first-name basis.”
I wasn’t almost killed, Bruce thinks, and neither were you.
“Jeremiah, then. I’m sorry for dropping by unannounced.” If he’d had a number he would have called ahead, but alas, they hadn’t really had the time or forethought to exchange personal contact information the last time they’d been in this room together. “But I had something that I wanted to speak to you about.”
“Oh?” Jeremiah’s eyes flash, something like interest making itself known before disappearing under a dispassionate look. “Well, I do hope that it’s not about trying to use me to find my brother, because I’ve already told everyone that asked that I have no idea where he might have run off to.”
I know where he ran off to, Bruce silently admits, I wonder if he’s still there.
“I haven’t seen him at all since he—” Jeremiah stops. Looks away. Folds his arms as if he’s uncomfortable. “—since he dragged you off the stage.” He looks at Bruce again, lips pursing together in displeasure.
“It’s not about Jerome at all.”
Jeremiah blinks at him, eyes wide behind his glasses, as if he’s shocked that anyone would want to talk to him if Jerome were not a part of the conversation. Bruce remembers, again, the empathy he’d felt when standing outside of Jeremiah’s bunker for the first time. Bruce has felt incredibly scared and incredibly alone, yes, but he’d never been as cut off from the world as Jeremiah had been for literal years. There are slight similarities, echoed inside of them both. He thinks that maybe they could understand each other, if they got to know each other.
Perhaps it’s greedy of him, but he hopes that there’s a possibility that they could be friends despite the secret that Bruce keeps locked deeply within his heart at all times.
“I meant what I said about your work being of importance to this city,” he starts, walking closer. Jeremiah is staring at him in a way that feels familiar—in the way that he’d stared at Bruce when Bruce was talking to him about standing up to terror. Jeremiah must have realized how brilliant he was, but perhaps there were precious few people in his life who realized it, too. “Let Wayne Enterprises fund your work with a grant.”
Jeremiah stares at him, something like happy surprise flashing across his features for a moment before he reaches out to offer Bruce his hand. Bruce takes it.
“I’d be delighted, Bruce,” he says, and his eyes dart somewhere beyond Bruce’s shoulder before his hand slips out of Bruce’s grip. “It’s an offer that I wouldn’t be able to refuse,” he continues under his breath, as if he doesn’t actually mean for Bruce to hear him.
Bruce’s eyebrows furrow.
“If you don’t want to—”
“No!” Jeremiah’s attention snaps back onto him, and he looks startled by his own outburst. “No,” he repeats, softer. “It’s not that. It’s… When I came home, after being up on that stage with you, there was a package left here for me. It was stupid of me, but when I saw it I was almost compelled to opened it.”
“Yes.” Jeremiah walks past him and Bruce turns to watch him dig into a drawer at his desk and pull out a box tied up with a bow. When Bruce takes a closer look he can see that the tag reads ‘Wayne Enterprises’.
An offer he wouldn’t be able to refuse. A gift he wouldn’t be able to resist opening.
Jerome always was excellent at finding out what made people tick, and he probably knew more about Jeremiah—or at least, Jeremiah as he once was; that little boy with the serious, unsmiling face that made Bruce feel crestfallen to gaze upon—than anyone else. But how… How could he have known that Bruce would want to make Jeremiah any kind of offer?
Was it a wild guess? Was it another way to stack the deck in his eternal game against fate? Was he so sure that Bruce would want to get to know the only living relative of the person who’d turned his entire world upside down?
Was he so sure that Jeremiah wouldn’t be able to resist something with a heavy implication that it was from Bruce?
“I didn’t send you that.”
“I figured,” Jeremiah begins stiltedly. “What with you being kidnapped and all.” He tries to be subtle about it, but he’s obviously looking at the cut on Bruce’s face. Bruce has to avert his eyes briefly, because it’s what he tends to look at first whenever he catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror and the sight of it makes him feel something very, very different than what everyone else feels when they look at it. “Are you… Alright?”
“It’s nothing that I haven’t dealt with before,” he offers, and Jeremiah’s expression twists between concern and bewilderment. “This isn’t the first time that Jerome has tried to hurt me in front of an audience, or that he’s kidnapped me, for that matter.”
It wouldn’t be the last time, either.
“You shouldn’t have to have gotten used to situations like that,” Jeremiah tells him, tone a strange mixture of consolation and anger. He didn’t have a lot of faith in the GCPD’s ability to keep Jerome under control, from what Detective Gordon had told Bruce on the way over here.
Smart. Because, even if Bruce looked up to Detective Gordon, it was becoming pretty obvious that the police in this city simply weren’t a match for Jerome.
He’s distantly proud, in a way. As if his reaction to seeing police scramble would be to internally croon, ‘That’s my Jay.’
“We both should have been kept safe. Neither one of us should have been up on the stage. You were braver than I was, though.” Jeremiah’s gaze is full of something like wonder, and Bruce feels utterly undeserving of it. “Talking about standing up to terror. How much terror have you stood up to, Bruce, to feel so fearless in the face of it?”
It is not Jerome that strikes terror into Bruce’s heart nowadays; it is the thought of being without him.
“I didn’t have a very conventional childhood,” he offers vaguely, which is absolutely true, and Jeremiah laughs softly under his breath. He looks different when he smiles, however slight a smile it may be, but the subdued curve of his lips eventually fades away.
“You left a message for me on the night Jerome broke out of my bunker. You told me that you wouldn’t let him hurt me.” He doesn’t word it like an accusation, but guilt stabs at Bruce’s heart all the same.
“I did. And I’m sorry that I couldn’t.”
“I appreciate the sentiment, although I must admit I didn’t the first time that I heard it. Now that I know you a little I feel like… If anyone was truly capable of it, it would be you. But I don’t think anyone can really protect me from him, from what he wants to do to me.” Jeremiah looks down at the box again. “Not even someone who can look terror in the eyes like you can.”
“What do you suppose is in it?”
“A trap. A scheme meant to drive me mad. Jerome said something to me, the first time that we were face to face. We could all go insane with just one bad day,” he murmurs under his breath. “For me it would be one bad spray.”
Bruce feels a sudden chill.
He doesn’t want to kill you, Bruce thinks, but why does he want to change you?
He’s not entirely sure he’d get a straight answer from either brother if he asked.