Actions

Work Header

A Joker in the hand

Chapter Text

It had been five years since he’d set foot in Gotham. Five years since his untimely and supposed death. Jerome was no longer Jerome Valeska—the insanely charismatic lad who’d charmed Gotham, no, that person was gone. Not that he missed the name. It was a reminder of someone he used to be. A boy shunned, beaten, and betrayed by those who claimed to be his family. His past, his name, his red-hair. He’d cleaned that out and changed it faster than the rich could swipe their fancy champagne.

He was Jack Napier now, a former aspiring comedian—circumstances had nipped that career in the bud rather quick when he’d gotten himself tangled in with the mafia.

The road back to Gotham had been a rocky and uncertain one, full of unexpected surprises. Jerome had never had much of a home, but he felt a certain kinship with the underbelly of Gotham. He could identify with the misery, boredom, and madness of the streets, shuffled away and hidden by the towering skyscrapers and penthouses of the rich and powerful. He had not expected to be so delighted to lay eyes upon the dark spires of gothic architecture. Nor had he expected to bring with him a pregnant wife and he’d definitely not expected to like her as much as he did. It was an unexpected happiness, if very short-lived.

Shortly after his move to Gotham, the unthinkable happened. His wife died, the baby lost. And the ones to blame were the people he’d worked and risked his life for to keep his wife alive. When he first found out he’d laughed. The irony of it all was simply hilarious! He’d quit his dream to pursue a more lucrative business—in order to provide for his family and keep them safe—and had ended up causing both their deaths. It would all be so sad if it wasn’t so funny. His life was a joke, but where was the punchline?

The papers wrote all about how Gotham had earned a new protector. A man dressed as a flying rodent, no less. Jerome tossed the newspaper aside. Why bats? This guy had some issues. A smile curved on his lips. Makes two of us.

He went to work, thoughts still circulating around this strange Batman. Driving around rich people wasn’t a job he would have chosen, but it allowed some amount of anonymity. Not that anyone would probably recognize him. With his hair dyed and his cap pulled down low, he was practically melting into the background. Nobody noticed a driver, unless they needed him to open the door for them, and even then you’d be lucky if you got a side-ways glance or a tip.

Most people believed Batman was a mere hoax, a fabrication to frighten potential criminals into behaving. Others believed him a vigilante hero, someone willing to risk his safety to expose the corruptness of the GCPD, the large corporations, and the mafia’s operations. Jerome wasn’t sure what he believed, but it all intrigued him. Whoever this vigilante was, he seemed to have a hero complex. And rumours had it he only had one rule: not to kill. But judging by the broken bones and punctured lungs he left behind, he didn’t shy away from violence. So he wasn't a complete bore.

Jerome waited for his employer outside a pompous townhouse. She was the daughter of one of Gotham’s most influential company holders and a nasty little brat. Jerome often found his mind wandering to dark places when she made him drive back and forth through all of Gotham, spending her father’s money like her life depended it. Today was no exception.

“Where to?” Jerome asked.

“I need to find a dress for tonight! Something truly spectacular!”
Jerome smiled into the rear mirror, meeting the girl’s excited gaze.

“What’s the occasion, miss?”

“There is a gala at Wayne manor! It’s one of the first since Bruce returned.”

Jerome faked a pleasant chuckle. “Well, then we better find something extraordinary, miss.”

 He’d heard young master Wayne had finally returned from being god-knows-where, and the entire city was buzzing with gossip. All anyone really knew was that he’d been abroad for some time. Then all of a sudden he’d come back, returned to Wayne enterprises, and thrown parties all over town. Billionaire boy, huh? It had been years since their little encounter at the magic show. Maybe tonight would be more interesting than he’d thought.

 

After hours of being dragged through all kinds of fancy dress shops, Jerome was beginning to lose his temper.

 

“Don’t you think we have enough dresses by now, Miss Amber?” he lifted his hands to draw attention to the bags he was holding. It was one night. How many dresses did one girl need?

“Just one more stop,” Amber assured and forced him into another shop. A tailor. A truly fancy one at that. This just kept getting better and better.

Jerome cast a glance at the price tag of a tie. It would take six months of pay for him to afford a sliver of fabric in this place. He crinkled his nose in disgust.

 

His employer picked a few dresses and hurried off into the changing room. Jerome waited outside, checking his clock every few seconds. They had spent the entire day running around town. His feet ached, his temper swayed, and frankly he was starting to feel a tad bit murderous. But then a familiar face entered the store and Jerome instinctively pulled his cap a little lower.

 

Bruce and his caretaker—Jeeves, or whatever his name was, walked into the shop. Perhaps Amber’s shopaholic tendencies weren’t all bad…

 

 Jeeves went over to one of the shop assistants. “Good day, miss. We’re here to pick up a suit for Master Wayne here.”

 

She smiled, awe-struck for a second before hurrying off into the back.

“You have quite an effect on the ladies it seems, Master Bruce,” jested the butler.

 Bruce scoffed. “I don’t know about that.”

While Jeeves looked about as uptight as before, he’d aged slightly. His hair was greyer than it had been, the stubble on his chin almost white. And Bruce. Well, he wasn’t poor little Brucie anymore.

Broad-shouldered, tall, and well, Jerome could see why his employer was so excited to meet him. He was handsome, with his chiselled jawline, raven locks, and bright cobalt blue eyes.

My, Jerome was positively surprised. The snotty brat seemed to have climbed out of his trauma and blossomed. But there was still a hint of that seriousness in his face. A maturity that no child should have, but Bruce had possessed back then. He may try his best to hide it, but Jerome could tell. The pain was still there. It would never go away, Jerome knew. He had experience.

The shop assistant returned with the suit and folded it neatly into a box. Bruce paid and Alfred thanked the shop assistant for her help. Bruce did the same. Jerome noted how her cheeks flushed red as Bruce spoke directly to her. He held back a laugh. Quite the charmer, aren’t you?

 Jerome’s employer came back, having finally found the dress she was looking for.

She caught a glimpse of the billionaire as they took their leave and her mouth fell open.

“Was that--?” she asked, handing the dress over to the cashier.

Jerome chuckled. “Just missed him, I’m afraid. All the better, eh? You don’t want to seem too eager.Or desperate.

Amber shot him a glare, but mulled it over as she paid, finally giving a sigh.

“Certainly,” she said. “Well, let’s go! I have to get ready!” With that said, she shoved yet another bag of overpriced fabrics into his arms. Jerome drew a slow breath. If he wasn’t desperate for a job, he would have offed the little shit a long time ago.

Wayne manor was a sight for sore eyes. As the evening fell, the lights in the garden created an illusion of magic and wonder. Jerome was too caught up in how spectacular of a display it was to pay any attention to Amber’s chit-chatter. Bruce Wayne this, Bruce Wayne that. Nothing new.

Amber had forced him to ditch the cap for the evening and even got him to dress up for the occasion. For what reason, he didn’t know, seeing as he wasn’t attending the event.

“I need you to follow me inside. Nathan cancelled at the last second,” she said.

Jerome agreed. For the sake of keeping his job, if nothing else.

He escorted Amber inside the mansion and tried his best to hide his surprise. It was like walking into a fairy tale. Lit candles guiding their way through the hall into the ballroom, sparkling dresses everywhere. He was looking at Gotham’s elite. The top of the food-chain. All gathered under one roof.

 

But something was missing. The prince charming! Yes,of course. Brucie. Where was Bruce Wayne?

Jerome found him mingling across the room, smiling brightly and greeting people with confidence. He watched as Bruce put away his glass of champagne the moment his company looked the other way. Jerome smirked at that, both bemused and intrigued by the billionaire’s shifty behaviour.

He noticed how Bruce tended to fall back to his brooding self whenever he thought nobody could see. How the orphan never remained too long in the same company, quickly growing weary of them.

Amber—having noticed the subject of her affection—tugged at Jerome’s sleeve.

“Jack! He’s here! He’s actually here!”

It’s his house, Jerome thought bitterly. What did you expect?

“Introduce me!”

Jerome hesitated. He wasn’t sure if Bruce would remember him. Jerome Valeska was dead. It was common knowledge. He ran little risk of being discovered and yet…Bruce was smart. And Jerome felt like playing this game a little longer.

“That wasn't part of the deal,” Jerome said matter-of-factly. "You told me to walk you in and I did. Now I'm out."

Amber crossed her arms. “Then I order you to stay.”

This little…

“Are you nervous about talking to Mr. Wayne alone? I’m sure you’ll have him wrapped around your little finger in no time,” he said, feigning friendliness. 

Amber tilted her head slightly upwards. “Why would I be nervous? There’s no reason he wouldn’t be smitten with me. I'm pretty, my dad's powerful. I'm a catch.”

I can think of a few reasons...

Jerome offered her a plastered smile. Keep calm. Just a little longer. "Of course, you are. Fairest of them all."

"I don't like that tone. Use it again and I'll have my father whip you black and blue, got it?"

Not if I kill you first. 

"I meant nothing by it, Miss," he said, wishing the brat would up and leave already. Before he introduced a new and improved place to store silverware.

"You better not, gutter trash." Amber turned on her heel and pushed her way towards Wayne, beaming an innocent smile his way. Jerome swept a drink--he'd releaved it off some woman walking by--and decided he'd best get some air.

Jerome took a walk around the Wayne property to clear his head. Might as well take the opportunity. Who knows if he’d ever get another chance? And at the moment he needed the distraction.

He’d battled his anger for a long time. Every hit, every snide remark from his mother’s string of lovers, every laugh at his expense, had broken something inside him. For a while he’d thought he’d be all right. But since Jenny… he sighed, shaking off the thoughts. Was he getting sentimental in his old age? He snickered. Now this just won’t do!

The evening air was fresh and uplifting. Jerome walked through the well-kept gardens, humming a cheerful tune, while feeling like a child doing something he wasn’t supposed to. Not that anyone would notice. Everyone was inside—enjoying their gossip and appetizers. He could hear the music from inside. A live orchestra. Jerome scoffed. Brucie-boy really didn’t hold back, did he?

 After exploring what the garden had to offer, he decided it was time for a little adventure. His restless mind was already buzzing with boredom and his fingers practically shaking from it. He steered his steps toward the balcony.

 Maybe he could sneak a peek of the fancy folk, hear some juicy gossip. Maybe he could trip one of them off the balcony. Now that would be entertaining.

He climbed up to the balcony and flung his legs over the rail. The door was slightly ajar to let in some air. Jerome didn’t notice. He was staring out at the scenery, lips parted in a wordless “Woah.”

The city in the distance, stretching out over the horizon like a starry sky against the stark black buildings, made Jerome’s lips curve into a smile. Home sweet home. He wondered what manner of horrors were happening right in this moment. How many murders? How many muggings?

Was the big bad bat out on the hunt? Breaking bones and cracking skulls of Gotham’s most wanted?

Maybe Jerome ought to become a vigilante, too. Beat up people, get himself a little fan-club. Maybe he ought to dress up as a red-nosed clown while he was at it. He laughed out loud at the thought. What a sight that would be.

Jerome didn’t hear the door as it opened wide, nor did he notice he was no longer alone.

“I’m glad you’re enjoying the gala,” said a voice behind him.

Jerome froze. Shit. He plastered on a friendly smile, as if he was an invited guest rather than a trespasser. Suddenly he felt very naked without his cap.

Jerome shrugged, putting on a relaxed air.

“You spared no expense. It would be rude if I didn’t at least pretend to like it,” Jerome said, smirking.

Bruce chuckled and reached out a hand towards him. “I’m Bruce Wayne.”

“Doesn’t ring a bell,” Jerome joked, earning a smile from the billionaire. “I’m Jack. Napier.”

Bruce shook his hand firmly. There was a moment where their eyes met and Jerome thought that maybe Bruce had recognized him, but then he smiled politely and let go. “Wouldn’t you rather come inside, Jack? The air is a bit chilly.”

“Nah. I don’t mind. And I’m not big on people.”

“You certainly came to the right place then,” Bruce said—and was that sarcasm? Had Brucie “Buzzkill” Wayne made a joke?

Jerome laughed. “What can I say? I’m a sucker for rich boys in tuxedos. What about you, Brucie? Sneaking away from your own party?”

“I’m not overly fond of crowds either,” he said, walking over to lean over the rail of the balcony.

“Says the guy who invited 200 of Gotham’s finest into his own home,” Jerome pointed out.

Bruce shrugged.

“It’s for charity. And good relations lead to good business.”

Always so serious.

“You need to loosen up a little, kiddo. Parties are about fun, yeah? Ever heard of it?”

“I’m not a kid,” Bruce said.

“How old are ya then? Sixteen?” Jerome’s speech was slipping, returning to its uncultivated roots, but he didn’t care. A part of him hoped Bruce had noticed. He wanted the billionaire to find out who he was. But not yet. No, it was too early. The game had barely begun.

Bruce frowned at him. “Nineteen.”

Well, no wonder he’d changed so much. Appearance-wise, anyway. Jerome whistled.

“Time sure flies, huh, Brucie-boy?”

Bruce stared at him for a moment. “Have we met before?”

Jerome bit his lip. To play or not to play? Risk a little, win big. He smiled. To hell with it.

“Maybe we have, maybe we haven’t,” he said cryptically.

Bruce raised an eyebrow. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I don’t kiss and tell.”

Bruce shook his head and sighed, letting the matter slide for the moment.

Jerome and Bruce shared a moment in silence.

“Are you from around here?” Bruce asked.

“Here, there, everywhere.”

“Are you always this evasive?”

“Are you ever going to relax and have fun? No, wait—I know the answer. It’s a big fat ‘never’.”

“I can be fun,” Bruce said defensively.

“Oh? What do you do for fun, then, rich boy?”

“Train with Alfred, mostly. And occasionally I read.”

Jerome sighed. Was this kid serious?

“Training? Save training for the athletes. Whatever would you train for anyway? Turning a page in a book? How to dress yourself without Jeeves?”

“I know how to dress myself,” Bruce muttered.

A mischievous smile crept to Jerome’s lips. “Do you now? What about undressing yourself? Or do you have a bunch of heiresses to do that for ya? I hear you’re quite the playboy extraordinaire.”

Bruce faltered. “Uh, I—no.”

“Relax, rich boy, I’m joking. Ish.” Jerome looped an arm over his shoulders. “I can teach you a few tricks, if ya want.” He winked suggestively.

“I’m good, thanks.”

Jerome laughed. Ever the graceful host. “Tell ya what: if you tell me a secret, I’ll answer one of your questions without dodging.”

“You’re not playing me, are you?”

Jerome made mock-insulted expression. “Oh, I’d never.” His lips cracked into a smile, betraying him immediately.

“Fine.” Bruce mulled it over, trying to come up with a good question to ask. He only had one shot at this. “Have we—“

Jerome wagged a finger at his face. “Ah-ah. Secret first. And it has to be super-secret. Not something everyone would know from reading the newspaper. Something not even Jeeves knows about.”

Bruce sighed. Jerome watched him curiously, wondering what kind of secrets could be hiding beneath those raven locks. Probably nothing too exciting, now that he thought about it. But a deal is a deal. Maybe he should have just asked for a wad of cash.

“I’m…” Bruce hesitated. He took a breath, gathering courage. “I’m not a playboy. I’ve never—I mean, I’m a…”

“Virgin?”

Bruce said nothing, but his burning cheeks spoke volumes.

Well, that was unexpected. Jerome snickered.

“Bruce Wayne, a virgin? Now, that is some secret. What about all the girls you’ve been taking out, eh? Just for show?”

Bruce nodded once.

Jerome smiled. “You’ve earned your question. Go ahead.”

Bruce wasted no time.

“Have we met before?” he asked with a certainty of someone who already knew the answer, but only wished to confirm it.

“Yes.”

“Where?”

“That’s another question. It will cost you.”

“What do you want?”

“An honest answer. Why are you faking dates with all these pretty women? Why not indulge in them?”

Bruce was silent for a long time. Jerome worried he’d tired of their little game and was going to back out, but then he spoke up. “Because I’m not interested in women.”

Jerome wasn’t certain Bruce was telling the truth, but it was an interesting development nonetheless.

Bruce looked away, tense. Waiting for judgement to be passed on him.

“Okay,” said Jerome, dropping the issue.

Bruce’s gaze flicked over to him, eyebrows raised in surprise. Jerome supposed he seemed to Bruce as a person who would take advantage of this knowledge, but in all honesty, he didn’t find it all that shocking. Jerome was more inclined towards guys, too. He had no right to judge.

"So, about my question..."

"Go ahead."

"Where did we--"

A blast lit up in the distance and it took a moment for Jerome to realize it was an explosion. Apparently, everyone inside had heard the boom, because the ballroom was suddenly completely silent. A moment passed, and then all hell broke loose. People started screaming and running. Phone calls were made, heated discussions arose, and everyone seemed more concerned about whose building had been compromised rather than whose relatives had perished.

Jerome stared at the blazing flames coming from Gotham central, his heart beating rapidly. He wasn’t scared. He was exhilarated.

Now that’s what I call having a blast! He almost cackled at his own joke. Almost. He had a feeling little Brucie wouldn’t appreciate it as much.

 “I take it that wasn’t your butler shooting fireworks?”

Bruce shook his head. He looked a little shocked.

“You okay, kiddo?”

“Y-yeah,” Bruce said. “I need to go.”

“Well, it was nice meeting you, Bruce Wayne.”

Bruce nodded and was about to go, when he turned around. “Do you want to hang out sometime? We could grab lunch tomorrow.”

Jerome was taken aback by the offer. A lunch date with Gotham’s most eligible bachelor? Who was he to say no?

“I guess I can clear my schedule for you.”

“You’re working? It’s okay, we can do it some other time.”

“Nah. I have a feeling I’m about to get fired,” he said and smirked, flipping the bird at Amber, who was hiding on the other side of the glass door. She’d passed by and decided to eavesdrop. Amber’s face turned red and she mouthed something obscene before storming off.

“There. Now I’m free for lunch.”

Bruce frowned. “You really didn’t have to—“

“It’s okay. I was growing tired of that girl anyway. One more shopping trip through town and I would’ve walked into traffic.”

Bruce smiled softly. “You’re an interesting man, Jack Napier.”

If only you knew. Jerome bit back a smirk. “And you’re not as much of a drag as I thought.”

Bruce laughed. Jerome couldn’t help staring. He’d never heard the kid laugh. Ever. Their previous encounter had been brief and thrilling at most, but he’d been stubbornly serious. He liked Bruce’s laugh. It was genuine, warm. Pretty, even.

I made Bruce Wayne laugh? I just might be the funniest guy alive.”

“Shut up," Bruce mumbled.

Damn if Brucie-boy wasn't a little bit charming. In his own way.

“Weren’t you going somewhere?” Jerome asked, smile curving on his lips.

Bruce bit his lip, remembering. He nodded, said a brief goodbye and disappeared into the crowd. Jerome gave a sigh, suddenly feeling eager to get home and sleep. Little Bruce had surprised him and suddenly things had become so much more difficult. He had to admit; the kid had grown on him. A little bit.

He couldn’t wait to see what would come next.

The game had begun. And Jerome had no idea which team he was playing for.

Chapter Text

Jerome couldn’t sleep. His thoughts raced—they always did, more or less—but this was different. It wasn’t the suffocating tendrils of boredom wrapping their bony fingers around his neck, nor was it the usual--the dark corners of the room shrinking around him, threatening to bury him alive inside their veil of nothingness...No, what kept him awake was the tentative thrill of the day that lay ahead of him and its sweet, sweet promises. He couldn't remember the last time he'd felt his every fibre humming with anticipation. 

Sweet Bruce, so unaware of the clutches closing in on him. Jerome couldn't wait to tear that innocence apart. He wanted to see the real Bruce Wayne--the one he was hiding so carefully beneath faked smiles and pleasant handshakes.

Jerome had caught a glimpse of the darkness haunting Bruce at their very first encounter--all those years ago.  He was surprised nobody else seemed to notice--it was obvious! He had been reckless and frankly, a little suicidal to not run away and leave Jeeves to his fate, like most people would have. But no. Brucie had to play the hero, no matter how dangerous it was. But then again, Jerome had found it a little bit endearing. Not to mention, the game wouldn't have been much fun if Bruce had decided not to show up and play along...

Jerome had spotted something in Bruce. Potential, maybe? Definitely defiance, flickering like an unrelenting flame in those bright blue eyes. But there had been anger there, too. True, unhinged anger. The kind that burns through any obstacle out of sheer stubborness.

Bruce had revealed so much, without realizing it. How he would do anything and everything for the people closest to him, giving Jerome the perfect weapon against him, should he want to take advantage of it. Bruce felt fear, no doubt about it. But his morals--his ideals--perhaps his past, too, had given him a ferocity unlike any other. An animal trapped inside a cage of flesh, expectations, and social standards. If only Jerome could gain his trust and make the kid loosen up a little... maybe he could break down the five star hotel and reveal the gritty foundation hidden beneath it. 

It was most certainly worth a try.

Jerome gave a frustrated sigh and sat up, his entire body tense with impatience. Why couldn’t time move faster? There was no use trying to go back to sleep, he was already fully awake. His gaze darted to the clock. Five-thirty AM. Well, it was as good a time to get out of bed as any.

He turned on the barely functioning TV to watch the news, a smile tugging at his lips as the News anchor revealed another sighting of the Batman. For a city that claimed the Batman wasn't anything more than a horror story to frighten kids into obeying their parents, they sure gave him a lot of air time. Batman, Batman. What was he up to this time?

Jerome snickered.

Apparently, the Bat had left another string of criminals for the GCPD—the bombers from yesterday, wrapped up like a present right at their doorstep. But if Batsy-boy was expecting a reward or some form of gratitude, he could think again. The GCPD was stubbornly—and not unexpectedly—against him. Don’t like the flying rodent making fools out of ya, huh? Jerome smirked. Part of their distrust was possibly his fault. They hadn’t much liked him making fools out of them either. But then, killing half of the police force on live-air tended to make people hold grudges.

He leaned back in the weathered couch and threw his legs up on the wobbly coffee table. With his hands locked behind his head, he thought back to the little incident with commissioner Essen. She’d been a promising leader—who’d possessed at least a flicker of decency compared to most of the GCPD, but hey—the things you do for great TV, eh? He chuckled.

Any other person would probably feel guilty about killing a seemingly innocent individual—and a woman to boot. But not Jerome. He hadn’t felt much of anything lately, aside from boredom. But he had a feeling he’d found the perfect little antidote to that affliction, in a particular blue-eyed billionaire. 

Jerome turned off the TV and shot up from the couch with purpose. “Can’t sit around being lazy all day! Gotta set a good example for the kids, amiright?” he said to nobody. It wasn’t uncommon that he spoke to himself. Who else would he speak to? It was the only interesting company around. Or at least it had been. There was always a chance young master Bruce would step up to the task. Not that the kid had seemed to be the most talkative--unless in front of his fellow rich Gothamites, but then Jerome supposed they didn't necessarily have to talk...

One way or another, Jerome intended to make him loosen up a little. A joke, a dead butler, a brawl to let him blow off some steam, maybe? Who knows? He’d let his mood decide.

He rummaged through his wardrobe, looking for something presentable to wear. Dang it, he really needed some new clothes. He supposed he could always wear the suit Amber had lent to him--he had no intention of giving it back, anyways. It was black and boring, but with a few tweaks here and there… he could make it work. He grabbed a purple button-up shirt and threw it on the bed. It would do.

After a cold and refreshing shower, he got dressed. He looked himself over in the mirror and chortled. The laugh rolled off his tongue and bounced off the naked walls of the apartment. It wasn't that he looked bad... it suited him well, actually—the fit was darn near perfect—but he looked too damn serious. Like Bruce.

Is this what he would have looked like if he’d attended the funerals of his parents? Or if his circumstances had been different and he’d been the one to live in luxury rather than here in this dump? So, so, so boring. How could Brucie stand it? All black and no fun makes Jerome a dull boy. But alas; when in Rome…

“The things I do for fun,” he said to his reflection, running his fingers through his brown hair. He would need to dye it again soon. Rich-boy better appreciate it.               


 

Bruce groaned as Alfred pulled apart the curtains, letting in the blinding light of the morning sun.

“It’s nine o’clock,” said the butler.

Bruce cracked one eye open to look at his caretaker. “I’m tired, Alfred. Just give me a few more minutes.”

He’d returned home around four AM, which was a lot earlier than his usual night watch, but chasing after and beating down the bombers had drained all his energy.

“Be that as it may, master Bruce, but don’t you have somewhere to be today?”

He sighed into the pillow. Jack. They were supposed to meet up today. He reluctantly left the comfort of his bed for a hot shower. The water felt nice against his skin, a soothing caress over his sore muscles. His chest and arms were covered in purple and yellow bruises. The thugs had gotten in some pretty good punches—one of them had actually nicked him with a knife, leaving a small red line across his jaw. He couldn't afford to lose focus like that again. He needed to get faster. For today, however, he would have to wear something with long sleeves and a high collar.

Alfred was picking out clothes when Bruce re-entered his room, a towel wrapped around his waist. His butler glanced at his wrist-watch and raised an eyebrow.

“You might want to get a move on, sir, or you won’t make it in time. You wouldn’t want to be late for your date, would you, Master Bruce?”

“It’s just lunch, Alfred. With a friend.”

“Oh? And who is this new friend of yours, Master Bruce? Anyone I know?”

Bruce shook his head. “No. I met him last night. During the gala.”

“One of your guests?”

“Well, no. He snuck in, I guess.”

“Favours a bit of trouble, does he?” Alfred asked.

“I don’t know, but he seems alright. If a little... impulsive.”

“And does this young lad have a name?” Alfred inquired curiously.

“He said his name was Jack Napier.”

“Ah. He wouldn’t happen to be a chauffeur, now would he?”

“Yeah, why? How did you know?”

A small smile curved on Alfred’s lips. “I think half of Gotham knows by now. A certain Miss Amber seemed awful cross with him last night for some reason. She used some unsavoury language. But then she tends to be dramatic. A trait she earned from her father, I reckon.”

Bruce bit back a smile.

Alfred straightened, hands crossed behind his back. “I suppose the two of you must have taken quite a liking to each other, seeing as you cancelled your meeting at Wayne Enterprises to meet up with him. I have to say, Master B, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you so eager to meet someone.”

Bruce shrugged. “I find him interesting. He’s different.”

“Different from your usual crowd? Yes, I would suppose so.”

“No, Alfred. He’s different in general. There’s something about him—I—I know him from somewhere, but I can’t remember where I’ve seen him before. He said we’d met, but—“

Bruce broke off, frowning at his sudden realization. “He never answered my question!”

Alfred raised a curious eyebrow at his charge. “I’m sure you will have plenty of time to ask him questions over lunch, Master Bruce.”

“That’s not what I—it doesn’t matter. I know I’ve seen him before. Somewhere.”

Jack, Jack, Jack. Didn’t ring any bells. It had been dark out last night, and he’d not seen Jack’s face properly, so perhaps he’d missed something. Where could they have met? Had it been brief—a simple greeting at some event somewhere? But no, Jack wasn’t into those kinds of things. Unless they were on his own terms, it seemed. He’d never hired a chauffeur other than Alfred, so where…?

Alfred cleared his throat. “The clock is ticking, Master Bruce. You wouldn’t want to keep him waiting. As they say; first impressions are the most lasting. Did you discuss where and when to eat? Are we to pick him up?”

Bruce scratched the back of his head. Now that Alfred mentioned it, they hadn’t exchanged any contact information.

“Actually, no. There wasn’t time," Bruce said, "And I never got his phone number.”

“Well, no worries, Master Bruce. I’ll head downstairs and look him up, see if I can’t find both a phone number and an address for you.”

“Thanks, Alfred. That would be great.”

Alfred smiled. “It’s my pleasure, sir. After all, it’s not every day you skip your routines for the sake of normal activities.”

So that's why he's so optimistic about this.

He knew Alfred didn’t want him running around Gotham at night, fighting crime and getting himself into trouble. Of course, he’d take any chance he could to steer Bruce on to a different path. Although Alfred would never disobey him outright, he still tried to find discreet ways to voice his concerns. Bruce found himself smiling softly.

Alfred arched his brows, wrinkling his forehead in an array of lines that were otherwise hidden.

“Is that a smile, Master B? Well, I dare say I’m impressed by this Jack—you’ve not even met properly and he’s already a good influence on you. Perhaps you should invite him to stay at the mansion full-time, sir.”

“Very funny, Alfred,” Bruce muttered and went over to the clothes on the bed. Alfred chuckled and left the room.

Bruce debated on what was appropriate wear for a friendly lunch date, and eventually decided to dress down. Normally, he’d take his acquaintances out to some fancy overpriced restaurant, but he wasn’t sure if Jack would appreciate the gesture. Casual it is. He grabbed the black turtle-neck sweater and dark pants that Alfred had picked out for him and put them on. Jack wasn’t a person he felt he was forced to impress. No, Jack was a person he wanted to impress. And the way to accomplish that would be to tear down his Bruce Wayne—Billionaire persona and go casual. As much as was possible for a Wayne, anyway.

Alfred returned some minutes later with a phone number and an address, as promised. Bruce waited until Alfred had left the room to dial Jack's number. As he hit the numbers on the display, his chest constricted, more and more for every number pressed. He had no reason to be nervous, yet his body seemed to have the opposite idea. Bruce held the phone to his ear, trying not to think about his pulse shooting through the roof as Jack answered.

“Hellooo! Jack speaking.”

“Jack? This is Bruce Wayne. We met last night.” He felt stupid for explaining--Jack surely remembered it. 

“Oh, why hello, Brucie-boy! What gives?”

“I just wanted to, uh, check in with you. About our lunch… arrangements.”

“Why so formal, Brucie? Don't be a stranger, kiddo! Call it like it is. A lunch-date for two.”

Bruce remained silent for a moment, questioning his own choice of words. A lunch date could be a meeting between friends...so why hadn't he just said so? He was the one who'd gone and made this weird. Embarrassment dyed his cheeks red and he felt grateful that Jack couldn't see him. He blamed Alfred for his current self-consciousness. 

“What’s the matter, rich-boy? Date too vulgar a word for ya? How about rendezvous?” Bruce could hear the smile in Jack’s voice. 

“Are you still available for today?” Bruce asked, all too eager to change the subject to anything but his sudden fling of social awkwardness. 

“I am completely unattached, I assure you,” Jack said and snickered on the other side of the line.  “What did’ya have in mind?”

“I was thinking—“

“Not a good start to any conversation, Brucie, but go on.”

Bruce sighed. There was something about Jack that equally intrigued and irked him. “I know this restaurant--the view is great and the food even better. Do you like Italian?”

“Who doesn’t? Pick me up in half an hour. I may be going out on a limb here, but I’m guessing since you have my number, you already know where to find me.”

Click.  

Bruce stared at the phone in disbelief. Jack had hung up on him. He certainly wasn’t like anyone Bruce had ever met. Compared to most of his ‘friends’, Bruce didn’t mind Jack’s familiarity with him—though he wasn’t too keen on the nicknames.

This new friend had certainly caught Bruce's interest. Jack raised a lot of questions--Bruce knew basically nothing more about the man than his name. One way or another, he’d get Jack to answer a few of them.

                                                               


 

Bruce Wayne did not disappoint. Right on time and dressed to impress. His futile attempt to be ‘casual’ was utterly hilarious. Jerome couldn’t help but snicker a little. A king doesn’t stop being king just because he removes his crown. But at least he had tried.

The prince of Gotham took a moment to study Jerome as he approached him, possibly wondering why and what about the other struck him so familiar. Recognition flashed in his eyes, but he remained clueless, and whatever guesses he had to what past they shared, he kept to himself.

Oh, poor Bruce. Taking a test without having any of the answers. Was it time to give him a little hint? But that would be cheating, and Bruce—with his pure intentions and sense of righteousness—would definitely disapprove.

Bruce practically radiated wealth and elegance where he waited outside Jerome’s apartment complex, leaning against the side of one of his many fancy and ridiculously expensive cars.

Not that Jerome really cared. Wealth in general wasn’t a problem. It was people who irked him. Their petty greed and political feuds. Nobody had any time for fun!

Jeeves dropped them off outside a place called Alfredo’s. Apparently, the billionaire considered this a restaurant on Jerome’s level. Try again, kiddo. This was way out of his price-range. Of course, he wouldn’t just admit to it now that Bruce had dragged him here. He really needed a new job, fast.

It would take at least a month for Amber to cool down enough to consider taking him back, but Jerome wasn’t sure he was that desperate yet. Besides, he wasn’t entirely sure he wouldn’t give in to his urges and kill her this time around. Nah, he would need to find something else.

A cook? No, better not risk an impulse to put laxatives into people’s food. Maybe try his luck with comedy again? Too time-consuming, and not enough reward. What about a janitor…or a cleaner? They were practically invisible, had flexible hours, and got keys to everywhere. Now that was a thought.

They settled down next to a window—and wasn’t it just the perfect setting for a romantic wine and dine? The Italian atmosphere, the table set for two… unintentionally or not, Bruce Wayne knew how to make a girl feel special.

Jerome skimmed through the menu. He had to bite back a laugh at the prices. He’d grown used to skipping meals and sleep and what-not for the sake of easing his boredom, but at this rate he would have to rob a bank to afford paying for the breadsticks alone. You’d better be worth it, Brucie.

In general, Jerome only ate what he needed to survive. Even if he could afford it, he doubted he’d ever overindulge in this sort of cuisine. Not that it wasn’t tasty, no, no—it was. But eating wasn’t fun. It was necessary. And Jerome barely bothered with things—or people—he didn’t find entertaining.

He handed his menu to Bruce, who looked at him with a confused expression.

“Order for me,” Jerome said.

“I don’t know what you like,” Bruce answered.

“Surprise me!”

Bruce nodded.

He looked through the menu three times and eventually decided to keep it simple, ordering a pizza for both of them. Jerome smirked at that. Can’t go wrong with pizza, eh?

He didn’t mind, at all. He would’ve expected Bruce to choose something that involved lobster or swordfish or whatever rich people ate. But it seemed Brucie had paid attention. Jerome was a man of simple tastes: cheap food and a rich-boy to keep him nice and entertained.

“So, Brucie…Where did you run off to in such a hurry yesterday?” Jerome asked, grabbing a slice of pizza with his hands. Bruce cut his in small pieces, fork and knife in hand like the little prodigy he was.

Bruce startled at Jerome’s question. He feigned innocence with a charming smile.

“Nowhere. I just had to call Mr. Fox—one of my employees, to make sure everything was all right at Wayne Enterprises. With the explosion, and all.”

Jerome smiled. Wayne was a decent liar, but Jerome was the king of deceit. The billionaire was hiding something, that much he could tell.

“Speaking of,” Bruce continued in a hurry, “you didn’t answer my question yesterday. About where we’d met.”

Jerome’s smile widened. Shit. He would have hoped Brucie had forgotten all about it, but the boy was persistent. Luckily, Jerome enjoyed a bit of a challenge. Let’s see now… how to get out of this pickle?

“Ah, yes,” Jerome replied smoothly, faking calm. “You’re right. With you running off, the city in flames, and me losing my job, I suppose it must've slipped my mind.  ”

"You lost your job?"

"All according to plan, I assure you. But, as the case may be, I'm not exactly bathing in money--though I imagine you could be, literally."

"I'll pay, don't worry about it. I was the one who invited you here, after all." He smiled gently. "After yesterday, I think you deserve it."

"Oh, you spoil me, Brucie. Better turn down that charm or I'll start thinking you like me."

"Maybe I do," Bruce said, his playboy charm present. Jerome didn't know whether to feel flattered or insulted by the playful insinuation--knowing that was all there was to it; play pretend--so he felt a little bit of both. But two could play this game, and Jerome had had a lot longer to improve.

"My, you'll make a girl blush, flirting around like that. So, tell me, Bruce, do you find me attractive?"

Bruce's mask slipped slightly. Good. Jerome wanted it gone.

 "I, uh..." Bruce hesitated.

"It's not a very complicated question, darlin'. Either I'm attractive or I'm not. Think of it as a friend asking another, if it helps. I'm simply curious as to how you see me."

"Yes."

"Yes, what?"

"You're attractive. For a guy."

Jerome's lips cracked into a grin. "So kind of you to say." 

"That's not your real hair colour, is it?" Bruce asked, nodding to Jerome's hair. He must've noticed the slight difference in shade from roots to tips.

"How observant of you," Jerome said, smiling. "It's not."

"What colour is your real one?"

"Come closer and find out," Jerome dared. 

To his surprise, Bruce actually did come closer to have a look. He ran his fingers through Jerome's hair, holding it up to the light to better inspect it. Jerome pretended he didn't feel the shiver snaking down his arms and neck. He watched Bruce's face curiously, waiting for the moment when Bruce would see his real colour and put two and two together. 

"It's red," Bruce said finally and sat down in his chair. Jerome held Bruce's eyecontact, holding out for a reaction--for Bruce to discover his little secret. But instead, Bruce gave him a confounded look and asked; "Why do you dye it?"

Jerome couldn't believe it. Was Bruce really so dense? At first he felt annoyed that his lunch date didn't pick up on any of his little hints, didn't suspect, didn't seem to even remember... but then he realized he'd been given a golden opportunity. If Bruce really didn't know who he was, Jerome could go so much farther with this game than he'd originally planned. Nestle himself into the life of the boy he'd tried to kill, and really figure out what the kid was hiding from the rest of the world.

Maybe a story could gain him some points.

"There were these kids in the neighbourhood... cruel little bullies all of them," Jerome began. "One day they trapped me in an alley when I was on my way home. Told me that gingers meant bad luck. That I was disgusting and ugly and cursed. I became their new hobby, so to speak. After school they would beat me and call me names, and that's kind of how it went. But I kept going to school. You see, I loved learning. I couldn't let them ruin that for me." He released a shaky breath, before continuing. " Eventually I grew tired of the whole routine and gave them a taste of their own medicine."

"You beat them up?"

"Yeah. Their parents freaked, mom pulled me out of school and we moved away. Swept under the rug, like so many others before me. I didn't want to go through that again...So, I dyed it. And suddenly all my problems were gone... more or less," Jerome told Bruce. 

Bruce nodded, understanding the situation, seemingly swallowed up by the lie--well, not everything was a lie, but he might've added some things for dramatic effect. There had been no beating up the bullies as a final parting gift. His mother hadn't cared much, god knows she would have joined in had she been present and deep into the bottle. They'd moved because that's what they always did, not out of a sense of parental love.

"Kids can be cruel," Bruce said. "But you're a grown up now. It's a part of you, who you are. If you do this because of them, you're letting them win. You should grow it out, I think it would suit you."

Jerome actually felt a little happy to hear that. He'd missed it, to be honest. But the happiness turned out to be short-lived as Bruce continued.

“I believe you owe me an answer,” Bruce prompted stubbornly. “Where did we meet?”

Here we go again.

“Why so eager to know?”

“I’m not. I’m just—stop dodging the question.”

Nicely deduced, kid. Plan B, then. The truth. Now this ought to be interesting.

“We met at a charity event,” he said. It wasn’t the whole truth, but who cared for details, anyway?

“What kind of charity event? When was this?”

“A while ago,” Jerome admitted. “I’m not surprised that you don’t remember, although I’m a little disappointed. We were getting along so well, it was practically magical!”

Bruce pondered his answer for some time, trying so hard to puzzle this all together.

“I’m sorry,” he said, at last. “I don’t remember. Strange. I think I would’ve remembered someone like you.”

“Oh, my. Is that a compliment, I hear?”

“It’s a fact. You’re not, well…”

“Don’t hold back, Brucie-boy.”

“You’re very unlike my usual crowd,” he said.

Jerome smiled. “But of course! That’s the whole point, isn’t it? Opposites attract, Wayne, hasn’t anyone ever told you that?”

“I’m not sure that’s true.”

“Yet here we are. Living proof. What more do ya need?”

“If that were true, the GCPD and the criminals ought to be best friends, wouldn’t they?”

Jerome laughed. “They’re the same thing. The police might carry fancy badges but their methods differ very little from the people they hunt. Same goes for the Bat wonder.”

That got Bruce’s attention. “You mean Batman?”

“Batman. Bat-boy. Bat-rat. Whatever! He dresses up as a flying rodent and beats the hell out of people. Now, what kind of person would do something like that?” his voice was tainted with humour.

“Someone who wants to change things. Change Gotham,” Bruce replied seriously. Was it just Jerome or did he sound defensive?

“But for better or worse? If you ask me, I'd say he probably belongs at Arkham with the other delusionals. But hey, I’m not complaining. Gotham’s turned out more interesting since he came along. A fresh breeze in a city that is otherwise so rotten and corrupt.”

“What about his intentions? Do you think he can actually make a difference?”

“He's already changed Gotham. Petty criminals and mobsters have evolved into scarecrows, fireflies, and fanatics. I don’t know shit about his intentions or his moral compass, but I can vouch for his sense of drama and theatrics. He’s almost as flashy as you, Master Wayne,” Jerome jested. “But no need to get jealous, I’ve only got eyes for you.”

“Ha-ha,” Bruce muttered.

“Speaking of criminals… ya’ know, it’s practically criminal to eat pizza with anything but your hands.”

Bruce raised an eyebrow at him. Jerome’s lips curved into a challenging smirk.

“Oh, come on, Brucie. Live a little! I dare you.”

“You dare me to eat pizza without cutlery?”

“Well, everybody needs to start somewhere, right? I figured this would be a good first step for you. After this, we can move on to bigger and better things. Like—I don’t know—spend ten minutes not acting like a debutante.”

Bruce mumbled something under his breath. He put down his fork and knife with such a gentle hand it made Jerome burst out into laughter, earning a scowl from the younger man.

He grabbed a slice of pizza with his hands and took a bite, trying to ignore Jerome’s gaze on him.

“See, wasn’t so hard, was it?”

Bruce wiped his hands on a napkin. “It tastes the same.”

Jerome chuckled. “Well, yeah. It’s not about the taste, Brucie. It’s about the feeling.”

 “Well, it feels sticky,” Bruce retorted.

Jerome let out a laugh. For Bruce—who was wounded tighter than Amber’s mother’s recent facelift—his comment was surprisingly alike something a kid might say, and this amused Jerome to no end. Perfect, disciplined, eloquent Bruce Wayne, defeated by something as simple as a slice of pizza. Jerome took great pleasure in knowing he was the cause of it.

“You rich people are so sensitive,” Jerome said, leaning his chin on the back of his hands, peering at Bruce from the other side of the table. “Is that why you fled the city? Couldn’t handle the dirt?”

“I wasn’t fleeing, and I don’t mind the dirt. I spent most of my time hiking through the wilderness, actually.”

“Went soul-searching, did’ya? And what did you find? Your calling, maybe? Some privileged destiny?”

“Trees, mostly. And lots of bugs.”

Joking, again? Jerome must be rubbing off on him. There might be hope for you yet, kiddo.

“No man in loincloth sweeping you off your feet, then?”

A small smile curved on Bruce’s lips. “Not exactly, no.”

“Well, there’s plenty of time for that. The city jungle hides its own fair share of crazies, believe me.”

“I’m aware,” Bruce said, casting a glance at the sun-lit street outside the window. Jerome leaned forward in his seat, over the table, to take a close look at the small cut on Bruce’s jaw.

“Cut yourself shaving?” Jerome asked, reaching out his fingers to touch it. Bruce froze at the touch, but quickly recovered.

“Yes. I did.”

“Huh, you must be rather confident, shaving with a knife.” Jerome would recognize the clean cut of a knife any day. This wasn’t caused by an ordinary razor, the wound was too precise and too deep. He’d know—knifes were his preferred companion of choice, after all.

Bruce opened his mouth to try to explain, but changed his mind and settled for silence, hoping Jerome would drop the issue and leave it at that. But Jerome’s curiosity was peaked. Abrupt goodbyes, half-assed lies, and now knife wounds? What was he hiding?

“My, my, Brucie-boy. Are you getting into trouble? You’re not sneaking out of your ivory tower to steal from the poor, are you? Batman will come after you, you know. And then that little scar will be the least of your problems.” He leaned back in his chair, a smirk on his lips. “But I hear a few broken bones add character.”

Bruce scowled at him.

“What? Upset that I’m making fun of your idol?” Jerome inquired.

“He’s not my idol.”

“Aw, come on, don’t be shy, billionaire wonder! It’s just us girls here! You can tell me your secrets.” He winked playfully at the younger man.

Bruce sighed. “Is it too much to ask that you call me Bruce?”

“What’s wrong with billionaire wonder? How about Brucie-darlin’ or Sir Wayne—“

“Just call me Bruce, like everyone else.”

“But I’m not like everyone else, am I, Brucie?”

“Well, I suppose not… so tell me: who are you? You seem to know a lot about me, but I know nothing about you. Doesn’t seem fair, does it?”

“If only the world was fair, there’d be no need for the Bat ruining everyone’s fun. But I see your point. You’re curious about me. Why wouldn’t you be? I am very interesting.”

“Are you from around here? From Gotham?”

“Well, originally I’m from France. But that’s way back. I don’t really know exactly where I was born, to be entirely honest. In a tent, a trailer park, a toilet at the supermarket. Could’ve been anywhere, really. But Gotham is the place that holds my heart. And then there is our caped crusader, watching over us as we sleep. This place couldn't get weirder if it tried. How could I not stay? What about you, Brucie? With all that money, you could go anywhere in the world! Why did you come back to Gotham?"

"I have duties here. Responsibilities."

"Blah, blah, boring, boring, boring! All I hear is that you, young mister, are in grave need of an intervention. It's settled! We're going out on a little adventure tonight to shake off that ninety-year-old-mentality."

"Adventure?"

"Wear something casual. And I don't mean, well, whatever the hell you're wearing. I want hoodies, t-shirts, and tattered jeans. Preferrably  a leather jacket of some sort, but I know that might be too much to ask."

"And where are we going, exactly?" Bruce asked, looking reluctant to the idea, but curious at the same time. 

"Why, we're going to visit the former king of Gotham, of course! Or well, we're going to crash his birthday party!"

Chapter Text

Bruce stared up at the blue neon letters spelling out ‘The Iceberg Lounge’. He shot a glance at Jerome, who was poking fun at the poster of Oswald Cobblepot hanging on the building next to the fancy night club. The queue of glamourous people stretched all around the corner of the block.

“Talk about climbing the social ladder, huh?” Jerome said, barely containing his laughter. "Ahh, Pingu, who would've guessed?" He leaned his hand against the wall, body trembling from the fit of giggles slipping out of him.

Bruce strode over to Jerome in a hurry, and he did not look happy.

“Are you insane?!” Bruce hissed.“You want us to sneak in here? Crash Penguin’s party?!”

“Shhh!” Jerome put a finger to Bruce’s lips. “Not so loud, Brucie! Do you want the bouncers to hear?”

Bruce fell silent, but gave Jerome a scorching look of disapproval. Jerome frowned back at him, somewhat reluctantly removing his finger from the billionaire's mouth. He thought it better not to dwell on why...

“What?” he asked. "What's wrong with here?"

Bruce gestured to his attire—he’d taken Jerome’s advice and dressed in jeans, a black hoodie and a printless t-shirt, more casual than anyone in the city—save perhaps Alfred—had ever seen him.

“We’re not exactly dressed for it, are we?” Bruce pointed out, a sharpness to his voice.

Jerome met his irritation with a grin.

“Well, if they recognized you as Bruce Wayne, they’d let us in through the front door! Where’s the fun in that?”

“And where are we going to enter from, exactly, if not the front door?”

“Why, the back door, of course! Well, window, more like. There’s a container in the back that we can climb. Bird-face always leaves the window open, guess he enjoy the ‘fresh’ scent of trash in the evening."

Bruce scowled at him.

"Hey! No sour faces, young man!" Jerome scolded. "This is fun! I want to see happy faces only!”

Bruce made a show of smiling widely and stiffly, as obviously fake a smile as he could muster. But Jerome clapped him on the shoulder, unbothered by Bruce’s complaints. Rich-boy didn’t know what was best for him!

“Might need to work on that, kiddo, but A for effort,” Jerome said and pinched the other's cheek. Bruce glared back at him with childish defiance, and Jerome found himself endlessly entertained by how different an image Bruce presented to the world, and how much more like himself he seemed to act around Jerome--even more so now, than when they'd met last night. You really are spoiling me tonight, Brucie...

He took off into the back alley and Bruce reluctantly followed. There were no guards or bouncers currently in sight. Great for them! Bad for Cobblepot. Might need to up your security, hawk-nose. You’re making this too easy.

As if summoned by his thoughts, two of Penguin’s men came out the back door for a smoke. Jerome went to grab Bruce and push him into the shadows, but Bruce had already taken refuge behind a few discarded crates. Good reflexes, Jerome pondered, joining Bruce in his hiding place.

Whatever the kid was up to, his senses were almost tuned to perfection and the comparison to an animal spoke to Jerome once more. Was it just good intuition or…?

Bruce’s body language, his quick assessment of the situation, struck Jerome with familiarity. He’d seen thugs, homeless, and mobsters with a similar talent, but rich kids? Never. Had the kid been up to no good, after all? Getting bored having it all, Bruce?

When Penguin’s men went back inside, Jerome straightened up. He offered Bruce a hand, but Bruce slapped it aside. There was no real force or ill-will behind it, just a young man trying to establish his independence. A smile curved on Jerome’s lips as Bruce moved past him towards the trash container.

Bruce jumped up on the container with a feline’s grace. Everything about Bruce told Jerome that this wasn’t out of ordinary for him, perhaps even a frequent activity. Jerome observed him from down below, studied the young man’s cautious stance—like he was ready and prepared for anything, should the unexpected happen.

Bruce turned to him, eyebrows raised in inquiry.

“Do you need help to get up?” he asked politely, reaching out a hand in his direction. Jerome considered giving Bruce a taste of his own medicine and show off, but then he would be passing up on a great opportunity…who was he to refuse such a kind gesture? He grasped Bruce’s arm and let himself be pulled up on the container.

“Much obliged,” Jerome said, sliding his fingers down Bruce’s arm. Bruce’s hand twitched slightly at the touch, but whether it was discomfort or pleasure, Jerome couldn’t tell.

Bruce walked a few paces behind Jerome as they ventured the second floor. He looked antsy—which wasn’t strange, considering they were trespassing, but there was a paranoid awareness in his eyes—the look of someone who was convinced someone would walk in around the corner and discover them. Or maybe even knew.

Jerome’s suspicions were soon confirmed when they reached one of the back-rooms--where Penguin's men usually spent their time playing card games and keeping track of Oswald's other, less legal, business. Jerome had snuck in once or twice, though he'd never had time to explore the place properly, but Bruce had never been. Yet as they rounded the corner, he'd pulled Jerome to a stop.

The scent of cigarette smoke lingered in the air and the melody of voices revealed three people, maybe four. A man emerged into the doorway, his gaze shifting from the inside of the room to the corridor—He was about to look right at them!

Bruce disappeared from behind him and yanked Jerome into a broom closet. Jerome hadn’t noticed the door as they passed it, and even if he had, it wouldn’t have been his first reaction to open some unfamiliar door and run inside—for risk of walking in on another set of Penguin’s goons.

Bruce had known it was there. And he’d known it would be unlocked and safe to enter. Just who was this kid, really? The notion that Bruce Wayne was the mask shielding the real person underneath might not have been a mere observation, but rather the truth. Jerome’s heart beat with the excitement of someone that had stumbled over a treasure trove alone and didn’t need to share it with anyone.

Bruce was beginning to let his guard down, perhaps more than he himself had realized. But Jerome was not going to warn him, he’d finally caught a glimpse of the unpolished coal underneath the impenetrable diamond surface.

Jerome’s attention snapped to Bruce as the younger man shifted his weight, and he noticed how close they were standing. The lack of room had them standing chest to chest, close enough for Jerome to feel Bruce’s breath on his face. Now this was a proximity he could get used to…

“Good job saving our asses,” Jerome said, his voice hushed.

Bruce nodded. Did he seem a little…abashed? The billionaire’s cheeks were definitely a shade darker than they should be--though it was hard to tell in the dark--and he kept his gaze on everything except Jerome.

Jerome placed his thumb and index finger on Bruce’s chin, forcing him to look up into bright emerald eyes.

“Nothing like a little danger to get your blood pumping, huh, Brucie?”

“This is your fault!” Bruce hissed. “If we’d just come in through the front entrance we could’ve avoided this!”

“Well, I figured you probably shouldn't be seen here. What would our dear Jeeves say about that, hm? And I can’t say that I mind terribly… there’s nothin’ like a little adrenaline to make you feel alive. Not to mention, the view isn’t bad either.” He smirked.

Not even the darkness could hide Bruce’s embarrassment. Jerome could feel the tension rolling off the younger in waves.

 Bruce’s hands came up to push Jerome away—not that there was anywhere to push him—but lingered on Jerome’s chest. It lasted for a fraction of a moment, but still too long to be considered completely platonic, before Bruce finally gave the older man a light shove. Jerome laughed and Bruce put a hand over his mouth to keep him quiet.

Can his kid get more adorable?

He bit his lip, realizing he shouldn’t get too carried away. This was just part of his game, after all. He shouldn't get invested...

While Jerome enjoyed the prospect of Bruce letting down his guard completely and inviting him into his space, his thoughts, his life—the opposite wasn’t part of the plan. Liking this kid was unavoidable—Bruce was simply too much of a joy to watch—but he could at least do himself a favour and keep things…professional? Nah, bad choice of words. This wasn't a chore--this was fun!

Jerome’s fingers lifted to Bruce’s hair by their own accord, ruffling through the raven locks playfully. “You’re so cute when your bashful, Brucie,” he whispered into the billionaire’s ear.

At this small distance, it would be so easy to tilt his head and claim those lips. In this moment, he wasn’t certain that Bruce would even deny him. The air around them held a tension that was solid and heavy. If Bruce felt Jerome’s intentions—and judging by his natural instincts, Bruce probably did—he made no attempt to stop him.

Jerome let his fingers slide through Bruce’s hair and down the back of his neck. He felt Bruce shiver under his touch. The intensity of the anticipation circulating the small closet was almost painful. And the fact that Bruce seemed to hold no objections to Jerome’s advances made his next move even more difficult.

He gave a soft chuckle, wondering if he’d gone off the rails completely, and withdrew.

Things were moving too fast and he didn’t want to take advantage of Bruce’s absence of suspicion to his motives. He almost laughed at the absurdity of his own thoughts. Not take advantage…? Then what the hell was he doing here? The whole point of this game was to get under Bruce’s skin. And the easiest way to do that was offering Bruce the one thing he had never had or felt. I need to get my shit together.

Bruce sighed, and Jerome thought he heard the inflection of disappointment in there somewhere, but maybe that was wishful thinking.

“Don’t be upset, Brucie-dear! It’s only our first date,” he joked.

Bruce scoffed and shoved an elbow into Jerome’s ribs. He opened the door slightly to have a look around and relief painted his features.

“Coast clear!”

“Aw, already? We were just getting to the good part…” Jerome complained, making a face of mock-disappointment.

In the light, Bruce’s cheeks spoke of similar thoughts. Perhaps it was good that they hadn’t breached the line of friendship with a first kiss. Jerome wasn’t certain he could’ve stopped there...

This time, Bruce took the lead. He navigated through the various corridors with the ease of someone who’d been here before, only adding further to Jerome's suspicions.

“How come you know this place like the back of your hand, Brucie? Back there, you--”

Bruce hushed him. They hid behind the corner as two of penguin’s men walked by, and then took the way they’d come. They finally reached the upper floor of the restaurant. People crowded the upper and lower floor, bustling over to look at the pool with sea lions, leaving little room to stand around. It was Jerome’s turn to take the lead, as Bruce seemed completely out of his comfort zone.

A live orchestra played a soothing tune in a scene in the background, elegant and slow-paced.

Both Bruce and Jerome stuck out of the crowd with their casual clothes among all the glamourous people. They shot curious glances at the pair as they made their way downstairs. Jerome would be happy to put on a performance for anyone willing to watch…but tonight his attention was focused on one sole member of the audience.

Jerome offered his hand to Bruce, like a prince to his princess.

“May I have this dance, my king?” he asked, eyes glinting with humour.

Bruce looked around for a moment, thinking it over, but decided he’d rather take Jerome’s hand than risk being swept away in the ocean of unfamiliar faces.

“Stop calling me that,” Bruce muttered. “Call me Bruce.”

Jerome put a hand to his heart in feigned shock. “I couldn’t possibly! I’m naught but a court jester, milord. What about manners? It would be highly inappropriate of me.”

“Well, you’d know, wouldn’t you?” Bruce murmured. His words were quiet and almost lost to Jerome’s attention. Almost being the operative word. His lips quirked into a smirk. Is that the words of a woman scorned, I hear?

“I assure you, I’m a perfect gentleman,” Jerome lied.

“No, you’re not,” Bruce called him out immediately.

“No, I’m not,” Jerome agreed. “But still you agreed to accept my invitation. Why is that? Are you into bad boys, by any chance? Nice guys too boring for ya'?”

Bruce sighed. “Because you’d have gone either way. I don’t trust you, but I don’t think you’re a bad person. You’re controlled by your impulses. At least if I’m with you, I can make sure you don’t get yourself killed.”

“Bruce Wayne—billionaire and playboy extraordinaire—cares about little ol’ me? Someone fetch me a chair, I think I’m about to faint!”

Bruce shook his head in exasperation. “I do care about you. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.”

The smile faded from Jerome’s face, taken aback by the other’s words. When was the last time someone had said they cared for him? More importantly; when was the last time someone’s lies had offered him any sliver of actual happiness? Lie or not, Bruce’s words was like taking a bullet straight to the heart. He wanted to hear Bruce say it again, wanted him to mean it.

Jerome played with the sudden suspicion that he was the one being manipulated—like a puppet on strings, controlled by the desire to put a smile on Bruce’s lips.

Jerome steered Bruce away from the crowd, to a vacant spot next to the bar. He got drinks for both of them and Bruce eyed his glass of champagne hesitantly.

“What’s wrong, rich-boy? Champagne not up to your standards?”

Bruce shook his head. Jerome tried not to give away the fact that he already knew the reason for Bruce’s reluctance, he wanted him to admit to it.

“I don’t drink,” Bruce said finally, finding no way out of the pickle under Jerome’s piercing gaze. Jerome feigned surprise.

“Oh? Don’t trust your patrons not to poison you? Or are you one of those health nuts that believe everything worth living for is bad for you?”

Bruce smiled at that, and Jerome felt the familiar warmth of satisfaction coiling around his heart. To think such a simple thing could strike him so beautiful. Ah, hell… this boy would be his undoing. But then he supposed there were worse fates than to be wrapped around Bruce Wayne’s finger…

“I don’t like the taste,” Bruce explained.

“You sure that’s all there is to it, Brucie?” Jerome prodded. “You don’t like criminal activities, yet here you are, trespassing the property of a known crook. With a dashing young lad you barely know, I should add.”

Bruce sighed.

“I don’t like not being in control. Alcohol tends to have a certain effect on me. It’s distracting and might cause me to neglect my responsibilities,” Bruce revealed, and boy what a revelation it was! Jerome couldn’t relate, seeing how he was rarely in control over his own actions and thoughts, but it explained so much about Bruce.

“Darlin’, what responsibilities justify neglecting your life? Your date?” he added playfully.  “The people of Gotham, thirsting for the next bit of gossip? Wayne Enterprises? The ladies queuing for your attention? They can bear without you for one evening, I’m sure. For tonight, you’re all mine, Bruce Wayne.” He cupped Bruce’s cheek as he said this, and watched with great interest as Bruce tried to reel in his emotions.

  Bruce dared a charismatic smile and raised his glass—and damn him for looking absolutely spectacular doing it, despite the absence of his usual attire. “Here’s to an evening without hidden agendas and social expectations.”

Jerome smirked. Well, maybe not completely without hidden agendas…

 “And to an earned vacation, eh?”

He gulped down his champagne in one sweep, and Bruce watched him wide-eyed. He took a tentative sip of his own, nose crinkling slightly. He wasn’t lying about disliking the taste, huh?  Then again, the alcohol-percentage was definitely higher in this bar than allowed... Penguin was clever, he had to admit. An intoxicated guest was a happy guest, and a happy guest generally feels more generously inclined.

“You know, you should at least try to enjoy it, seeing as it cost me my last pennies!” Jerome said and laughed. “Oh, don’t fret, Brucie-dearest,” he added, catching the look of guilt on Bruce’s face, “You’re a worthy investment!”

“I—I’m—thank you, Jack,” Bruce said. “Really.  For all of this! For today…I needed the distraction.”

“My, complimented by the epitome of fun himself! Why, I’m sure I’ll die of happiness!”

Bruce scoffed in good humour and gave him a playful shove, before taking another sip of the champagne.

“I’m serious, Jack. And I’m pretty sure Alfred would love to thank you in person.”

“A first date and you’re already bringing me home to see your parents! Wow, I must have left quite an impression,” Jerome joked.

“You have,” Bruce said seriously. “Alfred would like to invite you to dinner at the manor, if you’d like.”

“Whatever for?”

“Alfred seems to think I’m indebted to you…" Bruce smiled tentatively. "Maybe I am. It's been a long time since I've done anything like this.”

"Criminal activities? Or just plain fun in general?"

"Fun... socializing with someone because I want to, rather than..."

“Being forced to? You know, I’d think you didn’t have any real friends, Bruce, the way your butler wants to throw me dinner parties for hanging out with ya'.”

“None like you,” Bruce admitted.

Jerome edged closer, backing Bruce into the wall. “You know, Brucie-boy,” he said, his voice carrying a velvety tone to it now, “you really should take care with how freely you give your affection.”

“Why?”

“Because,” Jerome said, leaning in closer. “It might give the wrong impression of how you want this night to end. My emotional state plays a large role in my impulse control, Brucie. You shouldn’t tempt me with sweet-talk. I had intended to go easy on you, pretty, but you’re not making it easy for me.”

“Maybe I don’t want you to,” Bruce said, a challenge gleaming in his eyes.

Oh, boy.

“Then maybe I won’t,” Jerome said, gaze unwavering and full of promise. “Now, what say you and me get out of here, hmm? I have the sudden need to continue our date elsewhere, away from prying eyes… how about a stroll by the Gotham river?”

“You’re not even going to wish Mr. Cobblepot a happy birthday? That’s a bit rude, don’t you think?”

“Ah, but Bruce—“

“You’re the one who’s going on about manners,” Bruce interrupted, lips quirked into a small smirk.

Touché. “You got me there, Brucie! Well, I guess we’ll have to pay the ol’ stinker a visit then…I’m sure he’ll be delighted to see young master Wayne at his fine establishment,” he said pointedly.

Jerome turned to go, but Bruce grabbed his wrist. He turned to the young billionaire with a raised brow, trying all too hard not to smile, glad to see he still possessed some talent for manipulation.

“He’s probably really busy, not to mention we’re not actually invited,” Bruce said.

If Bruce was found socializing with Penguin it could stir up some rumours, for sure…

Jerome understood Bruce’s apprehension towards being discovered. After all, what reached the public’s ear would certainly reach Jeeves’.

“You are right, of course…I suppose we could spare him a thought, raise a glass in his honour?”

Bruce nodded, a soft relief stealing over his features. He swept the champagne and made a disgusted face, Jerome watching him with a smile. 

“Oki-doki, well, we better be off then, before someone sees us.”

Bruce made a grimace. “I think we’ve already been spotted…”

Jerome followed his gaze to one of Penguin’s bouncers, who was headed their way.

“Oh, you’re right! Well, in that case,” said Jerome, grasping Bruce’s hand, “Run!”

They dashed forward, and the crowd parted in surprise—as the Red Sea did for Moses. The bouncer couldn’t keep up and they were not slowing down. Bruce was faster than expected, matching Jerome’s pace with ease. They escaped through the front entrance, jumping down the stairs, and didn’t stop until they were far out of reach.

For someone who never needed to lift a finger on his own, Bruce had remarkable stamina. It would’ve been remarkable for anyone, to be honest, much less a rich boy who was driven everywhere in a Limo. They slowed down for a quick breather, Bruce wheezing like an asthmatic and Jerome laughing hoarsely.

“Now that…was fun!” Jerome exclaimed. He flung an arm around Bruce as the boy straightened up. “The speed! Those reflexes! Where have you been hiding that?”

Bruce wiped his mouth and smiled. “Looks like all those years running from my suitors paid off.”

Jerome gave a heartfelt cackle. “Oh, Bruce! You never cease to surprise me!”

“In a good way, I hope?”

“In the best way! I have to say, this is probably the most exciting date I have ever had! Platonic or otherwise!”

Bruce glanced up at him and then set his gaze in front of him, in the distance. “Is it? Platonic, I mean.”

Jerome slipped his arm off Bruce’s shoulders and let it fall to his side. “You know, Bruce, I’ve been asking myself the same thing!”

“Which one do you prefer?”

“Hmm, platonic is such a boring word, isn’t it? It reeks of pre-determined templates. Either it is or it isn’t… Otherwise on the other hand is such a promising word. It’s mysterious, undetermined, and offer nothing but a multitude of choices—of possibilities!”

“So, we’re leaning towards otherwise…?”

  Jerome wasn’t going to answer him. He wouldn’t make it that easy for him. Let him squirm a little first…

“What do you want, Brucie? Not just from me, but in general? What makes you tick? What thoughts keep you up at night?”

Bruce had to think on that for a moment. “Justice,” he said finally. “I want justice.”

Ever the hero, aren’t you? “Justice for what?”

“For my parents. For the victims of the plague of criminals that haunt every dark corner of Gotham. This city deserves better. The people here deserve better.”

Jerome had never seen such a serious look on Bruce’s face—which was saying something, as he rarely looked anything but serious.

“Are you really still hung up on that? It was ages ago…”

“It was. But their death symbolises much more than the simple loss of a parent to a child. When they died…a part of Gotham died with them. Their hopes and aspirations, their plan to make this city a better place for future generations…all gone.”

Jerome sighed. This conversation was a doozy. This wasn’t what he wanted… he wanted Bruce to smile! To turn red with embarrassment, to tell him sweet words of affection. But the look in Bruce’s eyes intrigued him—glinting dangerously from some dark abyss inside him, holding all the intimidating threat of a predator.

“Might I expect a similar answer regarding my first question?” Jerome asked.

Bruce relaxed and smiled sheepishly, a faint tint to his cheek. That’s more like it.

“No.”

“You’re not gonna tell me, are you?”

“Nope. Though I’m curious what you think of the subject…”

“So, it’s Quid Pro Quo without the Quo, eh? You’re not gonna tell me until I’ve told you first? Okay then, cheeky…”

What to say? What to say?

Jerome’s thoughts were a cluster, his emotions a shipload of trinkets floating on the bottom of the ocean in complete disarray. What did he want from Bruce? Truly want?

This whole thing had started out as a game. It still was.

But he couldn’t deny he felt something, more than satisfaction, more than excitement for each pace of ground he won while winning over the billionaire’s affection.  

He decided at last that he didn’t know. It may be the first honest thing he’d told Bruce since they’d met, and Bruce simply nodded and accepted it as truth, never doubting the authenticity of his words. Whichever path they were currently on—whatever unpredictable turn it may take—Jerome was certain they’d at least have fun along the way.

Jerome’s train of thought crashed and tipped over into a dark hole as they passed a familiar face from his past. He kept his gaze trained ahead, his head dipped low to avoid eye-contact, but it was too late. He’d been seen and recognized…

“Jackie-boy!” said the beefy man approaching them. “It’s been a long time, eh? How ya’ doin’, boy?”

Jerome sighed and turned around, seeing no other way out of this than to engage in a brief conversation. He was all too aware of Bruce’s stare on him, as it flickered back and forth from the beefy man to him.

“Abe,” Jerome greeted the other. “Still as pudgy as ever, I see.”

Abe laughed loudly, clapping his stomach a few times. He dragged Jerome into a stiff hug, before looping an arm over his shoulders, as if they were best friends reunited.

“You’re looking darn fine, boy! If a little skinny. Don’t they feed ya’ properly? I heard ya’ took up work for some rich brat? She treatin’ ya’ alright?”

“I have no complaints,” Jerome lied, not bothering to correct Abe’s belated information. “It could be worse. I could still be workin’ for you.”

Abe’s laughter tore through the otherwise silent back-alley with force, scaring away a stray cat nibbling on some neglected left-overs at an open-air café some paces away.

“Always with the jokes! Well, you know, you’re always welcome back!”

“That’s certainly a ….comfort to know. But I’m not interested.”

“Don’t go breakin’ my poor heart now, kid. We’re a family! I have a job that would suit you perfectly! Real easy money, too.”

“Sorry, not interested. It’s been…nice seeing you again, Abe. But I promised my date I’d get him home before his parents notice.”

Abe shifted his gaze to Bruce, who had been watching them with a frown.

“And who might this fella be? Do I know you from somewhere? Did we go on a heist together? Feels like I’ve seen ya’ somewhere…”

“What a coincidence! So did I! I guess he just has one of those faces. Now if you don’t mind, we should really get goin’.”

Abe’s eyes narrowed suspiciously at Bruce, studying his face.

“What’s your name, kid?” he asked him.

“It’s Br—“

“Bryan, Oaks,” Jerome replied for him. “His mom works down at the docks and his father’s an electrician. Very traditional people...the worst kind of bible-huggers, really. You know, the kind that believe when it suits them. So you can understand our predicament, Abe.”

“Ah, they’re not approving of this relationship then?”

“No, and I don’t want to know what will happen if they do find out about this, so…”

“I understand. Hurry back home with ya! Just remember what I told you, eh? By the looks of it, both of you can use some cash.”

Hardly.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Jerome said, feeling himself cracking up at Abe’s assumption. If only he’d known he was standing face to face with the richest man in all of Gotham…

Bruce was very quiet as they continued through town, following the side of the river. His body radiated questions, but he kept silent. Did he want Jerome to tell him by his own accord?

“About that…” Jerome began.

“You don’t have to tell me,” Bruce said.

“Are you mad? Seems like it.”

“No, I’m not mad.”

“Then will you look at me for one second?” Jerome grasped Bruce’s elbow lightly. Bruce turned to him, gaze reaching up to meet his. “Are you scared?”

Bruce scoffed. “Should I be?”

“Probably,” Jerome said. “For all you know I could have lured you out here to kill ya’, kiddo. You don’t know me.”

“Evidently…” Bruce muttered, facing away from him.

“Hey! Look at me.”

When Bruce refused, Jerome grabbed his shoulders and spun him around, pressing him up against the wall of an abandoned warehouse. “Is this because of what happened with Abe? Can’t handle being friends with a former criminal, is that it?”

“No, that’s not it!”

“Then what’s bothering ya’!”

“Nothing!” Bruce shouted, causing Jerome to flinch backwards. “That’s the problem.”

Jerome stared at the younger man for a long moment. “What are you saying?”

Bruce gave a loud sigh, as much frustrated as it was defeated. “This entire evening has been crazy… I probably should stay away from you. That would be the reasonable thing to do! But that wouldn’t be right… I can’t. To be honest, I don’t want to.”

Jerome ran a hand through his hair, trying hard to piece together Bruce’s meaning.

“You lost me, kid.”

“I’m saying I should mind. Most people would. But you’re not like other people, Jack. You taught me that I don’t have to be either. Besides, I have no right to judge you before I hear your side of the story. That would be unfair.”

“Such a Good Samaritan, aren’t ya’, Brucie? But you know, maybe you shouldn’t be so calm about all this, hmm? I’m not talkin’ holding hands with a handsome stranger here, kiddo. You don't know the things I've done. Wouldn’t hangin' out with a known criminal put a stain on the Wayne name? Maybe I’m just acting all nice to get under your skin, did you think about that?” He knew he was saying too much, but he couldn’t stop himself. A part of him fumed with how careless Bruce was being, trusting him so easily.

“I know,” Bruce said. “But I’m not worried. You won’t lay a hand on me.”

“And why is that?”

“Because that would interfere with your game,” Bruce stated.

Jerome faltered.

Damn, how long had he known?

“Game?” asked Jerome, the picture of innocence.

Bruce crossed his arms.

“You’re hiding something. You talk as if you know me, you won’t tell me any details about where we met or who you are, and you have this look in your eye like you’re about to jump me.”

“Don’t tempt me,” Jerome said, a smile creeping to his lips “For how long have you known?”

“Since lunch, I guess.”

 “Why play along, then, if you already knew? Why risk it?”

“Because I enjoy your company. You’re not like anyone I’ve ever met. We all have a past, Jack. Secrets. I don’t need to know everything about you, but I’m confident that you will tell me. Eventually.”

Jerome raised a curious eyebrow.

“Oh? And why would I do that?”

“Because you like my company, too," Bruce said with certainty. He sure was confident, but Jerome couldn't deny it.

My, Brucie, you’re sailing dangerous waters. At this rate, Jerome couldn’t guarantee he’d be able to hold himself back. Not if Bruce would continue giving him these small hints of interest. He had to give it to the kid though, for someone who had never actually dated anyone for real, he was surprisingly and annoyingly good at it.

“You’re awfully suave for a fifteen-year-old.”

“I’m nineteen,” Bruce insisted. “Actually, now that I think about it. How old are you?”

“How rude! To ask a lady’s age so bluntly…!”

“Jack…” Bruce sighed.

“Alright, don’t go sulkin’ on me, pretty boy. I’m twenty-two. Why?”

“No reason. I’m just interested in you.”

The words struck a chord in Jerome’s body, singing out with a joy that was both warm and painful with longing.

“Oh? I bet you say that to all criminals.”

Bruce smiled. “Just the really attractive ones.”

“Is that the champagne talkin’, Brucie? Or are you in a particular generous mood?”

Bruce grinned sheepishly. “A bit of both, I think!” Ah, that would explain the blush…and the daring behaviour. It seemed Penguin's concoction did it's job rather well...

"It's true though. What I said," Bruce assured him.

Oh, great… did he have to be so adorable?

“I guess we’ll better get ya’ home then, before some strikingly handsome criminal takes advantage of you. Come on, hurry, chop-chop!” He  urged, grabbing Bruce's arm, leading the way like a mother to her five-year-old.

They needed to go home asap and put little Brucie to sleep.

Before I change my mind.

Chapter Text

Bruce woke up to the violent sound of rain, pattering like gun-shots on the windowsill. He sat up slowly, his hand pressed to his forehead, and squinted at the open window. What the…? Why was the window open?

His head was hurting something fierce, and he felt more brutalized now than he ever had being Batman. Yesterday was a little fuzzy—he recalled having lunch with Jack, sneaking into Penguin’s club, and the rush of adrenaline as he and Jack ran through the streets of Gotham. But this was where things started to feel hazy, like a dream. Had he actually gotten drunk last night? But that made no sense—he barely drank anything!

The open window certainly raised questions, crushing the small hope Bruce had of this all being a figment from one of his dreams—Jack had followed him home, and Bruce had insisted they climb in through the window... He sighed. Jack had found it an amusing choice of entry and had asked Bruce if he'd acquired a taste for the unexpected after their endeavour at Penguin's. The actual reason, though Bruce couldn't remember it, had probably been Alfred. 

Alfred was accustomed to his late nights and early mornings—returning bruised from fighting criminals—but going on adventurous, reckless dates with them? Hardly.

Jack had put Bruce to bed like some child, covered him in blankets and tucked him in, as his mother had done when Bruce was sick.

Bruce recalled a swift kiss on his forehead, a mother's final touch before letting her son be swept away by the Sandman. Jack had actually kissed him. And not in a romantic way, but in a caring, strangely affectionate manner. Bruce wasn't used to that. He'd gone on countless of dates with pretty young women, but he'd never invited any of them home, never let anyone see past his playboy persona, and he'd never felt disappointed when the date was over and they left.

Bruce hid his face in his hands from embarrassment. Had he really left himself so open and vulnerable to a guy who radiated the intentions to take advantage of it? And yet he hadn't... Jack had been presented the perfect opportunity to do whatever he wished—even kill him as Jack himself had warned. But Jack had followed him home to safety and would've left immediately after—had it not been for yet another one of Bruce's embarrassing moments, when he'd grabbed Jack's arm and asked him to stay until he fell asleep. With an amused look and a smile so soft it was barely there, Jack had agreed.

Bruce didn't think his cheeks could get more heated than they were right now. Luckily, there was nobody around to witness it but himself, and he took great care not to look into the mirror on the opposite side of the room.

Jack may not be a bad person, but there was no denying he kept plenty of secrets. This 'Abe' character for one thing.  Bruce didn't know who it was, but Batman had heard of the mobster from other street thugs. He was well-known for robbery, smuggling, and even rumoured to have killed someone. But that wasn't Jack.

He knew he'd seen Jack before, but the image popping into his head was of someone else. The likeness was uncanny, but that's all there was to it. That person was dead.

Bruce didn’t know exactly what kind of activities Jack had been part of, except for them being illegal, but so many had done illegal deeds in Gotham. Petty theft, robbery, breaking and entering, the list went on… Jack could have done any of those things. And while they weren’t honest work, they were rather harmless in comparison to many other alternatives—Bruce didn’t want to think Jack capable of those things.

But even though Bruce and Jack shared a connection that spoke of past ties, they were essentially strangers…

The way Jack’s lies had rolled so easily off his tongue was certainly a reason for concern. Perhaps he was a con artist, used to improvisation? Bruce sighed. His two sides conflicted—the detective and the idealist. Believe or doubt? Bruce liked Jack a lot—probably more than he should—but he had to think about the people he cared for, whom he could be putting in danger.

He decided to give Jack a chance to come around and tell him, before looking into the matter by himself. It would feel like a betrayal to go behind Jack's back and he would rather avoid it if possible.

Alfred knocked on the door twice before entering.

“Good morning, master Bruce!”

Bruce winced. Any other day, he would have appreciated Alfred’s good mood, but today his head felt like it was about to implode at the chipper tone.

Alfred looked at him for a moment, a mix of concern and confusion on his face, until his features softened and he smiled knowingly.

“Should I fetch you some painkillers, sir?” he asked, and there was no doubt about the withheld laugh in his voice.

Bruce nodded, and Alfred took his leave.

He went over to shut the window, but paused at a small rock holding down a piece of paper on the windowsill. The edges had gone a bit soggy, but the message was still clear:

You snore a lot,

 J

Bruce chuckled. He closed the window, about to tuck the slip of paper into his pyjama pants, when he realized he wasn’t wearing them. In the daylight streaming in through the open window he caught a glimpse of something on the back of the paper. He flipped it, finding another message from Jack.

Ps. I like your boxers.

A blush crept to Bruce’s face and he crumpled the paper in his fist. What am I getting so embarrassed about? We’re friends.

Even as the thought crossed his mind, Bruce knew he was wrong. They weren't friends. To be honest, he didn't know how to describe their relationship other than 'complicated'. They had something—a spark? Their friendship was as much effortless as it was strained, and Bruce couldn't begin to comprehend how it could be both at the same time. But it was. 

Jack was an ocean—calm and inviting one moment, and dark and stormy the next. Always smiling, but never truly genuine. There was always an edge to it, not exactly sinister—more like mischievous, and was matched with a pair of the most beautiful eyes Bruce had ever seen. Jack's eyes spoke of a struggle inside himself, maybe similar to Bruce's.

Bruce swallowed, remembering when they'd been trapped in the broom closet, standing so close that Bruce could feel Jack's warmth. Not even the dark could have hidden those vivid eyes, nor dampened the hunger gleaming inside them as they caught Bruce's gaze.

Bruce had felt the tension, felt it surge through him with an unexpected acceptance. Had Jack intended to kiss him, then? Actually kiss him?

Even though Bruce would never admit it; he’d wanted it to happen; wondered how Jack’s lips would feel against his own. Would they be soft? Chapped? Warm?

Bruce fought off the disturbing thought. His attraction towards guys weren’t completely new—he’d found men attractive in the past, though he’d never fallen in love with one. But it was different with Jack… he was much more than a man. He was an enigma! So much of him remained a mystery, and Bruce couldn’t deny that a part of him found it better that way, wanted him to be.

Jack was the very definition of excitement, danger, and an involuntary—or was it voluntary?—lack of control. He was the opposite of Bruce in so many ways, yet so frighteningly familiar in others...

Alfred returned with the painkillers and a glass of water, and Bruce accepted them gratefully, mumbling a soft 'thanks'.

“I trust you had a pleasant evening then, sir?” asked Alfred.

“Yes, Alfred. It was certainly very... interesting.”

Alfred smiled. “I can imagine. Jack seems like quite a character. Did you ask him about coming over to the mansion?”

“I mentioned it, I think…I can't remember.”

Alfred laughed softly. “It sounds like you might have indulged in one sip too many, master Bruce.”

“I didn’t drink more than a glass…surely my tolerance should be higher than that?”

“Well, that depends where in Gotham you drank it. I hear there are a few places that hold little regard for the regulations. Do remember to be careful, Bruce. As interesting and pleasant of a company this Jack is, you don’t know all that much about him.”

“I can take care of myself, Alfred,” Bruce muttered.

“Yes, but even Batman has weaknesses. Which in this case, seems to be curiosity. You do know what they say about curiosity, sir?”

Bruce sighed. “Yes, Alfred. I know. I’ll be careful with Jack, I promise. He hasn’t posed a threat so far and I very much doubt that he will. If he was looking for a perfect opportunity to harm me, he missed it yesterday.”

“It appears you like him very much,” Alfred said, something soft and almost nostalgic drifting through his eyes. A sliver of reinstated hope that Bruce wouldn't end up dying alone in an alley somewhere, Bruce guessed. With or without Jack in his life, Bruce had never planned on it, but Alfred seemed convinced that was where he would end up. That, or in Arkham, overcome with guilt of all the people he'd failed to save. Bruce would prove him wrong. He wouldn't fail.

For now, however, he better indulge Alfred's curiosity and ease the butler's worry.

“I don’t need to pretend with him," Bruce said. "We both have secrets and we both know it. I would lie if I said I didn’t want to know, but how can I ask him to tell me everything about him when I can’t offer the same courtesy?”

“Very true, master B, but do bear in mind that while your nightly activities may come from a place of concern for this city, Jack’s motives may be entirely different," the butler pointed out.

“I will, Alfred. Maybe if you meet him, you’ll relax a little. I don't think he wants to hurt me, or he would have already.”

“I doubt it. A parent’s work is never done, Master B. I’m afraid I wouldn’t stop worrying even if this Ra's al Ghul had made you immortal. I don't know Jack's motives with you--he could be biding his time to lull you into false security, or if he's genuinly interested in you, but I will take your word for it, sir.”

Bruce smiled gently, affection wrapping his heart with summer warmth. He didn’t know where he would be without Alfred.

“Thank you, Alfred.”

The butler’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. He took a moment to compose himself, clasping his hands behind his back.

“Why, Master Bruce, I think Jack is growing on me already," he said, a smile on his lips.

Bruce laughed softly, earning another look of surprise and relief from his caretaker.

"So, when should I expect a visit?" Alfred asked. "Such an important friend must simply be treated the best Wayne Manor has to offer.”

“I’ll call him and ask,” Bruce said, reaching for his phone.

“Better yet, sir! Why don’t you visit him?”

Bruce's hand hesitated, hovering over his clothes—that lay scattered on the floor, next to the bed. He tried not to think about Jack helping him out of them, but the thought arose before he could stop it. He cleared his throat, pushing it far into the back of his mind.

Alfred glanced at the clothes, raising an eyebrow. "Just what manner of establishment did you visit dressed like that, if you don't mind me asking?"

"We took a walk," was all Bruce offered in return. “I’m not sure Jack would appreciate if I dropped by unnoticed, Alfred,” he said, steering the conversation back on track.

“I think the opposite, sir. From what you’ve told me about Jack, he seems to be rather fond of the unexpected. It would do you good to try out some spontaneity, every once in a while.”

Bruce sighed. “Fine. But I'm driving there.”

“Very well, sir. Just be careful. It is, after all, the Narrows.”

"I've got it handled, Alfred. I'll be fine."

 Alfred gave a defeated sigh. "As you wish, Master Bruce. I'll be expecting you both for dinner then."

 


Jerome stepped out of the shower and wrapped a towel around his waist. He was just about to dry his hair, reaching for the half-busted blow-dryer, when the door-bell rang. He froze and waited. Maybe he had imagined it? Like the way you'd sometimes hear your cellphone pling even though it didn't. The door-bell rang again. Okay, not my imagination.

He strode into the kitchen, grabbing a knife on the way—he never had visitors—and hurried to the door. He peered into the peephole to see who it was and his mouth fell open. That can't be...

He unlocked the door and opened, sure he must be hallucinating.

Bruce Wayne, at my doorstep? Had he hit his head in the shower and fallen unconscious? Was this a dream? 

But when Bruce averted his gaze from his naked torso and his cheeks turned pink, Jerome knew it wasn't. Bruce cleared his throat awkwardly.

“Sorry, is this a bad time? I thought about calling but…”

“Bruce Wayne,” Jerome said, swinging the door open wide. “What an unexpected surprise! Come in, why don’t ya’?"

Bruce lingered in the doorway for a moment and Jerome thought Brucie might panic and run away.

"Before someone mugs you,” Jerome added. "You're a walking target in these parts, rich-boy."

Bruce nodded and let himself be ushered inside. Jerome locked the door, knife carefully hidden behind his back.

“What brings you here, Brucie? Couldn’t stand being apart for more than a night, eh?”

“I wanted to invite you over to the mansion, personally. For dinner." 

Jerome smiled mischievously. 

“So chivalrous, aren’t you, Brucie? I'd be delighted to attend, of course. So you haven’t had enough of me yet, huh?”

“Not quite,” Bruce answered. "I also wanted to apologize for yesterday...I can't seem to remember much of it."

Jerome dismissed the apology with a wave. "No need. If anything I should be thanking you! Most fun I've had in years!"

"Glad to hear it."

"It really was a shame to let you off so easily," Jerome said, smirking. "I didn't even get a kiss goodnight!"

"One of us did, though," Bruce said, crossing his arms.

Jerome snickered. "You have a rather selective memory, don't ya, Brucie? Remember the part where I stripped you down and you tried to remove my pants?"

Bruce scowled, cheeks heating up. "That did not happen."

"Huh, I thought it did. Maybe that was my imagination playing tricks on me." His smirk curved into a wide-spread grin. "Gotta say, you wear a lot of black. I'd thought that maybe underneath it all you'd be hiding a splash of colour or even one little seam that wasn't black, but yesterday proved me wrong. But I guess black goes with anything, amiright? Well, I shouldn't complain, it looks good on you!" 

Bruce's gaze darted to Jerome’s arm, catching a glimpse of the knife. He raised an eyebrow in inquiry.

“Were you expecting someone else or is that how you usually greet guests?”

“Oh, this?” He waved the knife in front of him, a grin on his lips. “A girl can never be too careful, don’t ya’ think? This is a shifty neighbourhood and pretty much everyone around these parts are either thugs or junkies.”

He placed the knife on the kitchen counter, easily accessible should he need it.

“You’re the expert," Bruce murmured.

Ah, the root of the problem.

“Still not sure what to make of the criminal past, eh?" Jerome inquired. "Let’s play a game then, shall we? An ice breaker, if you will.”

“What kind of game?” Bruce asked suspiciously.

Jerome pushed Bruce into the couch, earning an annoyed glance from the billionaire.

“I’ll ask you a question, you ask me a question—honest answers only! I’m pretty good at spotting liars, Brucie, so don’t attempt it. If you don’t want to answer the question, you can say ‘pass’ and it’s my turn to answer. But!" He held up a finger to emphasize the importance of his next words. "If you choose to pass, you’ll have to remove an article of clothing. And if you lie… well, you’ll have to remove everything at once." He clapped his hands together exitedly. "Easy peasy, right?”

Bruce eyed Jerome for a moment, his gaze careful not to stray anywhere but his face.

“You’re a little…underdressed for this game.”

Jerome tapped his finger to his lips for a moment, pretending to think about it.

“Well,” he said, lips cracking into a smile, “I guess I’ll have to be very honest then.”

He gestured for Bruce to begin.

“Where was this charity event where we met?” Bruce asked immediately, and Jerome bit back a laugh at his eagerness. Detective Wayne is on the case... this ought to be entertaining.

Jerome shrugged. “Here in Gotham.”

“That’s not an answer.”

“Isn’t it? You asked and I answered. There’s no rules about how to answer the question as long as you answer them honestly.”

“That doesn’t seem fair.”

“Then be more careful how you ask your questions, Brucie. Don’t give me an excuse to evade them.”

Bruce gave an annoyed huff and crossed his arms. “Fine. Your turn.”

Sore loser, eh, Bruce?

“Hmm, let me think: what mysteries do I wish to unveil? Ah, I know! Last night you seemed to know your way around Ozzie’s little night club like a regular patron... have you been there before?”

Bruce seemed burdened by the question, to Jerome’s delight. So there was something pretty boy didn’t wish to reveal.

“I….I’ve been there before,” Bruce affirmed.

“Oh? But what would a billionaire be doing in the  shady back-room of Penguin's club? Tell me if I’m wrong, Brucie, but I think I’ve stumbled onto something here.”

“My turn,” Bruce said, trying to steer the conversation somewhere else. “Why were you at the charity event?”

“I was performing, of course! You know me, Bruce, I’m a born entertainer!” He pressed his hand to his chest. “I’m almost offended that you don’t remember it, as it was one of my better gigs—I truly captivated the audience!”

Jerome watched Bruce searching his memory for any clues, but he still came up empty. There was that small sliver of temporary recognition in Bruce’s features, like his unconscious mind knew something he didn’t. We're getting closer...

“Now, Bruce, what were you doing at Penguin’s club—more importantly, in the place of his illegal activities—all by yourself?”

“I—I’m…Pass.” Bruce brushed back a lock of hair from his face.

Jerome’s lips quirked into a pleased smirk. Well, finally!

“Aren’t ya’ forgetting something, Brucie-boy?” Jerome pointed out sweetly. Bruce bit his lip, holding his protests at bay. Fortunately for Jerome, Bruce was a man of his word.

Bruce slid his blazer off his shoulders, meeting Jerome's intense gaze with a scowl.

“Much better,” Jerome said.

Bruce took a moment to think his next question through properly.

“How long ago exactly was this event where we met?” Bruce asked.

“Hmm…let’s see here. I don’t remember the exact date, but it was around five years ago. It was even on live-television!”

While it may seem a daring move on Jerome’s part to reveal so much, it didn’t help Bruce to narrow it down, and Jerome was well aware of that.

Bruce went to these kinds of events every month. Jerome had read about a few of them in the papers. Charity galas, big expensive events, visiting children's hospitals, Arkham, and even holding smaller events for the people not included in the one percent. The amount of people Bruce had shaken hands with, the people who’d passed by briefly to exchange a few words, quickly blurred into a mass of faceless strangers. Jerome's blood boiled at the notion that he might be counted one of them…

“Five years ago…” Bruce murmured. His eyes narrowed at a memory, but again he didn’t speak up regarding whatever it was he remembered.

“I believe it is my turn,” Jerome said and watched Bruce tense up visibly as he prepared for the next question. “Why were you at Penguin’s club?”

Bruce scowled at him. “That’s almost the exact same question!” he protested.

“Why and what are two very different things, Bruce. I’m in a towel because I took a shower, but I haven’t gotten dressed because it’s too much fun watching you not trying to sneak a peek! You’re more than welcome to, of course. I assure you I don’t mind.”

Bruce scoffed.

“Maybe you went to Penguin to flirt with one of those girls that keep the club up and running while he's away,” Jerome continued. “But why? That is the question I’m asking now Brucie. See? Completely different.”

Bruce gave a frustrated grunt. “Pass,” he grounded out.

He unbuttoned his shirt, revealing a surprisingly muscular build underneath it. Jerome’s gaze, however, was fixed on the array of bruises covering Bruce’s chest and torso, some faded while others seemed … recent. Had Jerome misjudged the young billionaire? Did he have a dark streak, after all?

Jerome tilted his head to the side, coming closer to inspect them.

“Well, this is a surprising development. Favour a bit of violence, do you?”

“It’s my turn,” Bruce said, brushing off his comment. His eyes narrowed, a strain visible between his brows, revealing his tension. Bruce seemed eager to finish this game. He eyed Jerome’s face for a reaction as he asked his next question.

“Is your name really Jack Napier?”

The question felt like a slap to the face. Had Bruce figured it out?

Jerome took a moment, thinking over his options. If he passed the question, he’d lose. And he really hated losing. On the other hand, telling Bruce the truth would open a few interesting possibilities…but it would end their game. Now, what to tell the billionaire? He didn’t doubt he could shrug it off, spin another tale of his past, and trick Bruce into believing he was indeed Jack Napier, or even some schmuck out of town, who’d changed his name for some heart-wrenching reason. Bruce, being the trusting friend that he was, would most likely buy it. Because he wanted it to be true, if nothing else.

Jerome made up his mind. Here goes.

“No,” Jerome replied, smile stretching wide across his lips. Now what, Bruce?

Bruce’s eyes widened, despite trying hard to keep a lid on his surprise. Jerome could tell he was trying to justify the answer, make excuses for it. Many people in Gotham had fake names, after all. Running from the mob, protective custody for witnesses, abusive partners…there were all manners of reasons to change a name, and yet the look on Bruce’s face spoke of a realization that Jerome had neither of these reasons.

At the same time, Jerome had drawn a conclusion of his own. The mystery, the secrets, the bruises… the blind belief in justice above everything? It all made perfect sense now.

What will you do, Brucie?

“Sooo, Brucie-dear, what’s up with the bruises? What have you been doing?”

Bruce shifted his weight, uncomfortable. “Training.”

“Training,” Jerome parroted, a disinterested look on his face. “Are you sure you’re telling the truth? I told ya’, didn’t I? What would happen if you lie in this game of ours?”

He edged closer to Bruce, peering down at a thin scar across his ribcage. 

“This here,” he said, trailing his fingertip alongside the scar, smirking as Bruce tensed up under his touch. “This is a knife wound. Believe me, I’m an expert! Now, what manner of training involves knife-play and broken ribs, I wonder… What exactly are you preparing for, Brucie?”

“I’ve already answered your question,” Bruce said.

Jerome took a step back and shrugged. “Fair enough. Well, by all means…” he gestured for Bruce to ask his next question.

Jerome waited for it, knew what it would be before the words left Bruce’s lips.

“What is your real name?”

And there it was. The question he’d feared, but had anticipated for what felt like a lifetime.

“I think you already know,” Jerome answered.

“That’s not a proper answer,” Bruce said.

Jerome snickered. “Is this?” He dropped the towel to the floor, and grinned as Bruce drew a surprised breath. Bruce looked away like some innocent maiden—although he’d already seen more than enough—and Jerome laughed so hard he almost fell over. He wiped a tear from the corner of his eye.

“Aahh, you should’ve seen your face! Priceless!” He chuckled. “What’s wrong, Brucie? Surely you’ve seen another guy naked before?”

Bruce’s lack of reply only made it all the more fun. Jerome sighed happily.

“You know, it’s too bad we didn’t get the chance to finish what we started.”

Bruce turned to him, frowning. “Finish what?”

Jerome smiled. “Don’t tell me ya’ didn’t feel it? Funny what feelings can pop up when two people are crammed into a tiny space for ten minutes. One minute longer and you and me—we would have gotten better acquainted with each other. In a—should I say intimate manner?”

Bruce bit his lip, cheeks flushed bright pink. “J-just put on some damn clothes!” He grabbed one of the pillows off the couch and threw it to Jerome, who laughed at the gesture, catching it with one hand. He held the pillow in front of his crotch and gave a military salute.

“You got it, boss!” he said and went into his bedroom to change. He chose a dark green button-up shirt and some dark pants and went over to study himself in the speckled mirror. Jerome had taken Bruce’s advice and had refrained from re-dying his hair. In a few months’ time, his hair would be back to his own colour and he had to admit he was looking forward to it.

To his surprise, Bruce was still in the living room when he came back. He’d half-expected the flustered teen to flee the scene, but was pleasantly surprised that he hadn’t. The young billionaire had moved from his spot on the couch and moved over to look out through the window, as there wasn’t much else to look at in the apartment.

“How come you have no personal belongings? No pictures, no diplomas, not even a painting?” Bruce asked.

Jerome shrugged. “I prefer it like this.”

“But it’s so empty…like nobody lives here.”

Jerome clicked his tongue. “No, that’s where you’re wrong, Brucie! It’s the other way around. Anyone could live here. There’s nothing in this apartment that can categorize, limit, or confine me to social comprehension! I could be whoever I choose! This way, I can reinvent myself every day, as the person I want to be, rather than the person I used to be.”

Bruce gave him a strangely soft look. “Jack Napier is who you’ve chosen to become then?”

“Occasionally. I dabble a bit with other names every now and then. Just to keep things interesting,” Jerome admitted. “What about you, Brucie? This playboy persona you’re playing… we both know that’s not who you are. Who is the real Bruce Wayne?”

“I’m not sure,” Bruce said.

“Having a bit of an identity crisis, are ya’?”

Bruce smiled. “Something like that.”

“Well, do tell, I’m all ears!”

Bruce shook his head. “Maybe another time." His gaze swept over the naked walls. "What about your family?"

"What about my family?" 

"Do you have one?"

Jerome pursed his lips. "Wouldn't you like to know."

Bruce sighed. “For someone who enjoys talking as much as breathing, you are surprisingly reluctant to reveal any details about yourself,” he said. “Is there a reason for that?”

“Oh, except the criminal history, you mean?” He smiled. “It’s much more interesting this way, don’t ya’ think? Relationships are built on mystery and tension, wouldn’t you say?”

“I’d say they’re built on trust and honesty.”

Great. Two things that were a completely foreign concept to Jerome.

"That's boring!" exclaimed Jerome. "I mean, what's the point? Knowing everything about one another, being completely honest... where's the fun in that? What use would you have for someone who's already given you everything? Where would you go from there?"

"You'd exist together, knowing you are the only one in the world who knows everything about the other person. You'd share a bond that would be unbreakable with someone who accepts you for everything that you are. Instead of two, you'd be one."

Jerome fell silent for a long moment and Bruce made no attempt to lift the silence. He observed Jerome curiously, and Jerome liked the way Bruce's gaze felt on his skin. How it tickled his senses.

"You know, I think that might be the longest string of words I've ever heard you speak. Acceptance and co-existence, huh? Spoken like a true romantic," he said finally, and Bruce chuckled.

Jerome scratched the back of his head, suddenly feeling out of his element. He needed a distraction from the turmoil of butterflies wrecking havoc inside him. This game was starting to lose it's appeal... Bruce wasn't supposed to say those kinds of things. Wasn't supposed to look at him like that. With affection and curiosity rather than revulsion and suspicion. But he couldn't deny that he enjoyed the attention.

"Why does my identity matter so much to you, anyway?” Jerome asked after another couple of seconds of silence. His voice had taken on a soft tone that surprised even himself. 

Bruce smiled at him--one of those smiles he used to charm the ladies.

“Because I want to get to know you better. Mysteries can be fun and exciting, but sometimes you want more.”

Jerome raised an eyebrow, recognizing an opportunity to get his head back in the game.

“More?” he echoed, a smirk cutting through the mask of sincerity.

He sauntered over to Bruce, brushing away a stray lock of hair from Bruce’s face. He let his fingertips trail their way down the billionaire’s cheek and drew a line alongside Bruce's jaw. Bruce shuddered, but his face revealed nothing.

Jerome would have to do something about that poker face…

He leaned in closer, gaze straying from Bruce’s eyes to his lips.

“What more do you want, Brucie?”

Bruce backed into the window and winced as the glass panels rattled loudly. Jerome held back a snort. Now was not the time to poke fun at the billionaire—no matter how much it pained him not to.

Bruce tried to shrug it off, play it cool. “Just more. Friends don’t need to hide who they are from each other. They accept you, flaws and all.”

“Boy, aren’t you the righteous one. You’re saying my past doesn’t matter? Or does that acceptance only apply when it’s convenient for you?”

“Does mine affect the way you look at me?”

“Sure it does,” Jerome replied. “You’re a rich boy, who has everything in the world, yet can’t seem to appreciate it. Greed took your parents from you. And you’re hell-bent on bringing all those bad people to light, no matter what. You could have settled for your billions and lived your life, but instead you’ve chosen to become a martyr—to ruin your reputation for the sake of a city who will never do the same for you. You are a thick-headed fool, Bruce Wayne, but that’s why I like you.”

“This city deserves better. It needs a helping hand.”

“So you’ve told me…but is this charade really necessary? Why play dress-up, when you can make so much difference just by being you?”

Bruce thought it over. “What this city needs is a beacon. A symbol. Something larger than them. Fiercer and more terrifying than the criminals who haunt the back-alleys of Gotham. They need—“

“Batman?” Jerome filled in.

Bruce’s gaze shifted to a point outside the window and nodded. “Batman can become that symbol. Be what this city needs.”

“So you want to become their Dark Knight, is that it? Swoop in with your black armour and the night as your cloak and save the day?"

Bruce began to nod, then stopped himself. He looked at Jerome with a frown, and Jerome grinned back at him.

"What's wrong, Brucie? Oh, you didn't think you could fool me, now did ya'?"

"I'm not--" 

Jerome put a finger to Bruce’s lips. “Honesty is key, wasn’t it? I already know, Bat-boy. No need to fret about it.”

Bruce paled. "How did you know?"

“Look, it wasn’t hard to figure out. You might wanna watch out with whom you lower your guard with, Brucie. Not everyone's as understanding as I am. Can you imagine if the media caught scent of this? They would have a field day if they found out Gotham's favorite playboy spend his evenings knocking out teeth in spandex.”

Bruce said nothing, clenching his jaw anxiously. 

“Relax, Brucie, I’m not telling anyone! If it makes ya’ feel any better, I’ll tell you a secret too. Sound fair?"

"Tell me who you are."

"Now, I can't do that, it would be too easy! Besides, you already know! You just gotta figure it out."

"I don't know," Bruce said, his voice dropping a few octaves. "That's why I'm asking."

Jerome shivered. "So demanding, Bruce. Ever heard of asking nicely?"

Bruce glowered at him, anger flashing through his eyes now. My, how the wind changes...

"Ah, what the hell! I'll give you a hint. I was the flamboyant magician. You, my lovely assistant. That ought to get those old cogwells spinning!" He beamed a smile at Bruce. "The things I do for my favorite volunteer!"

Jerome could see the moment when it all clicked, when it all finally came together. Bruce stared at him, frozen in place. 

"But you're dead..." Bruce whispered.

"It's amazing what you can accomplish with a needle, an insane doctor, and the positive attitude of a former Maniac." He laughed. 

Bruce's eyes darkened, not sharing Jerome's humorous mood, and Jerome realized what was coming, bracing himself as Bruce grabbed him by his collar and pushed him up against the wall. I could get used to this, Jerome reflected briefly, until he met Bruce's gaze. Where had he been hiding all that anger?

"You threatened Alfred!" Bruce growled, and Jerome began to understand why all those thugs shrunk at the mention of Batman. To have that unhinged rage directed at him was as frightening as it was exhilarating. 

"I might have...a little bit," Jerome said innocently.

"You pointed a gun to his face!"

"Okay, you got me. I did! We've all made our mistakes, right, Brucie?"

Bruce pressed his arm over Jerome's throat, not enough to cut off his air, but definitely enough pressure for Jerome to have difficulty swallowing. 

"You're really him," Bruce said, nose crinkled in disgust. 

"The one and only," Jerome said. "I guess this means our dinner plans are cancelled?"

Bruce snarled, pushing down over Jerome's throat with renewed force. 

"Thought you said friendship is about acceptance?" Jerome gritted out. He shouldn't feel upset--this was what he'd been waiting for! This reaction, that look of anger and disgust on Bruce's face... that was what this game had been all about, hadn't it? To play the boy for a fool and laugh in his face! But Jerome wasn't smiling. He didn't feel like laughing. He felt furious.

"You're not my friend, Jerome," Bruce spat. "You're a lunatic who kills people. You belong in Arkham."

Jerome dug his nails into Bruce's arm, nostrils flaring in anger. "I'm the lunatic?" He scraped Bruce's skin, drawing blood. 

Bruce hissed and let go. 

"You're the one playing masquerade and beating up criminals for your holier-than-thou ideals! You're the one talkin' honesty and acceptance and trust!"

"How can I trust someone who wouldn't hesitate to hurt my friends? I don't understand how I couldn't see it until now, but it's really obvious! All this time you've just been stringing me along like some pet to amuse you. To keep around for your entertainment."

Jerome couldn't stand it any longer. His nerve endings were set aflame by Bruce's words, acid burning through his veins. He clenched his trembling fingers into fists and turned to go.

"You're not going anywhere," Bruce said. 

Jerome shot a glance at him over his shoulder. Bruce looked like an animal ready to pounce, to take him down like Jerome was just another thug. He felt all the anger pour out from him and smiled coldly as Bruce faltered in his resolve and nearly took a step back.

"Are you going to stop me?" Jerome asked, in a tone that was too light and sweet for his current mood. He grabbed the knife on the kitchen counter and twirled the handle playfully. "By all means, Batman, arrest me."

Jerome wasn't sure what he wanted. Part of him wanted Bruce to fight him--to hurt him, the other wanted to run across the room and stab Bruce in the heart. But the strongest part calling out to him was the impulse to manhandle Bruce onto the couch and kiss the billionaire like he'd never been kissed before. But neither of those would suffice to damper his anger now.

Bruce didn't make a move; he remained resigned to the open valve leading into the kitchen, watching Jerome with an expression of betrayal and hurt. He wasn't Batman anymore, but Bruce Wayne, looking like he'd caught his best friend cheating with his girlfriend. Jerome didn't waste Bruce's temporary hesitation.

He slipped the knife into his pocket, grabbed his coat, and opened the door. He grabbed the apartment keys and threw them to Bruce, who caught them by reflex. "Keep them. I don't need 'em anymore."

With that said, he left Bruce to his stunned expression and slammed the door behind him on his way out, running through the Narrows without a destination. He kept running, gaining as much distance between himself and Bruce as he could. 

The rain kept falling, soaking into his clothes and bones. He took refuge in an abandoned playground, holding the knife in his hands, looking at his reflection in the shiny metal--the only thing in his apartment that wasn't old, rotten, or claimed by rust or mold. His reflection stared back at him, eyes red and irritated, his mouth pressed into a serious line. 

So many uncontrollable emotions surged through his being, every cell in his body stuck in an endless cycle of imploding and rebuilding. There was something seriously wrong with him. He ran his hands through his hair, digging his fingers into his scalp, and laughed into his arms. The pain from his nails grounded him somewhat, but couldn't hinder the disease that spread through him--the chemical defect burning him inside and out. 

This had never happened before. He snapped his head back and howled with laughter, and not even the rain could drown it out. He laughed and laughed until his voice cracked, and continued to wheeze for another couple of minutes. What is wrong with me? 

Jerome was a mess and he couldn't even blame Bruce for it. This was his own damn fault, getting himself invested like a fool...

He'd fallen in love. 

 

 

Chapter Text

Jerome kept his hands firmly on the steering wheel, glaring daggers at the road laid out in front of him. The car was a vintage model--an old chevy if he wasn't mistaken--and was owned by an older gentleman, the type who cherished his car more than his wife. Well, he had owned it, up until ten minutes ago when Jerome had ‘confiscated’ it from his care. 

He paid no mind to traffic rules or the pedestrians trying to cross the street, and didn't even crack a smile at how they had to throw themselves to the sidewalk to avoid being run over. Usually this would have amused him, surely, but he was not in the mood for fun. He was furious!

He’d spent nearly two hours going between laughing and scolding himself for the turmoil inside his head. Bruce Wayne, he thought bitterly. It was all his fault.

Jerome was all about fun and games! He wasn’t supposed to feel dangerous little things like affection and he certainly wasn't supposed to sit moping around in some abandoned playground in the downpour and shiver with longing to see those pretty blue eyes again. Not to mention he wasn't supposed to feel ill while recalling the judgement those particular eyes had placed on him. Hell, he wasn't supposed to care! Opinions or judgement had never bothered him before, why would one boy's disappointment affect him like this? 

Love? Really? He'd thought he'd been crazy before, but this was just unbelievable! He'd fallen in love? Him? He, who could kill without flinching, who smiled in the face of death, and who welcomed pain like an old friend!

Pa-thet-ic.

Is this what he'd been reduced to? A lovesick mess? He'd been the terror, the very fabric of nightmares for the citizens of Gotham, and the inspiration for the criminals lurking in the dark of its streets. Now, what was left of him? Nobody barely remembered him anymore, or at least they didn't immediately recognize him in the street--hell, even Bruce, who'd been allowed in closer proximity than anyone since Jeanie, hadn't even seen it! And their first meeting had been borderline traumatic! Was this all he was destined for? To be a memory, a passing story, diluted over time, to that of a teenage boy who murdered his mom, like so many others had before him... nothing more, nothing less.

His hands tightened around the wheel, knuckles whitening from the force of his grip. No. That's not my story.

Unable to force this sickening feeling of warmth from his system, Jerome had settled on putting blame where blame was due. Rich-boy had a lot to answer for…oh, yes. Sweet revenge was the only thing keeping his focus as he raced through the streets of Gotham.

How dare Brucie-boy make him feel like this?! Dull his senses with sweet promises, encourage honesty and trust and then throw it back in his face when he gave just that!

Damned little brat. 

He’d planned to pay Bruce a little visit… after all, he’d been invited for dinner. Now, what kind of guest would he be if he didn’t show up?

He'd march straight in and put on a show the Wayne household would not soon forget!

If only it had been that easy…

Jerome left the car one block away, walking the rest of the way to the mansion to keep his visit off the radar. He wouldn't want to ruin the surprise!

On his way to Wayne Manor, Jerome decided against entering through the front door and instead he chose to sneak around the back of the house, climbing up on the balcony where they'd met that night of Bruce's grand soirée. Thinking back on it, Bruce looked damn fine in a tuxedo.  The way it had been tailored to follow the lines of his body to perfection and curved down his--Jerome slapped his cheeks, bringing himself back to the present. No time to waste, I've got a dinner to get to and a billionaire to beat senseless!

He tried the glass door, finding it unlocked. All he had to do was sneak inside, sit down at the dinner table, wave his gun a little to get their attention, threaten to blow the butler's brains and Viola! Two birds—or would that be one bird and one bat?—with one stone. He'd have them both exactly where he wanted them; completely at his mercy. Bruce would do anything to keep Jeeves safe, that much he knew. Oh, the possibilities! Should he make the boy pull of his nails, one by one? Break his knee? Or maybe they could just cut to the chase and go straight to dessert?

Bruce was in his power. All he needed to do was to burst in through the door and be his usual persuading self!

Yet as Jerome caught a glimpse of billionaire-boy passing by, impeccably dressed as always and with a sullen look on his face, Jerome couldn’t bring his body to action. He growled inwardly at his indecisiveness, at the tightening of his chest and the excitement stirring inside him.

Seeing Bruce brought back the memory of that hateful, disgusted stare—a part of Jerome had thought Bruce would be different, that he'd understand Jerome's darkness and see it for what it was, rather than dismiss him as a freak. But in the end Brucie’d proven to be just like everyone else.

Predictable. Boring.

But there was more to discover beneath the surface and Jerome kept that flicker of hope close to him, nourishing it by thoughts of all the fun left to be had. He'd bring out the fun in Brucie again! Bruce Wayne had a secret, one that Jerome was certain not many of his fellow Gothamites could add to their résumé.

Bruce is Batman. The thought kept him rooted to the more reasonable part of his mind, because if he was to reach the real Bruce down under all that terrible acting, he'd have to dig a lot deeper, and for that he needed a plan. Batman was as much part of Bruce as insanity--or genius, as Jerome considered it, was part of him. To get to the billionaire, he'd first have to ensnare the bat.

Their last encounter had left Jerome with a clarity that was unwanted and unlike him. In that moment when Jerome realized how he—or at least his unconscious mind—felt for Bruce, he’d felt ordinary, maybe for the first time in his life. He hadn’t known he was capable of emotion in that aspect, but apparently his body had different ideas…

Since their little reunion at Wayne Manor, Jerome had felt nothing short of fascination and adoration for the boy, but back there in that playground he’d truly hated him. For turning him into someone he wasn’t. For burdening him with the curse of sanity and all the pain and bothersome thoughts that accompany it. 

He wanted nothing more than to make Bruce pay for that cruelty.

Bruce had made him soft, dulled his brilliance and stolen all his motivation, his vision! What was he doing, hiding in the shadows, playing house with a nineteen-year old? He could go inside and wring Bruce’s neck and be done with it, but that would be too easy a victory, and Jerome would need something far more devious to satisfy his need for vengeance. And knowing the boy’s secret, he knew he'd found the perfect way to go about his revenge.

The Wayne boy would pay, but not here, not now…

Soon, he promised himself.

He caught a glimpse of Jeeves across the room and watched as the billionaire and the butler engaged in a conversation, finding it hard to tear his gaze from them. He wished he could hear what they were saying—where they talking about him? Had Bruce told Jeeves what had happened? Surely he must have, the two were rarely apart. Did Jeeves know where Bruce spent his nights? Where and how he definitely didn't spend them? Someone as loyal as Jeeves was bound to support all his employer's suicidal whims.

Jerome’s finger trembled with the need to push open the door and join them, but he had to resist the impulse, reel it in and lock it down inside him. He’d had some practice with Jeanie, seeing how their relationship would’ve become quite difficult to maintain if he’d given in to his impulses and killed her by accident. Actually, Jeanie reminded a lot of Bruce. She'd been headstrong and determined and absolutely clueless about every ill intention in the world… then again, with Bruce being Batman there was always a chance the billionaire realized more about the world around him than he let on.

He knows how corrupt everyone is, how easy they give in to their selfish whims and desires, how fast they’d give him up in return for money or fame…and still he saves them. Protects them. Believes in them.

So why couldn’t he believe in me?

The thought popped up before he had a chance to smother it. He reprimanded his brain for straying from the task at hand, biting down on his lip hard enough to bruise. Perhaps he really was better off just killing the brat right now; it would spare him a lot of time and effort. But it would be such a waste of potential, he reasoned, bringing his bloodlust down to a manageable level again. Jerome gave a frustrated groan and pushed away from the door.

No, he wouldn't kill the billionaire. That would be far too kind a punishment. And he also couldn't face Bruce like this; first he'd need to improve himself. Become the terror that haunted Bruce's every waking thought, become Bruce's nightmare as he'd been the nightmare for so many others. Madness and death, eh? He wondered what daddy-dearest would think about all this. The old fart had been right; he did have a legacy. And he'd wasted too much time neglecting it for Brucie... but he'd never shied from mixing business with pleasure. Why worry about eating or not eating the cookie when you can just rob the bakery, right? Perhaps his legacy and Bruce didn't necessarily have to be two separate things entirely. He'd make up his own rules, as he always did.

Before any of that, however, he needed to become someone worthy to hold Gotham’s attention again. It seemed like Jack Napier would have to contact some old friends…

And so he did the only thing his mind and body would allow him to do; he turned his back on Wayne Manor and didn’t look back. 


 Bruce’s eyes snapped open and he straightened up in his chair, having almost dozed off for the thirtieth time in the past two hours. Lucius shot him a knowing glance, a small smile on his lips, and Bruce smiled back, feeling a little embarrassed for being caught falling asleep. Again.

The rest of the board members of Wayne Enterprises probably assumed he’d stayed out late to party, to add another model or celebrity to his list of conquests, but not Lucius. Well, the board members weren’t completely wrong, Bruce supposed. He’d stayed out late, true, but it wasn’t the line of ladies queuing for a chance to get a date that compelled him to stay awake through the night and past the break of dawn, but the vast number of criminals waiting in line for their turn to outsmart the Batman.

Last night he’d chased Edward Nygma, also known as the Riddler, across town, solving riddle after riddle. Bruce hated riddles. Just like he hated the polite smiles and feigned friendliness that surrounded him. It was a tedious theatre that never ended… nobody said what they actually meant. Always hiding behind masks—at least Batman was upfront about hiding who he was. The people in this very room, save Lucius, were all wearing masks of friendly intentions, but in reality they thought Bruce a burden on the company and wanted him gone, to be left to run this company however they wished, without some playboy’s interference. Bruce met their falsehood with his own; he was, after all, not billionaire-Bruce-Wayne. At least not the one portrayed in media.

He glanced out through the glass-wall of windows, giving a soft sigh. A blanket of heavy clouds had lingered over the skies of Gotham City for the past three days, and didn’t seem to be lifting anytime soon. Moisture clung to the window, holding the promise of rain. By the looks of it, there would be quite the downpour. As predicted, the rain soon began falling, drowning out everything outside, blurring the world from his view. When was the last time Gotham had experienced rain like this?

That time… it was raining, too.

Bruce turned his attention to the executive who was still talking, but despite his half-hearted attempt to steer his brain away from recalling that day, he couldn’t shake the image of those emerald eyes glaring at him. Jerome had been so angry. Bruce had been genuinely frightened for a moment—Jerome had looked ready to kill him. But he didn't. Bruce had gone through the events leading up to that point a thousand times, trying to make sense of it all.

He could’ve killed me. He had a knife, I was unarmed, and he is definitely capable enough to harm me.

Instead, the lunatic had stormed out, wearing an expression of utter betrayal that Bruce would never have expected to see on someone like Jerome. He'd thought that all of Jack had been nothing but an act, a humanity that Jerome did not otherwise possess. Had he been mistaken?

Jerome didn’t make the slightest of sense. And at the same time he did.

Bruce didn’t know if he wanted to delve into it too deep, scared he’d find … answers. Actual answers. Something that would explain Jerome’s nature, give him an excuse, a shred of hope that there was at least a part of their friendship that had been true. Bruce shouldn’t pry too much, he should remain objective, like Batman. Jerome was just another criminal, wasn’t he? He shouldn’t wonder about him, shouldn’t try to make excuses for him. He shouldn’t consider Jerome a human, but rather another prey on his nightly hunt. Yet here he was, unable to stop himself, but how could he not? 

That look on Jerome’s face had left him feeling hollow and dirty, like he’d done something terrible and unforgivable.

Jerome had been furious. But not in the way Bruce would expect from someone who was insane, no, Jerome had been offended. Offended Bruce would diminish everything they’d built at the flip of a coin. Bruce knew this, because he’d felt something similar. How could Jerome have lied about this? He was the one who’d ruined everything. Jerome had used him, laughed behind his back—Jerome was the one at fault! So why did Bruce feel so guilty? Over and over and over, he thought about it. He couldn’t stop!

For the past four months—had it really been four months, already?—Jerome had been the constant thing on Bruce’s mind. The first thought as he woke—a whisper on his lips—and the last before he fell asleep. Intentionally or not, Jerome had invaded his life and Batman’s too.

Sitting crouched on top of a stone gargoyle, overlooking his city, he would watch the streets below, part of him hoping and dreading that his eye would fall upon the former Maniac. Maybe as he fell into old habits, killing people, doing errands for the mob, or perhaps on his back in an alley somewhere, bleeding out in the shadows. 

Bruce shuddered at the thought. Neither of those options did anything to ease his mind, and the latter was something he didn’t even want to consider, despite being the most believable reason for Jerome’s strange radio-silence. There had been no signs, or whispers, or rumours. Nothing to indicate where he was or if he was alive.

Bruce closed his eyes and a pair of vivid emerald stared back at him through the darkness of his eyelids, forever seared into his mind. For a guy who could never stop smiling, that look had been void of humour. If it hadn’t been directed at Bruce, he was certain it would’ve been a death-sentence.

 Jerome’s reaction had to mean he had considered Bruce a friend? No, Jerome didn’t really have friends, did he? A partner in crime, then? A rival? Jerome’s behaviour did suggest he held at least a sliver of respect for Bruce, seeing as how he’d let him live.

Bruce had half-expected Jerome to show up for dinner, despite what had happened, just to rub salt in his wounds, mock him in front of Alfred. A dangerous impulse in Bruce’s brain had wanted him to. Bruce had waited and waited in that murky, water-damaged apartment for hours. But Jerome had not returned.

Bruce should’ve expected as much—Jerome had left him the key, stating his leave wasn’t temporary. Jerome’s message had been clear; he was not coming back, and yet Bruce had refused to believe it. Jerome was the kind of person who lived for people’s reactions, to provoke and prod at their insecurities until they snapped. He did it to ease his boredom, used people like toys, only to dispose of them afterwards. Bruce had to keep that knowledge close to him, to shield his naïve and gullible heart. This was not something he should forgive.

When the meeting was finally over and adjourned, Bruce wasted no time to make an excuse to leave. He exchanged a few friendly words with Lucius and took the opportunity to ask him to make a few improvements to the latest version of the Bat-suit.

Bruce occupied his traitorous mind with another chase, another criminal. To his dismay, the hunt lasted for a mere thirty minutes and the group of thugs almost gave up immediately at the sight of him, offering no distraction or opposition in the slightest. It seemed word of Batman's recent mood swings had travelled around. His beatdowns had gotten more ferocious, his mind more apt to anger, and rather than his usual approach--where he took the thugs out of the game with a chokehold or the calculated breakage of bones, he'd resorted to reckless brawls with several thugs at once, just to occupy his mind with someone else than Jerome. 

These thugs had gotten in a few hits though, catching Batman off guard as he’d debated whether or not Jerome was capable of feeling fear—if he’d ever looked at anyone the way the thugs grasping their broken limbs looked at Batman. Batman's hesitation had earned him a hard blow to his jaw and he could feel the bruise blooming where iron had hit bone.

Batman lingered for a while more than necessary, hoping to catch sight of a newer and better prey, but his hunger for violence had chased the rest of them off for the night, giving them an excuse to postpone their unsavoury activities for another day. Even criminals take vacation, huh? Batman thought sourly.

Calm was the last thing he wanted tonight. Tonight, he wanted thunder and pain and an outlet for the frustration surging through him with a life of its own.

But nobody would step up to the task, so Batman returned to the Batcave, slumping down in front of the many computer screens.

Alfred came to join him only moments later, carrying a first-aid-kit in one hand, and a tray of food in the other. Prepared for everything, as always, Bruce thought. He dismissed the tray of food with a wave and Alfred gave him a disapproving look, then put the tray down on the desk should his charge change his mind.

“Uneventful night?” Alfred asked.

Bruce nodded.

“I would think that’s a good thing, Master Bruce.”

"It is a good thing," Bruce said without enthusiasm.

Alfred glanced down at Bruce’s jaw and raised an eyebrow. “Not completely uneventful, after all, it seems. May I ask what happened?”

Bruce grunted, but didn't answer the question, embarrassed and furious at himself for letting his guard down. 

"Since you won't grace me with an answer, sir, I'm assuming you were too distracted by other things to pay attention to your opponent." Alfred's voice took on an irritated tone. "And this isn't the first time; you've gotten sloppier by the day. Penguin's goons last week, a burglar the week before that... all fights you could've both avoided and won quite easily. And then the other night, if not for your young recruit, Master Dick, this Nygma character would have had electrocuted you."

"I would've been fine. He shouldn't have come. I told him to stay behind."

Alfred gave a frustrated sigh, crossing his arms. 

"I've put up with all this reckless nonsense, Master Bruce, because I thought that perhaps if you had an outlet of sorts, you'd abreact and return to your senses. But I see now that this violent crusade only makes it worse. I will not leave you to your own devices any longer. I'm sure Master Dick feels the same way."

Bruce frowned, but remained silent, and Alfred wasted no time to fill the silence. "I've kept my mouth shut, I've watched you return bloody and beaten, but I've never strayed from your side--I've supported your foolish errands, no matter how dangerous. But this--the way you've been behaving--is unacceptable! Are you serious about saving Gotham, Master Bruce?"

"Yes, of course," Bruce replied instantly. That's why he did what he did, that's the whole reason Batman existed.

"Then you should act like it! How many lives can you save when you lie at the bottom of the ocean or in an alley somewhere because you were too distracted to dodge a bullet? You don't have to do this alone. You have me and Master Dick. You recruited him for a reason, didn't you? We're here to help you."

"I'm fine on my own," Bruce muttered.

"Are you? And this up and coming gang you've been investigating recently, how well has that been going? For all the nights you've spent fighting and coming home black and blue, what do you have to show for it?"

"I've been interrogating their contacts and known members, pressing them for information," Bruce replied, not really answering the question. 

"Interrogation requires that the one being interrogated remains conscious," Alfred shot back, catching Bruce off guard. "I know you're angry, Bruce. I know this whole ordeal has been messing with your head something fierce. I know you care for him, even if you will never admit to it. When you wear the mask, you cannot bring your troubles with you. You said it yourself, sir: Batman is a symbol--a beacon of hope! If you're truly serious about being their saviour, you will have to commit whole-heartedly. Batman must go on, even when Bruce Wayne cannot, isn't that what you told me?"

Bruce swallowed, throat tightening. He had said that, yes. He'd believed it too. But at the moment he couldn't tell either of his personas apart. He'd neglected work more than usually, cancelled his dates, and spent most of his time staring into the screens of the batcave, looking for the tiniest of clues to what had become of Jerome Valeska or Jack Napier. 

"If this is just a game, sir, then end it now. Return to your life. Be a proper Wayne again. Take back Wayne Enterprises completely and run it the way it should've been from the start. Change the city the right way."

"This is not a game!" Bruce persisted. "Being Batman is the only way I can protect Gotham."

"Then get off your bloody arse and stop sulkin' about! You didn't want that boy in your life and now he isn't! What is the problem?!" Alfred shouted suddenly. He cleared his throat, composing his furious features, and added, "Sir," as an afterthought. 

Bruce stared at him in shock. He couldn't remember the last time he'd seen Alfred so angry. Maybe not even when he was a child... the man had the patience of an angel and it seemed Bruce had used it all up. Alfred adjusted his waistcoat and continued in a more conversational manner. 

“Mind my phrasing, but you’re acting like a spoiled brat," he said. "You said you were done with him, and yet you're moping around like any other heartbroken teenager! I offered my help, didn't I? I told you I'd look for him, to at least talk to him so you'd get some closure on this matter, but you're as stubborn as a donkey's arse, aren't you, Master Bruce?"

Bruce shot his butler a glare. "Why are you so eager to help me anyway? He's a criminal. A mentally unstable one at that. And he threatened you, Alfred, that's not something I can easily forgive."

"And you shouldn't. What he did in the past was not all right, but it is in the past, Master Bruce. You if anyone should know that being decent isn't something you're born with; it's a choice. He can make that choice. Perhaps he will. Perhaps he won't," Alfred said, not wanting Bruce to get his hopes up too much. "But as I see it you have two alternatives here; either you move on and forget about him, or you accept him for all that he is."

"Alfred," Bruce said softly, his irritation deflated by the wisdom of his butler's words. Alfred was right. He'd neglected his responsibilities because he was too busy wondering about Jerome's whereabouts. If he was even alive. Closure was something they could both agree that he needed. Even more so, Bruce needed to rid himself of the guilt he was feeling.

He hadn't want to think about it, but now that Alfred brought it up, he couldn't avoid the subject any longer. Hadn't he promised Jerome he would hear his side of the story before judging him? That being a criminal didn't matter to him? Well, shit. This was all his fault, wasn't it? 

Jerome, despite his past, despite holding a knife and being angry enough to use it, hadn't tried to hurt him. He hadn't acted like Jerome, he'd been acting like Bruce would have expected of Jack. But Jack didn't exist, only Jerome did. Or was it more complicated than that? 

Either way, Jack and Jerome was not two different people but two different sides of one individual. 

Bruce, being both Bruce and Batman, did not want people to judge him based on his playboy persona, even though it was necessary they did. But if he'd had a choice, he'd like to be himself... the disciplined warrior and the orphan boy with a heart of gold. 

Damn it. What a hypocrite he was. 

His reaction was justified, Jerome had killed people, after all, but he shouldn't have let it end like that. He understood what Alfred meant. 

If he was only Batman, he should've handed the maniac over to the police. But if he, as Bruce Wayne, truly considered Jerome as a friend, he should've gone after him and resolved this mess months ago. He didn't want to admit it, but he'd been too afraid to do either.

Afraid because he cared too much for this man, because he didn't want to see that look on Jerome's face knowing he'd caused it. Because, no matter how much he tried to fight it, he felt things for Jerome that he hadn't felt in ages...

"You're right," Bruce admitted at last, noticing how Alfred's eyebrows shot up in surprise.

A small smile curved on the butler's lips. "Well, you can say that again, Master B."

Bruce shook his head, but smiled despite himself. "It's true what they say about old age and wisdom."

"Careful now, Master Bruce," Alfred warned. "You wouldn't want a matching bruise on the opposite cheek, now would you?"

Bruce chuckled. "Certainly not." He sighed. "Thanks, Alfred. For your guidance."

"Always, sir."

Bruce nodded and rose from the chair. "I'm going to sleep. Tomorrow I'll ask Robin to accompany me."

"At last, some sense," Alfred said, relieved to see Bruce more like himself. 

 

Chapter Text

Bruce had taken Alfred's advice and brought Robin with him—to the younger's sheer delight. Unfortunately for Robin, it was a short-lived joy soon crushed as Bruce ordered him to remain outside to keep a look-out. Bruce told him he would signal Robin if need be, and the fourteen-year-old gave him an incredulous stare. Bruce stared him down, and Robin gave a frustrated sigh. Dick was capable for his age, but he was still only a boy. Bruce wouldn’t put him in danger unless it was truly necessary, at least not yet. Not without proper training. No, Batman could handle this. 

He surveyed the area from the roof of a warehouse. No guards. The first bad sign...He knew these docks to be the most frequented of the secretive and criminal. A recent revelation (brought to light by blooded knuckles and a rather frightened henchman) had revealed it was now the preferred hideout of the Red Hood gang. They'd resurfaced over the past few months, coming out of the woodwork and causing all kinds of trouble. But not in the deliberate cleverness and theatrics of The Riddler, or the more unnoticeable underground dealings of Barbara. No, this was something far more ominous...

The front doors to the Red Hood warehouse were ajar, muted light bleeding into the night. It didn't feel right. Open doors and no guards? It was too obvious, too much like an invitation. Anxiety twisted inside him, coiling in his abdomen like a restless snake. Gotham's criminals had a certain flair for drama, but he had a sinking feeling about this one. He counted down anyone who might be involved with the Red Hood gang, but the gang kept to themselves and others kept away from them. They'd gained a reputation since they'd made their comeback. A rather ruthless one, at that.

They used to rob banks, now they trashed stores, brutalized the personnel, and left the merchandise. What was the purpose of leaving everything of value behind? To intimidate? It boiled down to new leadership and new values, Bruce guessed. But who? What kind of leader could justify all that loss of profit? Their heists seemed so… random. Last week they’d hijacked a buss full of church-goers and drove it into Gotham River, and four days ago they’d blown up an old apartment building. It didn’t add up. But if terror and paranoia was the desired effect, it had worked wonders on the civilians.

Looking closer, turning on the night vision in his lenses (a much appreciated courtesy of Lucius Fox), Bruce could see that the doors had been painted with green arrows. Definitely an invitation then… the anxiety resurfaced, but he pushed it down behind his Batman persona, letting the darkness shroud him from view. He blended into the night, the black of his bat suit gleaming only slightly as he hopped off the roof and landed in between two warehouses. He glanced up to the edge of the roof, relieved that Robin didn’t come after him. Thank the maker for small mercies, at least. He had no idea what to expect beyond those green-painted doors. Whatever he was walking into, it couldn’t be good.

There were no guards waiting on the other side of the doors. Just an eerie silence. 

More arrows pointed to the core of the warehouse, but Bruce was not so stupid to walk straight in through the main entrance. He made his way around the building, grappled up on the roof. He peered into a window at the room beneath him, mouth souring as he spotted three hostages bound together in a circle. Having looked around and finding no hostile criminals—though he was sure they were lurking about somewhere—he climbed in through the window and jumped down. He landed almost soundlessly, the cape falling to his sides as he straightened up in the dimly-lit room.

His entrance was met by applause. He swung around, searching for signs of movement through the night vision lenses. Then someone flipped the light-switch, and Bruce was temporarily blinded.

A cackling laugh rang out through the room, echoing off the empty spaces and high walls. Bruce froze. He’d recognize that laugh anywhere. It still haunted his dreams. He turned off the night vision and glanced up at the second floor. Ice turned over his stomach. 

Jerome leaned over the railing on the second floor, waving a gun in the air with light-hearted playfulness. He beamed at Bruce with a derisive grin that was too stretched to be natural. “My, you do know how to make an entrance, Bat-boy! A for dramatic effect, even if you could’ve just used the front door. I did leave it open, you know.” He tilted his head to the side. “Miss me?”

Bruce remained frozen in place, the pieces of the puzzle falling into place. He hadn’t seen Jerome since that rainy day, and it had been on his mind ever since. Not a night went by out on the dark streets of Gotham where he didn’t expect to run into him, but he never had. He’d thought Jerome had left Gotham for good, even presumed him dead. There hadn’t been a whisper of him, and someone like Jerome did not go unnoticed anywhere… well, unless he wanted to. That was a scary thought. Jerome enjoyed the spotlight. For someone craving so much attention to disappear (even out of reach of Batman’s resources and contacts) could only mean it had been on purpose. Part of a plan. For this.

God, he wished this was a dream, but he knew it wasn’t.

This was karma.

The tension filled the space around them. Jerome stirred, clicking his tongue disapprovingly.

“Well, don’t just stand there, Bats—this is a joyous occasion! Friends, reunited. Smile, why don’t ya?”

Bruce didn’t smile. He squared his shoulders, eyes darting to the corners of the warehouse, looking for more Red Hoods. “What are you doing here?” he asked, when he would rather have asked, is this where you’ve been? It would sound like he’d wondered about Jerome, and he had (way too much), but Jerome did not need to know that.

Jerome pointed to himself. "Oh, who? Me?” The grin spread wider, if that was even possible. “Isn't it obvious?" He swept out with his arms. "I’m expanding! I’ve realized it’d be selfish to keep my talents to myself, so I recruited these lovely delinquents!”

At that, a stream of red hooded men and women came pouring out of the other room, surrounding Bruce in a manner of seconds. “You shoulda seen 'em before I got here! No vision, not even the most basic understanding of performance!”

Bruce glanced at the henchmen surrounding him, nine of them, noting with dread how young some of them were. Some no more than twelve, holding weapons too heavy for them. Had Jerome recruited them off the streets with the promise of food and shelter, a place to belong? No, that’s what Bruce had offered Dick. It wasn’t the same thing, he told himself. Dick had asked to be part of this.

Knowing Jerome, it was more likely fear that motivated his followers, or perhaps even hate. Hate of the city that had shunned and abandoned them, of the elite sitting safely tucked away in their glass towers, while they were left at the mercy of men like Jerome.

Disdain pulled down the corners of his mouth, gaze flicking from the hostages to Jerome. “Let them go.”

“No can do, Bat-wonder.”

Bruce sighed, his patience dwindling and his uneasiness rising. “Why are you doing this?”

Jerome chuckled. “Well, we can’t have a party without guests, now can we? And who better to attend than Gotham’s finest? You’ll fit right in, Bats.”

“Let them go,” Bruce growled.

“You’re free to untie them,” Jerome offered. “I won’t stop you.”

Bruce didn’t believe that for a second, but he picked out a baterang and cut through the ropes around their wrists. The hostages, free from their confines, didn’t move from the spot. They all seemed unnaturally pale, tremors shaking their bodies, eyes strained and bloodshot. 

He turned back to Jerome, whose teeth gleamed as he smiled. “What did you do to them?”

Jerome placed a hand on his chest in mock-innocence. “Me? I didn’t do anything to them. I just gave them a little incentive, is all. You know, it’s funny how accommodating people become with a few well-placed explosives!” He barked a laugh, and picked up a small device from his pocket—the detonator, Bruce guessed.

Bruce moved to get his grapple gun, but Jerome tsked, pointing the gun at the hostages. Bruce hesitated. The Red Hoods kept their weapons trained at Batman, ready to fire at command. Bruce wondered why Jerome hadn’t issued the order to shoot him already, but then he supposed the former Maniac must have something worse in store for him. Was that was it was all about? Revenge? It would make sense. Jerome did seem the person to hold grudges, and Bruce knew he’d been in the wrong, but then he supposed he had also been right: Jerome was back at it again, returning to crime as easily as breathing.

Had his prejudices really been so unwarranted? Didn’t this prove exactly why Bruce had reacted the way he did? The thought offered a building resolve. Jerome had kidnapped people to lay a trap for him, he’d gone so far as to become the leader of the Red Hood gang. He was a criminal. Bruce was Batman. That’s all there was to it. Another deluded mad-man asking for a ticket to Arkham. Batman would gladly provide it.

“Stop this. Now,” his voice sank into his Batman growl and he straightened up, confident despite the guns pointing to his face. Jerome wouldn’t let them shoot him. Not like this. He’d been planning this for a while, he would want to enjoy it. To Jerome’s disadvantage, he dwelled too much on anticipation, creating a performance, building up to some terrible crescendo. But Batman wouldn’t let it come to that. He’d end this show long before the third act.

Jerome smiled. “Doesn't it hurt your throat to use that voice? Must put quite the strain on those pretty lil' vocal chords of yours."

"Jerome," Bruce warned. "Let. them. go. Now."

"Now, why would I do that? They're my insurance!"

“Why are you doing this?” he asked again, even though he knew it was futile trying to reason with him. He was stalling, thinking of how to best diffuse this situation. It’d be tricky to get out of here without a fight—Jerome surely looked like he wanted one. But Bruce wanted to avoid it if possible.

Jerome shrugged. “Who cares?”

“I do,” Bruce replied.

Jerome fell silent, his jaw moving as if he was grinding his teeth. Then he threw his head back and laughed, a high-pitched chilling laugh. “Of course you do. Well, what do you say? Let’s get this party started!”

At that, the henchmen attacked. They didn’t fire, but the guns were decent for bludgeoning if aimed at the right place. Some came at him with baseball bats, but he was quick, disarming one after the other. They may carry weapons, but they were no fighters, had no training. In the end, they were all just kids swinging bats without a clear purpose, and Bruce was trained to handle a lot worse.

It was almost too easy. His hits were carefully directed, with enough force to discourage further fighting, but not enough for permanent damage. The butt of a gun hit him on the side of the head, rattling his senses. They had numbers on their side, at least, and a distracted fighter—no matter how good—could be defeated if one of them got a decent enough blow.

Then the room plunged into darkness. Robin. It had to be. For once, he was glad Robin hadn’t stayed away, though he would definitely scold him for the interference anyway. Out of principle, if nothing else.

The henchmen continued the assault, grabbing for him, but finding only each other. Bruce dodged, turning the night vision back on.

He looked around for Jerome, but he was gone.

Robin came into the warehouse from a side-door. He helped Bruce disarm the rest of the henchmen, using the ropes to tie them up, while Bruce radioed the GCPD of their whereabouts. Robin was put-out for being told to stay behind, again, insisting that he could be useful—hell, he’d already been useful tonight. But Bruce didn’t waver. Jerome was unpredictable, and he wasn’t one to hesitate.

Bruce didn’t really want to admit it, but in a one-on-one fight with Jerome, Robin would be more of a liability than an asset. Even if he had been an asset, Bruce knew he'd still want to do this on his own. This was between him and Jerome.

And so he told Robin to stay and tend to the hostages. Neither of them were bomb experts—they’d have to wait for the bomb squad, but Bruce insisted the company would be more than sufficient help.


 

He caught up with Jerome in an alley a few blocks away. Jerome was a fast runner, but Batman had wings. He glided down into the alley, landing in front of Jerome, cutting off his escape route. He kicked Jerome backwards and watched him tumble to the ground. There was an unnerving crack as Jerome’s hand caught most of the fall, but Jerome laughed.

“Come on, Brucie. You’re not even trying!” he teased.

Bruce ignored him, looking for the gun. It had slid into the shadows, out of sight. But that didn’t stop Jerome.

With frightening speed, Jerome swept out with his hand and a knife flew past Bruce’s cowl and lodged itself into the wall behind him. Jerome came at him, another knife already at his disposal. Where was he hiding them? The knife grazed Bruce’s cheek, splitting the skin open. He hissed, retaliating with a kick to the shins. He chopped Jerome’s hand, disarming him. Jerome slammed his elbow into Bruce’s chest, knocking the air out of him.

“What’s wrong, Brucie? Out of breath?”

Bruce grabbed the collar of his shirt, hitting him square in the jaw, then again, and again. The ginger staggered back, wiping blood from his lip, smearing it over his lips like a wicked smile. A low chuckle rose from his throat.

“That’s more like it.”

Bruce barely had time to block as Jerome lounged for him, hands closing around his neck. Damn, he was fast. Impossibly so. He was slammed against the alley wall, hands braced on Jerome’s shoulders to push him back. There was a wild glint in Jerome’s eyes, anger. No, fury. Jerome’s grip was crushing, but not enough to penetrate the armor around his neck.

“Hit me again,” Jerome demanded, pupils blown with excitement? Madness? Bruce didn’t know for sure. “Don’t hold back.”

Bruce’s anger faltered at the request.

“Well, don’t stop now, Bat-boy!”

But Bruce didn’t hit him again. He merely stared at him. He was struck by a revelation; that this was what Jerome had wanted all along. To fight, to distract himself from something else… something he didn’t want to face. Bruce had enough experience of it himself not to see it, and now it was painfully evident in Jerome’s eyes. It was more than anger—it was the fury of someone who’d placed his trust in someone, only to have it thrown back in his face.

At Bruce’s silence, Jerome landed a blow to the side of his face. Bruce winced. Most of the blow was absorbed by the cowl, but it still hurt. But he kept his gaze pinned on Jerome, unwavering, patient.

“Why aren’t you fighting back?!” Jerome exclaimed, grabbing Bruce’s shoulders, slamming him back into the wall. “Come on. Come on, come on, come on.”

“I’m not going to fight you. You’re already hurt.”

“How dare you,” Jerome seethed, teeth gritted. “How dare you say you care? That you understand? You don’t get it, Brucie! You’re just like everyone else. No—scratch that! You’re worse. At least their lies are transparent, but you, oh, you had me going there for a moment! I believed you.” He scoffed, nose crinkling in disgust. Then his features smoothed out and he smiled, a cold humorless thing that made Bruce’s skin crawl. “And here I thought I was the one leading the dance, but turns out—it was the other way around.”

“I’m sorry,” Bruce said, surprised to hear the words leave his mouth. He’d thought himself too prideful to ever give voice to his thoughts. Truthfully, he’d wanted to tell him way back then. That look on Jerome’s face—of hurt, it still haunted him. The fact that he’d caused it. Jerome was distanced from reality, from emotion and empathy. But that moment of vulnerability had been real, and that made it so much worse.

How much more was he hiding under the surface, beneath a mask of carefree nihilism? How much of the destruction was actually an outlet, a distraction?

However Bruce rationalized, however much he tried to justify his thinking, his actions, it still weighed on him. Whoever Jerome was, who he pretended to be, Bruce couldn’t deny that he’d missed him… as weird and twisted as that was. There had been the beginning of a friendship there, of understanding--maybe more, and Bruce had ruined it. Many nights he lay awake pondering whether that day could’ve changed something if it had gone differently. If Bruce had showed trust instead of whatever judgment he’d passed. He couldn’t even remember what he’d said, only that they were words meant to hurt.  

Jerome snarled, pushing Bruce away, and that glint of anger flashed through his eyes again. Bruce prepared for a second attack, but none came. Jerome seemed to deflate, all the humor drained from his face, the anger fading with it.

“I didn’t bring you here for an apology,” he heard the ginger mutter. “Not from you—never from you. Apologies are pointless—people do things because they want to. What’s the use apologizing for it? It’s all bullshit anyway. Words mean nothing.”

But pain does, Bruce added mentally. Pain was a distraction, from feeling, from thought. He knew that better than anyone. In their own ways, he supposed they were both searching for a distraction. For something to numb the restlessness of the thoughts closing in on them like the walls of an already too cramped room.

“You know, if you wanted to talk to me… you could’ve just dropped by.”

Jerome scoffed. “Could I? Because our last talk went so well…No, I think I prefer this,” he gestured to the blood gushing from his nose and lip. “It’s a lot more productive. Talking is too much effort.”

“And plotting revenge for months isn’t?”

Jerome laughed, then grimaced, a hand to his stomach. “You got me there.”

“I appreciate the effort, though. All that for me? I’m flattered.”

Jerome’s lips twitched. “You should be. I don’t do this for everyone, sweetums.”

They stood there in silence for a while, simply taking in the state of each other.

“You let your real hair grow out,” Bruce said, not knowing why he would bring that up now. It was strange how he could feel so apprehensive and at ease at the same time.

Jerome touched his hair absently, a grin curving on his lips. “It suits me better. And it matches the rest of my face,” he smiled through blood-stained teeth. His eye had swollen over, bruises blooming over his cheek. Blood still gushed from his nose and the cut in his lip, and in the stray pale moonlight, he looked like a nightmarish clown.

“It does,” Bruce agreed. He shook his head, a breath of a laugh escaping his lips. “This is…messed up. We’re messed up.”

“Mm. All the best people are, darlin’. It’s a privilege, you know,” Jerome stuffed his hands into his pockets. “A jester and a bat. What a pair we make, eh?”

“What a pair indeed.”

They stared at each other for a long moment, sirens blaring in the distance. Bruce stretched out his hand toward Jerome, and amusement glittered in Jerome’s eyes at the gesture.

“Wanna hold hands, do you, Brucie?”

“The detonator,” Bruce demanded.

“You have no sense of mood,” Jerome said, picking up the small device and dropping it into Bruce’s palm.

Bruce stared down at it. It was too light. He looked at it closer, a deep frown settling between his brows. “What is this?”

“Oh, it’s a keyring. I borrowed it from one of my lovelies.”

Bruce blinked at the item in his hand, glancing up with a dumbfounded look on his face. “So… the bomb…? That was a ruse?”

“We’re explosive enough on our own, wouldn’t you say?” Jerome’s grin spread wider, a mischievous glint in his eye.

The bombs were fake? Relief sagged his shoulders. Did that mean Jerome hadn’t actually planned to hurt anyone?

“Oh, don’t look so startled, Brucie. I’m still little ol’ me, don’t you worry. Let’s not blow this out of proportion.” He cackled at his own joke, and Bruce felt the corners of his lips tugging upward despite himself. “A lie for a lie. Now we’re even.”

Bruce sighed. “You’re the worst.”

Jerome’s lips cracked into a smile, then parted in a laugh as he threw his head back. It was infectious and Bruce found himself pulled along with it, at the absurdity of the situation. Jerome bent over with laughter, hand braced against the wall, and Bruce followed, their laughter mixing into a melody of twisted amusement that echoed through the night.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7: Freaky Friday


 

Jerome didn’t quite hear what the henchman was saying, too occupied recounting the days of being totally ignored by Bruce. He’d not heard from him since their little laughing fit in the alley two weeks ago. Two weeks—it felt like years. Torturous, uneventful years.

He sank back into the chair, lobbing his shoe across the room. The henchman flinched, but quickly composed himself, although Jerome barely noticed.

Bruce was avoiding him. And he had a pretty good idea why.

Poor Brucie, caught in a battle between his self-righteous persona and the other part—the part of him that had let Jerome off the hook. Jerome was thankful for the free pass, but the cost outweighed the reward. He would rather spend a few months in Arkham than enduring the silent treatment. He could always escape if boredom found him too quickly, and at least then, Batsy would have a reason—no, an excuse—to see him. Because wasn’t that what he needed? An excuse. Some justification to bribe his righteous alter ego, so he could do what he wanted and not what he felt compelled to.

Jerome was growing rapidly more restless. He’d promised Bruce a compromise, to aim for maiming and threats rather than killing. Quite a generous compromise--from both parties--though Jerome had a feeling this was only the tip of the iceberg. Surely Brucie was already working on some long tedious rehabilitation plan… To save him. Make him better. 

Pfft. For all the good that would do.

But a guy needs a hobby, he supposed, and having The Batman doting on him wasn't all bad. 

So, Jerome had agreed. He wouldn’t commit to it, but he wasn’t exactly resisting either. He'd play along, for now. After all, it wasn’t an agreement completely without merits: he’d get to spend more time with Bruce—or well, Batsy. (Apparently, Bruce Wayne hanging out with a criminal would be unseemly. Go figure.)

But where was that merit now? At home, sulking, because he could not make up his damn righteous mind about whether to let the past stay the past or give in to what he knew was right and turn Jerome in.

Who decided was what right and wrong anyway? Like time, it was a human concept. A made up thing; the Bible was just an old book, and clowns were violent men with red noses flushed from alcohol. Everything else was make-belief, lies shrouded in glorified ideals. And for what? What did he care about what was right?

Right was boring. Right gained him nothing. If Right made Brucie hesitate, Jerome wanted no part in it.

It was a fickle, ugly thing. Pretense and false smiles, and promises never intended to keep, only to flatter.

He’d rather be wrong than nothing at all.

Snippets of the henchman’s gibberish interrupted him, “raided warehouse,” and something about “a plant lady stealing the office plant”. He frowned, having neither patience or interest for the conversation, and the henchman snapped his mouth shut, staring at the floor.

He rose from the chair and went to retrieve his discarded shoe. He was about to walk out of the apartment when the henchman made the poor decision to open his mouth again. This time to drop a comment of, “Batman taking out Nygma last night.”

Jerome stopped in the doorway. He turned on his heel, grabbed the gun on the kitchen counter and shot the henchman in the foot. The henchman cried out, falling to the floor, cradling his foot like a baby.

“Next time, Johnny-boy, don’t mention him.

“Yes, boss,” said Johnny, rocking back and forth in place. "I s-swear I won't!"

“Good boy. You might wanna have that checked,” Jerome said, glancing down at the henchman’s foot. Blood pooled across the white carpet. Should’ve gone with black, Jerome noted. Black went well with everything, dark knights especially. It used to be a dull colour, an empty abyss with nothing worth of note, but now he knew better--there lurked a monster down there. Waiting for someone to let him out into the light. He'd happily oblige.

“I’m heading out. Clean that mess up before I get back, would ya?” he said and slammed the door behind him.


 

Walking did little to clear his mind, but the people bustling about, the sound of agitated car drivers and honking, offered some distraction. The buzzing anger still lingered, sloshing around like a sticky liquid, like tar clinging to his organs, bundling them into a massive weight.

Jealousy, he realized. He was jealous.

For good reason.

Batman—his Batman—was running around the city chasing down Nygma, but didn’t have the time to drop by to say hello? Oh, the audacity—the betrayal. Why, if that didn’t warrant murder, he didn’t know what did.

Hadn’t Brucie offered Jerome to drop in to talk, instead of plotting elaborate schemes? Well, today was one such day. Although he felt more inclined to violence than talking, but potayto, potahto...

Bruce sat in his study, buried in some tedious-looking business proposal. He didn’t even notice Jerome as he climbed in through the window.

“You look like you need a break,” he said and Bruce jolted out of his seat.

Jerome laughed, hopping up on the edge of the desk, snatching up the business proposal. He glanced at the name signed at the bottom, and smirked. “Come on now, Bruuucie. You didn’t think you’d be rid of me that easily?" He fixed his gaze on Bruce. "Ditching me like that after our first date, tsk. My, you really are a playboy.”

Bruce took a moment to compose himself, then snatched back the paper from Jerome's hand, placing it back in the pile of papers. “I’ve been busy.”

“So I hear. Quite the busy little bee—or should I say bat?” He leaned closer to Bruce, staring up at him with a darkening look on his face. “I’ve never been much of a fan of sharing.

“Batman was needed,” Bruce stated matter-of-factly, missing the point by a mile.

“Oh, darling, you’re always needed—that’s the beauty of Gotham. There’s always some idiot wanting to prove themselves.” He smirked. “But hey—if that’s what it takes to get some attention around here…”

Bruce sighed. “I was coming over tonight.”

 “Well, then I suppose I should’ve cleaned my apartment before I left.”

Bruce frowned, a dawning realization on his beautiful features—too beautiful for a man spending his time playing dress-up as a bat at night.

“Jerome,” Bruce said, his voice tinged with anger. “What did you do?”

“Brucie-darlin’, I thought we were over this. Trust is the foundation of friendship,” Jerome said, throwing Bruce’s own words back at him.

“So is honesty,” Bruce added, puncturing a hole in that argument. “Tell me.”

Jerome ran a hand through his hair. “I did what any guy in my position would—I got your attention.

Bruce stared at him, unrelenting in a silence that demanded answers.

Jerome shrugged flippantly.

“No need to be so serious. I shot Johnny. I'm sure he didn't mind.”

“You what? Are you—“ he caught himself, his jaw closing around the words.

 Insane, Jerome finished for him. Yup.

Bruce rephrased. “Why would you do that?”

“He just wouldn’t shut up.”

“That’s hardly a reason to shoot someone!”

“It is for me, Brucie!”

Bruce’s face darkened, looking like Batman even without the mask. “We had a deal.”

So business-like. So serious. So much like Jerome imagined Batman to speak to his adversaries. Was this the tone he used with Nygma too? A new flush of anger resurfaced, and he slid off the desk.

“Yes,” Jerome replied, dismissing Batman’s comment with a wave. Because this was the righteous Batman speaking, not Bruce. “A deal to maim, not kill, remember? I shot him in the foot.” He smiled, giving a carefree shrug. “I could‘ve shot him in the head.”

Bruce calmed visibly at that, his shoulders relaxing. He even managed to look a little abashed at his judgmental presumption. Not that Jerome blamed him, not really. He had wanted to empty the clip, the impulse surging through him like a jolt of electricity.

All that pent-up frustration with nowhere to go—one dead henchman would’ve been a small sacrifice to pay compared to the havoc he could’ve caused. There were only so many ways to blow up a building, but he was nothing if not creative.

But then where would they be?

Bruce found his voice again, a sliver of apprehension slipping into that indifferent tone of Batman. “Why did you come here? I told you I'd visit.”

“And seeing how you did everything but that, I came to talk! I'm not known for my patience, Brucie. You of all people know that.”

“Talk about what?”

“Well, Bruce. Let me phrase this in a language you’ll understand: This rehabilitation plan you’ve got going on is a mutual agreement. If the business isn’t lucrative, the investors will bounce. I’m only playing along because there is something in it for me, and so far the business is struggling to pay its debts. And considering I haven’t killed or blown anyone up in two weeks, I’d say my first payment is overdue.”

Bruce nodded slowly, reading through the lines of his metaphors. A mask of calculated calm settled over his face.

 “What do you want?”

Too many things Bruce wouldn’t give, either out of some misguided sense of nobility or stubborn pride. He wondered briefly if maybe he should ask of something risky just to stir a reaction, but no, no, he would bide his time. Add to the tension. He’d wait until Bruce was ready, until the request might actually amount to something.

For now, there was something else he wanted…

“I want to come with you tonight. I want to see the bat in action.” But it wasn’t really the bat he wanted to see. It was Bruce. The real Bruce. Jerome had always believed in the notion that masks were more truthful than faces—nobody revealed quite as much about themselves as when they thought nobody recognized them.  

He’d heard the rumors. The Batman never killed, but he left many criminals wishing he did. Violence, even in the name of justice, was still violence. He wanted to see Bruce in his element, see him as he became one with the darkness inside him.

Bruce glanced to the window, to the spires and towers of Gotham in the distance, considering. Jerome guessed he was weighing the pros and cons of the operation, of Jerome’s unpredictable potential for chaos.

Then he straightened, the image of authority. “If we’re doing this, you’ll do what I say when I say it—understand?”

Jerome saluted him with a grin. “As you say, Master Bat!”

“You can begin with eating something—you look like you haven’t eaten anything in days.”

“Why, how good of you to notice.”

“Also, get some sleep.”

“So demanding,” Jerome purred.

“When was the last time you slept?”

“Four days? A week? I lost count.” 

Bruce scowled and gestured to a sofa in the corner. “Lay down. Sleep. I’ll ask Alfred to prepare something.”

Jerome slumped down on the sofa. “Does Jeeves know you’re harboring a criminal in your quarters?”

“I’d assume not.”

“Mm. I wouldn’t be so sure. He’s a crafty one, that butler. A former soldier, I’d guess. He holds himself like one. Calm in the face of crisis.”

He thought back to the charity gala. It seemed so long ago now. Bruce had been so innocent. Now he was darker, somehow. Jerome liked the change. Innocent people were predictable, boring. Bruce was not.

Bruce nodded in agreement, concern flitting across his features for the briefest of moments. "I hope not," he said, changing his previous statement.

“He won’t think it’s strange that you’re asking for a second lunch then?” Jerome asked, amusement tinting his melodic voice.

Bruce shrugged, a rare gesture from someone so stoic. “I haven’t eaten yet.”

Jerome smiled. “Saving your appetite for blood?”

“Sleep,” Bruce ordered, ignoring his comment.

Jerome patted the seat. “Why don’t you join me? Bats are nocturnal, you know.”

“I’ll sleep later.”  

“Nightmares, Batsy?”

Bruce didn’t answer, his face carefully schooled into indifference, but the faintest of red tinted his cheeks. “I’ll be back soon.”

He left the room in search for Jeeves—Alfred, whatever—and Jerome lay down against the soft cushions of the sofa.

A small smile played on his lips.

Do you dream about me, Brucie?

Jerome realized how much Bruce had actually changed in the past four months they’d been apart. He seemed so much older now. Not at all like the flustered rich-boy he’d been during Jerome’s first visit to Wayne Manor. His body was more defined by muscle, his eyes hard and calculating—the gaze of a detective, always analysing, always searching for the patterns, the flaw. The Devil's in the details, and Bruce was hell-bent on finding him everywhere.

Jerome recalled that night in the alley, exchanging blows. Just the two of them, mano a mano, breathless and bleeding.

A rush of adrenaline set his senses on fire, and he dug his nails into the cushions with want. All that brute force, the gleaming blue eyes, directed only at him. He’d wondered how Bruce’s blood would taste on his lips, how it would feel to fist his hand into those raven locks. They were thoughts born out of a need to possess—perhaps not quite love, as he’d initially feared—but something very akin to it.


 

He was stirred awake by a hand on his shoulder, and he shot up, the edge of a knife pressed to the soft skin of Bruce’s throat. They stared at each other for a moment, Bruce assessing the threat, Jerome regaining his bearings. He had expected one of his mother’s lovers, standing over him with a hammer in one hand and a broken bottle in the other, deciding which would be the most fun to try. His mother laughing in the background.

A dream, Jerome realized. It hadn’t been real. Of course, it wasn’t. She was dead—he’d made sure of that. Once, he might’ve considered it a nightmare, but now it was almost a comfort, a reminder of how far he’d come since then.  

He’d fallen asleep without realizing it, the exhaustion finally claiming his consciousness. He felt strangely rested, aware. Clear-headed in a way he hadn’t been in months. Bruce took a step back, and Jerome lowered the knife, glancing to the dark outside. He must’ve slept for hours.

“I didn’t want to wake you,” said Bruce, the apprehension draining from his posture.

“Like watching me sleep, do ya? Well, go right ahead—no need to be shy!”

Bruce scoffed. “We’re heading out in fifteen minutes. You can eat on the way."

Jerome shook his head. "Food can wait."

"As you wish. Wait for me outside.”

Jerome’s lips dropped into a pout. “You mean you won’t let me into your oh-so-secret little bat cave?”

Bruce opened his mouth, then shut it.

Jerome chuckled, looping an arm around Bruce. “Oh, relax, Batsy. It isn’t that far a leap to make, you know. It’s not like I know how to get in anyway. Yet.” He gave Bruce a conspiratorial look. “Do I get a costume too?”

“No.” Bruce slipped out of the proximity, walking towards the door.

“Aw. You’re no fun,” said Jerome, following him.

“So, I’ve been told.” Bruce shot a dull look at Jerome. “Repeatedly.”

Jerome laughed. "Well, luckily for you, pretty-boy, I brought my own."


 

The Batmobile was cramped, not quite built for two people. There was a passenger seat—or well, a seat. Meant more for a glove-compartment than a person (or maybe for someone like Robin), but Jerome was thin enough to fit reasonably well. They sat shoulder to shoulder, Jerome tapping excitedly on the dashboard. He let out a high-pitched laugh as they rounded a corner with exaggerated speed.

Batman stared straight ahead, focused on the road, on the objective.

“Lighten up, Batsy!” Jerome scolded, his voice slightly muffled by the red hood. It was no Batsuit, but it was a start. “Come on, you know what they say; a smile a day keeps the reaper away. This is fun! Now if only we had some dynamite we’d really have a blast.”  

He laughed. Batman didn't.

Batman sighed, shaking his head in a way that was more Bruce than Bat. “Would it be too much to ask for a moment of silence?”

“Silence’s not my thing, sweetums.”

“I’ve noticed,” Bruce grumbled. He took a left turn, driving into an alleyway to park the Batmobile in the shelter of darkness.  

“Sooo broody, Brucie—or is this all part of the ‘Batman thing’? Ya know, I should get myself a name too. Something catchy.” He tapped his lips, considering.

“The overly talkative clown?” Bruce offered.

Jerome snorted. “It doesn’t quite roll of the tongue, does it? No, I think I’m gonna need somethin’ a little more… ominous.”

“So, Jerome then?”

Jerome threw his head back to laugh. “My, somebody’s in a mood. Is it because I nearly gave you the Sweeney shave? Hm? Bats?”

A black-gloved hand pulled him into the shadows, pressing down over his mouth. 

“Hush,” Bruce whispered.

He was close. Too close. Yet not close enough.

Voices approached, and two thugs walked by the opening of the alley. Bruce and Jerome remained hidden in the darkness, bodies flushed against each other. The black cape kept them both camouflaged as the beam of a flashlight swept across the alley.

Jerome trailed a playful line down the front of the Batsuit, and his chuckle vibrated in his throat as Bruce clamped down harder on his mouth.

Once the thugs had left, Bruce backed away and stalked down the alley.

“You gonna tell me what we’re doin’ here, Bats?” Jerome asked, catching up to him.

“Sionis,” Bruce said by way of explanation. "His goons have been robbing banks."

“The black mask fella? Hm. Thought he was dead.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time someone came back from the dead. Nobody seems to stay dead in this town.”

“Well, not the bad ones. And why would we? There’s so much fun to be had here!”

“Sionis’ thugs were spotted by my contacts-they've holed up inside that abandoned Hotel. With some luck, Sionis will be there too. We’re bringing them in.”

"Finally. Some action."  

With a movement almost too quick to catch, he flicked open the butterfly knife hidden in his sleeve. He preferred knives to guns--guns got the job done, but they were too impersonal. He loved the intimacy of sharpened steel, loved the beautiful patterns of a swift slash: knife-wielding was his form of art, and the unfortunate soul who got in his way the canvas.

"No killing," warned Buzzkill Wayne.

"No worries," Jerome reassured. "I've had enough training to know where to inflict the most pain without fatal bleeding."

Bruce did not look reassured. He looked like he was reconsidering this romantic little outing all together.

Getting past the first guards were easy, although Jerome nearly gave one of them a Chesire smile. The world would be so much more fun if everybody was smiling. A red smile was better than none. Prettier too. But he remembered himself at the last moment, knocking the guy out with a candelabra.

He watched as Bruce took out the remaining two guards, swooping down on them like a shadow, cutting off their conversation by knocking their heads together. They crumpled to the ground and Jerome snickered, giving Bruce a thumb's up. 

Laughter erupted from the cafeteria. Jerome and Bruce exchanged gazes. Bruce recognized the look on his face and shook his head. He pointed to the floor, an order to stay put. But Jerome had a better idea. He swung around, barging into the cafeteria.

"Gooood eveeening, boys!" he called out to the men sitting huddled around a table, stacks of money divided among them. "Hope I'm not interrupting."

The men startled, reaching for their guns. Jerome laughed as seven gun barrels moved in his direction. "Who the hell's this clown?!" exclaimed one of them, a black man with terribly scarring covering most of his face. 

"Must be stupid," said one of the others. "Walkin' in 'ere without as much as a weapon."

"Oh, I'm sorry-where are my manners?" said Jerome, smiling. "I'm the Red Hood, not to be confused with the Hood, the Black Hood, or even that Robin Hood fella. It's confusing, I know. I'm thinkin' of getting a new name. Any suggestions?"

"How 'bout stiff?" said Scar-face, gun pointed to Jerome's forehead. "'Cause you're dead meat."

"Oh-ho-ho," laughed Jerome, his eyes sharp. There was only room for one jester here, and it sure wasn't this excuse for a comedian.

To hell with anonymity. He had a legacy to uphold. He pulled the hood up over his forehead, leaving it there. He flicked his knife, a cold smile stretching his lips into a predatory grin. "How 'bout I give you a nice new smile, eh? Free of charge!"

Scar-face smiled back. "What'chu gonna do with that little butter knife? Do yourself a favour, Smiley, and get the hell out. Or I'm gonna take this gun and stuff it where the sun don't shine."

A third man, much younger than the others, placed a hand on Scar-face's arm. "Jonah. Maybe you shouldn't--that's Jerome. Jerome Valeska."

"Ah, here's one who gets it," Jerome said, pleased. He caught a glimpse of black in the corner of his eyes, his smile growing wider. 

Jonah frowned, glancing from the younger to Jerome. "That crazy ginger kid? Didn't he got shot by that Galavan-guy?"

"A temporary set-back," Jerome said. "Seems Gotham has plans for me yet."

"Well, that changes things," said Jonah, his finger closing on the trigger.

Jerome went to dodge when a small flash of black metal-a baterang-stole through the air and clashed with the gun, knocking it out of Jonah's grip.

Jonah swore, searching the floor for the gun, but Jerome was already on him. He grabbed a fistful of the thug's hair, slamming Jonah's head into one of the tables. The man's head lolled over, already unconscious. What a disappointment. All that bark and no bite.

He raised the knife, had a mind of plunging it into the scarred tissue of Scar-face's neck, when another thug pulled him away. He twisted out of his grip and stabbed the thug, laughing as the thug fell over, his trembling hands suspended over the knife sticking out of his eye.

Jerome sneered. "What's wrong, eh? You, uh, got something in your eye?"

The one-eyed thug gave a roar and threw himself forward, grabbing Jerome's legs. He fell, the thug climbing on top of him. But he underestimated Jerome's strength--almost everyone did. And that was the last mistake they ever made.

Jerome flipped them over, so he was on top. "I'm gonna need that back now," he said, fingers closing around the knife's hilt. "Thanks for the safe-keeping." With a swift yank, he pulled his knife out. The thug went limp beneath him, unconscious. Another one down, five more to go... maybe four, judging by the youngest of the bunch. The youngling stood pressed up against the wall.

Clever boy.

The remaining thugs stared at him, faces pallid with repulsion. Jerome rose, readying his stance for an attack. One or two, he could take. Easily. Four? Without killing? That was stretching it.

Then the room fell into darkness and Jerome slipped away, baffled by its convenience. He had a feeling Brucie had something to do with it, just as Robin had so rudely interrupted them down at the docks. He listened, cracking a smile, as sounds of struggle broke out through the cafeteria. Jerome recognised the sound of armored gauntlets hitting flesh. Then they joined with a mix of pained grunts, a few satisfying cracks, followed by several thuds. And then silence.

The light flashed back on, but Bruce didn't seem surprised. A timer of some kind? Jerome really had to find a way into the Cave. Batsy loves his gadgets, but he wasn't one to share. He'd have to sneak in and borrow them some time.

Thugs lay scattered like rag-dolls over the floor and tables, arms and fingers bent in weird angles. The youngest one, however, seemed unharmed. He'd conceeded the fight, pressed up in the corner. His eyes went from Batman to Jerome, seemingly not knowing which one he'd rather avoid. 

"Give me a hand," said Bruce, handing Jerome a bundle of ropes. Jerome had picked up some very useful knots during his years at Haley's Circus, although he could think of  better uses for them than wasting them on these low-lives. He would like to see how long it would take Bruce to wriggle out of those without his little gadgets to help him. 

One after the other, he tied the thugs' limbs, rending them completely harmless. Then he stepped back, a triumphant smile on his lips. 

This masked vigilante thing wasn't that hard, after all. Well, save for the riddiculous rules. The thugs of Gotham were like cockroaches, always multiplying, always coming back. The only way to truly get rid of them would be to eradicate them, and that was something Jerome knew how to do. Unfortunately, that was off the table.

"Well, that was easy," Jerome said, clapping his hands together.

"You barely did anything."

"Uh, excuse me? I provided the distraction so you could sneak off, doing whatever it is sneaky bats do. Hell, you should make me your new Robin."

"You almost killed someone tonight."

Jerome supposed that meant, no. 

"Oh, come on, Batsy. I played with the thought, but in the end I left him alive, didn't I? I wouldn't risk it: you're no fun when you're sulking!"

"You said you would do as I said," Bruce continued. "I told you to stay put."

"You didn't tell me anything, Batsy. You pointed. I'm not a dog, and I may be crazy, but I'm not a mind-reader."

Bruce turned on his heel, done bickering. 

"Hey!" Jerome called after him. 

Bruce didn't glance at the thugs, didn't check the knots to see if they would hold. Before assuming it was anything resembling trust, Jerome noted that none of them could move very far even without the ropes. The rumors of The Batman's ruthless nature weren't exaggerated in that aspect, at least. Jerome smiled at the scene. Bruce may be able to deceive himself, but he couldn't deceive him. He enjoyed this.  

He followed Bruce back to the Batmobile. He was equally surprised and pleased to see that it was still there, Bruce brooding in the driver's seat. 

"Why the grumpy face?" he asked, settling into the narrow passenger seat. "We caught the baddies-won the day! It's a cause for celebration."

"Sionis is still on the loose. He must have another hideout, but I wouldn't know where to start looking."

"Well, luckily for you, my batty prince--I do. Hiding in plain sight is my forté, after all."

Bruce looked at him for a long moment, the first spark of genuine interest he'd shown all night. His eyes practically gleamed, like a starved predator finally spotting a potential prey. "Take me there."

"Not so fast. This place is full of Gotham's worst. It'd be like throwing a bleeding man into a hole full of rats. They'd tear you apart. You'll need to go outside your comfort zone, darlin'."

"We're going under cover?" Bruce guessed.

Jerome nodded. "As it happens, it's another one of my many talents."

"I saw through your disguise," Bruce pointed out.

"Because that's what I wanted. How about the past four months? You didn't think I actually left Gotham, did ya?"

Jerome could see the gears turn in Bruce's mind, thinking back on every little detail over the past months. Searching for anything odd. Then his gaze focused. "I thought I saw you selling ice cream in the park. Figured I'd gotten heat-stroke."

"Well, be glad you didn't buy it--I'm afraid Billy mixed up the sugar with salt. He did go a little overboard with the laxatives too. An honest mistake."

Bruce lingered on that for a moment. "You were following me all this time...?"

"Better up, Brucie. We've met. Hell, I even reused my old name."

Bruce frowned, the gears working to find the underlying details, to see the pattern that's been there all along. He blanched. "Jack White? The business proposal? That was you?"

"My god, bats, for Gotham's best detective you really are slow on the uptake."

"I spoke to you," Bruce said, unable to comprehend his mistake. "I should have recognized you."

"Happens to the best," Jerome said, shrugging a shoulder. "How do you think I managed to go unnoticed as a suspect in my mother's murder? Jim Gordon and that Harvey fella... never knew what hit them. There's a lot more to becoming an icon of terror than threatening people, ya know. You gotta have a sense of performance. It's not truly about being someone--it's about being anyone. Well, you'd know. People are terrified of you for the same reason. To them you're only a symbol, conditioned to bring hope to the weak, and fear to your enemies. Better the devil you know than the one you don't. Nothing is quite as scary as the unknown." 

Bruce let that sink in. "What do you have in mind?"

"Well, you're going nowhere dressed like that. Tonight, you're gonna be a full-fledged criminal!" He laughed, suddenly realising the irony. "Seeing how I've spent the evening playing a hero, it's only fair, don't ya think? But, you're gonna have to do this my way. Do what I say, when I say it."

To his surprise, Bruce nodded almost immediately. "All right."

He had expected resistance, considering the broad span of madness entailed in doing things his way.

Bruce really wanted to get this guy. First Nygma, now Black Mask. Going after one big fish after the other, without even sleeping in-between. What was he trying to prove? Justice could wait a day. But then Bruce had always been an over-achiever...

They swung by Jerome's apartment, and Jerome was glad to see that Johnny had actually cleaned up after himself. "This is me!" he said cheerfully, urging Bruce into the apartment. "Now, sit! Let's get you all dolled up!" 

When he was done with Bruce's disguise, he stepped back to have a proper look at his handiwork. A masterpiece. The tinted glasses, the plaid suit... He doubted even Jeeves would recognize his charge. And if it was enough to fool Alfred, even if only from a distance, it was more than enough to fool the low-lives of Gotham's underground. 

Bruce looked into the mirror, touching his face as if it was the first time seeing it--well, it kind of was, in a way. His fingers brushed the fake mustache, then he turned his head to look at the crooked nose. "Huh," was all he said, and the speechlessness was praise enough. 

"You're gonna need a name, and a story. Something rememberable. For your sake. It's better to pick a name that's close to home--stick to the truth where you can, and the lies in between will go by unnoticed."

"I have one in mind," said Bruce. He stared into the mirror, as if seeing someone else rather than his reflection. "A name I could never forget."

Jerome's curiosty peaked. "And what name is that?"

"Matches Malone. The man who killed my parents."

"Well, that works," said Jerome. "Now, let's go have ourselves a bit of real fun!"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Don't threaten me with a good time


 

“Ah, loosen up, sugar,” said Jerome, his hands steering Bruce through the bar. He leaned into Bruce’s ear, lowering his voice to a whisper, “Don’t be nervous. You’re a criminal, remember? You belong here.”

Bruce said nothing, busy surveying the bar, taking it all in. Some faces he recognized—arsonists, crazies, and mobsters—sipping away on their drinks without a care in the world. Not knowing how close they were to the very vigilante who had put them away. They must’ve bribed their way out, Bruce realised, his stomach sinking.

More corruption to take care of. No matter how many he fought, there always seemed to be more. Well, he’d not be out of a job any time soon. Not that it had ever been a concern… Jerome might’ve laughed, but Bruce felt angry.

Angry that they were out on the streets again. Angry that he hadn’t found this place until now—angry that Jerome had known but hadn’t told him. But then what had he expected? Jerome was as much a criminal as the rest of them, wasn’t he? He’d done a surprising job at keeping his impulses under wraps, but there were no guarantees…

Jerome slumped down in a vacant booth—only it wasn’t vacant. The two patrons shot up and skittered away at the sight of his unhinged smile, and Jerome turned to beam at Bruce, gesturing for him to join.

“What now?” Bruce said, keeping his voice low and raspy just in case someone overheard. Despite his nerves, it was surprisingly easy to stay in character.

“We wait,” said Jerome, procuring a deck of cards from thin air. A challenge flashed in his eyes as he shuffled the cards. “What do ya say, Matches? Up for a game?”   

“Why did you bring that here?” Bruce asked, frowning.

“I didn’t—I nicked it off that guy,” Jerome said, pointing to the poker table, amusement blazing in his eyes at the dealer’s confusion.

Bruce hadn't even noticed, and he'd been right beside him the entire time. Slippery like an eel. He really had to start paying more attention. But wasn't that why he was in this situation in the first place? He should've known from the start how this night would end...

No going back now. They still had to get Sionis. What was a petty crime or two in comparison?

“Which game?” he asked. He didn’t make a habit of playing cards—Alfred had taught him some for the sake of appearances, and Jason occasionally forced him to participate, but that was the extent of his knowledge.  

“Hm. How about… Old Maid? Everyone knows it. Loser pays the drinks.”

“Never heard of it.”

Jerome smirked. “Well, everyone but you. All work and no play, aren’t ya, Matches?” He chuckled. “Well, luckily for you, I’m here to change that.” He pulled a Joker from the deck, placing it face-up on the table. “We’ll take turns drawing one card from the other—the point is to collect pairs. Whoever gets stuck with the Joker loses.”

Bruce nodded. “All right. Sounds easy enough.”

“You’re right! That’s no fun, is it?” Jerome cupped his chin in thought. “Wanna up the stakes?”

Bruce’s frown deepened. “I’m not going like this am I?”

“Not with that attitude. Well, how about if I sweeten the deal for ya? Tell ya what: if you win I’ll refrain from crimes for—say, a month? Two? A year…?”

Bruce observed him intently, searching Jerome’s face for deceit. He found none. Only someone like Jerome would possess the confidence to throw around an offer like that without a second thought.

Jerome was a master manipulator; if he was this confident, he surely had an ace up his sleeve. But then again, he was the most impulsive person Bruce had ever met. He would do anything to keep the game interesting. Even one day with him off the streets would be an improvement… and Jerome wasn’t the only one with a good poker face.

“A year,” Bruce said with finality.

Jerome laughed. “I knew that would get your attention.”

“What happens if you win?” Bruce asked, crossing his arms. There were few things he could imagine Jerome wanted, and he couldn’t say he’d condone any of them.

“A kiss,” said the lunatic, grinning cheekily.

Bruce was certain he’d heard wrong. He blinked.

“A kiss…?”

“Scared you’ll lose?” said Jerome in that infuriatingly silky way, one word away from laughing.

“No,” was all Bruce could think of.

There had to be a catch… right? Of all the things… why a kiss?

He sighed. To unnerve him, to get a rise out of him, what else? Wasn’t that what he was always doing? The red-head might as well have asked for explosives. Damn it.

Bruce’s hesitation only spurred on Jerome’s amusement. “If you don’t wanna play, Matchy, I’m sure I can find someone else.” His voice was too light, too playful, and Bruce tensed in alarm.

“Deal,” Bruce growled at the veiled threat, and Jerome threw his head back and laughed.


 

“And I win—again!” Jerome laughed. “Somebody’s pissed off our fair lady Fortune. She not pretty enough for ya?”

“I don’t believe in luck,” Bruce grumbled. “And neither do you: you’ve been cheating this entire time.”

Jerome snorted. “Look around, Matches! That is the point! It’s your loss for playing fair.”

“I thought the point was to win by actually following the rules. Why bother having them otherwise?”

“Well, look at the little hypocrite,” Jerome said, leaning across the table. “Bending the rules is your specialty, my little bat.” He sat back, snatching the lone Joker from Bruce’s fingers. He waved it cheerfully. “I believe you owe me my reward.”

Bruce felt his cheeks heat beneath his makeup, hoping Jerome couldn’t see it. He was glad for the disguise, took comfort that it was Matches Malone who was facing embarrassment, not him.

Jerome sat expectant on the other side of the table, hands in his laps. His grin was positively smug.

There was no way out of this without compromising the whole operation. If he refused, Jerome would find a way to threaten him into upholding his part of the deal. If he started a fight… no, that wouldn’t work either. Jerome would take it too far, and he would have to take him out. In both scenarios, his identity was in jeopardy.

Damn it all. 

There was only one option left: Bruce would have to surprise him.

He reached across the table, grabbing Jerome by the collar, and yanked him forward. He pressed his lips to Jerome’s, and he could’ve sworn he heard Jerome gasp. The thought brought a smile to his lips. Bet you thought I wouldn’t do it.

Bruce casually pushed him away, breaking the kiss before Jerome could respond. The shock on Jerome’s face—the silence—was so rare, and knowing he’d momentarily stunned the king of surprises was too intoxicating not to want to bask in it.

Jerome’s eyes darted away for a moment, his tongue absently touching his lip where theirs had met. Bruce did not mean to notice that, nor did he mean to do the same. His treacherous mind wanted to get another look at that expression, to brush past those lips again. What the hell am I doing?

First he had let Jerome go that night in the alley and now this… flirtatious banter? Maybe it was he who should be brought to Arkham.

It’s all part of the act, he tried to convince himself, and failing. He was playing with fire, he knew it, and not even Matches Malone could walk through purgatory unscathed.

Jerome cleared his throat, wiping away the dazed look on his face with the familiar vulpine grin. “Now, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” He picked up the Joker card from the table (seemed he’d dropped it during Bruce’s little stunt) and regarded it fondly.

“Ah. Call me sentimental, but I’m keeping this,” he said, placing a kiss on the painted jester. He made a show of holding Bruce’s gaze, before sliding the card into a pocket on the inside of his coat.

Bruce smirked. “Liking the resemblance?”

Jerome snickered. “What can I say? They really captured the essence of my personality!”

A broad, bulky man walked into the bar from a backroom, and Jerome beckoned him over with a wave. The owner, Bruce supposed. As he came closer, Bruce recognized him—Abe. They’d run into him after sneaking into Penguin’s club. From the little Bruce could piece together, Jerome and Abe had been working together at some point. Criminal activities, most likely. So this was Abe's bar. It explained how Jerome knew to find it, although the lunatic would probably have found it either way...

That night was still a bit of a blur—he must’ve been drunk. He remembered waking up with the worst headache of his life.

He’d had a tolerance for Jerome’s—Jack’s—nightly activities even then. He hadn’t known who Jerome actually was, but did it really make a difference? A criminal was a criminal, whether he liked him or not. And yet, even after finding out Jerome’s real identity, he still tolerated his behavior.

He shouldn’t be here with him. Shouldn’t play along with his games.

There must be some way to help Jerome function in society without wreaking havoc. What they were doing tonight… it was too fine a line from enabling the lunatic’s shenanigans. Though, having him on the right side of justice, although for all the wrong reasons was a start. He could work with that. Maybe in time, he could even convince Jerome to give up crime all together… it was a long shot, but he had to try.

“Jackie, my boy!” exclaimed Abe. “It’s been a while! Heard you’re runnin' with ‘em Red Hoods now.”

“Abe, my good man! I’m calling the shots, actually—it’s about time someone recognized my impeccable sense of leadership.”

“That what you’re doin’? Seems to me you’re mostly runnin' about.”

Jerome shrugged. “Just having fun!”

“Ah, but not tonight, eh? You have that look about you—business, right?" he glanced at Bruce. "Who’s this then?”

Bruce flashed him a crooked grin. “Matches Malone,” he introduced himself, giving his best impression of a New Jersey accent.

“Heard of you,” said Abe, and turned to Jerome. “Ye’ve never mentioned you were friends—folks been looking for him.”

Jerome’s lips cracked into a wolfish grin. “Oh, this one I keep for myself. Wouldn’t want anyone trying to steal my man.”

Bruce tried hard not to scowl.

Abe paused at that, looking to Bruce for confirmation. Bruce smiled stiffly. If he denied it, it would just add to Abe’s suspicion… and Jerome knew that. God, he was so going to punch him after this.

“Oh,” Abe said, gathering his bearings. “What happened to the other one?”

Jerome shrugged a shoulder. “Just a kid. A fleeting infatuation. Now, this guy—he’s the fire of my loins.” He glanced at Bruce and barked out a laugh as Bruce's nose crinkled in distaste.

Abe studied Bruce for a moment. “The rumor on the streets says ye killed ‘em Waynes.”

“That’s me,” Bruce said, not expressing nearly as much pride as he figured a cold-hearted assassin would.

“Not a very public guy, are ye? Most folks would wanna take credit.”

Bruce forced a flippant shrug. “Don’t watch TV. Didn’t know who they were ‘til their son sought me out with a gun. Turns out he’s not quite the stoic his father was, that Bruce Wayne. But hey—at least the kid’s got balls.”

Jerome strained not to burst out laughing at the private joke. How Jerome even knew about that, he had no idea, but it was clear he knew the incident Bruce was referring to.

“What brought ye out in the open then? You’ve been out of the game for a while,” Abe said.

“Change of scenery,” was all Bruce offered.

“You see,” Jerome supplied for him, “My friend Matches here has some business with Black Mask. You wouldn’t happen to know where he is, would ya? I know you deliver goods for him.”

 “Aye, but what would a hired gun want with Sionis?”

Bruce smiled, hoping he looked as inconspicous as he tried to appear. “I’m thinking of changing my occupation—an assassin can only climb so high, you know?”

Abe watched him, one eyebrow raised. “That so? Well, sorry if I don’t believe that. More likely you’re here to kill 'im, and that’d be bad for business.”

Jerome propped up his chin on the back of his hands. “Don’t ya trust me, Abey?”

“I trust ye to do whatever pleases you—as ye always do. We had a good run, boy, but I can’t jeopardize one of my biggest clients.”

Jerome rose from the seat, putting a hand on Abe’s shoulder. “Then let me offer you something in return, old friend.”

He grabbed the back of Abe’s head and slammed him onto the tabletop. He smiled, an uncharacteristically friendly smile, and Bruce shivered.  

“How about,” he continued, flicking open a switchblade and pressing it to Abe’s throat, “your life? That enough for ya?”

The bar went silent around them, all eyes turning to watch the spectacle. They didn’t look frightened, or even surprised—they seemed entertained. As if what they were watching was a pleasant play rather than one man holding another’s life in his hands.

Abe swallowed. “Ye don’t wanna do this.”

“Oh, I think I do,” Jerome said, sliding the blade just a fraction, drawing blood.

Bruce rose from the seat, ready to step in, but Jerome shot him a look that brooked no argument. Not without a mess.

“My way,” Jerome said, reminding Bruce of their previous agreement.

Reluctantly, Bruce backed away.

Jerome turned back to Abe, a predatory look on his face. “Now, Abey-boy, I want you to tell me where to find Sionis, or I start chopping off body parts.”

“I can’t—ye know he’ll kill me,” pleaded Abe.

Bruce watched, fighting his instincts to intervene. The Batman demanded that he step in at once, that this was unacceptable. But tonight he wasn’t Batman, or even Bruce Wayne. He was Matches Malone, and Matches Malone did not flinch away from violence.

He’d have to endure.

Jerome was a terrible sight to behold, reveling in the effect of his presence. Jerome had always been unnerving, even scary, but seeing Abe, who was about twice the size of both of them, tremble with fear made Bruce’s throat go dry.

In that moment, Jerome looked like some demented angel of Death.

“Ya know, Abey, you really shouldn’t talk about some other guy while we’re havin’ a moment: it’s rude. Don’t test my patience. Tell me what I need to know.”

Abe’s eyes went wide as Jerome brought the knife to his mouth, sliding the blade between his lips. “You don’t need your tongue, do ya, Abe? It’s not like you’re using it.” His laugh was sharp, lacking his usual humor.

Bruce’s fingers itched to move.

Jerome’s fingers flexed on the knife in warning, and Abe bristled.

“Please! Stop. I’ll tell ye! I’ll tell ye!”

Jerome withdrew his knife and gave Abe a demeaning pat on the head. “Atta boy.”

Bruce relaxed, relieved at having avoided the gruesome bloodbath he’d seen coming. The bloodlust in Jerome’s eyes faded and his stance returned to its usual aloofness.

“He’s at the Ace Chemical Plant,” Abe revealed, his hand going protectively to his mouth as he straightened up. A dark bruise darkened his forehead, a reminder of Jerome’s fickle moods.

Jerome glanced at Bruce. “Ace Chemicals, huh?”

Even though it wasn’t exactly a question, Abe jumped to explain. “He blackmailed the owner: found out he was violating them regulations. In return for not ratting ‘im out, he’s allowed to use it as a base of operations.”

“Now, that is some very interesting intel,” Jerome said. “Thank you kindly, Abe.”

“A-Anytime.”

Jerome turned to Bruce, sweeping one arm out towards the exit. “Well, Matchy-darlin', what do you say we go pay ol’ Sionis a visit?”


 

“You’re not still sulking, are you? Oh, come on, Brucie-bat! It’s not like I was actually going to kill him!”

Bruce kept stubbornly silent as he stealthily moved around the Ace Chemicals building, searching for a less conspicuous way inside.

Considering it had all ended well, he was no longer angry, but he liked the idea of Jerome thinking he was. Hell, he should be angry, Batman reminded him. Jerome had threatened someone, and he would not have hesitated to act on it. But here they were... so far so good. No blood on the ledger yet. But the night was still figuratively young.

He felt drained, ready to go home and catch some sleep before dawn, but being back to Batman was a relief.

He was glad to be rid of the disguise; the fake mustache had itched something fierce. With the black kevlar armour shielding him from any direct contact with Jerome, he felt more at ease. In control.

“Baaatsy! Hello?” called Jerome, starting to lose his patience. “You listening to me?”

Bruce released a sharp huff of air in annoyance. “Quiet.”

“Pssht. You'd miss my voice."

"Jerome."

"Are you sure you wouldn't rather I spoke? ‘Cause I know a better way in. Unless ya wanna hang out here for the rest of the morning. That's fine by me.”

Bruce frowned. “If you’re suggesting the sewers…”

“Ah, nothing so glamorous. I'd suggest we enter from the west side: there’s a door leading directly into the staff room. Convenient, eh?”

Bruce stared at him, his eyes narrowing in suspicion. “How do you know that?”

Jerome shrugged. “I worked here for a while, ya know. A guy’s gotta pay the bills and Jeanie—“ he cut off abruptly, then changed subject. “Still got the key and everything. You never know when you’re gonna need some incredibly unstable chemicals, am I right?”

“Show me,” Bruce said. “And don’t even think about touching anything. We’re here for Sionis—nothing else.”

Jerome glanced at Bruce over his shoulder. “Oh, I’d never.”


 

Chapter Text

 Chapter 9

Chemicals, spice, and everything nice

Bruce watched Jerome out of the corner of his eye. Jerome had wanted to rush in, like always, but Bruce had managed to talk him out of it. For now, at least. He'd been surprisingly quiet, if a little restless, since Bruce had begun surveilling their surroundings, studying the outline of the plant, the number of mobsters. Jerome didn't care much for his rules of conduct, but had agreed on one condition: Bruce would give him a free pass. For what, he'd not specified. It hardly seemed like a fair trade, but Bruce decided to worry about that later. Since nothing was specified, he could snake his way out of the deal if he had to.

He pin-pointed Sionis on the walkway overlooking the chemical vats. His stomach dropped, past grudges bubbling up again. A childhood friend turned enemy. Not out of hate for Batman, though. Out of hate for Bruce Wayne.

Bruce, who'd lived the life Sionis had been denied. Bruce, who'd had the love and comfort of his parents, while Sionis had been bribed to act the part of a happy child by his. Bruce, the successful owner of a multi-billion-dollar enterprise, while Sionis had run his family's company into the ground.

Sionis thought Bruce Wayne was to blame, but it wasn't Bruce who was responsible for the neglect Sionis had experienced, the bankruptcy, or the suspicious fire that had claimed his parents.

That wasn't his cross to carry.

Black Mask, however, was. 

It was Batman's fault the black mask was permanently etched onto Sionis' face. That, and what came after.

He'd lost Sionis to the Black Mask, to madness.

He watched as Jerome fished up a plastic bottle from the trash can. Jerome beamed a triumphant smile at him, and Bruce's lips felt compelled to respond.

I'm not losing you too.

Jerome crouched down to have look in the sink cabinet, continuing his scavenger hunt. "You think Sionis would have settled for some sparkling clean condo with all the money he's got--I'm actually impressed."

"He's always liked the finer things in life," Bruce agreed. "But he always spent money faster than he could make it."

"Oh, right," Jerome said, voice now dripping with acid. "You were friends."

Bruce frowned beneath the cowl. "I wouldn't say that: he tried to kill me. I almost killed him. Not exactly grounds for bonding."

"How very Batman of you to say. I tried to kill you, remember? Twice! And look at us now--the bestest of friends!"

Bruce had nothing to say to that.

In all honesty, Bruce had no idea how to define their current relationship. A frail partnership? Not quite friends, or enemies. Jerome changed moods like Bruce changed tabloid partners. It was a temporary truce and Bruce would be naive to believe it would last, but he couldn't stop himself. There had to be some way to cure him, help him. To temper Jerome's fickle nature, maybe even stablize it permanently. There had to be. If only Jerome would give him a chance. 

The other side of him, the pragmatic and argumentatively more reasonable part of Bruce, strained against the idea. To keep things black and white, send Jerome back to Arkham where he belonged and leave it at that. But Arkham was flawed. Bruce wasn't sure that was the best approach, and if he did throw Jerome back in Arkham, the fragile trust they had built would surely disintegrate. Despite his sadistic tendencies, Jerome had changed in the past few weeks. Where he'd been unhinged, he now compromised. And if he could change a little... what's to say he couldn't change completely? There was a chance, and that was all he needed.

He couldn't afford to lose another friend.

A hand on his shoulder pulled him back to the present, and his hair stood on end as Jerome leaned in to whisper in his ear, "You know, I can see the cogwheels turning in there. What manner of nonsense's going through that head of yours, Bats?"

In response to Bruce's stubborn silence, he continued, "Stop me if you've heard this one: the man-bat asks the madman to give up his insanity..."

Bruce's jaw clenched. He didn't like the fact that Jerome knew exactly what he'd been thinking, and even less being mocked for thinking it. Jerome's jokes had never been particularly funny, and this one hit a little too close to home.

"The madman asks the bat to hold onto it," Jerome narrated. "They're both crazy, see, only one is terminal and the other in denial. But the bat persists, saying he's found a magical cure. He asks the madman to drink it. Problem is, even the bat doesn't know what's actually inside it. Yet, he still demands that the madman drinks it."

Bruce breathed in through his nose, centering around the embarrassment, forcing it away on an exhale. He would not falter. Jerome was an addict, and Bruce was determined not to give him a fix. This was just another of his little mind games, toying with his pride, seeking a reaction. 

"Well?" Jerome prompted, leaning into his personal space.

"Well, what?" Bruce kept his gaze trained on the glimpses of movements he could see through the crack in the door, trying and failing to focus on anything aside from Jerome being too damn close for comfort. 

Jerome's breath ghosted his neck as he continued, "Don't you want to know the punchline?"

Bruce glanced at him through the cowl, inclining his head to listen despite himself. 

Jerome's lips twitched into a smile, understanding the subtle tilt of Bruce's head for the invitation it was. "The madman swigs it all down in a snap!"

Caught off guard, all Bruce can think to say is, "I don't get it." What is he saying? 

Jerome shrugged. "I'm not surprised. You've always had the comedic understanding of a dish cloth. What I'm saying, Brucie, is that I'll do it. I'll give your plan a go. If we get out of this alive, that is."

Do what? Bruce wanted to ask, and then it hit him: He's saying yes... to rehabilitation. 

"Okay," Bruce said, mind reeling for something concrete. A plan. He'd come up with several back at the cave, none of them perfect. Some might even be considered morally questionable, and others plain suicidal. But then again, a traditional approach probably wouldn't work out for either of them.

Jerome raised an eyebrow at him. "Now, before you go spiralling down that train of thought any further, I'd suggest we go meet that friend of yours, hm? Before he dies of old age."

"There are too many of them," Bruce said, counting roughly fifteen mobsters inside the main room. "We'll need a plan. It will be hard to take them out without anyone noticing."

"That's why you have me," said Jerome, moving back into the kitchen area. 

"Sionis is surrounded by guards: we're going to need a solid plan unless we want a shoot-out. We can't rush in headfirst without thinking."

"Uh-huh," Jerome hummed. "I have a better idea."

Bruce turned around, frowning as he spotted Jerome crouched on the floor, a various mix of household compounds lined up beside him. "What are those?" 

Jerome flashed him a smile. "Oh, everything we need for a nice little distraction! What do'ya say? Add a little drain cleaner and Voila--!"

"No."

"Why? You've got some nitro-methane and ammonium nitrate in that belt of yours? A little riskier, but what the hell, let's give them a show, eh?"

"You're not making bombs."

"Already doing it," said the red-head, flaunting a jug of bleach. 

Bruce crossed the room, grabbing hold of Jerome's wrists. "No. Bombs."

Jerome's smile soured. "This would go a lot easier if you just let me do what I do best."

"This is a plant full of chemicals. What do you think is going to happen if you blow it up?"

"Pfft. It's not like we're constantly bathing in, eating, and drinking chemicals already. What's another gallon or two, eh?"

"No," Bruce said with finality.

Jerome sighed. "Fine, how about a small smoke grenade then? You use them all the time."

Bruce didn't like the thought of this at all, but Jerome was right. If there would ever be any hope for Jerome to improve and adapt to society, Bruce needed to extend some manner of trust. Besides, Batman couldn't take on fifteen people at the same time, not to think of having to worry about keeping Jerome both close and out of the fight. The best way to do this was to split up, and they both knew it.

He gave in. 

"All right," Bruce said, "but no killing. And be careful."

At this rate, he was more worried about Sionis' men, to be honest.

"My, you really should watch that tone of yours. Or I might start thinkin' you're genuinly concerned about me."

Bruce cleared his throat. "I...'m not."

Jerome bit back a laugh. "You never were a very good liar, Brucie, though it's adorable that you try."

Before Bruce registered Jerome’s sudden proximity, the lunatic had already pressed his lips to Bruce’s. He lingered for a moment, running his tongue across Bruce’s upper lip, then twirled around to leave him standing frozen in shock. His mouth worked on a response of some kind, but no words came to mind. He'd always been better with expressing himself physically. Punches, kicks, knives to his throat. That he could work with. That much he could handle.

He'd left himself open to a lunatic, who could have easily killed him. Would have, should have, but didn't. Jerome had kissed him.

“One for the road, heh," said the ginger, stopping by the door to gloat at the chaos he left in his trail. "And just in case you're thinking of doing something rash; you still owe me that free pass." With that said, he slipped out through the door into the main room.

Bruce blinked, willing reality back into focus.

He couldn't dwell on this now. They had a bad guy to catch.

 


 

Sionis was not happy to see them. Jerome couldn’t understand why—they were hilarious companyThe smoke grenade worked wonders, splitting up the agitated groups of mobsters left and right. Black Mask barked orders at them through the smoke, though they made for poor directions in the blind. 

He managed to knock out a few under the cover of smoke, and by the sound of grunts nearby, Batman was using their advantage well.

The smoke began to clear out, revealing three mobsters lying on the floor, their arms twisted around in weird angles. Such a crowd pleaser, Bats... A true playboy, indeed.

"There!" exclaimed a man, and Jerome ducked as a gun shot rang out.

Bullets sprayed across the room, lodging themselves into the walls as Jerome sprinted to the other side. He slid behind one of the large metallic vats, and giggled as Sionis shouted for them to stop firing. Seemed Sionis didn’t want to risk a chemical leak. How boring. Heaven knows he could use a little more colour. The whole white-black ensemble really did nothing for his complexion!

Bruce was disappearing in and out of the shadows, picking off Sionis’ goons in orderly fashion, stringing them up by their ankles. The defenseless mobsters squirmed and flailed, prey caught in a black widow's nest. 

Jerome stopped to stare up at the spectacle in awe, but was rudely interrupted by another mobster. He disarmed the man in a manner of seconds, turning the man’s gun back on him. How absolutely tempting it was—to just pull the trigger and see the beautiful fireworks that followed. But alas… he slammed the butt of the gun into the mobster's head, and the man toppled over, unconscious yet alive.

His gaze searched the room for Bruce, and found him sitting perched on a steel beam underneath the ceiling. Bruce dropped down, landing behind a lone mobster, and hauled the guy into a chokehold. The lone mobster's head lolled to the side, and Batman dropped him to the floor in search for his next victim. 

Their gazes met—and Bruce, the soft-hearted little darling actually looked concerned. He felt it more than saw it; it was there in the tension of the bat's shoulders.

M aking sure I’m not killing someone, are ya?  How sweet.

Jerome bared his palms, a display of innocence, and Bruce turned back to pummel another thug dumb enough to come his way. Using Bruce’s temporary distraction, he slipped up the stairs to the control room and out on the suspended walkway, where Sionis stood waiting.

Black Mask kept his gun trained on Jerome, glancing to the sides for any signs of other hostiles. 

"Just you and me, love," Jerome assured him.

His interest in guns was mild, at best. He rarely ever used them...Not the traditional ones, anyway. Guns were predictable. They made pretty holes, but it didn't quite offer the same intimacy and improvisation as a knife.

Why did no one ever think of something more creative? Like a razor sharp playing card or why not a cocktail of chemicals to leave you laughing until your last breath!

Now that would make for a perfect practical joke, he decided, filing away the ideas for later.

Recognition flickered in Sionis’ eyes, cool indifference contorting into something menacing. “Not another step, Valeska.”

“How ya doin’ there, Skully? Not still mad about the whole ‘killing your little missy’, are ya?”

The gun cocked.

“I’ll take that as a ‘yes’." 

“I have to say,” Sionis said, slipping back into indifference, though the anger was still there…suppressed, “I always thought the Bat-freak was a lunatic—I mean, who in their right mind would dress up like that? But teaming up with you? He must be crazier than I thought.”

“What can I say? We’re two crazy peas in a pod! You know, I knew a Sionis once, another one, I mean. Richard, I believe. He had a fetish for masks too. I can definitely see the family resemblance, well, I would if it weren’t for the whole,” he circled his own face, a mischievous smile curving on his lips as Sionis’ knuckles clenched into fists.

“You’re dead,” fumed the mob boss, the anger boiling just under the surface. He could practically feel the tension, like electricity hanging in the air, waiting for someone to light the spark.

Ah, how Jerome wanted to latch onto it and pull it right out into the open. Maybe then they’d have some real fun. But no, he’d save those games for Brucie.

“Aw. You are still angry I misplaced your plaything, aren’t you?” he asked, casually walking closer. “You should know it wasn’t personal: I was in a foul mood, she happened to walk by—you know how it is! But don’t fret, I made sure she didn’t die alone.” He strained to keep the laughter out of his voice, “You know piranhas, they were positively ravenous for her company.”

He managed a smile, before Sionis snapped and crossed the distance to grab him—he didn’t fight back, the look on Sionis’ face was too delicious. Jerome’s laugh was cut off by a blow to his gut, and he grabbed onto the railing behind him. He glanced up, drinking in the raw fury aimed at him. A gloved hand closed around his throat and pushed him harder against the railing.

Just a push, and he'd fall.

“You’re fucking dead,” spat Sionis, and the moment for simple choking passed. Black Mask wanted more.

“I’m sensing some tension,” Jerome croaked back, laughter bubbling out of him in hiccups. “You must’ve really cared for her, huh?”

Sionis growled and slammed Jerome to the floor. He lay still for a moment, face pressed to the walkway floor, glancing down at the chemical vats below.

“You need to loosen up, buddy," he said, pushing up on all fours. "Didn’t your mommy ever tell you to smile? Ah, sorry, that was insensitive of me! With your history of playing arsonist and all. Wouldn’t wanna add fuel to the fire, now would we?”

Sionis kicked him in the face, and Jerome rolled over on his back to laugh through bleeding lips.

 “You’re not fighting back…” Sionis observed, a little perplexed.

Jerome grinned up at him. “Why, can’t you tell? I’m playing the damsel in distress!”

 Sionis stared down at him with disgust. “You’re expecting Batman to save you?

“Don’t know if you’ve noticed…” Jerome choked out. “But I’m a …pretty charmin’ guy!”

“You’re not getting out of this alive,” Sionis said, aiming the gun to Jerome's head. “And neither is the Bat.”

Jerome chuckled.

“Well, I always knew our love was a tragedy, but nobody kills my bat—“ he kicked out, swiping Sionis' legs from under him. “But me."

Sionis fell on his back, dangerously close to the edge of the walkway. Jerome crawled over, using Sionis' surprise to snatch the gun from his hand.  He straddled him, placing the barrel of the gun to Sionis' forehead. “You see, my skull-faced friend,” he said, his voice dropping lower. “I got dibs. He’s mine. Now, what do you say we repaint the floors? I was thinking red.

“Stop,” growled Batman, landing a few paces away.

That grappling hook really ought to be considered cheating...

"Oh, come on," Jerome sighed.

“It’s over,” Brucie-bat persisted, approaching warily. "Put the gun down."

How could it possibly end here? They hadn’t even gotten started yet!

If he pulled the trigger now, Bruce would be on him in seconds… but it would be too late. As if reading his thoughts, Bruce’s hand moved to his belt in warning. One mistake, and that would be it—he’d be apprehended and locked away. No more deals, no more wishful offers of rehabilitation.

He’d promised not to kill. Bruce even had the audacity to believe he’d meant it…

Now what?

Leaving it like this… it would be such an anticlimax! Such a waste of a good punchline!

Brucie really had no sense of performance.

“Step away from him,” Bruce demanded in his gravelly Batman voice. He was getting impatient.

“In a hurry, are we, Batsy? You could at least let me finish.”

“If you hurt him, I’ll have you arrested,” Batman warned.

Jerome clicked his tongue and raised his hands in defeat. “Way to ruin the mood, Batsy. I was just getting to the good part too!” He stepped away from Sionis, his hands still raised. "See! I'm behaving."

Sionis used their moment of distraction and sprang into action. He rammed into Jerome's side with all the force of a raging boar.

"No!" Batman cried, and then Jerome was flying. The world tilted, up becoming down, and then the world caught up and he was falling. A mouth of metal gaped at him, swallowing him as he plunged into liquid so green it was blinding. It burned his skin, and he screamed, but nothing came out. The chemicals set his lungs on fire, forcing their way down his throat, into every nerve-ending and vein, and now he was drowning. 

It was too much. Too fast. Everything was spinning, and then he saw an image of his mother, flashes of her smile, the echo of her laughter. First warm, then shrill.

A dark-haired woman, with a snake over her shoulder, and a mean glint in her eye.

With a string of lovers that made a habit of violence.

The woman who danced with snakes.

Who was she?

He had a feeling he should know.

But now he couldn’t remember.

Flashes of images clustered in his mind, screaming for his attention. Laughter, so much laughter. A terrified boy and his butler. A knife lodged in his throat. A leather-clad monster with red eyes and fangs glaring down at him, rumbling his name in a hellish voice that seemed to shake the foundation of reality.

Who were they?

What were they?

He didn’t know.

His skin burned away, like every fibre of his being. 

The green turned red.

And then the world went black.

 

End of Part One.

Chapter Text

Chapter 10

The man who laughs

 


 

 A madman, a mobster, and a monster walk into a chemical plant.

Like the beginning of a really bad joke.

But he couldn’t remember the punch-line.

He couldn’t remember much of anything.

His name, where he came from... why he was overwhelmed with a compulsive urge to laugh.

His entire being seemed to hone in on that impulse, finding comfort in its familiarity. If only he could remember what was so darn funny.

A vat of green so bright it hurt to look at.

He didn't remember much, but he remembered that. 

The scent, the sensation of burning alive. The taste of blood on his tongue. Yup, he definitely remembered it.

He opened his eyes to an unfamiliar grey-tiled ceiling, instantly regretting it. He squinted, migraine clawing into his brain. The lights bled together, his vision doubling, and he lifted his arm to shield himself from the surgical lamps glaring down at him. His skin—his flesh—felt raw, as if it’d been peeled off to expose his nerve-endings to the elements.

The world was too loud, the lights too bright, the steel against his back so cold it was scathing to the touch. So many impressions and sensations came to him at once, battling for his attention.  

His eyes watered from the overwhelming smell of chemicals. The room bathed in the stench of it. Of cleaning detergent, bleach, and something else... an equal part of abomination and genius that had burned through his flesh and seeped into every fibre of his being. He could see the dried residue—a slight greenish shimmer. Felt it tingle all over his skin.

He sat up on what appeared to be an autopsy table. Glancing down at his body, he half-expected to be naked. He was wearing clothes, in an abstract sense of the word: what used to be a decent suit was now discoloured and riddled with burn holes. 

Signs of melting, his mind filed away. Glowing residue. Acidic properties.

A flash of memory hit him with sudden clarity: Sodium hydroxide, sulfuric acid, chromium solution. Zinc sulfide, doped with copper.

A recipe. For death and carnage and oh-such-wonderful chaos.

It was his formula, he realized. Well, a poor attempt at impersonating it, at the very least.

He’d always liked playing around with chemicals. Had always had a knack for turning everyday comforts into lethal weapons. Or so he assumed—who didn't like playing around with chemicals? There were so many possibilities! Toxins, venomous cocktails, gas to make you laugh until your dying breath—the whole nine yards! You could just never go wrong with chemicals—even when it went wrong you'd have a blast!

You will be a curse upon Gotham, a voice whispered accusingly. Your legacy will be death and madness.

That’s all you’re good for, a woman filled in. Food for nightmares.

Well, you're dead, I’d say madness wins the race, he retorted, swatting the memory away.

People and their weird little delusions. Sanity was chemicals too. Just mixed up inside someone's brain instead of a test tube. That's all people were. Carbon balloons filled with water and chemicals. Why pretend to be something else? 

Madness, sanity... it was all the same thing, really. But where a sane man would be burdened by doubts, trying to deny what should be obvious out of some misguided sense of right and wrong, a madman was free. 

He continued inspecting himself, but found no signs of recent scarring or wounds, only a few faded scars here and there. He trailed the outline of a scar on his throat. Seemed he’d lived an eventful life.

His skin was an unnatural shade of white, his nails a dark purple that was just shy of black. He decided he liked purple—it did go along nicely with his complexion.

Pale as death. Perhaps paler still. No wonder they’d thought him a corpse.

No cuts though. Didn’t seem like they’d started the actual autopsy yet. He couldn't help feeling a little disappointed.

Way to leave a guy hanging!  Imagine if he’d woken up with his rib-cage split open like a flower—wouldn’t that be a story to tell the kids!

Did he have kids?

Somehow, the thought made him nauseous. Or maybe that was the room spinning.

Granted, he didn't know much about kids, but he liked them well enough. Whereas kids were self-serving, adults tended to hide behind pretentious masks of chivalry and righteousness. Always with their hidden agendas. Kids were honest, impressionable—both good qualities to take advantage of. There was potential in kids. But then again, he could just spare himself the trouble and get a pet. Maybe a rabid dog, or a hyena.

With curious hands, he traced the curves and planes of his face. He hissed as he brushed past a particularly sore spot. With no mirror to contradict him, he decided it was a handsome face.

He snatched the name tag from his toe, reading the name out loud to himself.

”John Doe, huh.”

Might as well have said, unknown.

How terribly appropriate.

A burst of spasms racketed through him, and it took him a moment to realise he was laughing. His throat hurt, the laugh fracturing into hoarse wheezes and broken giggles, but he couldn't help it—didn't care to. Pain was familiar. Pain, he could manage just fine. But the headache was distracting, stretching the lines and curves of the morgue into weird proportions. His laughter built and swelled, bouncing off the walls and multiplying, an audience bordering on hysterical. The last of the laughter ebbed out of his system. As his laughter died out, the morgue plunged back into silence, and he was alone.

Well, the dead-silence is to be expected.

He might have laughed, but suddenly—as if someone had flipped a switch—he wasn’t in the mood.

The dead made for a poor audience.

Was there someone out there who would come to claim him like the others on the slabs? Or was he just another nameless Narrows rat left to be forgotten? No, that couldn't possibly be the case—he wasn't some second-rate performer, he was the main act!

John. It wasn’t half-bad, if a little mediocre. He could be a John. He could be anyone. 

For now. He’d borrow it until it was time to unveil the magician inside the vanishing cabinet. 

First, he needed to get out of here. The persistent silence gave way for too much noise, thoughts and doubts crawling out of their hidey holes to prod at him, taunt him.

Muddled memories pushed at him and the migraine dug deeper into his brain. He didn’t want them. He fell into flashes of colours, a gallery of blurred faces without names. Some he should probably know, but they were all strangers. It didn't matter. They weren't important. He didn't need memories—they were shackles, a cage. Remembering meant being confined to expectations, but expectations were boring, predictable.

He hated predictable. And any comedian knew a joke loses its purpose if the audience already knows the punchline. 

The room closed in on him, whispering voices growing into a crescendo, cascading off the naked walls. Laughing, screaming, begging. And then one voice, louder than the rest—gravel and fury in one. It drowned out all the other voices—obliterating them.

Now there was only that low growl, the raspy breathing of a monster caught between man and something darker. A beacon of darkness in a world that was otherwise imposingly bright.

It felt suspiciously like home.   

He followed that voice, to the dark corners of the morgue. The darkness seemed to seep through the walls. The shadows came alive, morphing into a towering silhouette that tried to impersonate a human but was so. Much. More.

A flash of glowing white eyes and black wings and an insatiable appetite for violence. The beast in man’s clothing.

John’s mouth went dry, with equal parts terror and excitement. A strange sort of longing coursed through him, rousing a new bout of giggles.

Come here. We both know you want to hurt me.

An angry growl resonated from the darkness. Only because it is necessary, the beast insisted. Only because you give me no other choice.

John laughed. Somehow, I knew you’d say that.

The rest of the world fell away, leaving only him and the monster, staring at each other. And just like that, reality clicked into place.

This was what he wanted. What he needed. His stomach clenched tightly in anticipation.

He spread his arms wide in invitation, aching for the release of tension he knew the darkness would bring, the satisfaction of blooded knuckles and broken bones. It offered much more than a distraction: it offered purpose, and chaos, and sweet delicious violence. No inhibitions, no rules. Just him and the beast. Tumbling into a world that was entirely their own.

Come on. Come out into the light.

But the beast did not come out to play.  He pouted, letting his arms fall to his sides. 

Don't be shy, sweetums, I know you missed me!

The beast did not respond, it edged further into darkness, blending more and more with the wall, slipping from his grasp.

There was something on the tip of his tongue. Something he’d forgotten.

A name, barely out of his reach. Something worthy of a beast. But what? What was it? And out of everything else, why did this feel important to remember? Why did not knowing feel so much like losing?

He ransacked his brain for answers, but nothing came to mind.

He snarled, frustrated at himself. He could forget everything else—it didn’t matter! But this?! It seemed preposterous that he could forget something so important: it was like forgetting he had arms or a brain!

Don't fret, darling. I'll figure it out once I get the old noodle working properly.

An ear-deafening tok echoed through the room—or maybe just through his head—and the darkness scattered, the beast vanishing as John snapped back to reality.

The sound came from the corridor. Tik tok, tik tok like a grandfather clock. No, not a clock—the timing was slightly off. He focused on the sound. Click clack. Heels. Click clack. Outside the door. Each step seemed to rattle his head a little more, like a door being shaken off its hinges by a persistent intruder. 

The door to the morgue opened and an unsurprisingly startled M.E gasped as their gazes locked.

Her hand went to her heart, the notepad she’d been holding landing on the floor with a clatter. Her mouth worked on a question, but no words came out.

”Why, hello!” he quipped, hopping off the autopsy table, wobbling slightly as he landed. ”Come to check up on your patient, Doc? I’m sure you didn’t expect such a sudden recovery but I guess it’s true what they say—a laughter a day really does keep the reaper away!”

He laughed. She didn’t. She simply stared at him, frozen in place. Not surprising, but he felt a frown coming on none the less. Kids these days, no appreciation for good old comedy. 

”You—you’re not supposed to be...” she stumbled.

”Alive?” he filled in. “Well, Doc, look at it this way: now there is a vacancy in this wonderful lil’ morgue of yours! I mean, this place is simply to die for!”

”I have to tell my boss,” she said, breathless. Boy, she really was dull, wasn’t she? No sense of comedic genius even when it stared her in the face.

A restless tingle began to crawl up his spine. The tingle spread across his skin, searing into his flesh, his bones, into his mind. A beep rang out in the room, no, not the room. His head. His ears.

He groaned, pressing his palms into his eyes. 

“A-are you okay?” she asked, still cautiously keeping her distance. Smart one.

”Ah, still working out the kinks,” he said, willing the migraine away. "Well, I should be going then."

”Um, I need you to hold on for a moment. I should report to my boss first. There are, uh, all kinds of weird folks around here. People taking bribes. Selling bodies. My boss wouldn’t—I could get fired if a body suddenly disappears.”

"I see," John said, beaming a reassuring smile. He glanced down at the name tag pinned to her white coat. ”Then I’m glad to tell you, Sherry, that I have a solution that benefits us both.”

She frowned. ”What do you mean?”

He turned away to swipe a scalpel from the operating table and shrugged. ”Easy peasy—you take my place," his voice dipped low, "I take yours.”

She watched him warily. "Put that down. I-I don't know what you're playing at but, if this is a joke, it isn't funny, sir," she said, her voice taking on a harsher tone. 

Pain shot through John's skull as if he'd been struck. Another memory came to him unbidden: You think you're funny, don't you? The voice was familiar, taunting, and it grated on his nerves. Brown curls. Heavy makeup. Clowns with no sense of a good punchline.

Not funny, huh? I’ll show you funny.

“Sir? If you don’t put it down I’m going to call security," the M.E said, but all John could hear was the high-pitched laugh of a clown.

Something seemed to take hold of him then—a rage that burst through the floodgates and pushed him into action. Cackling laughter cut through the air—his laughter—as he lounged forward and sliced the scalpel in a wide arch.

Sherry’s arms shot up to shield her face and the scalpel missed its mark, slicing a thin line across her hand. She ducked with a loud shriek that threatened to split his head wide open. He followed the sound of that high-pitched laughter. He couldn't tell whether it came from her or him anymore.

The scalpel slipped from his grasp. He had to stop to lean onto the autopsy table. His vision was swimming, his jaws clenching with a rush of nausea. 

She ran for the door, but he was fast. He slammed into her.

She kicked him back, then grabbed a metal tablet from a counter and slammed it into the side of his head. He fell to his knees. Blood trickled down his forehead and onto the tiles below him.

Sherry had guts, he would give her that much. Now if only she could stay put so he could rip them out through her throat...

But no such luck. The door flew open and a man entered, followed by two security guards.

”Sherry! Are you okay?” the man exclaimed. ”What the hell is going on?”

”Boss! I—he attacked me! He was supposed to be dead, but he’s not!”

They all turned to him. He blinked through the blur of their silhouettes and smiled. 

“Hello boys! Always nice with an audience. Wanna hear a joke?”

One of the security guards tackled him to the ground. The other helped turn him over and pushed his face into the floor.

He supposed that meant no.

Rude.

”This is some way to treat your patients, doc,” John managed. Though he supposed they weren't actual doctors.

That unseemly nausea came crawling back. His attention drifted from the people holding him down, back to the comforting confines of darkness in the corner of the room. Reality seemed to split at the seams, the shadows growing longer. He felt the beast’s presence. Felt its ever-watchful eyes on him.

He writhed underneath the security guards, finding a strength and perseverance amidst all the insanity. They struggled to keep him pinned down, and it took both security guards and the morgue's boss to hold him still. The beast made no move to interfere. Just basked in the amusement of John’s predicament. Not the fun kind of amusement either—no, no, no. The beast never laughed, did he? He was always stubbornly glum. Didn’t even have the courtesy to see the funny side of things even if he offered it up to him on a silver platter!

Always taking and not giving anything in return. This thing between them began to feel terribly one-sided.

Well, no more of that. He was a different man now. He had standards. If the beast thought it could just watch from the side-lines it was gravely mistaken...

He gave a laugh. “Sorry, darling. Pay-per-view only from now on."

”What’s wrong with him?” asked Sherry. ”Did I...hit him too hard?”

”He’s probably just some nut-job escaped from Arkham,” said her boss. ”Come on, let’s make sure he gets back where he belongs.”

Arkham. That sounded familiar.

John was hauled up on his feet by the two security guards. His mind wandered off. Next thing he knew they were stuffing him into a car.

As soon as he saw the outlines of the building, he knew he’d been there before. He had it memorized down to the smallest detail—imprinted into his brain so vividly not even a chemical bath could dissolve it.

Where blood glued the tiles together and wretched souls clawed at the walls, their cries lulling him to sleep at night.

His own little palace of madness.

Oh, Arkham.

Home Sweet Home.

Chapter Text

 

One week later


 

 

John woke to another grey-tiled ceiling, only this room didn’t reek of detergent and metal. It smelled of cheap soap and madness.

Arkham.

Right. After the ordeal of his arrival, he’d been… sedated. Or something. He remembered the sting of coldness in his neck, possibly a needle. He rubbed his fingertips together, flakes of dried blood coming loose from his skin. The white of his nails were blacker now than the purple discolouring which had become their new normal. Blood crusted under his fingertips was probably a bad sign. Well, for somebody.

He sat up, hands going to his face. Bandages. Looks like someone had tried to patch him together.

He looked around, trying to blink away the drowsiness of sleep. Not natural sleep. Not like waking up in a morgue, either. This was different. Everything was clouded in a drug-induced haze, like all the vibrancy of the world had been dimmed. His eyelids stung, his head feeling simultaneously hollow and filled with lead. The sounds around him were muted, like he was stuck under water: the steps outside his door were reduced to low thuds, the guards’ voices sounding much farther away than they were.

His gaze fell to the numbness in his arm, to the tube inserted into his forearm and connecting to the IV bag rigged up next to the bed. They’d drugged him. And not in the fun way!

With a disgusted grunt, he yanked the IV tube out of his arm. Even without memories, he knew the medication had robbed him of a part of himself—he felt wrong. As if he’d been muted as well. Drained of colour to fit this boring world of black and white.

He should be furious, but all he could muster was a vague discomfort. Waking up in the morgue had been bad—but this… this was infinitely worse. Like he would cease to exist if he closed his eyes.

For an hour—two hours? three?—he sat staring into the blandness of the wall, watching the subtle patterns blend together. Perhaps it had only been a minute, perhaps a life-time. The drugs made it hard to tell.

For a long time he simply sat there, aimless and exhausted.

Once he felt the haze lift, he looked around the room, counting the few necessities he’d been given: a bed, a chair, and a small drawer. Minimalized living at its finest!

Judging by the indention in the mattress, it appeared he’d been in bed for a while. A few days, at least. But his head... he felt like he'd slept for years. With an IV-bag full of medication hooked up to him, it was possible he had. Though he supposed he should have starved to death if that was the case. All medication and no nutrition would make anyone a dull boy. There was a joke in there somewhere, but he had no energy to find it right now.

His attention drifted to a red dot blinking in the ceiling. A camera. The staffs’ own Looney-tunes, 24 hours a day! Boy, their standards had changed. Extra security, too, considering the array of voices passing outside his room. They were clearer now, his hearing seemingly getting back to normal. It appeared the drugs were beginning to finally wear off.

He gave a little wave to the camera, his movements more sluggish than he would have liked. 

As if on cue, the door opened, revealing a black woman with glasses. She had a stern look about her, with her hair tied back in a bun and her skirt reaching down to her ankles. A convincing illusion of professionalism if ever he saw one. 

Ah, Arkham doctors and their delusions of being anything but cheap impersonations of the real thing.

She gestured into the room. ”May I?”

Mysomeone’s eager. Skipping ahead of the small talk and straight to business. Busy bee.

John smiled and shot up from he bed, straining against the rush of nausea and dizziness that followed. ”But of course! Come right in, Doc. Make yourself at home!”

”I would like to take this time for us to properly introduce ourselves,” the woman said as she entered. “I’m Doctor Maria Martinez. I guess you could say I'm in charge of this ward.”

”John Doe,” he said, giving her a playful salute. "Comedian extraordinaire!"

”John Doe,” she echoed skeptically, placing a notebook on the drawer. “You must have had another name… before coming here.”

He shrugged, thinking back to the morgue. It felt like ages ago. ”Maybe. Probably. John’s as good a name as any. Though you shouldn’t get too attached—I like to keep my options open.”

“I see, I suppose we can go with that for now. May I sit down?" she eyed the chair, waiting for his approval. Everything about her radiated confidence—the kind of confidence brought upon by self-importance and endless ambition.

"Go right ahead," he replied, remaining standing as she sat down on the only chair. He circled behind her, observing her reaction.

She barely glanced his way. Nor did she insist on him sitting down as he had expected. Instead, she crossed on leg over the other and looked straight ahead—the very picture of composure! Was she trusting him or vastly underestimating him? Why, he ought to feel offended.

She was acting like she was in control of the situation, making it seem like she trusted him. Or was she actually one of those people who believed in the potential good in everyone? How easy it would be to grab her from behind—he could grab that pen in her chest pocket and stab it into her artery and that would be the end of it! She’d be long gone—yet another stain on the asylum floor—before the guards had unlocked the door. So much faith in a complete stranger. Stupid… but ballsy. But then again, she might just be as crazy as he was. Nobody stayed sane in Arkham for very long. It was built on madness, for madness, by maniacs. A long vicious circle of insanity!

"How are you feeling, John?" she asked, still not turning her head. "You’ve had a rough start.”

“Sweet as peaches!" he exclaimed, circling back around to face her. His body begged to differ, turning his legs to jelly, and he stumbled against the bed frame. What had these people given him? His mind felt like mashed potatoes. His body even worse.

"Ooups!" he exclaimed, straightening up with a smile he didn't feel. "Must’ve been some hardcore drug-cocktail you fed me, doc—I’ve slept like a dead-born baby.”

Martinez looked him over. "Well, after your recent violent episode, we felt the need to sedate you. The side-effects should wear off soon." 

"Violence?" He pressed his hand to his chest, doing his best to look appalled. "Me? Oh, I would never."

"You experienced severe trauma... in all the confusion, it's understandable that you became disoriented. You were in bad shape when they brought you here—do you remember that? For lack of a better word, you went into a frenzy.”

Bone against bone. Blood-splatter on tiled floors. A man without a face. Yup, he remembered. 

He shrugged. “I remember beating someone with a lamp."

"Actually, it was a baton," she reminded him.

"Hm. I remember a lamp. That would've been funnier! Imagine the headlines: maniac shines light on Arkham violence!"

Martinez remained serious.

“Tough crowd, huh.” A baton, she said? Where had he—Ah. He clapped his hands together. "Oh, right! How’s that guard? I hope he put that finger on ice.”

“The guard’s fine,” she said, ever-patient. “The patient you beat up is still in the infirmary, however.”

“Eh. That fella’s overly sensitive, if you ask me.”

“John,” her voice took on a reprimanding tone. “We don’t engage in or tolerate fighting in this facility. You are both here to heal. Usually, you would end up in isolation, but I’m willing to overlook it this once because of your condition.” She crossed her arms. “Why did you attack Sionis?”

“Your guess is as good as mine.”

Confusion passed over her face. “You don’t know each other?”

“Nope! Just don’t like people touching what’s mine!”

Martinez frowned. “What do you mean, John? Did he take something from you?”

What had he meant? He’d already forgotten his train of thought. Well, whatever. Couldn’t have been that important then. 

He shrugged. “Nope, don't know him. Don’t care to. The guy can’t see a joke even if you beat him with it!”

“Then why did you do it?”

“That’s a great question! Let's say I didn’t like his face—if you can call it that. Surprised I’m the first to try and help him fix it.”

Martinez observed him for a moment. “Are you sure? You could barely walk when they brought you here, yet the second you saw him... You went completely livid. It seemed personal.

“Puh-retty sure! But hey, I’m just a maniac suffering from amnesia—don’t take my word for it!”

Martinez glanced away, trying to piece things together. Good luck, John thought. He'd tried to make sense of this himself, but came up short every time.

That name. Sionis. Familiar-ish.

Anger welled up inside him again. It would appear they did have some past connection. 

It doesn’t matter. I don’t want to know.

But if skull-face knew who he was... John wasn't sure he liked that. This was his fresh start, his rebirth; he couldn't have someone ruin that!

He still felt like he was missing the centre piece of the puzzle! There was something he had to remember. Perhaps he would have to pay Dull-skull another visit in the near future. See if he couldn’t get the old noodle up and running again.

“John? You still with me?” Martinez asked. 

“Oh, don’t you worry, Doc,” said John, snapping back to reality. “I'll make sure to apologize the next time I see 'im. Water under the bridge, and all that. I don’t know what or who I was before, but I'm feeling all better now!”

”I think it may be better if you keep your distance, for a while. I'm sure Sionis would appreciate that, considering."

"Humbug! He'll forgive me! I'm a charmin' guy."

"I'm sure he will," Martinez said, but the monotony in her voice disagreed. "Your bandages need to be replaced," she said, steering them back on track, "to make sure there won't be any infections. Your skin is still sensitive, so this might hurt."

”Promise? Don’t fret, Doc. Me and pain—we’re old pals." He plopped down on the bed. “How long did you say I’ve been here?”

Martinez dragged the chair closer and began inspecting the bandages. “A week.”

"A week." Then that would explain the IV. And the impaired… well, everything!

Sensing John's suspicions, Martinez continued, “We decided to keep you sedated to give you time to heal. As a result of your hypersensitivity, we could barely touch you without causing you severe pain. You were delirious from over-stimulation, raved on about some beast. Sedating you seemed to be the only way for you to rest.”

He supposed that made sense. Back in the morgue, it had felt like his skull was about to crack open at the faintest sound. His head still hurt, but now it was manageable: a throbbing ache rather than his brain being clad in barbed wire. 

"I’ve been meaning to ask: are the walls supposed to be bleeding goo, or is that me?"

"Hallucinations are a side-effect of the sedatives we gave you... none of the usual seemed to take—you kept waking up, so we had to give you something stronger. Something new."

Something new, huh? He was fairly certain that using a patient as a test subject was a violation of some human right or whatever, but Arkham had always played by their own rules. 

"Hypersensitivity, eh? Does that make my diagnosis an official Drama Queen?"

That earned him a small smile. Looked like Martinez wasn’t entirely humourless, after all.

"Not quite,” she said. “The sensitivity appears to be a side-effect of what happened to you, it should go away. Once all the sedatives wear off, we can set the right diagnosis and get you the proper medication."

"So, how long before I can join the other beauty queens in the Gotham Pageant?”

“It’s too early to say,” Martinez said, uncoiling the bandages. “With a situation like yours, it’s hard to—" Her mouth fell open, her eyes widening more and more for every strip of fabric removed.

“Well?” John prompted after a moment of silence. “How do I look?”   

”That’s...extraordinary,” she breathed. ”It’s—I can’t believe it. You're healing." 

”I thought that was the point?”

“The reconstruction of your face was a tricky feat—yet there’s barely even scarring. Your skin’s repairing itself. It’s, well, it shouldn’t be possible. It’s quite a miracle.”

”A bold statement coming from a prophet of science,” he pointed out.

“Whatever made you like this must have tampered with your DNA, somehow. Perhaps it accelerated your body’s ability to heal itself.”

"So what, I'm superman now?"

"Hardly. You're still human, John... just enhanced in some aspects. It would explain why usual medication doesn't work." 

“You wouldn’t happen to have a mirror on you? All this talk of enhancements and reconstructions is really making me curious what kind of Nip 'N Tuck you guys have been up to.”

“I think you should wait—just for a couple of days. Without knowing the extent of your memory loss and the trauma… If the image doesn’t coincide with how you picture yourself, it could be very disorienting.”

“One little peek is all I ask!”

“Give it three days.”

He crossed his arms. “Patience is a virtue I ditched a long time ago.”

“Waiting for something sweet makes it taste much better, my mom always said.”

“Hate to tell ya, but she sounds like a bore.”

“Oh, she is—doesn’t mean she isn’t right, though. Just three days. Then I promise you, I will get you a mirror.”

“Fine. Though I don’t see how I could possibly harm myself by looking at my own reflection: I don’t remember what I’m supposed to look like, or even who I am. And I prefer it that way.”

“The first step to recovery is self-awareness,” said Martinez, walking over to the drawer. She fetched her notebook and returned to her seat, then readied the ballpoint pen with a click. ”In order to help you, I need to know what—or who—I have to work with. So do you.”

“First you don’t want me to know who I am, now you do? That’s very confusing to me, Doc. Make up your mind will ya?”

“John… can’t you just play along for a while? Trust that I know best—or don’t, it’s up to you. Just give this a chance, that’s all I ask. Hell, I might even throw in a little something for your efforts.” She picked up a deck of cards from her pocket.

John smiled. “Yeesh, are you always this lenient with your patients?”

“Call me desperate—the board expects results, one way or the other. I prefer the one that will let me sleep at night. So, let’s start slow."

"Gimme a deck of cards and I'll go however fast or slow you want." He winked, then laughed at the disgusted look on the good doctor's face.

"Can you recall your real name?” she asked.

“I’ve told you—did you forget? Perhaps you’re the one who should be examined, Doc.”

“John Doe is an alias. You were born under a different name, weren’t you?”

He shrugged. “Don’t know, don’t care. John Doe is a stepping stone, one I intend to use until I remember what I set out to do.”

“And what do you think you set out to do, John?”

Dangerous chemical solutions. Blooded knuckles. Unhinged laughter.

Nothing good, he knew.

“Who knows?” he said, giving another shrug. “Maybe I came to Gotham for redemption. Maybe I'm here to clean up the streets. Maybe I offed some rich kid’s parents. The thing about Gotham, Doc… either way, it’s all the same thing.”

“That’s awfully nihilistic of you to say. And here I thought you were a comedian.”

“Can’t have good comedy without a dose of uncomfortable truths.”

That gave her pause. She smiled, shaking her head as if laughing at herself. "Touché."

“So? Anymore burning questions you wanna ask? You seem to be the curious type.”  

“A few,” Martinez admitted. “How old would you say you are?”

He swept out with his arms. “Take a guess—somewhere between 10 and 92! Take your pick! Doesn’t matter if you’re wrong, I can’t correct you anyway. Either way, I look good for my age!” He gave a laugh, then had to stop to cough, the taste of blood souring his mouth.

“Gotta lay off the bleach,” he rasped. “Bad for the liver.”

“You should refrain from exerting yourself, you’re still in recovery. To be honest, I’m surprised you can still talk."

“What can I say? I’m resilient. Like the plague.”

 “I believe you. Not just anybody would survive what you have, I'm sure.”

She glanced down at her notes. “Are you a cat or a dog person?”

“How is that at all relevant to my recovery?"

"It's relevant to you, which makes it relevant. The answers per se, aren't that important, believe it or not. How you answer them, on the other hand, tells me a lot about you."

"Fine. Neither. Dogs are dumb and cats are… in the way. They just always show up where you least expect. Always ruining the fun!”

Martinez noted it down. “Do you have a favourite colour?”

“Black and purple—shared first place. Can’t have a good bruise without ‘em!”

“I see. How about food? A particular restaurant you like, perhaps?”

A memory: the scent of pizza, a sign beginning with A. “It’s red,” someone had said, surprised, fingers brushing through his hair. Something stirred in John’s chest, fizzy and intrusive—pleasant at first, then painful. His throat turned dry, his insides aching with a feeling he couldn’t quite place.

Loss. Disappointment. Anger. Regret. All of them at once.

believed you.

His own words, foreign on his tongue, but unmistakably familiar all the same. So much invested in that one statement: trust, affection, hurt. Raw and vulnerable. So unlike any other emotion he’d ever felt—or even thought himself capable of.

He felt weary, despite the drugs wearing off. More so than when he’d first woken up.

He’d take the migraines any day compared to feeling like this.  

“Never really cared for food,” he said, pushing the memory aside.

“What do you care about?” Martinez asked.

He mulled it over, knitting his fingers together. “I don’t know.”

It was the most honest answer he’d ever given, and perhaps the most honest he’d ever be.

“You’re doing great,” said Martinez, smiling softly. “Let’s play a game of word-association: I say a word, you say the first thing that pops into your head.”

“Oh, games. Now you're talking." 

“Let’s begin with ‘fun’.”

“Gotta go with chemicals,” he responded, thinking of the flashes of colours and heat that could split worlds apart. "Can't have some good fun without them!"

She nodded. “Guess I should have expected as much."

He shrugged. "You should try it sometime, it may blow your mind."

She gave him a bland stare. "Ha. How about 'freedom'?"

“There is no freedom like madness. Or is it escape? Hm. Guess it's all the same, in the end.”

Martinez raised a brow. “I would have to disagree. Don't forget why you're here, John. Do try to take this seriously."

"Oh, I am," he promised.

"Very well. Let's continue: home?”

His gaze slid to the wall, longing for the spires he knew would be visible in the distance, had there been any windows to the outside world. “Gotham.”

She leaned slightly forward, watching him carefully. “Love.”

He smiled. “Bats.”

“Interesting,” she said, taking notes. “What about… intimacy?”

“Darkness.”

“Hm. Well, your responses are getting quicker. That is good progress." 

“Guess your drugs are finally wearing off, Doc. Can’t say I’ll miss ‘em.”

“At this rate, you’ll consume our entire pharmacy… Anyone else would be a vegetable.” She shook her head in disbelief. “Never seen anything like it.”

“What can I say? I’m a new kind of monster.”

 

Three days later


 

John stared at the floor in anticipation, bouncing on his toes as Martinez prepared the mirror as promised. 

"Are you ready?" she asked, holding the back of the mirror towards him. "I'll count down from three, then I'll turn it around, okay?"

He nodded, excitement surging through him like a current. 

Three.

Two.

One.

She turned the mirror over, watching him closely for any signs of unpredictable negative reactions.

His hair was green, and so was the pin-points of radioactive waste staring back at him. Irises so green they almost seemed yellow. He'd known he was pale, but seeing it fused with the green, his face, how the whiteness had seeped into every pore and fibre of his body... it was definitely a look. He'd never blend into a crowd like this. It was a face to remember.

With curious fingers, he felt the edges and lines of his face. The panes of milky white skin, the sharp jaw-line, the pale lips. Barely any scarring, as Martinez had gawked at before. Just the same scar on his neck, and a few others on his arms and chest. He had to admit, he was a good-looking fella. 

His reflection. He felt strangely possessive over it. This was all him, his alone. No matter who he'd been before, this was all new.

Suddenly John seemed an offensive understatement of a name. It didn't fit anymore. It wasn't who he was.

"Gotta say, green is my colour," he said and smiled, thrilled to see the rows of perfect pearly-white teeth as he did. 

Martinez relaxed. "I would have to agree."

"With a face like this, I'm beginning to understand why you've been holdin' out on me. Want to keep me all to yourself, don't ya?"

"Easy now, Narcissus, lest I have to add another diagnosis to your file," Martinez said and put the mirror away, a cheeky smile on her lips.

John resisted the impulse to snatch it back. Sensing the fun part was over, he fell on the bed.

Martinez placed her hands on her hips.“I know you think this is tedious, but we have to talk about what happened. It's part of the process, part of your rehabilitation."

He flung his arm over his eyes. "I don't see how talking about something I barely remember is gonna help me cope with... whatever I'm supposed to cope with."

"Just tell me whatever comes to mind, any little detail that you may remember."

“There’s nothing to remember.”

“I was informed you tried to attack the medical examiner," she said. "With a scalpel, if I remember correctly."

“So I had a bad day,” he shrugged. “It happens."

“You experienced something truly traumatic, and you acted in what you thought was self-defence," said Martinez, ever the reassuring doctor. "You would have been confused, scared...It’s completely normal.”

John propped himself up on his elbows and raised an eyebrow at her. ”You saying I’m not special, Doc?”

”I’m saying you’re human, John," she said sympathetically. "Everyone can make mistakes. We all get scared, and when we get scared we sometimes get angry. Sometimes even violent. What I want you to know, is that you’re safe here. We will help you get through this, to re-enter society again. Nobody will judge you here.”

Safe, huh? Tell that to the guy who lost a finger!

“You’re sceptical,” Martinez noticed. “That’s fine. Many are, at first. But your trauma is something we can help you with.”

John scoffed. ”Why would you even want to? What kind of lunatic would choose to dedicate their life to this circus of misfits?” He gestured around the room.

”We do not use such terms here, John. The patients here are people. You are a person, just like me. Arkham exists to help people like you, to find their way. To be part of society again. However, that requires some effort from you. Anything you can tell me about what happened will help me figure out how we can help you.”

John glanced to the small patch of wall he could see outside his door, quickly losing interest. She was fishing for answers where there were no answers to be found. What he remembered were just fractured images and distorted voices. And then there was the beast, who’d shrunk back into its shadowy den of who knows where.

”Did you repaint the walls?” he asked, gaze fixed on the mint green outside the door. “I like it! Better than that dull grey.”

Martinez watched him with growing interest. ”Are you implying you’ve been here before, John?”

John folded his hands on his knee. ”Oh, Doc. I never kiss and tell. Not that I would remember it even if I had.”

She jolted down a note in her notebook. ”As a matter of fact, we did repaint the walls in the corridors. The board thought the green would add to a calmer atmosphere. Security’s been updated as well, as you can see by the camera up there. We even have a proper recreation room now.”

John raised an eyebrow. ”Who did you have to blackmail to make that happen? Thought no one cared about Arkham.”

”So did I. Turns out the newest addition to the board does care. Enough to fund the whole operation. He’s given a considerable amount to make some big changes around here.”

”Must be a real generous fella to spend so much money on us crazies. So, who might this prince charming be, eh? Might need to drop by and ask for a loan in the future.” 

”Bruce Wayne.” Martinez studied his face as if the name should mean something to him.

”Hm. Sounds like a spoiled brat,” he said.

Something passed across her face, and she scribbled down a few more words in her notebook. ”Considering the many tabloids of his other endeavours, I’m sure many would agree with you, but Mr. Wayne has made it clear he cares about this facility—that makes him all right in my book.”

John propped up his chin on his hand. ”A guy that spends that much money on psychopaths and freaks has some skeletons himself, if you ask me.”

”Given his history, very likely. We all have our crosses to carry, I’m certain Mr. Wayne has his. But let’s talk about you, John. Is there anything you do remember from before you woke up?”

“You’re a tenacious one, aren’t ya, Doc?”

“So I’ve been told. I need to set up a profile of you, in order to assign you the proper treatment. I understand it might be frightening to remember…but they’re only memories, John. They can’t hurt you.”

”Oh, I wouldn’t say that. I once had a friend named Freddy—happiest guy, really. Looked just like his mother. She ran off with some other guy and it absolutely crushed his old man. His dad fancied the bottle, you see, and after she left...it got a lot worse. And this one night, he got really angry. Confused his son for his wife. And poor Freddy, well, let’s just say they had to skip out on the open casket.”

Martinez stared at him for a momentthen put down the pen. ”You like telling stories, don’t you? To deflect the uncomfortable. You use humour to cope.”

”There isn’t much to cope with,” John shrugged, eyeing the pen. “I woke up in a morgue—born anew. That’s about it!”

”Your memories may come back,” Martinez reassured him.

John did not like the sound of that.


 Two days later

Martinez gave a ground-shaking sigh as she put down another ink-blot sheet on the desk. "John, you can't just say 'bats' every time."

"You told me to say the first thing that springs to mind."

She slid the sheets aside, seemingly having given up on finding out anything new through the Rorschach perspective. She knitted her fingers together. "I heard you caused some disturbances in the recreation room this morning--stole the remote from one of the orderlies. May I ask what brought this on?"

"Can't miss my favourite TV show, you know how it is."

"I've noticed you seem to have developed a ... fascination for a certain caped crusader."

"It's okay, Doc, you can say obsession," said John. "It's just us girls."

"We choose which channel to show with care, as to not upset the other patients. Batman isn't... he's not a good influence."

"Huh, thought you'd like him---with his whole justice-shtick and everything. Most people do."

"Most people tend to forget that despite all the good that he does... he does just as much bad. You saw the state of the patient he brought in yesterday... broken bones, a dislocated jaw."

He'd seen it through the bars of the recreation room. Dressed entirely in black, the Batman had entered, though he kept mostly to the shadows of the entrance, carrying an unconscious criminal over his shoulder. Without a word, he'd dropped the fella on the floor and disappeared into the night.

So very dramatic.

Martinez shook her head. "Not very heroic, is it? As I'm sure you're aware, he is the reason why many of our patients are here to begin with. Most he captured and brought himself. Others he... inspired, shall we say? For every person he locks up, a few others crawl out from the undergrowth to challenge him."

"Well, lucky I heal so quickly then."

"John."

"Don't worry, I'm good with rodents. I had a rat once. Not a flying one, though, which is... disappointing in hindsight. Poor Billy got eaten by a snake."

"This isn't a joke. Batman is dangerous."

"So is high cholesterol. Doesn't stop anyone from eating junk, does it?"  

Martinez carried on with her reprimands and warnings, but he'd stopped listening.

He'd found his darkness. In the spotlight of all places.

And now it couldn't run off and hide again. 


 

The following two weeks were torturous. Martinez was away on some educational trip or what not, and her stand-in, Dr. Brown, had made it his goal to deduce how many bruises you could fit on one person. Spurred on by vengeance for something John was sure he'd never done, the stand-in had him starved, bathed in ice, and beaten. Something about him looking suspiciously much like this one lunatic... something about murder and havoc. Yada, yada, yada. it was hard to keep up with his rants. 

The doctor had cancelled all John's sessions, confined him to the isolation cell, with no counselling and no interaction save for his unpleasant company. The voices came flooding back. The laughter, the woman reeking of cigarette smoke and cheap perfume, the blood on his face smeared into a red-lipped smile as he tried to wash it away. 

Scrub. Scrub. Scrub.

Until his hands were pink and his face sore from friction.

You just. kept. pushing.

She'd wanted a reaction, reveled in the pain on his face, the fear in his eyes. Somewhere between bottles, she'd been too drunk or too self-absorbed to see that fear replaced with cold calculation and unchecked rage.

Dr. Brown wanted a reaction too, but just like the snake lady, he'd regret it.

It had all happened in a flash: a ball-point pen in John's hand one second, then in the doctor’s throat the next.

He’d spent the last week holed up in the isolation cell, with no company since, little to no water, and a strict diet of pills on the menu. When he refused to eat them the guards would help the orderlies force-feed him, while pinning him down on the floor. No doctor wanted anything to do with him. So much for progress.

But today, Martinez had returned.

“You need to eat,” was the first thing she said, peering into the padded room.

That it hadn’t been his decision to stop was left unsaid. He expected her to ask him what had happened, to tell him that he had been doing so well, but she remained silent. Disappointed, perhaps.

John uncurled from his sitting position. “I figured: to hell with size zero—I’m going for a negative one!”

A brief pause, then she said, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have left you alone, not when you were so vulnerable.”

“Oh, don’t beat yourself up—that’s what the staff is for!”

She winced. “I understand that you’re angry—I’m angry too. For a doctor to take advantage, to treat a patient in that manner…” she trailed off, not knowing how to continue. “We’re not all like that. I hope you will give this another chance.”

“Oh, I’m not angry. Not anymore—I don’t hold those kinds of grudges. We all have our flaws! Who am I to hold his daddy issues against him? But I don't know, Doc, you might wanna have him checked--seems to have me confused with the ghost of his past or something."

"He died in the ambulance."

"Ah, guess that saves you some overtime then."

"Good riddance."

"Thought you didn't encourage violence," John pointed out.

"I don't, but what he did... It would be a lie to say he will be missed. I don't condone your actions, John, but I'm in no place to judge you for protecting yourself. On a professional note, it's in my interest to make sure this never happens again."

"Not making any promises. The old noodle is acting up again."

"I heard you blacked out again," Martinez said, concerned.

“I didn’t black out per se—I remember all of it. I just… couldn’t stop myself.”

“John, I want you to know it wasn’t your fault.”

“I wouldn’t dream of taking credit for another lunatic’s handiwork,” he trailed the line of bruises across his neck and collarbones.

Martinez's shoulders slumped. “What I mean is, it was self-defence. I don’t blame you for doing what you did.”

“You never give up, do you?” John asked, bemused.

“Not as long as there is a chance of recovery.”

John found himself smiling. “Still think I can be saved, huh?”

“With your endurance? You don’t need to be saved, John. You can get through this on your own should you want to—you’re the most resilient person I’ve ever met.”

“Trying to distract me with flattery?”  

“Worth a shot. This whole situation has put me in an awkward position... my leniency towards you, my 'blatant optimism' as they call it, is in question. Needless to say, the board is concerned. One of our doctors is dead, a security guard is missing a finger, a patient is struggling for his life, and your psychiatrist quit." She sighed. "I'm afraid the doctors and therapists at hand are refusing your case. I asked to fill in myself, but instead their limiting our interactions to a bare minimum. The board needs someone to blame, and I'm currently the only one available to play the Black Sheep."

"You weren't the one poking at my homicidal tendencies, Doc."

"Certainly, but it's easy to play judge, jury, and executioner at a distance. I'm glad we have someone like Mr. Wayne, at least, to talk some sense into those bureaucrats. If not for him, things might have escalated. There was talk of transferring you to another facility--outside of Gotham--but Mr. Wayne insisted to have you remain here. And I agree. Moving you now would do more harm than good."

John raised an eyebrow. "What does billionaire boy care whether I stay or not?"

"You'd have to ask him that. I'm just glad he managed to persuade them." 

Bruce Wayne, huh? Always the philanthropist.

"Guess I owe him then."  I'll be sure to send him a 'thank you' card when I get the chance.

"Seems Mr. Wayne isn't the only one who's caught an interest in you. Our newest addition to Arkham, Dr. Quinzel, has asked specifically to be your psychiatrist... and the board accepted. I’ve scheduled you for an appointment with her for tomorrow afternoon.”

“They send in a newbie to deal with one of your trickiest patients? You sure that's a good idea?”

Martinez's face disagreed, disapproval etched into the lines of her face. “You can imagine then how few volunteers they had.”

“Begs the question: what the hell is wrong with her?”

Martinez huffed a laugh. “Guess you must have left quite an impression on her.”

Dr. Quinzel. John had heard about her from the other inmates.

Well, he'd heard her name whispered or shouted in various degrees of pleasure.

The one the female doctors called an over-ambitious fake, whose joyful persona was a mask to hide her true personality. The one the male doctors whispered about in dark corners with a cigarette between their fingers.

The doctor they had nicknamed Harlequin.

Harleen Quinzel. With a name like that, he expected nothing short of entertaining.

"Can't wait to meet her," John said, his curiosity peaked. 

 


 

Dr. Quinzel was young, bright-eyed, and vibrant—so unfit Arkham. She welcomed John with a red-lipped smile, and John decided he was liking her already. 

He gave her a once-over that may have come off as rude to anyone else, but was nothing but a clinical evaluation… and just maybe a hint of appreciation for the wonders of human aesthetic. Everything about her was chic, from the black heels—a tad too high for work—to the sleek blonde hair, neatly pulled back into a bun. Her lips were bright red, too fiery a colour to fit inside these dull stone walls. She clearly wanted to fit in, but found compromises where she could. 

Interesting gal. Pretty too, he had to admit. Although he’d discovered he had a particular weakness for black hair. Blackettes? Blands? Blackheads—no, that was something else, he was sure. Why wasn’t there a proper word for this?

Well, blondes would do in a pinch.

“Hello, John,” the psychiatrist said, her sweet voice bringing him back to reality. She took a seat opposite of him. She crossed one leg over the other, her smile bordering on suggestive. He could see why the other inmates whispered about her, why some called out her name when going about their private business. She knew how to draw people in—how to use her attributes to her advantage. Clever, clever girl.

There was something else brewing underneath that image of professionalism. Something dangerous.

Desire. 

He offered her a charming smile, one that almost passed for normal. “Well, look at you, Doc—aren’t you a vision! If it wasn’t for the ugly-ass paint-job I’d think I’d died and gone to Heaven—and I’m not even a believer!”

She offered him a polite smile—distanced, professional—but he could tell by the way she turned away to tuck her hair behind her ear that she’d appreciated the compliment.

“I’m Doctor Harleen Quinzel,” she said and boy, what a pretty name it was! “I’m going to be your psychiatrist from today onwards.”

“Harleen Quinzel, eh?” he said, trying out the name on his tongue. “With a name like that, you must have a lot of fun, eh, Harley? Can I call you Harley?”

“Um, sure.”

“I heard the other doctors call you harlequin.

She sighed. “Yes, well, we don’t choose our names. Or the nicknames spoken behind our backs, for that matter.”

“Oh, don’t get me wrong, dear—I love it! A rare and pretty name, for a rare and pretty girl.” He leaned forward. “Did you know that in the original play the Harlequin used a magic wand to change the scenery? In a sense, he was the most important part of the play, wouldn’t you say? Without the Harlequin the story would never progress and then where would we be?”

“I…well, I’ve never thought about it like that before.”

“Doesn’t matter what they call you, sweets. What matters is how you use it against them. If you’re gonna be the butt of their jokes—you might as well pack a good punchline!”

He demonstrated with bumping his fist against his palm and laughed.

Harleen’s lips twitched upwards despite her efforts to keep a straight face. She cleared her throat. "Now, why don't you start with telling me a little about yourself, John.”

“Considering you asked to babysit me personally, I think you know about me already.”

“Only what I’ve read in the files, what people have been saying… other people’s versions of you. Their interpretations. It’s unreliable data. I want to hear your story, as told by you. So, tell me: who is John Doe?"

Harleen looked at him expectantly, placing her hands on her thighs.

Well, if she wanted a story... he'd gladly give her one.

He had thousands.

 

2 days later


 

“You’re unusually prickly this morning," John noticed. "Bad news?”

Martinez sighed. “I’m assuming you’ve heard already.”

“Are you implying I knew something about Bag-head’s coup for freedom?”

Martinez eyed him knowingly. “You’re observant. More so than most.” She glanced away. "I should have seen it coming. I could have spared three people the trauma."

“Don’t beat yourself up—Scary is a very determined guy, and very resourceful. I mean, who woulda thought you could conjure up fear toxin from a toilet? Who comes up with that?”

“Oh, I can think of someone,” she said, radiating suspicion.

He smiled. “Well, I may have supplied the idea—I can hardly be held responsible for that. How was I supposed to know it would actually work? Besides, he failed. I told Jon-Jon which route he’d take and voila—Scary’s back in the sack. No harm done. Mostly.”

Martinez gave him an exasperated look. "John, if you're not going to take this treatment seriously, there is no point—"

"What, funny guys not your type? Ah, I forgot. Billionaire playboy's more up your alley."

Martinez crossed her arms and scoffed. "Mr. Wayne and I have a strictly professional relationship."

"With a dashin' gal like you? I doubt it. Hear he's got quite an eye for beauties."

"You can't distract me with flattery, John. I would like you to attend a group meeting today. You've been making excuses for days…”

"I went, I saw, I almost died of boredom. I tried things your way, Doc. It’s not for me.”

“You need friends, people you can interact with and whom you can relate to."

“I interact with you, don't I?"

"Barely. With the board looking over my shoulder, it's a wonder I can see you two times a week. Not that it matters: twice a week or everyday, I can't substitute the role of a friend. You know that. There is a difference between sympathy and experience—the other patients understand in a way I never can."

"I've always been more of a Wallflower."

She scoffed. "Neither of us believe that."

John sighed. "Making friends is not my forté. It’s all pink and rosy until old J spills the barrel of acid all over it. It always ends the same way: messy and sticky and highly unsanitary."

"From our talks, I understand that you lost someone important to you, and that you feel betrayed."

He frowned. "I don't even remember who it was, just that it ended badly."

"Your subconscious does. Betrayals hurt, they leave scars. It may even play into your trauma and what happened to you. Perhaps that's why you're so reluctant to making new friends. But there are other people out there, more deserving of your friendship, John. All that matters is that you're open to it. Don't give up on friends, they’re all we have in this world."

"You're too good for Arkham," John stated. "Why are you wasting your time with me?"

A flicker of surprise flashed through the doctor's eyes. "Oh, I know, but I'm needed here. And I'm not wasting my time, you've made a lot of progress."

He snorted. "Like how I'm still messed up in the head?"

"Your impulse control is getting better—and you haven’t stabbed anyone lately. Small progress is still progress."

"But what do you get out of this? You like the thrill of being an everyday hero?"

"It's not about heroism—the best doctors should care for the trickiest patients, it's common sense."

"If more people were like you perhaps this world wouldn’t have gone to shit.”

Martinez smiled. "God forbid. I'd be out of a job."

John threw his head back and laughed. “Why, Doc—I think I may be rubbing off on you.”

“I’ve always been funny—sometimes it just takes some time to get to know people. People may surprise you. But friendship isn’t a one-sided thing: you need to allow someone to know you, and take interest in them as well.”

He didn't mention that he had taken an interest in someone already. Two interests, actually, though he suspected they were entwined. 

“Going to those meetings is like listening to a record stuck on repeat," he said, then raised his voice a few pitches,"Oh no, my dad hit me so I developed a second personality to help me cope! Help, the government's after my brain." His expression soured, the corners of his mouth drooping low. "People can be so boring.”

“Do I bore you?” Martinez asked.

He shrugged. “Now and then—we can’t all be perfect, Doc. Nothing personal.”

“If I can be occasionally entertaining, then the other patients definitely will be. Just give it a chance, John, that’s all I ask. Let them get to know you. This you.”

“A magician never reveals his secrets.”

“Well, this magician should go out and meet other magicians. Learn a few new tricks.”

"I'm not really a fan of sharing the stage, Doc."

"Maybe you should learn to—life is more entertaining that way. A proper dance takes two people."

He arched an eyebrow. "You offering?"

"I'm afraid I'd be a terrible dance partner, but with the right partner, you can establish a good, healthy balance in your life."

John considered her words for a moment, cupping his chin in thought. "Friends, huh?"

She nodded encouragingly. "We all need someone in our life to help keep our head on straight, our moods in check. Someone to trust. We need other people to stay sane. Meaningful connections give us purpose, something to live for. Everyone needs that."

“Oh, I don’t know—I think I’m doing pretty well for myself all on my lonesome. People tend to complicate things.”

“It doesn’t have to be complicated, I believe it’s actually rather straightforward. We like someone, we share something in common, and we connect. Haven’t you ever felt a connection to someone? Give it a shot—what have you got to lose?”

It wasn’t really his loss of things that raised concerns, but he decided to indulge her nonetheless. There was one meaningful connection, he supposed… though it had yet to bear any fruit. 

"Why, you might be right, Doc," he said, giving her what she wanted.

"I usually am." She glanced at her wrist watch. "The group session starts in ten minutes. In the recreation room."

John smiled and hopped off the bed. "I'll go. Wouldn't want 'em to miss out on the main event."

"I'm glad to hear that, John. Be yourself, be polite and I'm sure you'll make friends in no time. Just try to stay clear of people like Crane—they’re toxic and can hinder your recovery. Bill will walk you to the recreation room. I'm afraid I have to leave, I have a board meeting to get to and a particular philanthropist to entertain."

"Still nit-picking you about every little detail, huh?"

"If you thought I was tenacious... no, I shouldn't speak ill of him: he does good work for this city."

"Hm. With so much money I imagine it's hard to know what to do with it... why not give it to a few lunatics? Better up: why doesn't he just give all that money away, seeing how he cares so much."

Martinez shook her head. "Bruce Wayne is a good man, John. If you were to meet him, you would see it too."

John doubted Martinez knew the things he did, the bits of knowledge he'd collected throughout his stay at Arkham. She might change her mind, if she knew. 

In one of the tabloids in the recreation room, Wayne had claimed to have injured himself in a skiing accident, but John could tell the bruises were inconsistent with a fall. Most people probably didn't care if he was telling the truth, figuring he just wanted to cover up being in a fight. Could be the case, John supposed, though he suspected otherwise. On one occasion, as told by some guy from Gotham's elite, the billionaire had fled the scene after his party had been hijacked by robbers. Yet, in another case, he'd offered himself as hostage. From liar to coward to hero. The pieces didn't fit. He was surprised nobody else seemed to take notice of the inconsistencies. 

There was more to Bruce Wayne than met the eye.

A lot more...

He flipped through the deck of cards Martinez had given him, then stopped at the Joker.

Now it was just the matter of bringing it to light.


 

Chapter Text

 Chapter 12


 

“This way, Mr. Wayne,” said Dr. Martinez.

Bruce followed her down the corridor, finding faults and filing away a list of future improvements in the back of his mind. At least they’d finally caved in and installed proper cameras around the property and grounds, but there was still a lot to be done. 

The pain-killers were starting to wear off, but it would be suspicious to start gulfing down four more in front of a doctor. It would raise too many questions. Maybe he could take just one, say he had a headache. No, he'd just push through it. Get this done as quickly as possible. Yesterday had been a miscalculation on his part, but three fractured fingers and one broken had taught him not to repeat it. Batman wore armoured gauntlets for a reason. Getting into a fistfight without them had been a really bad idea, in hindsight. 

They reached the recreation room, stopping at the barred doors. “I would like to take a closer look, if you don’t mind,” Bruce said.

Dr. Martinez frowned. “Mr. Wayne. It’s not safe. They may be calm right now, but there is no guarantee—”

“I was promised the full tour,” Bruce interrupted, feeling a little guilty about what he was going to ask of her. He liked Martinez, she was one of the good ones. He piled up as much of his spoiled billionaire persona as he could muster and pushed on, “I need to see what measures have been taken. They’re human beings, as you keep telling me. How bad could it be? You walk in there every day.”

She sighed. “It’s my job, and they know me. I’m familiar. I know you care about Arkham, more than most people, I’d say. However, some of these patients have a long history with violence and outbursts. I know you have good intentions, but I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“Consider it a test run, for the new safety measures I’ve been told about. I want to see how you spent all that money, considering the latest breakout attempt was two days ago.”

Dr. Martinez winced, a flash of shame stealing over her face.

This is necessary, Bruce reminded himself. With Arkham’s history of abuse of patients, breakouts, and overall lack of interest in taking the proper safety measures, someone had to keep an eye on them.

If Scarecrow had gotten out, a lot of people would have died. Yet it had been infuriatingly difficult to push through the desired changes, even with sufficient funding. Arkham was refusing his help, using excuses of patient's rights to privacy,  and the importance of workplace 'flexibility' when dealing with these types of patients. It was just a cover story so they could keep treating patients the way they wanted, without interferrence, and without consequence. What Arkham needed most was accountability, but with so many of the board members either payed off or somehow involved in Arkham's secret projects, it was an uphill battle. It would probably take years to reform Arkham, but step by step, he'd force them to change their ways.

Keeping his playboy persona intact while doing some actual good in this town was a strange, tiresome balance to find. He’d always tried to play both the part of a philanthropist and a spoiled billionaire… lately, though, he had resorted less and less to the latter. Playing dumb had its perks but acting too dumb would put him at risk of losing the other aspects of himself: his friends, the company, his influence over Arkham. So, he’d adopted a relaxed, yet reliable persona that was caught somewhere in-between.

“I understand your concerns, Mr. Wayne," Martinez said. "I do. But there is no way we can be held responsible if something would happen to you in there. We can’t afford a lawsuit.”

Bruce smiled. “Then there is no problem: I take all the responsibility. I’ll sign a paper if you want me to."

She mulled it over for a moment, then shook her head. "No need. I trust you, Mr. Wayne. You want things to change. I want things to change too. If you can find any excuse to push your agenda, then do so. I won't stop you."

"Thank you."

She nodded for the orderly to open the door for them. She walked in front, and Bruce took the opportunity to take in their surroundings.

The recreation room was a sparsely furnished room. One corner housed a couch group with a TV. The other three tables with a few chairs each. 

A couple of patients stared blankly at the TV, others walked about aimlessly, talking to themselves.

"Do they have access to the TV remote?" Bruce asked.

Martinez shook her head. "No, we have a specific channel with approved material that they can watch. Some news, some non-violent movies. Some of our patients are very sensitive to certain imagery or words. We try our best not to trigger them, if we can help it."

"That might be wise. Do they have other ways to keep occupied?"

"There are art classes and the like, and regular exercise - as per your suggestion. And since John Doe arrived, we have our very own comedian. He keeps people entertained, most of the time."

John Doe. The patient without a name. There was barely anything in his file. Not even a photograph of what he looked like. The doctors didn't know who he was, and he'd given no statements of his own. Martinez' notes only revealed that he'd seemingly lost his memories and that he had recently stabbed another doctor. Bruce had asked her about that incident, and she'd reluctantly admitted it was a case of self-defence. Bruce kept himself updated on everyone in Arkham, including all the patients and staff.  He spent a lot of time learning their patterns and behaviours, and of course their weaknesses. It made the inmates easier to track down should they escape. Alfred had branded it an obsession, but Bruce wasn't willing to take it that far. It was simply a precaution.

"How are you doing today, Joe?" Martinez asked a patient sitting on the floor. He glanced up at them, narrowing his eyes at Bruce. 

Bruce recognized him from the patient files. Joe Perrera. Admitted to Arkham after trying to drill a man's head open. He'd claimed he was only trying to remove an alien that had hacked its way into the man's head. 

"He's with me," Martinez explained calmly, and Joe relaxed. She glanced across the room, then gave a sigh. "Wait here, just a moment," she told Bruce and went over to a group of patients further in.

“John!” she called out, the weariness of a repeated argument in her voice. “What did I say about the tables?”

Bruce, who'd kept his eyes on Joe, turned around to see what the commotion was all about.

One of the inmates was standing on top of one of the tables, his arms spread wide in a flamboyant pose. The inmate’s face was gaunt, dark circles prominent against chalk white skin. Dark green hair was slicked back over his head. His body was slender, the Arkham uniform hanging off him as if it were many sizes too large for him. 

The man gave a hauntingly familiar laugh. “My apologies, Doc—I got carried away!”

Bruce froze in place.

The manners, the laugh, the voice. 

He couldn't believe it.

Jerome.

He was still alive.

No. He shouldn't jump to conclusions.

There was no scarring, no trace of acidic burns or wounds on his skin.

This couldn’t be Jerome. Even with the similarity… it wasn’t scientifically feasible. Jerome was dead—he’d seen it with his own eyes. He’d tried to revive him for an hour, but there had been no use.

A traitorous flicker of hope sparked to life in his mind nonetheless.

He had to find out, one way or the other. He needed to know for sure.

He couldn't just ask. Not with Martinez observing them. 

If he could divert her attention for a moment... but how?

He glanced at the TV, then down at his wrist-watch. It might work.

The watch was one of Lucius' latest protoypes, with a built-in hacker tool. If he could hack into the Wi-Fi, then he could change the channel, maybe cause a distraction. He turned the outer ring of the dial to activate it. Now all he had to do was wait.

"Hey, you shouldn't leave your guest like that," Bruce said, walking over to them.

Martinez paused from her lecture. "I'm sorry, Mr. Wayne. I was just reminding John about our rules."

“Ooh! Who’s this?” The man called John hopped off the table to circle around him. "A bit overdressed for a patient, too buff to be a doctor. Definitely too fancy to be a visitor. You're from the board of directors, aren't you?"

Bruce shifted, uncomfortable to have the inmate’s undivided attention. The likeness to Jerome was uncanny, although not definite. The details were wrong, more like an impersonation than the real thing. Like looking in a fun-house mirror. His smile was too big, his eyes too green, his skin too pale. Bruce suppressed a shiver. Nothing about John seemed remotely human, as if he was a ghost conjured by Bruce's reoccuring nightmares, escaping into the real world to haunt him.

“I'm Bruce Wayne," Bruce said.

“Ah! The walking piggy-bank!” John exclaimed, seemingly ignorant to Martinez's incredulous glare. “No wonder you seemed familiar. Nice to meet you, Brucie!” He reached out his left hand with the courtesy of a gentleman, yet the smile on his face was anything but friendly.

Bruce hesitated, his hand still tucked away inside his pocket. 

"Ah, oops! Forgot to wipe them off!" John exclaimed, then reached out his left hand again.

Bruce saw little other choice. "Nice to meet you," he said, shaking John's hand. Alfred had helped him cover up the damage with makeup, but it did nothing to lessen the pain.

"Likewise. I gotta say: you look taller in real life," John said, his grip tightening.

Bruce barely had time to mask his expression. Pain jolted through his broken finger, the bruising of his knuckles aching from the pressure.

John smiled innocently, then let go.

That had been close. Too close.

It had seemed intentional, but there was no way John could know about his injury. 

He forced himself to smile back, sliding his hand back into his pocket. “I like your hair. It's very... green.”

“Well, I can see why the ladies like you,” said John. “So perceptive. Not my type, though. I prefer my men broody with a side of self-righteous denial.”

Bruce retained his carefree smile. “My loss.”

He pressed the small button on the watch's side to activate the frequency shuffler, then glanced at the TV. The censored news report was replaced by a nature channel. He pressed the button again, this time to the History channel, some show about ancient aliens.

A shriek pierced through the room.

Martinez glanced over to find Joe in a state of undress, tearing at his clothes. She noticed the TV, then blanched. "Oh, no."

"They're coming! They're coming!" Joe called out. "They're in my head!"

“Joe-Joe keeps asking Doc to 'reset' him—he thinks aliens are hacking into his brain, you see,” John explained. 

"John. There is such a thing as confidentiality," Martinez reprimanded him. She shot a look at Bruce, who nodded back, then she rushed off to help Joe settle down.

“Don’t you worry, Doc!" John shouted after her. "I’ll take the best of care of our dear piggy-bank boy here. Wouldn’t want him to break.”

This gives me some time to dig a little deeper, Bruce thought. And by the look of it, it would take a while for Martinez to calm Joe down. 

Once they were alone, John’s demeanour changed—his smile fading, his eyes narrowing with scrutiny. “It’s a strange hobby you have, Wayne. I thought you’d prefer sipping on mimosas with your own personal harem. Not hanging out with lunatics on a Friday afternoon.”

“There is hardly a difference, actually,” Bruce said, smiling, before adding, with a playful wink, “—but don’t tell them I said that.”

God, he hated this. Of all the roles he’d had to play since taking on the mantle of Batman, this one was the worst. Out of all of them, this one felt the least like him.

John chuckled. “My, Bruce, you’re a lot sharper than those tabloids give you credit for. Not just a pretty face, after all."

“Thought you said I wasn’t your type,” Bruce pointed out. He didn't like the charades, the small-talk, the games... but if he could make John drop his guard, it would be worth it. 

John brushed his fingers over Bruce's shoulder as he passed him. “Just because I don’t like to live in a penthouse doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the view, darlin’.” He leaned against the window with his face to Bruce, elbows resting on the windowsill behind him. 

Bruce cleared his throat. "So, how’s Arkham treating you?” he asked, glancing around the spacious room.

"Slowly," John replied dryly. "With more talking than a guy would ever need—and I'm a talkative fellow! You’d think they would run out of things to ask, but no."

"Funny. I meant in terms of—"

"Oh, I know what you meant, rich boy," John dismissed with a wave of his hand. He lowered his voice so only he and Bruce would hear. "You want to know if they're still keeping up their extra-curricular activities. What better way to find out than getting answers straight from the source, eh? But why should I tell ya? Better question: why do you care?"

“Why wouldn’t I?” Bruce deflected, his persona slipping. "This is a place to help people rehabilitate, not make them worse. If they're using my money to harm people then—"

“Worried it will reflect on your impeccable reputation? No worries there, Brucie—your reputation is shit. You’re just rich enough that it doesn’t matter that people hate you. They’ll force themselves to swallow their revulsion if they can gain something from it.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Oh, don’t pretend you don’t know. You’re a class act, Wayne, but it’s still just an act, isn’t it? You want people to think you’re just some spoiled trust fund brat. And you hate every second of it.”

Bruce's surprise must have shown, because John leaned in closer and whispered: "Hit the nail on the head, huh?”

“What are you talking about? You don’t even know me.”

"You'd be surprised what you can learn from people just by observing them," John said, leaning back against the window. He tilted his head to the side. “For someone so hell-bent on doing good for this city, you sure get into a lot of fights. It's an interesting approach. Futile, mind you, but I guess you're one of those people who deceive themselves it's justice. Is that why you got into a fight yesterday?"

Bruce frowned, caught off guard. "I didn't. It was a skiing accident."

John raised an eyebrow. "Uh-huh. Well, we both know that's a Croc-sized lie." He shook his head in amusement. “Really, if you want people to believe you, you might wanna go with excuses slightly less transparent, hm? Skiing? I know you can afford it, but really, Brucie? I don’t know what kind of skiing you’ve been doing, but your left hand's tellin' me it involves a lot more punching and a lot less damage control. You weren't trying to dampen a fall, you punched someone in the teeth hard enough to turn them into a human-sized glove."

He shouldn't be able to tell. Bruce had made sure to keep his left hand in his pocket for most of the visit. The handshake. Was he testing me? But then he must've known from the start. 

With no contact with the outside world and limited TV... how had he known? Had he figured it out on his own? But that would be a pretty big leap to make. In that case, there was another explanation that made a lot more sense...

"Who told you?" he asked.

A mischievous smile curved on the inmate's lips. "Why, your reaction told me, just now. It was an educated guess, but thanks for confirming it." 

Bruce resisted the urge to slam his head into the nearest wall. He couldn't believe he'd walked into such an obvious trap. He’d already given away too much. This lunatic’s perception was something else. And he was right. Bruce had been undercover last night, and had ended up fighting bare-handed. He’d had to pluck out two teeth from in-between his knuckles, courtesy of a now sparse-teethed Narrow’s thug.

"You really are terribly bad at lying," John said. "If you wanted to give lazy excuses, you might as well have said Alfred hit you with the vacuum cleaner. I wonder what else you’re getting up to when nobody’s watching."

Damn it.

He should have known better—he did know better. Yet he’d been bested by someone who didn’t even know him! Someone who knew nothing about—

Alfred.

Alfred!

He’d never told John about Alfred. Bruce made sure to keep Alfred out of the spotlight. He’d been careful not to speak of Alfred in his interviews or with other people, other than as ‘his butler’ or ‘family friend’. Making people believe they had little more than an employer-employee relationship kept Alfred safe and anonymous. It also helped with retaining the whole billionaire-brat persona by making himself seem self-centred.

He knows Alfred. 

And that’s when he knew: this had to be Jerome. A different name, a different look, but very much the same maniac. Somehow, he’d survived. Again. And he was playing Bruce for a fool.

John looked at him, expectantly, trying to gauge his state of mind, perhaps. 

Bruce had to collect himself. Play it off. He needed to know why Jerome was playing charades. “How did you know? I don’t believe I’ve told you about Alfred.”

John’s lips twitched into a smile, and he glanced away. "Wasn’t hard to find out. There is no shortage of people in here who wouldn't like to see you crucified at the top of Wayne Plaza. For a philanthropist, you have a surprising number of enemies. Some are more invested in getting back at you than others." His smile widened. “Knowing thy enemy definitely helps, wouldn’t ya say?”

And it’s that much easier if you already know them on a personal basis…

"Why?” Bruce asked calmly. “I'm trying to help."

John’s gaze flitted back to Bruce, piercingly green. "Do I have to remind you that half of the freaks in this place are here because of Wayne Enterprises? The other half just hates you because you're filthy rich and can get away with everything you want."

Bruce crossed his arms. "And what's your stance on this?"

"With your megalomania and god complex, I'd say you fit right in with the rest of us."

"I’m not crazy. I'm just trying to do the right thing."

"The right thing, huh? Like pretending to be nice to find dirt on Arkham? Taking advantage of mental patients... yes, you're a real saint, Wayne. I'm sure your parents are proud to see you exploiting the vulnerable with so much confidence. Believe what you want, Bruce, it’s a delusion all the same."

"What do you want?" Bruce snapped.  Why are you doing this? Why are you putting on a show?

Amusement flickered in John’s eyes. "What I want? How about... a billion dollars? Oh, wait, no! A three-headed horse! And a first-class seat in the Batmobile. How about that?"

Bruce bit the inside of his cheek. Was it wrong to punch a patient? Arkham was dedicated to the criminally insane, after all... technically, he was a criminal. He had a feeling Martinez wouldn't put much stock in that reasoning, though.

What was Jerome playing at? Why rile him up like this?

Bruce supposed he did deserve most of it. He still blamed himself for being unable to save him. In the heat of the moment, he’d been tempted to send Sionis diving into the vat with Jerome. But he had rules. Rules that he would never break. Not for his own satisfaction, and not for Jerome. The line between justice and revenge was thin enough as it was. Jerome would not be the one to nudge him over the edge.

"At least two of those things are impossible,” Bruce replied. “The third is...debatable."

"You have no imagination, pretty boy! You're here trying to fix that spoiled billionaire-boy image of yours, are ya? You’re obviously tired of playing the bimbo. Well, show those bureaucrats that you're more than just another capitalist thriving on lies and short-cuts to build their empire: save a poor insane man from boredom!"

"That's not why I'm doing this," said Bruce, flaring up. "Arkham has issues. I’m here to fix them.” 

John snorted. “And I’m supposed to believe you’re doing this out of the kindness of your heart? Because you care so much about the unfortunate souls trapped in this hell-hole?”

“Is it that hard to believe?”

“Nobody does anything out of the kindness of their hearts, Bruce-ioh. Guilt is written all over your face—It’s the look of a sinner in church. Trust me, I know. You're doing this for you.

Bruce was careful not to let his frustration show. “Does the reason really matter? It benefits us both.”

“On the contrary—I preferred the old Arkham," said John. "All these new security measures makes it awfully hard to escape.”

“That is kind of the point.”

“Back in the day, I barely had a need to escape—most of the fun could be found inside these very walls! Torture, abuse of power, corruption, ruthless insanity—the whole nine yards! Now it’s all… hold hands and recite kumbaya while we dance off into the sunset. Yuck. If we weren’t mad before, we sure are now.” He gave a little laugh. “Maybe I should save you a bunk-bed. I'm sure you'd feel right at home."

“What are you talking about?”

The madman’s irises glittered. “We both know this isn’t the real you. You're as mad as I am.”

Bruce’s stomach flipped, but he forced his features to remain composed. “What are you insinuating?”

“You’re repenting in a nut house, for Pete’s sake! In Arkham, no less. Who does that? If that’s not mad, I don’t know what is. Your dedication to this wretched dump goes against all common sense. A sane man might call it an obsession.”

“What would you call it?”

John’s lips stretched wide. “I’d say you’re acting out of some misguided notion that you’re taking responsibility… but what would a rich kid like you have to take responsibility for? Knocked up a doctor, did ya? Got involved with a patient?" He stared Bruce straight in the eye with chilling intensity. "Put away a friend, perhaps?”

Bruce struggled to form a response, caught in the accusation in those venomous eyes. The feeling of familiarity struck him with a sense of vertigo. Any sliver of doubt he’d had about this lunatic being Jerome had been evaporated by the insinuation in those words.

This was some kind of twisted revenge. The fact that it was uncharacteristically passive-aggressive made it all the more terrifying. Jerome wasn’t indirect. There was a pattern to his madness, a certain predictability that Bruce had gotten to know. His anger lashed out with violence, with action. To see his anger only simmering from behind green irises, almost detachedly calm and calculative, was not the Jerome he knew. 

"Seems I caught you," John said, the intensity gone in a blink, leaving Bruce confused with doubt. "Why, Bruce, I knew you were messed up, but I didn't take you for the kind of person to ditch a friend in a place like this.”

Maybe Jerome blamed him for what had happened, for bringing him along. For stopping him from killing Sionis. If he hadn’t, this wouldn’t have happened. No. A man would be dead, and Bruce would have been forced to put Jerome away anyway. At least this way, they’d all gotten out alive. More or less.

“What's the matter?” John continued. “Thinking of another girl while we’re on our first date? Tsk. Leave it up to a rich guy to make you feel cheap. Didn't your parents teach you how to treat a girl right?” His lips shaped a mock-surprised ‘O’, then rubbed the back of his head as if feeling abashed. “Oh, right. My mistake. They’re dead. What a waste of pretentious—"

Bruce slammed John against the bars of the window, his hand grabbing the lunatic’s shoulder with bruising force. 

John’s eyes lit up with joy. What the hell was he so happy about?!

“You really should do something about all that anger, Bruce,” John said, the smile growing unnaturally large. “I hear dressing up as flying rodents to fight crime is all the rage these days. Who knows? Might do wonders for your temper.”

That was more than an insinuation. He knew.

“Is this your idea of revenge? Because I didn’t let you kill a man?”

“Nobody lets me do things, Brucie. I’m my own madman.”

“What are you playing at, Jerome?”

Confusion flickered across John’s face, followed by annoyance. "You’ve got the wrong lunatic. He sounds like a charmer, though."

"You're lying."

"I'm really not. 'No' means no, Brucie." John glanced down at Bruce’s hand on his shoulder, “If I’d known you were so clingy I would have brought my pepper spray.” His gaze flicked back up to Bruce's. 

Remembering himself, Bruce withdrew. He threw a quick glance around, but nobody seemed to have taken notice of them. Martinez had her hands full trying to convince Joe that the lunch-ladies weren’t aliens in disguises."You really don't remember?"

"Eh. What's a memory, anyway? Who needs it, right? Apparently I overindulged in some chemical cocktail, had a blackout for a week--it happens to everyone their first time."

Bruce couldn't imagine what Jerome had been through. He'd been abused by his caretakers, abandoned to his fate by his only friend. All thanks to Bruce. And just like that, Bruce said the only thing on his mind: "I'm sorry." 

It was the wrong thing to say. 

With remarkable strength and speed, John grabbed Bruce and reversed their positions, pushing Bruce up against the wall beside the window. Bruce tried to move, then stopped immediately as he felt something sharp against the soft skin underneath his chin.

Shit.

Even with Martinez and the orderlies in the same room, it was unlikely that help would come fast enough. John only needed a few seconds to slit his throat wide open. 

Where the hell had he found a weapon?! With all the new security measures these things weren’t supposed to happen! And where in the world had he been hiding it until now?

"You know," John said, his voice unsuitably friendly. "I've always wanted to see if bluebloods actually bleed blue. How about we find out, hm?"

“There are security cameras,” Bruce pointed out, trying to remain calm as the tip of the shank sank deeper into his skin.

John leaned back to meet Bruce’s gaze. “I know this place inside and out. And I know for a fact that this happens to be the only blind-spot in this room.”

“Martinez and the orderlies—”

“Have their hands full with ol’ conspiration Joe back there. I’d say I have about three minutes before they remember you’re here. Which we both know is more than enough time. You really shouldn’t wander unprotected into a wolf’s den, expecting it not to take advantage of a free meal.”

“What do you want with me? If you wanted me dead, I'd be dead.” He was fairly certain, at least. This Jerome was harder to read. Bruce didn't have a full grasp on him yet. Especially as he couldn't rely on their past friendship for support. Maybe he should have thread more carefully.

“Well, right now I can’t decide if I want to slit that throat of yours or kiss it. I’ll get back to you on that. There are more pressing matters." The shank dug deeper into Bruce's skin, drawing blood. "Who is this Jerome?”

“You are," Bruce said, finding it harder to remain calm. "You fell in a vat of chemicals—I thought you died, but here you are.”

Bruce could tell by the look on John’s face that he wasn’t happy with that answer. Silent laughter rocketed through him. "Now that's a joke."

“Sionis pushed you off,” Bruce explained. "The chemicals should have killed you, but they didn't."

Rage flashed across John’s face. Even if Jerome didn’t remember, his subconscious seemed to. 

Bruce pressed on, “I heard you beat him within an inch of his life.”

John let out a huff of laughter, though there was no joy in it. “What can I say? The man is a humourless nuisance. He was ruining my mood.”

“You're angry with him because it is personal. Because he tried to kill you. If you let me, I’ll help you remember who you are.”

John gave him a look of exasperation. “Well, that’s sweet of you, but I’ll have to decline. I know who I am. I’m a court jester, not Cinderella. The shoe won’t fit however much you try to squeeze it in, Prince Charming. They’re not the right size.” He stepped away, removing the shank from Bruce's throat. With a quick flick of his hand, the shank was gone, like a magic trick. "I have no wish to remember," he said. "I'm perfectly happy the way I am."

Bruce wasn't sure what to make of that. He'd thought Jerome would want to remember, that remembering would somehow make things right again. But what would change? Bruce had still failed to save him, and Jerome could never be the same again--stop. You're overthinking it. He couldn't afford self-pity right now. There had to be a way to fix this. He would fix this.

For now, all he could do was roll with the punches. One day at a time. Somehow, he'd figure this mess out. Figure Jerome out. If nothing else, perhaps this was a chance to turn another leaf. For Jerome--John--to be better. If there was even the slightest chance, Bruce would take it.

Martinez returned, having pacified Joe’s delusions. "You seem to be getting along," she observed, looking from one to the other.

"Like two peas in a pod!" John exclaimed happily, putting a hand on Bruce’s shoulder. "You should have told me about this guy--he's hilarious!"

A moment ago John had seemed uncomfortable for lack of a better word, and now he was back to being all smiles again.

“Well, I’m glad you’re finally making friends,” Martinez said approvingly and turned to Bruce. “I hope he’s been behaving while I was away.”

Hardly.

“Exemplary,” Bruce lied.

“You don’t have to cover for him, Mr. Wayne. John’s a natural born troublemaker. There is no way he hasn’t caused the slightest bit of trouble while I was away.” She eyed John knowingly.

John shrugged, but offered no excuses.

"Well, I'm thankful for the tour," Bruce said. "It was very... enlightening." And partially unpleasant.

"I'm glad. I'll follow you out, shall I?" Martinez offered.

Bruce threw a last glance at John, who flashed him a toothy smile. "See ya later, sweetums! I'll be sure to throw you a party next time to make you feel more in your element."

Bruce could think of nothing else to say than, "Sure."

"It's a date!" John called after them. "Bring your black suit, why don't ya?"

Bruce did not care for that suggestion.

*

“You should search his room again. He pulled a shank on me," Bruce informed Martinez as they walked back towards the main exit.

“I’m not surprised,” she admitted. “I’ve stripped him clean, had the orderlies search him and his room countless times, and every time we do, we find some kind of homemade weapon. He claims they’re for self-defence, and I can’t say I blame him after what happened with Dr. Brown…not that it excuses his behaviour in any way. Did he hurt you?”

Bruce shook his head. If Jerome had actually wanted to hurt him, he would be heading to intensive care in an ambulance right now.

“I’m glad,” she said. “We’ll search him again, of course. There is something else… That psychiatrist you recommended, Dr. Quinzel? I’m not sure she’s suited to be his psychiatrist.”

“Why?”

“Well, in all honesty, she might be a bit too sympathetic. And if I may be so bold, we still don’t know where John gains access to all the materials to make these weapons.”

“You’re saying she’s supplying him? That’s quite an accusation.”

“No, well. I can’t say for sure. This might come off as a bit unprofessional, but to be frank, she’s young and ambitious, and John is a psychiatrist’s wet dream. He’s virtually unknown; He’s a mystery. More importantly, he knows he’s a mystery. And he’s not above exploiting that curiosity.” She sighed. “I know you don’t trust Arkham, but are you sure Quinzel can be trusted?”

“I’ll look into it,” he said.

Could he have missed something? There was nothing in Harleen’s past that caused any concern, but Jerome had a way of inspiring people to embrace their darker selves. Had Bruce miscalculated so badly? Harleen was brighter than most people he knew, and quite a formidable psychiatrist, as far as he could tell from her university teachers. She was headstrong and passionate about helping people. That’s why he’d decided to trust her. Had he overestimated her capabilities? Or had he vastly underestimated Jerome’s?

Even without his memories, he proved to be a pain in the ass.

“How’s he progressing otherwise?” Bruce asked.

“Better than can be expected. When he first came here he was lost. Days would pass without him saying or doing much of anything most of the time. When he did act, it was with bursts of violence. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out he’s been through severe trauma, both since his childhood and after. Whatever happened to him before Arkham did something to him on a fundamental level. It takes about five orderlies to restrain him, and don’t get me started on his metabolism.”

“I saw the X-ray images from the Dr. Brown incident.”

She nodded. “I’ve never seen anything like it. They clearly show he had multiple broken bones, a crushed kneecap, and several fractures. And yet, as you can see, a few weeks later he’s up and about like it’s nothing.”

“How about recently? How has his behaviour been?”

“Lately, he’s been driven. I’m actually relieved. He seems to be in a better place now. It seems he’s finally found a purpose, though he’s yet to tell me what it is.”

Bruce wasn’t sure that was a good thing.

Martinez looked him over for a moment. “People misjudge you.”

“Why do you say that?"

She gave him a thoughtful look. “You’re not nearly as clueless as you want people to believe. That thing, back there. You knew that would happen, didn't you? You instigated it."

"Instigated what?" he asked, playing dumb.

"Joe is very sensitive. One of our most unstable patients. In fact, because of his delusions, simple things like a TV show about aliens can set him off." She narrowed her eyes. "If I didn't know any better, I'd think you'd read the files."

"You're suggesting I did that? How? I don't have access to the remote."

That gave her pause. She pursed her lips, then asked: "Did you at least find something out?"

“John told me there’s a blind-spot by the window. You should probably get that fixed.”

“He told you that? My, he really must like you.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that…”

“Oh, I’m pretty sure he does. The only time I’ve seen him this excited is when he talks about Batman.”

That did nothing to soothe Bruce’s concern. Jerome—John, whoever he was, had hinted at knowing he was Batman. It didn’t seem like he would tell anyone else, though. That was a blessing, he supposed. With any luck, John was as possessive of that secret as Jerome had been.

Would it have been better if Bruce hadn’t run into him today? If he’d remained anonymous, another John Doe, left to be forgotten.

Bruce doubted Jerome would let himself be forgotten, even if he’d forgotten himself. The man was tenacious enough to survive falling into a vat of chemicals.

Leaving Arkham, unease stirred in the pit of Bruce’s stomach.

This could be a chance, or it could be karma. The important thing wasn’t who Jerome used to be, but who he would choose to become now.

Either way, this was only the beginning…