The tunnel continued for a mile or more, its meticulously-wired electric lights flickering occasional warning. Bruce ran his gloved fingers along its rough walls, as much to convince himself that it was real as to determine how it had been dug. The work must have taken months.
Bruce spotted what looked like the back-side of a hearth’s brick and mortar before the music registered. Melancholy strings, simultaneously soothing and fraught with tension. As he drew closer, the murmur of voices dissolved into the warped, half-remembered quality of a dream.
What met him on emerging from the fireplace more closely resembled a nightmare. His father’s ghost made flesh bent to hand a glass of Sauternes to his mother, whispering affectionately in her ear. Their laughter was too like his parents’ for comfort, but not similar enough.
“Who are you?” Bruce demanded, taking only a few halting steps forward. He didn’t dare approach them.
“Well, look who decided to join us,” said the woman. If not for the restraint of her timbre, she would’ve sounded for all the world like Martha Wayne.
“Hello, champ,” greeted the imitation of his father, with an aloof air that further ruined the illusion.
Alfred entered the room—real Alfred, his Alfred—before he could respond. “Master Bruce!”
Bruce turned to him, reaching as his chest flooded with sheer relief. “Alfred, how did you—”
“Look at the state of you,” Alfred chided, brushing at Bruce’s coat with disapproval. “What have I told you about rolling around in the muck?”
“Alfred, what’s going on?” Bruce asked, fully aware he wasn’t dreaming. “Who are these people?”
“Whatever do you mean, Bruce?” asked the facsimile of Thomas, sounding nothing like himself.
“We’re your parents,” the woman sighed, airily fond. Her impression of Martha remained sedate.
Alfred patted Bruce on the back. “Well, let’s get you spruced up. After all, we have a guest.”
In the corner behind Bruce’s left shoulder, formerly out of view, another specter sat in a side-chair.
Jeremiah Valeska cut as vivid a figure as ever. From his serene, unsettling grin to the glass of Sauternes in his hand, his posture projected belonging. The dark dinner jacket and pinstripe trousers were tamer than his usual; the magenta shirt and shimmering red tie were not.
“Welcome home, Bruce,” he said, raising his glass with one violet-gloved hand, taking a sip.
Dizzily, Bruce revisited the question of whether or not he was asleep. “Jeremiah. You’re alive.”
Jeremiah laughed and rose, crossing in front of the window. The sunset didn’t pass through him.
“Well, you didn’t think Selina could kill me so easily, did you?” he asked, pausing to glance at Bruce, almost flirtatious. “I just had to put you off my scent until I could finalize my…project.”
Bruce wasn’t sure whether his surge of anger was fueled by grief or hate, but Alfred restrained him.
“Manners, Master Bruce,” Alfred said as Jeremiah fled across the room. “Let’s not be rude to our guest.”
“Especially when I come bearing gifts,” Jeremiah warned. He drew a sheet of black fabric off a homemade bomb—which was well within his purview, and no ghostly jest.
“Oh, Mr. Jeremiah,” Alfred said, persisting in a level of obliviousness that couldn’t be natural. “A cake. How exceedingly thoughtful of you. Is it Italian meringue?”
Jeremiah beamed whimsically at Bruce, grin widening, and then shifted his gaze to Alfred. “Sure.”
“Oh,” Alfred faltered, sounding for one hopeful moment like he doubted what he had been told.
Unable to contain his fury any longer, Bruce advanced on Jeremiah with slow, deliberate menace.
“Now, now, Bruce. You come any closer, and I blow up Wayne Manor with all of us inside of it. I have a dozen more of these, uh—” Jeremiah winked conspiratorially at him “—Italian meringues sprinkled all throughout the house.”
Bruce stopped, hands fisted at his sides. “What did you do to Alfred? And who are these people?”
“Ah, glad you asked.” Jeremiah took another leisurely swig of wine. “Mmm, come. Come, come.” He strolled behind the sofa just as the man helped the woman to her feet. “Mommy and Daddy dearest were just an innocent couple I kidnapped based on…bone structure and, um, build. Just a touch of plastic surgery, and voilà. Waynes.” He chuckled, proudly patting his Martha-puppet’s shoulder. “Alfred, I nabbed in the Green Zone.”
These clueless souls’ compliance, Alfred’s included, smacked of Jervis Tetch’s work at its finest.
“They’re hypnotized,” Bruce said, less a question than dreadful, instinctively-fascinated certainty.
“Well, I’m afraid there was no room for improv in our script. Today is a very important day, Bruce.” Jeremiah set a hand on each parent’s shoulder. “Just look at the way they’re dressed.”
Improv, Bruce thought, catching the gist. The charade was paramount, but only as long as it went according to Jeremiah’s plan. He let his face fall, willing the tension to drain from his stance.
“It’s the night my parents were killed,” he said quietly, hoping Jeremiah would accept his surrender.
Jeremiah smiled, oddly beatific. “And I’m giving you the chance to experience it all over again.”
Bruce took a boneless step forward, finding that it wasn’t difficult to force a hint of tears. “Why?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Jeremiah asked. “Bruce, this—this was the most important day of your life. And I didn’t get to be a part of it. We need to rectify that.” He glanced beyond Bruce and clapped sharply. “Alfred, it’s time for dinner. Chop-chop. We’re on a very tight schedule.”
Alfred stepped from behind Bruce to lead the way out. “Of course, Mr. Jeremiah,” he replied.
With a deceptively harmless smile, Jeremiah offered Bruce his arm as Thomas and Martha—what else could Bruce call them, lacking their actual names—trailed after Alfred.
“Come along now, boys,” Martha called over her shoulder, her tone closer to convincing than ever.
I need to catch him off-guard, Bruce thought. Convince him he set the wrong scene, that he’ll need to go back to the drawing board and do it over. But first, a false sense of security.
Bruce slid his arm through Jeremiah’s without flinching, taking careful note when Jeremiah tensed.
“How thoughtful,” he said, feigning resignation, swiping the wine decanter off the trolley as they passed it. “You’ve spared no detail. Mind if I bring this along? Lead the way.”
Jeremiah lit up with such guileless hope that Bruce remembered him as he’d once been: soft-spoken and fierce-eyed, sparing with his trust. He folded Bruce’s hand ceremoniously into the crook of his elbow, the brush of his gloved fingers a faded comfort.
“Not at all, Bruce,” he said affably, unconcerned that they’d fallen so far behind. “Alcohol ever was the oil of conversation. Such charming folks you’ve got. I can’t tell you how wonderful it feels to properly get to meet them.”
By the time they reached the kitchen, Martha was already seated while Thomas and Alfred bustled about with last-minute preparations. The kitchen smelled wonderful, a betrayal.
Jeremiah released Bruce’s arm and set his hand fondly at the small of Bruce’s back, pulling the chair caddy-corner to Martha’s out for him with the other. Bruce sat down, pondering his next move.
“Such a polite, handsome young man you’ve found,” Martha said to Bruce. “I’m so proud of you.”
Thomas turned from the counter to face them, nodding. “You picked a winner. Way to go, champ.”
Jeremiah patted Bruce’s shoulders once he’d helped Bruce push in his chair. His breathing sped up.
“Oh, no, you misunderstand. I’m awfully flattered, why—” Jeremiah took his place next to Bruce, withdrawing the bombs’ detonator from his jacket. “Bruce and I have grown awfully close. We’ll see,” he said, approving as Alfred lit the tapers on the table. “Alfred told me such great tidbits about your childhood. How you used to eat here, in the kitchen, when it was just you and the family. My, how…homey and intimate.”
Surely I’m not misreading him, Bruce thought, the bitterness of what he’d once fleetingly imagined, and even pursued, catching in his throat. If this is as much belated flirtation as forced reminiscence, maybe…
Alfred set plates in front of them. “Grilled cheese and Branston Pickle sandwich, Mr. Jeremiah. Master Bruce’s favorite. My influence, although Thomas did add a dash of aioli for extra flair.”
Thomas was still busy at the counter on the far side of the table, removing something from a bag.
Jeremiah laughed in sinister delight, the sound fading swiftly to chagrin. “Oh. Come on, Bruce. That’s a weird favorite food for a twelve-year-old.”
“I’m playing your game,” said Bruce, as much to convince himself as convince Jeremiah. “Now, let Alfred and these people go. They’re innocent.”
“I’m sorry, Bruce,” Jeremiah replied with something akin to somber regret. “It’s just—it’s very important to me that I get every detail exactly right. Speaking of which, the final touch.”
Thomas turned, setting a jewelry box on the table. He opened it, removed a delicate triple strand of cream-colored pearls, and clasped them dutifully around Martha’s neck.
Ashamed of his unbidden weakness, Bruce closed his eyes. He couldn’t bear to watch, except what waited behind his eyelids was no better. He was in the alley again, helpless.
“What was it like, losing your parents that night?” Jeremiah asked, the uncanny, Jerome-like quality of his reverential pitch causing Bruce’s memory to shift. “I lost my family, too, Bruce. The wound still hasn’t healed, and I…think about it often.”
When the gunshot went off, instead of his father falling, what Bruce saw was his own splintered, garish reflection. Jerome’s reflection loomed behind his in the shattered mirror, its grin ghastly.
With a startled intake of breath, his direction suddenly made clear, Bruce opened his eyes. He tilted his chin and met Jeremiah’s yearning gaze. He offered Jeremiah a hesitantly sincere nod, and then turned to face the ghosts of his parents one last time.
“Hey, Mom? Dad?” Bruce asked, reaching over to set a hand on Jeremiah’s wrist. There it was again, the abrupt, panicked rise in Jeremiah’s breath. “I think Jeremiah and I would rather stay in tonight, so…why don’t you two go see the movie alone?” He glanced back at Jeremiah, unprepared for how arrestingly the last rays of sunset caught in Jeremiah’s pale, suspicious eyes. “Alfred, why don’t you take the rest of the night off?”
Jeremiah inclined his head, almost flirtatious again, covering Bruce’s hand fleetingly with the one that still held the detonator. If he regretted the decision he was about to make, he showed no sign.
“Why the hell not?” Jeremiah took back the hand that Bruce had been holding and removed a flip-phone from his pocket. He opened it and hit speed-dial; someone answered on the second ring. “Ecco. Hmmm? Yeah, no. Change of plans. I no longer need you to go to the plant, and I no longer need you to pick up our…other guests, either. Yes, really. Now, get out of the car, and come to the kitchen at once. I’ll need you to secure Mr. Pennyworth somewhere on the grounds, and then escort Mr. and Mrs. Wane to the theater. Our alternate scenario, you heard me right. The unthinkable has occurred.” He glanced giddily at Bruce, put the phone back in his pocket, and then picked up half of his sandwich. “We might as well eat while she’s on the way. Mmm, that’s not too bad. Thomas, Martha? You two have a marvelous evening.”
Bruce began to eat, too, but in complete and docile silence while Thomas helped Martha to her feet.
Martha bent and kissed Bruce’s forehead. “We’ll catch up later, sweetheart. You boys have fun.”
Ecco rushed into the kitchen with comical timing, out of breath and gun in hand. She looked less than impressed with the proceedings, but didn’t comment. She twitched the firearm at Martha, Thomas, and Alfred in turn, hustling them toward the door.
“C’mon, lady and gents. Right this way,” she said, tapping the back of Alfred’s head with the gun-barrel as he followed the hapless couple out. “No funny business, Jeeves, ya hear?”
Once they were alone, Bruce reached for the Sauternes and filled their wine glasses. If Jeremiah’s increased tendency to ramble was anything to go on, his prior glasses were finally taking effect.
Jeremiah chewed, working on the remaining half of his sandwich. “Who’s thoughtful now?”
“Deactivate the explosives,” Bruce said calmly. “You have Alfred as collateral, isn’t that enough? I’ve been a terrible friend to you lately, and I regret it. Have a drink with me.”
Jeremiah rolled his eyes and immediately clicked a button on the detonator. As he set it down next to his fork, the display on the bomb at the end of the table lit up with smiley-faces and then went dark.
“Fine, you’ve won me over,” he said, dropping a fragment of crust on his plate. “I’ll deviate from the script if it means we get to spend some quality time. Like we used to, remember?”
Bruce finished off most of his glass, hoping Jeremiah would feel progressively more at ease
“I do. Speaking of Alfred, I need to get this off my chest. What you did, abducting him? It was very inconsiderate. That’s not usually the kind of guest I invite into my home.”
Not to be outdone, Jeremiah swallowed half his own glass. He set it down and spread his hands.
“But I’m not just any guest, am I?” he asked, angling his body even more noticeably toward Bruce.
“No, of course not,” Bruce replied, genuinely faltering. “You’re—you’re the closest friend I’ve ever had, which is why it’s so important that I be honest with you. There’s a detail you got wrong.”
“Oh?” Jeremiah dabbed his mouth with a napkin, concerned now that he was intoxicated. “Then you must tell me, Bruce. I need to make it right.”
Bruce stared into his glass with rueful hesitation, and then gulped down the remainder for courage.
“The night my parents died was incredibly important, but that feels so long ago,” he said with fierce conviction. “I’ve grown since then. I’ve made peace with it. The most formative experience I’ve had in recent memory was—well, it was actually the night Jerome abducted me. You know—the fun fair, the mirrors. Everything I told you about while we were working on your project for Wayne Enterprises. That night was transformative. It did something to define me. I’m telling you this because Jerome was your brother, and you suffer from his loss. I thought it might mean something to you—to know that your brother impacted my life just as much as you have.”
Wordlessly, Jeremiah finished his wine, set down his glass, and slammed the table with both fists.
“If we’re being honest, then there’s something I need to tell you, too,” he said, his anger subsiding as quickly as it had flared. “See, Bruce, it’s like this. When I said I lost my family, I wasn’t talking about my mother, who I did care for, or my—or that pathetic, psychopathic excuse for a circus clown. I was talking about you.”
Bruce felt keen sorrow, but he managed to channel it into some semblance of what he hoped was touched wonder. What he said next mattered.
“Jeremiah, I…” Bruce didn’t have to pretend to need another moment. “I can’t tell you how much it means to hear that. And it—it would mean the world to me if you’d release Alfred. I’d rather not return to the city alone, not when I fear for my safety, which…” He met Jeremiah’s inscrutable stare. “You’d like to see me again after tonight, wouldn’t you?”
Jeremiah looked wistfully from Bruce’s plate to his own, considering the crusts they’d both left. He tipped their empty glasses one by one, squared his shoulders, and folded his hands in his lap.
“How about this,” he said with tipsy deliberation, and even a hint of nerves. “Since we’ve had such a nice evening, our own private soirée while your parents are enjoying their date-night…” He glanced sidelong at Bruce. “I’ll let the butler go if you give me a good-night kiss.”
Without a second thought, Bruce leaned forward. He set his hand against Jeremiah’s cheek, unsurprised to feel a gritty dusting of whatever he’d used to lend contrast to his pallid skin. He saw Jeremiah’s eyes slip shut, felt the hitch in his breath as Jeremiah’s lips parted slightly beneath his.
In all of three seconds before Jeremiah turned his face away, Bruce tasted aioli and cloying wine.
Jeremiah stared vacantly at the disarmed explosive for a long, speechless moment before folding one gloved hand against his mouth. He stifled a hiccupping chuckle, and then looked at Bruce.
“I didn’t think that would actually work,” Jeremiah said coyly, plucking his phone back out of his jacket. His expression turned to one of sulky concentration as he hit speed-dial.
Bruce set his elbows on the table, resting his chin in his hands as Jeremiah ordered Ecco to have Alfred unbound and waiting at the fireplace. Had he truly played his hand just right?
“Should—does that mean I can go?” he asked, rising from his seat as the phone conversation ended.
Jeremiah was on his feet in a flash, the razor-fine point of his knife briefly skimming Bruce’s cheek.
“Until next time, Bruce. I expect you’ll want to hear all about your parents’ night at the movies.”
* * *
Even having gotten Alfred out of a harrowing situation alive, Bruce spent a restless night replaying how the evening had ended. Jeremiah had permitted him to leave the kitchen alone, remaining behind for no reason Bruce cared to consider.
Those strangers, unknowing imitations. You’ll want to hear all about your parents’ night…
Bruce sat up in bed, glancing at his digital alarm clock. Ten till six in the morning, and he’d only just realized that he hadn’t considered what would happen to that couple after the film.
Once he’d dressed, Bruce passed silently down the hall past Alfred’s room. Sound tended to carry in the penthouse, incriminating on nights when Bruce decided to steal away. He resented having a place to stay, a home away from home when so many in Gotham were now homeless.
He ought to have stopped by the precinct on his way to the theater, perhaps to convince Jim and Harvey to come with him, but Bruce felt strangely possessive of this errand. It was private.
No surprise that the theater doors were open, blown off their hinges. However, as Bruce passed through the dusty, shadowed lobby and into the house, he wasn’t prepared for what awaited.
The lights were still down, and the screen flickered with a brief, black-and-white Zorro parody that played on loop. The sound reel had either failed or only been set to run once, but it didn’t take long for Bruce to recognize Jeremiah and the men that Harper had found dead.
As Bruce walked down the aisle, it became numbingly clear that the couple seated several rows back from the front, leaning into each other with heads tilted, weren’t moving. The entrance wounds in the backs of their skulls were neat and identical. Given they’d been surgically altered beyond recognition and placed under hypnosis, the execution seemed almost merciful.
With lowered eyes, Bruce reached to remove the triple string of pearls from around the dead woman’s neck. His fingers trembled on the clasp, rage suffusing him like a sudden fever.
The necklace wasn’t original. Not unless Jeremiah had pilfered it from GCPD evidence storage and had it repaired, which was doubtful. The precinct’s lockdown had been faultless for months.
Bruce snapped one of the strands as he stalked out of the theater, spilling pearls into his hand. He’d leave a trail for Jeremiah to follow, and he’d wait at the tunnel until his arrival.
The Stockton subway stop was as empty as when Bruce had followed Jeremiah’s poor shades down it the day before, echoing with each footstep and pearl-drop he made. He had only a single bead left by the time he reached the tunnel’s entrance—fitting, given the pearl he’d found before.
As it turned out, Bruce’s dramatic, fairytale-worthy breadcrumb measure had been unnecessary.
Jeremiah stood on a rickety stool several feet into the tunnel, replacing a light that had gone out.
“Knew you’d turn up sooner or later,” he chuckled, twisting the bulb until it glowed. “Good morning, sunshine. Sentimental of you to choose the spot on which you caught your…erstwhile paramour attempting to take my life? I owe you thanks for such a gallant, accidental rescue.”
Bruce threw the pearl at him, experiencing a flush of intense embarrassment when it bounced off Jeremiah’s shoulder. He was wearing a blue jacket that shimmered in the artificial glow.
“You’ve done terrible things, Jeremiah,” he said, struggling to restrain himself without benefit of Alfred’s grasp, “but that doesn’t mean you deserve to die. No one does.”
Raising his eyebrows inquisitively, Jeremiah dusted off his gloved hands and hopped off the stool.
“Not even my joke of a brother?” he asked with distaste. “If you ask me, he got what was coming.”
Right hand fisted at his side, ready to strike, Bruce advanced on him. “Did the couple you killed?”
“You might say I spared them Gotham’s deplorable standard of living,” replied Jeremiah, and fled.
Running full-tilt down the tunnel was perilous, but Jeremiah had clearly practiced the maneuver sufficient to maintain an infuriating lead. Bruce was gasping for breath by the time he stumbled through the fireplace, lungs burning. He cast about the library, and then froze.
Jeremiah was leaning against the wall behind the right-hand sofa, tutting as he checked his watch.
“Now, Bruce,” he sighed, letting his sleeve fall back into place, “we’ll need to work on your—”
“Shut up!” Bruce snarled, vaulting over the sofa, ungracefully knocking into him. “Those people didn’t deserve to die!” He pinned Jeremiah’s hands at his sides. “I want you to say it.”
“Caveat,” Jeremiah said, not even struggling in Bruce’s grasp. “Ecco tailed you to the theater earlier, but—she wasn’t the only one. It seems dear Alfred followed you, too. He got careless.”
Fueled by fresh, shocked panic, Bruce released Jeremiah’s left wrist and struck him across the jaw.
“Where has she taken him?” he hissed under his breath, repeating the blow when Jeremiah laughed.
“I’ll say I’m sorry for what I’ve done, maybe let him go,” Jeremiah taunted, “if you kiss me again.”
With determined fury, Bruce pinned Jeremiah to the wall. That unequivocally got his full attention.
Insultingly easy, even easier than the first time, to cover Jeremiah’s bruise-shaded mouth with his own. Bruce slid his tongue roughly across Jeremiah’s scarcely-parted lips, met with the waxy, chemical taste of whatever had been used to stain them.
Jeremiah moaned, the low, startled sound vibrating between their chests. He forced his tongue past Bruce’s teeth in kind, gasping like he’d been punched when Bruce bit his lip.
Bruce released Jeremiah’s wrists and stepped back, flushing hot with dismay as Jeremiah chased the contact. It hadn’t been like this last night.
Jeremiah staggered into him, red-gloved hands fisting in the lapels of Bruce’s coat, eyes luminously wide. He looked both enthralled and lost.
“Will that buy a few weeks’ peace?” Bruce asked, dry-mouthed as he grabbed Jeremiah’s elbows and attempted to dislodge him. “Jeremiah?”
“If that’s the going rate on good behavior,” Jeremiah rasped with a hint of wry desperation, fingers twining fiercely in Bruce’s coat, “lay another on me and it’ll buy you a month.”
Unable to erase the sounds Jeremiah had made from his mind, Bruce surged forward again. Beneath the acrid cosmetic, he tasted Jeremiah’s skin.
Jeremiah froze, keeping his mouth shut tight. He swallowed an unreadable noise and let go, his usual grace absent as he shied from Bruce’s hold.
“You drive a hard bargain. I’d expect nothing less,” he muttered, diffidently turning aside. “Now, get out of here, Bruce, before I change my mind.”
“Not without Alfred,” Bruce said, fighting to keep his voice level. “I’ve only ever known you to be a man of your word. Apologize and release him.”
Jeremiah stuck his hands in his pockets, straightening his posture. He made the face that Bruce had come to understand as you have a point. He withdrew his phone, flipped it open, and hit a single button several times before glancing up, poised in spite of his smudged lipstick.
“There’s been an accident,” Jeremiah said gravely. “Mr. Pennyworth pulled some funny business, so Ecco had to put a bullet in him. I truly am sorry. Till now, he’d been a perfect gentleman.”
Bruce slammed him back into the wall without so much as a breath of warning, ashamed at how fiercely he’d wanted to maintain absolute control in the first place. He struck Jeremiah harder this time, tangled the fingers of his free hand in Jeremiah’s hair, and yanked.
No mistaking it now, not as Jeremiah jerked against him. His whimper went straight to Bruce’s gut.
“Is Alfred alive?” Bruce demanded, his tone gone harsh and merciless. “Jeremiah, is he—”
Jeremiah looked dazed, as if he had no memory of what he’d read on his phone. His breath came in shallow, labored gasps, and there was no ignoring that he’d gone hard against Bruce’s hip.
Bruce wanted to hit him again, but it seemed there was something far more subtle—and so much less damaging—that he could use. He pulled Jeremiah’s hair hard enough to feel a sympathetic sting.
Jeremiah jolted and clung to Bruce. The sound he made this time was just shy of a hysterical sob.
“Yes!” he gasped raggedly, attempting to escape. “Yes, Bruce, your precious butler’s alive.”
Dazed in equal measure, Bruce released him and stepped back. Beneath the rush of terrified arousal, the desire to keep pushing, he realized he needed to get Alfred back to the hospital as swiftly as he could.
Staring wide-eyed, Jeremiah brought his phone shakily up to his ear. He ordered Ecco to stay where she was outside the tunnel with Alfred, sounding disturbingly like his pre-transformation self.
“Thank you,” Bruce said, swallowing thickly. “I appreciate that you respect me enough not to—”
“Get out,” Jeremiah snarled, his balisong already in hand, “before I decide to take his life after all!”
Bruce turned and ran for the fireplace. Sick with rising terror and stunned guilt, he didn’t look back.
He found an unconscious Alfred slumped against the wall alongside the tunnel’s entrance. Ecco was nowhere to be found. Examination showed that the shot Alfred had taken to the stomach had likely lodged the bullet in his spine.
Cold with speechless dread, Bruce fumbled his phone from his coat pocket and speed-dialed Jim.
Harvey came along for the ride, which was fortunate given that it took all three of them to lift Alfred into the van in hopes of avoiding further damage. Their hands were streaked with blood.
Alfred moaned and attempted to stir when Jim slammed the door and raced around to the driver’s side. Harvey was already in the passenger seat, swearing at Jim to hurry the hell up.
Bruce sat next to Alfred in the filthy, upholstered bed of the van where back seats had once been. He set a hand on Alfred’s chest, willing each successive beat of his heart.
“Who did this?” Jim asked, jamming his key into the ignition, screeching into the empty street.
“Jeremiah lured me down the tunnel again,” Bruce said. “I came to confront him about some civilians he murdered. Ecco followed me, and so did Alfred. She got him.”
“Kid, you need to stop baiting the loonies,” Harvey sighed tiredly, “or at least stop looking for ’em.”
Bruce caught Jim’s eyes in the rearview mirror, resenting what he saw in them. He looked away.
“Jeremiah will answer for his actions, and nobody can convince me otherwise. I’ll make him pay.”
* * *
Thanks to Lee’s expert intervention, Alfred survived. She’d been able to remove the bullet, but the inflammation surrounding Alfred’s spinal column had prevented him from waking up from surgery. Nobody wanted to use the word coma, but it hung in the antiseptic-laced air.
Bruce spent three intolerable weeks assisting Jim and Harvey with their patrols and humanitarian efforts during daylight. At night, he stalked Gotham’s streets in search of a menace he knew he wouldn’t find. The darkness mocked him, its indistinct revelations refusing to take shape.
A month of peace, the accord stated, sealed with a calamitous kiss. Jeremiah was a man of his word.
At the close of the third week, a bouquet of twelve lapel-sized dry rosebuds in varying colors arrived at the precinct. They were bound in red thread strung with mud-streaked pearls.
No note accompanied the delivery, but Bruce knew both the dead blooms and their binding on-sight.
Jim had reluctantly surrendered the artifact to him, entirely unconvinced at Bruce’s insistence that it was a prank to rattle the ranks. That it was meaningless, a jest with no answer.
Late that night, alone in the penthouse, Bruce cut the red thread and unbundled the roses’ short, brittle stems. There was something stiff inside, black-patterned, folded and rolled in on itself.
Bruce flattened the Jack of Spades and stared at the lipstick-stain marring its implacable face.
The start of the fourth week brought Selina to Bruce’s bedroom window unannounced. She’d slipped inside while he slept and set up shop at his desk, scratching something into its surface.
“Would you stop that,” Bruce yawned, sitting up, squinting at her in the scant grey light of dawn.
Selina stilled her busy fingers, rolling her eyes. “This place is so boring. You need to spice it up.”
“No offense, but your idea of interior decorating involves unwashed dishes and a ton of stray cats.”
“What’s with you lately? If you’re not working yourself to the bone on patrol, you’re holed up in here like a wounded animal. Lee tells me you haven’t visited Alfred since the day—”
“Alfred’s in a coma,” Bruce said curtly, getting out of bed. “He wouldn’t know even if I was there.”
Selina, still perched on his desk chair, watched him with weary, troubled eyes as he got dressed.
“Guess it’s true,” she murmured, “what Jim and Harv are saying. You’re a man on a mission, huh.”
“I won’t rest until Jeremiah has answered for what happened,” Bruce insisted, adjusting his collar.
“Here’s the thing, though,” Selina said, dropping into a seated position before standing. “Ecco’s the one who shot Alfred, right? And exactly what d’you think would’ve been the best thing for that poor couple Jeremiah made look like your parents, anyway? Their minds were gone.”
“I don’t follow,” Bruce said, running his fingers agitatedly through his hair, but it was a lost cause.
“This is a dumb fucking grudge, is what I mean,” Selina replied. “There are people that need help.”
“And I’m helping them,” said Bruce, donning his coat, “by making sure Jeremiah stays in check. Anything above and beyond that, the answering for what he did? That’s personal.”
Selina came up behind him at the mirror, her reflection frowning fiercely. “He stays in check?”
“For the most part, yes,” Bruce replied, turning to face her. “When was the last time he caused trouble on a grand scale?”
Selina shrugged. “Not for a while, I guess? Can’t remember. You’re saying it’s thanks to you?”
Bruce nodded. “Jeremiah and I came to an agreement last time I saw him. Almost a month ago.”
“Wow, Bruce. I’m having a hard time understanding,” Selina scoffed. “You have personal revenge business with Jeremiah, but you also have some kinda…truce? Which is it?”
“Both,” Bruce said, beginning to realize that the look in her eyes was the same as the one in Jim’s.
“Sounds like one super complicated relationship,” said Selina, and then whistled. “Oh, wait. Were those creepy dried roses from loverboy?” She slipped her hand in her back pocket and withdrew the badly-creased playing card, waving it at him. “Bruce, what are you doing?”
Bruce snatched the card away from her before she could pocket it again, stuffing it inside his coat.
“Keeping this city safe the only way I know how,” he said reproachfully. “The only way I can.”
“One savior complex is enough for this hellhole,” Selina shot back. “Jim Gordon’s got it covered.”
Resisting the impulse to push past her without another word, Bruce hardened his expression further.
“If you knew you could keep people from getting hurt by making deals with the devil, would you?”
Selina laughed venomously. “Even though Jeremiah shoulda stayed dead, he’s not immortal. Someone’ll off him eventually. This city’s tearing itself to pieces, which is why…”
Bruce narrowed his eyes as she trailed off, realizing she’d said something she hadn’t intended to.
“Which is why…?” he prompted, pushing past her toward the door. “I can’t stand here all day.”
“Which is why I’m getting outta dodge,” Selina said softly. “Penguin and Nygma found a way.”
“God,” Bruce said, opening the bedroom door. “Whatever Ed’s scheme is, it’ll get you all killed.”
Selina marched up to him and spun him around, her clawed hands in a vise-grip on his shoulders.
“You don’t want to leave, do you? You wouldn’t leave with me no matter how nicely I asked.”
“I can’t leave,” Bruce said, removing her hands. “As long as Gotham needs me, as long as Alfred—”
Cutting him off with a chaste, wistful kiss, Selina patted Bruce’s cheeks. Her eyes shone with tears.
“You keep telling yourself that,” she said, “but it's not about either one. G’bye, Bruce. Good luck.”
Bruce watched her leave the way she’d come, marveling briefly at her soundless drop into the wind.
* * *
At dusk, four weeks to the day, Bruce was pondering a map in the precinct when Lee found him.
“Hey,” she said, setting a hand on his shoulder. “Jim says you hardly ever go home. Have you eaten? Slept? Done any of the things a normal human being needs to survive?”
I’m not normal, Bruce thought, shrugging dully. Not when I want the things I want.
“I know how badly you want to find that—that freak,” Lee said, shaking him gently, “but you should really come with me right now. It’s important.”
Bruce abruptly got to his feet, startling her enough that she took a few steps back. “Is it Alfred?”
“He’s finally awake,” Lee said, smiling through her exhaustion, “and he’s been asking for you.”
“You could have called,” Bruce said, indicating the land-line. “Sorry my phone’s been off.”
“Believe me, I only call down here when I have to,” said Lee, with wry disgust. “Come on.”
Alfred was sitting up when they arrived at the hospital, but only by virtue of his inclined bed.
“Look at you,” he said, weakly patting Bruce’s fingers as Bruce set his hands on the mattress.
“I’ve been eating and sleeping,” Bruce said, catching Lee’s sour expression from across the room.
“I know a lie when I see one,” Alfred wheezed, tensing as if in pain. “How’s Selina keeping?”
“Last time I saw her, about a week ago, she told me she was leaving,” Bruce said. “She’s gone.”
Alfred’s pained grimace intensified, this time in grief. “Why, Master Bruce? What have you done?”
“I refused to go with her,” Bruce said. “How could I leave when you’re still here, when this city needs me? I’ve been hunting Jeremiah day and night. Just because he agreed to a month’s armistice doesn’t mean I don’t want to make him suffer for what he did—”
“A month?” Alfred asked incredulously. “That’s how long I’ve been asleep, isn’t it. The gig’s up. He’ll make his whereabouts known soon enough.”
Bruce nodded, staring down at his hands as he withdrew them. “I’m going on patrol tonight. I’ll be ready.”
“You’re playing with fire,” Alfred whispered, head tipping back as he closed his eyes. “No, worse than fire. Do you realize this is madness?”
“You don’t know anything about it, Alfred,” Bruce said. “It’s necessary. As long as I meet him halfway once in a while, fewer people die. He’s kept his word so far.”
“Dr. Thompkins says I’ll be laid up at least another month. I’ll likely never walk again without use of a cane. I’m still alive, yeah, but at what cost? Where does making him suffer figure in?”
“I don’t want to hear it! You’re not the one patrolling the streets, risking your life to keep a madman in check. And yes, look what happened last time you followed me. I’m in control!”
Alfred opened his eyes, blinking at Bruce through his freshly-welled tears. “Are you, Master Bruce?”
“I have to go,” Bruce said wretchedly, storming out of the room before Lee could attempt to stop him.
He didn’t stop until he was outside, until his coat was buffeted by the freezing night air. His feet retraced a path that he’d revisited sleeplessly, without cease, through the newspaper-strewn alley and down the Stockton subway-stop stairs.
The shadows beckoned him as he descended, the shapes of them starkly-defined.
Cruel, cruel certainty closed in on Bruce as he rounded the next corner, killing his flashlight in anticipation of the of the tunnel’s soft glow. Met with pitch-blackness, he turned it back on.
If he was correct in his newfound assumption that Jeremiah simply hadn’t left Wayne Manor in all this time, then why were the lights out? He stormed down the tunnel, finding his flashlight-beam inadequate. He nearly tripped several times, catching himself against the muddy walls.
On emerging through the fireplace, Bruce found that the library, too, was dark. There was no sign of human habitation, and the disarmed bomb sat precisely where Jeremiah had left it. The room was faultlessly tidy.
Prowling floor to floor, starting with the cellar, he found twelve of Jeremiah’s so-called Italian meringues, but no trace of current occupation.
At long last, Bruce wearily mounted the stairs, sweeping scant illumination ahead of him. He switched off his flashlight when he realized a light was on at the far end of the hall, which was where…
Bruce’s bedroom door was ajar, but no light emanated from within. He paused in the doorway and gave it a shove, watching as it swung fully inward. Bruce’s shadow fell long and foreboding across the bed.
Surveying the space, finding his eyes had adjusted fully to the darkness, Bruce realized that the belongings strewn here and there—articles of clothing, books, toiletries on the desk—weren’t his.
The lump under the duvet stirred, but it didn’t roll to face him. Only its sleek, greenish hair was visible.
“I’m only going to ask once,” Bruce said, frigid with command. “What are you doing in my room?”
“Wondering if you’d come back to renew the contract, so to speak,” said Jeremiah, blurry with sleep. “See how well that worked? Not a rocket set off, not a soul hypnotized, not a drop of blood spilt.”
“That’s not an answer!” Bruce snapped, dropping the flashlight. “Now, for the last time, what—”
Stretching lazily, Jeremiah rolled onto his back. His lithe arms glowed almost white, distractingly bare save for loose, dark sleeves bunched at his shoulders as he let them fall above his head.
“Did you like the roses?” he yawned. “Ecco keeps getting them for my lapel, who knows where. I dried them for you so they’d keep longer. Thought your Hansel-and-Gretel pearls would be a nice touch.”
Too furious to form a response, Bruce fished in his pocket for the defaced Jack of Spades. He threw it.
Jeremiah finally rolled onto his side, blinking at the playing card where it had landed, and then at Bruce.
“Couldn’t risk you wondering about whether or not I was thinking of you during our time apart,” he said earnestly, his inhuman eyes glinting in the light that filtered in from behind Bruce. “Rest assured, I was. Having the likes of Ecco for company—she’s gotten scarcer and scarcer, mind, running around our wasteland of a city with who knows what—will only get you so far. Can you believe she’s accused me of relegating her to maid service? Granted, this place wasn’t going to clean itself. I’ve grown accustomed to mockingly being called Mr. J.”
“Enough,” Bruce snarled, closing the space between them before Jeremiah could talk back.
He dug the fingers of his right hand into Jeremiah’s disconcertingly perfect hair, dragging him from the bed with a thud. It was strange to see his navy terrycloth bathrobe on someone else.
Jeremiah had begun to cackle. There was a thin, strained quality to the sound even as he refused to struggle against Bruce’s grasp when Bruce forced him onto his knees.
“You don’t get to do this,” Bruce hissed, mercilessly pulling Jeremiah’s hair. “You don’t get to live here, don’t get to sleep in my room, without facing the consequences.”
Jeremiah grunted in pain and shuffled forward, following as best he could while Bruce dragged him into the hall. It was a struggle for both of them, as awkward as it was. They were panting and shaking by the time Bruce had hauled him a few feet.
The master-bedroom door was to their left. Consumed with rage, scarcely thinking, Bruce pushed it open.
“I know what you want,” he said, yanking at Jeremiah’s hair until Jeremiah groaned and staggered to his feet, clutching at his head. “You’re afraid of it, and so was I—but your thing is conquering fear, right?”
Jeremiah swayed on his feet, pulling the disarrayed robe back in order. He glowered at Bruce, nodding, otherworldly in backlit silhouette. Mortal or monstrous, his beauty was heart-stopping.
“I’ve conquered mine,” Bruce said, shedding his coat on the floor, “and now it’s time you conquered yours.”
“You’ve come to punish me, is that it?” Jeremiah spat in disappointment. “Make me suffer for my sins?”
“No,” Bruce said, shrugging out of his sweater, noting that Jeremiah’s eyes had gone wide. “Jeremiah?”
“Speaking,” Jeremiah deadpanned, his hands twitching at his sides. His ruffled uncertainty betrayed him.
“Why aren’t you fighting me?” Bruce asked, unbuttoning his shirt, businesslike. “Where’s your knife?”
Jeremiah cocked his head in an attitude of doubt, his silver-limned eyes as round as they’d ever been.
“Correct me if I’m wrong,” he said tentatively, licking his lips, “but—you don’t usually undress for that.”
Bruce finished unbuttoning his shirt, letting it hang. He took in every detail of Jeremiah’s posture, from the discomfited hunch of his shoulders to his twitching, grasping fingers. He was waiting.
“Don’t just stand there,” Bruce ordered, gesturing curtly at his parents’ four-poster. “Get on the bed.”
Jeremiah swayed where he stood, conflicted, but didn’t budge. His right hand jerked, dipping into the bathrobe’s pocket. He’d flicked the knife open and raised it before Bruce could react.
“This is a far, far cry from the gentleman I’d led myself to believe I was courting,” he said dourly.
The nerve, Bruce thought, overwhelmed by rage as he strode right up to the edge of the blade.
“I have to say, though,” said Jeremiah, with a hint of his usual flirtatiousness as he let Bruce press the searing steel into his own windpipe, “I’ll be awfully disappointed if you slit your own throat.”
“I said,” Bruce repeated, turning Jeremiah’s head aside with a swift, ruthless slap as he knocked the knife out of Jeremiah’s hand, “get on the bed.”
Jeremiah shook himself, rubbing at his cheek as he broke into a coy smile. “Anything for you, Bruce.”
Acquiescence be damned, Bruce grabbed the bathrobe’s loosely-tied belt. He used it to drag Jeremiah over to stand alongside the bed, and then yanked down the covers with his free hand.
“All this trouble for what I thought you’d demand of me a month ago,” Jeremiah sighed. “Imagine.”
“Shut up,” Bruce raged, grabbing him by the shoulders. He wheeled them around so that Jeremiah’s back was to the bed, unceremoniously shoving him down on the mattress. “Untie it.”
Blinking in surprise, Jeremiah scrambled so that he no longer lay the wrong way across the bed. He let both of his hands creep to the tie at his waist, lit by the glow of the hall light through the door. The sparse hair on his chest glinted faint and coppery against his washed-out flesh.
“Didn’t even give a guy time to do his face,” he said reproachfully, loosening the oddly precise bow.
“Good. I haven’t seen you like this since the graveyard, when you wiped off all that paint,” Bruce said, letting his shirt fall to the floor as Jeremiah parted the robe just enough to expose—oh.
Bruce stared at the sequence of erratic red weals scattered across Jeremiah’s torso, realizing with sudden, sick clarity that there was a reason why Jeremiah couldn’t always breathe. His stab-wounds had healed, but only just enough. Jeremiah was still in some degree of discomfort.
“Don’t let it keep you from playing rough,” Jeremiah said, closing his eyes. “When you had me against the wall, you probably noticed I don’t mind.”
Bruce unlaced his boots and stumbled out of them, grateful that Jeremiah wanted him to finish undressing. He tugged off his socks, and then removed his trousers. He climbed onto the bed in nothing but his boxer-briefs, sliding his hand beneath the robe to stroke Jeremiah’s belly.
Jeremiah opened his eyes, gaze lucid and intense. He took hold of Bruce’s wrist and guided it down and over the sharp rise of his hip, catching his raw, pink lower lip between his teeth in concentration.
Just like you used to do when we were bent over the drafting table, Bruce thought. He massaged his thumb briefly into the hollow of Jeremiah’s hipbone, fascinated at the breathy gasp it drew. I miss watching you for hours.
“If you try to sentimentalize this,” Jeremiah said tersely, his eyes screwed shut, “I’ll be disappointed.”
Bruce kissed him quiet, ready when Jeremiah winced and pushed up against him. He stiffened against Bruce’s belly, licking past Bruce’s teeth. His erection was warm, already the barest hint wet.
Tugging the terrycloth belt free of Jeremiah’s robe, Bruce broke the kiss and rocked back on his heels. He nudged the splay of Jeremiah’s legs wider so he could kneel between them, disbelieving. Was this really all that it would have taken, harsh commands and a firm enough touch?
“Hands above your head,” Bruce ordered, and Jeremiah’s eyes flew open again. “Jeremiah, now.”
Breathing fast, Jeremiah crossed his wrists and set them against the lowest rung of the headboard.
“You might want to get rid of this first,” he said, nosing at the robe-sleeve bunched at his shoulder.
Bruce slapped him harder this time, but instantly regretted it when Jeremiah moaned and caught Bruce’s hips in a vise-trip between his knees. He was trembling, already closer than Bruce would have liked.
“Don’t,” Bruce said sternly, lashing Jeremiah’s wrists to the headboard with the robe’s tie. “Not yet.”
“Hate to break it to you,” Jeremiah panted, struggling halfheartedly to test Bruce’s knots, “but I...”
The words died on Jeremiah’s tongue as Bruce rid himself of his underwear. He gave himself a few perfunctory strokes solely for Jeremiah’s benefit, watching as Jeremiah’s breath stuttered in his heaving chest.
“Bruce,” said Jeremiah, with none of the usual polish evident in his diction. “Please, I—Bruce.”
Bruce stretched against him, letting the full weight of his body settle. He made sure most of the robe was tugged aside, stroking lingeringly from Jeremiah’s thighs up to his sides as he buried his face in Jeremiah’s neck.
Jeremiah smelled just the way he used to during those long hours they’d spent working in his bunker. More than once, Bruce had imagined what it would be like to catch Jeremiah’s face in both hands across the drafting table, remove his glasses, and kiss him over his brilliant schematic.
“Are you in pain?” Bruce whispered, not daring to look up as he cautiously stroked Jeremiah’s cheek.
Jeremiah choked on a sound that was somewhere between a laugh and a sob. “Not the way you think.”
“Shhh,” Bruce soothed, letting himself forget, for the sake of sanity, what had led them here. He lifted his head and kissed Jeremiah deeply, bracing his elbows on either side of Jeremiah’s chest.
Almost as soon as Bruce started to move, Jeremiah groaned, bit down on Bruce’s lower lip, and came.
Bruce eased off kissing him only long enough to let Jeremiah catch his shuddering breath. His skin felt unbearably tight.
The realization that this was not only his first sexual encounter, but likely also Jeremiah’s, sent him shivering against Jeremiah’s chest. He wanted Jeremiah’s arms around him so fiercely it was an ache.
“Don’t, don’t, don’t,” Jeremiah was whispering frantically against Bruce’s ear, “don’t stop.”
Through a surge of arousal that only just eclipsed his regret, Bruce worked one arm beneath Jeremiah and pressed his palm flat between Jeremiah’s shoulder blades. Held him close and didn’t stop moving, didn’t stop even when he came so hard it wrenched the air from his chest.
Jeremiah came a second time while Bruce clung to him in an effort to recover, dry-climaxing from the feel of it. Bruce blindly kissed the soft, ashen skin of Jeremiah’s neck. He bit down hard enough to make Jeremiah shout as his thighs clenched tighter at Bruce’s hips.
At length, feeling guiltily, yet possessively sated, Bruce lifted his head with a dazed, drowsy blink.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” whispered Jeremiah, brokenly, his eyes glittering in accusation. “Why didn’t you tell me that you wanted—”
Hurt, Bruce struck him hard enough to leave a livid bruise, this time across his damp, flushed cheekbone.
“Because I loved you too much to ruin what we had!” he seethed, rolling away from Jeremiah and off the bed as his vision blurred. “And now...”
“I get it,” Jeremiah said while Bruce gathered his clothes and Jeremiah’s knife, hoarse, but with a hint of disdain. “Now, it’s just want.”
“Something like that,” Bruce replied bitterly. He sliced through Jeremiah’s bonds, set the knife beside him, and left.
* * *
In subsequent weeks, the situation didn’t improve. It worsened in the most disastrous fashion imaginable.
Another month’s peace would have been too much to expect. A week later, a week to the day, a dozen bodies turned up on the front steps of the precinct. Chessmen and Leopards in equal measure, they showed the same ghastly damage by toxin inhalation that Jeremiah’s Zorro victims had suffered. Each had a strand of filthy pearls around their neck.
Jim marched up the steps to where Bruce was motionless and watching GCPD forensics collect evidence.
“I don’t know what the hell you did to set him off,” he said under his breath, “but you’d better fix this.”
“I’ll find him,” Bruce snapped, stalking off then and there. He’d needed an excuse, and now he had one.
Jeremiah was waiting for Bruce next to the STOCKTON mosaic on the empty underground platform—dressed to dazzle, his make-up immaculate. His hands were in his pockets, knife absent.
“I hope you liked them as much as you liked the roses,” he said with grave sincerity. “That was quite a night we had, Bruce, don’t you think? It called for a much grander gesture.”
Bruce pinned him against the tile, intending to land as many punches as he could stand. But Jeremiah’s breath quickened in desperation, and Bruce was kissing him before he even knew what had happened.
Jeremiah drew Bruce’s forearm up tight against his throat. Seconds later, he was gasping as Bruce rubbed him through his superbly-tailored trousers. Once they’d both finished, he stalked off without a word.
Two weeks later—once again, two weeks to the day—Harper and her patrol team found a sprawling Docklands warehouse that had been converted into a maze of mirrors. Harvey announced to everyone what she’d radioed.
Bruce abandoned marking new borders on Jim’s map and asked to go with them.
“Dunno what kind of approach you’ve been takin’,” Harvey said, pulling the van up in front of the warehouse, “but do us all a favor and knock it off. Or kill him and have done with it, you feel?”
“No,” Bruce said, getting out of the van with a sense of dreading anticipation. “I don’t kill people.”
Harvey whistled in disgust, staring straight ahead through the windshield. “I sure wish you did.”
“Ask Harper to clear the premises,” Bruce insisted, about to close the passenger-side door. “I’ll go in alone. Trust me. I’ve already been through something like this with a Valeska and survived.”
“Yeah,” Harvey muttered, raising the radio to his unkempt mustache, “but not this Valeska.”
“Do it,” Bruce said, slamming the door. He watched Harvey bark orders into the radio.
He waited for Harper’s entire unit to file out of the building before going inside.
Jeremiah’s elegant maze was uncannily serene. Bruce wandered aimlessly for nearly an hour, finding nothing but upright, immovable panels of glass. It wasn’t until he noticed the occasional loose pearl that he caught the gist, collecting the beads as he went. They led him to a dead end.
The mirror shattered from behind without warning, massive shards narrowly missing Bruce as they fell.
Jeremiah was dressed like Jerome had been dressed that night at the fun fair, but his face was his own.
“Didn’t take you anywhere near as long as I thought,” Jeremiah said, dropping to his knees as Bruce joined him in the shadowed space behind the shattered mirror, “and a good thing, too.”
“No bodies?” Bruce gasped, closing his eyes as Jeremiah—waiting, always waiting—stroked him through his jeans. He buried both hands in Jeremiah’s ginger hair, surely dyed to temporarily restore its original color, pulling so hard that Jeremiah moaned. “Pearls instead of carnage?”
“You were good to me last time,” Jeremiah said, unbuttoning Bruce’s fly, encouraged by Bruce’s fingers in his hair. “Consider this my actual attempt at recreating the most important night of your life.”
“You left a lot out,” Bruce said, startled when Jeremiah kissed and nuzzled him. “I know you value detail.”
“Not a risk I could take,” Jeremiah mumbled, tasting him with a sigh. “I want to be the star of the show.”
“Do it,” Bruce ordered, yanking his hair, and Jeremiah swallowed him whole. “Fuck. Fuck, Jero—”
Jeremiah pulled off him, reproachfully wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. He got to his feet and smoothed his hair, cool eyes flashing deadly in the dimness even though his posture radiated distress.
Bruce hurriedly put his clothing back together as Jeremiah produced the balisong out of nowhere.
“Heat of the moment and all that, I know,” Jeremiah crooned, caressing Bruce’s cheek with the flat of the blade. “Can’t blame your pretty, sentimental head for tripping up, dollface.”
Before Bruce could make either an apology or an excuse, Jeremiah slashed his cheek and swiped his thumb across the wound. He smeared the blood across Bruce’s lips, eyeing him critically.
“Just not the same, is it?” he said, licking the knife clean. He spun on his heel and vanished into the dark.
The next time Jeremiah acted out, he didn’t even wait a week. Three days after the unfortunate mirror-maze incident, Jim and Bruce followed a trail of toxin victims with their throats cut, twenty-four in total, from the precinct door to Ace Chemicals.
Jim took one look at the clouds of green smoke billowing from the stacks and patted Bruce on the back.
“This is all you,” he said, angrier than Bruce had ever seen him, and turned back the way they’d come.
Shivering in the settling dusk, Bruce approached the eerily-lit, open entrance to the chemical plant. He froze in his tracks when Jeremiah, dark-haired once more, appeared in the threshold’s orange glow.
“Here, Bruce!” Jeremiah called, taunting and furious. “What are you waiting for, Gordon to come back?”
Seized with indescribable fury, Bruce rushed at the entrance with every last ounce of adrenaline he had.
Jeremiah fled ahead of him, disappearing into the plant’s noxiously-beckoning darkroom of an interior.
Bruce spotted Jeremiah instantly. He leaned against the railing of a catwalk that overlooked a vat of God-knew-what, blade at the ready. Bruce touched his stinging cheek as he dashed up the staircase, cursing the naming coincidence—butterfly bandages, butterfly knife—to hell and back.
“Jeremiah!” he shouted, storming up the last steps as Jeremiah turned toward him. “This ends. Tonight.”
“No. No, Bruce,” Jeremiah said wistfully, advancing several steps, twirling the knife. “Now, it begins.”
“Wait,” Bruce said, jumping back as Jeremiah took a lunge at him. “Wait! Can’t we just try and—”
“All I wanted was to feel connected to you!” Jeremiah raged, expression bordering on heartbroken. “I gave you everything! My friendship, my trust—myself!” He lunged again.
Bruce parried a sequence of blows so swordsman-like in their precision that, fleetingly, he gained a new appreciation for the fencing maneuvers he’d seen Jeremiah execute in black-and-white.
He caught Jeremiah’s wrist on the next vicious lunge, knocking the balisong out of his hand and into the vat.
Jeremiah stared after it for several seconds, and then whirled to lash out at Bruce with a sequence of backpedaling kicks as Bruce advanced on him. He lost his grip on the railings and toppled backward, laughing breathlessly as Bruce fell on him with a betrayal-fueled punch.
“Don’t give me that!” Bruce shouted, landing several more blows in quick succession even as Jeremiah’s laughter reached a fever pitch. “I gave you everything! D’you think this has been easy?”
“No, but you’re easy,” Jeremiah retorted, grabbing the backs of Bruce’s thighs, tugging him flush.
“This isn’t a game,” Bruce hissed, winding his fingers in Jeremiah’s hair. Instead of pulling it, he bent low over Jeremiah until their foreheads touched. “What will it take for me to…”
“To keep me in check?” Jeremiah asked standoffishly. “Checkmate? You see, Bruce, I think that’s just the problem. You say it’s not a game, but—for you?” He pecked Bruce on the lips. “That’s exactly what it is. Kiss and tell—” he punctuated the phrase with a thrust of his hips “—fuck and run. What difference does it really make?”
“To Gotham?” Bruce asked, slapping him for the mere suggestion. “The difference between chaos and ruin.” He kissed Jeremiah on the mouth, biting Jeremiah’s lower lip until it bled. “To me?”
“I thought you felt it,” Jeremiah whispered with reproach, licking at the cut, and then into Bruce’s mouth.
I do, Bruce thought, kissing him back for all he was worth, but how can I possibly admit it?
Jeremiah broke the kiss, his eyes shut tight, stroking Bruce’s cheeks fervently with both gloved hands.
“An ultimatum, then,” he said with startling gravitas. “I won’t just be your plaything. This isn’t a game, I’ve put it all on the line, and I won’t just do whatever you want for scraps anymore, Bruce. I’ve given you all of myself, and now? I need all of you.”
“What’s that even supposed to mean?” Bruce asked helplessly, despising himself for having lost control.
“Bruce,” Jeremiah sighed almost tenderly, scrabbling above his head. He brought a shard of scrap-metal up against Bruce’s throat. “My lover, my heart. My fearless Jack of Spades. Figure it out.”
Bruce delivered a skull-cracking blow to the side of Jeremiah’s head before he could press the metal into Bruce’s throat any harder, rolling off him in sheer exhaustion. He heard the footfalls too late.
Ecco stood over them, her head tilted in bewildered disdain. She kicked the shard away from Jeremiah’s fingers, toeing at his head to make sure he was unconscious. She offered Bruce her hand.
“Thanks,” Bruce huffed as she helped him to his feet. “Listen, I…know you’re the one who shot Alfred.”
“If I hadn’t done it,” she said emphatically, “then he woulda killed me. You of all people know that.”
Bruce nodded, staring down at Jeremiah’s slack features. “I know. You were also acting under orders.”
“Hah!” Ecco said, miming a kick to the side of Jeremiah’s head. “I ain’t takin’ them from him no more.”
“He told me you hadn’t been around the Manor much,” Bruce replied. “Said you’d found new friends.”
“Oh, I found somebody all right!” Ecco said in delight, striding to the railing. “Hey, Ives!” she shouted, beckoning to someone Bruce couldn’t see. “Come up here and meet the piece of work Mr. J’s been bangin’! You didn’t believe me, huh? Said you knew him or somethin’?”
About a minute later, Ivy Pepper strode up the stairs, wearing the least shocked look Bruce had ever seen.
“It’s not that I didn’t believe you,” Ivy said, smirking at Bruce. “It’s that I didn’t think he’d get careless.”
“Ivy,” Bruce said, giving her a chagrined nod. “I never got to thank you for what you did for Selina.”
Ivy shrugged, setting her hands on Ecco’s shoulders. “Don’t mention it. For old times’ sake, ya know?”
“These ain’t old times no more, I can tell that much,” Ecco said, jerking her chin at Bruce. “You changin’ your stripes, Mr. Goody Two-Boots? If so, goody goody, but…you could do better.”
Bruce stared down at Jeremiah until his chest ached. “Yeah,” he said pensively. “I could have.”
* * *
Staying in his room for days on end was something Bruce hadn’t done since the months following his parents’ deaths. Still, from time to time, it held certain undeniable utility and appeal.
Lee called him three times in the second day alone, begging him to come and visit Alfred. Three times, he told her that he couldn’t—and that was the truth. The guilt was crushing, inescapable.
If he’d done better by Jeremiah when they’d first become friends, if he’d risked speaking his heart plainly then—too late for that. Far too late to prevent any of what they’d done.
On the third and fourth days respectively, Harvey called from the precinct and asked if Bruce was okay. If he wanted to come on patrol, if he wanted in on some Narrows raid. He even promised to keep Jim away from him, what when Jim had decided he wasn’t speaking to Bruce.
Navel-gazing with a side of self-flagellation was Bruce’s specialty. He couldn’t take credit for the phrasing, even, because Alfred had coined it. This time, though, he was beating himself up over the wrong thing. Not over sleeping with the monster, but over not having loved him better.
Changing his stripes. Wasn’t that how Ecco had so insightfully put it? He’d concluded she was right.
Alfred was better off without him. Selina was better off, too. As for Jim, well. The utter prick.
On the fifth and sixth days, Bruce didn’t get out of bed at all. He took sleeping pills, tossing and turning his way through mesmerizing dreams. Shattered mirrors, mercury, and vintage celluloid.
Jeremiah was in every single one of them, shape-shifting through roles Jerome had only dreamed of.
On the seventh day, Bruce tossed and turned his way into wakefulness, struggling to perceive what sounded like rapping on his window. He drifted off again, despairingly exhausted.
When he rose an indeterminate amount of time later, his window was open. There was something on his desk, a crinkled envelope from the look. A baby-food jar containing a bullet weighed it down.
You ain’t got one in your head, read Ecco’s scrawl on the back of the envelope, but anybody can see you’re nuts. I checked in and J wasn’t home, but I found this. Thought you’d want it back. P.S. Had a friend deliver, seeing as climbing was required. Last favor, she said.
Bruce tore into the envelope, finding it so light that it felt empty. The ruined playing card fell in his hand.
My lover, my heart. My fearless Jack of Spades. Figure it out.
“Checkmate,” Bruce said, flipping it over to the lipstick-stained face.
If he wasn’t willing to risk death in the endeavor of setting things right, then it wasn’t worth doing. But the trick to it was, he could now see through himself. Pierced by falling sunset, undeniable.
Bruce showered and dressed methodically, lingering over the particulars. The most immaculate black garments he owned; his leather-paneled, worse-for-wear coat. He packed the scant duffel bag he’d brought to the penthouse to begin with, what possessions he had there scarcely filling it.
He put the playing card in one pocket and Ecco’s bullet in the other. Reminders of what he’d become.
On his way to the Stockton subway stop, he approached a key-cutting shop for purposes of breaking in—only to find it had already been broken into. He pulled his ring of keys to Wayne Manor out of the duffel bag, searching through the myriad blanks hanging on the pegboard.
Bruce duplicated his keys one by one. Finding a spare ring for them was easy. He stuck both rings of keys inside his coat, burying his cell phone deeper in its secret pocket. He hadn’t answered it in forty-eight hours, and then it had died.
Insubstantial as a ghost, Bruce passed through the alley and descended the stairs into the subway station.
The lights in Jeremiah’s tunnel were still out, but that came as no surprise. Bruce rummaged in his duffel bag until he came up with his spare flashlight, switching it on. He navigated carefully this time.
He emerged into an empty library, but the desk-lamp had been left on. There were a handful of books scattered across the desk. Engineering treatises and sixteenth through nineteenth century poetry.
Ecco might not have found Jeremiah in the Manor when she dropped by, but occupation was in evidence.
Wandering to the sofa, Bruce dropped down in the precise spot where the imitation of Martha had sat. He laid aside the duffel bag, kicking it out of the way, and sank into the sofa’s plush, familiar back.
Bruce woke to the sensation of a blade at his throat, which wasn’t cause for alarm. He opened his eyes.
“I’ve been trying to figure it out, too,” Jeremiah said without pretense, nodding toward Thomas’s desk.
“Put the knife on the table,” Bruce replied, a subtle order, extending an arm along the back of the sofa.
Jeremiah nodded slowly, gravely, and set it down. He folded his hands, the very picture of obedience.
“All right,” Bruce said, rewarding Jeremiah with a measured smile. “Good. Now, come here.”
Jeremiah scooted over, tipped sidelong, and melted into him. He rested his head on Bruce’s shoulder.
“Didn’t think you were coming back,” he said conversationally, parting Bruce’s coat to set a hand on his chest. He stroked Bruce’s sweater, and then lifted his hand to caress the cut on Bruce’s cheek. “I was wrong.”
Bruce kissed Jeremiah for a leisurely while before tugging at his hips. Jeremiah shifted to straddle him.
Rather than speak, they continued to kiss, unfastening enough clothing for comfort. Jeremiah held Bruce’s gaze as he removed his red gloves one at a time. He touched Bruce with a reverence he’d only ever reserved for the most delicate of his projects, mouthing my heart against Bruce’s jaw.
Once Bruce had recovered, he pulled Jeremiah to him tightly, shirt and sweater rucked up enough for Jeremiah to rut against warm skin. Bruce bit Jeremiah’s earlobe and whispered, I feel it.
Jeremiah came with a low, startled laugh, subsiding into a blissful sigh as his movements stilled.
They didn’t know how to do this, but Bruce wasn’t troubled. It was fine. They would figure it out.
Bruce let them rest that way for a while, and then cleaned them with Jeremiah’s handkerchief. Afterward, he reached inside his coat, rummaging in his cell-phone pocket. Jeremiah gave him a questioning look.
Bruce held up the spare ring of keys, answering an overdue toast. “Welcome home, Jeremiah,” he said.