"I love coming to the funfair!"
Barbara sighs happily, untangling herself from Jim's arm and spinning around with a bright smile on her face, taking in the sounds of laughing children and the smell of popcorn and candy apples. Jim watches her fondly, certain his eyes are sparkling as he does. "Thank you for taking me, Jim!"
She comes to a halt, graceful as ever and Jim thinks that, in this very moment, she's the human embodiment of beauty. Her bright, colorful dress enhances the silky shine of her blonde hair and the way her eyes glint makes his heart skip a beat.
"It's wonderful!", she adds and he chuckles, taking her hands in his, bringing one of them to his lips. "This is the one thing I can do for you that prevents you from calling me boring", he says and it's so terribly unromantic that Barbara throws her head back with a laugh. He loves to hear her laugh.
"You're still boring, baby", she teases before leaning in, about to press her heart-shaped lips to Jim's. But she stops suddenly as she seems to be seeing something over his shoulder and he frowns, worried.
"What is it, Barb?", he asks before turning around as well, frowning when he doesn't immediately get what he's supposed to be looking at. But as he scans the crowded area in front of them, adults and children alike strolling through the fair, he spots a little boy.
His ginger curls make him stand out. He's maybe four or five years old, standing next to an overflowing trashcan in a green sweater and dark blue sweatpants, clutching a stuffed cat to his chest. He's crying and looking around frantically and Jim feels his heart clench a little. "He must have gotten lost", he hears Barbara whisper and she immediately grabs Jim's arm, maneuvering them through the crowd.
She crouches down next to the boy, not wanting to startle him by approaching from the front. "Sweetheart?", she asks softly while Jim keeps himself in the background.
The boy gasps when he hears Barbara's voice and snaps his head up, clutching the stuffed cat tighter to himself. His thick-framed glasses are too big for him and keep sliding down his nose. Barbara lifts her hands. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to scare you."
She smiles at him warmly, tilting her head to the side a little. "My name is Barbara." She nods at the stuffed cat. "Are you two lost?"
The boy sniffles but doesn't say anything. Jim can tell that he's trembling. Barbara waits another moment before she turns a little and points at Jim. "My friend over here is a policeman."
The little boy blinks, then turns to look at Jim. There's curiosity in his sparkling eyes and Jim sends him a small smile, quickly flashing his badge. "Maybe he can help you?"
The boy gulps and lowers his gaze to the ground. He seems to think. "I...", he suddenly whispers, his small voice still thick with tears. "I can't find my Jerome..."
Jim frowns. He approaches slowly and crouches down as well. "You can't find your Jerome?", he repeats carefully and the boy looks at him before burying his face into the stuffed animal again. "He's...he's my...my big brother..!", he whimpers, shaking with how desperately he's crying. "I lost him and Cayenne is scared!"
Jim and Barbara exchange a look. Barbara's light blue eyes are filled with pity and he knows that if she wasn't as strong as she is, she'd be at the brink of tears. Barbara has always had a soft spot for troubled children. Jim thinks it might be because of her own difficult childhood.
He turns back to the little boy. "I see...wanna tell me your name?" The boy flinches and Jim quickly reassures him. "No. Okay, that's fine, little buddy. Think you could tell me what your Jerome looks like?"
That makes the boy look up at him again. He's still reserved but Jim thinks he can see a hopeful glimmer in his eyes. He smiles, slowly reaching out to rest his hand on top of the stuffed cat's head. "Maybe Barbara and I can help you find him. Then Cayenne won't have to be scared anymore."
The boy looks at the cat, a flash of affection on his face as his gaze softens and his lip starts to tremble. Jim starts gently petting the cat as if it's real and he thinks that is what prompts the boy to speak again. "He...he looks like me..."
Jim nods slowly. "Like you but bigger?", he asks and the boy looks at him again, about to say something when they're disturbed by a desperate cry. "MIAH!"
The boy's eyes grow wide behind his fogged glasses and he swirls around. Jim and Barbara follow his gaze and he can hear Barbara's surprised gasp. Jim blinks several times.
Another little boy is running towards them and, aside from the fact that he's not wearing glasses, he looks just like the other. Unruly ginger curls, a green sweater and dark blue sweatpants. "Jerome..!", the boy breathes out, his voice cracking.
The other boy practically lunges at him, the stuffed cat getting squished between their bodies. "Miah, Miah, I was worried sick!", Jerome whispers harshly, arms hooked tightly around his twin. Miah. Jim has never heard that name before. "Stupid little boy, ya can't just run off like that!"
Jerome pulls away, his tiny hands on Miah's cheeks, a scolding look on his face but his eyes are betraying him. They're sparkling with tears. "I turned around and you were gone!"
Miah sniffles, wiping his eyes with the stuffed cat, his other hand gripping the front of Jerome's sweater. "I...I...couldn't...fi-find you and, and, I tho-thought..!", he tries to say between hiccups but Jerome shushes him, his gaze softening. He pulls his twin into another embrace and Miah buries his face in his shoulder, crying his little heart out.
Jim watches the display, feeling his chest grow tight. It's adorable and endearing but at the same time, it leaves a bitter taste in his mouth. They're twins and yet, Jerome seems to have taken the role of a parent. Why?
The brothers have pulled away and Jerome is now wiping at Jeremiah's cheeks. "You are so brave. Ya protected Cayenne, didn'tcha?", he says softly and Jim doesn't think he's ever heard such a young boy talk in such a comforting manner. He can see its working because Miah stands up a little straighter and a small smile pulls at his lips as he nods. Jerome beams at him, so genuinely proud that Jim has to smile as well. "Attaboy! I'm so proud of ya, baby brother. Ya earned yourself a chocolate candy apple, whattaya say?"
Miah's eyes grow almost comically wide and he nods vigorously, prompting Jerome to chuckle. "That's what I thought. C'mon, let's go!"
He takes Miah's hand and is about to drag him away but the younger of the two hesitates. Jerome turns around and raises an eyebrow at him. Miah tugs at his hand, a signal to come stand by his side.
He turns towards Jim and Barbara. "They were...really nice...", he whispers and Jim feels his heart melt a little. Next to him, Barbara seems to be holding back a squeal, he can tell by the way she rapidly sucks in a breath.
Jerome stays very still. "Oh", he says and Jim frowns at the sudden coldness in his voice, turning his head to look at the boy. His face is blank and there's a shadow in his eyes. If Jim didn't know any better, he'd think the child is trying to stare him down. "They were, huh?"
The dark tone of voice sends a shiver down Jim's spine. Get yourself together. That's a little kid. But still. Something about the boy's sudden change of demeanor is...unsettling.
As soon as he thinks it, Jerome starts to smile. Bright and cheery, almost too much so. "Well then, say thank you to the nice people, Miah!"
He wraps an arm around Miah's shoulder. Jim thinks he sees his fingers curling into the fabric of his sweater, like he's afraid of someone taking him away. And strangely enough, Miah leans into it with a sigh of what seems to be relief. "Thank you, Miss Barbara", he says, a tiny smile on his face before he turns towards Jim. The smile is still there but he seems a little more sheepish now. "Thank you, Mr...Mr. Policeman."
Jim chuckles a little, realizing he never did mention his name. He misses the way Jerome tenses up at Miah's words. "You can call me Jimbo", he offers in an attempt to make the other boy warm up a little. And indeed, Jerome snorts. "I like that", he says, his grin more genuine this time but his hold is still as possessive as it was.
Possessive? No, that's not right. They're children. What's with you today, Jim?
He smiles at Jerome, then at Miah. "You're both very welcome." He looks at Barbara before turning back to the twins. "Are you boys here all on your own?"
It's like he slapped them. Jerome tenses up visibly and Miah gasps, his hand coming up to curl in Jerome's sweater. Above his heart, Jim notices. "No."
Jerome's tone is nearly robotic. "Our uncle has a stand here."
Jim nods slowly, glancing at Barbara. "Does he?" Barbara is frowning and he knows they're thinking the same thing. He's lying. Jim exhales slowly. "Would you mind showing us?", he asks in a gentle tone.
The look on Jerome's face is sharp enough to cut through glass. "Uncle Zack doesn't like to get disturbed while working." He smiles again and it's eery. Too thin-lipped. Too fake for a child. "Thank you for helping my Miah. We have to go now."
Jim frowns, rummaging through his pocket for a pen. He wants to scribble his number down on Jerome's hand, in case the boys ever need help again. Thank God he never empties his pockets. "Wait a second, I'd like to -"
Jerome's voice feels like a punch in the face. "We have to go now." He spews out the words and Jim snaps his head up. But the twins have already turned their backs to him and Barbara, Jerome guiding Miah away from them. Their steps are hurried and somehow anxious.
Jim wants to call after them but in the blink of an eye, he's lost them in the crowd. He stays in his crouching position, letting the situation sink in.
"Something's not right...", Barbara whispers next to him and he hates that he agrees. There's definitely something strange going on with those boys and the urge to search for them is like an itch in his brain.
But it's like they told him at the very beginning of his training. You can't save everyone.
"I'm sure it'll be fine." He stands back up and offers a hand to Barbara. He knows this is going to be on her mind for a while. He has to try and distract her somehow, at least for a little while. "Hey, the kid had a good idea. Wanna get some candy apples?"
Jim doesn't know what exactly triggered the memory but it hits him like a brick. He exhales harshly and grips the edge of the table. Behind him, he can feel Lee's gaze and he knows she's worried but he can't bring himself to reassure her.
He remembers now. He remembers.
Jerome tilts his head, his grotesque smile widening and Jim is certain that, yes, he remembers too. He probably did the whole time. Next to him, Jeremiah still has his gaze cast downward, leaning more into his twin's space for comfort, taking a deep, shaky breath.
Jim blinks and suddenly sees them in their green sweaters, two identical messes of ginger curls, their still innocent eyes looking up at him. It feels like a knife in his chest and he can't breathe, his lungs frozen, the terrible realization crushing his soul to bits.
I could have prevented this.
"Been a while", Jerome coos, his arm draped around Jeremiah's shoulder. Jim instinctively looks at his hand. It's gripping. "Hasn't it, Jimbo?"
The hysterical laugh that follows makes Jim's blood run cold. It's even more unsettling than the one from before, when Jerome proudly admitted to killing their mother. The way Jerome is laughing right now is like a blade dragged over a chalkboard, it rips through his eardrums and makes his pulse double in speed.
Jerome throws his head back, laughing louder and Jim hears Jeremiah's broken little sob. The younger Valeska curls into his brother's side, buries his face in Jerome's neck, a silent plead for him to stop.
He doesn't. Jim doesn't think he can.
The little boy from back then, who was forced to grow up too fast, has been wholly and completely broken in by the neglect and abuse suffered from his caretakers.
And it's Jim's fault.