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Mouthwatering

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The first time that it happens, when he is old enough to conceivably remember it happening had other forces not been surreptitiously at work when he is old enough that he could be considered a decent target, he is seven.

He is seven, and he is sure that his heart is broken, because his parents had promised that when the circus came to Gotham they would all go together, and he has been looking forward to it for months.

He’s been sheltered from news reports regarding the increase in crime and about how people, especially children, are going missing, and he doesn’t question the city-wide curfew since it’s precisely the time when his mother likes to tuck him into bed and thus has no impact on him, but the broken promise makes his eyes sting and his breath hitch, even as his mother attempts to ease the emotional ache by petting his hair and gently wiping his wet cheeks.

“The city isn’t safe after dark right now, honey. We’ll go next year,” she vows.

But one broken promise can easily become two broken promises, and he doesn’t understand what she means by ‘isn’t safe’, and the disappointment of being denied what he wants—what he was guaranteed by his father months ago with the sacred act of the shaking of hands and by his mother with the equally sacred act of linking their pinkies together—drives him to his room.

He curls up against the window, letting the cool glass soothe his hot cheek, and sobs until he doesn’t have any tears left to cry, until he’s so worn out from his own emotional outbreak that he feels like he’s on the verge of sleep.

And then he spots them.

A huge bundle of red balloons far past the pool and the manicured lawn, where the edge of the woods that surrounds part of the property lay.

He is seven, and though he is too young to question the why and the how and the who of such a curious manifestation with as much suspicion as it deserves, he is old enough that he’s begun to want to figure things out for himself.

Sneaking out of the house seems easy; his mother, father, and Alfred all intently focusing their attention on other things to respect the privacy that Bruce had wordlessly requested when he’d shut his bedroom door to them, even though each of the adults really wanted nothing more than to console him.

He sneaks past the pool, around the garden, over the lawn.

And then he sees that there is something, a person, holding the balloons, and that makes him come to a quiet stop.

Investigating a bunch of strange balloons was one thing, but investigating a stranger is another. His mother, and father, and Alfred have all been very adamant lately that he not talk to strangers, or let them get too close.

The balloons shift in a sudden gust of wind, and Bruce sees that the person is—

Not a person.

—a clown. Or at least he must be, for his face is so pale and strangely marked, and the skin around his eyes unnaturally darkened, and his smile is extended at the corners in such a menacing jovial way that there is nothing that he could be, but a clown.

“Hello Brucie,” the clown greets, drawing the name out sweetly.

Bruce’s nose wrinkles. Tommy Elliot calls him that.

Bruce doesn’t like Tommy Elliot.

He’s so caught up in his juvenile distaste that he doesn’t think to question how the clown might know the unbearable nickname.

“My name is Bruce,” he says in response to it, lips pursing into a frown, eyes narrowing up at the clown who seems like he’s tall enough to tower over anyone he meets. Perhaps he’s even taller than Alfred, or his father. “Who are you?”

“My name,” he drawls, and his eyes seem to flash for a moment to a vivid, unsettling green, “is Jerome, and I’ve come to take you to the circus.”

Bruce’s heart twinges with fervent longing, but—

“My parents told me not to talk to strangers.” He folds his hands in front of himself and tries not to think about how much he’d been looking forward to the one thing that, it seemed, he was destined not to have. “I’m not supposed to go anywhere with them, either.”

Jerome crouches down on one knee. He seems much closer than he had been before.

Bruce pauses. Then realizes that he’d been walking forward without being aware of it.

Strange.

“But we’re not strangers, Brucie,” Jerome insists in a tone sweet enough that Bruce feels like he’s listening to the way honey would sound, if it could talk. “Strangers don’t know each other’s names.”

“Bruce,” he repeats stubbornly. “My name is Bruce.”

“Bruce,” Jerome echoes, grin stretching wider. “You’ve been looking forward to the circus for months, do you know how I know?”

Bruce shakes his head.

Jerome’s lower lip shines in the light of dusk, as if he’s wearing lip gloss.

As if he’s started drooling.

“I know because I’m a magic clown,” he states with a laugh, “and I can take you to the circus and get you back here before anyone even realizes that you’re missing. What do you say, huh? There are acrobats, and sword swallowers, and a bunch of fun games to play. There’s popcorn, and candy floss, and so many other delicious snacks,” Jerome purrs.

And Bruce wants to go, really, but—

“I’m sorry,” he tells the clown with the grave air of a child who has never outright disobeyed their parents and wasn’t planning to any time soon, circus or not. “But I can’t.”

The clown’s smile fades and the glinting light in his eyes that had shone like it was laughter disappears. Bruce feels guilty knowing that the clown had come all this way, just for him, for nothing.

“I can’t change your mind?”

Bruce shakes his head and offers a sincere, “I’m sorry.”

“How about I give you a balloon, then?”

Bruce isn’t supposed to take things from strangers, either, but…

Surely a balloon couldn’t hurt?

“All right, thank you,” he stretches out a hand, and the clown separates one of the balloons from the bunch. His smile is steadily returning, in fact it almost seems to be wider than before.

He must be a very kind clown, Bruce thinks to himself, to be so happy about giving away his balloons.

Their fingers brush, and Bruce’s hand jerks back.

Cold.

Jerome’s hand was so cold.

There is a flickering of fear because Bruce, even at seven, recognizes that there is something wrong about the temperature. His eyes dart up to Jerome’s growing smile—made even more apparent by the prominent glimmering of his lower lip—and his glinting eyes, and he forgets about the balloon.

He reaches forward with both hands to cradle Jerome’s in his own.

“Your hand is freezing,” he says, rubbing it between his much warmer palms and fingers. His mother had done the same for him when they had spent the winter holiday in Switzerland last year and Bruce had stayed outside to build a snowman for long enough that all of the heat had leeched out of his body. His initial fear melts away as he focuses on the task of bringing heat back into the limb. “Are you always this cold? You should wear gloves. I could get a pair for you, if you like.” He glances up and sees Jerome watching him with something curious and contemplative on his features. “It’ll be a gift,” Bruce explains. “A thank you, for the balloon.”

Jerome’s hand is still much too cold so Bruce brings it up to his mouth to blow warm air across his knuckles. In another mimic of what his mother had done for him—and knowing that it had made him feel warm and safe and loved and all that is good—he presses a quick kiss to the back of Jerome’s hand.

The coolness of him lingers on Bruce’s lips even after he pulls back.

“Does that feel any better,” he asks, not afraid but certainly worried. Surely it wasn’t healthy for a person to be so cold. To stay so cold.

“What a sweet little morsel you are,” Jerome says instead of answering Bruce’s question. He closes his eyes and inhales deeply—for a brief moment Bruce thinks that this has been the first time that his eyes have fallen shut and that he hasn’t actually blinked all throughout their interaction, but that didn’t make any sort of sense outside of a staring contest—and his fingers curl tightly around Bruce’s own, almost as if he means to tug Bruce forward.

But someone calls Bruce’s name, and he draws his hand out of Bruce’s grasp.

Bruce frowns at him, not understanding the quick retreat, but—

“Bruce!”

Alfred is calling for him, and he sounds so panicked that Bruce cannot not turn around and respond to him.

And when he turns back around Jerome is gone, and his balloons are floating away.

He watches them drift further until Alfred finds him, running towards him and pulling him into his arms as if he thought that he would never see Bruce again.

“Why did you come out here alone? We’ve been so worried,” Alfred says, nearly breathless with exertion.

“There was a clown,” Bruce responds simply. “He offered me a balloon, but they’re all floating away now. See?” He points up, and Alfred follows the direction that he indicants.

But his eyebrows furrow, as if he thinks Bruce is telling a fib.

As if he can’t see them.

The very next day Bruce is on a plane bound for Switzerland where he explores different woods, learns French, and leads the happy, carefree existence of a boy who is loved and doted on so completely by his family.

And he quickly forgets about the circus, and the balloons, and the clown.

Much later he will learn that the clown never forgot about him.