The power's back on in his apartment, but most nights, John rolls out the sleeping bag and crashes in the cave. He's less likely to miss anything, staying here, and there's nothing for him to miss back there, anyhow. The walls don't close in on him so much, he can fool himself into thinking that some night, he might just stumble on a way to fix things. Find the right connections, chip away at the hell until the world looks right again.
But that's the thing. The world just doesn't look right, when he goes out at night. He knows that it only looks black along the edges because of the mask he's wearing. It's nothing special, just some fabric with eyeholes punched in, and he feels like an idiot kid playing dress-up every time he puts it on. He doesn't have anyone to protect, not really, but he's got this cave. Once upon a time, Bruce had set out to do something great, here.
Doesn't seem right to let this die, too.
All the kids back at the home had wanted to be Bruce Wayne, himself included. It had all been made up of bullshit and childish fantasy. Maybe it's just all the time he's been spending in the cave, but he can't remember missing him this much.
He shows up in John's dreams more often than he'd like to admit.
Why he'd ever thought he could do this, John can't even remember.
He'd worked his way into Bruce's computer system easily enough, once he'd realized that Bruce would've had a reason for insisting on using John's birth name in his will, but he hadn't left him a manual that told him what to do with it. His only advice had been to wear a mask, because apparently he'd thought John had people worth worrying about. The notion had been flattering, if laughable. Gordon's probably his closest ally, and it's going to be a while, yet, before John's forgiven him enough to even look him up.
Maybe when the cleanup is finally done. It's going to take a while. Most of the PD, not to mention what's left of the city attorneys and politicians, are running just to keep in place these days. The stats are unsurprisingly depressing. Most of Bane's immediate associates had been rounded up immediately, but hundreds of escapees from the prison had been reabsorbed into Gotham's population. New criminal enterprises were turning up every day; several of them had probably been in the works long before Bane had unlocked the doors. The Dent Act hadn't cleaned up the streets as much as it had forcibly enrolled every scumbag in town into criminal college.
And then they'd graduated, moving out into a world that was more than ready for them. The morale boost that Bane's defeat had brought hadn't lasted long, in comparison to the amount of time it was taking the engineers to reconstruct the bridges leading into and out of town. At least the ferry companies were doing well, though John gives it a month at most before their monopoly on movement turns into something even more twisted than it already is. In the meantime, homes have been destroyed. Supplies are scarce, food is expensive, and life is cheap.
The Wayne Manor Boys' Home had filled to capacity months ago, and he knows he's getting bitter already when he starts thinking of his descent into the cave every night as an escape. The problems playing out in the footage and records on the screens seem almost solvable, by comparison. He can go out, disrupt Gotham's chaos just a little bit, zip strip the tasered thug of the evening and leave him for the police. Sometimes, when he's fooling himself, the bruises almost make up for the afternoons he spends on the line with social services, telling them no, we can't, there's just no room, the grant fell through, I'm sorry.
It takes him two months to find the code, buried in the system, for the keypad by the door. Even as he keys it in, he's not prepared for the large glass cabinet to rise up from the water. His heart leaps, he's laughing for the first time in weeks, and then he realizes.
It's just an empty suit.
He slams it back down into the water and retreats to the far wall. This is stupid, this isn't his, isn't him. He shouldn't even be here.
He's still staring at the space it had occupied an hour later and if his face is damp, it's just the spray coming up off the rocks.
His fingers are stickily slick, and he's broken three sewing needles already. The fourth bends worryingly on its way into his skin, and the eye-end of the needle jabs painfully underneath his thumbnail as he forces it through. Then it's just the drag of the thread dragging through his skin and the gash on his hip pulling together just a little bit more. He tries not to watch too closely.
He still needs to knot the loose ends, but he needs to sit back for a moment. The vest might've stopped the bullet but it still hurts to breathe. He's through the worst of it. Just needs to finish up. The thread's damp and his hands are still cramping, and it takes him longer than he thinks it should, but eventually, he manages to work the thread into some semblance of a knot. The end result- stitches too wide and too few, probably- isn't anything to write home about, but it's done. It's a victory, probably the only one he's going to have today.
He grabs his discarded shirt and wipes his hands clean as best he can, but it's not until he stands that he realizes that his adrenaline's bottomed out. He sways on feet that threaten to slip out from under him; they finally do as he's crossing the walkway towards the computer bank, and he goes down hard on the side of his knee. As the white sharp flash makes way for the throbbing pain, he crawls back up onto the platform, curling up on the edge because there's nobody here to see. It's a minute or two before he can bring himself to survey the damage. Last week's bruising hasn't even faded yet, and it's going to start swelling again soon. He needs an ice pack, along with a new vest and half a clue what the fuck he thinks he's even doing, here.
He forces himself up to the computer bank and sits down. Maybe it can tell him.
He's been dozing long enough that aches have settled deep into his bones, but after a few worrying moments, the nausea recedes.
It's nearly seven in the morning and the night shift at Gotham PD is just about to clock out. Some of the incident reports have already been uploaded to the Gotham PD server and downloaded onto Bruce's. Nothing yet from the gang he'd tangled with and left bound on West 14th, or the two that got away, but a case file's been started. Steinmeyer's initials are there in the header; he's been bumped up to detective.
Steinmeyer's a jackass, but if things keep going the way they seem to be, John's going to have to start trusting him, soon. He's bound to slip up eventually, forget that he's not John Blake when he's out there. It would be easier if he knew who he was when the mask came on. Or when it came off. Slipping into anonymity is the one thing that's getting easier by the day, and if the thought terrifies him, it's got nothing on the rest of the world.
Which is creeping steadily onward. He needs to be up in the office in less than two hours and he's still a fucking mess. He's just starting to push himself up out of his chair when he hears the voice, coming from just behind him.
"You need a shower."
He freezes. Closes his eyes. This is it. He'd fucked up, made a mistake somewhere that he hasn't even tracked yet, and left a trail.
The gunshot he's expecting doesn't come. Slowly, he turns.
Bruce Wayne's hair is long, damp at the ends, and his lean against the wall looks more necessary than casual. John frowns, squints hard to get a fix on him. The jeans and flannel he's got on are probably a better disguise than his bat costume had been. John doesn't think he'd imagine him looking this- not gaunt, not exactly, but tired. Or smiling.
Bruce nods, takes a few slow steps towards him, the grin drops from his face. "Long story. Wanted a clean start. Turns out I'm not great at that."
"That couldn't have occurred to you six months ago?" Bruce doesn't take the bait, and John falls back into his seat again, wincing. He can't think for all the things he wants to ask, but could probably come up with something more useful than, "In case you haven't noticed, we're running just to keep in place 'round here."
"Gotham PD's working almost four dozen manhunts, just to get the worst of the escapees back in prison. The city attorneys are pressing in hard. People are getting frustrated."
"I know," Bruce repeats, glancing up at the ceiling, and John notices the cane resting against the wall, wonders how he got down here. "Gotham eats its young."
"No," John shakes his head, angry without knowing why. "It chews them up and spits them out. The evidence is right up that elevator, if you don't believe me."
I don't know what you want from me doesn't feel right in his mouth, so what he asks instead is, "when did you get back?"
"Yesterday. I was actually going to give it a few more days before I dropped in, but the radio was talking about the scene down on West 14th, so I figured," Bruce breaks off with a shrug. "I'd say 'nice work,' all things considered but you don't look like you want to hear it."
John rolls his eyes and drops his head. "You would've handled it differently?"
"Only because I would've been able to."
"Oh yeah? What do you mean?"
"You find the suit yet?" John nods, looking up again when Bruce sighs; he's glaring at the vest on the floor. The damage is visible even from here. "You could've used it, you know. Stripped it for parts."
"It wasn't mine."
"Of course it is. So is the bike, if you can find it. Anyhow, there's a relay from the system here built into the cowl. So when, say, a line you're monitoring goes live to move up the timetable of a meet, your ambush doesn't get turned around on you."
"You should've put that in the manual."
"I thought you were a detective."
And that's about all John's going to listen to.
"No, you asshole. I'm an intake coordinator, with no freakin' clue what the hell I'm supposed to be doing." And it hadn't been great, but it had been fine, only now it turns out that the only reason he'd been going it alone was because Bruce just hadn't been interested. "And you're alive."
Bruce nods, doesn't offer any explanation or apologies. John's not sure why he'd expected either.
"What time do you need to report for duty?"
"Little over an hour." He doesn't wince at all, standing, and pretends not to notice that Bruce's thinly veiled concern. It's a little easier to meet his eyes from this angle, though. "Look. Sorry. It is really good to see you, I'm just...You gonna be sticking around for a while?"
He nods out towards the waterfall. "Thought I'd go take a spin through the city, see how things are going."
"Old time's sake?"
Bruce shrugs. "When do you get done with work?"
It's such a normal people question that he's too startled to answer, at first. "Five. Maybe six."
"Stop down here on your way out," Bruce says, then frowns. "I mean, not to- look." Bruce probably hasn't had to ask for anything, ever, and watching him try to decide if he needs to apologize is a little surreal. "If you're not busy tonight, there are some things we should talk about."
"Yeah?" John asks, and apparently it's his turn to be awkward and stupid. He covers by rummaging through his bag to find a clean shirt. "Yeah. Okay. Cool."
"Good." Bruce seems relieved, almost, and frowns again. "And, ah. Sorry about just sauntering in here like I did, but-"
John doubts there was any sauntering involved. He nods at the waterfall. "Hey, the door was open."
By the time he's gathered up the rest of his clothes and the shower kit, Bruce is already tied into the rope, his cane hooked through his belt. He waves, briefly, before swinging himself out, skirting the edge of the waterfall and disappearing around the rock. Even with the leg, he makes it look so damned easy.
For the first time in almost a year, John's laughing as he limps towards the elevator.