Blake doesn’t touch the suit for almost four months, even after he starts spending eighteen hours a day methodically going through the computer files.
The scope of what he finds is so far and beyond anything he’d imagined that sometimes he ends looking at the mask like he can somehow make Wayne appear through sheer force of will. It doesn’t take him four months to realize that all he knew was Bruce Wayne’s secret and his mistake was thinking that meant he knew something.
For the first couple weeks -- after they put an empty box in the ground like it means anything at all -- Gordon called him once or twice a week. He never actually came out and said that he wanted Blake back on the force, that Gotham has an undeniable ability to come out of every resurrection with something wrong deep down where people aren’t looking. Gordon phrased it in terms of rebuilding, restructuring, rebirth and Blake just never got himself to answer the phone.
Sometimes he thinks the anger in his bones doesn’t have a cause, that after almost twenty years it’s as reflexive as breathing. It’s channeled by the things that happen to Blake, not caused by them.
He asks himself sometimes, when he looks down at his watch and realizes that it’s three in the morning and he hasn’t moved in ten hours, whether he’s in the cave because he wants to be or because he feels like he owes it to Wayne. Or to Batman, as though they were ever two different things. It’s hard to find an answer. Blake held onto the secret he knew for so many years, feeling the fragile shape of it like he was responsible for its creation and protection.
Wayne told him the mask exists to protect the ones you love and Blake might argue that he doesn’t have anyone left that he cares about. Except that the newly christened Thomas and Martha Wayne House is right there and it’s not ever generally a good idea to lie to yourself.
The breaking point -- or, really, the tipping point is a decision Blake has been making since he came back to the cave after he figured out what Bruce Wayne had left him -- comes when gets a message from Lucius Fox, asking Blake to come and meet with him. With Bruce’s death and the upheaval of Bane’s five month rule over Gotham, Wayne Industries is in a state of flux. Blake reads all about it in the headlines every morning.
Blake goes because Fox was there when they, in spirit, put Bruce in the ground which means he also knew.
The first thing Fox says after inviting Blake to sit down is, “Mister Wayne used to come to me with special requests.”
“I know,” Blake says, cocking his head, which isn’t actually true. He knew someone had to have helped Wayne with his gear and it makes sense, that a man who spent years in the end basement of Applied Sciences only to suddenly emerge as president of the company would have a particular importance to Bruce.
Fox nods and folds his hands on his desk. “There is every chance I’m reaching here, and there are no certainties when it comes to the future of Wayne Enterprises. But for as long I can, which will hopefully be a good, long time, I remain available.”
“He’s dead,” Blake says, and they both know he’s not talking about the name on the side of the building.
“You know what they say about horror movies and comic books?” Fox asks.
Blake frowns. “What?”
“It doesn’t count as dead until there’s a body.” He shrugs. “And even then, you can never be sure.”
Blake drives around Gotham for the better part of two hours, wishing he had the cigarettes he smoked all through high school to calm the jitter in his hands and knees. He’s not a kid, he doesn’t believe in miraculous second chances. And even if did, even if it’s impossible to look at the trajectory of Bruce Wayne’s life and not see it, no one ever gets a third. It doesn’t happen.
It’s almost dusk by the time he looks at his own hands on the wheel of his car and thinks oh. And okay.
The drive back to the House feels like it takes longer and Blake knows that’s just a trick of the mind. But knowing doesn’t really do a whole lot to change it. The lights from the manor are bright and warm and inviting when he slips past, and maybe a smarter person would pull into that driveway and build a life there. Pick the badge back up. Put the blues back on. There are worse ways to try and save the world.
But maybe no one ever really gets over being that angry kid.
He can hear the bats as he walks up to the back entrance it took him almost a week and a half of rappelling through a waterfall to find. The sound is eerie and Blake thinks unnecessarily poetic. They freaked him out the first time he saw them, and he imagines there’s a story behind him and the name Bruce chose that Blake will never get to know. And that’s fine.
It feels like the suit is watching him as he walks across the bridge that rises up out of the water. He never did sink it back into the recess it came from; at first because he didn’t know how, and then because -- he doesn’t know. Bruce is a ghost in the cave and an empty space in Blake’s life that he doesn’t know how to begin to fill. He’s not particularly good at accepting that sometimes there just aren’t answers to be found.
He stops in front of the case and looks at the mask. Blake read through every goddamn schematic he found in the computer system, even though he’s no more a weapons designer than a civil engineer. He got the gist of how many things there are that haven’t technically been invented that make the suit work.
“Damn you, Bruce,” he says, and the hollow acoustics of the cave returns the words back to him.
It isn’t surprising that the case opens obediently to his fingerprints, and someday Blake will figure out how Bruce made all this happen without anyone else knowing. (He would rather know why Bruce chose him of all the people in the world, but Blake has no illusions about ever having that explanation dropped into his lap.) There’s a soft sigh of compressed air when the clear glass front cracks open, and then the sudden smell of something well-oiled. It’s almost alive.
Last chance to change your mind, Blake thinks. You know you’re not coming back from this one.
But he made that choice before he ever found out that Bruce Wayne had left him something in his will, when he watched soldiers blow up a bridge and when he threw his badge into the water. Gotham isn’t like any other city in the way is breathes and lives and dies and can’t exist without decay. It will never not need a savior. Blake might doubt his ability, but he can’t doubt Bruce Wayne’s choice.
He presses his palm to the bat insignia.
It’s cool and smooth, the texture reminiscent to Blake of the grip of his police-issue weapon. It feels like neoprene, maybe, and Blake can’t remember the actual designation Fox gave it when he invented it for Wayne’s Enterprises’ Applied Sciences division. Blake traces the outline of the bat, and thinks about the light on the top of police HQ that Commissioner Gordon fixed. He called it a gesture, but after what Fox said? Blake isn’t so sure.
“Right,” he says, exhaling hard. “Okay.”
Blake strips off his shoes, trousers, shirt, and sweater, folding them neatly and setting them on the chair tucked beneath the work station. It’s damn cold in the cave, both from being underground and from the constant mist of water coming off the falls. Summer’s getting close, but it doesn’t feel that way as he stands there with his feet on the damp metal of the platform. He feels like a skinny kid playing dress up.
Included in the computer files on the suit were helpful instructions as to how to get the damn thing on, so Blake knows there’s a top and a bottom, that the boots are a separate thing entirely, and the cape is a finishing touch. Frowning, he skims his fingers along the flexible gaps between the protective plates on either side until he finds the catches that separate the two halves.
Blake can feel his heart pick up speed in his chest, even though it’s just getting dressed. It’s Halloween for the adult set, he thinks and huffs out a noise that might have once been a laugh.
He decides the suit probably isn’t going to fit. He knows that as soon as he puts it on, as soon as he puts the mask on, he’s letting go of a normal life.
“Good,” Blake says, swallowing hard.
He expects the interior of the suit to feel rubbery, but it doesn’t. It feels oddly alive, smooth and supple, like another skin that wants to mold against his. The top come up over his hips and in a point over his stomach to the bottom of his sternum. Blake crouches down experimentally and the suit gives and moves like it shouldn’t be able to, not with the thickness of the webbing and the heaviness of the plates.
He feels stronger, like the anger in his bones has moved to his blood. No goddamn wonder Bruce couldn’t let it go after what happened with Dent.
The boots come halfway up his calves and Blake understands, really, why it makes a difference to have them on. There is something childish about standing there half-naked in his socks. They make him taller, too. He pauses when he’s got them on, skimming his palms over their sides. They feel a little more like leather and they fit him.
The suit schematics warn that the top is more complicated than the bottom. Blake undoes the catches that run along the left side; it takes some maneuvering, where it wonders if Alfred ever stood there and made fun of Bruce in the early days, but he manages. It’s easier to think about getting everything hooked back together the way it’s meant to than to think about how the suit feels against his skin, the way it moves and holds close.
Real life doesn’t happen this way, it doesn’t drop a goddamn batsuit into your lap and give you permission to excise the fury that’s lived in your skin for as long as you can remember.
Blake looks at himself in the reflection of the glass case. He’s not Bruce Wayne -- he could not be Bruce Wayne, even if he wanted to.
He runs his palms over the suit’s front and over his hips and down his thighs. The solidness of the plates isn’t comforting like he might have expected. It’s more of a challenge that wraps around the back of his mind and whispers in his ear. No one can hurt you, it says. You don’t need fear.
The back of the top comes up his neck and over the back of his head. Blake reaches around to feel it, pressing his fingers to ribbed plates that protect the back of his skull and his spine.
The suit schematics also showed that the cape isn’t just a theatrical touch, it serves a practical purpose, so Blake straps it on as well. There’s a constant susurration of air in the cave from the force of the water and it makes the cape flap against his calves. Blake has always tended to think of that kind of shit as distraction, meant to make up for weakness. But maybe not, he decides. Maybe not.
Blake runs his fingers over the sharp edges of the spikes on the gloves and opens a small cut on his first finger. He flinches and sucks away the blood wondering where the hell the idea for all this came from. Most people -- normal people -- don’t look at the shape of their life and arrive at becoming a symbol for a city that might not deserve him.
The gloves fit his hands better than any Blake has ever owned. He flexes his hands into fists and watches the small plates split and bend around his knuckles.
And then all that’s left is the mask.
“I could take all this off, you know,” he says to the cave, to the man who built it and lived it and became it. “You didn’t give me a lot of answers here.”
Blake swallows hard. The first time he talked to Bruce Wayne it was to an old man leaning on a cane with a hollowed out face and no purpose in the world except to stand witness to what had been lost and won in a fight that was supposed to be over. The last time he saw Batman, he was given a purpose understood that he didn’t expect to survive.
“Is that the point?” Blake asks. “You get the means, but you have to figure out the rest yourself?”
The cave doesn’t have anything to say. The bats are a hush of beating wings and soft cries.
“Okay,” Blake says, reaching into the case and picking up the mask. “You win.”