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the balance of the world

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It didn't matter why he had been thrown into the Pit.

It didn't matter why anyone had been thrown into the Pit, once they were there. Had some been sent there innocent? Of course; there were always otherwise kind, good people who were condemned for a disagreement, for arguing, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time without the money to correct any little errors made by justice. Had some been justly condemned? Naturally. There were many in the Pit born or made for war crimes, for the ghastliest of tortures and the most brutal of cruelties, and that they belonged in the Pit was the most obvious thing in the world. Which prisoners were which? Ah, that was a matter best left to those wiser than he; he would make no judgment. All were comrades in arms, in the Pit. Or comrades at arms, rather, bargaining in blood and killing for the scant food and water and crude weapons that could be made - but that too was a kind of bond, to know that the desperation in the one you fought for their hoard of food was your desperation, that their fear and viciousness were your own. The Pit was equality in its lowest form: the equality of the survival instinct.

Perhaps he had been a student of philosophy or politics, left stranded in a land where he had no resources. Perhaps he had been a well-traveled soldier of fortune with the good luck to loot a library or two before his crimes caught up with him. Perhaps he had been born to the darkness of another prison and only later been cast into the Pit. It didn't matter.

In the end what mattered was that, in the cell next to his, there was a child.

He had killed the man who had lived in that cell for the simple reason that the cell was high enough in the Pit that indirect sunlight sometimes reached it, and like all his comrades he longed for the sun. Anything he had once owned he had lost or traded away, and so taking possession of the cell was as easy as kicking the man's corpse to the bottom of the Pit and sitting down on the cell's dusty stone floor, letting the dim light glint along the bloody edge of his shiv for anyone who cared to challenge him.

He looked to his left and saw the prison doctor's cell - very good, very convenient. Before him were bars, and a ledge, and the Pit; behind him bars, and the dank passage leading around the Pit, down to other cells and the true dark. To his right, a cell with a working lock, a bundle of prison rags that might have been a person, a body, or a bundle of rags, and a child with a shaved head crouched by the bars, watching him with pale, wide eyes.

Some old instinct kicked up a sense of faint dismay - Christ, what did they throw a kid down here for? And I just killed a man - but it faded before the blankness in the child's eyes. How foolish of him to worry about what the child might have seen; they'd surely seen worse already, if they had been in the Pit for very long.

Perhaps he had once liked children, because after a quick check of the surroundings, he moved to sit a little closer to the child, and in the most common language of the Pit (which was not English) he said, "Would you like a story?"

"What is it?" the child said, in a small cold voice, and the dismay rose again. "What do you want for it?"

"A story is - it's only words," he said. "A way to pass the time. You don't have to give me anything for it."

The child gave him a stare that made it clear he was a fool to think anything in the Pit could be free and said, "I can steal pills from the doctor when he visits my mother, and I have made -"

"Talia!" The rags had moved and swept up the child. "I have told you and told you, don't talk to anyone without me - don't go so close to the bars -"

"I was not close enough for him to grab me, Mama," said the child (Talia? A little girl, here in the Pit?), but she put her arms around her mother. "He was not so close either, and he spoke first."

The mother looked up and glared at him - the lower half of her face was covered as his was, but her eyes were visible and dark, and they burned with a shocking fire that her daughter's did not. "You are not to speak to us again," she said, in a tone of voice that brooked no disagreement. "Nor will you approach us, do you understand?"

"I beg your pardon, ma'am," he said, in English, because he had learned nothing polite enough in the languages of the Pit, and he stood, stepped back a little, and bowed. "I didn't mean any harm."

What he could see of the mother's expression softened a little. "An Englishman?" she said, also in English. "Like him..."

Perhaps he had been English once, or Irish, or Mexican, or French; he could neither deny nor confirm her guess, and so he shrugged.

At the movement Talia turned her head to look at him again, and her mother tensed. "What did you want?" the woman demanded, returning to the Pit's language. "Don't lie."

"Nothing," he said, which was not a lie when he wasn't sure what he had meant to do, speaking to the child. He remembered now - too late - the story that had filtered down to the lower levels, of the warlord's daughter and the baby she had borne in the dark. He could easily believe that this woman was the daughter of a warlord; she had the presence of a warlord herself, and the haughtiness of someone born to command.

He bowed to her again - how free he was being with his respect, a thing to be doled out sparingly if at all - and sat again on the far side of his new cell, where he could watch the other three sides for danger (the prison doctor, a morphine addict, was no threat to anyone).

Some time passed, and then the woman said, "My English is not very good. You will teach her."

"Sorry, what?" he said, startled out of his watch.

"I wish my daughter to learn English," the woman said. "Teach it to her. For this I can arrange for you to have whatever drugs you wish from the doctor."

"What if I don't want drugs?"

He was only playing, because now that he had a cell with light he wanted nothing anyone in the Pit could give him, but the woman's eyes narrowed. "Then I will find someone who does to teach her," she said. "What else did you think I would bargain with?"

"I'm sorry," he said; he hadn't meant to offend her, when she had a spirit and drive he hadn't seen in too long. "I will teach her. No charge." He pulled the cloth over his mouth down and smiled at her. "But I'd like it if you talked to me, too."

A long time passed before she said, "I accept."

They did not talk very often, in part because she insisted that his focus be on teaching Talia, and in part because it was difficult work, keeping his new cell. He tried to be gentle about it at first - and there was a word he'd not used in a while - to spare Talia the sight of more bloodshed, which lasted until he sent two men limping away and both Talia and her mother berated him for it. "You have only created more enemies for yourself," said the mother, and from Talia in her new English, "Idiot. They will return." After that he never held back, and the number of his challengers decreased to one or two a day, whose bodies he allowed Talia to search for anything useful before he tossed them to the bottom.

He learned that the woman's name was Melisande. She had been well-educated, and they could converse in Arabic, Farsi, French, and what was really quite passable English, which they sometimes spoke for Talia's benefit, teaching her to listen as well as speak.

He learned that Melisande and Talia were hated, because soldiers brought them food a little better than what was tossed to the rest of the prisoners, and the lock on the cell meant they didn't have to fight to protect it.

He learned that he was not Talia's only teacher; Melisande bargained with the doctor's medicines to have the man one cell over teach Talia Russian, another teach her Latin, a third German. She herself taught Talia math and a little history and to fight with knives that she had acquired God knew how or where, and she did not hide her daughter's eyes from the violence that surrounded them.

He learned all that he needed to know of Talia on the first night in the cell, when as her mother slept she came to the bars and said, "My mother is a married woman. You will not touch her, or I will kill you."

"I don't intend to," he said, smiling behind his half-veil. "Really. And how would you kill me?"

"All men sleep. I will cut your throat." There was no fire in her voice, only a certainty as cold and lifeless as her eyes. Oh, she was a child of the Pit, indeed.

"I'm not interested in hurting either of you. I promise."

"I don't believe you," she said.

"A wise decision." He had been pacing to stay awake and alert, and he paced a little closer to their cell, though not close enough to be within reach of the bars. "But you won't survive without trusting someone at some point."

"My mother," Talia said without hesitation. "Not you."

"Fair enough."

When Talia's English had improved enough, he began to show her how to read and write it, scratching out letters in the cell's dust with the handle of his shiv. She was quick to learn, and when the warlord's soldiers brought their food for the evening, she could read short sentences already, although in a lamentable turn of affairs, the soldiers did not have enough English to understand her when she read aloud, "You are pigs." Ah, well, the little trick had made him smile, and for the first time she had smiled back, small and hesitant.

The lion's share of the food always went to Talia, but that evening Melisande put another small portion aside from her own and slid it through the bars towards him. "For teaching her to read," she said, and stood back so that he could approach and take the food without getting close to her.

He didn't take the food. "Why do you want her to learn so much?" he said. "What good will it do her to speak six languages and multiply fractions in her head?" One could get by very easily in the Pit without words or numbers, and he thought that Talia already had the ruthlessness which was all that really mattered.

"It is none of your concern," said Melisande.

"Are you planning to escape with her?"

"No," she said, though there was no resignation in her voice. "I chose to come to this place of my own will. I live here now, and I will die here. But my daughter -" She turned her head to look at Talia; Talia had eaten her food quickly and fallen asleep already, curled up in the center of the cell with her knife in hand, and Melisande's look was filled with pride. "She must be ready for the world. She will rise."

He considered the idea, considering Talia also: a scrawny child, a child without fire, a child who knew only the world of the Pit and her mother's lessons and a few stories he had told her as he taught her English.

"Maybe she will," he said. "She'll need this, then," and he pushed the food back to their side of the bars.

"You are strange," said Melisande, her eyes wary. "Is there nothing you want?"

He shrugged. "I'd like to see someone get out of here alive." That would be a story worth telling, a story to set the world ablaze; a girl born to the darkness who crawled her way to the sunlight.

"You will," she said, and she sat down by her daughter and closed her eyes.

The day he woke from shallow sleep with a light heart, eager to talk to Melisande and teach Talia, was the day he knew that life would end. There was no place for joy or kindness in the Pit.

His unease grew as the day passed and no one challenged him for his cell, though many passed by, and short scuffles without death broke out occasionally. Talia, observant child that she was, picked up on his nerves and became contrary; she made deliberate mistakes and snapped at his corrections, having come to realize that his patience was not easily tried. He kept himself from lashing back at her with some effort, until finally Melisande said, "That is enough for today," and took Talia back. The two of them sat together in the middle of their cell, talking swiftly and too softly for him to understand, and he paced in his cell, tense and wary, ready for a fight that refused to appear.

The doctor visited Melisande and Talia often, not because either of them were ill, but because he was paid to send reports of them to the warlord. The doctor had the only key to their cell, and unlike with most things, the doctor was usually very careful with it.

He was not watching Melisande and Talia's cell, his attention entirely focused on the other prisoners who circled the Pit, and he didn't register the silence when the lock should have clicked shut. He saw the doctor return to his own cell, and too late he heard the door next to him slam open.

He was out of his cell instantly, his shiv buried in someone's back. His fist against another's face and their jaw shattered, his knee in someone's back hard enough to rupture kidneys, Melisande's knife across a man's throat and a jet of blood, but it was not enough. There were too many for the two of them - the three of them, Talia and her little knife had just stabbed a man - too many, they couldn't defend themselves forever. The doctor was shouting, something about the warlord's anger, but his weak voice was lost in the roar of the fight. There were so many, too many, and their bones cracked and their blood flowed and they didn't stop.

The survival instinct said run. It said you owe them nothing, yourself everything. His knuckles stung and a blade sliced down his back; Melisande hissed as ragged nails dug into her cheek. The mob didn't want him. They wanted the woman and the child, and he couldn't defend them both, a useless gesture for him to try in the first place. Get out. Leave them. Live.

She will rise.

He grabbed Talia around the waist and threw her over his shoulder and kicked a man's throat in. She screamed and hit his back as he fought his way out of the cell, the hilt of her knife bruising his shoulder blades, until a choked "Talia" and a spray of hot blood silenced her.

He drove his shiv into a man's stomach and ripped it out and fled with Talia into the depths of the Pit, where neither of them could see what happened to Melisande's body.

In the Pit's lower layers there were no cells; the bars had rusted away or been destroyed long since. He found an empty stretch of wall to keep at his back and sat there with Talia, making a little compress for a wound on her back he hadn't seen and cleaning her mother's blood from her face.

She didn't struggle or argue with him, as she had liked to do, and eventually he realized that he was wiping away tears with the blood. Oh, Christ, for all that she'd seen she was still a child whose mother had just been murdered and he had brought her down here to the dark - what else could he have done, leave her there, abandon her to the mob, she'd last a day without her mother or else have a life less worth living than his own. The doctor couldn't protect her. Her grandfather the warlord couldn't protect her. She shouldn't be here.

"Talia," he said, "you have to be careful now. You must not trust anyone but yourself and your knife and me."

He expected her to say, I don't trust you; he barely trusted himself. Instead she leaned against his chest and said, "I would like a story."

His mind stuttered, blank. In the dark he didn't know any stories. "Something like that - I can't, not now -"

"I would please like a story," in English, her voice little and desperate.

"All right," he said, "all right, give a moment so I can think of a good one." He searched through memories of everything that didn't matter inside the Pit, and finally said, "This story is long, so I won't tell it to you all at once. But once upon a time, there was a young sailor named Edmond Dantes..."

To stay still too long was to appear a target, so they moved often. She refused to sleep when he did, so that one of them was always on watch; he carried her, or she walked with her hand in his, so they wouldn't get separated in the darkness. When he looked to the right, she kept an eye on the left. She had quick hands, good for stealing scraps while he fought for a distraction. They survived, and if she hated him for not saving her mother, she said nothing.

It took him a long time to tell the full story of Edmond Dantes, and where he couldn't remember the original details he made up new ones. He thought that Talia would object to the extravagant riches, the politics, the etiquette, anything that didn't belong to the Pit, but she never interrupted him with questions or derision, as she had done with earlier stories. Only after he had finished, with the Greek girl (he had forgotten her name, so she had become Talia) and the Count sailing away to China, did she ask, "Was it real?"

"Some of it," he said. "France and Marseilles are real. Paris and Rome are real. China is real. Napoleon was real." (Napoleon's role had been rather expanded in his version to play the part of a benevolent conspirator with Dantes.) "Sailing ships and sailors and the island of Monte Cristo are all real, and so are gold and rubies and diamonds, but there are none on the real Monte Cristo... Dantes, Mercedes, the others, they were not real people."


She was falling asleep against him, and he adjusted his position so she could be more comfortable. After a moment she said, "I liked it. But France must be a very strange place."

"No stranger than anywhere else, up there." He could barely remember what it was like above, to have food at his fingertips, water from a tap, clothes in bright colors and sunlight on his face. What a strange place that world was; even now there would be people up there walking outside, complaining about the weather and the price of steak, while he and Talia struggled in the dark...

(Perhaps he deserved to. She had done nothing but be born in the wrong place.)

"Do you think that we could dig a hole in the wall," Talia said, "like Edmond, only it would go up, and instead of climbing -"

Hands yanked her away from him. He lunged up and two men grabbed his arms; he slammed their heads together and pulled his shiv and went after her. The one who'd grabbed her hadn't got far with Talia clawing and biting them, so he slid the shiv into that one's throat and took her back, her skinny arms went around his neck and she said "Behind you, behind you!" but he turned too slowly to stop the blade that slashed across the back of his ribs.

He didn't miss a step; he shifted Talia's scant weight and pivoted and kicked the shiv out of his attacker's hand, then ran. Instinct took him up and towards the higher cells until he found an unoccupied space beside broken stairs where a little dim light could reach. Only then did he hear her asking him over and over, "Are you all right? Are you hurt? Are you -"

"It doesn't matter, are you all right?" His heart was racing as it hadn't in a long time indeed. "I didn't even see them - did they hurt you?"

"No, I saw the knife, are -"

"I said it doesn't matter, are you all right, are you sure you're all right?"

"Yes, yes, Christ yes," and her impatience shocked a laugh out of him. She wiped blood off her teeth with the back of her hand and pushed his arms away, crouched next to him to look at his back. "Let me see."

His hands were shaking a little with a feeling that he had forgotten. Christ, what they would do to a child down here - perhaps he'd been a decent man once, but his mind spat forth ugly images and unspeakable ideas. He had to be more careful, more alert, more aware, if anything happened to her... Talia had taken out a wrinkled leather bag that she must have stolen from one of their attackers, and she poured a little water out of it onto the cut in his side. "Don't," he said, "it's a waste, you should save -"

"Shut up," she said.

He was quiet and let her clean the cut to her satisfaction and bandage it with one of their small store of spare rags, her face intent and serious. When she was done she curled up against him and he put one arm around her. "I will keep you safe," he said, "even here."

"I know." She was watching the right, so he watched their left. "I don't know why."

She was not like a daughter to him. He had made no promises to Melisande that he felt obligated to keep after her death. Did it matter why? "I'll always protect you," he said. No matter how many of his comrades in the Pit he had to fight, he would kill them all if it kept her safe. "Whatever it takes, but this is no place for you."

"I live here," Talia said, perfectly matter-of-fact, "so it is my place. You sleep. I will watch."

He had been wrong about her; she had her mother's fire, all right, but it burned cold and sharp and concentrated, as thin as a razor, stronger and brighter than the sun. "All right," he said, and slept, and didn't question the fresh blood on her knife when he woke.

Her hair began to grow in, dark and coarse and a little frizzy. He cut it to stubble again with her knife, because it kept an edge better than his own.

"It was a gift to my mother," she told him. "From my father. He gave it to her before they married, and she kept it to give to me."

The knife was plain, but well-made and of good steel, something that a soldier might carry. "It was a good gift," he said, as little tufts of dark hair floated to the dust.

With no fixed place to defend, he wasn't forced to fight as often; he had acquired a rather fearsome reputation, anyway, which was an uncertain benefit. He was challenged less, and Talia had not been grabbed again, but it was dangerous to be known, to stand out from one's comrades. There was a place in the Pit for resentment and hate and nursed grudges.

Talia could not stay there.

He started telling her stories about children up above, the candy they could have and the games they could play and the lives they could lead, protected and spoiled and, presumably, loved. He thought she might be tempted by such stories to try an escape, but at first she did not understand them, and then she was angry. "They are foolish," she said, "they are wasteful, they earn nothing!"

"That's how it is up there," he said.



"Then those people live off others but they do not fight for what they get," she said, "or make an even trade - they are worse than anyone here!"

That wasn't what he had meant to say at all, but he had lived too long in the Pit to argue with her. There were happy, loved children on the surface, and there were children who lived lives as hard as hers or harder; he remembered that, though he scarcely remembered his own childhood. Still, she would have a better chance in the world above than in the Pit, so he said, "Your father would take care of you - your mother's husband. If you got out, could you find him?"

She didn't answer at first, unusual for her. She watched someone shuffle by who coughed and glared at her but offered no other threat; then she said, "I can find him. My mother told me how, but I am not to tell anyone else."

"Good," he said, "then tomorrow you can climb and -"

"I don't want to."

He stared at her with genuine confusion. "But you could make the climb," he said, because he was absolutely sure of that much. She was too determined and too cautious to fall, and she had never once shown a fear of heights, or been disturbed by the broken bodies of those who had failed to rise.

"I would not be allowed," she said, picking at a loose thread in her rags. So she had noticed the hatred of the other prisoners; he should have expected that.

"I'll hold them off until -"

"I don't want to!" She hid her face in his shoulder. "I don't need a father, I don't want him. You are here."

Oh, now that it was too late he could realize that he had led her into the worst trap of all, the trap of trusting him. "Talia, you can't stay," he said, smoothing her cropped hair. "It's dangerous, and up there you could be safe - safer than here. You should be there, where you won't need someone like me, you won't need to fight or steal."

"And what will you do?" she demanded. "If I go, who will guard your back? Who will watch so you can sleep? Your hands are too big, you will be caught stealing, you will starve. What will you do?"

"I'll wait and hope, like Edmond Dantes," he said, forcing a smile. "I survived before. I expect that I can do it again."

Only half untrue, but she caught it. "Liar. I don't need those foolish things they have up there, I don't want them, I want to stay." She was clinging to him too hard, her fingers digging into his back. "Don't tell me to go away, don't make me go, I will get stronger and bigger and I will help more, I will fight better..."

If he had been her father, he could have been stern. He could have told her to go and allowed no argument. He could have brought up her mother (he remembered her name, and he remembered her pride; the rest had already faded in the dark) and used Melisande against her, reminded her of Melisande's ambition, that she had wanted her daughter to have the world.

He said, "All right, it's all right, I won't," knowing it was the wrong decision, knowing he could have made no other.

She was asleep and he was on watch when the doctor hobbled down to them and said, "You have to make her climb."

"She doesn't want to go," he said.

"She thinks you could protect her if all the demons of hell came after you. Do you think so, too?"

He was not the strongest fighter in the Pit, only the most desperate because he had Talia. He didn't answer.

"They are going to come for you," said the doctor, "and I think soon. The plague makes them angry. She must get out of here to live. Tell her to climb and she will, and if she falls - well, that's an escape, too."

"She said that she wants to stay."

The doctor snorted. "Are you a man or a dog? She's a child, don't listen to her, tell her what to do. Or not. It's not my concern, why do I bother to come down here and talk to you, I'm talking to a stone. Do what you want."

He watched the doctor leave, and Talia said, "Is he right?"

"You need to sleep."

"But is he right?" She sat up, looking at him, but he couldn't look back at her, and she took it for an answer. "If I fight with you too, will that -"


She bit her lip. "If you climb with me, they can't hurt you."

"I can't climb with you," he said. "I would only be a distraction. You'll be fine, you're strong, you can make it."

"I don't want to," she said, but her voice lacked her earlier defiance. "Fine. I will go, but I will come back."

"You shouldn't -"

"I will come back for you," she said, and she curled up again with her head on his lap to sleep. "That's my price."

It was a poor bargain, but he had nothing for a counter-offer. "Fair enough."

She didn't insist on him taking his turn to sleep when she woke up again. Instead they went quickly up and up, to the place where prisoners who tried to escape began their climb, and others followed.

He reached for a rope for her, and someone struck his hand away. "Forget it," Talia whispered, "we should go, another day maybe -"

He was damned already, and damned further if he would let her be stopped now. He grabbed her by the waist and heaved her up to the first set of handholds and turned to dodge a knife-stab. "Get out of here," he said, "go on, climb!"

She clung to the rocks, looking down as he kicked a man over the edge. "I can't -"

"You can! Rise!" He smiled up at her and drove his elbow into someone's throat, and she reached up for the next handhold. And the next (a hand grabbed his ear and he stabbed its owner), and the next (he cracked a kneecap), and the next (he slammed the top of his head into someone's chin and they staggered back and fell). "Rise!"

The crowd didn't chant for her as they did for others; there was only the clamor of the fight. His blood ran hot and eager and light as he drove them away from the wall, giving her a chance, giving her freedom. It didn't matter how many there were, how they clawed and grabbed at him, he was the demon of the Pit and he cut through them all until for a moment there was silence. He looked up again and saw her leap, saw her land and pull herself up with her fingers scrabbling on the stones, and for the last time he shouted "Rise!" with the grin of a madman. Perhaps he also said good-bye, but if so it drowned in the crowd's roar. They flew at him all at once, too many hard fists to dodge; his jaw cracked and his nose splintered and his teeth shattered as they pulled him back down into the darkness, but it didn't matter.

She had risen.

There were terrible sounds as the doctor tried to put him together again. He assumed that he made most of them.

When the doctor was done he was left in a corner and left alone, save for the occasional kick; his comrades had got their vengeance, and he had become, like the doctor, no threat to anyone. The agony in his face was paralyzing. The doctor brought him a little water, a little food, and sometimes a little medicine, but not often. The drugs were the doctor's money and safeguard as well as his addiction, and the doctor was sparing with them.

He didn't hate the doctor for that. Still less did he hate the other prisoners. How could he hate them? He was the one who had become arrogant; he had placed Talia's life above theirs and considered himself noble for doing so when he was only another of the murderers of the Pit. The pain was his proper punishment for pride, for holding her life more valuable than any other. There was no hate in him.

Sometimes, when the doctor had given him medicine, he saw her. She would return to him dressed like the sailor Edmond Dantes, or in the elegant fashion of the Count, but always with a bony face, with stubbled hair, because he could imagine her no other way. He couldn't speak to her through his ruined mouth and so she would say nothing, and that was how he knew she wasn't there.

He was waiting, but not for her. She was free, the first to rise from the Pit, the only one who had ever succeeded, and he couldn't follow her. It didn't matter. He was waiting for someone impatient to put a knife in his throat or through his ribs, and that would be his freedom.

He breathed in pain, breathed out pain, and hoped that she never came back.

But she did.

She was a little taller and her face a little rounder; her hair had grown out into short dark curls, and she was dressed well, if not richly. No matter, he would always know her eyes. He said her name as best he could with a broken face, and she said, "I told you I would return. I'm sorry I am so late..."

She knelt to hug him, careless of the dirt on her fine new clothes, and behind her he saw a tall man with blue eyes almost like hers. She had found her father, then.

"My protector," she whispered in his ear. "Come with me, and I will protect you."

He should have told her no, but he said, "Yes," his voice thin and cracked.

He could never refuse her anything.

Talia's father didn't like him.

She didn't appear to care what her father thought; she was delighted by the mask that the doctors had designed to keep the pain under control. "It's clever, isn't it," she said, running her fingers over it as she lay curled next to him on the hospital bed, "so much metal and medicine, all for you... Just think, wearing this you are as rich as Edmond!"

"Yes," he said, feeling richer. There was a window in the hospital room that let in sunlight as warm as honey, the pain in his face had faded to a dull ache, and Talia was there; he could ask for nothing more.

Her father had watched them from the room's door, and moved now to the side of the bed. "I didn't have a chance to introduce myself before," he said, in a cool and elegant voice with an edge beneath it. "Henri Ducard. I'd like to thank you for looking after my daughter, Mr. -?"

Ducard wanted his name. Christ, there was something he hadn't needed in a long time, and he struggled to think of it.

"He's my friend," Talia said, glaring, "leave him alone." She turned to him. "You don't have to answer, you owe him nothing, he owes you."

"Talia, please stay out of -"

"It's all right," he said to her, and she quieted. He dug through his memory and managed to find a single word. "Bane."

"Mr. Bane," said Ducard. "As I said, I'm grateful to you," and he held out his hand.

It took Bane a moment too long to remember that he should shake Ducard's hand, and by then Ducard had let his hand fall back to his side. He looked to his daughter and said, "Talia, I think your friend would like to rest now."

"All right," she said, not moving.

Ducard sighed. "That means you should leave, so he can rest in peace."

"But who will watch -"

"It's a hospital," Ducard said. "A private hospital. No one is going to do anything to him, I promise. Go ahead, and I'll be along in a bit."

Talia gave her father a disdainful look, touched Bane's mask one more time, and then slid off the bed and left the two men alone.

Ducard wasted no time once she was gone; he leaned over the bed and said, "Mr. Bane, you may not believe me, but I do regret that I wasn't able to rescue my daughter sooner, and I appreciate what you've done for her. But I know why men end up in that place, and if I ever even begin to suspect that you might have hurt her -"

Bane laughed, a harshly metallic sound, and knew it had been the wrong thing to do when Ducard's mouth tightened. Ah, well, they would never have been friends anyway; he could see that Ducard had a hardness in him, but not Talia's strength, and his ill-concealed resentment of Bane - for not saving his wife, for stealing his daughter's trust and affection - was laughable. "You're right," Bane said. "I don't believe you. And she saved herself."

"You should rest, Mr. Bane," Ducard said coldly. "Perhaps later we'll have another talk, and see what else can be done for you." Such as sending you to another continent, his tone suggested.

Bane closed his eyes and listened to Ducard leave.

After a little while his bed creaked, and Talia settled next to him, warm and bony and familiar. "I'm back," she said confidently. "You can sleep now."

And he could.

He wasn't surprised when years later Ducard (who was calling himself another name, by then) sent him away, but he was a little disappointed. Ducard had been a soldier once, it seemed; he ought to have understood the ways that the Pit had bound Bane and Talia together, in blood and hunger and dust, but he understood nothing, and his daughter least of all.

It didn't matter, Bane thought, walking on the side of an empty road to nowhere in particular. She would find him again, or he would come to her when she called, and whatever she asked of him he would do. The League of Shadows was nothing to him, and neither was Henri Ducard.

In the end, only she mattered.