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It is so arrogant, Bane thinks, the assumption that one is safe in their own bed.

His men move silently, noiselessly, and he expects nothing more. Nothing less.

Not only is it arrogant, it is also learned. A child who grows up without a bed, without a home, or a child who has those things taken from them violently–that child will learn the very meaning of fear.

There is not a yell from the bedroom, but there is the sound of someone putting up a fight. Bane lets his fingers curl inwards and breathes, closing his eyes for a moment.

A child who knows fear will become an adult who knows fear. Who sleeps on edge, body taut and ready even when it seems that they are safe. And that adult, when attacked, will be feral, an animal woken from slumber, every instinct laid bare.

It goes on for three minutes, five. Something breaks and he knows it wasn’t one of his men who caused it. Eyes open he surveys the cramped living space. There are a great many books. He spots Hemingway and Goethe. He idly wonders if any of them have ever been read as noise all but ceases from the bedroom.

He is hardly surprised when it is Blake himself who emerges, fists raised and battered, eyes narrowed and breathing labored. It would appear that his victory did not come without its losses, but then, what victory does?

“Will you come quietly?” Bane asks, and he thinks he sounds cheerful, but Blake flinches at the sound of his voice. How hurtful. “Or shall we test your limits further?”

It takes a minute, and he waits, patiently. When dealing with the beloved protégé of Bruce Wayne, he has come prepared for a certain measure of stupidity. A shame, he has always liked quick wit even if he, himself, is a slow talker.

“You need me alive,” Blake says, his fists lowering, but not by much.

“Indeed,” Bane answers with a shrug that is barely more than a roll of his shoulders. “And that is the most amazing thing about the human body. The damage that can be caused to it, yet it still soldiers on. Tell me, is it enough that you are alive, or would you prefer to live?”

The look upon Blake’s face is not an entirely idiotic one, but Bane doesn’t have long to consider it as one of his men is behind Blake in an instant, bringing a needle to the exposed side of his neck, the young man falling to his knees and blinking blearily.

“I suppose,” Bane says, as he turns to leave the apartment, “we shall find the answer to that in due time.”

.

When John comes to he both is and isn’t surprised to find that his hands are unbound. His movements are slow and his vision is blurry, but the message is still clear.

Wherever he is, whatever these people want from him, they expect to get it, and they aren’t worried that he’s going to run away in the process.

Honestly, he’s not sure where he’d go. He’s surrounded by concrete, slumped in a folding chair and sitting in front of a table that's bolted to the floor. There’s a door not five feet away, but he doesn’t even get up to see if it’s open. It’s not open. He knows it’s not open like he knows he’s in a makeshift interrogation room right now. Like he knows he’s underground, judging by the vent in the ceiling overhead.

He probably could hoist himself up there, it’s not like he’s without the upper body strength. But then what? Crawl through the ventilation? Wage war on Bane and whatever army he has with him now? Sure, there’s no way it’s as big as it was before, but he has no illusions of taking them all down empty handed.

That’s what he’s working on. Hand to hand combat, not relying on weapons.

Well.

That’s what he was working on.

And stupid, stupid, stupid, not having a gun nearby. Sure, not being on the force anymore means it’s illegal, but if he’d shot Bane he thinks people could have been persuaded to look the other way.

Bane, who escaped the cardboard prison that is Blackgate these days. Bane, who everyone thought was in China by now, untouchable, but gone for good, a wounded animal that had retreated from a fight that had left it worse for the wear. Bane, who came to his apartment last night (was it really just last night, he wonders), and seems to have plans for him.

John thinks of the cave to calm himself down. Running water, that was annoying at first, but now he recalls the sound as soothing. Alfred–he and the old man had stumbled upon each other awkwardly and ever since there had been food left on clean white china, along with an open invitation to visit what had once been Wayne Manor. And the bats.

He thinks about the bats, eyes closed and chin close to his chest. Maybe it’s a little cheesy, but he likes the bats.

That is how Bane finds him.

.

Bane asks not the first thing that comes to mind, but the first thing that it seems appropriate to ask. Discerning what is appropriate is not a thing he usually bothers with, but he sees the importance of tact in this situation. A situation where he is being watched with eyes as hard and as cold as he has ever seen.

“Do you fear me?” he asks, as he walks further into the room Blake is being held in for the time being. He leaves the door open behind him. Blake will be subdued if he chooses to run, but Bane barely even entertains that idea, it seems so laughable.

The look in Blake’s eyes more than answers his question for him.

“Ah, so you do,” he begins, but he pauses at the way Blake’s lip curls.

“Only because it would be stupid not to,” Blake says. “Because I know that you might not’ve succeeded in wiping Gotham off the map, but you didn’t fail completely.” He pauses, takes a shaky breath. “If I didn’t fear you, that would mean I underestimated you, and no matter what you think I’m not that dumb.”

Bane laughs, softly, and Blake visibly recoils at the sound. Bane thinks that he is going to tire of that, but he lets it pass for the time being.

“Tell me, then,” he says, arms spread wide, an invitation, “why do you sit there, though nothing holds you back? Does that not go against your ideology? Or is it his ideology that says that you must always fight, even in a battle which you are clearly losing?”

All through this Bane watches Blake’s hands in his lap, fidgeting, the way he balls one fist inside the other. Controlled anger. He respects it.

“I wouldn’t know,” Blake says, swallowing. “I never got to ask him.”

“Such a shame,” Bane sighs and lets his hands come to rest near his collarbone, thinking as always how he misses the vest he used to wear. He always quite liked the way his fingertips curled over the top of it. “But what if I told you that you could ask him that? That and other things.”

Dimly, Blake says, “What?”

“Of course, that opportunity would depend on many things,” Bane continues, taking heed of the way Blake’s eyes have lit up. “Not least of all on whether or not the great Bruce Wayne concedes to come out of hiding to save one life. And even for a life as valuable as yours, it is not a sure thing.”

“He’s dead,” Blake murmurs, but it’s clear that he’s starting to wonder.

“He would so love for you to continue thinking that, I’m sure.”

Blake’s hands have been spread on his thighs and now Bane watches as he slides them down to his knees, eyes to the ground.

“I saw–”

“What he wanted you to see,” Bane shrugs, “and nothing more.”

“So this is all...what then?” Blake says, slowly, looking up. “A ploy to draw him out of hiding? You’re going to send a message out to the world at large? Got another bomb up your sleeve?”

“That would hardly be a practical place to hide a bomb, if I had one.” If he could, Bane thinks he would be smiling, just a little bit. “Oh, no, I’ve had my share of theatricality for the time being. You have friends in high places, even if you do not have many of them. They will notice you are gone. Word will reach our target soon enough. For now, you will work with us.”

“What if I refuse?”

Bane breathes in, out. He does not appreciate the question, nor the way it is asked. But he does revel, a bit, in answering it.

“Then you will discover the meaning of true suffering, as I suspect your current definition to be lacking.” Blake looks none too pleased with the offer, and Bane has to wonder what he expected. “Now come with me, there is much work ahead of us.”

He does not worry that Blake will not follow him, and for his belief he is rewarded with the scraping of a chair and the sound of footsteps following his own out of the room.

.

It doesn’t take John long at all to realize why Bane doesn’t worry that he might try to run away.

John has no idea where they are, and the realization is like the twist of a knife that’s already cut deep. The best he can do is narrow the choices down to the Middle East or northern Africa. It’s embarrassing, but he doesn’t even know a word of the language everyone speaks. He thinks it’s Arabic, is pretty sure he recognizes the way it’s spoken, fast and flowing, but can’t be absolutely sure.

The underground labyrinth which Bane has claimed isn’t like the sewage and subway systems of Gotham. It’s not pristine, but it’s spacious and feels as if it was sterile before they got there. He isn’t sure what the purpose of the place is, not until he leaves it. That’s when he knows they’re living in an unused system of bomb shelters.

Bane meets with people regularly in the ruins of buildings above ground. And while John can’t understand a word anyone is saying, he can understand that Bane is persuading them, and doing so quite successfully.

“What are you promising them?” he asks Bane, one day, when they’re walking through empty streets, the sun beating down on them. “Is it that same bullshit you were spewing last winter? Telling them they need to rise up against some invisible enemy?”

When Bane answers him he feels relieved, sickeningly so. If anyone else speaks English here, they hide it well.

“To reuse a failed battle plan would be a very foolish move,” he answers, not sparing a glance back at John. “Do you really think so little of me?”

“I don’t know what I think of you,” John replies, before he can stop himself, and that’s always been his problem, really. He braces himself for a minute, but nothing comes. He only gets passed up by the pair of Bane’s men that have been trailing after them, one of them turning to look at him and barking some instructions that he doesn’t understand.

The whole thing is not at all what he expected. He’s sure there’s bombs being made somewhere and he knows the guns slung around everyone’s shoulders except his (and Bane’s) aren’t just for show. But he hasn’t seen that side of it, not yet. He’s yet to even see Bane lay a hand on anyone. With the people they meet he’s amiable and, John has inferred based on body language alone, personable.

With John himself, Bane is, for lack of a better word, careful. John knows he’s watched almost constantly, even when he’s told directly to stay behind for the day. He knows that no matter how much he’s trained over the past few months he’s simply not going to be able to take on a growing army armed with machine guns, or even Bane himself.

He’s not stupid enough to think that anything he’s been allowed to see is important, but he’s also doing his best to keep a level head and not end up bound and gagged with a bag over his head, even if he is just as ineffectual without the restraints.

And, honestly, he’s still reeling from the news that Bruce Wayne is out there, somewhere.

Some part of him thinks he knew all along, and still another part is resolute that Bane is lying. But if it is a lie, then why is he here?

If Bruce Wayne isn’t alive, then he shouldn’t even be a blip on Bane’s radar. In the end, it all makes a lot more sense if he’s a piece in a game that everyone else thought had already ended. Personally, he likes the metaphor, because it means that maybe, if he does things right, he can make a few moves of his own.

Bane has him sleep amongst his men, all of them on concrete floor, too close to each other to truly get comfortable. It reminds him, in a way, of summer camp, except with less kickball and a lot more illegal activity.

Most nights John lays awake and tries to figure this whole thing out. Tries to figure out where they are. Tries to figure out what the plan is. Tries to understand Bane.

It’s a few weeks before he realizes that he’s not sure if Bane even sleeps at all.

.

(But Bane dreams.

Of lands filled with sand, hour glasses more than tangible places, a countdown to no one knows what. The feeling of time escaping him, of the inevitable end of something he has never been able to name.

Darkness reaching on forever, his silent friend, comforting in its unforgiving ways. A cloak and a cover, a comfort. Hands in his own, leading him somewhere else even though, if he had his choice, he would never leave.

Sunsets, the horizon orange, then pink, then purple, then blue, then pitch black, but not truly. Someone next to him, shoulder to shoulder, reaching their hand up and pointing to stars, naming them. Constellations, pinpricks of light so far away he can barely fathom it.

And of Talia.

Always of Talia.)

.

John first notices Khadim when Bane is ordering him to die.

His first thought is that this isn’t actually happening. For all the things he’d seen on patrol in a depraved city–boys and girls with painted lips and fear personified–and for all the things he’s seen in the past month–Bane easily snapping the neck of the first man above ground who disagreed with him, the fast movements of the men putting knife to throat–he isn’t quite prepared for this.

It’s still something beyond him, the idea that a leader, even one as twisted as Bane, could tell someone to die so simply, so calmly.

“It is your time, brother,” is what Bane says.

And the man who John will learn is Khadim only nods, his eyes shining with what John later realizes is honor, but now only sees as terror, because he can’t imagine any other response.

“Why him?” he asks, and he manages not to flinch when Bane looks at him, standing his ground, repeating himself for good measure. “I’m serious, I want to know, why him?”

“I believe you're asking the wrong question,” Bane offers, and John has to physically restrain himself from groaning. He is so sick of this cryptic bullshit.

“What, I should be asking why not him?” he grinds out, feeling his nails bite into the soft flesh of his palms. “There are about a million answers to that. Because he’s a human being, for starters, a person who doesn’t deserve to have his life thrown away just because you’re in the mood for some carnage.”

At this point he’s not just expecting to be attacked, he welcomes it. Bane over him, knee on his chest, half his weight heavy enough to be someone else’s entire body weight. John is choking on air and thinking, like, thank fuck, because it finally gives him an excuse to push back, to prove his worth, even if it isn’t much.

He knows that trying to get out from under Bane is a fool’s errand, so his mantra is: The mask, the mask, the mask.

And he even gets a good shot at it, twisting upwards, biting down on his lip from the effort, but Bane has his wrist in hand before he can make contact.

Bane only seems idly concerned with the fact that he’s crushing John at this point, his thoughts elsewhere as he turns to look at the man who is standing with his head down still only a few steps away. John, meanwhile, finds that he doesn’t mind it as much as he should, something he chalks up to adrenaline, the rush of doing something, no matter how pathetic, after such an ungodly long amount of time sitting passively by.

“You wish to spare this man’s life?” Bane asks, after a long silence, looking back to the man beneath him. “You wish to take from him the glory of dying for his cause, a cause he chose, and force him to live against my orders?”

John remembers waking up a little over a month ago to this man in his apartment, a memory from so long ago that he isn’t sure it’s even from the same lifetime.

“I want him to live,” he hisses.

Bane releases him almost instantly, the broken sound that John has come to realize is his laugh echoing against the walls.

“Very well,” he says, hand beckoning the other man towards them where John is sitting up, wincing in pain. He wouldn’t be surprised if Bane broke a rib or two. “He is yours from now until he dies, to do with what you please. I would not, however, recommend letting him go, as I won't hesitate to end his life if I see you no longer have a use for him.”

Bane leaves them.

The man’s name is Khadim.

It’s the first time John can remember where someone doesn’t thank him for saving their life.

.

One month ago Bane wrested the GPS antenna from out of Blake’s cell phone and dropped it into the sewers of Gotham.

Now he holds the phone in hand and looks through the contacts. There are a depressingly small amount of them, but he decides not to dwell on that. One night spent thinking about Blake’s life before all this is more than enough. Instead he looks for someone who will care.

There are no parents, no listing for a mother or father, but Bane would have no use for them even if there were. The parents of a detective living in squalor would hardly further his plan, and certainly would not have Bruce Wayne on speed dial.

(How, then, does Blake–no, it is a bad path to go down, connecting dots to tell a tragedy. He already has too many of those, like Atlas with the world upon his back, a weight he can only just bear.)

There is ‘Comm. Gordon,’ but something about the way Blake only has him listed with his title in his phone tells Bane not to bother. He has never liked to rely on the police for anything, as it is.

After going through the contacts twice he comes to realize that the only name he truly does not recognize is the boldfaced ‘Alfred’ at the top of the list. It sticks out. Blake tends to refer to people solely by last name in his phone, probably because half of them seem only to be people he works with, but Alfred stands alone as the only entry to be such an obvious first name.

In a phone full of police officers and orphan boys, the name is a flashing red light.

Bane calls for one of the men just outside his room (he does not know his name and does not want to), and asks him to run the number, get coordinates.

While he waits he thinks of Blake, in a purely academic sense.

From what he’s gathered, Wayne was grooming him to take his place. That much is obvious. But Blake hardly seems to know the man–no, no, that isn't right. The real question isn't whether or not Blake knows Bruce Wayne, for he undoubtedly does, but it is whether or not Blake knows Batman.

There is a distinction, Bane knows, not a great one, but one nonetheless. The thought is one to take note of, in any case. If his interest in Blake had been dwindling, well, he feels it rekindle itself now. What does Blake know and how does he know it? Just how close is he to the man who has disappeared without a trace?

Bane is interrupted by the results of the coordinates that he asked for. The tablet he is handed is leaking sand and has cracks spider-webbing across one corner of the screen, but he watches the small red dot blink intermittently and he cannot help but feel pleased.

Blake’s phone is warm in his hands.

It is such a small thing, really–to destroy it would be an easy task, but he will keep it.

He will keep it.

.

Khadim is quiet at first, always following just a step or two behind, and John doesn’t know what to do with him. The other man steadfastly refuses to look him in the eye and it takes him nearly a week to realize why.

“I’m sorry, you know,” he says, on a morning where there’s a slight breeze. The sun above is harsh as ever, he’s never seen a day with much cloud cover here, but the feeling of rushing air on the nape of his neck is something to be grateful for, even if it’s not much. “I really am. I feel like I ruined something for you that I didn’t try to understand.”

He gets a curt nod in response, which is a lot less than what he expected, but after that it seems like Khadim finally breathes around him.

A few days later and John is throwing pebbles at things in the distance, broken bottles and rusted car parts.

“I feel like a kid,” he admits, leaning down to grab another handful of rocks (which hurts, but he doesn't let it show, it's not like he's going to garner any sympathy). Khadim quirks an eyebrow at him. “When I was little, really little, my dad–he would take me to bars and make me stay outside while he gambled. Working with Bane, if I can even call it that, reminds me of that. Standing in alleyways and knowing there were things happening that I wasn’t allowed to see.”

“My father,” Khadim says slowly, walking closer and watching as John snaps his arm forward, “was a drunkard.” They both listen to the echoing ping of the rock hitting something metal.

It’s the first time John hears Khadim speak English. It’s stilted, and somehow even harder to understand than Bane’s voice, but relief floods over him in waves, an otherwise unwarranted smile breaking out on his face as he nods for the other man to continue.

“He did not leave us,” and here Khadim says a few words John doesn’t know, but he can hear the meaning. My mother. “She was a strong woman, ah...fierce?”

John nods, liking the word, as he winds up again. He’s thinking on two levels, like he always does when someone else talks about their parents. A way to not feel bitter. He hears Khadim’s words, but lets his thoughts wander to baseball, one hand cupping the other as he marks an arbitrary strike zone in the distance.

“I think my father feared her.” Khadim’s voice is fond, but quiet. “I think that is why he try to...control her, because he was so scared of what she could do if he did not.”

John’s pitch misses by a mile.

Khadim is frowning at him. “Perhaps I do not make any sense?”

“No,” John mumbles, shaking his head and kicking at the dust under his shoes, “no, you make perfect sense. That's what people do.”

And isn't Bane, despite everything, a person?

.

Bane watches, even when Blake thinks he does not.

He watches and he takes mental notes. He would like to say that it is in the same way that he has always done this for everyone. How he watches his men and picks out those who will not last, or who will betray him, few and far between though they are. How he once watched the citizens of Gotham and knew who was truly needy and who was feigning ignorance in favor of handouts.

But with Blake it's different.

With Blake he watches the way he seems to covet and protect a friendship with a man who’s name Bane has never bothered to learn. He watches Blake laugh for the first time in over a month, the way it’s throaty and bare, like he forgot how to do it. He watches Blake try to learn some Arabic and fail miserably, the way that seems to annoy him and drive him further at the same time.

He listens, listens to the way Blake follows him around without hesitation, without question, and appreciates that it is no longer out of fear but, now, out of curiosity. Listens to the way Blake’s breathing speeds up when he feels that things are not going well. Listens to Blake’s muttered expletives after he breaks a man’s arm for not complying with his guidelines.

Thinks how the man is lucky that he did not decide for a more permanent method of retribution.

From the beginning he has wanted Blake to be nothing more than a pawn, but now the thought comes forward, unbidden, that Blake shows promise. He lacks self-control, but since when has Bane ever held any of that himself? He prefers anger roiling over the surface of a person, coming off them in waves, He enjoys emotions being cloying and tangible.

There is even a part of him that wants to savor the open smiles he sees on Blake’s face every so often these days, though he only sees them from a distance, removed.

He thinks of Talia, of what she would say. Of soft words permeated with a softer still accent. The way she would turn her head to the side, her profile stark against her dark hair. He thinks of how she might advise him, of how her well-manicured hand would not hesitate to rest on his shoulder.

Thinks of how she will never do any of those things again.

He never liked it very much when someone else made Talia laugh in that easy way of hers.

He crushes the chest of Blake’s man beneath the moonlight, telling him this is all part of the plan. He continues to talk even after the man’s eyes have gone blank, continues to tell lies, to explain why this was necessary. Just another dead body, but he knows it’s a little more than that.

Bane has never claimed to be one to keep his promises.

.

A single text is sent from John Blake’s cell phone.

He lives.

.

Alfred Pennyworth takes one last look around Wayne Manor (he still hasn't quite gotten used to the new name, though he embraces it wholeheartedly). Bags packed and car out front he thinks he's finally satisfied. Perhaps, for once, the place won't go up in flames during his absence.

He sighs, fondly. A man can dream.

His phone lights up and he leaves it be. Whoever it is can wait until he’s in Florence for a response.

This vacation is well deserved.

.

John knows.

He isn’t, no matter what some people might say, stupid, so he knows that Bane had Khadim killed. He hasn’t seen the body, but there’s an empty space next to him when he wakes up one morning, and that’s more than enough to tip him off.

What he doesn’t know is why. He’s sure Bane has lied to him a hundred times over by now, he doesn’t think he’s special in that regard, but he holds some doubt in his heart regarding the idea that Bane would lie to one of his men, even one that he had already decided would be a casuality.

It’s why, John has learned, that these men exalt him. At first he’d thought it was the stature, the power, the mystery of the mask and everything underneath it. And maybe to some extent it’s all those things, the way he speaks has brought about revolution before, and John is more than worried that it will do it again. He is a persuasive man.

But these men follow Bane because he tells them truths that they want to hear. Bane holds values, skewed though they are, that they can believe in.

John knows starvation, knows it in his bones, knows giving the rest of his food to younger kids at the boy’s home and lying awake for the rest of the night, curled on his side almost crying from hunger. He knows fear, knows it like an old friend, like things that other people imagine, but that have always been real for him. He knows death, knows its utter darkness, the way a person can be there and then gone, the complete indifference of the world to one man’s death, to what it meant to the sobbing boy next to him, hands sticky with blood.

Most of all, John knows idolization.

He still remembers, with a sense of hollow embarrassment, cutting out newspaper clippings about him, about Bruce Wayne, about Batman. While the other boys ogled at girls in swimsuits he was fascinated with the world’s most successful orphan, with the city’s most hated vigilante.

He understands it, all of it, more than he thinks anyone knows.

He’d been in awe when he’d gone to the cave for the first time, knowing this was where Bruce Wayne (Batman) had started. No one had to tell him, he could feel it. Could hear it in the flaps of bat’s wings, see it in the foundations of the manor that was surely just above his head.

He’d almost kissed the ground, like it was a place of worship.

He spent eight years never doubting that Bruce Wayne would return–he’s not sure if he can be that naive for much longer.

.

Bane decides they will have to move, it is something that cannot be helped, and, truthfully, something he has put off for far too long.

Libya offers the advantages of a tumultuous government, an angry population, and countless cities that have been left, ravaged and empty, but he knows that, by now, their movements are being monitored. He can smell the stink of a rat on one man in particular, a businessman he has long been wary of, but who provided chemicals that were needed.

He says, “Your services have been much appreciated,” as he lets his hands encircle the businessman’s neck. He calmly begins to choke him as he adds, “But I am afraid they are no longer necessary to our cause.” The thing that makes choking someone so grand, Bane has always found, is watching them die. The panic in their eyes, the way they try to fight so desperately, as if they stand some chance of survival. It is fascinating, to watch hope leave a person.

He lets the man’s body, a husk of a human being, drop to the floor.

His shadow stretches behind him, bigger and more monstrous than he could ever hope to be, and he wonders if Blake stands in it, or if he refuses to and is, consequently, blinded by the sunlight above.

Sometimes, when he breathes in, he can almost taste the anesthetic–a silly notion, as he cannot taste anything, anymore.

He has always wanted to see Istanbul.

.

The first thing John says is, “I didn’t sign up for this,” and he can’t believe he says it. It’s so procedural cop show, he’s seen a million movies about straitlaced guys who go rogue and say the same exact words with the same exact inflection, and it never ends well for them. But he still says it.

Bane’s eyes widen, and John can tell he’s mocking him, but he still waves away the man standing next to him, stands up from his position crouched over a map of the Middle East. A few weeks ago John would’ve loved to have seen that, to have a bit of an idea of where he was. But now he knows that he’s only seeing it because Bane doesn’t mind him seeing it, and that only makes him angrier.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” John continues, and he’s shaking a little bit. “I never met you. I didn’t put out a bounty on your head. I didn’t ask for this, and I don’t want to play your games. So why don’t you just tell me what you want before you get me killed.”

“I have given you no task that would endanger your life,” Bane says, tilting his head back, exposing his neck. John wishes he had a knife. “I understand your anger with me, I would be a fool not to, but you are a fool for thinking I would explain my reasoning to you before I find it necessary.”

“It’s been a month and a half,” John reminds him, because sometimes he thinks Bane’s working on a whole different schedule than the rest of the world. “Everyone probably thinks I’m as dead as they think Bruce Wayne is. What the hell are you angling at?”

“Oh, I like this,” Bane says, and John hates the way he sounds amused. “You think I will give you answers, because you have been taught that you deserve them, is that right?”

There will be half-moon impressions in the palms of John’s hands for weeks, he’s fairly sure.

“I deserve answers because you brought me here,” and he’s almost yelling now. “Because I didn’t have a choice in any of this.”

Bane’s soft laughter cuts him deep, an inhuman sound.

“You have all the choice in the world,” Bane replies, like they’re talking about something simple, adding sugar or cream to coffee. “You have chosen to walk with me for all this time, and that keeps your sentence light. Perhaps you count a few broken ribs as trespasses against you, but you earned them yourself. By staying in the boundaries created for you, you are choosing your current way of life. No one is stopping you from changing this. I have no problem with causing you immeasurable pain. In fact, I have been looking forward to it for quite some time.”

“You can’t call threatening someone a choice,” John says, feeling drained, but no less angry. “I mean, are you really that used to it, that you don’t know the difference between the two?”

“You don't seem to understand that everyone you see is here of their own volition.” Bane gestures with his arms spread wide and John hates that stance of his. Acting as if he’s welcoming when he’s the furthest thing from it. “I have forced no one’s hand.”

“I hardly think,” John spits in response, “amassing a group of people who are so desperate for purpose that they allow you to condemn them to death says anything good about you.”

“Ah, but what of your police force?” Bane asks, voice inquisitive as is possible.

Don’t,” John warns, but they both know there’s nothing he can do.

“They give you guns with the stipulation that you may be shot and killed yourself,” Bane points out, ignoring the interjection. “Tell me, if a policeman was confronted with a man who refused to put down his weapon, what would his course of action be?”

“He would shoot, but only because–”

“Oh, no.” Bane waves a hand at him. “If we are to find no meaning in my actions, then we won't justify your own. Now I ask you, If a man decides to don a mask and work outside the law, what punishment will come for him in the end?”

John wants to hit something, wants to hit Bane, but somehow, miraculously, doesn’t, only says, “I think death was punishment enough."

“But he did not really die, and so we must fix this,” Bane says, simply. “Here is the last question, and I beg of you to think long and hard about it. This a world where a boy can become an orphan at the tender age of six, where that same boy can grow up angry and neglected and forgotten by society. John Blake, is this world worth saving?”

It’s a childish thing, but John is sure he’s never hated someone so much in his entire life.

“Of course it is,” he responds, without hesitation. “Because that boy grew up, and now he understands that just because you’ve been abandoned it doesn’t mean you should abandon everyone else. You have to do the opposite.”

“Which is?” Bane asks, even though they both know the answer.

“You save them, you make things better for them.” John pauses, considering words. “You show them that the only way to deal with getting knocked down is to get back up again.”

Bane is silent for a brief moment, then, “To rise.”

John nods, more than a little surprised by the words.

“Come here,” Bane says, and he crouches down by the map once more, John looking on in bewilderment. “What do you think of Istanbul?”

.

It seems that, much like Bane himself, Blake does not know what to think of Istanbul.

But he stays, glancing nervously around, like he is sure this is some sort of trap.

Bane is listing the advantages of moving to an urban infrastructure after having been in the middle of nowhere for the past six weeks. Recuperation, larger numbers of recruits, better access to supplies as needed.

"There are drawbacks," he concedes, fingers tracing the boundary between Turkey and Syria, "but there are always drawbacks."

"I don't get this," Blake says, looking over his shoulder. "I don't get it at all. I thought you'd be angry, I thought you'd–Istanbul, really? It's so...I mean, why aren't you torturing me?"

Bane thinks of Talia for a fleeting moment, of how she might nod at him, of how she might disappear.

"Torture without purpose is an ill-advised act." He pushes the map towards Blake and nods at it. "What are your reservations concerning Istanbul, I wish to know them."

It takes a minute for Blake to respond, leaning his head to the side and running a hand over his hair, a nervous habit if ever there was one.

"You'll get caught," he says as he rocks back on his heels. "There's no way no one's not going to recognize you there, not in a city like that. It's too big of a risk, too soon. Like betting everything before anyone's folded, when you don't even have that good of a hand."

"A good observation," Bane agrees. "But I will not be the one getting caught."

"I don't understand," Blake admits, and he lets out a nervous laugh that sounds like he's inhaling air.

"You will," Bane says, "soon enough."

.

In Florence, an already distraught Alfred Pennyworth receives another text.

Have you discovered the truth yet?

.

John knows he can't come back from this, but he's beginning to realize that he never stood a chance.

.

Bane explains his plan only once. He does not miss the way Blake's eyes light up when he mentions the caves.

.

The plane they’re in looks like it hasn’t seen action since World War II. John thinks about saying as much, but he doubts anyone would be able to hear him over the sound of the engine. He also doubts any of the men would appreciate him making a joke when they’re ten thousand feet in the air, especially when none of them can understand a word he says.

The guy across from him looks like he’s going to be sick and John has half the mind to move over in case he blows chunks, but instead he leans forward and yells, loud as he can, “You okay?” He can feel some of the other men looking at him, but he doesn’t turn away until the guy nods slowly, looking puzzled but, John thinks (hopes), a bit grateful as well.

John leans back and decidedly doesn’t take note of Bane standing near the front of the plane, watching them all.

It took a week to clear out the bomb shelters. Folding chairs and prayer mats and bags loaded with he didn't know what. At first he hadn’t helped at all, had sat on the sidelines, unsure of the situation and his place in it, but then he’d seen one of the men struggling with a particularly heavy duffel bag and he’d gone to help him without thinking.

The whole time he could feel Bane watching him. It made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up and gooseflesh appear on his arms. He feels it now, too, as the plane jostles him around, knocks him into the men sitting next to him.

He remembers last winter, crouching beside cars and lowering notes into the sewers, trying to figure out if the gunfire he heard in the distance was close enough to pose a threat. Remembers how, chalk in freezing hand, he marked the city with a signal he wasn't sure would ever be seen. Remembers the pulsating blasts of explosions in buildings next to him, losing control of his car, being so sure he was going to die, but surviving, somehow, every time.

And now, in the plane, elbows on knees, face in his hands, he thinks that compared to that...Bane’s constant scrutiny is nothing.

Flashing lights go off and everyone around him stands up so he follows suit.

Bane walks between them all, his pace agonizingly slow, his arm brushing John’s chest for just a second, but even that second is too long.

John shivers.

Then they’re in single order, a man to his front and to his back.

The jump out of the plane is quieter than he would’ve imagined, the rush of air against his face and the feeling of falling farther than he ever thought was possible.

.

Bane finds Blake grappling with his parachute and muttering obscenities under his breath.

“I think someone gave you the wrong coordinates,” he yells, tripping over himself. “Fucking–middle of nowhere if I ever saw it. Jumping out of a goddamn airplane onto a field. There’s cows like a hundred feet out, did you notice that? What if one of your men landed on a cow, huh?”

Bane does not answer him, only takes a knife out and, amid Blake’s sudden frantic protests (“Hey, whoa, that is not okay!”), cuts the fabric tethering the parachute to his pack.

“Oh,” Blake says. “Uh, thanks.”

“You are most welcome,” Bane replies, not looking at him as he continues to walk forward. Blake was right, there are cows in the distance. This worries Bane, but only just. He is more than sure that they didn't go farther than the drop zone, which means that, if anything, they only have to keep walking until they reach their destination.

“This isn’t Istanbul,” Blake says, shielding his eyes against the sun. In the distance they see other men, some still falling from the sky. “Somehow I think you already know that, though.”

“It wouldn't be wise to drop ourselves into the middle of a bustling city, now would it?” Bane asks, stopping a few feet from where one of his men is dusting himself off. He motions him over. “The map, if you would.”

“Shouldn’t we do something about that?” Blake hisses, pointing towards a tree in the distance. Bane glances up and his eyes catch on a parachute twisted in the branches, a man’s body swaying back and forth just the slightest bit.

He shrugs. “If you would like to take care of it I will not stop you, but neither will I assist you.”

Blake leaves his side, muttering darkly to himself.

Bane looks at the map, at the black marks that have to be a mile out at least, at the horizon where the sun is melting into the ground. He hands the map back to the man standing with him with a nod. They are not far from their destination.

He watches Blake enlist the help of some of the men to get the dead body out from the tree with mild interest.

“You realize,” he calls, voice carrying across the fields easily, “that you now are responsible for this body. A lone man hung from a tree is one thing, but a body that was clearly moved by someone else is quite another.”

Blake swallows, goes, “I know.” Pauses. “I couldn’t just leave him here anyway.” Some of the other men are working to carry the body on one of the parachutes. “That wouldn’t be right.”

“He accepted he may die serving me,” Bane says, more than a little perplexed by how strongly Blake seems to think about this. “None of them expect anything more than to be a casualty of war, left behind in the throes of battle.”

“Yeah, maybe,” Blake shrugs. “But he deserves more than that. A proper burial, maybe, whatever that entails.”

“Do what you must.” Bane turns from him and instructs his men to follow him.

There is no need to say any such thing to Blake, not any more.

.

They reach the caves before nightfall, and there's a part of John that just wants to lay down. He feels at home, there's the steady sound of water in the background and a damp feeling in the air. When he breathes in he smells brine and mold. It shouldn't be so comforting, so inviting, but it is, and he's only stopped by the sound of praying in the background.

The men who helped him carry the body back are standing over it, words quiet but heavy with meaning. He watches the men as the sun sinks below the horizon like a ship flooded by insurmountable waves.

(And, he thinks, that's what they are: just men, not Bane's, not possessions.)

Everyone seems to mutually agree that they'll wait until morning to bury the body, and that makes sense.

It makes sense, John tells himself as he turns restlessly with nothing but cold stone at his back. It makes sense, he thinks, as he tries to fool himself into thinking he's still in Gotham, just tired out from an evening of training. It makes sense, he knows, as he sits up as quietly as he can and steps around sleeping men to make his way to the mouth of the cave–but he can't just leave this alone.

He has no idea what he's doing, but that tends to be his modus operandi these days, so he's not overly bothered by it. There's a few shovels in the third bag he checks, and flashlights in the fifth.

He's got things set up as best he can, when he hears movement. For a moment he's on edge, bringing the shovel up above his shoulder, but then he sees it's just a few of the men. They all look exhausted, but chances are he looks the same.

They stop him, but it's so they can help him, and will he ever stop marveling at that?

The moon's so bright overhead that they barely need the flashlights. The oldest man among them sings something in a low baritone, and John suspects it's something like a hymn. The other two talk to him and it becomes startlingly clear just how stupid the whole 'talk slow and loud and maybe they'll understand' thing is when he's the one on the receiving end. Still, he stays calm and manages to figure out that what everyone's most worried about is exactly where the grave is, how it's facing.

He recognizes the word Mecca, he knows that at least.

Mostly, he sits back and watches, because they know what they're doing.

The old man's hymn sticks in his head, a tune he can't quite shake even as morning dawns.

A song that will never leave him.

.

Bane dreams, but he does not sleep, cannot sleep.

There are so many things to do–and, to think, he once operated under the belief that he would have all the time in the world in which to do them.

.

Another text.

Those who rise have the farthest fall ahead of them.

.

In Florence, in a cafe just off the Arno a man and a woman sit, the woman at ease and the man marginally less so.

"I'm still sorry," he's saying, "I know you wanted to stay in Amsterdam for longer than a week."

“It’s not that it’s not lovely here,” she assures him, reaching across the table, thumb on his pulse, “it’s just not my kind of place.” He nods, eyes looking just over her shoulder. “Look, Bruce–”

“Thomas,” he reminds her.

Thomas–Christ, it’s almost like you want to get caught, I swear,” she rolls her eyes to the side, but does so fondly. “Look, I know relaxing hasn’t been your thing since...well, ever, but it’s really not that hard. What normal people do when they have billions in offshore accounts and nothing holding them back is order the most expensive thing on the menu and not worry about the calories.”

“I’m not worried about calories,” he says, and she tilts her head in that way of hers. He knows her all too well. “All right, I get it. I won’t worry about anything. There was just something I had to see here. Someone told me about this place, that’s all. One more night and then we can go wherever you want. Back to Amsterdam, if that's what you want.”

“I was actually thinking Tokyo,” she says, raising her eyebrows and smiling.

He’s just about to smile back when a waiter leans over their table to hand him a stuffed envelope, saying, “For you,” before walking away, swiftly.

Drink in hand, she goes, “Always so popular, aren’t we?”

He doesn’t answer as he opens the envelope gingerly and spreads the contents out on the table. A note and a cell phone. He’s looking past her again, and she can tell by the look on his face that there’s nothing to see. She pulls the note to her side of the table and reads it.

“Who’s Blake?” she asks, fingers on the top edge of her glass now. She always wanted to learn how to make music that way. Something to do with the amount of water and the heights of glasses. It’s probably too late now.

“The cop,” he says, not looking up from the phone. “Remember, you thought his name was funny?”

“Oh, the baby bird.” She hums, thoughtful. “You know, that’s the thing about them, you need to teach them how to fly before you push them out of the nest, or else they might get hurt.” He looks at her, eyes sharp and asking the world. She sighs. “Is this going to be one of those things?”

“Hate to break it to you, but, with me, it almost always is.”

She shakes her head. Doesn’t she know it.

"Well, fill me in, then."

.

"I just don't like it," John shrugs, hand to his forehead. "This whole thing makes no sense to me."

Bane stands a few feet away and it's still too close. He's doing nothing in particular, which is, actually, relatively normal for him. Baffling as it is, there's no evidence that Bane is anything more than a thinker and a planner. He's a mercenary, sure, and a killer, no doubt, but a strangely thoughtful one.

"A fire does not spark to life from nothing," Bane replies, almost lazily. "There must be a spark to create the fire, and only then does–"

"The fire rise or whatever, I get that," John snaps. He's not sure if he's more exasperated or exhausted, but it's probably a bit of both, especially with Bane looking at him the way he does, like he's not sure what to do with him anymore. "I get the whole philosophy even if you know I disagree with it completely. What I don't get is why that means you're sending some of these men to their death."

"We have already discussed this." Bane doesn't even glance at him. "Multiple times."

"Yeah, and if you'll recall I've still walked away thinking your stance on the whole thing is bullshit," John fires back. He's pacing now and he waits until he's as far away from Bane as possible to add, sarcastically, "Multiple times."

But Bane doesn't look at him with the malice he's gotten used to. These days it's disappointment. It's the look of someone who expected more, and that makes John feel sick all over. It means Bane thinks highly of him for some reason that he doesn't understand. He's not sure what changed in the last few weeks, though he's trying to figure it out. Bane isn't an easy person to talk to about...much of anything.

"I don't think I will sway your opinion of the matter," Bane says, turning away. Behind them John can hear the voices of the men working, the sound of water from a source he hasn't been able to locate. "But I believe you will understand if I put it in terms that matter to you. If things do not proceed exactly as I plan for them to, I will have no reason to keep you here, nor any reason to keep anyone you may care about alive."

"You don't know–" John starts, but Bane holds up a hand and that's enough to make him stop, dead.

"I know of a Pastor, of your weakness for the well-being of orphaned boys," he says, and never has his voice sounded more manufactured and less human.

"So you don't know anything." Hands in fists at his sides, how many times has he stood exactly like this, now, across a room from this monster? "All you know is that I'm a good person. That I'm going to do what you want because you're threatening kids who've already lost more than enough."

"Ah, you think you are a good person, because you care for those who have gone through the same hell as you?" Bane steps forward and John steps back, unconsciously, hating himself for it. "Have you forgotten all you have done for me before now, when the only threat was on your life?"

John can't answer that, can't even make a sound when he opens his mouth.

(It occurs to him, in that moment, that for the last few weeks he hasn't even thought about what would happen if he didn't help Bane.)

"You talk about the men who follow me as if they are stupid," and Bane's voice is thundering now, filling the room, "but what of yourself? These men would gladly follow me to Hell, with no promise of being able to return. Perhaps you count dying for a cause as stupidity, but I count it as a most courageous act. A cause you are not willing to die for is hardly a cause at all."

"You have an army," John means to yell, but it just comes out sounding hoarse. "I'm not saying their lives aren't important, but their cause doesn't die with them."

"And yours does?" Bane asks, sounding incredulous. "Do you truly think that highly of yourself, that the city of Gotham would crumble without you to hold it aloft? It survives, even now, without you, and it will survive yet. Do not act as if your reasons for wanting to live mean you have earned the choice to, only to turn around and deny others their choice to die."

John has never been one to run away from his problems, but he can recognize when he's not getting anywhere–and he can stalk away, angrily, leaving only his echoing footsteps behind.

.

They are alone, and Bane knows that his men will not be coming back. It's a good thing, then, that he left so many of them behind, that so many of them lie in wait for his signal: the destruction of a city that he has always wanted to see.

(Or was it was Talia who wanted to see Istanbul, who talked once of architecture and beauty, things he will now destroy–because without her to see them, what purpose do they serve?)

He finds Blake standing outside of the mouth of the cave and motions for him to follow. He supposes one could call it a cool trickle of relief that he feels as Blake walks behind him, not close enough to touch, but not far enough that his presence is not noticed.

They walk for the better part of an hour in silence to the edge of the fields they landed on, where the ground gives way to sudden cliffs and crashing waves far below, a city lit up in the distance.

Blake says, arms crossed, "Romantic. But I have a feeling you didn't bring me here for the view."

“Perceptive.” Bane pauses, breathes in. It is hard to do sometimes–but only sometimes. “I need you to tell me about Bruce Wayne.”

“Yeah.” Blake closes his eyes, tight. “Yeah, I thought so.”

“I only require the answers to a few questions.” Bane almost moves closer to him, but stops himself. Blake will, undoubtedly, see it as a threat, and he has no time for the arguments that will ensue. “How you came to discover his secret and what other secrets you know. Why were you the one chosen to take his place?”

"It's not that simple,” Blake says, his entire frame growing tense. He is staring off into the distance, but Bane has to wonder if he sees anything at all.

“I never expected it to be simple,” he replies. "If it were I would not have to ask you to explain."

Blake laughs at that, humorlessly.

“I don’t know,” he admits, turning his gaze to the sky. “Maybe he picked me because I figured it out. I just always thought it was so obvious, but at the same time I thought that I could see it because I could relate to him which was, when I think about it now, pretty stupid of me.”

"The similarities are there," Bane says. "You were both orphans, you were both angry. You both thought to channel that loss, that rage into something more."

"I guess." Blake's eyebrows furrow, something he does when he is thinking hard. "I mean, that's what I thought, too. But then I met him and he's like...he wouldn't do this. He would've found a way out of this situation by now. He'd have some stupid plan, probably, and little things to throw that would explode. You wouldn't have gotten to him in the first place, and even then, it wouldn't have been as easy as it was for you to get me."

"He has already faced me before," Bane reminds him. "An adversary, once met and conquered is always easier to defeat a second time."

"Well, that's the thing, isn't it?" Blake looks at him for just a few seconds before he looks back ahead. "He beat you."

There's an explosion across the water, the Sapphire going up in flames. Neither one of them flinch.

"I broke him," Bane remarks, calmly. "But he came back. It was not supposed to be possible, but he accomplished it all the same. It is not fair to compare yourself to him. He left behind a legacy, but I do not think he meant for you to stand in his shadow."

A few more explosions in tandem and those will be, Bane thinks, fingers tapping against his thigh, the İş Bankası Towers.

"So, as a guy who wanted to kill my predecessor," Blake says, voice more controlled than it should be as they watch the lights in the city flicker and dim, "and a guy who wouldn't hesitate to kill me if you really thought it was necessary, you're basically advocating that I look within and find myself."

"I am saying to look past your love for this man whom you hold so high above yourself, and realize that you are capable of being his equal, if not something more." Bane holds his words like they are weights and he is sinking into the ocean.

"I never thought Bruce Wayne was better than me–"

"Not Bruce Wayne," Bane interrupts, looking to Blake, surprised that he misunderstood. "Batman."

The next explosions can just barely be heard, but he knows it's the bridge falling into the Bosphorus strait. There are screams now, wailing sirens and alarms, all of the noise just barely reaching them, and almost all of it covered up by the waves hitting the side of the cliff.

Blake watches the destruction with a closed off expression, his face a blank slate.

After a long minute he says, "It kind of sucks that it's that obvious, then." They can hear gunfire. "I mean, I figured he knew, I figured he realized it. I didn't want Batman to be Bruce Wayne, you know? I never got to know him that well, and I could tell there was more to him, but you get this whole idea of a person–"

A burst of explosions, sounding something like fireworks, the destruction of monuments built in memory of attacks like these.

"–and it gets burned into your mind. So, Bruce Wayne was who I saw on page six of the newspaper, good looking, well meaning, but ignorant. And Batman was who I wanted to be, who I wanted, and who I talked to. A completely different person."

There are flames rising up the sides of buildings in the city, and Bane knows there are no more explosions coming, but also knows that the worst is yet to come. Panic, murder, looting–things have only just begun.

"You asked how I figured it out," Blake says, tilting his head back. "That's how. He visited the boy's home I grew up in, and I just knew. I saw myself in him, and I saw who I wanted to be. It's hard to miss that."

"And yet you still seem hesitant to take up his mantle," Bane points out, eyes idly searching the line of the city across from them until–ah, yes, there it is, just on time, a lone flare let up into the air as the sirens get louder.

"It's not that I don't want to," Blake sighs, frustrated. "It's what I'd be doing right now if I wasn't forced to be here, you know. But, yeah, I feel like there's a certain amount of legacy involved, like you said. Calling myself what he did feels like a mistake, because I'm not him."

"Choose a new name, then," Bane says, turning away from the cliff and trusting Blake to follow him.

Behind him he thinks he hears Blake say, "Maybe I will."

(He wonders if Blake will hate him for planting this idea in his mind, but decides it is worth it. He remembers Talia as a headstrong girl, finding dying flowers in the mountains when they were training, and doing everything in her power to make them bloom again. Now it is his turn.)

.

John's shoved into the back of the van that's waiting for them when they get back to the caves.

He thinks about complaining, saying they can't just uproot after one night, they can't leave their things behind, but then he realizes he's crushed between duffel bags and armed men and he can hear things sliding around in the back, and he thinks better of it.

He just hopes someone grabbed his bag, because he might have accepted the foreign countries and not understanding anyone but the vaguely psychopathic mercenary at the helm of this whole thing, but it'll be a cold day in hell before he goes without a fresh pair of boxer briefs.

It's a stupid thing to be thinking about, but he's just watched one of the world's largest cities fall to its knees, and he can barely process that.

The whole thing hits John now, a cold rush down his spine. Before, standing at the cliff it seemed like a movie, something make-believe, a dream. But, no. Bane bombed Istanbul. Destroyed Istanbul. Ruined lives. And he's sitting calmly in the passenger's seat of the van, not breaking a sweat.

He'd almost convinced himself that something like this wouldn't happen, that Bane meant it when he said coming here from wherever they were in Africa (he still doesn't know, exactly) was a move that would be made only to benefit his followers and not to terrorize the population.

John wonders how many people died. How many people are lying under broken buildings in more pain than they can bear. How many children are alone, now, parents gone and never coming back.

He feels like he's going to be sick, tastes bile rising in his throat, but holds it down.

Holds it all down–the disgust, the self-loathing, the vitriol–and lets the anger build, piece upon piece, with hatred holding it all together.

His stomach churns at the very idea that he's been at Bane's beck and call for nearly two months now, that he didn't try to stop this in any way, that he, by default, let this happen. He doesn't blame himself fully, that would be irrational, but he does feel a weight settle on his shoulders as the man in the driver's seat turns the keys in the ignition and they start to move forward.

Cold all over, he reminds himself that acting rashly won't do anyone any good. Bane threatened the lives of a large part of the small group he can claim to be close to, and most of that group is children. If it were anyone else John would call a bluff, but there's no evidence that Bane's violence is anything but nondiscriminatory as long as it serves him well.

So, alright.

Alright, he'll play by Bane's rules, for now. There really isn't a choice. He doesn't know that Bane has a gun to the back of anyone's head, but it's not worth the risk. And, yes, he can admit that he doesn't want to lose his own life in the process–he isn't going to be anyone's sacrificial lamb, anyone's martyr.

If Bane wants to take him through every country in the world but his own and cause each one to implode by turn, there isn't much he can do, not yet.

But he remembers what Bruce Wayne said, words seared into flesh, he has to become a symbol.

And a symbol can't die in the middle of nowhere, begging for one more chance.

The van lurches to the side and he knocks into the man next to him, smiles at him instinctively, an apology, and gets a weak smile in return.

It occurs to him, then, that Bane will never and can never do what he just did, and that knowledge burns in him, a light that flickers but doesn't go out.

Earlier, Bane had looked at him like he was someone worth looking at.

John grips the back of the seat in front of him and doesn't let go.

.

There are seven thousand seven hundred and fifty two kilometers between Istanbul and their current destination.

Bane counts every one.

It is, by no means, the longest journey he has ever made, and it is, most definitely, not the loneliest. There are five of them in the van at any given time, it is sweltering outside and even worse inside. The men talk among themselves, Blake stays quiet and stares out the window.

They take back roads and find themselves driving across long stretches of uninterrupted nothingness, the coast of the Black Sea only just visible from the left side of the van. During the night they stop sporadically, change plates and fill the tank from the canisters of siphoned gas, drivers switching in shifts so they are never not moving.

For his part, Bane does not say much. There is nothing to say. He thinks that this may very well be his crowning achievement, a city in ashes behind him, but all of it means nothing if he doesn't get the results he seeks. He is on edge, or as close to it as he can be. It feels like the beginning days of Gotham all over again, but he is less sure–more tired.

He cannot remember the last time he slept, but he can remember the last time Blake did, and that worries him, loathe though he is to admit it even to himself.

On the third morning Bane orders the man driving to stop outside of a town so that they can stock up on necessities and gets called paranoid. He snaps the man's chin up and to the side and pushes the body out of the van. He tells the other two men to go together to get things, tells them a similar fate awaits them if they are not back within the hour.

"You do not wish to bury this man?" he asks, eyes on the rear-view mirror.

Blake says nothing, leaned unknowingly against bags full of ammunition, looking like he's somewhere else completely.

Another full day passes, and they switch vans before passing into Afghanistan. Bane hears, but does not see, Blake thank the man who passes the new van on to them, listens to the halting, "You are welcome," he gets in return. He has no problem with Blake simply talking to the men, but the idea of him getting close to any one of them again makes his skin crawl (with what he is not sure).

At dawn he and Blake stand at the back of the van while the men go about filling the tank and changing plates.

He says, "My men call you kalb, have you noticed this yet?"

Blake shrugs and does not look at him.

"It means dog," Bane says, gauging Blake's reaction.

There's not much of one, just the tightening of his jaw, his lips pressing together and his eyes staying on the ground. He does not move from his spot until they are ready to go, and then he moves stiffly, like he has forgotten how. Bane sees in his eyes an anger that he has not seen since the interrogation room in Libya.

It is almost comforting, but he's not really sure if that that is the word to use.

They drive for hours, for days, for nearly a whole week.

In Nepal Bane watches as Blake helps the men in the early hours of the morning. Stars disappearing as the sun rises, he thinks how he fools these men into thinking they know him and (can ever) understand him. Blake, meanwhile, makes himself available to them as someone who is removed–a man who has no cause to assist them, yet assists them all the same.

His actions are curious, but no longer foreign. Rather than ridicule, Bane observes, and nothing more.

That night they cross the final border, and Bane allows his eyes to close just for a moment.

Bhutan is, all at once: breath-taking, a feast for one's eyes and soul, as beautiful as the woman he once loved, and–mountains in the distance, reaching up into the sky, and no pits in the ground to be seen–home.

.

A woman in Florence fits herself into a black catsuit, and a man paints black around his eyes in the other room.

.

A Pastor locks the door to a boy's home in downtown Gotham, completely unaware of the sniper rifle trained on him from an apartment window across the street.

.

A retired butler tries, and fails, to sleep on his early flight back home.

.

And a grave sits beneath the open sky near Istaunbul, waiting to be discovered.

.

Climbing a mountain is no small act, and John never thought it was, but he never thought it was this taxing, either. When they'd started off he'd kept pace with Bane, always staying a few steps behind on purpose. He'd had the mind to notice the flowers, blue and like none he'd ever seen before, growing at the base. He'd had some distant idea of a meal, a bed to sleep in.

Now he's focused on nothing but reaching a place where he can stop, simple as that. He aches all over, more than he ever did during training exercises for the force, and those were triathlons in and of themselves, lifting one hundred and thirty pound bags over his head–this blows that out of the water. The knee he messed up in training a few years back is flaring up. Worst of all he's accepting Bane's extended hand from time to time, because he needs the help and Bane is the only one there to offer it to him.

If Bane is tired out, he hides it well. John thinks he might be breathing harder than normal and more often, too, but that might just be his own breathing, it's not as easy to tell the difference any more.

All he knows is he's alternating between freezing and burning up, like the beginning of some sickness, and there's no way Bane doesn't feel it just the same.

They've both got several layers on, John swathed in clothing offered to him by one of the men they left behind with the van, and Bane in a long sheepskin coat that looks eerily similar to the one John remembers seeing on footage on the news, Bane with a destroyed football stadium as his stage and an audience full of hostages.

(He barely saw Bane while everything was going on, never had the time, only really saw him in the aftermath, the archived footage and then his transfer to Blackgate, orange jumpsuit, hands and feet shackled, still imposing, but not a threat.)

Every once and a while they stop, John panting for breath and sitting, boneless. Sweat pours down the sides of his face, pools at the small of his back, and his hands shake with cold–no one thought to give him gloves.

He wonders if Bane can see it, and knows that's a stupid thing to wonder, because of course he can see the anger, feel the hate. He has to reign it in, because if this is going to work, if any of this is going to work, he has to come across as having give in. Bane has to believe that he's resigned himself to this, that even if Bruce Wayne comes out of hiding to save him he won't do anything to interfere with Bane's plans to turn that meeting into a bloodbath.

It's hard, though, damn hard. John doesn't hate easy. Contempt, bitterness, disdain–he does all those well enough, dishing out blame as he sees fit. But hate is different to him, is bullets being fired at his feet, is having to tell children to get back on a bus going nowhere, is the person who caused all of that and holds the love he has in his heart for those kids over his head as a threat.

He hates Bane.

He just wishes he didn't have to remind himself of that when the time comes for them to get moving again and Bane's hand is on his upper arm, because he barely has the strength to stand up on his own.

.

When they reach the home of the League of Shadows Bane feels something warm in him.

Rebuilt after the death of Ra's al Ghul, the structure stands tall, if more modest, than it used to. Minus the gilded accents and frivolous additions, the architecture is rounded and solid, an impenetrable fortress rather than a palace. It is Talia's design–she had much in common with her father, more than she ever would have freely admitted, but not the idea of what the stronghold for a hidden society should look like.

All that matters to Bane is that when he reaches the doors he is greeted with a welcoming atmosphere and a hot meal, having forgotten how cold it is when one reaches the peak.

Blake, next to him, closer probably than he wants to be, is undoubtedly thinking the same thing, hands clasped together as he shivers violently.

At first glance the building, once entered, seems to be empty, but Bane knows better, can see the men hiding in the rafters, can hear them breathing in and out. Such carelessness, he tells them once they have revealed themselves to him, will not be tolerated any longer. They all answer him in different languages–he hears Mandarin, Japanese, Arabic, Korean, Russian, and more–but it all melds into one voice, a voice of agreement.

Yes, they tell him, and they will tell him nothing else for as long as they wish to serve in the League.

Blake stands in the entryway, still shaking with cold, and Bane goes to him without much thought.

"Trust your extremities to take care of themselves," he tells him, remembering something similar being said to himself, years ago. "Worry about the parts of your body that will not, such as your chest."

He gets no thanks, but Blake does as he says, and proceeds to follow him as he walks away.

Not much has changed since Bane was here last, there are still men training in every other room, an open area of cages, a few of them occupied, and the rising steam of coal fires underneath everything. It is not long before Bane needs to shed his own coat like a snake its skin.

The men here greet him openly and address him as their leader, with bows and respectful words.

This means only one thing: they know of Talia's demise, and have been waiting for him to return ever since.

He expected as much, and is grateful for the power, though it manifests as a hollow feeling in the very bottom of his stomach, the way something gained only by a great loss always feels.

The kitchens are in the very back of the building, awash with smells and spices, a cacophony of sounds. Used to such a situation Bane puts together his meal without much thought, but has to invite Blake to do the same, and assist him as his hands are still numb.

They eat in silence, Bane counting the loyalty of the men here as reward enough for their demanding journey. He thinks not of the consequences of his actions (Istanbul in dust, Libya infiltrated, and Gotham a failed conquest), but of the things learned from them all, the mistakes he will not make again.

There are rooms high above where the rest of the men sleep, and he claims one as his own and gives Blake one not far away, doubting that Blake–still cold, still exhausted–understands the significance of such an action.

The night is cold, but the coals burn hot, and Bane knows there is nothing left to plan.

Only things to wait for.

.

John wakes up and doesn't move, keeps his eyes closed.

He knows the second he goes to get up he'll feel sore from head to toes and, well-rested as he is, he has to wake up a bit before he's ready to deal with that. So, for the moment, he just lays there, head pillowed on his arm, willfully blocking out the rest of the world.

He barely remembers last night, just the vague idea of getting here, wherever here is, the unbelievable bliss of food on his tongue and the relief he still feels, even now, of having a real bed to sleep in for the first time in what feels like ages. The accommodations aren't the best, the situation is tilted heavily out of his favor, but for now he'll settle for this, a mattress to sleep on and feeling in his hands.

Turning to lay on his back he grimaces, there's a muscle in his back that hurts worse than all the others, a searing sort of pain. He wishes he would have paid more attention to what position he fell asleep in last night, but it doesn't seem like he paid attention to anything. He's still fully dressed, only his shoes are on the ground, even the wool jacket he wore as a top layer is only halfway off.

The ceiling is warm wood, and that makes him feel at home for reasons he can't explain. Maybe the house he lived at when his mother was still alive looked that way, he's never been able to bring the place to mind.

Slowly, he sits up, gritting his teeth the whole way. That muscle in his back is still killing him, and his knee throbs with pain every few minutes, but the worst of it is over, he reminds himself. He's relieved his fingers aren't purple anymore, just slightly stiff and shaking.

Getting off the bed isn't so hard. Putting weight on his left leg is what nearly does him in, and he does it sparingly, knowing he's going to have to do something about that (a brace, if he can find the materials) so he doesn't lose the strength in it completely.

What he's really happy for is the bathroom off his room, a tiny thing with a leaking shower, but his own shower, finally. There's more warm water than he expected, and that causes him to think about what time it is, what time they got here and how long he slept. He's changed time zones so many times in the last week he doesn't even bother to wager a guess.

He almost wishes there wasn't a mirror in the bathroom, but he wipes the steam off anyway and looks. He's looked better.

His hair's grown out of the carefully maintained fade he's kept it in for years now, there are red rings around his eyes from exhaustion, and a bruise yellowing on his collarbone. He's lost weight, not too much, but enough that it's noticeable, that he'll have to work to regain it.

But he's alive, he's able to look at himself in the mirror. If he stands tall and keeps his eyes looking alert, he doesn't look so bad.

(He's looked better, but he's also looked worse.)

There are no new clothes set out, no mint on his pillow when he leaves the bathroom, so he officially rules out this being some sort of secluded hotel resort, a notion that makes him laugh a little to himself, not without some bitterness.

He picks and chooses from the layers he has with him, the t-shirt he's had since this all began and a pair of cotton pants. It feels like pajamas, but he can't even bear the thought of wearing anything more constricting. It's already painful enough just to stand up and exacerbating the situation doesn't seem like a good idea by any means.

Dressed, he comes to the realization that he has no idea what to do with himself. For weeks now he's been with Bane, worked with Bane, waited for Bane to call him over, sat in a van that only stopped when Bane said it did. Now there's no Bane in sight, and while that hardly upsets him, it still leaves him feeling more than a little directionless.

He finds the door unlocked and opens it to an empty hallway.

It occurs to him that he could plan some great escape now. He's fairly sure none of the men here would stop him if he was careful. Here it would only be a matter of avoiding Bane...and making it back down the mountain. There's a sharp burst of pain in his knee and he has to hold onto the doorjamb, breathing through clenched teeth, and there goes that idea. Better to lay in wait, regain his strength.

It's slow going down the hallway, and from there it's stairs. He isn't even sure how he made it up them last night, and his face burns at the idea that he might have needed Bane to help him up them. The mountain was one thing, it was a goddamn mountain, but a flight of stairs is another, and the feeling of embarrassment, misplaced as it might be, doesn't leave him until he's made his way all the way down.

From there he finds the kitchens easily, passing no one on the way. The entire place is eerily silent. He finds food made, but nothing resembling a microwave, only worn stoves and steaming, burnt out coal. The whole thing is very utilitarian, but, regardless, is more than he's had in months.

He stays there, eating, with no desire to leave, leaned against the counters. He needs those few minutes of silence, of relative peace. A break from constantly moving, a break from watching people's necks getting broken, a break from explosions and the fallout that inevitably comes after.

It's not a very long break.

Two of the men find him, and he thinks they might be speaking Mandarin, which is just great, a whole new language to not understand.

He can tell they want him to follow them, though.

He wipes his hands and does just that, thinking the whole way about how it will feel when he brings this entire place down around them, Bane at his feet, asking for his mercy.

.

Bane holds a flower in his hand–and throws it to the side. He has no patience for illusions and deception.

Blake is brought to him looking sated and awake to a degree which he has not for some time now. He does not blink when he sees Bane standing shirtless and facing him, it is not as if it is a thing he has not seen before. Bane motions for the two men to leave them and they do without a word.

"You slept well?" he asks, and it is no longer a surprise, that he cares about the answer.

"Yeah," Blake says, voice cracking just a bit. "I mean, it's not the Hilton but it'll do."

"You seem to be favoring one leg," Bane nods towards him. "I did not notice you injure yourself on our way here, is it an old wound?"

"Uh." Blake swallows, looks him in the eye for a split second, then back down. "I mean, sort of. I messed up my knee bad a few years back when I was training for the force. Had to wear a brace for a few months, it was fine until now, so I figure I'll just do what I can for it."

"Do you think I am unable to provide any sort of medical supplies?" Bane asks, more than a little offended.

"Well," Blake shrugs, looking mildly apologetic, "sort of? You've never offered any to anyone that I've seen. Maybe you have some, but in case you forgot this all started with you more than happy to maim me within, like, an inch of my life, so excuse me if I wasn't aware you ran a free clinic on the side."

Bane doesn't appreciates the tone, but he finds himself less angry and more upset that Blake still does not seem to realize that he is now counted apart from the other men around them in every way possible. He had thought that when he awoke in a room all his own he would have realized it, but it seems he has not.

It's worryingly hard not to tell him this, not to say You are different, and mean it.

Instead he says, "I will provide what I can, provided that you do what I ask of you. A simple request, I think."

"Sure." Blake pauses, eyes narrowing just slightly. "As long as I agree with the request."

"You will train under me." Bane has long thought that the simplest and most ambiguous of terms serve him best in situations such as these. "This training will be far more rigorous than it is for most, as we have a short time in which to do it."

"Expecting company soon?" Blake asks, and he seems to at least regret it, slightly, a moment later, but Bane merely laughs at the words.

"We are planning on an older member paying us a visit," he answers, almost cheerfully. "There is much to catch up on."

"I guess I just don't get the part where you training me benefits you in any way." Blake sounds just barely nervous, but Bane can recognize a mask of any kind.

"I would hardly like to see Bruce Wayne's reaction if he believes I have treated you poorly during your stay."

That gets a "Tch," and a barely there smirk.

"And, beyond that, I will have you know I have not lied to you," Bane continues, watching Blake's eyebrows furrow at his words. "The potential I see in you has only grown over time. It is Batman who I oppose, who's ideology I cannot let live, and you are not him, nor do you hold the same beliefs as he does."

"I–yeah, maybe," Blake says, leaning his head to the side and running a hand over his hair. "I've been thinking and you might be right. I was even thinking about names, something to do with the night, you know. Just an idea."

"As good a start as any," Bane commends him, and he means it.

He watches Blake, the way he moves, the way he holds himself, and there is something in him that admires it and, more than that, covets it.

(He holds Talia in his heart, no love lost for her, but she would not have wanted him to dwell on her forever, he is only sad he did not get her ashes so that he could have scattered them and thought of her every time the wind touches him, in gusts, in breezes, in storms that come and pass.)

Blake stands here, a broken but fixable man, one he will never deserve and Bane thinks that he will take what he can get, and then more.

.

John is thankful, early on, for all the times he walked over frozen water on stupid dares as a teenager, a skill that proves oddly invaluable in what he guesses is the typical training for the League of Shadows.

He'd accidentally snorted when he heard the name for the first time and immediately regretted it, Bane dressed in black and looking like death personified, eyes cold. He gets it, this is Bane's life, he can understand that at least, but, seriously, the League of Shadows? It sounds like something out of the sci fi novels he used to read in high school.

It doesn't take long for him to realize that there's a reason no one laughs at their name.

Surrounded by thirty men who can disappear into the woodwork at will with no such skills to claim as his own, he see why Bane calls the darkness his ally and speaks of it like an old friend. These men know darkness intimately, know how to use it to hide and distort in a way that's near supernatural.

He's more than a little intimidated, and he fails more times than he cares to remember in the beginning, receiving quick bruising hits to his bicep, his thigh, the jut of his hipbone and, once, on the side of his neck.

That one's from Bane, who can hide in the shadows like a man his size shouldn't be able to. He has dreams afterwards (not nightmares) of it, Bane at his back with one hand curled around his neck, telling him how easy it would be to break it, to choke the life out of him. John hates himself for finding it comforting that he did neither of those things, only applied pressure that hurt more than it should have and left him with the vague, dark marks of fingers around his neck for a week, a reminder of his defeat.

Bane talks about the flowers, tells him about their properties, the effect they can have on people, and John remembers it from when he worked with the narcotics division for a year, a job he was patently awful at–remembers how his partner had called it a Scarecrow incident whenever they found someone hallucinating so violently they'd actually been driven insane by fear.

"A fool," Bane spits, when John mentions this. "But not an entirely stupid one. It is important to know what you might see if you ever are in a situation where you are exposed to the hallucinogen the flower emits. To know your own fear is to know how to control it."

John thinks of what he's scared of: blood everywhere, failure, the very idea of disappointing those he places above himself, being alone always, and darkness, the night (a childish fear, but not, he thinks, an entirely unwarranted one).

He doesn't tell Bane any of this, and Bane doesn't seem to expect him to. He does wonder, for just a moment, what Bane would see, what he fears above all else, but it's a useless train of thought, something he will never know unless he asks, and even then he doubts that he would get an answer.

He thinks Bane would be wise to fear long stretches of ice, more so than he seems to, anyway. John isn't sure how he even steps on the surface of the huge lake that sits just below the building at the peak of the mountain without it splintering and cracking. He honestly doesn't have the time to think about it, it's not like they take trips out there for leisurely strolls.

"The last man to lead the League made many mistakes," Bane tells him, "but he also understood many things. One wrong step, the loss of a good stance, and you will lose before you even have the chance to entertain the thought of victory."

"Yeah, but I probably won't be fighting on ice too often," John points out, suppressing a shiver. He's still not used to the weather up here.

"Ah, but if you can stand here without falling, then you can stand anywhere. It is an invaluable strength to possess."

Bane motions for him to move forward and, hands up, John breathes in and out and makes his first move.

A half an hour later and he's wrapped in wool blankets and sitting in front of a fire and he's still not warm.

"These skills come naturally to no one," Bane is saying, and John wishes Bane believed in a little something called silence, he wants to tune him out, but it would be a stupid thing to do, and he knows it. "You must fall in so that you understand the importance of it never happening again."

"Right," John mutters, leaning towards the fire. Any closer and his face will melt off. "And you expect me to believe that you fell in at some point, huh?"

It's an odd thing, he thinks, finding out that, while he'll never actually see Bane smile, he can still recognize the look in his eyes that says he would be if he could.

.

When Bane asks, "Do you believe in retribution?" he expects a guarded answer.

What he gets instead is, "No. Yes," in tandem with two punches thrown, Blake more sure on his feet than he has been the past two weeks combined. A marked improvement over the first few times they fought.

"Explain," Bane orders, blocking the attacks, but not as easily as he would have liked to.

"I think you're asking in terms of life or death," Blake says, and he moves almost gracefully now. Bane appreciates a fast learner, though Blake's strident learning would almost be suspect if anyone but himself had been the one teaching him. "And I just–no, I guess, I won't be killing anyone in some misguided attempt to exact revenge. I want to help, and I don't think that helps anyone."

"Given the chance, then–" Bane closes his hand around Blake's fist, absorbing his attack, and twists his arm around, the other man swearing under his breath "–you would not kill me?"

Blake does not answer him directly at first, just makes his way out of the hold and manages to get around him, and Bane feels a kick connect to one of his few vulnerable spots, the crooked scar that runs along his spine, a good use of learned knowledge, keeping mindful of his surroundings.

"No," Blake says, breathing hard, hands still up as Bane turns to face him. "I'm not sure I'd stop someone else from doing it, but there's nothing to be gained from me taking someone's life."

"How, then, do you wish to strike fear into the hearts if your enemies?" Bane asks, stepping forward. As always Blake steps back, but it's deliberate now, a distribution of weight, elbow brought back at the same time, an animal in repose, waiting for its chance to pounce.

"By finding them every time," Blake responds, easily, and he strikes before Bane can move again, and it hurts more than it should, a blow to the shoulder, between the joints there. A well-executed move. "I don't want to be so heavy handed, I don't want to scare them outright. I'd rather give them hope when I can and then destroy it when they don't deserve it."

It is a more perfect answer than Bane could have ever asked for, and he feels the next few blows to his chest, the hard kick to the back of his knee, as if sedated, through a haze of contentment, an emotion he is not quite sure he understood until just now.

Pushing his hair out of his face, Blake says, "Are you okay?"

Harsh words (sick, wrong, monster) have never hurt him as much as he has been told they should. But, likewise, kind words (are you okay) stay with him long after they are said, like the touch of skin on skin, something done to him so rarely that he cannot help but feel it for days afterwards, a memory embedded and not easily removed.

Bane is not entirely used to wanting what he cannot have. It is not a matter of always getting what he wants, but rather a life borne of not needing much of anything that he is not equipped to obtain himself by force. He is used to wanting abstract things–power, strength and control, chaos and destruction–but a person is quite another thing, and certainly it is something he refuses to take unless it is offered to him.

He never had Talia, and though he loved her he never wanted, not like this. It was enough that she was protected and that he was her protector, even if she had grown past that need as the years went on.

Now he is at a precipice, an abyss stretched out before him. All that he knows how to do is offer pieces of himself, and hope that the gesture is noticed.

.

These days John watches sunsets with a certain amount of healthy fear.

Like the understanding that Bane could, if he had wanted to, have held him under water when he fell through the ice, rather than helped him back to the surface, he knows that he's far more susceptible to ambush when the sun goes down, living, as he is, among men who are the very definition of nocturnal.

He hasn't been attacked yet, but he feels like he's waiting for it. Before all of this, in Gotham, it had been maybe. Here, now, it's nearly a sure thing, just a matter of time.

John doesn't fear open water, but he thinks he might fear drowning, now. Can bring to mind feeling cold all over, an impenetrable wall of ice above him, feeling almost at peace, nearly letting go before he was pulled back up. It would have been far too easy to die that way, and he doesn't like to dwell on that, but it's one of those things that stays with him and refuses to leave. He has far too many things like that.

One evening when they're making they're way back up the mountain he stops and says, "Night."

Bane looks at him and says nothing. He's more perceptive than John likes to give him credit for, he knows there's more to be said.

"That's what I'm scared of the most, probably," he shrugs. "It's stupid, something I should've gotten over, but never did. It's not like I ever needed to sleep with a light on, or anything like that. I just always knew, more than most people around me, that there were things that hid in the dark that were real, because I'd already been hurt by them before."

"Now it is only a matter of reclaiming it. Take your understanding of the fear darkness can invoke and use it against those who would have used it for their own unnecessary evils." Bane's words make more sense than they ought to, really, but he still can't agree with them, not fundamentally.

John almost shakes his head and says no, but he does the opposite, lets Bane think he agrees with the idea and may put such a thing into practice.

But he could never, will never. It makes no sense to him, and he thinks that is one thing Bane has always been right about, that his way of thinking is not the same as Bruce Wayne's, not in this respect. Using darkness against others seems like a cruel and stupid thing, akin to a kid with a magnifying glass leaning over an anthill, just someone who's afraid of being burned themselves.

For John it only follows that while he will certainly use the black of night as a tool, he will have much more luck using light to blind those who have become accustomed to living in the dark.

He greets sunrises like an old friend, his true ally–counts the sight as proof that another day is coming, always, and as long as he has that he doesn't want for much.

Sometimes, though, he finds the days colder than the nights, wandering silent halls and entering deserted rooms, training by himself, taking more breaks than he's usually allowed. He has regained some of the weight he lost, and lost some of the tired expressions he had gained. He is muscle through and through, he is doing better than he'd expected himself to do, he is taking things one day at a time, he is–

Lonely: bitterly, agonizingly lonely.

Over the years he's grown used to being in the midst of more people than he likes. At the boy's home he never had his own room, at work he never had his own office, and up until recently he'd been with Bane's men day and night, with no choice in the matter. He misses it, the sounds all around him at night that would've once lulled him to sleep–now he lies awake for hours, the silence hanging around him, unbearable.

He thinks of Khadim, he wishes for a friend, but he knows it will be a cold day in hell before he finds anyone here that he could ever call such a thing.

(He pretends not to notice the way Bane watches him these days, intently and openly. Pretends that he does not feel Bane's eyes on him always, always, in a different way than they used to be. Pretends that he isn't aware of the fact that his hate for Bane is now despite some things rather than in spite of others. Pretends, pretends, pretends–but it only gets him so far.)

.

The thought comes to Bane that if he could rid the world of shadows, of darkness, he would.

With Blake at his side it even feels possible.

.

Istanbul is still smoldering, a fire waiting to start up again.

A man and a woman walk through a field twenty miles outside of the city.

"It's not like you could have known," she says, trailing after him not because she's slower but because she moves at a much less urgent pace than he always does. "I mean, it's only through sheer dumb luck that we were able to find this place at all."

"I'm not so sure it was luck," he replies, voice in that ridiculous growl of his. She has to hold in a sigh, but it's worth it. If there's one thing she's learned it's that he's a lot more easy to work with if you don't patronize him. It'll inevitably happen anyway, because he's an idiot, but it's better to keep him happy for the time being.

When they find the caves she remarks that Turkey is just full of surprises, and, "Don't you feel just at home?"

He doesn't say anything, he's too busy digging up what looks to be a grave. Okay, now she lets herself roll her eyes. Of course. Can't be in a country for more than fifteen minutes before he's defiling sacred ground. What a guy.

"Do you want to maybe explain why you're doing that?" she asks. "Or should I go back and wait in the car?"

He turns to her, holding up a cell phone he just unearthed. "Like I said, I don't think we were led here by luck."

At this point, she's inclined to agree.

The phone's been entirely wiped clean, except for one text from an unknown number.

"Coordinates," he says, "and I think I recognize them."

"I really hope they're in Tokyo," she sighs, "but knowing you and your kind, I'm not holding my breath."

He smiles, but doesn't look apologetic at all. And, honestly? She doesn't really mind.

.

Bane leaves by a strange marriage of necessity and choice. He had always found the mountain climate less than agreeable, and there is a village near the base that must be made an example of, a task he would usually leave to men less busy than he, but this time, he thinks, warrants an exception.

Thin air makes it hard to breathe, as do unwanted thoughts, the need to make someone do willingly what you refuse to ask of them.

.

It takes two days for John to notice that Bane isn't around, which is probably two days too many. But in all the time he's spent here, he's never had to go to Bane, he's always just been there.

Without him around it's quiet. John quickly realizes how much they talk, and how much he depends on that social interaction to keep his mind from going to places he'd rather it wouldn't. Without Bane around he thinks about everything from whether he's considered a missing person to the chicken alfredo leftovers he had in the fridge and never got a chance to eat. He thinks about how he isn't even sure what the date is. By now he's surely missed the fourth of July, fireworks over the water.

He isn't too sad about that.

But his birthday, his birthday might have come and gone by now, there's no way of really knowing. Maybe his apartment's already been rented out. Does anyone else in his division remember to put out the food for the cats who hang out in the alley?

And he worries about his books, worries equally about the few first editions he's managed to collect and the dime a dozen detective novels.

All the things he deliberately hasn't thought about for two months now come to him in a rush. Usually he spends his days fighting and eating and trying to get a handle, however tenuous, on his situation, all of which wears him out so thoroughly that he never has trouble falling asleep.

Now he lays in bed, staring at that warm, wooden ceiling, imagining his things being categorized and locked up in evidence. Nothing will have been given away yet, not in a case concerning a former detective, but they won't have found anything leading anywhere. It's almost assuredly considered a dead case even if the investigation is on-going, because he doubts Bane left any trace behind, the man is theatrical but not to the point of stupidity.

(Baptista, he decides, probably remembers to feed the cats. He's pretty sure Baptista liked the cats.)

Walking around the building by himself he feels like he did every time he changed foster families. By all accounts he's living here, but it certainly doesn't feel like home.

He gets blank stares when he asks some of the men he finds sparring in one of the rooms if they know where Bane's gone, or when he'll be back. The oldest among them barks out something in Korean and John doesn't know what to say in response, so he just leaves, feeling their eyes on his back. He wonders, sometimes, what they think of him, and remembers what Bane told him once.

Well, John has seen dogs turn on owners, teeth bared and eyes wild, so let the comparison be made, if only so everyone can realize just how grave the mistake of underestimating him is.

He climbs the stairs that lead to where his room is and stops at the top of them. His knee hurts marginally less these days, the pain only flaring up after getting his ass kicked on ice, but he wears the brace that was provided to him and it helps more than he'd like to admit something given to him by Bane could. He looks over his shoulder to make sure there's no one behind him on the stairs, and sees that he's alone. He's not even sure why he feels the need to check, he's never seen anyone else come up here, but he knows that, although he hasn't been told not to do what he's about to, there's a sort of unspoken rule about it.

It's not such a hard thing to figure out, that Bane would hardly like him going into his room, but John does it anyway.

The door is locked, of course, but locked doors haven't been much more than an annoyance to him for a few years now, not when he has time and tools to work with, and he does–things he's picked up when no one's looking at him, and no one looks at him very often.

He picks the lock with ease and stands, pulling the door open.

That is how Bane finds him.

.

Bane thinks that he should be disappointed, but that would require some amount of surprise at Blake's actions and a lot less reluctant admittance that he knows what he is doing when it comes to getting into a locked room.

"You could have simply knocked," he says, keeping his eyes on the papers he has spread on the desk next to his bed.

"Uh," is all Blake can come up with for a moment. Then, "I thought you were gone. I figured you'd be back, but now I'm not so sure you even left in the first place."

"I have other things to attend to besides yourself," Bane replies. He glances at Blake in time to see him frown. "I returned early this morning. There were things I had to take care of elsewhere. It is, however, pleasing to know that if I do take a more permanent leave there will be someone who notices."

Blake turns an interesting shade of pink at that and looks torn between embarrassment and disgust. Not his best look, all things considered.

"I wasn't going to do anything, if that's what you're thinking. I just wanted to see..." he trails off, eyes searching the room.

"Ah, you are discovering how little there is to see." Bane laughs quietly, and Blake does not even seem to take notice of the sound. "Were you expecting me to have painted my walls with the blood of my enemies? The floor to be littered with bones? Something else entirely?"

"No." Blake shrugs, though he is still looking around with some amount of interest. "I didn't expect anything, really. It's like with Batman, people used to talk about how he slept like they do, the bats, but I always knew that was bullshit. It's the same thing with you, even though I don't think you sleep often."

One part of Bane is curious as to how Blake knows his sleeping habits, but there are more pressing things to question.

"You would compare me to him?" he asks, and he is long passed the point of feigning nonchalance. The answer to this matters to him, and he does not care if Blake knows it.

"Well, yeah." Blake is leaned against the doorway, a silent refusal to actually step into the room. "Opposite sides of the spectrum, but you guys are still on the same spectrum. I always thought that much was obvious. You made yourself a hero to the people, when you really weren't, and he made himself the villain, when he really wasn't."

"I never claimed any such thing as to be a hero," Bane says, but Blake makes a face at that.

"Sure, okay, semantics, but you know what I mean." He leans forward slightly and looks to the floor as he continues to speak. "And the masks, too. You both use the effect they have on people to wield power. Although you can't take yours off, if I'm not mistaken."

"It would cause me pain beyond words," Bane says, by way of explanation. Blake has already figured this out, he is sure. The first time they fought it was what he aimed for. He has not taken a shot at it since. "Do you worry for him? That he'll come here to save you and be broken, yet again?"

"Me worrying isn't going to do him any good."

"A wise answer."

Blake looks up, almost incredulous, but just nods. "I guess. But it's not a hard conclusion to come to. If he's trying to find us, me, you–" he quickly separates them, even in a sentence "–then there's nothing I can do at this point."

"I notice that you say 'if'," Bane points out, and Blake looks past him, face purposefully blank, an expression Bane recognizes as a guard being put up. "Why is it that you seem to doubt that he will come for you?"

"I don't. He probably will because he's in the habit of doing things he knows he shouldn't, even I know that." Blake pauses, standing up straight now, hands listless at his sides. "But I don't want him to."

With that Blake leaves, but his words are not forgotten.

Neither is the envy they instill in Bane, deep within him. That Blake does not want this man to be hurt, and will, in all likelihood, hate him for what he plans to do.

In the end, were Bruce Wayne to be victorious (a ludicrous thought, but a thought that comes to him all the same), Blake would go with him without hesitation.

The same cannot be said of the outcome he hopes for, believes in. It eats at him, that he will be forcing Blake to stay at his side. And he doesn't (he does, but he doesn't want to) know why.

.

John spends almost a full day doing what, he supposes, some people would refer to as sulking. He prefers to think of it as the appropriate response to his current situation, which is awful by anyone's standards.

On one hand he has Bruce Wayne, billionaire, orphan, Batman, who's probably coming to help him, but he doesn't think the man has any idea what he's getting himself into. Bane is different this time around, whether he's been defeated before or not, John is starting to think that he's the one out looking for retribution, and it seems personal enough that John suspects he doesn't know the whole story. Bruce might, but he also might not, and while he has, as he said, given up on worrying about the man's well-being, he still allows himself to feel some amount of guilt. That, he thinks, he has earned.

On the other hand, he has Bane. And that's the problem, isn't it? Of course Bane doesn't do things like any normal person would, so it's not intrinsically obvious, but for someone who's been around the guy almost non-stop for months now it's not hard to peel back the layers. He isn't stupid enough to think he understands Bane completely, but he can see edges softening, he can see the way Bane looks–at others, at him, and recognize the difference. It would be naive to call it anything like love, but it has to be something like admiration, with a hint of dedication.

And then, between it all, he has himself. He has never been angrier with himself.

He hates this feeling of being in distress, the one needing to be saved. There's no getting passed that, because that's where he is right now. He would be headstrong and foolish to think otherwise, and he's both those things, so it's practically a miracle that he realizes it. He's fairly certain Bane won't cause him any irreparable harm, not anymore, but the reasons for that change also mean that Bane is far less likely to let him leave, and that was never something he hoped for in the first place.

Useless. He feels useless. He can't even get himself out of this, and he's forcing a man who, he now thinks, wanted nothing more than peace after years of turmoil, to come out of hiding, and for what? To walk right into a trap, an obvious one, but a trap all the same, to save the person he'd entrusted to stop things like this from happening to people.

Stupid, stupid, stupid, he thinks, and it isn't for the first time.

He has to do something.

.

Every punch Bane throws lands on someone who is not fighting back. This troubles him, he isn't in the business of hurting those who cannot defend themselves.

"What are you doing?" he asks Blake, who stands in position in front of him, but has yet to make a move to retaliate.

"Nothing," Blake replies, as if that much is not obvious. "Hit me."

"I have, more than once." Bane surveys his stance. It's perfect, but he is making no use of it. His lip is split and bleeding. An admittedly pretty sight, but not one that Bane wants to have caused, not like this. "There is no point to this if you don't fight back. You are doing yourself a great disservice."

Blake spits on the ground. "I said, hit me."

But, God help him (though he is too lost for that), Bane cannot.

Blake smiles at him, and it is horrific, teeth red with blood.

He says, "I thought so."

And there is nothing left for Bane to say.

.

John tries to leave at night knowing he won't make it.

He's ambushed before he even makes it to the front door, a few of the men all dressed in black, quite the fashion statement. He says as much, voice smug, knowing they have no idea what he's saying. He's going to have a nice black eye in the morning, that's for sure, and he doesn't really mind.

One of them grabs his jaw with his index finger and thumb, and just stares. No words, they both know it would be useless, but John gets the message all the same. They can't let him leave.

Smiling without humor, John says, "Take me to him, then."

They understand that.

He ends up kneeling in front of Bane in a room he's never been in, one that's tucked away in a far corner. Looking around it's easy to tell this is more Bane's room than his bedroom is. John looks at him, where he's talking to the men in whatever the language of the day is–John doesn't know or care. Culturally insensitive, maybe, but he's over this shit.

Bane says something in a relatively calm voice to get the men to leave and then motions with two fingers, says, "Get up."

Without thinking, John does just that. He's angry with himself for it, but the alternative was, what? To stay on his knees for the rest of the night? Not something he plans on doing any time soon, especially not with Bane standing over him.

"You are not so idiotic as to think that you would make your leave like this," Bane almost drawls, sounding more tired than John's ever heard him. The back-handed compliment is a nice touch, though, almost tastes as bad in his mouth as it sounds. "What are you trying to accomplish?"

"Nothing," John lies, standing too close, and now it's Bane who's going to have to take a step back if he wants more distance between them.

Bane does no such thing, instead he reaches out and puts his hand to John's cheek (could do anything from there, could crush him if he was so inclined), and lets his thumb rub across the bruised cheekbone there.

"Does this still hurt?" he asks, and his voice is even more startling when it's right in your face, it makes John flinch like he hasn't at the touch. He was prepared for the touch.

"Like hell," he answers, and Bane's hand stays where it is, eyes searching, John gives away nothing.

There's the sound of muffled shouting from down the hall, something breaking. Well, Batman's never been known for his subtlety.

"You should probably go get that," John says, not moving.

"Did you know?" Bane's thumb presses into his cheek, hard, an unspoken threat, but one that John is sure won't be carried out.

"Me?" John almost laughs. "I don't know anything, remember?"

Heading for the door Bane says, "Stay here," and it's almost a plea.

John doesn't stay.

He waits a few minutes and then makes it halfway down the hall before there's an arm around his neck and he's being pulled flush to someone's chest. Looking up and back he sees smirking dark red lips and surprisingly familiar brown eyes.

"Selina Kyle," he breathes out, "of course. It doesn't make any sense, so of course it's happening."

"Baby bird," she replies conversationally as she lets him go, smoothing out the leather of her suit. "It's so nice to see you. I wish it was under better circumstances–" there comes one of the men, silently behind her, and she kicks backwards, taking him down without so much as a look "–but we can't all have what we want, now can we?"

"You disappeared from the records," John says, mind reeling. "You disappeared from everything." A lot of things are falling into place.

"I'd appreciate if, in exchange for saving your sorry ass, you didn't tell anyone I'm still around." Her smiles are tinged with a bit of danger, he wouldn't be surprised if her lipstick is actually some sort of poisonous concoction. "Yeah, no, I don't care, I really don't." He's looking past her, over his own shoulder, not sure which way to head. He chooses left, arbitrarily. "Looking for your surrogate dad?" she asks, falling into step with him. "What?" He looks at her, sharply, and she's taking down two guys at once. He didn't even notice them. "I, uh, no. Sort of. I need to follow Bane."

"You know, I told you that you should be afraid of him, or did you forget?" She pushes some of the hair that's fallen into her face to the side as she crouches over the two, now unconscious, men. "Don't tell me you've gone all Stockholm syndrome on us. He was worried about that."

"Bruce?"

"Yeah. He's going by Thomas these days, though."

"So everyone knows he's alive, then."

She laughs, a little. "That's what I said. Come on, I know where they'll be, follow me."

He does. He's gotten used to following.

.

Bane finds Bruce Wayne easily, but, then, it is not as if he was trying to stay hidden.

"How nice of you to join us, Bruce, we welcome you back," he says, spreading his arms wide, magnanimous to the very last. "Once a member..."

And the other man charges at him, growl low in his throat, so elementary, Bane only has to stand to absorb the blow, to push back.

"Are you not happy to be here?" he asks, and he means to sound disbelieving, but there is condescension dripping from his words, and he is not of the mind to stop it from doing so. He shoves the man against the wall, and wonders if he can feel the ferocity that he only just saw an inkling of the last time they fought, the animosity that broke him the time before that.

"You forced my hand," is the reply he gets.

"A heavy-handed accusation," he sighs, drawing out the last word, savoring it. "And one I would not advise you to make in your situation. You aren't prepared to deal with things at all."

Bruce pushes him away with relative ease, something that is hardly daunting. They have always been equals in sheer strength. It is the will to do what is necessary that separates them. Bane has never been defeated by this man, not alone.

"I only have to deal with you," Bruce says, circling him, as if looking for a weak spot. Let him try. "Just like the other times we've met. Your men might make things easier for you, but you'll fight me alone. You're too proud to do things any other way."

"Lucky for me, then, that we have that in common." Bane attacks without hesitation, and for a moment Bruce stumbles back, but he regains his composure quickly, and then come the theatrics, small bursts like firecrackers, as if he never learned his lesson in the first place, the shrouding darkness which poses no threat whatsoever, not to a man like Bane.

Bruce is easy to tail in the dark, a large, solid shape moving through wisps of smoke, it's almost laughable.

He's led to one of the balconies, blackness clearing to give way to the blue glow of night, the cool chill of air.

"A bold move," he remarks, "but not, altogether, a smart one."

With ample space and no walls, the night above them, Bane feels most at home, a familiar war being waged. He wishes only that it were warmer, the feeling of humidity in the air has always given him a sense of urgency. The cold numbs him to a certain extent, makes him careless to a degree that he does not enjoy in the least.

But it isn't such a horrible way to fight, blows being exchanged, none of them hurting as they ought to.

He thinks that, perhaps, he should have prepared some grand speech. Something about weaknesses, and how the man before him as more than he would like to admit, but he feels the hypocrisy on those words, on such statements were he to make them. He wonders if Bruce notices how hard he fights now, if he thinks it is a hardness borne only out of a need for revenge or can recognize that there is an edge to everything, as if he has something to fight for.

(He thinks not, Bruce Wayne will always think him less than human, and Bane will let him, would rather that he not realize that, in reality, Bane is something more.)

"Interesting," Bane says, "that you have not hit me where you know I am vulnerable, not once."

He does not add that this peculiar action is mirrored by his much more appealing protégé.

"It won't do me any good to have you incapable of talking," Bruce replies, and the way he says it is what stings, the implication that, yes, it would be that easy to take Bane down, but he can do it without resorting to that technique.

"You know, I do believe your young ward, the one you left the weight of a broken city upon, has not hit me there for much the same reason," Bane intones, words dark as his intent. "He's such a lonely boy, he must be to have turned to me for companionship."

There is a left hook to his collarbone, a right to his stomach, but it is all very sloppy. Beautiful.

"Don't talk like he had any choice in the matter," Bruce grits out, and, oh, he sounds tired. Such a shame.

"Only because you left him none." And while it cannot be seen, only a deaf man would be unable to hear the smile on the words, callous and teasing. "Did he ask to carry on your legacy? We have talked at length about the matter, and it would seem to me that you never did."

Hit to his ribs, and that one is bruising, he cannot hide the gasp of breath it causes him to take. How exciting. Worthy opponents are few and far between, he has always found. He strikes back, succinct punches to the side of Bruce's face, listening to the satisfactory snap of the mask.

"Look at you," he says, laughter in his voice, he has waited for this so long and it has only made these moments sweeter. "You could not even face me as a man. Pathetic."

He is almost taken aback when Bruce shoves him backwards and he hits the rail of the balcony.

"It's a long way down," Bruce growls, and he sounds absurd, but he is not wrong.

Not wrong at all.

.

Ten feet away from the door leading onto the balcony where they can see Bane and Bruce fighting and Selina stops him, shakes her head.

"I could help," he says.

"So could I." She shrugs, looking forward with a moderately concerned expression. "But he wants to do this himself."

John knows she means Bruce, but he thinks of it in terms of what Bane wants, and he knows Bane doesn't want him interfering. He frowns at his own thoughts, the fact that that's enough to make him think twice about doing anything. It would be a stupid move, and, really, he'd only get in the way, he tells himself, and he almost believes it.

Selina makes a tsk noise, tongue against the roof of her mouth, goes, "They're just talking, are you seeing this, why didn't we all meet up for coffee or–oh, there we go."

Bruce is landing hits on Bane and Bane isn't even fighting back. John wishes they could hear them better, but the wind from outside only lets every few words drift to them.

"This is stupid," and John can hear the worry in his voice, and it makes no sense. Bruce is fine, it's Bane who's getting the worst of it.

"That makes sense, since he's stupid," Selina mutters under her breath, but John hears the fondness there. "But he's got this. Don't think I'm sitting back because I think he's handling this better than I could. You and I both know this is just how things have to work."

They both react the same way when Bane gets the better of Bruce, sharp closed-fist hits to the head, but–

"Bane isn't exactly minding his surroundings, is he?" she remarks, just as Bane gets himself pushed into a literal corner, Bruce in front of him and nothing but a railing between him and the straight drop off the side of the mountain.

John doesn't mean to, but he says, "Shit, no," and he's out the door before Selina can stop him, before he can stop himself.

But Bane's already getting the worst of it, no feasible way to maneuver around and it's just punches to his gut, his spine being rammed into the hard wood of the railing behind him, and John knows that the mask alleviates the pain from whatever caused that injury, but he also knows that it's a vulnerability all the same.

He hears Bruce ask, "Why did you do this?"

Bane answers, "To prove that I could."

And that's when Bruce's fist connects with Bane's mask, several times before John can even react.

"Bruce," is all he can think to say, and then louder, "Bruce, stop."

Bruce doesn't stop, though, and John can't really blame him.

In the past three months Bane has: kidnapped him, kept him as a bartering tool, killed men without hesitation, used his power to obtain illegal goods, destroyed an entire city, and, surely, more things that John was never even aware of. His track record is nothing to speak lightly of either, he's an escaped convict, a man who held an entire city under his control with the threat of annihilation, and that can't be forgotten.

It can't be, and it won't–but he thinks of the other things he knows, of unwavering loyalty, of the refusal to hurt someone who wouldn't fight back, of a bedroom just like any other, the hints of humanity.

He pulls Bruce back, he kneels in front of Bane for the second time this night, though this time Bane is at eye level.

(Heaving breaths, he grabs at the fabric of John's t-shirt, pain beyond words.)

"I said stop," John repeats, and his fingers are shaking as he does his best to put Bane's mask back together. It's not so hard, just disconnected tubes, more daunting than anything.

"What are you doing?" He hears Bruce behind him, moving so he can crouch beside them, sees the confusion on his face and something else. John wonders if it's possible to be able to tell the look on someone's face when they feel like they've seen this all before.

"Look, maybe doing this doesn't break your rule about killing people," John says, turning away again and concentrating on what his hands are doing, "but for me it's cutting things too close."

"He kidnapped you," Bruce reminds him, voice almost normal now, like he's finally realized there's no point in hiding who he is here. "As far as I can tell you've been a glorified hostage for months now."

"I know that." He thinks he's gotten the mask mostly fixed, but he keeps checking things, just to be sure. Bane's breathing sounds nearly evened out. "It's not like I've forgiven him for anything he's done, but I still think it's going too far, leaving him here in agony, or whatever you were planning on doing."

"It's the least he deserves."

"And what about what I deserve?" John looks to Bruce to find he's taken off his mask, cracked and broken as it is from Bane's punches. "You know, it's not just you anymore. What you do here effects me, too. It effects her, back there. It effects all of us. I'm not letting this sit on my conscience. Living like how he would be...I don't think anyone deserves that."

Bruce's eyes soften and he looks between the two of them, running a hand through tousled hair.

"You sure picked the right man for the job," comes Selina's voice from behind them all, the smirk obvious on her words.

"Alright," Bruce says, "alright. But this is it, I'm serious. I came looking for you because this was a unique situation. An incredibly unique situation. If you want to save him, that's your choice. But you know what he can do when he's unleashed, so you better be sure you can control him."

"You know what?" Blake feels Bane tug at his shirt again, fist clenched. "It's actually not him I'm worried about. Because, uh, here's the thing, there's a high chance I don't have an apartment anymore. And, realistically speaking, they don't allow pets in my apartment build–ow. Well, good news, he can still punch."

Standing up, Bruce sighs.

"I'll make a call to Alfred."

.

No one bothers to ask Bane how he feels about the situation.

He knows this will be fine, if only to bide his time, though he does not know for what.

After so much destruction, so much loss, he has to wonder what it will mean to take the opposite route. Hands tied, a private flight back to where Blake calls 'home,' he has well over fourteen hours to think about the consequences, far-reaching as they might be.

He thinks of everything but them.

.

"I'm really sorry, again." John's fingers tap against his knee nervously as the car stops. "I told–well, I tried to tell him I didn't need you to do all this."

"It's no trouble," replies Alfred, taking the key out of the ignition and looking to him, pointedly. "Incidentally, that was not what I said when this idea was first proposed to me. You owe a great deal of thanks to the paranoia of the late Master Wayne for this plan even coming to light."

"Ah, yeah. Well, this might be a shock, but I'm still not sure this is going to work." It takes a few minutes of him fumbling with the car door to get it open. He's accustomed to beat up cruisers and used car models from the 90s. BMWs are going to take some getting used to.

"I hope for the sake of everyone involved that it does." Standing next to the car, Alfred sighs a little, a sound John's never heard from the older man, but which he thinks he'll be hearing a lot of in the future. "I have to say, I am used to complicated situations, more than you even realize, but this was not something I ever thought I would have to deal with."

John smiles and it hurts a little, face still bruised.

Neither of them say anything as they walk up the steps of the boy's home, the building that used to be a manor that John would think he might visit one day. Somehow, every time he's been here, it's never quite lived up to the expectations he held as a kid. Granted he's never had a chance to look for secret passages.

"So, you do realize I'm not qualified for this," John says, feeling more than a little out of place. "I always planned on making a career out of police work, so I don't know much else."

"I think you'll do just fine." Alfred smiles, tightly, but it isn't fake, and John actually believes what he's saying a little bit. With the front doors open he's suitably surprised by the silence that greets them. "Baseball game. Field trip of sorts. I thought it would be best to have you move in when things weren't too hectic."

"You really do think of everything." John smiles back, his expression one of relief as he follows the older man through the front area of the house.

"I do my best." They take a left and then a right and John's already worried he's not going to remember how to get around. The place feels like a demurely decorated funhouse. "Now how about you? Reappearing out of the blue without some sort sort of explanation isn't going to go over well, I'm sure you're aware."

"Right, that." He laughs, nervously. This feels like a test. "There's still some groups of prisoners out there that haven't been locked up again, I'm sure you've heard. The Narrows is especially bad. I don't want to say it's lucky, but there have been more than a few cops abducted by them. I'd honestly be a prime target. I'll file a vague report, nothing will ever come of it, and no one's going to accuse me of lying, I'm sure of it."

They've stopped in front of a door tucked away in a far corridor in the only part of the house John's seen so far that looks more dusty than not.

"Just so I'm understanding this," Alfred says, fitting a key into the lock, "you plan on lying to law enforcement and not telling them about what actually happened to you, leading them on a wild goose chase for men who don't even exist in lieu of leading them to a man who does exist and poses a real threat?"

"Well, when you put it that way of course it sounds bad." Alfred levels him with a look so deadpan John feels like a little kid again. "Alright, yeah, I know, it is bad. But I promise you, he doesn't pose a threat to anyone, not while I'm around."

"I always wished optimism was one of Master Wayne's strong traits. Now I'm not so sure."

The room is, like the corridor, pretty dusty. There's some furniture covered in sheets, but mostly the place is bare, white walls and wooden floors.

"Yeah, this is good," John murmurs, trying to convince himself more than anything. "This will work. This will more than work. It might actually be bigger than my entire apartment, and I'm going to go ahead and assume that if I ever get kidnapped again you won't rent the place out to someone else."

"A bold assumption," Alfred sniffs. "But one that, I believe, will hold true."

"I can't thank you enough for this," John says, for what feels like the millionth time, and won't be the last. "You really don't have to do this."

"I don't exactly revel in the idea of you and a masked mercenary staying at the Hilton." And isn't that a mental image. "Speaking of, come with me so I can show you what we'll be doing about that situation. It's not a long walk, but it is a long way down."

.

"Yet another prison," Bane remarks, looking around. Admittedly, it is better than the solitary ward in Blackgate. He is not being made to wear a bright orange outfit, either, which makes the whole thing feel marginally less restrictive. A cave. Somehow he is not surprised that they are in a cave.

"Well, sort of," Blake shrugs from where he is sitting in front of some large computer setup. "Except, you know, you're not actually in prison. Which, if you're asking me, means you got away with murder. Literally." He sighs, leaning his chin into his palm.

"True." Bane walks freely from one end of the platform to another so he stands behind Blake. He could leave. He will not leave, but there is something to be said for the fact that he could.

Blake is returning three months of abduction with a place to live, with freedom. It is an interesting turn of events, there is no doubt about that.

"I'm serious," Blake is saying, sitting up straighter now, exhibiting near perfect posture, opposite the slouching Bane has come to expect from him, "I'm going out on a limb here for you and I don't–it's not like I expect you to worship me or anything, but I'd like some recognition of the fact that I don't have to do this."

"Fascinating, that you do it despite that," he says, easily and with a smile on his words. He has to wonder as to when Blake will realize that this all goes two ways. "Would you prefer it, though? For me to worship you? Idolization is an addicting thing, I would advise you not to fall into such a pattern."

"Speaking from experience, I see." Now Blake looks tense, but not angry, and Bane recognizes that as his being unsure about how they are supposed to converse now.

It is an interesting predicament. Blake no longer has any striking need to be antagonistic, while Bane no longer needs to goad answers and reactions out of him. For Bane he has already accepted that this may be a situation where he can do something like relax. Blake seems unsure of doing any such thing.

His lack of confidence in their interactions is endearing if slightly annoying.

"Perhaps," Bane admits. "It does not change the validity of the advice."

"God I wish you'd talk like a normal person sometimes," Blake groans, rubbing his hands over his eyes. "Look, they gave me a job here, which comes with a room, and, obviously, easy access to here, and somewhere for you to stay."

Bane can hear it, the undercurrent of somewhere to hide you, but he thinks better of pointing it out.

"It's good," Blake continues, and he finally turns, but only so that Bane can see his profile. He looks tired. "Honestly, it's ideal. Even before–" he pauses, make a face "–you I was starting to have trouble paying rent and utilities on top of that. This works out well, or it will as long as you don't mess it up."

Bane almost laughs, but he can hear the slight pleading in Blake's voice, he is serious even if he is trying to make things sound light-hearted.

"I wouldn't dream of it," he says, and Blake looks at him, something like a smile on his face.

"You know, that's the weird part, I know you wouldn't."

The words sound almost fond.

In the background water falls steadily, and they can only just hear the sounds of a few stray bats taking flight.

.

He thinks of it with startling clarity early on, asks Bane how the hell he eats anyway, because even he has to do that, and ends up having to ask Alfred about how easy it would be to get an array of syringes and various supplements to be administered via them.

"I don't see why we could not have just used my own supplier," Bane says, and it's really unnerving, how he can just find a vein in the crook of his elbow and not even make a sound as the needle enters the vein.

"Because your suppliers are probably underground, maybe even literally." John feels himself wince as the plunger of the syringe is pushed down, watching clear fluid disappear. "And we're going cold turkey regarding that, remember? We're buying everything with real money that I make from my legitimate job."

Bane sighs at that, but doesn't argue, just reaches for the next syringe, this one filled with something amber-colored. John really hopes Alfred didn't put anything deadly in any of these. Putting everything on a silver platter was a nice touch though. It makes the whole process feel a lot more classy.

"Speaking of, I got you basic necessities. Deodorant, which you're going to use whether you want to or not. Uh, I think I bought toothpaste by accident, sorry about that. And razors. I've been meaning to ask, how do you–"

"A nice assortment," Bane says, shortly. "Thank you very much."

John leaves the deodorant in front of everything else, prominently displayed.

.

Bane appreciates everything being done for him, more than he thinks Blake realizes.

.

John spends his days cleaning and getting used to his surroundings and his evenings with the older boys, some of whom know of him, others who have only heard of him. It's a little like being a small scale celebrity. They ask him questions about exploding bridges, about why he quit the force, about if it's true, did he meet Batman, did he know him.

He answers by asking them if they've started their homework and if they want any help on it, as long as it's not pre-calc. Overall the consensus is that he's a pretty cool guy, but definitely not as cool as they thought he would be.

And he thinks he can live with that, keeping his stories to himself and having sixteen year olds think he's a dork.

Not many people have ever thought much differently of him, as it is.

It takes a week for him to get used to the time zone, and even then he doesn't sleep through entire nights, laying awake and worrying, still not entirely used to the quiet and solitude of his own room.

There are a few other staff members who live on the premises, all of them older than him and nice enough, but not anyone he can really talk to. In a way he likes it. When he'd first started working on the force some of the younger guys would invite him out, and that was all it ever felt like–guys he couldn't connect to inviting him to do something he didn't want to do.

He's always been enigmatic and able to impress superiors, but being social is different. As a kid he was closed off and angry and he's gotten past that in a lot of ways, but the point of small talk with people he has no reason to have small talk with has eluded him even in adulthood. A lot of people call him friendly, but no one ever really calls him a friend.

So working at a job with boys who are happy enough that he treats them like normal people rather than orphans and co-workers who barely have time for conversation isn't a bad mix for him, not at all.

Two weeks pass before he starts to make regular visits to see Bane.

The whole situation is unnerving, to put it in the nicest of words. Alfred has assured him, more than once, that the place is, despite appearances, secure. Getting out is nearly impossible without any sort of gear or vehicle. The computer system is password protected and encrypted. There's even surveillance, so if he wanted to he could watch Bane's every move. He doesn't particularly want to, that's going too far, and he's gone far enough already.

He'll find Bane doing nothing that seems important, looking at maps of the city, wading into the water, and sometimes even doing what might amount to napping.

Bane provides an odd sort of social stimulation that John has never gotten from anyone else. He'd thought it had to do with forced proximity in the beginning, but more and more he chooses to venture into these conversations, and he doesn't regret it as much as thought he might.

One day Bane asks, "Would you happen to have any of your books?" and John makes the trip up to his room and back again so he can leave a few for him to look over.

It doesn't seem like that big of a deal.

They talk about Goethe's Faust at length–the search for meaning in life, what a single moment of happiness is worth.

"More than most things," is Bane's answer, and John doesn't want to, but he agrees.

It's an odd thing, the realization that they are more alike than he'd like to admit. John still knows nothing about Bane's life, would struggle to fill a three by five notecard with facts about the man, but if he knows one thing it's that Bane is alone.

Completely and utterly and truly alone, even when he's surrounded by people.

And in that sense John isn't very different at all.

.

Bane thinks of two sides of the same coin, that coin being tossed into the air and the suspended moment as one waits for the coin to fall.

He thinks of Blake who runs fingers under the sentences in battered books, sometimes trails off in the middle of what he is saying so that he can finish reading a passage.

He thinks of prison, horrible confinement, being used to such confinement, but wanting more, always wanting more, how acceptance is not the same as having given up.

He thinks of Blake sitting legs akimbo and head cocked to the side, hair still longer than it was the day they met, listening, actually listening.

He thinks of leaving and how he won't.

He thinks of Blake.

.

It's been six months.

Six whole months, and John still feels off-balance, slightly skittish, and more at home in the caves than in an actual residence.

He talks to Bane every day now, and it's not as strange as it should be. It's even become easy, more than he'd like to admit, to take his dinner down the elevator, and talk to the only other adult around the place who doesn't treat him like one of the boys.

They talk about literature, and John almost starts feel bad about all the things he continually assumes Bane won't know about. Bane teaches him more than a few words of Arabic, answers the questions John's long had about the burial he tried to help with. He tells Bane about how things are going up above, though it honestly seems as if Bane has to feign some amount of interest in it.

That changes after Commissioner Gordon pays him a visit. Bane asks what he wanted and John can immediately tell that he wants to know.

"Just to say he was glad I was okay," John shrugs from where he's sitting, back to the computer system and watching Bane pace on the other end of the platform. "He was worried about me. Wanted to come see me before now, but he's been busy, got swept up in a lot of press stuff over the last year. I worked pretty closely with him when I was a detective, you know that. We're just in two entirely different worlds now. I'd almost rather he just sort of put me out of his mind."

"So you are not the first that comes to it when he receives a visit from the one following in Bruce Wayne's footsteps?" Bane asks. It's not really a question, though, this is how Bane jokes, John has found. Simple, factual statements that manage to elicit nothing more than a wry smile.

"You saw right through that, huh?" Bane looks back at him, raises his eyebrows. "Right, I shouldn't be surprised by now. But, oh, he did say something else. Something about the headquarters of some wanted mercenary being burned down. Somewhere over in south Asia. Sounds like there's an on-going investigation, but it's looking like there were no survivors."

"Is this good news?" Bane stops where he is, looks at the ground in contention. "I am not so sure it is. This means there are people looking for me."

"On the other side of the world," John reminds him. "It's not like Gordon knows everything about the situation, but it sounds like they've got other things to deal with here, you're kind of the last person on anyone's mind these days."

"Such a high turnover." Bane's voice sounds humorous, but almost sarcastically so. "To think that I was stopped from destroying a city that runs so rampant with crime that they have already forgotten my actions all together."

"No, you were stopped from leveling a city that was in the midst of rebuilding itself." John leans back in his chair, wondering how many times they're going to have this discussion. "It was stupid, like getting mad at a wound for not healing fast enough and chopping off the entire limb. Things here aren't perfect, and they won't ever be, but this city will survive as long as there are good people here."

"Like you," says Bane, and it's as close to tentative as John has ever heard him.

"Sure, let's go with that," he grins, not even bothering to cover his expression up or duck his head like he might have just a few weeks ago. "As long as I'm here this city will be fine."

"I believe it," Bane says, sounding completely serious.

"I was kind of–well, never mind." John moves to gather up his things, dirty plate and utensils. His face feels warm.

He can feel Bane's eyes on him, but he's noticed that for six months now.

The only thing that's really changed is how he feels about it.

Bane says, "Goodnight," as he walks past, and their shoulders brush, skin on exposed skin.

John doesn't say anything.

.

Bane spends much of his time looking around, for lack of anything better to do.

There are more than a few ways out of the caves, ways he believes Blake is not aware of, or else he would not be staying here. Of course, none of them are very accessible, and, he knows by now, Blake's options were incredibly limited.

He does not mind it as much as someone else might. He is accustomed to living in squalor, in a place no man in his right mind would ever want to call home. The opulence of having an actual homestead is something he has never rightly expected nor wanted.

The cave is damp and, in many ways, uncomfortable, but also familiar. A space which others may find uninhabitable, but which he inhabits easily, like the bats do their dark, hidden crevices.

Solitude does not grate at him, he has grown to appreciate such things. He has found ways to mold people into the image he wants them to be, but large groups of people whom have no allegiance to him have long made him wary.

Still, he likes when Blake comes to visit him. There is an undercurrent to all their conversations, and there always has been, but he feels things shifting, and has for a while now. He is unwilling, however, to mention it, not knowing what reaction he will get, and with their dynamic as it is, it feels a foolish risk.

Perhaps that is why it is Blake who, as he exits the elevator one night, later than usual and with no food in hand, asks, "What do you want from me, anyway?"

And Bane, who is standing on the walkway that connects to the platform, can only answer with, "What do you mean?"

It is a curious question, one he has been waiting to answer in some ways, but one he cannot answer when it is stated so vaguely.

"I'm just at a loss here," Blake sighs, standing in front of him now, and there is smile on the words, but not on his face. He looks tired. He nearly always looks tired. "I kind of know why I did what I did. But maybe you don't deserve to be here, maybe you should've burned with all your followers."

"I highly doubt all of them died," Bane says, absently, words that get no reaction from John.

"You didn't, though, because I didn't let you," he continues, holding eye contact for a long moment, an acknowledgement. It is the first time they have talked of this. "So I thought, you know, maybe that's why you treat me the way you do, because you feel indebted towards me. But...I think me and you both know I'm not that stupid."

"I may have once thought you were," Bane admits, "but, yes, you are right, I believe you are more perceptive than that."

"Right." Blake pauses and shifts, hands in coat pockets. "I am. And I think I get it, a little bit. I just don't get why. Why me? I've never even been particularly nice to you."

"It is interesting that you think that is something I would value," he muses, as Blake moves to walk past him. "As if I would not be more than sick of being treated with kindness that I know to be fake, to be borne out of fear. Such a thing can and does become tiring. Sometimes I simply prefer honesty. There is nothing so nice as to see how a person truly feels about you."

On the platform now, standing above him, Blake 'hmm's.

"That's a nice answer," he says, leaning back against the desk where the computer is set up, crossing his arms over his chest, "but it's also kind of bullshit, isn't it?"

Bane does not laugh, but he wants to. "You could say that. I am afraid I am not sure what you are asking. Do you wish to know why I never harmed you as I could have? Why I did not leave you for dead in Istanbul, or let you waste away on some errant cliff of a mountain in Bhutan?"

Blake does not look up, only licks at his lips, shaking his head.

"Is it a question of loyalty, then? Of why I feel it towards you? Because if you are asking why I might risk my life for yours, then I am sorry to inform you that I do not know the answer to that any more than you do."

"Is that what it is though?" Blake's fingers are clutched around his own arms, the look of a man trying to hold onto reality is on his face. "Not that that's a small thing, that's–wow, but I thought, maybe, it was something more."

"Lust?" asks Bane, and that gets Blake to look at him, eyes hard as the first time they spoke. "You know, I have felt this way about someone before. A shock to you, I would guess. But if you had known her you would not have blamed me. She was that type of a person, inspiring loyalty in a man such as I was, even at such a young age."

"You loved her," Blake says, voice soft.

"Of course, it is an emotion like any other, and so I felt it."

"I don't think–I mean, maybe I did, but I know you have emotions." Blake is holding himself tighter, like he might just fold into himself.

"That is something I have fought to keep hidden from others," Bane says, a slight shrug offered, "I am not angry if you did not realize it from the very moment you first met me. That you have come to realize it at all, I think, says much about who you are."

"I guess that's the question I want to ask, actually." And now Blake's hands fall to his sides, chest unguarded, he is open. "What am I, to you?"

"Oh, many things." The answer seems to surprise him, and Bane can only continue. "Someone to protect, though I know you do not need it. Someone with whom I can talk honestly and openly, a thing which I cannot do with most others. Someone who is not my equal, but rather has strengths I do not, and weaknesses that I am able to compensate for."

"Okay, that...that's kind of what I figured," Blake breathes out, hands gripping the edge of the desk. "Maybe not in so many words, but I don't know why I expected anything else from you of all people."

He breathes in and then out, deeply and calmly, chest rising and falling. Bane watches him, as he always does.

"Okay," he repeats, voice louder and more steady, pushing off the desk and standing up straight, hands in his jacket pockets again. "Alright, that's fine, it really is. But I'm going to go. I'll be back, tomorrow probably, as usual, but I need to go, I think."

He's already past Bane and on his way back to the elevator when Bane thinks to say, "I would never have and never will force you to do anything you do not wish to."

Blake laughs at that and says, as the elevator doors slide closed, "You say that like I couldn't stop you."

It is not quiet in the caves, but there is a difference between that and silence.

.

John has plans, and he figures it's about time he puts them into motion. He trains by himself at night and drinks copious amounts of coffee during the day, doing the best he can in helping out with the boys. He talks to Alfred about equipment for rock climbing, and gets told that Master Wayne always preferred spelunking, but he'll see what he can do. He wonders how hard sewing is, and finds out the answer is 'very,' but gets steadily better.

He still goes to see Bane, and is relieved to find things aren't as awkward as he had thought they might become. It occurs to him that this is because Bane is treating him much the same way as he has come to expect, and that he doesn't mind being treated that way, but he doesn't think about it too hard.

He keeps himself busy, unwilling to let his hands become idle.

In doing so he remembers how much he likes it, having things to do.

It's the first time since he quit the force that he's felt something approaching happiness in regards to his life as a whole, and it's just so weird, every last thing that's happened to him.

Things feel, in a lot of ways, upside-down.

But he likes the cave, likes the atmosphere.

He likes his job, never monotonous, never having to do paperwork, never being talked down to.

And he likes the people around him.

He stabs himself with a needle for the thousandth and wonders if he should invest in a sewing machine.

It would feel like a waste now, though, he's almost done.

.

Blake's fingers are half-covered in bandages.

"Have you not finished yet?" Bane asks him, and he reaches out to hold Blake's hand in his, and Blake lets him do it.

"Probably just a few more weeks," he replies. "I'm having trouble figuring out everything about how it's supposed to go together, but trial and error was something I expected."

Bane turns his hand over, palm up. "And you have to do this? Wear some sort of costume?"

"Well, no," Blake says, sounding sheepish. "But I want to. Alfred's ordering...armor, I guess you could say, to wear underneath it. I could just wear that, but it's not about that. I have to look unrecognizable, but also separate from everyone else. I'm kind of afraid I'm not doing it right, but I guess there's no right way to do it."

"Will you wear a mask?" Bane peels back one of the bandages and Blake hisses at the cold air hitting a relatively fresh wound.

"Yes," he answers, despite the pain being caused to him. "It's one thing I am taking away from what he said to me. It's to protect the people I care about."

Bane does not bother to ask who he means, only replaces the bandage wordlessly.

"It's funny." Blake holds his hand to his chest now, eyebrows furrowed (something he does when he is thinking hard). "I remember I said to him that I didn't get it, because he always seemed like kind of a loner, and he told me that despite that there were people he cared about. I didn't really get it, at the time, but I'm starting to."

There's a pause.

Then Blake says, "I think this is where I'm supposed to kiss you, but logistically it's just not going to work out."

Bane, for once, is at a loss for words.

Blake leans back against the desk and sighs. "That didn't come out as, uh, seductively as I wanted it to, but I've never really been good at that. What I'm trying to say is, come here."

So Bane does, and it's Blake's breath on the side of his neck, lips there, more cautious than any words he has ever said, his own hands placed gently (reverently) on Blake's hips, something allowed of him.

Against his neck comes, "You know, I might be smaller than you, but that doesn't mean I'm made of glass."

Bane grips hard enough to bruise then, and, he has to admit, that feels right.

"Are you absolutely sure–" he begins to say.

"Not that I don't appreciate you asking," Blake interrupts him, "but that's the stupidest question I've heard all day and I spend most of my time with teenage boys. If I don't want you to do something I'll say so. And until then every time you ask me that question I'm going to punch you in the face so hard you'll forget your own name."

He runs one finger along Bane's jawline, looking somewhat murderous.

It is a good look on him.

Bane moves one of his hands from Blake's hip, puts the heel of his palm to the front of his pants, and Blake is suddenly pushing him away.

"Shit," he groans out. "Shit, fuck, uh. Can you hold on? Don't leave. I mean, stay here. Like don't–I'm coming back. Just jerk off, maybe. Or think about...I don't know, just give me a minute."

(Part of him thinks that he just will not come back, which would be disappointing, certainly, but not entirely unexpected.)

But he comes back, five full minutes later, grumbling something about huge houses and how labyrinths should not exist outside of ancient Greece, and throwing something at Bane which he catches, deftly.

"Sorry," he says, and he is making his way towards the platform now, and Bane follows him. "I just realized, you know, if you're going to fuck me, and I figure you probably are, I'm not doing it without lube."

"Fair enough," Bane replies, Blake turning as he takes off his shirt, almost carelessly. It is nothing Bane has not seen before, but there is something different in the act being done for a purpose other than it being too hot. He asks, "Where did you get those scars?"

Blake looks at him, raises his arms and spreads them, says, "You."

He uses one hand to beckon Bane forward as he takes a few steps backwards so he is once more against the desk near the edge of the platform.

"This feels oddly like all of the times we have sparred," Bane says, hands on Blake's hips once more, one hand leaving and trailing down.

"I don't really see a difference," Blake shrugs, and he breathes in heavily as Bane goes to undo the button of his pants, pushes his hand away and does it himself. Impatience is hardly a virtue, but neither is Bane a virtuous man. Blake makes quick work of his clothes, leaving on his socks and hissing, "It's cold," when Bane raises an eyebrow at him.

Not that it is, altogether, a bad sight.

Bane follows suit, with Blake's eyes on him all the while.

"So," Blake says, swallowing, "where were we?"

Bane's hand is on his cock before he can protest, though by the looks of it he would have done no such thing. It is a far easier task than he would have previously assumed, Blake leaning into him, muttering profanity under his breath as he runs his thumb up the slit and wipes at the bead of pre-come there, just simple movements of his wrist, feeling Blake come undone against him.

But Blake gasps, "Don't, don't, don't," just as it seems like he is about to come, and Bane does what he says, lets Blake lean towards him and press an open-mouthed kiss to the crook of his neck, tongue dragging across skin, it is almost shameful, but only almost.

Bane reaches for the lube which he had dropped on the desktop and opens it, swiftly, pouring some onto his fingers. It is not hard work, one finger and then two, Blake leaning his forehead into his shoulder and staying silent as he moves them, his breathing speeding up. He adds a third finger and that's when Bane pushes away, something like a moan escaping his mouth.

"Any time now," he breathes out, "would be good."

"If you say so." Hands on Blake's hips now, Blake gripping at the edge of the desk for leverage, and he pushes into him, and it is hard to breathe (always, always, but this is different). Blake makes a sound in the back of his throat and Bane swears he very nearly feels it.

Blake says, "Fuck," more times than seems necessary, but, then, Bane is not in his position, quite literally.

"This does not hurt?" he asks, hands on Blake's skin, he feels like fire to the touch.

"Yes," Blake replies, taking a shaky breath, "it does. But if you stop now, I'm serious, you're going to regret it."

Bane does not doubt this.

For him it is an easy thing, to be able to do what he has wanted to for some time now. His touches are appreciative, admiring, perhaps even worshiping. It is something that he is allowing himself as much as Blake is allowing him. He feels at peace, with himself, with most everything.

Blake feels tense in his hands, on him, not nervous, but full of inhibitions. Things he is still hung up on, moments in the past, and Bane does not blame him, not at all, for feeling this way.

Fully inside him now, and Bane closes his eyes, thinks only of himself for half a minute and no longer. He opens them to Blake looking discomfited, but not hurt in any way. Bane reaches up to brush some of his hair off his forehead and–

"Really wondering why you aren't touching my dick right now," Blake says, voice strained, and it is an understandable statement, though one that takes Bane a moment to process, as Blake rolls his hips rather sinfully. But, ah, yes, to finish what he started would be a good idea, and he knows those well.

It takes even less this time, a twist of his wrist and Blake is going, going, gone, coming apart in his hands. He puts his hand to Blake's mouth, interested to see the reaction, and not entirely surprised as Blake licks the cum from his fingers, and it is a sight so beautiful (and that is not the right word, but what other word is there) that he is done just from watching it, falling away and not minding at all.

It's a few long moments before either of them say anything. Bane lets go of him, watches him lean back, boneless, staring up above. There is nothing to see up there but the foundations of the manor above them. Bane wonders, as Blake pulls away and starts to grab his clothing, putting it on slowly, what he is thinking.

"I am not sorry for the things I have done," he says, as quietly as he can. "But I am sorry for what those things may have done to you."

Eyes on him, fully dressed now, Blake brushes his fingers against the front of the mask, a curious touch–says, "I know," and leaves.

For the first time, in a long time, Bane sleeps.

But he does not dream, as dreams are for men whom have things they want and have not yet attained.

.

John could block Bane's attacks in his sleep these days. He knows the patterns, that he'll go for an undercut over a hit to the chest if he can. Knows that he'll never be able to match him in pure strength, so that means he has to be faster, move faster, dodge faster, and he knows he's capable of it.

"Used to get made fun of," he mentions one day, breathing hard, blinking sweat out of his eyes, "because I wasn't all that good at sports. Liked them, but wasn't good at the ones that mattered. There was this one kid who was real big. A fucking asshole, too. Couldn't do his own homework, but he could throw a ball, so he thought he was better than me and told me more than once. Usually I didn't listen, but it got to me after a while."

"What happened?" Bane asks, from where he's taping his hands, flexing fingers in and out of a fist.

"Kicked the shit out of him," John grins. "Now, hit me."

He doesn't really have to work on hand to hand combat anymore, but he knows better than to get lax with any skills he might have gained over the past few months. Stagnation doesn't suit him, anyway.

He can't always beat Bane, but he can outsmart him, and that's a victory in more ways than he can count. Bane's pure muscle and a smart guy besides, but John's been trained to assume he won't have the upper hand, and his skills lie in turning tables, making a bad situation work in his advantage.

He fights harder, because he's always had to.

Nowadays he sleeps, deeply if not at length, because he's come to realize he'll only ever be a burden if he isn't well-rested, and he's been anything but that for years now. He's spent long days buying more coffee than he can afford, with tired eyes and a bad temperament, and he doesn't want to go back to that, reports during the day and raids at night.

In the mornings he runs. At first he comes back out of breath and with burning muscles, feeling sore for the rest of the day. But after a few weeks of repetition he barely feels it, it's nothing more than a rush. He used to run to get away from things, but now he feels like he's working towards something new. Making things come full circle, ending up back where he started, sun just rising and no one else awake yet.

He'll sit on the front steps of the used-to-be manor and look at the view.

It's grass for miles, trees and a private road in the distance, nothing like the buildings and cars and small shops he's used to, but he likes it. The quiet is refreshing, reviving, but it's a little scary. He can understand how Bruce Wayne stayed here for eight years, never leaving.

That's something he can't do, something he won't do, something he won't let himself do.

He's reminded of it every time he has to go into the city to do errands. Small time crime is on the rise and has been for years now, people breaking the law because they don't know what else to do. The economic situation has never been worse, and desperation is, as always, the strongest motivator.

Driving past kids no older than sixteen who are so obviously holding product, girls standing on street corners, and the ever-present groups of men who don't even try to hide the fact that they're armed–he has to remind himself, not yet.

It'll be a waste of everything he's worked for if he does something on impulse. Everything depends on him being at the very back of everyone's mind, and going vigilante in street clothes isn't going to help anyone as it is.

Still, it plagues him to do nothing. Sits in his mind and doesn't leave him. It's good, though, he tells himself, it'll drive him, remembering that there are people sitting out in the open, the victims and the culprits mixed together, people he can save and people he can put away.

He doesn't work well in a system, understands how it can help, how it also hinders.

But, he thinks, needle in hand, squinting at black fabric, he'll be working outside of that all now, even if he is still wearing a uniform. All blue never really did it for him, anyway.

.

Watching water fall from above and into the cave, Bane thinks how much has changed and how much he does not mind the change.

He has long held a love for fire in his heart, but he appreciates water all the same, the slow work it does, the undeniable results it brings about.

Water falls and fire rises, but he thinks the truly interesting thing is what happens when they meet.

(A fire put out, and water flowing ever on.)

Blake tells him the name he's decided on one night, says it out loud like the word itself is precious, something to be protected and cared for, a legacy all his own.

Nightwing.

Bane likes it.

.

Gotham has dived headfirst into fall, the air smelling like burning leaves and calling for a jacket just about every day. The city's a grey place at the best of times, and John thinks it's perfect. Halloween's right around the corner, and while it's a little on the nose he has to admit it's the perfect excuse to try out a new costume.

When he thinks about it now he realizes that he has it better than Bruce Wayne who had billions in his bank account.

No one's going to ask where he's been all night. No one's going to be wondering what he does with his time. No one even cares now.

He has an anonymity that Bruce never had. He's not going to be on page six–just page one.

Maybe he's not ideal for the job, sometimes his hands itch for a gun to hold, the comfort of a trigger under his finger, something he knows would not be approved of. He's got some rationals that he needs to get rid of, the justification of taking a life can't stay with him and he knows it. He has no plans to cast himself into any role, whether savior or lawless watchdog. He wants none of it.

He thinks he's got that right at least, as long as he can hold onto it, and he's got a pretty good grip.

Turning, he says, "I didn't look in the mirror. Not that I'm too worried about it, but I do feel a little stupid. Do I look stupid?"

"It is a lot of spandex," Bane says in answer, eyes on him like they always are.

"Too much?" John raises his arms and turns his hands. He doesn't know how he feels about the gloves, even if they are necessary. Maybe a different fabric would work better. He definitely likes the boots though, he's keeping the boots.

"I'm not," Bane pauses, considers words, goes with, "complaining. It is certainly as theatrical as I would have expected, considering who's spot you're filling."

"Overtaking," John corrects. He's found he likes putting it that way better. "Batman was a prototype. I'm the new product on the market, new and improved."

"Ah." Bane puts a hand on his shoulder, a comforting weight. "And when you come back in a few hours, bloodied and bruised, should I mention what you just said? Or shall we forget your boasts in favor of you adopting some humility?"

"All this coming from the guy who thinks he's omnipotent." John pushes his hand away, but lets his fingers circle around his wrist for a moment before pulling away. "But, if worse comes to worse, there are some medical supplies around here, and I am going to expect help."

"Of course."

Sometimes John wonders what Bane's smile might look like, but then he sees it, eyes brighter than they have any right to be on a man who calls himself a mercenary.

"But, you know," John says, fitting the mask around his face and grinning, brilliantly. "I think everything's going to be just fine."