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They were to die together. He would rather have seen her live but he could deny her nothing, not even her own end, as much as it pained him. He would endure her wish to see them both concluded together in a spectacular victory against the horrors of the world. This, though, was the true horror come back to avenge itself for their grandiose ideal, one last twist of the knife from whatever entity chose to cast its voyeur eye on Gotham.
He found her body, so broken, its cold fire gone and in its place the winter’s chill. He could not bring himself to touch her. He was no longer worthy of such an honor. Her protector, yet there she lay dead while he felt so horrifically full of life.
He stood there and watched over her. There was so much chaos in the aftermath that few paid attention to a single crumpled truck, buried deep in the city’s tunnels. He watched the slow decomposition of her face, the way it became more and more pallid, how her skin flaked over with ice and liquid organs spilled, green and vile, from her once red lips.
He watched from a distance, a lurking shadow on the wall of a gray, cracked tunnel, not moving for days from his silent vigil until the animals started to claim her as their feast. Only when they had picked her clean could he stand to be in her presence. Bare bones and bits of cloth were all that was left when he lifted her slowly, gently, from the remains.
He walked with her one last time, spoke to her softly as he would when she was a child, when he was still permitted to indulge in his wish to treat her with tenderness. He didn’t think she would slight him for this, given the circumstances, only perhaps shake her head that he would still treat her like an innocent. There was not much for him to say to her. He could not apologize for living, because that implied that he thought he might one day earn her forgiveness.
Instead, he knelt down on the nearby docks with her, rocked her to him twice before he lowered her slowly into the saltwater with a final promise.
“I will find another, one as pure and strong as you were, and I will not fail them as I did you.”
The armor was sound. With careful work that involved combing through the cave’s strange computer setup, John had been able to learn and make adjustments in the suit until it fit his body like a second skin. The first night he left the cave, he felt completely absurd. How did Bruce take himself seriously when he went out dressed like a giant bat? He didn’t have Bruce’s confidence, he supposed, perhaps it came only with living life as a billionaire, whereas John had always considered himself lucky if he had more than five dollars in his threadbare wallet.
The air was cold against his face as he walked down countless shadowy streets, not really knowing what he was looking for. He felt aimless, and was sure he stuck out as just another strange Batman impersonator to anyone who might see him, and really, that’s all he was. He had the armory, a reduced version of it, what had been in the cave and secured away when Bane had made his raid of Wayne Enterprise’s applied science division, but he wasn’t Batman. Bruce Wayne was dead, and in a moment of what had to be insanity, decided to bequeath his true legacy to one Robin J. Blake, a gift from one angry orphan to another.
Some gift. He realized late into his walk that Bruce had always smeared black grease over his eyes to better conceal his face, that he probably should have kept to the ‘batpod’ instead of walking the streets on foot like he was still a cop doing his beat, and, finally, that he should have at least kept his piece tucked away somewhere on him in case of emergency. He hadn’t even brought his cell phone. He didn’t really think it could be appropriate to have it go off in the middle of attempting to thwart a mugging.
Like the one that was happening right then.
Every doubt he had fell away. It was exhilarating. Where riot armor made him feel hindered and claustrophobic in a fight, the suit moved with him. Each punch he threw met its mark, a nose crunched beneath his fist and he felt the splatter of blood hit his lips. With a pained yell, the attacker fell before him and cupped his hands over the deluge of blood streaming from his face. The cop still inside of John wanted to haul him off to the nearest station and drop him on the doorstep, but the free man inside knew better.
To establish that Batman had returned, there needed to be observers to see it. Witnesses on both sides, the virtuous and the malevolent. One would run away and hold their loved ones as they told how they escaped death. The other would whisper tales in the dark, or share news of the return over a crack pipe as his shattered nose festered. Slowly, the rumor would spread, and then Gotham would know that it had not been abandoned once again.
So instead he leaned down to pick up the backpack that had fallen down into the filthy corner of the ally and handed it to the man whose shocked eyes flickered back and forth between John and the squatting would-be mugger. Slack fingers finally gripped at the dirty straps and the man cradled it to himself protectively.
He kept his voice deep and gruff even though it tickled at the back of his throat. Bruce had done the same, and he wanted people to think the original was back. The man stared for another long moment before he took off running, his worn sneakers making wet slapping noises against the pavement. John spared the crouching mugger one last glance, sure that he wouldn’t be trying anything again anytime soon, then left without another word.
Not bad for the first night on the job.
He wasn’t alone in his mission, that night. There was another wandering the streets, also looking for someone to protect, but their respective intentions were far estranged. One sought to protect many, to inspire an entire city. The other needed but one soul to set their own into balance. Neither would rest until they found what they were pursuing.
Two men found dead— Bodies discovered in dumpster in the theater district.
Barely a blip in the newspaper, sparse details. Necks snapped, one beaten, the other found with a dingy backpack. John crushed the opened newspaper in his hands as he read the report. There was little evidence that it was the same pair he’d encountered the night before, but his gut clenched and he just knew. He should have walked the man home, seen to it he was safe, and sent the mugger to the station. If he had, there would be two less bodies on stone slabs, he just knew it. Now he felt the weight of two people’s lives on his shoulders, and he knew that now there was no one to spread the word that Batman had returned.
He had to go out again, but this time he would do it right. He would make sure the innocent were safe before he turned his back on them. He would do something to alert the police to the crime scene, and then he would vanish and let Batman’s myth take over. Once that happened, he would only have to go out on occasion, to reassert the image. The idea of a shadowy creature haunting Gotham’s villains was as good a sedative to the beast that was the city’s nightlife as the actual bat.
Two more unworthy souls, both cowards, neither innocent as they stared up at him with terrified eyes. Worse yet, they were weak. He could see it when they refused to meet his stare, when they wavered beneath him, one pissing onto the dirty alleyway like a dog fearful of its master’s kick. They were not worthy of his protection, and Talia would never have approved of them nor their continued existence when she, so worthy, was now dead. He disposed of them and continued his search until the light was too blinding to continue. He would continue again tomorrow, and would not rest until he found what he needed.
He remembered the black grease this time. It was oily and uncomfortable as it caked into the corners of his mask. After some deliberation, he’d tucked his silenced cell phone into a small pocket on the utility belt. It was small and prepaid, but he knew that with some effort it was traceable. It didn’t matter, though; in Gotham no one was going to bother to do it, not for a called-in tip. If something terrible happened, he could put in a call to Gordon and count on him for rescue and secrecy even though he was avoiding dragging the commissioner into another game where he was surrounded by secrecy and masked men. The man had seen enough, felt enough bullets tear through his body, his family, his life. He deserved a break.
Somehow he ended up walking again, though. He couldn’t kick the need to have his feet planted on something solid, the desire to still feel like a part of the city despite all of its faults and dirty crevices. The batpod was too fast and streamlined. It made him feel distant from it all, better than it, above it. He wasn’t. Besides, if he was looking for trouble, it made more sense to keep to the tight corners of the streets where vehicles never went, to transverse fire escapes and scrabble carefully from rooftops where he had a bird’s eye view. It was exhilarating and terrifying the way his cape would catch the drafts of wind and let him glide down to drop with no more than a light crunch of gravel beneath his feet.
The streets, for the most part, were silent. Most citizens still held to the mentality of Bane’s militant regime. They hid inside the false safety of their dilapidated homes when night fell. There was activity, though. He looked down from the rooftops at barrels which burned hot and smoky while the homeless warmed their hands in the flames. Some of them were once socialites, their wealth demolished and their status destroyed. Now they gathered with the rest, if one part of Talia’s plan had worked, it was that social order in Gotham had been toppled.
Blake couldn’t say he cared much. They were alive, warm at least. He’d pulled enough bodies out of the sewers, ones of boys who never had a chance, who could never have even fathomed the type of privilege the wealthy had indulged in. His gloved fist clenched at the thought; the fire that burned bright in his bones, the fire that never really left, was at a low simmer. He would keep these people safe just like anyone else he might see, because Batman was an idea, an idea of justice, and he still believed in the Batman, even when people didn’t deserve him.
When the area appeared secure, he moved on. He checked on the boys’ home. All was quiet; it was a relief. He went street by street after that, but crime in its unreasonable peculiarity had seemed to take a holiday. The one scream he heard in the night had turned out to be nothing more than a catfight between two women over who got to take the first hailed cab home. He briefly considered using a batarang dipped in sedative to knock out the one screeching and yanking on the other’s bright red hair, but decided that this would be a gross misuse of his power.
With a tired sigh he decided to rein it in for the night. He still wasn’t used to wearing the armor, and the cowl was making him feel slightly claustrophobic the way it pressed tight against his face. There was also his day job to consider, or lack thereof. He’d had a little savings tucked away, not much, and barely enough to bother stuffing under his mattress when the takeover had happened. Collecting unemployment was out of the question. The entire banking system was a mess, and it would take a long time before people could even consider such a thing. If his landlord hadn’t owed him for defending the apartment when Gotham fell, he’d be sleeping in the cave Bruce had left for him, right between the weapons case and the supercomputer. Job hunting was the name of the game tomorrow, and it would most likely prove to be just as tiring as being a masked vigilante.
He traveled soundlessly back towards his vehicle. It was safely tucked away beside a dumpster, the black tarp that concealed it making it seem as though it was nothing more than a lump of garbage bags piled up and left to decompose. With a quick jerk of his wrists, the tarp fell away and pooled by his feet.
There was a scream, then. This one was not in indignation or anger, but in terror.
“Shit,” he cursed and let the plastic sheet fall forgotten to the concrete. He ran towards the source, his footfalls heavy as he stomped the street in his haste.
He watched her in silence as she pressed back against the wall of a building. Painted nails were chipped off and scraped into mossy brick as she dragged herself against the wall, trying to slink away even under his gaze. It was impossible to know what he was truly looking for, precisely. When he saw it, he would know. He remembered when he knew before. When he had looked up from his bowl of scraps into the eyes of a child who looked back at him with no fear, with no request for pity though she had been sacrificed to hell, whose beautiful, pure innocence and cold fury had made him ache inside with feelings he had thought long lost to? the pit, he had known. This woman before him was nothing more than an animal by comparison, a wretched thing.
He stepped forward, deciding to permit her the small mercy of a quick end to her existence. Her lips tightened in fear, he could hear the soft terrified whine in the back of her throat, bothersome.
There was a gasp, deeper, that of a man, coming from behind him. It gave him pause. It was enough for the woman to turn and flee. He did not pursue; the mercy he offered was wasted on her. He turned his attention instead on the newcomer.
The bat? No. Something new. Something different.
He was lunged at. Armored knuckles punched at his face. To another, it would have seemed as though the fist flew. His own reflexes were unrivaled, though, and it was easy to slap away the punch with the back of his hand. He watched with mild curiosity as the man pulled back, regrouped. Smeared with paint and covered as he was it was still so easy to read in his body language how his mind raced for a plan of some sort.
He ground the thinking to a halt with his fist. One brutal blow to his kidney, then another given to its brother. A stomped boot to a now-exposed chest as the man laid out on the ground. The armor that had protected must now pain as it slammed into his ribs and sternum, grunts and desperate gasps for the air that had been stolen from his lungs. Bane raised his foot again, lining it up with the man’s head, one stomp and this cowl shattered in an echo of the last that had fallen before him. A kick sent the pieces skittering across the damp ground.
Another rise of his leg to crush the skull and end such nonsense.
There was no sound, save for that of heavy breathing.
He looked down at the broken figure before him. Smeared black eyes closed tightly. The lips twisted.
But not in fear. In silent fury.
He studied the face further. Could it be this broken boy? For he did look to be a boy, still, foolish in ideal if he believed dressing up like the Batman would protect him, would save Gotham.
An innocent, childish belief, his brain whispered to him.
There could be no risk. He would not shy away from his promise even in this strange circumstance. His foot lowered, slower, onto the now exposed neck.
“You will show me your eyes,” he ordered softly, the command filtered through his mask with a low hiss.
Fingers scratched and clawed into his booted ankle as the boy struggled to breathe, to speak, perhaps to curse him in a dying breath. Then finally, near exhaustion, his eyes fluttered open.
Her eyes. Not in color, but in spirit, they stared back up at him.
He lifted his foot and dropped down to kneel beside him. He grasped a fistful of hair and placed a careful but firm hand to his shoulder, unable to resist the desire to touch and claim once more. To have finally found his peace, his redemption.
The boy did not understand. He jerked wildly and kicked his legs out uselessly against the air, in his daze missing any target. It was not to be unexpected. The slight did not offend him. Talia had been the same; she had threatened to slit his throat in his sleep with her tiny knife before he gained her trust. It was one of his fondest memories, when she would finally take food from his offered bowl, would sit beside him with her knife tucked away. It would be harder with this one, he could tell, older, different ideals, but worth any endeavor. He leaned closer, let their eyes meet again as the boy still struggled against his hold.
“Do not fear. You have been found worthy.”