He shouldn’t be alive but here he is, his cheek resting on dust and cold stone, in too much pain to be dead.
There are no lights and he thinks at first maybe he’s been buried alive; there’s dirt under his fingers and in his throat, and he panics, pushing at the ground (or is it the roof?) with a hoarse cry that should be let me out! let me out! but isn’t because his tongue can’t remember how to make the words.
A hand touches his back and presses down.
“Blake,” someone says, and he recognizes it as his name. It soothes him because he knows the voice, too.
A hand lifts his head. Something hard touches his lips and tips liquid into his mouth. He swallows gratefully, not caring what it is, so long as it takes away the terrible thirst. The hand giving him drink is patient, waiting past his first choke and sputter before giving him more, until he is sated and his mouth is cleared. His head is lowered again; the rock beneath it is still as hard.
There are no individual pains distinguishable from the rest. He tries to open his eyes. They won’t, crusted shut by who knows what. He needs to move before he’s found. He’ll have to be fast. The clock is ticking, he has to get the children out....
“Easy,” the voice says. A hand touches his head and rests on his hair. It feels like a blessing. “It’s okay. Rest, son.”
He tips gratefully back into the black again, obedient, thinking only the name.
They’re being kept in a cell somewhere in the sewers, they think. Gotham, that means, so at least there’s that. Sometimes they can hear the echo of footsteps or voices in passages nearby, but they’re the only prisoners, or at least the only ones willing to risk notice by shouting to find others.
Once in a while, a man brings by food and a jug of clean water--enough to drink and towel themselves clean--and replaces the bucket they use as a latrine. Once, there is soap and a pack of disposable razors. Another time, clean clothes. He never talks to them, but he leaves the supplies even when John curses him. It’s almost more than they had aboveground.
“It’s a good sign,” he tells Gordon. “It means they want to keep us alive. Whoever they are.”
Gordon smiles a little, which heartens John. Maybe that’s the point because the Commissioner’s eyes aren’t really smiling; they’re tired, dark with private knowledge. It’s not so unlike the way he looked before Bane revealed the truth about Harvey Dent and the Batman. He hasn’t spoken much since John woke up the second time to find him bathing his face.
“Anyway, live another day,” John says.
“Where there’s life,” Gordon says, the first part of a sentence that should end, there’s hope.
He doesn’t say it, so John does for him.
Gordon’s last memory is of jouncing around in the back of the truck with the bomb. John’s is of racing to St. Swithin’s to get the kids out of the city. They compare notes and decide that John was taken first, though Gordon was in the cell for two days before he was brought in.
“Did the bomb go off?” John asks.
Gordon says, “I don’t know.” His eyes are haunted. John doesn’t feel any better, thinking about the kids.
The walls press in on them both, the constant feel of weight above their heads making the cell increasingly claustrophobic. John takes to pacing back and forth, making a circuit of the room that strangely makes it seem smaller and smaller until he is nearly vibrating with tension. Gordon watches idly, as though observing fish through an aquarium glass, relaxed by their endless back and forth.
“How can you keep so calm?” John snaps.
“You haven’t been on enough stakeouts,” Gordon says, for all that he’s Commissioner and shouldn’t have been on any in years. John, who has seen over the last five months plus change how obsessively Gordon checks his gun when adrenaline is high and action is maddeningly out of reach, has the urge to punch him just to get a reaction.
Maybe sensing that, Gordon gives him an exasperated look. He pushes off the wall. “Come on, then,” he says.
John wonders, but approaches, step springy with frustration. Still, he is quite unprepared when the Commissioner sweeps his feet out from under him and brings him smashing to the floor on his back. Given this invitation, he bounces up swinging, relieved at the opportunity to vent some energy. He has the feeling that Gordon is humoring him when he lands a blow, and is grateful for it, though he’s careful not to go too near the glasses. At some point, apparently deciding enough is enough, the Commissioner flattens him again and asks breathlessly, “Feel better?”
John wheezes, “Ow.”
Gordon reaches down a hand to help him up, saying, “Not bad for a young man.”
“Not bad for an old one,” John retorts, feeling the lump at the back of his head. Gordon grins, eyes alight, and John realizes that the exchange was as cathartic for the Commissioner as it was for him. “I thought you were supposed to get flabby behind a desk,” he says accusingly.
“How often have you seen me behind a desk?”
“Good point,” John acknowledges, and finds it feels good to grin back.
They pad Gordon’s coat with bits of fabric ripped off of other pieces of clothing, and find a way to hang it off the wall. They look like scarecrows now, but it isn’t as though they’ll be invited to any state occasions, Gordon points out dryly, and John has a punching bag that he can expend his extra energy on.
Mostly, the Commissioner conserves his, though what he’s saving it for, John has no idea.
The first time the men come, John is asleep. He wakes up to the sound of Gordon’s voice raised in anger, and finds the Commissioner standing in front of his pallet, a barrier between their captors and him.
“I’m the ranking officer!” Gordon shouts. “If he wants someone, you take me!”
There are three men outside the opening door, two of them unknowns, but the third one he recognizes with a throat-closing dread as Bane’s right-hand man.
“No,” John says hoarsely. He tries to scramble to his feet, but the thin blanket is tangled up in his legs and he goes sprawling instead.
They don’t even spare him a glance. There is no time to argue anything, though John manages to knock one of them down before the world explodes into stars and white static, and he goes down as well. He is dimly aware of Gordon shouting and the scuffle of feet as the Commissioner tries to fight three men in the confines of a small cell. Someone’s foot gets John in the stomach, and the rest of the commotion is lost to him; he is too busy retching around the knot of pain.
When he recovers, he is alone.
I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
He paces the width of the cell to count off the minutes, winding tighter and tighter with each tally of ten. He has estimated three hours before they bring Gordon back. They are taking no chances with foolish heroics this time; one man trains a gun on John while the other two haul a limp body in and drop him like a sack of meat on the floor.
Blood smears like ink across the stone. “Gordon,” John says helplessly, dropping to his knees beside him. There are bruises blooming across almost every surface; the imprint of massive fingers on his throat and wrists.
Gordon’s eyes flutter open, dazed, the pupils swallowing blue irises whole. “Bane,” he whispers.
He does what he can. Gordon lets him take off his shirt to wash some of the worst of the injuries, but won’t let him look below that. He can feel how the Commissioner flinches when John’s bare fingers touch skin, and even without the blood that’s darkening his pants, John knows why. He’s seen the signs too many times not to recognize them. Helpless rage chokes off his voice, the worse because of the shameful relief that it didn’t happen to him.
Gordon wouldn’t appreciate his pity. John doesn’t ask questions. He bandages what he can with strips he tears from his shirt, tries not to touch him or hover too close. It’s all he can do.
When he’s done, he helps Gordon put his shirt back on and eases him down to his side on the pallet.
He expects silence, but Gordon finally starts talking. First, an idle anecdote about his first few days as a Lieutenant in charge of Major Case. Then about the strange, precarious bond between Batman, Harvey Dent, and himself. John listens, because there’s nothing else to listen to, but also because it is history, experienced first-hand, and the sound of Gordon’s voice relaxes the knots in his stomach; the easy, comfortable cadence suggests that everything is just fine, that they’ll both pull through.
“Then there was the Joker,” says Gordon.
“The Joker,” John says. “I thought that was his name. Just ... Joker.”
Gordon’s mouth squashes into something between a grimace and a smile. “There was only ever the one.” And after a second, he adds ironically, “Like the Bat.”
“Like the Honest Cop,” John says, and answers Gordon’s startled lift of eyebrows with, “You never knew that’s what the papers used to call you?”
“Used to,” says Gordon, and chuckles without humor.
Before John knows it, the drift of the story transforms into the legend he has learned about, but never really understood: the Joker’s obsession with Batman; the race against time; the great failure that broke the white knight’s heart. Ripples upon ripples. The Batman, the Joker, Rachel Dawes, Harvey Dent. Hubs of a wheel. And in the middle, the only survivor. Gordon.
“You should be flattered. You’re the first one who ever got to hear this story,” the Commissioner says wryly. “There are only three other people alive who know what really happened: my ex-wife and my kids.”
“Four,” says John. “There’s Batman.”
Gordon stops and looks at him. “And Batman,” he says, and the way he says it tells John he thinks Batman is dead.
It is a bitter, tragic, sordid tale. He tells it without apology, with enough regret for a lifetime.
“Why are you telling me this?” John asks when he is done.
Gordon pauses, then says wearily, “Just making conversation, Blake.”
They let Gordon heal before they come for him again.
In between, Gordon takes on new life, lifting John’s spirits which have begun to flatten to despair. He tells John stories about his years as a beat cop, and then as a detective: deeply hilarious, often tragic, sometimes both. John laughs until he can’t breathe, making Gordon grin, then competes with his own ludicrous anecdotes. The Gotham that Gordon tells him about sounds like an easier time, though John doesn’t say so. Compared to the apocalypse and the wasteland made by Bane, dealing with human criminals with simple motivations like greed seems like a halcyon dream.
“That’s the problem with hindsight,” Gordon says, maybe reading his face or his thoughts, John doesn’t know. “The night looks blackest when you’re in it, but dawn has a way of chasing away the shadows.” He has an unexpected poetic streak to him, does the pragmatic Commissioner.
“I could use some dawn now,” John says.
If he felt bitterness about Gordon’s role in the great lie, it’s long gone now. It doesn’t need a cop’s training to hear the respect and old affection in his voice when he talks about the Bat. After so long in enforced silence, he is unburdening himself of years of pent-up truths. He tells the story of the night Batman first came to him in his office; the furious criminals left tied up on the precinct steps; the short conversations on the MCU roof. Batman had a wicked sense of humor, he says, before the Joker killed Rachel Dawes. John can picture the pair of them, Batman hunting by night, Gordon owning the day, standing together under the glare of that searchlight.
John envies them, even while he wonders how Bruce Wayne came to pick Jim Gordon as his ally. He wonders whether Wayne really realizes how lucky his choice was. His hero-worship of the Commissioner is long gone now, but what John has built over the last six months--is still building with Gordon--is better than that: solid, strong, honest. In the quiet of their endless twilight, he secretly thinks it’s like having a father.
“We were a team,” Gordon says. “Partners have each other’s backs. But-- I don’t know. I always felt like he needed something more than he would let me give him. Like he needed to be saved.”
“Batman?” John asks a bit incredulously.
“Everyone needs to be protected sometimes, Blake. Even the ones who guard the rest of us. Something happened to him long ago to make him the way he is now. Something terrible. I wouldn’t have changed the first years we worked together, but--”
“Sometimes I wished I could’ve changed whatever it was that made him put on the suit.”
John thinks of what he knows of Bruce Wayne, of the anger hidden by the smile. They both put on a suit. John’s just came with a badge. “Do you want to know who he is?” he asks.
“If you want,” John offers.
The Commissioner looks at him with surprised tolerance. “It’s not your secret to tell, son,” he says.
When Gordon is more mobile, he teaches John the street-won wisdom of a veteran cop. John teaches him some tricks learned as an orphan growing up in the bad part of town.
John appreciates the activity, even within the confined borders of their cell. The experience of the first time turns out not to be a fluke, though both of them move carefully, conscious of the beating Gordon has taken. John likes being able to take the Commissioner down. He is surprised at how often Gordon can return the favor, healing injuries notwithstanding. Youth and strength don’t always win against old age and vicious, unapologetic treachery.
“You cheat,” he accuses.
“So will they,” Gordon says.
“Show me,” he says, and Gordon does. When John manages the trick and pins him, Gordon is startled into a laugh, and John feels pride tingling along his skin like sunshine.
Then the footsteps come and the door opens.
John tries to get between them and the Commissioner, but it’s Gordon who moves him gently out of the way and walks out without faltering, like he’s been ready and waiting. Which maybe he was.
After that, Gordon doesn’t laugh again.
Twice, they’re moved, thrust along in a forced march that takes them through mazes of tunnels and black chambers lit by generators. Behind them, they can hear explosions as ceilings come down.
“Someone’s been looking for us,” Gordon murmurs to John as they stumble through dark passages.
“It has to be the Batman. Nobody else would bother.”
“True, but I’m stupid that way.”
John’s grin feels like a knife in the dark.
Their latest cell is a lot like the last ones, except this one has a view of a large chamber where their captors congregate. There is no privacy, but at least there’s something for them to watch. Gordon’s glasses were left behind when they moved, and his hurts are worse this last time--they don’t give him as much time to heal in between conversations with Bane anymore--so he lies on his pallet to rest while John does the counting and estimating.
“Twelve men,” he says, “not counting Bane.” Which might as well be a hundred for all the good it does them right now.
“Less than I expected,” Gordon says. “We can take that.” His smile has an edge of recklessness, boyish, before it relaxes to older, more sedate lines. “I’ll get the six on the left.”
John, remembering the sprawl of dead assassins on a hospital room floor, says, “I have a better plan. You take the eight on the left, and I’ll take the four on the right.”
Gordon sighs and closes his eyes. “I weep for your generation,” he says.
Mostly, John is angry.
They’ve lost track of time. John thinks it’s been four months, or maybe longer. Gordon’s watch runs out of battery nine weeks in, so the only unit of measure left is the occasional opening of the door, the long, solitary waiting, then the washing of injuries that are multiplying on pale, dirty skin. Something has broken in Gordon, because he’s unconscious more often than not these days. He lets John tend the injuries below his waist now; whatever Bane has been doing to him has made him numb to shame.
In such close proximity for so many hours a day, there is no hope for privacy anyway. There’s blood in the bucket they use as a latrine, but there’s been blood in it for a while now.
In between, Gordon’s almost the same as he was, as though those sessions with Bane are just a bad dream, forgotten once the sleeper wakes. John can see how much the effort hurts him, trying to be strong for John’s sake. The same creeping, cowardly part of him that is grateful this is not happening to him wants him to latch onto that courage and warm himself at its feet. Sometimes, when the anger fails him, he does. Gordon lets him, easing John’s despair and perhaps getting something back from that need.
John doesn’t remember the difference between gratitude and love. The boundaries are so close together, they seem like the same thing. Maybe they are, here.
“What does he want from you?” John asks, curled up like a child with his head on Gordon’s lap. The Commissioner’s hand strokes his hair, comforting and soothing.
“Revenge,” Gordon says.
“For what? Didn’t he win?”
Gordon smiles wearily. “Apparently not everything.”
John feels the squeeze of hope in his chest again. It’s only a spark these days, a little ember that he hoards carefully and feels fading with each clank of the door. Gordon is no longer able to rise on his own to walk out with the men who come for him, but he tries. One of these days, he won’t come back, and John will be all alone.
He cannot fathom the world after that. His mind shies away from the possibility. Doubtless he will take Gordon’s place under Bane’s fists, but it is the thought of losing the Commissioner that unsettles him; he is the entirety of the world that is left to John. Gordon’s slow decay frightens him more than whatever bloody ruin Bane can inflict.
“Why do you go with them?” he asks furiously once, when they hear the footsteps in the hall.
Gordon, leaned against the wall, closes his eyes. “Because the alternative is intolerable,” he says.
“I can take it.”
The Commissioner looks down at him at last, his eyes clear and tired. “You’re one of my men, John.”
There’s a world of meaning in that; an ocean’s weight of responsibility and obligation and painful, costly faith. John touches the battered hand, with its scabs and bruises of failed fights. Gordon touches his hair back, in silent understanding, and then straightens when the door opens.
John still tries, every time. He pushes between Bane’s men and Gordon, offering himself up as a shield or a replacement. Bane isn’t interested in him. It is his men who club him down, or Gordon who moves him aside, and either way John watches him go, shamed and embraced by his steady courage.
The Commissioner is quieter of late, conserving his strength. When he speaks, it is in short spurts, marshalling the thoughts and organizing them into compact bundles to be expressed with as little effort as possible. John, too, is quieter. Entire days pass when they barely exchange a word, understanding each other without effort regardless, like old partners that have absorbed each other’s ways. There is a peace in that sympathy of understanding, and John cherishes it, even though it makes the loneliness while Gordon is gone that much more sharp.
“Do you know what I regret the most?” Gordon asks once, stretched on his pallet with John a quiet watcher at his side.
“Your children?” They never speak of his family, though John knows he has one.
Gordon huffs what might have become a pained chuckle in happier days. “Besides that.”
“No.” He closes his eyes. “I never got to thank Batman. He would never let me.”
“Maybe when he finds us, you’ll get your chance,” John says.
Gordon sighs, and then he’s still, unconscious again, and John knows he doesn’t have that much more left in him. Please, he prays, making a deity out of the man Gordon has such faith in. Please, Batman. Please.
This time, it’s Gordon who’s asleep, or worse than asleep because he doesn’t wake when John tries to wash his injuries again. Doesn’t even stir at the worst of them, where cloth has glued itself into the wounds, and the red creep of infection is fever-hot to the touch.
It has only been a day since the last time, but he hears the footsteps again and knows what they mean. Bane’s men come in without preamble and head straight for Gordon. John is fast enough to get between them, and ready enough to fight them when they try to shove him aside.
“You take me,” he says, before they can reach him. “Leave him alone. He’s dying. He can’t take any more. I’m healthy. I’ll last longer.”
Bane’s second-in-command looks at him, like he’s noticing him for the first time. Then he stoops to inspect Gordon.
John lunges to try and push him away from the Commissioner, but the other two grab his arms and drag him back. “Please,” he says desperately. “I won’t fight. Just take me. Leave Gordon alone. I’ll do what Bane wants.”
The second-in-command straightens to study him. Then he nods, and John feels sick relief replacing air in his lungs. They let him walk, like Gordon walked, and though the Commissioner isn’t awake to see it, John comforts himself with the thought that he would have been proud.
The room they take him to is larger than the others, but almost identical except for a beautiful red Persian carpet on the floor. It flames in the half-lit dark like a memory of joy. He stops dead, staring at it, the first beauty he’s seen in a nightmare’s age; it shakes him with its unexpectedness. An impatient hand shoves him forward onto it. He stumbles. The sound of his shoes on the glowing color makes him realize that it’s covered in a clear plastic tarp. They leave him there, alone and unattended.
There’s a heavy cloth covering one wall, and crates in the room, crude, makeshift furniture. He’s seen the men using such things as seats and tables and sometimes beds in the larger room by their cell. There is only one visible entrance, the one behind him through which the men who brought him left. No escape that way. He does a quick sweep for a weapon--there are a few tools to be seen, nothing big enough or sharp enough--then sprints for the curtains in the hope there is another exit that way.
He shoves aside the fabric. It rustles at the sweep of his arm. Behind it is a tunnel.
Bane is standing in it.
John retreats immediately, backing out from under the curtain into the room itself. Bane follows, inexorable and massive, his eyes fixed on John’s. It is the closest that John has ever been to the mercenary who ruled Gotham, and he is made breathless by the sheer impact of his attention; the force of personality that brought a country to its knees. It reduces John to a speck in the eye, an ant under an indifferent god’s foot. When he hears plastic crinkle underfoot he stops, bracing himself against the future.
Bane stops as well. A panicked corner of John’s mind is relieved at this, while the rest of him wraps old anger around himself and pushes out fear. “You’re killing Gordon,” he says into the silence. He is distantly proud of himself; his voice does not waver. “Leave him alone. I’m here in his place. Take me instead.”
“The sacrificial lamb,” Bane says in his strange, hollow voice. “Is Gordon throwing you to the wolf to save himself?”
“He doesn’t know I’m here,” John says fiercely, his chin flagging high in defiance. His hands tighten into fists at his side, nails digging into his palms. “He’s unconscious. He needs medical care. I’ll do what you want. I won’t fight you. Just ... help him.”
He hates himself for the pleading note that slips into his voice, but the thought of Gordon dying is unendurable. He has become something more than commander or friend--he has become a father--and the possibility of losing him is like a boulder in his chest.
“So loyal. So strong,” mocks Bane, sauntering towards him. John holds fast; his heart is stumbling over itself, sprinting towards terror, its pound painful in his throat. He can smell the mercenary, a strange mix of chemical and metal, sweat and leather. Blood. “How strong will you be for him?”
“Strong enough,” John says, and bares his teeth in challenge. Thinks, but does not say, Fuck you.
He expects the first blow that flattens him. It is too strong to be meant for any other purpose, smashed into his solar plexus. He crumples like a rag. For a split second he is grateful that he hasn’t eaten in hours; bile floods his tongue and he swallows it back, straining for air against the breath-stealing pain.
A hand grabs his hair, hauling him up to his knees against the protest of his spasming stomach muscles. He heaves for air, rasping loudly in the quiet; Bane watches him with distant curiosity, then backhands him across the face. The casual ease with which he does it does not relate to the strength of the blow. Acid is replaced by the thick taste of copper as John’s teeth cut into the inside of his mouth; he feels the sting as his lip splits.
Drops of red splatter against plastic. So that’s why, he thinks numbly. He lifts his knuckles to his mouth. They come away spotted with blood. Bane lifts that massive fist again, and John watches it without resistance, strangely, peacefully relieved.
Beatings, he has had. He is heartened; this is something he knows. He can do this.
The world explodes into sheets of red and white as he hits the floor, ears ringing. He hears the plastic being ripped away from the rug. Then the clump of footsteps. He hisses in surprise as he’s rolled over, off the cold stone onto the softness of the carpet. There’s no place to hide. Bane’s hands haul at his pants, and he kicks out despite himself, trying to strike at that hateful mask or at least something that’ll make what’s about to happen, impossible, but Bane just chuckles in that aspirated, metallic amusement, and pins him down.
“You have her eyes,” Bane says, capturing John’s face in one massive hand. The mercenary’s eyes are pleased. Cruel. “So strong. So fierce.”
John shudders at the thumb that slides across his lower lip, smearing blood across his skin. He can feel Bane on his bare leg, the hard swell under the trousers. Anger rises again. He welcomes it; it erases fear. “Get this over with, damn you,” he grates out.
“Gordon fought harder,” Bane says, and then laughs when that makes John convulse in rage.
He expects it to hurt. He’s heard stories--every orphan does--and grew up with people who’d had it happen to them, but it’s never happened to him, not once. Bane flips him over onto his stomach with nauseating ease, and drags his hips up to meet him. There’s no tenderness; it’s not that kind of a game. He hears the rasp of a zipper being undone, feels the roughness of fabric and strong thighs pressing against him. Then there’s a hard weight positioning itself against him from behind. Panic flutters in his throat. He closes his eyes. I can do this.
John is ripped apart, shredded into blazing-white, bleeding-white agony. He can’t stop the scream; he forgets to even try, though the sound is half-buried in the carpet. His body forgets its promise to submit and writhes, struggling to pull itself away from the hands that are leaving bruises on his hips, but Bane shudders and draws out, then drives into him again in a ruthless, deep stroke that leaves John choking around another terrible sound he can’t quite swallow.
It lasts forever. The first few dry, tearing thrusts grow smoother, slicker, lubricated by blood and other things, he doesn’t want to think of what. It doesn’t matter, it still hurts, and nerves send their desperate protest: this is wrong, this is wrong! John grips the carpet, clawing deep at the weave and biting his arm hard enough to draw blood in order to keep back his cries. I chose this, he tells himself, clinging desperately to his rage. I chose this. I chose this. I chose this.
At one point Bane lowers himself over him, holding him pinned with his weight and his arm. Cold metal brushes John’s jaw; he pants desperately, riding the crest of pain as Bane’s movement finds a new angle, worse than the first. Bane rocks, small motions that are like heated knives inside him. John hears a whimpering sound and realizes it’s him. There is no room in this pain for shame. It crowds out everything else and makes a mockery of pride. “I did this to Gordon, but he wasn’t as giving as you are,” the mercenary says. Even through the mask, he sounds breathless. “John. John Blake. How did I forget you, little bird? Now I remember why I took you.”
And then he is hauled back again by his hips, folded over onto Bane’s lap and he can’t hold back another scream when Bane lifts him and slams him down on himself, again and again and I can’t, I can’t and again and again please, please, please please please....
When it’s over he falls crumpled on the carpet, shoved down and curling in on himself. He can feel wetness slicking his thighs, trickling down around his knee. “You’re a sweet one,” Bane says, tousling his hair with a careless hand before rising off of him. John can hear the zipper being drawn up. Then a foot rolls him over onto his back. Bane kneels down beside him, one elbow propped on his knee. His eyes are the same blue as Gordon’s, John realizes fuzzily. He can’t stop shivering; his teeth are clicking together and he clamps his jaw shut, though this doesn’t stop the uneven shudder of his breathing. Shock, he thinks distantly. Already the pain is distancing itself, as though it belongs to someone else’s body.
Bane slides the back of his finger along John’s cheek in a terrifyingly gentle caress. He flinches away, unable to stop himself. “Stay here, little one,” the mercenary says. “I’ll return soon.”
“Gordon,” he chokes out, remembering his purpose. “He needs--” and hears Bane laugh before he walks away.
Maybe it won’t hurt so much, John thinks, then has to stop to force the panic down. Next time.
He’s wrong. It does.
Gordon is awake when John is brought back, dragged along on legs that don’t seem to work right. The Commissioner is angry, a sick fury vivid in his face. He pulls himself up to shout at John’s escort, a waste of energy he can ill afford to lose. They don’t pay any heed.
“Oh, son,” Gordon says unsteadily, while John huddles on the floor, wracked with dry heaves. “It should’ve been me.”
John can understand now Gordon’s need to talk after these ... sessions. Anything to cover up the silence, which might lead to questions that they both already know the answer to, and to drown out the rasp of Bane’s voice in his ear. He lies on his pallet and babbles, unable to look down at his own body and admit it is his.
While Gordon moves slowly, painfully doing for John what John has done so many times for him, John tells him about his childhood. About his parents. The cop that sat with him afterwards and held him while he shuddered, unable to cry. Gordon touches the waistband of his pants, eyes questioning, and John lets him tend to the rest, still talking, louder and faster. The priest at St. Swithin’s, and the scramble to make ends meet. The endless jobs they took as kids to add a little more to the limited funds the priest could beg from donors. The anger that he learned to hide with a smile. The foster parents who hit him. The ones who didn’t, but still didn’t want him. Bruce Wayne’s visit to the orphanage.
When he falls silent at last, Gordon is done and sitting with his back against the wall. The Commissioner’s face is grey and his eyes are closed, but his hand is gentle and calming on John’s head.
After a while, Gordon says thinly, “I think it was when he was a child.”
John stirs, anxiety pricking at him. It is not the first time in recent days that the Commissioner has strung a disconnected thought or word into the string of conversation. Worrying about Gordon gives him something to think about besides what has happened to him, so he says, “What was?”
“His parents were murdered.” Gordon’s eyes open, staring into some great distance, past the stone walls. “They brought him to the precinct. This little boy in a tuxedo, whose world had been destroyed. I was just a patrolman, but everyone else was busy dealing with the press, trying to catch the guy who killed Gotham’s first couple--”
Wayne. “What did you do?” John asks.
“Nothing much. There wasn’t much I could do.” Gordon sighs, rolling his head on the rock to look at John. “I put his father’s coat around him. I told him things would be okay. I never thought he’d remember, but maybe he did. Maybe that’s why he picked me.” His eyes smile sadly. “I would’ve been proud to have a son like him.”
John’s mouth is dry. “You--” he begins, but can’t quite finish through the picture of it. The cop, comforting the little orphan boy. It is as though his own childhood has echoed back through history and been handed back to him. He stumbles through the words. “I th-thought you d-didn’t want to know.”
“I may be an old man, rookie,” Gordon says tartly, “but I’m a damn sight better detective than you are, still.”
“Yes, sir,” John says, the first time he’s called Gordon ‘sir’ in a long time. He bites back an unexpected smile.
Gordon studies John. “I would’ve been proud to have a son like you, too.”
The Commissioner tips his head back again and closes his eyes. After a moment, John does the same, carrying a tiny, perfect jewel of joy with him into sleep.
The next time, they come for John.
“Help me stand,” Gordon pants, pushing himself up when he hears their footsteps in the corridor.
“No.” John climbs to his feet to brace himself, steady-eyed and determined, between the door and the other man.
“Blake,” Gordon says, his voice sharp. “That’s an order.”
“We can take up my insubordination in my next review, then,” he says evenly.
In any event, it does not matter. The second-in-command opens the door and looks at John, saying only, “He wants you.”
They leave Gordon behind, his last shout ringing across the stone.
He is taken to the carpet room again, this time missing its plastic sheeting, and as before the men who collected him disappear without a word. This time, he takes one of the tools, a small wrench with sharp edges to its head. Then he flattens himself by the curtained tunnel entrance.
When Bane steps out, John steps into the curtain behind him, and shoves the wrench’s hard tip into the mercenary’s back.
Bane stops and turns his head to look at him out of the corner of his eye.
“I have a knife at your kidneys,” John says, with the false confidence that has carried him through nights on the streets of Gotham. “Tell your men to get Gordon. We’re leaving.”
“The little bird has claws,” Bane says, and he sounds amused. John digs the wrench in harder, but the mercenary merely turns, indifferent to the possibility that he is not bluffing. John’s play at assurance pales against this monumental arrogance. He takes a step back, but Bane’s hand has already grabbed his wrist. The great fist squeezes once, contracting; John’s hand loosens its hold on the tool, forced open by that impossible strength.
The wrench clatters to the ground. “Can’t blame a guy for trying,” John says breathlessly, throwing up bravado against the smile in Bane’s eyes.
He’s hauled into the room, thrown stumbling beyond the carpet. His head hits the ground hard before he can catch himself; the blow makes him dizzy, rocking his center of balance into a crazy off-kilter spin. He hears Bane’s roar, summoning men, and the exchange of some language he doesn’t comprehend. When he staggers to his feet, he finds the room is filling: their captors, lining the walls.
He retreats as far from Bane as he is able, confusion and alarm warring with uncertainty; is Bane planning to beat and rape him in front of his men? Two of them unfold a square of plastic to lay the sheet over the carpet again, and as they do so John can see the dark stains and smears of blood caked on its surface.
The sound of footsteps behind him makes him whirl, ready to fight, but his fists fall when he sees Gordon, dragged limply between two men.
John reaches for him, sliding under his arm before the others can drop him to the ground. Gordon’s weight drags down at him for a second, making him stumble, then shifts as the Commissioner gets his feet under him. The grey face lifts to acknowledge John with a glance, then turns to the rest of the room. Inevitably, his gaze is drawn to Bane, who locks gazes with Gordon.
The shiver that ripples through Gordon’s frame is invisible to all but John, who feels it through the arm wrapped around the older man.
“Bane,” says Gordon, with strangely formal courtesy.
“Commissioner Gordon,” says Bane, likewise.
There are undercurrents that John can feel but can’t understand, lacking the key to whatever links the two men. He feels it as the hiss of adrenaline, the flicker of the lizard brain that warns, here be dragons. Fear and imagination tangle together, birthing horrifying, monstrous children between them. Does Bane intend to rape him in front of his men and Gordon? Has he called his men in to participate? Or is it Gordon they mean to do this to?
“You wanted me,” he says too loudly, stepping in front of the Commissioner to shield him from Bane’s gaze. “I’m the one you want.”
“No, it’s not,” Gordon says quietly behind him.
“You sent your men for me.”
“You’re not the one who helped kill Talia al Ghul.”
The name means nothing to John, but it does to the others in the room. Their low growl is the warning snarl of predators in the woods, triggering instincts ancient beyond remembering. It raises the hair on his skin, and he takes a step back, into Gordon. He can feel the Commissioner trembling, struggling to stay erect despite his pain; a hand grabs at his shoulder, borrowing his stability.
“Blake had nothing to do with her,” Gordon tells Bane, as though he is the only other person in the room. “He doesn’t even know who she was. Look at him. You know I’m telling the truth.”
“Your loyal little bird,” Bane purrs. “A falcon, just fledged. Such a sacrificial pair you are, master and servant.”
John sees movement in the corner of his eye, and spies Bane’s second-in-command joining the group. He holds a digital video recorder in his hand, his gaze fixed to its screen. Alarm seizes John’s throat.
“He never knew who she was! He would have died to protect Miranda Tate!”
Bewilderment turns John’s head at that familiar name, only for it to whip back again at Bane’s laugh. They cannot see the mercenary’s mouth to see if he smiles, but his eyes gloat. “It does not matter. Batman is looking for him in the city.”His voice caresses each word as though he relishes their flavor. “He is looking for you both by name. Jim Gordon and John Blake. He cares for you.”
John hears Gordon whisper, “No,” even as he feels hope flame to life again in his chest. Batman. Not here, but looking--proof at last that Bruce Wayne is alive, and that they aren’t forgotten.
“He’ll find you,” John says harshly, struggling to hide that clarion of anticipation vibrating along his nerves. “He knows Gotham like no one else. You can’t hide from him.”
“I do not wish to hide from him. Let him come.” Bane’s laugh rolls through the mask, rich and deep and alien-cold. “I will send him an invitation. One of you. You will serve as a reminder of his failures, while the other I will keep from him, so he can be tortured by hope.”
He feels Gordon stiffen beside him; can see his eyes squeezing closed. “Me,” John says, before he can let himself think. He steps forward. “Keep me.”
“Blake--” he hears in a whisper behind him.
“Me,” John says more loudly, to force past the unevenness of his own voice. He can hear his breathing, ragged and loud in his ears. “He needs medical attention. You can see that. He won’t last down here. I can stay. I’m young, I’m strong.”
Bane’s gaze turns to Gordon, still crinkled in a smile. “And what do you say?” the mercenary asks.
Gordon looks at John, his eyes dark and full of terrible knowledge. “Son,” he says, and John can see the fear reined in behind his face. For me, he thinks, and is warmed and scared by it.
“This is for the best,” he says, willing Gordon to listen to him and do what needs to be done. The Commissioner will go above ground and recover; then he’ll lead the search to rescue him. John can endure. It’s their best chance. “You have a family. Kids. They need you. Nobody depends on me. I’m a survivor, remember?”
“God,” Gordon says, his face suddenly stricken. “John,” he breathes. “You don’t--”
“It’s okay,” he says. “You and the Bat, you’ll come get me. I can do this.”
Gordon closes his eyes again. His lips tremble, then move slowly in silence. I’m sorry, John, they say. I’m so sorry. I would have been proud. Tell them I loved them.
Disquiet pricks at John, but Gordon has already opened his eyes. He steps forward onto the carpet. Plastic crinkles underfoot, and there’s something wrong about that, John remembers. Something about the plastic....
“Send me up,” Gordon says clearly.
Bane gestures. Two of his men grab John by the arms, hauling him away to stand with the mercenary. They force him to his knees, and he looks at the solitary, lonely man in the center of the room. Gordon sways with weakness and injury, but his head is high, and his jaw is set. Nobody else is moving. Disquiet rouses into unease. The men around John stand poised and expectant, as though waiting for the final act to a show he doesn’t have the program to.
The mercenary steps forward, onto the soft whisper of tarp. “Sacrificial to the last,” he says. “I accept your gift of him. He will live long enough.”
Gordon says nothing; does not even look at John, his eyes steady on Bane’s.
“For what you did, I should make you scream for a thousand years. I should make your death the nightmare of demons.”
“But you won’t.”
“No,” Bane says, and steps behind him to lay broad, heavy hands on the Commissioner’s shoulders. John can see Gordon stagger under that weight, slumping. “I will be quick.”
Comprehension, held frozen and at bay, roars up in a sudden tidal wave to crash through denial. Ugly suspicion blazes in an instant into terrible, breath-stopping certainty. “No,” John says, hearing his voice catch. “No. No no no no no no no!”
He is fighting before he even knows it, ferocious and desperate, feral and unraveling in wild rage and the sick taste of treachery. They haul him up, pinning his arms behind him while he thrashes; he snarls and curses them in all the ways he knows how, lashing out with tongue and feet and strength and will. He hurls it into the air to scourge their skins: all the hate, all the venom he learned growing up bitter and alone. A long, desolate road, leading him here, to this place, where he has betrayed the best man he has ever known. Betrayed him to his death. A man he loves.
Gordon’s shout rings through his red haze of his fury. He pauses, panting, to look at him. The Commissioner stands staring at him, his eyes too bright, mouth white and thin, and John realizes that this futile struggle, this indulgence of frenzy, is fraying what is left of Gordon’s courage; is stripping him naked in his fear to his enemy.
So many hours John has spent huddled behind the bravery of this man, feeding off his strength to bolster his own. It would be the final betrayal for him to deny Gordon his own.
He cannot speak. His voice would break; but he tries anyway. A raw whisper. It is the best he can do. “I would have died for--” His throat fails him. The last word will not come.
The firm mouth quivers. “I know, son,” Gordon says.
The blue eyes close one last time. Gordon draws a shuddering breath. Exhales. Then he opens his eyes again, steady once more, to look into the place beyond walls.
“Are you ready?” asks Bane.
Gordon nods, once. The mercenary wraps his hands around the Commissioner's throat.
“I’ll tell him when I see him,” John forces out desperately. Gordon focuses on him for a moment. “I’ll say thank you for you.”
Gordon smiles. A real smile. For a brief second, it erases the fear in those tired eyes. “Where there’s life,” he says.
And then he dies.
Bane has them strip Gordon’s body naked. For the first time Blake can see all that’s been done to him, everything all at once in its meaningless brutality. He doesn’t need to see it, he can avert his eyes, but he holds his gaze steady for Gordon’s sake because someone should watch and remember, to bear witness to this when his children ask. One of his men brings Bane a marker, and he scrawls words on skin bruised almost too dark to show it: COME GET BLAKE.
His second-in-command opens the video camera. He tosses the tiny cassette to his leader, who wraps it in plastic and hands it to one of his men.
“Crucify the body,” he tells them, “Someplace where Batman will find him. Put that in his mouth when you’re done.”
Then he turns his eyes to John.
He is too raw, his heart is bleeding too much to think. The men are still filing out, taking Gordon’s corpse with them, when Bane reaches for him. It is utter futility to fight the mercenary. Even the Batman lost against him. What is he? Just a cop. Not even a cop. A man.
He does anyway.
All the things he and Gordon practiced in their cell, the tricks, the ploys, the feints; he unchains them and fuels their fury with his hate and grief. He has never fought like this, not even for his life. It is a delirium of rage, an insanity of passion. Bane does not retaliate. He blocks, he traps, he lets blows land that would take down a lesser man, then grabs John’s fist and squeezes to bring him to his knees. John lashes out with his leg and springs free, maddened against this mocking pacifism. He craves battle like a starving man does food, desperate to strike and be struck. He is thwarted at every turn. Perhaps Bane means this to be a kind of torture as well.
Eventually, his strength begins to wane. The impossibility of victory strikes him early, but he does not let it slow him, until his body flags and his breath comes in great, straining heaves. Bane’s eyes smile as he catches his arm, and then John is toppling down onto the carpet, wrapped from behind in the mercenary’s great arms.
If he cannot have a fight, then pain will do. He anticipates it, welcomes it; fights its coming, but yearns for its punishment and scourge. Even here, though, Bane refuses to satisfy. John strains against his hold, desperate and savage, but the mercenary slips in one oiled finger, then two. It hurts, but not enough. Bane takes his time, stretching him wide. When he finally takes John, he eases in with iron control, already slick. There’s still pain, but it’s a candle’s flicker to the conflagration of his first rape.
John closes his eyes and shakes, robbed even of that.
The mercenary is almost tender with him. John recognizes this with dull disbelief, wracked by the slow, even strokes that fill him without battering him. Perhaps it is meant as kindness. One broad hand caresses his hair and his cheek, smoothing the damp of silent tears down his throat to his chest. “Little bird,” Bane whispers in his ear. “So strong. So much pain. I will teach you to fly.”
When he has left, leaving cold in the place of heat, John drags himself to a corner and tries to mourn. He fails. Gordon is an ache too large for his body; he can’t contain it inside himself to let it out. Numbness has replaced anguish, pushing it behind a wide, blank wall.
He remembers his last, despairing promise, and the second-in-command, recording it all. The arc of the cassette. Bane’s order.
An errant thought comes to him. Gordon’s thanks to the Batman will come from his own mouth, after all.
His laughter sounds like sobs.
They don’t take him back to his cell.
Instead, Bane keeps him close, his hostage for the Batman. There is no opportunity for him to escape; there are always men about, and even if there were not, Bane is omnipresent and aware. He tries more than once, and suffers the consequences. After the third time, he is made physically incapable by Bane's punishment, unable to think through the pain that flays him alive and the rope that collars his throat too tightly.
It takes a week for his fingernails to start growing in again.
Bane’s energy is boundless. The man rarely sleeps and almost never eats, both needs appeased through the drugs John learns is pumping through the mask, or dealt with in some mysterious slice of time that exists outside his knowledge. He drags John with him wherever he goes, on long treks through the maze of tunnels, to inspect fortifications and his remaining army.
What the mercenaries are still doing there, John does not know. Reason would suggest they slip out one by one and mix with the population still left above ground. They could slip away to a safer place, some haven where they will be beyond the hunters. Beyond Batman. None of them do.
That they have access to the world above is evident, as is the fact that life is still happening there. The occasional crates and containers of food they bring in are proof of that. Sometimes they bring other things as well, necessities. Soap. Shampoo. Supplies from which they give him a clean change of clothing, one day, when Bane’s impatience destroys what’s left of his. It’s meant as mockery, or cruelty, or maybe it’s just chance, that what they bring him is a GPD uniform. There’s blood on the collar, washed but stained deep into the fabric. He wears it anyway, feeling the skin of his neck crawl.
Bane has no shame, no sense of modesty or decency. He does not care for the presence of his men, or the lack of privacy. More than once, aroused by something, who knows what, he grabs John by the hair and hurls him to the ground while his men wander around them about their allotted tasks. The first time he does it, John thinks he will die of shame, but then Bane is on him and he rediscovers there are worse things than humiliation. Sometimes one of the men will stop to watch while John chokes for breath around Bane’s cock with blackness creeping at the edges of his vision, or arches his back against the same and clenches his teeth to hold back a cry. Mostly, though, they simply go about their business, as though John’s degradation is just background noise to more important work. Perhaps it is.
He fights every time. It makes no difference, but he refuses to let himself surrender.
The mercenary does not repeat his gentleness. John’s body is adjusting to the assaults; he thinks it will never not hurt, but it does not hurt as much as it did. He is exhausted, sleepless, deadened by despair, forced bodily to keep up with Bane’s relentless energy. He has no bearings on direction or the passage of time but what Bane does, and to a lesser degree, the satellites around him. The world was already small, its boundaries drawn around Gordon and him. Now it contracts smaller, focused on Bane and his bright, cruel mask.
He wakes up feeling a hand caressing his head, with the awareness that he is resting on a warm thigh. Gordon, he thinks muzzily, feeling at peace, and then realizes it is Bane’s face above his, speaking to one of his men. Bane’s thigh. Bane’s hand. He stiffens. The mercenary looks down at him.
John rolls off the crates to the floor. His attempt to move away is thwarted by the leash on his collar. Bane drags him close, forcing him against a knee. Trapped, he settles on the floor and smothers a yawn; the conversation between the mercenaries ends, leaving them alone.
“Hers was dark like yours,” Bane tells him, toying with his hair.
The feeling of fingers stroking his head reminds him of Gordon. If John closes his eyes, he can pretend he is back in the safety of his cell, with the Commissioner still alive and protecting him.
He gives in to a moment of weakness, then forces them open again.
“She was a queen,” Bane says. He is watching his men training, clashing with archaic weaponry in the center of a large round chamber John thinks of as the arena.
“Who?” he asks.
“Talia al Ghul,” he remembers.
“A warrior. A goddess.” The tenderness in Bane’s voice is frightening. Strong fingers curl in John’s hair, tangling tight; it has grown in the months? years? he has been down here, uncut. Tears of pain sting his eyes. He blinks them away. “She would have stormed the gates of heaven, and I would have worshipped at her feet.”
“Gordon killed her,” John says recklessly.
The rope around his throat draws tight; he chokes and scrabbles at it, dragged up from the floor to meet Bane’s smiling eyes. “And I killed Gordon,” he says. “But now I have you.”
Satisfied that John has learned the limits of Bane’s tolerance, the mercenary eventually removes the collar.
He does not try to escape.
There are more men in the tunnels than the twelve he counted, but the dozen who form the core around Bane are the elite, John learns quickly, the heart of the army that claimed Gotham. They exercise and train almost without ceasing, bare-chested and sweating in lethal, bone-breaking sport that John knows is as far above him as the sun is a lantern. When they move through the tunnels, they are like shadows, soundless even on booted feet; the echo of their approach when they came for him or Gordon those many weeks? months? ago was deliberately done to heighten their dread, he realizes too late for it to matter.
They start to separate themselves by name, overheard when they talk to each other in languages he doesn’t understand. Polyglots, all of them. He recognizes the cadences of French and German, and once a tuneful snatch of Mandarin, but mostly they speak some liquid, exotic tongue that has its own ancient brutality and beauty.
Barsad is Bane’s second-in-command, his faithful dog, with a fanatic’s eyes in an ascetic’s face. There is Raolo, a Spaniard with a close-cropped beard; Morten, Norwegian and tall, broad as Bane but cold as ice. Sufi, from Nigeria, a match for Morten in height and breadth but more than his equal in hand-to-hand combat. There are more, and he learns their names carefully for the sake of future opportunity. None of them look like possible allies or traitors; all contain some measure of Barsad’s fanaticism. John learns that they are not mercenaries to each other, but brothers in a sacred cause, all the more horrible because he can understand its appeal. They are assassins. Revolutionaries. The League of Shadows.
He watches them at their exercise, his muscles tensing and flinching as they react to witnessed blows and yearn after the freedom of action. At one point, fuzzy with lack of sleep and nauseous with the taste of Bane in his mouth, he climbs off the crate that sheltered him and tries mirroring the slow, meditative warmup that Raolo is doing.
Eyes flick askance, but nobody stops him. It is surprisingly difficult, moving through patterns that he does not know the names for, not understanding why he moves this way or that way, but craving the discipline of it.
For several days? weeks? he plays parrot to their training, separate and alone, interrupted only by meals or the body’s needs, and once by Bane. The one place the mercenary will not rape John is in the arena they have created for training, so he drags him by the hair to a side corridor and takes him roughly against the wall, amused at his fight and his rage. Afterwards, eyes hot, John limps back to the arena and begins the pattern again, feeling Bane’s seed sticky on his skin.
It is Barsad who corrects him the first time.
“Leg too high,” he says, in an economy of words, while John balances in the warmup form that he has privately dubbed failed dunk shot.
John only has time to glance at him, startled by the first thing any of Bane’s men has said to him since Gordon died, then wobbles when Barsad shoves at the back of his knee with his foot. Muscles already trembling with strain whimper and lock tighter. John steadies himself, grounding deep in the form.
“Better,” says Barsad, and walks away.
After that, he gets a word or two from a few of the other men, correcting some fault in his practice. Sufi is most vocal, his dark eyes lighting with a born teacher’s passion as he pushes John this way or adjusts his arm that way. None of them give him conversation--their words are brief and to the point, always criticizing, rarely commending--but it is a start.
Sometimes Bane comes and watches him, some expression in his eyes that John refuses to acknowledge.
Occasionally, the mercenary will take the floor and flatten his men one by one or in a group. They none of them hold back, though they are pragmatic against Bane’s superior strength; when bones creak and joints bend beyond their reach, the men slap out quickly, accepting the sporadic sprain or dislocation with philosophy.
Once in a while, Bane will step out of the arena with his eyes aflame, and drag John to the carpet room. “You are growing stronger, little bird,” he says, before proving to him that he is not strong enough.
Lacking the cycle of sun and moon, he marks off time by his sleep. Entire days pass when he does not speak at all; does not even make a sound. The passage of that silence is a thing not thought of, until he tries to say something and hears the untuned hoarseness of his own voice.
In the first few days after Bane releases him from his leash, he sleeps in the darkest places of the carpet room. The other men sleep in a common area, unrolling cloth pallets and blankets in disorganized array. John hugs the shadows of the crates, rearranging them around his pallet so that he will be warned if Bane comes for him. It is the room where he has been violated most often, but it is also where he saw Gordon last. Pain on top of pain.
He huddles around the ghosts, clinging to the fading memory of courage. In the quiet moments before sleep claims him, he makes a ritual of building up the walls inside his mind, a towering dam to hold back anguish.
He cannot afford such weakness here.
Eventually, he realizes that isolation makes him vulnerable. He is out of touch with the rhythm of the place, unaware of the comings and goings; he cannot learn patterns or predict the storms that might impact him. One night, he unrolls his bedroll near the other men in the room they also use for meals. They ignore him. He curls under his blanket, watchful and tense in the darkness, until sleep creeps in on tip-toes and steals him away.
He is learning, bit by bit. More than the exercises, that are adding new muscle definition to his frame. The things he is learning are things he needs for survival. He learns not to move too suddenly when Alexi is in the room. He learns the strange look in Raolo’s eye that means he is about to hurt someone, he’s not overly particular who. He learns not to let Jean-Philippe remember he is a cop.
He learns that Bane likes it when he cries out, so he forces himself to silence, even though his sounds make the mercenary finish faster.
He learns not to think of rescue, because hope makes him hurt, and the despair when it dies makes him weak.
Early on, he realizes that he has nothing to fear from twelve men that make Bane’s inner circle. Bane has laid claim to him, and only by his command will any of them raise a hand against him. They will not let him go, but neither will they hurt him. Mostly, they ignore his existence, except when he offers to share in their chores or gets in their way.
The discipline of the core group deceives John into thinking the rest of Bane’s army are the same. He learns differently one day in a tunnel, walking past two strangers with an armful of clothes for washing. Hard hands grab at him and hurl him against the floor before he even registers their presence. The breath is knocked out of him, his face strikes rock; he feels his trousers being dragged down, rough fingers digging into his buttocks.
Habit has trained him to be silent when he fights. He struggles in fury, maddened and panicked at the thought of being used by someone besides Bane: as though rape by that one man is still better than rape by any other. A hand drags his head back by the hair, straining his throat; tears of pain sting his eyes at the pull. He can feel his attacker preparing himself.
Then there is a shout and the thud of feet. The hands and bodies holding him down disappear. John rolls frantically, scrambling up against the wall in time to see Morten breaking the arm of one man while his boot pins the other to the floor.
“He is Bane’s,” Morten says coldly, over the howls and curses of the two.
Others come running at the noise. Sufi looks over the pair, ignoring the babble of their apologies and excuses. Jean-Philippe suggests that they be shot out of hand. Sufi has them taken to Bane, instead. John is dragged with them, his pants torn, his eyes wild with rage.
They find Bane reviewing maps with Barsad in the large room they use as a command center. He looks up as they approach, regarding in silence the two pale-faced men shoved to their knees before him, then John with his white-set mouth.
Bane stands. He raises a hand to grip John’s chin, turning his face to the light; John blinks quickly, feeling blood trickle down his cheek from a cut on his brow. Bane’s thumb strokes a caress across the path of the wetness, then slides across John’s lower lip. His mouth trembles, to his humiliation. He can taste the salt of his own blood.
“Bane,” says Sufi. His foot shoves at the back of one of the two men, knocking him sprawling onto the floor. There is a whimper. “These two would have taken what was yours.”
“We thought he was for any who wanted him,” pleads one of the men, his voice quavering. “We did not know.”
Blue eyes, deadly above the mask, meet John’s.
Morten says, “He was fighting them.” After a moment, he adds unemotionally, “He was losing.”
Bane’s pale eyes smile without amusement. “You are not strong enough yet, little bird,” he says. “But you are brave.” He steps back to study the two men, whose protestations faltered when they arrived in his presence. They are stricken dumb with terror now.
There is no discussion. Barsad has drawn his gun even before Bane extends his hand for it. With casual cruelty, the mercenary shoots both men through each thigh. The one still kneeling collapses. Screams crash into the echoes of gunfire. Bane waits until their writhing and howls begin to die down before shooting them through each shoulder. Again, he waits. Then, deliberate, he fires into their groins.
When they have screamed enough to satisfy him, when the blood is a pool that reflects him like a polished glass, he shoots them in the head.
Bane hands the gun back to Barsad. “Return them,” he tells Morten, with the nod that serves as his praise to his men. John, his nails drawing blood from his palms, watches as the bodies are rolled into plastic tarp and slung over broad shoulders to be hauled away. He breathes through his teeth, battling angry nausea at this brutal justice, and even worse, the dark feel of satisfaction at vengeance.
“You do not approve,” says Bane, regarding him, amused now.
“You murdered them in cold blood.”
“They would have taken you against your will.”
“Like you do,” John says harshly.
“Ah. But you are mine,” says Bane. Again, the deepening lines of a smile. “A crime against you is a crime against me.”
“I’m not yours,” he spits.
Bane steps closer. His hand closes around John’s throat and squeezes, gently, to remind him of that inhuman strength. Stars explode at the edges of his vision. “You are mine,” Bane says again, his eyes terrible and tender. “And what is mine, I keep safe.”
As with the rest of the chores, the men take turns with the cooking, though by general consensus it is Dae-Hyun, quiet and tall, who is the best at the task. His food burns the tongue but leaves heat in the stomach to creep out and warm the rest of the body.
When they can, the twelve eat communally, occasionally making room for visitors but more often coming together like old friends. They share off each other’s plates with impartial ease, seated cross-legged on the floor, or draped across crates. The discipline with which they conduct their regular lives is relaxed when food makes an appearance. Their conversation is casual, if conducted in that language they all share, beyond John’s comprehension. He can see them for what they are, like that. Brothers-in-arms. Even Bane joins them from time to time, though he never eats.
John, handed a plate, takes his meals apart from them. It is an inevitable isolation. He is a hostage; they are his captors. He is a cop; they are terrorists. He is Bane’s-- and there he stops, because he cannot find a word that will fit. Toy, maybe. Plaything. Catamite. Whore.
He refuses the word victim.
Captivity has worn down the rough edges; it fits easier, these days. Not lighter. But he can sometimes forget that he is a prisoner in the physical exhaustion of labor: moving supplies, doing chores, running for hours through a loop of tunnel, simply for the sake of running. Bane no longer keeps him at his side, so he can sleep when he needs it, but his mind is alternately sluggish and frenzied, and only movement can calm him.
To be separate from the closed loop of men is a kind of relief. The tightness of their bond is most evident then. It reminds him that he is not one of them, and never will be; for the same reason he fights Bane every time, he needs to feel the distance between them. The men ignore him. He ignores them. Only Bane watches him, when he joins their group. John always knows when the mercenary’s eyes are on him; over time, he has grown sensitive to the prickle on his skin. His life depends on knowing what Bane is doing.
The night Bane kills John’s attackers, Sufi brings a crate of oranges to their dinner.
Bane is with them. He laughs at something one of the men says, his eyes steady on John settled against the wall. Barsad hands him an orange and he rips into it with his thumb, peeling it easily. The sweet tang of the fruit drifts through the air; John’s nostrils flare. He has always loved oranges.
“Little bird,” says Bane.
John refuses to look up. He eats silently, stoically, tensing against the possibility that Bane will take him again, in front of them all as they sit at their meal. Best if he eats first, to consume the calories he needs. He will not want to eat after.
It is the first time he has heard his name since Gordon died. John looks up to meet Bane’s eyes. The mercenary is holding out half the orange, peeled and glistening in his fingers. Around him, the men carry on their conversations as though indifferent to what is happening; privately, their glances sneak quick peeks between them, wondering about the outcome.
John could reject Bane in front of all his men. He is proud enough to do it, and take the consequences afterwards. The smile in Bane’s eyes tells him the mercenary knows it. Compliance is dangerous; he knows the mechanics of Stockholm syndrome, and how precariously he is balanced on the near side of it. But he is tired. So very tired. He is sick to the soul from the deaths of two men, murdered on his account. Just once, he thinks dully, do the easy thing. Just this once.
John climbs to his feet. He enters the circle, feeling Farid shift to make room to let him pass, then crosses it to Bane.
The mercenary lifts the fruit. John hesitates. Then, with the feeling he is doing something irrevocable, he takes it. Some breath of tension eases out of the men around them. Bane’s smile deepens.
“Sit,” he says. “Join us.”
John does not have a chance to reject him. A hand wraps around his arm, dragging him down to sit cross-legged on the floor at Bane’s feet. There is no denying that immense strength. He sits rigid and chilled for a long time, unmoving, while the conversations continue. Nothing happens. Slowly, his tension dissipates. Bane appears to lose interest in him, though lazy fingers slide through his hair and caress the nape of his neck beneath.
John shivers. His orange is dripping.
He eats it.
He grows accustomed to taking food from Bane’s hand. The mercenary joins his men more frequently at the circle now, and when he does, he invariably calls John to come sit by him. After a while, it becomes easier just to start in the ring of men than to move himself when their leader arrives. The men accommodate as though they are surprised he has waited so long to join them. John learns to protect his plate from Farid, who has quick fingers and an unending passion for bread.
Bane, who rarely eats, seems to take pleasure in feeding him. He peels fruit and segments it, handing each piece to him in turn. Sometimes their fingers touch; John does not allow himself to flinch. When he eats what Bane has given him, he can feel those intent blue eyes watching: the chewing, the swallowing, the glitter of juice on his lip. It makes John self-conscious. He does not allow himself to show that, either.
Once in a while now, the conversation switches to English. It is for his benefit only, he knows, and is uneasily touched by that courtesy.
“Cold as a witch’s teat outside,” says Jean-Philippe one night, settled on the floor with his plate in his lap. “But it is nothing like the mountains. These lowlanders have thin skins.”
“Says the man from Leon,” says Farid.
“Are you not from the tropics?”
“No. What proof do you have?”
“Your own words, you daughter of a blind donkey.”
Sufi rumbles, amused, “His life began in the temple of Ra’s al Ghul.”
“There. You see?” says Farid. He grins in satisfaction. “I am no lowlander. Besides, there are mountains in the tropics.”
Bane, his eyes glittering with amusement, tosses Farid a segment of apple. The assassin snags his prize out of the air and lifts it in salute before biting into it, smug.
“What of you, Little Bird? Where are you from?” Sufi asks.
It is the first time any of them have directed anything like conversation to John. He accidentally inhales a morsel of rice in his surprise, and loses his chance to reply in a paroxysm of coughing. The men are entertained. Sufi, utterly unhelpful, buffets him repeatedly over the back until Jean-Philippe points out he is more likely to break John’s spine than clear his lungs.
“That bad, then,” remarks Farid, when John is wiping tears from his eyes.
“Gotham,” John says hoarsely.
“Bad,” Jean-Philippe says a sympathy that sounds sincere.
“We all rose above our origins. Perhaps Little Bird will.”
“That’s not my name,” John says, stiffening.
All eyes turn to Bane. He smiles.
“It is what Bane calls you,” Barsad says with a finality that precludes the possibility of argument.
Dae-Hyun leans to pass a bottle of water to the man beyond him, and by degrees it works its way around the circle until it reaches John. He sips at it gratefully.
“Tu-je-che,” he says with care, remembering a phrase used occasionally when the men labor together. Eyebrows rise around the circle, and he is suddenly struck with the worry that it means something offensive and unforgivable.
“You are learning, little bird,” says Bane, his eyes half-lidded and unreadable.
“You are welcome,” Dae-Hyun says gravely back, and smiles.
Later, John will realize that it must be by Bane’s command; it would never have happened, otherwise. But it is Barsad who begins to teach John how to fight.
He is curled on the floor sucking in great, desperate gasps of air, Bane’s seed trickling down his cheek, when he sees two feet approach and stop by his head.
Barsad crouches down to study him, eyes cool. “You waste energy by fighting,” he says.
“Fuck you.” John says hoarsely, through coughs.
“He is stronger than you,” Barsad says, unmoved.
“I won’t stop.”
“Then fight better.”
John rolls onto his hands and knees, head hanging low. “Teach me how then, damn you.”
To his surprise, Barsad does. John is paired with Sufi, who towers over him and looks as impenetrable as a brick wall. The first practice leaves him with bone-deep bruises and the taste of blood in his mouth. It is preferable to other things he has tasted though, and the challenge of physical activity fends off the slow creep of despair. His body has always been a fast learner; by the fifth day, Sufi gives him a grudging nod of acknowledgment that distracts him for a split-second. Then he’s on the floor again, wondering why dirt is so hard.
The next time Bane comes for him, John uses some of what he learned. The mercenary laughs a low, metallic bark of amusement. “Good,” he says.
It is not enough to stop Bane from doing what he wants, but John feels a treacherous warmth at the approval.
He grows calluses where he didn’t have them; muscles where he never knew there were any. Stripped down for training, many of the men have scars from wounds taken in battle. Curious, he ventures to ask Sufi, who is the most likely to answer his questions.
“What did that?” he asks, nodding to a long pale line that slices up much of his left arm.
Sufi glances down. “Machete,” he says, and fingers it almost fondly. “In Columbia. I took it from the man who gave it to me and used it to cut off his head.”
“Many stitches,” says Dae-Hyun, as he passes by.
“Twenty-three,” Sufi says smugly. “And those?” he asks, poking a thick finger at the old scars on John’s ribs.
He touches them, remembering like an old dream the crack of leather on skin. “Belt buckle,” he says. “My foster father used to beat me.” He says it without difficulty now; it is too trivial against current reality to feel relevant. He even feels pity for his younger self, who hoarded the pain and thought it was the whole world.
“Now you learn to fight back,” Sufi says, matter-of-factly. Strong, yellowing teeth show in a broad grin. John staggers under a slap on the back. “Good. We will put you against Farid. He is the least of us in unarmed combat, so his blows will be like mosquito bites and make no more scars.”
“I will rip out your tongue and use it to wash my shoes,” Farid tells Sufi, indignant.
The Nigerian chuckles deeply. Of them all, he is the most formidable on the arena floor, saving only Bane.
Farid’s least is still exponentially greater than John’s best. He does not gain any new scars, but he spends more time than he likes on the ground. Over the course of several weeks though, he feels himself grow stronger and faster, cannier in reading Farid’s body language. When Sufi partners him with Jean-Philippe, he knows he is improving. It gives him something to be proud about.
At some point, fighting Bane stops being an end unto itself. One day, Bane catches his feint in the palm of his hand and says, “Not for the body. Aim for the face. A lesser man will flinch.” Bane releases him and the fight continues, but John is jogged out of the mindless reflex of angry struggle into calculation and tactics.
Bane is not a lesser man. Still, he tries for the face anyway. There is approval in the mercenary’s easy deflection of the blow. “Better,” he says.
Bit by bit, the fights change: less a struggle to prove his lack of consent and draw clear lines between captor and captive; more tests to measure how well his training is going, how strong he is getting. Bane is as sparing in his words of praise as the other men, but his concessions and approval mean more. He is the god of John’s dark and limited world. To make him take a step back, to land a blow that makes him react with more than casual indifference drags smiles out of John, even while he is crushed beneath the mercenary, trying not to think about the burn of discomfort stretching and filling him.
Once or twice, Bane shows him something that John brings back to the arena. Sufi, Dae-Hyun and Barsad are unflappable; they are the ones who have been longest with Bane, and know almost all his ways. The others, startled, tap out hastily, and the gleam of respect in their faces is like a gift.
He forgets sometimes, when Bane has done something new or shown him what he has done wrong, to continue fighting even after he’s been pushed to the floor. His mind works at his errors, latching onto new understanding, too distracted to remember why it’s important to struggle. He is too tired by the exertion anyway, to continue when the outcome is inevitable. It does not occur to him that this reasoning might well be applied to his resistance beforehand.
Bane chuckles at this occasional compliance, and is unusually gentle when it happens. “So giving, little bird,” he says, stroking his thigh. “Habibi.”
A few of the men are lovers, though not necessarily exclusive, and not especially committed. It seems a casual affair for them, unattended by emotion or jealousy; the simple tending to a body’s demands, to be dealt with and dismissed as easily as a need for food or a need for sleep.
None of them look at John with desire. He is Bane’s, untouchable.
They do not treat him with less respect than they do each other. He has long expected to see contempt in their eyes for their leader’s ragged toy. In the beginning days, he stared them in the face, wanting them to show it. None of them ever have. They are hard men, with ruthless pragmatism. Slowly, he discovers that they do not find anything shameful in a weaker man succumbing to Bane’s overpowering strength. If anything, they are puzzled at his ongoing need to fight.
“Brave,” says Jean-Philippe.
“But stupid,” says Farid.
“He learns new things from Bane,” says Morten, with one of his rare smiles. “Good enough to pin you.”
Farid scowls, but not with real offense. His temper is the most sunny, out of all of them; in a moment he is amused again. “When you pin him,” he tells John, without needing to specify of whom he’s speaking, “then even I will admit you are not stupid.”
“A great concession,” says Jean-Philippe.
“I am a great man,” says Farid, complacently.
There are times and places when the men converse, their barriers falling to make them human rather than soldiers and assassins of the League. During meals, mostly, and the quiet hours between the last one and sleep. John learns more about them during those meals, for the few who are forthcoming enough to answer his questions. He is curious about their stories; why they are here, in this strange, fanatical army, and the secret of their loyalty to Bane.
Of those who give way to his persistence, their histories are one and all, tragic. Dae-Hyun’s parents and sister died of starvation, his brothers shot by government troops when their neighbor defected to the south. Jean-Philippe’s wife and daughter disappeared from the center of a busy road in the Ukraine, presumably taken by the sex slave trade. Forget them, the police told him, indifferent. Their bodies are long gone. Farid’s entire family--nineteen people--died when the government could not capture freedom fighters hiding in the forests above his village. Lacking results to show their public, the government troops declared his village affiliated with the terrorists, and massacred them all, down to the last child. A great victory against the enemy, proclaimed the newspapers.
They want to see the powerful fall; the corrupt, destroyed; the world, burn. It’s hard for John to blame them.
“What about Bane?” John asks.
“Ah,” says Farid, and glances at Barsad, the mercenary’s right hand. Barsad does not share his own stories, for good or ill. He looks back at Farid and John, dark eyes glinting.
“Let me tell you about Bane,” says Jean-Philippe with a raconteur’s pleasure.
Their stories are old to them, but new to John, and they take delight in sharing them with this fresh audience. He hears about the pit, and the child who leapt. Then Ra’s al Ghul. The League of Shadows. Bane’s excommunication, and then his return to lead them. Their stories border on the fantastic, sprinting into the mythic. It does not occur to John to disbelieve them. Bane is inhuman, and there is a comfort in knowing that his failure against the man is no greater than other men’s. He can picture Bane in his mind’s eye: battlefields strewn with corpses, and the mercenary standing bloody and unbowed in their midst.
“Thirty men,” Farid says.
“Fifty,” says Johann.
“Forty-three,” says Barsad, from his lounge against the wall. He is the definitive authority on these tales; his experience with Bane the longest. Most of these stories, he experienced first-hand. “We collected their right ears,” he says.
“Why?” John asks.
Barsad says simply, “Easy to cut off.” And he makes a graphic gesture to demonstrate: pinch, lift, slice.
Bane is more than just a man. He is the apocalypse incarnate, and the Brothers’ eyes gleam with a worship all the more impressive for their own hard natures.
“What about Talia?” John asks.
All eyes turn to Barsad, but it is Sufi who answers. “She was the worthy daughter of Ra’s al Ghul,” he says with rare reverence. From the corner of his eye, John sees Jean-Philippe cross himself and kiss his knuckle.
“You have a little look like her,” says Dae-Hyun, inspecting John across the small camp stove. “Eyes like falcon. Fierce. Always angry. She blinded, like sun.”
“We will not speak of her,” says Barsad. The other men look at him, then away. It is the word of Bane. They will not answer John’s questions about her after that.
The men do not always train. Sometimes they amuse themselves. Their play is like the romping of full-grown lions, dangerous and glorious, always testing, always competing. John watches them throw knives, or clash with them; fire guns and bows and even javelins and stones, attempting to outdo or catch. These are not games he can participate in, though he tries. They will not trust him with a weapon, though they could disarm him with embarrassing ease.
One game though, he can play.
Dangling some sixteen feet above the arena floor is a thick rope knotted to a thinner cord, the base knotted and thick. The bottom of it stirs in the occasional draft. In the first few days, John noted its presence, then forgot it, thinking it unimportant. He learns its purpose one day while he rests, sweating and exhausted after a lesson with Sufi.
It is Farid who starts it; quicksilver, cunning Farid. Morten is bending over nearby to wrap a piece of leather more securely around his calf when the lean little man takes a running start at him. Morten begins to straighten and turn, catching that movement out of the corner of his eye, but he is large, and slower than his brethren; he is only half-erect when Farid launches himself into the air. One foot scrapes off Morten’s backside, the other pushes off on the Norwegian’s shoulder, and then Farid is flying up towards the rope, reaching for it with a hand.
He falls short, not least because Morten grabs his foot, yanking him down. Farid lands in a controlled roll and leaps back to his feet again with a savage grin. The answer to it blooms on Morten’s face. Then the rest of the men pile in, and suddenly the room is filled with shouting and catcalls, in an epic and catastrophic scrum.
It is a game that lacks rules, from what John can tell. The goal, he understands immediately: to touch--or to drag down?--that gently swaying rope. As high as it is above their heads, the only platform to stand on is on the shoulders of another man, and from there, the air. There are no teams, though makeshift alliances form and dissolve without warning or preamble. Save for the lack of weapons, any means of bringing down a fellow player seems acceptable. It is chaos at its most wild and wonderful. John watches wide-eyed, bewitched and enchanted.
The game lasts for minutes, or maybe an hour. Raolo is the one to wins it. In one of the lightning changes of alliance that seem to be essential to the game, he is hurled across the room by Morten into the linked arms of Sufi and Johann. He balances on their joined hands and springs as they launch him up. Johann goes down a second later to a vicious kick to the knee by Barsad, but it is too late; the Spaniard has grabbed the rope and come crashing down again. The rope comes with him, tumbling down with its long, silken line. For the first time, John realizes that the other end is loosely bound to a hook in the wall, well within arm’s reach. The rope comes down, but then it can be drawn up again, tied in place for the next round.
Raolo’s accomplishment nets him a roar of approval, then the assassin version of a dogpile. He emerges from the middle of it, shedding bodies like water with his face bright with triumph.
They are all laughing. One could forget, watching them, that they are terrorists and murderers and fanatics.
“It is the riyb,” Bane tells John later when he asks. The mercenary is more forthcoming of late, answering questions with a patience he would not have expected. “It means to strive.”
“The reeb,” John echoes, trying out the foreign word.
“In ancient days, a great king would pass judgment on the people he conquered,” Bane says. “The enemy leader would be hung by a noose around his chest. Another would be loose around his neck. The one around his chest would hold him up, but its other end would dangle down. Like the riyb.”
“The rope out there?” John asks.
Bane inclines his head. “The king would summon the family of the conquered king, and make them play the game. If the riyb was pulled, the rope around the enemy leader’s chest would be released, and the noose around his neck would strangle him. The one who pulled it would become the people’s tributary ruler under the king. All the others would be put to death. ”
“And if nobody pulled it?”
“Then the enemy leader would live, and his family would die.”
“Christ,” says John. It is too distant a story to rouse much shock or horror, but he marvels nonetheless at the cruel imagination of humanity.
Bane runs his hand through John's hair. He seems fascinated by the increasingly long waves, and strokes it for countless hours. John’s nose and mouth, too, have a pull for the mercenary. For all the blows he has given, only during that first rape has Bane come close to harming his face. Though he can do nothing about his hair but tie it back, John takes advantage of the disposable razors brought in from the surface and keeps himself clean-shaven, determined not to let this one trivial ritual slip. Bane runs his thumb along John’s nose now, and smoothes it over his clean lower lip.
John stiffens, but only a little.
“Do you yearn for a throne, Little Bird?” Bane asks, his eyes crinkling. "Shall I give you a crown?"
The next time, it is John who starts the game. He does it with a pole, one of the nine foot long bamboo stalks that they use to dry clothes. Most of the men are still in the arena, relaxing after their workout, when he walks in with the pole balanced mid-point on his shoulder. Conversations halt while they stare. A couple of them, puzzled, reach for weapons.
John eyes the riyb. He shifts his hold on the pole. Jogs it once to be certain of his premise. Then he takes a breath and runs. Farid rolls out of his path, eyes wide; the pole plants into the earth, flexes, then launches John high into the air. For a moment, he is flying, and he exults in the freedom.
Unfortunately, his aim sucks.
He crashes to the floor, managing just in time to tuck into a roll that jogs old bruises but does not break anything. When he stumbles to his feet, the entire room is standing with mouths open, still staring.
Then the slow smile starts on Sufi’s face. Then Farid’s. And before he knows it, John is in the middle of a brawling, no holds barred chaos of bodies and adrenaline and frantic agreements to treaties that are broken two seconds later. It is the most exhilarating disaster he has ever experienced. An elbow catches him in the jaw. He snags Barsad around the neck and slams him into the ground. Dae-Hyun almost dislocates his arm in hauling him off Sufi’s shoulders. John remembers how to get out of the hold, and gives Farid a bloody nose. He shouts his voice hoarse and takes a boot to the ribs; scrambles over Jean-Philippe and gets a foothold on Johann before he’s plucked off by Morten and tossed into Didier.
In the end, it is accident that wins him the game. Farid gets close. He is nimble and fleet, the nearest to John in build of any of them but Barsad. He launches himself high off of Johann’s shoulder, and is brought down in a crash that takes Morten, Jean-Philippe, Didier and Srinivas with him. Their bodies stack high as they struggle between them, each attempting to be the first one up.
John is the only one not laughing. He sees opportunity instead. He races for the pile, planting his feet on buttocks and ribs and a swearing face, ricochets off Sufi’s astonished, hastily upraised arms, and leaps high.
For a second, he hangs suspended in air, thinking he has missed again. Then his clutching hand feels the burn of rope under it.
Swifter than thought, he grabs. Then he comes tumbling down, the riyb in his hand.
The roar of approval shakes dust from the ceiling. Instantly he is buffeted--on the back, on the shoulders, on the ass; in an excess of excitement, Farid grabs him by the ears and kisses him on both cheeks before slinging his arm around John’s shoulders. Even Barsad grins, utterly transformed by the expression, and tousles his hair before punching him in the stomach.
For a moment, it’s like being a cop again, surrounded by uniforms and brothers-in-arms after some big bust or celebration. Feeling the fellowship. Belonging. ‘Hey, Blake! You didn’t suck in there!’ It hits him like a drug, filling an aching hole in his spirit he hadn’t realized was there. Euphoria crackles like electricity through his veins. He laughs until his cheeks hurt, joyous, soaring, high above the misery and pain and terror of the last few months. Sufi lifts him in a massive hug that threatens to break his ribs.
“You are a gazelle!” he roars. “No, a falcon! Flap your wings, Little Bird!”
In the middle of mirth and the wonder of unexpected camaraderie, he feels a shiver across his skin. John looks up to see Bane watching him, eyes fixed and dilated, unreadable.
He is exhausted that night, bruised by the game and worn by the lash of emotion he has not felt in too long to remember. Happiness, like any muscle, requires exercise or else it begins to atrophy. John rolls up in his blanket and falls asleep almost the instant he hits the pallet.
In his sleep, he dreams.
Warmth. Delicious warmth. It cradles him in its arms, lifting him, so that he floats on a sea of languor. Pleasure stirs, low-voiced and sweet; it blooms shyly in his groin, then unfolds its petals into a slow ache that drifts through his blood. He sighs at the feel of it, feeling his breath scratch gently in his throat. Hands touch him unhurriedly, knowingly. One hand, two, four, eight. They caress his skin, tracing patterns of heat that throb with his heartbeat.
He arches into those hands, dimly aware of some discordant note but too relaxed and drowsily aroused to pursue it. Air tickles where warmth fades, teasing nerves awakened by the light graze of nails. Fingers trail down his hip, then drift up his inner thigh to slide over his balls. He groans, carried on the slow, restless swell of a wave of sensation that travels like static through his veins.
It is impossible to tell when sleeping turns to waking, what threshold is passed that raises his body past the shoals of delirium. The warmth of the chimera still wraps itself around him, making reality foggy and distant. He murmurs at its memory, eyes still closed, and feels through its tattering mists the delicate stroke of a hand around his cock. For a long, exquisite moment, he thinks it is the remnants of his dream. He sighs, lifting his hips into it, finding the haze of sleep and sensitivity unbearably erotic. Then awareness of unease presses on him, heavy, forbidding. There is a still longer moment when he drags himself out of bliss, disoriented, confused, conscious of regret that stabs like a knife.
He awakens into nightmare.
There are arms around him. Strong arms. Bane’s arms. His heart is racing, thunderous in his ears; his breathing rasps, loud in the quiet. His cock is achingly, feverishly hard, throbbing with the beat of his pulse. And Bane’s hand--Bane’s hand--is working him, driving him to torment.
It has been too long. His body doesn’t know whose hand is touching him. It doesn’t care. Passion, already kindled, leaps to eager flame under those long, strong strokes. John is horrified.
“No,” he gasps, writhing against the hold. “No!”
Bane’s leg is heavy over his, trapping them against his body. “Do not resist me, habibi,” the mercenary murmurs into his ear. “It need not always be pain. There can also be pleasure.” His hand is terrible and knowing, practiced and cruel. He does not stop; John pants helplessly, catching back a needy moan as he arches into ... no, away ... no, into that hand, please, God damn you, please, please, no, no, no
He can see the gleam of light off an eye. Farid watches them, sleepily curious, before rolling over to burrow back into sleep. In the fractured remains of reason, John can only be desperately grateful for that indifference, which does not care enough to watch as the last of his defiance is degraded and ground into ashes under Bane’s torture.
He cannot withstand him. It has been longer than John can remember since his body had its chance. Appalling pleasure drowns him, unraveling his will; he is utterly undone, unmade, sobbing aloud as he is wracked by his orgasm, drawn like a bow against the controlling arms and that implacable, relentless hand. It lasts forever, leaving him blind and teetering on the crest of release before he tumbles down its slope to crash into despair.
Spent, dazed, shuddering violently, he sags in Bane’s arms. He can feel the mercenary’s cock digging into him from behind. Warm fingers, slick from his own come, gently work John open; silent tears spill over as he submits, bent the way Bane chooses, filled as Bane wills.
He has no pride left to fight with. None at all.
After that, the rhythm of his days alters. He still fights Bane in public, when there are others present; it is almost like going through the motions, though his resistance is real enough. The mercenary indulges him, letting him have this tiny scrap of self-worth. More frequently though, Bane takes him to the carpet room.
In this place, the space Bane claims as his own, he no longer tolerates resistance. It is brought home to John just how much the mercenary has humored him, in letting him fight at all. He is angry at first with the realization; then, perversely grateful. After the first few times, John lowers his hands and simply surrenders, defeated even before he begins.
His reward is passion.
Part of him craves it, that cowardly, contemptible corner that whispers enticingly about taking the easy path. John does not delude himself into thinking it is the only part of him that does. Bane takes his time in the carpet room, and almost invariably takes John with him. He is not noticeably gentler, but John discovers to his chagrin that the pain of being filled can come with unbearable pleasure as well. It was only Bane’s whim that kept him from feeling it before. The mercenary is merciless in his skill; inhuman in his self-control. Inexperienced as John is in such things, he has no defenses against him.
“Why are you doing this?” John asks wretchedly, hearing the raggedness of his voice.
“Because I choose to,” Bane says with amusement in his. “Do you wish me to stop, habibi?”
John’s answer is a moan.
He moves his bedroll to the carpet room again, unwilling to let the other men witness his shame. That they would not think it shame is meaningless; that they must know that he has lost this battle is moot. He cannot stay as silent in consent as he does in refusal. The sounds that escape him when Bane is at his terrible work flay him with their memory on waking, though over the course of weeks they come to feel natural, inevitable, and he can no longer remember why it matters.
It is getting harder and harder to sustain the anger.
One night, sated and confused, uncertain of his own motivations, he even reaches back and tries to reciprocate. He’s clumsy at first, because it’s Bane, and John is still, he thinks, straight--but Bane lets him. Is almost, he thinks, astonished.
He gets better at it. More confident. There’s a kind of power in discovering he can affect the man, almost like those times he can land a blow that makes the mercenary stagger.
There are entire spans of days where Bane does not come near him; then hour after hour of sleepless night when he finally does, as though he has deprived himself simply for the delight of indulgence after the drought. Eventually, John’s body comes to associate nighttime and Bane with the promise of release. More than once, he wakes with the awareness of the other’s presence in the room, and even before Bane has touched him, his cock stirs, half-hard.
Bane gives him a knife. Its blade is half the length of John’s forearm, one-sided and partially serrated, with a black grip. John holds it awkwardly and stares.
Bane sees the bewilderment and is amused. He takes the knife back from him and nods across the room to Barsad, who is eating an apple. Barsad raises his brows and tosses the fruit in the air; in an easy economy of motion, Bane hurls the knife.
It slices through the air, stabbing cleanly through the fruit before sinking deeply into the high tower of crates beyond.
“Learn,” Bane says, as Morten retrieves the blade, wiping it clean on his leg as he returns. The Norwegian hands it back to Bane, who hands it to John. “Farid will teach you.”
“I am the best,” Farid says without modesty.
“I bring you another apple,” Dae-Hyun tells Barsad.
“Thank you,” Barsad says.
Farid speaks nothing but the truth; he is the best out of all the men at any sport that involves throwing. He is equally lethal with a stone or a dart as he is with a knife, given a target. As a teacher, he is less patient than Sufi, swinging from wild outrage at John’s incompetence, to vocal delight at his own cleverness in having managed to pound understanding into his student’s thick skull.
When John is able to hit the stationary target four times out of five, Farid swaps out the knife Bane gave him for a completely different one, smaller and lighter. “You must learn to use whatever is to hand,” he lectures John when he complains.
“Waste of good knife,” says Alexi, brooding nearby. He is the most silent of the twelve. John can count on his hand the number of times he has heard the man talk.
“Already he is better than you,” Farid says, boasting by proxy.
Alexi stands and crosses his arms to glower at John. “I show you better things,” he says, and that is how John begins to learn how to fight with a knife. The others watch them clashing against each other with mock weapons, amused and entertained, before Sufi points out how rare it is to fight men armed with such things. Guns, he says, are more common. John points out he knows how to fire a gun; Sufi asks if he knows how to make other men not fire their guns, and that is how John begins to learn how to fight unarmed against armed men. The twelve seem to find entertainment in teaching John, as though he is a precocious protege they are raising together. He is humbled by their patience, even as he is embraced by their fellowship.
Jabbed in the ribs by an unloaded assault rifle, John looks up one day to see Bane watching from the side of the arena. The mercenary’s eyes glitter as they meet his, and John recognizes the light of satisfaction.
“Why are you having them teach me this?” he asks that night in the carpet room.
Bane says, “Because you will fly.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“You will see, habibi.” Bane captures John’s hand to lift it to his temple.
Lately the mercenary has taken to doing this in private, guiding John’s fingers across the skin of his brow, across his closed eyes, around the periphery of the mask. He does so now. This time when his fingers are released, John lets them trail on regardless, fascinated by the heat and texture of the skin, the shape of the skull beneath, the flicker of eyelids as eyes move behind them.
Bane groans; John can hear his breathing quicken. Then he is turned onto his back and all the world becomes nothing but pleasure, the rising hunger of need, and the burn of blue eyes staring into his.
The enemy is getting closer, John learns one day, but not close enough. Bane is growing impatient.
“Are they blind as well?” Bane demands of the army that reports, sweeping away the offending sheets of his maps with an arm. “Must we give them a trail of their dead to follow?”
In all this time, John has never learned the secrets behind what Bane is about, or the reason they stay here or even who it is they fight. These are irrelevant concerns, though once upon a time it seemed important. From time to time, one of the twelve disappears for days at a time, only to return again--sometimes defeated, sometimes triumphant, sometimes injured. All of them have a medic’s skill at tending wounds. John helps, learning the kind of ruthless first aid that soldiers acquire on the field of battle.
They never explain where they have been, or what they were doing. In English, anyway. John hears them discussing the matter in their own shared language, their gestures eloquent enough to infer the topic. They are teaching him that language, but it is coming slowly to his tongue. It does not help that they often decide mid-lesson to teach him something else instead.
“Ah, bah,” says Jean-Philippe, seated under Dae-Hyun’s needle with an open scalp wound freshly bleeding across his cheek. “No one will find me beautiful now.”
“No one did before,” says Farid, whose arm John is fitting into a sling.
“Your tastes run to small, dark people I could break like a twig,” says Jean-Philippe. “It takes a European to appreciate my beauty. What do you say, Little Bird? Am I still attractive?”
“I like curvy women with dark hair,” says John, and squints at Jean-Philippe. “So yes, you are.”
The gathered men laugh, while Jean-Philippe scowls. Dae-Hyun finishes his work and steps back to inspect it. “You will have scar,” he says in his gentle voice. “It will be very handsome.”
Farid offers, “Women like scars. Perhaps now you will find one who will take you to her bed.”
“I will give you scars, habibi,” Jean-Philippe says pleasantly. “Children will run screaming when they see your face.”
“What does that mean?” John asks.
“That I will cut off Farid’s nose and--”
“No, that word. Habibi.”
Sufi, sprawled on crates nearby, rumbles, “It means ‘beloved.’” His dark eyes are knowing, and John feels a flush rising under the skin of his face. “It is a word for men.”
“Where did you put my gun?” demands Jean-Philippe. “Farid, you fool. I see it. Little Bird, behind you. Give it to me. It needs cleaning.”
John turns to find an M416 assault rifle lying on the crates behind him. He leans to pick it up, automatically checks its safety, then offers it to Jean-Philippe. The awareness of tension raises John’s gaze up to the men around him. Surprised, he realizes he is the locus for all eyes.
The Frenchman takes the weapon. Dae-Hyun’s hand slides off his gun. The strain dissipates.
Jean-Philippe grins at him. “You are one of us now, oui?”
“Our brother, Little Bird,” says Sufi, and claps John on the shoulder. “Someday his wings will cover the sun. Where are your manners, Jean-Philippe?”
“Thank you,” says Jean-Philippe.
“You’re welcome,” John says, confused, and looks up to see Bane, watching.
Members of the outer army come through the tunnels one day, bringing a prisoner with them. John is in the arena with Morten, and only hears the shuffle and rattle of their passage. He thinks little of it. Morten is not the best of the twelve, but he is close to a match for Barsad, who can sometimes take down Sufi.
He is face-down on the dirt, his ears ringing, when Sufi comes with a summons from Bane.
“Angry,” Sufi says curtly. “Come.”
John staggers to his feet. Then he falls again; the floor will not stay still beneath his feet. Sufi raises an eyebrow at Morten, who shrugs and has the grace to look apologetic.
“Head,” he says.
Sufi looks disapproving. “Come, Little Bird,” he says, as Morten pulls John up by the elbow and simply drags him. Sufi takes his other arm. It is unusual for Sufi to hurry, but he does so now, faster than John’s legs could handle even if they weren’t trying to send him into walls and the floor. John stumbles dizzily, his feet occasionally pulled off the ground to scrape their toes against dirt.
His balance is beginning to steady when they arrive in the carpet room. It is crowded with more than just Bane and the twelve, he notes with fuzzy alarm. There are many more: armed strangers, members of the outer army. In the center of the room, facing Bane, kneels a man in black uniform.
Morten and Sufi unceremoniously haul him to the carpet, and let him drop to all fours.
Bane, staring at John, asks a question in that private language. Morten answers with a few, succinct words. John recognizes the word for ‘kick.’ Kicked him in the head, he giddily decides Morten is saying. Oops. Sorry, boss.
“Oh my God,” he hears in a stunned whisper beside him.
John gets his feet under him. He only sways a little, he is pleased to notice. Bane closes a fist in his hair, dragging him down again; he collapses to his knees once more and finds himself turned to face the stranger.
The man in black is ... familiar. Perhaps it is the clothes that ring a distant bell. But there is an incredulous wonder in the stranger’s face, and he stares at John with a shock of relief that tells him the lack of recognition is one-sided. His stare makes John self-conscious as he has not been in longer than he can remember. The picture he presents is a far cry from the neater order of the stranger's: no shirt, bright with sweat, dust smeared across his ribs. Greening bruises dapple much of his torso, legacy of Sufi’s hard lessons regarding the taking away of assault rifles; purple-black ones wrap around both wrists and forearms, where Dae-Hyun has been teaching him nerve pinches and pins.
“Shit,” the man whispers. His face tightens. “It’s you. It really is you. You’re still alive.”
Where there’s life, murmurs a memory of Gordon in his ear, suddenly.
Startled, John can only stare back, disquieted by that distant, dead voice. Unease only grows when he realizes belatedly that the plastic has been laid down over the carpet. It has been an age since he has seen it there. Now that he is aware though, he can feel the tension in the room, the threat of violence that ripples off Bane like a corona. Angry, Sufi said. He was understating the case. John’s mouth goes dry. Fear, the first true fear he has felt in an age, bubbles up from the pit of his stomach to send adrenaline surging through his chest.
“You asked why Batman should make haste,” Bane tells the man in black, rolling the words out as though tasting them. His eyes crinkle into a hideous smile. “I will send you back to him as a messenger. Tell him what I will do every day to my prisoner, until he comes. Then let him decide.”
The hand releases John. He scrambles back to his feet, backing a few wary steps away from Bane.
“What are you going to--” demands the man in rising tones, even as Johann and Didier pick him off the floor with one hand under each arm and drag him back to the edge of the circle.
Bane’s eyes turn to meet John’s. They burn, tender and murderous. Terror leaps up to squeeze John’s heart. “Little bird,” Bane croons. “Submit.”
For a second, John is unable to make his voice work. He can feel his breath coming unevenly. Wild thoughts scramble to be heard against the clamor of instinct. He has never submitted in public; has not even been taken by Bane before others in weeks. Does Bane truly intend this? Is he being punished? Did I do something wrong?
“No,” he chokes out.
Bane’s eyes smile that terrible smile again. And then he reaches for John.
It is brutal. It is vicious. John surpasses himself, fighting with mind, body, and a spirit taught by the best of the Brotherhood. He is fueled by the fear of death, the intent of which shines like a black sun in Bane’s eyes. Twice he forces Bane back, rising past his own injuries to strike out in attack; twice the men at the boundaries of the circle catch John’s reeling body and shove him back into battle. This is no test, no token spar before the inevitable surrender. This is in deadly earnest, and John fights for his life, feeling a rising tide of madness supplant his fear.
He loses track of time. Minutes pass. There is shouting all around them, a roar of voices that serves as meaningless background noise against which only Bane’s eyes, Bane’s motion, Bane’s intent matters. Then a voice penetrates through the cacophony. It has been yelling with the others all along, but it is the word that does it, slicing through the static of excitement. The name.
It is a name he has not heard since-- His mind stumbles, hearing it. Recognition is like a hand at his heel. He half-turns towards the voice, unthinking--meets horrified brown eyes for a split-second--then loses all vision in an explosion of white noise and lights. Plastic hits hard on his hands and knees, rising up to meet him. He feels Bane wrench his arm back to hold him, beyond the range of the joint; hears the pop as his shoulder dislocates, and bites off a cry at the unexpectedness of it.
“John!” shouts the voice again, despairing.
“You have grown strong, little bird,” Bane says, and even he sounds breathless. “But you are still not strong enough.”
His body no longer remembers what that first time with Bane was like. Time has worn away those memories, leaving them only as dusty red shadows.
Now he relearns.
The knack of silence has abandoned him, somewhere along the way. What Bane does rends screams from him, raw over the frenzied shouting of the cop. As skilled as he is in drawing out pleasure, so Bane proves in inflicting pain. It is the darker side of the same coin, and John can almost appreciate it, elevated by agony into a distant awe that the body can experience such things.
It is endless. It is incandescent. He is crucified by torment, flayed alive in the vaults of hell, then thrust onto the swords of the damned.
When it is done, he is left crumpled and cold on the floor, the useless weight of his arm pinned beneath him. The shades of pain sing across his skin, making the very air a scourge. Bane’s voice thunders through the noise of shouts, the words meaningless under the thudding of his own frantic pulse. Feet move in the periphery of his vision, streaming out of the room; he can feel when Bane leaves, in the release of tension in the men around him.
But he is alive. Alive. He tastes relief like a heady wine, unspooling terror from its coils around his heart.
Where there’s life, says Gordon again, comforting, and presses a warm hand against his back.
“John,” he hears, in a broken voice. The name means nothing to him; he clamps down on the shivers that are still wracking him, fiercely willing himself still. “John. Oh my God, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, it was my fault, if I hadn’t-- John. John.”
John raises his head, eyes dazed, to find the familiar stranger crouched beside him. Under the streak of tears, the shadow of horror and shame at John’s debasement still lingers on the man’s face, a darkness over a brighter, futile anger. The expression makes something curdle in his chest. “John,” the other man says, and tries to smile.
He clenches his teeth and closes his eyes, trying to take inventory of his hurts. Something has torn inside; he wonders if it will keep him out of the arena.
The stranger says hesitantly, “John? It’s me. Keith. Keith Malloy, from the one-seven. Remember?”
“No.” His voice sounds strange to his own ears, scraped thin and frayed from screaming.
“We--” Malloy’s voice shakes. “We went through the Academy together. We’re friends.”
John opens his eyes. Morten stands behind the cop, ice cold and guarding. His face is unreadable, but then, it often is. John feels relief in his regard; it at least shows neither pity nor judgment for his weakness. He draws strength from it. “Malloy,” John echoes. The name rings a distant bell, but lacks shape and substance in his memory.
Slowly, creakily, he pushes up with his good arm, trying to get a knee under himself. Pain snags at his breath at the stretch to other parts of him. Malloy jerks forward as though wanting to help, but is thwarted by Morten’s hard grip on his collar, yanking him back.
“Fuck you!” the cop snarls up at him. “Get him some help, damn you! He needs a doctor!”
“No,” says Morten, staring down at him. “We take you up now.”
Malloy blurts out, “Wait, damn you, wait!” Frantic brown eyes turn to John. “You introduced me to my girlfriend, Jessica. She’s a nurse. We went on some double dates together with you and whatever chick you were dating that month. John. You have to remember this. You have to remember me."
An amused, exasperated laugh, the slap of a hand across John’s back. ‘You never played in a team before, John? Pass it next time, you prick.’
There is a moment when all is not as it should be, when perception shifts, leaving terrifying clarity in its wake. John's vision tilts disconcertingly. He closes his eyes; shoves away the whisper of understanding. It recedes, slipping back into the shadows behind the high walls in his mind. He is grateful for the reprieve.
“You’re a crappy forward,” John says, obedient to the fading afterimage of memory.
Through the anxiety in Malloy’s face, John sees the waking of a relieved smile, broader and brighter than the situation deserves. “I’m not a crappy forward. You’re a crappy center,” the cop says, his voice uneven. “Shit, man. We thought you might be dead. We’ve been looking for you for months.”
At last, says the Commissioner. He's coming for you, son.
John thinks vaguely, Oh, of course, and glances around them, frowning. The disorientation of encountering his old life again is making the world spin. Or maybe it was the blow to his head. He makes a note to watch for Morten’s feet, next time. “Where is he?”
Malloy’s smile disappears. “Gordon’s dead. Remember? Batman found his body. Bane killed him. There was a video on it. You saw him die. That’s how we learned you were still alive. We’ve been looking ever since.”
“Why?” he asks, distantly curious.
“Are you-- are you kidding me? You’re the hero of Gotham. You and Batman and Gordon--” Malloy’s words tumble over each other, stumbling in their urgency. “You saved the GPD. You let us out, remember? We wouldn’t have taken back the city without you. We’re not going to just leave you here with-- to this-- you’re one of us.”
One of my men, Gordon murmurs.
“You’re dead,” John reminds, and feels his breath catch over a strange pang.
“Jesus, John,” says Malloy, shaken. “What the fuck have they done to you?” He reaches out a hand to touch John’s shoulder.
John flinches violently away, feeling the walls shudder on their foundations. Behind them lie grief, terror, betrayal, shame: memories too terrible for him to encompass. In all the time he has spent here, he has never encountered pity. If he is touched by it, the dam will break.
Malloy’s hand pulls back, his face stricken.
A shadow falls over them and now it is Malloy’s turn to flinch away. There is alarm in the cop’s face. Sufi towers over them, a dark twin to Morten’s paler Goliath. Together, the two of them embody the threat of old death and imminent violence.
“Little Bird,” rumbles Sufi, and reaches down to offer his hand. John clasps the massive forearm with his good arm and is hauled up, to be rewarded by a hard grip on his dislocated shoulder. The other great hand grabs him at the wrist; with a few rough and ready turns, the Nigerian pops the bone back into place. John manages to swallow a strangled sound, though he staggers, fresh sweat pricking his brow at the pain. His legs cannot bear his weight. Sufi takes it easily, holding him up with an arm around his waist.
Blood is snaking a dark trail down John’s leg. Sufi drags up his pants with a practical yank. Dimly, he can hear Malloy yelling.
“Come,” says Sufi’s deep voice. John opens his eyes again to look up into his dark and smiling ones. “You fought well. Dae-Hyun will stitch you. Then we will blindfold Jean-Philippe and put you on the floor with him to see who wins. Farid swears he will pluck out the eyes of the winner.”
Farid is a great boaster. John feels his mouth tugged into a crooked smile. Sufi’s matter-of-fact invitation is one of kindness, rare among the Brotherhood. It shores up the faltering walls inside him, sinking them more firmly into bedrock. Gratitude settles John’s heartbeat. The slight squeeze of his hand on Sufi’s forearm is answered by the assassin’s own.
“John,” says Malloy, sharply. Impatient, Morten grabs the cop by the upper arm and hauls him up as though he weighs nothing. “John.”
John turns away, hugging his newly mended arm to his chest, and is half-carried, half-dragged by Sufi towards the tunnel of the arena. There are sounds of struggle behind him.
“John!” he hears shouted behind him. “We’ll come for you! I swear! We’ll save you!”
He does not look back.
That night, lying awake with his shoulder throbbing through painkillers, he feels Bane’s presence in the room. It has been a long time since he has fought the mercenary in the night. He does not do so now. It will hurt, he knows dispassionately, because things have torn inside that will take days to heal; but he is too afraid, too soul-sick, too shaken by the day’s interruption in the smooth stream of his life to care.
His body is disinclined to react to Bane’s touch, distracted by those things. Bane is persistent, and insistent. Slowly, wearily, John wakes to desire. He is familiar with the road now, as Bane is familiar with his body’s responses. This time, though, Bane will not let him finish. Again and again he rouses John, bringing him close to release, only to stop him with a hard grip at the base of his cock. Bit by bit, then faster and faster, John hurtles down the slope of blind need, gasping and writhing under the ministrations of those merciless hands. He becomes less than a man; he becomes a harp string, plucked and vibrating only to its master’s fingers.
In the end he begs, frantic, undone, mindless in agonized pleasure, and when Bane finally lets him tip over the edge, his cry as he comes sounds like a scream.
Afterwards, he trembles, breathless, shaken with the aftershocks of overloaded nerves and spasming muscles. Bane settles down beside him to draw him into his arms. He can feel the mercenary hard and ready against him, and he hazily expects to be moved into place so Bane can have his turn. Nothing happens. “Rest, habibi,” the man murmurs, smoothing down his sweat-rumpled hair. “You did well, today. You have pleased me.”
Something in John’s heart eases, a little flower of happiness blooming in the dark. Bewildered, too spent to question him, he closes his eyes and slides seamlessly into dreams, feeling Bane settle him more comfortably against his arm. The tenderness of the embrace makes him feel cherished. Safe.
He’s coming for you, son, Gordon says gently. Rest.
The fight in the carpet room leaves him with a fever. By the next day he is unable to stand; a day later, he descends into delirium, hallucinations, and terror. He is not conscious of being tended to, though in rare moments of lucidity, he can feel cool water trickled down his throat, or a damp cloth wiping his face. When it finally breaks, he is left a shadow of what he was, dragged down by fatigue and numb apathy.
He is days out of the arena while his body heals. The twelve tend to his needs with surprising kindness, putting down their labors to take turns keeping him company. His dreams are strange. Gordon walks through them with him, hands in his pockets, neat as a pin and not the fraying, ragged figure of courage that John last saw. Their conversations are lazy. Meaningless, but comforting, though he can’t remember their substance when he wakes. Sometimes they spill into the waking world, and he watches the men at their training, still hearing the murmur of that quiet, matter-of-fact voice.
Once or twice, he finds tears on his face. He has no idea why.
When Dae-Hyun has decided he is hale enough, he returns to the arena. His body has grown clumsy with sickness. It does not answer as it should. He weakens quickly; even Farid manages to pin him, and stares down at him on the floor with as much surprised dismay as he feels looking up.
“It take time,” Dae-Hyun says.
“No,” John says grittily. “It won’t.”
He hurls himself into training, pushing himself to the verge of collapse and then dragging himself up to do it again. The men attempt to intervene in turn, flattening him when he persists, refusing to spar with him when he rises, regardless. Lacking partners, he practices throwing knives with either hand until he is hitting nine out of ten; then nineteen out of twenty.
You’re pushing yourself too hard, Gordon warns.
Shut up, he thinks back fiercely. You’re dead.
You’re not, Gordon points out, but he refuses to listen.
Barsad watches him, as does Dae-Hyun, and on the day when he blacks out in the middle of a throw, he wakes to find himself being carried in Bane’s strong arms back to the carpet room. The mercenary has been absent from the complex for days, off with the outer army. John is conscious of swift fear, then pleasure, then a complicated tangle of both.
“You push yourself too hard,” growls Bane from behind the mask. He settles John on his bedroll and presses him down on it with a hand to his chest. “It is time for you to rest.”
If Gordon and Bane are both in agreement, then the earth has switched places with the sky. John stares at the mercenary in blank astonishment, then attempts to slide past his hand to rise. Bane is immovable.
“Submit,” Bane says.
John stills, the memory of pain and the fear of displeasing Bane surprising him with dread.
Bane’s eyes smile. “Good,” he says, amused. “Your wings are growing strong, habibi. But you will rest all the same. Or I will find new ways to immobilize you.”
It is unclear whether Bane means through pleasure or pain, or some awful hybrid of the two.
You should rest, Gordon says primly.
“Fine,” he says aloud, and slumps back into the bedroll to close his eyes. “Resting.” He sounds like a petulant 5-year old. He can tell his body needs the rest, even if he refuses to acknowledge it. There is an incoming tide of heat under the skin of his face, and he can feel the beginnings of weak shivers shaking his core. He hears the sounds of Bane moving, the clink of metal, the gurgle of liquid. Then a damp cloth touches his brow, bringing delicious coolness to the fever.
John’s eyes fly open. He grabs Bane’s wrist to still it; stares without comprehension at the towel in its hand.
Bane lets him stare, patient. When disbelief has graduated to astonishment, and from astonishment to baffled acceptance, he gently frees himself and returns to wiping John’s face.
“You are still mine, habibi,” he says in his metallic, inhuman voice. When did John start thinking it was beautiful? “What is mine, I keep.”
John watches for a time, confused, but there is nothing to be read in Bane’s face. After a while, the treatment makes his eyes flutter closed. Sometime after that, he falls asleep, still feeling the gentle stroke of fabric across his skin.
John recovers and returns to the arena. The men welcome him again without fuss. They are motivated, as is he; within a couple of weeks, he is back to where he was, and climbing higher.
But he has changed, nonetheless.
Bane spies him one day in the tunnel to the storage room, where he has been making a list of available ingredients for Morten. Farid is vociferous and hilarious in his complaints about the Norwegian’s cooking, which is borderline criminal, he says, so do not write down that there is fish, Little Bird, or we will be made to eat that terrible thing he does to the poor creatures.
John has a smile on his face when he emerges with paper in hand, still hearing the echoes of Farid cursing behind him. The mercenary, standing in conversation with Barsad, pauses to watch him approach, then stops him with a hand when he nears.
The blue eyes glitter. “Little bird,” says Bane, and John’s heart lurches as he recognizes the expression. “Submit.”
He is aware of Barsad’s eyes on him; aware, too, of outer army men passing through the tunnel on errands elsewhere. But the same memory of pain and fear of displeasing Bane rise up again, weakening his limbs and drying his throat. He stills, tremors rising through his chest and his lungs, then drops to his knees, his eyes closing. Tranquility settles its mantle on his shoulders; he feels fear suspended, set apart by the release of perfect resignation.
Bane laughs quietly. A warm hand caresses John’s face and turns it up. He opens his eyes to find Bane’s eyes smiling down at him, and relief mixes with joy to wash through him like a cleansing wave.
“You have pleased me, habibi,” Bane says. “Go.”
John rises, clutching his list, and flees.
The men from the outer army are more frequent visitors, now. John does not like their presence, though he is far from the soft, unskilled younger self who was so easily overpowered by two would-be rapists. Mostly, they mind their own business, treating John as they would any of the other twelve; with respect, because he is one of Bane’s inner circle, however ignorant this piece of it might be.
A few, though, regard him with knowing eyes that hint at ugly speculation and uglier desires. A couple of them, he dimly remembers from the fight in the carpet room. The story of it has spread, though John does not know how he fares in the retelling. Is there any recollection that he twice made Bane stagger? Or is it only the story of how he was brought low and made to scream for Bane’s pleasure? Once, the question would have bothered him. Now, neither possibility does. They are both true.
It seems strange that the memory of the two who died for wanting him should have faded from the minds of the outer army. But then, John can barely recall it himself.
Watch your back, Gordon says, so John makes sure to carry his knife at all times.
That night there are several of the outer army men in the dinner circle. They clump together, most of them, though one or two chat with the twelve with the ease of old friends. Some of them actually are, belonging by rights to Bane’s cadre, though his command might have sent them elsewhere, where they are most needed. Bane sits by one such man, listening to the relating of some story.
“Water,” Jean-Philippe moans, bowing over his plate with a melodramatic clutch at his throat. “Dae-Hyun, you are killing us all.”
Even Farid coughs, exhaling spice. “Poisoner,” he wheezes, while the Asian smiles.
“Pathetic,” John says.
Farid clutches at him. “I die.”
John sighs and rises, shedding those demanding hands. “You’d do the world a favor,” he says, though not without affection. “I’ll get you milk. It’ll work better than water.” He leaves for the cold storage room, smiling at their theatrics while the two gabble complaints behind him. A new crate of milk sits in the generator-powered refrigerator. He plucks a carton out and heads back to the meal room.
It is as he is returning to the circle that one of the outer army men touches him. He is one of those who look at John with greed in his eyes. John has been aware of him before, and made wary by instinct and Gordon’s caution; thus, when the man rises from the circle with some pretense to leave and glances at him in passing, he is attentive.
It is neatly done. Their paths cross. The man steps in when he should have stepped away, and John feels a hand shoving down his pants to cup his balls.
Perhaps it is meant as an assault. Or an invitation. Or maybe it is just a test. John does not care. On the instant he drops the milk and lashes a hard blow into the bend of the man’s elbow. It buckles, jerking his hand out of John’s waistband, perforce; before the man has a chance to react, John seizes the offending hand, smashes a fist into his stomach to make him fold, kicks his legs out from under him, then uses the captured arm as a lever to flip him onto his stomach and pin him with his knee.
Conversation cuts off in the circle. All eyes turn to them. A couple of the man’s friends jerk to their feet, only to stop when Morten rises, eyes chill. Farid does likewise, his knife drawn.
Gordon murmurs a suggestion and John bends over the man, his face cloaked in the fall of his hair. He can see the man’s eyes glittering as he wheezes. “Tell your friends,” John says through his teeth, “that I am Bane’s. The next time one of you touches me, I will cut his hand off and feed it to him. Are we understood?”
The man does not move. John twists the hand locked in his grip; a yelp jerks out under him.
“Yes!” cries the man.
John lets him go, stoops to pick up the milk, then heads back to join the circle. His eyes feel hot and dry, burning with irritation. Jean-Philippe seizes the carton. Morten and Farid slowly sit, though the former turns a look on the man, now rising, which bodes ill for his future. The man's glare back at John promises murder.
He can feel Bane watching them both, and wonders whether this one, too, will be executed for trying to take what was his.
“You have made an enemy,” says Morten.
“Not good. He is still alive.”
Jean-Philippe says happily, “I feel better.” He wipes a milk mustache off his upper lip and offers, “If you like, I kill him for you. Easy.” He draws a finger across his throat and snaps. Thus. “Because you have saved my life. It is the least I can do.”
“No,” John says curtly. “Leave it.”
They acquiesce without surprise or concern, as philosophical with his foolhardiness as they are with each other. Keep an eye out for him, says Gordon. He’ll try something when you’re alone and not looking. Keep your back to the wall.
I know, John says.
Bane says only, "You have left an enemy at your back, little bird."
There is curiosity in the mercenary's voice, an interest at so impractical an act of charity. He finds John in the tunnels when the meal is over and turns him to face the wall, pressing close to blot out the world. John, trapped in a corner between the stone and his body, turns his face into the hand warming his cheek.
"He's my problem," he says. "I can deal with him."
Bane's thumb slides across John's mouth, caressing his lip. "You are foolish."
"I prefer to think I'm brave."
A low, aspirated chuckle. "That you are. But also foolish. Even the meanest dog can kill a king. Leave your enemies dead behind you, or broken before you. You will learn."
"He's nothing," John says. The hand at his face slips lower. He catches his breath, hearing his voice growing hoarse. "I can take care of it."
Blue eyes smile. "Then I will watch, and be pleased by your strength."
John keeps an eye out and keeps his back to the wall, clear your corners, rookie. Since some of the twelve have started making a game out of dropping on him from the ceilings to startle him, he watches those, too. Thus, he is not caught unawares when the man--whose name, he has learned, is Mahmoud--tries to get his revenge. In fact, John knows the trap is present before he goes to spring it, deliberately so, when there are no others within earshot to come running.
Hothead, says Gordon. Going in without backup’s a bad idea.
Says the man who went alone into Arkham after a bat man.
Touché, says Gordon, and he sounds amused.
It is the carpet room Mahmoud picks. A poor choice, with two exits, little cover, and even lighting all around. Perhaps he expected to find John asleep, or was hoping to hide until he did. John enters the room, immediately aware of Mahmoud pressed against the wall beside the entrance, and walks a few steps in.
When Mahmoud lunges at him with knife outstretched, John has already slipped out of the way.
It is strange, how slowly Mahmoud moves; how obviously he telegraphs his intentions. For a while, John is wary at such bumbling incompetence, certain that he is being mocked, or that this some trick meant to lure him into overconfidence. He nips at Mahmoud with little strikes, keeping him off-balanced, bruising only a little. The other man pursues, maddened and vengeful, but is unable to mark him. After a while, John realizes that it is he who is different. All this time he has been training with Bane’s elite, men taught to fight by Ra’s al Ghul. He has never before realized that he has become their equal, and that other men are now like ants to his boot.
He dodges a swing of the knife, feints, and draws a deep cut across Mahmoud’s face with his thumb. The man shouts and jabs; in silence, John slides behind him and breaks his middle finger. He has not even drawn his knife yet. Already Mahmoud has lost his twice, reclaiming it only when John chooses to let him.
It is heady. Intoxicating. It is power that uplifts and corrupts, glorious and dark. Fascinated, he circles his frenzied, would-be attacker, wondering if this is what the others feel when they are battling lesser men. John breaks another finger on the same hand, lets Mahmoud go, then thoughtfully breaks another when the other man persists in swinging his knife at him. It is like humoring a child.
This must be what Bane felt, fighting him in the beginning.
He can feel people entering the room, drawn by Mahmoud’s cries rather than John’s silence. Even without looking, he can sense that they are not a threat; bodies settle in the periphery of his vision, taking up seats on crates and leaning against walls to watch the spectacle.
Finish this, Gordon says. You’re not accomplishing anything.
I’m teaching him a lesson.
You’re torturing him. Enough.
Regretfully, John realizes the truth of that. Barely out of breath, he swats away Mahmoud’s desperate lunge and takes him down, disarming him with an easy twist of wrist--the knife he sends thudding deep, blade-first, into the crate on which Jean-Philippe sits--before drawing his own to lay its edge against his throat.
Somebody claps with ridiculous solemnity. John looks up through hair that has come unbound from its bindings, to spy Farid giving him applause. Ludicrously, he has a bowl of popcorn cradled in his lap.
Hopeless. The man is hopeless.
“Now what will you do with him?” Farid asks. Five of the twelve are arranged as interested spectators around the room. There are others, outer army men, but none look inclined to intervene when Bane’s cadre is so clearly disinclined to let them.
Morten says coolly, “Enemies are best when they are dead.”
“Or suffering,” says Jean-Philippe, his eyes gleaming.
The curtain at the back of the room stirs, and all eyes turn to it. Bane pushes through, scalp and mask gleaming in the dull light. He pauses, looking over the scene, then meets John’s eyes. Beneath him, already frozen under his knife, Mahmoud rolls his eyes in alarm and grows even more still.
“Never leave an enemy at your back, little bird,” Bane says.
“He’s done,” John says. “He won’t try it again.”
“He has raised his hand against you. To act against you is to act against me.” Bane’s eyes glitter. “You are the blade at my enemy’s throat. Strike.”
John stares at him, his hand steady, then looks down at the neck under his knife. Blood glitters in little pearls along its curve; the edge has parted skin. Mahmoud wheezes in terror, his eyes white around the rims, and John can smell the sourness of the man’s sweat mixing with the mustier tang of urine. The stink of fear.
He tightens his grip, preparing to
“This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be,” Gordon says.
A crack draws a line across the walls in John’s mind.
“I never killed anyone before-- you know, all this happened,” John says, his head resting on Gordon’s lap. “I didn’t have time to think about it the first time, but I kept thinking afterwards, if I aimed a little lower maybe, or if I hadn’t said what I was thinking out loud....”
“The first time I killed a man, I was a patrolman,” Gordon says. “Bodega robbery. Roberto Mendez, age 17. Two bullets to the chest.” His eyes are closed, his hand gentle as it strokes John’s hair. Like he’s a cat, John thinks drowsily, but he doesn’t mind. Stress relief. Makes you live longer. He decides it must do the same for the cat.
“I don’t know the name of the first guy I killed,” John says, unsurprised at Gordon’s clarity of recall. “I just remember his face. He was one of Bane’s men. I dreamed about it every night for weeks.”
“I threw up after,” Gordon says, without embarrassment.
“I kept hoping it would get easier, you know?” John says. “I thought, maybe next time--”
A small sigh. “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be,” Gordon says, and opens his eyes to look at the place beyond walls. “We weren’t meant to be soldiers, or guerrillas, or resistance fighters. We’re cops. One of these days we’ll get to be that again, and the shape of who we’ve let ourselves become will determine whether the people of Gotham get to be protected by a shield or controlled by a gun.”
“I’ve killed four men,” John admits after a long silence. “I remember every single one of them.”
“I’ve killed nine. I remember them all, too.” Gordon’s little smile is weary. “You can let it get easier, if you really want. I wouldn’t, if I were you.” His fingers smooth hair away from John’s brow, compassionate. “You’re not a killer, son.”
The way he says it feels like absolution.
His knuckles press white against the skin. The knife’s hilt burns like a brand. John trembles, frozen, caught between Bane and Gordon. He can smell the Commissioner as though he stands next to him; can feel his presence, as though he stands behind him.
A fist clenches in his throat, filling it with bones.
He hears Bane coming closer. Sees the great frame crouch down beside him.
“Habibi,” Bane says.
John, Gordon whispers. I’d have been proud to have a son like you.
“No,” John says hoarsely. The knife flashes, reflecting white as he begins to draw back. Bane reaches. One great hand wraps around John’s hand, trapping it in place. “I’m not a killer.”
Bane looks into his face, seeing something there that tightens his eyes. Then they smile, blue and unfathomable, tender and cruel.
“Then I will accept your first time as a gift,” Bane says gently.
John is helpless in that grip. It turns the knife, point first, and thrusts mercilessly, hard under Mahmoud’s trembling chin.
Time slows down.
He can feel the slight resistance of flesh as it parts, the grate of cartilage and bone as metal slides past them. The pressure of thicker meat. Blood spurts, flicking at his face to burn against his skin like a fever. Under his knee, Mahmoud goes rigid, his eyes opening wide, a tide of crimson flooding out of his mouth. Then there is the feeling of soft space around the length of the blade--brain, John thinks numbly.
Bane’s hand twists. Mahmoud shudders, then exhales.
John kneels frozen, staring down at the empty face that was alive only a second ago. Bane’s hand unwraps from his; he sits still holding the knife, paralyzed by the aftershock of sensory memory. Around him, he can hear voices chatting, casual, indifferent to the enormity of murder.
It was easy.
A hand smacks him on the back. He releases the knife, jolted.
“He was nothing,” Farid says scornfully, squatting by the body to rest his bowl of popcorn on its chest. He snags a handful to shove it in his mouth. Indistinctly, he adds, “You could have killed him blindfolded. We have taught you well, Little Bird.”
“Brain is good from the front,” Morten says with approval. “Better to be behind if you slice the throat. Less mess.”
“More mess,” corrects Farid. “Less mess on clothes.”
“I prefer to break the neck,” Sufi says behind him, and the three begin to argue companionably about the subject. John simply sits, his knee still pinning down a body that will never fight him again, and stares at Bane. The mercenary’s eyes are half-lidded, sated. They gleam at John with the languid pleasure he has learned to recognize after their nights together, intimate and caressing.
“One day, you will slaughter your enemies. They will know your name, habibi,” Bane says, in the voice he only uses here, in this room when they are alone. “And then you will fly.”
A few days later, Jean-Philippe and Raolo leave on some mission. Four days after that, Raolo returns, bloody and blackened with soot. Jean-Philippe does not. “Him,” Raolo says laconically, on his way to report.
“Dead?” asks Morten.
Raolo shrugs, and goes to look for Barsad.
Dae-Hyun and Alexi depart on an errand. Neither of them return.
“He is getting closer,” Bane says with satisfaction, stroking John in the dark of night. “Soon he will come for you.”
“Who?” John wonders breathlessly, arching into that maddening hand.
“My enemy. My traitor brother. He wants you. We are alike, he and I. What I want, he wants.”
Bane shifts, and John gasps, losing the thought.
The cold metal of the mask buries itself in the hollow where his neck meets the shoulder, warming itself on his skin. He can hear Bane’s smile in his voice. “He will see what I have made of you and be blinded. You are my sacrifice on her altar. You are mine, habibi.”
John knows there’s something he should say to that, but Bane leaves him without the ability to speak, so he shudders without words, unable to deny it.
John, Gordon says, sounding grieved. Oh, son.
When the enemy finally comes, John is the last to know.
The bustle of outer army men through the tunnels that day is swift and urgent, tension carried in the rigidity of backs and shoulders and white-rimmed eyes. Commands flick like darts across the rattle of equipment and crates, hauled away to serve some mysterious purpose elsewhere. The nine left of Bane's twelve prepare in the arena, while John watches with uncertain alarm.
Barsad gives them quick orders in their shared language, then directs an inscrutable glance at John.
“Wait for Bane,” he says, sliding a knife home in its sheath. He pauses only for John’s acknowledging nod before disappearing on some errand.
The eight left finish arming themselves, eyes lit with fanatic joy, then blacken their faces before melting into the tunnels. Farid and Morten grip John's arm before they go, anticipation ablaze in their faces. Sufi's teeth flash white. "Farewell, little brother," he rumbles, and tousles John's hair. "Today, you will rise."
Left behind alone, John pragmatically picks up where they left off in their chores: hanging up wet laundry; unpacking supplies; mending a hole in Morten’s favorite shirt.
Distant explosions sound, followed by the rattle of gunfire. John finishes sewing, binds off the thread, then goes to investigate. Down one tunnel, up the next; there is an echo of shouts, another rat-tat-tat-tat of shots being fired, and the scrape of boots on stone. The jangle of gear. Metal creaking. The whisper of running feet unskilled at being quiet.
He turns the corner, curious about the owners of these feet. The tunnel is filled with bodies in black, wearing armor and bearing guns. The leading man, eyes widening in astonishment, almost careens into John.
They are not outer army men. They are not Bane’s.
Without thinking, John’s body moves, redirecting the other man’s forward motion to send him into the wall, then easily ripping the gun -- guns, assault rifle gripped in hands, pistol holstered at hip -- out of his grasp to send them hurtling out of reach behind him.
There’s a shout. Then chaos. Men come at him, trying to use their rifles as clubs to strike at him. They are not used to tunnel combat; they get in each other’s way, and even if they didn’t, they move laughably slow. Only two can truly reach him at a time, and John is vaguely amused at how easy it is to take them down. He dislocates arms and kicks out knees, slams heads into stone and discards guns as he goes, until the floor far behind him is cluttered with metal and popped out clips.
A voice shouts. The soldiers retreat back a few feet. John does not follow. The ground is strewn with groaning, prostrate men.
“Hands in the air!” he hears. He looks back down the tunnel and discovers there are guns pointed at him. John blinks, puzzled and faintly annoyed. They are the intruders, not him. “Hands up, now! This is your only warning!” the bellow comes again.
He senses rather than hears one of his fallen attackers rising to his feet behind him. Without pausing to look, he spins on a foot to flank the startled ambush. The man is holding a pistol; John twists it out of his grip and kicks out his knees. The weapon feels strange in his hand. Alien. He slides his hand through the man’s hair -- somewhere along the way the soldier has lost the helmet they all wear -- to hold him in place while he digs the gun’s barrel into the base of his skull. Never leave an enemy at your back.
No! Gordon shouts. John freezes.
“Hold your fire! Hold your fire! Jesus H. Christ!” A different voice, this time, sharp and horrified. “That’s John Blake! That’s our hostage! Do not shoot!”
“He’s got Thomas!”
“Hold your fire!” A body pushes out from the throng, shoving past others to stand at an angle in front. He too holds a pistol, aimed at John from the far hand, while the other stretches shaking fingers in a contradictory, pacifying gesture. “John,” he says, his voice strained but gentle. Soothing. “Put the gun down. We’re GPD. We’re here to help you.”
John looks at the man’s face, feeling only the faintest nudge of familiarity. Not recognition. He frowns, looking down at the rigid man on his knees, whose hands are both lifted in surrender. There is the hiss of metal shifting as the soldiers tense on their weapons.
“John.” The name lifts his gaze again to the speaker. “It’s me. Sergeant Carroll, remember? Matt. We pulled the same shift together for a couple of months before I transferred.” He pushes back his helmet; pulls off yellow safety glasses to show the face beneath. “We’re not your enemies. We’re your friends. We’re cops, just like you. We’re here to help you.”
Listen, Gordon urges.
“Try to remember, John,” Carroll says urgently. “You’re a cop. A cop. You’re Detective John Blake. You fought Bane and his army, with Gordon and Foley and the others who weren’t trapped down here with the rest of us. For months. You fought him and his men. You rescued us. Tens of thousands of men and women. Your fellow officers.” Carroll slides a cautious step forward, then another. John stares at him. “We took back Gotham, but Bane got away. You disappeared. So did Gordon.”
“Gordon’s dead,” John says.
“But you’re not,” says Carroll. “You’re alive, and so’s Thomas down there.” Another careful step. The sergeant is almost close enough to touch, now. The back of John’s mind idly ticks over the few moves it would require to seize the man and disarm him. “You don’t want to kill him. That’d make you one of the bad guys. You’re one of the good guys. A hero. You save lives, you don’t take them.”
You're not a killer, Gordon says, and rests his hand over John’s. He can feel those fingers on his skin. They are gentler than Bane’s, but as callused and strong.
“Why are you here?” he asks Gordon, baffled.
It is Carroll who answers, misunderstanding. “We’re here to help you, John,” he says gently. Another half-step, inching closer. "Keith Malloy told us what Bane’s been doing to you. Terrible things. I know it’s-- I know it’s been hard. But we’re here now. I’m sorry we’re late, but we’re here. We’re going to help you, if you’ll just let us. He won’t ever hurt you again, I promise. Just give me the gun, and we’ll walk out of here together, all right? Friends?"
The reaching hand moves towards John’s. John lets it. When it wraps cautiously around the barrel, he lets the weapon go, surrendering it into Carroll’s grasp. Under his other hand, Thomas slumps with a gasp of pent up breath.
Carroll says with relief bright in his face, “That’s right. That’s right. You’re John Blake. You’re safe now. You're not alone anymore. We’re here. We have to take you out of the--”
He does not have a chance to finish his sentence.
Morten descends like an angel of death from the roof of the tunnel, into the faces of the men behind the sergeant. From the sudden screams and shouts from further back, another of the nine has dropped on them as well. The bright jag of gunfire erupts, controlled and precise; Carroll whirls and stumbles back towards John, bright red blooming on his cheek as he falls. Thomas, scrambling after one of the fallen guns, goes down to another shot.
“Go, Little Bird,” Morten says, throwing him one of his rare, fierce grins. “This is our meat. Find your own.”
Go! Gordon shouts.
John turns and runs.
The arena is empty.
John heads for the center of the training ground, uncertain where else to be or what else to do. The noises of battle come from several of the tunnels now, irrelevent. He is unbalanced, feeling worlds collide and crack. Mortar is crumbling in his mind, a little skitter of dust down a wall, prelude to destruction.
Bane, he thinks desperately.
He feels his enemy’s presence before he descends, a prickle on the back of his neck that makes him dive forward into a roll. Farid has done the trick too often for it to be effective now. He hears feet land behind him, but he is already up and whirling, his knife loosed and flying towards its target. A black arm with spurred gauntlets flicks up; sparks fly and the knife clatters off. Admiration spits through John’s mind, even as he chases it to launch a kick to the man’s unprotected side. It connects hard, sending him staggering.
They fight. The man moves like Sufi, John realizes quickly, and he is as good; perhaps even better. John’s hair is damnably in the way, coming free of its ties from the activity, but he manages despite it, landing blows and taking hard ones in return. The man is as strong as Sufi as well. Perhaps even as strong as Bane.
A blow to John’s chest sends him crashing through a stack of crates. He rolls up to hook one of them up with his foot, then kicks it to send it flying towards the man’s head. It is a temporary distraction. The gauntlet lifts again, shielding his face. No flinch, John notes. Then the man is stalking towards him, mouth set...
...and he stops dead. Takes a step back, his eyes startling white around green irises.
He wears a half-mask over his face; black armor over his body. The cape that whispers around him stirs strangely, heavier in its movement than normal cloth. High, pointed ears prick over the top of the cowl.
“Blake,” says the man, in a rasping voice.
Wait! cries Gordon, as John prepares to attack. He falters, disoriented by vertigo.
“Where’s Bane?” demands the man, striding towards him.
John retreats from this advance, unsettled, confused. He backs around obstacles, knowing their pattern without thinking, and hurls an empty crate at his pursuer before turning to run for the tunnels.
There are people coming out of the entrance: three men in black, soldiers like the ones he encountered earlier. Intruders. They are armed, and shout when they see him. He doesn’t stop, seeing their guns rise with irritating slowness. Behind him he hears another shout, and then he’s in their midst. One down. Two down. Weapons fly, ripped out of hands and tossed aside.
The third man lets off a round that John feels pass through his pants and slice across his thigh. He disarms this one as well and renders him unconscious, but does not discard the weapon. He can feel the other man, the one who moves like Sufi, coming up like a storm behind him; without pausing to think, he spins to face him, gun raised to fire at his enemy.
No! shouts Gordon.
The man in black stops in his tracks.
They stare at each other for long seconds, or maybe minutes, gazes locked. The eyes in the mask are pale against the blacking that darkens the skin around them. They regard him steadily, as though measuring his willingness to fire.
Never leave an enemy at your back.
“Blake,” says the man, the rasp gone from his voice.
He says nothing, unease itching across his skin.
“John Blake,” says the man again, not moving. “I’m here for you. You know who I am.”
Gordon does. You made me a promise, son.
“Shut up,” he says desperately. “You’re dead. You died and you left me. I’m not listening to you anymore.”
It is Gordon who should answer, but it is the man who does. “I'm sorry,” he says, the shadow of regret darkening his eyes. "I thought I could change the end of my story. I wouldn't have left if I'd-- I'm here now though, John. I’m right here.”
John, Gordon says. Presses his hand against his back. You said you would tell him.
“I promised--” John begins, then falters to a stop.
A pause. “You promised,” the man says steadily. “You promised Gordon.”
Metal creaks in John’s hand; pain does the same in his head. His breath catches. “I don’t remember.”
Yes, you do.
“Tell me,” the man says, facing the gun with open, empty hands. “You had a message for--”
A crack creeps like a spiderweb across the walls in his mind.
“It does not matter. Batman is looking for him in the city.” Bane’s voice caresses each word as though he relishes their flavor. “He is looking for you both by name. Jim Gordon and John Blake. He cares for you.”
Memory carves the name out of sudden hatred, a bleeding scar of recrimination. It blazes like a fever across his skin, pooling black and savage around his heart. He shakes with it. Batman. Batman. He grips the gun harder, his finger digging against the trigger. “You’re too late,” John says harshly. “He’s dead. He’s dead.”
“I know,” Batman says. His voice thickens, rubbing raw at its edges. “I found him.”
Accusation raises his voice, makes it trip and reel. “He needed you. He p-- He protected me, but he needed you.”
Batman’s eyes close over pain. “I know.”
“You were supposed to come for him!” His hand trembles.
“I was too late for Gordon,” Batman says, opening his eyes again. They flare dark, dilated, intent. “But you’re still alive. I can save you. I came for you, John.”
Unfair. Unfair. Anguish seizes John by the throat. “Why?”
Batman hesitates. “Because you need me. Because you’re someone I care about. Because--” Words stumble. Recover, hoarse. “Because I failed him.”
John stands frozen, staring at the eyes that mirror in them the horrors behind the walls. Betrayal. Grief. Loss. Agony.
“Do you remember the last thing he said to you, John?” Batman asks quietly, taking a step closer. “The very last thing? He said, ‘where there’s life....’”
It’s the beginning of a sentence that should end--
But it’s dead. It’s been dead forever.
“You’re too late,” he says numbly, feeling behind him that presence, the dark star by which his life charts its course. He takes a step back, into that radiance and cruel, bright power. “This is all that's left.”
Batman’s eyes rise, widening, then chilling. His weight settles, balancing into the rock. Tension coils in the great black frame. Hands, gore-streaked and massive, settle on John’s shoulders. His arm drops, unable to resist that pressure. Bane is a blaze of heat behind him; he stinks of smoke and death, fire and pain. A finger traces the line of his jugular, a light, damp caress that leaves blood smeared across his skin.
“At last,” purrs Bane’s voice, rich and perfect. “I have been waiting, little brother. You have delayed on the road. Did my invitations go astray?”
Batman shifts, his hands closing into fists. “Bane,” he says, with strangely formal courtesy.
“Bruce Wayne,” says Bane, likewise. “We have unfinished business, you and I.”
“I’m here,” Batman says harshly. “Let him go.”
Bane laughs. “There are no chains on him. I have no collar around his throat. See.” His hands lift, leaving John bereft of his warmth. “Call him to you, if you think he will come.”
Batman says, “John.” One hand opens, its fingers twitching as though thwarted in a summons. Pale eyes glitter. “Come here.”
John stares at him, tasting hatred again on his tongue. Longing. Shame. Despair.
“John,” Batman says. “Please.”
“Look how he wants you, little bird. How he burns.” Bane’s hand touches John’s cheek, then his neck, then grips the fabric of his shirt to rip it open. Cold air chills the sweat drying on his skin; purpling bruises from training ache in stripes across his torso. The strong hands draw his arms back, forcing his spine to arch against the strain on his shoulders.
Bane’s face lowers, the mask nuzzling at John’s ear. Over it, his eyes smile at Batman. “Did you think he would come to you, when I have already made him mine?” he asks tenderly. “There is no part of him left that does not bear my name. Shall I tell you how I spent my days and nights with him while we waited for you? How he screamed and begged? Or perhaps the sounds he made when I took him in front of my men?”
Batman makes a low, rumbling sound in his throat, a snarl before it is finished being born, and vertigo strikes John again, their low growl is the warning snarl of predators in the woods, and he takes a step back, into Gordon. He can feel the Commissioner shivering--
“This is between you and me,” Batman rasps.
“He is between you and me,” Bane corrects with his eyes alight and burning. “Because of you, I took him. He has paid with his suffering in your place. He was strong when I began, but I have broken and remade him. I have made a sacrifice to her of his body and spirit. He will never be free again.”
“Submit, little bird,” Bane says gently, and John’s legs buckle, dropping him to his knees on the floor. Batman takes a hasty step forward. Bane’s hand slides through John’s hair, dragging his head back; he struggles for balance, air burning in his throat against the strain.
The mercenary looks down at him. Blue eyes smile, loving. Expectant. “Tell him, habibi. My best beloved. Who do you belong to?”
“Bane,” John chokes out.
“No!” Batman says hoarsely, and Bane laughs, throwing John aside to sprawl across the stone. He hears leather creak; the sound of feet. Then the snarl and hard sounds of fighting, bones meeting flesh, muscle being pummeled. Slowly, painfully, John drags himself up to look. Through the stars that scatter across his vision, he can see Bane and Batman battle. It is like continents colliding: immovable object; irresistible force.
Batman is better than Sufi, he realizes. He is almost the equal of Bane.
Get up, Gordon says urgently. John curls his fingers around the gun, lost during his fall, and stands, bracing himself against the wall. His head spins. You promised me.
The two are in the center of the training arena now, exchanging blows that would kill a normal man. Bane’s advance is slow and deliberate; Batman is quicker on his feet, but his strikes are aimed for Bane’s face. The mask, John realizes dazedly. He is aiming for the mask, and from some distant past he remembers that something feeds into Bane through it, erasing pain.
They are speaking to each other. He cannot hear what they say, even though they stand only a few yards away. The crumbling of the walls is too loud. There are cracks yawning up their sides.
“They’re falling,” he says breathlessly.
Despair streams down the walls like tears. “Help me.”
Let them fall, John.
“No,” he gasps. “Help me.”
Bane raises his hands in a joined fist and brings it crashing down on the back of Batman’s neck. The masked vigilante slams to the floor, then rolls away in time to miss Bane’s boot. He rises like a hurricane, a broken staff driving its blunt end into Bane’s chin. The mercenary staggers, then smashes his fist down into the crunch of flesh and armor.
The cracks are wider now; there is ugliness behind them, terrible monsters, and he is not strong enough to hold them back. They will weaken him. He has to endure. He promised.
“God,” Gordon says, his face suddenly stricken. His hands tremble. “John,” he breathes. “You don’t--”
“It’s okay,” he says. “You and the Bat, you’ll come get me. I can do this.”
John says, wrung by agonized memory, “I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it. I can’t.”
You survived. That was enough.
“I belong to Bane now! I wasn’t strong enough!”
Where there’s life--
Batman lands a strike on Bane’s face. Bane staggers back. John can hear his roar of rage. The blow has damaged the mask; the mercenary’s hands rise to it as he retreats, buying himself space to mend the problem. Batman does not pursue his advantage as aggressively as he should. The cowled head hangs low, shoulders sagging from the aftereffects of an earlier hit.
Bane catches the drive of his fist in a hand and brings him low, knee slamming into the armored stomach. Even from where he stands, John can hear the breath exploding out of Batman’s body.
The walls are collapsing, great blocks of it tumbling down to bare the horror behind.
The Commissioner stands staring at him, his eyes too bright, mouth white and thin and John realizes that this futile struggle, this indulgence of frenzy, is fraying what is left of Gordon’s courage; is stripping him naked in his fear to his enemy.
He can feel the pain rising in his throat, a ball of grief so hard it stops his breath. “This is what I deserve,” he chokes. “I killed you. I gave you up. I should have been the one who-- I should have died for--”
Once more, his voice fails him. Once more, he fails Gordon.
No. You have never failed me.
Batman is up again, reeling. He is close to the end, John knows. Bane is toying with him now. The great shoulders bunch, glistening with sweat, and drive a punishing blow into Batman’s ribs. The figure in black buckles, crashing into a rack of staves.
Dust rises in his mind; there is nothing now but crumbling stone and the hungry storm, waiting beyond it.
Gordon closes his eyes again. His lips tremble, then move slowly in silence. I’m sorry, John, they say. I’m so sorry.
Live for me.
“I can’t,” he says, his voice raw, shredded. Metal, grating past bone. Wide, dead eyes.
You can. You endured. Now you have to fly.
“Don’t leave me,” he whispers.
Gordon's sorrow cuts like a knife. I’m sorry, son. I’m so sorry. I made my choice. Now it’s your turn.
You have to choose, John. Choose what you want to become.
The dam gapes wide. He raises the gun. Sobs. The world is too bright.
Gordon opens his eyes again, steady once more, to look into the place beyond walls.
He is habibi. He is Little Bird.
“Are you ready?” asks Bane.
Where there’s life....
John Blake pulls the trigger.
The walls come crashing down.
John can see the bullet, irretrievable, inexorable, and the path it will take. The perfection of geometry; the straight course. It spins, catching the light in a flash of gold, so small as to be a jest. Surely tears are bigger.
It enters the side of his head as he turns, reacting to the crack of the gun as it fires. Above the ear: a small black hole. Red explodes from the other side, its mist framing the shape of his skull.
His movement does not change its course for this trivial interruption. Bright eyes turn to John, surprised.
He has learned, John thinks; learned at last. He has slaughtered his enemy, who knows his name.
There is silence. There is noise elsewhere, distant shouts and gunfire, screams, but it is still silence, the entire world stunned and reeling from the sound of Bane, falling.
John is not conscious of moving. If he breathes, he does not feel it. He is here, where he started; then he is there, with no understanding in between, save that Bane has called him and so he must come. He stops beside the body, staring down at his great, ruined god. John’s body is shaking; there is no part of him that is not alive with anguish, with hate, with love, with guilt, too unfocused and confused to know its purpose yet. If someone touches him, he will fracture and fall apart like a broken glass, and all that will be left is grief and rage and loss.
“You killed him,” Batman rasps with disbelief, slowly straightening. His breath is labored; he staggers, catching himself on a crate.
John tries to give his crime a name, but his voice does not come.
“You killed him,” Batman says again, and this time it’s with regret, or relief. John is distantly aware of him stepping, swaying, then moving again to stare down at Bane’s body, too.
“I promised--” he says through numb lips, blue eyes burning down at him as he moans, helpless, mindless. “Little bird,” Bane smiles.
“No!” he hears, and feels something hard touch his temple, then the rush of air as a body moves. His hand is seized in an iron grip. He looks up to find Batman’s hands wrapped around the gun, its barrel pressed to John’s head.
Oh, he thinks, vaguely relieved. That’s how it ends, then.
He pulls the trigger. It does not move. Batman has wedged his finger behind it.
“John,” Batman says hoarsely, in his normal voice again. “Don’t. Don’t. You don’t have to do this. It’s okay. You’re free now.” The black-gloved hand shifts its grip to turn the gun away from his head, slowly, slowly. Dimly, he notices that it is shaking, and hears the pain in Batman’s shuddering breath.
“It’s okay,” Batman says again, gently, forcing his gun hand to point away, to the side. John is not conscious of resisting him, but the muscles in his arm burn. Almost as strong as Bane. “You’re free.”
“I belong to--”
“No.” The green eyes close.
John looks down at Bane again.
“I’m sorry,” Batman says unsteadily. “I was too late for Gordon. I would have--”
I would have died for you.
“I didn’t know,” Batman says, and opens his eyes again. John can feel him looking at him, his gaze on his skin, like Bane’s. “I didn’t know where you were. I heard you were missing, and I came back. I stopped being Batman, but I came back.”
“That’s why he died,” John says. He will shatter from this pain, this heartbreak, that is devouring him from the inside out and leaving only his eyes and mouth and skin so it can see and speak and walk like a man.
“I know,” Batman says, his voice uneven. “But I came. I came for you. I’m not too late for you.”
Batman grips his head and draws him close, touching his brow to John’s temple. Bane sometimes does this, in the dark of night. The cowl is cool against John’s skin. He stares still at Bane, transfixed, unable to look away. “Please, John,” he hears murmured into his ear. “I can’t be too late for you. I need to save you. I need you to tell me. To show me. Gordon’s last few months. You’re the only one who knows. I need to hear.”
A pause. “Because he was my friend. And I failed him.”
You could never fail me, Gordon says.
“You were going to tell me something,” Batman reminds quietly.
“I promised,” John whispers. Gordon smiles. A real smile. For a brief second, it erases the fear in those tired eyes.
“What did you promise, John?”
“I was supposed to tell you--” John says. He is distantly surprised at the steadiness of his voice, can feel wetness on his cheeks, though he’s not sure who they’re for. Bane’s eyes are the same color as--
“Thank you,” he says, and tears his gaze away at last. Looks up. “I was supposed to tell you thank you. From Gordon. Because you would never let him.”
Batman’s eyes flicker. John can read them, can see an echo of the same agony that is shredding his throat, a cataclysm stabbing into the flesh to rip and tear.
Gordon sighs, at peace at last. Thank you, he murmurs. Thank you, son.
“You’re welcome, Jim,” says Bruce Wayne, his voice raw.
There is noise in the tunnels, the crashing of bodies. “Down!” shouts a voice, “Down on the ground, now!” Bruce whirls in a flare of black cloak, his mouth opening around a word, and John turns to look as well, his arm rising, and there is the bang of a gun but John didn’t pull the trigger and then his arm is falling, he is falling, puzzled, grateful, falling down next to Bane and seeing his dead eyes, blue and empty and
A gentle hand touches his head. It feels like a blessing.
I would have been proud to have had a son like you.
He shouldn’t be alive but here he is, wrapped in warmth and softness like a dream of death, his chest hurting too much to be whole, like the bones have burst open around a sorrow so great, it escaped and took his heart with it.
There are no lights and he thinks at first maybe he’s been buried alive. It’s calming, that thought, that soon he’ll run out of air and then sleep, never wake up again.
“I think he’s awake,” murmurs a voice. Female.
He can feel the shift of bed under him as a body weighs down its edge. A hand rests gently on his arm, a light weight that stirs pain into muttering complaint nearby.
“John,” a voice says. Male.
His head is lifted. Something hard touches his lips and tips liquid into his mouth. He swallows gratefully, not caring what it is, so long as it takes away the terrible thirst. The hand giving him drink is patient, waiting past his first choke and sputter before giving him more, until he is sated and his mouth is no longer dry. Then he is lowered back onto the pillow.
He can’t open his eyes. The lids are too heavy. But he can feel the trickle of the tears as they trail down his temples, cool and silent, to nest in his hair.
“Easy,” the voice says. It’s low and husky. John likes it. The hand touches his head, then rests against his cheek, a warm palm, callused. ”It’s okay. You’re at Wayne Manor. I’ve got you. You’re safe.”
“I don’t hear Gordon,” he says drowsily.
There’s a pause. “No Gordon,” says the voice at last. “Just me. And--” Another pause. “Just me.”
“Batman,” he remembers.
“Bruce. It’s okay,” the voice says quietly, and he feels the weight shift closer, the hand stroking his head. Like he was a cat, John thinks hazily, but he doesn’t mind. “Go ahead and sleep. I’ve got you.”
Rest, little bird, says Bane.
He tips gratefully back into the black again, obedient, thinking only the word.