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Red Beard

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John knows there are people tailing him; he’s known that since the early days of the occupation. He does his best to shake them and moves the boys from their home to another building several blocks away. There are other people too – stranded families that can’t move because of a sick child or elderly parents – that John doesn’t move quickly enough, then one day he walks into the home of Mrs. Ibana to find her body broken on the floor and her cat cut neatly in half. He throws up his meager lunch into her trash can then locks the door behind him.

After that, he stays away from the single families that are easily targeted. Rarely does he visit the boys either, but he still runs interference on the cops stuck down below by leaving his friends notes in the gutters. He was careful before, but now he’s practically ghost – doesn’t appear anywhere twice when dropping notes. Hands things off to other people if he can trust them to take care of themselves in a bind, which in a town of few cops left, is near impossible. Has no home, no friends. He doesn’t even have Gordon anymore, not since he learned the truth.

He’s got it better than a lot of people, but John still feels like he’s barely hanging on. He sleeps precariously on the floors of abandoned rooms in buildings that anyone could come through at any time, including Bane’s men or just the regular looter, so to say he sleeps at all is only a half-truth. Food is hard to come by already, and it’s already too cold to manage without three layers or more.

Constant caution can only go so far on such means; John wakes up before dawn one day and thinks that if it were any other day, he would call in sick and stay in bed all day, but he can’t, because he has no bed to sleep in. If he stayed on this floor all day long that he found in an old bank lobby office, he would still never find restful sleep. So he doesn’t stay there, he gets up and puts on his coat that doubles as a blanket at night.

Needless to say, John doesn’t need anyone telling him he’s getting sloppy. He knows, but he has to keep running messages and supplies. People are depending on him. Besides, John never called in a day sick once in his entire life.

Then, rather suddenly, there’s the cold, hard muzzle of a gun brushing aside the hair on the back of his neck; a voice tells him to stand up from where he’s crouched near a sewer drain. He dropped everything in his hands when he heard the crouch of a foot in the snow, just a second too late, but it won’t matter now.

He stands, turns when told to, and puts his empty hands up. There are four men, all with assault riffles on him. There’s nowhere to run, and finally, John thinks. Finally, he may get some sleep.

Then there’s a lot of yelling in a language he isn’t familiar with, most of it coming from a man behind him that he can’t see. From the sound of it, the guy must be standing in the alley directly in front of the sewer that he previously faced, but he never saw any kind of movement there before. He cautiously tries to turn his neck to look; the handle of a gun comes crashing down on his head.

When he wakes up he thinks, well, at least he got some sleep. He’s lying against bricks so cold he has trouble peeling himself off them. There’s a coat covering him and it’s not his own – it’s thick and long with a strange foreign sensibility to it. It could be familiar to him, but he’s not sure. It’s certainly not from any of the men he’s seen on the street lately.

He keeps the coat. It’s heavier than his anyway. He stops his runs for a few days, but then he overhears a woman and child being gunned down in the street outside the current building he’s squatting in and knows it’s time to get back to work.

It’s colder than ever out there, but his coat seems to ward some of the chill off. Oddly enough, he runs into an armed mercenary close to Wayne Enterprise in territory he knows better than to run, but the guy barely glances at him. Same thing happens when he gets too close to the courthouse; Bane’s men own every inch of the block in that area, but they pay no attention to him.

It’s when he’s running with the last of Gordon’s men that he realizes what a distinct difference it’s made, and that it’s not all in his imagination. There are just three of them – himself with Wade and Benningham – when they’re caught obstructing one of the three possible trucks with the detonator. All he can think is thank God Gordon isn’t there.

The three of them are taken to the courthouse; they know how this will end. There’s a small room they’re pushed into; they wait for their so-called sentence hearing there. Benningham goes first, rather silently, then Wade screaming. John sits on the dirty floor, as soft as any of his recent beds, and closes his eyes. Waits.

The door to the room is heavy; it can’t be opened without a hideous creak. John hears it and slowly opens his eyes. It’s his turn. But when he looks, the doorway is empty. No armed men to usher him into Crane’s path.

When John peers around the outside of the door, he can see the gathering of people spilling out at the other end of the hallway. On his other side is an exit. A wide open exit, no guards. It’s too much of a coincidence. He thinks it isn’t fair – his men are gone. Shouldn’t he be buried with the last of Gotham’s honest men? A small part of him will admit it’s all he wants, but the larger part, the least selfish part, knows he has to take the way out. It’d be too easy to walk down that hall and let the masses tear him to pieces. Too easy – that’s what he tells himself.

John lets himself become careless now. Somewhere out there someone is watching out for him. Bruce maybe, from the aid of his butler who he knows helped Batman out on more than one occasion. He pushes away thoughts of Bruce Wayne – the man is most likely dead, and no one, not the outside government or Batman can save him now.

It doesn’t stop him from wondering though; Gordon too, is immediately suspicious of his escape.

“Guess we won’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” is all he says to John, but he can see the wheels turning in the back of the commissioner’s mind. “You ready to make a run down on tenth street?”

He goes, runs into no mercenaries at all, and knows this too means something. Things are changing, but it seems only to affect him. Other cops are still being rounded up and exiled or shot in the head, but wherever John goes, the streets are empty. His footsteps echo.

He sometimes wishes to be caught again, just to prove he’s visible still. He stays away from Gordon once more, leaves the Father to provide for the kids. The days tick down. It’s all almost over.

Then it’s Batman who saves him – and John hears hope sing in his heart so loudly it’s deafening. Batman never left him. He’s been there all along somehow, providing protection for him. They dispose of the men guarding the accessible sewer openings together, then Batman requests one thing from him, and how can he deny the man who’s saved him? He frees his brothers from the sewers and runs towards the current location of the boys.

It’s halfway there he runs into more trouble; in the chaos of the Bat’s return, Bane’s men are especially riled up. They know it’s the climax, and they know their part, but suddenly John isn’t as invisible as he once was. He ends up on his knees once more in front of a rifle, for the second time in an hour. He doesn’t even close his eyes this time, it doesn’t seem worth it.

His assailant’s face explodes in front of him; he feels the warm blood on his lips, eyelashes. He jumps up; Batman doesn’t kill. He doesn’t fire guns. The other men around him fall to the ground, perfect holes in their foreheads. John stands alone in the center of a ring of dead men. He whirls around, looking for the trajectory that the bullets must have come from.

For the first time, he notices activity on the roof across from him. It should be a familiar image, but the man clearly isn’t masked or wearing black.

“Hey!” He yells, trying to run after the guy, but when he makes it to the roof, it’s empty.

The bomb’s about to go off. He doesn’t have time for this; he makes it to the boys, loads them on the bus, makes it to the bridge. Then he has to watch Batman die. It’s worse than watching his father die.

It’s the worst when he has to pick up all the bodies left in the streets and knowing that for Bruce Wayne, there is no body anywhere. He’ll be some lost memory to the people of Gotham; no one will much mourn the loss of a playboy. John sees Foley’s body laid out in the line of dead; he sees many men he knew but had lost for months to the sewers, now to lose them forever in the daylight.

He sees Bane’s body too, guarded even in death, but this time by military men flown in immediately after the attack began.

People go home, or to the hospital, or flee the city forever. Gordon finds John and clasps his shoulder for a long time, neither speaking. Then he leaves too. John isn’t sure where to go. He should check on the boys again, he really should, but he walks aimlessly down the streets where he’d be making his usual run about now.

It’s quiet, the cheers of celebrations far behind him. Just his footsteps. He steps to the side alley and heaves up his empty stomach, too many tears to see properly.

He sits a little further down in the alleyway; the ground is covered in snow, or is it ash? Ashes of the bomb and the Batman. John couldn’t stop crying now for all of Gordon’s grateful hugs.

Then there are footsteps. Just one set. He doesn’t bother looking up until a pair of rugged, blood speckled boots come into his line of vision. He sees the rifle first, then the face.

“No,” John cries. Squeezes his eyes shut. It’s time to sleep, and to never dream again. “All this time. It was you.”

He shakes his head, feels the blood of the man shot down for him on his cheeks still. His savior, his protector, a man not in black, is standing in front of him. He wears a thick vest and heavy armor, but no coat.

Because John still wears it.

The man drops to his knee, pushes the gun aside. He pulls out something eerily similar to a handkerchief and reaches forward. John lets him wipe the blood off his face.

John never knew the man’s name, but he knew his face. The face that shadowed Bane’s movements on the television, in the courtrooms. The one that followed him on the street, hidden by shadows. Bane’s right hand man and his protector, all the same.

John doesn’t forgive himself for assuming it was the Batman. He’s been sleeping with the enemy for far too long for that.

“Bane’s dead,” is what he says.

A hesitant nod.

“What’s wrong? Did you care so little for him? You killed for him, didn’t you?” John wants to be left alone. He just wants this guy to go crawl back to hell where he came from. “Maybe if you hadn’t been so busy tailing me he’d still be alive.”

The man is silent for so long John has to look up at him. He’s not looking at him, but off to the side. His beard is unkempt and gorey, his face a mess of scratches. His knuckles are cut to the bone. For all that, he looks less like a murderous thug than John is comfortable with.

“Give me that.” John rips the handkerchief from his fingers and wraps it around what he thinks is the worst hand. Then he looks at the other hand and decides it’s really just as bad. He curses, ripping off the end of his tattered shirt and bandaging it too. It’s probably the least helpful thing he could do since none of it is sterile, but hey. It’ll stop the bleeding.

John leans back against the bricks and closes his eyes. It’s almost time to sleep.

“Are you angry?” He asks the man. He really wants to laugh, but he can’t. He just cries more.

Pause. “Always. Why?” He can feel the guy’s body hovering directly in front of his still. Not budging an inch. John experimentally kicks a foot out underneath him; the guy doesn’t flinch.

“The bomb didn’t go off.”

A longer pause. John cracks open an eye to glance at his face again, the man still not looking at him.

“What is it?”

A small smile. It’s bloody. “This city does not deserve what it has.”

“Why won’t you look at me?” There are patterns starting to emerge; Gordon always said he was good at patterns.

“You deserve more.” It sounds hateful, spiteful, exactly how he’d expect it to sound coming from a man plotting to kill thousands and thousands of people, but beneath that John can almost hear it. The distinct lack of spite for him, of all people.

It’s something he’s familiar with. It’s how he sounded when speaking of Bruce Wayne and everyone else spoke only with scorn; John hates Gotham for taking its own hero. Bruce died for them while a condemned man. Part of John thinks this guy is right - none of them deserved it.

“Your coat?” John’s hands are almost as bloody as the ones he just bandaged. He slips them inside the folds of thick wool, like a reminder that warm things still exist.

“Looks better on you.”

“And no one touched me because of it, because of you.” John knows the answer. He wants to hear it, because how could one man hate so many and choose him? “And Bane knew?”

“He knew everything.”

How should he feel that the madman behind the madman and the mad plan, the grand master plan, passively spared his life? This man marked John like a minor dot on their grand scheme. Marked him as what? Harmless? Not worth the effort? No. This man saved him from Crane. There are other motivations. He’s just not sure he wants to hear them.

“I hate you.” John feels the other man’s nod more than sees it. He wishes for a short moment that this man had left him in the courts, or in the streets, and hates him even more. For watching him cry with no emotion.

He hates that Batman didn’t protect him.

“Look at me.” John commands and he obeys. His eyes are blue. The bluest. “Why are you here now? There’s nothing to protect me from now. Bane’s dead. He’s dead.”

He’s verging on the edge of hysteria now with no one to pull him back but his enemy. He yells the words he’s wanted to say for so long – he’s dead, you’re dead – to drive the knife in deeper. The man winces finally, and like that the dam breaks.

There are finally more tears than blood. They freeze on his cheeks, and the ash and snow finally stops for the moment. He’s tired, too tired to stand, but he makes himself get up and walk away from the silent man who has crouched painfully in the same spot for the better part of two hours now watching him.

He walks further south away from the celebrations. They’re getting closer, traveling throughout the city. John thinks of Gordon and of his friends that emerged aboveground. Many of them rose only to be gunned down within a few hours of liberation. John wasn’t one of the men on that street; he knows he won’t be joining them on any more routine late night stake-outs or standard busts. He’s done running interference. He’s not a cop, or a detective, or whatever he was before. He’s nothing, and the knowledge that their enemy saved his life more times than it was worth rings like the final nail in the coffin.

He just wants to sleep.

This townhouse he picks shows signs that someone squatted there recently, but not recently enough he’s worried. There’s still a kid’s drawing tacked to the fridge door and a dog’s bowl with just the tiniest drop of water left. There’s a king sized bed upstairs and two small twin beds in the room across from it. He takes no bed, but wanders back downstairs to the living area. There’s an old stone fireplace with ash in it, black ash instead of the white ash outside.

John dips his fingers in the ash and touches just one to the center of his forehead. It feels warm to his fingers. He knows it’s not, it’s just that his skin is so cold.

Curling onto his side in front of the empty fireplace, John closes his eyes. Nothing would be enough to keep him awake now. Just as he thinks the ash will bury him – it’s coming through the windows now – he feels the roar of a fire. Dare he open his eyes? What new horror will he see?

It’s Bane’s man – his man – stroking a fire. John had forgotten he’s wearing a coat that’s not his. He won’t give it back now.

“Close the windows. It’s snowing in here.”

The man looks at him, no discernable emotion on his face still. Did he imagine the smile earlier? There is a lack lines on his face as if he’s never smiled before. Just blood in his beard. Red beard instead of Blue Beard. John remembers how that story ends; he shudders.

“Shhhh,” the man says. “Close your eyes. Sleep now. I will watch the fire.”

“Too late,” John says. There are fingers still on his skin; they burn. He burns. Batman burns.

Gotham doesn’t burn. So John sleeps.