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Before the blow to his head which leaves all senses jangling, John Blake has the disjointed thought that Miranda Tate fights like a man twice her size—and immediately corrects himself. She fights like somebody exactly her size, but with that much more cunning and craft packed into her curvy frame. Like a weasel against a bigger predator. She has precise knowledge of inflicting hurt that enables her to maximize pain while minimizing contact. She is elegant and terrible.

He lands one fucking blow.

It's more a startle reflex than any kind of skill.

She stops playing with him then. Her boot hits him in the side of the head and he slams into the brick wall, dazed. It's all over before it can even really begin. She shoves him face-down onto the slushy pavement with callous efficiency; he wavers into consciousness in time to feel his own handcuffs snck tightly around his wrists, behind his back. Dizzily he watches her smooth down her coat and stroll into the open to intercept the truck that might or might not be carrying the bomb. Apart from the small bruise on her cheek there's not a scuff on her. The next moment, stronger arms than Miranda's are hauling him upright, dragging him away.

His vision blurs out again, and somehow, all he can think as his mind wipes is that he should be protecting her, that they obviously have something on her, to force her to do this, that Miranda Tate is a trusted ally of Bruce Wayne and if John cannot trust her, then none of them is—

 

*
He lands on his knees on hardwood. His head is spinning, ears ringing, vaguely nauseous. Miranda is still there. Her hand rests lightly on his shoulder.

He looks around. He doesn't recognize this place. A skyscraper, judging by what he can see through the windows from his vantage point. There's a huge wooden table, some fake plants and blossoms in the corners, paintings on the walls. Gilded figurines arc out of the floor; black leather chairs and sofas are arranged in a square. The walls are sleek wood panels. Men surround them, looking on curiously; nearby, the man their intelligence has identified as Bane's lieutenant stands guard over them, rifle in hands, bulletproof vest strapped on. Why have they brought him and Miranda here?

Noticing his sudden awareness, Miranda stoops down in front of him. She wipes away what feels like a trickle of blood from his forehead, gently, and smiles. Helpless, hands bound behind his back, John clasps that smile to him, lets it give him hope.

“Everything will be okay, John,” she says softly.

He hears Bane before he sees him coming: heavy footsteps, a mechanical wheeze for breath. A pair of double doors opens, and Bane emerges out of the shadows slowly enough to send a cascade of icy panic down John's spine. This is the first time he's ever seen Bane face to face, not on a TV screen. The real thing is terrifying. A smaller man might buckle under the sheer weight of the coat he wears; and that on top of multiple other layers. His thumbs are hooked into the straps of his vest, and it seems to John, from one wild, half glance, that he's protecting his chest with this seemingly casual attitude.

Miranda straightens up. John wants to bring his legs under him properly and get up, but he can't seem to coordinate his limbs, and the walls sway when he moves his head too fast.

There is brief silence, except for Bane's soft mechanical inhalations.

“Why are you here?” Bane says at last, politely curious—and curiously polite. His voice is scratchy and warped as it is on TV, like it's coming from a reverberant metal tube. John dares to look up. Bane's chilling gaze is resting on Miranda, emotionless, unblinking.

John's heart gallops in his chest, but Miranda's voice is light, sure. “I came to bring you something.”

Bane inhales. Rasps, inflectionlessly, “I can see that.”

“This is the thorn in your side,” she says, fingers curling over John's shoulder again. “John Blake. Gordon's pet detective; friend to Bruce Wayne. He has been giving our men some trouble.”

“Friend to Bruce Wayne,” Bane says, giving the name special weight, as if he can taste it behind his mask. His tone gives John no doubt that Bane knows precisely who Bruce Wayne really is. Bane's eyes fall to John with curious interest, gaze piercing him. He feels like a bug pinned to a card, under Bane's gaze.

“Keep him,” Miranda says, her voice ringing out confidently. None of the men present are speaking. “He has outlasted his usefulness on the outside. His capture will demoralize Gordon and the others. It will distract them.”

Bane looks to her again. His gaze rests on the bruise on her cheek. “Did he strike you?”

“It is nothing.”

“I have no need for him,” Bane says.

“He has spark in him,” says Miranda. “He will be difficult to crush, this one. And he can do less mischief here.”

“I could kill him now.”

“No,” Miranda says, beautiful and reckless as John has never seen her. Her eyes shine with the light of a fanatic. “Take your comfort from him. Break his spirit. I want to see you do it.”

Bane just watches her.

And then something incredible happens. She steps forward, closing the space that stands between her and the monster. John works his throat to speak, to shout, still stupid from the head injury, struggling to parse all this. Bane looks down at her. Impossibly, foolishly, she raises a hand to clasp the side of his face, right where the mask digs into his skin.

“He will be good for you, my friend,” she says, and she rises on tiptoe to press a light kiss just underneath Bane's eye.

He could crush her. He could pull her spine out through her chest and tear her head from her body as easily as one would pluck the wings off a butterfly.

And instead, all he does is blink, for the first time that John's ever seen. It makes him look, for just a second, almost boyishly baffled. Something in his steel-grey eyes thaws.

And then Miranda leaves, and John is still there, on his knees, with his hands cuffed behind his back.

“Very well,” says Bane at last, all quiet ferocity once more. He walks closer, and John's heart thuds louder and harder in reaction to his proximity. Bane stops in front of him, eyeing him critically. “Stand,” he says.

Finally, John finds his voice. He grits out, “Fuck you.”

There's a pause. Bane's men are all watching.

“Yes,” Bane says appraisingly, “you do have a spark in you, don't you?”

Then he grabs John by the arm and, in one swift, economical motion, pulls him upright and separates his shoulder from its socket. John yells aloud.

“Leave him in the bedroom,” Bane says to his second, dismissively, and John is dragged away, feverish, gasping.

 

*
Bane's lieutenant, the one they call Barsad, resets his shoulder for him. Then he locks him in another room, chained to a bedpost on the floor at the foot of a huge bed, and leaves him in the dark.

John's arm is killing him.

It's a nice room, as far as prisons go. Big. More hardwood, but with rugs on the floor, though not where John is forced to sit. There's a desk, and more leather couches against one wall. A TV is mounted on the opposite wall. The bed, unmade and comfy-looking, is massive. He can't budge it, no matter how hard he tries with his one non-sore shoulder.

John forces himself to think about what he knows, which is that Miranda Tate is in league with Bane, is close to him, even, and that at this moment she's probably at the hide-out with Gordon and Fox and the other resistors. She has given him to Bane as a—a gift of some kind, intending to break him.

John thinks like a cop. He will operate under the assumption that somehow, he will get out of this. In the meantime, he needs to listen and learn everything he can. He won't get anywhere with his hands cuffed like this, his arm lancing with pain. Whenever they let him out, he will be quiet and observant. He'll look for the triggerman if he can (even if Gordon is still convinced that's a bluff), and he will put himself in exactly the right place to strike at a critical moment.

Most importantly of all, he will not break.

Leave him in the bedroom. That has such awful implications. He closes his eyes and tries not to think about what will happen when Bane shows up.

A guard brings him water in a small glass after a day has passed. It's easy to judge time even with blinds shuttering all the windows; a little light still seeps through. The water wets his throat but barely satisfies his thirst.

“I need to—” he says, gesturing to his crotch. The guard shrugs, and leaves.

The same guard is back later with another few mouthfuls of water in a glass, and some watery, bland form of porridge which eases the ache of John's hollow stomach not at all.

His whole lower body goes numb from kneeling: feet, legs, tailbone when he tries to sit. He has no space to stand. It's Barsad who finally shows up and leads him at gunpoint to the ensuite to relieve his bladder, and then he's locked to the bed again.

He wonders if anyone is looking for him, and concludes probably not. Even Gordon must have known that the hot-tempered rookie detective would go and get himself killed during this siege. Maybe everyone had known it but John himself.

 

*
The next few days are the same, thirst and numbness and boredom, and then one night the door opens and it is not the familiar guard or even Barsad standing there, but Bane, just as awful and real as before, framed by the light from the staircase outside. He flicks a lightswitch, filling the room with dim, rosy light.

“Officer Robin Blake,” Bane says, shutting the door.

John flinches—from the light as much as the voice. Then he shakes his head, licks his dry lips.

“Actually, it's John,” he says. “And I'm a detective now.”

“Robin suits you,” says Bane. “Like a bird, you have no concept of how very fragile you are.”

He says this musingly, as if to himself. His cadence is wrong, leaving the sentence hanging at the end as though there is a but coming.

He unclasps John's handcuffs with a key, and up close he smells like wet leather and sweat; not dirty, just male. John can't stand—it's been at least a day since Barsad's last bathroom visit—so Bane pulls him up by the scruff like a kitten, like he's nothing, and John gasps in pain as his blood finally starts to circulate again. It's agonizing.

Bane gives him a cup to drink out of, tells him there is soap and a razor in the bathroom. Once there, John drinks tapwater greedily, and bathes and shaves at the sink. He's not quite comfortable enough for a shower or a bubble bath in the fucking jacuzzi tub. When he emerges, Bane has left out clothes for him. He refuses to change, even if they are cleaner than what he's wearing.

“Where are we?” he asks, finally.

“This is my room,” Bane says, which tells him exactly nothing. “You are mine; you belong here.”

He sheds his coat carelessly, baring massive arms, and drapes it over an armchair next to the bed. John grunts.

“Don't you ever sleep?” he asks, because he's been here for days and Bane hasn't rested here once.

“One can rise above such needs,” Bane says, and he might sound amused, but it's almost impossible to tell through that mask. “But I am only human.”

What a joke. He's not a man. He's not even an animal. He's a fucking force of nature. Up close, it's easy to see how Batman could have lost against him; in fact it's hard to see any way that Batman might have prevailed (though John still holds out hope that Selina Kyle is just a pessimist). Does any sensation at all penetrate that hulking body? Or would the most bone-shattering blows only rain down on him uselessly?

John is forced to walk several times around the room, now that the pins and needles in the soles of his feet have largely faded. It still hurts. Bane gives him a bag of trail mix, makes him eat while he walks, and watches him do both. John calculates, knows that now, with the door closed and God-knows-what on the other side, is not the time to act. But he has to ask.

“Why am I here?” he says. “Why not kill me now?”

“Because she wills it,” says Bane simply. “Your demise must be slow and calculated, Blake.”

He turns just in time to meet the fist that smashes into the right side of his face. John hits the floor, blinded by pain. Stars burst in his vision and his head rings. He brings his arms up to protect his face from further attack and kicks out, but Bane is done with him.

“You are fortunate to have only landed one blow upon her,” he says, dark and dangerous, “or I would be repaying you more severely.”

John groans, and feels Bane drag him back to the bed to cuff him again. Just don't kick, John thinks wildly, curling up to protect his soft belly, but his punishment is over. Bane leaves him there on the floor. Before he sinks onto the mattress with an audible squeak, he reaches up and flicks another lightswitch, plunging them into darkness once more. John doesn't sleep at all that night.

 

*
The routine is depressingly the same for the first week or so. The same guard comes in twice a day to give John water and food; not much, just enough to keep him alive, and Barsad lets him go to the bathroom when he remembers John is there. Bane comes a few times with extra supplies—a book from one of the shelves against the wall, a handful of more palatable food, fresh clothes that John is no longer too proud to spurn. He retreats to the bathroom, pulling on the new outfits swiftly, and he showers now, but as quickly as possible.

Take your comfort from him, Miranda had said, and John's not a fool. Every time Bane nears him, to hand him food or to uncuff him, John's heart lurches with a brief spike of panic.

He sees his chance one day. He's been watching the door, whenever it opens. He catches glimpses of the staircase outside. It goes up six steps, then turns right; another six steps, and he'll be in the room where he first woke up. There's one other door at the far end of that room, and he'll have to take his chances there. He's willing to fight anyone who gets in his way, even if he's not at full strength.

Bane leaves the door open one day when he comes in, that assured of his power over John. John waits, waits until Bane is crouching in front of him, unclasping the handcuffs. The second the cuffs fall away, John bunches his body up like a coiled spring and kicks at Bane's face as hard as he can.

He knows the heel of his shoe has connected with Bane's mask by the metal clunk and the muffled roar. He's already turned over, scrambling up, launching himself toward the door.

Bane moves like lightning. His hand is around John's ankle almost right away, sending him crashing to the floor. He drags John back toward him and flips him onto his back like he's no more substantial than a ragdoll. The fury blazing in his eyes is the scariest thing John has ever seen.

Bane keeps him flat to the ground with a palm to his chest while he uses his other hand to adjust the mask. John can hear him breathing: ragged, rasping inhale, hissing exhale. His huge fingers flicker deftly over the tubes attached to the grille of the mask, checking that everything is in working order. Then he stands.

He drags John with him. John's instinct is to curl up, become dead weight, but he forces himself to stay upright. He can't quite meet Bane's eyes, though.

“You wish to leave?” Bane asks at last, breathing less laboriously. He shoves John around, pushes him toward the door. “Leave.”

John walks falteringly to the doorway and looks. Standing there on the near landing is Barsad, rifle in hands, features impassive. His finger rests on the trigger.

Bane's fingers curl over John's shoulders, tightening gradually until he winces. He turns John to face him again.

“That was unwise,” Bane says. This close to his face, John can faintly detect a chemical smell. He hasn't even dented the mask. “I hope for your sake that you do not waste your next opportunity so spectacularly.”

His fist lands in John's gut, then, and John's whole body folds up around it. It's like a wrecking ball to the solar plexus. He hits the floor and heaves soundlessly for air, writhing. At last, in one painful rush, the ability to breathe is restored to him and he gulps in great sobbing breaths.

“For that, no water or exercise tonight,” Bane says. He's already cuffing John's hands again, then standing up and moving away. John is learning that punishment from Bane is swift and immediate, and no more is said or done about it.

Before he leaves the room, Bane says, lightly, “If you are restless, Blake, you have only to say so.”

John thinks this means something, that maybe they'll let him out for awhile the next day, but it doesn't happen. When Bane at last returns, making no mention of it, John thinks he's going to go out of his mind.

Then he thinks about what Bane said.

“I'm sick of this room,” he says. His voice is hoarse and cracking. “I want to get out sometimes.”

Bane reclines on his bed with both arms folded behind his head, making the mattress squeak.

“Very well,” he says.

 

***
A long time ago, in the pit, Bane had come across a fledgling bird dragging its broken wing along the ground. He'd picked it up, felt its heart flutter against his fingertips. Once, he had been able to touch such things without breaking them.

He meant to crush it, to snuff its little life out and cease its suffering. There was no reason for it to be down there with them. Beautiful things had no place in the pit. But then Talia was there, prying at his thumb, wanting to see the fragile creature he held in his palm.

It won't heal, he told her. Killing it would be a mercy.

One day she would have a very good understanding of this, that there are few worse things than to be alive and suffering. But then, she was only a child; and he her helpless thrall. She begged him. They found a cloth and squeezed drops of precious water down the bird's throat. She thrilled when it accepted softened bread crumbs from her hand. He knew she believed the bird would get better, would someday fly out of that place, and she would send her spirit soaring with it. He wanted that, too. He wanted her to fly.

The bird died in the night while Talia slept, Bane trying to force water down its gullet, furiously willing it to swallow. He felt its heart stop fluttering, and he hated this creature who would die to spite a child, who wouldn't drink to save its own miserable life. He should have killed it. He buried it, and in the morning told Talia some of the other inmates had seen it and wanted to destroy it. She merely let a soundless tear or two escape, and these he wiped away with his thumb, dirt from the grave still embedded under his nails.

He dreams about that bird, that night.

Hope is such a dangerous weapon.

What, he wonders, does John Blake hope for?

 

*
When Talia visits, she takes one look at him and orders him to take his shirt off. Bane peels off his layers bit by bit, sighing when the waist-belt and the braces come off, his body that much less strapped together. He lies face-down on the bed that used to be John Daggett's and lets Talia's clever fingers find all his sore spots. She is the only one allowed to touch him like this.

“How are you enjoying your gift?” she asks him. Her fingers dance delicately over the scar that runs down his spine. She knows how painful that one is, and kneads the pitted tissue expertly.

“I have no use for him,” Bane tells her again. “Barsad is baby-sitting him now.”

“I am sure Barsad loves that.” He can hear her smile. “You're wrong, though. You can use Blake. Can't you see the anger that burns in him?”

“He has spirit.”

“And innocence,” she says. “Such a rare find in this city. Blake is an idealist and a sentimentalist. The king of the orphaned boys.”

“An orphan?” That does get Bane's attention.

“Like Bruce Wayne,” Talia finishes his thought for him. “Did you really think I had no reason to bring him to you? Blake is like a young Bruce Wayne. Show him his broken white knight and Wayne's suffering will be even sweeter.”

“I'm satisfied with the torment I have exacted on Bruce Wayne,” Bane says, but he is intrigued.

“Besides,” Talia says, like he hasn't spoken, and she leans down and presses a light kiss to his bare shoulder. “You need somebody to take care of when I cannot be with you ... and somebody to care for you, too. He would warm your bed nicely.”

“My bed is warm enough,” Bane says, making her laugh fondly.

“Stubborn as always, my Bane.”

He looks at Blake in a new light after that. He can see what Talia means. Blake is young, proud, and angry. He is begging to have his spirit broken. There's a simmering fire in him not unlike Wayne's. Bane wonders what it would take to quench it.

 

***
Bane's men, the mercenaries who have been with him since the beginning, peer at John askance and mutter under their breaths in a language he doesn't understand. It drives him mad.

He asks Barsad what they're saying.

“They're calling you a whore,” Barsad says. He sees how John colours angrily, and adds, “Be glad they don't know you're a police officer.”

John is getting the lay of the land, slowly, piecing together a picture based on what Barsad allows him to see. Bane's headquarters are a high-rise building, the top floor converted into a luxurious penthouse. The men have made a living space out of the other floors, having chased away all the affluent former residents. Occasionally, Barsad takes John onto the roof, for fresh air. This is the extent of John's freedom: run of the bedroom, visits to the roof or the rest of the penthouse with Barsad's supervision, and occasional glimpses of the rest of the building, if Barsad permits him to come along during some errand.

Barsad treats him mainly with indifference. He finds tasks for John to do that don't require the handcuffs to leave his wrists; or else simply orders him to stay put in a corner. Barsad is slight, almost of a height with John, and he always looks at ease, but John is careful not to underestimate him. He has shrewd eyes, seeing everything, missing nothing; and he has a fanatic's devotion to Bane and his madness. Barsad is no fool: he is a zealot, and an intelligent one. That makes him doubly dangerous.

The conscripts from Blackgate, who are sometimes present on the roof, smoking, are less subtle than Bane's men. They eye John openly, leering. “Wish we'd had you around when I was in the joint,” one tells him in passing, licking his teeth. Barsad hears this and says nothing. John decides to ignore it, too; but it's hard. The men from Blackgate are lewd, starved of touch. They reach for him frequently, just to relish his cringing away.

He's angry with himself when that happens. He's a fucking cop. He shouldn't be letting this scum unnerve him so easily. That his nerves have been on edge for days is no excuse.

It's difficult to learn much about what they're planning. Bane meets with his intimates in another room of the penthouse, and even if John could hear more than the faintest murmur through the walls, he's pretty sure they're speaking in another language. He meets these intimates one day when Barsad takes lunch with them and allows him to join. These men have a different air about them than the lesser mercenaries; they don't look at Bane with quite the same fanatical hunger, and they are more jocular, relaxed. Two out of the five that John meets refuse to speak English, or can't, in his presence, and they eye him coldly, but two are like Barsad: indifferent to his plight, but willing to acknowledge him. The last is a man much younger than the others, whom Bane doesn't pay any heed to, but the four and Barsad seem to tolerate his company the way they would a kid brother (and actually, that's exactly what these men remind John of—the boys at Saint Swithin's, familial and comfortable with each other, not real brothers but close enough).

The young one, Ekene, seems to amuse and annoy them in equal parts, and he takes much more interest in John than the rest. It's he who tosses John an apple, which he scrambles after gratefully.

“You run away from this guy,” Ekene says, jerking a thumb at Barsad. John isn't sure if that's a request or not, so he says nothing, which he knows is correct when the young man continues with satisfaction, “He rip your liver out through your mouth.”

John glances at Barsad, who goes on peeling his own apple with a knife and doesn't say anything.

“I can fight,” John says.

This causes uproarious laughter among the other three men, and even the two who won't speak English start smiling.

“Rip you in half,” Ekene affirms. He makes a violent gesture to demonstrate. “Like a weed. Like a little twig.”

“I can take 'im,” a scarred man puts in. He's bigger and heavier than Barsad, who so far has taken no part in this conversation.

“He about broke your arm last time,” Ekene scoffs. The other shrugs.

“Shoulder was stiff. It was rainy.”

“It's always stiff. Maybe you ask him nice enough, Bane will rip it off for you. Like he almost did Talia's gift, eh?”

“Talia?” John asks.

The man flutters his eyelashes. “Bane's beloved.”

The third man cuts in. “He doesn't need Talia now. He's got this one.” He indicates John, and they start laughing again. John has eaten his apple by now; Ekene neatly bisects a pear and throws half to him.

“Keep up your strength, he'll be back soon and lonely!” he says. They roar with laughter, and John tries not to squirm queasily. Bane hasn't touched him yet—why are these men so convinced that he will?

“Enough,” Barsad finally speaks, silencing them at once. He's looking at the younger man. “Don't speak of things you know nothing about.”

“Hah.” Ekene waves a hand. “You gonna fight Basir, or what?”

Barsad pauses, knifetip hovering over his apple. “After eating,” he says at last. The others cheer, Basir cracking his knuckles pointedly.

John is surprised when he gets to go with them to the roof to watch the fight. There's a few other soldiers hanging around who wander over, interested, when they see Barsad and Basir facing off. Barsad stands there, loose-limbed and languid, while Basir gears himself up with a little shadow-boxing.

John's actually looking forward to this, but the ending is so fast as to be almost anticlimactic. Basir gives a yell and rushes at Barsad, fists flying. In a blur, Barsad slips out of the way, hits in him the stomach, then the jaw when he starts to double over, and then sweeps his footing out from under him. The surrounding men all cheer while Barsad graciously helps the other man to his feet.

“Where'd he learn to fight?” John asks Ekene, the one most likely to reply. He's right: the younger mercenary is eager to boast on Barsad's behalf.

“Militia. Then the League of Shadows. Good, eh? You think twice about running away from this bastard now, huh?”

“League of Shadows?” John asks.

“Ninjas, from the mountains.”

“He's a ninja?”

A hush falls over all of them suddenly, and John turns. Bane is there, standing by the doorway to the roof with his hands at his vest, surveying them all coolly.

“Having fun?” he asks dryly, raising an eyebrow.

Ekene breaks the silence, nudging Barsad. “You wanna take 'im, too?”

Bane walks closer. Everyone moves back except for Barsad, who straightens his spine, expression unchanging. For a second, John thinks they actually are going to fight. Then Bane raises a hand, arm bent at the elbow. Barsad smiles and clasps it.

It's a brief, surprisingly brotherly gesture.

That's when John first has a thought: Barsad could be the triggerman.

Bane draws back after a second, gestures loosely to John and says, “Take him to my bedroom.”

“Hah.” Ekene punches John lightly in the ribs, smiling wryly, before Barsad takes him away. “Like I said. Keep up your strength, friend. You gonna need it.”

 

*
The first time John sees Bane kill a man in person is the first time Bane personally takes him out. John finds almost right away that he prefers Barsad. Bane's mere presence, vast and brooding, is enough to unsettle him.

Bane's speaking with his inner circle, having delegated John to the corner with a book, when the man appears from a hallway. He starts speaking rapidly in the same language Bane and his men are using, while Bane rises silently to meet him. The man's voice grows higher and more pleading while Bane listens.

Apparently, Bane doesn't like what he hears. He doesn't snap the man's neck or bother with a weapon—he wraps one huge hand around the victim's neck and crushes his windpipe. Then he drops the body to the floor and turns away to take his seat again.

“Why did you do that?” John demands, getting to his feet from the corner where he sits and reads. He's shocked into speaking, and at once regrets it. All of the men at the table look at him, including Bane.

“The loss of this life bothers you?” Bane inquires genially, turning to face John.

“You had no reason to kill him.” John doesn't know that. All he knows is that the man's life had been snuffed out as easily as squashing a fly, without a single word from Bane.

Bane's eyes glitter.

“Would you and your men not kill him if you met him on the street?”

“Look, I only kill to save my own life,” John says, gritting his teeth, thinking of those construction workers. “That was pointless. He's one of your guys.”

Bane shrugs, sitting back in his seat. “He made a mistake. It will not be repeated. Word will spread. A warlord requires the respect of his men, Blake.”

“You're a terrorist.”

“So I am,” Bane agrees. The meeting resumes with the body still lying on the floor.

 

*
Sleeping in handcuffs is uncomfortable, and John soon learns that trying to sleep in handcuffs on a cold leather couch is even worse. Still, he's reluctant to take the bed. Bane sleeps in that bed, when he bothers to sleep here at all.

Eventually John is too exhausted to think about it. Bane's not here; it's late. He's obviously not coming tonight. John collapses into the bed and drops into the best sleep he's had since he was captured two weeks ago. He makes this a nightly habit: waiting, waiting for Bane to appear, and when he does not, sneaking furtively under the covers. He feels better when he's well-rested, better equipped to take whatever they throw at him next.

He wakes up one morning and can sense the presence of another warm body in the bed before he opens his eyes to confirm that Bane is lying within arm's reach, on his side facing the wall, shirtless. John sucks in a breath, not sure what to do. He ends up lying there, breathing shallowly, until Bane suddenly stirs and rolls out of bed like he was never asleep at all.

Maybe he wasn't.

It's a jarring experience, and the next time he can hear Bane's voice in the penthouse late at night, he curls up blanketless on the couch instead, and shivers. He's dozing when Bane comes in, and without a word the mercenary scoops him up and dumps him onto the bed as if John being on the couch is somehow an inconvenience to him. John lies there, throat dry, watching as Bane pulls off everything except his cargo pants and drops onto the other side of the massive bed, where he promptly rolls onto his side again and stays like that for the rest of the night.

What the hell, John thinks. He closes his eyes and the sound of Bane breathing—he doesn't snore, but every breath sounds like a forced effort through that mask—is somehow soothing enough to lull him back to sleep. After that John just takes the bed every night.

After all, when Bane finally gets bored enough to make proper use of him, John being a few more yards away isn't going to stop him.

 

*
About three weeks after John's arrival, things finally come to a head with the Blackgate conscripts. It happens when Bane leaves John alone on the roof to read while he and Barsad and two of the others discuss things in one of the rooms below, a private meeting. Maybe he does it on purpose; John doesn't know.

They ambush him silently—two of them. One attacks from behind, grabbing John's elbows and lifting him, unable to bring his arms around because of the handcuffs, while the other rushes him from the front.

Instinctively John brings his feet off the ground and kicks out, throwing off the second man, and in the same motion he swings his head back and connects with the other's face. He's dropped unceremoniously, and leaps upright, using his momentum to headbutt the man in front, who is rallying. Blood fountains from the man's nose. John swings around in time to leap back, avoiding a jab from a blade the other one has pulled. The second jab nicks his side, and the man behind him shoves him forward, intending to impale him, but John twists and can't correct in time due to the way his hands are bound.

He overbalances and hits the ground, and knows immediately that it's over. He curls up. They fall on him like wolves on their prey.

A crack of gunfire gets their attention. John dares to glance up and sees Barsad standing there by the doorway to the stairwell, rifle pointed at the sky. Then, like a silent, wrathful god, Bane descends on them.

John curls up again, just to block out the sight and sound of Bane slamming their skulls into the ground and then throwing their bodies off the roof, but Barsad is there in a moment to haul him to his feet.

“Foolish,” he says, in typical laconic fashion, and John doesn't know if Barsad means him or the men.

Bane's mask makes him look, now more than ever, like a snarling animal. His eyes are narrowed when they focus on John.

“I suppose you mourn them as well,” he says bitingly.

John just glares at him, one hand pressed against the cut on his side. Bane brushes past him.

“Patch him up,” he growls, on his way out.

Barsad does just that, dragging John back to Bane's bedroom and leaving him cuffed to the bed again when he's done. It doesn't seem fair, that John should be punished when he didn't do anything wrong. He doesn't feel any safer in here than he did out there. This fact is brought home when Bane arrives that night. Apparently this is one of the nights he'll spend in his room.

He handles John roughly while uncuffing him, and gives him a bottle of water. John sits against the wall and drinks it, watching him carefully.

“You were losing,” Bane says, when a long stretch of silence has passed. “Badly. Do they not teach police officers in Gotham how to fight?”

“There were two of them,” John says, prickling with defensiveness. “They had a weapon.”

“So have you.” Bane spreads his hands, looking down at him mockingly. “Your body.”

“Yeah, well,” John says, snide, “that's true when you're built like a tank, but I'm not quite there yet.”

“If your opponents are bigger and stronger than you then you must be faster than them. You must know where and how to strike so as to incapacitate them as swiftly as possible. That is how Miranda Tate defeated you.” He says her name like it's foreign and sour on his tongue. “Get on your feet.”

John does, because he's feeling reckless and angry. Bane moves closer, until he's looming over him.

“Hit me,” he challenges, “if you can.”

John looks at him. He thinks about how controlled Bane is in his violence, how he never rushes anything. Fast. John can be fast.

He feints and throws a left jab. Bane swats his hand aside without looking away from his face.

“Again.”

John flushes angrily. He circles, Bane turning slowly to follow him. He swings. Bane knocks his arm away and kicks his legs out from under him. John shouts when his injured shoulder hits the floor.

“Get up.”

John breathes for a moment, before Bane drags him up by the scruff. Seizing the opportunity while he's close, John lashes out. Bane catches his fist.

“Your body betrays you by telling me where you intend to strike. You're sloppy and uncoordinated. You have no plan, make no use of my weaknesses.”

“I'd split my hand open,” John gasps, his knees starting to buckle as Bane's hand tightens around his fist. The bones grind together. He imagines Bane crushing his hand into dust, as easily as he'd crushed that man's trachea. He thinks of the sound it made.

Abruptly Bane twists his arm behind his back and shoves him face-first into the wall. John squeezes his eyes shut.

“Would you have killed those men, if you could?”

“No,” John grits out. “I'd have hurt them enough to make them stop. But I couldn't.”

“You think death is the worst thing that can happen to a man,” Bane says, musingly. He's about to wrench John's arm out of its socket again. “Do you not think that to be left alive, suffering, is a worse fate?”

“Anything is better than death,” John wheezes.

Bane, leaning on him, goes still for a moment; and John has a second of terrifying clarity. That weight on the back of his thigh is not Bane's leg, like he'd thought. It's his arousal.

He clamps his eyes shut. Waits for it to happen, because he's too fucking weak to do anything about it. Bane has made his point. Next to him, John is as helpless as a child. It infuriates and terrifies him but fuck, at least the nauseating wait will be over. He pants like a cornered animal.

Slowly, Bane eases his weight off of John's back. He lets go of his arm, and John gasps as sensation returns to his fingers, his wrist badly wrenched. He cradles his arm to his chest, not daring to pick himself up off the wall just yet.

“I see,” Bane says, after a pause.

“See what?” John asks, his voice a ragged whisper. He can hear Bane crossing the room, back to the bed.

“Why Talia chose you,” Bane says. The light goes out.

 

*
Bane still doesn't touch him again after that night—not to give him another impromptu lesson in pain or for anything else.

At night John lies there in the dark, baffled, sharing his air, hating him. He thinks his wrist is sprained. He says nothing, but Barsad notices, and binds it for him.

When they leave his handcuffs off one day, he tries to escape while Bane sleeps, willing to take whoever's guarding the stairway. Bane lets him get to the landing this time before intercepting him. John is starved and isolated in the bathroom for three days, and at the end he's forced to eat bread from Bane's hands, to swallow the water Bane trickles past his lips. He gets the message. He is alive because Bane wills it, not because of Miranda Tate. He reverts to his previous plan: listen, learn, and don't be rash. Find out who has the trigger. Take Bane down from the inside if possible.

It's looking more and more impossible by the day. Bane is everywhere. He's not just muscle. He's cunning, maybe smarter than anyone John knows, and impossible to figure out. Why, for instance, is he keeping John here, if he doesn't intend to actually do anything with him?

John is having lunch with Barsad and the other five when one of the two who never speaks English suddenly says in a slow, heavily-accented voice, “How does one so small submit to Bane and not break?” He's staring at John, his eyes narrowed.

Ekene, the young one, says with interest, “You seen Bane with 'is pants off?”

One of the others clears his throat, chewing on a mouthful of crackers, and holds his hands up not a modest length apart. John's mouth is too dry for him to speak. Ekene whistles through his teeth and says, “Like a damn warhorse.”

They all turn and stare at John with something close to awe.

Desperate, John looks to Barsad, the only one not staring at him—and, he senses, somehow, the only one who might know what Bane does or doesn't do with him in the privacy of the bedroom. He has no idea what the right thing to say here is. Barsad answers his silent plea without even looking up.

“Bane hears you talking like that, he'll snap your necks.”

It's enough reminder to quiet the others. They find another topic.

“He's never fucked me,” John blurts out, when Barsad takes him back to the bedroom that evening.

“Perhaps,” Barsad says dryly, after a pause, “you aren't his type.”

“Is he going to? They all seem to think so.”

“Don't worry yourself.” Barsad pats his shoulder before turning to leave. “Don't piss him off.”

This isn't exceptionally reassuring.

He's leading up to some grand finale, John concludes, some big message to Commissioner Gordon, to Batman if he's alive. John knows his days are numbered. Bane is simply waiting for all the pieces to fall into place.

 

*
Bane's speaking with Barsad and a couple of others in the penthouse's meeting room when one of his men drags in three cops, their hands zip-tied behind their backs, and makes them kneel. John, from his seat in the corner, recognizes them even in their plain clothes. They look wary and afraid, even more so when they see the brute sitting in the shadows.

Bane glances over them, rises to his feet slowly. “I see we have guests.”

“Police officers,” the guard says, “tailing one of our trucks.”

“And you felt you needed my involvement for this?”

The question is light, cordial, but the guard senses he's made a mistake and shuts his mouth, blanching. Bane's eyes narrow. He turns to the cops.

“Well, gentlemen,” he says, addressing them, “I will do you the courtesy of offering you a choice. I can send you to Crane's courtroom or I can kill you now.”

“Fuck you,” one of them says boldly. Just like John had done at the start. The guard slams the butt of his rifle into the man's stomach, doubling him over, and John can't watch this.

“Wait,” he says, getting to his feet.

“Make your choice,” Bane says, ignoring him.

“I said wait!

John surges forward, until he's at Bane's side, close enough to touch him. “Don't. Don't kill them.”

“Blake,” one of the cops whispers. John refuses to look at them. Bane turns his head slowly until he's looking down at John.

“I don't recall asking for your opinion.”

“Let them go,” John says, breathing hard.

“Your sentimentality is what makes you weak,” Bane says. “It will be your downfall. Take them to Crane,” he says to the guard.

“No.” John gets in his way when he turns to walk away, and a dangerous light flickers in Bane's eyes. John hurtles on anyway, rashly. “What do you want for them?”

“You have nothing to bargain with,” Bane says scornfully.

John thinks of Bane pinning him against that wall, the heat and weight against his thigh, and says recklessly, “I can suck you.”

Bane stares, unblinking, at him. John forces himself to stare back. It's gotten easier, with time. His heart pounds in his ears, hectic and loud.

The guard starts to move, and stills when Bane raises one hand without looking away.

“Would you,” he says, in a low, questioning almost-purr.

John nods. His mouth is dry.

“Blake,” the cop says, louder.

Bane turns away, suddenly, and paces the width of the room. His voice is booming. “Do you believe Gotham deserves to be saved, Blake?”

“Yes,” John says, with fierce, quiet conviction. Bane turns to face them again, clearly enjoying this.

“Then you, colleagues of John Blake, have a new choice to make. I can kill you, or you can watch this man sell his body to me to keep you alive for another few weeks.”

The cops kneel there in miserable silence. The oldest of them is the first to speak. “Just do it,” he says, looking at John. The third cop nods. At last, so does the one who'd spoken his name, slowly.

Bane is back at John's side in a flash to grip his jaw tightly, fingers digging in with bruising force. “We have a deal, then. If you can bring me to climax, I will let your three friends live. You can, of course,” he adds, changing his tone to one of lilting geniality, “stop this any time you please, John.”

John clenches his fists, swallows the queasy knot in his throat and feels it slide down to settle in the pit of his stomach. This was going to happen sooner or later. He'd rather here and now than later, in Bane's room, being forced to the bed and taken. He just wishes the other people weren't in the room. Barsad is the only one who looks disinterested in how this goes, though he is smiling to himself, as if at some private joke.

Bane sits, spreading his thighs. He lounges on the chair like an indolent panther, all his strength hidden away, ready to explode to the surface at a moment's notice. John walks to him numbly, kneels on the floor. Bane fingers a strand of his hair briefly, a startlingly careful gesture out of place in this tableau. Then he sits back.

John has to work to get him out of his pants, his fingers slipping repeatedly on nothing. He's not used to Bane being this still or this quiet. He's aware with every passing second of just how close they are, that Bane could reach down at any moment and grab him by the throat. Finally his cuffed hands find Bane's cock, draw it out of his pants.

Even limp as he is now, Bane is impossibly huge. John had known, really, but it's only brought home now, when he's preparing to put it in his mouth. He takes deep, shaky breaths, his hands trembling just a little.

Bane's hand catches him by the chin again, forcing him to look up. His eyes glitter malevolently.

“There is no gun to your head,” he reminds John.

But there is one to the three cops behind him. John glares, steeling himself. Evidently satisfied by what he sees in John's eyes, Bane grunts and lets him go.

One orgasm in exchange for three lives is a pretty good deal, John tells himself as he tentatively lets his tongue touch Bane's skin. It sends a shudder through him all the same. John's never done this; has been paid by others to have his dick sucked, once or twice when he was young and desperate, maybe let them slip a finger or two in his ass while they sucked him if they were into that, but that's as far as he's gone with another man. This is brand new to him, and pretty intimidating. He wraps both hands around the base of the shaft, holding it up to his mouth, because Bane's not erect yet. The skin is surprisingly soft, blood-hot to the touch, stirring with each pulse.

John strokes him, at first, and can't help admiring the way the foreskin rolls with his hand, dragging back just enough to reveal the tip of the head on each downstroke. Bane is silent, patient with his ineptitude, starting to grow hard in John's hands. Encouraged, John leans down, puts his mouth over the tip, and even this stretches his lips. He forces himself to go further until there's a good inch in his mouth—then, daringly, thinks to try to put his tongue inside the foreskin, seek out the glans that way. He finds it with the tip of his tongue, sucks as if he can coax it out of hiding, and Bane growls softly. He's definitely hard now.

Once he can get past the unique flavour of salt-sweat-musk, and the stretch of his mouth, John is better able to break this down into impersonal, clinical motions. Lick, suck, stroke. Repeat ad nauseum. He thinks about what he likes, thinks Bane would like it rough, and he digs his fingers in, drags his tongue up and down harshly, sometimes nipping and scraping with his teeth. Bane's thighs, like tree trunks on either side of him, flex ever so slightly. Everyone in the room is silent; there's nothing to be heard except the humiliating sounds that escape John's mouth, and his brief gasps for breath.

Bane doesn't seem to dislike it—he isn't stopping or correcting John—but after ten minutes or so, John is starting to flounder. He switches up the pattern now and then, experiments. He plunges into this like he does everything else, taking more and more of Bane's cock into his mouth each time. His breathing grows more laboured and the sounds he's making are wetter, sloppier as he inhales Bane's cock and squeezes his eyes shut, now focusing on the taste. It's so...

Human.

But he's struggling before long. His jaw muscles are starting to burn. He's never used them like this before. He pushes himself to keep going and wonders how long it's been. What the fuck is it going to take to make Bane come? He lifts his eyes to Bane's face, just for a second, and finds that he's not even paying attention. He's staring at the wall over John's head, arms sprawled over the back of the chair.

At first, John was dreading the spill of semen into his mouth. Now he attacks Bane's cock like he needs it to breathe, desperate to wring an orgasm out of him. Please, please. He turns inward, goes numb to everything else. There's just the push and pull of his mouth on Bane. His hand cramps; he switches to the hand with the sprain and it hurts too much. His jaw is stiff. His tongue feels swollen and dry. He sucks like he's starved for it, like he's been doing this his whole life (and it's starting to feel like he has), but the knowledge is settling into his bones, inexorable.

It's not going to happen. He's been played.

He loses track of time. It feels like it's been an hour but, in reality, has probably only been thirty minutes when Bane touches the side of his face, startling him. John abruptly recovers his senses, and realizes what a spectacle he's making of himself. His mouth is swollen; tears are running down his face. Every breath comes out a sob. His knees on the floor are numb, beyond pain, and the ache in his jaw is agonizing.

“Enough,” says Bane.

And John knows he's beaten.

He sits there on the floor, gasping raggedly for breath, while Bane stands without self-consciousness and tucks himself away.

“Your efforts are not unappreciated,” Bane says. Mocking him. “One may live, to scurry home to Gordon and tell him his Detective Blake is still alive, and how far he's fallen. The other two will die.”

No, John tries to shout, but no sound comes out. He can't work his tongue and jaw.

The guard fires once. Twice.

John flinches both times.

“Take him down to the street and let him go,” Bane says, and the guard hauls the remaining, shell-shocked cop to his feet, spattered with the blood of his fellows, and drags him away.

Bane rests a boot on the back of one of the dead cops, the older one, who'd spoken out in favour of John sucking off the mercenary to save their lives. He waits until John has dragged his gaze up to Bane's face.

“Do you still believe Gotham deserves to be saved, Blake?” Bane inquires.

Then he walks out of the room, followers at his heels, leaving John shivering on the floor with tears still leaking from his eyes.

 

*
That night, Bane takes the handcuffs away. John isn't going anywhere.

 

*
Barsad takes John up to the roof one morning shortly after John's failed attempt to save the cops.

“Why are we here?” he asks, when he sees that no one else is there. A flutter of anxiety passes through him and almost at once fades. Barsad, laconic and staid, doesn't frighten him half as much as Bane does. In fact, he feels a kind of grudging liking for the man. If he were a cop, John thinks he'd look up to him.

“You are going to learn to fight,” Barsad says.

“Oh.” John pauses. “Does Bane know about this?”

“Bane ordered this. He says you're sulking.” John opens his mouth angrily to refute this, but Barsad is already slinging his ammunition belt to the ground. “Show me what you've learned from your police training.”

John shuts his mouth. Obediently, he goes through the motions with Barsad, grasping the familiarity gratefully. He shows Barsad all the holds and defensive maneuvers the academy taught him, guiding Barsad's hands and moving in slow motion. He's glad for the distraction, truthfully. The death of the cops keeps him up at night. Barsad is silent, his hands quiet where he grips John.

“Real time now,” he says. John squares himself, and Barsad attacks at once. John grabs reactively, moves to throw him. In one lightning-quick twist, Barsad puts him in a joint lock and forces him to his knees. John doesn't even see how he does it.

Barsad helps him up. “I can see what Bane means.”

“Okay,” John says, irritated now, his pride wounded. “So I'm sloppy. Make me better.”

He raises his fists, but Barsad shakes his head impatiently and grabs his arms. He positions John the way he wants him and makes him stand there.

“Find your balance,” he says, circling John. Then he shoves him from behind. John pitches forward. Barsad seems to be tiring of his inept student already. He sighs. “We start with the basics, then.”

Barsad seems to have perfect balance. He goes through a few exercises with John, making sure he holds his limbs exactly so, and shows him how to move. It's not like any exercise warm-up John's ever done. It's slow, it's ... something like t'ai chi, if he had to guess, but it's not like he knows a lot about martial arts except what movies have told him. It would be relaxing, if Barsad wasn't barking at him every few seconds to straighten his spine and breathe from his abdomen. And he feels a little stupid when he has to hold each pose. Barsad makes all of this look natural. He could do this all day, John realizes—maybe this is what he does all day, when he's not busy being second-in-command to a psychotic warlord.

The sun is high in the sky by the time Barsad decides they're done with that and instead starts something he calls tui shou, or “push hands”. He makes John stand an arm's length from him, both their arms raised and in light contact with each other. He moves slowly, pushing at John, forcing him to bend and pivot without moving his feet. Several times John loses his balance again and has to realign his stance. Now he's starting to grow impatient.

“Soft,” Barsad urges every time he lands a slow-motion blow. “Softer. Relax and rotate with the blows. Don't push back.”

“So you're teaching me to take a hit,” John says, annoyed. “Not to throw one.”

“Only when you can take a hit can you redirect one. Hit me, if you're angry.”

John should know better, but he is angry. He feels like Bane and Barsad are mocking him with all this. He flings a rapid punch at Barsad's face. Barsad—perpetually sleepy-eyed, whippet-lean and wiry Barsad—tilts out of the way, strikes John's arm aside and grabs him by the throat with the same hand, sweeping a leg behind his in the same motion. He shoves against John's throat, and John hits the ground with a strangled gasp. It happens in less than a second.

“Stop if you like,” says Barsad, eternally unruffled. “Or you can get up and keep doing exercises, if you'd rather learn how to do that.”

His pride and his rear are stinging considerably, but John lets Barsad pull him to his feet. They keep exercising.

 

***
Blake dwells on his failure to save the police officers for a long time: Bane can sense it weighing on him, even after he orders Barsad to start training John. He hangs the cops' bodies where they can be seen through a window from the living room, to remind him, but it doesn't remind Blake in the way he hopes.

He thinks about it, too, when Blake says, “You could have killed me instead of them.”

Blake is a whelp who naively believes there are no worse fates than death, but Bane can read the conviction in his eyes. He would have offered himself. To what end? Any one of Bane's men would offer their lives in his service, but those policemen were nobody special. Bane would have died to see Talia freed from the pit, fully expected it, even, but that was different, too. Talia's purity made him love her. He would have done, and will do, anything she ever asks of him.

The same sort of purity shines brightly in Blake, and that causes him a confusing tangle of emotion.

Barsad has told him how some of the men look at Blake. Men always want to destroy pure things; it's their nature. He tells Barsad to teach Blake how to fight, serving two purposes. It's a good channel for Blake's incessant restlessness, as well as a preparation should he need to defend himself. Barsad is able to spend at least an hour or so with him on the roof each day. Blake always seems even more sullen than usual when he comes back to the penthouse. If Bane is there he gets to watch Blake curl up petulantly on the couch after a shower, nursing various bruises and moving stiffly.

“Don't push him,” Bane warns Barsad. He delegated this task to Barsad because he knows that Barsad will be more careful than Bane knows how to be. His right hand looks faintly exasperated.

“He's in good shape and he learns quickly. I don't give him any more than he can handle.”

Bane is pleased to hear his captive is learning quickly. He wants to see how high the bird can fly before he inevitably falls.

Any concern for Blake washes away when he sees Talia again. He sheds his vest and belt for her, lies face-down and lets her rub away the ceaseless aches of his body, and is annoyed when the guard outside allows Blake to find them like this.

“Oh,” he says, faltering in the doorway.

He's panting lightly, flushed with a sheen of sweat. He's obviously come from the roof. Usually Bane is elsewhere during the day; Blake seems unsettled to find him here, let alone Talia.

“Come in, John,” Talia invites him. “There's nothing to be afraid of.”

“You look pretty intimate.” Blake speaks to her sharply, his words barbed. Bane tenses under her hands. She rolls the heels of her palms against him soothingly.

“You can join us if you like,” she says sweetly.

“Leave, Blake,” Bane growls.

Blake does, surprisingly. He backs out of the room and leaves with a last curious glance at them.

“How are you enjoying your pet?” Talia asks.

“I'm not,” Bane rumbles. “He is a waste of time, and he speaks his mind far too often.”

“He doesn't see yet,” she reassures him. “He will.”

He doesn't tell her how Blake had got to his knees for Bane. That was a lesson, nothing more.

He sees that Talia leaves safely, and when he returns, Blake is in their shared room, on one of the couches with a book. It's one he's already read—he seems to be cycling through the same stack of miscellaneous novels. Bane pauses, then goes over to the locked cupboard underneath the bookshelf. He unlocks it and sifts through the contents until he finds a small stack of books at the bottom. He withdraws one he thinks is to Blake's taste and locks the cupboard again.

When he stands in front of Blake, holding the book out, Blake just stares at him.

“What's that for?” he asks.

Air hisses in and out of the mask before Bane replies, “Reading.”

Blake seems skeptical. Bane has given him books before, of course, but that was before Blake was able to just walk to the bookshelf and pick one. Impatiently, Bane pulls his hand away, taking the book with it, and starts to turn, but Blake's hand shoots out and that's when he does something unprecedented. He touches Bane's wrist brace.

Bane goes still. Blake's gaze travels thoughtfully from the brace to the crude binding on his own wrist, put there again after Barsad aggravated the healing sprain.

“You broke it, didn't you?”

Broke. Shattered. Crushed. Bane should hit him for presuming. For guessing.

“One of my earliest injuries,” he answers, instead.

“The belt, does that help, too?”

Bane withdraws his hand. “It can.”

Blake's eyes are too knowing. “And the mask?”

Bane drops the book in his lap and walks away. “Barsad says when you stop sulking he might feel inclined to take you out again.”

“I'm not sulking!” Blake protests. Bane rounds on him.

“What do you call it?”

“You killed two cops. Am I supposed to be happy?” Blake snaps. “Just because I couldn't even—”

His cheeks flush hotly, and anger prickles at Bane. As though he forced John Blake to make his little proposition and see it through.

“I let one live,” Bane reminds him coldly. “Given your failure, I would call that very generous.”

“Well, I wouldn't.”

Bane is suddenly sick of the sight and sound of him. He turns and slaps the light off as he goes to bed, embracing the darkness, not caring what Blake does.

“I know now,” Blake says, after a minute has ticked past. That sharpness has crept back into his tone. “I couldn't get you off because I wasn't her.”

Bane snarls, an echoing, animal sound that silences Blake immediately. “Speak again and lose your tongue.”

Blake is wisely quiet for the rest of the night.

 

***
Days pass and John is putting on muscle where it was beginning to waste. Barsad teaches him faster-paced exercises, starts sparring with him. He beats John black and blue, but John is learning to absorb the hits. He tires less quickly. Frequently, some of the other men hanging around on the roof gather round to watch, and although they laugh riotously when John gets his ass handed to him, they also cheer the one time he gets Barsad on the ground (which surprises them both).

He's settling into a routine here, much as he hates to admit it. Wake up, sometimes in bed with Bane. Eat. Exercise and spar with Barsad. Shower. Read. Bane's officers are starting to regard him as an occasionally amusing pet, and sometimes they invite him to play a sort of board game that they call awale, laughing when he starts to win a meagre couple of games against them.

His more optimistic self, the one who actually believed he alone could take some sort of action against Bane from within, is receding. It's easier to live day-to-day, performing the behaviours that will earn him good food and little rewards, than risk everything and let himself grow weak again. The memory of the two dead cops weighs on him less. He saved one. He couldn't have done that from the outside.

Still, his old self whispers, he should be there.

When it all threatens to overwhelm, he goes through the first exercises Barsad taught him, focusing on balance and breathing. It doesn't feel so stupid now. He breathes from his belly and can feel himself calming every time. All the pain from the aches and wounds he's amassed at this place starts to recede.

He's doing this one day when he hears Bane's footfall the moment before he opens the door. Bane can move shockingly quietly in those heavy boots, for a man of his bulk. John stops exercising and sits on the window ledge, not wanting Bane to see him at this.

He's gazing out at his city when Bane enters, and he wonders, unhappily, where Gordon and the other cops are now. If they're okay; if that cop made it back to them to tell Gordon about what John is doing here. He can hear Bane moving quietly around behind him.

After a minute, Bane inquires idly, “You dislike having your wings trimmed, Robin?”

“I should be out there,” John says, distracted. “I have people who depend on me out there.”

He regrets saying it at once. Does Miranda know about the boys? He glances at Bane hastily.

“I know that anxiety well,” Bane says simply. He's talking about Miranda-Talia, John knows, though he can't figure out what the hell their relationship is.

“We're all going to die if her plan works,” John reminds him tersely. Lucius Fox, another trusted ally of Bruce Wayne, and Miranda herself told the resisting cops about the bomb's lifespan. Bane nods, squinting into the light.

“Gotham will survive, Blake,” he murmurs.

“We won't.”

“You're a good man,” Bane says, surprising the hell out of him. “I regret that you have been caught in the crossfire of our war against the corrupt.”

“There are a lot of good people caught out there,” John says. “Children. Families.”

“Men and women who indoctrinate their spawn with the same lies they gorge themselves on. You are a dying breed.”

“People need me out there,” John says desperately. “You don't need me.”

“You have no idea what I need,” Bane says, after a pause. His voice is dark enough that John takes this for the conversation-ender it is. He's learning to read Bane.

Instead of forcing the issue, he waits until Bane moves away and then gets up and starts exercising again. He doesn't care if Bane sees him at it. He needs to relax. Bane disappears into the bathroom.

When he emerges, John can feel Bane's heavy gaze settling on him. It makes his spine prickle. He keeps going, trying to shut Bane out. Breathe in. Bend. And out.

He jumps when he feels Bane's hand settling under his elbow, his other hand at the small of John's back, to correct his posture. Bane's hands linger. John almost stops breathing. After a minute, Bane's hands slide away.

John drops his stance and turns around. “Do you know how to do this stuff Barsad's teaching me?”

“The League of Shadows taught us many different methods of fighting. Yes, I know some of it.”

“You must know a lot,” John muses aloud. Then, with a touch of frustration, “Why this—t'ai chi crap? Why not ... I dunno, kickboxing or—Brazilian streetfighting or something?”

“Offensive t'ai chi targets soft and vulnerable parts of the body using singular, crippling precision blows. That is what you need to learn. Don't underestimate its value, even if it is a primarily defensive strategy.”

John actually opens his mouth to say something stupid, then, to—ask if Bane wants to try the tui shou exercise with him. He shuts his mouth, flushing at the thought. Barsad is just about his height, flexible. John can't imagine any circumstance in which he would be able to unbalance Bane from a standing position. Besides, sometimes the exercise puts their bodies too close together, too intimate. Like dancing. It's not so uncomfortable with Barsad, but with Bane? Yeah, he got his fill of being that close to Bane when he was on his knees. He shakes his head and turns back to the window, resumes his stance.

Bane's fingers ghost over his lower back again, making him straighten further and draw in his breath. His entire spine tingles and his heart starts to race. He's still not used to Bane touching him, even though they live in such close proximity. He shuts his eyes. Wonders what's coming.

Nothing is, apparently. Bane withdraws his hand, and, without saying anything, he slips out of the room. John can breathe.

It gets easier every time Bane watches him exercise, after that.

 

*
He could almost swear it's planned, the way a young boy is dragged in front of Bane a few days later, for stealing. One of their own, a worker from the sewers. He'd snuck up on the pretense of visiting someone else and tried to make off with a backpack full of food. The guard with him thinks he's a spy. John sees the fear and anger in the boy's face and knows that same feeling. Something hot and sick roils in his chest.

“Kill him,” Bane says dismissively, barely looking up from the table where he and Barsad pore over lists.

“No.” John gets in the guard's way, bristling protectively.

Bane looks up, his attention arrested. The guard lurches forward, an attack, and John twists the gun out of his hands and shunts him aside with his own momentum. It's one of the first moves he was taught at the academy, sharpened by Barsard's cunning. He plants himself between the crying boy and Bane.

“You can kill me.”

“What would that accomplish?” Bane asks, spreading his hands. John takes a deep breath.

“Then my offer is the same as last time.”

He's managed to surprise Bane with that—he thinks. Bane's eyes reveal nothing. Then they narrow.

“You tried and you failed.”

“Then let me try again.” John's heart is pounding. He needs to try again, for this kid and maybe—maybe, in the back of his mind where he can't acknowledge it, for himself, too. He licks his lips and adds, “It's all I have to bargain with.”

Bane's eyes spark angrily. He stands and walks toward John, grabs him by the collar and half-drags him along.

John stumbles on their way into the bedroom, Bane slamming the door shut behind him. His throat tightens. Just what does Bane intend to do with him? Bane releases him, and he backs away, thinks about dropping it and escaping back into the other room. He's gone too far.

“Why would you do this?” Bane snarls, turning to face him. His eyes are blazing. “Do you think I hunger for you?”

The honest answer is yes, yes, I see the way you look at me, I feel your eyes on me at night, I'm not a fool. John takes a deep, shaky breath.

“It's just an exchange,” he spits out. “My mouth, his life.”

Bane relaxes slightly, his massive shoulders less tense. He drops into an armchair.

“Try, then.”

This time, John finds Bane already half-hard in his cargo pants. A small mercy. He strokes him to full hardness and gets on with it.

It isn't as difficult this time—it even feels familiar. John digs his nails into Bane's thighs and attacks his cock roughly with his mouth. Still too big, still an intrusion, but familiar. He goes quick and hard, uses everything he knows how to do, and frantically wills Bane to show any sort of reaction.

It never happens. John tries as hard as he can, no warm-up this time, gives it everything he's got right out of the starting gate. He forgets his situation, forgets his shame, forgets everything except Bane, Bane's scent, Bane's taste, and how to get more of it. To his unnerving embarrassment, he can feel his own pants getting a little tighter, and he clenches his fists tight in Bane's clothes. He is not getting off on this. He will not get off on letting Bane use his mouth.

But he's not using it, is he? He's letting John do all the work. John drags his nails angrily down Bane's thighs, then strokes with one hand, amazed that he still can't fit enough of the shaft in his mouth for his lips to meet his fist around the base of Bane's cock; then just touches, mindlessly, strokes and rolls his balls lightly in one hand, anything, anything for a reaction. He gets nothing, apart from the steady rasp of air through the mask.

He knows when he's beaten. It takes him less than twenty minutes to reach exhaustion, and he doesn't push himself this time. He stops, gasping for breath.

“I can't.”

“I thought not.” Bane stands, shoving John out of the way with one foot. John slumps there, defeated, catching his breath, and he hears Bane zipping up.

Failed again.

Bane crosses the room and opens the door. John scrambles up after him.

“Cut the boy's hands off,” Bane is saying dismissively when John catches him up. “That should satisfy us all.”

No,” John croaks. He lurches forward and falls, his legs numb, actually grabs onto the leg of Bane's pants. Bane tries to shake him off irritably. “Please. Please.” He doesn't even know what he's saying; his tongue feels thick and stupid from the weight of Bane's cock on it. He can feel the guard and Barsad watching him and doesn't look at them. “Don't do this.”

“You have nothing left to offer me.”

“My hands,” John says. He stares at them, realizing. Bane is silent. John continues aggressively, “You want someone to punish. You won't kill me. Cut my hands off, let him go.”

“This matters a great deal to you,” Bane observes. John clenches his jaw.

“Of course it does.”

Bane tilts his head. Then he says, “All right. Your hands.”

He hoists John up by the collar, slams him down onto the table where Barsad is still sitting. It's Barsad, naturally, who tosses him a blade, a—a machete, and Bane catches it, grabs John's wrist in his other hand, slams his outstretched arm onto the table and yanks back his sleeve with frightening efficiency.

John squeezes his eyes shut, quaking. This will hurt. It's going to hurt a lot.

“Okay,” he says, breathing hard, in and out, teeth chattering. “Do it.”

The thunk of the machete biting deep into the wood table makes his body jolt all over when it comes. Bane leaves it there. John opens his eyes. He's still shaking. Still has a hand.

“Throw the boy onto the streets,” Bane orders. He stomps back into the bedroom, leaving John there, shivering, stretched over the table.

“You're a brave fool,” Barsad observes expressionlessly, when the guard and the boy are gone as well. He wrests the machete free with one quick tug, and goes back to his maps and lists in silence. John sinks into a chair numbly, not knowing what to think.

 

***
The longer Bane is near Blake, the more admirable qualities he finds in the man. His determination. His ideals. His reckless bravery.

But he cannot get past the way Blake fought for that orphan boy.

Bane could have done it. He'd even wanted to. Take his hands and make Barsad patch him up after, so that he would remain alive, in pain, ineffectual. Talia would have loved it.

It was the fact that Blake expected him to do it that stopped him. Blake knew all that, and would have gone through with it anyway, to spare the boy.

Bane lies awake at night trying to figure him out, and cannot.

What he wants is to set Blake free. Blake has no place here. He is too good; he shines too brightly. It will destroy him. If he were not a gift from Talia, Bane would send him out into the night right now. He catches Blake gazing out the windows often, perhaps thinking of the people he yearns to protect, and it hardens Bane's resolve. Gotham doesn't deserve a man like Blake. Selfishly, he wants Blake's goodness for himself.

Blake is starting to shut down in his presence, though. He's breaking, just as Talia had predicted. It's too soon. Bane asks him what he wants, brings him more books at his request, and still Blake is retreating in himself. He does his exercises with Barsad, learns to control his breathing, and shutters himself away the rest of the time. He is a maddening problem.

Bane plans and prowls and spends far too much time thinking about him.

Barsad presents a solution to him, inadvertently. Bane is visiting the abandoned parking garage under the building, where their weapons are kept and some of the men train. Barsad slips past him, a small bundle tucked in his vest, and Bane, curious, stops him.

“Our brethren from Blackgate found a playmate,” Barsad explains dryly, showing him the baby animal he carries. It's a small cat, with patches of grey fur here and there where the hair hasn't been burnt away. Its flesh is a raw, angry red, marked with yellowish blisters. “I'll kill it.”

Bane almost lets him go; but he thinks, in one startling flash, of the baby bird in the pit. The light of hope that had shone so vividly in Talia's eyes.

He drops the kitten into Blake's lap. Blake is sitting cross-legged on one of the couches, reading; he shrinks minutely from Bane's presence when he enters, which is familiar. Then he startles at the kitten.

“What is this?”

“It's a cat.”

“Jesus,” Blake swears, lifting its tiny form up in his careful hands. “What happened to it?”

The cat's face is soot-blackened, its muzzle burnt and marred, whiskers seared clean off. The burns stretch all the way up one side of its face to a mangled ear. Its eyelids crack open, squinting in pain, revealing one blue slit and an empty eye socket before it closes them again. Its pink mouth opens, but no sound comes out.

It is ugly. A broken thing.

“It's for you,” Bane says.

“Jesus,” Blake says again. Colour is starting to rise in his neck, his cheeks. “Are you—is this a joke? This cat is going to die. This cat deserves to die. Look at her, she's in pain—”

“I thought it would be something for you to do. I could snap its neck if you prefer.”

But when he reaches, Blake guards it instinctively.

“Christ,” he mutters; setting the kitten down in his lap, he uncaps his water bottle and pours a small amount into the cap. He lifts the cat again, angling its head, and trickles water into its mouth. A couple of seconds pass, and then the cat swallows, its tongue flickering out. Blake looks relieved. “If she'll drink, at least, maybe I can... I don't know. This is stupid. Do we have any spare ointment? Something for the burns?”

“I will find you something,” says Bane.

Blake is trickling water into its mouth again. “This is sick. I don't understand you.” He huffs, strangely ill-tempered in the face of Bane's gift. “Maybe we should put a mask on her, then she'll look like you.”

It's a surprising jab coming from him, but no less than Bane has come to expect from his fellow man. He leaves in search of first-aid supplies.

The kitten survives the night. It doesn't move or open its eyes very much in the cool moist towel Blake wraps it in; but there's still a flicker of life in it when Bane wakes in the morning. He leaves Blake to nursemaid the thing, and it's still there when he comes back, greasy from a fresh application of ointment, the worst burns now swathed in sterile gauze.

“Will it live?”

“I don't know,” Blake says, but there it is: that little spark of hope in his eyes. “She's hurt pretty bad. But she's keeping water down.”

Bane sits on the bed and watches him. Blake has deft, gentle hands, and he manipulates the kitten carefully.

“There's no point,” he says, as though trying to rationalize to Bane, “we're all dead soon anyway, but at least she has a chance, I guess. She deserves a chance.”

“Yes.”

“What do you care, anyway?” Blake is starting to bristle again. “It's just a cat. It doesn't fit in with your grand scheme. Do you get off on watching it suffer, or what?”

“It's a gift for you. Nothing more.”

“Well, you give some pretty awful gifts.” Blake tightens his lips, shakes his head. “I've gotten worse, I guess.”

Bane reclines against the headboard, folding his arms over his chest. “Such as?”

Blake is too tired to put up his defenses, like he usually does. He tells Bane, then, about a foster home when he was twelve, where the parents' own child received an array of shining toys on Christmas morning and Blake, the interloper, received a small bundle of previously-used, poorly-fitting clothes from a thrift store.

The telling of this story evidently taps a well of anger in Blake, and once he starts, he can't seem to stop. It pours out of him, hot and shockingly vicious.

He tells Bane about other homes where amassing stray children was a means of collecting a paycheck, nothing more. About the humiliation of having to pack all his worldly belongings into a garbage bag whenever he was shuffled to some new place. About the social workers who tried to make him talk about his feelings until he learned to pretend he didn't have any except for those which are socially acceptable. He seethes about the abusive homes, furious, still hurting, not because he suffered in them, but because he had to leave the younger children they collected behind, without the benefit of his protection or the simple comfort of a hug when they needed one.

At last, he exhausts himself talking about it, seems to sense that his carefully-crafted facade of apathy is fading. He says to Bane, cautiously, that it wasn't all bad. Talks about the boys' home and the kindly priest who runs it. The games they invented, the way the older boys looked out for the younger. And of course, his talk brings him to the home's benefactor, Bruce Wayne. Blake's childhood idol.

“It was a comfort, I guess,” he says, when Bane presses him. “That someone like him went through the same thing. You know?”

“Bruce Wayne was raised in opulence,” Bane says. “He has no idea of your suffering.”

“Still—the loss, I mean, that feeling of loneliness, of being—I dunno, left behind. He rose above it. I became a cop because of him.”

Blake falls silent, watching the kitten in his lap. Then he rubs a hand wearily over his face and forces a laugh. “But enough about me. How about you?”

“What do you wish to know?”

“I dunno. Where were you born?”

“Hell on earth.”

“Detroit?” Blake says, and then he's laughing at his own joke, which is bemusing and then, somehow, endearing. He scrubs a hand over his face again and says, “Sorry, I'm—sorry. Just tired.” He pauses. “What—what would happen if you took off the mask?”

“I would be in indescribable agony.”

“Right,” Blake says. He pauses again. “Why ... what happened to you?”

“I loved something beautiful, and refused to let others destroy it.”

Blake squints at him. “That's not cryptic enough for me.”

“I grew up in a den full of rapists and murderers,” Bane says. “It is the worst prison on earth. Nothing innocent can survive there. And so, when Talia's mother was raped to death in her cell, I became her daughter's protector.”

“Miran—Talia was born there, too?”

Bane nods. “But I would not let her die there. When her true gender was found out, I enabled her escape. She left the pit alone, and I suffered the masses' judgement.”

Blake's dark eyes linger on the mask. Bane turns his head aside.

“They chained me, and they beat and taunted and mutilated me,” he says to the wall. “And the doctor who couldn't fix me let me live. He let me live even knowing that death would have been a kindness. And so I waited in the dark for four years, breathing vapors from a rag just to keep my sanity.”

He clenches his hand into a fist, opens it again. He does that several times, bearing himself through that memory.

“Talia came back for you,” Blake says.

“Yes. A grown woman then, with a legion of her father's men behind her. The same League of Shadows who shaped your Batman into a fighter.”

“Did you train with him?” Blake sounds awed.

“I was excommunicated long before Bruce Wayne joined my brothers in the mountains,” Bane growls. “I left the pit a monster. Talia's father could not bear to look at me without being reminded of the brutality of the men who had killed his love. He exiled me.”

“But you had nothing to do with that,” says Blake. He hesitates. “Did you?”

“No.” Bane practically snarls the word. He is a monster in nearly every way—but he is not one of them. “My only crime was protecting his daughter from the same fate.”

Blake lifts his gaze to Bane's eyes for a moment and then looks down again, apparently not liking what he sees there. He appears to be out of questions.

Bane is wrong. Blake breaks the silence a few minutes later with another one.

“Would you do it again?” he asks.

Bane sighs through the mask, a soft mechanic wheeze. He unclenches his fist, anger draining from him.

“A thousand times over.”

 

*
When Bane returns late the next day, he brings burn ointment and tinned cat food. He's told his men to keep an eye out for the latter. Apparently, it is a small commodity among the poor who can't always reach the food trucks in time.

Blake is curled up against the headboard, reading again. The kitten is nowhere in sight.

“For your cat.” Bane drops the items on the coverlet in front of him. “The ointment is for burns. As we have no human burn victims here, I hope your conscience is assuaged.”

“I don't want the cat.” Blake's voice is uncharacteristically flat.

Bane pauses. “I see.”

“No.” Blake raises his head to glare up at him. “I finally figured out why you gave a fucking half-dead cat to me. You didn't mean it to get better. You wanted to watch me try to breathe life into this thing while it just got worse and worse until I said fine, that's it, and drowned it, because that would be better than watching it suffer. So, you win. I would do it, I'd drown the fucking cat. Is that good enough for you, did I pass your psychopathic test? Are you happy, knowing I'd kill something innocent?”

He's almost shouting. Bane thinks about that and determines it is probably not an unreasonable assumption to make. He's not quite sure how to respond to it, though. He's already told Blake the cat was a gift. Really, Blake can interpret that however he chooses.

Blake is watching him, still glaring, and slowly the furrow between his eyebrows fades. His anger is gradually wiped away entirely. He ducks his head, rubbing a hand over his eyes.

“...Or you are really, actually, emotionally retarded enough to think that a half-dead cat is an okay gift to give to someone. Christ. Okay.”

“I can take the cat away,” Bane offers.

“No,” Blake mutters, “it's ... she's still in rough shape. But she's keeping some food down.” He sighs. “She's under the bed. I think she likes the cool floor.”

“I thought,” says Bane, remembering the bird, remembering Talia— “it might make you happy.”

“What do you care, if I'm happy?”

It's a good question. Bane doesn't care. Shouldn't care. Blake's eyes are curious, his face open.

The spark dims. “I guess I'm easier to control if I'm happy.”

“I have never wanted to control you,” Bane says. “I find you much more amusing when you act of your own volition.”

Blake snorts. “Yeah. That's what I'm here for, your amusement.”

“You always have been,” says Bane. “Did you not know?”

Blake's mouth twists. It takes Bane a moment to realize he's fighting a smile.

“I can't think what to call her if she makes it,” Blake says. “I don't think she wants a fancy name.”

“No,” Bane agrees, letting him change the subject. “Nor did I.”

 

*
Bane learns the cat is going to survive when he enters the room one night and sits down on the bed to remove his boots. The cat comes bounding out from under the bed and scrambles under a couch.

“Your animal is afraid of me,” Bane comments.

“She's not my animal,” Blake says. He's going through some of his exercises, facing the window, so he can watch over his city while he centers his body. “She's just some cat. I don't even like cats. And she's only afraid of you because she doesn't know you won't hurt her.”

“Wouldn't I?” says Bane.

“No,” says Blake simply. He exhales, shifts, and Bane watches, noting how much more fluid his movements have become. “You wouldn't.” He stops what he's doing, turns to face Bane. “Besides, you're huge. That's scary.”

“Nobody found me particularly scary until I put the mask on.”

Blake raises his eyebrows, apparently skeptical, and Bane suddenly notices the bandages on his fingers. He stands sharply. Blake doesn't shrink back when Bane approaches, not even when he grabs his hand and examines it.

“Barsad is showing me how to disarm an opponent with a knife,” he says. “He's a little more hands-on than they were at the academy.”

“Did he hurt you?” Bane demands.

Blake is silent. When Bane lifts his gaze, they lock eyes for a moment. Colour rises in Blake's cheeks. He pulls his hand back.

“Not—not really. He fixed up the cuts. I guess—I have to learn, right? Lots of people in Gotham carrying knives right now.” His shoulders slump, and he looks out the window. “Not that I'm out there with them,” he mutters.

It's said to himself rather than to Bane, but Bane feels it.

“If I were to let you go...” he starts.

Blake looks at him, eyes suddenly burning with an urgent question. Bane forestalls him by continuing sharply, “If I were to let you go, you would use the knowledge you have of Talia to kill her.”

Blake's face falls, then clouds with anger. “Are you kidding? She's one of the only people who knows how to stabilize the bomb. Is that really your reason?”

“I would never,” Bane says in a low growl, “risk Talia's life.”

Blake grinds his jaw and just stands there, not saying anything. They're both silent for several minutes, watching the damned city.

“She would destroy you, as well,” Bane says quietly, at last.

“I don't know,” Blake says, equally quiet. “I'm getting pretty good at taking a hit.”

The corner of his mouth twitches as he says it, just a bit. He looks at Bane again.

“That thing Talia was doing to you—massaging you?”

“Yes.”

“I could do that,” Blake says. “She's not here that often. And it helps. Right?”

Bane eyes him, seeking out his motive. “Why would you do that?”

“Because,” Blake says, shrugging, looking out the window. “You gave me a half-dead cat. Fair's fair, right?”

“Yes,” Bane says, after a long, thoughtful silence, watching him start his exercises again. “Fair is fair.”

 

***
“Are you crazy?” John demands. “I mean, are you crazier than I already thought you were?”

Barsad gestures impatiently. Today he's taken John for a car ride and a short walk—his first time leaving the building since he arrived. He doesn't try to run. Barsad's got his rifle, and however good John is getting at being “soft” and deflecting most blows, he's pretty sure he can't deflect a bullet.

But Barsad has slung the rifle and his ammunition belt to the ground. They're on the beach. He wants John to walk onto the ice.

“It'll crack,” John says.

“Not if you have learned to displace your weight evenly.”

“I'll drown,” says John stubbornly.

“Only if you fall in,” says Barsad, which isn't at all reassuring.

A hot wave of recklessness sweeps over John. He walks onto the ice. Maybe he can walk all the way across, out of this crazy city. But he doesn't get very far before it groans under his feet. He stops.

“Here,” says Barsad, satisfied, right behind him. “Warm up first.”

John's wearing a borrowed coat—he has no idea where Bane got it from, whether its previous owner is dead or not. It's not very warm, but he still glares when Barsad makes him take it off. Little snowflakes land on their exposed hands and faces and melt away.

“In the mountains we would do this in much harsher temperatures,” says Barsad. “You complain too much.”

John keeps his mouth shut. He hears that from Barsad all the time. He talks too much, complains too much. He starts the exercises in silence. The ice creaks unsettlingly under his feet and he shuts his eyes, stomach pitching slightly. He's never been a very good swimmer.

“Barsad, if I fall in—”

“I'll pull you out,” says Barsad calmly.

“Why are we doing this?”

“The city is right there,” Barsad says, his face betraying nothing, “if you happen to beat me.”

John looks. There's no one, no guards on the shoreline to watch them. He turns back to Barsad, who is smiling slightly.

They start warming up. The exercises are comforting, making John's blood flow, chasing away a little of the cold. Then Barsad wants to do tui shou. John's feet slide on the ice. “Rotate your body,” Barsad reminds him. “Mind your environment.”

They practise silently for the most part. Barsad rarely ever speaks except to offer guidance or explain what he wants John to do. He barely has to correct John during these exercises anymore, so it's a surprise when he speaks again.

“Don't make any more of your little deals with Bane.”

John nearly slips. He catches himself and straightens up, lowering his hands. Barsad copies him.

“It doesn't matter,” John says, after struggling to find words. His ears burn in the cold air. “I can't even get him off.”

“You presume too much about him.”

“He doesn't want me. I get it.”

“He doesn't want you that way,” Barsad corrects. He raises his hands again, ready to resume, but John doesn't move.

“He's in love with Talia,” he says, trying to rationalize, because there must be some reason for Bane's apathy when he's always watching John so carefully in the privacy of his room, like he's never seen anything quite like John. Barsad shrugs, a loose roll of the shoulders.

“My brother is devoted to her. I don't think he's ever lusted for her.”

“I've seen the way he looks at her. Like—”

“Like she is the only star in his sky,” Barsad says. “Do you know where they met? Then you must know the fate he saved her from. How could he ever lay a hand on her?”

He doesn't expand on that, and John struggles to make meaning of his words. Barsad cuffs him, lightly, trying to get his attention back, and John shakes his head and raises his hands.

They run through a few more motions before he stops again.

“Why did he agree,” he blurts out. “If he doesn't want me that way.”

“You belong to him. Anyone's mouth on a man's prick feels good.” This time John is able to deflect Barsad's less-playful cuff. “Perhaps if you spent less time talking about Bane, you would already be doing what he expects you to learn.”

John lashes out and Barsad buffets his fist away harmlessly. He encourages John to surprise him like that. John knows he's tense, stinging.

“Fine,” he says. “I won't do it again. But he could have just said no,” he adds.

Barsad grunts, and hits him in the head. Stars pop into John's vision; he recoils.

“We're warming up!” he protests. Barsad shrugs again.

“You hit first.”

John scowls, and attacks him. He's tired of this, suddenly. He's sick of being a prisoner, sick of all the jeers and catcalls from the Blackgate prisoners and the knowing stares from the militiamen who call him Bane's whore in their own tongue. He's sick of lying next to Bane at night and pretending he can't feel the mercenary's gaze on him and he's sick of being Barsad's punching bag. He centers his weight. He feels how the ice shifts under him. If he wins, his city is right there. He only has to hit Barsad hard enough to distract him for a moment. Barsad indulges him, letting John probe his weak spots, just long enough to make John's confidence climb.

He's doing it. He's on the ice, sparring, circling, doing this amazing, crazy thing. The ice groans, makes noises like gunshots under their feet, and John is doing this. His spirit soars.

Then Barsad stops playing with him.

“We all have to fall through the ice,” Barsad tells him, very calmly, as soon as John is conscious and shivering violently on the shore. “Sometimes once is enough.”

Barsad has to half carry John up to the penthouse when they return to the tower. Bane is in the bedroom, sitting at the desk. His eyes narrow when he sees them.

“What did you do?”

“He went through the ice,” Barsad explains, disentangling John from himself. “He did well.”

Bane seems to understand and accept that, to John's frustration. He'd rather see Bane punch Barsad through a wall. But Barsad leaves unscathed, shutting the door behind him.

“Strip,” Bane orders.

John does, not even caring. Let Bane see. He's done with this insanity. He tries to say so, but can't coordinate lips and tongue and chattering jaw. Bane pushes him to the bed, makes him lie down.

It takes John several efforts to force out the word: “Sh-sh-shower.”

“Mustn't rewarm you too quickly.” Bane sounds almost—amused? It's as difficult to coordinate thoughts as it is everything else. There's a sweeping sound, and then Bane's coat—warm, soft, warm—is covering him. John curls up under it, trying to soak up its heat. Bane pulls the covers over him and the coat and disappears. He returns with a glass of water.

“Your lips are blue. How long were you under?”

John shakes his head, puffing out a shaky breath. “C-couldn't g-get out.” The ice closing in over his head; that's the last thing he remembers.

Bane makes him sit up a bit and tips some lukewarm water down his throat. John swallows some as best he can, and nearly chips a tooth on the glass when another wave of shivers wracks him. Bane takes the glass away.

“Would you like your cat?”

John laughs, starting to feel a little loopy. She'd love that, being smothered under the covers, surrounded by Bane's smell. “No.”

Bane seeks out the kitten anyway, grabs her by the scruff and deposits her on the pillow next to John's head. To his surprise, she dives under the covers with him right away, pressing her quaking body to his. She really is afraid of the beast with the metal face.

Ah,” John gasps, the rasp against his chest making him writhe. “Sh-she's licking me. F-fuck, I h-hate cats.”

Disgruntled, Bane draws back the covers and the coat so he can take the cat away. Instead of tucking John back in, he starts to shed his vest, his shirt, his belt, his wrist brace.

John twists his face away when Bane gets under the covers, embarrassed. He tries to resist when Bane pulls him closer. Bane growls, pinning him easily. His bare arms wrap under John's chest, and he's—warm. His body is like a furnace.

“We all fall through the ice,” Bane says, just as Barsad had. John huffs another little shaky laugh.

“E-even you?”

“Yes.” Bane pushes the coat out of the way, so that he can keep John's back against his chest. God, he's so warm. John wants to turn and burrow right into him, and that's a bizarre thought.

He lets Bane's body heat leach into him through his back, even lets Bane rub his chest with one hand. This is the weirdest situation he's ever been in. It's almost—intimate, until Bane's mask brushes his shoulder and makes him jump, reminding him who he's with. Bane moves his face away.

It's an hour or so before John stops shivering quite so violently, starts becoming more aware of the silence. Bane's probably going to crush him like a bug for this, but he has to say it. He licks his cracked lips.

“Barsad said you've never slept with Talia.”

Bane is quiet for a minute. Then he says, “Barsad didn't lie.”

“Why did you let that cop and the boy live?”

Bane's been rubbing his chest for so long that it doesn't feel weird until he stops.

“I couldn't get you off,” John says.

Bane laughs harshly, a grating mechanic sound that makes John understand why the cat is so afraid of him. “Nobody can do that.”

“You knew I wouldn't. And you still let me try. And you let the cop live, and that boy.”

“You must be broken more slowly than that, John,” Bane says. “Two cops seemed effective enough.”

But that's not satisfying enough for John. If Bane were still trying to break him he'd be doing more about it than handing him abused kittens to nurse.

“You are trying to keep me happy,” John says, “in a weird, twisted way. You actually think killing two cops and sparing one is being nice to me.”

Bane is starting to tense. His voice is clipped. “I wouldn't presume so much.”

John gets it, what Barsad said on the ice, suddenly. He says, “I'm sorry if I made you feel like you were—forcing me. I shouldn't have just assumed that you ... intended to, later.”

Bane lets him go. John immediately misses his warmth.

“You assumed?” Bane grates, and by his tone John knows he's edged into dangerous waters. “Because I like your body, and mistakenly thought I might enjoy your mouth, you assumed I wanted to have you by force?”

“No. It was—it was what Talia said, when she brought me here—”

Bane laughs again, with a wheezing effort. “You are not the first pet Talia has brought to me.”

“What happened to the others?” John dares to ask.

“Like you, they feared me,” Bane says. “And, like you, they could not satisfy me.”

“Has anybody?”

“No,” says Bane. John can sense his anger dissipating like a blown-out storm cloud. “Never. The drugs for the pain numb me to pleasure.” His breath hisses out of the mask. “Knowing that, what will you do with the information?”

“Pity you,” says John, honestly.

Bane seems surprised by that. John doesn't know why.

 

*
In the morning, John wakes to another man's weight crushing him into the mattress. He thrashes.

“Stop,” Bane orders. John does, lying there on his belly. He's still not wearing anything. Barsad never taught him how to get out of this.

“What are you doing?” he demands weakly. Does Bane think their talk last night was John opening himself to something beyond blowjobs? His heart pounds.

“You want to touch me the way Talia does?” Bane asks, instead of answering.

John nods, because he can't think what else to do.

“Then let me do it to you first.”

John rests his cheek on the pillow, pretending he's okay with this and his heart isn't beating a mile a minute. “Okay.”

Bane's fingers are—surprisingly gentle. He's holding back. He kneads John's muscles, just hard enough to straddle the line between oh-God-that's-good and fuck-that-hurts. He buries his face in the pillow and swallows his moans.

“Did Barsad teach you about nerve and pressure points?” Bane asks conversationally, when he's been doing this for a while.

“No, not yet,” John mumbles lazily, moving his head so he can speak. “He's all about defensive stuff.”

“Ah.” Bane brings his thumb up to John's neck and rubs a careful little circle. “He never told you about this one?”

“No,” says John, too sleepy to be alarmed. “What's that one—?”

Bane hits him so swiftly and effectively that for a half-second John thinks he's been struck with a knife. Intense pain engulfs him and is almost immediately gone again without a trace, leaving his brain locked in static paralysis. For several seconds he lies there, stunned. Then his brain comes back online and he tries to shove himself away from Bane, realizing in the same instant that one side of his body is numb and unresponsive.

“What—” he chokes out.

“If I let you touch me I make myself vulnerable to you,” Bane bites out. “Do you understand?”

“Christ! Let me up!”

Bane moves aside, allowing John to roll away from him, cradling his paralyzed arm. He breathes deep. His body's starting to tingle; that must be good.

“You're psychotic,” he gasps. “What the fuck was that?”

Bane's eyes are narrowed, flinty and cold above the mask. “I'm not a fool, John Blake.”

“Neither am I,” John snaps. “Do you seriously think I'd be dumb enough to try and pull that? On you?

“Then why offer?”

“You let that kid live. I appreciate it, all right?” Bane is silent. After a moment John spits out, “I know this is a really difficult concept for you, but sometimes people do nice things because they can.”

They stare across the bed at each other. John is panting, still holding his arm. He flexes his fingers.

“Maybe I want to help you and this is the only way I can think how to do it,” he says.

Bane's eyebrows knit. “Help me,” he echoes.

“Yeah. Help you.”

When Bane says nothing, John rolls out of bed and starts gathering up clothes. One side of his body is still slower to respond, but he drags his clothes on as quickly as he can. The kitten pokes her head out from under the desk; he stoops down to pet her marred head and pours some milk from the mini-fridge into a bowl.

“I am,” Bane says quietly from the bed, distracting him, “in some pain now.”

John turns to face him. “Yeah, well,” he says, “that's what you get for nerve-striking me in the fucking neck, asshole.”

“At least you learned,” Bane says. “You're always complaining that Barsad doesn't teach you offensive maneuvers.”

John grumbles. He could swear that's a joke.

“Okay,” he says, after a brief internal argument. “Lie down then.”

Bane hesitates. Then he obeys, lying on his stomach with his arms folded under his head. He's obviously tense. John joins him on the bed. He must be nuts to do this, to willingly get back in bed with this monster, but he could swear they're developing a rapport, and he intends to make use of it.

He straddles Bane's back, and once again it's brought home to him just how big Bane is. His knees are stretched out wide on either side of Bane's waist. He settles gingerly onto the broad expanse on Bane's back, vaguely fascinated by the twitch and flex of rippling muscle under him.

A brutal scar runs from Bane's neck down his spine. Curious, John trails a finger down it.

“What's that from?”

“Surgery,” Bane rumbles, “by an incompetent doctor.”

John shuts up and focuses. He's never given a massage before. He's not sure where to start.

“Start with the shoulders,” Bane says, as if reading his mind. “Press in hard; the harder the better.”

John flushes slightly at that, but obediently gets to work. He digs in hard with his fingers, then rolls the heels of his palms down, with as much force as he can channel through his arms. God, Bane's shoulders are huge.

It's about half an hour or so before he can actually feel Bane starting to relax. It's kind of fascinating, actually, as he goes along; cataloguing all the scars on Bane's back, noting Bane's reactions when he touches them. Questions are dying to burst from his lips, but he bites them all back. He thinks he knows what most are from, anyway. Saving Talia.

A thousand times over. Bane is devoted to Talia. How can such a ruthless killer have such a big soft spot? What is it about Talia? As far as John can tell, she's as crazy as he is. Maybe he likes that.

“Why did you save Talia?” he asks.

Bane is quiet. Then he says, “When her mother was killed, I saw how the pit turns men into monsters. I had already learned to kill and maim from a very young age just to survive. Protecting Talia gave me hope that I might find redemption. She was something innocent.”

“She's not so innocent now.”

“I couldn't have known the ideas her father would possess her with when I helped her to escape.”

“It's her idea, isn't it?” John says, sensing a gleam of light in a very dark passage. “Destroying Gotham.”

Bane sounds amused. “Does it matter whose idea it was if I subscribe to it? Gotham is a blight upon the world, John, and must be cleansed. There is nothing innocent left here.”

“How can you believe that?” John asks, impatient. “You and Barsad both. You're both smart guys—at least I think so. Why this devotion to Talia's madness?”

Bane rolls over, depositing John onto the mattress with surprising gentleness. John picks himself up sullenly.

“Madness?” says Bane, eyebrows raised. “Has Barsad told you about himself?”

John shakes his head.

“As a young man, Barsad had a beautiful wife and son,” says Bane. “And when soldiers came to his home, they raped his wife, and killed her, and they killed his infant son for screaming while they committed this atrocity. Then they burnt his house to the ground, so that when he returned, there was nothing left for him to bury or even to remember them by. That is what happens when a group of people with authority is given too much power. That is why we, the League of Shadows, must restore balance. And when Gotham is burning, it will send our message to the world.”

“I—” John's throat feels tight. “I don't think you seriously believe that.”

“Gotham is a corrupt city, John. I see nothing here worth saving.”

“Even me?” John challenges.

Bane pauses. Then his eyes crinkle into a wry smile. “John Blake,” he says slowly. “The last just cop in Gotham.”

It's almost enough to confirm John's suspicion—that Bane is developing a blind spot for him, too. Slowly, but it's there.

“Do you still want redemption?” he asks.

“This is my redemption,” says Bane. “Fulfilling the purpose of the League of Shadows: purging this city.”

“You're not a good person,” says John. “I think you could be, though, you know. Kind of weird and crazy, but good. I think it's in you.”

Bane watches him, breathing steadily. His eyes are unreadable now.

“You look at me and see a monster,” he says. “Nothing more.”

“You know what I think?” John demands. He's about to say that he thinks Bane got so tired of people being afraid of him that he started wanting to give them a reason to be afraid; and he wants to say that maybe the mask isn't so nice to look at, but at least he knows there's a person under there. Before he can say any of this, though, Bane suddenly drags him in close, making him writhe and shout angrily, and flattens him.

“Enough,” he says.

He's not angry, but John knows he's done with this conversation. He glares at Bane.

“You're still cold,” Bane says, pushing him over easily, pressing John's back to his chest. His hand slips under John's shirt, splays over his heart. “I can warm you.”

Abruptly John doesn't want to fight, because he is cold. The mask brushes his ear, and he doesn't flinch this time. All the tension leaves him, and he relaxes into Bane's rough hands.

“I think I'll call the cat Harvey,” he says.

“Harvey?” Bane echoes.

“Yeah. It's kind of a mean joke, I guess, but apparently Harvey Dent wasn't such a nice person anyway, so. They say half his face was burnt off before he died.”

“How unexpectedly cruel of you,” Bane says.

He sounds pleased.

 

*
Once they get deeper into winter, the power starts to fail every now and then.

Bane spends most nights in the bedroom now, and John is okay with that. When the power is off and the heat fails, and he wakes up shivering, it's nice to have another warm body to sidle up against under the covers, and Bane doesn't seem to mind even if he is apparently impervious to cold. The problem is that John soon starts to wake up pressed against Bane's side or back, breathing his scent, regardless of whether the heat is on or off. The really weird thing is that more often than not, on those mornings, he wakes up with a hard-on.

Well, it has been a long time since he last jerked off.

He waits for Bane to leave one morning (cities to threaten, people to maim) and slips into the bathroom. The kitten scampers after him just before he can close and lock the door. He wavers, not really wanting to subject her to something she's definitely too young for, but also knowing how afraid she is that Bane will come back and John won't be in the room to protect her (even though he hasn't really done anything more villainous to her than pick her up by the scruff and maybe also partly by the head, but John figures as a terrorist he probably doesn't have all that much kitten-handling experience and so he lets this go).

“Just this once, Harvey,” he tells her. He likes how natural the name sounds. It is mean, but he likes it.

It turns out to be pretty difficult to get intimate with oneself when there's a kitten watching, so John just slips into the shower once he's disrobed and shuts the door. Problem solved. Harvey paws at the translucent glass between them and then gives up, and John is free to get down to business without corruption of a minor weighing on his conscience.

Jerking off for the first time in weeks feels really good.

He lets hot water stream down his back and props an arm against the wall, wrapping his cock in a hot, soapy fist. He knows he's not going to last long and he doesn't care; he hurtles himself toward the finish line frantically and gracelessly. But as amazing as fucking into his own warm, slick hand feels, it's—not good enough. He groans, lets his forehead thud against the wall, tugs himself desperately. He's so close, he's riding the edge, and he can't tip himself over.

He tries to think of his last girlfriend, tries to think of the last time he watched a porno, and can't do either (he's married to his work, so sue him), and then unbidden he thinks of

—of Bane, musky warm male scent, deft callused hands, his cock in John's mouth, hot velvet shaft, wet-salt tip, the little quiver in his thigh muscles that says he's not as impervious as he says he is—

And John comes. Hard.

It's the paralyzing kind of orgasm that leaves him bereft of higher functions for about a minute or so. When he can, he picks himself up shakily off the wall, blinking lights out of his eyes; rinses the spunk off his hand and kicks it down the drain.

He's a little shaken by this revelation about himself. That was good, though, he decides. Kind of an unexpected ending, but still good.

The water is still hot and he has a sudden thought that makes his stomach give a little swoop. Lathering his hand in soap again, he leans against the wall and slips one finger behind his balls, right to where his body resists him and he has to push in, knees shaking slightly. Feels as weird as he remembers. He goes slow, sort of pumps his finger in and out very slowly, and adds another when he thinks he can handle it. Fuck. Two fingers is a lot. He can't even imagine three.

He gives that up and washes himself off, noting what a valiant effort his cock is making to go for a second round. There's something to be said for anal stimulation, apparently.

He towels off and gets dressed in the bedroom while Harvey tumbles around on the floor with an empty tuna can. Barsad enters the room after one brief knock and gets to witness the kitten flinging herself under the nearest armchair. He raises an eyebrow.

“That's Harvey,” John says. His voice is still a little sex-rough; he clears his throat. “She's usually under the bed. I guess she's feeling brave today.”

Barsad barely blinks. “It's time to spar.”

When they get up to the roof, there's no one else there. Every time they've sparred since the incident on the ice, they've had an audience. John goes through the warm-up exercises, stretching, readying himself, and takes a deep breath.

“Bane told me what happened to your family.”

Barsad clenches his jaw and nods once, not even looking at John.

“How'd you know what happened to them?” John asks.

“I tracked their murderers down and tortured them before I killed them,” says Barsad, emotionlessly. Now he looks at John. “Does that bother you?”

“I don't ... I don't know,” John says honestly, feeling muddled. “They did something pretty awful. I don't know that I'd have done the same thing, but ...”

“Good,” Barsad says, surprising him. “Keep that innocence. It's what separates you from men like me.”

“I lost my family, too, you know,” John offers after a minute. “I don't really remember my mom, but my dad was shot ...”

“I know,” says Barsad. He smiles at John's startled expression, and raises a hand to the corner of his eye. “Your eyes,” he says. “Sometimes you slip, you show what you feel.”

John wonders if Barsad was ever emotional, before his family was killed. If he came across the burning ruins of his home and took it all in with a cool eye, or if he dropped to his knees, tore up fistfuls of the earth in his bare hands and wept for what he'd lost. It's hard to picture the latter—but Barsad's got a good mask. The best.

John lets them go through a few more exercises before he speaks again.

“Is there any way you could get me ... ah ... some form of lube?”

He's startled again when Barsad suddenly drops his pose and turns to John with an uncharacteristically cold expression.

“I told you to stop playing your games with him.”

“No, it's not for—that!” John splutters, blushing furiously. “Jesus, no, it's—just for me. Really.”

He could swear Barsad's anger is something like protectiveness over Bane, which is ridiculous, because between him and John who really needs protecting? Then Barsad relaxes slightly, still wary of him.

“I'm sure I'll find something.”

“Thanks,” John says awkwardly. “I wouldn't ask, but—you know—kind of a prisoner.”

Barsad grunts, turns away. “The men call you Bane's wife. Have you heard that?”

“Yeah, I've heard it.” And it burns him with anger and embarrassment, but he still hasn't said anything to them. He could tell them Bane doesn't touch him at night (unless the power's off and he's cold); he's even certain that Bane wouldn't fuck him afterward just to make a point. He's seen how Bane's eyes flash dangerously at the mention of rape. But he doesn't say anything. The men wouldn't believe him, anyway, they'd think he was just trying to cling to some remaining scrap of masculinity.

“If you were to do something,” Barsad says carefully, after a minute has passed. “If you continue to make your advances—you should know that Talia will, eventually, involve herself.”

Why does that, of all things, strike an icy nerve of fear? “What do you mean, involve herself,” John asks slowly.

“I mean that she will find out what it is you have or have not done with Bane—she will know—and she will expect to see results. She didn't give you to Bane so that you could make yourself comfortable in his bed. She will want to see you damaged and afraid.” Barsad's tone doesn't change: it's all matter-of-fact. “Understand, Bane's allegiance has always been to Talia.”

John balls his hand into a fist and swings. Barsad catches his punch. For a fleeting second, his eyebrows quirk upward with surprise at the force behind John's fist. Then he wipes his expression.

“Bane's not going to rape me just to make Talia happy,” John says flatly.

“Maybe not,” says Barsad shrewdly. “But you put a lot of faith in him. If he let you go now, would you leave?”

“Yes!” John says loudly. “What do you think, that I'm happy here? That I've adjusted? When I get out of here, I'm going to be fighting with the resistance to stop you. Just like I was before.”

“The Gotham police,” says Barsad. “You would align yourself with them, even now that you understand our goal?”

“I'm sorry for what happened to your wife and son,” John says, breathing hard, “but that was someone else, not the GPD. That's the kind of men we put away.”

“The men you put away had families to feed. Some were wrongly imprisoned. The Dent Act gave police enough power to arrest anyone in connection to organized crime. What about the individual's crime?”

“I'm not going to argue the Dent Act with you.”

“Because it was based on a lie,” says Barsad. “Power should belong with the people, not with minority institutions who lie and persecute the people they're meant to protect just to keep them in line.”

“Does this look good to you?” John shouts, flinging a hand out at the city. “People looting and raiding and killing each other over cans of Spam, that's your idea of liberation?”

“There are looters who once lived in this very building. The wealthy of Gotham are being made to pay for their crimes, and they are scrabbling in the filth with the people they oppressed.” There's more emotion in Barsad's voice than John has ever heard there. “We're making the real criminals of this city answer for their crimes, and we're doing it more effectively than the police ever could. Perhaps that's what bothers you.”

“You're crazy,” John says, and he's somehow irrationally upset by this, like all along he had been holding out hope that Barsad was a good guy deep down; an assassin and a ruthless killer but, just maybe, a good guy. “You actually believe all this.”

“Gotham does not deserve to be saved.” Barsad attacks him, all of a sudden, and John brings a hand up and just manages to deflect the hit. Barsad pursues him, though, and John is forced to back up, staving off each blow.

“Gotham deserves a chance,” he argues.

Barsad circles and pins him against the edge of the roof. His hand shoots out and he grabs John by the throat, forcing him to lean over the edge.

“If you believe that,” he says coldly, “then rot with your city and your parents.”

Adrenaline and anger blaze through John, and he rallies fiercely. He breaks Barsad's hold, plunges forward, ducks a punch and deflects the second, and hits Barsad in the face as hard as he can. It's the first time he's ever connected in a real fight, and he doesn't even think about it, just follows up with a hit to the shoulder that makes Barsad reel back, crouching slightly.

He doesn't move, and John doesn't go after him. He breathes hard, glaring, and after a moment Barsad starts to laugh.

“What?” John snaps.

Barsad straightens up, and slings an arm around John's shoulders. John bristles.

“Finally,” Barsad says, smiling, “we find a current for all that anger in you.”

John stares, baffled. Barsad taps his chest with his other hand, and says, “When you fight, fight for what you believe in, little brother. Before all this is over, you may have to.”

He releases John, gives him a little push toward the door. John hesitates.

“We're done?” he says.

“For today,” says Barsad companionably, sliding his ammunition belt back over his shoulder. “Tomorrow, we start jujutsu.”

Confused, John watches him pick up his rifle and stroll off toward the door. “Thanks,” he says, not entirely sure what's happened here.

Barsad waves a hand.

“It was always in you to be a fighter,” he says, no longer smiling. “I only had to bring it out.”

 

*
“How long have I been here?” John asks one night.

“Three months,” says Bane.

Three months. That's a long time. He wonders if Gordon has given up on saving him. Gordon has more important things to be worrying about, of course—like the bomb expiring in about a month.

Jujutsu, as it turns out, predictably means amassing a lot of bruises. John had returned to the penthouse after a grueling evening practice, then showered, and brought along the lube Barsad thoughtfully procured for him. He's been doing this almost every day for about a week, fascinated by what it does to him, and he can take three of his own fingers now, though the angle is a little off. He's amazed every time, because although the intrusion itself just feels awkward and uncomfortable, his cock always leaps to full-mast right away and it generally ends with some of the most amazing orgasms of John's entire life. The awkward and uncomfortable aspect is worth it.

The mental images, though, that's a little different. John rationalizes that having a few fingers in his ass while he jerks off doesn't make him gay, or anything; and even if it did, bicuriosity is probably normal in a young adult male. Maybe not so normal to jerk off to intrusive thoughts of a murdering terrorist, but when you've been sleeping in the same bed with said terrorist for three months, well, John's entitled to a free pass, isn't he? He's entitled when Bane's arm around him feels secure and warming, instead of scary and choking...

He'd finally managed to find a semi-decent angle, too, when he heard Bane enter the bedroom and immediately stopped, convinced Bane would know what he was doing. If John gets a little noisy during the most amazing orgasms of his life, so sue him. He'd finished showering and gotten dressed and crawled into bed to conceal a throbbing erection. Now he's pretending to read, and acting as if the slickness between his thighs isn't distracting at all, nor his aching dick which won't stop begging for attention, and maybe he can quietly rub one out when Bane comes to bed and turns off the lights; but Bane, maddeningly, is sitting on one of the couches and watching a news report with the sound down low. He's shirtless, bare-footed, just wearing cargo pants and the usual belt and wrist brace, and that's not helping anything.

Finally, Bane gets up and disappears into the bathroom. John takes the opportunity to sneak out of bed and put some food in Harvey's dish, like he usually does before bed, and she even dares to slink out and nibble some, looking over her shoulder for Bane every few seconds. John runs a hand down her back—some of her fur is growing back, down her flanks—and then he retreats back under the covers.

He has no time to do anything more than that before Bane leaves the bathroom. Harvey streaks back under the bed.

“Do you ever eat?” John asks, exasperated.

“Of course,” says Bane.

Just as he lifts the remote, the TV blinks out and the mini-fridge stops humming. The lights waver and die.

“Great,” John grumbles, getting up to pull open one of the blinds over the huge windows. He'd never seen stars over Gotham prior to the siege. A little light filters weakly in, enough to see each other by.

Bane is still looking at the TV. John walks over and takes the remote from him, setting it down on the couch.

“There's nothing good on anyway,” he says. “I hear they put American Idol try-outs on hiatus. 'In light of the recent tragedies in Gotham'.”

Bane glances at him. It's hard to tell in the dark, but do his eyes maybe flit below John's waist for a second?

John's ears burn. He turns and stomps back to the bed. “Come on. Let's just sleep.”

“Did I interrupt something?”

“No. You interrupted nothing.” John yanks the covers up. “Are you coming to bed, or not?”

It's a long minute before Bane actually joins him. He strips off the belt and brace, leaves them on the couch and gets into bed gingerly. John used to think the sound of his breathing in the dark was sinister and unsettling; he's so used to it now that he can hear the tiniest hitch.

“Not gonna warm me up?” he asks snidely, shoving his pillow around to make it more comfy. Bane doesn't answer, and John has a sudden thought.

He rolls closer and reaches out, tentatively, making his intentions clear, as though Bane is a wild animal. Not until his hand finds its way between Bane's legs does Bane suddenly growl and push him away.

John withdraws his hand, suspicions confirmed.

“Do you ever jerk off?” he asks, actually curious.

“Yes,” says Bane.

“Do you ever come?”

“Rarely.”

“Does it just not feel good?” John asks. “Or—”

“No,” Bane cuts him off. “It just takes time.”

John pushes his pillow around idly, his heart starting to beat faster for no reason he can pin down. “You know your buddies think you're in here fucking me every night,” he says, abruptly aggressive.

Bane rumbles. “If that were true, you'd hardly be walking comfortably by now.”

“You really aren't going to touch me, are you?”

“Do you want me to?”

Bane's voice is mocking and derisive. John steels himself—because how do you tell your murderous captor “I can't stop thinking about your cock”?

Instead, he says, “Can I touch you?”

Bane doesn't answer. Maybe John's actually surprised him with that one. His face is starting to heat up with creeping embarrassment, along with other parts of his body, because this is probably a monumentally bad idea but he's horny and nothing else is going the way it's supposed to, so he may as well give in to the insanity. He reaches over again, feels his way up Bane's—substantially huge cock through his pants, before Bane pushes him stiffly away again.

Bane's eyes are narrowed. “What are you doing?”

“I don't—really know,” John admits. “Just ... trying something, I guess. Can I ... try?”

“Why?” Bane demands.

“Because ...” Because I think about you in the shower when I'm jerking off and I'm not sure why, he doesn't say. He forces out the words: “Because—I want to.”

Bane watches him very carefully, chest rising and falling steadily, as John slowly peels back the covers and crawls over to him. He pulls Bane's pants down a bit, just enough to free his cock, and it really is huge, even in the dark; totally hard and about as thick as a Burmese python, in John's opinion. He wraps one hand around it, marveling at the heft and girth of it. Christ. A pearly drop of fluid beads at the tip, and he can't remember exactly what Bane tastes like, so he leans down and puts his mouth on the head. His heart is hammering. This is definitely the craziest thing he's ever done. There's no deal here, no one's life on the line, just him and Bane. Maybe it's his own life on the line, probably Bane is going to snap his neck for doing this and then fuck him anyway, but—

It's with the utmost reverence that Bane touches the side of John's face, the pad of his thumb skimming down to the corner of John's mouth, stretched around his cock. A little pleasurable shiver runs right down John's spine, and he pulls off for a moment, eyelids falling half-shut.

“Why are you doing this?” Bane asks, and now he just sounds curious, too.

“I don't know,” John says. It's the truth, and that terrifies him. He adds haltingly, “Except ... you know, you've been nice to me when you had no reason to be. And you gave me a cat.”

“A dying cat,” says Bane. But he presses his thumb to John's mouth again, as though fascinated by his lips.

John takes the tip of his thumb into his mouth without thinking and sucks on it a bit—apparently there's a slutty side of himself that he never knew existed—then lets go and says, “We're all going to be dead in a month. I want to do this.” He hesitates. “Do you?”

Bane pulls his hand away. “If I take you,” he says, his voice like gravel, warped through the mask, “I will hurt you.”

“Do you hurt all your partners?” John asks, reaching over to idly stroke his cock. Bane is quiet for long enough that John stops moving his hand and says, “Are there any partners? Or just failed blowjobs?”

“Talia would have offered herself in a heartbeat,” Bane says quietly, showing remarkable control for someone with another person's hand on his cock. “But when I look at her, I see only the child from the pit. I know her innocence no longer needs protecting, but there has never been anyone else.”

John is once again stunned by the depth of humanity in Bane. Surely there was a core of goodness in him, before Talia turned him into a walking weapon. It can't all have been her, of course, he's not that naive; but he thinks, if Bane could just shake his fixation of her, he could be ... what? Rehabilitated? Unleashed on a restored Gotham like a neutered puppy?

John pushes away those thoughts. He has to think like he isn't going to survive this next month, because it's not like he's going anywhere.

“You can't die without ever having had sex,” he says, with a forced little laugh. Bane sees through him.

“I'll hurt you. Are you prepared for that?”

“Bring it,” John says, to hide how nervous he is.

Bane looks amused. John can't meet his eyes, so he ducks his head, seals his lips around Bane's cock again and sucks.

He doesn't try rough this time. He needs to drag this out, needs to get Bane as close as possible before actually committing to—to sex. He's offered it, it's out in the open now; he just needs to hope that it won't go on for too long. So he gentles Bane's cock with his mouth. He licks up and down the shaft, traces the throbbing vein on the underside with his tongue. He takes a deep breath and moves lower, sucks one of Bane's balls into his mouth, then the other. Soft. Bane rumbles softly above him, like a purring Bengal tiger.

He allows John to drag his pants off gradually. John breaks off for a moment to take off his own shirt and loosen his pants, so that he can shove one hand into his boxers while he does this and finally, finally touch himself.

“This brings you pleasure?” Bane asks. Definitely amused.

“Shut up,” John mutters around his cock.

He's definitely never pictured himself in this scenario, not even in the shower. Bane is a lot bigger than three of his fingers. It may even be impossible to get him in there at all. John pushes that thought away, focuses on the now, the slide of Bane's cock in his mouth, his fist wrapped around the base, his lips still unable to meet his own hand when he sucks down as much as he can. He comes back up gasping, letting saliva run down the shaft, pumps his fist a few times while he catches his breath.

“Tired already?”

“Just don't lose your hard-on,” John gasps.

Bane laughs, a rasping sound. “Keep going,” he says.

So John does. He does the best that he can, still not accustomed to this, and after awhile he even starts to see some reaction. Bane hums softly when John does something he likes, and the muscles in his thighs flex slightly. John drags his hand up and down Bane's thigh just to feel these little tics. Every now and then Bane's cock dribbles a few beads of precome, and John has to lap these up; and it's when he does this that Bane suddenly flexes and then moves. All at once John is on his back, the breath driven out of him, and Bane is holding him down.

“I want more of you,” he growls, and his voice sends electricity skating down John's spine.

Bane pulls impatiently at John's pants, tugging them off altogether, and the air between their bare bodies feels very hot. John squeezes his eyes shut for a minute, wondering how it is that Bane can be so casual about touching a naked man, but maybe he's just being a baby about this. He's already had Bane's dick in his mouth. Being naked and this close to him should be nothing. They're about to get a lot closer, after all.

“There's—there's lube in the bathroom,” he pants out, and God, why is he so hard right now? “I can get it if you ...”

For a second he thinks maybe Bane won't, maybe he'll just hold him down and have him anyway, but of course Bane moves aside, running a hand down John's ribs as he goes. It makes John shiver again. He gets out of bed quickly, practically jogs to the bathroom.

When he returns, Bane is still there, still intimidatingly hard, stroking himself now and watching John with that manic light he gets in his eyes when he's really intent on something. John's not sure if the heat that pours into his stomach is fear or arousal or both.

Bane takes the lube from him as soon as he's in the bed again.

“We have to do this my way,” John says, the throbbing lump in his throat almost choking him. “I'm on top.”

“Be on top, then,” Bane says carelessly, dragging John on top of him. And then, oh God, John is actually straddling him, things are touching, and before he can move away Bane's other hand is easing between his cheeks and one slick finger is finding a way in. John jumps forward automatically, and the way this presses their erections together suddenly isn't such a big deal.

“Okay,” he says, breathing hard, closing his eyes, “okay, okay—”

“Your body doesn't know the touch of another man,” Bane observes. John is clenching down, involuntarily trying to force him back out.

“Fuck you, it knows touch all right,” John grits out. He tries to relax, but he keeps thinking about Bane's cock, so much bigger than fingers...

He has to open his eyes when he feels Bane's hand at his face. Bane's face is totally guileless, focused on the strands of hair he runs between his fingers and how they shine in the dim light, and it's enough that John relaxes all at once. Bane makes a pleased sound, adds a second finger, and even though it feels nothing like the predictable slide of his own fingers, John is able to let him in. He rides this feeling for a while, trying to get past the weirdness, and when he can feel himself loosening a little, he sucks one of his own fingers into his mouth and then presses it behind his balls, in alongside Bane's fingers. His shoulders hunch and his breath is ragged, but he can do it.

There's no condom, but John's always practised safe sex in the past and Bane doesn't have a track record to speak of, so he figures they'll be okay and if not, they're probably dead in a month anyway so herpes won't be a big issue. Bane doesn't ask if he's ready, just pulls his fingers away along with John's. He slicks his cock and takes John by the hips, tugging him forward, so that his erection is grinding the cleft of John's ass.

“Okay, pushy,” John says, trying to sound casual but coming off breathless. His heart is racing.

He reaches down, finds Bane's cock—so big—and lines it up. He forces himself to press down, more and more until Bane breaches him, and there's nothing but white noise in John's ears and lights in his eyes and from very far away he hears himself saying, “Don't thrust, Bane, don't thrust—”

Very slowly, the roar of blood in his head fades enough for him to realize he's got his eyes clamped shut and that's why stars are bursting in his vision. He opens his eyes. A drop of sweat rolls into the corner of one, stinging.

Bane, under him, is not thrusting. He's just waiting patiently, like he knows in a minute John will get his shit together and they'll be good to go.

It takes John a moment to realize, over the searing stretch of his rim, that he's only taken in the head of Bane's cock. It's not even the thickest part, and already he's dizzy.

“I—” he chokes, and has to pull away. There's a second of panic when he thinks Bane won't even come out of him, but he does. The sudden emptiness makes him wheeze.

He grabs the lube up, slicks his hand and slides three fingers into himself. He's still pretty tight. He takes a minute just to stretch himself open slowly. When he thinks he can, he adds a fourth finger. Gradually, he calms a little bit. His throat is still bone-dry, heart thudding in his ears, but he's relaxing. The panic is loosing its grip on him.

He grunts when Bane rolls him over onto his belly, so that he can watch John fingering himself. Carefully, he touches and then eases his thumb in with John's fingers. John stops moving his hand, just lies there and lets Bane drag his thumb in and out.

“Okay,” John says finally, hoarsely, letting his fingers slip out of him. After a moment, Bane's hands are at his hips again. He pulls John on top of him like John weighs nothing, and John struggles for a second to get his knees on either side of Bane's body again. Like straddling a mountain. “More lube,” he says, and Bane slicks his cock a bit more. John shuffles forward a bit on his knees, lets Bane hold his own cock for John to sink onto. He takes a deep, long breath as Bane penetrates him.

It strikes John how patient Bane is while John slowly, shakily impales himself in increments. He rubs his hand up and down John's chest, like he'd done when John was hypothermic, and John focuses on that familiarity rather than the total intrusion of the cock in his ass. It doesn't feel like a cock; it feels like—a baseball bat, and then he pushes down a little further than he means to and lets out a strangled whimper that's almost a scream because now it's more like a fucking telephone pole, who are they kidding. It's not normal for a cock to be this big, and there's just more and more of it, it's not all going to fit, it's going to go right through John's diaphragm and kill him, he's already dying.

And then Bane takes over; grips John's hips gently and eases him back up until just the tip of his cock is still inside John, and that kind of friction doesn't feel so wrong. Bane gives him a moment to adjust while John gasps, digs his nails into Bane's skin, tells himself he can bear this. Then Bane pulls him down again, further now, forcing a bit more cock up there, and making John squirm and cry out again. His voice breaks; Bane seems amused again.

“The guards will talk,” he says, frustratingly composed. “You sound as though I'm killing you.”

“You are,” John groans through his teeth, sweat and tears mingling on his face.

“You're doing very well,” Bane says, as if he's the one with all the experience, like he fucks men every day with his Coke-bottle cock, no big deal. John clings to that idea: he's doing well. He can do this. Yeah, he's good at this. A slightly hysterical laugh nearly bubbles out of him; he clamps down on it.

There's a buzzing in his ears when Bane finally, finally bottoms out. John is completely stretched, completely helpless, completely fucked, and he's doing it. He's taking all of Bane's cock. He can feel his sphincter trying to clench, little failing fluttering spasms. He's doing it.

“Hah,” he says weakly.

“Well done,” Bane says, petting him, the bastard. Then his hand drops to John's cock and it's only then that John realizes how ferociously hard he is. It's almost a sensory overload; he gives a full-body shudder.

Bane lets go when John starts moving again, on his own now. He started this and he's determined to finish it, or at least to have some part in it instead of passively letting Bane use him. He lifts himself up, liking the drag, then pushing himself back down forcefully, eyes squeezed shut against the almost-unbearable stretch.

“You're so big,” he groans, unthinking. His brain is nothing but white noise.

Bane moves his hands from John's hips to his ribcage, squeezing possessively.

“If I hurt you,” he starts, his voice more rasping and monstrous than John's ever heard it.

“You're hurting me,” John gasps out.

“If it's too much,” Bane amends, and John promises:

“You'll know.”

Satisfied, Bane moves a little—bracing his feet against the mattress, John realizes a second later, when Bane's grip turns from possessive to brutal and he slams himself up into John's body, making John yelp. He tries to match Bane's rhythm, but can't; Bane is fast and savage, taking what he wants. John just holds on, his nails digging little red half-circles into Bane's flexing stomach, tries not to cry out and fails.

He refuses to tap out. He can take this. He starts to breathe through it, works his hips to meet Bane's thrusts, gives himself back some of the control. Bane growls in evident approval, gripping him tight.

It gets easier, a little, the harder John tries. It's like riding a hurricane, though—his body is being opened up and plundered; all he can really do is put his head down and weather it, and weather it, and breathe

And then, gradually, Bane slows. Then he stops altogether. He pulls John off himself, guides him gently to one side, and John drops limply to the bed like a ragdoll, groaning.

“Just tell me you're close,” he pants, when Bane rolls him over onto his back. It's been ages. Please be close.

“Close,” Bane concedes, draping one of John's legs over his arm. Then he puts his head down and fucks back in, and John's body freaks out all over again.

He arches his back off the bed, squeezes his eyes shut, claws Bane's shoulder with one hand and the sheets with the other. He makes himself remember Barsad's training, breathes from his belly. Then—with more instinct than conscious thought—he lets go of the sheets and wraps a fist around his cock instead. He's still hard, leaking precome onto his stomach. His own touch is so good it brings tears of relief to his eyes, and he starts jerking himself in earnest. His voice is getting dangerously hoarse.

“Are you going to—?” Bane starts, lifting his head, and seeing John's hand on his cock he pushes himself up on one arm to watch. “Let me see you,” he says. He wraps his own hand around John's and pumps a few times.

That's all it takes. John's orgasm, building in him all evening, slams him like a freight train. He thinks he screams. He definitely shoots up to his chest, and his whole body seems to throb with it, including where he and Bane are joined, and he shivers his way back down numbly.

Bane touches his mouth again, still fucking him, and a new urgency grips him. He grabs John's ass in both hands to lift him off the bed, pounds in like he's running the last stretch of a long race; and when at long last he comes, he comes hard, with a roar, slamming in deep and filling John's body with his seed. John arches again, clinging to him, gasping.

Breathe. Breathe.

It's a long time before Bane starts to relax on top of him. He pries his fingers away from John, moving stiffly. When he pulls out, a gush of hot fluid follows. He hits the bed, air wheezing rapidly in and out of the mask, lying on what's usually John's side of the bed.

One half of John wants to roll over and hide his face, which he knows is flushed completely red. The other half wants to curl up against Bane and sleep forever. He compromises by not moving at all, letting his eyes fall shut and his heartrate even out gradually.

His eyes fly open when he recognizes what the soft scrabbling sound coming from next to him is. Bane is fumbling with his mask. His hands are uncharacteristically clumsy. John sits up as best he can, reaches over to help. Bane's eyes are half closed, and for a second he looks at John with dark mistrust. Then he draws his hand away and allows John to work with the complicated buckles and clasps.

As soon as it loosens, Bane is pushing him away, sitting up and swinging his legs over the side of the bed. He keeps his face turned away from John as he pries the gasmask carefully away from his mouth and nose, so that John can't see a thing. He can hear Bane panting—normal, unfiltered air—and he slowly comes to understand that Bane had been breathing too much analgesic, too quickly. Even with this whole thing behind them, Bane doesn't trust John enough to let himself be weakened and sluggish in front of him.

John lies back down. After several minutes, Bane is no longer panting, and his steady breathing is starting to take on a frayed edge. He groans softly (his voice is deep and surprisingly human) and then fits the mask back over his face. John sits up again, helps him lock the thing up so that it's back to digging cruelly into Bane's face and he's once again breathing in medicated gas.

Once it's on fully, Bane turns and pushes John down onto the mattress.

“Thank you,” he says. John's not sure what the thanks is for—the orgasm, or helping him or what.

He can't think about it just yet, so instead of “you're welcome”, he says, “I think you broke one of my ribs.”

Bane palpates the area carefully, and they conclude that it's probably just bruised, not broken. Bane rubs a thumb over the rib in seeming contrition. Then he presses his mask to John's chest, so that John can feel each puffing exhalation through the grille.

“If you wanted to kiss me you should've done it a minute ago,” John says. Bane digs his thumb into the bruised rib not at all gently, making John yelp; then he picks him up and throws him onto his own side of the bed irritably. When John reaches over and rubs at his turned shoulder, however, Bane softens and rolls over again to face him.

He looks at John as though John is a puzzle he couldn't figure out in a thousand lifetimes.

Wordlessly, Bane presses his thumb to John's lower lip again. John smiles.

 

*
When John wakes up in the morning, there's a glass of water on the table next to him and Harvey is finishing her meal from the night before, which tells him immediately that Bane isn't there.

He's not disappointed. He didn't really expect Bane to stick around for pancakes and pillow talk or anything. In fact, he's pretty glad he's alone, because as soon as he tries to get up he falls to his knees with a gasp.

Maybe expecting to walk today was a little ambitious of him.

He drains the glass of water right there on the floor, then takes a few deep breaths, grips the edge of the table, and pulls himself upright. Everything hurts. He has to make his way slowly and gingerly to the bathroom for a shower, and only once he enters does he remember the jacuzzi tub. Maybe just this once. His muscles are begging for it.

Harvey scampers in while he's filling the tub; he locks the door behind her. She's the only intruder he'll permit during bath time. She clambers up the marble steps to the tub, curious about the sound of running water, but when the steam touches her unexpectedly, she wails aloud.

John sets her back on the cool tile, feeling sorry for her. He wonders if she's still in pain—and that makes him think about Bane.

He drops himself into the water before his train of thought can continue in that direction.

The heat makes him hiss softly; his skin turns red under the surface. It's perfect. He soaks for a long time, until the water is starting to turn lukewarm. Afterward, he's not sure if it helped or not. It's still hard to walk, but at least he's more relaxed.

He dresses comfortably, gets back into bed with a book, and finally lets himself think about last night.

Remembering it now—Bane on top of him, inside him, possessing him—it seems like a dream. Someone else's dream. Because John Blake would never

Except he did. And it was kind of amazing.

Can something be amazing and terrifying at the same time?

Actually, yeah. That's a pretty fair description of Bane.

Barsad enters after a single knock, and only then does John realize how late in the morning it is. Usually Barsad is much earlier. He stretches and sits up, and finds Barsad kneeling down on the floor, one hand proffered. It's puzzling until Harvey's nose appears from underneath the couch he's facing. After a moment she slinks out and rubs her ugly little head against his hand, quickly and nervously. He runs a hand down her back, making her spine arch pleasurably and her stubby tail rise. John makes a note that, unlike he and Bane, Barsad actually knows how to pet a cat.

“Hey,” he says.

Barsad glances at him briefly. “I thought you were still sleeping.”

John gestures toward the cat, who is rubbing herself against Barsad's legs. “I guess she likes you now.”

“I approached from her blind side before,” Barsad says, pointing to her empty eye socket. “She only had to see I wouldn't hurt her.” He stands up, ignoring Harvey now. “Are you still resting?”

It's a serious question, not a typical jibe about how John is a soft capitalist American, which throws him. John shakes his head and then regrets it. “Time to spar?” he asks warily, hoping against hope that Barsad will say no.

“No sparring,” Barsad says, surprising him again. He eyes John inscrutably. “Bane said not to disturb you today.”

His gaze drifts from John's face to the lube on the bedside table, and back.

John flinches inwardly. Barsad knows—and he's not happy. John did exactly what Barsad told him in no uncertain terms to not do. But why? Why is he angry?

“I came to see if you were hungry,” Barsad says, interrupting his thoughts. “The truck was here this morning. We have fresh fruit.”

John's stomach gives an eager pang. “I'm starving.”

“Come, then.”

Barsad stands back and waits while John gets up, trying to move as normally as possible. Harvey winds between Barsad's feet and then wanders back to the couch. On his way out, John gestures back to her.

“Hey,” he says, “do you, uh, want her? I don't know a lot about cats ...”

Barsad shakes his head. “No time for strays,” he says, and turns away. Under his breath, he adds, “Unlike Bane.”

John follows him up the stairs, feeling somehow wrongfooted. Maybe it's in his head. Barsad isn't really being any more aloof than usual. Then again, he's impossible to read at the best of times.

Bane's other four officers are there, along with Ekene, as usual. A good selection of food is laid out in the middle of the table. The men nod briefly at Barsad, too busy eating to pay much attention to John. He goes to take a seat next to Ekene. Just as he's lowering himself onto the chair, Ekene slyly hooks an ankle around one of the chair legs and tugs it away.

John hits the floor on his ass. The pain is so immediate and intense it shocks a yelp out of him, and he has to curl up and lie there for a minute, forcing himself not to writhe or rub at the injured area, while the table, excluding Barsad, explodes into laughter. Ekene laughs hardest, even while John is gasping in pain on the floor next to him.

“Man,” he says, giggling, while he helps John up, “I'm glad I wasn't you last night.”

“I don't know what you're talking about,” John mutters, trying to save face. He really doesn't want to sit, but doesn't see a choice in the matter. He settles on the chair gingerly, biting his tongue.

Ekene, of course, doesn't mince words.

“Guards say you was up half the night screaming on Bane's prick. You must've pissed 'im off something mighty.” He gazes at John wonderingly. “How you haven't been ripped in half yet, I don't know.”

John can feel his face heating up. So half the building probably knows about last night. He grabs an orange and busies himself peeling it.

“Ah, don't worry,” one of the other men, Nadeem, says, waving a hand at John. “Take your pants off and Barsad will stitch you up, good as new for tonight.”

“Yeah, no thanks,” John says bluntly. “I'm fine, actually.”

“You think he stitches with 'is pecker? What?” Ekene scoffs. “We know you're Bane's. I'll hold him down, Barsad.”

Barsad shrugs. “He says he's fine.”

“Probably used to taking it,” Basir grunts. “Where'd Talia find him?”

“Look,” John snaps, surprising himself as much as them, “we don't need to talk about me taking it from Bane or whatever you think I do. Stop speculating and just leave me alone.”

They all look at him as though he's a pet who's just performed an amusing but unusual trick.

“Sensitive,” Ekene says at last, shrugging and grabbing himself a roll. “Just like a woman.”

“How would you know?” Nadeem shoots back. They all laugh, this time not at John's expense.

He stays tense and miserable through the rest of the meal, his whole body (but mostly his ass) still aching. As soon as he can, he grabs some extra food for later and slips away, declining Ekene's offer to play cards. He goes back to the bedroom, and ignores the stony-faced guard who stands outside and watches him.

The afternoon drags by. He waits for Barsad to maybe show up, just to keep him company, but it doesn't happen. He turns on the TV, depresses himself watching news reports, and turns it off. He naps on the couch. Reads a little.

Mostly, he waits for Bane.

It used to be that he couldn't wait to leave this room, and would dread Bane's arrival. He used to wait in terror for the day Bane got bored enough to make use of his body. Now he's sitting here, facing an unlocked door, sore all over from letting Bane—Bane!—fuck him last night. And all at once it's like he's been sledgehammered back into reality.

He curls up on the couch and tries, quietly, not to panic.

Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon would be pretty fucking ashamed of him right now. His city is dying and he's up here experimenting, like this is college or something. He could have attacked Bane last night, when he took off the mask. He could have tried to rip it off Bane's head, throw it at the wall, smash it. It would have gotten him killed, but maybe it would have put Bane out of the picture. Barsad is smart, he commands a lot of respect here, but he's not a leader or an orator like Bane is. He's a born second-in-command, moving quietly behind the scenes, not out in the open, stirring mobs of people into a frenzy with his words alone. With Bane put down, his army would be in shambles. The decaying city would grind to a halt while they reorganized, granting Gordon and the others the window they'd need to find the bomb. Lucius Fox would figure out a way to neutralize it, and John would still be dead, but Gotham would be saved...

He puts his head in his hands and groans. What's the point in thinking like this? It's already done, he already fucked Bane, they've established that he's basically let his whole side down. But of course he couldn't have single-handedly saved the city like that. That mask is tough, and even if it could be destroyed by John, assuming he was somehow fast enough to get the jump on Bane, there's no guarantee that would kill him.

And when he thinks about it hard enough, John knows there's no way he could have tried that anyway. He just couldn't. It's not right. If Bane is defeated before all this is over, it should be in a fair fight. That's what he deserves. Not to be reduced to crippling agony and put down like a dog. Some part of John can't quite bear the thought.

Where is Bane, anyway? Usually he's back by now. Maybe he's avoiding John, which is a mortifying thought. Maybe John completely misread him. Maybe he's angry that John basically seduced him. God, if John could take back last night, he's not sure he wouldn't.

It's amazing how alone he feels without Bane here.

When the sky is dark enough he decides, glumly, to just go to bed and sleep off the rest of his aches, including the headache he's getting from thinking about Bane. He's just putting some food in Harvey's dish when it occurs to him that he hasn't seen her all afternoon.

He checks under the desk, the bed, under every couch and chair. He tests each locked cupboard. “Harvey?” he calls, feeling stupid. Of course cats don't know their own names. Do they? Harvey can't, surely, she's only a baby. “Here, kitty,” he tries awkwardly, and that's even worse. Anyway, if she's nearby, she doesn't respond to either.

He and Barsad must have left the door open this morning. He heads out onto the stairs, shoulders past a guard who only stares at him warily. John sees why when he reaches the living room. Basir and one of the other men are there, playing a quiet game of awale.

“Going somewhere?” Basir asks shrewdly.

Do they think he's going to try to escape while Bane is gone? Did Barsad tell them to be here? John pushes these thoughts out of mind.

“Have you seen a cat?” he asks. “About ... this big, missing half its fur?”

Basir just stares at him. His companion mutters something in his own language, probably calling John crazy.

“Okay, well, if you do,” John mutters, and goes back to the bedroom.

Even though he doesn't feel very good about it, he leaves the bedroom door open before he goes to bed. Just in case Harvey comes back. When John finally gets to sleep some time after midnight, though, it's not Harvey who's weighing on his mind.

Where the hell is Bane?

 

*
John is woken in the early hours of the morning by a thready little cry. It puts him instantly on the alert. He's still a cop, whatever that means in this city. It sounded like a child's scream.

He slides out of bed quickly, pulls on some clothes, and heads up the stairs, glad now that he left the door open. The guard usually posted at the top of the landing in the doorway to the living room is absent. John wanders out to the hall, and eventually, in one of the other rooms, he finds a cluster of men standing around. A couple are on hands and knees next to a couch.

One of the men notices John there, nudges his companion, and says, “He'll know where Bane is.”

“Hey,” the man says, looking curiously at John. “We're looking for the boss-guy.”

“He's not here,” John says. “What are you doing?”

There's another sudden scream, and one of the men next to the couch leaps back, clutching a bleeding hand.

“I almost had the fucking thing,” he spits. Then he looks at John. “Who's that?”

There are only two men among the group wearing the red scarves that mark the mercenaries in Bane's army. One of them speaks up now. “He's no one.”

“No, I know him,” the bleeding man says, getting to his feet. He walks closer. He's huge, tattooed and menacing. John holds his ground. He's stood up to Bane. No one's really scary after that.

“Is that a cat under the couch?” he asks.

“I know you,” the man says. He's starting to bristle and swell with anger. “You're that fucking pig who put me in jail.”

“He's just a whore,” the mercenary interjects again. “He belongs to Bane.”

“I don't care who he belongs to. He's a fucking pig.”

Another screech. John looks at the man stooped down next to the couch, groping underneath. “What the hell are you doing?”

“What do you care?” the tattooed man demands. He spits on the floor at John's feet, and says, “Gonna arrest us for animal cruelty?”

“I don't know you,” John says to him, with a touch of impatience—even though, yeah, the guy does look vaguely familiar. A drug dealer, maybe? He swallows his unease, and says to the man next to the couch, “Leave the fucking cat alone.”

“Someone get this brat outta here,” one of them grumbles.

“Hey, look at me, pig!” Tattoos barks, lifting a hand to shove at John.

John's reaction is purely instinctive. He's still half asleep and he only sees the guy coming at him from the corner of his eye, because he's focused on the couch, and for one second he thinks it's Barsad and that they're sparring. He grabs the guy's arm, uses his own momentum to send him barreling past and trips him in the same motion. Tattoos hits the floor hard.

One of the other guys chuckles and says to the mercenary in a voice thick with phlegm, “You still think he's just a whore?”

Two of the others, though, are coming at John angrily, and now he's pissed, too. He blocks the first punch, kicks the man's knees out from under him; elbows the second in the soft pit of his stomach, grabs a handful of hair and slams him face-first onto the nearest decorative table when he doubles over. He thinks of what Bane said—singular, crippling precision blows. When one of them gets back up, John hits him in the throat and he drops, choking.

The others aren't laughing anymore. They come at him purposefully, and John's confidence wavers.

He goes down fighting. He puts two more on the floor before he feels the knife, missing his chest by inches and landing in his arm. He yells when it's yanked out again without ceremony, instantly soaking his shirt with blood, and then someone's meaty arm is around his neck, cutting off his airway, dragging him to the floor.

He's beaten and he knows it. Before he can wriggle out of the headlock, before he can even try to use his opponent's weight against him, Tattoos is on his legs, pinning him down, his face fixed in a snarl. He's holding the bloody knife.

Barsad drops on them silently.

John feels the arm around his neck go slack just as black spots start to dance in front of his eyes, and then the assassin is among them, grim and efficient and fast, faster than John can ever hope to be. The two mercenaries back down immediately, but the conscripts don't recognize Barsad, and they attack him all at once. Barsad seems to react to all of them simultaneously, piling them into each other when he can, ducking blows, and it comes to John that Barsad reminds him, of all things, of old footage of the Batman.

The snarling tattooed one comes back for John, and even though John is half blinded by pain, he rallies enough to knock the wind out of the thug, to stave off a knifing for another few seconds. There is little defense to be had against a knife once it's already descending; Barsad taught him that. He waits for the man to raise his arm, and it seems almost absurdly easy to snap his wrist, so much that John actually recoils for a second, surprised at himself. Tattoos howls, dropping the knife, and John swiftly smashes his knees so that he drops to the floor. Then he pounces on the knife.

When he gets up, panting, Barsad is standing there amid the groaning bodies of his victims. He stares at John, his eyes sharp and cold.

“Are you going to kill him?” he asks.

John looks down at the man at his feet, who is cradling his wrist and moaning softly. He looks back up at Barsad and shakes his head mutely, tossing the knife aside.

Barsad stoops and picks up the knife. Then, in one ferocious lunge, he sends the knife point-first through the man's eye and into his skull. The sound this makes burns itself into John's brain.

Barsad wipes the blade on the body's clothes.

“I told you to keep your innocence,” he says to John. “Not to be a fool.” To the two abashed mercenaries, he says, “Tie them up, and then wait with them for Bane to return.”

They obey silently. John turns to go, humiliated and in pain, but Barsad catches his shoulder.

“Go back to the bedroom,” he says. “I'll be there to fix your arm.”

John nods. Before he leaves the room, he crouches down next to the couch and peers underneath it to take a look at the huddled form underneath. At the sound of his voice, Harvey moves a little closer, just enough that he can reach her scruff and pull her out carefully. She goes limp in his hands, eyes closed, shivering fearfully. To his relief, she doesn't seem to be hurt. Just terrified.

In the bedroom, he takes a seat on a couch with Harvey tucked into his shirt. Barsad is there shortly, carrying with him a small bag. He sits next to John and opens it, taking out a cotton pad, onto which he pours what smells like alcohol.

“This will sting,” he warns John, rolling up John's sleeve. John nods again, and Barsad starts cleaning the wound.

It stings a lot. John nearly bites through his tongue trying not to make a sound.

To distract himself, he clenches his teeth and asks, “Are you a doctor?” In the time that he's been here, it's been Barsad who's seen to all his injuries. Barsad shakes his head.

“A medic of sorts. I've been stitching men up for a long time, don't worry.”

“I'm not,” John says.

“You're lucky. The arm is a good place to be stabbed, if you're going to be stabbed. This will heal.”

When Barsad is satisfied that the wound is clean and sterile, he pulls out a disposable syringe in a plastic cover. With this he draws some liquid out of a vial, and injects it into John's arm without fanfare. That hurts, too. By the time Barsad has thrown away the syringe and started laying out his tools, though, John's arm is starting to go curiously numb. After a few minutes Barsad pinches his arm, is satisfied with his lack of reaction, and starts stitching. There's a sharp, uncomfortable pressure every time the needle punctures John's skin. He tries very hard to tune it out.

They're both silent for a long time. John tries to think of something to say, and keeps coming up blank. It still feels like he's in trouble for something. Briefly, he has the insane thought that Barsad is jealous of him. But that can't be—Barsad is straight, was married. Of course, a few months ago John would have called himself as straight as an arrow. Still, Barsad doesn't seem interested in men that way. Doesn't seem interested in anyone, really.

Starting to recover, Harvey wriggles her way out of John's shirt. John pets her before she jumps down off the couch, and says to her, “No leaving the bedroom anymore.”

Dryly, Barsad says, “Now you know how I feel.”

He catches John's eye and smiles, just a bit. Then his smile disappears and he lowers his gaze again, businesslike.

“Did he hurt you, the past night?”

John knows who he's talking about. His face warms, and he forces himself to think about it. “No,” he says carefully. “Not ... on purpose, I think.”

“No.” Barsad touches his wrist lightly, where the binding had been. “Not always on purpose.” He meets John's eyes again. “As long as you know that.”

“It won't happen again,” John says quickly. “Really, it was ... a one-off.”

Barsad's eyebrows furrow.

“Uh,” John says. “Like ... a one-time thing. Not going to happen again.”

Barsad looks exasperated. “You know English is one of my first languages,” he says, “don't you?”

“Oh.” John's face heats up even more.

“I was merely skeptical.” Barsad pauses in his stitching to wipe away some more blood. “Does Bane know that this was a ... one-off?”

“Yeah,” John says. And then he thinks about it. “I mean, I think he does. I'm pretty sure.”

“Bane has a very long attention span. Perhaps a one-off satisfied your curiosity, but you will have only piqued his.”

“I don't know,” John says slowly. His stomach gives a little flip; part queasiness, part adrenaline.

“You're quite distracting to him. It worries me.” Barsad is quiet again for a few minutes. John has no idea what to say in response to that. Finally, Barsad says, “You did well. Just now.”

“They beat me,” John says, still smarting over it.

“I was watching. You did well. There were seven of them, and only one of you.”

“You beat them,” John points out.

Barsad smiles thinly. “I have many years of fighting under my belt. You have some training as a police officer and a couple months of lessons with me. You're my best pupil, if that helps.”

“Really?” John says again, perking up. It does help.

“Not my most accomplished,” says Barsad fairly. “But certainly the fastest learner.”

“Thanks.”

He lets Barsad work in silence for a while longer. When Barsad has finished stitching, he starts bandaging the wound diligently.

“There,” he says when he's done. He packs away his things and stands, giving John a quick pat on the shoulder. “Stay in here today. And get some more sleep if you can. You'll need your strength.”

“What for?”

“Bane will be back soon.” Just before Barsad leaves, he looks back at John and smiles with his eyes, the way Bane does. “Then, you can tell him it was a one-off.”

 

***
Circumstances keep Bane at City Hall overnight. It's upsetting, because he's already itching to touch Blake's body again.

Being at City Hall makes him feel closer to Talia, but for once it's not a comfort. His instincts nag at him that he shouldn't have left Blake alone, even in Barsad's care. Blake is in no shape to take care of himself, not after what Bane did to him. More and more, he regrets leaving. Will Blake know it was duty that pulled him away, not a whim?

His own concern amuses him, when he thinks about it. He's curiously fond of Blake. It's an interesting feeling. It's different from his love for Talia. Surveying Blake's body the next morning, mottled with bruises, he'd felt a tinge of guilt. He hadn't felt that when he'd dislocated Blake's shoulder or sprained his wrist, even though he hadn't meant to do those things either. Blake does strange things to him.

When at last he returns to the tower, it's with a foreboding sense of having been proven right. There's a cluster of men on the street outside the doors. Nadeem is barring the way: standing across from him, James Gordon.

“Take me to Bane,” Gordon is shouting. Rallied around him are some pistol-wielding men, presumably part of the resistance, and they guard five men who Bane recognizes as his own. Hostages, he surmises, intrigued. His own men are flocked around the doors, rifles trained on the policemen.

They relax when they see Bane walking up. He waves a hand, and they lower their weapons. The cops, swiveling to face him, do not. He recognizes one as the police officer he let go: the man's hands are shaking.

“Ex-Commissioner Gordon,” Bane says congenially, bringing his hands up to clasp the straps of his vest. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”

“You know damn well what we want,” Gordon says hotly. When Bane simply raises his eyebrows, Gordon says, “John Blake, Bane. Bring him here!”

Bane squints up at the high-rise, affecting disinterest. “Blake is otherwise occupied.”

“We're not playing games here!” Gordon barks. “We took five of your men as hostages. They've been treated well. That's more than you can say for Blake. I want an exchange, these five for my man.”

Bane looks at his men. Their hands are tied behind their backs and each bears an expression of stoicism. They won't have told Gordon anything, if he bothered to interrogate them. Bane gives them a nod of faint praise, then looks up to the rooftop of the opposite building, where he knows Barsad will already be in place with a few others. He raises a hand.

Barsad is the best sharpshooter in Bane's army; he doesn't miss. Five cracks of gunfire split the street and the cops lunge to cover Gordon. It's the hostages who fall, a bloody bullethole in each man's head, one after the other without a sound or struggle.

“I have many more men,” Bane says, turning back to Gordon, who is warily lowering an arm away from his face. “I have only one of Blake. I find your offer unsatisfactory and I decline.”

“Are you going to kill us?” Gordon demands.

“Kill you?” says Bane, with an expression of incredulity. “To do so would make you a martyr, Gordon. Of course not. I intend to let you leave, with your tail between your legs.”

Gordon does. He has no choice. Bane lets his hands drop away from his vest and watches the cops straggle away empty-handed.

“Clean these up,” he says to no one in particular, nudging a corpse with the toe of his boot. Several men move to obey at once.

He's still watching the retreating cops when Barsad appears at his side, rifle slung over his shoulder.

“What did they want?”

“Blake,” says Bane. He turns and enters the building. “I need to see him.”

“There was some trouble this morning,” Barsad says, keeping pace with him. “He was involved.”

As he says this, another wave of concern rolls over Bane. He growls, pushing Barsad impatiently out of the way. “Move.”

Barsad follows him into the elevator despite this indication of Bane's mood. He presses the button to ascend, then says, “Some of the men took advantage of your absence to take liberties with him.”

Bane is practically snarling with impatience as the elevator glides serenely past each floor. “Is he hurt?”

“He fought well,” Barsad says. “I was in another room; I was there within seconds. He's a little scraped—and a little shaken, I think. He took a knife to the arm. But he did well, considering how many there were.”

“Where are they now?”

“Upstairs. I killed the one who knifed him.”

It's more of an effort to drag each breath into his lungs when Bane is breathing hard like this, enraged. He shouldn't have left. He should have known the animals that surround him would try to despoil Blake.

There are six battered-looking men bound and gagged on their knees on the living room floor when Bane steps off the elevator. Four are Blackgate conscripts, but two are Bane's own men. “Bring any man you can find here,” Bane orders Barsad, who nods.

Forcing himself to take calming breaths, Bane walks past the prisoners and down the steps to the bedroom. He finds Blake lying on one of the couches with a book in hand, the kitten asleep on his belly.

“Hey,” Blake says warily, looking up. “Welcome back.”

A bruise circles one of his eyes; another has bloomed over his jaw. Bane didn't put those there. He clenches his fists repeatedly, and can tell by the way Blake shies from him slightly that he's starting to frighten the detective.

He turns and starts to head back up the stairs.

“Hey—wait, wait!” Blake is up, dumping the kitten on the couch and sprinting after him. There's a stiffness in his stride that would otherwise have given Bane satisfaction. He gets in Bane's way. “You don't have to kill them.”

“They hurt you.”

“Yeah, not as much as you did.”

Bane bats him aside angrily. He doesn't need the reminder. “Men like that never learn. Death is the only thing that stops them.”

“Look,” Blake says, forcing himself into Bane's path again, “you're a killer, I get that, it's who you are. But you kill those guys, then you're killing them for me. I don't want to be dragged into this.”

“They dragged you into it.”

“I know this is what Talia would have asked you do to,” Blake says, grabbing his arm. “But I'm not Talia. Okay?”

He glares up into Bane's face, reckless and proud and stubborn. Bane lifts a hand, hesitates, then touches his thumb to the dark bruise under Blake's eye gingerly. Blake's eyelids flutter shut for a moment, his tongue appearing to wet his lips.

“I didn't mean to hurt you,” Bane says.

“I know you didn't.”

He presses his thumb to the corner of Blake's mouth, just for a moment. Blake's lips are slightly chapped, but soft, prettily shaped. If Bane were at all a sentimental man—

He pushes that thought out of mind, gently moves Blake out of his way and heads up the stairs. Blake follows him.

Barsad has rounded up every nearby man. Bane doesn't waste time on pleasantries.

“Some of you are having trouble understanding what belongs to me.” Every eye in the room is fixed on him. Bane lets the sound of his forced breathing fill the silence for a moment before he continues coolly, “John Blake is mine.”

He has a hand at the small of Blake's back. He can feel Blake looking up at him, uncertain.

“He belongs to me.” Bane moves his hand from Blake's back to his shoulder. With one swift push, he shoves Blake onto his knees at Bane's side. Blake makes a sharp, startled sound when his knees hit the floor. “He submits only to me,” Bane growls.

“Fuck you,” Blake hisses, trying to struggle upright.

“Only I may touch him.” Bane lets go of Blake and strolls forward. Men fall back, while behind him, he hears Blake scramble to his feet, breathing hard. “If you lay a hand on him ...”

Bane stops in front of one of the prisoners. He hoists the man to his feet and slashes his bonds.

“Be prepared to lose that hand,” he finishes, and with one hand he grinds the man's bones into splintery pulp. The man howls, and crumples to the floor when Bane does the same to the other hand. He writhes there, screaming in pain.

Bane turns.

“Do we understand now?”

There's an immediate rumble of assent.

“Do the same to the rest of them,” Bane tells Barsad, gesturing to the prisoners. Barsad nods, and goes forward to do his business. As the sound of crunching bones and screaming (“Please, fuck, I didn't know!”) fills the room, Blake vanishes back into the bedroom.

The other men trickle out, as well. Bane stays to watch the punishment carried out. Once it's done, he follows Blake to the bedroom, orders the guards away, and closes the door behind him.

Blake is seated on the couch, petting his cat.

“Thanks a lot for that,” he snaps, sardonic and angry. “That's really gonna make them respect me.”

Bane walks to him. The cat leaps off the couch, bristling, and runs for cover. Sensible creature. Bane doesn't falter; he drags Blake up off the couch and picks him up, backing him into the wall with a thud. Blake yelps, shoving at his chest.

“What the hell are you doing?”

Bane just growls, and presses the mask to Blake's neck.

Blake falls tense and unusually silent, and allows Bane to keep his face there, breathing in and pretending he can smell Blake's warm skin. It's easy to hold Blake up with one arm; Bane takes the other away and shoves a hand up under his shirt, spreading his fingers over Blake's chest to feel his heartbeat. Blake tries to lean away, has nowhere to go, and submits to this touch, panting. Bane wishes his mouth were free, just for a moment, so that he could bite a ring of possessive marks around Blake's neck to claim him.

At last, he pulls his hand away and lifts his head.

“They will never respect you,” he says. “It doesn't matter how much you learn from Barsad. If you refuse to kill your enemies, you will always have a dozen at your back.”

“I'm not a killer,” says Blake steadily.

“Then they will never fear you. Yesterday there were seven, and Barsad was there to pull them off you. What if he isn't there tomorrow, when there are ten? You may dislike it, but until you are willing to protect yourself properly, the best way I can protect you is to claim you.”

“So I'm your prison bitch now?”

Bane backs away from the wall, walks him to the bed and tosses him onto it when he's close enough. Blake sits upright, glaring, but a second later Bane is there, crawling over him, pressing him flat with one hand on his chest.

“You can't—” Blake squirms. “I—hey, stop for a second!” Bane does, and Blake, pulling in quick breaths, says, “I'm still sore, I thought—I thought the other night was a ... one-time thing.”

Bane sits back. Blake's face is flushed; he determinedly avoids Bane's gaze.

“I see,” says Bane.

“I didn't think... It took you like an hour to come. You really want to do it again?”

“Not if you're so unwilling,” Bane says bitingly.

“Hey, I didn't hate it,” Blake says, struggling to sit up while Bane is still straddling him. “I'm just—that's the first time I've ever done that, okay? It was a lot to handle. I just need some recovery time.”

“I don't want to hurt you,” Bane says. But some of his irritation leaves him at the earnestness in Blake's tone, and he says, “May I touch you?”

Blake stares at him like he can't believe Bane is asking this after grabbing him up and pinning him against a wall and throwing him onto the bed. Then Bane rolls a hand lightly over Blake's crotch, and he shivers.

“You are safe here,” Bane says firmly.

“Okay,” Blake says softly. “Just go easy.”

Bane makes him lie there while he takes off his own coat and boots, then he strips Blake of every scrap of clothing. Blake is still trying to be annoyed, and he's amusingly bashful when Bane is clothed and he's not. Bane hates the bandage on his arm. He examines it, then rolls Blake onto his belly, ignoring the way Blake instinctively moves away from his touch.

“Let me see,” Bane admonishes. Blake hides his face in the sheets, and Bane pries his legs apart carefully. His hole is red and abused.

“You were right. The guards heard us,” Blake says petulantly, muffled in the sheets. “Your friends are real nice. They told Barsad to take off my pants and stitch me up.”

He's trying to sound cool, but it doesn't work. Bane trails a hand down his spine several times. “You should have stayed in my room,” he says, regretting that Blake was so humiliated.

“I was hungry.” With his face still buried, Blake doesn't see Bane reaching for the lube. “You know, Barsad warned me not to seduce you.”

“Barsad is a mother hen.” Bane slicks one finger, stretching himself out over Blake's back; then he traces it around Blake's hole.

Blake squirms away at once, trying to twist over. “Stop. I can't,” he says, trying to use his stern police voice. He's about as intimidating as a small dog.

“Relax,” Bane says impatiently. “I said I wouldn't hurt you.”

Blake searches his face carefully, what little he can see of it.

“Okay,” he says at last. And he lies back down.

Bane understands, suddenly, that he is being entrusted with something precious. He strokes Blake's back a few more times.

“Relax,” he says again.

He slides his finger in slowly. Blake makes a soft sound underneath him.

“In the pit,” Bane says quietly, close to Blake's ear, “men were expected to live out the rest of their lives with only one another for company. If you were small and soft ... if you showed weakness ... then you were less than a man, and treated as such. Sometimes a prisoner knew how he would fare, and he would take it upon himself to seek out a protector, or else a man might claim him, offer protection in exchange for the ignominy of being called his wife.”

“Is that what I am?” Blake asks, his ears pink, eyes half closed. Bane eases a second finger in and hushes him.

“I grew up to the sound of those men being claimed nightly,” he continues. “A man could do as he pleased with his wife. He had the power to make him scream out in pain ... or, sometimes, to make him sing with pleasure ...”

He knows he's doing this correctly when the tips of his fingers come across a small knot inside Blake's body, and it makes him shudder and mewl like a wounded animal, his hands clenching up fistfuls of the sheets.

Ah—”

“Every man in the pit would have wanted you,” Bane says. “They would have lined up to take you.”

“What—what would you have done about it?” Blake puffs out, caught between shying away from Bane's fingers and pressing himself back onto them.

“I'd have fought every last one of them to the death,” Bane says darkly, “and I'd have rutted you in the drying pools of their blood.”

Blake manages a weak laugh. “Romantic.”

Bane strokes again, and Blake arches his back with another full-body shiver.

“God,” he gasps, mouth falling open. He falls limp, trembling, when Bane does it again. “Fuck ...”

“You are not my wife,” Bane says in his ear. “But you do belong to me. Know that.”

Blake makes little gasping, ragged sounds, clenching and squirming around Bane's fingers. Bane goes as slowly and carefully as he can, letting the pads of his fingers skirt around that spot over and over. Blake's sensitivity is a surprise; he's afraid of accidentally hurting him again. So he skims and teases and watches how Blake reacts, how his body flushes all over and he arches back into Bane's touch and then flinches away. He claws up handfuls of bedding, muffles his moans in the sheets.

“Does that feel good?” Bane asks.

“God, I don't know.” Blake has his eyes squeezed shut. He rocks against the sheets, trying to find friction, and Bane realizes he must be erect. “Feels ... ahh ...”

One last twisting stroke of Bane's fingers and Blake arches again, shuddering against him with a strangled shout. He pulls away from Bane almost at once, gasping. Satisfied with this reaction, Bane slips a hand into his own pants, strokes himself for a bit, and then just watches Blake.

When he's recovered, stretched out flat on his belly, Blake rests his cheek on one of the pillows. His eyes are wet; he's beautiful. For the second time that day Bane wishes he could kiss him, and he's almost glad the mask is there to prevent him, so that he wouldn't have to see Blake flinch away. The exchange of pleasure is a simple dance that even Bane can navigate, but such intimacy is more complicated.

He lets his thumb brush Blake's eyelashes. Blake rouses himself.

“I'd still stop you from destroying Gotham if I could,” he says.

“I know that your allegiance hasn't changed.”

“You can't just fuck me into being on your side.”

“I would be disappointed in you if I could.”

Blake pauses, as though there's something he's gathering himself to say. What comes out after a moment, though, is, “I think Barsad's your wife.”

Amused, Bane rolls him over onto his back, just because he can. “He would hurt you badly if he heard you say so.”

Blake chuckles, pulling his own mask back on. “Can I have my clothes back now?”

“No. I prefer you this way.”

Blake punches him in the stomach. Bane almost sort of feels it.

 

***
It's sad, in hindsight, that once Bane teaches John the pleasure that can come with being receptive, they only have three days together to enjoy it.

 

*
The routine changes.

In the morning, John wakes up (usually well after Bane has gotten up and left), showers, has a quick meal, and spends the rest of the morning working on jujutsu with Barsad, struggling pathetically to overcome his soreness from the nights previous. Barsad is patient, fortunately. John asks him outright one morning if he's the triggerman, just to feel like he's still doing something for his team. Barsad smiles.

“The trigger is in the hands of a citizen of Gotham. I'm the next biggest target to Bane. Why would I have it?”

This is how John finally surmises that the trigger is actually not in the tower at all. He could scream in frustration.

The thing is, he's not even trying to escape.

The guards leer at him. Bane's men ridicule him when he limps out to the roof with Barsad, laugh about Bane punishing him for getting himself knifed. But he doesn't want to try to leave. He's not afraid of hurting Bane's feelings, or anything. It's not that. He thinks Bane would understand if John had the chance to escape, and took it.

He's just ... actually, fairly content where he is. And more importantly, he feels ... safe with Bane. He says to himself that he's still gathering intelligence, that this is not Stockholm syndrome, he does not empathize with Bane or have any desire to see his plan acted out. He's just not getting the kind of intelligence that Gordon might find useful—and he's definitely not employing any methods of questioning that the GPD would consider above the board.

The afternoon is spent alone with Harvey and his books. Evening and night belong to Bane.

He and Bane spend a lot of time talking, over those three days. Harvey grows so accustomed to it that she's able to sit in John's lap while they talk as long as Bane is a comfortable distance away; but he soon finds that Bane prefers to be on the bed with John's head in his lap. It's a terrifying position to be in, at first. There's something awfully vulnerable about prostrating himself like that. But it's a little late by now to get shy; and he very quickly starts to find it—comforting, rather than scary. He realizes very soon that Bane has all these little fascinations that he can't seem to get enough of: John's mouth, and the reassuring rhythm of his heartbeat, and his hair. He likes to stroke his fingers through John's hair over and over as if he's a lapdog. It's strangely soothing.

And he likes to hear John talk. He asks question after question until John's answers start to bleed together into an exhaustive unbroken narrative, until he loses breath and trails off, and Bane asks him a new one.

John tells him about growing up in Gotham. He tells Bane about his father and the constant struggle to make ends meet and the murder that made an orphan out of him. He tells Bane more about the foster homes, how people oozed sympathy and compassion until John grew from a troubled kid to an angry, suddenly-not-so-cute teenager, and how the sympathy dried up fast. How he finally found a channel in beating up bullies, and decided it was only logical to make a career out of that.

He talks about the city's transformation under the combined influence of Batman and Harvey Dent. He talks about the police force and how maddening it is that nobody ever wants to listen to him, how he'd have gone nowhere if Gordon hadn't noticed him. He talks about growing up watching Batman on the news and only ever wanting to be like him. How all the other boys in the home revered Batman, sure, but only John knew what really drove him, and he cherished this small connection.

Bane listens, and pets him, and says nothing.

It's a while before he opens up, too, and John cracks him inadvertently. He offers to give Bane another massage, since he's getting tired of talking, and maybe this will relax Bane enough that he won't feel like having sex afterward. It sort of works, at first. After just a few minutes of this, all the tension is starting to seep out of Bane's massive frame. Then he starts to talk.

He'll only talk about the pit. John figures out why when he notices a pattern: Bane isn't lying, but he only tells John the things he thinks John will like to hear. It's sort of endearing, in a way. The pit is the only place where Bane considers he's ever been a good man, so it's the only part of his life he'll reveal to John.

It amounts to a lot of talk about Talia. Contrary to what he expects, John finds that it's not quickly tiring. Barsad was right: Bane is not in love with Talia. He loves her, in the all-consuming way that a parent loves their own child. No parent could love a child more than Bane loves Talia. He doesn't have to say it—it's in his voice when he says her name, even mechanized and warped by the mask.

John learns that when Bane says he was born in the pit, he's being figurative. Bane was sent down into the pit before his memory reaches to live out the life sentence of a father he didn't know, for a crime Bane didn't commit. He was raised by guards, inasmuch as they gave him food and water and clothing. They kept him apart from the prison populace, to protect him, but this meant he was left alone in a cell for much of the day, without human touch or company, just the elusive circle of blue sky above. He was integrated before he was ten, by which age he could stab and maim any man who sought to take advantage of him. He grew up having no friends in the pit, no knowledge of the outside world except what other prisoners could tell him, and little interest in this. He could fight and kill and read and meditate and these four things took up most of his life.

And then (he says, and his tone changes so suddenly that John, who's completely forgotten what he's doing, is startled out of the pit and back to reality for a moment) there was Talia's mother. She was beautiful. She was locked away from the general population. Bane would sit next to the bars of her cell and he came to know her and Talia this way. And when their cell door was left unlocked by the guards, and the men stormed in like animals, it was Bane who swept in and gathered Talia into his arms. It was Bane who raised Talia with as much knowledge of the world as he could impart, instructing her in how to defend herself, bartering with other prisoners in exchange for them teaching Talia to speak their tongues, so that she would have the best chance possible on the outside when he was able to free her.

He stops abruptly. John waits for him to keep going, but he doesn't.

“You did it,” John prompts gently. “You saved her.”

“Yes,” Bane says.

He's quiet again. John waits.

Then Bane rolls over carefully, and John moves aside. “There are many nights when I dream I'm there,” Bane says slowly, “in the dark, without her ... in agony every second of the day. I can barely walk or move ... I can't speak, even to beg for a blade between my ribs. And I don't know if she is alive or dead.”

I have no mouth, and I must scream,” John says softly.

Bane looks at him sharply, with so much wretched understanding reflected in his eyes that it does something funny to John's chest, just then.

Panic ignites itself a second later, like the thrashing of bird wings against his ribs. What are they doing here? What right does Bane have to humanize himself to John like this? Why is John even listening to him? Nothing he says excuses the crimes he's committed; saving one child's life does not account for the no-doubt hundreds he's taken...

Bane rests on a hand on his chest, where John's heart beats. John takes a deep breath, feeling calm steal over him.

Then Bane is moving away, and saying speculatively, “Why do you continue to visit the boys' home?”, and John understands that Bane is done talking about himself.

Bane notes one day that the book John is rereading, about a boy and a tiger lost at sea together, is an adequate metaphor for John's own situation, and this strikes John as not untrue. He is not Bane's friend, nor has he tamed or changed him. It was always in Bane to develop something of a blind spot for John; that's why Talia gave John to him, not that she would understand that. John's morals make him a rarity in Bane's world. They make him, somehow, innocent.

Bane likes innocent things. Unlike Talia, he never outgrew this quality.

 

*
They talk in the evening. At night, they fuck.

Having been introduced to his prostate, John is determined to make better acquaintance with it. He should say no, because every night he's still sore from the last time. He tries to put it off, to satisfy Bane with hands and mouth first, so that he can still indulge his own curiosity. But then Bane wants to touch him, and it makes John so insanely hard and wanting that he can't stop himself.

Bane seems to derive endless entertainment from the fact that John is so much smaller and lighter than him, and yet still fights him for dominance. Maybe because he's surrounded by so many die-hard followers—any of Bane's men, if ordered, would submit to him; probably even Barsad, unless he were ordered to put up a good fight (and that would be something to see). Bane gives over at first; he lets John get on top and ride him, patient and indulgent while John gasps and winces through it. Once John adjusts, he finds a good rhythm, figures out how to twist his hips just so every time he fucks down onto Bane's cock so that the head strokes his prostate deliciously. It's usually not long after his first orgasm that Bane gets bored of letting John take the lead, flips him over onto his back and starts pounding him into the mattress, no matter how John struggles and fights him. (If John's being honest, he does it just for the thrill of being held down.)

No one had to teach Bane how to fuck. John's no judge of gay sex, but he'd say they're doing pretty damn good. Bane alternates deep and painful with short and quick thrusts, and he mimics John's movements to bring himself into contact with John's prostate, milking it relentlessly once he's found it. There's usually a lot of tears and sweat and groaning and a second orgasm by the time Bane is near to spending himself.

He shoves John around because it pleases him, covers John's body in bruises, leaves him wrung out and positively glowing with pain every night. John should be running for the hills, screaming all the way.

And still, he stays right where he is.

(Every now and then, of course, he has a little crisis and remembers exactly what he's doing. Lots of guys enjoy a little ass-play, but there is definitely no justifiable excuse for letting an insane terrorist fuck him every night. “I'm not into guys,” John says lamely one night; and Bane, balls-deep inside him already and holding John's wrists above his head, only laughs at him and says, “Does it matter, when your body accommodates me so nicely either way?”

“Just barely,” John gasps.)

For three nights they do this. The mask doesn't come off again. Bane knows what to expect now, and he controls his breathing as he fucks John. There's no temptation to attack him, even if John had the will. They're way past that point now.

They're almost ... comfortable. And their situation could have gone on indefinitely; but it changes again abruptly.

The night before John gets shot, he's woken from a deep, sound coma by Bane suddenly pulling him close with a guttural animal sound, mantling over him like a dog over a bone. Then he relaxes, his grip on John not so urgent.

“I see you found some use for him,” a voice in the dark says, sweet and accented. “Hello, John.”

It's Talia, perched at the edge of the bed. Panic tears through John. He opens his mouth to speak, and suddenly Bane's hand slides over his throat, squeezing just hard enough to cut off airflow. He's still looking at Talia.

“Are you pleased?”

“Very,” she whispers. When John focuses on her, there are actual tears in her eyes. “I knew he would be good for you. Didn't I?”

Bane releases John. He gulps air soundlessly, understanding that this was a warning not to speak. He still shoves at Bane angrily for it. Bane sits up, easily trapping John's wrists and pinning him down at his side.

“Why are you here?”

“I wanted to see you ... and John. Gordon misses you,” she says to John. His chest gives a pang. “But he forgets you more every day. Help isn't coming for you.”

She wants to see his reaction to this bit of hope being snuffed out. John looks away.

“He knows he isn't going anywhere,” Bane says dismissively. “He's been taught.”

“But he still hopes. Look at him.” She smiles at Bane, eyes glittering in the dark. “Would you take him right now? I want to see how prettily he squirms.”

Revulsion hits John hard. She really is different from Bane, for all that he claims their ideals are the same. John sees her now, as if for the first time. He could never see her through Bane's eyes. She's sick. Ugly. The monster is not the one holding him down. It's the one who smiles so beautifully at him now, as if he's a child in need of comfort.

If ever Talia was innocent, then her innocence died a long time ago.

Bane lets go of him. John curls up immediately, bracing to defend himself, but Bane doesn't touch him again.

“I've had him already tonight,” he says dismissively. “He needs to be used sparingly. Otherwise I'll damage him, and have no use for him at all.”

“Maybe he needs to learn. Look how he resists you.”

Bane rolls out of bed suddenly, and starts pulling on his pants. “We can talk elsewhere. John Blake isn't going anywhere.”

They go up to the living room together, leaving John in the bed, unsettled and alone. Only then does he remember what Barsad said—she will want to see you damaged and afraid—and he knows he hasn't satisfied Talia yet. She may be pleased to see Bane, at long last, taking comfort from John; but it's not enough. She knows John isn't broken yet.

His mind works frantically. If Talia figures out the nature of his and Bane's relationship, he'll be dead. He knows it. She has some plan for him, and this is not it.

So what the hell happens now?

When Bane returns, alone, John says, “What did she say?”

“Nothing that concerns you.”

“She wanted you to fuck me in front of her. She wants you to break my spirit, and she knows you haven't. That concerns me.”

“You are mine to do with as I please,” Bane says carelessly as he gets back into bed. “She knows that.”

No,” John says impatiently. He finally understands why Barsad was trying to warn him. “I really don't think she's done.”

“Do you think Talia controls me?” Bane asks coolly.

“I think you're blind to how dangerous she is.”

“I know she's dangerous.”

“To me, Bane,” John says. Bane is silent, and John doesn't know how to voice his fears. I'm worried you can't protect me from her.

I'm worried you won't protect me from her.

“You have nothing to fear,” Bane says finally, “except the bomb.”

That's when John knows, and the knowledge settles in his stomach, a hard sickly knot. He has to get out of here.

 

*
The roof is the way to do it.

John wakes up in the middle of the night with this knowledge, rooted deep and sure inside him, and almost at once falls back into sleep.

The next time he wakes, it's in a warm, borderline smothering embrace. A tight fist strokes up and down his cock and John moans wantonly, his back arching. Bane's touch makes him shudder, but not the way it used to. He pushes helplessly into Bane's hot fist, aching for it, even though he came three times last night.

“Good,” Bane praises him, low and deep in his ear. John can feel the metal tubing and warm exhalations of the mask against the back of his neck. He presses himself back into Bane, relieved to find no erection there. Bane is touching him for the sake of John's pleasure, not his own.

“I think you overestimate my virility,” John says hoarsely. “Just because you can only come once a day ...”

“And yet your body aches for me every time.”

It's true. His balls are already swollen and throbbing with the need for release. He allows it; he gives in to it, with no reservations for once. This will be his last time with Bane, it's already decided. He may as well enjoy it. Bane uses the precome he's leaking copiously as slick, easing the drag of his palm. John curls up around his pillow, breathing hard, and it only takes an expert flick of the wrist for Bane to make him spurt onto the sheets. He shivers through it, all his soreness from the night before starting to seep back into his muscles.

Bane drags his fingers through the warm mess on the sheets, curious, and then brings his fingers to John's lips. John, half asleep, doesn't think about it in time; he parts his lips obediently, and the taste of his own come is a shock. He twists away. Bane pulls him down onto his back, patiently gathers some more onto his fingertips, and offers again. Equal parts repulsed and intrigued, John lets his tongue flicker out for another taste. It's not the worst. He opens his mouth reluctantly, and the look in Bane's eyes as John laps and sucks at his fingers is positively reverent.

John pushes away again, firm this time, and Bane lets him go.

“Sleep,” he says, swiping his clean thumb over John's eyebrow. “Don't think about last night. I'll be nearby.”

So he knows that Talia's visit rattled John. John just nods, watches him dress and leave. Harvey comes out of hiding to bat around a broken tennis ball John found.

He gets up and goes straight to the shower. He won't be able to fall asleep again, he knows that. He needs to think about how he's going to get out of here; the sooner the better.

The idea returns to him while he's washing away the remnants of last night: the roof. Before now he's considered the elevator to be the only way out of here, and even if the whole penthouse weren't guarded, the elevator always is.

There's no way down. It seems the only way out is up.

He waits for Barsad to collect him, and goes through training as normally as he can. Barsad is good about not remarking on his stiffer stride, even if he shows no mercy. When they're done, for once, John stays on the roof with him. Barsad seems surprised but doesn't comment. He sits with John and starts mending a couple tears in his vest with thread and needle from one of his many pockets. His fingers are nimble and dextrous; he stitches clothes as well as he does wounds. John is afraid to make even light conversation; afraid that as soon as he opens his mouth, Barsad will see his intentions and stop him.

When Barsad is done stitching, John half expects him to linger, maybe to practise his sharpshooting over the edge of the roof, as he sometimes does with the other men. Instead Barsad pulls his vest back on and heads back into the penthouse. Finally, John is alone.

He walks the entire perimeter of the roof, slowly, taking in every detail. Three of its four sides give way to sheer, dizzying drops—no escape to be had there. However, on the west side of the building, there's a fire escape lower down that he can drop on to, hopefully without breaking anything major. Below that, a second rooftop square over the lower adjacent building. Beyond that he can't see.

It's his best chance to escape Talia ... and Bane.

He takes a minute to sit down and really think about what he's doing. What does he know? Bane doesn't love him. For all John knows, Bane is going to come after him as soon as he's free, and kill him.

Or maybe Bane will be hurt. Maybe he'll miss John.

Maybe John will miss him, too.

“Idiot,” he mutters, forcing himself to stand up. It's time to leave. He's not safe here anymore, and he needs to look out for himself. This is a reckless plan, a foolish and dangerous one, because the risk of injury is so great, and the chance of actual escape so slim. It took the very real threat of Talia to drive him to this. He'll take his chance.

His lower body aches profoundly when he slides one leg over the edge of the roof. He has to stop thinking about Bane. A tiny, selfish part of him acknowledges that he would rather wait out the rest of his limited days here—in the warm bed where Bane takes him apart nightly and then curls up around him in sleep—than out there, in the cold, sharing space with a dozen other men, fighting futilely against the clock. He's ashamed of that part of himself, however small it is.

At Gordon's side, that's where he belongs. Not Bane's.

He settles himself on the roof edge, legs dangling, looking down at the fire escape. It's a long way down. His legs hurt from the way Bane had stretched them apart last night and forced himself between them. God, the ache had felt so good.

He takes a few deep breaths. Boy Wonder, his partner Ross used to call him, always willing to do the most reckless thing possible. This is reckless. This definitely counts as reckless.

Just as he's preparing to jump, Ekene's voice behind him nearly scares the life out of him.

“Hey, little spitfire!”

John is still trying to calm his racing heart when Ekene drops onto the ledge at his side, lighting up a cigarette.

“You want one?” he asks companionably.

“No thanks,” John says, relaxing. Ekene either doesn't know or doesn't care that he was about to jump. The mercenary looks down at the fire escape and whistles through his teeth.

“Long way down. Break your damn legs trying to jump that.”

Maybe he guesses. “Yeah,” John says. “Probably.” He sits back a bit. “Barsad send you up here to keep an eye on me?”

Ekene scoffs. “What, I can't have my own reasons for keeping an eye on the boss's fucktoy? You keep Bane in a good mood. We're all making sure you don't get knifed again.”

“Right,” says John.

Ekene smokes in contented silence. Just when he flicks the cigarette stub off the roof and John thinks he's about to leave, he instead thumps John's shoulder amiably, nearly toppling him off the ledge altogether.

“Come on, spitfire,” he says. “Show me if you can kick my ass yet.”

John gets up resignedly. He can make the jump later.

It turns out to be a good thing that Ekene is there. John is squared off with him, raising his hands, ready to give him a good fight, when he notices the figure lurking next to the door to the stairwell. Startled, he thinks for a moment that it's the tattooed brute who put a knife in his arm, but there are no tattoos on this man, though he looks very similar. John straightens up, lowering his hands warily.

All becomes clear when the man snarls, “Hey, bitch. You got my brother killed.”

Then he shoots John in the stomach.

John crumples up and hits the ground.

He's never been shot before. It bites deep, deep and hot, and then it's surprisingly numb. Winded, stunned, he lies there.

It's Ekene who saves him. The younger mercenary draws his own gun, lightning fast, and shoots twice. Then he drops down to John's side and feels for a pulse.

“Shit! Shit!” he keeps saying in a strangled voice. He lets out a rapid stream of words in his own language, panicky, then says, “Stay there, hey, don't move, I'll get Barsad—”

But Barsad is there in an instant, shouldering through the door. He looks down at the dead conscript and then at John, and bounds over.

“Get Bane,” he says to Ekene, dropping to his knees.

Ekene scrambles up and dashes off, and Barsad starts working the scarf loose from around his neck. He wads it up and presses it against John's wound, much harder than necessary, in John's opinion. The pain returns, hot and blinding, and he opens his mouth, but only a feeble cry comes out.

“Breathe from your stomach,” Barsad says, bringing him back to his senses. John looks at him desperately, and realizes he's panting rapidly through his mouth. “Deep breath. Breathe with me. Now—”

John struggles, manages to take a single, slow breath from his abdomen.

“Good boy.”

A sudden wave of shivers wracks John. Barsad holds him down, and John panics, gasping, trying to push him away. He wants, foolishly, to just curl up and wait for the pain to go away. Then Barsad says, very steadily, “You know what to do, John.”

It's the first time he's ever used John's name when speaking to him. For some reason, it's that which calms John, just long enough for him to take another deep breath and understand what Barsad means. He knows what to do. He's a cop. He knows first aid. He has to lie still and let Barsad apply pressure, or he's going to bleed to death. He's already slipping into shock.

He's surprised to realize just how scared he is.

“Lucky you,” Barsad says, seemingly as unruffled as ever. “A handgun. Small bullets make small holes. This is nothing. You're with the League of Shadows now. A little bullet is nothing to you.”

This is worse than falling through the ice and almost drowning, because John knows he's dying, and it's slow and relentless and there's nothing he can do about it. It's happening.

“Keep your eyes open. Breathe with me again. Inhale... Good. Breathe like that.” One-handed, Barsad wrestles his coat off. He throws it over John. While he does this, he asks conversationally, “How old are you?”

It takes everything John has to unclench his teeth and answer, instead of giving voice to his pain and fear. “Twenty-four,” he gasps.

“Young and strong. Where'd you grow up?”

“Gotham,” John gulps. His eyes feel hot and wet.

“This is your first time getting shot?”

John nods, shivering, eyes slipping closed again. He's so scared. He knows what Barsad's doing, and it still doesn't help. His fingertips scrape uselessly against the cold roof, seeking something to hold onto.

“You're not doing your job, then. What kind of police are you? This is nothing. I'd been shot a dozen times when I was your age. Take a few more bullets and talk to me then.”

John clings to Barsad's steady voice, trying to make himself as calm as Barsad sounds. His heart is racing, pumping more and more blood to the hole in his abdomen. He has to be calm. He starts making a conscious effort to breathe slower, forces himself to stop panting frantically.

“That's good. Good. You can get past this. Just keep breathing like that.”

John keeps his eyes closed and nods again, trying not to gulp air. Barsad keeps talking, but John can't focus on anything except the blood leaving his body.

And then Bane is there. He blots out everything else, though John can hear some other men hovering in the stairwell door, curious. It's been maybe ten minutes. Air drags rapidly in and out of Bane's mask.

“He's alive?”

“Yes.”

Bane starts pacing, his hands twitching, like a smoker in desperate need of a fix. He turns, pounces on the dead conscript's body and throws it over the side of the roof, furiously. Then he goes back to pacing, wheezing and flexing his fingers.

“Is he going to die?”

Barsad doesn't answer right away. John tries to move a hand, to beg Bane to come nearer and help him, to be there, but Bane doesn't see his feeble effort.

“Breathe, John,” Barsad says at last. To Bane, he says, “I don't know. Put your coat on him. Help me keep him warm.”

Bane obeys at once, draping the heavy shearling over John's body, like a warm shell just for him and Barsad's hands on his stomach. Bane crouches down, his hands hovering over John's body, unsure what to do. Then he gets back up. Crouches down again.

His voice is terrifying. “If you let him die—”

“I'm not going to let him die,” Barsad says patiently. For the first time, he looks up at Bane. “He needs a doctor.”

“No,” Bane grates.

“I can't control the bleeding. I don't know what the internal damage is or whether there's an exit wound as well. He needs to get to a hospital, as fast as possible.”

Bane snarls. John's starting to panic again; he thinks he feels tears on his face. The pain is receding. He's going numb. Dimly, he notices that it's started to snow. Barsad and Bane stare at each other over his body.

At last, wordlessly, Bane gathers John up in his arms and lifts him as though he's a child. It jostles John, and he cries out weakly before Bane manages to press a hand to where Barsad's scarf is. The world spins around them, and John tucks his face into Bane's shirt as Bane starts to carry him away. He folds himself up into the small, warm space between his body and Bane's chest, where he's curled up and safe and no longer hurt, and he stays there.

 

*
When John starts to recover his senses, the first thing he's aware of is the sound of Bane breathing through the mask nearby. His initial reaction is relief. He doesn't know where he is. He just wants to put his head in Bane's lap, let Bane stroke his fingers through his hair and be lulled back to sleep like that.

The pain starts to seep in gradually.

“Tell me,” Bane breaks the silence, distracted and quiet.

He pauses for so long that John forces his eyes open a crack. Bane is sitting on a table across the room from John's single bed, holding something that blinks a little red light at him, a ... a camcorder.

At length, he exhales and says, “Tell me the nature of the boy's injuries, doctor.”

Someone clears their throat on John's other side.

“Ah. He has ... a gunshot wound to the lower abdomen.”

Bane's rasping breaths fill the room.

“And,” he says.

“And, ah, a stab wound to the right arm ...”

“And.”

“Multiple contusions indicating repeated blunt force trauma over a long period,” the other man says. “A cut on his side, mostly healed. A healing wrist sprain. A bruised rib. And—” he gulps a bit before his voice becomes steady again “—trauma consistent with sexual assault.”

“Thank you, doctor,” says Bane politely.

John wants to raise his head, make a noise, but he can't seem to do either. He's so tired and his body is so heavy.

Bane falls silent again. Then, as John forces open his eyes again, Bane turns the camcorder around toward himself. It looks like a toy in his hands.

“Your friends in Gotham are missing you, Bruce,” he says quietly.

The little red light goes out. Bane pockets the camcorder and stands up.

“If he dies,” he says, “you should consider putting a bullet in yourself as well.”

John's eyes close again. His eyelids are heavy, too. He doesn't hear Bane coming closer, but he feels the thumb that Bane swipes gently over the swell of his lower lip, a lingering, intimate touch. Bane doesn't say a word before he leaves.

As John succumbs to unconsciousness again, he can hear the doctor moving around him, muttering to himself.

“You'd probably rather die than be handed back to that monster. Well, I'm sorry, my life's worth more than that. Hmph.” He snorts bitterly. His voice wavers, betraying him; his hands shake as he slides a needle under John's skin. “Do no harm, indeed.”

John doesn't see Bane again for a long time.

 

*
The next several days are a confusing conflagration of pain. John's pretty sure the doctor is injecting him with painkillers regularly, but they wear off quickly. He's also pretty sure he talks aloud sometimes as he drifts in a haze of unconsciousness, but he doesn't know what he's saying.

He drifts in and out of consciousness. Occasionally he can hear the doctor speaking with someone just outside the room, but it's not Bane or Barsad or anyone whose voice John recognizes.

Even as weak as John is now, Barsad's training sticks: Whenever he's awake, he gathers as much information about his surroundings as his awareness will reach. It's a small room with sterile white walls and industrial grey tiles. There's a curtain bunched up at his bedside with a track that bisects the ceiling, and an empty bed off to his left. There's another door across the room that he thinks is a bathroom. He gathers all this information hazily, not thinking about it, storing it away for future use.

When he opens his eyes blearily one evening, his senses a little sharper now, the doctor is sitting next to him, reading a book.

“Oh, you're awake,” he says, sitting up. He checks John over quickly. “Do you remember what happened?”

The memory is foggy. “I got shot,” John says, confused.

The doctor gets up and fetches a bottle of water. He seems to be refusing to look John in the face. He hands John a couple pills and makes him swallow them one at a time. John's too tired to refuse.

“Antibiotics,” the doctor says. “You can take them orally now. The liquid's almost gone. Do you know where you are?”

“No.”

“It's ... well, it was the hospital. You're lucky your masked friend found some painkillers and medicine, because the looters stripped this place bare ...”

Bane. Why isn't he here? John is mildly distressed by his absence. He doesn't feel safe without Bane or Barsad nearby. It's been three months since he's been without their protection.

“Am I dying?” he asks, with a tremor of fear.

“Not anymore, with any luck,” the doctor says quietly. “Though you've still got a bullet inside you. It lodged in your back muscle. Safer to leave it. Less risk of infection.”

“Oh,” John says. He's still muzzy. There's a bullet inside him and he can't feel it. That seems weird. “Thanks.”

The doctor hesitates.

“I have to give you back to him,” he blurts out.

“I know,” says John, not alarmed by this.

“He'll kill me. I have a family.”

“I know. It's okay.”

“So I don't want to know your name,” the doctor says sharply. “Or how old you are, or who you are ...”

“That's fine,” says John.

Mollified, the doctor sits down again. “I'm sorry,” he says, pale-faced. “I'd let you leave if I could. But there are two armed guards outside. I can't even go to the bathroom alone.”

John closes his eyes against a wave of nausea. Under the bedcovers, his hand slips under an unfamiliar shirt and over his belly, touching a linen wrap. His arm has been rebandaged too.

He opens his eyes, collecting himself with an effort. “Thank you, really. For everything.”

“Oh ... well.” The doctor sounds flustered. “You're welcome,” he finally says.

John pretends to slip off to sleep again. The doctor sits there for a while. Deciding he won't outlast the other man, John allows himself to fall asleep for real. He may as well conserve the energy while he can, because as soon as he wakes up again, he's getting out of here.

 

*
When he wakes up again, he's in even more pain and the doctor is fast asleep, head lolling, mouth open. Not faking. It's dark now. John slips out of bed. The sharp ache in his stomach nearly doubles him over.

He practises walking a few circuits around the room, until he can almost stand up straight. Then he tests the window. It scrapes open an inch, and a cold breeze gusts in.

He's wearing a long-sleeved shirt and loose pants with an elastic waistband, standard hospital fare. There's a coat hanging up on the wall and boots underneath, presumably the doctor's. John takes both. He finds the bottle of antibiotics and pockets it. Then he goes back to the window and opens it all the way. He has no time to hesitate. The cold will wake the doctor within a minute or two, most likely.

They're on the second floor. No guards or people are in sight. He slides a leg over the sill, mimicking his action on top of the roof. Then he squeezes his eyes shut and rolls out the window, breaking his fall in the bushes below.

It hurts like hell. His whole body is in pain, remembering all his aches from the tower, every bruise put on him by Bane and Barsad. He lies there for a minute, gasping. It's the knowledge that the doctor will wake and sound the alarm that rouses him; otherwise he'd lie there all night in the cold. He stirs himself and slowly, painfully, clambers out of the bushes.

He knows the streets of Gotham like the back of his hand. He knows he isn't far from Gordon's base of operations. Still, it seems to take all night to make what should be a twenty-minute journey. Frozen, limping, half-delirious with pain, John wanders the streets. Buildings waver in front of him and blink out of sight. He has to search for street signs repeatedly.

Incredibly, he doesn't meet any roving bands of mercenaries or crooks. It's still dark when he finally locates and staggers into the base. The cop standing guard startles at the sight of him.

“Jesus Christ, Blake!”

He leads John in quickly, hustling him to the back of the hide-out, where people flock around him. John registers that he's being guided forward, stripped of his stolen coat which is gently replaced with warmer clothes. He takes it all in dazedly and then Commissioner Gordon is there.

“I just need to lie down,” John hears himself saying numbly, over and over. “I just need to lie down for a minute ...”

“Good God, son,” Gordon says gravely, his face etched with concern, just like the others that keep swimming into John's view.

“I'll be fine,” John says, hand clamped over the bandages which are starting to soak through with blood again. “If I just lie down ...”

The room goes very dark, and John feels someone's arms gathering him up before he falls. Not Bane's arms. He is never going to see Bane again.

The knowledge doesn't make him feel as happy as it should.

Just before blackness overtakes his senses, he locks eyes with Miranda Tate, who has entered the room silently. Her cold eyes pierce him to the core, and she smiles.

 

*
She comes to him later.

John's been taken to a small room where he can be alone to recover—some kind of storage space, he thinks, with a single chair and a cot. He immediately lapses into a deep, deep sleep—natural sleep this time. He doesn't even try to fight it. He knows that rest is the best nurse for him now. If Talia comes to kill him, so be it.

She doesn't kill him. He wakes up to find her perched at his bedside, one hand resting on his chest.

“Don't worry,” she says, when he tries to move away in alarm. “I'm only here to talk.”

He settles warily, knowing he's no match for her. Not in this state. “About what?”

She trails her slim hand down his chest a few times, stroking him the way Bane does.

“You're a lucky boy, John,” she says after a pause, instead of answering. “In his former life, Bane was a beautiful man. Had there been women where we grew up, they would have begged to be taken to his bed.”

“I'm not a woman,” John says, despising her. She smiles.

“No, I suppose not.” Her fingertips trail down to the wrap over the gunshot wound, making him realize it's been changed already. “It's a funny thing, John ... all those girls who would have lined up to be taken by Bane ... he would have spurned them all. I've brought him pretty boys and women to service him and he hardly looks at them. But he took you.”

“So?” John says, unable to come up with any kind of witticism in this state. He has the creeping, harrowing suspicion that she's starting to guess at the nature of his and Bane's relationship. She smiles.

“Do you see yet?” she asks. “That your ideals only make you weak? Did you try to seek the good in him, before he took you to his bed and make you cry out for mercy?”

Disgusted, John says, “He's only doing this for you.”

“He's doing this because the world has only ever been cruel to him... Something you ought to be able to understand.”

Her fingers skate down to his wound again, and press down hard. He writhes, a gasp escaping his lips, and struggles to push her away.

“I won't kill you, John, not now,” she says, withdrawing her hand. “I'm going to leave you here, alone in the dark, to remember every night when he took you to bed and held you down; and I want you to know that you still belong to him.”

“You're going to him,” John says; it's not a question. She nods, and he says, “Tell Barsad something for me.”

He's trying to think how he can put “thanks for saving my life” into some code Barsad will recognize—because he knows Barsad saved his life on that roof; without him there John would have panicked and bled to death before any help could come—but Talia smiles demurely and gets up.

“I'm sure you'll tell him yourself,” she says. “Sooner than you think.”

One last graze of her hand down his chest, and she's gone.

 

*
As he recovers, John can only conclude that he must have still been running on some kind of painkiller when he dropped out of that window and then managed to walk here, because several days later, just standing up unaided seems impossible.

He grits his teeth, pushes back the tears. He thinks of how Barsad would call him soft and cuff him just to rile him into pushing himself. He gets to his feet and breathes. He has to sit down again after a few seconds, but it's with a feeling of accomplishment. When he's rested for a few moments, he stands up again and practises walking around a bit.

His spine hurts, his ribs, his arms; one of his legs will barely take his weight. But he's alive, and he's free.

(He doesn't feel free.)

Gordon sits on a chair against the wall and watches John limp around the room. He's been a constant visitor. As soon as John could sit up, Gordon had told him that Miranda was gone by opening with, “Blake, you need to know something, and it isn't your fault, even if it is some kind of retribution ...” John had to explain Miranda's part in everything, and Gordon took it with a sigh, asking only once if John was sure.

He doesn't try to stop John from walking around, which John appreciates. He doesn't say much of anything until John starts trying to center himself, trying to find balance even while his leg wobbles dangerously under him, and goes through the easier exercises to his best (feeble) ability.

“What's that?” Gordon asks.

“T'ai chi.”

“Didn't peg you for a martial artist.” There's a hint of a smile in the way Gordon's mustache twitches.

John's knee starts to buckle. He sits down on the cot, gasping.

“Don't push yourself,” Gordon warns. John can't help thinking it's what Bane would have said.

“I'm okay,” he says. “I'll be okay.”

“You sure?”

John doesn't answer. Gordon takes off his glasses and wipes them methodically on his shirt, allowing John to look away for a minute.

“Blake,” he says, “I know you probably don't want to hear this right now, but you need to know that if you ever want to talk—well, I'm here.”

John digs his fingers into the cot's edge and answers mechanically, “Thanks, but there's not much to talk about, sir.”

Gordon puts his glasses back on, adjusts them a bit, and then pins John in place with his steady, prying gaze.

“Son,” he says gently, “you've been through something no man or woman should ever have to go through. I'd call that grounds to talk.”

He's not just talking about a blowjob. John's mouth starts to dry out.

“How do you know?” he croaks.

Gordon sighs and scrubs a hand over his stubble. “Hell, Blake, the bastard put it on the evening news.”

“He did what?” John frantically tries to get up and has to fall back down with a wince.

“Just a short little tape of you in a hospital bed, a few days ago,” Gordon says, waving him back down. John remembers that all at once. His chest burns hot, humiliated. The evening news. Christ's sake. “It's not as bad as it sounds,” Gordon goes on. “You weren't mentioned by name. And you looked like hell, no offense. He meant it as a message, we're just trying to figure out who to. Someone named Bruce, although the only Bruce anyone can think of is Wayne, and certainly the rumours are saying he skipped town after he went broke ...”

Gordon's got keen instincts; he's not the commissioner for nothing. John will have to tread carefully.

“I helped Wayne out of a jam a couple nights before the occupation,” he says. “Someone must have seen us together.”

“I won't pry,” Gordon says. “You've been through enough.”

He thinks John's been getting—what, beat up and raped every day for three months? And that's so far from the truth John can't even meet his eyes. Shame washes over him. He's let Gordon down; let down his whole team.

“I tried to find out who the triggerman is,” he forces out. “But ...”

“It's okay, Blake,” Gordon says, gentle again. He gets up and rests a hand on John's shoulder before he leaves. “You did more than any of us could have done. You survived.”

 

*
John's emotions start to fluctuate at seeming random. He's not sure what to attribute this to. Small things set him off. He starts crying one morning when he suddenly thinks of Harvey, alone and afraid with Bane. Bane will probably kill her, out of mercy, since he won't feed her (he's too busy, even if he cared enough). John doesn't even like cats, and he never cries; but he cries over Harvey and hates himself for it.

Gordon takes a seat on the cot at his side and pats his shoulder. John didn't even see him coming. He tries to think of some casual way to brush this off, and can't.

“Everything seems kind of overwhelming right now,” he offers, with a strained attempt at a smile. Gordon's eyes are sober.

“You spent the past three months in an environment where your life was in danger every second of the day,” he says. “Maybe you're just having trouble adjusting to the fact that you're safe now.”

Am I? John wants to say. He doesn't feel safe. He felt safe in Bane's room, with Bane, protected from all outside forces. He's in a lot more danger here than he was there.

“I want to help go out on patrols again,” he says. He needs to feel like a cop again. He hates being alone with his traitorous thoughts. Gordon smiles kindly.

“You can barely walk, Blake.”

“I'll be fine in a few more days. Good enough to hobble around out there a bit.”

“I don't think that's—”

“I need to get out,” John says, growing desperate. “I can't stay in here all day until the bomb goes off.”

Gordon sighs. “It's your choice,” he says tiredly.

That's how, a week later, John ends up going out with a few other guys, who seem to be flagging a bit for his sake. He keeps up with them, at least. It's cold outside and his leg hurts and he can't even bend down without his gut aching sharply, but at least he's a cop again, on the streets where he's needed. Not lying in there on the lumpy cot, where all he thinks about at night is whether Bane misses him or not.

 

*
Weeks go by until there are just a few days, by Gordon's estimate, before the bomb is due to expire.

More and more, John wonders where Bruce Wayne is. He's alive; John knows it. Bane had sent that message to him. Bruce Wayne is alive and not in Gotham, and with three days to go before the blast, John really hopes he intends to come back.

In the meantime, he takes every opportunity he can to check up on St. Swithin's. The first time he dropped by after his escape, Father Reilly had put a compassionate hand on his arm and asked if he needed to talk. “You saw the evening news, huh?” John asked wearily.

“The children were already asleep when it aired,” Father Reilly assured him. “I'm so sorry, John. I prayed for you.”

“Thanks,” John said, thinking privately that God wasn't watching when he'd been sliding himself onto Bane's thick cock at night. Everyone's concern for him was starting to get stressful by that point. He's not a rape victim. He's a traitor in the weirdest possible sense. He pretended their worry was over the bullethole in his gut, because at least he didn't ask for that one.

St. Swithin's is home to many displaced refugees now, and John likes to go over and make sure the food trucks get there all right. He likes to see the boys, too. They don't know anything about John's absence, and they think his gunshot and stab wounds are cool. It's easy to relax and be himself around them. He's a little sick of other people, lately.

He's thinking on that, thinking what he'd give to see the old Bat signal of his childhood lighting up the sky, walking back to the base from St. Swithin's with two companions, when gunfire splits apart the quiet afternoon. They fling themselves to either side of the narrow alley, seeking cover behind trash cans, though one man isn't fast enough—he hits the ground, groaning and clutching his leg, and another spray of bullets silences him.

They come from either end of the alley, two groups of mercs toting guns. “Drop the guns!” the man out in front barks.

John obeys, thinking it might still be possible to fight his way out of this. He knows how to disarm an enemy with a gun. If he can close with the leader, maybe he can do something. His companion, a veteran cop, looks over at John and drops his gun, too.

John clenches his fists, prepared to fight for his life, but when the leader gets close he throws a punch with shocking alacrity. His fist lands square in John's gut, hitting the still-healing bullet wound. John falls to his knees with a gasp, wrapping both arms around his stomach. Pain explodes behind his eyes.

The man is cocking his leg to deliver a kick when another man shouts, “Hey, don't kill them. They're cops.”

“So?” the leaders snaps.

“So they're cops,” the other says. “Take 'em to Crane. You know the orders.”

The leader sneers, but he turns away. He gestures, and two other men grab John by the arms and haul him upright. They grab his companion too. As they drag him away, smarting, John thinks bitterly that Barsad would be disappointed in him.

Then he sees something that must be an apparition, brought on by the haze of pain. On a rooftop across from the alley is Barsad himself, rifle slung over his shoulder, arms folded over his chest. He's watching John. John wants to—to shout out for help, or something—but then he sees the cold, contemptuous expression on Barsad's face.

The words die noiselessly in his throat, and Barsad turns and walks out of sight.

 

*
Crane's mock courthouse is in the old Gotham Stock Exchange building where Bane's initial siege had gone down. John can remember standing outside the building with Foley. Now he's hauled in with his companion—a veteran cop named Jakobsen, who John is only just realizing he knows nothing about—and they're thrown into the basement with some other people who sit in small groups and eye them warily. No one talks much. John knows why he doesn't feel like talking—because if he starts, all his fear will come spilling out—but he's not sure about Jakobsen. Maybe the man's just taciturn by nature.

They're only in the basement for about an hour or so. Then they're dragged upstairs, in front of Crane.

It's surprising to John how many spectators there are, at first, and he feels a building sense of resentment. Gotham is becoming exactly what Bane—no, what Talia intends it to be: a city as ugly as her ideals. Then he realizes that most of the people watching are men; thugs and liberated prisoners, no doubt; and he's oddly relieved.

When he looks around he catches a glimpse of something that makes his heart sink in his chest: the shadowy figure of Bane, standing in the upper gallery that overlooks the mock courtroom. They lock eyes for a moment. Then Bane turns and walks away. Just like Barsad had done.

“Gentlemen!” Crane shouts, cutting through the chatter of the crowd. “Name yourselves for the court, please.”

John doesn't want to. But Jakobsen lifts his chin and says, “Officer Frank Jakobsen.”

“Detective John Blake,” John says.

“Police officers,” Crane says, with a sort of maniacal glee. The crowd howls. “You stand charged of espionage and treason against Gotham. Do you have anything to say in your defense?”

“Get on with it, Crane,” Jakobsen growls.

Crane narrows his eyes. “Very well. Death or exile?”

“You're not getting me out on that ice,” Jakobsen says. “Or the boy.”

“Death it is.” Crane bangs the gavel. The men around them immediately raise their weapons.

John is bracing himself—and then, a quiet, rasping voice:

“No.”

John pries one eye open. He hadn't even realized he'd closed them. Between him and Crane stands Bane, hands up to his vest, his back to John.

Crane smiles, but his voice is clipped with annoyance. “We agreed that you have no jurisdiction here, Bane.”

“By all means, then,” Bane says carelessly, “continue.”

No one moves. A few guns start to lower.

“Very well,” Crane says at last, again. He bangs the gavel and snaps, “Next!”

Bane turns and walks toward John. He doesn't look happy to see him. It's difficult to read his expression, so John says nothing. Bane shepherds both him and Jakobsen out of the building; then he motions the latter away. “Leave us.”

Jakobsen rounds on him and throws a vicious punch at the mask. Bane catches his fist and twists, breaking his arm effortlessly. He gives Jakobsen a contemptuous shove and sends him tumbling down the steps of the stock exchange.

“Your friends seems ungrateful,” Bane remarks. His cold eyes catch and hold John's. “Are you?”

“I'm not going with you,” John says, with only half as much conviction as he feels.

Bane breathes in slowly, studying him, and breathes out. “I wasn't asking,” he says simply, and he scoops John and tosses him over his shoulder. John yelps in pain as he's jostled, and then lies still. Bane won't hurt him, not if he's compliant.

He's pretty sure.

 

*
Bane takes him in one of Batman's stolen tank-like vehicles to a new building, not the tower. John is too disoriented to make note of where it is, though he thinks it must be near City Hall. The power is on tonight in this district: they take the elevator up to one of the top floors.

The room Bane leads him to is a lot smaller than the gilded master bedroom in the tower. It seems slightly crowded, more like an office than a bedroom; but there is a big bed, and John can see an ensuite bathroom through a slightly-ajar door. There are huge bookshelves pushed to the walls on either side of the bed, and a massive wooden desk, making the room look too small for its furniture.

This doesn't feel like a reunion, but they're not strangers, either. Bane shuts the door, and John feels the first creeping misgiving.

He turns around before Bane can startle him. “Why'd you bring me here?”

Bane's eyes are inscrutable. “Bathe,” he says. “You need it.”

At the base, they get five minutes each in the shower, trying to preserve the hot water. It's usually freezing after the first few showers anyway. John stares at him, decides this isn't a contest he's going to win, and walks into the bathroom. He locks the door behind him.

He checks the bullet wound: incredibly, not bleeding. Then he gets in the shower. The water's hot and it lasts a long time. He takes the opportunity to bathe himself thoroughly, using a bar of soap that rests on a ledge against the wall. There's no shampoo, naturally, so he just uses the soap to wash his hair, too.

When he's done, feeling considerably refreshed, he dries and pulls his clothes back on quickly. Then he steps back into the bedroom, hair still dripping.

Bane is on the bed, reading a book. His coat and vest have been taken off. He doesn't look up at John.

“So what now?” John asks, throwing his towel to the floor.

“Pick that up,” Bane chides him.

John leaves it where it is. Bane sets the book aside and looks up at him.

“I didn't kill the doctor,” he says, after a long, tense pause.

“I'm not congratulating you for something most people manage to do every day,” John snaps. “Not murdering should be your default setting.”

Bane tilts his head, curious. “You're angry,” he notes.

“You put me on the news!” John says angrily. “Everyone I know thinks you've been raping me!”

“Is that not what you wanted?” Bane asks coolly.

John stutters to a halt. “They didn't have to know anything,” he spits out.

Bane stands up. John forgot just how big he is. He feels suddenly frail and weak in Bane's shadow. He doesn't flinch when Bane takes him by the chin, tilts John's head up toward him.

“Surprising,” Bane says. “I thought I had more right than you to be angry.”

“You wanted a goodbye?”

Bane releases him. “No.”

“Well, you've got me again,” John says aggressively, spreading his hands. “Right where you want me, so you can do whatever you want.”

“Is that what you think?”

“Don't pretend you brought me here for any other reason,” John spits. “I still belong to you, isn't that right?”

Bane's eyes flicker angrily. “You're testing my patience.”

“You want to fuck? Let's fuck.” John sits on the edge of the bed, leaning back on his arms. “You want a goodbye kiss? I can give you that too. I know exactly why you're angry, Bane, it's because you thought someone finally wanted you for a change and then you realized—”

“Leave,” Bane says, in a low, dangerous voice. “If you're unhappy to be here, then leave.”

“And get shot in the face by Barsad when I step outside that door, right?” John snaps. “You're an idiot if you think—”

Bane grabs him by the collar of the shirt and literally drags him to the door. He shoves John out into the hallway so forcefully that John lands on his hands and knees, and looks around in time to see the door slammed shut.

The hallway is very quiet.

Quiet and empty.

He gets up shakily and wanders to the elevator, pressing the “down” button. The floor number, flashing above the door, starts to climb. In the meantime, John wanders to the stairs, opens the door to the stairwell and looks out over the railing. The stairs are empty.

He goes back into the hallway just as the elevator door dings open. It's empty, too.

He stands there until the elevator doors slide shut. Then he turns around and walks back to Bane's door.

“Bane.” He knocks a few times, and rests his forehead against the wood. “Open up.”

All is quiet on the other side of the door.

“I'm sorry.”

Silence.

“I'm not sorry for leaving,” John says to the door. “But I am sorry for misjudging you ... again.” He pauses. There's no answer. “Can I come back in?”

Still no answer. John tries the doorknob. It's unlocked. He enters very cautiously.

Bane is on the bed again, with his book. His eyes are narrowed and he doesn't look up. John opens his mouth to speak, then sees something that distracts him entirely.

“Harvey!”

The kitten has just crept out from under the bed, blinking her one eye in the light. John makes sure she sees him before he picks her up, irrationally glad to see her. She's a little bigger, he thinks, heavier, and although her face is still scarred, a few gnarled whiskers are growing in on the burnt side of her muzzle. The scraggly fur on her flanks is becoming downright sleek. She opens her mouth and mewls.

“I thought you might return for her,” Bane rumbles.

“Oh,” John says softly. Of course he hadn't, and Bane couldn't have delivered her, either. They'd left the supermarket basement when Talia joined the mercenaries.

“Barsad brought her when we left the tower,” Bane adds.

“He saw me get grabbed,” John says, with a note of resentment. “He didn't do anything.”

“He told me. What else should he have done?”

John frowns and goes on petting Harvey's grey tabby fur mindlessly. She rubs the good side of her face against his chest. She remembers him. John is heartened by the thought.

Her nails dig suddenly into his chest when Bane stands up again. John winces, and sets her down. She flits under the bed just as Bane closes the distance between them and wraps a hand around John's throat.

John knows immediately that it's not a threatening touch. Bane's grip is light, easily broken, and his thumb strokes the pulse point in John's neck. For Bane, this is intimacy. John swallows against his palm and forces himself not to move.

Bane's eyes flicker back and forth between John's, his eyebrows furrowed.

“I could have kept you safe,” he breathes finally.

And that's it, the heart of the issue. Bane is not upset that John left without telling him. Bane is upset because John put himself in danger. That's why he didn't want John to go to a doctor. He wanted to keep John with him, where he knew John would be safe. Maybe he's been torturing himself for weeks, wondering if John is still alive.

John shakes that sentimental image out of his head, and says shakily, “No one is safe in Gotham.”

“You are safe with me. Haven't I told you that?”

“Bane,” John says quietly, and Bane lets him go. John catches his wrist. “I'm sorry. I know you did a lot for me that you didn't have to do. And I'm glad you saved my life just now. But I belong with Gordon and the other cops. Even if that puts me in danger. I'm one of the good guys, remember?”

“You are too good for this city,” Bane growls. “Gordon doesn't deserve you.”

“Maybe I have to be out there so everyone knows there's still people like me in Gotham,” John says, not sure where the words come from.

Bane searches his face carefully. Then he releases his wrist from John's hold, gently, and walks back to the bed.

“You are free to leave,” he says.

“I'm not leaving,” John says. “Bane.” He hesitates when Bane won't look at him. “I'm sorry about the stuff I said. About wanting you—”

“I thought it might have been a ruse, once you were gone,” Bane says coolly. “That you'd expected me to lower my guard.”

“It wasn't a ruse,” John says. “It was—look, I don't know all that much about you, compared to Barsad or Talia, but I know ... I know you'd never use sex to hurt someone. I trust you when I'm ... with you.”

His face is burning, but Bane doesn't seem to take any notice of him. He stands there, feeling stupid and awkward, while Bane thumbs disinterestedly through his book.

“I trust you, as well,” Bane says at last, still without looking at him.

A rush of inexplicable relief washes through John. “Yeah?” he says, and sits down on the bed.

“Yes.” Bane glances up at him, finally, eyes hooded. “Come here.”

John goes. He can't say why. He just does it without thinking, lets Bane roll him onto his back and loom over him, lets him tug John's shirt off, and he shivers and waits there and then realizes Bane is just examining his various healing wounds. A little laugh escapes him, and he relaxes.

“I'm okay,” he says, sitting up a bit. “I took the antibiotics you found. Everything's healing all right.”

“Good,” Bane says. He flattens his hand against John's chest and bows his head. His breath gusts out of the mask and over John's skin. “I want you.”

John's heart bursts into a gallop under Bane's palm. “Oh?” he croaks.

Bane just looks at him, his eyes dark with longing. Heat rushes through John all at once, leaving him feeling heady and flushed, tingling in his limbs. He suddenly knows why he had to get away so bad, when he was laid up in that hospital bed. He hadn't realized it before, but he's terrified of how good it feels to be here. He's not afraid of Bane—he's afraid of how Bane makes him feel. He had to get out so that he knew he was still John Blake, detective, good person. He can't be John Blake and want to be with Bane. That part of himself is incompatible with the rest. Good people don't want to be with their enemies instead of with their friends, where they belong.

He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. He's here now and he's not going anywhere tonight; it's already started to snow. He can be this person for one night. It won't make a difference in the grand scheme of things.

“I want to touch you,” Bane says. His hand is still resting on John's chest.

“Okay,” John finds himself saying dazedly, “okay, yeah, yes.”

Bane pulls his pants off roughly, dragging John partway down the bed; then he wrests off his own shirt and presses himself to John quickly, winding an arm under John's back and around his waist. The bare skin contact makes John startle. Bane rubs a hand over his chest, his belly, touching as he pleases, indiscriminately; totally lacking subtly, as usual. He's hard against John's thigh, and the weight of him is as intimidating as ever.

“I want you,” Bane rasps again.

“I know,” John says, breathless. “You can, you can touch—”

Bane does, wrapping a hand around John's cock and stroking. It's a little bit rough but John is so hard he's almost light-headed in seconds. He can't think about what he's doing; he just fucks up into Bane's fist helplessly. Bane kneels, unstrapping his belt and pants one-handed, and draws himself out so that he can press his erection flush with John's, stroking them both together, and John's face burns so hot he can hear his heartbeat in his ears. It's unfamiliar and weird to be touching someone else's dick with his own and he doesn't know what to make of it for a few seconds; and then he remembers—it's Bane. He can let himself be touched by Bane.

Bane makes a pleased sound, manhandling John around so he can touch everywhere, lazily pumping his fist all the while. John gropes over the bedside table and finds the lube by touch, then thrusts it into Bane's hands.

“Just keep going,” he says, when Bane looks down at the bottle. Bane doesn't move. John has to sit up and pour some of it onto Bane's palm for him and then—ears burning again—direct Bane's hand back to his straining, leaking cock. Bane starts stroking him again, this time with much less friction, and John melts into the bedsheets, panting.

He's close to coming just from this, just from Bane touching him, almost there, when Bane suddenly tightens his grip around the base of John's cock.

“Tonight,” he growls, “you don't get to finish until I do.”

John's mouth falls open in wordless protest. It takes Bane an hour or so to come.

“I can't,” he forces out.

“You will.” And, as though that settles the matter, Bane pushes his legs up and aside and slides a finger into him, making John writhe and shout. It's been almost a month since he was last with Bane and he hasn't touched himself since then. Bane growls.

“Tight.”

He slows his finger, just pumps it in and out, nearly making John crazy—he needs Bane to touch his cock again and he's sure he's not allowed to do it himself—and then Bane stops, and pushes the bottle of lube into John's hands.

“Make yourself ready,” he says.

He wants to watch, John thinks at first, embarrassed and slicking up his hand anyway. Then he realizes that tightness has Bane spooked. He's afraid of hurting John. He'll toss him onto the bed, shove him around, leave bruises all over, but he's afraid of hurting him this way. John doesn't think he'll ever fully understand Bane. He pushes two fingers into himself, taking them easily after Bane's finger. Bane strokes his belly while he does this, scratches his chest lightly. He brings his thumb up to John's mouth and John takes it, concentrating on sucking it and not on how much it's going to hurt when Bane takes him, whether Bane wants it to or not.

“Are you frightened?” Bane asks, splaying his other hand over John's chest. John's heartbeat is wild, jackrabbit-quick.

“No,” John says. He swallows and says, looking up into Bane's face, “I'm not afraid of you.”

“You should be,” says Bane. He adds in a murmur, “John,” as though he can't quite believe John is still here, in his bed.

John pushes at him and he goes, a mountain of muscle, reclining like an indolent big cat showing its belly. Refusing to be distracted by the straining muscles all over Bane's body (really, he could snap John like a twig using just his pinkie finger), John settles between his legs, still carefully fingering himself open, and takes Bane's cock into his mouth. It feels even bigger than he remembers. He has to take deep breaths, use his hand, keep his mouth limited to the head. The faster he makes Bane come, the sooner he can end Bane's little game and find his own relief.

Bane is patient, as he always is at the start, letting John suckle and lap at him clumsily while working a third, then a fourth finger into himself. The angle's terrible and he's growing more and more desperate for Bane's cock. The first couple times they did this, there was a little voice in John's mind yelling get the fuck away from me! while at the same time another voice yelled get the fuck inside me! It's just the second one, now, no trace of the first, and he thinks that says a lot for personal growth.

“Ready,” he says finally, drawing back, his tongue thick and heavy in his mouth. Bane rolls him over at once, onto his back, holding his arms down. He's got that intense look in his eyes and—they really are pretty eyes, John thinks dimly.

He thinks he's hotter now than he's been with any girl he's ever been with. This knowledge floors him.

He has no time to dwell on that, though. Bane is pinioning John's wrists above his head with one hand, hitching up his hips with the other, and John obediently spreads his legs as far as they'll go to accommodate Bane. He can feel the head of Bane's cock at his hole, and he clenches his eyes shut on the forceful slide in. The unrelenting push makes him shudder and gasp.

“You make the loveliest sounds,” Bane says, “when I'm inside you.”

He sounds utterly fond. John tries to speak and can't; the more he relaxes, the more Bane pushes inside him. When he at last bottoms out, Bane stops and bows his head so that the mask is pressed to John's neck.

Move,” John says, his voice an embarrassing wheeze.

Bane strokes his side reassuringly. He's still got John's wrists in his other hand. He starts to roll his hips, slow and languid, and John just melts open for him, gasping. Bane really is a fast learner: it takes him almost no time at all to locate John's prostate, and he drags the head of his cock over it brutally, back and forth. John's cock, which was starting to soften, is almost at once ferociously hard again and aching.

“Let me touch—” he begs, arching and positively mewling when Bane grinds over the sweet spot again.

“Not until I'm done,” Bane says, implacable.

He's a sadist in bed, of course; John should have realized. It's incredibly unfair. Introduce a guy to sex and this is how he repays you. The worst part is, John doesn't even seem to need help: with Bane fucking his prostate like that, his cock is leaking and his balls are already tight. He tries to think of the least sexy things he can—taxes, and old people, and Jim Gordon—and it doesn't work.

“I'm gonna come,” he says hoarsely.

Bane releases one of his wrists. “Control yourself,” he says, “or I'll keep you right here for the rest of the night.”

At once John grips himself, staving off the inevitable orgasm as best he can. When his breathing is less erratic, Bane says, “Good.” Then he pulls out.

“Hey,” John protests weakly.

Bane rolls him onto his belly. Then he takes John's hips and drags him up onto his knees, prying his cheeks apart with both thumbs. John has time enough to curse before Bane fucks back in with a growl. It's immediately apparent that, this time, he's not playing around.

Talia would be pleased with this, John thinks in the back of his mind. He's got a fistful of bedsheets clawed up in one hand, his face pressed to the mattress, muffling his choked sobs when Bane pounds into him. The noises Bane makes are raw and animal, unfiltered, sending thrills straight to John's cock. It looks brutal and violent, but the hand resting on the back of John's neck is gentle, not restraining, and John's not afraid. He knows that Bane likes it hard—feels it more, when it's hard. He can ride this out. He will ride it out.

Several times Bane brings him to the brink of orgasm, and John shouts wait, wait, stop, and Bane slows down, waiting for him to wrestle himself under control before he continues. He flips John over again and alternates fucking him through the mattress and languorously milking his prostate until John is squirming and begging, almost crying for release.

“Come on,” he groans. He's covered in sweat; his cock is leaking all over his fist and his belly. “I need to come, let me, let me ...”

Bane flattens him suddenly, fucks in hard and snarls, and John actually—feels it, hot-wet heat deep inside him, and—his mouth falls open in a sob as he feels himself come, his vision whiting out, cock pulsing and spurting in his hand, coating his stomach and Bane's. He's borderline insensate for at least ten seconds afterward, mouth hanging open while he pants for breath.

They lie together there for several minutes. Bane doesn't pull out. He presses the mask to John's chest. John can feel the warm, steady puffs of air against his skin.

“You,” Bane murmurs.

Sleepily, John trails a finger over one of the straps of the mask. “Happy now?”

“No.” Bane's voice is muffled more than usual. “I want more of you. All of you. A man, a police officer. You're all I think of,” and his voice is a snarl now, sending a shiver down John's spine. For the first time all night, he's scared. Bane lifts his head, and his eyes are like stone-cold chips of flint, blazing with frustration. “I want you,” he says, and John knows exactly what he isn't saying—and I don't know how to make you want me back.

John doesn't know what to say. For the first time he thinks—what if Bane is in love with him? And that's such a ridiculous, terrifying thought he has to push it away immediately. Terrorists don't love. They especially don't love guys like John, who are normal, hard-working, decent guys who don't deserve this; who can maybe finally admit to themselves that they may just be head-over-heels in lust, but would never—could never love

“Uh,” he says in a small voice, eloquent as always. At least he's wide awake now.

Bane softens slightly, and looks aside, as if John has become uninteresting. “In the morning a food truck will arrive. Be on it when it leaves. No one will stop you at the check-point. You can leave Gotham.”

“I'm not getting on the truck,” John says. Bane looks down at him.

“Then I will beat you unconscious, and throw you on the truck myself,” he says coldly.

“Then I'll walk across the river to get back into the city.”

“You'll drown.”

“I probably will.”

They stare at each other. Bane is puzzled, frustrated, angry.

“The bomb is going off in two more nights,” he says.

“I know,” says John. “I'm going to be here when it does.”

Bane wraps a hand around his upper arm, the stabbed arm, gripping tight enough to make John wince. “Why are you doing this?” he demands. “Your death will mean nothing. There is no more good that you can do in this city. You could live out the rest of your life. Why choose to die here?”

“It's my city.” It's the only thing John can say.

Bane pulls out. John groans softly when he does, feeling a hot trickle of fluids between his thighs.

“Your city doesn't deserve you,” Bane growls.

He gets out of bed: the conversation is over. He disappears into the bathroom and John hears the tap running. When Bane returns, he switches off every light in the room. Then he crawls back on top of John, who shivers when he feels the touch of a cool, damp washcloth on his stomach, between his thighs.

It's too dark for John to see anything, but he can feel Bane shifting around over top of him, putting aside the cloth and the lube. He's still doing something with his hands, fumbling quietly while John dozes off under him.

It's a total shock when Bane kisses his neck.

His lips are cold. That's John's first thought. Then he thinks, not a kiss. Bane's lips are pressed to his throat, right over the pulse point, and he inhales slowly, like he wants to smell John's skin. John lies very still, wishing he could just see...

Bane drags his mouth up a short distance, and this time does kiss John's neck. His lips are dry, starting to warm, and—not smooth. Pitted, somehow, as if pieces have been chiseled out; and John understands that Bane doesn't want him to see.

It only lasts a few seconds. Then Bane withdraws. John follows him, sitting up quickly and reaching out. His hand finds Bane's face, and he falters, waiting for permission. Bane is still. Cautiously, John starts to trail his fingertips over Bane's face, trying to put together an image using only touch. His nose is crooked, broken at some point and badly healed. John is gentle there. He can feel jagged scar tissue around Bane's mouth, his lips, his jaw. He traces a gnarled line from Bane's cheek almost to his ear, then goes back to Bane's lips. They're not smooth, but they're ... soft.

Without warning, Bane snarls and shoves him away hard. John lands on his back with a startled huff. He can hear Bane strapping the mask back on, hiding himself away from John and the world. Bane breathes hard once the gas mask is on again, air hissing in and out.

When he lies down at John's side, he gathers him up gently, but tightly.

“Perhaps it is better that you die here,” he says, “before you can learn how the world truly works.”

“You can keep me safe tonight,” John says.

“Yes,” Bane says softly; and, “I will.”

 

*
John wakes up on his side with Harvey tucked into the curve of his body, curled up and fast asleep. On his other side, he's immediately conscious of Bane.

He groans quietly, pushing his face into the pillow. Last night was probably a monumentally bad idea. Especially considering... Fuck, and now he remembers the conversation that followed. Bane wants him.

This is too much to deal with two days from doomsday.

There's a knock at the door. Bane shifts and growls—John suspects he's been awake for some time. He relaxes, waiting for Bane to tell whoever it is at the door to go away. There's a second knock; and then, not waiting for permission, Barsad enters.

He doesn't even spare a glance for John, who wants to crawl under the covers and disappear. He doesn't even look surprised. He holds a big glass of some thick green liquid.

“Breakfast.”

“No,” Bane grumbles into his pillow.

Barsad walks to the desk and sets the glass down. “Drink.”

Bane grunts. Then, throwing the covers back, he gets out of bed and prowls past Barsad, grabbing up the glass and a pair of pants on his way.

“Drink it!” Barsad calls after him sharply. He receives another grunt in reply before the bathroom door slams shut. A moment later, they hear the shower start.

Barsad shakes his head.

“Like a child,” he mutters, seemingly to himself.

John, with the bedcovers practically pulled up to his chin, says, “Does he shower with the mask on?”

“I don't know.” Finally, Barsad looks right at him. “I've never joined him.”

Harvey is poking her head out of the covers curiously, peering round. She clambers out and pads to the foot of the bed, near where Barsad is standing. He moves closer, expression unchanging, and crooks a finger to rub his knuckle against her cheek. She pushes her face into his hand, purring raspily. It's the closest John has ever seen Barsad get to anything resembling fondness.

“She slept in your place on the bed, back at the tower,” Barsad says. He lowers his hand. “I expect she missed you as well.”

“Did you?” John asks, with a forced smile.

Barsad doesn't blink. “Only as I had lost a decent sparring partner,” he says. “Now put some clothes on. The truck is here, it will leave shortly.”

John sighs. “I'm not getting on the truck. I told Bane already.”

Barsad looks, knowingly, at the closed bathroom door. Then he looks at John.

“I saved your life,” he says. “Now you choose to put my efforts to waste?”

“It's not about—look, I'm really grateful. Really, I am,” John says, because he's never been so scared in his life as he was on that roof. “But I'm not ... I'm not just leaving everyone I know here to die while I get a free pass, just because I—”

He can't finish that sentence. Frustrated, he says, “Look, Bane accepts that I'm staying here, so you can stop caring what happens to me.”

“He accepts?” Barsad echoes skeptically.

John can't look at him. So he rolls out of bed, pushing away his discomfort, and starts pulling on his clothes quickly. Hell with modesty. Barsad paces behind him.

He rounds on John before John has finished pulling his shirt on. John stops back involuntarily. Barsad's sudden anger bristles off him like an aura.

“For a month I've watched him moon over you,” Barsad says viciously, pointing at the bathroom door. “He doesn't know, but I noticed. Others will have as well. In two days our work here is done. We need him to make sure our message is sent—and you mean to leave him sulking in a bedroom and thinking about you. I know him like a brother; I know you are the only thing on his mind. And you won't even grant him the peace of dying knowing that you are safe?”

John glances uneasily at the bathroom, but Barsad waves an impatient hand. “He can't hear us.”

“I didn't ask him to moon over me,” John says in a quiet voice, just in case. “I didn't ask for any of this, in case you've forgotten. Talia's the one who brought me to him in the first place—”

“And you are the one who went willingly to his bed,” Barsad replies coldly. The words are like the lash of a whip. There's no escaping Barsad's scrutinizing gaze. Then some of the tension leaves his shoulders. “I arranged the truck for you yesterday. You are guaranteed safe passage out of Gotham if you go now.”

“I can't,” John says softly. He never intended to be caught up in this mess. “I have to stay. To help the cops ...”

“Then you're a selfish fool,” Barsad says. He says it without anger, and that makes it worse. “A fool and a child.”

He rubs Harvey's cheek one last time and then walks to the door.

“Goodbye, John Blake,” he says quietly. “Make sure he finishes the protein drink.” He pauses in the doorway. “Talia knows you're here. If you intend to return to Gordon, leave now.”

“Thanks for—” John starts, but the door clicks shut behind Barsad before he can say everything.

He sighs and sits down on the bed. Then gets up again a second later. He knocks on the bathroom door. There's no response. He enters.

Bane is sitting on the counter, wearing his pants now. The shower is still running.

“You're supposed to drink that,” John says gently, pointing to the green drink, which is on the counter next to him.

Bane rumbles, not looking at it or him.

“So,” John says, shifting his feet. “Thanks for yesterday ... for helping me and the other cop out. And ...”

“Leave,” Bane says flatly. “Take your cat, and leave.”

He looks up when John falters.

“Did you expect me to call it off?” he asks mockingly. “To free Gotham, disarm the bomb so that John Blake might live?” His eyes narrow. “You are nothing to me. Leave.”

“Bane—”

Leave!” Bane roars, on his feet suddenly, eyes blazing, and John's nerve fails. He ducks out of the bathroom, grabbing Harvey up on his way to the door despite her startled meow, and the glass whistles over his head and smashes against the wall, spraying the protein drink. John flings himself out the door into the empty hallway, heart in his throat, and slams the door behind him.

All is quiet. His heart throbs and his eyes sting.

Harvey mewls again, questioningly.

He lets go of his breath. Then he tucks her into his coat and zips it up.

“Okay,” he says to her, under his breath. “We're leaving.”

 

*
It's a long, cold trek back to the base of operations. He tries to make himself hurry, taking Barsad's warning to heart, but he has to take a lot of back alleys to avoid more patrols. Harvey dozes most of the way, fortunately. She peeks out once, squinting against the wind, and decides it's much nicer inside John's coat.

He's glad to have her, if he's being honest. Having her makes him feel less ... lonely. And then, realizing that, he feels like a dick for taking her away from Bane.

Everyone is still there when he staggers in out of the cold. Gordon is on him immediately, concerned—he's heard what happened from Jakobsen—but John waves him off, wanting to just be miserable somewhere else, alone.

“Nothing happened. He just wanted to talk,” he lies.

Gordon looks like he doesn't buy John's story, but at least he drops it. “What the hell is that in your coat?” he asks.

“A cat,” John says, remembering her in there. He unzips the coat and Harvey peeks out curiously, awake again. “Her name is, uh, Harvey.”

Gordon looks at the cat carefully, at her burned face, and John is suddenly embarrassed. Gordon was friends with Harvey Dent, wasn't he?

“Um,” he says.

But Gordon just shakes his head, exasperated. “God help you, son,” he says.

 

***
City Hall is a cold, barren place since the occupation. Bane perches on a windowsill, playing idly with a length of rope in his hands and staring out the window. Talia's slender hands slide down over his shoulders and squeeze lightly.

“We're so close to the end now,” she says.

Bane nods, distracted.

“Look at the city you have conquered,” Talia urges him. “Are you not pleased?”

Barsad stands by the door. He is Talia's bodyguard in these crucial final hours, protecting the trigger. She speaks as though he isn't there at all. He fades himself into the wallpaper well, but Bane can feel his lieutenant's shrewd eyes on him.

“I am pleased,” Bane says. “This is your victory as well as mine, though.”

“Yes,” Talia agrees. She rubs his shoulders comfortingly, then stops. “It isn't perfect, though.”

Bane should jump to his feet, ask what she needs and bring it to her, no matter how improbable. He stays seated. He's been twisting the rope into knots and untying them, over and over, and he stops only when she says this. “What can I do?”

“Bruce Wayne. I need to know he is suffering.”

“He is.”

“His body, perhaps,” says Talia. “I need to know his mind is being tormented.” She brings her hands back to Bane's shoulders, apparently thinking. “Where is the camera?”

“Another video?” Bane asks doubtfully. It's late in the game to guarantee anything like that making the news that reaches Wayne's cell.

Besides—Blake hadn't liked Talia's last video. Bane reminds himself that Blake won't be in this one. What does his opinion matter, anyway, compared to Talia's pleasure? Nothing.

“We've let the free cops run loose for too long,” Talia says. “We should find Gordon and Blake, put them in front of Crane. Search the area where Blake was arrested. Get Lucius Fox too, if possible.”

Bane nods at Barsad, who opens the door and issues a swift order to the guard standing outside.

“And me,” Talia says thoughtfully, bringing a hand up to the necklace at her throat. “Show him that you have me.”

Barsad shuts the door and nods to Bane: it's being done. Their patrols will flush Blake out and drag him in front of the guns again, this time not to be rescued. Bane ties a quick, tight knot, almost pulling the rope in half.

“I know,” Talia says suddenly. She drops to her knees in front of Bane, her eyes alight with glee. “I have it. A video to tell him I am with child, right before we die. It's perfect.”

“With child?” Bane says, amused. “Whose?”

Her smiles widens. “His, of course.”

Just like that, Bane's amusement is gone.

Very distantly, he can hear her saying, “My only regret is that I didn't have more time with him before the siege—but no matter. We have the leverage we need to make his suffering exquisite.”

“You—” Bane can hardly speak. “He laid with you.”

“It was part of the plan,” Talia says. She gets up and sits on the window ledge, at his side. “You have broken his body and his mind. All I wanted to make his punishment complete was to break his heart. But he went to you sooner than I expected.”

“He touched you,” Bane says numbly.

It's suddenly all he can think about. All he can see in his mind's eye is Bruce Wayne, his hands crawling over Talia's unblemished skin, her beautiful, breakable body that Bane fought with his life to protect. He has never imagined—childishly, never imagined—that Talia would—

But of course, she has been a long time in Gotham, carving a place here for Miranda Tate while he has been crumbling governments in West Africa and Eastern Europe on behalf of the League. They have been apart a long time, and no one has been here to protect Talia. She has, Bane realizes with an ill feeling deep in his stomach, matured into a woman while he was not watching. She gave her body to Wayne, the murderer of Ra's al Ghul. How could she do that? How could she have not told him, that she allowed a man other than Bane to, to—

He clenches his hands tightly and looks away when she kisses him under the eye, sliding her own hand over his fist.

“It was necessary,” she whispers, and squeezes his hand. “Don't be angry.”

“Only with him,” Bane says, forcing himself to unclench. Never with you.

She slips her hand into his and squeezes tightly. “I know what will make your last night better.”

He hears her get up and cross the room, to where Barsad is. Breathing hard, he starts knotting the rope again, roughly and mindlessly.

“Change the orders,” Talia says to Barsad. “Have Blake brought directly here when he's recaptured. I told him he still belongs to us. Have him brought here and this time, keep him from escaping. Can you manage that?”

From the corner of his eye, Bane sees Barsad bow his head, hands clasped behind his back.

“With respect, Lady,” he says, “my loyalty is to Bane, not to you.”

A stunned silence settles over the room. Bane is still, not sure what he's just heard. Talia, too, is frozen. She's not used to being refused. Nobody disobeys her. Not in Gotham, not in the League.

“That was an order,” she says, cold anger starting to settle over her like a cloak.

“Yes,” Barsad says, raising his head to look at her. “I heard it.”

No one moves for a moment. Then Talia slaps him, hard. Her nails rake across his face and leave two bleeding scratches on his cheek. Barsad doesn't flinch, scarcely even blinks, and he doesn't move to retaliate. He won't: but Bane suddenly realizes, that isn't on Talia's account. It's on his, Bane's.

Bane rises to his feet slowly. They both look to him. Talia's face is flushed angrily, eyes glittering. Barsad looks—resigned.

“Leave, Talia,” Bane says.

She hisses, “If you don't make your dog obedient—”

“I will,” Bane says.

“In one minute I will be back, and if he isn't—”

“He will be.”

She leaves, slamming the door behind her. Bane and Barsad look at each other.

“She is the daughter of Ra's al Ghul,” Bane says, his voice low and cold. “She is a princess, and she is the heir of the League of Shadows which you pledged yourself to.”

“I know,” Barsad says. “And I gave the word that you are looking for Gordon and Fox, but I will not bring John Blake here on her orders.”

“Explain,” Bane demands.

“You love him,” says Barsad.

Bane is silent for several breaths. Then he punches him. He doesn't hold back. The force of it slams Barsad into the wall, and it's a few seconds before he straightens up, squaring his shoulders. He spits a mouthful of blood on the floor and looks Bane in the eye.

“If you were any other man I would have killed you where you stand,” Bane bites out. “Tell me why I shouldn't still.”

“You still have time to save him,” Barsad says. “You aren't what Talia believes you to be. You have no need to prove yourself to her—”

Bane hits him again, furious. Who does Barsad think he is, to say these things—to imply that he needs Talia's approval, or John Blake—he's sick and angry and this time it takes longer before Barsad stands up straight, blinking blood out of his eye.

Then, lightning-quick, he hits back.

“You fool,” he snarls when Bane stumbles back, guarding the mask. “She acts as though she owns your mind and your heart, and you let her piss all over you. I saw your face when she told you she slept with Wayne. She's not a child anymore, Bane. There are only two people left who care about you now, and you are going to let her kill one of them on camera—not for your pleasure, but for her revenge on Bruce Wayne. This has always been about Wayne. She has never cared—”

Bane grabs him by his scarf and drags him in close, up on his toes, choking off his words. He pulls harder, until Barsad can't breathe, let alone speak. Barsad has never spoken to him like this before. He wants to keep pulling until Barsad never breathes again.

“Bring John Blake here.” The words hiss out of the mask into Barsad's face. “Your princess gave an order. Disobey once more and die.”

Bane releases him. Barsad's eyes flash, just for an instant. Then he lowers his gaze.

“I understand,” he says softly.

He steps away just as Talia reenters the room, still visibly bristling. The sight of Barsad's blood seems to mollify her a little.

“No videos,” Bane says. “It's too late. But Blake and the police will be hunted down.”

“I think I know of someone who could find him,” Barsad says quietly, dabbing at the blood that seeps from the corner of his mouth.

“Then bring him to me,” Bane growls.

“Not him,” Barsad corrects. “Her.”

 

*
Bane hasn't seen Selina Kyle since she brought Batman in front of him. She looks nervous to be brought to him now, dragged in by two guards whom she shakes off as soon as they enter. She's still rubbing her arm when the door closes, leaving her alone with Bane and Barsad, who is in the corner holding a cloth to his face. Talia is gone.

“Your boyfriend looks a little beat up,” Kyle quips with false bluster. “Trouble in paradise?”

“There is someone I need you to find,” Bane says. He's still sitting on the window ledge, knotting and untying the rope restlessly, looking out the window every now and then. Barsad's words chase themselves around in his head. Kyle folds her arms over her chest.

“Or what?”

“Or I will kill you,” Bane says.

Kyle sighs, dropping her arms to her sides. “Yeah, that'll do it,” she says. “Who do you want?”

“John Blake. You should know him as the detective who arrested you. Barsad can give you more information.”

“You want him here?” Kyle asks.

“I want you to give him a message,” Bane says. In the corner, Barsad lifts his head. “Tell him he still has one chance to leave Gotham if he chooses.”

Kyle raises her eyebrows. “That's it? Really?”

“If he's willing to accept, I can arrange one more truck. I will send it to him. Tell him that. If not ...” Bane struggles for a moment. “If not ... then when you return to report to me, if there is anyone in the room apart from Barsad and I ... then say you couldn't find him.”

Her eyes flick between him and Barsad, whose face betrays no emotion.

“Okay,” she says at last.

“Tell him—” Bane adds just as she turns to go. She stops, and he says quietly, “Tell him he is not nothing. He is something.”

“Anything else?” Kyle asks sardonically. “Do I need a piece of paper and a pen?”

“No. That's all.”

“And what if I really can't find him?”

“Then you will die,” Bane says simply.

“I'll be back by tomorrow,” she says, and leaves.

In the silence that follows, before Barsad goes after her, he says quietly, “I see that Talia does not rule your heart, after all.”

Bane stands, dropping the rope.

“If we are still alive when all this is done, Barsad,” he says, “then I will kill you myself.”

 

***
“Okay,” John sighs, brushing his hands off onto his jeans. His apartment, coated in a layer of dust, is now officially Harvey's. He's made a nice warm blanket nest for her on the floor of his bedroom and set out a bowl full of as much canned meat and tuna as he could find. She's going to be staying here until the bomb goes off, so he wants her to be ... happy.

She stares at him, her stub tail sticking up. When she doesn't move to climb into the nest herself, he picks her up and puts her in.

“There you go,” he says. “It'll be nice here. You won't have to worry about ...”

But she's already climbing back out, unimpressed with his efforts. He sighs and stoops down.

“Just be good,” he says, stroking her. “Everything's gonna be okay. And if Gordon's stupid plan works, I'll come back for you ...”

She rubs against him. He hates this, all of a sudden. He's not just saying goodbye to Harvey: he's saying goodbye to his apartment, to Gotham, to his life. Once he steps outside that door, the fact that they have less than ten hours to save Gotham will be a stark reality.

He pets Harvey once again, quickly, wanting to thank her for being his friend back at the tower, but talking to the cat makes him feel foolish, so he doesn't. He gives her one last pat and stands up, and he leaves with her questioning little meow following him.

This was his last order of business, he'd told Gordon. Now he's ready to help them. They're going to free the cops tonight. With any luck, all hell is about to break loose.

He walks to the base and calls out “Hey,” expecting to find a bustling hive of activity, everyone checking their weapons last-minute. Instead, pretty much everyone is just sitting around, listless.

Gordon's not there. John stops dead.

“What happened?”

“It's over,” one of the other men says dully. “The commissioner and his patrol were arrested. Lucius Fox, too.”

“Where's Foley?” John demands.

“At home with his family, if he's got any sense.”

John turns around and leaves.

It's a message, he thinks. Bane wants to draw him out. He knows John will try to rescue Gordon, and once John is out in the open, Bane's got the leverage to make him do about anything. Get on a truck out of Gotham, for instance. John could punch a brick wall, he's so frustrated. This shouldn't matter to Bane!

But then, maybe Bane isn't behind this. Maybe Gordon and the others have been taken straight to the mock courthouse. In that case, there isn't a whole lot John can do ... unless he appeals directly to Bane to intervene. It seems all roads lead to Bane, in the end.

He runs straight to the building where Bane took him a couple nights ago. The power is out now, so he has to take the stairs to Bane's floor, and there's ... nobody in the building, anywhere. He hammers on the door of Bane's room, finally kicks it open, and finds it abandoned. Empty.

He can't think where else to look that won't get him killed. The tower is too far from here to walk without meeting a patrol of mercs. He can't go to the courthouse on the off chance that Bane is there. He sinks onto the bed, holds his head in his hands for a minute. Think.

Bane might be looking for him. If he doesn't know where the base is, where might he go to look for John?

John goes back to his apartment.

The door is open.

“I knew you'd—” he starts wearily, and stops when he reaches the bedroom. A graceful young woman is sitting on his bed, petting a purring Harvey at her side.

“Hi, honey,” she says sweetly, and he recognizes her. Selina Kyle.

His hands close into fists. He doesn't know whose side she's on; only that she's more dangerous than she looks.

“What do you want?” he asks.

“Relax,” she says, deadpan. “I just have a message for you. From the big guy.”

“Bane?” John says, perking up. She's going to tell him how to get Gordon back.

She nods. “He said to tell you you can still leave Gotham if you want. He'll arrange it.”

John waits. When she doesn't offer anything more, he deflates.

“That's it?” he demands. “Nothing about the commissioner?”

“There was something else, actually,” she says, remembering. “He said you're not nothing, you're something.”

“What does that even—” John starts angrily, and stops, blowing out a sigh. You're nothing to me, Bane had said.

For just a second, all the stress and worry leave him, and he takes Bane's words and holds them to him. They're less than six hours from detonation now and Bane is worried John will die thinking he means nothing.

“Tell him I'll leave Gotham,” he says.

Selina raises her eyebrows, surprised. “I thought all you good guys were about self-sacrifice.”

“I'm not really leaving. Tell him to send a truck here and that I'll be on it. What he doesn't know won't hurt him.”

She hums. “Maybe I'll take your place.”

“Do whatever you want,” says John, suddenly tired. “I'm not going anywhere.”

 

*
The truck comes to his building. His last chance to leave Gotham. He watches it from his window. It leaves after five minutes, and he turns away. He's got some cops to rescue.

 

*
It's dawn by the time John gets any of the cops free, and his big plan goes to shit almost right away. He's never been so glad to see any person in his life as he is when Batman shows up to save him.

Conviction washes over him: It's going to be okay now.

Gotham is going to be safe now.

He wants to fight. He wants to—see Bane again, before the end. He wants to apologize and then he wants to show Bane how hard he's willing to fight for his city.

And Batman is sending him away.

“Don't you need me here?”

“You've given me an army,” Batman says. John look at the tunnel where more and more cops are trickling out, hundreds of them. “Now go.”

John swallows his protests. He knows somebody's got to get people out of Gotham, just in case. Someone who knows how dire the situation is has to sound the alarm and get people moving. But why him?

Then Batman pauses, and says, quietly, “I'm sorry for what happened to you, John.”

His sympathy—Batman's sympathy—is unbearable. John feels a cold numbness stealing over him. Bruce knows. The video made it to him. And John gets it: he wants to keep John away from Bane. Like the other cops, trying to protect him. They have no idea.

“Are you going to kill him?” he asks.

“Would you?” Batman says evenly.

John shakes his head. He can't read the eyes behind Batman's mask.

“Go,” Batman rasps.

John runs.

 

*
The bus is nearly at the bridge when John actually asks himself: What the hell am I doing?

He looks back at the kids—who, before the siege, he would have counted among the most important people in his life. And now there's—Gordon, and Bruce, and there's Bane, even Barsad, and they're all fighting for their lives outside City Hall and John ... isn't there.

He bounds up to the front of the bus and has it pulled over.

“Keep going,” he says, when Father Reilly tries to stop him from getting off. “Tell them the situation has changed, the city's about to blow and you have to get people over that bridge.”

“Where are you going?”

“Where I'm supposed to be,” John calls over his shoulder. He's already on the ground and running.

It's snowing. He warms up fast, running hard as he is. His breath burns in his lungs and his eyes sting and blur in the cold air. He doesn't even know what he intends to do. Stop Bane from killing Batman? Stop Batman from killing Bane? What if he can't stop any of it?

Then at least I'll die with my city, he thinks grimly.

He's out of breath, chest searing with every expansion of his lungs, when he reaches the street where the mercs and the cops are fighting. There are a lot of bodies on the pavement. He weaves his way through as hurriedly as he can, taking an elbow to the head and almost getting clocked in the face with the butt of a gun. He scrambles through the melee in time to see Talia stepping into one of Batman's stolen tanks—guarded by Barsad, who doesn't see John before a bullet fells him. Talia doesn't even pause.

A crush of bodies bars the way as John fights his way frantically toward the steps of City Hall. In a minute he's not even sure where Barsad fell. He has to stop, fighting for breath, and a low explosion within the chambers of City Hall distracts him entirely.

He forgets his fatigue, and races up the steps.

Selina Kyle is the first person he sees, perched on some sort of bike equipped with smoking cannons. There's Batman, getting to his feet, and that massive crumpled figure at the end of the hall—

John hurtles past them. He hits the ground on his knees and slides the last two feet to Bane's side, pulling him over onto his back. His brain goes static and dumb trying to process. Blood, holy shit, blood everywhere

Bane's eyes are open, just barely. He focuses, brow furrowing.

“John,” he rasps.

“Hey,” John says, like his heart isn't about to throb itself right through his throat. He swallows with difficulty. “Hey.”

Bane has to force in a breath with more effort than usual. The mask is broken, the tubes disconnected. His eyes are glazed over with pain and confusion.

“You were ... supposed to be gone,” he breathes.

John starts trying to connect tubes, hopelessly, not even sure what he's doing. One of them reconnects, and Bane's eyes flutter shut as he pulls in a meagre amount of anesthetic.

“I came back,” John says.

“Blake!” Selina yells, over by the entrance. “We're leaving!”

“Talia,” Bane gasps. When he opens his eyes again, they're shining, wet. He looks like a muzzled dog, helpless and afraid. “He'll kill her ... if the bomb is stopped ...”

“He won't,” John promises, starting to panic at the sight of Bane's unshed tears, his stark fear. “He won't, I swear, he doesn't do that—”

“Save her,” Bane begs. “She is ... all I have... Please.”

“You have me,” John says, desperate to give him some modicum of comfort right now. Unthinking, he bends down and presses a kiss to Bane's face, above the mask—just to make him know he's not alone, dying here on the floor. Bane closes his eyes, tilts his head away from John with a weak groan.

“Go,” he croaks.

Blake!” Selina yells.

After one last glance, John gets up and goes to her. She's bristling with impatience. Bruce is already gone. John guesses they're on the same side now.

“We're pushing the convoy east, toward the reactor,” she says, practically shoving him onto the Bat-bike or whatever it is. She climbs on expertly. “I didn't know good guys stopped to gloat.”

“I didn't know bad guys stuck around to help fight,” he says.

“I'm a girl.” She guns the engine and flips her goggles down. “Different rules.”

It takes everything he has in him not to look back.

 

*
After the end, when all is said and done, John wanders back to City Hall to watch the mercs being rounded up. There's a lot of dead men on the street. No one's gotten around to those yet.

Maybe Bane's still there.

He wars with himself for a few minutes on the steps before going inside. Just to see.

Bane is gone.

 

***
Blake finds him in the tunnels, slumped against a wall, waiting for death. Bane's whole body is starting to ignite with pain, spreading down his back and into his limbs. His knuckles throb, a sensation he hasn't felt for years, even when they were split open and bleeding.

With his eyes closed, he hears Blake's footsteps. Then he feels the detective's gentle hands at his face, working at the mask. Bane opens his eyes, and Blake's face, brow furrowed in concentration, swims into view. Another tube connects. Bane has to force his chest to expand, and his broken ribs scream in protest, but it's worth it.

“Talia?” he rasps.

Blake doesn't say anything.

Bane pushes him away. He feels as weak as a child, but Blake still falls over and has to fling out an arm to catch himself. Ignoring him, Bane puts his head in his hands. He can't look at Blake. He can hear himself making a low, raw, animal-sound of grief. Talia is gone.

“I'm sorry,” Blake whispers.

It strikes Bane, dimly, that he's serious. However he hated Talia, he is sorry that Bane is in pain. Bane hates him and wants to hold him all at once.

After a minute, collecting himself, Bane lifts his head with an effort and strains to bring Blake into focus.

“Barsad?” he asks.

“I saw him get shot,” says Blake quietly. “I didn't see him get up.”

Bane thinks about his steady lieutenant, and the way they left things. He'd been angry, and rightly so—but Barsad has been loyal. His most faithful of followers. Bane regrets hitting him now. Things are different, now.

“He is ... strong,” Bane manages to wheeze out, one breath at a time. His eyes slide shut. Trying to convince himself as much as Blake, Bane adds, “He will ... find me.”

Blake pauses. “I think it might just be you and me this time.”

Bane has no energy to argue. It took the last of his inhuman strength to drag himself from the floor of City Hall into the sewers, like a fleeing rat. He's unspeakably ashamed that Blake has to see him like this, weak, the strength ebbing from him. Speaking is growing harder. He tries to convey his need in as few words as possible.

“Mask ... I need ...”

“I can bring you whatever you need,” Blake says. “Okay? If you just stay here and don't move, I can get—”

“No,” Bane whispers, reaching blindly for him when he starts to rise. Unexpected panic grips him at the thought of Blake leaving. “Not ... just yet.” His voice is barely audible, even to himself. “John.”

Blake hesitates. Then he sits back down and presses himself to Bane's side. He takes one of Bane's hands, flinching a little to find it cold for the first time, then holding tight.

“Okay,” he says. “I'm here. I'll—I'll keep you safe.”

Bane can feel the shift of his entire paradigm under his feet. He has always been the moon to Talia's world, circling, guarding, always in her orbit. But Talia is gone. Blake seems to have a gravitational pull all his own, and Bane is drawn helplessly towards it. It's a new feeling. Where Talia was dark and deadly and beautiful for it, Blake is bright and brilliant. He shines.

Too good for this city. The thought of Blake making his way around a post-siege Gotham, rounding up thugs and roughs, is suddenly unbearable. He doesn't even know how precious he is; doesn't treat his body with the regard it deserves. He needs help.

He needs Bane.

What Bane wants more than anything is to lie down and close his eyes, succumb to the suffocating blackness and let it bear him away from the pain, join Talia in the long sleep. But it's not what he deserves. He failed her. There has been no redemption for him in Gotham.

Not yet.

He closes his eyes—only to sleep. Just to make sure, he forces out raggedly, “When I wake up ... will you ...?”

“I'll be here.”

Bane nods, letting his head loll onto his chest.

“I'm glad ... glad you came back,” he breathes.

“Don't talk,” says Blake softly. “Just rest. I'll stay here with you.”

Bane lets this comfort him. He can be weak, for today. He leaves his hand clasped in John Blake's, and he sleeps.