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Stiffen the Sinews (Summon Up the Blood)

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*

When John wakes, he's surprised to find a blanket over him. He's been shivering his way through each night, too proud to curl up next to his protector for warmth. The blanket is old and worn and it smells musty, but he's cocooned himself within it and it holds body heat better than his clothes alone.

He brings his hands closer to his face, curled up in a tight fetal ball, and blows warm air over them. He's sore, as usual, and his inner thighs feel uncomfortably slick, but even that is something he's beginning to adjust to. The light is still dim and murky; few bodies are stirring beyond the iron bars of the cell. If he can move past his discomforts and go back to sleep, he might get another couple hours of peace before Bane rouses him.

Then he realizes Bane is already awake. He raises his head and squints in the dark, trying to work out what his—guardian is doing. Bane is crouched at the far end of the cell, next to the adjacent wall of bars. That cell is closed off from the inside by a wall of dark curtains, shielding its contents; it has been since John got here. He always assumed it held supplies of some sort, probably medical—only the doctor has keys to that cell—but now, at Bane's side, the curtain twitches.

Bane speaks softly in some other language, maybe Arabic. There's a quiet reply. John soon stops straining to hear: the rest of the conversation is carried out in this other language, indecipherable to him.

He's surprised. He's been here for two weeks, judging by the marks he's left with a flinty piece of stone on the wall, and he never knew they had a neighbour. The man next-door must be very quiet during the day.

He's curious only until men start rousing themselves outside, and Bane leaves the bars and goes back to bed; then John says, “Who's in the other cell?”

Bane hesitates, and it occurs to John that Bane didn't know he was awake, or he might have cut his hushed conversation short sooner.

“No one of concern,” Bane says finally, “to you.”

John considers this, decides the knowledge won't help him, then rolls over and decides to sleep for as long as Bane will let him.

 

*
John can't remember how he got into the pit. He remembers this: Waking up with a throbbing headache and a dry tongue, sprawled on a rock floor, hands tied in front of him; suddenly conscious that about a dozen men are peering down at him. Some are kneeling at his sides, fingering his clothes with open curiosity. Above them, a hazy circle of blue sky floats into view.

John flinches away from their hands and eyes. Seeing that he's awake, a couple of them try speaking to him, but he shakes his head until one particularly hulking, dark man says, “English?”

John nods and tries to sit up. Half a dozen hands press him back down. He jerks away angrily, then nearly swoons when nausea makes his surroundings whirl around him. A few men chuckle roughly.

“English,” he affirms, sinking weakly back down. He swallows; his saliva is tacky. “Where am I?”

The man—dark hair, cunning dark eyes—tries to pull him upright. “Come.”

“What? Why?” John says, resisting, and the other men protest, too. One of them even pulls a sort of primitive blade out from under his cloak, getting to his feet, a challenge which the dark-eyed man meets with a brief, laconic glance. He utters something that's probably meant to be a warning, but two other men stand up on either side of the armed man, and they look angry, too.

A smaller man is beckoned to the dark one's side, and sent forward, where a fist-fight breaks out. Other men get up to look on with bored apathy, and while the rest are watching, an older man brings a little flask to John's lips. John resists, until he realizes it's water—slightly gritty, but cool water—and he drinks gratefully.

“Thank you,” he says, and the old man's face creases in a smile. He says something John doesn't understand, trying to slide a hand under John's shirt. John rebuffs him gently but firmly, thinking this a mistake at first, and then he hears a new voice:

“He expects repayment for the water.”

Grateful just to hear another English voice, John twists around. The speaker is watching from a short distance away. He wears a hood, and some sort of muslin shroud conceals most of his face, but his grey eyes are visible and glittering with amusement.

The older man withdraws abruptly, hissing at the newcomer. The fist-fight stops.

“You were smart not to go with the big one,” the hooded man says, ignoring all the others, who are watching his and John's exchange with a rapt air. He approaches, pulling out a blade of his own, and up close he's nearly as big as the dark-eyed one. John shrinks away, but all the man does when he stoops down at John's side is slash the ropes binding his wrists together. John bites his lip and rubs his hands carefully. The man's eyes skate swiftly up and down his body, not in the salacious way the old man's had. “He would not have treated you well.”

John senses he has a friend. He hopes he's found one, in this grim unsettling place. He tries to ask, “Why are they all looking at me ...” but can't say “like that”. His companion seems to understand.

“They all desire you,” he says matter-of-factly.

“Why?” John chokes out.

“Because you are young,” the stranger says. “Because you are something new. There are no women here, so men like you must suffice.”

John's head whirls and throbs. He has to fight not to let his panic suffocate him. “Where's ... here?”

“Home.”

It occurs to John, slowly, how quiet the place has become. The other men, even the hulking dark-eyed man, are all watching the hooded one with what looks like a mixture of wariness and hatred and, in the dark one's case, disgust. Stepping forward, the dark one barks a sentence in some harsh-sounding language.

John's companion makes some reply, then stands up and helps John to his feet. John has to hang onto him for an extra moment before he's steady, while the other man spits scornfully on the ground.

“What did he say?” John asks.

“He asked if I intend to claim you right here and now.” The stranger pockets his blade. “I reminded him I have never taken a bedslave and I don't mean to now. He thinks I'm lying, to avoid a fight with him. Which is good, for you,” he adds. “He won't take you just yet, not if I thinks I am interested, nor will anyone else.”

“And what happens when he decides you don't want to fight him after all?” John asks uneasily.

Grey eyes crinkle at the corners in a smile. “That will be a bad day for you, small one.”

“I'm not supposed to be here,” John blurts out. “I'm not—”

The hooded man shrugs. “What does it matter down here? There's no escape for you, or any of us.”

He starts to walk away. Desperately, John says, “Aren't you going to help me?”

“My help won't change your fate,” the man says, careless. “It's better that you learn that now.”

 

*
The prison is circular. Barred cells line the stone walls. Men roam freely—there is, after all, nowhere to go.

When night falls, and the ring of sky above them goes black, John lies down on his coat on the bare floor against a wall and tries to relax without falling asleep. He can hear the muted sounds of garbled screams and flesh hitting flesh.

That's when they come for him. Hands sliding over his body, forcing fingers into his mouth. He thrashes, and finds himself shoved onto his back and pinned there. He can't count how many there are. He can hear their feverish panting. Their palms are sweaty where they touch him, tugging at his clothes. A couple hands make their way down the front of his pants, groping hard enough to make his eyes water; he bites down on the fingers in his mouth and gets his head slammed against the rock for his troubles.

It lasts maybe a minute, though it feels like an age—there's a shout in the dark, a true snarl of a voice that makes John's blood run cold. His attackers' hands slide away. A second barked command, and they slink back into the shadows where they came from.

Silence falls temporarily over the prison. John dry-heaves a couple times, trying to get rid of the taste of sweat and dirt on his tongue, and pulls his clothes back into place with shaking hands. Then he picks up his coat and abandons that patch of floor. He makes his way along the stone wall until he can find the narrowest crevice, and he wedges himself into it to wait until morning.

 

*
His second day in the pit is a haze of fear and alertness that leaves him exhausted. He catalogues as much information as he can. One of the first things he learns is that there are no guards here, which strikes him as strange, since he'd thought it was a guard who saved him in the night.

Nobody touches him, although he can feel how high tensions are whenever other men are close. Some offer him food or drink; he declines each time, though his stomach cramps and his throat burns. He returns to his crevice at night, and no one approaches him there.

The next day, emboldened by his temporary immunity, he decides to make his way down to the water basin in the middle of the pit. Men watch him go by, not moving to stop him. He travels the spiral path all the way down until he can stoop down next to the pit of muddy water and examine it closely, trying to decide if it would be okay to drink. Probably not, but he's never been this thirsty in his life.

There's one other man there at the edge of the water, soaking some clothes and wringing them out by hand. His appearance is a surprise to John—he hasn't noticed this man among the others, all the time he's been watching. This man is boyish and slight. He has longer hair than the rest, and his eyes are lined with what looks like kohl. He smiles when he sees John looking, which John returns uneasily, noting that the man has no teeth.

He finally decides to just go for it, cholera be damned, and scoops some water into his cupped palms, when the other man waves frantically at him to get his attention. John looks up. The man starts to say something, stops, then mimes drinking the water the same way as John is about to, and does a pretty good impression of puking.

John laughs, letting the water run out of his hands, and wipes his palms on his jeans. It's somehow deeply refreshing just to see a friendly face. He points to the clear plastic bottle of water resting next to the man. “Can I get some of that, then?”

The man's smile falters. Verifying that John is pointing to the water, he at last reluctantly picks it up and holds it out. John smiles back, reaches to take it.

“Don't take that,” a low voice warns.

John startles, and twists to see the man with the hood standing behind him. How did he get there so silently? John's friend with the kohl quickly drops the bottle, lowers his eyes and goes back to washing clothes. The hooded man says something to him, briefly, and the man hunches over even more, thoroughly abased.

To John, the man says, “They call this man Aisha. A woman's name. If you drink his befouled water, you become like him. No one may touch him unless they are raping or beating him; if a man here wants sex, he must obey. He is the lowest caste of prisoner here.”

John takes his hand away from the bottled water quickly. “Isn't that what they're going to do to me anyway?” he asks, trying to sound annoyed rather than afraid. The hooded man tips his head to one side.

“Many of them want you for a wife. Then you become like him; but only your husband may have you, or say who else has the right.”

“Great,” John says. It's getting harder to swallow his fear and pretend he's aloof. “Anything else I should know?”

The man's grey eyes smile. “Don't drink this water.”

“I got that.” John gets to his feet. “What's your name?”

“I have none,” the man says. He looks aside, disinterested. “The men here call me Bane.”

“Okay, well, Bane,” John says, “how do I not become anyone's bitch?”

“Best them in combat.” Bane's eyes smile again; he looks John up and down. “If you are unable, better to have a husband to protect you.”

John tries to picture himself beating the dark-eyed man in a fight and can't. He's not even a cop; he was plucked right out of the academy. All the experience he has in fighting was gained as an orphan kid on the streets of Gotham, and not for anything like this. He's a very long way from the small-time crack dealers in Gotham. In this hellish place, men have only one outlet, and that's each other. They'll fight tooth and claw for the right to his body, and pass him around like a party favour afterward.

He sinks to his knees again, not knowing what to say. He wants to curl up in a ball, to hide himself away from everyone's eyes, but there is no place to hide here.

Above him, the man called Bane sighs. He hunkers down and pulls a bottle of water out of his clothes. “Drink,” he says.

John falls on the water desperately. It tastes better than anything to have ever passed his lips. His aching, parched throat relaxes as he wets it. He doesn't even care that he's gulping it, instead of sipping.

When he's drained the bottle, Bane takes it back wordlessly.

“Thanks,” John says. Only now does his wariness return. “I thought you weren't going to help me.”

“I changed my mind.”

“Am I supposed to repay you for that?”

“You will,” Bane says, eyes crinkling. “What's your name?”

John swallows; his throat eases the way. “John Blake.”

“John Blake.” Bane practically purrs it. “Can you fight, John Blake?”

“Not against those guys.”

“Then,” Bane says, standing, “I wish you luck.”

What a liar, John thinks, feeling slightly let down, as Bane walks away. He's not helpful at all.

 

*
It happens the next evening, when the light is low.

Amir, the dark-eyed one, has timed it well. The water from the day before took the edge off John's thirst, but his mouth is dry and parched again, and he's gone days with no food or sleep now. He's weak and tired. The fact that Amir comes for him is not a surprise. The manner in which he does it is.

John is just slinking away to his crevice when the bigger man catches him by the hair and drags him into the open, where plenty of men are around to see. He throws John to his knees in front of him and points commandingly at his crotch.

John leans away, weak but too proud to give over so easily, especially in sight of so many other men. Amir scowls and grabs him by the chin, trying to force his thumb into John's mouth.

“Open,” he demands. John shows his teeth angrily. He's not going to roll over and let another man fuck his mouth without a battle.

He gets one. Amir drags him to his feet and backhands him hard enough to send him spilling to the ground again. He doesn't even give John time to submit (not that he would) before laying into him viciously.

The surrounding men watch and cheer as John is brutally beaten with fists and feet. They form an impenetrable wall, kicking John scornfully back toward his attacker when he tumbles up against their legs. Amir pursues him everywhere, kicking him in the ribs, in the back, striking him over and over. He means to thrash John into submission, and he's not going to stop until he's satisfied.

Eventually alarm breaks through the fog in John's brain, and he starts to panic. What if this doesn't stop until he's dead? Which alternative is actually better? He only knows which one produces the most immediate fear.

“Stop,” he croaks, trying to shield his face with his arms.

Amir throws him onto his back and straddles his chest. He punches John in the face systematically, taking his time about it. John tries to lash out at him, but is swiftly blinded by his own blood. Amir's sweat drips onto his face. He's enjoying this. John feels his nose break, hears the crunch of cartilage. He tastes blood; his mouth is bleeding.

He goes limp. He can't win.

Amir is satisfied by this. He pulls John over onto his belly, hauls him onto his knees and yanks his pants down. John clenches his hands into shaking fists, buries his face in his arms. The men are cheering. They're all here to witness this, his terrible defeat. Maybe they'll all take a turn and then kill him afterward. He's not even supposed to be here; this is punishment for a crime he didn't even commit—

Amir is just mounting him when John hears a new voice, a sharp, rasping bark of a voice. Amir moves away. The men are going quiet. John lifts his head blearily and sees another man there—not wearing a muslin mask now, and difficult to place for a moment. The grey eyes are familiar, and so is the voice, but the face— This man could nearly be called handsome, but his lips are bisected diagonally by a long gash that twists his mouth mockingly and gives him a brutish appearance instead. For a second John is more afraid of him than Amir.

Amir says something, and Bane barks back. For the first time, unmuffled by a shroud, John recognizes the growling voice that had saved him on his first night.

After a tense pause, Amir steps aside, waves at John and says something that sounds appeasing. Bane moves forward. When he's close to John, Amir lunges at his unprotected back.

Bane whirls around, grabs his outstretched arm, and in a swift economy of movement he breaks Amir's arm and sends him hurtling into the mob of onlookers. The other man's howl of pain is terrible. A few of his friends start forward, but Bane has only to fix them in a cold glare to freeze them in place.

He turns back to John, offers him a hand. John coughs, reaching clumsily to try and pull his jeans up, and spits out a mouthful of blood.

“So much for not helping me,” he rasps.

Bane stops him when he tries to rise from a kneeling position. “Your opinion may change in a moment,” he says.

He's not even winded. He works one-handed at his own pants, quickly, and when John grasps his meaning he tries to pull away.

“I'm not,” he says weakly, his eyes stinging with something apart from blood and sweat, “fuck you, I'm not—”

A hand tightens in his hair.

“Suck. This will go better for you if you do.”

At eye level Bane's swelling cock is huge. Any dick must seem huge when you're about to put it in your mouth, John thinks distantly. He screws up his eyes and lurches forward, putting his mouth on it. It throbs, blood-hot, on his tongue, and he nearly gags.

The crowd of men might be totally silent or yelling; John can't hear anything over the pounding of blood in his ears. They might even be gone entirely. He wants desperately for this to be over, and can only think that maybe, if he keeps doing this, it will be. He sucks inexpertly, surprised to find his mouth producing saliva. Let this be over soon, he thinks, a mantra. Let this be over soon. Let this be

Bane, breathing raggedly above him, grabs John's arm, makes him offer a hand. He curls John's hand into a loose fist with two fingers outstretched, tries to force them into John's mouth alongside his prick. John splutters and backs off, shaking his head.

“Open yourself for me,” Bane says. His voice is low and grating, almost bestial.

“No,” John chokes.

Bane makes an impatient sound and shoves him back onto all fours. Shaking, John notes that the other men are still there, still watching, rapt, while Bane positions himself.

“Stubborn,” Bane growls behind him. Then he puts the head of his cock at John's hole and pushes in.

John screams. It's involuntary, his whole body rebelling as Bane's cock splits him open. It is big. Big and too much of an intrusion. The friction is unbearable. John drops onto his elbows, unable to hold himself up, and puts his head in his arms again so he won't be blinded by his tears and blood and sweat as Bane forces every inch inside him. He feels dangerously lightheaded by the time Bane's hips are resting flush against his ass. Then Bane takes him by the hips, holds him in place as he slides back out, making John cry out again. He's never felt so powerless.

After the first few shaky thrusts, Bane stops being careful with him and sets a quick, savage pace. He grunts softly as he slams in, forcing himself as far inside John as he'll go. Something tears deep inside and blood helps slick the way for him. Every drag of his cock past the tear is like a shard of glass biting into John, a sensation he doesn't know what to do with any more than the rest of it. He grinds his teeth until he thinks they'll break, muffling his groans and sobs; and Bane, too, is quiet, at odds with the awful violence he's wreaking upon John.

Just when John thinks his body has had as much as it can stand, Bane leans down against his back and quickens his pace. John knows what's coming, and his mind rebels briefly in response, but all his body can do is fling an arm out feebly. Bane catches his wrist, twisting and pinning it to the ground, and he tenses and comes with a snarling, animal sound. He spends himself in hot spurts inside John—claiming him—and there's nothing John can do about it.

When he pulls out, John feels a thin trickle of liquid run down his inner thigh. He doesn't look to see if it's blood or come. He just collapses against the rock. He feels wrung out like a sponge, exposed and empty, like he's been squeezed in a giant fist and drained of every drop of strength left in his body.

Bane shouts something at the throng of men, who are presumably still standing there, staring. John can sense them dispersing at the very fringes of his senses. Rough hands tug his jeans up and his shirt down, and when he doesn't move, Bane lifts him bodily in his arms. This is when John finally blacks out.

 

*
He blinks and finds himself lying on a cot in a cell, shivering uncontrollably. He rolls onto his side clumsily. His teeth chatter with every wave of shivers.

Bane is sitting on the edge of the cot, watching him.

“I—” John tries to say, but his voice cracks and fails, his throat too raw to produce words. How long had he been screaming?

“You belong to me,” Bane says. His voice is still a rasp. “No one else may touch you. Do you understand?”

John nods; he can still do that. Yesterday the thought of belonging to Bane opposed to Amir might have given some modicum of comfort, but not anymore. He can see why the other prisoners regard Bane with fear and hatred. The blunt strength in the tips of his fingers is unreal; the speed with which he'd incapacitated Amir inhuman.

Bane holds out a bottle of water. John hesitates for a long moment before taking it. Dried blood itches and flakes off his face.

When he's finished half the bottle—he's afraid he'll throw up if he has any more—Bane carefully wets a dirty, threadbare cloth with a bit of water and wipes John's face for him. He's not tender, but he isn't purposefully rough, either. John's nose feels hot; it throbs nauseatingly. He winces when the cloth comes near it.

“I set it while you were asleep,” Bane says. “You can see the doctor if you like, though I expect he's passed out by now.”

John shakes his head. He wants to confine this shame to as few people as possible.

When Bane reaches for John's pants, John gives a full-body flinch. He can't help it. It's difficult to read Bane's scarred face.

“I wouldn't have torn you,” he says, “if you'd only relaxed.”

A whisper is the best John can do. “You relax when someone's raping you.”

The word's never sounded so ugly and sharp but he has to say it, so they both know exactly where they stand. Bane's eyes flicker.

Finally, after a long, silent staring match, Bane stands.

“Sleep,” he says. “I'll find food for you, but sleep first and heal. You're safe here.”

Funny. John's never felt less safe in his life.

 

*
Bane's cell isn't what John expected. After three nights of wedging himself into a stone cranny to await dawn, it's somewhat of a surprise to find actual furniture in here. Bane has a cot with a pillow and a couple blankets—wide enough for them both, but after that first night, John starts sleeping on his coat on the floor. There's a table in the corner against the front bars of the cell, and a wooden chair. In the back corner there's a deep pit that serves as a private latrine, which is preferable to the communal one.

Most surprising of all is Bane's collection of books. They're arranged in several stacks on the table, from children's picture books to thousand-page tomes. There's a King James Bible and what John guesses is a Koran. The languages range from English to French to Russian to symbols John can't even guess at. Bane has four of the seven Harry Potter books, but they all look to be written in Arabic.

John comments on this eventually. He tries the first day not to look at or speak to Bane, but he can't stand the other man's silence for long. Silence gives John too much opportunity to think about what's been done to him. So he asks.

“I know every language spoken in the pit,” Bane says simply.

That must mean there are other English speakers here. John wants to find them, to give himself someone else to talk to, but the thought of leaving Bane's cell has become terrifying.

There are limits to Bane's English, he learns—vast gaps in his knowledge. Bane knows everything about how the prison works, but almost nothing of the outside world. John realizes this when he's telling Bane—stupid, nervous chatter to fill in that intolerable silence, to which Bane listens and says nothing in return—that he never read the Harry Potter books, but he did see some of the early movies, when the priest at the orphanage organized some lame little “fun night”, and—

Bane interrupts, unexpectedly. “I don't know that word.”

“What word?”

Bane reclines on his cot, arms folded behind his head. His eyes are half-lidded; the shroud covers most of his face, as usual. “Movies.”

“Oh,” John says. His brain turn momentarily to static, thrown off. He didn't think Bane was even listening to him. “Uh—video? Films?”

“I've heard of that,” Bane says, looking mildly intrigued now. “The pictures truly move?”

“Uh, yeah.” John might smile if he could remember how. “Jeez—how long have you been down here? It's not exactly a new concept.”

“A very long time,” says Bane.

“What did you do?”

Bane's eyes flash. “Don't ever ask a man what his crime is,” he warns. “It wouldn't be wise for you here.”

“I didn't do what they said I did,” John says, impulsively.

“It doesn't matter,” Bane says. “You're here now.”

Choking anger constricts John's throat momentarily. “And I belong to you.”

“Yes,” Bane says, without feeling. “You belong to me.”

 

*
It could be worse.

That's what John tells himself.

At least Bane knows English. At least he tolerates John's constant inane chatter. He doesn't beat him the way Amir did; he has nothing to prove. He knows he's stronger than John. He brings John food and water and new clothes, made of some soft cloth, and he doesn't stare when John changes. John doesn't touch his things, but when he asks if he can borrow a book, Bane digs through his collection and tosses him A Tale of Two Cities. The only time he seems to show any sign of temper is when John, curious about the wall of bars adjacent to the table, sticks a finger through and strokes the dark curtain within. The whole cell is walled off from within by curtain on all sides.

Bane is there in a flash. He moves in total silence, like a cat. He grabs John's wrist and wrenches, pulling him away, up off the chair and onto his feet until John is on tiptoe.

“Do not ever touch that curtain,” Bane says flatly.

“Okay,” John gasps. “Okay, okay—”

Bane lets him go. John immediately cradles his wrist against his chest, pretty sure it's not sprained, but sore all the same.

“Better to have no sense of curiosity down here,” Bane says, and John understands that Bane is not angry. He was just teaching John a lesson, in his swift, brutal way: Don't go poking around. Despite his roughness, Bane is actually trying to keep John safe.

John hates him anyway.

The door to the cell is open all the time; Bane comes and goes freely. John stays in, but even with the door open and him penned in, nobody enters to bother him. They stare openly through the bars, they make obscene gestures at him and jeer mockingly in their own tongues, but nobody enters; and if they turn to leave and find Bane standing silently behind them, John has the pleasure of watching the colour quickly drain from their faces.

“Everyone is afraid of you here,” John says one night, curled up uncomfortably on his coat.

Bane is quiet for a long time. Long enough to make John think he's said something he shouldn't.

Then, from the cot, Bane says, “Are you afraid of me?”

Resentful, John says, “Yes.”

“You needn't be.”

His throat almost closes again. “You raped me.”

The cot creaks audibly. John curls up tighter, afraid Bane is coming for him, but after a few agonizing seconds of silence, when Bane speaks, his voice is still coming from the cot.

“You don't hear what they say. I do,” he says, flat and unemotional. “They call you proud. You look men in the eyes and pretend to be their equal. Even with me.”

“I'm not—”

“What happened that night was not unplanned,” Bane says. “Amir would have taken you. Then his friends, one by one, and then any man who cared to pay for his turn. They meant to rape you day and night until you had no voice left to scream with, until the pride and anger had been fucked from you, and when they were bored, when you were no longer tight enough to please them, they would have slit your throat.”

“So what you did was to save me,” John says scornfully.

Bane's eyes flash in the dim light. “Yes, John,” he says sharply. “I saved you. And then I fed you and clothed you, and I gave you time to heal, even though you are mine to do with as I please and I owe you nothing. Your gratitude wouldn't go amiss.”

“Are you going to fuck me again?” John asks.

“Yes,” Bane says bluntly. “I own you.”

He pauses a moment. Then he adds, “It won't be as painful, the second time.”

John rolls over abruptly. “I'm going to sleep.”

Bane mutters something in Arabic. But he lets John sleep. At least there's that.

 

*
It's only a few days after John moves in with Bane that he sees the first attempted climb.

He hears the shouting first, cheering and yelling and chanting that wakes him from a shivery slumber. Bane is already getting out of bed and going to the door of the cell, and John yawns and stretches and joins him.

“What's happening?” he asks, rubbing at his arms to get the blood flowing. Bane looks down as if just noticing him, eyebrows furrowed, and John makes a conscious effort to stop shivering. He won't be forced to Bane's bed, not for any reason.

Bane turns away and points. “He's nearly at the ledge. Few men make it that far.”

John looks in the same direction everyone else is: up. It takes him a moment to pick out the man climbing the rock face that goes all the way up to that circle of blue sky.

“I didn't know you could climb out,” John says, feeling severely cheated.

Bane just grunts. “Watch.”

The man hauls himself onto a ledge near the top. He stands up, and John sees that he's got a rope harness wrapped around him. The shouts and chants rise to a fever pitch. The man walks to the edge of the rock shelf, sights set on another ledge that looks to be a short jump away. He swings his arms a couple times and backs up, then bounds forward and leaps.

It's not such a short jump, John realizes when the man misses his mark entirely. He plummets, screaming, until the rope snaps taut and sends him crashing into the rock wall. Stunned, the man is lowered. The watching crowd begins to disperse, grumbling.

Bane turns away. John follows him back into the cell.

“What happens if you get to the top?” he asks, just to make sure there's no catch.

“It doesn't matter,” Bane says. “No one has ever made it.”

“But what if you did?”

“You would leave here a free man,” Bane says simply. “That is the unique torment of this place. Freedom is there, just beyond reach, every day. Unattainable, but the hope drives men mad down here.”

“I want to do it,” John says. Bane shakes his head irritably.

“You can't.”

“Have you ever tried?”

“Once,” Bane replies, “when I was young, and stupid, like you. That was before I had watched men's spines snap as the rope caught them, or seen their skulls dashed against the wall. Men who make that climb are willing to die for their chance to escape, even knowing they have no chance.”

“That guy fell without breaking anything,” John pushes recklessly. “I could try. I haven't been down here that long, I'm still pretty strong. I could—”

Bane turns to him, eyes blazing.

“Enough,” he says. “This is not a discussion. You are forbidden from climbing that wall. Do you understand? Nod your head.”

John nods, smoldering inwardly with anger.

“Good,” Bane says. “Look down, John. If you look at me like that in front of anyone else I'll have to beat you. That's better. See, you do learn.”

 

*
John remembers that day vividly. It marks the second time Bane fucks him.

He's changing his clothes in the corner that evening, trying to do it as quickly as possible. As soon as the sun starts to set in the sky, the cold creeps into the pit. It seems to get colder every night. John's teeth are chattering as he pulls his shirt on quickly.

“Does it ever get warm in here?” he asks.

“Not at night, no,” Bane says behind him. “Stop dressing. Come here.”

John stops. He turns, slowly, and goes to Bane.

“On the bed,” Bane orders.

Of course. He's given John a few days to heal; now he gets to fuck him all over again. John gets on the bed carefully, numbly. Bane is breathing quickly and lightly next to him, pulling the muslin mask down to reveal the ugly gash over his mouth, then tugging his hood off. John only notices then that he's never seen Bane without the hood. It makes him look astonishingly young, baffling John for a moment until he realizes Bane probably is young, for all that every other prisoner in this place is scared of him. He can't be more than a few years older than John, who is only twenty. He has fair hair.

He sets down a small canister of something next to John. John sits back, unscrews the cap uncertainly and peers at the glistening substance within.

“What is that?” he asks.

“Grease. I bartered for it.” Bane nods toward it. “I can make you ready, or you can do it yourself.”

A sickly weight settles in John's stomach. “I'll do it,” he says, abhorring the thought of Bane's hands on him. The bruises from the first time still haven't faded.

Bane watches as John kneels awkwardly, peels his pants down just a bit, and collects a little grease on his fingertips. He hates the feel of it, sticky and cold. He has to take a few deep breaths before he can actually press a finger just behind his balls, smear a little of it over his hole and finally try to press in. His hand shakes and he thinks about Bane's cock spearing him open.

“Don't take all night,” Bane growls, pacing.

Squeezing his eyes shut, John forces himself to just push his finger in. It still feels horribly like an invasion. He moves his hand awkwardly, trying to spread the grease around. Not enough. He has to withdraw his hand, collect a bit more, and try again. His breath comes shakily in and out.

When Bane finally deems him ready, he scoops a bit of grease and takes his cock in hand to slick it. It's too cold to do anything more than pull their pants down just far enough; John's relieved when Bane doesn't make him remove anything. When Bane settles behind him on the bed, pushing John's shoulderblades so that he's on all fours, something in John quivers and breaks.

“Please don't do this,” he says in a small, cracking voice. “Please.”

Bane growls. “There are men here who would give anything to be in your position. This is the price you pay for shelter and safety, food and clothing. Should I send you back out there to fend for yourself? There's a line-up of men who would gladly take your place.”

“No. I'll stay,” John whispers. He won't let himself cry now. He lowers his head, and gradually feels Bane relax behind him.

“Good.” A rough palm settles at the base of his spine, then lifts away. “You made a good choice.”

It sure doesn't feel like a good choice when he pushes in. But John doesn't scream this time. He's proud of himself for that. Bane is right: it hurts less; but that doesn't make it much more tolerable. Bane is slower, too, not in a hurry to lay his claim on John this time. Every thrust is deep and powerful and John shakes through it, biting his lip until it bleeds so that he doesn't cry out. He's not sure if this is better or worse than the quick, brutal fuck of before.

Just before he finishes, Bane wraps an arm around John's belly as if to hold him up, and John can feel the weight of him on his back. He shudders, and then Bane is coming, inside him again. John wants to buck, to throw him off in revulsion; but he's got no strength, and Bane is pressing them close together with a sort of quiet strength that's impossible to fight against.

For a moment, when he's done, Bane touches his forehead to John's shoulder while he catches his breath. Then he's pulling out, straightening up, leaving an oily slickness between John's legs.

“Sleep in the cot tonight,” he says as he's drawing his pants back up. John does the same, painfully. “Warmer.”

The thought of lying beside him is nauseating.

“Fuck you,” John says weakly, without thinking.

Bane's marred mouth twists angrily, and John knows he's made a mistake.

Before he can shrink away, Bane is on his feet, dragging John by the scruff across the cell and hurling him viciously to the floor. He snatches John's coat up before he returns to the cot.

“Freeze and die for all I care,” he snarls, and drops onto his bed.

John curls up on the floor dizzily, the cold from the rock leaching into his muscles and making him ache. He aches all over.

He doesn't get very much sleep that night, but he still manages to dream about making the climb, going home to Gotham, and leaving this pit far, far behind.

 

*
Every night is colder than the last. After two weeks, the blanket appears.

Bane must have bartered for it. John doesn't ask what he gave up. He doesn't care.

Bane uses him twice a day on average, every night and once in the morning. He uses the grease, so that it doesn't hurt as much as that first time, but John sometimes wonders despairingly if he'll ever find it tolerable. If he seems particularly squirmy or in pain one night, Bane won't fuck him the next morning, but he will make John suck him, which is almost as bad. Bane is demanding, his sexual appetite a seemingly bottomless well. It's a hard slog to get him off, and he expects John to swallow. Sometimes he wants John three or four times in a day, and that's the worst, when there's light outside the cell and men can look in and watch his degradation.

He folds all his shame and humiliation into a tight, hot ball inside him and refuses to open it. He won't cry, either. If he cries, he thinks, he'll be acknowledging that his situation is futile. It will mean he accepts that Bane is his master.

Eventually, the cell becomes too claustrophobic. He follows Bane out one day, and is surprised when Bane says nothing. John follows him around the prison, watches him perform little errands and converse briefly with other men. Being around the other prisoners is terrifying—as far as John knows, they all watched Bane break him that first time—but he finds comfort in the last place he expected it: Bane's presence. When he's lurking in Bane's shadow, the men's eyes slide right over him. Nobody looks John in the eyes or lets their gaze linger. He's invisible.

John wanders away a little bit one day, curious about the cell next to theirs, wondering how close Bane will let him get to it, when he runs into a tall, slightly-built man who regards him curiously. He says something to John in a friendly enough manner, but when he brings a hand up and brushes his knuckles down the side of John's face, John flinches.

The blood drains from the man's face when Bane appears at John's side. He starts to speak, probably babbling some apology, but Bane cuts him off by wrapping a hand around the man's throat in a casual, almost thoughtful way. Then John gets to watch as the other man's knees almost buckle under him. His eyes bulge, the whites flashing. He seems to be begging, though curiously not fighting. The muslin shroud covering Bane's mouth flutters in and out as he breathes, and John watches, sickly fascinated, as a dark stain spreads over the front of the man's trousers. He starts crying.

John comes back to himself abruptly. “Jesus, let him go!”

Bane blinks, appearing to come out of a trance of his own. He releases the man, who runs away.

“Don't do that,” John says angrily, conscious that he is in no position to make demands. “He pissed his pants, for Christ's sake. No wonder everyone here hates you.”

“They respect me,” Bane corrects, eyes narrowing.

“Because they're terrified of you. What the hell did you do to these people?”

“I earned my name,” Bane says darkly. “And the next time a man touches you, I will kill him.”

I don't need you, John wants to say. But that's a lie, so he doesn't.

 

*
He wakes up early one morning—earlier than Bane—and he knows that, within an hour or so, Bane will wake and want to fuck him. He rolls over and stares at the figure on the cot.

He can't just lie here anymore.

He gets up and leaves the cell, alone. A couple men are milling around in the dim light: they ignore John utterly. He walks across the prison until he finds a man standing at the base of the wall where the rope harness is. He has to repeat his request twice before the man will even look at him. Then the man laughs, shakes his head, holds up a hand.

“Give me the rope,” John repeats stubbornly.

The man just laughs, so John grabs the harness himself and carefully loops it around him. He doesn't care what this man thinks. The men down here are malnourished and old. John is young and strong, fresh out of the police academy. He climbs obstacles like this all the time. Most importantly, he remembers the outside world. He can feel how strong its call is. He finds a good, solid foothold, and starts climbing.

From the ground, at first, the man jeers at him. “You go up, you die!” he says. Then another couple of men trickle over to watch. The higher John gets, the quieter they are. When he glances over his shoulder, a small crowd has formed.

He's halfway up the wall and climbing slowly when his foot slips. He clings to the wall with both hands, arms straining, and scrabbles to find another hold. The crowd starts making noise on the ground. Vultures; they want him to fall. Furiously, he pulls himself up a short way and finds a foothold, and he's shocked by the cheer that suddenly breaks out below him. He keeps going, and the noise starts building.

He thinks carefully about every hold. He plans the next couple yards in his head as he goes. And he climbs up the wall like a human gecko, sometimes stretched out uncomfortably, sometimes bunched up and trembling with effort. But he's doing it. The men below cheer him on.

“John!”

One voice cuts through the rest, sharp and commanding. John's nostrils flare; he keeps going, inching his way up the rock face.

“Stop!” Bane orders. “Get down now!”

Fuck you, John thinks savagely. When he glances down, Bane is pacing anxiously below him, staring up, the muslin dragging in and out as he breathes. Nothing could make John turn back right now.

The chanting starts when John hauls himself up onto the ledge. Few men make it that far, he recalls Bane saying, and he feels a sudden rush of pride. He gets shakily to his feet and looks down over the ledge, where a large flock of men has gathered to watch him. Their chanting buoys him up. Only Bane is silent, not pacing anymore, just watching him with burning eyes. If John had had any doubts about making that jump, they're washed away now.

That's right, asshole. You don't own me up here.

He walks to the edge of the ledge and looks up. The next ledge seems a long way away. He thinks about Bane on the ground, waiting for him to fail, and he musters himself. He backs up, and goes for it.

One hand grazes the ledge. Then he drops like a stone.

The rope tightens around his ribcage and yanks, sending him careening into the wall. Something cracks, and the rope tangles around John, tightening viciously when he comes to a stop, snarled up in the harness and swinging above the men's heads. Pain lances through his whole body; the world spins around him. The men are already beginning to disperse, disappointed.

“No,” he hears Bane snap when the man starts to untether the rope and lower John. “Leave him there. He can come down when he's ready.”

John groans, letting his head fall back. He thinks he might puke.

Bane leaves him there until evening, when the light is starting to go dim. All of John's limbs are numb and bloodless from the rope twisted around them. He feels like a demented piñata. Bane stands under him as another man starts to untie the rope, letting him down slowly.

John whimpers when he's lowered into Bane's arms, realizing only as blood starts to trickle back into his limbs that his right arm is broken. Fuck. Bane knows it, too; he palpates the limb briefly before he starts to cut the ropes away. He gathers John into his arms gently, surprising John.

“Have you learned your lesson?” he asks when the last of the rope falls away. “Or do you still think I talk for the pleasure of hearing my own voice?”

John opens his mouth to speak, and that's when Bane coolly dumps him on the floor. He walks away, leaving John in a miserable puddle of agony, feeling like a fool.

 

*
When John can finally walk, he drags himself unsteadily back to Bane's cell. His protector is already lying on the cot, apparently asleep. John moves his blanket around and lies down gingerly, curling himself around his arm.

Between the cold and the pain, he doesn't sleep at all that night. Every now and then he moans softly, holding his arm. He's got ropeburn and a wrenched shoulder but it's the broken limb that aches nauseatingly, eclipsing all other pains.

In the morning Bane rolls out of the cot and looks down at him scornfully.

“Up,” he says.

John struggles to comply. “Why?” he asks wearily. Surely Bane won't fuck him now.

Bane just flicks his head in the direction of the door.

John follows him out, staying close to him. They make their way across the pit to another spacious cell, this one lined with even more furniture than Bane's. John recognizes the prison doctor, slumped against the wall, fast asleep. John's seen him a few times before, usually visiting the curtained room next-door late at night.

Bane crouches and gives the man a shake. The man snorts and slumbers on. Bane backhands him, and he comes awake with a startle, blinking bleary eyes at them both like he's not sure where he is. For the first time, John notices the needles on the floor. The doctor mumbles something.

“Broken arm,” Bane says.

“Eh?”

Bane switches to a different language. He gestures impatiently at John's arm and repeats himself a few times while the doctor just stares uncomprehendingly at them. Finally Bane grabs him by the front of the shirt and hauls him to his feet, snarling into his face.

The doctor shuffles his feet and says something non-committal. Bane lets go of him in disgust and searches his pockets. He holds out a hand and deposits something into the doctor's upturned palm. John leans closer to see what it is: two batteries.

The doctor pockets both. He seems to wake up a bit more, motioning for John to have a seat while he goes through his things. Bane paces the length of the cell, radiating impatience, while the doctor finds a long piece of wood and binder twine, a few strips of cloth.

“Seriously?” John says.

“What did you expect?” Bane snaps. “Do you think you're still in America? I told you what would happen if you climbed that wall. Don't complain now.”

John subsides. It hurts like hell when the doctor splints his arm. He's forced to hold it out in a stiff line, to set it. The next month is going to be really uncomfortable. The doctor goes back to sleep as soon as they leave, and John's arm is still killing him.

“Stay put,” Bane orders when they return to the cell. “I'll be back later.”

“Fine,” John mutters, taking a seat on his blanket in the back corner. There's a dangerous glint in Bane's eye that tells John he should be on his best behaviour for the next few days. He wouldn't go anywhere even if he wanted to.

He wraps the blanket around himself, awkwardly, and slumps miserably against the wall. He wonders where Bane is going, and then reminds himself what Bane said about curiosity down here. He doesn't care what Bane does, anyway, as long as he's leaving John alone.

John sighs and scratches at his nape with his left hand, twisting his head a bit. He nearly jumps out of his skin when, from the corner of his eye, he sees a dark eye watching him from the curtained-off cell.

“Jesus—!”

The eye blinks, and a small hand appears to push the curtain aside more than a crack. John's heart is pounding. He'd totally forgotten there was someone in there. As a face appears between the edge of the curtain and the wall, he realizes with a jolt that the person is a child.

“Do you like the blanket?” the child whispers.

“What?” John says stupidly, dry-mouthed. The kid blinks.

“The blanket,” she—or he?—repeats. “Me and Mama gave you it, but it's a secret.”

“Uh,” John says. He peers a little more closely. The child's head is shaved and it wears a plain, dirt-brown tunic. Boy, he decides. “Yeah ... thank you. It's warm.”

The little boy smiles. “Do you live with my friend?”

“Who's your friend?”

The kid pulls the hood of his tunic over his head and covers his mouth with his collar. Bane. Rapist, killer, friend to little children. John's learning all kinds of new things today.

“Yeah,” John says. “You like him?”

The kid nods vigourously. “He teached me English.”

Not very well, John thinks but doesn't say. He's starting to smile a little bit, for the first time in days.

“And you live in there, with your ... mama?” he asks.

The kid nods again. “Mama's sleeping,” he says. “She sleeps in the day, but sometimes I can't sleep. Do you know who my daddy is?”

“No.”

“He's big and strong and he's going to find Mama and me and kill every man in this place except my friend,” the child says, with firm conviction. “And he's going to take us away and then we won't live in a pit.”

“That sounds nice,” says John.

“I can tell him to not kill you,” the boy adds. “Are you my friend?”

“Yeah,” John says, smiling again. His chapped lips crack a bit. “We're friends. What's your name?”

The boy picks at a little flake of something on the bars. “It's a secret.”

“Your name's a secret?”

“Yeah.” He looks up again, with round blue eyes. “What's your name?”

“I'm John.”

“I like that name.” The boy picks at the bars a bit again. “Mine is Talia.”

Talia... Oh. Oh. The boy isn't a boy at all. John swallows, and his saliva is thick and tacky in his throat.

“That's a pretty name,” he says hoarsely. Talia blinks up at him.

“What's pretty?”

“Pretty is ... you,” John says. “It's nice.”

She smiles suddenly, a wide smile. “You're pretty, too.”

“Thanks.” John smiles back, even though his heart is breaking for this kid, who lives here in this disgusting pit where there is nothing worth describing as pretty, and has never known anything else. What does she have to look forward to? She'll have to be locked up like this forever, or the prisoners will— Christ, this place is so fucked up.

There's a gasp from within the cell. Talia's eyes widen, and then someone is pulling her away, bundling her out of sight. Someone else appears in the gap between wall and curtain, eyes flashing furiously, and John has the curious experience of laying eyes on a woman who could be his twin. Dark hair, dark eyes, full of fire. She says something rapidly in another tongue, maybe talking to Talia. Then, to John:

“Stay away from my child.”

Her accent is heavy and exotic, much more so than Talia's, but John understands her just fine. With a crackle of indignation, he says, “You let her hang out with Bane, but I'm dangerous?”

Her eyes widen when she realizes John knows her secret: that her hidden child is a girl. She presses closer to the bars.

“Bane is a good man,” she says in a low, furious voice. “What he does to you is for your sake. Few would bother.”

“I'll be sure to thank—” John starts bitingly, but stops suddenly. A chill has just shot down his spine. He doesn't dare look up.

With a snarl, Bane grabs him by the shoulder and drags him off the ground, almost throwing him into the opposite wall. He's in John's face at once, breathing hard enough to make the shroud flutter, his eyes sparking with rage. His hand closes tightly around John's unbroken arm and John cowers against the wall, trying to make himself small. For all his big words, he will never stop being terrified of Bane.

“If I see you near those bars again,” Bane rasps, “I will break your other arm, do you understand? Nod.”

John nods quickly. There's a soft, stifled sound from behind the curtains, and he knows Talia is there.

Bane hears it, too. He glares into John's eyes, breathing hard, squeezing until all the blood has stopped flowing to John's arm. They can hear Talia's mother murmuring to her in the next cell.

“I bet she hears you at night,” John whispers impulsively.

Bane lets go of his arm. Then he backhands John hard enough to send him crumpling onto the cot, head ringing. Bane has him by the shirt collar before he's even recovered, yanking him up and leaning down until their faces are almost touching.

“Never talk to them again,” Bane seethes, “or I will kill you.”

Then he's straightening up, leaving John on the cot, bewildered and in pain. Bane drops into his chair and opens a book.

In the next cell, everything is quiet.

 

*
A couple of things happen over the next week or so.

John learns that the woman in the cell next-door has a name, and it's Nadiya. He doesn't talk to her or Talia again. It pains him, because he knows how it feels to be trapped here and totally alone, but if he lets himself give in and start talking to Talia, Bane will surely find out. He leaves the cell only in short stints now, as if he expects John to strike up a conversation with the inhabitants next door as soon as he's gone. John doesn't. He hardens himself to the plight of Talia and her mother. He sits straight and still and keeps his eyes on his book even as he hears Talia whispering to him through the curtain, John, John.

The other thing is that John makes a friend. He has to leave the cell and go for walks when he doesn't think he can ignore Talia any longer. He's getting braver. He doesn't need Bane nearby anymore: the men still walk past him as though he isn't there. Everyone knows who he is by now and they don't dare touch him or even look at him—except for one. He's an old Frenchman named Renard and he invites John to sit and talk in his cell. Because John is starved for company and English conversation, he obliges, though warily, at first.

Renard has been in the pit for a long time and he doesn't have the same fear of Bane that everyone else does. The first thing he says to John is, “So you're old scarface's wife, eh? He's a ugly son of a bitch, no?”

“Yes,” John says firmly, making the old man laugh.

He's a friendly face and a wealth of knowledge, and he doesn't want to fuck John, which is nice. John learns Nadiya's name from Renard, who naturally knows of her existence.

“Have you met the desert beauty next to your cell yet?” Renard asks. John nods. “Lucky you. Lots of men push their luck trying to get a glimpse of her, just to give themselves something to think about at night. Bane likes to keep her to himself, selfish bastard. Nadiya is her name. It means hope. Ironic, no?”

“What did she ...” John trails off, remembering what Bane said about asking people's crimes. Renard smiles, squinting at him.

“Something bad, no doubt. Just like the rest of us.”

He doesn't seem averse to questions, at least, the way Bane is, so John asks, “How'd Bane get that scar, anyway?”

Renard's thick white eyebrows shoot up. “That is a story your master would not like repeated.”

“Oh,” says John. Of course.

“I have no quarrel with Bane, but a wise man doesn't put his hand in a lion's mouth.” Renard grins slyly. He's missing a few teeth. “You could ask him yourself.”

John shakes his head quickly, and Renard laughs again. John visits him a few more times that week. It's hard to leave his cell and force himself to return to Bane's. Once Bane comes to fetch him, and though John is certain he'll be in trouble, or Renard will be, Bane simply nods to the old man politely, as if thanking him for keeping an eye on his wayward wife.

He doesn't fuck John for two days in a row, and John isn't sure if this is because of his arm or because Bane's thinking of what John said about Talia hearing him. Bane paces instead, incessantly, and he keeps his hands busy playing with pieces of string. John can't see what he's doing, but he catches a glimpse of Bane's handiwork one day and is startled to find that it's lace, or something very similar. Predictably, though, Bane soon puts down the lace and orders John to his cot, and then it's life as usual.

John could almost forget Talia and her mother are there, by the end of the week. Bane fucks him in the day more than usual and less at night, and that means John's too worried about keeping his arm straight and trying to avoid notice from other prisoners to think about whether the kid in the next cell can hear them or not. He grits his teeth and suffers through each ordeal silently, reminded of how much he hates Bane every time the other man finishes inside him and pulls out to leave a trail of come running down the inside of John's thigh. It's humiliating.

They speak to each other almost not at all, that week. John feels as if he's crossed some line, and doesn't know what it is—trying to escape, or discovering Talia. Bane just ignores him, taciturn as always. It's he who breaks the silence at the end of the week, stirring in his cot and saying, “John, come here.”

He'd had John the night before, rougher than usual, and John hasn't slept at all. It's freezing, and his whole lower body is sore on top of his arm. He's too proud to say so, though, and he goes to the cot slowly. He finds, with a mild sense of surprise, that Bane is already holding himself in hand. He'd been jerking off. John's never seen him do that before.

Bane sits up so that John can join him on the bed. His breathing is rapid and the hand that rests on the back of John's neck is warm. John lets Bane push him down onto all fours, a firm pressure. It's early morning, at least; still dark outside the cell. Nearly everyone is still asleep. Even so, for some reason it's now, exhausted and hurt and knowing that Bane won't bother to use more grease when John is still slick from last night, that John suddenly digs in his heels.

“Why don't I just suck you off?” he asks wearily. “Why do we have to fuck?”

“Because I own you,” Bane says in a low rumble, “and I say what we do.”

“My arm hurts.”

“That's not my fault.” Bane releases the back of his neck and tugs John's pants down a short way. John shifts on his knees, closing his eyes.

“You hurt me last night,” he finally admits.

Bane says nothing. He traces John's hole with a finger—John twitches away—and then slides it in, crooking his knuckle to stretch him a bit. John gasps, legs shaking. Bane removes his finger.

“Fold your arm under you,” he says suddenly, guiding John's arm gently. “Like this. There.”

In this new attitude, John is flat on his chest with his ass in the air. He hates it. Bane goes back to studying him, pushes a thumb into John's hole, and John shudders and screws his eyes shut.

“I can't,” he gulps. He feels swollen, too tight. Bane rests a hand at the base of his spine.

“Relax,” he growls. “I won't hurt you if you relax.”

Too soon, his thumb is gone and it's replaced by the thick head of his cock, pushing steadily until it breaches John's hole. A strangled cry escapes John and he clenches a hand tight in the blankets. His whole body is tense. His eyes leak.

He's prepared to weather this until it's over—nothing will stop Bane, that's clear—but there's a sudden scuffle from the next cell and a shrill voice cries, “Don't hurt him!”

Bane pulls out so fast it leaves John dizzy. They both pull their pants up, though when John looks, he sees that Talia is behind the curtain still, pressing against the bars. Nadiya's voice is just audible, soothing and hushing and speaking Talia's name, but Talia is crying, fighting her way to the crack between curtain and wall.

“He's my friend!” Her face appears, wet with tears in the dim light, between the bars. “I love him.”

Bane goes to her swiftly, crouching down and saying something in Nadiya's language. His voice is uncharacteristically gentle. John hears his own name a few times, and the word he thinks means cold. He sits up unsteadily, straightening out his clothes. As he watches, Talia pushes Bane away and reaches for him, for John.

“You always hurt him,” she says to Bane in English. “You're making him sad!”

Abruptly John thinks, fuck Bane. He doesn't want to sit here like a polite little domestic victim and say nothing. The kid is upset, and even though that's Bane's fault, it's still not right. John goes over, pushes Bane out of the way and takes one of the hands Talia reaches for him with and clasps it in both of his.

“Hey,” he says. At his back he can sense Bane moving aside, watching fiercely. “Don't be upset, okay?”

Nadiya is watching closely, too, lit by kerosene lamp from within her cell. She hovers protectively but doesn't move to intervene. Talia gazes up at John.

“He's hurting you,” she says.

“No way,” John says. “You remember the secret blanket you and your mom gave me? Well, some nights it's so cold, even that can't keep me warm. So then I lie down on the bed and he warms me up.”

Talia's tears are drying. She wipes at her face. “Really?”

John nods. “You know what, though? I did something really dumb. I fell and hurt my arm. Sometimes he forgets and lies on my arm by accident, and that hurts. But only for a bit.”

Talia's wide blue eyes scrutinize him. “You're always sad.”

“Bane is your friend,” John says firmly. “He's my friend, too.”

She thinks about it. Then she says, “Are you sad because you miss your home? Sometimes Mama's sad because she misses her home.”

John's throat tightens. He swallows hard and keeps his voice steady. “Yeah, I miss my home.”

Nadiya breaks in then, saying something to Talia. Talia looks up at her, then back at John, pulling her hand back.

“I have to go,” she says. “I'm sorry you hurt your arm, John.”

“That's okay,” John says. “It was my fault.”

Bane pulls him away then, and John falls over and has to catch himself on his good hand. Bane steps past him and has a quick, hushed conversation with Nadiya, from which John can't discern anything at all.

When the curtain is drawn again, Bane looks down at John, who is curled up uncomfortably on his blanket again.

“Why did you say that?” Bane asks.

“Because she's a fucking kid,” John mumbles. He just wants to sleep now. “Her life's fucked-up enough without knowing all this. Are you going to fuck me, or can I sleep?”

“You can sleep,” Bane says. “I'll wake you later.”

He pauses. Then he says, “She likes you. Did you have children ... before?”

“No.” John pulls the blanket over his head. “I just spent a lot of time with kids.” He doesn't feel like elaborating, and Bane doesn't ask.

Just before John finally goes to sleep, he realizes that he and Bane have something in common—they both care about Talia. They'll share a lie to make her happy. It's a weird feeling.

 

*
Bane doesn't order John to his bed again. Not until it's so cold at night that there's a sheen of frost over every stone surface in the morning. John initially resists, because all he can think is that it's been days since Bane last fucked him and how much it will hurt to be stretched open again.

“You're cold,” Bane says dryly. “Let me warm you.”

Fucker, John thinks angrily, using his own stupid lie against him. Then he gets up, and Bane says, “Bring your blanket.”

He does. He gets on the bed and Bane arranges the blankets into a rough cocoon. He grunts when John brushes him.

“You're frozen,” he says. “Don't sleep on the floor anymore.”

“Fine,” John says, unable to believe Bane isn't getting on top of him. He huddles under the blankets and waits, breathless, but Bane just rolls over, and is asleep within minutes.

 

*
Some sort of barrier has crumbled between the occupants of the two cells. Now John gets to see how Bane interacts with them, and it's interesting.

Talia and her mother sleep mostly during the day, to avoid being bothered by other prisoners. At dusk and dawn Nadiya draws back the curtain between them so they can interact freely, and John figures this is how it used to be, before he came along. Men lurk outside Bane's cell more frequently when he's away, probably trying to catch a glimpse of her, before Bane returns and scares them off.

Her cell is lavishly furnished, compared to everyone else's. There's an actual bed with red-and-gold patterned blankets on it, a rug on the floor, and a table for them to eat at. It's deeper than it looks, too, giving them a lot more space than John and Bane have. There's plenty of supplies, but no toys or anything to indicate that a child lives there. Nadiya's father funnels supplies to her, Bane explains, and he doesn't know about Talia.

He talks to Nadiya daily. He sits in the chair and has long conversations with her while Talia plays with crudely-constructed toys on the rug. When Bane is near Nadiya, he touches the shroud over his face repeatedly, like an unconscious tic. He gets quieter and the rasp in his voice is less pronounced. It's an unsettling transformation for John, who's gotten used to Bane the monster.

He himself doesn't interact with Nadiya. There's something intimidating about her cool, imperious demeanour, which thaws only for Bane. She's beautiful, despite, or perhaps because of, their surroundings—a diamond in the rough.

A month after John's arrival, another man is lowered into the pit. He's young, dark-skinned and attractive in a fairly feminine way. His fate is sealed. By nightfall his screams and sobs are echoing around the stone walls as the men take their turns with him. Bane looks out broodingly; John sits against the wall and tries to shut the noises out. In the next cell, Nadiya cradles a sleeping Talia in her lap, covering her ears, her features blank and unreadable. John can't imagine a worse hell to raise a child in. He understands the curtain now: not just to shield them from sight, but to block out sounds.

That could have been me, he thinks distantly, nauseous. His eyes meet Nadiya's for a moment. John looks away first. By the door to the cell, Bane murmurs something in Arabic and turns away.

John tries not to talk to Talia. He doesn't want to care. Bane talks to her, though, and he's just as gentle with her as he is with her mother. He crouches down next to the bars and shows her the picture books from his collection. He's teaching her to read. They read aloud to each other, his voice a soft rumble, hers small and halting. He never rushes her. Time ceases to matter when Bane is with Talia; he has all the patience in the world for her.

“I'm tired of these,” she says one evening. Bane only has four children's books.

“Should I tell you a story?” he asks.

“Your stories put bad pictures in my head,” she protests. “I want John to tell me a story.”

John is already in bed, trying to sleep, bundled up in the blankets. He groans when Bane puts a hand on his shoulder.

“You said I'm not allowed to talk to them,” he reminds Bane sarcastically.

“Tell her a story.” The edge in his voice that's never there with Talia and her mother is already back.

“I'm not a baby-sitter.”

Bane grabs him by the arm and literally drags him out of bed. He leans down to put his face close to John's.

“I have overpowered you again and again,” he says with quiet menace. “And still you fight me. Should I be harder with you, John? Do you think we don't have whips down here? Or will you accept that you are whatever I tell you to be?”

John shoves him off resentfully and walks past him. He can hear Bane's warning growl behind him, but Bane doesn't come after him. John crouches down next to Talia, who's heard nothing of their exchange. Her thumb is in her mouth; her eyes light up.

“Hi,” John says, tamping down his frustration. None of this is Talia's fault, he tells himself. “You want a story, huh?”

“Yes,” she says, removing her thumb.

Nadiya is watching John like a hawk. She murmurs Talia's name and Talia says, “Yes, please.”

“Okay,” John says, shifting around till he's almost comfortable. “Let's see. Have you heard of ... Goldilocks and the Three Bears?”

The thumb goes back in her mouth. She shakes her head.

“Let's start with that one, then.”

When he's done she wants another story, so he tells her Cinderella. She likes that one and wants to hear it again. By the time he's finished, he can't stop yawning, and Nadiya beckons Talia away from the bars.

“Let your friend sleep,” she says in English. To John, she says warily, “Thank you.”

John is finally allowed to crawl back into bed, where Bane is waiting. Curious, the other man says, “Did you make those up?”

“No. They're just kids' stories,” John mumbles. Bane lets him sleep.

Talia wants more “John stories” the next night, pushing away the book Bane hands her. Bane turns to him, but John is already getting out of bed wearily. He doesn't sleep well, lying next to Bane; he's tired. But he dutifully recites Snow White and then Sleeping Beauty before he's relieved of story-telling duty. The next night Talia asks what John's favourite story is, and he tries to think what he liked best when he was a kid.

“I guess The Lion King,” he says.

“Tell me that one.”

“I don't know. It's long.”

“I want The Lion King,” Talia says stubbornly. “I want that one.”

“Tell her,” Bane growls.

John has a headache. He wishes he'd gone with something simpler. He starts talking.

Talia knows what lions are, from pictures, but some of the other animals stump her. John's midway through struggling to describe a hyena when Nadiya wordlessly slides a pad of unmarked paper and a stick of charcoal under the bars. John starts drawing with his left hand, not very well, but enough to give her an idea as he goes along—hyena, wildebeest, meerkat, warthog—and Talia thrills over his pictures, touching her fingers to them and smudging the lines, so he draws all the characters for her. She's a captive audience and John starts to get into it, even recites lines from the movie.

By the time he's finished, he's hoarse and his throat aches. He wants to sleep.

“That was my favourite story,” Talia tells him. She touches the pictures again. “Can I have them?”

“Yeah, sure,” John says, reaching for a bottle of water. In the other cell, Nadiya calls to Talia softly.

“Bye.” Talia reaches her little hand through and strokes John's shoulder before leaving. Nadiya casts John a rare, enigmatic smile, then draws the curtain, blocking the light from their lamps so that John and Bane can sleep.

While John drinks his water, Bane observes him and says, “That was a good story.”

“It's from a movie,” John says. “A film.”

Bane seems surprised. “A film? Of talking lions?”

“It's a cartoon.”

“I don't know that word.”

“How can you not know what a cartoon is?” John says spitefully. “Christ. Everyone knows.”

“I don't,” says Bane.

“It's like ...” John gets up, grabs a picture book and flips it open. He jabs a finger at the illustrations. “Pictures. They put a bunch of pictures together so it looks like they're moving and add voices.”

“How?” Bane asks curiously.

“I don't know!” John tosses the book aside impatiently. “I'm not explaining animation to you. Surely you've seen a cartoon. Don't be an idiot.”

Bane's eyes narrow. “You think we have talking pictures down here to entertain us?”

“I don't mean in here,” John snaps. “I mean out there. When you were a kid.”

“I've always lived here.”

“You did something to get put down here, didn't you?”

“My crime was being born,” Bane says. “My father had died before he could be sentenced, so I was sent in his place.”

“But that's—when do you get out?” John says, genuinely thrown for a moment. “You've been here, what, twenty-five years or so?”

Bane gives him a puzzled look. “Nobody gets out,” he says. “I serve a life sentence, the same as you.”

There's a faint roaring in John's ears.

“What?” he hears himself say.

“Nobody leaves. The only men who come down here are prisoners. Nobody visits, and nobody is taken out.”

“That's—not true,” John stammers out. His knees feel weak; he sinks onto the cot. “Someone has to come down here sometimes.”

“Never,” says Bane. “They lower in the supplies.”

“But I'm not supposed to be here.” Panic swells in John like a rising chorus of screams. Bane says nothing. Frantic, John repeats, “I'm not supposed to be here! Someone was supposed to—to clear my name, come and get me—”

“I doubt that anyone knows you are here,” Bane says, not unkindly.

“I didn't do anything!” John says shakily. “I don't belong here!”

He rises, lurches to the door, but Bane blocks his way. Turning, John attacks the wall. He can't think. Can't breathe. Until now he's been living down here as if at a remove, seeing and experiencing everything through a translucent lens like a soap bubble. He's been living every day in the present, unable to think about what tomorrow will bring, just waiting, waiting for someone to say yes, we made a mistake, John Blake is innocent. Suddenly this place becomes real. The horizon stretches away and John can see the next month, year, decade before him, a life of living with Bane in this awful fucking pit that freezes at night and smells like shit and drains the life out of you. He slams his splinted arm against the wall and cries out, recoiling momentarily.

Bane is behind him, trying to pull him away. “Stop.”

“I have to get out of here!” For the first time John realizes he's crying, sucking in great sobbing breaths and blinking away the tears that stream down his face. He claws at the wall mindlessly; his nails break. Bane seems alarmed by this overt show of emotion. He doesn't know what to do with it.

“You're upset because your arm hurts,” he hazards, finally, and John shouts back:

“I'm upset because I'm stuck here with you!

That does it. Bane gathers him up in his arms, fighting and struggling, and drags him onto the bed. He holds John down, restraining rather than hurting. John fights him. He writhes and claws and thrashes, and none of it does any good. He will never be stronger than Bane. This is his life now. He is whatever Bane wants him to be.

He goes limp, gasping and shuddering. He tilts his face into the blankets and lets them soak away his tears. Bane sits up and maneuvers them until John is half sprawled across his lap, and John doesn't fight this.

“I don't understand,” Bane says, when a few minutes have passed and John is starting to go numb again. “You have a good life here, compared to most. You are fed and clothed and relatively safe. I don't even rent you to other men. This is the only place I have ever known; I've seen how terrible it can get for a man like you. I've been as kind to you as I know how to be. And in return I get disrespect, and insults, and now your tears. Most men would have beaten you to death by now, but you weep because you belong to me. Why?”

“You think it's kind, what you do?” John gasps out. “Shoving me around and hitting me and—raping me? That's kind?

“Kinder than the alternatives,” says Bane. He seems puzzled, again. “Somebody here has to have you.”

“But I don't want—”

“You're too ... attractive, to leave alone,” Bane says slowly. “If I don't use you, they will come for you. I can fight two or even three men at a time, but they would mob the cell to reach you. Even men who know they don't have a chance of tasting you will come just to take you away and give you to someone who will make proper use of you, so that they can pleasure themselves to the thought. Have you noticed them outside the cell, waiting like jackals? They haven't heard you crying out for days. I stopped because it upset Talia, but if I don't take you soon, in plain sight, they will lose patience.”

He pauses, then says, “Many are angry that I claimed you. They want you to belong to a man who will sell your favours. They all want you, John. I've been in too many fights to count, over you.”

“Fuck,” John breathes. He can't quite believe what he's hearing. “Why ... why didn't you say?”

“Nadiya said it wouldn't matter,” Bane says quietly. “That I would earn your hatred either way. I don't need you to like me, John. I only need you to believe I'm keeping you safe.”

“And you ... you have to fuck me, to keep me safe?”

“Yes.” He strokes John's head briefly. John feels sick. “The more violent and conspicuous, the better.”

“Don't. I don't want you to.”

“I know.”

“But you will anyway,” John says with a sickening throb of renewed hate. “Because you like it.”

“Yes,” Bane admits quietly. “I enjoy our coupling.”

“I want to go home.” It's the first time John's said it or even let himself think about it. He wants Gotham. He wants the familiar streets and trains and delis and people. Not this place. Not Bane, who communicates in violence and aggression because it's the only language he ever learned.

“I know,” Bane says again. “I'm sorry,” he adds.

John lies there with his head in Bane's lap and says nothing for a long time, just lets his tears seep into Bane's clothing. Bane strokes his hair a bit more. It's already grown longer since John's been here.

Forever. He's going to be here forever.

 

*

 

The next eleven months pass more quietly for John than the first one did. He learns more about the prison than he ever expected to.

As in any prison, there are cliques and gangs and rivals. An attack on one man may mean retribution from twenty more. Bane has no friends, and respects only the older men in the prison—who, John now knows, must have virtually raised him from infancy—but he also has no enemies. All men respect Bane, even Amir, the one who'd tried to claim John first. They hate him, but they respect him. This balance amongst the prisoners is tenuous: when a new man is lowered into the pit, everything is unsettled for a few days while he finds his feet in the prison hierarchy. To some, this hierarchy is all they have.

When the really cold season hits, about a month after John's arrival, relations in the pit thaw. Everyone comes together then to scrape up any piece of wood they have, and construct a bonfire under the circle of night sky. Enmities dissolve for the sake of warmth and company. Only the “women”, like Aisha, are relegated to the sides. When John asks, Bane takes him to the communal bonfire. He lies with his head pillowed in Bane's lap and listens to the men laugh and joke and swap stories, while Bane slowly strokes a hand through John's hair, over and over.

It's a strange culture in the pit. Violence is commonplace to them; they think nothing of it. They talk about rape as other men would discuss the weather. Evil, John realizes, becomes banal when one is surrounded by it.

Talia longs to see the fire up close, when there is one. She's fascinated by it. John ends up begging Bane to go to the doctor and ask for the keys to Nadiya's cell, so that they can let Talia out every now and then. Bane hedges, but when Nadiya says it's okay with her, he gets the keys for them. This sudden vast expansion of Talia's tiny world is initially overwhelming to her, but soon she's running and playing with John just like any child. The men, who think she's a boy, regard her with either indifference or indulgence, and when there's a bonfire, John isn't the only one cautioning her from touching the flames.

“I realize we seem like barbarians to you—I know, I was new here once, too,” Renard says dryly when John asks what makes the prisoners so tolerant of Talia. He expected Bane to have to constantly protect her, even if she is a “boy”. “But even the men here have their limits. They don't harm children.”

“Was everyone this nice to you, when you were a kid?” John asks Bane curiously later. Bane just grunts, and tells him not to ask questions.

Talia very quickly becomes the light in John's dark world. Bane's sexual appetite is ravenous once again. Two times a day is normal, sometimes with an additional blowjob thrown in. He stops fucking John briefly when they run out of grease, but he very quickly procurs a much larger quantity. John is always sore, and always hungry, even though Nadiya shares her supplies with them. He can't recall being this hungry since his first days outside the boys' home, on his own. It's an every-day ache, a hollowness in his stomach. When supplies are low before a drop, Bane makes sure everything goes to Nadiya and Talia, so that some days he and John eat nothing at all. Starvation is normal for Bane, and he carries on as usual, but John usually ends up lying down, light-headed, when he can't do anything else. Those days are long.

Most days are miserable, but then there's night. Then there's Talia, awake and alight with happiness, begging John for a story. He tells her everything he knows—The Little Mermaid and The Jungle Book are her favourites; she always makes him go back to those—and when he runs out of movies and fairy tales, he makes something up. On the nights that Bane has the keys, and is able to let Talia out, she settles herself in his or John's lap, sucking on her thumb, listening rapt to whatever tale John spins. When she's feeling more active, she uses Bane as a jungle gym, climbing on his shoulders and giggling when he tumbles her onto the cot. Nadiya scolds her from the other side of the bars, pacing up and down, but Bane never stops her from playing her games. He is her tireless mule, toy, and playmate. She crawls into his lap, touches his face, even pulls away the shroud and traces his scar curiously, and Bane does nothing. When John reaches for that shroud, he gets his wrist bent back painfully.

One of the best things about having Talia around is the strange truce that Bane and John settle into when she's awake and nearby. Bane doesn't use John or hurt him if he thinks Talia will see or hear. They play, if uncomfortably, at being friends. John has numbed himself to his fate once again, and he forces himself not to think about the morning, when Talia is asleep in the next cell and nothing is between him and Bane—but sometimes when he looks up he finds Nadiya watching him with sympathy in her eyes. She likes Bane, understands why he does what he does, but she still pities John.

He pities her too. Talia may be free to leave the cell and wander, free of harassment, with John and Bane at her sides, but Nadiya is truly a prisoner. Men lurk like hungry wolves outside her cell. If there are too many, Bane won't open the door even to take Talia out.

“Do you think Talia's dad will ever really come for them?” John asks Bane late one night, when Talia is back in her own cell and they've just finished fucking, quietly. He can't sleep. Bane traces his lower lip with a thumb.

“This is what you think about in my bed?”

“I have to think about something.”

Bane grunts. “No. He will never come. Talia has been saying that since she could talk, but Nadiya accepted long ago that her husband doesn't know she's here.”

There goes John's last chance, too. “Oh.”

“Even if he did know, what man would risk his life coming down here?”

“Wouldn't you, for Talia?” John asks.

Bane is quiet for a minute. Then he says, “For either one of them. In a heartbeat.”

 

*
On an especially freezing night, the last of the wood is dragged out and made into a crackling fire. Bane gets them a good place near the flames, John at his side, with Talia sitting in John's lap. She soon falls asleep.

Bane nudges John. “We should go to bed, as well.”

We should go to bed and fuck, is what he isn't saying. John hunches his shoulders around Talia instinctively.

“A little longer?” he says. “Please. It's cold.”

Bane's eyes narrow. But he says, “Come to bed when you're ready,” and gets up, leaving John there.

“What an excellent mother you will make to his children,” one of the other men says when Bane is gone, and those who know English start snickering.

Another man says contemplatively, “The last babe we had down here was Bane himself. You remember? He was about that size when he got that scar.”

“Little older.” That's Renard, shoving a stick in the pile with his foot and sending a shower of sparks into the air. Talia stirs. “Don't speak of it.”

“I want to hear,” John says recklessly. He looks back to make sure Bane is gone, then says, “Tell me.”

There's a shift in the attitude of the men grouped around the fire. Their attention is arrested. They all want to hear; but John's the only one bold enough to ask. The other man cracks his knuckles, relishing the spotlight.

“Well now,” he says. “I think few of us have any memories of Bane as a boy. Quiet, you know. We made sure he was fed and clothed, gave him blankets for the cold nights. He stayed out of the way. Nobody bothered him—he was just a boy, not worth it.”

The man holds up a finger. “But there was one who thought, he would make a good bed warmer. Raised up to it, you know? He convinced his friends of the same. This boy is small and tight, he said. He will give us no trouble. We can share him. We will get him young and teach him to be docile.”

All the other men around the fire are hushed. A few keep looking over their shoulders for Bane, just in case. This is a campfire story, John thinks, transfixed as the rest of them; something to make them shiver and lie awake at night. In this black pit of murderers, Bane is the boogeyman.

“There were seven of them. They cornered the nameless boy. Their leader, Cyrus, he pulled out a knife and said, Here, boy. You're gonna learn to suck cock today. And the boy said, No. Just like that. No.

The man leans closer to the fire. “Cyrus flew into a rage. No man said no to him, and now a little boy dared? So his friends held the boy down and Cyrus choked him, hard, so that his voice was never the same after that, and when the boy was half-dead Cyrus took his knife and carved his mouth wide open—” He demonstrates, tracing the line with his thumb. “And he said, Now you say no to me. Now you try to shut your mouth against a cock.”

“You should stop talking,” Renard warns. The man waves a dismissive hand at him, enjoying the attention.

“Of course, that was when we got there. Some men pulled Cyrus off, scared away his friends. Sewed Bane up and saw that they never bothered him again. We liked the boy, you know? But he was different then. He stopped talking for years and years. We did what we could for him.” The man shrugs. “Eventually you have to give up.

“Then—some years later, when he was a little bigger—we woke up one morning and there in the pool at the bottom of the pit was one of Cyrus's friends, face-down and drowned dead. No mark on him. We hauled him out, tossed away the body, said, maybe he slipped and fell in the night. But no. Because a few months later, another morning, there was another one of the seven, unmarked and stone-cold dead, and lying right where you're sitting.” He nods at John.

“That went on for years. Sometimes many months would pass and nothing would happen, and then we would find a body in the morning. Nobody ever saw him do it. It had to be him, though. Who else would have the patience? Must have taken him ten years to kill all seven.

“Cyrus was the last. He knew it, too. He knew the end was coming. He paid some bigger men to be bodyguards. They protected him every night. We knew, though, that his days were numbered. He was older, you see, and Bane was just in prime. And he did it. He took his time, let the man sweat, let the bodyguards grow lazy. No man could touch him in the day—he was too fast to be surprised, too strong to be overwhelmed—and he owned the night.

“Those two bodyguards were found with their throats slashed wide open. And Cyrus?” The man leans even closer, voice hushed. “Hanging from the very rope we use to try and leave this place. His limbs were all broken, his face purple and swollen, piss and shit running down his pants. And they say ...”

His voice drops to a whisper, so they have to lean closer, too. “They say that when Cyrus begged for his life, as Bane was putting the noose around his neck, he said the first thing he'd ever said in years, the last thing Cyrus would ever hear: Now say no to me.

They're all silent. The fire gutters in a phantom breeze. It strikes John that if someone jumped out of the shadows and yelled “boo” right now, they'd probably all scream like girls.

Renard breaks the silence, shaking his head. “That story should not be retold.”

The man waves a hand again. “What do you worry about? He likes you.”

“Bane doesn't like anyone,” Renard says flatly. “He merely tolerates them.”

He's wrong, John thinks, quietly excusing himself from the group with Talia bundled in his arms. Bane doesn't tolerate Nadiya and Talia. There's no other word for it—he loves them.

When John has taken the keys and returned Talia to her mother, he crawls into the cot. Bane pulls him close, soundlessly, and John goes. He doesn't understand how Bane can do this, knowing what he does now—that Bane was once made helpless under another man, made to hurt and bleed—and his hatred throbs anew. The story gives him no sympathy for Bane. It only confirms what John already knew: that Bane cares nothing for him. The only kindness Bane's got in him is for Talia and her mother. There's nothing left for John at all.

 

*
“Are you happy, John?” Bane asks one day.

It comes at the end of a stroll around the pit. Sometimes John is inclined to spend several days in a row holed up in the cell, if the men outside are in a particularly brutish mood, if the screaming at night sounds especially tortured; or worst of all, if someone else's wife has been badly injured or killed. Those are the only occasions, these days, when a man will feel inclined to fight Bane for the right to John's body.

Bane is observant—maybe the most observant man John has ever met, and he worked with cops—and he reads the mood in the pit unerringly. So when tempers are high, and John's courage has flickered low, he'll ask John to join him on an errand. It took John months to realize there is no errand. Bane will usually stop and chat with one of the older men in some other language, but that's all he does. It's just a walk, a short exercise so that John can stretch his legs and move around unmolested. It's a thoughtful gesture, coming from Bane. John supposes it's one of the few nice things Bane can do for him.

On this walk they passed by another man, a hulking brute of a man even bigger than Bane (who is far from the largest prisoner in the pit, but still considerably imposing). Knelt at the man's feet was one of the women, sucking his cock. The “woman”—shirtless, with kohl smeared around his eyes—had a hand thrust into his own pants and was touching himself openly, something the bigger man evidently permitted.

Bane actually stopped, curious, before John pulled him along in embarrassment. Nobody in the pit seems too shy about other people watching their transgressions, but John still has a sense of shame to cling to. Moreover, he didn't want Bane to think this was standard behaviour, something John should be doing when he's choking himself on Bane's dick.

It seems to have planted a thought in Bane's mind anyway, because now he's asking if John is happy. As if that were at all possible.

“No,” John answers him, finally. “I'm not happy.”

Bane's brow furrows. “Still?”

“I'll never be happy here,” John says tiredly. “Don't you get that? Where I come from, I don't belong to anyone, and I don't have to do anything for anyone else to protect myself ...”

He can see Bane's lack of understanding in his eyes. Bane has never known any place but this pit. It doesn't matter how hard John tries to explain: as far as Bane is concerned, John is here now and he's better off than most other men in the pit. Where he was before is irrelevant. John tries again, anyway.

“I used to have my own place,” he says, “and—all right, there wasn't heat, but I had a space heater, and I always had food, and clean water whenever I wanted it ...”

“You miss your home,” Bane says carefully.

“Yeah, but not just that. I used to have friends, and ... and girlfriends, occasionally ...”

Now Bane's interest is sparked. He understands this need. “Do you want—I could bring you a woman,” he offers. “Aisha would—”

No,” John says wearily. “Just forget it.”

“You don't pleasure yourself.”

“No, because I don't feel good.”

That seems to leave Bane at a loss. He sits down, picks up some string, untangles it carefully. He ties a little noose. Unties it. John watches him from the cot.

“What would make you feel good?” Bane asks without looking up when he's on his third miniature noose. John can't believe the deftness in those blunt fingers.

“Nothing,” John says dully. He revises, “Not getting fucked by you.”

Bane growls softly. “Not an option.”

“Then I don't know. You can't ask me to like it.”

“Fair enough,” Bane says. They both fall silent again.

 

*
In the middle of the warm season, when the pool at the bottom of the pit has almost dried up, a net full of chickens is lowered into the pit along with the rest of the monthly supply drop. One man eagerly slashes the netting to get at them, and in another moment the flapping, screeching birds are everywhere. It's almost comical to watch the men try to catch them.

Bane has seen chickens in the pit before and isn't as interested as John is. He watches John chase a particularly fat specimen for a few minutes, then, as soon as it starts to flap past him, he expertly stoops and catches it by the legs in one hand.

“Useless to try and pick them up,” he admonishes John, and then, with neat precision, he snaps the chicken's neck. It bursts into a wild frenzy of flapping before it's still.

John is annoyed with him at first, thinking foolishly that it might have laid eggs for them; but Nadiya, awakened by the commotion, tells him it would need warmth and sunlight for it to start laying, and Bane adds, more sensibly, that they would need to feed it. He sits and starts plucking the bird, and bids John to use the downy feathers to stuff a little cloth doll he's been making for Talia out of an old shirt.

The prison gradually goes quiet again as all the chickens are wrangled and killed. Someone starts a fire. Men start bartering: those with chicken parts to sell are suddenly rich. Bane guts their bird and takes it away; when he returns, the smell of roast chicken makes John's stomach growl like it hasn't in months.

Of course, because Bane is the one with the knife, he gives the lion's share—the upper half—to Nadiya and Talia. John is secretly glad when Nadiya refuses one of the breasts, arguing that Bane's given them plenty. Bane shrugs, and hands it to John.

It tastes better than anything John has ever eaten. The meat is moist, tender and juicy, glistening with fat, nothing like the dried, salted meat that is usually sent down. He tries to savour it, but ends up wolfing it anyway. He eats everything, sucks every last bit of flesh off the bones; when he cracks the bones with his teeth, he finds he can suck the marrow out. When Bane hands him the chicken's heart, he eats that too. The leg is the best, both drumstick and thigh, and he hangs onto the bones afterward, trying to leach every last bit of flavour out of them, until Bane gives him a piece of the back to work on. That's good too—there's plenty of fat on the back, and he feels like a dog worrying a bone, seeking out every small bit of meat and scraping it off with his teeth.

While Bane eats, he watches John. John is aware of his gaze, but he doesn't care. He's lost in a blissful haze, his stomach full for the first time in months. Chicken. It's something that ties him to his former life. It's delicious.

“That was the best meal I've ever had in my life,” he sighs, tossing away the bone when he's finally decided there's absolutely nothing nutritional left on it. He gets up off the floor and flops onto the cot, where Bane is sitting. “Never thought I'd appreciate a chicken so much. Usually I just eat the wings.”

Bane's eyes smile. His shroud is pulled up around his face and John realizes he stopped eating a while ago—because he gave more meat to John.

“I'm glad you enjoyed it,” Bane says.

“How often is there chicken?” John asks. In the back of his mind he wonders what they could sell, just to get one more leg.

“Once or twice a year.” Bane shrugs. “Usually I can get one.”

“Next time get two.”

Bane smiles again and rolls him over onto his stomach. “And what do I say to the other men? That my greedy wife wanted one all for himself?”

“Yeah.” John rolls back over, then grabs Bane's wrist before he can pull his hand away. The grease from the chicken is all over his fingers. John doesn't even ask before sucking Bane's fingers into his mouth.

Bane's eyes are hooded, all of a sudden. It only takes a few swipes of John's tongue for him to collect the last remaining taste of chicken from Bane's fingertips. He does that to each finger; then, deciding Bane has earned some attention in this vein, he lets go and beckons for the other. Bane gives John his hand soundlessly, and John lowers his eyelashes, making more of a show of it now: sucking two fingers in, grazing the pads with his teeth.

He's never teased Bane like this before, or offered himself—which, he realizes now, is probably how Bane will take this. He's just grateful, and doesn't know how else to say thank you. This is the language he and Bane speak when they're alone together.

Bane pulls his hand away as soon as John has lapped away the grease. His voice is gravel. “Done?”

“Yeah.”

Bane gets up and starts gathering up all the dropped bones. John wonders why, idly, and then thinks: tools. You use what you can get, down here. When Bane has made a tidy pile on the table, he returns to the cot. It squeaks under his weight as he lies down next to John.

It's late afternoon, the time of day when John usually has a nap, and is usually woken up by Bane wanting to fuck him. Bane's aroused now, it's obvious. He pulls John close, and John shuts his eyes and tenses, waiting for it—but all Bane does is press his masked face to John's neck for a moment, breathing deep. Then he lets go.

“Sleep,” he says. And they both do.

 

*
“John, you're Ariel!” Talia is virtually bouncing off the walls in their cell. “Bane, you be Prince Eric.”

“I can't sing,” John informs her. She scrambles up into his lap.

“Of course not, Ursula took your voice. But you have to make Bane give you the kiss of true love anyway.”

Bane looks deeply aggrieved by this, even more so than when Talia demanded he play the Scar to her Simba and John started snorting with laughter. John smiles.

“Who are you supposed to be, then?”

“Ursula.” Talia bares her little teeth. “I have your voice. Stop talking.”

“Pretty small for a bad guy,” John says, and flips her onto the cot, tickling her to make her squeal. She thrashes, shrieking and giggling.

“Kiss him!” she yells. “You have to kiss him.You can't talk till you do.”

John scoops her up. “Boys don't kiss each other, Ursula. It's boy code.”

“But you're Ariel! You're a princess. And he's your handsome prince.”

“I've seen handsomer,” John says. He puts her down. “Why don't you be Prince Eric?”

“Bane's the prince,” she says. She tugs at Bane's hand. He's sitting in the chair, observing them. “Kiss Ariel. You're in love.”

“You should go to bed,” Bane says, not looking at her.

“Kiss Ariel!” She starts jumping up and down. “She can't talk until you kiss her. Then you have to get married!”

“Enough, Talia!” Bane snaps.

It's the first time John's ever heard him snap at her. Talia flinches back from him swiftly. In the next second she's recovered, piling into John's lap to be tickled again.

“Eric's grouchy,” she says, a word that John taught her to describe Bane. She flings herself on top of him, cackling as she tries to press their lips together. John struggles gamely. “Now you have to marry me!

He plays with her until she's exhausted and Nadiya is calling to her softly that it's time for a nap. As John unlocks their door, Talia says goodnight to Bane brightly.

“Goodnight, Talia,” Bane replies gently.

John locks the door. He gives it a few minutes before he attacks Bane.

“Why'd you snap at her like that?”

Bane looks surprised. “You were the one who said no to her.”

“I said it nicely. You bit her head off.” John drops back onto the cot, clenching the sheets in his hands. “Whatever there is between us, you keep her out of it.”

“I don't understand,” says Bane.

“I mean if you're mad at me for going along with her game, or whatever, don't take it out on her. You don't have to bark at her because you're pissed off at me.”

“I wasn't—”

“You hurt her feelings,” John says. “Don't talk to her like that again.”

He flops onto his side and drags the covers over himself, hoping to end the conversation. Then he feels Bane's fingers digging into his shoulder.

“You're telling me what to do? In my own cell?”

John doesn't say anything.

Bane drops onto him. He shoves John onto his back and wrests the shroud off his face. John flinches. The sight of the thick, ugly gash that twists Bane's mouth into a fixed snarl is always, somehow, a surprise.

“Do you want to kiss me, John?” he demands.

John remains quiet. He's found silence works well when Bane is angry with him. Sure enough, after a moment, Bane is breathing less harshly. He moves aside.

“Don't ever tell me what to do,” he says. “I own you.”

“I know,” John says bitterly.

He regrets it immediately when Bane's fingers dig sharply into his shoulder again. He stiffens, clamping his eyes shut. Then Bane lets go, snarling under his breath.

“Sleep,” he growls.

Nights like these, John really wishes he could sleep with one eye open.

 

*
One good thing about Bane is that his dark moods are about as fleeting as his good ones. In the morning he acts as though nothing happened. He fucks John no more roughly than usual and lets him go back to sleep afterward.

When John wakes up again, and climbs stiffly out of bed, he finds Bane standing by the door, gazing up. John joins him. Everyone is watching a man make the climb out of the pit. He doesn't even make it as far as John did.

There's no surprise in John when the man fails. He's becoming as resigned as Bane. There's no point to climbing the wall when it will only mean an injury that could make him potentially vulnerable. He refuses to believe he'll die down here, but if he ever gets out, it won't be by climbing.

Bane goes out, does some bartering, while John stays behind and finishes sewing the cloth doll for Talia. It takes all the chicken feathers they saved to stuff the little doll, once John has cut off the pointy ends of each quill so they won't poke through the fabric. The doll is simple but it's padded and soft now, squishy enough to hug. Bane is pleased when he returns and finds that John has finished it. He tousles John's hair with his hand in passing, a strangely fond, unfamiliar gesture.

“You can give it to her tonight,” he tells John, even though it was he who did most of the work.

John brightens. Another reason to look forward to the night. In the evening Bane takes him again, as usual, and John braces himself through it, thinking of how happy Talia will be. She loves getting gifts, no matter how banal. The doll will thrill her. He fixates on that and can almost ignore the quick, hard snap of Bane's hips as he fucks into John. He can almost forgive himself for the soft, pained noises he makes.

When Bane is done, he drops onto the cot at John's side, panting. John lowers himself from all fours onto his belly, then rolls onto his side, curious. Bane's taken off both shroud and hood—a rare occurrence in the daytime. Thinking of how Bane had ruffled his hair, John reaches over and touches a strand of Bane's own fair hair, on an impulse.

Bane catches his wrist in a lightning-quick motion and glares. When John moves away from him, flicking his eyes downward, Bane seems to relax.

“Don't touch,” he says darkly, releasing John's wrist.

“Okay,” John says.

The next minute is long and tense. Then there's a commotion outside the cell. A man shouts Bane's name. Judging by the expression on Bane's face, he's not expecting it. He rolls out of the cot and yanks his pants up, pulling hood and shroud back on. John follows him.

“What's happening?”

“Stay,” Bane orders as he leaves the cell. John hovers in the door of the cell to watch.

It's Amir, the one who'd also wanted John, whose arm Bane had broken for trying to take John first. His arm is long healed now and he waits outside, loose-limbed and arrogant, with his friends behind him.

He speaks. Bane replies. Amir points to John, and Bane shakes his head. John appraises them quickly. Amir is bigger, but Bane is fast and vicious. Nobody beats Bane.

From the corner of his eye Bane sees John standing in the doorway. He turns his head and growls, “Go back—”

Amir lunges while Bane is still speaking. Bane reacts without missing a beat, ducking out of the way of the blow and attacking at once. He snarls as he fights, like an animal. Amir's friends fan out, pacing and cheering him on. Other men hang back and watch warily. In the next cell, John hears Nadiya awake and soothe Talia.

It happens too fast for John to see or warn Bane. One of Amir's friends bounds out of the dark, swinging a heavy block of wood. He smashes it into the back of Bane's skull.

Bane stumbles. Amir has him on the ground in the next instant, and John knows then that they've lost.

Three more of Amir's friends pile onto Bane, beating him savagely. John backpedals, scrambling to retreat into the cell and shut the door, but one man has already positioned himself close enough to grab John by the arm and drag him out. “Come,” the man orders.

John hits him. Almost at once a crusty sack is flung over his head and he's hit in the head by something hard, maybe the wood plank. Stars explode in his vision. He thinks he's falling, but rough hands pull him up and start dragging, half carrying him. He can't see, he can't even tell if he's upright. He's too dazed to think straight. All he can see in his mind's eye, over and over, is the last glimpse of Bane he had before the sack was thrown over his face: curled up on the ground in pain, trying to protect himself, while blood steadily blossomed over the shroud like scarlet flowers.

 

*
The men who take John away from Bane are in a joyous mood at having not only beaten Bane but stolen his wife as well. They celebrate by raping John all night.

He doesn't really remember it, afterward. He knows it happened, but he just sort of goes blank, inside and out. He's an empty shell. Nothing penetrates the fog.

He does learn that it can get worse than being forced to live in the pit with Bane. It can get much, much worse.

Amir doesn't have a cell. There are a few tunnels that wind around the pit like the passages of an ant colony, and he's claimed a sort of burrow for his own. The floor is strewn with cushions. The only light comes from kerosene lamps. Not even sunlight can find its way here. John wakes up in the morning—or maybe he was awake all along—shivering among the cushions, arms wrapped around his knees.

He fights, at first. It's a mistake. Amir beats him viciously, and spits on him with contempt afterward. He has John the most. While he rests, he watches his friends take their turns until he's excited enough to join in again.

He has six friends, whom John nicknames privately to separate them in his head—Shorty, Grumpy, Fatty, Sweaty, Beardy, and Grabby. He never learns their real names. None of them are like Bane. They don't read or have hobbies or make much conversation, even amongst themselves. John is their toy and, for the moment, their only means of entertainment. They hit him for no reason, they mock him, ask him in broken English how it is to be fucked by Bane, the ghul, the monster; if he ruts like a bull between John's legs. Unlike Bane, they don't tolerate any talking at all, especially talking back—he learns that very quickly. And they touch him, which adds a new level of humiliation to the rapes. They reach between his legs and grope him there, leaving dark bruises in the shape of their fingers. Bane never touched John any more than he had to. John hates and fears every single one of the six.

But it's Amir he hates most of all: smiling at John with dark killer's eyes, gripping a handful of his hair before throwing him to the floor to be fucked. He's drunk on his success for days; he can't get his fill of John, this tangible evidence of his mastery over Bane. He wants John at his side always and keeps him on a rough noose, a leash and collar, even though he doesn't leave the tunnel. When John can't stand fast enough for his liking, Amir strangles him with the rope until John's vision goes black. He rarely speaks in English to John. It's hard to see him as a person or anything more than a mindless brute. He's the real monster down here.

His only concession to John's abuse is to turn down the men who, even on that first day, seek him out to offer him goods and favours in exchange for a turn with John. News travels fast in the pit. It's not much of a kindness: John gets the feeling that Amir just wants to break him in first.

Nobody ever asked Bane if they could use John. They probably knew what the answer would be. Bane doesn't share his belongings with anyone.

 

*
It's impossible to judge the passing of time. John is dizzy all the time. He's so hungry.

“Johanna,” Amir proclaims on the third or fourth or fifth day.

“My name is John,” John mumbles confusedly past a split lip.

“Johanna,” Amir repeats. He leans down, gripping John by the jaw. “A fine name for a fine woman.”

And that's what they call him from then on. Even after everything, John still feels a little prickle of shame every time he hears it. If he doesn't respond, they beat him. He never thought to be grateful for something as simple as being allowed to keep his name. There's a lot of things he wouldn't have thought to be grateful for.

He doesn't hear anything about Bane, those first days. His worst fear is that they killed him. For a few days he's sick over the certainty that Bane is dead. Any man would have killed Bane, after taking John away from him. Bane is the scariest guy down here. Any man foolish enough to steal something from him would make damn certain that Bane couldn't steal it back.

Eventually, though, John starts to wonder. Amir is so confident, so arrogant, that maybe he let Bane live. Maybe he wanted to see Bane reduced to the bottom of the food chain for a while, lording over him from the top. Maybe he wants to flaunt his triumph. John has no way of knowing, not from the cold little hole where he's forced to spend all his time servicing the men.

When it's quiet, he wonders if Talia is okay, and what Nadiya has told her. He wonders if she got the doll that John and Bane made.

But quiet moments are few. He spends most of his time thinking no further than how to survive the next moment, stressed to his very last frayed nerve. He's treated like less than a pet, more a toy. They don't care if they damage him. He's expendable. He understands now how some of the other men like him simply go to sleep and never wake up, down here. Their minds break first: it just takes time for the body to catch up.

 

*
When John has been in the tunnel for—a week? more?—Amir yanks on the leash around his neck, choking him until John gets his feet under him.

“You can wash?” he says, shoving dirty clothes into John's arms. John staggers slightly under the weight. His legs are as lax and wobbly as a newborn colt's. “Wash this.”

“Where?” John asks tiredly.

Amir backhands him, and kicks him in the soft part of his stomach when he stoops to gather up the dropped laundry. Bile stings the back of his throat; he coughs for a minute before he's able to stand up again, eyes watering. Of course; he's not supposed to talk unless he's told.

“Come,” Amir orders.

He drags John on the leash. When they leave the winding tunnel and step into the open area of the pit, into the sun, John is nearly blinded by the light. He winces and squints his eyes against the glare. Amir marches on, tugging him along to the winding path that leads down to the pool. When they reach the water, he shoves John to his knees.

“Wash,” he says.

All of the clothes have bloodstains in them. Some are surely John's, but he wonders if Bane's blood clings to any of the garments. It makes him feel closer, in a way, to Bane.

He has to put one of the shirts down. His eyes are stinging. He throbs with yearning and regret.

Noticing that he's stopped, Amir grabs a fistful of his hair and starts to shove him down toward the water again, then changes his mind and drags John closer to him, unfastening his pants. Amir and his friends don't spare any of their water to bathe themselves; he tastes sour and musky when he forces John to suck him. John's throat is already swollen and sore. He almost chokes, and his eyes sting even more hotly.

He's struggling to detach, gagging on Amir's cock, when Amir suddenly shouts, “Hey, scarface!”

John snatches a fraction of a second to look up. His heart clenches. Above them, watching soundlessly, is Bane. His face is nearly as bruised as John's, and one of his eyes is almost swollen shut, the white around his pupil stained red, but he's there, alive, standing. What's visible of his face shows no emotion. Amir raises an arm.

“Thank you for keeping my woman tight!” he yells. It's in English for John's benefit.

Bane says nothing. When John flicks his gaze upward again, Bane is gone.

For days now John has been hoping, praying even, that Bane is alive. He was convinced that if Bane were alive, he'd come for John. For the first time, when he's back in the tunnel, he starts to have doubts. Maybe he's overestimating how much he means to Bane. Perhaps Bane will decide he's not worth the trouble, and leave him here. Maybe he'll accept that he's no longer strong enough to lay a claim to John and move on philosophically, the way everyone does in the pit. He'll find himself a wife who's less sought after, who doesn't make trouble for him or sass him or try to tell him what to do, and John will be stuck here, dying a little more ever day. Maybe John's not even desirable to him anymore, maybe he's ... tainted now.

Bane doesn't share.

He hurts all the time, so much he can't sleep even when they leave him alone for a couple hours. He bleeds, constantly. Amir and his cohorts aren't careful with John and they don't bother with grease when they fuck him. He's always hungry, always thirsty; he can't even ask for water without risking a beating.

He's at his very limits. They're going to kill him. It takes him a long time to realize, they mean to kill him. They know he's growing weaker: they don't care. They'll be glad of him for as long as he lasts, and then they'll just fuck someone else.

The worst part is, as young and healthy as John is, he's going to last a while.

He misses Bane. He would never have thought it possible. He misses the cell and Nadiya and Talia and the books and the food, and he misses Bane. When he's left alone for an hour or two, and he can't sleep, he curls up and tries not to think about it. When he thinks about Gotham and the life he left behind, he cries. He wants to go home.

 

*
Although the days he spends in Amir's dark, stinking burrow mark the darkest days of John's time in the pit, it's ultimately a short chapter in his long sentence. He shouldn't have doubted at all, of course: Bane comes for him in the end.

In the open part of the pit, there's always at least a little light—even when the moon isn't visible overhead, there are stars to see by. Total darkness is a rarity, but that's what Bane waits for. That's when he strikes. There's a full moon beaming down on the pit: when a cloud slides over to obscure it, an eerie hush falls over the entire prison.

John, awake in the burrow, is lying next to Beardy, who snores at his side with his pants still partway down. There are two men in the mouth of the burrow who guard him, as if he's the flag in a twisted game of Capture the Flag. Even John doesn't see or hear Bane kill them. He only hears the expulsion of breath at his side, like a feeble whine and a brief gurgling sound. Then a warm hand is pressed over John's mouth and Bane's voice in his ear says, “Be quiet. Follow me.”

John scrambles to obey as silently as he can. He can't see a damn thing; he has to trust Bane's guiding arm, and he still stumbles over a few pillows. It takes him a minute to realize they aren't leaving right away. Bane is still angry.

The slaughter is quick and bloody. None of Bane's victims hear him coming: most are asleep. John only hears their muted whimpers, the slice of tearing flesh, the spatter of blood hitting the walls and floor, and Bane's harsh breathing as he hunts. Within five minutes, he's back at John's side, a presence that looms over him, larger than life. It makes John shiver.

“Are you injured?” Bane asks when they leave the tunnel. It's still pitch dark; John can't imagine how he can see.

He opens his mouth to answer, but he's cut off by a furious shout. Out of the shadows, Amir lurches toward them, eyes wild, knife in his hand. Bane leaves John's side and moves directly toward him: like a shark, with nothing but raw, hungry purpose.

All of Amir's friends lie dead in the tunnel. There's no one to take Bane by surprise now. John listens to them grappling in the dark. Bane is utterly silent, and that's almost scarier than the snarls of before. There's a clatter as the knife goes flying, a pained huff as someone hits the rock floor.

The cloud slides away from the moon, and light suddenly comes beaming back into the pit. John is startled to find men already hovering nearby, attracted by the sounds of the fight. Bane is on top. Amir struggles underneath him, groping for his knife; Bane takes his hand and bends back his fingers until they snap, then gives Amir one hard shake, cracking his skull against the rock. It's done with callous efficiency. Amir screams, and that's when Bane starts hitting him. He's controlled in his violence, not rushed, but there's something chilling in his eyes that once again reminds John of a predator. He's not going to stop until this is finished.

He's still hitting Amir when Amir's screams taper into a gurgling moan, when the sound of knuckles hitting bone starts to turn into the sound of a wet melon being struck over and over. Amir's blood is all over the ground by the time Bane finally stops, panting.

He gets up. The rest of the prison is silent. Most of the population is watching him.

Bane glares at them. Throwing an arm out toward John, he barks a challenge. When there's no answer, he repeats it in English, a roar: “Who else would take him?”

Men start to retreat, fading back into the shadows. Bane turns to John. Flecks of Amir's blood stain the new shroud on his face. His grey eyes are like chips of ice.

“Nobody will ever touch you again,” he grates.

When he heads for the cell, John stumbles after him, feeling like he's in a dream.

In the cell Bane sits and pours some water onto a cloth, and starts wiping away the blood all over his fists. The crackling, angry energy around him is fading. The cell is no different, and yet to John it seems bigger, warmer. It seems like home.

He opens his mouth to speak, and only a strangled sound comes out. Bane looks up.

“John?”

“You came,” John croaks out. He's safe. He's back in the cell. Tears are already falling when he sinks to his knees on the cot. It hurts to talk. “God, I. I can't believe you came.”

“You are mine,” Bane says, looking away from John's tears. “No man takes what is mine.”

John forces a sobbing, shaky laugh. “That's why you came for me,” he says, too relieved to care—but then Bane looks at him, his gaze fierce and soft at the same time.

“Oh, John,” he says quietly.

He pulls John to him, carefully. John goes limp and lets it happen. Bane's hands cradle him, pressing John against his chest, and one hand comes up to start stroking through John's hair. John's breath shudders in and out of him. His whole body hurts. All the strength it took to survive is threading away and leaving him raw and open and weak. Bane holds him even more tightly.

“I was always going to come for you,” Bane says. “Always.”

There's so much pain in his voice, it shakes John more than anything else that night.