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Blake's Corollary

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Newton’s Third Law: When two bodies interact by exerting force on each other, these forces (termed the action and the reaction) are equal in magnitude, but opposite in direction.

Blake’s Corollary: Anything in between is fucked.

 

 


“Oh, for Christ’s sake--!”

These days, almost all of John’s conversations begin this way. “For Christ’s sake,” or “Goddammit,” or sometimes just a plain old, “Shit.” There’s nothing like the classics to get the ball rolling, although usually the conversations are halfway over before he’s even gotten his first word in. Not that you could call them conversations, when half the time his mouth is full of someone else’s skin and things are being bent in ways that the pope definitely wouldn’t approve of. 

It’s doing a number on his social skills, damn it all. For the sake of variety, John occasionally drops in on Gordon, just so he can have the chance to start a conversation with something simple and sane, like, “Hello, insert name here,” or “Hi,” or even, hey, crazy days are here to stay: “How’re you doing?” All the other ones start out halfway between exasperation and plain old irritation.

John swears a lot these days. A lot. He thinks God should give him a special dispensation on this one though, because he figures he’s owed this one.

His day usually starts out with Bruce when he drops in at 5 fucking a.m. Normal people are asleep at that hour. John, ignoring for a second the disaster of his sex life and what Dr. Phil would have to say about it -- most of the country would probably pay to find out -- considers himself a fairly normal guy. (Shut up.) The point is, he’s asleep, or would be, if there wasn’t a guy stripping off a bat costume in his kitchenette. And it isn’t like John’s making a shitload of money doing what he’s doing right now, which is mostly -- well, never mind what it is. Freelancing, he prefers to think of it, and there’s the weird pension thing that Gordon managed to set up for him with the city for his work during the occupation, but whatever, he can’t spring for more than a studio apartment, and it’s distracting and noisy, having Batman stripping down by his bed.

The guy was trained by ninjas, and yet he sounds like a herd of elephants when he takes off his kevlar. What kind of ninjas were they? John would really like to know. Did they come from Walmart? Were they discount ninjas? It’s the goddamn velcro that’s the trouble. Rip. Rip. Thunk. Thud. Nobody could sleep through that.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake--!”

And even if they could, nobody could then sleep through 210 pounds of sweaty, rubber-and-leather-and-sometimes-blood-but-definitely-hot smelling man sliding into bed with him with way too much ambition for that hour of the morning. 

Not that he’s complaining about the sex, mind you. It’s unbelievable sex. It’s mind-blowing sex. He’s straight (shut the fuck up, because he’s not taking this to confession) and it still blows his mind. It’s just, you know, 5 a.m.

And then Bruce goes, and John is left to pick up the pieces he’s left unbruised, unlicked or untouched, not that there’s much of those, glue them back onto the rest of him, and yawn his way through the rest of the day.

Right up until Bane shows up at at night. John walks in through the door of his studio, still yawning, makes it two steps, then gets picked up and tossed onto the bed.

Seriously. Even the pope couldn’t blame him for this one. “Goddammit!” 

How Bane gets into his apartment, John doesn’t know. He’s asked a few times, but he never gets a straight answer. Bane just looks at him like he’s a baby rabbit that’s done something so cute, the guy doesn’t know how to deal. Which just pisses John off, because okay, he’s a little bit smaller than Bane maybe, but he’s not wee. Fuck it, he’s manly, okay? He’s not a goddamn kitten or whatever it is that Bane’s thinking of whenever he gets that look.

 

Baby Rabbit

 

Whatever.  (Asshole.)

Sex with Bane is mind-bending. Spectacular. He's incredible in a different way than Bruce is. If John had to compare the two he might say sex with Bruce is like being in bed with a forest fire, while sex with Bane is like being caught in some riptide that’s sweeping him out to sea. If he was going to compare them, that is. Not that he can, because when he's with one or the other of them, there's no way he can think about anything at all, and when he's apart from them both, just thinking about them separately -- or even together -- makes him rock-hard, which pretty much puts an end to coherent thought. It baffles him that he's even capable of getting an erection during the hours he's not with them, because between the two they've wrung him so dry, it’s a miracle he can even produce saliva. He spends most of his off hours drinking bottles of water.

"Off" hours. Hah. He goes to work to rest.

They don't do a lot of talking, between the three of them. Mostly it's John that does the communication, half the time in four-letter words strung together in pleasing combinations, while Bruce and Bane devour him alive, like they're fresh from the desert and he's the first food they've seen in months. 

It's kind of flattering. It's definitely weird. It's absolutely killing him.

In fact, if it wasn't for Gordon, he probably would have died of exhaustion two months in.

 


No, it isn’t like that. Not with Gordon. Christ.

We’ll get to that later.

 


So, it starts with Bruce.

Actually, backtrack. It starts with Gordon.

In fact, no, go back even further, it starts with Bruce again. Bruce and his goddamn cave, which he gave directions to and nothing in the way of actual instructions about what to do with the stuff inside. It’s millions of dollars in equipment that entire governments would give their right arms to have, and none of it fits John. 

The idea, though. The idea fits him. The problem is, in some ways he’s a rotary phone guy in a cell phone world.

Bruce is right about the mask. Alone as John is in the world, the more he thinks about it, the more people he can think of who could get hurt if push came to shove and retaliation started to happen. A lot of them, he figures, can take care of themselves:  Gordon, for instance. The mob couldn’t get him. Joker and Harvey Dent and Bane couldn’t get him. Some two-bit mugger in a back alley probably wouldn’t stand a chance. The same deal goes for his friends still in the GPD.

It’s when he starts thinking about the kids at St. Swithin and Father Reilly that he gets worried. It’s not like he hasn’t made himself vulnerable where they’re concerned, and anybody who asked around would find out pretty quick that he’s got ties there. Strong ones. 

He feels like a dick doing it, but he goes to the sporting goods store anyway and buys few ski masks. Six of them, because for some reason it’s impossible to get black ones, and he refuses to run around Gotham looking like a cylon pumpkin just because the trendsetters have decided orange is in this year. He’ll have to experiment. 

He picks up a few bottles of black fabric dye from the local craft shop and gets hit on by a few women while he’s doing it. Apparently, crafty men are sexy, so long as they don’t explain they’re dying ski masks black so they won’t be recognized when they’re beating the crap out of folks. (Except for one woman, who apparently finds that an incredible turn-on. John thought her a little scary. Ironic, considering how things eventually work out.)

It takes a few tries, but eventually he gets a black ski mask that doesn’t transfer dye to his face whenever he sweats. Some of the stuff he was left in the cave actually works for him, so one night he finishes putting together an outfit of sorts that in no way resembles the Bat, and hits the streets.

The streets hit back.

Pretty hard, actually.

Fuck. 

The problem is, in the huge vacuum left by the repeal of the Dent Act, the destruction of civil government, mob rule followed by military rule, and the general extermination of a lot of the upper classes, the streets went feral. New muscle started moving in. The mafia is back, and it’s a free-for-all out there. Gordon’s got his hands full for a reason. It’s not for nothing the guy only sleeps three to four hours a night. 

In fact, it’s Gordon who finds him on the fifth night, lying flat on his back by the new Bat signal that Bruce left the Commissioner.

He comes up with two mugs and a first aid kit. Who knows how he knew. The first John realizes is the crunch of gravel and the smell of bad coffee. When he opens his eyes, Gordon is crouched down beside him, regarding him with a mixture of exasperation and concern.

“Son,” he says kindly, “you look like crap.”

Even with the ski mask on, there’s no point in trying to pretend to Gordon that he’s someone else. John thinks about it for a second, and decides he’ll feel like a bigger putz than he already does if he makes the attempt. Anyway, Gordon is already snapping on latex gloves and peeling the sliced up, bloody rags of John’s sweater away from the knife cut some mid-level enforcer left across his ribs.

“Thanks,” John says. “How can you tell? I have a mask on. Ow.”

“The bleeding is sort of a giveaway,” Gordon says. “Why weren’t you wearing a vest?”

“I don’t have one.”

Gordon’s eyebrow rises, and then he does something horrible to John that makes him swear. Strong and silent, that’s him. “Language,” the Commissioner reproves mildly. “Sorry. It needed to be cleaned. If you need a vest, you can borrow one from the GPD inventory.”

“I take it back. I have one. It just doesn’t fit.” John strips the mask from his face. The night air is a relief, a kiss of ice on his sweaty face. “Most of the armor he left me doesn’t fit. The stuff that does is heavy. He was a big guy. If I’m going to make this work, I have to play to my strengths.”

“Bleeding out isn’t going to be a strength.”

Everyone’s a comedian. 

“Speed,” John says, enunciating the word because Gordon is old, and sometimes old people need to have things spelled out for them. “Agility. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”

“Leak like a hemophiliac,” Gordon says, peeling off strips of surgical tape. “The guy who said that got Parkinson’s from repeated head trauma. Maybe you should invest in a helmet.”

“You’re not helping.”

“I’m patching you up and giving you coffee. What kind of help are you looking for?”

“Supportive, then. You’re not being supportive.”

“I’m supportive of you not getting yourself killed following in Batman’s footsteps,” Gordon says tiredly, sitting back on his heels. He snaps off a latex glove, its fingertips smudged red with John’s blood, and passes him one of the mugs. John pushes himself up to sit, feeling as old as Gordon looks, and takes a sip before inspecting Gordon’s first aid skills.

They are excellent. There’s no reason to be surprised by this. The Commissioner got enough practice during the five months of Bane’s rule, not to mention the Batman years.

“Thanks,” he says. 

Gordon gives him a look, which John interprets as, Don’t make me do this again, or maybe it's Stop being such an idiot. John has gotten pretty good at reading Gordon’s facial expressions over the last few months of close proximity, occasionally bunking together when Bane’s patrols were sweeping the streets, not to mention more than a few spots of mayhem, havoc, and heart-scorching terror, but he’s never been able to figure out which of the two that particular look means.

He’s gotten it a lot. You’d think he’d have figured it out by now.

“You’re not ready for this yet,” Gordon says.

“You see what I mean about being supportive?”

“I’m stating a fact, son.” He tosses the rest of the supplies back into the first aid kit and latches it closed before picking up his own mug. “Unless something’s changed in the last few months, you’re still only going in with the skills you learned in the Academy. You’re not wearing any protective gear. Right now you’re just a guy in a ski mask. There’s a-- a psychological aspect you haven’t gotten figured out yet, and you’ve obviously got some work to do on the physical.”

“I’m plenty fine on the physical,” John protests. “This was just a fluke.”

Gordon’s forehead corrugates. “Plenty fine on the physical,” he echoes.

“I just need to do some tailoring on Batman’s kevlar, or padding or something. Maybe I can take something out of the--”

Gordon punches him in the face.

Asshole.

Shit!” John swears, while Gordon -- Gordon -- looks personally affronted. Where the hell does Gordon get off looking offended? “Why did you do that?”

“You didn’t stop me.”

“This is a reason for you to punch people? You hit me! I’m sitting here bleeding on your roof--”

“Son, you are in trouble.”

“--right in the face. Like it’s not bad enough--”

“I wasn’t expecting you to let me.”

Let you? What, people not expecting you to hit them is a reason to throw fists? Do you deck babies, too? They’ve got stubby little arms, I bet they couldn’t stop you. They’d probably just bounce right off. How about kittens? You punch kittens?” John is overwhelmed by a sense of personal injury. Emotional personal injury, to be exact. And his face hurts, too. It's been a stressful week, and then he gets punched in the face by the Commissioner of the Police. It's just not right.

“You didn’t even see it coming, did you?” Gordon asks accusingly.

John is inclined to think this particularly unfair, so he takes a swing at Gordon with the fist that isn’t holding the coffee. 

Gordon flattens him like week-old road kill. John doesn't manage to lay a finger on him.

“...ow,” John says, staring up at the light-polluted night sky. 

“You need help,” Gordon says sadly.

You need therapy.” 

“You spilled your coffee.”

John sighs, what’s left of his irritation dissipating at this mild reproach. Gordon’s right. His coffee is toast. It’s possible -- dimly possible -- he has a point about the needing help, too. “I hate you,” he says. It's childish, but it's heartfelt. 

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Gordon asks, helping John sit back up again. “This vigilante business is serious. Batman got injured a lot, and he didn’t need medical insurance. He practically owned a hospital. I can get you on the GPD insurance as a contractor, but you can’t do this alone.”

“Who's alone? I got you to bring me bad coffee and first aid kits."

Gordon looks exasperated again. Then he just looks old. "You're not as funny as you think you are, son," he says, which John thinks is just uncalled for. 

“I'm plenty funny. And yes, I'm going to do this.” John shifts to lean against the base of the spotlight. “You need help. Admit it. You need help that isn’t constrained by the system.”

“I don’t want help if it means you’ll end up dead because of it.”

“You want Batman, I know,” John says crankily. “Christ. So do I. You think I don't know how screwed up this is? Who leaves a guy a cave in a will? Is that the behavior of a normal person?”

Gordon's mouth twitches, maybe into a smile. Actually, it looks a little pained, so maybe not. “He did dress up like a bat on a regular basis,” he points out dryly. “I don't think normal is a reasonable standard to hold him to."

John huffs, relaxing. Sags, a bit. “He must have thought I could handle it. I don't know. I'm trying. I’m not him, but I’m all you’ve got.”

The Commissioner studies him for a long time, not speaking, then hands him the other mug. “There’s someone I can talk to,” he says finally. “Someone who can help you. Let me see if--” He shakes his head, looking unsure of himself. It’s a little worrying. Definitely not an expression John’s seen him wear very often.

“Who?”

Gordon doesn’t answer, exactly. “Let me see if he’s available, first,” he says instead, and squeezes John’s shoulder. “Stay off the streets for a couple of nights. At least until that cut starts to heal up.”

Cut. Like it’s something he did by accident peeling fruit, instead of a massive wound taken on the field of battle from a gorilla with a goddamn machete. Fuck. Why does he even bother.

John stays off the street for two days, not because Gordon tells him to, but because he feels like it, okay? And it’s true that his massive wound needs to be taken care of. He spends most of his time in Bruce’s cave, trying to figure out what equipment can be revamped for his own uses. He finds a few things he thinks he can repurpose, most of them weapons, and is just holding a piece of armor and wondering why Bruce felt the need to have a fully articulated codpiece, when he hears machinery humming.

Which is a problem, because nobody’s supposed to be coming down here but Alfred, who’s on vacation somewhere. Italy, or something. So that leaves Fox, who John hasn’t met yet, or one of the kids who’re now living in the Wayne House Orphanage. One is ... awkward, but okay. The other is bad.

He thinks about hiding. Then he thinks about confronting whoever it is. He’s still trying to figure out what the best course of action is when the elevator opens and Bruce Wayne steps out.

Dead Bruce Wayne, for those who don’t have the program. Good-looking, well-dressed, completely not a zombie and perfectly healthy Bruce fucking dead man Wayne.

John just stands there, holding Bruce’s codpiece, feeling like the kid who’s got his hand stuck in the cookie jar.

“Hi,” says Bruce, looking relaxed and amused. See? This is how you’re supposed to start a conversation.

John, on the other hand, just blurts out the first thing that comes to mind. 

“You prick.”

That there’s prophetic irony, that is.

 


 

The codpiece, it turns out, isn’t a codpiece. It’s something to do with knees and thighs, which is a relief because John remembered Bruce as being big, but not, you know, big. Not that he was paying attention at the time. And dammit, it doesn’t matter anyway, because he’s too busy being pissed off about other things. 

Like: “You’re the guy Gordon was going to call? You mean to tell me he could’ve gotten Batman back at any time, and I’ve been running around Gotham getting my ass handed to me on a silver platter?”

“I retired,” Bruce says, like that’s supposed to mean something.

“You retired? Didn’t you do that already? You had your big Elvis comeback, got a silver watch, died again -- how many times is that, by the way? Because by my count, you should be married to Amy Pond by now.”

Bruce looks blank. Does he not watch TV? Fuck it.

“You ass monkey,” John snarls, because it just has to be said. 

“I’m sorry,” Bruce says, looking surprised and good-looking and, you know, generally speaking, like a complete shithead. “I hadn’t realized you’d cared.”

John has to just stand and breathe for a few minutes, because otherwise he’ll do something he might regret. Correction. Something that Bruce-the-Batman might make him regret. John wouldn’t regret it at all, right up until the point it resulted in personal injury.

Bruce says without even a semblance of sincerity, “Sorry?” 

“You left me a cave full of high-tech weaponry and armor,” John says through clenched jaws. “You left Gordon a new Bat signal. You implanted me with a tracking device, like I was a fucking poodle--”

“It’s a lot more high-tech than the ones they put in poodles,” Bruce says, looking injured.

“--and you thought I wouldn’t care? What did you think I was supposed to do with this?

“I thought you’d make a good Batman.”

The very fact that Bruce says this, like he thinks this is a perfectly reasonable response, is enough to give John an aneurysm. He’s too young to be killed by Bruce Wayne’s asshole tendencies. He closes his eyes. “This is not Bewitched,” he says in as even a tone as he can manage. “Gordon is not Elizabeth Montgomery. And you may be a dick, but I am not a Sargent.”

Bruce looks blank again. Right. Doesn’t watch TV. Probably didn’t catch old ‘60s reruns late at night, because he was out saving Gotham from bad guys. "They replaced the actor playing the husband," John explains, feeling the need to drive home the brilliance of his play on words. "It was supposed to be the same guy, but Dick York and Dick Sargent didn't look anything alike, and it's not like it wasn't obvious to viewers, why the fuck am I even explaining this to you--"

“Jim wouldn’t like it if he knew you were calling him a girl,” Bruce says reproachfully.

“Would ‘Jim’ happen to like finding out he has a tracking device implanted in his skull?” 

Bruce promptly looks stuffed. Hah. Point for John.

“So tell me,” John says grimly, tossing the codpiece -- knee-piece, whatever -- onto the workbench where he’s been dismantling a radio? maybe? that he found on one of Batman’s utility belts. It knocks some kind of circuit board thing into the water. (Bruce winces. Another point for John.) “How many people know you’re alive?”

“Two,” Bruce says, relaxing a little now that the subject has changed. He strolls over to the workbench and picks a few things up, inspecting them with caressing fingers -- John would swear he’s subvocalizing, there there, it’s okay, Daddy’s back -- before putting them back down again. “Alfred knows. And Selina Kyle.”

“And Gordon,” John reminds grittily, because Selina Kyle. And Gordon thinks he has poor judgment.

“Gordon was a bit of a surprise,” Bruce admits. “I hadn’t realized he knew.”

“Then how did he get in touch with you?”

“He cabled me.”

“You didn’t know he knew you were alive, and he managed to cable you? Where were you?”

“Florence, Italy.”

John pauses to process the unlikelihood of that.

Bruce says thoughtfully after a moment, “I’ve been sending Jim neckties for Father’s Day. I sent him one from Florence a few months ago. Maybe that’s how he figured it out.”

Neckties. For Father’s Day. To the top detective in Gotham. And he’s surprised Gordon figured out that he was alive.

John realizes with awe, “You’re an idiot.”

“You’re not taking this very well.”

“I got stabbed.” Because you decided to retire, is what he means.

Bruce doesn’t seem to take it that way. His face clears. “Oh,” he says. “That always made me tetchy, too.”

Tetchy. Tetchy? Seriously?

“Look,” John says, because he can be reasonable, too. “You left me with all this ... stuff. This burden. I don’t mind that, exactly. I want to help. I really do. Being a cop isn’t enough for me. Gordon’s right about the rules being shackles. I can help him protect people who need protecting. But this stuff--” He waves his arms at the cave around him while Bruce looks puzzled. 

“It all works,” Bruce says.

“It doesn’t fit,” John snaps. “I’m sorry, but have you actually looked at me? Have you noticed that I’m a few inches shorter than you, not to mention about fifty pounds lighter?”

Bruce blinks, then runs his gaze up and down John’s body in a considering way. In a, well, suddenly interested and very considering way. Not the kind of look you want to get from a priest, say. Or a guy whose codpiece-but-not-really you were just holding.

John clears his throat. “And then there’s the fighting thing.”

“I assumed that you could,” Bruce murmurs, his gaze still lingering on certain things. “You were a cop, after all.”

John snaps his fingers imperatively at Bruce. Up here, man. His face is up here. Bruce refocuses. “I was a rookie cop. I got the same training as every other cop. Academy training. So yeah, I can arrest someone, if he doesn’t have too many friends, or I can shoot someone--”

“No guns.”

“--or I can shoot someone,” John says a little louder, “if I had a gun. What I can’t do is single-handedly take on the mafia, or take down twelve guys at once with my bare hands. I’m not the fucking Batman with a black belt in Batman-fu.”

“I don’t have a black belt,” Bruce says mildly.

“Whatever. That is not the point.”

“I was trained by ninjas. They didn’t do belts. Swords,” Bruce says with nostalgia. “They did swords.”

John narrows his eyes at Bruce. “Exactly how many times did Bane hit you on the head?” he asks suspiciously. “I checked out that cowl, and you didn’t have much padding up there. Six times, maybe? Seven? Because in what messed-up reality do you think the Gotham Police Academy hires ninjas to train its recruits? With swords?”

“I suppose that’s why Gordon cabled me. He seemed to think you needed some training.”

There’s a telegram John would love to see. Dear Bruce. Stop. You’re going to get Blake killed. Stop. I give him three weeks tops before he gets decapitated. Stop. Quit messing around and do something about it. Stop. Maybe import some ninjas to teach him. Stop. That would be good. Stop. P.S. they put up a statue to you and it’s hideous. 

Stop. 

“Huh,” says John.

“Lucius can resize some of the stuff,” Bruce adds. “Although if you don’t like the bat motif, we can come up with some kind of alternative that works for you.”

“No capes,” John says darkly. “I’ve seen the Incredibles. Edna Mode makes some good points about capes.”

By the look of Bruce’s face, he doesn’t catch many movies, either. Christ. “As long as there’s a mask,” Bruce says.

“Huh,” says John again.

Bruce says cheerfully, “We’ll start tomorrow. You can call me sensei.”

“I hate you,” John says.

 

Chapter Text

 

The cape, John learns, helps Bruce fly. Which is -- okay, that’s pretty cool. John promises to rethink the cape.

Also, Bruce isn’t the worst teacher he has ever had. Mr. Hardwick, his teacher for 3rd period algebra, still wins on that front, and that’s because it turned out later that he wasn’t actually a math teacher. In fact, he wasn’t even Mr. Hardwick. It probably should’ve clued him in when Hardwick tried to explain to them that ‘x = 3’ if ‘x + 2 = 4,’ because even back then he was pretty sure that 3 + 2 = 5 -- he’s no Einstein, but come on -- but it wasn’t like he was really paying all that much attention. Apparently nobody else in the school was either. In fact, it wasn’t until the GPD came in and arrested Hardwick in the middle of the world’s most confusing lesson about polynomials (“which is any shape that has three or less sides, or more than two angels,” which even John found weird because he was raised Catholic so he thought he knew about angels, not to mention ... huh?) that they really realized just how bad a teacher he was.

Hardwick went to prison for 40 years as Andreas Bazevic after the Hague tried him for crimes against humanity in the Bosnian war, and John had to go to summer school to redo 9th grade math. So yeah. Bruce isn't the worst teacher he's ever had.

Admittedly, it’s a low bar.

“Couldn’t you just be Batman again?” John asks feebly at the end of two weeks, staring up at the night sky and wondering whether his left arm is still entirely attached to his body. “It’d be easier.”

Bruce makes a quietly amused sound from someplace nearby. 

“In case you’re wondering, I do mean easier for me,” John clarifies to a tree. They’re in Gotham Central Park, because Bruce thinks modern urban warfare is best learned surrounded by trees, bushes, and feral rabbits. This particular tree waves a few branches in the slow breeze. Just like pom-poms. Go, John. Rah rah. Even Nature is mocking him. 

“You’re doing fine,” Bruce says.

“You’re massacring me.”

“Yes.”

John waits for an encouraging addendum, like, But you’re getting better, so cheer up, li’l buddy! None is forthcoming.

Not the worst teacher he’s ever had. Right. Hold onto that thought.

Bruce is still ostensibly dead, so he’s been living in the cave. John is getting to know him a little better, for a given value of ‘better.’ Dead might not describe Bruce’s outsides, but his insides could get away with being called that; the guy is, for lack of a better word, hollow inside. 

Not his head, which has brains oozing out the ears. As far as John can tell, and it’s not like he’s had a lot of experience with this type, the man’s an honest-to-God genius. There doesn’t seem to be much that he can’t pick up and figure out how to do. A lot of the equipment in the cave is shit he made himself, stuff John would’ve sworn came from Lucius Fox and the squints at Wayne Industries R&D. The man  speaks six, maybe seven languages. He knows enough about medicine and anatomy that he could probably pass the medical boards without breaking a sweat, and incidentally, he knows how to kill a man using his little finger and a bobblehead doll. 

He seems to spend the hours between training sessions just reading books in the cave, or occasionally putting together new and terrifying devices out of odds and ends he finds lying around the workbench. Any day now, John expects to come back from work to be told Bruce invented a time-traveling shark with frickin’ laser beams during lunch.

The thing is, other than that, Bruce completely empty inside. No more anger. No more emotion. No anything. Even his amusement is shallow, like he’s putting on a paper grin and the first rain will wash it away. 

And he never, ever seems to get upset. About anything.

John learned a long time ago never to trust someone you can’t piss off.

“Why don’t you put the suit back on?” he asks the blue-yellow wash of lights overhead.

“Are you going to get back up?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“You’ll just flatten me again.”

“It’s educational.”

“What am I learning about? Gravity?”

“And anatomy.”

“Pass.”

“The Japanese have a saying. Nana korobi ya oki. Fall down seven times, stand up eight.”

“Well, we Americans have a saying, too. ‘Screw you.’”

Bruce is silent. “I like the Japanese one better,” he says after a minute. Every time he speaks, he’s doing it from a different direction, and John has no idea how Bruce is doing it, because he isn’t hearing or sensing any movement. He turns his head now to track that mild voice.

“You didn’t answer my question,” John points out.

“You didn’t get up.”

“I’ll get up if you answer my question.”

Bruce sighs. “I retired.”

“You already said that. Why are you really hanging up the suit?”

“Gotham doesn’t really need Batman anymore.”

“Explain to me why I’m flat on my back on the grass, then?” 

Bruce chuckles, that cellophane sound that’s convincing unless you actually listen to it or watch his eyes while he’s making it. “Gotham doesn’t need me anymore. It may need a protector, but Gordon did just fine for 8 years without me. It’s time for someone new. A fresh perspective.”

“And that’s me, is it? Fresh?” Not that John would come right out and say it, but Bruce sounds a little off when he's offering his explanation. If it were anyone else, John would've said he sounded sulkyDoes Batman do passive-aggressive?

“You said you’d get up,” Bruce reminds.

Fair is fair. John groans and drags himself up to sit, feeling every single bruise as he’s doing it. Lying down for so long was probably a mistake; he’s stiffened up from the cold. “Fine,” he grouses, stretching his neck to scramble back to his feet. “I’m up, I’m up--”

And then he’s down again, flat on his back with Bruce sitting on his chest.

Dressed in a hoodie and sweatpants, Bruce is still good-looking. Stylish. Also, fucking heavy. He straddles John’s chest with his knees pinning his arms down, and regards him with distant interest. “You should pay more attention to what’s going on around you,” he says.

Gordon used to say the same thing to him when he was a cop. “This is why I prefer staying down,” John says breathlessly, and Bruce smiles a little.

In fact, Bruce smiles a little. A real smile. The first real smile that John has ever seen on that face. And the thing is, suddenly John’s not just breathless from being squashed by over 200 pounds of ex-Batman. Bruce’s eyes are starting to heat up, like the guy hibernating behind them has found something worth his attention, and the thing you have to remember about Batman, now that you think about it, is that he was an intense guy. A guy with force of personality. A guy who could start fires with the laser focus of his attention. 

Which is now waking up and directed straight at John.

He clears his throat. “If you don’t mind?” he says. “I get the point. Lesson learned. We can get back to training now.”

Bruce is not listening to a word he’s saying, obviously. He makes that “Hmm?” sound that’s the international code for, la la la, can’t hear you, la la, and leans forward over John, bracing himself on his elbows at either side of John’s head. His face is way too close. His breath is tickling John’s skin. It’s a bit--

Uh.

John licks his lips. They suddenly feel dry. Bruce’s eyes narrow, focusing sharply on them. It’s ridiculous that John should feel like he’s being stripped naked when the guy is just harmlessly sitting on his chest and looking at his mouth, but there’s no accounting for personal paranoia.

“You could ... get off?” John suggests. Bruce smiles slowly, in a way that makes John rewind and replay the way that came out. Hastily, he tacks on, “Of me, that is?”

It’s odd, watching the personality drain away from behind that smile. Almost obscene. The smile doesn’t leave or even change in size; it just gets empty, and John is conscious of feeling like a complete asshole for making it happen. How did he do that? By being uncomfortable about being sat on? How the hell is that fair? Goddammit.

“Back to training,” Bruce says pleasantly, and disappears like David fucking Copperfield, one second there, the next second, poof. 

John rolls up to his feet, feeling the need to apologize, but Bruce isn’t anywhere to be seen. 

That would be because Bruce is in a tree, about to drop on his head and give him a concussion.

 


 

John decides not to apologize after all. In the words of his people: screw him.

 


 

The thing is, and here’s the killer, everyone wants Bruce to be Batman again, and that includes Bruce, even if he pretends otherwise. John’s seen how the guy wakes up whenever he looks at the suit, and the way he touches his old equipment is -- well, John’s willing to bet that there are a few women (and men, if rumors are true) who’d be able to provide some words to describe it. And sounds. And images. 

John tries not to think about that.

In the meantime, John’s already put his vote in. Vocally. There’s no question what Gordon would like either, even though he refuses to admit it, and John’s done plenty to try to get him to; he figures if anyone would stand a chance at convincing Bruce, it would be the Commissioner. 

Gordon’s put John back on the GPD payroll as a contractor. He’s got a little ID and everything. His job, the way Gordon explains it, is to do something about the list of missing kids that came out of the five month occupation and then the panicked desertion of Gotham after the army rolled in. Given the size of the list, this means John’s probably got regular employment for the next twelve years.

“Holy crap,” he says numbly.

“I actually need you to do this,” Gordon says, his voice muffled through his fingers. He’s got his head in his hands, his glasses pushed up over his eyebrows so he can massage his eyelids. 

“Are you serious?” John demands. “This is the-- all of these kids are missing?” There are about forty thousand names there, by his rough estimate. The hard copy Gordon’s secretary printed out for him is a solid inch thick. 

“The point being that it’s not some busywork I made up to get you insurance.” One of Gordon’s eyes peers out at John through the fingers. It’s bloodshot. “These are actual missing kids. A lot of them probably just left Gotham with their parents after the bomb threat ended, but there’s no way to know for sure unless we actually track them down. I don’t have the manpower. And you and I both know that with mob rule, there were certain kinds of people who took advantage of--” 

“--opportunities,” John finishes grimly, because it’s true and everyone knows it. “Yeah, I know. Sure. I can do this.”

“Thank you, John,” Gordon says, disappearing back into his hands again. 

John glances around the Commissioner’s office. It’s a disaster. Files everywhere, the stink of stale coffee, and there’s some kind of massive nest being built in one of the corners around the recycling bin. By giant, angry, invisible rats. Who hate paperwork. “When was the last time you slept?” 

“What month is it?” Gordon asks, sounding honestly curious.

“You need help.”

“That’s what I said.”

“No, I mean help. You know. Like Batman.”

“Batman’s dead,” Gordon mumbles.

John checks his watch. Lunchtime. “He’s probably eating leftovers in the cave,” he says. “He eats a lot of pizza for a dead guy.”

Gordon says nothing for a couple of seconds. Then: “How’s he doing?” The Commissioner sounds wistful.

“He’s kicking my ass.”

“Learning anything?”

“Sure. I’m learning that Batman can kick my ass.”

Gordon yawns, then drops his hands to stare blearily at John. He looks like something that’s been floating in the harbor for a couple of weeks. “You didn’t already know that?”

“Don’t suppose you can think of anything that would bring him out of retirement?” John asks, without much hope. “He wants to be Batman again. I can tell. And I want him to be Batman again, and you want him to be Batman again--”

“It’s his decision,” Gordon says, with that faintly lonely sound in his voice again. Bruce hasn’t gone to visit Gordon since he got back. In fact, as far as John knows, he hasn’t even called the guy. Asshole. “I can’t ask him to sacrifice more to the city than he already has. He’s given enough. It’s our turn now.”

“Seems to me that it’s always your turn,” John says, feeling generally resentful on Gordon’s behalf. “It’s been nine years of your turn, at least.”

“There’s a few more years in me yet.”

John studies him dubiously. Gordon’s eyes narrow. “Right,” John says, holding up his hands in conciliatory surrender. “Plenty of years. At least a few. Maybe three. How old are you? Never mind, insensitive question.”

“I seem to remember that I flattened you on the roof the other night,” Gordon observes.

“You took me by surprise, is all. Because, you know, I trust you. Like a grandfather. A nice one. Who doesn’t punch his grandkids. You took advantage.”

“Flattened you twice, in fact.”

“So what’s the biggest problem on the plate?” John asks, because Gordon is straying from the main topic at hand and it’s clearly his responsibility to get the sleep-deprived guy back on track. “The mafia? Old families moving back into town? Gang warfare?”

Gordon scrubs at his face and sighs. “Mafia,” he says, “but not the old families, exactly. Eastern European. They play by different rules.” He huffs tired amusement. “I actually miss Maroni.”

Batman always hated the mob. John files away that information for use in his next argument with Bruce. “You want to come back to the cave?” he invites. He’s told Gordon about it, because -- because it seemed like Gordon should know, if anyone should, and somehow it seemed like the right thing to do. Back when Bruce was, well, dead. “Have a talk with him, tell him about what’s going on in Gotham these days, how your job would be a lot easier if Batman was back?”

“No. I appreciate the thought, John, but it’s not my place to intrude on his afterlife,” Gordon says with an air of kindly finality. He shuffles some paper on his desk. He couldn’t be more pointed if he ordered John out. The Commissioner has work to get to, and this conversation is over.

It’s maddening. They’re maddening. Both of them: Gordon and Bruce. Because John doesn’t need to be a detective to tell that Gordon wants to go and convince Bruce to be Batman again, and Bruce wants Gordon to come convince him to be Batman again, but neither of them will do anything about it because they are both so--  

He hates alpha males. Alpha males with feelings. He’s plenty alpha, but you don’t see him getting all worked up about things when there’s shit that just needs to get done. Cold-blooded efficiency, that’s John Blake’s middle name.

“Fine,” John says, and gathers up his list. “Be that way. But you’ll be sorry.”

This is what the two of them have reduced him to. He’s turning into a goddamn 6-year old.

“Be careful out there, son,” Gordon says, as John tries to stalk out of his office with the rest of his dignity intact. There are people waiting outside the Commissioner’s office; they pile in the second the door opens, and he has to shove his way through them, like a salmon plowing upstream. Through their voices, he dimly hears Gordon say, “There’s a rumor that Bane’s--”

Bane’s-- what? John tries to turn back to get the rest of it. “What about Bane?” he asks, but there are maybe seven people crowded around Gordon’s desk, all of them shouting about something that just went down on 7th street. John can’t even see the Commissioner behind them, and Bullock is shouting at Stephens, and Allen looks like he’s about to deck them both.

John lets himself out.

Bane’s ... what? Dead, right? Definitely dead?

Shit.

 


 

The news starts reporting on Bane two days later. And by ‘news,’ we’re talking The Daily Sun, which might report actual verifiable news stories from time to time, but only if it’s by accident or if Elvis really did show up in Akron and impregnate a beauty queen with two-headed, singing twins. Personally, John’s willing to chalk that one up to accident as well, if it ever happens. The Sun getting the report right, that is. Not the impregnation part. He’s pretty sure you can’t accidentally have sex.

(Which is another thing that ends up being ironic, actually, but we’ll get to that later.)

“BANE IS BACK!” screams the headline. Not the cleverest title in the world, but it certainly catches John’s attention when he’s buying a crate of cup-o-noodles at the wholesaler in the warehouse district. He buys a copy of the rag while he’s at it, which empties out what’s left of his ready cash, and legs it out to his illegally parked car. 

The only way he avoids a ticket is by virtue of knowing the meter maid, who apparently once stood him up on a date and still feels bad about it. Who says there aren’t any happy endings?

“It says that there’s been sightings of him in the Narrows,” he tells Bruce, when he’s back in the cave. Bruce is busy sketching uniform designs for John, and not that this is a shock or anything, he’s actually an amazing artist. Just like he’s a good engineer/software programmer/welder/fabricator/mechanic/ballroom dancer/ninja. 

“Hm?” says Bruce.

“Bane. You’re not paying attention. People have been seeing Bane in the Narrows. He’s apparently been living in the sewers, or something. Makes sense. The army never did finish going through the tunnels before they pulled out.”

Maybe irrationally, John had been thinking that finding out Bane is alive might wake up that dormant part of Bruce that only seems to come out when he’s looking at the Batsuit or sitting on people’s chests and squashing them. It seemed like part and parcel of the same thing: a taste of the old life. 

What Bruce actually says is, “How do you feel about birds?”

“What?”

“I thought we could play off of your first name. ‘Robin.’ Go the opposite direction from Batman, and give you a brighter, maybe more colorful uniform.”

“I hate that name,” John says. “Besides which, who the hell is scared of robins? I thought the whole point was to be a force, not a farce.”

“Ornithophobia,” Bruce says mildly. “Fear of birds. It’s not uncommon. We could put on a half-cape.” He holds up a drawing done in yellows, reds, and greens. It looks like a bunch of kindergarten crayons snuck out of the box and went on a bender down at the Manhole Club.

John is pretty sure he’s being mocked.

“Bane,” he says clearly, and holds up the paper so Bruce can see the headline. “Remember him? Terrorist? Murderer? Stole all your money? Threatened the city with a nuclear bomb? Case study in steroid abuse?”

Bruce asks with interest, “What’s the story that’s right next to that one?”

John flips the paper over to look at it. ‘BITCHY TV ATTACK DOG PRIVATELY A LESBIAN,’ says the tagline. And it actually is about a real dog.

“You don’t know,” John says feebly. “It could be true. Homosexuality happens in the animal kingdom all the time. They have gay penguins in the zoo.”

“So, not a bird motif, then,” Bruce asks, like he’s just making sure.

John sighs, defeated. “Birds is fine,” he says. “Not robins. Definitely not whatever kind of bird it is you were thinking about when you came up with that color scheme.”

Bruce nods and bends over his sketchpad again.

Three days after that, GNN puts out the first legitimate news report on the presence of Bane in the city.

They’re replaying it ad nauseum, a clip taken from a police helicopter of Bane -- and he is unmistakable; there is no way that this is some bodybuilder out doing some live action roleplay in costume -- staring up at the cameraman from the roof of some building. It’s a short clip, and there’s nothing before or after to tell how they spotted him, much less what happened after, but John is pretty sure that Gordon’s pretty pissed somewhere about the leak and the fact that Bane is still wandering around Gotham.

John catches it on the ancient TV the clerk is watching when he stops by a bodega for a soda. He stares at the news story long enough to understand what he’s seeing. Then he decides to take a break from tracking down missing kids, and races back to the cave. He finds Bruce with a welding mask on, putting together something scary-looking from bits of a dismembered ... sword thing. 

He doesn’t bother to greet Bruce, who turns off his torch and flips up his visor to regard him with curiosity. John strides across the cave to the remote and flicks on the monitors. It takes a couple more tries to get them onto GNN, but he brings it up at just the right moment: replay number 2,831. Bane, outlined in whites and greys, staring up at the helicopter.

John doesn’t even have to look at Bruce for his reaction. He can feel it. It’s like that prickle on the back of your neck when you’re walking by yourself in the middle of the night, down a street in the dangerous part of town. Or the moment when you’re alone in your apartment, doing something completely harmless, and are suddenly certain there’s someone else in the place with you. It feels a little bit like terror. A whole lot like danger. 

It feels like Batman is in the room.

John looks anyway. It’s an involuntary reaction, the same one that makes most people look first when someone yells, “Duck!” instead of doing the smart thing, which is to just drop. Bruce is standing just where he was, staring at the screens, completely relaxed; but he’s awake in a way that John hasn’t ever seen before since he came back from the dead.

Bruce’s eyes are-- It’s kind of....

John discovers that he’s breathless. Probably from racing back to the cave. That’s it. 

Right.

“Gordon will need help,” John says. “The mafia is one thing, but the mafia, the rising crime rate, recreating the city infrastructure and then Bane on top like a giant cherry of apocalyptic shits and giggles....”

He trails off, because Bruce is obviously not listening to a word he’s saying. He’s just staring at the screen, which has switched over to a pair of talking heads. The sound is off, but the subtitles are pretty clear; they’re discussing the implications of Bane’s return, what he’s up to, and whether Commissioner Gordon and the depleted ranks of the GPD -- neither of them sees fit to mention that the good citizens of Gotham helped “deplete” those ranks during the five months of occupation -- are up to the challenge.

“Gordon can do it,” Bruce says, in a calm, conversational voice that sits really strangely with the way his eyes are blazing. “We’ll need to step up your training, though. You don’t stand a chance against Bane the way you are now.”

Which is really not what John wants to hear. “Me? Against Bane?”

Bruce’s gaze turns to meet his, and suddenly John really can’t breathe. It’s like he’s being peeled apart and burned alive.

“Right,” he says weakly. “Training.” What the hell is it going to take to get Bruce to put the suit back on? He’s supposed to fight Bane? Seriously? John is a dead man walking.

Fuck.

 

Chapter Text

 

John visits St. Swithin on a daily basis, now that he’s essentially unemployed. 

(Yeah, he’s got some guilt there. What can he say? He was partially raised Catholic. Guilt is the Church’s version of a membership ID. Got guilt? You may pass, brother.)

In the first few days after Batman died, Father Reilly tried to get the kids out of the city. The problem was where to send them. Pretty much every house and building for miles around Gotham was snapped up by refugees, rats jumping ship in retroactive panic -- for all the world like running for the hills is a household task you can just reschedule:  oops, forgot to vacuum the living room and escape Gotham. I’ll do that after the nuclear holocaust but before doing laundry. As a whole, people, in John’s opinion, are not bright.

Reilly gave up on that idea after a couple of weeks, and turned his hand to conniving and politicking instead. John helped him write a metric shit-ton of letters once the mail system got back up and running. Old-fashioned, yes, but the Church continues to be paranoid about emails; they don’t like the idea of paper trails that can’t be burned. 

Gosh. Wonder why. 

As a result of the letters though, not to mention the raging press around the plight of Gotham’s survivors, the archdiocese pulled some strings to find room in nearby cities. Some of the kids left. Unfortunately, Crane’s kangaroo court made a lot more orphans, so even with the new vacancies, the system continues to be overburdened. 

About the only good thing to come out of the whole thing is the flood of people stepping up to adopt and donate. According to Father Reilly, he’s gotten more of both offers from all over the country this past month than he’s gotten in the entirety of the last two years. People are stepping up to take care of their own, and they don’t care how old the kids are, or how messed up they might be; they’re putting their money and their homes where their mouths are. The Church is working overtime, vetting families and trying to make good placements for the kids.

Sometimes, cynicism aside, John’s impressed by humanity. At least until the next member of it talks to him.

“I suppose this means you don’t need my dough anymore?” he asks Father Reilly, a couple of days after Bane shows up on the 6 o’clock news. “If you’re rolling around in the green stuff--”

Father Reilly looks about as tired as Gordon does, but in a happier kind of way. “Every little bit helps,” he says. “Although you’ve given so much, John, and you don’t have a regular income anymore. It isn’t necessary for you to offer more.”

“I have an income for the moment,” John says.

Reilly immediately looks alarmed, which says a lot about his memories of John back when he was living in the home.

No,” John says firmly, “Not like that. I’m back on the payroll at the GPD. Sort of. Independent contractor. Speaking of which, I was thinking of seeing if some of the older kids wanted to be independent subcontractors. Nothing dangerous,” he adds, as Reilly screws up his face. The priest has a view of police work that’s mostly culled from prime time television, Mel Gibson, and Eddie Murphy movies, despite John’s best efforts.

“What do you want them to do?”

“Just to help with making phone calls, try to track down kids reported missing during the occupation. I’ll pay them by the hour.”

“We only have the one phone,” Reilly says doubtfully.

“I’ll pay for additional lines. We can put them in the other office, so you can keep an eye on it if you’re worried what they’ll get up to with it. You can use them for other things when they’re not calling around for me.”

Reilly looks relieved, then suspicious, and then relieved again. “Are you sure you can afford that?” 

John has done the math. He may have had to do 9th grade algebra over, but there’s nothing wrong with his budgeting skills. He figures can easily live on one-third of what he’s making through Gordon, given his diet and rent, and still have enough left over to feed the cockroaches who treat his studio like their personal frathouse. He could even spring them a tiny cockroach kegger, complete with tiny cockroach strippers. “There’s no way I’m going through this entire list by myself. I could use the help, and they could always use the extra cash. How’re things going, speaking of?”

“‘Speaking of,’” Reilly says wryly, “we’re doing better than I could’ve expected. Have you been up to something?”

The great thing about being partially raised Catholic is that even if you’re guaranteed guilt, you get really good at hiding it from priests. “What kind of up to something?” John hedges. Training to be the scourge of evil as an inappropriately ornithology-themed vigilante sort of something? “I do stuff. Lots of stuff. It’s all legal, though.” He probably shouldn’t lie to a priest, all things considered, so as an afterthought he tacks on, “Mostly. Commissioner Gordon knows about the illegal ones.”

Which practically makes it legal, so that’s okay, then.

Reilly furrows his brow. “Did you notice how quiet the street was outside? I was wondering if that was your doing.”

It’s true that Blake has been making regular patrols around the neighborhood, calling in favors with ex-coworkers to make sure the neighborhood is being covered by the GPD. That counts as ‘something,’ but he’s been doing it for the last couple of months, so as a recent development, peaceful streets aren’t necessarily something that can be chalked up to him. “No idea. I haven't done anything new lately,” he says. “Why? Are things better?”

“Well, we haven’t had a break-in in the last three weeks. All the local drug dealers seem to have left the neighborhood, or at least moved over a couple more blocks, so I’m a little more comfortable letting the younger kids out into the yards.”

“That’s good. Maybe the patrol cars are making a difference.”

Reilly looks skeptical. Also a little constipated, which usually means there’s something he’s thinking he wants say, and isn’t sure whether he should or not.

For a priest, he’s got a terrible poker face.

“What?” John demands.

Reilly looks torn, then tugs John’s sleeve to draw him into the office, because apparently just being asked ‘what?’ is his version of getting the rubber hose treatment. He closes the door after them, which isn’t a good sign. “Those Bane sightings,” he says. 

“What about them? They’ve all been in the Narrows.”

The priest fidgets. “It’s Tee-wig,” he says. “He says Bane’s been in the neighborhood.”

“Okay,” John says. “You realize do Tee-wig is a pathological liar, right? That he’s going to end up being a lobbyist or maybe a used car salesman, whichever comes first?”

“The thing is, he’s not the only one who’s told me that,” Reilly says. He doesn’t quite wring his hands, but there is certainly some finger-massaging going on, like he's trying to make sure they're all still attached. “Angelo and Patrick and Michelle have all brought it up to me as well. He’s apparently been sighted more than once, by several of the children.”

“You sure it’s not just one of those things that the kids just pick up from each other? Remember last week, when they thought Detective Mendez was a unicorn? Or last month, when they were all convinced that Marco could walk on water?”

Reilly gives him a helpless look, and begins, “To be fair--

“I’m not having this argument again.”

“Bane gave Mia a lollipop,” Reilly says, which is so beyond ridiculous that John just stares at him. Reilly looks so sincerely worried about the words that just came out of his mouth that John doesn’t have the heart to ask if he’s been letting the kids do the cooking again. They’re well-meaning kids (well, most of them) but there have been occasions in the past when their non-traditional substitutions for unavailable staples have resulted in terrifyingly recreational recipes.

Their spam lasagna last year had an unnervingly high street value. The kids wanted to hold a bake sale. John got Shoya from Narcotics to stage an intervention.

“Sorry?” John says. “You think Bane did what?”

Now the priest is definitely wringing his hands. “Do you think I should let her eat it?” he asks, concerned. “Bane wouldn’t give poisonous candy to a four-year old, would he?”

“The guy who tried to set off a nuclear explosion in the middle of Gotham and kill 9 million people?” 

Reilly says earnestly, “That was in the nature of general, anonymous mayhem. Harming a specific child is different."

"I don't see how."

"He'd have met her, you see. She's quite sweet."

This, John has to concede. But. "If he'd set off the bomb, she would be dead anyway. Lollipop, nuclear device -- end result would've been the same. And it isn't like he didn't know everyone he was meeting in Gotham wasn't going to end up dead, anyway."

"Everybody has a line."

“To be clear, we’re talking about Bane.”

“I’m quite encouraged by the fact that he gave Mia a treat. I think it shows an promising generosity of character.”

“Assuming it’s not, you know, a poisonous lollipop.”

“Oh,” Reilly says, his face falling. “Well. There's that, of course.”

Seriously, there is something wrong with men of God. John would’ve made a terrible priest. He lacks the sheer lunacy that makes an otherwise intelligent man think a mass murderer might be Mr. Candyman to the neighborhood kiddies. His personal opinion is that this is why the Catholic church went for enforced celibacy way back when; they looked at their roster of potential donors and went, nope, this isn’t going to do good things to the gene pool.

“What makes you think Bane gave her a lollipop? Why would Bane give her a lollipop? How is it possible those two words are even in the same sentence?”

“Tee-wig said--”

“Pathological liar,” John reminds. “What did Mia say?”

Reilly’s shoulders slump. “‘Give me back my goddamn lollipop,’” he says. "I don't know where she picks up that kind of language."

John sighs. “Give it to me. I can pick up another one at the store and swap them. Just in case. You can give the new one to Mia, and I’ll take the other one and--” Reilly gives him puppy dog eyes, so he changes what he was going to say, which was going to involve garbage cans, and finishes, “--give it to Gordon. He’ll know what to do.” 

Like give John that look again, the one he can’t quite translate, and treat him with that kindly, half-pitying manner you adopt towards crazy people and public school teachers. 

“I’m pretty sure it isn’t Bane,” John says, while Reilly glows like a rumpled sun and fusses around the office, looking for the candy. “And even if it was Bane, Bane giving Mia a lollipop is--” Bizarre. Surreal. Stupid? “--unlikely,” he decides. “I mean, he is a wanted terrorist. Mia really shouldn’t be taking candy from strangers. Even ones that have been on TV.” Considering the kinds of programs the kids watch, he changes that to, "Especially the ones they recognize from TV."

Reilly gives him a vaguely pathetic look. John grimaces. “I’ll talk to her,” he promises, and is rewarded by a grateful pat on the shoulder.

“I thought it was a nice gesture,” the priest confides, thrusting out a pretty standard-looking red sucker at John. “Very neighborly. You don’t suppose that he’s responsible for--?”

John winces. “No,” he says. Bane, chasing off the drug dealers and pimps and hookers around the orphanage to keep the kids safe? “I really don’t. I’ll talk to Tee-wig and the others, but I really don’t think it’s likely that Bane’s been wandering around this neighborhood and outing himself to orphans. It doesn’t make any sense. Why would he do that?”

“Maybe he’d be interested in coming to confession,” Reilly says hopefully.

And Reilly looks like such a sane, rational man, too. There’s no telling with some people.

The kids are unhelpful, which is pretty much what John expected. They're still convinced that Mendez is a unicorn. John does the stupid thing and engages with them on the subject.

"He doesn't look like a goddamn horse."

"Goddamn," echoes Mia happily.

"Don't do that," John tells her. "You're four.  You're not supposed to know that kind of language. And don't use it in front of Father Reilly, too. You're going to get me in trouble."

"Goddamnit," Mia says.

"He's in disguise," Marianne says darkly, apropos Mendez.

"Besides, unicorns are supposed to only hang out with virgins, and I had drinks with him and a few of the other guys just the other night."

He walked right into that one. Before Kurt can open his mouth to say what he's thinking to put that suspicious look on his face, John hastily adds, "You realize you've lost all credibility on the Bane front."

"I want my goddamn lollipop, copper," says Mia.

After he leaves St. Swithin, he makes a detour a few blocks over and finds Angelface, the pimp who used to call the stairs of the apartment building next to the church his office. His new location isn't anywhere near as good, halfway between a Korean bodega and a shoe repair shop.

He recognizes John and greets him with a mixture of hostility and dislike. They've never got on. "Finally going to pop that cherry of yours?" he demands.

John says, "Thought I'd drop by and see your new turf. This location's shit. Why'd you move?"

Two minutes later, Angelface tries to stab him. No good deed ever goes unpunished.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

The next sketch Bruce does is pretty much perfect, all in shades of black and blue, which just confirms John’s suspicion that he was being mocked with the first design. 

“What happened to the tights and the colored jockey shorts?” he asks Bruce.

Bruce looks at him from under heavy eyelids and smiles, slowly. “I can put them back in if you want,” he says. “Nothing like showing a little leg to throw off people trying to kill you. If I put a little panel in front--”

“Never mind,” John says. “It’s fine the way it is.”

They start making the uniform. Actually, John starts making the uniform, with a lot of help from Bruce, who points out that once he’s gone, John’ll have to maintain it anyway, so he might as well learn how to do it now. 

There’s a lot of measuring involved. They both get really well acquainted with John’s body dimensions, which is awkward. It’s not like John can measure himself, exactly, and Bruce is apparently competent at it, which makes sense? maybe? John can’t tell. Anyway, he stands in the middle of the cave with his arms and legs spread, feeling like a complete schmuck, while Bruce crawls around him with his tape and--

“Whoa. What the-- Whoa.”

“Inseam.”

“That is not an inseam.”

“You’ll need protection there. Trust me. Do you want it to fit, or not?”

--generally ends up making John have to do a lot of thinking about stuff that isn’t, you know, exciting. Uh. Stimulating. Like what Donald Trump looks like, naked. Or the moldy patch that he thinks he saw on his linoleum the other day. Or what the takeout box in the fridge might do if he picked it up with some tongs and tried to dump it.

Fabricating stuff is actually pretty cool. He’s did a few rounds in shop class back in high school, and he’s worked on cars and motorcycles off and on, but actually creating something -- something he’s going to use to get Gotham back on its feet and help people -- that’s almost better than sex.

Okay, yeah, no, that’s an exaggeration. It’s not really better than actual sex. Real sex. It’s definitely better than late night, blearily getting reacquainted with your right hand in bed but then sort of accidentally falling asleep in the middle sex, though. 

If you can call that sex. 

Dammit. It’s been a long time since John’s had sex.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

How did this go from Bruce measuring his inseam to this subject, anyway? That was weird.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

In the meantime, things get a little more interesting. Bruce sort-of-not-really goes back to sleep again the day after he sees the news broadcast, but the training gets a lot tougher. There’s only so much time that John can spend being beat up on (though Bruce will grudgingly admit that he’s getting a little better) but there isn’t any limit to the amount of time John can sleep and heal from being beat up on, so the assignment from Gordon suffers a lot more than John would like to admit.

Anyway, Bruce’s sort-of-not-really-asleep thing means that Batman’s a lot closer to the surface than he was. Which makes the training a lot scarier, and a lot faster. Definitely a lot more intense. 

The weirdest things make him pop out of hibernation, too. For some reason, a bruise John gets on his collarbone one day during training -- “Ow, fuck. How the hell did you do that with a grocery bag? It goes all the way down to my hip! Just look at this!” -- brings out that intent look. Again when Bruce is trying to teach him how to disarm a bomb and John falls into the lake (he’s almost positive Bruce pushed him, because it certainly wasn’t the bomb that did it) then has to strip down really fast before he gets hypothermia. Yet again when he’s free climbing up the side of the old LexCorp warehouse. Free climbing is something that he actually got some experience at in the Academy, which you’d think would be a good thing. Only it turns out to be not so much, because he goes into it all cocky and tells Bruce, “I got this,” so pretty much deserves everything that happened next. 

Long story short, he ends up pantsless with rope burns on his thighs, wishing like hell he’d worn a longer shirt. Bruce tells him nicely that he can’t drive, so John will have to: Bruce is dead, and dead people don’t have licenses. It figures that Bruce is wide awake during the entire silent, weirdly tense ride back to cave. John is just grateful he doesn’t get pulled over and have to explain to an ex-coworker why he’s in his jockeys with a dead man riding beside him.

John decides that there’s a common theme to these Awake Bruce moments. The guy apparently just loves it when John make an ass of himself. He is, in short, a jerk.

The problem is that Bruce is getting tenser and tenser, more wound up with every week that passes. It’s making him kind of hard to live with. More, you know, dangerous. After John comes back to the cave and nearly gets impaled by a new security system involving poison javelins that Bruce thought up over a stale Big Mac and fries, he decides to give the guy some alone time. Say, the next two years or so. 

It’s the news reports about Bane that are winding him up. GNN is in love with the idea of Bane still floating around like a 240 pound crocodile in the sewer system, and Mike Engel is fixated, somehow managing to suggest that it’s Batman’s fault that he didn’t take advantage of the nuke to eliminate the problem once and for all. The monitors are tuned to GNN 24/7, and even though the sound is turned down, it’s still possible to make out what’s going on under the white roar of the waterfall and running water. 

The thing is, and this is driving Gordon, Engel and Bruce crazy: Bane isn’t actually doing anything. Besides popping up every so often for the edification of the cameras, that is. No new army. No threats. No crimes, unless you count the ones that are already proverbial water (now that the ice has melted and they’ve recovered most of the bodies) under the bridge. 

“It’s like he’s mocking us,” Gordon tells John. “He deliberately comes out of hiding just long enough to be seen. Then he just disappears.”

“Into the sewers?”

“Has to be.” Gordon sighs. He doesn’t look any healthier or more rested since the last time they talked. “Then again, he could be living in a lot of the places down in the Narrows. He’s still a hero down there.”

“The guy who was going to blow them all to kingdom come is a hero?

“The guy who tore down the upper classes and freed the unjustly confined prisoners in Blackgate,” Gordon reminds. 

“That’s some spin.”

“That’s fact. It’s just selective. And people’s memories fade after a while. They remember what they want to. I don’t suppose--” 

When Gordon trails off, frowning, John asks, “What? I’m not ready to fight him, if that’s what you’re asking.”

It plainly isn’t what Gordon’s asking, because his eyes get a little wider and he snaps, “What? Is that what he thinks he’s training--” 

“Joke,” John says hastily. He arranges a nice smile on his face and presents it for inspection. Haha. See? Funny guy. “What were you going to say? You don’t suppose--?”

Gordon looks unconvinced, but says, “I don’t suppose Batman has been going out at night in the suit? Been spotted?” His study of John is way too sharp for a guy who hasn’t slept since before Christmas. “If anything would bring Bane out, I think it’d be rumors that Batman’s still around.”

“I don’t think so. You’d figure, wouldn’t you? I figured if anything would bring Batman out, it’d be rumors that Bane’s still around.”

Gordon’s eyebrow rises questioningly. John shrugs, feeling oddly discouraged.

“So I was wrong,” he says.

Gordon says nothing for a second. Then: “He’s already given more than anyone should, son. You can’t reasonably expect him to give up what he has left. It’s time he starts living his life.”

“What he’s doing isn’t living,” John says.

“It’s still his choice.”

John slouches in his chair, thinking of Awake Bruce, who can make the air too hot to breathe with just a look. And Asleep Bruce, who’s a paper mache puppet of a man, impermanent as smoke. “I thought he’d be more--” He gestures vaguely, unable to put into words the years of fantasy he indulged in as a kid, the connection of shared experience, the sympathy of anger -- all of which built up a fully-formed chimera in his head, a Bruce Wayne that apparently doesn’t exist anymore.

John is disappointed in him. It’s stupid, because it’s not like he didn’t already watch Batman single-handedly save the city of Gotham, but still.

“He’s always been just a man,” Gordon says, apparently understanding just fine, even without the explanation.

“Yeah,” John says. “I know.”

They spend the next five minutes running down the list of names that John has cleared up from the missing kids list. He has, he discovers, cleared up quite a lot of them. It’s barely a dent on the size of the problem, but it’s definitely progress, and Gordon actually smiles about it, so good for you, John Blake.

He’s just patting himself on the back about it, when Officer Cassidy bursts in, his face white, and blurts out, “Dzubenko.”

John’s about to say, “Gesundheit,” when Gordon explodes out of his chair and races out the door without another word, catching up his overcoat as he does. Cassidy disappears with him. John is left all alone in Gordon’s firetrap of an office. The Commissioner’s chair squeaks as it spins in forlorn apology.

Sometimes John misses being a cop. The unexpected alarms, the adrenaline spikes, the mind-numbing boredom and sitting on your ass in the car in between. And, he recalls, smelling the acrd stink on his way out of the station, the crappy coffee. 

Reminded, he stops by a 24-hour Starbucks before heading back to the cave and picks up a drip for himself and a frappuccino for Bruce. He has no idea if that’s what Bruce drinks, but it seems like the least dangerous way to get back at him for the whole technicolor Robin uniform bit. These days, John drinks caffeine at all hours of the day, and even at 10 pm the place is packed, so he doesn’t feel too bad about the fact he’s fucking up his circadian rhythms, since the rest of Gotham is obviously intent on doing it too. Stupidity loves company.

He’s just unlocking the car -- lighted street, plenty of foot traffic -- when he spies a shape standing in the alley just across the street.

It’s just a glimpse. Barely a glimpse. It’s more of a-- an afterimage. He isn’t even looking at the alleyway. He’s checking out a really sweet Ducati that whips by at way over the speed limit (squid in the saddle) and when he turns back to his car a lazy corner of his brain chirps, Oh look. There’s Bane.

Which is ... not a normal thought to have.

His head snaps around really fast, but the mouth of the alley is empty. It’s probably just his imagination, just some trick of light and shadow that made a perfectly ordinary passerby look like a 6-foot plus tall giant in a sheepskin overcoat wearing a barbeque grill on his face. 

Right.

He puts both drinks in the car, then does that thing he always swears at characters in horror films for doing. Namely, go after the mysterious shadow with no backup and only a single weapon. In his case, the gun holstered under his arm.

Yeah, it’s dumb. But what’re the odds that Bane is standing in an alley on 4th street, across from the MCU? 

He draws it but keeps it hidden under his jacket when he jogs across the street to check out the alley. There’s nobody in it, and no other obvious exits out of it, either. He knows. He checked. A manhole cover, yes, but--

He thinks about it for a long minute, actually. Just stares at that manhole cover, thinking first about how stupid you’d have to be to go down alone after Bane down a tunnel. Then about how weird it is that there’s a manhole in an alleyway. Then about how stupid it is that he’s even standing here, when Bruce’s frappuccino is melting in his car. 

And anyway, why would Bane be here? In an area heavily populated by cops?

Staring at him?

 

Chapter Text

John hears about the epic cockup on the way back to the cave. 

He’s stuck behind a pissy red light on Avenue D. The radio is on, one of those programs that accidentally drop bits of real news between conversation that’s only marginally better than the kind exchanged by coma patients. It’s soothing, in an ‘applied hammer to head’ kind of way. He’s letting the noise drone on in the background, not really paying any attention, when a phrase snaps him out of his fugue state.

“--said that Police Commissioner Jim Gordon was seriously hurt, but you know how many times he’s almost died?”

John lunges for the volume control and cranks it up.

“You know, it’s kind of embarrassing, isn’t it? This guy, Dzu-- hm.”

“Dzubenko.”

“Thanks. This guy’s a criminal, and we’re talking big crime, like, epic crime. Like, international, threat to National Security crime, and he’s running around Gotham like, you know, Bane.”

Ouch.”

“Nothing personal, if there are any cops listening. What do you suppose Bane uses to polish his scalp? Hey, you know who I saw in a Rogaine commercial just yesterday?”

Impatient, John flips through the radio stations, searching for actual news through snatches of pop music, ‘80s remixes, and country western. Cars begin to honk behind him; the light has finally turned green, and he’s blocking traffic. 

Screw them. 

“--that Police Commissioner Gordon and five other officers are being held by Viktor Dzubenko, who escaped from federal custody earlier this week. Viktor Dzubenko is alleged to be a high-level lieutenant in the international criminal organization known as the Brothers’ Circle, and widely publicized his intention to kill Commissioner Gordon before his arrest last month. Two officers are already confirmed dead at the scene, while--”

The light turns yellow. John slams on the gas and rips through the intersection, pissing off the line of cars jammed up behind him. Fighting traffic in Gotham is a character building experience. John helps his fellow citizens build a lot of character in the next five minutes between Avenue D and Bruce Wayne.

When he sprints into the cave with the coffees in his hands (he paid for the damn things, after all) the monitors are showing GNN’s coverage of the situation on Ward Street. 

Bruce is wide awake.

And how.

He’s halfway into the suit, and for the first time John gets a glimpse of the scars that being Batman has left him with. Literal scars, that is, not the emotional or psychological ones, which Gordon seems to deal with a whole lot better than John does. There are a lot. He stops dead, staring at the uneven marks against the smooth, pale skin -- knife slashes; at least one bullet hole; a three-cornered line on the back of a shoulder; road rash; the marks of dog teeth on an arm -- and the ripple of muscle underneath that. Incredible muscle. Bruce is really well built He’s big. Not that he hadn’t known that Bruce was strong, but-- 

His mouth goes dry.

“Get dressed,” Bruce tosses over his shoulder, straightening to pull on black mesh and kevlar. 

“What?” John says stupidly. “I’m already wearing--” He breaks off when he realizes what Bruce means, then spends a crazed half-second wondering if he’s serious. 

“Unless you want to stay behind,” Bruce says impatiently.

“I thought you were retired,” he says without thinking.

Bruce actually snarls. Snarls. It’s scary as fuck. “I’m not losing Jim, too.” 

For the first time since they met, John feels like the guy’s saying something that actually matters to him. Idiotically, his heart lifts.

So now John’s got a choice. Sit and twiddle his thumbs in the cave while Batman makes his return to the land of the living, or suit up in his brand new, unfinished, definitely untested uniform, head out in the tumbler, help beat up international mobsters, rescue Gordon, and try out the badassery that he’s been working on for the last two months. Next to Batman. The Batman.

Gosh. That’s a tough one.

John gets stripped and dressed in less time than he thought possible, already in his uniform before Bruce is done fitting in all the odds and ends and complicated gadgetry that makes the Batsuit a weapon of very specific, very painful, pinpoint destruction.

And then he turns and gapes, because Batman’s standing in the cave. Fucking Batman.

His heart does a little pitty-pat thing that’s, Christ, really embarrassing in a grown man. 

Bruce has already applied blackening of some sort across his openings in the mask, so his eyes are unusually pale and brilliant when they look him over. They soften a bit. How that’s possible when they also get even more intent, John has no idea. 

“Good,” Bruce says, in Batman’s darker growl. “How’s it feel?”

John has tried the suit they’re building as they’ve been working on it, so it’s not the first time he’s worn it. But it’s different now, for some reason. He doesn’t feel like John Blake at all. He feels ... well, one part ridiculous. Two parts powerful. It’s lightweight, so he doesn’t feel like he’s being dragged down by his own armor. The bird theme that Bruce liked (and John might admit he thinks is cool, if you twist his arm) is there, if you look for it:  a suggestion of wings across the chest and shoulders. He catches a glimpse of himself in the monitors and is startled by the stranger reflected in them. The scary stranger, who looks like the last thing you want to see in a dark alley; the guy who will first fuck you up beyond belief, and then start getting unpleasant.

Holy shit. He’s really going to do this. With Batman.

He doesn’t quite trust himself not to squeak like a flattened hamster, so he just nods. Bruce tosses him the little pot of makeup so he can darken his own eyes as well, then an earbud for communications.

John knows that Gordon has driven the Bat--tank, tumbler, whatever, at least once. Maybe more than once. That’s part of what earned him his second Medal of Honor, using it to take down the monorail before terrorists could finish destroying the city. John has only tried to drive it once, and it’s not that he’s a bad driver, but there were a lot of controls and the AI was still a bit messed up from whatever Bruce had done to it last, and anyway--

Well, the missiles were unexpected, but they have a second cave to store stuff in now, and more space is never bad, right? 

Bruce has been tinkering with it since he got back, and he’s given John a lesson or two in all the controls and gadgets that go with it. John can drive it just fine, now, but there isn’t any doubt at this moment who is going to be in the driver’s seat tonight. No more talk about Bruce not having a license either, John notices.

He doesn’t care. He jumps in the passenger side, and they’re already hurtling out of the cave before he’s even got his seatbelt on.

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

Bruce drives like he does everything else: really well. In fact, he’s incredible. John can’t tell if his traffic handling strategy suicidal or homicidal, but either way, it’s like nothing he’s ever experienced before, holy crap. He’s actually turned on by the sheer adrenaline of it. They whip past a patrol car performing a traffic stop on the interchange. John cranes his neck and catches the barest blur of the officers’ faces as they stare after the vehicle. 

About a minute later, the police scanner in the tumbler, which has been offering maddening glimpses of the situation on Ward Street, hisses back into life.

The voice speaking is definitely shaky. “Control, this is Whiskey Foxtrot 2-9, over.”

“Whiskey Foxtrot 2-9, go ahead, over.”

“I have a ... a sighting of, uh. We just saw the Batcar pass us on the 420. Over.”

“Say again? Over.”

“We just saw the Batcar heading east on the 420. Over.”

“Knock it off, Peterson. This line isn’t for goofing around. Over.”

“I’m not dicking around, Control. It was Batman’s car. We caught it on cam during our stop and replayed to check. The Batman’s car is on the road. Over.” 

The silence on the line is pretty long. John can just imagine the reaction in Dispatch. “Are you sure? Over.”

“Clear as, uh, day, Control. Wallace saw it too. Over.”

“Copy.” There’s another long pause. Dispatch doesn’t release the button on the mic; John can dimly hear excitement in the background. Not standard operating procedure. And there definitely isn’t any protocol in the manual that approves of the subsequent, rapidly staccato, “If you’re listening in and this is for real, Batman, welcome back from the dead. And get the hell over to Ward Street. Commissioner Gordon needs you. Out.”

John glances over at Bruce. He’s almost positive he sees his mouth twitch. 

It’s impressive, if not surprising (all things considered) how well Bruce knows the city. He parks the tumbler in an empty warehouse a few blocks away from the excitement, and turns on a security system that will probably set off some kind of thermonuclear explosion if a deeply suicidal car thief tries to get to third base with it on the first date. 

Outside, Bruce looks up and launches a line into the air, which somehow snags onto the top of the building. A split second later, he’s gone, flying up it like he actually does have wings. John’s ascent is a lot less graceful, but he’s not as experienced so cut him a break. The point is he gets up there. And he keeps up with Bruce -- maybe not as quietly, but definitely as fast; actually, even faster -- in the race across rooftops to the building where Gordon and the others are being held.

They pause for a couple of seconds to check out the police activity on the street below. There are SWAT teams on the ground, which means that they’ll probably try some sort of assault sometime soon. John recognizes Captain Branden, who always wants to go in with guns blazing. He notoriously suffers from testosterone poisoning. One day he’ll also suffer from lead poisoning, when one of his men gets sick of his superior officer’s poor grasp of risk-vs-reward and strikes a blow for common sense.

Branden is in argument with Captain Ramos, who is a hell of a lot more intelligent, and has the added advantage of not holstering her dick where her brain should be. Unfortunately, as they watch, Deputy Commissioner Akins arrives on the scene. Akins is a political appointee who not only wants Gordon’s job, he also redefines “stupid” in new and exotic ways. 

Which means they have maybe ten minutes before the GPD gets Gordon killed.

Bruce nods at John’s quickly murmured evaluation, then slithers down the side of the building not facing the street. He cuts out a pane of glass before insinuating himself like a rumor. John slides in even more quietly. Helps not to be wearing 40 pounds of explosive gear and armor.

The building’s some kind of corporate office, with thin carpet underfoot and fake wood paneling everywhere. They’ve made their way into what looks like a conference room. The question is where Gordon and the others could be, given the fact it’s a four story building. The question doesn’t seem to bother Bruce though, who climbs on top of the conference table and reaches up to pop off one of the ceiling tiles. He pulls himself up into the opening without a hitch, just melting into the blackness above them. It’s times like this when John finds it easy to believe his claim about being trained by ninjas.

John follows, a little less smoothly. Unlike Bruce, he isn’t an Olympic-quality gymnast, so he’s a lot less dignified, all flailing legs and arms. Not that anyone’s watching.

Note to self: add pull-ups to training regimen.

The crawlspace is precarious, and it’s hard to move around up there without making some noise. Bruce seems to have no problem, so John lags a little behind, expecting there’s a reason they’re doing this, and this way at least Bruce will have a few feet leeway before people start noticing there are elephants up in the ceiling.

It’s not really a surprise when Bruce suddenly levers himself up, then disappears through the floor (well, the ceiling, whatever). There are muffled thuds and a groan. John pokes his head out from the crawlspace just in time to watch Bruce send a guy crashing to the floor. There’s an assault rifle nearby. One of Dzubenko’s men.

Bruce glances up and flashes a few hand signals. One hostile ahead. Apparently, this one is John’s. He signals back an affirmative, and returns to the crawlspace, his heart pounding.

He hears the guy before he gets there, the squawk of a radio and some muttering in Russian, or whatever it is. Bruce would probably know. He lifts a ceiling tile to gauge the guy’s position, and discovers he’s right over him. John waits only long enough for what he guesses is a Russian version of a sign-off. The second the radio is down, he drops on the asshole’s head. 

It’s easier than he thought it would be. John lands on his shoulders, twists to send him smashing down to the ground, drives a fist down on his head, and the guy is out.

Urgency aside, he figures he’s owed a couple moments for self-congratulations. John Blake, badass.

It’s not until he rolls the guy over that he realizes he just laid out a cop. 

SWAT armor. GPD uniform. He has a split-second of oh shit, gut reaction, before common sense reasserts itself. The uniform must be Dzubenko’s exfiltration strategy. He uses plasticuffs to hogtie the guy, unloads and dumps his guns on top of a high shelf (just in case) then slips out into the hallway to meet up with Bruce, who is emerging from a completely different room than the one he started in. Past him, John spies two more bodies curled up on themselves, also hogtied and unconscious. Also in SWAT gear.

Bruce: 3. John: 1. 

Not that they’re keeping score or anything. And not like John is competitive or anything. Much. There are enough bad guys to go around. 

He’s absolutely not going to get competitive with Batman. Right. That’s settled, then.

“Second floor,” Bruce murmurs.

“How do you know?”

Bruce’s eyes glitter. “Asked.”

Oh. Duh.

“Also, Dzubenko has offices on the second floor. He’ll go where he’s comfortable.”

“How’d you--”

“Looked it up before we came.”

Of course he did. John reminds himself that there are no stupid questions. Just inquisitive idiots. And really, if he never asked, he’d never learn anything, would he? 

Bruce has a plan. He explains it in four sentences. It’s a good plan. Except it’s a bad plan, because ... well.

“You realize there’s no going back if you do this,” John says, because he feels like maybe he should, in the same way he occasionally stops his buddy Kevin from drunk-dialing his ex. “This is coming out of retirement for real.”

It’s weird to see Batman smile. It’s not really a smile, either, more a little crinkle at the corners of his eyes, but it’s still weird. Downright scary. You don’t normally think of Batman as a smiling kind of guy. “Get moving,” he says.

John gets moving.

He ziplines down the emergency stairwell at a hundred miles an hour, stopping only long enough to take out one of Dzubenko’s men on the second floor landing (Batman: 3. John: 2) before dropping down another two floors into the basement levels. The door is easy to break into, and the fuse box equally easy to find behind a door conveniently labeled, ‘Electronics.’ He likes considerate building managers. The equipment Bruce provided him with is easy to work with, though he’s never done anything like this before -- something to add to the ongoing vigilante training curriculum -- and he gets things set up as fast as he can before heading back the stairs.

He slips back up to the first level, sneaks up on two more guys holding assault rifles and pistols, and leaves them hogtied for the SWAT to find when they finally convince Akins to let them go in. He spares another grin for the thought of Branden’s face when he finds them.

Batman: 3. John: 5. 

Excellent. Not that he’s keeping score. Because he’s not being competitive at all.

“Done,” he tells Bruce over the earbud, when he’s satisfied there isn’t anyone else on the first floor. He sneaks a peek out of the glass doors. “They’re getting ready to make an entry.”

“Time for a distraction,” Bruce’s voice rasps in his ear. “Meet me on the second floor.”

“Copy,” he says, but he lingers long enough beside the doors to watch. Because yeah, saving Gordon is important, but there are just some things that need a moment.

A split-second later, the Bat signal lights up the night sky.

John’s cheeks hurt from the sheer shit-eating ferocity of his grin. It’s the first time in nine years that the signal has been seen in Gotham. Most people, and that includes cops, don’t even realize that the broken one atop the MCU building was replaced when Bruce died. It’s a sight John never thought he’d see again, and it is fucking awesome

It only takes a couple of seconds for the officers on the street to see it too, which is surprise since most people don’t spend a lot of time looking up, especially when there’s a hostage crisis going on. Maybe the reported sighting of the tumbler over channels has people sensitive to the sky.  Whatever the reason, John sees an arm stab up towards the light, then another; then faces are turning, heads tipping back to stare at those outstretched wings painted in black and white against banks of clouds. 

There’s no doubt that this will mess up Branden’s plans while people try to figure out what this means for the situation. It’s bought them maybe five minutes, at least. He plants the transmitter, then sprints to the stairwell and flies up to the second floor. Dzubenko’s guy is still out cold. The odds are that there’s at least one guard in the hallway beyond the security door, so he cracks it open a little, then crouches low, just in case. He can hear the sounds of movement beyond, the stealthy creep of a body approaching the door.

When he figures the guy is near enough, he slams the door open in an attempt to catch him in the face. It gets stopped, hard, and bounces back. Then it’s hurled wide and a man is standing there, gun already rising to aim oh crap right at his chest.

Flash bulb images. Bad guy’s eyes widening. Hands on gun whitening. Bruce dropping from the ceiling. Thump.

Bruce: 4. John: 5. 

“Nice distraction,” Bruce murmurs, and even through the Batman growl John can tell he’s being mocked again.

“All part of the plan,” John whispers. 

Bruce doesn’t roll his eyes, but John can tell he’s thinking about it.

While John was clearing the first floor and setting up the building electronics, Bruce was scoping out the situation in Dzubenko’s office. “Seven men,” he says quietly. “Three hostages, plus Gordon. All cops.”

“News report said five plus Gordon,” John whispers back.

Bruce’s grim look tells him that the missing two are already accounted for, and not in a good way. John pushes down a flare of rage; he’s not a cop anymore, but that doesn’t make it any better. He can’t afford to get emotional at a time like this. 

They slip into an office nearby and Bruce does his melting-into-the-ceiling act again. This time, John eels after him like a circus acrobat. They work their way around the elevator shaft, then down the line of offices. John can hear the voices well before they slither across a beam to cross over the heads of the people in the room.

Bruce presses himself flat to a support to peer through the grate of an air vent. John does the same thing, a few feet away. They have a good view of Gordon and the hostages from here, and --  he feels the crackle of sick fury cramping his muscles -- the face-down sprawl of two bodies in GPD blue. 

There are two men almost directly under him. The others are on the far side of the room, closer to Bruce. Gordon’s being held between a couple of guys, while another of them, probably Dzubenko, beats the crap out of him.

It’s been going on for a while, obviously. Gordon looks next door to unconscious, his head sagging. The other three look either scared or ready to do murder, but their hands, like Gordon’s, look like they’re restrained behind their backs. John recognizes one of them: Detective Gerry Stephens. He’s obviously been beat up some as well. Knowing Gerry, it was probably for mouthing off or trying to get between Gordon and Dzubenko. Or hey, the guy is efficient. It was probably both.

The temperature in the crawlspace is dropping like an arctic winter just decided to stroll in for a visit. Bruce is seriously pissed.

Then again, so is John. So hey, that makes two of them.

There’s too much noise for the people in the room below to hear Bruce’s voice, which is barely a hiss except in in John’s ear, where it matters. “Now.”

John pushes the button on the fob Bruce gave him. Somewhere in the basement, the small device he set up blows, taking out the power to the building in a really messy way. This is why building owners have insurance, in Gotham: terrorists, acts of God, and Batman. 

And now, John.

Somehow, that makes him feel a little better about the situation. Not much, but a little.

The lights cut out. There are startled exclamations as Dzubenko and his men glance up.

Bruce and John drop on their heads like the mother of all shitstorms.

Dzubenko’s got the shades drawn across the windows, probably to keep snipers from taking him out from the buildings across the street. With the lights out, that means the room is pitch-black, and Dzubenko and his men are completely unable to see, especially given how bright it was a few seconds ago. Not John’s problem. John’s uniform isn’t done yet, but one of the first things that Bruce made sure got put in is the night vision lenses, one of those random advancements from Fox’s R&D program that isn’t available on the market yet. They’re skinny, along the lines of the bottoms of glass Coke bottles rather than the ones the GPD has, which pretty much consist of the entire Coke bottle, so they don’t get in the way when he’s fighting.

The point being, everybody in the room is neatly outlined in green, so he gets on with some cathartic, socially acceptable expression of his feelings. Two guys at once isn’t so bad when you can see them and they can’t see you. A couple of blindly random gunshots flare out, licks of white flame, so he targets the trigger-happy Tweedledum of the pair before dealing with the marginally less stupid Tweedledee.

He uses the taser on the guy with the lead finger.

The taser is really satisfying. He is going to get one for everyone he knows, come Christmas. The St. Swithin kids will love it.

The surprise is what’s going on in the other side of the room, when John is finally finished flattening and hogtying his second guy. He pushes himself back up to stand, panting, and realizes that Bruce isn’t the only one fighting over there. Three of Dzubenko’s men are down and Bruce is dealing with a fourth, but there are two other men having it out near the corner in front of the handcuffed cops. For a second, John thinks that Dzubenko’s men have gotten confused and are wrestling each other; then he realizes one of them is Gordon, who -- wasn’t he unconscious and handcuffed only a second ago? Sneaky bastard. John grins.

Bruce, who looks like a chic Hulk with the green light thing the night vision puts on, hammers the guy he’s fighting into the ground. And then he plucks up the one Gordon’s just sent sprawling to the ground, and hurls him across the room.

Bruce doesn’t get credit for that one, John decides. Gordon got there first.

Bruce: 7. John: 7. Gordon: 1. 

Bruce just leaves the ones he drops, apparently feeling that it’s John’s job to tie up bad guys. Normally John would be into exploring his dominatrix side with Ukrainian low-lifes, but he’s got other things on his mind and it seems to him that delegation is the key to good vigilante task management. The guy Bruce threw is groaning and trying to get back to his feet again, so John punches him in the head to keep him floored, then heads over to flip the shades and let a little light in. 

He remembers just in time to unfasten the night vision lenses. Bruce does the same thing. Faded yellow light streams in, striping the floor and sprawled bodies. 

“What the fuck,” says Gerry Stephens, his voice raw and grating as he blinks in squinty fury.

John crouches behind him to key his handcuffs open. “I’m uncuffing you,” he whispers, kicking himself a little for not thinking about what he’s going to have to do to disguise his voice. And, since Stephens is trying to headbutt him -- what is he, a three-year old? -- adds, “Stop that.”

Stephens stops, but John’s pretty sure that’s got more to do with the fact that Bruce steps into the thin light than any fear of him. He can feel Stephens stiffen as the cuffs come off. “Holy crap,” the detective breathes, while John works on the next guy’s cuffs. “You’re dead.”

Bruce rasps, “I got better.” 

Snarky bastard.

Stephens takes a deep breath, preparing to say something else, but Gordon, who was doing fine until then but apparently is finished after a long night of being beat to shit, picking his handcuffs open, then protecting Bruce’s back, picks that moment to collapse. Bruce catches him, faster than John would’ve thought possible. He lifts the Commissioner to lay him gently on the conference table while Stephens scrambles to his feet and rushes to see how he is. Meanwhile, John gets the other two cops uncuffed and standing, waves a hand in front of their faces to get them to stop gaping at Bruce, then hands them a bunch of plasticuffs so they can deal with the rest of Dzubenko’s guys still rolling around on the ground. 

See? Delegation. He was born to be management.

It’s kind of sweet, watching Bruce with Gordon. Touching. It’s obvious that Bruce cares a lot for the Commissioner. Even Stephens doesn’t try to get between them, maybe because Bruce is giving off the kind of angry, possessive rottweiller-with-newborn-pups vibe that you only ignore if you want to lose a hand or, if you’re a special kind of stupid, your face. 

“I’ll be fine,” Gordon says huskily, blinking up at Bruce. 

“I know,” Bruce says.

“Welcome back.”

Gordon lifts a hand. Bruce grips it hard. 

John thinks about getting dewy-eyed in a manly, restrained way, except Gordon, who has the dramatic instincts of a potato, immediately spoils the moment by saying, “Help me up. Meyer and Obuoye--”

The two dead officers. Shit.

John is still wearing gloves, but he strips one off as he crouches by one of the bodies. The other one is beyond hope; the back of his head is blown out, and brain matter is visible in the matted mess of his hair. John might never eat hamburger again, because it looks disturbingly like the stuff that shows up on McDonald’s buns. The second body though, is nowhere near as messy, and when he touches his fingers to the hollow under the man’s jaw, he’s almost sure he feels a faint pulse.

Hot damn.

“I think this one needs a doctor,” he tells Stephens in as deep a voice as he can manage. Then he has to stand up fast and step away, because at the suggestion that their friend might be alive, the two uniforms dive at the sprawled body and start ripping at his clothes to apply first aid.

A beep sounds in his ear, followed by a rattle of footprints racing across tile. He hears a voice whisper, “What the fuck--?”  The GPD is nothing if not consistent. Bruce meets his eyes over Gordon’s quietly cursing head, and he nods, hearing the same thing John is. SWAT has just entered the building -- through the front door, which is just the kind of dumbass bull in the china shop behavior you’d expect from Brendan and Akins.

“So wait. Who are you?” Stephens demands of John, as they retreat to the window.

Want to know something stupid? John hasn’t actually figured out yet what he’ll say if asked that question. Because he is a fucking moron. And oh, look. He’s being asked it.

Bruce is already opening the window. 

“You’ll find out,” John says in a moment of sheer panic, which is a really, really dumb thing to say, but what can you do. Unfortunately, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression, and just then the door bursts open. SWAT pours in to point guns at all the wrong people, shouting stupid stuff, like, “Freeze! Hands on your head! Get down! Down! Down!” 

I'd like mixed signals for $200 please, Alex?

Bruce is really bad at following directions. He snags John around the waist and tips to send them both diving out the window. The last thing John sees is Gordon’s battered face looking after them, an unhappy pinch to his brow, and Stephens’s slack-jawed gape.

You have to hand it to him. Bruce really knows how to make an exit.

 

Chapter Text

 

It occurs to John just before they hit the pavement head-first that Bruce should really ask first before throwing him out of windows.

It just seems like that would be the polite thing to do.

 

 

 


 

 

About two inches before they do some Jackson Pollock redecoration of the street with their brains, Bruce does something that sends them flying up the side of the building instead. It’s fucking scary and a serious relief, because John never even noticed him set the line to begin with. They streak past the same open window again, and catch a glimpse of the SWAT team pushing up their visors and looking completely stupid at the scene in the room, while Gordon sits on the conference table, shouting at them.

Bruce does some kind of flip thing to land them on the roof when they’re near the top. John lands a lot more clumsily than Bruce, but it’s not like he’s Batman; new kid on the block is entitled to some graceless moments. He’s practically vibrating with adrenaline, excitement, terror and triumph, not to mention residual rage from seeing Officer Meyer’s brains splattered all over the carpet. “How did you--” he begins saying, but Bruce is already running, heading back the way they came.

John races after him, tasting metal on his tongue. The exertion smooths out some of the edge. Just a little. Enough that when Bruce finally stops on the roof of the warehouse where they parked the tumbler, John’s primary urge is no longer to punch him in the face.

“How did you--” he begins again.

Bruce turns on him, the cape fanning wide. John has a split-second where he sees Bruce’s eyes and thinks a panicked, oh fuck; then he’s smashed up against the roof access wall, pinned in place by an armored arm, and Bruce is kissing him. Kissing him hard, brutal, invading John’s mouth with his tongue and growling a low-voiced, feral sound that raises the hairs on John’s skin.

Bruce has clearly gone batshit insane. 

John can’t breathe. Or think. Bruce is-- it’s hard to form coherent thoughts when Bruce’s mouth is-- his teeth are-- uh, he’s got John’s lower lip between his, tugging at it before running his tongue across bruised skin. There’s heat uncurling its way down John’s chest, tingling across his fingers, opening hungry coils into the pit of his stomach and down into his nngh.

Shock, he decides. He’s in shock. The smart thing to do (fuck, what’s Bruce’s hand doing) when someone is kissing you, uh, when someone is--

When Batman is, um, and oh gosh, found Bruce’s hand and it’s fzzzzzzt.

It takes him a few labored gasps to realize that Bruce has stopped kissing. Him. Uh. He opens his eyes -- funny, he doesn’t remember closing them -- and blinks. Bruce’s eyes are dark, almost completely dilated. “What the hell was that?” John demands, hearing his breath husk raggedly across the words.

Bruce lowers his head and kisses him again.

This time it’s less urgent, more deliberate. Warm lips nip and nuzzle their way across his, learning their shape and licking at the corners of his mouth. John’s lips part without orders, inviting him in. Bruce tastes like ice and fire and the damn frappuccino, which John hadn’t even seen him pick up and drink, but thank you very much Starbucks, because he will never be able to to see those sugared-up abominations again without something really inconvenient happening in his trousers.

His brain is disintegrating as every second ticks by, but it doesn’t even occur to him to resist this surreal onslaught. Because even if he’s not technically gay, there’s, uh, issues of, of, social responsibility and, uh, the moral imperative to, uh, crap, what was it, the moral imperative to, to-- 

Bruce is a really good kisser. 

Well, obviously he has to humor the man. Batman’s dangerous. If he’s gone stark raving bonkers, it’s John’s responsibility to the citizens of Gotham to humor him. Calm him down. Thank God he’s wearing armor down there, because otherwise, there’d be-- well, something would be pretty obvious to Bruce anyway, although maybe that ship has really sailed, considering he’s, oops, settled his hands on Bruce’s thighs and is holding him close in a really non-platonic way.

Given which, it’s probably a bit hypocritical for him to say what he does when Bruce finally pulls away.

“That’s not appropriate workplace behavior.” He intends it to be firm and forceful, but given how breathless he is, and how low and furry his voice is, completely beyond his control, it sounds more like a voiceover from a high-quality porno.

Fortunately, Bruce doesn’t watch television. Or cable. Or, apparently, $1.99 rentals from the local shop. Given his reputation, pornos probably don’t contain anything he couldn’t just as easily ask supermodels to perform live for him, free of charge, and save the $1.99 (plus tax).

If the rest of what he’s capable of is on par with his kissing skills, the supermodels would probably pay him.

Bruce’s mouth twitches, his lips slightly swollen, the briefest of smiles softening that intent look that makes John feel like he’s being scalded. “Night’s not over yet,” he says.

John, to his own horror, hears himself say, “Promises, promises.” Christ. Did that seriously just come out of his mouth? How lame

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

Except it turns out that Bruce is quite serious. The night’s not over. Want to know what they do for the rest of the night?

Save people.

It’s better than sex, John thinks. At least, sex as he dimly remembers it. How long has it been since he had sex? Fuck Bruce and his dark knight vigilante moral high ground cockteasing ass.

On Foster Street, Batman and a mysterious partner in close-fitting black and blue interrupt a major drug deal, taking down four members of the MS-13, and three mid-level soldiers and a caporegime for the Gabani family. The police arrive to find the men bound and gagged inside the warehouse, a flash drived duct-taped to Andy Rosso’s chest.

On Guillaume Street, an unknown vigilante in a half-mask stops a attempted robbery of a bodega, leaving the two would-be robbers bound in plastic ties before performing first aid on the dazed and bleeding clerk. He stays with the panicked man until the police and EMTs arrive, then disappears when the former tries to arrest him.

On A Street, outside the Helix club, Batman and a mysterious, very hot partner -- oh my God, would you look at that body? Mmmm -- descend on an attempted hate crime. They apply some rough and ready justice to some drunk and belligerent homophobes, providing a nontrivial amount of jerking off material for the crowd of patrons who hastily spill outside to watch once the victim thinks to scramble in and call for help.

On David Lane, an unknown man in black and blue with a half-mask buys a frappuccino from a 24-hour Starbucks. He pays in cash.

(Yes, okay, one of these things is not like the others. But John felt the need to make a point.)

On Mirth Road, an unknown man who smells like a frappuccino stops a home invasion, evacuating Mr. and Mrs. Tamborin, their three children and, after some argument, their cat -- “You want me to rescue Mr. Nipples?” -- before returning inside to overwhelm and restrain the two invaders.

On K Street, an unknown masked man rescues an old woman, her grandson, and a teenager from a burning building. The apartment complex starts to collapse with two other residents and a fireman unaccounted for inside; the Lieutenant on-scene restrains the man when he attempts to enter the building again. The missing fireman is subsequently brought out by Batman, which results in a minor sensation from exhausted firefighters who’ve been too busy to notice the bat signal still lighting up the sky. During the excitement, Batman disappears with the other, unidentified masked rescuer, who is apparently with him.

After each brush with the general public, Bruce takes John to some private, isolated rooftop or alleyway, pins him against whatever available surface he can find, and kisses him ruthlessly. 

John can’t figure out if this is meant to be a reward, motivation, or punishment. He’s inclined towards thinking it’s the last one, because it gets harder and harder to-- well. Anyway, it gets harder and harder, okay? It just does. And that’s just awkward. And chafing. There’s chafing. And then, after Bruce has gotten him completely wound up and out of his mind, he drags John with him to perform some other meaningful and utterly satisfying act of targeted violence.

It’s unclear to John whether beating people up gets Bruce hot, or getting hot makes Bruce beat people up. He’s got no problem with it either way, frankly. Still, there’s that chafing.

It’s a long night. It’s a lot of really good kissing. And after having an apartment building almost dropped on his head, John has had enough.

“That’s the last one, goddammit,” John tells Bruce when they pause to rest on a rooftop two blocks over, the light and smoke from the fire still dying the horizon pale grey and gold. “I can’t do any more. Next one’s on you.” John’s voice is hoarse and rasping, entirely without artifice. Smoke inhalation is a bitch, and he’s actually shaking as the last of his adrenaline fades, exhaustion hip-bumping with muscle fatigue and every new bruise he’s picked up in the last four hours.

Bruce looks down at him. John is sitting with his legs straight out in front of him, leaning his back against the parapet. He’s trying to stop coughing, with mixed results. Oxygen masks are all well and good, but the thing about them is that you have to keep them on for them to work. The old lady he was carrying through the inferno was fizzing and bubbling like a poorly adjusted radiator. Of the pair of them, she was plainly in more need than he was.

“It’s enough to start with,” Bruce says, and thank God lowers himself to sit next to John instead of dragging him off to another rescue. The way he goes down makes John suspect that he was hurt getting the firefighter out of the building before it collapsed. He picks the darker side of the low wall and settles with more dignity than John can be bothered with, the cloak draping itself around him to make him a shapeless, formless shadow. “You’ve made enough of an impression, I think.”

“Is that what this was about? I thought you were staging your comeback.”

“That, too,” Bruce says. His mouth twitches. 

And what’s with the kissing? John wants to ask, but he doesn’t, because he’s coughing, all right? He’s resigned at this point to the fact that Bruce just does what Bruce does, and almost never explains anything. Too much time working alone, brooding, or whatever it is that he used to do during those long years of being a hermit; not enough socialization. 

Or maybe this is just how things are when you grow up as member of the Forbes Top 100 with those cheekbones and that mouth. You pin anyone you want against a wall and go at it, and never get no for an answer. Maybe there’s some kind of rich gorgeous guy mind-control thing involved. 

“No,” John says, just to make sure the word’s still in his repertoire. He’s pleased to find that it still is. So why hasn’t he used it?

Protecting Gotham from crazy Bats, right. Don’t mind him. He’s just over here throwing his lips on the bomb.

Bruce glances at him, but doesn’t ask what he’s rejecting.

They’re on G Street, which is really only a few blocks away from St. Swithin. Reminded of the conversation with Father Reilly a few weeks ago, not to mention Gordon’s angry report on the lollipop just last night,  John groans and pulls himself up to stand. “Changed my mind,” he says as Bruce slowly draws himself up, irritatingly fluid, as though he doesn’t contain any bones. “One more stop, just to check -- curious about something. Nothing strenuous.”

Bruce says nothing, just follows him down to the ground and for a change, lets him drive. 

John parks a block away -- illegally, but he’d like to meet the cop who’s willing to give Batman’s tank a parking ticket -- and slips through shadows as much as he can around the corner while Bruce, more ambitious, zips up to one of the rooftops to find something to entertain him while he waits.

The neighborhood is eerily quiet. Not in the way where it’s actually quiet, because there are still cars out trolling the area; it’s not a good part of town, even if the pimps and dealers have moved on, and this street is still in between them and the johns and buyers. That said, there are fewer people on the streets. And by ‘fewer,’ he means ‘none,’ which he has never seen. Even at this hour, there’s usually a few folks roaming around. Tonight, nada.

It’s kind of creepy.

Over the earbud, John can hear the sounds of Bruce getting into a fight; intervening in a domestic, from the sounds of it. Batman dealing with a domestic is like using the Manhattan Project to kill aphids, but whatever. Not something that needs John’s assistance anyway, he decides. Bruce hasn’t asked for it anyway.

More interesting to John is the sounds of a scuffle down Luther, a rathole of an alley that used to be the home office of Bee-boy, the local coke dealer. The migration of criminals is worth it, just for Bee-boy alone; the last time they saw each other, John came away with a black eye and a gash that needed five stitches.

It stinks of piss and sour decay. The noise has stopped by the time John gets there; he flattens himself by the side of the wall and pokes his head in, to see what’s up. He can just make out the figure of a man, sprawled unmoving on dirty, garbage-strewn concrete at the far end of the alley. He can’t see anyone else -- nobody to explain the sounds of struggle he was hearing -- which isn’t suspicious at all, and he’s not actually being sarcastic. It’s not unknown for strung-out junkies and schizophrenic homeless to fight garbage cans and cardboard boxes before concussing themselves on asphalt.

John heads cautiously into the alley investigate. The body at the far end turns out to be Bee-boy himself, though he’s a far cry from the swaggering, foul-mouthed prick with a hair-trigger temper that John’s more used to dealing with. He’s smaller, without the deranged hostility of his waking personality. The guy’s been beaten up, and beaten up badly; even in the shadows, against his dark skin, John can see the scrapes and swelling and beginnings of bruises that will be royal marks by the time they’re done. He crouches, stripping off his glove to check his pulse. Still going, if weakly.

Someone else’s problem, then, as soon as he gets a call in to get a bus out.

He senses rather than hears someone behind him, a heartbeat before the faint light spilling in from the alley’s entrance is blotted out. He leaps up and whirls to look, already preparing to defend himself.

For a split second, he’s not entirely sure what he’s seeing is human. Massive. It’s massive. Massive and murderous. A giant in sheepskin-lined overcoat, head polished and gleaming around a band of darker metal. 

Bane. It’s fucking Bane.

John blurts out, “Holy crap. You really did give her a lollipop.”

What is it with his inability to make a good first impression?

 

 

 


 

 

It’s the lollipop that saves John’s life.

Bane’s slow advance, ponderous with the intent to unscrew John’s head and spread his guts like peanut butter all over the street, stops mid-step. John can see his eyes glittering, and is hit by a sense of the man’s curiosity.

There are a lot of things that John could do now. Running seems like the sensible option. But there’s Bee-boy, and even though he hates the guy -- this is, after all, a man who once knifed Father Reilly for looking at him the wrong way; a man who once literally got away with murder on a legal technicality; a man who once snuck into the same theater John was in, and talked through the entire movie -- leaving him unconscious in the same alley with Bane doesn’t seem like taking the moral high ground.

What John would really like right now is for Bruce to show up. Not that he needs saving from Bane, per se (who’s he kidding, he totally does) but it would be good to have a reasonable chance of getting out alive from this. Two against one when that one is Bane still seem like inadequate odds, but the chances of the US Army making a special cameo appearance on demand seems unlikely tonight.

So, since he’s already lost the cool, threatening mystique of a dignified silence, he simply says, “Hi. So when’d you move into the neighborhood?”

This is strategy. This is distracting Bane long enough for Bruce to get here. This is trying to talk his way out of a potentially lethal situation. Gordon would be so proud of him. Check him out, being all mature and rational and not being a smartass at the wrong moment.

Now is a bad time to remember that Bane almost killed Gordon.

Bane blinks. John has apparently gone completely off script. It’s astonishing for some reason that a man so large can be so still, like he’s a larger than life-sized statue carved out of marble, sheepskin, and the tears of tiny orphaned puppies.

The silence stretches beyond the normal pause a person uses for collecting his thoughts. Then it ambles straight into awkward territory. Which is fine by John. Silence means nobody’s being killed. More critically, it means he’s not being killed. He’s in favor of this.

You,” Bane says at last, his voice hollow and dry like the opening of an ancient sarcophagus. It’s astonishing how quickly that voice takes John back, giving him sensory flashbacks of freezing basements, terrifying races against homicidal goons, and the gnawing edge of starvation. 

“Me,” John says, not sure what the proper response is to this. In the earpiece, he can hear Bruce reading a monosyllabic lecture about social compacts to whoever it is he’s beating up. “We’ve never met.”

“No,” Bane says, his eyes slowly crinkling into a terrifying smile. “But I know of you. John Blake.”

Oh, fuck.

“How--”

“You’re the little one who visits the children and the priest,” Bane says in a kind of drowsy purr.

‘Little one.’ John stiffens, but lets it go in favor of a completely useless but far less hostile: “I could be anyone. I’m wearing a mask.”

“We who wear masks are more than the story of our faces,” Bane says, sounding like a homicidal fortune cookie. He looks John up and down in a way that makes him feel like Bane is maybe trying to decide which piece to remove first. There is a weird sense of deja vu to the experience, which John can’t quite place. “Tell your creator that I am waiting for him.” 

“My--” Bruce. John forces himself not to glance up at the bat signal, which isn’t even visible given the buildings that are flanking the alley. Bane doesn’t move; is still studying him with that lazy, speculative curiosity. 

He really doesn’t like that look. 

“My dad’s dead, so unless you’ve got a shovel and a ouija board, you’re going to be waiting a long time,” he says, as politely as he’s able to manage. “Unless you’re talking about something more Catholic, in which case, the church is right around the corner. Pull up a pew. Knock back some sacramental wine. Try out some penance. Knock yourself out.”

There's a pause. Then: “The last man who spoke to me as you do lost his tongue and both his hands,” Bane says with detached nostalgia.

“I’m surprised you didn’t just kill him, given your reputation.”

“--and then,” Bane continues, as though John hadn’t spoken, “I disemboweled him.”

John grits his teeth. “Way to kill a conversation while you’re at it,” he says. Bitterly, because he thought they were doing so well on the civilized behavior until that point. 

“You are afraid.”

“Damn. And I thought I was hiding it so well, too.”

Bane’s eyes gleam, so like Bruce’s that John is briefly thrown. The terrorist seems surprised. “You admit it.”

“What can I say. I’m in touch with my feelings,” John says. Gravitas on the scale that Batman is capable of seems completely out of the cards, now, so he might as well be himself. No do overs, dammit. “Personally, I think mortal terror is the emotionally responsible reaction to meeting you in a dark alley. All things considered, I think I deserve points for not wetting my pants even a little bit.”

“You are unlike the others of your breed.”

“I’m not sure what you mean by ‘breed,’ but I’m pretty sure it’s not meant to be flattering.”

“Most of your brethren prefer to hide their fear,” Bane says, regarding him with a meditative interest that is quickly crossing the border between unwanted and freaking John the fuck out. 

“Water is wet, fire is hot, you are fucking terrifying,” John says, and spreads his hands even while he shifts his feet to jump, just in case Bane’s about to do a repeat performance of the tongue-removing, hand-detaching, disembowling variety. “No offense,” he thinks to add.

“None taken.” He’s a civil nightmare in a sheepskin coat, anyway.

“If you don’t mind,” John says, encouraged by this unexpected courtesy and reminded by the way the light catches the unnervingly fang-like tubes that pass as Bane’s face; it’s almost poetic, really, “do you think you could refrain from giving the kids any more heroin lollipops? If it’s not too much trouble,” he adds, in case Bane has some kind of addiction to poisoning small kids. The GPD trained him to be sensitive about those. 

Bane’s eyes narrow.

“Please?” he tacks on.

“I did not give her the sweet,” Bane says, and oh, this is familiar, the way the temperature seems to drop a few astoundingly pertinent degrees. 

“They told me Bane gave it to her,” John says.

“Did the child?” 

John has to stop to think about that one. “No,” he admits. “Mostly, she swore at me.” Bane’s eyes start to crinkle in a way that looks altogether too fond; not that Mia isn’t cute, mind, but John’s starting to get antsy from the sheer enormity of What The Fuckery happening tonight. “Are you sure you didn’t give her the lollipop?” 

Even to himself, he sounds plaintive. It just makes so much more sense, inasmuch as anything makes sense, that if a 4-year old got her hands on a heroin-laced cherry-flavored treat, it would be via the conveniently-to-hand mass murdering terrorist. It would restore John’s faith in an orderly universe, a faith that’s already cracking under the strain of this ridiculous conversation.

“No,” Bane says, and nods his head to the unmoving body behind John. “That one did.”

Bruce has apparently finished dealing with the domestic, because his voice suddenly crackles in John’s ear. “What’s happening? Is Bane there?”

Of course. Bruce can only hear John’s side of what’s going on. Shit. “Yeah,” he says, trying to answer Bruce while responding to Bane. “Because that makes so much sense.”

Bruce’s snarl buzzes through the earbud, vibrating across John’s jaw and tickling his throat. “I’m coming,” he says. “Don’t engage,” just as Bane asks mildly, “Do you call me a liar?”

“Are you kidding me?” John demands of them both. “How stupid do you think I am?”

Neither of them reply, which pretty much answers that. Fuck them both.

“Can we start this whole thing again?” John asks, shaking off some righteous indignation. “This isn’t how this is supposed to go.”

Bane’s eyebrows rise inquiringly. “Had you planned an encounter?” 

“No, but-- aren’t you supposed to be trying to kill me?”

“Do you wish to die?”

“Obviously I have some sort of death wish, since I’m standing here talking to you instead of running for the hills, but it isn’t intentional.” 

“If you want me to fulfill your desires, I will be pleased to be of service,” Bane says, and now the asshole is just mocking him. Par for the course.

A quick subject change seems to be in order. John has a sudden epiphany and blurts out, incredulous, because he is a moron, “You did this to Bee-boy because he gave a heroin lollipop to a 4-year old?”

This was apparently the wrong thing to say, because Bane’s eyes narrow, and without warning he pounces, almost too fast to see; like a cat on a grasshopper, John thinks hysterically. There’s a complicated few seconds of dodging and striking and things going thud and other things going ow ow fuck fuck fuck. Then John is dangling from Bane’s fist, slammed up against the wall with his feet a good two feet off the ground. Not that he’s in the mood for counting his blessings, but this is (in the short term, anyway) at least marginally better than what usually happens when a bored cat catches a grasshopper. Maybe Bane is worried his bones will get stuck between his teeth, and doesn’t have a toothpick to hand.

“Is this the best he has taught you?” Bane asks, and for Christ’s sake, he sounds exasperated.

It’s hard to talk when the breath is being squashed out of you by a hand the size of a hubcap. John wheezes vindictively at Bane. Take that. Then he draws his feet up to kick him soundly in the stomach.  

He feels like he stubbed his toes on a semi-truck. Bane takes a small step back, then scratches at it absent-mindedly, like it tickled. It probably did. “You may speak,” he says kindly, no longer pressing John quite so hard against the wall.

Hello, lungs. I missed you. John coughs, groping after air. “I’m still learning,” he gasps in his own defense, his voice thin and thready. “Sorry if it doesn’t meet with your approval. I’m not used to fighting bodybuilding ninjas. You’re a bit out of my comfort zone.”

“What are you doing? I told you not to engage,” Bruce hisses into his ear. 

Thank you, Bruce. Can’t talk now. Busy committing suicide.

“And I am more accustomed to dead policemen than living ones,” Bane says in a bizarrely encouraging way. “Yet, here we are. We are what we repeatedly do. Soon enough you will stretch to accommodate me.”

John pauses, trying to parse that. There are so many things wrong with what Bane has just said, he’s actually at a loss for where to start first. “You just quoted Aristotle at me,” he says, picking the one sentence that seems least likely to end with him face-down in the alley, dead or alive. “I’m not a cop anymore.” 

Bane looks restrained approval. “Is this your plea for me to spare your life?”

“This is me correcting a misunderstanding,” John says weakly, clinging to Bane’s wrist. The guy is built like a brick shithouse, and it’s not the most comfortable thing in the world, being dangled off the ground by a brick shithouse. At least Bane smells marginally better. 

“I will not kill you yet,” Bane says, apparently feeling magnanimous. Since he then lowers John to the ground, then promptly wraps one trashcan lid hand around John’s throat -- note to self, if still alive in the morning, start wearing protective collar; maybe pet store has one with spikes -- this is only a little comforting, if definitely more comfortable. “I have other uses for you, young one.”

It sounds like a threat. To be fair, everything Bane says sounds like a threat. He could make entire armies shit their pants just by reading aloud a takeout menu from Uncle Lee’s. “Sorry, don’t see how I could possibly fit you in,” he says as firmly as he can when he’s being nicely throttled. “My schedule is packed. I have book club tomorrow, fighting evil on Wednesday-- you know how it is.” There are going to be bruises around his neck tomorrow, if there is a tomorrow. As a sort of experiment, he tries punching the inside of Bane’s elbow, on the off chance it will make that massive arm buckle.

He bruises his knuckles. Ow. Bane gives him a pitying look. “Your teacher is failing you,” he says, and then raises his voice, tipping his head to cast the next bit over his shoulder. “Did you not learn better than that, my brother?”

Something black and soundless materializes at Bane’s back in a flutter of cape and broody malevolence. 

Oh, thank God. John hiccups relief. Bruce.

Bane’s eyes meet John’s and smile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

So the thing is, and really there’s no excuse for this, John was sort of hoping that Batman would drop down on Bane’s head, there’d maybe be some fighting, badabing badaboom, Bane would go down, they would arrest him, the GPD would throw him in jail, and the two of them (Bruce and John, that is) would skip off into the dark holding hands or whatever the fuck it is that you do after you’ve closed out the climax of the current plotline and get to move on to the epilogue of stapling your guts back inside your skin.

Except of course, Bruce is fresh out of retirement and was dead only a few months ago, so maybe that was a little unrealistic. There are entire books about how hard it is to come back from being dead -- well, no there aren’t, but somehow John feels like there should be, and no doubt there will be soon, right next to the Batman bobblehead dolls that Barnes and Noble keep selling beside the Women Are From Venus, Men Are Sometimes Serial Killers self-help tomes that mysteriously show up on the bestseller lists -- so really John should cut Bruce a break. And it isn’t like he wasn’t just as busy as John was tonight with the fighting and the rescuing and the racing into burning buildings.

Adrenaline and motivational hate aside, the guy’s exhausted. It’s hard to tell, but it’s there if you look for it:  the small droop to Bruce’s shoulders, the sag in the angry line of his body. Even the cape doesn’t hide it entirely. 

Bane, on the other hand, only had a single scrawny if overcompensatingly vicious drug dealer for an aperitif, so he’s still got plenty of frisk.

“I am pleased to see that you are well,” Bane says, turning his head to regard Bruce. Even through the weird vocoder effect of the mask, John can hear the malice in the guy’s voice. “We are not yet finished, you and I.”

“Let him go,” Bruce growls, prickly with the same kind of deeply cranky possessiveness he was displaying over Gordon only a few hours ago. 

“Your little heir,” Bane says, like John is a pomeranian he found wandering the streets, and he’s just realized Batman’s name is on the collar. “Are you hoping to mold him in your image?”

“I swear to God, if you call me ‘little’ one more time--” John snaps, purely on principle.

“And how will you stop me?” Bane asks, too indifferent to bother looking at him.

“With the power of my mind. Seriously?” Does Bane think he’s got some kind of piano he can drop from the sky onto his head? Belatedly, John remembers the man who lost his tongue and arms and thinks maybe he should be a little more polite, but it’s a little late for that; Bane’s head is turning to regard him with a kind of delighted astonishment, and Bruce is swelling up like a homicidal boil behind him.

“I know,” John says desperately before Bruce can. “Stop engaging.”

The hand around John’s throat moves, but only so one sausage-sized forefinger can glide across John’s jaw and caress the corner of his mouth. Oh my God, creepy. Creepy. If he tries to stick it in, John is going to bite it off. He glares at Bane. That’ll show him. 

“He has courage, this one,” Bane says, his eyes crinkling again. His attention shifts back to Bruce, though the drag of his gaze away seems almost reluctant. “Enough anger to have been one of us. Ra’s al Ghul would have welcomed him into the temple, as he did you.”

“I was never one of you,” Bruce snaps.

“You were too weak to serve the greater good. Too complicit in the corruption that poisoned the roots of your city. But this one--” Bane’s finger strokes John’s cheek, horrifyingly intimate. “This one has killed. I can see it in his eyes. He knows how to do what must be done. He would be a fine addition to the League.”

Enough is enough. Kissed by Batman, petted by Bane; his night had started out so normally, too. “Excuse me--” John begins, only to find himself the lucky recipient of identically impatient glances from both Bruce and Bane. It’s the kind of ‘quiet, little boy, the grown-ups are talking’ look that he used to get all the time from Deputy Commissioner Foley before he pulled the massive stick of superiority out of his ass and, not so coincidentally, died. 

It’s a look that drives him crazy at the best of times. This is definitely not the best of times. 

“The League is gone,” Bruce says.

“The League is eternal. Did you think we who showed Gotham the decay of its underbelly were all the League had? We are legion. For every one that dies, a thousand more wait in the shadows to balance the scales of justice.”

“What you do has nothing to do with justice. You destroy the innocent and the guilty.”

“You are like a child trying to push back the tide with your bare hands.” Bane says with lazy contempt. “If you think your system does not do the same, you are naive, little brother. It inspires no one, then lets the guilty free to destroy even more innocents. Your rules are shackles.”

It’s like rainbow sprinkles on top of an ice cream sundae of grotesque that Bane should use the exact same words as Gordon, which in turn became the exact same words that John used to Bruce. 

“Hey,” John tries to interject, only to have Bane shake him gently, like a disobedient puppy. The only reason that John shuts up, the only reason, is that it’s obvious from that little rattle that Bane could easily snap his neck in two using just one hand.

Not that he hadn’t realized that before, but it was good to get the reminder.

“Don’t pretend to hold Ra’s al Ghul’s vision,” Bruce grates. “You were always Talia’s puppet. It was all about revenge, from the beginning.”

“You mistake,” Bane says. “The two are not mutually exclusive. Gotham will fall. Inevitably. That it serves my beloved’s desire in doing so does not change the need to cleanse it from the earth.”

Bruce is rigid with rage. “There are good people in this city. They deserve a chance.”

“To save the body, one must remove healthy flesh with the diseased,” Bane says. “Your way has failed for over a generation. Ours has worked to balance the world for millennia. This little one--” the terrorist turns speculative pale eyes to John and pins him with their gaze, stripping him down in that eerie way Bruce occasionally does, “--he could be taught, by a better teacher than you.”

“Take your hands off of him,” Bruce tells him, with a snarl scraping up the edges of his voice.

“Is he so dear to you?” Bane asks with such obvious surprise in his voice and anticipation in the tension of his shoulders that John blurts out, “Oh fuck, no, you assholes--” 

He was going somewhere with that, really he was, but he finds himself cut short by an uncharitable squeeze of Bane’s fingers. The world goes white and bursty for a couple of seconds; in the background, he can dimly hear Bruce and Bane declaiming at each other, like the grown-ups arguing over the sleepy kid’s head on the long car ride home. They are such pricks. He scrabbles at Bane’s wrist, tries to slam his boot into the terrorist’s instep, and fails utterly because he is so hopelessly outclassed he might as well be a smurf trying to take down a wooly mammoth.

He’s right on the verge of blacking out, and thinking with a surprising lack of alarm that this is it, this is death, and he barely even got the suit broken in -- for last words, calling Bane and Batman ‘assholes’ isn’t such a bad thing, really; if nothing else, at least he has that -- when something happens to make Bane drop him like a sack of dog food on the alley floor.

The alley floor is disgusting. It’s the best thing that’s happened to John all night.

He maybe loses consciousness for a little while -- scratch what he said earlier. That’s the best thing that’s happened to John all night -- but when he recovers with his throat aching every time he swallows or breathes, it’s to the dim sounds of fighting out in the street. The two of them are going at it, punctuating the meaty thud of blows with declamatory statements. 

John staggers to his feet, his head swimming. He thinks a vague thought about intervening somehow, gets an immediate picture of himself as a smashed pillbug under their combined booted feet, and decides against until he feels better. Bee-boy, then. He stumbles over to the man and awkwardly hauls him up (note to self: add more weight lifting to exercise routine) then sets and flies up a line to the roof of one of the apartment building flanking the alley.

His subsequent call to 911 goes poorly.

“Batman and Bane are fighting on B Street and Luther,” he says in a low, growly voice to the slurry-tongued woman who answers the line. “Send a bus, too. Unresponsive cocaine dealer on the roof of 221 B.” Huh.

The 911 dispatcher manages a few indignant and rapidly failing fricatives, mostly along the lines of ‘ffffff’ and ‘thhhhh’ before John manages to tell her about Bee-boy’s likely injuries and hangs up on her. Even if she thinks it’s a crank call, she’ll still send some panda cars; the suggestion that they might get a chance to see Batman and Bane fighting will guarantee that it’ll be a fast response.

Reminded of which, John wanders over to the edge of the roof and peers down to see how it’s going.

Answer: not well.

Cars have skidded to a stop in the street, half-turned, their lights blazing, their drivers open-mouthed and staring like they're spectators at some coordinated street brawl sponsored by the WWF. Bruce is exhausted, that much is obvious to John after several weeks of being kicked around the city by him. Most people might not notice it; he still moves fast, he still lands blows, but there’s a drag to his step and a delay in his reactions that indicates fatigue or just plain hurt. Bane can tell as well. He’s toying with him, standing squarely in his path and leaving himself open, making a mockery of the whole thing. 

It’s mean, is what it is. Just plain mean. In fact, John says it aloud, just to make sure the rest of the world understands, takes note and underlines, just how mean it is. Not that Bruce is a nice guy, particularly, but he is a very good kisser and also he saved 9 million people from a nuclear bomb so he gets a pass on being a jerk the rest of the time.

He should probably do something about this. Maybe while Bane is busy killing him, Bruce can spend the four or five seconds it buys him to think up a brilliant plan. Is there a limit on how many times you can commit suicide during the course of an hour? Because John might be breaking his quota.

Right, then.

He descends the line down to street level and launches himself in between Bane’s fist and Bruce’s body with a lot more ambition than his body is really capable of. He expects to get punched in the throat. Instead what happens is he feels the whistle of air slam into the bare skin there, and then peels open one eye to find Bane regarding him with fascinated affection, like he’s just done something adorable.

It’s the first time he sees that look on what passes for Bane’s face. If he’d known then how often he’d end up seeing it, and under what circumstances, he would’ve slit his wrists right then and there. Of course, then he’d have missed out on a future of incredible and completely confusing sex. Hindsight’s a bitch.

“What are you doing?!” Bruce demands from behind him, his voice shaking with weariness.

“Engaging,” John says, hypnotized by Bane’s smiling eyes. His pulse is rattling so heavily in his throat, it hurts. “Shut up.”

Bane chuckles. “Are you protecting him?”

“No,” Bruce growls.

Yes,” John says. “For Christ’s sake. Just shut up and deal with this, Batman. I can protect you if I want. Just think of me as the Maginot line. And yes,” he adds savagely, when he hears Bruce suck in a breath behind him, “I do remember my European history, and I know exactly what I’m saying. In this scenario, you’re France. You were already fucked anyway. How could this get any worse?” 

He can feel Bruce stiffen in offense behind him, while Bane unfolds his fist and actually pats John on the cheek. John just lets him, because Bruce spent a substantial portion of the last couple of hours kissing John against chimneys, and for some obscure reason this feels like balancing the scales a little. Also, being patted on the cheek by the scariest terrorist this side of the Atlantic, while demoralizing, is not actually that dangerous. 

If nothing else, it delays the inevitable.

“‘C’est magnifique,’” Bane says kindly, “‘mais ce n'est pas la guerre.’”

“Sorry,” John says. “I went to public school. I understood ‘magnificent?’”

Bruce snorts.

“You are worthy of better, little one. I will not kill you tonight,” Bane says gently, as sirens start to whine somewhere not so far away. He glances over John’s shoulder at Bruce and nods, like one colleague to another in the most deranged sibling relationship in history. “You will suffer, my brother. You owe me a life. You will know the pain of true loss before I kill you.”

Bane’s fingers trail across John’s throat, tickling the marks he’s left there, then fall away.

Bruce roars, “No!”

Bane purrs, “Yes.”

John says, baffled, “...Wait, what?”

Then the cops are there and Bane is not, and Bruce is grabbing John jealously around the waist before whisking them off into the night. 

It’s nothing at all like the cover of a bad gay romance novel. For one thing, John’s not even showing any boob.

 

 

Chapter Text

There’s a lot that John wants to ask.

A lot.

He doesn’t get the chance.

“No,” Bruce says, when they land on the rooftop and John opens his mouth. Before he can even get a word out, it’s, “Not until we get back,” and then Bruce is stalking away on a whirl of cape and broody dramatic lighting.

Ass.

There’s nothing specifically wrong with this suggestion, except for the fact that it means John has to wait to get some things off his chest. It’s true that the cave would offer them privacy, and it’s an enclosed space so Bruce can’t disappear like he’s prone to when inconvenient subjects arise. They could have a manly heart to heart without interruptions. John would like that, because he’s got a whole shit-ton of questions, starting with, “What the fuck?” and ending with, “What the fuckety fuck?” The stuff he’s planning to ask in between is a lot more articulate, but he thinks that insofar as a starting point and an ending point go, he’s golden. Given which, he gives in with only a small, pointed glare at Bruce when they get to the car, which is completely ignored.

Bruce makes him drive. The ride back to the cave is silent. You could shatter bricks with the tension.

(There is no kissing.)

When they reach the cave, John bounces out of the tumbler, briefly invigorated by the prospect of getting some answers. Maybe shouting a bit. Definitely shouting. All the coiled up pressure from Bruce’s kissing and Bane’s ... whatever it was, needs some outlet. He strips off his mask to watch as Bruce crawls out as well.

Bruce’s hands tremble as he drags his cowl off. Under the harsh white illumination of the floodlights installed around the cavern, John can see for the first time that the side of the Batsuit is slick and shiny, glistening wet.

Goddammit. That prick.

“Fuck. Is that blood? That’s blood. You’re hurt. You didn’t tell me you were hurt. What the hell happened? Why didn’t you tell me you were hurt?” John demands, hearing his voice kiting higher as he babbles. He hurtles around the car, almost skidding right off the platform into the lake en route to Bruce. 

Bruce’s eyes narrow at John, all hard and cold. In normal circumstances, this would slow John down, but not even the guy who once had his own Armani centerfold in GQ looks his best with cowl head and black makeup smeared all over his face. 

“Don’t give me that shit,” John says, answering the look before shoving Bruce towards the less damp, living quarters section of the cavern. It’s a testament to how tired Bruce is that he actually stumbles a step at the push, his eyes widening indignantly. “Get that damned suit off and let me see what you did.”

“You sound like Alfred,” Bruce says, his voice flat. “Except with less eyebrow motility.”

‘Motility,’ in John’s mind, is vaguely associated with sperm. In some quarters, being compared to jizz may be romantic, or even sexy. In no circles is being compared to a 200 year old British guy who pees sarcasm and poops superiority sexy at all. 

“Screw you,” John says. “Don’t be such a goddamned baby.” 

Bruce stalks to the work area, stiff-legged with offense, shedding armor as he goes. John knows from firsthand and painful experience that there are all kinds of security systems built into the suit to prevent unfamiliar people from opening it up. For Bruce, it falls apart like it’s made out of paper. By the time he’s walked the few yards between the tumbler and the work area, he’s already shimmying out of the body suit beneath the armor, his skin stark and pale against the black.

When Bruce gets the fabric down around his hip, John sees it. Blood smears across the skin there, warm, an obscene blush around the mouth of a wound. It’s long. Thick red wells in a sharp, straight line, making it impossible to see how deep it is. Not really thinking beyond the immediate needs of first aid, John drops to his knees beside Bruce to gingerly touch the skin around the injury with gloved fingers.

Shallow, he decides. He sags with relief. “It’s not deep, just a cut. A few strips of tape and a bandage, and you’ll be fine.”

“I’ve had worse,” Bruce says coolly.

“Batman’s a badass. Color me shocked,” John carps back at him.

Bruce raises an eyebrow, like that’s supposed to intimidate him. 

Any other time, it might. Tonight though, John has had his ass handed to him by Bane, and spent the rest of the evening with an unplanned pinch hitter obsessed with first base. He is beyond being impressed. “You look like you french kissed a charcoal briquette,” he says, because Bruce scared him earlier with the bleeding. “With your eyeballs.”

People don’t usually talk to Bruce Wayne or the Batman like this. Maybe Alfred does. John’s never really seen the two of them together, but after all, he was accused of  sounding like the old butler, and it’s a fact that Alfred reduced him to component molecules in three sentences flat the last time they talked. There must be some kind of correlation between verbal abuse and love in Bruce’s mind, because he just snorts and mostly drops the macho act. He relaxes against the console of the workstation, watching with heavily lidded eyes while John scrounges for one of the six dozen military-grade triage kits that are squirreled around the cave.

“You’re going to have to come back from the dead if you’re going to be Batman again,” John says, settling back onto his knees in front of Bruce with half of an ER in a box on the floor. “Otherwise it’s going to be damn hard checking you into a hospital if something really bad happens.”

The half-naked body under his fingers holds itself stiff while he wipes away the streaks of blood, dabbing alcohol at the cut. Bruce says nothing for a second. Then he says in a husky voice, somewhere between Batman’s and his own, “Bruce Wayne can’t come back from the dead the same night Batman does.”

“Take a few days’ break, then. Or maybe you could be someone else, then. Grow a mustache. Go incognito, infiltrate the mafia from the inside. You could build a whole new persona. Doberman Danny, or Oranges O’Reilly, or something. Matches Malone, maybe,” he suggests, finding a box of waterproof strikers in the kit. 

The look Bruce gives him could be bottled, aerosolized, and used for land wars in Asia.

“Alliteration is cool,” John says in his own defense. “It’s just a thought.” 

“Not a very good one.”

“Screw you,” John says again. This time it comes out sounding almost affectionate. “When did you get stabbed?”

Bruce makes a sound of tired exasperation. Muscles ripple under the skin as he shifts his weight. “Mobsters, gangsters, terrorists and fires--”

“Don’t forget the drunk homophobes.”

“--and it’s the domestic incident that gets me,” Bruce finishes, irritation lapsing into simple rue. He may be a jerk, but he’s occasionally a charming jerk. It’s hard not to like him when he’s like this. “I was careless. Two million dollars of equipment, seven years of training, and an accountant got me with a kitchen knife.”

“An accountant?

Bruce’s eyebrows rise; he’s wiping the black goop off of his face with a rag. John shrugs, busy cleaning off the last of the blood. “I just figured if you were going to get stabbed, it’d be by a lawyer. Or an angry ex.”

Bruce says without a smile, “Lawyers aim for the back, exes aim for the groin, and no armor is foolproof.” 

John grins. It feels good to do that, after the stressful night. Exhilarating night, yes. But also stressful. And painful. Reminded, he starts getting the bandage ready, ripping off strips of tape. It’s almost companionable, the small quiet that settles in between them. Certainly it’s a damn sight better than the fraught silence of the drive over. John starts to relax, feeling the dry ache behind his eyeballs start to ease as he lines up orderly ribbons of tape on his leg.

Which of course is when Bruce decides to say, “You have to leave the country.”

...What.

“I’ll pay for the flight,” Bruce says, while John stares at him. “Pick where you want to go. I recommend someplace where you speak the language. Europe is probably your best bet. Canada’s too close. I’ll arrange for a place for you and living expenses until it’s safe for you to come back.”

John considers getting upset. Then he realizes he can’t be bothered. Instead, he invests in feeling a vast calm. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what’s going on. He may be fair to middling on the brains, but he’s got an inkling by now that while Bruce has an IQ that would make MENSA cream its pants, when it comes to plain old people smarts and emotional maturity, he’s a fish without thumbs trying to ride a bicycle.

“Subtle,” he says, squinting at the cut before snipping the bandage to what he thinks is an appropriate size. “No.”

“Blake,” says Bruce in his I Am Batman Do What I Say voice.

“Wayne,” says John, in his I Do Not Give A Fuck Screw You Bruce Wayne voice. He lays the bandage over Bruce’s cut and starts taping it into place.  

John.” 

John sits back on his heels, tape confetti curling on his fingertips, and angles a long-suffering glare up at him.

“Let me save you some time,” he says, and lifts his voice into a tinny falsetto. “‘But Blake, Bane will come after you.’” Normal voice. “I know, but I am a grown up and I can take care of myself.” Falsetto: “But he’s a Very Bad Man!” Normal again: “Duh. That’s what I signed up for.” Falsetto again: “‘I will whisk you away like a pretty princess so that I can protect the whole wide world all by myself. I am Batman! Hear me roar!’ And that,” he finishes, conversational once more, “is where I break millennia of the Man Code and punch you in the gonads. Which I can reach, incidentally, because they’re just in front of my face. Did that occur to you when you suggested I run away from Bane? Or did you plan it that way because you’re really into pain? A man’s got to wonder.”

There’s a short, tight silence, while John goes back to taping. “I don’t talk like that,” Bruce says at last. 

“Shove it,” John says pleasantly, not bothering to look up again. He finishes the tape job, inspects his work, and decides it’ll do. Life hiding from Bane taught him to clean up as he went, so there isn’t that much in the way of mess to deal with when he packs up the first aid kit. That done, he accepts the wet cloth Bruce wordlessly passes down to him and uses it to scrub at his face.

It comes away covered in black makeup. The cool touch of the towel on his skin is refreshing; the fatigue of the night is like a heavy grey blanket in the back of his mind, muffling his thoughts and dragging at his body. He should get some sleep, he decides. Because...

...because he just lost a few seconds there in between cleaning his face and suddenly coming back to himself. He blinks, realizing that he’s still on his knees. Oh, look. He’s staring at Bruce. Not at Bruce’s face, so much, as the part of Bruce that is in front of him. The naked part. He’s an inch away from the lean muscle that curves into the hip, the smooth line of the bone beneath the skin, and the darker shadow of fuzz just visible over fabric.

Staring. He’s staring at Bruce Wayne’s crotch. 

Yeah, that’s not awkward at all.

John looks up, ready to apologize. The words die on his lips. Bruce is watching him, his eyes dark and opaque. 

Irrationally, John thinks about Bane’s finger stroking his lip. And that damn chafing. And how if he moves his mouth a couple of hands to the left and a few inches forward, his mouth would be somewhere that the simple thought of makes him swallow convulsively. And you know, John’s a brave guy, really he is -- kills spiders in the bathroom without screaming; once asked Gordon his daughter’s name and when he could ask her out on a date (answers: “None of your business,” and “Never,”); occasionally runs into burning buildings and hey, incidentally, wrestles terrorists with his bare hands -- but he’s not really sure that this is a boat he wants to rock. 

Terrorists. Bane. He should dispel the tension by asking about Bruce’s worst enemy. Good idea. Yes.

“What Bane said. He’s planning on coming after you, isn’t he? We should talk about--” he begins, then stops, because his voice cracks. Christ, that’s embarrassing. He clears his throat.

Apparently, this is the most provocative sound in the world. Who knew?

Bruce draws him up, a hand under his chin, before he can figure out how to recover his dignity. Shit, the guy is strong. 

No,” he says as firmly as he’s able, when they’re standing chest to chest. He has to tip his head back to meet Bruce’s eyes, this close. And Bruce’s muscles, well. John feels ... small. “No more kissing. Absolutely not. No more.”

Bruce shuts him up by kissing him.

For fuck’s sake.  It’s like the man is deaf. 

John thinks about objecting again (because the first time did so much good) but he can’t because his mouth is full and oh, right, he’s humoring Batman for the good of Gotham. It’s a good thing he’s willing to sacrifice himself like this, he thinks dizzily, because otherwise he might find it offensive the way Bruce’s lips are soft and firm at the same time; the way he licks delicately at the corner of John’s mouth; the way he catches John’s lower lip between his teeth and then teases him with the tip of his tongue.

Bruce draws away, his breath quick and warm against John’s cheek. 

John moans, completely by accident. Bruce looks smug, damn him. The expression drives him to demand, breathlessly, “Do you not hear the words that are coming out of my mouth?” 

Bruce hums inquiringly, his hands sliding across John’s shoulders and arms. The suit is falling away in bits and pieces, dismantling itself under those swift fingers. He’s being peeled like an orange. “Why?” Bruce asks absent-mindedly. “What did you say?”

“No more kissing.”

So of course, Bruce kisses him again. He is the most pig-headed, contrary, perverse bastard that ever lived. 

“Goddammit,” John gasps against his roving mouth as Bruce’s hands suddenly find naked skin, and when the hell did that happen? He was wearing clothes a second ago. Shit. His nerve endings are fizzing like they’re bathing in pop rocks.“You have the attention span of a fucking fruitfly. Stop doing that.”

“Why?” 

“Because of the--” he means to say ‘chafing,’ really, but Bruce’s hand slides down between them, bare skin all the way, and cups him. John chokes. His cock leaps, going from half-hard to fully hard in 0.3 seconds. Chafing is really the least of his problems now. He clings to Bruce’s shoulders to keep himself from folding, shudders, then drags his eyelids up to glare. “Stop writing checks your ass isn’t going to cash, you prick.”

Bruce’s eyes are alight. Intent. Focused. Nowhere near as tired as they were just a minute ago. They’re beautiful. His mouth curls into a slow, absolutely pornographic smile. “Nothing I’ve written has ever bounced,” he says.

“Cockteasing son-of-a--” John starts to curse, and he’s got a whole list of things he wants to call Bruce now, but he doesn’t get the chance. Cold air touches his backside and legs as Bruce unbuckles the last of the suit and fabric slithers down around his ankles. Well, that’s just great. Fanfuckingtastic. Now he’s naked. Completely naked except for his boots, and no man’s got dignity with just his shoes on, much less when his cock is saluting the flag. Which isn’t even the problem. He’s naked with Batman, with Bruce Wayne, who is somehow also naked and obviously interested in rounding the bases straight to home plate, though maybe not in any hurry given the lazy, speculative way he’s stroking John.

“Wait,” he says breathlessly, barely keeping himself from rutting into Bruce’s hand. “What’s the idea here? Are you trying to change the subject?”

“What’s the subject?” Bruce asks.

“We were talking about-- I can’t concentrate when you do that.”

“No self-control,” Bruce says sadly, walking him backwards. “We should work on that. You were saying?”

John stumbles, then hops, shedding the cloth bunched around his ankles as he goes until he feels the worktable bump against his bare ass. Bruce pushes him, gently. Electronics and tools dig into his skin as he’s bent back over the surface; Bruce sweeps several expensive things out from under him onto the floor, where they clash and chatter like angry teeth. He pauses to stare down at John.

The hunger in his eyes makes John feel vulnerable. Exposed. Naked. 

With his boots on. 

Fuck. What were they talking about? Sweet Jesus, this is a bad idea. “I forget,” John admits, feverish in front as Bruce lowers himself over him, chilled in back where metal meets skin. 

Teeth flash white. “Good.”

John’s not a complete virgin, no matter what the kids at St. Swithin might think -- what do they know, they think Mendez is a goddamn unicorn, for God’s sake; they’re not going to win any prizes for deductive reasoning -- but he knows perfectly well the entire tally of his sexual experiences couldn’t hold a candle to even one of Bruce’s very public nights on the town. He’s been with a couple of guys, yeah, but it’s mostly been handjobs and blowjobs, nothing beyond that; whereas Bruce once had a very public, very torrid affair with John Barrowman, and...

...and oh shit. What if Bruce is into kinky stuff? He owns way too much in restraints and black leather to be vanilla. John is suddenly slapped with an image of being in some of those cuffs while Bruce-- and God, that’s so hot, fuck, what is wrong with him? He must have hit his head. He doesn’t remember having hit his head. Maybe he forgot because he has a concussion, and that’s why he’s fantasizing about.... Is he allowed to have sex when he has a concussion?

Bruce glances up at him through his lashes, feeling his body stiffen with discomfort.

“Listen,” John says helplessly, “I don’t know what you’re into, but I’m not--”

Bruce seems pathologically incapable of letting him finish a thought. “No,” he says, interrupting while a twist of his hand makes John catch back a groan. “Not this time.”

“You don’t even know what I was--”

“I’m not going to fuck you.” Bruce’s voice buzzes as he mouths a slow, wet trail down John’s throat to his stomach. John’s cock jerks in his hand; that word out of his mouth is electrifying. 

“Christ,” John breathes, not sure if he’s relieved or regretful.

“I’m going to suck you off,” Bruce says conversationally. 

Nope. Nope. Definitely not regretful. 

John props himself up on his elbows to stare down at Bruce. He’s having that urge again, the one where the asshole angel on his shoulder tries to shove a fork into anything that might give him a second’s pleasure. He should stop this. Bruce will regret it in the morning. He’s obviously traumatized and overwrought from having to face down the guy who almost killed him. Not in his right mind. Giving somebody a blow job is probably the billionaire playboy version of drunk-dialing your ex. John knows several cops who do this kind of self-destructive shit, trying to find therapy in massive amounts of wild, no-strings sex. 

If there’s anything John is certain of, it’s that Bruce has the emotional judgment of a goldfish. Hating himself for being the grown-up in this scenario, he says,“Bruce, I’m not sure this is a good--” 

Apparently, Bruce is taking his ability to form coherent thoughts personally. He looks up the line of John’s naked body at him, eyes feral -- oh crap, John thinks numbly, his voice dying in his throat. He’s going to eat me alive -- and then closes his mouth around him.

His mouth is scorching hot, wet, knowing, so damn good that it wrenches out a groan. John has a moment’s glimpse of Bruce’s lips glistening and flushed around his cock, cheeks hollowing as he takes in -- sweet fuck -- and then John’s arms fail him, slamming him hard back down on the table. He shudders and bucks, trying to get more of Bruce on him, only to feel those strong hands pinning him down as the rough nap of tongue curls under the head of his glans and laves the vein on the underside of his cock.

He slides his hands through Bruce’s hair and clutches tight before he can think, trying to drag him down. Too late, he realizes what he’s doing, and forces himself to let go; but Bruce makes a sound, its vibrations humming through the graze of teeth against his balls, and wraps his hands around John’s to close them in on his hair again.

Bruce, he learns in the next few minutes, gives an outstanding blowjob. Rack that up there with everything else he does well, the overachieving asshole. He also likes it rough. The rougher, the better; and better translates to everything better. John struggles against his hands, his damned mouth, his diabolical tongue and teeth and heat and fuck, fuck, fuck. It takes less time than John could have imagined to bring him to the edge. When he’s about to come, completely pulled to pieces, he tries to warn him -- does actually warn him, if maybe not using actual words -- but Bruce just hums around him and goes down, his throat working ruthlessly as John writhes, absolutely shattered.

When it’s over he collapses, his breathing and his heartbeat too loud in his own ears to hear anything else. Bruce is still mouthing his rapidly softening cock, irritating oversensitized nerves. John makes a faintly protesting sound -- get off, Christ -- but it isn’t until he drags at the dark, sweat-dampened hair in his hands that Bruce leaves off with a small, throaty chuckle.

John could sleep for a million years right here on the table, stark naked with his boots on. But Father Reilly and the Catholic church raised him to be polite, even if this situation may not have been what they were envisioning those good manners would be put to. He rolls up, feeling muscles scream. Bruce raises his brows at him, sardonic, his mouth rosy and bruised in an impossibly sexy way. 

He reaches for Bruce’s erect cock. It’s seeping precome, glistening and heavy; he just manages to rub some of the slick onto his palm and brush it against the swollen, silken head, when Bruce jerks away with a harsh inhalation.

John pauses, taken aback. He says, drowsily confused, “I was just going to--”

Bruce’s hand closes around his wrist. “I’m not done with you yet.”

It would take an act of God to get John up again. “The hell you are,” he says, heartfelt. Just thinking about more exertion than the minimum it would take to get Bruce off is enough to make him want to burst into tears. “I’m done. That’s it. You’ve wrung me dry. It’s not possible.”

Bruce’s eyes kindle. John really should have remembered how contrary the man is.

“Oh, Christ,” he says in despair.

 


 

 

The rest of the night is... stressful. In a bone-melting, incredibly mind-blowing kind of way.

 


 

 

“You’re  inhuman,” John pants, feeling new bruises being painted over by newer bruises. He writhes. “Fuck. Why the-- why haven’t you come yet? How the hell can you--”

Bruce says with sadistic cheer, “Keep up.”

 


 

 

“Do you want me to stop?” Bruce asks politely.

“I will ... oh God, I will kill you.”

 


 

“Jesus Christ,” John moans. “I can’t. I can’t. I really can’t.”

“You’re young.”

“It’ll kill me.”

“If you don’t, I’ll kill you.”

“That’s not motivation.”

“How’s this, then?”

“Oh, God.”

“See?”

“Shut up and-- oh, you son-of-a-bitch.”

 


 

At some point, John falls asleep. To be strictly accurate, he’s fucked unconscious, for a given value of ‘fucked.’ It’s been a deeply weird night. He’ll take what he can get. 

His last coherent thought is that Bruce has managed to successfully put off any discussion about Bane. 

Despite himself, he can’t help but be impressed. Now, there’s a man who has lifted avoidance into an art form.

 

 

Chapter Text

When John still lived at St. Swithin’s, most of the extracurricular tutoring was done by Sister Benedict, an ancient Franciscan nun who’d started life fully-grown a la Athena by way of Liverpool, England. She was, as she put it, a cantankerous old bird. On Mondays she ran an illicit sex ed class behind the bodega, which the owner permitted because he always did brisk business in condoms afterwards; on Thursdays and Saturdays she snuck out after curfew to do stand-up at the Flamingo Comedy Club. In the four years she served at the orphanage, she taught John how to pick a lock, how to hotwire a car, how to tell when someone was lying, and how to play the blues on an old three-stringed guitar donated by Presbyterians.

(“Not everything’s about survival, Robin,” she’d said, when he pointed out that the last didn’t fit in her Becoming a Street Criminal 101 curriculum. “Besides, being able to play the blues will do wonders for your sex life.”

“What if I decide to be a priest?” asked John.

“Then you’ll be a godawful priest getting a lot of sex,” Sister Benedict said.)

She was a terrible nun. On the other hand, she was a fantastic role model.

She was 83 when the archdiocese found out about the Flamingo Club. The consequences were fairly predictable. The owner of the club went to the Archbishop and tearfully promised to convert to Catholicism if they’d let her stay in town. The kids at St. Swithin wrote several badly spelled letters of protest. The Archbishop was unimpressed, and the following Tuesday, Sister Benedict was sent off to work among the heathen in Iowa. John and a couple of the other boys burned the Archbishop in effigy during the farewell party. Insofar as first impressions went, this made a deep impact on Father Reilly, who arrived at his new assignment about five minutes before the fire trucks did. 

Sister Benedict laughed so hard, the EMTs ended up having to give her oxygen.

John still writes to her. At the age of 98, she is still providing him with better sense than anybody he’s ever known.

A couple of weeks ago, he’d emailed her about a terrible, horrible, no good very bad day. The landlord had taped a letter to his door to advise him that the rents were going to double. Then the cold water had cut out in the middle of his shower, resulting -- through admittedly roundabout means -- in a very expensive visit to the ER. 

I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop, he’d written.

Don’t be a twit, she’d replied. That’d mean trouble is a three-footed man.

Or a dog missing a leg, John had written back, not really thinking that one through. It was gibberish, yeah. In his own defense, it was 2 AM and Gordon had just duct-taped his side back together.

Her answer had come the following morning, acerbic and gleefully abusive towards whitespaces. Trouble doesn’t come in threes. It comes in ones. Group them together if it makes you feel better, but if all you're doing is waiting for the next one, you’re not paying attention to the important things. Deal with what’s in front of you, when it’s in front of you. If you can’t do anything about it, don’t worry about it. Know what I can’t do anything about? Farting. Iowa’s full of cows and old people, Robin, and all of them fart. If even one of these kleptomaniac nurses lights a match in the senior center, the explosion would take out most of the Midwest. I’m 98 years old and I’m going to be killed by flatulence and a nicotine addict. You don't think I let that keep me up at night, do you?

It is John’s dream to one day be a snarky old asskicking broad.

There’s a point to this digression, and that is this: John knows perfectly well that trouble doesn’t come in threes. That would imply a sentient universe with a bad case of OCD. That would imply that someone, maybe a capital-S Someone, is out to get him -- not personally him, but everybody who ever lived and lives and ever will live. That would imply, not necessarily the existence of God, but the existence of some supernatural being with way too much time and malice on his hands, in desperate need of Prozac and maybe a restful hobby, like breeding chia pets or moose hunting.

Still, there are some days where he just has to wonder whether maybe Sister Benedict is wrong. After all, she is almost a hundred. At some point the brain’s got to go, right?

 


 

 

John is comfortable.

There’s pain, obviously -- quite a bit of it, although nothing too sharp; more a dull, surface-level reminder of an evening spent in Darwinian one-upmanship. Barring that, though, he’s feeling pretty good. Not all the ache is bad. His bones seem to have liquified, taking his muscles with them. Also, he’s gloriously warm. 

In short, there’s absolutely nothing in his current state of suspended, floating contentment that could possibly motivate him to wake up. He can hear Bruce moving around in the cave, apparently making coffee -- the smell is almost enough to make him open his eyes -- which is just fine by him. He’ll just lie here, bathing in afterglow and coddling himself after a night of stupendous heroism. Whatever it is that he’s lying on, it’s softer than his crappy mattress, and Bruce’s arm is a perfectly serviceable pillow. 

There’s absolutely no reason to move. So he won’t.

Except.

How is Bruce making coffee when his arm is under your head? wonders the part of his mind that asks inconvenient questions at inconvenient times. It’s a good question. He waits with interest to find out what the answer will be.

Maybe he took it off, the rest of his brain says cheerfully. 

Even in his half-asleep state, that sounds deeply stupid.

He opens his eyes. 

His heart stops.

He says, “Oh, fuck.”

“Good morning, Mr. Blake,” says Alfred Pennyworth.

Fuck!” John lurches up and discovers he’s still stark naked with, yes, his boots on.

“So I see.” Alfred is bending over him with a tray holding a carafe and two cups. “Coffee?” 

The butler looks like he was newly dug out of the crypt; the bags under his eyes are big enough to go on safari, and the lines of age on his face have crawled into bed with lines of exhaustion, too. But the blue eyes that John remembers are just as sharp as they were when he saw them last. And, oh goody, just as critical. 

John clutches the blanket to his chest. His naked chest. The blanket turns out to be Bruce’s cape, which at least has the merit of not being transparent, but it does nothing to hide the fact that he’s naked next to Bruce -- been cuddling with Bruce -- who has unaccountably and infuriatingly decided to stay asleep. Nor does it do anything for the fact that the floor near them is strewn with condom wrappers.

John feels like he did at 17, when he was caught naked except for his briefs in Mariah Cartwell’s room. That was a really bad day for him. This one might actually worse. All Mariah’s dad had was a baseball bat. Alfred has Britishness.

“This isn’t what it looks like?” John attempts hopelessly.

“Of course it isn’t,” Alfred says with sham sympathy, pouring coffee out into one of the cups. “Would you care for cream? Or sugar?”

John shakes his head, eyes wide, and fumbles the cup that Alfred passes him. 

“I trust you had a restful night?” Alfred asks, maddeningly conversational.

There’s a shriveled white condom curled up like a comma next to Alfred’s foot. Unused, thank God, but still. Contraceptive punctuation. With a heroic effort of will, John manages not to look at it. “Uh, great,” he says lamely. “It was ... great. Restful. I did a lot of resting.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Alfred says without a trace of sarcasm. This somehow just makes it worse, as though the sarcasm has been distilled into such a pure, unadulterated form, it’s gone out the other side and become sincerity. “I see that we’ve made the news.”

John clings to the cape like it’s a security blanket, wondering if this is some kind of passive-aggressive transatlantic threat. Butler Kills Naked Ex-Cop With Coffeepot. Film at Eleven. “We have?”

“You and Batman,” Alfred clarifies. He sets the coffee tray on the worktable and begins organizing the mess Bruce made of it. While his back is turned, John drops his makeshift blanket just long enough to lunge for the stray condom and shove it under the cape with him. “There is a great deal of excitement in the press. Much of the speculation surrounds Batman’s resurrection, of course. However, there is some interest in his new partner.”

“His new-- what partner? They think I’m Batman’s partner?”

Alfred pauses in his tidying to turn a pensive look up at the ceiling. “It’s likely that they meant it in a purely platonic fashion,” he says. “Otherwise, the fourth estate has developed oracular abilities that would give me serious pause.”

John dips an involuntary glance down at Bruce, who looks unnervingly young with one arm curled under his head, the other draped possessively across John’s hips. His hair is a little too long, curling around that impossibly gorgeous bone structure. Relaxed in sleep, his face lacks the closed mask quality that John has grown accustomed to, though the tiny line of a frown still thumbs its shadow in the corners of his mouth. It feels like he’s intruding, seeing Bruce vulnerable like this.

For no reason whatsoever, John suddenly feels incredibly guilty. Which just isn’t fair. 

“He seduced me,” he tells Alfred, because he is a giant, tattle-taling pansy. 

“I never doubted it for a second,” Alfred says politely. 

John grits his teeth. “Weren’t you in Italy?”

“I took the first flight available the minute I heard the news.” Finished with the table, Alfred produces a pair of tongs from the pocket of his baggy cardigan and begins picking up condom wrappers with finicky deliberation. “I’m pleased to see that my timing was fortuitous.”

John tries not to think about the implications of that statement. If he’d arrived earlier, Alfred would have gotten quite an eyeful; if he’d arrived later, he might not have caught them naked together. “You don’t have to do that,” he says quickly, as the butler harvests a crumpled wet wipe off the keyboard.

“I’m quite aware, Mr. Blake,” Alfred says.

“You can call me John.”

Alfred offers him a kindly, distant smile that effectively puts him in his place. Then he picks up another condom wrapper with his tongs and plants it neatly in the wastebasket. His silence speaks volumes. 

John vaguely wishes he was dead.

In that tightly-lipped quiet, Bruce’s yawn has the galvanizing effect of a cavalry bugle. 

Alfred is plainly making a point when he materializes by Bruce’s side, the tongs neatly laid next to the second coffee cup. He’s the first thing Bruce sees when he opens his eyes, and there’s no surprise in either of their faces, like the minor matter of death and resurrection is about as consequential as a stopped toilet: inconvenient, but only worth a conversational footnote, at most. 

Bruce smiles sleepily at the old man, his eyes tender, his mouth soft. The expression does something terrible and completely unexpected inside John’s chest. 

“Alfred,” he greets in a husky voice.

“Master Bruce,” Alfred says with awful civility. “How nice to see you alive.”

“Likewise.”

“No ill effects from the nuclear fallout? Any spare bits or inconvenient mutations I should warn the tailors about?”

“I shouldn’t think so. Did you see any extra bits on me last night, John?”

“Charming,” Alfred tells a light fixture.

“Leave me out of this.”

“He’s house-trained, too,” Bruce confides to Alfred.

John says bitterly, “God, I hate you.” 

Alfred asks with distant interest, “And will Miss Kyle be joining us for breakfast as well?”

John opens his mouth, then closes it again. This is his cue to leave, he decides. He climbs to his feet, wrapping the cape around his hips. Bruce makes a protesting noise behind him as he’s left coverless and naked, but screw him. Alfred used to change his diapers; he’s got nothing everyone in the room hasn’t already seen.

“I’m going to go take a shower,” John says with as much dignity as he can, and stalks off towards the bathroom, his head held high. His boots clump.

“Exactly how angry are you right now, Alfred?” he hears Bruce ask, behind him.

“Exactly how dangerous was that nuclear explosion, Master Bruce?” 

The shower is wonderful. For one thing, it doesn’t talk.

 


 

By the time John comes out into the cave again, Bruce is dressed and seated with his feet crossed at the ankles and propped on the console, deeply engrossed in a newspaper. Alfred is arranging what looks like a home cooked breakfast, God bless, in the middle of the cleared workspace. From the silence, it seems an agreement has been reached between Alfred and Bruce. Given the quality of said silence, it's the kind of armed truce in the middle of mutual annihilation where a person coughs once and mentions the weather; then the other person agrees with the first person, and two minutes later someone is being stabbed in the leg with a fork over what really happened to Aunt Ginny’s dog in 1987. 

“That smells amazing,” John says, striking a heroic blow for normalcy, because he is a hero now, that’s what he does. Also, it does smell amazing. He hasn’t eaten anything that hasn’t come out of a carton or a tin or a package in over a month.

“Thank you,” says Alfred.

Bruce coughs once. “It looks like it’ll be a nice day today,” he says from the depths of the newspaper. “72 degrees, clear skies.”

“Yes. It was quite lovely outside,” says Alfred, and picks up a fork.

“Oh hell no,” says John, backpedaling to safe distance, and receives identical looks from the pair: reproving, a little puzzled, a lot patient with the child in the room. It’s like being trapped in a cage with pair of maiden aunts. One of whom he, uh, slept with.

Bad simile. Toxic. Backspace backspace backspace, delete.

Alfred puts the fork on a plate and offers it to him. Piles of fried potato. Grilled slices of tomato. Something that looks suspiciously like a vegetable. An omelette. John decides it’s the best peace offering ever and accepts it. There might be an itty bitty tear in his eye. “I don’t know if my body remembers how to handle real food anymore,” he admits.

Bruce says cheerfully, “No worries. Alfred’s great with blood, saliva, scorch marks, and vomit.”

Alfred picks up the other fork. 

John eats his breakfast in the tumbler with the doors closed. It’s soundproof in there, which is nice, because he doesn’t have to hear the things Bruce and Alfred are sniping at each other. The downside is that the smell of breakfast lingers inside the cockpit, which might actually be an upside, if you think about it. He reasons that the general public will be more kindly disposed towards a scary vigilante who smells like sausage and roasted potato, so he pats himself metaphorically on the back, licks the plate clean (because nobody else can see him) and crawls out just in time to watch Alfred stalk out of the cave like an offended cat.

“What did you do to him?” John demands of Bruce, who’s still got the newspaper held up around him like a defensive wall.

"Came back from the dead,” Bruce says, firmly back in asshole mode.

John stares at the newspaper, but Bruce doesn’t deign to come out from behind it. It’s off-putting, but if John didn’t know how to work around off-putting, he never would’ve joined the GPD. 

“So,” he says. “Um,” he says. “We should talk about some things,” he says, in the voice the Police Academy trained him to use with, just as an example, dangerous, touchy criminals.

The newspaper twitches.

“You get your pick of topics,” John perseveres. “We could have a chat about Bane?”

Nothing from the newspaper.

“Or the fact that we ended up in bed together last night?”

Still nothing.

“Not that I minded it, don’t get me wrong. It was great. I feel like you ran over me with your car, but it was, you know, great. Weird, a bit. Unexpected. Flattering. I wasn’t aware that you felt that way about me or anything, but, you know. Flattering.”

The newspaper maintains a stony silence.

John clears his throat. “Unless, uh. It was just a case of convenience. Me being close to hand when you were getting off on violence and epic heroism.”

It’s possible that Bruce has actually had a heart attack and died at some point within the last two minutes, and that it’s just early onset rigor that’s keeping the newspaper up. Growing irritation is starting to strain the muscles in John’s jaw. 

“If it was just a case of convenience,” he says stiffly, “I’ve got to wonder what you used to do when it was just you and Alfred. No, don’t tell me. I’d prefer not to have any visuals.”

The newspaper twitches again. Behind it, Bruce maintains his policy of being an unhelpful jerk.

There’s no dealing with him when he’s like this, so John gives it up as a lost cause and settles himself in front of the console to punch up the news. With the generic elements of his name, not to mention a spectacularly unremarkable career -- barring the few months under Bane -- there’s never been much point to googling himself. “Robin Blake” brings up a boxer in Massachusetts, a senator’s wife in Kansas, a 6 year old beauty queen in Texas, a faculty member at CalTech, and a transvestite showgirl in Vegas. It vaguely depresses John that even the 6 year old has had a more spectacular career than him, even if the entirety of said career consists of no, dammit, what the hell is wrong with you people? photographs.

There’s no question that it’s a thrill to turn on the news and discover that between them, Bruce, Bane and he currently own the airwaves. The internet is humming. Even Al-Jazeera has a story. Io9's write up is the most thorough, but the Onion's is the best. The forums are hopping.

Barring one detail, it's exhilarating. 

Admittedly, it’s a pretty big detail.

“They’re calling me what?

Bruce emerges from behind his newspaper, frowning. At the next exasperated yell, he rises to read over John’s shoulder. 

“Oh,” Bruce says. “I suppose I should have thought of that possibility. It’s not that bad.”

“It’s fucking terrible,” John snaps. “They can’t call me that.”

“The papers named me, too. You think I picked Batman?”

“You were dressed up like a bat. What did you expect them to call you?”

“I hadn’t expected them to call me anything.”

“Besides, it works. ‘Batman.’”

“You don’t find that a ridiculous name?”

It is a ridiculous name, but. “That’s not the point. Nobody would even think of laughing at it. Whereas what they’re calling me is just embarrassing.”

“I don’t see a problem with it.”

“That’s because you’ve never gone club-- what am I saying. Of course you’ve gone clubbing. You’ve never gone clubbing with normal people.”

“I’ve gone clubbing with people.”

“Entourage. Hangers-on. Competition.”

“Those are still people.”

“That’s why I said normal people. Homely, poor people like me, who need some help when they’re going out to meet girls. It’s a social-- shut up,” John snaps, at the smirk on Bruce’s face. “You’ve got to be kidding me. I’m having manpain here, and you want to make fun of me?”

“I can sympathize and mock at the same time,” Bruce says with an air of kindly detachment that reminds John yet again that the terrifying British guy raised him. He feels Bruce’s lips tickle the sensitive skin under his ear, and shivers. “Besides, I don’t sleep with ugly people,” Bruce murmurs. 

Even when he’s being nice, he’s still an asshole. John melts a tiny bit, fuck, before pulling himself together again. 

“It’s a terrible name,” he repeats firmly, returning to square one. 

Bruce’s faint smile is audible in his voice. “What are you going to do about changing it?”

“I haven’t gotten that far. I’m just pointing out that it’s a crappy name. Doing something about it comes later. Maybe Gordon can help.”

“That’s an idea,” Bruce agrees.

“Batman and Wingman,” John says bitterly. “‘Wingman.’”

“It’s got a ring.”

Fuck you,” John says, and grabs his coat. “I’m going out.”

With the overabundance of spectacular news to report on, the media is having a collective nervous breakdown. Somewhere in the middle of the hysterical updates though, at least one conscientious reporter managed to sneak in an actual fact before his news director could stop him: Police Commissioner Jim Gordon, who was injured during the previous evening’s standoff with Dzubenko, was admitted to Gotham General. He is expected to make a full recovery.

There’s no way that Gordon’s hospital room won’t be a scene of mass chaos at this hour. There’s definitely no way for John to get a private word with him until this afternoon. Given which, John decides he has time to make some personal stops.

The first one is to St. Swithin’s, which proves to be a mistake. The streets around the orphanage are blocked off with black-and-whites and yellow tape, and of course he should have realized would happen given the public encounter with Bane but surprise! He didn’t. There are a surprising number of uniforms standing around like they’re auditioning to play street signs. John has to park a few blocks away. When he forces his way through the crowd of interested bystanders to the arbitrary border designated as the crime scene, it’s to discover he doesn’t recognize any of the officers watching the line. 

“Do you have an ID?” asks the cop at the tape.

John shows it to him.

“You don’t live here,” the cop points out. 

“I used to,” John says. “St. Swithin’s. Father Reilly knows me. Look, I was supposed to drop by today and hang out with some of the kids. Is everything okay back there? Nothing happened to them, did it? I know the official line,” he adds hastily, when the cop’s mouth opens. “It’s okay. I used to be a detective, working for Gordon. John Blake.”

The cop immediately looks suspicious. “Oh,” he says. “You’re that one.”

That’s might or might not be promising. “What one?”

“Nothing,” the cop says, but recognition of the name makes him lift the tape, so at least there’s that. “Come on in. The kids at the orphanage were telling me you were a--” He stops suddenly. 

“‘A’ ... what?”

“Never mind. You know Mendez is married to a really nice woman and has four kids, right? All of them as ugly as he is?”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” says John, and jogs to Swithin’s. 

The orphanage is a madhouse, which isn’t that far from the usual, though normally it’s less concentrated chaos and more haphazard, spontaneous, oops! didn’t mean to! chaos. There are, curiously enough, more cops inside the building than outside, though John sees a couple uniforms trotting down the stairs of 221 B Street looking disgruntled, so it might be he just arrived at the wrong stage of the post-Bane canvass.

Whatever the reason, the second he walks in the door, he’s got kids hanging off his arms and legs, all yelling at the top of their lungs. Father Reilly bursts out of his office at the noise and barely keeps himself from lunging at John, his eyes bright with relief.

John lifts Marianne, who is clinging to his left arm, and demands, “What the hell have you kids been telling the cops about me?”

“Language!” snaps Father Reilly.

“Shit,” John says. “Oh, crap. I mean, shoot. I mean ... sorry.”

“Shit!” yells Mia. Father Reilly glares at John.

“They think if we tie you up in the basketball courts tonight, they could trick the unicorn out of hiding and capture him,” Angelo says. “And then we could sell him for a lot of money.”

“What the--”

“Because you’re a virgin,” Kurt explains. “We checked with the other cops. They all say you are, so we’re set.”

“I’m not a--”

“What’s the street value for a unicorn?” Marianne asks. “Is it as good as it is for lasagna?”

John clamps his mouth shut around another curse, then opens it to articulate carefully, “Point one, you are not allowed to tie me up. Not ever. Not even if you grow up to be a supermodel. Point two, you are not selling a member of the GPD on the streets. The Commissioner would kill you, and I wouldn’t be very happy either. Point three, Mendez is not a fu--”

“Language!” 

“Foo,” says John. 

Angelo says, “The cops want to know about Bane. He gave Mia a lollipop.” 

There’s something deeply suspicious about the way Angelo says that. There’s also something deeply suspicious about the way all the other kids immediately chime in with variations on, “That’s right, that’s what happened, Bane gave Mia a lollipop. That’s the only time anybody saw him, yup.”

The quality of deceit at St. Swithin’s has taken a nosedive since Sister Benedict left for Iowa. 

They’re bald-faced liars, obviously, and John can tell that Father Reilly knows it. He’s a man of God but he’s not actively stupid, for all he’s got a suicidal streak of optimism. Behind him, John can see a couple of suits sitting in his office and watching through the open door. One of them is a detective. The other one practically reeks FBI.

He looks at Reilly. The priest wrings his hands and gives him puppy dog eyes again. “Thanks for coming early, John,” Reilly says, loud enough to be heard by the people inside his office. Loud enough for the cops across the street to hear him, for that matter. Christ, he’s a terrible actor. “I thought you could help calm the kids down. Take them out to the basketball courts, maybe, and burn off some of their energy, while I finish talking to the authorities about what’s been going on? They want to talk to Mia next though, so maybe she could stay here.”

Fuck,” says Mia.

“That one’s not my fault,” John tells Reilly hastily, as the rest of the kids drag him off down the hallway.

They corner him in the basketball court, and not that he’s paranoid or anything, but before he lets them say anything, he makes them all show their hands to prove they’re not hiding any rope. Then it’s confession time. The kids will tell him things they refuse to tell Reilly, because he’s one of them. One of their own. Older, yeah, but there’re enough cross-generational lives in Swithin’s that they’re all connected through some common experience, one way or another.

“So who here’s actually met Bane?” John asks the half-dozen kids huddled around him.

All six hands rise.

“For Christ’s sake,” John says, exasperated. “What the hell happened to Stranger Danger?”

“He’s not a stranger,” Angelo says quite reasonably. “Everybody knows who he is. He was on TV and the internet and the radio for months.”

“Because he’s a psychopath with a nuclear weapon who took over Gotham, blew up bridges, killed people, and held us all hostage!”

“Yeah, but he wasn’t a stranger.”

“And he’s nice,” Marco contributes. 

“Sort of nice,” objects Marianne.

“Nice-ish,” Angelo concedes. 

“In what way is Bane nice?”

“He didn’t kill us.” 

“You have a fucked up view of ‘nice,’” John tells him, and Angelo shrugs in a cynical, unimpressed way more common to veteran cops than to 11-year olds.

“Through no fault of my own, I’m a poorly socialized, maladjusted victim of a broken social covenant with my custodial and biological guardians,” he says bitterly. “‘Nice’ is relative.”

John reels Angelo in for a swift, one-armed hug, then lets him go. Like a lot of the kids, Angelo is desperately hungry for displays of physical affection, while simultaneously being too proud and mistrustful to ask for them. John knows how it is. He’s been there.

“Unnecessary touching,” Angelo warns, leaning against John’s ribs. “I’m going to tell.”

“Bite me,” John says, and gets a smug grin in reply, so he drops a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “So what else? You’ve all met Bane. Altogether? Or separately? And where?”

Angelo shrugs. Marianne volunteers, “Angelo and Marco met him first, together--”

“Over on D Street, behind the Bagel Boy,” Angelo supplies.

“--and then Priya and me and Terry met him on King and C Street.”

“I met him after school on the way to piano,” says Tyro. “Kurt saw him, too.”

“And Mia met him because she was talking to Bee-boy,” finishes Marianne in a rush.

Oh. That’s not good. “Mia was talking to Bee-boy? Where?” John asks sharply, and all the kids nod towards the chain linked fence behind him, where a straggly grass yard is bordered on all sides by parking lots and dilapidated fencing.

“And you let her?” John demands.

The kids immediately look resentful or apologetic, depending on their personalities. “We were all at school,” says Marianne.

“Bane didn’t like that Bee-boy was talking to her,” Angelo says with dark approval. “He threatened to rip Bee-boy’s head off, or something, and he told her to go inside.”

“She didn’t, of course,” Marianne says unnecessarily.

“What did he say to you when you met?” John asks Angelo.

The boy shrugs. “Nothing much. He said, ‘hello,’  I said, ‘oh shit, you’re Bane,’ he said, ‘yes,’ I said, ‘we’re on our way to school,’ he asked me what we were learning.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me. Bane asked what you were learning.”

Marco says, “Angelo said we were learning that education’s only good if you’re rich enough to afford it. Otherwise you get the cheap and crappy kind.”

“...but there’s always the internet at the library, and we know how to get around the child security,” Angelo finishes. “He laughed.”

“And then he offered to teach us how to throw a knife, because that would be more useful,” Marco says.

John closes his eyes. “Oh God.”

“We said no, thank you,” Angelo tells him quickly. “We were polite about it. We told him it wasn’t necessary, because you’d already taught us that.”

There’s a small but distinct headache building in the back of John’s head. He pinches the bridge of his nose. “Did you mention me by name? Of course you did,” he sighs, before the kids can answer.

“Well, he asked.”

“Oh well, then. As long as he asked.”

“And Father Reilly is always telling us not to lie,” Angelo says self-righteously.

“So that’s when you decide to do what Father Reilly wants, for the first time ever? No, never mind, don’t answer that. What else?”

“He asked what else you’d taught us,” Marco says. “So we told him.”

“Everything?”

Angelo and Marco exchange glances. “Well, not about the cars,” Angelo says. “Or the lockpicking,” Marco says. “Or the gun stuff,” Angelo finishes. “Should you really have taught me that? I mean, I’m only eleven.”

“Only legally,” John tells him. “In cynicism years, you’re about 46.”

While Angelo is busy trying not to look flattered, Marco says sunnily, “And then he wanted to know everything about you, so we told him.”

John wrestles with himself, he really does. But honestly, there isn’t any word that works for this situation that isn’t four letters long and wouldn’t get him yelled at by Father Reilly. While he’s still pawing morosely through his vocabulary for an appropriate substitute, Marianne and Tyro chime in with their own Bane encounters. Their narratives are slightly different. Both kids, already aware of Angelo and Marco’s encounter, initiated conversation with Bane. In their cases, Bane was more curious about life as an orphan in Gotham. Specifically, life as an orphan child in this particular area of Gotham.

“Priya told him about Angelface, and the time Bee-boy stabbed Father Reilly,” Marianne says.

“I told him about the Menetti crew,” Tyro says.

“And -- not to be self-centered or anything -- my name didn’t come up at all,” John provides helpfully, not phrasing it as a question. “No, you get back here right now. Tell me my name didn’t come up at all.”

There’s a long, demoralizing silence while the kids just look at each other. Then Tyro says earnestly, “We only said nice things.”

What John subsequently asks the kids to do is called ‘interfering with a police investigation,’ if one wants to be strictly accurate. People less familiar with the niceties of law enforcement would probably call it ‘lying by omission.’ John calls it ‘staying under the radar so people in authority won’t start keeping an inconvenient eye on me when I’m trying to sneak around the city to play masked vigilante with a dead man.’ He could also just call it ‘strategy,’ but that’s just boring.

Confiding in the police -- when said police are not John Blake, ex-St. Swithiner -- is not something that the kids are in favor of, anyway. Even if he hadn’t made his request, John has the sneaking suspicion that they’ll all categorically deny having met Bane at all.

“You’re a terrible role model,” Angelo informs John, once he’s gotten their enthusiastic assent and the rest of the kids have wandered off to play.

“No, I’m a terrible cop,” John corrects firmly. “I’m a great role model. I’m not saying you shouldn’t tell them the truth. I’m just saying that you should stop talking right before you say anything about me in connection to what you might have said to Bane.”

“And by ‘tell them the truth,’ you actually mean, ‘lie.’ To cops.”

“Also federal agents,” John say. “Just to be clear.”

“Sorry, my mistake. You’re a great role model,” Angelo says, and grins.

Not that he would say this to the kids, but John has a bad feeling that Bane has decided to claim the area as his turf. On his way out the door, John stops long enough to poke his head into Father Reilly’s office. Mia is in there with them now, the door open to avoid any appearance of impropriety, though Mrs. Momber, the Director of something-or-another, is there as well. Mia waves madly at him.

“I’m being awested!” she yells, apparently feeling this is cause for self-congratulations.

“You’re not being arrrrrrrested, sweetheart,” Mrs. Momber says patiently. “You’re being detained for questioning.”

“Woo!” Mia says.

By the looks on the faces of the detective and Fed, Mia has been spectacularly unhelpful in the way only an adorable, foul-mouthed 4-year old with the attention span of a fruitfly can be. The detective, who wears a wedding ring, looks wearily amused; the Fed looks like a man who hasn’t had a lot of exposure to children and is giving serious thought to a vasectomy to make sure things stay that way.

“Sorry, have to head out,” John tells Father Reilly. “I wanted to drop by to tell you the kids are talking about making cookies for the officers on duty, and they can’t find chocolate chips, so--” 

Mrs. Momber rises and bolts past John with impressive speed. The detective and the Fed blink. The priest drops his head in his hands. 

“Thank you, John,” Reilly mumbles.

On the off chance that the kids really aren’t going to tell the investigating officers anything about their encounters with Bane, John tells the detective innocently, “It’s a good thing all the dealers moved their turf away from Swithin’s in the last month, or else you guys would have a lot more paperwork. See you later, Father.”

The sudden, sharp edge of speculation narrows the detective’s eyes; he’s not an idiot, and John wasn’t subtle. They exchange brief nods, one colleague to another across the blue network. A smile tugs at the detective’s mouth. Message received.

The GPD will be doing some questioning of the resident criminal element -- the resident criminal element that isn’t the kids, that is. They’ll figure out whether Bane’s been claiming turf in the neighborhood. John tosses a farewell salute at the priest and ducks out. “What did he mean, ‘all the dealers--’” he hears the Fed ask Reilly, before the closing door cuts him off.

After St. Swithin’s, it’s a hop and a skip to his own rathole apartment, so that’s where he goes next. He’s still wearing the same shirt and pants he had on the day before, and he could use a change of clothing. Just before Bruce pulled his Lazarus act, John had taken an overnight bag to the cave so he’d have basic essentials in case he ever ended up spending the night there. Unfortunately, he hasn’t quite learned to replace the spare clothes when he ends up using them, which does him a fat lot of good.

There’s another notice from the landlord posted to the building door, and a letter from some law firm stacked on top of the bills in his mail slot. Mrs. Donnehy, who is half-deaf, stops him in the foyer to complain about the rent hikes. “Who’d pay that much to live in this dump anyway?” she demands. Her voice is so shrill it draws Mr. Li out of his apartment, then Alexey, the building manager, a couple of minutes later.

“It’s extortion!” Mrs. Donnehy yells at Mr. Li, who she persists on thinking is the building manager by virtue of his race. “You should go to jail!”

Mr. Li ignores her with the ease of long practice, telling Alexey, “I hear the landlord wants to tear the building down and build a parking lot.”

“Why don’t they just kick us out, then?” John asks, curious.

“Too much trouble to go through courts,” Mr. Li explains. “Tenant rights, notice of petition, court hearing....”

“I neither confirm nor deny,” Alexey says staunchly, before adding in an unhappy mumble, “I move all my stuff away already. Is safer.”

John frowns at him. “What do you mean, safer?” he asks. Alexey mutters something in Russian before scuttling back into the safety of his apartment.

John heads upstairs, leaving Mrs. Donnehy and Mr. Li shouting amiably at each other. Another notice is taped to his door. He tears it down without reading it, then pulls out his keys to open the door.

Then he stops. Someone’s been in his apartment.

Someone not him.

Security in a ramshackle place like this is something that the tenants do themselves, and John was a cop. John was a cop who was on the run from Bane and his men for almost half a year. Living under that kind of pressure didn’t do any favors for an already well-developed sense of paranoia; he’s got all kinds of little traps and signals to give him advance notice of dangers at home. There’s the splinter he wedges into the top of the door. There’s the hair he sticks between the door and its frame. There’s the thin blanket of ash that powders the first square foot just inside the door. 

The splinter and the hair are both gone. The door is locked. 

Not so good.

There isn’t anybody else wandering around the hallway; at this hour, everyone else who lives on his floor is in school or at work. That gives him a certain amount of freedom to deal with this without anyone else getting hurt, at least. John draws the gun he’s got holstered at his back, takes a steadying breath, and does a textbook entry of his own apartment. 

The good thing about having a one-room studio is that there isn’t anyplace for an intruder to hide.

The bad thing about having a one-room studio is that there isn’t anyplace for John to hide, either.

“...Oh,” he says.

“Come in. I have been waiting for you,” says Bane, his eyes crinkled in a terrifying smile. “‘Wingman.’”

Alfred in the cave. Crappy name in the news. Bane in his apartment. Count those troubles, boys and girls: one, two, three. 

See?

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

So, okay. Bane’s in his apartment.

Right. That’s not good.

It isn’t his favorite fantasy, but it’s one that John indulges in now and again, the whole "opening my apartment door to discover someone completely unexpected and gratuitously attractive waiting for me" bit. Ellen Page. Zooey Deschanel. Once, in a disconcerting but surprisingly satisfying twist, a heavily armed Bruce Willis. Of course, that's fantasy. It’s a good thing he’s a grown-up now and used to having his dreams crushed, because reality is proving to be a major disappointment. 

Bane looks exactly like he did the night before: still in the sheepskin coat, still massive, still scarier than a broken condom. John doesn’t step into his apartment, because he’s not stupid. Nor does he lower the gun, because he’s not suicidal. Unfortunately, that’s about all that goes right. He’s just having the errant thought that he would’ve tidied up if he’d realized he was going to have visitors, when he hears the apartment door behind him open. He dated the woman who lives there -- just the once, after which she decided that kissing him was too much like kissing her brother. John was an only child, so he didn’t really see the issue with that, but whatever. Women. The point is, they’re on friendly terms. She isn’t someone he normally considers a threat.

This is not a normal day.

Before his brain has registered the fact that eau de kerosene isn’t Megan’s usual perfume, his instincts are already screaming about danger, bypassing higher thought to seize direct control of his limbic system. He has just enough time to wonder, why kerosene? Then he’s twisting to the side, his free arm angled up barely in time to block the rifle butt smashing down at the back of his head.

After that, everything pretty much goes to shit. Well, goes to more shit. Actually shittier than coming home to find Bane in his apartment.

This is his life, ladies and gentlemen.

It isn’t Megan behind him, unless Megan is a professional cross-dresser as well as a great kisser. The man attacking him is thin, bearded, with eyes cool and flat as ice chips, and holy crap he is fast. The way he moves is familiar; it’s like fighting a less charitable Bruce. One action flows into the next, filling all the boundaries of the available space like gravity is something that only happens to other people. Unfortunately, recognizing the physical language doesn’t mean John’s good enough or fast enough to do anything about it. Last night, he fought three, four guys at once and felt pushed to his limits. Against this guy, he’s a preschooler armed with a hand puppet. 

Three seconds in, the man wrenches John’s gun out of his hand. Ten seconds in, he’s driven John into the narrower confines of the apartment entryway. Fifteen seconds in, Bane plucks him up by the collar, shakes him like a kitten, then tosses him inside. John lands hard, sprawling to the squawl of last night’s bruises. Ow.

The door slams shut while he’s still scrambling to his feet. His head pops up just in time to see Bane stalking towards him like a stormfront, too fast for John to dive out of the way. One meatloaf-sized hand gathers him up by the front of his shirt, lifting him onto his tip-toes. Before he can do more than grab at that fist, he’s borne backward until he smashes hard into the wall.

John tries to twist Bane’s hand off, using a move that Bruce once taught him. Operative word: tries. His wrist is caught without apparent effort, the arm wrenched up and pinned over his head. Almost as an afterthought, Bane lets go of his shirt to capture his other arm, trapping his wrist in the same hand that’s restraining the first. John huffs out a ragged breath. In this pose, Bane is pressed up against him, blotting out the rest of the world. There’s barely enough room to breathe with that massive chest furnace-hot and hard against his ribcage; thick thighs pin his into place, all kinds of hard edges and straps digging into him. The smell of metal, sweat, chemicals, and something else that is distinctively Bane blots out the aroma of damp mold that’s the norm for John’s apartment. 

And, shit, Bane’s smiling. Smiling. Smiling in that hungry, anticipatory way you see right before someone gets eaten with some fava beans and a nice chianti. 

There’s the fleeting thought that he’s back in a bad gay romance novel. There’s also the entirely unwelcome thought that Bane has beautiful eyes. “Okay,” John says, on an uncontrolled exhalation. He attempts to break out of the hold on his wrists, with a depressing lack of success. 

Bane shifts against him. Something stiff bruises John’s hip. What the--? Knife hilt, he decides.Then he revises that to, Please be a knife hilt. He has to stop to clear his throat, adrenaline ricocheting wildly through his blood. How does one broach the subject of personal space with a homicidal elephant? “Um,” he says. Meets Bane’s eyes and grimaces. “Hi,” he offers, astonished at the steadiness of his own voice. “Didn’t expect to see you again so soon.”

“Indeed.” Bane’s gaze gleams, holding John’s while his free hand pats him down. He finds John’s phone almost immediately and draws it out of the front pocket of his jeans. Bane’s fingers are distressingly close to certain appendages. Said appendages awaken briefly, electrified (terrified, John decides. Terrified) by proximity. “You intrigued me,” Bane says.

Oh, God. “Why are you in my apartment?”

“Where else would I find you?”

“Police station?”

Bane chuckles quietly. It’s fascinating to listen to, a metallic, hollow sound that’s more alien than amused. This close, John can see the pulse beating slow and even in his throat. It’s encouragingly, if unnervingly, human. “You are still afraid.”

“Yeah. Not stupid, me.”

“I will not hurt you.”

“This time?”

“Unless you wish it,” Bane says with ghastly cheerfulness.

John pushes away images. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were hitting on me,” he points out in a weak attempt at humor, uneasily aware of just how vulnerable he is. 

“If I were hitting on you, you would be dead.”

Short pause. “Okay,” he says in bright, strangled tones after he’s finished shoving his heart back down into his chest. “You just got elected king of Creepytown as well as grand poobah of Terrorville. I might never be able to have sex again.”

Bane’s eyebrow rises. “Does death arouse you?” he asks, his voice a purr. “I have known men who--”

Oh, crap. “Hitting on. Not ‘a hit.’ It’s a colloquialism. It means--” Oh God, he doesn’t want to have this conversation. He clears his throat again, aware that his ears are starting to turn pink. “You know. Flirting. It sounded like you were flirting with me. I was being sarcastic.”

“I see,” says Bane, slowly. His head inclines closer. “Yes.”

Another pause. John is having a really hard day. He blinks quickly, relaxing while he tries to work through that. “...Wait. What?”

Bane runs the back of his forefinger along the line of John’s jaw. He flinches away, to Bane’s obvious amusement. “Curious, how you Americans treat love like war. You use the word ‘hit’ in so many different ways. To kill, to strike, and to flirt. Your people know nothing of battlefields.”

Outstanding. Three things John really doesn’t want Bane to do, all neatly packaged in one little word. “Obviously, you’ve never hit the singles scene in Gotham,” he says hoarsely. 

“You are too innocent to understand love,” Bane says with amused pity. 

A subject change seems to be in order. Barring the freakiness of Bane acting as the new host of Loveline, there is obviously a reason the man is here. A reason that has very little to do with John.

He can only hope.

“I assume this is about Batman?” 

“Bruce Wayne.” As though reminded, Bane moves away a few inches to inspect the phone, his thumb moving across the buttons to bring up its list of contacts. The loss of full body contact raises goosebumps on John’s skin; he shivers involuntarily, gritting his teeth. “There is no need for false names between us,” Bane says pleasantly. Which is rich coming from a man who claims to be named Bane

“How long have you known he was Batman?”

Bane glances back at him, his thumb pausing on the phone. He seems amused. “Since the beginning.”

“But you didn’t use his name where people could hear, last night. And even before that. You never exposed him.” It’s something that’s been bugging John, one of those questions that Bruce so spectacularly avoided with unexpected and mind-blowing sex. “You could’ve told everyone from day one. You didn’t. Why is that?”

“Why did you and your Commissioner Gordon not reveal his name when he was thought to have died?” 

John had asked the Commissioner the same thing, when they’d gathered to stand over an empty grave. “Gordon says that Batman’s a symbol. The point is that he could have been anyone. The guy next door, the guy across the street: anyone. He’s proof to the people of Gotham that ordinary people can be extraordinary. Which may be true,” he concedes moodily, “though it probably doesn’t hurt to start out an already extraordinary man who’s a billionaire and a genius and trained by fucking ninjas. Not that I’m making any judgments here.”

“He is more than a man,” Bane supplies, regarding him with tolerant expectancy, like a teacher waiting for his favorite pupil to catch up..

“He’s a myth. Gotham’s Dark Knight,” John says, and since he’s pinned to the wall like a butterfly, rattled, and not exactly thinking straight, volunteers, “We used to make up stories about him when we were kids. Pretend someone we knew was Batman, just hiding out in an ordinary life, watching out for--” He cuts himself off, a few words too late. Conscious of Bane watching him with a little too much interest for comfort, John works his way through the last few months, feeling like he’s exploring the boundaries of an uncharted new way of thinking. “That’s why,” he says slowly. “If you killed Batman, you’d be part of the myth. If you just told people who he was, he’d just be some guy with a funky costume, and you’d just be some other guy who exposed him.”

“Yes.”

“When he disappeared, people just thought he was biding his time. They figured he’d come back eventually and save us. That's why you cleared him. That's why you didn't just kill him and string up his body. That’s why most people didn’t try to fight you. They were waiting for him.”

“Yes.”

“Holy shit.” John pauses, thinking through the timeline of Bane’s occupation. He can’t help it; he’s actually impressed, realizing how thoroughly they were manipulated. “Wow,” he says at last. “Who the hell thinks like that?”

“We do,” Bane says, with another of his dangerous smiles. This one is strangely fond, too. “We of the League of Shadows.”

“Bruce, too.”

“He was one of us. Batman was born from the teachings of our fellowship. He understands how to control the imaginations of the masses.”

“But you didn’t kill him.”

“Not yet,” Bane says, sounding surprisingly undisturbed by the fact. The ‘yet’ isn’t ominous at all. “He owes me a life.”

John tenses, his heartbeat quickening once more. “You said that last night. What does that mean, exactly? Is this a quid pro quo thing? You kill me, you consider yourselves square? Because if that’s the case, I’d like to register a complaint.”

Bane chuckles again, a rolling, rasping sound that makes the hair on John’s nape stand on end. “Someday, perhaps. He does not care enough for you yet. You are too weak.”

Hey!” John jerks against the hand holding him pinned to the wall, testing its hold again while Bane watches with the kind of warm-eyed fascination normally inspired by baby otters. Out of breath, John eventually gives up. He sags against the plaster to brood: at Bane for being such a fucker; at himself for actually objecting that he’s not worth killing. His priorities need resetting. “Is it really necessary for you to hold me like this?”

Bane ignores the question. “You care for him.”

“No, I don’t,” John says, only to discover a split second later that he’s lying. It’s an unwelcome realization. Bruce is a grade A asshole, a jerk of colossal magnitude. His redeeming qualities are few and far between. That ferociously protective hover over Jim Gordon. The wicked gleam of amusement when he was sketching up the first suit. The cold fury over the dead cops. The way his eyes went soft when he first saw Alfred. The look of hunger and, John realizes belatedly, loneliness when Bruce stared down at John on his knees.

Oh, fuck. John has developed feelings. This is the problem with growing up an orphan in the foster system. You end up with the codependency issues of a duckling imprinted on a bobcat.

He makes a swift mask of his expression, but it’s too late. Bane’s too sharp. From the satisfied narrowing of his eyes, the terrorist has already read him. 

“He will never truly care for one he does not consider an equal,” Bane tells him, his gaze drifting across John’s face and body in an assessment that’s one part thoughtful, two parts speculative. “He believes that he has lost too much. He guards his heart from the fear that he destroys all that he touches.”

John grinds his teeth. “That’s got nothing to do with me,” he says, doing his best to shove down the edge of panic at his voyage of self-discovery. He’s not especially proud to have beached himself on the near shoals of Stupidity. “I’m not responsible for him.”

The grip on his wrists relaxes. Bane steps away at last, letting him go. John lowers his arms cautiously, feeling the twinge of sore muscles; his shoulders have knotted themselves into new and exciting dimensions of discomfort, registering their displeasure on top of stiffness from the night before. 

He eyes Bane. Bane considers him back.

“I will teach you to be stronger,” he says.

John writes that up as deeply suspicious.

“Why?”

“You could be one of us. A brother in the League.”

“Not happening.”

Bane chuckles. “You are quick to decide against something you do not understand.”

“I don’t know that much about shark tanks either, but I’m still not going to throw myself in.”

“Then you will learn for the sake of learning,” Bane says kindly, like he’s explaining shoelaces to a child. “In order to protect your children.” He doesn’t say, from me, but John hears it all the same.

It’s unexpected, that reminder. John can’t hide the stiffening of his muscles, or the immediate leap of rage that steals his breath and snaps his brain into cold clarity. He can feel his face change. “You won’t touch them,” John says huskily, tasting blood where his teeth have caught his tongue. 

“How do you know?”

“Because I’ll kill you.”

Bane's eyes glitter, dark pleasure rising in answer. "You are too weak yet," he reminds. His hand lifts, the backs of his fingers grazing across John's chest before tapping on his breast, just over his heart. "Your anger has something to protect. All you lack now is something for it to destroy."


 

The apartment seems bigger after Bane leaves. John spends a few minutes waiting for his heartbeat to slow down and the acid taste of fury to fade away. He occupies himself by fantasizing about shooting Bane in the thigh. Or maybe the ass. Somewhere inconvenient and embarrassing. It's maybe not most cheerful of pastimes, but he feels like he’s striking a blow for mental health. He can’t afford therapy. Picturing a bullet making it hard for Bane to sit down will have to do.

When he finally gets himself put together again to step back out into the hallway, it's to discover that his erstwhile visitor has duct-taped his gun and his phone to the door. There’s a new number in his contacts list, under the name, ‘Wingman’s Bane.’

He changes his mind. He won’t aim for the ass. He’ll aim for the head.


 

John can’t call Bruce. Not yet, when he’s still trying to figure out what it means that he’s got feelings for the guy. Not when he’s still trying to figure out exactly what those feelings are, somewhere between the nagging desire to punch him in the face and the need to wrap himself around Bruce like a protective Bat-snuggie.

He’ll tell Bruce all about it this evening, he decides. For now, he has to relocate. It’s too little, too late, but he still feels better once he’s in his car with the doors locked, the windows rolled up, parked by the curb near Gotham Central Park. 

It’s not running away. It’s a tactical retreat.

Before lunch on a weekday, there are all kinds of folks out and about, doing normal people things. Jogging. Walking their dogs/babies/significant others/cell phones. Eating pretzels. Buying balloons. There are even tourists, incredibly enough, thus proving that some people have no discrimination so long as they can buy “I heart insert-name-here” T-shirts made in China.

John spends a few minutes contemplating the utter fuckup his life has become. Then he calls Gordon’s cell. 

It rings several times, toot toot toot in a complacent, soothing roll of sound at the other end. John is slouched in his seat, constructing the message he’s thinking of leaving, when the line is suddenly picked up. He jerks upright. “Commissioner?”

There’s the sound of someone chewing. Then a girl’s voice. Young. Interested. “No. Hello, John Blake.”

He checks the phone’s display. Nope, no mistake, definitely Gordon. Back into the phone, then: “Is Commissioner Gordon there?”

“Yes.”

Silence. The person on the phone is apparently very literal-minded.

“Can I talk to him?”

“I don’t know,” the girl says. “Everyone wants to talk to him. There are reporters outside, and Uncle Bill and Hopkins are keeping them out. Are you just calling to see if he’s okay? Because he’s okay. He just looks old and awful.”

There’s something familiar about that note of exasperation. “Oh,” John says. “You must be the daughter.”

“Everyone calls me Babs. I don’t think I like being called ‘the daughter.’ That makes me sound like an extra. I’m a major cast character with my own movie, thanks. I’m the eponymous heroine.”

Eponymous? Really? “How old are you?”

“Thirteen. Why? How old are you?”

“How do you know the word ‘eponymous?’”

“I’m smart,” Babs explains politely. “Thanks for not condescending to me because of my age.”

John has eaten drier sand. “Sorry. I just ... don’t hear that word used a lot in conversation.”

“I’m really smart. Brainy is the new sexy, you know.”

She’s disconcertingly self-confident. It’s difficult to remember that she’s just thirteen. Jim Gordon’s daughter. Very important not to forget either of those facts. John decides to ignore the last part of her reply, and focuses on the first part instead. “You take after your dad, then.” Uh. He could’ve phrased that better. Hopefully she understands he’s talking about the smart. 

“Ew,” she says.

Apparently not. Hastily, he begins, “I meant about the--”

“Relax, I was just jerking your chain. I know what you meant. Renee says I’m a lot like my dad, except without the mustache. And not so wrinkled. Or purple. I notice you didn’t answer my question about how old you are.”

Purple...? Oh. Bruises. “Twenty-eight,” John says warily. “I’m not buying booze for you, if that’s what you’re after.”

“I just thought I’d ask. Dad likes you, but you’re a little old for me. Maybe when I’m older. The age difference won’t be as illegal when I’m twenty-one and you’re thirty-six. I don’t have enough experience to know for sure yet, but I think I’m going to be the type who likes older men. I’ll give you to Dad,” she says, while John tries to recover from accidentally swallowing his tongue. “Nice talking to you.”

He’s too busy coughing to reply.

There’s the sound of static in the background, a rattle, the sound of Babs interrupting what sounds like an argument, and then the sharp snap of the Commissioner ending the discussion. Then, finally, the familiar voice. “John,” it says.

“Holy crap,” says John. “Your daughter--”

“Don’t tell me. I don’t even want to know.”

“Yes, sir.”

Gordon huffs a small, pained snort. “All things considered, I think you can start calling me Jim, son.”

Even with the incredible stresses of the day, John can’t help a grin at that. “Yes, sir. Jim. Your daughter said you’re okay.”

“A bit beat up, but I’ve had worse. How’re things?”

It’s a cautious question. John sags back into his seat, feeling all the aches like they’re new again. “Sore. We got around a bit after dropping in on you.”

“I heard. Good work.”

There’s an undeniable warmth in winning Gordon’s -- Jim’s -- approval. John feels himself relaxing for the first time since he woke up to find Alfred studying him like he was a caterpillar that snuck in on the arugula. “Thanks. It was educational.”

“I imagine. Did everything work out okay at the end?”

“Yeah. I mean ... yeah. Pretty much. My ... colleague got a little dinged, but he’s fine.”

There’s a smothered choke on the line. When Gordon speaks again, his voice is strained. “That’s good.” 

Worry? No, John decides. Gordon’s trying not to laugh. What’s so funny? Colleague. He has a sudden image of Batman in a necktie, and grins reluctantly, conceding the point. “I was actually wondering if you could help me out. Are you alone?”

“Gerry says to stop by and say hi. He’s fine, too.” Apparently not. 

“Did you happen to see what they’re calling me in the news?”

This time Gordon doesn’t even try. John can hear his smile in his reply. “Yeah. Is that a problem?”

“Seriously?”

That wins an actual chuckle. “Any preferences?”

“I’ll get back to you on that, but I don’t suppose you know a way to fix it, do you?”

Gordon hums neutrally, then admits, “Shifting that train might be tough, but I can think of a couple of ways.”

“Thank God. I know it’s trivial, but--”

“Not as much as you think.” John can see, as clearly as if he was standing in front of him, Gordon’s narrowing of eyes and the thoughtful, steady look through those damned glasses. “Still got that psychological angle to go?”

“I’m working on it. In fact, I just had an overly qualified teacher step forward and volunteer.” 

“Good.”

That’s what Gordon thinks.

John thinks about telling him about Bane. Lays out the entire conversation in a fraction of a second. Hey, Jim, by the way, Bane showed up in my apartment. I think he wants to be friends for a while, and then eventually kill me. Cue wail of police sirens and protective custody. End scene.

That would probably put a kink in his night life. No more adrenaline-charged epic heroism, potentially followed by fantastic kissing and spectacular sex. Not to mention, Bruce would have to get a new source for his secret fast food habit, because Alfred probably wouldn’t humor him. He’d have to visit drive-throughs in the tumbler, dressed up like the Bat. John can’t do that to the minimum wage workers of Gotham. 

Satisfied he’s doing the right thing, John doesn’t tell Gordon about Bane.

More half-heard snatches of conversation on the other end of the phone. Then: “I have to go. The Feds are here. You should drop by with that colleague of yours and we can discuss that problem you mentioned.”

“In uniform?”

“Is that what you call it?”

“Calling it a costume is a buzz kill. It’s a little too 'kids going out at night to get candy from the neighbors.'”

Another amused snort. 

“When should we drop by?”

“My day never ends. I’m supposed to do an in-person interview with the Times at 9 tonight, if you can believe that. The nurses will probably complain about visiting hours.”

John hesitates. Really? “Are you telling me we should drop in on your interview?”

“I think so.”

“Before or after? After?”

“No.”

“What are you planning?”

Gordon chuckles. “I’ll talk to you later.”

John hangs up, lets his head fall back on the headrest, and starts thinking.

Chapter Text

These are the things that John does not do.

Item #1. Relationships. What John does is more commonly called fuckbuddying, which isn’t a real word, but whatever. It’s basically the noncommittal scratching of an itch, so to speak. Although on that subject, Sister Benedict made herself absolutely clear -- unmistakably, traumatizingly clear; there were pictures and sound effects. The St. Swithin kids were the only ones in the 6th grade who could spell chlamydia, much less provide the recommended treatment for gonorrhea, disseminated infection without complicating factors (100 mg doxycycline, taken orally twice daily for 7 days) -- so John always makes sure to take steps. There is never any itching involved in his sexual contacts: before, during, or (most importantly) after.

Item #2. Grow attached. People leave, people die, people disappoint. It’s okay to have friends. It’s not okay to get close enough that it’ll hurt when they’re gone. So he doesn’t get attached. He doesn’t get emotionally involved. If he suspects he’s getting involved, he cuts them out of his life as painlessly as possible. That hasn’t happened in a while, which is a relief, because if he thought for a second he’d have to stop going to Gordon for advice or visiting the St. Swithin kids, he might shoot himself. Thank God he hasn’t gotten emotionally involved with them.

Item #3. Plan ahead. He’s always figured he’d die young. His personal goal is to live about as long as his parents did, which wasn’t really that long in the grand scheme of things. It’s possible that his personal goal is also to die before his parents did, but that’s sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. He’s got a lot of stuff left he wants to do, so it’s not one he thinks about that much.

Item #4. Therapy. Because knowing how and why you’re fucked up does a fat lot of good when you can’t do shit all about it. Screw the Know Thyself crowd. Ignorance is bliss. 


There’s a Starbucks across the street from the park entrance. In fact, there are three of them in the same two block radius, all of them within eyeshot of each other. This seems weird to John, but he’s well aware he doesn’t have a head for business; that’s why he ended up a cop, so whatever. He picks the one that has the smallest queue and wanders inside.

He buys himself a frappuccino and takes it into the bathroom before he sniffs it, just to see what’ll happen. As an test, it’s either a raging success or a complete failure, depending on your point of view; his physical response is exactly what he was afraid it would be, an awkward one to have in the middle of a public men’s bathroom. This doesn’t make him happy, though certain parts of him -- parts that are still raw with stubble burn but are nonetheless infuriatingly peppy -- are quite cheerful about it. 

Since there’s not much he can do about the strangely crossed wires in his brain, he waits until he gets his blood flow under control again, then gets rid of the frappuccino by handing it to a homeless guy outside. Then he starts digging into #52 of his missing kids sheet: Matthew Belize, age 7.

By the time John gets back to the cave, it’s late afternoon and he has (1) not found Matthew Belize; (2) decided to boycott Starbucks, which is like a bad case of public lice with the number of stores it has in the city; and (3) sworn to himself that he is cutting off all future sexual contact with Bruce Wayne, on account of (4) the feelings he is absolutely not developing. 

He walks into the cave just in time to catch Bruce walking across the platform, stark naked. His muscles ripple as he moves, smooth skin glistening under a thin sheen of moisture.

It’s beautiful. The picture belongs in an art gallery:  pale figure, dusty light, black cave. Gorgeous ass.

“Not that I don’t admire the view,” John says, “but should you really be holding a blowtorch when you don’t have a leather apron on?”

Bruce doesn’t tell him he’s funny, even though he’s fucking hilarious, but he does toss the thing he’s carrying at John. It turns out to be a small fire extinguisher, which explains some of the white smoke still curling through the air. John manages to catch it just in time, scrambling a couple of steps to keep it from hitting the floor before he regains his footing. 

The extinguisher goes under one of the consoles. Bruce, already busied with drawing on a pair of jeans from the floor -- scorched, John notices. Aha -- barely seems to notice how his bending and stretching twists the bandage still taped to his hip.

The bandage that is not John’s work, he realizes when he heads over to take another look. Bruce arches an eyebrow down at him, pausing with the denim around his thighs while his injury is inspected. The bandage John applied has been replaced by a far more professional looking arrangement of neatly blocked gauze and perfectly snipped adhesive.

“Alfred changed it,” Bruce says over his head, while John runs a marveling finger across the anal-retentive right angles of the medical tape. “He’s had a lot of practice.”

John feels fingers sliding through his hair, a caress that goes straight through his chest in a direct line to his groin. No. Bad dick. Down. Sit. Stay. 

“What happened?” he asks, jerking a nod to Bruce’s burned pants as he straightens. 

Bruce grins, his eyes alight. John’s heart jolts again at the expression, something very like anxiety squirming in his stomach. Bruce is awake, again, still, as awake as he was last night as Batman and the feverish, confusing aftermath. “I saw Lucius,” Bruce says in seeming non sequitur, sounding smug. 

“How’d you--?”

“I wore a disguise,” Bruce says, with way too much self-satisfaction for a man who apparently set fire to himself just a few minutes ago, not to mention used the phrase ‘I wore a disguise’ in a non-ironic way. “It turned out he knew I was alive.”

“Not for nothing, but you were all over the news this morning.”

“Before that. Autopilot on the Bat. Not important,” Bruce says, answering John’s blank look. “We got you something.”

John’s eyebrows rise. “Me? What, flowers? I don’t even know him.”

Bruce’s smile is unexpectedly sweet. “You’ll like this.”

He’s right. John does.

“Sweet, merciful Christ,” John says, staring at images of a sleek, falcon-winged orgasm in shades of black and blue. “What the hell is that?”

“It’s a hang glider.”

“That’s not a hang glider. That’s metal. Those are metal wings. Just looking at it is making my eyes bleed, it’s so sharp. Holy crap, are those rockets? It’s a rocket-powered death glider?”

“It’s an improvement on the hang glider,” Bruce amends more prosaically, because he has no poetry in his soul. He leans around John to the keyboard, his shoulder pressing into John’s back. One finger taps quickly through various angles of the glider until John grabs his hand to stop him. “The military wanted to deploy snipers in a way that would let them operate in mid-air.”

“I thought Wayne Enterprises didn’t do military contracts.”

“Not weapons contracts, but we do military. R&D created this one for experimental purposes, actually. They were thinking recreational use. Lucius has been busy reclaiming the lost intellectual property Bane stole in between trying to reconstruct Wayne Enterprises and get all the money back.”

“All of Alfred’s money back, you mean.”

Bruce looks surprised at the suggestion that there’s a difference. “Money’s money,” he says, with the indifference of a man who has rarely had to worry about having any. Considering over a quarter of John’s income goes towards buying food, most of which Bruce eats, he feels a bitter retort hovering on his tongue. 

Fortunately, Bruce clicks the forward arrow again, and John’s irritation is forgotten. The next image actually makes him hard. “Screw me,” he breathes. “Are those missile launchers? What kind of ‘recreational’ were your guys thinking? 

Bruce grins. “We can go pick it up tonight, when it’s dark,” he says, turning his head just a bit so his breath tickles John’s ear. “I was building a grappling gun for it. I should’ve worn an apron.”

John shudders. “I swear to God,” he says thickly, forgetting all about his good intentions in the sheer wash of possessive lust bathing him from the screen: mine mine mine mine mine. “If it wasn’t for the fact Alfred could drop in any minute, I would fuck you through the floor right now.” 

The words are barely out of his mouth before he wishes he could take them back. 

He feels Bruce’s shiver through the light contact between them. John glances askance; Bruce’s mouth is curling up, his eyelids growing heavy. Suddenly, there isn’t enough air in the room. “Alfred is meeting with lawyers for the rest of the day,” Bruce says, his voice dropping close to Batman’s range.

“Oh?” John struggles to parse this. Is this-- Is Bruce saying that it’s okay to-- is he wanting to--?

Bruce drags him closer to grind his hips against John’s, the stiffness of definite interest hard against him. John’s dick wakes up with a cheer, just as Bruce lowers his head to catch John’s lower lip between his, teeth sharp against his skin. John sucks in a breath; Bruce rocks into him, trapping him between his body and the console.

“Oh,” John says. “You mean--” He loses the rest of the word in Bruce’s mouth. That greedy, eager, secretive mouth, which is busily stealing the air from his lungs and coherent thought from his mind.

He’s dimly aware that Bruce is unfastening and unwrapping him, coaxing his arms up to tug off his shirt. Cold air nibbles at his skin, but hot lips and hotter tongue graze his collarbone a second later, scorching against the chill. “Christ,” John says. His voice sounds hoarse. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”

Buttons snap. Denim and cotton slither down around his thighs, freeing his dick. No more chafing, thank God. He clings to Bruce’s hips in turn, grinding himself against him before doing some unbuttoning of his own. Bruce is already hard, his erection bobbing up flushed and heavy to press into John’s stomach. “All my ideas are good ideas,” Bruce says, his expression making John shiver.

“This one was mine,” John points out unevenly.

“You can have good ideas too,” Bruce murmurs against his jaw, and closes his hand around John’s cock. His hips drive without thinking into that firm grip and the slow, warm slide of it. Bruce’s other hand jerks John’s head back by the hair, baring his throat to sharp, bruising kisses and holy crap, who’s debauching who, here? Stupid question, John decides, hearing the raw, ragged edge to his own panting. Stupid, stupid question. 

Bruce drags him back to fish condoms out of the nearest medkit (why the fuck do the Batcave medkits have condoms and lube?) John groans into his throat, “This is just sex, right?” he manages, tracing the pulse of blood under the skin, while one of his hands finds the ridged edge of a scar on that broad, muscled back. “No strings.” 

There’s a moment where Bruce stills, where John feels him go rigid against him. Then suddenly John’s on his back, the breath knocked out of his lungs.

Before he can do more than blink up at the ceiling, Bruce drops to his knees, straddling John’s hips to roll the condom on his cock. Lube glistens on his fingers, and a second later John is cursing, slamming up into that tight, twisting grip. “You’re not getting attached, are you?” Bruce asks with amused contempt, something bleak glittering in his eyes. Stung and abruptly pissed, John gets his left foot under himself to shove, yanking down at Bruce’s left elbow at the same time. 

Bruce smirks, a flash of dark-edged anticipation sharp in his face; there’s a second’s hesitation before he goes down, just enough to let John know that he’s being allowed to get the upper hand. 

John rolls up to shove his knees between Bruce’s legs, feeling the slight resistance before they part easily, spreading to let him between. The bruises from the night before are darkening to bluish-purple across both their skins. Acting on half-formed instinct, John pushes the heel of his palm into a large one sprawled like a map of Europe across Bruce’s ribs. Bruce hisses, pressing up into the rough caress with bared teeth.

“Fuck, Bruce,” John gasps. “You are such an idiot.” 

Bruce glares, but he doesn’t deny it. He grabs John by the hair and hauls him down, his other hand sliding down John’s front, pressing viciously against scabs and bruises, nails scraping at his nipple to draw out a yelp. It isn’t foreplay. It’s anger, which is even better, and in a moment’s feverish clarity, John realizes just why Bruce picked him to carry on after him.

“Fuck. Fuck--” he bites out, rutting slickly against Bruce, their dicks slithering between their bodies in delicious friction. “I haven’t ever-- don’t want to hurt you, shit, how, how do I, show me how--” 

“Just do it,” Bruce rasps, his eyes alight, a growl caught in the back of his throat. “Make it hurt.” And oh God, he’s so unbearably, impossibly sexy, open like this under him. John’s got self-control, but he’s still human. Hurt, he said. John can’t deny him this; he knows exactly what Bruce wants and why, he realizes, because they’re the same, broken in the same ways, but he’s already pushing in, past that inner ring of muscle into a tightness and heat he’s never experienced before, so intense it’s the white stab of pain that’s borderline pleasure, or maybe it’s the other way around. 

Bruce’s breathing stutters, his back arching up so sharply he nearly throws John off. “F-fuck,” Bruce gasps, somewhere between a laugh and a pained cry of pleasure, sounding so wrecked it nearly makes John come right then and there. Bruce’s fingers scrabble at the discarded clothes beneath him before making hard, white-knuckled fists. John grips his his wrists, squeezing fiercely enough to leave bruises, and-- they open. Bruce’s hands open until they’re twining fingers with John’s, both of them digging in as hard as they can.

John is having a feeling of suspended disbelief in the thought that Bruce would let him do this, would let anyone do this, would be willing to be the one on the bottom. No sooner does he have that thought, though, when it’s discarded. Whatever it is that they’re doing, there’s no question that Bruce is still the one in control. That should bother John more than it does, but he can’t be assed to care. 

“God. You’re insane,” John gasps into Bruce’s neck, babbling breathlessly into the warm darkness of skin and hair. “I’ve got you. I’ve got you.” It’s a lie, it’s a terrible lie -- if anyone has anybody here, it’s definitely not John -- and Bruce knows it, his mouth twisting into a shaky slash of amusement. But he settles, making savage, satisfied sounds as John pulls out and slams back in as hard as he can, a rhythm of violence and mutually assured destruction fed by the anger that still boils in both of them.

John comes first, like he did last night. Bruce is only a half-breath behind him though, so he considers that a victory. He collapses onto Bruce’s chest deafened by his own heartbeat, still shaking through the aftershocks, wrung out and shattered. 

It’s Bruce who has him, no matter what John said. It’s Bruce’s arms that cradle him as he comes down from the bone-rattling high of aggression and sex, and Bruce’s steadying heartbeat that slowly calms his own down. Fingers trace an idle, lazy pattern on his back. Letters, John decides after a drowsy few minutes for thought. He’s sticky and utterly relaxed, the frustrations of the day temporarily pushed away by the fatigue of exertion. F-A-L-L-S-F-R-O-M-T-H-E-W-I-N-G-S-O-F-N-I-G-H-T.

“What’s that?” he mumbles into Bruce’s shoulder.

“What?”

John mutters something about pains in the ass. Bruce’s chuckle vibrates through him, resonant in the echo chamber of his chest.

“‘The day is done, and the darkness falls from the wings of night.’”

“Sounds like a really depressing Hallmark card.”

“Poetry.” John feels rather than sees Bruce’s small shrug. “Longfellow.”

“Public school education, remember?” John yawns into the hollow of Bruce’s shoulder. He could stay here for the rest of the day. Maybe never move again, except for a shower, because he’s getting sticky. Also, soft. Realizing, he moves the barest minimum he has to to remove the condom, tie it off, and toss it in the vague direction of the garbage. 

Maybe he can call Alfred to come and hose them off. Then he won’t have to move to get clean. Excellent. Where’s his cell phone?

“Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,” Bruce says into his hair. John snuffles a chuckle.

Wadsworth.”

“You find that funny, Robin?”

John turns his head just enough to leave a neat semi-circle bite impression in Bruce’s shoulder. “Asshole,” he mumbles around a mouthful of flesh before gently lipping the bite marks in apology.

It’s Bruce’s turn to yawn, though his answering grin is audible in: “My father used to like Longfellow. He had a quote in his office. ‘We judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing, while others judge us on what we have already done.’”

John thinks about that, cradled in a strong arm and the murmurous, pleasant timbres of Bruce’s voice. Their fathers. He’s got nothing of his father that’s worth sharing with Bruce, beyond the fact of his death and the anger it left behind. He’d be jealous of Bruce’s better memories, memories worth sharing, but-- his fingers trace the curve of an old knife scar on the chest under his. Bruce shivers, going boneless beneath him at the touch, and John marvels again that a man like Bruce would let himself be vulnerable like this. Then again, how many people are there that Bruce could even take his shirt off for?

“Did I hurt you?” he asks with his eyes closed, shifting to sprawl out against Bruce’s side. It’s surprisingly easy to mold himself to the other man’s warmth.

Another small chuckle from Bruce, this one soundless. “No,” he says, sounding almost as sleepy as John feels. 

John opens his eyes just enough to see Bruce in profile, his gaze turned up to the cavern’s ceiling. He frowns. “You sure?”

Bruce turns his head to look at him. For a split second, his expression is exposed, his mouth soft, his eyes unguarded. In the breath it takes for Bruce to realize John’s eyes are open and reassemble his mask, John’s heart stops. 

“I’m fine,” Bruce says coldly, sliding out from under John’s head to roll up and stand. He stoops to scoop up John’s discarded shirt and uses it to wipe drying spill off his stomach and chest before tossing it aside. 

Reluctantly, John props himself up on an elbow (ow) to watch while Bruce hunts down his scorched jeans and shimmies into them. An unacknowledged bubble of queasiness twists at his gut. “I’m about to say something completely against the man code,” he forces himself to say, “but we should talk.”

There’s a long, uncomfortable moment where all he gets in reply is Bruce’s muscled back, with its spiderwebs of dark scars. Then: “What’s to talk about?”

He almost chokes on the word, but after a false start, he manages to get it out. “Us.”

“There’s no ‘us.’”

It should be a relief. It isn’t. “Bane, then.” It’s a worrying logical progression, from ‘us’ to Bane. There are nowhere near as many degrees of separation as there should be.

“Bane is my problem,” Bruce says.

“Think again,” John says, ticked off by Bruce’s massive assumption of arrogance -- or is it massive arrogance of assumption? “He was waiting for me in my apartment when I got home today.”

Bruce freezes in the act of reaching for the keyboard. John can’t see his face. He doesn’t need to. Bruce’s spine speaks volumes, Parts I through IV of Borderline Murderous. “And?”

“And he wants to train me. Tell me that’s not twisted.” John finally gives up the comfort of the floor -- he feels at a disadvantage, being vulnerable when Bruce isn’t -- and climbs to his feet to shrug into his own jeans. 

The chair sinks under Bruce’s weight, turning so he can brood at John. “He’s going to kill you eventually. Or try to turn you.”

“Yeah, I figured that.”

“You need to leave the country.”

“And in other news,” John tells the ceiling, “Bruce Wayne is still an idiot.”

Bruce’s visible hand folds around the arm of the chair. It’s a terrifyingly deliberate motion. “Then move to the cave until I’ve dealt with him.”

“Until we’ve dealt with him. Oh, fuck you,” he adds on for good measure, at Bruce’s look of patient condescension. “I can beat up Bane.”

Bruce’s expression shifts to exasperation.

John concedes, “Maybe after he’s trained me some, I could beat up Bane.”

“He wants to use you to get to me,” Bruce says wearily.

“Public school education isn’t the same thing as stupid, just so we’re clear.”

Bruce stops at that, his face blank. “You’re not stupid,” he says.

“No,” John says bleakly, “I’m not.” He’s not stupid enough not to know that Bruce has started having feelings for him. He’s not stupid enough not to know Bruce is aware he’s starting to feel something back. And he’s not stupid enough not to wonder which one of them will manage to draw blood first in the race to drive the other one away.

He figures it’s even odds. Bruce has more experience, but John’s got a mouth


It’s 8:45 when they get to Gordon’s window, dropping lines from the roof and then sliding down the brick face until they’re perched just outside. The room is well-lit; for reasons of simple security, Gordon apparently got his own private room. They can see him inside, sitting up in bed and reaming Captain Branden a new one. 

That’s one of the things John doesn’t miss about leaving the GPD. Most of the time, Gordon’s like a two-legged version of Chicken Soup for the Soul, a walking, talking reminder that you could be a better person if you just tried a little harder to be more like him. So when he actually gets pissed off and starts yelling at you, it’s like being personally rejected by militarized kittens. You get to feel like a terrible human being, on top of wishing you’d never been born.

A few minutes after they settle outside his window, he sends the emotionally disemboweled SWAT Captain out. Then he falls back on his bed, visibly drained. When it looks like nobody else is going to come in, Bruce pushes open the window and slithers inside. John follows, his view of Gordon briefly blocked by the flutter of Batman’s cape.

“Lights,” Gordon murmurs, in lieu of greeting. Bruce stands silent and still where he stopped, a few feet from Gordon’s bed, so it’s John who takes the hint and crosses to the panel by the door to flick them off. Shadows fall heavily around the corners of the room. Above Gordon’s bed, a dimmer array of fluorescents drape light across his shoulders. 

The Commissioner looks like shit -- even his bruises have bruises -- but his pale eyes are clear. Exasperation wars with affection and a desperate relief in his expression. 

“Batman,” he says, his eyes fixed on Bruce.

Bruce hesitates, then says, “Jim.”

“Heard you were hurt.”

“I’m fine. How’re you doing?”

“I’m fine,” Gordon says back, in the exact same tones. And apparently, that’s that. 

“Oh for Christ’s sake,” says John. “You two are such drama queens.” 

Gordon almost grins.

“Dzubenko?” Bruce asks.

“Federal marshals have him. They’re sending him to the capital.”

“Like that went so well last time,” John says.

Gordon’s mouth twitches. “Out of my jurisdiction.”

“Not out of mine,” Bruce growls, and Gordon nods, as though they’ve mapped out an entire strategy in the space of eight words and a head-bob. Two pathologically private and mistrustful men; they’ve developed their own vocabulary to cope, the language of stoics. It could’ve been worse. They could’ve decided to use the language of mimes.

John struggles with the urge to tell them both to use their words.

“How’s this going to work?” he asks instead, trying to sound neutral. “Are you expecting us to give interviews to the press?”

This one drags an actual, reluctant chuckle from Gordon. “No. Not exactly. The press is going to trick some information out of us.”

Gordon has a reputation for being terrible at managing the press. It was common knowledge that the Mayor’s PR department was in a permanent state of incandescent rage regarding the Commissioner’s encounters with Gotham’s media. The media, on the other hand, loved him; probably for the same reasons that the PR department didn’t. 

Less common knowledge, John learned during the five months on the run, was that Gordon is a damn good actor and astonishingly good at manipulating people. People like the press.

“How’re we going to do that?” John asks, just out of curiosity.

The bathroom door opens. “I’ll be your in-flight press wrangler for the purposes of this scenario,” says a familiar female voice. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to scare you.”

Bruce doesn’t deign to dignify this with a retort, so John doesn’t either.

On the phone, Babs Gordon sounds years older than she is. In person, she looks like a 10-year-old. Like her father, she’s slim and built on the small side. One day she might grow up to be striking. For now, she’s just a kid, with features that haven’t quite figured out what the final version is going to be. Her hair, though, is a gorgeous red that comes complete with lily-white skin that’s almost luminous in the shadows. She moves with an understated self-confidence that John hasn’t seen in most kids her age.

Certainly not in any kids her age who find themselves face-to-face with Batman. Jim Gordon’s kid. Right. She’s going to be a terror. 

“Is it a good idea to get a child involved?” John asks Gordon, to spare Bruce voicing the objections he can see are making his teeth itch.

“Standing right here, thanks. Besides, I’m carrying on a noble family tradition of jerking around the press and lying to the public,” Babs says, crossing over to the bed. She leans her head against Gordon’s arm at his wince. “Sorry, Dad.”

Gordon drops a kiss on her head. “She’ll be fine,” he says. “She’s been lying like a pro to the press since she was five.” Being the child of Gotham’s Police Commissioner is apparently fairly fucked up.

“Speaking of, I’m kind of pissed at you,” Babs tells Bruce. “You have no idea what you put my dad through.”

Bruce blinks.

“Babs,” says Gordon, warningly. 

Babs sighs, looking put-upon. “Thank you for saving our lives, Batman,” she says in the sing-song flatness of someone reciting from rote. “We really appreciated it. We would’ve written thank you cards, but you disappeared for eight years without a forwarding address and left Dad thinking you were dead, so you know how it is.”

Babs.”

Bruce blinks again. “Anytime.” 

“God, I hope not.”

Gordon winces, clearing his throat. John almost feels sorry for him.

“So. How do you want to play this?” Gordon asks, firmly changing the subject. “You two are partners? Rivals? Or just occasional colleagues?” He manages to say the last without grinning, which is a something at least. He must’ve been practicing.

“Partners,” John says, just as Bruce says, “Occasional associates.”

“Okay,” says Gordon, while Babs grins. “I see we’ve thought this through.”

Bruce levels a flinty look at John, his cape hissing around his legs. “We need to maintain some separation, in case something like Dent comes up again.”

“Right, because that went so well,” John says.

“He has a point, son. If one of you is compromised, there’s has to be a chance for the other one to still function in the public eye. So to speak.”

“What, so this is big picture stuff?”

Bruce’s mouth thins.

“Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing,” John tells him.

“Pay attention to the job.”

"Not to be unprofessional about this,” John says pleasantly, “but screw you.”

“I like him,” Babs tells Gordon. “Can I date him when I grow up?”

“No.”

“Too bad,” Babs says. “I think I’m going to be the type that likes men in leather.”

Gordon sighs, running a hand over his face. “Do you have a preferred name yet?” he asks John.

Still glowering at Bruce, John tells him. And since he’s still looking at Bruce, he sees the blink. He catches the startled relaxing of Batman’s jaw, and the betraying tenderness that spills like liquid shadow in his eyes. “Oh,” Bruce says.

“That’s a good choice,” Gordon says, sounding surprised. “It’s close enough to what the news came up with that they’ll feel like they were smarter than they were, and it’s unique enough from Batman that they won’t be linked together in people’s minds.”

“Right,” John says. “That was the plan. Shut up. I can make plans, too,” he tells Bruce, and gets in reply a surprisingly fond, “Miracles can happen.”

He glares again, but there’s no heat in it. Gordon glances between the pair of them, squints, then grimaces. “If you two can concentrate for just a second,” he says with heavy patience, to grab their attention.

By the time Babs brings the journalist in -- "I think he's asleep, Ms. Gleeson, but he said we can wake him up for-- Oh. That's funny. It sounds like there's someone in there with him already. I wonder who...." -- they’re a smoothly functioning engine of deceit.

The room is still cloaked in shadow, the curtain drawn between the bed and the door so Gordon and the window aren’t visible to the journalist who enters on stealthy feet a good five minutes before the hour. More critically, from the journalist's point of view, they can't see her. It's a carefully constructed scenario of opportune eavesdropping, and Ms. Gleeson is apparently willing to take the bait. She’s really quiet, almost ninja-quality quiet, Babs a wisp of shadow behind her. It’d almost be a successful creep, if it weren’t for the fact that Babs tapped the door to let them know she was coming right before the door opened.

Gordon is saying wearily, “--while the new mob is busy taking a chunk out of our backsides, the old mob is just barely holding on to a fraction of what they used to hold. I don’t suppose you have any leads on the new players, Nightwing?”

“I will soon,” John says from the window, his voice pitched into the slightly deeper ranges he’s figured out he can sustain. 

“I haven’t said thank you yet for saving our lives. No, I know your opinion about that, Batman. But Nightwing, at least, deserves to hear it.”

“It isn’t necessary,” John says, while wondering what Gordon means about Bruce. 

“You’re as bad as he is. If you won’t hear it for my sake, you can at least accept some gratitude on behalf of my men. God knows you’ve given us enough reasons to be grateful while we were fighting Bane. You should let me tell people how much you helped us during the occupation. How many times you saved our lives, for that matter.”

“Some things, people don’t need to hear.”

Gordon sighs; a small silence falls, in which they can hear Gleeson’s excited breathing. Unseen by her, Gordon’s eyes roll up, then grin. His voice when he finally speaks is a complete contradiction to his expression. “I suppose I shouldn’t bother asking if you two are going to work with each other.”

“When we need to. I’m willing to cooperate if he is.”

“I suppose that answers that,” Gordon says, sounding resigned. “You know that after last night, the press is full of speculation about you, Nightwing. You’re not just a rumor anymore. We’re not going to be able to keep you secret anymore.”

“Maybe it’s time,” says Bruce in Batman’s rasp, speaking for the first time from behind the journalist. She shrieks, which is a logical reaction to discovering Batman is standing behind you. One black-armored arm sweeps the curtain aside, presenting Bruce, Gleeson, and Babs with a frozen tableau: Gordon with his mouth open, looking startled; Nightwing seated on the window ledge with his foot drawn up beside him, elbow hooked over his knee. 

Babs, out of Gleeson’s line of sight, grins at Batman before schooling her face into artful shock. There’s no artifice in Gleeson’s expression, a mixture of triumph, defiance, and terror. Bruce has grabbed her by one of her wrists. He plucks an iPhone out of her hand, glances at it, then tosses it across the room. 

Hey!” Gleeson protests. “That’s mine!”

John catches it and checks its display. Digital voice recording program, still running. He stops it, erases the latest recording -- two minutes, just about right -- checks to make sure nothing has been uploaded to the cloud, then tosses it to Gordon.

“Private conversation,” John tells her. “You weren’t invited.”

She isn’t listening to him. Of course she isn’t listening. She’s a journalist. Why would she? “Are you the guy the news has been calling Wingman?” she demands, her eyes avid. “Gordon called you Nightwing. Is that your name? Summer Gleeson, with the Gotham Times.”

“You’re early,” Gordon says angrily, while she squirms free of Bruce and takes a few quick steps to the bed.

“Nightwing,” Babs says, flying forward to cling to her father’s arm. She stares at him with wide, childish eyes. Her lower lip quivers. “Thank you for saving my daddy’s life.”

She even manages a little tremble in her voice, holy crap. The girl is evil. Incredibly enough, the journalist is buying it. Even turns her head to go doe-eyed at Babs.

John can’t help but grin at her, getting a flutter of a wink in reply. Then he tips out of the window.

He waits for Bruce up on the roof. It’s another five minutes before the great black shadow flows over the edge of the parapet, and John is immediately struck with the sense that Bruce is amused.

“Wow,” John says, while Bruce is unhooking the lines that brought him up. “Did you know about her?”

“The reporter?”

Babs.”

There’s a short pause. “She was younger last time we met.”

“Jim is fucked.”

Of all the weird-ass things that have happened to John since Bruce came back from the dead, watching Batman laugh his head off might actually be the strangest.

 

Chapter Text


In the morning, most of the print media still has ‘Wingman’ blazoned across their leads. The Gotham Times, though, has a NIGHTWING UNMASKED headline on the first page that almost gives John a coronary before he reads on to discover that ‘Unmasked’ means, ‘Gleeson swallowed Gordon’s play hook, line, and sinker.’ Gratifyingly, in less than an hour, most of the online media has embraced the new name. Two hours later, there are interviews with people who claim to have been saved by Nightwing during Bane's rule. #bamf!nightwing is trending in the top 10 on Twitter, one slot above #batmansback.

Damn straight. Read that and weep!” John crows.

“Are we competing now?” Bruce asks, reading over his shoulder. "Look. You were beat by #TyraBanks. How special."

"Now all we need is some RPF, mentions on Colbert, Stewart, and Wheaton, and we're internet gods."

"What's RPF?"

John doesn't tell him, because some things even Batman is too innocent for.

Unfortunately, excluding the hours spent practicing on the glider -- “I just call it the Wing,” Lucius Fox tells John when they pick it up. “I can’t tell you how nice it is to get to use another color besides black,” -- this is the only thing that goes well for the next two weeks. This would be because Bane decides that there’s no time like the present to start training John.

Personally. Painfully. At all hours of the day.

“Fuck.”

The first time Bane pops up like a murderous Jack-in-the-Box in front of him, John almost shoots him out of sheer astonishment. Well, gets as far as reaching for his gun anyway, before the spindly guy from before drops on him from above and chokes him unconscious with his knees. John doesn’t even have any time to be terrified, so at least there’s that. He wakes up five minutes later to find Bane gently slapping his face.

“You may sleep when you are dead,” Bane is saying, which coming from him sounds more like a horrible invitation than the encouragement he seems to think it is. The spindly guy peers at John from behind Bane’s shoulder.

“I hate you,” John hisses at him.

Spindly Guy inclines his head gravely, like John just paid him a compliment. Which, if one is a little can of whup-ass who hangs out with Bane, it probably is. 

Having established that John is alive, Bane picks him up like he’s a rag doll and drapes him over one massive shoulder. John wheezes furiously at him as he’s carted into the warehouse across the street, not sure whether to be pissed or scared out of his mind.

He gets dumped on the floor and immediately tries to kick out Bane’s knee. Bane chuckles, ruffling John’s hair like a fond parent before he can jerk his head away. 

“Come,” Bane invites, spreading his arms in an expansive gesture. “Let us begin.”

“Is this where you kill me?” John asks, because a guy likes to know things like that.

“Not today. Maybe tomorrow.

“Just checking.”

Training with Bane is a bitch.

Bane materializes out of nowhere on a daily basis, without warning: the apartment, the street, the stairs of St. Swithin’s, the car. John will be minding his own business when suddenly he’ll be picked up bodily by a human dinosaur. “You must learn to be more aware of your surroundings,” Bane will say, like a total asshole, and then John will be carted off someplace to do diabolically impossible things. Balancing one-footed on poles. Jumping over sticks. Being bashed at with clubs. Climbing telephone poles.

(Bane has introduced a lot of violent phallic symbols into John’s life all of a sudden. It might be a metaphor for something, but he’s just not seeing it.)

“I think he’s actually killing me. He’s just decided to spread it out over the course of a few days,” John tells Bruce numbly after that first, horrific day, when Bane kept him locked up in the warehouse for three hours to find out how much Bruce had taught him. From John’s point of view, this involved a lot of him getting hit and then falling down.

Bruce squats down next to where John has collapsed on the cave floor, and peels John’s clothes off to examine the injuries. John almost falls in love with him when he presses an ice pack on the worst of it, lifts his head, and feeds him painkillers and water.

Then Bruce says, “You should keep training with him,” and John decides he’s changed his mind. He hates Bruce. One big ball of hate, that’s him. Hate Bruce, hate spindly guy (whose name is apparently Barsad), hate Bane. He whines a bit. Wordlessly, because there aren’t any words awful enough to express his displeasure at Bruce’s lack of support.

“It may be the best way to keep you safe, since you won’t leave the country,” Bruce says, running thoughtful fingers across a giant, hand-shaped bruise wrapped around much of John’s left thigh. “As long as he’s your teacher, he won’t kill you. If he’s following the code of our own teachers in the League, he’ll protect you while you’re his student. Did he give you this bruise?”

“That one was you,” John mumbles into the arm he has draped across his face. Bruce’s hum of satisfaction is audible even through the background hiss of water. John uncovers an eye just enough to glare. 

Bruce is unrepentant. “I’ll give you a list of what we’ve been working on to take back to him.”

“I’m not your messenger boy,” John grouses, purely on principle. They both know he’ll take the list. “Wait. Does that mean you’re not going to be training me anymore?”

“No, I’ll be training you too.”

“Oh God.

“It’ll be good for you,” Bruce says heartlessly. “It’ll build up your endurance.”

It doesn’t for the first two weeks, though. What it does do is almost kill him. Bane hijacks him during the day and Bruce works with him in the nights, when they’re ostensibly keeping an eye on the city. Bruce does more of the ‘keeping an eye on’ than John is; by the time the sun sets, he’s too exhausted to do more than climb into the suit and then fall asleep in the tumbler. He’s an A+ vigilante terror of the night, Nightwing is. Bruce lets him sleep a bit while Batman is hilariously mean to the Eastern European mafia moving into town. Then he wakes John up and forces him through more training on top of a roof somewhere.

You’d think it’d be a direct contradiction in terms, being taught by two archenemies. Weirdly, the two of them manage to coordinate, though John is too exhausted and bleary to realize it until mid-week two.

“How the fuck?” he asks Bane, when he blinks into awareness one morning and suddenly realizes he’s got a training program that the Special Forces would wet themselves for. 

By way of answer, Bane reaches a hand into John’s pants pocket -- he’s so tired, it barely even registers -- and fishes out a crumpled post-it note. He spreads it out to show to John. It’s in ... Chinese? 

“You’re passing notes to each other in my pants?” John asks, bewildered.

“How else would we do it?” Bane asks.

It’s a sign of how messed up John’s brain is now that this somehow makes perfect sense. 

Bane is teaching him unarmed combat, strategy, and Ninja 101; Bruce is teaching him how to apply those in the streets, the tactics of solo survival, and what John has dubbed Professional MacGyvering. In between, John sleeps. Sleeps, and when he’s conscious long enough to think about it, bathes. Where he also sleeps. On one occasion, he becomes aware of Bane fishing him out of the bathtub, toweling him down, then rolling him into bed. Too tired, don’t care. On another, he discovers that Bruce is patiently feeding him french fries. Disconcerting, since he can’t even remember when or how he got to the cave.

“Thing is, I’m so tired, I can’t even be scared of Bane anymore,” John mumbles at one point, face down on something, he’s doesn’t know what.

“Then that is good,” says a hollow voice behind him, amused. 

Oh. Bane. And he should be worried about that, because that’s the sort of thing he should keep track of, except not so much with the caring. A heavy weight settles over his hips, warm and hard. He’s being sat on again. Why is he always being sat on? Bruises and aches hurt. 

Which is nothing to how they feel when Bane rolls up his sweaty shirt and starts kneading things that John would rather have surgically removed. Like his shoulders. And his back.

He screams like a baby, and he’s not ashamed to admit it.

After a few minutes of squirming, whining, and general shrieking, the massage starts to feel so incredibly good, he melts into a puddle of cream pot love. He’s pretty sure he falls asleep before he gives Bane his undying adoration and invites him to have his wicked way with John’s body whenever he wants. Admittedly, these days he’s not entirely positive how much of what’s happening inside his head is staying inside his head, but still. He’s pretty sure.

The massages get to be a regular thing from Bane and, after another post-it exchange, Bruce as well. John doesn’t put up a fight about it. They’re the most single-minded, driven egomaniacs he has ever met. If they really want to give him glorious massages, he’s not going to argue.

And anyway, by week three, that endurance Bruce was mocking him about starts to grow, so things get better. In the way a burst appendix is better than passing a kidney stone, but still, you know. Better.


In week three, John accidentally... well. Here’s how it goes.

John is in the middle of learning how to kick, which is one of those things you think you learn on playgrounds as a kid but really don’t, when his cell starts ringing. Usually he ignores the sound. Barsad invariably confiscates the cell during training, and spends the session either playing Angry Birds and wearing down his battery, or beating John up when it rings and he tries to get it back. 

This time though, Barsad glances at the display, then hops down from the high window lookout he’s settled in. “Phone,” he says, when John stops kicking the padded block they’ve set up for him out of sheer surprise at the interruption.

It’s from St. Swithin. 

“Interesting choice of priorities,” John tells Barsad, given that the man hadn’t let him answer a call from Gordon the day before. Barsad just gives him one of his impenetrable cat stares and passes him the cell.

“John!” Father Reilly greets with that manic brightness that usually means he’s out of his mind with worry. “I don’t suppose you’ve seen Angelo or Mia lately?”

“I saw Angelo on--” what day is it today? he mouths at Bane, who is busy cleaning his nails with a machete. “Last week,” he decides, when Bane just crinkles his eyes at him. Unhelpful prick. “Why?”

“Oh, no reason, especially. Only, they’ve been missing for two nights now.”

“What? Angelo and Mia?” Out of the corner of his eye, John sees Bane’s head lift slowly, like a mastiff detecting a tantalizing scent.

“And if it was only one night, well, that happens now and again--”

“I used to do it.”

“--But two nights is unusual. And Mia’s only four, so she hasn’t ever gone missing before. I’ve filed an report, but I was hoping .... Marianne said they wanted you to go hunt Bane with them, so I thought maybe they were with you.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake.”

Reilly doesn’t even criticize his language. Bad sign. “I wonder if Bane has a telephone number,” he frets.

“What? Why?

“I could call and see if he’s seen them. If he’s been talking to them, and after all, he did give Mia a lollipop--”

“I’ll be there in a few,” John says, rubbing his eyes. “I’ll leave now. They can’t have gone far.” There are all kinds of trouble that Angelo can get into, much less Mia. Worry bites at his stomach.

Bane and Barsad are both watching him when he hangs up. Anticipating argument, John skips persuasion and goes straight to belligerence. “Mia and Angelo have been missing for three days,” he says curtly, scooping up his jacket. “Unless you know where they are, I’m going to go look for them, and you’re not going to stop me.”

Every other time he’s tried to leave training early, Barsad or Bane has prevented him from leaving. This time though, Bane simply tips his head towards the door.

It’s unexpected, but John’s in no mood to question it. He leaves.

Reilly has gathered the kids in a noisy herd by the time John arrives, and chivies them all out to the basketball courts. They’re way too eager to fill him in; it’s a good eight minutes before he can convince them that one person speaking at a time will be more effective than twelve people speaking at once. (Seven of those minutes are spent trying to get out of the hole he digs himself when he uses the ‘nine women can’t make a baby in one month,’ line. Kids aren’t mentally equipped to just accept this and move on.)

“Mia wanted to find Bane,” Marianne explains. “She thought he might have more candy.”

“He didn’t give her candy!”

“No, but he beat up the guy who had the lollipops, and she got one out of him, so---”

“She was going to ask Bane to shake down drug dealers for heroin lollipops?”

“Well, you know. Mia.” Budding criminal mastermind, she means.

“Angelo said he’d go with her.” Tyro says. “They snuck out on Saturday during the pick-up game.”

“And none of you have heard from them since?”

Shoulders shrug around the circle. Tyro volunteers, “Angelo said he thought he knew where Bane would be.”

“How?”

“Dunno. Something about triangulation.”

“Huh?”

“We’re learning about it in math.”

John sighs. “Math.” 

“Maybe they found Bane. Maybe he ate them,” whispers Marco, his eyes opening wide and thrilled. John is reminded yet again that children are sociopaths. Small, excitable sociopaths with underdeveloped brains.

He adds to his list of Bane sightings, then goes out to search. It’s not for the first time. Most of the community pitches in when the call goes out, but John has better luck than most, especially with the runaways, which is why Father Reilly keeps asking him even though he’s not a cop anymore. St. Swithin has volunteers who’ll do the simple stuff: knocking on doors, putting up posters, talking to shelters, hospitals, cops. Reilly depends on John to do the kind of looking that the others don’t think to do. The dirty work, that sometimes ends in the morgue. John has a talent for it. He’s the kind of guy who looks at the undersides of restaurant tables.

He hits the less antisocial dealers and pros first, armed with the photos and stats that Reilly keeps religiously (hah) updated on all the St. Swithin kids. No leads. Then he spends most of his money on the information network he’s got set up, recklessly promising more if they find the kids. 

After that, he digs out a coffee-stained street map of Gotham from his car, spreads it out on the curb, and marks up all the spots that the kids spotted Bane. Tries to find something that Angelo might consider a pattern. Pencils lines between the dots. Fishes fourteen bus schedules from his back seat, another twelve from his trunk, then spends a half-hour going over them.

Swears at Bane.

At the end, he has something that could be considered a reasonable territory to search, if you’re an 11-year-old accompanied by a 4-year-old enabler. Mia is energetic, but she lacks endurance; she can’t walk for more than four or five blocks without getting charmingly vindictive. Six bus lines pick up a couple of blocks from Swithin, out of the home’s line of sight, so that two kids sneaking away could easily hop on board. Two of them head into the cluster of dots on John’s map. He marks out a radius of five blocks around each possible stop near that cluster, and ends up with a lot of ground to cover. It’s a start.

A stop at a bodega gives him two bottles of water and four Snickers bars in exchange for the last of his money; he shoves them in his jacket pockets, deciding he can eat later. If he finds the kids, they might need the food and water more than he does.

Then he does some walking and questioning.

And then some more walking and questioning.

After that, for a change of pace, he does some questioning and walking.

Six hours later the sun is long gone and his feet are killing him. One bottle of water and two Snickers bars are gone. He’s thinking wistfully about the third one, when he realizes he’s kitty corner from the gutted husk of Andiamo, Moretti’s old social club. It burned down just before Bane came to town, but the city hasn’t gotten around to knocking it down for good, yet. There were rumors back in the day that Andiamo sat on secret tunnels that networked all over the city, an Underground Railroad for the mob.

To an ex-cop, it looks like a deathtrap full of carcinogens, disease, and expensive medical bills. To a kid, it probably looks like a big ol’ box of adventure, full of rainbows and sprinkles.

John peels himself off the wall, thinks sour thoughts about leash laws for children, and plods to investigate.

There are boards blocking off the entrance, but it takes no time at all to discover that a couple of them have been pried off, enough for a couple of skinny, short kids to crawl through. John shines his flashlight across the threshold; the thick layer of dust and soot there has been disturbed fairly recently, but the tracks are too indistinct to determine more than size (small-ish) and direction (in).

“Mia!” he shouts through the door. “Angelo!

In the silence that follows, he thinks he hears an indistinct cry, but he’s not entirely sure. He shouts again, with the same result. No help for it. Cursing under his breath, he knocks a few more boards off and squirms in himself, moving cautiously on the scorched floor.

Inside, scuff marks eventually turn into small footprints, which wind around fallen debris that has made a maze of the main room. He calls their names again.

This time, he definitely hears someone shout.

It’s a strange game of Marco Polo, working in the dark and pausing every few seconds to call again. The torch helps him follow their trail, though boards that are strong enough to support a couple of kids are audibly less enthusiastic about supporting a grown man. Dust skitters alarmingly down some of the walls at one point, and he freezes, realizing that his weight is adding to some Rube Goldberg disaster in the making. Go back? Or go forward?

“Help!” he hears, which answers that.

He finds them with his feet. Specifically, his left foot, which goes right through the floorboards. He crashes knee-deep through rotting wood, caught only by the saving grace of a some less decrepit beam that he manages to grab before he goes completely through. 

“Hey,” an indignant, coughing voice says below him. “Watch it. Busy dying down here.”

It’s weak, and it’s thin, but it’s recognizably Angelo. John squirms out of the hole faster than he went into it, then flattens himself on the floor around it to peer down into the empty dark. The torch picks up a room beneath the one he’s in -- ratty carpet, almost completely empty except for some fallen bits of ceiling -- and the pale, soot-streaked face of Angelo peering up at him.

Relief almost makes him black out. Christ, he needs to rest. “Mia?” he asks hoarsely, even while he’s shining the light around in a frantic search. Then he spies her, curled like a tiny question mark against the wall. She’s so still his heart stops.

“Sleeping,” Angelo says. He slurs the words, tongue thick like his mouth is full of glue. Dehydration. “Took you long enough.”

That’s probably all the thanks he’ll get. John grins. “Catch,” he calls, suddenly blindly grateful he had the restraint not to eat all he bought. He tosses down the remaining bottle and Snickers bars. By the light of the torch, he can see Angelo pounce on both before carrying them off in triumph to wake and feed Mia first. Good boy.

“How’d you get down there?”

“Fell. Duh.”

“Why the fuck are you even here?”

He hears Mia say sleepily, “John said fuck,” which he’s probably going to be hearing about from Reilly.

“We were looking for Bane,” Angelo says around a gasping gulp of water. He already sounds better. 

“Why?”

“I wanted him to teach me how to make a nuclear bomb. The library doesn’t have books on that.”

Oh, for-- “You’re an idiot.”

“I’m eleven,” Angelo calls back hoarsely. “That’s my job. I make bad life choices.”

“Operative word being life.”

He fishes his phone out of his pocket and dials St. Swithin with shaky fingers -- he really should eat, or maybe pass out, or maybe both -- and gets Father Reilly on the second ring. “It’s John. Found them,” he says tersely, before the priest can do more than identify himself. “Could use some help, though.” He supplies the address, and is just starting to explain the situation, when the floor creaks alarmingly underneath him.

He freezes. Not good. Is he the problem? He stops moving, but the damage is apparently already done. An ominous groaning sound shivers through the building. “Is there any way up here from down there?” he calls down, while Reilly’s tinny voice yammers at him from the phone.

“Yeah, because we were staying down here just for the fun of it,” Angelo snaps.

“I’ll be right back,” John calls, thumbing off the phone in the middle of Reilly’s monologue. “Stay near the doorframes, by the walls.” Then he’s squirming on his stomach back the way he came. 

He sprints the entire two blocks to the car, dizzy from exhaustion. The trunk supplies him with a long length of climbing rope, a folding knife, and a headlamp. His arms and legs are shaking on the run back to the club; he actually falls on his face because his elbows give way when he tries to belly-crawl back to the hole, but he makes it. 

It takes a while for him to find a support that looks stable enough in the edges of the hole. Even longer to pry boards away from it, raining debris and dust into the room below. Tying the rope around it is complicated as fuck, but he manages it while Angelo shouts incredibly unhelpful advice from below. That done, he slithers down to them, nervously aware of the increasingly frequent groans and rattles of the building around them.

The minute John touches down, there are two hard, shivering little bodies buried so deep in his side, he’s pretty sure they’re mining for internal organs. “No time to be sappy now,” he says, though he gives them a couple of brief, hard hugs to confirm his reality. Bits of ceiling smack down on his head; he hunches his shoulders to shield the kids. “Angelo. Can you climb up?”

Angelo doesn’t answer in words. The sugar and water have energized the boy, and he glares at John in prepubescent offense. John pins out the slack with his foot. While Angelo climbs, he saws off some of the loops of extra rope for a shoulder strap harness to carry Mia. “Get outside,” he calls up, when the weight of Angelo’s body stops straining the rope. “Reilly’s coming. Guide him in.” 

Angelo’s head bobs in the dark circle of the hole, and then it disappears. The easiest way to get people out of danger is to give them a job to do. They fall for it every time.

Mia doesn’t like the harness. It hurts.

You know what else hurts? Having a 4-year-old screaming in your ear while you climb up a rope with muscles that don’t want to listen anymore.

She’s still wailing when he reaches the top and manages to get her off his back.

She’s still wailing when he picks her up in an attempt to comfort her, and realizes that the air is full of things that are falling down.

She’s still wailing when he runs for it, one last burst of adrenaline that gets his legs moving across boards that have had it up to here, thank you. The floor under John gives way, his foot punching through wood and filler until he’s buried to his knee. The ear-shattering thunder of something breaking catastrophically sounds overhead.

He freezes. His gaze shoots up. A man is standing a just by the entrance, open-armed, caught in the headlamp’s glare.

“Give her to me,” snaps Barsad.

John tosses Mia. He has just enough time to see her caught in those arms, Barsad smashing through the slats barricading the door in a headlong dive, before the building falls on John’s head and turns the world upside-down.


The air is clogged with dust, like mud in the back of his throat and nostrils. There’s a bit of light; his headlamp, he realizes blearily, knocked askew so it’s half-buried behind his ear. Everything hurts. Everything always hurts. God, he hates his life. 

“Oh good,” John mumbles through hacking coughs and stinging eyes. “Buried alive.” Brick is hard. Why is he not dead?

“Yes,” says a voice by his ear. It is incongruously cheerful. “But not buried alone.”

What the fuck. Slowly, John becomes aware that the pressure on his chest is warm and solid; while there is the feeling of mass just above his face, there is also the faint, regular draft of a breeze, in and out; that the beam wedged between his legs is massive, but lacks sharp edges. It’s a ... thigh?

“Bane?” he wheezes incredulously.

“Hello again, John Blake,” says Bane.


“You’re lying on top of me,” John says after he’s done choking up what remains of his lungs. “Should I be asking about your intentions?”

“The building was falling on you.”

“I noticed that.”

He feels rather than sees Bane’s shrug, the barest adjustment in the weight lightly pressing on his chest. Bane is braced above him on powerful arms, propped up on his elbows and a shelf of brick to avoid completely crushing him. Even as it is, he’s damned heavy. “It seemed wasteful to allow you to be crushed, when I have been to the trouble of training you,” Bane says.

“You’ve only been training me two weeks.”

“Almost three.”

“And you were planning on killing me eventually anyway.”

“Why do you think that?”

“You said Bruce owed you a life.”

“True.”

John clears his throat. “Well, then.”

Bane chuckles, the sound a dull roar in the small space. He shifts awkwardly; the thigh between John’s legs is a heavy weight against his dick. It begins to move rhythmically, grinding in, relaxing, grinding in--

John chokes. If he’d needed proof he wasn’t dead, he just got it. “What are you doing?” he demands in strangled tones.

Bane stops moving, thank God. The bristling mask turns towards John; he thinks he can hear surprise in Bane’s reply. “My foot is trapped. If I release it, I may be able to free us.”

“How--” But he can see as soon as Bane says it, the way that the rubble above them looks like it’s balanced on Bane’s shoulders. “Shit. Is that all resting on you?”

“No.” 

“Good.”

“Only some of it.”

The thigh starts rubbing him again. John grits his teeth. “Does it hurt?”

“The building?”

“Your-- foot, I mean.” Because if it doesn’t hurt, Bane can just stop rocking and they can wait for someone to dig them out.

“Yes.”

“Oh.” Two-letter word for fuck.

Bane falls silent, still gently pressing, releasing, pressing, releasing. John feels fresh sweat break out on his forehead as the steady friction heightens something really inconvenient in his pants. He’s almost half-hard already, which is surprising considering how tired he is; but then, he hasn’t had sex since that unexpected afternoon with Bruce, right after he’d promised himself he wasn’t going to be having any more sex with him, so ... yay? Or boo?

It’s Bruce’s fault, for conditioning him to equate adrenaline with sex. Damn Bruce. Damn Bane.

“So!” he says with false cheer. “Let’s have a conversa--” Bane shifts, his thigh pressing up and twisting. A jolt of electricity fizzes through John’s blood. “--sation,” he stutters, digging his fingers into brick. “Someone’ll be getting us out, right? I saw Barsad get out.”

“He will summon others to help dig,” Bane says in a growly, distracted voice. The pressure against John’s dick is getting painful in a fuck, really good way, planted in a way where the surge of his own blood makes things throb and ache. 

“Others?”

“Of my men.”

“I didn’t know there were any left,” John says, as casually as he can. This is information Gordon needs. “How many are there?”

A small sound of amusement; there really wasn’t any chance Bane wouldn’t know what he was doing. “Some few. Barsad will show them where to look.”

“I called Father Reilly,” John says, wielding the spectre of the priest as a mental prophylactic just as Bane relaxes and renews his patient efforts to free his leg. “I told him where I was. He’ll probably be bringing volunteers or emergency services.”

“It would be inconvenient if they saw my face. There would be a great many questions.”

“Not least of them being, ‘why is Bane protecting the ex-cop?’ Because that’s a good one.”

“Are you asking it?”

“If you’re offering answers...?”

“You are my student,” Bane says mildly. “It is my place to protect you.”

John bites back something tactless, like, “That’s what Bruce said!” and instead goes for, “I hope I’m not bruising you or anything.”

“You make a satisfactory pillow.”

“That’s nice. Pillow. Something you lie on and flu--”  He breaks off mid-word. Decides not to go there. 

Bane grunts, his head lowering to touch John’s as he looks down their bodies. His hips shift, pulling; then he subsides, taking up the steady rhythm again. John’s definitely hard. Every determined jerk of Bane’s leg is making tingly white spicules race down his nerves. Without thinking, he lets go of brick and plaster, reaching up to grab shirt and leather. Bane glances at him, curiosity visible in the half-light. 

“Am I hurting you?”

“Not ... exactly,” John manages. “Mind stopping that for a couple of minutes?”

Bane pauses with his thigh still wedged deep against John. The small twist it causes is enough to make John bite his lip. Intent eyes study his face. Thankfully, Bane doesn’t start up again, though the constant pressure is almost as bad. A slow, thrumming riptide of pleasure is stirring under John’s skin; he forces himself to let Bane go.

“Thanks.” His heartbeat is quicker than it was, but not too bad. This close, there’s no way to hide his breathlessness from Bane, but it could be from other reasons. Of course, this close, there’s also no way to hide his hard-on from Bane either, but John decides to be a man, and go with denial. 

“It was foolish, to risk your safety over the children.” Bane says after a long, quiet moment.

“No joke. Then again, you risked yours over me, so I can’t say you’ve got much of a leg to stand on.” John pushes away the ache in his groin to grope for the phone in his pocket instead. His fingers brush across warm, bare skin; above him, a tiny reaction shivers through Bane and is translated between their bodies into John’s own.

“A different matter altogether.”

“Can’t argue that. We’re adults. Taking care of kids is our responsibility. Crap, my phone is toast. You have one I can borrow?”

Bane ignores the question. “You think your age creates an obligation between yourself and children you have no blood tie to?” 

John shrugs. “Ability does. Willingness.”

“And what if the one you choose to protect does not deserve the protection?”

“We’re not still talking about the kids, are we?”

“Children grow.”

“So do regular people. They do it all the time. Look at me. A year ago, I didn’t know how to do an iriminage.

“You still do not.”

“Christ. Everyone’s a critic.” And oh look, or rather, don’t look. His erection is slowly subsiding. Keep talking, Bane.

The acquisition of knowledge is not the same thing as growth.”

“I don’t know. A little knowledge can be a life-changing thing. A year ago, I was a cop who thought I could work in a system to help people. Now, I’m an ex-cop that thinks I can help people more if I’m not inside the system. Some people might not call that progress, but it’s change, anyway.”

Bane regards him for a long, unblinking minute. What’s visible of his face is completely unreadable. “You are still the same.”

“How do you figure?”

“You are still naive enough to think people deserve protection.”

John can’t argue that one, though he would challenge the assumption that he is the same. He doesn’t feel the same. The John of a year ago feels like a completely different person than the one he is today -- but he lacks the vocabulary, and he’s never been the kind of navel gazer to work out why.

While he’s picking through the feeling, trying to fish out reasons, Bane makes a frustrated sound and starts working at his foot again. The short pause did a bit to reverse the tide of heat building in John’s gut, but at the first rocking pressure against his groin, it comes leaping back again, stronger than before. He just barely manages not whimper. Bane seems too distracted to notice, frowning back down where a view of his foot is blocked by their bodies. 

There’s something about the look in Bane’s face that reminds John about how some animals will chew through their own legs to escape a trap. With a population the size of Gotham’s, every beat cop has had to deal with a case of animal cruelty or accident, in some form or another. John is no exception. Inconvenient boners aside, he doesn’t have it in him to tell Bane to stop. Calming thoughts, that’s the ticket. 

Unfortunately, he’s too tired to control his brain. This is why, instead of practicing libido-killing techniques, he finds himself thinking about Bruce. Bruce, and the astonishment of fucking him; the line of his throat bared and open, the strange mixture of vulnerability and control. John had never had penetrative sex with a guy. It ... wasn’t as unpleasant as he’d thought it would be. In fact, it was insanely good. Then again, he was on top, for a given value of ‘top.’ What would it be like, to be fucked open by Bruce?

He doesn’t realize he’s made a sound until he hears his own moan. John dizzily comes back to himself to find that he’s panting, his entire body clenched in need. Oh, fuck

Bane is watching him thoughtfully, and even as John blinks back up at him, the rhythm of that torturing thigh changes. Faster. Sharper. John bucks into it before he can stop himself, fingers scrabbling again before closing white-knuckled on his jeans. 

Well, this is awkward.

“Are you in discomfort?” Bane asks.

“How close are you?” John asks raggedly.

Pause. “Very.”

Well hurry up then, because so am I, John doesn’t say. Instead, he closes his eyes, consigns his fate to a higher power, and thinks about 10th grade trigonometry.

It’s difficult, when his dominant thought right now is the image of Bruce fucking him. And, because John’s mind apparently has ambitions towards catastrophic self-destruction, it suddenly wonders what would it be like if Bane fucked him? Another sound is wrenched out of him at the thought, and it’s so broken and desperate, his entire body blushes with embarrassment.

Insofar as place and time goes, there were probably better occasions to: (1) realize he might be ready to try being a bottom; (2) discover he might be attracted to Bane.

He can hear the scrape of wood settling. Broad, warm fingers touch John’s face, tracing the line of his cheekbone and jaw. Fires burn in their wake. “Open your eyes,” Bane murmurs, more command than request.

He opens them despite himself, and meets Bane’s gaze. It is unbearably intimate, unnervingly raw. He expects to see amusement or contempt, maybe scorn, possibly anger. Instead, he sees desire.

It’s the most terrifying thing he’s ever seen.

There is no shame,” Bane says tenderly. Fingers touch his mouth, rasping across his chapped lips. Without thinking, John opens his mouth; Bane’s thumb slides in, warm and broad. It tastes like dirt and then simple, uncomplicated skin. “It would please me if I could do this for you.”

It is the strangest, hottest thing John has heard in days. It’s a horrible idea. It’s a disastrous idea. He’s goddamned Nightwing, for Chrissake, and this is Bane. He’s in a -- something with Bruce, and this is Bane. He’s a good man, and this is Bane.

Under any circumstances whatsoever, this is Bane.

John gasps, “Oh, fuck it--” and arches up into him.

It takes less than a minute. John shudders against the fast, hard drives of Bane’s leg, rutting like a dog in heat against that brutal pressure. He comes in his pants like he hasn’t since he was 17, choking back a cry that’s one part shame, two parts shattering orgasm.

And Bane holds him. Holds him almost like Bruce did, with the same possessive care, shifting one supporting elbow to slide a hand behind his head and cradle him close while he trembles and blinks wet eyes. Just like he did with Bruce, John feels safe. Warm. Cherished. An argumentative corner of his mind points out that there is something seriously wrong with him, that Bane can make him feel that way. It gets beaten into silence by sheer exhaustion.

“Your foot,” John gasps, when the stars have faded to darkness in his vision, and he can hear more than the thunder of his own heart.

“Free.”

“When?”

Fingers caress his lips again, feeling the short, quiet tremors of his recovery. “For some time.”

“Bastard,” John says drowsily through Bane’s fingers. The accusation lacks bite. Too tired, don’t care. Blackness is spinning up to meet him, a vortex around the glitter of interested eyes. 

“Your kindness is a weakness.”

“Took advantage.”

 “Do you regret it?”

It’s a good question. He’ll answer it later. For now, worn out beyond thought, he falls asleep.

 

 

Chapter Text

“The thing to concentrate on here,” John says earnestly, “is that most of a building fell on my head and almost crushed two adorable, completely adoptable orphan children, but -- and this is key -- nobody was seriously hurt.”

The way Bruce looks isn’t exactly what John would call promising. 

“You’re not concentrating.”

“Sorry,” Bruce says without any attempt at sincerity whatsoever. “I’m still caught up on the whole, ‘had sex with Bane’ part.”

It's the morning after in more ways than one, and John is having one of the more uncomfortable conversations of his life with Bruce in the Batcave. There really aren't many ways to say, "I sort of slept with your archenemy," to your childhood hero-cum-sort-of-boyfriend without coming off looking like a complete jackass.

“It isn’t technically sex if there wasn’t any naked body contact.”

Bruce says, “I once dated John Barrowman for six weeks,” which seems like a non sequitur until he concludes with, “there’s actually a lot of stuff you can do with your clothes on that would get you a life sentence in Singapore.”

This seems like something John might want to pursue at a later date with Bruce, except that, oh, right, he’s in the doghouse because he sort of had kind-of-not-really sex with Bane. “There was probably a concussion involved,” he says weakly.

“Probably?”

“A building fell on my head. I don’t think I should be held accountable for any problematic decisions I might or might not have made in a moment of crisis.”

“You’ll understand why that worries me a little,” Bruce says, with a preemptively offensive civility that reminds John yet again that he was raised by the ancient British guy upstairs who eats baby seals and live ammunition for tea. “Concussions and critical decision making is part of the job description for Nightwing. I don’t know if I feel comfortable about letting you out at night if you’re going to go up against someone like the Joker, say, and end up letting him give you a blowjob in a moment of existential hysteria.”

John thinks about being annoyed at that, decides he doesn’t have a leg to stand on, and fingers the bandages on his head in a truly pathetic way. Then he lies down again on the floor of the cave because that’s just easier than falling on it. Also, he’s pretty sure Bruce has done something spiteful to the gravity. Sometimes you just need solid rock at your back. “This conversation is going a lot better than I’d hoped,” he remarks up at the floodlights. “I was thinking there’d be a lot more yelling.”

“I’m working my up to that,” Bruce tells him nicely. “I like to build up a rhythm.”

John closes his eyes and wishes he’d remembered to bring his earplugs.

He hurts. He hurts a lot. There are training hurts, saving Gotham hurts, rescuing small children hurts, and having a building fall on his head hurts. There are also, fortunately, being dug out of debris hurts, for which he owes Bane’s men a word of thanks; he was mostly unconscious when that happened, coming to himself when someone faceless handed him off to eager arms, the incoherent gratitude of Father Reilly, and the high-pitched excitement of Mia and Angelo. By some miracle, the worst thing the paramedics found was a laceration on his arm that needed a couple of stitches, but the collection of bruises and scrapes he’s sporting today would have social workers reaching for domestic violence pamphlets and police reports. 

Where Bane went to, he has no idea. Since nobody has tried to arrest John under the Patriot Act yet, he assumes the man got away without being seen. It’s baffling how a man can be 9 feet tall, 6 feet wide and wear a goddamn bull bar over his face, but still be as stealthy as head lice.

When no shouting seems to be forthcoming, John says, “It was consensual. I mean, it was opportunistic, but it wasn’t like he forced me. Took advantage of the situation, maybe, but I definitely agreed.” 

This is not exactly strengthening his position, but John feels the obscure need to be fair to Bane. Why, he has no idea, but like the man said, kindness is his kryptonite. (Along with faith in humanity, small children, and an ongoing inability to clear his corners.)  

“Okay,” Bruce says. 

“This is going to sound stupid, but I really wish it hadn’t happened.”

“Imagine.”

“It was like a car accident, really. Except with my dick.”

“And Bane.”

There’s such an odd note in Bruce’s voice that John opens his eyes, painfully turning his head to study him. Bruce is simply sitting on the task chair, deceptively relaxed, his face so cold and remote that John feels his chest hollow out, like he’s thrown away something he didn’t realize he needed. “You don’t seem surprised.”

“I’m surprised,” Bruce reassures, and raises his eyebrows to show how surprised he is. It’s actually convincing, which is also a surprise. “But not really,” he tacks on as a slow afterthought. “I should have seen it coming.”

John isn’t quite sure what to make of this. “If you had, it might’ve warned me in advance. How the hell should you have seen it coming? Is this one of those League of Shadows things? Buy training with one ninja, get gay sex and a toaster for free?” His eyes narrow in sudden suspicion on Bruce; he rolls up with a few muffled curses, creaking to miserable ball of pain on the floor. “Is that why we--?”

“No, nothing like that,” Bruce interrupts, his mouth twitching into a humorless smile. “It’s just that you and Talia al Ghul are similar physical types. And come to think of it, you and Rachel-- It makes sense.”

Rachel? “Except Talia al Ghul and Rachel are-- were? women.”

Bruce’s eyes close briefly. “Small, dark-haired, passionate....”

“And I’m still, you know,” important to emphasize, lest the point be lost, “male. Who are you calling small?”

Bruce says nothing, his expression distant, and John sighs, letting his head drop into his hands because it’s just too damn heavy to hold up with this itty bitty pencil neck that evolution thought would be a good idea. Fucking evolution. What a crock. “Anything else we have in common that I should be aware of? I want to be prepared if Bane shows up in my bedroom fixated on my, I don’t know, perfectly symmetrical boobs or something.”

There’s a creak and the thin whine of metal. Bruce standing; the task chair spinning. “Dead,” he says flatly. “They’re dead.”

“I’m not dead,” John mumbles into his hands, and digs the balls of his palms into his eyes.

He doesn’t get a reply. When he lifts his head again, blinking away ghost negatives of supernovas, Bruce is gone.


 

John has a whole speech he prepares in the car ride back to his apartment. It’s a long speech and a complicated one, so he drives like an old person down Waverly and up the 115, puttering along at exactly 5 miles under the speed limit. It riles the drivers around him to the kind of incontinent fury that Gothamites usually reserve for sanitation strikes and Christmas shopping; he gets more middle fingers and f-bombs in five minutes than most Quentin Tarantino films manage in two hours with DVD director commentary. 

It’s vaguely cathartic.

He still feels like a complete tool by the time he finds dubiously legal parking in front of his apartment, but at least he has a reasonable Talk outlined with Bane, reasons 1 through 30 why what happened the night before was a bad idea; why it will never happen again; that it isn’t Bane, it’s John (except really it’s mostly Bane because honestly, he’s a murdering asshole, albeit one with some great personal qualities, but still. Murdering asshole.) Someday a really nice woman will come along, hopefully less psychotic than Talia All I Want For Christmas is Hiroshima al Ghul, who will love him for who he really is. Or maybe just fuck him, whatever floats his boat. But John and he, they’re strictly platonic from now on.

For some reason, he can’t quite erase the look on Bruce’s face from his mind. Or the way Bane had said he’d be pleased if he could rub John off. Grimly resigned to feeling like a dick for the foreseeable future, John pries himself out of the car and leans against it, waiting to be kidnapped.

Nobody kidnaps him.

It’s a little disconcerting.

After about half an hour, he gives up and limps slowly back to his apartment, pausing every few steps in case Bane or Barsad wants to appear out of nowhere and snatch him off the sidewalk. Neither of them do.

Nobody kidnaps him on the steps of the building, or in the lobby, which is papered with more rent hike malice. Several of the other tenants have already moved out, the names on their mailboxes scribbled out with triumphant black pen. John is too tired for the stairs, so he takes the elevator up to his floor. Nobody kidnaps him there, either. As a last ditch effort, he walks straight into his apartment without even bothering to check whether his early alert system has been triggered.

Nothing happens.

In fact, nothing happens for the rest of the day. He calls Bruce five times and gets no answer; waits on shadowy street corners under fire escapes so Barsad can drop on his head, without any luck.

The feeling of being an asshole deepens into a crushing, two ton weight of guilt and worry: whether he’s done something Bruce can’t forgive; whether Bane was seriously hurt saving his life. 

At 2 AM, Sister Benedict sends him some common sense in reply to a rambling and embarrassingly self-pitying email about what a horrible person he is. She writes some stuff about how he has the brains of a platypus and the emotional maturity of a can of dog food. Actually, there’s a lot of that, including some completely gratuitous reminders about past would-be girlfriends he hadn’t really treated very well. The meat of the email though, is this:

1. Grammar is not your bitch. 

2. You know what’s always good when you’ve done stupid shit, hurt people you care about, and can’t do anything to fix it? Help someone else. Because you might still be a shithead, but at least that way you’re not being a useless shithead.

John smiles for the first time all day. In the night-dark, dank hole of his apartment, he types out a reply. You have a filthy mouth for an old broad. 

Two minutes later, he gets back, I love you too.


 

The next morning, he’s a barely walking bruise. Feeling vindicated, like the excruciating agony he’s feeling is karmic punishment for being a dick to two people -- well, one officially dead person and one crazed terrorist -- who’ve done nothing but help him in the past few months, he calls Bruce. Nobody picks up, so he leaves a groveling message, takes a punishingly cold shower, then drags his limping, crippled ass out to help the third mentor (Gordon) that he’s well on his way to disappointing.

Matthew Belize, age 7. Student at PS-12. Only child. Likes softball, soccer, and Tom Bridges, age 7, his best friend two doors over. Disappeared shortly after the Occupation started. Mother killed breaking curfew to search for him. 

The first few days with the list, John and the older kids at St. Swithin started skating through the names as fast as they could, knocking off the easy ones to winnow it down. Most of the names were simply misplaced in the records systems, old missing reports filed by schools or daycares that were never redacted. The public schools, paranoid and pathologically hostile about releasing information, demanded a note -- a fucking note, like they were asking to be excused from gym class for having a delicate tummy -- from Gordon before they would sit down to work through their attendance records and cross-check them against John’s list. 

A good two thousand kids were knocked down that way, but it took weeks. The St. Swithin crew is still working on the low-hanging fruit, calling on private schools now. John, though, has moved onto the hard ones. The ones who left town. The ones who don’t have ties.

Kids like Matthew Belize, who are actually missing.

John spends his morning doing legwork on Matthew, before picking up a package of 25 cent instant ramen and a 12 cent egg at a bodega. He doesn’t get kidnapped up by Barsad or Bane on his way back home, but he does come across Mr. Li in the building foyer. The little man is having an argument with two larger guys who look like hired muscle, and not the kind that’s just for show, either. 

Eastern Europeans, John decides. He steps into the building just in time to hear Mr. Li say with dignified outrage, “This is my home, and I have a legal--” when one of the guys, blond and riddled with acne scars, lifts a massive hand to shove Li into the wall.

Forgetting that he’s currently living on the intersection of Crippling Pain and Emotional Dumbfuckery, John hurtles across the foyer, snags Blondie’s hand by the thumb, and twists hard. Blondie drops to his knees with an indignant whine. Mr. Li’s eyes open wide on the backend of a flinch. Blondie’s friend, whose head is as polished as Bane’s except without the extra serving of metallic menace on the side, gapes at John for a second. Then he tries to stab him.

Cueball doesn’t seem malicious about it -- the whole attempted murder thing is obviously more for the principle of the thing, really -- but John reacts the way Bane and Bruce taught him. Annihilation, with extreme prejudice. “I should really buy them gift baskets or something,” John realizes a few busy, frenetic minutes later, staring down at the groaning men sprawled on the floor.

“Who?” Mr. Li asks, a little pale. “Them?”

“No. Ba-- my PT coaches.” 

“I miss the days when people resolved their differences with litigation,” Mr. Li says sadly.

“What did they want? Are they loan sharks?” John narrows his eyes suspiciously at him. “Do you work for the Tong? Did I just get involved in some kind of organized crime war?”

“That’s racist.” Mr. Li frowns at John, frowns at the goons on the floor, then frowns at the mailboxes for good measure. “Just because I’m Asian doesn’t mean I’m a member of the Tong. I’m in the PTA, for God’s sake.”

“As far as I’m concerned, that’s just a scarier gang.”

Mr. Li sniffs. “I suppose you think I know martial arts, play violin, and am really good at math, too.”

There’s really no way to win here, since Mr. Li joins the group doing t’ai chi in the park every weekend, has been known to practice violin at 2 AM, and does the taxes for most of the tenants every year. John is screwed no matter what he says. “You’re dealing really well with sudden violence.”

“PTA,” Mr. Li reminds. His face clouds. “My wife is talking about volunteering for the Girl Scouts.”

Tactfully, John changes the subject. “What did they want?”

“Rent. They say the landlord didn’t get my check. Which isn’t true, because it was cashed last week.”

John pokes one of the guys in the ass with his foot, and is rewarded with a muzzy obscenity. “Better call the police,” he suggests, propping himself up against the wall since, now that the adrenaline is gone, his status as functional cripple is catching up to him. Mr. Li obligingly ducks into his apartment, calling something in Cantonese. John reminds himself that he needs to get a new phone, and wonders drearily what new economies he can afford to make to save up for one.

Unsurprisingly, Cueball has a warrant out on him. Blondie gets arrested purely on principle, because the GPD is automatically hostile towards Eastern European muscle these days, what with the Dzubenko thing. The cops who show up to the call also happen to be buddies of John’s, and they’re not inclined to do any favors for people who attacked a guy they play pick-up basketball with.

“Did you do that?” Martin asks, interested in the puffiness of Blondie’s hand. 

“Mr. Li did,” John hisses. “He knows martial arts. You know. Chinese.”

Mr. Li, standing nearby, develops a noticeable tick. He doesn’t deny responsibility, though he levels a look at John that promises that they will be having words about this later. 

John is always rescuing the most ungrateful people. It’d be demoralizing, if it wasn’t so endearing. Gothamites are the kind of people who will give their last penny to keep a stranger from starving to death, then bitch endlessly about the crispness of the bills when they’re repaid. John loves Gothamites, in a deeply masochistic way. That’s really the only way you could.

“Nice job, Mr. Li,” Martin says buoyantly, helping his partner haul away the goons in cuffs like a pair of soggy bookends. “Later, Blake. Hey, you hear how Dzubenko escaped the Feebs again? Crazy thing, right?”

“Oh good,” says John, left behind. “Great. Fantastic. Fuck.”

Bruce is still not answering his phone. John eats a barely adequate lunch of ramen and boiled egg, then heads out on Matthew’s trail once more.


 

A week passes.

According to the news, Dzubenko’s escape from federal custody was the splashy kind that’s like chum in the water for the media and fundraising senators. Gordon, long since discharged from Gotham General, tells John that they think Dzubenko headed straight for Europe after gaining his liberty.

“What I don’t get is what you did to piss him off so much to begin with,” John says, drinking late-night Irish Coffee with Gordon in his office. The Commissioner still looks like proverbial shit, though it’s less because of bruising -- most of which has faded to the barest greenish yellow smears across his face -- than because of chronic, bone-deep exhaustion. 

“I can be irritating,” Gordon says.

“It’s practically a religious calling for you--”

“You realize you’re the pot in this narrative.”

“--but irritating enough to go to jail for? He could’ve run for it before he got caught last time, and saved himself the trouble. Instead, he stuck around to try to kill you.”

Gordon looks smug. 

“It’s the old story, I suppose. You’re a cop, he’s a criminal. Yours was a love not meant to be.” 

“It’s got more to do with Dzubenko than it does with me,” Gordon says, sinking back in his chair to smother a yawn. “He’s arrogant and used to officials who can be bribed or terrorized. I’m guessing he just took it personally when Gotham didn’t fold the way he was expecting.”

“You mean when you didn’t fold the way he was expecting.”

“He probably wasn’t expecting Batman to come back from the dead to save my ass. Or Nightwing.”

“You thought you were going to die,” John says sadly, because it’s fucking tragic how all sorts of horrible shit keeps happening to poor Gordon, who’s such a great guy. Everybody should love Gordon. John loves Gordon.

“He’s been sighted in France, so at least there’s that,” Gordon says. “He was starting to make the local operators really nervous. Not that I mind their cages being rattled, but I prefer to be the one rattling them.” The greying head lifts then, tired but shrewd eyes studying John. “Speaking of rattling cages -- are you and Batman having some kind of argument?”

John rests his face on Gordon’s desk. “He’s so mean,” he says miserably, and then Gordon is patting his head, demanding to know when he ate last, and exactly how much whiskey he put in his coffee.

Barring the occasional meetups with Gordon though, John is mostly at loose ends. Bane and Barsad have apparently disappeared off the face of the earth. Bruce has done the same thing, in his epically passive-aggressive way. Batman’s out in Gotham at night, making waves that ripple onto newspapers in the morning, but the cave is always empty. The first couple of days, there are small signs that Bruce has been there -- objects moved, different programs running on the computers -- but after the third day, even that stops. 

John gives up leaving awkward messages of the, “Um, I’m still sorry. Call me?” type on Bruce’s phone, and instead just starts leaving updates on his hunt for Matthew.

He’s starting to get obsessed with Matthew. He looks at the pictures of the Belize family before the boy disappeared, the three of them smiling and soaked in happiness, and he feels a tremor of anger so old, it’s built into his DNA. His apartment is overflowing with notes, so he’s appropriated a wall of the Batcave to hold his post-its, maps, and photos. The Batcave computers have sophisticated software that could manage this information for him, but John’s always been a tactile guy; he prefers to have his data spread out on a larger canvas than a computer monitor so he can feel it as well as see it, hold it in his hands to weigh their importance.

“The worst is not knowing,” Mr. Belize says on John’s third visit with questions, his face so bleak and weighed down by grief, he looks like he’s been eaten alive from the inside out. “There are so many things that could be happening to him right now, and I’m not there to save him. He’s my son. He must be so scared.”

John dreams about the conversation for two nights in a row, feeling the razor edge of fear in the dream because he knows better than most what can happen to vulnerable kids. He wakes with the frantic certainty that he is working against the clock, racing some countdown that’s winding down to a terminal end.

“I’m running out of leads,” John tells Bruce’s unresponsive voicemail on Thursday night, slurring with fatigue and an anger that just won’t quit. “I know the mafia is important, but so is this, damn you. Help me. I’m giving myself until the end of next week, and then I’ll have to move onto the next one. That’s not enough time, but there are so many kids,” he says in despair. “He’s seven years old and he has two parents who loved him so much, one of them died for him, and the other one is barely functional. How cliched is that? Seriously? Because I have no fucking idea. No fucking idea at all.”

Bruce doesn’t call back.


 

Three days later, John finds Matthew.

The trail is complicated and tangled, and it’s pure chance that he finds it at all. It’s his St. Swithin assistants that give him the lead, an offhand comment about another kid in Matthew’s school who disappeared a couple of years ago. On the off chance that there’s a connection, John asks Gordon and gets a look at the case file. A few hours later, cursing himself for his own lack of tech savvy, he’s in the Batcave and wrestling desperately with software that’s so out of his league, he might as well be a fucking pygmy koala. 

One frantic call to Lucius Fox later, he’s staring at a map on which the pinprick lights of missing children Matthew’s age are scattered like a starfish’s arms around a newly gentrified neighborhood.

He’s too late. He’s too late by months, which somehow doesn’t make it better. The small remains he unearths behind a foreclosed brownstone on Wade Street smell like dirt and grass, and he digs down just far enough to make sure it really is Matthew -- the blue and white striped shirt he was wearing the day he disappeared is brown from decomp, but still recognizable -- before he retreats to the decrepit porch to put his head in his hands and breathe in the taste of bitter failure.

His first call should have been to 911. Instead, his eyes still closed, throat raw, he discovers himself numbly detailing what he’s found into Bruce’s voicemail, dialed out of habit rather than thought. He realizes halfway through, when the operator doesn’t prompt him for more information; the twinge of embarrassment doesn’t even register against the numbing weight that’s bowing down his shoulders, so he just thumbs the line off and lets the phone drop into the grass.

Time passes. There’s the sound of street traffic not far away, and someone’s got a dog that just won’t shut up. At some point, he lifts his head, blinking at the sunlight that’s like broken glass in eyes that have been closed for what feels like hours, and discovers Bane is sitting on the porch next to him.

John turns his head to stare at him. Bane is watching him without comment, and John has no idea how long he’s been sitting there, keeping him silent company. Or why, for that matter.

“I thought you were hurt,” John says, his voice hoarse like he’s been crying. (He hasn’t been.)

“No,” Bane says simply.

“Oh,” John says. That’s all he’s got, because he catches sight of what’s left of Matthew and is hit again by what a fucking failure he is. 

Bane says nothing for a long time, just sits there. John is oddly comforted by his presence. Not that ‘restful’ is the most obvious description for the guy, but Bane kind of is. He fills the space he occupies without fuss or unnecessary posturing; there’s usually theater, yeah, but the impact of his presence is so big even without the drama that when he goes still and silent, it’s like you’re leaning against a skyscraper, like a goddamn mountain has got your back. The proximal heat of him is so strong, it almost makes John sweat; but that’s still better than the cold that’s got its claws hooked into his heart, so he just basks in it without moving.

Eventually, John says, “I should call this in.”

Bane says nothing.

“How did you find me?”

“I always know where you are,” Bane says. It should seem creepy and stalkery, but the way Bane says it, like it’s a simple statement of fact, lacks the snarl of threat. 

“Comforting.” 

There’s a silence that’s oddly hesitant, from someone like Bane. Then: “My men did not do this.”

John responds to what sounds like a request for reassurance, even though he knows it isn’t. “No. I know.”

“You know who did.

“I’m not sure yet, but it’s the cops’ responsibility now.” John folds his mouth closed around bile and feeds his fingers through his hair, feeling the weight of all those missing kids. Pictures how Gordon will look at the discovery of a pattern they’d missed for years now, it must have been years. “Fuck,” he says helplessly.

“You can give the boy’s family peace, at least.”

“Because that’s what every parent wants to hear. ‘Hey, but at least now you know your only child is dead.’”

“There are worse things. Hope is the cruelest torture man can experience.”

“One of these days,” John says tiredly, “you and I are going to have to talk about what made you such a glass half-empty person.”

Bane’s eyes glimmer at John, and a warm, heavy hand settles on his back. He has to stop himself from melting into it, leaning into Bane to rest his head on Bane’s shoulder. “It was not your doing, John Blake.”

“I know, but.” But. “Fuck,” he says into his hands again.

“You bear more on your shoulders than Gotham deserves.”

John bites back a bitter reply and straightens, pulling away from Bane’s hand. “I have to call this in.”

“Then call.”

“You should be gone before they come.”

Bane doesn’t say anything, but he stays and listens while John calls it in, the vocabulary and rhythm of a cop coming back to him as he lays out the situation for the dispatcher. And he sits with John for the thirty-five minutes -- no rush, when it’s not life and death, just Death flat and simple -- it takes for the sirens to drift closer. 

By the time the first uniform arrives on scene, Bane is gone without a word. 


 

The first on scene aren’t cops that John know personally, and neither are the detectives that breeze in a little while later, but they all know about John. Apparently, he’s got a rep.

“The Commissioner told us you were chasing down the list,” Detective Warren tells John, her hands in her pockets as she watches the forensic teams set up to start digging down. Her eyes have bags under them that could give Gordon’s a run for their money. “Did you want to come with us to talk to the father?”

John thinks of Mr. Belize and the empty, depressing brownstone he stays in just in case his son finds his way back home. “I’d rather shoot myself through the head,” he says frankly.

Warren just nods, and a few hours after that, John goes with her and her partner to ask Mr. Belize to identify the clothes they found with the body. It’s actually worse than John thought it would be. Afterwards, even Warren and her partner look wrecked. They pull over the car a few blocks away to share a cigarette between them.

“I would kill for a drink,” Detective Liang says, his face haggard in the rearview mirror.

“I’m buying,” Warren says.

A couple of hours after that, John drags himself into his apartment to find Bane sitting on the bed, waiting for him.

John’s not drunk, in the strictest sense of the word, but he’s definitely a couple of drinks away from acing a sobriety test. Since Warren was buying and on a diet, there was plenty of food to go with the alcohol, the detective looking on with vicarious satisfaction while John ate his first solid, deep fried meal all day.

John knows he gets a bit emotional when he’s got an empty stomach, but at least that’s not a problem anymore. And he’s got a comfortable buffer of booze between himself and the day’s fuckups. Given which, he should be able to face the prospect of Bane in his apartment with more equanimity than he’s apparently capable of.

Fuck. I’m not up to this right now,” he says raggedly, while Bane just regards him steadily over loosely clasped hands. 

Since he gets nothing in reply John stalks to the bathroom to take a quick, freezing shower before he can think about how vulnerable being naked and wet makes him. Halfway through, shampoo in his hair, it strikes him that Bane is just on the other side of the door. He tumbles out of the shower, barking his shin on the faucet, and dries himself in record time.

When he steps out of the bathroom with the towel wrapped around his waist, Bane is still waiting for him exactly where he was.

They stare at each other. “Look,” John says. “I have a speech.”

“Very well,” Bane says.

John blinks. “You’re on my bed.”

Bane moves over; there’s enough room on it for John, if he’s willing to curl up around Bane’s back.

John thinks about giving the speech, but he’s too tired to do it. Whatever Bane wants, he decides, it’ll just have to wait. His brain feels like yogurt parfait, the kind with the chunks of mushy banana in it, not too sweet; it hazily points out that Bane has seen him naked already after fishing him out of the bathtub that one time, and they’ve already had one-sided, fully-clothed sex, which in math is 1/2 + 1/2 = 1, so there’s no reason for modesty at this point in their fucked up relationship.

Snidely, a little voice observes that he’s always been crap at math, but he’s already moving towards the bed, too exhausted to care. Putting on pajamas would require too much of a detour from sweet, sweet sleep.

“No sex,” John mumbles, falling face down on the rumpled sheets and the concrete mattress. “Speech tomorrow.”

There’s a quiet chuckle next to him. Bane’s warm, and John is cold; his blankets are pretty inadequate at the best of times, but he’s actually too tired to get under them so, you know, shit. As long as he’s here, Bane can make himself useful. John wraps himself like a puppy around those thighs, shivering a little. A few seconds later, he feels something warm settle heavily on his back. 

It smells like Bane. His coat? Maybe. John burrows into sheepskin, breathes in a dull thought that internationally wanted terrorists must find dry cleaning a challenge, then slips away into blackness.


 

Sleep is nice.

Unfortunately, John’s is cut short when Batman breaks his bed. 

Fucker.

 

Chapter Text


 

If someone were to ask John if anything good came out of the half year that he was on the run with Gordon in their own damn city, he’d probably talk about how it was all crap, no showers, no medicine, psychopaths in the streets, the knife edge of terror. About how the only upside being that he had some personal epiphanies, the pivotal ones being: (1) abstinence sucks; and (2) guns are good.

That said, there were actually a few other good things that came out of that five month hiatus of bowel-loosening misery. For one thing, he learned how to go from sound asleep to wide awake at the drop of a hat, which is a good skill to have when Bane and Batman are having a fight in your 300 square foot apartment and one of them has just thrown the other one straight through your bed.

Stupidly, the first thing that occurs to John is that he should find some underpants.

The dark of the apartment is filled with thumps, crashes, the splintering sounds of wood being broken apart, and the sharp smash of John’s plates being reduced to component molecules. There’s enough light flooding in through the windows from the street lamps outside to see what’s going on, and it isn't pretty. John is never getting his security deposit back.

Assholes!” he shouts, as Bane smashes through John’s only table. The two chairs that go with it are already in pieces. John leaps to his feet, inhaling to yell some sanity into the situation, only to take an unexpected Batman to the chest. 

It’s like having an armadillo piano thrown at him. Plated armor. Flaily legs. Really fucking heavy. 

Bruce’s trajectory would have sent him straight through John’s cheap bedside table and into his lamp. Well, thank God John was there to break his fall. Agony and unadulterated rage whomp through him to replace all the air that’s squashed out by the collision. He lies on the floor for a second, uplifted by a clarity of vision that transcends the gross clay of the material world. He has a goddamn religious experience, is what he has.

Bruce and Bane are going to die. And he’s going to be the one to kill them.

He staggers to his feet, barely registering the silvery rain of shedding glass, and fishes under his pillow for the gun he keeps there. Safety off. Finger on trigger. He aims at one, then at the other, fury fizzing like pop rock candy on his tongue. Neither of the combatants seem to even register his presence, much less the fact that he’s armed and ready, so fucking ready, to go postal on their asses. In fact, the only reason he doesn’t shoot one of them through the head right then and there is that he’s not, uh, actually sure where they are. Double vision. World tipping sideways. Concussion? No, he decides: localized earthquake. That’s okay. He can totally work around this.

Head pounding, stars colliding in his peripheral vision, John shoots the refrigerator instead. There's nothing in it anyway.

The explosive gunshot is deafening in the close quarters. Miraculously, it actually gets through to Tweedledee and Tweedledum. They break apart to stare at him, apparently astonished to realize he’s in the room. “John,” Bruce grates, and takes a breath to say something else. John cuts him off.

“I am so done with this,” he snarls, aiming at one of Bruce’s two heads. “What are you? Fucking kindergarteners?!”

The two idiots gape at him, nonplussed. “John,” Bane says, so John aims at him instead. Bane’s eyebrows scrunch together. “Put down the weapon.

John is so pissed, he is actually shaking. Shaking. “I am so beyond talking to either of you right now. You trashed my apartment, you pricks. What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”

They look at each other. Then at John. Fighting,” Bruce says blankly, and Bane says in a dismissive way, “This does not concern you.”

“In my home!” John yells. “That was my fucking bed! I was sleeping in it! There are holes in the plaster! I live here!”

Bruce stares at John like he’s a crazy person with no grasp of priorities, while Bane looks around himself, suspicious, like he thinks the firewood now covering the floor is some crappy modern art installation and he’s judging John for having bad taste.

“Go back to sleep,” Bruce suggests in what he probably thinks is the voice of reason, and that’s it. That’s the last straw.

“Get the fuck out!” John shrieks. “Both of you! Now! Out! Out! Out! Out! Or I will blow your fucking heads off!”

Astonishingly, they go.

When they’re gone, John stands in the freezing cold of his apartment, all alone, his skin still stretched thin over a supernova of raw rage. Two of his windows no longer have panes, and he’s stark naked and barefoot in the middle of a room filled with broken glass. 

“Fuck!” he says savagely, putting the safety back on to toss the gun on the bed. “Fuck fuck fuck fuck--!” 

It’s not until he stoops to grab the forgotten towel that he notices the thin stream of blood trickling down his arm, feels the white-hot kaleidoscope of agony of his back. The mess beside the bed doesn’t contain anywhere near as much glass as it should, given the size of his bedside lamp.

John indulges in some primal scream therapy.

Then he gets some pants on.


 

It’s 2 AM and Mr. Li is sporting a shiner and blue flannel WALL-E pajamas when he opens the door. Behind him, his apartment is torn to shreds. It almost looks like Bruce and Bane did a dress-rehearsal here before moving up to the main event in John’s place. 

John leans on the doorframe, still tingling with anger, and peers at the mess. “What the hell happened to you?” he demands through the throb of pain.

“Visitors,” Li says sourly. “Someone wants us to move. My wife and kids are staying with some friends.”

John thinks about this. “Oh.” Considers volunteering to find Li’s visitors and jack their shit up. Decides proudly that he’s getting all gangsta. He’s hip, yo.

“You’re dripping blood on the floor.”

“Right,” John remembers. It’s possible that he has a concussion after all. Again. “Help me?”

Li and his mother settle him face-down on a shredded sofa, Grandma Li muttering the entire time in Chinese. They remove an alarming amount of glass from his back, cleaning and slapping on Band-Aids as they go, before Li calls a stop to the operation. “We need to take you to the hospital,” he says. “You’re going to need stitches, and there’s at least a few of these I’m not taking out without anesthetic.”

John, who is sweating and shivering and okay, maybe crying a little bit with pain because aspirin just isn't enough, stops chewing on a pillow long enough to make a pathetic sound of gratitude. 

Li takes him to Gotham General, driving like an OCD octogenarian the entire way because John is flat on his stomach in the backseat, bitching up a storm through the towel he’s biting down on.

“You swear like a merchant marine,” Li says severely, helping him stumble out of the car and catching him when he almost goes sprawling. “You’re never allowed to babysit my children.”

John whimpers. “Fuck you. You’re the best neighbor ever. I love you. Can I call you Gary? Is that your name?”

“White people,” Li sighs.

The ER is crowded even at this hour, but the triage nurse takes one look at John, blood and embedded chunks of glass and all, and bumps them to the front of the line. He lucks out; it’s only a half hour wait before they chivy him onto his stomach on a stretcher and wheel him into the back. There, a round-faced high-schooler who claims to be a doctor and bears an unnerving resemblance to one of John's favorite Muppets floods his back with local anesthetic before going to work with tweezers, tape, needles, and thread.

The clink, clink, clink of glass being dropped into a metal kidney dish is a pleasant counterpoint to Dr. Bunsen’s tactful questions.

“So you say you just ... fell. Onto a lamp,” he says for the fourth time.

“Damnedest thing,” John mumbles into the paper-covered plastic pillow.

“That’s quite a collection of bruises.”

“I fall a lot.”

“Some of these are older than others. Those are finger marks on your upper arms. About two weeks old, are they?”

“First rule of fight club.” John closes his eyes in an attempt to make the doctor think he’s asleep. He wants to marry this bed.

“I noticed in your chart that you were here a couple of months back because of another fall.”

Was he? Oh, right. The shower. “That was stupid. Tripped. Ran into the bathroom door." It sounds like a lie even to him, and that’s actually what happened.

“And you were just here again couple of weeks ago, weren’t you? According to your chart, anyway. We should find you some schwag for being a frequent flier.”

“There was this building-- it’s a long story,” John says hopelessly, and around another clink, Dr. Bunsen asks with grave sympathy, “Do you want to talk about it?”

“No?”

Clink. “I think it’s pretty clear what’s going on, John.”

There’s a certain march of inevitability that’s being played out here, so John sighs and just gives in. “I guess it is.”

“We have services that can help you,” Dr. Bunsen says, as earnest as the 15-year-old he looks like. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of. The important thing is to realize that if he really loved you, he wouldn’t be hurting you.”

John makes a choking sound into the bed. “I’m so scared,” he says in broken accents. “I keep going back to him. I can’t seem to help myself.”

He can actually feel Dr. Bunsen mantling protectively over him. “It’s okay, John,” he says soothingly. “There’s a wonderful woman here who can help you. She can show you how to get out of this. These things happen to men more often than people like to admit. It doesn’t mean you’re weak. It just means you have too much heart.”

“You don’t understand, Doctor.” John sobs. “He thinks he’s Batman.”

Thirty minutes and twenty-two stitches later, John skids into the waiting room clutching a handful of pamphlets and pills, and tips Li out of the chair he’s snoring in. “Quick,” he says. “We have to leave. Now.”

Li pops up, swaying and wild-eyed. “What the who? Why?”

“Psychiatrist at my six,” John hisses. “Run.


 

Li insists that John crash at his place for what’s left of the night, so John gratefully passes out on the sofa. He wakes up to a face full of old Grandma Li, who combines cherubic, rosy-cheeked wholesomeness with beady little eyes that lost their blink reflex back in the ‘40s. John has seen her shove pregnant women into traffic because they were between her and the bus. He finds her terrifying.

“You live veeeery complicated life,” she announces, and slaps his cheek. Then she smiles, which is actually scarier, because it’s all too easy to imagine her smiling that exact same smile while she oversees the dispensation of the damned with her overlord, Satan. “Go home.”

In the light of day, the apartment looks like a flophouse. Every step he takes crunches underfoot, glass or plastic or wood, and the broken windows combined with the wind tunnel that runs between this building and the next means the studio is a good 10 degrees colder than it actually is outside. He shoves around some of the debris with a broom, pops some pills to deal with general physical misery, then gives up to go find some breakfast.

The building manager is standing in the lobby, shouting at a stoic man in coveralls about a truck that’s double-parked in front of the building. John is about to pass them when he hears his name knitted into the deliveryman’s plodding monologue.

“Blake?” he says. “I’m John Blake. What’s the problem?”

You!” squawls Alexey, plucking at John's shirt. “You will get me killed!” 

Coverall guy -- Hank, the nametag embroidered on his coveralls reads -- chews on the inside of his mouth and gives John the once-over. “Got a delivery for you. You live in this dump? Madre de Dios, it’s like putting a $2000 stereo in a $400 car. No offense.”

The delivery, John discovers when he follows Hank out into the street, is an entire apartment’s worth of furniture. New bed with mattress. New bedstand. Lamps. Kitchen table. Chairs. Desk. Dresser. It’s over $30k in top of the line furnishings. Bruce must have gone back to the cave and spent the entire night internet shopping. It’s all black wood and steel fittings, and looks like it should come with a speedometer.

“We’ll haul away your old stuff too,” Hank says, standing outside the truck with his guys while John stands in the truck, staring at more money than he’s ever owned in his entire life.

“No thanks,” John says at last. “I’m refusing delivery.”

“You can’t refuse delivery,” Hank says. “It’s right here. It’s delivered.”

“Then I’m changing my mind. I’m not John Blake.”

Hank glares at him. “Yeah? Who are you, then?”

“The name’s Li,” John says. “You want the other John Blake. Little Asian dude. Apartment 110.”

He climbs down from the truck and makes good his escape while Hank and Alexey get into it again.

Breakfast is a free cup of coffee at the gas station, where Mike, the cashier, gives him a two-day old bagel for being such a pathetic shithead. Then he heads for the Batcave. 

Warren and Liang are waiting on John’s notes. He’s done a lot of the legwork for them, and even though they’ll be backtracking to verify his tracks, the work he’s done will accelerate their timetable. John stalks into the cave to find Bruce moping around the work area, dressed in a suit and tie. It’s the most formal John has seen him since he first came back from the dead, and it looks damn good. Thank God John is still too pissed at him to care.

Bruce straightens to watch while John makes a beeline for the wall, refusing to acknowledge Bruce’s presence because Sister Benedict is right about his fantastic emotional maturity. Unfortunately, it isn’t until he starts taking things down that he discovers he’s got a problem, because painkillers are all well and good, but he can’t actually raise his arms higher than his chest without pulling on stitches and ow, fucking ow.

Resigned to the fact he’s going to look like a twit in a few minutes when he has to stand on a chair to get the stuff at eye level, he tackles the lower half of the wall first.

A couple of minutes later, Bruce comes up silently beside him and begins taking down the stuff up top. 

“You’re hurt,” Bruce says.

“Not your problem,” John snaps back, killing the conversation. 

They clear half of the wall before Bruce tries again. “I was in Italy,” he says, sounding uncharacteristically diffident. 

John starts putting paperclips on bundles of related files. He doesn’t say anything.

“I flew out there a few days after you told me about Bane. I needed to tie up some loose ends and arrange a cover story to explain where Bruce Wayne has been the last year.”

Bruce hands John the papers he’s taken down so far. John takes them, still stonily silent, and squats down to start making piles on the floor.

“I know it’s been bothering you that I don’t have ties in Gotham besides Batman and Gordon.”

John notes the fact that Bruce doesn’t list his own name as one of those ‘ties in Gotham,’ and grimly adds that to the Reasons Bruce is a Fucker List. Still pissed at him. Really not hard to remember that.

“I came back as soon as I heard the message you left about finding Matthew,” Bruce says, and offers him another sheaf of papers. John reaches to take it, but this time Bruce won’t let go.

John looks up reluctantly to meet his gaze. Bruce looks worried. It’s like taking a hammer to the chest, and just like that, John sags, unable to hold onto anger anymore. “You could have called,” he says.

“I should have.” Bruce’s mouth twitches into an uncertain smile that takes years off his age. “I wanted to talk to you in person.”

“About what?”

“This.” Bruce lets go of the papers he’s holding. John adds them to a stack. “Looking for this boy, Matthew.”

John feels his face freeze. “What about it?”

Bruce sighs. “I’m sorry you found him.”

It’s not the most tactful thing to say, but John knows what he means. I’m sorry you were too late. The very fact that Bruce Wayne, who was born holding a champagne glass and RSVP card in his wee little hands, can be so awkward is a sign that he’s sincere, anyway. “At least it gave his father some peace,” John says, wincing because that was exactly what Bane said -- and Bane was wrong.

“I wanted to help, but I’m not sure I could have,” Bruce admits, running a hand through his hair before looking at his open palm as though baffled that it’s there. “Looking for missing children, that’s not something I -- we -- normally do. It’s not what Gordon or Gotham needs from me. Batman was always meant to do things that no one else could. To throw himself in the breach when nobody else was able to.”

“Suicidal grand gestures, you mean?”

“The mob. The League of Shadows. Joker, Bane--” Bruce pauses to meet John’s gaze, his hands idling. They’re beautiful hands, the small scars on them a history of Gotham’s transformation. “We’re symbols. We have to be larger than life in order to be worth fearing.”

John thinks about this for a moment, then says slowly, “You’ve always been sheltered, haven’t you? You’ve never really had to live in the real world.”

“I know the real world.”

“You were one of the ten richest people in the country. How much living in the real world could you have possibly done? In Gotham, working two jobs to make ends meet, depending on food stamps to make ends meet?”

This time it’s Bruce’s turn to stiffen. “I lived on the streets for a while,” he says lightly, but John shakes his head, because he knows this story, the seven years when Bruce prowled the prisons and alleys and learned to be Batman from Ra’s al Ghul.

“Grand gestures. You understand grand gestures because you live large. But normal people don’t live like that, Bruce. They’re not epic tragedies or heroes’ journeys. They keep going because of things that happen day to day, little wins that don’t mean much to anyone but them. Making criminals afraid of the dark is good -- I mean, I remember what it was like, before -- but there has to be more than that.  Grand gestures only happen once or twice a decade, but normal people have to live life every day.”

Bruce frowns, like John is speaking some foreign language that he doesn’t have the dictionary for. Probably lost Bruce at ‘normal people.’ "That didn't make any sense," he complains.

“It's something I'm still thinking out. Never mind,” John says, feeling unaccountably tender at Bruce’s lack of comprehension. “We can have this talk later. But either way, I’m going to keep looking for missing kids.”

“Okay.”

“And you’re going to help me.”

For a moment, Bruce’s face is unreadable. Then it softens. He squats down beside John and reaches up to press his palm against John’s cheek. “Okay,” he says. 

John turns his face into Bruce’s hand, warming himself against the callused fingers. “I’m sorry I slept with Bane.”

Bruce’s mouth twists, pained; his thumb slides across the thin skin just beneath John’s eye, in a caress that says more than words. “I understand why you did. I was never angry about that.”

“You were avoiding me.”

“I ran,” Bruce admits. “But it wasn’t because of Bane.”

“Because of me?”

“Because of the way the people I care for end up dead.” Bruce leans forward, his forehead bumping into John’s; his lips feel like velvet, drifting across John’s. They taste like lemon and tea. 

“I’m not planning on dying,” John says.

“Nobody does.”

“Next time, you could just tell me what you’re thinking instead of flying across the fucking Atlantic.”

“I’m not good at communicating,” Bruce admits, and John closes his eyes at the feeling of his voice buzzing against his mouth, contentment warming him for the first time in a while.

“So you show up in my apartment and destroy everything I own?” he asks, amused. “I suppose that’s one way to express yourself.”

“I got you replacements.”

“You can’t buy people.” John opens his eyes again to look into Bruce’s, too close not to see how lost the man is, years older than John but still years younger, a complicated, bewildering, endearing mix of innocence and cynicism. “Or apologies.”

After a minute, Bruce says, “I’ve never been good at apologies.”

“Yeah, I noticed that.”

“I’m not good at relationships either,” Bruce confesses seriously, like it’s a deep, dark secret he’s been hiding for years, instead of something he might as well have tattooed on his forehead because every halfway literate person on the entire planet knows this.

John can’t help but grin. “Oh, so you’re going to admit we have a relationship?” he asks wryly, then immediately feels bad because Bruce is actually trying, here.

“Oh,” Bruce says. “I meant--”

“Sorry. That came out wrong.”

“--Bane,” Bruce finishes, and then says with John, in unison, “What?”

“You’re in a relationship with Bane?” John asks incredulously, jerking away while Bruce asks, “You think we’re having a relationship?”

“Wow,” John marvels, watching Bruce’s stupid, idiotic eyes open wide with shock. “Fuck this,” and he leaves without the papers.


 

Someone tries to shoot him on his way back home.

His life. He can’t even.


 

It’s three days before he can stop being pissed off enough to go back home. He crashes with Gordon instead, who has a disturbingly comfortable couch, patiently changes his bandages, lends him clothes, and accepts John’s lies about his injuries and trashed apartment with tolerant skepticism. The Commissioner doesn’t pry or ask questions though, which John is grateful for, even while he’s surprised by it.

“Son,” says Gordon, “if there’s anything I’ve learned from having kids, it’s that sometimes I really don’t want to know.”

“Babs told me she thinks she’s going to grow up to like older men,” John says without thinking, and Gordon goes white, giving him a deeply reproachful look before retreating to his bedroom like a disgruntled turtle. 

Bruce and Bane leave him alone for the period, which is another relief, except where it’s also intensely annoying. Nobody tries to kill him in the three days he lives with Gordon, but then again, Gordon’s probably the best-guarded man in Gotham at the moment, what with the GPD’s howl of protective fury after the FBI admits Dzubenko might have been spotted at Gotham International Airport and might have slipped through through their fingers. John does some careful jogging around Gordon’s neighborhood and runs into more off-duty cops in two blocks than he did at the last GPD Family Picnic.

“Subtle,” he tells Detective Montoya, who he finds sitting on a car hood wearing jeans, an Evil Dead T-shirt, and a Glock. She’s eating donuts.

“I’m a Latino woman,” she says serenely, licking frosting off her thumb. “We don’t do subtle. We do nuclear meltdown and mutually assured destruction.”

“See, this is why I don’t date,” John says.

John’s back itches. Whoever tried to shoot him earlier got away; he was in no condition to run the shooter down anyway, but it leaves him uneasy and jumping at shadows. The itching is part scabs, part feeling like he’s got a target on his back, but he can’t scratch it either way.

It’s disconcerting to be targeted for being plain old John Blake, rather than Nightwing. Also, what the fuck. He’s a nice guy. Really. What the fuck.

On the fourth day, he goes home. “I think you’ve got enough bodyguards anyway. Besides, people’ll start to talk if I keep sleeping over,” he tells Gordon. It’s a stupid thing to say, and Gordon immediately makes him pay for it by putting a gentle hand on his shoulder to ask, his face concerned, “That reminds me, son. You and Bruce-- you’re using protection, right?”

John actually blushes like a fucking teenager, which tells Gordon everything he needs to know. “Well played, Master Jedi. Thanks for letting me crash on your couch,” he says, and runs for it.

There are more tenant names crossed out on the foyer mailboxes, but Li’s isn’t, and neither is John’s. He can hear movement in his apartment the second he steps out of the elevator onto his floor:  a muffled, rhythmic thumping and scraping. John is in no mood to be agreeable, which is how he ends up on the floor a few minutes later with Barsad standing over him, pointing his own gun at his head. John would have a few choice words to say about this, but he’s too busy being blinded by fucking agony since he landed on his back.

It’s a couple of minutes later that he manages to blink away manly tears of pain to find Bane cradling his head in his hands. 

“You are hurt,” Bane says.

“You’re in a relationship with Bruce Wayne?” John demands, the first thing that comes to mind, and Bane says, “We have the bond of hate and spilled blood between us,” which is-- That’s gibberish, right? Complete gibberish?

“I have no idea what that means,” John says flatly. “Are you two having sex?”

Somewhere nearby, Barsad makes a sound like a cat coughing up a hairball. Bane stares at John like he’s grown a second head. 

“I have the feeling I’ve gone down a wrong track somewhere,” John says out loud. “Let’s chalk this one up to the hit on the head I got the other night, and start fresh. Hi, Bane. Hi, Barsad. What are you doing here?”

“You are hurt,” Bane says again.

“Don’t worry about it. I had to get a few stitches on my back, but it’s been a few days now. Hey,” he protests as he’s rolled over without preamble, his shirt jerked out of his pants and pulled up over his head. Massive hands hold him down. “If you give me a wedgie, I’m going to murder you.” 

“You are too thin.” Warm fingers trace the line of bandaging and tape across his back. There’s a murmur of conversation, Barsad and Bane conversing in a language that John doesn’t know, and then the door closes behind Barsad. “This is not your shirt,” Bane says grimly.

“No, it’s Gordon’s. He-- fuck, don’t do that, I’m tickl--ticklish goddammit,” John squawks through hysteria, curling up like a hedgehog as Bane prods at his ribs. “What the hell!”

“Good,” Bane says with satisfaction. “You are no longer angry.”

“Yeah, no,” John says, and uncurls to stare up at Bane, who is looming over him with a proprietary gleam in his eyes. “I’m still royally pissed off, actually. What the fuck are you doing here?”

“You had a speech,” Bane reminds. “And you were displeased about the damage to your home.”

Bane leans back, letting John sit up. Looking around, it’s obvious that someone--the mind boggles, but the implication is pretty clear that it’s Bane and Barsad--has been cleaning up. There’s plywood nailed up over the broken windows, all the debris that was on the floor is gone, the drywall has actually been patched, and someone is in the process of duct-taping his kitchen table back together. Also, for some strange reason, John’s bed has been replaced. It used to be a rock-hard twin, just big enough for one because John’s dick might have been optimistic about company but his bank statement held nothing but red. Now, it’s a gorgeous king-size that looks like it takes up a good quarter of the apartment. The frame is from the set that Bruce bought for him. 

John has a fleeting thought that Bruce bought a king-sized bed for him, a bed that’s obviously for more than one person, which suggests that maybe he was thinking of putting it to use-- but then he remembers, right, billionaire, that’s probably what he’s used to anyway, and they’re not in a relationship. Thank God for that, because John didn’t want to be in a relationship anyway. Honestly, it’s a relief to know he’s not anything to Bruce beyond student vigilante and, apparently, fucktoy. 

John feels sick.

“What,” he says hoarsely, at a loss for what to tackle first. Adds, while his brain is rebooting, “I rejected that bed.”

Bane shrugs, disavowing all responsibility. John glowers at him suspiciously, but Bane is glower-proof; even has the gall to look delighted at his glare, plainly finding it adorable. 

“Are you trying to fix my stuff?” John demands.

Another shrug. “I could have replaced it, but Barsad thought you would not care for my methods of acquisition.”

“Oh God. Yes, yeah, right. That’s good. Thanks. Good call. Appreciate it.” Duct tape holding his kitchen table together, pink duct tape, and John pushes down nausea long enough to find that kind of ... sweet, Christ. “That was nice of you,” he says, which wins him another blank look from Bane, who has probably never been accused of being nice in his entire life.

And all this, really, just begs the question: “Why?”

It's refreshing how brutally free of artifice Bane is when he isn’t playing with the lives and souls of millions. He doesn’t even pretend not to understand. “I care for you,” he says simply, “and you were unhappy.” And while John just gapes at him, feeling like someone surgically and painlessly extracted his lungs while he wasn’t paying attention, Bane adds in meditative regret, “I would have preferred to kill the man who slew the child you found, but he has not been found yet. Perhaps later. I will feed him his testicles while he still lives, and give you his heart as a gift.”

So much for nice.

But. Well. Still kind of sweet. In an appalling, nightmare-inducing way maybe, but still. Sweet. Which is wrong, right? Completely and utterly wrong? Seriously, how many blows to the head has John taken lately? Maybe he needs a CAT scan or something.

“Please don’t,” John says thickly. “Really. Don’t kill anyone for me. Recreationally or otherwise. Ever.”

Bane raises an eyebrow at him.

“I mean it. Never. Unless someone’s about to kill me and that’s the only way-- but you know what? Never mind. Please. Don’t.”

This draws a noncommittal hum from Bane, but it’s plainly the best John’s going to get from him, so he lets it go. Except.

“You’re not going to kill me, are you?” John realizes, suddenly feeling profoundly stupid. “I don’t mean now. I mean ... you’re not intending to kill me in the future either, are you?”

The other eyebrow goes up, then both press down again. “No.”

“Then what was all that about Bruce owing you a life-- did you mean his life?”

“No.”

“Are you going to tell me what that was about?”

“No.”

“Do you know how incredibly irritating you can be?” John demands, and Bane’s eyes laugh at him, so dangerous and so fond that John’s heart skips a beat.

“Yes,” Bane says tenderly, and shit, John is so utterly, utterly fucked. He shifts where he sits, unsure what to do. Bane settles himself down in a kind of sprawl, one leg drawn up, and reaches with an arm to bodily drag John into the curve of his body. John lets him, eventually finding himself really comfortable in a lounge chair made of deranged international terrorist. 

“I had a speech,” John says, while Bane toys idly with his hair, running broad fingers through it in an absent-minded caress.

“Yes. Do you wish to give it now?”

John thinks about it. He really does. Because even if the situation with Bruce is ... different than what he thought, the other facts hold true. He’s Nightwing. He’s an occasional dick, but fundamentally a good man. He’s an ex-cop. And this is Bane. Having sex with him under any circumstances is so many levels of wrong, even Sister Benedict would have a hard time forgiving him for it. 

On the other hand -- this is the man who pulled him out of the bathtub and put him to bed. Covered him with his coat when he was cold. Made himself a human shield between John and a falling building. 

John lets his head fall back against Bane’s chest and closes his eyes, relaxing. “I forget what it was,” he says, feeling like he’s crossed a bridge and found something unexpected on the other side. “It wasn’t important.”

 

Chapter Text

This is the way the next few days play out.

Day 1 - John doesn’t have any sheets to fit his new bed, so he makes do with his old sheets and wakes up packaged in them, the damned elastic closing over his head like he’s a shumai dumpling. Li pounds on his door to yell at him about the furniture, accuses him in turn of:  (1) stealing it off the back of a truck; or (2) being a gigolo with a sugar daddy. John denies the first one, but looks miserable at the second one. 

Unfortunately, this makes Li gently sit him down and give him a lot of kindly but searingly graphic advice about his love life. Later, to wash the taste of that out of his mouth, John knocks down two more kids off his list. 

He spends the night looking for Dzubenko with no success. No Bruce. No Bane. No training. No sex.

Day 2 - The newspapers are in a tizzy because Bruce Wayne has been discovered alive in Italy, where he was undergoing rehab. The reasons for the rehab are obscure, but there’s new interest in the Wayne saga because while nobody was paying attention, Lucius Fox gleefully eviscerated Daggett Industries and gorged on the remains. Wayne is back on the Forbes Top 100 list. 

He does an interview from Lake Cuomo during which he smiles a lot and talks giddily about all the sex he’s going to have when he gets back to Gotham. John gets chased out of the bodega for accidentally throwing a soda at the shop’s TV.

He spends the night looking for Dzubenko with no success. Screw Bruce. No Bane. No training. No sex.

Day 3 - Two dozen red roses get delivered to John’s apartment. He thinks about throwing out the flowers, but ends up giving them to Grandma Li instead. She yells at him in Chinese about something he doesn’t understand, feeds him something he doesn’t want to think about, and pinches his ass hard enough to leave a bruise when he leaves. Someone tries to run him over when he’s jogging to the post office.

He spends the night looking for Dzubenko with some success. No Bruce. No Bane. No training. No sex.

Day 5 - John wakes up to find Barsad watching him sleep, which is beyond creepy. After he wrestles his way out of the fucking sheets again, he gets pinned to the bed so Barsad can inspect his back. They have a cautious chat over the breakfast of champions (coffee and sugar packets in paper cups) during which Barsad insults his intelligence, his dietary habits, and his mad combat skillz. John learns Barsad sort of keeps halal, used to be a doctor, and thinks John is a few marbles short of a bag. John’s inclined to take this personally because, you know, Barsad is BFF with Bane. They argue about this. Also about the use of BFF, which Barsad isn’t thrilled about.

In the middle of their chat, four armed thugs show up wanting to have a word with John. Barsad dismantles them in 3.4 minutes while John makes more coffee.

“Thanks for keeping it out in the hallway,” John says, watching their limping retreat while handing Barsad a fresh cup. “Appreciate you not killing anyone. Mind not telling Bane about this? He’ll just be upset. Speaking of which, where the hell is he, anyway?”

Barsad looks inscrutable. 

Three dozen roses get delivered mid-afternoon. John leaves them at Mr. Li’s door. 

He spends the night looking for Dzubenko with little success. No Bruce. No Bane. No training. No sex.

Day 7 - Four dozen red roses get delivered to John’s apartment, along with five sets of king-sized sheets. He disposes of the flowers per usual, but keeps the sheets. The thread count on them is obscene. Forget having sex on these things; he wants to have sex with them. His electricity gets cut off because of lack of payment, so he takes his showers by candlelight. Another kid gets knocked off the list when he tracks down the mother’s ex-husband. Someone tries to shoot him again. Misses.

He spends the night looking for Dzubenko with some success. No Bruce. No Bane. No training. No sex.

Day 9 - Li asks John to stop hitting on his mother.

“I guess I should welcome you back to the land of the living. But seriously,” John says when Nightwing encounters Batman on the rooftops that night. “What did I tell you about buying people?”

“I don’t consider you for sale,” Bruce says, hugging the shadows of the water tower. It’s the first time they’ve seen each other since the disastrous conversation in the cave. 

“Then stop with the fucking flowers.”

There’s a short silence. Then, “They were Alfred’s idea.” Bruce sounds cranky, vaguely offended, and it’s all John can do to keep from rolling his eyes because really, it’s bad enough that they’re having this conversation at all, but Christ, the two of them are wearing black form-fitting full-body leather suits and could this get any gayer than introducing the British butler into the equation?

“You’re such an asshole,” John says with exasperation.

“I’m Batman,” Bruce says, “Being an asshole is what I do,” which is unexpected and actually funny, so John surprises himself by snickering. Bruce relaxes. It probably isn’t something that would be obvious to anyone else, but John’s had enough experience with Bruce in the suit now to read those tiny tells.

While John is still trying to wipe the grin off his face, Bruce reaches into his belt to pull out a USB stick. He hands it over mutely. 

“What’s this?” John asks.

There’s a tiny hesitation. “Kids from your list. I used the computers to track down a few hundred through electronic medical records and government immunization databases. I already did the work, so it seems like a waste not to give it to you.” 

...what?

“Why wouldn’t you give it to me?” John asks, honestly befuddled.

“You said you didn’t want anymore presents.”

John starts out, “It was the buying--” then breaks off to look down at the stick. He closes his hand around it, feeling a pang. “Thanks,” he says more quietly. “You didn’t have to do this.”

“I promised I would.”

“Any of it,” John clarifies. He makes an effort at cheerful indifference, “I’m just an occasional one-night stand, after all. Save your energy for your next girlfriend. Or boyfriend. Whatever.”

Bruce goes still. “Oh,” he says. “John,” and then suddenly John is pinned up against a wall, Bruce’s arm an iron bar across his collarbones. 

See, the thing about training with Bruce and Bane? Over time, your first instinct when someone pins you up against a wall becomes ‘do something violent.’ It’s disheartening that John’s ‘something violent’ barely draws a blink from Bruce, who’s too busy giving him that ‘you are a crazy person’ stare again. “Look,” John says. “If we’re going to do this kissing thing again--”

He loses the thought because Bruce picks him up by the upper arms to shake him like a kitten, and he’s left with the unhappy realization that Bruce learned some of his communication skills from the same school that Bane did. “John,” Bruce says, putting him back down again. “I’ve been with three people in my entire life who knew who I was. I didn’t know Miranda knew, and she stabbed me. Selina Kyle saved my life, but first she gave me up to Bane. And then there’s you.”

John’s not the sharpest pencil in the box, he’ll be the first to admit it; but while he might not be a genius like Bruce, he’s got other things working for him. People smarts. “Oh,” he says blankly. And then, realizing: “Oh.”

There’s probably more that he should say at this point, because ‘oh’ is hardly the proper response when someone hands you a connect-the-dots map to the incredible depth of their fucked-upness and emotional vulnerability, but. Bruce gets to the kissing again. Not the possessive, starving, your mouth is in between me and your dick kind of kissing that they started out with all those nights ago, but tender, reverent, I might be falling in love with you kissing.

John loses his mind for a while. He’s entitled. He’s disintegrating on the spot. So’s that hard clench of hurt feelings and resentment that’s been keeping him balanced on low-grade levels of pissed off for the last two weeks. He clings to it desperately. “Christ,” he says, this time dizzy with the taste of Bruce in his mouth. He manages to sound almost as angry as he thinks he should be. “Goddammit. This isn’t fair. Stop jerking me around.”

“I’m not,” Bruce murmurs into his ear. “You don’t know what it’s like to be able to trust a lover with all my secrets.”

His voice is pure sex. John shudders. “I’m starting to get an idea,” he gasps. “Bruce, goddammit, stop it. You can’t just lead me around by my dick.”

Teeth graze his ear. “Why not?”

That’s ... actually a good question. John puts a pin in it. He’ll think about it later. A lot later. Maybe Friday. If he remembers.

A long, intimate, euphoric handful of minutes pass.

“I asked Bane if you two were fucking,” John confesses, when his breathing has evened out a bit. “Screw you, it’s not that funny. You said you were talking about your relationship with Bane. What the hell was I supposed to think?”

“Relationship,” Bruce says unsteadily, when he’s stopped making growly noises in the back of his throat. “I meant--” There’s an odd word then, definitely not English. He shakes his head. “It doesn’t translate well. It has to do with enemies who are tied together beyond hate. Closer than family, or lovers.”

Bruce and Bane, larger than life, epic hero matched with epic villain. They’re so colossal, they have to use a completely different languageto define them, because English doesn’t have enough words. And then there’s John: wearing mismatched socks; ate 7-11 nachos for dinner; on his third notice from the water company. 

“You were surprised I thought we were in a relationship,” he says, hating himself for the insecurity he hears in his own voice.

“I assumed you thought I was a one-night stand.”

“What--”

The puff of air that tickles John’s cheek is a soundless snort. “I remember my early twenties just fine.”

“But,” John says, and then can’t think of anything else to say because, yeah, Bruce has got him there. Memories of his initial, instinctive urge to run away makes him wince. There’s no reason he should be upset, and yet. “But.”

Bruce steals his mouth for another lingering kiss, drinking him in, and John loses himself again for a while. He barely hears Bruce murmuring, “I thought I made myself clear,” against his lips, to which John can only huff back, “How is English your first language?” 

He feels rather than sees Bruce’s smile. 

“We should,” John chokes out at last, “we should ... oh, fuck, don’t-- we should, uh, go back to work.”

“Mm.”

“And find Dzubenko.”

“Yes.”

“And then we should try out my new--” John breaks off, his breath stuttering. “Shit. Shit. Bane.”

Bruce draws away at that, visibly chilling. “Bane.”

“He duct taped my kitchen table back together,” John confesses, arrested again by the sheer oddity of it. “Pink duct tape.”

Bruce looks at him.

“He’s not going to kill me. He told me so. I think he likes me. He’s--” John twists a smile out of somewhere, his chest suddenly aching. “He’s not actually a bad guy, when you get to know him. Holy shit. Did that just come out of my mouth?”

Pale eyes frown. A black-gloved thumb presses gently into John’s lower lip, bruised from all the kissing they’ve been doing, then slides gently across his chin. “John,” Bruce says slowly. “You have a crush on Bane.”

“Do not.”

Silence.

“Fuck you. High-school girls have crushes.”

More silence.

“Well, shit,” John says, and slides down the wall to stare at his knees. “This is incredibly inappropriate.”

There’s a whisper of fabric. Then Bruce crouches down next to him, a formless lump with the cape hiding his limbs. “I’m not going to stop trying to bring him in for your sake.”

You’re the one who decided I should train with him.”

“It’s an interesting triangle.”.

John looks up at the tone of his voice. “You really hate him, don’t you? Never mind,” he says, resigned. “This is not going to end well.”

Another helping of silence from Bruce.

“You’re pissed.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

Bruce tips his head. Considers his words. “I ... have a habit of disappointing the people who are important to me,” he says at last. “It wouldn’t be the first time a person I cared about turned to someone else to supply what I can’t.”

Impassive though he is when he says it, there’s still something in the way he says it that makes John’s chest ache again. “That’s not right,” John says.

“That’s how it is,” Bruce says back, and hands stir in a stiff approximation of a shrug. “I’m too old to change.”

This time it’s John’s turn to be silent for a few. “You’re more self-aware when you’re Batman. Not that that’s saying much,”  he offers at last, and Bruce’s mouth curves into a not-smile that’s more regretful than bitter.

“I still-- you know.” John gestures at him, meaning, I’m still hung up on you, and gets back in reply a quiet, “I know. Thank you.”

“‘Thank you?’ Really? That’s what you’ve got to say?”

“I appreciate it?”

John grins wanly. “You really are shit at this, aren’t you?”

“It’s unexplored territory for me,” Bruce admits. 

“Well, we’re not going to figure anything out here. We should get back to work.” John drags himself up to his feet, Bruce doing the same with more grace beside him. “I was going to hunt down a CI on the east side. Gordon told me there was going to be some kind of raid at 1 AM over on Pier 3. I don’t know if he told you. Were you going to--?”

“Yes,” Bruce says, and steps in again, capturing his chin to draw him up into another slow, languid kiss. John makes fizzling noises because, what with lacking any give in the groin, the suit is-- tight. He’d forgotten how tight it was. A fully articulated codpiece seems like a genius idea, now.

It’s possible he accidentally says that out loud, because Bruce breathes a quiet laugh against his cheek. “I’ll design one,” he promises. “I never had a need for one, but you’re easily overstimulated.”

“--which reminds me,” John says breathlessly. “Next time I want you to fuck me.”

Bruce makes an inarticulate noise, freezing in place. John eels out of his hands and leaves him standing on the roof. It’s a mean thing to do to the guy right before a night of hunting down Eastern European mafioso and fighting crime, but seriously? Bruce totally deserves it. Easily overstimulated, his ass.

He does not have a crush on Bane. He’s....

Fuck.

 


 

The next day is a clusterfuck of deeply embarrassing proportions.

“You’re killing the mood here!” John yells at Barsad, when he materializes in the bathroom the next morning. John was in the shower trying to jerk off to conflicted fantasies about Bane and Bruce, which wasn’t going very well because, well, conflicted, and also because the hot water is apparently broken. There’s only so much jerking off you can do when you can’t feel your extremities. All things considered. 

“For you,” Barsad says, disappointingly unscarred by John’s extracurricular activities. He holds up a Post-It, probably another of those cryptic communiques Bane and Bruce have been exchanging in John’s pants.

“Just shove it in my pants pocket,” John suggests, holding a shampoo bottle strategically before him. He fumbles the water off. “I’ll take care of it later.”

Barsad narrows his eyes at John. Then he walks out of the bathroom and apparently, that’s that.

John’s too unnerved by the uninvited guest to get back to what he was doing. Instead, he heads to one of the precincts to talk to Warren and Liang about their investigation. It’s a depressing conversation. They unearthed four more bodies buried under Matthew’s, and have suspicions about more buried around the property, “Though I’m going to say right now, there’s no way all the kids missing off that map of yours could fit in that yard. I don’t care how deep you stacked them. Someone would’ve noticed,” Liang says.

“Shit,” John says, looking at the wall of the Batcave reconstructed on a whiteboard in the squadroom. They’ve put up the names and photos of three of the other four, and they’re smiling and dead and horrifyingly, agonizingly young.

Warren pats him on the back, not unkindly. “A couple of the parents want to meet you to say thank you for finding their kids.”

“Jesus Christ.”

“Price of being a cop.”

“I’m not a cop,” John reminds her.

“Then why the hell are you doing this?” Warren asks reasonably, handing him an egg salad on rye.

It’s dark out when he leaves the precinct behind, his mind empty but his stomach, at least, full. He didn’t get enough sleep last night -- it was 1:30 AM when he decided to call it a night, Gordon’s raid barely started under Bruce’s blue-balled aegis (John’s really hoping Gordon noticed and commented on Bruce’s condition, because he thinks would have been a character-building experience for them both) but it was closer to 3:00 when he crawled into bed.

His watch says it’s 9 PM now. There’s no way he’s going out as Nightwing tonight, because he can’t stop yawning. He parks a few blocks away from his apartment, because that’s what having a car in Gotham is about, spending more time parking than driving; then he ambles his way back home, thinking idly that he forgot to look into who wants him dead. He should really get around to that. Tomorrow, maybe. 

The problem is, it’s so hard to take it seriously. Not when he’s got Bane and Batman duking it out in his apartment. Not when his night shift is being Nightwing. Not when he has had sex with two of the scariest men on the eastern seaboard. By comparison, the murder attempts are kind of ... well, ridiculous.

Yeah. So, here’s a thing. Ridiculous murder attempts are still, you know, murder attempts.

In the really egregious number of near-death experiences he’s had, John has never had one of those “life flashing before his eyes” deals that are so entrenched in fictional accounts. Mostly, he thinks relevant, but not necessarily pertinent thoughts. The time Gordon nearly made him wet his pants by putting a gun to his head in the hospital, his primary thought was, O snap. Death smells like lime Jell-O. It wasn’t his proudest moment.

This is just to explain why his last thought when someone huge steps out in front of him and then something fast comes up behind him is, I wonder why they used pink duct tape.

And then everything goes black.

 


 

 

Waking up handcuffed to a chair is ... anticlimactic.

Movies are always so much more graceful about this kind of shit. When a hero ends up handcuffed in a chair, he still remains mostly erect, because even unconscious he’s got abdominal development so excessive, he can’t bend enough to zip up his own fly. In real life, what happens is your shoulders get mostly yanked out of their sockets. You flop over until you’re sliding off one side or another, unless someone goes to the trouble to keep you stable. And you drool. A lot. Because you’re unconscious, see, and your mouth is open, and saliva’s still being generated because your body never knows when someone might shove a donut in. 

Basically, it’s a mess. It’s an artifact of fiction, because it’s a pain in the ass and hired muscle doesn’t like it when their socks are being drooled on by their prisoners. Nobody does it in real life. Except, oh look. Someone did.

“Fuck,” John says, muzzily trying to wipe his face on his sleeve, only to discover the aforementioned handcuff situation. “Head. Ow. What.” His specialty is snark in stress conditions, but even a master needs some runway, for Christ’s sake.

His surroundings fizzle in and out on tiny bursts of sound and sensory feedback. There are a few people present; he sees a pair of cheap dress shoes under jeans, a concrete floor, hears the echoes of male voices bouncing and shivering along walls. 

One of them is shrieking. Seriously. Shrieking. It’s not dignified.

Also, the racket hurts John’s head. It’s not working all that well at the moment, which is probably why he feels compelled to shout, “Would you shut the fuck up?!”

John is maybe not a model prisoner.

The noise stops. Footsteps clatter towards John just as he’s remembering he’s got a shoulder somewhere, someplace, and--oh, there it is--that will do in a pinch for wiping off some of the drool on his chin, yuck. Right around the time he’s establishing to his satisfaction that he was right about that, a hand yanks his head up by the hair. Which is rude. And painful. And.

“Hullo,” John says, squinting at the splash of lights and then the head-shaped shadow that interposes itself between them. “I have no idea who you are. Any chance this is a case of mistaken identity?”

“Dzubenko,” says the man, who is definitely not Dzubenko, but is clearly the shrieker from before. Thin-faced, sallow, acne scars, brown eyes and hair. He grabs John’s hair and rattles his head, which doesn’t do anything for his ability to concentrate. “Dzubenko, Dzubenko!”

There’s only so much John is willing to take before he gets pissy. Being shaken like he’s a Magic 8-Ball isn’t the way to his heart. “What the hell,” he rasps at Shrieker, exasperated. “I’m not Dzubenko. What the fuck is going on?”

Shrieker stops and gapes at him.

“Use your words, man,” John says, thinking regretfully back to the days when he thought Bane and Bruce were bad communicators. If only he’d known. And really, he realizes as he catches a glimpse of a holster under Shrieker’s jacket, he should be a lot more scared than he is. Apparently, Bane has ruined him for other terrors.

Which is hilarious. Gosh. He’d better get out of this alive so he can tell Bane that. He’d get a kick out of it.

Too many blows to the head. Right.

Shrieker has let go of his hair at least, and is turning in apparent bafflement to the rest of the people in the warehouse. The haziness of earlier is still like cotton in his ears, but John’s got enough control over his higher brain functions and his own neck to do a quick count. There are six guys total -- darn. One of them is Blondie from the other day -- which seems like overkill (haha, kill. No, wait. That’s not funny) given they’re dealing with one man, handcuffed to a chair.

Speaking of which, “Who the hell does this?” John asks, bewildered, rattling the handcuffs to make his point. “Wait. Is that--?”

It is. Alexey gives up trying to hide behind Blondie, and shuffles in place, looking hangdog. “Hello, John,” he says sadly. 

John stares. “Alexey. Seriously. Listen to me. You have to find a new job, man. You are the worst building manager ever.”

Alexey says almost tearfully, “You blame me. It is not my fault. You are ex-cop. It is bad idea. I have told them, many, many times, bad idea. And you are very good tenant, except when you are shooting the walls and there are loud noises and fighting in your apartment. Nobody complains.”

“It was only the twice--” John begins to object, because the way Alexey phrases it makes it sound like he’s a regular offender instead of someone who’s been offended against, but Shrieker breaks in to wave a small square of paper in John’s face.

“Dzubenko,” Shrieker says again, high-pitched and antsy. “Why do you know Dzubenko?”

“I don’t know Dzubenko. Why the hell would I know Dzubenko? Who’s Dzubenko? For that matter,” John says, squinting at Shrieker, “who are you?”

Shrieker’s mouth opens, then closes soundlessly. His face isn’t that attractive to begin with. Red, it’s even less so. “You do not need to know that,” he says in a feeble attempt at menace. “All you need to know is that I am the man who has a gun to your head.”

“You don’t,” John points out, because once you’ve been menaced by Bane, everyone else looks like they came out of a Yogi Bear cartoon. 

It was probably a mistake to point out the flaw in the threat. Shrieker pulls out his gun and points it at John’s head, gangster-style: angled to the side. The safety is still on. 

John sighs. Too many movies.

“This is about the apartment, isn’t it?” he says crankily. “And you’re either my landlord or someone on retainer from my landlord. Don’t look like that. Having my fucking building manager with you is sort of a giveaway. Seriously? Is this about my apartment? This is why people have been trying to kill me?”

Shrieker looks taken aback, then scowls. “We haven’t been trying to kill you. We were trying to scare you.”

“Oh,” John says. “Missed that memo.” Though it explains why he hasn’t been feeling as alarmed as he should have been. Subconsciously, he was picking up the lack of immediate threat, right? That’ll be the story he goes with if anyone asks later.

If there is a later. Again, hard to take this as seriously as he should. Feeling light-headed and giddy. Maybe Bruce will be a sugar daddy long enough to pay for a CAT scan or something. “Did you really have to hit me on the head?”

Shrieker hisses, “Dzubenko.” He waves the paper at John again. “Explain.”

This time, he thrusts it into John’s face long enough for him to get a good look at it, which helps. Creased Post-it, previously folded a couple of times but now flattened. Pink. The handwriting isn’t any that he recognizes. Dzubenko’s name is on it, as is an address down on Queen Street. 

“Okay?” John says, bewildered.

Shrieker shoves it closer. John goes cross-eyed. “This was in your pocket. What are you to Dzubenko?”

“Ex-cop,” says Blondie, regarding John with a surprising lack of hostility, all things considered. “Maybe he was on Dzubenko’s payroll.”

“Commissioner Gordon likes him,” Alexey says sulkily. “He always pays rent on time. He helps old women carry groceries. He is a nice guy.”

“He can be a nice guy and still be crooked,” Blondie argues.

“Thanks for that,” John says. “Sorry about the other day, man.”

“Don’t worry about it. Shit happens. I roll with the punches, dude.”

“Cool,” John says, while Shrieker shouts, visibly sweating, “I have a gun!” And if it was hard to take him seriously before, it’s even harder now that he sounds like a 4-year-old throwing a tantrum in the candy aisle.

John tips his head away from the Post-It to squint at the gun. “It’s a really nice gun,” he says appeasingly, “and look, honestly? I’ve never seen that paper in my life. I don’t know what it’s doing in my pocket. Maybe it’s from the wash. We have communal laundry machines. Maybe someone else’s--” Oh. Wait. And you’d think a conversation that interrupted a man’s private self-loving time would be memorable, but somehow. 

Well, to be fair, he was distracted at the time. “Oh,” he says. “Oops,” he says. “Fuck. He is going to be so pissed at me.”

Shrieker’s eyes widen. “Who is?” he demands. “Dzubenko?”

“Ah,” John says. Thinks about admitting that Bane’s BFF gave it to him while he was masturbating in the shower. Decides against. Not the time or place. “I’m going to have to plead the fifth on this one. Look,” he adds, when Shrieker’s eyes bulge even more, “I’m sorry you want me to move out of the apartment. Give me a few more weeks and I’ll find a new place to live. It’s just been busy, okay? What is it, parking lot or something? You want to tear the place down?”

“Condominiums,” Blondie volunteers.

“All you had to do was ask. It’s not like I have an emotional attachment to the dump. But I’m expecting to get my safety deposit back. And you have to stop beating up on the other tenants. Li’s dangerous. He works for the goddamn CIA. You piss him off enough, he’ll call a wet team down on your heads so fast, you won’t have time to shake your dicks good-bye.”

Alexey’s eyes bloom wide while Shrieker wavers in place. Obviously out of their depths here. John pegs him as a lawyer. Or an accountant, maybe. This should be fun. He’s just settling down to the joyous pastime of jerking them around some more, when a door slams open and the hard clips of footsteps snap around the room.

All heads turn. Shrieker backpedals a few hasty steps. If it wasn’t obvious before, the contrast between the newcomers and the ones John’s been talking to makes it painfully clear just how amateur the latter are.

Suddenly, John’s not finding anything so funny, because the guy in the middle of this new pack of -- sharks, really, no other way to describe them, is Dzubenko himself. So, you know. Fuckaduck.

There are four of them, not counting Dzubenko. Shrieker’s guys have him outnumbered, but that’s like pointing out a school of mackerel outnumber a bunch of great whites. Some of Shrieker’s boys puff up, but it’s the confidence of guys who are too dumb or naive to know where they stand on the food chain. Blondie, John notices, doesn’t. Neither does Alexey.

Shrieker mostly turns into pudding and collapses into himself. 

John didn’t have a whole lot of time to observe Dzubenko the night Bruce introduced the gangster to his fists; they were all kind of busy, and people were being pounded, which is always a bad way to get acquainted. Face to face, so to speak, he turns out to be a fairly small guy, dwarfed by the muscle who came in with him. Maybe even the same height as Gordon, though where Gordon’s greyhound-lean, Dzubenko’s built more like a paranoid rottweiler, with the same, slightly flattened face and flatter black eyes.

Even if he wasn’t the only one in the room handcuffed to a chair, John has the feeling that Dzubenko would’ve noticed him. He’s that kind of guy. Noticing. And it’s a measure of what a dangerous motherfucker the guy is that John actually shivers a bit when that cold gaze skims over him.

He can’t hear the conversation between Dzubenko and Shrieker, who has turned into an inconvenient Squeaker in Dzubenko’s presence. John can’t blame him. Dzubenko exudes menace in a way that could impress even Bruce. John can see the Post-It being waved around before the gangster plucks it out of Squeaker’s hand and studies it.

Then he strolls up to John and clocks him in the face with the butt of a gun.

See, this is why it’s important to practice good conversational skills.

Stop with the fucking head!” John spits out when he can hear again, half his vision obliterated by white sparks of pain. It feels like his cheekbone is cracked, and that’s not going to be pretty when they find his body, now that he thinks about it. Because it’s going to come to bodies, now that Dzubenko and his crew are in the room. Of course it is. He stood a more than reasonable chance of talking his way away from Squeaker, but now we’re talking hard-core mafia, and shit, this is one way to avoid figuring out the bizarre Bane and Bruce thing he’s got on his hands, but.

The rest of that thought is lost because Dzubenko punches John in the stomach.

It feels bad. Sadface.

Nobody told John that Dzubenko may be an asshole with the violence, but he’s perfectly civilized in his speech. It’s an unnerving juxtaposition that just makes things worse, somehow. While John is coughing and swallowing the overflow of spit his body is generating--blow to stomach apparently translates as trip to Dunkin’ Donuts! insofar as his brain is concerned, goddammit--Dzubenko crouches down next to him, hands idling, and asks in conversational, heavily accented curiosity, “Who are you, please, and how did you learn where I was?”

“Would you believe the jerk-off pixie told me?” John wheezes. “He’s this little bearded guy who shows up in your bathroom when you’re trying to--” He gets cut off by a few more blows, this time applied to his ribs. Under the swearing that he feels this occasion requires, he can hear Squeaker and Alexey babbling explanations in a hysterical duo. John Blake. Tenant. Ex-cop. Laundry machines.

“How?” Dzubenko demands again.

“Okay, maybe he isn’t a pixie,” John admits. “I’ve never seen any wings. For all I know, he--”

Dzubenko is apparently not interested in letting John finish his sentences, which is just irrational. How will he ever learn anything if he doesn’t listen to the answers? 

John folds over his stomach again, thinking serious thoughts about vomiting. On the one hand, that might make him feel better. On the other hand, it was actually a decent dinner for a change, not to mention free. He’s too poor to give up free food.

He decides against. In fact, he’s just congratulating himself on a sound financial decision when his head gets dragged up by the hair so Dzubenko can say coldly, “I ask you one more time. If you do not answer, I shoot you through the knee. Do you understand?”

John blinks quickly up at the ceiling of the warehouse, high rafters that are hard to see behind the hanging lamps. Shadows and cobwebs are stuffed into the hollows of the building, sheltered by metal and sooty glass. Usually in these kinds of buildings, you can find a few birds that have made nests up there, either because they’ve gotten trapped inside, or because they’ve found some hole in the building and have figured out there’s better shelter inside than out. Smart birds. And of course they only come to roost at night, which is why John can see the faintest flutter of a--

“What time is it?” he asks.

There’s a blank silence. 

“What time is it?” he demands again, and Alexey says timidly, “1 AM?”

There it is again, a shift of shadow overhead. Big.

John finds himself grinning. It probably looks crazed. “You own any dogs, Dzubenko?” he asks giddily. “How about cats? Did you know there are some scary people out there who think I’m one incredibly valuable poodle?”

Dzubenko’s head interposes itself between John and the ceiling. John beams at him. “You will die like a dog if you do not answer my questions,” Dzubenko spits down at him, and John says in all earnestness:

“Man, you do not understand. I am the original Fuck-up Fairy, and you invited me into your house.”

Right on cue, the lights buzz. Then they shut off with a suddenness that makes Shrieker squeak and others in the room, less nervous, curse. The warehouse is pitch black while John’s eyes struggle to adjust -- but there are faint shadows out there, outlined against the dim green of the EXIT sign, the dull red of a fixture somewhere. He can hear the rustle and clicking of guns being drawn.

And then, like the theme song of a horror flick, there’s a quiet, steady rasp, the suck and pull of air drawn through a metal filter.

Oh fuck. Fuckity fuck fuck. Bruce and Bane have come to rescue John, like he’s some kind of pretty princess. He will never live this down. Ever. He will hear about this until the day he dies.

He desperately wants to giggle. Just a bit.

John feels the hard thrust of a gun barrel shoved up under his chin. “What is happening?” snarls Dzubenko’s voice in his face. His breath stinks, as does the gun; the burned metal scent of the recently fired.

Despite himself, John’s breath stutters in an uneven laugh. “You should have stayed out of my city, asshole. You are so fucked.”

Gotham is about to get hands-on with some tourists.

Chapter Text

Not that this needs saying, but only someone with hyperdeveloped suicidal tendencies brings guns and flashlights to a fight with Batman and Bane. Talia al Ghul brought fucking atom bomb to fight just Bruce, and look how well that went for her. In order to fight Bruce and Bane together, you’d probably need a weapon that could blow up the entire planet. Some kind of ... planet killer. A Death Star. You’d need a Death Star.

John would point this out to Dzubenko, suggest he cut his losses and run for it. It’s good advice, too. If only the guy wasn’t being a dick and cutting off John’s air supply with his stupid gun.

Sucks to be him.


 

You would think that a fight taking place in pitch black would be boring, all old-fashioned radio play without even a voice-over or comic sans serif narrative to punctuate the action. POW! WHAM! BOOM! Somehow, that isn’t the case. 

The proper word would be ‘spooky.’ It’s spooky. Ass-clenching terrifying would also be a way to classify it, though John actually knows some of the tricks that Bane and Bruce are deploying. Still, it’s one thing to know them factually and another thing to be in the audience rather than being an actor in the show. Even knowing that it’s Bruce and Bane out there raining pain down on the assholes in the room, John is conscious of adrenaline peaking and anxiety distilling like saltpeter on the back of his tongue.

The sounds sketch out the action for him, even without the wildly stupid cones of light that flail through the room, picking out the occasional glitter of an eye, or the silent wing of the cape as it smothers a body. 

There’s the hiss of the zip line; that’s Bruce plummeting down from the ceiling. The hard crack of a bone behind him--Dzubenko flinches, starting--that’s Bane, breaking someone’s ribs. Someone fires a gun several times. Always a sound tactical move when fighting in the dark alongside people you can’t see against other people you can’t see. Someone screams. Well done, genius. The muzzle flashes paint split-second images against the backs of John’s eyelids: men whirling in a frantic search of the ceiling; the silhouette of someone massive materializing in their midst and then bodies flying out--

John wheezes, “Don’t kill anyone!” at what might be Bane, but thanks to the pressure on his throat, it comes out sounding more like, “Ogigagygug!” It isn’t that John has a philosophical problem with “him or me” decision-making that comes out in his favor. It’s more that--he’s not actually sure, really, besides that it bothers him that Bane might kill people for him. Uh, kill people at all. For any reason. Right.

Anyway, it’s not the most articulate request in the world. Bane will probably feel free to ignore it.

After an eternity of time, the sounds of fighting start to die down. Less punching and shouting. More whimpering and whining. Eventually--a long eventually later--there’s silence. Maybe a muffled groan or two, but the fight is definitely over.

Dzubenko has been swearing for a while in what sounds like Russian. John’s skin prickles with drying sweat. 

“Batman!” Dzubenko shouts, when a good fifteen seconds have passed and the only sound has been someone squeaking like a hungry guinea pig. The gun jabs even harder into John’s throat. He chokes. “I have a hostage! Show yourself, or I will shoot!”

John has to hand it to the man; he's got balls of steel. Dzubenko’s breathing a little quicker, but it’s even and controlled. 

There’s a creak from somewhere, a stifled retching sound from somewhere else. Then there’s a heavy thunk. Red light floods the room, backup lamps instead of the heavy fluorescents that hid Bruce in the shadows so effectively. The red light doesn’t even hurt John’s eyes, the adjustment between total dark and eerie color prompting only a couple of blinks.

Bruce immediately draws all eyes. Of course he does. He's standing in the middle of the warehouse, surrounded by unconscious bodies like the final scene of an action flick. He should’ve been a movie director. He’s got the dramatic instincts of George Lucas, completely over the top, and there’s a thought, because inevitably there’ll be some kind of biopic about Gotham and crap, if they cast that Titanic guy as Nightwing, John will dress up in uniform and go to Hollywood himself to--

Dzubenko’s curse interrupts John’s increasingly stupid train of thought. “Where is your friend?” Dzubenko demands, his voice rising as he sneaks quick, darting glances around Bruce. “Nightwing. Where is he? Show yourself, Nightwing! Or the hostage is dead!”

Take a note, Alanis Morisette. That’s the definition of irony.

“Batman,” John wheezes, as the gun shifts to a marginally more comfortable spot at his temple. Not a real improvement, though. If the angle is off, John might end up surviving the bullet, but end up with a frontal lobotomy or both his optic nerves severed. 

“Nightwing isn’t here,” Bruce rasps.

“But I am,” says a hollow, mocking voice behind John.

Oh. Hi, Bane.

John tries tipping his head back a little further to see Bane, but the hand holding his hair arrests the attempt. Dzubenko, though, spins to look, and John can feel the guy’s jerk of shock and reflexive shiver through the gun.

“Oh shit,” John gasps, trying his best not to overact. “Ohshitohshitohshitohshit--”

Dzubenko yanks John’s head back. “What?” he hisses, so John opens his eyes as wide as he can and warbles back, “It's Bane.”

Dzubenko’s eyes narrow. Then he starts to smile an unpleasant, unattractive smile.

It's almost enough to make John feel sorry for him. Almost.

John has to force himself through his immediate urge to relax, the relief of backup massaging his shoulders so he has to draw them up around his ears. It’s all good. Dzubenko interprets his twitching as increased fear, which just makes his smile broaden.

“Bane,” Dzubenko says, gloating. “I’ve heard of you.”

“I have never heard of you, little man,” Bane says with the kind of bitchy contempt that precedes a catfight on reality TV. 

“I’m Dzubenko. Viktor Dzubenko. I’m in charge of American operations for the Brothers’ Circle.” This is plainly supposed to mean something to Bane.

Not that Bane seems to give a shit. "You are between me and my enemy.”

“I’m a big fan,” Dzubenko says, irritated but controlling it. 

“Then leave, and you may live.”

The hand at John’s head relaxes, giving him enough slack to turn his head and glance back and up. Bane is glaring at Bruce, braced as though getting ready to dismantle the entire building in order to get to him. Bruce, when John checks, is doing the exact same thing right back at Bane. The air between them is-- well, the air between them is hard to endure, because even the itty bitty oxygen molecules are scared shitless and scrambling to get out of the way. The kind of hate that’s being breathed out by the pair is the sort that results in genocide or Michael Bay movies, too massive and indiscriminate to care who gets hurt in the process as long as something beautiful is destroyed.

“Bane,” Bruce says, his voice like sandpaper on skin. 

“Batman.”

“You should have stayed dead.”

“Come to me then, my brother, and we will go to Hell together.”

Jesus. Who writes their dialogue? “We have to get out of here,” John breathes, when Dzubenko refreshes his grip on John’s hair, yanking his head closer so his ear is smashed up against the man’s stomach. Out of the corner of his eye, John can see a few of the downed bodies stirring; Blondie is conscious for sure, though not looking especially spry with what looks like a broken leg and a rapidly swelling shiner. 

Arrogant, Gordon called Dzubenko. That’s a synonym for catastrophic dumbfuck, because the idiot is saying with every expectation of being attended to, “I don’t like being ignored.”

Bruce and Bane--hah--ignore him.

"Are you listening?!" Dzubenko bellows, and that gets a reaction, because Bruce and Bane turn their heads at last to stare at him. The slow synchronicity of it is scary as fuck, like they're velociraptors choreographing the best way to disembowel without killing. John barely needs to do any acting at all. “I don’t like being dead,” he bitches, shoving himself back from those cold stares with his heels. “Are you crazy? Don’t piss him off. That’s Bane.”

“Shut up,” Dzubenko snaps, and owfuck. John feels the trickle of blood snaking hot and slick down the side of his face while he blinks past the white noise of pain. 

Someone is growling. John’s not entirely sure who. 

“Let the hostage go,” Bruce says harshly.

“Or what?” Dzubenko asks, his gun pressed to the back of John’s head now. He’s moved to stand behind him, making him a human shield between him and Batman. Of course, this means that Dzubenko’s back is to Bane, which is probably not a good choice.

“A good question,” Bane tells Bruce. The pleasant way in which he says it makes John’s hair stand on end. “What will you do?”

Bruce’s answer is a snarl. Insofar as repartee goes, it’s not the sharpest. 

“If you’re wanting to kill Batman, go right ahead,” Dzubenko says with malice, clearly aligning himself with Bane. There’s a thick smear of pleasure in his expression at Bruce’s obvious anger at the situation.

“Little man,” says Bane. “I do not need your permission.”

“Don’t let me stand in your way, then.”

“Can I object?” John asks, and gets clocked again for his pains. Blood tickles its way down his neck and into his shirt. He should really learn when to keep his mouth shut, because his head is sort of spinning now.

Batman says sharply, “John,” and oh, oops, because Dzubenko’s tightened grip is yanking hair out of John’s scalp, and then Bane is crooning, “John?” like his identity is a revelation and a wonder.

Dzubenko says with dawning satisfaction, “You know this cop.”

Ex-cop,” John corrects.

Bane laughs quietly. “Give your hostage to me, my friend, if your wish is to make Batman suffer. I will make his waking hours a nightmare that never ends.”

Because this seems like an appropriate cue, and also because Bane’s method acting is a little too, well, authentic for comfort, John starts to struggle. 

Wham.

Stop hitting me on the head!” he gripes.

Wham.

At this point, it seems best to just cut his losses and pretend to be unconscious, because if he’s unconscious, his mouth won’t feel this pathological need to screw him over. John goes limp. For the sake of authenticity, he starts to slump to the side as well, in the hopes he’ll be able to drool on Dzubenko's shoes.

His contributions aren’t a big loss to the conversation.

Bane says, “Give him to me.”

Bruce says flatly, “Don’t.”

"What do I get in exchange?”

“Pain,” Bane says with relish. “Suffering. Sleepless nights filled with thoughts of vengeance.”

It’s ominous, but it lacks specificity. You’d think a guy so high up in a criminal organization would notice that, but nope. No specificity for Dzubenko. 

“Sounds good to me."

John feels the handcuffs being undone behind him. He thinks, briefly, of taking advantage of the moment to deck the bastard, but decides against it in favor of trying to flop off the chair in as realistic a fashion as possible. Dzubenko holds him in place, but the gun is no longer dug into his skull so at least there's that. 

“Don’t do this,” Bruce warns, with a curious lack of conviction that almost makes him sound -- bored? Is he actually bored? John debates being outraged. “You’ll regret it.”

“One thing I’ve learned in my life, Batman. It is a waste of time to have regrets.”

“Learn better.”

Dzubenko laughs, stepping away. Without the support, John wilts off the side of the chair. He tucks himself in just in time to manage a loose-limbed flop on the floor that doesn’t actually hurt anything, and leaves him curled up enough to give him a fast avenue up.

“I think it’s your turn to do some learning, Batman. All yours, Bane. It’s a pleasure doin--”

John’s up and moving before the scream really gets full-bodied, launching to his feet and already halfway down a dash towards cover. When the scream just gets louder, he thinks to turn and get his bearings.

Dzubenko isn’t there anymore. That is to say, he’s there, he’s just not where he was, because he’s now about ten feet back and two feet up from where he’d stood behind John. One arm is hanging limp, the gun harmless on the floor. The wet jut of broken bone is visible through a rip in Dzubenko’s sleeve. Bane is well on his way to throttling the prick, the the muscles in his arms distending with effort.

Bane’s eyes glitter in a smile. “You came between me and my enemy.”

Dzubenko’s eyes bug out.

John bolts--back, this time, because letting Bane strangle someone in cold blood doesn’t come anywhere near acceptable self-defense--but Barsad materializes out of nowhere to bring him up short. John’s left arm is twisted up behind him before he can even think to say, “Not now, man,” and he’s left yelping and balanced on his tip-toes.

It’s Bruce who breaks through Bane’s loving strangulation technique, by the most surreal method John can imagine.

“You’ll kill him,” Bruce says neutrally.

And that’s apparently all it takes.

Bane looks over at Bruce, like he’s considering the point. It’s hard to tell what color Dzubenko’s turning because of the red lights, but whatever it is, it’s definitely not the color his parents started him out as. “True,” Bane grants, without noticeable regret.

Bruce doesn’t say anything more. Bane lets Dzubenko’s feet touch the concrete, then breaks his other arm. Wet crackle. Ugly sound from Dzubenko. Then Bane punches him in the side. The snap of ribs breaking is almost lost under Dzubenko’s yell and subsequent scream when Bane tosses him onto his broken arm in front of Bruce.

Apparently Bruce has developed mind control powers, because there is literally no other way to explain what just happened there, a civil exchange of words between them and Bane actually doing something Bruce's way. Well, Bruce's way plus future traction for Dzubenko. John is still trying to wrap his own brain around it when Barsad drags him to Bane like he actually is a randomly encountered ex-cop, one that Bane will now torture to death in order to make Bruce one unhappy little bat.

“What,” John begins, only to have Bane wrap giant , smothering arms around his head and torso. The entire world goes black and sweaty--he hears Bruce say something at a distance--and then there’s the disorienting rush of movement.

For some reason, he ends up on the roof.

What,” John demands again, when Bane has let him go and he’s dropped heavily to a seat next to a pipe. He rears back when Bane stoops to thrust his face into John’s, reproachful. 

“You allowed yourself to be kidnapped.

“There’s no allowed about it. I was walking along, minding my own business--”

“All business must be your business. All hands are raised against you.”

“That’s an awfully uncharitable worldview, for someone who just partnered up with Batma--”

The name is cut off when Bane clamps his hand over the lower half of John’s face. Unfortunately, given the size of Bane’s hand, this includes mouth and nose. John stares at him.

“I did not ‘partner up’ with Batman.”

Silence. It’s hard to talk with a hand over your mouth. Also, breathing. Breathing is hard. 

Bane glowers at him. “Do you understand? Nod if you understand.”

John nods. Bane lets him breathe again.

“But,” John says, and gets the hand back over his face.

“No.” Hand goes away.

“But--!” John tries again.

Hand again. “No.”  Hand away.

John thinks about it. “Okay, but--!”

This time Bane just grabs his face and shoves him head over heels. John sighs and stays on his back, staring up at the cloudy sky. The Bat signal isn’t shining, which means this was an off-the-books rescue. It's kind of a nice night. Light pollution is pretty.

“You’ve been tracking the fucking GPS he stuck in me, haven’t you?" he asks dreamily. "That’s how you always know where I am. You picked up the equipment when you stole those tumblers, that time.”

“Yes,” says Bane from somewhere nearby, and John says, “Great. Fanfuckingtastic,” and closes his eyes to wait for whatever it is that they’re waiting for.

Which turns out to be Bruce.

And the very first thing Bruce says, still in the Batman voice, is, “You think you’re a poodle?”

“Do you have any idea how many times I got hit in the head today?” John asks without bothering to open his eyes. He gets his reward in a small snort from Bruce. Then everything goes staticky and still, so he knows Bruce and Bane are glaring at each other again.

John considers humming the Romeo and Juliet theme, but decides regretfully that it might get him killed. 

When the silence finally breaks, the tension doesn’t ease, for all they’re weirdly conversational over his head.

“Dzubenko’s operation needs to be cleaned up. They’ll realize he’s not coming back, soon,” Bruce says.

“This does not concern me.”

“It concerns John.”

“John is not fit to fight.”

“Am too,” John objects, and is completely ignored.

The ensuing silence is ... fraught. It’s fraught with-- fraughtiness. Extreme fraughtiness. “This is not a truce,” Bruce finally says.

“No.”

“I have no reason to trust you.”

“You should not. I will kill you, one day.”

“And John?”

Bane is silent.

“One night,”  Bruce says, like it’s causing him actual pain to say it. “You have one night.”

Bane retorts, “We will see,” and John objects, “Yo. Lying right here. What’s ‘one night?’”

He opens his eyes at the feel of motion beside him. Bruce has crouched down to study him.

“What?” John asks, bewildered. “Is there something on my face? Besides the blood and the bruises and the--”

“After,” Bruce says in a growling voice. “We’ll talk about this after.”

“After what? Talk about-- Oh, for Christ’s sake. It’s not like I was asking to be kidnapped.”

Bruce hesitates, plainly thinking out his words before he says them. Nice change. “Not about that. Although we’ll talk about that too, when we get back to training.”

“I can fight,” John says defiantly. 

“You are mine for tonight,” Bane says.

John blinks. “Excuse me?”

He could swear Bruce is grinding his teeth. There’s a short exchange between Bruce and Bane then, noticeably not in English. Not in Chinese, either. It sounds like-- Chinese and Korean, squashed up together. Chin...korese? 

“Oh my God,” John says with disgust, struggling to sit up. “Are you seriously pulling this ‘pas devant les domestiques’ shit on me?”

Both Bruce and Bane wince at the same time. “Don’t speak French,” Bruce says.

“I concur,” says Bane.

“Fuck you both,” says John, and is disconcerted when Bane laughs.

Bruce grinds his teeth again. More Chinkorese. Then a shift in Bruce. “John,” Bruce says, still staring at Bane.

“What.”

“From this point on, everything that happens tonight--” a muscle twitches in Bruce’s jaw, “--is your decision.”

“Then I’ll go get my uniform on, and--”

This gets a glare from both of them. “Except for that,” Bruce says.

“Why not?”

“Do you have any idea how many times you got hit on the head today?” Bane asks, more inquisitive than mocking. Bruce huffs out a breath, bracing himself, then pops over the edge of the roof. No more Bruce.

“Well,” John says flatly. “Tonight’s episode was brought to you by the letters W, T, F, and the number 3. What the hell was that about?”

“You swear a great deal,” Bane says mildly. “Come. I will take you to bed.”

“Take me home, you mean,” John corrects, because Bane’s grasp of colloquialisms is random and occasionally wildly inappropriate.

Bane’s eyes crinkle in a smile.

...oh.


 

The process of going back home is a little more complicated than flagging a taxi, which John would have realized if he hadn’t temporarily forgotten that Bane was more famous than the Kardashians and incidentally, a wanted criminal. They find Barsad in an alley, looking bored and twee in form-fitting yellow riding leathers.

“You look like a Big Bird dildo,” John tells him without thinking.

This does nothing to improve relations between them. Apparently, there are only three things Barsad holds sacred, and one of them is Sesame Street, which, okay. John really didn’t see that one coming.

After Barsad finishes hissing incomprehensible foreign things at him that make Bane’s eyes light up like a Christmas tree, he gets around to checking John’s pupils and asking him questions like, “Who is the current leader of Lesotho?” in order to determine whether he has a concussion. The correct answer is apparently, “King Letsie III,” and not, “Is that a gang? ...oh, screw you, I’m an American. You’re lucky I even know Utah’s a state and not a foreign nation.”

It takes a lot longer than it should, but Barsad eventually checks his scalp wound (“Superficial,” he sneers) and clears him of having a concussion. Of course, this only happens after he establishes to everyone’s satisfaction that (1) the American public education system is crap; and (2) Barsad is a bloody-minded son of a bitch. 

(“What is the zeroth law of thermodynamics?” 

“Goddammit, ask me something I should actually know.” 

“What’s today’s date--” 

Finally.” 

“--according to the Julian calendar?”)

“How can I not have a concussion? I got hit in the head, like, thirty times in the last twenty-four hours,” John complains, even while Bane is busy mounting one of the two massive sports bikes that are parked in the alley. 

Barsad taps gently on John’s head with a knuckle. John bats his hand away. 

“Thick bone,” Barsad says. “Small brain.”

“Big enough to know I have a concussion."

"But not big enough to know where the Sargasso Sea is."

"C is for cookie, jackass,” John says, and manages to win the tiniest, meanest smile ever from Barsad. It’s a victory. Barsad has never smiled at him before. 

”I knew it. You do like me,” John crows. 

Barsad punches him in the chest. While he’s still wheezing smugly from that, Bane shoves a helmet over his head and hauls him over.

John is apparently expected to ride behind him. “There are no handles,” he points out, and has his arms grabbed and wrapped around Bane’s chest instead. Bane isn’t wearing riding gear except for the helmet the gloves, and the boots; he's apparently expecting the asphalt to get out of his way if he crashes, which might not be an unreasonable assumption given that he's Bane. His back is spectacularly muscled, as is his front, and his girth is such a challenge to wrap around, John has to snuggle tight and spread his legs wide in a way that makes him feel both vulnerably obscene and obscenely vulnerable. The smell of sweat and blood is barely perceptible through the filter of the helmet.

“Are you ready?” Bane asks, while Barsad mounts the other bike and gets it started. 

“Fine. Why am I riding behind you? Can’t I ride the other bike, and Barsad can piggyback with you?”

“N is for no,” Bane says with malicious glee. 

The kick and purr of Bane’s bike starts humming between John’s legs, and he wiggles uncertainly to find more traction on the short, forward-slanted seat. The most secure spot is to press really hard against Bane’s backside.

It’s not that long a ride back to John’s apartment. Barsad parts ways with them halfway there, not that John notices. Mostly, that’s because John’s busy trying to control the really inopportune stiffy that’s digging into Bane’s ass.

He kind of fails at this.

Bane invents a parking space between two cars in front of John’s apartment, and John is off the back of his motorcycle so fast he goes sprawling across the hood of the car on the left. By the time he’s straightened up, uncomfortably aware of just how tight his jeans are, Bane is giving him another of those delighted looks again, like he might pick John up and suck on his head like he’s a Hello Kitty lollipop.

“Right,” John says, trying hard to push that image away. Especially the sucking part. “Thanks. For the ride, I mean. And the life-saving.”

“Go upstairs,” Bane says.

“Right,” John says again, and bolts for the building. He takes the stairs two at a time, all the way up to his floor. Charges down the hallway. Checks his security measures with a glance. Unlocks and hurls open the door.

Bane is waiting for him on the other side. 

In the split-second between John registering his presence and his mouth dropping open, Bane picks him up, kicks the door shut with a bang, and drags his jacket off his shoulders.

“W-what,” John stutters, thrashing his arms free of the sleeves. “How did you--”

“You are mine tonight,” Bane says, and whoa nelly, because, “What,” John yelps again. He backpedals hastily until he comes up short against the apartment door, slamming into it hard when Bane takes a long step to pursue him. 

“Who the hell decided-- What do you mean, yours tonight? Yours for what?”

Bane stops a mere inch away, the heat of him bathing John’s skin with warmth where the apartment’s chill was already raising goosebumps. Darkening eyes study him hungrily, their attention traveling down his body before dragging back up again. Then they smile. “What do you think?”

John thinks a lot, but there’s a rock in his throat that feels like fear, or maybe lust, or maybe anger, it’s confusing, and there are complicating, conflicting things happening below his belt and above his neck. His hands close into fists. 

“I’m not a fucking rent boy. You or Bruce or whoever don’t get to decide who I sleep with, or when.” 

Bane chuckles, one massive hand settling on John’s chest. The touch immediately ratchets up his heartbeat. “You would be a very poor rent boy, arguing endlessly and complaining in between.”

“I’d make an amazing rent boy,” John snaps, just for the sake of argument. “The johns would be lining up around the block to screw me.” The fact that he licks his lips just then has more to do with nerves than provocation, but Bane’s gaze snaps to them all the same, eyes darkening.

Bane leans into him, his face dipping into the sharp slope where John’s neck meets his shoulder. Pressed together like this, John is keenly aware of the line of fire from knee to chest where Bane’s body meets his. He swallows hard, unthinkingly tipping his head away. That this inadvertently bares his neck to Bane is something he only registers afterwards. He closes his eyes at the soft hiss and pull of air against his ear.

Metal scrapes gently along John’s skin. “If you were a rent boy, I would chain you to my bed. You would spend your days and nights with me deep inside you, fucking you open. You would beg me to let you come, beloved. And if I felt merciful, perhaps I would.”

Bane’s voice is too mild to be threatening, but there’s a dangerous quality to it, like the low growl of tiger. If John wasn’t so busy trying to talk his dick down from the ledge, he’d be stripping himself naked just to bathe in that voice. 

Which is why it takes him a few seconds to register the actual content of Bane’s reply. And it’s an obvious symptom that he’s got actual brain damage that it doesn’t make him burst into tears and crawl under the sink to hug the bleach, but instead groan and grind himself into Bane’s thigh like a--

John is a slut. He’s a freaking manwhore. His next confession is going to go so poorly.

“Christ,” John says, hearing his voice break. He pushes at Bane in what he bitterly recognizes is a completely futile attempt to shift him. Surprisingly, Bane backs off, just enough that they can look each other in the face; not far enough away that John feels like he’s in control of his own personal space. “Am I getting a choice in this?”

Maybe Bane sees something like panic in John’s face, or feels the rapid staccato of his heartbeat, because he hums to himself, considering, then says, “You are mine to keep safe tonight, while the Batman does his work. It is your choice if you wish any more than that.”

From this point on, everything you do tonight is your decision.

“You and Bruce discussed me,” John realizes, incredulous over a rising tick of anger. “You talked about fucking--” He trails off, because the next word is me, and he’s not sure if he meant ‘fucking’ as an adjective or (he shivers again) verb.

“Bruce Wayne and I are what we are, and we have what we have. What you choose to be to me or to him is your decision.”

“My decision. I don’t see how any of this is about me. What am I, a way of keeping score?”

Bane looks amused. “You would be a pleasing way to do so, but no. You are not a part of our contest. My desire for you has nothing to do with Bruce. What he wants of you, he must tell you.”

John has to take a steadying breath at that. Bane's forthrightness is heady, when he's gotten used to dealing with the flailing goldfish that's Bruce's communication skills. 

“Maybe I don’t want anything more from you than-- you know, what we have right now. Training, intel, the occasional rescue, fucking with Barsad....”

For some strange reason, Bane suddenly goes very still. Then: “If you fuck Barsad, I will kill him.”

John’s mouth goes dry. “I didn't mean have sex with him,” he says hastily. “Fucking with means--you know, mess with him. Tease him. Like I do right now. Christ. Possessive much?”

Bane doesn’t see fit to answer that, obvious as it is. Instead, he says, “There was a time when I would not have given you a choice. I would have seized what I wanted, because I could. Do not be afraid,” he says kindly, when John stiffens--not in a good way--and shoves at him again; the air is getting too close, too thick and hot between them, and John is feeling it like a disperse itch, too restless for his own skin. 

“Yeah, you’re telling me you’re a rapist, and I’m supposed to--”

“In another life, I would have taken you. You are desirable. In this one, I will not. It is your choice, if you do not wish more than what we already have.”

John exhales a sharp breath that’s not quite a laugh. “There are so many ways in which this conversation is wrong,” he marvels, eyeing Bane. Tasting the sizzle of adrenaline on the back of his tongue again, he demands, “What if I choose Bruce? As a-- I mean, what if I decide to fuck Bruce, and not you?”

In retrospect, John has said a lot of stupid things in his life, but this might have ranked right up there with the stupidest. Bane’s smile is really terrifying, and it’s funny how much the man can convey without half his goddamn face. “Bruce will die.”

“You’re going to kill him anyway.”

“True,” Bane says thoughtfully. “The question is only how long it will take him to die.”

John holds up a hand. “Wait. Stop. I thought you two had the kind of epic hate that would level mountains. You’re telling me that you were considering giving him an easy death to begin with?”

The secret to dealing with Bane is to listen to what he actually says instead of how he says it. People tend to immediately infer the worst possible interpretation just because it’s Bane who says it, and John knows he’s on to something because Bane answers, “No,” without batting an eye, and John’s frustrated, “What did you mean then, ‘how long it will take him to die?’” gets the incredibly unhelpful, “As I said. It is the question.”

John glowers at him, feeling anger grumble its way down into low-grade sulks. Bane will try to kill Bruce. End of discussion. Who is he to judge what those two maniacs consider an emotionally satisfying relationship? 

“What happens if I say I’ll sleep with just you, provided you don’t kill Bruce?”

Bane tries to look apologetic, without much conviction.

It figures. “I thought I might as well ask," John sighs. "So you’ll kill Barsad, Bruce-- nice. You never learned 'sharing is caring?'"

"I learned to keep what is mine."

"I'm not yours."

This wins a quiet chuckle. John narrows his eyes in sudden realization.

"Wait. What happens if I stop seeing Bruce and date someone else? Pick a girl up in a bar, say?”

Bane just stares at him, and somewhere along the way the scary-ass smile has transmuted into something happy and adoring, like someone has transplanted shiny kitten eyes into Freddy Kreuger. He doesn’t really need to say anything else. John’s heart sinks.

“Oh, you’ve got to be shitting me. Seriously? Seriously? This is your answer? You’re going to be a serial killing cockblocker? Are you telling me that my two choices are being celibate for the rest of my life, or owning the world’s only death-bringing dick?”

Somewhere in there, John apparently paid some kind of compliment that only Bane understands. He looks pleased. “I count five choices.”

“I don’t consider throwing Bruce over for you an acceptable choice, if you’re going to go ahead and kill him anyway. And if I decide to just stay with Bruce--”

“He will die sooner than I have currently scheduled.”

“Again, not actually an acceptable choice.”

“There is one more.”

And yeah, there is. There really is. And it’s not that John is slow, exactly. He’s not stupid. It’s just that it’s-- the problem, really, is context. Because. Well. Because

“You and Bruce ... fuck?” he asks uncertainly instead of what he thinks Bane is really suggesting, appalled and horribly fascinated and undeniably turned on and also, you know, terrified.

“That,” Bane says with the kind of sympathy you give the kid in 4th grade who still treats Elmer’s glue as part of the food pyramid, “will never be an option.”

John doesn’t say anything to that, because he’s still trying to wrap his mind around the idea of having both. Having Bruce and Bane. Getting to have both, for however long they manage not to kill each other -- however long they manage not to kill John. His silence makes Bane lean in after a while, the fat, spider-leg sprawl of his mask pale in the shadow his body casts between John and the light.

All John can think is, he doesn’t have a mouth. How are we supposed to kiss? and Bane’s hand on his chest slides up, powerful and surprisingly gentle, to cradle his head. Fingers trail across John’s mouth, pressing--it’s a kind of a kiss, not quite, but almost--and then drift onward, downward, exploring skin through the curtain of cloth. John feels oversensitized, his breath coming quicker again; Bane slides his hand under the hem of John’s shirt to explore, curious little ghost touches, fingers stroking slow, callus-roughened circles up across his stomach and across his ribs, tracing the lines of muscle until they find his right nipple and pinch--

“Oh,” John breathes, and shudders, his head banging against the door. He can feel his eyes widening, his throat drying. “Fuck me.” He doesn’t mean it like that, it’s a curse, not a request. Except maybe it is, he’s not sure, he should probably correct the impression, except Bane’s thumb is smoothing across his nipple and the scrape of it makes nerves sing, and Christ, he’s so damn hard.

Bane smiles before he can remember what he was thinking, one massive thigh pressing deliciously hard against John’s erection. Deja vu, John realizes dizzily. They’ve been here before. 

“As you wish.”

Chapter Text

Bit of a shock, really, how a guy as big as Bane can pounce so quickly.

“So there’s something you have to know,” John babbles, while his would-be lover strips him ruthlessly of shirt, undershirt, then sends him reeling across the floor in a relentless pursuit of his trousers. “I’m not-- ow, I have a colossally bad track record with relationships--” 

He stumbles, pinned face-first into the wall so Bane can yank down his trousers and drag his legs out of them, shoes popped off his feet by the same determined shove. He feels like a kewpie doll.

Bane flips him around so he can admire John in his underpants and socks. “--I make bad choices. Abandonment issues,” John stammers, trying to hold Bane at bay so he can say his piece. “I had a court-appointed therapist at one point. A lot of orphans have this problem, so we pick people who won’t--” 

Did he always have stubby T-rex arms? Bane reaches around them without any difficulty, picks him up like he’s a rag and dumps him on the bed. John flails, drowned in the soft mattress. By the time he manages to roll over and prop himself up on his elbows, Bane is standing by the bed, stripping his harness and shirt off and--

The complaint John was about to make dies an unlamented death in his throat. Bane is, well. Beautiful. No other word for it. He’s beautiful. In the same way a starving wolf is right before it leaps at you and eats your fucking face off, but still. Beautiful. Pale skin creased with scars, the evidence of a lifetime’s struggle for survival. And muscle, holy shit. He’s the kind of bulk that isn’t the result of repetition at the gym, artificial and cosmetic. It’s muscle he’s earned, in a way that’s more like Bruce than John would have thought possible. 

John’s mouth goes dry again. It’s possible that someday he’ll stop feeling that edge of nervous adrenaline whenever he gets too close to Bane.

Christ, he hopes not. That would be no fun at all.

There’s nothing of the tease about Bane. He’s removing clothes because they’re in the way, not because he’s got a university degree in seduction. His T-shirt gets tossed across the room to land on the duct-taped kitchen table. Then he whips off his belt and glares down at his boots. They’re defying his attempt to toe them off.

He’s got the subtlety of a bulldozer. And John is just sprawled out here in the bed, like he’s supposed to just lie back and think of England. 

Yeah, right. Fuck this shit.

He scrambles up as Bane starts kicking viciously at his boots, unwilling to spare fingers from unbuckling the cryptically empty straps and holders he’s got looped around his thighs. 

“Get over here,” John orders, tumbling off the bed to grab Bane’s forearm. Bane freezes, eyeing him like he’s suddenly turned into a talking dog.

John tugs again, insistently. He’s not kidding himself; if Bane doesn’t want to move, John’ll have about as much luck as he would trying to relocate Wayne Tower with his bare hands. After a few seconds of puzzled staring--trying to decide what breed of talking dog he is, John supposes--Bane finally budges, obediently trailing John back to the bed. John turns him, then pushes him down to sit on the edge.

Bane blinks.

There are all kinds of precedence that John’s not sure he wants to set here. The image of him kneeling at Bane’s feet, for instance, doesn’t thrill him; but he’s feeling the totally understandable need to take control back, before-- yeah, anyway. He nudges Bane’s knees apart, winning another blink, and settles down to start working through Bane’s shoelaces.

Bane doesn’t say anything, just sits there, a little stiff, while John gets one boot off, and then the other. The silence makes John uneasily aware of his own breathing, rapid, the rustle of fabric, the creak of leather, the hiss of Bane’s respiration. The weight of his gaze on the back of John’s neck is like a heavy hand pressing him down. Well, this just won’t do. Too many things to panic or have second thoughts about; he’s already been the damsel in distress once tonight, like hell he’s going to be a bit player in his own movie again.

Eponymous hero, yo. Aggregate and salivate, RT.

“So,” John says, ignoring the tiny crack in his voice that is completely manly. He looks up, meeting Bane’s eyes. “Here are my terms.”

Bane blinks again. Then he starts to get that look--

Stop that, goddammit. What’s so funny? I just think we should start out on the same page, is all.”

“You are negotiating,” Bane says slowly.

“Communication between prospective partners is a sign of emotional maturity,” John informs, leaving unspoken for the moment that it was advice he got out of O Magazine. 

“Negotiating. With me.” Bane sounds fascinated by the entire concept. 

John’s gaze drops, because Bane is still giving him that look, and it’s hard enough for a guy to feel dignified when he’s only in his briefs and mismatched socks, never mind being stared at like he’s a fluffy bunny. The thing lowering his gaze though, is that he ends up with an eyeful of ... well. It’s a full eye, let’s just say, because it’s a full ... fullness.

John thinks about saying something like, Sweet Mary Mother of God how the fuck do you even walk? but curiosity has always been one of his besetting sins. It can't really be as big as it looks, can it? He leans forward to rest a hand on the bulge of Bane’s crotch.

Apparently it can. Huh. Live and learn.

Bane twitches. So does John’s half-hard dick. “Rule 1,” John says, going hoarse. “My apartment is Switzerland. No more fighting here.” 

His fingers slide inquisitively across the ridiculously massive shape under the coarse fabric of Bane’s pants, trying to figure out where it starts and where it ends. There’s a zipper. Well, obviously there’s a zipper. He should pull it. Down. Pull it down. Right. 

“Rule 2,” he says absent-mindedly, unzipping and peeling Bane’s pants apart. Oh look. Commando commander. He carefully dips his hand in, winning a small hitch in Bane’s Darth Vader respiration, to gently draw out the flesh and blood version of the downtown express.

John completely loses track of what he was saying as his own dick, awed, tries to salute a superior model.

“Holy Mother,” he chokes reverently. He wants that. He wants that in him. He is insane. There is no way, no anatomically possible way--

Bane leans forward while John stares, his fingers frozen around the shaft. “Rule 2,” Bane prompts, bracing his hands on his knees. John barely hears him, hypnotized. Bane is uncut and fucking gorgeous. Gorgeous.

Dimly, John hears a small huff of amusement, and blunt, broad fingers slide through his hair, fond. Caressing. “A word I have never heard used to describe me,” Bane says, and John realizes belatedly that he said his last thought out loud.

“People are blind and you’re a scary asshole,” John says, dizzy and not really thinking too much about what he’s saying. Bane chuckles. “Where were we? Rule 2. No killing anybody. I’m going to-- you don’t mind if I put your cock in my mouth, do you? I’ll just....” 

His mouth is watering. He doesn’t wait for an answer. Not that he really needs one. Fingers tighten on his hair, Bane hisses, and then John is dragging down Bane’s foreskin and licking a long, hungry line up the underside of his dick, following the line of the vein from his balls to the swollen head. There’s pre-cum already beading at the tip. He laps it up like a cat before investigating the slit it came from.

The sound Bane makes is inhuman. The mask’s fault. John’s erection doesn’t care. He can feel his boxers growing damp from seepage as the muscles in Bane’s thighs tighten around him. John is doing that to Bane, making him react like this.

Excellent.

Encouraged, he gets down to it with every trick he’s ever learned, making it deliberate and thorough, taking in that tremendous girth like he starving for it. He won’t lie. John likes everything about giving blowjobs: the taste, the feel, the sounds, the power. If the way Bane is growling is any indication, he’s knocking it out of the park, too. 

Bane’s balls are still caught inside the fabric of the pants. John coaxes them out, taking them gently into his mouth one by one, sucking just hard enough to stay on this side of the pain-pleasure threshold while his fingers gently massage what they can reach of the firm stretch behind them.

Wet sounds. Sloppy sounds. Obscene sounds. Bane’s hips jerk, trying to fuck into his mouth; John catches them in his hands, forcing them down as best as he can. A growl. John swats, smacking a slap into Bane’s stomach.

Bane laughs quietly. John gets back at him by hollowing his cheeks and playing chicken with his gag reflex. Bane utters a strangled sound, which makes John's throat vibrate around a suppressed snicker. Bane lurches again.

John might be feeling a little smug. He figures this round goes to him.

“Enough,” Bane says, his fingers convulsing in John’s hair to drag him away. He’s breathless. They both are. John’s lips slide off Bane’s cock with a pop, and Bane jerks again, hissing through the mask.

“Rule 3,” John begins, his throat feeling bruised. 

Massive hands pick him up--he’s back to being a kewpie doll again, apparently--and toss him back on the bed. All of his breath leaves him in a jolt; one leg is caught, the sock yanked off. Cold air on skin as the other goes too. Then, hard and impatient, hands dragging cotton off his hips to leave him naked.

Panic. Maybe. Just a bit. Because so far Bane hasn’t demonstrated all that much in the way of patience, and with a dick that size, not to mention John never having done this before--this has the potential to go bad places. He bolts upright on the bed, his breath scraping frantically in his lungs and ready to unload a keg of whupass over Bane’s head--

Bane has stepped out of his trousers and is standing naked beside the bed, straddle-legged, hands on his hips, a goddamn colossus. His eyes are blown almost completely black; he’s staring at John like he’s his last hope of redemption.

John swallows hard.  

“Come,” Bane says quietly, climbing on the bed one knee at a time to straddle John’s legs. John has the vague thought that this is really trusting of him, all things considered, then loses the thread of his thoughts when Bane presses him back into the mattress with one hand, inexorable but oddly gentle. 

The metal of Bane’s mask brushes John’s chest. Then the side of his neck. Cold. It makes him yelp. It’s like ice, whatever part of the mask it is, and doesn’t warm with contact, just burns. He flinches away.

Bane snarls. It sounds like frustration.

John hasn’t given thought to this before, but he likes kissing. He’s a fan. Kissing is good. Tongues are good. It’s a human instinct, he supposes, to apply all of one’s senses to the act of sex, taste and smell included. Bane can’t access either, and this is suddenly so sad it forces a lump into John’s throat. Hands, though. He has hands, and John has a mouth he can use for both of them. 

He finds Bane’s other hand and tugs it up to his mouth, sucking on his fingers while Bane watches, wide-eyed; presses soft, open-mouthed kisses up the inside of Bane's arm until he’s pulled that massive frame down to reach his throat. The skin there is unexpectedly soft. John nibbles on it, experimenting, and is rewarded with a full-body shudder. Pleased, he nuzzles the pulse under Bane’s ear, feeling the quickening throb of blood beneath the skin. 

John lifts his hands to the mask, wondering if it’s really all that necessary, what it actually does, only to find his wrists seized and pinned above his head.

He twists them futilely. Is not especially surprised, but is a bit worried about how turned on he becomes by the discovery that he can’t escape. “Let me,” he says. 

“No,” Bane says. It’s a weird line to draw in the sand, but it’s Bane’s line to draw.

John sighs and subsides. “Rule 3.”

“Tell me.”

“You don’t, either of you, get to use me--” He breaks off, feeling his eyes go round as Bane presses down against him. The hard length of his erection rubs tantalizingly against John’s, a morale booster if ever there was one. 

“Yes?”

Bane’s free hand is snaking its way down between their bodies, rubbing languid circles against his skin, pulling a tiny squeak out of him with a pinch to his nipples. Shakily, John tries to finish. “You don’t use me to try to get to the other--oh, shit.” Bane lowers his head; that icy burn John felt earlier is now sliding across the hardened nub, a stab of sensation that’s followed by the heat of a filtered exhalation. 

John’s nipples have always been incredibly sensitive. Without thinking, he moans and arches into it. Bane hums in satisfaction, moving his focus to the other one. 

One of Bane’s knees shifts, nudging its way between John’s to part his legs. The other knee joins its buddy while John’s distracted by the discovery that there’s a whole menu of things to do with ice and heat that he’s never ordered off of before.

“Rule-- ah, right...right--”

Yes?”

“...there, fuck, rule 5.”

“Rule 4.”

“I’ve lost count,” John admits, then arches up with a startled whimper when Bane’s hand wraps around his cock. One knee nudges, spreading John wide. Bane strokes him lazily, evilly, giving him just a taste before wandering down and back:  massaging his balls (“Jesus--” John moans) and sliding blunt fingers across the thin skin of his perineum before gently rubbing around his entrance (“--Christ!”)

John’s nervous about this, right? He can’t remember. No, yeah, that’s right, he’s nervous. The lash of fire that’s vibrating around his ribs and through his belly is just fine with everything that’s going on, thank you very much, but his brain has always been a spoil-sport and never lets Rudolph play in any of the reindeer games. It points out a perfectly reasonable objection to the current proceedings.

“Lube,” he gasps. “If you’re going to-- oh shit, I don’t have any. Hand lotion. We can use-- I don’t have lotion. Fuck. Why don’t I have any lube? What’s wrong with me?” 

It’s inconceivable. He must be the only male above the age of 11 in all of Gotham who doesn’t have any lube or hand lotion. If certain people hadn’t trashed his apartment and then thrown out everything they found on the floor...

Bane is looking amused again. He shifts, releasing John’s wrists (John props himself up on his elbows and doesn’t whine in disappointment at all) and gropes between the mattress and the box spring for a couple of seconds. When he straightens, he’s holding a squeeze bottle of lube and a roll of condoms that John has never seen before.

It’s like David Copperfield took his show to a low-rent bathhouse. “Those aren’t mine. What is this,” asks John, baffled. “Santa’s coming early?”

John’s sense of humor is apparently too sophisticated for Bane. “Barsad.”

Barsad’s coming early?”

Bane gives him the patient look you give a kid trying to shove a flashlight up his nose, and says carefully, “Barsad bought them for you.”

John grins for a second, because Bane’s funny. That’s a revelation. Then he stops grinning. Bane’s not funny. “You’re kidding me.”

Bane gives him a puzzled look. “You are not a child.”

“Kidding. Making fun of-- you’re joking. Barsad bought me lube and condoms?” The idea of it, Barsad in 7-11, grimly shelling out money so John can have safe and lubricated romps in bed with his boss.... John’s dick wilts a little. “Oh my God.”

“If it makes you feel better, you may tell yourself that he bought them for me,” Bane says kindly, and pops open the lube to dribble it slick and shiny across his fingers.

“And shoved them under my bed,” John points out.

“You could hardly come to mine.

“Seems to me he took an awful lot for granted.”

He is a man of faith.”

“Faith in what? Recreational slip n’ slide?”

“In a greater power.” At John’s quizzical look, Bane clarifies, “Me.”

He sounds quite smug about it. A second later, John finds himself magically reconciled, especially since Bane has wrapped his wet hand around John’s cock and is giving it long, languid strokes. Extra slick trickles down the skin of his sac, tickling as it goes; Bane chases the trail with his fingers, rolling his balls between them.

John hisses and drops back on the bed, his arms suddenly shaky. “Good Barsad. Nice Barsad,” he says weakly. Bane shifts, drawing John’s legs up so his feet are flat on the bed, his erection leaking onto his stomach.

It leaves him exposed, vulnerable in a way that makes that little flutter of panic flap its wings in his throat again. Not enough to make him do anything about it, more of a friendly, hey there, don’t forget me. I’ll be around later to say I told you so, reminder. He bunches his hands in the blanket covering his bed while he waits, concentrating on Bane’s hands exploring him. Hand still working his cock. That’s nice. Nice hand. Other hand rubbing fingers lightly across his opening again. Not sure about that hand. Reserving judgme--

The feel of a finger pressing in determinedly, working its way past tight muscle, makes John stiffen. Instinct. It’s a stupid instinct. He clenches down without thinking, but it’s a foregone conclusion; he could swear he actually hears the pop of his ass cherry as the finger pushes past his sphincter and slides inside.

For one crazy second, he pictures himself as a sheet of chastity-challenged bubble wrap. Fucked Bruce. Pop! Penetrated by Bane. Pop!

“Relax.” 

“Easy for you to say.” It feels -- wow, it feels weird. He realizes a second later that he’s said that out loud, and makes haste to add, “Not bad weird. Just ... it’s weird.” Full. He feels full, with only a finger in him. Bane chuckles, which is a good thing. John’s always appreciated lovers who can laugh in bed, although maybe laughing in bed is overrated when the person laughing has a finger up John’s ass.

Then the amusement dies away. Bane leans over him, eyes growing blacker. “You have never done this before.”

John is immediately and irrationally defensive. “Don’t be stupid. You think I’m some kind of altar boy? I’m experienced. I’ve done stuff.” The finger in him curls. John bucks his hips off the bed and yelps, “S-some stuff!”

“How much?”

The finger twists and tugs up, dragging out a wail that startles them both. “Lots!” John gasps. “For a-- for a g-given value of lots. Some. Not a lot. Not-- never, okay? I’ve never done this. Do you mind?”

He’s getting that look again, the one that suggests he wouldn’t be out of place with a catnip toy in a cardboard box by the side of the road: Free to Good Home.

“I’m going to murder you,” he snaps, irritated.

“You give me a rare gift, beloved,” Bane says, and even through the hollowing effect of the mask, John can hear how his voice has changed to quiet wonder.

John’s chest feels tight for no reason whatsoever. Sex is awkward. Intimacy is embarrassing. He gives Bane a desperate grimace. We are men, it’s meant to say. Please to not be fucking about with emotions like a Mommy Make Me Better dolly.

Bane, thank God, seems to understand.

They get down to business after that. The rules can wait. Bane rolls him easily, without apparent effort; there’s a brief flex of muscle wrapping around John, and a second later he finds himself upright, straddling Bane’s spread thighs. John clutches at those enormous shoulders to keep himself from toppling over. It’s perfectly natural to rest his head in the hollow of Bane’s neck, balanced like that, burying his face in darkness and the close, familiar scent of the other man. His skin tastes salty and warm; John alternately gnaws and licks his throat and shoulder, leaving angry little marks that make Bane purr.

It’s easier like this. Gravity helps open him up, his thighs splayed wide. Bane’s finger fucks him slowly, tenderly, until he gets used to the oddness of it. When he starts to really relax, another finger joins it, working him open; then, when he’s done swearing and has gone back to relaxing, a third. It aches, the stretch inside, but it’s a good ache after his brain gets reconciled to the novelty of the sensation. 

It doesn’t hurt that Bane’s still stroking him. Stroking both of them, after John manages to free a hand and take them both in his fist. Bane's hand closes over his, pushy bastard, so that the pace Bane sets is the one they both get.

It doesn't matter. After a couple of minutes, John realizes he's fucking himself: into the hot, tight tunnel of their hands forward, into Bane's fingers going back.

And oh. Those whining, broken sounds are coming from him.

"Enough p-prep, God. Get the fuck in me." John's drunk on nerves and exhilaration, which is translating as fine tremors vibrating up his stomach into his arms. Bane’s dick jerks in his hand the words, eager. 

Up to now, Bane has showed more patience than John expected. With the invitation to get on with the show, some of that incredible patience begins to fray. The fingers inside yank out without preamble, making John arch against Bane’s chest with a low, stricken sound.

The tremors increase. Dazedly, John realizes that Bane is making soothing sounds at him, like he’s an anxious pet that needs calming. Bane lifts him, negotiating the bed and the distribution of their limbs until his back is braced on the headboard, John still straddling his legs. 

So he can watch, John realizes. 

In this position, John has some control over how fast things go and how far they go in. He spares a moment to be astonished at the consideration. Without thinking, he brushes a kiss over Bane’s eyelids, wishing desperately he could get to his mouth; Bane’s eyes open wide at him, looking strangely stunned.

John ignores it. Bane’s hands have moved to his hips, but they’re supporting rather than guiding. It’s John who fumbles the condoms off the bed and bites his way through the wrapper, his fingers too slippery to get a real grip. It’s John who rolls it onto Bane’s dick, fascinated by the elastic properties of latex. It’s John who pries the lube open again and dribbles it on the rubber, distributing it with urgent, efficient twists of his wrist.

He lifts himself on his knees, carefully aligning themselves so they’re where they should be. Bane’s eyes meet his, questioning and hot. John catches his lower lip between his teeth and bears down.

It should hurt, and it does, but not as much as John thought it would. He’s slick and loose after the careful prep. Bane slips in easily, smoothly, the head of him already far wider than the three fingers were. He stops on the heels of the initial breach, gasping for breath; Bane’s fingers flex on his hips, struggling with the urge to drag him down. 

No problem. John’s always been a believer in ripping the bandaid off. Flushed, sweating, he grabs giddily for his courage, grips hard on Bane’s shoulders, and forces himself all the way down in one strong, inexorable push.

The sound Bane makes will be wank material for weeks to come. John is silent because fuck, fuck, it hurts, it hurts a lot, and the way he grew up means he’s noisy when it’s trivial but silent when it’s something serious. It’s impossible. This is impossible. He’s being split apart. He clings hard to Bane, rigid, shuddering, fingernails drawing blood where they’ve dug half-moon troughs in the skin. If Bane moves now-- 

Oh God, don’t. Tears sting at the corners of his eyes. Please, please don’t.

He doesn’t have the breath to talk, but again, Bane mercifully understands what John isn’t saying. The huge body stays where it is, hands broad and warming, rubbing comforting circles into quivering muscle.

Eventually, pain ebbs away into discomfort. Its retreat brings other things into focus. The ache of being stretched, being filled in a way his body wasn’t meant to be filled, satisfies some dark, hidden craving he was never aware of until now. The tremendous girth inside him is putting pressure on something that twinges at every tiny adjustment, little stabs of pain-pleasure that he can’t quite get a grip on. 

He moves experimentally. Up, a hair--muscles spasm around Bane’s cock, clutching at it; Bane hands convulse hard enough that there’ll be bruises in the morning--then down again. Silver needles of sensation burn like acid rain at the motion, and it’s pleasure, oh Christ, it’s definitely pleasure. John groans into another careful roll of his hips. 

“Okay,” he rasps. His eyes flutter open, surprised at finding they were closed to begin with. Bane is watching his face like he’s memorizing every change of expression. John’s already flushed. Under that hungry regard, he blushes even darker. 

“Okay,” he says again. His voice is completely wrecked. “Slowly.”

Bane takes him at his word. 

Bane sets the pace again, but he does it answering cues, the rhythm to which John’s flanks flex and relax. John’s not as adjusted as he thought he was; the first few thrusts wrench shocked little cries out of him, which makes Bane drive in harder, greedy for more. 

It’s ... good. God, it’s good, and it gets better by the second.

The speed Bane settles into is agonizing. Not because it’s too fast, but because it’s maddeningly deliberate, even though John tries to urge him faster. Slow, John said. Slow, he gets. It feels like he’s being taunted, like something vital is being held just out of reach. He wouldn’t put it past Bane to be an asshole just for the principle of the thing, and soon John is digging in his nails again for a different reason. 

Faster now, goddammit. I’m not going to break.” It feels like he's been hard forever. He sounds desperate even to himself.

Bane’s eyes smile. 

A second later, John is flat on his back again, his legs hooked over Bane’s arms. The new position squeezes the breath out of him, but Bane drives in deep, deeper, oh fuck, so deep that John feels crushed from the inside-out, the stretch putting more pressure on that-- whatever, it's good, like nothing he's ever felt. His cock is caught between their bodies, and now the hard thrusts that are picking up tempo are going straight to his dick as well, not enough pressure to make him come; just enough to drag him within sight and chain him there, suspended and needing, goddammit. Goddammit.

He squirms, insinuating a hand down to take himself in hand. Bane shoves his hand away to replace it with his own, fuck him. John’s close, so close, he’s right on the edge, the grip around his cock is almost too much, overloading his senses; the speed Bane’s going is driving him into the mattress, taking him apart, and the world is going fuzzy-edged and distant, he’s there, he’s almost there if he can just, just....

John loses his grip on words. That’s fine. Don’t need words. He comes with a shout, convulsing off the bed, barely registering the hot, sharp splatter across his stomach and chest.   

He’s only dimly aware that Bane is still driving into him, unstoppable, triumphant. He’s limp under that punishing onslaught, skidding down the slope from pleasure to oversensitized pain, and that’s good too. He wants that. He’s hungry for that. He’ll have that later, the rough edge, feed the anger he keeps locked safe away for rainy days and Nightwing, the same need he shares with Bruce that only he seems to understand ... but then Bane is slamming down into him, gutteral in his own climax, and suddenly that’s the entire world: the smell of Bane, the taste of Bane, the heat of Bane, pressing him down, down, until he’s drowning in the bed and the sweet, peaceful dark of sleep.


 

John wakes up in the shower, where Bane is cradling him in his arms and sluicing him down with mysteriously warm water. Apparently the hot water is back. Bane is a miracle worker. All hail Bane.

“I c’n stand. Not a baby,” John mumbles with dignity, and starts to struggle.

Bane lets him go, whereupon John immediately collapses into a noodle-limbed heap in the bottom of the tub.

“Ow,” he says sadly.

He can feel Bane’s amusement, though Bane doesn’t say anything. The strong arms draw John up again--his muscles spasm, registering their objections to the activities of the last hour--and he resigns himself to being manhandled again. 

Not so bad, actually. Relaxing. Bane gives a surprisingly good scalp massage. 

John gives himself over to the pleasant lassitude of exhaustion and sexual repletion. It’s been a long time for the latter, though this might not have been the scenario he was expecting a few months ago when he was wondering if he’d ever have non-DIY sex again.

“Rule 4,” he remembers halfway through the shower, his face smashed into Bane’s shoulder while fingers gently open him up to wipe lube out of his opening. The pressure inside him makes him wince, and he groans his opinion of that into wet skin.

“A negotiation is best done before you surrender what you have to give,” Bane says into his ear, soft and low.

“‘s not a negotiation. It’s rules f’r our relationship. You know, for nex’ time,” John informs, determinedly keeping his eyes closed. Bane’s hands go still on his skin. “Rule 4’s we just keep this here, in the bedroom. Outside, it’s business, right?”

“‘Next time,’" Bane says in a mock growl. "Now who is presuming?"

"If you're trying to convince me you're loving and leaving, you would've been more convincing if you hadn't stopped to bathe me."

A snort. Then a chuckle. "And is that all?”

John says drowsily, “Rule 5. Last one. If either of you kills or catches th’other, it’s over between me an’ th’ one tha’s left.”

There’s silence at that. Bane stiffens, the sense of his amusement fading. The hand at John’s back slides up, flattening on his nape, a finger running along the line of his spine. Easy to snap it with the right application of pressure there. Bane showed him one day. “I see,” he says. There’s something ominous in his conversational tones. “You would try to come between us.”

John lets his head fall back so Bane can wrap his hand more easily around his throat. Simple squeeze to kill him. He yawns. “Eh.” The bed seems like a good option right now. Sleep. “Jus’ trying to be fair.”

Bane’s fingers flex, squeezing just enough to put a whine in John’s breathing. He doesn’t struggle. After a moment, Bane’s grip loosens; his thumb rubs thoughtfully on the pulse beneath John’s jaw.

John yawns once more and rolls his head to rest it against Bane’s chest. 

“Fair,” Bane marvels, an odd note in his voice. John thinks about opening his eyes again, but it’s too much trouble. “You trust too much, beloved.”

“Don’t. Grew up on th’ street. Very mistrustful, that’s me.”

Bane snorts again. John grumbles wordlessly, and is rewarded by the feel of Bane’s arm shifting to cradle his head. Much better. Cozy.

“This example of mistrust leaves me unimpressed.”

"If you decide t’ kill me, don't bother t’ wake me up first," John slurs, already drifting off again. "won' be able to walk, t'morrow...."

The last thing he hears is Bane's sigh. John falls asleep again.


 

It's impossible to tell exactly what wakes him up next. It could be the cold. It could be the argument. There's the low snarl of voices nearby, and John's waking ears identify them before his brain can join the festivities.

"Switzerland," he says aloud, eyes still closed.

The voices stop. John is warm. Good. And naked. But dry, so okay, acceptable.

Bed. In bed. He likes bed.

Ice-laden air nips at his face, making him burrow down under the covers, then fades away. And now, he realizes as his brain reluctantly turns the ignition, he’s being stared at. 

He pries his eyes apart and peers blearily over the edge of the blanket. It’s still night, or buttfuck early, dark inside the room except for the thin wash of street lights wavering in through the windows.

It’s enough to see what’s going on, at least, and figure out who else is in the apartment.

Batman.

No Bane.

Also, no property damage.

“It worked,” John realizes, surprised.

Bruce doesn’t say anything.

“Switzerland, I mean,” John explains, in case Bruce gets the wrong idea. “I told Bane--”

“He told me.” It’s the first thing Bruce has said to him, and the wrongness of the words are as jarring as the voice he says them in. Batman body. Bruce voice. Twilight Zone words. 

John pulls the covers down a little further, realizing in one corner of his mind that Bane has replaced the blankets. His breath puffs white in the chill of the apartment. “You had a conversation with Bane?” In a skeptical double-check, he glances around his hovel again. Nope. Kitchen table still in duct-taped order. Since it’s the only piece of functional furniture left besides the bed, it’s possible that they just missed hitting it in their rampage around the room.

“Your apartment is cold.” Non sequitur from Bruce.

John scowls. “In case you didn’t notice, my landlord tried to have me killed. Getting my heating fixed is probably not high on his list of priorities.”

“Good thing Bane warmed you up.”

It’s almost ... snippy. John scowls, or rather, squashes his eyebrows together and tries to arrange his mouth into a frown. It’s hard, because the memory of Bane ‘warming him up’ makes his mouth want to do other things. “You told me,”  he reminds. “You said it was my choice.”

Bruce is silent for a long time, his hands hanging heavy and still by his sides. It’s astonishing how much sheer menace he can project just by standing there, breathing, like the carbon dioxide molecules he exhales will float through the gap between them and then perforate John from the inside out until he’s nothing but a deconstructed meat bag of pinpoint holes and shredded protein chains. John just watches him, fascinated, trying to figure out how he does it.

“It was,” Bruce says at last, quiet. 

And then he turns away to stalk to the window.

It’s not until it’s almost too late that John figures out what’s going on.

“No! Wait!” Trying to sit up proves to be a bad idea. His voice breaks off into an embarrassing sound of pain that does nothing to slow Bruce down. “You asshole! I didn’t choose Bane!”

That stops him. The cape billows angrily--John really needs to learn how Bruce does that--before settling to eerie stillness around him. Framed against the backdrop of the window, street lights burning greasy and sullen around his silhouette, he’s a gothic tragedy come to life.

John’s dick yawns, smacks its lips, stretches, then wakes up, intrigued. Doesn’t it just figure.

“I had five choices. Pick you, and expect him to try to kill you ahead of whatever fucked up schedule he’s got in his head. Pick him. Pick complete celibacy, which I gotta tell you, wasn’t appealing to me even back when I was too tired and scared to get it up anyway. Or pick someone else instead, knowing that he’ll kill anyone else I get interested in.”

Bruce doesn’t say, we could protect them, because both of them know how false those promises are, no matter how sincerely they’re meant.

It doesn’t surprise John that he doesn’t argue the implication of the first choice either, that the likelihood of Bane actually managing to kill Bruce is better than 50/50.

“That’s four,” Bruce says, finally.

“I asked Bane if choice five was the two of you getting it on. Because I would’ve paid to see that.”

Bruce manages to make silence speak incredulous volumes. 

“He said that would never be an option. Although I have to tell you, personally, I think it would’ve been--”

“No.”

“I was going to say--”

“No.”

“--hot. You realize you just agreed with Bane.”

Silence.

“Just saying.”

“You sacrificed yourself for me,” Bruce says flatly.

John snorts, and gingerly props himself up on his elbows. Small motions, that’s the ticket. He can manage those. “I appreciate the thought, but don’t kid yourself.”

That makes Bruce turn at last to look at him. John would give a lot to be able to see Bruce’s face right now, but beggars can’t be choosers. At least he’s got Bruce’s attention, for however long that lasts.

“You said it was my choice,” he says again, in a smaller voice.

“I did.” 

“So.”

More silence, this time of a considering, tired sort.

“You want both of us,” Bruce says at last, slowly, like he’s trying on the words for size. 

John thinks about saying something flippant, like, who wouldn’t? but instead settles for a more tactful, “Not at the same time, but yeah. I mean. If you’re--” open? flexible? available? willing? He clears his throat. “It’s not exactly, um. Traditional.”

Bruce says nothing.

“I mean, Father Reilly wouldn’t approve. Sister Benedict might, but it’s not like she’s a very good nun--”

A sound from Bruce; it sounds suspiciously like amusement. John squints into the dark hollow of the mask, trying to make out an expression out of the blotches of lighter and darker shadow that make up a face.

“--and I don’t think Gordon would be giving it his blessings anytime soon--”

It’s definitely a snicker. 

John pushes himself up a little more, and is triumphant when he finally manages a seated position. Bruce stays where he is, watching him, until he’s finished squirming his way into a position that takes some of the weight off his bruised ass.

“I don’t share,” Bruce says.

“You don’t share well,” John corrects. “You’ve been sharing just fine with me.”

“That’s different.”

“You mean you won’t share with Bane.”

Even in the darkness, John can tell the look Bruce is giving him is of the scathing variety.

“I’m not asking you to,” John says, struggling to keep his voice steady. “I mean, I am. But it’s up to you. I’m not-- I’m not the same thing to you that I am to Bane. I’m not entirely sure what he gets from me, actually. Besides the obvious. Or what he wants from me. But you, I understand.”

More silence.

“I made rules?” John says tentatively.

“I heard.”

“He told you all five?”

“He told me one.”

“Switzerland, you mean.”

The cowl inclines in a nod.

John swallows. “If you want to stay,” he offers, trying to sound casual and managing to completely fuck that up. “I might not be up for much tonight, but I’m-- I mean, if you want to get into bed, I could tell you the rest of them.”

Bruce doesn’t move.

In a small voice, John says, “We could ... cuddle? Or something?”

It’s a stupid thing to say. An insane thing to say. The kind of thing only a man who has been hit on the head multiple times during the course of the last six hours would even dream of saying to Batman.

Bruce sighs. 

Eventually, he moves.

For the first time, the apartment gets to hear the inimitable sound of the Batsuit being dismantled.

Rip. Rip.

Thunk.

Thud.

John doesn't find it too loud at all.


 

Surprisingly, Bruce gives great cuddle.

John reciprocates with great head.

(He’s a big believer in quid pro quo.)

It's been an exhausting night. John can't be blamed for falling asleep again, even if he does it while Bruce is busy leaving giant, pointed hickeys on his inner thighs. John has the drowsy suspicion that those hickeys are placed exactly over the bruises Bane left behind, but he's too comfortable to complain. If it's some sort of message, he's sure they'll figure it out between them; and if they're going to communicate with each other using his body, at least it's not through post-its inserted in inconvenient places.

At some point in the early morning, Bruce leaves John asleep and still naked in bed, and slips out to head back to the cave.

There've been times in the past when John's invited people into his bed and had them sneak out on him before he woke up. It always used to annoy him. He can't make himself feel the same about Bruce. As it turns out, it's just as well he did leave early; otherwise, he might have still been there when Gordon, Montoya, Stephens, and two uniforms break down John’s apartment door to rescue him from Bane.

John makes a note to get Babs’s number. He figures the least he can do for Jim is tell his daughter what it’s like to do the walk of shame--the sheet-wrapped, blushing red, completely fucked-out and limping hobble of shame--in front of her dad.

You know. Just so she can plan ahead.

 

 

Chapter Text

The older he gets, the more John is convinced that closure is a bullshit concept made up by script writers and the American Greeting Card industry. 

Real life is messy. It’s plotted poorly. Witness John’s excuse for a life. In no proper story would boy meet dead boy, boy meet evil boy, boy fuck dead boy, dead boy and evil boy fight, boy lose dead boy, boy fuck evil boy, boy get dead boy and evil boy, dead boy and evil boy reach mutually hostile agreement over boy and for fuck’s sake, boy can’t make this shit up.

Boy isn’t sure what the hell is going on, but somehow his apartment is still Switzerland minus the clocks, chocolate, and cash, so at least there’s that. 

In a really satisfying story, there’d be some sort of denouement, where everything got perfectly sorted. 

Too bad. Apparently, this is a low budget production. 

Oh look. We’re back where we started.

Again.

 


 

Right, so there was that thing about Gordon saving him from sexual exhaustion. About that.

 


 

"Son," Gordon says two months later, squinting at Nightwing over the inevitable cup of coffee atop the precinct roof. "You look like crap."

John's not quite sure what his relationship with Gordon is anymore, which describes pretty much every major relationship with every other guy in his life right now. If he had to place it, he'd land it somewhere between 'uncle' and 'mentor.' He's got alpha male oozing out his ears these days; by comparison, Gordon's relaxing: a man he respects who can actually shut up and listen when he needs to.

"It's been busy," John says.

"It's always busy," Gordon says, the neighborhood expert on never catching a break. "What have you been doing to yourself?"

John says evasively, "I haven't been sleeping very well."

"Too much time on the streets?"

"No. Just ... not sleeping well. I guess.”

“Funny,” Gordon says without expression. “I would’ve thought your association with Batman would leave you wrung out enough that sleep wouldn’t be a problem.”

Association. Hah. “You’re a dirty old man,” John accuses. “I’m not talking to you about my ‘associations.’ And no, it’s not all Batman.” Which is technically true. It’s not just Bruce, anyway. 

Gordon gives him a look that speaks volumes. 

"I don't look that bad." 

"You look like a heroin addict." Gordon lifts John's arm up to wave his wrist in front of his face. He stripped the gauntlets off to deal with coffee and, okay, Montoya’s donut contribution was motivational in a way he doesn’t care to admit, and the bones are standing out under the skin more than they usually are. His own gauntness is a surprise to John, now that it's brought to his attention; it's not like he spends real time looking at himself in the mirror. 

"Don't you eat?" Gordon demands.

"Speaking of which, Commissioner Pot -- when was the last time you ate solid food?"

Gordon looks unfocused. Which basically means he can't remember either. John feels smug. Take that.

Count on Gordon not to stay down for long. "Food is one of those necessities of life, son. You might want to look into that."

"Coffee isn't a balanced meal," John snarks back. "Get back to me when you've put something in your mouth that requires you to have teeth."

Gordon pops a toothpick between his lips and hums around it, eyeing him.

“You’re so childish,” John says with admiration.

“Show a little respect for your elders, son.”.

The ostensible reason for John to be on the rooftop with Gordon is Dzubenko. The federal government, having received a gift-wrapped mob boss for the third time from the increasingly exasperated city of Gotham, has been impressively motivated to get to the sentencing part of the court case that’s still mired in pre-trial motions.

By way of rubbing lemon juice on paper cuts, the mayor has volunteered the services of the GPD to help keep Dzubenko in custody until the feds manage to get their act together.

Bruce is threatening to fly to Albany and go undercover in the federal prison to keep an eye on him.

John thinks that’s a brilliant idea. He’s already offered to make a disguise.

“The mayor’s trying to score political points,” Gordon says, his mustache twitching. “I told Batman, and I’m telling you, don’t get involved. Let the feds deal with it. God knows, we’ve got enough to do right here in Gotham.”

“I don’t see how it’d be funny if he got out again, all things considered,” John says, suspicious of the grin he can see trying to hide behind facial hair. “Where’s the joke?”

“Word on the street is that Dzubenko’s put a hit out.”

“Heard about that.” Everybody’s heard about that. At least, everybody that Nightwing drops in on has heard about that. “Won’t be the first time someone’s put a hit out on Batman.”

“Batman and Bane,” Gordon amends with rare glee.

That’s news to John. “You’re kidding me.”

“Make sure you tell him,” Gordon says, and chuckles to himself in quiet satisfaction. Among the relationships John simply doesn’t understand these days, Gordon and Bruce’s is pretty high up there. Gordon’s been spending much of the last two months yanking Bruce’s chain. Bruce has been reacting by visiting Gordon more often, coming away with a kind of baffled irritation that’s equal parts hilarious and endearing. 

If Gordon was a petty man, John would think he’s punishing Bruce for pretending to be dead and then avoiding him for the first few weeks back. Since Gordon’s not petty, John has decided that he’s practicing on Bruce, fine-tuning the paternal schadenfreude and I will fuck your shit up-ness that he’ll be using on Babs’s boyfriends someday. 

It’s touching, if a little weird. John’s not sure how he feels about being cast as a grown-up, Y-chromosome version of Babs in Gordon’s mind. 

They go through the list of missing kids while John finishes off his coffee. Warren and Liang are making inroads on Matthew Belize’s case, but they haven’t gotten to the stage where they’ve got a narrow pool of suspects yet. There’s little John can do to help on that front--it’s good old-fashioned, daylight detective work that’ll catch this guy, not the late night heroics of a part-time vigilante--but he keeps his eye on the investigation anyway, in between working through the missing kids that're left.

He's able to cross off a few more names on the list, which pleases Gordon. Makes him happy enough that he seems to forget the subject of John's appearance.

Except apparently not, because the two days later when Bruce makes his butt-crack-a.m. booty call, he starts out, not by stripping, but by ripping the covers off of John--"Dammit," John says sleepily. "Really? Really?"--to stare at him. Then he takes all of John's clothes off. John feebly complains about how cold it is, and how like hell is he having sex with Bruce still wearing Batsuit again, because the fucking thing chafes.

When Bruce stops to stare at him again, John is more annoyed than turned on. Because now he’s naked and shivering in the bed; it's freezing in the studio, even with the improved heating system installed by his new landlord.

"What?" he grouses at Bruce, sitting up to drag the covers back over his head. Then it's rip, rip, thunk, thud again (seriously? ninjas?) and then Bruce is sliding between the sheets with him and John is ready to forgive him anything because goddamn, the guy is warm. Burning. Not to mention creatively motivated to find other reasons to make John shiver.

Bruce is weirdly tentative that night (morning, whatever) which is odd. Normally there's no question about who's in control of what's going on, and there’s an edge of violence that John appreciates; it's one of the hottest things about sex with the guy. For a change though, he's almost tender, handling him gently like he's worried he'll break him. John doesn't even get any new marks, which is disappointing and a little alarming; the first month after the Arrangement started, Bruce started out each visit by overwriting every bruise Bane left with deliberate and rapidly growing hickeys, and Bane reciprocated by religiously covering those hickeys with more bruises. 

John put a stop to their hematoma one-upmanship after he realized one morning there was literally no skin on his inner thighs that was the original color, not to mention his neck made him look like a sex worker specializing in autoerotic asphyxiation.  

(After that, they started competing on which one of them could make him climax more times per visit, which John hasn’t put a stop to yet. He figures they need some harmless outlets to work out their aggression. Don’t mind him, he’s just sacrificing himself for the good of Gotham. Again. It’s what a real hero would do.)

“Are you feeling okay?” John pants, when he’s left boneless and sweat-slick, draped across Bruce like an extra blanket. 

“I’m fine. Why?” Bruce’s voice sharpens. “How are you?”

John groans, because what Bruce didn’t do in violence, he at least made up for in thoroughness, and rolls off to smash his face into the pillow. Bruce hums in a satisfied sort of way, and the mattress dips when he gets up. Among the hundreds of traits Bruce and Bane share--a subject that interests John but for some reason leaves them cold, no matter how much he raises the subject--is a pathological inability to grasp the concept of afterglow. 

John pulls the covers over his head again and tries to snag the last few minutes of sleep he can. He doesn’t have a work schedule per se, but he has a routine. He sleeps as long as he can, then gets up just in time to take a 2 minute shower before heading to St. Swithin’s.

His assumption is that Bruce is going to leave while John’s asleep, because that's what usually happens. So it freaks him out when he wakes up fifteen minutes later to the smell of eggs and bacon.

He doesn't own eggs and bacon. In fact, the only thing in his refrigerator is a carton of expired milk and a package of rice krispies that he keeps in the refrigerator because that way he only has to make one stop to get to all his food. Also, a box of Chinese takeout he hasn't thrown out yet because he's honestly scared that if he touches the carton, it'll try to eat him.

John sits up with a jerk to stare blearily at the kitchenette.

Bruce is standing there in a suit that probably cost more than John’s rent for all of last year. And he’s wearing an apron.

“What the fuck,” John says, gaping.

Bruce glances down at his apron, then levels a mild look back at him. “It keeps my clothes clean,” he says. He’s holding a spatula with bits of scrambled eggs clinging to it. 

“Why?” John asks. “Why do you even have to keep your clothes clean? Or to put it another way, why are you cooking breakfast?”

“You don’t eat enough.”

“I eat plenty.”

“Not enough. Gordon’s right. You look terrible.”

John narrows his eyes at Bruce, who narrows his own eyes back. Gordon is a fucking traitor. “So you decided to cook me breakfast.”

“You realize your kitchen is capable of more than just storing paper plates and leftover Chinese.”

“Yeah. I mean, I’ve heard rumors. How come you know that?”

“I was raised by Alfred. He’s a big believer in self-sufficiency.”

“He irons your underwear,” John points out blankly.

“Is that something you want? Would you like me to iron your underwear?” 

“Why would you iron my underwear?”

“Freshly ironed underwear feels pleasantly toasty against the skin.”

“And now I’m just feeling confused and threatened.” For more than one reason. The domesticity of the is unnerving, to put it mildly; John is experiencing the kind of cognitive dissonance that comes with finding a Bengal tiger in high heels and frilly maid outfit in one’s kitchen. 

“Eat,” Bruce orders, dishing up a plate and setting it on the table.

It’s funny that John should feel modest about being naked in front of Bruce. All things considered, anyway. It isn’t as though Bruce hasn’t become intimately acquainted with pretty much every square inch of him. On the other hand, that’s always been in the dark up to now, and once in the strange half-light of the cave. He dithers for a second, trying to decide what to do, then gives it up as a bad job and stalks, not sprints, over to his hamper to drag clean clothes on. 

The eggs have green and red things in them. John pokes them suspiciously before deciding they must be, uh, spice-things. Or maybe vegetable-things. And, he decides after he takes a bite, delicious cheese-things. “What the fuck,” he says again, but this time it’s reverent.

There’s also toast with what Bruce tells him is apple butter. “Alfred made it,” Bruce says.

“The toast?” John asks, alarmed at the thought Alfred might have been in his apartment and judging him in his sleep.

“The butter.”

“He taught you how to cook like this?”

“Yes.”

“I think I want to have sex with your butler,” John confides in a hushed whisper.

Bruce’s mouth relaxes, like he thinks John is joking. “You’re terrified of him.”

“It’ll be really exciting sex,” John says hopefully, but Bruce doesn’t offer up his butler as dessert, so John’s forced to eat the incredible breakfast without showing his appreciation to the genius behind the spatula. He should probably reconsider the life choices that have made sex the go-to expression of his gratitude. Especially considering at least one of his boyfriends is planning on killing anyone who gets too close to John’s dick.

Of course, Alfred could probably take Bane with one superior eyebrow tied behind his back, so at least there’s that.


 

Not that John’s had all that many relationships notable for their longevity, but it turns out that two months is long enough for the honeymoon period to fade a bit. It isn’t as though Bruce or Bane are particularly easy-going guys, and it’s not like they bother being on their best behavior. True, they don’t eat crackers in bed or use the last of the toilet paper without replacing the roll, but one of them dresses up like a bat and the other one thinks nuclear holocaust is an acceptable punchline to a bad joke.

It’s plenty of time for the frayed seams and ugly bits to start making themselves visible to the alarmed and paranoid eye of an ex-cop. It’s also plenty of time for a relationship to start having those unexpected ripples in the pool of friends and acquaintances.

One of the most unnerving of those ripples has to be the one involving Barsad. Barsad and Father Reilly.

And the orphans of St. Swithin.

The basketball court has a few kids playing in it when John arrives at the orphanage, but it isn’t as crowded as it should be on a weekend morning, even with the wind chill pushing the temperature down to the mid-50’s. Inside he finds a full house, a couple of uniformed cops having a conversation with Reilly.

“Another Bane sighting in the neighborhood,” Officer Lenley tells John, when he asks the apprehensive questions of who the fuck did what, when, and to who? “Commissioner Gordon ordered the precinct to keep a closer eye on the place and the kids, just in case.”

That’s a pretty specific order to come down the food chain from the Commissioner of the GPD, ultimate commander of over 30,000 cops in charge of peacekeeping a population of over 8 million. Then again, Bane. And then again, Gordon’s always had Batman’s back; it makes sense he’d have Nightwing’s back as well, especially since he knows who Nightwing is.

Reilly looks like he’s ready to melt into a puddle of sheer adoration for Commissioner Gordon. He’s got an old man crush. It’s kind of adorable.

“We’re putting up more wanted posters too,” Lenley tells them cheerfully, passing over a stack of papers. “Everyone knows what Bane looks like, but we got a sighting reported of one of his men, too. He’s a little harder to recognize, since he wasn’t on TV. Figure it couldn’t hurt. Just call it in if you see him. Don’t try to stop him or anything. He’s a killer. Absolutely ruthless. Not to be approached. Warn the kids, too?”

“Have you met the kids?”

“They’re cute,” Lenley says with less enthusiasm. “One of them called me a fairy and then stole my handcuffs.”

John squints at Lenley, who might set off John’s gaydar if Lenley were the only other living being left on earth and John were, say, heavily concussed and OD-ing on Viagra. “Fairy, huh?”

“Yeah, that's what I thought at first, but I think they meant a literal fairy.” Lenley scratches his head. “I got back in the car and found a pair of wings stapled to my shirt. They were nice. They were painted and everything.”

“Pink’s really not his color though,” says his partner.

“If they ask you for blood, say no,” John warns, because he’s been down this road with them before.

Since Reilly is staring with bulging froggy eyes at posters of Barsad looking homicidal under the scraggly beard he no longer affects, it’s John who walks Lenley and his partner out of the building. When he returns, Reilly is clutching a paper bag and looking conflicted.

“John,” he whispers, plucking unhappily at John’s shoulder. “That poster. It looks like--it looked like--”

“It’s a superficial resemblance,” John reassures, patting the priest on the back. There’s probably a special hell for people who lie to priests. He should ask Sister Benedict about it. She’s an expert. 

“You saw it too!” Reilly frets.

John keeps patting. “Sucks to be him,” he says, shamelessly appealing to Reilly’s sympathetic side. “He probably gets pulled over by cops all the time, just because he looks the way he does. Imagine if he really was Barsad, though. Wouldn’t that be incredible? Terrorist mastermind, coming to church, working with orphans--”

John is a bad person. Reilly promptly perks up.

“It would be, wouldn’t it?” the priest says wistfully. “He’s been a real help keeping the children entertained. He’s teaching them how to deal with bullies.”

Barsad’s idea of dealing with bullies is to slit their throats, cut off their ears, take over their territories, then topple the regional government.

 “Oh. Good,”  John says weakly. “And how’s that going?”

Reilly enthuses, “The children love him. I was thinking of asking him if he’d be interested in running an after-school community program during the weekdays, if he had time. Were you looking for him? He’s in Room 3. Angelo was talking about his social studies class, and Bob offered to do some tutoring.”

Bob. John twitches like he always does at the name, desperately trying not to laugh. “Great,” he says in a strangled voice. “I’ll just-- I just need to give him something. I’ll go look for him.”

John’s never been able to get a straight answer from Bane or Barsad about the latter’s presence at St. Swithin’s. Three weeks after John started his strange menage-a-what-the-fuck with his boss, Barsad materialized at the orphange as a volunteer, already best friends with Reilly. They played soccer on Tuesdays and chess on Mondays and Thursdays. Barsad helped Reilly figure out his mother's health insurance paperwork.

Reilly was under the impression that John had encouraged him to volunteer. John, pissed and scared by Barsad’s proximity to the kids, wasn’t particularly amused.

“If this is meant to be some kind of threat -- if you so much as lay a finger on those kids -- I’ll fucking kill you,” he hissed at Barsad, when Reilly puttered away to find mops and pails.

Barsad had just stared at him with the cold, flat eyes of a long-dead monkfish, and went off to fix the rec room television.

It figures that the kids, faced by a Wil Wheaton lookalike with the personality and instincts of a mass murderer, would immediately decide he’s the best thing to ever happen to them. Paranoia drives John to follow Barsad around like a psychotic duckling for all of two weeks. 

Barsad ignores him, because his guiding philosophy seems to be that if you’re not allowed to kill it, pretend it doesn’t exist. After a while, John realizes there really isn’t all that much to be worried about. Barsad treats the kids like he treats John -- with an incredulous loathing that suggests only in America would humanity have fallen so far as to squirt out such sorry specimens -- and the kids, being perverse little fucks, adore him. They cling to him like limpets when he works on exposed wiring. He teaches them how to make shivs out of toothbrushes. They draw pictures of him shooting innocent bystanders. He teaches them how to make car bombs out of cleaning fluids and household supplies.  

Reilly’s trying to raise model citizens. He’s going to end up with maniacal midget supervillains. As far as John is concerned, the only saving grace in this entire situation is that Sister Benedict isn’t still at St. Swithin. She and Barsad would have gotten on like jock itch in an NFL locker.

John finds Barsad -- “Bob” -- in Room 3, just as Reilly promised. At a glance, Barsad’s version of tutoring is not the kind approved by public school boards; he appears to be passing around grainy, graphic photographs to the accompaniment of a vicious lecture in which blood diamonds are somehow related to the size of exit wounds made by AK-47s in child soldiers. 

“Wow,” John says. Barsad cuts off mid-word to glare; as one, all fourteen kids in the room turn to stare at John. “I don’t remember this in social studies.”

The kids immediately dogpile him, sending him to the floor in a cacophony of high-pitched shrieks and, “Guess what Bob’s teaching us!” In the noise, John can barely hear Barsad’s grim, “Next time, we talk about Mississippi appendectomy and Tuskegee syphilis experiment.”

“You’re just a fuzzy little ball of sweetness and light, aren’t you?” John observes, when he’s managed to shed the kids and send them off in search of food. “I don’t know how you live with yourself.”

“I do not know why you still live,” Barsad returns, in that conversation killing way of his. 

Normally, this would be enough for John to shove a cross in Barsad’s face on the off chance it’d make him hiss and burst into flame. Today, though, John is on a mission. “To bring joy into your life, obviously. Tickets, my friend.”

John drags the envelope out of his pocket and attempts to slap them on Barsad’s chest, which proves to be a painful error in judgment. Still, the transfer is made, though there’s a quizzical furrow dug between Barsad’s eyebrows when he opens the envelope up and examines the slips of paper inside.

“‘Avenue Q,’” Barsad reads.

John says breathlessly from the floor. “You said you liked muppets. Ow. I think you broke my collarbone.”

“I like Sesame Street.”

“I’m impressed by how you can say that and still seem manly-- fuck, don’t step on me--!”

“I have ripped the tongues out of liars. I have disemboweled dictators. I have worn the blood of children slain like cattle on the battlefield. Sesame Street is a prayer to innocence in the midst of the putrescence of human--”

“Yeah, whatever. Look, a friend of a friend is in the orchestra. You know how hard those tickets are to get?”

“A musical,” Barsad says flatly, in the same way he’d say, ‘a mortal gut wound,’ or -- because it’s Barsad and the way he emotes could put concrete to shame -- ‘the toast is burning.’ “You wish me to attend an entertainment.”

“With me. I got two tickets. It’s got muppets. Or you can take a date, if you want. If you date.” Released from Barsad’s hold, John sits up to eyeball him dubiously. Barsad eyeballs him back. “Date people,” John clarifies, in case there’s any uncertainty. “Living people.”

"You wish me to go with you to the theater," Barsad says.

"Yeah?"

“You are attempting to trick Bane into killing me,” Barsad decides. He almost sounds impressed, like John has finally done something to redeem himself after a lifetime of utter uselessness. 

John hates to disappoint him. “Not even close. You’re the BFF of one of my nutcase boyfriends. I was just thinking-- you know, it’s kind of my job to either make you like me--”

“You should concentrate on achievable goals.”

“--or make you hate me more--”

Barsad’s eyebrows twitch, which is internationally approved terrorist for, ‘That’s not possible.’

“--but either way, everybody wins,” John says. “Except for the nutcase boyfriend, but that’s what he gets for being a prick. Thanks so much, by the way. Don’t even pretend to me you didn’t know what he’d do when he saw me wearing that fucking Batman necktie you gave me. Here I thought you were reaching out and trying to be a bro.”

Barsad looks inscrutable, which is his way of smirking. It’s intensely irritating, which is the only reason why John says vengefully, “It’s ruined. I’ll never be able to wear it again. He tied me to the bed with it and used up the rest of the condoms you gave us. Fucked me right through the goddamn mattress. At one point, he tied my knees to my shoulders--”

It’s the first and only time he’s managed to make Barsad run. While it’s more of a straight-legged stalk out of the room in the middle of what John was saying, it’s speedy enough that John considers it a win.

“You’ll love Avenue Q!” he yells after Barsad’s disappearing back. “It’s wholesome! There’s singing! And feelings! Lots of feelings!”

The door slams shut. By Barsad’s standards, this is practically a scream.

John’s pretty sure Barsad privately likes him. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be providing sex toys for John’s amusement.

That said, John’s a little nervous about what Bane will do with the bobblehead Batman doll Barsad gave him last week.

 


 

The post-it express that Bruce and Bane used to use to communicate stopped sometime at the end of the first month, when Grandma Li came upstairs with a bunch of them she’d excavated out of the laundry machine, slapped John silly, then gave him the most terrifying birds and bees talk ever. In Chinese mime. Mr. Li wouldn’t meet his eyes for an entire week afterwards, which was just as well since John couldn’t meet Mr. Li’s, either. 

Whatever new route for communication Bruce and Bane had figured out between themselves was working just fine, insofar as he could tell. He gets the occasional verification at times like these, when he’s walking harmlessly along the street, just an innocent bystander, only to get grabbed by a hand the size of a Welsh Corgi.

Two seconds later he’s falling down a manhole cover into an astonishingly dry and comfortable tunnel under G Street.

“Normal people use the telephone!” John shouts, when he’s done reflexively trying to castrate his attacker and is in turn reflexively smashed face-first into the wall with a hand wrapped around the back of his neck.

“Is that how you think of me? A man who would be normal?” Bane asks with curiosity, his face right next to John’s ear. 

John goes limp in Bane’s hold. At this point, it’s practically Pavlovian. Bane is always willing to hold him up, and it’s both a turn-on and relaxing to be manhandled by the guy. Case in point; Bane shifts back, shakes John by the nape for all the world as if he’s a misbehaving puppy, then tucks him into a one-armed hold against his chest. 

The support is kind of a relief, actually. There’s a dull pain in his hip from last night’s throwdown between Nightwing and a visiting arms dealer’s goons. Bane holding him up means he doesn’t have to put any weight on it.

John lets his head fall back and scowls up at him. “So Barsad might be killing me soon.”

Bane looks resigned. “You have been attempting to anger him.”

“Not on purpose.”

“It is unwise for a cub to provoke a bear.”

“I can’t help it if he misinterprets my attempts to be buddies.”

“He displays more tolerance towards you than you deserve.”

“Because you adore me,” John says wisely. 

“It would displease me if someone else were to kill you,” Bane admits.

“Someone besides you, you mean. Don’t think I didn’t notice the way you said that.”

Bane chuckles. “You are foolhardy, but not entirely a fool.”

“Deep down you like me. And so does he. I’m almost sure of it.”

“In my experience, liking does not preclude killing,” Bane observes in a matter-of-fact way.

John sighs. “It’s a damn good thing the sound of your voice is such a turn-on, because if I actually listened to the words that come out of your mouth, I’d never get it up again.”

Bane eyes him with some exasperation, but it’s only conducive to a little bit of terror on John’s part. The expression is too amused to be entirely threatening. “Your mouth moves too much for you to listen.”

“Batman said the exact same thing to me yesterday,” John informs, because his other favorite pastime, besides being a fuckable chewtoy for the city’s two most powerful and insane men, is to provoke the city’s two most powerful and insane men. “In fact, he used almost the exact same words. He said, ‘how can you hear anything when you--’”

He doesn’t get to share the rest of what Bruce said, because Bane puts his hand over his mouth. Because apparently that’s what they do now, reenact stupid kidnapping scenes from ‘80s cop shows.

“You are unwell,” Bane informs, while John abandons the idea of licking Bane’s fingers because, ugh, sewers and what the fuck has Bane been touching down here. “You have lost weight you can ill afford to lose. You do not eat or rest enough.”

“Can’t imagine why that last one would be,” John says behind the muffling hand, with indifferent success.

He gets shaken again. His skull goes thump on Bane’s chest. “You will take better care for yourself, beloved,” Bane warns. “Or I will send someone to care for you.”

Ominous. The hand covering his mouth lets him go.

“Could you send Julia Stiles?” John asks hopefully. “Even if we couldn’t, you know, I could at least look at her. And she’d definitely make the apartment look prettier.”

Bane ignores him. Who’s not listening now? “We will come less frequently to your bed, for now,” he says.

“Whoa, wait. What’s this ‘we?’ You can’t just--”

“Bruce has agreed.”

“What? When the hell did--”

“You will rest on those nights. You will have food delivered to you, and you will eat regular meals.”

Because they’ve decided for him, oh good, like he’s the kid they split custody of during the divorce. The epic ‘wikipedia articles and college thesis papers will be written about this until the end of time’ divorce.

“This is not sexy. No healthy, well-adjusted guy in his twenties wants to feel like he’s having regular sex with his goddamn mother.”

“Is this how you regard yourself?” Bane asks mildly. “As a well-adjusted man?”

Which is, irritatingly, a fair point. There are a lot of things that well-adjusted men in their twenties don’t do. Starting with this entire conversation, with this particular conversational partner. 

“You called me a man,” John points out.

“You are one.”

I know that. You’re treating me like a kid, though.”

“You are a young man who needs caring for,” Bane says patiently, which is almost sweet until he adds with monumental creepiness, “and you belong to me.”

Normally, John would be saying words about this. Heated, pointed words. On the other hand, this is the first thing in two months of -- whatever it is they’ve been doing together -- that Bruce and Bane have seen eye to eye on anything independent of John’s training. 

To be completely honest, a part of him is secretly relieved. It’s exhausting, keeping up sexually with these men, keeping up a night job as a vigilante, and being an investigator and occasional St. Swithin volunteer during the day. That’s six people’s worth of work right there. (Personally, he counts keeping Bane and Bruce sexually satisfied the work of four healthy people.)

“You realize I was doing just fine before you and Bruce swooped into my life, right?” he asks. “I had a job that was paying the bills, I was eating regular meals, I was going out on dates, making friends, socializing? I had an actual life, and I was managing to do it just fine without two nannies?”

Bane doesn’t deign to respond to this. Possibly because, if his expression is any indicator, he doesn’t believe a word of it.

 


 

On his way to the cave that night, John stops at a drugstore and picks up a pack of Thank You cards. They’re a happy yellow color, with white flowers scribbled across them. Peppy. Uplifting.

He scrawls inside one, “Thanks for saving my ass,” addresses it to Gordon, then drops it in a mailbox with a stamp he found in the glove compartment.

He doesn’t sign it. 

Just in case. Gordon’s disturbingly sharp. Last thing he wants to do is have a discussion about how literal he was being when he said ‘ass.’

Anyway, that’s how Gordon saved John from dying of sexual exhaustion.

 


 

A proper story should have a proper ending, but we’ve already established that this isn’t a proper story.

Nightwing is standing on the J&J building downtown when his receiver picks up an incoming call to the cell line he has plugged into the system. Since he’s in between death-defying rescues and heroic stands against crime, he answers it.

“Yeah?”

“So I hacked your email account,” says the caller, sounding way too lively for 2 AM. “You know that amazing nun you email all the time? She seemed cool, so I called her and made friends. As an adolescent just entering the later stages of puberty, it’s important for me to identify good role models to help guide my adult identity.”

The problem with answering calls on the Nightwing receiver is that there’s no caller ID. Not that it’s necessary in this case--after two months of occasional, completely inexplicable phone calls, the voice is disturbingly familiar--but it would have been nice to have some advance warning so he could at least brace himself. Or, even better, let it go to voicemail.

“Babs,” he greets, sagging down to sit on the parapet and bury his head in his hands. “Why the hell are you still awake? Isn’t tomorrow a school day?”

“I spend my evenings developing skills I can’t in school. Computers, mostly.”

“You mean video games?” 

Babs’s voice takes on the kindly patience that her father’s does when he thinks John might have been dropped on his head as a baby. “Yes, John. I play Pokemon until 2 AM. It’s my girlish dream to collect them all someday. Why are you awake?”

John glances around the empty roof, and the familiar sigil of the Batsignal splashed against the clouds. 

“I’m partying,” he tells her. “It’s what unemployed single guys do in the city.”

“You get down with your bad self,” Babs says admiringly. “Did you get lucky?”

“I’m not telling you that. Why did you hack my email?” The question is mostly rhetorical; he’s already resigned to the kind of answer that would infuriate him if he were a normal person who wasn’t used to dealing with St. Swithin orphans.

“How else would I find out how good your security is? You should really come up with a better password.”

“Why do you need to find out how good my security is?”

“If I didn’t, someone else would, and then where would you be? So about Sister Benedict.”

John isn’t entirely sure what he did to attract the interest of Gordon’s daughter, but he really wishes he knew so he could undo it. Ignoring for a moment the fact that her father will kick his ass if he thinks he’s pulled or will pull anything on Babs, the last thing he needs is for her to be in a position to attract Bane’s interest, especially since she’s started visiting Gotham every few months.

He’s almost sure she knows he’s Nightwing. On the other hand, she’s never said definitively that she does, and that’s not the kind of question you can just up and ask without giving yourself away. 

And on a completely unrelated note, John’s a little scared of Babs.

“What about Sister Benedict?” he asks wearily. “And why do we need to talk about this at 2 AM?”

“I just wanted to warn you that I taught her how to use youtube and set her up with her own channel. She’s putting up these amazing educational videos. She put the first one up three hours ago, and she already has almost twenty-thousand hits, so I think she might end up going viral.”

John sputters.

“She's a big believer in contraception, isn't she?” Babs says thoughtfully. “She does this thing where she makes one of the orderlies at her senior center fit a regular-sized condom over his entire head. It’s kind of unbelievable. She stabs an air hole in it for him using a Bic so he can breathe. He wears it for the rest of the video, just stands behind her the entire time like a big ol’ bondage slave in medical scrubs. Later, she uses his head and a pair of suspenders to demonstrate penetrative sex. I seriously couldn’t stop watching. I felt like I went through a soul-cleansing experience and came out a better person for it.”

He remembers that particular demonstration. Sister Benedict’s point to the girls in her alleyway sex-ed class was that any boy who told her he was too big to wear a condom was definitely too big to be having sex with anything not four-footed and bovine.

There probably aren’t that many men wandering around Gotham who have worn as many condoms on their heads as John has, in his time. 

“And you needed to tell me this at 2 AM?”

“She mentions Gotham and St. Swithin in the video, so I thought you might want to be prepared. There’ll probably be press, what with her deciding to do the video in her habit.”

“Oh.” John winces, imagining Reilly’s reaction to the kind of email he’s likely to be receiving in the morning. “Thanks.”

“No problem. Dad says you’ve been looking bad lately. I made you some cookies and sent them to you.”

He feels a flicker of alarm. “Uh, thanks?”

“They’re chocolate chip. I made them into little heart shapes. It took time, so you’d better appreciate them.”

“Listen,” he says awkwardly, “I really appreciate the attention and all, Babs, and you’re a-- you’re a really amazing girl. Some day you’re going to have guys falling at your feet. I mean, your dad is going to be-- he’s going to lose his mind because of all the guys who are chasing you, seriously. But--”

“Oh my God,” Babs said, her voice rising to a shocked squeak. “Are you dumping me?”

“I’m not! We aren’t together! It’s not you, it’s me! I mean, I’m already seeing someone, and you’re only thirteen, and I’m--”

There’s a sob on the other end of the line. He slumps. 

“I’m really sorry,” John says, feeling terrible.

“And I got a tattoo and everything,” she says tearfully. 

John blinks. “Oh,” he says. “Uh.”

“My life is ruined. I will never love again.”

“Fine.” He can feel his ears turning red. “I may have gotten the wrong end of the stick here.”

“There’s nothing left for me but a future of petty crime and meaningless sex with strangers and authority figures. I’m going to have to start listening to Indigo Girls and piercing things.”

“Okay, I got it. Would you stop already?”

Babs wails, “I’m going to be a lesbian!”

Babs!” John shouts, and she snickers, saying fondly, “Why are all the pretty ones so dumb?” which isn’t what he’d call ego-stroking, but he figures he deserves it, so just lets it go. 

“No offense,” she’s saying, while his face is trying to regain its normal hue, “but I’m not interested. I may have hit puberty, but I actually find a lot of things more interesting than sex. Not to be boringly heteronormative or anything. I think I might end up a two or a three on the Kinsey scale someday, but that’ll have to wait for when I don’t look like I belong in the Nickelodeon’s target demographic. Right now I’ve got other fish to fry.”

John can think of a lot of things he’d rather know than the future orientation of Jim Gordon’s daughter. “Am I still being punished for being stupid?” he asks, pained.

“That’ll never end,” Babs says, in a kindly way that’s more reminiscent of her father than she probably realizes. “So what are you really doing?”

He sighs. “Just hanging out in my apartment. Watching TV. Nothing big. Why?”

“Well, I was just thinking that if you were at the J&J building in downtown Gotham, and you happened to go two blocks up Main, turn left on 4th and then go straight until you hit Marcone, you’d catch a glimpse of Batman and Bane going at it on the second floor of the parking complex there. No big.”

John jerks to his feet. He’s moving before he realizes it, sprinting for the Wing and slithering into the safety harness in record time. 

“How the hell--?” he demands, over the snick of metal clasps.

“I ran out of Pokemon,” Babs says gravely. “I started collecting CCTV camera feeds instead. A girl’s got to have a hobby. Do you think Justin Bieber’s cute? Because personally, I think he looks like he’s made out of sentient plastic. Do you think he might be part of the Nestene Consciousness?”

John hesitates with his thumb over the ignition button. It’s the one problem with the Wing: the noise when the rockets start up. Lucius is promising to do something about it, but until then, it sounds like a 747 is coming in for a landing. “Listen, Babs,” he begins.

She cuts him off with, “Oops. I think Mom’s coming to make sure I’m asleep. Gotta go.”

“You and me, we’re going to have a talk about these computer skills of yours later,” John threatens.

The last thing he hears is Babs yelling, “Blakey-poo, I choose you!” And then the line goes dead.

The police haven’t picked up anything about Batman and Bane yet, the scanner still morosely ticking away about domestic incidents and the occasional robbery. John’s presence at the fight won’t do anything to stop it, he’s learned from past experience, but he’s unable to keep himself away. Every encounter between the two of them stands the chance of one of them dying or maiming the other; witnessing it would be bad enough, but the idea of not being there if one of them needed him is actually worse.

Although what he’d be able to do in public if Bane was the one who went down, he’s not exactly sure. 

He’s just gliding to a touchdown on the top level of the parking complex when the scanner finally orders cars to the location. The response on the line is immediate, several cars calling in en route; it’s a slow night, and the prospect of being present at a Bane and Batman showdown isn’t one any available cop is willing to miss. 

John sets a line and plunges four levels down. It’s surprising the cops didn’t come sooner. There are car alarms wailing across the 2nd level, dents and smashed windows showing where one body or the other was on the receiving end of a throw.

He catches sight of them on the east side of the building, exchanging punishing blows. Bane manages to catch Bruce’s arm in defiance of the spurs that make the gauntlets so dangerous; the way Bruce flows through the air, cape a hard snap, body a controlled arch, almost makes it look like he’s on wires.

He’s just thinking about interfering when his limbic system freaks out and drops him to one knee, just in time to avoid a kick to the head.

Barsad. The fucker.

“How many times,” John demands, because they’ve had this talk before, stop with the head, but Barsad looks uncharacteristically pleased. It takes John by surprise for a second until he realizes this is the first time he’s managed to avoid one of Barsad’s ambushes.

“Good,” Barsad says, congratulating him, and then John’s back on his feet again, trying to keep up while Barsad beats the stuffing out of him.

It’s less a real beating than it is one of his periodic tests, to see how far John’s progressed. Barsad doesn’t hold back--he never does--so John’s attention is fully occupied. There are split-seconds where he catches a glimpse of Bane or Bruce, the two of them operating with the kind of ferocity that only comes with hate.

“Cops are coming,” John gasps out, when Barsad has him on the ground in some kind of agonizing arm lock that’s threatening to dislocate his shoulder. 

In fact, now that he’s not completely focused on Barsad, he can hear the distant sound of sirens.

Barsad grunts acknowledgment, punches him in the kidneys, then lets him go. 

He even offers John a hand to stand up, which he accepts. They stand companionably side-by-side out of the view of the CCTV, watching the fireworks on the other side of the level. It’s obvious that Bane and Bruce could go on for another hour like this, fairly evenly matched though the tide shifts from one side to another at almost random intervals. It’s obvious that in their own loony way, they’re enjoying themselves.

Still. Someone’s got to be the grown-up in the room.

“The usual?” John asks.

Barsad nods. 

Separating the pair isn’t as dangerous as one might think, though their single-minded tunnel vision makes it tricky. John dives into the fight against Bane; Barsad takes on Batman. The fight only continues for a few more seconds while the two primary combatants catch on that they’re being told that playtime is over. Then they disengage, retreating like sulky toddlers to their time-out corners while their respective keepers pick up their toys to take them home.

Bruce is growling to himself when John makes his way over to him. Bane and Barsad have already made their exit, the only exchange between Bane and himself being a tight-lipped smile that softened almost immediately (goddammitall) when it got hit with the look. Bane gets ridiculously hot and bothered by Nightwing, though it’s a toss-up whether he finds Nightwing sexy or because he thinks John dressing up to fight crime unbearably cute.

Bruce gets hot and bothered by Nightwing as well, but John’s pretty sure that has more to do with the crime-fighting rather than the dressing up thing. 

Mostly sure.

“You okay?” he asks Bruce.

Bruce glares at him. He always takes it personally when he’s interrupted in his little man-dance-o’-pain with Bane. It’s the closest the two of them get to sex. John wishes they’d just fuck already.

In his ear, the police scanner is reporting something garbled about a domestic that’s turned into a hostage situation. It’s a lot more interesting than cleaning up after Bruce and Bane, which is something John does on a nearly nightly basis. (He’s never laundered his sheets so regularly or so frequently before.) 

“Go,” Bruce rasps. A domestic is beneath Batman, unless he’s spectacularly bored and wanting to make a point. Nightwing, on the other hand....

They’re still working things out. Add that to the list.

John does a quick check; in this corner, they’re out of the range of the CCTV eye. The sirens are approaching, amplified by the concrete of the parking tower. Bruce will stay just long enough for the cops to catch sight of him, enough for them to know it wasn’t a false call, then fade away like he does.

There might be a conversation with Gordon later. There usually is.

John has enough time, anyway. He grabs Bruce by the back of the neck and pulls him down, meeting only token resistance before Bruce’s lips are warm and giving on his own. There’s a flicker of tongue, the salty-sweet taste of blood and -- Jesus, frappaccino, seriously? -- and then John’s taking a quick step back, breathless and aroused.

“Cave, later,” he says. “You fucking tease.”

Bruce’s eyes gleam. John leaves.

Later tonight, he’ll fall asleep with Bruce on the nest of pillows and blankets Bruce has turned into a makeshift bed down in the cave. He’ll be exhausted and sexually satisfied, and probably sore in the best and worst possible ways. Tomorrow, Bane will be in his apartment waiting for him, because prearranged days off are trumped by John’s need to make sure they’re both okay after one of these encounters. They’ll fuck, then John will check every inch of Bane just to piss on Barsad’s claims of being a trained doctor.

And then maybe he’ll call the Police Commissioner’s 13-year old daughter to ask if she’s somehow started tracking him like a stray poodle through Batman’s military-grade, super-secure tech.

Right now though, he’s got more immediate things to worry about. Like the little guy with glasses who’s currently waving a kitchen knife at him, the apartment painted in spasms of red and blue from the cop cars outside.

“No, it’s Nightwing, not Wingman,” John snaps. “Well, I’m sorry you were expecting Batman, but-- wait.” He squints suspiciously at the indignant man, vaguely remembering a long ago night and blood on Bruce's ribs. “Are you an accountant?”

This is John Blake’s life. 

He can’t even.

 

-End-