Bane woke up to agony.
He never expected to wake up at all.
How much time had passed? He was still in the ruins of the building where he fought Wayne, where Talia had revealed the truth, where he had been hit in the side - here Bane could catalogue the new pains wracking his huge frame - by some explosive device which failed to go off.
Where Talia had instructed him to kill Wayne.
His head swam with a mix of pain-laced dizziness and absolute clarity. Obviously the bomb hadn't detonated yet. It could be a matter of seconds before it blew, or maybe it wouldn't blow at all. Bane was not sure if Wayne managed to stop Talia. That uncertainty, along with a new wave of nerve-blindingly sharp agony, forced Bane back into the welcoming darkness.
When Bane opened his eyes again, he knew he had lost Talia forever.
It was night, and Bane was still in the wreck of the same building. His blood had clotted, he knew, otherwise he should have bled out long ago. Ra's al-Ghul might think of him as a monster, but Bane was only a man, and men died far too easily.
Bane wondered if he wanted to die also. Only the agony of his frame kept him from sinking far too deeply into the depths of complete unconsciousness. Ironic that that one thing that had once driven him towards death now kept him alive.
Talia was gone. Bane breathed slowly through the broken mask, every intake of air a knife in his lungs, a burning brand to bare skin; every exhalation a surrender to the anguish that he had suffered and endured almost all his life. Perhaps it would be better to die after all, to be finally free. The reason for his striving was gone.
Talia is gone.
Someone picked into the dark space, the movements catching Bane's eye. For a person moving in shadows, that young man knew little about surviving in the darkness. He cursed when he almost tripped, and Bane closed his eyes. The pain that burned through him now was a mere fact of the universe; Bane no longer had the strength nor the will to fight it.
The someone came close and then there was a sharp gasp. Bane felt rather than heard the young man kneel.
Bane breathed out and opened his eyes. He did not recognize the young man, but he had seen the face before somewhere in the crowd. Someone close to Wayne, perhaps, or to Commissioner Gordon.
The huge, broken terrorist smiled, though of course the young man would not be able to see it. "Kill if you have to," rasped Bane. Each word hurt.
The young man hesitated.
Bane opened one eye - the agony was subsiding slightly, ready to make a renewed assault - and growled, "Either leave me to die, or kill me."
"Shut up." The young man pulled out a switchblade - Bane smiled again and thought of Osito - and closed his eyes. He hoped he would not open them again.
The third time Bane opened his eyes, he was no longer masked, and he was no longer in the same building.
It appeared as though he was in an apartment.
And he was not dead.
A paroxysm of agony shuddered through him and Bane ground his teeth together. No. No crying for mercy. No begging.
"Shit, I didn't expect you to wake so fast."
It was the same young man, Bane gathered through his pain-fogged mind. He was fumbling with a gas mask and a tank of something, and once the gas inside was flowing he quickly covered Bane's mouth with it.
It was nowhere near as potent as Bane's usual toxin, but it dulled the burn somewhat, and Bane closed his eyes and gave in to the scant comfort. Just for a minute, he felt glad that he was not dead.
And then he swiped the mask away, sending the young man tumbling to the floor.
"Don't do that," the young man said harshly. "You don't get to choose. I'm not going to kill you, so shut up and breathe."
"Why not?" Bane gasped. His skin was unpleasantly sticky with sweat and grime; blood was still stuck to his side, knotting skin and fabric together. He inhaled deeply and growled out, "I killed your people. I destroyed. I destroyed Gotham."
"Parts of Gotham needs destroying," said the young man quietly, and suddenly Bane recognized the look. He was so young, a bright flame of innocence and anger, and the anger stemmed from helplessness.
Bane almost reached out a hand, but a convulsion seized him and he clenched his fists together. Conquer, and live. He repeated the mantra in his head. Conquer, and live.
The young man was pressing the mask to his face again. Odd that he seemed unafraid of Bane, but Bane supposed there was little to fear from him now. Enveloped by the constant burn over and under his skin, Bane could barely move himself, let alone fight the young man. Something tender deep inside Bane hurt, an ache refusing to be ignored, and as the young man continued to supply him with the dulling anaesthetic Bane drifted into a dreamless sleep.
Days passed with Bane drifting in and out of consciousness.
Every time he woke he took note of new details: the loss of his shirt and the new bandages; the plastic mask over his face was larger; he had been wiped down and cleaned; his heavy boots were removed and his pants changed; new blanket; light on pale yellow walls; the sound of TV in the background; an IV hooked into his left arm, with some puncture marks that showed a less than expert hand that had guided it in.
It was night, and it was cold.
When he could finally muster the energy to sit up, Bane was aware that he was operating at around half of his optimum efficiency. He could not even swing his legs off the small bed. Lack of training had weakened his muscles, even though others would still claim that they were strong. Lack of exercise numbed his joints. Lack of nutrition clouded his judgment. He had no mask on, other than the plastic one from the hospital, and he tugged it down to inhale something other than anaesthesia.
The air was stale with dust and dirty laundry, with hints of blood and sweat and bodily fluids, and Bane just breathed the scents all in without pause. He had not thought his sinuses would ever work again. Slowly the pain crept in and Bane masked himself once more.
The door opened and Bane automatically glared over, fists bunching in ready defense, and then the glare softened. "You."
"And hi to you too," said the young man. Bane wondered what this young man had given him to help ease the pain, for though the burn was not entirely gone, it was tolerable now. at least, when Bane pulled down the mask, he could last longer than ten seconds of non-medicated air. And if he could go ten seconds, then Bane would be able to train himself to overcome the crippling agony and the dependence on the drug.
After a tense minute, Bane rumbled, "I have imposed on you."
"You must be hungry," said the young man, as though he had not really heard what Bane said, and fled the room.
Bane half-thought that the young man would not return. He could not place the face: vaguely he recalled the press of cops around Gordon when he first came to study the city. This young man had not stood out then. Dark-haired, lean, with a wiry, unrefined grace; Bane did not spend much time thinking of a person's physical attributes, but he remembered the young man's eyes. The gaze that had not been able to conceal the disappointment and grief over his city, over his people. That had told Bane that this young man was looking for direction, for an avenue to be able to do something other than work with the system any longer.
Parts of Gotham needs destroying.
A curious statement to make to a man who had done nothing but destroy.
The door inched open and the young man came in, balancing a tray with a bowl of broth and a loaf of bread. "That's all I can get at the moment," he told Bane casually. "Most stores aren't open yet, and the rations haven't increased."
That startled the young man who looked at Bane, eyes wide, and then there was a brief flash of a smile. "Eat up."
Bane shook his head. "I can't eat when there's another in the room," he said, his voice sounding strange to him without the metallic rasp the old mask placed over it.
The young man frowned and folded his arms. "You're going to have to try."
"Little one, I have not lost the use of my limbs or my brain. I can feed myself."
"Show me," said the young man, placing the loaf of bread in Bane's left hand and backing away, leaning against the wall with something akin to patience.
Bane tried to tear the bread into bite-sized pieces, but it was difficult controlling his fingers, and after two mouthfuls his hands were tired. This alarmed Bane; he had never been this incapacitated before.
The young man did not mock Bane for his weakness. Instead, he dragged a chair and a small table over to the bed, placing the broth on it, and murmured, "You have been unconscious for a month, Bane. I'm already fucking impressed you can even sit up like this."
"Why did you save me?" asked Bane.
"Take off the mask and eat," said the young man gruffly. "If you need to pause, let me know. I'll need to change the tanks soon."
"Why did you save me?" Bane repeated.
The young man studied Bane's face. Bane gazed back, searching for answers in those eyes.
Finally the young man said, "I wish I knew. But I couldn't kill you then, so I can't kill you now. And once I've dragged you out of there... In for a penny, in for a pound." Then he sighed. "Here. Broth. Don't make me regret this, please."
Bane took three days before he could get off the bed without help from the young man. Bane never asked for a name, and the young man didn't seem to want to give it either. When Bane finally managed to last an entire shower without the gas, even though the cold water felt like scalding hot knives scraping over his skin, Bane thought he saw something like victory in the young man's eyes.
"Were you drugged, the whole time you had your mask on?" asked the young man one evening when Bane restarted his training. He could do only one-third of his usual reps, and since sparring was impossible, Bane took to shadow boxing, which tired him out far faster than it ought to.
"Yes." Bane jabbed forward and then his joints screamed in protest. Bane shut the pain away. Conquer, and live.
"I could not function otherwise."
"Does it have anything to do with the scar on your back?"
"Does it hurt still?"
Bane stopped mid-jab. Straightening and rolling his shoulders back, he turned on his heel and looked at the young man. Dark-haired with fearless eyes. Talia would have tried to recruit him. Bane felt the same dull ache deep inside, and looked away. "The pain never stops. I have finally learned how to ignore it."
The young man stood up and pulled on his jacket. "I don't think anyone can ignore it," he remarked, and disappeared out the door.
Technically Bane was not a prisoner and he could leave anytime he wished, but he stayed indoors most of the time. The apartment was small, with only a bedroom, a living room, one shower and toilet, and a kitchenette, but Bane was not given to living in luxury. He waited until his skin on his face was of the same color and not marked with the outlines of his mask before he ventured out to get food; it was easy to earn money, but Bane had not been a mercenary for years without building reserves of cash. He still found it odd that he could see his mouth: lips that had a scar cutting across, altering the shape; teeth that were slightly crooked and yellow, but strong and healthy. He had to relearn brushing his teeth; when he was masked, he did this as fast as possible, because a toothache could mean a constant distraction or an infection to the blood, and it was preventable. Now he took his time, savoring the taste of mint and water. He ate slowly also, small meals packed with the proper nutrients, and now he could finally taste what he ate.
The senses of smell and taste returned to him slowly, unused as they had been for years, but he relished every opportunity he had. This was luxury, he knew, to be able to feel the world in all its myriad ways.
Sometimes he used the numbing gas, when the pain was too much for him to bear, but slowly he weaned himself off it. No longer would he depend on a chemical; the shackles of the drug that kept him alive in the Pit were no longer welcome. There was nothing out there that he wanted, not any more, and in here he was learning what Ra's al-Ghul had never quite managed to teach him.
Conquer, and live.
Conquer fear. Conquer hesitation. Conquer rashness. Conquer rage. Conquer selfishness. Conquer desire. Conquer pain.
Conquer, and then live.
The young man came by daily. Sometimes he walked with a limp, hiding an injured knee or ankle; sometimes he wouldn't bother hiding the bruise on his cheek or on his arms. Sometimes there were cuts, and once he came in with a bandaged left forearm.
Bane sometimes wanted to ask, but he never did.
The shadow fell onto the ledge outside the window and then rolled into it.
Bane was awake; he preferred resting in the day. The sound in the bedroom caught his attention and he headed there, every step calculated and measured.
Now that he was without the usual concoction in his old mask, his strength was not as before, but his skill remained. Soundlessly he moved into the dark bedroom and then every sinew in his body tightened.
He survived. He survived?
Talia is gone.
Wayne in his bat suit was on the floor, gasping for air, clutching at his throat as though he wanted to force something out of his body. Bane stalked towards the writhing darkness and waited for the costumed vigilante to roll over and recognize his nemesis. He would have the Batman die at the hands of a ghost. He would sign his name over his corpse, and dedicate it to Talia.
When Wayne finally rolled on his back, he saw Bane looking down at him. And instead of fear that Bane expected, it was relief in those eyes.
"Bane," Wayne choked out. "Thank god. Thank god."
Bane reached down and wrapped one meaty hand around Wayne's throat, dragging him up to eye level by the cowl. Wayne felt lighter than he had before; Bane supposed they both had to recover. "Thank god?"
"I thought... I thought I had the wrong house," gasped Wayne, hands holding weakly onto Bane's forearm for support. "I thought... I couldn't think. Scarecrow... Crane. Crane's gas."
There was little light, but it was enough when Wayne opened his eyes and looked at the terrorist. Bane stilled. Then Wayne actually smiled faintly at Bane and then relaxed into Bane's grasp, and somehow the larger man changed his grip to pull Wayne into his arms and then drop him into the bed. Stunned and not trusting his assumptions, Bane pulled off the mask.
it wasn't Bruce Wayne that was behind it.
The young man that had tended to Bane when Bane was dying now relied on Bane. It was as though he was seeing monsters everywhere except when he looked at the large, imposing figure. The young man screamed out names in his frenzied rages and mumbled other secrets when in uneasy slumber, and Bane took puzzled satisfaction in being able to calm him down in his struggles and soothe him to proper rest.
It was like caring for Talia all over again. The young man was nothing like her in appearance beyond the dark hair, but the odd sense of complete trust in Bane and the fire of rage in those eyes reminded Bane painfully of his light. His innocence. In the quiet moments while the young man slept, he recalled the few happy moments of her curling close to him, like a cat after warmth, and he providing the necessary protection. His knife and his strength against the mindless hunger and depraved desires of the Pit.
He fought for her. He had wanted to die for her. He did die for her, shot at by the devices on Wayne's vehicle. Bled for her, until a young man with more heart than brain saved him.
Talia is gone.
And now he was alive in spite of her death. No doubt Talia would never have ordered Bane to die; he was her oldest friend, her truest, her first. She had cherished him in ways that no one had ever been able to do. When her father renounced him, she sided with him and they headed into exile together.
No, Talia would never have told Bane to kill himself. If they survived the blast, then good - they would enter exile again. If they didn't, it was also perfectly fine. Talia had not thought that they would be separated after they were reunited from the tyranny of the Pit. Neither did Bane.
But they were separated, by a gulf so wide that not even Bane could force close. And Talia would not have wanted Bane, strong, dependable protector Bane, to give up his life for her after she died. She had loved him, in her fashion, and she had always focused on living. In the Pit, her light shone because she was so intent on living. She would never want to see Bane give up his life.
And Bane wondered in between all those thoughts if he was really relaying Talia's intentions or trying to convince himself.
The arrangement lasted for three nights before the young man's system finally fought the drugs off. It was funny for Bane to see the young man transverse the moment from asleep, arms wrapped about one of Bane's thighs, to awake, and then those beautiful eyes stare up at Bane in horrified realization.
"Shit, shit shit shit shit shit. Oh god." The young man scrambled away, trying to untangle himself from the huge man. "Shit."
"If you do, then you are buying me a new bed," said Bane.
The young man hesitated, his panicked movements stilling. The eyes - always the eyes, Bane never looked at other people without looking into their eyes - narrowed and then there was a hint of a smile. "You are teasing me."
"Perhaps." Bane stiffened and exhaled slowly, riding the moment between giving in to pain and overcoming it. Then the moment passed and Bane looked at the young man. "I almost killed you by mistake."
The young man glanced away. "I wouldn't be surprised if you had. Seeing that Batman nearly killed you."
"I would have killed him. But not for me." Bane's low voice seemed to startle the young man. "I have never killed for myself."
"Half of Gotham died because of you!"
"But I never killed them for myself," Bane stated calmly. "They died because of greed or desperation or fear. Or they came across someone stronger. I have never killed for my own reasons."
The young man finally managed to get off the bed and onto his feet. Enraged beyond rational thought, the young man did not notice his nudity. Perhaps it was for the better. "What about those that were sentenced to death or exile? You and your people-"
"-set up Gotham to have its own ruled by its own. Jonathan Crane was the man they chose to be judged by."
"And... and that scientist? I know you killed him. And those in the football field-"
"-died to make a statement."
"The statement of my leader."
"You-" The young man's rage was incandescent and glorious. Bane watched the fury build inside the young man, watched how the passions within him robbed him of speech, and when the young man rushed him Bane tackled him over, rolling him on the hard floor. The young man was lean and had some strength to his limbs, but he was not meant for fighting. Bane supposed the young man had been lifting weights or boxing, the play version that they did here in the wealthy capitalist states, not the type for survial, where it was either fight or die. He watched, holding the frantic punches and kicks at bay with ease, and when the young man finally, finally gave in to exhaustion, Bane tugged him back to the bed and tucked him in.
"Little one," said Bane in his grave voice, "I have no need to lie. Not to you."
"You've killed people." The voice was ragged and accusing, the gaze burning bright.
"Yes, I have."
"But you s-said-"
"I have never killed for myself," Bane repeated. He placed a hand on the young man's chest and continued, "I killed in order to further an aim. And now that there is no aim, I have nothing to kill for."
The young man shivered, either from the cold or from the fading adrenaline rush of his fury. He whispered, "But their blood is on your hands."
That Bane saw no need to deny. "You chose to save me nevertheless."
"I wonder why, now." The young man had exhausted all his reserves and was now falling back to restful sleep.
Bane smiled in the darkness, waiting for the pulse beneath his hand to slow and the harsh breathing to even out. Then the huge man murmured, "Perhaps you have something to prove."
When the young man woke again, he was snuggled close to the furnace that was Bane. He risked opening his eyes a sliver and swallowed. There was only one bed, after all, and the sofa was a mess of bad springs and scratched-up cushions which was far too narrow for the muscular terrorist. It was obvious that Bane had at least attempted to rest there, though, since a blanket was tossed on it, but Bane was now sitting up in bed, resting against the headboard and reading something from a beat-up old book.
He twitched and slowly eased away from Bane, but his wrist was caught and try as he might, the young man could not get out of the hold.
"I need the bathroom," said the young man.
Bane regarded him warily. "You are not ready to go out of the house, little one. You need training."
"I need the bathroom," repeated the young man, cheeks flushing dully as he squirmed.
Bane let go and then took a deep breath, again savoring the scents that permeated the room. Smoke, dust, sweat, unwashed bedding, and something new. Different.
If Bane smiled, he did not admit to doing so.
"You said I need training," the young man declared the day Bane thought he was well enough to putter around.
"What kind? To be like you?"
Bane did smile this time. "No one is like me, little one."
"Stop calling me that. I'm not little. You're just fucking huge," the young man complained. He wolfed down the plain stew that Bane prepared from the remaining ingredients in the beat-up freezer. The young man studied Bane for a long moment and then asked, "Will you train me?"
"Are you not afraid of me?"
"Only an idiot wouldn't be afraid of you," said the young man with a ghost of a smirk. "But if you wanted me dead, I'd've died the night I climbed into the apartment dressed as Batman."
"Bruce Wayne left that to you. Did he not train you before you took up his mantle?" Bane chewed thoughtfully on a bit of apple. He still cut his food up into bite-sized pieces, old habits and all, and he found that he relished the simplicity of eating with company. The young man hadn't commented at all on that change, which was a commentary in and of itself.
The young man scoffed. "He left me everything except a manual on 'How to Not Get Your Ass Kicked All the Fucking Time'. That would of course be the most important bit."
Bane half-smiled. He had smiled for Talia often, and now he remembered the times when young Talia would offer a biting observation or sarcastic remark under her breath about his size, his strength, or his preoccupation with learning.
That might have disarmed the young man whom Bruce Wayne chose as heir to the Batman legacy. He leaned forward and peered at Bane. "You seem amused by me."
"I might be."
"Well... don't. And you haven't answered my question. Will you train me?"
"Why should I train someone to become Batman? He is the one who killed-" It hurt to say her name aloud, and so Bane didn't. Couldn't. Didn't.
But the young man did. "Talia?"
And abruptly Bane was on the young man, huge forearm trapping him to the linoleum floor, his voice a continual growl of threat. "Don't say her name. Don't ever say her name. You don't know how much she meant to me," he rasped, pressing down on the blasphemous young man.
The young man pushed at Bane's arm, a futile effort, and he was white now, eyes darker than ever. His lips moved, trying to force out a word or two, and eventually gasped out an apology.
Bane's anger pushed at him, screaming for him to take the life of this pathetic young thing, but the eyes... The eyes. Eyes that alternated between humor and anger, between tolerance and curiosity, and the banked fires within... Bane slowly withdrew his strength and pulled away. "You didn't know her. Not as I did."
The young man was still prone on the ground, taking in huge gulps of air, coughing, trembling as though he was freezing cold. Finally he wheezed, "I'm sorry. I meant no disrespect. I've heard... I've heard her name when you talked in your sleep. I just... I'm sorry."
"I know." Bane breathed heavily, trying to keep the bursts of agony to a tolerable inferno, and finally he managed to study the young man now sitting far from him, braced against the facing wall. Bane said, "I won't kill you."
"That felt differently."
"I won't kill you," Bane repeated quietly. "You saved my life, and I am not a dishonorable man."
The young man's gaze hardened. "No. Just a murdering terrorist."
"If the city had opposed us with all its force, would my people and myself have stood a chance?" Bane asked, pinning the young man with his stare. "If everyone had decided to be honest and trust each other with their lives, would they have lost to fear? If they had dared to face up to us, dared to die for their city, their homes, then all that would be left in Gotham would be the dishonest, the robbers, the criminals. Would the National Guard have hesitated if they found the courage to stand against us?"
"You held an entire city hostage!"
"Was there a gun held to every citizen's head? Was I there when they decided to riot, to loot, to trample on the dignity of the fallen rich? Did you not walk the streets still? Did your people not rise against their oppressors, not rise to the chance to grab what they felt were theirs by right? Life is ugly, little one, and your people, the ones that you claim I terrorized have shown you. I brought out the real truth, and you call me names because you do not want to accept the truth." Bane let his eyes close. "You have too much standing in your way to understanding, little one."
The young man was quiet for a few minutes. Finally he said, "There was a nuclear bomb, and we didn't know who had it. We reacted as people do. We were afraid."
"Exactly," murmured Bane.
"You cannot expect people to-"
"-I got exactly what I expected. Frightened people turn on each other. If you are to take on his job," here Bane was sneering, "you have to believe in something other than people."
The young man was standing now and striding towards Bane. It was a small room and Bane looked up at the young man, his eyes curious and suspicious all at once. "What do you believe in?"
Bane stood up, easily dwarfing the other, and it impressed Bane that the young man did not back away. "I believe," Bane rumbled, "in the cleansing fire."
"The bomb." The young man met the firm gaze of the much larger terrorist. "It was doused. Batman took it away. He gave his life for to save this city."
"The fire that enveloped this city would have been nothing compared to the change in realpolitik. The world would have seen the cowardice of your nation. The lack of morals, and the lack of decisive leadership. And that would have meant weakness, which would have drawn in the predators." Bane stared at the young man and touched his cheek. "I believed in it, but it did not rise. Yet I believe in it still: one day, the fire will rise, and the world will have its illusions of power burned."
The young man stood still, terribly still, and it took him a few minutes before he was able to say, "You're crazy."
Bane only smiled and cocked his head. "Am I now?"
"I have to go," mumbled the young man, and there was panic in his eyes.
Bane let him leave.
It took the young man one week before he was back in that dingy apartment. This time he had a bullet in the back of his left shoulder. Its impact had been dulled by the heavy armor, but the flesh wound had to be treated.
Bane pulled the suit off without comment and dug the bullet out with singular focus. The young man screamed into the shirt that Bane had stuffed into his mouth, and then collapsed with relief as endorphins flooded his body. After rinsing the injury, Bane bandaged the wound as tightly as he could, but the young man would need to change the packing often just in case of infection.
"Thank you," said the young man afterwards. His dark hair was plastered to his skull unflatteringly, and Bane wanted to ruffle it up again, just to see if the eyes would alight with indignation and surprise. But the subtly grateful gaze that was locked on him was pleasant enough. "I'd have gone to the hospital but..."
"Yeah." The young man turned away. In the weak light of the table lamp - Bane had little use for light at night, bred as he was in the Pit - the boy's skin was washed-out and pale, mottled with bruises and healing cuts. The young man looked terribly small and fragile in that moment, as Talia had in the early days of the League of Shadows. Suddenly the young man twitched and stared right into Bane's eyes. "What are you doing?"
What was he doing? Bane found that his large, rough hands were touching each of the bruises carefully, framing the purple-blue patches of skin, cataloguing the kind of impacts that had caused the injuries. A gash under the fifth rib was healing poorly and Bane's fingers skated over it.
"Bane?" The young man's voice was skittery and nervous, but when Bane met the dark eyes he did not look afraid. The young man's breath was shaky also when he asked again, "What... what are you doing?"
"Bring me to the cave," Bane stated.
The young man tensed up. "I can't."
"It was not a request, little one. Bring me to the cave." Bane did not want to tell the young man that the location was known to Bane; he was certain that turning up there without an invitation would spook Wayne's heir beyond return. Bane slid a hand over the largest of the bruise: he was sure that came from a swipe from a car.
The young man wavered. "I-I can't. All his things are there."
"I don't care about his things."
There was a second part to that statement that whispered in the silence between them, and Bane could see the young man drop his guard. Finally he nodded, and then he said, "I've never told you my name, have I?"
"Do you know it?"
"Do you want to?"
"Only if you wish to share it with me."
That made the young man blush, for some reason, before he murmured, "I'm Blake."
"No first name?"
"I don't want to share it with you yet," said Blake mock-petulantly, and then winced when he shifted. "I don't think I can drive."
Bane laughed shortly. It was an odd sound to be coming from him again, after so many years, and he laughed again at the sheer delight of it. "I will need to pack, Blake," he said, testing out the name and deciding that he would prefer to not use it, "and then I will drive. Try to sit here for ten minutes without getting injured. I do not have many bandages left."
"Fuck you," Blake swore good-naturedly, and relaxed against the flimsy sofa with his good shoulder.
Blake did not show Bane around the cave, instead directing him to a corner that was already strewn with bedding and a low table. It reminded Bane of the days in the mountains, and suddenly he wished he was back in the apartment, apart from everyone else. This was too much like the past.
"A little paint and cable TV, and you can call it home," said Blake sarcastically. "Just... make yourself comfortable. If you can."
A canister of the numbing gas was placed in the furthest corner, wedged in so that it wouldn't risk being kicked about. His duffel bag with his two shirts and pants and the long coat were tossed over the one chair in the alcove, and he prodded his bedroll into place next to the mess of blankets and pillows. Then he sat down and pulled off his shoes and socks.
"Um." The young man shifted from foot to foot, seemingly at a loss for words.
Bane raised his eyebrows, challenging Blake to do something, and then the young man carefully eased his way to a sitting position on the floor. They observed each other warily, before Blake sighed and scruffed up his hair. "Listen, Bane, I don't know fuck about fighting, and you're a wanted criminal out there. I don't have a clue what I'm doing at all, even this-" he gestured to the space between them "-isn't anything like what I've expected."
"What did you expect?" asked Bane.
"I don't know. Maybe I'd save your life, and then keep the fuck away from you and you go on a rampage again, and then someone really shoots you dead, for real, and then I'd just... I don't know. But us sitting together in this cave is not it."
Bane almost smirked. "I had expected you to have shot me back then. Or cut my throat. Made sure I was dead."
"Sorry to disappoint."
"I'm not." Bane watched the young man closely for his responses. "I've never been afraid to die, but to not have to die is still in itself a relief. And since I owe you my life, little one, I think it's appropriate for me to teach you how to save your own."
It was a long process. Gunshot wounds, contrary to popular belief, took a long time to heal, even if it were a mere flesh wound. They stayed in the cave, the alcove becoming their shared room. In the duration Bane taught Blake the basics of fighting, and put Blake through practices for stealth and balance. Four months later, Bane judged the flesh to have knitted and they got down to training in earnest.
It helped Bane to pass on the knowledge that he had gleaned from Ra's al-Ghul, and later on from the rest of the League of Shadows. In a way he considered this an insurance against the dying of the fire. Talia would have been proud to see Bane once again the patient teacher and indomitable sparring partner. While Blake focused on getting better, Bane learned the system that Wayne had set up to monitor the activities of the city. Occasionally Blake would take on jobs as a private investigator, but he was usually focused on helping to locate Gotham's missing children and teens, and the information he gleaned was paid for by the city. It was a system that Gordon had set up so that Blake would continue to work with the GCPD. It amused Bane to think that Commissioner Gordon still thought of Blake as one of his, when Blake was rejecting the system that Gordon represented. Even so, Bane did want to meet the commissioner someday; he would dearly love a good, long conversation to find out what, exactly, dragged Gordon into the night and the dirt. He was an honest cop, but his conscience couldn't possibly be clear.
With the training Bane put him under Blake bulked up a little, but he was no Bruce Wayne to be carrying extra muscle. He was however remarkably quick on his feet, and could climb walls and scaffolding faster than Bane had initially imagined. What did impress Bane was the utter freedom Blake found in free-running. Blake was fearless when plunging from heights towards a target: Bane always caught him, and even then he would stagger from the impact. Blake was learning to use velocity in place of bulk.
Once Blake was well enough to do some investigatory work for Gordon, Bane began to venture out. Without his mask or his coat, he was just another oversized thug. When he needed to, Bane could feign stupidity well, and he gathered intelligence of the new Gotham underworld. Wayne himself would have found it hard to discover this much information; Bane listened, learned, and put together the new hierarchies and maps of the criminal element. Blake knew nothing of this, of course; Bane was not about to show him yet.
They sparred most often in the open space in the cave, sometimes using the foundations of the manor or the forested grounds just outside the cave. Blake preferred the scaffolding and the wide, strong beams, because he could creep about and once took Bane by surprise. The forest was Bane's preferred playground, however. He could blend into the trees and leaves despite his bulk, and Blake was often dragged up into thick foliage or thrown against trees.
Bane deliberately held back at first, knowing that Blake needed time to learn the tricks that took him and Wayne years to master. But the determination - the passion, Bane preferred to think - drove Blake to do more everyday. He would conduct his investigations and, while the computer searched through databases, he lifted weights, practiced fighting with Bane, or read up on criminology.
One evening, after a quick madcap dash through the foundations, Blake called up the suit. Bane sauntered up behind Blake.
"I'm going to have to modify this," said Blake. He placed a tentative hand on the middle, where the symbol was on the chestpiece. "I can't ever wear this. The cape, the cowl... The whole thing. I'm not him."
"No. You're not." Bane studied Blake's reflection in the plexiglas case. Gently he put his hands on Blake's shoulders and squeezed. "You'll never be him."
"I know." Blake sighed and let his hand fall. "I'm not good enough."
"No. You're better than he ever was."
Blake jerked in surprise. He raised his gaze and was captured by Bane's stare. At this angle, Blake was not able to see Bane's mouth. "Don't be stupid. He was Batman. He defeated the Joker, the Mob. He took you down."
"At what cost?" The older man never let go, holding tightly to Blake. "He lost his parents when he was a child, and for that he swore vengeance. But his fire receded with time; he died not because he thought that was what he needed to do, but because he gave up trying."
"You don't know that-"
"-but your fire sustains itself, little one. It burns and burns, because you see where the source of it comes from." Bane lowered his voice. "It is not the city that gives you the fuel, the anger, but its people. And people are people everywhere. You have a flame imperishable."
Blake pulled violently out from Bane's hold. "You're talking rubbish."
"Why are you angry?"
"Stop this." Blake was pale and taut with fraying control.
"What do you believe in, little one?" Bane went on. "Do you believe that people are good? That people will do the decent thing? You saw with your own eyes how easy it was for them to give in, to surrender without a fight. To become mere animals, looting and pillaging. You saw the fall of Gotham."
"-on the edge to ruin," completed Bane. He smiled humorlessly and began circling Blake. The younger man followed, turning to face Bane as he walked. "It will not stand long, unless its people band together to rebuild it. Yet even now there are gangs squabbling over territory, there are industries that cannot function because of the crime lords holding the plants hostage. Your people are failing you as we speak. You know this. Bruce Wayne did not leave a legacy to you, little one, he left you a rubbish heap and you treasure it."
Blake stared, silent and shaking with rage.
Deliberately moving closer, Bane said, "Little one, would you persist in being a trusting little fool?"
"Stop it!" shouted Blake, and swung a wild right hook at Bane. The larger man ducked away, and fell back as Blake started using every hit and counter-hit, every kick, every move he learned to land just one blow on Bane. Bane, despite his size, was faster and read the moves easily, and soon lured Blake near the edge of the platform. Then he engaged, blocking instead of dodging, standing his ground on the side of the platform above the deep end of the natural pool of water.
The seemingly futile efforts drove the younger man further into rage. He exploded into a rain of fists and feet, hurling himself at Bane repeatedly while Bane threw him back again and again, until Bane saw that Blake was slowing down. When Blake's left foot swung around in a roundhouse kick, Bane caught the young man's ankle in a vice-like grip, and threw him into the water.
Then Bane hunkered down while Blake sputtered and tread water to stay afloat. His voice was void of emotion as he said, "You allowed yourself to be goaded. Wayne did the same. Admire him if you must, but don't fall into the same trap as he did."
"Did you throw him into the water too?" demanded Blake, shaking water from his eyes and hair. He paddled right up to the edge of the platform and glared up.
Bane cocked his head and peered down at Blake. "I broke his back."
"He came back anyway."
"He did. That was beyond my expectations."
"And he was one of the people."
"He was trained by us."
"And Gordon never gave up fighting. And my colleagues - former colleagues. You trapped them underground for months, Bane, and when they came up they came up fighting." Blake spat out some water. "There are bad people out there, I know, but there is good too. That's a guarantee, that there's some good to everyone."
Bane narrowed his eyes. "I'm not convinced."
Blake stared up at the huge man, and then smirked mischievously. Before Bane could figure out what he intended, Blake had grabbed Bane by his shirt and pitched him forward into the water. This was the deep end, so they sank together, and Blake kept his tight grip on Bane's wifebeater as Bane kicked them to the surface.
"You should be convinced," said Blake immediately when they broke the surface. Though it was already approaching summer, but the water was still chilly enough for Blake's teeth to begin chattering. "Y-you saved me. Watched over me, twice. Who woul-would've believed it of you?"
Their legs churned lazily in the cold water, and Blake blinked rapidly to stop the drips from his hair from flowing into his eyes. Bane could not tear his gaze away even as one arm wrapped about Blake's waist to keep him close and the other reached for the rocky edge to pull them up. As they drew up against the side, Blake's body pushed against Bane, and in that instant Blake's fingers tightened on Bane's shirt and it was too cold-
Too cold, and Blake was kissing Bane like he wanted Bane more than heat, more than air, more than life.
Bane had never kissed anyone. In the Pit it was suicide to show affection to others; a sign of weakness. Then there was the mask, and now he tasted and felt for the first time in all his life the touch of another mouth on his own, scarred lips. Blake was clumsy with the chill, but Bane would not know. His pulse raced and he grasped the younger man tightly, wanting desperately to prolong the sweet torture of Blake's mouth over his. When Blake's tongue traced the scar from Bane's chin across his lips, the larger man could feel his blood burn.
A sudden drop jerked Blake apart from Bane, and Bane hurriedly pulled them out of the water. The younger man was looking decidedly pale and he was shaking. The drenched clothes were tugged off without ceremony and Bane rubbed Blake dry, wrapping him in their blankets while he pulled out the electric heater that Blake brought for the cold spring nights. Thankful for the warmth, Blake huddled close to the heater, but his eyes never left Bane as the larger man stripped and towelled dry. There was a hint of regret when Bane pulled on his pants, but the soft smile on Blake's mouth distracted Bane.
"Please sit with me?" Blake asked quietly.
Bane did better, taking the blanket and tucking it in front of Blake, while he settled behind the younger man, legs on either side of him. Physical proximity was not something new to Bane, nor sex, but the kiss earlier had shaken him deeply.
Blake snuggled close and whispered, "All those things you said earlier are true."
"I'm surprised you admit it."
"They are the facts. Except maybe the one where Bruce Wayne just gave up. He didn't." The firmness of his tone was a warning to Bane not to begin the argument, and wrapped around the pliant frame of the younger man, Bane was disinclined to try. "But you are neglecting the other side. The side where people do try to become more than what they used to be."
Bane said nothing. He was testing out his kisses on the bared shoulder and neck just in front of him. Blake shifted and moaned softly, but soldiered on. "I was... I was nothing more than an angry kid, and look where-where I am now."
"You are here."
"I am here," agreed Blake. "I'm here, and you. You were a terrorist. You killed people. And you've taken care of me when I was seriously vulnerable. You did it twice. Watched over me. Trained, trained me... Bane. God, Bane, you are more than what you think you are."
Bane paused. "What do you think I think of myself as then?"
Blake twisted about and looked into Bane's eyes. The intent was clear and passionate and honest; the faith in them humbling. "You are no longer a weapon, Bane. You are not a burning sword to cleave the world into two. You are a person. A flawed, deeply intelligent, seriously fucking scary huge person with muscles made of steel, and someone I now trust my life with."
"Perhaps you shouldn't do that," said Bane, his large hands now on his own knees, and he made to rise and leave.
"No. Sit down, dammit," Blake demanded angrily, and he turned around to face Bane fully. The blanket that was keeping him warm fell to his calves as he knelt in front of Bane. "If nothing else, I saved your life. You fucking owe me that much."
Bane actually smiled now. "How do you propose that I repay that debt?"
"An honorable warrior will now claim that his life is mine."
"You said I am merely a person."
"An honorable warrior-person then." Blake traced the scar on Bane's mouth again with his fingertips and Bane lost himself in the sensation. "Stay with me and help me, Bane. Help me when I go into the shadows."
Bane opened his eyes lazily. "And what do you expect me to do?"
"To pull me out again." Blake looped his arms about broad shoulders and rested his forehead on Bane's. It was another first for Bane to feel another's breath mingling with his own, and for a few heartbeats Bane simply inhaled Blake's scent. "Teach me how to become a shadow, and when you see me begin to fail you, pull me out once more."
"What hope do you think I have in you then, little one?"
"I think you hope that I can measure up," answered Blake. "That I can be a beacon of light to a broken world."
Bane chuckled low in his throat and wrapped an arm about Blake. His nose sought the hollow under Blake's ear and he murmured, "I am a monster from the darkness, little one. What use have I of the light?"
"To change you from a monster to a person." Blake's voice turned breathy and his pulse picked up.
"Perhaps." Bane let his hands skim over the smooth planes of Blake's body, before carefully laying Blake flat on the bedding.
The younger man refused to let go, however. "Bane."
"You do not know what you ask of me," said Bane quietly, but he remained hovering over Blake, his arms easily supporting his weight. "What you ask of yourself."
Blake smiled widely and leaned up, kissing Bane again, and pulled him down to the blankets. Without breaking the kiss, Blake loosened Bane's pants and kicked them off the former terrorist. Their bodies slid together and Blake shuddered with need.
He whispered, "I want to find out, Bane. Help me?"
"Because you like me."
"I don't even know your full name," said Bane coolly, although his right arm was already embracing the younger man and his left hand was skating over Blake's skin, seeking out sensitive spots, memorizing each dip and curve and line of Blake's back.
Blake grinned, the dimples on full display, and whispered into Bane's ear, before he put his mouth to better use.
Six months after the bomb, a new vigilante appeared.
Within one month of his appearance he took down two kidnapping rings and a drug lord's operation. Three months and he had helped take down a new mob trying to set up shop. A year to the day the bomb detonated, the sign of the bat reappeared in the sky.
Everyone knew it was not Batman. This one was different. More efficient, more terrifying. Those who were caught and walked away from the system because of some technicality did not walk a second night.
No one knew who he was, but there were rumors about him flying, landing on the criminals out of nowhere and disappearing just as fast into thin air.
The newspapers drank it all up and called him Nightwing. He was a creature of the night, like Batman, said eyewitnesses. Just like Batman. Maybe even better, because with him, the streets really were safer and the criminals pleaded guilty every time. They seemed to fear returning to the streets. as if they feared the new vigilante appearing once more from the darkness.
No one ever spotted the heavy shadow within the shadows, watching, guarding, guiding.