Four floors up, eighteen steps to each floor, and each and every one a little hell by its own right. He climbs them with a vengeance, with a purpose. He'll climb them if it kills him. One hand on the rail, the other on his cane, and he's climbing, until he's all out of breath and the pain in his knees threatens to overcome him and there's still twenty of them to go. He keeps on climbing, battling each and every one, and each step a victory.
He stumbles into the small, shabby apartment, in too much pain to notice the empty walls. He collapses into the armchair, too tired to notice the carpet, fraying in the edges, or the dirt that won't come off the floor, no matter how much they tried. He falls into an uneasy sleep, or perhaps unconsciousness, as much as the pain allows him, but there's a small smile on his face, the smile reserved for small victories.
- on the scene of the crime, police is in high pursuit of the robber, who has been confirmed to be the so-called Mr Freeze, heading towards Fifth and Loeb, better find a different route if you're on the road tonight, I don't think - hold on! There's an explosion! Is it him? It is, I think it is, it's the Robin!
The numbers on the slip of paper in his hand and in his head don't match up. He knows which number he trusts, so he goes to his boss at the end of the day.
"You missed three hours last week. And on the first."
"I had a doctor's appointment," he points out.
His boss just shrugs. "Nothing says I have to pay you for it," he says. "Be grateful I keep you with that leg of yours. Who else is going to hire you?"
The retort is on the tip of his tongue. When I hired people, I never cared if they had a medical condition, and I didn't take their doctor's appointments off their pay. But he doesn't say it, of course. Not only will it do no good, but it might lead to awkward questions. That's rule number one. Don't do anything that will make them question your identity. There is no mask anymore.
It's a moot point anyway, of course. The insurance has run out and he had to pay for that last appointment himself. He knew even before he saw this pathetic paycheck that he won't be back for another one. Still, it's the principle of the thing. Selina will be bitter and angry, he knows. Perhaps he would have been too, if he only allowed himself to accept these feelings. He has become so good at hiding them, that he isn't sure anymore whether he feels them himself or not.
On the way back home, he can see him, above the skyline, almost like flying, like a bird in yellow and red. He smiles and shakes his head. Yellow and red. Honestly, why doesn't he simply draw a target on his back.
He walks two blocks when he realises there are three thugs tailing him. Their footsteps echo loud and clear in his ears. It's still broad daylight, but these days, no one waits for the darkness. No one tries to sneak up on their prey anymore. There's an old lady on the other side of the street. She looks at him, looks at the tail, then looks away. Not even attempting to warn him, but then, no one does anymore. A few bored kids are leaning on the rails, watching with interest. The streets are much more entertaining than anything they could watch on television. Well, he thinks dryly, let's give them a show. Three aren't a problem.
He doesn't bother to disappear in an alleyway, doesn't bother to find a less public place. In this new Gotham, this needs to be in daylight. He would hide his name, he would hide his face, he would hide his past, but if he wants to walk the streets of Gotham in peace, he must show his abilities. He pauses.
A cane to the knees, his fist in the face, a well-aimed kick. The three of them are on the ground and are unlikely to get up anytime soon, and he would have smiled if it weren't for the excruciating pain in his leg. It's broken, he knows even before he makes the usual tests, and drags himself all the way to the hospital. Neither the old lady nor the kids offer their help, but he has long stopped hoping someone would. Not ever since he came back with Selina. Not since they had left.
Three gunshot wounds, there's seven guys with serious burns here! Hey, I need a medic here, this guy's ribs are completely smashed. That Robin. Man, they must have pissed him off, there's five stiffs tonight. Don't get why they even bring them to the hospital, it's not like they're worth saving, though, is it? Shame to waste all the money it costs to treat them. I say they should just let them die where the Robin leaves them. If you ask me, the Robin should simply kill them all. I hope he does when he finally catches Mr Freeze.
"This here says your insurance has run out, Mr Kyle."
"I broke my leg," he points out.
"Could be just a minor injury. You're not a doctor, are you, Mr Kyle?" the nurse asks, and doesn't wait for his answer. "Well, you can't tell. Anyway, since this is clearly a non-life-threatening injury, and seeing as you don't have insurance, I'm afraid there's nothing we can do."
He doesn't bother arguing. It would do no good. He grabs his cane and, leaning heavily on it, walks towards the door.
He's almost at the exit when he hears a familiar voice.
"I'm not saying I want him arrested, no," Jim Gordon says irritably to his underling, "but it would be nice if he didn't just kill people. It's hard to return people's faith in the justice system when there's no one to judge."
"They'll probably walk free if they ever made it to court," the officer shrugs, and he can see by the look on Jim's face that his old friend is as unhappy with this reaction as he is with Robin's actions.
"I miss the Batman," Jim says. "He always made sure to catch them alive."
"That's the point, isn't it?" the officer insists. "Look how he died, the fool. Getting himself killed for this city. The Robin has more sense. He's not going to give his life for this scum. I gotta say I see his point."
Jim, too annoyed for words, looks around, with that oh-so-familiar expression, of the man who's biting his tongue not to say what's really on his mind. For a moment, Jim looks at the corner he's standing, and double-takes. Did he recognise him? But then Jim must decide he's imagining things, because the scowl on his face grows and he pushes through the doors angrily.
He follows perhaps five minutes later, enough time for the police to clear off. It's another half-hour but finally he's home, facing those damned stairs all over again.
'She calls herself Poison Ivy, that's in the police press release, but so far we are unable to report whether she is in league with the criminal fashioning himself 'Mr Freeze' or whether she works on her own. We are, of course, doing our best to apprehend her.'
'And what do you say about the growing voices in the city, that the Robin should be given a free rein in dealing with these terrorists?'
'I say what I said before - this is what your police force is here for. We have been here through all of Gotham's crises and we're not going to give up now. Of course we're happy to receive any help we can from the Robin, but we are still the primary law enforcement in the city.'
'Are you, Commissioner?'
'I beg your pardon?'
'Well, don't take it the wrong way, Jim, but I would say ever since the whole Bane thing, the police have showed us mainly that they are unlikely to react in a crisis. Even before Bane, even before the Robin - wasn't it the Batman who cleaned the city, really?'
He leans on the railing for a moment, closes his eyes and catches his breath before opening the door. Selina would already be home, he knows, and he doesn't want to walk in like that. When his heart has stopped racing and the shaking in his hand isn't all that pronounced, he opens the door.
"What's for dinner?" he hears the playfulness in her voice before he even sees her face. Despite himself, he smiles. She has never lost her ability to make him smile.
"Well, I thought a five-course dinner," he says casually, doing his best to keep the pain from his voice. It's not a difficult task. He has learned to control his voice years ago. "Start with steamed fish, maybe salad as well. Then French onion soup with freshly baked bread. With basil. Main course is steak. Chateaubriand. Maybe with fries. Then a fruit-salad."
"What's the fifth course?"
"Oh. Italian ice cream?" He's already losing concentration. "Why, what did you have in mind?
He collapses on the armchair, and sees Selina as she walks into the small living room, confused. "It's in the kitchen, though," she says, and only then spots his leg. "What - ?"
He shakes his head. "Nothing serious. Give me a minute."
Setting the leg takes only a minute, but he can't stop himself from groaning with the pain this time. His head is all dizzy - oh, how well he knows this feeling - but he gets a grip after a moment or two.
"Shame," Selina is saying now, "I thought maybe we'd go dancing tonight. Been a while since we dazzled everyone with our mean foxtrot."
Once again, he smiles despite himself. "In the Astoria," he adds.
She rolls her eyes. "The Astoria burned down four years ago. Gordon's men were hiding there at first."
She takes another look at his leg and brings the pizza to the living room without another word. She brings tinned mushrooms with her, and doesn't have to say anything, because he already knows it all by himself. They raised the price on the toppings again. A long time ago, people would have protested, called it a daylight robbery, but it's been four years since such a thing could have happened. These days, you grab at whatever you can get, and no one begrudges you for it, because they're all doing the same thing.
He's not going to apologise to her, nothing so ridiculous. She knew exactly who she was marrying and how much money he had at the time: three dollars, forty-three cents, in his pocket, under the suit, all the way from Gotham to that pit and back to Gotham and it didn't even get wet when he swam all the way back to the shore. They bought ice cream for the both of them and thought they could start anew. 'We'll make plenty more', he said then, 'away from this hellhole', because obviously he hadn't realised yet that what you could do when you were healthy, wealthy and famous was damn near impossible when you had no money, no friends, no contacts, and serious injuries that were never going to heal.
Sometimes he thinks she knew, even back then, because she didn't look as if she quite believed him when he said that. In the end, she was right and he was wrong and here they are, back in Gotham, the only place in the world that is willing to accept them, because it has no choice and because that is what Gotham City is for, taking in all the scum of the earth and all those who failed to escape, and more often than not they turned out to be the same people.
An explosion shakes the entire building. Some of the plaster falls off the wall.
"He's out again tonight," she says.
"Chasing bad guys," he agrees.
Another explosion, and this time they can hear people screaming in the distance. Selina looks out of the window, almost instinctively, and he does the same. They are the only ones, he knows. Most people don't even bother these days. The both of them still care, but then, if anyone is going to, it's them. Fat lot of good it does them. He's not hungry anymore, though, so he grabs his cane and drags himself to the window.
"You've run out of painkillers," Selina says quietly next to him. He doesn't bother to confirm. "I've been thinking," she continues. "Someone in this city has to have pearls that are worth enough to cover the operation."
She's telling him that only as a courtesy, he knows. He can hear it in her voice, and besides, she'd never have bothered bringing this up if she hadn't already made up her mind.
Still, he says the same thing he has said a thousand times. "We can't draw attention to ourselves," he says. "If they catch you - if they even trace you... we could both be in serious trouble."
"That fight today could have ended with more than a broken leg."
He gives her his small superior smile, the one he knows gets on her nerves. Maybe goading her isn't the best of ideas, but it's all he's got at the moment. "I can handle three untrained thugs, give me a break." He sits back in the armchair, slower and with more deliberation than before, and raises his eyebrow. He's never been so grateful for his training before as he is now, because his arm doesn't shake and he managed not to move even a muscle in his face this time. To hell the Gotham City mobsters, the League of Shadows and the monsters only hell could spit out, she's the only one he's ever been really afraid of.
She's not buying it, though. "And if they were six?" she asks.
"The Robin will save me," he says and they both laugh at their own little private joke as another explosion rocks the city.
He sighs and nods. "You'll need a simple plan. Somewhere you can get to in ten minutes, fifteen tops. In and out in ten minutes."
"Why the tight schedule?"
"You need to wait for when he's busy with someone else. Preferably this Mr Freeze character. Wait until they have another chase like the one they had last week, all through downtown, it will keep both them and the cops busy for long enough for you to go in and out unnoticed."
She brings up the old battered laptop, five years old and barely working, and connects to the neighbours' wifi. Breaking their password was no problem whatsoever. They go on the internet and start checking their options.
And look at him go! I do believe this is the night the Robin will finally rid us of this duo, he's after them, he's after them both, and he's stopping, he's taking the big guns now, this is - what the...? No! I can't believe this - the... they shot him, they shot him with something, he's not getting up, come on, Robin! They're approaching him, someone has to stop them, but Robin isn't moving, and -
He wakes up with a start, Bane's masked face as vivid in his mind as it was four years ago.
Selina's already awake. She's listening to the radio intently. Her grim expression has nothing to do with his nightmare.
"What is it?"
"They got him," she says quietly. "Freeze and Poison Ivy. They just said on the radio."
"Is he alive?"
"I don't know," she says. "There's no body or anything, but no one knows where he is."
A cloud moves, the room fills with moonlight, and now he notices she's already put on the suit. "I need to find him. They said there was a lot of blood there."
"Check the rooftops," he advises her, and she rolls her eyes.
"Not my first time doing this, remember?" she asks, then jumps out of the window.
He dresses up as quickly as he can - not as quickly as she can - grabs the cane, and takes the long way down.
Downstairs he sees the gangs are out and about. The news of the Robin's disappearance has already made it through the streets. No one in their right mind is going to be out tonight, not even the police, but then, isn't that what Alfred has always tried to tell him? He wasn't in his right mind. Not really.
He calls a taxi and makes a point to empty the contents of his wallet into the driver's hand. There's no point in robbing him, and he's better paying more than the ride is worth to make sure the driver knows that. He can see in the driver's eyes that they have an understanding, and allows himself to relax, just a little bit, but never let his guard down, because he doesn't know how.
The driver doesn't wait once they arrive at the old manor house. It's okay - he doesn't expect him to. He grabs his cane and walks in, not through the large house, not through the elevator, but makes his way through the other entrance, the waterfall, the cave. He doesn't want to alert anyone to his presence, or to the presence of the other man.
He almost slips twice; once because of his bad leg, once because of his broken one. The damn waterfall was always more to show-off than anything useful, he scoffs at himself, but it's too late for regrets. Instead he looks around, and is relieved when he realises his night vision hasn't completely gone down the drain.
He sees him there - lying on the ground, unmoving. Blake doesn't have Alfred to take care of him when he's made a stupid mistake, so he has to do it, and he climbs through the cave carefully, painfully, slowly, until he reaches Blake. He's not dead, he realises with a rush of relief, but injured nonetheless, and it's three hours before he can relax, three whole hours before he knows for sure that Blake is going to make it.
A bat flies by; he looks up, and a whole lot of them whooshes past. He smiles and shakes his head. They're like old friends, his oldest friends. And then the idea comes to his mind and takes hold of it. Because, really, Freeze and Poison Ivy can't go on doing whatever the hell they want - and they can't go on thinking they managed to hurt Gotham's hero.
He's almost touched when he realises Blake has never removed the suit. It's still there, in the same damn place, with all those gadgets Fox has made for him all those years ago. He's only going to try it on, he lies to himself.
He's lost some weight. The suit isn't such a great fit anymore. But it will do. The leg is going to be a bigger problem, but he's already got a plan for that as well. How did the Batpod end up back there, he doesn't know, but right now, it's all he needs. He ignores with disdain the collection of guns Blake has assembled in his cave, the collection of deadly explosives, picks up some of his smaller gadgets, his trusted tricks, and hops on the pod. The night's breeze sings in his ear.
The gangs stop dead in the streets as he passes by, but he has no time for them. Lit windows become occluded when the people behind them peep out, stunned. From the tip of his eye, he sees the old lady, the same one who never warned him about the thugs, cheering loudly from her third floor porch. He goes on. Tonight he's after two people and two people only. Tomorrow night he will be after no one at all.
Apprehending Freeze and Ivy turns out much easier than he's expected, but to give them some credit, they were so stunned to see him that they barely thought of fighting at all. By the time they did remember that they weren't there just as spectators, he already had the advantage over them.
The voices of the nurse, of the news anchors and talk-show hosts sting in his ear, but he doesn't kill them, of course he doesn't. He leaves them in the street. He can already hear the cops rushing out as he takes the Batpod away. Perhaps, the thought fleetingly enters his mind, his act will remind the people of Gotham the nature of charity. He's not going to hold his breath, though.
He leaves the Batpod in a small warehouse. He can't help it, one last time, and with his grapple gun he shoots his way to the roof of the building.
Jim's already there. Of course he is.
"Hello, Bruce," he says quietly.
"They don't call me that anymore," he says, and he uses his regular voice, not the hoarse whisper he had used all those years ago. He's not sure he remembers how.
Jim smiles. "I know," he confesses. "I went back to the hospital. The nurse had no idea what I was talking about. For a while there, I really did think I was imagining things."
He says nothing at all.
"Is Blake alive?"
"Yes. You probably won't see him for a while, but he's going to make it." This time, his voice comes out all low and hoarse - he doesn't even think about it, but something must have kicked in, with the suit and the rooftop and this kind of discussion. Jim's smile broadens.
"Does this mean the Batman is back?" he asks, and there's a hopeful note in his voice.
"No. I'm retired. Just one last stint, as a favour for an old friend."
Jim opens his mouth to ask the obvious question - which one is the friend, Blake or Jim himself? But he thinks better of it and closes his mouth again. "How are you?" he finally asks.
"I'm good." It's a lie, of course, but maybe this time they can pretend it's real for long enough.
"Commissioner!" Someone is shouting, and Jim looks away for only a moment. It's his opportunity, of course, and it's already become an instinct not to miss it. He's gone in a heartbeat, but he's close enough to hear Jim say, "If you need - " before he pauses because there's no one there anymore.
He always liked that bit.
- half a dozen reports of sighting coming from all over the city, it's a madhouse out there tonight, I'm telling you, and the one question everyone's asking is 'Is it really him?' The Batman, as we all remember, was pronounced dead four years ago, and until tonight, there was no sign, no hint otherwise, but all over the city you can hear people -
He walks home. He left the Batpod back in the cave, together with the suit, and he's not going back. It's okay, he tells himself. He's retired. No one tries to attack him on the way home. Oh, he's sure there are people out there, those who see the limp and the home-made cast and the cane and think 'weakness', but tonight, first and foremost, everyone sees the Batman everywhere.
He makes it, at last, to the building. Even from down there he can see a light in the living room - Selina will have heard. A part of her will understand, he knows, and another will be angry. For a moment he wonders which part will win - that would determine how long the fight is going to be, of course. Ah, well, the fiercer the fights, the better the sex, he thinks and the smile only she can get out of him finds its way to his lips, and he turns to his true nemesis.
Four floors up, eighteen steps to each floor, and each and every one a little hell by its own right. He climbs them with a vengeance, with a purpose. He'll climb them if it kills him. He keeps on climbing, battling each and every one, and each step a victory.