"where a blade was sunk some time ago"
Genre: Drama, Romance
Time Frame: Pre-Canon - TDKR
Characters: Talia al-Ghul | Miranda Tate/Bane, Ra's al-Ghul/Melisande, Bruce Wayne, Others
Summary: "And sometimes, the pits would give something back – something stronger than that which had been fed flailing into the bitter earth." Talia rises. Bane follows.
Notes: I know, I know, I know - I have a half a dozen other projects that you guys are waiting for, BUT, my muse was smitten and I just had to write. I had to. For all intents and purposes, this fic is an exorcism to the tenth degree - the need for which I fully blame on the sheer magnificence of Tom Hardy's voice and the brilliance that is Nolan's mind. Thank-you feelings, now let me go.
On a more relevant note, this story will be told in five lengthy parts, each skipping through time - from the Pit to Gotham and everywhere in between. I hope you guys enjoy this ride as much as I enjoyed penning it. :)
Disclaimer: Nothing is mine, but for the words.
"where a blade was sunk some time ago"
Part I: "by the hilt"
The rains were rare in the desert, but when they came, they came with a vengeance.
She could feel the storms as they built and gathered, even down as they were in the bowels of the earth. The circular walls of the Pit grew damp before the storm; the walls beaded with fat drops of condensation, allowed to sweat with the storm pressing down as they were not able to when the sun was at its peak in the sky. The air around them turned heavy and moist as the barren earth inhaled, ready to snatch at the rain with greedy fingers in its desperation to be full. When the rain finally did fall, the wet scent of the storm was clean next to the musty and stale scent that Talia had always known. So, she tilted her head, and tried to hold the rain in her nose, in her mouth and on her skin. The moisture made her tongue stick to the back of her teeth. The sensation was foreign to her, akin to how she felt after sipping at water, but not drinking enough to quench her thirst. The rain fell and fell and fell and the earth took what the sky could give for days until the dry ground was sated. It would take until flowers would bloom, lingering for only a heartbeat until the desert closed its hands as teeth over the new growth, cutting away both roots and blossoms, stealing what never should have thrived in the first place.
When she asked, her friend whispered of different flowers, their names anointed by long and rolling syllables, all of which he had learned from his life before the Pit. (A life she only knew about in passing, as shadowy as her own story). She, a true child of the Pit, had never seen a flower past a picture she had once seen in one of the Doctor's dusty books. Even the colors and shapes Bane used to explain the blooms to her were past her ability to comprehend at times. The desert, the dead earth, alive with blankets of colors and shapes and scents? The idea was as silly to Talia as her friend's fairytales - all were nonsense whispers, made for that time right before sleeping and dreaming . . .
So, she said as such, her nose held high in the air as she remembered her mother doing when she disagreed with the doctor who had once been their protector in the prison. Arrogantly, Talia called him on what she perceived as a falsehood, and Bane had chuckled and pushed her away from where she had leaned in close to convey the severity of his actions.
Someday, he had whispered to her after convincing to her of his sincerity, you will see them for yourself. And you will know more names than even I, little one. You will be able to name the things that grow away from the dark. But she was young, and the distant concepts of more and away were surreal to her. They were distant things to her. Her, who had never known anything more than the walls of their prison and the dust of their cell. Her, who thought of safety only in the heavy rise and fall of her friend's chest against her back. At night, she slept tucked by his side, close enough so that when she moved a hand underneath the bundled up rag they called a pillow, she could feel the knife they kept there, waiting. It was a protection, a precaution, and she did not shrink at the touch of steel simply because she could not remember a time when she slept any other way.
At the thought, she remembered sleeping as such with another. With her mother, the arms around her had not been the solid stone of the earth, but rather something soft and comforting – the feeling of home and love in such a barren, forgotten place. Distantly, she remembered watching the rain from her mother's side . . . only months ago, would it have been? Melisande had taught the concept of time her, back when the warlord's daughter had carved the days into the walls with her blunted nails, her hands no longer satin soft, but callused and desert roughened. Bane had since said that there was no use for time in the Pit, and so Talia had stopped keeping track. The marks on the wall were faded now, merely barren ghosts to remind her that her mother was something more than just a warm memory her mind would send for when the shadows grew too thick. More and more often when she tried to call her mother to mind, she found that the memories were seemingly buried beneath sand. She thought that the sand over her memories was Time as her mother had described it, and she tried to tell Bane so once. His smile in return had been a sad thing, etched into his face, and Talia had not tried to speak of it again.
That night, they slept very close to the edge of their cell, close enough so that she could feel the rain as it dripped down the bars and wetted her blanket, soaking it through. They were high on the walls, where few others cared to go unless they had a rope about their body, and down below, she knew the Pit would be flooded, water collecting when the ground was too tired to even soak in what it needed most. She could feel the water on her skin, and she watched curiously as it beaded, catching the light from the storm above and reflecting it back. They had put out their rusted metal cups and water skins to catch the rain, and the taste of the water was sweet even past the bite of the rusted metal.
Above them, thunder boomed, fit to shake the walls of their cell, and her breath caught in her chest at the sound. Her heart raced, seemingly fit to escape if it wished to try, and she looked up to catch a shadow of her protector in her vision, letting the shape of him calm her.
"It is such a big sound," she finally said, not quite sure how to put her thoughts into words, but wishing to try. In response, Bane gave a deep chuckle that she could feel against her back. It rumbled in her bones like the thunder above. "How is Above big enough to hold such a thing?" she asked curiously.
"Above is large enough to hold the storm and even more, little one," amusement was present in his tone, curbing a bit as he took to explaining the things she never had a chance to understand. "It holds storms and seas and skies, and still has room enough for us to walk about across the ground."
"It sounds angry," Talia finally said, curling her fingers into the arms that held her. Her heart skipped in her chest, a missed step.
"Even the skies wish to scream at times," Bane shrugged, and while his words were sad, she could hear a smile shaped against his voice. "It cannot hold itself up forever without the wish to tell the world below of its pain."
That she could understand, she finally gave as she pillowed into his chest even more, searching out his heartbeat. A part of her thought that she held the sky's screams, held thunder, in her very bones. It was a knowing deeper than hunger or thirst or curiosity about the sky above them. It was a knowing that ached; that made her throat thick as it was when she remembered her mother, when she remembered the reason that they slept with steel rather than softness, and held a blade hidden to the waking world for protection rather than aggression.
That part of her wanted to scream, wanted to match the sky above them, but instead she was silent. She held it in. She let it hold and heat her bones until she was an extension of the storm above. She burned. But the heat waited.
"Someday," Bane's voice rumbled in her ears in answer to her thoughts, as if he were able to read her very mind. "But not yet."
And so she inhaled, and sucked in the black feeling that she had been letting gnaw on her bones. She opened her eyes, and the dark, which still frightened her at times, seemed to claim her as one of its own – claim her as it had claimed her friend. Her friend, who seemed to have no form but shadow at times, whom the very night had begotten, he was as real and solid to her as the sky and the storm beyond. She understood the thunder, racing across the heavens and searching for a way out before it was swallowed by its own might. She understood the thunder, and while she could not see the lightning, she could see the glow it made. She could see the shadows it threw, deeper than those left by the sunlight. She stretched her hand through the bars as if to catch the light, and felt the rain hit her skin instead.
Behind her, her friend's breathing was deep and even, echoing in her ears as the thunder above, and to her child's mind he was as powerful as the storm itself. Her Baldassare, her protector.
It was not happiness that filled her in that moment, not in the way most would describe the word. But it was a burning thing deep inside of her that kept her alive. It anchored her.
And for that moment she was content.
When the rain passed, the walls of the pit remained wet for days. The men around them called it a monsoon, and Talia rolled the new word on her tongue as Bane whispered to her about climates and the cycles of the earth. The bottom of the prison was flooded, and the vermin who normally stayed to the floor levels came higher and higher, up to where Talia liked to think of the Pit as her own. Bane kept her close that day, close enough so that the men did not know if the child walked with the man, or if she was simply a flicker of his shadow.
They did not eat that day – the bread was thrown down from above, but immediately claimed by the water below, spoiling it. The splashing sounds that the men made as they grappled for the least sodden pieces reached Talia's ears from her place on the wall. The sounds pulled at her stomach, even as she ate a nearly rotten piece of fruit that Bane had saved for her from the day before. Carefully, wasting nothing, she licked the juice from her fingers as next to her, Bane went without so that she could grow strong.
The stones were slick and hard to grasp, but that did not stop their routine for the day. Like clockwork, Bane made her stare at the stones, looking between the handholds and the footholds, until under his direction she could pick out paths and sure ways through the decaying brick and mortar with her own eyes. He showed her how to see which ones would break, which ones would hold. Still in his shadow, she scurried over the stones closest, building the muscles in her small arms and quenching the fear that every creature had of falling.
But you were born in the rock, in the deep, and should they not carry what they have fathered as their own? Bane pointed out when her brow rose and she questioned with her eyes.
Still, I know fear, she said. It was a hot thing in her bones, scorching next to the cold flame that defined her very being – a flame that was stronger than hunger or thirst or longing or fear.
His smile was hidden behind the fabric he had drawn over his face, but still she could still see it from where it crinkled his eyes. Always they betrayed his thoughts, and she found that as time passed, she could read them as easily as she could read the stones on the wall.
Little one, he said, and his words were born away, lost to the open air and the sky above, that fear is what will keep you alive.
They had very little to call their own in the depths of the earth, but on the nights that they had enough to build a fire, Talia felt very rich indeed.
The rain had cooled the earth, and the desert nights, which had already been crisp and breezy things, were now fit to chill. Talia, with her tiny limbs, hollow boned and seemingly glass-like (like a bird ready to fly away, Bane had always teased), felt the bite of the night in the deepest parts of her.
Normally, they were able to save enough to build a fire once every few turns of the moon. Kindling was sparse, and the hunting for it was normally a savage thing, but between her quick hands and Bane's severe presence, they managed to gather enough to light one rather regularly in the colder parts of the desert season.
Once he had said that they would have a fire that night, Talia walked regally around their cell, a wooden bowl on her head that she called a crown, and a rusted metal rod in her hand that she called her scepter. Holding her head haughtily in the air, she waved her hand like a queen and commanded that a blaze be built, fit to reach the heavens. Bane had snorted at her antics, but he still bowed in deference to her, playing along and letting her be a child in a place that no childhood should ever be spent. He teased her about having too much blue blood when her imperious demeanor came too easily, but she pressed a finger to the vein in her wrist and said that it looked red to her.
There was laughter in moments like that – moments that she will someday look back on and yearn for, if not only for their simplicity and peace. There was laughter, and there was a sense of triumph too – pride and exultation over the fact that they were able to build a light away from the sky that reigned haughtily above them all. The sun they could never possible hope to rise higher towards, but this small little fire, coaxed and brought to life in the dead of the earth? Yes. It was a tiny piece of hope, but it was theirs.
With her mother, this had been an indulgence that they had rarely taken a part in – the doctor was too addled by his morphine to assist them, and Talia had not strayed from her mother's cell unless it was for food. One of the few times Talia could remember spending with her mother by a fire's glow had been when Bane himself had gotten them enough scrap to start a fire for them, and Melisande had set the kindle aflame with sheer determination and whispered hints from the cell beyond theirs. But that had been a long time ago, before Talia had called him Baldassare and he had called her his own.
Now, it was a lesson as well as an indulgence as he talked her through the process. He held the flint and steel in his hand and showed her how to make a spark. He taught her about oxygen and things that fed the flames to keep them going. It was a balance, always a balance, he had said - weighing what they were willing to give in order to kept the fire fed. It was a balance, what they would give for the heat that would be granted to them in return. The fire is always hungry, Bane said, and her stomach rumbled – a reflex to his words that had a laugh flexing his chest, not quite making it to his mouth.
Talia closed her eyes as she settled in by the fire. Beyond them, she heard the sounds of the Pit at night – the rattling of chained men, the pitter patter of rats scurrying against the stone, and the low drone of whispers, the muttering of men driven mad by the years. She opened her eyes, and saw the tongues of the small fire as they pushed away the shadows. Stretching, she watched the colors shift, their own little phoenix held captive on the earth, and she said, "I know exactly how it feels."
In the days following, another man tried to make the jump to freedom. It was to be expected, Bane said, the rain and the smell of growing things from beyond having lit a perverse desperation in all of their veins for the world beyond. Hope was a poison, festering in the blood, and there were always men who wished to bleed that ichor away from their veins.
The men of the prison chanted as the man climbed - rise, rise, rise up! - in an ancient tongue that had no use except for in this forgotten place. Bane did not watch the man ascend, and Talia instead watched her friend's eyes as they stared up, unblinking at the ceiling.
Together, they listened. Talia's heart thundered as if she were the one climbing. The chanting rose in time with the man until it broke upon itself, a crescendo, at that final leap. And then, there was the familiar sound of the rope as it snapped back, and the even more familiar sound of screaming. Screaming, and the booing of a thousand men for the lone man who had failed to fly.
And Bane exhaled, letting go a breath she had not known he had been holding. Talia echoed the sound, her small lungs not able to completely mimic his.
It was for this reason, she reflected as the broken man was helped from the rope, that Talia rarely looked to the sky. It was just a patch of blue above, and she had more real things - more solid things to hope in next to her. She thought that over carefully as they sat and watched the doctor in the cell next to theirs go about setting the screaming man's broken ribs. She knew not if the man screamed from despair or pain, and she did not bother to divine the difference from him. Both were marks on the soul that festered and rotted over time.
Bane had yet to do so much as even glance over. His breath was deep and even in his chest. He was laying on his back, staring up without blinking. His hands were folded, crossed over his chest. They rose and fell in time with his breathing.
And Talia tilted her head, curious and considering. "Have you ever tried to make the jump?" she asked, her voice whispered as if she were asking him to divulge a secret.
A moment passed. Talia counted out her heartbeats, timing them with his breathing. "Once, long ago," he answered, the words hollow on his tongue. "And I did not get much farther than that man right there."
She processed that, and nodded, the knowledge troubling to her – the knowledge that her savior had failed to do what he was determined that she could do . . . For a moment, she wished to ask him what his pain was like. She wanted to know if he still had scars from his climb or if the frustration of failure was more bitter to him.
Instead, she bit her tongue and asked, "Why do you not try again?"
He glanced over at her. She could see the corner of his gaze from where she sat. "I have no reason to try again, little one," he answered simply, a faint undercurrent of amusement in his voice.
She nodded, shaking her head very slowly as she turned his words over in her mind.
A heartbeat passed. Another and another. The man beyond them no longer screamed, but still he whimpered, speaking in a language that Talia could not understand. But she knew his words as well as her own.
Someday, she reasoned out silently, she would make the jump to freedom, succeeding where grown men could not, and then she would not be the anchor shackling her friend to such a hopeless and barren place.
Talia would rise. Bane would then follow.
She thinks that she has passed eight years when she holds a blade in her hands, not for the sake of protection, but with the wish to take blood.
She did not know if it was the exact day that her mother's death would have fallen on. She only knew that it was the cool part of the year, still warm during the day but near freezing at night. She knew the time of the year by the sickness in the air, the coughing lungs and the retching throats.
That morning, she awakened before her protector, and tip toed quietly to the other edge of the cell so as to not awaken him. She spent the morning on her knees, her eyes closed as she breathed deeply, in and out. One by one, she called her memories to her, reliving them as fresh and vivid as the day they had been set into her mind. Her fingers shook, adrenaline keeping them from being still.
Beyond, the men of the Pit were just moving, awoken by the morning sun, ever bright and teasing above. She could hear the sounds of a dozen languages, curses and whispers and the broken mumbling of battered men. She heard the jangling of chains. And she closed her eyes and knew a sour taste in her mouth, a fierce burning in her bones as she thought of those who still walked where Melisande had been forced to stillness.
The men who had led the attack had been executed, the guards who held a laxed hold on the Pit and its working not tolerating such a crime, but every man who had a hand against Melisande's body had not been brought to justice. There were too many, and those in power cared little about one woman who had been stupid enough to condemn herself to such a hell in the first place. They had considered justice done, and Talia alone had been left to seethe with a righteous anger deep in her bones.
Even still, Talia's memories of that day were vivid, too fast things. She remembered the feel of the day more than the actuality of it – her mind having taken the adrenaline soaked images and giving her the sound of screams, the flash of dull colors swimming together like a muddy ocean – the sound of Melisande yelling for her to run as Talia had instead stood her ground and pounded her little fists on the back closest to her and yelled with all of her might.
She remembered strong arms carrying her away, and how she had fought, her scream an unholy thing in her mouth as she was torn from the mob . . . She remembered the look of near relief in Melisande's eyes, gratitude and acceptance and pain before Talia had been tucked into her savior's chest and she had seen no more . . .
Still she remembered the faces of the men. She remembered each and every one. She could not escape them - not when they still walked the bottom of the pit, their eyes remembering as she remembered; smirking and promising as she seethed and simmered in her anger.
And one in particular walked before her. She knew him not only by the shape of his face – all sharp angles and hungry eyes, a slopping nose and thin hair – but by the necklace he wore. On the leather twine he had knotted about his neck, there were a dozen tokens – rat skulls and bird bones from the corpses that had at times been thrown into the Pit. Some of the adornments were human bones, as well – the hollow bone of a finger here, the tip of a rib there, Talia had gazed at the macabre collection and pulled when she had tried to push the mass away from her mother, and it had not given under her meager strength.
She had watched him, over the past year (at least, what felt like a year to her), charting his steps in the morning, noting where he sat and waited out the high noon hours, watching who he talked to and lingered about with at night. She knew his steps, and no longer would he take one more where he had taken from her mother hers.
It was still an easy thing for her to slip through the bars, Bane's knife in her sleeve as she looked back over her shoulder one last time to make sure her protector was still sleeping.
She inhaled, willing stillness into her quivering limbs. All was clear.
And she made it not even steps towards the man with the bone necklace before a strong hand was pulling her away, and she looked up with surprise to see the face of her friend glaring down at her.
"Do you wish to die, little one?" he asked, his warm voice raspy, the lilt of his accent twisted with his anger.
And Talia felt her heart pound, even as she glared up at him. "I wish not to," she answered sullenly. "But it is not my death that I had thought of."
It was not good enough. Bane shook his head, his grip strong on her arm as he pushed her in the opposite direction of where she had been going. Talia resisted, standing tall. "That man is near three times your size and knows more of killing than you should ever need to know. What makes you think that you would come out superior?"
She shook her head, holding her arms straight with her hands fisted. They shook. She could not keep them still as within her chest her heart pounded and screamed, and her lungs ached from the cold flame that was consuming them. She could not breathe, and the tears behind her eyes burned her. They would not let her be.
She tried to answer, but found that she could not. Her words were caught in her throat as she remembered the stories that he had told her. She remembered the one of the Danish prince and his father's ghost. Avenge me, avenge me, the spirit had cried, and Talia had not been able to understand why the prince had stood so still for the rest of the play . . . He had stayed still while the spirit had wept, and Talia had thought of her mother gone and hated like only the shadows of the Pit could teach one to hate . . .
She would be no Hamlet, standing still. She wished for blood.
She clenched her fists, keeping the cold flame inside of her down. She kept it locked inside, even as it built and bit and clawed at her flesh from the inside out . . .
"He does not deserve to live," Talia finally said in a low voice, one that seethed. She said it as if that should have meant everything, as if that should have assured her of victory in any fight. "I cannot bear seeing his face . . ."
The hard lines about Bane's face softened. This time, when he led her away, his coaxing was gentle. She followed, having to concentrate to keep her feet from stumbling.
"Justice is not always a faithful mistress," Bane said, his voice weary. "Just because you have the right of it does not mean that you would have come out of that fight alive."
"I cannot not try," she whispered, falling into his shadow. In the wake of her hate and her anger, she was so very tired. It was hard to stay upright without the hate inside of her giving her strength.
"Then never stop," Bane said after a long moment, and she looked up, confused.
"Baldassare?" she whispered his name, the name he had had before the inmates of their hell had dubbed him as he was, and he shook his head, waiting until they were safe in the shadows of their cell again to speak.
He let her go, but still she stayed close, standing still while he paced, like a jungle cat too long kept in a small space. "I will teach you," he finally said. "I will teach you how to move, how to think; how to strike and carry yourself, and someday you can take your vengeance with the means to walk away standing at the end."
She felt her heart rise in her throat, remembering how he looked in a crowd of men. How they cowered before him, how he fought like a serpent roused from its basket, too quick and too lethal with a bite of venom to his blows. To move the same . . .
But still, her brow furrowed. "Why does this trouble you?" she asked, reading the planes of his face, the stories they told. "You are sad to do such a thing."
Again, his mouth quirked at the corners. It was rueful. "In any other life, these are skills you would never need. This is a dark place for one so small, and you deserve not of it."
A heartbeat. She tilted her head, all curiosity again as she watched him pace. She had no answer for him, only silence, and finally, he ceased his movements and looked at her with a critical eye.
"This is your first lesson, child," he said, his voice strangely solemn, his eyes carefully serene. "Never attack anything that you have no hope of defeating. At least, not by rushing into a fight. Watch it, instead. Learn from it. Follow it, and use your strongest weapon." He tapped the side of her head with his first two fingers. "The stronger fighter does not always win, little one, remember that."
And she listened. And she learned.
Later that night, she awakened to see Bane returning from some solitary errand. His stride was whisper soft as he let himself back into their cell, the shadows of the deep part of the night nearly obscuring him completely. He paused for a moment when he was on their side of the bars, resting his head against them as if he was weary. When he made his way back over to their cot, Talia sat up and blearily rubbed at her eyes, fighting the sleep from her mind. When she tilted her head and questioned, he held out his hand with a gift – the gift of a necklace, dotted with bone fragments and once living things.
She was suddenly awake and aware in the darkness. It was hard to see in the blackness of the Pit, but she had long since become used to the absence of light. She looked at him, searching, but there was no blood on his hands. There was no blood on the necklace. She still held his knife in her sleeve.
But how? he saw her questions in her eyes, and in answer he placed a hand on her shoulder, very close to her neck. She felt her skin tingle in awareness, but she felt no fear. Instead, the hand on her skin was a comfort, a warm weight.
And Bane watched the way she relaxed against him, boneless and yielding until something shadowed crossed over his eyes. "Sometimes," he whispered, his voice very heavy, "Justice does not exist . . . and so, it must be forged with your own hands. This is for you, little one."
She nodded at his words, holding the bone strewn cord close to her as Bane's hand fell from her shoulder. A part of her wished to burn the thing, to never see it again. But another part of her held the sharp parts close, and felt them push against her skin. Her heart thundered, even though there was no foe to face. The cold flame at the core of her was oddly still, oddly sated in that moment, and Talia fell back to sleep with her hate at rest. She slept peacefully, without dreams.
And somewhere else, a world away, a boy sank to the ground and stared at the bloody pearls that littered the alleyway. Orphans were made and used and battered every day, but this boy looked at the wreckage around him, and swore a vow that hooked into the soft parts of his being, making them hard. He looked up as Talia looked forward, and where a life ended, a legend was once again set, ready to rise.
The summer comes, and the season was hot and heavy on their shoulders.
It was the hottest summer that Talia could remember, so hot that even the deepest of shadows in the Pit held not even the slightest bit of relief from the heat. She sweated more than she thought was possible, her body left weak under the weight of the sun, not having that much moisture to work with in the beginning. Many men died from the heat that season, their bodies already weak from prior sicknesses and a weakness more deadly than any of the body – the weakness of apathy. Apathy was a more silent killer than any other in their prison, a slow and lethal knife that crept up unaware until there was no way to pass by its blade unscathed.
The sun was at its highest point in the sky for the day, the light of its rays flooding anywhere and everywhere with its empty heat as it reigned haughtily from its omnipotent cradle in the sky. Normally, this time of the day brought her lessons – both the spoken and the mental given their time when it was too bright to learn the physical, the art of moving and stalking and striking. Her mind expanded under the tutelage of her teacher, absorbing everything from the movements of the stars to the shape of the world and the art of language and its use. Some of the skills taught to her she found perplexing, like those of mathematics and the sciences. But Bane's knowledge was vast and his teaching was through. Anything that he could teach to her by tracing a stick in the sand, by scratching stone against stone, was driven into her mind until the facts and figures were as rote as breathing to her. The doctor in the cell next to theirs gave what books he had, and with their words, Talia learned to read and write, muddling through the odd assortment of languages he had in their written form until she understood the flick of a pen, the turn of a scholar's hand. It was a slow work, filling her mind, but in their world of nothingness, time was something that they had ample fill of.
During the bright parts of the day, he saw that her mind was forged, but by the shadowed parts of the night, her body grew as well. In the twilight hours, when they could not be seen but as for shadows, Bane taught her how to move. The Pit was not absent its fill of those who knew the warring arts, and past warlords and former mercenaries were a dime a dozen in their prison. Over the years, Bane had learned well the art of combat and its ways, and he passed his knowledge on to her. She moved well when her body was fit to strike, he finally gave, his compliments as spare as anything else in the Pit. She was quick and little, like a bird darting for prey in the high grasses. Over time, she found that she liked the feel of a knife in her hands more than anything else, but learned that she could cope equally well with a staph or thrown projectiles. Bane himself liked a more direct approach with his opponents – his hands knowing the tender places of the neck and the points in the spine that made it easy to snap. But, such brute strength would never belong to her, and a more elegant means of defense was called for.
But the day was hot, too hot for movement - even the movement of tongues, and rather than attend to her lessons, they laid down in the darkest parts of their cell, trying to find an escape from the heat. Bane laid on his back, closest to the light so that she could curl up in the shadow he threw, escaping the sun and its rays. Still she could feel the heat from beyond him. Her skin was dry and brittle, and her lips were chapped to the point that they bled when she pressed them together. Already, Bane had given her twice as much water as she would normally have in a day. Still she knew thirst. She licked her lips, and tasted copper and salt. Her stomach ached with the motion. As always, Talia ignored her hunger and her thirst, and instead concentrated on being still, very still.
They didn't need words on days like these, he as comfortable with the silence as she, but after a while she felt her limbs grow restless no matter how much she willed herself to be otherwise. It was hard to stand still, even if moving left her hot and tired. She worked her mouth more, opening and closing it again, and her tongue moved sluggishly in reply, thick and dry against her teeth. When the blood was gone, she tasted dust when she breathed.
"The men call you Bane," she finally said, her Spanish rolling on her tongue – for a language was learned only by use, and she had much to practice. "Why?"
He shrugged, his shoulders lifting against the dirt. "I broke a man's neck once when he tried to take rations that were not his own, and he cursed me as such as he died. The name stuck." His answer was in the same tongue, and she felt her lips quirk up at the sound. The dips and the slurs of the language sounded different when mixed with his normal lisp, and the sound fascinated her. She blinked as she remembered the time before her mother's death – remembered the man who would pass her figs and dates through the bars of the cell, whole loaves of bread and strips of dried meat, too, when he could.
"Did anyone not want to know what you were called before?" she asked, curious.
Again he rolled his shoulders, all a slumbering bear shaking off the attentions of a fly. "What for? Men come and go, they live and they die and keep to themselves in places like this. It makes it harder to stick a blade into a man's side when you know his name."
She crinkled her nose at the shape of his words, trying to find the language in her mind. Arabic? she puzzled out, or one of its many forms? Farsi, she finally decided on, the tongue more suited to his mouth than Spanish. He had drawn maps in the sand to show her the broad places of the world and how they connected, and while the concept was boggling to Talia, the names stayed with her, the facts and figures in her mind something the Pit could not take from her no matter how broadly it dangled the sunlight above.
"Still, it is a silly name," she said, switching again – this time to Hungarian, she liking how the language popped on her tongue. She liked the shape of the syllables it made.
He snorted, the sound amused as it passed his lips. What kind of a name is Bane? she had asked with narrowed eyes, on one of the days following her mother's death. Back then she had been weary and not quick to trust, and finally her words had drawn a roll of eyes from her savior and he asked, What kind of a name is Talia, little one? The snort of laughter that had followed from her lips had been as unexpected to him as it had been to her.
He had told her that his name was Baldassare, on the eve of that same day, but she did not dare repeat it aloud except on the rarest of occasions. The name was hers and hers alone, and she did not like to even share it with the air of the Pit. It was something sacred in an unholy place, and she would not breathe it aloud until she walked the earth above. Then, perhaps, she would consider sharing the name with the land around her.
She tilted her head, and thought, Baldassare, who was called Bane, and Talia, the child of Melisande and the Demon's Head. She liked the sound of their names together. Quirking the corner of her mouth, she twiddled her fingers with a loose bit of string on her shirt and said her next turn of thought out loud, "What did you do to come to this place?" The question was an old point of curiosity to her – something that she had heard the men of the Pit theorize about often enough, though none actually knew the truth for certain.
"Beg pardon?" he responded. French, she picked up on his words. It was a tongue he had not taught her, but it had been one her mother had known and spoken to her in bits and pieces. Talia closed her eyes, and tried to remember the rolling vowels as she shaped them into words on her tongue.
"You?" she repeated, her speech made simple and choppy with the unfamiliar language. But she liked the face he made when she surprised him, for as long as it was there before he tucked it away. "Why are you here?"
"I am here because it is too bloody hot outside of the shadows to do anything else." Back to Farsi then, his deep voice rumbling in amusement.
Talia rolled her eyes and propped herself up on her elbow to look at his face. His body blocked out the light from beyond, keeping her cool in his shadow. The sun greeted her when she raised her eyes over the rise of his chest, and she squinted, trying to find his gaze. "My mother was here because she loved," she said, sharing her tale (thought it was commonly known) in hopes of one in return. She slipped to her native tongue for that – a rolling language spoken from the throat and considered ancient in most parts of the world. "My father was not meant to have her, but married her still he did, and for that love he was sentenced to die here. Melisande took his place after paying the guards, and he knew not of her sacrifice – he knows not still. He thought her dead, slain by her father's hand."
A snort escaped Bane at the tale. "Rather a man would have taken such a sentence than a woman. He may still be alive; he could have survived this place." English, she knew that tongue – the one he was most insistent that she learn, for its use was never ending.
"But then you would not have me here," she said, her voice lilting imperiously, her English heavy and accented in contrast to his. "And then where would you be?"
"I would be enjoying the silence a considerable deal more," he said gruffly, reaching out to push at her forehead, turning her searching eyes away. She made a small 'umph' noise as she fell back on the ground.
She popped back up again, this time nearly leaning over him in her quest to make out his gaze. "The doctor said that you were born in a place far beneath the surface of the ground, not far from here, and when you were found you were thrown down here with the rest of the shadow people whom the men of light knew not what to do with."
A snort. "Is that what he said?"
Her head bobbed, nodding. "The men though, they say that you are a murderer – that you have killed hundreds, blackened whole villages and towns with the might of your name."
A raised brow. "Do you think that is true?" he asked, looking over to face her for the first. He reached over, and rested a large hand on her shoulder, his first finger very close to her neck. Talia merely smiled, and leaned into his touch.
"Not without a reason," she said impishly, her eyes mischievous as she reached up to cover his hand with her own.
At that he laughed, the sound low and rusty, a little heard thing in their place of screams and mad, mad whispers. Talia smiled at it.
"Others say that you were lowered down with the princess," and here her smile turned slightly, her voice dipping as she once again slipped into her own tongue. "That you came here to protect her where Ra's al-Ghul could not. That is why . . . that is why you saved her child when you could not save her. And that is why you even still will not give her child to anyone else."
That one was a newer whisper, one that slithered and accused and dripped with insinuation about his relationship with both of the Demonhead's family. Talia cared little for it.
And Bane's mouth twisted, he hearing the whispers as easily as she. Sobered, she settled in on the cool earth once more, falling silent as she thought. Around them, the whispers of the Pit were quiet, the heat of the day coaxing even the most determined of men to sleep. Talia closed her eyes for a moment, but the shadows over her gaze did little to fight away the glare of the day.
She felt more than heard as the man beside her inhaled. His breath was drawn deep from his lungs. "And what do you think I am here for, little one?" he spoke her tongue, the accent fluid in his mouth. Talia hummed in the back of her throat at the sound of it.
"I think that you have always been here," she answered without opening her eyes. "I think that you were born here like me . . . You were put here so that we could lift each other up . . . You understand what it is like to have shadow and stone for a father . . . and that is the reason why you saved me. You could not do anything else."
Her eyes remained closed, but the light beyond them was too bright for a true shadow, and she could see as the mass of him moved, sitting half upright in order to look down on her. She imagined that the look he wore was curious, like she was when he spoke of the world beyond their own.
So she let her smile hold on her lips as she turned into his shadow, seeking out relief from the heat of the day. Above them, the sun's rays beat down, but Talia turned away from them, and found an escape . . . at least, for a little while.
Time passed, and its fleeing presence felt like sand against her skin. Time was a thief, and with its passing, Talia found that certain things became lost to her. Things like the exact shape of her mother's hand on her back; things like the exact syllables of the tales Melisande had whispered to her of her father. Other things were harder to forget, try as time may have had to take them from her. Things like the shape of Bane's eyes the first time she had caught him looking curiously at her from across her mother's cell; things like the sound of Melisande's screams as she was torn apart.
Now, beneath the memory of screams, she could hear the certainty of whispers. They crawled like ants upon her skin, settling and itching like sand and grit did as it built in her hair. The men whispered and speculated and wondered, and no matter how tight Bane tied the bindings around her chest, she was starting to show the potential for a woman's frame on a girl's body. He still called her boy in public, and the morphine soaked doctor would swear to her gender as the one who delivered her – out of a faint sense of protection or out guilt over her mother's death, Talia knew not, but it did not matter, for few listened. Few cared.
She was small and fresh and young in a world of decaying things, and Bane's shadow over her own would only protect her for so long.
She started bleeding in her twelfth year, and it became harder and harder to hide who and what she was from the greedy eyes around them. They were careful, they had to be, but they were not infallible, and it only took one one mistake to bring the inevitable to them.
It was morning, with all of the prisoners milling on the bottom of the Pit like insects, crawling over and about each other for the best portions of the food that had been thrown down from above. While she gleaned their share, Bane had turned to watch a group of men who had gathered right beyond them, watching and whispering. She had shied away from their gazes, and her trembling hands had dropped the apple that she had taken for herself. It rolled just beyond them, into the shadows, and Talia gave chase without thought, stepping away from Bane and his reach.
Watching, waiting, the man's hands were quick and strangling about her neck as he took advantage of her lapse in order to pull her deeper down one of the side tunnels. His breath smelled sour in her face from where his teeth had rotted long ago. His nails were jagged, nervous things as they pressed and clawed against her skin. She swallowed her scream, not giving her fear a voice as she ducked the way she had been taught. She rolled and avoided the larger weight opposite of her, but she was still a child with a child's strength, and the knife she stabbed into the man's side did little to dissuade him from his course.
But still she had held on, and twisted, and the man howled, even as he lifted his hands to her neck, trying to smother her.
But the man's cry of pain had been the thing that killed him, because Bane was there in the shadowed space, throwing the man from her, and to the ground. The man pleaded, but Bane's blows were slow and punishing, less intended to hurt the man so much as they were aimed to warn those who were watching, those who were waiting with calculating eyes as the man broke and crumbled under the assault.
And finally, when the man could take no more, whimpering and pleading as Talia would have pleaded, Bane forced the man to kneel before her. With an iron grip, he held his head up by the hair, exposing his throat as an offering. And Bane said, "This man's life is yours."
And Talia had stood and watched the man with wide eyes as the crowd gathered right beyond them - snickering and hollering and roaring their approval for the show. Talia shrank away from them, even as she clutched Bane's knife in her hand to keep her fingers from trembling. She was not a stranger to death - to murder, even. It was as rote as sunrise and sunset in the Pit, and she knew – she knew how each and every man who had been involved in Melisande's death had fallen to Bane's hand throughout the years, he carrying out their own form of justice in a place that had naught . . . But . . .
"It is yours . . . if you wish to take it," he softened his words, just barely, and yet he did not call her little one. This was not a decision for youth and innocence, this was real and dirty and hellish in a place that had no law or code. The blade in her hand did not tremble, but she had to bite her tongue in order to keep her mouth from turning with her emotion. Her blood was metallic and hot from where she bit too hard. She let the taste ground her.
. . . never had a soul fallen to her hand, she thought. In that way still, she could claim innocence.
Bane was very still before her, waiting. His eyes watched, and she wondered if he would be disappointed or pleased at the choice she would make. She wondered which path he wished for her to take - for this was not the same as stabbing a man's hand for a piece of bread – the instinct of a starving animal, facing life or death. This was not the same as pressing down on the throat of a man who was dying of the plague, granting a kindness, however small, in a place that had no mercy. This was not what had to be done.
The was an eye for an eye, a debt repaid.
And Talia remembered the way her mother had screamed, she remembered the desperation in Bane's eyes as she grew, she remembered the sick look in the man's eyes as he pinned her, and suddenly the cold flame in the core of her burned -
- and she sank the blade in slow. She could feel tissue split and organic things tear, and yet she could not find it within herself to feel guilt. Guilt was like hunger, and she had suffered their pangs too long in her life to fret over the decision to end an evil man's life – death was its own form of rising, you see, and in the Pit, it was a gift in way, as well. It was peace; an eternal rest away from a sun that cared too little.
And, past that, he would have taken what was not his to take. So she returned to him his crime. It was balance, it was justice in the only way she knew how to define it.
Bane let her keep his knife after that, and she tucked it down the front of the wraps that kept from the others her shape. It is a weight there, a comfort placed at her side as much as her friend was one at her back.
It was a promise, as well.
It was twilight one of the days following, and, as always, Talia sat very still by the bars of their cell, and watched as the day died. The light retreated, climbing higher and higher up the walls of the Pit until the shadows covered all, and then there was nothing left but the night.
There was a halfway point during the sunset – a point where they had just enough light to see, but not enough to be seen, and it was in those fledgling minutes when Bane sat very quietly behind her and ran a sharp blade over her scalp, taking the bit of new growth from her hair. It had grown darker over the years, dark like Talia remembered her mother's being, and she bit her lip and tried not to breathe so as to not throw the path of the blade. It was a delicate work, but he had yet to puncture her skin during their years together, and she trusted him not to still.
Normally, she was silent, the ritual reminding her of her mother and her sadness before her death. But, tonight, she asked, "What is behind the light?" with the curiosity of one who had known nothing more than her cell and the walls which made it.
Instead of answering, he told her the story of a once caged boy who flew too close to the sun, with feathers held to his arms by wax in order to grant him wings. But he was a creature of the ground, and the heat of the sun was too much for his not-real wings to take.
"So Icarus fell," she whispered, finishing the story for him.
"Yes, " Bane gave, running a careful finger down the now bare expanse of her skull. She leaned into the touch, letting it ground her as the light above them disappeared completely. "But first, he flew."
She could hear it in his voice, the resignation. In her veins, an understanding lit, and she felt a peace settle in her bones as his hand fell away. It was acceptance as much as it was a form of tiredness, knowing that one way or the other, it would soon all be over.
"It is time, little one," he finally said after some time had passed, waiting to speak until the shadows had fallen completely. "But, I think you know that."
Around them, she could feel whispers and eyes close in on them like the sky pressing down above. And so she looked into her friend's eyes and nodded solemnly. She was ready.
It took merely days after that for the whispers in the pit to turn to screams - the men having scented blood in the water and finally finding it.
She wasn't sure what started it, she only knew that her steps were safe, and then they were not. Suddenly, Bane was pushing her towards the wall and fighting off the wave of men who had closed in on them. Talia ran, but she could not stop herself from looking back again and again, just out of reach of the grasping hands on the wall as Bane hit and clawed and battered away the men who would keep her down. He was a boulder against the tide, keeping the sea of hands and teeth from her, and yet he would not last forever against such an onslaught. In the end, Bane would be nothing against a sea of desperation and all of the black and festering parts of men without any humanity left to them. So, as he did those years ago, he held her away from the mob, and lifted her up.
Hands reached for her, but her friend was a giant, towering above them all. He lifted her without defending himself, and as she was freed, he was shackled.
"Do not look down," his voice ordered, calling after her, and she understood. Do not watch. Do not mourn. Do not look at what you leave behind.
"Goodbye," she heard him whisper, and her heart hammered with something far greater than fear. Her heart writhed and screamed in her chest, but it was second nature for her to cross the paths that they had mapped out over and over again throughout the years. The stones of the Pit had been her hearth for so long, the walls her bedchamber, the sky above her ceiling and great domain. She was a child of the Pit, fruit of the barren and bitter earth, and it was time that the earth gave back a tithe of what it had taken.
There was no chanting as she made her ascent, no rope tied around her waist to catch her should she fall. There was only her nimble fingers, her quick feet, and her heart stabbing in her chest like something possessed.
Below, the men screamed, felled and incensed as their prize was taken from them. It was an unholy sound, a sound that shaped her grip and steeled her resolve as she swung herself up and up and up.
And barely, just barely, she thought that she heard Bane's voice below.
Rise, rise, rise, rise . . .
And so, she took that last step forward, and thought of the boy with the make-believe wings.
Her breath rose in her throat. It caught.
And she jumped.
And the surface of the earth welcomed her as its own, birthed from its very womb.
Talia hit the ground running, and did not – could not look back.
. . . at least, not yet.
She made it into the decaying city right past their prison in the earth.
Once the ancient structure around her had been grand and majestic, the providence profiting from the violence of war and the riches that conquest brought. The warlord in the area had been overthrown some years ago, Talia had heard, the tale bringing a cheer from the men in the Pit who had been put there by that warlord's hands. The entire city had been burned by the Demon's Head, who had returned to deliver swift vengeance for the wife he had thought lost to him. The palace he had left in ruins, the ancient city in tatters, with nothing but the stain of ash and soot to tell of the ones who had once lived in the towering edifice before. Only the strong wall that had surrounded the city remained nearly in tact, the heat of rising flames not enough to bring it to ruin. Beyond the ruins, there was a new city, risen from the ashes, sprawling and grand, and Talia stared, amazed that such a thing could exist. She stood there for a moment, taking in the texture of the dry ground underneath her feet, looking at the low and hardy bushes that decorated the landscape in shades of rust and ocher. She looked on, bewildered and a bit overwhelmed, even as she stumbled forward, not trusting her escape until she was somewhere she could let her guard down – somewhere she could let loose her tears and mourn her friend, somewhere she could find out where to go next in a world that was now threatening to swallow her.
She lifted her scarf over her head and stared defiantly at the horizon, where the setting sun was suddenly so much larger than it had ever seemed in the Pit. She made her way into the ruins of the warlord's city. In the ruins, there were still some souls left – those who could not, or did not wish to move to the thriving city beyond. There was food to be found for one used to slipping through the edges of the shadows and light, and Talia stole clothing and bread – stale, but fresher than anything she had ever tasted in her life. The water from the well was sweeter than anything in the Pit, and though her meal was sparse, Talia felt like royalty as she dined in the great hall, where she fancied a throne used to be.
She slept in the shadow of the decaying wall that night, keeping her back to the stone and holding her small knife in her hand rather letting it rest by her side. The desert nights were cold, especially without Bane's heat at her back, keeping her warm. The stone was hard behind her, but it did not breathe. She could not feel its heart beat against her. She rolled, trying to get comfortable, she couldn't quite decide what to do with her arms. She couldn't seem to make herself small enough in a world that was suddenly so large.
It was hard to sleep that first night.
But Talia was practical. Her body needed to rest. So she rested.
In the distance, thunder rumbled like a giants heartbeat. It helped, but just barely.
Talia's Mother: Melisande is the name of Talia's mother in the comics (whom Ra's met at Woodstock), but not the name of Ra's original love, who was named Sora. So, like Nolan before me, I am crushing two characters into one.
Melisande Speaking French: Henri Ducard was French in the comics, before Nolan joined Ducard and Ra's into the same character. This was a tiny throw back. As was Bane speaking Spanish. ;)
Bane's Name: Is completely made up by me. Baldassare is a form of the Phoenician name Balthasar, which means 'Baal protect the king' - a name which I found ironic on a few different levels. Even the king part is fitting, seeing how Talia does wear the pants in the grand scheme of things, just saying. A part of me felt sacrilegious giving him a name without canon's permission, but a larger part of me stopped caring about halfway through writing the fic. I'm sure you guys know how that goes.
As always, thank-you for reading, and until the next part . . .