Author's Note: What's this? An update? An update less than a month after the last update, at that?! I know, where is the real Mira, and who is this imposter who wrote this chapter in her stead? ;)
BUT I am never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, and when inspiration struck, I kicked this puppy out in record time. I hope that the mush here (well, mush for these two), lives up to your expectations. You guys deserve it after being such awesome readers! Thank-you, again, for all of your overwhelming praise and support. Your response has overwhelmed all of my hopes for this fic, and I thank you for that, from the bottom of my heart.
Now, on to the story . . .
Part V. "a double edged sword"
Talia awakened before the dawn with a warm weight in her chest.
Or rather, on her chest, seeing as how she had become deliciously entwined with her masked friend somewhere during the night. Exhausted after their interlude, she had fallen into a dreamless sleep with no registry of her movements beyond her slumber. She was still pressed against Bane's side, her right arm flopped rather possessively over his chest, and one of her legs entwined rather with his own. He still had one arm underneath her body, holding her close, serving as her pillow more than anything else. His other hand had come over to rest on the indentation of her waist, careful of her bruised ribs even in his sleep. She winced when she thought of how the arm she was sleeping on must have lost all circulation, before biting her lip and doing her careful best to disentangle herself from their embrace without waking him.
When she finally slipped away, she had to fight to keep a smile from her face when his body moved as if to follow her. But the reflex stilled and he shifted slightly, his breath smoothing out once more as he entered into another stage of sleep. It was a testament to just how weary he was for him not to awaken at her moving, and her smile turned fond at the sight. The cold flame at the core of her was a warmth in that moment, as if butterflies had taken to scraping their wings against her stomach in tiny patterns. She felt giddy, silly even, as she stared down at her friend with her mouth turned up and her heart beating against her chest as if it was singing.
Before leaving, she gave over into the impulse to lean over to press her lips to his in parting. She felt a tightening in her chest then, a rise of feeling that had her veins pulsing and her cheeks flushing. Even her eyes were smiling as she next pressed her mouth to the scars threading from his mouth before drawing back from him.
Even then he did not stir, and like a shadow she made the journey back to her own room without incident. Her pallet was cold compared to the space she had just left, but it would make do for the time being. Sleepily, she curled into her pillow, her ribs at her side a dull pain, and fell back into a deep sleep again.
She was awakened long after the gong would have sounded the morning hour for the rest of the monastery. Cain was the one to rouse her, waiting with his thin expression and his cold fingers for her to come to awareness before telling her that he was starting his daily rounds, and he wished to start with her. The League had been blessed as of late, and past a minor sprain here and a common cold there, the infirmary was relatively empty of patients to attend to. But Cain had an early report to make to Ra's, and so she rubbed the sleep from her eyes and convinced her body that she needed to eat and report on the condition of her injuries as best she could. Her ribs ached more this day than they had the day prior, as was to be expected, but the pain was nothing she couldn't handle. It was a nuisance, but not a hindrance. She did not appear to be concussed, but Cain still asked that she stay under his observation for the rest of the day, to which she acquiesced, knowing that her body needed the time to heal.
She found questions about Bane budding on the tip of her tongue, but she was able to curb them, just barely. Cain answered solely to Ra's, and she did not need to add any fuel to her father's flame, especially . . .
. . . well, especially now.
She flickered in out of sleep for the rest of the morning, finally awakening after the noon hour had passed to find Ubu in her room with rice and a steaming cup of po cha for her. His presence was more welcome than Cain's, and she sat up and took his offerings gratefully. The assassin lingered with her after she had finished her lunch, and brought out his wooden chess set to help her pass the time. She spent the next hour cheating him from a fair portion of his purse, taking no survivors until Ubu playfully protested, saying that he should of had the advantage with her being the infirm one between the two of them.
"Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak," Talia quoted cheerfully, to which Ubu rolled his eyes and said that he had lived through enough of her father quoting Sun Tzu at him to be quite weary of the great general's words.
At the mention of her father, Talia sobered, just slightly. Her mind was a weight upon her as things she had pushed aside returned to the center of her thoughts without her permission. In her distraction, Ubu took a rook from her without her noticing. She took a pawn of his for petty spite in retaliation, but the move was empty. Wasted.
Wisely, Ubu said nothing in response to her change in mood. Perhaps he even regretted speaking of her father in the first place. But the assassin didn't say one way or the other and Talia was left to sort through her thoughts in silence. The chief one amongst them being what now? She had voiced the feelings that had been building inside of her chest, and Bane had returned them. She would not give that up, she already knew – not for anyone or anything, her father included, and yet . . .
Worry was a new feeling for her to process. A sick feeling, sticking to the inside of her lungs and making it hard to breathe. She tried to let it go, knowing that the time for decisions would soon come. For now, she wanted only to think about the delicious flare of feeling inside of her, the warm memory she carried in her lips and fingertips of taste and touch and knowing.
It worked, for that moment at least, and behind the worry and the uncertainty of the future, Talia could decide that she was . . . she was happy. Happiness was an even more foreign emotion than worry for her. Always had she simply survived. She had carved out her way in the world and had made the best of the twists and turns of her life. She had been content. She had been determined, at peace, even, but truly happy . . .
She breathed in deep with the emotion before letting it settle in her bones. The cold flame at the core of her turned warm with the feeling in her; it pulsed like a heartbeat.
And, for now, that was enough.
Not long after Ubu took his leave of her - saying something about how he would now have to challenge the Seven to poker in order to restore order to his finances - Talia found herself once again nodding off, her wrinkled copy of The Art of War falling to rest on her chest, forgotten as she succumbed to sleep.
A part of her liked to think that her father came in to visit her during that time. She thought that she caught a glimpse of his face when her eyes flickered in and out of consciousness. She could see it plainly in her mind's eye, the tight frown of his mouth and the odd light in the cold cast of his eyes. She liked to think that he took her book from her and put it on her bedside stand when he left. She imagined that he smoothed her hair back from her eyes without her knowing, his touch lingering where he would never allow it to during her waking hours.
But when she awakened, Cain said that she had no visitors, and her copy of Sun Tzu's words was on the floor from where it had fallen from her in her sleep. She glared at the felled book crossly, and placed it on the table next to her with a satisfyingly dull thud. From the book's cover, the general's thin eyes were shaped as if to question her, and Talia made a childish face at it in response.
That night, she waited for the sun to set completely before attempting to steal away to see Bane again. But Cain stayed in the healer's wing late, and it seemed that every time she was ready to brave the halls to go to him, a new person was strolling down the corridor beyond. She narrowed her eyes, and wondered if her father had sent a guard to keep her to her place and he to his.
Did he suspect? She wondered then, instantly paranoid as uncertainty and doubt pricked at her mind with their insidious claws. Even the shadows had eyes, and each spoke into her father's ear in his own home, his own temple. But Ra's al-Ghul was a man, he was mortal – at least, the flesh and bone shell that bore the name was, and she did not have to put him up on the pedestal that every other in the monastery did.
Even so, she backed to her own pallet slowly, not wanting to stretch his suspicions (his now very real, very valid suspicions) that night. Instead, she flopped down miserably and settled herself in for a long night alone. She stayed awake most of the sleeping hours, staring at the wall closest to her, her thoughts chasing each other like currents at the bottom of a deep abyss, one about the other until she felt as if she was swimming on them.
The next morning, Cain declared her well enough to leave his care. He only advised caution when moving with her sore ribs, and after the routine spiel of how she was to come to him if anything else proved amiss, she was free to go.
It was noon by that time, so she picked up her usual lunch before joining the other shadows as they made their way down the glacier for the hamlet below. She strayed behind them as the others pushed on at a clipped pace, not wanting to keep up with the harsh demands of their jogging. Instead she walked slowly and enjoyed the mountain air as it filled her lungs. The thin oxygen and the snow all around her made the air smell sweet. It cleansed her, she liked to think. It made her eyes sharper, her thoughts clearer, and by the time she made it to Dohna's tiny shop, the elderly woman already had a container of sakarni ready to go for her – a monthly trip Talia was always sure to make for the treat.
"I expected you days ago," the woman said in greeting, her grey bangs pale against the olive complexion of her face.
Talia gestured to her ribs, knowing that the other would have already seen every wince and tender motion of her body no matter how well Talia had thought them hid. "I was detained," she said simply, knowing that those who lived in the hamlet, and benefited from the League's protection and patronage, knew not to ask questions.
"And more than that, I think," Dohna's old eyes turned playful, knowing and wise. "You have changed," she said simply. "Your energy moves more freely now, you have air in your lungs." And she spoke not of the breath in her chest, but rather of the spiritual energy that she believed resided there – the same as the Chinese believed in ch'i. Talia raised a brow at the woman, remembering the long hours they had spent speaking of the mystical things of the world, the paths and ways in the human body, the human mind.
Talia simply bowed her head to the elder, neither confirming or denying her suspicions before taking her package and making her way back up the mountain.
That evening, she knew her father was purposefully trying to detour her when the light in Cain's office stayed on well past when he would have stopped his work for the day. The healer's rooms were very close to Bane's, and Cain had the eyes of a hawk and the ears of an owl. There would be no way for her to sneak past his keep unnoticed.
But Talia was stubborn, and annoyed, at that. But it was the bright flare of feeling within her, more than anything else, that found her on a high point of the slopped roof, connecting a rappelling line to her belt and testing the line's connection to its support before turning and quite simply stepping into the night.
It was a short fall, and the line snapped silently before she swung gracefully in the air, counting out windows before finding the one she needed. And she angled her body like a arrow, and dove -
- to land quite simply on the windowsill, triumph swimming in her veins.
"There is a door," Bane said levelly when she lingered at her perch, not even blinking at her surprise intrusion. There was a smile quirking on the ruined line of his mouth, which she returned with one of her own.
"My father was being childish," Talia proclaimed simply, undoing the line from her belt and attaching it to the window where she could retrieve it later. She tossed her head imperiously at her words, her eyes narrowed in challenge as she thought of Ra's and his disapproval. "He made the first move, I merely responded in kind."
Bane shook his head and muttered under his breath - what distinctly sounded like a slur against her family's name, and their inherent stubbornness in particular. The mask never would have picked up on the words and transmitted them, and Talia tilted her head, amused as she wondered just how much of his commentary she had been denied in the past.
When she stepped into the room, she looked over at Bane, who was not in bed, but rather standing in the doorway that led to the room's small bathroom. He was wearing his customary grey cargo pants, his feet bare and the armored plates that normally accompanied them missing. His chest was bare as well, which her eyes flickered up and over appreciatively before looking upon his face. He did not wear his mask, she noticed, worried twinging inside of her when she thought of how long he had gone without completely numbing the pain of his face. Instead, he had a localized version of the venom in his mask fed to him through a tube in his arm, which was hooked up to a small tank of the gas he used whenever he went about his day to day routine without his mask. It wasn't as potent as the mask's brew, but it did it's work for the short amounts of time when he had to go without his face covered. She glanced at the bedside stand, and saw an empty syringe and a timer, and knew he had not gone the whole day without the mask - he must have just taken it off.
"I brought Sarakni," she announced, moving to take her pack from her back, which held the precious containers within. "You now have no excuse to turn down eating with me." Her mouth curved, amused as she remembered how many different dishes she had tried over the years to get Bane to take off his mask before her. It all seemed so long ago now . . .
When she looked up, Bane's mouth was quirked, but he was silent. She tilted her head, but did not ask him how he was feeling. She looked at him, and instantly she could see the tight corners to the way he was holding himself, the barest of hesitations in his stride. She knew that he was not well. Better, but mending. His breath was slightly uneven - no doubt from going without his mask for so long the day before and then again so soon - and at that she did frown. As she made her appraisal, he was looking her over in much the same way, his eyes pausing on her wrapped wrist before flickering over to where her broken rib would be, if he could see through flesh and bone to where she was pained underneath.
"I am healing quickly," she answered to his gaze when it lingered, as if angered that she had come to any harm – but that was an anger which would always turn back upon himself, and she had no wish for that. "But you?" she asked, drawing his attention in a plain diversion. "Cain brought you your mask?"
"Yes," he answered. "It was on for some time earlier, I merely had a personal matter or two to attend to that required its removal."
He made a gesture, and when she looked closer, she could see the faintest hint of a dark shadow creeping over the otherwise smooth expanse of his skull. She smiled at the realization, something as his hair trying to grow back meaning so to her now that he was sharing it with her.
"Do you want my help?" she asked, remembering the Pit a lifetime ago, when Bane would shave her head in the half light, the blade in his hand a cold weight against her skin as he told her stories to distract her – everything from Hamlet's great tragedy to Homer's epic adventure, then on to lighter tales like Emma, a regency comedy that she had always laughed heartily at, the social satire so far from her world of bars and stone . . . "You used to do this for me, back in the Pit," she said next, even though she knew that he was remembering the same as her. Her voice had turned soft in her mouth, fondness weighing the syllables where normally talk of the Pit was stilted, hard.
"I remember," Bane said softly. "I remember how you could not hold still. You fidgeted like a trapped bird, not once caring that I held a knife to your skin."
Talia made a face. "You took so long, and I was but a child. It was to be expected."
"Forgive me for not making speed a priority when I was worried for cutting your skin," Bane drawled, shaking his head as Talia remembered how carefully every cut and bruise had to be looked after in that time, infection something they could not fight with their lack of the basic necessities of life. How many men had been felled by such simple sicknesses in that time? Talia remembered not, and she set her jaw at the thought now.
"Unless you are worried about me cutting your skin, I do not know why you would not accept my help now," she took to teasing next. "Are you afraid, Baldassare?"
"On the contrary," he returned with a wispy sort of laugh, "I have every confidence in your ability to wield a blade."
She shook her head, but stepped forward, slipping past him into the small bathroom. Her eyes flickered back to the small timer Bane had set up, telling him how long he had been without the mask, even with the container of gas at his side. She set her jaw, and looked to Bane again, her smile welcoming. "Or I could leave now," she offered, trying to keep her voice level so that he would not read into any inflection. "I do not wish to make you uncomfortable."
"Never that," Bane said softly, stepping closer to her. Without the mask, he sounded more like the man she had known in the Pit so long ago. Even so, his mangled lips still slurred the words in familiar places, his mouth pausing oddly to shape their syllables, and in that way he was still familiar, still Bane.
And Talia smiled, her expression soft as he moved past her in order to hand the razor to her. He sat down on the small stool while Talia moved to the wash basin in order to work up a lather with the soap. She worked in silence as Bane settled, watching her with a challenge in his eyes as she turned to stand right before him. Even seated he nearly looked eye to eye with her, such was his height compared to hers, and she caught his gaze, holding it.
"Last chance," she warned, leaning towards him.
"Do your worst," he said simply, and his eyes fell from her.
She inhaled then, and paused for just a moment – her hesitation only her own to see before she wetted and lathered up the skin of his head. Her fingers lingered in a caress as she worked, curious as she found skin where a mask had encumbered her before, and it was that contrast of sensation, that new memory of touch that calmed her more than anything else as she settled in about her task.
In the end, there was something strangely intimate about the interaction - perhaps even more so than the searching kisses that had traded in the dark the night before. There was something intimate about the way he turned his head into the blade in her hands, trusting her where she had caused blood to spill from so many others throughout the years. He leaned into the knife, as if seeking a caress from the blade, and Talia followed the knife's path with her left hand, testing out the smoothness of the skin she left behind. She worked carefully around the upraised scars lower on his skull, behind his ears and high on his neck, the nail of her thumb following in a teasing caress after the kiss of the blade departed. His head had lulled forward, like a great mythical beast entranced by some sorceresses spell, and for a moment she felt . . . honored that he let her see him so. He was perfectly content in that moment, perfectly at peace, even with the pain she imagined had to be ever constant without the press of his mask to his skin. He simply leaned towards her and trusted her to do what she would.
Her hand only shook on that very last stoke of the knife, humbled as she was and so very content, her lungs full with her feeling and her veins nearly liquid with their warmth as she put the blade away, taking her wet rag to wipe away any remains of soap that she had left behind. He leaned into her touch as she smoothed both of her palms over the sides of his skull, leaning forward to press a kiss to one of the scars the mask would normally hide. She smiled against his skin when she felt him shiver.
But her time was cut short when the timer beyond them went off, a sharp mechanical sound on the air that reminded them just how borrowed their time really was. With a sigh, Bane stood, and paused before her, looking down at her as if trying to figure out a puzzle, a riddle, and she tilted her head and let him look unhindered, hoping he'd find the answers he sought in the shape of her face, in the weight of her eyes . . .
When he reached for the mask again, she helped him with the straps, clicking the tubes into place, and snapping the stays closed in order to fit it snugly against his skin. He closed his eyes for a moment as the numbing coolness of the venom flooded through his veins, and his body lost any of its remaining stiffness as pain receded and calmed to something bearable to him. She bit her lip as she felt her heart constrict, not having noticed just how much he had been hiding before . . .
He turned his back to her, his massive chest rising and falling as he took a moment to collect himself, and she felt a moment of pain, a moment of my fault, my fault, my fault, and I am so, so sorry, before she pushed the weakness away and squared her jaw, letting a shadow of his determination fill her as she watched him put himself back together before her.
She could touch him now, she thought as she closed that small step between them. She could trace the tips of her fingers over the massive scar that ran in spidering paths down the back of his spine. His skin was warm, very warm; and she wondered if that too was a byproduct of the venom or her own inexperience with touch and positive human contact. She knew how to push for skin to break, for bones to shatter, for bodies to bleed. But this was different, she thought as she added her palms to the caress, finding the muscle groupings in his back and massaging. He leaned into her touch like some great jungle cat, as greedy for her caresses as she felt compelled to give them.
She traced her fingers up the scars on his back to the base of his neck, and then higher still, right to the curve of his mask. She traced her nails over the line his mask created on his skin, finding the shape it made there. Near reverent, she ran followed that caress with her mouth, kissing over the underside of his jaw bone, just past where the mask covered, wanting him to feel and know touch without having to do so through a cloud of pain and white heat. She wanted him to register every touch, every sensation . . . to fix what had been wronged with her fingers and her mouth alone. Her touch followed the shape of his mask, her mouth kissing the high part of his cheekbone and the skin beneath his eyes as her fingers found scars and followed their patterns as if they were a map over his body as he just held her, his eyes fluttering closed as he processed the sensation. His hands rested on her sides, not holding her in place, but rather asking her not to leave. His fingers were warm enough that she could feel the heat of them through her tunic and on her skin, branding her . . .
"Cain will be by soon to check on my progress," he said, his warning voice a low rumble in his chest, once again breathy and distorted by his mask, but still just Bane to her ears.
"Soon," Talia repeated, smiling against his skin as she returned to her ministrations. "But not yet."
The next morning, she donned her cold gear and made her way out for the morning run with the other initiates of the League. And yet she was interrupted by Ubu, who said that her father had a task for her – a mission just south, in the Indian town of Gorakhpur. Ra's needed a Shadow on hand to make sure their control over the railways that went north into Nepal were secure, and he had chosen her to act in his stead, to go and . . . persuade the various heads of the railways to continue on with the prior year's arrangements.
Surprised that she was being sent away so soon after the altercation with Darrk, Talia nonetheless nodded and accepted her assignment as it was. At her side, her ribs ached at the thought of travel so soon, but she set her jaw and steeled herself. She was League trained and tried, and when the Demonhead said go, it was to her to do as commanded. It was an honor that Ra's was sending her, at any rate, and sending her alone with Ubu was a sign of trust. This trip was one she had made at her father's side the past two years, whenever the annual meeting came up, and she was equal to the task.
Still, not even years of training and obedience could not completely do away with the doubts swirling in the back of her mind – doubts that she tried to tell herself were merely the result of her own paranoia and concern as of late. Nothing more.
. . . nothing more.
So she traded her arctic gear for a more traditional shalwar khameez. The loose tunic and pants were stained a shade of deep red, as dark as wine, with silver and black embroidery around the neck and down the chest. She wore a set of silver bangles on each arm to complete the look, leaving her hair in its simple, thick braid. The outfit was comfortable and easy to move in – good for professional meetings as well as anything more physical if worse came to worst, though she did not expect it to. Throughout all of her travels, Indian fashions were some of her favourites, and she could admit that her closet held more of those styles than any other.
In the end, her time in Gorakhpur was short, and by the next day her business was already done. The leaders of the railways were more than willing to keep their prior arrangements with Ra's – seeing as how alliances with the League proved to be financially lucrative enough to erase any qualms the men may have had about legalities otherwise. Talia even had time left over to do some sightseeing in the city that she had not been able to do with her father. The locals specialized in terracotta ware, and she looked through the little shops, searching through the detailed odds and ends until she found a treasure in the shape of a hand made chess set - the pieces those of an Indian army, with elephants for knights and foot soldiers for pawns, each beautifully crafted and exquisitely detailed.
After that, she loitered in one of the shops that sold textiles, holding up one of the yards of silk that would go into making a saree. The fabric had deep sea green swirled patterns, with turquoise and copper highlights that fed into intricate tangles and tumbles before meeting a black and red-violet lining. She held the fabric against her skin, judging how the colours would compliment her complexion . . . and wondering just how Bane would like the coloring of it if she were to buy it.
The thought was a natural extension of her mind after the events of the last few days. But, as she stood there with the fabric draped over her skin, she realized that the thought was not a new one. How often had she purchased something, or dressed in some way, while distantly wondering whether or not he would approve in the back of her mind? These feelings had always been within her, she realized, a flare of warmth under her skin. It had just taken her mind some time to catch up with what every instinct within her had long been saying.
She bought the whole spool of fabric in the end, and packed the fragile material around the terracotta chess pieces she had purchased, and considered the whole endeavor to be a success.
When she returned to the monastery, the sun was just falling from its high noon peak into its afternoon decent, painting the snow in bright silver and blue shades from the high light. Within the temple, the halls were torchlit and quiet, the warm glow from the flames a soothing counterpoint to the harsh light that spilled in from the windows, reflected from the mountain beyond.
Talia removed the scarf from over her head as the doors closed behind her and Ubu, but her eyes remained narrowed as she felt a warning hum low in her bones. The cold flame at the core of her was pulsing, as if anxious. This had been a sight that she had returned home to dozens upon dozens of times before, but she could not put her finger on what was different now this time over that before. Something was now wrong. Something was not the same.
Suddenly worried, she bit her lip and unbuttoned her coat, her boots leaving wet stains against the lacquered floor as she strode deeper into the halls. Her stride became quick as she made her way to Cain's wing of the monastery before her own room, needing to see and make sure, even if only to brush the strange warning in her veins away, to say all was well. That her worry was childish, that the warning inside of her was nothing more than her own paranoia and doubts . . .
"Talia?" Ubu's voice was a question behind her as he followed, but Talia paid him no heed as she picked up her pace, knowing that she was near running in her haste to make it to the healer's wing, but not caring. There was a concern in the assassin's voice . . . and a resignation. At the sound of it, her step turned quicker. Her hands became fists.
When she passed through the circular archway to Cain's domain, she immediately saw that something was not right. She stayed still in the entrance, her travel bag coming to fall to the floor next to her with a dull thud. Her eyes widened as she took in just how many men were in the infirmary. Before she had left, Cain's cases had been as few as they were trivial. There had been no large movement of men in her father's plans in the day she had been gone, no troops scheduled to come back to the mountain – especially with such a high number of those injured.
Sickened, and worried, she walked slowly down the center aisle, men hurt on her left and on her right as Cain's apprentices fluttered from bed to bed like ghosts, attending to this and that while Talia felt the sense of warning inside of her spike. It grew louder. The cold flame at the core of her rose, it grew to lick at the skin below her throat, deep in her chest.
"What happened?" she whispered as Ubu came to a halt behind her. She looked, but could see no wounds on the men caused by bullet or blade. They were all bruised, and many bore limbs broken and twisted in unnatural shapes, unnatural ways . . . And these were her father's men, his very best, she realized as she picked through the faces to find names beneath them – men she had trained alongside and fought back to back with. Men she respected. Those she would call brothers.
"Were we attacked?" was her question as she stopped by the bed nearest to her, looking down to see Qiang – a man who was particularly gifted with explosives, who was quick and small and had a mean right hook when pressed. She could see no wound on him, but the skin around his neck was shaded purple and red, bruised and battered as if he had been hoisted by the neck and strangled. There was the almost perfect shape of fingers shaded against his skin, but not the hand of a normal man. This was a large grip, a massive grip; with a freakish strength attached to it at that. And when Talia looked down and Qiang flinched away from her, that was when she knew.
She knew . . .
"Where is Bane?"
"Talia," Ubu started gently, reaching out to touch her elbow - as if to draw her away, to turn her aside, understanding dawning in his eyes the same it had in hers.
"Where. Is. Bane?" her voice was a low hiss, dangerous and unholy. She could feel the cold flame inside of her flare, reaching out to escape through her mouth, making her syllables turn deadly with promise. Ubu looked as if he wished to take a step back from her, but he did not.
"Talia," he said instead, brave enough to try to console her, to calm her.
Incensed, she pushed him away from her, stalking out of the main room of the infirmary to the private ones. She counted the doors, felt the wood of his give under her fingers as she pushed . . .
To reveal a room in tatters. The hangings were ripped from the walls, the simple accommodations on the bed were in disarray, and the glass vials of Bane's venom were in shattered pieces on the floor, along what looked to be the broken remains of a china tea set, one Talia remembered picking out for him in Beijing . . .
"Where is he?" she asked once more, calmly this time, her brain already having processed what had happened while she was gone. But she needed to hear it said, she needed to know for a fact . . .
But Ubu was silent at her side, and with a slamming of the door, Talia flung herself away from Bane's hospital room and out into the corridor again. Her stride was menacing as she stalked down the halls to the personal quarters of Ra's and those closest to him. She didn't bother checking Bane's room – she knew she would find it empty of her friend. That room, and any other in the monastery.
He was gone.
. . . he was gone.
Instead she stalked towards her father's study, knowing she would find Ra's there. The corridors twisted before her like something living, and the shadows shimmered and parted for her as she came to the polished wooden doors and flung them open.
A counterpoint for her tempestuous fury – her hair loosened from her braid in her anger, her eyes fuming as she stood half leaning forward, her hands fists at her sides as if ready to strike - her father was the opposite. Ra's' desk was thick with charts and missives and reports, but the Demonhead had not an eye for any of the workings of the League. Instead he stood at the wide window of the room, facing away from the door in order to stare at the horizon beyond as he clasped his hands behind his back. He stood very still, very nearly a part of the mountains beyond as Talia stood in the doorway, her eyes murderous, her chest heaving with her inability to take a calm breath.
"Where is Bane?" when she spoke, her voice was deathly low, a whisper of the rage she could feel grow within her.
Ra's did not turn to her. At her side, Ubu was a shadow, looking from his master and then back to her with trepidation in his gaze. Talia paid him no heed as she stared at Ra's' back.
"He is gone," her father answered simply. "And he will not be coming back."
"Gone," she repeated the word, trying to force it off her tongue. She couldn't seem to speak anything else around the word. "He is gone . . ."
"And he will not return," Ra's' said simply, his voice stern. She watched as he seemed to square his shoulders, to settle himself to his decision as he spoke of it to the one it would strike the hardest. "Not under the pain of death."
"Excommunicated," Talia forced the word off of her tongue. Excommunicated. A fate worse than death to the brothers of the shadows who had found their place and their purpose under the Demonhead's roof. Excommunicated. While Bane had never embraced their cause, it would strike him the same, but for different reasons . . .
Excommunicated . . .
How long had he been gone? she wondered, her mind already moving a mile a minute over how to catch up with him, how to accompany him . . . What to bring with her, and where to go next. Fury licked through her bones like something living, and at the sound of it in her voice, her father finally turned to look at her.
"Excommunicated," he repeated evenly, his voice an echo to the tempest of thoughts in her head. His voice was level, even, as if he was talking to her about the balance of a new blade. "For his failure."
At that, Talia snorted. The sound was shaky on her lips. "For that farce of a mission with Darrk?" she returned incredulously. "That mission was a death's march, and you know that as well as I."
Ra's' eyes narrowed, but she did not take the calm facade he presented at face value. His hands were white knuckled from where they were regally clasped together. The skin at the corners of his eyes was tight. He had as much fury in his veins as she did, just harnessed, controlled; a lesson he had spent years trying to impart on to her . . .
And yet, he ignored her words about Darrk, and spoke to the heart of the matter rather than its edges. "If you choose to leave with him, the choice is yours. But remember that you do so without the backing of the League, and you leave with dishonor attached to his name as well as yours."
Perhaps, a year ago, those words would have struck her more then as they did now. Upon hearing them, she felt a hurt in her side, like a knife, but it was a dull pain, a numb sensation that she wished . . . she wished she felt more at. "There is nothing honorable about your actions today," she returned, her voice as calm as she could make it. Her fisted hands trembled. There was a black feeling in her bones, rising into her lungs.
"It is only your wishes – and my feelings as a father for those wishes – that have kept that man here for so long. He does not believe in our cause, daughter. He has not given his very soul to the shadows and their ways like every other man here. I could keep him no longer when it is clear to all that he will never learn," the corners of Ra's' voice turned fervent. "There are many who have spoken, and spoken dangerously about my show of favoritism – allowing him to continue on where any other would have been ended in his place."
And Talia remembered Darrk, the anger in his eyes, and the hurt . . . How many in the League thought as he did? How many did Ra's keep away by the force of his name and the weight of his legend?
Not enough, apparently, and any sympathy Talia felt was quickly killed away when she remembered the ruined state of Bane's room when she arrived. She remembered the trust in his eyes, the night before; the awe as she had traced over his scarred face as if the wounds there were not his own but rather hers instead . . .
"And so, where you could not get an enemy hand to kill him, you chose to do this instead," Talia muttered, her voice furious for all of the softness it held.
Ra's tilted his head – a rebuke. "Bane saw honor in the end that was chosen for him; a way out that would have hurt you the least. He chose to walk that path, but you would not let him."
"Of course I would not," Talia snapped, her head flinging up at the inherent disapproval in the words. "He is my friend. Of course I would not let him march to his death, especially at your command. His life means more to me than my own, can't you see that?" Her voice slithered in frustration at her inability to make him understand. Moons and tides they were to each other, symbiont circles even, and one could not be without the other. Even still, she could not make him see.
"And your feelings have kept him alive until now," Ra's returned, his voice curling in distaste at the words. "He is simply excommunicated, nothing more. Don't make me decide to end his life as well."
"As if you could," Talia snorted. "I saw Cain's wing. Bane plowed through at least two dozen of your best men, and even they were not enough to slow him down."
Ra's' eyes flashed. "Do you not see, he is dangerous, he is violent -"
And Talia felt fury bite up into her lungs. It was hard to breathe in that moment. "Of course he was when you attacked him in such a way!" She closed her eyes as she remembered the Pit, as she remembered the sea of men surrounding him, drowning him . . . How he must have felt to be attacked in the same way again, with nothing but the memory of pain, so much pain, to accompany such a thing in his mind. He would have fought like a cornered animal, and understandably so . . . It was a testament to his control that he had not killed each and every one of those men.
Talia thought this, but did not say it aloud. Those memories . . . they were hers and his, they were sacred, and she cared not to share them. " . . . it was not wise on your part, to attack him in such a way," she finished lamely, knowing that her father would see a shadow of her thoughts in her eyes, no matter how well she thought them to be hid.
Ra's was silent a moment, letting her words pass. Finally, when he spoke, his words were gentle. They struck more than any word sharply spoken. "When he was merely your pet beast, your friend, I could look the other way. But daughter, do you not see how much you care for him? How much your feelings bind you? You would have died at Darrk's base," and finally, his words were choked in his mouth, he unused to feeling as much as she, this the closest to sentiment that would ever be shared between them. "You would have died . . . all for an attachment that has become too much. Too close . . . and you do not even see it as I do."
His words fell on her skin like blows, but not in the way he intended them. He knew . . . she finally realized. He knew, and he had known. He had known for longer than she did about just how much Bane meant to her . . . and he had wished to end things before she too realized the strength of their bond, the strength of her feelings . . . But his blade had moved too slowly. He had not moved quick enough to sunder their connection . . .
And Talia thought about the pain in her bones when Bane had taken off after Darrk alone, and the peace in her heart as she had touched his scarred face and felt his ruined mouth kiss her even as pain flared in his veins . . . She thought about the giddy rise of euphoria as she had picked out the silk in Gorakhpur, the sick fear that she had held when she had returned to find Bane's room empty, the belongings within resting in tatters . . . She had felt as if a piece of herself had been torn away as well, and she could not . . .
"I love him," she finally said as her thoughts turned in on themselves in her mind. They rose like a crescendo, deafening anything else, louder than any other thought.
"What?" Ra's shook his head, dumbfounded as the words spilled from her lips.
"I love him," she repeated, the words coming from her mouth as if startled as she processed the words and found a truth to them on her lips.
And Ra's eyes narrowed. "Talia," he said, his voice a warning.
But she shook her head, such a smile building on her face as she felt the realization light like a fuse in her belly. "I love him," she said again, just to hear the words aloud, a bubble of laughter on her tongue to follow the declaration – the words that felt like feeling, that felt like rising.
And so she stood with her shoulders straight and her chin turned up. She squared her stance, and looked at her father with the mountain in her eyes as she challenged him to rebuke – to downplay or scorn what she felt, "I love him," she said for the last time – the last time she would share such a sacred feeling with any other but Bane – her Baldassare. "And if you wish him gone, I will abide by your wishes. I have seen what discord and murmuring can do in a place such as this with Darrk . . . but father, do not make me choose him over you, for it is a battle you will lose."
As Ra's looked on at her as if struck, she liked to think that this was how her mother felt, proud and determined and willing to give up all as she stared down the thing that stood between her and her family – between her and that which she had claimed as her own. Oftentimes, Talia had wondered what sort of impetus had moved Melisande to condemn herself so, not understanding such a love, such a regard . . . Now she knew, that if the choice was hers, she would condemn herself to the Pit and any hell worse than that a thousand times over if it meant that she would spare him even the slightest bit of pain. It was nothing to consider in her mind, no choice or thought or debate . . . It was instinct and possession, and you shall not touch what is mine. It was a white feeling at her fingertips, stronger than the cold flame inside of her, which was now burning.
Ra's was silent in the wake of her words, and she shook her head before continuing, "You speak of anger, you speak of hate, you speak of fear," and the last word and that word alone came out to wound. "And yet, he is the antithesis to all of that . . . he is . . . he is hope to me. He is peace for me."
A flicker of disgust passed over Ra's face, quickly hidden away, but it did not matter anymore. It did not wound her. "All of this time," she continued, "it has always been your fear, your pain, your anger, that has stood between you and accepting Bane. You look at him, and see your own failure as a father, as a husband, and now it is too much and you can deal with it no more . . ." Now it was her turn for her words to barb, her thoughts to strike.
And Ra's, great and terrible before her, took a step back. He looked like he wished to speak. But what could he say when her words were true? And a part of her felt pity, a part of her ached with his pain . . . but that part was second in her mind. That part was second in her heart.
"Talia," Ra's whispered, her name a plea, a question -
"No," she whispered, "I cannot."
- to which he already knew her answer.
"There is always something to fear," she said quietly, turning from her father and the mountains beyond. "But not him. Never him."
With that, she turned on her heel and left. She brushed past the startled looking Ubu, and pushed open the doors to the study with limbs that shook with the adrenaline within her. And there, and only there, she hesitated a stride. She waited . . . she waited for him to call her back. She waited for him to stop her.
. . . but he did neither.
He let her go.
And Talia held her head up high and let the cold flame in the core of her burn bright. He meant nothing, she swore as the deep parts of her mourned, and try as she may, she told herself that she believed it.
He meant nothing to her.
She crossed the threshold. One foot and then the other until even her shadow was gone from sight.
She did not look back.
Bane had not gone far when she found him.
After so many years in the mountains, they both knew the slopes like the backs of their own hands. And she knew of the caves on the southern side of the glacier where Bane would often go to when he needed respite or time away from Ra's and the others. She knew how much Bane had taken on his shoulders to live life in the League, and he had endured mightily throughout the years – all for her, always for her. He had pushed onwards where anyone else would have given up, would have moved on. He had wanted her to know a family. He had wanted her to know comradeship and brotherhood. And he had endured it at her side as long as he could.
All for her. Always for her.
. . . again.
And now, this time, she could do something for him.
She had enough funds for them to live off of in the names of a dozen aliases. Most of them her father knew about, but there were those few – those precious few, that were hers and hers alone, made for exactly a situation like this. Although she had never wanted to plan for it, she had wanted to be prepared for any continuity, for nothing in life was stable, and all could be taken away . . .
She packed only what she needed, taking what little she had that was of value and leaving the rest where it laid. There were some things of hers she would miss – her books, her trinkets and mementos built up from years of travels and seeing the world on the wings of the League. She left them all. They were merely things – paper and stone and steel, and all could be replaced. She waited until the sun started to set, and slipped into Cain's office before she left, stealing what she could of Bane's venom, and hoping that they would have enough to last them until they could find a way to produce more of it on their own. Already she had ideas, but she would have to share them with him first. They would have to decide where to go to next . . . together.
It was that simple thought – that only motivation – that kept her head up high and her stride silent as she stole away from the monastery. She was able to sneak away without a fight, without a sound, and a part of her wondered if her father even had a guard assigned to watch for her leaving . . .
She wondered if he had finally washed his hands of her.
But she was not stopped, and no one stood in her way as she picked her way down the mountain, using the limited light of the setting sun to make her way to where she knew Bane would be . . . where she hoped he would be, at least. He would not leave without her, not after everything they had been through, not when they still had so much to share . . .
Sure enough, he was in the back of one of the larger caves, a fire built, warming the small space past the frigid conditions of the mountain beyond. The flames painted the cave golden and inviting, even as it cast distorted shadows on Bane and his mask, making the breathing apparatus seem to be something spidering in the half light, apparition shaped.
"You waited for me?" she announced her presence as she balanced herself on the ice right beyond the cave. She tossed her head imperiously to emphasize her words, even if the movement lost some of its weight with her hair tucked into her hood as it was. Still the sentiment was the same as she let her mouth stretch teasingly. "Such arrogance you have, to assume that I would follow you so."
"And yet, here you are, my dear," Bane raised his hands, encompassing the silent mountain, the glowing cave around them.
My dear, not little one – not child or youth or naïvety. Talia turned her head up at the pride she felt at the endearment, and imagined that she caught his smile, even covered as it was by the mask. The mountain evening was cool and dark, and yet he was as the sun all around her, close enough to touch -
"I knew not else where to go," she admitted, coming in to sit by the fire next to him. He took her large pack from her with one arm, easily setting it aside. She turned down her fur hood, and bit her lip as she studied his face, looking for his thoughts in the line of his brows, the cast of his eyes.
A heartbeat. His mouth worked under the mask. "The family you leave behind," he started to say, and Talia cut him off by reaching over to place her hand on his mask. She narrowed her eyes – a warning.
"My family is what I leave with," she said. "He means nothing to me."
Bane's eyes shadowed for a moment. They weighed her as they had those years ago – when she had insisted that she had learned a lesson that he had known that she did not completely understand. But he did not say anything more. He would not give his doubt to the air. He would keep it inside until he was called to act or she grew above the weakness that still clung to her.
"We can stay here for the rest of the night," he said then. "Tomorrow we can make our way down the mountain."
"And where to then, my friend?" she asked, forming her pack into a semblance of a pillow as she arranged herself comfortably around the fire. She looked up at him from underneath her eyelashes, and she could have sworn that he was smiling - his eyes were bright with more than just the reflection of the fire.
"Wheresoever you wish, my dear. Wheresoever you wish."
The mountain shadowed her farewell to all she knew while far away, a world away, a young man stood tall before the face of injustice and said, do your worst. When morality in the way it worked in a rotting city and the weight of old wrongs, still fresh, could not be forgotten, he put aside his name and his place in order for uncertainty and someday, he hoped, understanding.
Talia closed her eyes that night, and dreamed that she was a child again, climbing from the depths of the Pit. But she could not make her ascent when the air was filling with bats, their black wings striking like small razors and their screeches louder than the sea of angry men below. And so Talia jumped, and jumped blind . . .
And Bruce awakened to the sound of the sea and the hum of the massive ship around him, and wondered if his tale had truly just begun.
They waited until twilight was falling the next day, and instead of going down the mountain by way of the hamlet, they hiked to one of the smaller villages that dotted the foothills. Once there, it was relatively easy to steal the transport they needed and start heading west. They were able to make the drive to Meerut, just northeast of New Delhi, by the early morning hours, each of them taking turns sleeping, just in case they were followed by her father. Truthfully, Talia did not know whether or not Ra's would spare the men and the time to hunt them down and drag her back, but she would not take that chance. Not now. Not after everything.
In Meerut they switched cars, and then it was on into Pakistan, and finally Lahore, the city there large enough for them to recover themselves and regroup. Talia found a small room for them to rent in the older and poorer part of the city after they ditched their transport again, both her face and Bane's covered so as to not bring any attention to themselves, and no one glanced at them twice.
There they decided to lay low for a few days, in order to test out the waters around them and make sure they were safe in their course. Bane looked over the maps and the charts that they had brought with them while trying to decide where to go to next, while Talia laid out which of her aliases and accounts would still be usable after her father made his way through her League funded ones and saw they were no more.
And they counted out how much venom Bane would have to live on until it was necessary for them to find a way to get more for him. Between what he had, and she had stolen, he had about a two month supply – which meant they would have to move fast to find a chemist willing to help them – or find one they could force, Talia was not picky on that point.
To that point, she knew that there was a League safehouse in Lahore, right outside of the Anarkali bazaar, south of the old city. A careful scouting of the building revealed that it was occupied – as were all in a thousand mile radius of the mountains, she would wager. While she did not think her father would send men after her, she very much believed that he would offer her no aid, either. Either way, she made a note of the men there, and whether or not they were mobilized and moving, deciding to keep a careful eye on them until she and Bane moved on from Lahore to their next destination.
She was careful not to reveal herself, and none of the men therein gave any notice of her presence. The next day, she walked through the market with her veil pulled tight over her face, picking through fruit stands and other collections of odds and ends while she looked at the shape the shadows made, at the reflections in the copper vases before her, always watching the shuffle of people around her.
When twilight came, Talia headed to the edge of the bazaar, to the white octagonal mausoleum that the neighborhood took its name from. At first she lingered outside, looking on the crumbling parts of the walls, the white tiles and the small artistic details that spoke of such a care, such a love that had been put into the building when it had been built, no matter how unkind the passage of time was to it now.
Darting a glance once more over her shoulder, she made the decision to step inside. Within, the dying sun from beyond spilled in through the high windows, painting the white stone in shades of flame and gold. The coffin before her was simple and squared, as white as its surroundings, the paint chipping in places here and there as she reached out to touch the numerous names of god that were written on the lid of the slumbering maiden.
She let her fingers fall from Anarkali's lid to the side, finding an inscription there, more than the names of Allah above, but rather that of an earthly attachment, an earthly hope . . .
She opened her mouth, to read aloud, when a voice from behind her spoke,
"Would I give thanks unto my God unto the day of resurrection. Ah! Could I then behold the face of my beloved once more?"
The peace of the tomb lost its serenity as Talia stiffened, instantly alert. She spun about, looking over her shoulder to see Ubu standing there, leaning against the entryway, his hands folded lazily, his eyes as warm and fond as ever.
Even still, Talia stood with her hand on the blade she had hidden under her robes. Her eyes were sharp, her mouth thin as worry filled her, thinking of Bane and where she had left him, and -
"You steal though the shadows as one born to them, child, but you have not yet learned all you need to know," Ubu's voice was chiding, and she fisted her hand over the hilt of her dagger at the tone. Silly of her then, to believe that she had been alone . . .
Talia made a face. "I wished to know which of my father's yapping dogs were at my heels," she said, her lips drawing away from her teeth as she spoke. "This seemed as good a way as any, at the time."
And Ubu straightened from his lazy pose. He lifted his hands in the air – a pacification. "I alone noticed you in the market, and I alone followed you," he said gently.
Her eyes narrowed. "What if I do not believe you?" she countered. Her blade lifted an inch from its holster, revealing a sliver of sharpened steel.
And still, he made no move for a weapon. "I swore back when my name was still my own, to protect the name of al-Ghul," he said simply, as if that should mean everything. "You, child, bear the name which I have spent my life protecting."
"My father's name," she returned, "My father's wishes."
Ubu inclined his head. "I will always protect the head of the demon . . . even from that which he would harm himself."
Talia stood very still for a moment, wanting to believe that she could release the knife at her belt. Her fingers tightened, once. She inhaled, wanting so badly to trust, to think true the friendship the man before her had always shown . . .
She exhaled. Her hand fell from the weapon at her side.
And she turned to face the sarcophagus again. A moment passed, one and then the other. She could sense as Ubu moved behind her, but she did not feel a fight in his stride. Gently then, she lifted her fingers to touch the second inscription on the coffin, the one she had just noticed. "The one profoundly enamored of Saleem, son of Akbar," she whispered, as if anything more of the woman and her love would stir the ghost and her pain. She cared not to turn the eyes of the dead onto the living in her own resting place.
"A sad story, that," Ubu gave, stepping forward to stand next to her. He kept his hands in front of him, where she could see if he were to move for a weapon. She took notice, but did not completely relax, knowing that no man of the Shadows needed steel to do a harm.
And Ubu's smile stretched sadly as he looked down at the coffin before them. "A young woman," he whispered the tale in the same reverent tone she had used, "buried alive by the Great Mughal emperor Akbar when his son the prince announced that he loved and was going to marry a mere dancer. When the prince went to war against his father for her hand, his forces were quickly outnumbered, and rather than see her love die, the dancer drugged the prince with the pomegranate blossoms she was named after, and then bartered her life to the emperor for that of the prince while he slept. It was a sad end – a brave end – for a girl guilty of nothing more than loving that which she could not have. And now here she lies, forever immortalized once her lover became emperor himself, and was free to honor her as she deserved . . ."
"A silly story," Talia whispered, her hands falling from the inscriptions in order to fist at her side. "Based more in local lore than actual fact."
"Perhaps," Ubu shrugged. "Perhaps parts of Anarkali's tale are true, perhaps much is not. Perhaps it was only a warning for the populace at the time, to keep the caste system alive and uncontested. Perhaps the whole of the story was true, and love did flourish where it was said it could not. Either way, the story is the reason that your father chose to base a safehouse in this quarter. It struck true with him, and he could not let it go."
"If the tale struck true," Talia snorted, "then he learned not of it's words."
"Perhaps," Ubu said, tilting his head. His smile was sad. "Then again, he did not expect me to find you here when he sent me with the men to Lahore. At least, he did not expect me to bring you back to the mountains."
And Talia raised a brow. "Then why are you here?" she questioned, suspicious.
"To give you this," Ubu said, handing her a thin slip of paper, never taking his eyes from Anarkali's coffin before them.
Talia raised a brow, and looked down to see the name and address written on the paper. "And this I would believe less than if my father sent a whole legion of men after me. He would not give me aid."
"No, he would not," Ubu agreed, his voice stern. "He is too proud, and he wears his pain and love too deeply to let it see the day. But he knows that I would give this to you without him having to order me to do so. Perhaps, in his own mind, he can pass it off as my own stubbornness at seeing you well in the world. Perhaps it is easier for him that way."
"I care not over what is easy for him," Talia replied, her voice icy. The red sunlight caught beneath her veil as she spoke, her eyes reflected the light as flames.
Ubu sighed. "There is a pharmaceutical chemist, in Izmir, who does work similar to Cain's when it comes to anesthesia. We considered recruiting him long ago, but decided that he was not . . . appropriate for the work the League does."
"Too squeamish?" Talia raised a brow as she looked down at the address in her hand. "Or too corrupt?"
"Too kind," Ubu countered, a more damning sentence than both for those who wished to prosper in the League of Shadows. "But, I believe that that may be something that will work to your betterment now. Tell him that Armagon sent you. He will know of that which you speak."
She nodded slowly, a small part of the struggles she and Bane now had to face put to rest. From this they could move on . . . in any direction.
Seeing the decision in her eyes, Ubu inclined his head in a half a bow – not the sort he reserved for her father, but a mark of respect nonetheless, and then he turned to leave.
Talia looked up as he left, and felt a weight on her chest, one shaped as all goodbyes were. For a moment, she let it hurt. "Ubu," she called after him. "I . . . I thank you," she finally forced the words off of her tongue, the syllables snaring as if they were thorns in her mouth. " . . . for being my friend."
When Ubu smiled, the look was sad, but fond. "You need not, child," he said gently. "And the road before you is long for one so young. I believe we will meet again before our paths come to their end."
She inclined her head and nodded, not returning his words where she had already said enough. The words felt like a weakness in her chest, and so she let the pain close as if it had a door attached to it. She breathed in with her missing. She breathed out and said goodbye.
"Until we meet again," Ubu bowed his head, and then turned slowly from the interior of the tomb. He left her, falling into step with the shadows that crept into the land from the approaching night, and she watched him go until she could see him no more.
Talia lingered for only a moment longer, cold in the company of Anarkali's ghost, thinking of her mother and her sacrifice, and then of the grandfather she never knew – the man who allowed her mother to descend into hell in place of her father all out of petty spite and wounded pride. Talia still held an instinctive hatred in her heart for the man who had kept her parents apart – who had made it so that Ra's would never see his daughter without seeing also the ghost of her mother, and she wondered now if Ra's realized just how acutely history was repeating itself . . . Did he not realize that their stories were not all that different, his and hers? She had merely fought against her own ending, and now her tale was to go on where her parent's had been torn asunder . . . Even then, she knew that Ra's did not have the evil in his heart that her grandfather did, just a misguided attempt to protect . . . to nurture and to shield in the only way he knew how.
She still held anger in her heart, quick and blaming, but no longer did she let it consume her. She pushed it away. It had a hold on her no more. So she inhaled deeply, and rose to her feet, her fingers reaching to touch the inscription on the sarcophagus as she left, the words of love and love torn asunder, written underneath the many names of god . . .
And then she left, the shadow of Anarkali's tomb falling behind her as she walked before that too faded from sight.
They reached Izmir, Turkey, a week later, driving a good portion of the way before Talia brought out a whole section of a commuter train, and she and Bane traveled west by that route. They finally covered the last part of their trip by boat over the Mediterranean sea and up into the Aegean waters. Talia didn't trust flying, not so soon after their leaving her father, and that would be another thing for her to look into once they had time to gather their feet underneath themselves again – expiated forms of traveling, much as the League had arranged worldwide.
The Gulf of Izmir was a natural harbor created by the Aegean sea. With the sea to the west, and mountains and foothills surrounding the harbor and the Gediz river valley like an embrace, Talia could easily say that it was one of the more perfectly situated cities she had visited in her travels so far. With her alias, she bought out a small thermal resort in Balçova, one of the districts of Izmir that was on the water, in the heart of the city on the southern side of the harbor. The whole city was green, teaming with movement and life. The older streets were still cramped and rich with history, while the modern parts of the city were all metal and glass cocooned by the water and the green mountains all around them. The air was fresh and sweet smelling from the water, and the sun was just starting to go down when they arrived, painting the city in shades of pink and gold as water reflected the dying rays back into the sky for a breathtaking display.
"If I were to believe in omens, I would call this a good sign," she said as they stood in the open air of the harbor. Bane nodded once, the dying light catching on the tubes of his mask before he looked away.
The city around them was teeming with people, and a diverse collection of them at that. Thankfully, there was more than enough of a Muslim populace for Talia to cover her head without seeming out of place. Bane too kept his head covered, and in the low evening hours he could move from place to place well enough without causing too much of a stir in a crowd. Bane was already massive – enough to draw the eye even without the added curiosity of a mask, and the last thing they wanted was too much attention in a new place, especially a place where they could not leave until their goal was accomplished. The further and further west in the world they went, the harder it was for her friend to blend in without making use of the shadows, and at the thought Talia felt something inside of her ache, something almost like regret.
Their business in Izmir would carry on until the chemist Ubu recommended could replicate Cain's serum, and then Talia's alias - Ilke Çelik - already had land holdings in the southeast of Turkey, on the Mediterranean sea, and from there they would plan their next step into the world.
For now, they settled in to their room in the empty hotel – Talia having paid for all of the rooms, and then extra to limit the staff of the building to only those necessary, paid to come and go around their own timeframe. The manager had not minded the arrangement in the slightest, and the employees were well paid for their unexpected vacation, and so Talia and Bane were greeted by peace and emptiness when they checked themselves in – not one curious eye or shadow besides their own to see.
She had done her research on the trip to Izmir, and after a day or two of following her mark, she knew all she needed to know in order to proposition the man. Kerem Yilmaz was a pharmaceutical biochemist who did work out of Konak, one of the central districts in Izmir. That close to the harbor, the scent of the sea was sharp, the sound of the waves fighting with the sound of traffic and people mingling. His labs looked out on Kültürpark, a vast and sprawling park, full of dense foliage and numberous fountains, the traditional fair grounds of the rolling city around her.
Kerem's work was not open to the public, so Talia breathed in deep and posed herself as a potential investor in his research when talking to his assistant. She used Ubu's alias as a name to bait and hook Kerem's interest, and the next thing she knew she was waiting on one of the park benches in order to meet him – not wanting to propose her plan in earshot of anyone he may be working with until his cooperation was assured. Undoubtedly, her father knew each man in the world who could help with her and Bane's unique predicament, and . . . if things did not head in a favourable direction, the less who knew about her dealings with Kerem, the better.
She sat in a clearing where many of the park's paths met. In the center of the crossroads there was a tiered white fountain with crystal blue waters within, singing merrily in the late morning sun. The fronds of the palm trees and colourful spring blooms danced in time to the song of the fountains, a sweet smelling wind from the sea blowing over the earth and combining song and dance into something mesmerizing as people walked to and fro, enjoying the respite of the day. Talia sat observing them all idly, wearing a lightweight grey coat that went down to her knees, with double buttons over her chest and belted tight at her waist. She wore dressy black slacks and low heels to complete the look, her hair left down to curl slightly over her shoulders, just visible from where it spilled out of the silvery grey scarf she had raised up to cover her hair, like many of the woman around her did.
When Kerem came, Talia let her eyes fall over him, taking in the differences of the man before her and in the pictures she had seen ahead of time when she had planned this venture. He was in his early forties, with dark olive skin, made so by his time in the sun, she noticed, seeing where the shade of his skin was lighter under the collar at his neck, his sleeves as well. He had rich dark hair, just starting to grey at the temples, with lines in his face that came more from smiling than age. He had steady hands though, and a smart gaze.
He picked her out of the crowd easily enough, and reached out his hand to her, his mouth stretching into a welcoming smile. "I am Doctor Kerem Yilmaz," he introduced himself in Turkish. "I take it you are Miss Çelik."
She shook his hand, taking in his strong grip and the calluses at his fingertips. Her smile stretched, all ease and friendliness to those who did not know it as a hunting gaze. "Guilty as charged," she said warmly, slipping into the rolling language easily enough. "I must thank you for agreeing to meet me here."
"No," Kerem waved a hand, "the pleasure is mine. Although, I must admit to my . . . surprise when I read over your proposal. A good surprise, but surprise nonetheless."
He was not a fool then, Talia held her smile, but inwardly felt more at ease at the show of suspicion more than anything else. He was not one to blindly take such a gift. He had questions.
"I have a . . . personal interest in your work, you may say," Talia said carefully. "But that is a long story, for another time, perhaps. May we walk?" she asked. She thought better on her feet, with movement, and really, the day was too lovely to waste with sitting still.
She stood, and Kerem shadowed her stride as they started down one of the paths that cut through the tropical foliage. The sounds of fountains chased their steps.
"Armagon," she started, giving Ubu's alias without a syllable to betray the false name, "spoke highly of you and your work. It was his high recommendation that prompted my own investigation, and I must admit that I am impressed by what I found."
Kerem shrugged, neither denying her words of his talent nor confirming them; modesty without deprecation. She took note of his response, even as she continued to look straight ahead. "I remember him," Kerem said carefully in response to her words. "He too was interested in funding my research, but the job would have included moving to Tibet. There are some great findings that have been published from that area of the world over the last few years."
She nodded. "Indeed," she replied smoothly, nothing on her face giving away her knowledge of Cain or his published findings. "And yet, that area of research has proven to be a dry well for me. Every word in the proposal I gave you was sincere. I can provide you annual investments in the figures you received, if you would do one favor for me in the beginning."
"Ah, the catch," Kerem said good-naturedly. But he was curious, at least. And her offered donations were something he could not take lightly if he valued his life's work at all. In that moment, Talia found herself liking him, just the smallest bit, and she hoped to whatever deity he served that he agreed to her terms, if not . . . she knew that his wife, Emil, too worked in his offices, but that she returned home an hour early to care for their children after their school hours. She knew the route that the woman took, the market she liked to visit to pick up foodstuffs for dinner, and her sick mother who she attended to on her way home. She knew he had two children, the eldest a girl of eight named Selin and a little boy named Emre, who was not yet six years of age. If she had to, she would not hesitate to acquire a pawn or three, but she was tired in that moment, weary deep down in her bones, and she wished not to spill the blood of a family . . .
"The favor is, I hope, a simple one," Talia started carefully. "And, to me, it is as personal as it is discreet, I trust?"
"I am a doctor," Kerem said simply. "I care about the sciences of the matter. If I can help, I will."
She tilted her head, and finally, she decided to take her leap. "I have a friend, very dear to me, who suffers from severe nerve damage to his face. His pain is perpetual, and without cure. Where the root of his pain cannot be treated with traditional methods, we have devised a mask that allows him to function past the pain. But the drug which keeps the pain at bay . . . The former supplier I no longer have any access to, and I wish to find alternate means of devising such a supplement."
The doctor was silent for a moment, processing. Talia walked on in silence, listening to the chatter of the brightly colored birds in the trees around them. She reached out a hand to touch a violet bloom as they passed, its petals velvet soft against her skin. "This is a lot of money," Kerem said carefully, "just to ease your friend's pain."
"I would pay that and more," Talia said simply. She did not say that his burden was born for her, and she did not bother to explain her connection to her masked friend, or he to her. The scientist had all he needed before him, and now the choice was his. "The price matters not."
"May I ask what became of your last supplier?" Kerem asked, ever sharp, and Talia felt the corner of her mouth quirk up, knowing he would see the gesture for what it was now.
"As personal as they are discreet," she repeated, and he nodded, letting the question drop even as it took up residence in his eyes.
She reached into the pocket of her coat, and found the glass vial that resided there. She handed the dose of venom to Kerem, and said. "This is the compound that was treating him before, I trust that that will be enough to get you started?"
Kerem took the glass vial carefully, looking down as if he held something fanged in his hand. "I will do what I can," he said, and in that measure, he was sincere, and Talia released a breath she had not realized she had been holding. "If it would be possible, I would like to meet whoever I am to be treating, so I can understand exactly what I am up against."
Talia nodded, expecting the request, though she did not particularly like it. It was a necessary risk.
"My friend has a little over a six week supply left to him," she said. "I am sorry to ask you to work within such a deadline, but I am afraid that I must."
Kerem's eyes fluttered in surprise, then in question. "Is the pain that bad then?" he asked, nothing in his voice but the empathy Ubu had spoken of, and the innate curiosity all in his profession bore.
"Excruciating," Talia said simply, forcing the syllables off of her tongue until they sounded numb. Her next breath hurt in her lungs.
Some of her thoughts must have shown in her eyes, for in the next moment, Kerem fisted his hand over the vial and put it away carefully. He agreed to see her case, and their deal was struck. There were worse things the money of the League had funded over the years, and Talia felt cautiously hopeful about their path, as unsure as it was . . .
The next evening, Talia and Bane met Kerem at his lab. It was easy enough to move Bane with his face covered and the shadows distorting that which was visible. If anyone noticed the masked man and the girl with him, no one commented or looked twice, and they made it to their destination without incident.
Bane had been more leery than her at so blindly asking for help, but she knew not where else to turn, and the fact of the matter was that without aid they would be without a way to mask Bane's pain, and that was out of the question. They would not fail here; Talia would not let them.
Kerem was professional as they explained how the mask worked, and outlined Bane's various symptoms. Talia tried to keep her hands steady as she helped Bane with the localized anesthesia he used when he was without his mask, but worry made her fingers thick in a way that no battle to date had. Even still, she found ways to let her touch linger under the pretense of helping him. She traced her thumb over the flesh she was revealing when she finally pulled the mask away, her eyes saying what her mouth could not with such company with them.
If Kerem noticed her stolen touches or silent support, he said nothing, and his eyes revealed even less. She was thankful that he was professional, in that manner, at least, when his surprise over the ruined state of Bane's face showed in little more than a widening of his eyes, before even that was tucked away under the force of Bane's fierce glower, as if daring the doctor to step forth and do his work. It was an instinctive force, like that of an animal backed into a corner, and when the doctor turned to fetch his notepad, Talia reached over to grab Bane's hand in an open show of support, only letting her touch fade away when Kerem turned back around. Bane's eyes found hers thankfully before turning back to Kerem.
Kerem's examination was quick and clinical, the only questions he asked those he absolutely needed to know in order to proceed with his own work. He never questioned Talia about the price she was willing to pay after that, and yet she was thankful that it was kindness rather than pity in his gaze when he told to them his findings. She would have been less sure how to deal with that than she would have suspicion or open disgust . . . A part of her, half feral and Pit-born, disliked having the doctor look at, touch even, what was hers; but that was a part of her that she feared even more than the cold flame at the core of her. It was a dark part of her; an animalistic corner of her mind that was all survive and climb and care not who bleeds, and she did her best to push it away, trying to think only of Bane and how all would be well, if they could just make it past this one hurdle . . .
In the end, Kerem said that he had a base molecular structure from the vial she had given to him earlier, and he was confident in his ability to synthesize a new version of Cain's venom. It would be trial and error at first, finding out what worked and what didn't, and Talia felt her jaw tightening when she remembered Cain's trial and error, those early days of Bane and his mask, and so much pain, even for all that was kept at bay . . .
She breathed in deep, and reminded herself that it was only temporary, and soon all would be well again. They could move forward after they attacked this hurdle. They would survive. They would rise.
She was certain of it.
The first batch was the worst, as firsts tended to be.
Talia watched as her friend broke out into a cold sweat she could not sooth. He shook with his body's betrayal as his breath came thick and heavy in his lungs until she could not tell if it was from the pain under his mask or from the drug's side effects on his system.
Turkey was famous for its thermal baths; bodies of water fed from springs and natural hotspots in the land itself. The hotel she had bought out was made just for that purpose, to showcase the springs and their healing properties. She did not believe in folklore and superstition, but she appreciated the warmth of the water and their mineral properties, anything that would help her friend through the hell she and the doctor were putting him through with their search for an alternative venom.
She was able to get him back to the hotel before the gas in his mask started to take full effect, and helped him in to one of the blue pools. The thermal room was all buttery coloured stone, rough and smooth at turns. The lights in the room were low and warm, a very picture of peace and healing, even as Bane's voice echoed unnaturally, the sound thrown off of the stone and held by the water's presence. Talia stripped down to her underthings in order to help him into the water, hoping that the heat and the moisture would help him, even if ever just slightly as she kept on running a damp rag over the parts of his face his mask did not cover, stroking and touching whatever else she could in an attempt to comfort and sooth as his breathing came in hiccupped breaths, his muscles contracting and spasming beyond his control.
"I think that the doctor was more surprised by how tall you were than by your face itself. Did you see him as he looked up and up, my friend? I thought he would topple over," she tried to keep her voice light, amusement the only timbre in her tone as she ran her hands over his sweating muscles, trying to offer what little comfort she could. But it was a long night for them both; she neither sleeping when he was in such pain, and he unable to rest from his own body's betrayal.
The second batch was better with the nausea and his breathing, but it decreased control over his reflexes and muscles, leaving him twitching and spasming, helpless and pained as his body contracted and bent without his control or conscious command. Talia held him as best she could though that, grateful that she was there to help him through the worst of it. She remembered the temple in the mountains, those first days after he had worn the mask, how he not allowed her to help him stand when he had learned to walk again. She remembered how she had had to follow a step behind, her fingers made into fists until they cut into her flesh so as to avoid the impulse to help him up, to let him lean on her . . .
But then she had been nothing more than a child; and he a newly freed man. Now, years later and so much changed between them . . .
He was always so strong for her, she thought, closing her eyes. Perhaps, now, she could be the same for him . . . savior; protector and strong one. Their's was a symbiont circle, neither rising or falling without the other there to take place and lift up in return.
The spasms had left a lull, but still he was breathing heavy in their wake, his great lungs contracting and expanding shakily, as if he had to steal every breath he took. He did not speak of the pain; did nothing but nod yes or no when she asked her questions, taking her hourly notes and observations as Kerem had asked her to do. A part of her knew that the doctor had wished to be present for at least a part of this, but Talia had steadfastly refused. Bane's pain was her pain alone; it belonged to none else, and the doctor had not tried to ask again past that first time.
And so Talia tried to fill in the silence with her words; the same as Bane had done for her in the Pit when the days had grown too long, their despair too tangible. She told him of her travels from before she had found her father, of the more humorous anecdotes that Ubu had had to tell of the League and its workings, of the dozens upon dozens of myths and fairytales she had heard from spending so much time in so many different corners of the world.
"There is a story they tell here, of a youth who went looking for fear," she started in a near whisper, stroking his head around his mask and cradling him close to her, only their lower bodies submerged in the water around them. The steam was thick before them, her words cut through the fog like a knife. "The first he stumbled upon during his journeys were a circle of robbers, rejoicing in their spoils around the fire. The leader of the thieves asked the boy what he was doing there, and the boy said, 'I am looking for fear.' To which the robber said, 'You have found it, it is us.' But the boy was curious, for he felt no fear for the thieves. Astonished, the robber taunted him, and told him to go to the cemetery just over the hill and make for himself a loaf of helwa bread amongst the graves. While there, a body rose from its grave, and demanded of the youth his helwa. The youth denied the corpse his meal, and struck the body to return it to its slumber. When he returned, and told to the robbers his tale, they were astonished, for the boy had still found no fear, and thus they let him go."
Bane was still breathing heavy, she could feel his breath through the grating in his mask, striking her skin. Her touch became firmer, resting in the dip between his shoulder and his arm, her thumb finding the path of an old scar there and tracing.
"Onward the youth went, looking for fear. He came to a house, and upon entering the house he saw on a raised platform a swing in which there was a child weeping. Also in the room was a girl, running back and forth, distraught. The maiden approached him and said, 'Let me get upon your shoulders; the child is crying and I must quiet it.' He consented, and the girl climbed on his shoulders. While thus occupied with the child, she began gradually to press the youth's neck with her feet until he was in danger of strangulation. But he felt no fear for his own life, only a concern for the child.
"And so the boy continued on his journey. Upon reaching the coast, the boy saw a ship tossing to and fro out at sea, and heard fearful cries proceeding from it. He called out from the shore, 'Have you found fear?'. And the sailors answered with a cry, 'Oh, woe, we are sinking! Someone is casting our ship to and fro, and we are afraid.' The youth then bound a rope to his body, and dove to the bottom of the sea. There he discovered that the Daughter of the Sea was shaking the vessel. He fell upon her, and drove her away. Then, appearing at the surface, he asked, 'Is this fear?"' When no answer came, he continued on his way.
"Finally, he arrived at a spot where there was an immense crowd of people. 'What is the matter?' the youth inquired, and was informed that the Shah of the country was no more. A pigeon was to be set free, and he on whose head the bird should alight would be declared heir to the throne. The youth stood among the curious sightseers. The pigeon was loosed, wheeled about in the air, and eventually descended on the youth's head. He was at once hailed as Shah; but as he was unwilling to accept the privilege a second pigeon was sent up. This also rested on the youth's head. The same thing happened a third time. 'You are our Shah!' shouted the people. 'But I am seeking fear; I will not be your Shah,' replied he, resisting the efforts of the crowd to carry him off to the palace.
"His words were repeated to the widow of the late ruler, who said, 'Let him accept the dignity for tonight at least; tomorrow I will show him fear.' The youth consented, though he received the not very comforting intelligence that whoever was Shah one day was on the following morning a corpse. Passing through the palace, he came to a room in which he observed that his coffin was being made and water heated. Nevertheless, he lay down calmly to sleep in his chamber; but when the slaves departed he arose, took up the coffin, set it against the wall, lit a fire round it and reduced it to ashes. This done, he lay down again and slept soundly.
"When morning broke, slaves entered to carry away the new Shah's corpse; but they rejoiced at beholding him in perfect health, and hurried to the Sultana with the glad tidings. She thereupon called the cook and commanded, 'When you lay the supper tonight, put a live sparrow in the soup-dish.
"Evening came. The young Shah and the Sultana sat down to supper, and as the dish was brought in the Sultana said, 'Lift the lid of the dish.' Now as the youth stretched out his hand and lifted the lid, a bird flew out. The incident was so unexpected that it gave him a momentary shock of fear. 'Do you see?!' cried the Sultana. 'That is fear.' The youth had indeed been afraid. After having found fear and rising above it, the youth agreed to stay in the land as Shah, later taking the Sultana as his beloved wife."
She paused, her story coming to a close as she reached over to wet one of the rags in a basin of cold water she kept by the lip of the pool. Wringing it out, she then dabbed at her friend's brow with it, the sensation of the cool next to the warm water around them a small relief to the tempest inside of his bones.
"You have faced fierce storms, pains unnumbered, and the twisted barbs of dead men . . . You have lived when it was declared that you should die, time and time again . . . Now, the end of you will not come from a bird in a soup bowl. I won't let it, Baldassare. I won't."
She ran the rag underneath the straps of his mask, wishing she could do more to sooth the scars underneath, when he reached up and covered her hand with his own. His touch was weak, but it was there, just as it always would be.
She raised his hand to her mouth, and kissed it, squeezing his fingers between her own, hoping that the sensation was stronger than his pain, that it would help him be stronger than his agony, the mortal limitations of his body . . .
There was silence between them after that, and another night went and passed away.
It took to the end of the fifth week for Kerem to synthesize a formula that would work as well as Cain's.
Talia was fond of Kerem, but by the seventh serum (which had brought with it severe nausea and vomiting – an absolute mess with the mask and the pain in her friend's face), she had been ready to remove from the doctor a limb in order to impose on him the seriousness of his work. Thankfully, the man seemed to work even quicker in the shadow of his own failure – guilt and concern pressing in on his shoulders more than any other impetus she could have given him, just as Ubu had said he would.
Without a doubt, the man would have been crushed underneath the weight of the League, but when Bane breathed freely for first one hour and then two, she had such a hope in her breast. A hope that maybe, just maybe, this was the one . . .
The rest of the day passed with no symptoms to the adverse, and Bane was even wanting to get up and move with the freedom granted to him by the cooling fires on his face. The serum was minty, almost, he had said when explaining how he felt to her, as if amused by a joke that was past her ability to understand. She had such a smile on her face then, relief a cautious thing within her as she hoped beyond hope that they had finally found the one.
In the late hours, when she was too alert to try to sleep, she broke away from his side for the first since they had started their trials with the drug. When he didn't follow her, she suspected that he was cleaning up one of the glass mirrors he had broken during a particularly lethal bout that was their fourth attempt. She had told him to leave it be when he had come to his senses enough to register the damage he had wrought - the hotel was already going to have to repair the wall in that room, and replace a vase or two. One he had broken when stumbling, and one the other she had thrown against the wall in a fit with frustration after a particularly terse phone call with Kerem. The second time she had passed the broken wall, she had had half a black smile on her face as she imagined the hotel staff trying to figure out how a mere man had wrecked such carnage with nothing but his fists. The damage meant nothing to her personally, and if it helped with even the barest of his symptoms, she would have let him tear the resort down brick by brick.
But the building was left standing around them, and Bane was breathing freely again. So, Talia put aside her thoughts and slipped down the empty halls for one of the thermal rooms on her own, clad in nothing but one of the hotel robes, with a towel draped over her arms. It was a selfish indulgence, but a treat she was loathe to pass up after the strain of the last few weeks. One did not pass through Turkey without enjoying the bathes as they were meant to be enjoyed, and she had not had a chance to truly savor them while helping her friend through his ordeal.
The water was scalding when she put a toe in, testing the water as she stood gingerly on the highest step of the pool, like a child uncertain of the tide. But the warmth was rippling and inviting, and without hesitating again, she shed her robe and stepped lithely into the hot water. Steam billowed on the air, making the room shimmer before her as if it were something out of a dream. The sensations of the bubbling water against her skin was delicious, and the mineral clean scent of the water refreshed the air in her lungs, giving her a peace she felt down to her bones as she submerged her entire body, her hair turning to a wet curtain as she emerged, pushing it back from her ears in order wipe the water from her eyes. She smiled as the water traveled in thin rivulets down her skin, understanding now why so many believed the pools to have healing properties associated with them as her body turned liquid in the pool's embrace.
In the end, she felt his presence before she saw him. The fine hairs on the back of her neck stood to attention as she tilted her to the side, her hands rising to wring the water from the thick mass of her hair. She smiled coyly into the fog and asked, "Are you now done assuaging your guilt, my friend?" her voice teased as she shaped her question. In reply she heard a snorted breath through his mask.
"I can assure you, I was doing nothing of the sort," Bane spoke into the warm air. A smile stretched across her lips as she cut through the water like a blade, coming to the stone steps that descended into the pool. Bane was crouched down on the ledge before her, his chest bare in response to the moisture in the room, even though he was clothed elsewise. She followed a drop of sweat on his chest as it caught on the upraised skin of a scar, caught like a cradle before finishing its descent.
"I do not know if I believe you," she smirked up at him as she spoke, rising out of the water so that she could fold her arms on the ledge next to him. She watched with some satisfaction as his eyes fell from her face in order to take in the wet fall of her hair over her shoulders, the play of the water on her skin as it fell down her body to rejoin the pool below. Modesty had never been an issue or a thought between them over the years, since the Pit and then after. Skin was skin, and it had never been a qualm or covered thing between them. But there was a wider cast to his eyes now. She could hear him suck in a breath through his mask.
"You are enjoying yourself?" he asked then, avoiding her accusation. She could imagine the right side of his mouth turn up beneath his mask.
"Very much so," she said, tilting her head to the side. "Local legend says that these are the very waters that Agamemnon's men were led to by the oracle in order to clean their wounds from battle. I can't say that I don't believe them after experiencing them for myself."
Bane snorted at her words. "My Greek tragedies are fuzzy, but wasn't Agamemnon later slain by his wife in his own bath after returning from war?"
Talia shrugged. Her smile was sharp. "I'm sure they don't print that in the tourist's brochures. Most do not have our ease with blood and water."
His laughter was a wet sound on the air, hissed out as it was through his mask. Her eyes fell to the grating that covered his mouth then, the tangle of metal and rubber tubes. For a moment she let herself remember what his smile had looked like, back in the Pit, when he still had a mouth left to smile with. She had been young then, and a smile in that time had simply meant that all was right in the world. Now, with age and understanding, she wished that she had pulled his smile away before it was taken from her. She wished that she had held it in her hands; learned its weight and shape so that when it was broken she would know it's arch and curve and line . . . she wished she could restore it to him.
"I remember what your smile looked like," she whispered softly when the silence between them stretched. She lifted herself out of the water completely in order to sit on the ledge next to him, scooting forward so that her calves and feet were still dangling into the water. Goose-flesh broke out over her arms at the contrast of the cool air and the warm water.
"Did I smile often then?" he asked in return, curious, his eyes tracing over bare skin before turning up again, locking on her face.
Her own mouth quirked up, the corners lifting like wings uncertain of flight. "At times, although I cannot tell as well now. Sometimes when your eyes show mirth, it is not always for amusement's sake."
"I could say the same of you, my dear. You smiled more then . . ." Gently, he reached over to trace a single finger over the shape her mouth made. His thumb hooked on her lower lip, a kiss of touch where his mouth could not.
"I smile now," she countered, breathing in and tasting his skin.
"Yes, you smile now," he repeated.
And she was smiling as she leaned over in order to kiss the tubes of his mask, the grating. She breathed, and tasted the cool sensation of the gas in his mouth. The metal was iron tasting and cold to the touch, but his hands fell to anchor himself high on her arms, keeping her there. The weight of his hands was tight, bruising. He was not unaffected by the meaning behind her motions.
She moved her mouth down to find the soft skin under the straps of his mask, and still his hold did not lessen on her. Even after the many such interludes they had shared since leaving the mountains – touch a tangible way to ease his pain in the weeks finding a replacement for his mask, and before that, in Lahore, a fumbling, curious thing - desire was still as fledgling as it was potent as they learned each other in a way new to them until now . . .
He could not kiss her, and she would not ask him to. She did not want him to bear pain in an act where pain should be the thing farthest from. And so where he could not, she covered his moisture slick flesh with her mouth, mapping out its dips and planes as he found her skin with her hands, proving that a mouth was not needed in order to find pleasure and warmth, just intention and devotion, and she quivered and ached in the deepest parts of her, the emotion filling her rising with the pleasure until it was something effervescent in her veins.
They were creatures of battle, born and bred in pain. She knew where to place pressure on a man's neck for it to snap; knew which vertebra to hit between in order to render the spine useless. She knew how much weight it took for skin to break; knew just how truly fragile the paper tissue of hearts and lungs were. She knew how warm blood was when spilled . . . And now she turned the information aside in order to find the spots on his neck that make him shiver, the warm places on his skin that brought pleasure rather than pain, his body flushing as blood again rose to the surface of his skin, but not with the intention to spill . . . It was a more powerful moment for that, rather than the fleetingness of the pleasure itself, the knowledge that she could be more than a weapon, more than a scar . . . She could bring pleasure and know the same in return, and for a moment she felt humbled under that weight, that gift. She felt whole.
It was an old dance, one their bodies knew first before their minds; but it was still new between the two of them. Even still, the tide of it was heady and intoxicating, and she could only think that this was right. A determination steeled in her bones then. She would not let him push her away this time.
And sure enough, she could see the arguments in his eyes, the concern battling with the want, and oh, but the want that was there . . . It was dark and it was smouldering, a haze of some fierce emotion – stronger than the pain in his body or the debt of his servitude. It was primal, all a priest at worship to some goddess of old, blood and flesh the only sacrifices possible to approach that which was celestial, that which was sacred . . .
It was that look, more than anything else, that sealed her decision, that turned her touch demanding and her gaze entreating. "Please," was all she breathed, leaning in close to share the breath from his mask, the intimacy the closest she could get with his mouth closed from her, and she watched as his eyes closed, as if in pain . . .
"Please," she beckoned, and like the tides following the control of the moon, he leaned forward to shadow her. His hands on her body turned insistent and fierce, a line crossed, a bridge burned, but she had no need for gentleness, not now, not here . . .
It was the last thing she said for a long time that night, nothing left to her but the healing waters and the mist all around them. And Bane, only Bane, as the cold flame at the core of her flared into life and burned . . . and he burned with her.
They spent only two weeks more in Izmir, just long enough to make sure that the venom in Bane's mask was indeed working, and that there would be no relapse in symptoms or dilution of the drug's effectiveness. In parting, Talia gave Kerem a semi-permanent address that he could reach her by – her alias' land holdings in Antalya in southwestern Turkey. Before they left, Kerem offered to show her just what her investment would purchase, but she declined, not wanting to attach herself in any way when not needed, and she had left their meeting place in the park without looking back. Kerem had served a purpose, and his kindness had been useful when needed, but now he was nothing more than a pawn on the board – something to protect and guard, useful for the time to come, but nothing more.
Even so, she would miss Izmir, if not for the overwhelming beauty of the city and the warmth of it's inhabitants, then for the memories it held. Of trust and beginnings and hands to skin and lips to throat and completion.
She shivered, though the day was warm, pleasantly distracted – as she often found herself of late. That too would be something to bottle – to chain up as hers and hers alone and put aside as they started down their path once more. But, for now, the memories were new and warm against her mind, and she could not yet give them up.
When they were ready to leave, they went by air this time. During that last week, Talia bought out a smaller company of planes, much as her father had done when securing methods of moving quickly across the world for the League and the work they did. She had been taught the basics of piloting even before she had been taught to drive a car, and now they would be able to get from place to place well enough, one way or the other.
While Izmir was a place of healing and bonding for them, Antalya was a place of planning.
They had carefully not discussed the future while in Izmir, instead focusing on the present and the challenges that lied therein. But now the world was new before them, and Talia could feel a familiar restlessness come over her – the same that had plagued her in those years before she had found her father; the same that would come upon her when she went too long between missions while under her father's mantle.
To that end, Talia's alias owned a small swath of land at the base of the green Beydağlari mountains, nestled in the rock and the thick foliage of the land around them, with the sea as its natural barrier to the south. The land already had an estate built on it's grounds, large and sprawling, all stone and rich wood and earthy tones of paint on the walls and in the fixtures. At the time when Talia had developed her Ilke alias, she had wished to present the land to her father as a possible safehouse and secondary location for the League and its works – it had everything they could have needed. Past the main building there were smaller buildings for housing, and a cottage for the caretaker – an older mute woman, along with her two grown sons and the one's wife - who attended to the property, hired out of the same village that Ubu and his brethren were trained and bred, all fiercely loyal and well paid at that. There were training halls and a dojo both, and faculties aplenty to feed and provide for any who lived there.
It was enough like the monastery in the mountains to feel like a place where they could start again, and different enough to feel like something that was just their's, all their own.
"Roomy," had been Bane's first observation upon arriving, and Talia had rolled her eyes at him as the elder son showed them around. Talia had only seen the estate in picture during its planning stages, and so now she searched as Bane did – seeing the highs and lows of the land around them, the corners to defend and the ins and outs that would prove useful in the worst case scenarios – of which it always seemed prudent to plan for, as they always seemed to happen more often than not.
More interesting than the estate itself was the land around it, Talia thought as she looked over a map that outlined the caverns and paths through the mountains and forests around them. Antalya was a haven for the tourists and the running of the country both; with the beautiful operating right alongside the functional. They were close to the sea here, as well as the railways and airways that would connect them to the rest of the world, all while being secluded enough to hide them from the eyes of the populace right beyond.
It was perfect.
That first night, Talia had thrown her few things down in the master suite of the main building, before taking the comforter and everything else off of the large king size bed and placing it on the floor until she had a nest of pillows and blankets all without a mattress. The room had a wall full of windows, and even a part of the ceiling was glass, giving them a view of the stars above, the mountains beyond. The parts of the room that were not glass were thick wooden beams on the ceiling and panels on the walls, giving the room a natural look even past the sheets of glass. Over the years, she still had not come to completely like sleeping indoors, and this was the best she could do to find a middle ground between the two extremes.
Bane watched her as she settled herself in, his eyes soft as if bemused. She could imagine the smile he wore behind his mask, and her own stretched full on her face where his could not as she raised a brow, daring him to say anything about her choice of accommodations.
He said nothing, and instead turned to ready for the night in silence while Talia spread out over her nest of blankets, moving to fish through a mess of charts and maps and news clippings that she had been studying during their last few days in Izmir.
She stopped her work for the night only to help him when he went to take off his mask in order to attend to his personal needs. She helped set the line into his veins, and delivered the local shot of medicine into the thick cord of muscles in his neck. Once that was done, he washed the oozing and lazily bleeding scars of his face quickly and emotionlessly before turning from her in order to brush his teeth and gulp down a protein shake and his other supplements while Talia brought out the lighter mask he used to sleep in. He did not need her help with such a thing – he had not ever needed her help, or asked for it – but she was finally close enough to him to actually give her aid, and the routine had become a daily one between them in Izmir. She was not yet ready to give that up.
When he finished, his breath was already rough in his lungs from the pain – even with the precautions they had taken. Any time without the mask pained him in some way, she knew, even though he insisted that it was bearable. He would always say as much, and so Talia took to ignoring him more often than not, instead watching his eyes and his breathing, the body more telling than anything else. She knew their time was up, but she still stole a moment in order to run her thumb and first finger fondly over the scars on his face, leaning forward to kiss his mangled mouth only once before helping him secure his mask once more. The lines clicked into place with a hiss, and Bane breathed in deeply, his large lungs contracting with the effort to move the venom into his body more quickly. Talia watched him, trying to keep her thoughts off of her face, but she was, as always, an open book before him, and he reached over to squeeze her hand, as if it was she who needed the comfort rather than him. She smiled sadly in return before she leaned in to kiss the thick strap of his mask to the right of his face, wishing the scars beneath could feel her touch and know warmth.
He squeezed her hand one last time before rising, and she did as well. For that moment, it was enough.
When he exited the bathroom, he stopped for a moment to look down in amusement at the maps spread out of the side of the 'bed', as if she were a magpie unable to pass up a pretty bauble. "You have given thought to your next move, then?" he questioned simply, the first time he had asked as much since they had fled the mountains those weeks ago.
And she bit her lip, and nodded her answer, strangely nervous as she stepped before him to propose their future – though she knew that she should not. He would follow her always, to the very end, if asked, and she had only but to say the words . . .
And so she said, "I do not want to give up my father's work," she spoke slowly, each word falling from her mouth as if she spoke around a mouthfull of glass. "While . . . while he and I may have come to quarrel . . . I still believe in the Shadow's necessity, I still believe in the work he did . . . and I do not wish to give that up."
Bane nodded once, acceptance already in his gaze. Most likely, he had already expected this from her – perhaps even before she had figured it out for herself. "Are you sure?" still he took to tease. "You do not wish to become a painter? An actress perhaps?"
"Well," she drawled, her eyes sparkling with mischief, "our traveling song and dance number did cross my mind for a time, but ultimately I decided against it."
He nodded. "You wish to start a fire, then?"
"I wish to see it rise," she corrected. "I cannot yet let that go."
And he looked at her, long and slow, his eyes weighing before he inclined his head. "Then we recruit," he said simply, the decision already made. His voice turned to a chuckle in the back of his throat. She could hear as it slipped out through his mask. "I take it you already have a list of targets in mind?"
"One or two," Talia replied, her grin sharp as she fell upon their nest of blankets. She rolled over on her stomach, reaching for the map nearest to her, the notes and plans she had already been making . . .
"Now my friend, if you agree, I would start with a particularly unsavory man in Aleppo who has had the misfortune to catch my attention . . ."
Anarkali's Tale: Is true. Well, at least, it is a story that is told in that area of the world, and there is a mausoleum built in her honor much as I described it here, inscriptions and all. There is much debate over whose resting place that really is, and whether or not the entire tale happened as a whole, but I liked the romanticism of the myth, and decided to steal it for all of its parallels with our characters. You can read more about her here, if you are interested: wikipedia .org (slash) wiki (slash) Anarkali
Talia's Alias: Ilke means 'torch/bright light', while Çelik means 'steel'. I pieced it together from a website with Turkish names, and thought it a fitting alias for her.
Kerem Yilmaz: Kerem means 'he who does benevolent work' or 'generosity, nobility and honor', while Yilmaz means 'dauntless'. I'm a name geek when naming OC's, so I had to share. :)
The Fear Fairytale: Is indeed a real legend. You can read the original at sacred-texts_com in the Turkish fairytales section. FFN won't let me put in the whole link, even with spaces, so I'm afraid that is as far as I can direct you. To anyone who knows me from my Thor stories, you know I'm a myth junkie, and that website is one of my favorites online sources for all sorts of things. You can thank me later. ;)
Side Note I: I once again wanted to mention that I am telling stories of places I have never been to, and while I try to do my research, there are always going to be gaps. I apologize in advance for any glaring ones, and I welcome anyone who has a better understanding than me to point out flaws by way of PM.
Side Note II: Just how many chapters does this have left, you may wonder, seeing as how I keep on changing my mind? We are not looking at eight or nine chapters, and then it will be a wrap. Five chapters, I said in the beginning . . . pfft, who did my muse think she was kidding?
That said, I hope that you enjoyed, and I shall see you all next time!