Bane receives two intriguing invitations in the next installment of INTO THE FIRE, my third Bane fic.
The windowless room had grown intolerably hot. Too many male bodies, too much tension for a warm spring day. Bane stared without flinching at the Saudi seated on a worn cushion on the floor in front of him. The man stared back with equal intensity. Bane found his dark chocolate brown eyes striking. For one responsible for the deaths of thousands in the past and for thousands yet to come, his eyes seemed incongruously benign. Most killers Bane knew reflected unfeeling frigidity, but this tall, slim man was different, taking Bane slightly by surprise, though of course he did not reveal such a weakness. He had seen dozens of pictures of the infamous Saudi—a man ten years older than Bane—but the photos had not prepared him for what he experienced in person. And while he did not like the man for a number of reasons—the main one being his obscene wealth—he did appreciate his leadership skills, audacity, and strategic planning.
The strained silence stretched longer between the two. Bane had no ally in the room; even Barsad had not been allowed anywhere near this location—he was, after all, an American, the worst kind of infidel in the eyes of al Qaeda. The others in the room were the Saudi’s men, armed to the teeth, rawboned, tough, murderous, but not completely without fear of the strange masked man in their midst. No doubt they had been taken aback by his real-life appearance just as he had been by their leader. No, Bane decided, there were only two men in this room without fear—himself and Osama bin Laden.
“Are you certain I cannot change your mind?” bin Laden asked at last, having grown impatient with his guest.
“I never change my mind. Like you, I am nothing if not decisive. You honor me with such a generous offer, though, and I thank you.”
bin Laden inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement. He wore a tan colored pakol, reminding Bane of bin Laden’s formative days fighting with the mujahideen against the Russians, a common enemy, considering Bane’s years in Chechnya. It was this commonality and Bane’s growing reputation in the ranks of so-called freedom fighters that had gained bin Laden’s attention. And though the League of Shadows had not been spoken of by name in their discussion today, Bane knew bin Laden was not only aware of the League but had contributed monetarily to some of the League’s operations, including Rā’s al Ghūl’s plans for the destruction of Gotham.
“As I said,” Bane continued, “I will extend your offer to our Chechen brothers. With your provisions to bring them here, I am confident many will be proud to serve in your ranks.”
bin Laden’s full lips—as full as Bane’s had been before being mutilated—stretched in a smile that contained both regret and cynicism. “My understanding is that those who fight for the Masked Man are fiercely loyal to him; his leadership and courage nurtures such virtues, they say. And so I am not as confident that they will come here without him.”
“Perhaps you underestimate the admiration your Muslim brothers have for you.”
bin Laden’s smile attempted to dismiss the flattery, yet Bane knew the wily bastard enjoyed every word, especially in front of his men.
But now there was little left to discuss, and so formal farewells were exchanged, and a familiar hood covered Bane’s head before he was escorted from the building.
When Bane returned to the Serena Hotel in Islamabad, where bin Laden had spared no expense to curry his favor, he found his suite empty, but by the time he had showered, Barsad strolled in from his evening swim in the pool.
“Well,” he grinned at Bane, ruffling his short hair with a towel, “good to see you back with your head still attached to your shoulders.”
“I’ve ordered room service.”
“Steak, I hope.”
“Just the way you like it cooked, brother,” Bane said with his eyes revealing amusement. “Nice to see you were enjoying yourself while I was gone.”
“Woulda went with you, but I wasn’t invited, remember?”
Bane grunted, feigning skepticism toward Barsad’s claim that he would have left the five-star hotel for a dusty trek to the Pakistan/Afghanistan border. He stretched out on the bed, leaving his uncomfortable brace off for a reprieve.
“So what was the Lion Sheik like?” Barsad asked as he went into the spacious, sparkling bathroom to remove his plush white robe and swim trunks.
“He was as I expected, yet not as I expected, if that makes any sense.”
The toilet flushed, and Barsad emerged naked, crossing into his own room and returning in boxers and t-shirt. He flopped into a comfortable chair with his usual air of insouciance, running fingers through his damp hair in a half-hearted attempt to tame it but instead causing it to stick up. Bane noticed how the hairline above his temples was beginning to recede, increasing the height of his forehead.
“Actually it makes perfect sense,” Barsad said with a refreshed sigh. “And I’m sure ol’ Osama felt the same way about the infamous Masked Man.” He grinned that familiar proud grin, the expression of a sibling to an older brother. Taking up a glass tumbler from a coffee table, he downed the last swallow of Scotch left there from before his swim, the ice having melted away. “So what did he want with you to fly us all this way and ensconce us in the lap of luxury?”
Bane could tell his friend was greatly enjoying his “vacation,” as he called it. Bane could not begrudge his lieutenant such enjoyment. After all, Barsad had earned a little R&R. They had been in the field for well over two years now, without a break. Of course Bane had never heard from Rā’s al Ghūl after Bruce Wayne’s treachery, just as he had predicted, so he and Barsad had remained fighting the guerrilla war in Chechnya—with a sidebar in Dagestan—ever since.
“He wanted us and our men to help fight the Americans in Afghanistan.”
Barsad raised an eyebrow. “And you said?”
“I told him I would extend his invitation to our Chechen brothers and that any who choose to leave will do so with my blessing.”
“Very magnanimous of you,” Barsad grinned and laced his fingers behind his head. He leaned back with a smug twinkle in his ice-blue eyes. “Well, look at you. Quite the reputation, brother. Courted by the world’s most wanted terrorist. And did you agree to join him yourself?”
“Of course not. You know I’m not interested in anyone’s so-called holy war. I’m no more a jihadist than you.”
“That’s right, brother. We fight for a different god: money. But somehow I bet Osama pledged to throw plenty of that at you.”
Bane dragged another pillow behind his stiff neck. The ride back to the city had been long and uncomfortable. “You and I both know I will never take orders from another man. I learned that lesson the hard way back in Shanghai. It cost Temujin his life, and eventually led to the death of many more who were dear to me.”
Bane’s words wiped away Barsad’s lighthearted attitude, leaving him to nod solemnly. On the coffee table, his mobile phone began to vibrate. When he looked at the caller ID, his eyes widened in surprise.
“Maysam,” he said to Bane as he picked up the phone.
It was not unusual to hear from Maysam a couple of times a year, for she liked to check up on them and ensure that neither had taken a bullet. But whenever she called, the first thought through Bane’s head was always of Talia, fearing that Maysam was telephoning with some dreadful news. Such worries touched him now when he saw the expression of concern on Barsad’s face after only the first few words of the conversation. Yet, Bane assured himself, if the news were about Talia, Maysam would have called him, not Barsad.
“When did this happen?” Barsad quietly asked. He nodded slightly as he listened further. “I see… Are you safe?”
At these words Bane sat up in bed, tried to catch Barsad’s eye, but his friend was staring at his empty glass.
“Good. Is Ayman with you?” He nodded again as she answered at length. “Of course I’ll come. Let me talk to Bane, then I’ll call you back… Yes… Yes, he’s right here… Okay.” Barsad brought the phone over to Bane. “She wants to talk to you.”
It was wonderful, as always, to hear her voice, a voice so much like Melisande’s, even after all these years. But he heard the sorrow in her tone immediately, and his body tensed with dread.
“How are you, Haris?” she asked, using the only name she ever called him, one that gave him an immense sense of pride and family.
“More importantly how are you?”
“Well, I…I am not particularly well at the moment. My husband has died. He suffered a heart attack; at least that is what I have been told. That is why I called.”
A mixture of disparate reactions momentarily stunned Bane as Barsad carried his empty glass out of the room, no doubt to get a refill from the wet bar. Though Bane felt sorry for any pain Siddig’s death caused Maysam, the majority of his inner response was one of great satisfaction. Because of what Siddig had done to Melisande, there was no one Bane hated more. It was a rancor that eclipsed even his hatred for his own grandfather for condemning his mother to the pit simply because of her love for Edmund Dorrance.
Bane could not force sincerity into his stolid response, “I’m sorry to hear that, Maysam.”
She made a small, dismissive sound. “There is no need for words you do not mean, Haris. I understand. I did not call for sympathy but instead to invite you and Barsad here. Not to attend the funeral, of course; not you, but Barsad will want to attend. While they were not what you would call friends, Barsad and Siddig had a very good…working relationship. There was respect there.”
“Of course. Barsad never would have worked for him if it had been any other way. But why do you want me there?”
“Haris,” she said indulgently, as if to a difficult son. “Why wouldn’t I want you to come? I haven’t seen you in years, and isn’t it about time you took a break? How many times have I offered and you haven’t come? Besides, someone will be here who specifically asked that I invite you.”
“Why, Talia, of course.”
“What?” He glanced furtively at Barsad who returned with his replenished glass. “But—but do you think that wise? Will it be safe—?”
“My husband is dead, Haris. There is no threat to her now. And don’t you think it’s time I finally see my granddaughter face to face?”
Joyous anticipation had renewed Maysam’s tone, making it impossible for Bane to deny a smile of his own, a smile of relief over a neutralized threat and the image of Maysam at last getting to hold her grandchild in her arms. Indeed, for nearly twenty years now Maysam had been a prisoner of sorts herself, unable to openly acknowledge Talia, too fearful to even attempt to meet at a neutral site. Not even the briefest of encounters was worth gambling with her granddaughter’s safety.
“And,” Maysam continued, “I think it would be fitting that the man responsible for my reunion with Talia should be here with us.”
“Responsible? But your husband’s death—”
“I’m referring to you protecting my daughter and grandchild in prison, preserving her life. Really, Haris,” she teased, “you should allow yourself some credit now and then. You are far too humble.”
Bane smiled. “Barsad would disagree with you on that point.”
Maysam chuckled. “There…you have made a grief-stricken widow laugh. Now say you will make me happier still by coming with Barsad to be with me and Talia in my time of need.”
“I will release Barsad, of course. Let me see what I can arrange here so I might come as well.”
“Thank you, Haris. Now let me speak again to Barsad so I can recruit his help in convincing you.”
Now it was Bane who chuckled. “Have I ever told you that you are as intractable as Talia?”
“Yes,” she replied lightly. “I believe you have…several times, in fact. And I’m eager to find out firsthand what other qualities I have in common with Talia.”
Bane could tell Maysam was taking great pleasure in being able to actually say her granddaughter’s name without worrying that someone might be listening to her phone conversations.
Maysam sobered. “Please do come, Haris. It will mean the world to both of us.”
“I will do my best.”
(This story is also available at FanFiction.net, Ao3, and NolanFans.com)