Bane is alone with his thoughts of the slums of Shanghai in this next installment of my Bane saga, BEYOND THE SHADOWS.
The closeness and smell of the place—sweat and unwashed bodies, booze and cigarettes—irritated Bane. The room’s dimness, however, offered a balancing solace: his twenty-five years in the pit prison had conditioned him to prefer darkness over light, and here among the crush of men in this dank gambling establishment, the low light helped camouflage his mask.
Bane stood from the poker table and pocketed his considerable winnings. The glances of his opponents revealed relief that he was leaving; relief not only because their collective pockets were now lighter but because the masked man’s grotesque visage made them all uneasy.
He wound his way through the room, those around him sidling quickly away from his powerful bulk and strange countenance. To many, he was familiar, for he regularly came here to gamble, though his real purpose was to gather intelligence. Several of the men in the gang to which Bruce Wayne belonged frequented this place, including Temujin. But whenever Temujin was there, neither acknowledged the other beyond whatever was necessary at the gaming tables. The regulars knew better than to make remarks or send questions his way about his mask. Those who had been bold enough to inquire learned quickly through cold stare or stony silence that their curiosity would not be satisfied. More persistent men, especially those who gleaned courage from alcohol, found themselves bloodied, Bane’s fists effectively killing their interest.
He squeezed his way through those loitering in a short hallway that led to the rear of the ramshackle building. A blend of Mandarin and Wu Chinese battered his ears, staccato, animated voices. He passed a couple of rooms, doors ajar. Women’s voices inside. False laughter as they amused their clients. Briefly Bane thought of Talia, thankful that she did not have to lead the type of life that so many women led here in Shanghai’s slums.
Raucous laughter and shouting exploded from the back room just before Bane stepped through the door. Dozens of men stood in a circle, facing inward, gesticulating as they urged on the feathery combatants in the smoke-filled room. The hoarse, challenging voices of two roosters struggled to be heard above the din as they bloodied one another in the ring. Damien Chase stood among the spectators on the far side of the room, near the back door, money gripped in his fists, eyes alight as he yelled. Bane did not attempt to see the fighters, for he felt nothing but disdain for the so-called sport of cock fights. Easy for men to force an animal to brawl and shed blood for their amusement, but those same men if challenged to a fight would turn tail and run. Bane had no use for such men.
To touch Chase, he had to reach between several men. The simple sight of Bane’s formidable arm drew wary backward glances, and the men—all so much smaller than he—pushed into those beside them to get as far away from Bane as they could. When he grasped Chase’s shoulder, the American jerked around, a hostile spark in his eyes. Seeing Bane, he relaxed.
Bane leaned in to be heard, “I’m leaving.” This close, it was easy to smell the alcohol on Chase.
Chase gave him a curt nod of acknowledgement then turned back to the fight.
Bane left through the back door, which opened into an alley so narrow that he nearly had to turn sideways to make it out to an adjoining street; in actuality, barely a street, for the hovels and shacks on either side pressed in close. Few who lived and worked here had automobiles, though, so a wide avenue was not necessary; most rode motorcycles, scooters, or bikes or simply walked to wherever they needed to go. Even at this hour, many of the locals sat in front of their dilapidated homes, many of which consisted of single rooms where entire families were housed—mother, father, child, grandparents, aunts and uncles. There were a few children in the shadows, orphans who lived on the streets, seeking food and shelter wherever they could be found. Again, Bane thought of Talia and the lifestyle she led. No doubt most of these urchins had no education at all. Dirty faces, hungry eyes. Often when out and about Bane carried morsels of food in his pockets and handed them out to those brave enough to allow his masked form close.
Bane had been beyond the slums many times during his three months in Shanghai. Both necessity and curiosity had taken him into the heart of the city where he marveled at the tall buildings and their architecture and the flashing, multi-colored lights. Because of the notoriety his mask could garner, he moved about mainly at night to be less conspicuous.
“You have a memorable…face,” Chase had said when they had first arrived. “Best not to have it seen by too many.”
Their surveillance and protection of Bruce Wayne did not allow much leisure time, but Bane took advantage of the hours he had to explore the city and learn about it and its people. The stark contrast between rich and poor was a familiar theme when he considered the many cities that he had experienced since joining the League. And though he lacked the poverty of so many, he felt more akin to those in the slums than to those in the high-rises. Their lack of wealth—like his mask—would forever keep them on the fringe of society, many simply because of where they had been born, just like him.
Bruce Wayne had come from the decadent high-rises of Gotham. Why had he chosen to instead mingle with the scum of criminality? Though not completely convinced of Rā’s al Ghūl’s’ beliefs about Wayne’s motivations, Bane had to admit that the young man’s choices were intriguing. Yet such intrigue did not lend to admiration or respect. Since his first sight of the billionaire—a photograph shown to him during his briefing with Rā’s—he hated Wayne and everything he stood for, the greed and excess of Gotham’s high society. How could Rā’s truly believe that a man born and raised in such immoral wealth could ever understand the lofty ideals of the League of Shadows? Perhaps Rā’s’ designs on his daughter’s future with Wayne had constricted his vision only to that which he had conceived. Bane hoped to one day prove this to Rā’s. Or perhaps Bruce Wayne himself would convince him.
Several times over these months, he and Chase had been close to Wayne, concealed yet watchful, weapons in hand, whenever the crew of criminals to which Wayne and Temujin belonged committed a heist. Sometimes Bane had even leveled the sights of his rifle squarely on Wayne himself, imagined pulling the trigger and freeing Talia’s future. But even if he had been reckless enough to disobey orders, he knew Damien Chase was watching him closely for just such a lapse in judgment.
Necessarily he and Chase had spent many hours together since coming to Shanghai. Over the past four years, they had gone on missions together but never just the two of them. Bane was accustomed to being in command of operations in which he took part, so now he chafed in this insubordinate role. The longer they were here, the more the situation vexed him.
On his twenty minute walk, he felt the usual stares from those whom he passed. Not only did his mask make him stand out, but so did his European face—what could be seen of it—and his size; he towered over most everyone. Both he and Chase dressed in worn, tired clothing like others in the slum, but even that could do little to disguise Bane’s glaring diversity. Though he knew Chase’s warning had merit, sometimes he found himself going out of his way to be seen by others. He had been locked away for twenty-five of his thirty-one years; he would be damned if he was going to allow himself to be marginalized now when he was a free man.
He passed a building with no windows, a two-story affair with pictures of beautiful young women on the outside. Long hair, stunning eyes all seemingly looking right at him, inviting, promising. Bane turned the collar of his jacket up, his shoulders hunched against the chill of the damp evening. A swell of desire caused him to growl and curse himself for coming this way. His steps quickened.
Chase had attempted to convince Bane to accompany him on a couple of his forays into such establishments, but Bane had refrained.
“Trust me, brother,” Chase had laughed, “they’ve seen things far more bizarre than your mask. As long as you’re paying, you could look like Akar and still get laid.”
Of course the cruel remark about Akar irritated Bane, and his defensive response nearly started an argument. And so after that, Chase had always left him behind in their shared room. Bane was glad to have the small space to himself for a while, even if it meant being hounded by thoughts of what he was missing. He would then remember Talia’s disappointment with Patrice, how the aftermath of the break-up made her bitterly regret ever sleeping with the boy.
“Promise me,” she had said to Bane back in August, “promise me that you won’t make the same mistake I made. You must wait until you are certain.”
“Certain of what?”
“That the person you are with truly loves you. And that you love her.”
He had smiled at her earnestness. “And how does one acquire this certainty?”
Talia frowned and shrugged one shoulder. “I just think you will know. You have that gift.”
“Yes. You are able to understand someone instantly. You know their motivations. You’re one of the wisest people I know, Bane.”
He had scoffed at her words and tried to change the subject, but she had persisted.
“Promise me, habibi.”
“Talia, we’ve talked about this before; men in the League cannot marry.”
“I didn’t say anything about marriage, just love. No one’s said you can’t love anyone.”
“Now you are splitting hairs, little mouse.”
“Just promise me. I don’t want to see you hurt like I was.”
To humor her and dismiss the matter, he had playfully agreed to save himself for the sake of love.
“I wish you could find someone like Mama,” she had added. “Someone who appreciates you like she did.”
Her words came back to him now as he turned off the main thoroughfare into an even narrower lane, little more than an alley. It was relatively quiet here with no one outside and windows closed against the chilly night. Light from within the bordering two-story buildings illuminated his way, shining on parked scooters and bikes, touching upon the brown remains of a narrow garden at the base of one tenement. Voices muffled only by thin walls reached his ears, some laughter, a few harsh words, children who refused to go to bed no doubt. It was at such times that he missed Talia the most—coming back here in the evenings and hearing the conversations of others who dwelt in the same building where he slept, their words distorted by walls and doors, but sounds that revealed the lives being lived around him, shared lives, while he settled onto his shabby, ridiculously undersized bed either alone in the room or only with Chase as company. Even after three months of living virtually side by side twenty-four seven, the two men shared little more than what their mission required.
Feeling particularly isolated tonight, Bane retired to bed after resupplying the canisters on his mask; this latest design allowed him to sleep six hours before the pain worked its way into his slumber, and he had to again reach for the container of crystals. He tried to read a Shanghai newspaper but found that he could not concentrate. Sighing in irritation, he tossed it aside and pulled Melisande’s blanket over him. When he reached to turn off the small, bare-bulb lamp beside his bed, he hesitated. Loneliness prodded him to reach for his pack shoved beneath his bed. Dipping his hand inside a rear zipper compartment, he hesitated and listened for Chase’s tread upon the creaky stairs leading to their upper floor room. Nothing. Five minutes, he told himself. That is all he would allow.
From the pack he withdrew a small picture of Talia. A classmate had taken it last spring outside the building where she lived. She had put a sprig of delicate white flowers in her hair, pushing the strands behind her delicate ears, her tiny diamond earrings shining in the sun. It was a close-up, her eyes reflecting her beautiful smile, her mother’s smile, her cheeks bunched up around her pronounced cheekbones, pink in the breeze off Lake Geneva. What he loved most about the photo was that Talia looked straight into the camera, thus giving him the sensation that she were looking right at him. He had known, even without her telling him, that she had been thinking of him at that moment. Even now, in his melancholy state, the picture made him smile. It touched him deeply to know that after two years apart, with Talia experiencing a whole new world, she had not forgotten him, that nothing and no one had broken the unique bond that had been forged in the pit.
Bane knew he should slip the photo back into his pack; indeed, he was not supposed to have it at all, but he indulged himself a moment longer, even as his eyelids threatened to close. He wanted her to be the last thing he saw before he slipped away. He wanted to dream of her and Melisande; he wanted them to take away the pain. Five minutes more…
The flick of a cigarette lighter snapped Bane awake. His eyes opened upon his empty hands atop Melisande’s blanket. Across the room, Chase sat upon his bed, holding the flame of a lighter against a small square of paper. Talia’s picture!
(This story is also available at FanFiction.net, AoA, and NolanFans.com)