Chapter 27: Hierarchy
Over the next three weeks, Bane establishes a sort of obsession with his fighting routine. At the end of the month, He is taking on two fights a day. More often than not he comes back to us webbed with a map of lacerations and contusions over the length of his body, cuts and bruises which weave delicate patterns into his hard leather skin. He sleeps long hours and eats more than double what we'd usually have, not that we can't afford it. He pays his way with the winnings, disappearing to the cook's block in the early hours and bargaining his way to the best food with hooch alcohol.
He risks a lot by watering the booze down to within an inch of being able to still be classed as alcohol, but so far the tactic hasn't failed. On the fourth week of his warrior crusade, the four of us sit on our cots eating away at the fruits of Bane's labor. He haggled the cook down and managed to get the very last of the meat from last month's drop off, which has been dried into a rough jerky, and a halve of preserved apricots, diced up and mixed with the rice. The apricots add a peculiar taste to the mess, but after almost two weeks of nothing but dried oats mixed with water, everyone is grateful beyond words.
"See?" Bane muses pointedly, his shirt off so that the small scratches may breathe, "you complain about my fighting, but you are all too keen to have me share my spoils."
I attempt a pointed scowl at the verbal trap he laid with that comment, but think better of it and decide to laugh it off. "Well, the profits are delicious," I admit with a smile. "But I still don't see why you've gone back into the fights. You could get hurt again, Bane."
"I'm getting better," Bane argues, referring to his fighting skill, "more than better. I haven't lost a fight in over a week."
"And look what it did to you," Andri charts, swaying a finger in the direction of Bane's chest, to a particularly wide rupture just above his abdominal muscles.
"That fight was rigged," Bane says, "I wouldn't have lost if it hadn't been for the booker taking br-"
"It was not rigged," Andri scolds him, "Carriveau is bigger than you, stronger, and that is why he won."
I smile over at Andri- Bane looks for a moment like a stubborn child, lip pouting as he refuses to believe there could be any fault in his own skill.
"The damage would have been worse if the two of you were not on good terms with each other. You are not invincible, my boy, that you must remember."
"I'm getting better," Bane repeats, straightening himself. "Next time, I will beat him."
"Confidence is a killer," Andri admonishes from his seat.
"Confidence is a winner," Bane rebukes, affronted by Andri's interjection. "I win, and we all benefit from it- the cook is expecting another drop-off in a couple of days, you've seen how riled the fights get around that time. We could be eating like this for the next week if I go up against the bigger players."
"Or we could be sending you up over the mouth of the pit, wrapped in funeral blankets," Andri told him, unwilling to let Bane's stubbornness pass unchecked. "A thousand times I tell you, Budalla. No good comes from these fights."
"Except for the food in your belly," Bane growls, then quieter, eyes lowered, "and respect."
The group stiffens, all hearing the subtle afterthought. Andri rolls his head against the back of his neck, eyes hardened as he looks over at Bane.
"Ah, now the boy tells me he fights for respect," Andri barks with a sardonic fervour. "Well, respect is always afforded to the dead, I suppose. You may yet succeed there."
"Don't say things like that," I scold hastily, lowering my head a little as a blush rides to my cheeks.
Andri rolls his shoulders indifferently with a suck of his teeth, thin lips puckered. He places the dish in his hands on the floor beside his cot and moves through to the second cell. "I'll check on the boy."
The boy is Barsad, who still refuses to eat. He has become so thin and brittle since the death of Firdos that I'm amazed he even has the strength to shake his head in denial; When he comes back to his senses, we shall send him back to his own cell, Andri had said after the first week of caring for him, but it seems he may never recover. The grief over the traumatic death of his friend seems all-consuming. He lies still day and night, staring up into the ceiling of the dusky cell room with glazed, unseeing eyes.
Much to everyone's surprise he has not attempted to commit suicide again. Andri rouses early each morning to check on him despite having proclaimed that allowing him to live had been the wrong thing to do, and that Bane ought be ashamed for deciding such a thing for the boy. To my silent joy it seems his medicinal instinct to care and repair has overridden his cold logic center when it comes to Barsad- he places a cold cloth against the boys forehead to try and bring him back to an alert state. Barsad refuses the comfort.
"At least drink, Budalla," Andri berates Barsad in Arabic, raising a cup of water to the boy's mouth. Barsad watches the glass with dim awareness, apathetic to the dire need his body surely screams, and takes a gulp of the liquid.
Bane watches from the corner of one of his dark eyes, frowning at the boy. "He must get well soon," he points out stoically. "He cannot go on living off the backs of our care like some sort of pet. Drinking our water and eating our food… my food."
"He doesn't eat your food," I say scoldingly. "He barely eats at all. We have to… we have to give him time," I say uncertainly, hoping against hope that I'm right. "Firdos was his best friend- more brother than friend. Can you imagine watching that happen to the person you care about most?"
Bane watches me, and for a moment I wonder if it's me he's thinking of. I know I'm thinking of him.
"...I'm surprised he's not worse," I continue. "I know I would be."
I blush harshly, unsure whether or not he caught my meaning.
"He'll be well again... eventually."
"When he is," Bane decides quickly, a frown still imbedded on his sun-baked face, "I will teach him to fight. He will need to know how. The boy is small and thin… People will trample over him if he doesn't learn."
I swallow hard, and say what the both of us are thinking.
"Like Firdos," I choke blankly, the words hard to speak. Suddenly I think of myself, of my own weakness, and look up at him again.
"You were supposed to teach me how to fight," I remind him, thinking back on that day when he'd kissed me. We still haven't addressed the matter, what with everything that's happened over the last few weeks. There has hardly seemed time for such trivial pursuits.
"I seem to remember not having agreed to that," Bane growls coldly, with a sharpness that hurts like a tangible thing, not as forceful as a hit but sharp enough to be a slap. I remember how he reacted when the idea was posed, laughing at me like my idea was preposterous and not even to be considered. He brushed me off like a child.
"I don't understand why," I growl right back, annoyed with him at this point. "Surely you can see the benefits in me learning some skills, at least- I've been down here, what- almost a year? I've barely been out of these cells. It's driving me crazy, having nothing to do but wash clothes, count days, and wait for you to come back worse off than the day before. Do you want to keep me weak?"
Bane bristles, eyes darkening. Something in me flares up in warning, and I find myself shying back a little. He takes a breath to attempt to keep calm and speaks slowly.
"Even if I did teach you," he begins through half-gritted teeth, "you still would not be able to leave this cell. Every single one of these men are stronger than you by sheer size, not to mention numbers- no amount fighting skill I or anyone else could teach would be able to change that." A foreign look crawled over his face for a brief second, pulling his features into a strained expression. "It would not be just one man, like it was with him... with… Nas." He seems to struggle to say the name, the muscles in his broad neck straining. "You are the only woman here. You understand what that means."
I remember Molina and how Bane had reacted to the very mention of her name.
"Of course I understand," I sigh, unable to keep the despair out of my voice. My voice gathers a desperate, almost needy tone. "But I can't stay in this room forever, Bane. Even if you'd just let me come out with you sometimes, I would be fine. You can't keep me locked up here like your pet bird, sat in a steel cage until I keel over and die. I have needs that don't just stop at- at washing dirty clothes and watching desperate men clamour for freedom in this God-forsaken place" I trail off momentarily, remembering things that I shouldn't. "I want to be free. You understand that, don't you?"
Bane hardens at my words, looking out of the cell bars to the broad wall. Until now, I hadn't noticed the chanting that was swelling in the prison. A man, perhaps in his late twenties, is preparing to make the climb. The rope master ties the grip around his waist and he starts off up the wall.
"We will never be free," Bane says through tight lips, then closes his eyes and looks down into his lap. One of his hands reaches up to caress one the wider cut across his chest absently, the one Andri pointed out to him.
"Aren't you going to watch?" I ask him, standing and leaning up against the outer bars as the man makes progress up the rough wall.
"There is no need to watch," Bane laughs with palpable distaste. The sound is full of defeat, which I note is unlike him. "We all know how it ends."
Sure enough, Bane is right; as the man reaches the midway point, a large chunk of sandstone loosens itself from the wall, causing the climber to lose his footing. The man flails desperately for another foothold but his hands slip and he falls. The rope snaps harshly at his weight, sending him head-first into the smooth stone wall, causing him to fall into unconsciousness. The pressure of the tug and subsequent impact of his body sends an audible twang and crunch reverberating back to the prisoners below, leaving the man hanging limply in mid-air.
There is a mutual sigh amongst the spectators, some sort of momentary false hope diminished, and the rope master begins to unenthusiastically reel the failed climber back to ground level. His bleeding face lies flat against the dusty ground, dirt coagulating into his wound. "I shall have to clean that," Andri complains from the other cell, his hand outstretched; I look back at him to see that he is gesturing out to the unconscious man. I frown and turn back to watch as the rope master unwinds the harness from the fallen man's waist, then digs his hands into the pockets of the man, taking more than his fair payment for his services. The rope master counts his earnings then tucks them away under the hessian of his shirt, leaning up against the compact stone wall.
"I will teach you how to fight," Bane tells me firmly, jarring my attention back into our cell. "But on the condition that once it has been done, you will not pester me about such matters again. I will teach you to defend yourself, but nothing more. When you are relatively competent, I'll accompany you out of the cells. "
"Alright," I agree. The prospect of learning these new skills, of actually being able to move freely (albeit with Bane at my side) excites me, and I can feel a surge of repressed adrenaline begin to sing through my stunted veins. The sensation makes me want to run, to smash something, to fly. I smile widely at Bane with a vigour I haven't felt since before my imprisonment here, and see him try to hide a wry smile at my reaction.
"When do we start?" I ask enthusiastically, energy high. He gives no indication of his intent, but the swipe of his fist at my face tells me plenty. I grab his knuckles firmly with one hand, almost by instinct, putting pressure on his balled fist to stop him. Bane smirks knowingly.
"Now," he instructs, and my Cheshire grin broadens with excitement.
"Faster!" Bane barks, unimpressed with my current output. We've been at this for what feels like hours now, my attempts to land blows to his outstretched and open palms unsuccessful; No matter how hard I push myself, he still presses down on me with the same command. With Andri and bobby gone, only the docile Barsad still occupying the cells with us, Bane seems a little more care-free.
"Faster," he repeats, a little cooler this time. I mean back a moment, trying to regain my breath.
"You keep saying that," I balk, chest falling heavily as I clutch at the bunched muscles which plague my right side with a stinging, persistent pain, "but I don't think it's gonna happen."
"It has to happen," Bane taunts me. "At the moment, you are useless. A tortoise could throw faster punches, never mind your lack of power. You punch like a girl."
The insult is the peak of irony. "There's a reason for that," I breathe, tying back the loose threads of my hair with tight, tired fingers. My knuckles ache in protest from the abuse, but we're not done yet. I've got something to prove here. I'm not as weak as he thinks, I tell myself, exhaling shortly through my nostrils and raising my eyebrows up quickly at him.
"Come on then," I call to him sharply, rolling my fists in preparation for another round.
"If you say so," Bane says hotly. "Quickly, now. One-two-three, one-two-three..."
I follow his instructions and grunt in frustration as he begins walking backwards, hopping from foot to foot in an attempt to make my task more difficult.
"Move yourself!" He barks with a laugh, enjoying how hard I'm finding the task.
His jabs to my pride are well placed, spurring me on through sheer pig-headed persistence. "Shut your face!" I tell him quickly, my annoyance fuelling each hit with more power.
"Make me," Bane teases, raising his hands higher. I lash out with another balled fist and land an ill-placed punch that skims off the heel of his hand and strikes him square in the jaw.
The impact was so abrupt it took me a second to realize I'd actually hit him! "Sorry!" I apologize quickly, pulling my hand away from him. He rolls his head side to side, letting the clicks of bones popping adjust from the hit.
He looks at me with a slight smirk and says, "That's more like it."
"Are you alright?" I ask carefully, and he laughs again.
"I've taken more than a punch in the jaw, least of all by someone with as little muscle as you," he jibes, gesturing to the sprawling length of injuries seared across his bare flesh. He grabs me about the upper arm and squeezes fondly, "I'm sure I'll be fine."
I can't help but smile up at him and reach my hand up to the side of his face, which is flared red from the force of my accidental assault. "We'll see about that when I'm finished with you," I grin wryly, jabbing my other fist quickly in his direction. The attack was easily seen and he leans back, catching my knuckles in the palm of his hand.
"Close," he taunts with a wicked grin, squeezing my hand in his grip. He stares at me for a long moment, letting the silence pass. "But not close enough."
"Oh, yeah?" I say, and with a slow, undeniable urgency, through the adrenaline and the exhaustion, his hand finds the back of my head and we kiss. A deep, fluttering longing flips inside me, borne of the lingering nature of the embrace. This time it is not rushed, not forced or unexpected… It feels right. As if this is how things should have been all along.
And when Bane pulls away, it is with no air of embarrassment. No uncomfortable, hard gaze or stiff defiance, no urgency to escape into the heat of the darkening prison. He holds me there a moment, watching my eyes with an uncertain stare, but a smile on his face. He loosens his grip on my hand and I let my hand fall from the side of his face.
"I'll teach you some more tomorrow," he says, and I notice a small, almost flustered quality to his rough tones. "We'll try some more offensive tactics when you get a little better; pressure points, blocking, using joints to your-"
"You don't have to talk," I tell him with a smile, realizing he's just trying to fill the awkwardness he's experiencing. He opens his mouth to speak, jaw hanging for a second, then just smiles.
"You don't have to apologize either," I rebuke him gently, smiling as I move back through to my own cell. "See you in the morning."
"See you in the morning," he repeats back to me, standing still asthough he's unsure what to do. I close the door between the two cells, smile at him and prompt,
I lie down on my cot, and hear him doing the same in his own room; I pull the heavy hessian blanket over my head, close my eyes and smile.
AN: Hey guys, thanks for reading, and thanks for your responses to the questions posed in the last chapter!
When the story's finished (which is still a long way off, mind- I still have alot of plans for Condemned), I was thinking of creating a PDF/word download of the story, set out all fancy without all the authors notes, etc, that you guys have to deal with at the moment. Let me know if you'd be interested, and if so, I'll upload it to my DeviantArt (#Shazammize) when it's finished :)
Please review, guys, and I'll look forward to seeing you again next time! :D xxx