Part VIII. III — "Crossing the Rubicon"
Bruce read the last words after and after, continuously, like if he had stopped, the world would also do; an endless ribbon of words, a link made of ink to tie him to an unforeseen future, to a wish... Until then, my friend, stay well... Until then, my friend, stay well... Until then, my friend, stay well...
She had left. Standing aside, he had watched another person he loved slip away from him. Like always, he couldn't stop it, just how he couldn't do anything when the gun that killed his parents shot, the gunpowder that ended Rachel mercilessly exploded, he had just watched.
Suddenly, the ink curved and started leaking, the letters dancing before his eyes, as a sharp pain struck in his chest. He let out a hiss of breath, his left hand going over to his shirt's collar as his heart pounded against his ribcage, the root of his hair wet with perspiration. Blood drummed in his ears; a loud, upsetting drone that distorted everything else in the world, as if everything was coming from beyond the space and time.
As the pain grew his body skid downward, then he watched the letter slip away from his fingers much like how she had done... His heart started galloping, as he remembered the anxiety attacks he had used to have when he was a child, frightened and alone, his nightmares full of bats that had become his brethren... A panic attack then he understood, after all those years, he was having another attack...
His hand clutched the edge of the study desk, his eyes shutting close, tightly, as he recalled all the techniques he had been taught to.
Focus... Concentrate, Ducard's voice was clear and certain over the ringing in his ears.
Master your senses.
He breathed out roughly, feeling the hardened wood under his skin, and the winter chill in the room, the faint echoes of his ghostly house... too big for only two people...
Focus, he told himself, concentrate.
He closed his eyes again, brushing his fingers over the wooden surface, and felt the smoothed splits under his callous skin. His head titling up, his finger drew lines in a circle, the splits catching his fingertip, until he became the circle he had made, an endless repetition, where there was no beginning nor an end; just the circle itself; life and death.
Life's a dream... from which we pray to wake, he silently chanted League of Shadow's mantra, from which we pray to go. Who would sleep when the duty calls?
Who would sleep when the duty calls, he muttered again, with closed lips, as the world sat back on its axis, the pounding drone inside his ears fading. His finger stopped. He let out a deep breath then opened his eyes.
It was better for both of them, he accepted. What could he offer her anyway? What he could offer to any woman? What rights he had when his priorities lay somewhere else, when his duty to his city came above everything else? No, Valerie deserved better.
He walked to the wet bar and poured himself a glass of water. Alfred walked into the study as he was drinking the second glass. As soon as he saw him, Alfred must have understood something was wrong, because the older man gave him one of those looks, eyes wary but speculative.
"Master Bruce," he asked, starting walking to him, "is everything okay?" His eyes stayed a bit longer on his face then wandered around the room— "Where is Ms. Valerie?"
Bruce put the glass on the wet bar. "She's gone," he answered, his voice low but no tremors inside, then he pointed at his study desk, toward her letter, like it would explain everything.
Slowly, almost tentatively, Alfred approached it. With a fleeting thought, Bruce wondered if one day Alfred was going to give up on him, too. He hadn't made things easier for the older man, he never did. He never did anything easy for anyone. His hand caught the glass again, and he took another sip, his throat scratching, as Alfred read the letter. Then he lifted his head from it, and gave him a long look. "Sir, what do you think to do about it?"
His hand stopped in the air, and Bruce turned to look at his butler. "What can I do, Alfred?" he asked back, "She's decided to leave."
"And you're going to accept it?"
"What else I can do?" Bruce amended, snapping the "else". There was nothing to do.
But Alfred gave him another look then shook his head. "You can fight," he answered, stressing the last word, "If she's this important to you," another look accompanied the words— "make her stay."
Bruce frowned, setting the glass back on the counter, shaking his head. "She's made her choice," he said, "and it's the best. Look at what I can offer her, Alfred—" He vaguely waved his hand around, "A life like this—" Rachel had dared to give it a chance, and that mistake had costed her off her life, he shouldn't ask that from anyone else. He shouldn't even have asked that from Alfred, but he didn't have anyone else... He looked at Alfred. "I'm sorry I got you into this, too, Alfred," he said, "Perhaps you should—"
Before his sentence was complicated, Alfred cut him off, "Master Bruce!" the older man cried out, walking to him closer, "Being here is my choice," he told her stiffly, "you don't get to decide that."
"And she made hers," Bruce shot back. His eyes wandered around the room, "No sane person would want something like that," he muttered.
He had expected another refusal from Alfred, but this time, the older man smiled, a kind one that warmed the stern expression over his face. "With all due respect, sir, we both know that she's not quite sane." His attention snapped at his former guardian, but no objections coming to his tongue. Alfred was right, of course, like always. None of them was sane, not even close.
Alfred took another step closer. "I understand you feel it's not the right thing to do, but you're wrong," he said earnestly, "There are still many things you can offer her; your protection, your kindness, your friendship, things would make life better for anyone. This must not be a perfect life, sir, yes," he said for the last, before he turned to leave, "but imagine how her life would be even without them?"
Alfred's last words hit a chord in him, as he stared at the door that the older man vanished. He imagined how her life would be, away from him and Gotham, but every scenario he came up turned his mouth into a scowl. He saw her in the dark, shadows shifting around her, as her eyes darted around, frightened and scared, and alone. Then he imagined her sitting on a bar stool, sipping through a bottle of scotch, already half drunk, then out of the shadows, a figure stepped out, and a gunshot bang... And she dropped down, red painting her with blood flowers...
With a sharp breath, he pulled himself out of his vision, shaking his head. No. Alfred was right, and they were both wrong; this wasn't how it was supposed to end, not like this. Not if he had a say in it.
His decision settling, Bruce left the room.
At a bench in the train station, she stiffly pulled the hoodie further over her forehead, bowing her head into a slight angle so that she could cast a secret glance at the two young men that were looking at her from the other corner. Evaluating them quickly—in their late twenties, already half drunks, making a way too much noise for the hour, she concluded they were just checking her out; a lone girl in the early morning, waiting all her own.
Shifting aside in her place, she let out a silent sigh. Being in Gotham was making her double nervous, danger lurking around every corner, but she'd better get used to it now. Life didn't look like it would be easy, but at least it was going to be simple; one priority she had now; staying alive. Despite many other troubles that was what was good with being on the run; you just do what you have to, to survive. That had been always her life, and she would have never kid herself believing she could have had anything else.
Unconsciously, her hand went to her pocket, and she found Michael's seashell. She let out a breath, her motions ceasing. She had taken it, together with her mother's photo, leaving Jason's trinkets behind in the manor, but now she realized that she had done a mistake. She had to get rid of this ridiculous notion of...of...finding home. Perhaps some people were simply not to have a place in the world, perhaps some people were just meant to be wanderers.
She took her hand out, and threw off the seashell. She didn't need it. She didn't need anything. She had herself. She pulled a cigarette from her backpack, and brought it to her lips, but her hands suddenly hesitated when her gaze fell at the bracelet around her wrist, that thing in the chest seizing again. She told herself it would pass, in time, it would pass away, and soon it was going to be just another reminder from her past, something perhaps one day she would throw away, too, one day.
Her hand went the front pocket of the backpack again to find the light, but before she retrieved it, from her back, a light appeared over her lips. Jumping slightly, she twisted back then looked at Bruce, as he stood hovering above her.
Stuck in the moment, she looked at him, stupefied, her hands still holding the cigarette at her lips, as his held the light. Then he gave her that smile, one corner of his lips faintly curved up. Lowering her hand, she heaved a sigh, and shook her head, "Bruce, why are you here?" she asked, her voice suddenly tired, and tears inside. She felt she would cry. Quickly, she turned, and looked ahead.
"You know why," Bruce only said, walking around toward her.
She gave out a half of laughter then let out another breath-sigh. "A sane man would just let me go," she remarked.
Sitting next to her on the bench, Bruce slightly laughed back. "Well, I don't suppose no one would call us sane."
Well, there was that, too. Huffing, she shrugged. "Yeah..."
She threw the cigarette back into her backpack, then looked at him. "Bruce—"
"Valerie—" they started at the same time.
He closed his eyes for a fraction, holding his hand in the air. "Let me go first." She nodded. "I almost didn't come," he confessed. His voice was reduced to that gentle timber again, low but certain, earnest, "but something you said had me thinking again..." Her eyebrows pulled up, "You said, this is how things are supposed to, and I came, Valerie, because I don't believe that."
She opened her mouth, but he didn't let her speak. "So you're running away now, but what would you do?"
Her eyebrows clenching further, she looked at him sternly in a defiant stance. That was a stupid question. She was going to do what she always did. "What I always do, Bruce," she answered, "I'll survive."
Bruce looked at her back with the same defiance, a frown appearing over his eyebrows, too. "You mean you'll spend the rest of your life looking over your shoulder, never feeling safe, always on the run, hopping around the places, leaving people with grudges behind," he summarized her future life mercilessly, then shook his head. "That's not you," She tried to speak, but he cut her off again, "Don't try to deny it, Valerie. That life doesn't suit you."
Her eyes widened with anger, tiredness and sadness in her vanished with his challenge. He had asked for it. "Then what suits me, Bruce?" she snapped back, letting out a snicker, "Playing your faithful lapdog, doing your legwork while you play the unselfish hero?"
"Valerie, I'm not unselfish," he said back, "in fact, I'm here because my own selfish reasons, because I don't want you to go." Because he had to know she was protected... He didn't want her to stay not because she was...special, but because he felt protecting her was his duty, and one could always trust Bruce Wayne when it came to do his duty. That tug pulled in her chest again, and she told herself it was okay. It was the way he was, and none of them could change what they were. She thought she would...but she was wrong.
Then he said, "But it doesn't change the fact that you've become a pivotal part of my life—" Her head snapped back at him with the sudden words, "and that you have a place here."
He let out a sigh, then looked at her directly. In his darkened eyes, she saw a determined glint, so fierce that for a moment, it stole her breath away. His eyes turned darker as he kept staring at her. "Valerie," he whispered at her, "you don't need to do this alone."
Tears threatened to break over in her eyes. She turned her head away, and bit her lips to keep them at bay. Next to her, she sensed as Bruce stood up. "I know I can't make you stay," he admitted. She finally turned back to look at him, titling her head to do so, "Only you can decide that. But if you do, if you do believe there is more to your life than this, I'll be waiting for you at the dinner room at the second hall." His eyes grew even more intense, as he stood in front of her, looking at her, "There is...something I want you to see."
"What?" she rasped, out of breath.
His answer didn't hesitant, "Where I truly belong."
As he walked away, Valerie watched his retreating back, his words turning in her mind in a loop. You don't need to do this alone. You have become a pivotal part of my life, you have a place here... somewhere she could belong. As soon as the thought appeared in her mind, she shook her head.
No. He had just come because he was trying to make sure she was safe, protected, like he had done even before he had known her, but at the end he did; he cared enough to come after her, the first time in her life, someone didn't let her go without giving a fight first.
What she had screamed at Jason echoed in her ears, her voice desperate, and accusing, and in pain, because it hurt, hurt so much; you didn't find me. I found you, father. Four years, father, four years, and you never even tried once. You just let me go.
She shook her head. She wished she could say it didn't matter, could say that it didn't made her lips quaver, didn't make tears slip away from her eyes. But she couldn't, god damn her to hell and back, but she couldn't, she couldn't say that it didn't matter that she had someone who would always fight for her, against her, that she wasn't really alone.
She was right; but so was he; this hero business didn't really suit her, but that life didn't suit her, either. She didn't want to pass the rest of her life like how Bruce told her. Despite what she had told Bruce, she knew she couldn't survive that, not anymore; she wasn't that strong anymore. She had weakened, or she had grown more, it made little difference; she needed more now, more than just...existing.
With a silent curse, she stood up, wiping her cheeks, and marched out of the train station.
Leave it to Bruce Wayne to consider everything. She let out a huffing snicker, looking at the white Honda parked along the curb at the train station's main entrance.
Bastard. He left her the car, knowing that she would need a vehicle to return to the manor. She drove to his castle-like home with a moderate pace. She would at least have that much dignity, arriving fashionably late.
Half of an hour, the ghastly manor majestically rose over the windshield, the full moon casting the whole structure even more of a ghostly ambience. This, she passed in her mind, was going to be her new life. The thought was still inconceivable to her, but it was still truth. This was where she had a place. His last words echoed in his mind again, a tense worry feeling in, but she shut it off.
Letting a deep, but decisive breath out, she entered the driveway. The winged entrance doors opened even before she approached to the gate, but she wasn't surprised that he knew she was coming, she was still wearing the bracelet.
In front of the staircase that led to the main door, she parked and stepped out of the door. She slowly climbed the tall stone staircase, trying to buy herself some little time, because despite her best efforts, she couldn't stop her heart galloping in her chest.
She knew with each step she was taking, she was getting more tangled into his life, and soon it would be impossible to get herself extricate. Still, she carried on.
The main door was open, too, like she had expected, even though there was no one to greet her. She walked in, and climbed the stairs to the second hall too. And there it was, the room she had never been before, and she knew the reason now.
In the corridor, her steps reduced to a slow pace, continuous but dragging, her eyes wandering around. At the end of the corridor there was the master bedroom, another place she had never seen before, but only had a quick glimpse before she had left the manor. Close to it, in the middle, was the main guest room where she had taken a short residence. That was where she was going to live, she didn't know. She didn't want to think on that, not now. She didn't want to think anything that might get her steps falter, and stop.
But in front of the dinner room, her steps still faltered, and she stopped, but before a thought passed through her mind, she opened the door.
And there he was, next to an imperial piano, leaning over it, his eyes fixed at the door that she had just walked through, simply waiting. He watched her as she walked into the room, his eyes never leaving hers, but didn't speak, only pressed a few keys at the piano.
The bookshelf behind him silently slid, and revealed an open cage lift. Wordlessly, he turned and stepped inside, then looked at her back; his look a silent invitation.
She took it. Slowly, she walked to it, stepped inside, too. He locked the cage platform, and pulled down the lever. The mechanism came to life with a deep gargoyle, and started to descend with a speed she couldn't expect from such kind of old technology. But, she wasn't surprised, this was Bruce Wayne, after all.
Unceremoniously, the lift stopped, and still without uttering a word, Bruce opened it, and stepped out to...somewhere seemed to be...a cavern. She squinted into the dark, as Bruce turned and looked at her again.
Still standing in the lift, her eyes wandered away from him, toward the stone walls, and she heard something close to a water rattling, moonlight glinting over the wet cavern walls through the cracks into the massive build. It wasn't man-built, though, she could even see it from the limited vista she had from the open-cage lift, but a structure that had become naturally, and somehow it fitted, it really did.
Where I truly belong...
Then she heard it. First it was faint chirpings, in the heights above them, like the sound of beating wings, then she saw them; the shadowed silhouettes in the gloom of the cave, wrapped in by darkness, then they took the shape of bats, flying over Bruce Wayne.
And without even batting an eye, Bruce stood there motionlessly, as more followed, like an endless dark cloud of shadows, shifting and gliding, they surrounded him, their inhuman screech tearing the air.
Her legs worked on their own accounts, and she took a step back in the lift, her eyes stuck at the scene in front of her, mesmerized. She had never seen something like that before, and she wouldn't think if anyone ever did. It was monumental, and terrifying, and also...beautiful.
This was the real Bruce Wayne, standing tall and unterrified, surrounded by bats, as if he was the master of them. Batman; the man she had forced her way into his life, and got herself tangled, and right that moment she realized that that was her point of no return, her own Rubicon, and once she took a step out of this lift, once she crossed that border, she would never go back again.
She looked at the man who was staring at her so intense that any sane woman would really just step away and turn back, and forget, but she had never been that woman.
So, she stepped out. It felt like a door closed behind her, but she didn't look back. Her future was lying in front of her, with the man who was waiting for her, surrounded by his brethren.
So, she walked to him, only looking ahead.
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