Crossing the Rubicon


Part II. III – "Stuck"

"Open your eyes!" Before she drifted to sleep, the order ringed in her ears, voice hoarse, close to that irritating rasp. She jerked up, her eyes snapping open on the command. Confused, she looked at him. "Head trauma," he explained shortly, his eyes skipping from the road toward her hairline, where the lump sat in red and blue, "You shouldn't sleep."

She shook her head, the motion sending another surge of pain through her temples. "I already fell asleep—"

"And you also possibly have hypothermia," he added.

She wrapped his dark grey long coat over her body tighter, almost protectively, basking in the warmness of the fine wool tweed. "I'm fine—under the circumstances," she added after his look.

"Either way, we should check you out first."

She huffed, a weary and fraught voice; the last thing she wanted to do now was playing doctor-nurse with Bruce Wayne. "Are you aware that I'm a fugitive?" she snapped back, "I can't walk in a hospital and get a tomography."

He shook his head slightly, "You don't need to." Frowning at the simple retort, she craned her neck to look at him in question. But instead of answering her, he reached out to his phone. "Alfred," he spoke after a short wait, "Get to the bunker," he ordered, taking a turn to the East harbor, where Gotham's main warehouse district was located, instead of north where his Manor should raise in Palisades. The bunker, she passed in her mind, the bunker...

"Prepare the CAT scanner—" She stared at him, her eyes would have widened comically too if she had had any energy to manage the mimic, but she hadn't. The luxury of the car was taking away the last ounce of her resolve. She rested back in her seat further. "And bring warm clothes, too," he added for the last, his eyes shifting toward her again, and closed the phone. Then everything was silent. The car must be making sounds like a beast but inside of the sound-isolated interior, there was just a soft humming of the mighty motor. The droning was like a lullaby in a foreign language to her ears, her limbs almost weightless, listless, and she could really sleep—it was so comfy...and instead of being alert, somehow she felt secure, he couldn't hurt her...not really... Her eyelids started closing...

"Hey!" his voice boomed in the car, "Open your eyes!"

Jerking again, she jolted up in the passenger seat, her face twisting with pain. She touched at her temple. "For god sake," she whispered, "Don't shout."

"Talk to me," he ordered.

She half raised her hands in the air, opening her palms to sides, "Talk you what?"

His eyes skipped toward her again. "You can tell me what you've been doing in the last five months."

"I already told you," she answered as snappishly as she could, "I was tending a bar."

"All five months?"

"Yeah—" she shrugged.

"Your name—" he said then, "It's not Valerie, is it?"

"Look," she said, half closing her eyes, a helpless frustration making a notch in her voice, "I'm really not in the mood for interrogations." She pointed at the lump in her hairline. "See, I've got concussion!"

With the gesture, she had hoped he might have relented, but he didn't. Instead, he pressed further, "What's your name?" Instead of answering him, she turned her head away, and looked at outside. God, she really wished she could have slept, or at least gave him the silence treatment. She couldn't deal with this now, not when her mind was a mush, and her whole body was feeling like a puppet with strings cut out. But Bruce Wayne wasn't one to back down easily; she was starting to gather that, too. "Who are you?" he insisted.

"Just a girl," she muttered, her eyes still facing at the window.

"What's your name?" he repeated, stressing each word, his voice turning to a rasp again.

She shrugged. "Cathy, Lizzy, Dizzy, Minnie. What makes difference? Names are overrated."

"What your parents call you?" he shot back.

Turning her head at him, she gave him a look. "Wouldn't know," she answered, "grew up in a covenant."

Her answer took him by surprise, she could see it. She remembered him being an orphan himself, in the guardianship of his butler, the man that had answered the phone first. He stayed silent for a while, and she hoped that was the end of the conversation, but after the brief pause, he spoke again, with a slow voice, almost a murmur, "Everyone has a name."

Heaving a sigh out, she realized that the only way to get over this was telling him the truth. Why she wouldn't anyway? If he couldn't have done it by now, it wasn't like that he could find anything about her with just a name now. It wasn't like that that name meant her something, either. It was just something Cathleen had decided that she should have carried, just how she had decided how she would have acted, talked, and eaten. She had never cared about Cathleen's wishes before, so why a single simple word would be any different? "Sarah says my birth certificate," she said dismissively, deciding it didn't really matter.

But Bruce Wayne was the opposite. "So Sarah—" he started, voice content, as if he had won a battle.

She interrupted him, shaking her head. "Don't call me with that," she opposed, and told him the truth, "It's just a word written on some paper. It's not my name."

"Then what do you call yourself?" he asked, his voice half inquisitive, half frustrated, as he dived in a secluded part of the warehouse district at the bay.

"I've been called many things—" She threw at him a smile, half mocking, half knowing, "—But you can call me Valerie. Valerie is a girl who is deep in trouble, and so I am."

Half twisting his neck, he gave her a look, steering the car expertly even though his attention was focused more on her than the road. But she wasn't surprised of that fact. She had already experienced how he could drive, by first hand. The moment of crash flashed in her mind, another surge of heat breaking over her skin. A shiver passed over her body, but this time she wasn't sure of the reason.

He passed through a wire-fenced door, which was protected with a couple of signs, warning strangers with big red letters, "Private Property" and "No Trespassing". The area was big, perhaps more than ten acres, she couldn't see the end of it. But it was empty; abandoned, like its brightest days had gone long ago. He followed the broken asphalt path and stopped the car in front of an old-rusting warehouse. He turned and looked at her. "So Valerie—" he said, stressing the name pointedly, "Are you ready?"

In answer, she opened the Lamborghini's door, and got out. As soon as she stood outside, the winter chill hit her, together with a fit of nausea, her legs trembling. She quickly grabbed the car's hood, her breaths vaporous in the morning air. Bowing her head, she tried to steady herself, but after the warm comfort of the car, it was easier said than done. Just great, just fucking great.

A few seconds, he was at her side, his hand taking a hold of her upper arm. "Are you okay?" His voice was softer than his grip, almost concerned.

Without moving, she nodded. "Just a bit dizzy," she murmured between thin breaths, "It'll pass."

He studied her carefully, eyebrows tightened, then nodded. "Let's get inside," he said, taking her toward the main entrance. Like the rest of everything in the compound, the door was also an old rusty metal block, secured with an equally rusting padlock. His fingers touched the backside of the lock, and a mechanism clicked. He opened the door, pushing it with the palm of his free arm.

Her second time in an abandoned warehouse in the same day, and this time, it was even worse. The warehouse she had holed up before had at least some small signs of life that were suggesting that there had been times that the structure had been a place that had people working in. This one, however, didn't even that kind of remnants; it was just collapsing into decay with corrosion, rot, and blight in the dark.

For a moment, for a crazy moment, she thought this was his—lair, that he was taking her to his special place. Her nerves stood up, despite the weariness, the flight instinct running high on her blood, and she almost broke out of his grip and ran to the door. She looked around, almost frantically, her heart in her throat. What the hell she was thinking walking to this pit with her own feet? If she died here, no one would have found her again. No one.

Sensing her fright, he stopped, and looked at her. Her eyes stuck, she looked back at him, too, but what she saw was the same man she had seen before; the man once had saved her. Trembling this time for all different reasons, she forced her lips to crack up into the thinnest smirk. "All that money," she whispered, despite the tremors in her body, her voice low but steady, "and this is what you manage?"

A thin smirk cracked his lips, too. Without a word, his left reached out to the wall over her shoulder, and touched it. The floor beneath her started skidding downward, as a sudden brightened assaulted all her senses. Losing her balance with the sudden incorporeal attack, her hand shot out, and she grabbed his upper arm. The thin smirk grew wider, wilder, as his eyes glinted. She almost took a step back.

The platform smoothly sat into its nest with a soft thud. Over his shoulder, her eyes locked on another man's soft brown eyes, as he stood tall in the middle of an enormous but empty white hall, looking at them with an impassive face.

Her hand dropped as he craned his neck to follow her gaze. "Alfred," he acknowledged the man, turning aside, then he held her arm and walked them to the older man, "The scanner is ready?"

Well, she had never expected proper introductions but that was plain rude. She looked at Wayne, as the butler seized her for a moment, calculations going behind his eyes. "It's turned on," the man answered, his eyes were still fixed at her, "but there is still a fifteen minutes before it's fully charged." He finally turned to his employer, and she felt glad. His eyes were making her feel uncomfortable, and the last thing she needed was to feel more uncomfortable than she was already.

Nodding at the butler, Wayne led her toward the end of the massive hall, where a structure close to a field hospital was stationed. There was no red cross over it, of course, but she didn't know what else she would call a place that had a CAT scanner inside. It wasn't even the oddest thing with the place. She had expected some kind of headquarters, where he ran his—operations, but aside a few broken, out-of-date equipment and tools that were scattered around, the place was empty; not as wasted as above, but still devoid of life. Perhaps it had once, but not anymore.

Suddenly she realized he had brought her one of his hideouts; smart. And she appreciated the gesture, really, no need to get things more personal. They were already enough. She would lie low here until she got back to her feet, planning her next move. Apparently she couldn't stay in Gotham anymore, even though she had still no idea where else she would go, especially the only thing she had over her back was a coat that didn't even belong to her.

Well, they would see about that later.

Inside the infirmary, next to the CAT scanner, there was a medical bed. Her eyes almost watered as soon as they fell on it, a sob-laughter escaping from her mouth. She kicked the wet shoes off again, and climbed on the bed. Her head hit the pillow, her smile growing; a featherbed and cushions...the civilization, she thought she would never see it again. Her eyes closed... "Don't sleep," he warned sharply, his voice coming above her head. Her eyes snapped open. He was looking down at her, his eyebrows clenched in displeasure, holding a clean set of pajamas. She stared at him. "Alfred brought you clean clothes," he explained, walking closer to the bed. Her gaze shifted down toward the said items on his hand, a brief hesitance entering in his body language for the first time in the entire day, "Can you manage it yourself?"

She still stared at him, as if she had heard him wrong. Then her lips drawn out with a thin smile, "Are you gonna help if I can't?"

In answer, his eyebrows tightened further. The next, he threw the clothes at the bed next to her, and turned around. He walked to his butler. Rolling her eyes with a silent laugh, she shook her head, and immediately regretted it. Heaving a sigh out, she straightened in the bed, then her eyes caught a better look of PJs, and she lost all the sense in the world. She started laughing, because she felt if she hadn't she would have started crying instead. Her body shook with her laughter, and the action was like a nail drilling through her temples, but it didn't matter. So little things were mattering now. Both men turned and looked at her, eyes equally narrowed, almost in a wary confusion. "You brought me his PJs?" she asked to the older man, her hand waving toward at Bruce Wayne.

The butler gave her a hard look, "It's hard to find open shops that sell lingerie at the six in the morning, missus," he snapped.

She stopped, her eyes drawing to dark fume nightwear, trimmed with black satin, then shrugged. "Fair enough," she said, reaching out to the pajamas. "Hope they're at least clean," she muttered under her breath then with the corner of her eyes she caught Wayne's departure. Her head snapped up, "Where are you going?" she called after him, as he walked to the platform, words pouring out of her in a sudden rush. He couldn't leave her here.

He turned, his eyes darkening as if he didn't appreciate being questioned. Perhaps she shouldn't have done that last jab. "I need to fix the security footage from the warehouse you took refuge," he answered after a while, his eyes seizing hers, "If your kidnapper has called Riley, his men are going to look for you."

The simple words brought her back to the reality, the situation they faced returning with full force. She turned her eyes away, nodding, truly understanding it had just begun. "Stay in," her eccentric protector ordered for the last, "I will come back."

Her face setting, she looked at his retreating back.

Walking to Lamborghini, Bruce heaved a sigh, wondering where this would end. If Riley had sniffed her in the air...things would get even uglier. The youngest son of Sean Riley had taken the mantle from his father after the Irish mob boss had taken into custody under the Dent Act three months ago, and ever since he had been trying to prove his worth to his opponents and his allies alike. The underworld was a hard place to survive. If you wanted to be taken seriously, you needed to be respected and feared at the same time, and "Cameron Reese" could give the young man the opportunity he had been craving; a chance to get back to Batman.

Stepping in the car, he almost cursed; he had really thought the problems would have ended once he found her, but things had turned even more complicated. And, Cameron..., he frowned, and immediately corrected in his mind, Valerie, he wasn't dealing with Cameron Reese here, not even close. His memories of the lawyer had been always fuzzy, only tidbits from there and here, but this woman was different, closer to the woman at the video footage, the one who could choke a police officer out. Somehow it was relieving to find out he had been right about her, like a part, a pivotal part of a puzzle had been solved even though the whole picture was still unclear. Even with the fake name, she was still a mystery, but at least the situation was less—mysterious.

Taking the high road, he drove back to the cave. The warehouse at the Gullian port was belonging to Markell Paper's Gotham branch, their former storehouse for the shipments they had from South Africa, abandoned, but still not forgotten. It had still electricity, telephone lines, so he knew the security cameras were also still intact. He needed to erase her trace for good before the new day started and the day shift started taking a direct interest what had happened last night. For the night shift, a break in the abandoned warehouse might be a regular occurrence, but when the news started flowing out...He couldn't take that risk.

Ten minutes after, he was back in his real home, charging up the stations. Markell Paper was a company in the open market, so to get into their serves; he decided to use the front door. He pulled up a one of his shell companies that had its headquarters in Virgin Islands, and started buying a small percent of shares. Fifteen minutes later, he was a small partner of the company. Another fifteen later, he was asking the company's balance sheet as a shareholder. At the end of the hour, he was inside the servers.

He surfed through the database and found the security databases. He quickly calculated the possible time tables, and opened the file between four-five am for the warehouse. What he noticed first was a quick, deft shadow moving through in the dark, but it was impossible to follow her movements as that part of the warehouse weren't lighted. He fast forwarded, and picked the management office camera's footage; then there she was, in the light, even in a worse shape than he had found her passed out over the couch.

She closed the door, and rested her back on it, shivering, he could see her shivers even though the screen. She was wet, she had been wet too when he had found her, but next to this drenched figure, that had been nothing. Her arms were full of toilet paper, a few unopened coats, and her wet clothes; therefore the mystery of her fashion choice had become apparent. Her face was caked with mud and blood, as her hands and legs. Her hair was clogged with dirt and mud. He remembered the address she had given for the accident and understood that she had had to walk almost two miles to find the warehouse district in the chilling winter air and rain.

On the screen, she started sacking the office, to find her loots; the landline, a few biscuits and sugar, and the bathtub at the corner. Ah. Her eyes shone, when they fell on the shower, and she hurriedly took off the coats.

Stuck at the moment, Bruce stared at the screen, his reaching out to the keyboard. He hated this part of the surveillance. It made him feel like pervert, instead of an agent for the truth and justice, seeing people at their most private, intimate moments. Usually, he fast-forwarded those parts, unless he became suspicious that the intimacy was a ruse to cover up something else. He wanted to cut the feed this time, too, but somehow his hand didn't move further. Her body—it was slender, defined with smoothly toned muscles, but what had taken his interest wasn't the lithe athletic body; no, it was the condition of it. Across her back, a bruise was running, possibly from where her back had hit the wheel, and her rib looked swollen. He understood now why she had stirred and winced on her seat all the way to the bunker. But she had hardly made a noise. He knew she was in a bad shape, it was quite clear, but he hadn't expected that much, either.

He reached out to his phone, and sent a message to Alfred regarding on her injuries. He had made the right choice bringing her to the bunker. His first priority had been the CAT scanner, and the make-shift hospital-of-sorts he had built there for himself after his fall, but he also hadn't wanted to bring her to the manor. The cave was of course out of the question, she had no place in here, but the manor...he didn't know, he had felt they both would have felt more at ease at the bunker; less personal. He had liked the place enough during the time he had used it as his base, but it had never been his home.

On the screen, she stepped out of the shower, and patted herself dry with papers, and put on the coats again. She found the first-aid kit, too, and tried to bandage her rib, but with limited resources there weren't many things she could do. She then walked to the couch, and lay over it.

She stared at the ceiling, he could see her brain run wildly, clearly assessing her options. She passed a tired hand over her wet hair, huffed, her eyes still fixed on the ceiling. She shook her head, as if she was fighting with herself, and perhaps she had been. Then she reached out to the phone on the desk.

Bruce watched her as she made the call. Even though he couldn't hear her, he could still see her body language, the conversation they had shared last night on the loop in his mind; I need your help... the bottom line is you owe one... I don't have anywhere else to go... There was hesitance in her figure, and fear, but also determination, as if she had made her decision, and there was no going back now.

He closed the file, and extracted it from Markell's databases, and stored it in his servers. There the last night had been erased away, only existing for them now.

He called Alfred then. "How is she?" he asked as soon as Alfred picked up the line.

"Better," his former guardian answered, voice impassive. Alfred wasn't happy with the current situation, but Bruce hardly could blame him on that. "I scanned her, she seems clean. I forwarded the results to Lucius. He consulted Ms. Thompkins, she said it was fine, there's hurt, but no concussion."

Bruce barely held a sigh. Leslie Thompkins was an old friend of his father, together with Fox, and Alfred had been having an off-the-record consultancy with her via Fox since his fall. Bruce knew it was becoming dangerous, the good doctor was becoming a security risk, but Alfred was hearing none of it. "She, on the other hand, had a field day when she understood I called Fox," Alfred continued.

Bruce raised his eyebrows. He knew Fox and she had been having a rocky relationship in Wayne Enterprises, instead of coming directly to him, she had gone to Fox for blackmail. That was another thing he couldn't understand. Why Fox, but not him? "I sedated her."

"What?" He couldn't hear Alfred wrong, right?

"She was having a fever," Alfred defended his action, "She needs rest."

Bruce almost heaved another sigh, the day turning in his mind. "Keep her in line," he said, "It's worse than she pretends. Her rib is hurt. Check that, too."

"How do you know that?" Alfred asked, confusion and wariness clear in his voice, like he already knew what Bruce had done.

But he answered anyway, "I found the footage."

There was a brief silence over the line, then Alfred asked, "Her kidnapper?"

Bruce frowned, that was the tricky part. "He's still in coma," he answered. For now, they were clear off that trouble, but when the man woke up... Batman would need to show up.

"And the Irish family?"

Bruce shook his head, even though Alfred couldn't see it. "I don't know," he admitted, his voice straining, "Yet."

Another brief pause, "What do you have in mind, sir?"

Bruce stood up, "A visit to our friend in the hospital."

Around the noon, Bruce Wayne was in the deep cover.

Hopkins Medicine was a flourish private clinic at the Gotham's outskirts. Under the newly Wayne health care reform, Daniel Braden had been brought to the clinic six in the morning, comatose. His room was in the south wing of the compound, and Bruce had been wiping its corridor since the morning.

Leaned against his mop, he slowly staggered on his bad leg, as if moving the long mop was the most demanding job in the universe. He was clad in the hospital's anonymous whites, his face unrecognizable in a white bonnie, his shoulders sagged, nowhere close to the infamous Bruce Wayne. As he paced back and forth, the mop dragged behind him, he was alert to every sound around him.

It was a slow Sunday in the hospital. Two nurses were making the routines before the noon time, one holding a tray full with medicine in her hands, as the other held the charts. They closed to the room at the end of the corridor, where Braden was currently taking a residence. Swiftly, he trailed over there, his eyes watchful under his bowed head, his ears keen. As the nurses entered inside the room, he caught a glance of the man as he was sleeping. Valerie had been lucky, but the man hadn't. His head was in bandages, like the most of his body, as his leg was hung in the air inside the plaster. He couldn't find any footage for the accident, but from the state of them, he could still see the extent of the accident.

The move was something Batman would have done, but still it troubled Bruce further; she was unpredictable. Especially when she was cornered.

He lingered outside the room as the nurses checked the kidnapper's situation, then he saw them, lurking at the other side of the corridor; with crew-cuts, and tattoos, and rings, dressed in leather; eyes searching thoroughly every presence in the wing. His back straightened on reflex as soon as his eyes fell on the Irish thugs, but he forced himself relaxing, and waited until the men crossed the corridor. As he had suspected the men stopped in front of Braden's room. The next moment, the nurses emerged out of the room.

The young nurses took a step back as the men walked in on them, his eyes fixed on the young women. "Uh—" one of the nurses asked, voice demure, but still wary, "How can I help?"

The taller of the duo pointed behind their back. "Our friend—we heard he had an accident last night," he said, "How is he?"

The nurses exchanged a look. "He's...your friend?"

The Irish men didn't miss the look exchange. Bruce moved behind the girls, checking the men under his bowed head, his hands clenching around the mop. "Yeah," the taller answered again, "Why? Is there a problem?"

"Uh—I don't know," she took a turn to left, her friend on her heels, "You should take to the police."

"The police?" the other man repeated, holding the woman at upper arm. Bruce moved closer, his back stiffening even more, ready to lash out, as the other nurse held the man's arm too, "Sir, what are you doing?"

The man dropped his hand. "I'm just trying to find about my friend," he answered, his hands rising in the air, open palm, "Is he okay?"

"He's sleeping," the nurse answered, voice snappish, "in the coma. I'm sorry, but we can't tell more." They tried to move away again, but the men reacted the same.

"The police?" the tall one questioned again, his voice taking a hint of mal-intent. The nurse swallowed, Bruce tightened his fingers further around the wooden stick not to break the man's arm in three places.

"He—he was handcuffed to the wheel when they found him in the car." The nurses broke off after then, and this time the Riley's lackeys let them. The tall one took his phone out of his pocket. "Boss, we found our guy in a hospital," he talked fast, explaining the situation, "Had a car crash."

There was a brief silence, then he answered, "Probably escaped," he huffed, "Danny boy was handcuffed to the wheel. He was saying she was slippery."

The man nodded, "Will do." He closed the phone, and turned to his companion. "Come on, boss wants us to check the accident scene. She mustn't have gone far." His eyes skid to the Braden's room, "We will talk to him once he wakes up."

His eyes darkening, Bruce watched them as they walked away, his jaw clenched, his knuckles turning white. The sharks had already sniffed blood in the water.

When he was back after the midnight, unlike the wreckage she had left in her wake, she was sleeping, almost peacefully, still in his pajamas. Slowly he sat in a seat in front of her bed, his eyes stuck on her. At that moment, in that stance, she looked eerie, too pale, too fragile, nothing like the woman he had been watching for months. It was hard to believe that figure would have caused so much destruction, but she had. He had really believed this all would have ended once he had found her, but he clearly realized now it had just begun. His eyes swept over her, and found Alfreds', as the older man was studying him closely. He rested his head backward, his eyes closing, to escape from Alfred's inquisitiveness, or her fragile yet catastrophic figure, he wasn't sure. "You know what's funny, Alfred," he said slowly, "For the all times I've been looking for her, I never really thought how it could be when I found her," he confessed, then lifted his head, his eyes opening, "And now she's found me," a small bitter smirk pulled out his lips, acerbic in irony, "and we're stuck with her."

From the other side of the bed where she lay in between them, Alfred shook his head, "Master Bruce, you should talk to Commissioner Gordon," he advised, voice stern, not moving an inch, "He could help you."

"Help me how, Alfred?" he almost snapped, "Soon all mobs in Gotham will be after her trail. Gordon can't protect her on his own." Alfred opened his mouth, but he didn't let him talk. "Besides, she called me, not Gordon. She escaped from him." He shook his head, "No, Alfred, this is between her and me." His eyes drew to her again. "It always has."

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