Part III.I – "Second chance"
For the rest of the week, Bruce Wayne kept his distance. She passed the week in and out of consciousness, burning with fever, so she didn't particularly care, either. In fact, she was even glad, soon, they would need to see each other a lot, she knew. Though, she had tried a few times to question her babysitter, but it was impossible to crack up the older man. He was an odd man. He spoke with a gentlemanly English accent, words measured and careful, and he was always respectful, with a hint of satirical humor, but there was an enduring stance in his resolve, impossibly to move an inch. He reminded her mountains, old and abiding, a permanent figure in the rush of todays. His figure seemed even more intimidating in the middle of the storm beating them above the ground. The thunderstorm had begun last night, and hadn't stopped since then.
He set up her light dinner on the hospital tray, and slid it over her. She straightened in the bed, and rested her back against the cushions. She looked at the chicken soup. "When Bruce is coming up?" she tried another time, taking up her spoon, "I need to talk to him."
The butler turned and walked to the counter in the infirmary to prepare her meds. "He will come tonight," he answered, turning back again, in his hands a small tray, "He's been engaged with—" a brief pause, she looked at him in question, "other things," the man completed. Ah. Other things. Like beating the criminals into a pulp with his bare fists. It was still hard, very hard to believe that fact, but as of the moment it was the last thing she needed to think of. She could deal with Bruce Wayne. He was tensed and strained, like a stringed bow, guarded like Knox Fort, and wary like a predator, but if that man was the real Bruce Wayne, she had no idea how his alter persona would be. Frankly she had no wishes to find out, either. Things were enough fucked-up as already they were. She wasn't sure if she also could deal with that. Funny enough, Bruce Wayne seemed to think so, too.
Cathleen hadn't raised a stupid for an orphan, so she clearly understood what he had been trying to do keeping his distance. They were treading in the uncharted territories, full of broken shards of glasses, every step watchful and calculated to control the damage. And it was what they had been doing; they were controlling the damage. Her eyes skipped over the wall where an oval shape wall-clock hung on, and on the reflected surface of the glass, she saw her reflection. Valerie; sexy, carefree, tough girl in the deep shit; Valerie without a surname.
The pub was at the corner of the street. Her head high, Valerie walked in. Her eyes quickly spotted the back exits and windows at first, and swept over the clientele, assessing the place, and decided it was the one she was seeking. She then spotted her mark, the guy behind the bar.
"You know, I didn't catch your surname, pretty," Johnny asked over the third glass of scotch, leaning toward her over the counter, his hand playing a wisp of her hair over her shoulder, twirling her loose curl around his finger. She only smiled. "What?" he asked, laughing, "It's just Valerie?"
She nodded, pulling back, and took up her glass. "Yeah, just Valerie," she said, bringing her glass toward her lips, a smile breaking over them, "Name and title in one." She looked at him under the bowed head. "You'll see."
She saw herself again on the surface, coming out of the memory. That day she hadn't offered to Johnny any surname because the last thing she needed was a title attached to her name. And that was what surnames were; entitlements. When she was Valerie, she was just someone; a one of millions, but when you added a title next to it, then you were no longer just someone, you were...identified. That was her first mistake. All of her life, she wanted to establish that fact; she wanted to be a person, not just someone born into a covenant, but a real person, with titles and all.
Her former identities passed through her mind. Cecile Donovan had been young, thinking she could do everything. Felicia Bale had been a hurricane, ready to challenge the world to take what she wanted. Cameron Reese had been hell-bent to get her happily-ever-after. Once she had tried to be Sarah, just someone of regular millions, but it hadn't worked out. Now, there was nothing in the world she desired more. She wanted to be anonymous, she wanted to slip through the cracks of the worlds and never be found again. Careful what you wish for, Michael had warned her at the first day they had met, because you may get it.
She had wanted the spotlights, and now she got them. No one would forget her face ever again.
Tears threatened to break out of her eyes, and she bit her inner cheek to keep them at bay. She was stuck, and she couldn't see any way out. It didn't matter where she was, someone would find her at the end, how Danny had, then she was done. She shook her head, defiantly, her face setting. She wasn't going to let that happen. She couldn't let them win. She always found a way out, at the end she always won. She shook her head, and muttered, "God, I need a drink." Then she noticed her hands trembling, "I really need a drink," she repeated louder.
Alfred turned to her, his eyebrows tightened in that way she had also seen in Bruce Wayne's features; eyebrows pulled with suspicion and wariness, eyes narrowed with a keen inquisitiveness. Again, she wondered about who were all these people for real. Because the old man was just a gentle old butler as much as Bruce Wayne was just an eccentric billionaire. "You shouldn't drink because of your injuries," he told her, voice stern, leaving no place for any argument.
But she really needed a drink. "Correction," she shot back, fisting her hands under the thin blanket to stop the tremors, "I should drink just because of them." He gave her another look, patently Wayne-household brand. She huffed, heaving a loaded sigh, "Come on," she said, fixing her eyes at him, "You've seen me naked—" His eyes sharpened. She broke out a thin smile, lips not parted. She must have not acknowledged the fact that her rib had been dressed and her injuries had been cleansed, but it didn't mean that she hadn't noticed. "At least buy me a drink."
His lips finally loosened, a faint smirk reflecting back, "I'll ask Master Wayne to bring in a bottle."
"Thanks," she cooed, smarmy voice was a mock of gratitude.
True to Alfred's words, Wayne returned before the midnight, bringing her present with him. As soon as her eyes noticed the bottle, she straightened in the bed, her eyes eagerly on the amber liquid. Then she lifted them up at him. "Macallan-21?" she asked, tilting her head aside, as he walked to the counter to fix her a drink, "You certainly know to charm a girl, Mr. Wayne."
He turned, and for a moment, she had seen the old Bruce Wayne she had known; with sly smirks and boyish charms and all. As the old butler left them alone, Wayne walked back to her, and offered her the glass. "We aim to please, Ms.—" he shot back sardonically, but then stopped, the sudden look vanishing off his face, leaving its place his usual bland starkness. "You didn't give me a surname," he remarked.
She took a sip from her glass, her back stiffening, remembering the last she had had that conversation, "Didn't notice I needed to."
"So what?" he asked, "You're just Valerie?"
Shaking her head, she took another big sip. "Look, when you're Bruce," she tried to explain at best she could, "you're just a Bruce, but you're Bruce Wayne, you're the Bruce Wayne. You're singled out." She lowered the glass on her lap, her eyes drawing out, "and the last thing I want now is being singled out."
Even her eyes turned away, she could sense his gaze on her. "But you are," he rasped out.
Her jaw clenched, she nodded, but didn't speak further. Speaking the truth out loud always made things harder. And this time it was no exception, either. Truth hurts, she passed in her mind, before she bottomed up the rest of the amber liquor. The hot burn of scotch charred her throat, but the familiarity also soothed her frayed senses. "Danny," she asked finally, returning to him, "How is he?"
"Still sleeping," he answered then took a pause. The brief pause stretched out, filling the air with an ominous tense gloom, the storm still raging outside, and she asked despite she knew what was coming next.
"They found out, didn't they?" she asked, "Riley knows I'm blown out." Wordlessly, he nodded. Her face set off, the implications of that fact clear in her head. She wasn't just singled out, she was also stuck. "I should have let that bastard bleed to death there," she bit out bitterly, shaking her head.
Wayne's eyes glinted like a razor. "Why you didn't?" he rasped out, sharp eyes searching.
She looked back at him with the same sharp edge, "Because I'm an idiot."
He shook his head slowly, bowing it slightly, "You did the right thing."
The words were spoken out soft, like a caress, she almost didn't hear them. They were so simple, but the indications behind them were not. Right thing...most of times, right and wrong were a matter of point of view. From his point it would look like a right thing, but for her side it damn looked like a mistake, a deadly mistake. If Daniel talked...really, really talked, then she was done, simple as that. "And I will pay for it," she muttered under her breath, shaking her head back at him.
"Doing the right thing has always a cost."
Her head snapped at him with the sudden words. There were something in them, a ghost of something she wasn't sure; perhaps the ghost of the past. He didn't look like he was just talking about the present. The silence had started tensing again. She looked at him, suddenly at loss what to say. This was getting nowhere. She wished she had a place lined up to escape but that wasn't an option, either. Okay, whatever happened, happened, she told herself, turning her eyes away from him. No wish, no regret, no remorse could change the past now. Time doesn't wait for anyone, don't look back, Jason had used to say whenever there was something he wasn't particularly pleased, everything turns out the way it's suppose to. The words now sounded to her caustically ironic, but it didn't mean he had been wrong. He usually had anyway. And it had been always the main problem with him; his words were always right.
Heaving a sigh, she looked at the wall-clock, time closing to midnight. Over the surface, there was her reflection again. She wanted to look ahead, in fact, at the moment there was nothing, nothing she wanted to do more. She just didn't know how she could, as long as she bore her stigma over her face; her face had become her bane. A thunderclap roared even inside the bunker, trembling down to the metallic structure. The wall-clock shook and fell. Her eyes caught the broken shards of glass, her reflection split into pieces; a sight almost impossible to recognize.
As another clap of thunder roared outside, a thought flashed in her mind. If she could really change herself, change herself from the beginning, remade herself from the start, from scratch, free from the ghosts of the past... She stared at her unrecognizable reflection. And she could do it, for real, if only she had courage, and money. Her eyes still stuck, the last thought in her mind, she asked to Bruce Wayne, the storm howling outside, and somehow it suited. "Do you believe in second chances, Bruce?" His name turned unfamiliar around her tongue, as she understood it was the second time she had used his first name since the time she had called him, "That a person can change?"
His eyebrows clenched into a frown, the crease above them deepening, "I don't know," he rasped out, suspicion tinting his voice, "Why do you ask?"
She turned to him, "Because I know how to end this."
She was talking but Bruce wasn't sure if he heard her correct. The words were clear, no hesitance in her voice now, the meaning still came short to his ear, because she couldn't say what she was saying; she simply could not. It was—he didn't know, he couldn't find a word in his vocabulary to express it; crazy? She stopped and looked at him, expectedly in an answer. He shook his head. "You're not serious," he said at last.
She let out a sigh, shaking her shoulders dismissively. "I don't see any other way out," she said in return, "I need a...changeover," she continued, the last word spoken out in thoughtfulness, "I can't manage it as long as I have this—" She passed her hand over her face, marking the words.
"Is it even possible?" he looked at her in suspicion, "I mean, you know it for certain, aside for rumors," he asked to clarify. Rumors were one thing, he had heard them a lot himself too, every now and then, rumors had it a mob boss altered his face, especially for the ones he had on their trails, but he had never casted any integrity in them. It was even surreal now talking about this with her.
She, on the other hand, shrugged again in that devil-may-care attitude. "Not in the sense of you speak of," she said, "Not a sci-fi trope, real things; microsurgery, tissue transplantation and expansion. Not an overall change, but—reconstruction," she halted for a second, trying to find the suitable words, "Like creating a sibling, or a close relative, not the same but...familiar."
He still thought it was crazy, so he told that, "It's crazy."
She shook her head agitatedly, leaning toward him over the bed, "It's desperate," she shot back, then stopped, and let out a breath, as if she had just understood what she had confessed. He guessed she was right. What she was saying was crazy, but also desperate. Desperate times call desperate measures, passed in his mind. But were they really that desperate? The answer to his own question didn't comfort Bruce, not a bit. "Look, I know it sounds crazy," she started after a while, heaving a sigh out, "but I really don't see another way to get out of this. And we must. I might have thought of it before but it needs money." She paused again to give him a look, which clearly told him where exactly he stood in her plan. "We can create an identity from the scratches, but people know me, my face, nothing else is enough now, you know it," she defended her action plan stubbornly. "After the operation, I'll leave America. No one will ever see me around here again." She looked at him pointedly. "You won't have to deal with me again."
He looked at her in silence. Letting her go... He wasn't sure how he could do that. How he could trust her with that while she held all of his life in her hands? She looked back at him as if she understood his hesitancy. "If I would betray you, I could have already done it," she said slowly, her voice like she had said, bordering on desperation, but still edge with frustration, "Past cannot be changed, but it can be remade," she intoned fast, words pouring out of her in her crazed rush, "I just want another chance!" she cried out.
In the dark corridor of his mind, his words echoed... He wanted to prove that even someone as good as you could fall. And his voice answered, and he was right.
Then was replaced by her words; do you believe in second changes, that a person can change?
And then he heard his voice, the nameless voice, only an alias, madness and malice tinting it red; see, madness, as you know, is like gravity: all it takes is a little push!
He stood up, "I'll think about it," and said before turning to leave.
The next day went through a blur. Bruce tried to stay focus on his work, all the while thoughts and distant voices running in his mind in a loop. Around the noon, Fox dropped by, bringing the papers for his new fund; he was adamant burn through the money until all the traces of the clown had entirely wiped off of Gotham, the Mayor had also accepted. The Bruce Wayne Foundation. It was going to bring on the change Gotham needed to, another chance.
I just want another chance, the words rung in his ear. He shook his head, the words in front of vanishing. It was getting pathetic, he was getting pathetic. "Alfred told me about what she proposed," Fox said suddenly, his eyes suspicious drawn as he looked at him, "But he didn't say anything about your answer."
The words were subtle, but Bruce still got the gist of it, but he didn't back down. He threw down the papers in his hand, and fixed his eyes at his collaborator and friend, "Subtlety has never been your strongest point, Mr. Fox," he said, and demanded, "Out with it."
"All right—" Fox took a deep breath and began as if he had been waiting for this opportunity for a long time, "You're flirting with a disaster here," he told him plainly, his voice taking a notch on the word "flirting". Bruce frowned. "Send her back to Gordon," Fox continued.
Ah, Gordon again. He shook his head. "No. Gordon can't protect her by himself."
"He's the Police Commissioner," Fox shot back, walking closer to his desk. "Besides, she doesn't seem in need of any protection. She seems to do quite fine all by herself."
He shook his head again, "She needs help."
"She needs shackles," Fox retorted relentlessly, his voice heated. Bruce wondered how long he had waited to say that, how many talks he had shared with Alfred. He turned his head away. The last five months had been hard each of them, and he hadn't made things any easier for neither of them. His old friend took a deep breath, cooling himself, but then started again, his tone now collected, "I know how you feel—" He turned his attention back to him sharply, "—but you have to stop dwelling in the past. You have to move on."
Bruce stared at Fox, and the older man stared back, but it was him that broke contact first, turning his eyes away, "It doesn't have anything to do with it," he said, the words coming out like a lie even to his own ears.
And Fox didn't buy it, expectedly. "Yes, it does," he pressed further, "You don't just think of her. You think of him. Send her back to Gordon."
"No." Bruce stood up and left the room. He wasn't sending her to Gordon. He wasn't sending her back out of the world, either, as she had suggested. No, she wasn't going away. If that was a second chance she wanted, then a second chance, she was going to get.