Disclaimer: I own no part of the Batman franchise and make absolutely no profit from this story.
The simple act of caring is heroic.
Bruce entered the room in his tuxedo, dark brown hair slicked back, jaw line smooth and a woman on each arm. He welcomed his guests with a short remark about the necessity of education and supporting the public school system; the plight of the underpaid teachers and underprivileged children; raised a glass of champagne to toast the administrators present; and then faded gracefully into the background- as if he'd never shown up to begin with. Well, almost.
There were always the women eager to catch his eye and the men eager to catch his wallet present. These detentions were unavoidable. They were what he used to keep up his play-boy billionaire image. Without his little chats with these people, no one would ever see him. The- entirely false- anecdotes of his travels and adventures would never make it around the gossip rags, drawing suspicions away from him. Suspicions about what he was actually doing when no one saw him for days at a time. The tabloids took care of the rest. It was almost too easy to maintain his status in Gotham these days; the careful balance between party boy and savior he'd striven for had been reached. Now all that was necessary was a little maintenance here and there- pruning, if you will.
Even the burning of his family home had been practically forgotten; and though the current mansion bore little resemblance to his parents' home aside from basic structure, reminding others of the disaster; no one thought to ask why Master Wayne had been smoking in bed when no one had ever seen him with a cigarette in his hand.
He was, to all accounts and purposes, leading the life he wanted. It was a life not without dissatisfaction, however. Every corner he turned contained a memory of Rachel or Harvey, though their memories were fewer here than at his penthouse- one reason he hardly stayed in the city anymore. No, he definitely preferred the mansion these days. Never mind that he imagined he saw her or their imagined children at least five times a week. Her death and the consequent death of his heart's deepest, most secret wish had left him a little more empty inside, somehow. And no amount of parties or suitable women, as Alfred called them, could change the fact that he was still grieving. He'd never find another woman like her- someone who knew him well enough to understand what he was, what he was doing. Someone who accepted him.
Of course, Alfred had his own opinions. He hid them very well, but Bruce knew Alfred thought Rachel, though a generous and intelligent woman, was not right for him. She was different than he was, Alfred always said. She was too idealistic. The Batman was, though a hero, violent at his core. Miss Rachel, Alfred said, would never have been able to really accept that side of him, no matter how much she loved him. Well, maybe so. But if there was another kind of woman out there for him, then he had yet to find her.
He was just making his second round of the first floor when one of his fellow billionaires- a board member of Wayne Enterprises- caught his attention and began a conversation. He wanted to know how that last trip to Haiti had been, and if that was what had inspired this latest benefit ball. The man was spouting off about his own tour there some years ago when his wife walked up and began simpering. Bruce's champagne glass was empty- did he need something else to drink? He took the out her remarks gave him and excused himself to head towards the bar. If he was going to deal with another three hours of this drivel, then the answer was yes- he did need something else to drink and it wasn't champagne. He wasn't trying to be frivolous, certainly: the charity tonight- Gotham Public Schools- was an extremely worthy one. In the last few decades everyone from the wealthy down to the middle class had removed their children from the system to place them in private, magnate, charter and even home schools. As a result, attention on the public schools' education system had diminished until no one, not even the state, cared. Test scores were ignored, failing marks became passing grades and everyone graduated, regardless of actual knowledge. Only the truly degenerate were held back and they spent their time getting into trouble instead of worrying about leaving school. After all, when you'd failed freshman English twice and basic algebra three times, job aspects upon graduating weren't so hot.
Bruce understood this only so far- he'd been one of the privileged, and as much as his parents had believed in charity and education, they had gone the private schools and tutors route many of their friends had taken. It hadn't even been a brush with the ghetto that had convinced him to host this particular event. This latest charity was the result of culling through Alfred's prepared list of possible causes and a conversation he'd overheard between Commissioner Gordon and wife about their son's schooling. So it had seemed like a good idea. He'd even invited the Commissioner, though the man had politely declined to attend- a fact he was privately glad for. It wouldn't do to have the man too close to reality. He was smart, and smart men eventually put two and two together.
He wasn't sure who else he'd invited, however, and he realized this anew as he stood at the bar, waiting for his drink. Another guest had come up to introduce herself and he was just making mild small talk when he noticed one of his unrecognizable guests.
She was seated at the opposite end of the bar, speaking with someone he did know- a fellow play-boy. There was an expression of such earnestness upon her face that he couldn't help but stare. Her pale cheeks glowed in the soft lighting of the den and her eyes were wide and interested. She stood out from the rest of the women at the party- her mannerisms were genuine, her smile real- and the proud, broad stance of her shoulders told him she wasn't one of the slouchy models who hung on arms all night.
Interested, he excused himself from the woman at his side and turned to the bartender, his eyes not leaving her face. He was just asking the tender to send his drink down to that end of the bar when she lifted her head suddenly and her eyes met his. Her eyebrows scrunched together briefly and he gave her his signature, tight lipped smile. One of the eyebrows arched in- what? Surprise or dismissal, he couldn't tell, but she looked away towards her conversation partner once more. His drink slid past him as he neared her and stopped at her elbow.
The man at her side didn't ignore his presence and frowned, even as he was extracting himself from her interest.
"Well, it was lovely talking to you. I'll just go see about writing that check, I think," he said before picking up his drink and sauntering away.
The woman gazed after him, perplexed, a dying cry of gratitude hovering on her lips. "Oh, thank you-"
"Rule number one- never thank them," Bruce murmured over his shoulder as he retrieved his drink. His hand brushed her arm and she turned her head towards him, though her body was still angled away. Her eyes narrowed slightly before she shrugged and rounded to face the bar. The shoulders that had been held so proudly before hunched slightly in preparation for defense and he gave her another smile.
"Sorry to startle you."
"You didn't," she lied, though her body relaxed somewhat. He could almost read her mind. This is the big fish. A check from anyone else is good, a check from Wayne is gold and worth a dozen new libraries, complete with computers and the security to protect them from vandals…maybe even salaries for teachers to lead job training programs for high schoolers…
"I couldn't help but notice you speaking with Rich- he's an old friend, anything he gives will be worth every moment spent talking to him. Have you known him long?"
"I just met him." She took a sip from her drink, but her eyes were trained on a point over his left shoulder the entire time. He took a drink at the same time, letting his eyes investigate her a little further. Lean, but built- medium height. Short, platinum blond hair cut boyish, but feathered. Grey eyes. She was an unusual looking woman- her body and the line of her jaw all depicted strength, but her eyes and the style of her mannish haircut betrayed softness and vulnerability. Not to mention that she looked divine yet distinctly uncomfortable in the strapless, lilac colored gown she wore.
He put down his drink and continued to study her. Rather than shy away from his observation this time, she stared back.
"What?" she challenged him.
"It's a beautiful style, but the color doesn't quite suit you. You should try a blue or green next time. Bring some color to your eyes."
She was quiet for a moment and he was about to speak again when she opened her mouth.
"It was all I could afford…at such late notice."
So she was one of the last minute guests. He took another sip and smiled again. "This will sound very rude, I'm sure, but I hope you understand. With this many guests-" he made an artless gesture towards the rest of the room and looked at her again pointedly. "Who are you?"
She looked as if she wanted to laugh at that and shrugged again. "Someone you're not interested in." Her eyes flicked away to the other guests in disinterest. Again, he read her thoughts. Good job. Looks like you're not going to reel this one in tonight. But how can you when he's so obviously playing you? At least the other fellow seemed to care who I was. This man can't even remember who he invited!
Bruce eyed her and slid his drink a little closer, angling himself so that his right shoulder was just behind her left side. So she could feel the heat from him. He wondered briefly what was wrong with him- he didn't normally stalk innocent guests this way. In the next second he'd discarded the thought and continued the conversation. Things were just heating up, after all. And even a grieving, vengeful Batman had needs. In fact, he wondered that she couldn't tell he was anything but disinterested.
"I'm sorry, let me introduce myself. I'm Bruce Wayne."
She lifted her eyes to his and flushed as she realized he'd moved closer and that she now had to tilt her head up and to her left slightly in order to meet his eyes. He shoulders curled forward a little more instinctively, but as soon as they did he could see a resolution cross her face and she forced her back to straighten, bumping into him in the process. The contact sent a trail of goose flesh along her arms, but she didn't move. He felt oddly titillated by the touch.
"I know who you are, Mr. Wayne," she replied.
"Why don't you favor me with your name, then?" he asked smoothly.
She returned his tight lipped smile with one of her own and inclined her head. "I was on the guest list. Or were you unaware of who was invited?"
He fought the urge to spin on his heel and end the ridiculous line the conversation was swiftly taking. He had a strange feeling that whatever trouble he went through to get to know this woman, it would be worth it. "That's one way of putting it. Why don't I take a guess, in that case? Let's see…a charity event for the inner city schools. So you're most likely- an administrator?"
He silently ground his teeth and took another drink, setting it down closer to her arm, bringing his arm alongside hers. She glanced down quickly in alarm, but the expression was gone as quickly as he'd seen it. Point for me, he thought.
"Aren't you tired of this game yet?"
She turned her glass in her hands for a moment, as if contemplating something. The motion brought her fingers in contact with the base of his wrist and she went very still. Her eyes flicked up towards his again and then she turned towards him and held up a hand in between them.
"Molly Weil. I'm a teacher."
Ah-ha. So that was what she'd meant when she'd said she couldn't afford anything else. It was probably the one formal gown she owned. Maybe even borrowed. His eyes softened unintentionally and, rather than shake the proffered hand, he lifted it and pressed his lips against the bare fingers. Her skin was soft against his and smelled like vanilla. He held the hand a little longer than he meant to and released it quickly.
"Enchanté," he murmured. She blushed and looked away, glancing out over the crowd. Her eyebrows had scrunched together again and he felt himself smiling a little wider.
"So," he continued, "is Molly short for anything?"
"Salome wasn't as popular with the children…or the administration. Made them feel a bit unsafe, for some reason," she replied with a hesitant laugh.
Bruce understood the joke well enough, but he saw no reason for laughter. "I like it. Salome was a strong woman who knew what she wanted. What's to be afraid of?"
"Thanks for leaving out the part where she went crazy and demanded the head of an innocent man for necrophilic purposes."
Bruce waved a hand. "Unsubstantiated myths." This remark earned a genuine laugh from her. "So what do you teach, Salome? P.E.?"
"Please, I'm so used to Molly-"
She seemed to relax even more, though her back stayed straight. "And that was another wrong guess. Really, Mr. Wayne, I should be mingling with the other guests…"
"Bruce. And I'm sorry for the assumptions- I didn't take you for a teacher in the first place because you look very…"
She seemed to bristle somewhat and filled in the blank. "Sturdy?"
"Tough, yes." He leaned towards her and lowered his voice. "But in a very feminine way."
She smiled wryly. "Thanks. I teach at Gotham Public. I have to look tough."
"I see. And I still don't know what you teach."
She shrugged again. "I majored in Art and the Humanities in college, but really it's anything required. Faculty numbers are down since the bombing."
It was his turn to frown. "That was over three years ago."
"And people's memories are long when their lives are in danger and the paycheck is short." The look of intense earnestness returned to her face and he realized with a start that she was quite serious about her job and the public education system. It was touching, somehow. He wondered how much Wayne Enterprises had donated to the schools last year and realized quickly, as she continued to talk, that however much it had been it wasn't nearly enough. With a few more well placed questions he had ascertained where the system's biggest problems lay and what kind of a band-aid it would take to hold it together until the internal structure could be fixed.
"Ideally," she continued, "we should have legislation that would wipe out the current matrix and start the entire thing over from the ground up, but that simply isn't feasible. After all, Dent tried that with the political system and look where it got him. No, what we really need is a stringent crusade and the money to back it up. A Batman for our schools, that would help," she added with a sad little laugh.
Bruce stiffened a little at Harvey's name, but forced himself back to his surroundings quickly. He shook his head. "No, I think you're right, Molly. But that's what tonight is all about, right? Raising money."
She sighed and looked around again. "It is, and we are so appreciative of your efforts, Mr.- I mean, Bruce. But unfortunately, most of the checks tonight will be designated for specific projects. Libraries with people's names on them, student centers built in honor of Dr. So-and-so. Those are useful- and helpful, don't get me wrong- but what we really need is a fund for the system. A charity fund where the money is pooled and can then be tapped for each new problem as needed. In fact, even a list of giving suggestions would be better than the haphazard donating that's going on right now. That way the structure that exists can be made a sound enough place to support the libraries that people want built for their grandparents' honor."
"Fascinating," Bruce said. "Tell me again why you aren't in the administration?" He had drawn away from her somewhat as she spoke and she turned away from him now.
"The kids need me. I don't mean me, specifically, but someone. There has to be somebody, some adult present in their lives who cares. Who won't leave them for a bigger salary or a safer position." She let out a shaky laugh. "Just last week I broke up a fight between two seventh graders. One of them was carrying a pistol. I didn't realize it at the time I stepped in."
He let out a low whistle and drew closer again. "Impressive."
"Blind luck. It's like that at least a few times a month. I'm just fortunate most of them like me. If I have trouble breaking something up, usually another of my students will step in to help." She subconsciously flexed her upper arms. "I take precautions, but it's a jungle. They're so smart…have so much potential…but it's just wasted most of the time. Squandered on simply trying to survive the system. "
Her voice had gone soft and there was a sadness to her eyes. He put his hand on her other shoulder, drawing her to him gently. "Let me see what I can do for you. Wait here."
Before she had time to react to his half embrace, he had set his drink down beside hers and spun away from her. She turned and watched him walk away, puzzled. He turned back around in mid stride and pointed at her.
"I mean it- don't move." He smiled at her and she returned it tentatively, watching his smile widen in response.
Two hours later found her still standing at the bar, nursing a third drink. She'd tried to drink slowly- she didn't usually indulge, in fact. Normally she'd have had water after the first drink, but it was a special night. And although she was starting to grow a little antsy about the whereabouts of her host, she read the papers, too. Front to back. She probably knew more about the talented and boyishly handsome Mister Wayne than he knew about her. And when Bruce Wayne told you to stay put, you stayed. Especially when he was getting ready to write a check of his own. Besides, she wasn't a social butterfly and really had no desire to go traipsing about the room, even if it would raise more money. She was quite content to sit at the bar and drink. Well…for another half hour, at least. After that, all bets were off.
During that time Bruce was speaking with first Alfred, then some of his more important board members…trustees, even school administrators. Within those few hours he was able to set in motion a series of meetings on the subject of an education charity headed by Wayne Enterprises. His company would be at the helm of a fund for Gotham's school district in less than a year, if things progressed smoothly- and with Bruce Wayne behind it, things usually did. He was just heading back to the bar area when he saw her again. She had migrated from the bar and was in Rich's grasp again, being twirled about in his arms from the den towards the ball room. The string quartet that had been hired for the first half of the evening had retired and the piano player had replaced them. He was gently spelling out the opening chords of Clair de Lune. Rich looked triumphant and Molly looked uncomfortable, but her cheeks were still glowing. He felt his fingers tighten about the glasses of champagne he'd been carrying back for them to toast with and at that moment she looked over Rich's shoulder and her eyes locked with his. The tight lipped Wayne smile was pasted onto his face. She raised one of her delicate eyebrows at him as if to say, Well? Are you going to do anything about this or just stand there and take it?
The glasses were on a passing waiter's tray and he was across the dance floor in seconds. He knew Molly saw him coming; her fingers tightened on Rich's shoulder and the man swung about to see Bruce Wayne headed straight for them. The man managed to extricate himself yet again before Bruce reached them. In another second, he had her in his own arms.
"I thought I told you to stay put," he murmured as he swept her about the floor.
She flushed as he hugged her to him and looked away. "I couldn't help it- I'm not about turn down a dance from a man who just donated twenty thousand to my school."
Bruce scoffed and held her tighter. "Peanuts. Tell me, if you could have anything you wanted from this bunch of apes, what would it be?"
"A fund for the system- I already said that, didn't I…?" Her voice drifted off and she looked up at him, eyes suddenly sparkling. "You can't be serious. You were only gone two hours!"
"Three," he allowed apologetically. "And I'm sorry for that. It's not official, but Wayne Enterprises is going to host some important meetings in the coming months. We should have another fundraiser once things are nearly finalized. I've gotten my key board members to agree to put up the initial sum for founding. It could take as much as a year to settle everything, but…" he smiled and shrugged as she stared up at him in amazement.
"How could you possibly take care of all that?"
"Money makes the world go round," he quipped. "Besides, what's the point of having all this if I can't help out the people who will inherit it?"
She shook her head and he felt her pull away somewhat. He tightened his grip on her waist in response.
"This is…impossible," she whispered. "I feel like Cinderella."
"Cinderella was wearing a dress that matched her eyes," he murmured close to her ear. "But if you stay long enough I can take care of that, too."
She met his eyes, shock registering in them and he wondered what he'd said.
"I see," she said quietly. She was suddenly stiff in his arms.
"I really- you shouldn't spend all night romancing me, Mr. Wayne. It will be bad for your image."
"It's Bruce, please. What's wrong? What did I do?" he asked, slowing their steps.
She bit her lower lip and continued to look anywhere but at him. "Nothing. I'm just a little overwhelmed by all of this. Your generosity is so unexpected. And after just one conversation…"
"Let me guess. No one's ever really listened before."
She finally met his eyes again and shrugged a little. "You might say that. I'm just a poor school teacher, after all."
"Maybe I have a soft spot for visionaries," he replied. His face was drawing nearer to hers with every step they took, a fact he was trying hard to ignore.
"I'm hardly that," she breathed.
His eyes moved from her lips to the tops of her nervously heaving breasts and back to her eyes. He could feel his cheeks growing red with heat and idly counted how many glasses of champagne he'd had. She was staring back at him, her tongue darting out over her lips, her head turning as though she was looking for a means of escape. He leaned over her, their feet barely moving anymore, stepping side to side in a gentle motion.
The lights in the ballroom had dimmed considerably and the couples who weren't locked in tight embraces were standing to the side or sitting down, hand in hand, champagne and cocktails littered over every surface. The mood was definitely right, and yet…
She looked up at him just as he made the decision to lower his mouth to hers and suddenly, because his attention was focused so intently elsewhere, stepped from his grasp. He stared at her, blinking, startled by the loss of contact. She'd folded her hands in front of her and was smiling blandly.
"Thank you for the dance, Bruce," she said and held out a hand. He looked at it and then took it silently, surprise still evident on his face.
"It was my pleasure, Molly. I hope we can dance again someday."
She inclined her head. "I'm sure we will."
Bruce wasn't sure what had just happened, a fact that would have been comical if he wasn't so damned interested in the woman. But then she was removing her hand and wrapping up their conversation and extracting promises of a phone call and emails from him about the foundation. And in another few minutes she was making her excuses and then saying her good-byes and seeing herself to the door. Alfred walked up beside Bruce and leaned towards him.
"Might I suggest that you were moving too quickly, Master Bruce?"
Bruce turned around and eyed Alfred before striding back towards the heart of the party. "And why would you say that?"
"She is a school teacher; she may have different ideas about courtship. Not to mention that you've essentially become the benefactor of a foundation she's been lobbying towards for some years now. It wouldn't be seemly in her part of the world to be seen with you in a romantic relationship when you're giving her personal cause money…and certainly not so soon after the plans have been made. In fact, she might be worried about your motives for sponsoring such a charity if you try to woo her in the same night."
Bruce spun back around to watch Molly exiting his front doors, his eyes wide with understanding. So that was the problem. She thought he had taken action so quickly just to get her into bed. He paused in his steps.
Had he? He wasn't sure anymore. It was late and he'd had more alcohol than was good for him. Never mind that the Batman would probably be busy with troubles of his own for the next few days…weeks, even. So how could he make it up to the poor woman? He was interested, he couldn't deny that- but at the same time he wasn't sure what had come over him at the party. He could remember the way her eyes, her face, had lit up when talking about her work. She'd displayed such a passion for the schools and her students. Aside from that she had an unusual beauty…maybe- no, probably- he should sleep on it. Despite the balance he'd struck between work and play, his tastes, his needs, seemed to shift from day to day. He might wake up in the morning with no idea why he'd pursued the woman so wholly that evening. Or he might wake up knowing what he wanted out of the next five years of his life. There was no telling. He was simply taking things one day at a time at this point.
He turned back to Alfred.
"I'm going to start my good-byes. See that the guests leave by one, if you will. Feel free to give the instructions to the hired help if you'd like some sleep, yourself."
"I always do, Master Bruce."
AN: I was inspired while watching Batman Begins. Thank Heavens they killed off that Rachel chick, paving the way for OCs. I prefer my women strong and independent, thanks much. Not easily captured by buffoons in masks. *scoffscoffscoff*