Part IV. IV – "Someone he once knew"
It took him almost two days arranged the way to the Philadelphia Corridor, where a no man's land stood between the lands of Egypt and Gaza Strip. When Valerie had uttered those words he hadn't taken her words seriously first, not until she had given him that look, her eyebrow raised in a perfect arch.
God, each day, this was turning a lot, a lot more than he had bargained for, so much that he wasn't even sure any more what to expect the next. He looked around, quite not believing he had changed three continents in four days. Egypt. He hadn't seen the country for years.
It used to be more, though. When Bruce had seen it for the first time, he had been struck with the novelty of its mystical charms and the beauty of its countless years of history. Now it seemed less; maybe because of the steady line of tourists coming to see the riches of east, modern people chasing after a sort of wonder and enlightenment; a meaning to their empty life—or maybe it was because of him. He wasn't one of them anymore. Unlike the first time, he was here with a purpose, even though he felt like he was drifting through the events; three continents in four days... Still, he wasn't the same young man who had been here years ago; he had changed and times like these made him feel it strongly, down into his bones.
Cairo had been different, yes, but this no man's land was...it was hard to explain. He looked at the ghostly town, existing in the between lines that had created another world, another place. The town, however, was an odd statement of multinational city that had people from all over the world. As they walked, he had seen Doctors Without Borders, United Nation Relief Administration, Red Cross, even saw the small diagram of Wayne Humanitarian Relief Assoc., which was the reason how they had ended up to the town in such a short notice.
"Smuggling through the border worsened after Hamas seized power over the Strip last year," Valerie remarked as they padded through the streets; steps wary, eyes cautious for very corner.
"I thought Egypt closed the tunnels in retaliation," Bruce said in return, his eyes turning to her.
"Yes," she agreed, nodding along, "It also created some job opportunities for some—" She turned to give him a look, "—certain type of entrepreneurs." She paused for a second, passing by a Falafel street stand, moving through the eclectic crowd. "He moved from Cairo last year. Runs a small but tight ship."
He considered making a comment that she knew quite much for someone she claimed didn't exist for her, but at a second, he didn't. So instead he asked what was obvious, his voice turning sterner, "He's smuggling guns?"
Valerie let out a huff, "Among other things," she replied, a sneer entering into her voice, "Not much job opportunities for ex-IRA operatives."
His face closed off as his hand unconsciously drew to his chin, his fingers slightly brushing his now four days long stubble, another reminder how long he had been away from Gotham, from the city he had sworn to protect and change to a better place.
This recon had really spiraled out of the control, and he wanted nothing more than returned to his city and put his mask on and did what he always did. When the mask was on, the world was a much easier place; there was only Batman, and them; lines drawn clearly. It was simple, it was easier. A smuggler was a smuggler, a dealer was a dealer; no complications. Batman knew what to do with them. When the mask was off there was only Bruce, and the lines were blurry more than any other time now.
And the woman that presented herself only by a fake name stood in the middle of both grounds, and the impact of the collision had brought them until to this ghostly no man's land where all borders overlapped each other, leaving only a tangled mess.
Standing in front of a wooden door of a three stories building at the corner, she lifted her head and looked at him, her eyes carefully assessing him, almost like trying to come to a decision. He knew she didn't want him here, didn't want him inside her borders, she had already tried all defenses why he shouldn't be here, but at the end she had caved in. Their life had collided, and he knew it was just another point of no return.
She had never wished to be somewhere else this much all in her life.
She felt like she was walking on a green mile, each step bringing her closer to the inevitable end. Closing her eyes for a second, she shook her head and scoffed at the idea. Get a grip, get a fucking grip, she told herself over and over again, but even curt orders weren't enough. She had dreaded of this moment for the last four years, hell, she even kept a close track of his whereabouts just because they wouldn't bump at each other accidentally. It was a small world after all.
Climbing the stairs, Bruce warily on her heel, she wished she had been alone, that she hadn't caved in and brought him. She had used first the usual angle, that his famous features would cause trouble but with her words he had gone into her usual retreat and when he was out of the bathroom, the Bruce Wayne she had come to know was nowhere to be seen.
In his place stood a man of in his thirties, his face darkened with a heavy shadow of stubble. His precisely trimmed hair was falling over his forehead unkempt, wet and sticky, his eyes hidden behind old-fashioned sunglasses. The dark navy polo shirt gone, he had changed into a light brown shirt that he wore unbuttoned over a white wife-beater with cargo pants in dark khaki, a leather jacket completing the image.
But what had left her case undefended weren't clothes, but was his mannerism, was the way he had carried the clothes over his body like all in his life he had been doing nothing but drifting in the god-forsaken-towns in the Middle East.
There was a practiced ease that only came from experience, and from one professional to another, she had recognized it at the first glance. She didn't know why she kept being surprised by him anymore, but each time, she did.
God, this's gonna suck, she passed in her mind.
A small tendril of doubt slipped into her consciousness. Why had she ever insisted that they found Jason, she wasn't even sure at the moment. Not only she had Bruce Wayne who was always full of surprises, she also had Batman. She had been right. He would have just found a way to Sean talk. But that night in the motel, that look, his…pity... Alfred's words, coming to her now ages ago, echoed in her ears, him trying to get her to see the light, so to speak. Was that the reason why he was together with her here? He wanted her to be a so-called honest person because she was pitiful as of the moment?
Pitiful...the word reminded her the last time she had seen her father, something she had never ever wanted to be reminded of... Perhaps that was the reason Bruce Wayne wanted to keep around her, too; she was so pitiful that he liked having someone around who was actually in a worse situation than him. What was that thing Jason had called on her? Schadenfreude. Perhaps it was the way for him to find...relief, by using her.
It made sense, everyone used each other, but the sentiment still turned her mouth down in displeasure, remembering the pity in his eyes. She almost gritted her teeth. She had never minded pity, pity was for good manipulations, but this was different. She was the one who was used here. Her face souring, she threw at him a pissed look, but as soon as her eyes found him, something shifted in her. Could she blame him for the same thing she was doing? Perhaps he was using her, but then so was she. At least, it was mutual. She couldn't say the same thing about for most of—her relationships.
Her eyes found him again, and she gave him another look. What she would know about relationships anyways? The only time she had something close to an authentic bond had been her time with Michael, and it was nothing but a wishful thing. At least, Bruce Wayne didn't seem to have much going on that regard, either, given that he seemed to let the woman he loved snatched by Harvey Dent, despite being a billionaire.
Sensing her gaze, he turned to her and gave her a questioning look. She smiled, her mind running wild to find a cover for her ogling then smiled wider. "We need to come up with a cover for you," she said, as a way of explaining. He frowned. She shrugged. "Well, I can't call you Bruce Wayne now, can I?"
He nodded, his eyebrows loosening a bit. "Antony," he then said. Her head titled aside, she looked at him. "It's my middle name," he explained.
She looked at him for a little while then shook her head. "If I didn't know otherwise, Antony," she said pointedly, "I would really start worrying about your lack of imagination." She paused, "But whatever..." she shrugged again, "Tony, Johnny...or simply John," she went on, nodding along, "it seems common enough."
Stiffly, he nodded, but didn't make a retort. She stopped, turning her eyes to the tavern at the end of the downtrodden road, where Jason's hideout probably located, then gave him a sideway glance. "So, Johnny boy," she said, her eyes turning back to the tavern, "are you ready?"
He waved his hand in the air, "Ladies first."
Before she opened the two-winged wooden doors, she paused for a second, her hands on the surface. "Let me do talking," she said, looking at him for confirmation.
Not looking at her, he nodded. Valerie nodded back slightly, and pushed the doors open. They walked into, their eyes sweeping around at the same time, surveying the area quickly. She spotted the entrances, toilets, back exits, and the guys that hung around the bar. Behind the bar there was a stiff-looking native man, with bulking muscles, but he didn't look like Arabic, but possibly one of the extinct natives. It seemed suited for a place that seemed to suit the misfits from all over world, judging by its clientele. And she wasn't surprise to see that it was Jason's operation base, either.
Her eyes turning away from a cluster of the cheering men that were grouped over two men tossing dice on the ground, they walked to the bar. Bruce settled her protectively at the bar stool, her back against the bar, facing the entrance, while he stayed standing up, his entire focus divided over the room, spotting every little possibility of the danger, then his eyes narrowed at a man who was approaching toward them, another two flanked at his sides.
With the corner of her eyes, she saw the barmen's eyes skipped over the trio. She turned aside, and waved her hand at the guy. "Stella," she ordered to the wide mustached man, pointing herself and Bruce. The guy handed them the Egyptians beers, his eyes still over the guy approaching them.
Valerie took a silent sip form the beer, pretending she hadn't noticed, as Bruce took his in his hand, but didn't even bother with the pretense of enjoying it. She looked at the barmen again. "Speak English?" she asked the man, even though she knew he did. The man nodded. "We'd like to have a talk with Jason Allen," she said then, giving away to Bruce another tidbit about her past; her real surname, "Can you tell where he's?"
The one who answered her inquiry though wasn't him, but was the leader of the trio that they now standing in front of their seats. "That depends," the man commented in a heavy, greasy English. She shifted aside, as Bruce's body tensed next to her.
Her head titled aside, she looked at the man, "On what?"
"Who wants to know it?"
She stopped for a second, no answer coming to her. What she could say now. The last time she had seen him she had told him that she had a father no longer. She had released him of the burden of being...a father. How she could answer the question now?
Bruce, however, didn't let her ponder on it, stepping forward, he took the charge, "John—Reese." Despite her last thoughts, a chuckle erupted out of her. He glanced at her and she could swear a smirk played over his lips, before he turned back to the man, "Tell him Reese wants to see him."
"Boss doesn't talk with strangers," the man stated.
"I'm not a stranger," she stepped, her voice turning cold, "I'm..." the words halted on her lips, "daughter" couldn't leave, so she went with what she had told him the last; "someone he once knew." You're not my father, and I'm not your daughter. I'm just someone you once knew, and you're the same to me.
The man looked at her hard, taking a threating step further, "Don't like the sound of it, woman," he snapped.
"Look like I care?" she hissed back, her jaw squaring, but didn't flinch even muscle from where she perched on the stool, her poise not wavering.
The man tried another step, but before he came near to her, Bruce stepped in, blocking his way. "Remove yourself off my way," the man snapped.
Bruce didn't move. "Where is Jason Allen?" he asked instead, as the whole tavern suddenly halted to a stop, breaths stopping, in waiting.
The man's hand rose but before he could even reach to Bruce, he attacked on the pre-defense. With a deft movement, he caught the arm, twisting it in the air together with the man. The man's back hit to the ground.
Bruce stood over the man, his motionless body emitting off that restrained vigor again, back rigid, jaw clenched. Still staying still, her eyes skipped toward the men on the ground. The moment had happened in front of her very eyes, but she couldn't even have seen what exactly had happened. One moment the man was approaching him, the next he was twirling in the air. It had taken no longer than three seconds.
His friends beside him were in the same condition, eyes stuck on Bruce, as the rest of the tavern. She decided they had done a tactical mistake. It wasn't the way not to draw attention, but as of many times she had experienced, sometimes the trouble found you even though you didn't look for it, but this time they were stirring up the hornet's nest. The guys stayed still for a little while, then with a battle cry, they launched at the same time.
Bruce still didn't react, only grabbed the man that was approaching him from the left side at his collar, pulling him toward himself. Their heads collided with a thud. The one from the right side ran to him, his body bent forward to tackle him down. Catching the guy under his armpits, Bruce shifted around his axis, and threw the guy over his shoulder to the table closest to the bar.
Then all hell broke loose. Letting out a sigh, she tightened her grip on the bottle and jumped down from her stool. "Well, you have your own way to blow off steam, don't you, Antony," she remarked, her eyes focused on the man approaching at her, before she caught the barmen who was about to jump over the bar with the corner of her eye, "Stay out of this, love," she warned, taking a hold of the enraged man at his neck, "I'd hate to kick an ass that served me." She bashed the man's head at the bar.
The barmen didn't of course take her kind suggestion. She turned to Bruce, as he had another man bend down in two as the pointed end of his elbow speared at the man's back. The guy flattened on the ground. "You should have let me do the talking," she grounded at Bruce over the cries of the fighting, flexing her leg to kick at the barmen, her back arched for support and strengthen, then shifting aside, she bashed another attacker's head with the bottle in her grip.
"I did," Bruce breathed out of his nose, his hair swept over his forehead with sweat, his eyebrow split a bit for the punch he had just received then angled to the left to evade another one, "It didn't work."
"Clearly you don't know me," she shot back, as he knocked out the last guy he was fighting, "I'd just started."
Standing tall and proud in his battlefield, all of opponents moaning on the ground, Bruce turned to her, and gave her a look. "For the records," she looked at him back, "I still prefer my way."
He opened his mouth to retort, but she was never going to know what he was going to say because from behind, she heard the aloof drawl she thought she would never need to hear again, "If you wanted to see me," her father said, her body froze as she kept looking at Bruce, "all you needed to do was to say who you're—daughter."
Sitting next to Valerie around the table in the room behind the bar, Bruce felt her nervousness as his own. The tension was oozing off her core, her muscles strained like she was stretched out over a torture device. Her face told the same story, too, closed and guarded she looked closer to the woman she had seen at the warehouse, cautious and distrustful, expecting danger from every corner. It was a look he often saw his own face, seeing it in Valerie's expression again made him feel—disturbed, but also made him realize something he hadn't before; how unguarded she had become to his presence over the last month. And how unguarded he had become to her presence over the last month. They glared, they fumed, they smirked, they sneered, but they no longer looked at each in that way. His face soured. Truthfully, he wasn't sure if he liked that realization.
He moved his attention to her father as the man stole a quick glance at him. In his eyes, there was curiosity, but he hadn't made any comment after his grand entrance in the hall. He looked like in the middle of his fifties, pepper-white hair, but his skin wasn't wrinkled much, his eyes still glinting with a sly spark he often saw in Valeries'. Their eyes looked the same, too, a light green that would turn a darker shade whenever she was angry, open forehead, and slightly tilted chin. The resemblance was clear even at the first sight; she had gotten her looks from her father.
Valerie hadn't said any word after he had greeted them in the tavern's hall, and the man, without another look, had led them to the back room. Now, she looked like she was waiting something to happen. Then it did. Suddenly he smiled; a little tilt up at the corners, but it reached to his eyes, deepening the lines over his eyes; the smile, little as it was, was a genuine one. "What did you do to your hair?" the man asked.
She stared at him, motionlessly, as if she couldn't believe him, but the next her hand raised to one of her curls that hung over her shoulder, as if she wasn't aware of the gesture. When she did, her hand stopped abruptly. She dropped it down beside her hip, and with the corner of his eyes, Bruce caught the way she clenched her fingers. "I liked it," her father commented further.
Her jaw throbbed. Bruce momentarily thought of grabbing her and leaving the tavern, somehow he was starting to get a feeling that this wasn't going to go well, despite what she had said. The next, her expression started loosening, as she let out a sigh, shaking her head. ""I'm not here to talk about my—hair, Jason," she said, almost in exasperation.
Her father looked at her. "Time heals everything doesn't apply to us, huh?" She looked at him in silence. He shook his head, too. "Why are you here, Sarah?"
"Don't call me that," she snapped, suddenly losing her cold demeanor, her eyes turning to that darker shade of green.
Her words the first he had interrogated her echoed in his mind. It's just a word written on same paper. It's not my name. "You're a bit old now to be called kiddo," her father shot back, unaffected, his mouth titled up as if on a joke.
She didn't see it. Her eyes turned colder again. "I go by as Valerie these days," she supplied for him.
He smiled. "Strong, and brave," he intoned, nodding, "It suits you."
Valerie looked at him, still in silence, as the man suddenly turned to him. "Who is this...charming fellow that beat my people without breaking a sweat?"
They both frowned at the same time. "He's John," she said, her voice as even as the hard glare Bruce was giving to the older man, "A friend."
"Hello, friend," Jason greeted him with a mocking tip of head then turned back to her. "I don't mean to sound rude, but—what are you doing here?"
"I was looking for you," she answered in placid tones, her eyes fixed at him.
He shot out a laugh, shaking his head. "You're not going to make it easy for me, are you?" he asked, letting another sigh-laugh, "Why were you looking for me?" he asked.
"Someone needs to see you," she stated.
His face immediately closed off, "Who?" he asked, his voice dropping, his guards rising.
"Ah." He breathed out, a smile touching his lips, "May I ask why?"
"Rory Boyle," she answered flatly, "What does it mean to you?"
"The young Boyle?" he asked, his eyes narrowing as if he was trying to remembering, "Didn't hear from him in ages." He looked at them, this time his eyes narrowed in suspicion, "What happened?" he asked, then barked out a laugh before they could reply, "Hah. He's turned to rogue, hasn't he?"
She nodded, a strained slight movement, swift but curt, "According to Sean, he's in a cell that plans a...event." She paused, looking at him, before she stated again, "Sean thinks that you can stop him."
His eyebrow arched, "Me?"
"Yes, you," she snapped, "Sean said he used to adore you," she snickered, and muttered under her breath, "Can't imagine why."
His father only barked out a laugh in answer, a sound like a rough stretch over the metal, rough but derisive, but then stopped and leaned toward her over the table. "Nothing of this explains though what you're doing here," he then stated, his eyes looking at her hard. Valerie didn't answer. He went on, "Sean obviously wants to the bounty they've put on his head, so I must ask—" he said, leaning even further, his eyes keening further into an interrogative gaze, "What do you want from Sean?"
The muscle in her jaw throbbed again, before she managed to rasp out, "It's no one of your business."
"I beg to differ," he shot back fast.
She closed her eyes, breathing out of her nose, "Will you come or not?" she hissed with close eyes.
Another bark of laugh erupted in the room. "Kiddo, you know I will," he said, "I always come to your aid."
She fisted her hands again, tightly, her knuckles turning to white, in a way that told Bruce not to strike him down.
In the room they settled up in the tavern, Valerie was already drinking from the scotch she had picked up from below staircase. She poured a second glass, but Bruce held it before she brought the drink to her lips. "Valerie," he warned her, soft but with a stiff voice, "I need you focused."
She pulled her hand away from his, "That barely affects me," she shot back, bringing it up, but he stopped her again.
"You know the rules," he took the glass away from her fingers, "No drinking."
Heaving out a breath close to a sigh, she let him. They actually hadn't talked about it before, but it was universally acknowledged; you don't drink when you're engaged behind the enemy lines. Her eyes darted away, looking darkening outside. "It went well," she remarked darkly, "too well. He accepted too easy."
He frowned. "You don't believe him," he stated, but the words came out as a question, spoken in a hushed whisper. She looked at him, eyes guarded again, and for a moment he thought she wasn't going to answer, but tail back to bathroom, but the next second, she let out a bitter laugh.
"That he wants to help?" she asked derisively, then shook her head, "Not a second."
"Why?" he couldn't restrict himself to utter the question, still half expecting her to retreat to the bathroom.
She stayed where she was, though, and answered simply, like it was the most obvious thing, "Because it's him." She stopped and looked at him more seriously than any other time he had seen her. "We need to be careful," she warned with a no-nonsense voice, "and you need to start acting like my partner—" she gave him another look, "for real."
His eyebrows pulled into a frown as soon as she spoke the last words. "What does that mean?" he rasped.
"I don't have friends, Bruce," she said in return, "I have either partners or marks," she continued, "and do you know what they have in common?" she asked, arching an eyebrow at him meaningfully, pointed like razor, "neither of them spends the nights sleeping in the chair."
An hour later they were back in the tavern's back room, for a show.
"Let me if I understand it right," Jason asked with a frown in his tone as she walked to Bruce, her hand holding the first-aid kit Jason had provided, "We can't travel in the—conventional ways," She placed the kit with a little bit force than necessary on the table where her partner sat in a chair behind.
"No," she affirmed simply and straddled Bruce over his seat. He almost flinched. She fixed at him a silent look, telling in its silence. The next moment, he relaxed, or he forced himself to relax, as she could still feel the tension of his muscles even through the leggings she wore. Settling herself closer to his crotch, she leaned forward, opening the first aid kit's lid. "Remember, lovers," she warned into his ear sotto voce.
Inches away from him, his eyes found hers, darkened eyes fixing at her a hard glare. She smirked at him, but went on, "You know me—" she said louder, her hand reaching out to the red box, "I don't like people asking me questions."
Jason shot out a laugh, as she wetted the cotton with peroxide and pressed it against Bruce's eyebrow where it was split by the fight. The wound wasn't deep, wasn't even something that needed this much—close attention, but she wanted to make things crystal clear for Jason. "Of course not, you're my daughter," Jason commented lightly.
Her hand stopped over the split, her body frozen. She opened her mouth, to leash out, but sudden hands at her hips halted the words on her lips. She titled her eyes up and saw that Bruce giving her that look. "Don't," his eyes said, as his mouth stayed closed. Silently, she swallowed.
"How fast can you prepare?" he asked the next, coming to further help. It had become a routine; Bruce Wayne rushing to her rescue, from whatever danger. When that had happened, when she had become this—saddled to him, she had no idea, but here she was, sitting on his lap, so close that she could feel his breath, his hands holding her gently at hips in support, his eyes heavy with that look. It was crazy, but it was also real, she could feel it.
"Well, that depends," Jason answered, shrugging.
"On what?" Bruce asked back, his tone getting rougher, close to that rasp she heard occasionally from him. She almost shivered.
"On how fast can explain what you're really doing here—" Jason paused for a second, as they shared another look, his fingers tightening over her hips further, "Mr. Wayne."