Part V. I – House of Cards
The next day started like nothing happened, like it wasn't them biting each other's head off the last time they spoke. He was polite, in fact, he was polite like he had never been before, polite and formal, contrived. When she had woken up she had found herself at the end of the left side of the bed, a whole fifteen inch lying between them untouched like a no man's land. Funny that neither of them had crossed it even in the sleep; she was tightened like a coil on her side, and he was laying on his back motionlessly, the boundaries intact, each their own side.
Somehow it seemed suited; in the sense of the words, they had been never at the same side, not really.
Wrapping the little black square hip bag around lower waist, she pocketed the phone, giving him a glance. They had hardly spoken to each other more than a few words since they had woken up, mostly "honey and baby" and she wondered what the silence was speaking to Jason in their stead.
Her face grimacing, she started walking to the door. Bruce followed, but she stopped him after they left the room. He looked at her hard, questions in his eyes. "Gimme some time alone with him," she said flatly, even though words sounded like a demand more than anything, "I'm gonna tell him about the bug. We can't have him thinking that we can play with us like last night." She couldn't take it anymore, couldn't take another night like they had forced each other to go through, shooting "honey"s and "baby"s before every word. It was bad enough playing in front of Jason, but playing it alone was—nope, she couldn't take it.
He nodded, albeit frowning. He didn't like that prospect, perhaps he even had another idea but he enjoyed the last night as much as she did. It was a small relief, knowing that he had been equally miserable. If she was going to suffer through this, at least she wasn't alone. She started walking, a heavy breath emitting out of her lungs. She had no idea how things had turned this complicated only in a few days. This was supposed to be a simple recon; lay low and make a quick survey, then acquire your target. Now, it felt nothing but a disaster waiting to happen.
As she passed through the main hall, she counted the five men Bruce had mentioned before from the fight last day, their bodies beaten and covered with band aids, but the look they were giving her had a blunt curiosity. She knew they were curious, and how they could not? She bet they didn't even know their captain had a daughter.
A low snicker escaped from her mouth. Jason had hardly used to tell anyone that he had a daughter, even before their fall out, always kept it to himself. In the old days, she used to think he was doing it to protect her from any retaliation, but now she knew better. She grimaced, memories threatening to surface again, but forced them down before they slipped into her consciousness. With a swift but curt movement she opened the back room's door.
Always an early riser, he was sitting behind his seat, reading a paper in front of him. When she walked into, he put it away, on its back, she noticed too, and smiled up at her. "Good morning," he said with a sweetness that didn't suit this early in the morning, "I hope you slept well."
She wanted to tear the smile off his face. She walked to the study, and tossed the bug in her hand at him. "Don't try to do it again," she flatly warned.
He smiled even further. "Oh, so this is the reason of the—" he halted for a second, looking for a suitable word, his eyes gleaming, "—passivity last night?" he asked, "I was wondering...if you lost your touch."
The insinuation had her face souring even more as she shook her head. "You know, whenever I thought you couldn't scoop any lower, you always find a way to surprise me, Jason."
He shot out a laugh. "Oh please, we were going to cut it off, if there was—activity," he shot back. She only looked at him harder. "Can't blame a dad for being worried, kiddo," he said with the same gleam.
Mocking words rung in her ears as the familiar anger rose, "Actually, I can," she spat, but before she continued, Bruce walked into the room. The rest of her words vanished. She was not going to have that talk in front of Bruce Wayne, she was not.
His eyes briefly moving between them, he asked, "Is everything okay?"
"Just peachy," she bit off, her eyes riveted on Jason. If there was one thing good with Jason, it was that next to him everyone else's presence seemed—tolerable, even Bruce Waynes', "honey," she added.
Bruce gave them another look, his eyes taking everything in, but he didn't say anything else. He sat down at the table at the opposite side of the Jason's study. "When can you leave?" he unceremionally asked the last thing he had before things had turned to mess, picking up his trail like nothing happened. Valerie appreciated his ability to focus on what really mattered, she really did.
Bending down a little, he pulled a drawer, and placed three shot glasses and a bottle of Irish whiskey on the table. "The next morning, if you want," he answered simply, opening the bottle. "I have a cargo that needs to cross tonight then we can leave." He poured the liquor inside the glasses as Bruce's face closed off. Jason glanced at him under his bowed head. "One of your stuff, actually, Wayne," he said after a second, "Your last shipment has been blocked for four months at the Karmabu Salem's gate."
Bruce frowned. "Why?"
With a small smile, he shrugged. "Customs suspected it being used to smuggle guns."
His expression turning even sterner, his face closed off completely. "Wayne Relief sends humanitarian aid," he rasped out.
Jason gave out a loud laugh. "That hardly matters," he quipped, "Every little thing here is considered weapons at first," he said, "and it takes time to prove it is not."
Deterrence policy. The situation in Gaza Strip was something that she didn't see any happy ending in the near future, but the reality was even harder. She let out a sigh, her eyes skipping to Bruce. His face was the same, expressionless but there was a glint in his eyes. "You're smuggling humanitarian aid," he asked, his low voice turning into that distinctive rasp.
His hand halted over the drinks, Jason shot at him a look. "Mostly," he said, placing the bottle inside the drawer again, "Sometimes guns, too, but it's less—perilous, and well," he shrugged, "Palestinians need food and medicine more than guns." He pushed two glasses toward them.
He gave Jason a slight shook of head in refusal, and she followed his example, too. She didn't want to get lectured about the rules again. "Who did you get in contact with you for our stuff?" Bruce questioned further.
Jason frowned. "That's me and between my—contractors, Mr. Wayne," he answered, his voice suddenly cold, "I cannot give away that kind of information."
"It's my stuff," he declared, a sudden arrogance in his voice. Valerie frowned, too, but Jason only smiled, taking his shot glass.
"Israeli authorities may consider differently," he retorted, "This is a hard place for a billionaire to play the savior, Mr. Wayne," he paused, his eyes fixed at Bruce, the glass over his lips, "even for one as...unique...as you."
He gulped down the drink in one swig.
Back in their room, Valerie sat down on the bed, as Bruce ran the tracker device in his hand, to find the room clean. "I don't like this," he announced, standing in the room his legs apart, his hands clenched at his back, facing the window to watch the outside.
She didn't quite understand what he had exactly referred, that he didn't like his father's involvement, or the fact that despite all of his resources he couldn't stop some things happening, so she just said, "Neither do I."
He turned to her. "You were right," he told her, his voice even, but truthful. She raised an eyebrow, "He's dangerous."
She let out a slight laugh. "Glad to see you seeing it at last."
The next morning they were inside the cargo plane Bruce had arranged for them to get them back to Belfast. Jason hadn't asked any question, kept his silence even though she knew he had recognized the Wayne Humanitarian Relief Assoc's diagram over the rear end.
They hadn't asked any question about his last night, either.
Sitting at the opposite sides on the cargo deck's floor, Valerie felt again she had ended up at the same side with Bruce Wayne. His eyes fixated at them, Jason watched them unabashedly, a half smile tilting his lips up. She closed her eyes, mostly not to see that stupid smile, teeth flashing and edge cutting, and rested her head at the wall.
A few second later, she felt Bruce's touch on her skin, his callous hand holding the side of her head with a gentleness she would never expect from him as he pressed it over his shoulder affectionately. Her eyes still closed, she told herself the caring gesture wasn't anything but a play at her father's expense.
Somehow, it still felt good, though, despite everything, like she wasn't alone, like she had really someone who cared for her.
Belfast was like how they had left it behind, a stirring hornet nest, ready to explode and cast out a buzz that would echo over the whole domain.
Back in their motel, there was one guest now; the man she had confessed to be her father the last time they had been here. She felt a shiver run over her skin, her eyes stealing a glance at her father. Standing in the room, his whole exterior extruding that careless indifference, he didn't look like he was bothered by the feel of returning to home.
But Jason had never a place he called home, he only had places he hung around until it was time to leave for some reasons or another, like she. Perhaps, she was really, really, her father's daughter. When she had come to Gotham, she had thought it would have been her end-game, but she knew she would have never settled down. Her happy ending was seeing the world, one place at a time, and leave when she got bored. It would be enough; it was a big world, and she was getting old.
"We need to see Sean first," Jason announced after for a while, "Let's try to see what he knows—" His eyes turned to her, "And what's he really wants."
His words pulled her out of her thoughtful stupor and brought her back to the reality; once that dream would have come true, but it was too late now. All things considered, she wasn't even possibly getting too old, anyways. "Do you think he's a hidden agenda?" she asked, frowning, and felt like a stupid moron as soon as the words left her mouth. Of course, he did. Everyone had a hidden agenda.
Jason laughed, as if thinking the same. "I would be surprised and affronted if he didn't," he retorted, shooting a mocking look at Bruce, "We're not some stupid heroes, sweetheart."
Bruce's jaw clenched, but didn't rise to his bait. She nodded then turned fully to Bruce. His grimace tightened as soon as he saw her face. "No," he forced out, voice rasping, even before she said a word. God, had he started reading her damn mind now? "Absolutely not."
Letting out a sigh, she walked to him, acutely aware that Jason was watching her keenly. "Honey," she started, softening her voice, her hand delicately touching his fore arm with fingertips, "Be reasonable."
"No," he said in return, his voice turning even more cutting, "Valerie, no. Not again." He closed in on her, and whispered to her ear, "Not alone with him."
Her eyes skipped to Jason then with a silent curse, she clawed his forearm, and yanked him toward the bathroom. Jason started laughing loudly. "Lovers," he muttered between his laughter, but she didn't make any retort, only pushed both of them inside her former retreat.
She closed the door. "For god's sake, Wayne," she hissed at his face, "I don't want trouble anymore."
"Neither do I," he shot back, "and it's why you can't stay with them alone. I don't trust them."
"I'm a big girl," she fumed, "I can take care of myself."
He gave her a smile. "Somehow I find it hard to believe."
Anger twisted her face, as she shot at him a look like dagger. She took a step forward, and closed the distance between. "I've survived this long without your generous help, Bruce Wayne," she said, inches apart, "If you're gonna do this, you're gonna need to learn to—trust me."
His answer came without hesitation, his eyes blended on hers, "I trust you."
She didn't let the simple words cloud her judgement, even though she suddenly felt she was short on breath, her mouth dry like she had eaten cotton. "Then prove it," she muttered roughly through itching throat, "Let me go alone."
He did, at last he caved in, not before he put the wireless radio in her ear again in stealth, and warned stiffly if the connection was ever cut he was coming out. She accepted, nodding in silence. Somewhat the notion hadn't disturbed her like the first time, in fact, she even found it logical; if Sean had prepared something, she wouldn't mind a little bit help on the sides, not that she would ever admit it to Bruce Wayne.
Outside, as they started walking to Sean's bunker, Jason suddenly extended his hand toward, with hesitance unlike his usual brash deft movements. She glanced down and saw that a bracelet was resting inside his palm. She stopped dead in her tracks, her face turning to white like a sheet. "No," she shook her head, furiously, and resumed walking, "We're not doing this," she forced out.
God, why, why it had to be this hard, why she had to deal with all of this? Why they couldn't just leave her alone? Fate must definitely hate her. "Come on, kiddo," Jason said with almost shy smile, "It's our routine."
"I said no," she hissed coldly.
The smile wiped off his face, as he became serious. The next second, he nodded. "I understand," he said with a voice even, then asked, "What about your box? What did you do with your queen bracelets?"
"What do you think?" she asked back, her hand almost twitching to end her connection to Bruce; he had had her box, he must have seen what was inside, even though she wasn't sure if he would connect the dots, "I threw them away," she lied. She should have done it. She should have really thrown them away, they meant nothing, but she just couldn't...each time she swore herself the next time she was going to do it. She never did.
His face closing off even further, he mumbled again, "I understand."
Without knowing what else to do, she nodded in silence. "I've been thinking about it," he said after a while, breaking the silence, "I read that you escaped from the police's custody," he continued, elaborating what he had been thinking. Her body turned alert. "It was him? He took you out of the safe house, too?"
She nodded. Jason laughed silently. "He must really love you," Jason commented softly, "if he's willing to do all of this for you."
Oh dear god, she passed in her mind, as the silence in her ear became so tensed that for a moment she couldn't even breath. Bruce didn't make even a sound, but she wished he had. She shrugged in answer. "And you?" Jason asked then, "Do you love him, too?"
She closed her eyes, "It's none of your business," and hissed through the dry throat the first thing had come to her mind.
"Well, you must at least trust him," Jason remarked after her snippy retort, a slow smile entering in his voice.
She jerked her head at him. "What does that mean?"
"Come on, kiddo," he taunted, "I'm not an idiot. You obviously told him about your past, about yourself," he said. She closed her eyes again before he continued, "Trusted enough to bring him along with you to look for me. It means something."
For a moment, she only wanted to laugh, until she was breathless, until her lungs left dry, but she couldn't, the irony felt like ash over the tongue, dry and bitter. "Don't act like you care," she muttered, so silently even herself couldn't hear it.
"But you know I do," Jason said, "I admitted it." Her eyes watered, and she gulped down. "I'm happy for you," he continued with seriousness, "I know it was hard but I didn't want you to live a lie." He looked at her, and slowly said, "I only wanted you to have someone who could accept you as who you are."
She couldn't help it any longer. She laughed; a sole bitter sound that sounded more like a cry than a laugh, acerbic in an irony that was cutting her insides.
She glared at Jason, who in return smiled broadly, his eyes sweeping around her new house, her new life she had built; a nice house with a nice man; perfectly normal. "Nice house," Jason commented the same, looking around, but she picked up the slight mocking in his tone. She grimaced. She wanted to try, was it a crime, wanting something different than she had ever had? In his eyes perhaps it was. He pointed to the curtains and the cushions with a waving hand. "Perfect touches too."
She didn't take his bait, instead, waited patiently. "So he calls you Sarah," he observed the next, a smirk titling his lips up. Michael had left seconds after he had arrived, ever the optimistic one, trying to give them some privacy to work over their differences. She didn't know how. After seeing Cathleen the last time, the woman who had risen her up, the woman who was still giving her that look even in her death bed, she had understood that something was not right. With her. With her life. She wanted to make it right, but the knowing smirk he was giving to her was too much. Like he knew, everything, knew what she was trying.
"Yes," she hissed through gritted teeth. Yes. He called her Sarah. "I—" she paused, what 'love him'? She couldn't be in love; it didn't even exist. No, she just wanted to try something—different. "I'm happy with him." She settled with that.
"Ah…" her father sighed out, "happiness; hard to find…and even harder to get out of," he intoned dramatically. "It's the craftiest prison ever created, isn't it?" She didn't answer, only looked at him in silence. He laughed, a soft sound that echoed in her mind deafening, and took out an ankle bracelet of his pocket. "Brought you this from Egypt," he stated, dangling the thin fake gold chain with a light green scarab, "a luck charm."
She stared at him, then the amulet, then back at him. She shook her head. "You're not here to give me a present," she said placidly, her eyes fixated at him.
He put the trinket on the table, heaving a sigh out. "I always bring you something from the places I've been," he defended, "It's our ritual."
She let out a sigh, too, in return. He couldn't buy her with shinny things; she wasn't a little girl anymore. "Really, why are you here, father?" she asked, "What do you want?"
He looked wounded. "It wouldn't be that I just want to see my daughter?"
"What?" she asked back, shooting out a laugh, "You're short on the girls that would throw themselves at men's arms for you?"
He shook his head. "Don't be like this, kiddo. Don't act like I forced you to do things."
"You really expect me to believe that you just came to see me?" she asked in return, her voice rising in agitation, her hands wavering in the air.
"I certainly came to see you." He shrugged. "It doesn't mean of course that there wouldn't be other benefits." He flashed a horrid grin; all teeth and edge. "A mere coincidence."
Frustrated, she shook her head. What else did she expect? "Let me guess," she snickered, "You need to someone to infiltrate into someone's boundaries?"
He flashed another grin. "Calvin Simon," he gave away.
"The CEO of Simon Medicine," she asked, frowning. Simon Medicine, a British company in the pharmaceutical company didn't sound like Jason's usual clientele, but nevertheless he nodded.
"One of his rival companies approached Jeremy in the Silk Road," he explained further. She let out a sigh, of course, deep web. "Claims that Simon stole one of their formulas. They want it back."
"Did he?" she asked, "did he steal it?"
"I don't know—" he answered with a shrug, "Don't care, either. They want it," he repeated, "very badly."
"And, we're going to take it back," he answered, plain and simple, "Wouldn't mind a wing woman at our side."
She smiled. "Bet you don't."
He smiled back. "Enough of me," he remarked the next, rising his eyebrow, his eyes taking another sweep around, "How are you?"
She couldn't ignore the mocking in his tone this time. "Why don't you tell me?" she snapped, "You always pretend to know it by just looking."
He stayed silent for a second, looking at her, then shook his head. "Seems like we're always playing a game," he muttered, like disappointed, then nodded. "If you wish," he said, almost in challenge.
She took it. "By all means," she shot back with a sneer.
"You're upset, that much is obvious," he started with a shrug, "upset seeing me because I threaten your bubble. Make you remember your past, yourself, which is something you apparently have taken drastic measure not to do." His eyes swept around again before he began again. "On the surface, you seem happy, but there is something else, something deep down, something you try to bury with silly cushions and hideous curtains." He waved a hand vaguely in their directions.
"You have a question you want to ask but you don't want to ask it because it seems crucial, and you're afraid once it was asked there would be no going back. So instead you play the house, buying cushions and curtains."
Damn the cushions and the curtains! "What is it then, what's the question I don't want to ask?" She aimed to sound belittling but instead it came out like a plea.
"A really simple question: Is that enough?" He waved his arms around. "This…this 'home sweet home' is enough?"
She drew in a deep breath, ignoring the way her hands tremble. "Is that all?" she forced out a laugh and managed to sound mocking, like she wasn't bothered, like she wasn't horrified by any of the words.
"No," his tone dropped, as he looked at her, "There is still the matter of your answer."
She closed her eyes. How she could fall in this trap. "You know it, too, don't you?" Tears welled up in her eyes. He sounded…resigned now, close to sadness. "It's not. The answer; it isn't enough. It never could be enough. So that's why you...play here...dating with a normal guy, buying hideous stuff; because when the time comes, and it certainly will, you can easily walk out, knowing that whatever you leave behind has never been yours."
She shook her head in defiance, despite the tears she couldn't keep at bay, not anymore. "You know nothing about me."
"Don't I?" he asked, "I know you want to be Sarah...just a normal girl," he said, "But I know you won't."
"I can!" she still refused, even not knowing if she really meant it or not.
"Then why did you ask "did he?" Jason asked back, walking to her, his eyes inquisitive, "Why you wanted to know about Simon?" She didn't answer. She had no answer, not one she would give away. She had asked, because it was all she did. It seemed natural. She wanted to know about his scheme. "Accept it, kiddo," Jason said the next, "You asked because you wanted to know." He paused, giving her another look, "Because you're missing it."
Tears in her eyes, she still shook her head. He looked at her. "It's okay, kiddo," he said, voice reassuring, as the softness of it fractured something inside her into a million pieces, "you can't run away from who you are. None of us can."
She thought she could, oh god, she thought she could... A normal life with someone normal; a family; husband and child...Child... Oh God! Tears broke down. She hated…no…she had to invent a new word to explain how she felt about Jason. Hate simply didn't seem sufficient now. "Get out," she spit, her voice like venom, "Get the hell out."
And he did, leaving her in the darkness.
Three hours later, Michael was sleeping soundly beside her, his arm circled around her waist, its weight pressing her down against the mattress. She stared at the ceiling, trying to think of something… anything that would undo what Jason had said. She thought of the day they had met, the time he had given her the seashell she still kept, their first time; the time he had confessed that he was in love with her, still inside, her clutching him tightly with her arms and legs, her heart beating fast in its cage, threatening to fly away, free.
She felt something was griping her heart now; pulling it down, shackling it to the ground; something cold, unyielding, malign. She couldn't breathe. She choked on a silent sob, then another, and another. Was this a prison, a prison of...normalcy? Freeing herself from the arm, she stood and looked in the mirror. Lightly, her motions barely making a noise, she took the luck charm from her vanity table. The trinket almost talked to her; you can't run away from who you are... She thought she could; another chance, another life, something different... She looked around, but all her eyes saw was a lie, a house of cards, and it was falling apart.
She tucked the bracelet inside her pocket, took the cash lying around, put her jacket on and went to door. She hesitated there, looking back. At least Jason wasn't right about everything. She walked back fast, pulled out the drawer, and fished out the small seashell. She put it in her jacket, too.
Three hours, two drinks, and one quickie-in-a-bathroom later, in the hours before the thin line of dawn, from a phone booth, she called her father. "Tell me more about it," she demanded.