Part V. III – "Semantics"
The next day started with her doing her gig, slipping out of the bed like a ghost, her moves barely making a sound. Bruce didn't react, but stayed motionless lying on his back, even though he was already awake. As she tailed to the bathroom to raise her armor up for the new day, he decided to do the same. He stood up from the bed, put on a long sleeved t-shirt over the jeans he had slept in, and left the room for the public WC in the corridor.
The public toilet was even worse than the bathroom in the room, but he dealt with it. He had survived worse. He quickly prepared himself, sending a quick message to Alfred to send him the dossiers he had asked to the older man to prepare. It was time to see the situation a bit clearer. On his way back, he stopped at Jason's door. Perhaps it would be better if they had a talk first, too. He didn't want the man to get the wrong impression.
He had accepted the bracelet from him, because he had realized his attempts to make things right with his daughter were genuine, and he couldn't have turned his back on that sentiment, but he was still right; Jason Allen was dangerous, and Valerie was right, too; it wasn't enough.
Before he knocked, the door opened. Bruce frowned as the older man appeared behind it, his left arm holding his jacket, clearly prepared to leave. His eyebrows clenched further. "Where are you going?" Bruce asked, looking at him sternly.
The former guerrilla looked at him, a half smirk titling the left corner of his mouth upward, "Out?"
Even though she would probably never admit, Valerie had really taken after her father, Bruce could see clearly. Without a word, his face stoic, he simply looked back at the man.
He let out the snort-laugh that he often heard from Valerie. "I was going to drop a note for you on reception desk," he said, "I'll check around, ask a few friend... We need to learn about this—uh—event."
Bruce kept his eyes trained on him as his mind worked over his words. He was right. They needed to know more. He needed to know more. He took his spare phone out. "Next time," he rasped, handing the phone to him, "call."
He turned and walked back to the room. He found Valerie still in the bathroom when he entered, the sounds of shower coming off lightly. He paced to the table at the corner that had turned to his work station, and turned up the computers. He connected to his servers in the cave with the satellite phone, and found the dossiers he had asked Alfred to send. One of them was on the trio Rory had fought last night. Valerie had started with looking the partners of the pubs, leaving Bruce focused on the trio, and the second one...
He opened it, and a younger version of Jason Allen smirked at him through the screen with the same edge of his older self. There weren't many things in the dossier as Bruce expected. Born in '54, Belfast, he had become involved with IRA as it had been norm in those days, especially for youth, as Valerie had said, and then went off-grid in '78. Giving the little tidbits Valerie had given away before, Bruce knew it was around the time she was conceived. The file had him returning to the city after a couple of years, and for a few time, he had been questioned for smuggling. His specialty had been marked as operating in the newly formed Silk Road black market in the deep web, but the investigations and allegations on him hadn't led anywhere, all cases eventually dropping because lack of evidence. The cases were mostly opened by a former RUC detective Charles Hollis, a half British half Irish man that seemed to have been on Jason Allen's tracks for a decade before his retirement. He made a quick mental note for the retired officer before he changed to page to look for the noted associates. Before he went to the foot notes, he hesitated. He had made a promise, a promise to accept her for who she was now; Valerie, just Valerie, no other attachments to her name, but he must know. It wasn't just between "Bruce and Valerie" now, not anymore.
He skipped to the bottom, and there she was, Sarah Allen, the illegitimate child that also bore her father's surname, cited as served a prison sentence for breaking and entering between 2001 and 2002, and marked as...deceased in 2004.
He stared at the screen, his mind drawing a blank. Four years ago. Deceased. Suddenly, everything clicked, the missing pieces filling in, the way he couldn't find her trail. She had faked her death, Bruce realized, four years ago, before she had come to America she had faked her death.
Questions turned in his mind; how, why, with whom... She couldn't do it alone. She had certain skills, yes, but staging death wasn't a walk in the park, especially with the level she had managed. She must have had help. Something told him it wasn't her father, so the question was...who? Who she had trusted that much... He entered a few commands, and in the dossier found what he was looking for, her death certificate, Alfred once again proving knowing Bruce Wayne as much as he knew himself. His guardian knew he was going to want to see the death certificate.
Bruce skipped the document, and found it; his suspicion confirmed, the affidavit had been signed by a certain surgeon named Christian Brennan. The surgeon they had been looking for. The surgeon she wanted to rebirth her after killing her. During the five months she had been off-grid, he had always thought he had been looking for a ghost, and in a certain way he had been right; she was a ghost.
The bathroom's door opened, and she emerged out, looking extremely good for a dead. He quickly closed the tab, and pulled up the other dossier for the trio from last night, his eyes fixated on her.
Her eyes narrowing, she stared at him back. "What?" she questioned. He turned his attention to the computer, without answering. He didn't know how to answer the simple question. "What are you looking?" she asked, walking to the table, and glancing at the screen. She frowned. "Are they the men we saw yesterday fighting with Rory?"
Bruce nodded. "Alfred sent me the files this morning."
Lifting her head, she looked at him. "Well?"
"Well," he said in return, skipping the dossier fast, "Nothing...unordinary, mostly juvenile delinquency," he stated, and started listing the minor offences, "Common thievery, breaking and entering, pickpocketing. They spent a few years in Hydebank Wood—" Suddenly her expression shifted at his words. Bruce realized the women and young offender's correction center was also the place she had served her own sentence. He looked at her, but she loosened her face a second later, adopting the practiced indifference that he had come to recognize that she bore whenever she was distressed. "Now," he continued, "they all seem to work for a small smuggler gang, run by someone called—" he checked the file again, "Ronald Looney."
As soon as the words left his mouth, the forced indifference vanished, her eyes widening, "Ronnie?" she asked back, leaning over the table to check the file herself, "They work for Ronnie!"
Bruce closed his eyes, letting a subsided sigh out. "I assume," he slowly commented, opening his eyes, "You know him?"
She ran her eyes away, shrugging. "Yeah..."
In his mind, Sean's words popped out, the first time she had gone to see the smuggler... Ronnie swore, and I quote, the next time I see her, I put a bullet in that lying face of hers... Letting out another sigh, his chin dropped to his chest. He should have known. He should have known, nothing, nothing could be simple with her.
When it rained, it also poured. She should have known that. God, Fate really must hate her. "How bad things are between you two?" Bruce questioned, looking at her, eyes drawn again with that look, and she was getting fed up with this, with that look, and with that tone.
"Very bad," she admitted stiffly, "He's cast out of his family, and blames me."
She nodded. "His father runs a good business, has many contacts, knows which wheels to grease," she started explaining, leaning back in the chair opposite his, "He had a deal with one of delegates in the Business Committee," she said. "The delegate's rivals approached us one day, he wanted to them him down, so they needed dirt, so I approached Ronnie. He's the youngest son...never taken seriously by his family, almost desperate to prove himself a big boy." She paused for a second, clearing her voice, looking at him. In his eyes, she saw he had already realized what happened the next. "You got the picture," she said nevertheless, he wanted to know. With her implication, though, his face closed off. She shrugged.
"I got him sing," she stated simply, "The delegate lost his title, his father lost his job, and Ronnie...well, he took the down fall. His father blamed him for telling off family's secrets, and in retaliation cast him out."
Bruce looked at her hard. "So he blames you because you betrayed his trust," he stated slowly, with a rasping voice.
Her face twisting at the words, she shot at him a look, "His trust?" she hissed, leaning over the table toward him, "I guarantee you, Bruce, many things exchanged between us but trust never was one of those things," she fired rapidly, "He gave me his secrets not because he trusted me. To him, I was nothing more than a pair of good legs with good tits that he thought he could fuck a couple of times before he got bored and moved on to another one, before he returned to his wife each night, because it made him feel like a man," she sneered, her lips turning into a wolfish smirk, cutting but taunting, and destructive, "whereas he was nothing more than a little boy who wanted to feel like a man." She stared at his eyes. "The way I see it," she finished, lifting her shoulders up, "he should be grateful to me. He wanted to be a real man, and I made him one." She stood up. "So if you're done with accusing me being a who—"
He cut the word off before she could complete it, standing up as well, "I didn't say that."
"What's the difference?" she asked back, her chin up challengingly, "It was what you implied." For the first time, he looked like he didn't know what to say. She shook her head, turning to the door.
He caught her elbow. She stopped. "Valerie—" he said, with hesitance. She turned to him. "I'm—"
She cut him off, too, "Sorry. I know," she said. "It's okay. Sometimes we all say things we don't mean to. It's okay." She shrugged. "Besides, accusing someone being a prostitute isn't an insult to me." She looked at him. "It's the oldest profession in history. Only your manly egos can't accept it as legitimate, honorable business because in doing that most of you would also have to admit that the only way for you to find a willing company is to...hire it." She smiled at him, her eyes moving up and down over his body, and took a step further, "Not that you would have any problem on that regard, of course," she whispered at him, her voice suddenly dropping a tone down, rouging with the indications of her words. She smiled at him further. His eyebrows furrowing, he took a step back.
She laughed. His frown grew tighter. She laughed harder at his expression, shaking her head. "Come on, let's go, Mr. Wayne," she opened the door, taking her coat from the peg, "we have places to bug, people to spy."
Outside their room, she looked around, sliding her hands into her leather gloves. The cold, the cold was killing her. "Speaking of which," she said, turning back to him, "Where's your new buddy?" she asked, stressing the last word mockingly.
He frowned even deeper. "He went to see some of his old friends."
She stopped dead in her tracks, and spun toward him on her heels. "What?" she almost screamed.
"He's looking around to see the more of that—event stuff," he explained.
"And you let him go like that?" she asked, her eyes widening, quite not believing the words she had heard. This wasn't Bruce Wayne. He was hard to categorize, yes, but he had never been a fool, a trusting fool, nevertheless. "What the fuck did he do to you?" she asked furiously, walking in on him, "When you have become such a fool?!"
He looked at her sharply. "I gave him a phone—"
She shot out a laugh, "Like he didn't know you're already wired into it."
His eyes took a different glint. "Yes," he said, "That's why he shouldn't feel the need to check the bug I planted on him."
Stopping in her steps again, she looked at him, before they exited out of the motel. "You lectured me I should start trusting him," she said slowly, but each word deliberate, "But didn't trust him yourself?"
He shrugged, checking out the street. "He's not my father."
Letting out a sigh, she nodded. "Good point." She looked around too. "So what are we doing now?"
He took his palm tablet, and checked his trackers. "Rory seems to be in the hospital, and Jason—well, around. Northside of the city," he turned to left side, "toward the city center."
She nodded again. "Let's check him first," she said, walking toward the retail car, "I want to see what he's up to, too."
Bruce gave her a look, before following her. He unlocked the doors, and she slid into the passenger seat. He started driving toward north. They didn't talk further, but Valerie could still feel the unasked question tensing the air. Once again, she felt like she had fallen into a trap. "Why did you—why did you accept it giving me?" she asked then, gazing at outside as they passed an intersection toward the city center.
"Look," Bruce said, letting out uncharacteristically small sigh, "The fact that I don't trust him doesn't mean I don't believe when he says he cares about you." She snorted. She knew he did, he had really admitted it; he had admitted he wished he could have been a better father before admitting that he also wished she hadn't born, either. "He doesn't ask what you want from Sean. If he knows, he would understand why you look for the doctor." He paused for a second, "Why you're going under all this trouble to find him," he halted again, "especially him," he muttered.
Her eyes narrowed. There was something, something in the words, the way he muttered them...so unlike Bruce Wayne. Her eyebrows tightened further as she squinted at him. His eyes skipped to her, too, and for a split of second, they shared a look, and she saw the truth. He knew. He knew about Christian. He had searched her. Her breath constricted in her chest. She knew he was going to do, sooner or later, he was going to check her file, but somehow the truth still stole her breath away, why she wasn't even sure. She cleared her throat, gulping, and turned her eyes away. "I was wondering when you were going to do it," she said slowly.
He shook his head. "Not yours." Her head snapped at him. "It was in Jason's file, you're listed as his associate in PSNI's dossier," he explained.
She grimaced. "So you looked at him?" He merely looked at her in answer. "That's cheating," she fumed, crossing her arms.
"I made a promise to you, not to Jason," he simply said.
She let out a sigh. "Good point," but fixed at him a look after a second, "Still cheating, though."
He shrugged, with an indifference she didn't always see in his actions, and parked the car. "Maybe."
Her eyes still on him, she tilted her head aside. "It's killing you—isn't it?" she asked slowly, "Not knowing."
He grimaced. "It's not every day I see a...ghost."
She laughed softly. "Again, good point." She turned to him. "So I'm listed as his associate?" He nodded. "What else the dossier has?" she asked. Since the cat was out of the bag, so to speak, she would at least determinate what he exactly knew. She would be surprised if there was any detail about her relationship to Jason, but she was almost sure that it mentioned about her sentence.
"A few citations," Bruce answered, "Your name, birthday, your...short stay..." His eyes bore through her, "in Hydebank Wood."
Ah, well. If she had made a bet on that, she would have been rich. She turned her head away, looking outside. Jason suddenly appeared on the sidewalk. She followed him with her eyes, but she could still feel Bruce's intense gaze on her. Then he moved his attention away from her and looked at Jason as well. "Is it why you grew apart?" he finally asked, mirroring her words, his voice so quiet but clear, "Something went bad and you ended up in the prison?"
She shrugged, as Jason walked into a pub at the road. "Something like that," she murmured.
"For breaking and entering?" he questioned. His voice was still soft but his words were not. They were probing, trying to claw an inch that he would run for a mile with it.
She could not let him do it. If she was going to give in that inch, she was going to take back something in return. She turned to him. "No," she told him, "this isn't how we...interact," she went on, a tense smile pulling out her lips, "we don't simply share things."
A frown immediately appeared above his eyebrows. "What do you mean?"
"Well, we make bargains, don't we?" she asked back, her smile growing as his frown tightened, "trade secrets..." she stated, leaving "threats" and "blackmails" deliberately unsaid, "If I'm to give away something now, what will I get in return?"
He looked at her, taken aback. "You want to make a deal?"
She shrugged, "It's all about semantics, really."
He smiled, faintly, for a second, then nodded. "All right," he said, his lips holding the faint smile. Suddenly she realized that kind of smile really suited him better than the smarmy smiles of Brucie Wayne, and more than the frowns and grimaces that he always was a breadth away to wear over his features. He looked younger with it, almost relaxed. "What do you want to know?" he asked, amenability clear in his voice.
With the question, however, her mind drew blank. She realized she had never really expected him accept her conditions. But for some unknown reasons, he did. He wanted to...share with her...in their own way. Her eyes attached to his, she looked at him. His smile slowly disappeared, as he looked at her back, the silence suddenly growing again tense. She blurted out the first thing that came to her mind. "Last night you said you know how it feels," she asked, a catch in her voice roughing her words, "What did you mean?"
He stared at her. "You said, 'believe it or not, I know how you feel," she clarified further, "What did you mean with it?" she asked again.
He turned his head away, sighing out loudly, for the first time she knew him, the calm exterior of a moment earlier leaving its place this time not a tensed vigor, but a sorrowful weariness. For that moment, he didn't look young or wired up. He simply looked too old for an age that young, an expression she sometimes saw over her features as well, when it was dark and there was no one else to see it around.
She shivered, but quietly waited as he looked at the street, people going by, readying for a new day, muddling through the everyday life; some animate some crestfallen, but they all seemed to fit into the bigger puzzle. Not like them. Again, she felt that thing as she had walked to his house, not fitting in, like they were stuck out like pieces of an already complete puzzle, pieces that no one knew what to do with.
"What Alfred told you about Ra's Al Ghul?" he asked then, his eyes still fixed at the windows, not looking at her.
Then she understood. "That he was a terrorist," she answered with a small voice, "that used to be also your mentor."
He nodded. "His real name was Ducard," he said, turning to her, his voice now clear, without any sadness or weariness, but matter of fact, "Henri Ducard. Ra's Al Ghul is nothing more than a title for the man he became." She stayed silent as he started again. "Years ago, he found me in a forsaken pit, saved me, gave me a purpose. He showed me a path." He shook his head. "I only didn't understand it wasn't a path I could follow him through."
She passed in her mind what she had read about this secret terrorist group that no one seemed to know until too late, and what Alfred had already told her about. "He trained you?" she asked.
He nodded. "League of Shadows," he asserted sotto voce, "The destroyers of cities, the harbingers of change." He shook his head again, his lips pulling out a cutting smile, more than anything at himself, "I thought we were going to change the world."
"The graceful idiots," she murmured. Bruce looked at her again.
"Only they aim to change the world by simply annihilating whatever they think is not worthy."
She took a breath in. "Like Gotham?"
"A whole city," he said in return, "they crossed over a whole city, deemed it unsalvageable. Gotham...it's not the best place in the world, I know, but there is still good people in it." His eyes skipped at her with the last words.
Then he looked at her again with that look. She felt a heat break out of her insides, her veins aflame, and she almost felt she was blushing, almost. She fudged a smile hastily. "I don't know," she said, pursing the corner of her lips, "next to them, whole Gotham seems to me like a saint."
He smiled a little smile at her again. She felt something in her again convulsing again. "So...you felt...betrayed when he hit Gotham?" she asked, her voice cracking.
"He was like... a father to me," he admitted, "so yes, I guess, I did."
She gulped. "Did you—did you manage to forgive him?"
"If it was only me," he answered, truth weighting his words, "I would. But it wasn't. They hit a whole city, Valerie," his voice raised, his tone getting fired with something else she couldn't exactly place, "Millions would have died. Hundreds already got hurt. We lost the Narrows. The police still can't go in. The streets still have the fear drug— a ten years old child got poisoned with it just a week ago." He shook his head, "I could forgive him for burning my home down, leaving me to death, but I cannot forgive him for what he did to Gotham."
Suddenly, she understood that something else... It was guilt. He was feeling angry, betrayed, but also...guilt, just like she was... A crazy idea formed in her mind, recalling the man's death... she had read it...the train crash... Batman survived, but he did not. "Bruce," she asked, lifting her head at him, and words exited out of her even before she realized what she was doing, "Did you...did you kill him?"
He looked at her, and she saw that deep sorrow again before he turned his head away. "I didn't save him," he only said, looking outside.
A small, sad smile pulled her lips as she felt an ache inside, constringing her insides, as if the whole damn world trying to squeeze in, her hands shaking... Semantics, it was just semantics...