Part VII. II — The Strain
"I'll be on her in a minute," Sean remarked behind his back, as he tracked Valerie's phone, while Bruce listened to the ringing tone in his ear. There was no answer. There hadn't been any answer since the time he had talked to her the last, fifteen minutes ago, and he had tried, countless times.
His eyes fixated at the window, he breathed out roughly, and closed the phone, staring outside. Fittingly, rain had started. It was lightly pattering on the windows, creating an ominous sound in the silence of the room. He exhaled sharply. When he saw her he was going to kill her. Paying my debt...passed in his mind, as his jaw clenched with his scowl. He was so going to kill her.
He had no idea what the words meant, but he knew whatever she was up to, it wasn't a good thing. His eyes skipped to the older man that was standing at the edge of the window, watching the rain outside serenely. His scowl deepened. Whatever this was, he also knew it was because of him.
He should never let her stay in the same room with her father. His fingers tightening around the phone, Bruce approached to the older man. "What did you tell her?" he demanded, his tone taking a rough catch in anger and worry, close to his distinctive rasp. He had to protect her. He had given her his words. They had made a bargain; his money and protection for her silence and skills... And she was keeping her ends... Paying my debts... That was what she thought herself for him, an asset that had to prove her worth, earning her keep... He had never understood what those words had meant, not really. Was that really what he was asking from her? To become an asset in a fight there was no winning.
Shifting aside, Jason turned to him. "It doesn't interest you, Antony," he answered, stressing the name pointedly, as his eyes darted at the dealer behind them.
As his jaw clenched tighter, Bruce almost heard the sound it made. "Yes, it does," he rasped, and took a step closer to him; a threating gesture no doubt, but Jason stayed the same, unaffected. "She isn't in her right mind," he went on, "whatever she does, she will be in trouble." He felt his gaze turned to a blade, looking at the older man, "and it'll be on your shoulders."
Again, Jason stayed stoic, not moving an inch, neither for his gaze, nor for his words. "On my shoulders?" he asked back instead, his own eyes narrowing then he shook his head. "Boy, she feels she has a debt to pay you, not me," he hissed, "So if you want to blame someone here, I suggest to look into the mirror."
His jaw throbbed, his look turning into a glare. "What did you do to her?"
Jason looked at him back. "I saved her life."
"By ruining it?" he rasped out, his eyes still fixated on the green gilded eyes.
Jason didn't run away his. "Sometimes the only way to save someone is to kill their hopes," he said evenly, "Knowing that she will never forgive, will never accept." He paused then his look softened, and turned to searching. He came closer. "Can you do it, Mr. Wayne?" he whispered, "Can you play the villain willingly?" he asked, "with the only hope that she will be spared?" He took a small step back, "Can you do it, boy?"
The silence ruled between them as they gazed at each other. The truth was that he could, he could understand that better than anyone in the world, but it brought him no peace. Jason gave out a small, sorrowful smile, and that moment Bruce also understood the older man had realized something about the Batman no one ever did. "See, boy," Jason said with his smile, "we're more alike than you want to believe, more than you want to admit." His smile grew a bit more, "And off all people in the world, she chose to trust you."
For that, Bruce had no answer to say. He turned his back to the older man, and started pacing through the room, calling Valerie in every second, until Sean shifted in his chair in front of the computers, his eyes still facing at the screens, "I found her," he called them.
Bruce ran to him, as Jason did the same. Bruce looked at the results on the screen, as soon as he saw address he felt something pulled out of him with a sharp breath out of his lungs. He had recognized the address.
Next to him, Jason reacted in the same way, letting out a gasp, too, "Oh, kiddo..." he muttered under his breath, "What did you do..."
Cast off a stone, Bruce gazed at the screen as his suspicions got confirmed; the address they had found her revealing to be none other than Ronald's Looney's locale, the gangster who swore to put a bullet in her head the next he saw her.
With a growl, Bruce stormed out of the room. If she was still alive, the next time he saw her, he was going to kill her himself!
The last blow erupted at the corner of her mouth, bursting open her lips. As she fell down off the chair they had put her on, blood dripped down along her jaw. On the floor she coughed, spitting blood, and lifted her head at Ronnie who was standing a few feet away from her. "Are you done?" she asked, the words roughing through puffed lips, and with trembling arms she pulled herself on her feet, "Will you listen now?"
Another blow hit her. The force of it had her sway on her legs, but she managed to stay on her feet. "Listen to what, whore?" Ronnie shouted, coming closer, "More lies?"
"No lie—" she answered, a smile blossoming out slowly over her bloody lips. That was it; she got him. If he started speaking, regardless of what he was saying, if he started talking, she knew they had passed the "I'm gonna put a bullet in your head" stage. The rest now was depending on her skills. She needed to get him to believe her. And given how things had gone between them before, that was going to be hard. "Search it as much as you like," she challenged though, taking the "best defense is attack" approach, "You'll see I'm telling the truth."
"You never tell truth!"
She looked at him, and slowly, so slowly she started walking toward him. From her back, she could sense his men's eyes darting toward Ronnie, as if to look for directions, but Ronnie's attention stayed on her, so his men's hands remained still. Good. They were going to need all of them. At the end, they—his men were the reason why she was here.
"Ronnie," she called him, as she stopped when she was an inch away from him, and looked directly into his eyes, "Say one time I told you a bold-faced lie?" She shook her head. "I never lied to you, darling, and you're mad at me, because you know it's true."
His hand rose again, but before it hit her again, she caught it, grabbing his wrist. She had gotten beaten enough. She had let him blow off his anger, but he had to understand she was here on her choice, not the otherwise. His men reacted at her move, pulling out their guns, and waited an order. She didn't even spare them a glance, her eyes fixated at the man in front of her.
"Your father casted you out, not because of me, but because you couldn't stop behaving like a child instead of a man," she said evenly, "and sadly I'm seeing you haven't changed since then." She let go his hand, shaking her head, "You're still behaving like a child."
"You're—" he hissed, but she cut him off.
"A quarter millions of pound, Ronnie," she said, approaching closer, "It's there, waiting for us, but you're refusing it because you're—mad at me?"
"I don't trust you."
She laughed out as if he made a joke. "Darling, you don't need to."
He took a step forward, and before she could do anything else, he caught her at the throat. This time she didn't do anything, but let him again. "I swore the next time I saw you—"
"You were going to kill me, I know," she rasped, with a smile, cutting him off. His fingers tightened further around her neck, pushing her head back. She found his eyes, her head still inclined backwards, and smiled further. "Ronnie, I didn't come here to die." With a quick hand, he took his gun from under his belt.
Before he reacted, she placed the gun in his other hand, and brought it against her chest. Ronnie dropped his grip over her neck, as his head cast down, looking at the gun. Her fingers circling his hand holding the gun, Valerie looked at him.
"If you have it in you, it's time. Do it—" she whispered at him, taking another step closer, "Look into my eyes—" He stared at her back, "and pull the trigger." She licked her lips. "I'm afraid," she breathed out roughly, "of many things, many, many things, but not of you, Ronald Looney." She dropped her hands off, and took a step backwards, the gun still poking at her chest, "Decide," she demanded, "What kind of man are you going to be? A little boy who is mad because someone broke his poor heart," she asked, her lips pursed down with a derisive mock, "Or a real man who can put petty grudges aside to take what he wants."
Ronnie lowered his hand, and tugged his gun inside its holster then he reached to her again. His hand held her by her hair, and forced her head backwards like he just had done. She smiled, this time a wicked grin, saucy and tempting as he looked at her, his face expressionless.
Then he crushed his lips on hers. She didn't pulled back, but didn't open her lips, either, she only let him kiss her, much like how she had let him beat her. A few seconds later, he pulled back.
"If this is another game, Fi—" he rasped an inch above her lips, his teeth gnawing the split he had done at the corner of her mouth, "I'm going to pull the trigger."
Outside, the dark rain clouds had veiled the moon, wind picking up speed. Raindrops were beating hard. It really seemed fitting; the storm had arrived. Before Bruce stepped in the car, getting out of the heavy rain, Jason caught him at his elbow. "You can't go like that," the older man hissed angrily.
"Let go my arm," he slowly said, stressing each word deliberately, holding on his reserves not to snap the hand holding his arm. Understanding the state of his mind, Jason backed off, releasing his grip.
"The Prince Charming is off to rescue his princess again," he remarked, a mocking tinting in his voice.
Bruce spun on his heels, his fingers fisting inside his palms, and he forced them stay along his hips not to punch the other man at his face. "Someone apparently has to," he rasped out, looking at Jason.
"Of course," Jason said, snorting, "And how you're going to do that?" he asked further, "You don't even have a gun."
Bruce took a threatening step toward the former guerilla. "I'll find a way," he hissed. He was the fucking Batman! "I've managed through worse odds, Jason Allen."
"I bet you did," Jason retorted without missing a beat, "But so she did." He looked at him, his eyes searching. "Did it ever occur to you that she doesn't need your help?"
Bruce looked at him, his eyes narrowing as raindrops sipped over his eyebrows from his wet hair that clung on his forehead. This was madness. He shook his head, and told him the bottom line that changed all facts, "She's together with a man who wants to kill her."
"A man who has still feelings for her," Jason corrected, still not affected, "Hate is the other side of love, and it's as strong as its twin sister." He pulled closer as two men stared at each other under the rain. "I know my daughter, Bruce. She doesn't have a death wish. If you go to her now, you'll only endanger her." He held his arm this time gently. A thunder clapped above in the sky. "You have to trust her," Jason said for the last.
Every fiber of him was telling no. He couldn't leave her alone. He needed to get her. He couldn't fail again, not with another one. Especially not with her. She wasn't just a woman that he had saved once anymore. No, she had grown closer, had become a part of his life—of his secret. He couldn't close his eyes to that fact. He didn't know what she was; an ally, an asset, or just a...friend, but he knew one thing, had always known it clearly, since the time she had found the Tumbler's schematics, she was his responsibility.
And he couldn't close his eyes to that, either. He opened the car, and drove to the pub. He parked at the closest corner, and surveyed the area. Rain had turned into a downpour now; the sky above them had opened up and thrown everything inside out. Several plans coursed through his mind, and decided there was only one thing he could do; just walk in, and then he would improvise. Inclining forward, he reached out to the glove compartment, and took out the gun Valerie had stashed there before. The cold metal snapped at his skin, his bile rising in his stomach. He had held guns before many times, but it was the first time since that day he held one with a clear intention of using it. He steeled himself. If that was what it took, then so be it. He was going to do what he needed to do, like always. She was his responsibility. Despite of her own shortcomings, she was in this shit because of him.
He stepped out of car, and raising his coat's collars against the rain and wind, started walking toward the pub. Before he walked in, though, the doors opened, and she walked out.
Dead in his steps, he stopped in the street, and looked at her, as she halted, too. There was a blood stain along the corner of her mouth, he could even see from across the street, her wet loose locks ruffled over her shoulders, glued at her cheek, chin and neck, where he saw bruises and red fingermarks across her skin.
Something hit him in his stomach, as his chest squeezed, his lungs burning...with relief and anger at the same time. She walked to him. For a moment, they both stayed under the downpour motionlessly then she heaved out a heavy breath. "Bruce," she said softly, looking at him, "You shouldn't be here."
"You shouldn't be here, either."
She sighed out again. "Let's get out of here, then." She turned and walked to the car.
Bruce followed her, but before he stepped in, he took the first-aid kit from the trunk, and slid into the driver seat. Inside the car, Valerie was sitting in silence, her head resting backwards, her eyes closed.
When he didn't start the car, she opened them, and twisted her head aside at the headrest. Her eyes looked at him in question. "We need more men, Bruce," she explained after the brief silence, "We can't take them alone."
"That was foolish, Valerie," he forced out, trying to keep his temper in check. He could deal with a shaken-Valerie, he could deal with a hurt-Valerie, but this aloof woman was trouble. She was reckless.
"Drive," she ordered evenly, turning to the road, "We need to prepare. We will meet with them before midnight in front of the warehouse."
He didn't turn on the motor, instead opened the first-aid kit. "You're bleeding."
"I'm fine," Valerie seethed out, a cold fire entering in her voice, "Can you drive, please?"
He lifted his head, and looked at her. She shook her head exasperated. "It's best Ronnie don't see us together—alone."
His face hardened, but he understood what her words meant. He let out a coarse breath through his nose, but closed the kid, and obeyed her command. He drove until the corner at the next street, away from prying eyes then stopped the car again. Valerie this time didn't protest.
His hands reached to the first-aid kit again, but she reacted first, and took it before he did. He let her. She opened the lid, and took out peroxide and a cotton ball. She pulled down the visor mirror, wetted the cotton with solution, and started cleaning her bleeding mouth.
Bruce watched her as she took a small breath, tending the slash at the edge of her lips, his muscles straining, his hands pulling into fists on their records. He wanted to punch something. He wanted to kick something. He wanted to break that hand that had touched her... He wanted to shake her senseless to stop her being this reckless, this out of reach. His eyes drew to the fingermarks across her neck, his scowl pressing his lips further into a thin line. "How did you convince him?" he asked at last.
Her hands halting, her eyes skipped at him before she resumed her cleaning. "I told him about the money," she answered simply.
Exhaling sharply, Bruce looked at hard. He should have known. "The money Rory doesn't have, you mean?" he rasped out.
"So says—Jason," she shot back fast, but hesitating before she uttered her father's name.
"You think he's still lying?" he asked.
Her eyes stared at her own reflection for a second, her face expressionless. She threw the cotton away, "It wouldn't be the first time, would it?"
"Valerie—" he started but she cut him off, turning to him.
Then finally there was again life in her. Her eyes were flashing, as thunderous as the storm outside, "Give it a rest, Bruce," she hissed, "Nothing, nothing you say won't change the truth."
"And what if he wasn't lying?" he asked back, his voice rising as he leaned toward her, "Goddammit!" he shouted, "what do you think he'll do to you once he realizes you lied to him again!" He grabbed her upper arm and turned to her toward the mirror— "Look at yourself!" he yelled, pointing the fingermarks around her neck, "He tried to choke you!"
She pulled her arm free, "That's my problem, not yours!" she yelled back, "I told you before. I'm not a damsel in distress. I've survived this long without your help."
She then stepped out of the car. His blood running in his veins, Bruce followed. Raindrops beat against his skin mercilessly, but he didn't care. Valerie didn't seem to mind them, either, as she started walking away from the car.
Grabbing her arm, he stopped her. "Where are you going?"
She tried to pull herself free from his grip. His hands tightened. "Away," she snapped, "I'll see you at midnight."
He shook his head, letting out a snort in disbelief that vanished inside the storm. "Valerie, if you believe if I let you go—"
She cut him off, laughing out, "And what makes you think that I'm asking your permission—" she said back mockingly, as the same time her chunky heels stepped on his foot. She broke out of his grip. "Contrary to all evidence, Bruce," she said, looking down at him as her chin titled up, "You're not the boss of me."
Motionlessly, Bruce looked at the figure under the heavy rain. Her eyes were the darkest shade of the green again, as she started at him challengingly, her hair clinging to the sides of her face, her chest moving with the force of her breaths. She seemed proud, and tall, but there was something savage in her, uncultivated and ferocious, a pinch of violence and darkness, and he recognized it as it was his own.
And that vigor, that tension, that strain had been always there, wired up between them since the time they had stared at each other at their crime scene, and he couldn't close his eyes to that fact, either.
He let out a heavy breath, snapshots flashing too fast in his mind he failed to grasp any of them. His eyes found hers again, eyes staring at him daringly, for what he wasn't sure. She was there, just out of his reach, so close, but once again, it felt like they were apart like planets. His breath became even more labored, as she kept staring at him, as if she was waiting for something—for what he wasn't sure, either.
He heaved out another breath, feeling the fat raindrops against his skin then his eyes skipped down, toward her lips... He breathed out again... and something in her eyes turned even darker, as she let out a breath out, too. Something snapped in his insides, the distance between them shrinking until the whole world squeezed into a tiny bubble, large only to fit them in. Then with a crystal clarity that faded everything else to black, he knew what he wanted to do.
With a long but quick step, he closed in on her, took her face between his hands, and crushed his lips on hers.