The costumed hero named Arsenal had sent many a criminal to prison in his career, but the youthful archer had seldom visited any of them in their cells. Today, he had arranged to sit down and talk to one such defeated foe. He could fight any number of enemies and never lose a cocky bravado full of charm and confidence. Yet the masked Roy Harper approached this conversation with Cheshire with trepidation. It was not that he was especially nervous about facing the deadly assassin for hire; it was actually dealing with that part of her that was a woman simply named Jade that left him feeling worried and uncertain.
OK, Harper, toughen up. Jade may be the mother of your child, but she is also a remorseless killer. Just remember that and don’t notice how much her eyes remind you of Lian’s, he thought as he restlessly slapped his palms against his hips.
A young guard led the red-clad hero into a cell. “If you need us, just yell,” said the man.
Arsenal nodded. “Women don’t make me scream,” he said with a smile. As the guard chuckled and departed, Arsenal shook his head in irritation.
Jerk, he thought. I am such a jerk. Why’d I say that? Always got to impress people. I have to keep that side of myself under control. Raven says I have inner depths. I need to be the guy she thinks I am. If I play true to form, then Jade and I will not settle anything.
He sat down as other guards led a striking woman into the room. She wore a simple prison uniform, but she walked with the sultry confidence of a queen. She clearly had nothing but obvious contempt for all that held her captive. Her customarily razor-like nails had been trimmed for the safety of all around her.
“Arsenal, we’re letting you talk without the protective wall. That’s a indication of our trust in your abilities and your honesty,” one guard had warned him earlier.
Now, Arsenal sat across from his former lover and imagined a scent of jasmine. Got to be memory only, he thought. She’s not in costume and can’t possibly have any perfume in here.
“How is Lian?” asked Jade.
Arsenal frowned. He had expected something else as a first remark. Obviously, Jade cared for their daughter and placed her feelings for the child above any professional or amorous interest in Roy. “She’s great. I want you to believe me when I say that I am taking good care of her. She means so much to me. I had no idea what it would mean to have a daughter. I literally didn’t know how my life would change. I am not the same as I was before. I am trying to make myself worthy of her need and her love. Even though she’s nearly two, she’s so small. Still, she has made big changes in how I do everything,” he said in a rush of emotion.
Jade smiled slightly. “I do believe you. You may have lied and deceived her mother, but I sense you do love our child.”
Arsenal sighed. “I deserve that. I cannot sit here and tell you that I did not seek you out and romance you in order to trap you for guys like King Faraday. That was the plan. Still, you may not believe this, but once I was with you, I started to care about you. That’s why I left you in the night so abruptly. I could not turn you in to them. I knew if I stayed with you, they would find you. I walked out on you and betrayed the men who trusted me to bring you in to face justice. I did that because I had come to care about you.”
Jade frowned and stirred restlessly like a predatory animal in a cage. “You could have told me everything. You could have fled with me,” she said.
Arsenal raised one hand. “I couldn’t. I mean I could have done that, but it would have been wrong. I made the best choice I could make under the circumstances. You’ve got to understand something about me. I grew up being taught that it was the duty of each person to make a difference and help make society better. Hey, I know that’s trite. When I learned how far we all fall short of meeting that goal and realized that the society we fight to preserve can be the very cause of a lot of misery and injustice, then I tried to numb myself to the hollowness of what I’d stood for so long. That was not facing reality. That was running away from it.”
Jade interrupted him with a bitter laugh. “As you ran away from me!”
Arsenal ran one hand through his hair. “No!” he said, then paused for a moment. “Yes. I guess so. Still, once I got help from some friends, I decided that I had to use my skills to make things better. The system was rotten. Well, sitting around stoned was not going to change a thing. I had to do something! That’s why I signed on with the DEA and tried to cut off the traffic of drugs, to give others a chance to find their own way without being lured down the path I took. Green Arrow fights his crusade his way, and I want to fight my own as best I can.”
Jade stared intently at him. “You fail to see what I have learned from my own mentors. The world is vile. Self-interest is all that motivates us. You either save yourself or you are lost. I mastered martial arts at the feet of one who had risked his life for decades without ever truly being accepted by the western world he protected. I also felt the pain of being nothing but a human commodity. I was a slave. I was property. I vowed to never belong to any man again! Thus I became what I am. I take care of myself, and I have no regard for others. You can’t seriously believe that your games of hero and villain mean one thing when the human condition is examined without the blinders you hide behind. People are basically evil. One learns to deny feelings in order to survive!”
Arsenal said, “That’s crazy. You have feelings. I can tell you love Lian. I think you cared for me, too!”
Jade raised one hand as if in warning. “Do not presume to speak to me of my feelings,” she hissed. “You decided to leave me in order to preserve your sense of heroism. You lacked the courage to act upon the so-called love you had for me and join me. I despise such weakness. I despise you. I only hope Lian does not grow to womanhood with the spineless lack of resolve her father shows!”
Arsenal said, “I brought a photo of her. I am going to leave now. When it is possible for her to see you, I’ll bring her. I will try to make sure she knows you love her. That’s about the best I can do if you refuse to meet me halfway!”
He turned to walk out as Jade turned her head. As his footsteps faded away, she slowly turned and picked up the photo.
Arsenal walked briskly and tried to shake off his feelings of failure. He could not deny that he had received nothing that he had intended to get from Jade. He had hoped that she would accept his explanation about why he had left. He had wanted neat resolutions and happy endings. Instead, all he had achieved was a sense that he had tried to do the right thing. He had attempted to act like a responsible man. Maybe in time that would be enough, but for now he only felt regret.
A few hours later, as two guards led Jade across the grounds of the prison, one turned to nudge his friend. “Hey, did you get an eyeful of that new guard? The hot British blonde who started yesterday?” he whispered.
His friend nodded. “I’m married. I say that often enough so that I will remember it. Of course, that broad is stuck-up. She acts like some kinda princess or something!”
Before they could return Jade to her cell following a medical exam, the attractive blonde guard approached them with a smile on her alabaster face. “Hello. I am here to relieve you,” she said.
The older guard said, “Huh? You are a bit early. Our shift does not end for two more hours.”
The blonde dropped her hat and shook out her pinned-up blonde hair until it cascaded down gracefully over her shoulders. “You misunderstand me. I am not here to offer you rest from your menial tasks. I am here to relieve you of your captive!” she said with a smile as her icy blue eyes glared at them.
She spun around with amazing speed and kicked both men flat. She glanced skyward as a silent helicopter suddenly came into view. “Lovely! The cloaking device masks all sound and sight!” she said as she turned to Cheshire. “I am here to free you. Hurry up! I don’t fancy spending another moment in this sty!”
The British woman led Jade to a rope ladder that dropped down from the helicopter. With the same grace and agility with which she had stunned the guards, the British beauty clipped a catch to Jade’s hips and held the rope as the helicopter raised them to safety.
They had returned to the cloaked mode before exiting the county.
Jade allowed her ally to free her hands before she spoke. She rubbed her fingers gently and asked, “Who are you? I warn you that I feel no obligation to you.”
The British woman slipped off the guard’s uniform and crossed her legs. She was now wearing a red and gold costume. “I am the Lady Victoria Bonham-Carter, daughter of the Earl of Oxford, equestrian, swordswoman, and, when necessary, assassin. You may call me Lady Vic,” she said.
Jade nodded knowingly. “I have heard of you. You are rumored to be very capable. Why have you freed me?”
Lady Vic said, “I acted upon the instructions of another. He wants to invite you to join him and a few allies in a rather dismal place called Zandia. He wants to employ you.”
Jade fingered the photo of Lian that she kept within one pocket. She smiled as she considered the woman’s words and replied, “Very well. There is nothing to hold me here.”