Chapter 1: work, play
He rolls away, then falls asleep. He wakes once. He sleeps again.
Jade counts his breaths.
Jade does not count the needle marks.
Cheshire dodges backwards with a handspring. Impractical, but fun.
Red Arrow's gaze darts to her thighs. She smiles under the mask, hidden away where he (where she) cannot see. When he looks at her like that, Cheshire and Jade are not two halves of a self.
But the look changes. His lips crook down, grim and dour and angry. She loves his anger.
"Roy," she says. That gets his attention, so she turns to throw a small knife. She buries it two inches deep into solid brick. The LED in the grip blinks green. "Call me."
He turns to look, then stares at her.
She laughs and melts backward into the black.
Sometimes Roy turns up at her father's latest safehouse with an empty quiver and a mouth full of messages that mean nothing to her. If her father thinks he's cracked — or delirious — or needs to keep his hands away from Jade — he never lets on.
Sometimes he turns up and stays. Sometimes he leaves.
He never calls.
Once, he stays the night. He rises before dawn the following morning (which is abominably early if you're in either League, considering he fell asleep just as the sky was brightening from black to charcoal gray) and gets back into costume. That entails him hopping around on one foot as he tries to stay standing and cram himself into something skin tight.
Even dry, smooth, perpetually angry Roy has to pull his superhero leggings on one leg at a time. She smiles.
He heaves up the storm shutter and slides the window open. He does not bother with a goodbye.
So Cheshire warns him.
"Playing both sides is more dangerous than just playing one."
"Is that what you think I'm doing?"
And then Red Arrow is up, out the window, and gone.
Jade says: "Playing both sides is more dangerous than just playing one."
It is as close as she can get to saying she loves him.
Roy says: "Is that what you think I'm doing?"
Then he leaves.
The next time they meet, he fires two netted arrows and a foam arrow. When those tricks work about as poorly as a smart hero would expect, he just fires a smoke arrow at her head.
The mask filters out the smoke, but it's still a mean trick.
"Really, Red? I thought I meant something to you." She keeps her voice light and teasing.
"I don't know what you're talking about," he says.
Then he fires a normal arrow at her mask's mouth.
Chapter 2: enemy, boyfriend
Too soon to dodge, too fast to track.
If it hits, it will shatter the mask's lower half, drive plastic shards into her cheeks and up her nose.
Cheshire hits the ground, log-rolls gracelessly backward and throws a smoke bomb with her trailing hand. She throws herself over the side of the building and catches herself on the rungs of a fire escape. Despite the rust, the ladder holds without creaking.
She makes her way down. Heads back toward her transport, mentally plotting the fastest course for the safehouse.
Normally, she'd write it off. You can mix business and pleasure (she makes a point of it), but business is still business. Business will always be business. For them, business means that Red Arrow is a member of the Justice League and an auxiliary with Young Justice — and no matter his hidden agenda, no matter the thing between them, his loyalty must seem absolute.
Jade gets that, too. It's precisely why Cheshire doesn't drop in on Star City when Green Arrow or the Justice teams are around. Why invite him to play if he's only going to have to say no and then shoot at her? Jade likes a little rough play as much as the next girl, but rejection can really sting.
And there's the rub. He could have played along, if he'd wanted.
The cat mask continues to smile. The woman wearing it stops.
Two weeks go by. Artemis foils a few robberies in Star City; Young Justice together foils some weird plan or other by Lex Luthor. She hears him ranting to Sportsmaster about kryptonian DNA, drug addiction, Solomon Grundy (born on Monday, she mouths), Cinderblock, and giant albino wolves. Maybe Cheshire should be more curious, but Jade actually doesn't want to know. That kind of crazy could be catching.
Red Arrow shows up with a briefcase in hand. Still pissed that not only does he never call, he shot her when he didn't have to, she hides in the rafters out of sight.
Sportsmaster lifts the fake money out, then holds a vial up to the light. It glints green, then pale toothpaste blue, then a compromise of both.
"Phase four should engage in two weeks," Red Arrow says.
She almost doesn't recognize his voice. He almost always sounds angry, usually sounds sardonic, and when he's not angry or sarcastic he's darkly amused. But today he sounds none of that; he speaks tonelessly.
"Understood," Sportsmaster says. "Disengage gamma protocol. Re-engage beta protocol."
Chapter 3: mask, face
A cavalcade of masks:
Jade cinches the sash, double checks her jitte, and then hides away her face.
Cheshire slides the window closed without a sound. Cheshire is the one who climbs up, up, up and then makes her way across the rooftops.
Jade is the one to crouch at the very edge of a dilapidated roof.
But it's Cheshire who rises and performs kata after kata, drilling herself on movements she learned from the day she could toddle and hold a knife at the same time.
But the person, the woman who is both Jade and Cheshire, uses that time to wonder: what is beta protocol?
The Guardian can be as bright and happy and well-meaning and law-abiding as he likes. Cheshire knows what Cadmus is, because she knows who funds a quarter of it. Recently he was raving to her father about giant albino wolves.
Cheshire lets herself in from one of the top windows. She threads her way through the corridors and then down into the labs. Guardian isn't on duty, so she installs herself at a computer and plugs in a thumb drive.
An LED blinks green for a few moments as the thumb drive takes snapshots of every byte of data that computer has accessed in the past forty-eight hours.
When it stops blinking, she removes the thumb drive, shuffles a few papers, and leaves through a window. Let the Justice League worry about the silent alarm.
She doesn't let herself think too hard about the thumb drive until she's locked down her private safehouse. She carefully disconnects her laptop from all external networks.
If her hands shake when she starts inspecting the mined data, it's probably just adrenaline jitters.
She knows about the 'broken arrow' trigger. She's seen it in action more than once. But gamma and beta protocol?
Jade sifts through the data she found.
Glass shatters. Cheshire drops in through the window, landing on Sportsmaster's most recently broken shoulder. She rolls off before he can fling her off.
"Cheshire," Sportsmaster growls.
"Beta protocol," Jade says, and the jitte finds its way to Cheshire's hand, "is just insulting."
Chapter 4: then, now
She's going to need a new laptop for her safehouse.
That's fine, because Sportsmaster is going to need a new head.
One of these thoughts is the woman. One of these is the assassin. She's too angry to be sure which.
"Insulting?" She can't actually see his eyebrows through his mask, but his tone and the way one eye tics tells her he's raised an eyebrow.
Cheshire suppresses the momentary urge to stab him. He's the one with the answers; burying steel into his brain via his optical nerve is a conversation ender.
But oh, once she has her answers!
So in lieu of stabbing him, she says, "Yes. To him, to me, to you."
"Don't tell me you've gone and decided something was wrong."
Cheshire sweeps out an arm. The laptop crashes to the ground.
"'Wrong' is such a limiting term," she says, lightly, airily, as if she is not thinking about stabbing him. "Try 'reprehensible.'"
He chuckles. But he's not appreciating her joke; this situation is funny to him somehow.
"Tell me why."
It's not a Cheshire question. Reasons don't matter to assassins or thieves. They want what they want because they want it. They kill who they kill because they've been paid to do so.
The past is not Cheshire's area of interest. She doesn't much care about the future, either; she lives in an unending now, and only plans far enough ahead to keep her head attached to her shoulders.
But she doesn't have room to care about those.
What she cares about is: the Cadmus files contain no references to "beta" or "gamma" protocols.
"You don't do schemes or ideals. You're like I was: a hired gun. You do what you're paid to do."
"And what, you were scared the money would run dry?" Not likely, she doesn't say. Lex Luthor will run out of money right around the time the sun explodes.
"Money wouldn't make you do a long-term operation. You're not a salary kind of agent."
"I do like to get paid what I'm worth, upfront, for the job I'm actually doing," she says, and she keeps her voice mild.
Sportsmaster doesn't need to know that the wheels in her head are turning. He just watches her.
"Well," she says, "now I know."
Then she leaves.
The Cadmus files contain a lot of references to the broken arrow trigger and a Project Double. They're linked to something called Project Match and something else called Project Kr, but she doesn't have room to care about those.
"Sorry, Dad," she says, removing her mask. "In this family, it's every girl for herself."
Chapter 5: no, yes
If she could, Jade would tell League of Shadows that she's done for a while. Burnt out; trying to find her inner evil. Gone fishing. Back later. Whatever, if she's missing, don't come looking. And if by some miracle the casbah is a rocking, that's not a super-hero in there and they shouldn't come a knocking.
But she can't. So she writes Talia Al Ghul an email, the gist of which is: Luthor's obsessed and probably dangerous to us. Sportsmaster's an idiot. Need some down-time before I kill them both.
She wouldn't exactly say she and Talia Al Ghul are close. Jade is just starting her twenties; Talia is in her mid-thirties. But Talia seemed to see something in her. Maybe it's that Ra's Al Ghul isn't much saner than Lawrence Crock.
It still doesn't surprise her when Talia's response amounts to, essentially, Sure, fine; you've made us obscene amounts of money. I hear Roanapur's nice this time of year.
But Jade doesn't go to Roanapur. Cheshire would fit right in, and so would Jade, but she's got an angry archer to track down. She checks Gotham first, but doesn't find Red Arrow. Boston, Metropolis, Star City, Central City, Kansas City (Kansas and Missouri, and just for the record she hates Kansas City, Kansas).
Cheshire finds him in a slummier part of Bludhaven. Considering that Bludhaven is a total shit hole, the fact that Red even found a slummier side is pretty impressive. The little hole in the wall looks so filthy even the roaches must think it's gross.
He's off the couch (looks like something time forgot; it either came with the apartment or from a dumpster) and has an arrow nocked in seconds. He draws the string back toward his ear, eyes narrowed underneath his mask.
"Jade," she says, and unties Cheshire's face from above her own.
"You can't be serious." Only Roy could sound both poleaxed and darkly amused at the same time.
She sits on the floor and says, "Nguyen Jade."
"I... thought I was Roy Harper."
"I know." She offers him a smile. "I thought you were my boyfriend."
His face shuts down even more. His voice is almost Batty when he says, "I noticed."
And for that she has to laugh. "Sand in your throat?"
He frowns. It's a beautiful frown, angry and confused, and it curves his lips downward in a perfect arc.
"I didn't know, you know. About gamma and beta protocols. There were little things that didn't make sense, but I thought it was League of Shadows business. And that never makes much sense unless you're an Al Ghul."
He relaxes the tension in the bowstring, then carefully slides the arrow back into his quiver. "Then why are you here?"
Cheshire says: "I didn't know. It didn't make sense. It never does."
Jade means: I'm sorry.
Red Arrow says: "Then why are you here?"
Jade doesn't know what that means.
Jade doesn't know why she's in the worst mudhole in Bludhaven. He's asked a question she doesn't have any kind of answer for.
"I... I don't deal in why," she tells him. (I love you, she said, all those months ago. Or as good as.)
"Of course you don't." The frown vanishes from his face. It's replaced by the start of a smile. Tiny, barely there, a mere suggestion of an upward curve. But it's just as beautiful as his frown.
"I still don't trust you, you know."
Smart boy. "Of course you don't."
I still don't trust you his mouth says. But he takes the mask off and slides to the floor beside her.
Jade only smiles and says Of course you don't. If she were another woman, she'd reach out to him. Rest her hand on his bicep, or press her palm to his back, or glide her fingers over his hair.
It's not just her he doesn't trust.