FANDOM: Birds of Prey TV

PAIRING: Barbara/Helena

DISCLAIMERS: I do not own the characters. They are the property of DC comics and the WB network. I'm just borrowing them for a short time. Song lyrics don't belong to me either; no profit gained or infringement intended.

RATING: R (for language and sexual situations).

SUMMARY: Can Barbara adapt to more shifts in the landscape of her life?

COMMENTS: Please. Constructive comments welcome!

ARCHIVING: Probably. Please ask.


Chapter 1

Oh crap. This was really going to hurt.

Green eyes blinked once in vexed dismay as the crimson- haired crime fighter took in the eighteen-wheeler roaring into the intersection less than fifty feet in front of her. Quickly checking the narrow alley which she was barreling through for maneuvering room -- and finding none -- the athletic woman calculated her speed and trajectory, grimly noting that even attempting to apply the brakes at her current velocity would result in a sudden flight through the air which would leave her plastered against the side of the big rig like a bug against a car windshield.

Accepting the inevitable -- not only was she losing the carload of crooks she'd been pursing but she'd also be lucky to limp away from the chase -- the redhead viciously hit the throttle, increasing her speed.

'Sometimes you're the windshield; sometimes you're the bug.'

The catchy lyrics from an old Mary Chapin Carpenter song popped through the woman's forebrain, and she laughed aloud. At the same moment, she threw her full slight weight hard to the left, dragging the big bike over, nearly horizontal to the debris- littered asphalt. Hoping that she'd timed this little maneuver correctly, the redhead released the throttle, opened her eyes wide, and allowed momentum and gravity to carry the heavy machine -- and its fragile human cargo -- toward the heavy truck in front of her.

In less than a heartbeat -- although, frankly, the crime fighter suspected that her heart had simply ceased to beat when she'd spied the approaching behemoth -- it was all over.

The big Ducati slid neatly under the body of the truck, and before red hair had fully cleared the undercarriage, the rider twisted the throttle and jerked herself upright with all of her not-inconsiderable upper body strength. She remained calm, absolutely convinced of her ability to thwart the pull of gravity and right the big bike. For a long, sphincter-clenching moment, she feared that the smooth racing tires might not find purchase and she'd be dragged down and across the pavement.

No way her neoprene garb would protect against a case of road rash like that.

Gritting her teeth, the redhead twisted the throttle all the way back and dropped her booted left leg a few inches to give a well-timed kick against the pavement. The tires caught with a squeal and the acrid stench of burning rubber, and the rider was suddenly upright. Grinning triumphantly, she smoothly turned the bike in the direction of her quarry -- less than half a block away, the entire "Stuntgirl" incident having taken only a few seconds -- and raised her gloved left hand in a cheery farewell to the stupefied driver of the big rig as she resumed her pursuit.

The athletic figure took the next corner at breakneck speed, again nearly horizontal as she angled the cycle around a taxi. Seamlessly melded to the machine, she wove through late-night traffic, exulting in her prowess on the bike and the sheer thrill of the chase.

Not to mention, she admitted wryly, perhaps a touch of gratitude for still being in the chase.

When she was within shouting distance of the goons she'd interrupted mid-break in at the museum, she laid off the throttle and bided her time.


A pronounced wobble of the sedan as the panicky crooks took another corner gave the vigilante an opening. Cutting across a sidewalk, she pulled a cable from her utility belt and snagged a newspaper vending machine with an expert flip of her left wrist. Accelerating in front of the dark sedan, she released the metal box and gunned out of harm's way just as the car crashed into the machine and spun 540- degrees to the sound of exploding tires.

Cruising in a wide circle, the redhead rolled to a stop and neatly dismounted, taking a moment to radio her position to the local police. Green eyes carefully reassessed the sedan's position, deciding that the battered vehicle had probably undergone more of a 570-degree rotation. She waited, poised, listening to the ticking from the car's stalled engine, until three shaken-looking men stumbled from the vehicle.

The dark vigilante had already wrapped up their three comrades back at the museum while Moe, Larry, and Curly made their exit.

The men regarded the slender woman incredulously, and the redhead instantly assessed what she might be up against. The two who had exited the car on her side would be no problem; however, it looked like the one on the far side was considering his chances on foot.

Smoothly bringing her hand to her utility belt and freeing a batarang, the crime fighter spoke confidently, keeping the object cloaked by her short cape.

"I wouldn't try it if I were you."

Almost conversationally, she added, "The police are on their way, and avoiding arrest is just going to add to the charges you're facing."

Green eyes glinted.

"Not to mention, your bruises."

Surprisingly -- perhaps they'd seen how she'd handled their buddies -- the three men listened to the voice of reason, and, in short order, the redhead found herself back at the museum, checking the back entrance that the crooks had been attempting to jimmy open. A sudden change in the air around her, followed by a soft thump, alerted her to the fact that she was no longer alone. Fully aware of her companion's identity, she continued her perusal of the door jamb.

"Got 'em all wrapped up?"

The warm voice was whispered almost directly into the tall woman's ear, and she straightened slowly to speak over her shoulder.

"Yes, Ro-- "

Uncharacteristically, she stumbled briefly over her comrade's new name.

"Nightwing. Pretty routine, although I did almost crash the Batcycle going after three of the guys."

A low whistle sounded appreciatively.

"That would have really pissed Batman off, huh?"

Both crime fighters chuckled softly before the redhead supplied a few more details about the chase.

"Well, fortunately, I don't have to find out. All of that trick riding practice paid off. But, "

She gestured toward the doorway.

"I did want to make certain there's no evidence that these dopes were working with someone else."


"Uh huh," she murmured distractedly, feeling her companion move directly behind her.

Strong hands wrapped lightly around her waist, and she leaned back against a solid muscular chest.

"But," she managed to continue, "no sign of her usual tools or tech--"

The redhead stumbled again when a faintly stubbled cheek rubbed against the side of her jaw. The faintest whiff of familiar aftershave tickled her nose, giving her already humming nerves an unnecessary boost of adrenaline.

"Good. And..."

The rumbling tenor words were punctuated by strong hands tugging her cowl back before warm lips teased the shell of her ear.

"I'm glad -- really glad -- that you're okay, too."

Adrenaline racing from the fight and the exhilarating chase, the crimson-haired woman arched into the contact.

"Mmmm. You have a nice way of sho-- showing it."

The athletic woman relaxed into the sensual contact, feeling Nightwing caressing her hair with one hand as he raised the other to her chest. Green eyes snapped in irritation, and she stiffened slightly.

How many times did she have to remind her occasional lover?

Mastering her ire, the redhead firmly grasped the hand which was tenderly cupping her breast and lowered it to her hip. She spoke quietly, but, well- aware that no one was around, didn't bother with code names.

"Dick, you know that doesn't do it for me."

She felt what she recognized as one of the young man's boyishly charming grins against her jaw.

"Yeah. I know, Babs, but you can't blame me, can you?"

Barbara laughed in spite of herself and sank back further against the alluring firmness of strong pectorals, shivering lightly at the large hand which was teasing at the almost invisible seam on the right side of her costume. Feeling heat and moisture building between her thighs, unmistakably aware of her lover's arousal pressing against her, she groaned softly and brought her left hand to the other seam of her skin- tight costume.

While dark alleys weren't her usual choice for a romantic interlude -- even in the moment as she was, Barbara couldn't suppress her soft snort at that euphemism -- the familiar feel of strong muscles and solid flesh against her and the welcome promise of Dick's very capable -- and ample -- attentions lent a tremendous weight to just going with the flow.

The redhead twisted slightly at the pleasurable sensation of even teeth nipping at her neck, of a warm tongue tracing her ear. Barbara's always- active mind noted the gentleness of the touch, and the strong woman decided that Dick might finally be learning a little more finesse.

Pushing that thought aside, she straightened for a moment to release the final catch securing the top and bottom of her costume, then leaned back again on a sigh. Simultaneously, she reached back and down with her right hand, searching to tease between...

The oddly slender thighs which were behind her?

This realization was accompanied by the awareness that the firm pecs she'd been rubbing her back against seemed to have been replaced by much more pliant, soft flesh, leaving the crimson-haired crime fighter briefly vertigous.

Had she fallen into some sort of twilight zone?

Marginally recovering her wits, Barbara drew in a harsh breath and jerked away. Her movement was summarily halted when she was gently, but very firmly, held in place by slender hands at her waist.

A low voice purred -- literally purred, the redhead realized with shock -- in her ear.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa there. Where you going, Red? Did I do something wrong..."

Delicate fingers suddenly dipped into the redhead's costume and danced across her abdomen.

"... or didn't I do enough? Yet."

Despite her brain's screaming awareness that the entire situation was horribly, horribly wrong, the dark vigilante discovered that her body seemed completely unable -- and unwilling -- to fight the wave of pleasure coursing across her skin. Unlike the raw, driving power of her couplings with Dick, this... this was something altogether different -- previously unexperienced and totally unexpected -- and Barbara felt herself succumbing rapidly.

Feather light touches left trails of heat and fire in their wake on her skin. Tender nips and kisses to her neck and ear left her panting and breathless. Oddest of all, the sensation of small breasts rubbing against her back -- pebble-hard nipples distinct even through the thick neoprene of her costume -- left her pressing back, desperate for more contact.


Had the breathy moan come from her?


Barbara's unknown companion breathed what seemed to be agreement before slipping shockingly talented fingers between her legs. The crime fighter's first reaction to the teasing, knowing touches was that her legs would simply give out. This response was immediately replaced by the realization that the sinewy, strong arm wrapped around her waist simply wouldn't permit her to fall. Fear assuaged, the redhead surprised herself by spreading her legs in invitation as she panted wildly at the thick pleasure thrumming through her nerves.

Holy cats! She never remembered anything feeling like... like this.

Every nerve, from the roots of her fiery hair to the tips of her toes, was alive and on fire. Her blood seemed ready to boil, pounding relentlessly in her center. She could feel -- actually feel! -- the shy flesh between her thighs swelling as her core seemed to balloon within her in readiness.

Desperate, seeking contact with the soft lips by her jaw, she twisted her head, barely catching a glimpse of glittering eyes and dusky skin in the darkness before her unknown... assailant?... lover?... seductress? ducked to clasp her shoulder with strong, even teeth. The other woman -- Barbara dimly noted that the dark figure was almost a head shorter than she was -- grunted softly, thrusting her hips forward in tempo with her hand. Thrilling from the realization that the other woman was, apparently, as turned on by their contact as she was, the redhead forgot her curiosity in the face of...

Need. Raw need.

The still-functioning portion of the vigilante's rational mind distantly supplied that the words were, quite simply, the only accurate description for her current state. In addition, that same tiny portion of her mind demanded that Barbara not simply go quietly -- or even moaning and groaning -- into the good night.

"Who are...? What...?"

Not her finest verbal salvo, but at least Barbara felt that her libido could claim to have tried when she was later confronted with the inevitable questions from her rational mind.

An impossibly soft mouth came to her ear while a slim hand trailed up, under her costume, to tease the underside of a suddenly heavy and aching breast.


Barbara couldn't hold back the soft exclamation at the sudden, heretofore unknown, tremors racing through her torso and causing her nipples to tighten and burn. Incredibly, the whisper of her companion's reply to her halting questions only served to increase the sensation.


Through the thick haze of her own arousal, Barbara detected a trace of hesitation.

"I'm loving you, Barbara."

The soft declaration snapped the crimson-haired woman back to her senses faster than semi-automatic rifle fire. She stiffened and wrapped her fingers around a slender forearm, arresting any further movement. Barbara registered her body's instant, outraged protest over the loss of sensation -- a reaction of an intensity that she'd never, ever experienced -- and filed the response away for later consideration. Attempting to recover some modicum of control over herself, she drew in a halting breath and choked back an almost wild urge to laugh when she noted the delicacy of the bones and muscles under her gloved hands -- a complete counterpoint to her usual tastes.

Whoever this person was... whatever this situation had seemed to be... It was simply impossible.

Staring straight ahead, the redhead spoke without inflection.

"You can't."

Behind her, the other woman slowly exhaled, drawing her hands from under Barbara's costume and effortlessly slipping free from the redhead's grasp. Soft lips touched her ear, and Barbara shivered involuntarily again as the dark figure placed warm fingers lightly on each side of her jaw, coaxing her gaze to one side, just enough to bring the Ducati into the crime fighter's view.

"Why not, Red?"

Oddly, given that the woman behind her was unknown to her, Barbara was certain that the muted question contained more than frustration. The sadness of the world seemed to hang in the three quiet syllables, causing the redhead's heart to clench.

Barbara felt the dark head behind her nod at the bike before a tongue traced her ear, eliciting an entirely unexpected groan from deep within the taller woman. She wasn't entirely certain just what the hell was happening, but, at the very least, Barbara was beginning to realize that her body had completely revolted, was -- in fact -- still mourning the loss of the amazingly unexpected delight engendered by the touch of dark hands.

"You're made for it... for this."

Warm breath whispered across the fine down on the crime fighter's left cheek, and she shivered. Again.

"You're made for the rush... and the passion."

Again, Barbara couldn't suppress a low moan at the darkly sensual words. Her seductress emitted a purring rumble that echoed from the redhead's back to the tips of her breasts before radiating outward through her torso and limbs. Blood heating again, nerves singing in ecstasy, the dark vigilante felt fixed in place. Knowing that she was dangerously, terrifyingly, close to giving in, she reached behind her with one hand to clasp a boyishly slender hip.


The redhead had to stop, to lick terribly dry lips, before she began to turn.

"I need to know who you are."

Not even a shift in the air telegraphed her tormenter's departure, but -- suddenly -- that warm body vanished. The tall woman spun, just in time to catch a glimpse of a dark leather coat disappearing up a fire escape, just in time to hear soft, sad words.

"You already know. You just won't let yourself see."

And, then, the fiercely independent crime fighter found herself alone, feeling more frustrated and hollow than she ever remembered. She opened her mouth to call after the unknown figure but was struck mute, unable to find any words.

Almost screaming in frustration, Barbara Gordon started into wakefulness, flailing at constricting covers and struggling to sit up in her dark bedroom. Abandoning the futile effort, she flopped against her pillows, panting harshly, every firing nerve thrumming from the vividly real touch of her dream lover.

For a few beats, the redhead shifted her upper body restlessly, torn between her brain's insistent interest in dissecting the dream and her body's more visceral need to satisfy it's own urges. Recognizing the pointlessness of the former and the futility of the latter, she eventually forced her racing mind and trilling nerves to settle, then pulled herself upright with the assistance of the bars which were at the head of her bed for leverage. Roughly pushing the fall of long hair back from her face with one hand, she turned on the bedside lamp with the other, grimly acknowledging that her chances of sleep were shot for the remainder of the night.

As the muted light filled her room, emerald eyes tracked to the side of the bed and pinned the ubiquitous wheelchair with a baleful gaze. Snorting softly, Barbara firmly pushed aside her questions about the dream, and her body's urges, and reached for a book -- a recent birthday gift -- about the science of the X- Men.

There was absolutely no reason to dwell on any part of that dream, after all. Her hot-rodding days were long over.

Chapter 2

Gleez, what a hot-rodder. You'd think you were Dale Earnhart or something."

"Oh, c'mon, Hel... I drive a lot more sensibly than you do--"

"Not on a pursuit trail, you don't, Kid. My hair's gonna go white overnight."

"Bull-- You're just jealous that I get to drive the Hummer to school each day."

Smiling fondly at the familiar bickering emanating from the opening elevator, Barbara straightened from her post at the Delphi and smoothly rotated her head from one side to the other, popping perennially tight vertebrae. Since she'd been listening to a variation of the same conversation over the comms for the last hour of sweeps, the redhead allowed the voices of her former and current ward to wash past her without much concern for the actual content.

Helena's protests to the side, it appeared that Dinah had handled the high speed pursuit of some convenience store robbers quite capably; at the very least, she hadn't tipped the Humvee even if Helena had needed to finish the chase on foot after the robbers had drawn the two young vigilantes into a narrow alley. And, honestly, how often did the young brunette and blonde teen manage to coexist without some sniping?

Something that Helena was saying recaptured the cyber-crime fighter's attention.

"... think so? Maybe not after Barbara sees the scratch you put down the passenger side. Like a frikkin' can opener..."

Green eyes blinked in dismay.

Dinah had scratched the new -- newest -- paint job? It had barely been two weeks since the girl's "supermarket incident".

Briefly, the older woman flirted with the possibility of putting the body shop on retainer before turning from the bank of monitors and raking her fellow crime fighters -- her protégés -- with a cool gaze. Simultaneously, the lithe brunette and the tall blonde stopped at the base of the raised platform which held the Delphi -- the arrangement was a must, in the fastidious redhead's opinion, for controlling the Hydra- esque coils of wiring for the supercomputer -- and looked up nervously.

Marshalling skills perfected from many years in the high school classroom, the redhead had little trouble disguising her fond smile with an expectantly raised eyebrow and a quirk of her lips. She utilized another valuable weapon in her arsenal -- silence -- and waited patiently. Not terribly surprisingly -- after all, Helena had had years of facing "The Look", both as Barbara's student and as her ward -- Dinah broke first.

"Uh, I don't think it's toooo bad, Barbara. But, I am really sorry..."

The dark-haired woman chimed in.

"Yeah. Really it's just an itty-bitty scratch from where she caught the edge of a dumpster backing out of the alley..."

Green eyes softened affectionately at Helena's alacrity in coming to Dinah's defense, and Barbara almost missed a sub vocal addition from the brunette.

"... and dragged it all the way to the street."

The tone abruptly shifted to a very vocal yelp.

"Hey! Watch it with those bony elbows!"

Deciding to pretend that she simply hadn't heard the last part of her younger partner's description of the incident, Barbara finally spoke, cutting off both young women as they turned to each other with fire in their eyes and mouths opening.

She really didn't care to hear it.

"It sounds entirely unavoidable, Dinah. Don't worry about it. Although," she added thoughtfully, with a deliberately arched eyebrow, " perhaps Helena can help you work on your backing skills a bit in the next few weeks."

The redhead smiled gently at the teen's absurdly grateful expression and determinedly ignored the pointed rolling of striking blue eyes from the other young woman.

"These things happen. Helena and I have both dinged more than a few vehicles, Dinah. The important thing," she continued smoothly, "is that you're both fine."

Dinah smiled brightly.

"Yeah. And we -- uh, Helena really, I guess, caught those jerks."

The older woman nodded her agreement, peripherally noting that the crime fighter in question was casually shrugging out of her duster. When the brunette responded to the teen's comment, emerald eyes fixed on her, unaccountably aware of the play of sinewy muscles under tight leather as Helena rotated to drape her coat over the back of the couch and then slouched down to lean against the furniture.

"Nah, K-- D. I wouldn't of had a chance if you hadn't kept up with them so well on the highway."

Again, the redhead masked her expression -- she suspected that it would have manifest as a broad smile -- at the blonde's beaming look of pride. Familiar experience with her first protégé suggested that the teen might hold more than just a touch of hero worship for Helena, and Barbara was patently delighted that the older girl -- woman, she mentally corrected herself -- seemed to be moving past her occasional self-absorption to offer encouragement to Dinah.

"That's what teamwork is all about, Dinah."

The leader of the team returned her attention to the teen, ignoring any irony inherent in her words based on her own fairly solitary crime fighting activities as Batgirl so many years ago. After all, for the last four or five years, team play -- with Helena -- was, indeed, what her role in crime fighting had been composed of.

As Dinah launched into one of her typically verbose descriptions of the car chase and Helena's subsequent foot pursuit, Barbara offered a quick smile to the brunette, who rose with a saucy wink and sauntered into the kitchen, undoubtedly in search of something to appease the bottomless pit that she called a stomach.

Not, the redhead freely admitted, that the young woman couldn't handle the quantity of food -- primarily junk food -- that she tucked away: between her own overactive metahuman metabolism and the energy she burned in sweeps and workout sessions, the brunette was almost too slim, her delicate frame belying her incredible power.

Effortlessly maintaining her half of the conversation with Dinah, Barbara considered that thought -- rather, her reaction to it.

For some reason, the casual observation of her friend and protégé left her feeling uneasy, even vaguely guilty; and it only took her a split-second to comprehend the source of her discomfort: the incredibly vivid and -- she forced herself to think the word -- erotic dream of the night before.

After awakening from the night visions, more aroused than she remembered having been since well before the shooting which had taken the use of -- and sensation in -- her lower body seven years before, Barbara had been unable to push the feelings and questions aside as easily as she'd hoped. Best efforts to focus on the pop- science of her reading to the contrary, she'd found herself watching the rising sun peek through the curtains as her relentlessly analytical mind examined the dream, the force of her physical response to it, and -- most pressingly -- the identity of the phantom woman whose dream touch had excited her so.

Given the context of the dream -- with her as a fully functional Batgirl -- Barbara had initially entertained the possibility that, for whatever reasons, Catwoman had somehow crept into her dreamscape. Seven or eight years ago, before the redhead's shooting and Selina Kyle's murder, which had left the newly paralyzed young woman responsible for Catwoman's angry, hurting daughter Helena -- the arch-criminal had been a very real part of Barbara's... Batgirl's... life. Reflecting on the dream, the redhead had acknowledged that few people had been immune to the cat burglar's raw sensuality and that this, perhaps, accounted for Selina's presence in her dream.

Yet, further consideration forced the cyber-genius to dismiss that hypothesis. While, in the dream, she'd still been fully functional -- in all of the ways she no longer was -- she'd also been sporting her current hair length, and Dick had been in his newest masked persona, Nightwing, an identity he'd adopted less than sixteen months before.

No. Her subconscious had clearly set this dream in the present.

In addition, the height and shape, even the voice, of her nocturnal seductress was not right for Catwoman. Barbara had engaged in enough hand-to-hand contests with the older woman to have Selina's shape firmly imprinted in her infallible memory. Likewise, over the years of her association with Selina's daughter -- both as her guardian until the girl turned nineteen and in their joint work in protecting New Gotham -- she'd done enough sparring and doctoring to become similarly well-acquainted with Helena's form and movements.

Just before dawn, Barbara had actually flinched at the knowledge that the dream hands and mouth and body which had so aroused her were, without doubt, Helena's. While it was easy enough -- actually, not quite that easy -- to dismiss the dream as the influence of a late night movie or an ill-advised midnight snack, the older woman found it discomfiting, to say the least, to realize that she'd been fantasizing subconsciously about the younger woman.

She -- straight-as-they-come Barbara Gordon -- had been dreaming vividly and lavishly about her former student and ward, about her protégé and best friend in the world, about the closest person to a female relative that she had. She'd been, early this morning, almost horrified to admit that she'd been fantasizing about someone who was, if not exactly a daughter-figure, then something approaching a sister.

And, the redhead admitted on a silent sigh, if her current unease about observing the dark woman's body this evening were any indication, she was still discomfited.


Smoothly winding down Dinah's effusive description of dodging traffic on the interstate, Barbara laughed in acknowledgement.

"Well, Dinah, Humvees aren't exactly made for cornering."

"No shit, Red. Or..."

The smooth soprano voice, slightly muffled by a mouthful of sandwich -- peanut butter? -- caused both redhead and blonde to start slightly.

"... for taking highway access ramps at a hundred miles an hour."

The jibe seemingly spurred the teenager to recover from her brief surprise first.

"I was not doing one hun--"

"Dinah?" Barbara cut in smoothly, "I'm sure you were driving within, er, reasonable limits."

Could the heavily armored vehicle even hit one hundred? The redhead made a mental note to look into the mechanics of the equation.

"For now, I think it's time for you to turn in. Tomorrow is a school day."

The older woman silently blessed her newest ward's sunny disposition -- There was simply no way that Helena would have simply waved a cheerful goodnight and allowed herself to be dismissed during her high school days -- and sat quietly while Helena pushed the remainder of her snack into her mouth, chewing and swallowing with almost indecent relish. Temporarily sustained, the brunette bounded onto the platform and waved at the satellite receiver.

"Seriously, Babs. Didja clock us during the chase? Kid has a real lead foot. I was almost ready to bail a few times."

Barbara hid her smirk in the act of removing her glasses. Considering some of the more... hair-raising moments she'd endured when she'd tutored Helena in high speed pursuits, the older woman privately thought that a little taste of her own medicine wasn't too much for the brunette. After all, the headstrong girl had cut her teeth driving -- illegally -- in Paris when she was barely a teenager; by the time Barbara had begun to work with her, the girl had assumed that she had nothing to learn.

Turning back to the monitors, the redhead kept those thoughts to herself, simply murmuring, "I'm sure it wasn't that bad, Hel."

Already focused on the screen in front of her, Barbara heard Helena snort noisily as she planted one hip next to the mouse pad and spoke sulkily.

"Huh. I still don't know why I have to play Driver's Ed with the Kid."

Temporarily flummoxed by the fact that her mousing hand seemed to be hindered from its usual smooth actions by the distracting proximity of her younger partner's derriere, Barbara fired back a sharp retort without pausing to think first.

"Perhaps it's because I can't stomp on the imaginary brake pedal, Helena."

Oh. Dear.

Helena's absolute lack of a flippant reply -- not to mention the very slow exhalation which Barbara detected -- immediately clued the older woman in to the fact that her response had come out more bitter than playful. When slender fingers came to rest lightly over her mouse hand, the redhead almost jumped at what seemed to be the unnatural warmth of the soft digits. Acutely conscious of the heat flooding her own body at the gentle touch -- how much had that damned dream affected her? -- Barbara focused on quashing the response and filed away the reaction for later analysis.

"What gives, Barbara? You okay?"

The subdued question held nothing but concern. Out of habit, the older woman attempted to ignore the sentiment.

"What do you mean, Helena? I'm fine."

Her attempts to move her hand to the keyboard and re-focus on her quantum encryption algorithm was gently denied when the younger woman clasped her hand, stroking the back lightly with her thumb.

"C'mon, Barbara. This is me. You look like... well... like shit. And..."

The redhead peripherally noted a shaggy head ducking down before cerulean eyes caught hers.

"... when you start making paraplegic jokes, something's up. Spill it."

Feeling that previously not-unpleasant, albeit curious, wash of blood inch up her chest and neck, the older woman exhaled slowly. She well knew just how relentless Helena could be... especially when the young woman thought she was looking out for her former guardian. It was, after all, that very relentlessness which had initially pulled Barbara from her deep depression after the shooting, which had encouraged her to start teaching again, which had urged her to pursue her crime fighting activities in cyberspace, which had -- frankly -- kept her alive and, eventually, allowed her to realize that life could be worth living from a wheelchair.

Unable to forget that sort of shared history, the redhead fought a small wave of shame for her words.

"I'm sorry, Hel."

Green eyes looked up to meet blue fully, and Barbara offered a slightly embarrassed smile as she turned her hand to clasp the other woman's.

"It was just a silly dream last night. I didn't get much sleep, and it still seems to be bothering me."

The concern in those expressive caramel features couldn't be missed.

"Was it about..."

Barbara clearly detected the brunette's hesitation over the words.

"... that night?"

While nightmares about that night seven years ago were now infrequent and certainly less choking than those which had haunted her every night for years after the shooting, they did still occur. Worried that she might have inadvertently brought up some painful memories for her former ward -- those had been hard days and nights for both of them -- the older woman hastily shook her head.

"No, no -- not that, Sweetheart."

In the hope that she could relieve some of the tension from the young woman, she summoned a small laugh and addressed the question obvious in a raised dark brow.

"It was... I was on patrol, as Batgirl, hot-dogging on the bike."

The redhead was warmed by the other woman's tender smile and a gentle squeeze to her hand. Of all people, Barbara knew that Helena understood the bittersweet melancholy that such a dream would create. Nightly, the dark woman flew across the rooftops, without the wires and cables that Barbara had needed, exulting in the freedom and flight just as her mentor had so many years before.

Eager to ease any further concerns, the redhead ignored her blush -- up to her eyebrows now -- and laughed at her own expense, attempting to lighten the mood with a whitewashed version of the truth.

"Then, er, in the dream, I was keyed up...?"

She raised a brow in question, certain that her rather wild younger partner would understand the reference. A beat later, she quirked her lips in response to a knowing nod, and continued.

"And, while I was, er, well... The dream ended rather abruptly."

Mercifully, the strategy seemed to work, and Helena withdrew her hand with a chuckle.

"I can see how that could leave you on edge, Red."

The younger woman's tone and features seamlessly shifted, becoming something purring like velvet, playful like fingers whispering over skin. Barbara belatedly realized that she might have made a tactical error in revealing the back half of her dream.

"If you need any help with that, Barbara, I'm always ready to lend a hand."

Dark eyebrows waggled lasciviously, and the older woman play-swatted at her companion's stomach, sighing in exasperation.

Honestly, she should have seen that coming. Helena was a born flirt and had certainly perfected her art over the years, largely at the redhead's expense. Barbara wasn't sure if Helena delighted more in the rapid banter that the two sometimes exchanged or in seeing what depth and duration of blush she could raise on her former guardian.

Regardless, sometimes, her timing could be most inconvenient. Still reeling from her own guilt about the unrevealed portions of her dream, the older woman struggled for a teasing rejoinder.

"Honestly, Helena, what would happen to your flirting if I took you up on one of your suave and subtle offers one day and forced you to get it out of your system?"

Having expected some sort of reply in kind -- probably one involving thinly veiled allusions to specific bedroom activities -- Barbara was unprepared for her younger friend's response.

For a beat, the dark figure remained absolutely still. Then, fascinated, the redhead observed a rapid transformation in the other woman.

Helena stiffened, her eyes augmenting to yellow slits, a soft growl bubbling from her throat. Shocked by the response -- to her knowledge, the young woman's feral mode signified either anger or... arousal -- Barbara managed to gasp out a single syllable.


She was left terribly confused, nerves thrumming from some sort of tension, when the younger woman suddenly stood and leaned over her, bringing their faces within inches of each other.

Pinned by a molten gaze, Barbara remained frozen in place when Helena finally spoke.

"That's not what this is about, Red."

Chapter 3

Mluch ado about nothing, indeed.

At least, that was very much what Barbara suspected she'd find when she worked up the courage to tackle her fourth period's essays on The Bard's play.

Balefully eyeing the seven inch stack of papers on her desk, she reached up to seat her glasses and sighed. Each year, it seemed that her students' submissions got longer and, inversely, less original. When Cliff's Notes had been the primary mechanism for glossing assignments, it had been a piece of cake to catch students who took shortcuts. But now, with the wealth of information available online, it raised the bar for her.

Often, it was easy enough to spot the same passages -- verbatim -- in more than one essay; and she certainly wasn't going to be the one to clue her students in to the wisdom of not automatically selecting the first hit which Google brought back. However, in other cases, it was often a niggling sixth sense -- the redhead had yet to decide whether it was a sense honed from teaching or from crime fighting -- an awareness that the prose and content were "off". In those situations, she was always willing to scan an essay and unleash one of her custom- programmed lexical 'bots to see if an original work turned up online. If nothing else, the expression on teenage faces when she returned their essays -- with the original stapled to them and an invitation to repeat the exercise, after school, in the classroom -- was reward enough for any extra effort on her part.

Flipping up the cover page of the first offering, Barbara lost herself in her reading. When she reached the third page of -- good grief -- nine, she found herself gnawing at her purple felt tip and bent slightly to fish in her bottom drawer for her sack lunch. She gave the can of Slim Fast a quick shake and popped the top -- not too tasty but terribly convenient -- before setting it precisely to one side of her blotter. She positioned her multigrain crackers next to the can and picked up her oversized Granny Smith, absently buffing it against her sweater-clad shoulder as she refocused on the next page of terribly unoriginal prose.

Half a paragraph later, the apple flew from her grasp -- snagged with deceptive ease in mid-air by a tan hand -- when the door to the classroom burst open and Barbara jerked upright with a startled gasp. The hand which had been holding her lunch flew to the older woman's pounding heart, and she fixed her visitor with a stern look.

"Good god, Helena, you scared the shit out of me."

Bumping the door shut with a slim hip, the brunette offered an apologetic smile and inspected the fruit in her hand. Apparently finding it of interest, she raised it to her face and sniffed delicately before taking a bite. She chewed with evident pleasure before speaking leisurely.

"Ms. Gordon. What would your students say about your language?"

The teacher steadfastly ignored the odd twisting in her stomach at the sight of her young friend's flaring nostrils, at the expression of enjoyment gracing gamine features as Helena chewed. Barbara decided that she must have been more hungry than she'd realized and replied archly.

"They'd probably offer to teach me some more impressive expletives that even you haven't heard."

After a beat, she added dryly, "I'll have you know that's a significant portion of my lunch that you're eating, Hel."

The redhead couldn't even pretend to display any real ire. She'd never been able to stay angry with the brunette. She, also, was simply pleased to see Helena.

Two nights before, after the brunette had made her passionate -- if cryptic -- statement, she'd grabbed her duster and departed before Barbara could collect her wits to apologize or ask what the hell was going on or... something. The night before, Helena had left a brief message that she had a double shift at the Dark Horse and that Barbara should call if she was needed on sweeps. Since nothing of significance had been occurring and since the older woman was still uncertain about the exchange, Barbara hadn't called, offering the younger woman whatever space and time she might need to collect herself after her odd declaration.

Apparently, if the brunette's impromptu lunchtime visit to the school could be used as a gauge, the strategy had worked. The redhead found herself, as always when she had to go more than a day without seeing or talking with the younger woman, happy -- simply happy -- to be with her.

Sauntering towards Barbara's desk, the lithe figure raised the hand which was not in possession of the teacher's lunch and waved a large and somewhat greasy paper bag cheerfully.

"I think I can make it up to you, Red."

The older woman followed blue eyes as they regarded the other two lunch items on her desk disdainfully.

"And that is not lunch, Barbara. Ya gotta keep your strength up to go head- to-head in your next three classes, don't you?"

Laughing, the older woman recapped her felt tip and rotated ninety degrees to face the conference chair by her desk as her visitor planted herself in it. Still, she didn't give ground completely.

"Perhaps, Hel. What exactly did you bring that can possibly compete with my lo-cal but nutritionally balanced lunch?"

The younger woman deposited the bag on her desk with a thump and began to rummage through it, pulling out paper-wrapped items, small bags of chips, and various containers.


Green eyes widened appreciatively, and Barbara felt a blush touch her cheeks when her stomach rumbled its approval. Somehow, she managed to pretend she didn't notice the dancing blue eyes and smirking features trained on her.

"Uh huh. Thought so."

The brunette mercifully let it go and pushed a sandwich towards her. The older woman hiked an eyebrow in question.

"Pastrami on rye, brown mustard on the side, right? With a jumbo German potato salad -- "

Slender fingers scootched a styrofoam container towards her.

"-- and extra pickles."

Grinning happily, the redhead attacked the paper on her sandwich, murmuring, "I thought that I was the one with the infallible memory, Sweetie."


The word was muffled by a mouthful of Helena's Reuben.

"How could I forget after all of the deli we ate back in the day?"

This lightly spoken reference forced another laugh to bubble past the older woman's lips.

"True, Hel."

She snagged a plastic knife and placed a neat layer of mustard on half of her sandwich.

"Although, I really didn't think I'd ever want to touch the stuff again after eating it almost every day for a year."

The brunette's snort of acknowledgement, coinciding with a fizzy hiss as she lifted the tab on her soda can, brought another blush to the redhead's face.

During their first early years together, after she'd decided to emerge from her darkened bedroom and embrace her new role as Helena' guardian, Barbara had repeatedly attempted to prove her nonexistent domestic skills by concocting one manifestly awful meal after another. To Helena's very great credit, the redhead had later realized, the hurting and angry teen had tried valiantly to choke down her new guardian's offerings each evening... for two months. After that, the girl had simply taken to stopping by the deli most nights on her way home from school, and, wisely, Barbara had quickly seen the wisdom of having something edible for one meal each day. Until the ever-faithful Alfred had managed to insinuate his twice-weekly cooking into their lives, the two women had largely survived on processed meats and salads... and the occasional fresh fruit that Barbara picked up from the corner vendor when she summoned her courage to test her wheels and venture from the apartment.

Neatly forestalling any of a number of possible digs from the brunette, given the opening she'd left, Barbara forked some potato salad towards her mouth and spoke again.

"So, what's the occasion, Helena? It usually takes a cadre of supervillains to get you near this place."

While academic discipline had never been the younger woman's greatest love, after the murder of her mother during her sophomore year, Helena had developed an active loathing for scholastic pursuits. Between her intrinsic intelligence, her angry sarcastic wit, and her meta-enhanced fighting abilities, it had been a small miracle to Barbara that she'd managed to cajole, plead, and challenge her ward through to graduation.

"No occasion, Babs."

The young woman expertly opened two bags of chips with an intriguing motion of thumb and forefinger.

"I was out looking for some new boots and passed this place. Since it actually smelled good -- "

Wide blue eyes emphasized the young woman's description, and Barbara had to admit that if Helena's enhanced sense of smell found a restaurant favorable, it usually was.

"... well, I just tripped right down memory lane and ended up here."

The redhead chuckled, but any reply was cut short when the classroom door cracked open and a blonde head peeked in -- preceded by a sunny voice.

"Hey, Barbara! I wondered if it'd be alright to... Oh!"

Dinah's pale blue eyes widened as the tall girl eased into the room.

"Hey, Helena. What are you do-- Oooooh!"

Barbara raised a paper napkin to her lips to hide her smile when the girl's eyes grew saucer-sized.

"Cool! Non-cafeteria food! Can I have some?"

"Hello, Dinah."

Ruefully eying the decimated remains of her sandwich, the redhead wondered how she'd torn through it so quickly. Mentally shrugging, she admitted that she had been hungry -- her nerves hadn't allowed her to eat much in the last two days -- and gestured to her half-full container of potato salad.

"You're welcome to whatever I haven't managed to... inhale yet."

The blonde's happy grin was accompanied by a gleeful snicker from her luncheon companion. Turning, the older woman steeled herself and regarded the dark woman evenly.

" 'Hoovered' is more like it, Barbara."

The redhead rolled her eyes indulgently before the expression transformed to an affectionate smile at the sight of her always-hungry partner tearing her own sandwich in half and extending the larger piece.

"Here, Kid. You can have half of mine."

Barbara felt her features shift for a third time in the space of a minute, and she raised her soda can to hide a knowing smirk, when she observed the brunette surreptitiously sliding the two jumbo oatmeal chocolate chip cookies under the stack of essays and out of Dinah's range of vision.

Apparently, her former ward's willingness to share had its limits.

"So, Dinah..."

Green eyes refocused on her current charge, who was doing some "hoovering" of her own with Helena's sandwich.

"... I believe you were asking something?"

"Wha--? Oh, yeah."

The teen lowered her sandwich, swallowing hastily.

"I wanted to make sure that it would be okay to hang out at Gabby's tonight? We're going to drill each other for Saturday's SATs."

Clamping down on her nearly overwhelming need to explain -- not for the first time -- that it was essentially impossible to cram for the college aptitude tests, the older woman merely smiled and nodded. After all, given her observation of the two girls' developing relationship during their senior year, she suspected that not much studying would be occurring.

"As long as you're home--"

"For curfew. Sure thing, Barbara."

The teen enthusiastically cut her off, barreling along.

"And, thanks. We found a great web site with old exams on it and figured that getting extra-familiar with the way the questions are done wouldn't hurt."

The redhead nodded her understanding, then slowly rotated her head toward her other luncheon companion when she peripherally noted dark brows beginning to lower in a ferocious scowl.

"Dammit, D! Cut it out."

Green eyes followed the direction of vexed blue, and Barbara barely bit back a guffaw. The stack of essays which had been camouflaging the decadent cookies was levitating about six inches above her desk, clearly reveling their hidden treasure.

No doubt about it. The teen's abilities with her TK were becoming quite impressive.

"Aww, c'mon, Helena. Those are big enough to share."

Slender tan fingers snagged the desserts just as they began to move across the desk. Simultaneously, Barbara lunged forward and rescued the stack of papers which had begun to topple as the blonde focused on what seemed to be a mental tug-of-war for one of the cookies.

"Share-schmare. I gave you most of my sand -- uh -- wich. 'Sides..."

The brunette relaxed her death grip on the cookie marginally.

"... aren't you supposed to be watching your calories and other teenager shit?"


The look of concentration on the teen's features eased, and Barbara approvingly decided that, apparently, both of her protégés had recognized that the structural integrity of their prize was at risk.

"I mean, you're the one always telling me how skinny I am, aren't you?"

Noting the time -- only ten minutes before her next class -- the older woman smoothly interceded.

"You may have mine, Dinah. Of the three of us, I'm afraid that I'm the only one who needs to watch my figure."

Despite any... limitations, Barbara still worked out and trained hard regularly, but that by no means made up for her enforced sedentary state. Nevertheless, eyeing the gooey treat that the blonde claimed from Helena with an effusive smile, she reconsidered her offer.

"Well, perhaps, I could have a bite...?"

She automatically accepted the remaining cookie which Helena extended, only pausing to consider the notorious sweet-hound's gesture after taking a modest bite and returning the treat. At that moment, Dinah apparently noticed the time herself and edged towards the door.

"Ooops, I've gotta run. Thanks for the lunch, Helena. See you tonight, Barbara."

After the door swung closed, the redhead turned back to her companion, not surprised to find her pushing the final huge bite of cookie into her mouth and gathering up the debris from their lunch.

"Thank you, indeed, Hel. This was a lovely surprise. Your nose was right on target."

Concentrating on wiping up a dollop of mustard, the redhead initially didn't notice when her partner stilled her own movements. When the brunette's lack of motion finally registered, she looked up inquisitively.


"Uh, well, speaking of good meals and all..."

Emerald eyes narrowed speculatively.

Was that a hint of pink suffusing normally blush-proof caramel features?

"There's this new French restaurant that's just opened, and I wanted to give it a try. And, well..."

The brunette smiled winningly, and Barbara suspected that -- whatever the request -- she didn't stand a chance of refusing.

"... Well, you're the only person I know who can either really appreciate it or really riff on it with me."

The redhead smiled tenderly.

"I'd love to go, Helena. When...?"

The younger woman smoothly interrupted as she moved toward the door.

"Is Sunday okay for you? We've either got the usual high crime nights or I'm scheduled at the bar until then. And, well, Sunday is usually pretty dead, crime-wise."

Warmed by her partner's visible concern for the responsibility of their after-hours avocation, the older woman smiled her agreement.

Opening the door, the brunette paused, and Barbara found herself disoriented when teasing blue eyes raked slowly over her from head to toe.

"Don't know what you want to wear, but I think there's a dress code."

Just as the door clicked shut, she heard Helena's final laughing words.

"I guess I'll have to press my jeans or something..."

Chapter 4

"I'm... impressed, Helena."

"Impressed" barely began to describe her reaction, the redhead ruefully admitted, but it seemed to be the best that she could manage at the moment. Multiple degrees, voracious reading, and eidetic memory notwithstanding, it appeared that her brain had simply stuttered to a halt at the sight of her young friend.

"So, you don't think they'll kick us out or anything, huh?"

Still speechless, the older woman simply shook her head while Helena pirouetted showily. The movement revealed a breathtaking amount of smooth, tanned flesh on the other woman's back while causing the usually hidden muscles of the younger woman's calves and lower thighs to flex in a manner that -- for some reason -- caught Barbara's eye. Slowly raising her gaze, the redhead observed how the slender lines of the cocktail dress highlighted her partner's slight curves wonderfully while the deep blue of the material drew unnecessary attention to Helena's always startling eyes.

Hoping that she was finally beginning to recover her oddly shell- shocked wits, the older woman rocked her chair minutely, feeling woefully plain and underdressed in heavy black silk slacks and a muted orange cashmere sweater. Briefly wondering what material made up the brunette's dress, she absently rubbed her fingers against the wheels of her chair, distantly noting an almost itching desire to reach out and touch the fabric.

"Wow, Barbara..."

The redhead guiltily returned her eyes to the younger woman's face.

"... You look awesome."

Barbara detected only sincerity -- perhaps something a bit flirtatious as well -- in the lithe woman's utterance, and she exhaled and relaxed marginally.

Honestly, she didn't know what had... raised her blood pressure so. This was just dinner with Helena, for heaven's sake.

Belatedly, she noted that said dinner companion was still speaking.

"... didn't think that you'd ever start wearing reds and oranges and pinks, but I'm sure glad I was wrong. You just look so damned..."

Nervously, Barbara waited out the brief pause as her younger friend searched for the word.

" hot in those colors."

Feeling distinctly warm at the young woman's purring choice of words -- not to mention the frankly appraising gaze fixed on her -- the older woman smiled shortly and briskly turned to retrieve her coat.

In the last four days, the cyber-crime fighter, truthfully, hadn't given her younger partner's dinner invitation much thought. Amid the usual demands of her students, routine work with Helena during sweeps, continued debugging of her encryption algorithm, nursing Dinah through pre- and post-SAT jitters, and other prosaic elements of daily life -- including getting the Humvee in for some needed body work -- the outing had simply faded to the back of her mind. Barbara had, by no means, forgotten about it; in fact, when faced with the frustration of attempting to decipher the motive behind a puzzling break in at a sporting goods store or of attempting to reassure Dinah -- for the twentieth time on Saturday evening -- that she would be able to get into a good college, the idea of a bit of carefree recreation had been a welcoming beacon of rest and relaxation.

Still, at this moment, faced with a patently stunning Helena Kyle -- not to mention her own oddly incoherent reaction to her, Barbara wondered if she, perhaps, should have spent a few minutes during the last few days mentally preparing for the evening. Pragmatically bowing to the knowledge that she couldn't rewind and restructure the last few days, the redhead chuckled soundlessly and placed her coat on her lap.

"Well, if the color doesn't keep me warm, Helena, this will."

Oddly, the older woman thought she detected a flicker of irritation in her companion's features in response to her lightly spoken words. However, when the brunette smoothly snagged the keys to the van and trailed behind her to the elevator, launching into a story about attempting to head up to the rooftops before realizing that her usual mode of travel wouldn't work in her current ensemble, Barbara decided that she'd been mistaken.

Helena was, she determined, probably just as ready for a carefree evening as she was.

Three and a half hours later, appreciatively savoring the rich aroma emanating from her snifter of cognac and picking delicately at a slice of cheesecake -- Helena had insisted on ordering a serving for her with a short, typically pragmatic, explanation: "You know you're going to want some, and I don't think I'll want to share. Besides, if you don't finish it, I can have it." -- the redhead gratefully acknowledged that "relaxed and fun" described the evening perfectly.

Helena had been on her best behavior, displaying all of her not- inconsiderable charm and humor with one amusing tale after another. The food had been superb with out being ostentatious. The wait staff had been attentive but not intrusive. Even in the course of the dining arrangements, the brunette had removed all need for Barbara to assume her usual responsibilities: the young woman had picked the perfect wine to complement both of their dinners, had casually shared bites of her entree, and had even managed all of their interactions with their server.

Smirking behind the rim of her glass as Helena considered her description of Friday's trip to the body shop with the dented -- torn -- SUV, Barbara cheerfully noted that she didn't even know their server's name this evening. The realization was surprisingly welcome; after all, it spared her one more bit of clutter in her memory.

"... gotta say, even if all that body work is needed, I'm kind of glad that the Hummer's in the garage until next week."

Barbara resettled her snifter and casually pushed her dessert plate towards the brunette, not missing how her dinner companion's eyes lit up in anticipation.

Helena did enjoy her sweets.

"Indeed, Helena. Why might that be?"

The younger woman stilled the movement of a healthy forkful of cheesecake midway to her mouth and looked up.

"Well, Red, as much as you love that ugly old thing, you probably would have wanted to bring it tonight."

The redhead nodded at the truth of Helena's words, and, unable to resist the twinkle in impish blue eyes, she smiled. That smile became decidedly stiff when she heard -- nay, comprehended -- the other woman's next utterance.

"But, no matter how practical it is for sweeps, the Hummer is soooo not right for a date."

Green eyes widened fractionally, and Barbara smoothly raised her water goblet, both to cover her reaction and to wash down the strange lump which had formed in her throat. After a few sips, she resettled the glass and spoke lightly.

"Is that what this is, Helena? A date?"

Hmmm. The older woman thought she'd spoken lightly, but -- judging from her companion's sharp glance up from the dessert plate, perhaps the question had come out a bit too seriously. The redhead waited with seeming calm as Helena gracefully placed her fork on the edge of her plate and then raised the heavy linen napkin to touch her lips.

How could the act of resettling a napkin on one's lap take so long?

The older woman continued to wait, forcing herself to keep her gaze open and steady.

Finally, the brunette spoke. Her voice was quiet; her tone, serious.

"Yeah, Babs. It is. At least..."

Emerald eyes were pierced by earnest blue, and Barbara noted that that damnable lump had reformed in her throat.

"... I'd like it to be."

The redhead was able to halt her reflexive flinch but couldn't suppress her quick inhalation.


Why would Helena...?

What was she supposed to say to...?

The older woman struggled to organize the questions and thoughts racing through her mind. Her emotions she simply pushed aside for later examination. For some reason, a song which had been playing during the drive over ran through her mind, distracting her.

You can look at the menu but you just can't eat
You can feel the cushions but you can't have a seat
You can dip your foot in the pool but you can't have a swim
You can feel the punishment but you can't commit the sin
Some break the rules and live to count the cost
The insecurity is the thing that won't get lost


Ridiculously, the redhead felt unable to bring her thoughts into focus until she could name the singer. Howie...? Howard...?

You can see the summit but you can't reach it
It's the last piece of the puzzle but you just can't make it fit
Doctor says you're cured but you still feel the pain
Aspirations in the clouds but your hopes go down the drain
And you want her and she wants you
No one, no one, no one ever is to blame


Howard Jones. Barbara's relief was profound enough to evoke a soft sigh until she realized that, now, she had no further excuse to keep her from breaking the long, awkward silence.

Acutely aware of her friend's cautious scrutiny, she readily recognized the courage that the young woman had displayed -- was displaying -- and vowed to do her best not to hurt the younger woman with her response. Regrettably, at that moment, she discovered that she simply lacked the facility to say anything in reply and that her very silence had the power to wound.

Barbara Gordon was, therefore, inordinately relieved when the brunette spoke again.

Somewhat amazed, she watched the woman across the table shift minutely before flashing a gentle smile and speaking playfully.

"Relax, Barbara. Breathe."

The redhead felt her eyebrows lift when she noted that she had, indeed, somehow forgotten to breathe. She managed one, then a second, respiration before her body picked up the rhythm and then offered a small, embarrassed, smile of her own. The brunette's smile morphed into a tiny, hesitant, grin.

"So, uh, yeah. Relax. I'm not after your virtue tonight. Contrary to rumor, I don't expect everyone to put out on the first date."

Relieved beyond measure by the familiar banter, Barbara released some of her tension and snorted softly.

"Indeed, Helena. Not on the first date for you or -- "

She hesitated, then held the younger woman's gaze as she finished her statement.

"-- nor for any other member of the fair sex."

Working to keep her expression gentle, she carefully observed the startled blinking of blue eyes, the puzzled comprehension waxing across expressive features.

"Uhm, so you're saying..."

She continued to watch closely as Helena darted out a pink tongue to moisten her lips. Barbara absolutely refused to notice the odd clenching in her abdomen.

"... that you're, uhm, strictly dickly, huh?"

The redhead blinked herself as she deciphered her former ward's meaning, then raised a hand to hold back her quick squeak of laughter. Lowering her hand, Barbara toyed with the stem of her brandy snifter.

"I believe that could be one way to describe it, Sweetie. Although, that hasn't been much of a factor since..."

Pursing her lips, the older woman straightened her shoulders and ruefully recalled herself to the topic at hand.

"I've simply always..."

The older woman trailed off, blushing furiously.

She'd always been unashamedly delighted that she'd assumed responsibility for both of her wards at a point when "The Talk" was no longer necessary. Oh, she'd certainly engaged in some long -- and heated -- discussion with Helena about birth control and other precautions. She'd even had several circumspect conversations in the last few months with Dinah about the beauty of all love -- straight or gay. However, none of her talks with her wards had necessitated this level of... personal disclosure.

Not surprisingly, it appeared that Helena was not going to let the topic die a well- deserved natural death. At the younger woman spoke, Barbara idly wondered if she could use her dessert fork to stab the topic into an unnatural death.

"You've never kissed another woman...? Or touched a woman in passion? Or--"

Barbara raised a hand for mercy, and Helena snapped her mouth shut, looking absolutely incredulous. Her helplessly raised brows and tentative grimace suggested that she believed that her mentor was attempting to pull her leg.

The older woman sighed, raised her snifter, and neatly downed half the contents. Placing her glass carefully on the table, she absently noted the admiration in cerulean eyes.

Helena always had appreciated her older partner's ability to keep up with her -- well, almost keep up with her; the brunette did have some amazing physiology on her side -- during late night movie and tequila binges.

The older woman chose her words carefully.

"I've never had the... interest or the desire, Hel."

Barbara mentally flinched, conscience scratching at her over her chosen words. After all, she suspected that Freud would have quite a bit to say about her rather vivid dream from a week before. Nevertheless, she let her statement stand, waiting patiently as her friend seemed to digest the words.

"Maybe you just haven't... seen the right woman yet."

The words, eerily reminiscent of those spoken by her unseen dream lover, brought a rush of heat to the older woman's torso. A slow anger -- at this conversation, at this impossible situation, at her own body's seeming denial of her own words -- trailed behind that heat. Somehow, the redhead managed to speak calmly.

"True, Helena. Perhaps I haven't yet."

The ire she felt instantly evaporated at the younger woman's next words. So gentle, so achingly hopeful, the brunette's utterance left the older woman filled with emptiness, then bitterness, at the hopelessness of it all.

"Then, look at me, Barbara."

Chapter 5

"Keep your eyes open, Huntress. The alarm didn't go off for no reason."

Barbara steadfastly ignored the irony inherent in the advice she'd just offered to her remote partner, focusing instead on trying to hack into the bank's security cameras and, hopefully, establishing a viewpoint inside the building where an alarm had blipped four minutes earlier. An easy hack into the security system three minutes before had confirmed that the blip had not been a fluke; the system wires had been short-circuited.

<"My eyes are open, Oracle, but I sure don't see any sign of anyone... or anything... outside the building. I'd bet that whoever triggered the alarm is long gone.">

Having just captured one of the bank cameras, the cyber-crime fighter agreed with Helena's guess.

"It appears that you're right, Huntress. Perhaps they triggered the alarm on the way out."

Toggling to another view, she added, "It appears that they got into the vault. Can you take a look, get some photos? But, be quick. Eventually the police may decide to check out the alarm blip."

<"In other words...">

The brunette's voice was wry.

<"...I have time to do my nails and order a pizza, huh?">

Barbara chuckled before her partner spoke again.

<"But, yeah, I'll head in and see what I can find.">

The redhead detected only curiosity and a trace of disappointment in her colleague's voice over the comms and spared a second to offer her mental appreciation that Helena had, apparently, accepted the outcome of Sunday's dinner with equanimity.

When Helena had made her soft plea, her request that Barbara look at her as a possible romantic partner, the older woman had suddenly become intimately acquainted with the feeling of heart break. Practical soul that she was, emotion had seldom deeply touched her relationships with the few Toms, Wades, and Dicks whom she'd allowed into her life... and her bed. For the first time in her life, Barbara Gordon had truly experienced a crushing vise around her heart which robbed her of breath and any feeling but emptiness.

Of all of the people she knew -- had known -- the older woman could not deny that Helena was the dearest, the closest. The young woman was so much a part of her life... and soul... that she simply could not imagine any meaningful life without her. However, what the brunette was suggesting... It was impossible... and wrong... and... and a dream that the older woman wouldn't even allow herself to entertain.

Barbara had carefully lifted her napkin from her lap, sparing a moment's irritation that she'd needed to look down to confirm the presence of the heavy linen on her unfeeling legs, and folded it neatly while she weighed her response. Placing the cloth by her water goblet, she'd reached across the table, painfully aware of the shakiness of her hand, to gently clasp the other woman's warm, slender fingers.

The expression in those open blue eyes -- Helena had never been able, or willing, to hide her feelings -- had left the older woman terrified.

Fear, expectation, trepidation, a tiny glimmer of something Barbara suspected was hope... All had been present.

The redhead couldn't stand the thought of hurting her younger friend with the truth, but she knew that to offer false hope would ultimately be worse. Thus, she'd reached into her sizeable stores of courage, looked directly into the brunette's sweet gaze, and spoken gently.

"That... That's not something I can do, Helena."

She'd watched dark brows lower -- puzzlement? hurt? anger? -- before the young woman had ducked her head. She'd easily recognized her companion's old habit of hiding behind her artfully disheveled bangs and, again, waited. Without looking up, the deceptively delicate woman had placed her napkin on the table and signaled for the check before visibly exhaling and looking up with an expression that Barbara had been unable to read.

"Well, live and learn, right, Red?"

Although Helena had quickly managed to steer their conversation to less charged topics -- the drive home had actually been a great deal less awkward than the redhead had feared -- the young woman's enigmatic question had left the redhead uneasy. She was, in fact, four nights later, still vaguely unsettled.

Helena herself had certainly done -- or said -- nothing in the intervening days to revive a conversation which the older woman fervently hoped was truly dead and buried. True, the brunette had perhaps been a bit less boisterous, or playful, than usual -- even foregoing her usual flirtatious remarks about getting hot and sweaty together during their Wednesday afternoon workout; however, in general, she'd been her usual sweet, attentive self -- even ducking out of work to pick up the Hummer from the garage when Barbara had been unexpectedly delayed by an impromptu faculty meeting.

No, the older woman was forced to admit, the problem wasn't Helena. Rather, it was her own ruthless need to analyze, to understand. Not just what had transpired at the restaurant but her own responses.

Considering the exchange -- and, she'd done little else through the long sleepless nights since that dinner -- the older woman found that she couldn't honestly claim to be surprised by Helena's words... by the young woman's feelings. Given their shared history, given her role in Helena's life, even given the younger woman's decidedly physical nature, she decided that the adolescent crush she'd noticed in her student so many years before, enhanced by what might have been a touch of hero worship during the early years of their crime fighting partnership, and coupled with the very closeness of their current relationship could -- fairly easily -- lead her young protégé to believe that she wanted...


That seemed to be the point where Barbara's brain came to a screeching halt, leaving the redhead almost gasping in terror over the swirling dark chasm of her own emotions. The reaction was not, to say the least, one that the older woman fully understood.

She certainly didn't appreciate it.

Having calmly dealt with countless crushes with detached humor throughout her teaching career, having coped capably with Dick's attentions without ruffling a hair during her days as Batgirl, having easily sidestepped -- or rolled around -- the unwanted advances of numerous lotharios over the years without any sort of emotional vacillation, the older woman was baffled and dismayed by her inability to handle this situation.

It had been Tuesday night -- technically, early Wednesday morning -- when she'd figuratively climbed into the frightening chasm of her heart to discover what the problem was. The answer had completely stripped the darkness -- the blinders -- from her, leaving her genuinely dumbfounded.

Barbara had never denied that emotional introspection was not her strong suite.

Quite simply, and to the older woman's total dismay, she'd realized that she shared Helena's feelings.

Still, while the insight itself was discomfiting, the act of discovery -- as usual for the analytical woman -- brought with it some measure of relief. Having identified the source of her... problem, Barbara now felt free to search for a solution. Said introspective searching had consumed all of her bedtime hours the night before, drawing the redhead to the inevitable conclusion that she had no choice but to put her completely unusual and inappropriate feelings behind her. Yet, as eminently sensible and rational as the decision was, the older woman was discovering that it somehow continued to leave her... uneasy.

Pushing her unease aside, Barbara smoothly multitasked between monitoring the police band for signs that New Gotham's finest might surprise Helena and attempting to rewind and replay the bank's fuzzy analog security tapes. The quality of the recording was so bad that she doubted that she'd be able to find anything useful even if the burglars had been foolish enough to be caught on camera.

To her surprise, the cyber-genius detected a flicker of movement for a few seconds from one camera. Cutting the images, she transferred them to the Delphi's res-enhancement programs and lost herself in sensitive adjustments of the four most viable frames. Agile fingers flew across the keyboard, using combination keystrokes to highlight specific sections of the images rather than taking the time to lift her hand to the mouse. Programs which Barbara had originally tweaked before re-writing from scratch when she couldn't achieve the level of functionality which she demanded processed the selected portions at blinding speed and, with an almost eerily human level of intelligence, blended and enhanced the resulting image until...

The redhead straightened, guiltily pulling herself back from her over-close inspection of one monitor -- Helena was continually chiding her about being too close -- and removed her glasses with a rueful chuckle. After all of the tweaking and redesign she'd performed over the years, the cyber-crime fighter knew that the Delphi could easily outperform everything that NASA and the IRS combined could throw at a problem. But, for all of the processing power she'd just unleashed on the images, she was left with one remote image of the back of someone's head.

Oh, well, perhaps the rather distinct male balding pattern would prove useful in convicting the burglar when he was caught.

"What's so funny? Don't tell me you're downloading more Latin palindromes or something..."


The older woman's exclamation came out about two octaves higher than usual as she turned to pin her younger partner with a hard look. Blue eyes widened before an abashed smile crept across dark features.

"Oh. Sorry."

The younger woman approached the computer platform diffidently.

"I, uh, did the thumping and rustling thing..."

Barbara exhaled and deliberately gentled her features. It wasn't Helena's fault that she'd been -- as usual -- completely absorbed in her work and oblivious to her cat- footed partner's arrival on the balcony. Chuckling at her own expense, she rotated forty- five degrees.

"No. I'm sorry. No harm done, Sweetie."

Helena's response to that -- a sweet, happy smile -- coincided with what Barbara thought might be the overdue heart attack from all of the scares that her partner had inflicted on her through the years. Conversely, she also felt a renewed twinge of guilt for her ogre-like overreaction.

Well, Helena -- and her reactions to her -- always had been contradictory and confusing.

"Did you manage to discover anything inside the bank?"

The young vigilante had carefully managed to keep herself out of camera range, so Barbara had not been able to track her movements in the building.

The brunette dug into the pocket of her leather duster and stepped onto the platform, extending the digital camera.

"You were right about the vault being cracked. Looked like the twelve inch steel was cut through with a hot knife or something."

Crimson brows shot upward as the older woman accepted the camera with a nod of thanks and began to dump the stills. The power required to cut through the vault's lock as Helena had described would be tremendous. She hoped that some of her partner's photos would provide some clues in identifying exactly what sort of instrument had been used.

"And, yes," the younger woman apparently read her mentor's mind, "I took about two hundred pictures of the vault door."

The redhead looked up with an unashamedly affectionate smile.

When she'd first begun flirting with the idea of this partnership five years earlier, Barbara had entertained no illusions about the discipline that her headstrong ward would need to embrace for her role on the streets. While she'd had few doubts about the young woman's physical abilities for crime fighting, she simply hadn't been certain that the girl -- who had spent her last two years of high school actively rebelling at any sort of structure -- would be wiling or able to handle the more prosaic aspects of vigilante crime fighting.

Although there had been some... rocky moments during the first year of their partnership, now Barbara had to admit that her protege had settled in to -- actually seemed to have embraced -- all of the aspects of her role with her usual grace and ability.

"Hey --"

Was that a tiny dusting of pink in the brunette's cheeks?

"... It was cheaper than candy and flowers, and I knew you'd like it more."

This time, Barbara had no doubts about the presence of the blush. Unfortunately, it was on her own cheeks.

"Could you identify what had been taken from the vault, Helena?"

"Well, that was pretty bizarre, Barbara."

The older woman waited expectantly.

"There they were... all of these bags and stacks and bundles of cash, still sitting there. Untouched."

"What did they--"

"I don't know what they wanted, Barbara, but they were looking for it in the safety deposit boxes," the younger woman supplied before Barbara could complete her question.

The young woman added, "Every one had been sliced open just like the door."

The redhead rolled her eyes and exhaled in frustration.

"It's going to take weeks -- at best -- for the bank to contact all of the box holders and put together an inventory of what was taken."

She didn't bother to add the obvious -- that the accuracy of such an inventory, supplied by the box-holders themselves, would be dubious, at best.

Observing her partner's slightly sympathetic shrug, the cyber- crime fighter released her tension. After all, unusual break-in method aside, a bank job in New Gotham was hardly out of the ordinary.

As if following her train of thought, the brunette flashed a grin and stepped gracefully from the platform.

"Don't sweat it too much, Red. It could just be a welder hunting for the family coin collection or something."

Laughing lightly, Barbara followed her partner to the kitchen, curious about what sort of snack Helena would scrounge up this evening. On her way to the table, she turned towards the kettle but was waved back.

"Earl Grey or some of that herbal decaf crap you like at night?"

The older woman set the brake on her chair and watched her younger friend expertly retrieve her favorite cup and saucer and then rummage through the refrigerator, emerging with cream for her and a pie plate of chocolate silk pie.

" 'Crap' would be lovely, Helena. Thank you for asking."

The dark woman ducked her head as she set various items on the table, but the redhead didn't miss the twinkle in blue eyes which were partially hidden by shaggy bangs. The brunette moved to the stove, waiting for the water to heat, and snagged a package of instant cocoa and two tea bags. Barbara hid her smirk, still not understanding, after seven years, why the other woman insisted that the strength of the tea should be doubled if it didn't contain caffeine.

"So, uhm, anything new on that weird break in at the sporting goods store?"

Extending her cup as Helena approached with the whistling kettle, the redhead chuckled quietly.

"Still nothing. Why someone would bother to break into the place and take every rifle barrel -- but nothing else -- is beyond me."

She dunked her tea bags, absently adding, "At this point, I'd guess it might be a fraternity prank."

The brunette flopped into a chair and dug a fork into the pie. Barbara noted that a second fork had magically appeared on her side of the table.

"Oh, speaking of college idiocy..."

The younger woman chewed and swallowed, stirring her cocoa absently with one slender finger.

"... On sweeps last night, D. was talking about your trip up to State on Monday."

The redhead blew across her teacup and nodded, unconsciously retrieving her fork and spearing a bit of pie. She was quite aware of her newest ward's excitement over the upcoming overnight trip to visit the university. Honestly, Barbara herself was looking forward to the short trip, suspecting that time at a campus awash with visiting high school seniors would bring back happy memories from her own college years. Granted, those years had been consumed as much with fighting crime as with academic pursuits; however, they still had been rife with unlimited possibilities.

"Indeed, Hel."

She washed down her bite of dessert with a sip of tea, grimacing at the combination of strong herbs and cloying sweetness. She ignored the knowing smirk from across the table.

"Uh huh," the brunette confirmed around a mouthful of pie.

Honestly, the way that Helena attacked her food with something approaching complete abandon was almost indecent. Barbara ruthlessly quashed her first descriptive phrase, deciding that the words "orgasmic delight" were not conducive to keeping track of the conversation.

"And, the Ki-- Dinah was going on about fitting in and looking cool and, naturally,"

The brunette looked over the rim of her mug, irony clear in her gaze.

"... that got her to thinking she needed to borrow my bolero jacket."

Surprised that she hadn't heard the fallout from that conversation over the comms, the older woman pursed her lips and blew on her tea again, still not clear where the conversation was going.

"Then, when I told her that there's no way she's leaving my sight in that jacket -- "

Helena interrupted herself, aggrievement almost palpable.

"I mean, shit, Barbara, I've only had it three months!"

The older woman opted for an understanding nod. Helena, clothes-horse that she was, did not share well with others.

Apparently appeased, the younger woman lowered her mug and fiddled with her fork.

"Well, uh, that's when Dinah got it in her mind that I should come."

Green eyes blinked slowly, but the redhead took pains to mask her disappointment.

Of course the teen would find the prospect of a short road trip and exploration of the campus more fun with the brunette. Not only was Helena a great deal more likely to find -- or create, she admitted wryly -- opportunities for illicit fun but she was also, of course, decidedly more mobile.

While the older woman cast about for an appropriate response, Helena spoke again.

"She, uh, thinks it'd be more fun with all of us there, but I know you were kind of looking forward to the, uh, special time and everything, and I don't want to be some sort of third wheel or anything..."

The brunette trailed off, staring fixedly at the plate of pie between them on the table, while the older woman considered the subtext inherent in the fact that Helena had even relayed the conversation. The younger woman had never shown any interest in higher education for herself -- Barbara mentally rolled her eyes at that little understatement, infallible memory instantly supplying words and images from some of the heated discussions she'd had with her ward about that topic -- but, clearly, something about Dinah's suggestion appealed to her.

Without another thought, Barbara spoke firmly.

"Nonsense, Hel. If you'd like to join us, I'd be delighted."

Chapter 6

Chains of love got a hold on me
When passion's a prison, you can't break free
You're a loaded gun
There's nowhere to run
No one can save me
The damage is done
Shot through the heart
And you're to blame
You give love a bad name
I play my part and you play your game
You give love a bad name


Emerging from the vast university library with Dinah, two dozen other high school seniors and their parents, and the group's two student guides, Barbara Gordon shook her head minutely against the ridiculous lyrics still swirling through her mind. She had no idea what it would take to erase the song.

Ignoring Bon Jovi's sentiments as best she could, the redhead allowed their college guides' words to blow past her as she basked in the sunshine and fresh air of the unseasonably warm afternoon. Snow still sparkled all around, however, the clear blue skies seemed to stretch forever, an apt metaphor, she supposed, for the hopes and expectations of the crowd of eager young adults around her.

Noting that the tour appeared to be wrapping up for the day, with Mitsy and Frank providing each visitor with instructions for meeting with faculty in specific disciplines in the morning, Barbara turned her attention to contemplating what the missing member of their party might have been up to for the last half of the tour. As the brunette had promised, the older woman could spy her across the common, waiting for them at the pond and -- it appeared -- frightening the campus ducks. When Dinah approached, campus map and directions for her meetings with faculty in the biology and physics departments in hand -- the teen had yet to settle on one of the two disciplines -- the redhead decided that she simply preferred not to postulate on how her former ward had been amusing herself for the last few hours.

After all, Helena had certainly been on her best behavior all day, arriving at the clock tower in plenty of time for their sunrise departure, graciously allowing Dinah to drive the first leg of the trip, even acquiescing cheerfully when Barbara had vetoed her first two suggestions for roadside brunch stops. When Helena had finally taken the wheel, she'd managed to keep her speed down to something approaching the legal limit and even produced -- to the older woman's distinct amusement -- a mix tape of 80's "hair band" music.

To Helena's delight and Dinah's embarrassment, the older woman had found herself joining in with the brunette's singing, effortlessly grooving to her musical roots.

Even after arriving at the hotel, the younger woman had waved off the redhead's apology about the accommodations -- at this late date, during visitor's week, they hadn't had a chance of booking a second room -- and cheerfully claimed the couch in the living area of the suite, claiming that crashing on the couch and watching TV were her M.O. anyway.

Therefore, halfway through the tour of the stately campus, when Helena had whispered that she wanted to do some exploring on her own, Barbara had simply smiled and sent her on her way.

"So, whaddaya think, D?"

The brunette bounded up to meet them from a concrete bench where she had, in fact, been hissing quietly at the college's terrified waterfowl.

"Oh, wow, Helena! It's amazing, and you missed some of the neatest stuff. I mean, did you know that the library has the original manuscript from..."

Offering her younger friend a sympathetic smile -- both women were well acquainted with Dinah's spates of verbal effusiveness -- Barbara rotated her neck quickly and unobtrusively shifted in her chair. After the long drive and the lengthy tour, she was looking forward to some stretching in their room to loosen her lower back. She might even have time before dinner to dial in and check the monitoring routines on the Delphi.

On the short trip back to the Hummer and the shorter drive to the hotel, she half- listened as Helena drew Dinah out about the tour and her reactions to the school so far.

When had her frequently self-absorbed younger partner gotten so patient with the teen?

"Tell you what, D..."

Barbara sighed gratefully when the brunette slid a keycard into the lock of the room.

"... Let's table the rest until later. Right now, I think that we--"

The redhead didn't miss the pointed look being directed her way.

"-should all hit the pool downstairs."

Dinah bounced into the bedroom that she was sharing with the older woman with a suddenly very youthful squeal of delight, and Barbara opened her mouth to protest. Her words were neatly cut off.

"C'mon, Red. You know your back's in agony, and you saw that indoor oasis they've got down there. And, while it's probably not as good as I could do for you..."

The redhead felt the expected blush crawl up her neck at the waggle of dark brows.

"... it's probably the next best thing."

The older woman snapped her mouth shut, then slowly opened and closed it again before trying another tact.

"I don't have a suit."

The brunette looked up with a self-satisfied smirk as she dug through her own duffle.

"When I saw the web site for this place, I told D to throw yours in. I know it's been a while, but -- "

Barbara worked not to squirm under the frankly assessing blue eyes which traveled down her body.

"-- I'm guessing that it'll still fit just fine."

The redhead blinked rapidly. Just what sort of tidal wave was washing over her?

It had, indeed, been "a while" since she'd worn the suit and been in a pool. During the first few years of her recovery, Helena had accompanied her several times each week to the pool. The workouts had been, as her PTs had claimed, completely non- impact and had done wonders in helping restore and increase her upper body strength. However, once she'd... rejoined the world so to speak, her duties had gradually taken precedence over the time in the water. Oddly, Barbara realized, she'd missed the time in the pool.

Still, how had Helena...?

Befuddlement morphed into a different emotion -- one that the redhead opted not to identify -- at the vision of Helena triumphantly removing two ridiculously small pieces of white lycra from her bag.

Certainly, that tiny amount of material wasn't sufficient to provide decent coverage...

Swallowing with some difficulty, she allowed the younger woman to shoo her towards the bedroom where Dinah, already clad in her hot pink racing suit, had laid out her own modest black one-piece.

And so it was that, barely fifteen minutes later, the older woman found herself effortlessly floating in the almost absurdly warm, crystalline waters of the hotel's oversized indoor pool. She stretched backward, luxuriating in the ease of movement the water afforded and realized with bittersweet insight that this was an environment in which her useless lower half wasn't really noticeable or a hindrance.

Barbara firmly pushed that train of thought aside, just as she firmly forced herself not to stare at her two companions in the otherwise empty pool. She began a modified butterfly stroke which would eat up laps in the pool, quite confident that the two young women could amuse themselves -- loud splashes and giggles evidenced a cannonball contest.

Quite frankly, the cyber genius suspected that any protracted study of Helena in her swimwear might adversely affect her... rhythm. While the young woman's tankini was practically as modest as her own one-piece, the white material beautifully highlighted the younger woman's tanned skin while the cropped top clearly revealed delineated abdominals. Given the feelings that she'd been wrestling with, Barbara simply didn't care to add any potential fuel to her subconscious fires.

Therefore, the redhead did something she was quite proficient at: she focused. For long minutes, she concentrated on steady, regular strokes -- crawl, butterfly, sidestroke. Finally pleasantly stretched, muscles slightly tensed from the exercise, the redhead turned on to her back and floated, feeling deliciously weightless and... free.

A shout from the other end of the pool caught her attention, and she smoothly rotated and stroked towards her young companions.

"You've got to see this, Barbara."

Helena was crouched on the side of the pool next to Dinah, peering intently into the water, an indecent amount of long, tanned leg almost at eye level as the redhead reached the side and steadied herself with one hand on the edge. She noted the way that her toes seemed to be touching bottom and swallowed a self- depreciating snort.

For the first time in a long while, she was over five feet tall again and vertical under her own power, without the strain of parallel bars.

She managed to speak lightly.

"What am I looking at?"

The brunette looked up with a dazzling grin. There was no recourse but to smile back.

"Just watch."

Helena turned to the teen.

"Do it again, Dinah."

In a moment, the water several feet to Barbara's left, in front of Dinah, swirled and then... parted.

Crimson brows shot all the way to the older woman's hairline, and Barbara watched as Helena slipped over the side of the pool and into the cylinder of... space which Dinah was creating in the water. The dark figure gracefully, almost negligently, turned onto her hands, head at the bottom of the pool. Her next words were muffled.

"Hit it, D."

The top end of the tube closed and sank into the water. The redhead noted that she could barely detect its edges -- a sphere around Helena -- under the water. The young woman began to move on hands and knees on the bottom of the pool, and Barbara smiled at the image.

Other than the fact that the brunette was under five feet of water in a TK "thought bubble", she appeared to be a mime, crawling in an invisible ball.

"That's remarkable, Dinah."

The redhead looked up from the vision of her scantily clad younger partner frisking in a mentally created bathysphere in time to see her teenaged ward turn toward her, a beaming smile in place.

"Yeah, it's kinda neat! I've been practicing some at home, you know, in the shower, and it's a lot easier when I'm projecting around myself inst--"

"Dinah," Barbara interrupted, "should you be concentrat---"

"Pfffft! Ack! Dammit, Kid!"

The speaker, who had just broken the surface of the pool with a noisy splash and some impressive sputtering, paused to clear a bit more chlorinated water from her lungs. Barbara observed her carefully -- mouth-to-mouth could be required, after all -- as the younger woman swam to the side with a decisive scissor kick and then effortlessly hoisted herself over the edge to pin the teen with a glower.

"I thought one of us was supposed to give a signal when you were gonna pop the balloon."

The redhead winced sympathetically as a deep blush began to cover every bit of Dinah's exposed pale skin. The blonde gulped audibly and looked up to meet her accuser's gaze.

"Uhm... I'm really sorry? It's just, uh, Barbara sort of said something and--"

A tan hand raised in the universal sign for "stop", and Dinah trailed off.

Pursing her lips against a smile, the redhead considered the younger woman's reaction. From long association, she knew that, while Helena adored long -- long -- showers and tubs and swims, she simply despised unplanned soakings. The tension vibrating through the lithe frame clearly bespoke her level of agitation, and Barbara waited for the fallout.

Helena inhaled deeply, then emitted a pained sigh, turning to stalk over to her towel. Distantly, Barbara could hear her muttering.

"Yeah. Yeah. Spare me. You and Barbara and the big- brain concentration thing. Sheesh."

Smiling in full now, the redhead returned her attention to the teen, who was hesitantly explaining how she created the weak force field. Even while she calculated how they could test and strengthen this new manifestation of Dinah impressive mental skills, Barbara guiltily realized that she was still half-watching the brunette as she dabbed at her face and hair.

If the intriguing outlines under Helena's tank were any indication, clearly the temperature out of the warm pool was a great deal cooler than in the water. Since she was still submerged to her shoulders, Barbara couldn't quite understand why specific areas of her own skin seemed to be contracting.

Perhaps it was a sympathetic reaction?

However, she forced herself to admit, that didn't explain why her mouth seemed to be going dry at the sight of the water trailing down the brunette's exposed abdomen.

With a rough sigh of irritation, Barbara spoke quickly as she began to push away from the edge of the pool.

"Let's try to set up some controlled tests when we get home, Dinah."

She didn't miss the puzzlement flickering across youthful features, but the teen simply smiled and rolled forward into the pool. At the same moment, she saw her other charge drop her towel and take two quick steps before launching herself into a showy midair somersault which ended with a clean dive into the deep end. Green eyes blinked at the image of the tan, slender lines of the young woman's body parting the water with nary a splash.

The redhead grimly acknowledged that there could be little doubt that the vision would be indelibly burned in her memory.

Vowing not to dwell on it, the older woman stretched onto her back again, feeling several muscles and vertebrae in her lower back pop pleasurably.

"Shit, Barbara--"

The purring voice, seemingly only inches from her face, caused the redhead to start and flail briefly before slender arms gently clasped her waist from behind. The sensation of bare -- and barely covered -- skin against her back and the pressure of tender, sure hands against her sides caused the older woman to stiffen again.

"Relax, Barbara. I didn't mean to scare you."

The instant that Barbara regained control, she felt those strong hands slide off her waist, the warm skin at her back move away. She was shocked by the feeling of emptiness that the loss of contact engendered.

Aware of the splashing approach of her teenaged ward, the older woman somehow managed to speak lightly.

"No harm done, Helena. You, yourself, were just making an observation about Dinah and my powers of concentration."

Easily floating a few feet away, the brunette threw back her head and laughed.

"I thought that I was the one with the super hearing, Babs."

The redhead winked, and Helena continued.

"Reason I damned near scared you into drowning was 'cuz I heard your back popping all the way over there."

The young woman swam in a lazy circle around Barbara and Dinah.

"Told you the pool would be good."

The redhead chuckled and moved towards the steps, and Dinah swam past her, climbing out.

"You were quite right, Hel. I'd forgotten how wonderful this feels. Sometimes,"

She paused and caught blue eyes.

"I think I should stay in the water all the time. It's so much... easier."

There was a flicker of comprehension in those amazing eyes, but the young woman kept things light.

"Heck, Red, even if you stayed in the water, you'd probably end up being Aqua- woman or something."

Dark thoughts vanishing instantly -- somehow, Helena just seemed to know how to evaporate her self-doubts -- the redhead gracefully maneuvered herself up the steps to the edge of the pool where her chair waited. The younger woman emerged right behind her, water cascading down her slender form and sheeting over her smooth skin. The brunette snagged a handful of towels from the waiting Dinah and lined the chair seat before leaning down.

"May I offer you a lift, Ms. Gordon?"

The young woman knew perfectly well that Barbara was capable of seating herself. She was also well acquainted with the redhead's dislike of being "handled". Yet, relaxed from the warm water and a trifle uncertain about the wisdom of muscling herself into the chair in her damp, tight swimsuit, Barbara felt only appreciation for the offer. Wondering just how Helena knew when to ask, she smiled and raised her arms for a lift.

In a heartbeat, an impossibly warm, bare arm was behind her back. The older woman knew that, if she looked, she'd see the other under her knees. She didn't detect even a hint of strain when the dark figure lifted her.

Barbara exhaled slowly, resolutely attempting to remain focused on anything other than the sensation of the other woman's chest against her side, something other than the smooth, damp skin of Helena's shoulder where her hand lightly rested, something other than the dizzying proximity of bright blue eyes and full lips so close to her face.

"You were certainly on target about the pool, Helena. Thank you for suggesting it."

Apparently occupied with getting her settled carefully in the chair -- Honestly, sometimes the younger woman treated her as if she were made of spun glass, Barbara noted affectionately -- Helena smiled cheekily. Only after Barbara was settled, with a robe draped over her shoulders, did the brunette reply.

Fascinated, the older woman saw those amazing eyes quickly flicker to gold, then back to blue. The smile gracing tanned features morphed into something just a little... wicked when the brunette leaned close. Warm breath purred directly into her ear, and Barbara shivered, unable to doubt the truth of the words she heard.

"Well, I may not know much, Barbara, but I do know pleasure."

Chapter 7

At the sound of a soft thump, followed by a muted curse, Barbara Gordon slowly dragged herself from the cloying tendrils of a pleasurable dream -- something involving teasing hands, soft lips, and... blue eyes? Disoriented by the lingering images of the dream and the unfamiliar surroundings, the redhead lay still for a beat until she identified the soft rustling in the room.

It was Dinah, digging quietly through the hotel bedroom's closet, presumably in search of the right bit of couture for her interviews with various State University faculty this morning. The older woman pushed herself up in the double bed on her side of the room.

"All set, Dinah?"

A blonde head whipped out of the shallow closet, and the teen spun, appearing simultaneously frightened and apologetic.

"Oh, man. I'm sorry, Barbara. I was really trying to be quiet."

She took a step toward the bed, and Barbara reached over to switch on the bedside lamp.

"When you didn't wake up when the alarm went off, I just grabbed my clothes and got ready in there."

The girl inclined her head in the direction of the bathroom as she continued her apology-cum-explanation.

"But, when Hel came back, she said that my boots would be better with these jeans, so I thought I could just sneak in and out, but it's kind of dark and, well, I didn't mean to wake you."

Green eyes blinked slowly, clearing the lingering remnants of sleep from the older woman's system as she attempted to make sense of the dizzying deluge of words.


She stopped herself and shook her head, pushing herself fully upright.

"No problem, Dinah. Making a good impression is important."

Barbara gave herself a moment to think, glancing at the clock.


"Did you say that Helena was coming back?"

After a low-key dinner at a highly recommended steak house -- Barbara had been torn between fascination and queasiness by the size of the portion that Helena had tucked away -- the brunette had excused herself around 10:30pm to "check out the night life". She'd not yet returned by the time Barbara had retired at 1:00am, and the redhead had pointedly not allowed herself to think about just what her younger partner might have discovered in her explorations.

"Yes. I mean, not really. Oh, wait!"

With those somewhat contradictory words, the blonde bolted from the bedroom, returning before Barbara had a chance to further collect her wits, bearing two oversized cups of gourmet coffee. The redhead gratefully accepted one while Dinah picked up where she'd left off.

"She said she got back last night around 2:00am, but she went out early for these 'cuz she said she found this great twenty-four hour coffee bar."

Inhaling deeply, savoring the rich aroma, the older woman took a small sip and finally felt her brain start to kick into gear.

"You're certain that you don't want me -- or Helena -- to come with you, Dinah?" she inquired carefully, quite familiar with the competing interests of independence and terror at Dinah's age.

The blonde looked up from lacing her second boot and smiled brightly.

"Really, Barbara, it's okay. I bet you'd be bored to tears if either of these professors is a pompous windbag or something."

The redhead snorted, barely avoiding blowing hot coffee out her nose.

"Indeed, Dinah."

She sat her cup on the night stand.

"In that case, Helena and I will pack up and be ready when you get back. And, you..."

Deliberately, she waited until the girl looked up and met her eyes.

"... don't let any pompous windbags bore you either."

Swinging the covers off her legs, Barbara was warmed by the girl's shy smile. The emotion intensified when Dinah moved from her bed and gave her a quick hug.

"Okay, I'll do that. But, it's going to be just you for that packing thing for a while."

Wishing she'd had more coffee already, the redhead could only furrow her brows in question.

"Helena went down to the pool again," the teen supplied, moving toward the living area. Disappearing through the doorway, the girl hesitated and then tossed a question over her shoulder.

"Do you think we could install one of those in the training room?"

The older woman laughed and raised a hand to shoo the girl from the room, waiting until she had the suite to herself to transfer herself to her chair. Not bothering to change from her sleepwear -- boxers and a long sleeved tee -- she grabbed her coffee and headed into the living area. There, the evidence of Helena's presence was unmistakable -- from her outfit of the night before carefully folded over a chair, to a rumpled blanket at one end of the couch, to a small pastry box on the coffee table bearing the same logo as that on the coffee cup.

Barbara peeked into the box, feeling a grin split her face at the sight of a half- dozen croissants and muffins... and one lone multigrain bagel tucked in the back, undoubtedly in deference to her. For a moment, the older woman's hand hovered over the bagel; then, almost of its own volition, it veered two inches to the right, poised over a chocolate croissant. Mentally shrugging -- the redhead recalled something about vacation calories not counting -- she plucked the pastry from the box and picked up the local newspaper, which was neatly positioned next to the box.

An hour and a half later, breakfast and local news consumed, Barbara had dressed and finished gathering Dinah's and her bags, and was rapidly ticking through the clues of the paper's crossword puzzle. As soon as she got the last clue -- Former governor of Minnesota, ended with the letter "A" -- she planned to fire up her laptop and dial in to the Delphi.

Those plans were temporarily halted when the door to the room clicked open quietly and Barbara was confronted by her younger partner, still wet from the pool. Clothes hound that she was, naturally the brunette had on a different swimsuit -- a blue one-piece with French-cut legs and diamond cutouts at the midriff. For a good thirty seconds, the cyber genius found all of her not-inconsiderable mental faculties full engaged in weighing the pros and cons of this suit against the white tankini from the day before. The niggling awareness that she'd been spoken to finally forced the redhead to table her internal debate and raise her eyes to meet sparkling blue.

Quite aware of the extravagant blush rushing to her cheeks, the older woman opted to try to brazen her way through and smiled as innocently as she could under the circumstances.

"Good swim?"

The brunette smirked, dropping her towel on the couch and then throwing herself onto it. Barbara fully suspected that those bright blue eyes might be seeing right through her.

"Sure was," the younger woman replied easily as she opened the pastry box.

The redhead noted a dark brow rising playfully as the brunette inventoried the contents.

"Do you think we could put in a pool at the clock tower?"

Marveling at the young women in her life, Barbara laughed.

"You know, Dinah asked the same thing on her way out this morning. And, honestly," she added ruefully, "I don't think that the joists in the training room would support it."

Helena took a bite of a chocolate chocolate-chip muffin and suggested, "How 'bout the roof? Nobody goes up there."

The redhead flirted with the idea for a moment, then shook her head regretfully.

"Even if NGPL fired up an auxiliary nuclear generator, I don't think there would be enough power to make it bearable in the winter."

Blue eyes narrowed as the young woman chewed thoughtfully.

"Huh, yeah. But, this one sure is nice."

The dark head ducked apologetically.

"I didn't mean to be so long. I kind of got caught up diving and lost track of time."

Lost in a vivid mental image of that, Barbara almost missed her friend's next muttered confession.

"... and I fell asleep in the hot tub."

A crimson brow arched. Not quite "The Look", but close enough.

"Late night?" she inquired on a laugh, then added more seriously, "Or, an early morning, perhaps? Thank you for the coffee and pastries, Sweetie."

"Shit, Barbara -- "

The younger woman barked out a laugh.

"Nobody wants to face you in the morning before you've had your caffeine fix!"

The older woman's soft laugh was a tacit admission of the truth of Helena's words. Not, she suspected, that one was required.

"But, no," the brunette continued, "not too late. It was only a Monday night."

"Well," Barbara coaxed, "how is college life after dark here?"

Crumpling the wrapper from her muffin and dropping it on the coffee table, Helena leaned back and raised her arms to rest on the back of the couch.

"Not bad at all -- for a Monday," she deadpanned. "A lotta artsy-fartsy coffee houses with open mike poetry readings."

The brunette made a face which Barbara suspected she was almost mirroring.

"Some typical beer and burger places," the young woman continued, then sat forward to clasp her hands loosely between her knees.

Barbara felt her brows wrinkling slightly as she waited for her partner's next observation.

"I also ran across some gay-friendly places."

There was the shortest of hesitations before blue eyes sought hers.

"If D's still swinging that way, it'll be good to have places to go, right?"

The redhead offered the trace of a smile, a minute nod.

Heaven knew that, while matters were certainly easier now for gays and lesbians then they'd been during her college years, there was no denying the... challenges that young people who were just coming out still faced. She fervently wanted Dinah to have places -- and family -- which were safe and secure for her, regardless of who the young woman ultimately came to love.

A soft exhalation from the other side of the coffee table drew the redhead's attention back to her companion.

"It's funny in a way, isn't it?"

"What's that, Hel?"

The two women had been together so long, they knew each other so well, Barbara realized, that their conversations seemed to ebb and flow naturally, without effort.

Startled, the redhead considered retracting the latter part of that observation at Helena's next words.

"Well, you're totally okay with Dinah -- and me -- doing the Sapphic love thing,"

A quick wink accompanied the phrase.

"... but you say you can't even wrap a lobe around it yourself."

The older woman focused on breathing as she formulated what she hoped would be a neutral response.

"Why is that funny, Hel?"

The younger woman was slow to answer, and Barbara could see from her introspective gaze that Helena was giving some thought to her reply.

"Well," she finally breathed softly, "not funny- humorous. Maybe not even funny- strange. But, definitely funny-ironic. And, that's the thing, Barbara."

Terrified of the answer, the older woman nevertheless felt powerless not to ask.

"What is, Helena?"

Blue eyes looked up, open and questioning. Not for the first time, the redhead was amazed by her protégé's courage.

"I don't believe that the whole... woman thing is really the issue at all, Babs."

It had been quite a while, but Barbara was suddenly reacquainted with the feeling of having been soundly punched in the solar plexus. She fought not to gasp, then worked to draw a normal breath before repeating slowly.

"The issue, Hel?"

Distantly, as she watched the brunette drop her eyes to the table top, the cyber- genius wondered when her conversational skills had been reduced to parroting back phrases in the form of a question.

"With us. You and me," the younger woman explained, finally looking up. "I see... I've seen how you look at me, Barbara."

Helena drew a breath and shifted slightly, nervous tension radiating almost visibly from the expanse of muscles on display in the nearly-dry swimsuit.

"I can hear your heart speed up. I can smell it on your skin..."

Barbara slowly shut her eyes, but she could not shut out the next hoarsely whispered words.

"You're attracted to me-- you want me, too, don't you?"

For a long fifty or sixty seconds, the older woman remained absolutely still, collecting herself in the face of the simply phrased question. She could scarcely imagine the courage it had taken for her younger partner to speak the words. Having only recently -- and grudgingly -- admitted the truth to herself, she could not -- would not -- lie to this brave soul, the person she cared most for in all the world.

She finally opened her eyes, unflinchingly meeting blue eyes.

"Yes, I suppose, er... that is, I believe that I am, er... attracted to you, Helena."

Bypassing any handy -- and true -- excuses about the brunette's beauty and intrinsic sensuality, about the fact that Helena could probably seduce a potted plant if she desired, Barbara allowed the words to stand on their own for a moment. However, when she witnessed the naked joy -- or hope? -- begin to edge into those expressive features, she knew that she had to speak the rest.

"But, it... you and I... It's simply not possible, Sw-- Helena."

She choked off the familiar endearment, not sure whether it would be too painful under the circumstances. Regardless of the potential upset, she belatedly saw the very real hurt which her awkward stumble caused.

Well, the stumble and her words themselves.

The confusion and pain in her younger partner's face were unmistakable.

"Why, Barbara?"

The question was raw, seeming to bleed the agony in the young woman's eyes.


In a heartbeat, the brunette had moved around the coffee table, coming to a stop kneeling before the older woman, with one hand resting lightly on Barbara's denim-clad knee. For a split-second, the redhead registered a welling of bitterness within her chest over the fact that she was unable to feel the soft touch; however, as she'd practiced for over seven years, she ignored the emotion.

Helena looked up, speaking earnestly.

"I'm so fuckin' in love with you."

The dark head lowered, and Barbara's heart seemed to break at the quiet whisper.

"I've loved you forever, Barbara."

Not for the first time in her thirty-two years, the redhead urgently wished that she were better equipped to deal with the emotional nuances -- hell, craters and chasms -- in her life. Unsurprisingly, the wish wasn't granted this time either.

"Helena... I... You can't."

The words seemed to be an echo from something, a deja vu from somewhere which Barbara couldn't take the time to identify.

"It's not... right."

In response to the puzzled look burning into her, she carefully placed her hand over the brunette's and squeezed lightly.

"It's simply not appropriate to... act on those sorts of feelings, Hel."

She cut off the question which she could see forming.

"You were my student."

Dark brows lowered, and -- fascinated -- Barbara watched the wheels turning in her former student's mind.

"Yeah." A chestnut head bobbed in confirmation, "That was when I first fell for you, but that was a long time ago."

The older woman quickly squeezed her eyes shut, then looked directly into the other woman's searching gaze.

"Don't forget that I was your guardian for a number of years, too."

This time, an easy smile transformed caramel features. Barbara almost smiled herself, recognizing the hint of playful challenge gleaming in cerulean eyes. Few people could put her to the test verbally and mentally the way that her former ward could.


The brunette again conceded the truth of her words but not, the older woman suspected with a sinking feeling, the sense behind them.

"And, there's a special place in heaven waiting for you because of it."

Despite herself, the redhead joined in with the lithe figure's rueful chuckle before Helena continued and Barbara sobered again.

"I think you did a pretty damned fine job, too, Red."

The younger woman rotated her hand beneath hers, and Barbara felt slender fingers tangle loosely with hers.

"But, that job ended over five years ago."

Inhaling raggedly, the older woman searched for a way to help her partner understand.

"Helena, I've been... I'm still serving in a... mentoring role."

Green eyes sought blue and begged for comprehension, for acquiescence.

"I'm still influencing you... teaching..."

Helplessly, she trailed off.


Helena focused her gaze on their joined hands, rubbing her thumb lightly against the back of Barbara's hand. The redhead shivered at the gossamer contact.

"... Yeah, you're still teaching me."

The younger woman looked up with a half-smile.

"You know what you're mostly teaching me every day, Barbara?"

Impossibly, completely against her will, the older woman felt herself shaking her head. She didn't want to know, to hear what Helena would say next; apparently, she had to know.

The smile which the younger woman bestowed on her was so sweet and filled with love that it seemed to pull the air from Barbara's lungs. The incredibly tender words she spoke flayed at the armor the older woman had worked so long and hard to build around herself.

"Every day, Barbara. Every time I see you or talk to you or think about you, I learn a little more about how much love my heart can hold for you."

"Oh, Sweetheart -- "

It was out before she could censor herself, and Barbara scarcely recognized the strangled voice as her own. For a difficult moment, she lost herself in blue eyes, raising her free hand to stroke the soft skin of the other woman's cheek. Succumbing to the silky sensation under her fingers and the manner in which Helena closed her eyes and sleekly turned her face into her touch, it took the redhead a moment to notice, then comprehend, the rumbling sound emanating from the younger woman's chest.


Dark lashes raised, and Barbara inhaled in wonder at the golden feral eyes she found herself drowning in.

Floundering, feeling as if she were flailing futilely in quicksand, she spoke raggedly.

"Helena... The age difference... I'm too old."

The younger woman bowed her head, and those stunning eyes shuttered. The redhead felt her own eyes drooping at the barest press of soft lips against her palm and was staggered by the emptiness and loss she felt when then brunette straightened and rocked back on her haunches.

Somehow, she managed to collect herself as Helena began to speak -- quietly, thoughtfully, at first. However, as she spoke and Barbara watched her protege performing the mental calculations, the low soprano became stronger, almost factual.

"Well, Red, the way I see it, right now I'm 75% as old as you are. Right?"

The redhead simply nodded, and Helena continued.

"In another eight years, I'll be 80% of your age. Then, in another eight years..."

Barbara almost laughed when the younger woman scrunched her forehead in mock concentration.

"... I'll be about 85% as old as you are. So, by the time we're drawing our superhero pensions and bickering over butterscotch candies, I'll almost be caught up to you."

Rather stupefied after that little speech, it took the older woman a few seconds to identify just what she was feeling. A little flabbergasted, a little overwhelmed, and totally, completely, charmed.

Helena -- her Helena -- was attempting to out-rationalize her.

Unable to deal with all of the emotion rushing in on her, the redhead managed a rather shaky smile and did some math of her own.

"The catch-up process slows dramatically, you know. I'd have to be one hundred and sixty before you're 95% as old as I am, Helena."

She followed the brunette's movements as she stood and gathered some clothing, turning toward the bathroom. Helena's parting words, delivered over her shoulder with an insouciant smile, left the older woman completely at a loss.

"I'm willing to do the time if you are, Red."

Chapter 8

<"Someone's going to be doing time for this one -- after we're through with 'em, that is.">

To Barbara's trained ear, the husky voice whispering through her transceiver carried a distinct note of relish. Frankly, she couldn't blame her younger partner. After the last few nights of nothing more challenging than a purse snatching and some kids stealing candy from a bodega, she knew that the dark woman had been anticipating an opportunity to cut loose during her typically busy Friday night sweeps of the city.

Unfortunately, the NGPD had not been on her side this evening. Quite atypically, the notoriously understaffed department had managed to arrive at almost every crime scene before -- or shortly after -- the young vigilante, effectively thwarting her chances to work off some energy.

In the name of justice, Barbara mentally amended, just as a softer voice piped over the comm set.

<"Assuming we catch him... or them, Huntress.">

The only reply to Dinah's observation was a sub vocal rumble -- something between a snort and a growl, the older woman decided. Rechecking the video feed from inside the pawn shop -- a shadowy figure could still be seen moving around -- the redhead nodded her head in appreciation of Helena's forbearance. She was quite cognizant of the fact that, if the teen were not accompanying the brunette, Helena certainly would have out-paced the police to most of the crime scenes.

"I still only see one person in the store, Huntress, Canary. The video is pretty bad, but it doesn't appear that he's taken anything yet."

The grainy movements which she could see were puzzling. The burglar almost appeared to be browsing -- leaning against each display case in the pawn shop for long minutes and peering inside. It was not the behavior of a typical smash-grab-and- go thief.

<"Can you tell what he's looking for?">

"Unfortunately, no."

The cyber-crime fighter's response was clipped as she examined the preliminary output of the Delphi's digital cleanup routines.

When the alarm had blipped at the store -- like the bank the week before, it had almost been too quick to notice -- the redhead had immediately hacked into the shop's cheap surveillance system while she directed her partners to the scene. Splitting the feed, she had it processing through a batch of resolution enhancing subroutines within seconds; however, even at the most basic level -- which improved the images to something approaching "night vision" level -- the programs required several minutes to improve each frame of input.

Meaning that her marginally clearer view of the action lagged several minutes behind what was happening in real time for her partners.

Green eyes widened when Barbara noticed -- over the live feed -- movement as the burglar finally opened a display case and removed several items. Chafing at the delay in determining what the man had grabbed, she nevertheless spoke calmly.

"He's taken something and seems to be headed out. Be careful."

<"Don't worry, Oracle.">

Helena's response was serious and all-the-more reassuring because of it. Mercifully, the days of her younger partner's devil-may-care, derring-do approach to plunging into dangerous situations largely seemed to be a thing of the past.

<"I'll just send Canary in first.">

The brunette's subsequent words, delivered after an exactly timed comedic beat, elicited a soft snort from the redhead and an aggrieved squeak from Helena's partner for the evening.

<"Ha ha. I wish you'd stop teasing me all the time, Huntress.">

<"Rub a lamp, Kid.">

The older woman ignored her two charges' sniping; after all, she wasn't entirely unfamiliar with the nervous edginess which often preceded a possibly dangerous encounter. Instead, she focused on the images slowly being processed, hoping that she'd be able to offer her partners some sort of advance warning if the burglar had taken a weapon instead of jewelry or electronics.

<"Back door's opening. I'm going to the other roof.">

Helena's sub vocal description of events in process confirmed the obvious for Barbara: she was still playing catch-up and the Delphi was due for another CPU upgrade.

<"On three, Canary?">

As the dark vigilante softly counted down, the redhead held her breath, wishing she could be there... or at least know what was transpiring.

The sound of rushing air -- one of Helena's showy jumps from her rooftop perch, no doubt -- and a quiet thump sounded clearly through the sensitive transceiver. Still, as always when one of her charges entered a dangerous situation, Barbara fought the urge to fidget, chafing at her feelings of being cut off and unable to help.


The younger woman's voice was a rumbling purr, and the redhead felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise in reflex. An auditory sensation -- something to do with hearing that voice in her ear in the darkness of her bedroom, in the mussed burrow of pillows and covers -- raced through Barbara's mind and down the nerves of her chest and arms. Dismayed, she shook her head briskly to clear the distraction.

<"We all know how hard it is to fit the day-to-day errands in, but, Dude, this place is closed. And, since I don't think you left any cash on the counter in there, that makes you guilty of B&E and theft.">

The redhead smiled softly at her partner's sing-song reprimand just as Dinah chimed in.

<"Yeah. Breaking and entering carries a sentence of five to twenty, in case you didn't know.">

<"N--no! Get back! I need these!">

The burglar sounded as terrified as Barbara imagined that she might have in his position. Well aware that frightened amateurs were often more dangerous than seasoned professional crooks, she spoke quietly.

"Careful. You don't want to spook h--"

The older woman's warning was cut off by a louder shout from the man -- <"Get back! I warned you..."> -- and she guessed that one, or both, of her partners must have moved towards the burglar. The shout was followed by three sounds echoing almost simultaneously -- and horrifyingly loudly -- through the comm set.

Gunfire. Automatically, the cyber-crime fighter counted the shots -- four -- and identified them as large caliber, probably a .45.

Helena's warning cry. <"Get down, Canary!">

And, Dinah's pained shriek.

It was over in the space of a second. Even as she felt the blood draining from her extremities in shock -- oddly, Barbara thought she could feel warm wetness seeping across her abdomen -- the older woman automatically entered a dispatch for the police and EMTs.

Hand hovering over the Send key, she distantly heard heavy footsteps fading away from the comms. More clearly, she heard Dinah's ragged breathing. And... and, an almost inaudible groan of pain.


"What's the situation?"

The redhead's years of experience and self-control kicked in. Instead of screaming like she needed to, she spoke calmly, not wanting to upset the obviously rattled teen. However, when there was no immediate response, she deliberately sharpened her tone.

"Canary! I need to know what's happened."

<"He had a gun, Oracle.">

Grimly, the older woman noted that she needed to work with the youngest member of the team on her grasp of the obvious. The teen's next words, while more informative, did little to relieve the cyber-crime fighter's anxiety.

<"Uh, Hel-- Huntress is hurt...">

"What? How?"

<"I-- I don't know yet. She was trying to get me out of the way and, uh -- ">

The redhead held her breath, hearing movement and another low groan from her younger partner.

<"And, ugh -- Oww!">

Hearing the petulant and pained voice of her partner, the older woman experienced a rush of relief so great that she felt lightheaded.

<"And the Ki-- Canary hit me in the nose with her damned bony elbow.">

A tentative -- and very moist -- snuffle sounded.

<"I think she broke it.">

The redhead permitted herself a half-second to sag in relief, then immediately straightened, brow furrowing.

Broken nose or no, there was no way an ordinary burglar should have simply run away from Helena. There had to be other factors...

"What about the gunshots?"

There was the sound of slow movements, a soft grunt and a thump, then a peevish utterance -- <"Get the fu-- off of me, Canary.">. Barbara finally allowed herself a full breath and withdrew her hand from the keyboard.

A somewhat nasal chuckle filtered over her earpiece.

<"No worries, Oracle. This guy couldn't have hit the broad side of a barn with a fire hose from three feet away.">

Catching a signal from the police scanner, the redhead spoke firmly.

"If you've sorted yourselves out, you need to move. Police are on the way."

Probably one of New Gotham's few good samaritans, phoning in the gunfire.

"Let's call it a night and get you back here so that I can see you, Huntress."

<"That-- that'd be good.">

Helena's reply had sounded oddly... shy, and even as she bustled to the medical area of the training room and began gathering supplies, Barbara replayed her own words, puzzling over why her subconscious had chosen those words -- see you -- instead of something less... charged.

In the days since their return from the visit to State, it seemed that nothing had changed: Helena was still her usual sweet, attentive, flirtatious self. She hadn't brought up the subject, even indirectly, once. Probably, the older woman acknowledged, the brunette was aware of her mentor's need to analyze and to ponder, and so she was simply giving her the space and time to do so.

Barbara herself had tried to keep things... normal, despite the acute and terrifying whisper, from somewhere in her lower cortex, that things had changed and, for better or worse, could never be the same again.

Her friend -- her partner and former ward -- had professed, so sweetly, not just to an attraction to her. Oh no, a mutual attraction -- something that Barbara had only grudgingly allowed herself to acknowledge -- could be... handled.

Rationalized. Or ignored. Or sublimated.

But this -- Helena in love with her? -- was staggering in its implications, carrying with it as it did the emotions and openness and sharing which Barbara had never had the time or interest to explore... before and which she had convinced herself she would certainly never need to wrestle with since.

Shaking her head in dismay and moving to wait by the elevator with a lap full of bandages and towels, she wryly admitted that, at the very least, Helena had always had the ability to... keep her on her toes.

Before the elevator doors finished gliding open, the redhead had appraised both of her young charges. Dinah appeared to have a few scrapes on her palms and a rip in the knee of her jeans; all, presumably, sustained when Helena had pushed her out of harm's way. Nothing that the teen couldn't treat herself with soap and water.

Helena however...

Green eyes teared in sympathy at the blood which had spilled from the dark figure's nose, staining her chin and chest, at the puffiness of her nose and the visible bruises beginning to form around her eyes.

Barbara spoke briskly.

"Dinah, are there any injuries I should know about?"

Shaking her head, the blonde managed to keep things to the point.

"No, just some scrapes that I can rinse out."

Nodding, the older woman turned her eyes to her partner and inclined her head toward the training room.

"After you, Helena?"

The brunette sighed, shucking her coat and heading obediently to the low table at the back of the room. As she approached, Barbara felt herself melt a bit at the younger woman's faintly hangdog expression.

She stretched up, beginning to sponge at the dried blood on her partner's face as gently as possible, and inquired, "What is it, Hel?"

Without looking away from her ministrations, she detected a minute shrug.

"It's just... I'm sorry I lost the guy. It was just -- dumb."

Withdrawing a few inches, the redhead waited until inquisitive blue eyes met hers.

"No apologies, Sweetie. You were looking out for Dinah. The only thing that's important..."

She lowered her tone but maintained eye contact, allowing the other woman to see the naked emotion that the sound of gunfire and those first few seconds afterward had evoked.

"... The only thing that is important is that you're both safe. That you came back."

For a long moment, blue eyes regarded her searchingly. Then, the younger woman reached out and drew Barbara's hand to her mouth, dusting the barest of kisses to her fingertips.

The brunette's next words whispered across the suddenly oversensitive skin of the older woman's fingers.

"I'll always come back to you, Barbara."

Freeing her hand, the redhead cupped the younger woman's face tenderly and spoke her truth.

"I need you to, Helena."

Chapter 9

"Helena, we -- or, at least you -- don't need to do this. Especially tonight."

Twinkling blue eyes, surrounded by a raccoon's mask of fading bruises, locked with emerald.

"What's wrong with tonight, Red? I know it's not supposed to be a masked ball, but maybe I'll start a trend or breathe some life into this shindig or something."

The young woman paused for a beat, seeming to consider, before teasing the redhead.

" 'Sides, who else would be willing to be your designated driver so you can get soaked enough tonight to endure all the same old dry speeches that you heard last year?"

Laughing, the older woman threw up her hands and snagged her wrap.

If Helena was determined to see this through, Barbara knew that she couldn't stop her. True, when the brunette had initially agreed to accompany her to the PAL banquet a month before, their relationship had been... the redhead searched for a term or phrase, finally settling on 'less fluid'. In addition, neither had known that the younger woman would be sporting the rapidly healing remnants of her run-in with Dinah's elbow from the night before.

Mercifully, the brunette's nose had not been broken; however, as Barbara had examined her the night before, dramatic bruises were already forming around her eyes. Settling the dark vigilante on the couch with an ice pack and the remote, the redhead had reminded her about the banquet, delicately suggesting that Helena could back out. The very idea had earned her a soft laugh from her partner.

"Shit, Barbara. Most of my wardrobe's black. I can harmonize with anything... even some bruises."

As the elevator descended to the parking garage, Barbara casually observed her companion and had to agree with her cocky assurances from the night before. The outfit which Helena had chosen -- matador-style pants and jacket, with a low-cut ruffled white shirt -- was showy, but the young woman carried it off with panache. In comparison, the redhead found herself -- as usual -- feeling a little dowdy next to her companion. She suspected that her own sleeveless jade full length dress simply couldn't hold a candle to Helena, regardless of what the younger woman was wearing.

The two exited the elevator, and the younger woman led the way to the Humvee. Her deadpan response to a question about the choice of transportation was sufficient to satisfy the redhead's curiosity.

"When two women are attending a testosterone-fest like this, Barbara, it pays to start out with some muscle."

It wasn't until she'd settled herself in the passenger side of the boxy SUV that the older woman noticed that Helena had yet to buckle herself in or start the vehicle. She twisted a bit to her left.


The brunette extended her right hand with a shy smile, and Barbara automatically reached out to accept a tiny box from her.

"What's this, Helena?"

The younger woman quirked her lips and tilted her head to one side. Needing no further invitation, the redhead opened the box. Inside, she found a miniscule golden bell affixed to a small broach.

Crimson brows furrowed, and she shook the delicate item -- barely able to hear it's high, clear tone -- smiling at the tiny gift.

"It's lovely, Helena, but why...?"

The young woman showed even white teeth in a Cheshire grin.

"You've heard of a dog whistle?"

Barbara could do little else but nod.

"Well, this is a cat bell. If you get buttonholed, or bored, or want a drink, or need me..."

The brunette trailed off, raising dark brows leadingly. Unable to resist, Barbara supplied the logical follow-through.

"I just ring my bell?"

Helena's smile morphed into something just a little naughty as she turned the key in the ignition.

"I understand that sisters are doing it for themselves now, Red."

The two women's laughter followed them out of the parking garage and down the block. Fastening the tiny pin over her heart, Barbara thought of something.

"But, Hel, what happens if I ring it by accident?"

Blue eyes darted from the road to catch green, and a dark brow raised.

"You mean, a sneeze or... some other sudden bodily contraction?"

The redhead rolled her eyes.


Helena waited to reply until she drew up at a stop sign. This time, it was the younger woman who twisted in her seat, and Barbara found herself pinned by a fond gaze. While the brunette's tone was light, the older woman felt an odd frisson of energy at the seriousness of her words.

"I'll still come, Barbara. But..."

Barbara detected the hint of a wicked gleam sneaking into blue eyes as the younger woman turned her eyes back to the road and accelerated through the intersection. Helena's voice was sing-song.

"... you'll owe me a kiss, Red."

Four hours later, Barbara had yet to ring her bell, either deliberately or in a false alarm. Between some timely comments from her father and Helena's own whispered input, she'd made it through the dry chicken dinner and the even drier speeches without a problem.

However, at this moment, having been cornered by Mrs. Doomes-Patterson for a lengthy discussion about the latest advances in treatments for Barbara's "unfortunate condition", the situation was looking decidedly shaky. The fact that, after three years of these banquets and the same annual conversation, the woman persisted in her misapprehension that poor Barbara was heroically suffering from the same affliction as "that funny physics man" -- it had only been the year before that the redhead had determined that the woman was thinking of Stephen Hawking -- truly lent another dimension of unreality to the entire exchange.

Nodding seriously, Barbara fingered the small broach. Perhaps it was time to see if Helena's acute hearing really would pick up the delicate tones in the din of the banquet hall. Feeling just a bit desperate, she pondered simply whipping off her entire outfit and waving it over her head in a semaphore SOS; certainly, even if that didn't increase the volume of the small bell, it would garner some sort of attention and a possible rescue.

A slight shift in the air, a prickling awareness of a well-known presence, alerted the redhead to the fact that she wouldn't need to signal for help after all. Looking over her shoulder, with an expression of gratitude that she suspected bordered on the pathetic, Barbara made an introduction -- rather, a re-introduction, since the haughty society matron never seemed to remember the brunette.

For her part, the redhead simply couldn't fathom how anyone could forget the young woman.

"You remember my friend, Helena Kyle?"

The brunette smiled sweetly, but Barbara wasn't fooled for a minute.

"Mrs. Doomes-Patterson," Helena purred, " you're looking positively grandiloquent this evening."

The redhead raised her wineglass to hide a smirk as the overbearing woman's brief expression of pleasure faltered, changing to confusion.

The young woman continued smoothly.

"You'll excuse us, of course. I really must get Barbara back to her iron lung. You know the poor dear can't go too long without treacle detoxification."

With that, the brunette gaily whisked the older woman in the direction of the open bar while Barbara struggled not to choke on her mouthful of wine.

She should have known better than to take a sip with Helena squaring off against that puffed-up so-and-so.

When the redhead recovered from her fit of giggles, she accepted another wine spritzer with a smile of thanks, then arched a brow, attempting -- rather poorly, she feared -- a stern expression.

"Must you be so terrible?"

The younger woman grinned unrepentantly.

"Oh, c'mon, Barbara. She gives all of us ambulatory folks a bad name."

The redhead couldn't deny the truth of that.

"Besides," Helena continued, cheerfully popping an olive into her mouth, "I'm so good at being terrible."

Barbara couldn't deny the truth of that either.

"True, Hel, but still..."

A warm baritone interrupted her last-ditch effort to reign in her irrepressible friend.

"Don't tell me that something amusing occurred at this damned thing and I missed it?"


"Mr. Gordon."

The two women spoke as one, and Helena smoothly exchanged the distinguished- looking ex-police commissioner's nearly empty drink for a fresh one. Grinning like an idiot, Barbara explained.

"Helena was just rescuing me from this year's Be Kind To Cripples speech from --"

"Mrs. Doomes-Patterson," Jim Gordon finished for her, raising a bushy white eyebrow. "Someone needs to deflate her periodically..."

He tilted his highball towards Helena.

"... and I suspect that you're just the woman for the job, Helena."

The brunette grinned impishly.

"Project that size, I could use some help. You in?"

"Hmmm, what did you have in mi--"

Alarmed by the intrigued expression in her father's twinkling eyes, Barbara swatted her partner lightly and spoke sternly.

"Dad. Helena. Behave."

Honestly, the two of them just seemed to bring out the mischief in each other. The redhead was still mending some social bridges after last year's faculty Christmas party at school and Helena and her father's impromptu "Winter Wonderland" decorations. She still didn't know how they'd coordinated so quickly to cart all of that snow into the rafters of the gym...

Two sets of contrite blue eyes -- one a sharp blue-grey, the other the stunning cerulean she knew so well -- pinned the redhead. Not for the first time, she marveled at the rapport the two shared. After her father's initial -- and quite justifiable -- concerns about Barbara's assuming responsibility for the angry young orphan so many years before and after Helena's initial reactionary dislike for a figure imbued with as much authority as Jim Gordon, the two had gradually gotten to know each other, somehow becoming each other's strongest supporter.

Bemusedly, Barbara listened to the two discussing options for livening up the banquet. Fortunately, before they got too far in their planning, the DJ returned from her break and began to spin some records. At that point, Helena leaned down with a conspiratorial wink.

"Since you're in good hands now, I guess I'll get my groove on, Red."

The older woman smiled, reaching out to squeeze her friend's hand.

"Thanks for the rescue. Have fun, Sweetheart."

The brunette responded with a lascivious waggle of her left eyebrow -- the one that was slightly higher than the right, giving her a perpetually disbelieving or amused air -- and sauntered toward the dance floor. Barbara absently followed her progress, lost in an unexpected memory that her habitual use of the endearment evoked.

The older woman had first bestowed the term over six years earlier. She'd awakened in the darkness of her bedroom with a start, heart pounding and her own cold sweat making her tee shirt cling to her chest uncomfortably. It had been another nightmare of course, the same one which had haunted her two and three times each and every night since she'd awakened in the hospital after the shooting. However, as she'd attempted to steady herself, an insistent awareness that she was being watched had sent an icy bolt of fear down her upper spine.

Drawing on ingrained training and habits from her crime fighting days -- less than a year in the past -- she'd remained still, extending her other senses as she'd waited for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. Finally, she'd discerned a slender shadow by the door.


The teen had slowly edged away from her dark vigil, allowing a sliver a moonlight which was peeking through the drapes to illuminate her.

"Sounded like you were having a rough night."

The girl's words had been uncertain, shy. Not altogether surprising, given that she'd been caught hovering in her guardian's room in the dark of night. However, Barbara had also detected a thickness to her voice and the silvery trail of drying tears on dusky cheeks. Aware of the almost inaudible whimpers which emanated from down the hall many nights, the redhead had suspected that her ward had been having a difficult night of her own.

Uncharacteristically acting on instinct, the older woman had folded back the covers and patted the bed next to her. The profound thankfulness, the aching loneliness, that she'd glimpsed before the girl slowly approached and slid under the covers had humbled and shamed the redhead. She knew that she'd always tended to ignore... or sublimate... the emotional areas of her life. Obviously, she'd gotten too damned proficient at ignoring the needs of others.

Wordlessly, she'd reached out and insinuated her arm under slender shoulders, coaxing the delicate girl to her. Helena had cautiously inched across the bed, with Barbara marveling at the play of sinewy muscle under her hand, before spooning tightly to her guardian's side and resting her head lightly on the redhead's shoulder.

The two had lain together quietly, their breathing evening out and synchronizing. Barbara had found herself caught up in deliberations of how she could do more to help her young charge; nevertheless, despite the faintly self- castigating nature of her ruminations, she'd realized that she felt... relaxed and peaceful in a manner that had escaped her for many, many months. For some reason, her thoughts -- the first truly non-grim ideas she'd had about her future in almost a year -- had left her body coursing with excitement.

A sleepy voice had interrupted the redhead's thoughts.

"Why's your heart beating so fast, Barbara?"

The older woman had needed to think about the answer to the seemingly simple question for so long that she'd suspected that her bedmate had dozed off by the time she whispered a reply. A gentle squeeze from the arm wrapped lightly across her waist and the feather light brush of soft lips against her shoulder had suggested otherwise.

"I think... I'm happy, Sweetheart."

Caught up in the unexpectedly vivid recollection -- an eidetic memory could be a blessing -- the redhead blushed, realizing that her father was speaking to her, and dragged her gaze from the dance floor.

"I'm sorry, Dad. I missed that."

Blue-grey eyes twinkled.

"I was saying that Helena really is a sweetheart, Barbara. I'm glad you invited her."

The redhead's smile and nod of agreement faltered when Jim Gordon continued.

"In my opinion, she's a much better date than that drippy fellow you brought last year."

Green eyes blinked in puzzled consternation.

Why on earth would her dad even...?

Before Barbara could gather her wits, the older man straightened, ruefully surveying the room.

"I hate to leave you, but I fear that I must mingle. Still, I believe that if there are any other Doomes-Patterson attacks..."

Barbara followed her father's knowing nod to find Helena regarding her from across the banquet hall. The young woman threw her a wink before re-immersing herself on the dance floor.

The ex-commissioner continued, "You'll be well taken care of."

Absently lifting a hand in farewell, the redhead raised her glass to her lips and paused, barely noticing as the DJ fired up a retro ballad.

Turn around,
Every now and then I get a little bit tired of listening to the sound of my tears
Turn around,
Every now and then I get a little bit nervous that the best of all the years have gone by
Turn around,
Every now and then I get a little bit terrified and then I see the look in your eyes


Barbara watched her partner gracefully exit the dance floor as something scratched inside her chest, desperate to escape and be known. Something about her father's words... something about the intense blue eyes which always seemed to be fixed on her... something about the trip down memory lane... Her skin felt sensitized to the air around her; her heart was trip-hammering; her thoughts were spinning.

Turn around,
Every now and then I get a little bit restless and I dream of something wild
Turn around,
Every now and then I get a little bit angry and I know I've got to get out and cry
Turn around,
Every now and then I get a little bit terrified but then I see the look in your eyes


The redhead lowered her glass without tasting its contents, suddenly feeling almost... intoxicated, euphoric. It wasn't an altogether familiar phenomenon for the relentlessly analytical woman and, despite herself, she found herself automatically contemplating the likely causes.

Immediately, she discounted food poisoning since two hundred other individuals had dined on the same insipid buffet offering that she had. The three weak drinks that she'd consumed over the course of the evening wouldn't have given even Dinah a buzz. Even the electrical transference from the disco ball was less than she regularly soaked in from the monitors at the Delphi.

Having discounted the most likely causes, Barbara Gordon turned, green eyes searching for the obvious cause of her odd emotional state. Unerringly, she found her partner across the room, appearing distinctly uncomfortable under the attentions of Detective Jesse Reese. The handsome young officer seemed to be doing his utmost to charm the brunette onto the dance floor while Helena, conversely, seemed to be exercising tremendous self-discipline in repeatedly refusing gracefully.

Turn around,
Every now and then I know you'll always be the only one who wanted me the way that I am
Turn around,
Every now and then I know there's no one in the universe as magical and wondrous as you
Turn around,
Every now and then I know there's nothing any better and there's nothing I just wouldn't do


Without another thought, the redhead navigated through the crowd and came to a stop next to the detective. She was aware that the young man turned toward her with what was no-doubt a charming smile; however, Barbara had eyes only for her partner.

"Barbara, hello! I was just trying to persuade Helena to join me for a dance."

Without looking away from the blue eyes fixed so intently on her, the older woman spoke deliberately.

"I'm sorry, Detective, but I believe that Helena is... taken."

Chapter 10

"I can't believe you're taking me here, Helena."

Actually, as she waited for the younger woman to bring her chair to her side of the van, Barbara reconsidered her statement. After all, while her forays into the field were by necessity limited, she still suspected that nothing that her free spirited partner suggested should really surprise her at this point. The fact that the brunette was taking them to the pawn shop which had been the scene of the gunplay two nights before should scarcely have raised an eyebrow.

The passenger door opened, with Helena seamlessly resuming their discussion.

"Aww, come on, Red. It's only a little out of the way..."

Since she still wasn't privy to their mystery destination, having -- perhaps foolishly -- acceded to Helena's request for "a fun outing after that dry as dust affair last night", Barbara wasn't in a position to dispute the assertion.

"... and," the young woman continued with the hangdog expression which never failed to melt the redhead, "I still feel bad about Friday night. Not only did the guy get away, but I didn't even have time to get inside and check out the crime scene."

Barbara settled herself with a brief shiver as the late afternoon sun dipped behind the grimy skyscape and evening fell in earnest. In an instant, Helena's duster was being tucked gently around her shoulders, the warm weight of the garment and the soft scent of its owner imbuing her with a heat that had little to do with the heavy material.

Smiling her thanks, she admitted, "Well, we do know what he took--"

The police report had described in detail the two items of jewelry which had been taken from a locked display case.

"--but it would be nice to get a look at the case to see if it was opened like the bank vault."

The chances seemed remote, however, given the similarities in how the alarms at the two crimes scenes had been short-circuited, the cyber-crime fighter didn't want to discount any possibilities. She was also toying with the idea of chatting with the owner of the store about upgrading his video surveillance system; despite hours of tweaking -- both by her and by Dinah, who had a remarkably deft touch with computer imaging -- she'd still gotten nothing useable. The fact that the man had been wearing a ski mask had effectively frustrated any description which Helena and Dinah could provide from their brief encounter as well.

Ignoring the faintly triumphant smirk being directed her way, the older woman headed briskly into the store, not bothering to question how Helena had known that it would be open on a Sunday evening. When she entered the shop, the tinkle of the bell over the door instantly transported the redhead back to the evening before and her impulsive declaration in the very public banquet hall.

Although the words she'd spoken to Detective Reese had been confidently phrased, Barbara had felt anything but, raising her brows to request confirmation from Helena. The smile which had crept across the younger woman's face had been sufficient, and she'd answered with her own smile, reaching up to touch her small bell pin. The delicate tone had been barely audible to the redhead, especially in the din of the dance floor, but Helena had taken two quick steps forward and bent to purr softly into her ear.

"You need me, Red?"

Peripherally noting the distinctly uncomfortable departure of Jesse Reese, Barbara had kept her reply to the point. She'd doubted that the lump in her throat would have allowed her to do otherwise.

"Always, Helena."

In deference to her father's scheduled closing speech, the two women had remained at the banquet until the bitter end -- attempting to hide themselves by a potted fern in a far corner, but stymied in their efforts by a stream of her father's colleagues intent on catching up. By the time they'd returned to the clock tower at 1:30am, the redhead's speechlessness seemed to have infected her normally loquacious partner, and Helena had silently helped her off with her wrap, then bent to buss her shyly on the cheek, murmuring that she'd see her the next day before departing from the balcony.

After a surprisingly sound sleep, Barbara had awakened early, barely able to concentrate on the Sunday crossword between the host of butterflies in her stomach and her incessant need to check the time every three minutes. Apparently, her edginess had been more visible than she'd realized because, eventually, even the normally even-tempered Dinah had had enough.

"Good golly, Barbara! What are you waiting for? We do live in a clock tower, you know, so there's absolutely no missing it when the hour rolls around..."

The older woman had looked up guiltily at her ward's little tirade, just in time to witness comprehension flooding the teen's features. The girl had flown across the living area and almost toppled them both with the force of her enthusiastic hug.

"Something finally...! I can't believe it... I'm so happy for you both!"

While the English teacher in Barbara had found the final utterance a bit redundant, given the blonde's obvious delight, she'd nevertheless been terribly, terribly touched and pleased by Dinah's... approval. And, perhaps, she forced herself to admit, a trifle... vexed by the fact that everyone around her seemed to have been clued in to the vagaries of her love life well before she had been.

Helena had arrived at her usual Sunday time -- that was, just as Alfred poured the first cup of batter into the waffle iron. She'd smiled cheerfully at Barbara and greeted Dinah with a play-punch, but otherwise gone through their usual routine -- a late brunch, a long workout -- without reference to the night before. It was only her request at the end of training for this outing which gave the slightest indication...

Well, Barbara noted with a soft smile, Helena's request and the sweet smile which had been present just for her every time she'd turned to look at the brunette. During waffles, during the workout, during -- in fact -- the last many years they'd been together.

As the door shut behind them, the redhead managed to wipe off most of her goofy grin and put her game face in place, perusing the pawn shop with seeming nonchalance. A slightly different and rather pained smile appeared when green eyes tracked to the location where the video camera should have been and grasped the reason behind the poor quality of the images she'd been dealing with.

Hanging high on the wall, presumably with the camera inside, was a giant moth- eaten moose head. The cyber-crime fighter immediately canceled the lecture she'd had planned for the shop owner.

The man had obviously already put quite a bit of thought into his security system and, very probably, wouldn't welcome other suggestions.

"Check this out, Red."

The older woman approached her partner who was hovering next to an empty display case. A neat line of melted metal transected the steel clasp which had served to secure the unit. Looking up, she cocked an eyebrow in question, and the brunette nodded. Aware of the proprietor's arrival, she slipped the brunette a plastic evidence bag and a curette and then turned to intercept the man, leaving Helena to scrape some filings from the metal.

"May I help you ladies with something?"

The portly man's interest in his two visitors was palpable, and he attempted to peer past Barbara, obviously curious about what might be holding the brunette's interest in an empty case. The older woman lightly bumped into a display of presidential plates and managed to recapture his undivided attention.

"Oopsy daisy! I'm sorry... So clumsy!"

She laughed lightly.

"My friend recalled seeing some jewelry here last week...?"

Stabilizing the display, the man smiled unctuously and gestured to another glass case.

"Over here. We had a break in the other night and had to move things. Are you looking for something in particular?"

The redhead smiled brightly -- she could do the "ditzy redhead" as well as anyone when required -- and a touch of mischief tickled her soul when she noted Helena's approach.

"In fact, we are."

She reached up to capture the surprised young woman's hand and then continued gushingly.

"We just had our second date last night and while we were on the way to rent a U- haul, Helena mentioned the lovely jewelry she'd seen here. Something to commemorate...?"

The redhead felt, rather than heard, her partner's suppressed snicker and fought not to blush as the young woman chimed in with her own extemporaneous addition.

"Yeah, maybe something..."

The brunette gestured toward the general vicinity of Barbara's chest and the older woman had to quash the urge to swat at her hand.

"... pierced?"

Fifteen minutes later, the two women -- barely holding in their laughter -- exited the pawn shop without any jewelry but with a genuine commemorative presidential plate in hand. Helena started the vehicle, then stopped to catch her breath.

"That was perfect, Barbara. Though, I didn't know you were up on the entire lesbian initiation code."

The older woman spoke primly.

"I've been doing some reading."

The two drove quietly for a few minutes, Barbara idly wondering how Helena had managed to convince her that the Richard M. Nixon plate would be an addition to the decor of the clock tower. Perhaps Alfred could suggest a suitable spot for it... or just haul it off and hang it in the Batcave...

The brunette finally broke the easy silence.

"I got a couple of pictures of the display case. Figured the Kid could enhance them and see whether it matched the bank job."

When Helena flipped on her turn signal and entered the city park, Barbara abruptly shifted conversational gears.

"What is our destination, Hel? It's a bit dark for terrorizing the ducks at the pond, isn't it?".

The brunette snorted as she pulled into a parking spot.

"Never too late for that, Babs, but, yeah, we're here."

The young woman offered an enigmatic smile but no further information as she hopped out and moved to the back of the van. When Helena reappeared at the passenger door, the redhead unbuckled her seat belt and transferred herself to her chair, brow furrowed.

"Just what do you have in mind?"

Instead of a direct answer, the dark figure flung a backpack over one shoulder, picked up a bundle of blankets, and started down a path leading to the commons.

"C'mon or we'll miss the beginning."

Bemused, the older woman obediently followed, pleased that the city had managed to clean most of the snow from the path... and still baffled about their plans. When they reached the snow-covered open field at the center of the park, the sight of a few dozen other people and the muted tuning of musical instruments sparked the redhead's memory.

So caught up was she in weighing the merits of late winter concerts under the stars that the redhead nearly plowed into her partner, who had abruptly stopped, raising a hand dramatically to her forehead, clearly scouting for the perfect location.

"Oh! I'm sorry, Sweetie," she apologized hurriedly as the younger woman skipped to one side.

Barbara continued as the brunette led them to an isolated spot that was still right off the cleared walkway.

"But, Helena, I didn't think that you cared for..."

She dug through her mental filing cabinet, infallible memory effortlessly supplying the concert schedule she'd perused in the paper two months before.


The younger woman gracefully knelt to smooth out a patch of snow-covered ground, then began spreading a heat-blanket over it.

"I don't, but you do. And, I like the laser show."

The redhead smiled affectionately.

Of course Helena, with her childlike enthusiasm, would enjoy the choreographed light show.

Watching her partner spread three more layers of blankets, she spoke wryly.

"You do realize that I won't feel the cold...?"

The brunette finished her preparations, then approached, arms extended in invitation. The older woman raised her arms for a lift.

"Just 'cuz you can't feel the cold doesn't mean you should be cold."

Pausing in her progress from the path to the blankets, the young woman added with a wink, "Besides, if I hauled the damned things out here, I'm sure as heck gonna use them."

Barbara's laugh was full and genuine, followed by a smile of thanks as the brunette helped her get settled, then snugged a fleecy blanket around the two of them. While her companion dug into the previously ignored backpack, the redhead regarded their arrangements. Given the amount of heat radiating from the small woman next to her, not to mention how warm she herself was feeling for some reason, she suspected that the remaining blanket might not be needed.

The orchestra under the distant bandstand finally launched into its opening just as Helena unscrewed the top of a steel thermos and poured something into the cap. Steam wafted into the chill night air, and Barbara murmured a quiet thanks, accepting the makeshift cup. Having already detected the sweet, milky odor of hot chocolate, the redhead was prepared for the rich sweetness -- Helena never stinted when it came to chocolate. She wasn't expecting a creamy sharp under taste.

"Is that Bailey's, Helena?"

The flash of even white teeth was clear in the darkness.

"I do live above a bar, Barbara."

Colorful arcs of light cut through the night sky, exactly timed to highlight the mathematically complex nocturne. Transfixed, the older woman leaned in to the strong shoulder next to her, glancing down when she felt something soft and warm being eased into her hand.

Barbara's pleasure was genuine.


She traded the thermos lid and happily took a bite, unsurprised that somehow her partner had kept the tender pastries warm during the course of their sleuthing earlier.

"Yeah," the younger woman breathed as she nibbled at her own treat. "I figured we could grab some real food later."

Struck anew by her companion's sweetness, the redhead spoke impulsively.

"Thank you... for this, Hel. It is much nicer than last night's affair."

A nearly inaudible hum of agreement and the sensation of a dark head moving to rest lightly against hers was the only response. For long, harmonious minutes, the women cuddled companionably, passing the cocoa between them.

Sharing the snow-filled park common with several dozen other hearty souls, surrounded by complex melody, illuminated by ethereal light, and -- most important -- snugly embracing the woman she now understood that she had no choice but to love, Barbara Gordon felt as secure and peaceful as she could ever remember. At that moment, she couldn't -- infallible memory notwithstanding -- recall why it had been so difficult to find this place.

A tentative question finally interrupted her reverie.

"Can we talk about last night, Barbara?"

The older woman twisted just enough to catch earnest blue eyes with green.

"Whatever you want, Sweetheart."

Unflinching, she held the gaze which searched her face.

"Did you mean it?"

The air left Barbara's body in a rush, and she almost lost the precarious balance she'd been maintaining with one hand against the blankets. Oddly, the feeling of nearly falling wasn't frightening. For one of the first times in her life, when confronted with her own emotions, she felt no fear... only peace.

The redhead spoke seriously.

"Yes, Hel, I did. I love you very much."

The younger woman's smile, Barbara instantly decided, outshone the lasers above them.

"I love you, too, Red."

For a lovely moment, the older woman simply... basked in the emotions that their shared words engendered. However, eventually, the scratch of her conscience robbed the sweetness from the experience.

Settling the empty thermos lid carefully next to the backpack, she tangled the fingers of her free hand with Helena's. Noting the concern which flickered across expressive caramel features, she refused to allow herself to drag the moment out.

"I do love you, Helena."

The words sounded rough to her own ears. Heaven only knew what Helena's sensitive hearing would make of them.

"And, I want... hope you'll give me a chance to..."

The redhead stumbled, uncertain how to say what she needed to. Her next words were an unhappy whisper.

"I... I just don't know..."

The younger woman's voice was reassuring. The tender squeeze of her hand, steadying.

"Tell me, Barbara."

Even in the darkness, the older woman couldn't maintain eye contact and so cast green eyes towards the heavens.

"I do love you, Hel, but I don't know if I can--"

Unable to stop herself, the redhead stumbled again before she forced herself to grind out the bitter words.

"... if I can be your lover."

Until that moment, Barbara hadn't fully known what the admission would cost her. The sensation of something cold and wet trailing down her cheeks surprised her, and the redhead exhaled harshly, clenching her jaw. She was utterly frustrated by the inadequacy of the words and by her own inability... both to express her questions about unknown territories and to describe the hard truths about well-known limitations.

Not even a heartbeat elapsed before the older woman's companion silently shifted on the blankets and raised her free hand to swipe delicately at the two tears which had somehow escaped Barbara's iron-clad control. The tenderness of the gesture threatened to undo the tenuous grip that the redhead was maintaining on her emotions.

She heard the other woman's soft exhalation, then felt their joined hands lifted, her hand gently turned in the younger woman's as Helena lowered her head and pressed a lingering kiss to her palm. When the brunette finally spoke, her voice contained no doubt or hesitation.

"It doesn't matter, Barbara. I love you."

The redhead gasped and started, stunned by the complete sincerity in her partner's words.

"But, Helena, surely you need... want...?"

She detected the quick shake of tousled hair.

"No expectations, Red."

A quick grin and the waggle of dark brows punctuated the next utterance and, miraculously, lightened the moment, somehow freeing Barbara's breathing marginally.

"Hopes, yeah. A lotta hopes. But,"

The young woman's tone grew serious again.

"There's no time limit or anything, Barbara. Let's just... take things one day at a time, huh?"

How...? When had her younger friend become so wise?

Wordless, amazed anew by her fortune in finally opening her eyes to what had been in front of her for so long, Barbara settled against the other woman's slim torso. Helena's suggestion, she decided, contained a great deal of merit.

Determined not to spend the remainder of the concert trying to figure out how she could not plan how she would take things one day at a time, the redhead focused on the beauty of the light show's mathematical precision in enhancing the music. Gradually however, the awareness of the strong, pliant form behind her, which so effortlessly was helping to support her, eased into her consciousness. The hint of warm breath against her cheek and the teasing whisper of slender fingers absently sifting through her hair and tracing the shell of her ear left her oddly lightheaded.

The older woman pushed herself upright, immediately missing the warmth which had been against her back, and then twisted to face her companion.

"Helena? Have you..."

Barbara felt a warm rush of blood flooding her face and knew that her partner's enhanced vision couldn't miss it. Resolute, she cleared her throat against an odd hoarseness and plunged ahead.

"Er, that is... I'd... like to kiss you and wondered if you'd like..."

She trailed off, hopelessly tongue-tied and vigorously reconsidering the wisdom of having spoken. The young woman allayed her fears by scootching forward a hairs- breadth and leaning in. Warm, sweet breath, faintly redolent of chocolate, tickled the redhead's lips.

"For a long time, Red."

Barbara's brief quirk of consternation over the confusing phrasing faded rapidly at the touch of incredibly soft lips against hers. As the tender contact drew on -- Helena didn't increase the pressure or the contact, allowing the older woman to set the pace -- the redhead realized that a bit of ambiguity could be a good thing.

Leisurely, she brushed her mouth against the brunette's, tracing the cupid's bow shape, savoring the other woman's warm breath, discovering a satiny softness previously undreamed of. Awed, she pulled back a few millimeters and, pierced by questioning golden eyes, barely realized that she was speaking aloud.

"So soft..."

A quiet exhalation was the only reply, and the brunette leaned in, moving closer but, again, not quite making contact. Allowing, the older woman recognized, her to choose.

Barbara closed the distance, curiously reaching out to taste, thrilling at the dark woman's rumbled moan. She took the opportunity to tease between those velvet lips. The answering touch of a tongue which danced lightly -- and undemandingly -- against hers was electric.

This time, the moan was the older woman's, surprising her with its intensity as she eased in to meet Helena, to taste Helena, to map Helena...

Startled to the point of dizzied panic, the redhead jerked back with a whimper, then blushed furiously. She opened her mouth to explain, then chewed lightly at her lower lip, struggling for some way to express what she was experiencing.

Emotional areas were simply not her forte.

The younger woman raised a hand, her touch against Barbara's cheek almost reverent, her voice awed.

"I can't believe it's finally you..."

Green eyes widened and blurred before the older woman blinked the distracting moisture away.

How could Helena so easily speak exactly what most thrilled... and terrified... and filled her with indescribable joy?

The lights in the sky reflected in the other woman's beautiful blue eyes as Barbara brought their mouths together again, attempting to put everything she felt into words of her own.

"I'm so glad it's you..."

Chapter 11

Tiny silver particles floated in mid air, refracting the green and amber lights of various monitors, twinkling not unlike Christmas tinsel.

Mentally rolling her eyes at herself for making such a trite comparison, Barbara raised an electrode and stared seriously into pale blue eyes which were narrowed in concentration.

"Are you certain that you want to try this, Dinah?"

The blonde simply nodded, clearly intent on keeping the force field between them intact. They'd tested a weak charge on one of the girl's force fields earlier; however, the metal shavings from the pawn shop's display case added an X- factor to the process which the older woman wasn't entirely comfortable with. Still, she rationalized guiltily, the readings they could get from the controlled field would be more pure than those from the centrifuge and the cyber-genius was planning to start with a relatively weak bolt of current.

Inspecting her ward's features one last time for even a hint of nervousness and finding none, the redhead held the slender diode steady, allowing Dinah to move the floating mass onto -- around -- the tip. When metal particles came in contact, Barbara channeled her best Victor Frankenstein and flipped the power, awed as the current arced from shaving to shaving but never left the plum-sized invisible sphere which held the metal.

Curious emerald eyes flickered from the teen's face -- not a sign of discomfort -- to her primary CRT, confirming that the readings were being recorded. Satisfied, the older woman toggled the power off.

"Amazing," she murmured while Dinah carefully deposited the sample into its lucite tray and then relaxed.

"Did you notice any impact? Strain or a charge or...?"

The redhead left the question open-ended, not certain just what her telekinetic ward might have picked up from the little experiment. The girl simply shook her head with a grin.

"Not even a tickle, Barbara."

More relieved than she'd anticipated, the older woman released the tension in her shoulders and laughed softly. She was impressed with the girl's elan and, frankly, more than a little thankful that she herself would not be featured in the next day's news as some sort of mad guardian who'd electrocuted her charge.

Said charge waited patiently while Barbara sealed the sample and placed it on a shelf, then moved behind her to peer at the monitor. Normally, having anybody looking over her shoulder while she worked -- well, anyone except Helena who had simply become a ubiquitious part of the computing process as Barbara had mastered the Delphi -- made the older woman distinctly edgy. However, she was finding that Dinah possessed a quick eye for data analysis and pattern recognition which made her presence not at all unwelcome.

The cyber-crime fighter efficiently scanned the reams of information scrolling across the monitor and glanced back over her shoulder.

"What do the readings tell you, Dinah?"

A trifle embarrassed, she hoped that her "teaching voice" hadn't been as clear to the teen as it had been to her own ears.

The blonde leaned in and spoke slowly.

"Uhm, something cleaner than a torch was used... And, uhm, there are no filing marks from a blade...?"

The redhead nodded encouragingly and, sensing the girl's puzzled expression, offered a leading hint.

"Indeed, Dinah. Would you say that something fairly high- tech was used then to cut the metal?"

"Yeah," the teen spoke thoughtfully. " Something like a laser? But, really precise..."

Without looking back, Barbara thought she heard the light go off in her companion's eyes. Dinah's next words were spoken almost confidently.

"... like a surgical laser?"

"Well done, Dinah."

Barbara's smile of pride was genuine. If the girl did one day decide to focus her considerable powers and intellect on crime fighting, she would certainly be a force to be reckoned with.

The older woman ruefully checked herself.

Even if Dinah chose not to pursue the vigilante life, she would still be a force to be reckoned with.

She chuckled soundlessly, aware that she'd nearly fallen into the same thinking that had led her to do battle with a teenaged Helena Kyle. For years, she'd coaxed and cajoled, argued and begged, attempting to interest the young woman in turning her impressive mental and physical skills towards... well, something a bit different than bartending. Peace had finally come only after Barbara had finally grasped that her volatile young charge -- like a force of nature -- could not be shaped or bent to someone else's perceptions.

Like all young people -- or, perhaps even more so than most -- Helena had had to find, and to make, her own way.

The redhead's musings were interrupted when the blonde's shyly pleased smiled transformed into puzzlement.

"But, why? I mean, he could have just smashed the case or something."

The older woman sighed, not hiding her own frustration that the same question was nagging at her.

"For that matter, Dinah, why just take two pieces of jewelry from the case?"

Police reports described both items as having various gemstones, but neither piece was valued at more than $1000.

"And, why," she removed her glasses to gnaw absently at one earpiece, "use potentially deadly force to make an escape from such a trivial theft?"

The teen shrugged, not unsympathetically. Barbara knew that her fondness for puzzles was legendary, as was her lack of patience for puzzles with glaringly missing pieces.

Reseating her glasses, she tried to read the vaguely abashed expression that had crept across youthful features.

"If I hadn't caused Helena to get all tangled up, we'd probably know everything."

The redhead spoke quickly and firmly.

"Dinah, it was an accident. And anything -- anything -- which occurs in the process of keeping you and Helena safe is never a reason to be sorry."

She hoped that the girl's shyly appreciative smile signaled that Dinah believed her. More important, she hoped that the teen would take the message to heart.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, was more important than the safety of her companions.

"So, uhm, have the police gotten there yet?"

The older woman blinked against the abrupt shift in topic and automatically swiveled to check the scanners. When no answer was forthcoming from that venue, she toggled on the mike of her comm set, simultaneously quirking an eyebrow at the teen's tactic.

"Huntress, do you copy?"

<"I copy, Oracle. What's up?">

The response was immediate... and uncharacteristically upbeat for the dark vigilante. The redhead silently shook her head. Even if it had been a while, she was not unfamiliar with the therapeutic properties of handing out a good ass- kicking.

Still attempting to gauge Dinah's mirthful expression, Barbara spoke distractedly.

"Any sign of the police arriving to pick up your packages?"

Her remote partner's reply -- delivered after a low snarl which immediately silenced the grumbling from the two muggers she'd intercepted -- was distinctly bored.

<"Nothing yet. I was thinking of dragging these two sacks of garbage down and delivering them myself.">

The redhead saw her own smile at that image mirrored by her youthful companion. The distant sound of approaching sirens over the transceiver removed any need for her to find a reason for Helena to be patient.

Honestly, Barbara suspected that she would have been hard- pressed -- or, at the very least, felt a tad hypocritical -- in urging forbearance. The night before, the brunette had been caught working a triple shift at the bar; apparently, Leonard's limited generosity for time off had been exhausted by the young woman's absences on Saturday and Sunday night. Thus, the two women had been forced to content themselves with a brief and oddly awkward phone conversation during Helena's 8:00pm break.

This evening, only minutes away from seeing the young woman, Barbara was -- quite frankly -- amazed by how nervous she felt. Vowing to at least try to be a bit more sympathetic to the lovelorn teenagers in her classroom, she heard a lilting voice over the comms.

<"They're heeeere...">

Somehow, the redhead managed to keep her reply cool.

"So I hear, Huntress. Are you on your way in now?"

A great deal of the older woman's nervousness evaporated at the oddly shy response.

<"I'd like to... Unless there's something else?">

Blushing -- naturally -- under observant pale blue eyes, Barbara spoke quietly.

"No, nothing else. I'll see you soon."

Thumbing the unit to standby, she looked up and affected a nonchalance that she certainly didn't feel under Dinah's knowing gaze. Just what was the... protocol for this sort of situation?

The redhead decided that a letter requesting advice from Dear Abby was out of the question. Simply contemplating how to explain the problem -- how to talk with her current ward about the fact that she was... seeing her former ward -- left her with the beginning of a headache of staggering magnitude.

The teen, who often seemed wiser than her years, helped her out enormously by leaning down and giving her a quick hug.

"I'm glad you're happy, Barbara... that you're both happy."

Speechless, the older woman gaped, just managing a whisper -- "I am" -- as the girl disappeared into the kitchen. Barbara turned back to her keyboard to save the latest revision to her encryption algorithm, faintly amused by the amount of effort she was putting into the program just so that she could use it to test her decryption routines.

A few keystrokes later, she shook her head, puzzled and vaguely alarmed to have caught herself... humming as she worked.

If she'd only spent more time dating in high school and college, might she now be spared her current adolescent behavior?

With a mental shrug, she returned to her humming as she added a few more tweaks to the program. Within minutes, an awareness, followed by the sound of a soft thump from the balcony, drew her attention from her programming.

"Captain and Tennille, Barbara?"

The cyber-genius felt her breath catch at the much anticipated sight of her younger partner.

Gliding soundlessly across the living area, shucking her leather coat with a negligent shrug, the dark woman simply... commanded the room. The young woman's lean limbs appeared to ripple with controlled power under the smooth leather of her sweeps wear; her hips swayed provocatively as she approached the platform; and the playful quirk of her full lips...

Caused an abashed chuckle to bubble from the redhead when she identified which song she'd been humming.

'Love Will Keep Us Together'?

Helena stepped onto the raised platform and leaned close with an easy grin.

"Original, Red."

This time, the older woman laughed outright and play-swatted the brunette's firm abdomen. The dark figure stepped back gracefully and then closed the distance again.

"I kind of prefer 'I Never Wanted'..."

The young woman hummed the next few bars of the song which Barbara was quite aware had been adopted as a lesbian camp classic. As expected, the redhead felt a blush crawling up her neck, and she fixed the other woman with a cool stare.

"You could shut me up if you wanted to, Babs."

Still working on fighting her embarrassment, it took the older woman a beat to comprehend her partner's meaning. The blush which she'd almost gotten under control returned and brought along friends: shortness of breath and a pounding heart.

Since Barbara knew full well that Helena could, literally, hear her... reaction, there wasn't much for her to do save reach for the younger woman's hand and tug the smaller woman closer.

"Do you think that will really work, Sweetie?"

Just before those amazingly soft lips touched hers, she heard the brunette husk her answer.

"Try me."

And so, she did.

Two nights before, after that moment of heart-stopping panic -- What had she been doing touching and tasting a woman, specifically Helena, so intimately? -- the redhead had surrendered to long, slow explorations, allowing her instinctive fear to be pushed aside by more... pressing feelings.

Neither woman had rushed the contact, and Barbara had luxuriated in learning some of the nuances of the sweet woman next to her.

After just one kiss, she suspected that there was quite a bit more to learn.

During that long, thickly coursing union of their mouths, she'd clearly detected the brunette's slight rocking next to her on the blanket. She'd also noticed the restless shifting of the young woman's legs under their shared lap robe. Her own labored breathing when they'd slowly parted had taken her by surprise, as had a sharp desire for that lush mouth to be against hers again. Nevertheless, the end of the concert, the cold, their own delicate dance of intimacy had all dictated that the one kiss suffice.

This evening, however...

Barbara lost herself in the perfect melding of their mouths, feeling the fine hairs on the back of her neck and on her arms twitch to the soft resonance of her partner's moan. Stroking deeply once more -- dear heavens but Helena tasted wonderful -- she drew back. Her breath was stolen by the intense golden eyes fixed on her, leaving her trembling from a combination of excitement and fear.

Silently, she raised her free hand and stroked gently at the satin skin of Helena's jaw. Excitement -- and something more visceral -- began to edge out fear when she witnessed the younger woman's eyes hooding and felt a tremor work through her partner's slender frame.

Panting softly, the dark figure closed her eyes fully, seeming to focus deep within herself, and green eyes hungrily watched the delicate flaring of aquiline nostrils, the soft rise and fall of the other woman's chest. Finally, dark lashes fluttered open to reveal blue eyes.

Was it literally possible to fall into someone's eyes?

She'd read some bad poetry and fiction which used the figure of speech and always dismissed it as pure romantic poppycock. However, now, confronted with the vast depths before her, she decided to research the possible physiology behind the phenomenon she was experiencing.

A hesitant smile was spreading across caramel features.

"Uh, I guess..."

A slender hand fluttered in the general vicinity of the balcony.

"... I'll leave now."

The erotic haze surrounding the redhead vanished with a noisy 'pop', and Barbara blinked slowly.

Several times.

"I'm sorry, Helena. What did you say?"

Obviously, her hearing was going. She'd read that that was one of the first faculties to fail...

"Uhm, that I should go...?"

Crimson brows furrowed.

"What...? Did I do something--"

Gentle fingers came to rest against her lips, and Barbara finally noted the twinkle in blue eyes.

"No. I just wanna come back in and be greeted all over again."

Torn between pique and relief, the redhead opted for the practical. Winding her fingers into the silky hair at the nape of the brunette's neck, she coaxed the young woman back down.

"As much as I know how you love to make an entrance, Sweetheart, I don't think that will be necessary..."

Their lips brushed, the brunette's pleased sigh coaxing a quiet moan from the older woman. Barbara reached down, grasping her partner's waist and gently tugging the other woman toward her lap.

A soft cough froze both of them.

Whipping her eyes guiltily towards the kitchen, the redhead found Dinah grinning broadly from the doorway. The girl's playful words were almost drowned out by Helena's answering laugh.

"Uh, c'mon. Impressionable minor here. Get a room, why don't ya?"

Chapter 12

<"Aww, come on. Can't you at least send Canary over with a tent and a cot or something?">

Barbara rolled her eyes indulgently at the petulant question and smoothly checked a half-dozen data feeds -- store alarms, video images, police scanners. Not surprisingly, given that her partner at the scene had just professed her utter boredom with the stakeout for the eighth time, the cyber-crime fighter detected no signs of activity.

However, this last survey gave the redhead an idea, and she busied herself linking the feeds into some highly customized monitoring and motion- detection routines. As she prepared to complete the final tie-in with the Delphi, an aggrieved huff interrupted her concentration.

<"Hellll-o. Anybody there?">


Barbara guiltily checked the time -- five and a half minutes had elapsed since her partner's last... message. Perhaps she should...

She hit the last few keys and spoke lightly.

"I'm sorry, Huntress. Are you still out there?"

<"Har-dee. Har. Har.">

The older woman heard the scuff of a boot, and then Helena spoke again, tone genuinely interested.

<"What are you working on?">

The redhead smiled fondly.

"Something which should get you off a cold rooftop recon job, Huntress."

The younger woman was utterly silent, and Barbara suspected that she was attempting to decide whether further conversation would slow the older woman's progress. The redhead couldn't fault her reticence or her eagerness to escape the typically drippy New Gotham night. Of all the activities which the young vigilante could be engaged in on a Friday night, Barbara knew that waiting -- in the off chance that their burglar would return to the jewelry store -- was low on her list.

It had been plain bad luck that a police cruiser had been in the neighborhood when the store's alarm had blipped an hour before. Barbara had immediately hacked in, confirming that the method of short circuiting the alarm was identical to that used at the bank and the pawn shop, just as she'd noted on the scanner that the police had pulled up to investigate. By the time Helena had arrived three minutes later, their culprit had disappeared. Still, the man was obviously in search of something, leading to the brunette's lonely vigil for the last hour.

"All set, Huntress. Would you mind strolling by the back door?"

<"No problem.">

The cyber-genius heard a rush of air over her transceiver -- presumably one of her partner's rapid descents from the roof -- and, in short order, one of her motion detectors triggered.

Since she was alone in the clock tower, the redhead succumbed to the urge to pump her fist in the air in victory -- it had been no mean feat to jury-rig the exterior camera -- then spoke calmly.

"Perfect. Why don't you come in and dry off while we wait to see if he returns?"

The store was close enough that Barbara was confident in her partner's ability to respond quickly if an alarm triggered.

<"Thanks, Oracle. I'm on my way.">

A bit surprised by Helena's failure to respond to the entendre that she'd left herself wide open for -- the brunette must be more miserable than she'd let on out there -- the older woman headed into the kitchen to warm some hot chocolate. After finding Helena's favorite mug and setting a saucepan of milk on the stove -- the younger woman usually prepared instant, but Barbara knew of her fondness for warm milk -- she began to dig through the refrigerator, certain that Dinah and Helena couldn't haven eaten all of the custard which Alfred had left the day before.

The soft snick of the balcony doors and deliberate footsteps heading to the bathroom distracted the redhead from her quest. She straightened and spoke in her normal tone, certain that the young woman would hear her.

"Grab a pair of my sweats if you don't have anything here, Hel."

Honestly, since moving into her own apartment three years before, the brunette continued to leave a constantly alternating array of clothing at the clock tower. Barbara had yet to decide if it was a matter of convenience or closet space for the younger woman.

While she waited for her partner to appear, the redhead tested the temperature of the milk, filled the oversized mug, and carefully placed the beverage on the table. As she retrieved a foil-wrapped packet of strawberry pop tarts from the cupboard, Helena stepped quietly into the kitchen, absolutely swimming in an oversized set of NGPD sweats which Barbara had appropriated from her father years before.

Emerald eyes drank in the sight. Mussed, still-damp hair. Over- long sleeves pushed up to her elbows, revealing the smooth, sinewy muscles of her forearms. Bare feet, complete with nails painted an eye-catching shade of red.

Barbara swallowed with some difficulty and finally found her voice.

"Hello, Sweetheart."

A shy smile met the words, and the brunette padded around the table, leaning down to brush her mouth softly against the older woman's ear.

"Hey, Red. You're a sight for sore eyes."

Shivering slightly from the gossamer contact, the redhead raised her hand to catch the younger woman's cheek, stretching up to bring their mouths together lightly. She exhaled at the sensation of a warm tongue tenderly tracing her lower lip and slowly disentangled herself.

Helena settled herself at the table, blue eyes sparkling at the redhead's culinary offering. She bent to sniff at the cocoa, and a dark brow quirked playfully in question.

Barbara laughed.

"I've been reading the cookbook you gave me--"

"Mastering the Art of French Cooking" by Julia Child had, obviously, been meant as a gag gift for Barbara's recent birthday; however, she'd found it to be surprisingly enjoyable.

"--and, as long as I stay away from the oven and confine my efforts to a single burner, I think you're safe from food poisoning."

Raising her cup in a mock toast, Helena deadpanned, " Careful, Barbara. You're shaking up every preconception I have of you. Next thing I know, you'll be ironing or something."

The redhead pushed aside the serious subtext inherent in her partner's observation for later deliberation and laughed again.

"I'll have you know that I used an iron extensively in college."

She waited the requisite beat for the disbelieving widening of blue eyes.

"Of course, that was for making cheese sandwiches."

The younger woman snorted into her cup, and Barbara reflexively raised a hand in self-protection, causing the brunette to laugh in earnest. Finally mastering her mouthful of cocoa, Helena grew serious, fiddling with her mug and peering almost timidly from under her bangs. Detecting a hint of pink in her partner's dusky features, Barbara waited curiously.

"Uh, thank you for the flowers, Barbara. They're really beautiful."

The older woman felt some warmth touching her own cheeks.

When she'd impulsively stopped at the florist's on her way home the day before, she'd not been certain how the gesture would be received. After all, not everybody was the flower "type". However, something about the arrangement of tiger lilies she'd spied in the window had... brought the younger woman to mind.

She awkwardly attempted to explain.

"I'm glad you like them, Hel. I, er, wanted to thank you for taking Dinah and me to dinner on Wednesday and..."

Barbara cautiously met curious blue eyes.

"... since I knew I'd be missing you last night, it made me feel..."

The older woman trailed off, looking -- she suspected -- a little helpless as she tried to describe how their opposing schedules the night before had left her feeling. Barbara's rotation for the Drama Club meeting early in the evening and Helena's closing shift at the bar had made it impossible even to talk with each other. Even before... things had changed, it had been rare not to touch base on a daily basis.

Helena's soft smile reassured the redhead that, somehow, her meaning had come through.

"I don't get flowers much, Barbara."

As the dark figure continued, the redhead struggled not to gape openly at the quiet admission.

"It... it means a lot."

The older woman rested her hand on the other woman's, making a mental note to add the flower shop to her list of regular stops.

The two sat in companionable silence while Helena scarfed down her pop tarts and Barbara simply... watched. Apparently temporarily fortified, the brunette drained her cup and licked her lips.

"So, where's the kid tonight?"


Something about observing the tip of a pink tongue cleansing the milky film from those full lips was most... distracting.

Dismayed with herself, Barbara shook her head minutely and pulled it together.

"She's at a movie with Gabby."

The redhead swallowed her chuckle at the disappointment flickering across her companion's face. Despite all of their sniping and bickering, the two younger women truly seemed to enjoy each other.

When the younger woman's pout morphed into a decidedly more adult expression, the redhead swallowed thickly. There was little doubt which direction the brunette's mind had just traveled in response to the information Barbara had imparted.

She rotated smoothly to snag something from the buffet, tossing the small item across the table to her partner. A slender hand effortlessly caught the article in mid air.

"Gin or poker?" the older woman inquired, perhaps a touch too brightly.

Dark lashes lowered while the younger woman regarded the deck of cards, then blue eyes met green, easily telegraphing how very, very unimpressed the brunette was with either suggestion. Barbara opened her mouth to remind Helena that their burglar could trigger an alarm at any moment, but was cut off by a quiet chuckle.

"I know. I know. Mind on the mission."

The brunette's apt echo of one of the two mantras which Barbara had repeatedly drilled into her during the early years of their partnership unleashed a flood of memories, bringing to mind the other sacred words she'd imparted: "Focus on the fight".

During that first year after the two had agreed to attempt their venture, it had been so difficult -- damned near impossible -- to convince her headstrong young charge of the need for focus and discipline. For months before she'd even considered permitting the brunette onto the night streets, she'd trained and drilled and sparred with her for hours each day: JuJitsu, weight training, rhythm drills, sparring sessions. However, with her innate speed and strength and heightened senses, Helena was simply too cavalier, too... casual in her regard for fighting. Combined with the girl's propensity to treat her mentor as if she were made of glass -- Helena had refused to engage fully during their sparring matches -- Barbara had begun to despair of impressing her protege with the seriousness of their endeavor.

Until one night.

Barbara deliberately chose not to recall the circumstances behind their respective moods. The end result had been a staff fight between the two, a fight in earnest. Nothing had been held back, no quarter given. Helena had unleashed all of her anger and power -- a combination which would have terrified the older woman had Barbara not been hell-bent on disproving her own limitations. While the younger woman's wild energy and instinct were nearly overwhelming, the redhead's years of discipline and skill had permitted her -- barely -- to emerge as the winner in the battle.

The victory had been pyrrhic, leaving Barbara bruised and bloody and, finally, achingly aware -- in a way that she'd not truly accepted before then -- that she was out of the game. The fight had left Helena crushed, less physically injured than her mentor but terrifying aware of, and humbled by, the effects of her own unrestrained actions. It had been, unequivocally, a turning point for both teacher and student.

As the vivid sensory images of that night faded, Barbara smiled softly. Since then, it had been rare indeed for Helena to forget the importance of focus. It had been even more rare, the redhead acknowledged wryly, that she'd allowed herself to forget the role that she had to play.

The brunette tapped the cards out of their box and began to shuffle, the deft movement of slender hands and a playful question pulling the older woman from her reverie.

"Where are the chips?"

Poker it was, then.

Barbara offered an abashed chuckle.

"At school. I was, er, trying something with my second period class."

Ignoring the younger woman's frank curiosity, she moved to a cupboard and dug through Helena's sizeable stash of sugar.


The redhead emerged with a colorful yellow bag.

"These should do nicely."

Seven rounds later -- Barbara was ahead since Helena never had been able to bluff convincingly with her -- the older woman stilled her movements mid-deal, unable to believe that her very intelligent partner was still confused about their ersatz betting chips.

"I still don't get it. Why aren't the green ones the most valuable?"

Barbara half-heartedly swatted at the hand which was lifting two of the items in question from her pile of "chips" and patiently attempted to explain. For the third time.

"ROY G BIV, Sweetie."

Honestly, using the prismatic scale -- Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet -- as the basis for the valuation of their betting tokens seemed perfectly sensible to her.

"In this case, we have red, orange, yellow..."

The redhead drew a breath and emphasized her next two words.

"... then green, and finally blue. Each color is worth twice as much as the preceding color, meaning that orange is equivalent to two reds; green to eight reds; blue--"

Helena interrupted the impromptu math lesson, popping the two green M&Ms she'd taken from her partner into her mouth.

"I got that the first time, Red. I just don't see why the green ones aren't the most valuable anyway. Everybody knows they're the best."

Contenting herself with a long-suffering sigh, the older woman dug into the bag and replaced Helena's snack with four orange and two yellow candies. She suspected that her partner would have been faring better in their competition if she'd not eaten most of her winnings.

She resumed her interrupted dealing and slid a fifth card across the table to the brunette and dropped a final card neatly onto her stack.

"Straight five card, nothing high."

Unlike the flights of fancy which seemed to emerge when Helena dealt -- sevens wild with a one-eyed jack or an even-numbered heart in hand? -- the redhead preferred to keep things pure and simple, focusing on the logic and probability of the game rather than luck.

The women anted -- a blue candy from each of them -- inspecting their cards.

Helena tossed down three cards, and Barbara smoothly dealt her replacements before mulling over her own hand. Two of clubs, four of diamonds, another four -- spades, eight of clubs, and the jack of clubs. She weighed the odds carefully.

Quite frankly, blackjack was really more her game; the probabilities were more clear-cut. However, with her eidetic memory, anyone who knew her simply refused to play.

Finally, she opted for a dash of derring-do, tossing down the two fours and dealing two replacements. Before she could pick up the cards, a slim hand covered hers. Barbara noticed that her opponent had yet to look at her cards as well.

Unable to read the young woman's expression, she smiled expectantly.

"What say we make this game more interesting, Red?"

A crimson brow arched.

"What did you have in mind, Helena? I don't think that we have any Malomars or Oreos..."

The brunette threw back her head and laughed, then recaptured emerald eyes with twinkling blue.

"I was thinking of something sweeter than that."

The redhead's playful mood faltered for a moment -- had the other woman's eyes briefly flickered gold? -- but she kept her game face in place.

"Indeed, Hel?"

"Yup. Shirts."

The other eyebrow joined the first, somewhere near Barbara's hairline.

"Shirts?", she echoed -- a trifle stupidly, she suspected.

Helena held her gaze challengingly and clarified, "Loser goes topless."

A wicked glint sparked in those arresting eyes.

"... unless you don't think you've got the cards to win...?"

Twin tendril of excitement and fear wound through the older woman's belly as she eyed the two cards face-down in front of her and contemplated the wager. As if reading her thoughts, Helena withdrew her hand.

"Go ahead and look at 'em, then make up your mind."

When the brunette scooped up her three cards, the redhead stretched out her fingers and dragged her cards across the table, lifting them only when they reached the edge. Schooling her features, she glanced down casually.

A two of diamonds and the jack of hearts. Not the flush she'd been gambling on, but two pairs wasn't bad.

Peering over her cards, she refused to be intimidated by her companion's cocky grin and, again, considered the stakes. The lure of the bet was certainly an inducement in and of itself. However, did a chance of winning outweigh the price if she lost?

Indelible images of the four starburst scars on her abdomen swam before Barbara's eyes until she looked up again. The soft, sweet desire in the younger woman's face outshone the horrible image and made the decision for her.

The redhead spoke crisply.


Before the brunette's smile completed its transformation into something entirely... wolfish, the older woman amended her acceptance.

"With a rider, Hel."

This time, it was dark eyebrows which raised expectantly as the younger woman's lips quirked.

"What's that, Babs?"

The redhead held her partner's gaze and spoke seriously.

"Win or lose, you have to answer a question for me."

A naughty smile slid across gamine features, and Helena fanned her cards rakishly.

"Oooh... Truth and dare. I like."

Barbara laughed, the sound altering to a choked cough when she heard her opponent's next words.

"So, you're not gonna fold?"

Recovering, the redhead spoke coolly.

"I. Do not. Fold."

The younger woman accepted the rebuke sanguinely, then waggled her brows.

"How about raising then?"

Barbara colored as she took into account the stakes which were already on the table, so to speak. As a limited number of more... valuable bets ran through her mind, she decided that she absolutely, positively was not going to ask what, specifically, Helena might have had in mind. Instead, she shook her head once, drew in a fortifying breath, and laid out her cards.

"I'll call. Two pairs. Read 'em and weep."

The older woman smiled affectionately as blue eyes raked over her cards suspiciously. Finally, the brunette puffed her cheeks, blew out a disgusted breath, and tossed her cards onto the discards.

Dancing eyes looked up to meet green.

"Ms. Gordon, I'm shocked. You're some kind of hustler, aren't you?"

Unrepentant, Barbara placed her cards on the table and smiled sweetly.

"Time for your question, Hel."

Slender fingers waved expansively.


Barbara didn't allow herself time to re-evaluate the wisdom of her words... or the source of her curiosity.

"Did you want to win... or to lose that hand, Hel?"

There was absolutely no hesitation as an easy grin spit the younger woman's features. Pushing her chair back, the lithe figure stood as she spoke. Her words were somehow playful and earnest at the same time.

"Didn't matter, Red. All I want to do is get naked with you."

She moved around the table slowly, deliberately.

"So, you see, it doesn't matter..."

Helena came to a stop by the redhead's side. Barbara estimated that no more than sixteen inches separated them.

"... who..."

The dark figure knelt, bringing her features to eye level.

"... goes..."

The redhead caught her lower lip with her upper teeth when Helena trailed her hands to the hem of the oversized sweatshirt.

"... first."

Absolutely needing the connection, somehow Barbara managed to drag her gaze from the strong, slender hands flirting with the material at the bottom of the sweatshirt. The sight of feral eyes meeting hers, intent and burning, stole the air from her body.

The raw hunger in those eyes was unmistakable, leaving the older woman shaken to her core. She was suddenly acutely aware of the dull thudding of her heart and the dryness of her mouth.

How could she possibly answer the younger woman's need?

Barbara exhaled raggedly and ran her tongue around the edges of her lips.


"Hello...? Anybody still awake?"

Dinah's cheery question from the elevator broke the tableau, and the brunette stood gracefully before leaning down to purr in the older woman's ear.

"We can finish up in the bedroom if you want, Barbara. I don't want to welsh on a bet..."

Summoning a laugh, the redhead reached out to gather the cards.

"That's not necessary, Helena. I know that you're..."

She stumbled, recovering quickly as heat flooded her face.

"... that you're good for it."

"You betcha."

The brunette bounded from the room with a saucy wink, leaving Barbara absently sifting through the cards in her hands. As she readied to shuffle the discards back into the deck, a thought seized her, and she turned the small stack face up, effortlessly identifying Helena's cards.

Green eyes widened, and the redhead mind's blazed with questions at the hand her partner had folded after she'd revealed her own two pairs.

A full house. Aces over eights.

Chapter 13

As house fires went, this was in a class by itself.

It had started with a single dwelling, a wood frame in one of the city's older neighborhoods, but had leapt from one structure to the next. At this point, the entire block was involved. Preliminary chatter over the scanners was mentioning lightning as a cause, but Barbara was dubious, given the uncharacteristically cloudless night. Regardless of the cause, the end result was the same: a four-alarm fire involving multiple structures and almost every emergency worker in the city and one slender leather-clad vigilante.

Distractedly checking the time, the redhead calculated that her younger partner had been on the scene for over three hours. Throughout that period, Helena had been unobtrusively lending her very capable assistance anywhere it had been needed: clearing homes of their occupants ahead of the blaze; rescuing a firefighter trapped in a crumbling attic; intercepting gawkers and the inevitable looters; even dashing into one home to retrieve a terrified toddler's doll. The dark woman's phenomenal hearing allowed her to identify calls for distress much faster and more accurately than the overworked rescue workers could; her amazing reflexes, so far, had kept her from harm's way as she effected one rescue after another.

For her part, the older woman had been able to do little save monitor other signs of criminal activity in the city and route as many alarms as possible to private security firms. Much to her disgust, but hardly to her surprise, the worst elements in the city had come out in droves, seizing upon the fact that the city's emergency forces were otherwise occupied as an invitation to loot, rob, and steal.

Chafing at the limitations of the good she could actually do, the cyber-crime fighter roughly stabbed at the keyboard for an auxiliary monitor when yet another alarm sounded. When the alarm immediately blipped into silence, Barbara turned her full attention to identifying the location of the signal. A few expert keystrokes did the trick, and green eyes flashed in frustrated anger even as deft hands flew across the keyboard, seamlessly accessing the surveillance system inside the jewelry store.

As far as she had been able to determine, their finicky burglar had been quiet for almost ten days -- since the interrupted attempt on this same store two Fridays before. The redhead bitterly noted that her growing hope that the man had been frightened into giving up his search for... whatever had obviously been mistaken. A captured video feed confirmed it: a shadowy figure which largely remained out of camera range; however, a quick screen capture and rapid enhancement revealed a tell tale male balding pattern.

"Not this time you don't..."

Unaware that she'd spoken aloud, the redhead sent simultaneous alerts to every security firm in the city. Unable to overlook the man's use of force at the pawn shop, she repeatedly emphasized the "armed and dangerous" portion of the message. Within minutes, Barbara was gratified to note that one agency had already dispatched two investigators. Now, if the burglar -- who doubtless felt that the brief blip of the alarm would be overlooked in the mayhem of the evening's fire -- would just take a little time...

Keeping one sharp eye on the video feed, Barbara returned to her secondary task: cross-referencing the names and addresses of the fire victims with insurance, bank, medical, and other important records. She hoped that the results she was sending to the police, to insurance agencies, and to the Red Cross would save the recently homeless families some time in tracking down the elusive names and numbers needed to begin rebuilding their lives.

A flash of light drew her full attention back to the feed from the jewelry store. Since nothing was visible on camera, she deduced that their high-tech burglar had just engaged his laser and, presumably, would be leaving the building in short order with his ill-gotten gains. The redhead ignored her frustration and toggled to the GPS screen tracking the progress of the security firm investigators.

They were still blocks away.

Straightening, the cyber-crime fighter wrapped her hands around the arms of her chair, knuckles whitening from the pressure. If there were only some way for her to transport the batarangs she kept hidden in the chair through cyberspace and slow the man down...

Snorting at the futility of that thought, Barbara exhaled slowly and returned to her efforts on behalf of the fire victims. She'd captured as much as possible from the video feed and could analyze that. If nothing else, that brief flash she'd detected should provide more information about the frequency of the laser the man was using. Perhaps, when Dinah returned tomorrow from visiting Penn State with Gabby and her parents, the teen would enjoy helping her compare spectroscopic readings.

A hail from her distinctly exhausted sounding partner interrupted the older woman's bemusement at the idea.

Just how much technobabble would the teen actually enjoy?

"I copy, Huntress. Are you all right?"

<"Yeah, but...">

Exhaustion transformed to pique.

<"...a shower of embers at that last place burned a hole in my coat.">

Barbara's response was genuinely sympathetic. She knew how much the brunette liked that particular duster.

"I'm sorry to hear that, Huntress. I'm sending off some 'bots now to locate a replacement."

Two dozen keystrokes made it so.

When Helena spoke again, both the exhaustion and the petulance had disappeared from her voice.

<"Uhm, thanks, Oracle. I, uh...">

The older woman checked the scanners as she waited for her partner to continue, noting that a water tanker from Bludhaven had finally arrived and seemed to have turned the tide on the fire.

<"I wanted to let you know that they just dumped a butt- load of water from a plane, and it looks like this mess is under control. Do you want me to hang around or...?">

Barbara didn't have to think about it.

"No, Huntress. You've done more than enough. Why don't you come in now?"

A relieved sigh echoed through the transceiver, and crimson brows wrinkled in vexation.

Just what sort of taskmaster did her younger partner think she was?

<"Will do. On my way.">

Barbara powered the Delphi to standby -- New Gotham could just take care of itself for a while -- and headed to her room to lay out some clothes for her partner. On her way out, she detoured into her bathroom and placed an oversized bath sheet by the sink and switched on the overhead heat lamp. Moving toward the kitchen, she experienced a small frisson of awareness -- Helena had made good time -- and detoured to meet her incoming partner by the doors to the balcony.

Emerald eyes efficiently raked over the dark figure. Other than a multitude of soot stains and the previously mentioned large burn on the sleeve of her duster, the brunette didn't appear to be worse for the wear. Regardless, Barbara took no chances.


She tilted her head in greeting.

"Are you injured?"

The younger woman closed the door behind her and approached, the acrid stench of smoke causing the redhead's nose to wrinkle. Heaven only knew how strong the odor was to Helena's heightened senses.

The brunette bent, and Barbara inclined her face to accept the soft brush of a kiss. In obvious deference to the older woman's nose, the lithe figure then stepped back a few feet.

"Other than a serious case of smoker's lung? Nah, I'm good."

The redhead released the breath she hadn't realized she was holding.

"That's good."

In Barbara's admittedly imperfect vision, the young woman was more than good. Resisting her desire to wrap the woman in a hug and never let go, she attended to the practical.

"I laid out some clothes in my bedroom. Why don't you grab a shower and get changed while I rustle up something for you to eat?"

The brunette grinned and moved towards the bathroom off the hallway.

"I could eat."

Ignoring a host of obvious rejoinders, the older woman quietly addressed her partner.

"Use my shower, Sweetie. I turned on the heat in there..."

She knew how much Helena enjoyed the variety of bath gels which she pampered herself with. On the rare occasions that she traveled without the other woman, she tended to discover that her supplies of the gels were considerably depleted on her return.

The younger woman hastily detoured, an expression of almost childlike glee rewarding the redhead's suggestion. Charmed, Barbara remained fixed in place for a few moments, amazed by her younger friend's ability to delight so whole- heartedly in such small things.

She'd need to remember to stock up on bubble baths for the big claw foot tub which she never used herself. In the meantime, she needed to turn her attention to finding a suitable snack for the brunette.

Barbara entered the kitchen, mentally taking inventory. She was relatively confident in her skills with sandwiches, and, since Dinah was away, there should still be some of the lasagna which Alfred had brought by the day before...

Busily filling a tray with damned near everything that she could lay her hands on -- after her efforts during the evening, Helena should be absolutely ravenous -- it took the older woman a while before she heard, then identified, the song stylings lilting from her shower.

You've been running away
From what you don't understand:
She's slippy
You're sliding down
She'll be there when you hit the ground
It's alright, it's alright, alright
She moves in mysterious ways
It's alright, it's alright, alright
Lift my days, light up my nights


Reaching into the refrigerator for the jug of milk, the redhead felt a smile ghost her lips at the younger woman's rendition of U-2's song. Helena truly had a lovely voice.

Momentarily, her hand stopped in mid air, and her smile disappeared when her relentlessly analytical mind choose to examine the lyrics and found them just a bit too... telling for comfort.

The two women were just over two weeks into their... changed relationship, and the older woman was, frankly, a bit astonished by the complete absence of any sort of pressure from the brunette. The younger woman had never made a secret of her passionate nature or of her lustier pursuits.

Barbara quirked her lips at that little understatement, recalling her concerns during the first year of her guardianship that she would awaken one morning to find that her hair had turned white overnight. 'Overwhelmed' did not begin to describe her response to the teen's wild ways.

Helena was, and always had been, an extremely... sensual being. For the redhead, this was a characteristic which had been a bit foreign before the shooting and, since then, had become completely alien to her. Therefore, the fact that the brunette had been as good as she'd said during their moonlight picnic -- no demands, no apparent expectations -- was a source of both relief and concern for the older woman.

While the two had by no means been... chaste, heaven only knew how long the languid kisses and tender cuddling they had been sharing would continue to be... enough. And, quite frankly, Barbara didn't know what would happen when they reached that point.

The older woman shook her head against her own pointless fretting and briskly pulled the milk from the shelf.

Perhaps she was simply incapable, at some sort of molecular level, of taking things one day at a time?

Dimpling her cheeks ruefully at that idea, Barbara started to shut the refrigerator door before spying something near the back. She leaned in to grab two bottles of Black Butte Porter and then decisively swung the door closed. The redhead returned to the living room, balancing the overloaded tray carefully, and laid out the snack she'd put together on the coffee table.

Barbara had just situated herself on the couch and begun to click through the late- night offerings -- largely infomercials and episodes of 'Cops', it appeared -- when the younger woman padded into the room. Hair still damp from the shower, the dark woman looked a great deal cleaner and more comfortable clad in navy running pants and a white tank top. She also, the older woman noted with a cautious sniff as the brunette settled beside her, smelled much better.

Was that her favorite orange blossom body wash that Barbara detected?

A radiant smile distracted the redhead from her sensory inventory, and Helena laughed, waving a graceful hand toward the spread on the coffee table.

"This is great, Red. Where's the football team that's gonna help me eat it all?"

The older woman didn't bat an eye.

"After learning what you did tonight, Hel, I'm sure they'd agree that you can handle it all yourself."

The brunette rolled her eyes dramatically but elected not to respond. Instead, she downed a big glass of milk in three long swallows, and Barbara licked her lips slowly at the vision of her companion's Adam's apple rising and falling against the slim column of her throat. The thump of the empty glass against the coffee table restored the redhead's faculties, allowing her to respond in a timely fashion when Helena quirked her lips and fixed the big screen with a disapproving look.

Apparently, the latest sales pitch from Time-Life wasn't enough to sustain the younger woman's interest.

Barbara silently extended the remote, then averted her gaze as the brunette began wolfing down her Dagwood sandwich with one hand and started her usual dizzying channel surfing with the other. The redhead hazarded a suggestion in the form of a question.

"Any chance that you can find something half as entertaining as the movie we saw last week?"

Truthfully, Barbara suspected that the novelty of an outing to the theatre on a Thursday evening, not to mention holding hands and sharing kisses in the dark, had unreasonably biased her opinion in favor of a mediocre work of cinematography. Regardless, she had decided that, for the time being, The Rock was her newest favorite action hero.

The other woman mumbled something incomprehensible around her mouthful of sandwich and finally settled on something on The Animal Channel involving a host who was, seemingly, determined to feed himself to crocodiles. Barbara watched the man's antics with puzzled fascination until her partner opened the two beers, passing one over, and settled back against the couch with a long, contented sigh. At that point, the older woman broke their companionable silence.

"Our burglar struck again tonight."

A dark brow crept up in question.


"The same jewelry store, during the fire. Apparently he -- and every other lowlife in the city," the redhead added sourly, "decided to take advantage of the authorities' preoccupation."

Helena snorted derisively.


"Indeed," the older woman concurred mildly.

"Don't sweat it too much, Barbara. He'll fuck up soon and w--"

A jaw-popping yawn disrupted the brunette's reassurance. The young woman offered an apologetic smile as she finished.

"-- and we'll get him."

Setting her beer on the side table, Barbara silently patted her lap. Her companion's dark head tilted in question.

"Lie down and digest for a while, Sweetheart," the redhead coaxed.

Relieved that no further cajoling would be required, she watched Helena take a final pull of her beer before carefully placing the empty bottle by the meager remnants of her snack. With a tired smile, the young woman stretched out on her left side, head on the older woman's right thigh, hands loosely clasped under her chin.

She looked unbelievably young, achingly vulnerable.

Barbara breathed slowly against the powerful emotions welling in her chest, then almost laughed aloud at the incongruous thought that perhaps, like the Grinch in the Christmas tale, her own heart was growing to three times its former size. It seemed to be the only explanation for the tremendous groundswell of love rushing through her.

Lifting her right hand, she scratched gently at the younger woman's scalp. Silky wisps of chestnut hair glided between her fingers, and the redhead idly noted that Helena's hair was almost dry. Given the time Barbara spent daily in communion with her blow dryer, short hair certainly had its advantages.

Helena shifted her legs minutely, then eased her head back a hairsbreadth, releasing a happy sigh.

"Feels good..."

The words were a whispered sigh, coinciding with the slow droop of dark lashes. The younger woman's sleepy disinterest beckoned the redhead to bend and press a lingering kiss to the brunette's temple.


Helena stirred again -- curling her left hand under her cheek, resting the right on Barbara's knee -- and the older woman continued gently stroking her fingers through silken hair. Gradually, she allowed her hand to trail down the younger woman's slender back, rubbing soothingly. Her fingers made small circles, and the redhead absorbed the warmth and the wiry strength evident in the muscle and bone which were separated from her by the fabric of the white tank top.

Amazing that someone so delicate could be so vital and strong.

The brunette's breathing evened out in sleep, and the older woman returned her gaze to the television. It appeared that the man taunting the large reptiles had survived to return another night; now, she was treated to vignettes detailing the consequences of encounters with varied and sundry venomous creatures. Oddly fascinated in spite of herself, the cyber-genius reached for her beer and took a small sip while researchers onscreen showed how to milk the venom from a cobra.

If there were only some way that she could select which bits of information remained in her memory, Barbara felt certain that she'd have fewer concerns about watching this sort of drivel.

A soft rumbling from the vicinity of her lap drew the older woman's attention from the big screen, and she looked down at her sleeping partner. The younger woman was utterly relaxed, purring softly in response to the redhead's soft stroking. Green eyes widened in surprise that the brunette's right hand -- the one resting on Barbara's knee -- was rhythmically, gently, clenching against her jeans-clad thigh.


Just like a content housecat, the redhead recognized with a rush of fond warmth. A beat later, that soft emotion was crowded out by a familiar dull anger over the fact that she'd had to look in order to appreciate the tender touch. Drawing on her long years of practice, Barbara pushed those dark thoughts aside, concentrating instead on how fortunate she was to have seen this... and everything else that her partner offered.

Without conscious decision, the redhead slid the younger woman's tank up to expose the smooth, tan skin of her lower back and the firm muscles of her abdomen. Barbara skimmed her hand down the visible delineations of the exposed vertebrae, thrilling at the whisper of downy hair against her calloused fingertips, then sketched blunted nails over the knobby outline of each bone.

When the brunette murmured something, the older woman almost gasped in surprise; however, the exhausted woman didn't awaken. If anything, she seemed to ease more deeply against her human pillow, and Barbara relaxed from her sudden start.

The unfamiliar slope of a distinctly feminine waist lured her hand to her companion's side. For a moment, she hovered above the lean lines, eyes narrowing at the contrast between Helena's naturally dark skin and her own pale coloring, before she rested her fingers lightly just above the waistband of the overlarge track pants. Drawing upward along the young woman's side, she absently pushed the bottom of the shirt up another inch or two to map out the demarcation of the ribs which were expanding and contracting in slow rhythm.

A quick glance upward confirmed that the delicate woman was still sleeping soundly. The sight of the brunette still kneading softly at her leg evoked a tender smile and then, surprisingly, the scratch of a memory long forgotten. The redhead's hand moved of its own accord to Helena's abdomen, but, in the instant before she allowed herself the liberty, Barbara stilled.

Catching her lower lip with her teeth, the older woman attempted to identify exactly what she was experiencing. Her pounding heartbeat and shallow breathing evidenced an upsurge of adrenaline, and, logically, she knew that her physiological response could be the result of a number of emotions -- fear, guilt, even arousal.

The cyber-genius efficiently reviewed and evaluated the possibilities that she'd come up with. Almost immediately, she discounted the second; after all, Helena's relaxed contentment suggested little to feel guilty about. The third -- arousal -- seemed like a bit of a stretch; not only had she barely been touching the other woman but she also simply didn't...

Well, that left the first possibility, which was clearly not acceptable.

Images of the teen coming to her in the dark of night, tortured by her own acid nightmares before relaxing into sleep under the touch which had tickled the redhead's memory, swam before sharp emerald eyes.

The decision was made.

Crossing the boundary of those remaining few millimeters of airspace, the older woman cautiously scratched at the satin skin of the brunette's belly. She smiled tenderly at the ticklish play of muscles under her fingers, and the volume of her companion's sleepy rumbling rose a notch. When the young woman arched back languorously under the soft caresses, Barbara had no choice but to answer the nonverbal appeal.

Exhaling, she lengthened her strokes, sweeping her fingertips from the young woman's waist up to the barrier of the tee which was bunched just below Helena's breasts. She then reversed directions, gently scritching her nails down the striated muscles of the brunette's belly. All the while, she noted -- and filed away for later reflection -- the myriad sensations assaulting her: the downy softness of tan skin, the playful ripple of strong muscles beneath, Helena's low purring, even the evocative weight of the heavier flesh under soft cotton which she occasionally brushed during the upsweep of her fingers.

Eventually, something -- a change in the brunette's breathing, a hint of slow movement -- broke through the older woman's reverie. Stilling her hand against Helena's ribcage, Barbara looked up, unsurprised to find that the young woman was awake and had turned her head just enough to meet her gaze.

The brunette's features were serene; however, the vertical slits of her pupils and the bright golden hue of her eyes gave lie to her apparent detachment. Barbara felt her own eyes widen helplessly under the young woman's compassionate smile. An eternity of possibilities spun before the older woman until Helena finally shifted onto her back with a soft sigh.

Barbara trembled when she felt a slender hand come to rest lightly over hers, the one still resting on her partner's torso. She gasped, and then her breathing shallowed, when the younger woman lifted her other hand and roughly pushed the fabric of the tank higher on her chest. She felt her heart rate skyrocket when the softest pressure guided her fingers toward the exposed flesh.

And then...

Then, she thought her heart simply stopped beating altogether when she heard Helena's soft whisper.

"Touch me, Barbara."

Chapter 14

Something sharp and needful and darkly alluring reared up inside the older woman at the whisper.

Helena's words, she dimly recognized, were not a tease or a demand. They were even more than a request.

They were a plea.

In three short words, the younger woman had opened herself utterly, laying bare her desire and need as completely as she'd revealed herself to hungry green eyes by raising her shirt.

Panic fluttered through the older woman. There were so many pitfalls, so many ways to fail her partner, in this new and unfamiliar territory.

Barbara was, by no means, a stranger to the female form itself; her experiences on various gymnastic teams, her occasional substitutions for the high school volleyball coach, regular visits to the health club had insured that. She wasn't even exactly unfamiliar with the one very specific female form before her; having shared living quarters and performed a fair amount of doctoring over the years, it was impossible for her not to know this woman's body.

So, no, the redhead was no stranger to the sight before her.

However, the brunette's naked desire for her touch? That was... something else; something utterly different. The intimacy was overwhelming, leaving Barbara with nowhere to hide herself or her own insecurities.

Reluctantly, the redhead disengaged from those staggeringly open eyes fixed on hers and lowered her gaze. Emerald eyes traced a long scar just below her partner's right breast, its origin flooding to mind at the sight.

Although the brunette had yet to celebrate her twenty-first year, she had begun to settle into her role as a guardian of New Gotham. She had largely ceded to her mentor's wisdom and begun to accept guidance from Barbara as she patrolled the streets, thus returning to their shared living quarters each night with fewer and fewer injuries as a result. That night, since the two women had ended their regular sweeps an hour before, Barbara had been not just horrified but also surprised when her volatile partner had limped into the clock tower with the bleeding gash. It had only been after she'd carefully cleaned and stitched the wound that the other woman had revealed its origin.

On her way back after signing off, the young woman had heard the cries of a small animal in distress. A quick detour had led her to a group of young men -- overgrown boys in search of easy thrills -- teasing and torturing a puppy. The brunette's interruption of their sport had not been well received, and the young thugs had turned on her.

The fight normally would have been a moment's work for Helena; however, throughout, she'd refused to put down the animal she'd rescued, lest one of the boys harm it again. Holding and shielding the terrified and injured creature, she'd been at a disadvantage, and one of the boys had scored a lucky blow.

The older woman had clearly grasped the situation after she'd gradually coaxed the tale from her young partner. Nevertheless, she'd still been at a loss in understanding Helena's protracted delay in returning to the clock tower after finally sending the gang of boys running. Until... until she'd received a bill a few days later from the emergency veterinary clinic that the brunette had stopped at before returning to have her own injury looked at.

To this day, Barbara suspected that her partner's delay accounted for the prominence of the scar.

Slowly, she raised her hand from the warm skin of Helena's abdomen, barely aware of the other woman's hand falling away from hers, and traced her index finger along the four inch line. An almost inaudible whimper seemed to reverberate from the brunette's chest to her fingertip, and the older woman squeezed her eyes shut in reflex.

The living room was far from quiet; the inane chatter on the television, Helena's soft panting, even Barbara's own shallow breathing echoed through the large space. Yet, when the redhead opened her eyes and spoke her heart, the hushed words overrode everything else.

"I love you, Helena."

Awed, and humbled, the older woman witnessed lush, cupid's bow lips parting in a surprised "O"; she observed the transformation of heated, feral eyes to their normal intense blue. Simultaneously, her hand was gently raised from its exploration, and Helena drew it to her mouth. The softest press of velvet lips brushed Barbara's fingertips, and the brunette very deliberately held her gaze as she released her tender grip.

"I know, Red."

For a heartbeat, Barbara hovered on the brink, near tears in recognition of the grace the younger woman was offering. Ultimately, she would not accept it. Helena's -- and her own -- need was before her, demanding that she...

Heat suffused the older woman's upper body, trailing tiny sparks of energy in its wake, as she lowered her hand to float just above the impossible warmth and softness bared to her. Tentatively, she grazed the smooth, tumescent flesh on the underside of Helena's right breast, and something coiled tightly behind her breastbone at her partner's ragged exhalation.

Somehow, Barbara kept her touch light, whispering her index and second fingers around the circumference of the soft globe. Confounded by the enigma of the tissue which was both heavy and evanescent, she returned to the underside, pressing upward delicately with the flat of her fingers.


The redhead whipped her eyes up, unsurprised by her partner's augmented eyes. Unhesitatingly, she cradled Helena's restlessly shifting head with her free hand, lovingly brushing long bangs from the young woman's eyes.

"You're so beautiful, Hel."

One corner of the brunette's upper lip curled in a snarl, but her words were surprisingly mild.

"Show me."

The spiraling pressure in Barbara's chest snapped, unleashing a flood of heat and leaving her shaken by the unmistakable awareness of her own ardor. She inched her fingers toward Helena's sternum and fully cupped the rounded flesh she'd been pressed against. Clenching her jaw, she closed her hand lightly and lifted, gauging the fullness and weight resting against her palm. The firm tip just above the vee formed by her thumb and fingers -- the blood rose color a sharp contrast to her own pale tone -- visibly contracted, and Helena undulated her hips once, slowly, against the sofa cushion.

To her distinct surprise, the redhead felt her mouth water hungrily.

The sensation of the fidgeting head in her lap turning, followed by the warm, wet wash of the younger woman's mouth against her other hand distracted Barbara. She lowered her lashes, seeking to understand the... the feelings which had her gasping softly.

"Dear heavens... Sweetheart?"

The redhead's hands were on fire, the need to touch and to know searing in its intensity. Nevertheless, long schooled in patience and denial, she again mastered her urgency and opened her eyes. She raised her right hand, delicately touching just her index finger to the diamond peak. A thrill ran through her at the incredible firmness, a counterpoint to the soft swell of flesh only millimeters away from it.

How could it be so overwhelming?

Barbara forced herself to steady her breathing and tenderly stroked the pad of her thumb against the full lips moving against her palm. The soft caress was met with an almost sub vocal growl and the quick nip of sharp teeth. Skin already impossibly over sensitized, the brief rake of teeth against the whorled flesh of her finger seemed to travel like lightning up her arm and across her chest. When Helena danced her tongue out to lave the spot, the older woman instinctively bowed at the waist as her breasts tingled, then ached.

It was impossible. She simply didn't respond... like that.


Carefully, so carefully, she rolled the firm peak between her thumb and first two fingers. With Helena's harsh panting teasing her other hand, she struggled to make sense of it all, to understand how this spare touch and Helena's response could... unravel her so.

In the past, her lovers' touches -- whether lightly teasing or urgently hard or wetly suctioning -- had done little to impress, much less arouse, the redhead. Under her own hand, Barbara's own breasts had never held much interest either. And at night, in the darkness of her room as she'd patiently worked to find something in the early years after the shooting, even those attempts had done little... save convince her of the futility of wanting.

This, however... This touch -- her fingers pinching lightly as a heated flush blossomed across caramel features -- was something else. This sensation was immediate and urgent.

"Oh god, Helena..."

The older woman hadn't been aware of speaking until she heard a hoarse voice which she, distantly, recognized as her own. Helplessly, uncertain in this new and unfamilar terrain, emerald eyes rose, searching. Awestruck, she witnessed her partner somehow... come back to herself: the brunette's agitated motions settled, and blazing eyes gentled.

Helena released her death grip on the couch cushion and gently covered the back of the redhead's hand. Barbara forgot to breathe -- she thought she lost the need for oxygen altogether -- as the younger woman guided her hand fully onto her breast, centering her palm directly above the pebbled peak. Blue eyes held hers, and the younger woman pressed down gently before withdrawing, fisting her hand against the fluttering muscles of her abdomen.

"Please, Barbara -- "

Something inescapable sparked inside her, and Barbara finally fully claimed the flesh under her palm. Somehow a soft moan spilled from her lips -- a mixture of heat and want and... fear -- and the older woman was grateful that her partner's own soulful groan masked the sound.

On the heels of her cry, the brunette arched her back -- from neck to hips -- urgently thrusting upward. The press of contrasting sensations against the sensitive skin of her palm -- fullness and firmness, softness and tightness -- threatened to break every last bit of control that Barbara possessed. Wildly, she raked her other hand down to capture the previously unattended breast. Shutting her eyes, she lost herself in sensation -- not just the warmth and softness under her hands, but also her partner's soft whimpers and the urgent shifting of her legs.

Even, somehow, her own body's... response.

Eventually -- minutes? hours? Obviously her internal clock had slipped a cog somewhere along the line -- Barbara felt the brunette twist onto her side to face her. The younger woman reared up, and the redhead slid her distant arm around to cradle slim shoulders. Ravenous golden eyes pinned her, and the redhead caught her breath.

What could she...? How would she...?

Barbara exhaled slowly when her partner stroked her cheek softly, sleekly, against her own. The limited measure of calm that the tender gesture engendered promptly evaporated into a riot of gooseflesh as sharp, even teeth began to trail down one of the tendons in the redhead's neck.

"Oh fuck... Barbara..."

The older woman seized the sharp jaw near her shoulder with a strong hand and roughly tugged until their mouths crashed together. Their lips mated, and their tongues danced against each other in liquid heat. Winding her fingers through dark hair, the redhead drank voraciously from the younger woman's lush mouth.

How she needed... Something inside ached to be touched...

A growl echoed against Barbara's lips -- through her mouth and all the way to her abdomen -- and she jerked back, heart trip-hammering. The heated desire in the brunette's expressive features was a Sirens' song, calling her back.

A moment later, she felt Helena shift again, and slender fingers teased up the redhead's side. Anticipating the other woman's intent, Barbara instinctively stiffened and then almost cursed in her frustration.

At herself. At the situation. At the years and years ingrained within her.

She knew, goddamnit. She knew that her fear was reflex, born of her history and of her frustrated past failures and of her current uncertainty. Nevertheless, the thick, molten heat coursing through her veins cooled, and Barbara averted her face.

If she just had a moment to collect herself... to focus on this moment and the reality of what she had been feeling. But, of course, it was too late. There was no way that Helena could have missed her reaction.

The younger woman's soft sigh blew through her hair, then a tender kiss ghosted her cheek. Schooling her features as best she could, Barbara looked up to meet the brunette's eyes. Expecting puzzlement or frustration or anger, she was unprepared for blue eyes which held nothing but wonder... and love.

The warm, slim fingers which had been teasing -- and terrifying -- her so moved again, rising from her side to hover above her chest. One heartbeat later, Barbara discovered that there was remarkably little room inside her for fear when that beautiful hand came to rest lightly over her suddenly peaceful heart.

Chapter 15

Barbara Gordon was not entirely positive that her heart could take much more.

At the very least, a strict policy against taking in any future teenaged wards seemed advisable.

The discussions and battles she'd engaged in with her former ward years before in the attempt to persuade the headstrong teen to consider college had been heartrending. Or, so the redhead had thought. Now, as she attempted to support her newest ward's tremulous steps towards the halls of academia, she realized that she hadn't grasped the first part of what heartrending meant.

Barbara added a dollop more cream to her hot tea and circumspectly regarded the blonde across the table from her. The young woman, she decided, looked depressed.

Unlike Helena, Dinah was eager to embrace higher education. Said eagerness, apparently, went hand in hand with hope and self-doubt and excitement and terror and a host of other emotions which flip-flopped so rapidly that the older woman was left dizzy and exhausted.

The redhead was arriving at the conclusion that she'd take a knock down, drag out fight with the Joker's henchmen any day over this.

"It's just so... confusing, Barbara."

The teen toyed with her oversized cappuccino.

"There are just so many great places and opportunities and..."

The older woman nodded with genuine sympathy. After all, the girl had been accepted at every school she'd applied to.

"Confusion is very normal right now, Dinah."

Barbara pointedly ignored the gaping irony in her own words and reached across the table to rest her hand on the blonde's.

"Try to remember that, with all of these opportunities, it is very unlikely that you'll make a completely wrong choice."

The older woman released her charge's hand and quickly raised her cup to mask a smile at the teen's frankly dubious expression. The girl's features morphed into something serious and worried, and Barbara's heart ached for her earnestness and uncertainty.

"But, what if I do? Pick the wrong school?"

The redhead spoke crisply.

"Then you'll transfer to the right school, Dinah."

Rather than pursuing the topic, she opted for something a bit more concrete.

"How do you feel that NGU compares now that you've visited?"

The teen had been visiting all of her top choices methodically and efficiently. Just a week after her return from visiting Penn State with Gabby and her parents, the teen had scheduled a visit at New Gotham University. At the girl's request, Barbara had accompanied Dinah directly from school this afternoon for what she, privately, thought was an overdue inspection of the college.

Although the institution bore the unfortunate distinction of being local -- literally within walking distance of the clock tower -- it had a well-deserved reputation for excellence in the sciences. And, unlike many of Barbara's seniors who dismissed the university simply because it was too close to home, Dinah didn't seem to be opposed to the school on principle.

"Uhm, Dr. Melford was..."

The teen wrinkled her forehead, apparently seeking a suitably diplomatic term to describe the overbearing physics instructor they'd met with. As she waited for her companion to continue, Barbara began to run through an alphabetical list of her own -- beginning with arrogant and proceeding through bombastic, clueless, dull...

The blonde interrupted the mental exercise while the redhead was searching for a suitable term beginning with "S".

"... kind of self-important, but the department seems okay. And," Dinah added with more genuine enthusiasm, "I really liked Dr. Connors."

Barbara concurred. The biology professor had displayed a genuine interest in her youthful visitor, drawing Dinah out at length about her possible interest in veterinary science. She'd even provided an impromptu tour of the live animal facilities which had extended their visit well past nightfall.

Sensing that the teen had something more on her mind, the older woman called upon one of the more potent weapons in her arsenal -- silence -- and sipped at her tea. The strategy worked as pale, worried blue eyes hesitantly met green.

"But, that sort of scares me, too, you know?"

Barbara dimpled her cheeks, feeling a little lost.

"I'm not sure I know what you're referring to."

Instead of answering immediately, Dinah stuck her index finger into her cup and swirled the foam. The fact that she'd been watching Helena perform that same action -- usually with her cocoa -- for seven-plus years brought a fond smile to the older woman. The blonde wiped her finger on a napkin, and Barbara caught the difference. Helena would have simply stuck her finger in her mouth, claiming that she didn't want to waste any of the chocolate.

That thought, naturally, brought to mind certain recent images -- and vivid sensory memories -- involving the brunette's hands and mouth. Bemused by her overactive imagination -- and, apparently, hormones -- the redhead blinked to clear the visions just as Dinah slowly began to articulate her concerns about the two professors.

"Well, I think it could be kind of easy to get... I don't know..."

The teen offered a half-shrug, visibly searching for words.

"... to get confused or caught up admiring someone and end up choosing to do something because of that."

Barbara nodded her comprehension, and Dinah continued, voice rising with adolescent angst.

"I mean, what if I choose biology for my major but later figure out that it's wrong?"

The redhead decided to address the practical aspect of the question first.

"Then you'll change majors, Dinah. Take an extra year to graduate or, perhaps, get a second degree later."

The older woman was hardly unfamiliar with that course of action.

"No choice is final at this point, Dinah."

Observing a slight lessening of the miserable set of her companion's shoulders, Barbara added, "And, it's not always a bad thing -- finding someone you admire, someone who can help guide you or mentor..."

The redhead cut herself off as she recalled some of the people who had helped shape the person she was: her father, of course; her junior high gymnastics instructor, who'd assured her over-serious pupil that it was acceptable not to be completely cerebrally-oriented; then, there was Bruce... Batman. Her wistful smile faltered when her thoughts segued to the most important mentoring role that she had played. Even now, having made her choice and accepted the fact that she could do nothing but love Helena, she still couldn't help but wonder how much she'd shaped... or guided... the younger woman's feelings for her.

As if reading her expression -- or thoughts -- the blonde spoke gently.

"Yeah. You've sure done a great job."

The girl chewed at her bottom lip for a moment, then added softly, "And, you didn't make Helena feel the way she does, Barbara."

The older woman lowered her lashes, collecting herself. Aside from her squeamishness over the appropriateness of her current ward offering her reassurance about her relationship with her former ward, she also -- rationally -- recognized the truth of the teen's words. Accordingly, when she looked up apologetically, she lightened her tone.

"You're right. And, thank you, Dinah. Just a touch of twenty-five day nerves, I suppose."

Had it really been three and a half weeks since she'd spoken at the police banquet? It seemed as if only an instant had gone by; conversely, it also seemed like she and Helena had been... together for so much longer.

The blonde took the hint and grinned.

"That long, huh? So, uh..."

The teenager waffled, pale features pinking a bit. Barbara made a wager with herself about whether the girl would have the courage to complete her question.

"... How are things going?"

The redhead won her internal bet and made a note to collect from herself -- a king- sized Hershey bar. She also mentally rolled her eyes, wishing that one of the younger women in her life wasn't always so damned... insouciant. Still, Dinah had been remarkably circumspect about the relationship unfolding around her, clearly taking pains to make herself scarce much of the time that Helena was around. It was only natural that she'd be curious.

Smiling affectionately, the older woman felt a blush creep up her cheeks as she reconsidered that thought. Given that Dinah was a telepath, there was no telling how much -- or what -- she'd picked up, even inadvertently.

"They're good, Dinah. Really... good."

Giving herself a symbolic high-five in recognition that her blush was not nearly as intense as it would have been even a month ago, Barbara laughed softly at the truth of her answer.

"She's picking me up in a bit for..."

The teen perked up, her interest becoming distinctly more... acute. For some reason, the redhead's next two words sounded a bit strangled to her own ears.

"... a date."

Somehow, in the last few weeks, the two women had managed at least two outings each week. They'd been trading responsibility for planning the dates, and it was dawning on Barbara that her younger partner was teaching her something she'd never bothered to do with her previous paramours: how to take... or give time to someone she cared about. In the process, the older woman was discovering something else: it was something that, with -- or for -- Helena, she wanted to do.

She was also, admittedly, enjoying the playful mystery each put into their planning. When she and Dinah had detoured for coffee after their delay at the university, Barbara had called Helena at work to let her know where she was and offered to meet her... where ever the younger woman had planned for the evening. She'd been pleasantly intrigued by the brunette's enigmatic response that she would meet her at the Common Grounds, since it was close to the location that Helena had selected.

Deciding that she had shared enough about her romantic life with the teen, the redhead redirected their conversation to earlier topics.

"Professors aside, Dinah, what do you think of NGU?"

Dinah smirked at the obvious conversational shift, but wrinkled her forehead in consideration.

"Well, it really does have good science programs. And, the lab was awesome. Did you see that spectrometer?"

Barbara grinned conspiratorially. The unit had caught her eye as well.

When the blonde shifted nervously, the older woman held her smile even as her eyes narrowed speculatively.

What else could be bothering the young adult?

"And, well, NGU is sure a lot cheaper than the other schools."

The words were barely audible, but they sounded with the volume of a klaxon. Simultaneously relieved and concerned finally to have a sense of what -- or, what else -- was bothering her ward, she spoke immediately.

"That's true, Dinah, but, fortunately, that's a factor you don't need to worry about."

Even if it had been an issue, Barbara knew that she would not allow cost to influence the girl's decision. Dinah had too much going for her to... settle or compromise.

"But, I don't want to impose any more than..."

Barbara opened her mouth to cut her off only to find herself beaten to the punch by a purring soprano.

"You can't impose, Kid. You're family."

Two heads -- one crimson, one gold -- swiveled to stare at the speaker. Helena nonchalantly approached their small table and bent to buss the older woman on the cheek. Dragging an extra chair from an empty table, the brunette plopped down and smiled evilly.

" 'Sides, that way when Red and I are old and grey and need someone to empty our bedpans, you'll have to help us out."

Dinah's jaw dropped, and Barbara laughed brightly. Although the phrasing wasn't quite what she might have chosen, the sentiment -- family -- was right on target.

"Indeed, Dinah."

Amused, she observed the concurrent shifts in the two younger women's expressions: Helena's to an entirely too self-satisfied smirk; Dinah's to profound happiness. The girl stood and took a quick step around the small table to catch the redhead in a quick hug.

"I, uh, guess I'll head out and let you guys, uh..."

The blonde allowed a tiny shrug to complete her thought then turned to fix Helena with a sharp glare.

"But, family or not, Helena, even when you're old and grey...? Two words..."

The brunette grinned easily.

"Yeah? What?"

"Tidy Cat."

The teenager flounced triumphantly from the coffee shop with a wave, accompanied by the sound of Barbara's chuckle and Helena's indignant sputtering. After the door shut behind the girl, the brunette leaned across the table conspiratorially.

"Better watch out, Barbara. The Kid's getting feisty."

Gathering her coat, the redhead remained non-committal; however, she suspected that her primly arched brow destroyed the effect.

"Hmm. I wonder where she could be getting that, Sweetie."

Blue eyes narrowing suspiciously, the younger woman followed her to the door. Her reply seemed a tad sulky.

"Probably too many regular meals and coffee after dark, Red."

The redhead laughed again, reaching over to touch her partner's sleeve.

"Thank you for meeting me here. And for what you said. Sometimes," she added thoughtfully, "I wonder if Dinah will ever allow herself to believe in... this. In us."

The younger woman squatted to bring herself to eye level and brushed the back of her fingers lightly to Barbara's cheek. Her words were certain.

"She'll get it, Red."

Dark brows waggled playfully.

"You know how persuasive I can be."

The older woman smiled softly even as she shivered at the feathery touch. She reached up to capture the slim hand, bringing it to her mouth to press a soft kiss to the dark woman's fingers.

"Don't forget 'persistent', Hel."

Charmed by the embarrassed dip of the younger woman's shaggy head, she lightly shifted gears.

"So, what do you have planned for tonight?"

The lithe figure straightened gracefully and inclined her head in the direction of the university.

"Well, I can tell you it'll be a helluva lot better than what you picked last time, Babs."

Moving briskly down the sidewalk with her partner, the redhead shook her head in bewilderment. She'd thought that the outing she'd planned on Saturday afternoon had been... fun. Novel, even.

"What was wrong with bowling?" she finally inquired mildly.

After all, Helena had almost beaten her -- three games to Barbara's four.

The brunette came to a full stop and pinned her with a deeply aggrieved look. Oozing wounded dignity, she solemnly intoned, " You didn't have to wear those skeevy shoes, Barbara."

The older woman nodded her head sagely as they resumed their journey, and Helena finally relented.

"Astronomy center."

Emerald eyes widened in pleasure. It was another unusually clear night and, if she recalled the schedule, the center was going to try to track a recently discovered comet.

"... figured it'd be cool if we can see that green comet. I heard that some amateur in his backyard found it not too long ago."

The younger woman continued her knowledgeable discourse about Comet Machholz as they entered the building and settled themselves in the reclining seats. Barbara wasn't surprised at all by her partner's knowledge; given the amount of time that Helena spent under the night sky, the older woman supposed that her interest was only natural.

Half an hour later, after a short introduction which imparted little additional information, the redhead was peacefully lost under the dazzling display above them, Helena's fingers loosely tangled with hers. The selection of music playing softly over the speakers -- light pop, rather than the classical or jazz that she would have expected -- led the older woman to suspect that work-study students were in charge of the program; however, even Abba's "Knowing Me, Knowing You" couldn't detract from the endless vista above her and the sheer giddy pleasure of sharing this time with her companion.

When the brunette stretched over, pressing a soft, unhurried kiss to her lips, Barbara untangled their hands and raised the armrest separating their seats. Instantly, the younger woman scootched over, leaning bonelessly against her and wrapping the redhead's arm around her shoulders.

Much better.

Honestly, sometimes it escaped Barbara how she could, purportedly, be so very, very bright yet be so slow...

Resting her cheek lightly against silken chestnut hair, the older woman breathed in the clean scent of her companion's shampoo, a faint whiff of cigarette smoke from the bar, and the ineffable scent that was Helena's alone. Distantly, she recognized the opening lyrics from an old Stevie Nicks classic; however, this seemed to be a remake, and she attempted to identify the vocalists.

I took my love, I took it down
I climbed a mountain and I turned around
And I saw my reflection in the snow-covered hills
'Til the landslide brought me down
Oh, mirror in the sky
What is love
Can the child within my heart rise above?
Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?


Caught in the transcendental moment, unable to resist, she traced the shell of the younger woman's ear with her tongue, thrilling at the tiny tremor her action engendered. Wanting more, she nipped and sucked gently at the velvet skin behind Helena's ear, then darted teasingly inside.

After her fear and uncertainty the night of the block fire, Barbara had been tentative, not wanting a repeat of that evening's frustration. After all, while she knew that she loved the younger woman and wanted to share her life with her, she honestly didn't know how she could share... herself with her. Helena deserved so much more than the older woman felt that she'd ever given before; and, now, how could she possibly offer what she no longer even possessed?

However, at this moment, the reticence dictated by Barbara's self-doubt was spiraling away. Part of the force behind the pull was, undoubtedly, Helena's hiss of pleasure. Another part, the relentlessly analytical woman forced herself to acknowledge, was the very nature of their public location; while they were safe in the privacy of the darkened theatre, there were also very necessary limits to how far things could go.

Mentally shaking her head against her tendency to overthink, the redhead delicately tasted the sweet skin of her companion's neck, allowing her partner's soft gasp to wash through her. Struck by a sharp flare of desire, Barbara abandoned her caution of the last week.

She returned to the other woman's ear and deepened the teasing strokes of her tongue, exposing her desire. Simultaneously, she lowered her hand from the younger woman's wiry shoulder and palmed the heavy flesh on her chest. As she squeezed firmly in time with the questing strokes of her tongue, the brunette arched into her with a barely suppressed groan.

"Oh, fuck -- yeah. God, Barbara... I need..."

Startled by how close she felt to losing control and embarrassed that she might, again, fail this beautiful, passionate soul, the redhead jerked and tried to pull away. The attempt was gently denied when Helena stayed her hand's flight, guiding Barbara gently -- but determinedly -- back to her breast.

The low soprano voice was almost lost in the soft music around them, yet the older woman had no trouble hearing the ragged words.

"Don't stop, Barbara. I like it when you touch me."

Clearly, the younger woman had a gift for understatement.

Helena's next utterance stripped the defense of irony completely from the analytical woman.

"I like it... that you like touching me."

Scarcely able to breathe, Barbara pursed her lips, allowing the music to sweep through her while she attempted to sort through her emotions and her feelings.

Well, I've been afraid of changing
'Cause I've built my life around you
But time makes you bolder
Even children get older
And I'm getting older, too
Oh, I'm getting older, too
Oh, take my love, take it down
Oh, climb a mountain and turn around
And if you see my reflection in the snow-covered hills
Well, the landslide will bring it down


Change, indeed. In the end, that seemed to be what her life was made of. How many ways and times would she... or could she... manage? Optimistic student, world- class gymnast, neophyte teacher, athletic vigilante, paralyzed guardian, cerebral cyber- crime fighter, cautious mentor and partner. She'd managed each role and each transition capably, without undue fuss and commotion. But here and now, where the stakes were so much higher, the emotional terrain so much more uncertain, the exposure so total...?

The redhead's whispered reply was choked.

"Helena? Even if I can't...?"

The younger woman twisted just enough to speak quietly, seriously, into the redhead's ear.

"It's not... quid pro quo or anything. 'Side, I told you, Red -- no expectations. But, if there's something you want... or need, I'll do it. Anything."

There was the tiniest of hesitations before warm breath tickled Barbara's skin again.

"I want to. I want to do everything."

A chill crept through the older woman's upper body, gnawing at her soul. Fighting tears -- would it ever get any easier? -- Barbara drew upon her reserves of strength and forced herself to be as honest and open as she was able.

Or, at least, as open as she could be in a sparsely populated public theater.

"I was never exactly... easy to please -- "

Unable to avoid it, she stumbled in finding the words.

"-- before."

Indeed. Dick had once laughingly described her as "One Way Gordon".

Somehow, awkwardly, Barbara continued.

"And now, it's just... not... I don't... can't... "

At her limits, the redhead stuttered to a halt. She didn't have time for self- castigation when she felt her companion stretch to place a tender kiss to her jaw before resettling against her. The young woman's final whisper -- for a long time -- blanketed the chill inside her.

"When -- and only when -- you're ready, Barbara."

Allowing herself to release the stiffness which had seized her, with Helena's slender form reassuringly solid against her, Barbara leaned back, eyes once again open to the lights twinkling in the heavens above them.

Chapter 16

A bolt of light -- energy -- arcing through the night sky above New Gotham triggered the Delphi alarms and, ten seconds later, every panic response in Barbara Gordon's body.

It had been a laser-like power surge pulsing from the western outskirts of the city. Chillingly aware of just what was located in that area, the redhead slammed open a new terminal window with one hand even as she toggled through readouts on another screen with the other. A few seconds later, she completed her stealthy hack into the weather satellite over the city and began to pull data down to the workstation. What she found utterly terrified her.

"Huntress? Canary? Do you copy?"

<"We copy, Oracle. What's up?">

The brunette sounded distinctly puzzled by her remote partner's hail. Given that Dinah and she had been, presumably, still waiting for the police to arrive at the scene of the convenience store robbery they'd just foiled, some confusion was natural. After all, Barbara usually waited for a signal that her partner was available before sending her to other jobs.

"There's a..."

The older woman uncharacteristically found herself at a loss for words.

"... situation on the west side of town."

Dinah's soft gasp sounded clearly over the transceiver; the brunette's almost inaudible hiss was less marked. Both younger women were also aware of what lay on that side of the city.

"How quickly can you get there?"

The redhead heard the sound of rapid movement.

<"The clerk can keep an eye on these bozos. We're on our way.">

Gratified by her proteges' unquestioning response, Barbara returned to the satellite feeds, using them to overlay a geographical plotting routine which would provide her with the exact coordinates for the explosion. She still had no idea what, exactly, had hit the area, but judging from the damage, it had been powerful.

After relaying the address and a succinct description of the energy pulse, she began a methodical process of accessing every likely satellite in the off chance that one had captured an image of the... event. Not only would this help determine what they were dealing with, it could also help pinpoint its origins. As she waited for her password routine to bypass the security of a government satellite, a thought struck the cyber-genius, and she brought up another terminal window. With a few economical keystrokes, she programmed a fleet of 'bots to scour airline control traffic for descriptions of having witnessed the pulse of light.

A low whistle over the comms drew her focus from the government satellite's video capture of New Gotham from ten minutes earlier. Barbara pointedly chose not to consider just why the machine had been recording the city.

"Huntress? Canary? What is it?"

<"We're here, and, whatever it was, it packed a real punch, Oracle.">

Oblivious to the fact that it was a voice-only feed, the older woman nodded. The weather images had suggested as much, providing a hazy image of a smoking structure in collapse.

Dinah provided a bit more detail.

<"Looks like an old farmhouse. Whatever it was hit the barn.">

<"I don't smell any barbeque, so I bet it was empty.">

The redhead managed a rueful smile at the description. If Helena felt capable of interjecting a bit of levity, the situation probably wasn't too bad.

"That's good news. Please check it out. Carefully."

<"Will do, Oracle.">

Barbara listened to the sound of soft footsteps for half a minute before the brunette's voice filtered through her earpiece.

<"Canary, look for a hose or something. Let's see if we can douse this fire.">

The older woman felt one of her eyebrows rise a fraction of an inch.

"Fire, Huntress?"

It was Dinah who responded first.

<"Uhm, yeah, but it's small. Maybe some gas cans in the building or something.">

Relaxing marginally, the redhead turned back to the video she'd dumped. There was a clear image of the bright blue-green line transecting the sky; however, its genesis was obscured by a patch of clouds. All that had been caught was a split- second flash over western New Gotham.

<"Hey! Are you okay?">

The cyber-crime fighter snapped to attention.

<"Huntress? What's happening?">

Again, it was Dinah who provided an answer.

<"There's a man. He was behind the barn.">

Barbara instantly toggled to her backdoor hack into the city hall computers and entered the farm's address to the accompaniment of Helena's soft calls to the man they'd spied.

<"Hey there -- Can you hear--">

A distinctly shaken male voice finally sounded over the transceiver.

<"Who...? What are you...?">

<"It's okay.">

Dinah's words were soft, reassuring.

<"Are you alright? We, uh, saw and just wanted to help out.">

Frank Loewen. City records and a hasty cross-check of DPS revealed that he was forty-five, the owner of the small property, and paid his taxes in a timely fashion. Barbara hoped that his property owner's insurance was similarly up-to- date.

<"Er, yes. That is, I'm fine. Thank you.">

The homeowner sounded marginally less frightened.

<"I... I don't know what...">

Helena interrupted the man's somewhat bewildered attempt to make sense of the events unfolding around him.

<"Do you have a garden hose or something?">

The older woman listened as Helena occupied the man with the practical matter of putting out the small fire, mentally applauding her younger partner's field psychology. By the time the fire was extinguished, the man had clearly calmed down.

Still polling various satellites, Barbara half-listened as her partners explained that they had heard the explosion and come to investigate. Still sounding slightly dazed, the man was nevertheless effusive in his thanks.

<"I don't know what could have happened. I was right out here trying to get a fix on the Machholz comet.">

When the man interrupted himself to digress enthusiastically about the celestial body, Barbara shook her head in bemusement.

<"You know, it will only be visible for another few days. If you think about all of the interstellar bodies that man has been charting for thousands of years, it's simply remarkable that this two-tailed comet was only discovered a few months ago. Can you believe it?">

The redhead's smile broadened when she detected the effort that Helena made to remain patient.

<"Yeah, it's pretty cool. I got a peek at it at the astronomy center two nights ago. But, speaking of, uh, unbelievable stuff...?">

Dinah's snort of amusement at the rough segue was clearly audible, but she jumped in brightly.

<"Uhm, yes. What happened, Mr. ...?">


Barbara suddenly experienced a flash of empathy for the dismayed homeowner and fought back a sympathetic chuckle. Apparently happily settled for an evening of stargazing, the man had seen his outbuilding inexplicably demolished and, while he'd been investigating the phenomenon, two young, nubile, leather-clad good samaritans had appeared on the scene.

<"Oh, yes, of course. Loewen. Frank Loewen, Miss ...?">

<"Wayne. Helena Wayne, and this is Dinah Redmond.">

The brunette had never been overly fond of the entire secret identity concept, but Barbara gave her points for not using their real last names.

<"Yes. Well, er, as I was saying, I was attempting to get a fix on Machholz, and then... then the shed just... exploded.">

Well, that description certainly jived with a sudden energy pulse...

The older woman returned to her research while her partners unsuccessfully attempted to coax anything useful from the man -- anything other than trivia about the comet -- and finally extricated themselves.

Half an hour later, the two emerged from the elevator, the sound of their bickering preceding them.

"I still say he was a huge Poindexter, Kid. Standing there polishing his glasses and fussing about missing his chance at seeing the damned comet even after something nuked his barn. He should just go to the planetarium."

Dinah's retort was impatient.

"Geez, Helena. Maybe he moved out there so he'd get a good view for stargazing and wouldn't have to go to the astronomy center. And, maybe he was a little... shook up or something?"

Rotating from her monitors, Barbara removed her glasses and interceded.

"Gir-- Helena. Dinah."

Appearing appropriately chastened, the younger women came to a stop by the Delphi platform. The redhead somehow hid her affectionate smile.

Helena, naturally, recovered first, bounding onto the platform. Dinah trailed up the ramp more sedately.

"Did you figure out what it was, Barbara?"

The brunette approached slowly, clearly attempting to read the older woman's mood. Barbara reached out to clasp her hand quickly, earning a sweet smile.

"I've pinned it down to a laser frequency..."

The cyber-genius reseated her glasses and turned back to the display, aware of two pairs of interested eyes peering over her shoulders. Toggling through the images and data that she'd put together, she continued crisply.

"I've found a few clear images of the beam in the sky, just before Mr. Loewen's building was hit, but nothing conclusive about where it originated."

"Could it have come from a satellite or a plane?"

Barbara responded to the question in her right ear by showing plots of the east- west arc of the beam of light.

"The trajectory isn't right, Dinah."

A low whistle from her left side interrupted her unplanned geometry lesson.

"Sure looks like its coming right at his place from further out in the country."

"Exactly, Hel. I've been running some models based on assumed strength, trying to pinpoint a likely origin..."

The redhead brought up a map showing the plots from her simulations.

Silence reigned for a few long moments as her companions digested the data that Barbara had worked up earlier.


Helena's voice was oddly flat, and Barbara found herself surprised by her partner's lack of affect. Her own reaction, one she'd barely managed to tuck into one of her emotional lock boxes just before Dinah and Helena's return, had been a bit... stronger. Atypically for the normally controlled woman, it had involved drawing upon her sizable and creative store of invective, pounding her fists, and fighting down a wave of nauseated fear.

The fact that Arkham was the country's premiere super- maximum security prison for the worst of the criminally insane -- Hannibal Lector wouldn't even make the waiting list for the place -- accounted for only the smallest part of the cyber vigilante's reaction. No, it was the ever-pervading knowledge of just who was housed at the facility which evoked her intense response.

Jack Napier -- aka The Joker. The arch-villain responsible for Helena's mother's murder. The madman who -- on that same night -- had personally pumped four bullets into Barbara while cackling with gleeful malice. He was locked layers deep in the bluff the prison sat against, straight jacketed and drugged twenty- four hours a day. However, if there was the slightest chance that the facility's security had been compromised -- and, a laser originating from the prison seemed like a damned good indication...

Well, suffice to say, Barbara had expected a bit more from her partner's reaction. Dinah's high-pitched gasp was, in fact, more along the lines of what seemed appropriate.

"Why would someone at Arkham want to blow up Mr. Loewen's place?"

None of the women bothered to question how one -- or more -- of the Arkham inmates might have managed to assemble and set off an energy beam. The residents at the facility were, undeniably, a resourceful bunch.

"I have no idea, Dinah."

Immediately after sending warnings about a possible security breech to the facility and the police, Barbara had run extensive background checks on the man, cross- referencing them with every inmate at the prison. She'd been unable to piece together even the most tenuous link.

"It's possible, of course," she continued quietly, "that Mr. Loewen's house was not the target."

"You mean it could have been a test shot... or somebody could have fucked up the aim?"

"Possibly, Hel," the redhead allowed.

At a soft exhalation from her right side and the sensation of the teen leaning toward the monitors, Barbara remained quiet, curious as to whether Dinah would arrive at the same deduction that she had.

"Oh... shit. Barbara?"

The girl's concern was unmistakable.


Helena's tone, by contrast, was decidedly irate.

"What are you two big brains seeing?"

Pushing back from the desk, Barbara found herself pinned by two sets of blue eyes. She nodded a confirmation to the teen, then exhaled and straightened her shoulders.

"The path of the beam was on a direct line to the clock tower, Helena."

Chapter 17

"Don't be silly, Helena."

The younger woman looked up from her over-energetic domestic activity. Her expression suggested how very, very unmoved she was by the redhead's words.

"I am not being silly, Barbara. I just wanted to fluff the cushions before I throw down a sheet."

Barbara ignored her partner's deliberate misinterpretation and spoke calmly.

"There's no reason for you to sleep on the couch, Hel."

"I'm not just sailing on back to my place, leaving you and the Kid here when who- knows-what is going on at Arkham, Barbara."

The older woman felt a fond smile creeping across her face at the brunette's belligerent tone. She knew that she had a better chance of getting up and walking across the room than she did of changing her overprotective partner's mind.

"I simply meant, Hel," she clarified mildly, "that you can sleep with me."

Fearing whiplash on Helena's behalf, she managed not to laugh at the other woman's double-take. Fascinated, she watched a veritable army of emotions race across gamine features -- surprise, happiness, doubt, desire, and -- oddly -- something that looked like worry.

"Are you sure? I don't mind the couch, Red. Hell..."

The brunette affected an easy grin and shrugged casually.

"I end up sleeping on it a lot of nights anyway."

Barbara kept it short.

"I'm sure, Sweetie."

Turning toward her room, she paused, waiting until bright blue eyes caught hers.

"Just turn off the lights and come in when you're ready."

In less time than she'd expected given the younger woman's evident trepidation, the redhead looked up from the final chapter of her X-Men book at the sound of her door opening quietly. She laughed softly.

"I'm still awake, Hel."

The dark figure closed the door behind her, quirking her lips in amusement. As the brunette efficiently stripped down to her tank top and underwear, Barbara busied herself finding her bookmark and positioning the book just so on the night stand. Regardless, she still found her gaze oddly drawn to the end of the bed where an entirely distracting amount of long, tanned leg and sinuously muscled shoulder was being revealed.

Mentally rolling her eyes at her own hormones running amuck -- honestly, the two of them had slept... shared a bed countless times -- Barbara waited for her companion to slide lightly under the covers before reaching out to turn off the bedside lamp. A period of protracted, profound silence ensued.

Was Helena even breathing?

"Still with me, Hel?"

The older woman allowed her bemusement to filter through in the question, and the tactic had the desired effect. Her bedmate exhaled, then shifted onto her side with a laugh.

"Yeah, I'm here. Just, well... you know."

Reasonably confident that she did know, Barbara didn't belabor the issue.


Instead, she snaked out her arm and worked her hand under the younger woman's shoulders, tugging gently.


The brunette traversed the foot of space which separated them with pleasing alacrity, spooning loosely to Barbara's side and draping an arm across her waist. Satisfied -- deeply satisfied -- by the arrangement, the redhead allowed herself a long sigh, relaxing into their easy contact. It had been a long time, but it still felt so... natural.

"Been a while, huh, Red?"

The younger woman's voice was muted by Barbara's shoulder, and the words were slow and relaxed; still, the redhead had no trouble understanding the meaning. She turned her head to press a lingering kiss to the dark head resting on her shoulder.

"It has. I've missed this, Sweetie."

The brunette shifted her head to look up, bright blue eyes visible in the moonlight peeking through the curtains.

"Are you happy now, Barbara?"

The soft question, carrying with it the twin emotions of past memories and the place they were finally mapping together, pierced the older woman with poignant joy. In an instant, heat and excitement flared through her chest, and the still-functioning portion of her brain supplied that, for one of the first times in her life, emotion had bled into physical sensation.

Twisting her upper body a tiny bit, she brought her free hand to her companion's jaw, lowering her own head even as she coaxed Helena's face higher.


The kiss was soft, a tender brushing of lips and melding of breath, with the younger woman remaining almost passive under the contact. Control, however, was not what the redhead wanted... needed. Slowly, she outlined full cupid's bow lips with her tongue, seizing the brunette's gasp and slipping into the warm haven of her mouth. Deliberately, she stroked deeply, repeatedly, amazed by the pleasure of being so intimately connected with the treasured woman in her arms.

A tiny, helpless whimper escaped the younger woman's throat, and something hot and hungry reared up inside the redhead.

"Sweetheart -- Let me..."

She lowered her free arm, fully embracing her companion's slender torso, pulling her tightly against her side. Helena finally met her questing strokes, dancing against her, playing the piercing in her tongue wickedly against the redhead's lips. Gripping the younger woman's back tightly, she cupped the back of her partner's head with her other hand, unwilling to risk the chance of separation.

A low groan sounded through the dark room. Remotely, the redhead wondered if it had been hers. Finding herself surprisingly indifferent to unraveling that little puzzle, she lost herself in sensation. Long, lovely minutes later, just as Barbara deciphered the movement under the covers -- the agitated shifting of her partner's legs -- she felt warm, slender fingers trailing over her tee shirt.

Helena's touch was impossibly light, terribly cautious. Barbara experienced the feathery scrape of the back of her partner's nails across her abdomen, then the slow whisper of her fingertips up her side. Squirming under the ticklish touch, the redhead struggled against her instinctive panic, recognizing that -- where Helena was concerned -- there was every reason to believe she might actually enjoy...

The delicate touch slowed, then stopped, the brunette's palm resting lightly on Barbara's side, a few inches below her armpit. The redhead couldn't miss the sound of her partner's ragged breathing, nor the pounding of her own heart. One, then two, painful beats passed before Barbara identified something more -- a burning... or perhaps it was more of a tingling swelling... or, even...

The redhead abandoned her lexical flailing, deciding that it would suffice to describe it as 'wonderful'. Yet... incomplete.

Cautiously, lest the sensation escape her, she unlocked her rigid hold from her partner's back, raising her hand to the brunette's shoulder. Placing her palm fully against the wiry muscles, she followed the slender arm down, across her upper body, to the hand still lightly resting on her side. Then, gently, she guided.

Good. God.

It felt... heavenly.

The heretofore unexperienced strength of her own reaction, coupled with the volume of Helena's thick groan, didn't give Barbara much time to enjoy the experience. She jumped, and a burst of delighted laughter erupted from the older woman. While the unexpected release was... enjoyable, regrettably, it seemed to detract a bit from the mood for Helena.

The brunette shifted up onto her elbow and blew out a long breath before fixing her with a bemused smile. Barbara -- later -- had to admit that the younger woman exhibited enormous patience as the entire situation suddenly struck the redhead, dissolving her into fits of laughter.

It was only after Barbara's ill-timed eruption of giggles calmed to an occasional undignified snort that the brunette finally spoke.

"I bet they make pills or shots or something for that whole ticklish thing, Babs."

Well, that comment certainly hadn't helped matters...

Eventually, the older woman controlled herself, tugging her partner down to her shoulder and pressing an apologetic kiss to her forehead.

"I am so sorry, Sweetheart."

The truth of her words registered.

"Extremely sorry," she added without irony.

Helena shifted, curling companionably against the redhead.

"S'okay, Red. There's more than one way to... release a little tension, y'know."

The teasingly purring emphasis on the words left little doubt as to the dark figure's meaning. Barbara's response was a trifle dry.

"So it would seem."

The two snuggled comfortably for half a minute or so until the older woman felt her companion shift, then tense slightly.

"What is it, Hel?"

The brunette exhaled, then rose onto her elbow again, blue eyes searching in the dim light.

"So, I guess it's been pretty much all about penetration for you, huh?"

Somewhat to her surprise, Barbara did not feel the warmth of the expected blush. Of course, given their activities of only a few minutes ago, embarrassment seemed otiose at this point.

She sighed softly.

"That's true, Hel. The... sensation and the connection... At least," she added, "it used to be."

The older woman resolutely pushed aside the sharp anger which flared inside her at the painful admission. The brunette lowered herself, again resting her head on Barbara's shoulder, and the redhead recognized that Helena was offering a measure of privacy for the charged conversation.

"So, what about since then, Red?"

Barbara lowered her lashes and concentrated on steadying herself. She recognized that her partner's question wasn't prurient... or spurious; the soft words held only concern and a genuine desire to know.

The quiet sound of Helena's breathing, the warmth cocooning against her side, the sweet scent of her companion's hair gradually enveloped the older woman with a measure of calm. She was able to speak with relative tranquility as she attempted to explain.

"It... it still can make me feel... close to my partner, Hel."

The younger woman was quiet for a long time after that, and Barbara began to wonder just what was running through the brunette's very vivid imagination. Helena's next question impressed on her the foolishness of her assumption.

"What about you? Your pleasure, Barbara?"

The redhead finally felt the long-overdue blush begin to crawl up her neck. Perhaps she could just call Dick and beg him to handle this conversation with the younger woman; he'd never been overly concerned with modesty.

Summoning her courage, she tried to be factual without becoming overly clinical.

"Er, I suppose that using my mouth has been..."

Completely at her limits, the older woman faltered. How could she explain that, well into her second attempt at a relationship after the shooting, she'd finally found at least one way that offered the semblance of sensation and union that she'd enjoyed before?

Helena spared her the need when Barbara noticed the younger woman shift restlessly against her. She wasn't positive, but the redhead suspected that it was a broad smile she was feeling against her neck.

Curiosity piqued, she forgot her embarrassment.



The purring monosyllable, accompanied by the distinct undulation of Helena's hips against her, spoke volumes. Instantly, every thought in Barbara's mind was summarily pushed aside by a vivid, vivid, technicolor vision: Helena, naked above her, writhing and wet as she lowered herself...


The brunette's next words were decidedly pleased.

"You got that, huh? Maybe Dinah's telepathy is rubbing off."

"No te--"

The older woman paused to clear her throat.

"I assure you, Sweetheart, no telepathy was needed."

Helena stretched up to press a long kiss to the redhead's jaw, then snuggled sleepily against her.

"Good, Red. Just hold that thought then."

Doing just that, Barbara snugged the younger woman tightly against her, marveling that she was no longer thinking "if", but "when". Somehow, some way, the beautiful woman in her arms was bringing heat and light into a landscape which Barbara had long believed to be frozen. The older woman's last thought before she succumbed to the lure of Morpheus was that it was a wonderful feeling.

Hours later, the redhead awakened, feeling deliciously rested and relaxed -- and incredibly, unbearably hot. Apparently, at some point while she'd been sleeping, someone had entered the clock tower and spirited Helena away, replacing her with a blast furnace. There was simply no other explanation for the heat blanketing the older woman's back, from shoulders to waist and -- presumably -- all the way to her ankles.

Smirking, Barbara pried open her eyes, surprised by the brightness of the room. She was even more shocked when she checked the time.


Even though it was a Saturday, she simply never slept that late.

Smiling cheerfully, determined not to be bothered one whit by her shameless indolence, she focused her attention on how she had ended up on her side. Turning herself in bed required a sequence of choreographed movements which, often as not, simply didn't seem worth the trouble. As a result, she spent most nights fixed on her back, a sleeping position that had never been her favorite; however, as with most of the compromises necessitated by the shooting, she'd grown accustomed to it.

Yet, at some point during her long sleep, she and her companion had shifted. She was positioned comfortably, limbs arranged neatly, and cocooned by the human blanket behind her.

Again, the analytical woman found herself content with a mental shrug, attributing it to another mysterious benefit of sleeping with the other woman. Long sleep; comfortable sleep; warm sleep...

That last consideration drew her back to her earlier presumption: namely, that her human blast furnace was in contact all the way down her body. Strictly in the interest of fact-finding, she reached behind her. When her hand came in contact with Helena's hip, what she felt instantly consumed her with a warmth that had very little to do with shared body heat.

The sleeping woman behind her, with her soft rumbling purr tickling the redhead's neck, was pressing her hips gently and rhythmically against the older woman. The sinuous movement was unambiguous, and the redhead clasped her hand convulsively against the firm flesh of her partner's hip. The response -- both Helena's and her own -- was immediate.

The brunette awakened with a gasp, tightening the arm wrapped over Barbara's waist almost painfully against the older woman's abdomen.

"Oh fuck -- "

For her part, the redhead was struck by a bolt of something primal and desperate. She jerked her upper body in reflex, roughly rotating partially onto her back. Catching her hair with a practiced gesture, she swept her arm over her head to position the heavy fall behind her neck, then stretched out to grab the younger woman's shoulders.

"Helena --"

Before bright golden eyes had fully opened, Barbara brought their mouths together in a deep, hungry kiss. Dimly aware of her partner clasping her hip and helping her shift fully, she dragged her hand to the younger woman's waist and yanked the hem of her tank top up. Heat poured off the tan skin, and the redhead splayed her hand against the velvet covering the trembling muscles of the other woman's abdomen.

"Helena, I need to feel you."

On a snarl, the dark figure wrenched away, rearing onto her knees. Breathless at the spectacle above her, the older woman allowed her partner to shift her onto her back, then blinked when slender fingers efficiently pushed her tee shirt up, bunching it at her neck. For an uncomfortable eternity, the brunette raked her burning gaze over the exposed skin, and Barbara struggled not to flinch as those stunning eyes lingered over the scarred terrain of her torso.

When Helena reached back over her head, yanking her own shirt swiftly up and off, the redhead forgot her discomfort, and her arms seemed to levitate of their own accord toward the heavy swells of flesh above her. Some sort of murmured protest escaped her when the brunette eased her hands down, however she forgot her annoyance as the other woman lowered herself -- slowly, deliberately -- to bring their upper bodies into contact.

"You're so fuckin' beautiful, Barbara."

The older woman felt beautiful.

"You feel so fuckin' good."

The redhead had to agree with that as well. She -- and Helena -- felt... amazing.

In the past, Barbara had always been largely baffled by her male lovers' undisguised delight with this particular activity, the sensation. She'd usually been amenable to indulging them, but she truly hadn't seen what all the fuss was about.

No more.

The graze of silken skin against her own heated body... the pressure of heavy flesh against her own swollen breasts... the tease of diamond peaks against her own unbelievably sensitive nipples... It was exquisite.

Helena continued to hold her weight on her forearms, moving lightly, brushing her body delicately, sleekly, against Barbara's. The barely-there touch was torturous -- even incendiary. One word, and one word only, welled through the older woman's chest.


The brunette shoved herself up, and Barbara gasped, writhing at the loss. Determined not to be without the heavenly contact, she grasped her partner's shoulders and tugged. Because of her gymnastics background, the redhead had long had above-average upper body strength; after the shooting, she'd worked assiduously to increase it. Regardless, she was no match for the younger woman's meta-human power. The dark woman easily supported herself above her, eyes twinkling -- or flashing.

"Shhh... Here."

On a sillibant whisper, the brunette gracefully rolled away, onto her back, using their momentum to carry the larger woman with her. Finally able to put her upper body strength to good use, the older woman leveraged herself over her partner's chest then slowly descended. For long, heady moments, she experimented with the sweep of her own heavy breasts against the younger woman's skin, thrilling to the reflexive rise of the fine hair on her arms in response to the nearly electric tingles coursing through her. Eventually, with a moan which was echoed by her companion's hoarse groan of pleasure, she relaxed the muscles in her arms and sank into her partner.

The dark head below her on the pillow thrashed once from side to side, then Barbara experienced the rise and fall of her entire body as the younger woman bucked under her.

"God, Barbara -- please..."

Not at all inclined to resist the younger woman's whimpered plea, the redhead pushed herself down the brunette's torso, the drag of her flesh against the other woman's heated skin almost unbearably erotic. Mouth watering at the rose-hued tip beneath her, Barbara unhesitatingly brushed her lips tenderly against the pebbled peak, darting out to touch and taste.

"Dear heavens... Sweetheart --"

Barely aware that she'd spoken, the older woman tested and teased for only a beat longer; her partner's increasingly urgent whimpers and the force of the blood thundering in her own veins would permit her no more time. She opened to take in and -- alternating long strokes with avid suckling -- embraced this new and amazing territory.

Holy cats!

And lions and tigers and bears, too... Nothing had ever felt... tasted... like this.

Sweeping the puckered flesh with her tongue, the redhead sucked deeply, from the back of her mouth. She wanted -- needed -- to take the soft- hard flesh inside...

So caught up was she that it took Barbara some time to register a change in the range and tempo of her partner's movements. The younger woman's slow undulations beneath her had ceased, with the lithe figure spreading her thighs to thrust agitatedly against the redhead's lower body.

A heady sense of what she could do... what she could offer... what she needed to give... buzzed through every functioning nerve that the redhead possessed. Again, there was no hesitation as Barbara slid her hand between their bodies, fumbling at the waistband of the brunette's underwear, insistently seeking the warm wetness that she sensed only inches away.

"Hel... Let me..."

A tiny whine ghosted through red hair, and the older woman squeezed her eyes shut to make sense of what she thought she'd heard.

"No -- "

Barbara stilled her eager movements and lifted her head in confusion as she was ever-so-gently eased from her partner's body. Her confusion increased tenfold, then transformed to something akin to fear, when the brunette stiffly turned onto her side -- back to the older woman -- and curled tightly into herself.

Baffled, and not a little concerned, the redhead inched closer and cautiously placed her hand on the younger woman's bare back. Every muscle seemed to be bowstring taut, quivering and jerking minutely as the lithe figure panted raggedly.

"Helena? Sweetie? Did I...? Are you...?"

The dark head shook once as the younger woman reached back to capture Barbara's fingers, drawing the redhead's arm across her waist and driving their clasped hands against her belly. Wrapping herself to her partner's back, the older woman bit back a moan of sympathy... and arousal. It might have been years for her, but Barbara had no trouble recognizing the fluttering contractions under their joined hands.

What she did not understand was her partner's reaction. For some reason, Helena was battling her own insistent desire, visibly struggling to control -- to halt -- her body's response.

Swallowing thickly, Barbara worked to find her voice.

"Helena? Do you -- "

Having discovered her voice, the older woman now searched for words.

"... do you not want me... to touch you?"

There was no immediate answer. Instead, Helena steadied her breathing and stilled her agitated trembling before turning in the circle of Barbara's arms. While the brunette's words were rueful, there was nothing but bright, shining love in her wide blue eyes.

"More... more than anything, Barbara. But, I need -- "

Crimson brows furrowed, and the older woman reached up, tenderly brushing chestnut bangs from her companion's eyes.

"What do you need, Sweetie?"

She traced the pad of her thumb across the younger woman's full lower lip, shivering when Helena caught her wrist and pressed a butterfly kiss to her palm. The brunette's reply -- so quietly uttered, so earnestly phrased -- left her quaking.

"I need to make love to you, too, Barbara."

There was simply no way to escape... nowhere to hide from the words -- the request. Attempting to ride out the avalanche of emotions crashing within her, Barbara realized that she didn't need -- or want -- to escape at all.

Still lost in blue eyes, she cast about for some sort of footing or solid ground. However, before she could marshal the wits or the wherewithal to respond, a tremendous crash from the living room -- followed by Dinah's startled cry -- echoed through the clock tower.

Chapter 18

In a heartbeat, Helena was out of the bed, grabbed her tank top from the floor, and disappeared through the door. Only seconds behind, Barbara maneuvered herself into her chair, automatically checking under the armrests to verify that her batarangs were available.

Snorting in irritation with herself -- just what the hell did she think she could do with a batarang against an energy pulse? -- she grabbed the cordless phone, gritting her teeth against the fact that calling for help was probably the most valuable assistance she'd be able to provide. She gave the wheels of her chair a hard push, then raised the phone from her lap and stabbed the Talk button, checking for a dial tone.

Although the redhead didn't think her response had been slow, by the time she reached the bedroom door, it was all over.

Her younger partner reappeared in the doorway with an extremely embarrassed- looking Dinah trailing reluctantly behind her. The brunette entered the room wordlessly and moved to stand next to the older woman. Green eyes didn't miss the hard look being directed at the teen from intense blue eyes.

Surmising that the front half of the clock tower hadn't been hit by a death ray, Barbara exhaled steadily, attempting to slow her pulse to something less than 120 bpm.

"Helena? Dinah?"

The two young women spoke as one -- Helena, accusingly; Dinah, apologetically.

"Can you believe the little tw--"

"I'm really sorry. It just sli--"

Barbara lifted her hand in the universal gesture for "stop" then lowered her lashes and continued the upward motion of her hand, pinching the bridge of her nose.


a) her lack of coffee and
b) what she'd been focused on prior to the abruptly heart-pounding distraction, she felt that short, sweet, and monophonic seemed advisable. Largely in appreciation of the fact that her younger partner hadn't told her to stay behind -- or some other overprotective twaddle -- when she'd run pell-mell from the bedroom, Barbara turned to her.

"Now, Helena, what happened?"

"Other than the Kid scaring the hell out of us for no reason?"

Since the redhead had already arrived at a similar impression, she found the younger woman's snarky response less than enlightening. Raising one crimson brow, she marshaled The Look. It had its desired effect, and Helena dropped her eyes to study the pattern in the hardwood flooring.

"Seems like the K-- Dinah was digging around in the storage closet for an even bigger suitcase..."

The brunette managed to imbue the words with a sizeable dose of mocking disbelief.

"... and knocked a bunch of stuff down."

Apparently reaching the limits of her endurance for silence, the teen piped up in her own defense.

"I am sorry, Barbara. I just wanted to have room for everything."

Dinah was to depart on Sunday, again with Gabby and her parents, to investigate her final college. While the redhead was under no illusions that either girl would be pursuing higher education in Fort Lauderdale, she fully understood her ward's desire for a complete wardrobe for the trip -- even if it seemed unlikely that all of the beachwear that the teen had laid out would be needed for her faculty interviews. Accordingly, she mustered an understanding smile.

"That's fine, Dinah; no harm done. You just... startled us a bit."

When the girl blushed and opened her mouth to speak, Barbara forestalled the lengthy follow-up apology-cum-explanation which she anticipated.

"Since we're up now, I think I'll get dressed."

She didn't miss the long look directed her way before Helena turned toward her bathroom. It sounded like she'd muttered something about a cold shower, however it was the words she heard Dinah calling over her shoulder as she retreated down the hallway that truly captured her attention.

"I'll put some coffee on..."

Eventually adequately caffeinated, the cyber-crime fighter immersed herself at the Delphi, attempting to ferret out any clues that she might have overlooked from the images and plots she'd collected the night before. Leaving Helena to her mixing bowl of Frosted Sugar Cocoa Snaps -- with extra sugar -- and, of all things, a Smurfs marathon airing on the WB, the redhead enticed Dinah to join her for several hours of detailed analysis of the energy pulse.

Somewhere around noon -- Barbara noted the time only because she found herself absently munching on one of the tuna sandwiches which the brunette had wordlessly placed by the monitors -- she finally put her finger on what had been bothering her about the images; however, she deliberately held her tongue, waiting to see what the teenager might pick up on. Dinah continued to pour over the images for another ten minutes before looking up in confusion.

"This is wrong, isn't it, Barbara?"

Unwilling to sway the girl's perceptions, the older woman spoke carefully.

"What makes you think that, Dinah?"

The blonde gestured at a monitor which was filled with spectrometer readings, then set her sandwich aside.

"Well, we're pretty sure it was a laser, which is -- basically -- a beam of light, right?"

The redhead nodded and allowed a tiny smile to show. The teen appeared to be reaching the same conclusion that she had.

"But, other than refraction -- hitting a prism or something -- light should travel in a straight line."

"Straight lines are too dull."

A deceptively blase voice wafted over the back of the couch, and Barbara chuckled.

"That may be true, Sweetie, but dull and predictable can be good when we're dealing with scientific laws."

"Yeah," the blonde chimed in.

Barbara thought she detected a trace of self-righteousness in Dinah's short utterance, possibly a reaction to the razzing which Helena continued to inflict over the suitcase incident. She smoothly drew her charge's attention back to the problem at hand.

"So, why would this beam have arced, Dinah?"

The redhead waited patiently as the teen reexamined several of the images and plots, seeming to work methodically through various ideas. Pale blue eyes, narrowed in puzzlement, finally met green.

"It could have bounced off something in the atmosphere -- like water vapor?"

Nodding her agreement, Barbara gently reminded the teen, "But, it was dry and predominantly clear last night."

The disembodied voice from the couch chimed in again.

"What if whoever fired it off sent it though a prism or... something?"

The older woman pursed her lips against a smile when the blonde fixed the back of the sofa with an impatient glare.

"Oh, come on. Why would they want to do that?"

Possibly sensing the hostility directed toward the furniture she was resting on, a chestnut head popped up, and Helena regarded the teen serenely.

"I dunno, D. Maybe they were trying to bend it."

The leader of the little team nodded again, impressed -- but scarcely surprised -- by her younger partner's almost intuitive grasp of the situation. Under her don't-give-a- damn, too-bad-for-her-leathers attitude, the brunette hid a keen intellect.

Pale blue eyes blinked in perplexity.

"Like, trying to curve around something... or compensate for something?"

"Exactly, Dinah.", the redhead confirmed crisply. "So, what lies between Arkham and New Gotham which would need to be circumvented?"

Catching the wicked light in cerulean eyes, Barbara held her breath in anticipation.

"Loewen's big telescope? Or, maybe they were trying to avoid his thick glasses and pointy little head."

When Dinah giggled, the older woman rolled her eyes. If there was one thing that Helena didn't need when she was in a mood, it was encouragement. Unfortunately, it appeared that the teen's amusement was all that had been needed because the two were off...

"What about the city water tower with the stylized bat motif on it?", Dinah suggested.

"No.. wait," the brunette chimed in, "how about that big new billboard for Hooters they just put up? Lot of curves to get around on that."

Recognizing that she had no recourse but to allow this little episode to play itself out, Barbara shook her head minutely and began to toggle through some data, half- listening as the two younger women attempted to top each other.

"What about the whole city?"

The brunette had no problem countering the teen's laughing idea with a brainchild of her own.

"Don't forget about that whole -- "

From the corner of her eye, the redhead saw her partner making quotation marks with her fingers.

" 'curvature of the earth' thing, Dinah."

Laughing brightly, Barbara finally interceded before the two young women decided to expand their efforts into rediscovering the laws of gravity from the balcony or some such thing. She shooed Dinah off to pack while Helena sank back onto the couch, and then the cyber-genius skillfully hacked in to the police computer and Arkham's system to peruse security reports.

Although the NGPD's investigation into the incident had been cursory so far, it seemed that Arkham had conducted a thorough search of the facility after receiving her anonymous alert the night before. Unfortunately, nothing had been found; nevertheless, the cyber-vigilante began a careful review of the detailed reports in the off chance that the security staff had overlooked something.

Several hours later, the redhead blew an exasperated raspberry, then straightened and rotated her neck, popping the tight vertebrae. She picked up her cup of tea and absently blew across it, then blinked.

When had the still-steaming beverage appeared by her mouse pad?

Shaking her head, she listened to the sound of conspiratorial whispering and -- was that...? Yes, definitely giggling -- laughter emanating from Dinah's room. At some point, Helena must have given up on the Saturday afternoon television selections and offered to lend her expertise to the teen's packing.

Obviously, now she'd need to make a concerted effort not to learn what the blonde ultimately decided to take with her.

The older woman slowly turned from the monitors which flanked her on three sides and stared at the living area. If she ignored the specific nature of what she'd been working on -- not to mention the sheer uniqueness of the Delphi itself -- she almost could pretend that it was all normal. Working on the computer, watching television, sorting through a teenager's wardrobe -- not unlike how other families might spend a chilly late-winter afternoon. Rolling that thought around in her mind, Barbara decided that she liked it, especially the "family" aspect.

Regardless, it was time to stop wool-gathering.

With a soft sigh of resignation, she pivoted and regarded the Delphi balefully. The super-computer was, without a doubt, a powerful tool which allowed her to serve justice in ways she'd never dreamed of during her days and nights on the streets so many years ago. Yet, at moments like this -- on edge from a shadowy threat and stymied by tenuous clues which only seemed to reveal more mysteries -- the redhead yearned for something more, something else.

At times like this, Barbara admitted that she would cheerfully walk away from the computer and all the good she could accomplish through it. She'd walk away without a second thought if only she could... walk away. If only she could hop on a cycle and hit the streets, wind in her face and nothing but the purity and adrenaline of action on her mind.

Understanding her own itching restlessness and recognizing, from hard experience, that her thoughts would lead nowhere good, the redhead debated spending some time in the training room. Perhaps some time shellacking the heavy bag with her staffs or working herself to exhaustion on the parallel bars would allay her edginess. Anything other than spinning her wheels, so to speak, at the Delphi...

Fortunately, the very thought of spinning reminded the redhead about another pressing matter. It was her turn to plan a date with Helena, and she'd be hornswoggled before she allowed Arkham, the Joker, and whatever possible threat was facing them to interfere with their lives completely. She'd locked away the sickening terror which had seized her the night before; at this point, the cyber-crime fighter planned to channel her energies into her usual roles and responsibilities: tracking down the source of the threat, protecting her charges and the city, and... continuing to weave the delicate threads of a changing relationship with Helena.

Smirking, the redhead admitted to herself that redirecting her thoughts wasn't strictly about maintaining normalcy and refusing to give in to the shadowy terrors facing them. Quite simply, planning an outing with the younger woman would be a great deal more pleasant and relaxing than either working out or wallowing in frustration at her workstation.

Since Helena had claimed that the bowling expedition the week before had lacked appeal, Barbara decided that she'd need to come up with something truly worthy. Accordingly, she ticked through the likely events she'd noted in the morning paper.

WWF Live?

As much as she'd enjoyed The Rock's movie and as much as Helena appreciated well-muscled bodies, Barbara still suspected that an entire afternoon of muscle-bound actors engaged in poorly staged wrestling matches would simply be... an embarrassment of testosterone.

Sword & Leather Convention?

The older woman had surmised that this involved a gathering of overly enthusiastic fans of a certain Warrior Princess. While Helena certainly displayed a marked fondness for both leather and weaponry and she, herself, was in possession of a not- very-secret stash of Xena DVDs, Barbara couldn't help but wonder if the event might degenerate into an estrogen-fest for her overly enthusiastic partner.

Green eyes suddenly twinkled when the cyber-genius' eidetic memory served up the perfect event.

The Living Canvas Tattoo Exhibition.

With her interest in art -- and scantily clad bodies -- Helena would certainly approve. Frankly, the redhead suspected that she'd find the showing to be to her liking as well, provided that she could keep her companion from persuading her to get matching "I'm With Her" designs permanently inked on their shoulders.

Pleased with the idea, Barbara opened a browser, intent on locating an online ticket vendor. Humming softly while she brought up the schedule for the show, the redhead realized that, with Dinah off on her trip, they could easily rearrange the normal Sunday schedule. Perhaps they could give Alfred a break from his usual waffle-iron duties and go out for brunch, then hit the exhibition in the afternoon.

Barbara completed her reservation for two tickets, smiling broadly at the idea of playing hooky from the usual routine. As she recorded her confirmation number, she suddenly stilled, and green eyes narrowed speculatively. Inexorably, her happy smile morphed into an even wider, distinctly dirty sort of grin.

With the clock tower to themselves for the day, perhaps she was being hasty in making plans to go out. After all, they were two intelligent, creative individuals; certainly they could find some ways to occupy themselves, or burn off some ener...

The redhead hit the keys to toggle open a terminal window with such speed that she thought she heard a whine of protest from the Delphi's cpu's.

How she could have such a very, very high IQ yet miss the obvious... Honestly, sometimes she felt about as bright as a small appliance light bulb.

Of course, the cyber-vigilante mused as she effortlessly hacked into the city utility department, that was exactly the point: light. Rather, the power required for a burst of high intensity light...

Several hours later, the redhead pushed back from the keyboard, feeling entirely self-satisfied. NGPL had, indeed, registered a huge drain moments before the previous night's event. Meticulous cross-checks hadn't revealed the exact location of the demand -- the power company really needed to refine and update its software -- however, it had occurred in a grid on the western edge of the city. With that information, it had been a simple -- albeit tedious -- job to add some monitoring and tracking code to the company's mainframe. Now, as soon as the laser was powered up, she'd be alerted.

Catching herself rubbing her hands together in an altogether too Machiavellian fashion, Barbara glanced around the empty living area.

Just what were Helena and Dinah up to?

Glancing toward the window, she guiltily noticed that the sun had set and darkness was falling fast. Quiet music drifted from the direction of Dinah's room, alerting her to the location of at least one of the younger women.

In your eyes, I can see
Something, Something, So sure
In those eyes
As bright as the stars, As blue as the sky
I could die In your eyes
In your eyes, I can see
Something, Something, So sure
And those eyes are not for hurting
You have the power
In those eyes, in your eyes
As bright as the stars, As blue as the sky
I could die In your eyes


As she picked out the words accompanying the spare melody, Barbara felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand in reflex. A moment later, she noted that -- rather than Joan Armatrading's evocative lyrics -- there was something else triggering her awareness.

Unhesitatingly, she covered the short distance and quietly pulled the doors closed behind her on the balcony. The redhead was unsurprised to find her partner perched on the parapet surrounding the starlit terrace. However, when the brunette turned in response to her low greeting, an emotion... or sensation... akin to surprise seized the older woman.

Only a few weeks before, Barbara could -- and would -- have dismissed her response as mere surprise, but honesty prevented the easy obfuscation now. While her heart had begun to pound and her blood had begun to rush through her veins, it was something other than astonishment which had been triggered by the sight of Helena's glittering feral eyes.

"What are you thinking about, Hel?"

Somehow, the redhead managed to make her inquiry calmly. The dark figure's hoarse reply neatly stripped any remaining measure of calm from her.

"About you, Barbara."

"About... me?", the older woman repeated, somewhat stupidly, she feared.

Helena rose from the low wall and gracefully approached to kneel by the redhead's side. The dark head nodded once, slowly... confidently. When the younger woman looked up, her eyes were heavy lidded with promises meant for dark bedrooms.

"Yeah. About how you'll look when you come... about how you'll look when you make me scream."

Swallowing volubly, Barbara Gordon could not, for the life of her, remember why it was taking -- had taken -- so long for her partner to find out. Reaching for the brunette's hand, she could find only two words.

"Come here."

Instantly, the lithe woman flowed forward, onto the redhead's lap, straddling her legs with her knees buried deep in the thick padding of the chair. Raising her hands instinctively, Barbara cradled the other woman's face, stroking her thumbs across full lips then gasping at the provocative dance of a warm tongue against her finger.


Their mouths met hungrily, and the older woman swore that she felt Helena's rumbling growl from the top of her head all the way to her belly. Every functioning nerve ending fired a salute, and Barbara stroked deeply, capturing that teasing tongue. Their almost frenzied movements gradually slowed under her languid suckling. To the accompaniment of her partner's ragged breathing, the older woman dragged her fingers through silken hair, over wiry shoulders, across the twitching muscles of the younger woman's back. Almost leisurely, she clasped Helena's slender hips, rocking her partner against her in time with the pull of her mouth.

Slim fingers danced through her hair, then down her neck to tease at the upper swell of her breasts.

"Barbara... I need-- "

The redhead arched forward on a hiss.


Another purring growl tickled her jaw just before sharp teeth nipped at her pulse point. Warm hands palmed the suddenly heavy flesh on her chest, massaging tenderly in rhythm with the deep suctioning, the wet strokes, the rasping pressure at her throat. Fire blossomed at the genesis of the erotic torture and radiated down and out until Barbara's fingers itched for contact, the strong muscles of her arms flexed convulsively, and her nipples tightened and burned.

Urgently, she reached between them, fumbling at the buttons of her oxford shirt. Freeing the top four, she wound her fingers in dark silk and guided, with more resolve than finesse.

"Oh god, Helena... Suck me -- please."

Golden eyes swam into view for a nanosecond. Then... then, Helena's mouth was on her, a perfect melding of teeth and tongue and lips. Barbara's head fell back as she arched her shoulders in search of more -- more pressure, more of the wet strokes, more of her being... consumed by her lover's shockingly talented mouth.

Somehow loosening her spasming fingers from Helena's scalp, Barbara frantically yanked the younger woman's shirt up and raked blunted nails along each side of her spine. The dark figured groaned thickly and bowed into the twin trails like some sort of stretching jungle cat, then raised her head, returning her mouth to the older woman's. Mourning the sensation on her breast even as she thrilled to the brush of kiss-bruised lips against hers, the redhead finally deciphered the movement of her partner's mouth against her.

"I love you."

Not even a whisper, just a hint of motion. Over and over.

Something more powerfully overwhelming than any physical sensation that she'd ever experienced at the hands of a lover raced through the older woman. For the second time in her cautiously controlled life, emotion and physicality bled together.

Amazed and awed, she disengaged herself just enough to look into the burning, passionate gaze of her lover.

"Oh, Sweetheart. I love you, too. So much."

Witnessing the upward curl of the younger woman's top lip, another feeling ran through the redhead. Cautiously, Barbara ran her tongue over the edges of her lips, scarcely breathing when Helena spoke.

"I want to touch you -- to taste you -- everywhere. Every inch of your body."

Wanting that too, with a dark desperate ache, the older woman swallowed thickly and hunted for speech. Helena, however, wasn't finished.

"Then, do you know what I want? What I need, Barbara?"

Dumbly, the redhead shook her head, immobilized before this passionate... huntress.

"Then, Barbara..."

Helena's words were low and heavy, sweeping across Barbara like thick velvet.

"... I need my fingers -- my hand -- inside of you. So deep inside that I'm a part of you."

Something clenched powerfully, low in the older woman's belly. However, even in the face of overwhelming passion, she could not escape the insidious tendril of fear winding up her spine. Unwilling to give in, Barbara forced herself to speak, urgent and honest.

"Dear heavens, Helena, I want... I want that, too. But -- "

Shamed, she nevertheless refused to look away.

"... but I want to... to feel that -- you..."

"Us.", she finished awkwardly, hating the cost of her inadequacies.

A moment later, Barbara was grateful that she'd not looked away when yellow eyes fluidly morphed to blue. A slender hand rose to rest lightly over her heart, gentling its frantic fluttering. When Helena spoke, her features were so open and sweet, so filled with love and desire, that the older woman feared she might cry.


The younger woman's words were filled with perfect conviction.

"--how could you not feel it? Feel us loving each other?"

There was simply no way to deny the truth of her lover's words, and so Barbara rasied her arms in invitation.

"Take me to bed, Helena."

Chapter 19

I've paid my dues -
Time after time -
I've done my sentence
But committed no crime

Of course, it had been at that moment -- with Helena rising gracefully and bending to carry the redhead to the bedroom -- that the alarm at the Delphi had triggered. With the very real threat facing them -- or some other nearby target -- there had been no choice.

Inhaling deeply to clear her erotic haze, Barbara had straightened her shoulders, tendering a genuinely apologetic smile. Her partner's answering smile -- just the tiniest bit forced, the older woman had observed -- was absolution. Briskly assuming her post at the computer, the quiet words she'd heard were an assurance.

"Soon, Red."

That was all it had taken. With a quick squeeze to the younger woman's hand, Barbara had reassumed her role as a protector of the city, her partner leaning expectantly against one edge of the table, her newest charge fidgeting behind her.

As expected, she'd found that a huge power drain had just begun in the NGPL's western grid. Waiting for her tracking worm to pinpoint the exact location of the energy drain, she'd expertly hacked into her favorite satellite, ready to capture another image of the pulse of light.

The cyber-vigilanted had fervently hoped that said image wouldn't be the last thing she saw before the clock tower was blown into orbit next to the weather satellite.

Within seconds, she'd had the location, just as a bolt of light had blazed through the western sky above Arkham. Green eyes had widened, and the redhead had grit her teeth in angry dismay when she'd realized that she had been terribly, terribly wrong.

The laser wasn't originating from Arkham. Perhaps more chillingly, it was aimed at the facility. Aimed, specifically, from Frank Loewen's property.

And bad mistakes
I've made a few
I've had my share of sand kicked in my face
But I've come through


Barbara had finally spoken with almost nonchalant calm.

"Helena? Dinah? By any chance was Mr. Loewen losing his hair?"

She'd easily detected the teen's uneasy shifting behind her, witnessed the startled blinking of deep blue eyes.

Clearly her younger partners had been wondering if she needed a long vacation.

"Sure was," Helena had nevertheless confirmed with gratifying alacrity. "Big old comma-shaped bald patch..."

A line of dialogue from the movie "Shrek" had popped out of the redhead's infallible memory. Mentally shrugging, she'd summoned her best Scottish accent.

"Well, that explains a lot."

Apparently, if the looks she'd received were any indication, quoting cartoon characters in the midst of a crisis had not done much to reassure her companions about her mental state.

Regardless of how she'd expressed it, the sentiment was right on target. Specifically, they had resolved the little mystery of their finicky jewel thief. The burglar -- Loewen -- had apparently been in search of suitable lenses to amplify and refract a laser.

No wonder the man had been so disoriented by the appearance of the two young crime fighters the night before. After their run-in at the pawn shop a few weeks ago, there was little chance he wouldn't remember them. He had probably been almost panicked when they'd appeared to investigate the effects of a powerful beam of light.

A beam of light which was now positioned to collapse the prison, killing inmates and guards alike... and freeing any prisoners not injured by the blast.

Barbara had succinctly explained the situation to the younger women as she'd monitored another drain on the utility company's western grid. Moments later, she'd tracked another bolt of blue-green light in the sky with a feeling of panic. Although Loewen seemed to be having some trouble aiming -- on this attempt, he'd reduced the top of the bluff that the prison nestled against into a shower of rock -- eventually, he'd find his mark.

"Can't you just shut down the power?"

Dimpling her cheeks in frustration, the older woman had replied factually, even as her younger partner hopped from the platform to retrieve her coat.

"The control isn't granular enough, Dinah. Without actually climbing the right pole and manually bypassing a transformer, I'd have to take out the entire western grid."

Helena's hiss from across the room had spoken for them all. Shutting down the power in that section would throw Arkham onto auxiliary power -- reducing most of its high-tech security features to nothing more than impressive decorations.

The brunette had snagged the keys to the Humvee and turned toward the elevator with a growl.

"No sweat. I'll just go out and shut his little toy down manually."

"Hurry, Helena. Even if he doesn't hit the prison, it appears that there's quite a bit of back feed from his device. Perhaps enough to take down the grid..."

Helena had departed with a laconic wave and a predatory smile while Barbara had conscripted Dinah's help in monitoring the satellite even as she'd programmed pseudo-random power fluctuations into the grid.

Not quite a brown-out but, hopefully, enough to slow the recharge of the man's weapon until her younger partner could reach the scene.

I've taken my bows
And my curtain calls -
You brought me fame and fortune
and everything that goes with it -
I thank you all -


The strategy seemed to have the desired effect; at least, there had been no further evidence of laser activity during the long twelve minutes that it took for Helena to reach the man's farm.

Conversely, the strategy had an unintended consequence if the furious banging and shouting which had echoed over the transceiver upon the younger woman's arrival were any indication. Frank Loewen had been one very frustrated -- enraged -- individual. His profane cries -- presumably to the heavens above -- had sounded clearly through the comms.

<"Goddammit! What's wrong with the power? Why won't this piece of crap power up? I need more power--">

The brunette had provided a sub vocal play-by-play from her vantage point in the woods.

<"Looks like he's got the... contraption moved just outside the ruins of the barn. Butt-load of wires and cables and stuff all over... Uh oh...">

Barbara hadn't cared for the sound of that.


<"Uhm, he's firing up a generator -- probably gonna try to boost the power. I'm gonna try to calm him down.">

Before Helena had had the opportunity to do more than call out -- <"Hey there, Frank. Can we tal--"> -- things had gone terribly wrong.

There had been another energy drain from the western grid -- smaller than the previous usages but none-the-less impressive -- followed by two sounds over the comms: a powerful, electric crackling and the young vigilante's scream of pain.

Since then -- the redhead's internal chronometer supplied that it had been nine minutes, nine agonizing minutes -- there had been only silence over the unit. Logically, suspecting that her partner had been struck by some powerful voltage, Barbara knew that the transceiver had certainly been destroyed. Illogically, the deafening silence seemed to signify something much more dire.

When Helena's cry had echoed through the clock tower, Barbara had -- quite deliberately -- allowed herself ten seconds for her terror to possess her. For ten seconds, she'd succumbed to an eruption of awful images and thoughts which paralyzed both her upper body and her mind. For ten long seconds... and not one second more.

After that avalanche of emotion had buried her, she'd flailed to the surface, bundling her terror into a small, sour bundle which sat somewhere near her stomach. Then, she'd briskly pushed away from the Delphi, grabbing two spare comm sets and hustling to the storage closet. Digging inside, she had quickly found what she needed -- extra batarangs, some escrima sticks -- and, with an indignant shake of her head, had also grabbed her black motorcycle jacket and thrust her arms into the sleeves.

If she were going to go barnstorming in on a rescue mission, Loewen should at least know that all three women were on the same... team.

Seventy-five seconds after the comm link had been severed, Barbara had been at the wheel of the van, peeling out of the parking garage as Dinah frantically attempted to secure her safety belt. It had been quite a while since she'd been on a bike and, granted, the van had four wheels, but as she'd zoomed around the first corner, the crimson-haired vigilante had discovered that she was still quite capable of doing some two-wheeling.

But it's been no bed of roses
No pleasure cruise -
I consider it a challenge
before the whole human race -
And I ain't gonna lose -

Nearing their destination, the older woman reached out and summarily shut off the vehicle's sound system. She'd noticed the tape in the pocket of her jacket a few miles back -- a long-forgotten favorite from when she'd prowled the city -- and decisively pushed it into the tape deck.

Heaven knew, a dose of inspiration and adrenaline wouldn't be a bad thing.

Several hundred feet from the entrance to the small farm, Barbara pulled the van to the side of the road and nodded at her companion. Both women checked their comm units a final time before the blonde hopped lightly from the vehicle.

"Be careful, Dinah. I'll give you sixty seconds to get into position."

Since there was simply no way for the redhead to make a stealthy approach, Dinah was to move toward the farm through the woods and remain hidden. Barbara's plan, quite simply, was to roll on in and... do whatever it took.

Fifty seconds later, the teen spoke breathlessly through the transceiver.

<"I'm... I'm here. He's got Helena tied up with some sort of... electrical cables or something. He...">

The blonde's voice hushed with horrified anger.

<"He keeps shocking her, Ba-- Oracle...">

Distantly, the older woman picked up a whimper of pain -- definitely Helena -- and almost sobbed in relief.

"Stay out of sight for now, Canary. I'm heading in."

Carefully checking her side mirror, the redhead automatically flipped on her turn signal and pulled onto the road, almost immediately changing to the other signal as she swung into the long driveway toward the farmhouse. She deliberately kept a light hand on the accelerator -- no need to startle the man -- and bumped slowly toward the building.

Approximately fifty feet from the farmhouse, she spied the remains of what must have been the barn, wryly noting that there had, indeed, been quite a bit of energy feedback from the pulse Frank had fired off the night before. The man had moved his equipment from the barn, positioning it next to a huge telescope, and crimson brows furrowed as she tried to make sense of the long, extremely slender tube which apparently made up the laser's barrel.

Twenty or twenty-five feet long, it appeared to be a series of slender cylinders which had been crudely welded...

Oh, good grief.

Transferring herself to her chair, the redhead rolled her eyes when she identified just what the man had utilized in building his Rube Goldberg-esque contraption: the rifle barrels which had disappeared from the sporting goods store over a month ago. Presumably, if the odd welds visible along the tube were any indication, the missing gemstones would be found secured throughout the length of the makeshift accelerator.

Cautioning herself against over-confidence, the redhead opened the door to the van and lowered the lift. Regardless of what the laser looked like, it quite obviously -- as Helena had described it the night before -- packed a punch. Briskly, she muscled herself across the snow-covered ground and around the side of the van to confront the unit's designer.

A balding, bespectacled man, bundled in an oversized parka, stood next to Helena and glared suspiciously at his approaching visitor. The younger woman was lying on her side near a humming transformer. She was secured by copper wiring which was hooked -- green eyes rapidly followed the maze of wiring which covered the ground -- to a 220-volt outlet.

It appeared that, after disabling the dark woman, Loewen had been keeping her under wraps through the use of periodic shocks.

"Heya, Red."

The brunette tendered a small smile, but Barbara didn't miss the pain flooding caramel features when her tormentor toggled a switch and filled her slender frame with electricity again.

With something approaching preternatural calm, the older woman retrieved a batarang from her chair. Her words, however, belied her composure.

"Get the fuck away from her, Loewen."

The man held his ground, peering nearsightedly through the darkness.

"Who the hell are you?"

If circumstances had been different, the redhead thought she might have laughed at the confused disbelief in the man's voice. However, circumstances were not different, so she spoke decisively.

"My name is Barbara Gordon, and I'm the woman who's going to kick your ass."

"Atta girl..."

Helena was sounding decidedly foggy; no telling how many shocks the deranged man had already inflicted.

When the balding man's fingers twitched against the switch, Barbara decided that Helena -- and she -- had had enough. The redhead raised her weapon, aiming effortlessly and fully prepared to take the man's head off. In the instant before releasing the batarang, Barbara managed to stay her rage and alter her aim, neatly severing the electric cable rather than the man's head.

Blinking in disbelief, Loewen delivered a sharp kick to his captive's ribs, then turned and stalked toward his newest visitor, raising something in his other hand. Green eyes narrowed speculatively as the older woman coolly assessed the item.

It was pistol-shaped, with a veritable rat's-nest of wires trailing from the grip of the weapon before getting lost in the warren of cables littering the yard. Presumably some sort of home-made taser -- and probably the weapon he'd used to subdue Helena.

Barbara spoke almost sub vocally as he raised the weapon.

"Plug it, Canary."

Despite her confidence in her hidden teammate's TK prowess, the redhead was unable to suppress a quick flinch when Loewen squeezed the firing mechanism. To her considerable relief, Barbara found herself neither shocked nor fried; rather, she watched with some bemusement as the unit visibly began to overheat in the man's hand. A moment later, steam practically coming from his ears, the balding man threw the weapon on the ground.

"Why are you doing this to me? What did you do to the electricity? I need to power up my unit now!"

Whirling, he roughly twisted a dial on a control panel near the gawky laser, and green eyes blinked in dismay when the knob broke off in the agitated man's hand. The quiet clicking of the unit attempting to power up transformed into a low buzz while the lights inside the farmhouse flickered.

The redhead quickly surveyed the warren of cables littering the yard. There was simply no way -- short of conscripting an army of grandmothers to start winding them up into neat balls -- to determine which, if any, was the primary power line. The consequences of cutting the wrong one, or ones, were sobering.

Nevertheless, even at full draw, they should have a few minutes before the laser was completely powered, given the still-fluctuating power in the western grid; however, the acrid stench of burning wiring suggested that an overload wasn't far off.

Hoping to slow the process, Barbara almost negligently tossed another batarang, knocking the man's generator into blissful silence. The incensed scream from next to the laser suggested that the device's inventor also believed that her action had been deleterious to his endeavor.

"Canary, will you please come get Huntress?"

<"On my way...">

The leather-clad vigilante waited until she spied the blonde emerging from the trees, then turned her attention to the man frantically toggling switches and turning dials.

"Mr. Loewen, you need to stop. There's no way you'll have the power to blow up Arkham now."

The man momentarily abandoned his twiddling and fiddling as his jaw dropped.

"Arkham? Why would I want to blow up Arkham?"

Sensing the beginning of a massive tension headache, the redhead ignored the urge to pinch the bridge of her nose. Instead, she casually positioned another batarang in her lap as she moved a few feet closer to the befuddled man.

"Then why have you been firing at it?"

Barbara watched in disbelief as the balding man colored and affected what appeared to be an embarrassed laugh.

"Er, I wasn't aiming at the prison. I've just had a little trouble fine-tuning my atmospheric refraction coordinates. I'm attempting..."

At this, he busily returned to his twiddling, puffing up with pride.

"... to send a signal to Comet Machholz."

Aware of smoke beginning to waft from the laser's base, the older woman turned to check on her two younger partners. Dinah had freed Helena and was helping the brunette to her feet.

Then, wondering just when she'd stepped... or rolled... into the twilight zone, Barbara cocked her head to one side and inquired, with as much politeness as she could muster, "Send a signal to the comet...?"

Loewen temporarily halted his fiddling again and fixed her with a stare suggesting that he thought she might be a few bricks shy of a load in the intellect department.

"Well, yes, of course. So that they'll know that we got their signal."

Crimson brows began to climb up the older woman's forehead.

" 'They'?"

Once again, it appeared that her conversational skills had been reduced to parroting words back in the form of a question. Fortunately, the bespectacled man seemed too occupied by his attempts to coax more power to his device to notice.

"Yes, whoever sent the green satellite. You don't think that it's a real comet, do you?"

Barbara drew in a slow, fortifying breath and glanced behind the agitated man to her two companions. Helena was standing under her own power -- thank heavens for the younger woman's meta-human recuperative abilities -- and twirling her index finger in a circle by her temple. Not much inclined to disagree with the brunette's evaluation of Loewen's mental state, the redhead assessed the state of his laser.

The unit's buzzing had morphed into a high-pitched whine, and the cyber-genius suspected that one of two events was imminent: either a power surge which would take down the western grid or an earth-shattering ka-boom at their current location.

From the corner of her eye, she noticed the brunette inching forward, preparing to lunge at the inventor, and shook her head minutely. No telling what other nasty shocks he might have, and -- with the younger woman already weakened -- it wasn't worth the risk.

Instead, Barbara caught Dinah's eyes and inclined her head in question, glancing at the base of the laser. The blonde shrugged, then scrunched her eyes in concentration, hopefully having read her guardian's signal correctly and trying to isolate the motor in a TK "thought bubble". The redhead detected the barest blip in the unit's whining before she saw the teen stumble backward, almost falling into Helena's waiting arms.

It was the dark woman's low purr which whispered through the transceiver.

"Canary can't get through the power flow, Oracle."

Barbara nodded her comprehension, fingering the batarang on her lap as she attempted to identify the most likely spot to disable the laser without causing unforeseen, unpleasant results. Honing in on two circuits, she frantically searched for a hint about which would be better.

Why couldn't these mad scientists include labels like " Emergency Cutoff" on their devices?

She decided to give negotiation one last try.

"Mr. Loewen, you do not have the power -- "

The redhead pointedly ignored her younger partner, who was clearly mouthing "or the aim", and continued bluntly.

"-- to reach the com... er, satellite right now. If you don't power down, however, you will have an explosion on your hands."

The inventor visibly waffled before gesturing at the mess of melted plastic on his control panel and speaking plaintively.

"I couldn't if I wanted to. Besides, tonight is my last chance before it's out of reach and mankind loses it opportunity to--"

The grandiose declaration was interrupted by a ten-foot blue- green bolt of energy crackling from the base of the laser. Decision made, Barbara mentally crossed her fingers and flung her weapon. Almost in slow motion, the batarang arced through the air, unerring in its path toward the circuit which, the older woman hoped, would shut down the unit without blowing it up.

Twenty feet from the laser.

Ten feet.

Five feet.

Approximately eighteen inches from the unit, the weapon... wobbled, abruptly slowing its trajectory. Flipping in midair, one tip of the stylized batwing clicked lightly against the circuit board that Barbara had selected, neatly flicking the 9-volt battery she'd spied in the board to the ground. Instantly, with neither a bang nor a whimper, the entire unit simply... shut down.


The redhead barely refrained from pumping her fist in the air when she noticed Loewen's eyes widening incredulously behind thick lenses before beginning to -- of all things -- tear. The balding man sank slowly to his knees in the snow, burying his face in his hands, as Helena approached cautiously with a length of electrical cable in her hands.

Emerald eyes widened -- revenge had never been the brunette's style, but Loewen had been pretty brutal -- before the older woman verified that the wire wasn't attached to a power source. Several interesting knots and one anonymous call to the police later, the three crime fighters piled into the van and withdrew to where Helena had parked the Hummer to watch two police cruisers roar by.

"How crazy could he be, thinking that the comet -- "

"Forget that, D," Helena smoothly interrupted, " How bad could his aim be?"

Relief and release coursing through her, Barbara laughed brightly.

"It would seem that your guess earlier today about compensating for the curvature of the earth wasn't too far off, Hel."

Two pairs of blue eyes fixed on her disbelievingly, and the redhead clarified.

"More precisely, the atmosphere around it."

She waited as her proteges digested that idea, observing some pointed eye-rolling from Helena and a slow nod from Dinah.

"Do you think the laser really could have, uh, escaped the atmosphere?"

The cyber-crime fighter considered the teen's question carefully.

"I doubt it, Dinah. Even light needs a great deal more velocity than Loewen was generating."

The other member of their party summarily ended the impromptu science lesson.

"Speaking of velocity, Kid..."

Helena swung open the passenger door and dangled the keys to the Humvee in front of the blonde.

"... think you can keep it under ninety on the way back?"

Dinah clambered over the brunette and snagged the keys on her way out, then obligingly headed toward the boxy SUV. After opening the door, she turned, and the redhead felt heat creeping up her cheeks in response to the pointed look being directed her way.

" I'm not the one you need to worry about."

Barbara waited patiently as her dark companion cracked up at the comment, nearly rolling out the open door in her glee. Only after Helena had collected herself enough to shut the door did the older woman put the van in gear. Allowing Dinah to lead, she bit her tongue and pulled sedately onto the road, acutely aware of twinkling blue eyes fixed on her.

"Well, now we know the real reason you're not out in the field more, Red."

Helpless to stop herself, the older woman heard herself asking, "Why is that, Hel?".

"Too many speeding tickets."

The suggestion of a smile played over the redhead's features, but Barbara opted to ignore the dig. Instead, she serenely reached out and powered on the sound system. Two chords later, the hint of a blush which Dinah's comment had evoked transformed into a full-blown riot of color in response to her companion's disbelieving exclamation.

"You hot-rodded out to rescue me blasting Queen on the stereo, Barbara?!"

This time, the older woman's smile was full and supremely self- satisfied.

"I found it... inspirational, Sweetie."

Without another word, she picked up the familiar words, joined -- a few beats later -- by her partner.

We are the champions - my friends
And we'll keep on fighting - till the end -
We are the champions -
We are the champions
No time for losers
'cause we are the champions - of the world...

Chapter 20

Smoldering heat. Musky silkiness. Divine wetness.

Sweeping brushes. Rough circular touches. Long, languorous strokes.

Through thick hair and across her scalp. Over the full sweep of her back. Across the curve of her stomach.

And still more... more heat... more driving wetness.

No doubt about it, few experiences could rival a completely self- indulgent, leisurely shower. Especially one complemented by vanilla musk bath gel and a long-handled loofah brush.

Shaking the fall of wet red hair from her eyes, Barbara reconsidered that thought.

Judging from the dwindling supply of hot water -- and her own internal clock -- perhaps she had overindulged just a bit. Still, the redhead rationalized as she made a final pass with the loofah, the heat did feel wonderful after her stint in the cold and snow at Loewen's place a few hours earlier.

Unquestionably, while the Ducati had been fun and exciting -- and sexy as all hell -- empirical wisdom clearly revealed the advantages of a nice, warm, enclosed van on a night like this.

Smirking at herself and debating whether she should apply for her retirement pension yet, the crimson-haired crime fighter finally shut off the water and grabbed her towel from the low hook just outside the oversized shower stall. She efficiently buffed her upper body, then put herself through the minor contortions required for her lower half. It had taken over eighteen months after the shooting before she'd been proficient enough with the process to avoid unknown drips and wet spot on her clothes; at this point, it was simply habit.

Still seated in her shower chair, she slid into her boxers, then finally transferred herself to her chair and ruthlessly attacked her hair with a second towel. Barbara just didn't feel like blow drying, so vigorous toweling would have to suffice. Granted, the whole mess would probably resemble a disgruntled hedgehog after sleeping on it, but she didn't recall any appointments with visiting dignitaries on her calendar for the morning.

Satisfied with the relative dryness of the heavy mane, she pulled on her tee shirt and turned off the bathroom light before opening the door to her bedroom and quietly approaching her bed. The small lamp on the side table softly illuminated the room and the soundly sleeping young woman in the bed. Helena, exhausted and still recovering from her ordeal at Loewen's hands, had grabbed a quick shower and retired a few hours earlier. Now, she was sprawled across the big bed, wrapped possessively around Barbara's pillow.

A crimson brow quirked in amusement as the older woman regarded the scene. Helena certainly looked adorable, however there was a question about where she'd be able to fit herself on the bed, given the brunette's diagonal, center-of-the-mattress location. The redhead decided that a rear approach might work best and slid onto the edge of the mattress.

The slight movement seemed to rouse the younger woman, who shifted minutely, arching her belly forward in a sleepy stretch. The action thrust her backside up and into sharp relief in the muted light. Amazed, and a little overwhelmed, Barbara noticed her mouth watering, her nostrils flaring as she inhaled sharply at the vision of firm flesh straining against the pale yellow, high-cut underwear.

Shocked by the strength and the sheer... immediacy of her response, she worked frantically to organize her thoughts and categorize her questions, ultimately deciding that, indeed, the whole "woman thing" did not seem to be much of an issue. Pondering, the analytical woman remained utterly still for a good thirty seconds until a sleepy voice broke into her thoughts.

"Breathe, Barbara."

The redhead accepted the advice with a self-depreciating smile and pushed herself down on the bed, spooning tightly behind the slender brunette. Wrapping an arm around her bedmate's waist, she murmured, "I didn't mean to wake you, Hel. I know you're tired."

She felt, rather than heard, Helena's chuckle.

"What about you, Red? Roaring in to save my ass like that...?"

Conflicted by her dismay that a rescue had been required and by her satisfaction in having effected said rescue, the older woman pressed a lingering kiss to a sharp shoulder blade. She decided to keep matters light.

"I happen to believe that your ass is eminently worthy of rescue."

The brunette wriggled a little in her embrace, and Barbara glanced down to confirm that Helena had, in fact, pressed the area of her anatomy in question tightly against her upper thighs. For some reason, the vision seemed to evoke a sharp spasm in her lower abdomen, but, of course, that would be impossible...

"Still," the younger woman tangled her fingers with the older woman's against her stomach as she continued unhurriedly, "it was pretty butch of you, Babs."

It was Barbara's turn to chuckle softly. Her reply was arch.

"Shall I fetch my leather jacket, Helena?"

Instead of the laughter or provocative rejoinder she'd expected, there was absolute silence for several seconds. Finally, the younger woman twisted her upper body in the circle of Barbara's arms, twinkling blue eyes catching green.


A tiny laugh tickled over her lips even as the older woman felt heat begin to suffuse her upper body. Surprisingly, this didn't seem to be one of her usual blushes.

Perhaps she needed to reconsider that Sword & Leather convention, after all.

Helena wriggled again, ending up facing the redhead, grinning impishly.

"It was a little possessive, Barbara. That whole 'Get the fuck away from my woman or I'll kick your ass' speech."

This time, the redhead determined that the heat touching her cheeks was definitely a blush. Nevertheless, she laughed again.

"And, don't you forget it, Sweetie."

Again, she'd expected a chuckle or a suggestive comment. Therefore, her partner's response didn't just surprise her; it floored her.

Blue eyes, achingly open and hopeful, met green. A soft, utterly happy smile crept over gamine features before transforming smoothly into something soft and... wanting. Dark lashes fluttered closed, and Barbara lost the power to breathe when Helena ducked to rub the top of her head lightly against her chin.

Struggling for oxygen -- something to kick start her brain -- the redhead whispered, just loudly enough to hear herself over the younger woman's rumbling purr, "Helena?"

The smaller woman sinuously pulled back a few inches and met her searching gaze.

"I've always been yours, Barbara. I've just been waiting for you."

Without further ado, the brunette captured the older woman's lips for a long, warm kiss. When the two finally separated, the redhead found herself, again, breathless and... hungry for more. Fully cognizant of the implications of her reaction, she concentrated on calming her breathing, on slowing her trip-hammering heart.

"I think I've finally gotten it, Hel."

The dark woman smoothly turned them both, supporting herself with an arm on each side of the older woman. Green eyes widened helplessly as the sensual woman laved the side of her neck with warm, wet strokes.

Definitely something which was better than a hot shower.

"You will," Helena whispered, the thick heat in her words causing Barbara's functioning muscles to twitch in reflex.

For a delicious moment, the redhead forgot herself, arching her neck to the amazing contact. Regrettably, her conscience followed her.

"You... you should rest... sleep."

Unbelievable how difficult it had been to put together that semblance of a sentence.

The dark head raised, and Barbara was pinned by a disbelieving stare.

"I'm not tired."

Lifting one hand from her lover's strong shoulder, the redhead smiled softly at the faintly petulant words and traced her index finger over the younger woman's perpetually raised left eyebrow.

"Sweetheart, you had a rough time tonight..."

The brunette cut her off with a purring smile. That smile, Barbara realized with a flutter somewhere in her chest, held a great deal of dark knowledge.

"I just had a catnap."

Blue eyes twinkled.

" 'Sides, I'm feeling kind of... charged up."

The older woman couldn't stop the chuckle which spilled over her lips; however, when Helena shifted slightly, a teasing flicker against her ear neatly ended the sound, replacing it with a choked inhalation.

"Now..." the younger woman continued with a sharp nip at her earlobe, "I want..."

The brunette's speech seemed to be becoming disjointed. Or, perhaps, Barbara posited, it was her own powers of comprehension which were failing.

"I need..."

The redhead felt sharp teeth grasp her shoulder where it met her neck, and the other woman playfully shook her head from side to side.

"... dessert."

Winding her fingers through chestnut hair, the older woman distantly considered the... request. While Helena had consumed a fair portion of the two large pizzas they'd picked up on the way back -- given her own activities of the evening, the redhead hadn't even balked at triple cheese on both -- the young woman had foregone her usual after-dinner sweets. Claiming that she was "a little tired", the brunette had grabbed her duster, preparing to return to her apartment. Two words from Barbara -- "Stay, Hel." -- had seamlessly diverted the dark vigilante's steps from the balcony to the bedroom.

Regardless, the redhead wasn't sure that this was exactly what she'd had in mind for the night. Helena did have amazing recuperative powers, but... but...

A powerful suction just below her ear gave Barbara's body the opportunity to weigh in with its opinion on the matter. The surprisingly loud moan which had just echoed through the dimly lit room had been hers.

"What about...", she gave it one more try, "...Dinah?"

Caramel features bobbed into view, dark brows waggling naughtily.

"If we keep her awake, she can always sleep on the plane tomorrow."

The older woman cast about for any other sort of impediment while the brunette drew random trails up Barbara's arms, across her chest, and around her clavicle. Warm fingers slid under the hem of her tee -- to the detriment of her concentration, the redhead distantly noted -- and ghosted circles around her navel. Blue eyes remained fixed on the movement of her hand as the younger woman seemed to speak to herself.

"I want you, Barbara. I need to touch you, to taste you."

Oddly, in that she was already horizontal in the security of her own big bed, the older woman felt herself falling, vertigous in the face of the naked desire in the blue eyes which rose to meet hers. She was trapped in quicksand, in a shifting, enveloping cocoon of heat and sensation drawing her inexorably into its depths. Flailing against the erotic inertia, she cupped her partner's face with her hands and gently drew her down, bringing them eye to eye, nose to nose, mouth to mouth.

"Yes. I want you, too, Helena."

Tenderly claiming that lush mouth with hers, tracing cupid's bow lips, Barbara slid the younger woman's tank up. Helena pulled away long enough for the redhead to yank the material over her head, then the brunette swooped down to her neck. The older woman arched into the harsh pull against her flesh, soon finding herself urgently thrusting her upper body under her lover. She roughly pushed against the smaller woman's shoulders.

"Help me up."

The younger woman gracefully shifted, sliding a hand behind Barbara's back and unobtrusively supporting her as the redhead tore her own shirt over her head, tossing it to the far side of the room. Even as she ignored her own self- castigation -- too far to reach that in an emergency -- the older woman pulled on slender shoulders as she fell back, wordlessly asking...

Wordless at the sight of Helena hungrily licking her lips, at the vision of golden eyes traversing her bare flesh.

The brunette hovered above her, lightly brushing against her chest with velvet skin before taking her weight on one arm and again tracing random trails of fire. Somehow, Barbara's heart was beating faster and slower at the same time in response to the teasing paths that her partner made across her belly and arms, at the kisses whispered against her elbows, at the flicker of a tongue in the hollow of her navel. The brush of red lips across the heavy swells of her breasts caused the redhead's nipples to tighten, stiffening as if to meet those lips which offered so much.

Abandoning her efforts to guide -- or even to guess her lover's next move, Barbara surrendered to sensation, stroking her fingers softly across Helena's shoulders and back, twining through dark silk. Aroused in a way that she'd never experienced, the redhead found herself pressing tiny, hard kisses to the dark woman's hair, her arms, her face... any portion of the younger woman which flowed into reach. The sweetly saline musk of her companion's skin permeated her senses, and she licked her lips in search of more.

Dear heavens, how she wanted to... consume her lover.

On one slow pass of soft lips and wet tongue, the older woman's mouth came in contact with the long column of her partner's throat, precisely as Helena's wickedly meandering hand looped a fluttering figure eight around her chest. Well past decorum or propriety, Barbara grabbed her lover's wrist, dragging her hand to the site of her need.

"Please, Sweetheart -- "

It was all that she could manage before closing her teeth in a delicate vise over the brunette's pulse point.

It was enough.

Barbara arched under her partner's convulsive grip, under the long-delayed, wonderful pressure. Her upper back torqued, and she rose weightless in response to the urgent thrust of her lover's hips against her.

"Oh, fuck... yeah..."

Helena's voice was thick with sin... and want.


There was no recourse but to cede to her lover's plea. Barbara bit harder, sucking deeply, thrilling to the hammering pulse under her tongue, to her partner's growling whine, to the damp heat being spread against her side with Helena's every thrust.

She needed more... to touch...

Barbara snaked a hand between them, gasping when the brunette abruptly reared back. Green eyes wide in disbelief, she watched the dark woman lean in, gasping again at a soft nip against a diamond peak.

How tightly swollen could she get?

The older woman's fleeting ruminations about spontaneous implosion of erectile tissue vanished when Helena caught her gaze. The younger woman's face was hard, tense.

Barbara suspected that it nearly rivaled her own tension.

"Will you turn over?"

The brunette's voice was breathy and ragged, and Barbara's chest ached in sympathy.

"Will you let me help you turn over?"

Frankly, at that point, Barbara realized that she didn't care if the brunette wanted to suspend her upside down from the ceiling with her therabands. Anything... anything as long as she didn't stop.

She nodded, unnecessarily, while she twisted her upper body, aware of her partner shifting her lower half. Crossing her arms beneath her chin, the redhead felt the mattress dip, heard rustling, and peered over her shoulder in question. The younger woman had just completed the process of kicking her underwear off and was crawling up the bed to rest with her hips over the redhead's thighs.

Detecting the glint of moisture in the thicket of dark curls hovering inches above her own skin, Barbara slowly shut her eyes, completely overwhelmed. The sensation of warm fingers playing at the elastic waist of her boxers and a hushed question -- "May I?" -- coaxed green eyes open again, and the redhead nodded.

Barbara felt herself lifted, the movement levering her torso down fractionally into the mattress. The soft cotton scraped against her nipples like sandpaper, and she dimly wondered when her 300-thread count Egyptian cotton had become so rough.

And then, then...

All questions faded because Helena was finally fully on her, chest pressing against her back, hands insinuating under her to claim her breasts. Both women moaned, Barbara arching her neck back, her lover thrusting her chest and belly down.

"Dear... heavens... Hel..."

On the horns of a dilemma, the older woman remained locked in a rictus of her own pleasure. She fervently wanted to grind herself deeper onto those knowing hands beneath her. On the other hand, so to speak, she experienced a nearly overwhelming need to push upward against the heavy swells and puckered flesh touching her back. With her entire upper body seemingly enveloped in delirious sensation, Barbara could only attempt to hold strong against the nearly terrifying onslaught of her own arousal.

Soft lips grazed her ear -- "Soon..." whispering across her flesh -- and she twisted her head, hoping to catch her lover's mouth. The brunette's sharp chin raked her shoulder before a warm tongue danced against hers.

"Fu-- Barbara... I--"

A rumbling growl interrupted the other woman, reverberating through the older woman's back and tickling her chest from within.

"I need to taste you..."

With that, the delicious pressure on her back disappeared, leaving the older woman biting her lower lip in frustration. A split second later, the mourned sensation was replaced by the press of full lips, the scrape of sharp teeth, the wash of a wet tongue. The younger woman's oral assault was, again, apparently haphazard -- her younger partner always had been wont to go where her desires dictated -- and all-the- more maddening for it. The redhead found herself whimpering as her lover nipped at her neck, washed the ticklish flesh on her side, flickered her tongue into the cavern of her underarm. She arched into a slow, sensuous bath of her spine which terminated with a protracted soul kiss at the small of her back.

There was no way to predict... or to guess. Unable to see, the relentlessly analytical woman quieted her brain's insistent desire to know, jumping when the brunette drew one hand from her chest and added the dance of slender fingers to the sensory cacophony.

Eventually, Barbara felt the lithe figure moving lower, and she drew her upper and lower lips between her teeth to hold back her whimper when the sensation of sweet kisses simply... ended. Hit by a wave of frustration and panic, the redhead pushed up on her elbows and looked back.

Even as the brunette continued the delicate strokes of her hands against Barbara's back and chest -- where she could feel -- Helena was slowly tracing her mouth along the back of her right leg. The older woman's eyes narrowed at the vision of her lover pressing an open-mouthed kiss to her knee, washing her calf muscle, then lowering herself to rub her cheek against her instep.


The purring command left Barbara no option. She stared in amazement as her partner shifted to her knees, dragging her hands down the length of her legs to raise the right foot... enough, just enough, to rub her chest sleekly against the uncalloused sole. Pressing a soft kiss to the instep, the brunette slowly lowered her leg, and green eyes widened at the image of her lover rocking forward, curling her arms around her abdomen with a shuddering gasp.

How could... just... that affect Helena so?

Recognizing that, in her current state, her brain couldn't do justice to the question, Barbara turned to look over her other shoulder while the younger woman resumed her leisurely explorations on her left leg. She gasped in sympathy with her partner's hiss of pleasure when she dragged her hips across Barbara's ankle, wishing -- oh, how she wished -- that she could have felt the motion. When Helena neared the flesh of her hips, the brunette slowed, nosing the juncture of the older woman's thighs before drawing higher to press her breasts roughly against her ass.

The redhead bitterly noted that only the slight dip of the mattress gave her any physical indication of the unbearably erotic movement she'd just witnessed. Arousal and frustration at war within her, the older woman's voice was tight.

"What... what are you doing, Hel?"

Golden eyes met hers, flickering to blue, then back to gold in a heartbeat.

"I'm loving you, Barbara."

Despite all of her not-inconsiderable upper body strength, Barbara's arms turned to wet noodles at the soft reply. She lowered herself to the bed, then -- frustrated by being an observer -- reached back and down, desperately catching the other woman's shoulder with one hand.

"Helena, I... I need you, too."

Her lover shifted, pressing a ghost kiss to her forearm before slender fingers brushed her lips. Barbara opened her mouth in reflex just as the wetness, the intimate scent of her companion registered.

"Oh, god, Sweetheart--"

The older woman sucked her lover's first two fingers into her mouth over her throaty moan, hungrily lapping at an ambrosia she'd never thought... or dreamed... that she could want like this.

Of course, she'd tasted her own essence, but this... Why hadn't she known... or how could she ever have doubted...? How could she not have understood how the intimate taste of this beloved woman would unravel her so?

Closing her mouth over her soft "Oh" of surprise, the redhead sucked deeply at the slender digits, taking her partner within. She stroked her tongue along the underside of the joined fingers, fluttering the seam where they met, then insinuating between them. The symbolism of her action dizzied her and, apparently, didn't escape her younger partner.

A warm body flowed up her side; full lips brushed her ear.

"Turn over?"

Barbara finally released her lover's hand, twisting eagerly to grasp the brunette's shoulders and dragging the younger woman in for a ravenous kiss. While their tongues pirouetted, she clasped the rich flesh of her partner's hips, pulling upward with intent.

"Please, Hel," she whispered through their gulping contact, "I want my mouth on you."

The movement against her mouth slowed and gentled, ending with a delicate back and forth brushing of full lips against hers.

"Soon, Red..."

Green eyes blinked in consternation. Barbara decided that she was developing a marked antipathy toward that word.

Loving kisses fluttering over her cheeks soothed her ire. The sweep of a tender hand over her chest made her forget it altogether.

Arching to the touch, nearly incoherent in her pleasure, she could only wait...


The question was low, tickling her skin like champagne bubbles. The beginning and ending "R" of the word burred together through the brunette's growl.

"Remember what I need?"


The cyber-genius cast about, discovering that under some circumstances, her memory was apparently more fallible than she'd presumed.

"Sweetheart? What--?"

Warm fingers lightly swept over her belly, the sensation vanishing almost painfully when the brunette ventured below Barbara's waist. The memory returned with a vengeance as Helena whispered in her ear.

"In you, Barbara. So deep..."

The older woman raised her head to see, confirming the play of a tan hand at the top of her thighs. That inexplicable flutter returned to her lower abdomen, and -- wildly -- she allowed herself to hope.

Perhaps... perhaps, this time.

She wanted this so much, more than she'd ever wanted anything... Maybe, this time, when it really meant something... Mind -- and heart -- could triumph over matter.

"You're so fuckin' wet... So hot."

The brunette's voice was breathy and ragged, and when Barbara looked up again, she was stunned by the avid rapture suffusing caramel features. When the younger woman deliberately raised her hand to her own mouth, the redhead shivered at her partner's soft groan as she delicately sampled the moisture amply coating her fingers.

"You taste amazing..."

Overwhelmed, Barbara tracked the descent of slim fingers on her body, distantly registering the words her lover breathed against her throat.

"You... I can't tell you how good you feel... Perfect."

For the life of her, the redhead wished that, if only for one instant, she could tell. How she wished that she could feel her partner's divine touch.

She watched, her throat tightening over the thickness of suppressed tears. She wanted -- dear god, her body wanted this touch; her soul craved this union. Yet, faced with the reality before her eyes, Barbara felt that she was being buried alive, encased in an immobilizing cast as the molten heat of her passion cooled.

More aroused, and more emotionally connected to a moment than she'd ever -- ever -- dreamed, she was still a damned spectator to her partner's lovemaking.

Fixing on her breathing, the older woman worked to do what she did best: she focused. Barbara Gordon resolutely focused on the reality of nerves which could feel, which were still singing from the brush of velvet skin against her side. She concentrated on her lover's rapt expression and slow, reverent explorations, on the soft trembling of her partner's jaw and the minute aroused whimpers against her neck. She reflected on this moment and the reality of finally -- finally -- reaching this place with the other woman.

It could be... it was enough. It was more than Barbara had ever considered, much less hoped for.

It would have been enough, that is, until Helena moaned her pleasure -- just from touching? -- and the low, thick reverberations caused the older woman's nipples to tighten, forced her belly to clench. And Barbara was struck anew by the force of her want.

A starving woman at a feast, she averted her gaze, stroking her hands lightly over her lover's shoulders.

"Stay... Oh, please, stay. Be with me, Barbara."

It took the redhead a beat to hear, then decode, the words. Wet green eyes searched the younger woman's face.

"Yeah... With me, Red."

Barbara gaped when the brunette reached up, gently lifting her hand from a slender shoulder, and guided her down the lithe woman's torso. Down, down to impossible heat and wetness and softness.

Cautiously she touched, barely parting silken folds, awed by the textures and flavors racing from her fingertips, through the nerves of her arms, to her heart.

Under her hand -- just her hand, lightly exploring this new and amazing landscape -- Helena hissed and bucked. The dark head rose, eyes glinting feverishly, and something fierce reared up within the older woman. Barbara moaned and stroked more deeply, more confidently, in time to her partner's rough plea.

"Yeah, Red. Sh-- show me."

Crimson brows furrowed.

How could she possibly show her decidedly more experienced partner...?

Disbelieving, she saw the brunette's slender hand dance into her range of vision, and she followed its progress back to her own center.

"Show me, Barbara."

Helena's words were high and earnest.

"Show me what you're feeling... what you want to feel."

"Oh, heavens... Sweetheart."

The redhead thought the exclamation had been hers. Given the pounding pulse in her ears, the audible rush of fire throughout her body, she simply couldn't be certain. There was no longer anything frozen... or fixed in place; molten heat coursed through her body, swelling her abdomen and chest.

Barbara thrust deeply, transfixed as she watched the movement mirrored; and her arousal waxed even as her uncertainty in this new terrain waned. The brunette dropped her chin to her chest, a wicked snarl painting her face. Her next words were uneven, gasped between their shared touches.

"Damn, Bar-- bara. I didn't know -- uh -- I... I was that good."

The older woman's laugh was a release of it's own, unfettering the final tendrils of fear and sorrow, opening ample space for less familiar -- and much more welcome -- sensations and emotions.

Stroking confidently, she purred, "Oh, you are, Hel. Most definitely... you are."

Long, wonderful minutes later, happily enmeshed in boneless lassitude and fully blanketed on one side by her own human blast furnace, Barbara considered her words, determining that, indeed, there could be no doubt that Helena was that good. Even if the earth hadn't quite moved, the redhead had definitely felt some shifting.

Somehow, in the process, she'd effortlessly found a new footing.

The thought elicited a soft chuckle, and a tousled head rose fractionally from the pillow of her chest.

"What's funny, Red?"


Barbara pressed a lingering kiss to dark silk while she formulated a way to explain.

"Well, Sweetheart, I was just thinking that, perhaps, we should get matching tattoos."