FANDOM: Birds of Prey TV
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 period of time. Song lyrics don't belong to me either; no profit gained or infringement intended. Adult language and sexual situations.
SEQUENCE/INSTALLMENT NOTE: This is the second extension to the "Elemental" series and follows Veneer. You probably should read those stories to follow this one (http://www.ralst.com).
SUMMARY: Reflections of loss and change, cause and effect, when everything old is new again.
COMMENTS:Please. Constructive comments and suggestions welcome; after all, this story sprang from a suggestion from LisaM.
ARCHIVING: Probably. Please ask.
"Nummmmerrr wunnnn fannnn."
The words rang a bell, but, try as she might, Barbara Gordon simply couldn't put her finger on them. Given her tendency to experience life through the written word, she suspected that they came from a book; however, the mystery of their origin, not to mention her mild curiosity about her inability to delve into her infallible memory, simply failed to engage her.
Prodding at the possibilities, she drifted in a grey haze before the sensation of falling jerked her to herself. Heart trip-hammering from the sleep-induced sensation, she gradually recognized that that she needed to place not just the words but herself: specifically, where, when, what, and -- most pressing -- why she couldn't seem to pry her eyelids open.
No doubt or denial: Barbara Gordon loathed losing track of herself; her surroundings; time and memory. As analytical as she was, not to mention a lifetime ingrained by precision recall, she had to allow that this particular peccadillo wasn't unsurprising. Back in the day, the few lucky shots which had knocked her for a loop or, worse yet, resulted in a loss of consciousness had always left her feeling violated and vulnerable in a way that her partners never seemed to grasp: For Bruce and Dick, the spinning circle of stars around the head or an unplanned trip to la-la land was all part of the game; they trusted a partner to catch their back, shook it off, and got on with things. For Barbara, the disorientation -- space and time -- was never easy to shake.
Catching herself meandering along that particular neural primrose path, the redhead grit her teeth at her lack of concentration, then brightened at the realization that, indeed, perhaps she had been knocked out during an altercation with some Big, Dumb, and Ugly. After all, if that were the case, she'd soon pull herself together and be back in the game...
"If you can't get the number one fan up and running soon, we'll have to close down recovery room five."
With another jarring thud, this one purely emotional, it all came back: Not merely the origin of the phrase which had first penetrated her fogged consciousness but her own particular situation.
She was not, as she'd briefly entertained with entirely false cheer, merely flattened by some do-gooder action. Bitterly, she determined that the probable outcome of that scenario -- having some mega-baddie return to pound on her further -- was nothing but a faint, fond hope.
It was the smell, of course, which clinched matters: The unmistakable and unforgettable odor of bleach-stenched sheets. Still unable, perhaps unwilling, to open her eyes, she inhaled again, confirming the prevalent peroxide and antiseptic scent which seemed indelibly branded in her olfactory memory. A further sensory exploration determined that she'd been correct: the rough texture of sheets washed threadbare was evidence which she really didn't need.
A trickle of something cold and dank crawled up her throat at the realization that matters were amiss: the sensation of sandpaper cotton disappeared somewhere above her legs.
Her brain suddenly jump-starting, Barbara permitted memories of a previous hospital visit to nibble at the edges of her consciousness. Had her throat not been tender from what she presumed had been intubation, she might have laughed. Instead, she gathered her fragmented wits and took inventory as best she could through a series of isometric stretches.
Arms, tense, with the sensation of something pulling at the skin and prickling her nerves. IV needles taped into each, probably.
Stomach, oddly stiff and rigid.
This time, despite the rawness, a snort escaped her.
Obviously, she hadn't traveled back in time to relieve that little hospitalization. So, just what....
"You're in recovery, Barbara, and doing fine."
The voice, belonging to the woman who had been leading the fan club, distracted her and calmed her marginally. With a surprising amount of effort, she pried open her eyes, immediately regretting the action when bright fluorescents temporarily blinded her.
"Wha -- "
Her voice was as rough as her throat felt, but the nurse -- as Barbara assumed her to be when she finally blinked the gaudily colored scrubs into a semblance of focus -- grasped her intent.
"Your surgery didn't take as long as Dr. Casey thought, so you're still a bit under the anesthesia."
Green eyes blinked rapidly, and the bright lights above her prismed behind the moisture suddenly rimming her eyes..
So, it was done. Small wonder that her brain had resisted bringing that little reality -- the deliberate action which had taken her child and her womb -- to the fore.
The nurse's continuing reassurances distracted her.
The somewhat incongruous observation that her nurse bore a striking similarity to Kathy Bates was a more effective distraction, providing as it did a tangential thought that it might be time to revisit her collection of Stephen King novels.
"We'll be taking you back to your room soon. Try to rest."
Barbara smiled her thanks. Rather, she thought she had, however her eyes had already drooped shut and the words she heard -- something about Helena waiting, something about news -- could have been her own dreams.
It was movement which roused her from the black filaments of unconsciousness the second time. The sound of rubber wheels on linoleum quickly refreshed her memory, allowing her to avoid her earlier recriminations about being non compos mentos, and a more practical urge to escape the somnolent lethargy followed on the heels of recognition.
Unsurprisingly, the first person she heard when her bed finally came to a stop in the cramped private room was Helena. Barbara wriggled her eyebrows, attempting to increase the blood flow to her brain, distantly aware of someone murmuring a reassurance to her partner.
Despite her resolve to pull it together -- Helena was clearly worried -- Barbara thought she'd drifted again when a lovely frisson of awareness, the sense of a cat-footed approach, finally encouraged her to open her eyes. Had she not anticipated her lover's proximity, her sheer poised expectancy beside her, the redhead thought she might have jumped.
As it was, she forced the left side of her mouth upward in a half-smile while squinting to focus at such close range.
Whatever cocktail they'd hit her with for the surgery was clearly effective: she hadn't had this much trouble focusing in ages. Of course, given the area where they'd operated, they could have saved her insurance the cost and herself the aggravation by simply making do with her own permanent anesthesia.
A tender brush of soft, full lips against her jaw forced Barbara to abandon that all-too-familiar consideration.
Barbara clenched her jaw, absolutely refusing to react to the soft words: while the endearment was bitter salt on her wounds, she knew that the younger woman meant it to be reassuring. With an effort of will, she turned into the caresses and forced a full smile to her lips. Immediately, she was glad she'd made the effort: without looking down, she could feel the tension falling away from her companion.
"Drugs really knocked you for a loop, huh?"
Barbara hoped she hid her relief when the brunette withdrew a bit, finally allowing her to bring bright blue eyes into focus.
"When you wake up a little, Dr. Casey want to talk to us."
Swallowing against the pain in her throat, Barbara mentally calculated just where on her short list of things she didn't want to do a visit with her oncologist might lie.
Close to the top.
Guilt welling through her, she jerked against the tubing attached to her and pushed roughly at the covers folded neatly at her waist. To her credit, Helena didn't even blink at the sudden movement.
Slender fingers captured her wrist, the grip gentle but intractable, and the redhead worked not to thrash against another denial.
"Let me help."
Her chest hitched once, perhaps a ticklish response to her lover's hands carefully raising the rough sheet and the laughably thin blanket. There was no sensation of course when her gown was pushed to the side, revealing the blood-dotted bandage, secured by neatly aligned steristrips, across her lower abdomen.
Aware of Helena's wordless question, Barbara nodded once, using the motion to look away from a sight which was too damned familiar. While the other woman resettled her covers, she focused on the veritable greenhouse of flowers bedecking her room, wondering why -- after eight years -- The Joker still had the power to do this to her.
"Barbara, I'm... "
Helena's voice was soft, but terribly, terribly rough.
"You're gonna be okay, Red."
Those expressive features seemed to crumble, but the lapse was so brief that Barbara could have missed, or ignored, it. In the face of her partner's pain, she managed another soft smile and a single word.
Perhaps a stiff shot of caffeine -- something she'd been limiting for the last few months -- would help her shake off the grogginess, permit her to analyze just what she was feeling. Barbara was gratified that her request also had the ancillary benefit of easing the visible tension from the younger woman's shoulders, and a patented ten thousand watt Helena Kyle smile illuminated the room.
"Guess you deserve that. Triple espresso?"
Her smile genuine, Barbara nodded briefly, aware that that size jolt of caffeine, after she'd been limiting herself so virtuously, should have her awake for the next week.
Helena straightened and took a step toward the door before turning with an impish twinkle in her eyes.
"You want that directly in your IV?"
Quirking a brow, the older woman kept it brief.
"A straw or a sippy cup will be fine, Hel."
With a wink and wave, the brunette soundlessly exited the room, and Barbra floated again, delaying as long as possible her return to rational reality. The swish of her door opening recalled her, and she turned, plastering on a smile which was only a little forced.
The thought of the coffee was, after all, an incentive of sorts.
The sight of a scrubs-clad hospital worker allowed her to drop the pretense, bringing with it a reminder of her dislike of all things "hospital". Even the nurses and occasional doctor wearing bright scrubs didn't make it any better, and in the case of this particularly garish black and white and red checkerboard combination...
That thought derailed and her heart trip-hammered when Barbara recognized how very specialized these particular scrubs were. She blinked rapidly, working ineffectually to push up against her pillows as the door clicked shut behind her visitor. The gaudily-clad woman cocked her head from the doorway before raising one hand in a fluttering wave.
"Now, now, Barbara. You need to settle down. You can't be feeling too good after what you've been through."
Trapped in her bed, Barbara suspected that the words' effectiveness was lessened by the treacle in the speaker's voice. And, the chilling addendum which followed.
"Rather, dear Barbara, what you've been through so far."
That did the trick.
After everything she had been through, Barbara simply refused to accept what was before her eyes. Willing herself to be under the influence of the morphine dripping into her left arm, she nevertheless had to be certain. Her voice sounding like an idiotic croak to her own ears, she managed one word.
No answer was required for what Barbara conceded had been a purely rhetorical question. Nevertheless, in the spirit of most of the megalomaniac super villains Barbara had encountered through the years, Quinn couldn't resist an opportunity to make an entrance.
"One and the same, Barbara."
The blonde circumnavigated the small room, pushing the bedside table to one side almost absently.
"I was afraid that I'd aged a bit during my recent enforced hiatus, so it's especially gratifying that you recognized me so quickly."
Watching her guest warily, Barbara eschewed comment. Quite frankly, between her still drug-addled state and her complete shock, she wondered if she'd ever find words again. Her visitor didn't seem to notice, offering her a saccharine smile while she poured a glass of water from the flimsy pink plastic pitcher provided by the nursing staff when Barbara had checked in the night before. Tucking a straw into the styrofoam cup, the blonde pixie approached and extended the cup.
"There, there. Take a sip of this; you must be dehydrated after the surgery. And you simply must forgive me for not bringing flower in your unfortunate time, Barbara. I've simply had so much to plan and to do."
On auto-pilot, Barbara automatically accepted the water and sipped slowly, buying herself time to think. Once the liquid had cleared her raw throat, she peevishly acknowledged that Quinn had been right about re-hydrating: already her thoughts seemed clearer, giving her the opportunity to consider how the madwoman had been able to pinpoint her location and get into the hospital without raising any alarms.
The recent spate of criminal activity engineered by the deranged harlequin had subsided a bit in the last week, after Barbara had alerted authorities to the woman's escape from Arkham. Indeed, after the attack at the clock tower, which had caused all three of the vigilante crime fighters to forswear eggs for the duration, Barbara had allowed the woman's threats to fade to the background. With the rapid preparations needed for today's surgery, she'd allowed herself to hope that the increased police patrols in the city would keep matters in check.
Clearly an error of significant proportion on her part.
Lowering the cup, she went on the offensive.
"What are you doing here, Harley?"
Over-plucked blonde brows shot skyward, and the other woman's mouth moued.
"Not too gracious are we?"
Barbara permitted herself a soft sigh at the theatrics, but Quinn rattled on.
"Of course, having your body cut open and one of your last remnants of womanhood removed could make one cranky, couldn't it? Still..."
The tiny figure dropped lightly into the visitor's chair and smoothed her scrub top.
"... you might want to be a bit nicer."
Although she'd never considered herself to be particularly lacking in imagination, the redhead simply couldn't come up with a single reason that might compel her to feign hospitality. Accordingly, she suspected that her tone might have been the tiniest bit sour when she responded.
"And what possible reason might I have for wanting to be nice -- "
The word was laced with pure acid while Barbara frantically calculated how she could contact the authorities without tipping the lunatic off.
The call button was beside her hip; if she casually juggled the water cup to her other hand, she might be able to cover a page for the nurse. Of course, assuming that someone on staff did respond before nightfall, she might very well be putting an innocent into the line of fire.
" -- to you?"
Quite possibly following her thought process -- Barbara had never denied that the woman was brilliant, not to mention a keen judge of human psychology -- Quinn rose from her perch on the edge of the chair and retrieved the call button. Unwinding the cable from the bed rail, the madwoman looked up, tsking cheerfully, and Barbara almost gagged at the bland malevolence present in her face.
"Let's just get this nasty cable out of the way, shall we?"
Blonde lashes fluttered playfully over chocolate brown eyes, and Quinn shook her head sadly toward the IV poles.
"You already have far too many things tethering you."
Coiling the cord neatly, Quinn moved the call button to the far side of the bedside table. Barbara's mixed emotions at the realization that she could still reach it -- if she stretched like hell and tore her stitches -- transformed to the pure adrenaline of fear when the other woman moved back to her side and ran one finger thoughtfully along one of the IV lines, tugging non-too-gently at the heplock.
"We want to be certain that we have access to all of these lines, don't we, Barbara?"
The sheer vulnerability of her position struck the redhead again: held together with bits of tape and thread, with her chair across the room, she was completely at the other woman's mercy until Helena returned. Swallowing her terrified fury, she added another black mark to her list of reasons to avoid hospitals and casually raised her cup to sip from the straw. With some moisture in her very dry mouth again, she inclined her head toward the chair in invitation.
"You still haven't told me why I would want to welcome your visit, Harley."
She gave herself a mental high five for the steadiness of her voice; however, her small victory vanished with a noisy pop when she heard the other woman's reply.
The blonde poured herself a cup of water from the pitcher and raised it in a toast.
"I am, quite probably, the last meta-being of legal drinking age who you'll be seeing for quite some time."
Given Quinn's long-standing fascination with Helena, not to mention her holographic rantings which Barbara had discovered the week before, the threat was clear enough. The hot rush of fury was instant.
"So help me, if you're planning to hurt Helena, I will personally see to it that you never see daylight again."
The former psychiatrist laughed gaily and stepped close to the bed, patting the redhead's hand.
"Oh, my, aren't you the brave one?"
Quinn twirled playfully and set her cup on the bedside table before smiling brightly.
"I must admit that as I've been licking my wounds about my sweet Mr. J the thought of harming our dear Helena has been a stumbling point."
The blonde raised one hand, tapping a sharp nail against her bottom lip.
"She was my favorite patient, after all. Opening up so many opportunities against you and such."
Green eyes glared, the cyber vigilante not bothering with a response. In true evil villain form, Quinn appeared not to require any encouragement as she continued her monologue.
"Still, sometimes it's simply necessary to... severe a therapeutic relationship, isn't it, Barbara?"
Once again, Quinn blinked coyly before strolling to the window. Simultaneously terrified and furious, Barbara ground out a question.
"What are you planning, Quinn?"
Voice almost gay, the blonde sprite needlessly adjusted the avocado green curtains.
"You know, I've always thought that these were simply too unsanitary for words in a hospital. Don't you agree?"
Quinn cocked her head, her movement birdlike and incongruously casual. Despite her agreement with the observation, Barbara refused to allow herself to be sucked into some sort of inane small talk with the person who was none-too-subtly threatening her partner.
With a supreme effort, she pushed at the rough sheets below her waist and pushed to a marginally more upright position. No longer feeling completely vulnerable -- amazing the difference three inches could make -- she fixed the other woman with another glare.
"Oh, my goodness," Quinn raised one hand to her chest in a display of dismay, "wouldn't that expression just break glass."
Clearly, the madwoman was determined to play things out in her own fashion. With a heavy sigh, Barbara waited out her cackling laughter, then summoned her best bored expression.
"Just get on with it, Quinn, and tell me what you're planning. I suspect that my HMO won't let me stay here forever."
This time, the blonde's laugh was more of a simper as she returned to the guest chair and settled on the edge again.
"Too true. Health care is simply deplorable these days."
Brown eyes pinned green, and Barbara shivered at the pure hate blazing within.
"The same is true for the penal system, if I do say so myself."
Her agreement genuine, the redhead nodded cautiously. Perhaps if she kept the other woman talking about her perceived wrongs and Barbara's role in them, Helena could catch her in the room. With her acute hearing, there was simply no way that the younger woman would miss the sound of Quinn's voice.
"But, I digress. We were, after all, talking about Helena."
Quinn stood again, energy almost visibly crackling off her.
"Trapped in that horrible prison after you'd arranged the untimely demise of my Sweet Puddin' -- "
For a split second, witnessing a flash of genuine sorrow in the other woman's features, Barbara almost pitied her. The emotion disappeared with alacrity as Quinn continued.
"-- well, I weighed numerous options to make you pay."
Gesturing toward the bed she was trapped in, the redhead had to interrupt.
"I believe that I have already paid more than enough."
Waving a hand dismissively, the tiny woman chuckled.
"Do you really think so, Barbara?"
"I do," the redhead ground out.
One blonde brow arched, and Quinn pursed her lips.
"Perhaps. Perhaps not."
The madwoman approached the bed slowly, forcing Barbara to think of some slinking, hypnotic animal ensnaring it's prey.
"As for our dear Helena, I realized that, at this point, I think we'd both have to agree that you're the only one who can truly hurt her, Barbara."
Aware that she was gaping at the other woman, she snapped her mouth shut.
"Yes, you, Barbara."
The blonde nodded sagely.
"You always have been too influential, too important, for the poor girl's own good."
Quinn batted her lashes and tapped her index finger against the metal of the bed rail.
"In my professional opinion, of course."
The words were dry as dust, but the other woman ignored the sarcasm.
"Nevertheless, there's simply so much more that I need you to feel."
Working for boredom again, Barbara drawled, "Some feelings are simply not an option for me any longer, Quinn."
The other woman's cackle of delight set her nerves on edge.
"Well, what you can't feel, Helena can. That's why, when I ran into her just before coming up here -- "
Quinn's finger continued to tap against the rail, creating a leaden beat to her words.
"--the last thing I told her before I ended her life..."
"Last -- ?"
Barbara's horrified gasp seemed to force the other woman to interrupt herself.
"Ah, ah. You're right, and accuracy is so important to you, isn't it, Barbara?"
Trying not to gnash her teeth in frustration, Barbara refused to accept what she was hearing.
"Do you really have anything to say, Quinn?"
"Indeed, I do," was the gaily lilting response as the blonde pixie trailed one hand along the steel rail.
"The penultimate thing I told her was how she was responsible for this little hospitalization of yours."
The blonde head tilted to the side, and Barbara nearly gagged at the saccharine sympathy being directed at her. Her own impotent rage at the possibility that Helena had learned the truth she simply pushed aside for later consideration.
"After all, hospitals have tied you two together, haven't they? It simply seemed so... appropriate to end things at one."
"I don't believe you."
And, in all honesty, Barbara didn't -- couldn't -- believe what the malevolent sprite was telling her.
"Tsk, tsk. Always the empiricist."
In a heartbeat, Quinn was leaning close, danging something from her fingers.
"I suspected you'd need some evidence."
Dismissively, the blonde straightened, and Barbara automatically extended her hand, palm up, gasping in recognition when the slender comms necklace which Helena had been wearing dropped into her hand. Her stomach performed a slow roll at the blood covering the links of the chain, but she realized that she'd have to play Quinn's game through.
"What was the last?"
"What was that, dear?"
Quinn spun gracefully, pushing the visitor's chair against the far wall.
"Oh, yes. The last thing I told your little pet was that I was on my way to visit you."
Taking her time, forcing herself to absorb the implications, Barbara finally heard her own voice, surprising in its complete lack of affect.
"Are you going to kill me now, Quinn?"
Eyes focused solely on the necklace in her hand, she didn't bother to look up. For some reason, whatever the other woman's answer might be didn't seem terribly important.
Pink and blue cotton candy. Soft and sweet and cloying.
Floating in a miasma of color and phantom sensation, Barbara had to concede that perhaps death wasn't too bad. Yet, something about the part of that thought seemed off.
Vexed by her seeming inability to take the afterlife as it was, she gave in to the need to prod at the word, deciding that, indeed, her eternal rest seemed less like sticky, soft cotton and more like scratchy steel wool, scraping against her elbows and ensnaring her in wiry tendrils.
Disorienting and dark and rough.
Perhaps the flip side of the afterlife?
Not entirely off put by the idea, she floated again. After all, she'd never claimed to be an angel, and at this point there was little she could do about cotton candy versus cotton wool.
The word, combined with the roughness against her skin, did the trick: she heard her own soft whimper as she reluctantly realized that it was threadbare hospital sheets tangled around her rather than the ethereal bonds of the afterlife. With a sharp jerk of her head, she reared into wakefulness, cold adrenaline flooding through her, wending down her spine and leaving her breathless.
Either her internal chronometer was terribly off, or she'd been out far longer than she dared contemplate.
Of course, she'd been sleeping.
Instantly, the tension evaporated, and Barbara breathed deeply again.
Leaping lizards, it had only been a dream.
More accurately, she found herself automatically correcting herself, a nightmare, undoubtedly brought on by anesthesia and guilt. Snorting softly, she disentangled her arms from the rough sheets, wryly acknowledging that nightmares born of loss and secrets were certainly no strangers.
"No way through it but to do it, Gord--"
Her little pep talk was cut short when she raised her hands to scrub at her eyes. In the face of the blood-stained comms unit still clenched in her palm, there was simply no way to hold on to the bright, shiny lie that it had all been a figment of an overactive imagination.
Choking back her horror, she noted that the blood on the unit had already dried and begun to crust. Scrabbling to push herself up against the head of the bed, she snapped her head toward the window, confirming that the shadow of the skyscape through those horrid green curtains had changed too much.
Too much time had passed. Too much time had evaporated since Helena had left for coffee, since she had tendered her hopeless question to the madwoman in her room.
She gave up on her hopeless battle with righting herself, the fist which still gripped Helena's necklace slamming against the rail of the bed. The physical jolt recalled her -- just enough -- and she clamped down on her panicked fury.
Her hand shook ever so slightly as she fumbled for the button to raise the bed. Waiting as the gears whirred and the head of the bed creaked upward, she pushed at the covers, blinking once at the bright spill of wet red blood across the front of her faded hospital gown.
Of course. The stitches she'd undoubtedly pulled in her efforts to reach the phone.
Barbara found herself completely and utterly unmoved by the sight.
Survivor's guilt, perhaps.
When she'd asked Quinn if she planned to kill her, Barbara had known that she wouldn't have fought off the attack, even if she'd been at full strength. Consequently, Quinn's dismissive laugh had been almost a disappointment.
"Kill you, Barbara? Why would I want to let you off so easily?"
The ever over-active analytical portion of her brain had forced Barbara to acknowledge that the woman had a point: As revenge scenarios went, Quinn's decision to leave her alive was a masterstroke.
Then again, for some reason, she did seem to inspire particularly sadistic planning from the villains in her life.
That completely appropriate thought had almost evoked a giggle... or a sob; it had certainly not inspired her fighting spirit. Nevertheless, weighing the odds that the lunatic's words and the bloody necklace weren't a lie, Barbara had known she couldn't take a chance. Lives other than her own were probably at stake.
"In that case, Harley,"
She'd almost sneered the woman's name as she'd pushed against the far edge of her mattress, stretching for the phone on the nightstand.
"I have a job to do which involves returning you to the tender care of Arkham."
Quinn -- and whatever she might do -- be damned. Barbara had focused on nothing but the phone, tantalizingly out of reach, and the need to call Dinah or Alfred, to warn them, to find out what the hell was happening. Thus, even when Quinn had strolled back to the side of the bed and bent to meet her eyes, the redhead hadn't stopped her struggle.
If the madwoman wanted to set something off, well, Barbara had been more than ready to pull out her own IVs and use the needles as weapons.
Almost nonchalantly, the other woman had bumped the table with her hip, scooting it another ten inches away.
Ten inches that might have been a mile.
"... but I really must leave now. Since your sweet Helena is quite dead -- "
The saccharine facade had fallen away then, revealing only malevolence and fury.
" -- I simply have so much to do."
With that, the blonde had straightened and turned toward the closer IV pole, fingers playing across the computerized morphine drip. Utterly paralyzed by Quinn's words -- no mere taunt those; the madwoman had spoken with factual certainty -- it had taken her too long to understand what her tormentor was doing.
A split second before the monitor had beeped and she'd registered the dose moving into the line, Barbara had bitterly realized that of course the other woman would be privy to the codes for the machine.
"Places to go and people -- Ah ah!"
The trilling persona had returned, Quinn turning to correct herself, one hand on the door handle.
"Other people to hurt, you know."
Fighting the haze already descending, Barbara had ignored her, lunging -- or, she thought she had -- for the phone again. Her body and her consciousness had given way just as the door had closed behind the other woman, Quinn's farewell a bitter lullaby.
"Nighty night, Barbara. Enjoy the last pleasant dreams you'll have for a loooong time."
Now, brutally alert and finally upright against the thin mattress, the redhead eyed the morphine bottle with hatred. Not only was it unnecessary for her surgical wounds, but it had also lost her valuable time in determining what Quinn had done... and might do.
Smiling grimly, Barbara dropped the comms unit next to her hip, then roughly yanked off the tape that secured the plastic tubing to her arm. Carefully, she placed each strip along the rail of her bed, automatically locating each one half-inch from the next. With that task complete, she eyed the heavy gauge needle at the crook of her elbow, following the tubing back to the small console responsible for doling out the narcotic.
Damned drug certainly couldn't touch her real agony.
Without another thought, she yanked the line from her arm and turned to repeat the process with the second IV.
Probably a cocktail of antibiotics, fluids, and -- possibly -- cancer-killing chemicals. Nothing the she couldn't do without.
Finally free of the plastic lines, she distractedly wiped her palms against her gown; her less than gentle nursing had resulted in blood trickling down her arms. Green eyes narrowed, taking in the distance and the angles. Focused solely on her goal, she began with the nearer IV pole, tugging carefully at the plastic line to reel it towards her. With a final tug, she pulled it close, the metal pole clanking once against her bedside even as she turned to the other line.
The moisture on her palms caused her to drop the slippery plastic; only her dangling line of adhesive tape saved her, catching a piece of the tubing as it slithered toward the floor.
Deliberately, Barbara forced herself to slow down.
Roughly dragging her palms across her chest, she wrapped one piece of tape around the line, affixing it to the rail. Then, she began the slow process of coaxing the pole close. When it was eighteen inches away, the redhead almost gave way to temptation, almost attempted to snatch the line free.
She resisted, waiting until she could reach the pole and remove the end of the line from the IV bag.
Eighteen inches was eighteen inches, and she'd need every bit of line to accomplish her task.
Still.... Too long. It was taking too long.
Fingers almost flying as she wove the freed line with the tubing still attached to the first IV pole, Barbara mentally sent her thanks to Alethea Harkness for the recent needlework lessons. With the cord braided and doubled, she methodically affixed every piece of tape, securing the plastic line to the pole before finally stopping to take a breath and assess her handiwork.
A bit like an odd, mummified instrument for bondage.
Quirking her lips, Barbara noted that Helena would undoubtedly appreciate the description, and her fleeting whimsy vanished.
Tamping down on her anger, she forced herself to push the pole away gently.
Just enough force to send it past the bedside table which Quinn had moved from reach.
When it had rolled far enough, Barbara snapped her makeshift line, changing the direction of travel until the pole swung into position behind the small faux-wood table.
Now, all she had to do was reel the whole mess toward her... carefully, slowly.
Ignoring the tightness in her upper belly, the pull doubtlessly working at her lower abdomen, she felt an eternity ticking by and finally, completely winded, had to stop for a breather. Resting the line against her legs in order to dry her palms, Barbara abruptly grasped her tactical error: with the tension on the line temporarily abated, the pole's higher center of gravity took over, and the thin rod recoiled, crashing to the floor.
The table was only inches from her reach; however, Barbara bitterly realized that it was, for all intents and purposes, miles away.
"Kindly get the hell away."
Pausing for emphasis, Barbara added what she thought should have been fairly obvious.
"I am not in the mood for this."
Simply put, Barbara Gordon did not intend to budge an inch. Sprawled on the worn linoleum of her hospital room, a twenty-year-old princess phone clasped to her chest, she was not about to yield to orders, pleading, or reason.
Not ten minutes earlier, she'd felt her hopes topple in tandem with the makeshift fishing reel she'd fashioned from her IV tubing and pole. She'd allowed herself a moment to come up with a particularly fitting and colorful string of expletives before yielding to the inevitable.
"No way through it but to do it."
Obviously something she'd need to have tattooed somewhere prominent when she got everything sorted out.
With a final baleful glare at the soundly latched door to the hallway and a mental note to contact the hospital administration about the frequency with which staff checked on post-operative patients, she'd flung her blood-stained covers back and worked her legs over the side of the bed.
Naturally, it had been raised to waist height, presumably for the convenience of those who -- at some point -- would appear to attend to her.
It was then that Barbara had heard a laugh, her own: a full, hearty explosion of all of the frustrations and challenges she had faced in the last few hours -- days -- years. Perhaps it had also been a dare for life to bring on the rest.
Regardless, it had gotten her moving.
Still smiling without real humor, she'd managed to snag the remaining IV rack, using it as an extremely wobbly fire pole of sorts to lower herself none-too-gently to the floor. The commando crawl to the tacky little bedside table, a journey of perhaps fourteen inches, normally would have been a moment's work, but it had taken considerably longer since the muscles in her upper body were nothing more than wet noodles.
Her mood had, almost impossibly, soured even further when that thought had struck her, bringing with it as it had images of a limp piece of linguini -- or, perhaps it had been fettuccini -- slithering down her monitor not too long after she and Helena had become lovers and had been finding their way through unfamiliar landscapes.
Clearly, it hadn't been the best time for a stroll... or roll... or crawl down memory lane.
When she'd finally reached the table, she'd had to rest, cursing a blue streak over her weakness and the way the minutes seemed to be evaporating, before finally yanking the phone down to the floor. It had been then, in her moment of miniscule victory that she'd heard it: a soft step outside the door, followed by the click of the handle turning. Had she been able, she would have scrambled back -- as far as she could go in the small room, to the corner by the bathroom or even under the bed -- so certain had she been that it was Quinn, returning to torment her further.
The nature of the torment was not something she'd allowed herself to contemplate in the interminable heartbeat that had elapsed as the door had swung open.
Whimpering as a slight shadow banded the threshold, she'd readied for the worst, then almost sobbed when she'd recognized one of the duty nurses. Naturally, and in the spirit of the entire day, her relief had been premature. Her nurse -- L. Fletcher if she were reading the badge accurately -- had swooped down on her like Florence Nightingale on crack.
"What on earth are you doing down there?!"
The woman had knelt beside her, then almost fallen backward.
"And you've torn your stitches..."
In all fairness, Barbara had supposed that she was quite a sight; however she simply hadn't had time for her caregiver's sensibilities -- shocked, concerned, downright offended, or otherwise.
"We need to get you back in bed and cleaned up -- "
L. Fletcher had straightened, reaching for the hard-won phone.
"And you need to be resting, not making calls. For Pete's sake, Ms. Gordon, you just had major surgery."
Quite aware of that little fact and equally aware that it might be a good long time before she had time to process everything that her hysterectomy meant, Barbara had snapped. While her words had been polite enough -- at least for a post-op patient who was bleeding on the floor -- they'd been banded with iron.
Thus, after three frantic phone calls, two heated exchanges with the floor's chief RN, and one interminable ride home, the redhead finally found herself waiting impatiently for the elevator doors to slide open into the clock tower. Ever attentive, Alfred stood beside her, easily holding the small overnight bag she'd packed for her stay less than twenty-four hours before.
Dinah, Barbara's first call, was still scouting the area around the hospital. The teen had been almost at the door to the hospital after her double shift at the mall when Barbara had reached her cell; with laudably few questions, her newest protege had somehow made sense of Barbara's words and warnings and had reversed course to hunt for Helena. Detective Jesse Reese, the last call, had issued an upgraded APB for Quinn before joining Dinah in her search of the area.
When the elevator doors whispered open, Barbara moved purposefully across the living area, making a beeline to the Delphi. Peripherally, she noted Alfred disappearing into the master bedroom, presumably to leave her bag, then focused on the task of pushing herself up the ramp that she'd cruised up easily thousands of times.
Panting slightly, she came to a stop in front of her keyboard and toggled the unit, the most powerful remaining weapon in her arsenal, to life. Distractedly, she pushed at a strand of hair which clung to the cold sweat covering her neck and then lost herself in her work. Still typing with one hand, she dug into the side pocket of her chair, fishing for her glasses.
She'd used the time while she'd waited for Alfred's arrival at the hospital to make her plans. Now, she simply had no more time to lose.
Fragrant farting fairies, but how she loathed hospitals. If only she'd held her ground with Helena about the surgery, none of this would be happening.
Steadying herself -- she suspected there would be time enough later for self-recriminations -- she effortlessly hacked into her goal, the Luxor Hotel, and unleashed her long-dormant encryption routines against the Las Vegas hotel's security system. As the programs plowed through the terabytes of possible switches, she toggled to a second screen, rapidly readying a fleet of web 'bots and cross-linking them with every likely destination.
A soft beep from the encryption terminal window coincided with an entirely discrete cough, and she glanced up to find Alfred beside her. Green eyes darted back to the plasma screen even as she clicked into the Luxor's innermost security system.
"Excuse me for interrupting, Miss Barbara... "
Already absorbed in unraveling the warren of code and objects utilized for the casino's sophisticated facial pattern recognition algorithms, the cyber-vigilante didn't even look up.
A steaming cup of tea appeared next to her mouse pad, precisely settled over the moisture ring that had developed in her favored spot through the years. The emergency med kit followed.
"When you have a moment, I thought you might find these... helpful."
She had no choice but to cease her frantic typing long enough to meet her old friend's concerned gaze. With effort, she managed to summon a smile that she knew didn't reach her eyes.
"Thank you, Alfred. Right after I finish here."
Already absorbed in the process of downloading the facial pattern matching code into her 'bots before dispatching them to every security camera in New Gotham, Barbara promptly forgot the medical kit. After all, as she'd been signing herself out of the hospital against very vocal medical advice, she'd allowed the staff to clean her up and put a few staples into her incision.
She'd live. Somehow she always did. However...
She shook her head roughly and pressed the
Task complete, Barbara lowered her lashes and inhaled slowly, reaching for the teacup.
She simply refused to think about locating Helena, leaving that to Dinah and Jesse on the streets. Either her vibrant younger partner was alive and would make her way back to the tower -- much like that terrifying night after the explosion in the parking garage which had killed The Joker -- or...
At that, Barbara shakily lowered the delicate cup, oblivious to the spill of hot liquid across her knuckles, and tried to calculate how many of her nine lives Helena might have used. Her hand, skin already pinkening from the scald, rose to cover her mouth, and Barbara struggled not to gag when she realized how many her partner had already used.
And Quinn had...
Hearing her own hitching gasp, she forced herself to finish the thought: The bitch had been too certain in her words.
Slowly, she allowed her eyes to close and gave herself a minute to pull it together, to come to terms. There was nothing she could do about what might have occurred; it was up to her to do what she did best: focus, and plan, and keep things under control.
Thus, when Dinah called in not too many minutes later, her voice shaking, Barbara found herself surprisingly calm. Their discovery of blood, lots of it, all matching Helena's DNA, was... not surprising.
"Tell Jesse that he can return to the hunt for Quinn, Canary. We'll focus on her for now."
<"Uh, copy that, Oracle.">
The girl's acknowledgement resonated her confusion, but Barbara merely toggled the microphone off and turned away from the workstation. Wireless screen in her lap, she calmly cruised down the ramp to make her preparations.
They would find Quinn, and she was damned well going to be ready.
Her first stop was the gear closet, as always, packed to overflowing with the detritus of their lives both nocturnal and... normal. She pushed past the frisbee on the floor, ignored the circular saw neatly stored on a shelf, and stretched into the back of the closet. Her fingertips brushed the well-oiled softness of braided leather, and Barbara felt her lips twist at a memory. Then, she found her objective, a small cotton backpack, and dropped in into her lap before backing out of the cluttered space.
A quick detour to her room and the gun safe in the recently remodeled closet was next.
She spun the combination without hesitation, not blinking at the blue steel which greeted her when she opened the box. Snapping her father's old service pistol against her palm, she aimed at her reflection in the mirror above the dresser, checking the sight. The full clip clicked into place with a soft chink of metal against metal, and she dropped the unit into the side pocket of her chair where it would be handy.
Right next to her glasses.
That task complete, she returned to the living room and, ignoring the cold sweat dotting her face and chest, muscled up the ramp to her work area. By the time the elevator doors parted and Dinah cautiously approached the platform, the redhead had filled her army surplus rucksack and was in the process of affixing it to her midsection with most of a roll of duct tape.
Otherwise engaged in attempting to gnaw a tear mark in the tape with her teeth, Barbara's reply was muted, her lie coming easily.
A sudden alarm from the Delphi spared her the need to explain further.
"Wha -- ?"
They spoke as one, Barbara dropping the tape and pivoting sharply to the screen while the teen bounded onto the platform.
"Got a match at the airport...."
Without conscious direction, Barbara's fingers flew across the keyboard, allowing her to identify the departure gate that her nemesis was headed to.
In other circumstances, she knew she might have pumped her fist in victory or exchanged a knowing wink with the Princess Fiona bobbin' head atop her monitor: stealing, hacking, and programming the facial pattern matching software so quickly had not been an insignificant feat; and considering the weight of latex covering Quinn's features, the success of the venture was almost a miracle.
Still, the battle had not been won.
Running through her plans, the redhead pushed back sharply and wheeled toward the ramp. Her almost-forgotten companion's yelp reminded her that she was not alone.
She allowed herself ten seconds for the necessities.
"I'm so sorry, Dinah, but I only have 20 minutes before her plane departs. I..."
Giving in to temptation, she took in her ward's sweet features.
"... I have to go now."
The lanky girl was beside her in an instant.
Fighting panic at the offer, Barbara calmly met earnest blue eyes.
"No, Dinah. I need you to handle things on this end. This is..."
The truth was easy enough.
"This is something I need to do myself."
Even as she lowered her palms to the wheels of her chair again, she realized her tactical error: Of course Dinah would need to... offer some sort of comfort.
"Oh. Well, I'll just -- "
The hand that lightly touched her shoulder was, she knew, meant to reassure. Unfortunately, with her own thoughts too raw and unguarded, there was no way her telepathic ward could miss her intent. Dinah's gasp was eloquence itself, and the blonde staggered backward as if burned, her index finger aimed accusingly at the canvas bag securely taped to Barbara's waist.
"Sit down, Dinah."
The girl's normally pale skin was the color of milk, and Barbara feared that she'd pass out on the edge of the platform.
Quite deliberately, the older woman chose to take the word in the context of their conversation.
"I don't want you to pass -- "
Dinah, naturally, didn't allow the avoidance. One hand, the one that had touched her shoulder, slashed through the air, negating the attempt.
A tiny bit of color returned to the teen's cheeks as the blonde head jerked toward the pack.
"That! You can't do this!"
"It's just for back up."
Under other circumstances, Barbara suspected that she would have hated herself for the ease of the lie. However, these were circumstances unlike any other. Unsurprisingly, especially given how events had played out for her so far, Dinah didn't buy it.
"The hell you say, Barbara. That's C-4 in there -- enough to take out the entire airport. Every... fucking... body."
Knowing her ward as she did, the older woman recognized how telling her language was.
"I can't believe you'd do this."
Barbara thought her heart might have broken a tiny bit more when she witnessed Dinah's shoulders sagging.
"That you would do this."
At that point, she knew that words were inadequate. Nevertheless, she had to try.
"I'm sorry if it comes down to this, Dinah."
Helpless, she shrugged, ignoring the inner voice that questioned how sorry she really might be. In all honesty, Barbara suspected that she might not be sorry at all. After all, what was she -- or could she be -- without Helena?
Another inner voice, this one a tinny, bitter, echo supplied her answer: Less than the hollow men taunted at in The Joker's message months before.
Decision made, Barbara pushed down the ramp, heading for the elevator.
"I'm sorry, Dinah."
With no time for argument and no room for doubt, she realized that she did have the capacity for surprise when Dinah, her young face steeled, moved to stand in front of the entrance to the elevator.
"If you want to do this, Barbara, you'll have to go through me first."
No way through it...
Exhaling roughly, Barbara Gordon jerked her glasses off and tossed them onto the table.
Sweet suffering sin but she was coming to hate that little truism.
With a mental shrug at her own pettiness, she briskly pivoted her head from side to side, wincing at the pop and snap of tight muscles and vertebrae. Tension momentarily alleviated -- although a long massage sounded like a good idea -- she snagged her glasses and returned to her task: hunting for a needle in a haystack.
Or, as she'd lately come to think of it, searching for one very bent barb in a stack of six billion bits of shiny tinsel and steel.
Still, she smiled grimly at the thought: Perseverance had long been one of her watchwords. Back in the day, she'd outlasted Dick during stakeouts many times. His excuses about hot dates or previous engagements to the contrary, she'd known that her sometimes-partner simply refused to put up with the extended drudgery of a hunt.
Not so for her.
Like the proverbial Canadian Mounties, she'd been determined always to get her prey, even if the actual pursuit had been tedium in the extreme. Since a Gameboy or Walkman would have been too distracting, she'd often passed the time contemplating how the hours spent in kneeling in window ledges or clinging to fire escapes in the long, cold, wet Gotham nights might impact her lower back in later life.
Which was, she now had to admit, irony that even her struggling tenth graders shouldn't fail to grasp.
On this particular night, however, she was warm and dry and as comfortable as she could be after six hours of fixed concentration in front of an oversized plasma monitor. As reconnaissance went, this beat hanging out in the sewers, gloves down.
Speaking of sewers and alleys...
Abandoning her latest electronic break-in for the moment, she briefly checked the GPS locator. The small green LED had progressed a bit since her last check, and so she thumbed up the volume on her headpiece, maintaining silence at the sound of voices.
<"...uh huh. She's a real bad-ass. If you hear anything, can you leave word at No Man's Land?">
A masculine murmur of assent reassured Barbara that matters were well in hand and so, straightening her shoulders, she turned back to her own electronic search. Since she scarcely needed her full concentration to slip through the firewalls at CitiBank, the redhead allowed her thoughts to wander to Gibson, the barkeep at No Man's, and his unique meta-talent with dates and numbers.
Perhaps not an unexpected mental segue, given her own recent fixation on such things.
It had been, Barbara knew without the need for calculation, sixteen days and eight hours since...
A quick glance at the onscreen clock allowed her to refine the accuracy of her count.
Sixteen days, eight hours, and thirty-four minutes since she'd been visited at the hospital by Harley Quinn. It had been sixteen days, eight hours, and twenty-two minutes since the madwoman had taunted her about killing Helena, pumped her full of narcotics, and left her to her terror. And, it had been sixteen days, four hours, and a handful of minutes since Quinn's actions had goaded Barbara into a course that had led her into battle with the one soul with whom she'd never thought possible to be at odds.
Years before, still coming to terms with life at waist height and her sudden guardianship of an extremely angry young ward, she'd had any number of altercations with Helena. Most had been battles of words and will; a few notable run-ins had been under the guise of practice in the training room. However, she'd been a different person then, and there could be no doubt that her first ward was night to her current ward's day. Therefore, when she'd found Dinah facing her down at the elevator two weeks before, both comprehension and belief had been slow in arriving.
Her first reaction had been frank incredulity.
"What do you think you're doing?"
Acutely aware of the seconds ticking by and the need to be moving -- to reach Quinn before she'd slipped through her grasp -- Barbara had been hard-pressed not to shout. Fortunately, years in the classroom had schooled her in the semblance of patience. The sight of the girl's trembling had further tempered her ire.
"Stopping you from doing something that's just wrong!"
Dinah hadn't had the benefit of years and experience to hide her anger. With a start, Barbara had realized that the young woman's trembling rose not from fear but from rage. Her own fury had risen then, a howling, maddening hate for the woman who had put her in this position. Without any hope of pushing it aside, she'd simply dropped her hands to the wheels of her chair and pushed with all of her might, determined to go past -- or, perhaps, through -- her companion.
She hadn't budged so much as a millimeter.
For one yawning instant, she'd been blindsided by the depths of her own helplessness. Instantly, her rage had turned in on her, leaving her sick at her own ineffectiveness, at being held hostage by her protege's TK, at her own inability to have somehow stopped all of this. Bleakly, she'd met the teen's eyes, her own self-loathing redoubling at the tears tracking down Dinah's cheeks.
"Don't do this, Dinah."
Some small part of herself that had somehow remained aloof from the scene took pride in the fact that, despite her tears, Dinah's voice had remained steady.
"This isn't who you are, Barbara, and I won't let her turn you into something you're not."
Pure ice had run through Barbara's veins at that. Her response had been clipped.
"Perhaps you don't know me as well as you think, Dinah."
The girl's face had crumbled, and Barbara had almost broken at the image of her ward scrubbing at her eyes with fisted hands.
"H-- Helena wouldn't want this."
The words had struck her with more power than ten telekinetic blows. Curling her fingers like claws around the rims of her wheels, she'd squeezed her eyes shut, fighting to sort through the maddening collage of voices and memories: the conflicting wants and duties and needs which had always guided her.
And tormented her.
She hadn't been aware of making a decision until she'd felt the traction on her chair disappear. Seized by a renewed clarity, she'd calmly moved forward, speaking not altogether unsympathetically.
"It's something I need to do, Dinah."
Barbara had seen the blonde's thoughtful nod, but her relief that the standoff had ended had been brief. Circling to the elevator, she'd been shocked beyond reason -- so shocked, in fact, that she'd literally run into the wall -- when Dinah had simply dropped into her lap.
"Then I'm going, too."
Dinah was too close to her, her voice too steady, for Barbara not to have heard the words.
Comprehending them had been another matter.
She'd turned her head, squinting to focus as such close range, the knowledge of what lay next to her glasses in the pocket of her chair weighing heavily on her. Cornflower blue eyes, offering complete trust, had met hers.
"If this is what's right to avenge Helena, then I'm going with you."
There had been, of course, no way to fight that.
A long searching look had disclosed the certainty and resolve in the girl's face, forcing Barbara to raise the white flag. Torn by too much to comprehend, she'd silently retrieved her phone and rapidly filled Jesse in on the situation.
Scant minutes later the airport had been locked down.
Regrettably, other than ruining a host of business travelers' hopes of making their connections, the attempt had been for naught: an extensive sweep of the facility had turned up nothing but a security tape showing Quinn disappearing into an access for the subway.
More regrettably, Quinn's legacy had remained in the clock tower.
As soon as she'd learned of the escape, Barbara had -- to her eternal shame -- simply turned on Dinah.
"If you'd let me go, I could have had her..."
That accusation hadn't been enough; she'd heard her voice rising in volume.
"Goddamnit, Dinah, if the police hadn't stormed in like gangbusters, I could have..."
With every bit of willpower she possessed, Barbara had cut off her tirade, hearing her final words drop from her lips as a ragged whisper.
"We could have made her tell us."
Clearly shaken, possibly wounded, Dinah had backed to the far wall, sliding down to the floor.
"I couldn't let you do that..."
There had been nothing else that she could say. Nothing else for either of them to say.
Leaving the young woman huddled against the wall hugging her knees to her chest, Barbara had silently returned to the Delphi, intent on dispatching more web crawlers and 'bots. She'd been aware that Dinah had remained in the room, curled in on herself, frightened eyes fixed on her throughout the night. The teen's pain and confusion and aching desire to fix things had been palpable, but Barbara had simply had nothing to offer.
It had been dawn, with Alfred's return from his vigil at Helena's old apartment, when the tableau had finally broken. The elderly gentleman had taken in the scene, then quietly ushered Dinah off to the kitchen. He'd returned to the Delphi within moments, settling a cup of tea on the table and silently extending a pair of scissors, which Barbara had accepted with almost absurd gratitude.
She'd been peeling yards of duct tape off for hours.
"Alfred -- "
Her companion had seemed to waver in front of her, and she'd roughly swiped the back of her hand across her eyes to clear her vision. There was little she could do for her voice, raspy from the shouts and screams she'd swallowed during the night.
"I've done something horrible with Dinah."
She'd allowed to remain unspoken the fact that she would have done far worse if her protege hadn't stopped her.
The distinguished man had moved a half step closer, and Barbara had swallowed her surprise when she'd felt one hand rest gently on her shoulder.
"Miss Dinah understands."
She'd nodded dumbly, wondering how Dinah could understand something that eluded her so completely. Something dark had welled within her at that, at the realization of just what she'd exposed the young woman to.
"You need to rest, Miss Barbara."
The words had been so kind, so terribly inviting. Meeting those inscrutable grey eyes, Barbara had shaken her head.
"I can't, Alfred. Not... yet."
He'd nodded his understanding and silently withdrawn, allowing the redhead to return to her search and her vigil. The wait that morning for her... prodigal had been excruciating; however somehow, not too long before the hush of expectancy enveloping the tower had ended, Barbara had forced herself to approach Dinah's room, cautiously offering her apologies.
With Dinah's departure for the dorms five days later, Barbara had to admit that circumnavigating the strain between them had been... awkward. Both were feeling their way through a cautious truce, a rebuilding of trust in a relationship that had... changed that night.
However, with Quinn on the loose and a search underway, there simply hadn't been time to lick their wounds. To Barbara's somewhat dazed gratification, the little team of vigilantes had come together to redouble their efforts.
It was after all, as Helena had declared, "what frikkin' heroes do."
Completing her work deep within the processing and payment programs in the central computers for CitiBank, Barbara felt her lips quirk when those words echoed through her mind.
Shoulder to the grindstone, indeed.
Regardless of the tension which might develop in said shoulder from hunching over her keyboard, regardless of how blurry her vision grew from leaning too close to her screen, there was simply no way she was going to abandon her search for Harley Quinn after everything the madwoman had put them through. While the blonde lunatic had seemingly vanished into thin air, Barbara Gordon was certain of three things that put victory in her reach: 1) In this day and age, there was simply no way to remain anonymous in the wired world; 2) Her nemesis was not a shrinking violet who would take well to remaining hidden; and, 3) Of all the people on the planet, she was the one who would take down Harley Quinn.
Already, her web 'bots had been dispatched to every security camera in every airport that was network accessible. If Quinn planned on hopping a flight anywhere, the facial recognition routines would catch her.
In addition, several long nights and a few bits of neat coding had enabled Barbara to modify her web crawlers, instilling them with the rudimentary intelligence to begin propagating themselves into any other web enabled security camera in the world. Soon, Quinn would not be able to stroll by an ATM without triggering an alarm.
Most recently, the cyber-genius been working through the tedium of hacking into every major credit card processing center to install handwriting recognition Trojans. If her quarry so much as initialed for a tip somewhere, the cyber-vigilante intended to know about it before the electronic ink had dried.
The softest click in her earpiece alerted Barbara a split-second before the well-known voice came through the comms.
<"You copy, Oracle?">
Exhaling slowly at the steadiness and solidity of the words, the redhead straightened and automatically took in the GPS locator.
"I copy. Is everything okay?"
During the last forty minutes, her partner had progressed from the club district to the neighborhood near the Dark Horse. She couldn't help but wonder how deliberate the movement had been.
<"Yeah -- ">
The word was almost breezy, and Barbara allowed a bit of tension to leave her shoulders.
<"-- I've pretty much made a complete nuisance of myself here --">
Oblivious to the voice-only nature of the exchange, the leader of the little team grimaced sympathetically.
Accosting club-goers with flyers and questions and requests for tidbits of information wasn't likely to win anyone points on the popularity meter.
<"-- so I wondered if there's anything going on. Uh, ass-kicking-wise.">
Barbara frowned at the words, a completely unnecessary clarification in her opinion, but automatically toggled to the screens with security alarm and police dispatch highlights. They confirmed what she'd already known.
"Nothing on the scanners. It's quiet tonight."
As it had been since Quinn's disappearance.
"Why don't you call it a night?"
While they were all loathe to abandon their searching, Barbara knew that her partner's physical search had gone on long enough.
<"Are you sure? I can hit the docks aga-- ">
Inhaling slowly, Barbara nodded her head. She'd been right; the younger woman did sound tired.
"I'm quite certain. You put out quite a few feelers there last night."
She held her breath, uncertain how much resistance to expect.
<"Crap. I keep hoping...">
Didn't they all.
With a very real suspicion that her smile at that thought held not a trace of humor, Barbara spoke briskly.
"I know, Canary, but pack it in."
Barely waiting for the acknowledgement, she toggled off her comm set and turned to face her screen. The GPS showed Dinah on her way back to the dorm; her own pattern recognition software was in every camera in New Gotham; and there was nothing more to be done for it.
Perhaps tomorrow they'd get some sort of lead on Helena.
You never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns
When they all come down and did tricks for you
You never understood that it ain't no good
You shouldn't let other people get your kicks for you
You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat
Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat
Ain't it hard when you discover that
He really wasn't where it's at
After he took from you everything he could steal.
How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?
Well, that was cheery.
Snorting softly at the thought -- after all, she had very deliberately dug out her Dylan collection when she'd burned the damned CD this evening -- Barbara shut off her alarm clock, satisfied that the volume wouldn't be unduly jarring when the alarm triggered in a few hours.
Panic and heart attacks? Not an issue.
Depression and unwillingness to get out of bed? All bets were off on that count.
As she settled back against the pillows stacked against the headboard, a sparkling flash caught her attention. Although she knew quite well what it was, the redhead took a moment to eye the lovely lead crystal highball glass which rested on a thick oblong of woven yarn.
The three by five inch blot of yarn was her second attempt at crocheting a pot holder, rapidly relegated to coaster status after some decidedly snarky commentary from Helena. The glass on it contained two generous fingers of single malt.
It held absolutely no appeal for her whatsoever.
Truthfully, she'd never cared for Scotch. Her own heritage aside, she simply found it too peaty; however, when she'd dutifully shut down the Delphi and made her way to the bedroom half an hour earlier, she'd known exactly why she'd chosen the liquor from the sizeable stash Helena kept --
Feeling the muscles in her jaw tighten, Barbara forced herself to correct her verb tense.
It was time to start facing facts.
In the last five days, the redhead had created a structure for herself: When she returned to the clock tower after school each day, she dealt with lesson plans and grading first. Only after that did she allow herself to take her position at the Delphi and resume her search. Regrettably, after twenty-one days of exhaustive efforts, Barbara knew that the chances of her 'bots recognizing either Quinn or Helena had become slim indeed.
Nevertheless, each evening she filled the hours after schoolwork in tracing any leads, tweaking the algorithms of her handwriting and facial recognition programs, and searching for any unturned stones. On the nights she remembered, she wandered into the kitchen at some point and heated up a frozen dinner to prod at back at her workstation. Then, in the early hours of the morning, she shut down her work and turned to the bedroom for four and a half restless hours.
This night, on her way, she'd detoured to the barrister's bookcase where Helena had kept a diverse array of alcoholic offerings. Ticking her fingernail speculatively against one bottle after another, Barbara had felt herself smiling at her partner's thoroughness: The contents of the bookcase ranged from complete rotgut to sickly sweet concoctions with cream or schnapps bases to two bottles of a very fine eighty year old port.
Intrigued by a glimpse of a square-cut bottle, she'd dug deeper into the cabinet. When she'd pulled the bottle out, she'd squinted to make out the faded label -- an unknown tequila -- then inhaled sharply when she'd seen the two-dozen pickled worms in the liquor. A moment later, she'd smiled when she'd recalled purchasing the elixir herself years before during a college trip to Mexico City.
A triple agave, delicately gold in the elegant bottle: Barbara had been saving it for the right time. Over the last eleven years, there had been plenty of don't-give-a-damn celebrations: a narrow escape here or an unexpected victory there. There had even been a few devil-may-care occasions: most recently allowing herself to leap into the arms of the woman she'd loved for years. However, the type of actual devil-be-damned moments worthy of such a potent brew had yet escaped her.
And, half an hour ago, she'd acknowledged that the time was not right yet. Resettling the bottle in the depths of the bookcase, she'd looked over the more familiar offerings at the front and then deliberately chosen the Scotch. Her own taste not withstanding, she suspected that she could rely on the quick oblivion that Scotch had always provided. Even as she'd poured a healthy portion, Barbara had also acknowledged that her own puritan ethic might have been at work, anticipating the nasty hangover that inevitably followed drinking Scotch.
Yet, after settling herself under the covers and dutifully opening her latest hardback, she'd not found the energy or desire to indulge.
It wasn't that she didn't want to sleep. Heaven knew, she'd been trying every night.
With a soft sigh, Barbara picked up the heavy tumbler, holding it to the light, turning it from side to side. The refracted light created a kaleidoscope of colors, but it took her only eight seconds to identify the repeating pattern.
Rolling her eyes, she brought the glass to her mouth, then lowered it, still untouched, to its coaster.
It seemed that she simply had little interest in drink.
Much like her decidedly limited interest in the potboiler she was currently reading.
When Dinah had presented her with a bootlegged early printing of the latest Stephen King -- something having to do with cell phones -- on her way to the hospital, she'd been eager to delve into the book. Three weeks later, she was still staring at page thirty-two.
Barbara snorted at herself, at her damnable need to keep picking at some bloody scab and her inability to accept oblivion or distraction while she was, nominally, attempting to come to terms.
Coming to terms.
At that, she slowly removed her glasses, musing over what terms she might actually be happening upon.
Certainly not acceptance; it seemed too, too far away.
The flyers that Dinah and Alfred had spread through the city had already been swept away or had curled up and blown into the gutters and alleys. Barbara continued her cyber hunts with Princess Fiona agreeably encouraging her on, but in these lonely hours she had to admit that it was increasingly likely that certain Quinn had fled the city and that Helena...
Well, there was the rub.
Barbara simply knew that if her partner were alive anywhere on the planet she would have found a way to send a signal. Helena had never let Barbara worry, at least not after some rocky periods in those first few years when worry and anger had been a constant for both of them.
Calling it for the night, she snapped her novel closed, her eyes automatically tracking from the book in her lap to her lap. Her abdomen was still distended and the incision beneath her sleep shorts still livid from the damage she'd done in her pathetic attempts to get to a phone.
To be of use.
Gingerly, she prodded at her stomach, flinching from the disconnect -- still so visceral after eight years -- between touching and not feeling. Blinking rapidly, she very carefully settled her book and her glasses on the nightstand, refusing to hear the insidious whispers that, cancer be damned, she could have held on...
Briskly, she pushed herself down in the bed, twisting to readjust the pillows.
It was thoughts like those that were, well, setting her back. Honestly, she thought she'd been making admirable progress, checking off the standard stages of grief. In the first eighteen hours alone, she'd efficiently progressed through four of the five stages.
Stretching out, Barbara snapped off the light, then stared into the darkness, mentally cataloging the process.
Well, that one had been easy. It had simply been too tempting not to believe Quinn. The madwoman had done so much over the years to hurt her... hurt them. However, in the face of the blonde's certainty, denial had rapidly given way to...
Anger, of course.
That one had also been easy and very, very necessary. It had been rage over Quinn's threats, over the fact that it might not be just another cruel prank, which had gotten Barbara out of her bed and into the hunt. However, even Barbara had to acknowledge that the emotion was a dangerous state for a vigilante with a well-stocked gear closet.
Again, that gear cabinet had come in, somehow allowing her to believe that if she could take out Quinn, it might somehow atone for Helena. Thank heavens Dinah had forced her to recognize the error -- and the futility -- of her ways.
Which brought her squarely to depression.
And there she was, stuck like a bug on the windshield of the semi which had blindsided her.
Midway through that first morning, after that awful night of waiting, after her horrifying confrontation with Dinah, she'd realized that the chances of Helena's waltzing through the elevator door or landing soundlessly on the balcony were growing exponentially more slim by the minute. With that understanding had come... this.
Resting her hand lightly on the oversized stuffed panther that occupied Helena's side of the bed, Barbara heard a soft hiccupping gasp.
Ruthlessly, she stifled the noise and resigned herself to another night like the last.
And the night before that and the almost two-dozen nights before that. Another night of lying in bed unable to sleep because she was keyed and ready, poised in expectation, and constantly hearing phantom thumps from the balcony that would herald Helena's return.
A very real tap at the bedroom door distracted her, almost eliciting a squeak of surprise. One pounding heartbeat later, she saw Dinah poking her head into to the room.
"Are you asleep, Barbara?"
Even as she wryly noted that the volume of the teen's whisper would have penetrated the deepest of slumbers, the redhead simply pushed herself upright.
"I'm awake, Dinah."
She stretched for the lamp, the bulb still warm against her fingers, and attempted not to guess what had led her ward from her room on campus to her bedroom at this hour.
"Come on in, Honey."
Barbara could only hope that the endearment hadn't sounded as awkward as it had felt crossing her lips. Instead of focusing on her discomfort, she tucked a pillow behind her back and settled against the headboard, deliberately ignoring the peripheral view of the Gauguin at the head of the bed. She carefully arranged the covers around her waist, then patted the mattress beside her.
When the blonde unhesitatingly dropped onto the edge of the bed, Barbara felt the glimmer of a smile touch the corners of her mouth.
Perhaps some things could be... repaired.
She pushed the fall of hair from her forehead and worked for a light tone. Since she'd decreed that there would be no more sweeps five days before -- Barbara was damned if she would turn Dinah's college years into a mirror of her own -- she hadn't seen Dinah in the evenings.
"Is everything okay, Dinah?"
In the dim light filtering through the doorway from hall, she could just make out pale blue eyes peering through cornsilk lashes.
"Uhm, yeah. I mean -- "
A shrug completed the less-than-enlightening response, and the redhead opted for a different tact.
"Kegger at the dorm tonight?"
That, finally, elicited a lessening of her companion's tension, and Barbara smiled, recalling her ward's outraged affront over her first exposure to the true nature of dorm life.
"No. I was just..."
There was another shrug, the normally effusive young woman's lack of words speaking volumes. Cautiously, Barbara rested one hand on the girl's corduroy-covered thigh.
"I know, Honey."
She saw the instant Dinah's control shattered.
"I -- I mi... miss her."
There was nothing she could do except pull her companion to her and wrap her in her arms. Wondering how her heart could be torn from her over and over, Barbara buried her face in blonde hair and whispered the truth.
"I know, Honey."
"Prometheus was the son of Iapetos and Clymene, and his name means Forthought. He gave humans lots of gifts, like the heeling drugs; profacy; and art. His worst crime was stealing fire from Zeus to give to mortals in their caves and the punishment of this demi-god serves as a cautionary tail."
Frankly disbelieving, almost incredulous, Barbara slowly removed her glasses and carefully settled them on her desk, the bows crossed at a neat ninety-degree angle. Equally slowly, she pinched the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefinger, attempting to alleviate the pounding tension headache she felt building in her neck.
With a noisy sigh, she retrieved her purple ballpoint and set to work, first crossing out "demi-god" and writing in the word "titan", then tackling other minor problems: grammar, spelling, punctuation, and basic composition. As she worked, she mentally sidetracked, attempting to guess just what word processor her student had used which had allowed so many errors.
Clearly, if Prometheus had depended on a written rescue from Franklin Liebowz, he'd still be chained to his rock.
Mercifully, her own torture of grading the essay ended two lines down on the fourth page. At least Franklin had fulfilled the letter, if not the spirit, of the length requirement for the assigned essay on some aspect of Bullfinch's tales. If she'd been a bit more on her game, Barbara suspected that she might have checked him for the overly generous margins, but, frankly relieved by the relative brevity, she opted to let it slide.
Flipping back to the cover page, she penned a bold "C-" in the upper right corner -- a gift, at that -- and, then neatly printed a suggestion that her student consult a dictionary for the meaning of "homonym". After a moment's thought, she added a few words of encouragement and a pointer to Norse mythology.
Thor and Loki might be just up Franklin's alley, but heaven help him if he tried to gloss from the comic books.
She moved the graded essay to her completed stack, however midway to the small stack still awaiting review, her hand faltered.
Dear heavens, but she was tired.
Indeed, if she hadn't been so bone weary, the redhead admitted that she might have found some sort of humor in the fact that it was after her first bit of sleep in three weeks that exhaustion was striking. She also had a sneaking suspicion that it was no coincidence that said slumber had somehow overtaken her after Dinah had cried herself out early in the morning and dropped into her own sound sleep beside her on the bed.
Shaking her head from side to side in bemusement, Barbara opted not to follow that particular train of thought. Suffice to say that being wrested from the arms of Morpheus by The Cure's "Love Cats" blasting from the alarm was enough to start anyone's day on a sour note.
With a mental note to verify the volume controls of her CD burning software, she retrieved another essay and soon found herself engaged by Amy Brenner's thoughtful analysis of Ganymede and the culture of homosexuality on Mount Olympus. She took pleasure in recording the grade, an "A", in her spreadsheet, then penned a brief hint about looking into Egyptian mythology and deposited the paper in the completed stack.
A mental lightbulb clicked on just as she retrieved the final essay, and Barbara quickly logged into the school's system, retrieving Amy's schedule for the semester.
The shy, and extremely unathletic, sophomore was taking not one, but two, physical education electives, both with the decidedly butch Ms. Stowe.
She made a mental note to keep an eye on the girl -- a gentle referral to Jessica in the Guidance Office might be in order if Amy showed any signs of confusion -- and drew a deep breath, readying herself for the final paper. Since it was Jo Hemmler's -- Barbara had gotten into the practice of saving Jo's work for last -- she couldn't be certain just what to expect; however, eight minutes later, the redhead realized that she was smiling as she finished the paper.
True to form, Jo had written a fanciful and reasonably well-documented comparison of the Greek gods with the characters from the X-Men universe. While her student could have been a bit more original with her analogies -- Barbara had her own doubts about Professor X as Zeus -- she couldn't deny the creativity.
Perhaps she could somehow induce Jo to spend some time tutoring Franklin.
That thought, and the suggestion she was penning to extend the comparison to the DC comics universe, were interrupted by a buzz against her lower back. In a heartbeat, all thoughts of improving young minds simply vanished as she dropped her pen and fumbled shakily for her cell phone.
Since it was her lunch period, there was certainly nothing improper, or even inopportune, about receiving a call in her classroom. However, since leaving the hospital, Barbara had forwarded every line to her cell: the tower, Helena's cell, even Helena's old apartment. After doing so, she'd ruthlessly programmed almost every known incoming number to voice mail, with calls from her doctors shuttled directly to the recycle bin.
In a nutshell, if her phone actually rang, it had to be a call from a select group of individuals or from a completely unknown number. A quick glance at the display stripped away her brief flirtation with the hope that the call was coming from some secret lair in which Helena had been held captive before overcoming her guards and taking command of the facility.
Absolutely refusing to speculate over the unusual occurrence of receiving a call from her father in the middle of a workday, Barbara snagged one of the wheat crackers that made up her lunch, idly chasing it around the lip of her desk. The accompanying Gala apple had already been dutifully nibbled at and then discarded.
<"Hello, Barbara. I hope I'm not interrupting.">
Despite her nearly overwhelming curiosity -- she hoped she knew why her father was calling -- she managed to corral her impatience and muster a civil response.
"Not at all, Dad. You got me right in the middle of my lunch break."
<"Good, good. Glad I remembered your schedule correctly.">
The jovial tone shifted almost imperceptibly, and the redhead prepared herself.
<"You're not sitting alone in your classroom grading papers again, are you, Barbara?"> Pursing her lips, she hummed something noncommittal, relieved when her father let matters rest.
<"Any pearls of wisdom from the adolescent acne set?">
Despite the fact that the description was painfully close to what had always been Helena's preferred catchphrase for Barbara's students -- "The Clearasil Set" -- she managed a laugh.
"Actually, Dad, I just read some creative insights about the Greek gods and the X-Men."
The redhead interpreted the quiet harrumph that followed as her father's thinking noise, neatly flicking the cracker into her trashcan as she awaited a less cryptic response.
<"It sounds like you're inspiring them, Barbara.">
Rolling her eyes, she nevertheless had to guess that the heat she was feeling in her cheeks was the hint of a blush.
<"But, speaking of crime fighters and bad guys...">
The rather rough segue perked the cyber-vigilante to attention with much greater effectiveness than a triple espresso.
"Did you find someone, Dad?"
A bit uncharacteristically, her father didn't take her to task for the interruption.
<"We did, Barbara. Amazing how vast and how poorly organized our criminal justice system truly is.">
"I dare say."
The response might have been a bit... dry; however, when Barbara had tendered her request two weeks before, she'd not expected results this quickly. The efficiency, or lack thereof, of the justice system was old hat to her; however, knowing that she could ill afford to divide her time and resources, she'd hoped that her father's contacts in the system might yield... something.
<"An old friend of mine located Tiny Ludwig up in Sing Sing.">
She felt an almost dopey grin of exultation split her features even as she exhaled the tension that had been holding her stiff.
Bruno "Tiny" Ludwig had been Harley Quinn's right-hand man on many, many capers. Finding not just "an" associate of Quinn's but one of her trusted associates was a real stroke of luck.
"That wonderful news, Dad. Can you arrange an interview, something to see if he'll name her safe locations or -- "
The tension settled itself firmly in her shoulders again at the interruption.
<"I'm afraid Tiny took a shank in the yard last night. Probably someone tipped off...">
The word seemed to echo through her very, very sophisticated phone. It knelled off the painted cinderblock walls of the classroom. It invaded her chest and organs.
<"I'm sorry, Barbara, but you know we'll keep looking for someone who can help us bring Quinn to justice.">
Inhaling slowly, Barbara worked to steady her voice.
"I know, Dad, and I do appreciate it. It's... "
A thousand words suggested themselves. Ultimately, she chose one of the most accurate.
The snort was a bit stifled, possibly by a pipe stem.
<"Unbelievable is more like it, Barbie. That Quinn would target Helena again after all this time...">
The redhead sensed her father's headshake and fought her own grim smile.
Sometimes it was more difficult than others having to keep pieces of the puzzle under wraps.
"I agree, Dad. Listen -- "
Green eyes ticked to the oversized standard issue school clock above the door, confirming Barbara's internal chronometer.
"I appreciate your call, but I need to prepare for fifth period."
Not a lie at all.
Approximately four seconds after disconnecting with insincere promises to visit soon and tucking her phone back into its holster, she brought both hands down on her desk with enough force to send the stack of graded essays fluttering to the floor.
Vividly aware that the scarred metal desk was simply too noisy for her purposes, she placed both palms flat against the edge, pushing with all her might against the brakes of her chair. When she'd muscled herself backward twelve inches or so, she turned on herself, bringing her fists to her knees with bruising force.
"Barbara? My gracious!"
Starting just a bit at the unexpected interruption, the redhead guiltily turned to the door of the classroom. She discovered, of all people, Alethea Harkness standing uncertainly by her Shakespearian England bulletin board.
Barbara flexed her hands against the ache of flesh meeting kneecaps and waited guardedly as the superannuated history teacher stepped closer.
"... something happen? Did something turn up about Helena?"
Of course, there'd been no way that she'd been able to keep her partner's disappearance under wraps. Reaction from her coworkers had ranged from indifference to offers of shoulders to cry on. Alethea, after offering somewhat stilted words of sympathy, had left her in peace.
Barbara unlocked her chair and moved to the side of the desk, twisting awkwardly to retrieve the papers that had cascaded to the floor during her little tantrum. With a mental shrug, she laid it out.
"No, nothing, Alethea. And, "
She looked over to the other teacher who was kneeling next to her to assist in the paper retrieval.
"... and that's the fucking problem."
Barbara nodded her thanks for the papers being extended and turned to place them on the desk as the other woman rose. Glancing circumspectly to the side, she noted Alethea's pursed lips and attempted to prepare herself for anything.
"You're looking too thin, Barbara. I believe you should come to my house for dinner tonight."
Anything but that apparently.
Blinking, she managed to parrot, "Dinner?"
"Yes, Barbara, dinner."
The redhead instinctively moved back a few inches when her visitor briskly approached her desk and scratched something onto a Post-It. The note seemed to float into view, and Barbara automatically accepted it, distantly noting the spidery laciness and perfect slant to the older woman's handwriting.
"Here's my address. Is 5:30 acceptable? "
"Alethea, I can't -- "
The protest was automatic, bound in force of habit. The other woman was having none of it.
"Of course you can, Barbara. I'd enjoy the company."
The bell signaling her next class seemed to jump-start her brain. Looking over to the other woman who waited expectantly in the doorway, casually blocking students from entering, Barbara cast her protests to the wind. The invitation was simply so... normal and sweet that she simply couldn't refuse.
And so it was that a scant four and a half hours later found her seated at Alethea Harkness' dining room table, prepared to break bread -- hot buttered rolls, to be precise -- with another soul for the first time in weeks. Inhaling the complex scent of the savory stew that had been simmering in a crock-pot all day, she felt her stomach twist and, with a start, realized that she was, honestly, hungry.
"This is wonderful, Alethea. Thank you for inviting me."
Touching her napkin to her lips, she reattacked the stew.
"I'm pleased that you came, Barbara. Sometimes it gets -- Do try the jello. It's quite tasty -- "
Caught flat-footed with a mouth full of stew, Barbara could think of no way to decline the offered jello mold: slivered cabbage in green jello. Casting herself to the fates, she smiled and spooned out a healthy portion.
If it were half as good as her host's other offerings, it couldn't be too bad.
"-- a bit old dining by myself."
Barbara carefully settled her fork on the edge of her plate, weighing her question.
"How long have you...?"
The tight smile which Barbara previously might have taken as supercilious only seemed brittle this evening.
"It's been six years since Hank passed away."
Blinking, Barbara could only manage an awkward, "I'm sorry."
Her host waved one hand in dismissal.
"One copes as one must, Barbara."
Somehow, and to her complete surprise, the redhead discovered that the painful moment didn't totally vanquish conversation. Haltingly, the two made small talk about students in their classes, their shared appreciation of the local theatre, and current knitting projects until -- two healthy helpings later -- Barbara followed the other woman into her sitting room to inspect her latest creation.
In short order, and feeling distinctly like she'd fallen down a rabbit hole, the redhead had been set up with a soft cashmere yarn and a tiny crochet hook and was being tutored in the diamond pattern she'd selected for a scarf for Alfred.
Or, perhaps for her father if it turned out less than perfect.
With a surprisingly affable and chatty Alethea sharing stories of her early married years, Barbara maintained a fixed concentration on the task at hand, determined not to botch the pattern.
Naturally, it wasn't that easy.
She could feel the blush moving relentlessly across her cheeks.
"How do you fix things?"
Inquisitively raised grey brows suggested that a bit of elaboration was in order, and Barbara confessed.
"I seem to have dropped a stitch. Two rows back."
It only took a bit of effort to interpret her host's headshaking and tsk-ing as amused rather than judgmental, and Barbara instantly decided that she preferred an amused Alethea to a judgmental one.
"Well, since it is two rows back, you could pretend that you didn't notice."
Pretense had really never been a problem for her, but Barbara suspected that there was something more.
The white-haired woman smiled sympathetically.
"Usually that results in something that's not well shaped in the long run."
The redhead merely blinked -- once -- waiting for the shoe to fall.
"Sometimes, Barbara, you simply must unravel a bit and reshape the work."
Green eyes glumly surveyed the three-foot by one half-inch strip of scarf.
And, she'd been making such good progress on it...
Sucking it up, she set her crochet hook aside and grasped the free end of the yarn.
"Will unraveling and starting from the dropped stitch really cover the hole?"
Given her own relative... naivete with such project, Barbara couldn't help but think that her tutor's laughter was just a bit unkind.
"I'm sorry, Barbara, but it will never be the same. After all your yarn has been used and may be a little frayed or kinked."
With a sigh that probably just missed being a huff by a few decibels, the redhead begin to yank out her work. She unraveled and rewound in silence until she reached her original error. Only then, taking in how her strip had narrowed, did she venture an observation.
"Best not to make a mistake at all, eh?"
She couldn't help but smile in return when the older woman's eyes sparkled over her half-glasses.
"It can't be helped, Barbara. It's all a part of the process."
A surprisingly companionable hour and a half later, Barbara exited the elevator and moved silently into the darkened living area. When she reached the oversized wing chair, she fished in her bag of school work and carefully extracted her three foot by one inch ribbon, draping it over one arm and deliberately not thinking about some recent history in the chair.
Since it was still early, she automatically turned to the Delphi, then slowed to a halt at the base of the ramp. She knew that she would have received a page had there been hits on the recognition bots, and cyber-patrols for the sake of habit held no appeal.
To her distinct surprise, Barbara realized that she was considering how good two fingers of the triple agave, followed by curling up with the stuffed panther for a long sleep, might be. Opting to put that thought on the back burner -- it might be wise, after all, to wait and see how that jello mold sat -- she turned to the balcony.
It was still early enough in the fall that the veranda wasn't too frigid. The redhead consciously forced herself to slow down, to take in the stars from the place that had long been Helena's refuge. With the perpetual clouds that covered her city scudding overhead, gradually, her tension from visiting this hallowed spot for only the second time since that day began to ebb.
Perhaps inevitably, it was replaced by a different sort of tension when Barbara peripherally noted a shape slipping through the shadows beside her, and for several wild, heart-stopping moments, her irrational side spasmed almost painfully at a possibility.
At a hope.
"Hel -- ?"
She couldn't help herself.
Catching sight of the shifting shadow behind her on the balcony, Barbara couldn't have held back the name had she tried. However, the instant it crossed her lips, she realized her error.
"-- fire and damnation."
And, judging the crushing despondency that seized her chest, she understood again the penalties of hope. It only took split second to recognize her error; however, the redhead suspected that it would take a wee bit longer to recover her equilibrium.
"My goodness, Dinah, you scared -- "
Working to regulate her breathing and her pounding heart, Barbara finally noted the girl's appearance: Dinah looked as pale as a ghost.
"Sit down, Dinah."
She spun toward the French doors, gesturing to one of the Adirondack chairs. She watched carefully as the blonde lowered herself gingerly to one arm and realized that she needed to correct her initial assessment.
Dinah looked as pale as if she'd seen a ghost.
When Barbara comprehended the teen's hushed whisper, she suspected that the look was contagious.
"Barbara, I think I saw Helena."
Distantly, the small portion of Barbara's analytical mind that remained functional noted that her reaction wasn't what she might have anticipated.
Excitement. Hope. Elation.
None of those stepped to the front of the line to take the first emotional volley. Rather, the first reaction was pained disbelief, the words "No fair" painting themselves across her forebrain in three-foot neon letters.
Her mind continued to prod at her response even as Barbara remained stock-still, attempting to determine if she'd heard correctly.
It wasn't, her left brain supplied helpfully, that she was unaccustomed to rapid paradigm shifts or having to think on her feet or change courses in a hurry. It was more likely that the machine-gun fire of hope and despair and then... this... all within the space of forty-five seconds would be enough to discombobulate anyone.
The question, its very lack of substance, certainly seemed to give credence to the emotional whiplash theory that her mind was currently engaged in bandying about.
"At least, I think I did."
Her unexpected guest's tremulous response gave Barbara the energy to push aside her own reaction for the moment, and she closed the distance between them.
"You -- "
Viscerally aware of the significance of the word to come, the redhead waited until pale blue eyes rose to meet hers.
"-- think you saw Helena?"
Shaggy blonde hair bobbed vigorously in the muted starlight.
"Uh huh. I mean, Helena doesn't have a twin or a double or something, does she?"
Ignoring too-recent memories of The Joker's attempt to... simulate the brunette, Barbara shook her head from side to side once.
"Well, that's the thing,"
The teen tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, then focused on her hands.
"--because she sure looked like Helena."
Crimson brows knit, and Barbara inspected her own fingernails for a moment. Weighing all of the questions clamoring for voice, she allowed one to spill from her lips at random.
Barbara could easily make out the blush spreading across her ward's fair features, providing her with a reasonable suspicion that the sighting hadn't occurred at the NGU Library.
"Uhm, we weren't really doing anything, and Bethany...?"
Since the younger woman clearly expected some sort of response, Barbara nodded briefly to signify that she remembered hearing about one of Dinah's floor mates at the dorm. If Barbara recalled correctly, the freshman had traveled from sunny California to experience a New Gotham higher education.
Apparently satisfied, Dinah resumed her tale.
"Well, she just wanted to see more of New Gotham, so Sam and I decided that, uh, maybe -- "
Her patience a bit thinner than usual, Barbara raised her right hand, palm out. When her companion's mouth shut with an audible click, she smiled encouragingly.
"You're an adult, Dinah. And I trust your judgment."
The reassurance seemed to do the trick.
"We were in the club district."
The redhead nodded thoughtfully.
No surprise in that; after all, she'd spent a fair number of her nights during college prowling the streets of the party district. Granted, she'd been clad in latex, cape, and cowl and on the hunt for crime, but the principle was the same.
Suddenly aware that her thoughts were decidedly less focused than she needed them to be, she abruptly dropped her hands to the rims of her chair and nodded toward the interior of the house.
"Let's go inside, Dinah."
Waiting only until she saw the teen rise to her feet, she moved briskly to the kitchen, tossing over her shoulder, "I think I need a drink."
Dinah snapped on the kitchen light and settled into her chair at the table just as Barbara emerged from the refrigerator. Bumping the door shut with her left wheel, she tossed over one of the last two Red Bulls from Helena's stash and popped the other. She raised the slender can to her lips and chugged it, then exacted a neat three-pointer into the trashcan.
Any more such tete-a-tetes, and the Mountain Dew would be next.
Contemplating her next question, she moved slowly to the table and then rocked her chair a few inches.
"Did you speak to her or --- "
A vigorous headshake cut her short.
"I was too far away, and I don't think she could have heard me over the noise. There were a lot of people around, and she was grabbing a cab and -- "
Barbara knew that her thoughtful skepticism must have shown when Dinah interrupted herself.
"But it was her, Barbara. I know it..."
When the girl trailed off a bit miserably, Barbara worked to fit together what might have kept her ward from using her TK to capture Helena's attention.
"Was she alone?"
The teen pushed a lock of hair behind one ear, the gesture, as well as the hint of a blush, telling Barbara everything she needed to know.
"Uhm, she was with a group of people."
The redhead pointedly decided not to speculate on the number of people that composed a group. Or, more to the point, why Helena would be out clubbing unless she was completing some sort of undercover...
Irritated with her own leapfrogging thoughts, she shook her head roughly and concentrated on questions that might have answers.
"Do you know which club she was coming from?"
Somehow, she managed another gentle smile and quashed her impatience while her protege narrowed her eyes in thought. When she saw those blue eyes widen hopefully, she couldn't help but echo her companion's growing smile.
"I think so."
And, those three words were all that were needed. They spurred both members of the little team out to the club district the following evening to circulate through the club Dinah had named. When cautious inquiries and showing of a recent photo yielded nothing but a maddening litany of no's, I'm not sure's, and maybe's, they split up.
Choosing not to think about how her underage ward was gaining access to the various establishments she'd been assigned -- after all, a bit of stealth and subterfuge was part of the life -- Barbara moved from leather bars to dance clubs to topless shows. She hit pay dirt at the third dance club -- a disco, of all things -- when not one but two people remembered seeing the woman in the photo at another nearby club twice in the last few days.
And those two confirmations were all that were needed.
The pointers were all that were needed for Barbara, once-again cognizant of her responsibilities, to shoo Dinah back to the dorms and the semblance of a normal college life. A bit of reconnaissance in a dance club was certainly nothing she couldn't handle alone, after all.
The affirmations were all that were needed for New Gotham's four-time Teacher-of-the-Year to cut the number of written essays she assigned by seventy-five percent and, citing the influence of Cicero, shift to oral reports. Speaking in class, augmented by Scantron tests, could be valuable training for all of her students, and she certainly didn't have time after work for her usual meticulous review of student papers.
The hope was all that was needed for Barbara to find herself, for the third night since the confirmations, cruising through a club aptly named The Beat and wondering how many more decibels would be required before she underwent permanent hearing loss. Settling near the bar to nurse her cranberry spritzer, she -- for the second night in a row -- tried to avoid considering how many days to give this little project before pushing her hope back into the messy box that contained her emotions.
Obviously, she'd been overdoing the Bullfinch with her tenth graders.
Snorting softly as her eyes automatically tracked from the entrance to the dance floor and back, the redhead finally allowed the insidious thought that her time might be better spent in other pursuits to worm its way to the forefront. It was more than likely that she was grasping at straws, that the drunken revelers who had identified the woman in the photo had been... confused. More to the point, there was no reason -- save her own determined need to be here, the place Helena might have been most recently -- to keep her from planting a few miniature cameras and returning to her... routine.
Heaven knew, she'd begun receiving a few comments in the teachers' lounge about the smell of cigarettes and alcohol that clung to her despite Lady MacBeth-like showers. She also owed her students a teacher who did little more than punch in and show up each day.
Last, but not least, of course was Quinn. Every moment spent away from the Delphi allowed the blonde madwoman to put more distance between them.
Chewing at the inside of her cheek, Barbara swirled her drink, glancing down to take in the dance lights refracting against the ice and the blush liquid. Slowly, she puffed out her cheeks, exhaling heavily.
Two more nights.
The weekend began tomorrow, increasing the chances that the woman Dinah had seen might return, and she herself would return to work on Monday.
Q.E.D., she'd give it two more nights.
The dimming of the already subterranean house lights and an especially boisterous bass beat thumping from the speaker to her left yanked her from dour considerations about her nearly slavish dedication to the duties she'd assumed. With a start, she recognized the opening strains of the song that threatened not just to deafen her but also to blind her with the strobes illuminating the floor.
Oh, the night is my world
City light painted girl
In the day nothing matters
It's the night time that flatters
In the night, no control
Through the wall something's breaking
Laura Branigan, of all things. Barbara hadn't heard this song since her own wild nights back in the d--
Vague concerns about just how badly she'd be dating herself were anyone at the club to discover that she'd learned all the lyrics when the song had originally hit number two on the charts suddenly vanished under the sensation of prickling electricity. It was, Barbara knew without doubt, the tingling frisson of awareness she'd long experienced in the presence of one -- and only one -- person.
Without conscious decision on her part, she felt one hand fly to her mouth, attempting to stifle her gasp. As casually as possible, she straightened, craning her neck to take in every nook and cranny of the open floor, from the entrance, to the far wall, to the short hallway leading to the restrooms, to ....
And there she was, on the dance floor, not more than twenty feet away.
Struck by a veritable tsunami of emotions, Barbara sagged in her chair before managing, her hand shaking hard enough to rattle the ice in the glass, to settle her drink on a nearby table. Unable to breath, she felt that her blood had turned to mercury, sluggish and semi-solid in her veins, her heart having to pump three times as hard to move it.
She could only suppose that anyone who saw her would know in an instant that she was a woman on the verge of stroking out. Or, having a serious case of cognitive dissonance.
Dear god, how she'd hoped; but she'd never let herself believe.
Somehow, the thought came to her that she was, nominally at least and in Helena's own words, a frikkin' superhero and it was time to pull it together. Yet, for another twenty seconds, she couldn't move, her eyes riveted on the dance floor and the coveted sight of Helena, alive and healthy.
The younger woman's hair was a bit longer; her skin a tad less bronzed. Yet, she was moving with her usual grace, gyrating against a muscle-bound fellow whose chiseled features and curly blonde locks clearly made him a shoo-in for the role of Cupid on the next Xena reunion.
Perhaps it was thoughts of Eros that did it, but Barbara finally felt the air return to her lungs and strength returning to her muscles. Somehow, instead of giving in to her urge to hot rod onto the dance floor and get her partner's attention and find out what the hell was going on, she waited.
Ticking off every second on her internal chronometer and mentally cursing a blue streak over extended remixes for dancing, she continued to watch, attempting to determine if she'd ever seen the outfit -- although it was little enough that she could have missed it -- the brunette was wearing. Eventually, the song ended, and Barbara waited as Helena separated from Adonis.
The process had been, the redhead decided a bit peevishly, analogous to peeling Velcro.
She tracked the younger woman to a solitary table in a dark corner, then scanned the room, attempting to discern whether Helena were being monitored. As certain as she could be that the only looks directed toward the brunette had little to do with surveillance, Barbara approached slowly, green eyes fixed, nearly rapt, at the sight of her friend -- her partner -- her lover.
She forced herself to halt her approach six feet from the table, simply waiting and watching as Helena lounged with her usual boneless grace. The redhead didn't have to wait long, almost certain that she witnessed the younger woman's hackles rising before the dark head swung her way and deep blue eyes pierced her.
Not ten seconds later, her overwhelming relief that her partner was alive and, apparently, quite well vanished with an almost audible pop. In its place roared an aberrant and nearly overwhelming desire to throttle the younger woman for putting her through hell for almost four weeks.
There was, after all, simply no other suitable response that she could imagine when Helena looked up, blue eyes dancing insouciantly as she spoke with maddening nonchalance.
"Hey, Red. How's it going?"
It had been twenty-five days, nine hours, and a long handful of minutes since they'd seen each other, since Helena had simply vanished from her life behind the threats and taunts of Harley Quinn. While Barbara was beyond relieved to find her lover alive and well, and while she simply couldn't begin to speculate about what the younger woman had been -- was -- up to, she didn't think it unreasonable to expect a bit less... casualness to their reunion.
Thus, when she heard the words that spilled over her lips, she wasn't entirely able to fault herself for the sharpness of her tone.
"What in the name of the Hoary Hosts of Hogarth do you think you're doing?"
She gave her wheels a sharp push, coming to a stop inches from the table. The other woman's sarcastic drawl did little to help curb her temper.
"Uhm, drinking. Dancing. "
A shrug and an unconcerned smile accompanied the words, and Barbara felt her brows furrow.
Aside from the obvious, something was definitely off.
Her pique shoved aside by concern and no small measure of curiosity, the redhead arched a brow and took a moment.
Helena certainly seemed healthy, more than full of life, to be precise. The brunette's movements were easy, relaxed and natural. Her voice and mannerisms were similarly familiar and too-long missed. Drugs, or some form of external control, didn't seem to be likely, yet something was missing.
The purring of that lovely contralto drew Barbara from musings about Helena's use of her nickname and sent shivers coursing down her spine.
The brunette straightened fractionally in her chair and smiled slowly.
"Looking's free, but buying me a drink'll get you more."
The blatantly sultry tone simply oozed invitation, although Barbara wasn't certain she care to contemplate the nature of the offer too closely. Nevertheless, she had always been a slave to her curiosity.
She tilted her head to one side, working to meter her voice against the pounding blood in her ears.
"-- and what might that be?"
The brunette's smile did little to alleviate her concern or to calm her pulse. When the younger woman tugged her fringed top down, somehow exposing a swath of firmly muscled abdomen in the process, she suspected that the gesture was not unpracticed.
"A drink's worth of my time."
Since she was capable of thinking on her feet, it took Barbara all of three seconds to consider that before she raised her hand to flag down a waitress. In this particular field of engagement, some conversation was her best weapon in determining just what was going on.
"A bottle of ..."
Crimson brows rose fractionally in question.
"... Grey Goose?"
The dark figure nodded her agreement.
"I was drinking Level, but Goose'll do."
A slender hand gestured at the table in invitation, and Barbara set the brake of her chair.
They sat in silence for a few minutes, both, Barbara suspected, attempting to mask their mutual evaluation. The return of their server with a bottle and two glasses broke the impasse.
"You're not gonna get me drunk, you know," the younger woman offered.
"I wouldn't want to," Barbara admitted truthfully as her companion poured two healthy drinks and raised her glass in salute.
The redhead returned the gesture and took a minute sip, then decided to make her first volley. Clearly, this Helena didn't seem to know who she was; it was time to start finding out just how much she knew about herself.
"But, why is that?"
The brunette neatly downed the contents of her glass and shrugged.
"Dunno. My metabolism just burns it off."
The reply seemed close enough to what her Helena might have disclosed in similar circumstances. Yet, the very openness was quite different from the guardedness Barbara knew her partner usually exhibited.
Nodding, she worked for a thoughtful expression, taking another moment to study her companion as she nursed her drink.
Apart from the superficial changes she'd observed from the edges of the dance floor, Barbara was struck by the realization that Helena looked --
The redhead felt her brows knit, no doubt enhancing the attractive worry lines she'd been cultivating of late, as she worked for the right words.
Yes, but she decided that it wasn't in a chronological sense. The brunette was composed, exhibiting a maturity at least equivalent to her twenty-five years.
The difference was, Barbara suddenly grasped, that Helena looked softer and more relaxed than she could ever recall seeing. Even in high school, even before things had changed so dramatically, the younger woman had carried an edginess and distrust like a cloak.
A long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, Helena had once supplied when her guardian had cautiously teased her about her stealthy wariness.
The sight of the vodka bottle, now only three-quarters full, swimming into view drew the redhead from her musings. She smiled her thanks as the brunette topped off her drink and then poured herself another healthy belt.
"So how'd you know?"
Blinking her befuddlement, Barbara managed to parrot one word.
The throaty chuckle from the other side of the table did little to improve Barbara's concentration.
Not surprising, she supposed; after four weeks of absence -- and terror -- she wanted nothing more than to wrap her partner in her arms and never let go.
"Not much with words, are you, Red?"
Quirking her lips, Barbara allowed, "You'd be surprised."
Blue eyes twinkled.
"Huh. So did you let the devil take your head tonight?"
Barbara barely had time to note her surprise at Helena's reference to Poe's poem before it hit her.
Quinn had hypnotized Helena.
"--can see why you needed a whole bottle for a conversation."
Somehow, the redhead managed an expression she hoped would pass for a smile and raised her glass, pleased that her hand wasn't visibly shaking.
"But, yeah, how'd you know I like Gray Goose?"
Setting her empty glass neatly on the cardboard Heineken coaster, Barbara met her companion's gaze.
"I noticed your drink -- "
She inclined her head toward the remnants of the brunette's dirty martini.
"-- and a... a friend told me that Gray Goose is one of the better vodkas."
Her search for a flicker of recognition or understanding failed, and Barbara gratefully accepted a refill from the other woman.
"Well, here's to your friend."
Automatically raising her glass in response, Barbara managed -- barely -- to sip rather than gulp her refill.
"But, I'll let you in on a secret, Red."
The easy smile was so familiar and her own hope so strong that Barbara felt herself holding her breath in anticipation.
"You could have had me with Smirnoff."
"Ha -- ? Smirnoff?"
Not entirely pleased that her conversational abilities had been once again reduced to single words, Barbara decided that an arched brow could do the talking for her.
"Yeah, for the money it's good. Peppery and all."
"You sound like you have some knowledge of the subject."
She knew she was fishing, but there was little else she could do. Fortunately, Helena either didn't notice or, perhaps in the context of the club, didn't care.
"Well, one of those men's mags, Maxim or Cargo or something...?"
Barbara nodded, and the brunette continued.
"It just had a comparison, and Smirnoff came out on top. Other than a hundred dollar a bottle brand."
Acutely conscious of the fact that their own thirty-dollar bottle was more than half-empty, Barbara pressed a bit harder.
"So, your appreciation and knowledge comes from a literary bent, er ... ?"
Blue eyes seemed to assess her before the brunette smiled and extended her hand.
"Helena. And, no, I've tended some bar, too. And hustled pool in bars."
Helena's soft laughter was rain to the desert her soul had become in the last weeks. The touch of her hand, electric.
Although Barbara wanted to extend the handshake well past the boundaries of reasonable etiquette, somehow she released the slender fingers and choked out her own introduction.
She swirled the clear liquid in her glass and cast again.
"Is that what you're doing now, Helena?"
She thought that they'd canvassed every bar in New Gotham; however, perhaps there was some hole in the wall she'd missed. The shake of a dark head removed that doubt.
"Nuh uh. That's just a little too dead end, you know? But -- "
There was simply no recourse but to respond to the younger woman's sly grin.
"I might still do a little hustling."
Still smiling, Barbara filed that bit of information away. Soft laughter from across the table distracted her from consideration about how hustling pool certainly provided a perfect opportunity for Helena to have flown beneath the radar.
"Care to let me in on the joke, Helena?"
Nodding, the younger woman leaned forward conspiratorially, her eyes twinkling.
"I just figured out why you look so familiar."
There was no way to avoid it. Despite any intent to the contrary, the redhead felt the wings of eager hope flutter against her chest. Somehow, however, she managed to limit her response to a curious quirk of her lips.
The brunette helped herself to the final drops from the bottle and leaned back loosely in her chair.
"You probably don't remember, but I was in your English class about eight years ago."
The redhead managed a soft smile.
"I remember you, Helena."
With her partner sitting across from her, even if Helena didn't remember everything yet, Barbara realized that the words hadn't hurt as much as she'd anticipated. Accordingly, she summoned a laugh of her own.
"You always made an impression, you know."
For the first time since sighting her friend less than half an hour before, Barbara took her eyes from her, glancing upward and to the left as a phrase came to mind: The student in question is performing minimally for her peer group and is an emerging underachiever. Words she'd been sorely tempted to put to paper during the first reporting period after Helena had sauntered into her Junior English class.
Shaking her head minutely to clear the cobwebs, she returned her attention to the brunette, curious about just when their versions of the last eight years diverged.
"What have you been up to since then, Helena?"
"Well, you know, kicking around, traveling, getting my shit together."
Rather than rolling her eyes at the incredible lack of detail she'd just managed to elicit, Barbara simply nodded and offered her best "Do go one" expression. Mercifully, it didn't fail.
"After my mom got killed,"
Aching at the pain still present in the younger woman's eyes -- that much hadn't changed -- Barbara nodded.
"I had a lot to work through, I guess. But,"
One crimson brow rose fractionally as Helena visibly let go of the melancholy that had always lingered when thoughts of Selina arose.
"What happened to you, Barbara?"
The slender hand gesturing toward her chair left no question as to the brunette's meaning, and suddenly the redhead felt herself very close to tears. That the one person who had kept her afloat during that bleak period had no memory of it was... inconceivable.
Hunting for words, she toyed with a plastic swizzle stick as the frenetic intro of another classic from her big-haired youth blared over the speakers.
We're talking away
I don't know what
I'm to say I'll say it anyway
Today's another day to find you
I'll be coming for your love, OK?
Finally, she cleared her throat and offered a smile that might have been just the tiniest bit forced.
"Long story, Helena. Perhaps we can talk about it some other time."
The brunette's voice was dismissive, and Barbara almost started when Helena thumped her empty glass to the table and eyed the empty bottle. In a mouthwatering display, she stretched, the stood and circled the table.
"Sorry to drink and run, but I've got.. you know --"
The younger woman waved in the vicinity of the exit, and Barbara felt a shiver course over her in memory of the sensation of those strong hands on her body.
"... places to go, people to do."
A bright smile, obviously meant to charm any ire resulting from the abrupt departure, accompanied the words and, in the face of that patented ten-thousand watt grin, Barbara almost forgot her purpose. At the last minute, she stretched up, casually resting her hand against the younger woman's elbow.
So needless to say
I'm odds and ends
But that's me stumbling away
Slowly learning that life is OK.
Say after me
It's no better to be safe than sorry
"Are you here often, Helena?"
She hoped that she didn't sound as desperate and needy as she felt. A dark brow raised in scrutiny didn't reassure her much.
"I'd like to continue catching up."
Sensing how very unimpressed the brunette was by the explanation, she added a note of disdain to her tone.
"And perhaps beat you at pool?"
Had she not known the younger woman so well, she might have missed the quick flare of competition in those deep blue eyes. Helena's voice gave none of that away.
"I'm around here sometimes, but"
As if by magic, a felt tip appeared in the lithe figure's hand.
"Let me give you my number."
Barely fighting off the urge to pump her fist in victory, Barbara smiled brightly.
"You don't need to write it down. I'll remem--"
Helena had extended her free hand, a sultry smile painting her lips, and the redhead suddenly grasped her intent. Unable to deny herself another bit of contact, she laid her hand palm up in the other woman's, squirming the tiniest bit at the tickle of the marker against her skin.
Too soon, it was over, the brunette capping the pen and stepping back.
"Call me. Maybe we can have a few laughs."
With that, she was gone, leaving Barbara staring at the seven numbers neatly filling her hand.
Oh the things that you say
Is it live or
Just to play my worries away
You're all the things I've got to remember
You're shying away
I'll be coming for you anyway
Take on me, take me on
I'll be gone
In a day or two
It wasn't an honest-to-goodness Calgon moment: She hadn't actually been transported from all her worries, and, since she still couldn't bring herself to use the recently installed whirlpool tub, it couldn't fairly be compared with a luxurious soak. Nevertheless, the steaming water from the showerhead was close enough to bliss.
The hot drops felt like rain in a desert, bringing long-dormant hope to bloom. The pounding pressure felt like fingers drumming against her skin in anticipation. It felt --
Turning her face into the spray, Barbara smiled into the water and corrected herself.
The night before, when she'd watched her errant partner slip out of the club, Barbara had felt lost all over again, adrift in the sea of humanity surrounding her. For a long ten minutes, she'd stared at the empty glasses on the small table, attempting to put the pieces together. Inevitably, a crushing weight of anger and bitterness and despair had nibbled at her, their teeth and claws seeming all the more painful after the elation of finding Helena.
If she'd thought she'd hit rock bottom during the weeks of Helena's absence, Barbara had considered during the solitary period at the club, when she'd grasped exactly how Quinn had taken her friend, that she'd just begun to dig. Yet, after returning to the clock tower, a bit of reflection on the balcony and a surprisingly refreshing two hours sleep had... erased her intrinsic pessimism.
In the process of performing the gymnastics required to towel off her lower body, Barbara froze for a moment, marveling at the idea of anything erasing her more skeptical side. With a shrug, she transferred herself from the shower bench to her chair and moved to the vanity.
If her pessimism hadn't been erased, at the very least the knowledge that Helena was alive had drawn a thick, dark line through it.
Helena was alive.
That was all that mattered. Helena was alive.
With that happy thought bouncing through her, she pulled on sweats and a tee shirt, then attacked her hair with a brush, opting to forego the usual time in communion with her blow dryer since it was Saturday. With that little efficiency, she found herself in the kitchen in short order, cheerfully humming as she buttered a freshly toasted English muffin. Her peaceful contemplation into the possibility that a dry rice cracker might be tastier than the bland pastry was abruptly cut short by a cheerful question.
"What's that song?"
Barbara managed, barely, to keep the muffin and the butter knife in her hands, even though she did jump a bit.
Belatedly, the redhead recognized that having maintained her grip on the knife might not have been ideal when she had to arrest the instinctive movement of her hand to her heart.
The blonde's tone suggested very little remorse, but Barbara really couldn't fault her.
"I just thought I recognized the tune or something?"
Crimson brows furrowed, then Barbara had a sudden suspicion that her cheeks were flaming.
"ELO, Honey. It's -- "
Undoubtedly the blush was only growing.
"-- er, something from a soundtrack."
Although she didn't appear entirely satisfied with the reply, Dinah mercifully didn't push matters as she plopped onto a kitchen chair. For her part, Barbara didn't feel the need to add that the song she'd been absently humming, "I'm Alive", had been the introductory song from an ill-fated movie starring Olivia Newton John.
With, if she recalled correctly, Bebe Neuwirth as a backup dancer on roller-skates.
Shaking her head, Barbara grabbed the jug of juice from the fridge and made her way to the table.
Clearly, retro-night at The Beat must have gotten to her.
"Soooo -- "
Equally clearly, her ward's patience had reached its limits; Dinah was visibly bouncing in her seat. Of course, she couldn't really fault the girl her excitement, given the message she'd left on her voice mail in the early hours of the morning.
A broad smile taking control of her features, Barbara set the juice on the table.
"Indeed, Dinah. I fo-- "
The soft ding of the elevator signaled the arrival of the other member of the little party, and Barbara raised one hand, wordlessly requesting a moment's forbearance.
"Good morning, Alfred."
The dapper gentleman removed his bowler, settling it on its customary hook by the linen hutch before crossing to the table.
"The content of your message would indicate that it's a very good morning, indeed, Miss Barbara."
Nodding vigorously, she pushed her untouched breakfast aside and waited until Alfred settled himself at the table before launching into the story. By the time she summarized her meeting, only the tiniest twitch of the butler's fingers against the tabletop indicated his reaction. Dinah was less reserved.
"That evil witch brainwashed her!"
"That, or something very much like it," Barbara allowed.
She noted a slow nod from the other end of the table but didn't have time to question Alfred when Dinah smiled hopefully, once again nearly bouncing in her chair as she leaned forward, her excitement palpable.
"Then, maybe you can use that flashing thingamajiggie you used before to dehypnotize Helena."
The redhead nodded slowly, mulling it over, unwilling to give voice to her own doubts so early in the game. Before she had to come up with some sort of response, Alfred spoke up.
"If you'll permit an observation from one who has witnessed a great deal of criminal chicanery through the years?"
"We'd welcome your insights, Alfred."
Barbara smiled an invitation, aware of a blonde head bobbing from the other side of the table.
"In that case," the older gentleman continued, "it seems that it would be most unlikely for a criminal as devious as Dr. Quinn not to take a previous rout into consideration when plotting something of this nature."
Barbara smiled, suspecting the expression didn't reach her eyes, and nodded once, waiting for her protege to put the pieces together.
It only took a few seconds before the blonde slumped against her chair.
"Yeah, she did mix things up with the guards at Arkham so it didn't work to deprogram them."
Hating the hint of a quaver in Dinah's voice and watching the teen's face fall, Barbara stretched across the table and gently squeezed her hand.
Although the staff Quinn had caught in her wiles for her recent escape were under the impression that the blonde lunatic was still in their charge, there was no need to admit defeat without trying.
"Nevertheless, Dinah, it can't hurt to try."
She allowed her concerns that the sentiment was completely off base -- that somehow Quinn had planted some sort of hypnotic suggestion which would be triggered by the device -- to remain unspoken. Other concerns about deprogramming in general, she refused to give voice either.
"But, Alfred's right. This doesn't... "
Hesitating, she searched for the right language.
"This doesn't feel like the last time. Helena isn't acting against her instincts."
Sensing scrutiny from Alfred, she met his gaze, blinking at the unspoken communication that passed between them.
Since that cheery thought would serve no purpose, Barbara opted for something a bit more practical: determining just where their histories diverged. Straightening her shoulders, she spoke briskly.
"From the little I was able to determine last night, it appears that Helena's memories are intact through most of high school, possibly..."
She felt her brows knit as she rewound their brief conversation of the night before.
"... until the night of Selina's murder, in fact."
Two heads, one grey and one blonde, nodded.
"Yeah, and it sounds like she has a lot of memories of what she has done since then, right?"
Barbara smiled at her younger partner.
"True, Dinah. In many respects her history, her memory, is largely the truth."
She heard her words slowing as she forced herself to speak the remainder.
"It's simply as if I --"
She managed to correct herself, hoping that her stumble hadn't been too obvious.
"As if we aren't in them."
Fortunately, Alfred spoke up, allowing her a moment to recollect herself.
"It possible that the verisimilitude may be no small factor in the effectiveness of Dr. Quinn's ploy."
When she saw Dinah's face scrunched in an over-dramatic display of confusion, Barbara finally released her tension on a soft laugh, knowing quite well that it was the effect her ward had hoped for.
"Indeed, Alfred. Since Helena's new memories are so close to reality, it may be difficult to bypass the hypnotic suggestion."
Perhaps to break the sober moment, Dinah piped up with over bright enthusiasm.
"What if we hit her on the head or something?"
The question elicited a short bark of laughter from Barbara, and even Alfred smiled. The blonde ducked her head, hiding a broad grin as a hint of pink crept into her cheeks.
"Or, maybe just, uh, we could confront her or something and snap her memories back."
Barbara felt her brows receding into her hairline but managed to speak with mild unconcern.
"I believe that only works in soap operas, Dinah."
Briskly she pushed back from the table and turned toward the living area.
"We'll need more... data before trying anything."
Since there was no time like the present to start her research, she headed toward the Delphi, aware of Dinah trailing behind her and Alfred discretely remaining in the kitchen. While she had to admit that her next step could have been accomplished from anywhere in the house, for some reason she felt on more solid ground settled in front of her primary plasma display.
Perhaps the whir and hum from the CPUs created a white noise which she'd grown to find soothing.
Thirty seconds later, with her cell phone open in her hand, the redhead ruefully admitted that her workstation seemed to provide a great deal more courage for routine situations. Safeguarding New Gotham; foiling laser attacks on Arkham and rescuing her partner; doing battle with The Joker: all were a roll in the park compared to her current task.
Of course, she realized with sudden clarity, never before had the stakes been so high, the price of failure so absolute.
Caught up in self-doubt which bordered on terror, Barbara eventually became aware of three words, Helena's words, echoing through her memory. They'd been uttered in a variety of circumstances -- from struggles for the remote to control to battles with super villains -- and with a host of inflections -- ranging from aggrieved to exasperated to playful. And they were just the reminder she needed.
"We're frikkin' superheroes."
Not allowing herself further delay, she dialed seven digits from memory and placed the handset to her ear. Because her phone was, naturally, state of the art and connected to the wireless network through Wayne Industries and Department of Defense satellites, she was clearly able to hear the soft click of connection that preceded the first ring.
Instantly, she lowered the phone and jammed her thumb against the Off button.
Acutely aware of cornflower blue eyes fixed on her, Barbara experienced a sudden visceral sympathy the various Toms, Dicks, and Wades in her life who had sucked up their courage to call her. Not to mention Helena's courage not too many months before in speaking her heart.
"It's hard, isn't it? Especially when it's... important."
She shared a rueful smile with the young woman who was so often wiser than her years before straightening her shoulders and toggling on the phone.
It was time to return Helena's confidence in her, confidence that whatever happened her heart wouldn't be broken.
"Indeed it is, Dinah."
Without further ado, she toggled the phone on and hit the redial button. It wasn't until the fourth ring, when she heard the click signaling that the call was being answered, that Barbara realized she was holding her breath. When she heard the prerecorded message of Helena's voice mail, she didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
<"This is Helena. I'm probably off saving the world. Leave a message that's gonna make me want to call you back.">
Laughter. Undoubtedly laughter to hear Helena's voice, to take in words that were so totally Helena's.
"This is Barbara Gordon."
She hesitated for a beat, debating whether to identify herself further before deciding to let it go.
"I enjoyed seeing you last night--"
Even as she stumbled ahead, Barbara cast her eyes heavenward at the enormity of that little understatement.
"I, er, -- I seem to have a dearth of papers to grade this weekend, and -- "
God, she'd never been good at this. Could she seem less interested? Or, for that matter, more stiff?
The sight of Dinah's dramatic eye rolling suggested a clear answer in the negative, spurring the redhead to the realization that she needed something to pique Helena's instincts and interest.
"I was hoping to see if your pool skills measure up to what I learned in an advanced geometry course a few years ago. Please give me a call."
She left her number, sagging a bit in relief at her Dinah's encouraging nod. Snapping the phone shut, she forced herself not to consider the irony of accepting... pointers from her current ward in the process of reconnecting with her former ward.
Dear heavens, but life could be strange.
Her smile just a trifle forced, she caught Dinah's gaze, feeling her brows quirk in question. Dinah's answering smile was, possibly, a tad over-enthusiastic.
"Well, that went pretty well, Barbara."
Relief coursing through her, she whipped her head to the side.
"Do you think so?"
The blonde's indulgent smile spoke volumes.
Barbara finally managed a laugh at her own expense then sobered when her companion shifted, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear.
"Did it go okay yesterday?"
Considering everything that had transpired in the last fourteen hours, the best the older woman could manage was a blank look.
"Uhm, with the doctor? I know you haven't wanted to talk about it much, but is everything okay still?"
The quick spark of anger at the younger woman's concern was rapidly pushed aside by guilt that her ward clearly felt so nervous broaching the topic. Still, Barbara felt that there was no reason to mention that she'd simply ignored all things medical in the last month.
"It's fine, Dinah."
She managed a reassuring smile.
"Thank you for asking."
Nodding and smiling, smiling and lying. Obviously she hadn't lost her skill in the art of masks.
"Your first long weekend is coming up, Dinah."
Quite cognizant of the younger woman's startled blink, Barbara plunged ahead.
"Have you considered driving up to State to visit Gabby?"
To her relief, the tactic was successful; Dinah allowed the abrupt conversation shift.
"Do you think it's okay? I mean -- "
Barely quashing her urge to still the teen's gesture, Barbara waited while Dinah fiddled with the hair she'd just tucked behind her ear.
"With everything that's going on?"
This time, the older woman's smile felt very genuine.
"I'm sure, Honey. I believe I can manage."
She left unsaid that her ward deserved time for her own life. Nevertheless, the reassurance seemed to do the trick, and Dinah visibly brightened before launching into a lengthy and somewhat convoluted description of plans for connecting with her girlfriend during homecoming weekend. Eventually, after providing multiple promises to call when she heard from Helena, Barbara coaxed the younger woman off to the dorms and, hopefully, something resembling a normal collegiate life.
For a full five minutes after Dinah's departure, the redhead remained fixed and still in front of her workstation. Eventually it dawned on her that her phone wouldn't ring any sooner if she stared at it, and, with a shrug, she turned to other matters.
First, of course, was a handwriting analysis of the phone number she'd scanned from her palm the night before. To her moderately trained eye, and based on an admittedly meager sample, Helena's handwriting didn't seem to differ from what she'd become familiar with. However, a full trace would only be prudent.
While those routines set about their work, she turned to an equally important bit of research: programming and dispatching a fleet of bots to search out everything they could find online concerning hypnotic suggestion and Quinn's complete background in the area.
Finally, with a happy sigh, she clicked open her lesson planning spreadsheets.
It was well past time to reacquaint her students with written communication, and a pop-essay for her fourth period class seemed the perfect place to start.
Barbara opened a new document, saving it and then hyperlinking it to the spreadsheet. For a few moments, she stared at the blank page, tapping her thumbs against the keyboard wrist-rest before beginning to type.
"Choose one: Shakespearean play; Nineteenth Century American novel; comic book; online fan fiction. In essay form, compare and contrast with one myth from Bullfinch."
After a second's thought, she moved her cursor to the word "form" and amended her instructions.
After all, since comic books were an option, there was no reason not to permit other graphic forms of communication.
Her musings about which, if any, of her students might choose to model a storyboard were cut short by the Looney Tunes theme song trilling from beside her mouse pad.
The ring tone Helena had downloaded into her cell phone six weeks before.
Willing herself not to hope, she checked the caller-ID and felt herself breaking into a broad smile.
"This is Barbara."
<"U - Oh.">
The redhead experienced a split-second of anxiety, wondering if answering halfway through the first ring had been a bit... overanxious. Judging from her caller's soft chuckle and rapid recovery, it hadn't been too off-putting.
<"Hi Barbara. This is Helena.">
Not quite able to grasp how completely giddy she was feeling, Barbara removed her glasses and tossed them onto the desk. At the last moment, she stopped herself from primping her hair.
She suspected that no amount of iron will could mask the genuine pleasure in her tone.
"Thank you for returning my call."
<"My pleasure, Barbara.">
Perhaps her tone was contagious since Barbara clearly detected a purring silkiness creeping into the other woman's words.
<"You think you can take me, huh?">
One mercifully brief befuddled blink later, the redhead collected herself with a laugh.
"I'd certainly like to try, Helena. That geometry class must be good for som-- "
A soft click signaling another incoming call interrupted her. Since Barbara knew exactly which numbers she'd programmed to ring through, she quickly checked the caller ID.
Damn. Jesse Reese. Not a call she wanted to miss considering what he'd been working on on her behalf.
"I'm sorry, Helena," she resumed, "but can you hold for a minute? I need to -- "
The other woman cut short the apology.
<"Go ahead and take your call.">
As she'd hoped, the detective had managed to interview a former cellmate of Tiny Ludwig's, garnering the names of a few of Quinn's favorite lackeys who were still on the streets. As briskly as possible without being hopelessly rude, Barbara jotted down the names and ended the call with her thanks.
"Helena? Are you still there?"
The laconic response was so typically Helena that Barbara couldn't help but smile. The expression faltered just a bit when the younger woman continued, her voice all business.
<"I'll be at O'Harrah's tomorrow afternoon.">
Ignoring the voice-only nature of the conversation, Barbara nodded when she placed the reference to a pool hall near NGU.
<"I've got to meet a guy, but if you don't mind being interrupted, we could shoot a few games.">
Grasping that this conversation was rapidly drawing to a close, Barbara kept it short.
"I'd be delighted, Helena. An interruption shouldn't be a problem. Is there a specific ti--?"
A soft laugh cut short her question.
<"I'll be there all afternoon. Just drop by tomorrow.">
A soft click followed the words, however even the abrupt end of the call could do nothing to deflate Barbara's mood. Absently snapping shut her phone, she focused on the word that bounded giddily through her mind, a word rife with possibilities.
Barbara sucked in a final fortifying breath and stretched out to open the side door to the van. Fingers on the latch, she froze, releasing her shot of courage and saluting her own cowardice by making a satisfyingly noisy raspberry.
Recognizing full-well that it was a delaying tactic, she gave herself another once over, reconfirming her assessment that she'd chosen well: her favorite jeans, a NGHS tee, her soft denim over shirt, and her favorite ass-kicking Doc Martins. The outfit was not only perfectly casual for what was, nominally, a casual meeting to shoot some pool, but it also happened to be the very same outfit she'd selected months before for a mystery date in the infancy of her changed relationship with Helena.
That the date had turned out to be dinner and a video at Helena's old apartment above the Dark Horse was another motivator, the memory bringing with it shivers of pleasure when she recalled the dark chocolate mousse they'd shared for a very memorable dessert.
As prepared as she'd ever be, the redhead finally pried herself away from the safety of the van and circumnavigated to the ramp leading into O'Harrah's. She'd never frequented the pool hall but knew that it was a favorite hangout for students from the nearby university and for New Gothamites who lived near the docks. The inside was stereotypically dark, and after the bright late-September sunshine, it took Barbara a few seconds to adjust.
Twenty... Twenty-four tables, just over half of them already occupied despite the relative earliness in the day. Unsurprisingly, most of the inhabitants of the establishment were men, the few women she noticed primarily appearing to fall into the girlfriend category, perched on stools to admire their dates' prowess with the stick.
Not immediately spotting one specific woman, Barbara planted her hands on her armrests and pushed up, chalking up -- not for the first time -- another debt The Joker owed her: visibility from waist height. An insidious whisper -- something about being stood up -- nibbled at her until she finally spotted Helena in the back corner of the pool hall. With a less-than-delicate thump, she lowered herself into her seat and began making her way along one wall, taking her time as she observed the younger woman.
The brunette was focused on a game of nine-ball, the stack of bills resting next to several half-empty bottles of microbrew on a nearby table suggesting that the match was not merely friendly. The somewhat sour expression on her opponent's face, not to mention the way Helena was smoothly sinking one ball after another -- in sequence -- left little doubt as to the probable outcome. Of course, Barbara noted with a flare of something which felt suspiciously like jealousy, if Helena's opponent had been keeping his full attention on the game, he might have been faring a bit better.
Not, she admitted as she swallowed around the lump in her throat, that she could blame the man. The young woman's skin tight jeans left little to the imagination every time she bent to line up a shot; her sleeveless tank revealed the smooth flex of her arms with every stroke of the cue.
Helena was, Barbara instantly decided, breathtaking.
Since she had no intention of ruining the other woman's game, Barbara halted her approach two tables away, more than content to observe. While Helena's opponent was, justifiably, having very visible concentration difficulties, not so the brunette. Eye fixed on the table, she moved from shot to shot with silent grace, looking for all the world like a stalking tiger. The only sound from the back corner, somehow clearly discernable over the mutter of conversation and click of stick against resin, was the whisper of the varnished cue through elegant fingers.
Rapt, the redhead waited while the brunette lined up a showy masse. Perhaps her soft hiss of appreciation for the daring shot somehow reached the young woman's ears; given Helena's acute senses, it wouldn't have been impossible. Regardless, in the quarter-second before Helena's cue made contact with the white ball, Barbara saw the lithe figure -- stiffen. It was almost imperceptible, but it was enough to ruin the shot and send the cue ball hopping straight into the side pocket.
More than a little curious about what reaction might follow, Barbara held her breath. She heard a long hiss as the brunette straightened, then was pinned by blue eyes when Helena half-turned, somehow unerringly finding her.
Barbara thought she detected the hint of a wink as Helena turned back to the table and fished the cue ball from the pocket. She was certain she heard a chuckle.
"Ball in hand, John. Let's just call this one."
The man who'd been only moments from losing was clearly a bit pole-axed by his sudden change in fortune, but Helena gave him no time to recover his wits. Thrusting the pile of bills into his hand, she steered him away from the table.
"Take the money and run, John. I've got another soul to fleece."
A smile taking control of her face, Barbara rolled into position, opting to ignore the assumption that she'd be an easy mark.
"I hope I wasn't responsible for your scratch, Helena."
The other woman took her time, downing the remainder of her beer in one long swallow and catching a drop of amber liquid from the lip of the bottle with her tongue.
"Guess you might have been, cruising a former student like that, Red."
A host of denials and partial truth explanations came to mind. To her surprise, Barbara didn't detect the heat of the anticipated blush, and garnering courage from that, she provided a simple truth.
"I'm glad to see you again, Helena."
Helena's expression was guarded but not, Barbara hoped, unfriendly.
She nodded slowly as the brunette circled the table, retrieving balls from the pockets.
"Eight ball to start?"
Helena held up the black and white ball, cocking her head and grinning. There was no way to deny invitation or the smile.
"Sounds good, Helena."
She dug into her pocket for her money clip.
"What are the stakes?"
The brunette didn't look up from racking the balls.
"I usually don't play for less than twenty a game."
Automatically doing the math, the redhead wondered if she could dispense with the games altogether and simply drop one or two hundred dollars on the table. Somehow, she bit back the question and allowed one brow to rise playfully.
"On a teacher's salary?"
That earned her a snort -- and a mouthwatering display of muscled abdomen as her companion stretched over the table to hang the triangle from the light fixture.
"Okay, Barbara. How about an alumni discount of, say, ten dollars a game?"
Barbara nodded briskly and dropped a ten on the side table.
She turned to the racks of cues on the walls, green eyes ticking from one to the next.
Did they come from the factory pre-warped?
"You want me to use one of those pieces of crap?"
A dark maple cue -- clearly a custom piece of work -- waved in the periphery of her vision.
"Just to even the odds a little?"
Taking her time, Barbara finally retrieved a stick that was less C-shaped than the others and which, somehow, still had more than an eighth-inch tip remaining.
"No thank you, Helena."
She snagged a crumbling cube of chalk and smiled.
"I wouldn't want to handicap you with something unfamiliar in your hands."
Barbara nearly finished the job of crumbling the chalk when she saw the wolfish gleam in her companion's eyes.
"Yeah, it's hard to find your rhythm -- "
The varnished stick slid smoothly between slender fingers.
"-- when you don't know what you're handling. You thirsty?"
Barbara blinked, somehow dragging her gaze from her partner's caressing movements, and wet lips that were, in fact, very dry.
"Extremely," she managed.
The dark head cocked inquisitively toward the empty longnecks, blue eyes twinkling impishly.
Barbara swallowed with difficulty, acutely aware that her geometric skills would be hard-pressed in taking on her companion.
"... water, please."
Caught up in chalking the uneven tip of her cue and mentally locating the nearest ATMs, she nearly jumped when Helena returned from the bar -- seemingly within seconds -- bearing two bottles of spring water and two beers. She smiled her thanks, feeling the smile widen when the younger woman neatly uncapped one of the waters before extending the bottle.
"Your break, Barbara."
The redhead downed half her water, then settled the bottle on the table and turned to the billiard table. Years of practice in her father's rec room had accustomed her to shooting from table height, but she deliberately made her first stroke awkward. The cue ball struck with a respectable, if not overly powerful, crack of resin on resin, peeling off a pitiful three balls, one of which wobbled over to the far corner pocket and rolled in.
Solids. A pity that the other two balls she'd separated from the cluster in the table were stripes.
Circling the table to the cue ball, she glanced sharply to the side. There appeared to be only sincerity in the younger woman's face.
"Not a problem," she replied airily.
Feeling her rhythm, she powered the white ball into the center of the racked balls, dropping the one and the five.
She didn't need to look to detect the appreciation in the low whistle that followed the yellow ball into the pocket.
"Don't think there was much geometry involved in that, Red."
Laughing, Barbara surveyed the scattered formation, picking out the patterns and calculating her best approach.
"Sometimes, a little brute strength works better than finesse."
Helena's responding laugh was low and throaty, and it sent shivers up Barbara's arms. She bought herself a moment to collect herself by rechalking the sorry tip of her cue.
"Wish I'd known that back in high school."
The younger woman's tone was light, but Barbara detected something more and glanced over.
The diminutive slipped out without thought, but her companion either didn't notice or chose to ignore it.
"Yeah. It's just kind of funny recognizing you after all this time, and well, I'm sorry for some of the bullshit I pulled on you back then."
Something in the words caused Barbara to blink, and the seven she banked off the far rail missed the pocket by centimeters.
"No apology necessary, Helena."
She withdrew from the table and snagged her water.
"Adolescence is pure hormone soup."
The lithe figure stretched over the table and negligently dropped the thirteen and the nine.
"Hormone something, I guess."
Something in the younger woman's strut as she circled the table caused Barbara to loose track of the conversation for a moment. By the time she caught up, Helena had dropped the ten and the fifteen.
"Hormones are very powerful forces of, er, nature."
Barbara fiddled with her water bottle as the tip of Helena cue disappeared into her cupped hand, rotating tantalizingly against what Barbara presumed to be a cube of chalk.
The brunette bent to line up a shot, and the throaty burr in her voice disappeared.
"Tell that to Miz Harkness. Is she still there?"
Barbara's laugh -- coinciding with Helena neatly sinking two more stripes -- finally returned some oxygen to her brain, and she was able to ride out the ridiculously short remainder of the game and the next embarrassingly brief game by sharing tales of the faculty with her companion. Down twenty dollars in less than ten minutes, she approached the table for her break, determined to try to provide at least some challenge for her opponent.
There would be simply no way to forgive herself if Helena cut short their competition due to boredom.
Sliding the cue through her fingers as she readied to power the cue ball into the rack, Barbara arrested her stroke and looked up. As she'd thought, Helena's eyes were fixed on her.
More accurately, on her hands.
"Guess you're not married."
Words failed, and so Barbara shook her head, fighting the urge to clasp her naked fingers to her lap.
Under the guise of chalking her cue, she looked down. Her voice sounded tight to her own ears.
"About one hundred and twenty-five each year."
The brunette laughed, and waved an invitation at the unbroken rack of balls on the table. Barbara squared her shoulders and bent again to the break. Fortunately, her opponent didn't speak again until she'd sent the balls scattering, dropping three stripes.
If Helena had spoken before her shot, Barbara suspected that she might have sent the cue ball sailing right off the table.
"Yeah. I guess I didn't see you as the maternal type."
Barbara kept her eyes fixed firmly on the table.
The nine-thirteen made a likely combo.
Her voice was steadier than she'd feared. Sighting down the warped cue, the redhead caught a glimpse of dark brows waggling across the table and held her shot.
"Uh huh. Of course, I figure most of the boys and a couple of the girls in each of your classes couldn't see you in a maternal light."
Wondering if it were physically possible for a conversation to kill a person, the redhead made the combination, then spoke briskly.
"What about you, Helena?"
The unconcerned hum echoed against the bottle next to the younger woman's lips, and Barbara went with what she hoped would be a neutral approach.
"You mentioned doing some traveling?"
She dropped the ten and backed down the table to assess the angles on the fifteen.
Tricky, but if she massed over the four she could make the side pocket.
"Yeah. Beaches. Big cities. Paris, too. I grew up there, you know."
Making the shot, Barbara allowed herself the indulgence of pumping her fist in the air before turning her attention to the eight.
"Why were you in Paris as a child?"
She managed a note of distraction, curious about how much Helena remembered... or would reveal.
"Oh, my mom was an art and antiquities broker, and she just loved it there."
The redhead nodded.
"Eight ball, far corner."
It was done as quickly as she'd spoken, and Helena's appreciative whistle brought a blush to her cheeks.
"You ran the table, Barbara. Cool."
Warmth pervading her face... and chest... and heart, Barbara began fishing her balls out of the pockets while Helena retrieved the rack.
"Finesse can work, too, Helena."
She began to rack the balls, smiling indulgently as Helena dropped a ten next to the stack on the table.
"Where else have you been traveling?"
The redhead felt one eyebrow crawling skyward at the sight of the younger woman fishing a cigarette case from her back pocket.
"Mostly hanging out here. I sort of finished school by the skin of my teeth, and then I've just kind of worked on getting my shit together."
"How did you do that, Helena?"
She handed over the rack, which Helena hung from the light again, silver case still unopened in her hand.
"Booze, drugs, and partying, I guess."
An unconcerned shrug accompanied a cheerfully unrepentant grin, and Barbara had no choice but to smile back.
"I sort of fell into tending bar and did that for way too long."
This time, dramatic eye rolling coincided with the confession, and Barbara smiled encouragingly even as Helena pulled an unfiltered from the cigarette case.
"Where -- ?"
"A dive called the Dark Horse. I actually had a place above it for years."
Barbara nodded again, and Helena lit the cigarette, taking a deep drag. In the smoke pervading the pool hall, it was difficult to be certain; however, years of surprising students in the restrooms and under the bleachers had perfected her senses. She sniffed once, detecting a hint of something in addition to the tobacco, and narrowed her eyes.
Apparently her scrutiny didn't go unnoticed. Instantly, Helena circled the table, extending her smoke in invitation.
"Sorry, Red. I didn't mean to be rude."
Despite the deluge of emotions flooding her, Barbara was calmed by the normalcy of Helena's words.
Heaven knew, with her metabolism, a joint would scarcely touch the brunette, and Barbara was hardly naive enough to believe that her first ward had never... experimented.
"Want a hit?"
Somehow, she painted on a smile to go with her demurral, and, with a shrug, her companion retrieved her cue for the break. The balls scattered, the one dropping sharply into the near corner, and within two more strokes by the brunette, Barbara knew she'd been correct about the drugs not affecting Helena's performance; she was being thoroughly trounced.
The arrival of a dark-haired man saved her from a complete rout.
"Schneider. Glad you could make it."
The younger woman casually laid her cue across the table.
"I'm sorry, Barbara."
The redhead tore herself from her inspection of the forty-something gentleman, only to find herself pinned by her partner's deep blue eyes.
"This is the interruption I mentioned."
Helena waved toward Schneider.
"Can you give me a few minutes?"
Curious beyond belief, Barbara nodded agreeably.
"Take your time."
She withdrew to the table as they disappeared toward the exit, Helena's easy laughter managing to alleviate some of the discomfort Barbara felt at the sight of the older man's hand on her shoulder. For a long twenty-two minutes, she held her vigil, sipping from her second bottle of water and absolutely refusing to speculate on the nature of the meeting.
Instead, she replayed their conversation of the last forty-five minutes. Helena hadn't shown a hint of recognition when Barbara had shared a few stories from the past years that were very much shared history; however, she'd also demonstrated no... negative reactions. Perhaps it was time to try another tact.
Decision made, the redhead dug into the side pocket of her chair and pulled out a small digital camera. She'd occupied herself the day before altering its flash mechanism to incorporate the neural strobe -- the flashing thingamajiggie, as Dinah had referred to it -- for just such an occasion. By the time Helena returned, Barbara had snapped shots of a few of the neon beer signs on the walls, leaving her perfectly posed to catch the brunette with the flash under the guise of capturing another bit of Americana.
"What the f-- "
Other than a brief flare of irritation, covered by a laugh, there was absolutely no response to the flash. Painting on a bland smile, Barbara dropped the camera into the pocket of her chair.
"My friend Alfred has a fondness for neon."
She saw one dark brow arch, but the younger woman just smiled as she retrieved her cue.
Helena chalked the tip, her attention already on the table.
"Sorry it took so long. It's still my run, right?"
Apparently, Barbara's appraising look wasn't missed, and the redhead felt a hint of color touch her cheeks when her companion straightened and settled the butt of her cue on the floor.
"Look, it's not what you think if you're thinking that."
The dark head inclined toward the roach in the ashtray.
"Schneider's gonna do some upgrades on my car."
Barbara suspected that her smile was a bit tight even as she released some of her tension at the explanation.
"I'm sorry, Helena. It's really none of my business. Probably -- "
She shrugged and reached for her own cue.
"-- just habit from school."
With a laugh, Helena bent to her shot.
"Sure, but don't sweat it. I'm on the up and up."
The brunette missed what should have been an easy bank shot and stepped back from the table with a rueful chuckle. Keeping her eyes on the table, Barbara worked for nonchalance.
She waited while Helena drained her second beer, unable to resist the impish twinkle in the younger woman's eyes.
"Just thinking that that being on the up and up is probably a close call for me."
Deciding the opportunities for follow-through were better on the other side of the table, Barbara changed her position.
"How so, Helena?"
She crisply made an easy shot, applying just enough English to bring the cue ball back to its original position. Peripherally noting the way Helena was shifting from foot to foot, she looked up and smiled encouragingly.
The brunette chuckled again.
"My mom wasn't really so much an antiquities broker."
Curious about the extent of her knowledge, Barbara smiled softy.
If she hadn't known her companion so well, Barbara might have missed the hint of shyness in Helena's demeanor. She doubted that she could have overlooked the pride and affection that always pervaded the younger woman when she spoke of her mother.
"Nah. She was a cat burglar. One of the best, too."
Barbara hoped that her fond smile would be taken as something else, perhaps pleasure at being let in on the joke. She focused on her next shot, speaking as casually as possible.
"Does that mean you've considered following her into the same line of work?"
She almost ripped the felt on the table when she heard Helena's airy reply.
"No way. My guardian helped me see that there were better ways to honor her memory."
She needed a drink.
With a sharp push against her wheels, Barbara cruised over to the side table and grabbed her water bottle.
Considering how closely this Helena's reality seemed to coincide with history, Barbara knew that she shouldn't have been surprised by the younger woman's next words.
"Yeah. She took me in after my mom died. Great lady. She taught me a lot and helped me through a lot of shit."
Since swallowing seemed to be beyond her at the moment, Barbara fiddled with the cap of the bottle while Helena smoothly dropped her final ball and circled the table to line up the eight.
Blue eyes rose to meet green.
"Maybe you've heard of her?"
Quirking her brows in question, Barbara experienced a sinking feeling that she just might have. That sensation immediately turned into one of plummeting naked over Niagara Falls in a barrel when Helena neatly sank the eight and looked up again.
"Yeah, she's a shrink named Quinzel."
She saw her from half a block away, the neon from the storefronts casting Helena's face into prisms of light and shadow. Enraptured by the image, Barbara missed the change of the traffic light, only alerted to the fact that she could proceed by the helpful honking of the cars behind her. Slightly baffled by her own... addled state, she released the brake lever and squeezed the accelerator, moving slowly down the street to come to a stop in an illegal double park.
It was possible that the younger woman hadn't been expecting this particular form of transportation since she performed a comic double-take before stepping from the curb and approaching the Hummer. Barbara smiled an invitation, and Helena gracefully pulled herself into the oversized vehicle.
"Holy testosterone fest, Barbara."
The redhead primly turned off her emergency flashers and pulled into traffic, fighting the urge to roll her eyes.
She'd long assumed that the tendency to tack the word "holy" on to various improbable terms had been an increasingly less humorous predilection of Dick's. However, perhaps she was some sort of carrier for the tendency. A Typhoid... No, a Holy Mary of tiring expressions.
"Good evening, Helena."
She glanced over, nearly hyperventilating at her companion's appearance: knee-length cocktail dress, tasteful pumps, and a bright red silk bolero jacket, probably in deference to the hint of autumn in the evening air. As usual, she found herself feeling hopelessly plain in the younger woman's presence.
At least some things didn't change.
"I hope I didn't keep you waiting, Helena."
From the corner of her eye, she registered a blinding smile.
"No worries, Red. I guess it can take a little extra time to find a tug boat to guide this monster through the harbor."
Her laughter was instant; the movement of her hand to play-swat her companion, instinctive. At the last second, she arrested a gesture that was undoubtedly over familiar, and waved airily.
"It isn't quite as sleek as your M-3," she allowed, "but it certainly gets me all sorts of special attention from valet parking."
Once again caught at a light, Barbara looked over just in time to see the younger woman toss her head back in laughter. The streetlight highlighted the long line of her throat, appearing to make a direct line to the perfectly modest neckline of her dress. Running the tip of her tongue around the edges of her lips, the redhead fiddled with the vent on her side, wondering if the vehicle's climate control could be malfunctioning. Perhaps Helena noticed the scrutiny because she playfully primped her hair as the light turned.
"Up to specification, Red?"
Ignoring the irritated honking from behind her, the Barbara turned in her seat, hoping that the blush she felt touching her cheeks would be hidden in the darkness.
"You look lovely, Helena. Thank you for joining me."
She turned onto the divided boulevard that would take them downtown, hearing her own chuckle at the other woman's response.
"You look pretty good yourself, Barbara, even if this is a little dressy for a pool re-match."
The afternoon before, after learning how Quinn had altered Helena's memories of growing up after Selina's murder, Barbara's game had been hopelessly off. She'd dropped thirty dollars in twelve minutes before sensing that she was losing Helena's interest. Making her apologies, she'd been struck by inspiration.
"I'm sorry for my distraction, Helena, but will you give me another chance?"
The brunette had looked up from storing her cue stick in its case, a lazy smile barely hiding the intrigued gleam in her eyes.
"What do you have in mind?"
Screwing up her courage, Barbara had blandly met her gaze.
"Are you free tomorrow evening?"
She'd seen the spark in those expressive eyes and barely resisted pumping her fist in the air.
"Sure. I was just gonna hustle some grocery money out of the frat boys. You wanna meet here again?"
Barbara had waited until her opponent had deposited their empty bottles in a nearby trashcan and plucked the remains of her cigarette from the ashtray.
"I was thinking of Luigi's."
It had taken a bit of fast-talking to persuade Helena that she'd purchased a dinner for two at a recent PAL auction and had been left dateless at the last minute. However, nobody had ever accused Barbara of not being persuasive: somewhere between extolling the virtues of New Gotham's most famous Italian restaurant and offering to reimburse the brunette for the amount she might hustle from her at pool during a two hour period, Barbara had finally secured Helena's agreement to meet her downtown the next night.
Her companion's final words on the subject, delivered over a laugh as she stuffed her winnings into her front pocket, had gone a long way in relieving Barbara's guilt over her machinations.
"And, no money needed. Dinner at Luigi's with you is a helluva lot better than I'd do here."
Three hours after picking up the younger woman, Barbara pulled into the parking garage at the clock tower, happily aware that Helena's words had proven prophetic. The evening had been, at least for her, wonderful: the dinner itself had been worthy of the restaurant's four stars; her companion had been utterly charming; and, despite a tendency to wax a bit too fondly about Quinzel, Helena had opened up further about a past which was eerily similar to reality. Best of all, the younger woman had easily accepted her invitation to return to the tower for a drink.
Practically humming, Barbara shut off the oversized SUV and reached behind her for her chair.
Any hopes that returning to her home of almost six years might penetrate Helena's fugue dissolved at the incredulous look on the brunette's face.
"You live here? It's a clock."
Barbara pushed aside her disappointment and headed to the elevator.
"There have been some renovations, and the ticking can be... soothing."
They rode upstairs in silence, silence that ended with a voluble exclamation when the elevator doors slid open.
Glancing up from turning on one of the table lamps, Barbara caught her partn-- her guest taking everything in with undisguised awe.
"Rent control," she offered mildly, shrugging out of her jacket.
A coolly assessing look was the only response, and the redhead waited as Helena prowled softly through the living area. Barbara purposely hadn't dropped the bookcases that disguised most of the scientific and computing equipment. Aside from the faint hope that it would trigger a memory for Helena, she'd decided she simply had nothing to hide from her former partner-in-crime fighting.
Additionally, having learned this evening that Quinzel was "on travel" after having taken Helena to a Michigan spa to celebrate her birthday two weeks before, she was further reassured that attacks from that quarter were unlikely.
"Okaaaay. How about all this stuff inside the place?"
Exhaling slowly, Barbara kept it short.
"I came into a stipend of sorts, a Wayne foundation grant."
There was no sign of the usual disdain that accompanied mention of Bruce, but Barbara didn't miss how blue eyes ticked to her chair. Nevertheless, the brunette's next question was not what she expected.
"How do you know you can trust me?" She felt her eyebrows shoot toward her hairline. Undoubtedly her expression was leaning towards the "stupid" end of the "blank" spectrum.
"Trust me in here?"
Helena smiled indulgently and gestured toward the bric-a-brac lining the bookcases.
"You've got a lot of valuables, you know."
The air in the room suddenly very thin, Barbara struggled against the wild laugh bubbling in her chest.
How could she possibly explain that there was nothing material that Helena could take that would hurt her?
Completely at a loss, she finally spoke dismissively.
"If you want... or need... something, take it."
The other woman's laughter was full and genuine, and Barbara felt herself smiling even before she comprehended Helena's words.
"Like I said, I'm not my mom."
The redhead held her ground when Helena strolled over and, placing her fingertips lightly on the armrests of her chair, bent close.
"I'm doing alright, and I always pay my own way."
Caught in a gaze both intense and inscrutable, Barbara knew she didn't have a prayer of making sense of the charged moment. Accordingly, she blinked.
The other woman straightened with a lazy smile.
Swallowing with difficulty, the redhead gestured toward the barrister's bookcase.
"While you're casing the place, help yourself to a drink."
She turned toward the balcony, adding lightly, "On the house."
Helena's appreciative whistle spoke volumes, as did the awe in her tone after she shifted a few bottles.
"You mind if I try some of this port?"
Barbara pulled back the blackout curtains and opened the French doors, releasing some of the stuffiness from the room.
"Enjoy yourself, Helena."
A low hum of agreement blended with the sound of liquid meeting glass.
"What can I get you?"
Crossing the threshold onto the dark balcony, Barbara barely considered her response.
"Still tending bar, Helena?"
She didn't look back when she heard the brunette's rueful snort.
"Hell, no. I've had enough cleaning up puke and getting my ass grabbed by college boys."
She half-turned and smiled in commiseration.
"I can imagine. And, just a lemon tonic, thanks."
Even from a distance, she couldn't miss the younger woman's inquisitive look.
"I'm stuffed from dinner."
It was true enough, and Barbara didn't think she needed to add that she was already intoxicated simply from being in Helena's presence. The arrival of her companion, drinks in hand, did nothing to lessen her delighted giddiness, and moments later she found herself smiling over the lip of her glass when the brunette spun in a circle on the balcony.
"This is awesome, Barbara."
In an instant, Helena was balancing on the balustrade, toasting the night sky. Barbara raised her own glass, aware that her own toast was more of a wish. Her memories of her ward doing the exact same thing when they'd moved into the tower years before were cut short when Helena dropped soundlessly to the balcony, steady and sure despite her two-inch heels.
"So what's the deal?"
She sipped her tonic, focusing on the stars playing peek-a-boo behind the pervasive New Gotham cloud cover. The other woman's soft question forced her to face the brunette.
"Why me tonight?"
Surprising herself, Barbara spoke honestly.
"I'm lonely. I've missed you."
She felt a fond smile creeping across her face as she observed the younger woman working through her revelation.
"Aren't you seeing anyone?"
Struck anew by the loss, Barbara spoke tightly.
Only the soft sound of late night traffic drifted across the balcony for a dozen pregnant heartbeats.
Again, Barbara struggled, somehow unprepared for what she had to admit was a perfectly logical question.
Perhaps a shortened version of the truth was the best option.
"She's... pursuing other options."
The younger woman chewed at her lower lip for a second before responding.
"Sounds pretty rough."
"Like broken glass," was the instant response.
Barbara drained her drink, wishing she'd requested something a bit stronger. For a few beats, she turned the empty tumbler this way and that, the night skyscape refracting light and steel. Finally, unwilling to waste the time she did have, she squared her shoulders.
"Let's go inside."
Her companion accepted the conversational dodge, following her inside.
"Yeah, maybe you can show me that movie screen you've got."
Barbara didn't bother to deny the exaggeration; she'd been in theatres whose screens barely rivaled the big screen in the tower. Instead, while Helena refreshed their drinks, she transferred herself to the couch and retrieved the remote. The younger woman lowered herself gracefully to the center of the sofa, settling their drinks on the coffee table and crossing her legs at the knee, just as Barbara powered on the unit and punched the mute button.
"You pull in the Martian stations on that baby?"
She smiled her thanks for the tonic the brunette extended and laughed.
Barbara caught herself with a blink, rapidly deciding not to mention the Mars Rover footage since it, technically, came through an Earth-bound satellite. Helena accepted the remote and began a dizzying array of channel surfing. For once Barbara didn't find the activity irritating.
"Fu-- Shit, Barbara. How many stations do you get?"
"Seven hundred, not counting the music and por-- "
The redhead coughed over her mouthful of tonic, not missing the amused gleam in the other woman's eyes.
"Give or take," she finished as Helena finally settled on a station.
The younger woman's glee was palpable.
"Yeah, I love this reptile dude. Keep waiting for him to loose a hand."
Dear heavens, she'd laughed more this evening than in the last month.
Opting to bask rather than dissect, Barbara settled herself more comfortably against the arm of couch. For the remainder of the program, she could almost believe that everything was normal again, that it was her Helena beside her, laughing and making book on the odds of the crocodiles winning. Inevitably, the illusion fled and her elation retreated with a whimper when the credits rolled and Helena suddenly drained her glass. Setting it soundly on the coffee table, the brunette shifted forward on the sofa, arching her back in a mouth-watering stretch.
"You have to go."
Barbara was unable to keep disappointment from coloring her words. The knowing smile that met the question-cum-pronouncement momentarily pushed aside her depression.
"Not yet, Red -- "
The younger woman gracefully turned to face her, her smile easy and inviting.
"-- but maybe it's time to move on to other things."
Before Barbara could look up at the oversized clock face in the exterior wall, her companion had moved closer, and Barbara shivered as warm fingers trailed across her shoulder. And then, Helena's mouth was against her jaw, warm breath tickling her senses and the brush of silken lips driving her to distraction.
Still, somehow, she kept her wits long enough to formulate a question of sorts.
"What -- what are you...?"
The brunette's rumbling chuckle -- it might have been a growl -- raised the hair on the back of Barbara's neck.
"Kissing your neck, Barbara."
The slightest movement of the dark head made it so, and Barbara nearly moaned at the juxtaposition of soft wetness and sharp nips.
"You've got a really sexy neck, y'know."
Tantalized and aroused beyond reason by the perfect familiarity of the contact, Barbara moaned her thanks for the words.
At least she thought she had; however, she'd also been too focused on pushing herself up against the arm of the couch, on capturing the younger woman's sinewy shoulders in her hands, and reversing their positions. With Helena leaning against the back of the couch, she tried to meet her eyes but lost focus when her gaze fell on lush, full lips.
"Dear heavens, Sw-- "
She approached cautiously, perhaps giving herself time to savor a moment she'd feared she'd never experience again.
Too slowly, perhaps. Or, guessing from the way Helena gracefully extricated herself from beneath, too fast.
"Whoa. Hold on there, Hot Stuff."
Blinking through her confusion, Barbara almost sagged in relief when she realized that Helena wasn't moving away.
The brunette's smile was slow and sultry, confident and... predatory. Without conscious thought, Barbara allowed the arm of the couch to take her weight as the other woman... flowed over her again.
"I don't go that way..."
The nip of sharp teeth against her earlobe punctuated the words.
"-- at least not now. But, I am..."
With Helena's mouth against her skin, with slender knowing fingers trailing fire down her arms, it was so terribly difficult to concentrate.
"... into making you... "
No one save Helena had ever made her feel this way. Had unleashed this side of her, the side that could unashamedly beg for sweat and blood and fluids, for the grind and press, the give and take. For the less-than-gentle rake of fingernails on skin and the thrust of muscle against bone.
"... feel good."
Something about the words -- Perhaps it was the hint of detached control in the tone -- Something tickled at the edges of Barbara's conscience. However, with a warm hand stroking her side, it didn't seem terribly important.
Even if this weren't her Helena, could she be faulted if, after all of the loneliness and loss and pain, she were tempted?
God help her, so terribly tempted.
The sudden jarring lack of sensation that occurred when Helena's hands slipped lower recalled her. Willing herself not to scream, Barbara captured those roving hands and then ducked down to catch her companion's eyes.
Somehow, she smiled.
"This isn't something... I can do, Helena."
She allowed the brunette to extricate her hands, following the movement of slender fingers to her knee.
"Is it about this?"
Apparently, this was a night for honesty. Barbara heard herself answering with an openness she'd seldom known.
"Some of it."
She swallowed her own rage and frustration, watching her partner work through her admission. Finally, Helena shifted to her knees, and Barbara nearly succumbed again when the younger woman cupped her jaw and spoke with aching tenderness.
"It's not a problem, Barbara."
She couldn't have stifled her moan if she'd tried. The brush of her partner's mouth against hers was pure sensation and heat and temptation.
"Dear heavens, Hel..."
The low burr of the other woman's words almost snuck past her.
"And I always want to do this right..."
Something about the words evoked a hum of hope in tandem with the snap of a warning flag. Hoping that she wasn't flailing, Barbara raised one hand, resting it lightly against the skin above the neckline of Helena's dress.
"Do what? What are you doing, Helena?"
Again, that slow, sinful smile nearly stripped the redhead of her senses.
"Thanking you for a lovely evening, Red."
The words, velvet and silk, shadow and candlelight, snapped Barbara back to reality. She swallowed against something in her throat and forced herself to speak the question that had been haunting her.
"Did Qui -- Did your guardian teach you? Some..."
The delicious contacted ended and finally the younger woman's puzzled countenance moved into view.
Again, Barbara forced the hateful words out.
"Did you... thank her?"
The queasiness in Barbara's stomach evaporated at the amused and faintly appalled expression on the younger woman's face.
Unfortunately, it was instantly replaced by a tight knot of pain when she registered the brunette's next words.
"Just... no way. That'd be like sleeping with my mom, and there's no way Harleen would take advantage of me like that."
Fortunately or not, there was no opportunity to deal with it all. She saw Helena stiffen a split second before she registered the light above the elevator door. By the time the door slid open and Dinah stepped out, Barbara had transferred herself to her chair.
"Hello, Dinah," she cut in. "I'm sorry, Helena. I'd forgotten that Dinah might be dropping by."
To her credit, the blonde didn't miss a beat.
"Uh, yeah. Laundry night and all. Uhm...?"
Somehow, Barbara made the introductions. In desperate need of a breather, she turned toward the kitchen.
"I was just going to make some tea. Dinah, would you mind keeping Helena company for a moment?"
She thought she might have set a land speed record on her way to the kitchen, then -- cognizant that she wanted to bury her head -- deliberately went into tortoise mode once she was there. Channeling advice from Alfred, she warmed the kettle, then emptied it, refilling it with cold water and setting it to boil again. She took her time, selecting cups and saucers, laying everything out on a tray. Just before the kettle sang, she recalled her guest's sweet tooth and dug into her not-so-secret stash of Girl Scout cookies to lay out a handful of thin mints.
Finally satisfied with her preparations, she placed the tray on her lap and turned toward the living area. It wasn't until she entered the big room that she realized she might have delayed too long.
For a breathless moment, she sat locked in place, attempting to make sense of what she was seeing. Ultimately, it was only years of practice and iron control that allowed her to avoid dropping the tray -- and possibly losing her dinner as well -- at the sight of Helena locked in a passionate embrace with Dinah.
"Great bouncing icebergs, Dinah. You were kissing Helena."
Barbara suspected that, were there a device to measure components of vocal affect, her statement would have registered evenly between outraged incredulity and resigned disbelief. Not so for her companion whose squeak of protest turned heads at the tables near theirs in The Common Grounds. Dinah's response was one hundred percent affront.
One crimson brow arched eloquently. Taking her time to consider all of the effective arguments at her disposal, Barbara stirred her latte before meeting Dinah's affronted blue eyes.
"Way," she supplied dryly as she raised her mug to her lips.
At least the teen had the grace to look uncomfortable. Barbara marshaled the most effective weapon in her arsenal and sat patiently while her ward fidgeted with her oversized triple mocha.
The blonde straightened, looking simultaneously miserable and defiant.
"Technically Helena was the one who had her ton--"
Apart from a rare rescue or recon job, Barbara hadn't been in the field in years. Nevertheless, until recently she'd never cut herself any slack in the training room. Resultantly, her reflexes were almost as quick as ever; something she now gave thanks for as she whipped one hand up, palm out.
"Just... Just stop right there."
Registering Dinah's startled blink, she belatedly tacked on a single word.
In some situations, any information was really too much. For instance, the night before, seeing her current ward engaged in a vigorous round of tonsil hockey with her amnesiac former ward had been quite enough to short-circuit her synapses and fry a few neurons. This morning's breakfast meeting to assess the fallout was falling into similar territory.
Dinah appeared so abject that Barbara had no choice but to offer a sympathetic smile. It stretched into something forced almost immediately.
"I didn't mean to, but she is really a great ki--"
Again, Barbara raised her hand, wondering if sticking her fingers in her ears and making nonsense noises would save her from what she'd just heard.
As territorial and possessive as it might be, she simply chose to believe that some knowledge should not be shared within the family.
"How -- "
The redhead cleared her throat, then raised one hand to pinch the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefinger. When that proved unsuccessful in chasing away the tension headache she felt crawling up her neck, she exhaled noisily and plunged ahead.
"How could, er, that have been an accident, Dinah?"
It was the same question that had been plaguing her during an extremely long and restless night. Seven hours before, when she'd surprised the two younger women, she'd simply had no means to deal with the situation: Helena's Cheshire smile and Dinah's guilty blush had simply left her speechless. Very carefully, she'd settled the tea tray on a side table before turning toward her bedroom.
"In the interest of my sanity, I'm going to pretend I didn't see anything."
At the last moment, she'd remembered her manners.
"Dinah, can you give Helena a ride if she needs it?"
When she'd dragged herself from bed this morning -- Her students were undoubtedly in for a rough day -- she'd found nine voice mails from Dinah. Each was spaced exactly fifty minutes apart, starting approximately ten minutes after she'd retired for the night. Clearly, some damage control would be the order of the day.
"I was just, uhm, trying to keep her company..."
Schooling her features to neutrality, Barbara mentally flicked through the most recent version of Emily Post that she'd read. Perhaps she'd missed a page somewhere in the "hospitality" section.
The teen twirled a lock of hair around her forefinger, her fair skin becoming pinker by the second.
"Uh, talking about you being my guardian because I thought maybe she'd get a clue or something?"
Slowly, Barbara nodded.
When Dinah tucked the hair behind her ear and then chewed at her lower lip, she steadied herself.
"I know you didn't want us to try anything drastic but I thought that if I could just touch her and, well, you know, uhm, pick up anything or something."
The girl trailed off, the volume of her words in inverse proportion to their speed. Barbara bit the inside of her cheek, then stretched across the table to rest her hand lightly on her young partner's denim-clad forearm.
"A little telepathic investigation sounds like a wonderful idea, Dinah."
Pale blue eyes peered cautiously from under corn silk lashes, and Barbara smiled more broadly.
Dinah's smile broke like sunshine, and the two women took a breather, Barbara stirring her latte again while the teen attacked her bagel. The older woman held her curiosity in check long enough to reassure herself that her ward had a semblance of breakfast before speaking again.
"What did you pick up?"
For some reason, Barbara suspected that the napkin Dinah was using to clean her mouth was meant to hide something more than cream cheese remnants.
"Uh, nothing really."
The teen lowered the napkin and began to pull bits of paper from the edges. Again, Barbara resorted to silence.
"Really, Barbara. I'd just touched her hand when she said something about how we had brilliant guardians in common and then, uhm..."
Barbara filed away that bit of information for later contemplation.
Much later, she suspected.
The red flaming into Dinah's cheeks told the remainder of the story, but the blonde finished.
"Then she was kissing me and the only things I could pick up were from earlier when you and -- "
"Thank you, Dinah. That will do."
Obviously, blushes were highly contagious this morning.
Breathing deeply, Barbara raised her mug, immediately almost choking on the near-tepid beverage when her companion perked to attention.
"Do you think I should try again?"
With a sputter that bordered on spewing, the redhead lowered her cup and dabbed at her mouth with a napkin. Her inevitable response was circumvented when she heard a velvet voice from behind her.
"Don't know about you, Kid, but I'm sure not going to."
The wideness of Dinah's eyes in combination with the electric frisson that ran down her skin confirmed what Barbara already knew. As calmly as possible, she settled the napkin on the table and rotated her chair thirty degrees.
The brunette was less than two feet away, juggling a to-go cup of coffee and a giant muffin.
Chocolate chip, if Barbara were any judge.
"Hey, Barbara. Uh, Dinah."
To her credit, the brunette appeared less at ease than usual. Nevertheless, she mustered a smile that almost entirely succeeded in charming Barbara.
"I didn't expect to run into either of you here."
Rolling her eyes, Barbara opted to embrace the absurdity of the moment.
"Nor did we you, Helena."
Tucking her coffee between her body and her muffin-carrying hand, Helena adjusted the leather satchel hanging from her right shoulder.
"I'm really sorry about last night, Barbara."
Eyebrows creeping to her hairline, the redhead nodded slowly observing deep blue eyes meeting pale blue.
"You, too, Dinah. It got kind of awkward there."
Dinah's overly chipper response came in a rush, and the blonde pushed back from the small table.
"Uhm, sorry to run, but I've got to get to the lab."
Even as Barbara worked to decide whether she was grateful or not for her ward's decision to make herself scarce, Dinah circled the table and bussed her cheek.
"Thanks for breakfast, Barbara. I'll, uh, pick up my laundry later."
Painfully conscious of a dark brow arching skeptically, Barbara rolled her eyes and then managed a laugh and waved an invitation to the vacant seat.
"I suppose I should be glad that she's a terrible liar."
The dark figure deposited her breakfast on the table, looped the strap of her bag over the back of the chair, and then gracefully lowered herself to the seat.
"There's that. I gave Harl all sorts of hell with that for a while."
Nodding into her cup, Barbara chirped, "Did you?"
At the sight of her companion opening her mouth to share something, a wicked gleam in her eyes, Barbara perked to attention. She deflated slightly when the younger woman seemed to catch herself and snapped her mouth shut.
"Probably better not to share some of that with you."
She waited for a few beats, watching slender fingers picking the chocolate chunks from the muffin before speaking quietly.
"I'm a good listener, Helena."
The younger woman's blue eyes seemed to offer a hint of surprise, but Helena recovered easily. Sucking a bit of chocolate from her fingers, she ducked behind dark bangs and grinned.
"Nah. It's just embarrassing stuff. You know."
Barbara nodded, and the brunette shifted minutely in her chair.
"Like last night. I meant it when I said I was sorry. I just got the wrong idea."
Waving away the apology, Barbara tackled the subtext of the apology.
"What idea was that, Helena?"
Mustering her limited supply of patience, she waited while her companion swirled her coffee cup. Apparently Helena found her answer in the styrofoam container because she finally looked up, her eyes so blue and confused that Barbara's heart ached.
"Why are you being so nice to me, Barbara?"
She felt her brows knit, no doubt highlighting that attractive crater she was cultivating between her eyes, but still managed to hold the younger woman's gaze.
"I don't understand, Helena."
A light bulb clicked on when she heard her companion's response.
"Everybody wants something, Barbara."
Helena dropped her gaze and raised her cup in a mock toast.
"That's something else Harleen taught me: Quid pro quo and all."
"Quid pro quo?"
Once again, Barbara realized, she'd been reduced to parroting the words of others. Helena didn't seem to mind, shrugging casually and resettling her cup on the table.
"Yeah. Like I said, I pay my own way. I just figured that if you weren't into it, maybe you wanted something for Dinah."
The brunette broke off a healthy bite of muffin, then nudged the pastry a few inches towards her.
"Would you like some?"
Barbara shook her head once, completely dumbfounded.
Perhaps she needed to start carrying a capsule around since obviously her heart couldn't take many more of these little revelations.
Caught up in cataloging the multiple levels of absurdity inherent in the idea that she'd consider pimping out one of her charges to the other, Barbara belatedly realized that she had no idea what was being asked of her. She opted to go with the most obvious and shook her head once again, gesturing toward the muffin.
"No thank you, Helena. It's a little much for this hour."
Her companion's indulgent laugh brought her back to the moment.
"Not the muffin, Red, though it's pretty good."
Helena punctuated the assessment by popping another bite into her mouth.
"I meant, why are you being nice to me if you don't want something?"
Hundreds of answers leapt to mind. The easiest -- that, perhaps, she was simply a nice person -- she dismissed immediately; she'd long since passed the stage of self-delusion on some matters. The most visceral -- something having to do with need -- she couldn't risk.
"You've always been important to me, Helena. And,"
Deliberately, she forced herself to meet her companion's searching eyes and spoke the truth.
"... as I said last night, I've missed you. I l--"
She couldn't quite do it.
"I like spending time with you."
Barbara wasn't certain what to read into the soft utterance and mentally cursed her companion's "charming laconic" tendencies.
Some days, Dinah's loquaciousness had its advantages.
"I like it, too, Red."
Well, that answered that.
Ready to levitate out of her chair, Barbara saw the other woman glancing at her watch and realized that, her own willingness to blow off her classes, her job, and her pension notwithstanding, it appeared that her time was drawing to a close.
Helena smiled and wrapped the remnants of her muffin in a napkin.
"I've got to boogie, or I'll be late to class."
Heart leaping to her throat, Barbara heard her own rough croak.
Unable to draw a full breath, she waited until Helena finished tucking the napkin into her satchel.
"Yeah. Poetry writing; then at ten thirty, Eastern Art."
Momentarily, Barbara lost control of her functional muscles, sagging in her chair. Helena didn't seem to notice, rising and snagging her bag.
"I didn't want to tend bar forever."
The warm flush of pleasure pervading her drained away in a rush when Helena stopped on her way to the door and, looking over her shoulder, added a final bit of information.
"Somehow, Harleen finally pounded it into my thick head that this could be a good way to honor my mom."
I come home in the morning light
My mother says when you gonna live your life right
Oh mother dear we're not the fortunate ones
And girls they want to have fun
<'Doctor's office. Thank you for holding? How may I direct your call?'>
Rolling her eyes, Barbara worked to modulate her voice. And her temper.
"I need to make an appointment for a follow-u -- "
<'Transferring. Please hold.'>
"Wait, I've already -- "
An implacable click told Barbara that her protest had been too little, too late.
The phone rings in the middle of the night
My father yells what you gonna do with your life
Oh daddy dear you know you're still number one
But girls they want to have fun
It wasn't that she didn't appreciate Cyndi Lauper's infectious beat and lyrics, even for the fourth go-round in ten minutes. However, for a month, she'd been assiduously ducking calls from the office, calls that had come in with the regularity of bill collectors on speed. Now that she'd decided to do the responsible thing, she couldn't even get through voice-mail hell.
Snorting at the levels of karmic justice, the redhead thumbed down the volume on her headset and returned her attention to her monitor. No doubt, she had another few rounds of telephone roulette in front of her before finally arranging an appointment. In the meantime, she could continue her painstaking reconstruction of just how Helena had been in the city and eluded her net for two weeks.
Some one take a beautiful girl
And hides her away from the rest of the world
I want to be the one to walk in the sun
Oh girls they want to have fun
A movement in the periphery of her vision drew her attention from the city hall records she'd just hacked. Straightening, Barbara rotated her head, popping the tight vertebrae in her neck, and turned with a smile.
"Honestly, Alfred," she observed mildly, "I believe that Dinah is quite capable of doing her own laundry."
Without so much as a blink, the once-and-eternal butler settled the teen's laundry basket on one end of the sofa.
"Miss Helena always seemed to appreciate a... personal touch."
Somehow, Barbara's smile only grew.
"She was in high school at the time, Alfred. She's been handling her own laundry for years now."
Faced with the older man's utterly bland countenance, Barbara replayed the last few years, feeling one brow creeping upward.
A small smile was the only response, and the redhead shook her head. She couldn't maintain any real ire, of course, her own smile easily surpassing Alfred's. The expression faltered for a split second when she caught herself tapping in time to the music in her ear, but again that dazed smile took over.
"She's in college, Alfred."
Silent as a ghost, the distinguished gentleman approached the base of the platform.
"So you've mentioned, Miss Barbara."
The redhead felt a hint of heat touch her cheeks, but she also didn't miss the twinkle in her old friend's knowing eyes.
Of course she'd mentioned it. In actuality, she'd practically tackled Alfred with the news when she'd breezed in from work and found him concocting some sort of casserole in the kitchen. Nevertheless, she thought it was worthy of repetition.
With a laugh, she pushed back from the desk and turned to face her companion.
"Helena. Is. Taking. Classes."
She flirted with tacking on the word "voluntarily" since she'd never known anything that could have strong-armed her partner into the fields of academia; however, given the circumstances, she settled on a slightly more accurate mental addendum: Without kicking and screaming.
The older man's response was dry.
Hers equally so.
There truly wasn't much more to be said, and a soft click over the headset spared the redhead from the effort of trying.
<"Doctor's office. How may I direct your call?">
Wincing an apology for the interruption, Barbara kept it short.
She thumbed down the headset again and returned her attention to her companion.
"Have you been able to ascertain how Miss Helena's presence in the city escaped our notice?"
For some reason, Barbara found herself feeling almost absurdly grateful that there wasn't a hint of reprobation in the question. Using one hand, she toggled to her hack into the NGU Registrar's office, then waved at the terminal window.
"Apparently Helena's paperwork was -- "
She faced her companion again and made air quotes.
"'lost' in the system until yesterday."
Barbara paused, and Alfred cleared his throat softly.
"Dr. Quinn's work, perhaps?"
With a nod and a shrug, she continued, "Plus, Helena started classes a week and a half late."
She didn't bother to add that her former ward's tardiness was no doubt due to her spa retreat in Battle Creek with Quinn.
"My guess is that she's been busy catching up since then and has simply kept a low profile."
The white-haired gentleman nodded thoughtfully, then cocked his head.
"What about her living arrangements?"
"According to the registrar's office,"
She waved at her screen again and then toggled to the terminal connected to city hall.
"She's living in a townhouse on the outskirts of campus. City hall shows that it's part of a block of condos that are rented out, primarily to students."
She rotated to the desk and, with two-dozen keystrokes, was accessing the records for the corporation that owned the homes.
Returning her attention to her old friend, she held up a hand when she heard a soft click over the earpiece.
<"Scheduling. How may I help you?">
Briefly, Barbara flirted with the notion of passing herself off as an Amway salesperson.
What did the receptionist think she wanted to do after waiting for eighteen minutes to be connected?
"I need to schedule a follow-up with Dr. Casey."
<"Are you a current patient?">
The redhead fought back the urge to engage the receptionist in a discussion about the meaning of the phrase follow-up.
"Yes, I am," she supplied sweetly. "Barbara Gor--"
<"One moment, Ms. Gore. Please hold.">
Barbara snapped her mouth open and shut, then gave up with a shrug. After another verse or twelve of Cyndi's greatest hits, the receptionist would be back.
"I'm sorry, Alfred. Where were we?"
The older man returned his attention to her after his discrete inspection of the sofa.
"What about Ms. Helena's car?"
She chewed at the inside of her cheek for a moment, before responding.
"No DMV records, Alfred, but the Mazda appeared quite new."
Pointedly, she pushed aside the bitter thought that the sporty, feline vehicle might have been a birthday gift of some sort from Quinn. After all, her former ward was alive and healthy and happy in a way she'd never seen, and the sullen broodiness that Helena had long worn like a cloak of honor was nowhere in sight.
In the end, Barbara reminded herself for the thousandth time, that was all that mattered.
As if following her train of thought, Alfred spoke thoughtfully.
"Happily ever after, Miss Barbara?"
Deliberately, she met her old friend's eyes, attempting to telegraph how very, very unimpressed she was with his tactics.
"You're trying to make me confront my feelings, aren't you, Alfred?"
Grey eyebrows rose, the butler's innocence completely unconvincing.
"Heaven forbid. I simply observe that, as therapeutic techniques go, Dr. Quinn seems to have achieved dramatic results with Miss Helena."
Somehow, she managed a laugh that barely avoided gagging her. Slowly, Barbara spoke the words that had been haunting her.
"By erasing m-- "
She caught herself.
"By erasing us, you mean."
The butler coughed softly.
"At this point, the greatest risk Miss Helena seems to be facing is from a broken nail at the pool tables."
Seizing on the brief moment of levity, Barbara managed a grin.
"Or eyestrain from her homework."
She moved to the edge of the platform, sobering as she faced her oldest confidant.
"Apart from her damnable admiration for the person she thinks was her guardian, she's just so... normal and happy, Alfred."
Unable to miss the sympathy in the older man's eyes, Barbara prepared for the worse.
"Questions as to memory to the side, Miss Barbara, the current situation in dealing with Dr. Quinn is something of a..."
Since he'd uncharacteristically left his statement open-ended, Barbara took a stab at it.
The two shared a smile.
"If you insist, Miss Barbara. I was leaning toward 'conundrum'."
The redhead nodded slowly, caught up in thoughts of parental influence and the conflicting desires to please or distance from it.
"Indeed, Alfred. Taking Quinn into custody could be devastating right now."
Somehow, Alfred's perfect posture became impossibly straighter.
"I know that I don't need to remind you that Dr. Quinn is a murderer and an escaped felon. Not to mention Detective Reese's latest findings about..."
A hint of question crept into his tone.
"Mr. Triodoros, was it?"
Pursing her lips, Barbara simply nodded.
Jesse had left a message that afternoon that he was close to tracking down Carlos Triodoros, one of Quinn's favored lackeys. When that occurred, all bets were off.
The bouncy introductory riff from "She Bop" distracted Barbara from those thoughts. Nodding apologetically at Alfred, she turned back to her monitor, simultaneously reaching out to disconnect from voice-mail purgatory.
Perhaps she'd try later.
"Can't I just turn it in late?"
The thunk of sixteen pounders on varnished hardwood and the crash of pins clattering nearly obscured what Barbara chose to take as a teasing question. Taking a moment, she confirmed that the automatic scoring mechanism had correctly recorded the seven-ten spare she'd just picked up and then turned to look at her companion. Helena's hopeful pout was so endearing that she almost lost her resolve.
"I think not, Helena. After this set, we call it a night."
The brunette stepped to the line, waiting for the pins to be reset, and peered impishly over the top of the bright green ball balanced in her hands.
There was, Barbara determined, and not for the first time that evening, something distracting about the way Helena slid her fingers in and out of the finger holes.
"Aw, come on. He wants a freakin' sonnet."
Without missing a beat, the brunette stepped forward and released her ball, taking out nine pins.
"What's wrong with a sonnet, Hel?"
The diminutive slipped out again, neither woman commenting on it.
"It's just so old-fashioned."
The green ball popped up in the ball return with a clunk and a rush of air, and Helena hooked two fingers into it, handling the weight with ease. Before she could take out the remaining pin, Barbara tried another tactic.
"It's just like painting, Helena."
She held her amusement down to a fond smile at the frank disbelief in those amazing blue eyes.
"Seriously. Until you master the traditional forms, abstraction -- or, in your case, free verse -- is meaningless."
Almost negligently, the younger woman released her ball, easily picking up the spare.
"But, it's homework, and homework sucks."
This time, Barbara had to laugh.
At least some things didn't change.
"Hey -- "
Registering the impish glee in her partner's face, the redhead steadied herself.
"Maybe if we stay for another set, I'll get inspired to write something about the female slope of the pins and the balls moving down the straight -- "
Barbara arched one brow, then sipped delicately from her diet Sprite.
"Get your mind out of the gutter, Helena."
She retrieved her own sensible black ball and rolled up to the lane. Narrowing her eyes, she bent over the low arm of her sport chair and powered the ball down the alley.
A low whistle of appreciation greeted her when she turned around, and Barbara didn't try to hide her smile.
While she was no Fred "Twinkle-toes" Flintstone, she managed.
"Sweet, Red. I guess the next round of nachos are on me."
Smiling very sweetly, she blandly met her companion's eyes.
"The next round of nachos, Helena, will be after you've finished one form of verse and you're ready to craft an Ode on Lucky Strike Lanes."
"You're a genius, Barbara."
The words blew from the elevator before the doors began to crack, and the genius in question cruised down the ramp from the Delphi to greet her unexpected visitor.
The vivacious brunette bounded into the room and bent to embrace her before skipping backward.
"Okay, you and me are."
Wincing, Barbara managed to hold her tongue. She couldn't restrain her answering smile.
"And just what brilliance have we demonstrated lately, Hel?"
Suddenly aware that in her flustered state she'd left open a terminal window diagramming Quinn's criminal organization, she turned nonchalantly to the kitchen. Her guest bounced in ahead of her.
"I thought about what you said. The sonnet?"
Nodding, Barbara waved an invitation to the refrigerator, stifling her smirk when Helena emerged with a Perrier for her and a Mountain Dew -- the last one -- for herself.
"So, I was feeling all put out since I had another assignment, a descriptive write-up, due for my Eastern Art class -- "
The redhead offered a sympathetic moue and accepted the green bottle.
"-- and I realized I could multitask."
The finishing "ta-da" was unspoken, but entirely evident. Nevertheless, it took several befuddled blinks before Barbara connected the dots.
"You wrote a sonnet about...?"
The younger woman's grin was positively too self-satisfied.
"That ugly Ming horse in the department showcase."
Since some bubbles from her water were tickling her nose, Barbara gave herself a minute, sniffing delicately.
"Indeed, Helena. That was a stroke of resourcefulness."
Helena drained her soda and tossed the can into the trash, her expectancy almost causing her to vibrate. A tad belatedly, Barbara recognized that something was required from her here.
"And shall I assume by your jubilation that the sonnet was well received?"
A self-depreciating snort suggested that the question might not have been the right one.
"Nah. The sonnet sucked. It got a B."
At a loss, Barbara felt her brows furrowing, then raising when her companion continued airily.
Again, that Cheshire grin appeared.
"I didn't turn in the sonnet for Art; I did a haiku and Dr. Aether...?"
Barbara nodded her familiarity with the art history professor's name.
"He said he wants to see a few more, maybe tack them up next to the gimcracks in the department cases."
The laughter that bubbled past the older woman's lips was completely unplanned and entirely genuine. Unfortunately, it rapidly morphed into something puzzled when Helena prowled close and extended one hand, palm up.
"Help me celebrate."
Naturally, the invitation brought with it memories of some noteworthy celebrations she and her Helena had engaged in during the last year.
Vivid, vivid memories.
"What did you have in mind, Hel?"
A saucy wink was the only reply while the brunette twirled to the under-cabinet radio and turned in on.
"Dance with me, Red."
Somehow, even as her cheeks flamed, Barbara managed a laugh.
"Helena. Even -- "
She gestured loosely toward her chair, distantly noting that the DJ had cued another golden oldie.
"Even before this, I had two left feet."
Just one of those cosmic freaks, as Helena had once described it: the fact that Barbara had been a world-class gymnast and had danced across the rooftops as a superhero, but she'd not been able to hold her own on the dance floor.
For an expectant beat, Barbara chewed at her lower lip, intensely conscious of steady regard from deep blue eyes. She could only hope that UB40's "Here I Am" kept the sound of her trip-hammering heart from Helena's acute senses.
Then, somehow, in the blink of an eye or in the space between one labored breath and the next, Helena was right in front of her, both hands extended, taking her by the hands. And then she was spinning dizzily around the kitchen, Helena's smile the only thing she could focus on. And then her partner dipped under their joined hands and somehow managed to land lightly in her lap.
The sheepish duck of the dark head was, Barbara just had time to note, completely unconvincing.
"Then -- "
Barbara managed to tear her gaze away from the expressive features so close to her and observe the waggle of Nike-clad feet.
"-- I'll just have to be two right feet for both of us."
She was so close: her scent utterly familiar; the shape of her back under Barbara's hands tantalizingly well known.
Barbara thought that one of them had spoken, but the press of velvet lips against her own divorced her from all thoughts of conversation.
Not to mention, considerations of conscience or culpability.
With a whispered moan, Barbara accepted the advances. In an explosive instant, she returned them. Overcome by an aching hunger, she took control, lavishing caresses on the woman in her lap with her mouth and hands, silencing the words and voice that weren't quite right, her kisses almost punishing.
"Oh heavens, Helena -- "
She buried her hands in dark silk, losing herself in the taste of her lover, surrendering to something that was less want than need. Fully prepared to carry the younger woman to their bedroom, it was only a distant scratch of observation -- consciousness? conscience? -- that recalled her.
Still delicately sampling the sweet flesh of her partner's throat, Barbara probed at what had caught her attention, at what was... off.
There was no resistance. Indeed, Helena was arching sinuously under her touch. Yet... Yet...
Hating herself, Barbara pulled away and sought her lover's eyes.
Not blue, thank heavens. That would have been too crushing.
Yet, the violet of Helena's eyes, she knew from long association, signaled arousal but not the passion indicated by the gold Barbara had come to know so well.
Swallowing around her anger and self-loathing, Barbara accepted the bitter pill: the emotions of the moment were hers alone.
"Whoever she was,"
Barbara clenched her jaw against the allure of Helena's slow, sultry smile.
"-- she was damned lucky."
Utterly sickened by her own actions, Barbara blinked. She suspected that, had it only been an option, scrambling would have ensued. Since it wasn't, she had to face her companion and her own actions. There was no way to keep the bitterness from her words.
"No. I was the lucky one."
<"I'm sorry, Barbara, but I can't this afternoon.">
The weight of her transgression crashed over her, and Barbara allowed her lashes to flutter down.
A moment of weakness and temptation, and Helena was -- quite rightly -- backpedaling handily. She hadn't allowed things to progress any further the day before, ushering her companion out to write haiku; however, clearly, the die had been cast.
Barbara colored her voice with a smile.
"Yes, Helena. Just... woolgathering. I understand."
The weight of the pause that followed was much greater than should have been possible, given her cell phone's stated weight of three ounces.
<"You're not beating yourself up about yesterday, are you, Barbara?">
Red lashes flew open.
How could the younger woman do that?
<"Because it's not that. Really.">
Barbara worked her jaw for a few seconds.
The sensitive electronics in her handset picked up the soft sound of movement, and Barbara could almost see her caller leaning back in an overstuffed chair and crossing her legs.
<"I've got a class this afternoon.">
Rapidly ticking through what she'd learned about the younger woman's course load, Barbara spoke absently.
"I thought all of your classes were in the morning."
It was, she'd decided, one of the surest signs of Quinn's malevolent influence: her Helena had never voluntarily gotten out of bed before ten in the morning.
The other woman's laugh was soft.
<"Well, my astronomy lab's at night, but yeah. But, this isn't university stuff.">
Feeling her brows knit, Barbara lobbed a weak guess.
"Tutoring someone in nine-ball, Helena?"
<"Right. Like I wouldn't blow that off for you any time, Red.">
The word evoked such a rush of pleasure that the redhead almost missed the hint of shyness that crept into Helena's voice.
<"It's, uh, a class I'm teaching.">
Visions of lesson plans fluttering nearby, Barbara somehow modulated her tone to mere curiosity.
<"Yeah. Once a week, I do a self-defense class at the Women's Shelter.">
She gave herself eight seconds to enjoy the warm flood of pride the words created, then she neatly tucked the emotion away for later consideration.
"What about afterward? Perhaps you'll have worked up an appetite."
Too late, Barbara recognized that she'd left herself wide open. The sudden velvet purr in Helena's voice removed any doubt that the younger woman had missed the slip.
<"You think you can help with that?">
Attempting to telegraph her headshake through the voice connection, Barbara spoke primly.
"I could cook something."
A fit of very vocal coughing brought her back to her senses, bringing a flare of heat to her cheeks in the process.
"Oops. Sorry, Hel."
The laughter they shared was warm, recalling the dinner Barbara had arranged two nights before and the question that had been hesitantly tendered from behind over-innocent blue eyes.
"Have you ever cooked anything, Barbara?"
Since her culinary limitations were legendary, Barbara hadn't made any secret of her handling of the dinner. Accordingly, she'd managed a puzzled blink and a self-depreciating laugh as she'd waved her chopsticks toward their plates.
"It's take-out, Helena."
Her confusion had been washed away by heated embarrassment when she'd witnessed her companion fishing a bit of wilted Chinese take-out container from her entree.
"No kidding, Red."
Heading to the trash with their plates, she'd managed a laugh.
"Pizza's number five on speed dial, Helena."
Belatedly aware that Helena was speaking, Barbara focused on the conversation at hand.
<"Sorry, but I can't. After class I've got -- ">
<"-- ate wit -- ">>
<"-- Condoleez -- ">
A bit of static, perhaps a sunspot bouncing off the DOD satellite, garbled the next few words, and the redhead jerked the phone from her ear and fixed it with a glare.
Certainly she couldn't have heard Helena correctly.
Quite needlessly, she gave the handset a shake and returned it to her ear.
"I'm sorry, Swe-- Hel. Did you just say that you're meeting with The Secretary of State?"
A bit impatiently, she waited out Helena's laughter. The volume and duration seemed a trifle unnecessary; after all, it wasn't a common name, and Ms. Rice was as likely a guess as anyone.
The snert accompanying the apology made it less than convincing.
<"I said: Condo. Lease.">
Barbara's smile and nod of comprehension abruptly ended at the frank admiration that crept into her caller's tone.
<"Harleen knows some pretty influential people, but she steers clear of Republicans.">
Sour musings about the irony of sharing political ideologies with The Joker's girlfriend mercifully vanished into the ether when Helena shifted gears.
<"But, maybe you can come to my place tomorrow and we can hit the pool tables again?">
White and black and chrome filled the downstairs of the townhouse. Bright reds and yellow and oranges -- candles and accent pillows and throw rugs -- were splashed throughout the living room, tickling Barbara's mind, reminding her of something.
Schooling her features to polite neutrality, she took in the visible areas of Helena's home while she worked the puzzle. It wasn't until she ticked through the tasteful prints on the walls and registered the large empty spot across from the leather sofa that it hit her: The Gauguin print she'd given to Helena years before, the print that was currently over the head of her... their bed at the clock tower.
"It's lovely, Helena."
Her admiration was entirely genuine. Helena's home was quite a change from the impoverished student look she'd had in her apartment above the Dark Horse.
"Thanks. Most of the furniture came with, but the other stuff is mine."
The brunette performed a mock-curtsey, instantly distracting Barbara from any and all thoughts related to interior design.
Indeed, with Helena clad in little more than a tube top that covered her from chest to thigh -- very upper thigh -- fashion and physiology seemed much more relevant.
Unable, or perhaps unwilling, to disguise her frank appreciation, Barbara traced the edges of her lips with the tip of her tongue and fought the urge to fan herself.
"You look -- "
She felt her brows corkscrew as she hunted for a suitably neutral term to describe the breathtaking spectacle before her. Eventually, she gave up.
The brunette smiled cockily, the familiar easy confidence pulling at Barbara's soul.
"Yeah, well, it may be a little much for barbeque and billiards, but -- "
Briefly, Barbara forgot to breath when Helena spun showily, somehow winding up with her fingers resting lightly on the arms of her chair.
"--gotta put on the dog for a date, eh?"
The redhead felt her heart thud once, hard, against her chest. The instinct to cross her arms was nearly overwhelming; however, somehow she managed to keep her hands on the arms of the chair, bare millimeters separating her skin from Helena's.
Why did she feel like the most visible thing in the tastefully decorated room?
"Is that what this is, Helena? A date?"
Mentally, she winced as she parroted the words she'd spoken so long before at a seemingly innocent dinner with her friend, her former ward, at a French restaurant. The cool assessment in deep blue eyes was in juxtaposition to the playful lilt in Helena's voice.
"Could be, Red."
Slowly, she lowered her hands to the rims, waiting until the younger woman straightened and took a step backward before rocking her chair.
"I don't... date lightly, Helena."
Her voice was tight; somehow, the brunette's inscrutable smile did little to lessen the pressure in her chest.
"Me neither, Barbara, and I'm really not into being somebody's rebound."
The smile eased, and Barbara finally drew in a breath when Helena snagged a leather jacket from the back of the couch and turned to the door.
"But, I was kind of hoping that we could work something out."
"How will Quinzel feel about this, Helena?"
The brunette chalked her cue, her confusion almost comic.
"As long as it doesn't mess up my classes, why should she care?"
Barbara swallowed her own catalog of reasons with a long gulp of spring water.
"Well," she ventured the most innocuous from the list, "I am quite a bit older than you are."
Helena snorted over the top of her beer bottle.
"Never bothered her before."
The younger woman settled her bottle and approached the table for the break. Watching her bend low to the table, Barbara had to admit that the mini-dress truly gave her an unfair advantage.
The racked balls exploded across the table, the four and five balls disappearing into opposite corners as if being chased by the devil.
"She's even introduced me to some of her friends."
Since she couldn't have spoken if she'd tried, Barbara waited until her companion lazily dropped the six before clearing her throat.
"What do you mean, Helena?"
Her stomach clenched sourly while the brunette chalked her cue again.
Perhaps the onions and jalapenos on her smoked pork sandwich hadn't been such a good idea.
"Uhm, you know,"
Helena's tone was casual, almost absent, as she circled the table, eyes focused on the likely shots.
"Like the guy who leases me the condo?"
Barbara nodded cautiously when blue eyes rose in question, then caught her lips in her teeth when Helena bent to line up a one-three combination.
"And my car payment?"
"Don't forget me."
Instantly placing the voice, Barbara felt her hackles raise in reflex. Judging by Helena's miss, the brunette hadn't been anticipating the interruption either.
Fascinated, she watched her companion's expression transform to something guarded and careful.
"I thought we had that all worked out."
The older man nodded in Barbara's direction, and the redhead had to force herself to loosen her death grip from her cue stick.
"Those chrome exhausts cost more than we thought, Kitten."
Somehow, Barbara managed not to wince when she saw faintly apologetic and embarrassed expression in Helena's eyes.
"Not now, Schneider."
"Perhaps I can -- "
The avaricious twist of the greasy man's mouth told Barbara that she was right on target in digging for her money clip. The implacable coldness of her companion's blue eyes arrested the movement.
"I pay my own way, Red."
Barbara bit back her protest, choked over her instinct to beg or plead or demand, and Helena carefully laid her cue on the table and nodded at their unexpected visitor.
"Would you hold the table for a few minutes, Red, while I work this out?"
And then, she was alone at the table, nothing -- save the blare from the jukebox -- to distract her from thoughts of chrome tips and having a knob spit-shined.
I'm coming out of my cage
And I've been doing just fine
Gotta gotta be down
Because I want it all
It started out with a kiss
How did it end up like this
The neon signs seemed to blink, reflecting from the mirrors behind the bar. Half-imagining the shadow of a lithe woman falling to her knees in the hallway to the restroom, Barbara swallowed frantically. With the room spinning sickeningly, she turned to the closest exit and bumped outside.
iAnd I just can't look, it's killing me
And taking control
Jealousy, turning saints into the sea
Swimming through sick lullabies
Choking on your alibis
But it's just the price I pay
Destiny is calling me
Open up my eager eyes
'Cause I'm Mr Brightside
The air in the alley wasn't much cleaner than that in the pool hall, but it was cooler. For a merciful moment, Barbara thought it would be enough; then, her stomach lurched and she leaned over the side of her chair. It wasn't until she'd emptied her stomach and finally mastered her dry heaving that she saw the tasteful size six ankle boots a few feet away from her chair.
Wordlessly, she accepted the water bottle that swam into view and rinsed her mouth. Finally she looked up and met liquid blue eyes.
"Barbara. Please, let me -- "
She managed a rough shake of her head before turning to the mouth of the alley. Helena trailed behind her until they reached the street. At that point, Barbara fished the keys to the van from her pocket and tossed them over; then, she directed her chair toward the clock tower.
Forty blocks, give or take.
"Drive yourself home, Helena. I'll talk with you later."
"What in hell am I doing here?"
Poised with her index finger extended, ready to press the door bell, Barbara didn't realize she'd spoken aloud until the heavy red door swung in.
"Well, I invited you, Red, and I know you're too polite to stand me up."
Barbara snapped her mouth shut with an audible pop. When Helena stepped out, still talking, she belatedly lowered her hand.
"Mostly though, I think it's that whole redheaded curiosity thing you've got going on."
Attempting to gather her wits, Barbara inhaled slowly and then met her host's eyes.
The younger woman's somewhat strained smile vanished, replaced by something wistful.
"Hi Barbara. Thanks for coming."
With a nod, she entered the townhouse, immediately struck by the lack of color, the absence of personal items in the living room a sharp contrast to the night before. Terror seizing her, Barbara spun violently, barely noting that she'd almost caught her cat-footed host's bare feet.
"What's going on, Helena?"
Dear heavens, she couldn't be leaving.
During the long sleepless night and the even-longer emotion-clouded day, Barbara had dissected matters a thousand times, her fury building and her outrage total. Yet, while she'd perfected a thousands schemes for eviscerating Quinn and dozens of increasingly desperate plans for bringing Helena to her senses, she'd never even considered that Helena could disappear from her life again.
Helena's response was less than enlightening.
After checking the deadbolt on the door, the lithe figure circled the perimeter of the room. Wearing frayed cut-offs and an oversized white oxford, she was utterly soundless as she brushed her fingertips across the bare walls. Barbara held her tongue, damned near swallowed it, when Helena finally approached and squatted in front of her.
"I don't trick in my own place, Red."
While she was quite cognizant of the fact that befuddled wasn't her best look, there was simply no hope for it.
"You don't," was the best she could manage.
Again, she held her breath as the brunette caught her upper lip in her teeth.
"No, I don't. I just wanted you to know that."
The dark head dipped, and blue eyes peered from beneath shaggy bangs.
"And, it would never be about that with you."
Nodding slowly, Barbara wet her lips.
Helena's head shake was emphatic. When she looked up, Barbara was hard-pressed to fathom the pained confusion in the younger woman's sweet eyes.
"I-- I didn't think..."
Helena exhaled noisily and abruptly stood, and Barbara felt her shoulders jerk in reflex. Fascinated, she watched the muscles in Helena's jaw tic before the brunette faced her again.
"I didn't know that it -- "
A slender hand slashed roughly at the living area.
"-- was a problem. I mean, Harleen's okay with it?"
Bile rising in her throat, Barbara somehow managed to speak evenly.
"Har-- Your guardian encouraged this, Helena."
The brunette's shrug spoke volumes, and Barbara mentally chalked up another debt owed by the madwoman.
"She said she wanted better things for me. Quid pro quo, right?"
A hundred denials and a thousand counter-arguments flew to mind, but somehow Barbara could only lift her brows helplessly. Impossibly, her host's next words left her even more at a loss.
"I talked to Leroy at the Dark Horse. He's giving me my old job back and my apartment."
The redhead cleared her throat, then swallowed before trying again.
"What are you saying, Helena?"
Again, Helena moved close, kneeling by the side of the chair. The younger woman's hand moved as if to touch her arm and withdrew at the last instant, the near-touch as real as any phantom sensation Barbara had experienced in the last eight years. When she finally spoke, Helena's voice was as hesitant as Barbara could ever recall.
"I don't want you to think I'm seeing you... like those others."
A hint of a familiar insouciant grin ghosted caramel features.
"No big deal, Red. I drop the astronomy lab, go back to shopping at Megalo Mart. You know."
In that instant, Barbara thought that, like the Grinch, her heart might have just grown three sizes. Still, she knew that a decision like this was not without repercussions.
"What about Quinzel?"
Again, the younger woman's jaw muscles jumped before Helena scrubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands.
"Harl's probably gonna pitch a shit fit when she finds out, but..."
Exhaling noisily, the brunette stood and squared her shoulders. Uncharacteristically, the direct young woman suddenly couldn't seem to meet Barbara's eyes.
"I don't need this stuff, but I do..."
The weight of expectant need and hope and denial hung heavy.
"I need you."
For some reason, the air in the room seemed very thin. Grasping for words, for sanity and reason, Barbara heard her voice.
"Helena, you don't know..."
In an instant, Helena was leaning close. Mesmerized by the violet of her eyes, Barbara distantly noted how every muscle in Helena's body seemed to be humming with tension.
"I do. I don't understand it, but I do know."
They held the position for a score of heartbeats: Helena perhaps unwilling to look away; Barbara unable. Finally, Helena pulled back and straightened, shaking her hands loosely at her sides.
"I returned the house keys today. I'm going to drop off the car tomorrow. But -- "
The brunette's conspiratorial grin was infectious and a welcome relief. Entirely without meaning to, Barbara felt herself joining in.
"... I've got the place for tonight. So, how about checking out this fab couch and my plasma before I'm back to cheap chic?"
Already on her way to the white leather sofa, Barbara paused when a slender DVD case appeared in her companion's hands. Squinting, she finally made out the title.
" 'Sylvia Scarlett'? How on earth did you...?"
Helena's grin as she turned to slide the disc into the player was pure sunshine.
"I've got many skills, Red. And ... "
In an instant, Helena bounded over the glass coffee table and joined her on the couch.
"... the hand is quicker than the eye, right?"
Seventy minutes and two bowls of popcorn later, Barbara began to suspect that her host's earlier words were indeed prophetic. Torn between bemusement and complete, wanton arousal, Barbara watched tan, slender fingers disappearing into the placket of her shirt, somewhere near the level of her diaphragm. The practiced gesture that followed, resulting in all of the buttons from her breasts down simply falling open, pushed her firmly to the arousal side of the line.
Not what she'd been expecting when she'd approached the younger woman's door ninety minutes before.
Waterloo, yes. Paris, no.
Holding her breath, oblivious to Katherine and Cary's latest subterfuge, Barbara wondered if she might weep as warm fingers brushed her belly.
How quickly she'd forgotten this... this sensation, this pleasure, this anticipatory desire.
Helena's fingers tracked upward until Barbara swore she felt the brush of knuckles against the bottom of her breasts. There was no doubt a moment later when her companion confidently reached for the front clasp of her bra and snapped it loose.
"Mmm -- "
She thought the soft murmur of pleasure or approval might have been Helena's but really didn't care because, as if by magic, the material of her bra had been pushed aside and heat coursed through her entire upper half.
Peripherally, she saw the brunette's head by her shoulder and turned, hoping to catch her mouth. The movement had the happy side effect of thrusting her chest forward and marginally increasing her contact with the whispering fingers that danced over the sides of her aching breasts. Behind her, Helena denied the nonverbal attempt, ducking in; and then, those soft warm lips were at her ear, nibbling so lightly that she almost missed it when her lover's left hand circled from behind to cup her.
"Heavens, yes, Helena."
Unable to deny herself, she thrust into the touch, into the warmth, into the sensation that was so perfectly right.
The words did not so much vibrate against her ear as resonate within her soul. Wending her fingers through dark silk, Barbara tugged lightly, just managing to brush the younger woman's cheek with her lips.
"Whatcha want, Red?"
The purr was playful, but there was no give, no indication that Helena was readying herself to move from where she'd been cuddling her from behind on the couch. Nearly delirious from the hour of cuddling, the revelations and offerings, Barbara couldn't stop her own plea.
"Your mouth, Hel."
Her head fell back when a demanding mouth came to the side of her throat. The rasp of sharp teeth against her pulse point straddled the line between pleasure and pain, and the redhead instinctively arched her neck, offering more contact.
"What about my mouth?"
Distantly, Barbara thought something was being negotiated but knew she had no bargaining position.
"Mmm -- mouth?"
Clearly neurons were misfiring or, more likely, otherwise occupied, since she couldn't remember what Helena might have been referring to. A focused squeeze refreshed her memory with startling alacrity.
"Oh, God. On me, Helena."
She hadn't been this turned on -- like the proverbial Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center -- for a long, long time. Just the thought of her lover's face against her was nearly driving her wild.
The teasing purr in her ear threatened to unplug a bit of her wattage.
"Ask me nicely, Barbara."
Green eyes flew open; for a split second, Barbara focused on the oversized flat screen and Katherine Hepburn hiding from Cary Grant.
Somehow, in the midst of her arousal, the word choked her, carrying with it as it did connotations of other meanings. Yet, with the soft firmness of her partner behind her, the distraction of her own independence was fleeting. One hand still cradling the side of Helena's jaw, she brought her right into play, covering the back of one slender hand and increasing the pressure against flesh that was impossibly heavy and hot.
Somehow, it didn't even concern her that she was close to begging.
"Use your mouth on me."
The brunette's rumbling growl raised the hair on the redhead's forearms. The silken movement that finally brought them face to face left Barbara aching at the loss of the soft body which had been behind her.
"Verrrrry nice, Barbara."
The redhead held her breath as Helena ducked down, somehow nosing the remaining buttons of her shirt open. When Helena finally leaned close, her nose softly brushing her cleavage, Barbara thought she might hyperventilate.
"You smell amazing."
She didn't recall having applied any lotion or perfume, but couldn't be bothered to concentrate on the question.
"Thank -- y -- Yes."
Feeling the barest flicker of wetness rasping against the upper swell of her breasts, she forgot herself. The absence of sensation recalled her.
"Yes what, Red?"
Somehow, Barbara pried open her eyes at the loss of contact, discovering that Helena had pulled away a few inches and that violet eyes were fixed on her.
What had they been talking about?
"What do you want me to do with my mouth?"
Fighting for clarity, Barbara replayed the last few minutes. When it hit her, she caught her lower lip in her teeth, struggling between her own ingrained independence and the overwhelming press of her need. Ultimately, and perhaps inevitably, the battle was brief.
Pressing her palms against the back of the younger woman's head, she pulled her close.
She considered her words and had to amend them.
"Lick me. Bite me"
The heavenly heat and wetness overcame her, and Barbara curled in, working to increase the contact and the pressure.
"Whatever you want, Helena."
She thought she might have heard a soft keening wail when wet warmth enveloped her. She forgot the lapse when strong fingers stroked and inflamed the other nipple. And then, Barbara Gordon ceased to think, surrendering herself to pure sensation and heat: the pull of a warm mouth, the rasp of a strong tongue, the fire of sharp teeth against what was now her most sensitive skin.
Throughout, she held her lover close, unable to risk losing her again. The fingers of her right hand scritched lightly at the younger woman's scalp; her left splayed across Helena's back, vibrating in sympathy to the rumbling purr that resonated from within her partner.
The syllable was lazy, but Barbara detected the hint of an indulgent question. Arching forward, she buried her mouth in dark hair, gasping her answer.
"I'm... I'm close."
Somehow, she pried her hand from her lover's back, working it between them. The skin of Helena's thighs was impossible soft and hot; the sensation of wet cotton when her fingertips cautiously insinuated under the cutoff, electrifying.
"Helena, I need to touch you."
With Helena it had always been thus: her lover's pleasure the surest guarantee of Barbara's own satisfaction.
Gradually, that shockingly talented mouth ceased its work, and she felt a smile against her chest.
"Tell me what you need for me to make you come."
Barbara didn't hesitate.
"I need to touch you."
She thought that Helena's smile had only grown.
"Touch me how, Red?"
Attempting to answer, Barbara moved her hand again. Immediately, the boyishly slender hips resting against her twisted away, and Helena reared back. Barbara's whimper of protest instantly transformed into a different sound when her hands were gently -- but very firmly -- caught and moved upward, pinned against the arm of the couch on each side of her head.
"Tell me, Barbara."
To her surprise, Barbara didn't feel a need to struggle against her confinement. Wetting her lips, she grappled with her lover's request, attempting to come to terms.
For all of her literary and linguistics skills, she'd never been fluent in this sort of language. Yet, she couldn't deny Helena.
"I need to taste you, Helena."
Her voice was barely recognizable, a sandpapery rasp. The sight of Helena's eyes slitting to gold gave her courage.
"I need to feel your nipples growing hard in my mouth."
Barbara shivered, then moaned, when her partner gave action to her own words.
"Don't think that's gonna be enough though."
The rumbling words tickled her skin, and Barbara had to smile. No one had ever been able to combine humor and raw sensuality like Helena.
"No -- "
Her hands still firmly locked against the arm of the couch, she managed to twist her head enough to brush her lips against her partner's hair.
"No, it wouldn't be," she murmured.
Helena's face swam into view again, her features tense and beautiful.
"So what else, Red?"
Barbara felt herself flexing her wrists, her fingers instinctively twitching as she spoke.
"I'd be inside you. So deeply."
"Yeah -- I'd like that."
When she felt her body shift, Barbara pried her eyes open, realizing that Helena had thrust against her pelvis.
"How deep, Red?"
Again, her entire body was moved on the slick leather of the sofa, and Barbara dropped her head to the armrest.
"My entire hand. Thrus-- "
Her hands were freed, Helena bringing her arms down to support her weight, hands fisted into the cushions on each side of Barbara's body. Somehow, it didn't even occur to the redhead to remove her hands from where they rested above her head.
"Inside you, Helena. Feeling you hot and tight and -- "
The brunette arched sinuously, and Barbara panted softly when soft lips brushed against the shell of her ear.
The word had torn from her without thought. Immediately, green eyes blinked open as Barbara attempted to clear the erotic haze.
"No. Not just... that."
Soft laughter caressed her face, raising the fine hairs on the back of her neck.
"S'alright. But, not this time."
The words cleared her haze with remarkable effectiveness.
She sought the other woman's eyes.
Her panic receded when she saw gold rather than blue. One slender hand traced her shoulder, then tickled upward to clasp her wrists again.
"This time, it's all about you."
She struggled for all of two seconds before surrendering to the inevitable. With her capitulation, she was freed.
"Whatever you want, Helena."
The thick pleasure that coursed through her at the press of her lover's chest against her made it difficult to keep her eyes open, however, within seconds, Barbara was grateful she'd made the effort. Dazed, she watched Helena slide down her body, the lack of sensation not erasing the shivers of pleasure the movement engendered.
"Take your clothes off, Barbara. I want to see all of you."
Already pushing out of her shirt, Barbara inevitably realized just what that would mean and stiffened. Clearly not missing the sudden change, Helena pushed up on her fists and brushed her jaw.
"All of you, Barbara."
The rush of heat she felt had little to do with passion; somehow, Barbara forced herself to speak the words.
"I-- There's nothing."
The younger woman's response was nonverbal. Dropping lightly to the floor, Helena knelt by the couch. Green eyes ticked from her lover's violet eyes to the hands that feathered lightly over her torso and arms and legs.
Finally, Helena spoke, her voice low and earnest.
"This is for me, Barbara."
The redhead shivered when fingers dragged slowly between her breasts.
Then, warm lips traced muscles of her abdomen, above the waist of her jeans where the sensation was almost normal.
Barbara clenched her jaw, fighting not to beg when Helena trailed her hand down the placket of her zipper, touching lightly at the juncture of her thighs. Nostrils flaring, the younger woman met her gaze.
Barbara swallowed with difficulty, then wet her lips with the tip of her tongue. She forced herself to watch as strong fingers returned to her lower body, pressing firmly through the thick denim.
"And I want it all."
Already nodding her acquiescence, Barbara registered the change: the flash of confusion and puzzlement when Helena touched the area Barbara knew was just above her most recent scar. Obviously, her partner had found the hard mass that had been making a home for itself despite the extreme measures the doctors had taken against the carcinoma.
Snapped harshly to reality, she threaded her fingers through the younger woman's and tugged upward to ghost a kiss to her knuckles.
"Souvenir from The Joker."
The reaction was not what she'd anticipated; however, in retrospect she had to admit that it was what she should have expected. Lush lips twisted into a snarl and gold eyes sparked to flat blue.
"I wish that bastard was still alive so I could make him pay."
In one leaden heartbeat, it all bled away. Her entire body suddenly cold, Barbara lowered her hands to the seat and pushed herself upright.
Dear heavens, what was she doing?
She registered the growing confusion in the younger woman's face, the dark brows rising in disbelief, but forced herself to focus on the buttons of her shirt.
"Barbara? What's wrong? What did I-- "
In the process of stuffing her bra into the side pocket of her chair, Barbara managed to soften her expression. Impossibly, she met Helena's eyes and permitted herself the indulgence of cupping her cheek. When the brunette leaned into the caress, she almost forgot her resolve.
With a smile, Barbara transferred herself to her chair and backed toward the door.
"Nothing, Helena. You were -- you are wonderful. This is just something I can't do again."
If you need a friend,
don't look to a stranger,
You know in the end,
I'll always be there.
Sleep had not come easily the night before. After Barbara had returned to the tower, she'd spent several hours on the balcony in solitary communion with her city.
Almost impossible to believe that it had only been a week since she'd rediscovered Helena at that club. Practically inconceivable the changes Quinn had wrought. Completely unbearable to consider that she was luring Helena back to her old way of life.
Alone in the darkness, not a solitary star in sight, Barbara had kept her eyes fixed on the top of the city that she'd offered so much to.
It had been easy, instinctive, to pick out the lights from the harbor; a nearby warehouse had been where she -- newly cowled and accompanying Bruce and Dick -- had first come face to face with The Joker. With a blink, she'd brought the silhouette of the Federal Bank building into focus: the location she'd first encountered Quinn for a one-on-one fight.
She'd been too young, too naive in the ways of dirty fighting, to win that battle, but she'd managed to foil the madwoman's robbery.
The blink of red and white flashers moving through the sky had drawn her gaze downtown: a care flight helicopter approaching New Gotham General. Barbara had inhaled raggedly, forcing herself to follow its progress.
Dear god, that hospital had been the scene of too many endings and changes.
With a rough shake of her head, she'd moved her eyes to the office park that was a block away from the hospital: For almost a year, Helena had visited Quinzel weekly in that building, fulfilling a court mandate that had resulted from her actions on Barbara's behalf. There had been no need to look to hear the implacable tick of the massive clock behind her, and her mind eye had vividly painted Quinn's attack on the tower two years before.
Inevitably, she'd turned a few degrees west, taking a few moments to focus on the negative image the hole in the horizon made: the site of The Joker's last hide-out, the tenement that had collapsed on him only a few months before. During the panicked hours when she thought she'd lost Helena in the explosion, Barbara had been prepared to rend and scream and fight to cope.
The clock behind her had struck the hour, and she'd narrowed her focus to her hands clasped against her belly.
Cause and effect. Circles and spirals. Light and dark.
When Quinn had enacted her latest plan, she'd certainly brought it all to the fore. With the scent and feel of her lover's skin still fresh in her mind, with Helena's determined vows to change, to protect and make right, there had been simply no way that Barbara could deny her role -- her culpability -- in fashioning her Helena.
Hours before, it had been so easy to embrace Helena's plans to change the life Quinn had lured her into. It had been so tempting to fall into her partner's capable hands and give herself to the moment.
Yet, the price.
And when you're in doubt,
and when you're in danger,
Take a look all around,
and I'll be there.
Eventually, she'd ceased her endless contemplation of what-ifs and might-have-beens.
Making donuts, Helena had always called it.
Somehow, Barbara had forced herself to the empty bedroom, her younger partner's final plea still haunting her.
"Just... stay. Just to be close. Let me hold you tonight."
It had been so terribly tempting. Helena had been confused, hastening to apologize for rushing her. There had simply been no way for Barbara to explain that it was she who needed to apologize.
In the darkness of the bedroom, Barbara had allowed herself to replay the evening, the closeness and heat and want. She'd brought her hands to her own breasts, panting softly against the bloom of heat that had flowered. It hadn't been anything like earlier, and so she'd trailed her hands lower, not oblivious to the irony that in some ways, having no sensation below the waist made the fantasy easier: unable to react to what her fingers felt, she could pretend that the flesh she touched belonged to someone else.
Yet, somewhere between tentatively stroking heated skin and envisioning gold eyes beneath her, Barbara had recognized the frustrating futility of the illusion.
Without further ado, she'd pushed onto her side and wrapped her arms around the stuffed panther she'd purchased for Helena not too many months before. She hadn't entertained thoughts of sleeping, and she'd not been surprised when dawn's rosy glow found her still awake.
When your day is through,
and so is your temper,
You know what to do,
I'm gonna always be there.
Small mercies, it was a Saturday.
Even before brewing coffee, Barbara snagged her cell and made two brief calls, leaving messages for Dinah and Alfred that she required privacy this weekend.
She'd let them draw their own conclusions.
Now, she had two days before her. With the 80's retro mix she'd burned earlier in the week on loop-play, Barbara settled herself at the Delphi and stared at the blank monitor.
When In Rome. OMD. Simple Minds. A-Ha.
Not a terribly original grouping, but given the music that had been playing when she'd found Helena, it had seemed appropriate enough. Perhaps in a bit, she'd drag out her 70's vinyl and burn something from the Bee Gees.
After all, she had two days. Two days to regroup and plan and face facts.
First things first, of course.
Squaring her shoulders, Barbara seated her glasses and brought up the diagram she'd started detailing Quinn's criminal network. Given what she'd learned from Helena in the last few days, there were clearly a few names to add.
First came a bit of research into the corporation that owned the block of condos near NGU: the company itself appeared to be legit, however the local manager, Phil Roth, was more than a corporate lawyer. Barbara clenched her jaw when the pieces dropped into place: there was no direct link between Quinn and Roth, however, the lawyer had represented more than a dozen of Quinn's cohorts.
She added his name to the criminal family tree and then began searching for the other name she had: Schneider. The search was ridiculously short, leading the cyber-vigilante to a series of mug shots for the man. Primarily booked for work at various chop shops, the foul man had also been picked up twice during capers with Quinn.
Red lashes fluttered down, and Barbara gave herself thirty seconds for self-castigation.
Why had she assumed that the extent of Quinn's torture would be limited to highlighting her failures in rearing Helena?
Briskly, she saved her latest updates, then turned to a task that was possibly more important: Helena's future.
A few keystrokes logged her in to the NGU Registrar's system; a few more allowed her access to her account with the Wayne Foundation. She didn't give herself time to reconsider, rapidly entering a recommendation for a scholarship for one Helena Kyle. Flagging it highest priority, she sent it to other members of the board, and linked it to the young woman's record at the university.
Perhaps that would give Helena enough breathing room to stay in school and away from Quinn's so-called friends.
While she was delirious about Helena's plans to change, Barbara knew that she couldn't be foolish enough to expect that the brunette would do anything half-way. Dropping a night class to return to work at the Dark Horse could soon mean dropping the early morning classes as well. The beautiful young woman's instincts to protect her could soon enough return her to the circle she'd escaped.
Logging out of both systems, she saw the terminal windows waver, the neat Times New Roman script blurring into an image that could have been a blonde clown. A noise -- it might have been a laugh -- escaped her, and she pushed back in her chair, a cry spilling from her lips.
"That fucking bitch!"
Sometimes if I shout,
it's not what's intended.
These words just come out,
with no gripe to bear.
Barbara swiped the back of one wrist across her eyes, then carefully lowered her hands, latching onto the arms of her chair. Blinking rapidly, she worked to focus, to modulate her breathing and her heart rate.
The Joker might have taken her legs -- and a piece of her identity, too -- eight years before. Just months before, he'd nearly managed to complete the task of stripping most of her womanhood from her. Yet, what Quinn had done engendered a pained fury and a bleak hopelessness that was so much worse: in a few clean strokes, she'd neatly excised Barbara's heart and soul, laying bare the extent of her influence on Helena.
Deliberately, she pushed aside thoughts of the competing forces of good and evil, selfish want and open giving, right and wrong. Powering down the Delphi, she picked up her cell and dialed a number from memory.
Three rings left her thinking she'd end up with voice mail, and Barbara tucked the phone between her cheek and shoulder as she turned her chair to the ramp.
<"This is Reese.">
She arrested her movement and caught the tiny handset.
"Detective, this is Barbara Gordon."
She managed the pleasantries well enough, she supposed, but still kept things short.
"Have you had any luck tracking down Triodoros?"
The apologetic sigh that preceded the detective's reply told her what she needed to know.
<"Not yet, but he's too dumb to have left the city. We'll track him down and make him turn over Quinn.">
Not if I get to him first.
The thought was instantaneous, striking Barbara with the force of a blow. Somehow, she worked out something more acceptable.
"Thank you, Jesse. I very much appreciate your keeping me informed."
She knew that she should turn her attention to the streets, to calling in favors from old informants and reprogramming her facial recognition 'bots. After all, Triodoros seemed like the closest attainable link to Quinn.
Yet, a bit of a breather perhaps.
For some reason, she had a certain film on the brain, and it didn't take long to find the DVD in their well-stocked library.
A smile ghosted Barbara's lips when she recalled how Helena had whined through the years about her cataloging schema; somehow, the brunette never complained about not being able to find a movie when she wanted it.
Smile faltering, she flirted with the idea of packing up the entire video library and shipping it across town to the Dark Horse.
Later. For now, perhaps she could lose herself in one film.
Not too many minutes later, the redhead realized that it was not to be. The first scene of 'Stage Door' was barely underway when her phone rang. Since she'd programmed that ringtone -- a classic by Annie Lennox -- for one number only, Barbara didn't have to check the caller ID.
Waffling a bit, she fiddled with the remote control before giving up with a sigh. With her left hand, she paused the movie, and with her right, she picked up the phone.
<"Uh -- ">
Her caller's surprise was almost visible, and Barbara felt a smile crease her cheeks. Naturally, the younger woman recovered easily.
<"Hi, Barbara. Am I interrupting?">
Catching herself shaking her head, Barbara murmured a demurral, then waited out the pained silence. When Helena finally spoke, she was torn between discomfort and pride.
<"Are you still mad at me?">
Of course, Helena never had been one to beat around the bush.
"Sw-- Helena, I'm not -- "
She pushed the hair back from her face and regrouped.
"I wasn't mad at you."
She attempted to place a great deal of emphasis on the final word, then sucked in a deep breath.
I'm sorry, but I'm just thinking of the right words to say. (I promise)
I know they don't sound the way I planned them to be. (I promise)
I gotta tell ya, I need to tell ya, I gotta tell ya, I gotta tell yaaaa ...
I'm sorry, but I'm just thinking of the right words to say. (I promise)
I know they don't sound the way I planned them to be. (I promise)
"I just can't -- "
Again, she stumbled, hunting for the right words.
'Go through this again'?
'Hurt you again'?
'Risk you to a life of crime-fighting again'?
'Shape you in my image again'?
'Have you live my dreams rather than your own life'?
She picked up the sound of movement through the sensitive headset. Briefly, she wondered if Helena were pacing.
"I can't ask this of you."
The younger woman's protest was instant.
<"You're not asking, Barbara. I'm giving.">
The word had barely been a whisper, but she knew that, with her sensitive hearing, Helena couldn't have missed it. The brunette's reply gave weight to her supposition.
<"I can't not, Barbara.">
Raising her left hand, Barbara pinched the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefinger.
Perhaps a different tact was in order.
"Have you spoken with... your guardian about this?"
She simply couldn't bring herself to say the other woman's name.
It took a few blinks before she comprehended Helena's correction. Raising one brow, she prompted, "Have you?"
<"She thinks you're bad news.">
Barbara nodded her head, then spoke carefully.
"She's probably right, Helena."
A derisive snort eloquently expressed her caller's opinion of that argument, and so she plunged ahead.
"I don't want to influence you to be someone else -- someone other than what makes you happy."
Distantly, Barbara knew she was in a bad way that her egregious phrasing barely set off a warning bell. Helena's soft plea distracted her from an odd fixation on rephrasing her statement.
<"What are you talking about? This is who I am or can be or --">
She thought she heard tears in the strong young woman's voice.
<"But whatever it is, it's not right without you.">
Barbara shut her eyes against the images that threatened to overwhelm her. Squaring her shoulders, she placed her thumb by the 'Off' button of the phone and spoke very gently before powering the unit off.
"Helena, you've barely had time to know that."
When that unmistakable prickling frisson of awareness struck, Barbara's first response was to question how Helena had found her here. Her second, and perhaps less-than-courageous, instinct involved thoughts of escape. Regrettably, since she was in the middle of an Olympic-sized swimming pool, her options in that regard were limited.
Although drowning didn't sound too bad.
As nonchalantly as possible, she altered her rhythm, alternating which arm she peeked through when she came up for air. It wasn't until she reached the end of the pool and performed her own patented upper-body-only turn that she finally saw the other woman.
Naturally, Helena wasn't in the bleachers at the side of the school pool or even lazily dipping her toes in from the edge. She was ten meters above her, lounging casually on her side on the high board, one fisted hand supporting her head. The surprise of finding herself being regarded thus was enough to interfere with Barbara rhythm.
Or, she supposed as she emerged in the deep end hacking and flailing, more than enough to put a hitch in her gitalong.
"You need a rescue, Red?"
Still working on the process of replacing the water in her lungs with air, Barbara shook her head and began a slow crawl to the side. While the prospect of watching her athletic partner dive -- fully clothed -- into the pool was not without appeal, the offer itself simply touched too close to matters that had sent her fleeing two nights before.
By the time she'd reached the side of the pool, the redhead had returned to something resembling normal respiration. Accordingly, she was able to muster suitable volume for her first words.
"Dammit, Helena. You scared the hell out of me!"
The other woman's leisurely descent from the high dive faltered for just a moment before Helena dropped the last few feet to land lightly on the concrete.
Automatically accepting the towel being extended toward her, Barbara froze, then blinked.
Out of all of her traits good and bad, how had Helena hung on to that damnable hangdog look that never failed to melt her?
"I didn't mean to scare you, but you've been ducking my calls."
Easily holding herself with one hand on the edge of the pool, Barbara delicately dabbed at her eyes before tossing the towel onto the side. Slowly, she arched one brow and met her companion's faintly accusatory gaze.
"And, would you mind telling me exactly what part of my not answering your calls could be construed as an invitation to stalk me?"
At least that had gotten a blink from the younger woman. If she'd not known her as she did, Barbara thought she might have missed the hint of embarrassment that flitted across Helena's face. There was no way to miss the defiance, and Barbara prepared herself for whatever might come.
When Helena finally spoke, her words and tone were surprisingly gentle.
"I guess I thought I deserved an explanation."
Great flaming sausages of shit.
Barbara quashed the heat of her anger before it had a chance to grow. Carefully, she released her hold on the pool and, fanning her arms slowly, floated a few feet back from the side.
A few feet further from Helena.
"You deserve an explanation."
It wasn't a question. She'd heard her unexpected visitor quite clearly.
It wasn't an acknowledgement. She could have found other ways to fill a conversational vacuum.
God knew, it wasn't an offer, even if the sight of a dark head bobbing emphatically suggested that Helena had chosen to take it as such.
When the younger woman's movement changed from certain to hesitant and when Helena gingerly lowered herself to sit camp-style next to the towel, Barbara knew that she didn't have a choice. Sucking in a breath, she dove under the water, driving herself forward with her arms until she reached the side of the pool again. Breaking the surface, she allowed momentum to help carry her as she lifted herself to the side.
As casually as possible, she checked that her legs were reasonably positioned, then stretched for the towel, unable to miss the flare of aquiline nostrils and the frankly assessing rake of blue eyes over her modest black one-piece.
"An explanation, eh?"
She tilted her head enough to catch most of her hair with the towel and began to wring some of the chlorine out.
"Yeah. I want to know why you're acting like you owe me money."
Barbara couldn't help herself. Given the recent revelations of a pecuniary nature, she had to flinch when she heard the words. Immediately, her companion's belligerent stance softened.
"Sorry. But -- "
Although she tried to focus on the act of settling the towel over her legs, Barbara couldn't avoid the pain in the younger woman's face.
"-- what did I do so wrong?"
Suddenly infinitely weary, Barbara exhaled noisily through her nose, attempting to gather the strength for another it's-not-you-it's-me speech. Helena saved her the effort.
"Or, I guess I'm asking what you think you're doing so wrong?"
She thought her shoulders had visibly sagged. She certainly knew that the question had taken some of the wind out of her sails.
"Helena -- "
Somewhat helplessly, she met her companion's blue eyes, wordlessly asking for assistance from her dearest friend. Dark brows knitting, the younger woman eased closer, tentatively stretching out to touch her wrist.
"Is there something you think you screwed up with Dinah or..."
In the process of shaking her head, Barbara arrested the motion, unwilling to take such an easy way out. Apparently at the limits of her patience, Helena blew out a noisy breath and rubbed her hands across her face.
"What are you so afraid of, Barbara?"
The words echoed dully through her cortex, but she couldn't speak them.
Once again, Barbara blinked, prodding at the question. She caught one corner of the towel in her lap and folded it back on itself, working to articulate just why she had to force Helena to live her own life.
"I've long held myself to a st--"
Pursing her lips, Barbara exhaled slowly and ran her index finger along the crease she'd made in the towel.
"I've attempted," she finally continued, "to adhere to certain codes and morals."
She looked up, seeking understanding and reassured by Helena's cautious nod. As she hunted for a way to continue, Barbara felt warm skin brush her hand, and she looked down to find Helena extending her hand. Without thinking, she accepted the gesture, placing her hand in her partner's.
"It simply that, well, recently, it's been brought to my attention..."
Cheeks flaming, she trailed off.
Dear god, could she be any stiffer?
The satin caress of Helena's thumb across the back her hand gave her the will to soldier on.
"In a nutshell, Hel, I think my influence may be too great."
Her partner's teasing response was not what she'd expected.
Barbara straightened the corner of the towel and met the other woman's gaze.
A grin that might best be described as goofy was the only response, and Barbara raised one brow.
The brunette's smile became a trifle sheepish.
"My mom always used to say that I was a force of nature."
Barbara nodded slowly, having heard Selina say as much on more than one occasion. For a moment, her infallible memory returned her to one such instance -- in the gym, with a young Helena refusing to give up on the rings -- and she clearly saw Selina's face, a perfect mix of maternal pride and consternation.
The younger woman rose, then seemed to hesitate, shaking her hands by her sides.
"... maybe you've gotta be a stronger force."
Again, she allowed a cautious nod and then found herself smiling against her will when Helena laughed softly.
"Something's got to explain why Harleen's ditched her phone, and I'm hitting the straight and narrow."
Filing away that bit of information for later consideration, Barbara allowed her other eyebrow to join first when, apparently having reached a decision, Helena shyly extended one hand, palm up.
"Let's go get some pancakes."
Finally, she lowered her brows and worked on the crease between them.
"You've got to eat, right? And the way you've been tearing up the pool this afternoon, you've gotta need some carbs before you can tell me to get lost."
Barbara inhaled deeply when dark blue eyes widened innocently.
She couldn't help herself. Having caught enough grief over the years for her tendency towards Latinisms, Barbara pursed her lips.
"'Ergo', Helena? Who says 'ergo'?"
The brunette's smile was pure sunshine.
"Looks like we do, Red."
Barbara knew she should fight it, but somehow she just couldn't.
Perhaps it was the rumble from somewhere in the vicinity of her abdomen that turned the tables. Perhaps it was the way Helena skipped backward in mock-horror gasping something about aliens.
Regardless, with a sound that was something between a laugh and a whine, Barbara threw her towel into the hamper and turned toward the locker room. In the fifteen minutes it took her to shower and change, she debated ducking out a side door three-dozen times.
Ultimately, she wouldn't do that to her partner.
Resultantly, she found herself meandering down the street with Helena in the early twilight of a Sunday afternoon, engaged in an absurd conversation.
"Ilia jacta est, Red."
Shaking her head fondly, Barbara squinted at the distant neon sign, attempting to estimate how many blocks lay between them, a carbohydrate binge, and then a farewell.
"Which die is that, Helena?"
When her partner's bouncy steps slowed, she metered her own pace, suspecting that matters were about to become more inscrutable.
"Like I said, Barbara,"
She saw the younger woman glance over and nodded her encouragement.
"I don't understand it, but it's there."
"What's there, Helena?"
Perhaps that had come out a bit huffily, but puzzles were losing their allure. Her companion's sudden gleeful smile did little to relieve her pique.
"It's like those Star Trek episodes where there's a temporal shift."
Forgetting their destination, Barbara slowed to a stop near a side street. She looked up, finding dark brows inching upward, clearly seeking a common ground. Fortuitously, she'd always been a geek; not to mention that she spent most of her daylight hours in the company of sci-fi addicted adolescents.
"Or time travel?" she prompted with a small smile, suspecting that she'd gotten Helena's drift.
Blue eyes sparkled, and the redhead's sense of shared victory fled when she grasped where Helena was going with her analogy.
"You already went back to the dinosaur age and smooshed the butterfly, and now, well, here we are."
Somehow, she had to smile: Helena had always been the only person who could engage her so. Nevertheless, she couldn't allow a hypothesis of predestination to stand.
"No fate but what we make, Helena."
Although Helena had clearly been prepared to argue the point, the words had not been hers. Delivered in a masculine baritone, they came from the side street they'd stopped by, and Barbara whipped her head to the side.
Two men, one small and slight, the other stereotypically large and hulking, were less than twenty feet away. She sensed as much as saw her companion tensing into readiness, and then peripherally saw the brunette take a step back.
Without taking her eyes from the approaching men, she placed her left hand on the other woman's forearm.
"Don't worry, Helena."
The words were barely a whisper, but she knew that the brunette would hear them. With her right hand, she reached for the ten thousand watt mini-taser she'd recently purchased from Overstock.com for $16.99.
Helena's response curtailed her field test of the unit.
"Carlos. Vince. How's it going?"
Although Helena's voice was deceptively low-key, Barbara could feel the tension almost humming from her companion. When the two men stepped into the light of the street and she confirmed the identity of the smaller man, Barbara suspected that her own tension level increased as well. Nevertheless, she waited until the two came to a stop, bracketing Helena, before speaking.
"You're Carlos Triodoros, aren't you?"
Two sets of eyes widened in surprise: Helena's deep blue and Carlos' watery brown. The two spoke as one.
"Yeah, what of it?"
"How do you know him?"
Ignoring the Carlos' question, she looked up at her companion.
"How do you know him, Helena?"
When Helena replied, Barbara was certain she detected a hint of color creeping into her cheeks.
"He's a friend of Harleen's. He's been... He was..."
Carlos finished it for her.
"Covering her car payment."
The small man took a half step, deliberately positioning his back to Barbara as he crowded into Helena.
"You're late this month, Kitten."
Feeling her blood begin to boil, the redhead casually reached for the taser again. Her companion's unconcerned reply forestalled the movement.
"Sorry, Carlos, but I told you to sell it."
The brunette's shrug was vaguely apologetic; perhaps, Barbara thought, a little sad.
"I can't afford it any more."
"Yeah, you said that, but --"
In concert, the two men edged closer to Helena, and Barbara's blood pressure edged a little higher.
"--you don't know the earful I got from Harley. Nobody just stops."
And that was when, Barbara determined in retrospect, the entire scene blew wide open.
A string of expletives from Helena. The big man -- Vince -- backing the diminutive woman toward a storefront. Triodoros somehow deliberately catching Barbara's eye.
As if from a distance, the redhead wondered why the man was taking such care to focus on her when cowing Helena was, nominally, his intent. When she saw his hand move to his pants and then heard the words he directed toward her, she understood.
"She's got a real mouth on her, doesn't she, Barbara?"
Obviously a message from Quinn. Unfortunately for Quinn's men, the madwoman wasn't present.
Without blinking, Barbara felt a batarang in her hand, secured from its hiding place under the armrest of her chair. Without conscious thought, she loosed it, striking the foul little man squarely in the chest.
Triodoros dropped like a bag of rocks.
At the sound of greasy hair hitting the sidewalk, the other two members of the little party interrupted their tete-a-tete, whirling in unison.
As usual, Barbara thought that Helena expressed her question best.
"What the fuck was that?"
So much for the hope that evidence of their former nocturnal partnership might trigger a memory.
Wheeling over to retrieve the batarang, Barbara flirted with the possibility of reconsidering Dinah's idea about clouting Helena in the head. As if reading her thoughts, Carlos' friend saved her the trouble.
The sound of gunfire temporarily paralyzed the redhead. The sight of Helena dropping to the sidewalk, blood pouring from her head, restored her motor skills with remarkable alacrity.
Instantly, the batarang was in the air, and Vince's thirty-two caliber flew through the air, skittering across the sidewalk into a sewer drain. The big man himself remained locked in place, staring dumbly at his empty hand, and so Barbara gave her chair a sharp push, digging for the taser at the same time.
The first shock dropped Helena's assailant to his knees, and Barbara watched with satisfaction as he twitched, a wet spot forming on the front of his trousers. Opting to give the little taser a few seconds to recharge, she slowly moved it to the fluttering pulse point at the base of his throat.
"Don't -- don do it again!"
Thumb already on the button, Barbara simply arched one eyebrow. Practically salivating, Vince tried again.
"Just let me go, and I'll tell you where Quinn is!"
For a hairsbreadth, she was tempted. Terribly, terribly tempted. However, the vision of blood slowly spreading outward on the pavement neatly clarified her position.
"Not interested, Vince."
She moved the taser to his temple and showed her teeth.
"Maybe another time."
He tried to scrabble away, but the building behind him blocked his retreat. Then, he tried bravado.
"You can't. Aren't you some kind of freaking superhero?"
Barbara allowed her other brow to join the first and kept her voice low.
Carefully, she thumbed the unit to its highest setting and then emptied the charge against his temple.
"I'm a goddamned vigilante."
The sight of that dark head, nestled in covers and pillows, turning restlessly was encouraging. A moment later, the blink of blue eyes was enough to evoke hosannas. Nevertheless, Barbara remained quiet from her position beside her injured companion, simply drinking in the image of Helena squinting in the dawn light of the bedroom, her nose crinkling adorably.
Immediately irritated with herself for the thought, Barbara mustered a half-smile.
"You're back. How's your head?"
There was simply no way to keep all of her relief from her voice, but she hoped that her companion would overlook it. Obligingly, the brunette didn't comment, raising a hand to probe experimentally at the bandage on her head. Then, she waggled her eyebrows vigorously, moving her scalp in the process.
"Huh," was the final pronouncement.
Allowing one arched brow to convey her question, Barbara waited as the younger woman shifted onto her side.
"Not bad at all, Red."
Finally, Barbara released the tension she'd been holding like a scourge. Exhaling shakily, she reached out, brushing the bandage at the young woman's temple. Helena submitted to the brief exam placidly before a sly smile split her features.
"Good thing I'm hard-headed, huh?"
There was nothing to do but smile her agreement.
"A veritable force of nature, Sweetie."
The endearment simply slipped out, and she didn't miss the light that sparked in blue eyes. Acutely aware that her fingers still lingered in the dark hair near where the bullet had creased Helena's temple, she withdrew as casually as possible.
Helena remained still beside her, and Barbara silently breathed her relief. A moment later, when the younger woman pushed up on her elbow and fixed her with wide eyes, she realized that she might have been premature.
"How'd you do that?"
Opting to take nothing for granted, she demurred.
"Do what, Helena?"
The expression in Helena's eyes was oddly reminiscent of something she'd witnessed years before. When Helena clarified her question, the memory clicked into place.
"Take out Carlos like that? With that chakram thing?"
Almost seven years earlier and a bit over a year since she'd assumed guardianship of Helena, there had been a cock-up of a robbery at the restaurant she and her ward had been at. Despite her own efforts to keep a low profile, matters had reached a point that she'd had to act; and when she and her charge had returned to their apartment afterward, the same light had shown in Helena's eyes.
Words having to do with being doomed to repeat past mistakes hissed through her mind, and Barbara sighed softly. Since there wasn't much point in dissembling, she went with the truth.
Parts of it, at least.
"I was quite athletic... before. And, well, since then, I've wanted to be able to take care of myself."
She thought Helena's nod was a bit grudging, but her companion didn't press matters. After a few moments' thought, the brunette muttered something, her voice distinctly sulky.
"I could have taken care of him."
Somehow, Barbara maintained a serious expression.
In the dim light of the bedroom, it was difficult to be certain; however, Barbara thought she detected a change in the other woman's features. Helena's next words left no doubt.
"You were amazing. Teach me how to do that."
Red lashes slowly descended, and Barbara caught her lower lip in her teeth: The request was nearly identical to the words spoken by her new ward seven years before.
This time, she knew there wasn't a hint of possibility in her answer.
The question was reasonable and without the rancor she'd heard years before. Clenching her hands against her abdomen, Barbara inhaled slowly and opened her eyes to face her companion.
"I don't want this life for you."
This time, it was dark lashes that descended, and Barbara mentally cursed a reflex that was apparently too ingrained for the younger woman to forget. She waited out her nervousness, attempting to appear unconcerned in her observance of one slender hand smoothing the covers. Finally, her bedmate rolled over and pushed up to lean against the headboard.
"You changed me."
As casually as possible, hoping that her blush wasn't too apparent in the glow of the morning sun through the burgundy curtains, Barbara again tried the truth.
"You had quite a bit of blood on your shirt."
She lightly touched the sleeve of the oversized oxford shirt she'd managed to get the other woman into a the night before, then guiltily withdrew her hand. She didn't feel the need to consider her own response when she'd undressed her injured companion.
"Yeah," the dark head nodded slowly. "After you fixed my head. You... "
Crimson lashes lowered as Barbara fought her own wave of shame and longing.
Hours before when she'd led the barely conscious woman into the bedroom, she'd been unable to remain as distant and businesslike as she'd planned.
In all honesty, she'd probably never had a chance.
"You don't want me."
She thought she heard wonder in Helena's voice but couldn't bring herself to consider it. It was difficult, but Barbara kept her eyes fixed firmly on her hands as they plucked at the covers in her lap.
It wasn't a denial, nor an affirmation, nor really a question. Simply, Barbara thought, a conversational placeholder of sorts; something to fill the deafening silence.
"No, it's more."
The wonder was still there, but now Barbara suspected that it was dancing with certainty. She was fairly confident that she didn't want to witness that particular tango.
"I... I can't Helena."
The other woman exhaled noisily. From the corner of her eye, Barbara saw her brushing her fingertips lightly against the placket of the shirt.
Painfully aware that Helena wasn't responding to her denial, Barbara felt herself tense. Her companion's next words confirmed her suspicion that her injured partner hadn't been completely unconscious the night before.
"Last night. When you were putting this on me."
Dropping her fists to the mattress, Barbara muscled herself a bit higher against the headboard. Carefully, she redraped the covers across her lap, taking her time in folding the top of the sheet over the blanket as she worked for an explanation.
The night before, when she'd removed her companion's bloodstained shirt and tee, she'd simply been unable to resist. The vision of the familiar planes and curves, the delineated musculature that her fingers itched to follow, had simply undone her.
Not to mention overwhelming relief.
Clean up had been first, of course. However, her focus had faltered when she'd slid the clean shirt around Helena's shoulders, then lowered the younger woman to the bed and worked shakily to button the shirt. Her companion's soft murmur, a rumbling purr, had lulled her and she'd given in. Cautiously, she'd allowed her right hand to slip under the placket and had lightly rested her palm on the warm soft skin above Helena's left breast. For two-dozen beats, she'd absorbed the divine warmth, the familiar texture, the reassuring steadiness of her heartbeat.
A restless shifting from her side told Barbara she'd taken too much time. She forced herself to look over, meeting quizzical blue eyes. Her own near-panicked efforts to hide, to backtrack, to escape ended abruptly when Helena soundlessly rolled to her knees and faced her.
Before she could gather her wits, impossibly soft lips brushing her cheek distracted her further. Still, Barbara Gordon was not easily circumvented.
"What are you -"
Hearing her voice as an idiotic croak, she wet her lips.
Helena's reply was little more than a brief rumble against her skin.
The soft sweep of the words raised gooseflesh all over her body, and Barbara struggled to hold on to the threads of the conversation.
She felt the other woman's nod, the fine down of Helena's cheek softly stroking hers.
"That I feel it, too."
She clenched her jaw against the tender kisses ghosting her skin. She realized she had no defense against the soft whisper of air she'd come to recognize as Helena scenting her.
"I saw you. Felt you."
Blood rushed through her torso, up her neck, to her face, powered by the thundering of her heartbeat. And still the younger woman continued her barest of touches, her softest of whispers.
"You want me."
It was a statement, not a question. However, before the Barbara could gather her wits to refute or deny or run, Helena pulled back, the void she left almost a physical presence.
She wasn't certain what she'd been planning to ask, and when her companion brushed her fingertips lightly over the ridge of Barbara's knuckles, she forgot that she'd been speaking at all.
"Let me rephrase that, Red."
Helena's words were almost playful, and Barbara pursed her lips against a smile and managed a helpless quirk of her brows.
"I meant to say that you want me, too."
Once again, she fell back on one of her strengths, deliberately remaining fixedly literal.
"I want you to be happy, Helena."
Barbara's internal chronometer counted off a full thirty-four seconds after that, over half a minute in which her companion remained on her knees beside her, regarding her steadily. She'd just allowed another ten seconds before she'd have to squirm or speak when she saw the tender smile overtaking the other woman's expressive features.
"Then make me happy, Barbara."
With five words, she thought she might truly have met her Waterloo.
With a startled blink, she caught herself.
The dark head nodded seriously.
"Yes. And, -- "
Barbara didn't resist as she felt her hand raised and a kiss dancing over her fingertips.
The younger woman allowed their joined hands to descend to the bed and nodded sagely.
"You've already got me, Barbara, so you can make me all miserable and angry and depressed with wanting, or --"
Dark brows waggled hopefully, however Barbara easily detected the desperate earnestness behind the gesture.
"-- we can cut right to the happily ever aftering."
The air in the room was suddenly very, very thin, perhaps accounting for the weakness of her voice when Barbara finally spoke.
"Helena, it's just not something..."
She didn't know how she intended to complete her statement, and Helena didn't bother to find out. Shaking her head from side to side, the younger woman held out her hand, lightly resting her index finger over Barbara's lips. Rather than responding with irritation, Barbara felt her heart rate skyrocket when she witnessed Helena's other hand rising to begin unbuttoning the shirt she'd slipped on her the night before.
"Then I'll have to do it, Red..."
The redhead straightened marginally as Helena's finger left her lips and moved to trail down the skin hinted at by the loosened shirt
"... and wish it was you."
Pinned by violet eyes, Barbara worked her jaw helplessly, silenced by Helena's next word.
Rapt, she watched her partner's hand descend, biting her lip in an effort not to whimper.
The room must have been brightening because Barbara realized that she was having no trouble making out the flex of Helena's corded thighs as the other woman pushed against herself. Almost afraid to look, she traced the muscles upward, fixing on the slow rhythmic movement evident beneath the cotton of Helena's underwear.
A soft rumble broke the silence, and Barbara dragged her eyes up, only to be pierced by her partner's gold.
"Yeah, Barbara, you."
With that, Helena rose to her knees, gracefully turning to land in her arms. Transfixed, Barbara distantly saw that Helena's hand was rising, moving toward her lover's lips, and she gave in.
And then she knew nothing but the taste of Helena's fingers in her mouth, the musky sweetness and heat she'd missed like water and the sun, and with that her world narrowed to the woman she pinned under her hands. Turning them both, she held herself on one hand, sweeping the other along the expanse of skin beneath her and pressing deep, open-mouthed kisses to heated flesh.
Helena bucked beneath her, and Barbara caught her mouth again, thrusting in rhythm to her partner's undulations. Feeling Helena tense, her panting cries drawing out -- longer and softer -- she reigned herself in.
Not... Not like that.
This time, she came to her love slowly. She tugged the remains of Helena's clothing from her, then began her explorations. Painstaking and thorough, she left nothing untouched, unsampled. When she eased the other woman over and began anew, she heard a rumbling chuckle that coincided with the other woman's shivering stretch under her hands.
Thrilling to the sensation of goose flesh rising on her lover's skin, she didn't raise her mouth from the back of a tensed knee.
"-- thought you'd be... faster."
Regretfully, Barbara dragged herself upward, entranced by another untouched expanse of skin.
"I will be."
She lowered her mouth, blowing softly at the tender flesh she'd just wet.
She suspected that Helena's moan might have signaled agreement, however an instant later, when her partner writhed violently and then went rigid beneath her, she ceased to care.
"What -- what are you doing?"
Pressing an open-mouthed kiss to slick skin, Barbara kept it to the point.
Again, Helena arched sinuously under her but somehow managed to elicit a smile.
"'Bout ti- time."
For a pained moment, the significance of the words struck her, and Barbara gasped softly against the memories and the wishes that it were all real... as it had been. Then damning herself for not accepting a rare second chance, she worked for an answer for the woman she was with.
Helena's plea spared her.
"Use your hands. Your fingers."
Time and sequence ended then replaced by touches and gasps. When Helena rose beneath her, muscles locked in a rictus of pleasure and sweat beading her back, her final collapse nearly carried Barbara with her.
Ravenous, Barbara inched her way upward again, spooning her lover tight and working one hand between them again. A somnolent murmur slowed her progress.
"Jus-- gimme a min't, Tiger."
She considered the request.
For an entire half-second, Barbara toyed with the idea before pushing up on her elbow. Glazed blue eyes met hers and sparked to gold again, and she husked her reply.
It didn't take long. It couldn't have, and, not too many minutes later, Barbara regrouped with a boneless mass of brunette sprawled on top of her. She permitted her hands to wander at will, soothing strokes across Helena's shoulders, gentle scratching at the base of her neck, the other woman's voluble purr providing all the reinforcement she needed.
Drifting, she lost track of time and purpose, her only reality, this. Careful movements as Helena unentangled herself gradually drew her back to the reality of what had transpired, and she looked away from the ceiling, unflinchingly meeting blue eyes.
The other woman ducked her head, hiding under her bangs. The gesture, so familiar and telling, drew Barbara's hand to cup the sharp line of her lover's jaw.
The brunette held her own weight on one hand, using the other to brush Barbara's tee.
Once again, breathing became difficult, but Barbara kept her voice even.
"It's not very pretty."
Fascinated, she watched her partner's eyes grow heavy lidded.
It didn't take someone with an imagination as active as hers to guess what the libidinous younger woman was visualizing. However, when Helena spoke again, Barbara realized that she'd again underestimated the depths of the other woman.
"My hands on your skin? I can't think of anything more beautiful, Barbara."
She had to clear her throat before she could speak, then gestured to the covers still tangled around her lower half.
Helena's nostrils flared once, her visage seeming to sharpen, and she began to work the sheet free, every movement tender and calculated. The soft click of the clock radio coming to life caused her to falter for a hairsbreadth, then Barbara saw her shrug, and the redhead echoed the sentiment with a mental shrug of her own.
She'd already left at message at school that she wouldn't be in.
"Where were we, m'cherie?"
She smiled at Helena's dreadful French accent, but her undoubtedly witty reply died in her mouth when Helena finally tugged the covers free, then simply... froze.
Granted, she hadn't been working out for the last month, but she didn't think her legs were...
Pushing that thought aside, Barbara craned her neck from the pillows, finally grasping just what had arrested her partner's progress.
A second look forced her to correct the guess: her fuzzy bed socks.
Memories of conversations about the socks -- languorous interludes of kisses and discussions of intimacy -- flittered through Barbara's brain even as Helena remained stock-still at the end of the bed, dark brows knit. Forcing herself to keep still, Barbara had to wonder if something so prosaic as this would be the proverbial kiss to awaken Helena from her living dream.
A soft whimper suggested that it might be so.
Pushing aside her own onslaught of emotions, Barbara carefully observed the confusion... then recognition... then pain that ebbed through deep blue eyes. She managed to hold back her words -- inadequate as they'd be -- when Helena buried her face in her hands. A moment later, deep blue eyes met green, and Barbara held her breath.
"This isn't my life, is it?"
The soft exhalation was barely a question, and the older woman shook her head from side to side once, slowly. Then, she forced herself to admit the truth.
"But, there's no reason that it couldn't be, Helena."
Oh, this is the start of something good
Don't you agree?
I haven't felt like this in so many moons
You know what I mean?
And we can build through this destruction
As we are standing on our feet
"Is that what you want, Barbara?"
It felt like days, hours at least, had passed, and Barbara refused to assume that she was following her partner's train of thought.
The lithe figure twisted from the side of the bed, revealing the turmoil in her eyes.
"That other person?"
Without thought, she stretched out, needing the connection of touch. Registering Helena's stiffness, she jerkily aborted the movement.
"Helena? What other person?"
This time, the brunette turned, folding one leg under her, the other swinging from the edge of the bed.
"The other Helena."
Full lips twisted bitterly.
"The one Quinn made."
She heard a hitching gasp before Helena continued.
"The one who did almost everything right."
So, since you want to be with me
You'll have to follow through
With every word you say
And I, all I really want is you
For you to stick around
I'll see you everyday
But you'll have to follow through
You have to follow through
Stunned, Barbara twisted her fists to her lap, seeking a way to explain it all. In the last ten days, she'd been so caught up in the relief of having any Helena, she simply couldn't separate the two.
Eventually, she heard her father, dispensing one of his pearls of wisdom just before she'd gone off to debate camp in junior high: Keep it simple, Barbie.
She allowed the smile to touch her lips and stretched out her hand in invitation.
"I want you, Helena."
Hesitantly, Helena accepted the gesture, loosely tangling their fingers. They shared the quiet of the room, the hum from the clock radio barely penetrating the thick silence.
"How much do you remember, Helena?"
The younger woman's reaction suggested a great deal, but she didn't want to assume. The abruptness of Helena's movement when she suddenly stood almost drew a gasp from the redhead, but she managed to remain still. Shoulders rigid, the brunette stepped to the dressing bench and snagged Barbara's favorite lounging tee, jerking it over her head. Then she returned to the bed, tugging at the hem of the oversized shirt.
Barbara lifted her brows, and her companion dropped onto the edge of the bed with a noisy sigh.
A slender hand waved toward the living area of the tower.
Again, Barbara saw her partner tense, and Helena turned away, her words dropping to a low mutter.
"What I did."
Unable to stand it, she reached out, touching her lover's shoulder. Almost grudgingly, Helena turned, and Barbara's heart broke when she saw her facade crumble. Instantly, she scrabbled forward and enfolded her partner in her arms.
These reeling emotions they just keep me alive
They keep me in tune
Oh, look what I'm holding here in my fire
This is for you
So,since you want to be with me
You'll have to follow through
With every word you say
Barbara loosened her hold a tiny bit and pulled back just far enough to see her partner's face.
"What was that, Sweetie?"
Uncharacteristically, Helena wouldn't meet her eyes.
"I didn't mean to hurt you."
Instantly Barbara released her partner from her arms, raising her hands to cup her face.
"She used you, Helena."
The petulant stubbornness in her companion's face was so utterly Helena, that Barbara almost laughed. Instead, she remained grave.
"She had you do things you'd never normally do."
That finally drew a grudging nod, and blue eyes peeked from under thick lashes, a pert nose wrinkling in a sniffle.
"Yeah, she had me wearing white after Labor Day."
The words were sulky, and Barbara nodded seriously, relieved to feel the hint of a smile against her palms.
She'd play this out however Helena needed to, saving her own reactions and emotions for later.
"Had me doing homework again, too."
Finally lowering her hands, Barbara murmured a condolence.
"Pure evil, Hel."
Her partner's vigorous nod transformed into an expression of utter horror.
"I kissed Dinah!"
Her footing not quite so certain, the redhead spoke evenly.
"I think she'll survive."
The brunette grew serious then, and Barbara knew they'd reached the crux of matters.
Blue eyes filled with misery and shame sought hers.
"I cheated on you."
Her instinct was to deny or dismiss the claim, but she couldn't miss the obstinate set of her partner's jaw, and she knew that this was not the time to focus on what Quinn had perpetrated on Helena.
She allowed her eyes to track to the left while she replayed matters.
"I was unfaithful to you, too, Hel."
The brunette nodded slowly, cocking her head to one side.
Arching a brow, Barbara just waited, and Helena allowed her the out, quirking a grin.
"What was up with that, anyway?"
The truth -- that she apparently couldn't resist any incarnation of her friend -- was too much, so Barbara returned the grin.
"Temporal conundrum, I suppose."
The words you say to me are unlike anything
That's ever been said
And what you do to me is unlike anything
That's ever been
Am I too obvious to preach it?
You're so hypnotic on my heart
"I'm going to drop out of university, you know."
Reaching for her shirt, Barbara didn't even look over.
"Probably start wearing a helluva lot more leather."
She sensed that there was more and waited.
Barbara smiled as she pulled her hair from the collar.
"Seems sensible, Sweetie. Winter's on its way."
There might have been the barest hint of a huff from the younger woman as she transferred herself to her chair.
"I may start doing some jumping from tall buildings again."
She turned toward the door of the bedroom.
"It's the only way to fly, Hel."
This time the snort was unmistakable. It was followed by a long ribbon of red yarn waving in front of her.
"And, I'm not wearing this."
Barbara halted her progress toward the hallway long enough to retrieve the nascent scarf she'd started two weeks before.
"It might be for Dinah," she supplied airily.
Her partner's vocal yelp was everything she'd been missing.
"Hey! I want one, too."
So since you want to be with me
You'll have to follow through
With every word you say
And I, all I really want is you
For you to stick around
I'll see you everyday
Barbara had barely made it to the kitchen and popped open the airtight seal on the coffee container when the brunette skidded in.
"You still overdoing the caffeine, Red?"
Measuring out an extra scoop, she didn't pay much attention to what was clearly insanity.
The brunette was beside her in an instant, bending close to rest one hand on her abdomen.
"Is she okay? After all this?"
The pain engendered by the question was more than she'd expected. Still, it was understandable that there might be some... gaps.
"Helena -- "
The blue eyes so close to her widened, and Helena took a step back, raising her index finger.
"You've been all hardheaded, haven't you?"
The brunette's voice had resonated with what Barbara thought could have been self-righteous indignation.
That, or poorly suppressed laughter.
Baffled, damned near dizzy, Barbara pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger.
The younger woman carefully pried her hand loose and squatted beside her, bringing them to eye level. When she spoke, her voice was very gentle.
"Have you even talked to a doctor since the hospital?"
Clearly neither of them was quite ready to refer directly to Quinn's arrival.
"Things happened a little quickly after the hysterec-- "
Opting to ignore the fact that she'd been interrupted, Barbara arched one brow.
Helena's growing smile -- dear heavens, was the young woman actually doting over her? -- did little to dispel Barbara's confusion. The slow shake of a dark head didn't help her exasperation.
Honestly, puzzles had quite lost their allure.
"I ran into Dr. Frine when I was going for your coffee. They didn't do the hysterectomy."
For one of a handful of times since the shooting, Barbara was grateful that she was permanently seated. Otherwise, her legs surely would have gone out from under her.
"They didn't -- ?"
And then Helena moved very close, bringing them eye-to-eye, nose-to-nose.
"No. When they opened you up, all sign of the cancer was gone."
Blinking furiously to focus at such close range, Barbara thought she might have detected a hint of preening in her partner's body language.
"Personally, I was thinking that the Peapod has some meta-human healing genes that she used on you."
So since you want to be with me
You'll have to follow through
With every word you say
And I, all I really want is you
For you to stick around
I'll see you everyday
Eventually, Barbara found her voice.
Blue eyes twinkled.
"We're still preg--"
She heard her voice rising in pitch and volume but couldn't have modulated it if she'd tried.
White teeth flashed.
Soundlessly, Barbara waved at the coffee maker.
Over a month before, it had been very vocally decided for her by the two younger women in the family that one cup a day would be allowable, and she certainly thought she needed it today.
Helena rose gracefully from her crouch and retrieved a filter, whistling the tune from the radio softly through her teeth. Still shell-shocked, Barbara didn't budge, watching the graceful economy of the other woman's movements as she finished measuring the coffee and poured water into the unit.
Dazed, confused, and not at all unhappy with the situation, Barbara realized that the words she heard just before Helena turned on the coffee maker didn't surprise her in the least.
"You know, maybe I won't drop my Eastern Art class after all."
So since you want to be with me
You'll have to follow through
With every word you say
And I, all I really want is you
Oh, this is the start of something good
Don't you agree?