FANDOM: Birds of Prey TV

PAIRING: Barbara/Helena

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

SEQUENCE/INSTALLMENT NOTE: This is the fourth entry in the "Elemental" series (Landslide, Watershed, Windshear, Sunspots).

SUMMARY: Getting back to normal after The Joker's escape isn't as simple as it seems.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: With thanks to everyone who's encouraged and supported this little series; you folks rock! Special thanks to Landy and Nightstalker for prodding me to get this written.

COMMENTS: Please. It's both inspiring, and it helps to improve my writing.

ARCHIVING: Probably. Please ask.


Chapter 1

Dead was dead.

Barbara Gordon had lived long enough to know that there were very few incontrovertible truths in life.

At some point in her life, many of the ideals and beliefs she'd most cherished had somehow proven... ephemeral. For example, while the analytical woman was loathe to admit it, contrary to popular teaching and all things politically correct, "no" sometimes could mean "yes". Perhaps even more difficult to admit was the realization that the good guys didn't always win.

Of course, disputable truths weren't limited to the philosophical and moral. As her first ward had demonstrated years before -- at the cost of a few grey hairs -- it wasn't instant destruction to put metal in the microwave. Years before that, in an experiment which she herself had constructed at the tender age of eight, she'd proven to her satisfaction that the Coriolis force was simply so much bunk: Water could be made to swirl down the drain in a clockwise direction in the Northern Hemisphere.

Smiling wryly at the memory, the redhead acknowledged that it had been unfortunate indeed that her jury-rigged electromagnets had cracked the aged trap in the bathroom drain and her father had, accordingly, not shared her enthusiasm for the outcome of her scientific research.

Nevertheless, and setting aside the sometimes inevitable costs of debunking so-called truths, she had to admit that sometimes the snow did come down in June, and, depending on perspective, the sun could seem to go round the moon.

Pushing back a few inches from her perusal of her monitor, Barbara resolutely willed herself not to have a certain saccharin melody running through her mind even as, with a mental roll of her eyes, she allowed the song's lyrics to complete the bitter reflection on her work: The world was, indeed, a crazy place, but sometimes, the chance really had passed.

Death was incontestable, and there was simply nothing she could do about it.

Unfortunately, it also appeared that in this particular instance, there was nothing more she could do to honor or acknowledge the particular death. Since her unsettling visit to the morgue four days before and the discovery of The Joker's last victim -- the Jane Doe he'd intended Barbara to believe had been Helena -- she'd tried everything she could to determine the young woman identity.

Dental reconstruction through complex modeling programs had gone nowhere; fingerprint and corneal matches had been impossible; and using the latest real-time facial recognition technology which was used in casinos to spot card sharks had proven similarly fruitless. Now, with the last of her fleet of 'bots trickling back in from attempting DNA matches in every accessible database around the globe, the cyber-genius realized that she might have to admit defeat.

Wearily, Barbara straightened, blinking her eyes a few times to refocus after her intense, and undoubtedly over-close, scrutiny of her monitor. She deliberately eased the tension in her jaw, acknowledging that admitting defeat never got any easier, especially when doing so meant letting down those who were important to her.

A voluble crash from the other room distracted the redhead from her morose attempts to come up with yet another line of investigation, and she pinned the closed door to the training room with acute emerald eyes just as an angry shout resonated through the room.

"Goddammit! C'mon and hit me, Kid!"

Barbara felt her right eyebrow inching toward her hairline and exhaled slowly. Giving herself a moment, she removed her glasses, speculatively tapping one bow against her lower lip, wondering just what sort of training her two charges were engaged in. She was spared the need to investigate when the door to the training room swung open and the two younger women emerged, Helena still muttering grumpily.

"... not gonna get any kind of practice with you pulling your blows like that."

The leader of the small team of vigilantes instantly decided that silence was golden in this instance and contented herself with greeting the younger women with a smile as she observed their progress across the living area.

True to her fair complexion, Dinah was red from the three hour stint in the exercise room, her Bart Simpson tee dampened with sweat. Her answering smile seemed vaguely apologetic. Helena, naturally, showed far fewer signs of exertion, possibly due to her own unique physiology or due to the fact that Dinah hadn't challenged her sufficiently. Barbara decided that the smile which the brunette offered, as she leapt gracefully onto the platform which supported the Delphi while concurrently keeping its myriad cables out of sight, was decidedly eager.

"Hey, Red."

For some reason -- perhaps it had to do with the ends of the towel dangling from around Helena's neck and waving into the periphery of her vision -- the older woman felt herself stiffen when her ebullient partner bent down to buss her cheek. She immediately regretted the response and managed an apologetic smile even as the brunette straightened with a hasty apology of her own.

"Uh, sorry about the noise; we didn't mean to bother you."

The older woman briskly shook her head, aware of Dinah joining them on the platform.

"It's alright, Hel."

She reached out, resting a hand lightly on the brunette's forearm, pleased when she felt the tension ebb from the younger woman's stance.

"You saved me from beating my head against the mouse pad again."

"What are you working on?"

The teen's question was a bit breathy, the girl still winded from her workout. While she might not have been attacking at the level Helena had wanted, she'd obviously not been slacking off either during the long Saturday afternoon workout.

"DNA match for our Jane Doe."

Barbara kept it short, not missing the puzzled blink of cornflower blue eyes before Dinah abruptly caught her lower lip in her top teeth and ducked her head. Seeing Helena's expression hardening, she managed to lighten her tone a bit.

"Why in the name of everything sensible this country hasn't set up a centralized medical database is simply beyond..."

Fighting a smile as two pairs of blue eyes -- one pale, one dark -- rolled indulgently, she allowed the remainder of her diatribe to remain unspoken.

It was, after all, nothing the younger women hadn't heard before.

Certain that her current ward was more subdued than usual, the redhead debated for a split second before turning to catch the teen's eyes.

"Perhaps if you have time later, Dinah, you'd be willing to look over the search parameters I set for the 'bots? You just might see something I'm missing."

The shy duck of a blonde head and tentative smile which greeted the request warmed the older woman. Simultaneously, she couldn't suppress a momentary flash of anger against the individuals who had so dampened the amazing young woman's confidence.

"Uh, sure, Barbara. If, uhm,"

The girl nervously tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and smiled. With some difficulty, the redhead refrained from catching her ward's hand and staying her nervous gesture.

"... if you think I can help."

Barbara's reassurance was summarily cut off by the third person at the work center.

"Duh, Dinah. Of course you can."

The smile came a bit faster, seeming to spread a bit wider, and so Barbara simply nodded her agreement with the brunette's endorsement.

"Kewl! I'll take a look tonight."

The blonde seemed to straighten, growing a tiny bit taller.

Or, perhaps, the older woman decided with no small measure of amusement, it was simply Dinah's enthusiastic bouncing which gave an illusion of greater height.

A beat later, fearing emotional whiplash, Barbara blinked when the teen sobered -- from an emotional sixty miles per hour to ten miles per hour in a split second -- and caught her lower lip in her upper teeth.

"But, uhm, right now I was kind of wondering if, uh..."

Obviously feeling less patient, Helena broke in.

"C'mon, out with it."

The blonde colored extravagantly as she rushed through her request.

"if-we-could-all-talk-about-something. Maybe?"

Pale, hopeful, blue eyes peered through blonde lashes.

"Of cours--"

Barbara was, again, cut short.

"Like a team meeting or something?"

Aware of Dinah mirroring her movement, Barbara swung her gaze to the side to watch the effusive brunette park her shapely posterior on the edge of the table. Helena swung her legs at the knees, back and forth under the table, as she smiled winsomely.

"Cool. Duh-duh-da-da, duh-duh-da-da..."

A sharp look silenced the a capella rendition of the 'Mission Impossible' theme song. Unfortunately, not before whatever Dinah had started to say was lost.

She thought she'd heard the word "family".

While she freely admitted that she'd never been the speediest car on the emotional track, even Barbara grasped the blonde's nervousness. Accordingly, she caught her partner's eyes and pursed her lips in silent request. Without missing a beat, Helena hopped from the edge of the table and stepped to the edge of the platform.

"Kinda hungry, Kid. How about you, Red?"

The older woman nodded, even as Helena leapt gracefully from the platform, speaking over her shoulder on the way to the kitchen.

"May as well get something to eat before I go on sweeps then have to close down the Dark Horse. Again."

The last word carried clearly through the kitchen door, and Barbara exchanged a sympathetic smile with Dinah as they followed their partner to the kitchen.

Apparently, Leonard's generosity about time off had reached its limits during the dark vigilante's protracted absence during The Joker's rampage. At this point, Helena's boss seemed to be scheduling her for ridiculous hours and numerous shifts.

Somewhat to the redhead's surprise, the younger woman was taking the increased demands for her time in stride. Indeed, when Barbara had asked her about a triple shift two nights before, Helena had smiled easily and gestured toward the warranties drawer, which held the packet she'd brought to the tower two weeks before: "Still gotta pay off my half of that, y'know."

Nearing the door to the kitchen, the redhead flinched minutely when she heard the clang of a pan hitting the stove.

Apparently, cooking -- rather than snacking or reheating -- was on the agenda.

She exchanged a look with her young companion, not missing the way Dinah seemed to suck in a lungful of oxygen -- and calmly entered the kitchen. She found Helena emerging from the pantry closet with a box of what Barbara had come to think of as Meat Extender Helper. For approximately three-quarters of a minute, the redhead was presented with the smiling little oven mitt face on the front on the front of the box while her protege poured over the instructions on the back with a concentration which Barbara privately thought could have been reserved for deciphering cuneiforms.

Dinah eventually broke the stand-off, tugging the box from the brunette's hands.

"You brown the meat, Julia Child."

The redhead attempted to hide her chuckle over the little gibe under the guise of clearing her throat, resultantly almost missing her partner's somewhat peevish response as she ducked into the refrigerator.

"I knew that, Einstein."

"Hey! I was jus--"

Opting for distraction, Barbara cut the exchange short.

"You could always use tofu, Hel."

Honestly, she'd just been trying to be helpful. From the incredulous look she was receiving, it seemed like she'd suggested adding ground bugs to the casserole.

Resigned, she raised her hands in surrender.

"Fine. Animal flesh it is. What would you like me to do?"

"Set the table--"


The twin responses came with such alacrity -- not to mention vehemence -- that the older woman flirted with the possibility of taking offense. With a mental shrug, she acknowledged her culinary limitations and moved to the silverware drawer while her two proteges busied themselves with the cooking.

"I believe it's 'saute', not 'flambe', Hel," she noted mildly as she gathered the flatware and observed the height of the flames surrounding the brunette's frying pan.

"Potato. Pahtahto."

The sing-song response preceded the erupting grease fire by approximately two seconds, the screech of the smoke alarm by another five seconds or so. Sll three women moved into action: Barbara heading for the cabinet under the sink where the fire extinguisher was stored; Helena grabbing a box of baking soda from the cupboards; and Dinah fixing the stove with a look of fierce concentration. By the time the older woman had the cabinet door open and Helena had lifted her hand to retrieve the box of soda, the fire was out, presumably snuffed by the blonde's TK.

Raising her brows in question, the redhead caught cornflower blue eyes with hers. She received a shy nod of acknowledgement and smiled her thanks. Helena was less reserved.

"That's waaay cool, D."

Barbara turned to retrieve the silverware she'd scattered across the countertop while the teen's face flooded with color.

"It's nothing really."


The sarcastic acknowledgement was muffled by the refrigerator, where Helena was digging for something. The brunette emerged momentarily with a block of cheddar and a handful of produce, easily continuing the thread of the conversation.

"So you don't, uh, feel the heat or anything through your TK?"

Suspecting that she knew the answer but curious nevertheless, Barbara circumspectly watched the teenager as she pushed her newly shagged hair behind her ear. Regrettably, the gesture provided an all-too-vivid reminder of the recent physical run-in with fire which both of her proteges had recently undergone; however, she pushed those thoughts aside as blonde brows furrowed.

"No, I guess not."

Starting some flashy knife-work on a handful of fresh mushrooms -- Barbara assumed the vegetables were a nod to her less carnivorous tastes -- Helena cheerfully plowed along on her line of questioning.

"Okay, then, when you do a, uhm, TK poke, how do you know how hard to make it?"

The leader of the little team pursed her lips against a smirk as she retrieved three wine glasses to the accompaniment of Dinah's laughter.

"Barbara had me practice on tomatoes for a while, then I moved on to hard boiled eggs."

The redhead turned back to the kitchen in time to see cobalt eyes light up in comprehension.

"So that was the deal with all of the egg salad we were having for a while, huh?"

This time, Barbara didn't try to restrain her laughter.

"I didn't hear you complaining about all of the sandwiches you were wolfing down, Sweetie."

The brunette made a face, pointedly touching her tongue to her gumline above her upper teeth.

"I thought there was egg shell in there."

Transporting the mushrooms and onions which Helena had just chopped to the skillet using her TK, Dinah burst into laughter again, and Barbara prepared herself for a spill. The teen's concentration held, and the produce made its way into the pan as Helena looked up from her work at the cheese grater.

"So, you know the way you used your TK to get between the bubble goo and people, and you pushed it off?"

There was a quick nod of a blonde head, and Barbara held her breath in anticipation, not missing the admiration which had been evident in the brunette's question.

"Could you do that with egg shells and hard-boiled eggs?"

"I don't know. I never really thought about it."

The redhead passed three plates to the blonde, who began ladling copious portions of the impromptu casserole onto them as she continued thoughtfully, "I might need a crack in the shell or something..."

Easily noting the eager light in her former ward's cobalt eyes, Barbara resolutely turned toward the wine rack and retrieved a bottle of red with a laugh.

"Before we're all eating egg salad again for the next few days," she settled herself at the table as the two younger women joined her, "let's enjoy this."

It was at some point during Helena's second helping, while Barbara endeavored to keep up with the mushrooms which somehow kept moving from the brunette's plate to her own, that a hesitant question came from across the table.

"Uh, do you guys think I should go to the dance tomorrow?"

The redhead sipped from her wine glass, attempting to decipher the subtext behind the question. Since Dinah's inquiry had, seemingly, come from out of the blue, she suspected that it had to do with whatever the girl had attempted to broach at the Delphi earlier. However, for the life of her, she couldn't fathom why her ward would be so nervous about the seniors' pre-graduation dance.

"I thought you already asked Gabby to go with you."

As usual, Helena managed to cut straight to the heart of the matter, and a light bulb went off for the analytical woman. She casually placed the tines of her fork on the edge of her plate.

"Indeed, Dinah," she offered an open smile, "isn't it a done deal?"

There had, after all, been myriad whispered telephone conversations between the two teens over the course of the last month, not to mention not one but three shopping trips with Helena to locate the perfect dress for the formal affair.

The teen fidgeted with her water and shifted in her chair, refusing to meet the older woman's eyes.

"It's just, well, we've never gone to a school dance..."

There was the briefest of hesitations before Dinah finished her statement, her voice almost a whisper.

"... together."

Inclining her head slightly to the right, Barbara considered her ward for a moment and then plunged ahead.

"Are you concerned about the reaction you might receive as a same-sex couple, Dinah?"

The almost guilty blink of pale lashes was confirmation enough.

"Because, if that's the case, don't forget about the school's tolerance policy. I'm sure that you'd be..."

Immediately pinned by two identical looks -- one from eyes as light as the summer afternoon sky, the other from eyes as dark as the sea -- both expressing incredulous disbelief that any one person could be so clueless, the redhead decisively shut her mouth. Very calmly, she turned to her partner, doing her best to telegraph her expectation that Helena needed to come up with something better.

She wasn't disappointed.

"Don't sweat it, Kid. Anybody who's enough of a jerk to hassle you? Just remember -- "

The teen perked to attention, and even Barbara found herself leaning in a bit in anticipation.

"-- you can out think them, out fight 'em, or you just won't be seeing them after graduation anyway."

The older woman felt her eyes sparkle appreciatively when Dinah responded to the brunette's infectious grin with a tentative smile.


The young woman sitting next to Barbara popped the last bite of casserole in her mouth and dabbed at her lips with a napkin.

"Really, Kid. Take it from me. You're gonna leave those jerks in the dust."

Chapter 2

Talking away
I don't know what I'm to say
I'll say it anyway
Today's another day to find you
Shying away
I'll be coming for you love, Okay

Take on me
Take me on
I'll be gone
in a day or two

So needless to say I'm odds and ends
But that's me, stumbling away
Slowly learning that life is okay
Say after me
It's no better to be safe than sorry.


Catching herself tapping one long index finger against the arm of her chair in time to the music blaring from the speakers, Barbara abruptly stilled the movement and indulged herself by rolling her eyes at herself. Then, with a mental shrug, she resumed her motion.

The bouncy 1980's A-Ha classic was, after all, a perennial favorite for senior dances.

Having chaperoned her fair share of the events, the English teacher felt comfortably safe in classifying herself as an expert on the topic of graduation dance play lists. She didn't know why 80's music was so popular for this particular annual dance; however, since Billy Vera and The Beaters' "At This Moment" had filled the hotel ballroom earlier in the evening, if she were any judge of matters --

The redhead hid her smirk behind a faux-crystal punch cup as Spandau Ballet's "True" came over the sound system, slowing the pace of the dancing considerably. As if the melody weren't indication enough, she surreptitiously checked her watch, confirming that the dance should be winding down in another half an hour or so.

Smiling indulgently as she took in the sea of bodies filling the New Gotham Regency Hotel's main ballroom, she eased her way along the perimeter of the room, tacking in on the refreshment table. Once there, she nodded at Mrs. Giles, and the two shared a smile over the hundred and fifty or so young people before them, all looking so grown up and eager at this last official school function before graduation.

With tiny sigh, Barbara dipped the ladle deeply back into the bowl of vile punch, refilling her cup and raising it to her lips. An instant later, she nearly spewed the red liquid across her cream pantsuit. Swallowing with some difficulty and coughing so hard she feared that a lung might come up, the redhead decisively set her cup on the table and retreated, making a mental to note to suggest that someone else be tasked with supervising the refreshment table next year.

Obviously, Mrs. Giles acumen in the machine shop didn't extend to watching the punch bowl: once again, the cloyingly sweet fruit concoction had been spiked.


And, Barbara decided as she delicately ran her tongue over her teeth and detected a certain... squeakiness, possibly with Windex.

Tradition or no, it was simply too foul for words.

Balefully, she surveyed the remaining foodstuffs on the refreshment table, likening the carnage to the effects a swarm of locusts might have on a field of crops. Dismissing the warm deviled eggs and broken cookies as unlikely candidates for cleansing her palate, the redhead dug into the pocket on the side of her chair in the hopes of discovering a long-forgotten box of Tic Tacs or a pack of gum. Her search gradually stilled when she caught sight of two of the dancers on the floor.

In her ten years in the classroom -- which had included chaperoning her fair share of dances and events -- Barbara had witnessed young love in countless incarnations: The ever-popular jock-cheerleader couple; the sweetly goofy science nerds; the oddly workable punk-preppy matches; even the occasional Latin club-Goth combination. Over the years, she'd continued to smile indulgently as she watched them holding hands in the hallways, swaying -- or grinding -- together at the dances, text messaging across the classroom, and exchanging kisses -- and more -- in the hidden nooks of the hallways which each generation of students seemed to believe that the faculty were unaware of.

Whether in the throes of first love or the comfort of long association -- although the English teacher acknowledged that, in high school, "long term" did adopt a new meaning -- the couples were invariably earnest about feelings never before shared.

And, ninety-eight percent of the time, they were strictly male-female.

NGHS was no stranger to same-sex couples, and it had, gradually, begun to acknowledge and support its gay students: The district's tolerance policy -- something Barbara had help draft two years before -- was one indicator of changing attitudes; the presence of a small, but boisterous, GLBT student club another.

Nevertheless, watching the couple on the dance floor swaying to the romantic lyrics amid the crowd of heterosexual couples, Barbara had to admit that the sight of a gay or lesbian couple at a school dance was... rare. While there had been a few brave same-sex couples at school dances in the last few years -- if she weren't mistaken, the outpouring had peaked during the end of the Clinton administration -- they usually seemed to frequent the more upbeat events: rallies, sock hops, and dance contests.

Events, her mind efficiently supplied, without the overt romanticism of slow dances.

With that thought, the redhead instantly decided that there was all the more reason to admire the courage and conviction -- or, perhaps, it was simply a youthfully optimistic belief in acceptance -- of those who chose to attend the more formal dances. She certainly had to admire the two young women moving in and out of view in the crush of bodies on the dance floor.

In all honesty, and reassurances she'd offered during dinner the night before notwithstanding, Barbara had experienced a flicker of nervousness when she'd seen Gabby and Dinah make their entrance an hour or so after the event had begun. Suspecting that she'd observed a similar emotion in her ward's pale features, she'd sternly told herself to roll on in to the 21st century and had matter-of-factly approached the young women with a warning about the quality of the punch. When Gabby had responded with a crack about having no place to carry a canteen for school dances -- the curly-haired teen sometimes reminded Barbara a bit too much of Helena -- the tension had broken.

Now, she had to admit that she was pleased that Dinah had collected her nerve and come, and she suspected that the blonde shared the sentiment.

The two girls were lovely together, their affection clear in the comfort of their movements and the soft, circumspect kisses Barbara had observed. With her head resting on the taller girl's shoulder, Gabby's curly brown hair blended with gold, a sweet metaphor for their intimacy. Both had clearly pulled out all the stops in planning their outfits: Gabby in a silver and green chiffon dress which the English teacher distantly thought might favor her own coloring; and Dinah in something blue and slinky enough to convince her that Helena had, in an uncharacteristic fit of playing well with others, dug through her closet and shared.

In the course of the dance, as she'd casually patrolled the perimeter of New Gotham's most elite hotel's ballroom, Barbara had observed only one potentially difficult moment for the two young women, about twenty-five minutes after they had arrived. Will Thorton and several of his teammates had crowded the two on the dance floor, their approach full of enough swagger to spur Barbara onto the floor to cut the interaction short. However, before she'd penetrated the first layer of discoing bodies, she'd witnessed Dinah saying something which had caused the young men promptly to turn tail and slink away.

The redhead had immediately made a mental note to find out just what her innocent young charge had come up with to such effect. Clearly, the words were worthy of a Nobel nomination.

Or, at least, a Pulitzer.

Now, with the event winding down, the redhead gave herself a few minutes to admire the two young women, struck by the odd sensation of something in her chest concurrently contracting... and seeming to expand to encompass a host of emotions.

Forcing herself not to dismiss the feelings, she admitted that it was not just the girls' courage which impressed her so. Despite her sheltered and less-than-pleasant background, Dinah had naturally and easily -- or, as easily as any teenager exploring first romance -- found someone she cared for. Without worrying unduly about gender and discrimination, the young telepath had embraced the relationship, accepting love as it came to her. In so doing, she demonstrated so much more than courage.

With a nearly soundless snort, Barbara wondered where that sort of ability came from. Heaven knew, her own stubborn blindness had forced her to take twice as long to begin to approach the self-acceptance which the willowy slip of a girl exhibited.

With a rueful shake of her head, she resumed her circuit of the room, mentally giving thanks for Helena's patience.

Not to mention her persistence.

That thought, coinciding as it did with the DJ's choice for the next track, slowed the redhead's progress. Recognizing the song's thumping under beat and immediately identifying the vocalist, she came to a stop near a fire exit, feeling a distinct hint of color touch her cheeks.

"Take Me To The River."

Annie Lennox's whiskey vocal filled the room, immediately bringing to mind her own current favorite piece by the artist: "Whiter Shade of Pale", a song which she and Helena had danced to in the training room only a few weeks before.

The two had just finished their mid-week workout -- Dinah had been at some school function -- and, at the time, Barbara had snorted in disbelief when her partner had suggested an impromptu "prom". Despite an instinctive grace on the gymnastic circuit, she'd never been able to relax on the dance floor, had simply never been a dancer.

Well, until Helena.

When the brunette had ignored her self-depreciating comments about being in possession of two left wheels, dimming the lights and programming the CD player, her embarrassed response had slowly transformed to something else. Still in her workout gear -- running pants with a red and white stripe down the outside of the legs and a tight white tank dampened from her workout -- Helena had turned from the boom box with a sultry smile.

Even now, in a very public venue, surrounded by sharp-eyed students, Barbara couldn't stop her infallible memory from supplying the way her heart had pounded as the younger woman had swayed to her, catching the arms of her chair in her strong hands and beginning a never-ending slow spin. Somehow, it had been effortless to relax into the moment and the motion.

By the middle of the song, Helena had been in her lap, allowing Barbara to lead. By the final chords of the melody, the two had tumbled to the mats on the floor, moving to an entirely different rhythm.

A whisper of movement in the periphery of her vision and the tiniest of giggles drew the redhead from her mental perambulation in time to catch the tail end of laughing words.

"... just gets lost in her own head."

Painting on a smile, she executed a sharp forty-five degree turn and pinned her observers with a fond glance.

"I'm busted."

Dinah laughed outright while Gabby, perhaps still a bit nervous around her girlfriend's guardian, who happened to have been her teacher the year before, managed a nervous smile. Barbara felt her own smile widen.

"Gabby. Dinah. Are you enjoying yourselves?"

Judging from the smiles which had been permanent fixtures on the girls' faces throughout the evening, the question was obviously otiose. Nevertheless, politeness demanded it.

"It's great--"

"-- amazing. I mean, this has been so fun and everybody, or mostly everybody's, been really cool, and I'm so glad that you and Hel convinced me, uh -- "

Having cut off Gabby's reply, Dinah abruptly halted her own effusive reply, her fair features pinking noticeably. Possibly, the older woman surmised, Dinah hadn't yet told Gabby how close she'd come to backing out of the affair.

"Yes, the blue is the perfect choice for you," she supplied.

The startled blink of pale blue eyes, followed immediately by a silent nod of thanks, suggested that Barbara wasn't the only one surprised by her uncharacteristically smooth save. The slow shake of curly brown hair signaled the third member of the group's puzzlement with the non-verbal exchange, nevertheless, Gabby easily refocused the conversation.

"We're getting ready to head out for, uh, pancakes and wanted to touch base."

The redhead nodded, then raised a hand in the universal sign for 'stop' as the two waved and turned toward the door.

"Have either of you had any punch in the last hour?"

They did not need to be driving -- especially in her Hummer -- if they'd so much as sniffed the doctored beverage.

"No, Ms. Gordon."

"No, why?"

Nodding her approval and ignoring the blonde's question, Barbara smiled and waved them on their way. Concurrently, and with not-inconsiderable relief, she recognized the opening strains of a familiar melody and knew that she, too, could soon depart. While pancakes were not on her agenda for the evening, her bed was beckoning, as was the hope that Helena might be free of her double at the bar a bit early.

Approximately two hours later, blissfully relaxed in a cocoon of covers, the redhead felt herself being drawn from slumber by a sense of... something. Grudgingly, she pried open heavy lids and nearly jumped backwards out of the bed when she found herself pinned by glittering yellow eyes.

A trifle peevishly, the analytical woman supposed that she'd been saved from a resounding crash onto the floor only by her legs' refusal to follow her upper body.

The dark head resting on the pillow ducked sheepishly towards the covers.

"I was watching you sleep."


The younger woman's apologetic tone -- presumably matched by her trademark hang-dog expression -- simply evaporated the redhead's grumpiness, and she smiled fondly.

It was, after all, high time for Helena to be home.


The exhalation warmed the older woman, and she allowed her eyes to droop shut, committed to returning to the arms of morpheus. For a minute and a half, she gave it the old college try before realizing that it was simply no use: The awareness of being watched weighed heavily on her -- a habit from early childhood -- and her eyes inexorably cracked open.

In the light of the full moon peeking through the blackout curtains, she detected an apologetic smile on perfect cupid's bow lips.

"I can, uh, pretend to sleep."

The older woman smiled sadly, knitting their fingers between them and pulling their joined hands to her chest.

"Don't ever pretend for me, Hel."

Silence reigned for a few moments.

"Did the dance go okay?"

The redhead nodded briefly, confident that her sharp-eyed companion would see the movement.

"Punch was spiked with some dreadful hooch."

She easily saw the glitter of even white teeth as the brunette smiled.

"Nothing as tasty as peach schnapps," she added with a chuckle.

Even years ago, Helena had had the heart of a mixologist.

"Yeah, well not everybody can handle a mouthful."

Contenting herself with a smirk over the bad pun, Barbara traced her index finger across the sharp delineation of her partner's knuckles.

"They ended the dance with 'Moon River'," she added, not certain quite why.

"It's a classic," was a soft confirmation.

This time, Barbara's smile was more genuine as her mind presented images from the evening for her inspection.

"Dinah and Gabby were really... "

The older woman stumbled, hunting for the right words. Her companion remained quiet, waiting patiently.

"..beautiful together."

The younger woman inched closer, sandwiching their joined hands between their chests. Barbara could feel the strong beat of her partner's heart against the tendons in the back of her hand.

"That's good."

The acknowledgement came on a wistful sigh.


The older woman felt as much as heard a slow shake of chestnut hair on the pillow beside her.

"It's just a shame that Gabby's going to State, you know?"

The older woman hummed a soft agreement.

"It does have the best photo-journalism program in the five state area."

"I guess -- "

The smaller woman accompanied the admission by shifting forward, and Barbara felt a gentle kiss brush her fingers.

"-- but I'd sure hate to be that far from you."

Even as she warmed at the sentiment, the redhead felt herself stiffen a bit, then stiffen further in reaction to her response.

She knew that she -- they -- had been... reticent in the last week or so, however it simply seemed that her body and emotions had crashed after the fallout from the week before. Helena had been more than understanding, to a point that Barbara was beginning to feel shamed about the situation. In the last few days, she'd noticed the sensual young woman watching her from under hooded eyes, yet, Helena never seemed to meet her eyes in need or want.

Exhaling soundlessly, she disentangled her hand and roughly pushed her hair back from her face.

It was time, if not at this exact moment, then very soon, to act. Things had been entirely too tentative, too tired, too... tremulous.


The word blazed across the analytical woman's forebrain in three foot neon letters, and she squeezed her eyes in dismay.

Where on earth had that come from?

A soft touch against her cheek guided her back to the moment, to the safe haven of the bed and her lover's arms.

"You okay?"

She blinked at the soft burr, feeling the fine hair on her arms rising a bit in reflex.

"You just got kind of, uh, tense there."

The older woman drew a deep breath, debating whether to dismiss the other woman's concerns. Ultimately, she couldn't do so, shakily admitting some of the truth.

"It's hard to put it behind me."

It was true: Seven plus years of jumping at clown shaped shadows wouldn't dissolve overnight.

The smaller woman exhaled quietly, then stretched forward to rest her cheek against the redhead's shoulder.

"Yeah. Gonna take some time."

Relieved, comforted by the easy acceptance, the redhead mustered a small, sleepy smile then felt the expression become decidedly forced as she recognized the truth of the matter.

Like nothing else, The Joker's attempted ploy had certainly shown that time couldn't be taken for granted.

Chapter 3

<"Do we have time for another one?">

Emerald eyes automatically flicked from the police dispatch screen, then to the scrolling updates from the city's private security agencies, and then to the EMS scanner, weighing the relatively minor amount of crime on the streets this night against her partner's request.

"Go ahead, Huntress. It's still quiet."

Since the end of The Joker's madcap crime spree a week before, the normally crime-ridden city had been almost eerily quiet. While the cyber-vigilante -- and her partner on the street -- had yet to complain about the situation, Barbara was still anxiously poised for a rebound in criminal activity.

<"Copy that. We're going to hit the Washington Street overpass.">

With a murmur of acknowledgement, the redhead tuned out the desultory conversation coming over the comms, wondering -- again -- if having Dinah out on sweeps at this time was such a good idea: The girl had been... raw since her last outing.

Granted, the last outing -- eight nights before -- had included scouting The Joker's hideout and watching Helena seemingly caught in an exploding building. There were reasons galore for the teen to be wary of hitting the streets again and, as far as the leader of the small team could discern, no real reason for her to be out.

Dinah and Helena, of course, had had a different perspective when they'd approached her earlier in the evening about having the teen accompany the dark vigilante on her routine grid sweep. Mercifully, between the healing burns on the young telepath's hands and the brunette's work schedule, the issue hadn't come up in the last week, and, quite frankly, Barbara hadn't seen the need for the question to arise on this particular quiet Tuesday evening.

When she'd suggested as much, Helena had had a ready reply.

"C'mon, Red, it'll be her last time to be a High School superhero."

For some reason, the insouciantly cajoling words had caught the older woman off guard as she'd placed her dinner dishes in the dishwasher.

Perhaps a bit of dish soap had gotten in her eyes, for something had caused a burning sensation, and while she waited for it to abate, she realized that perhaps her two young charges wanted -- or needed -- this bit of bonding time on the night before Dinah's graduation.

While she hadn't immediately capitulated to the request, she suspected all three of them had known the outcome was never in doubt. Nevertheless, the older woman hoped that, marking the end of her phase as a "high school superhero" aside, Dinah would soon relax her vigilance, her seeming eagerness to join the life.

If nothing else, perhaps the girl would give herself the chance to enjoy her first year -- or four -- at college as a relatively average student, someone consumed with normal activities rather than, as Barbara had been, constantly juggling the demands of academics, socialization, and crime fighting.

The redhead could testify that, in that particular attempt to keep the balls in the air, socialization was usually the first to fall, and she didn't want Dinah to lose the valuable opportunities simply to be which she, herself, had dismissed as unimportant in the face of justice.

As she ruthlessly dragged an entire subdirectory from her K drive to the Delphi's garbage directory, the cyber-crime fighter smirked in satisfaction before noting the time on her on-screen display. Temporarily stilling her electronic housekeeping, she toggled her comms microphone on.

"Huntress? Canary? Do you copy?"


<"I copy, Oracle.">

The redhead blinked as her partners in the field answered in stereo, then collected herself.

"Any luck at the overpass?"

The disgusted rush of breath which whistled through the headset, while a bit less vehement than a raspberry, provided all the information that the redhead needed. Still, Helena tacked on a verbal update.

<"Oh yeah. It's just a regular ol' clutopia here with the winos.">

Straightening her shoulders, the older woman inhaled slowly, opting to ignore the frustrated bitterness in the young crime fighter's words. She certainly understood her partner's disillusionment: for the last week, during every sweep she'd run, Helena had carried a digitally enhanced likeness of the Jane Doe from the morgue. Between foiling muggings and robberies, she'd trolled underpasses and church steps, video arcades and bars, questioning the homeless and the young as she tried to put a name, an identity, to the girl who had died so horribly in The Joker's last cruel prank.

After her second night of futile searching, the brunette had approached Barbara, her eyes steely, her expression determined, quietly insisting that she was going to pay for her doppelganger's funeral even as they continued to try to identify her. Stunned by her partner's proclamation -- although later the redhead had wondered why she would be surprised by Helena's reaction -- Barbara had simply nodded her understanding, asking if she could contribute to the costs as well.

"Why don't you try the youth center off Lincoln Park?" she suggested quietly.

During her too-infrequent volunteer work there, she'd seen a constantly fluctuating crowd of runaways and homeless teens... and pre-teens. It was certainly possible that they'd recognize the girl in the computer enhanced image.

A marginally less aggrieved acknowledgement through the comms coincided with a flutter of something... unpleasant in the redhead's chest. Once again toggling her mic to standby, she sat upright, brows knitting as she worked to identify what had sparked the flicker of discomfort. Moments later, when her relentlessly practical mind provided the answer, she felt her brows crawl toward her hairline.

The youth center certainly seemed like a decent possibility for a lead, given how young the poor girl whom The Joker had murdered had seemed. And, therein lay the crux of the matter: The doppelganger which they'd laid to rest had resembled Helena.

Despite her desire to let the matter rest, Barbara felt her brain relentlessly ticking off the points of the theorem... or proof.

a) The girl who was supposed to be Helena was young.
b) The girl had resembled her partner... her lover.

QED: Helena -- the woman she had been guardian and mentor to -- was... young.

Resettling her glasses with a grimace, Barbara allowed irritation to displace her discomfort.

Honestly, how long would she be plagued by her --

The redhead's hand, on its way to the mouse, froze in midair as she searched for the word.

Guilt? The word seemed a bit strong.

Discomfort? Well, the age difference was noticeable.

Awareness? Exactly. Her awareness of the years separating her younger lover and herself had yet to abate.

Still, having at least identified the correct term to describe the issue, the analytical woman felt herself ease marginally. Since she obviously wouldn't be resolving the issue immediately, she allowed her hand to complete its journey to the mouse and returned to her work tidying the Delphi's hard drives. During the course of her frenzied, nearly nonstop, vigil during The Joker's rampage, the system had gotten more disorganized than she preferred, and with the current dearth of crime, it was the perfect time to do some tidying.

Not to mention the fact that it was the traditional time of year for spring cleaning.

Backtracking through the P drive, where she quite logically stored puzzles and programs-in-progress, she slowed the bat wing pointing icon above one subdirectory, then clicked to open it.

Her encryption-decryption routines.

For a few beats, she ticked through the neatly organized modules and mini-bases she'd been working on to use carbohydrate structures to seed a random number generator. When she absently noted the system date stamps for each file, the cyber-genius felt her jaw drop a tiny bit.

Had it only been a little over two weeks since she'd been engaged by this puzzle?

With that thought came the realization that it had also only been two weeks since rock climbing and rope play and semi-regular dates and relaxed ease. The cyber-vigilante felt her brows crease as she straightened, rotating the stiffness from her neck and attempting to reconcile everything from the last few months: changing perceptions, burgeoning trust, and... death.

Dear heavens. She needed a vacation.

The redhead bit her lips, resisting what she suspected would have been a slightly wild giggle, and contented herself with a wan smile.

When was the last time she'd actually had a vacation? Not a work-related convention or a trip to visit universities or some such practical reason for travel, but an actual vacation?

If memory served, it had been over five years before, a late summer trip to tour Boston with her pointedly indifferent ward. The recent high school graduate has dismissed the city as "too educational", and it had taken trips to the Salem Witch museum and three cemeteries to persuade her otherwise. Thus, even if it had been incidentally educational and Barbara had also rolled a visit with Carolyn into the trip, it still had been essentially a pleasure excursion.

Too damned long.

A low growl tickled her ear through the comms and she came to attention, eyes flickering from one monitor to another. As usual, according to official sources, NG was its usual law-abiding self.

"Do you have something, Huntress? Canary?"

The whispered reply carried a clear note of relish.

<"Mugger. Time for some ass kicking.">

The older woman felt a smile ghost her lips at her partner's enthusiasm for... justice.

<"Have fun, Huntress.">

The brunette's enthusiastic response, almost lost under the rush of air signaling one of her showy leaps from a rooftop, suggested that it wouldn't take the brunette long to wrap up the encounter. Accordingly, Barbara checked the GPS, preparing to transmit the coordinates for NGPD to dispatch a black and white to pick up the unfortunate mugger.

An indignant male shout, cutting through the sound of blows, stayed her actions.

<<"I know you! You got my boss killed, you fucking bitch!">>

A crimson brow shot skyward, even as the woman at the computer recognized that it would take a while to collect all of the lackeys who had been working for The Joker.

<"Wrong, asshole! He almost got everybody -- including you -- killed!">

Helena's angry retort almost -- almost -- covered the softer sound of Dinah's whimper. Barbara clenched her jaw in frustration as a rivulet of cold sweat trickled down her chest.

It had been too near a miss the week before.

Collecting herself, willing herself to focus on the fact that it had been a miss, the analytical woman hit the key for police dispatch, then spoke briskly.

"Let's wrap it up. Police are on their way."

Within thirty seconds, Helena had cuffed the man -- albeit, judging from his pained grunts, none-too-gently -- and returned to the rooftops.

<"All tied up in a bow, Oracle. Want us to wait for the boys in blue?">

A blinking notification of high priority mail temporarily distracted the cyber-crime fighter, however she controlled her curiosity long enough to confirm the whereabouts of New Gotham's finest.

"That shouldn't be necessary, Huntress. They're only two blocks away."

<"Copy that. We're back on track to the youth center.">

Acknowledging the update, Barbara toggled open her in-box and opened the latest message. It was an automatic dispatch from one of the sniffers she'd planted throughout New Gotham's net hubs two weeks before to monitor for suspicious traffic relating to The Joker.

Apparently, the madman was dead but not forgotten.

The redhead spared a moment to check the location of her partners in the field, confirming that they had reached the youth center. Satisfied that all should be quiet on that end for a bit, she allowed her mouse pointer to hover over the link provided by her 'bot for a few seconds. Eventually, and with a distinct sense of trepidation, she clicked and waited the nanoseconds required to access the site through her T-10 connection.

"Great gumballs!"

Barbara really hadn't intended to shout.. or even to speak aloud... just as she hadn't anticipated the shudder which ran through her when the image of their deceased green-haired nemesis appeared on-screen. Nevertheless, she clearly got her partners' attention.

<"Oracle? What's up?">

<"Are you okay, Ba-- Oracle?">

Long fingers already flying over the keyboard, the leader of the small team pursed her lips, noticing both that, despite any concerns over her exclamation, Helena had not broken protocol while Dinah nearly had.

But, only "nearly". The teen was certainly becoming quite facile with the demands of the life.

"I'm fine, Huntress. Canary. And, I didn't mean to interrupt -- "

Barbara trailed off for a moment as she finished hacking into the site.

"I ran across a site on the net selling bubble gum guns," she continued a bit distractedly as she embedded a redirect at the site which would divert web-browsers to a site with the recipe which Dinah had perfected for repelling the goo.

<"Freakin' unbelievable. Don't people know how sick that stuff--">

A silent alarm drew the cyber-vigilante's attention, although she suspected that she had the gist of Helena's reaction, and she smoothly cut in.

"Are you two free? We have a silent at the 24-7 Mart on West Boulevard."

Not surprisingly, the brunette didn't seem at all off put about being interrupted.

<"Oh, yeah. We're on it.">

Barbara spared a smile for her partner's zeal before directing her attention back to the web site offering those with more money than sense access to the vile substance which The Joker had tormented New Gotham with. For almost ninety seconds, she stared at the screen with its flashy multimedia graphics and slick credit card security features. At almost the exact moment she heard Helena and Dinah arrive at the convenience store, she pushed aside her qualms and programmed tracking software to notify her about every purchase.

Musings on the Fourth Amendment and privacy issues were temporarily pushed aside when she realized that Helena and Dinah were still at the store. From the sounds over the comms, the brunette was dispatching justice in a leisurely fashion to the would-be robber while Dinah observed from outside the store.

"Huntress? Canary? What's the situation?"

The first part of the teen's update was remarkably sunny.

<"Oh, Huntress is just, uh, talking with the -- Oh no!">

Before she had time to blink, Barbara heard the teen running, her shout of warning too loud over the comm unit.

<"Huntress, watch out! Second perp behind you!">

A startled grunt was the only response from the dark vigilante; however, the redhead had to admit that the sound of a gunshot had probably obscured whatever Helena had to add. Not so for the youngest member of the crime fighting team.

<"Hey you! Back off. Nobody messes with -- ">

<"It's okay, Canary; I've got--">

A sickening, wet thud, coinciding with a high-pitched male scream cut short the brunette's reassurances. Unsettlingly, the screaming abruptly ended, the silence afterward almost deafening.

<"Oh, shit...">

Helena's words were a mere whisper, and Barbara spoke roughly.

"Huntress, I need an update."

She heard Dinah's soft whimpers -- something about not meaning to -- in stereo as the brunette presumably neared her partner in the field.

<"S'okay, Kid. He'll be okay.">

Trusting Helena's judgment about what was most important, the redhead bit down on her impatience, listening to the more experience woman in the field as she comforted the teen. A flicker on the GPS and the softest scuff of boots suggested that the two were moving -- slowly -- from the store, and Barbara absently noted that the police were, finally, responding to the silent alarm.

<"Oracle? You there?">

The cyber-crime fighter exhaled slowly before speaking.

"I copy, Huntress. Are you and Canary clear? NGPD are on their way."

<"We're clear and, uh, okay.">

Scarcely realizing that she was doing so, Barbara caught the hair at the side of her neck and pushed it back as she straightened, waiting for the rest of it.

<"You'd better dispatch EMS, too.">

The redhead did so, and heard the younger woman deliberately lighten her tone.

<"Canary here really walloped that guy saving my butt back there.">

Reassured somewhat and distinctly warmed by the pride in the brunette's words, Barbara slowly removed her glasses, positioning them carefully on the mouse pad.

"Good save, Canary, but why don't you both head in for the night?"

While the teen seemed to be calming, Barbara guiltily reminded herself that her ward still had school the next day. Even if it was the last day of the semester and activities would be limited to turning in textbooks and exchanging addresses with friends, there was absolutely no reason for Dinah to fall asleep at her own graduation the next evening.

Chapter 4

Considering that this particular ceremony should be a joyous occasion, Barbara had never fully understood the choice of the dirge-like "Pomp & Circumstance" as the inevitable background music. Watching another proud senior crossing the dais, the redhead idly wondered if Sir Edward Elgar had really understood the import that his six-minute March Number One would have on the world.

While it did, indeed, exhibit both the pride and the melancholy appropriate for the transition of graduation, there was only so much of it which should be allowed. Honestly, it was akin to repeating "Here Comes The Bride" throughout a lengthy wedding.

With her perfect memory automatically supplying the number of graduates being honored in this year's ceremony, Barbara found herself calculating the number of beats per minute in the march, each graduate's walking speed averaged against distance covered, and the mean number of words spoken to honor each student. She effortlessly ran the math, arriving at a total with a mental groan. A split second later, when she realized that she'd forgotten to carry a one in her mental calculations, she emitted a whimper which was, she realized with a blush, almost sub vocal.

Two seats away, Maggie Moore apparently heard the inopportune protest, and Barbara's fellow English teacher leaned out and shot her a sympathetic smile. Between them, Mr. Smithers from the Biology department seemed to have missed her vocalization.

Perhaps his quiet snoring had masked the sound for him.

The march cycled to the beginning, and Barbara concentrated on tuning it out, quite certain that -- regardless of her willpower -- she would find herself humming it for the rest of the week and into the beginning of summer school on Monday.

At least it was a better choice than a few years ago when, in a fit of experimentation, the band director had alternated Pachibel's Canon with the school fight song for the entire procession.

Now, that had truly been a headache-inducing ceremony. Unlike, she noted, this evening's which had been well-orchestrated and well-behaved so far.

Barbara estimated that about ten percent of the graduates sported the requisite stylized bats on their mortar boards: for some reason, they were always more popular than the school's actual Dark Knight mascot. A quick sweep of the graduates suggested that probably another fifteen percent were displaying the usual "Hi Mom" messages in tape, and the redhead smirked, recalling the distinctly more inspired message which Helena had taped to her headgear so many years before.

Barely in her mid-twenties herself, Barbara had certainly appreciated the wit and irony in her relatively new ward's communique. She'd also strongly suspected that few, if any, in the audience would grasp the nuances of the cleverly phrased French euphemism. Nevertheless, she'd been quite adamant that her ward remove the tape before the ceremony.

To this day, the older woman had yet to determine if her stance about the tape had tipped the scales for Helena's decision to instigate a mass-mooning at the end of the ceremony. On the two occasions when she'd mustered the tequila-inspired courage to ask, the brunette had only responded with an inscrutable smile and topped off her glass.

The shadow of movement in the periphery of her vision caught Barbara's attention, and she minutely narrowed her eyes, watching Helena slink into position with her camcorder. For some reason, she found herself not a little surprised that the young woman wasn't dangling from the rafters to get the best shot. Instead, her younger partner was surprisingly unobtrusive in her camera duties, blending into the crowd of friends and family in her heavy black silk slacks and a deep gold shirt, belted outside the waist.

With that thought, the redhead turned enough to look behind her, hunting for another impeccably appointed member of the audience. Three rows behind the faculty section, she easily picked out one Alfred Pennyworth, his posture perfect, his morning coat fastidious, his pride unmistakable.

The two shared a smile before Barbara turned back to take in the stage. As Superintendent Chalmers, finally, reached the last names beginning with "L", the redhead felt herself holding her breath.

"Dinah Carolyn Lance"

A black-robed figure, golden hair visible under her graffiti-free mortar board, moved gracefully from her position and ascended to the stage while the superintendent continued the litany of her awards and achievements.

"... Honor Role, Dean's List, National Merit Scholar, Quiz Bowl team MVP, Drama Club stage crew, founding member of the Good Samaritan club."

The teen came to a stop by the podium, casting a quick glance to the crowd. Barbara smiled broadly, noticing the flash of a wave from Helena. The blonde fixed her eyes on the superintendent, who was still reading through her list of achievements, and her guardian blinked against something hot in her eyes.

"... and the recipient of a National Merit Scholarship, an NGU Biology Department Scholarship, and a Wayne Foundation Scholarship."

Dinah smiled brightly, then gravely accepted her diploma with a handshake. Clearing the odd moisture from her eyes, Barbara thought she detected a glimmer of something else in her ward's features, perhaps a hint of soberness which seemed out of place.

Although the blonde's verbal effusiveness camouflaged it well, Barbara was quite aware that the teen was actually rather guarded and quiet. Still, Dinah had always radiated a certain, somewhat amazing, sunniness. Missing that under these circumstances was unsettling, to say the least.

Frankly, the redhead suspected that her ward's reserve had a great deal to do with the events of the night before at the convenience store. Apparently, in reacting to the threat to Helena, Dinah had -- in the brunette's later description -- "flattened" the second robber against a wall. Still visibly awed by the younger woman's power as she recounted the event, Helena had described what sounded like an overload or surge in the girl's TK, resulting in a man-sized dent in the store's wall and numerous broken bones for the robber.

Not to mention, a distinct case of nerves for the leader of the little team, who continued to second-guess her judgment in allowing the teen to accompany Helena on sweeps.

However, the cyber-vigilante reminded herself, this was neither the time nor the place: there were still the M-Z students to honor, and, while she might feel that the ceremony had peaked with Dinah's presence on the stage, she recognized that the remaining students' parents might think otherwise.

During the remainder of the ceremony, Barbara carefully noted each graduate who had been in one of her class while, simultaneously, keeping one eye on her younger partner. Having dispatched her videographer's duties with decorum, the brunette apparently felt free to relax a bit which was, the older woman knew, not always a good thing.

Strange events -- like fire sprinklers triggering and ketchup bottle lids loosening in the cafeteria -- seemed to occur whenever her younger partner was at loose ends on school grounds.

The ceremony and, mercifully, Elgar's march, finally wound down without incident, leaving Barbara surrounded by a swarm of her graduating seniors. While she honestly wished to hot-rod across the auditorium and envelope Dinah in a big hug, she instead took her time extending well wishes, meeting parents, and making notes to write the occasional last-minute letter of recommendation. Resultantly, the English teacher was unable to extricate herself for a good half an hour; when she did, she discovered Dinah and Gabby patiently posing for photos for Helena, with a beaming Alfred two respectful steps to the side.

"Ready to celebrate?"

She caught their attention, nearly blinded by the bright smiles of her current and former wards. Sparing a moment for that hug she'd planned, she found herself pinned by playfully incredulous cerulean eyes when she released the blonde.

"I don't remember you getting all misty eyed at my graduation," the brunette groused cheerfully.

Turning to lead the way to the van, the older woman smirked and spoke dryly.

"My relief and disbelief were too profound for tears, Hel."

Amid Helena's disdainful sniff, Alfred's bland amusement, and Gabby's surprised giggled, Barbara didn't miss Dinah's wide eyes when Gabby matter-of-factly climbed into the back of the van with the blonde so that Helena could chauffeur the odd little group to their celebratory dinner.

Rather predictably, she had to admit, Barbara had suggested French for the celebration. It was after all where she'd taken her first ward for her in-doubt-until-the-last-minute graduation. Six years later, Helena had soundly nixed the suggestion, reminding her that not only did Dinah not particularly care for French but that her own suggestion was decidedly more in theme with the celebration.

The redhead had remained silent about her suspicions that the Cajun restaurant spared the brunette the need to put on a dress for the evening.

Fanning her face with her napkin after one-bite-too-many of her spicy gumbo, Barbara nodded her gratitude when Helena noted her distress and flagged their server for beverage refills. Casually reaching under the table to squeeze the younger woman's hand, she smiled broadly as the teens engaged Alfred about his time in England's public schools.

"Which means private, right?", Dinah inquired politely.

The older gentleman nodded and, typically, deflected attention from himself.

"It is Miss Helena who could give you some insights into continental schools."

Two heads -- one blonde, one curly brown -- swiveled toward the brunette.

"Is it true you really went to school in Paris?"

The brunette rolled her eyes but answered Gabby's question easily.

"Uh huh. Other places, too."

Barbara sipped her replenished water, waiting for Helena to acknowledge the question in Gabby's face.

"Uhm, Genoa and Milan and Bruge -- "


Before Helena could respond to Gabby's query, the resident Quiz Bowl champ spoke up.

"That's in Belgium."

Pale blue eyes sought the brunette's.

"Right, Helena?"

The dark head nodded.

"Uh huh. Oh, and London and Lake Kissammee..."

Two teenaged squeals of protest cut off whatever Helena may have planned to add, and the redhead snickered watching the younger woman throw her hands up in surrender.

"Yeah, I made up the last one, but my mom did travel a lot."

Observing a flicker of pain in expressive caramel features, Barbara exchanged a look with Alfred. The unflappable older man suavely interjected a comment about Oxford's Bodleian Library, and the teens were off on a new tack.

The redhead rested one hand on her partner's knee under the table, wondering if there were any way to take away the pain Helena obviously would always feel for her mother. The older woman had seen that look -- albeit, much more acute -- at Helena's own graduation dinner. She suspected that, at this moment, the brunette's discomfort might have more to do with some of the reasons for the younger woman's frequent moves as a child: Not only had Selina been on the move in search of... procurements, but Barbara had also received intimations from Selina and, later, from Helena that they'd had to move often to hide unexpected manifestations of Helena's meta-uniqueness.

A spoon containing an absolutely indecent number of calories came into Barbara's field of vision, and she cast a baleful gaze at her temptress. Pitching her voice low, certain that the brunette would hear under the excited chatter from the other side of the table, she arched one brow.

"Keep tempting me, and we'll have to run an extra circuit in the training room, Hel."

The other woman grinned unrepentantly.

"Trust me, Red. It's worth it."

Able to resist almost anything but temptation, the redhead laughed, then leaned in, delicately sampling the offered spoonful of Helena's bread pudding. When the warm gooey sweet, packed with cinnamon and raisins, exploded in her mouth, she nearly moaned her pleasure before darting her tongue out to catch a remaining drop of the hard sauce.

The eyes which were regarding her playfully seemed to flicker in the candle light, and Barbara took her time touching her tongue to her lips to capture every drop of the sweet bourbon sauce.

A beat later, she rued her rather woeful attempt at flirtation when she belatedly realized that the sauce was, perhaps, a touch too hard for the evening. With as much dignity as possible as she coughed against the alcohol, she reached for her water and smiled her thanks for the bite, then smiled more broadly at her partner's expectant look.

"Yes, Hel?"

She carefully resettled the water glass on the table and touched her napkin to her lips. In turn, the younger woman neatly deposited the final bite of pudding in her mouth and swallowed with obvious relish before meeting her eyes.

"C'mon, Red. Dinner's over, and you know you have a speech tucked away for the Kid."

The redhead felt warmth rush to her face -- was she really so easily read? -- and then laughed at her own predictability. She took a moment to fold her napkin and set it precisely next to her plate as she organized her thoughts.

Her emotions.

When she looked up, as accustomed as she was to commanding attention in the classroom and in her other life at the Delphi, she was still taken aback by the four sets of eyes trained on her. She opened her mouth, then, mirroring Helena's earlier gesture, raised her hands in surrender.

"No speeches, Dinah. Just know how proud I -- "

She caught the sparkling cobalt eyes to her left and amended her words.

"-- we are of you. You have really enriched our lives, and I can't imagine not having you in our family. Not to mention --"

Without looking away from the sweet young face trained on her, she unerringly swatted her partner when she heard a playful "Here it comes".

"-- I can't wait to see the great things you accomplish next."

The blonde's pale eyes sparkled even as her face pinkened. True to form, Helena neatly ended the emotional moment.

"Ditto, Kid. Now let's do presents!"

Amid the laughter and the brief interlude of Helena ducking into the coat check to retrieve a beautifully wrapped box, Barbara remained still, wrestling with an odd constriction in her throat. During the somewhat bated anticipation as Dinah carefully, neatly, removed the paper from the cpu-sized box, she feared that the lump in her throat might win the battle until the blonde finally lifted the box lid and, with a squeal of delight, rounded the table to envelope Alfred in an enthusiastic hug.

For a split second, the redhead could have sworn that the distinguished older man became a trifle more... flappable than usual. His pleasure was certainly evident.

"It's beautiful, Alfred."

The new graduate stroked a finger gently over the gold leaf initials embossing the exquisite over-the-shoulder attache.

"But it's almost too nice for carrying books at college."

The ever-faithful butler briefly rested a hand over the teen's.

"My hope is that it will prove satisfactory for whatever journeys you take, Miss Dinah."

Despite her evident puzzlement, the blonde smiled and pressed a kiss to her benefactor's cheek, just as a different voice sang out impatiently.

"So, look inside, already, Kid!"

Barbara heard herself chuckle at her younger partner's impatience -- Helena certainly didn't take the time to remove wrapping paper so carefully -- and then laughed again when she witnessed the guarded skepticism which flickered across her current ward's features. When the girl touched the case's clasp as if preparing to dismantle a bomb, the older women realized that it was time to act.

"It won't bite, Dinah. Helena and I put our gift -- "

With a quick sideways look, she corrected herself.

"-- well, Helena's largely responsible for it -- inside."

Was that a bit of pink creeping up her partner's normally blush-proof caramel features?

The analytical woman forgot her question when the blonde opened the valise and peered inside, extracting the thick bundle of documents which had been tucked in the back of Barbara's warranties drawer for the last three weeks or so. The girl's puzzlement was transparent as she began to leaf through the papers; a quick glance to the other side confirmed that Gabby was barely controlling her own excitement.

"Tickets? To..."

Slim, pale fingers rifled more rapidly through the stack, the girl's eyes becoming almost comically large. Holding her breath in anticipation, Barbara felt her left hand being softly squeezed and gratefully returned the gesture.

"... to everywhere?!"

The pile of tickets and travel documents and reservations hit the table with an impressive thud, barely missing the remnants of Dinah's tiramisu.

For the life of her, Barbara hadn't been able to determine why that selection was available at a Cajun restaurant.

"Oh wow!"

The exclamation -- directly in her ear -- might have been deafening had Dinah's enthusiastic hug not been cutting off blood flow to Barbara's senses. The redhead ignored the near-miss to her hearing and hugged back twice as hard.

"It's too much, Barbara..."

The quietly abashed whisper was clearly meant for her ears alone, and the older woman pulled back to catch pale blue eyes with green.

"No, it's not. You're worth it."

And, she meant it.

While four weeks of travel throughout the US with Gabby, followed by ten days in the Caribbean -- with Gabby, Helena, and herself -- might seem a bit much, Barbara was unwilling to second-guess the decision. Dinah had been so sheltered and seen so little and, in almost no time, she'd be cloistered in university work; the adventure was something she deserved.

"And I meant it," the redhead murmured. "Helena really did most of it."

She loosened her grip and placed the tiniest bit of pressure against the teen's lower back. Dinah took the hint, stepping to the side and easily capturing the very embarrassed-looking brunette in a hug.

A bit to the older woman's surprise, Helena held the embrace for a good thirty seconds, then pulled away with a wicked smile, shaking her head in response to whatever Dinah had whispered to her.

"Yeah, Kid, you should be. She -- "

A slender thumb jerked in the redhead's direction.

"-- was gonna send you on a tour of historic Civil War Battlefields or something."

"Carnagie Libraries," the cyber-genius corrected blandly, reaching for her water.

She was grateful that she had yet to take a mouthful when she caught the completely shocked dismay in Dinah's eyes. Somehow she schooled her features to calm unconcern until a snicker -- more of a snort, perhaps -- from her left unfroze the tableau, and everyone at the table dissolved into laughter.

Five minutes later, she continued to hold her water glass absently before her, shielding her expression while she watched the two teens across the table, golden and curly brown hair touching as they laid out the myriad documents before them. Each delighted exclamation -- "Amtrak passes?!", "New York City?!!", "Jamaica!" -- seemed louder than the last.

Without doubt, Barbara had to admit, Helena had been right about the actual documents and brochures and tickets making the gift so much better. The redhead felt a touch of heat in her cheeks, recalling that her plan had simply been to print out the electronic itinerary from the online booking.

She really was hopelessly linear about things like that. Or, perhaps, just hopeless.

Of course, it wasn't as if she hadn't already freely admitted that she was, generally, just terrible at the whole "gifting" thing. A few years before, she'd finally thrown her hands in the air, decreeing that the loved ones in her life should present her with a prioritized list of items for each gift-giving occasion or risk the consequences.

While serial numbers were optional, they were highly recommended.

However, the redhead did think that she'd gotten it right at least one time. One very important time: first birthday for Helena which they'd celebrated together after things had changed for them both so many years ago.

Barely out of the hospital and struggling with the bitter realities of daily living, the redhead had slipped in her new role of guardian and missed her ward's seventeenth birthday. The following year, she'd been determined to make it up to the girl with something more meaningful than the obvious choices of game players, videos, and CDs. It had taken a fair number of sleepless nights before the relentlessly practical woman had hit upon a wildly impractical gift: a reproduction of a Gauguin which, three years earlier, she'd stopped Selina from poaching from a museum.

The hostile young high school senior had obviously been puzzled by the narrow, oversized gift, but had ripped into it with gusto. The moment she'd cleared the wrapping, Barbara had known she'd done okay: Helena's verbal thanks had been brief -- almost gruff -- but her expressive features hid nothing.

The print had been hanging in the living room of the brunette's small apartment for the last three years. Twenty-three days before, however, Helena had almost shyly brought it to the clock tower where it now was displayed over the head of the bed which the two shared.

Firmly settling her water glass on the table, Barbara didn't attempt to hide the smile which she suspected was completely silly and doting: the memory of that birthday from so long ago, juxtaposed with the current vision of her exuberant partner hovering above Dinah and Gabby to provide details about their trip were too much to resist. With a sudden blink, she realized that she was very, very eager to get home and see that Gauguin print this evening.

Chapter 5

Barbara twisted a bit awkwardly, plumping a pillow against the headboard and glancing upward to take in the colorful "Day of God" print above the head of the bed.

When Helena had asked about hanging the scene, the older woman's first suggestion had been the far wall of the bedroom to permit easy viewing from the bed. The brunette had soundly nixed the idea -- Barbara pointedly refused to remember the other woman's disbelieving expression -- claiming that the head of the bed offered better opportunities for viewing from different angles. Three weeks later, having had the opportunity to explore some of those angles, the redhead had to admit that her partner had been quite right.

Not terribly inclined to pursue artistic study this night, Barbara finished straightening the covers over her legs, adjusted the shade on the bedside lamp, seated her glasses midway down her nose, and finally reached to the bedside table to retrieve the thick book waiting there. The familiar thrill which accompanied cracking open a new book -- combined as it was with the tactile enjoyment of crisp pages, the scent of fresh ink, the subtle resistance of a spine as-yet unbroken by use -- ran through her

She smiled at her own response but refused to fault herself. Bill Bryson's humor and intelligence made him one of her favorite non-fiction writers, and she had been putting off reading his "Short History of Everything" for almost two years. This night, she'd decided, was as auspicious as any for a bit of self-indulgence, and the cyber-genius intended to enjoy herself to the hilt.

Forty minutes later, utterly absorbed in and charmed by Bryson's attempts to explain not just the "how" of science but the "how" of how scientists know, the redhead was distracted by a tiny frission of awareness coursing through her which coincided with the softest click of the bedroom door. Without re-adjusting her angle of vision for the thick tomb she finally had perfectly positioned on her lap, Barbara peered over the top of her glasses to watch her partner creep almost cautiously into the room and hid a smirk behind the act of book marking her page.

Given the younger woman's usual cat-footed stealth, it certainly made any concerns about waking her -- as if she would be sleeping yet -- almost ludicrous.

After the family celebration at the restaurant had finally wound down, they had dropped the teens off by Gabby's vintage 1989 Volkswagen Rabbit, then driven Alfred to the manor. On the return to the tower, Helena had chosen to circle the city, avoiding its lights and noise and affording a lovely opportunity to stargaze.

Mercifully, Barbara wasn't aware of any double-tailed green comets which might have destroyed her astronomical wonder.

"Did you manage to tame the beast, Sweetie?"

The lithe figure looked up from an entirely distracting display involving shimmying out of her shirt and grinned.

"Yeah, some of Alfred's leftover pot roast really hit the spot."

The older woman felt her brow furrow -- and her stomach clench a tiny bit in protest -- as the insistently analytical portion of her brain questioned how her partner could cap off a spicy Cajun feast with English pot roast.

"Est no disputandum de gustibus," she murmured as she carefully positioned her book on the far edge of her side table.

Crawling up the foot of the bed, the other woman smirked, then flowed forward to brush their lips lightly together.

"Yeah? Well, taste this."

Barbara deliberately held the position for a beat, struggling to focus at close range on the sparkling blue eyes so close to her own. Finally, she raised one hand to the nape of her lover's neck.

"With a suave invitation like that, how can I refuse?"

How indeed, she had to question a long, breathless minute and a half later. Redolent of the clean mint of their toothpaste, the kiss left her oddly relaxed and simultaneously aroused beyond all good sense, her heart thumping with such force that she half-expected to see it pounding through her tee shirt.

My, but Helena knew how to kiss.

A beat later, she found herself blinking rapidly, damned well aware that she was sporting her unflattering befuddled look, when the younger woman pulled away, coming to rest lightly on her knees at her side.

"H-- "

The redhead coughed delicately, ignoring the knowing hitch of a dark brow, and tried again.


Helena smiled broadly and spread her hands, palms up, in an inviting gesture.

"How about I rub your back, Babs?"

Even as a flicker of nervousness ghosted behind the wash of pleasure which the offer created, the older woman couldn't hide her tender smile.

"You're too good to me, Helena. Always offering."

It was true: the number of relaxing -- or stimulating -- massages which she'd enjoyed under her partner's talented hands far outweighed the number she'd been able to provide in turn. Of course, there were other areas and activities which Barbara had claimed as her own, so perhaps it evened out.

"This time, you should let me do you --"

The younger woman cut her off easily

"Maybe tomorrow. For now, let me turn you into a wet dishrag."

While she had to agree -- enthusiastically -- with the sentiment, the older woman was uncertain that she cared for the choice of words. Accordingly, she arched one crimson brow and was promptly met by a winning smile.

"C'mon, Babs. It can't be healthy sitting for hours at graduation, all prim and proper and paying attention through two hundred go-rounds of 'Prance and Crapenstance'."

Slender, tan fingers encapsulated the mocking march title in quotation marks, and, despite herself, Barbara heard herself snort in amusement. With a mental shrug, she pushed up and grabbed a pillow to position beneath her chest.

"Twenty-three," she clarified.

A low whistle of appreciation breezed the hair at the side of her cheek as the redhead maneuvered onto her stomach.

"I never knew that you teachers had it so hard. You really deserve a massage."

The English teacher considered that, hearing laughter in her voice when she finally responded.

"Indeed. Lay on, MacDuff."

Fifteen minutes later, Barbara realized that she was feeling suspiciously like she imagined a damp kitchen cleaning cloth might.

"That's divine, Hel."

She heard the smile in her masseuse's voice.

"Hey, you need it. I didn't know graduation was so tense for you."

Red lashes fluttered against the desire to sink into oblivious bliss, and the redhead turned her head to rest her cheek on one forearm.

"Not all graduations, Helena. This one was special."


The sound purred across Barbara's upper back, and this time she surrendered to the instinct to shut her eyes.

"Were you that tense after I graduated?"

"More," was the short answer.

The older woman opted not to elaborate about the tension which had possessed her for the entire month before her ward's graduation. Through might and main, she'd managed to coax, cajole, and cow her rebellious young ward through her last year and a half of school. 'Terrified' hadn't begin to express her feelings when she'd realized, six weeks before Helena's graduation, that the girl had been acting out more than ever and still could lose her chance at a diploma for the year.

Probably well-aware of where the older woman's thoughts had taken her, Helena remained silent, her touch focused on a particularly recalcitrant knot in tight lat muscles.

"Did you notice that Dinah seemed... tense this evening?"

The confessional nature of having her eyes shut and the other woman behind her somehow made it easier for Barbara to give voice to the question.

The brunette's immediate response -- "I don't know, Baby." -- was thoughtful. It was rapidly followed by a more hesitant reply as Helena shifted above the older woman to push on her tee.

"Do you want to talk to her or me?"

Ignoring her partner's question -- and its questionable grammar -- for the moment, Barbara deliberately mustered a heaping helping of silence and pried open her lids, dramatically rolling the orb which was in her partner's view.

The younger woman seemingly noticed, the delicious pressure of strong fingers briefly ceasing as she raised both hands defensively.


Satisfied that she had the younger woman's attention, Barbara arched a brow.

" 'Baby' ?"

Helena returned her hands to the older woman's back, and despite the awkward visual angle, Barbara was certain that she detected a hint of color in caramel features.

"Hey, what can I say?"

Absolutely, positively, refusing to be charmed by the lopsided grin behind her, the redhead sniffed and returned to their earlier topic.

"Do you think she seems a bit... subdued?"

The pressure against her tight trapezoids and deltoids didn't stop, but it did slow, indicating Helena's consideration of the question.

"Yeah. She's been pretty quiet since... well..."


The pace of the strokes resumed, and Helena's voice became more certain.

"It's a lot to wrap a lobe around: that he'd go so far to fuck with us."

The older woman hoped that she managed to mask her reaction to the chilling truth of the words under a shiver of pleasure.

"Then, there's that whole end-of-school thing... changes and all."

The chill which had seized her dissipated a bit when Barbara heard her partner playfully humming the chorus from David Bowie's "Changes".

The younger woman truly had a lovely voice.

Segueing effortlessly from thoughts about the changes her young ward was undergoing, the redhead lost herself in considering all of the changes in her own life during just the last three-plus months. Without quite realizing that she was doing so, she began to tick the points off in her mind.

She'd thought that she could never be attracted to a woman, much less that anyone could truly be attracted to her. The first kiss she's shared with Helena under the fireworks at a concert in the snowy park had neatly deconstructed both of those little misconceptions.

Then, there had been the erroneous assumption -- based on seven years of cautious and depressing data collection, so to speak -- that she wouldn't be able to respond. In the face of her lover's obvious desire, not to mention her own, that little myth had evaporated in the searing heat of passion.

Of course, she couldn't forget the wildly foolish misperception -- wrapped in rationalizations based on roles and age differences -- that she shouldn't react to Helena. With a stab of discomfort, she realized that she was still battling with that one.

"Hey, you're undoing my untensing."

The gentle chiding coincided with a minute increase in the pressure sweeping up and down the redhead's spine, and Barbara groaned under the pleasure of her muscles surrendering their tension. Then, distantly, she heard herself release a different type of exhalation. She thought she felt a responding growl echo against her skin but was too caught in the bliss to be certain.

It was only when she realized that her partner's hands had moved lower and, more telling, her own hands were pressed firmly into the mattress beneath her preparatory to rising to her hands and knees, when she felt her hips wanting to rock and thrust upward that she knew she had to call a halt.

Although it might have been one of her favorite positions back in the day -- deliciously open and full -- it simply wasn't a possibility now. At least, she acknowledged bitterly, not without a host of gear and awkward positioning which simply wasn't warranted given her complete lack of sensation.

There were simply some things she couldn't do, and she would not allow herself to pretend otherwise.

With a soundless sigh, Barbara tensed her arms, ready as they were beneath her, to push up. Again, she thought she detected a sub vocal rumble from behind her and stayed her movement.

It had, indeed, been too long. Even if -- for whatever reasons -- she herself wasn't quite prepared, it didn't mean that her extremely physical partner should be left... wanting.

"That was wonderful, Hel," she murmured, pushing onto her side and meeting the other woman's bright gaze. "Can I..."

The redhead blinked once, unconsciously running the tip of her tongue around the edges of her lips.

Some days, having spent her formative years running around in a form-fitting latex costume and fighting crime -- while other young men and women were honing their flirting skills --seemed to place her at a distinct disadvantage.

" -- do something to thank you properly?"

Those stunning eyes appeared to blaze gold for a split second before the younger woman easily dismounted the redhead's hips and flipped back the covers on her own side of the big bed.

"Nah, Red."

A brilliant smile accompanied the refusal.

"I'm kinda beat."

The older woman felt her brow furrow. It was true that the brunette had spent the day in the storerooms at the Dark Horse doing inventory in order to have the night off; and it had been an emotional sort of day. Yet, when they'd returned to the clock tower an hour or so earlier, the elevator door had barely opened before the younger woman had asked about running a sweep -- an idea the redhead had casually rejected after a quick glance at the Delphi monitors.

Possibly sensing -- or seeing -- the redhead's puzzlement, Helena stopped fluffing her pillow and leaned close.

"I just wanted you to feel good tonight."

The purring words eased Barbara's discomfort, and, digging into the drawer of her bedside table for her bed socks, she laughed quietly.

"Mission accomplished, then, Hel."

Stretching down to cover her always-cold feet, the redhead felt her partner's smug grin. Just as she finished settling her legs under the covers, the vigorous pillow-pounding beside her ended with the brunette gracefully flopping onto her side.

"I really like your fuzzy socks."

Occupied with straightening the recently and thoroughly mussed cover, Barbara smiled a bit absently.

"With my cold feet, I'd imagine so."

A soft laugh greeted her admission.

"It's not like that, Barbara. I have heat to burn."

The redhead smirked, unable to deny the truth of that. On more than one occasion in the last few months, she'd awakened covered in sweat and frantically divesting herself of covers due to the heat her bedmate radiated.

"Sooo..." she finally prompted while she created a crisp crease at the top of the blanket.

After a moment of silence, she looked over to find the younger woman's brows creased adorably in thought.

'Adorably?' Dear heavens, she did have it bad.

"They're sexy." the brunette finally pronounced.

Barbara stared at her blankly. Considering some of the pages from 'The Joy Of Lesbian Sex' which they'd already worked through, she couldn't really imagine how her footsie socks would be on the same continent as 'sexy'.

When her doubtlessly clueless expression failed to garner an explanation, she mentally threw her hands in the air, hoping that she wouldn't regret asking.

" 'Sexy', Hel?"

Curled on her side, hands between her cheek and pillow prayer-style, the younger woman peered from under dark lashes, the gesture a familiar one meant to hide her eyes... and her emotions.

"Yeah," she breathed softly as she scootched closer.

"You know, intimate."

As she stretched over to shut of the bedside lamp, Barbara prodded at that, attempting to decipher the meaning of the shy admission. Mercifully, Helena spared her what appeared to be a fruitless attempt, spooning to her and speaking thoughtfully.

"All of the times before when we slept -- uh, shared a bed, you never wore 'em."

The redhead worked an arm under her lover's shoulders, softly stroking her back with her fingertips, and considered the multitude of nights they'd shared a bed over the years -- whether for comfort, for protection from their respective nightmares, or to nurse Helena through some injury. Recognizing the accuracy of her companion's observation, she nodded in the darkness, confident that her lover would see or feel the movement.

Drifting toward sleep, she heard Helena whisper a further elaboration, and when her slumberous mind deciphered the words, Barbara chuckled softly, grateful once again for the younger woman's easy ability to inject humor into intimacy.

"When you put 'em on, I know you plan to put your feet on me."

Chapter 6

It was more than just feet which were touching her when Barbara awoke hours later. Judging by the faint lessening of the darkness outside the heavy curtains, dawn was on the horizon and, as usual, Helena was wrapped around and on top of her like a human octopus.

The redhead wrestled back a flash of pique that on this morning, the first day of the very brief break before her accelerated summer school classes began, she was awake. With the barely audible rumble of the younger woman's purr tickling against her shoulder and upper chest, Barbara noted -- a trifle peevishly, she admitted -- that there were no such issues for her bedmate.

Helena was firmly, committedly, embraced in the arms of morpheus as she wrapped the redhead in a warm hug.

A split second later, the residual tendrils of sleep burned away from the older woman when she detected something more, and a heat which had nothing to do with her companion's energetic metabolism flared through her. While there was no doubt that Helena was sleeping, her barely audible groans and the sinuous arch of slender hips under the covers left little doubt about the nature of her dreams.

Swallowing against a sudden thickness in her throat, the redhead wondered exactly what -- or who -- the younger woman was dreaming of. Slightly awestruck, she extricated one arm from her lover's embrace, lightly resting her hand on the brunette's waist.

Much better. Now she could feel, rather than only seeing, the taut sway of tight muscles and slender hips.

Silhouetting the outline of Helena's torso, she slowly brought her hand to the younger woman's jaw. Gently, ever so gently, Barbara traced the smooth, golden skin covering the delicate planes of Helena's cheek, whispering the pad of her index finger across the younger woman's temple and skirting her perpetually raised left eyebrow. She felt a frown transform her features when she noticed the barely-there remnants of a burn next to the dark brow. In the dim, pre-dawn light, it should have been unnoticeable, however it was an all-too-visible reminder of the close call her partner had had only ten days before.

Casting a mental thanks skyward, the older woman shifted a tiny bit to bury her face in the soft hair on her shoulder. Gratefully, she took in the clean scent of the brunette's sandalwood shampoo and the ineffable fragrance which was Helena's alone.

Dear heavens. How had she ever thought she was alive without her partner in her arms?

The question was pushed aside when Barbara felt her bedmate fist her fingers against her side, groaning softly in her dream: It had sounded like the word "bar". In that instant, the analytical woman experienced an odd sense of her own body rising from the bed and instantly lowered her hand, attempting to ground herself against the younger woman's waist.

And, perhaps, somehow she had actually risen... or moved... or moaned, for her companion suddenly started, awakening with a whimper. The redhead maintained her position, face bent to dark locks, one hand on the brunette's hip, smiling softly when she saw blue eyes peering upward, clearly attempting to determine whether she'd disturbed her bedmate. The younger woman swallowed audibly, and Barbara felt the muscles under her hand lock as Helena worked to quiet the restless thrust of her hips.

"Ah... sorry. Didn't mean to wake you."

The smaller woman's apology was a bit hoarse and certainly hesitant. In return, the redhead could only smile tenderly and raise her hand to sift through dark silk

"Good dream, Sweetie?"

Perhaps it was the intimacy of their position; perhaps it was the moment. Regardless, her voice was pitched low.

A soft exhalation warmed her upper chest.

"Yeah. About you."

Neatly blunted nails scritched lightly at the base of the younger woman's skull, and Barbara felt her partner's rumbling purr... or growl.

"Never could sleep... before... with you."

The words were disjointed, and Barbara puzzled over their meaning.


Slitted eyes met hers.

"Uh, before, when we'd sometimes sleep together, I couldn't -- "

The dark head which was pillowed lightly on her shoulder ducked down.

"I, uh, didn't dare let myself sleep too hard in case something like this..."

The redhead felt her face burn at the hushed revelation. When she considered how soundly -- how safely -- she'd slept through the years when her ward, her protege, her friend had been beside her, the realization of the one-sided nature of the arrangement was... awkward to grasp.

Perhaps sensing her discomfort, the other woman continued thoughtfully.

"I didn't mind, you know. And, with my hormones going off like firecrackers..."

The older woman's throaty chuckle died in her mouth when she felt the fine hair on Helena's neck raise in response. Immediately, the brunette attempted to roll away, muttering an apology.

"Sorry -- didn't mean to. . . I'm just, y'know, itchy."

The words hesitated through breathless gasps, and Barbara realized that every last bit of desire for sleep had abandoned her.

"Is there somewhere you need me to... scratch, Sweetie?"

She punctuated her question by dragging her nails lightly across her partner's shoulder. In a heartbeat, Helena was on top of her, her movements almost wild.


The tiny portion of Barbara's analytical mind which could still function corrected herself: Helena was not so much wild as untamable.

A dip of the mattress told the older woman that Helena was grinding their lower bodies together. When Helena bent to her with a soulful groan, Barbara distantly thought the sound covered a growl: the skin of her chest certainly tickled from the reverberations and she felt her nipples harden in response.

For a brief, tantalizing, moment, the younger woman brushed her chest against hers, and Barbara gasped, arching into the contact. Then, the brunette pulled away, and slender fingers began to shape the outer contours of her breasts, gently at first, then with increasing determination.

Unable to hold the exclamation in, Barbara hissed quietly. Pinned by contrite blue eyes, she immediately wished she'd stifled the sound but knew it was no use: at this point in the month, tenderness was a bit of an understatement.

The brunette straightened above her, dragging her hands roughly across her face.

"Shit, I'm sorry. Don't want to -- "

She lowered her hand, gesturing loosely toward the older woman's lower torso.

"-- hurt you."

Something fluttered with the older woman's chest and she reached up, wending her hands through chestnut silk and pulling her lover to her.

"You won't..."

The kiss was brief -- barely a brushing of satiny lips, a flicker of moist heat -- before the brunette twisted her head to one side and gooseflesh erupted on the older woman's skin. A growl rumbled against her ear, and she felt sharp teeth seize her earlobe.

"God, Barbara -- "

The whisper was barely decipherable, enrobed in the softest of rumbling purrs.

"I can smell you... Waking up with you... It drives me crazy."

The redhead managed a murmur of some sort, arching her throat in offering to the shockingly talented mouth which was making its torturous way down her neck. An instant later, she gasped and stiffened, her heart pounding in fear even as her body instinctively pushed into the teeth biting into the soft skin at the juncture of her neck and shoulder.

The sensation -- stabbing, suckling, heat, wetness -- bled pain into pleasure and back. Somewhat wildly, the analytical woman thought she might climax from the sensation alone. Even more frantically, she realized that she coveted the sensation on other areas of her body.

"Dear... heavens... Hel?"

The pressure didn't abate in the slightest. If anything, it seemed to grow, and the tiny portion her mind which still functioned realized that the wetness she felt trickling down her skin might very well be her own blood.

The remainder of her mind, her entire body writhing under the exquisite sensation and the slow thrusts of her lover's hips against her stomach, was remarkably indifferent.

"Fu-- I love you so much."

The dark figure's words rolled together through another thick purring growl, raising the hair on the back of the redhead's neck. Distantly, Barbara noted how disjointed her partner's words were, how rough her movements seemed -- a far cry from the always graceful woman's usual flowing motions.

Still, it had been a while, and the passionate younger woman undoubtedly had... energy to burn.

Finally, the redhead forced herself to let go of her analysis, her thoughts, and drifted under her lover's caresses. Almost dreamily, she drew her fingers across the smaller woman's back, tracing the subtle delineation of the other woman's ribs with the pads of her fingers, sketching the knobby protuberance of her spine through the soft cotton of her thin tank top.

A breath of pressure against her chest, the flutter of fingers circling her breasts... teasing... snapped Barbara vividly back to the moment. Breasts burning under the gentle touches, the older woman thrust herself upward, using her lover's shoulders for leverage.

The nonverbal request for contact was denied -- almost without thought it seemed -- and the brunette slid from her grasp, ducking down to her waist. Slowly, painfully slowly, Helena bunched the material of the older woman's tee toward her chest using only her nose and lips. Barbara steadied herself, the muscles of her abdomen clenching under the feathery kisses and brushes of warm hands, her skin so sensitized that she was certain she could feel the other woman's whorled fingerprints against her.

And then, the hem of her shirt was bunched at her neck, her torso exposed to the cool air of the slowly brightening room.

And, exposed to the eyes which glittered gold and hungry above her.

At the sight of those maddening eyes, a tendril of something wormed its way down the redhead's spine, and she reached up to cup her lover's tightly clenched jaw.

"Sw-- "

She had to stop, to wet her very dry lips with the tip of her tongue.


The dark figure's features seemed to soften for a split second before a smile rich with sin split her face.


The word was gently teasing, a purring promise, and the redhead allowed a different type of tension to creep through her again. She shifted her upper body restlessly under the barely-there touch of the brunette's cheek against her chest and felt her breasts seem to swell... to strain for something more.

"Oh, god!"

Warm, slender hands were on her again, cupping and squeezing. Barbara instantly felt her nipples diamonding into the palms of hands which moved against her just... just on one side of pain.

"Hel -- Use your mouth."

Green eyes met gold, and the redhead swallowed a whimper when she witnessed the rabid curl of her lover's upper lip and then recognized the crimson rimming those full lips for what it was. The sound was lost under the soft co-mingling of the two women's groans when the brunette arched back sinuously, then lowered herself to drag her own torso roughly over Barbara's.

"Not... yet..."

Something else followed, barely audible, almost lost against her neck, but the older woman clearly heard the word "need". Even if she hadn't picked out the word, the tense lines of her young lover's face, the rippling of tightly controlled muscles, the sweat beading Helena's chest above the scooped line of her tank, spoke eloquently of the younger woman's need.

Instinctively, the redhead dragged her hands down her companion's sides, struggling to push up under her, to reach...

"Let me touch you, Hel."

She'd pitched her voice low and inviting, understanding the almost wild need above her. She was wholly unprepared for the other woman's response.

In the blink of an eye, the wiry brunette lunged upward gracefully, and Barbara felt her hands captured and pinned above her head by one slender, powerful hand. Years of control allowed her to hold back her surprised cry, but nothing could help when the younger woman's words penetrated her senses.

"No. Not this time."

Burning eyes searched hers, and Barbara ached for the raw need within. Simultaneously, she feared that she should look away lest the brightness of her lover's fevered gaze blind her.

"I'm too close, but you're coming, too."

Everything changed, the ceiling spinning above and glittering eyes all that existed.

The words were an echo of something not long past, something Helena had spoken in fury... in threat... to The Joker, and the redhead blinked once, certain that -- for an instant -- she'd seen hell in her partner's eyes.

Fighting a suffocating pressure, she pushed against the hand pinning her wrists to the pillow; however, as strong as she was, as hard as she'd worked her triceps and pecs on the pull-down stationary weights, she knew that she was no match for the other woman's inhuman power.

"Hel," she ground out slowly, "I need my hands."

She couldn't have said why: heaven knew, she'd... played games in the past. Nevertheless, at this moment, she needed, and the answering shake of the dark hair above her struck her with panic.

The younger woman's movement morphed gracefully into a slow decent of crimson lips to Barbara's chest, and the redhead felt her partner's almost pained moan reverberate through her at the same instant a warm tongue laved her breast, it slow rasp thrilling... and terrifying her.


Barbara forced her voice to be calm, aware that her partner could very well be past hearing her.

"You need to listen to me."

A purr... or a growl... was the only verbal response. The other woman's nonverbal response spoke for itself, and Barbara squeezed her eyes shut in frustration.

Dammit! Why did Helena have to be so goddamned headstrong? Why wouldn't she listen?

The answer came to her instantly: Because she was Helena, and she needed this.

At that, Barbara swallowed her anger. Eyes resolutely trained on the dark ceiling, she removed the element of struggle, deliberately relaxing under the other woman, letting it go.

An abrupt cessation of the younger woman's disjointed movements drew the older woman's gaze, and she found Helena regarding her. The younger woman had never been able to hide her emotions from the redhead, and this was no exception: Barbara clearly saw horror... and shame... and something which looked like self-loathing washing across those beautiful features.

"No -- Hel..."

The words were out on a gasp, instinctive, an attempt to reassure. Barbara struggled again to reach the younger woman, but she was still pinned by one deceptively small hand, by the sinewy forearm which she peripherally saw flexing near her temple.

Perhaps Helena, too, had forgotten, for the moment her eyes flew to the union of her hand on the older woman's wrists, she yanked away as if burned. Somehow, Barbara resisted her instinct to jerk her arms down, deliberately holding her position as she sought to hold the confused eyes which were reverting to blue. She offered a tender smile, watching as the brunette shakily raised her other hand to touch --

No, not touch, the redhead realized.

Helena's hand hovered millimeters above her cheek, the heat from the near-caress searing her.

"Oh fuck -- "

The younger woman's eyes glittered in the predawn light, and Barbara heard her swallow.

"I'm so fuckin' sorry. Are you -- "

The younger woman averted her eyes and withdrew her hand from proximity. The redhead felt its loss as a cold void.

"Did I hurt you?"

Even as she chafed at her position, the redhead recognized her lover's need... and the fact that she had remained almost gentle with her.

"It's okay, Hel -- "

Recognizing that the quaver in her voice belied the words, she cleared her throat softly.

"I'm okay," she added softly.

Gradually, she felt the tension in the lithe body atop her lessen marginally. With her hands now free, the redhead raised her arms to the delicate shoulders above her and coaxed her partner down. They lay together, still, for a few heartbeats, Barbara easily detecting the younger woman's heart thudding against her and knowing that Helena could hear her own trip-hammering.

With a soft exhalation, the smaller woman brushed her cheek, then rolled away, presenting her back as she swung legs out from under the covers.


"I'm sorry, Barbara, but I've gotta... "

The redhead's jaw dropped as her companion stood and crossed to the door soundlessly.

"Don't -- "

The soft click of the door covered the next word.

"-- leave."

Chapter 7

With a snort of disgust, Barbara abandoned her desultory tapping at the keyboard.

As productive as she'd been in the last three hours, she might as well have been playing minesweeper.

The cyber-vigilante knew that she could attempt to justify her inability to focus on tracking the whereabouts of the members of The Joker's inner circle who still remained at large. After all, the handful who hadn't been rounded up had been quiet, perhaps had even fled the city, and there was no foreseeable threat to New Gotham.

Barbara shook her head roughly, knowing that it was exactly that sort of rationalization -- that sort of laxity -- which could lead to the near-disaster she'd allowed to develop with the green-haired madman's escape.

In this life, distraction could be deadly.

That thought circled through the redhead's mind, the final word seeming to echo in hollow counterpoint to the suddenly powerful beat of her heart, and she admitted defeat. For the moment.

Green eyes squeezed shut, and Barbara raised one hand, rubbing her forehead in an undoubtedly fruitless attempt to forestall the mammoth headache she could feel building.

As much as she hated to admit it, her head simply wasn't in the game. Of course, she did have quite a bit to be... distracted about, given Helena's abrupt departure ten hours before.

Not to mention the wildly charged interaction which had preceded said departure. And, the analytical woman forced herself to acknowledge, her own inexplicable response during their... interaction.

For long minutes, she lost herself in thought, permitting her infallible memory to replay the events of the morning and attempting to decode the subtext and nuance of the exchange. An image of burning eyes haunted her visual memory while her eidetic recall helpfully provided a perfect sensation of the fear and helplessness which had coursed through her.

As visceral as the memory was, she was unable to quite put her finger on the reason for reaction. However, pushing aside her instinctive trepidation, she forced herself to examine the feeling.

Fear of Helena?

While her younger partner had, without doubt, been a bit overwhelming, Barbara simply knew that Helena would not have hurt her. The younger woman had, in fact, noted her sensitivity and hesitated to pursue matters.

Of course, there was probably little surprise that Helena would have been aware: with three women in one household all cycling at the same time of the month, it was damned difficult not to know.

Fear of her own responses?

The redhead absently gnawed at the corner of her lower lip, prodding at that possibility. While she suspected that it was not entirely without merit, she certainly hoped that she'd progressed a bit more than that. Her reaction -- one which she admitted had approached raw terror -- had been well beyond any sort of... discomfort engendered by her physical response.

Setting aside that avenue of exploration for a later time, Barbara sighed quietly and fiddled with her folded glasses, intending to correct the position so that the left bow was over the right. A split second later, she froze with both earpieces at right angles to the lenses when another hypothesis screamed through her cortex.

Fear for Helena?

Where on earth had that come from? Certainly she couldn't have been concerned for her passionate partner's well-being this morning.

Yet, perhaps things were still a bit... raw after their recent run-in with their worst nightmare. It wasn't impossible that feelings could have become jumbled.

The cyber-genius blinked when her thirty-five inch plasma display flickered and brought up its screen saver -- an annoyingly charming loop from a Bugs Bunny cartoon which Dinah and Helena had presented to her on her birthday a year and a half before. Somewhat cravenly -- and gratefully -- setting aside her previous line of thought, she tilted her head to the side and attempted to remember how many times the program had actually been triggered by inactivity while she'd been at the computer.

Not too surprisingly, she came up blank.

"Uh, Barbara?"

The redhead started briefly before turning to the living area where Dinah was peeking cautiously over the tall back of the couch. The teen had been enjoying her first day of freedom as an ex-high school student after a morning of heavy-duty emergency shopping for her upcoming travels.

The blonde's words had been soft and hesitant, and Barbara simply couldn't guess whether it was because the teen didn't want to interrupt her or because she was worried about the repercussions of doing so. Since neither scenario was acceptable, the older woman mustered a smile that was, perhaps, a tad over bright.

"Yes, Dinah?"

"It doesn't look like you're working much, and Max Ex is just starting..."

The redhead felt her smile grow more genuine and, concurrently, a bit rueful. The show had become something of a guilty favorite for the three women residing at the tower, providing clear evidence as it did of the horrific effects of testosterone poisoning.

"That sounds perfect, Dinah."

A bit surprised to discover that she meant the words, Barbara pushed back from her terminal and paused by the couch.

"I wasn't making much headway there, so a bit of a brain cell massacre may be just what I need."

The girl's answering grin was bright, and the older woman was immediately very, very glad that she'd chosen as she had.

"I'm hitting the kitchen first. Do you want something?", she threw over her shoulder on her way.

Fifteen minutes later, comfortably ensconced on the couch and sharing a bowl of pretzels with her ward, Barbara felt a preparatory wince seize her features as she watched Joe Bob Something-or-other readying to record his human catapult attempt on videotape.

What was he thinking? Anyone could see that the trajectory for the landing net was completely off target.

That thought, perhaps unfortunately, evoked a flash of guilt and the realization of how off-target she had been that morning with Helena. The two of them really -- really -- needed to talk. Unfortunately, between their schedules for the day, it didn't look like much of a possibility in the short term.

"The angle's wrong, isn't it?"

Although the amused query was a bit muffled by a mouthful of pretzels, Barbara had no trouble interpreting.

"It appears so, Dinah. Of course, if Joe Bob has thought to compensate by altering the torque on the -- "

Both women flinched a tiny bit at the video evidence that Joe Bob had not, in fact, considered altering the tension on his homemade catapult. One crimson brow still arched, Barbara dug into the bowl of pretzels until a jarring rise in the volume from the entertainment unit's speakers, a rise which had nothing to do with the completely predictable compound fracture of Joe Bob's femur, heralded a commercial break.

The redhead emitted a long-suffering sigh as she regarded the oversized television.

Considering the sophistication of the components in the unit, the "smart sound" should work a hell of a lot better than that. Perhaps if she cross linked the unit through the Delphi's sound analysis routines --

"Uhm, I was sort of wondering..."

Barbara turned to focus on her companion who was picking at the label of her juice bottle. She inclined her head to the left and offered an encouraging smile.

"Wondering what, Dinah?"

"If you've had time to think about Helena's apartment?"

The redhead blinked, a bit stupidly she feared, and rapidly worked to remember if she'd come in skin to skin contact with her telepathic ward since she'd been musing about the events of the morning. Some of her insights -- glaringly obvious in hindsight -- had certainly involved her lover's penchant for disappearing to her apartment at certain times of the month.

When the girl hesitantly elaborated, Barbara was able to slow her pounding heart... for a moment.

"Uhm, just before... everything."

The blonde waved a hand in the general direction of the New Gotham skyscape. The unspoken reference to their recent struggle was crystalline, and the older woman gave a measured nod.

"Helena said she'd talk with you about her place for, maybe, me?"

It all came back: Helena's lunch date with the teen at school -- had it only been two and a half weeks before? -- to discuss living arrangements when Dinah entered college in the fall. Somehow the two had come up with the idea of having the blonde move into Helena's rather bohemian digs above the Dark Horse since Helena certainly had little use for the place, having moved most of her belongings back to the tower...

The redhead's line of thought abruptly veered back to earlier musings, forcing her to correct herself.

Since the change in their relationship almost three months before, her younger partner had managed to spend a few nights each month at her apartment. When the cyber-genius's infallible memory had supplied the dates of those nights, she'd had to wonder if a comic book-style light bulb had visibly lit up over her head.

How had she not connected the dates when her partner -- her lover -- had happened to have late shifts at the bar and casually declared that she'd crash at her apartment rather than risk disturbing Barbara? Especially given the fact that, on most nights, Helena was all-too-happy to disturb her... or to be disturbed by her.

With some shame, the redhead had acknowledged that while she was still feeling her way in the nascent relationship, she'd perhaps welcomed the occasional bit of solitude and accordingly not pressed her partner.

A bit distractedly, the older woman redirected her gaze to the oversized television as the commercial break ended and a group of college boys running with the bulls in Pamplona discovered that they were not nearly as fast as the animals behind them.

"I know that Helena's apartment has quite a few, er, selling points, Dinah."

Quite honestly, 'cheap' was the only such point which immediately came to mind. If her young ward were more like... Helena perhaps, the redhead could have included the apartment's location above a bar in the rather brief list of highlights.

"But," she continued, turning to meet the inquisitive eyes fixed hopefully on her, "a big part of college life includes being in the dorm, Dinah."

The older woman tried not to feel too hypocritical as she spoke. After all, she had lived -- well, sometimes slept -- in the dorms during her first few years of college.

Observing a willingness to consider her words, if not out-and-out acceptance, she lightly touched the blonde's knee.

"Tell you what: I know you have a lot on your mind with the upcoming trip and all, Dinah, and there's absolutely no reason to make a decision now."

She barely avoided smiling at the teen's frankly incredulous expression and ticked off the facts.

"There's a spot reserved for you in the dorms."

The blonde head nodded.

"Helena's place will undoubtedly still be available."

The redhead resolutely refused to focus too hard on that particular fact.

"And," she felt a very genuine smile crease her features, "you know you're always welcome to stay here... at home."

The smile was certainly reflected ten-fold in the pale blue eyes trained on her before the teen nodded and reached for the bowl of pretzels.

"Thanks, Barbara. I guess I don't have to decided where to go right away."

With a mental nod to the "brevity as the soul of wit" school of guardianship, the redhead retrieved her Perrier. A delay would give both of them -- all of them -- time to... adjust.

For some reason, her bubbly beverage seemed to constrict her throat, and she swallowed rapidly against the sensation. The relentlessly practical woman ruthlessly quashed her sentimental response and was almost successful in pushing back the lump in her throat.

Regrettably, some damnable greeting card commercial broke into the stream of Male Macho Bullshit, as Helena had termed it, on Maximum Exposure. To Barbara's distinct mortification, the hauntingly lovely strains of IZ Kamakawiwo'ole's "Over The Rainbow/Wonderful World" somehow crawled under her skin, and she felt moisture begin to rim her eyes.

What in the name of great grandmother's garters was the matter with her?

The redhead remained absolutely still, attempting not to blink too rapidly and give away the embarrassing display of emotion. The strategy, lasting through the next commercial, seemed to fail, for, peripherally, Barbara saw her companion on the couch shift nervously and hesitantly raise a hand, hovering above her forearm.

"I guess all of our emotions are still kind of running high from, uhm, last week?"

The redhead sniffed guiltily and nodded briskly, not caring to examine just too closely what had prompted the uncharacteristic lapse. Instead, ignoring the television's display of a man strapping a turbo engine to a lawn chair, she turned and met the teen's eyes.

"Indeed, Dinah."

Her father and Bruce had always taught her that the best defense was a good offense. And, it was a perfect opening to bring an overdue topic into the light of day.

"Can you tell me about what happened at the convenience store on Tuesday?"

It was impossible to miss how the fair young woman paled at the question. When Dinah looked down at her hands, biting at her upper lip, Barbara gentled her tone.

"I'd like to understand, Dinah."

With that, she fell silent, waiting with seemingly infinite patience -- an appearance the impatient redhead had learned to adopt early in her teaching career. Eventually, the teen looked up from her inspection of her fingernails and tucked an errant lock of hair behind her ear. Still, the blonde didn't answer the question directly.

"I know we're not a Star Chamber or anything, but, uhm, when you were on the street, you probably hurt people, didn't you?"

Searching soft blue eyes, Barbara was unable to do anything but answer truthfully.

"I tried not to, Dinah, but sometimes, it couldn't -- "

She cut herself off, aware that the question probably had very little to do with her past, and corrected herself.

"Sometimes it can't be helped."

The achingly open eyes flickered away for an instant as the girl nodded, seemingly to herself.

"Did you ever enjoy it? Or, I mean..."

Pale brows furrowed while Dinah sought the words.

"... or, uh, want to?"

Again, the cyber-vigilante refused to hide -- or to sugar-coat -- the truth.

"I'm not sure that 'enjoy' would be the right word, Dinah, but, yes..."

The redhead drew a long breath through flared nostrils. When she saw her hand rising to the bridge of her nose, she decisively quashed the habitual gesture before continuing.

"Yes, there were times when it seemed... deserved."

Suspecting that she had a fair idea of where the young woman was headed, she gently placed her index and second finger under the girl's chin and drew her from her renewed inspection of her hands.

"It's a fact of life in the business we're in, Dinah, and it's certainly a feeling which I'm in no position to fault you for."

Oddly, the reassurance seemed to worry the blonde even more, and her eyes shuttered. A beat later, when Barbara finally made sense of the teen's frightened whisper, she realized that she hadn't had the first clue about the conversation after all.

"Even if I killed The Joker?"

Chapter 8

"Seven card; two up; Jokers are wild."

A somewhat leaden silence pervaded the room for a beat. Then, with the regulation cards shushing across the dining room table, the dealer looked up, bright blue eyes meeting green and crinkling apologetically.

"Sorry. Bad choice there, eh?"

Barbara shared a rueful grimace with her companion, however, seeing the Joker in her hand, she decided that a change in the rules was not to her advantage at the moment.

Expediency could be a good thing.

She contented herself with a low hum of agreement, then briskly organized the five cards in hand -- by rank, then by suite. While such an action would have been too much of a 'tell' in a professional gaming situation, in these circumstances, it too was simply expedient.

Then, again, expediency could have its drawbacks.

Neatly depositing two cards in the discard stack, she arranged her replacements, mulling over how the nature of a situation impacted how palatable pragmatism could be. For instance, a few hours earlier, when Dinah had posed her question --

Watching her opponent take three cards, the redhead mentally rolled her eyes as she clarified her thought.

When Dinah had posed her jaw dropping question, she'd known that there had been a great deal of nuance to dance around. Accordingly, she'd schooled her featured and felt the girl out.

"What do you mean, Dinah?"

The blonde had skirted the question initially, forcing Barbara to draw on her reserves of patience when every instinct in her body had been screaming at her to ask her ward if she had, in fact, killed The Joker.

"I mean, is revenge really so bad, Barbara? Or,"

The fair face had looked away, searching.

"Or, is it always wrong?"

"I suppose that it depends, Dinah."

The older woman hadn't been happy with her answer, clear equivocation that it was, however it had been enough. Dinah had met her eyes again, her pale blue eyes earnest and confused.

"What would you have done if his plan had worked?"

The girl had twirled a lock of her newly shagged hair around her index finger, apparently misinterpreting the redhead's startled blink as a lack of comprehension.

"Uhm, if he'd convinced you that Helena was dead?"

Although she'd certainly wanted to lie or to circumvent the question, Barbara had been unable. In the business they were in, she owed her junior partner the truth.

"I would have hunted him to the ends of the earth and made him pay."

Those wide blue eyes had blinked, perhaps as startled as Barbara had been by the absolute factual certainty in her tone. Mercifully, the older woman had been able to restrain the remainder of her answer.

And pay and pay.

Unfortunately, her message had been unambiguous enough.

"So, revenge isn't always wrong?"

The redhead had felt her heart twist at the tentative whisper, and, recognizing the minefield they were crossing, she'd given herself a few seconds to choose her words.

"Yes, I personally believe that it is wrong, Dinah. However, in that case, there would have been no choice for me."

Two wrongs wouldn't make a right, but the question was one which had whispered through her mind during the dark hours of the night during the last week. She couldn't lie about the answer she'd arrived at.

The younger woman had absorbed the words quietly, seriously, then finally pushed her hair behind one ear in habitual nervous gesture.

"What about, uhm, advance revenge?"

Nerves already frayed by the conversation, Barbara had given in to instinct and stretched out, stilling the restless twirling of pale fingers in blonde locks.

"I'm not sure I understand, Dinah."

The teen had taken her time in responding, however, when she'd finally spoken, the words had poured forth in a dizzying rush.

"What if you just knew somebody was going to do something horrible, and so you maybe did something to stop them, but did it more than you needed to and ended up maybe hurting them?"

Barbara had had to work not to allow her eyes to spin as she'd followed the torturous trail of her ward's question.

"Doing what sort of thing, Dinah," she'd finally coaxed, quite certain that they were no longer speaking in the realm of abstracts.


The older woman had barely had time to blink after deciphering the words before she'd seen Dinah's jaw tremble and her eyes fill with tears. Instantly, she'd pushed herself closer and simply pulled the young woman to her. She'd held the girl close for uncounted minutes, stroking her back and allowing her to vent some of her anguish. It had only been after she'd cried herself out and her tears had dried that the blonde had pulled back and imploringly sought the older woman's eyes.

As rattled as she'd been by the exchange -- This was certainly not a conversation covered in the Guardianship for Dummies handbooks -- Barbara had had time to consider Dinah's confession. Accordingly, she'd gone with one of her strengths and firmly settled her logical cap in place.

Over the course of the next half hour, she'd eased the teen through the sequence of that night at the tenement, allowing Dinah to acknowledge that Helena had freed herself and been on the way out and that The Joker clearly hadn't planned on escaping through the front. While the sweet young woman had seemed calmer and, by the end of the painful conversation, it appeared that the blonde had accepted that no amount of telekinetic pushing on her part had led to Jack Napier's death, Barbara knew that, ultimately, it would be something which Dinah would have to come to terms with herself.

Nevertheless, the conversation had been enlightening for the older woman for unanticipated reasons: in reassuring her current protege that she couldn't assume responsibility, Barbara had realized that she would have to absolve Helena of any suspicion as well.

A week and a half before, the dark vigilante had told her -- perhaps vaguely -- that she'd not planned on The Joker's death, and now Barbara would simply have to let it go. Of course, she'd also admitted that letting go of Helena's nearly dying at The Joker's hands would be considerably more difficult to move past. He had already taken so much from her -- from both of them, and this had been too close.

"Green cheese."

Crimson brows crept skyward over emerald eyes. Perhaps the emotionality of the day had affected her hearing.

"I'm sorry. What was that?"

Blue eyes twinkled.

"I was attempting to see if you've heard a word I've said, Barbara."

Eschewing comment, the redhead merely displayed her winning hand and primly scooped the chips -- Fritos this time -- to her side of the table.

"Of course I was listening, Dad. You were telling me about visiting Captain O'Hara yesterday. Is Charlie acclimating to the retired life yet?"

"Fighting it tooth and nail, I'd have to sa-- "

Somewhat apologetically, Barbara interrupted her father with a pointed sniff, and Jim Gordon instantly pushed back from the table and bounded into the kitchen.

Earlier in the week, when Helena had informed her that she'd be working yet another double at the Dark Horse on this evening, it had seemed auspicious to arrange an overdue dinner with her father. It had been a few weeks too long between their bi-monthly Salisbury steak dinners -- the one thing Jim Gordon could cook without a problem.

However, if the scent of charring beef were any indication, perhaps the apple hadn't fallen far from the tree in terms of familial cooking skills.

Smirking at the muttered invective emanating from the kitchen, Barbara gathered the cards and slid them into their package, then turned to the sideboard to put them in their place. A flash of light from a framed photo caught her attention, and she paused, lightly brushing her fingers over the picture of her Aunt Barbara.

Dear heavens, how she missed her sometimes. Her aunt had, after all, been the first woman she'd been able to confide in -- at least, as able as a carefully guarded teen could be.

A bit of movement from the kitchen entry drew the redhead from her introspection, and she looked up, bursting into laughter at the vision of her tremendously dignified father bedecked in a frilly pink gingham apron. The older man's expression remained severe, however a crinkling at the corners of his eyes gave him away.

"If you've finished with your giggles, Barbara, I could use some help in here."

That sobered her up immediately.

"From me?"

Barbara felt her brows knit in irritation at the distinct squeak she'd heard in her voice, however it wasn't altogether unexpected: Helena and Dinah weren't the only ones who had threatened to ban her from the kitchen.

Despite her doubts about the wisdom of the request, she dutifully followed her father into the galley kitchen and accepted the potato masher he offered, attacking the hapless root vegetables with -- possibly -- undue vigor. Satisfied that she'd removed all trace of lumps, she added the requisite clove of garlic and a splash of milk. She contented herself with two pats of butter, unlike Helena, who seemed to prefer more milk and butter than potato in her potatoes.

Finally settled at the table, Barbara eyed the mammoth helpings on her plate a bit dubiously, but didn't bother to object: a lecture about being too thin was not on her list of things to do for the evening.

"Well this is nice."

Looking up, the redhead smiled a bit belatedly and raised her wine glass in acknowledgement as her father continued.

"Perhaps next time we can to arrange to have your --"

Jim Gordon paused, wrinkling a bushy unibrow as he ladled more gravy over his potatoes.

"... is 'girlfriend' the right word, Barbara?"

Although she felt heat touching her cheeks, she managed to reply calmly while she cut off a bite of her entree.

"I rather prefer 'partner'."

"I suppose that 'spouse' isn't an option," the older man observed blandly. "Although, with Helena, the word 'spice' might be more appropriate."

Nearly blowing a mouthful of potatoes across the table, Barbara laughed and reached for her water goblet.

Perhaps she should invite Helena to the next dinner although...

The redhead's chewing slowed as she considered whether having her father and Helena spend too much time together would be a good idea; they really did bring out the mischief in each other. Not to mention the fact that she was still a bit rankled by the fact that her partner had actually asked her father's permission to... be with her.

Opting to consider the matter further, she touched her napkin to her mouth and spoke noncommittally.

"I'll see if she's available some time, Dad."

The distinguished man pinned her with a frank look.

"You do that, Barbara. Meantime..."

He buttered a roll and smiled.

"... you'll never believe it, but Charlie's decided to take up golf."

As Jim Gordon recounted the highlights of his recent visit with his former right-hand man, Barbara felt her face light with the memories of the sweet police chief who had always had a kind word or a silly magic trick or a roll of life savers up his sleeve or in his pocket for his boss's adopted daughter. In addition, according to Bruce, Captain O'Hara had been one of the few on the force who had initially accepted the presence of a masked crime fighter with enthusiasm.

She was definitely overdue to pay the man a visit.

Mentally reviewing her schedule for the next week, the redhead helped her father clear the table, the two moving with an easy familiarity. Dishes in the dishwasher and leftovers covered, the two exchanged a glance and wordlessly made their way to Jim Gordon's study.

The dark paneled room, redolent of sweet pipe tobacco and leather, had always been the older man's favorite location in the house. From the day Barbara had come to live with her aunt and uncle, she'd known that the room was a sanctuary for her new father, a place to escape the pressures of his job, to decompress after a long day, to think. Even now, with the entire house to himself, Barbara was aware that her dad spent most of his time in the office.

For herself, the quiet room evoked a plethora of warm memories. When she'd first joined the household, she'd spent many a long winter afternoon in the room with her uncle, both settled in the big leather chairs by the fire, immersed in their respective books. Later, after she'd departed the house for college and her own apartment, the study had become a place for deep conversations about some of the questions she'd had transitioning to adulthood. These discussions always seemed easier... and more meaningful... to the redhead when they took place in the room; perhaps because of the cloistered, almost confessional, nature of the study; perhaps because she felt it a privilege to be invited into Jim Gordon's haven.

While her father busied himself at the wet bar, Barbara slowly circumnavigated the room, unconsciously identifying which titles had been added to the built-in bookcases since her last visit. She spied the Clinton autobiography on the corner of the desk and absently picked it up, flipping through pages and noting her father's meticulous handwriting in the margins of many pages.

"Amazing man," Jim Gordon commented as he approached with a cordial glass in one hand and a heavy cut glass tumbler in the other. "Quite the scallywag, as well."

The redhead murmured her thanks for her glass while she resettled the thick book on the desk. She accepted her cordial, and her father settled himself in his desk chair, digging into the second drawer for his pipe and tobacco.

An image of another scallywag named Clinton, whom she and Helena had recently dealt with, flashed through her mind, and Barbara felt a wan smile crease her features.

Somehow, sharing stories -- even stories with the vigilante crime fighting elements carefully removed -- about their recent visits to Clint William's S&M club simply didn't seem advisable.

Accordingly, she lifted her small glass and appreciatively inhaled the complex bouquet of the ruby liquid. The sweet, oaky aroma of the port was inviting, making a lovely finish to the meal they'd shared. If she weren't mistaken -- and if Jim Gordon were true to form -- that was brandy filling her companion's glass.

Barbara was happy enough with the arrangement: She'd never cared for brandy and didn't care to enlighten her father about her predilection for other hard liquors, such as bourbon and tequila.

Unfortunately, she found that she could scarcely do justice to the twenty year old port when her father exhaled a plume of smoke and casually leaned forward, shaking out his long match and placing it in the heavy crystal ashtray.

"Care to tell me what's gnawing at you, Barbie?"

Warmed by the familiar nickname -- a name which her father alone was allowed to use -- the redhead didn't bother to brush off the question: Her father knew her too well, and she respected him far too much for that. Nevertheless, she realized that she didn't actually have an answer for the question either; despite her insights from the conversation with Dinah, she had yet to put her finger exactly on matters.

After a second, less jarring, sip of her aperitif and a few moment's reflection, she finally murmured, "I'm not really sure, Dad."

A bushy brow lowered, and Barbara was pinned by acute blue eyes.

"Something with Helena?"

The redhead carefully lowered her glass to the desk, then shifted in her chair, immediately regretting the unnecessary movement for the tell it was.


She'd responded with the first word that popped into her head. The second came out on it's own.


Miserably, she retrieved her glass and swirled the ruby liquid.

"I don't know," she finally added, entirely unhelpfully, she suspected.

Her father took the confession -- such as it was -- with equanimity, tapping the stem of his Meerschaum against his chin a few times, then puffing contentedly for a long forty-five seconds. Eventually, he nodded.

"Did I ever tell you about what turned the tide for me with Helena?"

"Turned? With Helena?"

Still coping with a bit of conversational whiplash, it was the best she could do. Jim Gordon didn't seem to notice, or to mind, continuing blandly, "Oh, not about you and her. About her after you became her guardian."

The two fell silent for a few moments, lost in their respective memories.

For Barbara, those memories involved grim weeks in the hospital, attempting to come to terms with her loss, with Helena's loss of her mother, and with a dim realization that she'd promised Selina something about her daughter. It had all clarified ten days after that momentous night.

She'd awakened from another nightmare-filled dream to find her father keeping vigil. After the usual subdued questions about how she was feeling, she'd been puzzled to hear her father working to find words, attempting to say something about Helena. The pieces had snapped into place in her drug-addled thinking when she'd realized that her father was offering to find someone to "place" the hurting teen.

Even drugged out of her mind and depressed to the soles of her unfeeling feet, Barbara had felt anger course through her at the suggestion, and had attempted to snap a response -- "She's not a puppy, Dad" -- which had undoubtedly come out as more of a petulant mumble than the crisp argument she'd intended.

It had done the trick, however, and the two had shared a meaningful look, both clearly recalling the dark teen's hangdog expression of loss and her palpable fear and emptiness, emotions barely covered by braggadocio and anger. Barbara had nearly reconsidered her denial. Fortunately, her father had spared her addled brain the effort.

"Then, perhaps it would be best if I take her in."

Obviously, he'd seen the protest in her eyes and had raised a hand placatingly.

"Just until you're... stronger, Barbara. Helena has... issues which are going to be difficult to deal with."

For a bare flicker of an instant, she had been tempted.

Lord knew, the teen had always been trouble on two feet -- and that had just been part-time, in the classroom, and while she'd had the use of her legs.

Then, the image of the first face she'd seen when she'd awakened in the hospital came to mind, and she'd merely shaken her head, knowing that she would not let Helena down.

Emerging from her reverie to find her father regarding her patiently, the redhead quirked her lips.

"And, what was it which turned the tide, Dad?"

The white-haired man leaned back in his heavily padded desk chair, turning his eyes to the ceiling before he replied.

"I really had no idea quite how bad the PT sessions were for you, Barbara."

The redhead blinked, lifting the delicate glass to her mouth to cover her surprise.

While she certainly had loathed her own helplessness -- not to mention being handled, and coddled, and treated as if she'd lost her adulthood along with the use of her legs -- she had certainly tried to be a good, dedicated, upbeat patient... at least outside her bedroom door.

Seemingly reading her mind, Jim Gordon smiled at the cherry ceiling planks.

"Oh, it wasn't you. You put up a marvelous front."

The older man completed his study of the ceiling, and the two shared a knowing smile.

"However, every so often, I'd see you after you'd been crying, and, I must confess, I assumed it had to do with Helena."

Searching clouded blue-grey eyes, she knew that her father had certainly been attempting to deal with his own emotions, his misplaced feelings of culpability in the attack, his worry about his newly paralyzed daughter taking in the orphaned teen who simply oozed pain and bad attitude. Nevertheless, she had to speak in Helena's defense.

"Never, Dad."

Jim Gordon waved his pipe dismissively, then chuckled at his own expense.

"Of course I know that now. It hit me like a ton of bricks about ten seconds after I found Helena facing down your physical therapist."

A bushy brow quirked.

"What was his name? Bart?"


The older man nodded and puffed at his pipe again for a few beats.

"Well, I don't think she knew I was there, and I was just dumbfounded to see that little scrap of a girl taking on Brad..."

Barbara smiled at the mental image, recalling the juxtaposition of her ninety pound ward and her burly PT.

"... but she was in his face, giving him hell for patronizing you and --- how did she put it?"

The redhead marshaled her patience as her father tapped his pipe against his lips and searched his memory.

"Ah, yes. She was lighting into him for 'handling' you and said she'd -- "

The blue eyes behind the desk twinkled when the older man raised his free hand to make quotation marks in the air. When she heard the words her father had pulled from memory, Barbara felt her breathing hitch.

"-- 'damned well learn how to help you with your PT herself because nobody was ever going to hurt you while she was around.' "

Chapter 9

My, but that hurt.

Wincing minutely, Barbara straightened from her over-close concentration at the plasma monitor and rotated her neck, working to relax the painful stiffness which had taken up residence there and in her shoulders. The resultant pops and cracks -- as loud as firecrackers to her own ears -- were satisfactory, not to mention an unnecessary reminder of the effects of such fixed scrutiny at the computer.

For the last two hours, the cyber-crime fighter had been absorbed in locating, and then attempting to trace back to an origin, the sites offering The Joker's bubble gum guns to the unsuspecting populace.

And, regrettably, since her discovery of the entrepreneur's original web site three nights before, the word had become a plural, with mirror sites mushrooming -- possibly in an attempt to circumvent the redirection she'd put in at the first site.

When her 'bots had first alerted her to the new sites earlier in the day, Barbara had suspected copycats; however, after a laborious process of working backward from each site, she'd discovered that they all eventually converged on New Gotham's net hub. It was at that point that the cyber-genius had lost the trail in a warren of dead ends, relays, and loop backs.

Someone was obviously determined not to be found. While that wouldn't stop her, it would slow the process a bit.

In the meantime, the crimson haired vigilante had already installed her own keystroke loggers -- a polite term for spyware, she admitted -- within each of the sites' secure transaction processing scripts. Her little add-ons would intercept and capture every bit of ordering and credit card information before the data reached the bubble goo gun vendor's server.

As she'd deployed her trojans earlier, it had only taken a split second of internal debate before Barbara had decided to divert the money from potential purchases to the city's fund for the victims of The Joker's rampage. If anyone attempting to purchase the weapons objected, they could, of course, take matters up with their credit card company or the police.

It was only a hunch, but, somehow, Barbara suspected that there would be very few reports about the involuntary contributions.

Sighing soundlessly, the redhead allowed her chin to drop to her chest for a final stretch before refocusing on her monitor. She was satisfied with the status of the spyware; she was also confident that her sniffers would flag any new mirror sites, notifying her and automatically attempting to install the keystroke interceptors. All that remained was to return to the tangled maze which would allow her to track down the enterprising individual -- or individuals -- who were offering such a diabolical weapon to the masses.

Quite frankly, she knew that she could simply unleash some bots to do the laborious grunt work of following the electronic trails. That particular sensible course of action, however, would free her attention to look...

Well, at the couch.

At the bare foot -- toenails neatly manicured and displaying an arrestingly bright shade of pink polish -- which rested on the back of the couch.

At the person who was, presumably, comfortably ensconced on the other side of the tall sofa, occupying herself with rapid-fire channel surfing since she'd returned from sweeps.

Having looked, the redhead knew that she was sunk. There was simply no way to pretend any longer that she was immersed in her search.

Moving on auto-pilot, Barbara set the Delphi on standby, then dropped her hands, unlocking the brake on her chair and rotating sixty-degrees from her keyboard. Despite her intentions to complete the half circle and descend to the living area, she found herself looking into the open room and rocking the wheels of the chair.

It wasn't that she didn't want to spend time with Helena or, the analytical woman supposed, that her partner didn't want to spend time with her -- her somewhat stilted entrance after sweeps notwithstanding. It was simply -- awkward at the moment.

The night before, Barbara had returned from dinner at her father's to find that Dinah had turned in and the tower was otherwise silent. Helena had finally crept silently into the bedroom well after two in the morning, her nervousness almost palpable. Grateful that the younger woman had chosen not to disappear to her apartment, Barbara had wordlessly stretched over and snugged her tight.

Despite her relief, the older woman certainly hadn't been able to sleep, and she was almost positive, especially given her partner's admission that morning about having been afraid to sleep deeply, that Helena hadn't slept either. Lying quietly through the night, aching at Helena's calculated stillness, Barbara had found herself becoming increasingly frustrated that she'd not known what to say... or to do... to make this go away.

Helena had disappeared early in the day for a planned shopping excursion with Dinah and Gabby, then insisted on running a sweep after her shift at work. And now, here they finally were, still not talking, the silence overwhelming.


Although she moved quietly, the redhead knew that her partner's acute senses would detect her approach, and so she spoke normally -- as normally as possible --- when she reached the end of the couch.

"What are you watching?"

The younger woman gracefully sat up, tucking her feet beneath her camp style and pointing the remote in the direction of the big screen.

"The Tuxedo."

Taking the newly vacated section of couch as an invitation, Barbara efficiently transferred herself from her chair.

"Sounds good."

For several minutes, the two concentrated on the action in front of them, with Barbara finding herself engaged, in spite of herself, by Jackie Chan's perfectly timed physical comedy as his character was controlled by his suit. As amusing as the antics on the big screen were, the redhead couldn't help but feel a pang of sympathy for circumstances which seemed to drag one along by the heels.

With that thought, Barbara mustered her nerve and reached over to lace her fingers with her partner's. She was unpleasantly surprised by the depth of pain she experienced when she observed the younger woman's tiny flinch at the contact.

Without further ado, she snagged the remote and muted the movie.

"Can we talk, Sweetheart?"

The brunette nodded, peering cautiously through thick lashes.


The word filled the space between them on a soft whisper before Helena continued hesitantly.

"It's just -- I don't know what to say or how--"

Fearing the direction that things could head, Barbara twisted a bit to face her companion and tenderly stroked the satin skin of the younger woman's cheek with the first two fingers of her free hand.

"I know what I need to say, Hel."

The redhead inclined her head, catching her partner's eyes and verifying that she had her attention.

"I need to apologize for what happened. For, in any way, allowing you to believe that..."

Although Barbara had had ample time to consider her words, her meaning, she still felt warmth color her face when she forced the remainder past her lips.

"... that I couldn't trust you."

Save for a sudden twitch of her upper lip, the brunette was still, seemingly considering the apology. Finally, even white teeth caught a lush lower lip, and Helena looked down to their joined hands.

"I know I get kind of out of control..."

The lithe woman trailed off, her face as red as Barbara had ever seen it, leaving the older woman struggling for words of her own.

During the course of the day on Thursday, the relentlessly practical woman had -- seven plus years into her association with the very physical and emotional younger woman -- experienced a jaw-dropping insight: for the last five years, at a very specific time each month, Helena had disappeared... made herself scarce... hidden.

Usually, the brunette claimed that she had extra shifts, and Barbara had thought little about it, other than acknowledging that not having a PMS-ing Huntress on the streets or in the clock tower was undoubtedly a good thing. Heaven knew, there had always been more fights when the brunette was in high school, and the younger woman certainly displayed more... gusto in subduing criminals on the streets.

The day before, Barbara had suddenly understood that her partner hadn't been protecting the criminal ilk of New Gotham from her hormones: she'd been ashamed to show Barbara a side of herself which was all about physiology and genetics, not control.

The redhead heard herself speak before she knew she'd found the words.

"No, Hel. You didn't. You weren't. It w--"

Apparently hell-bent on eviscerating herself, Helena cut off the protest.

"I'd never hurt you, Barbara."

Although she'd -- needlessly -- been reminded of that very thing the evening before, the older woman felt her control threaten to shatter at the words. She held herself together, grasping at the flash of clarity she'd had when talking with her dad, an insight which had permitted her to put another piece of the puzzle in place.

"I know that, Helena."

Barbara put as much emphasis as she could on the word without actually shouting. Then, uncertain somehow but needing to touch the other woman, she raised her free hand, somewhat helplessly. Her hand was gently captured in by her partner's, a strong thumb stroking her knuckles.

"It wasn't you, Sweetie."

Thank goodness. The younger woman's frankly disbelieving expression was so comically over the top that Barbara finally felt her breathing ease.

"Really, Hel. It was several things which... converged at the wrong moment."

She nodded gravely, seeing a willingness to listen... to hear.

"There was something you said which made me think of... him."

Despite herself, the older woman shivered. Seeing her companion start to question, she shook her head once.

"It doesn't really matter, Helena. It was just the situation."

She waited for the grudging nod before adding softly, "Then with my hands immobilized, it took me back to the hospital."

The brief, factual, statement scarcely did justice to grim memories of being absolutely immobilized as doctors hoped against hope that some of the damage might knit. For weeks, the fiercely independent woman had been locked into place with faint hopes teasing her and bitter nightmares taunting her.

Purposefully, Barbara didn't think about the other factor which had compounded the immediacy of the flashback: the hellish vision of her lover's eyes and how -- for a terrifying instant -- they had recalled the madman's eyes which had danced through her morphine-induced haze as she'd been restrained in the hospital.

"Oh, fuck -- "

In a heartbeat, the brunette was on her knees, leaning in to bring their foreheads together.

"I didn't... I'm so so--"

The older woman, quite effectively, silenced the apology with a gentle kiss. When she withdrew enough to focus on the bright blue eyes to close to her own, she smiled tenderly at the concern in the expressive features only inches away.

"Don't apologize. It was an odd combination of things which..."

Looking up and to the left, she searched for the right words.

"... obscured where I wanted to be."

For a moment, Helena searched her eyes, and Barbara forced herself not to shy away from the close scrutiny. Finally, the brunette allowed a wicked grin to paint her features and leaned close, her words purring against the older woman's neck.

"Wanna do something to clear that up, Red?"

As much as she appreciated her lover's ready forgiveness, as desperately as she craved the lessened tension which Helena's humor brought, as delicious as the warm breath against her skin felt, something still forced the redhead to stiffen.

"Hel -- not, not now."

The brunette withdrew slowly, brows furrowing darkly, but her voice remained soft.

"What did I do? Why don't you want--"

Choking on her own emotions, unwilling to hear how her lover might finish the question, Barbara interrupted roughly.

"I don't not want you."

She suspected that neither of them missed the circuitous nature of the words.

"Is it him? I thought you believed me -- that I didn't kill him."

The words, the reference -- still, nobody wanted to speak his name -- seemed to pervade the room. Turning to take in the jumbled action transpiring in silence on the television, Barbara lowered her lashes against seeing.

"I did... I do."

Of course, she'd known that the reassurance alone wouldn't be enough.

"Then what? There's more; I know it."

She heard her partner draw a deep breath before a plea caressed her.

"Please, Barbara, don't shut me out."

Not entirely certain that she was confident in her own understanding of her feelings, the redhead met her partner's piercing gaze.

"I-- it's complicated, Hel."

To her credit, the younger woman mustered a winning smile.

"Help me understand it, then."

With no avenue open to her but the truth, the redhead straightened her spine fractionally, then blew a long slow breath through her pursed lips.

"I'm... I know it may seem silly, Hel," she began, fretting even as she apologized in advance.

This time, the answering smile was more puzzled than charming, however it gave Barbara the courage to continue.

"I'm upset about Tuesday," she admitted.

Obviously, she'd need to take time to see if somehow, unbeknownst to her, a stick had been wedged into her lower alimentary tract. It was simply the only way to explain the utter stiffness of her words.


The brunette's left brow raised a bit, the wheels visibly turning in her mind.

"What about it?"

Suddenly realizing how very, very angry she was, the older woman took pains to speak very, very calmly.

"The near-miss at the convenience store, Helena. It was reckless and irresponsible."

In that instant, when the clipped words burned past her lips, Barbara realized that her partner truly had done a great deal of growing in the last years. Rather than responding with the anger and shouting she might have displayed not too long ago, Helena sat quietly for a few seconds. Finally, her eyes narrowed as her jaw dropped in an almost comical mixture of frustration and disbelief.

"Excuse me? When did my meta powers start including clairvoyance? How the fuck was I supposed to know he'd have a buddy with a gun?"

Completely nonplused by the utter logic of response, the redhead fired back with both barrels.

"You have to be aware of these sorts of things, Helena! How in the hell else can you expect to go out and do what you do every night and not wind up dead?"

The dark vigilante bristled, opening and shutting her mouth once... twice... before exhaling noisily.

"Yeah," she admitted, her tone just the tiniest bit sulky, "it was a dumb mistake, but that's why Dinah backed me up. And--"

Barbara was having none of it.

"And, what if she hadn't been there, Helena? What then?"

Oddly, the angry interruption seemed to relax the younger woman, and she moved close as she spoke.

"If the Kid hadn't been there, Red, you would have been hacked into the video camera to get my back, right?"

At this point, the brunette had brought them eye to eye, their noses almost touching.

"It was okay 'cuz Dinah caught it, and I jumped fast enough."

Against her instincts, the redhead surrendered, embracing her partner even as two words arced through her mind.

This time.

But, at that moment, there was no more time -- or inclination -- for recriminations. Helena shifted onto her lap, rubbing her cheek softly -- so softly -- against the older woman's face. Barbara inhaled slowly, giving in to the reassurance of the touch, the reality of warm breath in her hair, the flare of heat which followed the gentle lips tracing her ear.

Feeling a shiver course through the smaller figure, she pulled away, searching blue eyes which were slitting to gold.

"How can you be so---"

In a dizzying blink, Helena's eyes reverted to blue, fixing her with a gaze so open and honest that Barbara felt her heart clench.

"I've been waiting... practicing all my life to be ready for you."

How could she possibly be worthy of that sort of emotion?


The exclamation was hoarse, and the redhead blinked.

"You need to stop that, Hel," she managed with a quirk of her brow. "You make me go all weak in the elbows."

With that, she reached up, threading her fingers through shaggy hair and pulling her lover in for a long, gentle kiss which was all about love. When she eventually became aware of the low rumbling emanating from her partner's chest, the redhead slowly disentangled herself and coaxed the younger woman to stretch out on the couch, her dark head cushioned in her lap.

"I spoke with Dinah yesterday... about -- well --"

Barbara laughed without humor.

"I'd thought it was about how tense she's been."

The inexorable rise of the remote, clearly aimed at the big screen with a slender index finger poised above the Mute button, halted, and the dark head in her lap turned, allowing one blue eye to peer upward.

"So what was it really about?"

Having worked her way around entirely too many issues for one night, the redhead didn't mince words.

"She thinks -- was under the impression that she's responsible for his death."

The remote returned to the couch cushion next to the younger woman's hip.

"Why? I was the..."

Those expressive blue eyes shuttered when Helena finished quietly.

"I was in there with him."

Barbara quite deliberately pushed aside the sourness in the back of her throat for the moment and focused on what she'd gleaned from the teen the day before.

"It seems that when she saw him trying to hinder your escape, she attempted to trip him or push him back with her TK."


As factual and calm has the older woman's recounting had been, her companion's response was equally soft and serious. After a half-dozen heart beats -- and Barbara counted every painfully expectant thump in her chest -- the brunette rose on one arm and looked over her shoulder to meet the redhead's eyes.

"Is that why she went postal on that poor slob at the convenience store?"

The redhead nodded slowly, murmuring her answer.


Without further comment, Helena resettled herself and raised the volume for the ending of the movie. Barbara heard snatches of dialog and occasionally glanced at the screen; however, she found herself focusing on the young woman in her lap: running her hand lightly over a sinewy shoulder, feathering her fingertips across the golden skin of her face, finally resting a palm on her chest to absorb the strong, steady beat of her heart.

A sweet brushing of soft lips against the inside of her wrist drew Barbara's attention from her inspection of the healed burns on her lover's jaw.



The word was wrapped in a yawn, bringing a fond smile to the older woman's lips.

"... didn't get much sleep last night."

Bending at the waist, Barbara brushed a lingering kiss to shaggy bangs.

"Then sleep, Sweetheart. I'll tell you how the movie ends."

The brunette wriggled minusculely closer, a chuckle escaping her as dark lashes blinked heavily.

"Huh. Can't believe D was trying to take care of me."

Barbara waited until her partner succumbed to sleep, her breathing evening out and her hand kneading gently against the cushion, before she whispered her reply to the dark room.

"It's what we do, Hel."

Chapter 10

Lights go out and I can't be saved
Tides that I tried to swim against
You've put me down upon my knees
Oh I beg, I beg and plead

Come out of things unsaid,
Shoot an apple off my head and a
Trouble that can't be named,
Tigers waiting to be tamed

You are
You are

Confusion never stops,
Closing walls and ticking clocks gonna
Come back and take you home,
I could not stop, that you now know


An unobtrusive cough, perfectly pitched to penetrate the state-of-the-art sound-masking headphones, caught Barbara's attention. Immediately, she paused the CD spinning in one of the Delphi's trays and pushed the headphones down to wrap around her neck.

An instant after that, she regretted the loss of the headphones and Coldplay's music, which had managed to cover the majority of the din pervading the clock tower.

Mustering a rather forced smile, she swept her hair over the thin band of the headset with a practiced motion and turned to regard her companion.

"Pardon me for interrupting, Miss Barbara," Alfred began.

The redhead laughed, slightly surprised to note that the sound was genuine.

"Never an interruption, Alfred. I was trying to drown out... this."

She waved a hand vaguely toward the interior of the tower, and one greying brow rose eloquently.

"I see."

The butler turned to survey the disarray. Barbara was aware that the gesture was completely otiose since the mayhem surrounded them, however she appreciated his ability to maintain a neutral facade in the face of the mess.

"It does seem inconvenient that Miss Helena left in the midst of all of this."

The redhead tended to agree, however she heard herself instinctively speaking in her partner's defense.

"I'm sure that if she'd known, she'd -- "

Her words caught up with her, and, quirking her lips, she finished truthfully.

"... have run even faster."

The two shared a smile until a crash from the hallway caused the cyber-genius to start. Even the unflappable Alfred deigned to widen his eyes at the noise.

When the dust -- literal dust, the redhead noted irritably as she calculated the impact on the Delphi's optical drives -- settled, the older gentleman leaned in, placing a warm hand on her shoulder.

"If you'll permit me the observation, she would be here if you asked her..."

The redhead again plastered on a smile.

"I know that she would, Alfred."

Hesitantly, the reserved woman raised her hand, touching the equally reserved butler's hand in a brief connection.

"But," she continued as he removed himself a respectful step, "this is something I can handle on my own."

"I'm sure that you can, Miss Barbara."

As formal as the reassurance seemed, the redhead detected only sincerity in her long time advisor's words, and her smile became more genuine.

"Well, if there's nothing else," he began.

Barbara thought she felt a flicker of panic when she heard the prompt. She was certain that her smile faltered.

"Yes, that's fine. You are overdue to begin your holiday, aren't you?"

She mentally castigated herself, aware that her cheer sounded just a bit forced and equally aware that her companion would notice.

The impeccably dressed butler took a moment, straightening the blindingly white cuffs which extended exactly three quarters of an inch below his jacket sleeves.

"I would be happy to delay my absence for a bit."

As grateful as she was for the offer, the relentlessly practical woman knew her insecurities were unwarranted.

Not to mention, utterly ridiculous for a thirty-two year old.

"Thank you for offering, Alfred, but I'm a big girl. I can take care of myself."

His expression, as carefully neutral as ever, spoke volumes.

"Be that as it may, I've taken the liberty of restocking the pantry."

She opened her mouth to ask, but the older man beat her to the punch handily.

"I froze several casseroles and bought two dozen Lean Cuisines."

Her own laughter eased the tight band of tension which had been constricting the redhead's chest.

"What would I do without you, Alfred?"

The brightly polished leather of the butler's shoes flashed when he turned crisply to depart, and Barbara detected the ghost of a smile.

"I'm sure I don't know, Miss Barbara."

Raising a hand in farewell, Barbara realized that she was about to find out. Nevertheless, years of practice kicked in, and she calmly reseated her headphones and turned back to her work, quickly loosing herself in her planning for the summer session which was beginning in the morning.

While she'd completed her lesson plans weeks before, the redhead always experienced a few butterflies at the beginning of a term. With Alfred officially on holiday and the clock tower empty of both wards and former wards, it was the perfect opportunity to turn up the volume on the CD, tune out the noise from the other room, and insure that she had her ducks in a row for the morning.

The strategy was successful, and Barbara lost herself in her work, emerging from her abstraction only twice: to usher the workmen from the tower at the end of the day and to microwave a low calorie spaghetti dinner when she noticed that the sun had set. With her nutritional requirements met, the cyber-genius returned to fine-tuning her syllabus and plotting how to engage her students from the outset of the class.

With the hectic pace of summer school -- not to mention the additional constraints on this particular class -- she didn't have a minute to waste.

With the pervasive whirring and clicking of the big clocks gears as the only sound to fill the silence, Barbara finally -- reluctantly -- pushed back from the workstation and glanced up.


While it was a bit earlier than she'd normally turn it, she had done all she could with her lesson plans. With no sweeps to monitor, the redhead knew that she could pace through the empty living quarters or pretend to watch some sort of inane late night television or attempt to engage herself in unraveling the cyber trail for the bubble goo gun web site; however, none of those options held any appeal.

Sleep it was, then.

After needlessly rechecking the tower's security and performing a perfunctory toilette, Barbara headed resolutely to the big bed. She clapped on the bedside lamp, toggled the overhead light off, and then, without thinking, moved to one side to transfer herself from the chair.

Her side of the bed.

The thought blazed through her brain in three foot neon letters, and her hand froze in the process of flipping back the covers from "her" side.

For a moment, she remained still, locked in position, until she released the covers with a soft snort of bemusement. Green eyes sought the colorful print over the head of the bed, and the fiercely independent woman realized that she had, indeed, undergone some significant changes in just over three months.

Where once she had efficiently slept on alternate sides of the bed each month in order to reduce mattress sags, she now had a "side". She'd gone from having her wardrobe neatly arranged in her closet by season, then function, then color, to having it all crammed wherever it would fit in half -- less than half -- of the closet.

Or, more accurately, she amended as she took in the disarray in the room, her clothes seemed to be scattered across every available surface.

In the change of a season, she'd gone from sleeping under covers neatly arranged when she turned in and which had barely shifted when she rose to resting within a tangle of limbs, sheets and blankets flung to the floor. She'd gone from rising briskly after the minimum sleep she'd learned she needed to a world of languorous awakenings after a great deal more time in bed -- not always sleeping -- than she'd ever indulged in.

And, it was wonderful.

Fighting an uncharacteristic, and entirely maudlin desire to sniffle, the redhead firmly pushed those thoughts aside and regarded the far side of the bed.

Helena's side.

Unaware that she did so, Barbara nodded once then circled the bed. Without allowing herself further thought, she arranged herself under the covers, unable to miss her partner's sweet scent rising from the pillow beneath her head.

As she'd expected, she didn't sleep well. However, in the assumption that the rest itself would be beneficial, she forced herself to stay in bed, her right arm resting on her forehead, unmoving for exactly six hours.

By midweek, the redhead had abandoned her attempts to turn in early, since lying alone in the big bed seemed to offer no readily identifiable benefits. Indeed, it merely provided an opportunity for unstructured thoughts.

No more of that. Reading, monitoring the scanners, cyber-tracking, even the vapid offerings of late night satellite were definitely preferable.

Neatly spearing a bite of egg and a blue cheese crumble from her Cobb salad, Barbara hunted for the perfect bit of crisp lettuce to accompany them as she tried to suppress a yawn.

"How is the empty nest treating you?"

The redhead smiled at her luncheon companion over the rim of her iced tea glass and instinctively started to offer a polite evasion. The reserved woman stayed the impulse, seeing nothing but sincere interest in warm brown eyes, and gave the question its due.

"Surprisingly empty, Jess," she finally heard herself answer, with an honesty which might have been downright alarming had she been speaking to almost anyone else from work.

New Gotham High's guidance counselor nodded her understanding and chased some tuna salad across her plate with a breadstick.

"You're welcome to borrow one of mine if it's getting too quiet at home, Barbara."

The redhead snorted wryly.

"Nice try, but no more teenagers for me."

The other woman's response was instant. And, the English teacher observed dryly, suspiciously enthusiastic.

"Who said anything about teens? I have them in all sizes and ages."

This time, Barbara allowed a full laugh past her lips.

"Honestly, I don't see how you do it, Jess, with five at home and the weight of six hundred adolescents' angst at work."

The other woman's brown eyes sparkled under her page boy while she thoughtfully tapped the breadstick against the edge of her plate.

"I think the two serve as a system of checks and balances."

The redhead raised her brows encouragingly.

"When it gets too awful at work, I can just remind myself that it's bound to be worse when I get home and vice versa."

Jessica managed to hold her serious look for a beat before her eyes crinkled, and both women laughed, only controlling their mirth when the waitress appeared to display a tempting array of desserts.

With her hectic life, the school guidance counselor could easily indulge in the wedge of rich carrot cake she ordered. Barbara, however, contented herself with an espresso: she'd skipped solitary time in the training room so far this week, and while she had had a salad for lunch, it had hardly been a low-cal affair.

"Seriously, Barbara..."

The hint of a smile around the honey-blonde's generous mouth suggested that she was anything but.

"I thought you'd sort of gotten accustomed to teenagers around your place."

Tilting her tiny cup slightly in acknowledgement, the redhead wryly allowed, "Resigned, perhaps, Jess."

They shared another smile, and Barbara resettled her cup in its saucer, debating.

"Actually, the slot is pretty well taken already."

The other woman dabbed at some cream cheese frosting on her chin.

"Oh? I thought Dinah was going into the dorms in the fall."

Rotating her cup in its tiny saucer, the redhead didn't quite make eye contact.

"She is. It's, er, Helena's moved back in."

She deliberately tried not to think about just when the vibrant younger woman would actually return... when Helena would actually be living at the tower again.

Looking cautiously through her lashes, Barbara thought that the brown eyes across the table widened the tiniest bit, and she steadied herself. Nevertheless, she wasn't quite prepared for the other woman's delighted laughter.

"Well, I can see how that would fulfill the perpetual teenager slot, Barbara."

A wave of tension which she hadn't realized she'd been carrying rushed from the redhead, and she found herself blinking rapidly when Jessica leaned over and lightly rested one hand on hers.

"Seriously, I'm glad to hear it, Barbara. You do seem... happy for a change."

The redhead instantly decided not to dwell on the subtext in the message and simply nodded as the blonde continued.

"Even with all of the mess with The Joker..."

She gestured vaguely with her fork.

"... you're more... open."

Barbara attempted to hide her blush behind her tiny cup, nearly choking on the hot beverage when her fellow faculty member continued.

"How have the other teachers been taking things?"

Deliberately, the redhead reseated her cup then arched a brow.

"Other than a certain History Teacher, I presume you mean?"

They shared a knowing smile.

"You've got that right. You wouldn't believe some of the things Alethea managed to intimate when I got pregnant with Jimmy."

Barbara rolled her eyes.

"I can well imagine."

Metering her tone, she finally responded to her luncheon companion's question.

"All in all, Jessica, I'd say that most are either unconcerned or supportive."

Green eyes held brown for an extra moment, attempting to convey her appreciation for this particular co-worker's support. Then, she called upon one of her many skills and deflected the conversation to less charged topics.

"However, in terms of the solitude, it's actually a real boon in terms of focusing on inspiring a class full of pre-seniors about -- "

Squaring her shoulders, Barbara added a stentorian ring to her voice as she ticked off the names.

"Norris, Faulkner, Steinbeck, and Hemingway."

The other woman's eyes twinkled.

"That has to be a challenge."

Nodding ruefully, the redhead nevertheless confessed, "Actually, the students who signed up are remarkably motivated."

It was understood, if unspoken, that this class was a wonderful change of pace from the typical resentful students who populated the usual make-up classes of summer session.

Jessica nodded and scraped the remaining crumbs onto her fork while the English teacher snagged the check from their server.

"I really didn't know if you'd be able to sell the class to the administration, Barbara."

Granted, a four-week intensive immersion study of the four authors' works was a bit unusual, however it was something the redhead had really wanted to try.

"I can be very persuasive, Jessica."

Since she'd been hunting for another ten dollar bill, the redhead's reply had been a bit distracted. However, she instantly forgot her search and snapped to attention when Jessica pushed back from the table and issued a challenge with a wide grin.

"Alright then, Barbara. It's time to persuade yourself to pamper yourself and dip your feet into bachelorhood."

Chapter 11

Wanly surveying her feet in the water beneath her, Barbara decided that tanning salons were not necessarily all evil. In fact, for those with skin as pale as hers, perhaps visits to said salons should be subsidized by the non-melatonin-challenged who didn't wish to be blinded by fish belly white skin.

The thought put a smile on the redhead's face, the first since she'd entered the pool an hour before to put her muscles to work after another intensive day of literary naturalism. As pleasant as the slight burn of underused muscles was, as liberating as movement in the pool might be, and as refreshing as the water was in the June humidity, the redhead had reached the conclusion that she simply wasn't having fun.

Tipping back to float, she automatically dragged her hands down her unfeeling thighs, checking the position of her legs in the water. Satisfied that she wasn't akimbo, Barbara closed her eyes and drifted, attempting to ignore the insistent voice in her head which had decided to let her know exactly why she wasn't able to enjoy her swim.

Naturally, her attempt -- just like her attempt to distract herself with thirty laps of the Olympic pool -- failed, and, with a resigned sigh, she opened her eyes and faced the facts.

It was Helena, of course.

Or, more specifically, the lack of Helena.

Swimming simply didn't have quite the same appeal without the younger woman frisking beside her or showing off from the high dive.

"You're just a dirty middle-aged letch, Gordon," she murmured, turning to her side and stroking to the edge of the pool.

The redhead effortlessly hoisted herself from the water, rotating her body as she lifted so that she came to a stop sitting with her feet still in the water. After tilting her head back and roughly pushing tendrils of wet hair from her face and neck, she stretched to her chair and snagged the thick towel she'd left on the seat.

Still following her last train of thought, Barbara indulged herself in one her long-standing internal debates: which of Helena's swimsuits she liked best.

On this day, the tankini won.

Of course, as fetching as the brunette was -- regardless of which item of swimwear she modeled -- Barbara knew that there was far more to her feelings than that.

Just as swimming wasn't as much fun without her partner, neither was eating or working out or watching television or sleeping or...


The analytical woman placed her towel in the seat of her chair, then easily settled herself on it. On her way to the locker room, she acknowledged the irony inherent in how much she missed the other woman: as fiercely independent as she was, as much as she'd originally chafed at having a roommate imposed on her after the shooting, as volatile and annoying as Helena could be, it simply didn't matter.

She missed her.

During the course of a shower which was decidedly chillier than she cared for and, resultantly, much briefer than necessary to remove all traces of chlorine, Barbara worked to push her melancholy away.

For heaven's sake, Helena had only been gone for six days.

Of course, her infallible memory deflated that tact, neatly reminding her that she had never gone longer than three days without seeing the younger woman.

Damning herself -- this time as a tritely lovelorn fool instead of the earlier letch label -- she tugged her vintage Devo tee shirt over her head and approached the mirror, hairbrush in hand. With a bit more vigor than was required, she attacked the soggy mess, the process so familiar that she scarcely needed to follow the movements of the brush in the mirror.

Indeed, twenty-six brush strokes later, the redhead realized that she was fixated on the reflection of her face in the mirror. Lowering her brush, she saw her reflected companion's crimson eyebrows lift in puzzlement and smirked a greeting to herself. In response, she saw a stranger smile back: a woman nearing middle age, subtly muscular, with sharp green eyes and...

The redhead's inspection abruptly narrowed in to the vertical lines between her brows.

Good god, she really needed to stop squinting. Not to mention all of the nose pinching.

Unlocking the brake on her chair and putting a bit of distance between the mirror and herself, Barbara heard an echo from her lunch conversation of the day before.

Perhaps Jessica had been right, and a little pampering was in order. What, exactly, was involved in a facial?

With that odd thought, the redhead released her tension and turned to face the woman in the mirror. She blew a noisy raspberry, knowing that she could simply have asked Dinah or Helena about the facial, had either of the young women been in New Gotham. Of course, had they been, she knew that she probably wouldn't be contemplating the uncharacteristic notion.

With a wink at herself, she gathered her gear and headed to the parking lot.

Perhaps a bottle of that vanilla musk moisturizer which she liked so much -- the expensive stuff which Helena used like water -- would fill the bill.

Cheered by the decision, Barbara put the Hummer into gear and set out in search of a little pampering. While she didn't miss the fact that her practical side reminded her to pick up sunscreen and moisturizer for a care package for Dick -- she was overdue -- she refused to let it bother her.

Shopping was shopping, and indulgence -- whether for herself or Dick -- was indulgence.

The following day, raising a spoon of yogurt to her lips as she scanned through the newspaper, the redhead glanced at an insert from one of the stores she'd frequented and wryly admitted that, perhaps, she had over-indulged a bit the evening before.

She simply hadn't been able to pass up a stop at the toy store.

She snorted softly at her uncharacteristic whimsy then guiltily peered over the top of the paper to reassure herself that the teachers' lounge was still only occupied by the ever-somnolent Mr. Smithers and herself. The fact that she was taking her lunch break in the school's hub for faculty interaction was, she supposed, enough of an indication that the solitude at home was wearing on her.

Not to mention the fact that, at the end of this first intensive week of summer school, she was thoroughly sick of the sight of her classroom.

Fastidiously recapping her empty yogurt container, Barbara dug into her insulated lunch bag and emerged with a bright green Granny Smith. As she twisted the stem from the top of the oversized fruit, Helena voice teased her memory with the words she knew the younger woman would use to describe the apple: "Big as your head."

She smiled fondly and turned back to the paper, purposefully bypassing the section listing news from Washington.

Too, too depressing.

Instead she focused on the regional highlights, skimming the noteworthy -- or just plain odd -- stories from around the country. Gradually, the absent buffing of the oversized apple against her shoulder ceased and green eyes opened wide.

A filler story from New York City, small enough that she'd almost skipped it until three words had jumped out at her.

Mysterious. Woman. Climbing.

Exhaling extravagantly, she read the blurb.



Apparently, two nights before, a mysterious individual, who had appeared to be a woman in black leather, had been sighted climbing a certain torch-bearing landmark in the harbor of the city which never slept. The mystery climber had scaled to the top of the statue in record time, then performed a swan dive from Lady Liberty's sandal-clad foot, disappearing into the none-too-pristine water.

While Barbara was perfectly willing to accept that there could be coincidences in life, the fact that her cat-footed climbing partner had been in the city on the very day of the event was too much coincidence. When she added in that she'd detected what had sounded like a case of the sniffles when they'd chatted the night before, well, sometimes two plus two did equal four.

While she was pleased that Helena was finding ways to enjoy her chaperoning duties during the big city visits of Dinah and Gabby's trip, obviously, she'd need to direct her enthusiastic partner back to the rock climbing walls when she returned.

Chuckling, the redhead bit deeply into her neglected apple just as the door to the lounge opened.

"Oh! Barbara. I didn't expect to see you here."

If the words weren't evidence enough, a liver-spotted hand raised dramatically to the white haired woman's heart was certainly telling.

Masticating rapidly, the English teacher managed a rather chipmunk-cheeked smile. Still, recalling her recent conversation with Jessica about the meddling History teacher, not to mention some sage advice from her father, she waved her apple in greeting and swallowed.

"Alethea, I'm glad to see you."

When her welcome was greeted by a suspicious glare over rhinestone encrusted frames, Barbara bit firmly at the inside of her cheek and counted to ten.

Although she was a vituperative old biddy, Alethea had gone out of her way to apologize for inadvertently releasing information about Barbara to The Joker two weeks before. When she'd recovered from the unexpected civility, Barbara, in turn, had quite honestly assured the clearly mortified woman that it had been for the best that she hadn't recognized the madman under his disguise. The outcome from that would have been grim indeed.

Still, brief detente to the side, the relationship with the older woman was, as ever, decidedly frosty. That, the cyber-genius had decided, was something she intended to change.

"Do you happen to be busy tomorrow evening?"

A mere forty-eight hours later, failing to stay focused -- or even remotely interested -- in the progress of her bots, Barbara considered the outcome of her question cum invitation.

Overall, the evening had gone remarkably well: Shakespeare At The Park, a New Gotham summer tradition, had been lovely as always; the weather had, miraculously, cooperated with only a short interlude of drizzle; the seldom-produced 'Titus Andronicus' had been well acted and engaging; and, throughout an evening of play viewing with coffee and sponge cake afterward, she and Alethea had remained civil.

Listlessly toggling through the various project files on the Delphi's P drive, the redhead allowed that Saturday evening had hardly been anything to write to the Nobel Committee -- or even to Jimmy Carter -- about, but it had been a start.

And, speaking of starts...

The cyber-genius felt her eyes widen a fraction when she ran across the files for her encryption-decryption programs. Since her electronic housekeeping twelve days before, she'd honestly not given her recent favorite mental exercise a single thought.

For a full minute, she stared at the folder icons, the stylized bat pointer hovering above one of the code sets. Two quick clicks would open the suite of programs, and she could immerse herself...

Barbara closed the window with a soft sigh.

She simply had no enthusiasm for the puzzle.

Green eyes tracked the progress of the bots which had, essentially, unraveled the trail of the online bubble gum gun sale. Indeed, the cyber vigilante had a good lead on the webmaster's location, and she suspected that part of her restlessness stemmed from a desire to follow up... to investigate.

When the idea flitted through her thoughts again, Barbara shook her head roughly.

Not something that was going to happen.

As tempting as the idea of a foray into the field was -- after all, her 'villain' was undoubtedly a cyber-nerd who she could take out with a withering look -- she sternly held herself in check.

It would simply be irresponsible to go gallivanting into the field. Especially with all of her backup out of town on various holidays and vacations.

Pushing back from the workstation, Barbara amended her list of reasons.

Given the little lecture she'd delivered to Helena just before the younger women had departed, she could hardly ignore her own advice. If something went wrong, she'd simply never hear the end of it.

Recognizing that her heart wasn't at the computer, the cyber-genius left the platform without a backward look. Not too many minutes later, she raised a freshly brewed mug of Earl Grey to her lips. The hot beverage was wonderfully soothing, however, it did little to calm the redhead's discontent.

Refusing to raise a white flag to her own emotions, Barbara closed her eyes and tipped her head back, basking the Sunday afternoon sunshine on the balcony and searching for equilibrium.

The restlessness... the discontented ache... the itchiness which possessed her was something she'd not experienced in quite some time. It had, in fact, been so long that it had taken her most of the previous sleepless night to identify it. Once she'd recognized the insistent need, it had taken the relentlessly practical woman most of the morning to grasp the fact that, yes, she was feeling exactly... that.

Unfortunately, once the problem had been identified and accepted, Barbara sourly realized that she was not appreciably better off. Even before the accident, she'd never had much use for -- or success in -- tending to certain needs of her own. Since the shooting, she'd simply stopped thinking about it.

The redhead's musings about exchanging her tea for tequila were suddenly interrupted by a soft thump from behind her on the balcony. The sound, reminiscent of Helena's quiet arrivals but without the accompanying frission which her partner's presence engendered, predictably nearly scared the wits out of the redhead.

Barbara jerked her eyes open, sloshing hot tea onto her hand and her lap, briefly grateful for the lack of sensation, and she smoothly wrapped her free hand around the batarang hidden in the arm of her chair.


The redhead blinked once at the large tabby who was casually crossing the balcony and then drew a deep, calming breath.

"How on earth did you make it up here?"

She didn't realize that she'd spoken aloud until the cat halted its casual investigation of an Adirondack chair and turned bright yellow eyes to her. When long whiskers twitched, Barbara smiled in return and, one stuttering heartbeat later, found herself with a fifteen pound tomcat on her lap.

Rolling her eyes -- Weren't cats supposed to be aloof? -- she leaned to one side and carefully placed her mug on the flagstone surface of the balcony. Then, she slowly raised her hand, allowing her visitor to take in her scent and nearly giggling when he began delicately lapping at her wrist.

Probably the cream from the spilled tea.

Smiling softly as her burly lap guest finished his cleaning and hopped down to drink directly from the mug, Barbara was surprised to notice she felt no irritation at the cat's actions. Helena, too, sometimes sampled her tea -- even the herbals, which she claimed tasted like hay.

Several years before, after absent-mindedly raising one-too-many empty cups to her mouth with no memory of having consumed the contents, the analytical woman had eventually grasped that her partner only "sampled" her tea when she'd indulged herself with a dollop of cream. Naturally, she hadn't been willing to accept her little hunch on face value; and so, over the next few months, she'd surreptitiously tested her hypothesis through rigorous experiments: different flavors of tea, water temperature and steeping time, sugar versus honey, half-and-half or milk. At the end, the evidence supported her theory, and Barbara had learned to keep a closer eye on her teacup when she'd added cream to the brew.

Frankly, Barbara wasn't sure why she'd added cream this afternoon but, watching the tabby lap delicately, was glad she had. Her visitor was clearly enjoying his refreshment, and his enthusiasm was germinating an idea for his host.

After drinking his fill, the big cat briskly washed his face before calmly disappearing over the side of one of the gargoyles guarding the balcony. Watching the grey tail slink from view, the redhead chuckled softly and mentally threw her hands in the air.

It was time for serious pampering.

Seventy-five minutes later, Barbara emerged from the kitchen balancing an overfilled tray on her lap. Cheeks still flushed from a hot bubble bath, she was clad in her rattiest sweatpants and her favorite heather-grey NGPD Academy tee.

With the clock tower to herself, the unfortunately located hole in the front simply wasn't an issue.

Stopping at the coffee table, the redhead swiftly transferred the items from the tray: without Helena or Dinah in the house, she'd not even needed to make room on the normally cluttered surface.

Mug of crushed ice next to the two liter bottle of diet soda, of course.

'Notorious' and two of her prized 'Xena' DVDs -- Season Two, of course -- on the far corner, hopefully safe from spills.

The pint of Ben & Jerry's Chunky Monkey ice cream next to the unopened bag of Cheetos--

The redhead's nesting activities stilled for a moment, green eyes losing focus and tracking slightly to the left, as she attempted to recall the last time she'd encountered an unopened bag of any type of chips in the tower.

Shrugging cheerfully, she deposited the final item from her stores -- the pristine bottle of vanilla musk moisturizer which she'd purchased three days before -- on the lip of the table, then leaned the empty tray against the wing chair. Since she'd already set the thermostat to a practically glacial sixty degrees on her way to the kitchen, all that was left to do was settle on the couch and wrap herself in the afghan which Aunt Barbara had knitted for her so many years before.

Barbara settled herself against one arm of the big couch, her legs stretched across the length of most of the seat, and tucked the fuzzy lap robe around herself.

Although running the air conditioning full blast during the dog days of June was ridiculous, the redhead refused to deny herself the indulgence.

Finally comfortable, she snagged the remote and began flipping channels, even as she reached for the bottle of lotion with her other hand. Her own videos were most certainly on the play list for the evening -- Heaven knew, she didn't get many opportunities to watch them -- but a brief glance at the satellite listings earlier in the week had revealed that a movie with The Rock was airing.

The movie itself -- a poor remake of a 1973 Joe Don Baker movie -- was utterly insipid. However, The Rock had starred in the first "date movie" she'd shared with Helena several months before. In addition, the redhead recalled a particularly engaging scene in this movie with --

Barbara felt a touch of heat in her cheeks which had nothing to do with the residual effects of her hot bath. Nevertheless, she clicked to the correct channel, determined not to be too concerned by her altogether prurient interest in the film.

Smirking, she dropped the remote and twisted open the top of her moisturizer with a mental shrug.

Who knew? Given the mood she'd been it, a pole dance might be just the thing.

Chapter 12

Emerald eyes snapped at the sight of the spiky poles of the turnstile which barred Barbara from her destination. In her experience, offering a handicapped accessible gate which was three terminals away from the arrival platform she was trying to reach did not qualify as meeting ADA standards.

Clearly, some pointed letter-writing was the order of the day. Not to mention, perhaps a few calls to the consumer advocate reporters at the local news stations.

Frustration notwithstanding, the redhead knew when to pick her battles and so turned away from the impediment and headed briskly to the access gate available to her. Fortunately, she had arrived with time to spare, and the fifteen minute detour provided a valuable opportunity to work off her anger while saving her from waiting impatiently at the arrival gate.

And, impatient she was. While she'd managed to keep herself occupied, the two weeks of Helena's absence had not passed as quickly for her as she suspected they had for her partner.

A negligible five minutes after her arrival, the roar of diesel engines announced the arrival of the train, sending Barbara's heart into a brief stutter step. Rolling her eyes at herself even as she did so, she checked her appearance, once again questioning her chosen outfit.

The bright yellow sleeveless sundress with red and orange flowers was much showier than the reserved woman usually preferred. Falling to mid-thigh, the garment buttoned all the way down the front, making it a snap to slide into. However, functionality had been the last thing on Barbara's mind when she'd spied the dress the week before: It had called to her... seeming so fittingly celebratory for her partner's arrival.

Not to mention, it would fill out her wardrobe nicely for their Caribbean jaunt in a few weeks.

With the number of passengers disembarking -- including a significant number of teens who were, possibly, utilizing Explorer passes to tour the country like Dinah and Gabby -- the redhead suspected that she'd have difficulty picking out the one passenger she was interested in. When an almost electric tingle ran through her, raising the fine hair on her forearms, she realized how wrong she'd been.

Stepping lightly from the train, the brunette moved to one side to permit her fellow travelers to exit and scanned the crowd. Before waving -- or emitting a piercing whistle -- Barbara gave herself a moment to take in the sight of the younger woman.

Faded, tight jeans. Ass-kicking boots which added a few inches to her diminutive frame. Sleeveless Henley and, it appeared, no bra...

Catching herself licking her lips, the redhead narrowed her eyes, bemused with herself, and started to raise an arm to wave. The movement was unnecessary, for the younger woman's face suddenly lit up, and she bounded gracefully over the low fence separating those meeting passengers from the platform.

And then, Helena was before her, her presence so overpowering that Barbara could only beam up at her, her smile growing so large that a sprained zygomaticus seemed like a definite risk.

The redhead didn't care.

Utterly, deliriously, happy to see her partner again, the older woman felt her eyes blink, attempting to stay focused, as the lovely brunette leaned towards her. When Helena hesitated, her blue eyes flitting to the crowd surrounding them, Barbara realized that she didn't have to think about it: she stretched one hand to the younger woman's neck and pulled her down.

The normally reserved woman kept the kiss brief, or, she realized with some consternation thirty heart-stopping seconds later, she had intended to. However, when those perfect cupid's bow lips had brushed hers, when the flickering rasp of a questioning tongue had teased her mouth, when sweet warm breath had flowed from lips parted in invitation, there had been no option but to respond.

With obvious mutual reluctance, the two separated, and the younger woman straightened enough to rest her hands on the arms of the chair. Pinned under the avid inspection of bright blue eyes, Barbara hoped that she wouldn't blush, then realized that she'd lost the battle when she heard her partner's first words.

"God, you're so fuckin' hot."

When the older woman observed exactly where Helena's gazed seemed to linger, she caught her lower lip in her teeth to cover her smirk.

Apparently, the impulse purchase of the dress had been a good one. As had her decision to leave the top two buttons open.

Purposely, she waited until blue eyes met hers before responding.

"Indeed? I was thinking something like that about you."

That earned her a wicked smile, and the brunette leaned close again, her purring words raising a riot of gooseflesh across Barbara's body.

"God, I want to taste you... be in you."

Dear heavens.

Nearly moaning, the redhead swallowed with some difficulty before lightly running her index finger down the sweep of her lover's nose.


She punctuated the word with a gentle tap and steeled herself against Helena's pout. After all, she knew that the younger woman was all too frequently all urgency and rushing hormones.

"Let's collect your luggage."

While the brunette smiled and gestured a playful "after you" toward the luggage carousel, it became apparent -- not too many minutes later -- that there might have been a small communication difference. Specifically, after she pulled her folded chair into the Hummer behind the driver's seat, Barbara turned to confirm that Helena was buckled in, only to find herself caught in a ravenous kiss.

'Tonsil-swabbing' was the term she believed her students used.

As soon as she could come up for air, the redhead gasped, "Good heavens, Hel."

"You couldn't of brought the van, huh?" was the response mumbled against her neck.

The combination of the words themselves and the delicious sensations accompanying them caused laughter to tinkle past the older woman's lips. The dark head by her shoulder slowly raised, and blue eyes twinkled.

"Soon, Sweetie."

She punctuated the statement by placing the palm of her hand against a wiry shoulder and applying pressure in the direction of the passenger seat.

"It's only twenty minutes to the tower."

The brunette pouted extravagantly but obediently settled in her seat and reached for the shoulder belt.

"Easy for you to say, Red. You haven't been surrounded by two hormonal teenagers going at it like rabbits for the last two weeks."

In the process of retrieving the keys she'd dropped during the earlier, very pleasant, ambush, the older woman immediately abandoned her task and clapped her hands to her ears.

"More information than I need, Hel."

She lowered her hands and arched one brow.

"And, you can't be 'surrounded' by two people."

The brunette grinned unrepentantly.

"You can if it's two people and their million hormones."

With images of a Million Hormone March dancing before her, Barbara laughed, low and throaty.

It was so easy to laugh with Helena.

Having retrieved the keys, she looked over again and caught her breath in amazement. The younger woman's eyes, still blue, were fixed on her with burning intent. The expression was so inherently sensual that Barbara wondered how she was refraining from taking the younger woman right there.

Rather than risking a headline in the daily paper, she carefully cleared her throat and risked a flirtation.

"See something you like?"

She was unprepared for the seriousness of her partner's voice and the passion in her eyes.

"I see someone I love."

For twenty-three seconds, Barbara forgot to breathe. Then, shakily, she inserted the key in the ignition and turned the engine.

"Let's go home."

During the short drive to the clock tower, the two shared a silence which was less awkward than simply... charged. The ride up in the elevator was equally silent, with Barbara holding her companion's overnight bag in her lap and Helena easily carrying a duffle which appeared to be crammed to the gills.

"Home sweet home."

The pronouncement, accompanying the loud thump of a duffle meeting hardwood flooring, was without irony or sarcasm.

Touched, Barbara heard herself blurt a reply.

"I have something to show you."

Apparently, her impulse control had abandoned her somewhere outside the train station.

The younger woman was by her side in two soundless steps. Her blue eyes glinted, and the redhead shivered when slender fingers whispered over her exposed decolletage.


Her partner licked her lips, blue eyes shifting between the redhead's eyes and her chest.

Obviously at least one of the new items from Victoria's Secret was doing its job.

Aquiline nostrils flared hungrily, the expression on the sensual young woman's face decidedly wolfish.

Recalling a revision she'd made to that term a few weeks before, the redhead corrected herself and mentally substituted a different word: 'leonine'.

Or, Barbara swallowed with some difficulty, just plain predatory.

"So, what do you want to show me?"

Although she had a good idea what her partner was hoping to see, the question mercifully kick-started the older woman's brain, and she carefully pulled back a few inches.

"In the bedroom..."

Even looking over her shoulder as she was, Barbara couldn't miss the spark in her lover's eyes. She contented herself with a soft sigh, waiting for Helena to retrieve her duffle, and led the way into the master suite. Once there, she stopped and waited.

It took approximately a quarter of a second.

"You redid the closet!"

Helena crossed the room in a flash -- had that level of enthusiasm been present at the train station? -- and flung open the new bi-fold doors, exposing the new, deeper closet.

"This is amazing, Barbara! How did you get it done so fast?"

The frank glee in the brunette's words made losing eighteen inches of floor space and putting up with a week of dust and debris completely incidental.

"There's more, Hel."

Barbara exchanged a conspiratorial grin with the younger woman, watching as she shut the closet doors and narrowed her eyes, searching the room. The redhead opened her mouth to provide a hint just as Helena's face lit up, and she jumped onto the bed with an enthusiastic whoop.

"I can't believe you bought this, Barbara."

"That wasn-- "

The redhead stilled her protest as she watched her lover wrap the giant stuffed panther in a hug. When she'd passed the toy store the week before and recalled something Helena had divulged during sweeps about its stuffed animals, she'd been unable to resist the dark cat in the window.

It had proven to be a decent sleeping companion.

Apparently, Helena's acute senses didn't miss that fact either. With a delicate sniff of velveteen fur, the brunette released the stuffie and stood up.

"Missed me?"

Barbara's response was instant. And heartfelt.


The two shared another long look before a playful smile eased across caramel features.

"I'm here now."

Laughing again, the older woman refused to be distracted.

"Indeed you are, but there's one more thing to see."

Dark brows raised in question.

"In the bathroom."

Given the enthusiasm which her partner had demonstrated for the closet update, Barbara expected something akin to cartwheels for the new, oversized jetted tub she'd had installed. She was distinctly surprised when the brunette only nodded approvingly.

"Verrry nice."

She took solace in the fact that there had been that lovely, purring emphasis on the first word. Her partner's next offhand observation temporarily deflated her sense of satisfaction.

"But you should taken a slice out of the Kid's room and done it in real style."

Not entirely certain whether she was miffed or not, the redhead kept it short.

"Oh, and how would that have been?"

The brunette unconcernedly inspected the whirlpool jets and fingered the control switches.

"Bigger. King sized bed bigger tub. Deeper, too."

Barbara felt her pique evaporating even as her brows rose.

"A swimming pool, Hel?"

Jerking around in an almost comical double-take, the smaller woman barked out a laugh.

"Yeah, I guess so."

A trifle sheepishly, she added, "After this, it goes straight to lap pool, huh?"

The redhead contented herself with a smirk, an expression which changed to more of a puzzled quirk when Helena briskly closed the tub's drain and turned the taps on full.


Blue eyes sparkled.

"You going to help me christen this bad boy?"

Not even attempting to hide her surprise, Barbara blinked once.


She forgot to blink when slender fingers flirted with the hem of the Henley.

"Delayed gratification is your thing, Red."

Bowing to the inevitable -- the very enjoyable inevitable -- the redhead threw practicality to the wind and reached for the buttons on her dress. Starting at the bottom, she froze when the brunette suddenly dashed from the room. Fortunately, she didn't have long to remain flummoxed when Helena returned momentarily, a bottle of champagne in hand.

"I didn't think you meant that literally, Hel."

The tub was big, but not ship-christening big.

In short order, with her back being pummeled by jets of hot water, her lover resting against her chest, and two flutes of champagne of the side of the tub, Barbara decided that the tub had been worth every bit of remodeling inconvenience.

She delicately sampled a drop of water from the tan shoulder resting against her, idly tracing the smooth skin of her partner's right leg where it rested against her.

"How is Dinah doing, Helena?"

The younger woman sipped her champagne before responding, tan fingers tracing the lip of the glass as she spoke.

"D's doing good, Barbara."

Possibly sensing the redhead's desire for a bit more detail, Helena ceased her entirely distracting movements on the glass and resettled on the side of the tub.

"Really. We've talked some, and I think she's letting it go. And -- "

Barbara heard the smirk in her partner's voice.

"-- she's been kinda occupied for the last few weeks."

Raising her hands to hug the smaller woman from behind, the older woman nodded her gratitude and deliberately changed the topic.

"And, how was DC, Helena?"

Between the newspaper article about the Statue of Liberty and various telephone conversations in which the brunette had waxed enthusiastic about the level of crime -- and the resulting number of asses to kick -- in New York, the older woman felt she had a pretty fair picture of the first city Helena had chaperoned the girls through. The younger woman had been considerably less verbal about the visit to the nation's capitol.

When her companion leaned back, relaxing bonelessly into her stomach and chest, Barbara seized the opportunity to tease the circumference of the soft swell of her lover's right breast. A flare of heat coursed through her own chest when she detected the restless shifting the touch engendered.

"It was... okay... I guess. I mean --"

The younger woman's voice changed from halting to aggrieved.

"-- how many freaking museums can you go to? I swear, Dinah wanted to hit every single one, and do you know how big the Smithsonian is?"

Since she did, as a matter of fact, know, the redhead contented herself with a sympathetic murmur as she lowered her fingers to the warm water then returned to spiral softly around a rapidly hardening peak.

"Uh -- Zoo was good though," the young woman admitted breathlessly.

"Indeed?" the redhead coaxed, feeling something coil within as she witnessed her partner's struggle for breath. "Did you get to see the pandas?"

"Yeah, but I... I really liked the p... polar bears. They were massive... Ohh - fu--"

Despite the erotic haze threatening to overtake her, the redhead picked up on something and ceased her movements for a moment.

"You didn't frighten them did you, Hel?"

The dark head resting on her sternum shifted the tiniest bit, and Barbara bit back a smile at the certain tell.

"Maybe just a little."

Laughing at the image of this deceptively small woman terrifying twelve-hundred pound polar bears, the older woman slipped her hand under the water, lightly touching the juncture of the brunette's thighs, teasing her fingers through the thicket of dark curls she could barely see through the jetting water. When her partner whimpered, instantly opening to her and bracing one foot on the side of the tub, the redhead swallowed a moan.

Dear heavens. The things Helena made her want...

Reminding herself of the virtues of patience, she contented herself with fluttering against the other woman's center, closing her eyes to absorb the sensations under her fingers. A beat later, her eyes flew open when the brunette abruptly sat up and twisted to look at her.

"We need to get out now."

The words were almost urgent in their intensity, and Barbara felt herself adopting the befuddled expression which she knew she sported all-too-frequently around her partner.

"Right now?"

Bright gold eyes met green.

"Yeah. I can't hold my breath long enough for what I need."

Suspecting that, in these circumstances, oxygen was overrated, Barbara nodded and kept it brief.

"Go on, Hel. I'll join you shortly."

Chapter 13

When the bathroom door closed with a soft snick, Barbara reclined in the tub, surveying the candles and wine glasses ringing the bath. The two women had scarcely been in the water long enough to finish a glass of champagne, and the candles had barely begun to slump under their own heat.

Sighing soundlessly, she moved the delicate flutes aside, then grasped the edges of the tub to pull herself forward. From that position, she focused on the circle of candle light, releasing a long, steady breath to extinguish all but one.

With the room in near-darkness, she glanced at the thin sound system perched on the glass corner shelf. It contained a CD which she'd burned the day that Helena had departed, and she surrendered to temptation, toggling to unit to random play before sinking back into the warm water.

She'd give Helena -- and herself -- one song.

Doing her utmost to still her racing thoughts, the redhead concentrated on the feel of the water pounding against her back and her arms, the sensation of her impossibly sensitized breasts being swayed by the water, the raspy lyrics of the selection which whispered through the tiny speakers: "China Girl".

When the song finished, she slowly pulled herself forward again, noting a weakness in normally strong biceps which had little to do with the relaxing qualities of the whirlpool. Shaking off her lethargy, she turned off the CD, raised the drain in the tub, and lifted herself to the side.

Barbara took her time drying off, then stretched up to a hook on the back of the bedroom door to pull down a midnight blue silk over shirt.

The tactile contrast between the silk and her skin, between her skin and Helena skin, was an invitation she couldn't refuse.

Finally ready, she blew out the final candle and entered the bedroom. The dim glow of one of the bedside lamps illuminated the bed and the sultry figure on it.

Helena had obviously been waiting.

The younger woman was resting on her side, dark head propped on one hand, her eyes fixed on the door to the bathroom. Barbara approached her slowly, allowing herself to take in the brunette's slender legs, the flat muscles of her abdomen, the rapid rise and fall of her chest. In turn, she felt her partner's eyes upon her like a physical touch, and when she looked up from settling herself on the mattress, her lover's hunger was palpable.

"Wow --"

The brunette's hushed whisper fell between them, almost lost in the younger woman's slow rise to meet her, swallowed in the endless brush of their mouths. For uncounted moments, Barbara surrendered to Helena's sweet attentions, opening in welcome and dancing against the studded tongue which met hers.

My, but Helena knew how to kiss.

Suckling at her companion's lower lip, drinking in her sighs, Barbara moaned a protest when the younger woman pulled away. The sound died in her mouth when soft, kiss-swollen lips trailed across her neck and sharp teeth nipped at the collar of her garment. In the blink of startled green eyes, Helena was above the older woman, arching -- stretching -- sinuously to drag her bare skin in a gossamer caress against the silken fabric separating them.

Enraptured by the display, the redhead heard a whisper -- "Yesss" -- and thought it might have been her own. The realization recalled her to herself, and cooled the heated currents running across her nerves.

Enough. Just enough.

Almost briskly, she pushed up on her elbows, halting her partner's decent and nearly laughing at the puzzlement in the blue eyes which widened in question.

"On your back, Woman."

She kept her tone light, but her expression, she knew, was serious.

And wanting.

A smile filled with promise raised the corners of the younger woman's mouth, and Helena slowly dismounted the redhead to settle on the bed. Barbara felt her own smile blossom, then falter, when she saw her partner stretch her arms above her head, locking the fingers of one hand around the other wrist.

The older woman felt the exact instant when the dynamic force of nature which was Helena Kyle ceded control to her. She knew because, in that moment, she was overcome with a heady sense of power and passion the likes of which she would never have imagined.

At least until not too many weeks before.

"I love you so, Sweetheart."

The words flowed forth without thought as Barbara turned and leaned down to brush her lips over a few drops of water still beaded on the brunette's shoulder. Imbibing a tiny droplet imbued with the ineffable taste of the other woman, she almost missed the whispered reply.

"Show me."

The older woman looked up, and this time, she knew the uncertainty was in her own eyes. The calm acceptance meeting her was answer enough, and Barbara gave in to her desire, her need, to show the other woman everything.

Red lashes fluttered, then opened wide to take in her lover's face when she lowered her lips to the sweet golden skin of her lover's throat. Softly, slowly, she brushed her mouth against the corded muscle at the juncture where shoulder met neck. Gently, she nipped at the soft flesh, then laved the small mark with her tongue. Carefully, she traced her tongue down the pulsing vein which throbbed just beneath the skin. Hearing Helena soft hitching gasp, Barbara tenderly brought her teeth together, holding nothing back.

The younger woman's sudden gasp was encouragement enough. Her keening whine and the buck of her hips under Barbara's hand was incendiary.

Like Daedalus, the redhead soared, carrying her partner with her.

Much later, her ears still ringing from the volume of the younger woman's last cry, Barbara somehow managed to raise her head from the firm flesh which pillowed her cheek. Her lover, still sprawled on her stomach in a boneless mass, grumbled softly, a protest the older woman ignored as she raked her eyes down the inviting display before her.

Still dazed herself by the sheer -- force of her lover's response, she didn't realize that she was speaking aloud until she heard her own awed whisper.

"You love that."

Promptly feeling the beginnings of a blush crawling up her cheeks, the analytical woman mentally rolled her eyes at herself.

Quite honestly, at this stage of the game, embarrassment was simply ridiculous.

Her partner's languorous stretch recaptured her attention, and she scooted up the bed as the younger woman slowly shifted onto her side.

"Shit, Barbara, it's like I told you --"

The redhead smiled at the smaller woman's lackadaisical grousing and outlined firmly delineated abdominals with the tip of her index finger.

"-- anything you do, it's gonna rock my world."

Green eyes blinked, then lost focus and tracked slightly to the left as the older woman's infallible memory helpfully replayed several occasions which her lover could have been referring to.

"Indeed, Hel."

The two shared a smile before the older woman felt compelled to probe a bit deeper.


On her side, one hand supporting her head, she gestured easily along the brunette's relaxed form.

"... you really liked that."

Something fluttered in the redhead's chest when Helena ducked her head. Barbara thought that the smile which she'd glimpsed, on almost anyone less experienced, might have seemed almost... shy.


Gently, she tucked a lock of chestnut hair behind the younger woman's ear and coaxed those stunning blue eyes back to hers.

"Why haven't you said anything?"

The other woman didn't respond for a moment... verbally. When Barbara saw the complete adoration directed at her, she fought a wave of breathless vertigo. The sensation of lush lips brushing hers did little to improve her disorientation.

Mercifully, Helena withdrew with a playful smile.

"I dunno."

The shoulder which the brunette was not lying on moved in a lazy shrug.

"It's not like I'm just gonna go all 'Last Tango In Paris' on you or something."

Barbara felt her eyebrows knit briefly before she placed the reference, then snorted softly, once again aware of how much she loved this woman. A split second later, she flailed and pushed herself upright.

"Dammit! I've totally screwed this up."

Even in her pique, she didn't miss that the sudden exclamation wasn't enough to rouse the younger woman from her lassitude.

"What gives?"

This time, the redhead didn't fault her blush.

"I forgot, Helena. I have food ready, too."

Her embarrassed contrition gave way to a different emotion at the look of alarm which flooded gamine features.

"You, uh, cooked? For me?"

The redhead noted that the last two words -- practically a squeak -- were probably only clearly audible to dogs, and she let go of her vexation, laughing ruefully at her own expense.

"Even I know better than that. I opened takeout containers."

She'd tried to think of everything for a memorable homecoming, and -- as linear and focused as she tended to be -- Barbara couldn't fathom how she'd let first the music, then the food slip through the cracks.

An hour later, the redhead had forgiven herself the oversight as the two began to wrap up an impromptu picnic in the big bed which had been a great deal more relaxed -- not to mention messy -- than her originally planned interlude in the living area would have been. Making a mental note to change the sheets -- the cracker crumbs wouldn't be pleasant for sleeping -- she captured a smudge of pate from the corner of her mouth and fought a smile at the sight of her partner rooting through the picnic basket, undoubtedly in search of something else for the bottomless pit she called a stomach. The older woman reclined into the stack of pillows at her back, raising her hands in a spine-cracking stretch and wondering just when her shirt had been unbuttoned.

"Still hungry, Hel?"

The brunette's hand emerged from the basket with a chocolate-dipped strawberry, and Barbara warmed to the undisguised delight reflected in cobalt eyes.

"Oh, yeah, Red."

The older woman thought there was something more to the words than simple acknowledgement or agreement; however, with her tummy pleasantly full and her senses so recently and vigorously sated, she couldn't summon much interest in pursuing the thought. Or, so she believed until she witnessed even white teeth neatly biting the berry in half and a slender hand bringing the top half of the fruit to her chest.

Intrigued, Barbara felt her brows inch upward as Helena positioned the succulent flesh of the berry against her and began to circle, painting her pale flesh with the sweet juice while she spiraled slowly inward. Breathing through her mouth at this point, the redhead arched upward a few inches, straining for the sticky wetness being promised.

"Wait -- "

The whisper coincided with the fruit's overdue arrival at its destination, and the older woman felt her flesh pebble when the first drops of wetness struck her. Her lashes fluttered, but she forced her eyes open in time to see Helena reach for her champagne glass.

Barbara gasped when the sparkling wine washed across oversensitive flesh, then she moaned as her lover lowered her mouth to drink. Her own flute, which she'd been holding loosely in one hand, barely made it to the bedside table.

"Tickles," she managed over a growing smile.

The dark head which was bent to her breast raised, Helena's smile easily matching her own.

"Tastes good, too."

With that, her lover returned to her task, and the redhead fell into the sensations moving through her, feeling her eyes almost roll back in her head in pleasure.

Sometimes, Helena's insatiable appetite could be a very good thing indeed.

"Please," she heard herself husk, and she brought her hands to chestnut silk, palming the back of the younger woman's head.

Not to hold or to guide; merely to ground herself.

When the younger woman abruptly pulled away and hopped lightly from the bed, Barbara suspected that she, herself, had hit the ground with an almost audible thump. She drew a slow breath, her eyes narrowing in vexation.


The older woman lifted her head from the pillows enough to observe a shapely naked posterior at the foot of the bed. The brunette was bent at the waist, digging through her duffle, and her response was resultantly a bit muffled.

"I brought you something, too."

The dark head bobbed into view, the younger woman grinning.

Cheekily, a certain wicked portion of the redhead's brain insisted on supplying.

"Well, us something."

Resigning herself to her lover's quirks, Barbara smiled.

"Post cards?"

Her collection, dating back to her travels on the international gymnastic circuit, filled four meticulously organized scrapbooks.

The younger woman didn't answer immediately, straightening up and sauntering to the side of the bed, hands behind her back.

"Well, it probably can send a message."

With that, Helena extended her hands.

While the words 'ta da' weren't audible, Barbara was certain she could see them in twinkling blue eyes.

The analytical woman took -- forced herself to take -- a moment to peruse the brunette's offering as her eyebrows scampered toward her hairline.

"It's very, er, purple."

The younger woman beamed.

"Yeah. Cool, huh? Little souvenir from the city that never sleeps."

Cautiously, Barbara stared at the object in her partner's hands, feeling as if she were confronting an odd snake -- a rather long, thick, purple snake --

Green eyes blinked, and she amended her description.

A long, thick, purple, two-headed snake.

In spite of her fascination, something snapped her brain back into gear.

"You did not..."

The older woman sternly met her partner's eyes and put a certain amount of emphasis on the word.

"take two eighteen year olds into a... a..."

She felt herself color, at a loss. Her irritation and embarrassment weren't eased in the slightest by the insouciant grin and sparkling blue eyes which obviously were waiting for her to pull just the right word, or words, from her mental hard drive. Regrettably, said neural storage units seemed to be in desperate need of defragmenting, and the redhead could only fall back on an exasperated glare until Helena put her out of her misery.

"A toy store?"

The grinning brunette climbed onto the bed to straddle her hips. Every inch of the way, Barbara kept her eyes focused on the item in her partner's hand.


A slender hand waved the bright purple dildo in dismissal.

"Not unless you count FAO Schwartz. I didn't think I had to be with them all the time?"

Transfixed by the sight of her lover absently tapping the item restlessly against her bare thigh, the older woman distantly suspected that there had been a question posed. Somehow, she managed a slow shake of her head, and the brunette continued with a smile.

"Right. So, while the Kid and Gabs were exploring China Town, I did some sightseeing of my own."

"Is that so?"

The raspiness in her throat prevented the redhead from saying anything further. The condition seemed to worsen, impacting her breathing, when she witnessed the smaller woman rising to her knees and bringing the shorter, slightly bulbous, end of the apparatus to herself.

"Yeah -- "

The younger woman's head dropped forward as her amazingly facile hands eased the device into herself.

"-- wanted something... special when I was --"

Despite the fact that it had been deeply ingrained in her to maintain eye contact during a conversation, Barbara discovered that she was completely unable to look away from her partner's hands at work.

"-- was missing you."

The brunette completed her explanation just as she finished her preparations. Barbara's eyes widened impossibly when her partner leaned forward and brushed full lips across her ear. The younger woman's soft groan rolled seamlessly into a tickling growl.

"Touch me, Barbara."

Despite the undeniable eroticism of the moment, the older woman fought a twinge of discomfort, noticing that the words had been "touch me" not "touch it". Still, having one side of the doubled-ended device in place was obviously pleasurable for her partner, and Barbara vowed that she would be damned before she failed to try.

Experimentally, she insinuated a hand between them, catching her lower lip in her teeth when the sensitive skin of her inner arm brushed Helena's pebbled nipple. Reaching her goal, the redhead lightly touched the artificial appendage, realizing with some surprise that it was resting on her pubis.

She was pleasantly surprised to find that the silicone felt natural enough to her fingers, and she looked between them, following her own progress as she stroked the length once. Finally, for the first time in what seemed like an eternity, she met the blue eyes fixed on her and wrapped her fingers around the warm, pliable material.

At her first hesitant movement, the brunette hissed, her hips driving down convulsively, and Barbara suddenly found herself rapidly warming to the idea.

For the second time in less than four hours, she heard herself ordering her young lover.

"On your back, Woman."

A wide and increasingly dirty sort of smile graced beautiful cupid's bow lips as the brunette gracefully rolled onto the bed. Barbara felt her own eyes crinkle and offered a quick wink before working herself down length of the smaller woman.

"Oh, fuck, Barbara. What are you--?"

Helena tone was breathless, as thick with arousal as the older woman had ever heard.

Pushing up on her hands, Barbara waited for bright gold eyes to find her own.


With that, she lowered her upper body again and swept the fall of her hair back from her face with a practiced gesture. Certain that there was nothing to obscure the younger woman's view, Barbara finally allowed the purple silicon to brush her cheek before touching her tongue to the base, where it entered the younger woman.

With her hands locked over the taut thighs quivering by her temples, she delicately traced the circumference of the base. Slowly, she dragged her tongue up the underside, taking care that her partner could see her, her own pleasure in the act growing when she realized that the apparatus didn't taste of plastic -- only of the sweet, musky fluid she spread upward with her mouth. Once again holding golden eyes with green, she kissed the tip, using all of her upper body strength to stay the sudden jerk of the younger woman's hips.

Wrapping the thick shaft with one hand, she teased her index finger around the hot, slick skin which banded the base. Her partner's hoarse cry guided the redhead when she lowered her mouth to take in, beginning a movement, a rhythm, as old as time.

Somewhere in the middle of a deep suctioning, she became aware of tan, slender hands fisting into the bed sheets, trembling for control. Without a second thought, she reached out and coaxed her lover's palms to the back of her head, allowing the younger woman to guide her motions.

"F-- fuck yeah..."

Barbara felt a smile stretch her mouth around the thick appendage and added a subtle pull to the apex of each stroke. Helena's low growl and the jerky movement of the lithe woman's hips told her that her partner wouldn't hold out much longer, and her own low moan of approval nearly obscured a plea from above her.

"I .. I need to be in you."

The redhead blinked, instantly collecting herself with a nod. In a heartbeat, she was on her back, the other woman's hips dancing against her. This time, it was her hands which fisted on the sheets as Barbara pushed against the pillows at her back, torn between the sight of slick movements against her and her lover's rapturous face.

"Oh dear heavens --

Had she just felt something?

Indeed she had.


Her arms rose of their own need, grasping the soft, sweat-beaded skin of the other woman's back. Thrashing her head from side to side, the redhead surrendered to another rhythm, a movement, a connection, as old as time and as vast as the heavens.

Arching, gasping, burning, and finally crying, for only the second time in over seven years, Barbara Gordon was shattered by an unmistakably physical climax. When Helena followed her mere moments later, the two collapsed against each other, their limbs entangled and their sweat-slickened skin almost glued together.


It was the best Barbara could manage under the circumstances, and it earned what felt like a wicked smile against the damp skin of her abdomen. She understood the grin when Helena spoke; however, too sated and limp to manage the play-swat which her partner's rejoinder deserved, the older woman could only groan.

"Not quite, but there was a second coming."

Chapter 14

"Christ on a bicycle."

The softly muttered curse was one of Barbara's favorites. It was in fact one of her own nearly patented phrases which was reserved only for very, very special circumstances. In the general scale of creative cursing, she'd mentally ranked it next to the ever-reliable "Holy horny toads" and the always-eye opening "Great steaming sausages of shit."

Accordingly, when the words whispered mere inches from the redhead's left ear, there was no way they could fail to penetrated her sleep-fogged mind.

Slowly, grudgingly, one green eye cracked open, surveying the darkened room -- and her cursing bedmate -- uncharitably. Since she was quite aware that she'd never been the swiftest of risers, Barbara didn't speak immediately, giving herself a moment to attempt to make sense of the situation.

Other than a continuing litany of nearly sub vocal invective -- none of it as creative as the words which had dragged the redhead into waking -- there was little indicate just what might be troubling her bedmate. Wriggling her eyebrows up and down in an extremely localized stretch, Barbara observed what appeared to be agitated movement beneath the covers, and her curiosity finally got the best of her.

"Is there s--"

She stopped, wetting her lips with the tip of her tongue and clearing the hoarseness from her throat.

Why wasn't she still sleeping?

The dark head on the pillow next to hers whipped in Barbara's direction so rapidly that the older woman nearly flinched.


"Something wrong?", she concluded her question, becoming more intrigued by the moment when she detected the deep pink coloring normally blush-proof caramel features.

"... stuck."

The recently stretched crimson brows knit in perplexity.

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

A slow, pained sigh was the only response for a full ten seconds. When Helena finally spoke, blue eyes fixed firmly on the ceiling, her diction was terribly precise.

"I said. It. Is. Stuck."

There had been no way to mistake the words. Now Barbara just needed to make sense --

Crimson brows ricocheted toward the headboard.

"Excuse me?"

Coffee. She definitely needed coffee.

"I'm not kidding."

The brunette's aggrievement left little doubt.

"I, uh, kind of tightened up. While I was asleep."

The older woman finally recognized the tenting of the sheets, positioned at the level of her bedmate's hips, for what it was and fought a smirk. While waking in this situation with one of her male lovers had never failed to irritate her, in this case, it was only amusing -- and a little bit sweet.

Not to mention, she recalled guiltily, her fault.

Barbara wasn't entirely certain what had possessed her hours earlier when she'd awkwardly asked her partner to keep the apparatus in place a bit longer after they'd collapsed. Apparently, sleep had claimed them both not too long after the brunette had dubiously acquiesced.

"I'm sure it's not that bad, Sweetie."

She dropped a hand and gingerly moved the apparatus. The experiment earned a sharp hiss from the younger woman.

"Ohhhh, shit."

Plaintive blue eyes sought hers.

"Man, this is gonna ruin the lines of my sweeps wear, you know," the brunette groused even as her hips undulated once.

Biting at the inside of her cheek to fight a laugh, the redhead raised up on one elbow and pressed a soft kiss to her lover's shoulder.

"Shhh, Sweetie. I don't think it's permanent. We just need to relax your muscles a bit..."

This time, she moved with a great deal more certainty, eliciting the beginning of a growl from her companion.

"Uh, Red, you're not really helping so much with the relaxing thing."

Emerald eyes caught blue eyes which were slitting to gold.

"Patience, Helena. It will."

Barbara smiled warmly -- very warmly -- as her hand began to move.

"The relaxation is an after-effect."

* * * * *

Mesmerized by the sight of slender fingers sliding over the smooth shaft, Barbara almost didn't hear the question.

Guiltily, the redhead allowed that the vision of Helena's firm posterior flexing as she bent forward didn't help matters either.

"How was dinner with your dad?"

She waited for the younger woman to complete her break, hoping that Helena would attribute her delay in answering to courtesy.

"The dinner before you departed for New York?"

Barbara approached the table, taking in the layout of the fifteen billiard balls, her mind automatically working the geometry and leaping three and four shots ahead.

Solids, then.

"Uh huh."

Maintaining her focus, the cyber-genius crisply tapped the seven into the three, sinking both. Without looking away from the table, she sensed the blue eyes trained on her and put a bit of extra flourish into chalking her cue.

Her efforts were rewarded with a sharp intake of breath from behind her, and the older woman smirked. Leaning in for her next shot, she sent the one ball down the rail to the corner pocket.

Two could play the game.

"It was good, Hel."

Circling the table, she was surprised to hear herself add, "We'd like you to join us next time."

In the process of raising her beer to her mouth, the brunette's arm jumped a tiny bit.

"If you're interested, that is."

The redhead kept her eyes fixed on the disappointing layout on the table after her attempt at verbal damage control. A masse shot was really called for to free the five, however she simply didn't have the angle from her chair.

Not entirely to her surprise, she missed her attempt to circle the eight -- the analytical woman was aware of the irony that, in pool, her "English" was weak -- and backed away. The brunette grinned and chalked her cue.

"You sure you trust us together, Red?"

A sharp, quick stroke powered the nine into the opposite corner and positioned the thirteen and fifteen like ducks in a row in front of the adjacent pocket. Barbara nodded her appreciation even as Helena finessed the two balls into the pocket and lined up another shot.

Watching the younger woman's easy movements, the redhead realized that her admiration had to do with more than skillful gamesmanship or even the play of her lover's muscles beneath her form-fitting leather pants.

The invitation which had tumbled unexpectedly from her lips had in no way been a mistake.

During the course of the long and meandering conversation she'd had with her father two and a half weeks before, Barbara had learned a few things about her partner, about her father's very genuine respect for the brunette, and about their relationship. She'd learned that, after every hard snowfall for the last four years, the woman who radiated angry indifference to the world appeared like clockwork to shovel her father's drive -- and the driveway of septuagenarian May Parker next door. She discovered that her former ward had been responsible for introducing her father to his preferred brand of scotch and that he, in turn, had mentored her in the fine art of cigar smoking.

Between laughing stories about some of the hijinks the two had engaged in over the years -- one of which, mercifully, had finally confirmed her suspicion about the palm tree which had inexplicably and visibly grown, then shrunk, during a police banquet three years before -- she'd been allowed a glimpse of the younger woman through someone else's eyes.

And, just as she now could enjoy the vision of the lithe young woman running the table, she'd very much liked what she'd seen in her father's study.

"In fact, Hel, I'm positive that I can't trust you two together, but I'd still like you to come along."

* * * * *

"What a tangled web we weave, indeed."

Barbara ground out the familiar quote by Sir Walter Scott through clenched teeth, too focused on her attempts to cultivate another wrinkle between her eyes and on the fuzzy mess in her lap to be concerned about the fact that she was talking to herself.

She retrieved the small metal hook from the morass, absently walking it through the knuckles of her right hand while she contemplated simply chucking the whole mess into the waste bin.

Crocheting honestly hadn't seemed that difficult during her three brief lessons with Alethea in the teacher's lounge during the last week. After all, it was a bit like knot-work, or rope-work, and heaven knew she was adroit enough at that. However, when she substituted a tiny metal crochet hook for carabineers and fuzzy synthetic wool for a Kernmantle, she was obviously in waaaay over her head.

An almost electric frission of awareness, coinciding with a soft thump from the balcony, interrupted the redhead's reverie about ropes. She looked up and smiled a greeting as the younger woman strolled in, shucking her duster and dangling a bag from the video store from her index finger.

"'The Incredibles' was out, but I got something ev-- Holy shit!"

Barbara recoiled when the dark figure suddenly vaulted the coffee table, coming to an abrupt stop in front of her.

"Just hold still, Barbara, and I'll kill it."

A stylized karate chop, aimed in the direction of the project on Barbara's lap, accompanied the offer.

"Very droll."

The redhead's voice suggested otherwise.

"Have you been in the catnip again, Hel?"

The brunette poked out her tongue, then seemed to forget her affront, leaning in to prod carefully at the tangle with a slender index finger. Slowly she straightened, and blue eyes sought green.

"You making baby booties?"

Somehow, the younger woman managed to imbue the question with equal measures of horror and amusement.

"No, a cape for you to wear on sweeps."

Helena didn't miss a beat as she turned toward the kitchen, her words tossed over her shoulder.

"I want it in black then."

Snickering, Barbara started to gather up the mess when her eye caught it: the origin of the knot.

Two deft tugs later, she bundled up the considerably more organized beginnings of her pot holder, cheerfully quoting the rarely mention second line of Scott's poem.

"But my how we improve the score, as we practice more and more."

* * * * *

"Gonna miss me, Babs?"

The question, accompanied by the rustle of items being stuffed into the capacious pockets of a leather duster, was light. Barbara's response was anything but.

"Very much, Helena."

For an almost vertigo-inducing moment, the cyber-crime fighter questioned the necessity of the evening's sweep or, for that matter, of what they did in general. Her heart thudded harshly at the thought that, like other people, she could spend her evenings in her lover's arms rather than listening to the dark vigilante handing out -- and taking -- beatings.

"... heart grow fonder, right?"

The redhead blinked and collected herself.

"Perhaps, Helena, but I don't know that I could grow any more fond of you."

The brunette's smile was so open and sweet, so earnest and joyous, that Barbara had to surrender to an impulse.

With the slow crook of her index finger, she beckoned the other woman to bend close. Only after they were almost cheek to cheek did she whisper her desire.

"Be careful and hurry back."

Peripherally, she saw the dark head nod and dropped her tone a full octave.

"I want my tongue inside you."

The nod abruptly ceased, and the redhead was almost positive that -- even without meta-enhanced senses -- she'd heard the brunette swallow. She had no question about the growl which rumbled between them.

Curious, she waited, sensing that the younger woman was swaying toward her; however, her partner reversed direction, taking a step back and straightening.

"In that case, I'll be here with bells on."

On her way to the balcony, the brunette stopped and looked over her shoulder, and Barbara felt her mouth turn up in response to an infectious smile.

"As motivational speeches go, Red, that sure beat all hell out of the old 'Win one for the Gipper' shtick."

* * * * *

A roaring noise, something akin to the enthusiastic bedlam from a NASCAR rally, gradually drew the cyber-genius from her engagement at the Delphi. Since it was emanating from the kitchen, she supposed that it probably was not a road race.


She'd raised her voice a bit in deference to the noise, but there was no response. Curious about what could be holding her partner's attention, she pushed back from the CRT and moved to the kitchen, coming to an abrupt halt in the doorway.

Wearily, the redhead suspected that she was sporting her unflattering befuddled expression once again as she took in her partner. Clad in boy brief underwear and a tight sports bra, the younger woman was vigorously wet mopping the floor and dancing in time to whatever music was playing on her walkman.

"What -- "

She flapped her arms to attract the brunette's attention -- Speaking of flattering -- and waited until Helena pulled the buds of the walkman from her ears and shut off the floor polishing unit.

"What in the name of Hints From Heloise are you doing, Helena?"

"Uhm, cleaning the kitchen floor?"

The unspoken "Duh" in the younger woman's tone suggested that she thought Barbara was bit out of touch.

Ignoring the rebuke -- Barbara was quite aware that it was a tone learned during the teen years and only slowly exorcised by adulthood -- the redhead inclined her head to acknowledge the obvious.

"But why?"

The brunette grinned broadly, and the older woman automatically felt herself joining in, without the faintest idea why.

"Heck, with the Big A on holiday, it's not going to clean itself, right?"

Barbara couldn't deny that. Then, knowing she'd regret it, she had to ask.

"But, in your underwear?"

The younger woman gave a fetching shake of her hips, bumping the handle of the cleaning unit.

"Hey, the Kid's not around to be jealous, and like we talked about at the swimming pool, I do look hot, don't I?"

Barbara recalled the conversation -- and the circumstances surrounding it -- in vivid, technicolor detail.

Tomato juice and Adirondack chairs, indeed.

Condemning herself for a dirty pre-middle-aged letch, she smiled broadly.

"Carry on, then."

* * * * *

School policy or no, assigning numeric scores to essays had always rankled Barbara. When the essays were about the works of some of the great literary naturalists, composed for an elective, intensive summer course, the idea seemed all the more ludicrous.

As far as the English teacher was concerned, all of the students in the class had started with a grade of 100% and would have to do something pretty bone-headed to work down from there.

She exited the elevator into the living area of the clock tower with a bit more velocity than usual and dropped her bag unceremoniously next to the wall.

Considering the fact that she had, again, been unable to get her point across during the faculty meeting after school, the redhead was eagerly anticipating the session she had scheduled in the training room with Helena.

Grumpily wriggling out of her blazer and dropping it next to her bag, Barbara admitted that she was less irked by the discussion during the meeting than by the fact that there had been a meeting at all.

Where was the need for a faculty meeting during summer school when more than half of the faculty weren't present?

Still planted by the elevator and wrestling with a shoe lace -- at this rate, she'd be buck naked by the time she made it to the couch -- she forced herself to slow down, to inhale slowly and release her frustration.

Most of it.

With a shrug, she gave up on her shoes -- better to deal with them in the bedroom, where they belonged -- and finally crossed the foyer to the living area.

As relentlessly practical as she was, even Barbara had to admit that summer faculty meetings did allow the teachers who braved summer school to claim the newest textbooks and best parking places for the next school year. Thus, there was a certain method to the madness... not to mention a valuable incentive to teach during the summer term.

"Heya, Red."

One hand flying to her chest, the redhead coasted to an unplanned stop by the couch when a dark head poked over the arm. It appeared that her partner had been napping and her own less-than-stealthy entrance had rather rudely awakened her.

"I'm sorry, Helena. I didn't know you were-- Mmm--"

The brunette neatly silenced the apology, instantly evaporating the older woman's bad mood in the process, when she flowed over the side of the couch and came to rest in the redhead's lap. For a few lovely minutes, Barbara lost herself in the undemanding brush of soft lips and the gentle undulations of sinewy hips under her hands. When she finally emerged for air, she tipped her head back to gain focus at such close range and promptly ... sneezed.

Several times.

By the third explosive outburst, the younger woman fled, only to return in seconds, tissues in hand. Eyes still watering, the redhead nodded her thanks and vigorously blew her nose against whatever was tickling it.

Possibly all of the dust her partner had kicked up with her athletic feather-dusting the day before. While the French maid accent had been worthwhile -- the redhead smirked, then sneezed again -- Barbara had simply never grasped the efficiency of a feather for collecting, rather than spreading, dust.

Not to mention, the broken vase from the tickling which had resulted when Helena had finally noticed that she had a handful of feathers at her disposal.

In the future when Alfred was on holiday, perhaps it would pay to investigate Merry Maids or some such thing.

Or live in filth.

As the onslaught seemed to abate, the redhead sniffed cautiously, then met the solicitous blue eyes fixed on her.

"I'm sorry, Sweetie."

The brunette shook her head dismissively even as Barbara needlessly tacked on, "Wretched allergies."

Seeming to sense that the coast was clear, the dark figure glided forward.

"You know -- "

The soprano was sing-song, and Barbara readied herself for whatever would follow.

"--an orgasm would clear that right up."

"Is that so, Helena?"

The redhead finished blotting her eyes, her voice dry.

"Is there anything an orgasm can't cure?"

The younger woman considered the question for all of two seconds before leaning in on a leer.

"Probably not, but you're the genius. Why don't you set up some experiments and we can test it out?"

* * * * *


Without a blink, the redhead snapped her head to follow her companion's eyes, simultaneously raising a hand almost casually from the rim of her right wheel to snag the fast-moving projectile in mid-air.

Blue eyes sparkled appreciatively.

"Smooth, Red."

Smiling modestly, the older woman demurred, "Piece of cake after practicing with batarangs."

When Helena nodded and extended her hand, palm up, Barbara snapped the frisbee to her and rocked back a few feet, inclining her head in the direction of the park green.

"It appears that the owners are in search of their plaything, Helena."

The brunette grinned widely and let out a whoop which brought the approaching horde of pre-teens to a standstill.

"Who's gonna go long?"

With that, the brunette adopted a classic Olympic discus stance, waiting for the kids to disperse across the sward. Barbara stilled the motion of her chair and caught her breath, enchanted by the younger woman's effortless grace as she spun once... twice... three times before letting the frisbee fly.

The plastic disk sailed high, and the older woman tracked it until it was lost against the bright afternoon sun. Instead of following the score of children jockeying to catch the toy, she turned to take in the image of her partner again.

Spots from the afternoon sun still dotted her vision, but Barbara had no trouble filling in the gaps. The lithe woman was poised, muscles vibrating against the urge to race after the toy herself, Barbara guessed. A positively indecent amount of slender, golden leg was exposed by her frayed denim cut-offs, and a smile which outshone the residual halos from the sun gave lie to the sentiment of her "Life Sucks" tee shirt.

Warmed by the summer sun, by the moment, the redhead laughed brightly.

"Go show them how to do it, Sweetie."

That was all it took before the younger woman whooped again and bounded onto the grass. In deference to the brightness of the day and the amount of skin she had exposed in her own more modest cargo shorts and chambray shirt, Barbara moved to a shady spot to watch the action.

Someone nearby had a boombox, and the redhead found herself tapping a finger to the melody Dave Matthews' "American Baby". A lyric likening the taste of lemonade to a summer day caught her attention, and the relentlessly practical woman smiled more broadly.

Somehow, for that moment -- or for the hours of their stroll -- it was just that easy, and she closed her eyes in gratitude.

"Ready for that reward?"

Having sensed her partner's approach, Barbara was able to look up calmly before she was seized by a wild hare. She performed a crisp ninety degree turn and took off down the path.

"Last one there buys."

* * * * *

Decisions, decisions.

Or, the analytical woman dissected the problem from another angle, too many choices with too little time.

"C'mon, Red, he's not getting paid by the hour."

Barbara met her lover's impatient eyes with a look she'd perfected through the years. When Helena looked down and scuffed the toe of her sneaker into the dirt, she knew she hadn't lost her touch.

"Pistachio, I think."

The obviously bored clerk, who clearly was paid by the hour, didn't blink.

"Waffle or cake cone?"

This decision required almost no thought; after all, her jeans had been a tad snug recently.

"Cake, please."

The redhead dug for her wallet -- Helena had won fair and square, after all -- to the sound of her partner's petulant muttering.

"Huh, you always get those groody flavors so I won't eat it."

Absently watching their server scoop her flavor onto the cone, the redhead arched a brow.

"Has that really ever stopped you?"

She missed the brunette's reply to what she'd considered to be a rhetorical question when she caught the young man's eyes.

"Would you mind adding a scoop of the chocolate fudge to that?"

She couldn't miss the way Helena's eyes lit up in anticipation, despite the chocolate-enrobed triple scoop already held in one slender, tanned hand.

"For me?"

Barbara accepted the towering cone with a smile of thanks, instructing the clerk to keep the change. Only after turning away from the vendor's stand and delicately sampling both flavors did she speak. She caught insouciant blue eyes and watched in satisfaction as they blinked at the steel in her voice.

"Don't even think about it, Hel."

* * * * *

"I think it was overrated, Sweetie."

The redhead's review of the supposedly terrifying movie they'd just finished was mildly distracted by her hunt for the last of the M&Ms hidden at the bottom of the popcorn bowl.

"Huh -- "

With her gaze directed at the big screen, Helena hit the eject button, simultaneously snaking her hand into the bowl in the older woman's lap and emerging with two of the butter-coated candies which Barbara had been hunting.

Green ones, the older woman noted sourly before abandoning her search.

"--did you think it was that bad?"

When her partner turned to face her, chewing her peanut M&Ms with gusto, the analytical woman simply raised a brow. Despite the enjoyment of cuddling together on the sofa and tangling their fingers in the bowl of popcorn, which was liberally sprinkled with M&Ms, she hadn't been impressed.

"Okay, Red, I thought it would be scarier, too. But --"

Seeing the twinkle in those startling eyes, the older woman readied herself.

"--you have to admit that the woman was damned hot."

Barbara felt her eyes narrow as she considered The Wife, who had spent much of her screen time handcuffed to the foot of the bed, in peril. Again, she found that she simply wasn't that impressed.

"I didn't think that the wife was that -- "

"No --"

A playful laugh, redolent of chocolate, whispered across Barbara's left cheek.

"--the investigator woman at the beginning. Remember?"

Of course, the cyber-genius' infallible memory immediately supplied a face -- and body -- to go with the description: Pale woman, sharp jaw, in an Armani suit. Smirking, she leaned in and cut the debate short.

"I happen to think you're much hotter, Sweetheart."

* * * * *

"I can't even think about it without wanting to chew my own foot off!"

"You've been watching too many movies, Helena."

Barbara primly raised one brow and kept it short. She was perfectly willing to outwait her partner's petulance.

Petulance which, frankly, she suspected was purely force of habit.

"... and just plain dull."

Barbara felt her smile become a bit strained as her companion demonstrated -- at length and in great detail -- her considerable skills in logical argument. While she couldn't dispute Helena's politically incorrect description of the annual New Gotham charity art show, she planned to play every card up her sleeve if needed to induce the younger woman to accompany her.

The redhead had first attended the auction eleven years before, as Bruce Wayne's date. While they'd been in attendance to scout for the presence of Selina Kyle, the gossip columns had had a field day describing the April-October pairing of the police commissioner's daughter with the billionaire playboy.

Gossip to the side, the event had been enjoyable for the star struck young redhead. Since the show benefited numerous scholarships, she'd made a point of attending -- only missing one year, in fact -- since then.

"... you know what sort of windbags are gonna be--"

"New dress."

"Big de-- "

The automatic dismissal ended abruptly, and the brunette's eyes hooded in interest.

"For me or for you, Red?"


"We'll leave at 6:45, Helena."

Chapter 15

It's late in the evening
She's wondering what clothes to wear
She puts on her make-up
And brushes her long blonde hair


Carefully touching her brush to her hair, Barbara shooed an errant lock back into place, knowing that the minute she turned from her dressing table, it would make its way free of the loose chignon. With a cheerful shrug, she set her brush down to check her make-up one last time.

As ready as she'd ever be.

Shaking her head at her own vanity, the relentlessly practical woman hummed a few bars from an old Clapton classic and cautiously cracked the door to the hallway.

"Hel? Are you ready?"

The cheerful response was immediate.

"In the living room."

After a bit of discussion, and quite a bit of pouting on the younger woman's part, Helena had volunteered to use Dinah's room for her preparations for the art show. While her reasons had largely been pragmatic -- they did need to leave at a reasonable hour -- the rationale which Barbara had used to win her over had been "the surprise factor". When the redhead entered the living area and saw the slender young woman rise gracefully from the wing chair, she suddenly realized how prescient her reasoning had been.

Oh my.

Her partner obviously had been created for the little black cocktail dress. Or, at the very least, for this particular dress.

Sleeveless, it showed the definition of sinewy arms to remarkable advantage. It's neckline was surprisingly modest, leaving Barbara wanting more. The above-the-knee hemline answered at least a part of that desire, exposing slender legs clad in sheer, silky hose.

Green eyes blinked, squinting a tiny bit.

It looked like Helena was wearing hose...

The brunette had completed the understated simplicity with two inch heels, a string of small pearls, a hint of eye shadow, and --

The older woman smiled dotingly at the sight of a thin silver band, with a miniature silver bell attached to it, on her lover's index finger. Barbara had presented the younger woman with the small "Oracle bell" a week after Helena had surprised her with a pasta feast in honor of their eleven week "anniversary".

"My goodness, Hel--"

Drawing close, the redhead trailed off, finally noticing that the little black dress wasn't black at all. Rather, it was a blue so deep and midnight that it appeared black, and it set the younger woman's dramatic eyes to indigo.

She didn't get a chance to finish what she'd planned when the brunette, her eyes wide and... hungry, husked five words.

"Jesus, Barbara. Look at you."

The redhead felt her face flame at the frank admiration... and desire directed toward her. Instinctively, she bit at her lower lip, then immediately stopped herself, realizing that the action would do no good for the minimal lip gloss she'd applied.

Apparently, the bright yellow sundress hadn't been her only wise impulse purchase during Helena's absence. The dress she'd picked out with this night in mind was floor length, and it hugged her body from shoulders to knees before flaring at the bottom. As usual, Barbara had been drawn to her best color: a muted emerald green which matched her kohl-accented eyes. A high mandarin collar fastened in the back leaving her shoulders and upper back exposed.

Her entire back, for that matter, all the way down to ... well, much lower than she'd ever considered before.

Her own tiny gold cat bell and a pair of tiny teardrop earrings were the redhead's only adornment. She'd suspected -- correctly, she decided without a hint of bitterness -- that her vibrant companion would outshine whatever she might choose.

Having apparently completed a lengthy inspection, said companion moved lightly across the room, a pronounced sway in her hips.

"Can we skip the fundraiser?"

As tempting as the suggestion was, the older woman didn't bat an eye as she neatly wheeled past the brunette and waved at the open elevator.

"After you, Hel."

We go a party
And everyone turns to see
This beautiful lady
That's walking around with me


As Helena had none-too-subtly suggested two days before, the annual art show at the MFA was, indeed, populated by some of the city's biggest windbags. Circling through the museum's impressionists' gallery with her partner, Barbara knew she'd been fortunate in avoiding most of them, however, as she paused to admire a Seurat, she realized that her luck was about to run out.

"Oh dear."

She pitched her voice low, confident that Helena would hear her despite the murmur of conversation and the background music provided by a small string quartet in the antechamber.


The brunette instantly bent to her, a faintly amused smile gracing her lovely features.

"Do you finish another plate of canapes?"

Given the dire circumstances, the redhead opted to forego the swat which the question clearly deserved. Instead, she mutely nodded toward the Renoir display and fought back a slightly wild giggle when blue eyes followed her gaze, widening in mock horror.

Puffing out her cheeks, the brunette straightened with an easy smile.

"No sweat, Red. You go load up on crab puffs again, and I'll head her off."

For a disbelieving beat -- talk about taking one for the team -- the older woman could only manage a look of profound gratitude. Then, she dropped her hands to the rims of the chair in preparation.

"Thank god. You're a lifesaver."

The wicked sparkle in deep blue eyes told Barbara that she'd certainly just opened the door for any number of entendres about sweet edibles with holes. Apparently the heat which flooded her cheeks informed her companion that no comment would be required on her part, and so, with a saucy wink, the brunette slipped away into the crowd.

Withdrawing to the relative seclusion afforded by a potted palm, the older woman followed her partner's progress through the crowd, and her graceful, effortless small talk with the dignitaries of the city as she continued her interception course towards Mrs. Doomes-Patterson. When she saw the deceptively small woman accost the haughty woman and, within moments, draw a laugh from her, Barbara shook her head in admiration, then blinked.

For a moment, it had seemed that the lights in the room had converged on Helena, haloing her.

A second look dispelled the wildly romantic notion, and the redhead sighed, turning back to the party.

It's time to go home now And I've got an aching head So I give her the car keys She helps me to bed

"I only had one glass, Helena. I can't be intoxicated."

The brunette draped both of their wraps over her forearm, then raised her hands placatingly.

"I know you couldn't have gotten drunk on a dozen glasses of that stuff."

Despite herself, the redhead snickered at her partner's "yuk face".

"But you said you were kind of dizzy. What do you think it is?"

Waiting for the valet to appear with the Hummer, the redhead risked a small joke.

"Perhaps I got a bad crab puff, Sweetie."

She watched dark brows wrinkle for a split second before the younger woman shook her head.

"I ate them, too, and I feel okay."

With the cool evening air already clearing her head, Barbara swiftly danced the back of her fingers against the brunette's firm abdomen.

"So says Helena-The-Iron-Tummed."

Perhaps, the analytical woman posited, she was intoxicated from the evening itself, the time with Helena, with no worries about crime or justice or nasty green-haired clowns. Nevertheless, she dutifully raised the keys in offering.

"Would you mind?"

The other woman's almost comical blink of disbelief seemed a bit much, even if it was true that the redhead seldom allowed anyone else to drive her baby when she was along. The eager light which appeared in cobalt eyes -- in combination with sub vocal "vrrroom" noises as they approached each traffic light -- would have simply been worrisome if Barbara hadn't been too tired to care.

When they reached the tower, the redhead headed straight for the bedroom, peeling out of her dress and shaking her hair loose with casual disregard. Exiting the bathroom after a brief toilette, she found her partner tidying the covers on the bed and creating crease at the top so crisp that it would have made Norman Schwarzkopff shed a tear.

A full glass of water was on the nightstand, and Barbara's fuzzy socks were next to her pillow.

The redhead thought she very well might cry.

Suspecting how alarming that reaction would be for her partner, she slid onto the bed, speaking lightly.

"This is sweet, Hel, but I've been putting myself to bed for years."

"I know, Red, but the faster you get to sleep, the faster you'll feel better and..."

The brunette's smirk spoke volumes, but didn't hide the emotion in her eyes. Impossibly touched, the older woman tugged her partner close.

"I feel fine, Hel. A little tired, perhaps, but--"

She allowed the flicker of her tongue against the younger woman's ear to complete her sentence, sending the other woman scrambling backward in surprise.

"Uh, okay. I'll be right in."

A slender hand gestured toward the front of the tower.

"Just going to close things down out there."

Cocooned under the covers, Barbara fought the heavy drag of her eyelids.


Before the light snapped off, she heard the brunette's amused reply.


Barbara realized that she must have dozed when she checked the clock and discovered how much time had passed. In the sliver of moonlight cutting through the heavy curtains, she could just detect Helena moving soundless and sure in the darkness, and she knew that it was her partner's presence which had awakened her.

The older woman started to speak, to let the brunette know that she didn't have to worry about waking her; however, the shadowed images stole the words from her mouth and the breath from her lungs.

Ever-graceful, the dark figure raised first one foot, then the other, to slip her heels off. She moved to the newly redesigned closet, cracking the well-oiled doors to place her footwear into the shoe caddy, and Barbara smiled fondly: After the first time she'd tangled her chair in a pair of her new ward's Nikes, which had been tossed carelessly in the living room, she'd never found an item of the younger woman's out of place.

The tone of the redhead's smile shifted as she observed the younger woman bending, tugging up her skirt... just enough to roll her stockings down her legs. When the brunette straightened and reached behind her neck, Barbara could maintain her silence no longer.

"Let -- "

The redhead pushed up on the bed and cleared her throat.

"Let me do that, Sweetie."

A flash of white teeth met the offer, and the brunette padded over, then turned to sit on the edge of the bed. Unable to resist, Barbara briefly combed her fingers through silken hair, ending the caress by rubbing the pads of her fingers against the base of her companion's neck. The soft touch elicited a whispered exhalation and the slightest tensing of the slender shoulders before her.

The redhead lowered her hands to the fastener of the demure necklace, easily working the tiny catch. Instead of allowing the jewelry to fall forward into the hand she saw rising to catch it, she tugged at one end, pulling the pearls slowly around that slender neck, allowing each one to slide across the hollow at the base of her partner's neck. When the opalescent gems were free, she pooled the beads in her palm, acutely aware of the warmth they still held from her lover's skin.

Gently placing the necklace on the night stand, Barbara turned her attention to the back of the exquisite dress.

"Buttons? Not a zipper?" she inquired a bit breathlessly.

She'd noticed them earlier, of course, on the elevator ride down to the garage hours before, and her fertile imagination had played this moment infinite times during the evening.

Her partner's reply, the analytical woman noted with a smirk, was less flirtatious than rueful.

"Yeah. It's hell to get fastened by myself."

Leaning forward to kiss each patch of skin revealed by the opening of the myriad tiny button, the redhead murmured, "You could have asked me."

"I th-- "

The younger woman tried again, whispering against the drag of the older woman's tongue against her skin.

"--thought we had to get out of here tonight."

"True." B admitted, although, transfixed by the expanse of tan skin she was exposing, she couldn't recall what had been so pressing outside the house.

Giving up on the question for later, she drew her fingers lightly down the younger woman's back, tracing the slight protuberance of bone along her spine and leaning in to brush her mouth to the silky soft skin, the downy fuzz along her lower back tickling her lips.

"No bra," she managed to observe.

She had been wondering about that -- among other things -- all evening.

"N-- "

She heard the brunette swallow, then heard the smile in her voice.

"Damned dress is too form fitting."

"Is it really?" the redhead wondered aloud, moving her hands to the front, tugging her partner lightly toward her as she palmed the heavy flesh beneath the satiny fabric.

The dress, despite being open in the back now, was form-fitting, as Helena had observed, and for a few moments the older woman lost herself in their heavy breathing and the delicious weight in her hands.

"Ba-- Barbara?"

The question roused her from her sensual haze. With a lingering kiss to the nape of the younger woman's neck, Barbara released her and lay back in the bed, joined in seconds by the other woman, clad now in her usual bed wear: tank top and underwear.

The older woman snaked out one arm to coax her bedmate near, and the two snuggled together before the redhead remembered her manners.

"Thank you for coming with me tonight, Hel. It was -- "

She cast about for words, finally settling on the obvious.


And then I tell her
As I turn out the light
I say my darling, you were wonderful tonight


Warm lips brushed her jaw, a low hum the only verbal response for a minute or so until a soft voice broke the silence.

"I'm glad we went. I had fun."

The admission drew Barbara from her somnolent relaxation, and her eyes widened in the darkness. Slender fingers pushed the hair from her forehead and she saw a smile ghost her bedmate's beautiful mouth.

"Of course, I'm counting on you being too tired to remember I said that."

The two shared the smile until their locked eyes seemed to draw them together in a long, sweet kiss. Throughout the gentle contact, Barbara focused on the sensation of their melding lips, their twining tongues, their mingling breath. She wanted -- needed -- to feel her lover's response, to let her know how much...

Gradually, she became aware of the soft trembling of the younger woman's jaw, a sign she'd come to recognize as a signal for Helena's arousal...

No, her need.

Helena's need for her.

The thought struck the older woman with the force of a boot to the solar plexus, and -- dizzied -- she pulled the other woman closer, gasping into her mouth. In a heartbeat, the sharp thrust of the smaller woman's hips ignited her, and the redhead heard a moan.

Her own?

"Helena -- let me..."

Strong, slender fingers twined with hers, pulling her hand between them, guiding her to the heat she could feel pouring off the younger woman and coursing through her own stomach... her chest... her throat... Barbara dropped her other hand to steady her partner's rocking, her fingers almost aching to touch...

And, then, she froze, feeling her eyes widen when something from one of her myriad mental To-Do lists sprang to mind.


The question was decidedly breathy. Possibly, the older woman realized, a trifle irked.

In the darkness, the redhead easily saw golden eyes searching her face. Just as easily, she observed the wicked smile which painted crimson lips.

"You want something, don't you?"

The purring question, rich with the type of knowledge shared in dark rooms, brought a rush of heat to the redhead's cheeks. Barbara was well aware that her partner could see her blush in the darkness

"Er, well, it something we've talked..."

The brunette shifted to one side, holding herself on one arm and smiling encouragingly.

Very encouragingly.


Suddenly, it struck the redhead that perhaps this hadn't been such a good idea: as usual when she spoke without thinking things through.

"It's not.. not really..."

The younger woman ignored the faint protest, leaning close to tease her pert nose against her jaw.

"C'mon, tell me, Babs. You oughta know there's nothing I'm not into for you..."

Barbara certainly had to admit that that had proven to be the case so far. Pushing aside her doubts about just what she might be into, the redhead inhaled shakily.

"Would you -- "

Courage slinking away, she blinked helplessly, and instantly her lover becomes serious.


A warm hand came to rest lightly on her chest, and butterfly kisses dusted her lips.






Three times.

Barbara heard her own voice, quiet but surprisingly steady.

"Touch yourself. For me?"

Even in the darkness, she saw her lover's features harden, assuming the hawk like visage which showed her intense, intense arousal. The sight simultaneously jump-started the older woman's passion, and she clenched her jaw against her desire.

"Yeah -- "

Barbara was captured for a short, almost bruising kiss, before the younger woman lowered herself to the bed, still on her side, facing her.

"I can do that. Probably don't even need to touch myself to come for you, Red."

The redhead caught her lower lip with her teeth as the younger woman quickly stretched over to turn on the soft reading lamp on her side of the bed.

"Didja know that, Red? That just thinking about you can make me come? Hands off?"

The redhead swallowed with considerable difficulty, then husked, "Hands on this time. Please."

A richly sin filled smile greeted the request.

"More fun that way for me, too. But, it always starts with thinking about you."

The older woman blinked as a pink tongue slowly wet the edges of full lips.

"Yeah. Thinking about your mouth... The feel of your lips against mine. The feel of being inside your mouth."

Barbara thought she'd whimpered at the confession, but when her partner roughly yanked her tank off, immediately feathering her hands across her breasts, she discovered that she had no air to make a sound.

Aware as she was of the incredible power and delicacy of the slender fingers which danced across the beautiful skin only inches away, she was distantly aware that she was fortunate to have air enough to remain conscious.

"Then, it's always your hands touching me."

The brunette rolled onto her back, those amazing golden eyes becoming heavy-lidded. Barbara felt her nostrils flare, her mouth water, as she continued to watch, to listen to, the sensual young woman who was offering her this so openly.

"Uh -- yeah --"

Cupping one breast fully, Helena teased the pebbled peak of the other with her fingers. Hazily, the redhead noticed a slow rocking begin and felt something deep in her belly clench.

"And it's so fuckin' good but I want more -- I want your mouth... sucking and biting and licking me."

Barbara's own breasts seem to swell in sympathy as slim fingers pinched dusky nipples to a red bloom. Then, one of those amazing hands trailed down the hard muscles of the brunette's stomach, fingers dipping beneath the waist of the bikini briefs.

"But -- uhm -- that's not enough. I need you..."

The younger woman spread her legs, feet flat against the mattress sending her hips thrusting upward to meet her hand.

"Need. You. Inside... Everywhere."

In an odd moment of complete clarity, Barbara realized that she now perfectly understood the meaning of being on the horns of a dilemma. She desperately ached to capture her partner's hand and take over; just as urgently, she needed to see Helena finish it.

She held herself in check, her eyes riveted on the brunette's face as she neared her crest. Barbara wasn't sure when her own breathing changed to match the cadence of the other woman's, but when the dark figure's muscles locked in a trembling rictus and she cried out the redhead's name, she heard her own moan spill forth at the same time.

Overcome, unable to move, the older woman could only stare at her lover for several heartbeats. When dark lashes fluttered, she collected herself enough to inch close and wrap the smaller woman to her chest.

"Dear heavens, Hel..."

They lay still, the brunette working to steady her breathing while Barbara frantically worked to identify, to categorize, the emotions flooding through her. A low chuckle distracted her.

"Damn, that was hard."

The supremely satisfied tone gave lie to the words, and so the older woman simply waited for partner to continue.

"Having you so close but not touching me."

The redhead finally spoke.

"You were beautiful."

The reply was so quiet she realized she could have imagined it.

"For you."

For one of only a handful of moments in her life, Barbara Gordon lost track of time. The relentlessly ticking presence of her internal chronometer simply... faded under a blanket of emotions.

Eventually, she heard a low word, her own voice.


It was the absolutely the only thing the redhead could manage.

"Rock your world?"

The question was both cheerfully insouciant and oddly, endearingly shy, and Barbara answered instantly.

"Completely, Sweetheart."

She heard a quick inhalation, and when the younger woman spoke again, her words were serious.

"As good as it always was -- is -- getting off thinking about you, the best orgasm that way doesn't compare to, well, even snuggling with you now."

Once again, the words whispered forth before Barbara knew that she was going to speak.

"How did I ever deserve you?"

I feel wonderful
Because I see the love light in your eyes
And the wonder of it all
Is that you just don't realize
How much I love you

Chapter 16

What in the hell had she done to deserve this? Who, exactly, had she pissed off in a former life?

Or, in the vernacular, this sucked.

Big time, as her students -- and Helena -- undoubtedly would have added.

Green eyes again fixed on the evidence before her on her monitor, then flickered to the tests and data lined up neatly next to her mouse pad. The cyber-genius considered re-running her tests and dismissed the idea. Instead, she began gathering the various papers and evidence from the workstation, tucking them away.

If this had been the first result from the test, there might have been merit in the idea. However, she'd long passed that stage, having run the initial test twice, and then following up with a change in methodology, utilizing some of the more sensitive equipment in her mini-lab.

When that attempt had confirmed the first two results, she'd run it again.

To suggest that the analytical woman was surprised by her findings was an understatement of staggering magnitude.

"Surprise, surprise."

Still floored by the discovery she'd made, and repeatedly confirmed, over the last two hours, Barbara didn't bat an eye when her partner breezed in from the balcony.

"No soap there."

The redhead felt her brows knit.


Fortunately or not, the brunette didn't seem to notice her distraction as she divested herself of her duster.

"Yeah, I had a chat with T-1 boy"

The dark vigilante grinned, not altogether pleasantly.

"You can guess how glad he was to see me again."

Finally remembering what the young crime fighter had been up to, the redhead managed a wan smile. Barbara's cyber-tracking had hit a dead end at a dummy ISP provider; however, lexical and programmatic analysis of the bubble gum gun sites showed a strong similarity to web sites constructed by the cyber-geek who had wired The Joker's hideout for internet access a month before.

Considering the reaction Helena a received during her first "chat" with the young man, Barbara suspected that she very well could imagine.

"Anyhoo," Helena shrugged, "he said he didn't know anything about the bubble goo guns, and I don't think he was lying."

The older woman's soft sigh was interrupted when Helena paused on her way to the kitchen.

"But get this: I found out he had a roommate in college who runs a CyberClown web site."

Apparently taking the redhead's slow blink as a sign that she needed to digest that bit of intel, the dark figure bounced into the kitchen, returning momentarily with a liter of Mountain Dew in one hand, a Red Bull in the other.

"Seemed like a pretty good connection, two peas in a pod and all, right?"

The younger woman dropped onto the couch, propping her booted feet on the coffee table. Suspecting that some response was called for, Barbara cast about.

"Er, yes, I'll follow up on that."


The voice from the other side of the tall sofa was partially obscured by the fizzy hiss of a soda bottle opening.

"Let me know when you want me to talk to this guy one on one."

Barbara blinked again, something about her partner's over-eager offer reminding her that she needed to do something.

Oh. Yes.


Slowly, she made her way to the living area, situating herself next to the wing chair. She carefully set the brake on her chair then flirted with the idea of releasing it.

Doing so would afford her the opportunity to fidget a bit. Pacing, knuckle-cracking, foot-tapping: all seemed de rigueur for this situation.

Squaring her shoulders, the redhead pushed the impulse aside, knit her fingers in her lap, and drew in a fortifying breath.

"Helena, I need to talk with you."

The younger woman smiled inquisitively and lowered the remote she'd just raised dramatically in the direction of the big screen. Barbara realized how much her tension must be showing when her companion then set her soda on the coffee table before leaning back to cross her legs at the knees.

"Sure. What's up?"

The analytical woman managed a smile which was, she feared, a trifle bilious, and searched her infallible memory for the words she'd come up with.

"I'm late."

Too late, Barbara realized that the words were not the careful description of the tests and analyses, the hypotheses and possibilities... They were not the carefully planned speech which would lead her partner along the same evidence trail she'd followed, allowing Helena to grasp what she was working up to...

Apparently, they were also entirely too vague, as evidenced by her companion's response.

Looking mildly baffled, but obviously ready to remedy the situation, the brunette gracefully stood, fishing into her front pants pocket, presumably for car keys.

"Okay, Red. How many traffic laws can I break to get you where ever you need to be?"

The cyber-genius stifled a wild laugh, wondering if there were a vehicle in the world which would be fast enough. Feeling distinctly as if she were being strangled, Barbara tried again.

"Late?", she managed to grit out, putting a hell of a lot of emphasis on the single syllable.

Apparently, multiple master's degrees, eidetic memory, and voluminous reading notwithstanding, her vocabulary had been reduced to a single word.

The younger woman seemed to realize that she was missing something, for she drew her hand from her pocket and raised her eyebrows in question, glancing around the room. Perhaps, Barbara grimly surmised, in search of a white rabbit with a waistcoat and pocket watch.

Finally, the brunette cautiously prompted, "Foooor?".

Barbara tried again, deciding that if this didn't do it, she'd move on to sign language next.


This time, it came out completely without inflection, however, third time really was the charm.

With a sense of disbelief which bordered on alarm, Barbara saw Helena's knees seem to sag visibly. The always-graceful younger woman made an ungainly hop-step to drop onto the couch.

The redhead easily forgave the lapse of grace; after all, her arms and upper spine had responded in a very similar manner not two hours before.

"Late?" the other woman asked, gesturing in the general vicinity of the older woman's midsection.

Since she'd realized that she obviously was at a loss for words, Barbara simply nodded, distantly curious about how long it would take for her companion to recover her own vocabulary.

Half a minute of contemplation seemed to do the trick.

"How late?"

Exhaling slowly, Barbara found her hands on the rims of her wheels, absently attempting to rock herself. She sternly removed her hands, locking her fingers in a death grip in her lap.

"Four weeks."

At the vision of cupid's bow lips falling in shock, she hastily tacked on, "Give or take a few days."

The redhead held her breath, watching as the smaller woman carefully wet her lips with the tip of her tongue and then brightened. Helena opened her mouth to speak, raising one slender index finger in a gesture which clearly suggested "Here's an idea".

Opting to forestall any platitudes before they could begin, Barbara dropped her hand to the side pocket of her chair and fished for the EPT indicator. The brunette's mouth snapped shut when the older woman leaned forward to offer the evidence.

Even Helena would have to see that there wasn't any way to misinterpret the single word which had popped into results window -- with alarming alacrity -- after she deposited a few drops of urine in the device. Of course, if her partner had some further doubts -- which, the analytical woman had to admit, wouldn't be altogether unwarranted -- she had printouts from the spectrograms from her own tests tucked in the pocket of her chair, at the ready.

In deafening silence, the brunette accepted the small piece of plastic, glancing at it before setting it very precisely on the coffee table next to her beverages.

From the first time she'd met the emotional younger woman, Barbara had discovered that Helena had never been able -- or, perhaps, she realized with a sudden flash of insight, had never been willing -- to hide her feelings from her. This moment was no exception.

Hurt. Anguish. Disbelief. Fury.

They all bled across the brunette's expressive features like freeze frame images under a strobe light. The redhead found herself wishing desperately to rewind time -- just five or ten minutes -- so that she could try again, perhaps sparing them both the mistake of speaking apart from her planned words.

"Helena, no, it's not--"

"How the fuck could you?!"

The words were ragged with fury -- and betrayal, Barbara suspected -- but the brunette's voice was a whisper.

Placatingly, helplessly, the redhead raised one hand, then allowed it to drop to her lap.

"I thought -- "

She looked up, forcing herself to meet eyes which were no longer blue and spoke more firmly.

"I assumed that it was yours."

Dark brows lowered, then raised.

"Ours," the older woman heard herself clarifying, needlessly.

For an interminable fifteen seconds, she remained still, braving her partner's incredulous stare. When the younger woman finally spoke, her words laced with pained anger, the redhead felt herself jump.

"I know you told me you have a preference, and maybe I'm not it, Barbara."

The words were cold as steel, and the older woman worked not to flinch.

"But," the brunette continued, her eyes snapping to a flat grey-blue, "when I take off the 'gear' -- "

Her voice eloquently imbued the word with venom.

"-- I am still a woman."

"Hel, no--"

Barbara cut herself off, blinking against the heat in her eyes. Clenching her jaw against her own fury, she reminded herself that an argument would gain nothing. She needed a different approach, a different way to get her hurting companion to hear the truth.

Deliberately, then, she lowered her tone to an intimate purr.

"Indeed you are, Sweetheart, and I, for one, am very grateful."

The tactic had its intended consequence, and the younger woman calmed although she still seemed to bristle when Barbara approached and extended her hand, palm up.

"I, er, thought that your meta genetics..."

Gradually, slender, tanned fingers came to rest lightly in hers. A wry snort was her only acknowledgement, so the redhead plowed ahead.

"Perhaps if we tested a sample, er, from you?"

Disbelieving blue-grey eyes met green, and the younger woman carefully disentangled their joined hands.

"Sure, let me just whip something out. Just like a teenager in heat, huh?"

Stung, Barbara withdrew her hand and dropped her head. Instinctively, she caught the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefinger, pinching against the pressure building within her. With her eyes squeezed shut, it took her a beat to hear, then identify the shift in the air for what it was: Helena rising swiftly from the couch and moving soundlessly around the coffee table.

Panicked, she raised her hand.

"Hel, you know I don't think that."

The redhead could see the anger leaving the younger woman's body on a tired sigh.

"I know. It's just -- I told you it's not all the time."

The brunette looked up at the gears of the big clock, directing her next words to them.

"Right about now, I don't know if I'll ever do it again."

Somehow, the older woman managed a smile which was meant to be sympathetic although she suspected it came out more like a grimace. Her partner didn't seem to notice, scrubbing her hands roughly across her face before finally turning to meet her eyes again.

The depth of confusion and agony in those expressive features was staggering.

"I've gotta..."

The brunette's voice rose, and she gesticulated toward the balcony. Barbara could only nod, having no words to stop her, to call her to her arms.

And then, Helena was gone, not even bothering to snag her duster on the way out. When she shut the French doors quietly behind her, emptiness crashed around the redhead.

Chapter 17

There's a cat in the window
And he's watching all the birds go passing by
He'd love to fly out the window
Go where the wind goes
And so would I


Barbara straightened from the keyboard with a slow sigh, balefully regarding the large plasma display in front of her. Knowing that it was not, in fact, what she was seeing which was at the heart of her feelings, she roughly tugged off her glasses and dropped them on the table next to an errant zip drive she'd been fiddling with earlier.

What in the name of The Mamas and The Papas had possessed her to put on music? Much less this particular disc?

She leaned back, pushing her shoulders against the padded back of her chair and tipping her head to stare at the ceiling. A moment later, she raised both arms, scrubbing her fingers through her hair before lacing them behind her head.

She knew why she'd chosen to flip on the Delphi's sound system when she'd retreated to her refuge after Helena's abrupt departure ninety minutes before: The whirring and ticking of the clock above her had threatened to close in as she attempted to focus on following Helena's lead about the CyberClown web master.

A bit of background noise had seemed eminently logical, however, she certainly had to question her own wisdom in selecting this particular CD.

Or, perhaps not.

Years before, when she'd come across her angry new ward's Walkman, she'd picked it up, curious about her charge's tastes. To her distinct surprise, she'd not heard angry head banging rock or even soulful lamenting. Rather, it had been Petula Clark, warbling about knowing a place. Naturally, the redhead had been compelled to ask the teen about it; she'd been touched, but not terribly surprised, when the girl had shyly muttered something about how her mother had enjoyed it and the two of them had danced around their living room to the sixties pop beat.

Since then, Barbara had always kept a copy of the woman's greatest hits in every vehicle and at the Delphi.

Like that cat in the window
Who keeps wishing for some wings to take a ride
I'd love to glide to a rainbow
Off where the clouds go dancing by
And if I could fly
You wouldn't find me hangin' around
Watching the birds go by


Irritated, the redhead leaned down and shut off the slow ballad.

It was too soon. Too much.

Dear heavens, even the upbeat lyrics of "Downtown" and "Sign of the Times" were too evocative.

Admitting defeat in her attempt to distract herself, the cyber-genius turned the Delphi to standby and shut off the small lamp to one side of her monitor. Wearily, she moved toward the living area, pausing at the base of the ramp to stare out the transom above the doors to the balcony.

Darkness unbroken by a single star greeted her, and she looked away, examining her hands where they'd come to rest in her lap.

So, was this what she could expect?

She knew -- she'd always known -- that Helena was a creature of that dark night, just as she never again could be. Even more so, her partner was...

Green eyes lost focus until an image from the bedroom came to mind.

The younger woman was a panther, not a domestic lap cat, not a being who could be caged... or held against her untamable needs.

Blinking, the relentlessly practical woman caught her upper lip against her lower teeth, fighting the band constricting her chest and throat. Eventually, she exhaled soundlessly and moved down the hall to the darkened bedroom, feeling more alone than she'd ever been.

For almost an hour, the redhead lay still in the big bed, knowing that sleep was out of the question but completely at a loss for any other course of action. The soft click of the bedroom door, coinciding with the unmistakable awareness which signaled her partner's presence, released her from increasingly bleak thoughts.

Perhaps regrettably, Helena's return seemed to trigger an explosion of emotions: Relief. Fear. Emptiness. Hope.

Drowning in the miasma, the older woman clenched her teeth, then fought an urge to giggle.

Dear heavens, was this what pregnancy hormones led to?

It hadn't been until the day before, when she'd found herself digging through some deeply frightening items in the back of the refrigerator in search of a jar of pickles, that it had dawned on the analytical woman that some of her recent behavior -- She was loathe to term them "symptoms" -- might be indicative of a common cause.

The tremendous, lingering tenderness of her breasts. Her emotions -- not that they were running amuck but that they were in evidence at all. The bouts of queasiness and exhaustion.

Sitting frozen in front of the open refrigerator, the redhead had suddenly reconsidered her assumption about her brief spotting the month before: perhaps it hadn't been due to the strain of the recent interaction with The Joker... or Dinah's graduation... or Helena's imminent departure for two weeks of chaperoning duties.

As rational as she was, Barbara had decided to treat the hypothesis as a experiment -- something to be disproved. Thus, after surviving the final Wednesday of her summer session, she'd stopped by the drug store on the way home and picked up the pregnancy test in a fit of what she'd decided to call whimsy.

Of course, there was very little that was amusing about the results.

"I didn't mean to wake you?"

The dark figure padded silently to the redhead's side of the bed, and Barbara pushed herself to a sitting position.

"I wasn't -- I couldn't sleep without you."

She held her breath at the admission, trying to take in the shifting currents between them in the silent darkness. Finally, the younger woman tentatively perched on the edge of the bed, and Barbara could see blue eyes glinting from under thick lashes.

"I'm sorry --"

The brunette stopped herself and looked up to meet the older woman's gaze.

"Really sorry that I just left like that."

At a loss for words, the redhead could only clench her jaw.

"I just needed to..."

Somehow, she had to let it go when she saw her partner struggling to describe her own need.

"Think?", she supplied quietly.


The rebuttal... the clarification was so swift and certain that the older woman didn't know how to respond.


They sat in miserable silence for a few beats until Barbara risked a quiet observation.

"You're back sooner than I'd anticipated."

The younger woman toyed with the sheet, where it was bunched near her knees.

"I found out that I like the air with you a lot better."


The redhead cleared the thickness which had welled in her throat at the soft declaration and patted the other side of the bed.

"Join me?"

The invitation was met was a flash of white teeth and the shy duck of a dark head. Seemingly within seconds, the smaller woman had stripped to her underwear and was snuggling close under the sheets. As they felt their way close, the older woman suddenly realized that she, too, found the air much more breathable with her partner beside her.

Perhaps there was some interaction based on Helena's meta-genetics which affected the O2 concentration around her.

Her random planning about setting up some controlled air quality studies were pushed aside when she sensed a slender hand coming to rest lightly over her own abdomen.

"So, we're going to be mommies, huh?"

Barbara heard a noise -- something between a laugh and a wail -- escape her, and she contented herself with a terse, "So it seems."


The short word held a world of wonder and amazement.

"I woulda liked a little more honeymoon, I guess," the brunette whispered and -- despite herself -- Barbara chuckled at the feel of dark brows waggling naughtily.

"Oh well, Kid's gonna be around for built in baby-sitting, right?"

The redhead didn't bother to respond, her mind still whirling, and the two lay quietly for a few minutes, lost in their musings.

Quietly, her hands resting over her stomach, Helena's hand protectively atop them, the analytical woman ventured an observation.

"I won't feel anything."

She felt a soft exhalation against her neck before her companion spoke, one finger tracing her knuckles.

"I understand a lot of women would say that's a good thing."

While the practical woman granted that there could be some benefits of her permanent epidural anesthesia during actual labor, she could only muster a wan smile.

"No kicks or movements, either, Hel."

The brunette shifted and pressed their hands a bit more firmly into the older woman's abdomen.

"Let's wait and see about that, huh? I mean --"

Barbara heard the smile creeping into her lover's voice.

"If the kid's got only a tenth of my genetics, you're going to be feeling kicking."

As eminently sensible as the words were, the redhead opted to embrace them. Of course, this freed her to focus on a different worry.

"You realize that I'll be fifty -- "

She heard the hint of a wail underlining the word but felt it entirely justified.

" -- when the child is in high school?"

She found that she was not eased by her lover's self-satisfied laugh. After all, the redhead had long maintained that anyone over forty-eight was too old to deal with teens.

"Good thing I'm younger, huh?"

If the laugh hadn't helped, the words at least distracted her, and Barbara extricated one hand to play-swat the slender woman's arm. The brunette accepted the swat and snuggled impossibly closer before husking a question of her own.

"So, does this mean I need to get a real job?"

That, finally, drew a genuine, full-blown laugh even as the redhead realized, with not inconsiderable relief, that her partner was taking this seriously and did have a few concerns of her own.

"I think you do plenty, Sweetheart."

"You really think so?"

Certain there was more in the endearingly shy question than issues over net income, the older woman nodded emphatically. Silence reigned again until, to her embarrassment, Barbara felt wetness pooling in her eyes and a pressure in her sinuses. She sniffled quietly.


Slender fingers touched her cheek, wordlessly asking.

"I don't know."

The words were tremulous and certainly less than informative. The younger woman exhaled softly.

"Don't know what?"

"Anything, Helena," she admitted miserably.

And, it was true. She just had no idea, no experience with -- or desire to have experience with -- small children.

Barbara Gordon didn't do children. Even as a child, she'd never played with dolls, preferring to occupy herself by disassembling electronics and, usually, rebuilding them.

Teens were trying enough, and, at the very least, they had rudimentary logic skills.

And vocabularies. She couldn't forget the benefits of verbal communication skills.

"We'll figure it out together, Red."

The gentle reassurance distracted the relentlessly practical woman from her growing panic. Her partner's next words dissolved it entirely, for the moment.

"Heck, I can see you jury-rigging the Delphi to handle the diaper changes and stuff."

Suddenly laughing -- my goodness but these hormones were a roller coaster ride -- Barbara pushed her partner onto her back, allowing the motion to carry her along to end up on top of the smaller woman.


She silenced the question, suddenly seeing that in some situations, nonverbal communication could be best. She felt the younger woman stiffen briefly, then deliberately relax into her touch. For long, wonderful minutes only ragged breathing and soft moans broke the silence until the brunette abruptly stilled, playful golden eyes seeking green.

"You, uh, don't happen to have a specimen cup lying around here, do you?"

Chapter 18

"No, I think it's a little premature to transfer to Emory, Honey."

Green eyes blinked when the redhead noticed the endearment which had slipped out, then Barbara mentally shrugged.

It was clearly overdue.

<"But, it's amazing here. The people. The architecture. The transit system. Have you seen the kudzu?">

A soft laugh bubbled past the older woman's lips, and she listened patiently to a description of the pervasive foliage's relentless progress across fields, over buildings and telephone poles, past overpasses and highways.

"Yes, I've heard that residents fertilize it with motor oil and mulch it with cinder blocks," she teased when the girl paused for breath.

For another ten minutes, the redhead worked to hold her own against her ward's verbal effusion about her recent explorations. After extracting a third promise from the girl not to submit any admission applications to the southern university just yet and reminding her, needlessly, that she and Helena would be joining the two teens in a few days, Barbara finally clicked the off button on the cordless.

She drew a deep breath and sat quietly for a moment.

Clearly, Helena wasn't the only force of nature in her life. Dinah's power to bowl one over might be less readily apparent, but it was unmistakable nevertheless.

Of course she -- and Helena -- had talked with the blonde during the two teens' exploration of the east coast on their Amtrak passes. In fact, although Barbara had only requested that her ward touch base every three or four days, the girl seemed to want to share her adventures daily, and Barbara had been delighted with the contact. Not only had she been able to travel vicariously, but she'd gotten a very real sense that her ward did seem lighter, more at peace, than prior to her departure.

A road trip was usually good for the soul.

The sound of a magazine hitting the coffee table drew her from her abstraction. The thump had been weighty enough to tell her that her partner had been occupying herself either with Vogue or the Popular Mechanics Sports Car issue.

"How's the Kid doing?"

Barbara smiled and positioned the handset in it's cradle.

"Very well. Apparently, she's fallen in love with Atlanta."

The brunette was quiet for a moment, seemingly digesting that bit of information; then she smiled brightly.

"Sure, I can see D as a southern belle."

The older woman considered that, then burst into laughter.

While she, too, could envision her ward in antebellum period costumes, unfortunately her brain insisted on replacing classic elements from "Gone With The Wind" with those which Carol Burnett had used in her 1970's camp classic "Went With The Wind" skit. Hence, instead of taffeta and crinolines, her mind's eye was clothing the lanky blonde in a heavy green brushed velvet curtain, the rod still in it, extending across her shoulders.

Her companion cocked her head, amusement clear in her eyes, but, just as clearly, Helena seemed to decide not to ask. The corners of her mouth still upturned, Barbara winked and headed back to the Delphi, very eager to check the pages which had chattered off the printer while she'd been on the phone.

With studied nonchalance, the younger woman trailed behind her on the short trip up the platform to her lab equipment.

"So, was my contribution up to snuff?"

Reaching for the thin stack of papers, the cyber-genius managed a tight smile, quite aware that after the bombshell she'd dropped the day before, it wouldn't have been surprising if the younger woman hadn't been able to ... perform for quite some time.

Mercifully, that hadn't been the case, giving the analytical woman an opportunity to check -- To confirm, some part of her stiffly demanded -- her hypothesis about her current condition.

"This could be a real boon for woman-kind, huh?"

The redhead paused in the act of sorting the printouts, raising one eyebrow dubiously.

While her partner had certainly exhibited some initial -- hostility to the idea that her meta-genetics could enable woman-to-woman fertilization, she now seemed to have embraced the concept of having abilities which were even more unique than they'd ever guessed. Frankly, the redhead had begun to wonder when the brunette was going to start grabbing her crotch and talking about spreading her seed.

A distinct change in the younger woman's expression drew the redhead from her bemusement.

"Uh, do you think I could get myself pregnant?"

Barbara couldn't help it: she burst out laughing, loud and long.

"Since you've escaped so far, let's assume that you can't, Sweetie."

Finally turning to the printouts in her lap, the older woman thought she detected a flicker of relief in twinkling blue eyes. However, what she saw before her promptly caused the light exchange to fade to insignificance.


The younger woman's prompt was soft, obviously reading something from her face. Not quite up to replying, the cyber-genius shook her head in puzzlement and tossed the papers onto her workstation. After a split-second's consideration, she made a bee-line for the kitchen.

Great green eggs and ham, but she could use a drink.

Regrettably, it didn't seem to be the most advisable course of action in her current delicate condition, so the redhead settled on liberating one of her partner's Red Bulls from the refrigerator. Sensing the puzzled eyes trained on her from the doorway, she slowly shut the refrigerator. Back still to the other woman, she popped the can, downing half the contents in one long swallow.

Fighting the urge to belch after the unconsidered guzzle, she settled the can between her legs and made her way more slowly back to the Delphi.


Barbara accompanied the terse summary by placing her beverage on a Dark Horse coaster and retrieving the printouts.


In the act of leaping back onto the platform, the brunette, oddly, seemed to hang in mid-air for a split second as she choked off her question. The older woman waited until she collected herself before nodding.

"Indeed, Hel. For lack of a better description, your sample contained basic prostate-type fluid with no zygote-producing cells present."

The dark figure leaned against the edge of the desk, her perpetually raised left brow shooting higher. Since she, herself, had absolutely nothing more to offer at the moment, the redhead waited, watching her partner process the information.

"What if..."

The dark brows furrowed, and a slender hand reached out, seemingly of its own volition, to snag the half-empty can of Red Bull. Barbara didn't bat an eye.

"... I shot an egg or something? So,"

Those expressive caramel features visibly brightened.

"So, it's only some times in the month?"

Barbara felt one of her own eyebrows crawling skyward when the brunette punctuated her question by draining the can and setting it neatly back on the coaster.

"It seems like quite a stretch, Helena," she finally allowed, retrieving the empty and tossing it into the trash.

"A stre-- ?!"

The younger woman's laugh was patently incredulous, and Barbara blinked once as Helena abruptly jumped to her feet.


Despite the energy beginning to roll off her, the brunette's voice was almost too patient.

"Unless we've got another immaculate conception on our hands and the apocalypse is near, you tell me how -- "

The older woman really, really wished that she could. Instead, she sought her lover's gaze.

"I did not -- "

Blue eyes flickered wide, then dark lashes lowered against the younger woman's curt nod.

"I know, Red."

For the first time since she'd seen -- nay, comprehended -- the meaning behind the printouts, the redhead managed a deep breath. The reprieve was short-lived when she saw the pallor appear under the younger woman's dark features.

"Oh fuck."

Alarmingly, the dark vigilante seemed to sway, and Barbara spoke briskly.

"Sit down, now."

The younger woman collapsed on the edge of the Delphi platform, dropping her head onto her hands, elbows on her knees.

"What if it's...?"

Unlocking the brake on her chair, the redhead knit her brows.


She saw the dark figure's jaw clench, the lines of her face harden.

"Nah, forget it. It's not possible."

Now seriously alarmed, Barbara changed her intended direction of travel, choosing to coast down the ramp and execute a sharp turn -- two wheels briefly left the ground -- to approach her partner at her level. She waited until the blue eyes peered through shaggy bangs then spoke very precisely.

"In our lives -- and our line of work -- Sweetheart, I've learned that few things are out of the realm of possibility."

She waited as the other woman absorbed that, chewing at the corner of her mouth. Finally, Helena exhaled roughly and met the cyber-genius' gaze, looking for all the world as if she'd prefer to be anywhere else, saying anything else.

When Barbara heard her partner's words, she understood the desire very well.

"Uh, couple of weeks ago, when I was in the bubble gum factory and The Joker tried out his bubble goo...?"

The older woman nodded that she certainly remembered the incident, and the brunette's Adam's apple bobbed twice.

"What if there was something in it which, uh..."

The brunette's voice seemed to fail her, but it didn't matter: Barbara definitely had the gist of the hypothesis.

The room seemed to tilt on it's axis, spinning dizzyingly around her. The redhead swallowed against something rising in her throat, then raised one hand to stifle a wild laugh.

What a tremendous prank that would be if Jack Napier were to fulfill the threat from his first meeting with a young Batgirl so many years before.

Immediately, the analytical woman's mind ran the math, the biology, calculating that it would be another six to eight weeks before amniocentesis could be used reliably.

Again, nausea rose in her throat, and green eyes flicked to the drug cabinet.

It was, obviously, too late for the morning after pills; however, there were certainly other...

"What the fuck are you thinking?"

The angry words cut through her pharmaceutical inventory, making the older woman flinch.

"Guess that tells me about whether you'd keep it."

Bitterness was pushing the anger to one side, and Barbara hesitantly met incredulous blue eyes.

"Perhaps this is a... sign that this is not meant--"

The younger woman cut her off, one slender hand slashing harshly through the air.

"Fuck that! You can't even give it a chance?"

Helena spun away, her next words addressed to the balcony doors.

"Give me a chance? You don't think we could..."

The brunette's trembling was visible, her breathing shallow as she seemed to work to control herself. The older woman couldn't miss how her partner was leaning -- unconsciously, Barbara suspected -- toward the balcony. The redhead didn't think she needed their years of association to know how badly the brunette wanted to run, to fly through the skies...

But, to Barbara's distinct surprise, Helena didn't fly -- yet. Slender shoulders slumped before the deceptively small woman turned, dragging her hands roughly across her face, her energy and restlessness almost visible in the confines of the living room.

Wordlessly, she approached, kneeling before the older woman. The dark head remained bowed, perhaps following the progress of one slender hand to Barbara's thigh. With an exhausted sigh, Helena leaned in, her posture completely... submissive, and the redhead stiffened as sinewy arms gently circled her waist.

"Give it... us a chance on this, Barbara. We've only tried one sample."

The redhead had to dredge the words from her mind, then work to free her breathing, and finally struggle to open her mouth.

"I... I don't know, Helena."

The younger woman still didn't make eye contact. Instead, she turned to press her mouth to the redhead's abdomen, and green eyes squeezed shut at the pain of not feeling the benediction of the soft kiss.

"We don't have to know anything tonight, Red."

Settling her hands on the brunette's shoulders, Barbara felt her partner's tightly coiled muscles and couldn't suppress her own instinctive terror.

"S'alright, Red."

The brunette rested her head in her lap, and -- somehow -- the older woman managed to bend, to press a kiss to dark hair. She chose not to straighten, rubbing small circles against the younger woman's back as they remained in their separate silences.

It was distant minutes later that Barbara realized that her mouth was moving against the chestnut silk beneath her, soundlessly whispering something over and over. Even with the awareness, it took the redhead another moment to identify her words, her plea:

Don't go.

Chapter 19

<"Go on, Poindexter, tell me another one.">

So absorbed in her research was she and so rapidly were her long fingers flying across the keyboard that Barbara paid scant attention to the words echoing through the comm set. It was only when she heard a response -- a high-pitched male squeak -- that the cyber-crime fighter turned her attention to the events transpiring outside the circle of the Delphi.

Belatedly, she realized that while Helena's words had been playful, her voice had been anything but. There had been a current of barely restrained rage in the dark vigilante's tone which, even now, left the hair on the back of the older woman's neck raised in a shiver.

<<"I d-- didn't want any-anyone to get hurt!">>

The young woman's laconic response was decidedly unimpressed.

<"Sorry, dude, but my Give-a-damn is busted tonight.">

<<"R--rreally... It was just f-f-for fun.">>

Regretfully, Barbara turned away from her focused research, concentrating fully on her partner's confrontation with the self-styled CyberClown, the individual who had been foolish enough to attempt to market The Joker's weapon's in their town.

The sub vocal rumbling growl she heard was not reassuring.

<"Is that so?">

The rapid sounds of the young man's frightened breathing were much clearer, suggesting that Helena had drawn close -- very close -- to the man. The leader of the small team of vigilantes drew in a soft breath, willing herself to trust in her partner.

When Barbara had confirmed the web master's identity an hour before, just after Helena's shift had ended at the bar, the brunette had casually volunteered to "have a chat" with the man. Although the bots were doing their job of foiling any attempt he made to generate sales -- and had managed to funnel a tidy sum into the victims' relief fund -- the enterprising fellow had, in truth, broken no laws. A dark night visit from a dark night vigilante had seemed a reasonable way to attempt to persuade the man of the error of his ways.

Now, however, hearing the tight edge to the younger woman's words, aware of the tension which had been building within her and which certainly hadn't been helped by the events of the night before, the cyber-crime fighter was having a few doubts.

<"So, what's so much fun about this? Have you tried it?">

The soft creak of leather brushing against someone, immediately followed by a soft masculine whimper, placed Helena in very close proximity to her quarry. Foolishly, the young man tried to debate with his visitor.

<<"It's just gum and glue and stuff.">>

That dark, patient rumble sounded again, a terrifying counterpoint to words which flowed through the transceiver like silk.

<"Yeah? You ever been covered in it so you can't move... can't breathe...?">

Crimson brows furrowed when the redhead heard what sounded very much like a heartbeat through the comms.

Was Helena that close to the CyberClown?

A low chuckle -- not the younger woman's -- provided the answer to the question.

<<"Like, uh, maybe autoerotic asphyxiation?">>

The man sounded entirely too intrigued by the idea, and Barbara could almost put an acne-ridden face to the voice.


And, the brunette's reply led the redhead to fear that her partner might actually be considering the none-too-subtle offer.

<"And, seeing how I have been kind of itchy lately...">

The purr might have seemed inviting to the uninitiated, however Barbara couldn't mistake the flatness underlying the words.

Heaven only knew, her partner's words were true enough. Helena and she had spent the last night together, awake in the tower, with Barbara moving aimlessly from the Delphi to the living area and with the brunette perched on the arm of the couch.

Sitting shivah together.

The analytical woman had been trying to plan, to think, to find answers... or even ways to try to find answers. And Helena --

Well, the younger woman had... been there. Although the quiet murmur of the television had masked the silence, every time Barbara had looked over, she'd found shuttered blue eyes turned toward her.

It had been a relief to them both, she suspected, when the sun had finally peaked through the transom, and the redhead had departed for her final day of classes.

<"So, maybe we should give it a whirl and see if it gets you off...">

When she heard the cocking of a rifle, the older woman could restrain herself no longer.

"Huntress. What's the situation?"

Dead silence followed the soft question for a full ten seconds. Finally, Barbara detected the softest scuff of her partner moving away and the quiet click of a gun's safety being engaged.

<"Just... wrapping things up. I wanted to share a little something with you, Laughing Boy.">

With a practiced gesture, the redhead raised thumb and forefinger, pushing her glasses to her forehead and pinching the bridge of her nose tightly. The tension which had taken possession of her a few minutes before slowly bled away, only to be replaced by a different tension when she heard her partner speaking quietly with the young man.

Snorting softly as Helena gave the web master the address of Chains Of Love -- with a specific recommendation to ask for Clint -- she turned back to the monitor, eager to resume her research. Just because she hadn't had any luck in the last five hours in locating information about early, in utero, genetic sampling didn't mean that the data wasn't out there.

<"Well, that was a fun little appetizer. What's next, Oracle?">

The redhead straightened, checking the on-screen clock. She didn't need to consult the scanners: nothing had come in all evening other than a few purse snatching and muggings.

"It's quiet tonight, Huntress. Why--"

Barbara swallowed, hoping against hope that her stumble would go unnoticed.

"Why don't you come in for the night?"

When she heard her partner's soft, slow inhalation, she tried a different tact.

"We do have to be ready for tomorrow."

Granted, the flight to Montego Bay wasn't that early and she, for one, had been packed for days; still, perhaps the reminder would strike a chord with the younger woman.

The silence which met the words was practically deafening. Out of reflex, the redhead checked the volume on her headset, thumbing it all the way up and, consequently, nearly losing her hearing when her partner finally responded.

<"I, ah, don't know if that's such a good idea right now, Oracle.">

Frantically turning the volume back down, Barbara interrupted, "Huntress, please don--"

<"Almost a full moon and all, you know,"> the brunette continued, ignoring the soft plea.

The older woman felt something sharp and angry snap within her but managed to draw upon years of practice before she said something which she knew wouldn't help matters.

Counting to thirty-seven by primes, she relaxed her jaw finally.

"Huntress, please come in. I don't care about--"

The brunette's answer was almost lost when the transceiver was shut off at the other end.

<"I do.">

Slowly, methodically, Barbara removed her earpiece, neatly coiling the small antenna around the set and storing it in her top drawer. That done, she toggled the screen saver for the Delphi, not even close to cracking a smile when the animated Count Bloodcount appeared with a Transylvanian "Gooood evening." Finally, she removed her glasses, tucking them neatly into the side pocket of her chair before backing a few feet from the work center.

Dammit and double dammit.

For a long, breathless moment, the crimson-haired crime fighter remained locked in a rictus of bitter anger. Her hands curled around the arms of the chair with punishing force, battling the unyielding metal while she shut her eyes, pushing... pushing back at the emotions rioting within.

The softest click from beneath the arm of the chair -- a tiny responding movement from brushing against the batarang secreted in the arm of the chair -- caused the redhead's eyes to fly open, and she exhaled slowly. Barbara allowed her index finger to caress the weapon, breathing slowly as she allowed her eyes to wander up the far wall.

The Richard M. Nixon commemorative plate, which hung below a digital photograph of tropical fish being suspended in one of Dinah's TK bubbles, gradually drew her attention.

Honestly, she'd been meaning to ask Alfred to relocate the damned thing to the Batcave for weeks.

Long fingers twitched over the catch which would free the batarang, and the redhead felt her heart bang against her chest. Fortuitously or not, something below the decorative additions to the wall drew her gaze down.

"Dear heavens."

Barbara jumped when she heard her own soft whisper, instantly shrugging off her surprise and dropping her hands to the wheels of her chair. Carefully, she approached the back wall, the soft rubber of the wheels permitting a stealth unwarranted by her solitude, and came to a halt.

The drug cabinet.

Helena and she hadn't discussed matters again, and for uncounted minutes, the redhead remained still on the dais, turning the issues over in her mind. When she finally emerged from her abstraction, she relocked the unit and turned to the bedroom, as confident as she knew that she'd ever be about her course of action.

Having made up her mind, the practical woman didn't vacillate, moving swiftly and efficiently... until she'd finished and found herself in the living room, one hand on the handle of the doors leading to the balcony.

It wasn't too late. She could retreat... back away... wait.

Red hair shook roughly in irritation, and Barbara opened the door, moving into the darkness. With its balustrade, not to mention the gargoyles perched at attention, the balcony was shielded from most of the nighttime light from the city which flooded lower lairs. With the clouds obscuring the sky, night filled the cloistered perch like coffee in a deep cup.

That was fine. She was comfortable in the darkness, at home with the night.

With her fingers knit loosely across her abdomen, elbows resting lightly on the arms of her chair, the redhead shivered despite herself as her body responded to the night air: while it was still a muggy June evening at street level, eighteen stories up, the air was marginally less fetid, the night wind less impeded by other buildings.

The chill didn't matter. The sheerness of the material covering her was unimportant. As was the darkness surrounding her.

The cyber-vigilante steeled herself for her vigil, allowing her mind to drift to the distant sound of traffic below her, the soft click of the gears of the clock behind her, the whisper of the wind surrounding her. For over an hour, she remained fixed, waiting.

A nearly soundless shifting of the air currents, coinciding with an almost electric frission of awareness, alerted the redhead that she was no longer alone. In the darkness, she couldn't see her companion; she certainly couldn't hear her; but the presence was unmistakable.

That awareness was something which had existed almost since the time she'd become the younger woman's guardian. Awakening -- or drifting into consciousness from her morphine haze in the hospital -- she'd always been able to sense when the lonely young woman was keeping vigil. She hadn't really recognized the awareness for what it was until years later, when she'd been able to enter the apartment and had known whether her charge was present or not.

A silky rough whisper, floating through the darkness, its origins indiscernible, interrupted her reverie.

"What are you doing out here?"

Although a shiver coursed through the older woman again, she distantly recognized that it was not from cold.

Nor, for that matter, did its origin lie in fear.

As Barbara had considered her partner's unwillingness to return to the tower earlier, she'd instinctively known that Helena would not stay away: even if the younger woman wouldn't allow herself to be with her, the redhead knew that Helena would not allow her to go... unwatched.

Without turning her head -- doubtless, by the time she pinned down where the question had originated, the other woman would have drifted into another shadow -- she traced the tip of her tongue around the edges of her suddenly very dry lips. As casually as she could, the redhead smoothed the maroon silk against her thigh, resettling the material after it fluttered in the breeze.

Unable to keep herself from wondering if this had been such a good idea, Barbara nevertheless ignored her fear. Still, she obfuscated a bit.

"It's a beautiful night, isn't it?"

A derisive snort suggested that New Gotham's usual cloudy pall was less than aesthetically pleasing to the younger woman. The rustle of leather, the deliberate scuff of a boot heel, and the sense of movement, suggested that Helena's patience was running thin.

"Waiting for you," the redhead admitted softly.

"I told you..."

The brunette's whisper was soft, but Barbara clearly detected the anger and pain lacing the words.

"... it wasn't a good idea."

Between the penultimate word and the last, the voice shifted from somewhere behind the older woman to her left side. Something electric danced over the redhead's arms, and distantly she wondered if a storm were brewing.

"I had to, Helena."

Barbara gave in to her own restless ache, turning in the direction she'd last placed her partner. When the breeze again lifted the hem of the silk robe she'd changed into earlier, she allowed the material to fall where it would, focusing instead on extending her own senses.

Certain now, the redhead turned a slow half-circle, dancing with her unseen partner.

"You know better than that."

The words came from exactly where Barbara had placed the brunette.

"I do."

A defeated sigh husked through the darkness, and the redhead hastened to explain.

"I know that I want--"

Roughly, she shook her head against her own damnable inarticulateness and let the truth form itself.

"I need you, Helena."

"You have me."

Barbara rotated another quarter turn, keeping pace with the dismissive voice.

"All of you, Hel."

She jumped at a muted thump from the shadows before she placed the sound: a heavy leather duster hitting the flagstones.

"You so sure about that, Red?"

Instead of simply turning to follow in their pas de duex, this time the older woman moved to intercept.

"Very, Sweetheart."

A slender figure morphed from the shadows, the darkness still blending the lines of where the young woman ended and darkness began.

The analytical woman had time to appreciate the aptness of the image even as something so cold that it burned touched her soul.

"You've been teasing me. Making me want you... need you."

The shadowy figure continued her predatory circling, and Barbara forced herself to remain still. She'd come out into the night to set a trap, with herself as bait, and damned if she'd back away now.

"Are you going to let me have what I need? Are you going to let me in?"

The redhead nodded slowly, positive that those eyes burning so brightly would see. Apparently, the assumption was a good one, for, in a heartbeat, Helena abandoned the shadows and was in the older woman's lap, her knees buried deep in the thick padding on each side of Barbara's thighs.

Well aware that the younger woman could easily hear her breathing, could smell her nervousness, could feel her heartbeat, the older woman steadied herself, calling to mind why she was there. With that, she relaxed under her partner's burning, searching gaze, allowing the dark figure to seek -- and hopefully find -- what she needed.

A minute, perhaps two, elapsed under the steady scrutiny before the tense set of slender shoulders eased the tiniest bit. The redhead risked a soft smile, rewarded by the sensation of slender fingers tracing the vee'd neck of her robe.

And then she saw it: the dark figure in her lap gentled, a smile which was less predatory than voracious gracing those beautiful full lips.

"Are you wearing anything under this?"

Barbara felt her eyes crinkle in amusement and captured her partner's roving fingers, bringing them to her lips.

"You tell me."

She punctuated the words with a brief kiss, patiently withstanding the younger woman's frankly assessing look. Barbara had reason to be glad she'd not looked away when she witnessed the way the brunette's features transformed from challenge to urgency.

Amazed, the redhead watched as the lithe figure flowed off her lap, dropping to her knees before her. She caught her breath when the brunette ran her hands -- visibly shaking -- up her unfeeling thighs and leaned in.

With a brief flicker of bitterness, Barbara realized that, if she could feel, she would be experiencing the press of the younger woman's chest against her knees.

Golden eyes grew heavy lidded, and aquiline nostrils flared as the young woman sampled the night air.

"You are. And you shouldn't be."

Suddenly impossibly warm, the older woman mustered a tender smile.

"You're half-right, Sweetie."

The words seemed to strike her companion with the force of a blow, the dark head rearing back and golden eyes flashing dizzyingly to blue, then back to gold. A cupids bow lip raised in a snarl before Helena dropped her head again, her face not quite touching the older woman's legs, and scented her, an almost indecent expression of delight -- and naked arousal evident in her features.

Barbara lightly rested her right hand on her partner's shoulder, steadying herself when she saw the tip of a pink tongue darting out, brushing the seam of her thighs. Despite the fact that this little encounter was something she had planned, the analytical woman had to search for courage before she could make the next move.

It was the soft trembling of the younger woman's jaw which did the trick.

"Dear heavens, Hel."

She held the incendiary gaze, separating her own legs where the thick padding on the sides kept them from falling open. Slender fingers pushed the hem of the thin robe up.

"May I?"

Despite the tension, the energy, radiating from the younger woman, Helena's question was almost hesitant, allowing the redhead the opportunity to stop, to run.

Running, Barbara realized with something close to pain, had simply never been an option for her where Helena was concerned.

Wordless, she placed one hand on back of her lover's head and fought against the instinct to close her eyes as she tenderly pulled the young woman in.

Helena's reverent murmur shook Barbara to her core. She blinked against the blurriness wondering why her lover had straightened up and was swaying forward until she felt soft lips kissing her cheeks... her jaw... her eyes... and realized that she was crying. She didn't understand that she had spoken until she heard her own hitching whisper.

"My sweet girl."

Crimson brows knit when the younger woman slowly pulled away, and the redhead held her breath at the earnest blue eyes which demanded her full attention.

"I'm not your girl, Barbara. I'm your lover, your partner."

Transfixed, the older woman nodded, and the brunette came eye-to-eye with her.

"And, I'm here, Barbara."

And in that instant the time for tears was done. The older woman dropped her hands to her waist, fumbling against the efficient half-hitch. The swish of the robe's silken sash sliding through the loops at each side was harsh in the darkness, but neither woman flinched as Barbara held up the delicate tie. Placing the length of silk in her partner's strong hands, the redhead registered the startled blink of bright eyes and smiled warmly.

"Care to help me with this?"

Chapter 20

She was being watched.

Groggy as she was, Barbara knew that there was no other explanation for the sensation which was relentlessly dragging her from a deep and satisfying slumber. Yet, she blearily noted, she wasn't experiencing the instinctive discomfort... or fear... which always accompanied the knowledge.

With her curiosity lending its voice to her awareness of... something, the redhead pried open one eye and promptly allowed the lid to slam back down. Her internal chronometer had already informed her that she'd only enjoyed a few hours of sleep after a very... energetic evening; the brief peek into the predawn darkness of the bedroom confirmed the accuracy of her mental clock, and the cyber-genius vehemently wished to hit whatever lobe in her brain which could function as a snooze alarm.

"God, you're beautiful."

Having never been Mary Sunshine in the morning, Barbara was not in the mood for her bedmate's flattery. Not to mention the fact that she knew her hair had to look like something out of her crochet basket.

Still... Obviously Helena had been quietly observing her for some time. She could certainly manage some sort of greeting before dozing off again.

Calling upon her formidable willpower, the older woman cracked her eye again and emitted a less than gracious "Hrrumph."

"Really beautiful."

That did it.

The reverent whisper blazed past Barbara's defenses, evaporating her early morning grumpiness like a triple espresso.

"Mmmm -- lena."

She yawned her greeting through a stretch, promptly wincing when the movement recalled some of her activities from not too many hours before.

"Oh, fuck..."

Still crawling into her own body, the older woman saw her partner's stricken expression but couldn't make sense of it until Helena cautiously touched her cheek.

"Did I hurt you?"

The older woman knit her brows, then her eyes popped open, and she performed a quick inventory. Carefully turning her head from side to side on the pillow, she recognized the distinctive pull of the dried blood against the tender skin of her throat. She flexed her wrists, releasing the residual soreness and suspecting that long sleeves might be in order for the day.

Helena hadn't wanted to restrain her, however she'd acquiesced when the redhead had explained that there was simply no other way she'd be able to keep her hands off her partner.

Deciding that she was much better off than she'd been after some of her nights in the field back in the day, Barbara shifted to reassure her partner and abruptly stilled. The soft cotton of the sheet dragged over her chest like acid, and she swallowed a hiss, wishing she'd remembered sooner and spared herself seeing her partner's flinch.

After all, she'd asked -- no, begged -- for the deep bite covering the fleshy side of her breast.

Shivering at the memory, she recalled the question: Had Helena hurt her?

"Heavens, no, Sweetie."

The belated answer was a tad raspy, but certainly heartfelt. Concerned, the redhead searched her partner's eyes, finally seeing the acceptance, the belief, she needed.


Green eyes narrowed, struggling to focus in the dim light.

Yes, definitely something more in Helena's eyes.


The older woman wet her lips and tried again.

"Is there something you need, Hel?"

Perhaps not her most seductive approach, but Barbara trusted that her partner would give her a little leeway, considering the early hour.

"After that?"

The younger woman's voice and face were almost comical in their incredulity, however Barbara wasn't inclined to laugh. She captured her partner's hand, drawing it to her mouth to breath a kiss to fingers rich with the complex scent of their passion.

"Yes, Hel. After you gave that to me."

And she was serious, knowing that the gift of the other woman -- unfettered -- was something rare.

This time, it was the younger woman who searched her eyes, and in the dim light she must have seen what she was looking for. Barbara was certain she saw something hungry flicker through her lover's expressive features, and her chest ached. She pushed to her side and walked her fingers up the brunette's chest slowly, knowingly repeating the question Helena had asked her not too many nights before.

"You want something, don't you?"

The brunette shifted to one side, and the older woman once again channeled Helena Kyle and smiled encouragingly.

Very encouragingly.


"It's not... not really..."

The quiet sound of their breathing circled above them for a few moments before the redhead was compelled to ask, "What is it, Sweetheart...?"

Deep blue met green. The immediate certainty of the younger woman's reply suggested that she, too, had a few mental To-Do lists of her own.

"I want you to get yourself off on me."

Somehow, Barbara managed a smile which was as puzzled as it was nervous.

"I'm not sure I understand, Hel."

The brunette shifted closer to rub sinuously against her, her purring words a touch unto themselves.

"It doesn't have to be right now, but sometime I want you to make yourself come from touching me, sucking me..."

The younger woman's voice deepened sending a jolt of electricity through the redhead.

"... biting me. Fucking me. Fuck me -- my mouth or anywhere. Or, using me to suck you or fill you. Whatever you like."

The redhead felt -- hell, heard -- her heard thudding against her ribs, her breathing tightening. Then she remembered herself -- and just who this remarkable woman was.

Tenderly, she cupped the sharp line of the brunette's jaw, tracing the pad of her thumb against full lips, blinking against a sudden sweet clarity: Helena really did have a beautifully fuckable mouth.

"I'll take that under advisement, Sweetheart."

The bright happiness in beautiful gamine features forced the analytical woman to re-prioritize some lists of her own. Tangling her fingers with the brunette's, she chuckled ruefully.

"After all, Hel, in a few more months, mobility may be even more of an issue."

The redhead promptly decided not to think about that picture just yet, fortunately distracted by her companion's shy grin.

"You're going to keep...?"

"For now."

She pushed herself closer, resting her forehead against dark bangs.

"You said it yourself, Helena. We don't have to know yet."

Unvoiced, she allowed herself a cautious hope: Perhaps, sometimes there were coincidences.

When she saw the younger woman's bright smile fade, even white teeth gnawing at a lush lower lip, she withdrew a few inches, searching eyes which shuttered before her.

"What is it, Hel?"

A muscle in the brunette's jaw ticked, and the dark figure sniffed pointedly.

"I, uh, smelled blood and, uh, wasn't sure..."

A slender hand waved toward Barbara hips. Quirking her brows, the older woman peeked under the sheet.

"No, Sweetie."

Her heart swelled, then clenched, at her partner's soft sigh. Seeing something more, she waited, pierced by something as pained blue eyes met hers then, uncharacteristically, looked away.

"I thought maybe, last night, that I did something..."

It took only an instant for Barbara to grasp the sense of the question, her answer torn out of her in the next breath.

"Dear heavens, no, Hel. You can't think--"

The other woman's shaky exhalation was demonstration enough that she could... that she had, indeed, thought as much.

Slowly, still looking down at her hands against the covers, the younger woman husked a second question.

"Would you?"

Barbara, somehow, was more prepared for this.

Carefully, she inclined her head to one side, attempting to meet her partner's gaze. When the brunette resolutely refused to acknowledge her effort, she raised her right hand, touching her first and second fingers to the strong line of her lover's tightly clenched jaw. Gently, but quite firmly, she tipped the younger woman's head up and captured her eyes.

"No, Helena. Never without talking with you."

For one of the few times that she'd known the other woman, Barbara found that she was unable to read her expression, her eyes.


She wanted to look away, but would not let herself. She ran the tip of her tongue around the edges of her lips and tried again.

"Do you trust me, Helena?"

And then the younger woman met her eyes fully, her expression open, revealing everything. Struck by a powerful sense of deju vu, the older woman tipped her head to the side and knit her brows, working to put her finger on the feeling.

It was the eyes, Barbara finally decided. Helena's stunning blue eyes were heavy-lidded with trust... and openness... and want... in a way that the redhead hadn't known she was familiar with.

No, the older woman admitted; she had become quite familiar with the expression in the last few months. However, somehow, until this moment she hadn't realized that she'd seen it -- so many times before -- in her partner's eyes.

With the recognition came the memory of the first time she'd seen the expression. It had been less than six months after she'd left the hospital, and Barbara had been working mightily to keep things together -- or, at least, to present the appearance that she was. Accepting a world which had suddenly narrowed to limitations, acquiescing to the less-than-gentle handling by various therapists, embracing the sudden responsibility for a teenager who was in as much, if not more, pain than she was.

Her angry young ward had slunk in from school that afternoon, and Barbara had immediately known that something was wrong. The girl had attempted to duck by her, but the redhead's reflexes were still fast enough to snag one painfully thin wrist and coax Helena to turn. The sight she'd faced had been horrifying -- black eyes, split lip, bruises on top of cuts on top of scrapes. She'd ignored her ward's embarrassment, then her angry protests that she would splash some alcohol.

Somehow instincts she could never imagine having had shown themselves, and Barbara had gentled the girl, leading her to the kitchen table to tend to her injuries. She'd made a conscious decision not to ask about the altercation -- somehow, she'd had a suspicion that she might hear about it from the school later -- and focused carefully, one cut and scrape at a time.

When she'd looked up at some point, there it had been: blue eyes fixed only on her, filled with perfect trust and something she'd only allowed herself to see as expectation.

Or, perhaps, anticipation.

With a blink, the redhead understood that she'd seen the expression countless times since and, somehow, for years, missed it.

Her insight must have shown, the redhead realized, because her bedmate exhaled slowly, not bothering to respond to a question for which there could be only one answer.

"When will you trust me, Red?"

With a start, Barbara felt a curtain slide shut between them: not a heavy blackout curtain like those which covered the bedroom window against the morning sun, but something translucent which offered tantalizing, shady images from behind.

It took the analytical woman a few seconds to recognize that the obscurement had come from within. A split-second later, she noticed that her partner was unsurprised.

"If you can't trust me on sweeps..."

The redhead saw a muscle in the younger woman's jaw tic before Helena's voice turned impossibly more ragged

"... if you don't trust me--"

Almost desperately, the older woman wanted to interrupt... to protest... or to explain. She forced herself to allow the brunette to speak her piece.

"-- then how can you... we share --"

Dark brows furrowed, dark lashes almost hiding the pain in bright blue eyes when a slender hand gestured towards the older woman's midsection.


"Helena, no. I do--"

The protest was cut short when the lithe figure suddenly rolled over, gracefully straddling the older woman's hips, and shook her head once. Even in the dim light, Barbara could see a dawning awareness in those expressive features.

"It wasn't about the second robber at all, was it?"

Befuddled, yet again, and possibly suffering from conversational whiplash, the redhead blinked. Several times.

"I'm sorry, Helena. I missed something."

The younger woman leaned down, her hands coming to rest on the matress above Barbara's shoulders.

"The convenience store before graduation?"

Still at a loss, the older woman nodded once, signifying that she knew which incident Helena was referring to. The brunette straightened, taking her weight back on her knees, and canted her head to one side.

"You weren't upset about that, the second robber, were you?"

Crimson brows inched toward the headboard.


The younger woman nodded, her voice suddenly calm and certain.

"It was The Joker. That it was so close with him, wasn't it? You still don't trust me not to fuck up and get dead, do you?"

The question was deceptively normal, almost philosophical, Barbara thought, however she couldn't -- wouldn't -- dismiss the seriousness of her partner's concern. Accordingly, she gave herself a few minutes to examine the accusation honestly.

Was that it? After all of these years, did she really still distrust her partner's judgment?

Green eyes lost focus, tracking toward the pillow on the older woman's left, and Barbara replayed some of the more notable events of their after-hours vocation. Slowly, she refocused on the blue eyes which regarded her so patiently and shook her head.

"No, Helena, I don't think that's really it."

The obstinate denial in blue eyes was hardly unexpected, but the redhead still wondered how -- or if -- she could explain it.

"Hel, in the life we lead, there's always a chance..."

Barbara felt her features harden and plunged ahead.

"... a very good chance that something could go wrong. I've known that since before you went on the streets."

She gave herself a breather, reaching down to tangle her fingers with her partner's hands.

"That reality is something which I can --"

Eidetic memory notwithstanding, the cyber-genius still had to search for the best word.

"... handle because I trust your abilities, your skill."

And our luck, a part of her added as the younger woman nodded, question evident in her eyes.

"I think," Barbara finally allowed, recalling a painful conversation she'd had with Dinah a month before, "what truly terrifies me, Sweetheart, is that I don't trust myself to deal with what I'd do if something did happen."

Having bared the truth, the fiercely independent woman fell silent, allowing her companion to digest what she'd said and attempting to come to terms herself.

Mixed, she decided after prodding at her feelings over the admission: her reaction was decidedly mixed over the insight that she wasn't the independent, moral rock she'd prided herself on. In truth, she probably hadn't been from the moment she'd seen a cocksure teen with attitude to spare interrupt her class years before. She definitely hadn't been since awakening in a hospital bed to find blue eyes fixed on her in supplication... and in promise.

Seeing her partner's features clear, the redhead blinked against something hot in her own eyes and smiled a bit shakily.

My, but these hormones were going to be fun, weren't they?

Ever-so-slowly, gently, Helena disentangled their joined hands and lowered herself to stretch on top of the redhead. Pinned by the slight weight of the smaller woman, Barbara realized that she was finally able to draw a deep breath.

"Can you trust enough for this?"

A warm hand brushed against the redhead's abdomen.

"A family?"

The older woman shivered at the question rumbling against her ear, at the import.

"Helena, I--"

The click of the clock radio interrupted her.

It was an unpleasant way to greet the first day of vacation, however Barbara had deemed it necessary to insure that they had time to reach the airport for their flight to meet Dinah and Gabby.

Sunspots cast a glare in my eyes
Sometimes I forget I'm alive
I feel it coming and I've gotta get out of it's way
I hear it calling and I come cuz can't disobey
I should not listen and I shouldn't believe but I do


The radio also, the relentlessly practical woman realized with a flash of clarity, provided an opportunity to reconsider her words, to focus on realities.

She turns me on
She makes it real
I have to apologize
For the way I feel

And nothing can stop me now
There is nothing to fear
And everything that ever was
Is inside of here


Barbara felt a smile taking control of her face and combed her fingers through the dark silk resting by her cheek.

"I have to, Helena. And..."

She tugged gently, needing to connect with her lover's eyes.

"... we already are a family."

A bright smile lit expressive caramel features, and Barbara pushed up with a laugh, flipping back the covers.

"In fact, let's go rejoin our family now."