FANDOM: Birds of Prey TV
DISCLAIMERS: I do not own the characters. They are the property of DC comics and the WB network. I'm just borrowing them for a short time. Song lyrics don't belong to me either; no profit gained or infringement intended. Adult language and sexual situations.
SEQUENCE/INSTALLMENT NOTE: Some readers were kind enough to point out that there are more than the traditional four elements which were covered in the original "Elemental" series (Landslide, Watershed, Windshear, Sunspots). Hence, this story, the first extension of the Elemental series.
SUMMARY: What joy will Barbara and Helena's little bundle bring?
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Apologies for the delay to following up Sunspots, folks. Real Life has been, and continues to be, a bear. Thanks to Jag for encouraging the installment posting of this.
ARCHIVING: Probably. Please ask.
Thick, dark lashes dipped demurely in what was quite certainly false shyness. The glimmer of even white teeth in the muted light of the bedroom was, no doubt, meant to be a winning smile; however, long association with that particular tactic permitted Barbara Gordon to hold herself aloof.
"All in the interest of helping out, Red."
The older woman felt a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth but fought it down, quirking a brow skeptically.
"Is that so, Helena?"
The brilliance of the smile seemed to dim a few watts before bright blue eyes met green in a guileless display.
"You know that you're overdue."
Barbara certainly couldn't deny the truth of that. Nevertheless, she felt a tiny trickle of irritation when she witnessed the shift in her companion's demeanor to one she'd never been able to resist: Hangdog.
Helena continued, her almost shy bashfulness at odds with the brash young woman Barbara usually dealt with.
"'Sides, I just want to be part of the solution. And you know that's what we need to do."
The redhead felt her pique wash away under the force of the younger woman's growing -- and quite contagious -- smile. Even as her cheeks dimpled, she couldn't help but wonder if her own smile was an answer to her lover's grin or a response to the sensation of slender fingers moving covertly under their shared covers to stroke the sensitive skin of her inner arm just so.
"I suppose it is time to try something," she allowed, not missing the victorious grin which flashed across gamine features just before a lithe form blanketed her.
Barbara carefully filed the vision away, suspecting that she might not be observing much else -- visually, at least -- for quite some time. The tickle of warm breath against the shell of her ear confirmed her hypothesis as a riot of gooseflesh broke out across her arms.
"Cool. How do you wanna...?"
She blinked once, then closed her eyes for a moment, attempting to come to terms with the emotions elicited by her young partner's tender concern.
Save for one unfortunate encounter not too long after their final run-in with The Joker, Helena had never failed to demonstrate her awareness of her more reserved partner's needs. Still, the almost tentative brush of warm fingers against the swell of her upper abdomen somehow threatened to undo the relentlessly practical redhead.
Enough of that.
The older woman opened her eyes, inhaling sharply in response to the hungry gaze fixed on her.
Quashing an urge to clear her throat against the burr in her tone, Barbara ducked to the side and nipped at the satin skin of her lover's shoulder.
"... that proven methods..."
Helena's soft hiss gusted a few strands of long red hair across her cheek, but Barbara ignored the distraction, choosing instead to concentrate on laving the small mark she'd just made. At the same time, she worked one hand between them, allowing her partner's slow thrust from above to meet her.
"... should work best."
Since the younger woman's low moan suggested that she'd made her point, the redhead was momentarily at a loss when she felt her partner push up -- away -- from her. Blinking rapidly to refocus at close range, she followed the taut muscles of her lover's arms upward before meeting the concerned blue eyes above her.
"But...It's supposed to be about you, Barbara."
In an instant, her confusion vanished, and the older woman brought her free hand to cup the angular line of her lover's jaw and smiled warmly.
"It usually is when I touch you, Sweetie."
The two shared the smile, the moment, and Barbara mentally acknowledged how very true her words were.
Months earlier, when she'd begun to contemplate, then accept, and finally embrace her love for and attraction to the younger woman, she'd assumed that their physical union would be not-altogether dissimilar to her existing realm of experience: pleasant but hardly earth-shattering.
Drawing the younger woman down, the redhead allowed that it could be very, very good to be wrong.
Despite her education... regardless of her life experiences... even in the face of her hardly virginal background, Barbara Gordon knew that she never would have predicted how gratifying she found it to coax -- or demand -- her passionate lover's response. With the men in her past she'd always felt a bit like she was simply along for the ride; however, while there could be no doubt that Helena, too, was turned on by her, it was also acutely obvious how much she could do to... manage her partner's reaction as well.
Pushing those thoughts aside for later -- much, much later -- the older woman lost herself in the tastes and sounds and sensations of their early morning communion. As awkward as she sometimes felt herself to be in this physical realm, there was simply no way to remain removed from the moment: with emotion and sensation blending, she surrendered to the soft gasps, the slick friction of sweat-beaded skin, and an age-old rhythm.
"Oh, Sweetie, yesss..."
The whispered plea was interrupted by a sharp hiss, followed by a movement so unexpected that Barbara briefly fought a wave of vertigo. Yet, as sudden as it had been, the shift was accomplished with Helena's usual grace, leaving the older woman suddenly atop her partner.
"Uh -- Gotta..."
A sharp undulation from between Barbara's legs interrupted the explanation, and, not for the first time, the older woman found herself riding a wave of anger over what she could no longer feel.
"... push harder."
The sheer eroticism of watching Helena Kyle succumb to her passion stripped away the distraction of anger. The older woman dropped her chin to her chest, a heavy fall of red hair obscuring her view as she concentrated on the sensations she did have, real and imagined.
A vivid, vivid imagination was, after all, nothing to be sneezed at.
"Yeah, Red -- "
Barbara didn't open her eyes when her lover's hands moved to her waist and tugged.
"-- uhh -- ride me."
The redhead's flare of confusion vanished as her partner effortlessly helped position her in a sitting position at the juncture of her thighs. While she couldn't feel anything directly from the contact, it was obvious that Helena was enjoying the meeting... the mating of their bodies, and her slow bucking lifted the older woman again and again.
Between the soreness of her back and the heavy weight of her belly, Barbara struggled for balance, sparing a moment to hope that their nurse-midwife was on target with her recommendations about this particular activity. When she raised her gaze to meet her partner's burning eyes, she ceased to care about the practical aspects of their actions.
And complete openness.
Both were unmistakable in her lover's face, and Barbara wet her lips with the tip of her tongue, attempting to give herself a semblance of sanity in the face of Helena's naked passion.
With that, the younger woman's movements grew faster, more urgent. Positioned as precariously as she was, the redhead fought for balance until she felt her hands gently clasped and drawn to her partner's chest.
"Lean on me, Red."
Grateful, and aroused beyond belief by the fine sheen sweat she could feel on her lover's breasts, Barbara pushed back, her own labored breathing nearly obscuring her partner's panted obscenities. Fascinated by the shifting hues of gold beneath her, the older woman impatiently shook her head, pushing her hair back and trying to hold eye contact.
"Oh, sh... fuck, Barbara... I'm..."
Barbara didn't realize that she was going to speak until she heard herself cutting in, voice low and urgent.
"Not yet, Helena."
Trusting her partner to keep her upright, she drew one hand down the firmly delineated muscles of her lover's abdomen and insinuated it between them, smiling tenderly at the utter incredulity in her lover's face.
The breathy whine accompanied the sensation slender hands roving haphazardly across her torso, but Barbara refused to be swayed.
"Yes, wait, Hel."
The redhead remained still until dark eyes, banded by the thinnest rim of gold met hers.
"Put your hands up there."
She inclined her head toward the top of the bed, nodding her approval when her lover complied. Then, she allowed their movements to resume, her own motions between them slow, deliberately teasing, and light.
"Jeezus, Red... When...?"
The dark head thrashed from side to side twice, and Barbara lowered herself fractionally.
"Soon," she purred into her lover's sweat-beaded neck.
"You're gonna kill me..."
The older woman traced a delicate outline around one coral-tipped breast. She was rewarded with a moan of surprising volume and a thrust from beneath which nearly unseated her.
"No, I believe you'll survive, Sweetie."
But she fully intended to put the theory to the test, teasing and confounding her lover until she realized that the younger woman was near tears, her words a nonstop litany of pleading and imprecations.
"Oh, goddammit, Barbara. Puh-- please."
Gauging the timing, the redhead rolled to one side, dismounting and pulling away from all contact. Despite her engagement with the moment, she couldn't ignore a brief flicker of satisfaction that she'd managed the maneuver with a modicum of grace.
"Yes, Sweetheart. Now."
All thoughts of her own awkward physical state dissolved as Barbara drank in the sight of the woman beside her: with visible effort, Helena forced her eyes open, and the vision of her lover's orgasm -- through those amazingly expressive eyes -- rocked the older woman to her core.
Barely aware that she'd spoken, the redhead distantly noticed wetness on her chest and upper belly, and she looked down, acutely conscious of the bright blue eyes moving in tandem with hers.
Colostrum, leaking as it had for the last few days. Of course, there hadn't been quite this much... vigor to the flow before this.
Barbara registered movement from the periphery of her vision before a dark head swam into view and ended her inspection of one of nature's miracles. While she'd never previously been particularly moved by this particular activity, this time the sensation of Helena's avid suckling took her over the edge, and not too much later, amid the mess of her water breaking and a laughing ride to the hospital, she offered a mental thanks to her midwife for the suggestion that an orgasm could induce labor.
As impatient as she was, two weeks past her due date was much too long to wait.
"... gonna be out here soon and find out how really cool your family is."
Catching her breath after another contraction, Barbara allowed that perhaps she wasn't the only one who was a bit impatient for this day. A moment later, her expression softened, and she twined the fingers of her right hand through chestnut silk where Helena continued to hover above her belly, talking to the bulge beneath the fetal heart monitor belt.
How many nights had she awakened during the past months to find her partner buried under the covers, humming or whispering softly to her growing abdomen?
The redhead gently extricated her fingers, anticipating another contraction, and relaxed marginally under the renewed knowledge that, regardless of how linear she herself might be, this child would have at least one intuitive parent.
A glimpse of blonde hair through the birthing room's window -- Dinah cutting her classes at NGU -- reassured Barbara further, and the sight of the thermos of Earl Grey which Alfred had recently delivered completed her ease: Their child was about to enter a world filled with loving family.
"Ready to push, Red?"
Distinctly unamused green eyes met blue, and Helena apparently got the message.
Although she couldn't feel the contractions... much, Barbara felt well past her limits: ten days -- and nights -- of Braxton Hicks had exhausted her.
Not to mention strong kicks to her solar plexus for the last few months.
"Uh, yeah... You want some tea?"
The redhead mustered an apologetic smile for her rather ogre-like attitude even as she shook her head in the negative.
"Let's call it, Hel."
While a C-section was certainly not the method that either of them preferred, there was no denying that their hopes that the autonomic contractions would be enough were fading rapidly. To Barbara's relief, her partner didn't argue, instead leaning down to bring them nose to nose.
"Yeah. I guess it's time to get this kid out here, huh?"
Barbara blinked back something warm in her eyes, grateful for the younger woman's loving smile, then even more grateful that Helena never let go of her hand.
Drapes and scalpels and all things "hospital" had never been particular favorites for Barbara, and since the numerous surgeries and extended hospital stay eight years before, they'd become an anathema. Yet, under these circumstances, watching the obstetrician and midwife over the drape, with Helena at her side, anticipation almost vanquished fear.
Then, finally, she heard the tiny wail from below the drape. Her eyes flew to her partner's face, and her fear vanished completely in the presence of Helena's awe.
The voices of the doctor and their midwife seemed very distant while she waited for her younger partner to step forward and cut the cord.
She was surprised to hear her own voice, but exhaled her gratitude when she witnessed Helena's quick nod.
Nine months plus two weeks, she corrected herself automatically.
Nine and a half months of taking every precaution and hoping and praying. Forty weeks of experiencing all of the hopes and fears and highs and lows of any mother-to-be. Three long seasons of waiting and wondering about this child which had, seemingly, appeared of its own. Two-hundred and eighty days of despair and hope: was it The Joker's, or could it, somehow, be Helena's?
A beat later, her stomach twisted sourly, and Barbara realized that she might not have experienced quite all of the low points just yet when she saw a flash of... something in her lover's eyes.
Dark brows rose but the brunette didn't respond, her attention focused below the drape. An instant -- and an eternity -- later, the younger woman began to lift a small blanketed bundle, and Barbara caught a glimpse of pink skin, covered in placental blood and mucus.
"Ten fingers and toes. And, uh, a lotta hair --"
Unable to wait the few seconds for her daughter to be placed in her arms, the redhead interrupted her partner.
"What color is her hair?"
Transfixed as she was by the sight before her, Barbara couldn't help but notice the lack of inflection in her normally emotional partner's voice. Perhaps it was Helena's very lack of affect which made it difficult to connect her word with its meaning.
Not so for the next utterance which penetrated her amazement.
"Her hair's freakin' pink!"
She didn't even look to her side, the back of her hand unerringly making contact with a firm abdomen as she attempted to silence Helena's rising volume.
After all, she was no stranger to receiving second and third glances due to her own fiery mane.
Belatedly, the older woman realized that, perhaps due to the intensity of what she'd endured not too many minutes before, her play-swat had been a bit more forceful than was strictly necessary. The soft grunt from beside her was a reasonable confirmation.
"But it's... She's..."
She did not need to hear it.
"Indeed," the redhead murmured, schooling her features into an expression which she hoped was welcoming and loving.
Acutely aware of how close pale blue eyes were, she smiled around her consternation as the youngest member of their little family raised her hand in what seemed to be an uncertain wave.
"It is very, er, colorful?"
As much as she wished to be supportive, or at least diplomatic, under the circumstances Barbara couldn't keep the question mark from her statement. Her younger companion, who was now unabashedly laughing, had no such compunctions about diplomacy.
"Huh. It's just plain stup--ooff."
"Uh, yeah -- "
The brunette finally seemed to get the hint.
"I like it, Kid. Really stupefying and all."
Exasperated pale blue eyes searched dark blue before Dinah visibly surrendered her pique and joined in with Helena's laughter.
"Yeah, it is pretty eye-catching, isn't it?"
Smiling broadly, the pink-haired teen thrust her carry-on into Gabby's hand and bounded forward, arms outstretched to envelope both of the older women waiting at the security gate. Barbara felt herself stiffen at the prospect, damning herself as she did so yet relieved beyond measure when Helena smoothly stepped in front of her, play-punching Dinah before sweeping her into a hug.
Yet, after the terrifying dream on the plane, Barbara truly couldn't fault herself.
It had only been years of practice, years of dealing with green-haired nightmares, which had spared some sort of plane-wide incident when she had started into wakefulness near the end of the flight from New Gotham. And, with her emotions so raw, the security gates at the Miami International Airport was simply not the place for her telekinetic ward to pick up on the fallout from her dream.
"First hug's gotta be for me, D. Or did you forget who baby-sat your ass through New York and DC?"
Huffing -- presumably at the choice of language -- the teen nevertheless twirled around and returned Helena's hug.
"Yeah, we thought we'd never get rid of you."
The wry comment drew Barbara's attention to the other member party that she and Helena were meeting for the flight to Jamaica, and she smiled.
"Hello, Gabby. It's good to see you."
The curly haired girl stepped closer and, after a split-second hesitation, leaned in, allowing them to exchange a brief hug. The normalcy of the contact, not to mention the brief reprieve Helena had provided, gave the redhead enough time to resettle her emotions so that she could finally turn to Dinah with her arms outstretched in genuine welcome.
A fierce squeeze was the only answer for a score of seconds until the teen finally loosened her enthusiastic stranglehold.
"Gosh, I missed you, Barbara!"
Perhaps the pregnancy hormones were affecting her more than she'd thought.
For no discernable reason, the older woman thought she might be on the cusp of tears and blinked rapidly against the uncharacteristic display. When she focused again on the lanky girl, she blinked again and smiled broadly.
"We missed you, too, Dinah."
"Yeah, like a sore thumb or a boil or something."
Two sets of eyes -- one emerald, the other cornflower blue -- moved in unison to pin the speaker, who smiled innocently.
"Whaaaat? At least she's our pain in the as--"
"Assuming that we're all ready," Barbara cut in as she released the brake on her chair, "shouldn't we be heading to our boarding area?"
Amid the bustle of gathering carry-on baggage, checking boarding passes, and merging into the impossibly long line at the woefully understaffed security checkpoint for international flights, the redhead dropped behind the teenagers they'd just met. Glancing to the side, she brushed her fingertips across the soft denim covering Helena's knee and waited until deep blue eyes met hers. She quirked her lips and lowered her voice, knowing that her partner would have no trouble hearing her in the commotion of the airport.
"Thanks for stepping in, Hel."
The brunette smiled, then winked.
"As good as the first part of your dream seemed, Red, The Kid probably doesn't need that kind of education from you."
While she appreciated that Helena wasn't dwelling on the horrifying ending of her dream, Barbara wasn't convinced that the younger woman's particular focus was necessary either. The beginning of what could have been some extravagant eye-rolling was interrupted when the brunette lowered her voice.
"Beside, there's no way she'll be picking up anything from me about, uhm, the other stuff."
Suspecting that she'd very well regret doing so, Barbara was powerless to prevent herself from asking.
"And, why is that, Hel?"
The younger woman's response was delayed while she thumped their carry-ons onto the x-ray belt and then toed off her sneakers to send them through the machine. Barbara waited until she turned to accompany her through the by-pass for her chair, attempting to steel herself for the ordeal of wanding and prodding and close examination which would follow.
Air-travel since 9-11 was near the top of her list of things to avoid.
Her companion's cheerfully casual reply distracted her from her aggrievement.
"Cuz I only have one thing on the brain, and it has to do with you and me and the Mile High Club."
The redhead's quick bark of embarrassed laughter earned her a disapproving glare from the security agent who was tapping at her chair, but Barbara didn't care: She was too caught up wondering what it said about her that she was actually relieved that all that her current ward might have picked up were her former ward's prurient thoughts.
Che sara, sara.
While she didn't care to contemplate the matter too closely, Barbara was aware that Dinah was probably a great deal less naive than she chose to believe. No doubt her innocent young ward could teach her a thing or two.
"... at least a mile high."
Somehow, Barbara managed to avoid whiplash -- barely -- as she approached the waiting area for their flight and Dinah's words reached her. Years of experience in the classroom kicked in, and she smiled blandly.
Two heads -- one pink-streaked, the other curly brown -- spun toward her in unison.
"Am I interrupting?"
Gabby recovered first, turning fully to face the redhead.
"Not at all, Ms. Gor-- Uh, Barbara."
Barbara smiled encouragingly when the young woman stumbled over the unfamiliar informality which she'd insisted on after graduation. Her smile became the tiniest bit forced when Gabby continued.
"Would you like to join us?"
The older woman allowed herself one befuddled blink before widening her eyes in question. Peripherally, she noted an extravagant smirk painting itself across Helena's face and tensed when the brunette began to speak.
"I sure wo--"
"I'm sorry, Gabby. I believe I missed...?"
Dinah's laughter was bright, a sound Barbara realized she truly had missed during the last month of the young woman's travels.
"Oh, Gabby was going to get us some giant waffle cones for the flight."
The redhead followed the teen's gesture, finally registering the soft-serve ice cream stand across the terminal even as she mourned the days of in-flight service. An instant later, as unobtrusively as possible, she narrowed her eyes, surreptitiously eying Dinah's boarding pass where it peeked from the side pocket of her cargo shorts, and then exhaled soundlessly.
At least they wouldn't be sharing an undoubtedly sticky armrest during the flight.
"Thank you, Gabby, but I think I'll skip the ice cream."
The curly-haired girl nodded and set off on her errand even as Helena stepped around the little group, gesturing toward the bank of restaurants and newsstands further down the concourse.
"A little sustenance isn't a bad idea, Red. Maybe something to read, too. What can I get you?"
Uncertain what drove the sharp spike of irritation which the question engendered, Barbara grit her teeth.
"Perhaps you could look for this month's Dr. Dobb's?"
Immediately pinned by twin looks of disbelief, she caught herself, allowing that airport newsstands weren't likely to have that particular computer magazine.
"Or, Maximum PC?" she tacked on hastily.
She didn't miss the indulgent smile in her partner's features when Helena jogged off, and her pique evaporated, replaced by an indulgent smile of her own when she caught her remaining companion's comment.
"You know you're going to end up with Maxim, right?"
"True, Dinah," she allowed, "but Helena informs me that it does contain timely articles about electronics and the latest gadgets."
The lanky teen settled herself into one of the hard plastic chairs with a derisive snort, pushing her recently shagged hair from her eyes. The motion drew Barbara's attention once again to her ward's hair color.
Green eyes briefly lost focus and tracked to the left as a name -- a character from a movie perhaps -- niggled at the analytical woman's infallible memory. A split second later, she released the breath she hadn't realized she was holding when it came to her.
Like Didi Conn's character in "Grease" after her unfortunate tint job in beauty school, Dinah's hair was streaked an arresting shade of hot pink. Given the brightly colored hair of the madman they'd so recently faced, Barbara couldn't help but question the significance of the young woman's choice.
"Yeah, right, and I read Cosmo for..."
The older woman recalled herself when Dinah's sarcastic words trailed off.
"Oh, heck, Barbara. I'm sorry."
Pale fingers fluttered toward the eye-catching coiffure before moving towards Barbara's arm. Dinah aborted the movement, clasping her hands against her thighs, and the redhead berated her own lack of control.
"It's fine, Dinah."
With what she hoped was a reassuring smile, Barbara stretched out, lightly placing her hand over the teen's.
"It's simply... a bit startling," she finally allowed.
The redhead willed herself to believe that as pale blue eyes searched her face. Eventually, Dinah sighed softly, tucking a strand of hair behind one ear.
"Yeah, but I didn't mean to make you, uhm, think about green hair."
The girl's embarrassment about her invasion of her mentor's privacy was evident, and Barbara shook her head once, hoping to dispel that concern.
"I suspect that it's not far from any of our thoughts yet, Honey."
The erstwhile blonde nodded vigorously.
"That's just it, Barbara. That's sort of why I wanted to do this."
Since she was certain that her confusion was evident, the older woman simply waited for her companion to elaborate.
"When we got to Miami and were hanging out in the clu-- uh, going to some parties?"
Despite the smile tugging at the corners of her mouth, Barbara simply nodded, wondering if she and Helena should have met the two girls a day earlier.
"Well, uh, there's a lot of color here, and Gabby was kind of teasing me about doing something with my hair since it's so light and would really show it?"
Again, the redhead offered a measured nod.
"And, then I got really freaked out because the only color I could see was green."
The teen chewed at the edge of her bottom lip, and Barbara felt something clench tightly in her chest.
They'd all seen too much, endured too much at the whims of a capricious madman: Dinah had... was wrestling with the things she'd seen and with guilt over her role in The Joker's death; Helena, undoubtedly, was wishing that she'd played a much more active part in his demise; and she herself was...
As casually as possible, Barbara removed her hand from Dinah's, knitting her fingers in her lap.
Belatedly, she noted that she was, essentially, cradling her abdomen.
"... know that I didn't really kill him and all, but I figured that I couldn't let just the thought of him keep freaking me out, right? And pink's the preppy opposite of green, right?"
"Right," she concurred with a growing smile.
Dinah returned the expression, waving airily towards her hair.
"That's for sure, Kid."
Proud of herself for not literally jumping at the sudden appearance of her partner, Barbara turned to watch the brunette deposit several plastic store bags on a chair.
"Dunno what it takes to turn a two-pack of strawberry pop tarts into something worth five dollars, but they've got some powerful magic going on."
As the gate attendant announced preboarding, Helena continued to rustle noisily through her purchases.
"... magazines and gum and juice and..."
Pinned by sparkling blue eyes, Barbara froze with her hand on the brake of her chair.
"... some of that water with vitamins in it for you."
The redhead rolled her eyes, chafing at being pampered like some invalid.
Just because she was... in a delicate condition didn't mean she needed to be treated as such.
Glancing to the side, she confirmed that Dinah and Gabby were occupied with juggling their carry-ons and waffle cones which could, indeed, be described as mile high.
Still, there was no need to cause a scene.
"Helena," she began with deliberate mildness.
One look at her lover's impish features deflated her anger. Helena's words removed it altogether.
"I want you to be raring to go when we land."
A suggestive waggle of dark brows accompanied the purring explanation.
"So, you need to stay hydrated..."
Transfixed by the vision of a pink tongue moistening perfect cupid's bow lips, Barbara struggled to focus on her partner's words.
"... so you'll be..."
When Helena leaned in, her breath tickling Barbara's cheek, the older woman was torn between laughing at the younger woman's perserverance and cursing her own fair complexion as a blush crawled to the roots of her hair.
Barbara Gordon was wet.
With a sigh of blissful indolence, she gave up her search for further synonyms, content in the understanding that, quite simply, it felt divine.
Clearly not one of her most insightful observations; however, stretched out in the resort's steam room, idly tracking the progress of a droplet of sweat across the swell of her abdomen and figuratively contemplating her navel, the redhead had no problem cutting herself some slack. After all, in contrast to the humidity of the island, which was merely sticky and unpleasant, the billowing hot steam clearly relaxed both her physical and her mental muscles.
Still, it was time for a break.
With a sub vocal grunt of protest, she transferred herself from the sweat bench, moving slowly in the slick, tiled room, and pushed open the steam room door. Once outside, she slipped her cover-up over her head, wanting nothing more than to return to the peaceful lassitude of the room she'd just departed.
For a moment, bitterness washed through her: This was her first real vacation in years, at an all-inclusive resort, no less. In her current state, she had to monitor her time in the sauna and whirlpool; she couldn't partake of the free-flowing libations available, seemingly, everywhere; she even had to curtail her consumption of certain seafood.
With a quick snort at her own lack of maturity, she shook her hair out of the neck of her pullover and turned determinedly toward one place which would cool her down and was not off limits: The video game room filled with cutting edge X-box games. While the cyber-genius had made a promise to herself to stay off the 'net -- a promise she was not entirely certain she'd be able to keep, which is why she'd kept it to herself -- she saw no reason that she couldn't get an occasional tech fix.
Seventy-five satisfying minutes later, she'd thoroughly chilled her self in the dark, air-conditioned arcade and completely iced several teenagers in head-to-head virtual street races. With a little time to kill, she found herself in the dry sauna, baking on the cedar-plank benches and feeling all of the residual stress and toxins of New Gotham rapidly leeching from her.
The hell with a swimming pool: She wanted to install one of these in the training room.
A cooling breeze accompanied the slow opening of the room's thick door, distracted Barbara from her leisurely mental debate about the best location for such an addition. She glanced up to see a bronzed, buff, Robert Redford-wannabe peering through the door.
"Do you mind if I join you?"
The redhead barely cracked an eye, gesturing loosely towards an empty cedar bench in a "help yourself" movement. The man settled himself with a sigh of appreciation.
"Damn, this is nice."
Oh, creeping catfish: A talker.
"Indeed," the redhead offered carefully.
"Especially after all the humidity here," he continued, apparently taking her minimal response as encouragement.
Barbara nodded and worked for a neutral smile until she saw where her companion's gaze had fallen: her chair, which was folded next to her. Although she knew the metal would be hellishly hot after baking, there was simply no other way to enjoy the sauna independently.
She braced herself.
Working not to roll her eyes, she nodded and blotted at her face with a towel.
An attractively arched blonde brow -- did he pluck? -- rose as her companion stretched over to retrieve a towel from the rack near the door.
"Did you have an accident or something?"
"Something like that," she allowed.
"Robert" digested that for a beat, fanning himself with the edge of the towel in his lap.
"Must be a bitch getting laid up right before coming here."
The redhead smiled ruefully, fighting a guffaw at the levels of meaning behind "laid up" and her current situation.
She couldn't miss the frankly appraising look she received. Despite the heat, her skin crawled when he licked his lips.
"Looks like it."
"And," she added in what was, very probably, a vain attempt to redirect the conversation, "this resort is very accessible."
Which as true enough, a fact which she and Helena had carefully researched and verified before booking the first part of Dinah's trip. While the resort occupied five levels of cliff-front property, strategic use of ramps and elevators left nothing -- save portions of the beach -- off limits to her.
Rob smiled toothily.
"Well, if you need a hand or something..."
Since she had a relatively good idea of just where he was considering putting his hand, the redhead was hard-pressed not to bat her eyes and suggest that he could hold her chair steady.
With his crotch.
Instead, she layered the towels she had at the ready across her chair and neatly transferred herself before, with a sweet smile and muttered excuses about treacle detoxification, she blew out of the room.
Not too many minutes later, having joined Dinah and Gabby at a table in the main lunch buffet area, she began to suspect that some sort of detoxification might very well be necessary as she watched Helena returning from the buffet, an overloaded plate balanced in her hands and more bounce than usual in her step. The senior member of the group regarded the contents of her partner's plate dubiously, aware of a green tinge around Dinah's eyes. Gabby remained silent, reaching for her water goblet and swallowing rapidly. Oblivious to her companions' reactions, the brunette dropped gracefully onto a chair and reached for her napkin.
"What a spread," she enthused.
Bemusedly, Barbara wondered if lip-smacking would ensue.
"If it can swim, fly, or walk, they've cooked it," she continued, forking a bite of conch toward her mouth.
She paused mid-motion and regarded the flesh on her utensil happily.
"Hell, even if it just sits there."
Somehow, Barbara managed a wan smile, noting that Dinah and Gabby's expressions ranged from mildly disapproving to downright queasy. Apparently, something about her companions' distinct lack of shared enthusiasm for the flesh-fest available at the buffet finally registered.
Slender fingers settled the fork on the edge of the overloaded plate.
"Uhm, they have a great salad bar."
Deep blue eyes apologetically met green.
"And, uh, fruit?"
The redhead mustered a quick smile at the thought, and Helena decisively pushed back from the table, retrieving her plate in the process.
"Yeah, fruit's good."
She gestured vaguely toward the far corner of the patio dining area.
"I'll just, uh, go eat over there."
Regretting her own selfishness, Barbara glared at her two smirking companions and called to her partner who was making her way with almost comical slowness across the dining area.
"Hel, stay here and enjoy your meal with us. We..."
She pointedly caught her companions' eyes.
"... will just go investigate the non-carnivorous buffet tables."
The blinding smile she received, not to mention the alacrity with which Helena returned to their table, was certainly incentive enough to ignore the resort's woefully inadequate vegetarian offerings and focus on fresh fruit and -- Green eyes lit up at the same moment two girlish squeals book ended the redhead: the fifty foot dessert buffet.
An hour later, confronted by her own expanding waistline in combination with the item being extended with endearing shyness by her partner in the privacy of their room, Barbara was forced to reconsider her earlier decision about the desserts.
"It's lovely, Sweetheart, but a bit... er... "
The redhead felt her forehead furrow as she searched for an apt description for the two wisps of cloth dangling between the younger woman's right index finger and thumb.
Frankly, in the analytical woman's opinion, anything short of a full wetsuit was a bit revealing for her own tastes. Helena, however, seemed to miss -- or ignore -- her discomfort, blue eyes dancing with anticipation.
"Yeah, it is, isn't it?"
Fighting a smirk in spite of herself, Barbara refused to state the obvious: She didn't do revealing.
It wasn't overwhelming modesty... or prudishness. Back in the day, after all, skin tight latex had made up a significant portion of her nighttime wardrobe.
There was simply no reason to reveal the swaths of scar tissue ribboning her torso.
Slowly she allowed one brow to crawl skyward, wishing that she could tap her foot while she waited through the lengthy -- and very probably x-rated -- mental movie which was clearly playing through her lover's mind. Finally, the brunette noticed that her appreciation of the two-piece wasn't shared, and out came the patented hang-dog expression.
"C'mon, Red. It's not that much more revealing than your one-piece."
Mentally cursing her inability to resist her younger partner's expression, Barbara had to admit the truth of the words: The tankini actually would cover more of her upper legs than her sensible black swimsuit did.
Still, her abdomen...
As if sensing the momentary concession, Helena peered through long lashes and smiled winsomely.
" 'Sides, you'll be wearing your cover-up most of the time anyway, right?"
The older woman pushed back the grin she felt bubbling up within her, sensing that she could score an effortless point in their little debate.
She schooled her features to bland curiosity.
"Which leads me to wonder why we should even bother with the tankini?"
A positively indecent expression flitted across those expressive features; aquiline nostrils flared; and Barbara felt her heart skip a beat in response.
"So I can see you in it back here."
Barbara threw her hands in the air, then reached forward to accept the garment.
Not only had she not scored her point, but it appeared that she'd lost the match.
Absently, she stroked her thumb across the fabric and looked up.
"But, why red, Hel?"
"Burgundy," the younger woman corrected breezily. "You'll be totally hot in it."
Wrestling her tee over her head, the older woman snorted, certain that her partner could decipher her words through the fabric of her tee.
"And it should match my incipient sunburn as well."
The sensation of soft, cool hands sliding down her shoulders almost caused her to jump out of her chair as she balled up the tee and tossed it on the bed.
Goodness, but Helena could still surprise her with her cat-footed stealth.
"You're not gonna burn when I finish lotioning you up."
The sound of a flip-top cap popping, coinciding with the unmistakable scent of SPF-45, alerted Barbara seconds before she felt cool lotion being spread unhurriedly across her shoulders. For long moments, she enjoyed the gentle ministrations, her eyes fluttering shut and her head dipping forward. A soft rustling and a shift in her partner's movements recalled her, and she heard the bemusement in her own voice.
"I'm not sure I'll be getting any sun... oh ... there, Helena."
Struggling not to squirm, she felt sharp even teeth graze the side of her throat from behind and instinctively arched into the contact. Even as something hot -- and sharp -- flared in her chest, she registered Helena's purring response.
"Can't be too careful, Babs."
The two syllables were distinctly wry, and the redhead stretched behind her to wend her fingers through dark silk. Tugging gently to get the younger woman's attention, Barbara continued with deliberate mildness.
"This from the teen who couldn't get her sneakers tied before heading to school in the morning?"
Helena's response was, she decided through the distraction of skillful hands on her shoulders, smug.
"That was a fashion statement, Red. This is something else."
A statement indeed.
A question tickled at her mind, and she gave it voice.
"Will I be getting into any sun this afternoon, Hel?"
As businesslike as her words had been, Helena's response was equally unconcerned. And, very much as she'd suspected.
"Not any time soon."
Barbara spun the cap of the bottle clockwise, then wiped her fingers on a towel before giving the plastic top an extra twist. Relatively confident that sunscreen wouldn't be oozing out, she tucked the bottle neatly into her beach bag and returned to her inspection of her SPF-45-slathered legs.
At the rate she was applying sun block, she'd probably return home more pale than before her Caribbean holiday.
The whimsical thought elicited a self-depreciating smile as she contemplated the feasibility of anything causing her almost ghostly skin to become whiter. The smile faltered when the redhead noticed a blotch of white lotion which she'd neglected to rub in completely.
It stood out against her quadricep like pancake make-up.
Barbara determinedly pushed those similes aside, just as she refused to allow herself to see the images of green hair against baby bunting which had danced through her dreams of late. Instead, she pursed her lips, blowing a raspberry at her own jumpiness, and vigorously rubbed at the dollop of sunscreen.
Between the lotion, her cover-up, the beach umbrella beside the chaise lounge, and her floppy straw hat, she should be safe from all threats of an ultraviolet nature.
She stilled in the act of retrieving her book and exhaled slowly, giving in to her mind's insistent reminder that she not omit one other item which was safeguarding her skin: the new swimwear Helena had presented her with the day before. While some part of her was loathe to admit it, the striking maroon tankini was perfectly modest: Covering from thighs to navel and a good portion of her shoulders and chest, it probably revealed less skin than her one-piece.
Mercifully, only the barest hint of scar tissue was visible on her abdomen.
She shook her head in bemusement -- Clothes-horse that she was, of course Helena would be right about the suit -- and settled the novel on her lap. She took a moment to tilt her head just so, aligning her straw hat to shade the pages and absently observing as a gaggle of twenty-somethings noisily settled in under the umbrellas to her left.
Despite the oversized boom box they were carrying, Barbara suspected that they'd be unable to distract her from her book. It was, after all, the type of work she tended to think of a "popcorn fiction": novels which went down one right after the other. With good intentions, she'd brought along the latest Larry McMurtry; however, even that had seemed a bit too heavy for a Jamaican beach. Thus, the new Lesley Davis flight of imagination.
The English teacher had to admit that, originally, she'd been surprised when Amazon had presented her with a list of recommendations containing lesbian science fiction and fantasy novels. However, a moment's reflection about her usual programmer-techie purchase habits at the site -- in combination with her more recent selections in the lesbian sexuality arena -- had cleared up the mystery. She'd trusted the site's judgment and ordered a few intriguing titles and had to admit that she was becoming addicted.
She quickly immersed herself in the Adepts of Calluna, finding that the Beach Boys' completely expected melody about Key Largo warbling from the nearby boom box was no distraction. However, the eventual appearance of a shadow -- an extremely shapely shadow -- across her legs caught her attention immediately.
"Did you get it squared away, Sweetie?"
Green eyes squinted against the sun backlighting her companion, and the younger woman dropped to a crouch, bringing them to eye level.
"Yeah, I think they'll let us use the Cat again."
As if anything the younger woman put her mind to would be in doubt.
Granted, when Helena had signed out the Hobie Cat before casually carrying the older woman across the sand to join her for a sail, their departure from the beach had been accompanied by suspicious glances and a few shouts from the beach attendants.
Concerns about liability and lawsuits, no doubt.
Since she did have a reputation for responsibility to uphold, Barbara had opened her mouth to suggest turning back. One look at her partner's insouciant grin, and she'd snapped her jaw shut and turned to face the spray blowing across the low skiff.
Within seconds of crossing the reef which bounded the shallow waters of the beach, Helena had handed the sail over, and the redhead had been gratified to discover that sailing was, apparently, much like riding a bike: something never forgotten. Since she was unfamiliar with the waters, she'd kept a careful eye on the coastline. Other than that, it had been a perfect opportunity to let loose: building speed, tacking sharply into the wind, and not minding the salt spray which wetted her lips and filled her teeth with grit.
Both of their smiles had been too large, too bright, for the slap of the waves to miss.
Accordingly, while she didn't care to delve too deeply into what specific tactics Helena had used to charm the beach attendants, the older woman didn't try to hide her satisfaction at the outcome.
"That's good news, Hel. I'd like to go out again this week."
The brunette's easy grin left little doubt that she would insure that it would happen, and -- not for the first time -- Barbara found herself wondering what she'd done to deserve such devotion.
The music from the nearby stereo cut off at the same moment slender fingers walked across the back of the redhead's hand, mercifully distracting her from her futile train of thought.
"Sure thing, Red. You're a natural out there."
Cheeks dimpling in pleasure, Barbara had to admit that the ease and naturalness of the water wasn't limited to swimming pools.
"But, for now..."
The spray-dampened dark head dipped down, and soft lips brushed the older woman's knuckles causing her to flex her fingers ticklishly.
"Let's go to Vegas."
With a chuckle, Barbara extricated her fingers and bit back the obvious rejoinder about feeling lucking. As bright blue eyes rose into view again, she snagged the bottle of lotion, spun open the cap, and squeezed a few drops onto her fingertips.
The older woman felt her eyes sparkle at her younger partner's "reasonable" tone and carefully dabbed the sun block on the brunette's nose.
"Let's go to the beach."
Barbara allowed one brow to lift fractionally but kept her tone light.
"We're at the beach, Hel."
She punctuated her reply by tapping cupid's bow lips, narrowing her eyes when Helena grinned wolfishly.
"Okay, let's go to bed."
Her playful mood peeling away like the sunburned skin on her lover's nose, the redhead exhaled slowly, then spoke carefully.
"Honestly, Hel, is that all you think about?"
Helena's cheerfully unrepentant nod was interrupted when the group next to them queued a new CD. A slow ballad washed across the beach, and blue eyes which were suddenly uncertain met green.
Is it getting better?
Or do you feel the same?
Will it make it easier on you
Now you got someone to blame?
Barbara forced herself to face her lover's scrutiny, at a loss over her own response.
After the interaction which had become increasingly... difficult in their room the afternoon before, the brunette had gracefully allowed matters to rest.
In deference to her own reluctance Barbara supposed.
She honestly wasn't certain if her feelings stemmed from hormones, or the tenderness and changes already evident in her body, or simply from the release of the adrenaline which had been surging through and around them for the last few months. Regardless of the cause, the analytical woman couldn't deny the end result: the puzzled confusion seeking... something.
Something from her.
Did I disappoint you?
Or leave a bad taste in your mouth?
You act like you never had love
And you want me to go without
Fascinated by the shifting patterns in the other woman's eyes, somehow Barbara didn't register her lover's slow approach until velvet lips brushed gently against her jaw. A whispering purr raised the fine hair at the back of her neck.
"Be with me, Barbara."
Crimson brows knit as the older woman caught her lower lip between her teeth. A sigh gusted her neck.
"Be with me, Barbara."
The words were definitely more insistent this time, almost petulant, as the brunette relaxed from her precarious balance on the balls of her feet and settled into her crouch again.
"I didn't knock you up on purpose, and even if..."
With a patience she scarcely believed, Barbara waited out the younger woman's search for the words she wanted.
"Even if he somehow had something to do with it, don't let that take this from us."
Almost dizzied by the deluge of pronouns, the redhead raised her left hand to the bridge of her nose. She was briefly distracted when her infallible memory suddenly resurrected the memory of a GRA she'd worked with in college, almost laughing when she grasped why she'd thought of the other woman: in critiquing student writings, Shel had been a real stickler about pronoun antecedents.
And, if memory served, the use of epithets as well.
Nevertheless, this was not the time to roll down memory lane. Rather, she needed to decipher what was clearly the most vital of Helena's pronouns: This.
Well it's too late
To drag the past out
Into the light
But we're not the same
Since her confusion was certainly palpable, the redhead was relieved, but hardly surprised, when the younger woman took pity on her.
"I heard you on the plane, Barbara. The end of your dream. Nightmare."
Barbara blinked once, then allowed her gaze to fall on one of the tiny white crabs which scuttled across the beach.
"I heard you last night, too. Asking about the baby."
The younger woman's voice was without rancor or accusation.
"I heard you the night before that, also. It's like all your big, beautiful, subconscious brain can focus on, Barbara."
Again, the redhead felt fingers lightly rest against her hand. Helena's movement cast a shadow on the sand which sent the crab ducking into a shell which seemed ludicrously small and woefully fragile.
Hopelessly adrift, and suspecting that her symbolic raft might be disintegrating around her, she pried her eyes back to her partner's face.
"Helena, it's not that..."
Ultimately, Barbara couldn't glibly offer reassurances which she didn't possess.
The brunette exhaled slowly, her smile gentle... and lost. Still, Helena didn't belabor the conversation, rising gracefully and gesturing to the snack stand at the end of the beach.
"Gonna get something to eat. You want anything?"
The older woman absently shook her head, admiring her partner's courage as Helena loped across the sand and forcing herself to consider the other woman's words.
Perhaps Helena had a point: Even if it was, somehow, Jack Napier's doing, they still didn't know anything about the child she carried within.
Have you come here for forgiveness?
Have you come to raise the dead?
Have you come here to play Jesus
To the lepers in your head?
Green eyes widened, then blinked, as a small vanilla soft serve cone appeared before her, as if by magic. Barbara automatically accepted the offering with a smile of thanks, delicately catching a drip with the tip of her tongue.
But we're not the same
We hurt each other
Then we do it again
In the act of settling herself on the sand, balancing an oversized red slushee, the younger woman paused and raised her cup in invitation.
"You want some of this? Or something else? They've got cappuccino and, uhm.."
Lost in her mental inventory, Helena apparently missed Barbara's headshake.
"... hot dogs and jerked chicken and banana splits and curly fries and..."
The redhead cut in playfully, attempting to curtail the listing of what seemed to be an adolescent junk food wet dream. A beat later, she realized that she'd quite lost her appetite.
Possibly her ability to breathe, as well.
Naturally, Helena noticed, carefully relieving her of the cone which was precariously askew in her hand.
"Barbara? What is--"
The redhead was a bit surprised by the lack of inflection -- hell, panic -- in her response.
"I believe that Dinah knows."
She didn't bother to elaborate, too busy mentally kicking herself for taking so long to put the pieces together.
When Helena had pitched her idea to their little group at dinner the night before, it had seemed initially puzzling but hardly rife with danger.
"Want me to book us all for a banana boat ride tomorrow morning?"
Barbara had speared a cucumber slice with her fork and dipped it in dressing before looking up.
"What in the name of the S.S. Minnow is a banana boat, Hel?"
"Oh, you know, big yellow rubber tube with handles," had been the blase description.
Dinah's exasperated demand for more detail had finally persuaded the brunette to tear herself away from gnawing at the spare ribs on her plate.
Mercifully, the brunette had yet to avail herself of the roast suckling pig on display.
"It's like a inflatable tube which five people can sit on and get dragged along behind a speed boat."
Barbara still swore she'd seen a flicker of gold as the younger woman had licked the fingers of her left hand in a manner which could best be described as 'provocative'.
"I know it'd be better in purple..."
The older woman had hoped that the blush she could feel crawling up her neck would be missed in the flickering torchlight of the outdoor dining area. Mercifully, the two teens had been too confused to notice.
"Like what? An eggplant boat or something?"
Unfortunately, Dinah's confusion had only increased when Helena had exploded into laughter.
"Yeah, we can ride the big ol' aubergine..."
A suggestion about checking out the dessert buffet had ended that little scene, and the ride they'd all shared in the early morning had lived up to the description Helena had provided. The four had settled themselves on the giant banana, to be dragged through the bay behind a speedboat, bumping over the waves, with the three younger members of their party deliberately bouncing against the back end to create the maximum splash and roll.
And that, Barbara had just realized with a resounding mental "Doh" which would have done Homer Simpson proud, was the problem: During the course of their bouncing, as she'd worked to compartmentalize her multifaceted reactions and concerns, Dinah had rolled back against her, before regaining her handhold.
When they'd reached the shore, and since then, it had been impossible to miss the girl's stiffness -- her distance -- around her.
Apparently occupied by wrapping the uneaten ice cream cone in napkins, Helena was maddeningly unconcerned by the revelation.
Something about the crispness of her response must have captured the brunette's attention. The younger woman shifted enough to catch her eyes.
Barbara attempted a reply, then snapped her mouth shut in exasperation. Her companion concentrated on poking at the napkin-enshrouded bundle she'd placed under the edge of the lounge.
"Is that so bad, Red?"
Love is a temple
Love a higher law
Love is a temple
Love the higher law
You ask me to enter
But then you make me crawl
As relentlessly practical... and factual... and oblivious to emotional nuance as she could be, Barbara still could not bring herself to state the obvious. Under the cautious inspection of blue eyes veiled by thick dark lashes, how could she possibly remind her lover that they had yet to decide on the... appropriate course, and until they'd done so, it seemed premature at best to start announcing the news, even telepathically.
"She seems upset," she finally hedged.
Dark brows furrowed.
"Like I was when she moved in?"
Emerald eyes blinked rapidly before squinting toward the water, tracking the progress of a sailboat on the horizon.
As aware as she'd been at the time of Helena's... feelings of displacement when they'd taken the young blonde in, the cyber-genius had not begun to consider that Dinah might have a similar reaction to the arrival of another person in their lives.
She rubbed small circles at her temples, acknowledging that such a reaction from the teen wasn't outside the realm of possibility. With an irritable sigh, she realized that she'd need to sound her ward out about that.
You got to do what you should
With each other
"No," the redhead finally allowed, redirecting her thoughts to the response she had picked up on. "It's more like I'm Sigourney Weaver in the third 'Alien' movie."
The experience truly was akin to being in space: weightlessness, sensory deprivation combining with sensory overload, and an absolute host of astonishing life forms.
Blue tangs, eels, flounder, corral, sea urchins...
When she was in elementary school, Barbara Gordon had harbored a secret, one among many: this particular secret was her desire to be an astronaut, or at least a jet fighter pilot, when she grew up. Although that dream had been lost somewhere in the transition from childhood to adolescence, she'd never surrendered her joy of flight and exploration.
Given her predilection for an airborn existence, even if assisted with cables and guy wires, she supposed that she couldn't be surprised by how liberated she felt in the water. Floating face-down in the azure clarity of the bay off their resort, the redhead allowed herself the fanciful notion of never leaving.
A flash of orange and white -- a clown fish darting through the reef -- dispelled the notion, bringing to mind as it did a not-too-distant immersion, so to speak, with the little fish. Since she absolutely refused to dwell on things which couldn't be, the redhead slowly brought her underwater camera to her face plate and waited patiently for the comical fish to reappear.
As she waited, suspended in saline warmth, buoyant in her life vest, drawing in oxygen through the snorkel tube, she found herself considering the similarity of her situation to that of the tiny being within her. Immediately, she made a mental note to pick up a copy of "Pregnancy for Dummies", strictly in the interest of determining if all mothers-to-be were as... obsessed as she seemed to be.
Another flicker of color to her right -- this time hot pink instead of orange -- recalled her, and Barbara gave up on her photography, waving an acknowledgement to her companion. Two dozen easy strokes brought her to the tiny sandbar where they'd tethered the kayak, and she easily hoisted herself from the water.
"Thank you, Dinah."
She accepted the offered towel with a smile, shaking her head to untangle her hair from the strap of her mask. She dabbed at her face, then used the towel to cover her legs against the sun, aware that she'd need to ask Helena to check the back of her legs later: A dead-man's float for almost an hour had, undoubtedly, provided the area with more sun than it received in a year.
"Do you, uhm, need more sun block?"
Trying to pretend that she'd not heard the tentativeness in the teen's question, the redhead accepted the familiar blue bottle with a laugh.
The responding, and not-unsympathetic, snicker freed the older woman's breathing a tiny bit, and she set to work, briskly slathering her face and shoulders with lotion.
"That was amazing, Dinah. Did you get any good shots?"
Mercifully, the neutral topic worked, and the girl was off.
"I took about thirty pictures, I think, but I don't know if anything will be any good. I kept forgetting that I had the camera, you know? And so I was just hanging there watching stuff..."
When the young woman interrupted herself with a giggle, Barbara looked over with studied nonchalance, arching a brow in question.
"It's just... I guess if I hadn't had the snorkel in, I would have been floating there with my mouth open in amazement or something."
Cheeks dimpling at the image, not to mention the sheer pleasure of the decrease in tension, the redhead snorted softly.
"That would have been a lot of ocean to drink, Dinah."
This time, the teen's laughter was fuller.
"No kidding! And salty, too. I did get some in my breathing tube even though you were right about how easy it is to snorkel. It's just kind of like hanging there in a big old womb or som--"
When the excited discourse ended mid-syllable, Barbara lowered her lashes, giving herself five seconds -- and no more -- to collect herself.
She had, after all, twisted Dinah's arm into this little outing since there had been no noticeable thaw in her demeanor in the last two days. Given that the teen had essentially run full steam into the elephant on the sandbar, it seemed that opportunity was knocking.
"I was thinking much the same thing just before we came in," she offered cautiously.
The girl bounded to her feet as if she'd been stung by an urchin and began digging through the bag in the kayak.
The question was decidedly over-bright.
"I guess it's a pretty common, uh, thought."
Calling upon her limited reserves of patience, the older woman exhaled slowly and waited until her companion found what she'd been looking for.
"How are you doing, Dinah?"
The girl's response was muffled by the oversized "No problem, Mon" tee she was pulling over her suit, and Barbara waited until the pink-tinted head emerged. When pale blue eyes skittered from her abdomen to the kayak and back again, she quirked a smile and patted the sand next to her. Dinah obediently dropped to the ground, but the redhead couldn't help but notice that her telepathic ward made certain to keep at least a foot and a half of space between them.
Feeling the onset of an urge to fiddle with something -- a highball glass filled to the brim with scotch rocks might have worked -- Barbara carefully tightened the cap of the sun block and tossed the bottle into the kayak.
"Ever since the ride on the banana boat, you've seemed... a little distant, Honey."
The teen's cheeks pinkened, the shade having little to do with overexposure to the sun. To Barbara's immense pride, her newest protege didn't attempt to obfuscate.
"I didn't mean to invade your privacy or anything, Barbara. Really."
The girl pushed a strand of shaggy pink hair behind the shell of her right ear and ducked apologetically.
"And, it's none of my bus--"
Barbara cut short the apology, lightly touching her ward's shoulder.
"It's fine, Dinah."
Sky blue eyes peered uncertainly through corn-silk lashes.
When the blonde snickered and raised her brows expectantly, it took the older woman a beat before she realized that, once again, she was channeling dialog from the movie "Shrek".
She shared the smile, then focused again on matters at hand.
"It, er, helped break the ice on something I wasn't certain how to talk with you about."
The fact that she hadn't yet determined whether there would be a need to have this conversation at all was, of course, moot.
"Now that you know, how are you feeling?"
As Helena had helped her see, feelings of displacement or jealousy wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility.
Or, at least, among many other realms.
The teen stared at her hands for a few moments before speaking with uncharacteristic slowness.
"Uh, I guess I'd never really considered it. And, so it really, uhm, surprised me when I picked up on it yesterday."
Having experienced the same reaction, ten-fold, not too long before, the redhead offered a sympathetic nod. Barbara allowed her hair to fall to the side of her face for a moment as she sorted out her own, current, reaction.
The young touch telepath hadn't picked up on... everything. Nevertheless, it was quite a bit to come to terms with.
She pushed her hair back brusquely and waited. The soft blue eyes searching hers brightened, and Dinah seemed to gather strength.
"Don't get me wrong: you and Hel would be -- "
Barbara felt her encouraging smile stretch into something more when the girl corrected herself.
"Well, you are great parents."
Given what she could only consider a questionable track record when it came to guiding the young women in her life, Barbara could only hope that the sentiment was, or would be, true.
"It's just... I mean, I didn't know you guys were even thinking about it, what with Helena just moving in and all. I guess I was kind of surprised, and it seemed kind of sudden?"
The redhead forced herself to wait until blue eyes met hers in question.
"To us as well, Dinah."
The blonde gaped.
"How could you not ... ?"
Considering the careful choreography, and timing, and medical scrutiny which most other same-sex partners had to undergo, Barbara wasn't surprised by the girl's disbelief.
"It's a bit of a mystery to us, too, Dinah."
She placed her hands on the sand and shifted a tiny bit to face her companion.
"One hypothesis involves Helena's meta-genetics."
Pale brows furrowed as the teen visibly worked through the options. Needing the release of tension, Barbara was hard pressed not to laugh when comprehension dawned on those youthful features, followed immediately by a firehouse blush.
The blonde chewed on her lower lip.
"That's really neat."
Apparently, that was all that it took for Dinah to convince herself, for then she was off.
"... Helena's genes and yours. I mean, wow, she'll be the most beautiful genius ever. And, she'd have to be a girl, right? Because you both only have x-chromos..."
Decidedly discomfited, the older woman finally felt the need to ground her companion a bit before Dinah had the nascent being named and receiving a Nobel Laureate.
"That's only one possibility, Dinah, and our first tests have left it a bit in doubt."
Naturally, her sharp-witted ward didn't miss the obvious.
"Okay. So, uhm, what are some of the other possibilities?"
Great grandmother's garters, but she wished she could think of anything but the other likely option...
In hindsight, Barbara had to acknowledge that her confusion, perhaps even a distinct lack of enthusiasm, would have been visible to anyone with a modicum of insight. Thus, she should have been prepared for the sensation of a delicate hand clasping hers and for her companion's empathy.
"Whatever it is, it's just too cool fo--"
The shared sensation of Dinah's giddy happiness and ready acceptance was all-too-brief. Less than a heartbeat after making skin-to-skin contact, the young woman's features changed dramatically, and she jerked away as if burned.
Barbara's mood instantly plummeted.
Two days before, in describing Dinah's reaction after the banana boat ride, the redhead had likened it to something out of a science fiction-horror movie involving acid-spewing alien embryos. Less than forty-eight hours later, she understood how wrong her description had been; how very, very off-target it had been.
The response after the boat ride had been nothing. It was now, after her ward and protege shied from what had obviously been meant as a supportive touch, that Barbara understood what it was to be looked at like she were harboring pure malevolence.
The teen's hushed whisper lashed Barbara's frayed nerves, leaving her raw and shamed.
"No wonder Helena's so..."
Despite her nearly overwhelming desire to scream... or shout... or beg... or whatever it took to get her telepathic ward to finish the statement, Barbara fought down the urge. The invasion of privacy was too enormous, too unforgivable.
Instead, she held her tongue, pushing aside for later examination the odd feeling of guilt she was experiencing.
"No wonder you're not more excited."
The redhead heard a short, bitter bark of laughter, belatedly identifying it as her own. Bringing herself under control, she had to agree with the teen's assessment.
"It is a bit... discomfiting, Dinah."
If that didn't take the prize for literary meiosis, the English teacher didn't know what would.
For a minute, perhaps two, the pair sat in silence. Barbara assumed that her companion was attempting to make sense of matters. Cautiously observing Dinah's features knit in puzzlement, the redhead anticipated the moment when the girl threw in the towel on her deductive process.
"I don't understand how The Joker could have..."
When the girl stumbled to an abrupt halt, her normally pale features blanching, Barbara instinctively reached out to steady her with one hand, flailing for the water bottle with the other.
"He didn't r... get to you...?"
Lost in her concern that the teen was about to faint, it took the older woman a moment to discern her ragged question. Deciding to label her own emotion "relief", she hastened to reassure her.
"No, Honey, nothing like that."
Dinah accepted the offered bottle of water and took a small sip.
Barbara managed a smile which was, very probably, a bit stiff and turned to track a low-flying parasailer.
"We think that there could have been something in the bubble goo which he used on Helena the first time."
A decidedly curious nod encouraged the cyber-vigilante to continue.
"He did have a score to settle after she disturbed his mayhem at the DMV, and he certainly wouldn't have had much difficulty finding out about..."
Somewhat incongruously, considering the topic in general, Barbara felt a blush creep across her cheeks when she tried to find a suitable description for what she and Helena shared.
"... about Helena and my relationship."
Once again, the two fell silent until the teen's soft gasp drew the redhead from her pointed contemplation of the tide pattern.
Crimson brows knit at the girl's obvious embarrassment, but Barbara waited while Dinah twirled a lock of hair around her index finger and dug her toes into the sand.
"... No wonder you had green hair on your mind."
Stretching over, the older woman gently freed the pink-tinted hair from Dinah's grasp and tenderly tucked it behind the girl's ear.
Having reached her limits for the topic, Barbara exhaled noisily and fisted her hands beside her in the sand, nodding toward the waiting kayak.
"Ready to head ba--"
"But even if it has some of his genes doesn't mean--"
They spoke as one, but the redhead couldn't persuade herself that she'd been unable to make out Dinah's words... her meaning. Given that the teen was just coming to terms with her own role on the night of The Joker's death, Barbara couldn't imagine how she might feel about having his... progeny join their lives.
Regardless of an intellectual appreciation for Dinah's attempt to see the bright side of matters, her stomach performed a slow roll as she considered the impossibility of explaining the depth of evil inherent in Jack Napier's gene pool.
Not to mention the horror of serving as a... carrier for anything related to him.
For many years, Barbara had resolutely not allowed herself to consider what had transpired all of those years before, lying on the floor of her sparsely furnished starter apartment with The Joker standing above her. She'd not permitted herself to dwell on what had occurred between the third and fourth bullet which had gone into her body.
Unfortunately, it was becoming damnably difficult to ignore the implication that the green-hair madman was somehow, even in death, making good on things.
Squaring her shoulders, Barbara Gordon met Dinah's gaze without flinching. She even managed a self-depreciating smile.
"But, we don't know anything yet, so let's not get ahead of ourselves."
Moving forward using all my breath
Making love to you was never second best
I saw the world thrashing all around your face
Never really knowing it was always mesh and lace
A cacaphony of honking and tire screeching, not to mention some creative use of the narrow road's shoulder, abruptly ended Barbara's solo on the air drums. Eyes narrowing, she checked the security of her seat belt with one hand while simultaneously leaning forward to lower the volume on Modern English. Not missing her partner's response to the driver who had overtaken them, she cleared her throat and spoke mildly.
"Just because we sometimes call ourselves birds, Hel, is no reason to advertise it."
With a completely unrepenatant smirk, the brunette returned her hand to the gear shift, seemingly oblivious to the slow arc she was making toward the right side of the road.
"Left side --"
Plastering a smile across gritted teeth, the redhead cut herself short, absolutely loathing the idea of becoming a back seat driver.
Regardless of any... concern she might be experiencing due to her chauffeur's tendency to seek out the right lane of the pitiful excuse for a highway, she simply refused to mar their last full day of vacation by acting like some sort of fishwife. She would enjoy this outing from the resort even if Helena -- or Helena in combination with the seemingly insane drivers of the small island -- got them killed.
Knowing that her partner's hearing was... acute at worst, Barbara accepted the out which she was being offered.
"Nothing really, Sweetie. I was just wondering where someone left this... deathtrap you found."
A decidely indignant snort preceded the high-pitched response.
"Hey, I'll have you know that this is a genuine..."
Barbara didn't even try to suppress her fond smile at the affected pronunciation which made the word come out as "Jin-Yew-Wine".
"... 1973 Jeep Scrambler."
She did attempt to fight back her alarm -- and ignore the sounds of further honking -- when her companion turned to pin her with blue eyes which bespoke the younger woman's wounded ego.
"It's a friggin' classic, Red."
In the hopes that agreement would induce her driver to return her attention to the task at hand, Barbara kept it brief.
Which, she had to admit, would make today's transportation a few years younger than the vintage Toyota minibus which had delivered them from Sangster International to their resort nine days earlier. Hopefully, the shuttle trip back to the airport tomorrow would be a bit less... interesting than the trip out: She simply couldn't fathom how a forty mile trip between Montego Bay and their resort could have taken six hours.
A bump which rattled the fillings in her teeth, and which she thought she'd felt in her hindquarters, forced the redhead to amend that thought.
Given the dubious quality of many of the island's highways, in combination with the torrential rains which had greeted their arrival and flooded numerous roads, perhaps the duration of their outbound trip was less than mystifying.
Shaking off her residual ire about having lost five hours of precious vacation time to waiting for roads to clear, Barbara determined that, for today, she was going to enjoy this outing with her energetic partner.
A surreptitious glance to her right forced her to amend her thoughts for the second time in less than a minute: Her energetic and relaxed and... sexy-as-hell partner.
The brunette had certainly embraced vacation casual for their outing: clad in frayed cut-offs, sandals, and a chambray shirt which was knotted, Daisy Duke-style, above the waistline of the shorts, Helena simply seemed to glow.
Dream of better lives the kind which never hate
Dropped in the state of imaginary grace
I made a pilgrimage to save this human's race
Never comprehending a race that's long gone by
Of course, the vacation had been good for all of them. Despite having flown by so quickly, it had still been... relaxed at a level Barbara hadn't experienced in years.
Especially since her snorkeling expedition with Dinah.
Since then, Barbara had felt lighter and more carefree than she could remember allowing herself to be for years. While the cyber-genius might have liked to attribute her change in attitude to the effects of sand and water alone, she was both observant enough and honest enough with herself to recognize that it was in no small part due to Helena.
In the last four days, the brunette had seemed to take special pains to spend time with the younger members of their party, giving Barbara plenty of time to read, hit the arcade, or simply nap the afternoons away. In the course of her meanderings through the resort, the older woman had been able to catch her traveling companions chasing each other through the maze of water slides, roughhousing on the ocean trampolines, and coming and going from shopping expeditions.
She'd determined that she simply would not ask, or even guess, how the underage girls had come into possession of the authentic Jimmy Buffet "Margaritaville" hats and tees they'd been proudly wearing for the last two days.
And, even when Helena hadn't left Barbara to nurse her Shirley Temples -- or whatever other non-alcoholic flights of fancy she came up with -- at the swim-up bar, she'd been wonderfully solicitous. There had been two more trips out on the Hobie Cat, several snorkeling jaunts, a horseback ride in the surf, a candlelight dinner at a local Cuban restaurant, and several moonlight swims.
It was almost, Barbara had realized the night before, as if they were reacquainting themselves, as they had during the heady days of snowy outdoor concerts and cautious touches during the infancy of their shifting relationship.
The redhead had also admitted to herself that the complete lack of... assumptions and demands had been most welcome. It hadn't been until the very night before that Barbara had finally felt ... easy enough to notice a tendril of warm desire for her lover again.
They'd been curled up in bed, spooning with Helena in front of her, the television's muted glow and low volume lulling them towards sleep. A barely audible hiss had caught the redhead's attention, and she'd suddenly grasped its origin: Her left hand, wrapped around Helena's ribs and nestled against her chest, had been absently brushing against the heavy swell of flesh under the brunette's tank top. Cautiously, surprised yet encouraged by the nascent interest raveling within herself, she'd repositioned her hand, fully enveloping one of her partner's breasts.
The nipple had immediately pebbled into diamond hardness against her palm, and Barbara had deliberately shut her eyes, closing out one sensory distraction as she savored the sensation and considered her own response. She'd distantly registered how still Helena had remained and had assumed complacency, caught up as she'd been in savoring the weight and contrasting textures, much as she'd done so many months before on the couch at the tower.
The first time she'd ever touched Helena -- any woman -- like that.
A growing awareness of the vibrating tension of her lover's muscles had alerted her to the fact that her partner was far from at ease; still, she'd neither withdrawn nor increased the contact.
"Is this alright, Hel?"
It had been a ghost of an exhalation, and Barbara had had to agree, repositioning her hand enough to touch turgid flesh with her fingertips and allowing herself to experience the sensation all over again. Eventually, she'd heard syllibant escape of air, slightly louder than the first, and she'd gentled her touch, feathering her fingers across the tumescent tissue to one side.
Her own voice had surprised her with its hoarseness.
"Can you sleep... like this?"
Slender, warm fingers had covered hers.
"I told you, Red. Cuddling with you is better than anything I ever had."
Even as distracted as she'd been, the older woman hadn't missed that the words weren't an answer, and the dark circles which, today, were present under cobalt eyes had confirmed it. Nevertheless, she'd not removed her hand as she'd snuggled closer to her lover, burying her nose against her shoulder and sleeping dreamlessly for the first time in weeks.
And, perhaps, she had to acknowledge, that sort of rest was just what she'd needed to kick start her zest again. On this day, with the top down on the aged Jeep, the wind blowing and the radio blaring, and Helena looking good enough to eat --
Green eyes blinked, then widened, when the redhead's internal censor caught up with her thinking. Smirking, she gave her censor a bum's rush to the back of her brain and casually reached across the seats, insinuating her right hand under the edge of the denim. Frayed threads ticked her knuckles as her fingers danced lightly over firm, corded muscles which began to tense, then twitch, under her touch.
A purring growl drew her attention from the expanse of lean, tanned thigh exposed by the cut-offs.
"Better be carrrrefulll, Red."
Something playful and defiant reared within the redhead.
"What if I don't want to be?"
She emphasized her sincerity by brushing the barrier of her lover's underwear, a bit surprised and not-at-all displeased by her own reaction to the movement. Her companion didn't seem to find the contact completely unwelcome, her hips rocking forward in the driver's seat once, and Barbara seized the moment to slip two fingers under the elastic just as slender fingers gently wrapped around her wrist.
"I'm gonna drive us right off the road, Barbara."
The redhead felt herself flushing, flirting with the idea as she brushed damp curls. Since she didn't particularly care to take bandages, stitches, and casts home as souvenirs of their trip, she regretfully withdrew, bringing her fingers to her face to savor the intimate scent and taste of her lover.
The redhead looked over in time to catch Helena's sly smile.
"I can pull over right here, Red, but your butt's gonna get sunburned."
Barbara threw her head back in a full laugh, then collected herself, arching one brow primly.
"Yours is the only posterior which I envision needing sun block."
Her companion's wide, open smile removed any semblance of control and sparked another fit of laughter.
"Not if you wear your floppy hat, Babs."
I'll stop the world and melt with you
I've seen some changes but it's getting better all the time
There's nothing you and I won't do
I'll stop the world and melt with you
An increase, mercifully brief, then the cessation of bumps and jolts alerted Barbara to the fact that they might be arriving at Helena's mystery destination moments before her chauffeur set the parking brake and pulled the key from the ignition.
"But -- "
Dark brows waggled, and the older woman stiffled a groan over the leering emphasis which Helena had placed on the word.
"-- before we bake any rump roasts, let's have that picnic I put together."
Barbara decided that the answering rumble from her midsection was probably responsible for the blush she felt painting her cheeks. Allowing that her appetite extended to areas beyond the carnal, she nodded her approval and reached for her chair while her companion retrieved a wicker basket and set about laying out the lunch she'd somehow assembled with the assistance of the resort's kitchen staff.
In short order, the redhead found herself selecting from an array of goodies comprising what she considered to be a classic continental picnic: various cheeses, fruits, baguettes, and -- best of all -- not a bit of spicy jerked meat or over-rich dessert in sight. The appearance of two plastic wine glasses and a bottle of red, however, gave her pause.
"I hope you brought lemonade for me, Hel."
Even white teeth flashed as the younger woman offered the bottle for her inspection.
Non-alcoholic Sparkling Grape Juice.
Through her laughter, Barbara still felt the tiniest flicker of guilt.
"You don't have to forego just because I can't drink, Sweetie."
Even considering the fact that the brunette was driving, the younger woman's meta-physiology removed DWI as an issue.
Busying herself with the foil covering the neck of the bottle, Helena shook her head absently.
"Hey, we're in this together."
An odd, but not altogether unpleasant, sensation of exposure caught the redhead by surprise. Pushing it aside for later consideration, she accepted a glass with a nod of appreciation and bent to inhale the bouquet.
"Quite, er, fruity," she managed while fighting a carbonation-induced sneeze.
They clunked the plastic glasses together, then sipped. In unison, they carefully settled their glasses, Barbara smiling sympathetically at Helena's inability to mask the affront to her palate.
"You know," the redhead reached for an apple wedge as she spoke, "Dinah said something similar after our talk."
The other woman regarded her, her usually expressive features oddly hard to read.
"She's right. We're all family, Red."
The older woman methodically smoothed a wrinkle from the blanket they were seated on.
Helpless, she met blue eyes which, in an instant, were inches away when Helena scooted around to circle her arms around her.
"Tell me, Barbara."
Crimson brows knit as Barbara wondered how she could be so fluent in most situations and so utterly at a loss at this moment.
"I... It's difficult to understand how you and Dinah can be so ready to accept -- "
Almost choking, she swallowed convulsively, and reached for her glass. She didn't think for an instant that she'd be able to down the stuff, but it gave her something to distract herself.
"To accept this. If it's... his."
Granted, Dinah had scarcely scratched the surface of The Joker's horror, but Helena certainly knew.
For a blessed moment, Barbara forgot herself, forgot the horrors which haunted her, when her lips were caressed lightly, insistently, until she finally opened on a sigh which morphed into a moan.
"I love you, Barbara, and we don't have to be afraid."
Puzzled, the redhead opened her eyes, squinting to focus at such close range.
"Whatever the genetics are, Red, this is something which we --"
Barbara felt a soft touch above her heart, and glanced down to see those delicate fingers move to the younger woman's chest, punctuating the pronoun.
"It's something we created. Loving."
Carefully, she resettled her glass and concentrated on breathing. Helena scootched back a foot or so and retrieved a slice of cheddar with seeming nonchalance.
"But, Helena, it's not that simple if somehow ... this -- "
It was her turn to gesture, this time in the direction of her pelvis.
She couldn't give the thought voice and found another approach.
"... has green-haired genetics."
Barbara blinked, then pursed her lips, irritated by the smile which had been forming in response to her companion's almost breezy unconcern.
"Excuse me, Helena?"
"I said," the brunette finished chewing. "Nature. Nurture."
The redhead blinked again and waited. Apparently receiving the message, the younger woman sighed dramatically and elaborated.
"Think about it, Red. Just cuz The Kid's hair is something out of 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show' --"
" 'Grease'," Barbara corrected mildly.
To her credit, the brunette grasped the reference immediately and laughed.
"Yeah, like Frenchy's when that Teen Angel dude sings to her."
Barbara shared the smile, seizing the lessening of tension as an opportunity to breathe again.
"So, even if D's hair is Gawdawful Pink --"
Somehow, the older woman suspected that Helena's description was exactly the name which would appear on the Clairol box.
"... that doesn't make her a peroxide blonde brain or a punk or anything, does it?"
Delighted, despite herself, that Helena had taken this discussion into a more intellectual realm, Barbara considered the argument for a moment.
"True enough, Helena; however, Dinah's current hair color has nothing to do with genetics."
The brunette nodded, nibbling at her lower lip before ducking her head to peer through her lashes.
"Well, what about me, Barbara?"
Crimson brows furrowed, and the younger woman continued, her voice suddenly very quiet and serious.
"I didn't turn into a collector of fine object d'art, did I?"
As the light bulb went on, Barbara smiled and shook her head. A beat later, she sobered and carefully reached for the other woman's hand.
"That's very true, Helena -- "
She didn't feel the need to bring up all of the similarities to Selina -- and Bruce -- which she could detect in her partner.
"-- but the same argument works in reverse in Dinah's situation, doesn't it?"
Both women were silent as they considered the amazing young woman's upbringing in foster care.
"But," Helena interrupted their somber thoughts, "the Redmonds weren't the only ones who brought her up you know."
Barbara rolled her eyes, and the brunette plowed on.
"And, what about you?"
Unable to resist the twinkle in bright blue eyes, the redhead heard the teasing lilt in her response.
"What about me, Helena?"
"From what I've heard, there weren't any geniuses with perfect memories going on with your biological parents. So, even if genetics play a part, there're always weird throwbacks, right?"
Not entirely certain whether she was marginally reassured by her partner's logic, or a bit miffed to be considered some sort of genetic throwback, Barbara simply nodded. The two sat quietly again for half a minute or so before Helena spoke again, her voice deceptively casual.
"So, you know why I picked this spot for our final day picnic?"
Aware that her companion had probably realized that she'd reached her limits for Mendelian topics, Barbara gratefully accepted the abrupt conversational shift. She deliberately compartmentalized their discussion, wishing she could lock it away completely and lose the key, and cocked her head to one side.
"I'd assumed the view...?"
There was no denying that the location Helena had somehow found was striking: They were situated in a small clearing, midway up a cliff which looked down into a narrow cove. Azure waters frothed in and out of the narrows fifty feet below while lush greenery surrounded them on three sides.
The vision of the younger woman suddenly standing and beginning to strip off her clothes forced the older woman to redirect her aesthetic appreciation.
Despite the privacy of their location, Barbara exhaled her relief when she found that the younger woman was wearing her turquoise micro-bikini.
Her relief was short lived.
"Cliff diving, Red."
Barbara felt her eyebrows rocket toward her hairline when the brunette held out her own black one piece and extended a hand in invitation.
"Wanna join me?"
Oddly, it only required a few seconds to weigh and total the odds. With a shrug and a wicked smile, she accepted her swimsuit.
"Let's take the plunge, Hel."
Despite the warm, welcoming pull of the currents holding her under, Barbara felt herself inexorably rising toward the surface. A narrow, focused tendril of brightness from somewhere distant beckoned, and, as much as she might wish to avoid its call, she could not.
Resultantly, and with a less-than-becoming grunt, she popped one eye open, grumpily peering at the seam in the blackout curtain which somehow always managed to permit a blinding beam of morning cheer to penetrate.
After her vision accustomed itself to the unwelcome laser aimed at her pillow, the first thing which Barbara noticed was her night stand: specifically, the fact that the drawer of the small table was cracked approximately an inch and a half. Instantly recalling what lay behind the uncharacteristic disorder, the redhead felt her brief burst of pique slide right off her.
Less than twelve hours before, after the long three-leg flight from Montego Bay, the little band of intrepid travelers had returned to New Gotham. By the time they'd sorted out their luggage -- Barbara still couldn't fathom why only one of their bags, one of hers, hadn't made the connection in Miami -- and dropped Gabby at her house, it had been midnight when they'd reached the clock tower.
Gratifyingly, they'd found their home to be in impeccable condition, a certain sign that Alfred had returned from his vacation and readied things for their homecoming. As expected after her month of travel, Dinah had been more than ready to return to her room, and so Barbara had accepted her ward's sleepy hug and bid the young woman a good night. At that point, she'd felt the weight of her other companion's stare and looked over to find blue eyes twinkling.
"Guess you wanna hit the Delphi, huh?"
To her surprise, especially since she had been able to stick to her promise not to surf the net while at the resort, the cyber-vigilante had realized that she had no desire to learn what had transpired in their absence and, perhaps more daunting, to discover what awaited them in their fair city.
"It can wait until tomorrow, Hel."
The frank incredulity in her younger partner's features had evoked a chuckle which had almost caused her to miss Helena's sotto voce response; when she'd made out the words -- which included "gotta find more of those pregnancy hormones" -- she'd pointedly headed into the bedroom, while Helena had decamped to the kitchen in search of something to sustain her.
Despite her weariness, the redhead had been unable to abandon lifelong habits completely and simply leave their bags sitting untouched at the foot of the bed. With fleeting guilt, she'd contented herself with digging through their luggage in order to toss the dirty laundry into the hamper before crawling into the big bed. Helena had joined her within minutes, and that's when the drawer had gone askew.
For a dozen heartbeats after she'd snicked off the lamp and Helena had snuggled close, all had been blissfully still and wonderfully comfortable. Then, the younger woman had abruptly bolted upright, clambered across her, and begun to rummage in the bedside table.
"What -- oomph -- in the name of mincing mountain goats are you..."
Her fuzzy bed socks -- the fuchsia pair -- had appeared before her, and she'd accepted them with a laugh. Once she'd performed the gymnastics to put them on, Helena had rearranged herself around her and, within minutes, both women had surrendered to the lures of Morpheus.
Now, with the realization of what had been removed from her bedside drawer came the memory of just what she'd placed in the drawer on Helena's side of the bed as she'd performed her perfunctory unpacking eight hours before.
Throughout their ten days in paradise, Barbara had honestly had no idea that her partner had carted along the...
Well, 'purple thing' was the only term she cared to use: an apt enough, if overly benign, description.
The fact that the... implement had been packed in Helena's belongings had simply not come up, so to speak, during their vacation; however, Barbara had been unceremoniously introduced to its presence on the return trip.
Traversing the gauntlet of Customs and Immigration at Miami International, Helena had been brusquely pulled aside with her luggage. After a certain amount of gesticulating, the vivacious young brunette had eventually been escorted into a private room by three customs agents. With thoughts of missed connections occupying a small part of her brain, Barbara had impatiently waited outside with Dinah and Gabby, filing through her mental rolodex in search of any immigration lawyers she might have met in the last few years and absolutely refusing to engage in any conjecture about what had sparked the search.
Helena had re-emerged long minutes later, almost puffing with righteous indignation which, later, Barbara suspected might have been laughter. In response to the questions barraging her, she'd shrugged with almost maddening nonchalance.
"How was I to know the, er... "
A circumspect glance toward their teenaged companions interrupted her, but only for a moment.
"... that purple latex was considered indecent?"
Barbara had felt her eyebrows follow the blush traveling toward the roots of her hair.
Regardless of Dinah and Gabby's complete bafflement, she'd had to ask.
"Did they confiscate it?"
Helena's reply had been pure sunshine.
"Nah, I just told 'em that I'm your PT and we use it for therapy."
Which, the older woman had realized as the blush in her cheeks had raged down her neck and entire torso, certainly explained the frankly curious looks she'd been receiving from the Customs Agents who had questioned Helena.
However, this morning, safe at home and unlikely to be meeting any of the agents any time soon, Barbara pushed aside her residual embarrassment and settled more deeply into the physical heat which was currently blanketing her from behind. Perhaps in deference to the warmth of their environment, or perhaps in deference to her own reticence, Helena hadn't seemed to sleep as closely while they'd been at the resort.
Barbara had to acknowledge that the return of her human blast furnace was... welcome.
Of course, simply being home was nice as well. Regardless of how wonderful a journey was, the lure of familiar comforts -- and her own bed -- was a lovely reward at the end of a trip.
With a blink, then a sly smile, the analytical woman corrected herself: the lure of their bed.
And, she tacked on while performing some isometric stretches, a return to their familiar sleeping position: meaning that, regardless of how she positioned herself -- on her back, her right side, her left side, possibly if she hung from the ceiling -- her bedmate was inevitably her own personal human octopus.
And, it was a lovely feeling, especially this position, with Helena spooning her so tightly from behind. The younger woman's rumbling purr vibrated through her torso while the hand draped over her waist kneaded softly at her abdomen.
Giving in to her sybaritic tendencies, Barbara worked her upper body back another inch or so, bringing her into firm contact with her companion's chest. She flirted with a moan, contenting herself with a long sigh as she savored a sensation which, until not too many months before, she'd never dreamed of.
Lost in her own sensations, it took the redhead a while before she noted a change: She couldn't be certain of when Helena began to drift into wakefulness, but she wryly suspected that it occurred around the same time that the younger woman's hand drifted upward on her torso. She concentrated on slender fingers whispering across her tee shirt, noting that their position was reversed from that of only a few nights before and guiltily acknowledging how much restraint her passionate younger lover had shown.
When her own breathing hitched, Barbara finally heard her partner's surprisingly tentative whisper.
"God, it feels so good holding you like this. Touching you like this."
The two lay in a silence broken only by the sound of Helena's shallow breathing and Barbara's own pounding heartbeat. Eventually, the younger woman seemed to arrive at a decision.
"Let me make you feel good, Baby."
Barbara swallowed with difficulty, perhaps in sympathy for the hoarseness of her bedmate's voice.
She couldn't finish the question, but the other woman easily grasped her intent.
"Huh. After that Irish massage you gave me, I owe you."
Green eyes narrowed, and the redhead began to suspect that a cup of coffee might be in order.
A warm chuckle penetrated the thick cotton of her NGPD tee, warming her shoulder.
"That afternoon with the storm?"
The succinct prompt was all that Barbara required to grasp the reference to the afternoon they'd spent in the room, on the plush rug near their balcony doors. With the curtains gusting in the wind and occasional drops of warm tropical rain spattering their skin, they'd watched the lightening and jumped to the booming thunder. When Helena had offered her a massage, Barbara had refused, insisting that, this time, she be allowed.
During the course of the two-hour massage, she'd been determined not to forget herself and shortchange her partner. In the process, she'd been able to rediscover every run of muscle in the younger woman's sinewy frame, to re-experience the delicate lines of downy hair covering Helena's lower back, to absorb the absolute softness of the skin of her inner thighs. Throughout, she'd been aware of glittering golden eyes which had never quite met hers and the unmistakable scent of her lover's passion; however, Helena had never... pushed.
Despite some sort of discomfort which accompanied the younger woman's characterization, Barbara managed a soft laugh.
"You certainly don't owe me, especially after all of the back rubs you've given me in the last few months."
Those teasing fingers touched more firmly, with intent.
"Then let me do something you can owe me for later, Babs."
She felt the woman behind her nose through her hair and gasped as impossibly soft lips moved across her neck. Eyes fluttering shut in spite of herself, Barbara surrendered to teasing strokes and soft suctioning which were all-the-more erotic for their slow deliberateness.
"Dear heaven, Hel -- "
Breasts aching, her skin almost electric, the redhead flailed blindly behind her. Her search for something to ground her led her to her partner's hip which was thrusting powerfully against her, and the heat in Barbara's veins turned to ice water.
Immediately, the younger woman's arms were around her, her cheek resting lightly on her shoulder.
"Barbara? What--? Did I--"
Somehow, the younger woman's solicitousness seemed to make it worse, but Barbara couldn't allow her partner to think for a moment that the responsibility lay with her.
"No. It... it isn't you."
Not the best she was capable of, but it would have to do.
Helena held the awkward embrace for a beat longer before slowly sinking back and spooning close. While her embrace was clearly intended to comfort, there was no way to miss that the younger woman was anything but relaxed: her breathing, the heat pouring from her, even a scent Barbara had come to recognize were all unmistakable.
Accordingly, the older woman felt even worse when she heard her lover's next words.
"What's going on, Red?"
The tone was calm, almost conversational, giving the redhead a breather. She searched, attempting to categorize and label the variegated answers to the seemingly simple question. Ultimately, she opted to focus on the moment at hand.
"I want to show you."
The words were so damned inadequate for what she meant, for what she wanted: to thrust and ride her lover actively, to show her how much...
A long, slow sigh interrupted her self-recrimination
Long-suffering would not have been too far off the mark, Barbara suspected.
As the seconds ticked by and there was no other response, she couldn't handle the silence.
"Am I overanalyzing again, Hel?"
A rumbling chuckle tickled her neck an instant before soft lips brushed the sensitized area.
"M'be a little..."
Despite Helena's unconcern and ready acceptance, the older woman couldn't let it go, couldn't just...ease back into the moment.
This time, there was no sigh, only a rustle as her bedmate raised up on an elbow behind her. Barbara shivered as strong fingers combed through her hair.
"You do, Red."
Frustrated to the point of screaming, the redhead grit her teeth, feeling the muscles in her jaw tic once before warm, slender fingers stroked lightly against her face. Despite herself, she felt her tension begin to peel away.
"I can smell you. I can feel your muscles tighten..."
That maddeningly gentle, talented hand dropped to caress her belly.
"... and feel your body calling for me"
Barbara barely had time to puzzle over the oddly poetic sentiment before her own hand was lifted, then coaxed to her lower abdomen. When the younger woman pressed their joined hands together against her, Barbara recognized that her partner had been speaking factually -- literally -- rather than symbolically. As Helena had shown her several months before, she was reminded that, internally, she couldn't help but respond.
Turning that thought over, the redhead admitted the sweet symbolism. She'd never been able to resist Helena's call: from the first day the brash young teen had entered her classroom and engaged her, to a year of atrocious deli every day, to having her eidetic neurons filled to overflowing with repeated viewings of every Jackie Chan movie on the planet, to learning how to handle Tequila shooters --
Smirking, Barbara caught herself, forcing herself to stay honest: the shooters, after all, had been something which she'd shared with Helena. It had been the younger woman who had exposed her to, and inflicted on her the hangovers from, deceptively sweet drinks with blush-inducing names like "screaming orgasms", "sex on the beach", and "slippery nipples".
She caught her lower lip in her teeth, then blinked when gamine features came into view.
"Most of all, night and day, Barbara, I hear your heart beat for me."
"You make me feel so beautiful, Helena."
Struck senseless, she didn't realize she'd spoken until she heard Helena's reply.
"You are beautiful."
She opened, then shut her mouth.
You make me feel...
She couldn't speak the words aloud, but they echoed clearly through her. Pierced by too many emotions to comprehend, Barbara heard herself whispering a wondering question.
"How can you love me so?"
The younger woman, of course, heard the words which Barbara hadn't planned on speaking aloud.
"How can I help it? You made me everything I am... everything I want to be."
Once again, she was reminded that, for better or worse, their effect on each other went both ways.
How could it not?
Bringing her partner's hand to her lips, wishing she could give voice to the need inside -- 'Take care of me, Hel.' -- she inhaled slowly, feeling her bedmate relax around her from behind.
"No... rush, Red. I know... a lot's happened."
Choosing to label her response to that as "ironic", Barbara couldn't disagree. She filed away for later consideration her reaction to the... reprieve which Helena was offering.
"Not just with this -- "
Warm fingers drifted across her upper abdomen before the maddening tickle abruptly vanished somewhere around her waist.
"-- but, uhm, everything. You and me."
Searching under the covers, she capture the hand she found resting on her hip, threading their fingers and bringing their joined hands to her breastbone.
"What do you want, Hel?"
Since she wasn't entirely certain how she'd intended the question, Barbara was curious about her partner's response. Helena took her time, perhaps searching through the nuances, and in the interim, Barbara again felt the sensation of her lover's breasts against her back and her lover's non-movement against her.
"What I've always wanted since I knew what wanting was, I guess."
Only slightly surprised that she'd deciphered the tangled utterance, Barbara held her breath.
"To be with you. For you to be happy."
Defensive armor stripped away, the redhead heard her own, almost plaintive, demand to know.
"But what about you, Helena?"
The brunette's quiet reply was instant.
And, the older woman realized with a stutter step of her heart, completely certain.
"That is for me, Barbara."
Barbara could hear a quiet rustle as her partner inched forward, then felt her partner's face against her shoulder and readied herself for... whatever the younger woman would say to lighten the mood and guard against her revelation.
After all, the older woman knew, without question or doubt, that for all her emotionality and volatility, brashness and swagger, Helena guarded her tender heart as vigorously as Barbara denied... or forgot... that she herself had one.
The redhead knew she'd seen glimmers of it from their early days in the classroom when she'd detected tearstains on her don't-give-a-damn young student's essay about "The Bell Jar". She'd recognized glimmers not long after she'd become Helena's guardian and the girl had casually assumed PT duties. Certainly by the time they'd embarked on their joint venture and her protege was risking, and sustaining, injuries to rescue puppies, it had become a given.
"And, more leather. Maybe some nunchucks, too."
The older woman silenced her lover's embarrassed additions, inclining her head to press a kiss to her knuckles.
"I just... You've... you are shaking up your life so much, and I don't want you to..."
Barbara blinked against something wet rimming her eyes, marveling at the younger woman's sweetness. Pushing aside her maudlin tendencies, she snorted soundlessly at the recognition that Helena had always been the patient one.
After all, for how many years had Helena known and waited for her to see?
The incongruous murmur distracted the redhead from her musing about the changes which had encompassed her life in the last six months.
Expecting something suggestive, she was gratified to realize that they'd been sharing similar thoughts.
"Like a painting or something, Barbara. You've been adding new colors and mattes...?"
Green eyes tracked upward, taking in the colorful Gauguin at the head of the bed, grateful beyond words for all that its presence symbolized.
"Onions?" she suggested laconically, feeling a smile ghost her lips.
Helena wasn't the only one who could -- who needed to -- diffuse a moment.
The smirk became full-blown.
"Barbaras have layers, like onions," she teased.
Naturally, Helena grasped the reference to the movie which Barbara had inopportunely quoted during Frank Lowen's laser attack on Arkham so many months before. She immediately fell into the role of Donkey.
"Nah, parfaits. Everybody likes..."
A slow nibbling of lips muted some of the remainder, but through her shivers, Barbara clearly detected the words "yummy", "eat", and "layers".
Snorting softly, she reached back, wending her fingers through silky hair and tugging gently. Her bedmate shimmied over her with pleasing alacrity, bringing them face to face.
"Onions," she corrected lightly.
Blue eyes danced.
"Lemme taste and see..."
After that, the communication flowed into something of a more nonverbal nature until, with a groan of frustration, Barbara pushed herself up, somehow yanking roughly at her lover's tank at the same time.
Her own soft 'ooh' of pleasure was lost to Helena's soulful groan when her mouth found it's destination. Fingers gently threaded through her hair, the slow rise and fall of Helena's hips under her torso increasing in tempo.
"God, I wanted you like this three nights ago."
Barbara paused only long enough to position her thigh between the younger woman's legs.
"I know," she husked, returning to the feast before her.
Barbara Gordon was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a big fan of breakfast.
While she had nothing personally against bacon and toast and cereal and the other traditional fare, she simply wasn't impressed by the charms of the most important meal of the day. Since she presented herself as a responsible adult who faced the world early each day, well-fortified and ready to go, she engaged in the habit; however, as a night owl at heart, her preference would have been to skip the whole mess and grab an extra hour or three of sleep each morning.
Brunch however, with it's connotations of lazy mornings, indulgent treats, and lingering over the newspaper, was another matter. Brunch was a habit she felt she could wholeheartedly embrace.
This particular brunch, which -- given the hour she and Helena had emerged from their room -- was closer to lunch than breakfast, was no exception. Since it had been assembled as a welcome home celebration by Alfred, she had no opportunity to indulge in The Times crossword; however, there were numerous other distractions.
"And we even got some pictures of her scaling the side of the Statue of Lib--"
Perhaps realizing that she'd divulged information which Helena might have preferred kept in confidence, Dinah abruptly cut short her vivid description of some of the highlights of her visit to New York City. Barbara touched her napkin to her mouth as Alfred, neutral as ever, approached the table with a carafe of orange juice and a magnum of champagne.
"That must have been most exciting, Miss Dinah."
The butler blandly met Barbara's smirk.
"I've taken the liberty of readying for mimosas, Miss Barbara, if it meets with your approval."
The redhead felt unbecoming lines wrinkle her brow at the implied question. Before she had time to guess why he had felt the need to ask, Alfred tilted his head infinitesimally in the direction of the only underage member of the little breakfast party, and Barbara released her nervous sigh through a laugh.
"Of course Dinah is welcome," she agreed, "but it might be a bit decadent for a weekday for m-"
Before she could continue her awkward refusal, Helena beat her to the punch.
"Thanks, Alfred, but make mine a bud."
The distinguished gentleman was unruffled.
"A Bud, Miss Helena? I believe that I've stocked Fat Tire, Blue Canoe, and Red Stripe..."
The brunette's laughter was bright.
"Sorry, Alfred, but not even I want beer with breakfast."
Dinah's snort almost caused Barbara to miss the tiny smile which Alfred presented at Helena's overly dramatic expression of distaste.
"I meant to make it a virgin mimosa."
"Me, too," Dinah piped in.
Rolling her eyes, Barbara permitted herself an admonishment.
She waited until two very different pairs of blue eyes fixed on her.
"Please. Enjoy yourselves."
She looked up to meet Alfred's quizzical countenance.
"However, I do need to keep a clear head to tackle the Delphi later."
Before the moment could become awkward, Dinah shrugged and extended her glass with a squeal.
Nodding again in response to Alfred's unspoken question, the redhead directed her attention to the feast before them, struggling not to blanch at the sight of... French Toast. Normally a much-loved and seldom-enjoyed treat, the delicacy had made up her entire breakfast repertoire at the resort: it had been that or various smoked pork products.
"... and Barbara even went cliff diving!"
Dinah's somewhat exaggerated accounting distracted the older woman from the slow roll her stomach was performing, and she looked up with a wry smile.
"I did have a bit of help," she interjected modestly at the same moment that Helena chimed in.
"Yeah, and I've got a picture to prove it."
Barbara rolled her eyes and cut off a miniscule bite of toast, secretly delighted by the reminder.
As she'd readied herself for their impromptu suicide plunge two days earlier, Helena had dug through the gear bag in the back of the Jeep and produced the underwater camera. With some fanfare, the brunette had entrusted her with the task of holding the camera at arm's length to capture their hair-raising plunge. Feeling remarkably calm about the situation, Barbara had attempted to keep the small disposable steady and snapped what was undoubtedly a memorable, if blurry, shot at the instant Helena had barreled over the cliff with her in her arms.
Chewing thoughtfully, Barbara suspected that when the photo was developed, it would join her wall of fame near the Delphi, next to the photo of Dinah's "thought bubble" fish tank and above the Richard M. Nixon commemorative presidential plate.
"Honestly, Dinah," she smoothly cut in on the teen's imaginative recounting of the feat of daring do, "it was more like a jump from an Olympic high dive platform."
The pink-haired girl opened her mouth but was cut short by the other member of their party.
Almost leisurely, Helena swallowed a mouthful of eggs and reached for her juice.
"Like they have jagged rocks at the base of the Olympic pool."
The brunette downed half her beverage and decisively thumped her glass on the table.
"And sharks. Can't forget the sharks."
Snorting into her coffee, Barbara noticed that Helena's tactic achieved the results she'd hoped for: Dinah forgot cliff diving. With Alfred settling himself at the table with a cup of tea, the teen launched into a mile-a-minute description of snorkeling, diving, and glass-bottom boat excursions. By the time she'd provided a blow-by-blow recounting of Helena's surprisingly graceless -- and drenching -- attempts at sail boarding, all thoughts of reckless plunges had disappeared, along with most of the food on the table.
An hour later, finally ensconced in front of the Delphi, Barbara paused with her fingers above the keyboard, wondering just where all of the food had gone and how she'd somehow managed to polish off two helpings of French toast.
Some days, it might be wise to wear a belt: if only so she could loosen it after a meal.
Chuckling, she straightened her shoulders and decisively faced her oversized plasma monitor.
No more delaying the inevitable; it was time to find out what New Gotham had in store for them.
Her fingers flew across the keyboard, entering the sequence of login codes and passwords without conscious thought. The soft click of the keys and pervasive humming of the CPUs as they began to overclock were as familiar and unnoticed as elevator music, and she rapidly lost herself in the process of sifting through eleven days worth of police reports, logs from security firms, and miscellaneous other automatically generated incident reports.
Caught up with plans to update her categorization algorithms -- somehow, some sort of incident involving toupees had been routed to the assault category -- the cyber-vigilante almost sailed right out of her chair when a discrete cough penetrated her distraction. One hand flying dramatically to her chest, she jerked her head to the right, barely holding back a startled squeak.
"Great Caesar's ghost, Alfred! You scared the hell out of me!"
The butler calmly settled a cup and saucer next to her mouse pad.
"My apologies, Miss Barbara. I didn't intend to disturb you so violently."
With her pulse rate finally dropping back to the double-digits, the redhead felt heat rise to her cheeks.
"No, Alfred, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have snapped at you."
She leaned down slightly and sniffed, smiling appreciatively at the rich orange pekoe.
"And, thank you for the tea. You really are too good to us."
The proper Englishman, naturally, didn't accept the praise easily.
"That would be most difficult, I believe."
Chuckling, Barbara reached for the cup.
"And, thank you for taking such good care of things in our absence."
She wrinkled her nose to push her glasses up a few millimeters and looked over the top of her cup.
"How was your holiday, Alfred?"
The reserved gentleman's posture seemed to relax a hairsbreadth, and the redhead felt herself ease a wee bit in response.
Honestly, sometimes she still felt like a schoolgirl in the principal's office when Alfred addressed her.
"It was most enjoyable, Miss Barbara. Thank you for asking."
The momentary informality ended, and he cleared his throat, extending a small sheaf of papers.
"I took the liberty of answering the phone while I was here. I believe that the topmost message may be of some import."
Cocking her head to one side, Barbara resettled her teacup and accepted the papers. A beat later, she almost jumped at the phantom sensation of butterflies in the pit of her stomach when she read the message: a confirmation of the emergency appointment she'd requested with her gynecologist.
She looked over her glasses, acutely aware of the fact that her attempt at nonchalance had come out more like a sick croak.
"The office asked me to impress upon you that they had to cancel several appointments to fit you in."
The older gentleman's expression remained completely neutral, but Barbara wasn't fooled for a minute.
"If you'll forgive my presumption, I do hope that there's nothing amiss."
A somewhat strangled laugh escaped the redhead, and she clearly detected the puzzled concern hidden behind professional reserve. With the observation came the realization that, here, finally, was an opportunity to unburden herself to someone who was less intimately involved in events yet who was privy to the... unique aspects of their situation.
For almost three weeks, Barbara had been wrestling with the situation and the possibilities, attempting to make sense of matters and, somehow, come to terms. Regrettably, she'd had little success on any front.
As much as it had rankled her scientific, orderly mind, she'd been willing to accept that Helena's meta-uniqueness could lie behind her current condition.
In their world, stranger things were known to happen.
Unfortunately, the sample she'd analyzed before their trip had suggested the impossibility of that, leaving a much less palatable -- albeit, in their line of work, more possible -- option: that somehow The Joker had infused the bubble goo he'd sprayed Helena with.
Not for the first time, Barbara felt her stomach twist, both at the thought itself and at the wish which had been, inevitably following it for the last week: if only she could have someone present her with proof of a blackout induced infidelity which could account for the pregnancy.
Anything to keep the entity inside her from being a product of hers and... Jack Napier.
Recalling herself, she met the sympathetic gaze directed her way, debating the fairness of burdening someone else with her fears and confusion.
It took her all of three second's deliberation before she laid it out.
When she'd finished her summation, she carefully folded her glasses and settled them into the pocket of her chair, feeling oddly light and, simultaneously, terribly selfish. Her confessor regarded her thoughtfully for a few seconds before inclining his head ever so slightly to the right.
"I see. The situation is certainly..."
Barbara wasn't certain whether it was decorum or the inadequacy of the English language which caused her companion to trail off. Not without sympathy, she spoke dryly.
Alfred nodded once.
The two shared a brief, humorless smile. The dignified man held her gaze, seeming to consider his words before finally speaking.
"May I speak frankly, Miss Barbara?"
The redhead exhaled heavily, hoping to blow the cares of the world -- or at least a few specific personal concerns -- from her shoulders, and smiled softly.
"I wish you would, Alfred."
"In that case,"
He nodded his acknowledgment, then shook his head briefly when Barbara gestured to a chair in invitation.
"... while this arena is one in which I must admit having very little familiarity, it is not altogether without similarity to another such event which occurred a quarter century ago."
Crimson brows furrowed while Barbara attempted to work the math and place the butler's reference. Finally, the cyber-genius gave up.
"You've lost me here, Alfred."
The older man's expression never faltered from its customary polite neutrality, but Barbara swore she detected a distinct hint of sympathy in observant hazel eyes.
"I am referring to Miss Helena's origins."
Barbara briefly wondered if she were experiencing a bout of early-afternoon morning sickness when a wave of vertigo to passed through her. She rode out the sensation, then carefully moistened her suddenly very dry lips with the tip of her tongue.
"How might -- "
She had to stop, to inhale slowly and clear her throat, before trying again.
"How is this similar, Alfred?"
Her companion shifted minutely, then adjusted his already perfect cuffs.
"It is certainly not my place to reveal a confidence, since it seems that you don't know; however, in these circumstances..."
He trailed off, clearly seeking encouragement to continue. Despite the sensation of falling -- faster and faster -- Barbara barely resisted a smirk: In some ways, the perfectly proper Englishman truly was a gossipy old hen.
She spared him any further moral qualms.
"If you think it's pertinent, I'm sure that... Bruce...?"
She added a hint of a question to her statement, continuing when Alfred nodded.
"... wouldn't mind. And, well, Selina..."
She waited, marshalling her limited stores of patience and absolutely resolute not to attempt any further coaxing. She would allow him to make his own decision.
Of course, she determined grimly, if Alfred chose not to break Bruce's confidence, she'd be doing some pretty serious research of her own -- possibly including a visit to Wayne Manor -- in the next few days.
When Alfred finally spoke, Barbara knew that she wouldn't need to dust off her skills as a darknight detective.
"It seems that your situation may not be so different from that of twenty-five years ago. Specifically..."
The sympathetic look she saw evoked another attack of phantom butterflies.
"... when Master Bruce discovered that Helena's mother was carrying his child, he requested--"
Pursing his lips, the butler corrected himself.
"--He demanded that she terminate her pregnancy."
Barbara heard the question before she recognized that it had been hers. When Alfred brushed a bit of imaginary lint from his lapel, she closed her mouth and focused on the simple act of breathing.
"Apparently, Miss Barbara, he feared that the outcome of their union could be... a danger."
Buffeted by too many emotions to grasp, Barbara knew that she was no longer able to listen... to absorb any more of what her companion was telling her.
Distantly, she watched her fingers curl around the steel armrests of her chair, and she recognized the fury boiling within herself: Fury with Bruce for his dogmatic focus on right at all costs. Almost instantly, her anger bled to horrified sorrow over what the cost of Bruce's choice would have been.
And then, so rapidly she feared whiplash, she was wracked with nauseated disgust at herself: Disgust for her predictability and her clone-like adherence to her mentor's mindset.
A soft cough refocused her attention, and she willed her tightly clenched fists to relax.
"What happened, Alfred?", she finally managed.
Obviously, Selina hadn't given in to Bruce's request; however, given how strong-willed her mentor was, she was certain that there was more to the story... and the moral.
"If memory serves, Miss Selina informed Master Bruce that he could perform a proctological examination on himself."
For the first time in what felt like years, Barbara smiled, easily visualizing that particular scene. As strong-willed as Bruce was, Selina had been no slouch herself.
Particularly when it came to her daughter.
"She disappeared immediately after that."
The redhead sobered again, well understanding why Selina had gone underground so suddenly. The possibility of Bruce taking matters into his own gloved hands would have been too great to ignore.
Working to fit the suddenly reshaped pieces of history into place, she almost missed her companion's slightly raised brow.
She couldn't believe that she was asking, but the analytical woman had always been a slave to her curiosity.
"... something else, Alfred?"
The older gentleman took a measured step forward and retrieved the now-cold tea.
"Not to make your decision more difficult, Miss Barbara, but have you considered that there is another alternative?"
"Anoth--?" she managed.
Cup steady on the saucer which was balanced in his hand, the butler remained by her side.
"Indeed. Perhaps the... offspring isn't yours at all."
Green eyes blinked. Several times.
"Excuse me, Alfred? I'm afraid I'm not following you."
Barbara almost recoiled when the reserved gentleman lightly rested a sympathetic hand on her shoulder.
"I simply wish to point out that, given the uniqueness of her genetics in combination with whatever might have been in the bubble goo, perhaps the child is a product of Helena and The Joker."
This was, simply, not at all amusing.
Specifically, Barbara mentally clarified, the current state of affairs in her city was entirely not funny. That, or the powers that be had a mighty strange sense of humor.
The crimson-haired crime fighter leaned back from her monitor and speculatively tapped the stem of her glasses against her lower lip. Considering that last thought, she had to admit that in balance with her life, it seemed as likely an explanation as any.
It wasn't, after all, that she couldn't handle the grand ironies: her less than stellar childhood in what should have been an idyllic setting; the loss of her parents which had, actually, been a bit of a blessing; the decision to end her gymnastics career to pursue vigilante justice and then having that vocation stripped from her by a green-haired madman. She even felt that, on the whole, she was managing to deal quite capably with the latest irony: carrying a child which was possibly the product of that madman and... someone.
So, no, it wasn't the grand issues which got under her skin; it was, rather, the unrelenting minutiae.
Barbara snorted, aware that, with the clock tower to herself for the afternoon, she wouldn't be receiving any looks from her partners which suggested that her sanity was in question.
In just the last four months or so, she'd dealt with a nutcase lasering Arkham asylum, with clown fish thefts culminating in an interlude of semi-public S&M with her new lover, and with The Joker himself. She was even working to come to terms with a seeming immaculate conception.
However, when she'd had the nerve to give herself a ten day vacation, what had happened?
Well, in all honesty, not much had occurred during nine and a half of those ten days. It had only been on the day before their return home that things had begun to fester again in New Gotham.
According to the police reports she'd finally organized, while she'd been picnicking and plummeting over cliffs in Jamaica on her last day of vacation, some sorts of low-lifes had crawled out of the sewer and sprayed the crowd at a minor league baseball game with goo. While the goo had clearly not been the same suffacating mixture concocted by The Joker, however the event had created an understandable panic.
The copycat nitwits had yet to reappear, however there had been another welcome home offering in her city: the night before, at approximately the same time their plane had touched down in New Gotham, some group of depraved individuals had broken into the zoo and wrecked mayhem in the aviary wing: every hawk, falcon, owl, and eagle had been... plucked.
Completely denuded of feathers and left to suffer in their cages. By the time the staff had arrived this morning, many of the birds had died of shock and exposure.
Given the lack of coincidences in her line of work, Barbara found herself wondering how closely related the two incidents might be and musing on whether some sort of tar and feathering event would soon crop up.
Exhaling noisily through her nose, the redhead reseated her glasses with a grim smile.
At least life was never dull.
Poised with her fingers millimeters above her mouse, she caught the eye of the Princess Fiona bobbin' head doll situated above her monitor. Winking, she shared a bit of advice she'd received from an e-mail correspondant.
"Noli illegitimi carborundum, Princess."
When the doll nodded her agreement, Barbara smirked and refocused on her monitor, absolutely determined that she would not allow the bastards to grind her down. Her concentrated attempts to locate further information about the nature of the goo which had been used during the attack two days before was interrupted by the soft ding of the elevator, announcing the arrival of one of the younger women in her life.
With Helena's fondness for stealthy, and showy, landings on the balcony, she put her money on Dinah. When the elevator opened, proving her suspicion correct, the redhead smiled a greeting and casually began to minimize the various windows detailing the attack.
No need to bring any bad memories to the surface yet.
The teen waved a cheery hello and bounded into the kitchen, the brief delay giving Barbara time to bring her mail program to the forefront. A plethora of humor posts which her father had forwarded during the last ten days brought a smile to her face even as she made a mental note to give him a call within the next few hours. When she absently counted the actual number of messages he'd sent, she tacked a rider onto her mental note: Obviously she'd need to set up a filter to shunt his humor posts to a separate folder.
One could only be expected to face so many "You Might Be a Redneck" posts in one week.
Smile widening, she looked up as Dinah returned from the kitchen, guzzling deeply from a bottle of spring water.
"Hello, Dinah. What have you been up to?"
Since she was all too aware that Gabby would be heading off to State before too many weeks, Barbara fully expected that her ward had spent time with the other girl, despite the fact that the two had seen each other barely sixteen hours earlier. She was, accordingly, unprepared for Dinah's sunny reply.
"Filling out job applications."
Blinking, several times, the older woman removed her glasses, carefully crossing the bows at a forty-five degree angle before she placed them on her mouse pad.
"Excuse me, Dinah? A job?"
The pink-haired girl circumnavigated the sofa and ascended the ramp to the Delphi.
"Uh huh. It seemed like a good idea before the summer's completely over and all. I figured that some of the kids who got summer jobs might be getting tired of them now, and things could be opening up."
The redhead nodded her acknowledgement of the logic even as she protested the action.
"Is this about money, Dinah? Because, it really isn't an issue."
With the number of scholarships the girl had been awarded, they wouldn't even have to pay for her textbooks out of pocket.
Pink hair whipped from side to side.
"No, it's not..."
Barbara marshaled her patience as her ward interrupted herself and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.
"Well, maybe a little. You know?"
Having learned not to assume that she followed the workings of the adolescent mind, Barbara drew upon time-proven classroom techniques and smiled encouragingly.
"You know, just..."
The teen shrugged and fiddled with the cap of her water bottle.
"... knowing that some of the money I have is really, well, mine."
Barbara nodded seriously, not unfamiliar with that particular desire from her own teenage years.
"Besides, there's still a month until classes start," Dinah barreled on, "so if it looks like it'll interfere with studying or something, I can always cut back or quit or something."
There was no arguing with her ward's logic, and so the cyber-genius didn't try.
"It sounds like you've thought things through pretty thoroughly, Honey."
A completely unforced smile turned up the corners of her mouth when she saw the shyly nervous dip of the young woman's corn silk lashes.
"Where have you been applying?"
She didn't miss the way her companion relaxed.
"Well, I talked with Dr. Connors -- You remember her?"
Uncertain whether it would have been possible to forget -- eidetic memory notwithstanding -- the memorable evening that she and Dinah had toured NGU and met the Biology professor, Barbara simply nodded encouragingly.
"Well, you have to be at least a sophomore in order to work in the lab. Can you believe how unfair that is?"
Fighting a grin at the dramatic aggrievement in her ward's tone, Barbara nodded sympathetically. Apparently placated, the teen shrugged.
"So, I applied at the library -- "
This time, the redhead's nod was genuinely encouraging: She'd earned her share of minimum wage dollars shelving books in her day.
Warm memories of dusty stacks and squeaky book carts vanished with a noisy pop when she heard her companion's next words.
"... and at the mall."
Somehow, Barbara managed to maintain a smile which she hoped was, at the very least, neutral. She heard herself parroting, with what seemed to be completely transparent nonchalance, Dinah's last two words.
The teen diplomatically didn't notice the tiny incredulous rise at the end of the question, simply bobbing her head enthusiastically.
"Uh huh. Helena told me that employees get discounts at all the stores there. And the food court, which, you know, could be really cool if dorm food sucks or something."
The redhead opted for a strategic retreat on the subject, realizing that the door had just been opened on another topic of pressing import. As far as she knew, matters were still up in the air about whether Dinah would be living in the dorms, at home, or... in Helena's old apartment.
"Speaking of Helena, have you given any further thought to your living arrangements this fall?"
Looking as completely baffled by the sudden segue as Barbara suspected that she might have been, the girl simply waited for elaboration.
Her face, Barbara noted, wore the patented teen expression suggesting that she thought her older companion might be approaching senility.
"Living quarters," she prompted mildly.
"Oh, that," Dinah laughed. "The dorms."
Mildly flummoxed by the utter nonchalance of the announcement -- after all, the decision had been a source of considerable angst for her ward for several months -- Barbara waited, hoping that her silence would serve as a prompt. When the tactic failed to achieve its desired results, she barely managed not to roll her eyes in exasperation.
"What led you to reach that decision, Dinah?"
A hint of pink touched the young woman's cheeks, and Barbara mentally winced when she reached for a lock of hair, twirling it between her fingers.
"Uhm, I just got to thinking that maybe I'm not ready to be quite on my own yet. After everything with, uh..."
Cheeks now flaming, Dinah rushed on.
"And what you said about the dorms being a good jumping off point sounded fun..."
"Dorm life can be a lot of fun," the older woman agreed, wishing she'd experienced a bit more of that enjoyment during her college years.
Bracing herself, she tackled the giant green elephant in the clock tower.
"And, how are you doing after everything with The Joker?"
They'd skirted the topic of Dinah's feelings about Jack Napier's death while at the resort, but this was the first direct reference either had made. To Barbara's distinct pride, her protege neither brushed off the question nor avoided it; instead, she leaned against the table, face scrunched in thought as she picked at the label of her water.
"I... I guess I'm getting okay with it."
Pale blue eyes sought green, seeking understanding.
"I know, uh, at the time I wanted to... to do something to hurt him, but I also know it's not my fault that he's dead. And..."
Barbara held her breath when she saw the pained defiance in those innocent features.
"... I'm not sorry he's dead. He was a horrible person."
Awash with emotions, Barbara automatically cataloged them as they coursed through her: empathy for the sentiment, sorrow that the bright young woman should have experienced so much already, pride in Dinah's directness and maturity.
And one other: Shame.
In the face of the brave honesty of the girl who was little more than half her age, she couldn't allow herself to duck the question which blazed through her mind in three foot neon letters.
"He was indeed, Dinah. And given that,"
Barbara wanted to look away, to avoid those insightful eyes, but she forced herself to keep her gaze steady.
"... how do you feel about..."
The steadiness of her voice was apparently another matter.
Helpless, she clenched her hands into fists against her lower abdomen.
"... if this is his doing?"
The analytical woman felt no need, or capacity, to add Alfred's possibility to the mix. Regardless of whether she or Helena had provided the maternal DNA, the question was how Dinah felt about the possible other half of the equation.
Given the enormity of her own trepidation, Barbara discovered that she was a bit nonplused for the second time in minutes by her companion's response: nervousness simply vanishing, the teen smiled brightly and spoke with an absolute certainty which, to Barbara's complete surprise, ellicited a genuine laugh on her part.
"I don't think it's going to be a problem, Barbara. After all, there's no way that anybody's DNA -- except maybe Helena's -- could overpower yours. Not even The Joker's."
"Holy shit, you weren't joking, were you?"
While she certainly understood the question in all of its earthiness and while she completely forgave the rather indelicate lapse, Barbara could only muster a wan smile to accompany her headshake. Possibly realizing that her query had been a bit less than professional, the redhead's companion juggled the printout in her hand and quietly closed the door to the office behind her. Once their privacy was insured, she circled to the far side of her desk and dropped the paper she'd been engrossed in during her rather voluble exclamation.
"That is, are congratulations in order, Barbara?"
Utterly uncertain herself, the redhead lifted her brows helplessly.
"Well, giant jumping alligators, Barbara..."
The other woman dropped into her chair, perching her elbows on the desk blotter and resting her chin on her tented fingers. Barbara's response -- an appreciative smile -- was immediate and genuine: she had always enjoyed her gynecologist's ability to coin colorful terms, and she accordingly filed the latest away for future reference.
"... I really thought we had a case of pseudocyesis here, but the HCG levels are simply too telling."
Having entertained some faint hopes of false pregnancy herself, Barbara nodded somberly.
"So the blood work confirms the urine tests, Dr. Frine? I'd rather thought that my home tests could be fault--"
A sharply raised hand cut her short, and Barbara caught herself with a chuckle.
"Sorry, Gloria. Old habits and all."
Dr. Gloria Frine had been her gynecologist for as long as Barbara had recognized the need for one. From her early, somewhat stammering, investigations into birth control, to her later concerns about sexual and reproductive issues after the shooting, to some recent inquiries related to her changing relationship with Helena, Barbara had consistently felt at ease with the older woman. At some point during the years of their association, they'd moved from the formality of doctor and patient into a first name relationship; however, Barbara ruefully noted, under certain circumstances, she was apparently prone to falling back on formality.
The gray-streaked head bobbed approvingly, the severity of the motion softened by a knowing smile.
"Understandable, Barbara. And, yes..."
The doctor lifted the printout from her desk and tromboned it with one hand while fumbling in the pocket of her lab coat -- presumably for the glasses that hung from a chain around her neck -- with the other.
"The blood work seems definitive. There are even traces of the expected alpha-fetoproteins."
She abandoned her search for the elusive glasses as she stuffed the lab report into a folder and peered intently across the desk which separated them.
"So, yes, my dear, it would appear that you are entirely knocked up."
Barbara's unexpected and totally indelicate snort of surprised amusement finally freed her breathing and allowed her to peer through the veil of uncharacteristic terror which had possessed her since entering the office an hour before. Apparently, her marginal relaxation didn't go unnoticed.
The doctor leaned back in the oversized chair and narrowed her eyes.
"Care to tell me how this happened? It seems that you weren't planning on this, and I am quite certain that we covered birth control thoroughly many years ago."
The redhead smiled wanly, accepting the question for what it was: curiosity mixed with professional concern.
"I'm... I'm not entirely certain, Gloria."
Thin lips pursed thoughtfully.
"Somehow, I find that difficult to believe, Barbara. Do we need a refresher on anatomy? Tab A fitting into Slot B, and such?"
This time, Barbara laughed outright and waved a hand dismissively.
"Hardly, Gloria. It may not have been a frequent occurrence -- "
Despite the heat she felt touching her cheeks, the redhead felt the need to clarify.
"-- at least until lately -- "
The doctor chuckled appreciatively and nodded for her to continue.
"... but I'm unlikely to forget something as basic as that," she finally managed to finish.
The older woman nodded again but didn't speak. Her expression, however, spoke volumes.
Quite aware of how her next words would sound, Barbara futilely hunted for a way to explain. After she'd opened, then closed, her mouth for the third time, she threw in the towel on coherence and went with the direct approach.
"Gloria, I haven't been with a man in over a year. Almost two, actually."
She didn't speak the words, but they pierced her nonetheless.
Frine took a moment to absorb what her patient had just told her, then raised a slightly bushy brow.
"Are you seriously suggesting that we have a virgin birth coming up? Do I need to dust off my beads?"
Again, Barbara felt her embarrassment pushed to the periphery by her laughter.
"Hardly a virgin, Gloria."
The doctor absently stroked the chain that held her glasses, her expression eloquence itself.
"There's a possibility that Helena..."
Sensing the blush nipping at her heels, the redhead concentrated on the facts. After all, it wasn't as if the gynocologist were completely unfamiliar with some of Helena's unique traits.
"Well, the best-case scenario seems to be that Helena might somehow have inseminated me."
When Gloria failed to respond, Barbara heard herself tacking on a bit more detail.
"With her meta-genetics."
Slowly, her doctor leaned forward, resting her fingertips against the edge of the desk.
"An honest to God case of parthenogenesis? Do I even need to tell you how utterly disturbing I find that idea?"
The best that Barbara could offer was a helpless shrug. She'd always appreciated her gynecologist's keen vocabulary if not, at this moment, her mile-wide skeptical streak.
"Okay," Frine exhaled noisily, "you said that was the best case. I take it you have other suspicions?"
Wishing desperately to sink through the tasteful wool carpeting and not stop until she reached the van in the parking garage, the redhead swallowed against the mass rising in her throat. Gratefully, she accepted the glass of water that her companion extended, sipping slowly for a long thirty seconds until her parched lips could move to speak.
Since she'd assumed that the question might come up, Barbara had given quite a bit of thought about what, and how much, to divulge to her doctor. Sometime between parking the van and riding the elevator up to the office seventy-five minutes earlier, she'd opted for a somewhat whitewashed version of the truth: Helena had been at the wrong place at the right time and had been caught in The Joker's wave of bubble goo terror.
When she completed her summation, including the fact that she'd already performed one analysis of her partner's ejaculate and found nothing to support Helena as the "father" of the child, silence engulfed the office. Fighting the urge to fidget, Barbara sipped at her water again and allowed her listener to cogitate on what she'd shared.
Frine took her time, her face inscrutable as she tapped her fingers quietly against the blotter on the desk. As the seconds, then the minutes, ticked by, Barbara found herself segueing into gratitude that they weren't rushed in this discussion: Apparently when she'd requested the unexpected appointment, the office had cleared not one, but three, slots for her.
Lost in mental perambulations about the advantages of long-standing relationships, the redhead was abruptly recalled to the moment at hand when Gloria finally straightened up. The doctor brusquely jerked a leather-bound planner across the desk and opened it, gesturing apologetically toward the monitor which was perched on one corner of her desk.
The fact that the screen was facing a side wall told Barbara all she needed to know about her care-giver's opinion of it.
"Still haven't gotten the hang of the accursed new scheduling software."
Barbara nodded sympathetically.
"Well, when would you like to schedule it?"
Before Barbara could formulate a question... or a response... or a thought, the other woman continued briskly.
"According to the timeline you've given me, we still have at least another few weeks, but sooner would be--"
Understanding finally dawned, and the redhead raised her right hand, palm outward in the universal signal for "stop".
The doctor ended her perusal of the day planner and cocked her head.
"I'm -- I'm not certain that I want to end the pregnancy."
Barbara allowed the obvious final word -- "yet" -- to remain unspoken.
The doctor tapped her cloisonne pen against the pages of her appointment calendar for a few beats before carefully placing it on the blotter. With a noisy "Pfft", she ducked down, rifling through a drawer to emerge momentarily with an ashtray and a cigarette.
"Do you mind?"
The redhead shook her head once.
All things considered, a bit of secondhand smoke was the least of her concerns.
Gloria lit the gold foil-tipped cigarette and inhaled gratefully.
"My apologies, Barbara. Given what you've always told me about having children, not to mention the current situation..."
She tapped the cigarette sharply against the tiny marble ashtray, and Barbara cut short the apology.
"I know. My first instinct -- "
Having always prided herself on her honesty, the redhead forced herself to re-evaluate the statement.
"My continuing instinct leans that way, Gloria, but..."
How could she explain to her doctor what she barely understood herself?
Namely, that she -- a rational, intelligent being who had always relied on reason and intellect -- was beginning to doubt her judgment. In the face of the emotion and faith of those around her, the logical course seemed less palatable by the moment.
Her companion leaned back in her burgundy leather desk chair, cigarette poised between her index and second fingers. Barbara concentrated on the smoke trailing toward the dark paneled ceiling as she ticked the points off.
"If, somehow, this child is Helena's and mine, obviously it's too dear to... let go."
Drawing in a breath, she forced herself to acknowledge a truth that had been thrust before her the day before during her conversation with Alfred.
"And, if I'm somehow a surrogate for a child which is Helena's and, er, someone else's..."
Beseechingly, she met the doctor's acute gaze.
"Well, it's complicated."
She snorted softly at her own equivocation, acknowledging the full truth to herself: while her qualms about dealing with the matter were -- or had been -- relatively limited in the event that it turned out to be a mixture of The Joker's DNA and hers, knowing that Helena's genetics might be involved confused matters considerably.
Heaven only knew what that particular combination might turn out to be. High spirited at the very least.
Belatedly, Barbara realized that her protracted silence had suggested that she wasn't going to continue when Frine leaned forward and stabbed out the half-smoked Sobranie.
"And, what if Helena's genes aren't involved at all, Barbara? There's simply no way you've not considered that possibility."
Barbara's reply was slow as she worked the answer through for herself.
"Well, Helena would like me... us... to keep -- "
A quizzically raised brow interrupted her, and she sidetracked, feeling the need to defend her absent partner.
"Don't get me wrong, Gloria. She's been absolutely wonderful about it and has repeatedly let me know that it's my decision, but..."
Not at all at ease with the layers of emotion and nuance which she knew lay behind her passionate younger partner's sentiment, Barbara almost whispered the rest.
"... I know that she has feelings on the matter, too."
Unwilling to dwell on all of the specific reasons which lay behind her partner's perspective, she waved a hand futilely.
Again, the doctor took her time digesting that bit of information. Finally, she exhaled noisily again and whisked the ashtray from her desk, secreting it in her drawer. Barbara felt her brows knit when the other woman pulled a small spray can of odor neutralizer from the drawer and began vigorously spritzing the aerosol around her. The older woman clearly didn't miss her patient's amusement and inclined her head toward the reception area of her practice.
"Pat will have my head on a platter with an apple in my mouth if she finds out I've been smoking in the office."
Visualizing the imposing receptionist-cum-physician's assistant, Barbara smiled for the first time in quite a while. Her caregiver dropped the spray can into the drawer and shut it with a soft thud.
Bright eyes met Barbara's, all business again.
"... some testing, some early amniocentesis, could lend a bit of clarity, perhaps?"
Relieved, the redhead nodded, allowing, "If not clarity, possibly some... peace of mind."
They shared a quick smile as the doctor turned her attention to her day planner again.
"Well then, let's get started and see just what sort of genes you're carrying."
<<"Godda--- I don't believe this!>>
Since her protege was on patrol and had, in fact, recently responded to a drive-by shooting at City Hall, Barbara hadn't been ignoring her. However, with matters apparently well in hand and the younger woman engaged in a leisurely pursuit of the final member of the group of shooters, she hadn't been expecting the loud clatter, followed by sheer outrage, that interrupted her concentration.
Years of experience had taught the cyber-vigilante that Helena's volubility was usually inversely proportional to the direness of the situation. She gave herself a moment to thumb down the volume on her earpiece before responding.
"Huntress? What's the situation?"
Unsurprisingly, her partner's response added to the weight of evidence underlying her theory.
<<"This bozo -- ">>
The snap of a small fist meeting flesh, followed by a muted moan, punctuated the virtual-introduction.
<<"-- threw a garbage can lid at me and cut a big rip in my favorite pants.">>
Hard-pressed not to roll her eyes, Barbara grimaced sympathetically, privately acknowledging that her sympathies lay, in part, with the unfortunate fellow who had ruined her partner's couture.
"I'm sorry to hear that, Huntress. As soon as I finish analyzing the security tapes from City Hall, I'll find a replacement pair for you."
The other woman's response was distinctly sullen.
<<"You know how long it takes to break in leather pants, Oracle.">>
Focused again on the brief footage captured by the security cameras, the redhead barely registered her partner's petulance.
"Perhaps we can tumble them in the dryer with some rocks, Huntress," she murmured, attempting to make sense of late-night automatic weapon fire directed at the city's government center.
<<"You think that might --? Stay down, dipstick!">>
A resounding thump followed the interruption, before Helena continued more cheerfully.
<<"All wrapped up for New Gotham's finest, Oracle. What's next?">>
A bit surprised by her partner's eagerness after the nonstop barrage of vandalism, muggings, and larceny which had plagued the city for the last few days, Barbara checked the scanners.
"Seems that we have a bit of a respite for now, Huntress. Perhaps you want to return to base for a change of wardrobe?"
The frank unconcern was in sharp counterpoint to the dark vigilante's earlier pique, leaving Barbara once again baffled -- and amused -- by Helena's sudden shifts in mood.
Of course, she was the first to admit that the therapeutic benefits of handing out a good ass-kicking -- in the name of justice, naturally -- could not be underestimated.
<<"I'll just pop into the Quickie Mart for some duct tape.">>
Suspecting that some sort of sugar-laden, artificially preserved snack was also on her partner's shopping list, she just smiled fondly when Helena continued.
<<"Maybe some Twinkies, too. 'Sides, I don't want to get in the middle of the big brain thing you and The K-- uh, Canary are doing.">>
Recalling that she had, indeed, been working on lab analysis with Dinah just prior to the latest incident, Barbara guiltily glanced toward the living area. To her relief, Dinah seemed to be engaged by the X-box console.
"Copy that, Huntress. When you've finished your tailoring, you can resume your grid sweep."
Reassured by the cheerful acknowledgement, she set routed the grainy video from City Hall to her image resolution software, and softly cleared her throat. Within seconds, her teenage lab assistant was beside her.
"Are we ready to try again?"
Despite a desire to grind her teeth in frustration -- "again" was certainly correct -- Barbara put on her game face and smiled.
"Indeed we are, Dinah. And, you know what they say..."
She turned to the secondary workstation which was attached to the electron microscope and the spectrometer.
"The thirty-eighth time is the charm."
The pink-haired girl's laugh seemed genuine enough, and Barbara forced herself to shrug off her frustration with their lack of progress. After all, it had only been a few hours ago that she'd gotten a sample of the goo which had been dropped at the baseball game five days before. Somehow, between scheduling appointments for amniocentesis, sonograms, and ultrasounds and undergoing several trips to the lab to have blood drawn, she'd allowed the task to fall through the cracks.
In all honesty, Barbara had to admit that her wheel-dragging could have had something to do with the discomfort of listening to Helena charm Jesse Reese out of the evidence. Of course, neither of them were exactly without a past, and she was aware that -- appearances to the side -- it probably rankled Helena each time she mailed a care package to Dick on Barbara's behalf.
Regardless of the delay, now that she had the tiny bit of material in her possession, she found herself chafing at her lack of ability to determine its make up. Unlike the latex-epoxy-bubble gum combination favored by The Joker, this substance was a putty gray color -- not pink -- and seemed to share only one ingredient that she could identify so far: sugar.
The remainder of the crystalline structures that she and Dinah had carefully isolated remained a mystery.
"Great genuflecting gerbils, Dinah! There are twenty-five million chemical structures which have been identified to date..."
Pale blue eyes widened at the sudden exclamation, and the teen proffered a nervous smile. Caught up in her little monologue, Barbara continued ticking the points off on the fingers of her left hand.
"... not to mention over two million chemical structures. However, only three hundred thousand of these have been published for searching. And,"
She drew in a breath, gathering steam.
"... only because of issues with access rights and a lack of standards for encoding the data."
Corn silk lashes blinked slowly, and Barbara collected herself, finishing awkwardly, "It's ludicrous."
Hearing the peevish note in her words, she felt a bit of heat touch her cheeks when she recalled some of her uncharitable thoughts about Helena's tone not too many minutes earlier. Dinah's sunny smile neatly distracted her from her vows to be a bit more empathic.
"What about using CIF?"
Green eyes blinked once, then tracked slowly to the left, losing focus for a moment.
"Dinah, you're priceless. I'd forgotten all about the new effort at Cambridge."
The teen merely shrugged, and Barbara smiled her thanks for not stating the obvious: she'd had quite a bit on her mind lately. Perhaps no wonder that she'd chosen to use her old standby, eBank's repository at Southampton.
Fingers already flying across the keyboard as she hacked into the Crystallographic Data Center, she grinned broadly when she accessed the specs for the new format.
She had her hand on the mouse, ready to begin searching, when she stopped. Carefully, she released the brake of her chair and pushed back from the keyboard, turning to meet her companion's puzzled gaze.
"Since you thought of it, why don't you do the honors?"
Dinah's enormous smile was answer enough, and within minutes, the two were side by side, leaning toward the monitor in disbelief.
"Various food coloring agents, dairy products, and estrogen?"
Despite her proximity to her research partner, Barbara couldn't fault the volume or high-pitch of the question. She, too, was unable to make sense of it.
Two heads -- one pink, one crimson -- remained fixed in place inches from the monitor for another thirty seconds before, as one, they withdrew. With a snort of amused impatience, Barbara removed her glasses and turned to face her protege.
"What do you make of it, Dinah?"
She observed the girl's fixed concentration, fighting a smile at the patented "on the spot" expression she saw on many of her students' faces in the classroom.
"Relax, Dinah, it's not a test."
She smiled encouragingly.
"We're just going for a little brainstorming here."
The lanky young woman's tension evaporated, and she rested her hip against the corner of the table, nibbling on the corner of her lower lip.
"Uhm, maybe --"
She ducked her head, peering bashfully through her lashes.
"-- baby formula?"
Temporarily speechless, Barbara could only wonder if her current condition was too much on everyone's mind. Before she had a chance to collect herself, a pop-up dialog window on her primary monitor distracted her.
"Hold that thought, Honey."
Smoothly rotating to face the big screen, she settled her glasses in place and quickly accessed the details of the incident. A frown creasing her forehead, she toggled the comm set on.
"Huntress, are you available?"
If not for the severity of the alert she'd received, the cyber-vigilante might have spared a moment to tease her partner in the field about her Twinkie-muffled response. As it was, she remained all business.
"There's an alarm from the Shop Rite on Forest Street. Gunfire's been reported. I'm trying to access the security system now."
Six-dozen keystrokes accomplished her task, almost masking her partner's eager reply.
<<"On my way, Oracle.">>
Listening to the air rushing across Helena's comm set, Barbara rapidly toggled from one camera to another inside the large grocery store. Obviously, she'd missed the action but not its aftermath: a bloody swath of wounded shoppers and workers. Relatively confident that there was no further danger at the scene, she sent an alert to ambulance dispatch while updating her partner on the situation.
<<"Copy that, Oracle. I'm at the scene, and it looks messy.">>
The distant wail of approaching sirens confirmed the information that Barbara was tracking from her workstation.
"It appears that the police are almost there, Huntress. Can you scout the scene while they handle things in the store?"
A low hum of agreement tickled her ear. The squeal of rusty metal being worked immediately thereafter set her teeth on edge.
<<"Yeah. I'm heading into the ceiling.">>
A minute restless shifting to her side caught the redhead's attention, and she dragged her eyes from the scene for a moment.
"I'd guess that we'll be working this for a while, Dinah. Why don't you..."
Not entirely certain what she might recommend, the redhead simply inclined her head toward the living area. Nodding agreeably, the teen hopped from the platform and headed toward the big screen. Barbara forgot her momentary curiosity about her companion's destination -- satellite or X-box -- when a low whistle sounded in her ear.
In a heartbeat, she was immersed in the crime scene with her partner in the field.
"What's the situation, Huntress?"
<<"Lotta injuries but it doesn't look like any fatalities.">>
Given the number of shoppers who had been present in the twenty-four hour supermarket, it was a small miracle that no one had been killed. Helena's next update certainly supported that opinion.
<<"From the number of shell casings I see -- ">>
A muted rustle, followed by a whispered thump, suggested that the younger woman was lifting and then carefully replacing the acoustic ceiling tiles to glean her information.
<<"-- it had to have been a machine gun or ten.">>
Barbara felt her brows knit in perplexity.
As much as she enjoyed a good puzzle, attempting to guess the rationale for using that sort of weaponry for a supermarket robbery was clearly an exercise in futility.
"Can you determine what they were after? What they took?"
It was only their years of remote teamwork which enabled the older woman to detect the soft sounds of her partner's stealthy movements through the store's ceiling crawl space. Aware that Helena would update her as soon as she had something to report, she mustered her patience and tracked the activities of EMS workers through the security feed.
Visible quantities of blood notwithstanding, it appeared that many of the victims had, as Helena had reported, sustained fairly minor wounds. Many, in fact, were ambulatory and moving out of the store to the fleet of waiting ambulances.
<<"Registers aren't touched. And the safe in the office is still locked.">>
Barbara heard her own surprise echoed in the young vigilante's description, and she turned her attention toward determining whether she could remotely control the security cameras, giving her a different vantage point into the situation.
"Something in the store?" she prompted.
<<"Yeah, yeah -- gimme a minute...">>
Despite the words, there was no heat in the other woman's tone, and the sound of more stealthy, careful movement confirmed that Helena was searching. Giving up on her attempts to control the security cameras, Barbara concentrated on the young woman's hushed updates as she moved above each aisle.
<<"Canned fruit and veggies look normal. Cereal boxes all in a row. Spaghetti's okay...">>
Despite her instinctive impatience, the redhead didn't rush her partner.
After all, she'd traversed her fair share of the flimsy ceilings back in the day.
It wasn't until Helena reached the baking aisle that her commentary changed.
<<"Uh huh -">>
Barbara perked to attention, hands at the ready above her keyboard.
"What is it, Huntress?"
<<"Just a sec -- I wanna check over here in the dairy case...">>
The cyber-vigilante felt her eyes widen and her glasses resultantly slip down her nose as she attempted to fathom the connection between baking supplies and dairy. Not to mention just what, in either category, could evoke the carnage she was still observing over the security cameras.
<<"Yep. It's all gone here, too.">>
Raising one hand to push her glasses back into position, Barbara altered her movement, bringing her thumb and forefinger to the bridge of her nose.
Once again, she found herself revisiting the idea of rigging a miniature camera into her partner's comms necklace.
"What might that be, Huntress?"
Perhaps a tiny bit of her pique had bled through, because the succinct update she received might have been the tiniest bit amused.
The redhead instantly forgot the teasing lilt in the younger woman's tone.
"Pudding? What do you mean?"
Helena's reply was patience itself.
<<"Every box of instant mix, every package of shelf-stable pudding, and every cup of refrigerated pudding is gone, Oracle.">>
Barbara chewed on that, not focusing on the brunette's continuing commentary.
<<"How do you suppose they manage to keep pudding from spoiling on the shelf anyhow? I mean, it does have milk in it and--">>
"Ultraviolet treatment of the milk," she responded automatically, shaking her head at her own compulsivity.
"Just pudding?" she added thoughtfully. "What about, er, Jello or tapioca?"
The response was immediate.
<<"Just pudding, and as for tapioca...">>
An exaggerated retching noise filtered through the headset.
<<"Man, I hate that stuff.">>
Despite her amusement, the redhead registered the arrival of the NGPD Forensic unit, suggesting that the entire building would soon be locked down.
"I believe that you can leave now, Huntress."
Listening to her partner's swift movements, she efficiently programmed a fleet of 'bots to search for crimes with similar parameters. Just before dispatching them, she paused and, with a mental shrug, widened the search criteria to include homicidal attacks in pursuit of any grocery store desserts.
Perhaps someone was planning to create a giant trifle, and another store had been stripped of cake mix earlier.
With her 'bots at work, she decided to allow her brain's neural processors to sift through the implications of the crime in the background. In the meantime, there was a more immediately answerable question which had been raised by her partner.
"What's wrong with tapioca, Huntress?"
To her knowledge, the notorious sweet-hound had never met a dessert she didn't like.
A soft chuckle raised the fine hair on her arms.
<<"It's the texture. Too much like, uh...">>
For some reason, even before Helena completed her simile, Barbara felt a blush meandering up her cheeks.
There was simply something... wicked... coming.
<<"... well, like swallowing.">>
Barbara heard the soft clank of the ventilation grate, followed by an increase in night noises, signaling that Helena had made it to the roof. She filed away the brunette's revelation about texture for later consideration, knowing that, while her younger charge had always shown a preference for the female gender, the lusty young woman had never shied away from men.
"I understand that, er, that can be a result of what your partner's diet has been."
The rush of air through the comm set alerted her that the leather-clad crime fighter was on the move again.
<<"Huh. Who'd thought that dining on me would cause that sort of...">>
Snorting softly, Barbara worked to hold up her end of the conversation, enjoying the risque banter that they'd not really engaged in over the comms for almost a month.
"I don't believe that the effect is quite that immediate, Huntress."
Helena's devil-may-care reply forced a quick bark of laughter from the older woman.
"Who put a time limit on it, Oracle?"
She was spared the need to come up with a suitable response when her partner's voice transformed to an eager growl.
<<"I think I've got one, Oracle.">>
A sudden whoosh of air announced the younger woman's descent from the rooftops.
<<"Goon with a machine gun and -- ugh -- ">>
The sound of a ninety-eight pound force of nature impacting a larger object was followed by a masculine "Ooof" of pained surprise.
<<"... a bunch of shopping bags with...">>
Plastic ripped, and numerous small objects hit the ground.
<<"... a butt load of instant pudding mix.">>
Before Barbara could get a word in, Helena began her interrogation.
None-too-gently, if her prey's high-pitched screech were any indication.
<<"Okay, Emeril, what's the story? What the fuck are you up to?">>
Whatever cautionary words Barbara might have offered were interrupted by an open-handed slap.
The man's fear, evidenced by the quaver in his voice, was palpable.
<<<"I -- I can't. The boss'll kill me!">>>
The redhead rested her chin on her fist, wearily wondering when they would encounter crimes without some mysterious mastermind.
"Who is his boss, Hu--"
Helena, not surprisingly, was already on it.
<<"Who's your boss? Believe me, I can mess you up a lot worse than he can.">>
The rumbling snarl which accompanied the threat would have, Barbara suspected, been a strong inducement to talk. No doubt, the terrified whimper she heard meant that her partner was presenting her full feral mode.
<<<"Noooo -- I ca...">>>
Abruptly, the man's pleading terminated, and Barbara straightened in expectation when she detected the sound of a large body being deposited on the ground.
The dark vigilante's voice was still rough, but her confusion was clear enough.
<<"Sunnuva bitch. He fainted.">>
Barbara turned the possibilities over for a few seconds before it appeared that no further information would be forthcoming.
"Fainted? What did you do, Huntress?"
Her partner's reply was distracted but none-the-less deeply unsettling.
<<"Hmm? Me, nothing. It's just when I tried to get him to cough up a name -- I've never seen naked fear like that.">>
Still distracted -- transfixed, if she were to be honest with herself -- by the sight of bare skin which hadn't seen the light of day in decades, Barbara belatedly noted that she'd entirely missed her companion's last words.
"I'm sorry, Dad."
Feeling a blush tint her cheeks, she brought one hand toward her face, aborting the motion at the last moment.
"It seems that I'm a bit distracted by..."
Jim Gordon toggled the alarm system by the front door -- his $25,000 alarm clock, he still insisted on terming it -- to standby and then raised his own hand, ruefully stroking his index finger across his naked upper lip.
"Believe me, Barbara, I understand. I'm still saying 'Excuse me' to the stranger in the mirror each morning."
The redhead chuckled sympathetically and led the way into the living area.
For months after the shooting, she'd constantly caught herself wondering why she could only see the top of her head in the bathroom mirror.
"You really think it will grow back to its full glory?"
She had to admit that her father didn't look bad without his trademark handlebars; however, his nearly constant attempts to fidget with the absent mustache suggested that he missed it quite a bit.
"Assuming that whatever that gunk which got me at the baseball game wasn't permanent," he allowed cheerfully, settling easily into his leather recliner.
In a case of what Barbara dearly hoped was the bad fortune of being at the right place at the wrong time, the ex-police commissioner had been in attendance at the minor league game which, ten days before, had been the sight of the first pudding attack. Since she'd analyzed the sample and knew that extremely high doses of estrogen were responsible for her father's sudden clean-shaven appearance, Barbara was reasonably confident that there was no permanent damage.
Unable to provide all of the reasons for her belief, she just smiled confidently.
"I'm sure it wasn't, Dad."
The two shared a long look which suggested that the older man was willing to take his daughter at her word. Suddenly discomfited by inferences of hidden knowledge, Barbara worked to gather the threads of their earlier conversation.
"And, so before I was so distracted again, what were you saying about Chief O'Hara?"
Steel blue eyes twinkled, but her father accepted the shift in topic easily.
"I asked whether you think there's any hope for Charlie."
The two shared a smile at their old friend's expense.
They'd spent the afternoon with the newly retired police captain at the driving range, and, despite the less than satisfactory accommodations made on her behalf, Barbara had quickly realized that she'd need to hold herself in check lest she completely out drive their longtime family friend.
"Well, Dad," she smiled fondly, "if filling his retirement hours was a goal, Charlie's clearly chosen the right hobby."
Their laughter was easy, but it was interrupted by the doorbell. Jim Gordon rose and turned to the foyer.
"That will be Helena, I expect."
Two sets of eyes -- one blue and one green -- turned, as if on cue, to the clock on the mantle. Neither commented on their guest's punctuality, and as Jim disappeared down the hallway, Barbara allowed that her partner couldn't be faulted for being eight minutes late for their first... family dinner with her father.
"-- and I was actually gonna be early until: Blat!"
Crimson brows inched upward when her father returned, preceded by her younger partner.
"That's a shame, Helena," Jim continued their conversation. "I'd hoped that the incident at the game was a one-shot copy cat, but whoever it is seems to be coming on strong now."
Although her private access to official scanners and crime reports certainly corroborated her father's analysis, the sight of Helena vividly reinforced how daring the pudding-spraying vandals were becoming.
"Helena! You got... hit."
The brunette flashed an unconcerned grin and crossed the living room in two exuberant bounds.
"Yep, just dollop some Cool Whip on me, and call me a parfait."
Barbara rolled her eyes as the younger woman bent to buss her cheek. Feeling disturbingly adolescent under the acute scrutiny of her father, she reached up, dabbing at a smudge of pudding on her partner's neck. When she detected a rumbling purr -- perhaps a growl -- she almost flinched.
A deep laugh interrupted her rather sour musings about just what the absurd levels of estrogen in the pudding might do to her partner's already lusty metabolism.
"Oh, come now, girls. You touched more than that before you, er..."
Some vigorous throat clearing completed the non-sentence, and, over Helena's delighted guffaw, Barbara had to admit the truth of her father's observation. A smile which she suspected was a trifle on the doting side -- or perhaps just dopey -- faltered when it struck the redhead that she had been responsible for instigating most of the touches between them.
How had she missed that all of these years?
Once again, her father saved her from her own analysis.
"I'll get a towel for you while I check on the potatoes."
"Thanks, Mr. G -- "
The white-haired man's formidable glower cut short Helena's thanks. Barbara had to admit that, if she hadn't been familiar with the barely detectible twinkle in her father's eyes, she might have been caught short as well.
"... uh, Jim."
Dark lashes batted winsomely.
"That's better, Helena."
The older man disappeared into the kitchen to ascertain the progress of their dinner, although Barbara had to admit that the savory aromas emanating from the other room suggested that the automatic timer on the new oven had functioned just as they'd hoped.
When the clank of the oven door indicated that her father was suitably occupied, Barbara gently rested one hand on her partner's forearm.
"What happened, Sweetie?"
The brunette squatted beside her, her eyes pained.
"Drive-by near the Dark Horse."
The dark head ducked, and Barbara detected a touch of color in the other woman's dusky features.
"I saw 'em, Barbara, but I couldn't catch them."
Pushing back some hair which had fallen when she'd inclined her head, Barbara considered the rough admission.
"You didn't have to worry that much about punctuality, Hel. We would have understo--"
Her companion laughed dismissively.
"It wasn't that -- Well," she grinned, "not just that."
Crimson brows furrowed.
"Then, what -- "
Helena's admission forced a laugh from the older woman.
"I slipped in this stuff and fell on my ass."
Barbara smiled, her infallible memory automatically supplying a running list of some of her own less-than-shining moments when she'd been on the streets.
She reached out and dabbed another dot of the mess from her partner's chin.
"What did you see?"
The redhead suspected that the news wasn't good when she saw the younger woman's hesitation.
"Three guys. Dressed up like..."
Dark brows furrowed, and Barbara caught her breath.
One of them had to say it.
She exhaled raggedly when Helena shook her head, unprepared for the extent of her relief. A moment later, she realized how premature it had been.
"No, more like those people in Cirque du Soleil."
Green eyes widened, and Barbara spoke very slowly.
"Perhaps, like harlequins?"
The brunette became absolutely still for a moment then visibly sagged.
The word was almost inaudible, but Barbara understood.
Immediately after the ultra-violent pudding theft the week before, she'd run a scan at Arkham. This one, unlike her usual weekly checks, focused on one particular prisoner: Harley Quinn. Barbara had been immeasurably reassured to find that their old nemesis -- and Helena's personal tormentor -- was still safely under wraps. Nevertheless, with this new information, further investigation was clearly in order.
Painfully aware of the guilt that her companion was attempting to hide, she pushed those thoughts aside and smiled cheerfully.
"Probably a coincidence, Sweetheart, but we'll do some checking."
"Checking on what?"
Stepping from the kitchen, resplendent in his checked gingham apron, Jim Gordon cocked his head jovially.
"I assure you that the potatoes are just fine," he added, tossing a dish towel to Helena, "although I could use a little help with chopping onions and mushrooms."
Barbara blandly met his curious gaze.
"Helena ripped her favorite pants the other night, and we can't find replacements locally."
Technically, it wasn't a lie at all.
Her father nodded sagely.
"Careful, Helena. She'll have you as addicted to the 'net as she's gotten me if you're not careful."
Scrubbing behind her ears, the brunette laughed.
"No way, Jim. I just download music and p-"
A discrete poke curtailed the younger woman's confession.
"--uh, pants catalogs."
Gunmetal blue eyes twinkled.
"Is that so?"
Barbara looked up in time to catch what might have been the tail end of a wink and rolled her eyes.
"Tell you what, Helena," their host continued, "why don't you help me in the kitchen while Barbara uses my computer."
The redhead attempted to register a protest -- "I can help" -- but was cut short by two simultaneous responses.
"No, no, Barbara. Helena needs those pants."
"Hell no, Red. I want eat tonight."
Collecting her tattered dignity, she sniffed.
"In that case, I'll be in the study."
She turned down the hall, smiling at their laughter and at the concern in her father's voice as he led Helena toward the kitchen.
"For a woman who's just back from a vacation in paradise, Helena, you look awfully tired..."
The redhead wondered how her resourceful partner would explain that she'd been pulling doubles at the Dark Horse while spending almost every other free moment trying to catch the criminals who had been spraying the city with bullets and... pudding.
With a shrug, she approached the door to the study, however it was the room across the hall that caught her attention: her old room, which was now, nominally, a guest room.
Not quite certain what drove her, Barbara turned into the unused room and snapped on the light. It appeared much as it had when she'd departed the house for college fourteen years before, including the smattering of gymnastics trophies arrayed on high shelves over the closet door.
Her father had simply refused to take them down and pack them away.
Almost able to detect the odor of talc and sweat-stained gymnastic uniforms which had permeated her space during high school, the redhead circled the room, lightly trailing her fingers across the desk where she'd poured through countless books, smoothing the rosebud comforter on the bed, and straightening a picture of her in Japan with the team. Inevitably, her attention fell on a square on the wall near the desk where the paint was a bit darker than the surrounding color, and she ended her random inspection.
For years, a picture of her parents -- her birth parents -- had hung there.
Not too many weeks after her sudden arrival at her aunt and uncle's home, the picture had appeared on the foot of her bed, a surprise which was... unexpected if not completely unwelcome. When she'd cautiously asked her aunt about it, the woman she'd been named after had spoken briskly.
"You can't pick your children or your parents, Barbara. Help me choose a spot to hang this because some days you'll want to remember them."
And, Aunt Barbara had been right.
Many a night, the young woman had found herself staring over the pages of schoolbooks, attempting to decipher the enigma of her origins. When she'd finally cleared out her room upon moving into her own apartment, she hadn't even had to think about taking the photo with her. From that time on, it had occupied an unobtrusive corner of a bookshelf wherever she'd lived.
Barbara shut the door of her old room behind her and finally entered the study. Waiting for her father's modem to connect -- she'd have to work on persuading him to install a cable modem -- she allowed her aunt's words to play through her mind.
She'd not fully understood at the time, but Aunt Barbara had been right on many counts: suddenly, her aunt and uncle had become parents who knew exactly the type of genetics and background their ersatz daughter arose from. And, still they'd never faltered in their open welcome.
Pushing that thought aside for later consideration, she immersed herself in simple web searches for online leather retailers. One hundred and fourteen mouse clicks later, a slight frisson of awareness immediately preceded the appearance of her partner.
"Any luck, Barbara?"
The redhead pointedly maintained a neutral facade at the vision of her partner removing a lace-ruffled apron.
"Not yet, Sweethe--"
For some reason, a frog landed in her throat when her father made an appearance. The younger woman appeared not to notice.
"You'll get it, Barbara. But, for now..."
The younger woman tossed her apron to Jim Gordon and turned to the hallway.
"I'm just gonna run next door to see Mrs. Parker while dinner finishes."
Blue eyes twinkled under thick dark lashes.
"She likes to tell me how dangerous New York City was. Now I can counter her since I've been there."
"Say hello for me, Hel."
The brunette's airy acknowledgement was cut short by the back door closing, and Barbara's father chuckled.
"Better watch out, Barbara."
Nonchalantly, he strolled over to his desk and rustled in the drawer where he stored his pipe and tobacco.
"Why's that, Dad?"
She closed her browser and disconnected from the ISP, readying to surrender her place behind his desk.
"Hmm? Oh, I believe her nephew is visiting."
The senior Gordon pushed the drawer shut and straightened, shaking his head in response to her attempt to back away from his "side" of the desk.
"I understand that he's some kind of -- "
Barbara held her breath when her father narrowed his eyes in mock concentration.
"--science nerd like you."
Completely unperturbed, the redhead laughed.
"My students inform me that the term is 'wonk' now, Dad."
The white-haired man moved to the wet bar.
"Can I tempt you?"
Barbara caught herself an instant before she nodded.
"Thanks, Dad, but just water, please."
She waited, fiddling with her glasses and fighting the urge to rock her chair until her father approached. She accepted the glass with a smile and took a small sip while her father settled himself with a gin and tonic. Absently swirling her own clear fluid, Barbara idly wished that she had accepted something stronger as she searched for a way to broach a topic which was complicated at best.
"Better spit it out before Helena gets back and starts showing me your vacation photos, Barbara."
The redhead almost spit her mouthful of Pellegrino.
She felt heat creep up her neck as her father regarded her steadily.
"What's on your mind, Barbara?"
Realizing that opportunity had not just knocked but actually stormed through the door, the redhead didn't mince words.
"Dad, have you ever thought about grandkids?"
She hadn't acknowledged how much she was dreading her father's reaction until it arrived. When Jim Gordon barely batted an eye at a question that, Barbara had to admit, came from left field, she was hard-pressed not to sag in relief.
"Of course I have. What father doesn't?"
More grateful than she could express for his easy acceptance of the topic, the redhead smiled tightly as he continued.
"I just never thought about it too seriously."
Barbara sipped her water, then gave a mental shrug.
She always had been a slave to her curiosity.
"Why is that?"
Her father dug in his pocket, undoubtedly hunting his pipe.
"I know that you've never really wanted children."
He located his pipe on the table where he'd placed it next to his drink and set about filling the capacious bowl with a cherry-vanilla mixture that Barbara had always loved.
"Even though you would be a great parent, Barbara."
She raised her brows, feeling a bit like a deer caught in the headlights, when he regarded her calmly.
"You've already proven that twice over with Hel and Dinah, not to mention every troublemaker in your classes."
Despite herself, she felt a corner of her mouth quirk. Her efforts to ignore the possible assumption that any child she had would be a troublemaker were interrupted when he leaned toward the desk.
"And, I know Helena would be a wonderful parent."
A brushy unibrow lowered, and Barbara discovered that she was having a hard time deciphering his expression in the absence of his familiar mustache.
"What is it, Dad?"
Jim Gordon tapped his lower lip with the stem of his Meerschaum.
"Hmm? Just wondering which of you would -- "
Sheepishly, he smiled. It was an expression that Barbara couldn't help but mirror.
"Well, it's really not important."
He struck a match, filling the room with the odor of sulphur and smoke.
"Yes, indeed, Barbie..."
Observing her father's self-satisfied smile as he touched a match to the bowl of his pipe and hearing his next words, Barbara felt herself warm and her heart -- like the Grinch's -- swell to three times its usual size.
"You and Helena as mothers? The thought is very appealing, indeed."
"Can you peel that last bit off?"
Barbara craned her neck and peered nearsightedly at the bit in question.
"I'm afraid that I'll create a scar if I try."
She gestured loosely with the straight edge, and her companion wrinkled her brow.
"What about sandpaper?"
Barbara considered the suggestion, then retrieved a sheet of extra-fine grit that she handed over.
"This should do the trick, Dinah."
The teen grinned as she attacked the recalcitrant smidge of paint.
"And, then we get to the fun part, right?"
Scraping her side of the bureau, the redhead merely nodded. Having been treated liberally with paint stripper, the twenty-year-old finish was blistered and ready to be shed like old skin, and Barbara was happy to lose herself in the mindless activity.
Once again, Barbara found herself in wonder at the age of the paint they were removing, even more in wonder at the furniture itself, easily the most senior member of the group on the balcony. The chest of drawers had been hers when she'd moved in with her aunt and uncle, and, until this morning, had held moth-eaten sweaters and linens in her father's guest room since she'd moved out.
At her request, Jim Gordon had brought the bureau by earlier in the day, and, as she and Dinah worked on it, Barbara couldn't help but marvel at her spur-of-the-moment decision to make the request. She'd not quite had the courage to reveal the reasons behind it; however, talking with her father the night before, it had struck her how appropriate the item would be.
When she'd been dropped into her relatives' laps, so to speak, twenty years before, Barbara had most definitely not been interested in bringing any remnants of her former life with her. Fully cognizant of her interloper status, she'd also not expected much in the way of amenities and accommodation either.
Resultantly, not more than two weeks after her arrival, the pre-teen had been surprised upon investigating some banging from the attic to find her aunt dangling through the access hatch and calling for help in dragging down an old bureau.
"Something old, something new for a new life with old family, Barbara," she'd offered, explaining that the pine chest had been hers before she'd gotten married.
Not certain just how to take things, Barbara had silently helped move the chest into the garage, then accompanied her aunt to the hardware store. There, the older woman had helped her pick out paint -- a sensible eggshell with delicate lilac undertones -- and over the next few days, they'd worked together to transform the battered item. Somehow, in the course of the project, hours of awkward silence had transformed to companionable discussions about the merits of decals versus stencils, wooden knobs versus brass.
The click of the stereo changing disks -- she and Dinah had agreed to trade off as they worked -- recalled the redhead from her woolgathering, and she reattacked a particularly recalcitrant bit of stenciling, humming quietly to the familiar music.
Well, if you want to sing out, sing out
And if you want to be free, be free
'Cause there's a million things to be
You know that there are
And if you want to live high, live high
And if you want to live low, live low
'Cause there's a million ways to go
You know that there are
She narrowed her eyes, attempting to determine whether there were any lingering traces of the rainbow: Aunt Barbara had been right about regretting that particular choice. The sensation of being stared at distracted her from her refinishing.
"What's this song?"
Barbara smiled around the edge of the chest at her pink-haired companion, pleased to note that most of the garish color had faded.
Speaking of poor decisions.
"Cat Stevens, Dinah."
The girl's utterly blank look did nothing for Barbara's suspicion that she had already passed the retro-trendy stage and was rolling right into obsolescence.
"It was the title song from a movie which I like a lot when I was your age," she added. "Harold and Maude?"
The redhead waffled between laughter and an exasperated snort when Dinah scrunched her face in dramatic concentration. The sound of the elevator opening saved her the need to make the call.
"On the balcony," she called, absurdly grateful for the interruption.
A beat later, when her partner joined them, she was forced to reconsider her response.
Obviously, the younger women in her life were joined in a conspiracy to convince her that she was going completely dotty. It was simply the only explanation for what she was seeing: Helena was buoyantly -- nay, triumphantly -- dragging in a clear, oversized bag holding...
Well, "butt load" seemed as good a term as any to describe the quantity of styrofoam plates in the bulky package.
The brunette play-punched the teen, and Barbara accepted her partner's quick kiss, all the while struggling against her curiosity.
"What are you two working..."
The senior member of the team rolled her eyes when Helena dropped her bag of plastic plates with a lack of concern which bordered on maddening.
"Hey, isn't that the chest from your Dad's guest ro--"
Perhaps her response had been a bit... crisp, but enough was enough.
"But, enough of that, Helena. Care to enlighten us about just what you have there?"
She inclined her head toward the bounty resting on an Adirondack chair, not missing the knowing twinkle in those deep blue eyes.
"Fifteen thousand styrofoam plates, Red."
Since her estimate had been five thousand shy, Barbara widened her eyes, hearing Dinah's murmur of question.
"And, you wouldn't believe the deal I got."
Helena bounced over and thumped the mountain of what would undoubtedly be their dinnerware for the next decade.
"Did you know that there are these warehouse shopping clubs where you can buy everything in bulk?"
Unable to miss the almost star-struck enthusiasm in the younger woman's tone, Barbara blanched. She bypassed the obvious question about what else might await them in the Hummer and focused on the most pressing mystery.
"I'm familiar with them, Hel," she allowed, "but what in the name of little green apples possessed you to go to a warehouse store?"
Throughout the years of their association, Barbara had never known her partner to be interested in mundane shopping. True to form, however, Helena was ready with an explanation that made sense and, the older woman realized, more than made up for the fact that they'd be eating off styrofoam for a long time to come.
"Oh, Janey and I were talking about babies at work -- "
Dark brows rose in question, and Barbara nodded, recalling that Helena's coworker had recently become an aunt.
"-- and do you know how many diapers the average baby uses?"
Having recently researched that little fact, Barbara did, in fact, know. Curious, however, she merely shook her head, aware of Dinah perking to attention next to her.
"Seven thousand five-hundred," the brunette declared. "And do you know how much they charge for those in the supermarket?"
The redhead hadn't gotten that far in her research, however Helena's wounded tone suggested that the cost would put a serious dent into her partner's own clothing budget.
"So," Helena continued with a shrug implying that matters should be self-evident, "Janey told me about this place, and I went to check out the diapers."
Barbara struggled more or less successfully to hide her intense amusement. She suspected that she would be hard-pressed to tamp down the warm welling of affection that rose in her at her partner's activity. Instantly determining that there was no reason to do so, she extended her hand, palm up, waiting for the other woman to join hands with her.
"And what did you discover about nappies in bulk, Sweetheart?"
Although she wasn't positive, Barbara thought she detected a bit of uncertainty in the reply.
"Uh, they had boxes of three hundred at really good prices. Not like I'm, uh -- "
Before she had time to reassure the other woman, the third member of the group piped up, voice vibrating with the righteous indignation of youth.
"You are not seriously thinking about further messing up the planet with disposable diapers, are you?"
Helena's instant retort, while a bit blunt, neatly encapsulated Barbara's thoughts on the subject.
"Not if you wanna come by and clean the cloth ones each day, Kid."
Instantly, Barbara found herself facing the girl whose indignation seemed to have escalated a few degrees.
"You don't feel that way, do you, Barbara?"
It took the older woman all of a half-second to come up with her own answer. Dropping Helena's hand, she unlocked the brake on her chair and turned toward the living room, laughing, despite herself.
"I'm sorry, Dinah, but all questions must be submitted in writing."
When she heard an affronted squeak, she pointedly chose not to look back. There was little doubt in her mind that she'd see Helena sticking out her tongue in victory or painting a big "one" in the air.
The brunette circled her and dropped gracefully onto the big wing chair.
"What's the deal with the chest out there? I already have enough room for my unmentionables in yo-- our bureau."
Barbara opted for maturity and refrained from any number of likely entendres. She merely raised one brow and met her partner's gaze, waiting. It took about six seconds before she registered the dawning awareness, followed by cautious joy, in those expressive features.
"Does this... Is this...?"
Barbara managed to maintain a poker face.
"I assume that our child will need a place for its sensible cloth diapers."
Blandly, she met her lover's blue eyes.
"And tee shirts."
Helena's brief embarrassed blink coincided with another burst of affection rushing through the redhead as she recalled unpacking Helena's bags from Jamaica and discovering a teensy "No problem, Mon" tee shirt.
She had little doubt that, under Helena's direction, the child would be the fashion envy of the entire New Gotham diaper crowd.
That thought was interrupted when the brunette half-rose from the chair, the dropped back with entirely transparent nonchalance. Instead of bounding across the room in her excitement, Helena wrinkled her nose and inclined her head toward the balcony, blue eyes twinkling.
"Dunno if you should be around those paint fume then, Red."
Barbara arched a brow just as Dinah chimed in.
"Yeah, Barbara! What is she comes out with a third eye or something?"
Just managing not to roll her own two eyes, the older woman laughed and worked not to think about what else the child might come out with.
"If it's in the back of her head, I suppose that will give her --"
Barbara caught herself.
While, at this point, she was less inclined to keep trying, the first two attempts at amniocentesis had proven troublesome. Resultantly, nothing was certain, including the future Gordon-Kyle's gender.
"-- or him," she emphasized the word slightly, "an edge in the business."
Sobering slightly at her assumption that the child would be in the business, the redhead chewed at the inside of her cheek, her introspection mercifully pushed aside by her partner's bouncing approach.
"Still, Red, you probably need to give up the NutraSweet for the duration."
In an instant, all worries about their child's future career, much less which side of the business she might be on, evaporated. Aghast, Barbara met her partner's completely unsympathetic gaze.
"You must be joking, Hel. No Diet Pepsi?"
The dark head shook with exaggerated sorrow.
"Nuh uh. Just saccharine for you, I guess."
Uncertain how she had, once again, had her conversational skills reduced to parroting her companions' words, Barbara furrowed her brows.
"Sacchar--? I don't understand."
Helena knelt beside her, smiling mischievously and hooking a thumb toward Barbara's abdomen.
"Hey! If it was good enough for our moms and we came out alright, it oughta be okay for the Peapod in there."
The redhead rolled her eyes, then glanced upward and to the left, briefly losing focus.
"I suppose I should give up all caffeine, too, just to--"
The simultaneous exclamations cut short her resolution, and she slowly swiveled her head, taking in twin looks of horror.
"Moderation can be good," Dinah piped up cautiously.
"Yeah, just a cup of coffee to get you going in the morning," Helena elaborated hopefully.
Barbara knit her brows in thought.
"I don't know, Hel. Dinah."
She innocently faced them down.
"In for a penny..."
Perhaps the lilt in her voice gave her away; perhaps the younger women simply knew better than to accept that she could make that big a sacrifice. Regardless, Helena snorted and straightened up.
"Yeah, right. When pigs fly, Babs."
Smirking at their laughter, she checked the time and caught Dinah's eye.
"Shouldn't you be heading out, Dinah? I can clean up on the balcony."
Pale blue eyes widened, and Dinah's fair features pinkened.
"Thanks, Barbara. I'll do it next -- "
Barbara waved off the offer, smiling fondly as her ward grabbed her bag. With Gabby heading off to State in only a few weeks, Barbara certainly didn't want to curtail their time or have Dinah foregoing time with the other girl out of some sense of obligation...
The teen affected a look of concentration, and the slow closure of the elevator doors reversed, seemingly by itself.
"If you're interested, and if you think Gabby might be, why don't you see if she wants to help us paint?"
Almost snickering herself at the comical drop of the girl's jaw, Barbara sent a mental thanks to Helena for her restraint.
"How on earth would I explain..."
The normally verbally effusive girl completed the question with a wave in the general vicinity of Barbara's midsection.
It only took the older woman a moment to come up with an answer, and she smiled, aware of the levels of meaning and misinterpretation her words held.
Not to mention, the truth.
"Just tell her we did it the old fashioned way, Honey."
With the elevator doors sliding shut, Barbara noticed her remaining companion stepping close, then gracefully kneeling beside her. She caught her breath at the utter earnestness and the sweet hope that threatened to overwhelm her. Silently, she waited, watching her partner's hand come to rest on her lower abdomen, tenderly cupping the almost indiscernible tumescence.
"You mean it, Barbara? You really want to do this? Even if...?"
With some surprise, the redhead realized that she had very few qualms remaining, that, in fact, she felt peaceful for the first time in weeks. Her response was accordingly unconcerned.
Perhaps a bit playful.
"Looks like it, Hel."
The younger woman's grin was almost blinding, and Barbara had no recourse but to smile in return. They held the pose for a few breaths before Helena leaned toward her and raised her brows in question. Barbara nodded, shivering when she felt her partner's arms wrap around her waist and the younger woman buried her head in her lap.
Lightly resting her palm on her lover's sinewy shoulders, the redhead hummed in sympathy to the rumbling she felt vibrating Helena's slender frame. The click of the stereo signaled another change of CD, and Dave Matthews Band's "Crash Into Me" filled the room. Lost in the lyrics, Barbara ran her fingers softly across the brunette's back.
Initially, she moved without purpose, stroking to sooth and lightly sketching her fingernails across the bony protuberances of Helena's spine. By the third verse, she realized that she was tracing patterns: specifically, she was fashioning the Chinese characters for soul and karma, then, the characters for love and desire.
Perhaps, somehow, Helena knew what the symbols meant; Barbara had long ago ceased to be surprised by the breadth of the younger woman's knowledge.
Regardless, at some point, the energy in the room seemed to transform, to become a living entity. Helena's soft purring escalated in volume as the dark head slowly rose, and Barbara was pinned by a gaze that was both peeved and playful.
And decidedly, determinedly aroused.
"What the hell are you playing at, Red?"
The oxygen drained from the room, and Barbara thought that the tower might have tilted on its axis. Completely unable -- and unwilling -- to deny her lover's call, she roughly stroked her thumb across the angular line of the other woman's jaw.
"I'm not playing, Helena."
Deliberately, Barbara gentled her touch, stroking the pads of her fingers along the satin skin of the kneeling woman's face and following the curve of the delicate shell of her ear before wending into dark hair. She allowed the short strands to play across her skin, her nerves so electrified that she was certain that she could detect each individual silken thread. All the while, she held her partner's gaze, somehow forgetting to breathe as blue eyes regarded her quizzically before they morphed to gold.
Apparently Helena was willing to accept her at her word.
A smile that the redhead suspected almost matched the hunger in her own expression split gamine features.
"You want my clothes on or off?"
She didn't even have to think about her answer.
Voice gravel rough, she husked, "Off."
The word was almost lost under her partner's moan, and every functioning nerve in Barbara's body sparked.
Unable to tear her gaze from the sight of her lover efficiently stripping off her clothes, she bit at the inside of her cheek. The momentary burst of pain allowed her enough control to force her hands to the wheels of her chair, and she slowly approached, the soft squeak of rubber on the hardwood floors in counterpoint to her own harsh breathing.
Somehow, Barbara managed a smile that was gentle -- certainly affectionate -- when the other woman performed a final mouthwatering shimmy to divest herself of her skintight jeans. At that point, she realized with complete clarity, the time for levity was past.
Confronted with the sight of a gloriously nude Helena Kyle, she gave a firm push, forcing the other woman to step back or have her shins barked by the footrests of the chair. Barbara's unconscious geometric calculations were right on target, with the movement pushing the brunette back against the seat of the wing chair, and she inhaled sharply through her nose when Helena fell, graceful as ever.
Offering no quarter, she brought her knees to the front of the chair, again wordlessly forcing the response she needed. The instant that Helena opened to her, Barbara swooped forward, her hunger acute, her hands -- their paleness a sharp contrast to the younger woman's recently augmented tan -- insistent and everywhere.
For several long, lovely minutes, only the sounds of heavy breathing and an occasional gasp filled the room. Gradually, having assuaged her immediate desire, Barbara was able to recollect herself, seized as she was by a weeks old desire.
Or, she mused as she reluctantly disengaged, perhaps it was a years-old need.
Ignoring Helena's softly gasped protest, she unset the brake of her chair, backing away a few inches. Satisfied that she was positioned neither too far from her lover nor too close to any impediments, she reset the brake and looked up again to find feral eyes tracking every move she made.
While it wasn't much of a stretch to put herself into the position of prey, Barbara had other plans.
"Patience, Hel," she murmured before leaning forward to place her palms on the younger woman's muscular thighs.
Using the other woman for balance, then leverage, she carefully lowered herself to the floor and then worked forward a few inches. When she was satisfied with her arrangement, she looked up, discovering the younger woman's eyes narrowed in unmistakable arousal... and something that Barbara thought might have been amusement and satisfaction.
"You hittin' your knees for me, Baby?"
The redhead resolutely swallowed the flare of frustrated loss that the question engendered even as she adjusted the placement of her feet. The tiniest movement of the shapely hips that were now at eye level reinforced just where she was.
And how close.
Barbara raised her left hand, twining her fingers with her lover's before leaning in, her reply nearly lost as she delved deep.
"Indeed, I am."
She heard the other woman gasp once, twice.
"You want me... like this?"
There was nothing for it but the truth.
She withdrew a few inches to rest her cheek on the softest skin of Helena's inner thigh and looked up. Observing the way glittering eyes had hooded, Barbara was flooded by a surge of adrenaline at the sheer... predatory appearance of her partner.
"I like it."
It took a moment for the redhead to decipher the words through the rumbling growl. When she did, she decided that it was well past time to remove the look of a hunter. With her hands resting lightly on her lover's knees, she unflinchingly met the sharp gaze. She held Helena's eyes until the younger woman's expression slowly transformed to uncertainty. Only when she was assured that she had the brunette's full attention did she finally respond.
"You will, Helena."
Her promise was met by a moan that might have been pain, given that Barbara accompanied her pronouncement by leaning in to bite, then lick, a strong quadricep. The buck of slender hips gave rise to a flicker of doubt, a brief pas a deux with self-consciousness and embarrassment, and she pressed her lips to soft skin again, considering.
Back in the day, she'd certainly faced far more... dire situations than this, battled worse demons, and overcome steeper challenges. Yet, somehow, the risk had never seemed as great, hidden as she'd been behind a neoprene cowl and a cloak of righteousness. In this situation, there was nothing to hide behind, no rationalizations to ease the way and disguise herself.
"God, you're amazing, Barbara."
The hoarse words were enough. Soundly anchored by the love and trust in Helena's face, Barbara made her decision.
Gently, she freed their joined hands, then leisurely made her way down her partner's thighs before dancing the back of her neatly blunted nails up to the other woman's hips. She clasped the firm flesh, digging her nails in the slightest bit.
"Touch yourself, Hel."
The brunette's dazed confusion was almost a physical presence.
Barbara deliberately traced the tip of her tongue around the edge of her lips, acutely aware of how dry her mouth had become.
"Your breas-- Your nipples, Helena."
She waited patiently, unmoving, until she saw the recognition dawning in bright eyes. At the vision of slender hands feathering across firm abdominals, then cupping softer flesh, heat flooded through her chest, and her own nipples tightened and burned in sympathy.
Despite herself, Barbara's grasp on the other woman's hips loosened. Her hands moved, seemingly of their own volition, to hover tantalizingly close to where she wanted to be. Her partner's breathy whisper recalled her.
"I want it to be you touching me."
She looked up, mouth suddenly watering at the visible effects that Helena's own touch had had on the younger woman. Her response was to the point.
The younger woman licked her lips and extended a hand that appeared to tremble.
"I want to touch you."
Barbara pointedly directed her gaze and waited until slender fingers brushed dark curls, and her stomach clenched in sympathy with the shiver that coursed through her lover.
"You are, Helena."
The brunette gasped, her back arching slightly against the back of the chair.
"F-- Jesus, Barbara."
Voice so low she barely recognized it, the older woman breathed a command. Goose flesh raised on her lover's skin where her words had whispered.
Helena's puzzlement was brief, followed by a smile that was more of a half-snarl. Her instinctive grace evident, the lithe figure slid down in the chair, spreading herself open.
"See what you do to me, Red?"
Slender fingers danced near, actually brushing, Barbara realized with a hitch in her breathing, the dampness that had been revealed. The dark head momentarily fell forward.
"See how wet you get me without even touching me?"
Transfixed by slitted golden eyes, the redhead peripherally noticed glistening fingers moving toward her lover's mouth. Without conscious thought, she saw her own hand snap out, and she grasped her partner's wrist.
Not completely gently.
There was, she suspected, a hint of challenge: playful; and defiance: half-hearted; and hunger: very genuine; in those expressive features. Despite her years of training and conditioning, Barbara knew that her own upper body strength was no match for the younger woman's meta-enhanced genetics. Nevertheless, she managed to arrest the movement of her prize.
They remained locked in the erotic tableau for a score of heartbeats until Barbara ground out a single word.
She saw -- felt -- her lover's shudder before Helena reversed her movement, and it became an offering.
Unblinking, taking care never to lose contact with those incredible eyes, Barbara inclined her head and drew the tips of the younger woman's first two fingers between her lips. Her own pounding heartbeat and the rush of blood in her ears nearly cloaked Helena's purring reply.
Having always preferred victory, the redhead felt a self-satisfied smile crease her cheeks. Gently, she released her prize and returned her hands to taut thighs.
For some reason, she was seized by a tactile memory of butter soft leather, a thin lead sliding through her fingers.
"Would you like me to move my hand, Sweetheart?"
To her credit and despite the myriad distractions, the brunette didn't miss the deliberate phrasing. Barbara pursed her lips sympathetically when Helena licked her lips, her dilemma clear in her face.
"Just one of them?"
Amused despite herself, Barbara remained still.
"And what would you have me do with the other?"
Helena's response was sincerity itself.
"Touch -- Fuck -- Be inside me."
As urgent as the plea was, as much as she longed to meet her passionate lover's needs, Barbara forced herself to hold back. Resting her palms flat against tightly torqued thighs, she waited until feverishly glinting eyes met hers. Again, she held the gaze for long seconds until, finally, she saw it: comprehension; acceptance; submission.
The tendril of discomfort that wormed against her stomach vanished at the younger woman's next words, surrounded as they were by a hungry, joy filled smile.
"Anything you want, Barbara."
Smiling softly, grateful beyond measure, the redhead pressed a tender, open-mouthed kiss to the inside of her lover's knee.
She suspected that elaboration wasn't really necessary and gave her partner time to weigh her words. Once again, she saw comprehension wash expressive features, followed by something that could have been regret.
Yellow eyes fluttered to blue, and dark brows rose beseechingly.
"I'll come, Barbara."
Confident now, the older woman pushed back a few inches and used her chin to gesture to the empty stretch of floor between her and the big chair.
"No. You won't."
For some reason, the utter factuality of her words seemed completely appropriate.
"Not until we're both ready, Helena."
Immediately, her partner's eyes were no longer blue, and Helena slid to the floor, turning at the same time to face the chair. Observing the way slender fingers wrapped around the front legs of the chair so tightly that the knuckles turned white, Barbara heard a whisper -- "Dear heavens" -- and realized that it might have been hers.
Almost reverently, she allowed herself to drink in the sight before her: her lover's shallow breathing, the rise and fall of delineated ribs and spine, the fine sheen of sweat beading on her lower back. Awestruck, she pushed aside thoughts of deservedness and focused on gratitude.
A tiny mewling whimper reminded Barbara that, at the moment, thinking was not her top priority.
Refusing to indulge herself any longer, she renewed her tender assault, working to inflame but always avoiding the most sensitive areas. Eventually, partially in response to her partner's profane pleading and partially to appease her own needs, she focused her touch more specifically.
Still, and even in the presence of her lover's obvious need, she remained relentless in her determination. It was only when Helena's utterances had been reduced to one word -- "Please" -- and she looked up to see a drop of saline moisture fall to the carpet that she relented.
"Yes, Sweetheart. Now."
The strength and duration of her lover's climax almost carried her along in a sympathetic collapse of her own.
Fortunately or not, the redhead found herself too occupied in pulling herself along the floor to hold her still-shuddering partner to consider her own physical response. A beat later, surprise bordering on terror eclipsed her arousal when the younger woman reared up in her arms, her movement rough and stilted.
"Sweetheart? Are you--?"
Her fear bled away almost as quickly as it had arrived at the sight of aquiline nostrils flaring just as the brunette purposely closed the distance between them. An entirely undignified giggle almost escaped her, followed by an inexplicable urge to weep, when she felt her lover tenderly licking the wetness from around her mouth.
Ultimately, she neither laughed nor cried, simply absorbing the impromptu grooming before, with a rumbling purr, Helena collapsed against her legs.
The brunette's voice was as weak as Barbara could remember, perhaps even more than after her battle with Clayface or The Crimson Claw.
"Where'd you learn to do that?"
The older woman smiled tenderly and brushed damp dark bangs back as flickering images of dark leather and sharp nails and snapping whips came to mind.
Really, there was no need to resurrect those memories.
To her relief, the younger woman didn't press matters. A picture of boneless contentment, the brunette nodded agreeably and snuggled closer. When Helena spoke again, her voice was speculative.
"Sometime we gotta see which one of us can hold on longer."
Although a superior smirk was clearly the order of the day, Barbara contented herself with an innocent dip of her lashes, and her vibrant young partner clearly got the message. Cupid's bow lips pursed in a playful moue, and the older woman thought she detected a hint of pink in normally blush proof caramel features.
"Okay, okay, probably not me. Still, with your scientific thing, maybe we should, uh, do some controlled research."
Barbara allowed a hint of a smile to perform an end-run around her barriers and arched one brow.
"And how would you suggest setting up such experiments, Hel?"
As casual as the suggestion had been, Barbara found herself entirely unprepared -- and acutely aroused -- when the brunette rolled to her hands and knees and purred into her ear.
"You. Me. In the training room. And a pair of handcuffs."
Transfixed by what she heard, Barbara resignedly acknowledged that she was completely captivated by the events unfolding. Moving -- hell, even concentrating on other things -- was simply not an option.
Obviously, she'd need to put in some late nights in order to have her lesson plans completed for the in-service day at school in ten days.
With a mental shrug, she surrendered to the conversation unfolding over the comms.
Dinah's tone was dismissive, and the senior member of the team of crime fighters smirked at the hint of confusion in Helena's reply.
<<"Huh? Whatever. What about something sexy and feline -- ">>
It was obvious to Barbara that the words "like me" simply went without saying.
<<"-- like Jaguar?">>
<<"Maybe for a code name, Huntress.">>
Coinciding as it did with the vivid image of Baby Gordon-Kyle, decked out in cape, cowl, and environmentally friendly cloth diapers that ran through Barbara's mind, Dinah's completely unimpressed assessment evoked an approving nod from the silent member of the trio.
<<"Well, okay then, Canary...">>
It was difficult to determine how much of Helena's tone was amusement and how much was genuine frustration.
<<"...what's so frikkin' wrong with 'Peapod'?">>
"Too Popeye and Olive Oyl," Barbara finally contributed, almost covering Dinah's affronted "Eww".
<<"Oh, hey Oracle.">>
Helena, naturally, didn't miss a beat.
<<"Didn't know you were hanging with us.">>
Dinah sounded a bit more flustered.
<<"...we thought you were working on that, uhm, other project until something turns up out here.">>
Balefully regarding the weekly spreadsheets she'd begun for her upcoming six classes, Barbara smiled indulgently.
Perhaps Helena was correct that Dinah was too responsible for her age.
"I believe I shouldn't have a problem meeting that deadline, Canary," she commented mildly. "Speaking of projects, the scanners are still. I presume that things are quiet out there?"
Helena's snort of disgust was answer enough, and the older woman automatically checked the clock in the corner of her screen. The evening was still early, meaning that the chances were still good. After all, for the last two weeks, some sort of mess or gunfire had been dumped on New Gotham every night, and there was no reason for this evening to be an exception.
"Patience, Huntress. You and Canary should still have a chance for your project."
She pushed aside another twinge of guilt that she'd asked Dinah to join Helena on this particular task. The teen should have been spending time with Gabby, or smiling behind the counter of the Corny Dog at the mall, rather than helping Helena hunt for a harlequin-garbed miscreant to interview. Nevertheless, with the violence showing no signs of abating, it appeared to be as good an option as any.
For the last three nights, the brunette had coursed from crime scene to crime scene, facing bullets and goo in order to apprehend and, more to the point, interrogate the perpetrators. Unfortunately, all of the dark vigilante's considerable powers of persuasion had failed to yield a name for, or even a clue about, the mastermind behind the attacks which were causing New Gotham's male citizens to consider purchasing bras and the female citizens to find that -- and everything else -- appealing.
Aside from the nuisance factor, the relatively benign albeit messy attacks continued to be interspersed with bloody attacks at various supermarkets to procure the raw materials for the attacks. When the thefts had expanded the night before to include Jell-o mix and eggs, Barbara couldn't even begin to guess at the intended use.
Hence, the team's decision to employ a bit of telepathic interrogation this evening.
"In the meantime, continue your grid sweep."
Simply because there was organized mayhem afoot didn't mean that the city's usual nuisance crimes had disappeared.
<<"Copy that, Oracle.">>
For several minutes after the chipper responses, Barbara detected only the barely audible sounds indicating that her partners in the field were skulking across the rooftops. Inevitably, just as she turned back to her lesson plans, their own boredom apparently got the best of them.
<<"How about Buffy?">>
One crimson brow crept upward, coinciding with the rising pitch of Dinah's voice.
<<"He-- Huntress! Geez. That's just dumb.">>
The universal singsong of teen taunting registered in Helena's response.
<<"Well, if you're so smart, Canary, what do you suggest?">>
When there was no immediate answer, Barbara realized that she was holding her breath. The suggestion she finally heard was distinctly shy.
<<"I've always liked the name Lisa...">>
It was, of course, Helena who easily surpassed the suggestion, her voice entirely serious.
<<"Yeah, it's nice, Kid, but I've always liked the name Bar-- Well, you know.">>
Immediately, Barbara became intimately acquainted with the sensation of turning to mush. Her sensible side held strong however, and she readied herself with the observation that having two people with the same name in one home could become confusing.
Dinah anticipated her protest.
<<"Yeah, but how would we know who was who? What about Red? That works for a girl or a boy.">>
The leader of the team rolled her eyes at the assumption that the child would be the beneficiary of that part of her genes. Helena's next comment distracted her, eliciting a less-than-delicate snort in the process.
<<"Hell, Canary, if it's a boy and he gets her genes, we might as well just call him Poindexter or something.">>
Opting not to give herself time to determine whether she was offended, Barbara checked the GPS as she tendered a suggestion of her own.
"Chris is unisex."
The brunette had sounded distinctly unimpressed, but Dinah's enthusiasm again distracted the redhead.
<<"What about Gabriel? That's nice. And, a girl could be Gabrielle.">>
Barbara fumbled for the headset, thumbing down the volume in reaction to Helena's whoop of glee.
<<"Forget that, Canary. Let's just call her Xena.">>
Thoughts of many skills evaporated when Barbara registered Dinah's giggling rejoinder.
<<"And Joxer if he's a boy?">>
As much as she appreciated her partners' efforts and high spirits, she couldn't allow that suggestion to stay on the table.
"I think not, Canary."
It was simply too close to the possible truth.
The sudden, deafening silence of the comms indicated that her message had been received loud and clear. Embarrassed by her sensitivity, Barbara cast frantically about for a suggestion of her own that might restore the playful tone that she'd quashed. Regrettably, as much as she managed capably in bestowing code names, she was -- in this arena -- stumped.
So far, in fact, only one name had come to her. Unfortunately, its appeal was such that she couldn't come up with anything else even if it would require some delicate discussions with her partner.
Still there was time, not to mention the fact that she suspected she'd want to meet the little Gordon-Kyle before finalizing a name.
A low whistle interrupted her attempts to cut through the awkwardness, and she returned to a role she was comfortable with.
"What's the situation, Huntress?"
<<"Nothing definite, but I just caught sight of a late model sedan cruising by. We're gonna tail it.">>
She didn't bother with needless cautions about being careful. After over five years of their particular partnership, she trusted the brunette's instincts and abilities.
<<"Can't forget a baby shower either -- ">>
After five years, Barbara also wasn't surprised by the brunette's penchant for small talk while she was on the prowl. This particular topic, nevertheless, took her aback and her brows knit while she attempted to visualize that particular scenario: doubtless, her part of the party would be composed of fellow faculty from school while Helena's guests would include... everybody else, from patrons at the Dark Horse to friends from No Man's Land to silver-haired citizens from the Senior Center.
Gifts, no doubt, would fall into three categories: educational, fashionable, and unmentionable.
<<"Oooh -- ">>
Dinah's excitement was palpable.
<<"Can we have party hats?">>
Eyebrows shooting toward her hairline, Barbara decided to get things back on track.
"What's the situation with the vehicle, Huntress? Canary?"
<<"Huh? Oh, it's heading north on Lincoln toward the park.">>
An image of lime and strawberry Jell-o filling the duck pond niggled at the redhead.
"Stay close, Huntress. Canary."
Uncertain which reply was the more grating, Barbara resolutely turned back to her monitor, efficiently pinpointing the number and location of the few NGPD patrol cars that were in the area.
<<"--and we can probably get a really good deal on party hats at the warehouse club, too...">>
Instantly riveted again on the conversation whispering over the headset, the older woman sighed soundlessly. With a mental nod to the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" school of thought, she broke in on the planning.
"Have you determined which chain is better, Huntress?"
She'd already done a bit of research to compare MegaLoMart's warehouse club to CostCut; however, she was interested in her partner's assessment.
The brunette's voice was absolutely... sunny. For some reason, hearing the tone as her partner discussed bulk shopping was a distinctly unsettling experience.
<<"...both are about the same on diapers and wipes--">>
<<"What about formula?">>
Dead silence met the teen's question, and Barbara decided to allow Helena to field the inquiry. After all, the younger woman had made her preference about breast-feeding abundantly clear the night before.
<<"Not an issue, Canary.">>
The brunette breezed on with her secret shopper review.
<<"On the whole though, Oracle, I've gotta lean toward MegaLo.">>
Marshalling her patience, Barbara blinked, awaiting further elaboration. She offered a silent thanks when Dinah saved her from asking.
<<"Why's that, Huntress?">>
The sound of a car trunk opening briefly delayed the brunette's reply.
<<"He's out of the car by the duck pond, Oracle.">>
The leader of the team nodded wearily, not surprised to find that her suspicion seemed to have been on target.
Of course, what else did one do with two thousand boxes of gelatin?
"Excuse me, Huntress?"
The brunette was very, very quiet, presumably as she approached the clown at the pond; however, her words were very clear.
<<"Poptarts. They're cheaper at MegaLo, Asshole!">>
The change in pitch and volume, not to mention the terrified male shriek, assured Barbara that the epithet hadn't been directed at Dinah or her. The sound of slow, certain blows further supported her belief that her partner was busily engaged in keeping the pond safe for the city's waterfowl.
<<"Think that's funny, huh? I'll show you colorful when your bruises start showing...">>
<<"I'm here, Oracle.">>
Aware that Helena would hear her question, Barbara chose her phrasing carefully.
"Is everything under control? We won't be able to get anything from him if he's unconscious."
<<"I think so. Huntress is, uhm, dunking him in the pond now and getting ready---">>
The dark vigilante interrupted her younger partner's progress report.
<<"Just loosening him up a little, Oracle. Maybe we won't need Canary's help tonight.">>
Barbara fervently hoped that it might be so. Apart from some minor qualms about the Fourth and Fifth Amendment issues at stake -- not to mention privacy issues -- in a telepathic interrogation, in more practical terms she hated to have Dinah exposed to whatever nastiness lurked in the minds of New Gotham's criminals.
Unfortunately, like the others before him, this lackey's very voluble terror of Helena didn't compare to his terror of the mysterious person who was orchestrating the messy and maniacal attacks in New Gotham. Resultantly, in short order, Barbara heard herself whispering the words she'd hoped to avoid.
"If you're certain, Canary, go ahead and try."
She thought she heard the girl swallow, but her voice was steady.
<<"I'm on it, Oracle. Just give me a min -- ">>
The petty criminal's terrified shriek coincided with Dinah's horrified gasp. Breathless, Barbara waited for an update, certain that her partners wouldn't keep her in the dark for long. In short order, Helena's voice -- puzzled but reassuringly matter-of-fact -- soothed her frazzled nerves.
<<"Bizarre. The minute Canary touched him, he freaked, pissed all over himself, and passed out.">>
Exhaling noisily, Barbara snatched off her glasses.
Another night wasted, it seemed.
"Could you get anything before he fainted, Canary?"
When she heard the teen's shaky response, Barbara realized that a wasted night was now the very least of their problems.
<<"I did, B -- Oracle. It's her.">>
Some of my best friends are whores.
For a full four minutes, with nothing but the muted ticking of the rather garish cuckoo clock to interrupt her reverie, Barbara considered the words. Perhaps inevitably, she gave up on her attempts to make sense of them, shaking her head ruefully at her attempts.
It was simply beyond her what might have led to the addition of the new artwork -- at least that's what she presumed it to be -- or what the significance of the words on the oak plaque might be. However, she certainly appreciated the opportunity to weigh the various possibilities and options since it distracted her from her guilt about not concentrating on the lesson plans in the binder in her lap.
Or, on other things.
Of course, she had to admit that after she'd received a call from Gloria -- from the doctor herself, not Pat -- instructing her to come in immediately, her interest in her lesson plans for the upcoming semester, in the current bumper crop of pudding-spraying thugs, and even Harley Quinn herself had waned considerably.
Having acknowledged as much, the redhead sighed quietly and shifted in her chair, wondering just how long it would be before her gynecologist joined her in her private office. Immediately, she snorted at her own impatience, uncertain how much she could attribute to her own incessant curiosity and how much to assign to the hormones at work within her.
Perhaps all women in her condition were as... edgy as this.
That thought, finally, evoked a genuine -- if somewhat dismayed --- laugh: She simply couldn't begin to imagine how many women were, or had been, in her exact condition.
Barbara's first relatively light thought since discovering the night before that Harley Quinn was masterminding the attack on her city was cut short when the door to the office flew open and her doctor scurried in, almost catching the tail of her lab coat in the door behind her. The redhead just stopped herself from raising one hand to her mouth and smiled a greeting with as much composure as she could muster.
"Laughing out loud for no particular reason, eh?"
She was pinned by acute eyes which glimmered with humor.
"That's good. Very good."
Frine plopped a thick folder on her desk and settled herself in the overlarge chair.
"Fabulous, Gloria. I've been practicing," Barbara managed to deadpan.
For a few beats, the older woman simply regarded her evenly before speaking very seriously.
"I dare say that you would if that's what was required."
Mildly unsettled by the response, the redhead directed her attention to the recent addition to the office's decor.
"I was actually rather taken by your new artwork."
The smile which touched the other woman's lips hinted at distant memories.
"Long story there, Barbara."
The redhead inclined her head and blinked once, but her companion didn't accept the invitation. Leaning back in her chair, Gloria chuckled ruefully.
"Suffice to say it has to do with looking at more than the surface. Otherwise, it's much too long a tale to go into when I have a waiting room backed up."
The reference reminded Barbara that her visit had purposes other than aesthetic.
She dropped her hands to the wheels of her chair, flirting with the idea of unlocking the brakes.
"Is this about the problem we've had getting a sample for the amnio?"
For obvious reasons, neither attempt had been physically uncomfortable. However, with the risk to the child that arose from each attempt, not to mention her own more settled state, Barbara was uncertain that the procedure bore repeating; nevertheless, scientific curiosity was still scientific curiosity.
The doctor peered at her blankly for a moment, appearing for all the world as if she'd completely forgotten about the original reason for her patient's visit less than two weeks before. Barbara managed to squelch her exasperation when the other woman waved one hand and laughed.
"I'd almost forgotten, Barbara."
She rifled through the stack of papers before her.
"The sample they got on the second try was enough."
A wave of vertigo washed across the redhead, and she bit back a snappish inquiry about just when her doctor had received that bit of news.
No doubt, handling paternity tests was a routine occurrence at the office; it wasn't unexpected that her own particular need to know might have been forgotten.
"Let's see," Frine continued absently, her eyes fixed on one of the papers, "I don't remember if you wanted to know the sex -- "
A moment later, the doctor tore her gaze from the page and smirked.
"However, I suppose that will be evident when you learn the paternity."
As sharp as she usually was, it took Barbara a beat to grasp the implication. She blinked once, then again, ready to levitate from her chair as a two-hundred pound green-hair weight dissolved from her shoulders.
Feeling one of her partner's patented ten thousand watt smiles beginning to take possession of her face, she corrected herself.
The older woman's nod confirmed what she'd already realized: it was the only genetic possibility which fit Gloria's hinted revelation. Nearly giddy, Barbara simply ... sat there for a full thirty seconds, grinning like an idiot. Gradually, however, it dawned on her that her doctor didn't seem to share her joy.
"Is there something else, Gloria?"
When the other woman consulted her chart, flipping a few pages seemingly at random, Barbara suspected that it was a delaying tactic.
"Well, you do have a higher than normal estrogen level."
The redhead bit at the inside of her cheek, considering that the amount of extraneous estrogen which she'd been in contact with via her partner's pudding splattered wardrobe could very well account for that.
The need to find a way to explain matters was delayed when Frine continued absently.
"As I'm sure you know, raised estrogen levels can simulate pregnancy. Delayed periods and such."
"But," crimson brows furrowed, "what about the HCG levels?"
The older woman retrieved a pen, a rather drab retractable with a pharmaceutical logo on it, and walked it through her fingers.
"It can even raise HCG, Barbara. However -- "
She raised her free hand, forestalling the question on Barbara's lips.
"-- clearly that's not the case, or the cause, here."
Beginning to feel deeply, deeply at sea and wishing that she'd called Helena at work to accompany her, Barbara worked for a handle on the conversation.
"Then what's going on, Gloria?"
Instead of answering directly, the gynecologist tapped her pen against the stack of papers in the file and tendered a question of her own.
It was not, Barbara realized, a good sign from the normally straight-shooting doctor.
"Do you happen to know if your mother had any infertility problems?"
The greying head tilted to one side.
Although she knew that she wasn't quite firing on all cylinders, Barbara simply couldn't make any sense of the seeming non-sequiter.
"Er, I'm not -- "
She caught up to the conversation and changed her response.
"Why do you ask?"
The doctor nodded, seemingly sympathetic to her patient's confusion.
"Specifically, Barbara, I'm curious about whether she took any fertility drugs or had problems with carrying to term."
The furrows which were undoubtedly etching deep, permanent lines in her brows by the second only increased, and the redhead bit back a bark of mirthless laughter as she shook her head.
Somehow, she couldn't imagine her mother actively trying to become pregnant.
"No, I'm fairly certain that she didn't."
Increasingly impatient, she repeated her earlier question.
"Why are you asking, Gloria?"
Dr. Frine closed the chart and slid it to one side. When she saw the older woman's eyes track to the little plaque on the wall, Barbara rather frantically wondered how quickly Helena could get there from work if she paged her.
Unfortunately, not quickly enough to outpace her companion's reply.
"You're a bit young to be a DES baby, but it's the only thing which I can think of which correlates to what I'm seeing."
Green eyes briefly lost focus, tracking to the wall of the office, as Barbara's infallible memory searched for the abbreviation.
"Diethylstilbestrol?", she managed evenly enough.
At the other woman's quick nod, she instantly began clicking through what she had ever read or heard about the drug prescribed to pregnant women from the 1940s to the early 1970s to help prevent miscarriage: specifically, the long-term effects which had been discovered in the female offspring of the women who had used the drug, effects which prominently included increased susceptibility to certain conditions such as T-shaped uteri.
Barely realizing that she was doing so, Barbara nodded her head.
A uterine malformation might explain the difficulty with the amniocentesis.
Her relief about the explanation fluttered away, and she clenched her teeth grimly when she realized what else such a malformation could explain: To wit, why The Joker's fourth shot all those years ago had missed the mark.
While she appreciated irony as much as the next vigilante crime-fighter-cum-high school teacher, Barbara resolutely pushed that thought aside for later. For a moment, she focused on her companion, noting how Gloria shifted under her scrutiny.
"What, exactly, is it you're seeing?"
Once again, the straightforward woman hedged uncharacteristically.
"I'd really rather get another opinion before I jump to conclusions, Barbara. In fact --"
The older woman brightened fractionally for the first time since sharing the news about the child's paternity.
"I've already scheduled you with a friend of mine who's absolutely the best in the five-state area. He cleared an opening for you this afternoon."
Still perplexed, the redhead absently nodded her gratitude.
"What sort of doctor, Gloria? An Ob-Gyn?"
The gray-haired woman finally met Barbara's gaze, her eyes soft and compassionate.
"No, I'm afraid not. Ben practices a different specialty."
Perhaps it wasn't unexpected that this particular specialized bit of work would need some refinement. After all, she'd only pursued it on a lark; nevertheless, now that she was involved in the project, Barbara knew that she wouldn't simply be able to let it rest.
A crimson brow arched as the redhead removed her glasses and tapped one plastic earpiece against her lower lip.
Pairing "Medea" with "The Scarlet Letter" was simply a combination she'd never considered. While she could grasp the logic behind the combination -- she had been the one who'd created the lesson-planning software and its algorithms -- it would still be damnably difficult to help her tenth graders grasp the sense of the pairing.
Shaking her head in bemusement, she stretched to the printer and retrieved the final pages of the lesson plans that she'd just finished -- the old-fashioned way, with brainpower, web crawlers, and spreadsheets -- and added them to the neat stack next to her mouse pad. Her eyes automatically registered the time, and she slowly inhaled, then exhaled, before raising her hands once again to the keyboard.
For a half minute, she remained fixed, preparing to shut down the programs of public life in anticipation for her role in another life this evening. Then, with carefully precise movements, she struck the sequences of control-key combinations, bringing one aspect herself to a close for the day. With her task completed and her virtual workspace ready for whatever she might next require, she retrieved her glasses from atop the stack of papers and slipped them into the pocket of her chair. She checked the desktop one more time, the lowered her hands to the rims of her wheels and gave a sharp push away from the desk.
Rather, she intended to back away from the Delphi, however, intent did not materialize into action.
When she remained firmly in place, the redhead blinked in befuddlement over the unexpected friction burn in her palms and over her lack of motion. Gradually, it dawned on her that, for possibly the first time in almost seven years, she'd not released the brake of her chair before attempting to move.
She, Barbara Gordon of infallible memory and carefully ingrained habits, had somehow neglected a motion which was to her as instinctive as was standing up before walking to a mobile person.
Blinking again, this time against something blurring her vision, she grit her teeth and blew a noisy rush of air through her nose.
Since the shooting almost eight years before, she'd not been in the field apart from an occasional unplanned rescue or a bit of reconnaissance. That fact, however, had never been an excuse to spare herself the same rigorous training which she requested -- demanded -- from her partners. Resultantly, her reflexes were still as quick as ever, and her functioning muscles possibly stronger than before.
Thus, when her neatly organized pages of lesson plans flew across the platform and exploded against the wall next to the Richard M. Nixon presidential plate, the action was both blindingly swift and terrifyingly powerful.
Watching the papers flutter this way and that across the platform, she distantly acknowledged the hell that would be involved in retrieving them from under the table and from the corners.
It was that thought that, finally, breached the slender control she'd held over what was rising within, and Barbara heard a cry just as she witnessed both of her fists descend on her thighs with bruising force.
That was all it took: explaining the bruises, not to mention the mess, was not something she cared to consider. With her partners due back at the Clock Tower from their respective jobs in less than an hour, she simply would not allow herself further infantile indulgence.
By the time a frisson of awareness, which coincided with a thump from the balcony, alerted her to the arrival of one of her first protege, Barbara had retrieved and reorganized all of her paperwork and had, in fact, been occupied with other matters for forty minutes. She sensed, as much as heard, when Helena bounced into the kitchen just as the CD player in the other room transitioned from an old favorite by The Romantics to something slower.
Daddy breezes in
So good on paper
Helena's voice was a jaunty as her step.
"I picked up the mail, and it's bad news."
Mentally daring the news to compete with her own, Barbara looked over her shoulder, silently raising a brow in challenge.
"Yep," the brunette nodded with exaggerated solemnity, "looks like my Survivor audition tape didn't make the cut."
Barbara blinked before a distant memory surfaced.
Had it only been a few months since Dinah had videotaped the vivacious brunette's attempt to join the popular reality show?
"I'm sorry, Sweetie. I'm sure that most of America would have enjoyed seeing you."
The issue of whether mainstream America could have handled Helena Kyle in their living rooms every week remained in doubt.
The brunette didn't seem overly disturbed by her failure to wow Hollywood.
Barbara waited as her companion prodded dubiously at a pear perched in the "questionable" pile that she'd created during her cleansing of the fridge. Apparently deciding that her enhanced system could handle the overripe fruit, Helena snagged it and hopped onto the counter. She chewed slowly on her first enormous bite, and Barbara awaited the inevitable when bright blue eyes pointedly took in the neatly organized trash bags littering the kitchen floor.
"You've been cleaning?"
Pay the grocer
You fix the toaster
You kiss the host goodbye
Then you break a window
Burn the souffle
Scream a lullaby
Determined not to hear the incredulity in the rising tone, Barbara leaned back over the open oven door and renewed her assault on a bit of recalcitrant baked on lasagna.
"Just... clearing out the detritus," she allowed.
The duration of the ensuing silence finally forced her to acknowledge her partner's presence. Marshalling her patience, she looked over her shoulder to find Helena absently bumping her heels against the lower cupboard -- she'd need to tackle those scuff marks next -- and, well, waiting.
The younger woman casually tossed the half-eaten pear into an open trash bag.
"No. You've been cleaning."
Alarm clearly punctuated the word as Helena gracefully slipped from her perch and approached. Barbara held her tongue when the brunette sniffed, her acute senses probably detecting each individual cleaning product that had been in use, and then bent to peer into the oven.
"You even got that plastic up which's been welded in there."
Helena straightened, and the redhead felt a blush paint her features.
Barbara ruthlessly quashed her embarrassment.
It had been almost five years since one of her inopportune attempts at cooking had caused a skillet handle to melt and bond, seemingly permanently, to the bottom of the oven. Indeed, this afternoon she'd taken great satisfaction in chipping at the remnant with the tip of a batarang until, finally, it had peeled away.
"I believe it was time, Helena," she managed evenly enough.
I know nothin' stays the same
But if you're willin' to play the game
It's comin' around again
So don't mind if I fall apart
There's more room in a broken heart
The other woman took two steps back and leaned against the counter by the sink, one dark brow rising eloquently. With a sigh, Barbara gave up on her cleaning, crisply closing the oven door and switching on the kettle.
"I'll get that, Babs."
Nodding her thanks, Barbara moved to her spot at the kitchen table, appreciating the graceful economy of the lithe figure's movements as she retrieved her favorite mug, tea bags -- decaf, of course -- and honey. Helena settled the items on the table and swung open the refrigerator, and the older woman winced slightly as an appreciative whistle escaped the brunette.
So help her, if Helena winced or flinched at the sparkling interior, she'd probably have to heave her empty cup at her.
The other woman restrained herself, simply snagging the cream and a can of Red Bull, which she placed on the table before turning to the puffing kettle on the stove. Barbara smoothed the tab on one of the tea bags while Helena remained poised by the stove, presumably awaiting the kettle's whistle before she pounced.
"Uhm -- "
For some reason, the deceptively casual tone raised a knot of tension in the redhead's shoulders.
"-- how did your appointment with Dr. Frine go?"
The brunette switched off the stove and picked up the kettle, turning to the table. Aware that her partner had to be as curious as she'd been, Barbara didn't mince words.
"The second amnio worked."
She nodded her thanks as Helena filled her mug and then dunked her tea bag before forcing her eyes up briefly to meet her partner's.
"It's yours. Rather..."
She felt a soft smile painting her lips as she corrected herself.
"... she's ours."
The brunette's response, Barbara decided with a mixture of alarm and amusement, exemplified the phrase "shell shocked".
For a moment, the younger woman simply froze, the still-hissing kettle suspended in mid air. Then, wordless, she sagged and dropped into a chair.
The patent wonder evident in expressive blue eyes was heartbreaking.
"I'm gonna be a... a daddy?"
The beginning of that amazing smile appeared, and Barbara couldn't bear to allow her lover the same thoughts she'd embraced only five hours before.
"It's... it's complicated, Hel."
"Well, hell yeah." the other woman nodded agreeably, thumping the tea kettle onto the table.
Without really thinking, Barbara stretched forward and lifted the hot cookware, sliding a placemat under it before resettling it.
"Well, yes, that part is a bit confusing, Helena."
Mentally acknowledging that understatement didn't begin to encompass that little statement, she snorted softly.
Belatedly noticing her partner leaning expectantly toward her, she worked for the rest.
"Well, there's more."
Rather futilely, she waved a hand.
"Barbara? What's going on?"
The almost imperceptible tension that vibrated through sinewy muscles clearly indicated the younger woman's rising alarm, and Barbara plastered on what she hoped was a reassuring smile.
"Calm down, Helena."
She claimed a slender hand in hers and squeezed softly. When the worry in her lover's eyes morphed into cautious confusion, she softly stroked her thumb across the other woman's knuckles, ignoring her own feelings of hypocrisy.
Calming down had simply not been an option for her since Gloria had revealed why she was referring her to a specialist.
Carefully, Barbara caught a drop of condensation as it trickled down the outside of her mug.
"Gloria, er, wanted to check on a few things."
Dark brows wrinkled.
"Like what? She's not still hung up on the false preg-- "
Blue eyes widened, then sparkled.
Despite herself, Barbara heard a strangled laugh escape.
Two little Helenas at once would, indeed, be a handful.
"No, Helena, not that."
Sobering, she cast about for a way to broach matters.
"Er, she discovered that my estrogen levels are -- "
Watching her partner's gaze clear, she realized that she was going about matters all wrong. Unfortunately, she simply couldn't begin to guess what the right way might be and suspected that no amount of Googling the in world would help.
"Yeah, you and half of New Gotham."
The dark head inclined to one side.
"Is that a problem for the Peapod?"
"No -- it's... No."
Barbara looked down to discover that, somehow, the reassuring touch of their hands had changed, and now it was Helena who was softly stroking her palm.
"Okaaay -- "
Feeling more horrible by the second as she watched her partner struggle for footing, Barbara almost burst into tears at her partner's teasing smile.
"-- guess I'll start working on those rocker sleds for your chair."
The redhead squeezed her eyes closed in memory of her protege's inventiveness: a proposal to bind skis for rocking to her chair.
She clasped the other woman's fingers lightly before dropping her hands to her lap, looking down quickly to verify that they were fisted against her thighs.
"I'm afraid that may be premature, Sweetheart. I saw another doctor this afternoon."
Sensing the host of questions rising in the younger woman, she raised one hand, palm outward.
"Gloria insisted that time was of the essence, and after speaking with Dr. Casey, I believe she was right."
She refused to look up but sensed the silent movement a split-second before Helena ducked down, forcing her to meet her eyes.
"What kind of specialist?"
The question was a bare whisper of air between them, and Barbara had no recourse but to look into those sweet blue eyes, so filled with love. Finally hearing the words of the old Carly Simon classic she'd always loved, she swallowed convulsively.
Daddy breezes in
I know nothin' stays the same
But if you're willin' to play the game
It will be comin' around again
The itsy bitsy spider climbed up the water spout
Down come the rain and washed the spider out
Out come the sun and dried up all the rain
And the itsy bitsy spider climbed up the spout again
I believe in love
Now who knows where or when
But it's comin' around again
It took Barbara three tries to form the words.
The cancer in the city of New Gotham was growing unchecked.
To the not inconsiderable dismay of one specific individual pledged to fighting such stain and disease, it seemed that cutting off The Joker had slowed its progress only temporarily.
Green eyes unconsciously flickering to the GPS locator, Barbara confirmed what she already knew: her partners in the field were on-site, presumably engaged in their stealthy approach to the source of the city's current malignancy.
With that thought, she allowed herself to continue an analogy which was too much with her: specifically, that the current criminal wave wasn't simply a pustulant boil, like her own, localized in one spot -- such as attacks on city hall -- which could be isolated and aggressively defended or... treated. Rather, it was spreading its dendrites throughout the city, leaving carnage and mayhem in its wake.
On the other hand, when she took a moment to reconsider the analogy, perhaps she was a bit off-target. Given what the oncologist had told her, her own cancer was behaving very much like the current crime wave, with the very real possibility that nothing would remain untouched.
In other terms, she allowed wryly as her eyes flickered to the Princess Fiona figure atop her monitor, with the rapid metastasis already evident , she might soon be nothing more than a head in a chair.
<<"Oracle, do you copy?">>
Despite the fact that her response would reach only the ears of her partners, Barbara unconsciously muted her reply in deference to Helena's whisper.
"I copy, Huntress. Where are you?"
<<"Still in the access tunnel.">>
A soft squeak of protest from Dinah barely registered over the comms.
Barbara grimaced sympathetically. Even with her own rodent-like masked persona back in the day, she'd never particularly cared for the creatures either.
<<"Canary's making with a TK broom but she doesn't want to hurt any of them.">>
The leader of the team nodded her acknowledgement, pleased that Helena's tone had remained neutral for the second part of her update. She chose not to concentrate on the fact that she was even more pleased that her protege was remaining focused on their plans, despite the bombshell she'd dropped on her earlier in the kitchen.
"How long before you make contact?"
<<"Probably another five minutes, Oracle. We'll let you know when we hit the access hatch.">>
Checking the security cameras she'd hacked into an hour before, Barbara confirmed that the facility's guards were still unaware of the visitors moving quietly through the utilities conduit.
"I'll trigger the alarm at the south end when you're in position," she confirmed.
With silence descending on the comms again, she toggled her screen back to the search results she'd brought up a few minutes earlier. While it wasn't unusual for the cyber-genius to multitask while her partners were in the field, she suspected that in any other circumstances she would have remained more focused on the events unfolding distant from her workstation.
Breaking into Arkham, the most super-security facility in the country for the criminally insane, was not a normal bit of fieldwork, after all. The reason behind the break in -- locating and, possibly, interviewing Harley Quinn -- only raised the stakes of the task.
Nevertheless, after her appointment with Dr. Casey earlier in the day, Barbara knew that she had little time to research options for her own particular... project, and the results she'd found about dendrimer research at University of Michigan were too tantalizing to ignore. Accordingly, she allotted herself two and a half minutes, and not a second more, to program and dispatch a fleet of bots to scour cyberspace for further information.
One hundred and thirty-two seconds later, she minimized her bot deployment screen and closed her browser window.
She could not afford any distractions at this point. With the discovery the night before that the mysterious and terror-inspiring boss was indeed Harley Quinn, none of them could risk a misstep. After Dinah's discovery, the team had agreed that a face-to-face visit was their best option; however, simply because they were inside a facility where the prisoners were under tight control didn't make the operation any less dangerous.
Given that closed-circuit television from inside Arkham showed the madwoman safely straight jacketed and sedated in her cell, Barbara could only conclude -- and not for the first time -- that security at the maximum super security prison was like something out of a comic book: implausible at best; outright laughable at worst.
Of course, she had to admit that Quinn had always been resourceful, and it was very possible that she was masterminding the whole mess from inside bars.
<<"We're in position, Oracle.">>
Exhaling softly, Barbara seized on the calm normalcy in her partner's voice.
"Stand ready, Huntress, Canary," she murmured as her fingers tapped briskly across the keyboard, "I'm triggering the alarm."
Without raising her hands, she toggled to the security camera feeds, confirming the efficacy of her distraction in drawing the guards away from the wing of the facility where Dinah and Helena were waiting.
"Hallways are clear now, but be quick."
She guestimated that the younger women had, at most, four minutes to make their way through the hallways and past the security enclosing the madwoman's outer cell, attempt to question Quinn, and make it back to the access hatch before the guards returned. Anxiously monitoring the security feeds, she tracked her proteges' progress down the empty hallway, confident that the loop feed she'd added to the cameras in the wing would record only vacant halls in case someone later thought to check the tapes.
The pervasive whir and hum of the gears of the tower clock synchronized with her own internal chronometer, and she mentally counted the seconds ticking by. Finally, she spied the tail of Helena's dark coat from the periphery of the camera that was fixed permanently on the cell of the woman who was, since The Joker's escape, Arkham's most dangerous prisoner.
Oblivious to the voice-only nature of their interface, the cyber-vigilante nodded.
"You have two and a half minutes, Huntress."
She didn't bother to add the obvious assumptions: that Dinah and Helena could get Quinn to talk; that the dangerously hypnotic woman would not somehow entrap them with her wiles; that they would be able to garner something of use from the brief interaction.
Two shadows -- one slight and graceful, the other lanky and more stilted -- flickered at the edges of the grainy black and white feed. A soft tap of knuckles against the lucite surrounding the prisoner rang out like a canon shot.
Still, there was no reaction from the cell's inmate.
"Can you try your TK, Canary?"
Barbara felt herself frown when she heard the nervousness of the youngest member of the team.
Somehow, she simply would find a way to stop asking Dinah to go on the streets. It simply wasn't right to allow the girl's eagerness and her own desire for results to put the young woman at risk.
An update from Dinah cut short her self-castigation.
<<"I'm not getting any response, Oracle. Do you want, uh...?">>
The teen trailed off as Barbara felt her frown deepen. Suggesting that Dinah do more than telekinetically prod their nemesis was not something she cared to consider, however, with the seconds ticking by, their options for rousing the madwoman from her drugged state were limited.
Helena, naturally, put things in perspective.
<<"Forget it, Canary. She's too gorked to lead a pudding run to the refrigerator. No way she's masterminding -- ">>
The words did the trick, and without second thought, Barbara interrupted the brunette's assessment.
"Is that a... pudding cup under her bunk?"
The dark vigilante didn't seem perturbed by the treatment.
<<"What? I don't see...">>
Terrifyingly certain of what she'd hear, Barbara kept it short.
"Canary, use your TK again. This time, push hard."
<<"Ha--? Uh, copy that, Oracle.">>
A soft grunt signaled the teen's compliance, followed by a quiet gasp.
<<"She didn't budge, Oracle, and I was really -- ">>
"I know, Canary."
Registering the slow return of guards from the south end of the prison, she drew the operation to a close.
"Clear out now. Our time is up."
She waited for the quiet acknowledgements, then rapidly captured the video feed of Quinn in her cell and saved it to disk. Refusing to give in to her curiosity, and her dread, she remained focused on the events playing out thirty miles distant until Helena's voice rang through the headset again.
<<"We're clear, Oracle.">>
The sound of a well-tuned Hummer roaring to life pinpointed the younger women's location.
Barbara swallowed and cleared her throat.
"That will do for tonight, Huntress. Why don't you come in?"
More than certain of what she was facing, Barbara thought of something else and deliberately lightened her tone.
"Would you mind stopping by our favorite ice cream shop for some triple chocolate on the way?"
<<"Uh, would you repeat that, Oracle?">>
To her relief, she was spared the effort when the youngest member of the team piped up.
<<"Ice cream, Huntress. No problem, Oracle. Do you want us to get some pickles, too?">>
Ignoring the choking sensation enveloping her, Barbara managed to keep her voice relatively light, pleased that Dinah had made the assumption that she'd presented.
"No, thank you, Canary. The ice cream will be sufficient."
Having bought herself a few extra minutes, she focused once again on the prison. First, she carefully checked the video feeds from each camera in Quinn's wing, insuring that no traces of her partners' visit had been recorded. Then, she released the loopbacks before quickly hacking into the prison's central computer. Once there, she navigated rapidly to the security software and, within seconds, found what she'd suspected: a bit of embedded code projecting a holographic image of a drugged and unresponsive Quinn into her cell.
Absolutely furious, she downloaded the bit of malware to a secure area of the Delphi and then exited the system.
After she'd finished her investigation, she'd determine just who to notify about the madwoman's absence. Clearly, guards and caretakers were either in on the escape or, more likely, had been caught by the woman's powers of suggestion and honestly believed her to be present.
At the moment, however, she had one more task to perform.
Acutely aware of her heart trip-hammering against her ribs, of the beads of cold moisture dotting her forehead, of her shallow breathing, Barbara focused on calming herself. She removed her glasses and concentrated on wiping the lenses with the tail of her tee shirt: fifteen circular motions on the left lens, followed by an equal number of swipes to the right. She resettled her eyewear and rested her right hand lightly over the mouse, guiding the stylized bat cursor to the digitized video feed she'd downloaded from the camera trained on Quinn's cell. With a final long cleansing breath, she clicked on the file.
With it overcharged cpu's and teraflops of memory, the Delphi brought up the movie player instantly, and within a half-second, Barbara was less-than-pleased to realize that her suspicion had been correct: Within the live feed from the camera which had been capturing the image of a holograph, there was a superimposed bit of film.
A self-contained, repeating image of a pudding cup casually resting against one leg of Quinn's bunk.
Completely unaware that she was doing so, the cyber-vigilante leaned in, bringing her nose within inches of the oversized monitor. At the same time, she moved the cursor to the image of the half-eaten dessert and clicked twice.
Again, the response from her computer was instantaneous -- too damned fast, perhaps -- and Barbara abruptly found herself viewing the recorded image of Harley Quinn herself. Although the image was a bit grainy, possibly recorded with a low-end digital camera, the sight of that sharp, pixie-like face and eyes shining with cunning malevolence was entirely too clear.
"We meet again, Ba -- "
The recorded figure interrupted herself with a grating cackle.
"Ah, ah, ah. Mustn't break confidentiality, must we?"
Ice blue eyes widened in innocence, and the petite blonde continued brightly.
"So, I must presume that I'm finally addressing you again, Oracle, since there's nobody else who I'd trust to find my little clue. Still,"
Tsking sadly, the blonde raised her left arm and looked down, pantomiming looking at a watch.
"It took you long enough to discover my little deception. For someone who is purportedly so very, very intelligent, Oracle --"
Barbara clenched her teeth when the image of their nemesis frowned sadly.
"-- sometimes you're just like the rest of them, believing exactly what you see. Of course,"
The tiny woman brightened, the light of madness sparkling in her eyes.
"--by now, I know that you've seen far more than this image."
Quinn cocked her head, the movement strangely birdlike.
"Do you think the pudding was too obvious, Oracle? It did seem trite to me, I'll grant."
Sensing that the recorded message was moving into the stereotypical 'Gloating Criminal Reveals The Master Plot' stage, Barbara puffed out her cheeks and rolled her eyes.
"But, my intent was two-fold. Not just to mourn the passing of my dear Mr. J, but to give you a teensy weensy clue about the state that your little fetch-n-go girl might be in by now."
Green eyes nearly crossed in vexation over the blonde's characterization of Helena. At Quinn's next words, her anger morphed into a different emotion.
"However, while it would be improper to reveal doctor-patient conversations, perhaps our dear Huntress' dreams have finally come to fruition, and the little surprise which my Puddin' and I planned for the first bubble attack reached you instead."
Barbara felt her brows lower in puzzlement, then, as Quinn giggled and continued, begin a slow rise toward her hairline.
"Yes, yes, I'm certain how relieved the two of you were when Huntress narrowly escaped her first run-in with the very special substance which my Puddin' had waiting just for her."
The blonde leaned toward the camera, the malevolence of her feature filling the entire screen.
"By the time you started analyzing it, our little Trojan would have passed right through into Huntress or... you, Oracle."
Now clenching her teeth so tightly that stress fractures were a real possibility, the redhead held her breath in anticipation of what she might hear next. Almost conversationally, the blonde withdrew from the camera and blinked innocently.
"How is our sweet Huntress feeling lately? Or, perhaps, how are you feeling? Any -- "
Blue eyes widened in a mockery of solicitous concern.
"-- female problems?"
Something akin to vertigo washed across her as Barbara listened to Quinn peeling away the layers of the plan that she and The Joker had hatched from within Arkham over the years of their incarceration. Something very much like nausea consumed her at the realization that they -- that he -- had done this to her again. Something which was very definitely terror wound through her chest when she comprehended Quinn's cackling summation of the plot.
"So, dear Oracle, while you may have taken away my sweet Mr. J, we've taken away so much more from you. And soon -- "
Those mad blue eyes snapped with such fury that Barbara had no choice but to flinch.
"Soon, I'll take everything else away from you."
A split-second later, the beating of a helicopter hovering ridiculously close to the tower drew her from her terror. Belatedly, Barbara recognized that she should have anticipated that Quinn would have a feedback mechanism to alert her where someone -- when she -- found and played her message.
Unfortunately, she realized a split second too late, she'd been too involved in the message.
One hand flew to the brake of her chair while she jerked for the comms mic with the other; however, she had no opportunity to complete either action.
The rapid rat-a-tat of missiles striking the balcony, followed by an unmistakable odor, confirmed that the tower was under attack.
Breathing heavily through her mouth, Barbara raised her right hand from the rubber wheel of her chair, gracefully catching the thick staff she angled across her body with the left. Immediately, she dropped her now-free left hand to the rim of the other wheel and circled to the side, warily timing the slow approach of the hulking form. Calculating that she had just enough time, she raked her right wrist across her forehead.
The movement didn't really catch the sweat rivuleting down her face, but it temporarily diverted the saline flow from her eyes.
The minute respite over, she tightened her grip on the staff, feeling an answering ache in her knuckles and the tightening of the skin across them. Once more, as she had countless times in the last hour, she readied herself, gauging the best moment to place her blow.
One New Gotham.
Two New Gotham.
She'd not even recognized that she'd been whispering her count through her gritted teeth until the final word exploded in time with the inch-thick bar landing solidly against the leather-covered form which loomed over her. The rough 'Woof' of air that blew through her hair signaled that she'd bought another few seconds, and she warily held her position as the behemoth rotated slowly to the side.
Accepting the knowledge that this was far from over, the redhead smoothly backed a few inches and circled, one hand always on the staff, the other her sole means of mobility. Thoughts of unstoppable objects flitted through her mind while she waited for another approach, and she chuckled grimly.
If that were the case, then she would damned well be the unmovable post.
Even in the midst of her fixed concentration, Barbara couldn't miss the irony of her characterization, and she blinked rapidly against a wetness in her eyes which had little to do with the sweat which filtered through her eyebrows.
Her word was quiet, almost emotionless. Nevertheless, the split-second's indulgence was enough to allow her foe to get too close. Forcing herself not to rush, she twisted in her chair, flipping the staff across her body and managing to use momentum to push the heavy weight away. Despite the awkward angle, she followed up by sweeping the heavy staff underneath her much larger opponent, resulting in some rather wild swinging.
"Atta girl, Red."
The distraction was enough.
After more than an hour of holding her own, Barbara realized that it was all over. Perhaps she'd been at it too long; perhaps her concentration was simply too fragmented by what she'd discovered earlier. Regardless, the unexpected encouragement from her cat-footed partner was too much.
Already off-balance from her defensive reach across her body, she jerked her gaze to the side to confirm the arrival of her partner and was caught by a glancing blow from the side. In a series of freeze-frame instants, like something captured in the strobe of a disco ball, she felt momentum and gravity take over, pushing her to one side. For a hair-raising instant, she balanced on two wheels, frantically jerking her body in the opposite direction to avoid the inevitable; however, she had no leverage with her opponent's heavy weight still in control of her chair. Blinking, she registered the top of the wall where it intersected the ceiling, then the ceiling swam into focus.
Even as she fell, Barbara broke her own first rule of defense: she dropped her weapon.
Finally unencumbered, her hands flew to her lower abdomen, and her arms formed a protective cradle. With no means to guard herself, she hit the ground hard enough to rattle her teeth and evoke a very vocal 'Woof" of her own. Oddly indifferent to the lumbering form above her, she blinked rapidly, automatically counting the little cartoon bats which circled the periphery of her vision.
Slow, deliberate applause gradually penetrated her awareness around the eighteenth flying mammal, and she looked through the still-spinning spokes of her wheels to watch Helena's approach.
"If this was a WW Smackdown, I'd tag you and take 'em, Barbara."
No telling how long the younger woman had been watching.
"Holy flatulent fairies, Helena."
She regarded the brunette sourly.
"You nearly scared the wits out of me."
The abashed dip of a dark head quelled some of her ire, and Barbara pushed upright, working to unentangle her legs from the chair. Deliberately, she modulated her tone.
"I thought you were in the shower."
She registered her partner's shrug as the younger woman pushed the heavy bag away from the chair.
"That was almost two hours ago, Red."
The perpetually raised left brow quirked as the brunette gracefully knelt beside her.
"Even I draw the line when we run out of hot water."
Righting her chair, Barbara suspected that her answering smile was a bit forced, however she was too caught up attempting to grasp how her internal chronometer had failed her to do any more.
She'd honestly thought she'd have another ten or fifteen minutes of privacy, with Dinah off to her job and Helena in the shower.
Almost indifferent, she prodded at the possibility that the rapid metastasis of the clear cell cancer could be affecting her always-accurate sense of time before Helena's movement drew her attention. Almost in slow motion, the dark figure was leaning in, extending her hand.
Without conscious decision -- although, in hindsight, she had to acknowledge that there were a hell of a lot of feelings of filth and desirability and violation at play -- Barbara felt herself flinch from the offered assistance. And, as was so often the case when she acted without thinking, the results were unfortunate.
Deep blue eyes widened, then shuttered, as Helena scrambled backward gracelessly.
"Hel -- "
Barbara worked to pull herself into the chair, refusing to look away from her lover.
"I'm so sorry, Sweetie. I'm still -- "
Not entirely certain what she was but quite positive that she'd be in that state for some time, the redhead waved toward the heavy bag she'd been pummeling. She held her breath as blue eyes regarded her guardedly.
The dark head inclined toward the bag, and Barbara kept is short.
It was technically the truth; however, there was no reason for the other woman to know all of the reasons and emotions which lay behind the single word.
Helena seemed to accept the answer at face value, hooking her thumb toward the balcony.
"Guess we're lucky she's sticking with the food theme, huh? Though I don't think I'll be having any omelets for a while."
Smiling tightly, Barbara snapped down the second footrest and looked down to verify that neither leg was akimbo.
"Indeed," she allowed.
The attack twelve hours before had, finally, revealed the insane Harlequin's use for the eggs that her lackeys had stolen the week before. For a solid ten minutes after Barbara had found the embedded message, the helicopter had hovered near the balcony, pelting the landing and the French doors with rotten eggs.
Obviously, the choice of missiles was Quinn's idea of humor.
Helena and Dinah had arrived at the tower not too many minutes later to find Barbara engaged in the first stages of clean-up. When she'd provided a highly edited summary of the holograph and the embedded message, the two younger women had shooed her back inside and completed the unpleasant task in the darkness of the early morning.
While normally Barbara might have chaffed under such solicitousness, this time she'd accepted the gesture gratefully: she'd had more pressing matters to attend to.
For almost eight hours, she'd remained fixed at her workstation, alternately focused on the lab equipment and on the output scrolling across her monitors in amber and green. Although the cyber-vigilante hadn't expected to catch Quinn in a lie, there had been the tiniest tendril of hope. Regrettably, the hurried analysis she'd just completed on various samples of The Joker's bubble goo -- a tiny bit of the sample from his first attack on Helena and several samples from later attacks -- had, indeed, shown that there were subtle differences.
The first sample that had been used on Helena -- and on Helena alone, apparently -- contained minute traces of magnesium, estrogen, DES, and folic acid.
The slow sway of the heavy bag recalled Barbara, and she looked up to find her partner spinning the bag lackadaisically.
"Thought you might have been working off some anger about -- "
The older woman worked very hard not to blink, or flinch, when a slender hand gestured toward her midsection.
"There's no use being angry about the cancer, Hel. What's don--"
She stopped herself in time, realizing that the words she'd originally chosen would reveal too much.
"What will be, will be."
For an instant, when the brunette appeared to sag, Barbara thought she might fall, and she gave her chair a sharp push, bringing her knees into contact with the other woman's thighs.
When the other woman ducked beneath her shaggy bangs, she knew how serious matters were.
"How can you-- ?"
Even white teeth bit at a lush lower lip, stopping just shy of drawing blood, before Helena continued roughly.
"She's ours, Barbara. And, now we can't..."
Before the redhead could fully grasp the meaning of her partner's words, blows were raining on the heavy bag, the staccato beat of fists meeting heavy leather filling the room. With a quick pop-wheelie, Barbara rotated her chair and gave the wheels a firm push that distanced her by a few meters.
For a few moments, she puzzled over Helena's words and her assumption that they would make such a sacrifice. Then, she simply watched her lover pound the bag, entirely sympathetic to the frustrated rage that must be consuming the younger woman. It was only when one of the three chains that supported the bag snapped that Barbara intervened.
Ignoring the creak and sway of the two remaining chains and the very real risk of the bag collapsing -- it wouldn't be the first time -- she slowly approached her companion and stretched out to rest her palm on the young woman's lower back. When Helena stiffened and then skipped away from her touch, it was Barbara's turn to feel the pain of rejection.
"Don't -- "
Helena's voice was thick with anger and tears.
"How can you even come near me after everything?"
Utterly flabbergasted, Barbara felt her mouth drop open. While she certainly understood feeling less than... approachable -- desirable wouldn't be a part of her vocabulary for a good long time -- she couldn't begin to imagine what possessed the other woman.
"Hel? What do you--?"
Those deceptively slender shoulders shook once before straightening, and Helena finally looked back at her.
"I poisoned you, Barbara."
Immediately, Barbara became intimately reacquainted with the sensation of having been sucker-punched.
Surely her partner hadn't discovered the full extent of The Joker's machinations so quickly.
The brunette circled the bag, her rough reply almost lost in the hollow emptiness between them.
"Don't deny it, Barbara. All that estrogen I've been bathing in?"
Barbara had no idea what her face might have given away, but it couldn't have been good. The brunette's visage hardened, and she turned to the heavy bag.
"Yeah, thought so."
The redhead flinched when Helena struck the bag once, her blow tightly controlled, elbow at her abdomen and all of her power coming from her powerful legs. The bag rocked and only her own quick reflexes permitted Barbara to raise her arm in time to deflect the heavy object. Helena didn't back away, although she altered the direction of her blows: this time a series of lightning-fast roundhouse swings which set the bag swaying.
Witnessing the smear of bright red on the surface of the awkwardly twirling object, Barbara couldn't restrain her whimper, and the sound ended Helena's hail of blows. When the brunette turned and Barbara registered the anguish in her eyes, she whimpered again and stretched up, grasping her lover's hand and drawing her down. To her relief, Helena didn't resist, immediately burying her face in her lap, her shoulders shuddering.
"It doesn't work that way, Hel. The estrogen wasn't responsible."
As she stroked the brunette's back and soothed her, it was all that Barbara could think to say: somehow, she had to make Helena realize that she wasn't responsible. Suspecting that it would take time, she forced herself to silence her reassurances, distantly aware of how the younger woman's amazing metabolism was knitting the skin over her knuckles.
A slight motion drew her attention.
"I wish I could take it away from you."
Barbara allowed her fingers to sift through dark silk.
"I know, Hel."
It was all that she needed to say; both knew that, with her enhanced metabolism, Helena might very well reject any cancer cells before they took root.
Barbara bit at the inside of her lower lip, glad that her partner's face was averted. There was simply no way that the other woman wouldn't see that there was more, and that was something she simply couldn't say. Specifically, details which Quinn had revealed in her message -- a message which was buried deep in the darkest levels of encrypted storage on the Delphi's M drive -- which Barbara had scarcely been able to grasp, yet which made such sense.
Apparently, the researchers in Michigan were behind the curve when it came to nanoprobe technology. Of course, unlimited amounts of ill-gotten cash combined with completely twisted minds could tend to accelerate the research cycle. The Joker and Quinn's directed research had involved the creation of nanobots carrying copious amounts of estrogen as bait, with a DES laced cocktail within which had jumpstarted the cancer creation once the probes were welcomed.
During her earlier research, Barbara had realized with profound relief that while those probes had been meant to target Helena, very likely the young woman's system had simply... expelled them. In the process, the 'bots had efficiently enacted an unexpected side effect: they had carried with them minute amounts of Helena's DNA which had created a miracle within her at the same time they'd poisoned her.
"I'd rather you could take her," was all she eventually managed, meaning it entirely.
At that, the dark head shifted from her lap, and pained blue eyes reached deep inside.
Unable to help, Barbara waited as sharp white teeth caught a full lower lip.
"You can't have her. The way it's spreading."
The older woman had debated this ad nauseam since her meeting with the oncologist the day before, and she chose to take the words as a question.
"Nothing's certain, Hel."
Carefully, she tucked an errant lock of hair behind the other woman's ear.
"In a few months, she could be via--"
The hair she'd just tidied flew from side to side, and Barbara sighed, needing no interpretation for the willful obstinacy in those painfully expressive features.
"You said it's already spread."
Nodding slowly, Barbara added, "But some treatments may be available to slow the progress without harming -- "
The brunette's dogged unwillingness to accept a reassurance that even Barbara found weak was transparent, and the redhead nearly chuckled at the familiar expression. She'd first seen that look in her classroom so many years before when she'd tried to coax her recalcitrant student into enjoying Moby Dick. When she'd finally sparked her interest, by reading aloud excerpts from the chapter on flensing and the use of the skin covering the male whale's organ, Helena had seized on the thick book, engaging her in lengthy conversations about the nature of good and evil.
Pushing the sweet memory aside, Barbara worked to focus on the conversation at hand. After all, if Dr. Casey were right about the risk of rapid metastasis to her...
Barbara couldn't even think the word.
Losing her breasts in addition to her uterus and ovaries was simply too much to contemplate.
She just managed to suppress a wild urge to giggle at the image of the crimson haired bobbin head doll that sat atop her primary monitor when bright blue eyes, rimmed with moisture, searched her face. Reaching deep within, she slowly traced her partner's fingers.
"Remember, Hel?" she prompted softly.
The younger woman sniffed, sulkily meeting her eyes.
Pursing her lips and drawing her shoulders, Barbara channeled her best Anne Bancroft from 'Point of No Return.'
"I've never minded about the little things."
Some of the tightness in her chest eased at her partner's quirk of the lips. Quite deliberately, she ignored the irony of channeling Mrs. Robinson, refusing to believe that any of this was some sort of karma. The slender figure draped over her legs buried her head against her lap again, and Barbara allowed her fingers to scritch lightly at the base of the younger woman's skull.
Eventually, she detected the softest rumbling, perhaps the motion of her lover's jaw. With a thrill of recognition, she squeezed her eyes shut when she realized that Helena was talking to their child. Pointedly, she didn't attempt to make out the words, allowing Helena as much privacy as she could. It was only when silence descended that she could no longer restrain herself.
Bending at the waist, she cupped her lover's jaw with her hands and dusted a light kiss to the dark brow. She thought that the younger woman might have tried to pull away, but she would have none of it.
"Please, Hel. I need you."
In an instant, the tables turned: Helena reared up, lunging forward almost wildly, and the soft emotions which had filled Barbara washed away under freezing terror.
"No -- I ca -- I'm not --"
The redhead didn't know what she wanted to say: That she was not able? Not a woman? Not worthy of the adoration and want in her lover's eyes?
In a heartbeat, she realized that it didn't matter, since Helena wouldn't believe her anyway.
"Yes. You are. You're perfect. You're everything."
The utter certainty of the response was humbling. Feeling the tender smile paint her lips, Barbara cupped the younger woman's face and laid it out.
"Please, Hel. I need... I need to touch you."
She swallowed against the thickness in her throat and added the rest.
"I need you."
Her heart twisted when Helena abruptly stood and she heard the brunette's anguished whisper.
"But, what if I did do this? Hurt you?"
Furious... hurt... lost... she saw her hand shoot out before she could think, grabbing the other woman's delicate wrist and yanking her smaller partner down into her lap. For years, she'd worked and trained to increase her upper body strength, and at this moment she put it all to the test, holding her struggling partner to her tightly.
"No -- I can't ... won't."
"Won't what, Helena?" she ground out, offering no quarter and nowhere to hide.
The younger woman stilled, somehow still shrinking away within the confines of her arms.
"I never wanted to hurt you. I don't ever want to hurt you, and I did."
"You did not hurt me, Helena."
Barbara deliberately gentled her tone again but kept her words factual.
"The only way you can hurt me is if you take yourself... us... away. If you let him win."
She easily detected her lover's flinch, couldn't miss the way the brunette paled under her dark skin. Her heart twisted when she observed the pain in those deep blue eyes, and she cautiously released her tight grasp, raising one hand to stroke the younger woman's cheek. Helena couldn't -- or wouldn't -- meet her eyes, her frame vibrating with the tension of needing to run, and finally Barbara felt on firmer footing.
This role she knew; it was a part she had played hundreds of times: Caretaker; tamer of wild hearts; soother of broken souls.
Gradually, she felt her partner's trembling subside, and Barbara sighed soundlessly when Helena allowed herself to be drawn down to rest her head on her shoulder. Slowly, Barbara inclined her head, resting her cheek against the satin softness of her lover's face, releasing another inaudible sigh when she felt Helena stir, when her skin prickled from the soft brush of her partner's cheek against hers.
"Please Helena. I need you."
The younger woman tensed again, but Barbara would not allow it. She turned, bringing her mouth softly to her lover's, brushing their lips in a gossamer caress. Again and again, she brushed her mouth against satin lips until, finally, she heard the soft whimper.
The air in the room seemed to charge, and Barbara opened, accepting the sigh of resignation as she might a sacrament before drinking her lover like a fine wine.
Gradually, she pulled away and searched the eyes which were no longer blue. When she spoke, her voice was so hoarse and thick with need that she scarcely recognized it.
"Do you know what I want to do to you right now, Helena?"
Amazingly, Helena's panted response managed simultaneously both to arouse and to amuse her.
"No, but I hope it involves lube."
Some forty-five nearly frantic minutes later, barely breathing under her partner's inert form, Barbara somewhat wryly acknowledged that lube hadn't really been required. By the time they'd made it to the bedroom, their clothes creating a trail behind them, Helena's state of readiness had eliminated the need for artificial lubricants.
Idly tracing astrological symbols across sweat beaded skin, the redhead wondered what act of nature would be required for her to extricate herself and retrieve their none-too-subtle trail of garments: after a near miss six days before, when Gabby had unexpectedly accompanied Dinah back to the tower to help paint the chest of drawers, she'd become a trifle self-conscious about some of her bohemian partner's more exhibitionistic tendencies.
Opting to give matters a bit more thought -- perhaps the grab bars at the head of the bed in combination with the bedsheets could be utilized as a hoist for her somnolent lover -- Barbara drifted for a few minutes. The sensation of warm fingers circling her navel drew her from all thoughts related to physics and leverage.
One look at the smirk painting her lover's ruby lips forced her to amend that idea: it appeared that physics and leverage might very well come up again for non-utilitarian purposes.
"Now that's what I call a workout."
Having heard similar comments in similar situations in the past, Barbara felt her lips quirk.
Something between a smirk and a fond smile, she supposed.
"Hardly," she murmured. "I understand that there's less workout involved than throwing a frisbee."
Immediately, she considered smacking herself: apparently bantering pillow talk was simply not her forte. Guardedly observing Helena's response to the rather factual words, she dismissed her self-flagellating notions as a wicked grin painted gamine features.
"You were definitely working harder than that, Red."
A slender finger tapped against her wrist in punctuation.
"And, hell, the isotonic stuff has to count for something for me."
Snorting softly, the redhead finally allowed, "Perhaps a bit of Tae Kwon Do, Sweetheart?"
She felt her partner's indifferent shrug as the brunette snuggled impossibly closer.
When the wiry frame beside her tensed minutely, Barbara inhaled and readied herself for whatever could have popped into her lover's fertile imagination.
"But, you're waaaay easier on the eyes than Jackie Chan."
She knew -- simply knew -- that a trademark waggle of dark brows had accompanied the words, but managed to speak primly.
Surprisingly, the non sequitur elicited far less curiosity -- or pique -- than Barbara might have anticipated.
"What was that, Sweetie?"
The dark head that was nestled against her shoulder shifted, and the older woman smiled instinctively in response to Helena's gentle smile.
"I said -- "
Blue eyes widened purposely.
"I like your nose."
Barbara chewed at the inside of her cheek for a few beats, mentally rewinding the last hour of their lives and attempting to determine where her nose had played a significant role. Stumped, she finally shrugged beneath her partner's boneless mass.
"You like my nose?"
Having anticipated a smirk or a knowing, or perhaps lecherous, smile, she was unprepared for the hint of color she saw creeping into her lover's cheeks.
"Yeah -- "
Slender fingers walked up her abdomen, and Barbara captured the errant hand, attempting not to squirm ticklishly.
"I was thinking about the way your nose wrinkles up when you lean too close to the Delphi."
Barbara cocked her head to the side, giving herself a bit more of a vantage point just in time to see the younger woman's nose crinkle adorably as she considered what she'd just said.
"Which is pretty much all the time, I guess."
Feeling the brunette's half-shrug against her arm, Barbara arched one brow doubtfully.
"You like my squint?"
Her companion ignored the jibe, and Barbara shivered when she felt satin lips press a soft kiss to the tips of her fingers.
"I love the way your fingers stroke the spine of whatever book you're reading."
Green eyes blinked before losing focus and tracking slightly to the left. Rapidly reviewing her reading from the last few months, she acknowledged that perhaps she did... fondle her reading material.
Honestly, how could she have missed that little habit for 32 years?
Seemingly oblivious to the fact that she was exposing a host of behaviors which Barbara suspected that she would now become self-conscious about, Helena shifted again, leaning in to purr against her throat.
"The way your voice comes over the comms sometimes -- all deep and rough and smooth at the same time."
Shuddering at the sensation of a delicate tongue sampling her skin, Barbara consequently nearly missed her companion's next words.
Laughing at the simile -- and acutely conscious of how low and throaty the sound had been -- the redhead rolled them over and then lost all ability to vocalize when she saw the heat in her lover's eyes.
"Sometimes when I was on patrol, listening to you, I'd have to go off comms and touch myself."
An impish smile returned some oxygen to the room, and Helena's lilting follow-up allowed Barbara to breath again.
"That... or find someone to pulp."
With no possible recourse, Barbara smiled, pushing a lock of dark hair behind her companion's ear.
"As long as you had some safe, healthy outlets for your energy, Sweetie."
When she saw the pain which immediately shuttered those amazing blue eyes, she immediately wished for the use of her legs -- if only for thirty seconds or so, to allow her to kick herself for the ill-chosen words.
Beside her on the pillow, Helena ducked her chin, hiding her eyes under thick lashes.
"I guess maybe the estrogen did something, huh?"
Caught off-guard, Barbara didn't even think before stammering out the truth.
"No, Helena. I already told you that it doesn't work that -- "
Belatedly, she collected herself and gentled her tone.
"Why do you ask again, Hel?"
She struggled not to squirm or blink under the sorrowful, searching gaze.
"What you said earlier?"
Furrowing her brow, Barbara opted to let her confusion speak for itself. A moment later, when she felt Helena thread their fingers together, she exhaled softly, knowing that her partner would reveal her fears in due time.
"In the training room, when I was..."
She squeezed the younger woman's hand lightly and drew their joined hands to her chest.
"What you said about not letting him ... them win."
Rewinding and then replaying the heated moments, Barbara slowly lowered her lashes, appalled to have slipped so terribly.
No wonder Helena might still believe that she was somehow responsible.
Unable to lie, the redhead went with the facts.
"Hel, in high doses -- extremely high doses -- estrogen has been linked..."
Belatedly, she recognized that the tactic might not be the strongest argument in her arsenal. With a long sigh, she rolled onto her back and roughly pushed the hair from her face.
"From what Dr. Casey sees, Hel, we didn't come in contact with Quinn's estrogen mix until the tumor was already established."
Focused resolutely on the ceiling, she peripherally noted a slow nod of grudging acceptance. Naturally, however, Helena didn't miss the fact that the other part of her question remained unaddressed.
"They, why'd you say that he...?"
Perhaps it was time to heed Helena's recent suggestions and paint the ceiling something a little bolder than antique white. Although the younger woman's hints about lilac or orange were a bit alarming, she had to admit that Helena did have a knack for color.
Regretfully, Barbara pushed that welcome distraction aside and finally offered a portion of the truth.
"Instinct, I suppose."
The brunette rose on one elbow, one dark brow rising eloquently.
"For so long, Hel, he... they have taken so much and tried so hard to destroy us."
A soft murmur of acknowledgement gave her the courage to continue her line of thought.
"If you were to believe that they had used you to cause... "
Words escaped her, and she simply dipped her chin toward her pelvis.
"... to cause this, then the end result would be the same."
She felt as much as saw some of the tightness depart the other woman's slender frame and gave herself a moment to release her own tension.
"We simply can't allow a phantom to do the job for them, Sweetheart."
She nearly wept at her lover's emphatic nod, refusing to allow herself to voice the remainder of the truth: she would not allow the reality of Helena's unknowing part in her cancer to come between them either. She would go to her grave with the genesis of her disease locked inside her.
"Your hands, too."
Momentarily nonplused, it took the redhead a few seconds to recognize that, apparently, her irrepressible partner had returned to their earlier topic. Arching a brow, she blandly met melting blue eyes.
"My hands again, Hel?"
Barbara found herself fighting a smirk at the sage nod, then -- less successfully -- fighting a shiver when she felt Helena's fingers beginning to trace random patterns across her chest.
"Watching you touch the keyboard at the Delphi... "
When the brunette's voice grew husky, she fought for breath.
"... well, I knew how you could touch me. And, when you work out, I'd see..."
A hint of pink seemed to dust caramel features, momentarily distracting the older woman from her discomfort at being the subject of such scrutiny.
"Well, you get this circle of sweat right here."
Barbara's abdomen clenched ticklishly when slender fingers drew a light circle just above her navel.
"And, I'd just die, wanting to lick it off."
"Cleanliness is import--"
Her rather woeful attempt at keeping things light was summarily denied when, once again her partner's head dipped, blue eyes peering through thick dark lashes.
"Mostly -- "
Helena's words had dropped a register, and Barbara instinctively caught her breath.
"Mostly, I always know that I can do everything with you beside me."
Unable to deny her own soft smile, the redhead brought her fingers to her lover's chin, coaxing her face up to meet her gaze.
"Ten feet tall and bullet-proof, eh?"
A brief, blinding grin met the words, but Helena again refused to allow her to joke her way out of it.
As Helena caught her hand and pressed a soft kiss to her fingers, Barbara realized how very serious the younger woman was: Too serious, too filled with care and responsibility.
"But only with you, Barbara."
Dumbstruck, the redhead struggled for words, for meaning in a conversation which had somehow gotten away from her.
"Hel -- How..."
She was silenced by the urgency of her lover's eyes.
"We've gotta call it, Red."
There was no question about Helena's meaning, and Barbara had to look away. For some reason, the phrasing tickled at her memory, recalling something: a dream, perhaps, with happier endings. Carefully, she weighed her partner's words again realities and risks: despite the rate of the cancer's spread, she still knew that she was strong enough -- determined enough -- to hold on through the ravages long enough to shelter their child until she was viable.
After that... Well, matters would take care of themselves when Baby Gordon-Kyle was in the safe haven of Helena's care.
There was clearly no way to persuade the younger woman with those arguments, and so Barbara resorted to another equally urgent line of reason.
"Hel -- "
Deliberately, she gently squeezed her lover's hand and unflinchingly met her gaze.
"This is our only chance."
Given the spread of the cancer, even harvesting her eggs for a later try was out of the question at this point. Not to mention the once in a lifetime opportunity presented by the odd cloning created by The Joker's nanoprobes.
She was not surprised at all by the stubborn shake of the dark head only inches away; however, the crooked smile which graced gamine features did take her aback.
"Nah, Red. I'll still have all the equipment, and, hell, there's gotta be leather out there in maternity sizes, right?"
Somehow, her quick snort of amusement freed up her breathing, and Barbara found herself marveling, not for the first time, at her partner's ability to make her laugh regardless of the circumstances.
"But," the brunette sobered, "I've gotta have you around to help find leather pants with elastic insets."
Clenching her jaw against the unfairness of the plea, Barbara shook her head, ready to protest that they didn't know that she wouldn't survive, that they didn't know anything. Instead, she found herself tackling the argument which Helena had laid out.
"Not necessarily, Hel. We both know that Dinah's meta-shopping powers have barely been tapped."
The attempt didn't elicit as much as a smirk, and the redhead recognized the enormity of her tactical error when Helena's next words reached her.
"Dinah needs you, too, Red."
Before she could respond -- or even protest the tactic -- Helena plowed ahead.
"And your dad. And the kids at school. And Alfred. And, hell -- "
Those deep blue eyes widened helplessly.
"--if you don't do the hysterectomy, you're gonna be too weak to deal with Quinn on the loose."
Barbara inhaled sharply at the low blow: an appeal to her sense of duty was effective in ways that she simply hated, and for a wild, don't-give-a-damn moment, she wondered what it might be like not to have to respond to that responsibility. A minute movement -- a half-shrug -- drew her from mental pathways best left unexplored.
"Shit, Red. I figure that my dad's gonna show up again some day, and you know how pissed he's gonna be if he finds out that I haven't been taking care of you."
Slowly, very deliberately, Barbara lowered her lashes and breathed deeply. She pushed aside the thoughts of secret promises and arrangements for later consideration, recognizing that there was a more pressing aspect to her partner and former ward's words. With a soft sigh, she squared her shoulders against the pillow and searched the other woman's face.
She tugged their joined hands to her chest and waited until she saw that the younger woman was truly listening. With that, she was once again free to wheel into an accustomed role and focus on what was most important.
"You. Are. Not. Responsible."
Expecting further argument or rebuttals or... something, Barbara was not prepared for her bedmate's response: Instead of speaking, the brunette scootched close and buried her face against her shoulder. For a score of heartbeats, Helena was utterly still. Cautiously, the older woman insinuated her arm beneath the smaller woman, bringing her hand to her back to stroke softly, anchoring her partner to her.
For a brief moment, she allowed bitterness to wash through her, acknowledging that a time which should have been their honeymoon had been taken from them. Between her own relentless dedication to her city and the fallout from that pursuit, she'd simply... cheated them both.
That thought was lost when her fingertips picked up an unmistakable, sub vocal rumble from Helena's chest. One shuddering breath later, Barbara stiffened when she felt the other woman nose at the side of her chest.
The brunette pushed up on her elbow, her other hand bookending Barbara's waist on the mattress.
"Please -- "
Blue eyes, beseeching, met green before the dark head ducked down.
Struggling not to squirm under the attention, Barbara worked for some way to explain.
"Helena... Sweetheart, I don't know if I..."
The dark head shook from side to side, warm breath flowing across the suddenly sensitized skin of her chest.
"No. Relax. Just... For me. Is --"
Barbara caught her lower lip in her teeth at the naked hunger in her partner's face.
"Is it okay?"
Dumbstruck, she nodded, slowly wending her fingers through dark silk and gently lowering her lover's face. Helena's sigh of bliss, before she even made contact, was humbling. Her evident delight as she slowly savored, was beyond erotic.
Gradually, realizing that her partner had meant it -- Helena was seeking her own pleasure -- Barbara relaxed into the deep pulling heat, the gentle suckling and soft murmurs which echoed through her torso. Almost drifting, she laid down her shields, absently scritching her nails across her lover's scalp and smiling dreamily at the gentle lassitude taking possession of her body. Helena's soft hum tickled across tight flesh, and even as her nipples contracted, Barbara felt herself open for the first time in... weeks. The comfort and ease and trust were such that she barely reacted -- barely noticed -- when her hand was carefully lifted; however, she was surprised -- anticipating Helena's destination as she was -- to find her fingers placed lightly against her lover's lower abdomen.
And she could. She did.
"Sweetheart -- "
It was difficult to form that much of a coherent response. Thinking became impossible when the brunette finally pushed up on her fists and Barbara fell into deep blue eyes.
"You're wet. Can I...?"
She wasn't the only one. Her lover's still blue eyes were rimmed with moisture.
"Please, Barbara. I need you."
With a soft smile, the redhead drew her hand up her lover's torso, absorbing the shiver which trailed in her fingers' wake. She lightly rested her palm against a wiry trapezius and allowed her gentle push to answer for her.
To her puzzlement, the brunette resisted.
Wordlessly, her lover came to her knees, scooping three pillows from the foot of the bed and neatly stacking them under her shoulders.
"I want you to see. To know... how much..."
Then, Helena bent, graceful and deliberate, her mouth coming to Barbara's neck, reverence and desire inherent in every brush of her lips against her pulse.
Arching her neck into the sweet dusting of kisses, shivering at the tiny nips and soft pull against her skin, the redhead was only distantly aware of the murmured words.
When they penetrated her fogged consciousness, she raised her right arm, resting her fingertips lightly against the smooth plane of her lover's cheek.
"What is it, Hel?"
She pulled back against the pillow, just enough to find the other woman's eyes, blinking once when she realized that they were still blue.
"What do you want, Sweetheart?"
The younger woman didn't answer immediately, instead turning into her touch to nibble lightly at her fingertips. Barbara nearly moaned at the wash of a rough tongue against the calluses she'd developed from years at the keyboard.
"I need you."
The word was out without the need for thought. It was only when wet blue eyes met hers that Barbara realized she might have misunderstood.
The dark head ducked as the lithe figure flowed across her torso to rain soft kisses to her inner arm, to lave the pulse of her wrist.
"I need you, Barbara. Stay."
At the same moment that she spoke, Helena moved to her palm, her tongue washing the flesh and her warm breath evoking a riot of shivers.
"Stay with me."
Barbara heard a gasp -- her own -- but was unable to focus on the reason or her partner's plea when she felt Helena writh against her. A rough tongue insinuated between her fingers before her thumb was drawn into the moist heat of her lover's mouth, sharp teeth rasping delicately at her flesh in time with the deep pull. Still, she somehow managed a response of sorts.
"Hel -- I -- we have to give her a chance."
Wordlessly, the brunette again flowed across her body, burying her face in her neck. The expected sensation of lips or teeth or tongue didn't materialize, and Barbara closed her eyes to focus more clearly. A beat later, her heart triphammered when she felt it: the delicate puff of her partner's soft inhalations and the warm flow of her breath.
Helena was scenting her.
The denial was soft, but absolute.
"We have to give us a chance, Barbara. Don't you -- "
Helena stumbled, and Barbara caught her lower lip in her teeth when the young woman burrowed her face against her shoulder.
"Don't you need me?"
"Dear h-- Helena."
It was all that she could manage as emotions covered her too quickly to understand: want; selfish pain; fear; terror; guilt.
How could she answer the plea? How could she serve all of the competing demands? How could she continue to ignore her own heart?
"The greater good?"
It was weak, no doubt of that. When earnest blue eyes met hers and Barbara comprehended the depth of her partner's emotion, the words were exposed for the paper tiger they were.
"You're my greater good, Barbara. Always have been."
Her mouth worked soundlessly, and Helena leaned close, brushing satin lips against her mouth. She gasped at the reverent touch, and then worked for sanity when her lover abruptly pulled back, arching back to thrust once against her waist.
"I need you, Barbara."
Wordless, the redhead nodded, her breath catching at the vision of deep blue eyes hooding and aquiline nostrils flaring once. Shakily, she pushed the covers down, then opened herself.
A soft moan was the only verbal response as her lover descended. Breathless, she watched Helena's approach; the slow, deliberate sweep of her tongue; the broad, tender strokes of slender fingers; the complete reverence of her lover's sybaritic feasting.
And, for one of the first times in eight years, seeing was almost as much as feeling. Definitely almost more than she could stand.
Awestruck, the analytical woman suddenly viscerally understood the nuances between sex and making love, and she fervently hoped never to forget.
Unable to tear her eyes away from the overt movements, awash in soft murmurs of pleasure, she almost missed the words breathed against her.
"Please Barbara. Stay with me."
Again, she could mistake neither the meaning nor the genuine pain and overarching love in her partner's eyes.
Her attempt dissolved into a hitching gasp, and Barbara knew that she could deny the other woman nothing. Regret consumed her as she cast one desire aside and embraced the only reality which mattered.
Clenching her jaw against the burning wetness flooding her cheeks, she heard a whimper, and felt her own nod. She flailed gracelessly for her lover's hand, and she saw Helena's dark brows rise in question.
"Up here, Helena. Please."
A moment later, she was there, enrobing her in the warmth of her skin, the passion of her touch, the depth of her commitment. Threading her fingers with Helena's, Barbara guided their hands to herself and then felt herself moved by a touch so deep that there was no way to deny the communion. So softly, so tenderly, they moved together, their touches casting memories... and hopes... and promises.
When Barbara felt warm wetness on her cheeks, she realized that the tears were not just her own, and she spoke the only words she knew.
"Take care of me, Helena."
Her partner's response was, she realized, everything that she needed.