FANDOM: Birds of Prey TV

PAIRING: Barbara/Helena

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

RATING: R (for language and sexual situations).

SUMMARY: Continuation of Landslide; Barbara tries to come to terms and faces herself.

COMMENTS: Please. Constructive comments welcome!

ARCHIVING: Probably. Please ask.

E-MAIL: bcinewmexico1@yahoo.com

Chapter 1

A nipple?

Crimson lashes fluttered open, revealing sleepy -- and puzzled -- green eyes.

No, not 'a' nipple.

Her own nipple.

More specifically -- and, even half-asleep, Barbara Gordon appreciated specificity -- her right nipple, which seemed to be growing ever-more sensitized by the moment under the gossamer brush of softly panted breathing.

Remaining motionless in the hope that her sleep-fogged mind would eventually catch up with her obviously rapidly-awakening body, the analytical woman focused on her environment and concentrated on her breathing. Calling upon ingrained habits, she adopted the physical semblance of sleeping -- perhaps her body would get the hint -- while she oriented to the heretofore unknown experience of being dragged from the arms of Morpheus by her own right breast.

The bedroom was dark, although an almost indiscernible hint of grey suggested that dawn wasn't too far off. Save for the whisper of breathing and the soft whir of the central heating unit, the room was also utterly still. The redhead was, as she'd expected, cocooned safely in her own warm, soft bed, lying in her usual position on her back, with nothing to keep her from dropping back into dreamland to savor a few more coveted moments of sleep before the alarm.

A prickly, tingling sensation forced Barbara to amend that somewhat hopeful thought.

Nothing was keeping her from sleep except her normally well-trained body's insistent response to her bedmate's breathing. Warm breathing which, given Helena's position with her head pillowed on the older woman's chest, puffed teasingly across her right breast, inflaming her even through the thick material of her tee shirt.

The redhead creased her forehead minutely in consternation.

Apparently, neither ignoring the tight burning nor willing the sensation away were likely to be successful strategies. It seemed that sleeping with Helena curled tightly to her side would simply require some... acclimatization. Regardless of the not-inconsiderable willpower and intellect she might throw at the situation, Barbara had to admit that the few nights she'd spent so far with her younger partner since the shift in their relationship were hardly enough to immunize her to the brunette's presence.

The redhead immediately mentally rolled her eyes at that thought.

Just how sleep-addled was she, even considering that she might someday want to become... jaded to sleeping with the lithe brunette?


Green eyes shifted to the clock next to the bed.

Perhaps this precise moment might be savored more fully in the light of day.

Barbara refocused on quieting the excitement meandering through her upper body, baffled that the lone sensation of Helena's sleepy breathing should have been enough to rouse, er, awaken her.


A fond, knowing smile painted itself across the older woman's features when she noted the other factor which had, undoubtedly, contributed to her admittedly slow ascent from sleep. Under her right hand, the one resting lightly on her younger partner, the muscles of Helena's back were trembling... quivering. The movement was so minute -- and so total, as confirmed by a cautious movement to the younger woman's shoulder -- as to be almost unnoticeable.

Ubiquitous, even.

Certainly almost masked by the brunette's rapid, shallow breathing.

Barbara felt a great deal of her residual grogginess instantly evaporate under the knowledge that her younger lover was not, in fact, resting peacefully by her side, innocently titillating her with the peaceful respirations of sleep. Helena was awake, trembling almost imperceptibly in her arms, and rigidly, fixedly, not moving.

And, if those signs weren't enough, the sound of the brunette tentatively shifting her legs under the covers confirmed it: Helena was aroused.

A bevy of emotions struck the older woman at that realization, and she worked to keep her breathing regular, attempting not to give herself away with a pounding heartbeat which she knew her companion would easily detect. While the younger woman's... enthusiasm was certainly not surprising, her own response -- excitement mixed with a healthy dose of concern -- was something the redhead needed to contemplate.

A tiny sound -- possibly a muffled gasp -- alerted the redhead to the fact that this was not, perhaps, the ideal time for analysis. Indeed, if her body's reaction to the sound her partner had swallowed were any indication, any sort of useful thought might be well nigh impossible.

Still, she managed to formulate, then breathe, a question of sorts.


The younger woman shifted her head downward fractionally, as if to avert her features in the darkened room. Her low soprano was halting.

"Sorry. Didn't want... to wake you."

Barbara's own breathing hitched, both the apology itself and the brush of Helena's mouth against her conspiring to steal the oxygen from her system. Silently, she collected herself, stroking the brunette's upper arm. Although her gentle touch confirmed that the other woman's trembling had increased, Helena still made no movement. The redhead slid her hand up, scratching neatly blunted nails through dark silk and marveling at the courage of her companion's physical honesty.

That sort of openness... vulnerability... had never been something that the older woman had been -- or had wanted to be -- acquainted with. Yet, when Helena's quiet panting became more pronounced and Barbara again heard their shared covers shifting to the restless movement of the brunette's lower body, the redhead found herself staggered by the enormity of such honest, open desire.

Staggered -- and distinctly excited.

As Helena's rapid exhalations continued to dust over her tee, Barbara lowered her lashes when her pectoral muscle contracted reflexively. The movement raised her breast just... just enough to bring the tense peak into contact with warm lips, and the redhead shivered when a soulful groan -- almost sounding of pain -- resonated from her partner.

Disbelieving, the older woman felt her partner's hand -- the one resting lightly across her belly -- clenching convulsively against the mattress on her far side. Uncomprehending, she experienced the warm lips grazing diminutively -- almost jerkily -- near... next to... almost against her. Overwhelmed, she noted the minuscule movement of slender hips against her unfeeling upper thighs. Astonished, she wondered how she could be so filled with heat when her younger partner was scarcely moving.

"Oh, Hel..."

Abandoning her attempts to understand -- or even to plan -- Barbara spread her fingers, palming the back of the brunette's head, and pressed down ever-so-slightly.


It sounded like a cross between a sigh and a groan as the dark woman crossed the yawing microcosm. Barbara's own soft sigh echoed at the sensation of moist heat enveloping her, at the delicious, fierce pull of her lover's mouth.


Had that been Helena's velvet whisper or her own?

The redhead forgot the question as thick, liquid arousal coursed down her upper spine in response to her partner's soft whimpers. She arched under the contact of her lover's mouth even as the younger woman roughly pushed her tee up, dancing her fingers over her torso before palming her other breast. The heat radiating from the brunette's fingers was incredible, inflaming the heavy flesh which was being so tenderly caressed.

Under the tendrils of fire arcing from one side of her chest to the other, Barbara's breathing shallowed, and the redhead twisted to press a lingering kiss to the sleep-tousled hair near her shoulder. She felt her lover spasm against her at the soft touch, mouthing her hungrily through the heavy cotton before Helena raised on her side and rubbed her cheek slowly against the damp material.

"God, Barbara -- "

The dark figure's breathing had become a series of sharp gasps, and the cool air swept the wet material -- an appealing counterpoint to the warmth on the other side -- leaving the redhead squirming under the tightening of already over sensitized flesh. Barbara raked her fingers across her companion's wiry shoulders, awed and further stirred by the almost violent trembling of the strong muscles beneath her hands.

"Helena -- ", she managed, just as the brunette ducked to lave her exposed stomach with wet kisses.

The older woman froze -- arousal at war with terror within her -- when the younger woman swirled her tongue in her belly button. The volume of the other woman's groan reverberated through her torso, and Barbara remained utterly still, shutting her eyes and wetting her suddenly very dry lips with the tip of her tongue.

It felt... It felt so good, but --

And, then, Helena shifted, resting herself lightly above the redhead, and pressed a soft kiss to her mouth. Green eyes flew open, unsurprised by the golden cat's eyes regarding her tenderly.

"Uh, good morning?"

Barbara exhaled lightly and released some of her tension at the teasingly purred greeting and the abashed dip of her bedmate's dark head. She wrapped her arms fully around the younger woman's back, not missing the concerted effort that Helena was making to still her trembling... to control her arousal.

Pierced by emotions much stronger than fear, the older woman lifted her head enough to brush those lush lips with hers.

"Indeed, Hel."

It was all that she had the time -- or the wits -- to offer before she found herself plundering her partner's mouth. Shamelessly, she captured the other woman's tongue, dancing against the stud and then swallowing both of their thick groans in a kiss which drew on and on.

My-oh-my, but Helena knew how to kiss.

A small whimper escaped the older woman at the sensation of her partner rocking against her. Urgently, she fumbled for the brunette's firm hips, grinding her down against her own stomach. The heat -- and wetness -- covering her abdomen were unmistakable, and the redhead reluctantly disengaged from their endless kiss to stare in amazement at the other woman.

Dark brows furrowed in question while kiss-bruised lips quirked helplessly.

"Good heavens, Hel --"

Barbara had to pause to clear the thickness from her throat before she could complete her admission.

"-- how I want you."

Hummingbird wings fluttered in her chest when the younger woman's mouth twisted into a snarl and came to her throat. Even as she felt sharp teeth rasp against the sensitive tendons of her neck, Barbara was able to make out the younger woman's response -- "Good. I want you to have me." -- and moaned her enthusiastic agreement.

The cyber-genius wasn't overly proud of her verbal offering, however, given both the somewhat unexpected nature of the situation and the hour of the morning, she cut herself a little slack. After all, she could hardly be expected to quote Dickinson or Shakespeare at the moment although she was gratified to note that she did seem to be capable of rising to the occasion.

Seeking confirmation for both the idea and the somewhat unfamiliar sensations coursing through her, Barbara surreptitiously raised one hand to her own chest. While she found that she was, indeed, rising, the movement apparently caught Helena's attention as well. In a heartbeat, the dark woman rolled away with a hair-raising growl, and the older woman reflexively jerked her hand.

The redhead's somewhat sour musing about the startled squeak she'd almost emitted -- how sexy would that have been? -- disappeared at the sensation of slender fingers capturing her fleeing hand and firmly guiding it back to her chest.

"Fuck, Barbara. Do it."

The older woman could scarcely decipher the guttural words, but the leading movement against the back of her hand provided ample interpretation. As did the raw hunger in the feral eyes trained on her chest and the brunette's low hiss.

"Touch yourself."

Although, in the past, the redhead had never seen much point in this particular activity, the stark desire in her partner's face abruptly opened her eyes. Dizzied, she had no choice.

Tentatively, she stroked, allowing herself to feel her own touch even as she witnessed its power over her lover. An alluring sense of mastery flooded through the older woman, and every insecurity she'd experienced about being with this woman temporarily evaporated.

At that moment, Barbara Gordon had no doubts about pleasing her lover... specifically, about how she wanted -- needed -- to do so.

She watched the brunette drop her jaw, her shallow panting unrestrained, and Barbara arched into her own touch, reaching for Helena with her free hand. Sweeping one slender thigh with her fingertips, the older woman gasped at the strength of the trembling possessing her partner's limbs.

"Jesus, Ba-- I'm... I'm gonna -- "

The redhead blinked, steadying herself, not able to doubt the truth of her companion's words. Quite honestly, it appeared that Helena was a hairsbreadth from climax... simply from watching her touch herself.

Deliberately, Barbara leveraged herself onto one elbow, reaching behind her to switch on the small reading lamp. Smiling eloquently, she stretched up to grasp the younger woman's neck, murmuring her response through the brush of their mouths.

"Then I need to stop, Sweetie, because that is not how I want you to climax."

So long had she known the younger woman and so well-acquainted was she with the brunette's many expressions that Barbara was quite certain that the brief movement of Helena's lips was a quirk of consternation. Accordingly, the older woman soothed her lover over a purring chuckle, slightly agog at her own wantonness.

"At least, it's not how I want you to come this time."

The redhead drank in Helena's gasp, thrilling at the buck of the younger woman's hips against her side. Entirely certain that her partner was well-past the point of slow seduction, she roughly yanked at the smaller woman's underwear.

"Off. Now."

To Barbara's complete approval and to Helena's distinct credit, somehow the lithe woman managed to effect the removal of her underwear without breaking the kiss. Inhaling deeply, the redhead tugged at her partner's hips, giving no thought to concerns about the unfamiliar.

"Get up here, Hel."

With her hands wrapped loosely around the brunette's trim waist, Barbara easily felt the quiver in the firm muscles under her thumbs. At the aching joy she witnessed in her lover's eyes, she sensed something moving within her own abdomen and gentled her tone.

"Please, Helena. I want -- ", she stopped to correct herself, "I need you."

An instant later, the redhead's moan -- muffled as it was -- almost bested the heartfelt groan from above her.

Dear heavens. How had she gone so long without knowing this most intimate touch?

Although it was all virgin territory, there was nothing -- absolutely nothing -- uncertain in the older woman's questing strokes. Recognizing that Helena's readiness -- not to mention her own swelling eagerness -- left little opportunity for the leisurely exploration she desired, Barbara gave in to an almost wild abandon. Wrapping her arms around the slender thighs which quivered on each side of her head, the older woman attempted to hold her lover steady... and to pull her closer still... as she lost herself in shared pleasure.

So caught up was she in the exquisite sensations that it took the older woman several moments to recognize that her partner's movements against her grasp were not just the disjointed shifting of passion. Rather, Helena was moving with purpose -- a purpose which apparently involved escaping the redhead's attentions.

Incredulous -- and perhaps a trifle edgy -- Barbara reluctantly pulled away and looked up. Her desire to flagellate herself over some possible failing disappeared instantly at the sight of the woman above her.

Helena was locked in place, muscles rigid, sweat-slickened forearms supporting the bow of her torso over the older woman's head. Barbara initially thought the younger woman had even ceased to breathe before noticing the shallow bellowing of her ribs.

Whatever she, herself, had been doing... wrong didn't matter. What the other woman needed was all that was important.


Green eyes blinked in bafflement when the brunette lifted her lashes, and very aroused blue eyes looked down. The younger woman's soft smile was apologetic; her words were ragged.

"I'm.. sorry. I've gotta... I mean, I'm going to--"

Barbara's trepidation dissipated under the returning onslaught of insistent, incendiary desire. She released the breath that she hadn't realized she was holding and spoke warmly.

Very warmly.

"That's a good thing, Hel."

Utilizing a fair measure of her not-inconsiderable upper body strength, she tugged downward, delving deeply again to the accompaniment of the other woman's keening gasp. Almost immediately, she felt deep spasms building against her mouth and moaned in sympathy.

"Oh -- fuc... No -- Ba...bara..."

The brunette thrashed against her in earnest, and the older woman hissed her own encouragement... and desire.

"Helena... Yes, Sweetheart."

Perhaps the whisper of her plea pushed her partner over the edge; perhaps Helena simply couldn't hold out any longer. A heartbeat after the words, Barbara felt the younger woman jerk roughly to one side, then convulse in a body-stuttering climax as she cried out the redhead's name.

With shock momentarily tempering her own deep satisfaction and pleasure, it took the redhead a few seconds to decipher her partner's next hoarse utterance, whispered as the dark figure worked to disentangle herself.

"God, Barbara, I'm so sorry."

Utterly vexed, the older woman summarily snagged her partner's waist and pulled her down, managing to half-turn onto her side at the same time. Eye to eye, she leaned in and silenced the younger woman's whispers with a deep, thorough kiss.

"Do. Not. Ever. Apologize. For that."

With as much patience as she could muster, Barbara remained still, trying not to laugh at the flurry of emotions whirling across her partner's expressive features: disbelief; shame; a pugnacious instinct to argue; grudging thoughtfulness; and, finally, acceptance.


The redhead wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry at the cautious hope in cerulean eyes. She opted to keep it simple -- and truthful.

"Really, Hel. That was," she swallowed at the memory, "one of the sexiest things I've ever witnessed."

Barbara allowed her smile to break through in response to the brunette's tentative half-cocky grin and the sensation of clever fingers walking up her abdomen.

"If you think that was good, Red, wait'll you see--"


>>"Rise-n-shine! Rise-n-shine, New Gotham. It's 6:00 and another cloudy d--"<<

"Great gooey gopher guts!"

Not bothering to mask her ire, Barbara flailed at the clock radio before whacking the snooze button. Turning back to her companion, she felt herself coloring in response to the very amused glint in blue eyes.

Somewhat to the older woman's surprise, Helena bypassed any easy taunts about redheaded temper and, instead, scootched in to nip at her ear.

"Seven minutes on that snooze, right?"

Struck dumb by the sensation of a warm hand trailing up her side, the redhead nodded, feeling her companion's wide smile against her neck.

"Hmmm, I can do seven minutes, Babs.... You game?"

The purring entendre broke through the older woman's speechlessness. Laughing delightedly, she wrapped her arms around her bedmate and made a counter-offer.

"I believe, Sweetie, that I'd prefer seven minutes of afterglow."

Chapter 2

The green and amber glow from the CRTs flickered through the darkened corner of the Delphi platform, but Barbara Gordon was entirely oblivious to the rather bilious cast they lent her normally pale skin. Green eyes tracked from one monitor to the other, following the sixteen-gigahertz updates between the two displays while each processor seemed to volley to the other, only to have its offering countered and increased by it opponent.

It was, the redhead absently mused, a bit like watching a very, very high CPU version of Pong.

Hoping that she hadn't just hopelessly dated herself with the reference, Barbara smirked wryly, then squeezed her eyes shut and wrinkled her forehead against an incipient tension headache. Bowing to the necessary, she turned back to her primary monitor.

As hypnotically fascinating as it was watching the two routines battling, it was the reams of debugging output from the programs, channeled to the Delphi's primary processors, which offered the best chance of helping clear the cyber-genius' headache. Fully aware that the Delphi was analyzing each byte of data with sophisticated pattern-matching logic, the redhead nevertheless pushed her glasses up her nose and followed the bits and bytes scrolling across the screen in the off chance that a human perspective might see something that her AI routines weren't smart enough -- yet -- to catch.

Half an hour later, Barbara pushed back from her scrutiny, aware of the likelihood that she'd, literally, left a nose print on the plasma screen. Despite the fact that, with Helena at work and Dinah in Florida, she had the clock tower to herself, she furtively glanced over her shoulder, half-expecting another gentle reprimand for being too close to the screen.

Smiling fondly at the idea, the redhead rolled her head in a slow circle, grimacing at the crackle of tight muscles and vertebrae.

If only there were a way to roll away the tension between her eyes.

Of course, given that this particular headache was the result of her own actions, Barbara admitted that she had no grounds for complaint. She was, after all, the one who had created the encryption routine -- the green CRT -- which was currently flummoxing the decryption routine on the amber monitor. That the encryption algorithm was merely meant to be a programming exercise for her and a chance to improve the decryption program she'd written was incidental. The fact remained that she, apparently, had simply outdone herself.

On a lark, she'd devised an algorithm which created self-aware encoded messages. Each encrypted message literally became a functional program which responded to unauthorized attempts to crack it by mutating. While it was a neat bit of coding, it was going to take quite a bit of analysis and a truckload of Excedrin to program an antidote for her encryption virus.

Pushing her glasses to the top of her head, the cyber-crime fighter considered that, perhaps, a multi-step solution was needed. If she could have the decryption routine insert a code genome which blocked the message mutations, then the program could decrypt at its leisure rather than constantly playing catch-up.

The redhead jotted a note on a Postie and affixed it to a semi-clear inch of the valuable real estate surrounding her monitor. Leaning back, she absently tapped the end of her pen against her lip, but only after confirming that she was using the cap end.

She'd been caught with one-too-many felt tip mustaches to become overly complacent about her fidgeting.

In essence, she'd need to program a cryogenic applet -- something similar to what she'd had to unleash a few years ago at LexCorp. However, this would need to be broader in spectrum, almost a spray effect...

A few minutes later, Barbara shook her head in dismay. Neatly recapping her pen, she set it aside and picked up her cup of long-cold tea, blowing distractedly across the top.

For some reason, her thoughts had strayed from her intriguing data puzzle to her earlier encounter with Helena.

Instantly recognizing exactly what had induced her mental segue, the older woman felt a blush crawl up her neck. This was followed by a flash of irritation that she was blushing with nobody around to instigate the response.

If asked -- and, privately, too -- Barbara freely admitted that she'd never been a morning person. On occasion, she'd considered the possibility that at least a part of her calling to vigilante crime fighting might have had something to do with her nocturnal personality. She'd even gone so far, during long car rides or when proctoring exams, as to while away the time by toying with the idea of a superhero survey to determine how widely her aversion to early mornings might be shared by others in the life.

Yet, this morning -- a mere eighteen hours earlier -- she'd had remarkably little difficulty recognizing some very significant benefits of rising to greet the day.

So to speak.

Her biggest regret, in fact, was that she'd wasted a few valuable minutes trying to rouse herself and orient to the situation.

Perhaps she could persuade Helena to dab a bit of coffee on her pulse points and behind her ears before retiring at night. That might facilitate a more rapid ascent to wakefulness.

The redhead sipped her tea, grimacing at the bitter aftertaste of cold herbs, and decisively set her cup aside.

In all honesty, she suspected that in the future she'd not be nearly as... tardy in recognizing and responding to her amazingly sensual partner's nonverbal clues. Frankly, she was baffled that it had taken her as long as it had this morning; after all, as silent and... still as the younger woman had been, there had been very little subtlety involved.

The analytical woman found herself blinking in surprise when her eidetic memory suddenly supplied an image from years before. There was absolutely no doubt about just what had triggered the remembrance.

She and her headstrong young ward had been living together for a bit over a year. At that point, Helena had been sulking and fighting her way through her senior year of high school, and Barbara had just cautiously returned to the classroom.

After another trying day -- the redhead continued to chafe at having only half a chalkboard to work with, not to mention the disadvantage of having to look up at all of her students -- Barbara had returned home, vexed by a late-afternoon meeting with the principal to discuss another round of Helena's truancy. Adding a cherry to the top of the crumb cake of her day had been the fact that she'd been surprised by the onset of her period during her lunch break at school.

A year and a half after the shooting, she'd still been too preoccupied with the complexities of normal hygiene to predict and prepare for her monthly cycle. While the embarrassment and mess were a nuisance, it was the sight of unexpected blood below her waist which had still been enough to rattle her.

Accordingly, when she'd entered the apartment at dusk, Barbara had been loaded for bear, looking for an excuse to unleash a little redheaded temper. A light on in the living room and Helena's backpack hanging neatly by the door had indicated that the girl was -- or had been -- home; however, the teen's bedroom door had been open, and a quick glance into the dark room had confirmed that it was vacant.

But, not the apartment.

Barbara's senses had prickled at the awareness that she'd not been alone: she'd just begun to associate the feeling with Helena. A moment later, sitting poised in the short hallway, she'd detected a nearly inaudible sound from -- of all places -- her own bedroom. She'd moved soundlessly through the doorway, allowing her vision to acclimate to the darkness. Once in the room, she'd found her young ward, huddled on her bed.

The dark teen had seemed unaware of Barbara's presence, trembling visibly and whimpering, rocking against one of her guardian's pillows.

Astonished, and more than a little concerned, the twenty-something woman hadn't known what to make of Helena's state. She'd certainly been aware of the girl's... unique traits and had feared that this previously unwitnessed display signaled a problem. A more practical side of the older woman had feared some sort of incident -- either at school or during one of the teen's truant stretches. Regardless of the cause, Barbara had been quite certain that something was terribly wrong -- and that she would do anything in her power to help.

Deliberately pushing the door back softly, she'd approached the bed. Helena's sudden stiffening had evidenced her awareness of her guardian's arrival.

"Sweetheart, what is it?"

Barbara had lightly placed her hand on her ward's back, shocked by the tremors possessing, seemingly, every muscle in the girl's body. The young brunette had not responded directly; rather, she'd exhaled raggedly, then turned to slide from the bed, kneeling on the floor and wrapping her arms around the older woman's waist. For a brief eternity, they'd remained locked in silent embrace before the girl had abruptly pulled away and scrambled to her feet.

Helena had muttered an apology for being in Barbara's room, offered a decidedly lame excuse about cramps or some such twaddle, and then fled, leaving her guardian feeling completely frustrated and clueless. At a loss, the redhead had grudgingly dismissed the incident as meta-human, teenaged hormones running amok.

Now, long years later, the older woman started at the realization of how right and, conversely, how utterly wrong she'd been. Not entirely certain how she felt about suddenly putting that piece into place after six years, Barbara pursed her lips and blew a raspberry.

She honestly couldn't find it within herself to be upset about the event. Not only had Helena recently admitted to having loved her "forever", but, practically speaking, there was simply no point in fretting over something in the past.

Nevertheless, the sense of predestination left Barbara a bit... uneasy, as did the fact that she'd been so oblivious to what, in hindsight, was now so obvious.

Of course, how could she have seen -- even allowed herself to look or to contemplate -- that, so long ago? The impropriety, the sheer, unadulterated wrongness of looking at her former student, her ward, in... that way was overwhelming.

Even now, even without the differences in their ages and her own... limitations, facing and admitting that she returned Helena's feelings had been challenging during the last few months. Acting on their feelings was a whole new ballgame altogether.

Even now, after finally consummating their feelings three nights before, Barbara recognized that they were both still feeling their way. Their union on Saturday night -- as amazing and breathtaking as it had been -- had been slow and careful. It had been about learning and emotion, an experience slower and more intimate -- something more tentative and perilously vulnerable -- than any of Barbara's previous encounters.

An unspoken reticence and various obligations had conspired to keep them from further exploring their new relationship on Sunday. Somehow, amid seeing Dinah off on her trip, their decision to follow through with the planned outing to the tattoo exhibit -- although they had foregone matching tats for the time being -- and an unexpected gang fight which had required Helena's attention, neither woman had had much interest in anything beyond cuddling when they'd fallen into bed the night before. This morning however...

A different sort of heat suffused the redhead's upper body as her infallible memory supplied some enticing images of raw passion and hormones at work. She had a suspicion that -- having bridged the divide between intimacy and uninhibited delight -- there would be many more images to come.

Snorting softly at having come full circle in her mental perambulations, Barbara straightened and regarded the data streaming across her monitor with equanimity. She did enjoy a good puzzle, and, perhaps when Dinah returned, the teen would have some suggestions.

Green eyes automatically observed the small clock on screen, and the older woman smiled in anticipation.

Helena's shift should be ending soon.

The smile faltered, becoming a trifle forced, as green eyes continued to track upward, falling on the Richard M. Nixon commemorative plate which Helena had affixed to the wall over the centrifuge. While the brunette claimed that the item had sentimental value -- their first "couple purchase" -- Barbara continued to hold firm in her belief that it would be shown to better advantage in one of the dark recesses of the Batcave.

Putting that tangent aside, the cyber-genius brought up a new window and lost herself in necessary, albeit prosaic, activities necessary for her work as a guardian of the city. Not too many minutes later, a frisson of awareness, coinciding with a deliberate thump from the balcony, alerted the redhead to the arrival of her partner. By the time the younger woman entered the living area, Barbara had saved her work and turned to greet her.

"Hello, Helena."

The older woman felt her heart skip a beat at her partner's expansive grin. Helena covered the distance between them in four exuberant bounds, coming to a stop at the base of the Delphi platform.

"Hey, Red."

The two women's hands met, fingers tangling while the brunette laconically inquired, "Uhm, any crime in our fair city tonight?"

Absurdly pleased by her partner's dedication to duty, especially when she, herself, seemed to be feeling downright giddy in the younger woman's presence, Barbara managed to school her features to seriousness.

"Indeed, Hel, the absolutely heinous crime that you had to work a double shift tonight."

That earned her a smile, and Helena stretched up, lightly brushing their mouths together.

"Yeah, that's true, and on pitcher night, too."

The brunette grinned and stepped back to shuck her duster, continuing lightly, "But, it does pay the rent."

Words, insistent and rife with possibilities, rose unbidden from her chest; however Barbara managed to hold her tongue against the onslaught. Instead of speaking, she snagged her cup of cold tea and headed down the ramp, following her partner to the kitchen.

"--rything okay at Arkham?"

The question was muffled by the refrigerator door, and so the older woman waited for her always-hungry younger partner to emerge from the depths of the unit -- jug of milk and cold fried chicken in hand -- before replying.

"It appears so, Hel."

Barbara dumped her tea in the sink and rinsed her cup, placing it neatly on a folded dish towel on the counter.

"Apparently, the rockslide that our mad astronomer set off did damage some exterior structures; however, facility reports don't show any security issues."

The redhead watched with some amusement as the younger woman managed to retrieve a glass and fill it with milk while not releasing her hold on the chicken breast in her right hand. Somehow, Helena even managed to make the entire juggling act seem graceful.

"Well, that's a piece of luck."

The brunette raised her snack to her mouth before, apparently noticing Barbara's scrutiny, altering her hand's trajectory and extending the chicken in invitation.

"Want some?"

Smiling, the older woman shook her head and closed the distance between them. Placing one hand lightly against a slender leg, she looked up to meet sparkling blue eyes.

"No, thank you, Sweetie. In fact, I think I'll turn in. Will you...?"

Inclining her head fractionally, she allowed her eyes to complete the question. A decisive and, if she weren't mistaken, enthusiastic nod was the only reply required, and the redhead happily made her way down the hall.

In short order, Barbara slid into her bed and tidied the covers around her hips before reaching for her current bedside reading, a medical overview of surviving extreme conditions. Hand hovering inches above the book, she paused and smoothly detoured, opening the drawer in the small table and fishing out a pair of footsie socks. She folded back the covers and stretched to pull on the thick, soft socks.

Just because she was no longer bothered by her own cold feet didn't mean that her hot-blooded partner should suffer.

Minutes later, again resettled and lost in Kenneth Kamler's very vivid descriptions of the effects of extreme G-force and zero-gravity on the body -- she'd shamelessly skipped to the penultimate chapter with a mental promise to start at the beginning as soon as she finished the section on space travel -- Barbara detected soft footsteps coming down the hall. Since she was quite aware that her normally cat-footed partner was deliberately announcing her arrival, the redhead positioned her bookmark and closed her book firmly, speaking quietly as she placed the item on the bedside table.

"Did you get enough to eat, Hel?"

"Sure did."

The older woman hid her amusement at the sight of the brunette shimmying out of her tight leather pants and concentrated on the act of pushing herself down in the bed and getting settled. Her amusement transformed to a different emotion when the younger woman efficiently stripped off her shirt and, clad in her underwear, glided toward the bed.

"You could have mentioned those brownies in the cupboard, though, Babs."

Belatedly, Barbara realized that her partner, poised with one knee on the edge of the bed, seemed to be expecting a response. She guiltily raised her gaze to petulant caramel features and opted for something neutral.


It appeared to suffice since Helena resumed her motion, crawling into the bed.

"Uh huh. By the time I found them, I almost didn't have room to eat any."

The redhead chuckled but managed what she hoped was a suitably contrite tone.

"I'm sorry, Hel. I'll try to stay on top of that."

Perhaps the words had been a trigger, or perhaps Helena had taken them as a suggestion. Regardless, a heartbeat later, the older woman was pinned by the slight weight of her bedmate, who was kneeling above her, knees on each side of her hips.

A crimson eyebrow quirked, and the redhead felt a flutter of... something in her chest.

My, but her partner's passionate side could appear suddenly.


Barbara resisted the urge to squirm as the dark figure slowly leaned down. Helena's purring response tickled her ear, simultaneously thrilling her with the sensation and calming her with the words.

"Relax, Red. I just want to rub some of these knots out of your back."

The brunette straightened, blue eyes catching green.

"Is that okay? Will you turn over?"

Exhaling fully, the older woman sensed the beginning of what was, undoubtedly, a rather goofy grin creeping across her face.

"Twist my arm, eh?", she murmured as she pushed to one side.

The movement was stilled by a warm hand coming to rest lightly on her upper arm. A slender finger circled under the sleeve of her tee.

"It'd be easier if you took this off."

Barbara struggled against the tightness in her throat while Helena gracefully swung her leg back across her body. Settling on her knees, and very possibly picking up on the redhead's nervousness, the brunette waggled her eyebrows playfully.

"I'll be good. Promise."

The redhead laughed, deciding to go on the offensive. Reaching for the hem of her shirt, she purred, "I have no doubts about how very, very good you can be, Hel. But, will you behave?"

Laughing in turn, the dark vigilante helped free the tee from Barbara's hair, then unobtrusively helped the older woman settle on her stomach. The cyber-genius felt the mattress dip slightly as Helena straddled her again, then shut her eyes at the earnest words whispered by her ear.

"Yeah, I'll behave. I just want to make you feel good tonight."

Unable to formulate any reply, she remained still, almost moaning in pleasure as gentle hands began kneading the perennially tight muscles of her trapezoids. For countless minutes -- and Barbara did indeed stop counting -- the redhead succumbed to her partner's ministrations, luxuriating in the tireless work to sooth knotted muscles, indulging in the sweep of strong thumbs down the sides of her spine, and absolutely savoring the fact that it was all occurring against her bare skin.

Helena had worked out kinks for her in the past, too many times to count; however, the play of knowing hands against bare skin was a previously unknown experience. Barbara certainly hoped to become much, much more familiar with the sensation.

For the time being, with her capable masseuse working magic, the older woman felt herself relaxing, letting go of her tension, in a way that was, in actuality, quite new. Almost dozing, she eventually heard Helena speak softly, although she wasn't positive that the younger woman was aware that she was still awake.

"That's it... let it go. You don't have to carry the weight of the world all the time."

The brunette's tone was loving, yet faintly chiding, and Barbara smiled fondly into her arms beneath her head. The soft note of self-reproach in the other woman's next utterance altered her expression.

"P'bly didn't help waking you up so early today..."

Slowly rotating her head to the right, the redhead reached up to sweep the fall of hair back from her face and then lazily lifted her lashes. She deliberately kept her tone mild.

"Actually, Hel, that turned out to be a great way to start the day."

After a split-second of reflection, she felt the need to add, "And, Hel, it made me feel very, very good, too."

She didn't miss the flash of even white teeth above her in the dimly lit room, nor the sense that the other woman had relaxed marginally, lowering a bit of her weight onto her. However, the topic reminded Barbara of something and, with the door now open, she had no compunctions about plunging ahead.

A moment later, she reconsidered the wisdom of her action when she felt the brunette stiffen in response to her words.

"Will you tell me about what happened this morning?"

Chapter 3

"I can't believe that, just this morning, I was on the beach."

Grunting softly as she came up for her forty-seventh inverted crunch, Barbara looked over at her workout companion and smiled.

"Air travel can be a bit disorienting, Dinah."

The teen continued her butterfly presses on the Nautilus, a barely noticeable jerkiness suggesting that she was reaching her limit.

"Yeah, but it's really neat though. I guess I'm still kind of silly about it and everything, but, I mean, it was only my third time on a plane."

Emerald eyes narrowed slightly as the older woman pushed herself into an extra ten sit ups. Given the girl's sunny outlook, it was sometimes easy to forget how... limited her opportunities and experiences had been before coming to New Gotham. Obviously another trip -- something having nothing to do with investigating university campuses or a flight from Opal -- was definitely in order.

Half-listening to her current ward's ebulient description of being frisked at airport security, the redhead counted down her remaining crunches and made a mental note to discuss the idea with Helena. For some reason, she suspected that the brunette's suggestions on the topic might be of greater interest to Dinah than anything that she could come up with.

Set finally completed, Barbara released the straps securing her legs and swung around on the bench. Snagging her water bottle, she drank deeply, waiting for a break in the blonde's verbal deluge.

"I believe that most airports are moving toward having everyone remove their shoes," she supplied before smoothly redirecting the conversation.

"Other than that, Dinah..."

The English teacher deliberately allowed the vague pronoun to substitute for all of the details which her ward had already enthusiastically shared about the plane trip, the hotel, the restaurants and malls, the beaches...

"...what did you think of the university?"

Barbara waited patiently while the teen reached for her own water bottle. She suspected that the increased color in the girl's cheeks had little to do with her exertion with the stationary weights.


Cornflower blue eyes peeked from under blonde lashes, and the older woman nearly laughed aloud when she recognized where Dinah had picked up the mannerism.

"...well, it was okay. I guess. Not as good as State or NGU..."

The redhead took pity and let her ward off the hook with a knowing smile and quiet chuckle. Standing, the teen joined in with an abashed grin and made her way over to sit cross-legged on the mat in front of her guardian.

"Well, you know, Barbara..."

Nodding, the older woman instinctively reached out to brush back the girl's bangs, hesitating for a split-second.

Sometimes, Dinah's touch telepathy manifested itself at the most unexpected times.

With a mental shrug, she completed the gesture, warmed by the girl's happy smile.

"Indeed, Dinah. But, I am glad that you're exploring a variety of options."

In response to the faintly puzzled look directed her way, she elaborated.

"You won't know what you do want -- or appreciate -- unless you have something to compare with."

"Yeah, I guess so."

The blonde punctuated her soft acknowledgement by fiddling with the top of her water bottle and chewing at her lower lip. Barbara's hunch that her charge was thinking of something other than academic choices was confirmed momentarily when the teen hesitantly looked up.

"Can I ask you something, Barbara?"

The older woman took a measured breath, hoping that her trepidation wasn't too obvious. If there was one thing she'd learned during her tenure as the guardian of her previous ward it was never to underestimate what might follow that particular request.

"Of course, Dinah."

Patiently, she waited through a lengthy pause as her companion seemingly worked up her nerve.

"Uhm, it's kind of embarrassing."

Barbara didn't point out that, given the color flooding the teen's pale features, the admission had been completely superfluous. Instead, she offered a measured nod and a tiny encouraging smile.

"Well, it's just... I was wondering, uhm, how you know..."

At this point, the blonde looked like she was ready to sink through the training room floor. Actually, with the array of new powers that the young meta-human continued to develop, Barbara thought she wouldn't have been entirely surprised if Dinah had spontaneously phased down to the parking garage.

"Know what, Dinah?", she prompted gently.

Again, she waited patiently through the girl's nervous fidgeting.

"Uh, how do you, uhm, know-how-to-please-another-girl? Uh, woman?", the blonde finally blurted, neatly dissolving the older woman's faint hopes that the question might be about settling on a college major.

The question also, somehow, instantly transmitted Dinah's deep blush to the redhead.

Catching herself raising her hand, Barbara diverted her habitual gesture -- pinching the bridge of her nose -- into a rather graceless flutter of her fingers against her throat. She inhaled slowly, mentally kicking herself for her overly optimistic belief that Dinah had entered her life at a point which would make this sort of conversation unnecessary.

Eventually -- the older woman hoped that it hadn't taken her too long to collect her wits -- she decided not to make any assumptions about the teen's question. Accordingly, she went with a tried and true technique of putting the ball back in her young companion's court.

"I'm not sure why you're asking, Dinah."

Barbara kept her expression as open and welcoming as possible, her voice gentle but factual. The strategy seemed to relax the young woman a tiny bit, and she sipped at her water before speaking thoughtfully.

"Well, it's just, all the girls talk about their boyfriends and what they do and -- "

The blonde stumbled, coloring extravagantly again.

"-- and stuff. But, well, it's not as easy to, uh, find out..."

Awash with a veritable deluge of conflicting emotions -- sympathy for the girl's predicament, confusion about why Dinah had thought that she would know, a shy delight that her ward trusted her enough to tackle the sensitive topic, not to mention a healthy measure of discomfort -- the cyber-genius flirted with an easy out and ultimately discarded it.

While consulting the internet would no doubt be educational -- and, she could recommend a few specific sites -- she suspected that Dinah had already gone that route and was searching for something more.

Mustering her courage, Barbara responded as honestly and openly as possible.

"I certainly understand your... confusion, Dinah. It can be a little overwhelming, and if you're feeling uncertain or -- pressured...?"

An emphatic shake of blonde hair alleviated that concern, and so the older woman tip-toed onward.

"Er, that's good, then. However, becoming intimate with someone almost always has an element of exploration."

Somehow, she managed to bite back words about feeling one's way and smiled sympathetically.

"I'm afraid that I can't offer you any specific, er, advice. Each person -- male or female -- is unique, and unfortunately..."

Barbara paused for a beat, wryly acknowledging the truth of her next words.

"...none of us come with an owner's manual."

Green eyes blinked once before the redhead quirked her lips and hastily amended her words.

"Or, er, operating instructions."

There. That had been more politically correct, even if it was a bit on the techno-geek side.

Fortunately, Dinah seemed to be getting the point.

"So, it really is all trial and error?"

Barbara found herself hard-pressed not to smile at the blonde's expression, a sweet study in anticipation, resignation, and disappointment.

"I'm afraid so, Dinah, although that can be part of the, er, beauty of the, er... it."

The teen's countenance suggested that she found her guardian's input a bit on the thin side, and the redhead narrowed her eyes, unwilling to leave the girl with no options. With only the tiniest twinge of conscience, she offered a suggestion.

"Still, perhaps someone more, er, experienced could help a little more."

"Like Helena?"

Observing the girl visibly brightening, then instantly deflating, the redhead almost choked on her suppressed chuckle.

"Exactly. I'm sure she'd be able to help."

Barbara was pinned by suspicious pale blue eyes. Clearly, Dinah was weighing the cost-benefits of approaching the other woman about such a delicate subject.

"Riiiight. You think Helena would --"

"Helena would what?"

Two heads -- one crimson, the other gold -- whipped guiltily toward the door of the training room to stare at the speaker. Somehow, Barbara recovered her composure first and smiled cheerfully.

"Hello, Helena."

She deliberately ignored the brunette's question.

"I'm glad you made it."

"Well, yeah."

The younger woman sauntered over and bent to buss the redhead's cheek.

"I rushed through inventory. Didn't want to miss seeing the Kid's sunburn before you get some sort of magic goo on it."

Barbara hid her smile at the teen's indignant huff: with her fair skin, no amount of sunscreen had spared Dinah the effects of the Florida sun. Instead, she arched a brow when Helena bent again and pointedly sniffed her neck.

"You smell... different."

The younger woman trailed off, clearly at a loss, and the redhead searched her memory before laughing self-consciously.

"I believe that's chalkboard cleaner, Helena."

She elected not to elaborate on how the spray had come to cover her. It simply wasn't worth detailing the run-in she'd had with Alethea Harkness in the supply closet earlier in the day.

The superannuated history teacher had made an arch comment about the fading mark on Barbara neck -- honestly, the redhead had thought it was barely visible -- and then, in the same breath, had made a cutting remark about seeing Barbara and Helena at a restaurant on Sunday. The redhead still maintained that it had been an accident that the can of cleaner had inexplicably gone off in her hand. However, even she had to admit that something other than plain bad luck had been at work in placing Alethea directly in the brunt of the spray.

Helena's leaning close and purring almost sub vocally in her ear recalled Barbara to the moment.

"I like it. Kinda makes me think of school uniforms and yardsticks."

Unable to hold in the bubble of laughter which burst past her lips, the older woman lightly swatted at her partner's firm stomach.

"Behave yourself," she admonished lightly as the dark figure skipped backward with a saucy waggle of her eyebrows.

Watching the younger woman begin a series of mouth-watering stretches, Barbara suspected that her reprimand wouldn't have much effect. Helena was simply too... too free-spirited in her sensuality to be concerned with the blush-inducing effects of her entendres.

It was, perhaps, that very fact which had left her so shocked by her partner's reaction during their lovemaking three mornings before. It was certainly part of the reason that she'd brought it up during her massage on Monday night.

The redhead positioned herself on the Nautilus and began to work her lats, not missing the intense, covert scrutiny of blue eyes fixed somewhere in the vicinity of her pectorals. Quirking a brow, she pinned the brunette with a stern look and inclined her head toward the open mats, where Dinah was waiting to engage in some sparring. The brunette contritely dipped her head and obediently headed over to the teen.

Marveling at the charming mixture of brashness and shyness in her lover, Barbara methodically continued her strength-training while she replayed the conversation from a few nights before.

Not surprisingly, Helena had recovered almost instantly after Barbara had tendered her question, resuming her slow, thorough work on tight muscles.

"What about it, Red?"

Sighing contentedly under the delicious pressure focused on her upper arms, Barbara had spoken a bit hesitantly.

"So, you can ejaculate?"

The tender strokes had lengthened to encompass her forearms. The brunette's response had sounded oddly shy.

"Yeah. Not all the time or anything."

Warmth suffusing her upper body, the older woman had almost purred her next words.

"Mmmm. I've heard about it but never..."

She'd felt a different warmth touch her cheeks at the awkward admission and had forced herself to continue.

"How... how does it feel?"

The younger woman's touch had slowed, shifting to absent strokes against Barbara's ribs, leaving the redhead breathless when Helena had finally husked her reply.

"Well, it does really kind of put a punch in my pants, if you know what I mean."

The older woman had joined in with her partner's self-satisfied chuckle.

"I'd... imagine so, Hel."

The cyber-genius had long possessed a vivid imagination, and for a full thirty seconds or so, she allowed it to do its work, nearly moaning at the outcome. Still, unwilling to be completely distracted from the other impetus behind the conversation, she'd finally pushed those thoughts aside -- for later, definitely for later. She'd shifted slightly under her partner, just enough to glimpse sinewy forearms and dark hair over her shoulder.

"If it feels good, Sweetheart, why did you apologize this morning?"

At that, the other woman had lightly dismounted the redhead's hips and settled on her stomach next to Barbara on the bed. Resting her chin on the back of her loosely laced fingers, the brunette had spoken casually.

Too casually, in the older woman's opinion.

"Well, not everybody's into it. I really freaked out the first person it happened with."

From the corner of her eye, Barbara had observed the wry twist of her lover's full lips.

"Actually, first time it happened, it really freaked me out."

The redhead had continued her deliberate study of the pattern on the pillow case in front of her nose.

"What happened, Hel?"

The lithe woman next to her had exhaled, shifting onto her side to face the older woman, and Barbara had shivered slightly at the sensation of slender fingers sifting through her hair. She'd easily detected the playful note creeping into the brunette's voice.

"Hmm? Well, I guess it was senior year, and I was in my room, doing the happy dance...?"

Sensing the other woman's questioning expression, the redhead had snorted softly at the euphemism, deliberately refusing to concentrate on the image Helena's words brought to mind.

"And, well, things were going along great when, all of a sudden, geyser-time."

Both women had laughed before the brunette had sobered a bit.

"Man. I thought I'd done something really, really bad. Or that it was another weird meta-thing."

Feeling for her partner's teenaged confusion -- after all, this wasn't something that was often covered in The Talk -- Barbara had squirmed onto her side, facing the younger woman.

"You could have asked me about it, Hel."

Well, that had earned her a long, heartfelt, head-thrown-back and shoulders-shaking, laugh. Completely against her will, the redhead had felt the corners of her own mouth turning up in a smile. She hadn't been sure why she was joining in with Helena's mirth; after all, the brunette had never seemed to have any problem approaching her about any topic. In fact, during their early years together, she'd sometimes wondered if the girl spent her free time dreaming up deliberately blush-inducing topics to ask about.

"Shit, Barbara. No way!"

Helena had eventually settled down, leaning in to rest her forehead lightly against her bedmate's.

"I mean, come on. I was in there thinking about you. For I all knew, it coulda been some sort of -- I dunno -- some kind of divine retribution for nasty Oedipal thoughts or something."

Pierced by several confusing emotions at that admission, Barbara had brushed a soft kiss to the younger woman's mouth.

"I can see how that might have been inhibiting, Sweetie."

"Seriously, Barbara."

The brunette had inched closer, dropping her hand to trace random patterns across the older woman's bare shoulder.

" 'Sides, it felt so fuckin' good, I just figured that -- as retributions went -- what the hell."

The two had lain quietly for a moment until the redhead's curiosity had gotten the better of her again.

"You said 'not all the time'?"

A wicked smile had painted itself across caramel features.

"Yeah. Mostly it's when I'm thinking about you. You know..."

Helena had lifted her hand, brushing the back of her fingers across the redhead's cheek.

"... when I'm alone."

Barbara's eyes had fluttered shut at the tantalizing touch. They flew open when she comprehended her partner's meaning.


Swallowing thickly, she'd smiled warmly.

Very warmly.

"I think I'd like to see that sometime, Hel."

The speed that her companion's eyes had augmented had been dizzying, and she'd made a mental note to ask -- sometime -- how such a rapid transformation felt. At the moment, she'd had something more important to say.

"However, until then..."

To emphasize her sincerity, Barbara had tenderly cupped her partner's cheek, focusing pointedly on that beautiful mouth.

"... please don't pull away next time."

Despite her own very human abilities, the redhead had had no problem hearing her partner swallowing. The slow dip of the dark head under her palm had provided the answer she'd wanted.

Again, they'd remained still for a few moments, and Barbara had watched with fascination as golden eyes slowly morphed back to blue. Eventually, the brunette had pressed forward a hairsbreadth and rubbed their noses together playfully.

"Okay, Red. Now it's my turn. Can I ask you a question?"

Oh dear.

Given their previous topic and the wicked twists of the younger woman's mind, the redhead hadn't been overly sanguine about just what Helena had had in mind. However, fair was fair.

Accordingly, she'd slowly nodded, waiting with bated breath until the brunette narrowed her eyes and nodded toward the foot of the bed. Helena's whispered question, delivered with overly dramatic dismay, had reduced the older woman to laughter.

"So, what's the deal with the fuzzy socks, anyway?"

Chapter 4

Exactly what sort of socks -- and shoes, and, hell, clothes for that matter -- did one wear to a "super casual" mystery date?

As much as Barbara enjoyed the playful secrecy that she and Helena had taken to adding to the dates they planned for each other, sometimes it just seemed darned inconvenient.

Case in point. Did Helena's instructions, delivered as she'd departed their regular Sunday afternoon workout to make some sort of arrangements for the evening, mean that the attire Barbara had donned after her shower would suffice? Somehow, the redhead suspected that her comfy, albeit threadbare, sweats would probably not be appropriate; while that outfit was fine for pouring over reports from an incident in the club district the night before, it just didn't seem right for a date.

Her favorite jeans should work; in fact, they were the simplest part of the decision-making process.

Gritting her teeth over the fact that she had little difficulty juggling life and death situations in her "other life" but seemed incapable of picking out her wardrobe for what should be a fun-filled outing, the cyber-crime fighter finally shrugged and dug through her chest of drawers, emerging with a NGHS tee shirt which she slid over her head. She'd throw her favorite denim shirt over it, and go with her Doc Martins for footwear.

Twenty minutes later, the redhead pulled sedately from the parking garage and headed towards the Dark Horse. She was pleasantly intrigued that her partner had broken from her usual M.O. and, rather than picking her up at the clock tower, had requested that Barbara meet her at her apartment.

Perhaps there was a band which Helena wanted her to hear playing at the bar, or perhaps the younger woman had some sort of club hopping plans. However, given the relatively early hour, Barbara was inclined to dismiss the former supposition; and, given the fact that it was a Sunday -- and she needed to be in relatively decent shape for work the next day -- she hoped that her exuberant partner didn't have the latter in mind.

Resigning herself to the fact that she'd simply have to wait and see what the younger woman had up her sleeve, the redhead checked her watch and made a quick detour.

The impromptu stop took longer than expected -- she still couldn't fathom why it was so difficult to select the perfect flowers for the younger woman -- and so Barbara was a bit surprised not to find Helena waiting outside when she finally pulled up behind the bar. Regardless, a brief call from her cell resulted in a breathless apology and a promise to be right down.

True to her word, the young vigilante appeared approximately fifteen seconds later, seemingly dropping from the sky. Since her gaze had been fixed on the service door, the sudden peripheral motion, followed by a quiet tap against her window, nearly sent the redhead through the roof of the van.

"Jesus Christ, Helena..."

The older woman spoke even as she stabbed the button to lower her window.

"... you nearly scared the life out of me."

The brunette's hang-dog expression instantly reduced Barbara to ogre-territory, especially since she knew that she should have expected one of her partner's showy entrances. Accordingly, she released a steadying breath and smiled an apology.

"I'm sorry, Sweetie. I shouldn't have snapped at -- "

Finally observing her date's wardrobe -- low-slung cargo pants, crop-top sweatshirt, and bare feet -- the redhead cut herself off, feeling her eyebrows crawl towards her hairline.

"Am I early, or did I overdress?"

The playful question earned her a laugh.

"No, you're not early, and I always think you're overdressed, Red."

Somehow, Barbara managed to ignore the hint of pink which dusted her cheeks.

"Indeed. Where exactly are we headed, Helena?"

The younger woman grinned broadly as she opened the driver's side door.

"My place."

"Your -- ?"

The brunette's smile dimmed slightly, and even white teeth caught the young woman's lower lip.

"Uh, yeah. I'm cooking dinner for us, so if you don't mind accepting a lift...?"

The redhead distantly noted her partner's arms rising in invitation; however, she was so absolutely... floored by Helena's plans that she couldn't respond for a moment.

Barbara honestly couldn't remember when -- or if -- a romantic partner had ever prepared a meal for her.

Belatedly, she observed a slight crack in her partner's bravado. Pulling herself together, she unbuckled her seat belt and raised her arms.

"I'd be delighted, Hel."

And so it was that not too many minutes later Barbara found herself exploring her younger friend's small apartment while a symphony of banging, clattering, and muttering -- and, surprisingly, some enticing aromas -- emanated from the small kitchen. Helena's home was small -- kitchen, living room, and bedroom -- but fastidiously tidy. Both furniture and decoration were sparse, and the older woman wondered if that had to do with lack of interest, lack of money, or lack of time. Studying a colorful Gauguin print, Barbara was startled -- then shamed -- to realize that this was her first visit to her partner's space.

Of course, given the amount of time the brunette spent at the clock tower, perhaps it wasn't that surprising after all.

The cessation of the cacophony from the kitchen, coupled with a slight shiver of awareness, alerted the redhead to Helena's presence. She looked up, automatically accepting a wine glass with a smile of gratitude. She took an appreciative sip of the red as the brunette squatted beside her, smiling winsomely and gesturing vaguely towards the room.

"Don't worry, I chased all of the bugs out for the evening."

Barbara's answering smile was genuine.

"I never had a doubt, Sweetie."

She took another small sip, then inquired tentatively, "Is there anything I can do to help?"

Just because she honestly had no idea what she could do to be helpful in the kitchen didn't mean she shouldn't offer, after all.

Rising gracefully, the younger woman grinned.

"I think I've got it covered in the kitchen. 'Sides,"

Observing the glint in the other woman's eyes, Barbara steeled herself for whatever might come next.

"... I'm not sure my fire insurance is paid up."

The redhead allowed a raised eyebrow to express her appreciation for the gibe, but couldn't hold the expression. Helena's bright wink was simply too charming.

"You could -- "

The younger woman bounded into the kitchen, returning momentarily with an oversized beer mug.

"-- put the flowers in water for me?"

Happy to be of use, Barbara had just tucked the final calla lily into its ersatz vase when the brunette flew out of the kitchen. Swinging open her door with a promise to be right back, she disappeared down the stairs to the bar.

Before the older woman had time to guess what on earth lay behind her partner's hasty exit, Helena returned, a jigger in hand. Barbara thought she detected a hint of pink in normally blush-proof caramel features as the younger woman headed to the kitchen with forced nonchalance.

A cheerful voice resolved the mystery, simultaneously relieving the redhead's concerns about the alcohol content of their dinner.

"I don't have any measuring cups, so I figured this would work."

Barbara's admiration for the other woman's ingenuity waned slightly at the next words she heard echoing from the other room.

"Twelve ounces in a cup, right?"


A tousled head popped around the door frame.

"I'm kidding, Barbara. I pour a lot of liquids in my line of work, you know."

The older woman summoned a smile. Her suspicion that it had been less-than-convincing was confirmed when Helena stepped into the doorway.

"Hey, relax. If it turns out too bad, I've got Jiffy Pizza on speed dial."

Attempting to soothe the dark woman's nervousness, Barbara made the mistake of speaking without thinking first.

"I'm sure it can't be any worse than some of the dinners I created for y--"

The slow rise of a dark brow clearly intimated that, as reassurances went, Barbara's had fallen short. The redhead hastily attempted some damage control.

"I'm sure it will be wonderful, Hel. It smells delicious."

And, indeed, settled at her partner's small table not too long afterward, the older woman discovered that her prediction had been right on target. After cautiously sampling a bite of the lamb, then the asparagus, then the au gratin potatoes, she deliberately placed the tines of her fork on the edge of her plate and waited until blue eyes rose in question.


Barbara punctuated her declaration by raising her hand and pointing an accusatory finger towards the younger woman.


The redhead took her time lowering her hand to smooth the paper towel napkin in her lap. Finally, she completed her observation-cum-accusation.

"Can. Cook."

Grinning, the brunette attacked her lamb chop again.

"Yeah. Well, I can cook -- "

Helena waved her forkful of lamb above her plate.

"-- or, at least, char just about any kind of meat you want to throw at me. The other stuff is just sort of figuring it out. It's not rocket science or anything, Red."

Not completely convinced of that, Barbara cut a small bite from her own entree and offered what she suspected was a clueless half-smile. The younger woman touched her napkin to her mouth and smiled indulgently before speaking slowly.

She couldn't be positive, but the redhead thought that her partner's tone was similar to the one she adopted when addressing some of her classes about the intricacies of subjunctive verbs.

"Okay, look at it this way, Barbara. I know you're a little less carnivorous than I am, so I had the whole vegetable quandary, 'cuz that's not something I normally deal with. But, it wasn't really a big deal."

Wondering if she were having her leg pulled, Barbara furrowed her brows and stabbed an asparagus spear. The brunette's smile seemed to soften as she continued.

"Like the asparagus. Right there on the little card in the supermarket, it says to simmer it until tender. And, even if I'm not Jacques Pepin, I know that simmering mad is less than boiling mad, right?"

Utterly flabbergasted, the redhead managed a slow nod.

"So," the brunette finished as she cheerfully forked some potatoes to her mouth, "I just got the water boiling mad then calmed it down."

The entire explanation made such perfect sense -- and was so utterly, perfectly Helena -- that Barbara had to laugh. However, after a few more bites, something scratched at her forebrain.

"If you can cook like this, Hel, why don't you fix some real food at the tower sometimes?"

Incredulous blue eyes met green.

"I said I can cook, Barbara, not that I like to. I just wanted to tonight."

The younger woman looked down, directing her final utterance to her plate.

"For you."

There was really nothing that the older woman could say to that other than the obvious.

"Thank you, Hel."

They finished the meal in companionable silence, listening to the music Helena had programmed on her stereo. As she carefully refolded her paper towel and set it beside her plate, Barbara noted the selection and wondered how random her partner's choice -- Dylan's "Knocking on Heaven's Door" -- had been.

"Thank you again, Helena. It really was wonderful. I simply had no idea..."

The brunette stood to begin gathering plates, and the older woman found herself pinned by twinkling blue eyes.

"The real mystery, Red, is why you can't cook."

Laughingly dancing out of range of the wadded paper towel directed her way, the younger woman waved her guest to the couch. She rapidly returned from the kitchen with a DVD in hand.

"'The Lion In Winter'?"

Barbara didn't even attempt to hide her pleasure.

"Uh huh. The original, too."

An hour later, as Katharine Hepburn's Eleanor of Aquitaine plotted another twist to place one of her sons on the throne, Barbara was yanked from England in 1183 AD when her companion abruptly leaned forward and hit the pause button. Without a word, the younger woman vaulted the coffee table and disappeared into the kitchen, reappearing almost immediately with a small bowl in hand. The brunette placed her offering on the low table before rejoining the older woman on the couch.

"I almost forgot about dessert."

Somehow, Barbara found that hard to believe. To her knowledge, the smaller woman had an insatiable sweet tooth.

"What did you make?"

"Mousse. Dark chocolate."

The older woman felt the hair on the back of her neck rising in response to the words. Something about the brunette's purring tone was almost indecent, fully laced with thoughts of anticipated pleasure.

An exaggerated sigh recaptured her attention, and she looked from the dessert dish to her partner's face, which was fixed in a playful moue.


"Well, there's just one little problem..."

Smiling, the redhead cocked her head in encouragement.

"You see, you can't, and I mean you just cannot, eat dark chocolate with a metal utensil. It totally messes with the taste."

Although her analytical brain promptly and helpfully supplied a plethora of explanations for the phenomenon, Barbara decided that a discourse on pH-balances and acidity was, probably, not called for at the moment. Instead, she opted for a solemn dip of her head, and Helena continued.

"Well, the problem is that all of my fancy horn caviar spoons are in the dishwasher."

While she was quite cognizant of the fact that her partner's small apartment lacked a dishwasher, Barbara wasn't quite as certain that the younger woman was not in possession of caviar spoons. Given the brunette's upbringing, she honestly wouldn't have been surprised. Nevertheless, delighted by the playful exchange, she creased her brows in perplexity.

"That does seem to be a problem, Sweetie. What do you think we can do?"

She immediately felt her eyebrows traveling in the opposite direction -- briefly she wondered if they would end up on the back of her head -- when she witnessed the dark woman slowly easing her index finger into the bowl. Tracing the outline of her suddenly very dry lips with the tip of her tongue, the older woman managed a blink as Helena extended her hand with a wicked smile.

"I was hoping we could improvise."

Since the other woman had gone to the trouble of making the dessert, Barbara thought it only... polite to sample her partner's offering. Holding the brunette's gaze, she ducked slightly to taste the airy confection. The chocolate was powerful, its bitterness tempered by a hint of sweetness.

Sweetness... and something else.

Swallowing her first tentative taste, the older woman dropped her gaze to the slim, corded hand before her. Gently, she curled her fingers around Helena's palm, guiding even as she leaned down. Without further hesitation, she swept her tongue along the length of partner's finger, then rotated her hand to suck the digit into her mouth. The redhead took her time, sucking deeply, carefully curling her tongue to remove all traces of the gooey dessert.

Her release of the improvised "utensil" coincided with a voluble gasp from her companion, and Barbara straightened, looking up to meet golden eyes. Running her tongue around the edges of her mouth again, she watched the younger woman swallow.

"I'm... I like it, too, Red."

Pinned by her partner's burning gaze, the redhead reached toward the low table, dipping her index and second fingers into the bowl without looking. Wordlessly, she extended her hand, struck dumb by the slow curl of the dark figure's upper lip, by the quick flare of aquiline nostrils.

The brunette inclined her head, and the older woman felt several quick puffs of warm air ghost her palm when the other woman scented the dessert... and her. Tiny ripples of warmth traveled across her palm, up her arm, and through her chest at the sight -- and sensation -- of her partner delicately lapping the creamy substance from her fingers.

Helena's feeding was slow and definitely -- most definitely -- thorough. By the time the younger woman finally straightened, Barbara suspected that a crime unit would have been hard-pressed to find a trace of chocolate on her hand.

Assuming that she could have controlled her own trembling long enough for them to check.

Helena remained still, meeting the other woman's eyes calmly, however her rapid, shallow breathing was more than evidence enough of her... state. The older woman spared a moment to observe the other woman's arousal, attempting to identify her own decidedly mixed emotions. She certainly felt excitement; in addition, she could clearly distinguish amazement... and trepidation... and, perhaps, even a trace of envy.

Good heavens. With little more than a bit of innuendo, the brunette could get to a state that Barbara hadn't visited deeply in years.

Pushing those thoughts aside for later reflection, she noticed a tiny dab of mousse at the corner of her companion's mouth. She reached out, lightly touching that full lower lip.

"You have some... "

Distracted by the heat under her fingertip, the redhead leaned in, bringing her mouth to the younger woman's smooth cheek.

"... here."

While she had never exactly been a fan of... food play, as she painstakingly cleaned the dot of sweetness, Barbara had to admit that the combination of dark chocolate and Helena was definitely a winner.

A moment later, the brunette distracted her from that line of thought when she pulled back a few inches, smiling tenderly.

Perhaps, the redhead determined, the tenderness was in response to the vexation which must have been evident in her own eyes.

"So do you, Red."

It took the older woman a beat to re-gather the threads of their conversation, then she blinked.

Honestly, Barbara thought that she'd been relatively tidy...

Concerns about personal decorum and hygiene evaporated when she observed slender fingers dip into the small bowl and then move purposely towards her.


Shivering slightly while her partner painted her lips with chocolate cream, she finally looked up and batted her eyes playfully.

"Would you mind taking care of that, Sweetie?"

The other woman's purring growl left no doubt that Helena was up for the job.

"Definitely my pleasure..."

Chapter 5

Considering that it was supposed to be a source of harmless pleasure, the New Gotham club district had been failing abysmally of late. Specifically, for the second time in less than a week, Barbara had picked up a report from one of the clubs.

On Saturday, there had been a sexual assault. On the surface, such an attack wasn't completely surprising; however, since this incident had occurred between two men at an avowedly straight nightclub, it did raise a few flags. This evening, a particularly ugly fight was in process at a normally mellow poetry club and, from the sound of things, seemed to be escalating into a possible riot.

Listening to the sounds of the enthusiastic "crowd control" which Helena was dispensing, interspersed with Dinah's cries of dismay, the cyber-crime fighter hoped that this wasn't the start of a trend. Additionally, as she pushed her glasses up to pinch the bridge of her nose, Barbara couldn't help but second-guess her decision to allow the teen to accompany the older woman on sweeps.

True, Helena had worked an early shift at the bar, resulting in an early patrol -- something the redhead viewed as an absolute must if Dinah went on sweeps on a school night. It was also a Tuesday, normally a fairly slow night for criminal activity. Nevertheless, technically, the girl shouldn't even have been in that particular club -- Barbara was quite aware that oversized drinks contributed significantly to making the notoriously awful poetry at The Speak Easy more palatable --much less attempting to assist her volatile sweeps partner in controlling an enraged crowd of would-be poets.

Acknowledging the clarity of hindsight, the older woman checked the police scanner again, confirming that the understaffed department had yet to dispatch a single patrol to the area. Resigned, she attempted to gather another situation report from her partners in the field.

"Huntress? Canary? How are things going?"

<"Throw a book at me, will you?">

While Helena's words weren't a direct answer, they certainly provided some fairly vivid clues.

<"Lemme show you what I know about Browning... and black-n-blueing, too.">

The sound of fist meeting flesh immediately followed, and Barbara smirked, suspecting that the book-tosser had just gained an entirely new perspective on the Romantic poet.

Tangentially, she wondered if the dark vigilante had been thinking of Elizabeth or Robert when she'd made her... offer to the club patron.

"Canary? Can you provide an update?"

As instructed, Dinah had been keeping out of the thick of things, a "thick" which -- from Dinah's periodic descriptions -- seemed to center wherever Helena was. According to the blonde's own updates, she'd primarily been using her TK to trip, trap, and separate various pugilists.

<"Uh, yeah, Oracle. Looks like -- Eeep!">

The sound of breaking glass carried clearly from somewhere quite close to the girl's transceiver, and Barbara reflexively ducked.

<"Uhm, vodka bottle.">, the teen supplied before resuming her report.

<"Looks like it's finally winding down. Huntress has, uhm, subdued about ten people.">

Noting a significant reduction in the sounds of mayhem, the redhead released a slow breath, then pursed her lips in vexation when she noticed an update on the scanner. NGPD was finally on the way.


Helena sounded distinctly cheerful.

<"All wrapped up in a bow, ready for some stopping by the jail on a snowy evening.">

Frost? Her determinedly non-academic former student was now paraphrasing Robert Frost?

Shaking her head fondly, Barbara spoke briskly.

"Good work, but you may want to clear out. The police should be there soon."

<"Copy that.">


The simultaneous acknowledgements were followed by the familiar sounds of swift movement. In short order, only distant street noises and the whistling wind echoed through the transceiver.

Presumably, her charges had decamped to the rooftops.

<"Well, that was a fun little warm-up, Oracle. What else do you have for us?">

The question was colored with conspicuous zeal. As she consulted the scanner again, Barbara could almost see her younger partner rubbing her hands together in anticipatory glee.

"I'm sorry, Huntress, but, other than your little brouhaha at the club and a B&E at a toy store, it's been quiet tonight."

Given her younger partner's ramped up level of adrenaline after the fight, Barbara expected a certain measure of disappointment or pique. She was, thus, a bit surprised by the brunette's intrigued reply.

<"Break in?">

"That's correct, Huntress."

What on earth was Helena finding so interesting about a burglary?

<"What kind of toy store, Oracle?">

The redhead sputtered, then laughed outright, at the purring emphasis the brunette placed on the word "toy".

Mystery solved.

<"Huh? What are you talki -- Oh!">

Barbara easily visualized the confusion, then comprehension, which had undoubtedly flooded Dinah's features. She attempted to mask her chuckle under the guise of clearing her throat and then deliberately dropped her voice half an octave.

"Sorry, Huntress, but it's not that kind of toy store."

Rechecking her monitoring programs to the accompaniment of her partner's soft huff, she added more briskly, "It was the FAO Schwartz downtown."

A moment of silence greeted that information.

<"What the heck, I love that place. Wanna check it out, Canary?">

<"Kewl! If that's okay, Oracle?">

In an instant, Barbara's two kick-ass crime fighting companions had transformed into... overgrown kids. A smile dimpled the older woman's cheeks.

"That's fine, as long as you don't bring back any... evidence."

Heaven only knew what the two young women might opt to haul out of the store... in the name of crime scene investigation, of course.

The muted sounds of movement and conversation ensued as the redhead reseated her glasses.

<"You know you just want to go there because you like the stuffed animals.">

Helena's reaction to the blonde's dig was remarkably blase.

<"Who doesn't? 'Sides, I really just like that huge panther in the window.">

Half-listening to the sororal banter, Barbara made a mental note about the stuffed cat. After all, her partner's birthday was coming up in a few months.

The cyber-genius briefly checked the younger women's position on the GPS, confirming that they still had a dozen blocks to cover, then directed her attention to hacking in to the police system. In an instant, she was in; and, four dozen keystrokes later, she completed her covert task -- adding a directive to run drug tests on the group being picked up from The Speak Easy.

The behavior of the patrons at the club was simply too bizarre -- and widespread -- to dismiss as a mere overindulgence of alcohol and iambic pentameter. In all likelihood, blood tests would reveal a new designer drug making the circuit.

Barbara seamlessly backed out of the system, leaving behind a monitoring bug to alert her when the tests were logged, just as a soft hail emanated from her transceiver.

<"You copy, Oracle?">

Green eyes snapped to the locator. Her partners were on-site.

"I copy, Huntress. Have you found anything?"

<"So far just some police tape on the back entrance.">

Oblivious to the fact that it was an audio-only connection, the redhead nodded at the laconic response.

<"We're gonna go in through the vent.">


Some pointed muttering about the job not being all glory and then some soft rustling followed Dinah's indignant squeak.

<"We're in.">

Confident that Helena would update her as soon as she found anything to report, Barbara focused on her encryption-decryption puzzle. Amid the routine duties of her day and night jobs, an unexpected call to substitute for one of the school's Quiz Team instructors who was out after an overambitious ski trip, unplanned time at the auto shop to have the van's shocks adjusted after her hot-dogging trip to rescue Helena, some lengthy discussions with Dinah about college selection, and -- certainly not least of all -- fleeting moments with Helena, Barbara had somehow not found much free time to devote to the problem. Dinah and she had finally managed to spend time the night before batting some possibilities around, and the redhead was, frankly, eager to test one of the teen's suggestions about the cryogenic applet.

Effortlessly shifting mental gears from toys and designer drugs to method calls and encryptions APIs, the cyber genius instantly lost herself in her coding. A low whistle in her earpiece interrupted her rapid-fire keystrokes a few minutes later.

<"Huntress? Canary? Did you find something?">

<"Helluva mess...">

Despite being yanked from the nearly meditative state she sometimes achieved when programming, Barbara managed to smile indulgently at the brunette's reply. It was Dinah who provided some elaboration.

<"Most of the store is fine, but over in the Moving Toy section, it's a real mess.">

One crimson brow crept upward, and Barbara tamped down on her impatience.

Oh, how she missed seeing things for herself sometimes.

"A mess?", she prompted mildly.

<"Yeah">, Helena supplied. <"Looks like all of the animatronics soldiers and wind-up dolls and remote-control cars went to war or some-- Awwww, man!">

<"Oh, yuk!">

The leader of the crime fighting trio held her tongue after the twin exclamations. Her patience was rewarded when Helena, voice tinged with an odd mixture of amusement and regret, continued.

<"Some collateral damage. Looks like G.I. Joe and Bozo The Clown took out that groovy tropical fish tank near the front of the store.">

Dinah chimed in at that point with her own contribution.

<"There are fish all over the place.">

Although the teen's description dominated the comm set, the redhead didn't miss a nearly sub vocal addition from the other woman on the scene.

<"And salt water all over the stuffed animals...">

Despite the subdued tone, Barbara had no problem detecting the very genuine dismay in Helena's quiet addition. Under her too-tough-for-her-own-good exterior, the brunette still possessed a genuine enthusiasm for many of the magical, wonderful elements of childhood. Indeed, the younger woman's ability to view the world through childlike eyes -- despite everything that she'd endured in her young life -- continued to awe the redhead. Barbara was, therefore, quite certain that the destruction at the toy store was upsetting to her partner at a level the younger woman would never admit.

And, she noted wryly, which the young woman would certainly not appreciate having made public.

Accordingly, the older woman focused on business.

"Why don't you check for any piscine survivors and get some photos? After that, let's call it a night."

To her experienced ear, the younger woman's acknowledgement seemed the tiniest bit... flat.

<"Will do, Oracle. Going off comms.">

Twenty-five minutes later, the redhead resurfaced from her programming-induced abstraction and pushed away from the keyboard just as the elevator doors slid open. She saved her work and closed numerous terminal windows as the sound of bickering preceded her charges into the living area.

"If you don't want to listen to me, that's your prerogative, Kid. But, I know what I'm talking about."

The older woman detected more uncertainty than disbelief in the teen's reply.

"I just... Well, gee, does that really work?"

Barbara instantly determined that she did not want to know -- or even hypothesize -- about the topic under discussion. Managing a somewhat brittle smile of thanks when Dinah extended the digital camera, the redhead turned back to the Delphi and focused on downloading the images. Nevertheless, she couldn't miss the brunette's measured reply as the two turned to the kitchen.


Furrowing her brows, the older woman puzzled briefly over the almost wistful note she thought she'd detected in the lone word before finally revisiting her earlier decision. The philosophy behind her resolution was a shameless alteration of Bill Clinton's advice to gay service men and women; and, while "Don't Ask, Don't Guess" might not have been the most original of credos, she'd found it went a long way -- depending on the situation, of course -- toward allowing her to sleep at night.

In this case, for example, Barbara sixth sense hadn't alerted her to any signs of devilment, physical danger, or criminal mischief. As a result, she assiduously kept her curiosity in check and opted to give her young charges time to complete their discussion, conscientiously dumping all of the images from the digi, then perusing them. It was only after Dinah exited the kitchen and disappeared into her bedroom that Barbara felt confident enough to join her younger partner.

Pausing in the doorway, she found Helena nibbling on a pop-tart, an untouched bottle of beer opened next to her. The brunette appeared uncharacteristically subdued.

"I'm sorry about the stuffies, Sweetheart."

Such inadequate words to express her regret, regret for her partner's years of pain and stolen innocence and joys denied.

Suspicious blue eyes peered from under shaggy bangs, clearly attempting to determine whether Barbara was mocking her. Apparently satisfied by the redhead's sincerity, the younger woman exhaled noisily.

"Yeah. And the fish tank, too."

The older woman moved to the end of the table, nodding seriously as the brunette continued.

"I know a guy from the bar who tends to tropical aquariums. Did you know it can take months to get one set up and the water all... balanced and everything before you can even start introducing fish?"

Although the redhead had, in fact, been in possession of that information, she shook her head slowly and took a small sip from the other woman's beer.

"The entire incident sounds like senseless vandalism, Hel."

Perhaps whatever was presumably circulating in the club district had been at work at the toy store as well. Unfortunately, without any physical evidence from the perpetrators, the cyber-crime fighter doubted that she'd be able to make such a link.

The realization that her partner had not replied -- that, in fact, the younger woman was barely making eye contact -- pulled the redhead from her mental segue. Suspecting that there was something waiting to be said, Barbara silently watched her partner while she picked at the sprinkles on her pop-tart.

Eventually, the brunette apparently found the words she'd been hunting for in her pastry and straightened, fixing the older woman with a faintly wounded glare.

"By any chance, Barbara, did you sic Dinah on me?"

"Sic Dinah?", she automatically parroted.

Given the complete shift in topics, mental whiplash seemed like a very real possibility.

Completely at a loss, she observed the other woman's left eyebrow -- the one which was perpetually raised -- inch up a few cynical millimeters.

"Yeah, you know. For 'advice'...?"

Although the irony suffusing the word made it unnecessary, the younger woman lifted both hands from the table to encapsulate the word in virtual quotation marks. Simultaneously, a light bulb went on for the redhead, and, immediately, she felt herself coloring.

The older woman imagined that the blush was enough of a 'tell'; still, honesty forced her to verbalize the truth.

"Er, I suppose you could say..."

Stammering to a halt at the sight of Helena's right brow rising to join the left, Barbara dug into her stores of courage and cut to the chase.

"Yes. Yes, I did suggest, er, that."


A bit disconcerted by the brevity of her partner's grumpy rejoinder, the redhead sat quietly for a few minutes. For her part, the younger woman returned to denuding her pastry of its sprinkles.

Inexorably, Barbara's curiosity got the better of her.

"How did it go, Sweetheart?"

Blue eyes met green, clearly telegraphing how very, very displeased Helena was with the conversation which the redhead had, essentially, foisted on her. In return, the older woman tendered a genuinely apologetic half-smile and worked for an explanation.

"She, er, came to me last week and asked, and I... Well, you can imagine?"

That seemed to help a bit.

The older woman observed the expressive features across the table visibly running through the possible scenarios which could have played out between Helena's two blushing companions. Finally brightening, the younger woman stuffed the remainder of her pop-tart into her mouth and chewed with gusto.

"I'll just bet," was the verdict.

Quirking her lips, Barbara laughed self-consciously.

"Indeed, Hel. I hoped that it might help if she talked with someone who was more comfortable with... things."

The redhead deliberately ignored the possible layers of meaning in her own words, focusing expectantly on her partner. Something which could have been irritation flickered through cerulean eyes before the brunette exhaled noisily and reached for the beer.

"Yeah, well, that's me. Dear Abby for the teen set, huh?"

Deciding that silence was her best option at the moment, Barbara remained still as the younger woman downed half of her beverage in three long swallows. When Helena returned the bottle to the table, the redhead found herself struggling not to be distracted by the trace of foam on her partner's upper lip.

For some reason, it made her think of chocolate.

"So, yes, I talked to her. Had to be careful not to fry her circuits or anything -- "

Their quiet laughter seemed a bit stiff to the older woman; however, it was a delicate topic.

"Do you think you were able to help, Hel?", she prodded gently.

The brunette considered the question for a few beats.

"I dunno. It's not like I'm going to give her hands-on lessons or something, right?"

Feeling the blood drain from her cheeks, the redhead hoped that the reaction hadn't been too visible when teasing blue eyes caught green.

"I mean, that would be just... twisted."

Barbara distantly registered that she should laugh at... or somehow respond to... her companion's comically aggrieved indignation. Regrettably, the tremor working its way down her upper spine had stripped her facility for both speech and movement.

For better or worse, Helena seemed to pick up on her former guardian's mood and continued more seriously.

"But, yeah, I tried to get her to understand about how it's different with every person."

That odd, paralyzing force lessened its grip, and Barbara managed a nod. Speech was definitely still out of her reach.

She worked not to squirm under the scrutiny of acute blue eyes, relieved when the younger woman lightened her tone fractionally and resumed her narrative.

"And, after that, I shared a few G-rated tales from when I was first figuring things out and fumbling toward ecstasy."

Desperately needing to keep the mood light, the redhead managed to raise both brows and fixed her companion with a mild variant of The Look. The tactic evoked a laugh, and the younger woman capitulated, raising her hands in surrender.

"Okay, okay. Maybe it was PG-15. But the Kid needs all the help she can get. After all..."

The brunette paused dramatically, blue eyes twinkling devilishly.

"... I was a quick study. Practically a frikkin' prodigy."

Barbara's tension finally receded under the combined onslaught of Helena's laughter and the younger woman's playful insouciance. She even managed a laugh of her own as she pushed back from the table.

"Is that so, Sweetie?"

"Oh, you betcha. Still,"

The redhead found herself holding her breath when her partner narrowed her eyes and leaned forward a bit, speaking conspiratorially.

"... it never hurts to keep on studying."

A smile creased the older woman's face.

"Live and learn, then, Hel?"

The instant the aphorism crossed her lips, Barbara recalled the same utterance being spoken by the younger woman seven weeks earlier. The place had been New Gotham's newest French restaurant; the occasion, of course, had been nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing, that was, until Helena had shyly divulged that she hoped -- wanted -- the outing to be a date, and Barbara had dismissed the notion out of hand.

Breathless, the older woman replayed the scene, lost in nuances and meanings. The sight of her partner rounding the table firmly recaptured her attention, and Barbara ruthlessly pushed aside the sudden reminiscence.

Perhaps Helena sensed her mood; after all, from the time the teen had come to live with her, she had always seemed attuned to her guardian's needs. Regardless, the lithe figure knelt gracefully by her side, touching her hand gently and tendering a crooked smile.

"That's right, Red. But, try to relax a little; it's supposed to be a fun thing."

How could...?

Could it be just that simple?

A soft squeeze against her hand drew searching emerald eyes to blue.

"Ready to go to sleep, Barbara?"

Acutely conscious of how Helena had phrased her question and quite certain that it had not been accidental, the redhead managed a quick nod. Leading the way from the kitchen, Barbara found herself wondering why she felt so deeply, deeply at sea.

Chapter 6

Barbara smoothly came up for air, the movement not affecting her rhythm at all, as she performed a swift 180-degree turn in the deep water.

The motion, which was accomplished of course without the use of her lower body and which was in fact designed to reorient her legs with her torso at the conclusion of the turn, had been devised only after months of painstaking consideration. Perfecting it in the physical world after fine-tuning it in her neural world had required an additional four months of practice. Six years before, still coming to terms with a world which seemed to have been reduced to one limitation after another, the redhead had been inordinately pleased with herself when she'd achieved an actual physical triumph.

She had been, she easily recalled as she continued her metered butterfly stroke, even more delighted by the undisguised admiration in her new ward's features when she'd finally, hesitantly, demonstrated the move. Although Barbara still hadn't been able to best the dark teen in their races -- and to her credit, and wisdom, the brunette had never let her win any contest -- she had, finally, had the means to stay in the race.

However, on this extremely quiet Saturday afternoon, the older woman wasn't worried about speed. On this day, her time in the pool was about endurance.




Until very recently, the redhead had allowed herself to forget the freedom and pleasure of time spent in the water; however, after her reintroduction not too many weeks before, she had determined not to forget again. While the NGHS pool couldn't hold a candle to the "oasis" -- as Helena had aptly described it -- at the hotel, it was certainly convenient, and Barbara had taken advantage of it several times in the last few weeks.

She usually did her swimming in the early evenings -- after the students had departed but, for safety's sake, while some of the faculty were present. This afternoon, however, knowing that the entire facility was likely to be vacant, she'd arranged to meet Helena for some recreation.

Smoothly segueing from her butterfly to a modified breast stroke, Barbara almost unconsciously checked her internal chronometer, determining that her partner should soon appear. She wiped the beginning of what was undoubtedly a lecherous grin from her face, lest she end up choking on chlorinated water, and pushed on against the burning tightness building in her upper chest and arms.

Considering her recent train of thought, the redhead wryly wondered if the sensation had as much to do with thoughts about what type of swimwear Helena would be modeling as it did with her own exertion and lactic acid build-up in her muscles. Regardless of the cause, taking a break seemed advisable since she was alone, not just in the pool but, if the empty parking lot outside were an accurate indication, in the entire building.

In all honesty, Barbara was a bit surprised to be at the pool by herself; however, when she'd made her decision, it had seemed perfectly logical.

For some reason, as the quiet Saturday morning had crawled by, the redhead had found herself watching the clock -- admittedly, not a hard thing to do in the tower -- and counting the hours and minutes until Helena's lunchtime shift at the Dark Horse would end. Barbara had been restless... itchy. Unable to lose herself in programming, or in analysis of the blood tests from the pugilists involved in the Tuesday evening brawl, or even in vivid descriptions of how the human body adapted to surviving shipwrecks and time on the open sea, the redhead had eventually thrown in the towel and headed to the pool -- alone -- a good ninety minutes before she was due to meet her partner.

For the last hour, the cyber-crime fighter had been pushing herself through lap after lap, focusing on keeping her movements even, her pace metered, her breathing regular. To her considerable disgust, just as she'd been unable to achieve any sort of emotional dissociation through her usual activities, swimming didn't seem to be doing the trick either.

Finally acknowledging her own limits, the redhead abandoned her repetitions and stroked slowly to the side.

The burning in her upper arms was... pronounced, and it simply wouldn't do to develop a cramp.

Barbara easily balanced herself at the end of the pool, one hand on the edge. Breathing slowly, she peered into the crystalline water and observed her legs swaying beneath her, bemused by the appearance that they were responsible for her upright position rather than the buoyancy of the water. She permitted the image to tantalize her for a few seconds; however the analytical woman was simply too practical to entertain such thoughts for long.

Snorting at her own whimsy, she decisively pushed onto her back. After checking the position of her lower legs -- akimbo was simply not aqua dynamic -- the redhead relaxed, floating weightless and gloriously free in the large pool.

Perhaps she should replace her traditional mattress with a water bed.

The cyber-genius immediately discarded that idea.

Considering some of the activities which had been occurring recently on the article of furniture in question, she doubted that a water bed would hold up under any truly... zealous endeavors. In a fit of what she easily recognized as perverse contradiction, Barbara found herself simultaneously anticipating and dreading having the mettle of her mattress fully put to the test.

Green eyes casually tracked to the high ceiling of the aquatic center, automatically calculating how many degrees she'd drifted off center based on her position relative to the girders above her. Lackadaisically, she waved her left hand in the water by her waist, propelling herself back on course. Tipping her head back until the water lapped over her hairline, the redhead twisted her neck from side to side, attempting not to flinch at the way the cracking of her muscles was amplified by the water in her ears. Maintaining the position, she considered her partner's behavior of the last ten days or so.

Without doubt or question, the brunette remained consistently attentive and playful and sensual: their "dessert interlude" on Sunday evening was more than enough evidence of that. Helena was also undisguisedly... eager, her open desire almost palpable.

Occasionally, Barbara had noticed, her partner's enthusiasm was almost... overwhelming.

The redhead straightened her neck and absently corrected her course, warmth suffusing her upper body as a montage of images -- and sounds... and scents... and tastes -- from their last long, sensual interlude washed over her. The younger woman had spent hours exploring her --

Green eyes narrowed, and Barbara mentally amended that thought before her eyes fluttered shut against the onslaught of images.

Helena had spent hours worshipping her. Utterly humbled, Barbara had needed to battle her own fears when she'd finally had the opportunity to map the younger woman's beautiful body, slowly and thoroughly.

Arching her back against the water and nearly moaning at the image of the younger woman finally letting go under her hands and mouth, the older woman felt a smirk paint her features.

Despite her own lack of experience, the response she'd evoked from her lover had been amazing.

Drifting in the pool, Barbara unleashed the full power of her memory and her imagination, periodically cracking one eye to check her position against the girders above her to confirm that she wasn't about to bump into the side of the pool. Despite her preoccupation, the older woman didn't miss the tiny shiver of awareness which ran through her not too many minutes later and was, thus, spared the indignity of jerking and flailing gracelessly in the water when a low soprano purred in her ear.

"I didn't think the water was that cold, Red."

Crimson lashes fluttered open, and the redhead blinked in puzzlement at the dark figure lazily bobbing in the water near her shoulder. Finally noticing the precise direction of the acute gaze focused on her, Barbara found a clue and lifted her head from the water to look down her body.


To her own surprise, she realized that was not blushing. In fact, she wasn't bothered in the slightest. Consequently, she captured cerulean eyes with her own and deliberately lowered her voice a half-octave.

"I was missing you, Sweetheart."

The sweetly joyful expression which flickered across her partner's face caused the older woman's heart to miss a beat. Her cardiac muscle immediately made up for the stutter-step by redoubling its pace when the younger woman swam close, close enough to bring their bodies almost into contact, and offered a smile rich with sin.

"I'm here now."

Barbara lazily righted herself, using her arms to hold her position in front of the smaller woman. Before replying, she took her time, slowly drinking in the vision before her.

The brunette had chosen the white tankini, exposing a tantalizing swath of firmly delineated abdomen, and the older woman instantly decided that she approved of the choice.

"Indeed you are, Helena."

One smooth stroke brought her directly to the dark woman. She raised first one, then the other, arm to lock her wrists lightly behind her companion's neck, shivering at the sensation of strong hands coming to rest against her waist. Glancing down, the redhead confirmed that the younger woman was keeping them both afloat with slow scissoring sweeps of her lower legs.

"And, if I'm not mistaken..."

The older woman slid one hand free, tracing a droplet of water across a tan shoulder.

"...you and I are the only ones here."

Given that the soft mouth only inches away had been drawing closer as she spoke, Barbara was anticipating a response of a physical nature. She was, therefore, unprepared when her partner abruptly pulled back, a frown creasing those full lips which she'd been so intently focused on.

"Damn straight, Barbara. What the fuck were you thinking?"

The redhead shook her head minutely but didn't bother searching for words: she suspected that her expression eloquently conveyed her befuddlement.

"You'd have a shit fit if you found out that the Kid came here alone."


"True," the older woman concurred mildly, completely unconcerned by her own double standard.

That fierce independence had plagued and driven her for her entire adult life -- and a good portion of her childhood years as well -- perhaps reaching its pinnacle during her days and nights on the streets of Gotham as Batgirl. The tendency to do things on her own had gotten her into a fair number of uncomfortable situations over the years but nothing that she'd not been able to handle. Usually.

Barbara inhaled slowly, concentrating on controlling her instinctive urge to snap or say something completely predictable: 'I'm not helpless' had blazed across her cortex in three foot neon letters. Instead, she recognized the concern -- a valid one, too -- in her former ward's relatively mild reprimand.

"And, you're right, Hel. It was a little irresponsible."

The older woman felt her "fight reflex" waning as she observed her partner's slow nod of acceptance, and so she refocused on what was important.

"But, I'm not alone now, Sweetie."

A smile which could best be described as 'wolfish' eased across the brunette's features. Unable to resist, Barbara lifted her hand from her partner's shoulder and traced those full lips with her index finger.

"Yeah --"

The redhead shivered again as warm breath ghosted her fingertips. She wasn't certain if the lone syllable indicated agreement or approval but found herself smiling in return. That smile transformed to a laugh at the other woman's next utterance, delivered with a trademark waggle of dark brows.

"So, uh, you wanna do some side strokes?"

Barbara play-swatted the brunette's shoulder.

"Is there simply nothing that you can't turn into an entendre?"

Helena scrunched her eyes in comic thought, then grinned happily.

"Not so far. Try me."

Tempted to do just that, Barbara nevertheless couldn't resist the playful challenge. From years of association, she had a good indication that she'd not prevail.

Che sara, sara.

Green eyes lost focus for a moment, tracking to the left.


The older woman's salvo was met with an expression of utter boredom.

"C'mon, Babs. At least try to come up with something challenging."

Recognizing her error in blurting out the first likely -- or was it unlikely? -- thing which crossed her mind, Barbara blushed and thought a little harder.

"Adirondack chair," she ventured.

Not even a second elapsed before the younger woman's mouth twisted into a smirk. The redhead held her breath in anticipation.

"Ooooh, slats."

A crimson brow crept up as Barbara considered the sly workings of her young friend's mind. Somewhat masochistically, she tried again.

"Tomato juice?"

When Helena's eyes hooded and her nostrils flared, the older woman immediately recognized her tactical error. She suspected that, even before the brunette husked her reply, her own face had achieved a level of color remarkably similar to the words which were, nominally, under discussion.

"Mmmm," the brunette sensually wet her lips with the tip of her tongue, "Are you in the mood to drink something thick and tangy and a little salty, Red?"

Laughing helplessly, Barbara mentally shrugged and folded. Truthfully, the outcome had probably never been in doubt.

A moment later, as she idly wondered if there was any V-8 in the school vending machines, the older woman started when her back brushed the side of the pool. Somehow during their banter, Helena had eased them from the center to stand in chest-deep water. The younger woman's hands slid from Barbara's waist, and the redhead looked down to see her legs being lifted to wrap around the other woman, Helena supporting her effortlessly with her hands under her thighs.

Barbara found the position intensely intimate and erotic, reminiscent as it was of some feverish encounters she'd had many, many years ago. With her chest pressed against her partner and their bodies separated only by thin layers of lycra, she felt utterly, deliciously, open and exposed.

Struggling to find her balance, she traced her index finger along the scooped neck of the brunette's tank.

"I really love this suit on you."

When the younger woman finally responded, the redhead thought that Helena seemed distracted. Of course, since the brunette had her mouth firmly latched against her neck, it was a little difficult to be certain.

"I'm glad you like it. Guess I could start wearing it for sweeps..."

"In... ohhh... indeed," she somehow managed.


The vibration against her ear seemed to signify agreement, but, for the life of her, Barbara couldn't remember about what. Arching into the contact, she was noted that she was surprisingly unconcerned about the uncharacteristic memory lapse.

"Yeah, maybe housecleaning, too."

It took the older woman a beat to process the words which tickled her ear just before sharp teeth tugged at her earlobe. The image of her partner exuberantly vacuuming the clock tower in her tankini, unfortunately, proved more powerful than the fire trailing down her neck, and she threw back her head in laughter.

Bemused blue eyes rose to meet green. As Barbara fought to control herself, she gratefully acknowledged that her partner was exhibiting a great deal of patience with her spate of mirth.

"I'm sorry, Sweetie," she gasped between indelicate snorts. "I just had a vision of D-- Dinah's face if she caught you -- "

She paused to catch her breath.

"-- if she caught you dusting in your swimsuit."

The brunette considered that, flashing an entirely self-satisfied grin.

"Yeah, I guess she would be jealous or something."

The redhead snorted again, play-swatting her companion's upper arm before locking her hands behind Helena's neck and leaning back to take in the woman before her. The younger woman remained still under the scrutiny until Barbara smiled with genuine regret.

"I am sorry, Hel."

The brunette smiled tenderly and raised one hand from the older woman's leg. Barbara's eyes fluttered at the delicate brush of fingers along her jaw.

"No fooling around in the school pool, huh?"

As tempting as the idea of 'fooling around' anywhere with Helena was, the older woman couldn't ignore the visceral discomfort the idea evoked. It wasn't surprising that her partner would pick up on her reaction.

"No good, huh?"

The younger woman exhaled and straightened her shoulders.

"Yeah, I can see that. But..."

Barbara cocked a brow and waited when a devilish gleam entered cerulean eyes.

"...I do know about some good spots under the bleachers."

The tension broke.

"As tempting -- and as chilly -- as that sounds," the redhead replied archly, "I believe that I'll hit the whirlpool."

The other woman grinned, side stroking to the steps with the redhead and declaring that she planned to play on the diving platforms. Warmed by her partner's cheerful acceptance, Barbara allowed the brunette to help settle her in the hot tub, smiling fondly as the brunette finally bounded away, whistling a few bars from The Stone's "Beast of Burden."

Not too many minutes later, the redhead decided that -- although it couldn't compare to fooling around with the younger woman -- her choice hadn't been a bad one. She was surrounded by wonderfully hot water which jetted against her, relaxing her utterly. An added bonus was the opportunity to observe her beautiful partner executing one flawless dive after another from the ten meter platform. Mouth watering at the vision of sinewy muscles highlighted by the two skimpy pieces of blindingly white material of the tankini, the older woman felt herself rapidly approaching nirvana -- or, at the very least, wet noodle territory.

Consequently, when she was suddenly struck by a force more intense than she'd experienced since her shooting seven years before, Barbara was completely unprepared for the pain which ripped through her.

Chapter 7

"This is such a pain!"

The exasperated exclamation pulled Barbara from her rapid scans of the results of her latest internet search. Straightening fractionally, she removed her glasses and then joined her ward by the coffee table where Dinah was sifting through a veritable rain forest of documents, forms, and brochures.

The older woman tendered a sympathetic smile.

"Scholarship applications can be daunting. Presumably," she added, "to insure that only the most motivated students apply."

Pale blue eyes met emerald, clearly intimating that motivation was in short supply.

Time for a pep talk or some sort of assistance.

Taking a moment, the cyber genius surveyed the spill of paperwork on the low table, instantly calculating the purposes of the different forms and documents.

Perhaps if the morass were organized in a more logical fashion...

Barbara shook her head, catching herself in the nick of time. She, of all people, understood just how personal categorization schemes could be. Frequent questions and "helpful" suggestions from her previous ward during her early days at the Delphi about just how the older woman chose to organize her electronic files had led to some heated discussions and periods of mutual sulkiness. After calming down, the redhead had occasionally allowed that some of her protege's observations were not without merit; however, they'd reached detente only after Helena had assumed responsibility for organizing the training room equipment, leaving Barbara to her own devices with things electronic.

"What seems to be the problem, Dinah?"

The teen dramatically flung herself backward on the couch, her confusion and dismay visible. The older woman waited while the girl breathed deeply and marshaled her thoughts. A beat later, she was off.

"Well, I can deal with most of this stuff. You know, tracking down school records all the way back to kindergarten even though I don't remember going to kindergarten, writing to my junior high teacher to get proof that I was on the yearbook staff, asking teachers for letters of recommendation, having copies of my SATs and ACTs sent out, doing the essays and discussion questions...?"

The older woman nodded at the hint of a question. It hadn't been that many years since she'd filled out her share of academic paperwork, even if it had been for her third Master's degree rather than undergraduate scholarship applications.

"But, I mean, this section on hobbies and special skills is driving me crazy!"

The redhead pursed her lips against a smile. Considering that she, herself, had recently embarked on her little venture with Bruce and Dick around the time she entered college, she'd had a pretty strong suspicion about what underlay Dinah's current upset.

"I don't think," the blonde continued, seemingly oblivious to her guardian's sympathetic nod, "they're interested in hearing about hanging out at the mall or going to movies with my friends, and I sort of left my stamp collection in Opal. So, it's kind of hard to come up with recent stuff. Or, at least..."

Dinah shrugged helplessly.

"...recent stuff that I can put down."

Faintly miserable pale blue eyes met green.

" 'Cuz, are they really going to get it if I say that I fight crime and can make a temporary fish tank in mid-air?"

Laughing quietly, Barbara commiserated, "Some deeds do need to go unsung, Dinah; however, I'm sure that the fish you saved at the toy store are very grateful."

Surprisingly, the two young vigilantes had found a few survivors in the carnage at the store. While Helena had scouted for a suitable temporary home for the creatures, Dinah had constructed a TK bubble to hold them and a supply of water. After the brunette had emptied a miniature space shuttle, she'd insisted on snapping a picture of the fish floating, seemingly in mid-air, before allowing the teen to release them to their new, high tech home.

Barbara had been considering having the image enlarged and framed, perhaps to replace the presidential plate hanging over the centrifuge.

To her credit, the blonde joined in with her guardian's laughter before sobering.

"I know, Barbara, and it's really not about that."

The redhead nodded. She was quite aware that none of them were in search of gratitude and glory.

"I just feel so... boring, I guess," the blonde finally admitted.

This time, Barbara had no compunctions about her bright laugh.

"Hardly that, Dinah."

The shy duck of the blonde head caused something to squeeze in the older woman's chest. Lowering her lashes for a few seconds, Barbara took stock, opting to go with concrete deeds rather than abstract reassurances.

"For instance, what about the weather modeling simulation you put together?"

The girl peered up uncertainly, and the redhead nodded decisively.

True, Dinah's motivation had been in helping her older partners plan certain sweeps activities around the worst of New Gotham's notoriously horrid weather; however, the effort and results were impressive.

Gaining momentum, the redhead easily came up with another suggestion.

"Don't forget the Trivial Pursuit competition you and Helena arranged at the Senior Citizen's Center last fall."

Helena's primary input, apparently, had involved arranging prizes for the winners while Dinah had handled, in essence, everything else for the tournament. The event had gone off flawlessly, and Barbara was still amazed by the Seniors' enthusiasm for the silky robes, bottles of expensive liquor, and questionable videos which the brunette had rustled up from various "anonymous donors."

A few more forays into the redhead's mental filing cabinet readily restored the teen's confidence, simultaneously kicking her own memory into gear. Satisfied that her charge could continue on her own, the older woman wandered into the kitchen and put a small pan of milk on to simmer, adding three large squares of chocolate to the warming liquid. After a moment's consideration, Barbara shrugged minutely and dropped two more squares into the pan.

Helena had checked in a few minutes prior to the unexpected call to assist Dinah, and, if the younger woman's evident boredom were any indication, the dark vigilante would be returning from The Speak Easy momentarily. The redhead really couldn't fault Helena's eagerness to wrap up the assignment: a poetry club certainly wasn't the brunette's typical choice for recreation and, as the young vigilante had declared, the club district was a trifle dull on Sunday evenings.

Nevertheless, after analyzing the results of the blood work from Tuesday's brawlers -- there had been absolutely nothing of note; none of the men had even been legally intoxicated -- the cyber-crime fighter had felt that a bit of reconnaissance was in order. Background investigation hadn't revealed any common threads in the men's lives; however, in reading through the police reports and interviews with the men involved in the incident, one glaring similarity had emerged in three of the stories.

Apparently, Messieurs McClure, Gumble, and Smithers had all been provoked into a brawl to protect the honor of the woman who had been reading at the microphone. One of the other men, Mr. Gaffney, had made an inopportune remark, setting off the fight, and the other six had simply been unlucky enough to have been caught in the fray.

Clearly, a bit of investigation was in order to locate the poet who had evoked such a strong response in her listeners.

Barbara pulled an oversized mug from the cupboard, feeling a tiny smirk dimple her cheeks as she recalled outlining the situation for her partner several hours earlier. While she was genuinely curious about the woman at the club, the redhead thought that the almost comically incredulous expression which had passed across the younger woman's face had also made the assignment worthwhile.

Hearing the balcony doors rattle, the redhead poured the cocoa into the mug, taking care not to break the milk skin on top: for some reason, Helena loved it. She schooled her features, then exited the kitchen with the mug balanced between her legs.

"Hello, Helena."

The brunette acknowledged the soft salutation with a tight smile, shrugging noisily out of her duster. Only then did she inhale deeply, slowly releasing the breath and a small measure of her tension with it.

"Hiya Red. Kid."

The stacks of paper on the coffee table caught her attention, and the lithe figure strolled over, raising her left brow.

"What's all this? Are we being audited or something?"

Barbara joined her younger partners at the sofa as Dinah giggled.

"No, it's just some forms for scholarships I'm applying for."

The brunette's low whistle of appreciation brought a blush to the blonde's pale features. Barbara caught dark blue eyes with her own, smiling her thanks and waiting until Helena dropped onto one end of the couch before leaning over to extend the cocoa.

The younger woman accepted the offering, nostrils flaring as she delicately sniffed the steam, then barked out a laugh.

"Shit, Barbara, you got anything stronger than this?"

"How did it go?", the cyber-crime fighter finally ventured as her younger partner sipped appreciatively from the large mug.

The brunette took her time settling the cup on a semi-clear section of the coffee table.

"Dull as dust, Barbara. I deserve hazard pay for a gig like that."

Dinah giggled again at the aggrieved reply, and the older woman snorted softly.

"Surely it wasn't that bad."


The younger woman flung herself dramatically back on the couch, the gesture eerily similar to Dinah's earlier display.

"I damned near drowned in my drink -- on purpose."

The brunette paused for a split second, one brow quirking.

"And, don't call me 'Shirley'," she deadpanned.

Hmmm. Obviously the factual approach wasn't the the way to go.

"I'm sorry, Sweetheart. I do appreciate your... sacrifice."

The older woman again caught the other woman's gaze, attempting to convey that she would make it up to her later. The sympathetic words -- or, perhaps it was the unspoken message -- seemed to soothe the brunette a bit.

"Yeah, well, I guess it wasn't that bad," she allowed, poking her index finger into her mug to swirl the milk skin covering the top.

Apparently at the limit's of her endurance for both silence and curiosity, Dinah finally piped up.

"Did you find out who the woman was?"

Blue eyes sparkled in satisfaction.

"I had to bullshit about a lot of bad poetry, but I sure did. I even managed to track her down."

The teen straightened expectantly, and the redhead waited patiently. She understood the desire to relay a story for maximum advantage.

"One Lucille Patterson, although," blue eyes glinted wickedly, "I think she's really Morticia Adams."

Smirking at the blonde's giggle, Helena threw the girl a wink.

"Serious Goth look going on there."

After the two younger women settled down, Barbara prompted, "And, Lucille was at The Speak Easy tonight?"

Their luck was usually never that good.

The brunette popped her finger into her mouth, sucking the chocolate off in a way that Barbara found most distracting. Hygiene complete, the brunette sipped her beverage before fidgeting with the cup.

"Well, that was kind of the funny thing, Barbara. Once I got some of the regulars talking..."

She interrupted herself to fix the older woman with a pained look.

"-- Something which is not easy with some of those wallflowers, I'll have you know."

The redhead nodded her comprehension, confident that if anyone could break through a shy exterior it would be Helena.

"Well, seems like nobody'd ever seen her there before Tuesday. But, since a couple of guys said they'd seen here hanging around, uh..."

The younger woman's eyes darted briefly in Dinah's direction.

"...a rougher club, I caught up with her there."

The dark figure lowered her cup and cracked her knuckles.

"Lucy said she didn't know anybody at the poetry place. She'd just gone there the other night on, uhm, kind of a whim."

Barbara felt her forehead furrow as she processed that information. Her brows rose fractionally -- probably intensifying the wrinkles -- at the sight of Helena suddenly digging into the front pocket of her pants.

"Almost forgot," the brunette explained, pulling a folded piece of paper out of the tight leather garment, "I figured that her poem might be important, so I got her to write it down."

The leader of the little team smiled broadly. Her younger partner had very capably covered all of the bases.

"Well," Dinah was almost bouncing in her curiosity, "how is it?"

An inscrutable expression flitted across gamine features as Helena shifted to the edge of the couch and unfolded the paper.

"You tell me. I'm no English Lit guru or anything."

When she had her audience's undivided attention, the young woman placed one hand over her heart in a dramatic pose and consulted the page.

"I crawl through the oozing slim of our love / Your chains and brands letting the blood flow. / My heart in your hand beyond my limits / Blood and shit and sphagnum feed the hungry rose --"


The English teacher had to interrupt.

"Sphagnum... moss?"

Considering the, er, Gothic tone of the work, Barbara thought that Spanish moss might have been more appropriate.

Blue eyes widened innocently.

"I didn't write it."

"Thank heavens."

The older woman's soft chuckle was apparently a signal of sorts, and the two young women on the couch erupted into laughter.

"That's awful!", Dinah managed to gasp.

Accepting the paper, Barbara had to agree with the critique.

"Dreadful. Nevertheless, I'll check it for encoding or subliminal messages."

Green eyes blinked as the cyber-genius realized that she was going to have to type in the love poem, since the scanner would have difficulty with Lucille's curly-cued script.

This job truly was not all glory.

The brunette sat up, wiping tears from her eyes.

"Seriously, Red. It's the only explanation for Morticia inspiring not one but three Lord Byron wannabes to violence."

Leaving the two young women to a contest of increasingly bad literary puns, the redhead returned to the Delphi. While Helena's explanation was not the only one, it was a possibility; and, since the stanzas weren't mutating themselves, perhaps her decryption program could turn up something.

An hour or so later, as the cyber-genius attempted to piece any meaning from some of the almost whimsical interpretations which her routine had churned out, a shadow fell over her screen.

"Find anything?"

The low soprano burred across her ear, evoking a shiver, and the redhead leaned back, resting her head against her partner's firm abdomen.

"Well, it is possible that the Delphi can turn out better poetry than Ms. Patterson," she allowed wryly.

Strong fingers worked the tight muscles of the older woman's neck, and Barbara sighed her pleasure. A heartbeat later, she remembered herself, snapping her head to the side to check the couch. A dim memory of having bid Dinah good night half an hour before eased her concern.

"Relax, Barbara," soft lips brushed the redhead's jaw, "the Kid's asleep."

The older woman accepted the advice, reaching up to capture one of the hands which was so expertly kneading away her perpetual stiffness. She pressed a feathery kiss to slender fingers, not missing the way that Helena's belly contracted against her or the trembling in her hand. She carefully tugged her partner's hand, pushing back from the keyboard and turning as the brunette circled to face her.

"This other club, Helena," she probed, coaxing the smaller woman to her lap, "which one was it?"

The brunette gracefully settled herself, resting her knees deep in the padding on each side of the older woman's legs. Unable to miss her partner's agitation, Barbara ran her hands soothingly up and down the younger woman's arms.

"Really intense place," Helena murmured, eyelids drooping, "called Chains Of Love."

Green eyes narrowed slightly.

The name rang a bell, and that club would have quite a different ambiance from The Speak Easy, perhaps accounting for her partner's... restlessness.

Further opportunity to explore that hypothesis ebbed away when full lips brushed the redhead's throat. Barbara arched into gentle nips and soft kisses, barely able to decipher the words purred against her skin.

"I want you so bad, Barbara."

The older woman took a measured breath, feeling a bit like a fish out of water. Unfortunately for her, she didn't have a TK bubble to provide an environment to help her adapt to her sensual partner's turbulent desire.

Gentle fingers trailed the outer swell of her breast, and the redhead stiffened minutely, disengaging from the delicious torture at her neck. She raised one hand, tangling her fingers with those at her side.

She just needed to slow things down, take time to think...

The sight of her partner's face -- somehow simultaneously hard and softly, achingly, vulnerable -- pushed her instinctive reticence aside.

Helena wanted... needed... her.

Instantly humbled... and terrified... and terribly, terribly aroused, the older woman released her partner's fingers and eased between them to rest her palm against the brunette's chest. The hard pounding of the younger woman's heart reverberated through her fingertips, and Barbara felt her own heart stutter to match the cadence.

Cautiously, she inched to the side, whispering her fingers over Helena's shirt to circle the heavy flesh outlined by soft leather. The redhead's throat constricted, and she struggled to swallow at the younger woman's almost inaudible gasp.

How could the younger woman be so... ready?

Biting at her lower lip, Barbara cupped the soft swell under her fingers and brushed her thumb across the hard peak which rose to meet her. The brunette whimpered softly, arching into the tentative touch, and the older woman felt her partner's heat leaching into her pores, suffusing her with her own burning desire.

"Dear heavens, Hel -- "

The redhead stretched slightly, capturing her lover's mouth as her hands flew to the placket of the shirt. During the course of the hungry, wet kiss, Barbara fumbled impatiently with the small buttons, managing to free five before she tired of the exercise.

Five would have to do.

Ready to consume the other woman from the top down, she snaked under the leather, working to tug Helena's form-fitting tank up against the tight over shirt. Her frantic movements stilled when her partner pulled away with a harshly panted whisper.

"Here -- "

Barbara blinked in confusion at the sight of slender hands grasping the scooped neck of the undergarment; a low moan escaped her at the sound of the fabric rending. The instant that the material parted, revealing tanned flesh and offering a glimpse of tantalizing shadows, the younger woman dropped her hands to the arms of the chair and ducked her chin to the side, averting her gaze.

The redhead forced herself to still the instinctive movement of her hands, to give herself time to absorb the vision in her lap.

The younger woman was fixed in place, hands gripping the arms of the chair so tightly that Barbara was surprised that the metal hadn't yet bent. Her entire body trembled, hips jerking minutely against the redhead's belly as she panted softly.

Something fierce sparked inside the older woman, and she confidently raised her hands to push back the tattered edges of the soft cotton. Slowly, she spiraled her fingertips around the heavy flesh she'd exposed, then bent to capture a rose-hued tip.

"Oh, fuck, yes..."

Barbara delicately laved the puckered flesh, thrilling as it contracted and became impossibly harder. At the same time, she cautiously cupped the other mound in her palm, squeezing lightly. The woman in her arms torqued under her, thrusting urgently against her belly.

Helena's plea was almost lost in her keening whimper.

"More -- "

The redhead could do nothing by accede to her lover's request. Almost overwhelmed by the urgency of the brunette's reaction, she shyly dropped her free hand to the laces of the tight leather pants.

"Is this what... what you need, Sweetie?"

Helena's urgent thrusts simply... froze, and Barbara felt the other woman finally turn back to her, soft lips tickling her ear. The words she made out through the brunette's ragged gasps were oddly stilted.

"If... if it's... If you want."

Somehow, the reply caught the older woman off guard, and she swallowed roughly, brushing her mouth tenderly against the soft-hard flesh before her.

For a beat, she stilled her hands' movements, trying to process and comprehend the layered meanings in the moment. Her partner's need, her own reaction, their location: it was all exposure, rawness. The feelings engendered by the realization were by no means unwelcome, but they were... unfamiliar.

Strong finger wound through her hair, tenderly pressing her head forward a few millimeters, and Barbara unhesitatingly opened to the nonverbal request. Warm breath caught red hair while the motion against her own lower body redoubled.

"Yeah... That -- that works, too."

Unable to find purchase on the laces, the redhead gripped her lover's flank, working in time with Helena's movements and the avid motion of her own mouth. She planned to remedy the situation momentarily; however, the redhead discovered that there was no time.

Awed, she felt the other woman bury her face against her hair, sinewy muscles locking under her. An instant later, every working nerve in Barbara's body surged under Helena's muffled scream.

Chapter 8

Show me how you do that trick
The one that makes me scream she said
The one that makes me laugh she said
And threw her arms around my neck
Show me how you do it --


Turning into the parking lot, Barbara brusquely snapped off the CD player and concentrated on finding a suitable spot. While the disabled parking places looked big enough and were certainly convenient, she preferred to leave them open for those who really needed them. Resultantly, the redhead found herself cruising up and down increasingly distant rows in search of a likely space.

"Mmm hmmm, lost and lonely..."

Although her companion undeniably had a lovely voice, the older woman suspected that Helena's sudden melodic outburst had little to do with her appreciation for The Cure's catchy tune. Ignoring the quiet singing, just as she determinedly refused to glance over and verify the presence of a smirk which she could literally feel radiating from the passenger seat, Barbara sighed soundlessly.

Perhaps Helena did have a point about the unwieldiness of the Hummer for daily errands, but the redhead just couldn't help it: she really enjoyed driving the boxy SUV.


The older woman felt heat touch her cheeks over her gloating exclamation about finding a parking place.

There was no need to become defensive, after all. Helena was being remarkably circumspect about the parking venture and had displayed nothing but good humor about Barbara's chosen destination.

The older woman opened her door and slid her chair out. Snapping it open, she struggled not to apologize again about their location.

Not their parking spot, of course: neither woman minded a bit of a hike. It was where they'd be hiking to which had Barbara feeling apologetic.

As relentlessly logical as she could be, even the redhead had to admit that inviting her young lover to join her on a jaunt to the bookstore was, possibly, a bit less than inspired for a make up date. Yet, their harried schedules and Barbara's need to get her hands on several texts dictated the trip if she hoped to have time with her partner apart from their other life.

Shrugging philosophically, the older woman maneuvered into her chair and joined her companion at the back of the vehicle. She embarked on the trek through the parking lot with the brunette at her side, all the while absently organizing the list of items she wanted to pick up: some encryption texts; something dealing with holistic medicine; perhaps something light for the bedside. Oh, also more trivia questions for the Quiz Bowl team.

As they approached the store entrance, the redhead slowed and looked to the side. Bright blue eyes were avidly devouring the colorful sales and marketing posters in the picture windows, and Barbara felt an undoubtedly goofy grin working to escape her.

Helena truly was being a champ about the whole thing.

When the older woman had called her partner from school a few hours earlier to suggest the ad hoc get-together, it had been impossible to miss the brunette's lukewarm response. Helena had recovered quickly however, exhibiting a cautious interest in the trip and acknowledging that Buy The Book did stock almost every magazine title known to man.

Barbara had taken pains not to inquire about which hard-to-find titles her younger friend might have stumbled across at the large bookstore; she was simply grateful for the rather lame attempt to make up for their interrupted time together at the pool two days before.

For some reason, the sudden crippling pain which had struck her had put a bit of a damper on their time together on Saturday, and the older woman felt distinctly cheated.

Saturday's attack had doubled the redhead over, leaving her gasping. Despite her position on the platform at the far end of the aquatic center, Helena had somehow been at her side in an instant, sliding into the hot water to cradle the older woman to her.

"What is it, Barbara?"

Still working to breathe through the agony, arms wrapped tightly around her stomach, the redhead had managed to croak a reply which had, doubtless, been less than informative given her obvious physical state.


The pain had begun to recede, although not with the same speed that it had appeared, and Barbara had felt strong arms lifting her from the whirlpool. Helena had simply dropped down on the steps, cradling the larger woman easily in her lap, pressing her lips softly to the redhead's temple and waiting out the pain with her.

The older woman had slowly recovered her composure and looked up to meet her partner's concerned gaze.

"Damnedest thing," she'd managed, touching her torso lightly midway between her hip bones, "just hit me out of nowhere."

She followed the path of her partner's hand, watching as the other woman pressed against her lower abdomen. Helena's soft question carried clear notes of puzzlement and worry.

"Like, uh, cramps?"

That had garnered a rueful laugh on the redhead's part.

"More like labor pains, I'd guess, Sweetheart."

Barbara had looked up, watching some of the younger woman's concern subside. Obviously, the brunette realized that if her partner was able to laugh about the situation, things might not be too dire.

"Besides," the redhead had continued, "even... before, I never had cramps, and even if I've suddenly developed them, I certainly wouldn't feel it."

She'd considered that for a beat, reaching the obvious, albeit baffling, conclusion.

"Some sort of phantom pain, I'd guess," she'd posited mildly.

Helena hadn't been as easily convinced.

"Are you sure? Something that strong...?"

The older woman had nodded briskly, then softened her expression as the brunette had finally settled her in her chair. Just because it was something which she'd not experienced in years -- and something she'd never experienced with such intensity -- didn't mean she couldn't be certain. It was, in fact, the sheer enormity of the sensation which convinced her of its very unreality; after all, if there had been a genuine pain response below her waist, odds were that she would have been completely oblivious to it.

Nevertheless, to ease her partner's concern -- and because it was the responsible thing to do -- she'd managed to contact her doctor and wrangle an unusual late Saturday afternoon appointment.

Being the daughter of the former police commissioner, not to mention having the resources of the Wayne fortune on call when needed, certainly went a long way in opening the doors of the medical community.

She and Helena had spent the remainder of the afternoon, and much of the evening, filling out paperwork and waiting for one test after another: CAT scans, sonograms, blood tests.

It had not been Barbara's preferred way to mark the six-week anniversary of acknowledging her feeling for her companion, and, repeatedly, she'd had to grit her teeth to avoid taking out her frustration on the nurses and technicians.

The tests had all come back reassuringly normal. In fact, the most interesting part of the ordeal for the crimson-haired crime fighter had been chatting with her doctor about the recent break in and vandalism at his practice: nothing had been stolen, however, every bit of glass in the office -- from test tubes, to the partition at the receptionist's desk, to the fish tank, to the lava lamp in his office -- had been smashed. Mercifully, discussing the incident with her partner had provided some distraction; if not for that, Barbara thought she might have simply... gone postal during the protracted waiting between tests.

In the two days since the incident at the pool, the analytical woman had tirelessly dissected the event. In the early days after the shooting, she'd voraciously consumed every bit of material she could lay her hands on about paraplegia and its resulting complications and occurrences. There had been a number of times -- most notable shortly after she and Helena had begun their nocturnal venture and she'd listened to her partner in the field sailing through the skies of New Gotham -- that she'd experienced phantom aches and twitches in her lower body. However, the location and intensity of the pain in the hot tub was something she'd never before imagined.

Conversant as she was with the topic, Barbara knew that the strength of phantom pain was often commensurate with the loss one felt. She recalled recently reading about a violinist who had lost an arm and, years later, continued to suffer from crippling pain in the missing limb whenever he heard string music. Given the position of her own pain and the recent changes in her life, it didn't take a mind as sharp as hers to deduce what might have caused the attack.

Hence, after entering the warehouse-sized repository and agreeing to meet her partner later at the coffee bar, the redhead immediately turned to the section containing medical information. While she'd already run numerous searches on the 'net and was reasonably confident that she'd found the paucity of current research on the topic, sometimes having a physical text in hand proved... illuminating. If nothing else, something on the mind-body connection might suggest new avenues for consideration.

After a leisurely perusal of the three rows of titles nebulously organized under the rubric of "Health", Barbara select two of the less New Age tombs and, with considerably more enthusiasm, headed unerringly to the Mathematics section. Since she knew exactly what she wanted, it only took the cyber-genius a few minutes to pick out a half-dozen works on computational mathematics, data analysis, and Zimmermann's coefficient.

Deciding that she'd grab the latest best-seller from the front of the store for her bedtime reading, the redhead moved cheerfully to her last stop: trivia. Sharp green eyes ran over the spines of two-dozen possibilities before a familiar blue cover caught the older woman's attention.

The distinct sensation of being watched prickled at the redhead's senses a few minutes later, and she slowly raised her gaze from the book in her hands. When she discovered just who was standing only a few feet away, Barbara snapped the book shut and plopped it on top of her stack -- although The Book of Lists was a bit esoteric for Quiz Bowl, it did provide dandy cover for the other titles -- and pasted on a smile.

"Alethea -- "

What were the odds of running into a fellow faculty member from the high school while she had a stack of Ph.D. level mathematics texts in her clutches?

"My, my, fancy running into you here, Barbara."

The history teacher's voice was pure treacle.

"I thought I saw your... friend over in the periodicals section."

The older woman shook her head, tsking sadly.

"It seems that you still haven't helped her learn to dress properly."

The redhead felt her brows crease slightly, and she restlessly shifted her pile of books.

Helena was wearing jeans and -- green eyes narrowed and flickered to the left -- the fringed top which Barbara had, eventually, come to appreciate.

Smiling stiffly, she managed, "Helena has always had a wonderful fashion sense. It just took me a while to appreciate it."

The other teacher peered primly over her glasses.

"I see. Still, I'm surprised not to see... what is her name, Diana? -- here with you. After all, I was under the impression that you would want to be... training her."

Barbara felt the blood begin to boil in her veins, and she clenched her hands around the books in her lap lest she give in to her impulse to employ them as make-shift batarangs.

She simply would not give the old biddy the satisfaction of forcing her into a display of temper.

Slowly, she unlocked her death grip and backed into the main aisle, smiling with tremendous sweetness.

"No, I'm afraid I couldn't find Dinah's leash tonight."

Pausing for a beat, she blinked her eyes innocently.

"You don't happen to have one of your spares with you, do you, Alethea?"

The other woman's eyes widened behind her lenses in a display of affronted dignity. Completely unimpressed, the redhead consulted the store directory before continuing brightly.

"If you'll excuse me, I just remembered that I need to pick up some books on voodoo dolls."

With as much aplomb as she could muster, Barbara turned toward the section on the occult, wondering if the steam rising in her system was visibly emanating from her ears. Only after she was certain that the other woman had disappeared into the knitting section did she roll to a stop, torn between tears and a somewhat wild urge to laugh.

Good. God.

Alethea was certainly the biggest, most bitter, busybody at work; however, Barbara was well aware that the older teacher was often merely the mouthpiece for the whispers and innuendo of others.

Crimson lashes fluttered rapidly before signage on the end of a row caught the redhead's eye.

'Human Sexuality.'

If that wasn't an invitation to distract herself, nothing was.

Determinedly dismissing the other woman, the redhead performed a precise turn into the row of books. It was there that Helena found her some time later debating the merits of Susie Bright against the classic "Joy of Lesbian Sex". The patently wicked smile which instantly transformed the younger woman's face at the sight of the titles made Barbara's decision for her.

She'd just take both.

The older woman added the two paperbacks to her stack, craning a bit to smile over the pile.

"I'm all set, Hel. How about you?"

The brunette held a slender volume in her hand; it appeared to be a study of several O'Keefe prints. The redhead gestured an invitation to add the item to the tower on her lap, but the younger woman simply grinned and shook her head as the two slowly made their way toward the front of the store.

"Nuh uh."

"Nuh. Uh?", the English teacher repeated, seeking clarification.

Blue eyes danced.

"Hey, I don't know what the weight limit is on your chair, but I don't want this to be the final straw or something."

Barbara came to a stop, waiting for a register to clear, and ruefully surveyed her booty.

"Do you think I overdid?"

She glanced guiltily at the newest John Grisham beckoning from an end-cap; with regret, she virtuously decided to forego.


The younger woman leaned over and gracefully snagged the novel from the display.

"...It'll only take you -- what? -- a couple of days to get through 'em all, right?"

The older woman laughed lightly, confessing, "It really depends on how much free time I have, Sweetie."

A register opened, but before Barbara could respond to the beckoning clerk, warm lips brushed her ear.

"In that case, Red, it's gonna take you a looong time to read 'em all."

Thumping her stack on the counter and reaching for the two titles in Helena's hand, the redhead blushed extravagantly when she made out her companion's next words.

"And, you should definitely start with the last two that you picked up."

Barbara primly pulled out her credit card, then turned to fix her partner with The Look. The brunette immediately affected a contrite expression.

"Uhm, so, ready for coffee now, Barbara?"

As she signed the charge slip with a flourish, the older woman considered her companion's overly chipper question. She looked up to meet the sweet blue eyes downcast in the hangdog expression which never failed to melt her, and she couldn't resist her impulse.

"Actually, Hel, how would you feel about having dinner out?"

Minutes later, with the younger woman's happy smile still warming her to the base of her spine, Barbara put the Hummer in gear and decisively clicked on the CD player. Then, she set out in search of the most public restaurant she could find.

Spinning on that dizzy edge
I kissed her face and kissed her head
And dreamed of all the different ways I had
To make her glow
Why are you so far away? she said
Why won't you ever know that I'm in love with you
That I'm in love with you
You... Soft and only
You... Lost and lonely
You... Just like heaven

Chapter 9

<"Mmmm, I think I've died and gone to heaven.">

Green eyes rose from their intense scrutiny of a database listing and narrowed in bemused confusion. When she'd dispatched her partner in response to a silent alarm, Barbara, frankly, hadn't expect that sort of reaction.

A little whining or -- the redhead admitted it -- some out and out bitching and moaning, perhaps, but not the lilting expression of happiness which had just filtered over the comms.

"And why might that be, Huntress?"

The cyber-crime fighter heard a pointed sniff, followed by a bashful chuckle.

<"Catnip, Oracle. Place is lousy with it.">

The redhead barked out a laugh.

"I suppose that would be the place for it, Huntress, but I didn't know that you enjoyed -- "

Something tickled her analytic side.

"Still, Huntress, did the burglars break open the packages?"


The response was deliberate.

<"It wouldn't matter anyway.">

The older woman had the uncomfortable impression that her remote partner was sounding a little... dreamy.

<"This is some fresh stuff. Primo.">

There was the briefest of pauses before Helena elaborated.

<"Real Maui Wowie.">

Crimson brows crawled skyward.

How had she managed to miss this... predilection through the years? Granted, Barbara had never particularly been on the lookout for signs of a -- green eyes blinked rapidly -- a catnip habit, but certainly something should have been apparent.

Perhaps she'd been too lax. During her first years as the guardian of the angry and hurting teen, the young redhead had kept a constant vigilance for signs of drug use, relieved beyond measure when she'd determined that her ward simply didn't seem interested. She'd suspected that the girl's choice to just say no might have had more to do with her unique physiology than concern over legal or moral issues: Helena's system simply burned off drugs -- from antihistamines to pain killers -- almost faster than they could affect her. Regardless, as delighted as she'd been that there was at least one battle she'd not need to wage with her ward, it was possible that she had unconsciously overlooked other habits.

What on earth were the effects of catnip on a metahuman?

When Barbara heard soft humming -- Was that The Door's "Light My Fire"? -- she realized that it was time to get things in hand.

"Huntress? Are you alright?"

The older woman flinched slightly at the sharpness of her question. Her partner's utterly... mellow response did little to reduce her edginess.

<"Groovy, Oracle. How's it hanging back in your little corner of paradise?">

Straightening her shoulders with a noisy exhalation, Barbara raised a hand to pinch the bridge of her nose. Idly, she considered whether any of her herbal teas -- possibly ground up and rolled in paper -- might alleviate her tension.

"Huntress? Why don't you step outside for a bit?"

The melodic humming continued, interrupted by a brief solo on what the redhead identified as an air guitar. Neatly divided between concern -- it simply wouldn't do to have the police, whenever they arrived, finding the younger woman in her current state -- and amusement -- some controlled experiments might be... educational -- Barbara marshaled all of the authority she'd garnered from years on the streets and in the classroom.



The redhead rolled her eyes -- damned near crossed them -- in vexation.

<"Oh, yeah. You said something about going outside, didn't you? Why?">

The brunette seemed genuinely baffled, albeit utterly unconcerned.

<"Sure, it's a marvelous night for a moon dance and all -- ">

Van Morrison? The older woman blinked, fully expecting to be treated to another round of her partner's song stylings.

<"But, I thought you wanted a report on the pet shop.">

Exhaling noisily again, the redhead raised both hands this time to rub small circles against her temples.

"That would be lovely, Huntress," she eventually allowed, the tiniest edge of sarcasm creeping into her message, "if you were up to it."

Instantly, the younger woman's voice was all business, leaving her mentor dizzied by the transformation.

<"Why wouldn't I be up for it, Oracle?">

Barbara belated realized that she'd been had, admittedly not the most difficult feat for her partner to pull off.

"Droll, Huntress. Very droll."

It took the dark vigilante a full fifty seconds -- and the older woman watched each and every one tick by on the clock on the corner of her screen -- to rein in her laughter.

<"Oh, man, Oracle...">

The redhead pursed her lips patiently as another guffaw snerted over the transceiver.

<"...you should have heard yourself!">

The cyber-crime fighter shook her head, wondering if she'd been pushing her partner too hard. A short vacation might do the young woman some good.

<"Okay, okay. I'm sorry.">


Ignoring the fact that Helena's gleeful tone didn't really complement her apologetic words, Barbara opted to focus on business.

"If you've finished with your fun -- "

She pointedly ignored a murmur which sounded suspiciously like the words "For now".

"-- perhaps you can tell me what the situation is?"

When she'd picked up the alarm from Fur, Fins, & Feathers not too many minutes before, the cyber vigilante's first instinct had been to ignore it. However, something had scratched at the back of her mind, provoking her to cross reference the shop's address. When she'd discovered that the pet store was in a strip mall, with a dental clinic on one side and a shop named "House of Mirrors" on the other, she'd found it to be entirely too much of a coincidence to be a coincidence.

A growing suspicion that there were vandals with a medical and/or glass fetish prowling New Gotham made the break in worth investigating. Thus, as her partner in the field had made her way to the store, Barbara had pulled up all of the police and private security reports from the last month, dumping them to a hastily constructed database. She'd just begun sorting the data when Helena had arrived at the scene.

"Did they break in to one of the neighboring businesses?"

<"Doesn't look like it, Oracle, but this place is a mess. Every cage, tank, and terrarium has been smashed.">

Refocusing on her database sort, the older woman knit her brows.

<"There are lizards and gerbils and mice and birds running -- and flying -- all over the pla-- Whoops!">

Barbara jerked her head up at the sound of atypically graceless clattering.

<"Some snakes, too.">

The redhead chuckled soundlessly.

Payback could be a bitch.

Something on the monitor caught her eye, and she attempted to make sense of the pattern she detected in the reports from the last few week's incidents. Not completely forgetting about Helena's situation, she absently inquired, "Do you think you can catch them?"

The cyber-genius continued to type briskly until an exasperated huff alerted her to just what she'd suggested.

"Er, some of them," she amended. "There's no need to have the dental patients completely traumatized tomorrow."

<"Well, I suppose I could...">

The brunette's voice was a teasing drawl, however Barbara detected a rumble through the transceiver which raised the hair on the nape of her neck.

<"...but I think it would give most of them little rodent heart attacks or something.">

An image of feral eyes glittering in the darkened shop arrested the older woman's typing. She cleared her throat and spoke crisply.

"Point taken, Huntress."

Almost certain of what she was seeing, Barbara leaned forward to stare at her monitor.

"What about the fish?"

A puzzled laugh was the other woman's only reply until the redhead's abstracted silence seemed to convince Helena of her partner's sincerity.

<"Uh, I think they're sort of beyond saving, Oracle.">

The older woman tamped down on her impatience. After all, the brunette wasn't yet privy to what she was seeing.

"Are... were there tropical tanks? Do you see anything out of the ordinary?"

Neither woman noted any irony in the question. In their line of work, "ordinary" often carried unique connotations.

Silenced reigned for a few minutes while Helena presumably investigated the exotic fish section and Barbara efficiently copied selected entries from her primary table to a second table. A low whistle finally interrupted the older woman's work.

<"You're right, Oracle. There are fresh water fish all of the floor, but there aren't as many tropical fish as there should be if the number of tanks is an indicator.">

The redhead nodded. Her partner's description confirmed what she'd deduced from the historical reports: namely, the vandals weren't just breaking glass; they were targeting businesses with salt water aquariums. While Barbara was aware that many species were quite valuable, it still seemed like a risky venture for a rather esoteric market.

On a hunch, she began a keyword sort of the theft descriptions in her secondary table.

"Thank you, Huntress. By any chance can you determine if one or more species was particularly targeted?"

The brunette's nearly instantaneous response, coinciding with the display of the weighted list of keywords, suggested that the young vigilante had been following her mentor's thought process. The hushed words, identical to the blinking green display at the top of the list, sent an icy tendril winding down the cyber-crime fighter's upper back.

<"Clown fish.">

Straightening again, the redhead stiffened her shoulders against the sensation of cold fingers tickling her spine. She slowly rolled her head to release her tension, then spoke lightly.

"I understand that they are prized for sushi in some areas."

A blinking light on another monitor distracted Barbara from the younger woman's response -- something having to do with wasabi -- and she gratefully concentrated on the report coming in.

"We have another alarm, Huntress. A disturbance at a warehouse near the docks. Are you interested?"

The sound of rapid movement and an anticipatory growl were answer enough.

<"Kind of busy for a Thursday,"> the brunette observed conversationally.

Only the sound of air rushing across the microphone gave any indication of how rapidly the dark woman was moving toward the address Barbara had provided.

<"I was sort of looking forward to catching some 'Crocodile Guy' on Animal Planet with you tonight.">

It took the older woman a beat to connect the reference to a memorable evening not too many weeks before. Managing a tight smile -- over the expected blush -- she popped open another screen, interfacing with their digital video recorder.

"I'm taping it, Huntress."

Heaven only knew how she'd explain the recording should Dinah notice it.

A soft purr in her headset simply evaporated the redhead's concern.

<"Cool. I'll see if I can wrap this up in a hurry.">

Apparently, the older woman allowed wryly, both she and her partner were in the mood for a bit of... distraction after their little discovery. It could be nothing but coincidence, of course; recent movies had made the cute fish quite popular. Still...

Working fluidly despite an odd shakiness in her fingers, the cyber-genius brought up a new terminal window.

She'd been performing her usual checks at Arkham; however, an anonymous suggestion to double -- no, triple -- check the integrity of certain cells didn't seem unwarranted.

A soft hail interrupted her work.

<"You copy, Oracle?">

Green eyes flitted to the GPS, confirming that Helena had arrived at the warehouse. The brunette had made record time.

"I copy, Huntress. What's going on?"

<"Well, there sure is a disturbance of some sort. I can hear moaning and shouti--">

Barbara hadn't been in the field much for years. Nevertheless, the sound which cut off the younger woman's description was unmistakable... and unforgettable.

It was a scream of pure agony.

<"I'm going in.">

The clatter of breaking wood and glass -- presumably a window which Helena decided to use for her headlong entrance -- drowned the older woman's words of caution. Barbara soon discovered that the sound of the window collapsing had been nothing compared to the noises of mayhem and carnage which followed.

Chapter 10

Wanly surveying the disarray on her plate, Barbara couldn't understand how a two-egg omelet could appear so overwhelming. She poked at the mess again -- she hadn't actually eaten more than a few bites, but she hoped that pushing it around would convince her brunch companion otherwise -- before placing the tines of her fork neatly against the edge of her plate and touching her napkin to her lips.

"You must be stuffed -- "

The redhead gratefully snapped her gaze upward, ready to launch into an enthusiastic description of the food she'd barely touched and wondering if a request for an Alka Seltzer would be over-doing it. The knowing blue eyes twinkling over the rim of a coffee cup neatly ended her theatrical aspirations.

"-- after those two bites you choked down."

The cyber-genius shrugged awkwardly and offered a tiny apologetic smile. She certainly didn't want to give the impression that she wasn't happy they'd braved an early Spring snowstorm to share a leisurely Saturday brunch.

Those acute blue eyes across from her narrowed speculatively, and Barbara almost flinched at the note of accusation in the next words she heard.

"You're not dieting again, are you? I keep telling you that you look just fine..."

Laughing softly, she shook her head and lifted her fork.

Perhaps another bite or two would relieve that concern.

The redhead toyed with her utensil, unable to muster any enthusiasm for her breakfast. She resettled her fork on the side of the plate and cast about for something cheerful and carefree to revive the stilted conversation.

A moment later, she found herself making a mental note to schedule a CAT scan. Somewhere between her brain and her mouth, neurons were clearly misfiring: the words which were spilling from her own lips did not fall under the headings for either "blithe" or "happy."

"Dad, do you think I'm some sort of pervert?"

Since they had been engaged in a somewhat desultory conversation about Dinah's imminent college decision and Barbara's incipient empty nest syndrome, the segue was a bit abrupt. Yet, while the question seemingly came out of nowhere -- as evidenced by Jim Gordon's sudden sputtering into his after-breakfast coffee -- it was by no means unconsidered. As a point of fact, for the last thirty-two hours, Barbara had been giving the idea a great deal of thought.

Unfortunately, she realized with a sinking sensation, that fact did not serve to ameliorate her discomfort under her father's puzzled scrutiny. Nevertheless, she forced herself to remain still, allowing the older man time to consider the sudden inquiry.

As she waited, the redhead began to wonder if her internal chronometer had been affected by the... neural hiccup which had caused her to blurt out the question she'd been pondering.

Surely more than twenty-five seconds had elapsed.

When her companion finally spoke, Barbara -- despite her nervousness -- was amused to note that her father responded to the query in much the same way that she would have if one of her wards had suddenly dropped it in her lap.

"Why do you ask, Barbara?"

The redhead knew exactly why she was asking; however, that didn't seem to make it any easier just to... lay things out, as it were. Catching herself fiddling with her fork again, she primly lowered her hands to her lap and locked her napkin in a death grip.

"Well, Dad, there are certain factors -- er -- changes recently which have, uhm, led me to re-eval... to evaluate..."

Oh, good grief.

Listening to her own stammering, the redhead couldn't fathom her own incoherency.

After all, she'd thought through it all, repeatedly, during the long dark hours of the early morning. Considering that she could have been enjoying the lures of Morpheus -- and the warm embrace of her bedmate -- it was completely ridiculous, and unfair, that she was now failing so miserably in presenting the issue which she'd sacrificed her sleep over.

In the darkness, in the solitude of her own thoughts, it had all seemed a great deal more logical and straightforward and, well, easier to discuss. Perhaps if she took a breather, jotted down some notes for herself, or put the entire mess into an e-mail or a flow-chart or a nice linear time-line...

Expectant blue-grey eyes regarded her patiently, reminding the cyber-genius that she was, supposedly, engaged in a conversation of sorts. Quirking her lips in consternation, the analytical woman cast about for a lifeline.

Her father spared her what would have, undoubtedly, been an awkward attempt.

"Is this about your relationship with Helena?"

Green eyes blinked once. Slowly.

Barbara drew in a deep breath and slowly blinked again. Her father's mild query seemed more like an anchor than something to keep her afloat in the conversation.

The redhead raised her water glass and took a minute sip, suddenly experiencing a tremendous welling of empathy for Dinah and the awkward conversation the teen had bravely initiated a few weeks before.

"My relationship with H--?", she croaked, pausing to clear Michigan J. Frog -- and his entire family --from her throat.

A blushing glance revealed only warmth and love in her father's expression, and Barbara instantly let her discomfort go.

Most of it.

"In a manner of speaking, yes. Yes, it is, Dad," she acknowledged.

The calmness of her reply amazed her. The admission cost her -- had been costing her -- dearly.

The question was one Barbara had been dancing around for weeks, if not years. However, the incident at the warehouse two nights before -- or Helena's reaction to it -- had somehow brought it to the fore.

After the heartrending scream which had echoed over the comms, the older woman had had no idea what her partner would find when she made her dramatic entrance. Even after the dark vigilante had burst into the warehouse, meaningful descriptions had been in short supply.

While 'Get the fuck off her', snarling, and pummeling might eloquently convey the possible urgency of a situation, they did little to provide a meaningful picture of just what was contributing to the exigency.

Barbara had managed to retain her equilibrium throughout the first few minutes of the brutal beating which her partner had seen fit to hand out. She'd even remained calm, although hardly complacent, when the sound of masculine crying and screaming had begun.

After their years together, she had learned to trust her partner's judgment in matters of administering swift justice.

However, when the redhead had heard a woman's voice -- the same woman, if she weren't mistaken, whose scream had drawn the young vigilante into the warehouse -- crying and begging for the dark vigilante to cease her attack, she'd had to act.

"Huntress! Please respond!"

Barbara hadn't quite yelled, however, after years in the classroom, the redhead knew how to project quite a bit of authority. Unfortunately, the stentorian tone seemed to have had no effect. Slow, deliberate blows -- the older woman had distantly thought they sounded like open-handed slaps -- continued in rhythm with her partner's darkly furious words.

<"Not such a big guy now, huh? Can't handle a woman who isn't tied up?!">

The brunette's taunts -- accompanied by masculine whimpers and feminine pleas to stop the attack -- had galvanized the cyber-vigilante.

"Huntress, please respond."

This time, she'd been calm, realizing that it was her best approach to break through her partner's rage.

"Huntress, please... I'm worried... I need to know if you're alright."

The older woman hadn't had much doubt about her partner's physical well-being; however, her emotional state was another matter. It didn't happen often, and actually hadn't occurred in almost a year, but when the brunette was confronted with certain situations -- usually those involving the victimization of the helpless -- the results, both for the perpetrators and for the young vigilante, could be unpleasant.

Barbara's appeal to her partner's concern for her had done the trick. The blows had ceased, and, as if coming up for air, the younger woman had finally responded.

<"Yeah, Oracle. Uh, I'm... okay.">

The redhead had exhaled soundlessly, working to put the noises from the comms into place.

A dull thump, like a large sack of wheat hitting the ground: probably Helena releasing the man from her grip. A whispering snick and soft sawing: presumably the brunette using her blade to release the woman from some sort of restraints. Helena's soft, pained panting and quiet whisper -- <"Put this on; he's not going to hurt you now.">: that had been clear enough.

The rescued woman's response, initially, had been anything but clear.

<<"G--get away from me! What's wrong with you?! Why did you hurt him?!">>

Barbara had been achingly aware of her partner's confusion even as the scenario she'd feared suddenly seemed very likely indeed. Wearily, she'd listened to an exchange which was alternately terrified -- the woman -- and incredulous -- Helena -- and sneering -- the man.

Apparently, her partner had just put her life on the line to interrupt some noisy and genuinely brutal but, nevertheless, consenting sex play.

"Huntress," she'd kept it low and calm, "what's the situation?"

<"The situation?!">

Barbara had been hard-pressed to understand her partner's continuing outrage. After all, she was quite certain that the younger woman wasn't, by any stretch of the imagination, prudish or unconversant with the multitude of ways in which people sought pleasure.

<"This poor kid is more messed up than I thought. She's trying to tell me that she wanted what this guy did to her.">

"It's possible--" she'd begun, only to be cut off by a decidedly smug masculine voice.

<<"The little bitch does want it. She's finally starting to figure it out.">>

<"Figure what out?">

The words had barely been decipherable under the dark woman's thick growl.

<<"Simple. All sex is really about is reaching our limits, then transcending them.">>

Barbara had arched a brow at the self-righteous words, then immediately winced when the man foolishly continued, taunting the brunette.

<<"You may dress the part, but it's obvious you don't get it.">>

She'd interrupted her partner's growl.

"Huntress, you need to leave. Now."

The other woman hadn't been easily convinced -- <"Come on, lemme pulp him a little more..."> -- but Barbara had eventually all-but-ordered her partner to leave. If the woman maintained that the encounter was consensual, then nothing illegal had transpired.

Well, nothing illegal except for Helena's dramatic B&E.

The younger woman had remained pointedly silent on her return from the warehouse; however, the moment that she'd burst through the balcony doors, she'd let loose.

"You shouldn't have stopped me, Barbara! Or, at least, we should have hauled his ass to jail."

At a loss over the intensity of her partner's reaction, the redhead had ventured a response.

"He wasn't doing anything illeg--"

The agitated brunette hadn't wanted to hear it.

"You didn't see what he did to her, Barbara. It wasn't a little..."

Almost trembling, the lithe woman had paced the edge of the Delphi platform, searching for words.

"It wasn't a little bit of kink or something, Barbara. That guy was fuckin' brutal."

Suspecting that it wouldn't have been appreciated, the older woman had tamped down on her instinct to quote Hamlet about there being more things in heaven and earth. Instead, she'd focused on the facts.

"Be that as it may, Hel, it was consensual."

The brunette had spun to fix her with an anguished stare, her bitter words finally revealing the heart of Helena's distress.

"Fuck, Barbara," she'd almost spat, "like she could have consented to anything. She was just a kid!"

Barbara had blanched, fearing that she'd made a grave error.

"A k-- child?"

The voice had sounded fully developed, but it could be so difficult to tell.

Clearly registering her mentor's horror, the younger woman had settled a tiny bit.

"No. Not underage or anything."

The redhead had lowered her lashes, soundlessly exhaling her relief, then looked up in puzzlement. Her young partner's expression had still been utterly... petulant.

"But, she sure as hell wasn't old enough to 'consent' -- "

Helena had laced the word with a copious measure of mockery.

"to that She couldn't have been more than a few years older than Dinah."

A sudden and complete icy calm had enveloped the older woman. With difficulty, she'd swallowed against something sharp and bitter in her throat and coolly met the other woman's gaze.

"Just-- Just drop it, Helena."


As obvious as his confusion was, the ex-police commissioner's tone was light.

"...what has you questioning your perversity, Barbara?"

Recognizing that she might have overstated things a tiny bit, the redhead brushed the figurative scarlet "P" from herself and mustered a tight smile.

"Okay, Dad, maybe not perverted, but..."

She creased her brows, searching for a way to explain.

"I'm afraid that I've... influenced Helena unduly. That I'm still doing so."

The older man took his time considering that.

"Hmmm, I suppose I can see why that could concern you a bit. Helena does love and admire you very much."

Green eyes blinked.

Was her father deliberately misunderstanding her?

"I meant, er, well, there's the age difference and--"

Jim Gordon cut his daughter off handily.

"If you recall, your Aunt Barbara was a few years younger than me."

The redhead acknowledged the truth of that with a nod, but persisted in her self-doubt.

"But, were you her teacher, Dad?"

Blue-grey eyes twinkled.

"Hmmm, I did teach her how to handle my service revolver."

For some reason, Barbara felt color rush to her cheeks at the words. No wonder Helena and her father got along so well.

"But, no," he continued, "I think, primarily, it was your aunt who taught me a lot of things. Just..."

The older man pointedly caught his daughter's gaze.

"...as I suspect that Helena does for you."

The redhead raised one hand to her mouth, instinctively covering her expression. Her father waited quietly until she finally met his eyes again.

"And, don't give me any of that hooey about having been her guardian either. That ended a long time ago, too."

The analytic woman rationally knew all of this; yet, she found herself unwilling to let her fears be dismissed so... lightly.

"But, I've been so--"

The former policeman raised his hand in the universal gesture for 'Stop.'

"Barbara, Helena is very much her own person. The minute I met her, I knew that she was headstrong."

Both Gordons smiled at their respective memories of the strong-willed teen.

"Trust me, if there is anyone other than you who knows her own mind, it's Helena Kyle."

Lowering her gaze to the table and fiddling with her coffee cup, Barbara processed her father's words. Eventually, she looked up with a tentative smile.

"Thanks, Dad."

The older man stretched forward and covered her hand with his.

"Be happy, Barbara. Love is a wonderful thing."

A comfortable silence followed as the redhead allowed her companion's words to soak through her. Inevitably, however, a different question scratched at her.

"Dad, how did you know about...?"

She hadn't mentioned the shift in the relationship during their calls of the last few weeks.

The distinguished man leaned back, and, even though it was a smoke-free environment, he fished in the side pocket of his jacket for his pipe. Absently tapping the stem of the empty Meerschaum against his lip in a gesture which reminded the redhead of something, Jim Gordon smile indulgently.

"Helena and I had lunch last week."

Blue eyes twinkled at the memory.

"She invited me, as a matter of fact. It seems she wanted to... secure my blessing, I suppose you'd say."

Green eyes flashed for a split second as the fiercely independent woman struggled to understand her younger partner's gesture.

It was completely antediluvian... and hopelessly patriarchal... and utterly impractical... and horridly chivalrous... and tremendously sweet... and... and just perfectly, perfectly Helena.

Eventually, the redhead puffed out her cheeks and blew out a long breath.

"And, did she?", she finally asked with what she suspected was an altogether silly sort of grin.

Knowing the force of nature that Helena was, Barbara didn't really doubt the outcome of the conversation. Still, she had to ask.

The older man smiled indulgently.

"She most certainly did, Barbie."

The cyber-genius' grin widened when she heard the nickname which only her father was allowed to use.

"She obviously loves you very much, and if there's anyone in this world who would do anything to make you happy, it's Helena. And..."

Those sharp blue eyes twinkled.

"...she makes you laugh."

Unable to deny that, Barbara chuckled and speared a bite of her omelet, chewing the congealing eggs with gusto. Her father placidly watched her tuck into her breakfast for a few minutes before leaning forward to push an English muffin her way.

"Don't second guess her feelings for you, Barbara. And, don't ever doubt the power of love."

Chapter 11

"Where do we keep the power tools?"

Absorbed in determining how she could adapt the Warner-Hecht algorithm to work with her encryption program, Barbara didn't look away from the screen.

"Hmm? I believe they should be in the gear closet, Hel. What do you need?"

She distantly registered that her partner was already moving toward the closet.

"Circular saw."

Pi might work as one way to add an x-factor to the algorithm, however there was more than the circumference of cir...

Helena's answer had been muffled, and so the redhead turned to address the shapely posterior visible in the closet doorway.

"The circular saw?"

"Uh huh."

The brunette's voice carried a note of victory as she backed out of the closet, item in question in hand.

"D's doing a magic thing for the Senior Follies next month, and I'm gonna help her with the Sawing the Lady in Half routine."

The younger woman shut the closet door and smiled cheerfully, turning toward the training room. Given the information her partner had just imparted and the fact that the medical supplies were in the training room, Barbara supposed that it was as good a location as any for her younger charges' project.

The redhead ventured a mild observation.

"I believe that a hand saw is more traditional for that act, Helena."

The brunette spun around, blue eyes narrowing briefly. The cyber-genius tilted her head to one side at her partner's wicked laugh.

"Yeah, but this is just for building the box, Babs."

The brunette's lips quirked, eyes sparkling, and the older woman steeled herself.

" 'Sides, Barbara, hand saws are so 1980s. Some kid's dad has a chainsaw that they're gonna use."

The redhead blinked, managing a 'Gee that's swell' expression as Helena bounded into the other room. She turned back to her monitor and made a mental note to check on the school's liability insurance: after the fire during the previous year's production of 'South Pacific', she didn't know how much coverage the school still had.

With a mental shrug, she again lost herself in her programming zone to the accompaniment of vigorous sawing and hammering -- not to mention giggling -- from the training room. At some point, as she thumbed through one of the texts she'd picked up earlier in the week, the decidedly too-innocent sound of a low soprano captured her attention.

"Okay, D, you hold the nail there, and I'll pound it."

Barbara reflexively winced and straightened, about to call out a suggestion about the merits of using a pair of needle-nosed pliers for that particular task. She stopped herself, glancing down to survey an almost invisible bump on her forefinger.

Some lessons simply had to be learned through experience.

Enthusiastic pounding echoed from the other room; however, since no shouts or cries ensued, the redhead assumed that Helena's natural grace had prevented an "accident". Helena's subsequent utterance, delivered with genuine admiration, forced her to reconsider her assumption.

"That's so cool, Dinah. How many do you think you can hold at once? Or, heck, you think you could push 'em in with your TK and save me the hammering?"

Smiling fondly, the older woman returned to her work, both annoyed that she'd created the Gordian knot for herself and, a bit perversely, pleased by the challenge. The cryogenic applet had done the trick, halting the encrypted message mutation cycle; after that, cracking the message had not been too difficult for the decryption program.

Therein lay the rub.

Since Barbara had programmed the encryption schema, she suspected that she was a bit... vested in its success. Even if it had merely been an exercise to test her decryption routine, she found herself miffed that its output could be decoded so easily.

Thus, having boosted her decryption program's prowess, the redhead now felt a little like a hamster on a wheel, laboring to improve the encryption routines again.

Hours later, the sound of music -- specifically, music from the 'Shrek' soundtrack, if she weren't mistaken -- again dragged the cyber-genius from her abstraction. Rotating her neck, she wondered how random her partners' choice of CDs had been.

Obviously, it had been a... tactical error when she'd spontaneously channeled the animated hero of the movie a few weeks before after making the connection between Frank Loewen's laser and a spate of jewelry thefts. Since then, the two young women had seemingly made a mission of not allowing her to forget the flight of fancy. Barbara had been finding small Shrek items -- Pez dispensers; trading cards; a Donkey hat, complete with ears -- tucked throughout the clock tower.

Frankly, she suspected that Helena was behind most of the whimsy. However, Dinah had certainly had something to do with the Princess Fiona bobbin' head doll which had floated around the Delphi platform the week before.

Barbara stretched again as the music beckoned and her curiousity nibbled at her. She'd about reached her limits for her Zen programming; her latest obsessive checks showed everything in order at Arkham; and she was still waiting for her fleet of 'bots to finish scouring cyberspace for crimes involving Clown fish.

Was it time for a break?

The analytical woman deliberately jostled her work surface, and Princess Fiona vigorously nodded her encouragement from her position atop the primary monitor. Loathe to refuse advice from a fellow redhead, the older woman saved her work and briskly decamped to the training room.

Pausing in the doorway, Barbara felt a huge grin split her features. Dinah and Helena were busy painting the box they'd constructed while they danced to the contagious lyrics of the Baha Men.

Helena, naturally, was utterly graceful -- and terribly, terribly seductive -- limboing and shimmying to the hip-hop beat in paint-spattered tee and ripped jeans. However, even the normally self-conscious Dinah had thrown her inhibitions to the wind, hopping from foot to foot and wielding her paintbrush with cheerful abandon.

Utterly unconcerned by the fact that the two young women were spilling as much paint as they were applying, the redhead laughed brightly and applauded as the song wound down. Two heads -- one fair and one dark -- snapped her way.

"That was wonderful," she enthused as she approached, casually assessing her proteges' carpentry.

The angles were relatively square, and the sides, essentially, plumb. Altogether, not a bad job for a snowy Saturday project which was slated to be cut in half in a few weeks.

Looking back up, Barbara caught the tail end of a disturbingly conspiratorial look between the two carpenters and sucked in a breath. The brunette sauntered slowly toward her.

"C'mon, Red, it's not a spectator sport," the dark woman purred, extending a spare paintbrush.

The older woman primly accepted the brush and took a closer look at the artwork in progress. Apparently an astrological motif...

Suspicious, the redhead circled to the back of the box -- Helena's side -- and quirked her lips. While there were some judiciously placed stars and planets on that side, they scarcely eclipsed the more telling portions of a voluptuous sorceress' anatomy.

"Hit it again, D."

The older woman jerked around in time to see the teen press the repeat button on the stereo. At the same moment, the brunette bounced over with an infectious smile and a fetching shake of her hips, bright blue eyes locked on green.

I get such a thrill
When you look in my eyes
My heart skips a beat, girl
I feel so alive
Please tell me baby
If all this is true
'Cause deep down inside
All I wanted was you


"C'mon, Babs, dance with us."

Slender fingers caught hers, the limber young woman ducking to spin easily under their joined hands. From the corner of her eye, Barbara saw Dinah dip her brush into yellow paint and dance to the end of the box. Bowing to the moment, the older woman laughed and dropped her free hand to pop her chair in time to the music.

Makes me wanna dance
It's a new romance
I look into your eyes
Best years of our lives


The cyber-genius had never denied that she was a bit 'dancing-challenged'; however, her younger partner seemed to have rhythm to spare. For the duration, the redhead lost herself in spinning and grooving, moving with a rare joy and lack of concern. Nevertheless, as the song segued to something slower and Barbara neatly wrapped up an inspired arm wave she'd dredged from her memory, she recalled that there was an element of work involved in their little party.

With a quick wink at her partner, she assumed responsibility for the couture of the buxom figure on Helena's side of the box. Some time later, as she made her final strokes on a flowing sash, Barbara looked up and found herself drowning in cerulean eyes which were, seemingly, fixed only on her.

"Looks like we're done," the brunette grinned. "Wanna call for pizza while the Kid and I hit the video store?"

Two delicious pizzas, one and a quarter marginally entertaining DVDs, and one long shower later, the redhead sat at her dressing table, carefully working moisturizer into every millimeter of skin.

Turpentine was simply so drying.

Satisfied with her ministrations, she finally slid into bed and picked up her new best-seller, eager to see what twists and turns would turn up in this novel by the prolific author. She distantly registered the hall door to her bathroom opening and closing and assumed that her boisterous partner had finished her brain cell massacre with Dinah and called it a night.

Frankly, after the first twenty minutes or so -- after "the girlfriend" had disappeared from the movie -- Barbara hadn't been able to comprehend the two younger women's interest in the completely derivative story about a Special Weapons And Tactics team.

The redhead had barely gotten through the first half of her novel when Helena, wrapped in a towel, emerged from the bathroom. An impressive cloud of steam billowed behind her.

"That was quick," the older woman noted without irony.

Helena offered a saucy wink.

"Thought I'd leave a little hot water for the Kid."

With a quick shake of shaggy, damp hair, the brunette released her towel, tossing it casually over the hamper. She dropped a tank top and pair of underwear on the night table before crawling onto her side of the big bed.

Barbara circumspectly observed the glorious amount of firm, tanned flesh on display beside her, feeling something seem to twitch in her abdomen. Smiling warmly, she arched a brow in question.

"Thought you could check and see if I got all of the paint off," the younger woman supplied easily.

A trifle distracted, the redhead made the mistake of speaking without thinking things through.

"But, your clothes should have kept the paint off --"

The sight of very amused blue eyes batting blandly -- and expectantly -- kick started the older woman's brain.


Sometimes, the vivacious younger woman simply had the best ideas.

"You're right, Hel," the redhead murmured, turning toward her partner, "it would be just dreadful if you missed anything..."

Barbara took the younger woman's rumbling purr to signal agreement and promptly began a slow, careful inspection. Moving with intent, she whispered lightly-calloused fingertips over the silken flesh of her partner's torso, working both to relax and to arouse. The redhead was deliberate in her movements, touching almost every square inch of skin presented to her, from the younger woman's forehead all the way to her toes.

Throughout, even when she coaxed the dark woman onto her stomach, Barbara never lifted her fingers from golden skin. Yet, knowing just how sensitive her partner was, she kept her touch -- and the tiny kisses she couldn't hold back -- butterfly light. By the time she swept her palms lightly down the back of lean thighs, Helena's soft whimpers were an unremitting background to the redhead's own labored breathing; the twitching of sinewy muscles, a tantalizing counterforce to the older woman's careful movements.

In a state of almost mindless nirvana which even Siddhartha would have been hard-pressed to achieve, the redhead almost jumped when the writhing figure under her hands abruptly pulled away, rolling to sit up on her knees.

Blinking rapidly to reorient herself, Barbara supported herself on one arm and fixed her partner with an unapologetically disgruntled look.

"Uh, maybe I should check you, too, Red. You know,"

The lithe woman offered a smile and a half-shrug which managed to be sweetly charming and unbearably sensual at the same time,

"...make sure you got all the paint off, too?"

Wordlessly, the redhead pushed upright with a smirk and efficiently stripped her own tee over her head.

"Well, Sweetie, cleanliness is next to--"

Oh, dear god...

The sensation of incredibly warm, silken skin sliding over her bare torso completely derailed the cyber-genius' thoughts. An instant later -- too damned soon -- the blissful experience ended when her partner pushed upright, slender fingers curling under the elastic at the waist of Barbara's boxers.

Blue eyes peeked shyly from under thick, dark lashes.

"These too, Red?"

The older woman swallowed audibly and wet her lips, nodding slowly. She watched those stunning blue eyes shift to gold and continued to fix on her partner's face as the younger woman dropped her gaze, following the garment's decent.

Without moving from her position by the redhead's ankles, Helena tossed the shorts to the head of the bed -- Barbara didn't miss that they were within easy reach -- and lifted the older woman's right foot to her lap. The older woman smiled tenderly as her partner rubbed her thumbs against her instep; her smile transformed to something a little less... soft when the younger woman bent to graze her face along the unfeeling calf muscle.

"Man, you smell good."

Barbara heard a purring rumble, witnessed a quick movement of the brunette's jaw.

"Taste good, too."

The older woman's smile disappeared entirely at the vision of the dark figure nimbly shifting to prostrate herself over her thighs. Helena supported herself effortlessly above the older woman, lightly, seemingly randomly, brushing her face and upper chest across her legs. If soft purring were not indication enough, the sinuous movements of the brunette's lower body and the evident pleasure in her features left no doubt about the young woman's response.

Eventually, the brunette unhurriedly ascended to her torso, sweeping her hands over nerves which could -- and did -- sing under her touch. The sudden, acute sensation shocked Barbara to her core, and green eyes blurred, then blinked in astonishment.

Somehow, impossibly, during Helena's attentions below her waist, the eroticism of the younger woman's actions had been such that the redhead had forgotten... or not noticed... that she wasn't feeling her lover's touch. The realization left the relentlessly logical woman lightheaded.

Warm breath against her ear grounded the redhead, concurrently impressing on her that there would be far better times than the present to analyze the odd phenomenon.

"Turn over? Gotta check your back, too, Red..."

Barbara snorted softly but obligingly shifted, aware of her partner's unobtrusive assistance. The brunette started her work at the older woman's neck this time, dawdling over a tension knot by the redhead's left shoulder blade, nosing playfully under her arms, washing the small of her back with warm strokes -- claiming that she'd found some paint there. Relaxing under the tender, playful attention, the redhead concentrated on the thick heat welling within and the reasons behind it.

Love-making with previous partners had never been like this. Before the shooting, her encounters had largely been about flesh and sweat and urgency. Since then, well, perhaps flesh had been involved, but there'd been damned little sweat or urgency.

This, however... This was something else, blending the physical and emotional almost seamlessly. Under her partner's hands, Barbara felt loved and desired in ways she'd never dreamed of, much less allowed herself to hope for.

A playful humming drew the redhead from her musing. Slender fingers continued to brush her lower back, however the absence of other sensation and the slight dip of the mattress near Barbara's knees suggested that her partner had moved down to straddle her legs.

The older woman's unconcerned glance over her shoulder revealed that the brunette was, indeed, straddling her, bright blue eyes regarding her... hindquarters with distinct interest.

Was that amusement in the younger woman's features?

"H-- "

The redhead cleared her throat.



She heard the younger woman shift and glanced back again, this time finding bright eyes fixed on her questioning face. A smirk painted itself across expressive caramel features before Helena offered an explanation.

"You've got the cutest little... dimple on your butt."

Not entirely thrilled with the resolution of that little mystery, the redhead snorted and decisively returned her chin to the back of her loosely crossed hands.

"I believe," she spoke wryly, "the word you're looking for is cellulite."

Sighing ruefully, she added, "I suppose I need to haul out that new case of Slim Fast."

As diligent as Barbara was in the training room, her passive exercise of her lower body simply didn't tone and condition the way that she wanted.


The brunette sounded distracted.

"You don't need to diet. And..."

Seemingly oblivious to her own illogicality, the younger woman continued with more certainty.

"...you don't want to lose too much. I know a guy from the bar who lost 3000 pounds, and he was miserable."

She was going to regret it. She was going to regret it. However, Barbara was helpless to stop herself.

Glancing back, she raised a skeptical brow.

"3000 pounds, Hel?"

Catching the bright flash of white teeth, the older woman prepared herself.

"Yeah, it was his '67 Mustang."


Contenting herself with that, the redhead returned to her previous position. Silence reigned for a few moments until she detected some sort of movement and shivered at the whisper of lips against the fine hair of her lower back. She had difficulty deciphering the brunette's purring words.

"Guess I could do a little lip'suction."


Seeking clarification, the redhead automatically emphasized the "O" in the word before she found a clue and her partner's meaning hit home.


Helena's next pronouncement did nothing to reduce the arousal which had just surged through her.

"You taste good everywhere..."

Amused, and aroused, by the words, Barbara twisted to look back. All air seemed to exit her body at the sight of a tousled head bent over her and tan fingers gripping her hips almost convulsively.

The cyber-genius exhaled slowly and squeezed her eyes shut, concentrating with every fiber of her being on imagining that she could feel... After all, she'd always had a vivid imagination. As a child, she'd often been singled out by teachers for getting lost in her own head. This moment seemed like a perfect time to put her imagination through its paces.

Accordingly, she cracked her eyes again to watch her partner's movements and drew on memory and knowledge and desire, all in the hope of being able to respond to the beautiful woman who was loving her so passionately.

Regretfully, Barbara realized that some of her... determination must have telegraphed itself to her lover, for the younger woman gradually disengaged herself and flowed upward to blanket her back. A tongue teased the shell of the redhead's ear before her lover spoke.

"Relax, Red. It's not a race or a contest or something. It's supposed to feel good being together."

There was absolutely no recrimination... or frustration... or any of the host of other emotions which the older woman thought might be warranted. That very fact somehow made her feel even worse.

"It does feel good, but I want to feel you, Helena."

As quiet and choked as her words had been, the redhead had no doubt that her partner had heard her. She forced herself to add the rest.

"You deserve someone who can respond completely."

Barbara felt a lingering kiss pressed to her shoulder blade before the younger woman husked her reply.

"I've got someone."

Crimson brows furrowed, and the redhead breathed slowly, attempting to find the sense -- any sense but the obvious one -- in the words. The brunette seemingly recognized that her utterance might be subject to misconstrual because her next words, while not exactly rushed, were... prompt.

"I meant you, Barbara. You respond to me."

The older woman sighed softly and reached back to catch her partner's fingers in hers, squeezing softly.

Helena really was simply too sweet for her own good sometimes.

The sensation of her hand being guided -- down her side and then under her own body -- recaptured Barbara's attention. Warm fingers cradled the back of her hand, positioning the older woman's palm and fingers carefully midway between her hip bones. At the same moment, the dark head behind her twisted and soft lips seized the redhead's throat, suctioning fiercely.


Helena drove their joined hands against the older woman's belly, and... and...

"Dear heavens..."

There had been movement: a flutter -- a faint but unmistakable... response.

The brunette delicately extricated their joined hands, sliding onto the bed by the older woman's side and wrapping her arms around her. Despite their slightness, Barbara thought her partner's arms were stronger than any she'd known.

"See, Barbara..."

The redhead opened her eyes, instantly lost in the emotions in her partner's deep blue.

"...you do feel. You just don't know it yet."

Utterly overwhelmed, Barbara blinked furiously and shifted onto her side to wrap herself tightly in the other woman's arms, burying her face against the brunette's chest.

Helena's strong heartbeat was tremendously reassuring.

The two remained still for a number of minutes, Helena's tenderly brushed kisses the only movement, before gentle fingers finally tipped the redhead's face up. Loving blue eyes twinkled.


The older woman narrowed her eyes, prodding at the lone syllable from different angles. Entirely uncertain about what to expect, she finally gave up.

" 'Nope'? "

Dark lashes fluttered innocently over deep blue eyes, a sinful smile transforming lush lips.

"That's right. No paint on you."

Chapter 12


Barbara hated the stuff.

Red foam noses, long floppy shoes, colorful rainbow wigs. Itty bitty cars, too.

Essentially, all things "clown".

Straightening from her download of recent criminal mischief in New Gotham, the cyber-crime fighter puffed her cheeks in exasperation, hoping that her little phobia wouldn't soon expand to include all Amphiprionae.

Clown fish were, after all, cute little things and, from what she'd gathered from her research, utterly inoffensive. An added plus, in the older woman's opinion, was the entire "mating for life" behavior.

The redhead roughly removed her glasses and tossed them next to her keyboard.

She was, she admitted, extremely weary of rolling through the hoops of fear which seemed to appear whenever they were confronted with the specter of one particular clown. Honestly, it was getting downright Pavlovian.

Not to mention, the redhead mentally amended with a smirk, like a bugaboo out of a very poor quality Stephen King novel.

Retrieving her glasses and absently tapping one earpiece against her lower lip, Barbara wondered what would be involved in setting up a saltwater aquarium and filling it with the tropical fish and, for variety, a blue tang or two. Of course, putting aside the purely reactionary nature of the idea and the fact that her younger partner might very well give all of the fish coronaries, there was the very real possibility that, by the time they figured out just what was going on, there might not be any of the little fish left in the city.

Barbara reseated her glasses and ruefully surveyed the latest additions to the petty crime database she'd set up five nights before. Since her first check on Thursday evening, there had been two more smash-and-grab fishing expeditions: another at a pet store and, more disturbing, one at a private residence. Two such occurrences in little over four days was not just an orange and white striped pattern; it was a giant red flag.

Somebody, or somebodies, in New Gotham was acting with purpose.

Unfortunately, the cyber-genius was having quite a bit of difficulty in coming up with reasonably plausible motivations for the crimes. Exhaustive searches had revealed no commercial use for the whimsical creatures; resale to hobbyists would have a very low profit-to-risk ratio; and the novelty sushi concept was of limited appeal. Barbara simply couldn't fathom why the colorful fish were being targeted.

Unless someone -- the redhead felt cold fingers trace her upper back at the vision of a specific green-haired, pasty-faced someone standing over her with a gun -- was sending a message...

Frustrated with herself, the crimson-haired crime fighter briskly shook her head.

Repeated checks by the staff at Arkham and her own compulsive scans continued to show that everything was in order. It was time to move on.

"What about freeing Willy?"

The older woman hiked her brows and endeavored to ignore the color flooding her cheeks as a host of images -- only a few relating to large mammals of the sea -- cascaded across her forebrain. With as much aplomb as she could muster, she removed her glasses and regarded her companion who had just returned from the kitchen with a large bowl of vanilla ice cream.

"I'm sorry, Dinah. I'm afraid I'm not following you."

The lanky teen leaned against the desk, scraping her spoon around the edge of her treat.

"Well, I just got to thinking that, maybe, someone is trying to rescue all the Clown fish so they can, uhm, return to the wild or something?"

The redhead considered that hypothesis while she watched her companion tucking into her snack. The two of them had been conducting various searches and tossing around ideas for almost an hour while Helena had chimed in with occasional suggestions during her quiet sweep. A convenience store robbery fifteen minutes earlier had sidetracked both Barbara and her partner on the street, leaving Dinah to her own devices; but, with two terrified would-be robbers on their way to jail, the blonde was obviously determined to get back on track.

"It's possible," Barbara finally allowed, "yet, the sheer destructiveness of the thefts doesn't demonstrate much concern for the well-being of the animals being rescued."

Nodding thoughtfully, the teen licked the back of her spoon and scrunched her eyes in thought.

"And, you can't find -- "

Apparently noticing the focused direction of her guardian's gaze, Dinah interrupted herself to extend the bowl in invitation. The redhead automatically lifted a hand to accept before, with an awkward jerk, she just as automatically caught herself and returned her hand to the keyboard.

Considering the discovery of a butt-dimple, as her partner had so charmingly described it, self-restraint was clearly the order of the day. Still, she had made do with a sensible lunch and dinner, and -- a distinctly wicked glint entered green eyes -- Helena really had seemed to appreciate the, er, landmark in question.

Qualms instantly dissolving, Barbara raised her hand again -- she supposed that she'd looked like some sort of mad orchestra conductor -- and accepted the bowl with a happy smile. She helped herself to a healthy spoonful and then returned the dish while her benefactor completed her question.

"-- uhm, any medical uses or anything for them?"

The redhead swallowed slowly -- no need to encourage an ice cream headache -- and licked a dab of vanilla from her upper lip.

"Other than the calming effects of watching them?"

The blonde smiled at the older woman's playful question just as a low soprano purred over the transceiver.

<"Like a regular living lava lamp, huh?">

The two women at the clock tower grinned, and Barbara returned to Dinah's question.

"Generally, no, Dinah. They do have the interesting mucus coat which seems to protect them from the poison of the anemones they live in, but I haven't found much current research or interest in that either."


The brunette was playfully indignant.

<"--don't forget about that whole gender change thing they do when their mates die. Now that's something medical science should be looking into.">

This time, Barbara chuckled audibly then, seeing the look in pale blue eyes, held her breath in anticipation.

"Why, Huntress? Are you thinking about making some changes?"

As playful as the teen's gibe had been, the redhead didn't even crack a smile. Instead, she blinked rapidly, wondering just what that little transformation might entail... for both of them, then minutely shook her head.

Although she'd certainly always previously preferred the company of the other sex, Barbara had to admit that -- at least as far as Helena was concerned -- gender truly didn't seem to be an issue.

<" .... which is why I have all the equipment I need, Canary.">

Unashamedly pleased that her brief distraction had prevented her from listening to her partner's response in its entirety, the cyber-crime fighter attempted to get things back on track.

"Speaking of equipment," she cut in smoothly, "if our fish fetishist is keeping his collection alive, it seems that he'd need quite a set-up."

The blonde set her bowl aside, almost wriggling in her excitement.

"So, maybe if we can access the sales records from the pet shops in town, we could get a lead?"

"Exactly. And..."

Long fingers flew over the keyboard as the teen moved to peer over the cyber-crime fighter's shoulder.

"...I think I'll put some sniffers on New Gotham's internet hubs. We don't want to rule out online purchases."

A decidedly physical sniff interrupted the work with electronic detection robots.

"Yes, Huntress?"

The younger woman was a bit sulky.

"Sounds like fun, Oracle. But, you got any crime right now for me to play with?"

Green eyes sparkled in appreciation for her younger partner's... enthusiasm, and Barbara checked the scanners. Regretfully -- and not missing the irony in the feeling -- the older woman relayed her bad news.

"I'm sorry, Huntress. It's quiet tonight."

She heard something which could have been a leather boot irritably kicking an aluminum can.


The brunette's succinct reply spoke volumes.

<"Guess I'll swing by the club district just to see if anything's happening then call it a night.">

Barbara automatically checked the on-screen clock and did some calculations. Since the odd brawl at the poetry club two weeks before, nothing out of the ordinary had transpired in the district. Thus, there was a good chance that things would be quiet this evening, and she could expect her partner to return not long after Dinah turned in.

She spoke briskly.

"Sounds like a plan, Huntress."

For the next half an hour, the redhead absorbed herself in coaching her young ward through the intricacies of programming and deploying a dozen transaction monitoring sniffers through the city's web hubs. Observing the girl's facility with the task, the older woman wondered what other parents -- not to mention her fellow teachers -- would have to say about the "quality time" she spent with the teen. She set that concern aside -- they were in a strange business, after all -- when the blonde excused herself for bed, after extracting Barbara's promise to show her how to hack into the various pet stores in New Gotham the next day.

If only her students at school demonstrated that level of enthusiasm for learning.

Noting the time, she decided to touch base with her partner in the field.

"Do you copy, Huntress?"

<"I copy. What's up?">

The younger woman sounded distinctly bored, however the redhead also detected a certain edginess as well.

"Actually, that's what I wanted to find out from you. Is anything going down?"

The dark vigilante exhaled noisily, almost masking the sound of rushing air and a soft footfall -- presumably one of her graceful leaps to a new rooftop.

<"Nah, it's pretty quiet. There's a lot of club hopping going on but nothing for me to sink my teeth into. It's just...">

Barbara waited patiently for half a minute before realizing that her partner might not be planning to complete her thought.

"Just what, Huntress?"

<"I dunno. There's a vibe or something. Folks are, uh, pretty physical tonight. It's like a frikkin' hormone soup out here.">

The redhead smiled at the puzzled description even as she knit her brows.

"I was under the impression that it's usually, ah, like that."

The other woman snorted softly, her words slightly abashed.

<"Yeah. It's probably just me.">

This time, Barbara's smile was fuller. And much warmer.

"That's not necessarily a bad thing, Huntress."


The short response was a little grumpy, but the younger woman's tone lightened as she considered that.

<"Yeah, Oracle, you're right. Guess that's why you're the big brain of the operation and everyt-- Waitaminute--">

The redhead straightened, automatically checking the scanners. According to the official sources, New Gotham was its usual law-abiding self.


Barbara honestly had no idea what to make of the purring exhalation.

"Huntress? What is it?"

The younger woman's teasing reply went a long way towards clarifying matters.

<"Looks like a little back alley action going on down there.">

Rolling her eyes, the older woman raised her right hand and, in a practiced gesture, used her thumb and index finger to push her glasses to her forehead while she pinched the bridge of her nose.

Apparently, it was time to encourage her libidinous partner to return to the clock tower and investigate some of the offerings on the higher-numbered tier of their satellite dish.

"Huntress, we do have vid--"

An angry hiss cut her bemused suggestion short and instantly flooded the redhead with adrenaline.

<"Fuck no, that's no hookup. That's a goddamned wolf pack!">

Chapter 13

<"Son of a bitch!">

The angry exclamation and the rush of air signaling one of Helena's dramatic descents from a rooftop were almost obscured by the rumble of masculine voices.

<<"Hold her right there!">>

<<"C'mon, girlie, you can't just lead us on like that.">>

<<Yeah, you gave it up for him. Share the love, baby.">>

<<"You tell 'er, Mike.">>

Helena's enraged snarl neatly cut off the men's taunts.

<"Get the fuck away from her.">

The older woman instinctively brought up her police dispatch interface, readying herself as male voices rose in anger.

<<"Back off, bitch!">>

<<"Yeah, wait your turn.">>

Helena's response was of a decidedly nonverbal nature. For several minutes, pummeling and curses provided a vivid narrative of the action for the anxiously poised cyber-vigilante. Since she was confident in her partner's abilities and there was no indication that Helena was having any difficulty dealing with the assailants, Barbara forced herself to remain still, not signaling for the police.

Eventually, the sound of shuffling replaced blows: presumably the men were beginning to take the lithe woman seriously and were falling back to regroup. Harsh panting and muttering replaced angry shouts: apparently the men also needed a breather.

It was Helena, not the slightest bit winded, who broke the standoff.

<"You guys ready to give up, or do you like pain?">

The question seemed to wound a few male egos.

<<"What's it to you?!">>

<<"Fuckin' bitch!">>

Barbara finally addressed her partner.

"Is everything under control, Huntress?"

Although her partner's words weren't addressed directly to her, the older woman gathered that they signified assent.

<"I'm gonna finish kicking your asses and then haul you in. Rapists are real popular in prison, you know.">

The threat -- promise -- evoked some indignant shouts and protests.

<<"Ra--? No way!">>

One of the men -- Barbara thought it might be Mike -- took charge, electing himself spokesman for his compatriots.

<<"Yeah, we weren't doing -- that. It's not like she said 'no' or anything.">>

The young vigilante made no attempt to disguise her disgust for the sneering defense.

<"She's in no shape to give consent to anything.">

The older woman detected heavy footsteps coming closer. Mike's voice was coarse.

<<"Well, how about you then? Can you give consent?">>

The cyber-crime fighter clenched her teeth, a muscle twitching in her jaw. Back in the day, she'd taken a great deal of satisfaction in dealing with creeps like these. Knowing that her protege shared her sentiments, she eagerly anticipated the dark woman's response. To her surprise, rather than the growl -- or punches -- she'd expected, Barbara heard her partner take a step towards the taunting voices.

When she spoke, Helena's voice had dropped an octave, becoming low and intimate. Despite the situation, the redhead shivered as an auditory memory of hearing that same tone against her ear from a sea of blankets washed through her.

<"Yeah, I can consent, and, as a matter of fact, I have been a little itchy tonight...">

The words elicited a round of less than subtle, but appreciative, feedback from the men. Barbara wearily guessed that some crotch-grabbing was accompanying the whistles and hoots.

So, what was the brunette doing?

<"But, since I'm pretty sure I can do a better job of satisfying myself with one hand tied behind my back than all of you guys could do with a truckload of Viagra...">

Not doubting for an instant the truth of her partner's disdainful words, Barbara snorted softly.

<"I'm just gonna have to say no.">

The gibe had the effect that the brunette had presumably been angling for, and bedlam erupted again.

Smirking at the volume of the men's shouts and the enthusiastic snarls from her partner, Barbara wondered if she could justify purchasing the equipment to measure the Pre-taunt and After-taunt decibel level of Helena's altercations.

It was only when masculine shouts transformed to whimpers, then snuffles, that the redhead detected cries from a previously unnoticed member of the incident. Furrowing her brows over what she thought she was hearing, the older woman thumbed up the volume of her transceiver.

<<"Don't... Oh, stop! Why did you hurt them?">>

The words were muffled by tears, but the voice seemed familiar. Trusting that her memory would make the connection, Barbara concentrated on the events in the alley as they came to her over the comm set.

<"What are you talking about? They were hurting--">

The brunette's confusion was palpable.


The soft syllable might have been lost under the sound of masculine moans save for the fact that quiet footsteps and increased volume suggested that the two women were closing the distance between them.

The fine hairs on the back of Barbara's arms twitched as her nerves tingled. Years of experience told her not to ignore the warning.

Something was... off.

"Huntress, what's going on?"

<"I don't know. She's--">

The sub vocal response suddenly morphed into a hair-raising snarl which was immediately followed by masculine whimpering. The redhead guessed that one of the attackers had been getting restless before the dark vigilante persuaded him to settle down again.

<"...She's confused, I think.">

<<"No, I'm not. I'm Adele.">>

The young woman certainly sounded confused.

<<"I know you...">>

The voice was very, very close to the microphone in the necklace around Helena's throat, and Barbara almost gasped aloud when she identified it.

<<"You were at the warehouse last week.">>

What were the odds?

The analytical woman recognized that she'd long had a skeptical streak a mile wide. After almost a decade and a half of protecting and investigating crimes in her city -- and after a decade of sorting through the excuses of her students -- she knew that she had long since ceased to be a doubter. At this point in her life, Barbara Gordon was an atheist when it came to accepting coincidences.

"Huntress? Is that the young woman from Thursday's incident?"

The whisper of skin across fabric sounded through the comms.

<"Ah... yeah.">

Crimson brows furrowed, clearly detecting how fast -- and hard -- her partner was breathing.

Had Helena been responding to her question or to something else?

<<"You're a bad one, aren't you?">>

Peevishly, Barbara wondered if Adele could get any closer to the microphone without actually crawling inside it. The next words she heard did little to improve her mood.

<"What... what are you... do you mean?">

<<"I can make you feel good.">>

Had that soft noise been a kiss? Some things took the concept of heroic reward entirely too far.

Barbara glanced up, observing Princess Fiona nodding her agreement. That made it unanimous.

To her credit, the brunette seemed to be trying to get matters back in hand.

<"Hey, uhm, you need to... settle... down?">

Leather creaked.

<<"I know how you like it. How you need it.">>

The slow click of a zipper was unambiguous. Helena's soft whimper, unequivocal.

<<"And, I can give it to you. Anything that you need, everything that you're not getting.">>

Rumbling filled the transceiver, its volume almost shocking after the breathy whispers.

In the early years of their joint venture, Barbara had often been concerned or baffled by the sound, mistaking it as she had for a malfunction or interference with the equipment. It hadn't taken too long for her to recognize the sound for what it was: one of her partner's rarely heard vocalizations.

Purring, to be precise.

The sound usually signified agitation, excitement, or even anger. More recently, the redhead had gained a first-hand appreciation for the emanation's significance in more sensual or pleasurable situations.

The older woman determinedly pushed aside the host of emotions inundating her, recognizing that the sound also signaled another emotion: distress. Considering the confusing situation which her partner was in and the fact that Helena seemed incapable of taking control, that interpretation seemed as plausible as any other.

While Barbara was quite aware of her partner's decidedly physical nature, not to mention her generally unconcerned attitude about sexual encounters, she did not -- would not allow herself to -- doubt for an instant Helena's commitment to her. In addition, there was the fact that the young crime fighter was in a none-too-private alley, surrounded by four barely subdued would-be rapists, dealing with an obviously none-too-stable potential victim.

It was time to get things focused.

"Huntress! Mind on the mission."

The older woman honestly hadn't intended for her words to come out quite that sharply; however, it seemed to do the trick. The brunette whimpered quietly, then gasped. The sound of hasty movement followed before Helena carefully addressed the other woman.

<"Listen, Adele, I don't know what's going on, but this is messed up. Are you sure you don't want me to haul these guys in?">

Baffled, Barbara listened to the exchange, recognizing that Helena had put herself on the line a second time for the woman, again apparently for nothing. As the young crime fighter wrapped up the encounter, the redhead idly wondered if the sex-crazed almost-victim would consider a suggestion about counseling and, somewhat regretfully, immediately dismissed the idea.

Each person had to find her own path. Adele would need to complete whatever... detour or scenic by-way she was on, in her own time.

After powering the Delphi to stand-by, Barbara headed to the kitchen and dug in a side cupboard. After the events of the evening, she suspected that both Helena and she needed a bit of fortification, and cocoa just wouldn't do the trick.

She'd just set two tumblers on the table next to the bottle of Jack Daniels when she sensed her partner's arrival. In deference to the bottomless pit which the brunette called a stomach, she positioned a box of Girl Scout cookies next to Helena's place.

"Hey, Barbara."

Green eyes snapped toward the doorway in response to the subdued greeting. Any remaining ire in the older woman's system simply dissolved in the face of the younger woman's abject mortification. Without a thought, she closed the distance and tangled her fingers with the other woman's.

"Hello, Sweetheart."

"God, Barbara, I'm so sorry--"

The cyber-genius thought that her heart cracked a tiny bit when she witnessed the younger woman's features crumbling. She instantly tugged the smaller woman onto her lap, wrapping her arms firmly around deceptively slender shoulders. Detecting moisture against her neck where the brunette had buried her face, the older woman pressed her lips to chestnut hair. She waited for her lover to calm, rubbing her hands soothingly against the trembling muscles of the young woman's back.

"Sounded like you had a rough time out there tonight, Hel."

Wet blue eyes peered up to meet green. The redhead almost laughed at the frank incredulity painted across expressive features. She briefly wondered if she would cry at the gratitude also visible.

Opting to do neither, she decided that her best option for reassuring the other woman lay in... being Barbara. Accordingly, while she kept her tone gentle, her question was factual.

"Can you tell me what happened?"

"I... I don't know."

The brunette straightened a bit, raising her right hand to wipe the back of her wrist under her nose. The older woman somehow conquered her nearly overwhelming urge to dig into her pocket for a Kleenex.

"She just... she just kept getting closer, and I..."

Helena dropped her gaze, fixing the arm of the chair with an embarrassed glower. Her shame was almost a physical presence in the room. Needing to banish it, Barbara snugged the younger woman close and pressed soft kisses to her temple. When she felt the brunette's tension lessen, the older woman finally ducked her head and offered a tender smile.

Biting at her lower lip, the younger woman roughly admitted, "I didn't want to, Barbara."

The look of abject misery in her partner's features left little question about what Helena thought the outcome of her resolve would have been. In and of itself, the admission was a tantalizing bit of information.


When her companion threw back her head, laughing loudly, the redhead realized that she'd spoken aloud.

"Man, Barbara, you've really got to watch that whole Commander Spock thing."

Helena gracefully stood and turned to drop into her chair.

"You've got it down, right down to the whole pointy eyebrow and..."

The younger woman made quote marks in the air and arched her left eyebrow in a perfect Leonard Nemoy impersonation.

"...'Fascinating, Captain', schtick."

Barbara laughed ruefully but didn't bother to refute the observation. She waited patiently as the younger woman filled their glasses and tore open the cookies before making another inquiry.

"Do you think it's possible that the young woman's..."

Crimson brows lowered while the cyber-genius searched for both the right word and a politically correct way to phrase her inquiry. She readily found the former and ultimately decided that there wasn't such an option for the latter.

"...charms contributed to the interest the men were showing in her?"

Faintly bemused blue eyes and a sympathetic grimace suggested that the younger woman hadn't missed her mentor's verbal dilemma.

"I don't know, Babs. As much as I hate what they were doing, she did have a lot of... sizzle."

Swirling her drink, the older woman chuckled softly.

"Hot, eh?"

She thought she detected a hint of color in her partner's caramel features. Nevertheless, Helena's reply was boldly flirtatious.

"Not as hot as you, Red."

This time, Barbara laughed fully.

"I suspect that any heat you're detecting is a result of the fuzzy socks, Sweetie."

With a wink, Helena raised her glass.

"Well, then, here's to fuzzy socks."

Warmed by the sweet words, Barbara returned the gesture. The two women sipped their bourbon until something else scratched at the older woman's mind.

"Still, Helena, as... rough as those men were, it seems that she should have been a bit more upset."

Green eyes narrowed.

"Could you tell whether she was drunk or on drugs?"

The brunette pushed a cookie into her mouth and chewed, giving the question some thought. Finally, she shrugged.

"I didn't pick up on anything like that, Barbara. She was kind of..."

The brunette tilted her head to one side, poking the tip of her tongue out to capture a crumb at the corner of her mouth.

"...out of it, I guess. But mostly, really, really, horny."

The older woman nodded, trusting her partner's instincts. Her gesture morphed into a curious tilt of her own head at the sight of the brunette digging into her pocket.

"I did get this, in case you want to test."

Helena held up a plastic evidence bag, containing what appeared to be a bloodstained tissue.

"One of the guys split her lip, so I, uh, helped her clean up."

The redhead set the bag aside with a happy smile. The expression faltered when she noticed her partner's expectant hesitation.


The young woman fished in her pocket again.

"She also had these."

The brunette leaned forward, a matchbook extended between her first and second fingers. Automatically accepting it, Barbara felt her brows inch upward when she read the logo on the cover: "Chains Of Love"

Although it wasn't unexpected that the almost-victim might have visited the club, it did seem a trifle coincidental that it was the same club frequented by the brawl-inspiring Goth poet of two weeks before. Still, Barbara didn't know what to make of her partner's continued expectancy until she turned the item over.

Neatly embossed in san serif letters in the strike line was the club's slogan: "Transcending limits."

Chapter 14

Well, if this wasn't the absolute limit, Barbara wasn't sure what would be. Still, she'd never been one to back away from a challenge.

Taking a fortifying breath, the redhead plastered on a smile and met cheerful blue eyes.

"Ready to hit the mall?"

The younger woman smiled and caught the car keys coming her way.

"I guess so, but it would help if I knew what kind of clothes we're shopping for."

The redhead felt her smile become a little strained even if the question wasn't entirely unreasonable or unexpected. It wasn't as if she could plan a shopping expedition without her companion eventually finding out what she was hunting.

Time to bite the bullet.

Green eyes lost focus and tracked slightly to the left as the older woman's memory helpfully supplied the exact instructions she'd been provided.

"Er, something, ah, sleezy..."

Wondering why the collar of her crew neck sweater felt so tight, Barbara blushed extravagantly and forced herself to add the rest.

"...but butch."

Helena had been adamant about that part.

Cornflower blue eyes widened before Dinah laughed.

"Well if it's butch you're after, the mall is so definitely not the place to go."

Barbara wasn't entirely certain how she felt about her young ward's knowledge in that particular matter. Nevertheless, avoiding the mall would reduce the likelihood of running into any of her coworkers.

Heaven only knew how she'd be able to explain shopping for those sorts of outfits with her innocent young ward.

Throwing her hands in the air, the redhead smiled and paraphrased the Bard.

"Lead on MacDuff."

* * * * *

Barbara gripped the edge of the passenger seat -- as covertly as possible -- knuckles turning white.

A sword fight with MacBeth -- or with every title character from the playwright's works -- would be preferable to this.

"Alright, let's try this again, Dinah."

The older woman was a bit surprised by how calm she sounded.

"Just pull even to the driver's seat of the car in front of the space-- You're a little close on the side here."

Perhaps she should carry a supply of business cards from the auto body shop to leave under the wipers of the girl's victims.

"Okay, that's good. Now shift into reverse and turn your wheels sharply toward the cu-- You probably don't want to start moving until the wheels are in position, Dinah."

Had she remembered to send in the auto insurance payment for this quarter?

"Now you can start easing back into the space. That's it... Slowly, Dinah. Don't let him rattle you."

The redhead directed some unkind thoughts to the impatient driver behind them. Although he couldn't get around the boxy SUV on the narrow street, his honking was doing nothing for the teen's confidence.

"Very good. Can you see the headlight of the car behind you in your side mirror?"

An eager nod suggested that the sound of a breaking headlight was imminent.

"Excellent, Dinah. Stop and turn the wheels sharply in the other direction."

A thank you card. She needed to pick up a thank you card for her father. Of course, he had insisted on teaching her to parallel park in a VW Bug.

"Now, ease back again until you see the middle of the car's hood in the rear view mirror... "

Was it time to schedule a dental appointment? It had been a while, and stress fractures seemed like a possibility.

"Straighten the wheels, and pull forward to center yourself in the parking place."

The blonde put the Hummer in park and shut off the ignition, practically bouncing in her seat.

"That was so cool, Barbara! I can't believe I got it this time."

Flexing some circulation back into her fingers, the older woman couldn't help but agree.

"Well, you know, they say that the third time's the charm, Dinah."

Why the city hadn't put any parking lots in during the renewal of the waterfront district was simply beyond her. Not to mention the mystery of why there was so much traffic in the shopping district on a Thursday afternoon.

The redhead drew in a cleansing breath -- her first full respiration in an eternity, it seemed -- and turned, smiling fully.

"You did very well. This isn't the easiest vehicle to handle, much less parallel park."

The teen positively glowed under the praise, and the older woman instantly chastised herself for every uncharitable thought which had gone through her mind during the ordeal, er, lesson. Dinah had to learn somehow, and she certainly listened and followed instructions well. Unlike Barbara's previous ward who had seemingly been determined to revise the premium schedules for every auto insurance company in the country when the redhead had worked on her parking skills.

Speaking of which...

"Er, Dinah? I thought that Helena had been working with you on handling the Humvee?"

The girl unbuckled her seatbelt, waiting while her guardian muscled her chair into place.

"Oh, she has been," she allowed sunnily.

The Look would have been overdoing it. Barbara utilized a mild variant -- an arched brow and a dubious gaze -- instead.

"Kind of."

The redhead pinched the bridge of her nose before raising the other brow.

"It's just that, uhm, Helena sort of has a different way of parking the Hummer."

Barbara really didn't want to know, however it would be irresponsible not to find out.

"And, what way is that, Dinah?"

To give the obviously embarrassed girl a measure of privacy, the older woman occupied herself with transferring to her chair. It was, she realized, prescient that she had her back to the girl, given her reaction when Dinah finally responded.

"If the space is kind of small, she just hot wires the cars in front and in back and scootches them forward and back to make more room."

* * * * *

"Hey, what about these?"

Green eyes balefully regarded the heavy canvas cargo-type pants which Dinah held aloft triumphantly.

There were... certainly a lot of pockets.

The redhead sighed, and her shopping partner tucked the item back on the rack.

"Uhm, Barbara, it would probably help if I knew where you and Helena are going for this undercover j--"

The blonde stumbled, color rushing to her cheeks over the unintentional entendre.

"-- uh, where you're going for your date."

The cyber-crime fighter considered that, even as parallel circuits in her mind considered whether Dinah would know about Chains Of Love and -- if she did -- whether Barbara wanted to know about that.

The excursion slated for the following night was hardly a pleasure outing: frankly, the redhead would have voted to return to the bookstore or, possibly, to visit The Speak Easy. It wasn't exactly an undercover job either, as Dinah had termed it. It was, the older woman decided, a reconnaissance job.

The chains of coincidence surrounding the nightclub had simply become too thin. Barbara could readily accept that it was the preferred spot for the singularly untalented poet who had sparked a brawl. She might have been able to dismiss its link to the masochistic young woman whom Helena had mistakenly "rescued" twice. She might, just might, have been able to swallow that the sadist at the warehouse had parroted the club's slogan. However, the clincher had been something she recalled from the police report about the same-sex sexual assault which had occurred in the club district almost three weeks before.

Barbara had, unnecessarily, called up the report again, confirming her recollection that the victim of the assault had mentioned frequenting another club just before heading to the club where the assault had taken place. Under the guise of a police investigator -- she even had paperwork for a shadow identity on file at the station -- the cyber-vigilante had called the victim and confirmed it: the club he'd been in prior to the incident had been Chains Of Love.

Naturally, Helena had suggested scouting the club by herself. Given the series of odd occurrences surrounding the establishment and considering what had happened in the alley and her partner's response, the redhead was having none of that.

And so, it was a date. A date requiring new, butch couture.

"Let's just say," the older woman finally supplied, "that it's a pretty rough club."

* * * * *

"It's awfully... frayed?"

The teen beamed.

"Yeah, isn't it great? It's hard to find them that beat up right off the rack, you know."

Distinctly unimpressed green eyes regarded the garment, idly noting the price tag. The redhead blinked.

Why on earth would she want to pay $120 for something which she would normally toss in the rag bin? Still, Dinah was awfully enthusiastic, and they had been in every shop in a six block radius.

She looked up helplessly.

"I'm just not sure this is what Helena had in mind, Dinah."

The teen wrinkled her nose in thought before responding sympathetically.

"Yeah, I guess we need to figure out a theme for the club and for Helena."

Utterly lost, the redhead nodded sagely, coming to attention when her companion visibly brightened.


The word was utterly confident. Barbara was less certain.


The blonde head nodded vigorously.

"Uh huh. I know she really liked it when you wore your motorcycle jacket out to rescue--"

The girl snapped her mouth shut, obviously correctly reading her guardian's expression.

The redhead mustered a brittle smile, decisively not thinking about just what her telepathic ward was picking up during sparring sessions with her lover.

The blonde smiled back brightly.

"Uh, ready to try the next place?"

* * * * *

Dazed by the marathon which Dinah had obviously enrolled them in -- it was clearly time to reevaluate how much sugar the girl was eating -- Barbara nearly plowed into her guide when the blonde performed a sudden u-turn in front of her.

"Sorry, Barbara."

The young woman gestured towards a side street they'd just passed.

"There's a great place down there which I almost forgot about."

The redhead peered down the narrow, dimly lit street. They were near the university now, having exhausted every possible -- and what Barbara thought were a few distinctly implausible -- stores in the waterfront area.

"Oh, good. I was afraid we might miss one."

Grinning enthusiastically, the teen briskly took the point again, seemingly oblivious to her guardian's tone.

"No way, Barbara! I know them all."

Good heavens, the girl had a meta power which she'd been unaware of.

* * * * *

"You have got to get those, Barbara."

The redhead looked up in befuddlement, gingerly holding the items in question between thumb and forefinger.

"What possible use--?"

Dinah cut her off.

"They'll just make the whole outfit come together. You know..."

The last two words carried a well-known tone of exasperated teenaged suffering, clearly conveying disbelief that any adult could be so completely oblivious.

"...make the 'tough femme' thing work."

The older woman surveyed the flimsy garments with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, finally observing mildly, "But, I thought that was why we bought the chains?"

The blonde bobbed her head in agreement.

"And these will really complement them. You know, top and bottom?"

For some reason, Barbara found herself fighting a blush, however that didn't keep her relentlessly practical side from kicking and scratching.

"In that case, Dinah, wouldn't a steel bustiere work even better?"

Pale blue eyes narrowed, and the girl chewed at her bottom lip.

"Yeah, but, uhm, it's probably still a little cold for something like that."

Green eyes widened, then blinked.


"I'll take them."

* * * * *

"Diii-- nah."

Barbara absolutely, positively had her back up at the door to the shop.

She'd set the brake of her chair, if need be.


Half through the door, the teen looked back, misreading the older woman's resistance.

"It'll be fun. And, it's the last stop. I promise."

The redhead regarded the sign on the door again.


She winced, as much, she suspected, at the Dan Quayle school of spelling as at the shop itself.

"Dinah," she tried again, "this is only a one-night recon job."

The young woman nodded and opened the door more widely. Sighing, Barbara tried again.

"One. Night. I don't believe that I'll need a permanent physical reminder..."

With her infallible memory, Barbara was quite certain of that. In addition, 24 hours wouldn't be enough time to remove the bandage from the ink.

The teen laughed brightly.

"Oh, no! These are temporary. Really high quality stuff they apply here, and it wears off in a week or two."

Dinah seemed to sense that the older woman wasn't convinced.

"Or, uh, you can remove them sooner, too."

The redhead considered that, and the girl pressed her advantage.

"Just think about the verisimilitude, Barbara."

Not for the first time that afternoon, the cyber-genius threw her hands in the air and soon found herself sorting through the shop's extensive offerings. The H-D "Born to be Wild" tat for her bicep was, obviously, a no-brainer. It had taken a bit of persuasion on her companion's part to convince her about the bleeding rose for the side of her neck; however, she had to agree that the effect would be... impressive, even if the colors might clash with her hair.

Waiting for Dinah to settle on a design for herself, the older woman found herself, oddly, returning again and again to an image of a panther. The temporary tattoo was large -- about six inches -- obviously meant for the torso or upper thigh. Nevertheless, the dark cat was powerfully alluring for some reason.

"You should get that one, too."

Barbara jerked her head up guiltily, then laughed awkwardly.

"But no one would see -- "

A tiny smile ghosted the blonde's lips, and the redhead caught herself.

"-- er, it wouldn't be visible."

Dinah's smile widened, and the older woman added the tat to the two she'd already picked out.

* * * * *

"Can you believe how many piercings she had? I bet when she takes a drink she looks like a sprinkler."

Barbara laughed in agreement and nibbled at her biscotti.

"True, Dinah. I didn't know that they were piercing eyelids now."

Stirring the foam in her cappuccino with her index finger, the teen giggled at the memory of the pin cushioned sales woman.

"That's nothing, Barbara; they pierce everything nowadays. I mean, there's a girl in my gym class who has a chain of rings through her--"

The redhead raised her hand and shut her eyes.

She did not want to know.

Attempting to steer the conversation to less pointed topics, she gestured at her neck.

"You're sure that this comes off with baby oil, Dinah?"

When she considered the array of chemicals which had been used in applying the design, "temporary" seemed like a bit of a stretch. The design on her arm was safely out of sight in most situations, however, this was very, very visible.

"Uh huh," the blonde confirmed brightly.

Not missing the way pale blue eyes dropped to inspect the girl's chocolate chocolate-chip muffin with a level of interest not warranted by the pastry, oversized as it was, Barbara quirked a brow.

"Dinah? Is there something I should know?"

The teen bit her lower lip and smiled, a bit stiffly.

"Uhm, sometimes it takes a couple of applications. And -- "

Mumbled as they were, the redhead clearly made out the next words.

"-- sometimes it leaves an outline for a few days."

Obviously, she'd need to take stock of her turtleneck inventory.

"Indeed. Well, what's the occasion for yours, Dinah?"

Her ward had chosen to have an elaborate and colorful morning glory motif applied to her ankle and lower leg.

Clearly relieved by the change in topic, the blonde wriggled in her chair and smiled happily before launching into an enthusiastic description of the party she would be attending with Gabby on the following evening. The older woman sipped her coffee and listened attentively, attempting to determine what the young woman might not be sharing.

She had absolutely no concerns about the gathering which Dinah was describing or about her ward's actions should there be questionable activities at the party. Rather, given the awkward half-conversation which the teen had initiated several weeks earlier in the training room -- and her own less than stellar level of helpfulness -- the redhead hoped that the girl had found, or was finding, the answers she needed.

Resultantly, when the loquacious blonde stopped for air and took a slurp of her coffee, Barbara tap danced around the topic.

"And, how are things with Gabby, Dinah?"

Pale blue eyes peeked shyly from under blonde lashes; however, the older woman didn't miss the extremely... satisfied expression which flashed through those eyes.

Question answered.

"Uh, good?", the teen squeaked.

Marshaling her best "supportively neutral" expression, Barbara was about to let the matter go when she noticed another emotion in her companion's features: unhappiness.


She waited with seemingly infinite patience while the blonde fiddled with her cup for an eternity. Finally, Dinah exhaled softly and pushed her mug aside.

"Gabby's decided that she's going to State."

The cyber-genius considered that information carefully. Dinah had been accepted at that university as well -- at every university she'd applied to, for that matter; yet, the girl's demeanor left little doubt about her response to her girlfriend's choice.

"And, I take it you've decided not to attend there, Dinah?"

The girl met her gaze shyly.

"Yeah. Uh, I sort of want to go to NGU. At least for the first two years."

It was only due to her years of experience in facing down the worst criminals of society and in listening to the worst excuses that her students came up with that Barbara managed to hide her ecstatic grin under a sympathetic smile.

"Well, State is certainly within driving distance, Dinah. But, why have you decided on NGU?"

A thought struck her.

"It's not financial concerns, is it? Because that is not an is--"

"No, really, it's not that," the girl cut in. "I just think NGU has good science programs. And, well..."

The older woman smiled encouragingly.

"...I guess I wanted to be near you -- and Helena -- a little longer."

Obviously, something had blown into her eyes; it was simply the only way that Barbara could account for her rapid blinking. Before she could control the response, the girl continued hesitantly.

"I mean, I figured I could live in the dorms and everything."

The redhead nodded her comprehension.

Dorm life was a wonderful part of the college experience.

Her mood deflated slightly when her ward elaborated.

"...give you and Helena some space now that, uh, maybe Helena's going to be moving back in and everything."

Ignoring her feelings about a conversation yet to be had with her lover, the older woman spoke decisively.

"Dinah, the tower is your home, too. It always will be, just as it always will be for Helena."

The teen's puzzlement informed the redhead that she was going to have to plow ahead.

"Even if Helena and I weren't, er, that is, whatever our relationship, Helena will always be welcome. The same is true for you. If you want to live in the dorms, that's wonderful; if you want to stay at home -- "

She deliberately placed a bit of emphasis on the word.

"-- then please do."

In an instant, the girl was around the table, nearly tipping them over with her enthusiastic hug.

* * * * *

Barbara carefully worked the muscle-relaxant into her trapezoids, surveying the bags on the bedroom floor and replaying the afternoon's outing.

Shopping for skank-wear: $73.

Time with someone she loved: priceless.

Chapter 15

"Is that a dog collar?"

The young brunette grinned easily, swinging the item in question from her index finger.

"Well, I guess it could be a cat collar. For a really big, tough cat."

Barbara grinned in return, as much at the reply as at the sight of her partner. The younger woman had certainly dressed the part -- whatever that might be -- and the redhead felt her heart rate increase fractionally.

Helena was wearing an outfit which would have been downright tawdry on almost anyone else: a red micro-mini, white ankle boots, and a white tube top which showed her firm abdomen to advantage. A hot pink jacket completed the ensemble. On Helena, the outfit looked... damned fine.

Wryly, the older woman realized that, while the colors of the outfit might have signaled "Stop", her own response was something quite the opposite. Curiously, she found herself wondering just what her partner had on under the mini-skirt.

"Still, Sweetheart, a collar?"

The younger woman nodded emphatically.

"Yeah, I figured you might forget to pick one up so, uh, I took the liberty."

Crimson brows furrowed, then arched, then furrowed again. Annoyed with her forehead's St. Vitus dance, the redhead cocked her head as her partner slowly approached, extending the heavy black leather circlet.

"Uh, you can wear it if you want to, but I don't think anybody's ever gonna mistake you for a bottom."

Barbara accepted the offering, absently testing its strength.

"Indeed, Hel."

The brunette gracefully knelt beside her and lowered her head, and green eyes blinked rapidly against the quick flash of phantom sensation which had coursed through her pelvis.

"So, you gonna put it on me?"

Slowly, Barbara leaned in, fastening the restraint loosely. For a few moments, she allowed silken hair to slide through her fingers before she drew her hand forward to stroke her lover's sharp jaw.

"Are you so certain, Helena?"

The redhead smiled teasingly and removed her hand to gesture towards her hips.

"I do seem to have the... equipment for the role."

The younger woman grinned and then became serious. Barbara worked to remain relaxed under her partner's long, appreciative assessment.

"In that outfit, Red? No way."

The redhead grinned in turn at the playful reply, wondering how her outfit for the evening differed so much from some of her usual casual-wear. After all, she wasn't wearing anything that unusual: an old pair of jeans -- the rip in the knee hadn't cost extra either; her favorite motorcycle boots with the feminizing new chains wrapped around them; a tight black muscle tee with a blood-sucking bat and -- the redhead fought a mental shudder -- cut-outs; her motorcycle jacket; and some utterly useless lacey half-gloves.

Utilizing items already in her wardrobe, she'd brought the entire venture in for less than $75 -- $100 if she included the stop at The Common Grounds and the tube of Icy Hot she'd needed for her shoulders and arms after the marathon expedition.

Somehow, she doubted that Helena had been quite as economical. The younger woman was usually delighted by any excuse to add to her wardrobe.

Idly, and not for the first time, the cyber-vigilante wondered how she could deduct these expenses on her taxes. They were, after all, work-related.

The brunette eased forward, resting a slender hand on the older woman's knee and neatly distracting her from all thoughts IRS-related.


Bright blue eyes caught green, and Barbara swallowed when her companion danced the tip of very pink tongue around the edges of her red, red lips.

"Kid's at a party tonight, right?"

The redhead nodded carefully, suddenly feeling quite a bit like a bird in front of a very hungry cat.

"So, howsabout we stay in and play dress-up?"

As seemed to happen so often with her lovely partner, Barbara found herself balancing on the razor's edge of arousal and amusement. The hopeful waggle of dark brows tipped her in one direction this time, and she laughed.

"I am dressed up."

After the thought and effort she'd put in to the outfit, the older woman was determined to get at least one use -- outside the clock tower -- from it.

"Besides," she added with a wicked smirk, "what could I possibly trade up to after this, other than my Batgirl costume?"

The brunette mulled that over for a beat, then grinned lasciviously.

"Yeah, that'd definitely be hot, but not such easy access, huh?"

Snagging her heavy jacket, the redhead responded primly, "You'd be surprised, Sweetie."

She rang for the elevator over the sound of her partner's surprisingly loud growl.

The volume of Helena's vocalization at the clock tower had been nothing compared to the din at Chains Of Love. Before they entered the club, Barbara felt the thump of the bass traveling through the rubber wheels and padded seat of her chair, causing her muscles to tense to a beat which seemed to fill her bones. Once inside, the smoke from dry ice and the flash of strobe lights blinded her, momentarily distracting her from the music.

Fumbling instinctively for her glasses before realizing that a) they'd not do her much good and b) they might detract from her "tough femme" appearance, the redhead wryly acknowledged that she'd be lucky to escape her bit of field work without a pounding headache.

"It's great, yeah?"

At least that's what the older woman thought her companion had bent down to say. There could be, of course, only one response.


The brunette threw back her head and laughed.

"Sounds like a plan, Babs, but let's grab a table first."

Somehow, the younger woman unerringly located a free table, one mercifully distant from the nearest speaker. She waited until the redhead was settled and unzipping her jacket before gliding toward the bar, returning in short order bearing Barbara's drink, two bottles of water, and a glass of something clear -- presumably vodka -- for herself.

The older woman nodded her thanks and reached for her glass, pausing mid-motion to regard the amber liquid suspiciously. Again, the brunette laughed.

"Relax, Red. There's no profit margin in drugging all the drinks. But..."

The dark figure raised the amber liquid and took a healthy swig. She smacked her lips appreciatively.

"Tastes fine to me, and I am a professional bartender. But, if you want, I'll try it again."

Barbara laughingly rescued the remains of her drink with a quick shake of her head.

"Thank you, Helena. I appreciate your self-sacrifice, but I think that will do."

The brunette gracefully seated herself, crossing her legs at the knee and exposing an entirely distracting amount of smooth, tanned skin. Resolutely dragging her eyes from the enticing display, the older woman sampled her drink.

"Seriously, Babs, if something -- something that all of your high tech gizmos and tests can't detect -- was in the booze, it seems like we'd be seeing a lot of odd behavior."

"Indeed," the redhead concurred before pointedly surveying the room, "however..."

She waited as blue eyes narrowed in puzzlement, following the older woman's scan of the room. Helena finally barked out a laugh.

"Shit, Barbara, haven't you ever seen a little... muskrat love?"

Despite her fear that a certain 70's tune would now be looping through her brain indefinitely, the older woman managed a quick smile.

"Well, yes, I have, Hel. Just not in such quantity."

Or variety. She mustn't forget the variety on display.

Since Barbara's senses had finally adapted to the ambiance, she turned her gaze to the denizens of the club. Not surprisingly for a Friday night, the place was filled to capacity, the dance floor a seeming sea of flesh and every table around the periphery occupied. While there was a predominance of leather present, the analytical woman automatically categorized other varieties of outer wear: silk, denim, canvas, and a surprising amount of latex.

Apparently, she could have saved herself the shopping ordeal and simply rummaged through her old costumes.

Completing her first sweep of the establishment, the redhead focused on individuals, fine-tuning the granularity of her appraisal. Patrons of the club were dancing and drinking and mingling and...

Green eyes blinked, verifying some of the activities she'd glimpsed in darker corners -- and right on the dance floor.

People were enjoying the environment in every possible combination as well: male and female; female and female; male and male; and some combinations in-between. There were couples, trios, and -- well, after that Barbara supposed that it went right to group territory.

Although some of the activities were a bit more overt than she'd encountered at other clubs, the redhead granted that a bit of physicality was hardly unexpected. However, the specifics of many of the displays were eye-opening: for one thing, the dynamics between -- or among -- the participants were clearly unequal; for another, props -- from whips and cuffs to blindfolds and, er, latex -- were in plentiful supply.

Thank heavens she hadn't even considered Helena's second suggestion for the recon job: a false ID for Dinah.

The older woman calmly downed half her bourbon and set the glass on the table.

"Ready to get to work, Helena?"

Instead of an immediate reply, the brunette leaned forward, slowly, deliberately. Barbara stiffened, wondering what her partner was up to, until soft lips touched the corner of her mouth and she felt the quick flicker of a warm tongue.

"You had a drop...", the younger woman explained, easing back to her seat with a wicked grin.

The redhead flashed a tight smile.

What sort of... hormone soup was she exposing her sensual partner to? If the mood that Helena had been in earlier were any indication, the dark woman was already primed for action, as it were. The hormones -- and pheromones -- in this environment certainly wouldn't help the situation.

It was time to focus on work.

"The mission, Hel."

The younger woman smiled lazily, rather, Barbara thought, like a waking cat. For that matter, although her eyes were still blue, her pupils did seem to be slitted.

"Whose mission, Babs?"

Since the question was playful, the older woman opted for a slightly different tactic.

"The sooner we scout things out here, the sooner we can leave."

She suppressed a smirk when the brunette snapped to attention with gratifying alacrity.

"What's the plan?"

An hour or so later, the older woman had thoroughly explored the periphery and back hallways of the club. While she'd found nothing overly suspect, she had interrupted a number of trysts and learned a few things about the novel colors that latex was apparently now available in. From a relatively safe vantage point against one wall, she observed her partner's "information gathering" on the dance floor.

The younger woman had charmingly encouraged Barbara to join her on the floor; however, another quick glance at the crowd had convinced the older woman to forego. She didn't want to roll on any toes, and, given the density of bodies, it seemed inevitable.

The redhead was glad she'd declined. Not only had they deployed their resources efficiently, but now she was free to enjoy the sight of her lithe partner circulating in the crowd, gyrating and moving in rhythm to the music. The younger woman was her usual utterly graceful self. With the flashing strobes highlighting her long legs and the firm flesh of her belly and arms, dark hair whipping from side to side in freeze-flash snapshots, she was also something akin to sex in motion.

Bemused -- among other responses -- by her somewhat lecherous observation, the redhead resolutely turned her attention to the large aquarium in the back wall of the club. Having determined that it contained strictly freshwater species, her interest in the display was aesthetic rather than investigatory.

Honestly, she was seeing Clown fish everywhere.

Regardless, the liquid vista was soothing, despite the preponderance of black and silver specimens.

An amused baritone interrupted her reverie.

"Isn't that a little cliched?"

The redhead looked up to find herself under examination by an imposing dark-haired man. He was, she decided, attractive in a Wayne Newton fashion.

She smiled her confusion.

"I'm sorry. What?"

The man chuckled and gestured at the aquarium with his drink.

"It seems a little trite, focusing on this with all of the fish out there."

He completed his motion by inclining the glass toward the dance floor. When she grasped the reference, Barbara smiled coolly, trusting the smoke and neon to mask her blush.

"Since I've already caught my limit out there, admiring these seemed reasonable."

The swarthy man widened his eyes in mock dismay.

"But, limits are such artificial constraints, don't you think, Ms. ...?"

"Call me Red," the cyber-crime fighter supplied, quirking a questioning brow in turn.

The tall man bent down to extend his hand.

"Clinton Jefferson Williams, at your service. I'm the manager here."

Barbara returned the firm handshake as he continued.

"I hope that the fact that you're over here by yourself isn't a reflection on what my little establishment has to offer. Perhaps I can help you find someone -- or someones -- to keep you company?"

The redhead hid a smirk, suspecting how well that would be received by her partner. She demurred as politely as possible.

"No, thank you. I've been enjoying the scenery while my partner -- "

Barbara inclined her head in the direction of the mass of bodies on the dance floor, not missing how sharp brown eyes seemed to fix unerringly on Helena.

"-- works off some energy."

The proprietor smiled without humor.

"That's very... tolerant of you, Red."

Raising one brow, the redhead redirected the conversation.

"A moment ago, Clinton--"

"Clint," he interjected smoothly.

"Clint," Barbara acknowledged. "You mentioned something about limits."

The tall man nodded for her to continue.

"I also noticed that Chains' slogan has to do with overcoming limits."

Williams swirled his drink reflectively.

"Very true. It's what it's all about here."

The dark-haired man snagged a chair and lowered himself to eye level.

"For some of the people here, it's a dream. For others, a philosophy. And, for a few lucky souls..."

He raised his glass toward the floor in a toast.

"...it's a way of life."

The cyber-genius signaled her comprehension with a quick nod.

"Nevertheless, Clint, from some of what I've seen here, some of the people in that last group seem to take it very seriously. Perhaps to the point of physical injury."

The redhead struggled not to squirm as fathomless dark eyes raked over her.

"True, Red. But one person's pain is someone else's pleasure, isn't it?"

He took a measured sip from his glass, warming to the topic.

"Pleasure and pain, dom and sub, give and take. It's all just different sides to the same coin, an opportunity to face and, hopefully, transcend our fears and inhibitions."

"Consensually, of course?"

Barbara spoke quietly, intrigued by the glint in the man's eyes. When the man finally laughed, she detected very little humor in the sound.

"Of course, Red. However, sometimes, as I'm sure you know, consent can be a nebulous concept. Sometimes a little... persuasion--"

The crimson-haired crime fighter somehow felt vaguely unclean when the word crawled over her skin.

"--is necessary. How can anyone really know what they're consenting to before the fact? What about consenting to something only to find that you're not getting what you thought you would or..."

Williams paused and raised a hand to tap his index finger against his chin, eyeing his listener speculatively.

"...even discovering that you're taking far more than you'd ever dared to dream?"

Focusing on keeping her breathing even under those almost hypnotic eyes, the redhead managed one word.


"Yes, Red. For instance, in the dynamics of power and pleasure, who is really, really, vulnerable and exposed?"

Trapped in a verbal undertow, Barbara knit her brows.

"I'm not following you, Clint."

The swarthy figure offered a smile full of dark promises.

"Just think about the give and take. Where is the real risk, the total exposure? The risks -- and rewards -- in submission are obvious, no?"

Williams took another sip of his drink, waiting for the redhead's slow nod.

"But, in controlling the scene, don't you expose everything? All of the dirty desires and head trips that you'd never want the world to know about? Or, that you wouldn't want to expose until you break free from your own limits."

Caught up in an undeniably charismatic presence, not to mention struck by words hinting at the truth of a life she'd led for fifteen years, Barbara simply stared at her companion for a few minutes. It was Williams himself who broke the charged silence.

As Depeche Mode's "Policy of Truth" boomed through the speakers, he glanced to the mass of bodies on the dance floor.

"Speaking of control, Red, it looks like your partner's getting a little full of herself out there."

The redhead followed the direction of brown eyes, finding Helena dancing sinuously, and very closely, with a well-muscled man clad in a completely insubstantial amount of leather. Without thinking, she raised her hand to touch the small pin above her heart, and within seconds Helena was at her side.

Blue eyes fixed on the older woman's companion with undisguised hostility.

"Is this jerk bothering you, Red?"

A crimson brow arched deliberately, and the redhead waited for her partner to tone down her bristling defensiveness a notch or two.

"No, Sweetie, everything's fine. Would you mind getting another drink for me?"

The confusion in caramel features was obvious, however the brunette merely smiled sweetly.

"Sure. No problem."

As the lithe figure slipped through the crowd, Barbara noticed the club manager nodding speculatively.

"The bell's a nice touch, Red. Very..."

Rising from his chair, he searched for a word.

"...elegant. Still, that one's obviously a handful."

The redhead nodded sagely -- Williams didn't know the half of it -- as the tall man reached into his pocket and handed her a tightly coiled length of leather.

"Perhaps you should consider training her to the leash."

Stupefied, Barbara blinked furiously as the dark figure disappeared into the crowd and then dropped her gaze to the item in her hand.

Black, butter soft, with small -- but very sharp -- silver studs along its length. A beautiful piece of craftsmanship and, if she were any judge, quite strong.

A familiar sensation recalled the older woman, and she managed to thrust the leash into her jacket pocket just as Helena returned, drink in hand. It was impossible to miss the relief in the younger woman's face when she observed that Barbara's companion had departed.

"Here you go, Barbara. Who was that -- Whoa!"

The dark head slowly swiveled, appreciatively following the movements of a full-figured woman with red and purple hair. Barbara raised one eyebrow a few millimeters in amusement and spoke mildly.

"Down, girl."

Her teasing follow-up remark -- something having to do with Helena putting her tongue back in her mouth -- died in her throat when she observed her partner's response to the lighthearted reprimand.

The younger woman lowered her gaze and instantly dropped to her knees by the redhead's side. While the older woman thought she detected the hint of a smile at the corner's of her partner's mouth, there was something more than playfulness in the dark woman's expression and posture.

Barbara felt herself flooded with a wash of tenderness for the sweet young woman -- and something more powerful. Even as she contemplated how much the atmosphere of the club was affecting them both, she raised a hand to cup the brunette's jaw. She felt, rather than heard, her partner's low rumble, sparking something in her chest.

Deliberately, she caught the other woman's golden eyes, running the pad of her thumb roughly over a lush lower lip. Her movement stilled, and the redhead gasped softly when a warm tongue flickered against her. The younger woman purposefully held Barbara's questioning gaze, dropping her jaw and opening to her. Despite the completely public venue, the older woman could do nothing but slip inside.

Lost in those burning eyes, Barbara struggled for air, for reason, when Helena hungrily closed her lips over a moan which traveled up the older woman's arm and settled in her stomach. The redhead felt her partner teasing the base of her thumb with the stud in her tongue, pulling deeply. Amazed, and aroused beyond all good sense by the intentionally sexual act, by the delicate flare of aquiline nostrils, by the deep suctioning evidenced by the concavity of her lover's cheeks, the older woman fought for control.

Gently, gradually, she extricated her hand, brushing her fingers through shaggy chestnut bangs. When she finally spoke, her voice was raw.

"Let's go home, Helena."

Chapter 16

Let me inside you
Into your room
I've heard it's lined
With the things you don't show
Lay me beside you
Down on the floor
I've been your lover
From the womb to the tomb
I dress as your daughter
When the moon becomes round
You be my mother
When everything's gone


Leaving the noise of the club, the silence in the Hummer had been almost deafening. Barbara had flipped on the radio out of reflex, however, even the soft lyrics did little to dissipate the oddly charged silence.

Keep beckoning to me
From behind that closed door
The maid and the mother
And the crone that's grown old

I hear your voice
Coming out of that hole
I listen to you
And I want some more


It was only after they'd entered the living room that the redhead found her voice. She caught the younger woman's hand, tangling their fingers.

"Are you all right, Hel?"

The brunette's breathing was fast and shallow, and bright blue eyes glittered from under lowered lashes. The redhead unflinchingly held her partner's gaze until Helena offered a measured nod.

The older woman swallowed with difficulty.

"Are you hungry?"

Again, the response was slow in coming. Again, it was nonverbal: a slow shake of a dark head.

Barbara carefully wet her lips, then let go.


The word was quiet, tender, as was her next question, accompanied by a tilt of her head toward the bedroom.

"Why don't you go in and wait for me?"

And she will always carry on

Something is lost

But something is found

They will keep on speaking her name

Some things change

Some stay the same

Barbara took her time before following her partner to the bedroom.

She wanted to give her lover time to prepare. And, she needed some time to prepare herself.

Surprisingly, she realized that she had absolutely no interest in checking the monitoring routines on the Delphi; if there had been a major incident, the computer would have paged her. Instead, she fetched a Perrier and headed to the balcony. The early spring night was cool, but, in her jacket, the redhead felt warm enough.

For long minutes, the older woman remained still, occasionally sipping from her water. Absently running the supple material of the leash between her fingers, she simply watched the stars peeking through the pervasive cloud cover above the city.

Eventually, she shook off her lethargy and entered her bathroom from the door in the hall. Again, she took her time, brushing her teeth, taming her hair, completing her usual toilette. Finally, clad in boxers and the muscle tee she'd been wearing -- it did show the motorcycle tattoo on her bicep to advantage -- she entered the bedroom and slowly drew to a halt.

Helena was waiting for her on the bed, kneeling in the center, wearing only low-cut red underwear -- and the collar.

Bright blue eyes hesitantly met green.

"I didn't know if you'd want..."

The younger woman gestured vaguely from her hips to her neck.

The redhead swallowed and collected herself, then moved to the side of the bed. Her voice was pitched low.

"I want everything off tonight, Helena."

She transferred herself to the bed and turned to find her now-nude partner waiting, still kneeling in the center of the bed.

"What do you want, Sweetie?"

The younger woman's softly husked reply threatened to reduce the relentlessly practical woman to tears.

"I just want to please you."

Concurrently, it reignited her previous passions.

"You do, Hel."

The redhead leaned in to brush her fingertips across her partner's thigh, observing the rippling play of the muscles which fluttered at her touch.

"And, you will," she added as the sensory memory of smooth leather sliding through her fingers threatened to overwhelm her.

"But, for tonight, Hel, it's going to be all about you."

Hours later, waking slowly with her lover spooned in the circle of her arms, Barbara gasped softly as images and sounds and scents and tastes and emotions saturated her. The encounter had, indeed, been all about Helena, or at least she'd intended for it to be. Yet, the older woman had discovered that it couldn't be.

Caught up in an all-consuming passion the likes of which she'd never experienced, Barbara had touched and tasted and teased the younger woman, keying her up until her muscles were so taut they'd almost hummed. She'd kept her lover at that plateau for hours, until Helena had begged, her words urgent and raw.

"C'mon, Barbara, do it. Please..."

With the younger woman effortlessly supporting her greater weight behind her, Barbara had finally thrilled to a touch she'd never expected. She'd been taken in so totally -- connected in a way she'd never imagined. And, when Helena had finally broken, when Barbara had allowed her lover to peak, she too had been swept up.

For the first time in over seven years, she'd experienced an unequivocally physical climax before collapsing nearly insensate on top of her lover.

Good. God.

Utilizing promises of strong, dark coffee, the redhead gradually coaxed her eyes open, unsurprised by the brightness of the room. Her internal clock told her that it was well past her normal Saturday rising hour. Unconcerned by her slothfulness, she performed a series of isometric stretches before snugging her companion closer.

The silken heat of the brunette's bare back pressing against her own naked chest elicited a pleasurable shiver. Unfortunately, the emotions engendered by the sensation swiftly transformed to a less pleasant feeling.

It was only years of conditioning and practice which kept the older woman from jerking away from the woman in her arms. It was only her own iron will which kept her from whimpering at the sight which met her when she forced herself to lower her eyes.

Before her, in vivid hues, was evidence of the failure of her control. The purples and yellows and greens of rapidly fading finger-sized bruises. Angry pink weals from the rake of blunted nails. Even the dark red of dried blood from sharp nips and one deep bite near the younger woman's shoulder.

Good. God.

How could she -- she -- ever have done this?

Barbara swallowed rapidly against something rising in her throat.

Just who the hell was she, transforming something as beautiful as what she shared with her sweet lover into this and...

The older woman clenched her jaw and forced herself to finish the thought.

...and finding the most intense pleasure of her life in doing it?

Obviously, she noted without humor, she'd been unconsciously right on target years ago when she'd gotten her thrills from putting on a black and blue costume to prowl the nights and kick ass. Perhaps there was some sort of limit -- green eyes flashed in vexation at the word -- some sort of cutoff for how long she could go without releasing that sort of impulse. Obviously, last night, a gasket had blown somewhere, and she was going to have to face the consequences.

A soft, relaxed voice interrupted the cyber-genius' self-recriminations.

"Quit it, Barbara."

The older woman eased the rictus of her jaw muscles and kept it short.

"Quit what?"

The smaller woman in her loose embrace emitted a long-suffering sigh before rolling over in the circle of her arms. Barbara's attempt to release her hold from the other woman was denied by slender fingers capturing her retreating hand and guiding it back to the brunette's waist.

"Stop beating yourself up. You didn't hurt me."

Green eyes blinked rapidly.

"But, Helena, just look at your--"

A teasing word cut her off.


Despite herself, Barbara sidetracked from her guilty protests long enough to try to decrypt the puzzling utterance. Her attempts were unsuccessful.

"'Cat'?" she parroted blankly.

The dark head inches from hers nodded decisively.

"Uh huh. Remember, I'm part cat. Not -- "

Blue eyes widened impossibly and blinked in a convincing imitation.

"-- part owl. I can't turn my head around to see my own back, Red."

The redhead snorted at that image before catching herself. She plastered on a scowl and worked to get back on track as her companion spoke again.

"Still," the brunette shrugged her shoulders experimentally and rotated her head, "it doesn't feel bad at all. I bet it'll be gone by lunch time."

While Barbara had to admit that the younger woman's field assessment was probably right on target -- thank heavens for Helena's amazing recuperative abilities -- it still didn't negate what had occurred. She opened her mouth to say exactly that, but a slender finger came lightly to her lips, silencing her.

Earnest blue eyes caught green.

"You didn't do anything wrong, Barbara."

The redhead quirked her brows helplessly, then wonderingly, as a slow, sensual smile painted itself across her partner's features.

"In case you don't remember, Red, I had a really good time."

Blue eyes briefly flickered to gold.

"A really good time," the brunette reiterated.

The older woman allowed herself to relax marginally for the first time in minutes. The feeling was short-lived, and she tensed at Helena's next rumbling words.

"And, I think you did, too."

Barbara felt herself blush to the roots of her hair while she frantically calculated whether it would be possible to dig through the mattress and bury herself under the bed. Concluding that the chances were slim, she inhaled slowly and drew on her courage. Still, she couldn't find it in herself to meet her partner's eyes and, consequently, addressed the younger woman's breasts.

"I... I did. I just had no idea."

Silence -- a long, pointed, protracted period of silence -- met her admission. Suspecting that she was expected to add something but utterly clueless as to what it could be, the redhead finally sucked it up and met... utterly doubtful blue eyes.

Crimson brows furrowed in record time, and green eyes snapped.

"Yes, Helena?"

Obviously having waited for the older woman's undivided attention, the brunette's crinkled her eyes in laughter as a wicked smile eased across her lips.

"Oh, come on, Barbara. No idea? Not even an itty bitty one?"

The redhead snorted irritably when her partner punctuated her last words by playfully tickling her side.

It didn't seem all that funny to her.

"Hel, what are you talki--"

Full lips meeting hers silenced the analytical woman's peeved question, and she was sucked into a passionate kiss. When the brunette eventually pulled away, leaving the older woman both completely breathless and utterly discombobulated, Barbara blinked and attempted to ravel the extremely scattered threads of what she'd been trying to say... or ask.


This time, it was the amused, and slightly doting, look in blue eyes which silenced her.

"You're a passionate woman, Barbara."

Helena's words were quiet but utterly convinced. And convincing.

"You have been your whole adult life."

The younger woman chuckled.

"Most of your childhood, too, if your dad's stories are true."

Finally ready to listen, the redhead shrugged with one shoulder and quirked her lips. The brunette seemed to read the lessening of the tension and easily rolled them over, coming to rest lightly on top of the older woman.

"And, I'm telling you, Red, whatever floats your boat is fine with me."

Barbara twisted her head slightly, attempting to read everything in her lover's words and everything in her eyes.


The dark head nodded vigorously before the younger woman ducked to trace the panther over the redhead's heart.

"Uh huh. If you want me to read computer manuals to you while you watch me get off, I'll do it."

The older woman emitted a completely undignified giggle at the offer and felt the other woman smile against her chest. The smaller woman wriggled upward again to suck at her pulse point, her voice becoming thicker, more intimate.

"I mean it. Anything you want. If you want me to pull the cuffs out of the gear closet or dig around for that whip that's hidden waaay in the back, I'll do it."

Barbara inhaled sharply and pulled away from that talented mouth. She needed to think, to understand.

"Helena, what are you saying?"

The brunette purred the first part of her reply against the older woman's ear.

"What I'm saying is that I want you to enjoy yourself. And,"

Earnest blue eyes rose into view.

"...well, I'm very limber -- "

Dark brows waggled before the younger woman averted her gaze, finishing softly.

"-- and I heal fast."

Stunned, awash in more emotions than she could count, much less identify, Barbara could only think of one thing to say.

"What if I want you to use them on me?"

Chapter 17

"Take that!"

Slowly, deliberately, Barbara raised her eyes from the monitor in response to both the flippant exclamation and the sight of a long, thick strand of pasta -- fettuccini, if she weren't mistaken -- flying across the Delphi platform to affix itself to her primary screen. Very carefully, she removed her glasses, placing them just so by her mouse, and then turned to regard her boisterous younger partner.


The older woman couldn't really put much genuine ire in the inquiry: the brunette had been relatively subdued for the last few days, so witnessing her ebullience wasn't unwelcome. Nevertheless, she suspected that her tone was a bit on the frosty side.

The brunette sauntered around the edge of the desk, parking her hindquarters next to the mouse pad.

"It's a wet noodle."

For some reason, Barbara found the younger woman's response a bit otiose. Reaching deep inside herself, she drew on her reserves of patience.

"So I see."

The cyber-genius recovered her glasses, speculatively tapping one stem against her lower lip.

"My question, however, had less to do with identifying the item than in determining just why it is currently clinging to the surface of my thirty-five inch prototype multiphased-sync plasma display."

The redhead barely avoided rolling her eyes when the younger woman ducked her head apologetically, her patented hang-dog expression doing its job.

After seven-plus years, the older woman really thought that she should be better equipped to deal with that tactic.

"Uh, I thought it would be good to have it handy."

One crimson brow arched expectantly at the muttered half-explanation.

Was that a hint of color creeping into normally blush-proof caramel features?

Oddly bashful cerulean eyes peeked from under shaggy bangs.

"Uhm, in case you want me to get jiggy with that whole flogging thing?"

A tiny squeak of laughter escaped the older woman before it was banished by a roaring blush. Barbara automatically snapped her gaze to the living area before remembering that Dinah was at a practice for the upcoming senior follies. With that little concern out of the way, she focused on her obviously discomfited partner.


Still collecting herself, the older woman pushed away from her pasta-covered monitor and rotated to face the brunette fully. The dark figure perched on the desk finally met her gaze, smiling with infinite sweetness.

"I know that you were kind of making a point and all when you said what you did..."

The redhead nodded, still regretting her words. The instant they'd crossed her lips on Saturday morning and she'd witnessed the absolute horror in her partner's eyes, she'd realized that she'd overstated her case.

What Helena had been suggesting had been so appalling -- Barbara's own dismay at the thought of truly hurting the younger woman -- in the name of passion or otherwise -- had simply caused her to speak from the gut.

As was so often the case, the analytical woman had discovered that blurting out her first response had not been one of her shining moments.

Helena's shocked response had clearly demonstrated that a visceral reaction to the concept wasn't the sole purview of the older woman. Barbara had immediately apologized and attempted to explain her response; however, the brunette had been... pensive since then.

"...and I meant it that I'll do anything you want."

The lithe figure abruptly slid from the desk top, coming to rest on one knee by the redhead's side. Eager and earnest blue eyes looked up -- and looked into Barbara's soul.

"I want to."

Overwhelmed by the brunette's soft declaration, the older woman struggled to explain again.

"Helena, you know--"

A raised hand cut her off, and the younger woman continued.

"But, Barbara, I could never do... that."

The redhead nodded her understanding as imploring blue eyes searched her face.

"I guess I just wanted you to know that..."

Helena inhaled and tried on one of her cocky grins.

"...well, if there's ever something that kind of hits a squidge zone for one of us..."

A half-shrug completed the brunette's sentiment. Green eyes twinkled, and Barbara tugged the smaller woman to her lap.

"That we can find our way around it, Sweetie?", she supplied quietly.

The dark woman nodded happily, and there was simply no way that the redhead could resist pressing a soft kiss to her lover's mouth. Moaning into the contact, the older woman made the mistake of opening her eyes.

She snorted.

Then she giggled before turning back to her partner to find distinctly unamused blue eyes regarding her. The younger woman huffed with exaggerated annoyance.

"Shit, Barbara. I'm gonna start carrying around a ziploc of catnip just so I can join you in La La Land."

Well, that didn't help.

Regardless, Barbara mustered her considerable powers of concentration and self-control.

"I'm sorry, Sweetheart," she soothed, stroking the younger woman's shoulder.

Another movement from behind her partner caught her attention, and she snorted again, pointing at her workspace.

Like a living thing, the pasta was oozing its way down the front of the plasma screen, evidently headed for the keyboard beneath.

"Still, Hel," Barbara managed between slow, measured breaths, "a wet noodle?"

The younger woman shrugged and climbed gracefully to her feet.

"Well, sex is mostly mental anyway, right?"

In that case, the redhead immediately decided, her young protege obviously had mental faculties rivaling the greatest minds of the 20th and 21st centuries. Regardless, she really couldn't deny the truth of the brunette's assertion. There was simply no other way to account for a physical response which was patently impossible.

Blessing the power of the mind, the cyber-genius opted to revisit their on-going discussion from the last few days.

"True, Hel; however, I still have to wonder if there might have been something in the air -- or the smoke -- at the club."

Cerulean eyes rolled dramatically as the dark woman leaned against the edge of the desk.

"And I still say that I would have noticed something like that, Babs."

The older woman ruefully poked her tongue into her cheek, inclined to agree. With her heightened senses, the brunette probably would have been able to detect any airborne substance which was concentrated enough for non-metas to respond to.

"The only hormones I was picking up on," the young vigilante continued with a sly smile, "were strictly natural. I mean, there's that whole thing in the back that George told me about, but that's different, right?"

Again, the redhead nodded slowly, chuckling softly at her partner's expression.

Helena's scantily-clad dance partner had, apparently, been a veritable font of knowledge, informing the brunette -- between bumps and grinds -- that he could hook her up with something special in the back office. The dark vigilante still maintained that, if she'd had a little more time -- or a set of nipple clamps for George -- she could have gotten the entire story. Since the brunette had had neither on Friday evening, the two crime fighters had planned to follow up on the tidbit this very evening; however, a singularly nasty brawl in the area had sidetracked Helena before she could begin her stealthy explorations.

Barbara's smile faded as she observed a shift in her partner's features.


For a long moment, the brunette inspected the toe of her boot and chewed at her lower lip. She finally looked up, speaking carefully.

"Is it really so... bad if it was all you? Or us?"

There was no hostility... or recrimination... or even impatience in the tentative inquiry, only tender concern. The redhead's first instinct was to reply quickly, to find the words which would somehow reassure her lover. Yet, since Helena had demonstrated such courage in asking -- she had always had the heart of a lion -- Barbara took her time, giving the question the consideration it deserved.

"I... No, of course not," she finally allowed. "It's simply so..."

Green eyes lost focus and tracked to the left as the analytical woman struggled to find the words.

"The only thing which has ever come close was..."

Blushing, she trailed off, helplessly over her head. The brunette smiled encouragingly.

"Was what, Barbara? Come on, I told you about the whole -- "

Slender fingers made quote marks in the air.

"-- teenaged wet dream thing."

As usual, the younger woman's humor did the trick, somehow loosening the tight bands of fear around Barbara's chest.

"Before. When I was still on the street."

The redhead knew that no further elaboration was necessary for the vague reference.

Well, perhaps a bit more detail...

"A fight," she tacked on, not missing the wicked glint which had been creeping into her partner's eyes.

The older woman judiciously decided to omit the fact that it had been, in fact, a fight with Helena's own mother, Selina Kyle, in her criminal persona: Catwoman.

It had been the crimson-haired crime fighter's second encounter with the capable cat burglar. Her first, several months earlier, had been an unmitigated disaster, leaving the twenty year old barely able to limp away from the engagement. To this day, Barbara knew that the more experienced woman could have easily done far worse.

After that first fight, the young woman had licked her wounds and spent a lot of time and energy to ensure that such a defeat wouldn't happen again. She'd quizzed Bruce and Dick -- and even Alfred -- exhaustively about the dark criminal's fighting style; she'd run the battle through a nonstop loop of her memory, ruthlessly identifying where she'd erred; and she'd trained harder and longer than ever before. Thus, when she'd surprised Catwoman coming out of an antiquities store, Barbara had been ready -- or as ready as she was likely to be.

Without wasting time on quips, taunts, or snappy barbs, the young heroine had tackled the cat burglar, throwing her to the rooftop and pinning her wrists. The older woman had sinuously twisted, wrapping her legs tightly around the redhead's waist. Locked in a parody of a passionate embrace, the two had stared deeply at each other, taking each other's mettle. Barbara had just had time to revisit her planning and strategies before Selina had growled, struggling under her.

In that instant, something had snapped in the young woman. Schemes and game plans evaporated, and the cerebral woman became, for the first time in her life, all instinct and raw passion.

The battle had been fierce, and brutal, and completely without quarter asked -- or given. In the end, both women -- with still not a word exchanged -- had staggered to their feet again, panting, bloody and bruised, unyielding. A question had sparked in yellow eyes; a crimson head had inclined ever-so-slightly; and the two had turned and limped their separate ways.

Replaying the encounter, Barbara blinked, almost blinded by a sudden flash of insight, and managed to swallow the sharp gasp which undoubtedly would have alarmed her partner.

Although that encounter with Helena's mother had been the first time the cyber-genius had completely given way to instinct and physicality, she was amazed to recognize that her passionate encounter with Helena on Friday night had not -- as she'd assumed -- been the second. Rather, it had been another engagement, just a few months after she and Helena had decided to embark on their joint venture, that had been the second: it had been that oddly charged, no-holds-barred fight with her protege late one night in the training room.

Pushing aside that realization for later consideration, the redhead contented herself with a uneasy observation about the power the Kyle women obviously held over her. Observing one particular Kyle, who was waiting patiently for something more from her, she surfaced from her memories.

Barbara felt a hint of warmth enter her cheeks: possibly a response to her protracted silence; possibly a reaction to the discussion.

"It's... it's a bit overwhelming, Hel," she offered, adding awkwardly, "losing control like that."

The dark figure smiled softly and extended her hand, palm up. It took the older woman a beat to comprehend the gesture before she placed her hand in her partner's.

"It's okay, you know..."

Blue eyes seemed to glint, or sparkle, in the dim lighting near the computer.

"...to want me."

Conflicted by too many eddying emotions, the redhead mulled on that, attempting to knit together some sort of response which would be worthy of the amazing woman. Finally, she kept it simple.

"I do want you, Helena."

The two lovers shared an intimate smile -- although Barbara had the sneaking suspicion that her partner's tender expression was edging towards a smirk -- before the brunette sobered. She raised her free hand to stroke the pale fingers resting in her palm.

"It's just, I get the feeling when you're touching me that you're... I dunno... "

Slender shoulders shrugged lightly.

"...holding yourself back or something. Like you're scared or not sure."

Stunned, the redhead could only stare helplessly as her lover continued thoughtfully.

"Maybe some of it's that whole woman thing, but I don't think that's really it."

The brunette grinned wolfishly and, relieved that at least one issue had been readily dismissed, the older woman grinned in return. Her smile became a tad forced when Helena added, " 'Sides, there are all sorts of pretty fun toys out there, if that is an issue. Or, even if it's not."

Barbara shook her head slightly, and the younger woman winked, then became serious again.

"Mostly, Red, I think it's here -- "

Gracefully, Helena leaned forward, tenderly touching the redhead's temple. Barbara instinctively tried to protest, but her partner cut her off.

"I know. I do know how you love me, Barbara, but a couple of times when you've let yourself go, well..."

The dark figure straightened, shrugging minutely again.

"...that's when I feel how you really can love me."

Apparently having said her piece, Helena lightly squeezed the older woman's hand. Dumbstruck -- by her lover's words, by the younger woman's seeming ability to sit quietly with no expectation of a response -- Barbara, again, forced herself to take her time, to absorb what the brunette had said.

When she finally stumbled on words of her own, she was surprised by how easily she revealed herself.

"I think I am scared, Helena, of how much I want you."

Pursing her lips, the redhead slowly inhaled, then released the long breath.

"Of how much I need you."

The younger woman's playful and tender smile was a benediction. She stepped lightly from the platform, waiting at the base of the ramp.

"You're preaching to the choir, sister."

Delighted -- and relieved -- by the respite, Barbara powered the Delphi to standby and joined the other woman, who was edging toward the kitchen. When Helena abruptly stopped and turned, the redhead nearly plowed into her.


The brunette leaned in, moving very, very, close to husk in the older woman's ear.

"Just remember, Red. No expectations. No deadlines. And..."

The younger woman drew back with a waggle of dark brows, leaving the redhead filled with warm affection. The next words Barbara heard transformed that warmth to an entirely different type of heat.

"...every time you're ready, no limits."

Chapter 18

"If it's all about no limits, why does this place have so many damned locks?"

Absorbed in a fuzzy photocopy describing the detailed sequence of steps required for removal of her so-called temporary tattoos -- shuttle launch sequences had nothing on this -- Barbara absently murmured, "Chains, locks...".

"Potato. Po-tah-to," the brunette groused lightly in return, setting their drinks on the small table.

The older woman carefully refolded the sheet and tucked it into the zippered exterior breast pocket of her heavy jacket. Lifting her glass with a nod of thanks, she appreciatively observed her partner swinging a leg over the back of an uncomfortable-looking wooden chair to plant herself gracefully on the seat.

"Were you able to find anything?"

She didn't bother to comment on the younger woman's playful complaints about the locks. Even before Barbara had assumed responsibility for training the dark figure in the skills of vigilante crime-fighting, Helena had been in possession of a wealth of knowledge about bypassing security devices. The girl, after all, had been trained by the best: Selina Kyle.

That very fact had caused the young redhead no end of consternation during the early days of her guardianship since there had been simply no way to keep her ward out of the liquor cabinet. One lock after another -- some from the recesses of Bruce's gear supply in the Batcave -- had fallen before the teen. Peace over the issue had finally come only when Barbara had realized that her ward didn't seem to be sampling the wares in the cabinet, merely proving a point, and she'd just stopped locking it altogether.

"Not really," the brunette finally supplied, neatly downing half of her Grey Goose.

The older woman cocked her head expectantly.

Helena had been absent for quite a while on her exploratory sweep. Her delay had resulted in Barbara's need for diversion, leading to the intense perusal of the somewhat alarming document she'd picked up the week before when she'd had the temporary artwork applied.

Although the quality of the photocopy and the current lighting made it difficult to be certain, the cyber-genius hoped that she'd misread instructions relating to the use of bleach and ammonia. If she had read correctly, well, she'd just have to keep recycling her turtlenecks until the bloody rose eventually disappeared, or, if the weather continued its warming trend, a cervical collar might not be out of the question.

"I even got into the ceiling from the bathroom," the young vigilante added.

The brunette paused, fastidiously picking a cobweb from her left shoulder.

"...and looked around the back rooms and the office."

A crimson brow arched, and the brunette grinned.

"There were some places for, uh, private entertaining."

The younger woman's expression morphed into something lecherously hopeful forcing Barbara to clamp down on a laugh.

"Wanna go check them out with me, Red?"

The redhead pursed her lips, pretending to consider the suggestion.

"As tempting as that idea is, Hel, we do have a job to do here."

Not entirely certain how much of her partner's disappointment was genuine, she lowered her tone half an octave.

"Perhaps we can arrange something when we get home."

Although the background noise surrounding the women scarcely approached the level from Friday night, it was still far from quiet; therefore, Barbara was a bit surprised that she heard her companion's rumbling growl so clearly. The cyber-crime fighter promptly decided two things: she hoped that they could wrap up this bit of field work quickly; and she was very, very glad that she hadn't acceded to Dinah's request to be patched in on the comms during their venture.

Originally, Barbara hadn't intended to accompany her partner on this sleuthing expedition at Chains Of Love. It was the type of job which, typically, the younger woman could handle quite capably on her own. However, the incident which had occurred the night before had left the redhead frankly uneasy about sending her partner back to the club without any sort of... safety net.

While Barbara wasn't overly sanguine about just how much assistance she might be able to provide, being physically present at the club seemed preferable to the alternatives in the event of a problem: relying on New Gotham's finest to respond in a timely fashion or another wild dash across town from the clock tower.

The cyber-vigilante still couldn't put her finger on anything illegal occurring at the club; however, there was certainly a pattern of increasing violence and loss of control centered around the establishment. On Monday night, an event which, according to official accounts, had started out as some moderately non-consensual interaction at the club had somehow escalated into a full-blown... wilding. Over two dozen people had been involved; of them, eight -- six of them women -- had ended up hospitalized.

It hadn't been until Helena and she had decamped to the kitchen the night before, and the brunette had tucked into a bowl of mac-n-cheese, that Barbara had learned that one of the women hospitalized had been Adele -- the young woman whom Helena had mistakenly tried to rescue twice before. Increasingly agitated as she'd described the scene, the young crime fighter had soberly described stumbling across the injured young woman just before EMS had arrived to help. According to Helena's account, Adele had been in shock, however, the words she'd kept whispering had been clear enough.

'Please don't make me do it any more.'

Barbara and Helena had taken the plea to heart. Unfortunately, with Helena's stealthy visits to the back areas of the establishment not turning up anything, it seemed that identifying just what was going on -- much less putting a lid on it -- was going to be damnably difficult.

"Yeah, home."

The wistful exhalation drew the redhead from considerations about their next approach -- she supposed that knocking on the manager's door and asking point-blank was a possibility -- and she worked to reknit the threads of their conversation.

Oh, yes, setting something up when they got... home?

Something in the way her partner had breathed the quiet utterance suggested that the brunette was thinking of more than carnal delights. A tendril of fear danced and twisted against a ribbon of excitement as the older woman recognized that it might be time to have that conversation which had been teasing at the back of her throat for the last few weeks.

"Speaking of homes," she began, before her cautious, analytical side clamped a figurative hand over her mouth.

They had, when she did the calculations, only been dating -- the giddily in-love redhead and her analytical counterpart both mentally rolled their eyes at that euphemism -- for a bit over eight weeks. Perhaps it was too soon, too... cliched.

On the other hand, they had been keeping company for a great deal longer than that; they had, in fact, shared living quarters before. Of course, that was for decidedly more innocent reasons, not something to set tongues wagging at work.

Barbara blinked in annoyance, damned if she'd let gossip interfere with the best thing in her life. The only factors which should be calculated in this sort of decision were how she felt about it. And, how Helena felt.

Green eyes blinked again, slowly, while the cyber-genius pondered that last insight. While Helena had spent almost every night with her since the change in their relationship, the younger woman had her own apartment and had spent a few nights there. The brunette, in fact, hadn't made any reference to wanting to change the situation.

A tiny movement, a restless shifting, from across the table alerted the older woman to the fact that she was not alone. The interest in the blue eyes trained on her reminded the redhead that she had been speaking.

"Fish," she blurted.

Those stunning blue eyes blinked once, becoming decidedly expectant. Suspecting that the other woman was waiting for some sort of poorly veiled innuendo, Barbara colored and plastered on a bland smile.

"Er, yes. There were two more Clown fish kidnappings last night, both at private residences."

There. That had been factual enough.

The brunette seemed to relax marginally, chuckling wryly as she tugged irritably at the collar loosely buckled around her neck.

"I'm just surprised there are any of the little buggers left in the city."

The older woman nodded her agreement, revisiting the idea of sending out an APB or some type of alert. Short of having the police remain on the lookout for suspicious persons with damp clothes -- breaking the tanks could not be dry work -- or warning hobbyists to lock up their tanks, there didn't seem to be much she could do.

There was always the option of baiting a trap of some sort, of course, or setting up some sort of monitoring system for existing aquariums...

"So, what's next, Red?"

The question distracted the cyber-crime fighter from elaborate plans to plant radioactive tracer isotopes in all of the tropical fish food in the city. Gratefully, she focused on her partner's practical question about their current venture.

"Have you seen your friend -- er -- George here tonight, Hel?"

The lithe figure half-stood, rapidly scanning the sea of bodies in the dark environment.

"No, not h-- Wait a sec."

The younger woman completed her standing action and ducked into the crowd, reemerging a few seconds later with a pale, willowy woman in tow. A quick but careful appraisal convinced the redhead that the term "heroin chic" had been invented to describe Helena's companion.

"... could help us out since you're a regular and all."

The brunette gestured toward her empty chair in invitation, snagging another free seat for herself as the corpse-like woman settled herself.

"Red," Helena smiled winningly, "I'd like you to meet Lucy."

Crimson brows raised a few millimeters, and the younger woman clearly deciphered her mentor's question.

"This is the poet I was telling you about a few weeks ago."

Barbara smiled and extended her hand, fighting a grimace at the pale woman's cold, clammy touch. It seemed that Helena hadn't been far off the mark when she'd described the poet as a possible vampire; she certainly felt like she'd just crawled out of a coffin. Her instinct to offer the woman a pair of thinsulate gloves was cut short by the arrival of a man clad in lavender silk.

Amused, she watched as he dropped to his knees by the Goth woman and silently bent his head. It was, she supposed, an invitation, one which Lucy's utterly bored eye-rolling suggested wasn't likely to be accepted.

"Beat it. We're talking."

Helena's curt dismissal didn't immediately send the fellow packing; instead, he glanced up surreptitiously, clearly interested in the leather-clad woman who had spoken so rudely. Barbara raised her glass to cover a smirk when her partner allowed a little tooth to show in her next word.

"Now, Liberace."

The man scrabbled backward, undoubtedly collecting a trail of dirt from the floor on his lovely purple pants.

"Anyhoo," the younger woman cheerily continued, "I thought Lucy could help us out, finding George and all, since she's around here a lot."

The redhead nodded approvingly, and the pale woman opened her mouth, only to be cut short by the arrival of two more young men. Crimson brows quirked, and dark brows knit dangerously.

"You wanna talk to these guys, Lucy?", the brunette inquired politely.

Helena clearly took their guest's shrug as lack of interest and laconically waved the two away from the table, permitting the Goth woman to speak.

"Uhm, I was going say that George is here tonight. I saw him go in the back with Clint a little while ago."

"Settling a bar tab?"

Barbara snorted softly at the facetious question; however, the young poet appeared to miss the sarcasm.

"Oh, no. There's, uh, stuff that Clint can -- "

Lank dark hair whipped to one side, a pale hand following to point to the hallway.

"There he is now. He can probably tell you, uh, more."

Helena stood gracefully.

"Thanks, Luce."

Blue eyes caught green in question.

"I'm just gonna catch him, see if I can get that info we need. You okay here, Red?"

Torn between needlessly warning her partner to be careful and offering a de rigueur admonition for Helena to keep the nipple clamps in her pockets, the redhead simply nodded. Already on her way, the dark woman abruptly wheeled, and the older woman sucked in a fortifying breath when she saw the glint in her partner's eyes.

"You know, Lucy, Red's an English teacher. I shared your poem with her, and she spent a lot of time going over it. Maybe you two want to talk about it or something."

Barbara fixed her retreating partner's back with a decidedly unaffectionate stare even as she peripherally noticed her companion shifting to attention and, with a sinking sensation, heard the pale woman's aloof question.

"So, what did you think of it?"

Helena was definitely going to pay for this.

Mercifully, coherent conversation was almost impossible, given the steady stream of suitors interested in attracting the talent-challenged poet's attention, and, finally, Barbara was spared the effort of finding yet another euphemism for 'insipid' when the pale woman found one of the courters to her liking. Breathing a sigh of relief, the redhead checked the time -- her partner had only been gone for about ten minutes -- and fished out her cell, deciding to check in with Dinah.

When the teen had learned some of the details about her older companions' plans and the various events surrounding the club, she'd morphed into a complete mother-hen, threatening to call in the police unless one of the older women touched base every hour. Since she was a few minutes overdue, the redhead hoped that Dinah had remembered the fifteen minute grace-period which was extended for her curfews.

A few minutes later, the older woman's attempts to talk her ward through the conjugation of a particularly tricky French verb -- coinciding with the amused realization that Helena seemed to make herself scarce when there was an academic question that she could help with -- were interrupted by a tall shadow blocking one of the strobe lights from the dance floor. Glancing up, she smiled and raised a finger, nonverbally requesting that her visitor give her a moment to complete her call.

"Hello, Clint."

The redhead snapped the phone shut and slid it in her inside pocket, inclining her head toward an empty chair in invitation.

"Such a nice surprise to see you again, Red."

Williams' tone was cordial enough, however he made no motion to join the redhead, nor, Barbara noticed, had he returned her smile. With her sixth sense jumping like a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, the cyber-vigilante schooled her features to polite interest and spoke coolly.

"Is there something I can do for you this evening?"

The question finally elicited a smile from the tall man, however the redhead was quite certain that she didn't care for it.

"In fact, there is, Red. And..."

Williams stepped around the table, leaning down and lowering his voice.

"...I believe I can do something for you."

Attempting, without success, to read the man's inscrutable gaze and feeling more uneasy by the second, Barbara finally summoned a sly smile.

"I'm not sure what you have in mind, Clint."

Sharp brown eyes sparkled as the man straightened and gestured to the hallway leading to the back.

"If you'll just accompany me, Red, I think we can clear up the questions we both have."

Despite the man's seeming congeniality and her own nearly overwhelming curiosity, the redhead knew there wasn't a chance in hell that she was going anywhere with the vaguely menacing and oddly hypnotic man.

"I'm waiting for my partner to return," she demurred, wondering just what was taking the brunette so long.

Somehow, she couldn't imagine that George possessed enough information to maintain the brunette's interest for almost twenty minutes.

Williams managed to answer the cyber-vigilante's question about her partner's whereabouts while simultaneously overcoming her concerns about accompanying him to the back when he shifted to reveal the grip of a pistol tucked under his jacket.

"I'm afraid that your partner's a little tied up right now."

Gesturing more forcefully toward the back, he added, "If you'll come with me, perhaps we can make that work to both our advantage."

Temptation drags you down
Take you were you wanna be
But deep inside you know
The reason for the fear
The fear of letting go
The fear of being so
All the time
Being hypnotised
By those evil evil eyes
Lead me not into


The pounding music from the dance floor didn't begin to rival the dull thud of Barbara's heartbeat as she followed Clint Williams down the dark hallway leading to the private rooms and his office. They passed the manager's office and two of the rooms, slowing finally as they reached the penultimate room in the short hall. The muted sounds of feminine groaning leached from around the door jamb.

"Pain or pleasure?"

Williams stopped in front of the door, pinning his unwilling guest with a dark smile. Feeling as if she were facing a 'lady or the tiger' scenario -- and entirely aware that, in Helena's case, it could be one and the same -- the cyber-crime fighter met his gaze evenly.

"I believe, Mr. Williams, that you suggested that they are simply flip sides of the same coin."

Brown eyes narrowed.

"Touche, Red. I knew you were paying attention the other night. Do you remember anything else that we discussed?"

The redhead grimaced over her urge to laugh a little wildly.

"You'd be surprised," she finally allowed quietly.

Leaning casually against the wall by the door, the tall man considered that response while the pained moaning from inside the room increased in volume. The soundproofing in the room made it impossible for Barbara to determine if the voice was one she knew or even, as Williams had inquired, whether the noise was one of pain.

The club manager eventually straightened.

"I was thinking, specifically, about how some people need help -- or persuasion -- in letting go."

The redhead nodded cautiously, and Williams resumed their slow journey down the hallway to the last room. Hand on the door knob, he pinned the cyber-genius with a hard look.

"There are a lot of people out there like that, people who want to let go but they need some... help. People like you, I think."

Shivering under the tall man's frank assessment, Barbara was spared the need to come up with any sort of reply when he swung the door open and stepped back, waving a hand in invitation. The crimson-haired crime fighter cautiously entered, green eyes promptly widening in astonishment.

Barbara Gordon did not, by any stretch of the imagination, consider herself to be a naive individual. Years on the streets, years in the classroom, years as the guardian of a trouble-prone ward, even time spent reading and surfing the net had all insured that she was well versed in the variations which could play a part in sexual expression. Therefore, when she took in the room, it was not the oversized bed, or the numerous restraints, or even the variety of... implements on display which shocked her so.

Rather, what dropped the older woman's jaw in disbelief was the sight of Helena, stripped to her tank and underwear, firmly chained to the heavy footboard of the bed.

Chapter 19

The scantily-clad young crime fighter was standing, back to the door, one bare foot against the end of the bed, tugging vigorously on the chains shackling her to the furniture. Barbara's entrance obviously distracted her, and a dark head whipped toward the door before the brunette recognized her guest and smiled guiltily.

"Hey, Red."

It seemed to the older woman that her partner's greeting was a maddening combination of embarrassment and cheerful unconcern.

"Helena? What in the name of stocks and bonds are you doing?"

Honestly, she'd thought that the younger woman had accepted with equanimity her suggestion to bypass the rooms at the club and work out something at home.

The other woman penitently dipped her head, and blue eyes peeked hesitantly from under shaggy bangs.

"Well, it's actually kind of funny when you think about it..."

The redhead drew upon her ebbing stores of patience, waiting to be amused. Possibly sensing that she had a tough audience, Helena picked up the pace of her tale.

"See, I was talking with George and doing a little, er, quid pro quo...?"

A measured nod was the best that Barbara could manage to signal her understanding -- nay, her attention to the words. Understanding was still a bit of a stretch.

"Well," the lithe figure continued with an abashed shrug, "I thought these were the quick-release kind of cuffs."

The brunette shook the shackles on her wrists irritably, then brightened.

"But, I figure I can break through the bed in a little while."

Pinching the bridge of her nose between thumb and index finger, the older woman dubiously assessed the footboard. In all honesty, given the thickness of the wood, she had to allow that her wiry partner probably would be able to extricate herself... in four or five hours.

The redhead inhaled slowly, then released a long, steady, cleansing breath.

"I can see you have matters under control then, so I'll just..."

She turned as if to depart, stopped by the club manager who laughed delightedly and slowly applauded.

"Well done, Red. You just forgot one thing."

Unamused green eyes met brown.

"And, what might that be, Mr. Williams?"

The tall man raised his hands in mock surprise.

"You forgot to tell her that, while she's working on freeing herself, she'll need to pay off the hourly room rate in trade."

Despite the slow anger simmering in her veins, the cyber-vigilante spoke calmly.

"That won't be necessary, assuming that you take cash."

To his credit, the club manager chuckled before waving dismissively as he settled himself on a bar stool near the door.

"Don't worry about it, Red. This one's on the house."

An old saw about the first one always being free ran through the older woman's mind.

"That's very kind of you. However, if you'll locate a key to release my partner, we can vacate the room for paying customers."

Their host seemed to consider the suggestion before a frown creased his face.

"Not so fast. First, I think we need to talk about what brought you here."

Green eyes blinked once, then Barbara gave a mental shrug.

Che sara, sara.

She'd been toying with the idea of knocking on the man's office door and asking what was going on, and here was her opportunity on a silver platter. Aside from the fact that they were in the Marque de Sade's bed chamber rather than a business office, her partner was practically naked and in chains rather than in her sweeps wear, and Williams had a gun rather than a highball at hand... well, everything was just peachy.

"And what might that be, Mr. Williams?"

Instead of responding directly, the tall man reached inside his jacket, and Barbara instinctively readied herself, fingers gripping the arms of her chair where she kept a modified batarang. A slight clinking from behind her alerted the older woman that her partner was also preparing herself for a threat, although Barbara wasn't sure just what the brunette could do in her current state.

Perhaps, a tangential portion of the redhead's overactive brain supplied helpfully, Helena was planning to channel Wonder Woman and deflect any flying bullets with her faux leopard skin-lined cuffs.

Even in the face of possible threats and violence, that image almost managed to elicit a snort from the redhead, a sound she covered with a soft sigh when Williams pulled a large, green capsule from his jacket. Suspecting that they were on the brink of solving their little mystery, the older woman nodded minutely and looked over her shoulder to find Helena offering an enthusiastic nod of her own.

"Fasma?", the brunette queried, with what sounded like a distinct note of hope in her tone.

" 'Fasma'? ", the redhead parroted.

"Fasma," Williams confirmed.

Ruthlessly quashing her mounting desire to rub her temples or pinch the bridge of her nose, the cyber-crime fighter tried again.

"What, exactly, is Fasma?"

"It's the bomb", a soprano voice piped up.

"It's persuasion," a baritone supplied at the same moment.

Again, Barbara sought her partner's eyes and raised both brows archly. Still engaged in some desultory tugging against the heavy wood of the bed, Helena apparently got her mentor's message.

"Well, that's what George said," the younger woman elaborated before attacking her escape activities with renewed concentration.

Since the dark vigilante was thoughtfully keeping her clanking and grunting below forty decibels, the older woman opted to resume her conversation with the club manager.

"How does it work, Mr. Williams?"

Issuing a self-satisfied sigh, the dark-haired man positioned the capsule between his thumb and index finger and held it to the light. The exterior was a greyish-green, the capsule itself approximately an inch and a half long and slightly narrower than the diameter of a pencil.

"Well, that's the beauty of it, Red. It works differently for different people."

Lowering the capsule, Williams absently rolled it between his fingers as he warmed to his topic.

"For some, it allows them to drop their defenses and admit that they want, or need, to be submissive. For others, it might allow them to ignore societal -- "

A bushy dark brow lowered meaningfully, and Barbara forced herself to remain still as brown eyes raked over her.

"-- or internal -- constraints and let go with the passion inside."

"An -- ugh -- inhibition inhibitor?"

Williams and Barbara both started at the grunted inquiry. The half-naked young woman at the back of the room stopped yanking her chains in response to the two sharp looks.

"Whaaat? It sounds kind of like the effects of a few stiff drinks."

The proprietor relaxed marginally, chuckling softly.

"Perhaps, but Fasma is more than that. It also acts on others, the people around those who have used it. It's absorbed almost instantly and then, for some people, seems to be emitted as pheromones or something."

Barbara knit her brows, attempting to make sense out of what the man was suggesting.

"I'm not sure I understand that last part, Mr. Williams."

"Well, Red, I noticed that you were chatting with one of our regulars earlier, and you certainly didn't miss the attention she was receiving?"

The cyber-genius inclined her head in acknowledgement.

The tall man's words certainly went a long way in explaining just what sort of appeal the corpse-like woman had had for all of her suitors. Perhaps, it even accounted for the inexplicable gallantry on Lucy's behalf which had occurred at the poetry club.

"Well, Lucy isn't affected much herself by Fasma, but, once she uses it, certain types of individuals just go wild for her."

Rotating her chair a few degrees, Barbara caught her partner's eyes and quirked a brow. The almost imperceptible shake of a dark head confirmed that Helena hadn't been affected by the Goth woman's mystique either.

"Then," Williams continued conversationally, "there's someone like Adele."

The older woman noticed her protege stiffening slightly when she heard the name.

"Fasma really unlocks the inner slut in that girl, and, by happy coincidence, it really seems to unleash some people's urges to take advantage of that."

Brown eyes seemed to lose focus for a moment as Williams added, "Lot of promise in that girl. I hope she'll be out of the hospital soon."

The fine hairs on the redhead's arm's raised in response to a sub vocal growl from the back of the room. Nevertheless, she spoke calmly.

"What if she doesn't want to take your little wonder drug any longer?"

Somewhat to her surprise, the question elicited a genuine laugh from the club owner. It was, Barbara thought, the first genuine emotion she'd witnessed from the man.

"Nobody is going to force her -- or anybody else -- to keep taking Fasma. It's strictly recreational. Not to mention," he added proudly, "a fantastic marketing tool for the club. With all the business it brings in, I haven't even needed to charge for it."

Steepling her fingers, the cyber-crime fighter rested the tips of her middle fingers between her eyebrows, circumspectly pressing against the bridge of her nose with her index fingers.

From what Williams had just shared, it sounded like it might be very difficult to persuade the man to cease his... marketing.

"Er, what's in it?"

The analytical woman tried another angle, hopes that something patently illegal were in the pill evaporating as the tall man answered with evident pride.

"As hard as it may be to believe, Red, Fasma is all-natural and preservative free."

Barbara fought the urge to roll her eyes, recognizing this speal from too many late-night infomercials.

"It contains a few trace botanicals," the man continued enthusiastically, "and naturally occurring hepatic tissue, making it rich in iron, copper, and B12."

With Williams clearly waiting for some sort of response from her, the older woman smiled wanly, absurdly grateful when her partner sniffed pointedly and chimed in.

"So, what, cod liver oil or something?"

"Something like that," he allowed with a hint of irritation.

Since there didn't seem to be anything illegal in the drug -- although the cyber-genius was eager to analyze those trace botanicals the man had mentioned -- Barbara suspected that she didn't have a wheel to balance on in terms of demanding that the man cease his production. While an appeal to decency didn't seem to hold much hope, it was, very possibly, her best option. Accordingly, she plunged in.

"As, er, healthy and natural as Fasma sounds and as much business as it generates, you still must recognize that it has been causing a great deal of harm rec--"

In a heartbeat, congeniality transformed to anger as the man abruptly stood and stalked toward the redhead.

"Only for those who don't know how to handle it. Before you start preaching about it..."

The tall man leaned down, invading the redhead's space and fixing her with his powerful gaze.

"...don't you think you owe it to yourself -- "

Smiling glacially, he straightened and inclined his head in Helena's direction.

"-- and to her -- to give it a try?"

Intensely aware of the way that William's free hand hovered near the gun at his waist, Barbara squeezed the armrests of her chair, waiting for an opening. She mustered a bored smile.

"I do appreciate the offer, Clint, but I'd prefer to take one home to try in privacy--"

Williams smiled cynically and almost casually removed the pistol from under his jacket. A low growl and the frantic rattling of chains against wood drew the man's gaze to the back of the room. Ready to seize the small diversion, the redhead knotted her muscles then instantly aborted the blow she had planned when the manager whipped the gun up, aiming toward Helena.

The tall man was remarkably blase.

"You need to calm your bitch down, or I will."

Meeting her partner's furious gaze, the older woman remained steady.

"Hel, it's all right."

"Like hell it is!" the brunette spat. "You don't know what's in that--"


The touch of iron seemed to do the trick. Breathing heavily, the younger woman fixed the club manager with a look which could have stripped the paint from wood.

"Fuck, give it to me, Clint. I'll give it a go even if it's gonna be hell swallowing that thing."

Shaking his head, Williams chuckled.

"No, you don't swallow Fasma."

A tiny measure of the young vigilante's bravado seemed to deflate when she visibly weighed the remaining options.

"Aw, man..."

The brunette's resigned groan elicited another full laugh from the tall man, who stepped to Barbara's side with the gun still trained on Helena. The redhead winced as he raised the capsule, brushing it gently against her lips.

"No, Helena," Williams corrected playfully, "not that way either. And -- "

With a quick flick of his thumb, their host snapped open the capsule under Barbara's nose.

"-- not for you either. You're not the one who needs it."

Not bothering to try something amateurish -- after all, Williams could hold a gun on Helena for much longer than she could hold her breath -- the cyber-vigilante breathed normally... and promptly almost vomited.

"Dear heavens," she managed to gasp, not able to control her instinct to avert her face, "that's ghastly."

Even as he followed the direction of the redhead's face with the capsule, the tall man's response was surprisingly sympathetic.

"Yes, that is an unfortunate characteristic of Fasma, but it needs to be that close to work."

The cyber-vigilante was distantly aware of her partner's offended hacking from the back of the room and Helena muttering something which sounded like 'hair balls'. Eyes watering, she managed another measured respiration, and... clarity surfaced.

Although Barbara knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that she didn't need it, she deliberately inhaled one more time and, without a second look at the proprietor, turned and moved to her partner.

Bright blue eyes which were filled with concern -- and no small measure of offense over the bouquet permeating the room -- raked over the older woman. The redhead approached slowly, holding her partner's gaze, before she turned at the foot of the bed to face Williams.

"Red? Are you okay? If he messed you up, I'm gonna turn him into something worse-smelling than that stuff!"

Not bothering to hide her fond smile, the older woman attempted to reassure the brunette.

"I'm quite well, Helena."

Still focused on the tall man at the other end of the room, Barbara peripherally noted the uncertainty in her partner's features.

"So, uhm, maybe this stuff doesn't work on you? Or maybe we're gonna have a trail of lovelorn Romeos following us hom--"

"Down, Helena."

Uncertainty morphed to confusion, then comprehension, in the blink of startled blue eyes. Silently, the younger woman dropped to her knees in front of the redhead. Humming her approval, the older woman tenderly pushed shaggy bangs to the side and bent to touch her forehead to her partner's.

"I love you very much, Helena."

There was nothing but trust and acceptance in those bright eyes so close to her own.

"I know, Red."

Inhaling deeply, Barbara straightened, catching the collar which was still around the dark woman's neck in her fingers, nimbly tightening it a notch and adjusting it just so.

As she worked, she casually glanced up, unconcerned by the fact that their host had yet to lower his gun, and spoke conversationally.


"Very observant."

The man's admiration seemed genuine.

"But, not the entire Clown fish -- "

The crimson haired crime fighter felt her partner stiffen at Williams' admission and pressed firmly on the younger woman's shoulders. She needed Helena right where she was.

"-- just the livers."

Rather distractedly, the older woman suspected that no amount of pressure -- or at least pressure from just her hands -- could have stopped the brunette's incredulous exclamation. The dark head whipped around indignantly.

"You've been doing the Hannibal Lector thing with Nemo?!"

Even as she firmly -- very firmly -- hooked the younger woman's sharp jaw and directed blue eyes back to her, Barbara incongruously wondered if a liver from one of the tiny fish would even cover a fava bean.

"It must be difficult to procure enough raw material for your supplies," the redhead murmured while she drew her fingertips across her partner's shoulders.

Just because she finally understood the motivation for the recent spate of Clown fish thefts didn't mean she -- like Sherlock Holmes in the requisite drawing room scene -- didn't want it confirmed.

"It did get terribly expensive," Williams allowed, "so I finally had to use other means."

Thrilling to the way blue eyes morphed to gold under her touch, Barbara didn't look up. Rather, she hooked two fingers under the heavy leather circlet around her partner's neck, urging the younger woman to her feet.

"I take it you're behind the fish burglaries I've been reading about."

The redhead rotated ninety degrees to place the end of bed on her left. Holding her partner's feverishly glinting eyes, she inclined her head toward one of the tall posts and nodded approvingly when the younger woman turned her back and placed her palms against it.

"Yes," the fish mutilator acknowledged, "it's a bit of work, but far cheaper than buying them."

Enough of that.

Satisfied with her partner's position and amazed by the brunette's palpable readiness for whatever might come, Barbara finally backed away a few feet and surveyed the variety of... implements in the room. Obviously noticing the redhead's inventory, Williams waved his pistol at one wall.

"We have some really nice electric prods here."

Poking her tongue into the side of her cheek, the older woman gave the suggestion some thought. Ultimately, it seemed too repetitive.

"Perhaps another time, Clint," she demurred smoothly. "We played with electricity just last month."

The tall man dipped his head in understanding, then mirrored Barbara's own wide smile as she spied just the thing. She lifted her right hand, palm up in request.

"That," the redhead purred, "would be perfect. Would you mind?"

Williams beamed and took two quick steps to the side to retrieve the unwieldy item, tossing it to her. His lowered the gun marginally but kept it firmly fixed on Helena's back.

"Be my guest. It's your party, Red."

"Indeed," Barbara smirked, easily catching the eight-foot whip.

For half a minute, perhaps forty-five seconds, she worked the length of the supple leather through her hands, testing the heft and flex of the item. She struggled to identify the sour taste in the back of her throat and then attempted to reconcile it with the unambiguous darker emotions coursing through her.

As far as she could determine, Helena didn't seem to have been affected by Williams' little concoction: as... accommodating as her partner's responses were, the younger woman's actions, her eyes, radiated conscious acceptance of whatever course Barbara chose. The instincts and actions driving this little tableau, the redhead acknowledged, were indeed in her hands.

Stroking the braided leather lightly with her finger tips, the crimson-haired vigilante steeled herself for what she was going to do -- for what she needed to do. Readied, she wrapped her hand around the butt of the lash and inhaled slowly, noting how utterly still her partner was.

She allowed herself a moment to admire the slender lines of the dark woman's back, the smooth corded muscles of her arms tensing as she gripped the bed post, the tan unmarred skin on the back of her thighs and calves. Hearing the club manager's restless shifting, Barbara banished her ever-present doubts and questions, raised the whip, and -- almost leisurely -- swept it towards her partner.

The first strike was purposefully gentle, a caress against Helena's legs. Expertly positioned, the strike wrapped the material sinuously around the brunette's left knee and calf, the tip of the whip fluttering to rest on top of her bare foot. Avid green eyes traced the flow of the coiled leather, approvingly noting that -- while Helena had tensed at the soft strike -- the younger woman had neither moved nor spoken.

Distantly, Barbara thought she detected a ragged exhalation from the spectator at the far end of the room, but she didn't spare Williams a second glance. Rather, she surrendered herself to the moment, immersing herself in the currents driving through her veins, and tugged sharply at the whip. The movement forced the brunette to spread her legs, resultantly stretching her unmoving arms and shoulders into sharper relief.

Satisfied, the older woman recoiled the whip, instantly snapping it toward her partner with a sharp crack. As Barbara had planned, the tip of the eight foot lash bit against the tensely stretched muscles of dark figure's left shoulder, eliciting an almost inaudible whimper from the younger woman.

The redhead just had time to note two spots of blood marring her partner's skin before she peripherally saw their host craning forward from his vantage point at the back of the room. Surrendering to instinct, viscerally certain that this was the moment, Barbara snapped the whip again, much more sharply, her aim precise enough to jerk the gun from Williams' hand without breaking skin. A second sweep wrapped the leather around the man's legs and took him to the floor.

In less than two minutes, Helena had freed herself with the lock pick the redhead tossed her way and retrieved her clothes; Barbara had selected just the right pair of cuffs to restrain the club manager; and the two were settling themselves in the van.

After inserting the keys in the ignition, the cyber-crime fighter stopped herself and turned to find questioning blue eyes fixed on her. Wordlessly, she leaned over and unfastened the heavy collar from her partner's throat, tossing the item casually into a gear bag.

Tomorrow, she'd dump the video from the camera hidden in the item and, after editing out anything showing the two of them, would forward Williams' confession to the police. While she doubted that the man would get much -- if any -- time for his burglaries, with any luck he would need to return to purchasing the ingredients for his pungent pill. The cost and inconvenience might just convince the man to adopt a different marketing strategy.

For now, however, there were more pressing matters.

Barbara gently touched her partner's deceptively slender shoulder, awed and humbled by the complete trust the younger woman had given her. Attempting to be absolutely clear, she trailed her fingers down the brunette's arm and raised her hand, pressing a melting kiss to the center of the slender hand.

"I'd like to go home now, Sweetie," she husked quietly.

A sweet smile and eager nod of a dark head reassured the redhead more than she'd anticipated. However Helena's soft question initially puzzled her.

"So, uh, that stuff's really getting to you, huh?"

Green eyes blinked as comprehension flooded the older woman, and she calmly reached up to remove the tiny silicon filters from her nose.

She spoke over her partner's wry chuckle, her own voice deep and sincere as she deliberately repeated words her lover had uttered to her almost three months before.

"That is not what this is about, Hel."

Chapter 20

"It's about time."


"Sheesh, Kid, chill out."

Recognizing that she was unlikely to make further headway on her current project, Barbara carefully book marked her search results and pushed back from the keyboard. Unperturbed by the diversion from her two younger partners, the redhead took her time removing her glasses and tucking them into one of the pockets of her chair.

She really needed to ask Alfred for his advice on the job; he'd certainly dealt with these sorts of questions in the Batcave.

Looking up, the older woman found herself fixed by two sets of blue eyes -- one exasperated cornflower, the other devilishly twinkling cerulean. She smiled pleasantly and addressed Dinah.

"I see that you have your outfit assembled."

She took in the girl's appearance -- from the flowing red silk shirt, to form-fitting white pants, to patent leather knee boots -- and nodded her approval.

"Quite the verisimilitude, Dinah."

The blonde blushed, but any response she might have made was lost to her companion's teasing barb.

"Should be. It took her long enough to choose it."


Barbara pursed her lips at the girl's indignant huff and caught Helena's gaze. The slow arch of one crimson brow did the job.

"But, yeah," the brunette smiled toothily, "it does look great."

Somehow, the teen managed to beam and to blush simultaneously.

"Do you really think it's okay? I mean, I'm kind of nervous being up on stage and everything."

Even as she attempted to reconcile the girl's ability to face down the nastiest of criminals with her stage fright, the redhead kept it short and sweet.

"You'll do just fine, Dinah."

Gracefully hopping from the platform to follow the blonde on her way to the elevator, Helena wasn't nearly as succinct.

"Yeah, no sweat, D. Even if some of your sleight-of-hand gets too heavy, nobody's going to be watching your hands anyway with you wearing those tight pants."

Witnessing the teen's flustered mis-step, the leader of the little team coughed quietly. The brunette whipped her gaze back to the platform and grinned sheepishly.

"Just kidding, Dinah."

Helena hooked a thumb toward the older woman.

"Uhm, what she said."

With promises to be front and center by the time the curtain rose for the Senior Follies, and with the added enticement of allowing Dinah to drive herself in the Hummer, they finally ushered the hesitant young woman onto the elevator. Feeling a bit like a proud -- and sad -- parent, Barbara joined her partner by the sofa and tangled her fingers with Helena's while they watched the elevator indicator descend. A gentle squeeze on her hand recaptured the older woman's attention.

"Hey, you okay, Babs?"

The brunette's voice was gentle, with none of the sarcastic bite she so often displayed for the world. The redhead briefly wondered how the younger woman had noticed her fleeting melancholy, then immediately dismissed the question.

Helena had always -- always -- been very aware of her feelings and moods.

"I realized that, in a way, this is it."

Observing the puzzled furrow of dark brows, the older woman worked to explain.

"After today, Helena, grades are pretty much set. The seniors can coast through the next few weeks and, then, it's graduation."

When the dark figure's features didn't clear -- indeed, her brows seemed to deepen into a scowl -- Barbara tried again.

"I suppose I'm having some premature empty nest syndrome."

She looked up with a small, self-effacing smile.

"Do you understand?"

Blue eyes rolled incredulously.

"Well, yeah, but are you telling me that I could have blown off my whole last month of school?"

As usual, the brunette's humor did the trick, and Barbara released the last traces of her low mood. Freeing her hand with a laugh, she play-swatted her companion's tummy.

"I seem to recall that you did just that, Helena."

The younger woman shrugged unrepentantly and perched herself on the arm of the sofa.

"Yeah, maybe," she allowed, raising a hand to nibble at her pinkie finger.

"But, that whole empty nest thing..."

Inscrutable blue eyes caught green.

"...I hear that's not gonna be such an issue now. Even if the Kid stays in the dorms, she's always gonna be around here doing her laundry and raiding the fridge and using the Delphi for her homework and stuff."

The redhead chuckled at the truth of that, then decided to tap dance around a related topic.

"How do you feel about that, Hel?"

She deliberately, a perhaps a bit cravenly, left the question vague. The younger woman apparently took the inquiry at face value, smiling evilly.

"Hey, it works for me. With the Kid at NGU, I can keep ragging on her for a couple more years, right?"

Not fooled for a moment, the older woman merely arched a brow. The brunette's grin remained, however it became a bit less wicked, a bit more eager.

Perhaps, Barbara realized with a rush of fond warmth, even a bit shy.

"Well, there's also that whole chance to do the vicarious college thing."

Edging closer, the redhead lightly rested a hand on her partner's knee.

"You do know that if -- or when -- you're ready, you don't have to experience college vicariously, Sweetheart."

Bright blue eyes widened, then blinked. Several times. Finally, the younger woman snorted noisily.

"C'mon, Red. The closest I want to get to college is, maybe, helping D sneak a keg into the dorm -- "

The brunette seemingly read the older woman's expression, hastily tacking on, "-- uh, when she's twenty-one, of course."

Barbara raised both hands in surrender.

"I give, Helena."

She started to back away but forced herself to arrest the movement. For half a minute -- perhaps a little longer -- the redhead remained still, hands resting over the rims, muscles in her arms tensed.

Dear heavens, why was it so difficult to find the words? To ask?

It wasn't as if Helena weren't, for all intents and purposes, not already living at the clock tower. And, if Barbara had had even the tiniest sliver of doubt about her lover's feelings, the younger woman's perfect trust three nights before at the club should have erased it entirely.


The older woman blinked stiffly when the brunette slid from the sofa arm to squat before her and concerned blue eyes came into view. Swallowing audibly, she wet the edges of her lips.

The question.

The question carried with it levels of subtext and commitment which could be claimed so much more obviously by opposite-sex couples. So many weeks ago, Helena had sweetly stated that she was willing "to do the time", yet were they ready?

"How will you feel if Dinah doesn't move into the dorms?", the redhead finally ventured, immediately vexed by her own cowardice.

The lithe figure before her regarded her levelly, clearly searching for the reasons underlying the long break in the conversation. Finally, she shrugged.

"That's cool, too, Babs. The clock tower is her home, too, right?"

Pursing her lips, the redhead could only nod, and her partner smiled teasingly.

"It is kind of handy having her around to run out and pick up pizzas, since you still don't want delivery kids coming here..."

The older woman ignored the familiar grousing. It was an old argument -- about the illusion of privacy and security -- and no longer carried any heat.

The brunette's smile morphed into something a little naughty, and slender fingers walked up Barbara's forearm.

"...even if it does cut down on opportunities for us to get naked spontaneously."

Shivering in response to those knowing fingers brushing her shoulder and the sight of eager eyes which were no longer blue, the redhead managed to croak, "Is that all you think about, Hel?"

A dark head bobbed decisively.

"Pretty much."

In a heartbeat, Helena flowed upward to settle herself in the chair, straddling the older woman's legs.

"In fact..."

In spite of herself, when the younger woman's warm breath teased her throat and sharp teeth danced across a sensitive tendon in her neck, Barbara arched into the contact, humming softly.

"...I think," the brunette continued, one hand trailing almost casually over the older woman's heart, "we should take advantage of the time we have right now."

For some reason, that seemed like one of Helena's more inspired suggestions. Of course, the younger woman always had possessed a knack for seizing the day.

The redhead ducked her chin to dust sharp kisses to chestnut hair.

"HmmMmm", she managed before catching lush lips with hers, darting inside to telegraph her desire.

The slim woman in her lap gasped, her hips bucking once, twice, against Barbara's abdomen.

"Fuck, yeah. We can -- ugh -- "


The older woman captured her partner's hips in both hands, grasping the sweet flesh firmly. She distantly made out Helena's rumbling words.

"-- skip the follies at school, huh?"

Green eyes blinked, and Barbara exhaled.

Very slowly.

Holy cats. How did Helena manage to do that to her?

Apologetically, she looked up, quirking her brows helplessly. The younger woman's face was an adorable contradiction of aggrieved frustration and cheerful resignation.

The two locked eyes for a moment, then smiled as one, and the brunette carefully extricated herself.

"Gotta remember to keep my mouth shut from now on, Red."

The older woman smirked.

"I believe, Sweetie, that simply not talking should suffice."

Leaving her companion in exactly the oral pose she'd implied -- open-mouthed but speechless -- the redhead serenely headed to the kitchen to retrieve the oversized plate of brownies which Alfred had delivered -- and which she'd tucked out of sight -- earlier in the day. Not a minute later, she returned to the living area, prize carefully balanced on her knees.

"It's still a bit chilly, Hel. What coat do you think I sh--"

The jovial question died on the older woman's lips when she caught sight of her partner, stripped down to her tank top, regarding her fixedly from the center of the room. Barbara swallowed with some difficulty.

"Helena? You know we don't, er, have much time before the curtain goes up."

To her annoyance, the words came out about a half an octave higher than she'd expected.

The brunette smirked, then exhaled noisily.

"Yeah, I know, Red. I was just going to change my shirt, but..."

A slender hand waived toward the coat closet where the clothes-hound kept a rotating wardrobe. Barbara had yet to determine whether it was a matter of convenience or sheer overflow from her partner's own closets, but she'd long ago ceased to care.

"...my stuff's gone."

The redhead smiled tenderly, tempted to chuckle at the younger woman's visible annoyance and confusion. Her smile faltered when Helena's eyes narrowed.

"So help me, if the Kid took off with my stuff, I'm going to--"

Barbara hastily raised a hand and blurted, "It wasn't Dinah, Helena. I moved your clothes."

Observing her partner's bafflement, the older woman was once again reminded of why she tried not to speak without planning.

The dark figure took a few moments, obviously weighing and discarding a variety of responses. Eventually, she sighed, then raised both hands to run her fingers through shaggy hair.

"Shit, Barbara. You could have just, I dunno, asked me to clear the stuff out?"

The redhead opened her mouth to explain, however Helena was picking up steam and barreled on.

"What's the deal? Do you need the closet space or something?"

Damned near giggling in the wry recognition of how on-target her partner's peeved words were, the redhead attempted to reassure the other woman.

"No, Hel, it's not that. And, I don't. Yet."

While that certainly hadn't been one of her finer verbal offerings, the slightly pugnacious tilt of a dark head suggested that Helena was willing to listen.

"You see, I cleared some space out..."

Considering that, the older woman tried to be more specific.

"...er, moved most of my tops with low necklines to the back."

Barbara stammered to a halt, feeling heat touch her cheeks at the recollection of just what had contributed to that choice. Fortunately, her partner reminded her that she'd been in the midst of explaining something.


The redhead knit her fingers over the brownies on her lap and pursed her lips.

Perhaps she'd been too presumptuous.

Forcing herself to meet blue eyes, she whispered, "I moved your clothes, that is, I made room for some of your things in my--"

Barbara stopped again, however the almost comical sight of the brunette literally leaning forward in anticipation freed the tight bands of panic around her chest. Her voice gained strength and surety.

"I want there to be room for your things in our bedroom, Sweetheart."

Granted, given the size of Helena's wardrobe, not to mention her own need to add a few dozen turtlenecks to her own collection, she was going to have to finish her task of locating a discrete carpenter to expand the closet. Still, it seemed like a trivial undertaking.

More nervous than she could believe, yet oddly a peace, the cyber-genius awaited her companion's reaction. When wide blue eyes creased under the force of the younger woman's smile, she relaxed.

Helena was at her side in two graceful steps.

"Cool, Barbara."

Soft lips brushed the older woman's ear.

"Now I've just got to round up a fleet of sherpas to haul the rest of my clothes over."

Even as the older woman laughed -- perhaps a bit more than the quip deserved -- the brunette turned toward the bedroom, calling over her shoulder.

"And, yeah, it is a little nipply out there. Why don't you wear the motorcycle jacket?"

The redhead mulled on that suggestion until her partner reappeared, buttoning a tight purple silk shirt.

"I'm afraid that jacket might be a bit much for a school function, Hel. Actually," she added thoughtfully, "I'm just lucky that nobody I know saw me in it, and at the club, either night."

Obligingly pulling a more sedate suede blazer out of the coat closet, the younger woman barked out a laugh.

"Shit, Red. If anybody had seen you there... well, you would have seen them, too, right?"

Barbara stuffed one hand into the blazer before erupting into giggles, the image of Alethea Harkness decked in chains and leather almost too much to handle. Unfortunately, on the brief trip to the parking garage, she determined that said image was, in fact, more than she cared to deal with and concentrated with fierce determination on finding a way to delete the picture from her neural hard drive. It wasn't until they were settled in the van that Helena finally broke her reverie.

Leaning across the seats, the brunette lightly touched the older woman's chest, just above her heart.

"You're not wearing your bell. How'm I going to know if you need something at the faculty party?"

It had required a certain amount of persuasion to convince the younger woman to accompany Barbara to the staff party scheduled after the Seniors' production.

Spending unnecessary time at the high school always seemed to be near the top of the brunette's short list of things not to do.

However, for reasons she didn't fully understand, the redhead truly wanted the other woman with her -- on her arm, as it were -- at one of the rare school functions where spouses and significant others were welcome. Consequently, the older woman deliberately pitched her voice to an intimate burr when she responded to her partner's teasing inquiry.

"I wasn't planning on letting you get far from me tonight, Sweetie."

Blue eyes blinked before widening playfully.

"Better be careful, Barbara. You know what a bunch of gossips your coworkers are."

The brunette seemed to consider something for a split-second before lush red lips quirked.

"I hear them whisper, you know. You won't believe it."

The redhead felt a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. Wrestling it down, she arched a brow.

"Indeed, Hel? What are they saying?"

"Oh, you know..."

The younger woman's voice was airy.

"...that we laugh just a little too loud and stand just a little too close."

Sweet blue eyes met green, rich with intimate knowledge.

"Maybe we stare just a little too long."

Not sure what had happened to all of the oxygen in the van, Barbara nevertheless somehow managed to turn the key and put the vehicle into drive. Before pulling out of the garage, she reached over and squeezed her lover's hand.

"Well, Helena, let's give them something to talk about."