FANDOM: Birds of Prey TV

PAIRING: Barbara/Helena

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

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

SUMMARY: The past returns to test Barbara and her new relationship.

COMMENTS: Please. Constructive comments welcome.

ARCHIVING: Please ask.


Chapter 1

"Honestly, I really didn't feel a thing."

And, that was the truth of the matter, even if the comment earned Barbara Gordon a big laugh in the process.

Swinging into her chair from the decimated remains of the wooden box she'd helped decorate only a few weeks before, the redhead could only trust that allowing her students to see her in a humorous light would be a positive event. Heaven only knew, most of them were so filled with angst and hormones and self-consciousness that any opportunity to show that they didn't have to take themselves so seriously should be beneficial.

And to think, serving as a role model for the intrepid set had only cost her a lung full of sawdust and -- Green eyes blinked suddenly as the analytical woman looked down to her lap.

Well, apparently, it had nearly lost her her legs, too.

Returning to the main floor and settling herself next to her companion, Barbara wryly acknowledged that her admonition to Dinah -- when she'd finally allowed herself to be persuaded to become "a volunteer from the audience" -- might not have been too far off the mark at all.

As she'd ascended to the stage not too many minutes before, she'd easily observed the stark nervousness in her young ward's features. Despite Dinah's success in pulling various objects from a hat, bending spoons, and making her assistant, Gabby, disappear, the young woman's stage fright, apparently, hadn't abated.

Clearly, that wouldn't do. The Senior Follies were meant to be enjoyed both by the audience *and* by the performers.

Watching the teen prime the chain saw for her magic trick while she'd fitted herself into position to be cut in half, the older woman had caught pale blue eyes and smiled confidently.

"When you get me in half, Dinah, can you work on replacing my legs with a pair which work?"

After a half-dozen startled blinks of pale lashes, the girl had grinned expansively and revved her saw with a gusto which would have put a chainsaw murderer to shame. Dinah had visibly relaxed, running through her light patter easily and welding the saw on the box -- with Barbara in it -- with elan.

Perhaps -- green eyes warily regarded the severed belt loop on the outer most side of her jeans -- a bit too much elan.

The sensation of slender fingers insinuating with hers and a gentle squeeze against her hand drew the redhead from her consideration about her young ward's stage presence. The sight of blue eyes twinkling in the dim theater and a dark head leaning towards her caused Barbara to respond in kind. Tilting her head, she barely made out Helena's whisper as it carried softly under the Choral Club's finale -- an up-tempo medley of Rogers and Hammerstein show tunes.

"The Kid's good with a chain saw, huh?"

Smirking, Barbara contented herself with a nod, then barely managed to swallow her chuckle when the brunette continued.

The hills might have been alive with the sound of music, but her partner's voice was verdant with satisfied pride.

"I showed her that over-the-head circle thing, you know."

It took most of the redhead's considerable will and power of concentration to do so, but somehow she straightened and arched one crimson brow, mustering her best prim school marm expression.

"Indeed, Hel. Perhaps you'll also help her repair the curtain she sliced through with that little move, as well?"

Expecting a laugh or an indignant refusal, Barbara was unprepared when the dark figure on her right leaned close again. She shivered as warm fingers released her hand and danced across the waist of her jeans, tugging at the recently mutilated belt loop. She nearly moaned when a soft whisper teased her ear.

"Nah. I'm going to be busy taking advantage of the opening the Kid started here."

Something warm and thick rose in the older woman's chest, and she fought to breathe, to steady herself against the overwhelming power the younger woman seemed to possess over her. Perhaps fortuitously, the thick drive also pushed before it -- naturally -- a rush of heat to the redhead's cheeks. Moving slowly, hoping for stealth in the darkened auditorium, Barbara casually captured her ebullient partner's restless fingers and squeezed lightly. Without glancing to the side, she husked her reply.

"Soon, Hel."

The brunette's sub vocal growl raised the fine hairs on the back of her neck and left the older woman wondering if Helena -- or she -- would make it through the evening. Given the mood that the younger woman had been in before leaving the clock tower -- honestly, given her own mood -- the chances seemed fifty-fifty at best.

The house lights slowly coming up in tandem with the chorus' rousing finale distracted the redhead, but only for a moment. While the fresh faced singers lauded the winds sweeping o'er the plains of Oklahoma, it was the sight of Helena's hands sweeping up the inside of the younger woman's own thighs which evoked a large measure of Barbara's surprisingly energetic applause.

Just over an hour later, sipping a wine spritzer so weak that it definitely couldn't have been in conflict with the school's No Alcohol policy, the English teacher wished that she'd managed to hold on to the burst of energy which had possessed her at the conclusion of the Senior Follies. She simply couldn't imagine how many more times she could feign enthusiasm for yet another vacuous conversation about the track team's chances at State.

Truthfully, given Helena's -- and her own -- reaction in the auditorium earlier, Barbara had considered skipping the faculty get-together after the student production. Yet, after all of the trouble she'd gone through to convince Helena to accompany her -- including a promise that the event would *not* count toward one of their twice-weekly dates -- the redhead simply wouldn't allow herself to back out. If nothing else, this was the first school function which she'd attended since... well, since things had changed with the younger woman.

Smiling pleasantly, Barbara managed to murmur something suitably non-committal yet pro-school spirit about the sophomore sensation on the relay team. Even as she idly decided that, if it hadn't existed, the term 'ectomorph' would have been invented to describe Jimmy Wilson, the redhead scanned the shifting crowd, searching for one particular person and hoping that she wasn't being too obvious... or too ridiculously clingy.

While she'd not -- as she'd teased Helena earlier -- kept the younger woman by her side for the party, Barbara had noticed a marked disinclination to lose sight of the brunette for too long. Some of that, she allowed, might be the younger woman's sheer vivaciousness and ability to skip through the most tedious of conversations: Barbara had never been above allowing herself to be rescued at parties. Another part, the older woman admitted on a faint blush, was the pure enjoyment of admiring the lithe figure in her form-fitting purple shirt and just-tight-enough slacks.

The remainder of course probably *was* pure adolescent sappiness. Regardless of the fact that it wasn't yet a topic for public consumption, the relentlessly practical woman felt strangely giddy to be at a function with her... girlfriend.

Green eyes narrowed slightly as Barbara evaluated the word, finding that it was not entirely to her taste.


Most definitely.


It seemed like forever.


A soft smile captured the older woman's face as she considered the layers of meaning in that word, embracing them all.


Unbeknownst to the older woman, her soft small transformed to something a bit less innocent, and Barbara shivered.

Belatedly recalling that she was, nominally, engaged in a conversation, the redhead looked up, ready with another "Go team" endorsement, only to find that the topic had shifted to the upcoming summer school schedule. Since she couldn't summon the slightest interest in a topic which she'd already digested and dispensed with seven weeks earlier, Barbara nodded her exit and moved to the buffet table. Once there, she pretended to pick over the array of rapidly congealing dips while actually watching Helena crack up the unfortunately named Coach Dudley Fallure.

If memory served, Dudley had taught Helena's senior class in state government. Still, if the laugh booming through the faculty lounge and the shaking of the man's beer gut were any indication, he apparently bore no ill-will for the numerous acts of civil disobedience the younger woman had experimented with during that year.

Giving up on the dips, Barbara calculated -- for the fifth time -- whether she had put in enough time at the party and could make a circumspect exit with the other woman. She immediately dismissed the notion since there was no way to make either an entrance or an exit with Helena which didn't attract attention. The only question remaining was, did she care who noticed and what conclusions they drew?

The analytical woman was honest enough to admit that, despite the public venue of this staff party, she wasn't exactly outing herself. After all, Helena -- or her dad, or Helena and her dad -- had accompanied her to a number of school functions before this. The difference was, the redhead decided, internal: *she* knew that things had changed, and it cast the party in an entirely different emotional light.

A thin shadow blocked the light, and a swirling paisley dress blocked the view of the deceptively slender brunette across the room. Blinking to refocus, the redhead looked up, thoughts of her own little struggle instantly pushed to one side and, simultaneously, brought to the forefront.


Somehow, the English teacher managed a civil tone and a relatively gracious nod for the superannuated History teacher. Since their conversation at the bookstore several weeks before, she'd managed to avoid any encounters with the woman.

"Barbara." Alethea Harkness pursed her lips in a saccharine smile. "So lovely to see you up on stage this evening helping out your newest little project."

Very, very slowly, the redhead retrieved a carrot stick from the relish tray. Working for nonchalance despite the hot gust of anger blowing through her, she snapped the vegetable on the diagonal and absently tested the point she'd created against her index finger.

She was spared the need for an action which would have certainly cast her hopes of a city pension into doubt when a warm hand came to rest lightly on her shoulder and a low soprano purred from behind her.

"Yeah, Barbara and Dinah made it look really safe, didn't they? Maybe you want to volunteer next time?"

Hastily nibbling at her makeshift weapon to cover a delighted chuckle, the redhead gratefully looked up and caught blue eyes. After a split second's hesitation, she reached up to capture the slender hand and tugged the younger woman to her side, blandly facing the obviously affronted older woman.

"Alethea, I believe you remember my partner, Helena?"

An almost electric current ran up the back of her arm when Barbara felt the brunette minutely stroking her thumb against the back of her hand. She offered a gentle squeeze in response even as the History teacher collected herself to peer primly over her glasses, radiating how very, very unimpressed she was with the younger woman.

"Yes, your partner in some sort of online pastry business, isn't it?"

Barbara felt her partner's muscles vibrate the tiniest bit under her fingers.

Circumspection be damned.

Despite wanting to scratch the old biddy's eyes out, the redhead somehow mustered an almost bland smile. Then, she held her partner's gaze as she purred her reply.

"Among many, many other things, Alethea."

While the older woman's noisy inhalation and the rapid blinking behind thick lenses was almost reward enough, Barbara found that her partner's response -- a shy duck of her head which masked a sweet smile -- was more than sufficient thanks for her little feat of courage. Still, she was not entirely satisfied with her own efforts in expressing her gratitude for Helena's capable defense of Dinah and herself. Somehow -- as was so often the case -- the younger woman had been there for her, for their family.

Cheerfully bidding Alethea farewell, the redhead caught her partner's eyes.

"Are you ready to leave, Hel?"

An enthusiastic nod galvanized the older woman's round of farewells and, within ten minutes, she found herself settling into the passenger seat of the van, simultaneously nervous and curious about exactly what sort of gossip might greet her on Monday morning. Pushing that thought firmly to the back of her cortex, she tugged the strap of her shoulder belt across her chest, then released it.

Ignoring the quiet whir of the material retracting into its holder, Barbara leaned to the side and stretched out to weave her fingers loosely through the silken hair at the base of her partner's neck. She just had time to observe the surprised widening bright blue eyes before she tugged the younger woman toward her and captured her mouth for a deep, hungry kiss.

Barbara was pleased, although hardly surprised, to find that the brunette responded to the sudden oral assault with her usual catlike reflexes, stretching forward on a soft moan to take her in. For long, lovely moments, the older woman lost herself in the warm strokes and liquid dance of tongues and teeth and lips, shifting herself slightly to bring her free hand to her partner's face and thrilling to the subtle play of muscles against her palm.

Gradually, grudgingly, she disentangled herself enough to rest her forehead against her companion's and pried her eyes open. Approximately four centimeters away, blue eyes blinked happily.

"What was that about, Babs?"

Struggling not to bat her own eyes reflexively at the sweep of thick dark lashes so close to her, Barbara peripherally noted the younger woman trailing the tip of her tongue around the edges of her lips in a movement which was, somehow, unbearably sensual.

"Not that I mind or anythi--"

The older woman thought that her smile -- one which was undoubtedly doting... or possibly just dopey -- silenced the brunette's utterance. The sudden silence might also have had something to do with her pulling back, transfixed by the juxtaposition of her own pale fingers tracing the darker skin of the younger woman's jaw and neck. Or, perhaps it had been her ragged sigh when she'd witnessed gooseflesh rising against the sweep of her fingertips.

Unconcerned both by Helena's question and her abrupt speechlessness, Barbara leaned in again to brush her mouth against the brunette's neck. Still, she didn't forget that they had been engaged in a conversation of sorts.


The redhead's murmured question whispered across the millimeters of air separating her lips from the younger woman's throat, and Barbara was certain that she felt the fine hair on her partner's skin vibrate in reaction. She was quite positive that she felt the thready jump of the lithe woman's pulse against her chin.

Crimson lashes lowered to shut out unnecessary sensory distraction as the older woman swept her tongue into the concave hollow at the base of Helena's throat. She then nipped softly at the other woman's sharply delineated clavicle before sucking fiercely at her pulse point, focusing on one small patch of skin and savoring the sweetly musky taste until the younger woman's rumbling purr threatened to numb her lips from the vibrations alone.

Steadying herself, Barbara straightened minutely, skimming her fingers across the faintly red, wet mark she'd left and allowing them to trail into the intriguing shadows of decolletage.

"Hmmm," she prompted again, not quite certain what they'd been discussing, but fairly confident that Helena had been saying something.


The response, barely more than a hiss, suggested that, in these circumstances, conversation was overrated. The older woman felt her palms tingle when her partner arched into her touch, leaning in for another kiss which could best be described as 'tonsil-swabbing'.

A niggling awareness of the size of the van's front window and of the fact that a parking lot light was fully illuminating their little passion play finally separated the redhead from the moment. She regretfully pulled back, a bit dumbfounded to find her hand inside Helena's shirt -- for that matter, inside *any* item of clothing not on her own person -- in the very public parking lot of the school.

She managed, just barely, not to jerk her fingers free of the younger woman's top and, momentarily, found reason to regret the slow caress she'd indulged herself with. Her partner's response -- a quick jerk of her hips -- not to mention a marked flare of heat in her own chest evoked a sudden, uncharacteristic desire to insinuate herself between the younger woman's knees and... and...

Green eyes blinked once, twice, as Barbara struggled with the shocking strength of her own desire.

Her own... want.

On the second decent, she left her eyes closed for a beat, grappling with the graphic urges and images blowing through her: she could clearly visualize her lover arching and bucking under her mouth and hands; she could almost hear the younger woman's soft whimpers, culminating in a keening cry; she could practically taste the rich, intimate essence which she knew would flood across them both.

The sheer visceral intensity of it all was staggering, leaving the relentlessly responsible woman teetering over an abyss of temptation. Yet, as she clenched her hands against her thighs, reality reared its head, and she exhaled slowly, abandoning the wild flight of fancy and, concurrently, facing the reasons for her reticence.

It *wasn't* the very public nature of the venue, nor the fact that the van was in the school parking lot.

Well, at least it wasn't just those two factors. After all, back in the day, Barbara hadn't been unfamiliar with working off a bit of the heat from a fight in some less-than-private ways with Dick.

Rather, it was the impossibility of what she wanted. What she wanted was -- van or no, public or private -- simply not something she could do. In four achingly slow and deliberate blasts at the hands of a green-haired madman, she -- and her lover -- had been denied that sort of spontaneity.

Straightening into her own seat, Barbara inclined her head as she opened her eyes. She deliberately allowed the fall of her hair to shield her features while she schooled herself then turned with an apologetic smile. The wicked glint in the golden eyes which met green easily intimated that the redhead had not, perhaps, been alone in her flight of fantasy.

The older woman smirked as her companion hooked a thumb toward the back of the vehicle, then laughed outright at the hopeful waggle of dark brows.

"Whaddaya say, Red? It *is* a van..."

Although she'd firmly dismissed the idea and, truthfully, suspected that Helena wasn't entertaining any serious hopes about a backseat interlude, Barbara cocked one brow.

"What about all of the gear bags, Hel? There are some delicate electronics back there..."

Snorting softly, the brunette rolled eyes which were reverting to their normal stunning blue. The older woman drew in a slow breath as she watched a sinful smile ease across gamine features.

"You know what, Barbara?"

Barbara moved her head from left to right very slowly, truthfully having no idea what might be running through the other woman's very imaginative mind.

"I think I want to eat something."

"This is news?"

She managed to keep the words light, even as she readied herself for any number of less-than-subtle entendres.

Of course, given where her own mind had just been, she had to admit that she really didn't have much room for offended propriety.

Blue eyes twinkled as slender fingers turned the key in the ignition.

"Let's go get some pancakes."

It wasn't until Barbara was tucking into the lumberjack-sized portion of buckwheat pancakes which she'd ordered -- they were such a favorite and so hard to find -- that she thought to ask her partner about what had inspired the craving. When slitted blue eyes met green, the older woman briefly forgot how to chew; however, she discovered that the younger woman's words did a great deal to spark her appetite -- again -- for the feast in front of her.

"It's for you. You're gonna need the carbs later."

Chapter 2

Complex carbohydrates. That just might do it.

Rather, if she could update her program with an automatic lookup for the food of the day featured in the USDA website's carbohydrate tier, then fire off a query to the CarbBase site to pull in the structure of the specific carbohydrate and use that as the basis for a random number generation, Barbara thought she just might be able to beef up her encryption program enough to stymie the decryption algorithm she was continually testing.

Since, in the world of bits and bytes, there simply was no such thing as a genuine random number, the cyber-genius had been spinning her wheels for non-derivative approaches to seeding such a number generator. System bit time, file lengths, even kilohertz cycling of the computer were all readily available and simply too obvious and, thus, easily replicated by her decryption code. This idea, however, especially if she expanded it to include a mini-database of other sites to query for crystalline structures, might just throw enough complexity into her algorithm to keep her busy on the decryption side of matters for a few days.

Grimacing ruefully at her own compulsivity with this particular mental exercise wheel, Barbara wryly wondered just who... or what... she could eventually use the encryption code for. It already packed enough punch to safeguard the codes for Fort Knox and the President's little black box combined.

Perhaps, she allowed as her expression eased into a smirk, she could offer the technology to some of the world's soda and fast food manufacturers as a method to safeguard their secret formulas.

That whimsical consideration, naturally, returned her attention to the basis for her current satisfaction: namely, the idea of using carbohydrate structures. More specifically, the redhead realized that she was dwelling, at some length and in glorious detail, about some of the specific benefits of late evening carbohydrate consumption.

Straightening, she removed her glasses and rolled her neck, releasing some of the ever-present tension in her shoulders and upper back. Unconsciously checking the time, she absently tapped one earpiece against her lower lip.

Was she becoming too food obsessed?

She had heard that new love -- like the first year at college -- often led to the dreaded extra ten pounds. If she were honest with herself, the pancake binge on Friday evening or even -- the redhead felt heat touch her cheeks at the memory -- a recent indulgence with dark chocolate mousse were a bit difficult to justify, regardless of how many calories she might expend in later indoor activities. Perhaps adding an extra day each week in the training room wouldn't be a bad idea.

Pursing her lips sourly at that idea -- reps on the weight circuit were, without doubt, simply dull -- the redhead cast about for other options, brightening immediately when she realized that the weekly outings she planned for her partner might fill the bill nicely. If she merely planned activities with a physical element to them she could have the dual benefit of keeping herself in shape while allowing her to watch her companion get sweaty in the process.

Green eyes lost focus and tracked to the left while the analytical woman reviewed some options.

Sculling in the city park pond might be nice; however it was still a bit cool for that. If they wanted to engage in water sports, for the time being, the school's huge indoor pool always beckoned.

Shopping, as had been so recently demonstrated by her youngest charge, could certainly be a high-energy activity, and it was something which Helena enjoyed. Nevertheless, Barbara had to admit that she'd absolutely shopped her limit the week before with Dinah.

Kite flying on Saturday afternoon had been fun, however the actual exertion involved for her had been minimal; in contrast, Helena had worked up quite an appetite climbing numerous trees to retrieve their errant kites.

A slow smile crept across the older woman's face as she stumbled on a likely activity -- one she'd been meaning to try for years and might just be doable, despite some of her constraints. The redhead suspected that her smile took on a different edge as her always active imagination supplied some images about ways to utilize gear from the specific activity which had nothing to do with... outdoor recreation.

Shaking her head in bemusement, she reseated her glasses and turned back to her terminal window, chuckling softly.

"Concentrate on your coding, Gordon..."

Her chuckle transformed into a sharp gasp and her head snapped up with potentially dangerous velocity when a cheerful voice interrupted her thoughts.

"What's funny about programming?"

"Puppies and kittens, Helena!"

The redhead jerked the rim of one wheel with her left hand, performing a swift forty-five degree turn, even as her right hand flew to her chest.

"You scared the hell out..."

Deciding that the extent of her reaction to her partner's cat-footed entrance spoke for itself, the older woman drew in a fortifying breath and concentrated on returning her heart rate to something below one hundred beats per minute. Concurrently, she worked to identify the words which had given her such a sudden start.

Laughing lightly as the lithe brunette strolled toward the Delphi platform, she removed her glasses and obfuscated slightly.

"Oh, I was just wondering if I've been overeating, Hel, and thinking about some ways to work off the extra calories."

A puzzled quirk of a dark brow was the only response as the other woman leapt lightly onto the platform and leaned against the edge of the table.

Barbara supposed that the younger woman's confusion was natural: with her physiology and rigorous activities on sweeps, Helena could -- and did -- eat like a high school football team. Resultantly, she waved her glasses vaguely and worked to clarify matters.

"Er, that, new love phenomenon?"

A hearty laugh -- a long, head-thrown-back guffaw, in fact -- greeted that, leaving the older woman a bit uncertain until her partner raked her with a frankly assessing gaze, then grinned wolfishly.

"No worries, Red. You could stand an extra pound or two."

Green eyes flashed as Barbara readied herself to counter any comments about there being more of her to love. Her pique diminished considerably when the other woman continued cheerfully.

" 'Sides, I've always heard the opposite. You know, the three signs that a woman is in love?"

The older woman searched her infallible memory, and, not surprisingly, came up blank.

Being in love had never exactly been her metier.

Despite the suspicion that she was going to regret asking, she was helpless to stop herself.

"And, what signs are those, Helena?"

She placed her glasses carefully by her mouse pad, casually brushing the other woman's leg in the process. She didn't miss how the lean muscles tightened at the brief touch, however the brunette didn't allow herself to become too distracted.

"Oh, you know: You can't eat. You can't sleep."

A crimson brow arched primly in response to dark brows waggling meaningfully over the last word.

"... And you go out and buy yourself all new underwear."

The redhead's chuckle morphed into a short cough when she recalled that she had -- in a purely spontaneous and, thus, uncharacteristic manner -- paid a visit to Victoria's Secret not too many days before. Granted, in the interest of efficiency, she'd done her shopping online and had yet to receive her shipment of new unmentionables; however that fact did little to alleviate her mild befuddlement over what had been, apparently, completely predictable behavior.

Barbara's bemusement gave way to mild exasperation when her younger partner straightened, casually kicking off her boots, unbuttoning her pants, and beginning to shimmy out of them. She waited until the brunette divested herself of her multi-hued shirt and turned toward the bedroom, wardrobe items in hand, before venturing an observation.

"You do realize, Sweetheart, that we could just rent a truck? Or, you could make a few trips with the Hummer."

While the newly co-owned closet space in the bedroom was dwindling rapidly, the older woman's practical side continued to chafe at her partner's insistence on bringing only one set of clothes at a time -- doubled over her outfit of the day -- from her apartment.

Just disappearing into the hallway, the brunette arrested her progress and popped her head around the corner, her grin completely infectious.

"Hey, this way I get to see how fabulous I look in all of this stuff from the back of my closet."

The dark head ducked quickly, but the other woman's tone remained light.

"Also, I don't want to overwhelm you, Red."

Not completely positive that the other woman was referring only to the volume of her wardrobe, Barbara managed a stiff smile while Helena resumed her trip to the bedroom, voice fading slightly but still carrying down the hallway.

"I figure another hundred outfits and I can start bringing my boots and shoes over."

The dark woman bounced back into the living room with an bright smile.

"Now *that's* really gonna be scary."

The redhead laughed softly as her partner rejoined her.

"Not so scary, Hel. I'm sure my shoes won't be too intimidated. But..."

She pursed her lips thoughtfully.

"How will you manage to wear two pairs of shoes at once?"

Reaching for her back pocket, Helena froze for a beat, blue eyes widening in comic dismay. Finally, she shrugged offhandedly and leaned against the edge of the desk.

"We'll figure it out, Babs, right?"

The redhead grinned and automatically extended her hand to accept the bulky envelope which her companion had retrieved.

"You got them?"

Given the business label on the envelope, the question was completely superfluous; however, the older woman forgave herself the indulgence. Holding the weighty item, she felt a giddy thrill run through her at her partner's enthusiastic nod, and, for a split second, she flirted with the idea of tearing open the packet to rifle through it like a child on Christmas morning.

Perhaps fortuitously, Helena's next words distracted her from that idea.

"Uh huh. I even paid for half of it --"

Barbara felt her eyebrows crawling toward her hairline, but she managed a smile when the brunette stopped and corrected herself.

"-- well, most of half of it -- out of my own savings."

Carefully tucking the documents into the back of her equipment warranties drawer -- *not* a location that tended to encourage casual browsing -- the cyber-genius murmured a quiet protest.

"That wasn't necessary, Helena. You know that I planned to pay--"

A dark head shook emphatically.

"No, this is something I want to feel like I'm really helping out with, too."

The redhead nodded her understanding but, nevertheless, was compelled to object.

"It's terribly expensive, Sweetie, and it's really not nec--"

The younger woman shot to her feet, radiating tension and instantly silencing the redhead. Her voice vibrated roughly with more emotions than Barbara could identify.

"Shit, Barbara! I don't always have to be on the dole, you know!"

Since that wasn't what she'd meant to imply at all, the older woman found herself shaking her head, speechless, as her partner barreled on.

"And, it's not like I'm some fucking ki--"

Green eyes narrowed fractionally when the brunette abruptly cut off her impassioned words. Easily observing the tiny tic of the dark figure's tightly clenched jaw muscles, Barbara decided to press a bit and inclined her head to catch stormy blue eyes.

"Not what, Hel?"

Although she was reasonably confident that the muttered response -- "It's just... I can handle my money, you know" -- was not what the other woman had been starting to say, Barbara couldn't find it within herself to push any further. Instead, she carefully rested one hand on the brunette's arm, struggling for the words which might reassure her.

"I know that, Helena, and I'm sorry if it didn't seem that way."

Encouraged by the sight of blue eyes peeking petulantly through thick lashes, the older woman smiled apologetically and continued.

"You've already done so much already, Sweetheart, coming up with the plans and picking these up..."

Trailing off awkwardly, Barbara lifted her hand, fluttering it nervously in the direction of the warranties drawer. To her relief, the brunette's tension eased.

"Seriously, Babs."

The younger woman scrubbed the heels of her hands against her face, then flashed a wry grin.

"I can't believe you were really just gonna print out the confirmation e-mail as a gift and forget about it."

Relieved by the respite, the redhead rested two fingers against her lips to mask a smirk.

"A printout seemed logica-- "

Noting the way dark brows were rising, she hastily amended her words.

"-- er, adequate, but your idea is much better."

Cerulean eyes rolled dramatically, easily telegraphing how very, very unimpressed the younger woman was. Nevertheless, the low soprano held a teasing lilt.

"You really can't help yourself, can you, Red?"

Despite the hint of a rebuke inherent in the question, the cyber-genius couldn't stop the smile which creased her face.

"And, what is that which I can't help today?"

The brunette grinned, her words airy.

"That whole ... I dunno... linear thing of yours."

Barbara started to defend herself, however the affectionately doubtful look pinned on her simply took the wind out of her sails. Feeling herself color, the practical woman ruefully admitted to herself that she was, as Helena had termed it, linear; it seemed to be something within her on a molecular level, this propensity to look at the trees for the forest, as it were.

She gave up with a self-effacing laugh.

"That's me, Hel, just like plot points on a graph."

She smiled, this time with genuine humor.

"Just call me Graphical Gordon."

Her whimsical musings about changing her comms "handle" ended suddenly when the younger woman leaned down, bringing them nose to nose, and gave one of her trademark eyebrow waggles.

"I kind of prefer Graphic Gordon, Babs."

The slender figure smoothly flowed into the redhead's chair, resting her knees in the padding on each side of Barbara's legs. The cyber-genius found herself arching her head to meet the soft, warm lips brushing her ear.

"C'mon, share something graphic with me, Red."

With a mental shrug, the redhead did just that, whispering something so explicitly detailed that she felt herself blushing at her own temerity. The heat suffusing her seamlessly shifted to something else -- something more searing -- as she witnessed the blue eyes facing her flickering to gold and felt, rather than heard, the low rumble from her partner's chest.

Leaning forward a few inches, Barbara captured the tail of her lover's growl against her lips, pushing back her own moan as slender fingers danced across her shoulders. Softly, she traced the full lips which brushed hers, delighted and humbled yet again by her partner's apparent willingness to put herself in her hands.

The sensation of wiry muscles stiffening under her hands alerted the older woman to a change moments before the door to the training room burst open and Dinah bounded into the living area.

"So, are we going to work out today or what? Oh, uh -- sorry..."

Since she'd had a bit of warning, Barbara somehow managed to withdraw calmly -- avoiding an entirely unattractive gasp-and-jerk performance -- and captured her partner's fingers gently with a soft smile of promise.

To her distinct amazement, the older woman thought that her own blush might have been less heated than the color gracing Dinah's cheeks. Helena, naturally, exhibited no embarrassment about the interrupted moment, standing gracefully and leaping lightly from the platform.

"Oh, I'll make sure you get a workout today, Kid..."

Observing the wicked glint in her partner's blue eyes, Barbara clenched her jaw in anticipation.

"... I've got energy to burn today."

The brunette's growl was low but playful, and the redhead relaxed marginally when Helena left it at that, hooking an arm around the blonde's neck and herding her to the training room. Turning to save her work before she joined her charges for their regular mid-week workout, Barbara arrested her motion when something which Dinah was saying tickled her cortex.

It was something clearly teasing, the girl's slightly reedy soprano seemingly surprised at her own boldness.

It was something which evoked a hearty laugh from the blonde's companion in the training room.

It was something, if Barbara weren't mistaken, having to do with how Helena had been -- or had been ready to be -- tied up.

A blaze of heat covered the cyber-genius from her chest to her hairline, and she questioned, yet again, the wisdom of having her telepathic ward coming into contact with her lover. Dinah's words, she recognized with a long-suffering sigh, were a direct reference to the graphic image she'd painted for Helena only a few minutes before.

Chapter 3

"You burning yet, Babs?"

Working to regulate her breathing, Barbara's response was, perhaps understandably, a bit fragmented.

"... Ready as... I'll ever be... "

She raked her gaze across her partner's face, suddenly hit by a billowing delight to be sharing this with the other woman.

"... For this," the redhead added.

She barely managed to wet her very dry lips with the tip of her tongue before Helena leaned down, bringing them almost eye to eye, upper lip curling in what seemed to be a snarl.

"Let's do it."

Despite the fine sheen of sweat already enrobing her body, Barbara felt a shiver course through her at the whisper of delicate fingers across her abdomen. Blinking to give herself some distance, some sanity, in the face of the glittering blue eyes fixed on her, the redhead managed a relatively confident grin as she reached down to her own waist, cinching the D-ring a bit tighter against herself.

The dark figure hovering above her answered with her own eager grin, lithely shifting to kneel next to the redhead. With a bit more space at her disposal, Barbara scooted forward a few inches then slid two fingers under material at her waist, tracing the webbing around to her back, then down to her upper thighs.

Just because she couldn't feel most of it didn't mean she needed to invite chafing. It was really a shame that something in a soft -- but sturdy -- leather hadn't been available on short notice; still, if she and Helena... made a habit out of this, perhaps she could find something more to her taste.

Mentally rolling her eyes at the host of bad puns cavorting through her mind after that last thought, the analytical woman curiously raised her eyes when she felt a wisp of her hair brush her cheek. She discovered that the movement had been the result of her companion's apparent restlessness: the brunette was leaning close again, the force of her breathing -- panting, almost -- easily bridging the distance between them.

Noting the way those bright blue eyes tracked every movement of her hands on her lower body, Barbara pursed her lips, battling an insidious whispering fear that she wasn't ready... wouldn't be capable...

"Do me now?"

The redhead tamped down on her instinctive reflex to question her companion, yet again, about her decision: they'd already gone through that discussion twice.

Even though it was absolutely unnecessary, the brunette had insisted on being decked out in a fashion very similar to the older woman. Barbara had a sneaking suspicion that part of it might have had to do with the younger woman's clothes-horse tendencies, even if the current apparatus seemed less suitable for the bedroom closet than the gear closet in the living area.

Calling upon reserves of courage -- not to mention years of training and habit -- the redhead pushed aside her self-doubt. In the face of her partner's obvious readiness, she simply wouldn't afford herself the luxury of spoiling their first attempt before it got off the ground.

Pushing aside those thoughts for the moment, Barbara indulged herself in a long, unfettered look at her partner. As usual, the dark figure was breathtaking: muscles tensely corded, shaggy hair damp with sweat, mouth fixed in a playful moue which just begged to be...

Green eyes blinked once, and the older woman recalled that Helena had made a request.

With a slow smile of approval, she reached out and snagged the thick belt which hung low on the other woman's slender hips. Almost casually, she leaned close, running her index finger along the inside circumference, expertly checking for ease and fit, and not missing the rippling of firm abdominal muscles against the back of her hand.

Not surprisingly, the older woman found the belt to be entirely too loose: initially, she'd been startled to realize that the younger woman had very little experience with this; however a moment's reflection -- and Helena's own purring remarks about preferring a natural approach -- had revealed how little use Helena had for such... accoutrements.

Catching her partner's eyes, she chided softly, "It's not just a fashion statement, Sweetie. I expect it to do it's job as well."

The brunette's unapologetic response -- something to do with leaving room for some swivel -- turned into a sharp hiss when the redhead summarily tugged the harness up, snugging it firmly -- very firmly, judging from the way blue eyes had flickered to gold for a beat -- against the other woman's crotch. Satisfied with the position, she swiftly rebuckled the unit and nodded her approval.

"That should be a bit more functional--"

Barbara felt her nostrils flare slightly when she witnessed tan fingers tracing the webbing, adjusting it a bit to one side, but managed to continue primly.

"--assuming you actually decide to use it instead of modeling it."

The lithe figure leaned close again, caramel features exhibiting a singular lack of modesty -- nay, a remarkable smugness -- for a split second. Not for the first time, the older woman found herself marveling at the mix of playfulness and sensuality which the other woman brought into their every encounter.

"I do look pretty hot in it, don't I? But..."

The low soprano became playfully petulant.

"... modeling sucks. This thing is like a frikkin' a thong."

Snorting softly, Barbara pushed back on the brunette's shoulder, giving herself some room to work, and smirked as she snagged one end of the rope she'd left coiled neatly by her side.

"You haven't felt anything yet, Hel."

Since a soft, anticipatory growl was the only response, the redhead expertly played out several yards of the eleven millimeter Kernmantle, unconsciously testing for weak spots as she slid the fibers between her fingers. Reasonably confident of the rope's integrity, she debated for a moment before deciding on a overhand loop.

For a start.

Barbara looked up from her expert knot work, catching her breath at the unbridled anticipation in the features which were fixed on her. She recovered herself and offered a warm smile, crooking one finger in invitation.

"Shall we?"

The brunette seemed to flow forward, hovering inches above the older woman before lowering her hands, palms out, by the perfectly executed loop.

"You sure you don't want to...?"

Quite aware that the energetic younger woman was very, very ready, Barbara simply shook her head briskly as she bound the rope, tugging experimentally to insure that it was secure. Satisfied again, she drew in a slow breath and secured the other end of the line before straightening fully in readiness.

The other woman seemed calm, her eyes focused upward, her breathing just a tiny bit faster than normal. Barbara noted the almost unconscious tensing of the brunette's hands and reached out, briefly stroking her forearm.

"Are you certain you want to do it like this, Sweetheart?"

The young woman licked her lips and tugged softly at the rope securing her before raising her arms over her head.

"Fuck, yeah, Red."

Not bothering with a verbal response, the older woman steadily took in the slack as they slowly worked into a rhythm. Incongruously, she noticed the slight give in the dynamic line and found herself questioning whether a static fiber might have been better. Dismissing the concern for later consideration, she focused on the play and stretch of her partner's sinewy muscles, on the fine sheen of sweat spreading over the dark figure, on the bow-taut arch of the lithe woman's back.

A soft grunt drew the redhead's attention, and she felt her eyes widen at the hard lines of the younger woman's face.

Barbara swallowed, not entirely certain that she would be able to go through with this.

"Are you doing okay, Hel?"

The inquiry was soft, and, for a moment, the older woman wondered if her partner had heard her. Arms fully extended above her head, dark lashes lowered as she breathed deeply, the brunette remained still, muscles trembling and twitching minutely. Then, the deceptively slender woman shifted to one side, taking the strain on one arm, and blue eyes sought green.

"I don't know wh -- "

Offering what she hoped was a reassuring smile, Barbara played out a bit of slack in the line and inclined her head to the right.

"There. Can you stretch and try an undercling?"

In an instant, Helena exacted a long reach across the vertical face and found holds for both hands. Whooping exultantly and continuing to allow her arms to hold all her weight as they'd agreed, the brunette hung lightly from her finger tips, twenty feet above the floor of the gymnasium.

Barbara laughed her delight as well and checked the rope's position around herself while her partner dipped the fingers of first one then the other hand into her chalk bag. The woman on the ground snugged her grip on the rope, resecuring her belay position, and with that, the smaller woman was off, moving laterally and vertically across the expert-level indoor rock wall using only her hands and arms for leverage.

Since the brunette was moving confidently as she neared the top of the forty foot wall, the older woman allowed herself to multitask, focusing both on the technical requirements of her rope work and simply enjoying the vision of her lover moving so gracefully.

There could be no doubt that Helena's royal blue lycra shorts and tank top highlighted the aesthetic aspects of Barbara's job as well. As usual, she found herself feeling a bit dowdy in her own outfit: sleek black track pants and a sleeveless muscle tee which showed the as-yet unfaded temporary tattoo on her bicep to advantage. As usual, she pushed those thoughts aside.

If nothing else, Helena's reaction to the outfit -- or to her in the outfit -- should have been reassuring, which led the analytical woman to suspect that her feelings might have more to do with nervousness about what she was planning to do with her gear than about how she looked in it.

When she'd first hit on the idea of rock climbing a few days before, the older woman had suspected that there would be non-aerobic benefits to the activity. It had been, in fact, thoughts of ropes and harnesses and uses which had very little to do with mountaineering which had had her chuckling when Helena had surprised her on Wednesday afternoon.

Prurient aspects to the side, Barbara *had* wanted to try climbing for years: it was a sport in which upper body strength and clever rope work could go a long way towards success. And, she'd decided, even if she couldn't hold her own on the course, she could certainly belay for her partner.

Watching the dark figure rappel herself easily down the vertical climbing wall, the redhead replayed her partner's ascent, determining which stretches might work for her and where she might do better. While she had a reasonable confidence in her upper body strength, she could not forget that she did not have an additional set of limbs to fall back on in a pinch.

"Man, that was fun. Maybe I'll try it one-handed next time."

Barbara tore herself from another methodical check of her body harness and regarded the brunette dubiously. She contented herself with a mild observation as she finished recoiling the rope and clipped a neat bowline through a carabineer.

"*That* would be worth seeing."

To the accompaniment of her partner's cheerful laugh, she positioned herself at the base of the wall, stretching up for her first handhold. When Helena confirmed that she was ready on belay, the redhead stretched up, testing her grip and biting back her urge to suggest that the younger woman consider a different position: given her greater weight, a full body belay seemed wiser than the showy hip wrap which the younger woman had chosen.

Ultimately, she decided to do her damnedest to insure that no belaying would be required and simply leveraged herself up, working determinedly through the hardest part -- the five or six vertical feet required to get her lower half untangled from her chair. The burn in her wrists and shoulders was pronounced but not unbearable -- so far -- and since she'd already mapped and memorized the route she planned, the cyber-vigilante moved smoothly along the wall, gaining height quickly and only almost missing a handhold once.

Helena's cheerful estimations of how far she'd climbed spurred the redhead on until she moved just past the halfway mark. It was at that point, naturally, that she decided to challenge herself and abandon her preplanned route.

Approximately eight feet to the left, the protruding handholds became much sparser, replaced by fissures and cracks in the artificial surface. Two long reaches left the athletic woman dangling from one hand as she dipped the other into her chalk and tried to remember everything she'd read about executing a face climb by jamming.

"Are you showboating up there, Barbara?"

The younger woman's question displayed no concern, only, the redhead suspected, a trace of pique that she'd not thought to try the fissures first.

"You bet your bippy, Hel," was her light reply.

Couldn't hurt to try.

Seven and a half long minutes later, Barbara realized that she had, in fact, been just a bit too cavalier in her assessment. Sprawled on the narrow ledge at the top of the wall, laughing like an idiot as every functioning muscle in her body fired off indignant protests, she realized that it had hurt quite a bit.

And, looking down at her enthusiastically grinning partner, she also realized that she didn't care at all.

The redhead gave herself a minute to catch her breath, then freed her line and changed it to a Munter hitch before rolling herself off the ledge.

Apparently, some things -- like riding a bicycle -- simply weren't forgotten, even after more than seven years, and Barbara found herself effortlessly rappelling down the vertical face and blessing the hours and hours she'd put in on the ropes back in the day.

With that thought, the redhead flashed back to her first solo ascent, over thirteen years earlier. She'd been training assiduously with Bruce and Dick for months, had learned how to handle the rappelling gear blindfolded, and had managed to transform her instinctive terror of swinging over an edge into something approaching excitement.

On one night, after finishing a study session at the dorm, she'd met her mentor as usual and been informed that she was going to test her climbing skills on her own by scaling the recently constructed New Gotham Arms High-rise Apartment building. With nothing but a walkie talkie in her utility belt in case of difficulty, she'd managed to hook a batarang over the roof twenty stories above her and -- praying that it was well set and that her arms were up to the task -- had embarked on a methodical climb in the darkened night. By the fourth floor, fear had become too exhausting in the face of the remaining sixteen stories, and Barbara had surrendered to an almost mindless calm, tackling each step, each grip, with an oddly serene, mindless concentration.

It hadn't been until she'd reached the eighteenth floor that she'd understood why that particular building had been chosen: sweating rivers and soundlessly running through every creative curse she could pull from her memory, the redhead had been startled -- to say the least -- when a window next to her had popped open. Dick had poked his head out, offered her a soda, and casually chatted with her about the weather or some such nonsense, until Barbara had recalled that she was dangling almost two hundred feet off the ground, her arms quivering like last Christmas' jello mold.

Barbara snorted at the memory, thankful for the passage of the years -- bringing with it as it had accumulated wisdom, better gear, and improved upper body strength.

Ten feet from the ground, she snapped the end of the rope against the carabineer with her brake hand and nudged the wall with her shoulder. The movement provided just enough push to center her over her chair, and she sedately lowered herself to terra firma.

Helena was beside her in an instant, joining in her laughter, then interrupting the redhead's self-indulgent victorious fist pump to wrap her in a fierce hug.

"You totally rocked up there, Barbara!"

Disentangling herself enough to catch dancing blue eyes, the older woman hoped that her blush would be mistaken for exertion. She wasn't, however, able to disguise the delight in her voice.

"It was fun, Hel," she allowed. "We should do this again."

Helping coil their line as they moved away from the rock face so that another team could take their place, the brunette smiled but didn't meet her eyes.

"For sure, Red. Though, maybe next time you'll actually let me belay you?"

Since she was fussing with carabineers and D-rings, Barbara wasn't sure whether she'd actually heard a note of reproach in the teasing words. She stilled her hands and looked up, quirking a brow.


The younger woman secured the Kernmantle with a neat half-hitch before turning with an easy smile.

"You just always had your own weight, Barbara."

Crimson brows briefly knit as the practical woman puzzled over her partner's observation before she redirected the conversation.

"Well, did you enjoy the climb, Helena?"

Since the young vigilante nightly flew over the rooftops and scaled buildings with meta-human ease, Barbara had doubts that the addition of gear and the constraint of only using her arms would be to Helena's taste. The brunette's enthusiastic grin alleviated her concerns.

"Seriously fun, Barbara. Besides,"

The dark woman rose from storing their chalk bags in a duffel.

"any sport which features 'chimney techniques'..."

Slender fingers made quote marks around the words.

"... and stemming, *and*..."

Barbara readied herself when she heard her partner's emphasis and saw dark brows waggle.

"... fist jams has got to be cool."

The redhead tried, but she simply couldn't hold her arch expression in the face of Helena's insouciant smile. A snort escaped her, then a full-blown chuckle as the two returned to wriggling out of their harnesses. Perhaps caught in the spirit of the brunette's observations about the sport, Barbara returned to one of her partner's earlier claims.

"You were right on target about the thong thing, Hel."

Freeing herself from her seat harness, the smaller woman pointedly tugged at the back of her lycra shorts.

"Uh huh, I've got a wedgie you wouldn't believe."

"You think that's bad, Hel?"

Barbara calmly worked on folding her body harness. When she was certain she had her companion's attention, she continued, joining in with the younger woman's explosive laughter.

"After wearing this, I can't feel my legs."

Chapter 4

The noise of the explosion echoing through Barbara's earpiece was nearly deafening. Jerking minutely in reflex, the redhead couldn't begin to imagine how it had impacted the sensitive hearing of her partner on the scene.

"Huntress? Do you copy? Are you alright?"

Despite the fact that an explosion had not been something she'd anticipated, despite the vivid sounds of flames and collapsing bricks licking through the comms, despite the sorrowful wailing of sirens approaching the scene, the cyber-crime fighter managed to keep her inquiry relatively calm. After years of working together, she trusted -- she had to trust -- her young protege's reflexes to keep her safe. Anything but complete confidence in the dark vigilante would be... unsupportable.

<"What was that? I couldn't hear most of th-- Shit!">

The surprised invective and a rush of air signaling hasty movement proceeded -- but only by a split second -- a rapid-fire popping which sounded suspiciously like semi-automatic weapons fire. Green eyes blinked in consternation even as long fingers flew gracefully across the keyboard, instantly accessing the operating permits and recent inspection reports for the building.

As she'd suspected, Barbara found no indication that the New Gotham Sporting Goods Factory should have anything resembling ammunition, explosives, or gunpowder on the premises.

When the sounds muted marginally, suggesting that her partner had found shelter of some sort, the older woman thumbed the volume on her microphone up a notch.

"Huntress? What's the situation? Is that gunfire?"


The other woman's voice was reassuringly strong... and just a trifle irked.

<"What's with the shouting?">

Even as another incoming transmission beeped insistently, Barbara rolled the volume back, muttering a hasty apology.

"Sorry, Huntress. Hold on--"

Suspecting that if Helena felt confident enough to complain the situation couldn't be too serious, she toggled to the other mic and spoke briskly while she checked the GPS.

"Canary, are you in position?"

<"Yes, Oracle, I can see the store from here. Do you want me to go in?">

"Hold for now. I'll be right back."

Observing two more alarms coming across the scanners, the redhead sighed silently and returned to her primary comm set. To her relief, the sound of gunfire seemed to be slowing.

"Huntress, what's the situation?"

The brunette's reply was both exhausted and amused.

<"Looks like this was the week for the factory to make ping pong balls. They're coming down like hail.">

The cyber-vigilante released a tiny measure of tension from her shoulders, smiling ruefully.

"Could be worse, Huntress. Hold on while I touch base with Canary."

Barely waiting for Helena's swift acknowledgement, she toggled to the second comm unit, verifying that the youngest member of the small team was holding her position outside the convenience store which had set off a silent alarm minutes earlier. After securing Dinah's solemn promise to stay back unless it appeared that there was a danger to the clerk, she toggled back to her other partner.

"Huntress, can you tell what caused the explosion?"

The sounds of fire and sirens -- and an occasional caroming ping pong ball -- became clearer when the younger woman presumably abandoned her refuge.

<"Dunno, Oracle. I saw the flames when I got here, then... ka-blowie. Fuck!">

A quick hail of rat-a-tatting and rapid scrambling sounds painted a picture of an unexpected volley of plastic projectiles.

<"Ouch! Why don't I have an umbrella when I need one?">

Relieved that the sources of possible injury were relatively minor, Barbara spared a moment for levity while she prioritized the incoming alerts.

"Well, Huntress, if you weren't so concerned about spoiling the lines of your outfit and would consider wearing a utility belt, you could be popping open a Bat... er... Catshield right now."

A decidedly aggrieved huff accented the younger woman's next words.

<"And *this* is the thanks I get for running from one end of town to another all night and -- Waitasecond!">

All humor instantly vanished.

"Huntress, what is it?"

The crimson-haired vigilante straightened, automatically checking the police and EMS monitors. According to the latest updates, the fire at the sporting goods factory had just been upgraded to three alarms. The distinct sounds of high pressured hoses and shouting emanating through her earpiece certainly confirmed the reports.

<"Looks like the building is about to collapse -- ">

Noise from falling concrete and groaning girders increased in volume, presumably as the dark woman neared the building.

<"I count at least three firefighters who are still inside. I'm going in.">

The older woman forced herself to remain calm, to trust in her partner's abilities and instincts. Carefully monitoring the transceiver for any indication that Helena might be in difficulty, she rapidly toggled through a dozen screens reporting incidents which had popped up all over the city.

For some reason, after more than five weeks of nothing more alarming than thefts of tropical fish and hormones running amuck in the club district, all hell had broken loose this evening. There had been ATM break-ins, muggings, convenience store robberies, even a multi-vehicle pile-up on the western edge of town and a unicycle hit-and-run in the mall. However, the burglar alarm -- which had coincided with a fire alarm -- at the sporting goods factory had definitely capped the activities. New Gotham's Finest, always understaffed, were at their limits, and even her capable young protege was wearing thin after four hours of hustling from one incident to another.

The redhead breathed a sigh of relief as she heard Helena emerging from the collapsing building with a second fire fighter, then unconsciously tensed when the brunette immediately returned for the final rescue worker. Cognizant that worrying would gain her nothing, she toggled back to the other member of the team, questioning herself -- not for the first time -- for having allowed Dinah out into the bedlam in the first place.

It had been the realization that both the NGPD and her partner couldn't begin to keep up with the flood of crime which had led the practical woman to capitulate to the teen's suggestion that she hit the streets to offer what assistance she could. Not certain whether she doubted her judgment more for having let the teen go out in the first place or for having done so on a night before school -- a Sunday, no less -- the redhead mentally shrugged her shoulders, thankful that the girl had been following her instructions to the letter about staying away from direct danger.

"Canary, what the situation at the store?"

The blonde's reply was puzzled... and puzzling.

<"It's weird, Oracle. There are two guys using, uh, Bop-em sticks to rob the clerk.">

Emerald eyes widened, then slowly blinked.

"I'm afraid I'm not following you, Canary. Bop-em...?"

<"Uh, yeah...">

A slightly embarrassed laugh sounded.

<"You know, those plastic things you can blow up and kids whack at each other with them?">

Ungrammatical as it was, the description was clear enough.

Suspecting that the clerk should be in little danger from those particular weapons, the cyber-genius quickly scanned through the mercifully dwindling list of remaining incidents.

"Let's leave the store then, Canary. I'm showing a silent alarm from at Gizmos Galore. Can you check it out?"

Acknowledging the girl's confirmation, Barbara toggled back to her primary transceiver in time to pick up a breathy update from her other partner.

<"...t's it for here. You copy, Oracle?">

The redhead exhaled soundlessly when she noted a report on the EMS band about a mysterious rescue which had saved three lives. She then raised and lowered her brows several times to release the tension which had been crawling over her scalp. She didn't bother attempting to release the strain in her upper arms and back, knowing that it was as much a result of Saturday's rock climbing as of this evening's tension.

"I copy, Huntress. Good work."

A long, noisy exhalation was initially the only response. When Helena finally spoke, the level of enthusiasm in her voice had diminished considerably from her usual gung-ho attitude.

<"Yeah. So, uh, what's next?">

Barbara smiled fondly and consulted the reports on her screen again.

Truthfully, she'd already determined that the city could handle the remaining incidents: they appeared to be primarily malicious mischief, undoubtedly sparked by EMS-workers' preoccupation with more serious crimes. Since nothing new had appeared in the last seventy-five seconds, she trusted her sixth-sense that the evening's mayhem was finally winding down and spoke with a clear conscience.

"I think that may be it for now, Huntress. I've just dispatched Canary to a B&E alarm at the Gizmo superstore. Why don't you rendezvous with her there and then come in?"

The suggestion seemed to bolster the young crime-fighter's flagging energy, and Barbara heard the nearly silent sounds of wind whispering across the microphone in the necklace at Helena's throat.

<"Sounds like a plan to me, Oracle. I'm on my way.">

Reassured by the brunette's cheerful enthusiasm and relieved that the worst of things seemed to be over, the cyber-vigilante focused on capturing the myriad incident reports from the night and saving them in a database. As she'd discovered so recently during the spate of Clown fish thefts, having the reports at hand and easily sortable was invaluable, and given the sudden crime spurt of this evening, she hoped to determine if there was a pattern to the madness.

The practical woman's bemused contemplation about whether to include the unicycle incident in the database was interrupted by a low whistle over her earpiece. She came to attention, confirming on the GPS that Helena had outpaced Dinah and reached the popular electronics store first.

"Huntress? What's going on?"

<"Freakin' bizarre, Oracle. There are thousands of -- Hey, Canary. What kept you?">

Tamping down on her impatience, the redhead waited through the teenager's overly detailed description of her trip from the other side of town and tried to remember whether she'd had to coach her first protege on the values of succinctness.

<"... and that's why I had to stop and get that poor woman's walker back from those jerks. You don't think I should have just -- Wow!">

A soft snort eloquently expressed Helena's feelings when Dinah apparently noticed the situation at her current incident.

<"What's going on, Oracle?">

Barbara pursed her lips and bit back her sarcasm.

"That's just what Huntress was about to tell me, Canary. What *is* going on?"

When the dark vigilante finally resumed her description of the scene, the older woman vacillated between puzzlement and amusement.

<"There are thousands of wind-up dolls in the street, marching around and bumping into things.">

All traces of mirth vanished instantly when she heard the brunette's soft addition.

<"Wind up clown dolls.">

Chapter 5

Was 'A Doll's House' too serious for the final weeks of the school year?

Absently puncturing the end of her navel orange with a neatly blunted thumbnail and peeling the skin, Barbara regarded the slim book on her desk and deliberated whether it would be too reactionary to change her lesson plan at the last minute. Given the doll army which Helena and Dinah had encountered the night before, not to mention her own distinct disinclination to accept or appreciate coincidences, the English teacher found herself leaning a bit towards something more absurd.

Perhaps Ionesco's 'Rhinoceros' would do. It certainly fit the bill; however, with its themes about the human masses' capacity for cruelty, it also seemed too linked to the mechanical masses which had been on the streets of the city.

Sighing restlessly at her own indecision, at the niggling sense of foreboding possessing her, Barbara popped a wedge of fruit in her mouth. She chewed slowly, savoring the sweetly acidic tang of the juice coating her tongue and attempted, for the hundredth time, to make sense of the scene her partners had found outside the electronics store.

The digital pictures which Dinah had snapped had shown that there hadn't been the thousand dolls that Helena had estimated; as far as the cyber-crime fighter had been able to extrapolate, there had been between six and seven hundred of the eight inch figures swarming through the street. Since it had been after midnight, the area had been largely vacant, leaving all three women puzzled by the purpose of the tiny crowd.

<"Do you want us to pick up some of them?">

With her sixth sense singing like a diva, Barbara hadn't needed to think twice about Dinah's question.

"No, stay back for now, Canary."

The two young women in the field had heeded the directive, observing from a rooftop with Helena providing a mildly humorous play-by-play of two of the dolls' disappearance down a sewer grate. The humor of the scene had ended abruptly when Barbara had detected an eerie noise through the comms.

It had taken the older woman a beat to analyze, then identify, what she'd heard: silence. The pervasive, minute whirring and clicking of the mechanical figures had ceased.

"Huntress? Canary?"

The brunette's response had been hushed.

<"They've all just stopped. Like... clockwork. I'm gonna go take a look...">

Even as one set of neurons calculated the possibility of such a singularly coordinated occurrence, Barbara had issued an urgent warning.

"Stay back! It sounds like a tr--"

A massive explosion -- rather, six or seven hundred tiny concurrent explosions -- had cut her off. When the noise had abated enough for other sounds to be heard, the younger women had described a scene of total destruction on the street -- every store front had shattered -- but, fortunately, no casualties. Instructing the two to sweep for victims -- or perpetrators -- and then return to the clock tower, Barbara had triggered a dispatch for NGFD before methodically recording the incident in the night's crime database.

Since then, the redhead had spent a sleepless night analyzing the doll fragments which Dinah had collected and returned in a TK bubble and trying *not* to consider the similarities to such events seven or eight years before. Her findings that the plastic fragments contained traces of C-4 had done little to relieve her concerns.

A soft cough from the entrance to the classroom jolted the cyber-vigilante from her musings with a barely-suppressed squeak. Green eyes flew to the door, widening in the realization that Barbara's visitor was already several steps into the room.

"That must be one really good orange."

The redhead quickly surveyed the remaining wedges of her lunch with an abashed laugh, then offered a more genuine smile.

"More like second thoughts about attempting Ibsen at this point in the year, Maggie."

Maggie Moore made a face, brown ringlets of her poodle perm haloing her cherubic features.

"You're braver than I am, but you do have honors classes. I think I'll be lucky if I can get my classes to make it through some Twain or Cheever now."

Barbara laughed sympathetically at the truth of her fellow English teacher's wry admission, thanking her lucky stars that she'd escaped the tortures of teaching 'Short Stories for Jocks' five years before. Turning to face the other woman, she gestured an invitation which was met with a quick head shake.

"No, I can't stay. I need to finish revising my quiz for my next class. I just wanted to let you know that on my way in I saw your, er, Helena in the parking lot. I thought I'd warn you so that she didn't burst in and surprise you, but it looks like I did the job for her."

Ignoring the plump woman's tiny verbal stumble, the redhead managed a soft laugh at her own expense.

"I've been told that it's not difficult to do, Maggie."

She smiled as the other teacher turned to depart.

"Thank you for the warning, though."

The soft click of the door latching ended the short exchange, leaving Barbara faintly uncertain, feeling a bit buffeted by the ever-shifting winds of school gossip.

While she wasn't surprised to learn that her younger partner was at the school -- she'd picked up on some tentative plans between Dinah and Helena for an unusual lunch date -- the relentlessly logical woman realized that she was having some difficulty identifying her reaction to her fellow faculty member's response. Truthfully, most of her coworkers probably hadn't noticed the little exchange she'd had with Alethea at the potluck ten days before; of those who had, several had actually sought her out to offer tentative well-wishes. Still, Barbara was aware that not everyone on the staff was open-minded and that Alethea had undoubtedly been making the rounds among them in the last week.

A soft knock, followed immediately by the door opening, spared the English teacher the need to fret any further over the issue.

Having been forewarned, she was able to respond to the sight of a shaggy dark head peering through the cracked door with a genuinely happy, if tentative, grin. The brunette's answering smile and cheery wave alleviated most of the older woman's slight nervousness about seeing the other woman -- at school or otherwise.

The night before, after returning from her harried sweeps, the dark figure had been decidedly... keyed up. Talking nervously, prowling the edges of the Delphi platform, fidgeting with the microscope: Helena had exhibited a restless energy and nervousness which -- until a few months before -- had usually sent her off into the night after sweeps.

Unfortunately, Barbara's own distraction about the possible significance of the horde of clown dolls had left her utterly oblivious to her young lover's... unrest. When she'd finally surfaced from her analysis of the doll fragments around 3:00am and discovered that the brunette had disappeared onto the balcony to sulk, the cyber-genius had been seized by embarrassment -- and a bit of exasperation -- over the situation. While they had cuddled up in bed for an hour before the alarm, both had been quiet, and Helena had departed before Barbara had emerged from her morning shower.

"Helena, I'm glad you stopped by."

The redhead wasn't surprised to find that she meant it. The answering dip of her partner's head warmed her more than she could have imagined.

"How was lunch with Dinah?"

The younger woman stepped into the room, allowing the door to close behind her.

"Lunch was good. D wanted to bounce around some ideas about her living arrangements next year."

Barbara nodded, recalling in detail a recent conversation with the young girl about the benefits of the dorms.

"I hope she'll choose what she wants, Hel, not what she thinks she needs to do..."

The sentence petered out, with the older woman somewhat cravenly unable to add the final three words: "for our privacy". Gliding around the perimeter of the room, brushing her fingers across a display of PBS posters on one bulletin board, Helena either didn't notice the omission or simply overlooked it.

"Yeah, well, I think she's kind of leaning toward the dorms."

Apparently not missing the older woman's expression, the brunette hastily added, "For a lot of reasons."

At the back of the room, the brunette chuckled with a nonchalance which Barbara somehow found suspect.

"Somehow, when we were talking, we ended up batting around the idea of her moving into my place. Subletting, I guess."

Barbara blinked, then heard words spilling from her mouth before she could think, cringing when she heard the parental disbelief in her tone.

"You're not seriously considering having an eighteen year old live above a bar, are you, Helena?"

To her credit, the younger woman didn't visibly react to the accusation in the question. Moving between two rows of desk toward the front of the room, she simply shrugged lightly.

"Why not, Barbara? We both know she's responsible, and I'll be at work most evenings and can check on her."

The brunette seemed to debate a split second before she added, " 'Sides, I wasn't much older when I moved in there."

A brief silence, one which Barbara acknowledged would have been awkward indeed had the two not have come through so much together, ensued. Neither woman needed to mention what had sparked Helena's hasty move from the clock tower just before her 21st birthday.

The decision had come, the redhead had determined after months of reflection, two days after the two had shared one of their late-night movie binges. Throughout the unusually light and romantic play list of DVDs which the younger woman had selected, Helena had teased and cajoled Barbara about the redhead's romantic interests and future. Somewhere around 2:00am, finally realizing that her former ward wasn't going to let the topic die, the older woman had paused the movie and spoken honestly, flat out telling Helena that she simply didn't see any prospects for herself in that arena. The movie had finished in silence, and, two days later, the younger woman had revealed her plans to move out, leaving Barbara completely puzzled -- and hurt beyond what she wanted to recognize.

Almost four years later -- and having reached a completely different place with the other woman -- the redhead had quite a few more pieces of the puzzle and found no reason to reexamine old wounds.

Considering that, the redhead acknowledged that a bit of distance could go a long way. Accordingly, she deliberately tempered her voice.

"You're right, Hel. It's just a bit sudden. Why don't you let me wrap my mind around the idea and we can discuss it later?"

Chestnut hair bobbed enthusiastically and, feeling a bit like she was playing a scene as June Cleaver, Barbara gestured toward the visitor's chair next to her desk.

"In the meantime, was there anything else noteworthy about your lunch?"

The lithe figure gracefully positioned herself in the chair, smiling easily as she fished into an oversized pocket in her army surplus coat.

"Nah, just burgers and bullshit. But, I thought maybe I could have dessert with you."

Helena triumphantly emerged with two cellophane wrapped packages of... something, fanning them onto the desk. A crimson brow rose a few millimeters as the older woman identified the items: chocolate covered Swiss cake rolls. Her razor sharp decision-making skills kicked in, and Barbara instantly swept the remains of her healthy lunch -- multigrain crackers and cheese -- back into her insulated lunch cooler with a laugh.

Chocolate -- and a healthy dose of processed sugar and fat -- just might get her through an afternoon of persuading her spring-fever addled juniors to delve into Ibsen's play.

"Thank you, Sweetie. I think these will be more helpful than you know."

The brunette winked and snagged a package for herself, neatly tearing open one end with her teeth.

"Cool. The face the Kid made when I bought 'em, you'd think they were toxic or something."

Neatly biting into the end of her first roll, the redhead laughed.

"She could be right, Hel."

Blue eyes caught green, widening in mock dismay. The two women held the pose for a beat before shrugging in unison.

"Doesn't know what she's missing," was the younger woman's assessment as she raised her first cake to her mouth.

Barbara nodded her agreement, then -- somehow, barely -- managed to swallow her second mouthful. She felt her brows crawling toward her hairline and noticed a distinct lack of oxygen in the room as she watched her partner tuck into her first roll.

Helena's technique for eating the chocolate-enrobed, cream-filled rolled cake was, she decided, perhaps a bit unconventional.

Certainly a bit messy.

And definitely, definitely, sexy as all hell.

The older woman shook her head minutely, blinking against that last thought, but found herself unable to tear her gaze from the other woman. Having carefully, methodically, nibbled the chocolate coating off the cake with tiny nips of even white teeth, Helena was now peeling back the swirled snail-like layers of cake with teeth and lips -- pausing occasionally to catch an errant crumb with the tip of her tongue -- before lapping delicately at the white cream filling.

Amazingly unself-conscious in her eating, the brunette seemed unaware of the inherent sensuality of her actions.

Reattacking her own dessert with a gusto it undoubtedly didn't deserve, Barbara considered that observation, finding it difficult to accept: if there was one thing which Helena had always been aware of, it was -- just like her mother -- the impact she could command.

The redhead finished her first roll just as her partner started to work on her second. Since she found that she had somehow lost her appetite, she neatly refolded the top edge of the cello-wrap and pushed the package towards her guest. Blue eyes followed the movement, widening in question.

"Not hungry?"

Barbara might have found the sincerity of the question more convincing if her companion had not been slowly sucking traces of white cream from her index and second fingers. With a mental shrug, the redhead rolled onto the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" convoy.

"Not... for chocolate, Sweetie," she purred.

Not even one heartbeat later, she had reason to question the wisdom of her decision when the younger woman stretched forward to capture her hand, drawing it to her mouth. Barbara held her breath as the dark figure deliberately licked an errant smear of chocolate from her thumb then managed to withdraw her hand -- none-too-steadily, she noted sourly -- when Helena straightened.

The brunette snagged the remaining cake, tucking it into her pocket with a wicked grin.

"Anything you want me to pick up, you know,"

The redhead pursed her lips primly as the young woman's perpetually raised left eyebrow snaked a little higher.

"... to have on hand later?"

As usual, Barbara folded, throwing her head back with a laugh.

While she could bluff with the best of them in poker, she suspected that no one could out-flirt Helena.

"Just yourself, Sweetheart."

The other woman's oddly shy smile made the practical woman wish for the ability to wrinkle time and step across -- rather than through -- her next three classes. She instantly forgot her uncharacteristic whimsy when the soft smile faltered and the younger woman ducked her head to peer through thick lashes.


The brunette crossed her legs, then cracked her knuckles.

"I, uh, just wanted to apologize."

The redhead suspected that her furrowed brow eloquently expressed her confusion. Helena exhaled soundlessly, then clarified.

"About last night... this morning? I know you were pretty, uhm, caught up with that doll thing and, well, I'm sorry I acted like a jerk."

Giving her chair a sharp turn, Barbara closed the distance, bringing her knee-to-knee with her lover. She leaned in, resting her elbows on her knees and claiming dark hands in her own.

"No apology necessary, Helena, but if it makes you feel better, I accept."

She continued as slender fingers squeezed reassuringly.

"And, I'm sorry, too, Hel. For... Well,"

The cyber-genius cursed the blush she felt crawling up her neck but plunged ahead.

"I know I tend to get a little obsessive sometimes, and I'm sorry that, er, we were at cross-purposes last night."

She mentally winced a little at the awkwardness of her words, however, the other woman -- as usual -- let her off the hook.

With a pointed glance at the clock, the brunette disentangled their hands and stood. Barbara shivered, her eyes fluttering shut, when the younger woman bent, her warm breath tickling her ear.

"Let's make it up to each other later, Red."

And, approximately two and a half hours after she'd reluctantly bid the brunette farewell, the older woman found herself replaying the words, once again determining that her partner sometimes came up with the best ideas. Once she finished with this last class, she could shake the chalk dust from her wheels, hit the florist's shop, and -- if the powers-that-be were merciful -- enjoy a quiet, doll-free evening with her partner.

A faint buzzing against her lower back alerted the redhead to the fact that chances for a quiet evening would be slim indeed. Only three people -- Helena, Dinah, and Alfred -- had the number for the small pager; other than calls from one of her crime-fighting companions, it could only be triggered by specifically programmed events which the Delphi monitored.

Putting the class to work on the next scene, Barbara moved behind her desk and casually fished the small unit from her belt. She felt herself blanch when she saw the display and fought a sudden trembling in her hand.

Not altogether incongruously, a line from the play her students were reading raced through her mind, and Barbara found herself very much longing to scream 'Bloody Hell!'

The redhead, naturally, quashed that longing, somehow calmly reaffixing the pager to her slacks, although it took her three tries. A quick assessment suggested that her students were reasonably engaged with their reading, and so she excused herself, hastening down the hall to the teacher's lounge.

Once inside, Barbara found herself fumbling frantically with the latch to the handicapped stall, barely securing the door behind her before she leaned forward, retching convulsively. With her stomach instantly emptied, she forced herself to still her dry heaving, then wiped her mouth and flushed, exiting the stall and moving to the sink. She splashed a bit of water on her face, then sat quietly for several minutes, allowing the cold water to run over her wrists while the image from the pager display window painted itself against her closed eyelids.

No message. Simply a blinking light, a light purposely coded to flash the hex color code 00FF99 -- a color which Barbara thought of as institutional green and which Helena had dubbed school-puke green. It was a color the cyber-genius had chosen deliberately, one she'd never seen on her alerts, and one which she'd fervently hoped never to see.

A complex monitoring system she'd set in place years before, one with six cross-checks and numerous fail safes, was the only way to trigger that green flashing light. The safeguards were all in place to spare her possible false alarms and reactions like the one she was currently battling as she faced the reality of the alert.

There had been a security breach at Arkham.

The Joker had escaped.

Chapter 6

Jack's back.

Jack Napier, aka The Joker.

The psychopathic prankster who had tormented Gotham City for years with activities ranging from the malicious to the homicidal. The white-faced, green-haired madman who had bedeviled Batman and his proteges with a jack-booted army of clown-garbed henchmen. The gleefully cackling mastermind who had arranged for the murder of Helena's mother and -- not incidentally -- personally shot and paralyzed Barbara. The criminal who had been single-handedly captured by Barbara's mentor, Batman, over seven years ago and who had, until not too many hours before, been safely secured in the Arkham Correctional Facility for the Criminally Insane.

Like some unstoppable creature out of a Stephen King novel -- or from Barbara's own nightmares -- The Joker was somehow back on the streets of New Gotham.

The cyber-vigilante had thoroughly chewed on those thoughts during the remainder of her seventh period class and during her hurried drive home. Although she suspected that actually digesting and assimilating all of the repercussions would take a great deal longer, she was able to maintain her composure -- to ask all of the expected questions and calmly accept bureaucratic reassurances -- throughout the phone call she'd just received from the District Attorney's office.

The call had come not five minutes after Helena and Dinah, responding to her emergency page, had arrived at the clock tower and received a terse update. As the redhead patiently worked to extract every tiny detail from the anonymous mouthpiece on the other end of the line, she circumspectly observed the two younger women.

Perhaps understandably, given her youth and inexperience, her current ward's most visible reaction seemed to be uncertainty. Although Dinah was quite conversant with the history surrounding the Clown Prince of Mayhem, she had arrived in New Gotham well after the arch-criminal had been removed from the streets. A gasp of surprise... or fear... had escaped the blonde when Barbara had made her announcement a few minutes before, but now she was simply perched quietly, expectantly, on the edge of the platform, clearly awaiting elaboration or instructions or a plan.

Helena, however...

Absently jotting another note about the timeframe for the madman's escape, Barbara kept her lashes lowered, green eyes fixed on her former ward. The dark figure was gliding silently through the shadows at the back edge of the platform, her movements graceful and controlled as always, seemingly unconcerned. Still, there was no mistaking the pallor under the brunette's tan.

Although Helena had never directly encountered The Joker, she had been living in the city during the final days of his last violent rampage, and she'd certainly been intimately affected by his handiwork. When the older woman had announced The Joker's escape, every muscle in the lithe figure's body had tensed, and her stunning blue eyes had snapped to gold before changing to something which, now, seemed to be a flat steel-grey. While Helena might seem almost casual, Barbara could literally sense the energy crackling around her partner.

"Well, that confirms it."

The cyber-genius reseated the cordless in its cradle, allowing that the courtesy call from the DA had been too little, too late. Some pointed rolling from vertically slitted blue-grey eyes suggested that the sentiment was more than shared.

"How the fuck could he have been out for more than a day without us knowing about it?!"

Although she noticed that Dinah jumped minutely at the furious question, Barbara managed to turn calmly from her monitor. Inhaling slowly, she caught her partner's anguished gaze and shook her head once. The brunette dipped her head, muscles along her jaw ticking a staccato beat, and the older woman mustered a small, bitter smile.

"It seems that Arkham staff have been engaged in some damage control for the last twenty-six hours, Hel," she offered with a mildness which clearly surprised both younger women.

It certainly surprised her.

"Covering their asses, you mean," the brunette spat.

Despite her agreement with the brunette's unvarnished assessment, the older woman recognized that finger-pointing and recriminations would gain them nothing. It was time to focus on the facts.

"Be that as it may, Helena..."

Barbara deliberately clipped her words.

"...the official story is that the staff were conducting an exhaustive search of the premises before recording the escape in order to avoid unnecessary panic."

The younger woman snorted softly and averted her gaze to study the presidential plate displayed over the centrifuge. The three remained quiet for a few moments, only the pervasive humming of the Delphi and the ever-present click of clock gears parting the leaden silence. It was Dinah who finally broke through the ennui.

"So, uh, he's really been out since yesterday afternoon?"

The redhead offered a small nod, observing her newest protege as she processed the implications of the information.

"So, all of that -- or most of the crime last night was his work?"

Again, Barbara nodded.

"It would seem likely, Dinah. Perhaps... he..."

The redhead stumbled briefly, not missing the fact that none of them seemed inclined to use the madman's name.

"...was celebrating his escape or attempting to divert resources from tracking him down or -- "

She quickly shook her head, pushing aside her frustration and her desire to shout. She inhaled deeply, needing to slow the spinning cogs in her mind which insistently hammered questions about who the hell knew what that lunatic had been thinking.

"-- or any number of things, Dinah."

The redhead thought she managed to finish with relative calm. The sight of Helena quietly gliding to her side and the sensation of a strong hand coming to rest gently on her shoulder suggested that her facade might not have been entirely convincing. Finding the contact more reassuring than she could have imagined, Barbara lightly brushed slender fingers with her own.

"So," the brunette's voice was gravel rough, "I guess our crazy astronomer did more damage than anybody thought, huh?"

Relieved to have something concrete to focus on, the cyber-vigilante turned a few degrees and tapped a half dozen keys with her left hand. Peripherally, she noticed Dinah climbing onto the platform to look over her other shoulder as she brought up schematics from the prison.

Apparently, the damage caused by the rock slide from Frank Loewen's mis-aimed laser fire of six weeks before had been greater, and more insidious, than the staff at the facility had known. While the prison staff had done their job in insuring the integrity of the Joker's cell, there had been an unnoticed weakening in another, distant, block of cells.

"It seems that there was structural compromise here -- "

The redhead highlighted a section of the diagram with her mouse, feeling both of the younger women behind her leaning forward for a clear view.

"-- and one enterprising prisoner -- a serial arsonist, I believe -- broke through to an access tunnel and, over the last few weeks, made his way to... here."

She clicked once on a cell marked with a green "J".

The information she'd hacked from the belated reports at the prison, not to mention a few tidbits she'd extracted from the DA, suggested that the sociopathic sycophant had entertained illusions of gratitude for his role in freeing The Joker. Like so many misguided second-string criminals, perhaps the enterprising tunneler had hoped for a spot at the insane clown's right hand. He had been rewarded for his efforts, so to speak, by being compressed so tightly in The Joker's own straightjacket that he'd become little more than a bloody spot cavalierly abandoned in the access tunnel.

A soft question drew the redhead from her almost hypnotic study of the green "J" which seemed to fill the monitor.

"So, uhm, what do we do now, Barbara?"

Straightening, the practical woman carefully pushed back from the workstation. Before turning, she gave herself a moment to think, raising one hand to pinch at the bridge of her nose. While the movement bought her a few seconds, unfortunately, it didn't seem to kick her brain into gear or engender any divine insights. Resultantly, when she looked up to meet frightened, pale blue eyes, she could only iterate the obvious.

"If last night is any indication, he's going to be busy."

The redhead sighed as the weight of anticipated weariness settled itself firmly on her shoulders.

"So, Dinah, for starters, we'll try to pin down what he's targeting and try to protect..."

A low growl cut her off.

"Then we'll find the bastard, and I'll rip his heart out."

Barely suppressing her own gasp, Barbara registered Dinah's shocked "Oh". She whipped her gaze up and to the side.


Green eyes caught dark blue, attempting to impart how utterly serious she was.

"You don't know... him. It's not going to be that si--"

The younger woman knelt beside her, silencing the redhead's protest. She allowed her partner to capture both of her hands, attempting to decipher the complex mix of emotions washing expressive caramel features.

Barbara could clearly identify anguish... and fury... and resolve. Yet, there was something else which she couldn't quite pin down in the maelstrom of her partner's feelings.

"Maybe it could be, Barbara."

The older woman held her breath, knowing that the brunette had more to say. Slender shoulders straightened and gamine features hardened before her eyes.

"Maybe it *should* be."

The softly husked words touched something deep within the older woman, and, with a quick tremor, she suddenly identified the other emotion in Helena's eyes: a fierce, overwhelming protectiveness.

The power of the brunette's passion was awe-inspiring and terribly, terribly alluring, and Barbara was shocked to realize that, for once, her defiantly independent side had no protest. As the dark vigilante continued, her voice gaining strength in the sincerity of belief, Barbara felt herself almost physically wavering above an abyss.

"He doesn't know me, Barbara. He's never fought me. If Daddy-dearest could take the fucker out, there's no reason that I can't either."

The brunette visibly controlled herself, pitching her next words so softly that Barbara instinctively swayed closer.

"And, isn't it time to finish it? Take..."

A slender hand disentangled itself from hers, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the chair. When Helena lightly placed her fingers on her abdomen, Barbara winced at the delicate pressure which had come to rest over one starburst scar.

"... this fear away, once and for all?"

Like those first moments at school only a few hours before when she'd first seen the blinking light on her pager, time seemed to slow and morph into a thick, gooey amalgam. The brunette's final words echoed through the large room, an oddly sweet Siren's song. In the face of the other woman's ardent certainty, the jagged rocks of conviction and morality which Barbara had dashed against for her entire life suddenly didn't seem so insurmountable after all.

For a minute, perhaps a minute and a half, the redhead remained still, locked in place by blue eyes which begged -- and offered -- so much.

Distantly, she heard Dinah shifting nervously by her side. Absently, she registered the quiet hum of the Delphi and the whir and click of the gears of the clock surrounding them. Bitterly, she noted the pressure of her chair at her back. Awed, she took in her partner's sweet face.

Red lashes lowered as Barbara embraced, once again, all of the signs and symbols of her life -- her role -- as she'd fashioned it. Unflinchingly meeting blue eyes, she summoned a tender smile and gently cupped her partner's cheek.

"That's not who we are... or what we do, Hel."

Unsurprisingly, the younger woman didn't surrender easily. Blue eyes flashed and full lips parted in protest, but the analytical woman knew that she couldn't allow the debate.

That way lay madness.

Straightening, she reached inside herself and drew upon reserves of strength, settling her iron mantle on her shoulders.

"We. Do. Not. Kill."

Helena had never truly been able to -- or tried to -- hide her emotions. It was, therefore, not difficult to read the disappointment and anger in her eyes, but Barbara held herself steady, knowing that she couldn't show the smallest sign of weakness.

Perhaps fortuitously, the ring of the phone broke the standoff. Of the three, only Helena didn't start at the shrill interruption.

Drawing a deep breath -- when was the last time she'd remembered to breathe? -- Barbara checked the caller ID and nodded that she needed to take the call. Even as the two younger women withdrew to the kitchen and she picked up the handset to greet her father, the older woman found herself battling unease, not entirely certain what her exchange with Helena had meant -- or would mean.

Since she was admittedly unenthusiastic about the possibility of revisiting a topic which she could not allow herself consider, Barbara took her time with the conversation. Her father also, of course, had received a call from the DA, and the redhead found herself hurriedly switching gears to assume the role of suitably cautious, responsible daughter.

Barbara would not -- could not -- give in to Jim Gordon's repeated requests that she consider a body guard: There was simply no way that she could do what she needed to cosseted by some security detail. Nevertheless, recognizing the seriousness of the situation, she did promise to stay out of sight, which seemed to reassure her father.

Her reminder of her secret weapon also didn't hurt.

"You know that Helena is going to be sure that I'm safe, Dad."

The ex-police commissioner's rueful chuckle was tacit admission of his admiration for the young brunette.

"Believe me, Barbie -- "

Notwithstanding the circumstances of the call and the fact that, at that moment, police were on their way to her father's house to provide round-the-clock protection for him, the relentlessly practical woman smiled at the nickname.

"--if there is anybody in this world I trust to protect you, it's Helena."

Barbara laughed softly, then waited, hearing a hesitation over the line.

"But, as much as I know that you can take care of yourself and that Helena will watch out for you, she is only human, Barbara."

The redhead felt a fond smile crease her features but remained serious, assuring her father again that they would take all due precautions. Somehow, she managed to lead the conversation into a dissection of the escape and then a lengthy analysis of the police's options before finally winding down the call a half an hour later.

With her father's parting "I love you, Barbara" warm in her heart, the cyber-genius moved onto the balcony, pulling the doors shut behind her. Daylight had faded, the first stars of the night peeking through the pervasive cloud cover over the city, and Barbara knew there wasn't much time before another storm of crime blew through her city. She shivered, suspecting that the response had less to do with the cool spring evening than other factors, and played her father's warning through her mind again.

While Helena was human, she was far from "only" anything. By the same token, Jack Napier *was* only human, although -- in the face of the overpowering madman -- it scarcely seemed so. Still... still, perhaps, Helena hadn't been too far off the mark earlier when she'd made her claim that she could... handle The Joker.

The redhead's battle against cautious hope was interrupted by the quiet click of the balcony door. Mustering a smile, she looked back, surprised to see not Helena but Dinah edging her way onto the terrace.


The girl responded with a tentative smile, extending Barbara's favorite cup. The older woman automatically accepted the offering, bringing the steaming beverage to her face and breathing deeply of the comforting scent of Plantation Mint.

This time, her smile was more genuine.

"Thank you, Dinah. It smells wonderful."

The blonde ducked her head, hooking a thumb toward the interior of the clock tower.

"Uhm, you're welcome, but I'm just your friendly server, Dinah."

A smile skirted across her lips as Barbara watched the slender teen curtsy awkwardly.

"Helena made the tea for you."

The older woman's smile stretched a bit more when she took a sip, detecting a tiny hint of cream and sugar. The combination was one she never would have considered, however Helena had introduced the mixture years before as an experiment. Unlike a few of the younger woman's more notable mis-mixtures, this was surprisingly soothing, hinting as it did of mint cookies and milk.

After Dinah lowered herself to perch on the arm of one of the Adirondack chairs which had mysteriously appeared on the balcony several weeks before, Barbara raised one brow a few millimeters and inclined her head toward the living area.

"Uh, I think she's still in the kitchen. We, uh, had some leftovers and then Helena said she wanted to clean up."

The redhead pursed her lips, both at the wide, pale blue eyes searching her face and at the information Dinah had just shared.

Helena volunteering to clean was usually not a good sign.

She sipped again, then lowered the warm mug to rest on her lap, finally allowing, "She probably wanted to work off a little energy, Dinah."

The girl nodded, then tucked a strand of long hair behind her ear. Quite familiar with the nervous gesture, the redhead sat patiently.

"She's kind of upset about, uh..."

A pale hand fluttered toward the darkness of the cityscape.

"... all of this, isn't she?"

Since there was absolutely no point in obfuscation, Barbara spoke plainly.

"Helena has... lost quite a bit to The Joker, Dinah."

The blonde accepted the explanation with a slow nod, and the two women sat quietly for a few moments, nothing but the faint rumble of late commuter traffic carried to them on the wind. Eventually, Dinah shifted, and Barbara narrowed her eyes at the sight of her ward gnawing at her lower lip.

"Dinah? Is there something...?"

Wide, frightened eyes met hers.

"How bad is it do you think? I mean, what's going to happen, Barbara?"

Tucking her cup between her legs, the redhead crossed the small distance separating them and extended her hand in invitation. Cool fingers came to rest on Barbara's palm, and she squeezed lightly.

"I don't know, Dinah," she admitted on a soft sigh. "Judging from last night, it's going to be messy. But,"

She deliberately waited until cornflower blue eyes met hers and projected as much confidence as she could.

"... we don't know if he's even going to bother himself with... old targets. The call from the DA was just a formality, you know."

When the tense set of the young woman's shoulders eased and a tiny measure of relief flickered across pale features, the older woman thought that -- for once -- she might have said the right thing. A minute later, she was forced to reconsider when the city's emergency warning sirens screamed into the night.

Chapter 7

A muted scream captured Barbara's attention, and the cyber-genius straightened and directed her attention to the living area. Wincing at the stiffness of her shoulders and neck, she slowly removed her glasses, blinking to refocus from intense short-range scrutiny of her monitors to take in the features of the darkened room.

She could just make out a hint of grey through the transom above the doors to the balcony, suggesting that the long dark night would eventually recede. The redhead pushed aside her desire to *will* the sun to rise before its scheduled time and cautiously massaged her thumb and index finger over her eyelids, pretending not to notice the grainy scratchiness accumulated from almost two days without sleep.

Something about that thought tickled Barbara's mind, and with the barest flicker of a smile she realized that it was the accuracy of her time estimate which was in question. In all honesty, she hadn't gotten much sleep on Saturday night either -- although the reason had been much more pleasant than the last two nights of vigilance and worry -- making it almost three days on the go.

Reasonably satisfied that she had a chance of seeing something more than blurred silhouettes at this point, she again peered into the darkened living room, finally making out the images flickering across the big screen -- the source of the noise which had distracted her moments earlier. On screen, it appeared that a buxom, curly-haired brunette was being menaced by a slimy, green monster.

A split second later, green eyes blinked and a tiny smirk flickered across the redhead's face when she realized that "romanced" more accurately described the situation.

"Swamp Thing", then.

Barbara shook her head in fond exasperation, then extended the movement into a full, slow roll, squeezing her eyes shut against the tiny cracks of muscles and vertebrae unwilling to surrender their rigid watch.

While the 1982 camp classic was, undoubtedly, the epitome of mindless relaxation, the cyber-genius had never been able to share her younger partner's enthusiasm for the movie. Cryptic -- and faintly lascivious -- comments about Adrienne Barbeau's contributions to the story notwithstanding, neither the plot nor the special effects had ever seemed especially engaging, leaving the redhead mildly puzzled and bemused by Helena's apparently limitless ability to enjoy the video any time it was on.

On this early spring morning, she found herself less amused than grateful that the brunette had found an old favorite on one of their myriad channels. When the younger woman had returned to the tower a few hours earlier -- bruised, battered, and utterly soaked -- Barbara had suggested some well-earned sleep; unfortunately, it seemed that the apple hadn't fallen far from the tree in their crime-fighting household, and Helena had professed herself unwilling to turn in.

The redhead was quite aware that her young partner's actions had nothing to do with the possibility of discovering a hidden gem on a movie channel. Helena was... sitting shivah with her. As they had too many times to count over the years, she and her young partner were ticking off the hours of a long night together.

In the past, they'd done so as they'd wrestled with their respective demons, and when Barbara had nursed Helena through injuries, and as Helena had offered a shoulder for Barbara to cry on about her non-existent love life.

This night, they were waiting for the next strike of a madman.

If Sunday's haphazard cacophony of crime had been a symbolic stretching of unused criminal muscles, this last night had been a clear exhibition of strength... and a vivid, vivid announcement that Jack Napier was back. Having somehow swiftly mustered an army of willing lackeys, The Joker had announced his presence in a big way by setting off the city's emergency response alarms and sending thousands of terrified residents into the streets. Once there, many panicked citizens had been greeted by high-pressure water canons spraying water which had been tainted with indelible green paint; others had been struck with rubber bullets showering from wildly careening cars and vans.

For almost two hours, Helena had hustled from incident to incident -- diverting the shooters from neighborhoods, forcibly shutting off fire-hydrants or tying off hoses, assisting some of the injured in finding safe routes to the hospitals -- constantly on the look-out for the green-haired mastermind behind the mayhem but encountering only scores of burly underlings. All the while, Barbara had worked frantically from the Delphi, seamlessly multitasking among tracking emergency reports, directing her partner where she might do the most good, and attempting to hack into the city's civil defense system to shut down the terrifying sirens which continued to wail like harbingers of doom.

When the cyber-vigilante had finally found a back door to the city's system, she'd lost valuable time trying to navigate through a system which was damnably unresponsive. With something about the layout of the OS tickling at her brain, Barbara had finally pushed back from her monitor and called Dinah over, needing a fresh set of eyes. Wearily, she'd waved a hand toward the display, focusing on the way pale eyebrows had knit for a few seconds and then suddenly shot upward.

"It looks like Pac Man...?"

Dipping her chin and allowing her glasses to slide down her nose a few centimeters, the redhead had peered dubiously over her frames until the miasma suddenly took shape in an almost Rorschachian splendor and her infallible memory had supplied just where she'd encountered such an operating system before. Not indulging in what she believed to be entirely warranted disgust -- with herself for not seeing it, with the city for it's lack of forethought -- she'd toggled open another window and, with two dozen efficient keystrokes, unleashed a fleet of 'bots to scour the web for the documentation she needed for the system.

In surprisingly short order -- who would have imagined the materials which techno-nerds made available? -- she'd had a blurrily scanned copy of a manual in front of her and begun to slog through the haphazardly organized files on the none-too-robust Commodore 64 which the city used for civil defense matters. Eventually, she'd been entirely confounded -- although hardly shocked -- to discover that the twenty-five year old computer, undoubtedly located in a basement somewhere and plugged into the net on a whim, existed only to record maintenance and tests on the city's alarm system.

The switch for the sirens, naturally, was manual.

Gritting her teeth over the time she'd wasted, the cyber-genius had made a mental note to contact her city council representative about the sad state of affairs in the civil defense office and balefully regarded the ever-growing list of incidents plaguing the city.

While water canons and rubber bullets had still been spraying, many of The Joker's men had moved on to activities involving baseball bats and window-smashing. In the meantime, the unrelenting emergency sirens had driven many people into their cars, and accidents abounded as New Gotham's residents attempted to flee the nameless terror. Still other good citizens of Barbara's fair city had seized on the complete disarray as an excuse for wide-scale looting; with numerous shop windows helpfully broken by The Joker's crew and emergency personnel stretched thin, there had been little to stop them.

Barbara had contacted Helena, directing her to the location for the siren's switch. She'd waited for her partner to reach the building, her fatalistic sense of why nobody from the city had shut off the alarm confirmed when the brunette had arrived.

<"Building's overrun with goons in red noses.">


The older woman had immediately felt heat rush to her cheeks at the lapse, managing a quick apologetic smile toward Dinah even as Helena's cheerful response had come through the comms.

<"Well, no way through it but to do it, huh?">

The question had been accompanied by the soft sounds of twisting metal, leading the cyber-vigilante to pull up a schematic for the building.

"Air duct, Huntress?"

A soft rustle had preceded the other woman's words.

<"You betcha, although -- ">

Barbara had flinched minutely at the sound of a stifled sneeze.

<"-- looks like it hasn't been cleaned since the Cold War.">

"I'll be certain to add your dry cleaning costs to The Joker's bill, Huntress."

Stealthy as she'd been, Helena had still needed to fight her way through almost a dozen men before the siren had finally been silenced. Possibly a signal, the sudden deafening calm had seen the retreat of The Joker's men and, gradually, a cessation to the night's insanity. It had only been at that point that Barbara had called her partner back in and shooed Dinah off to bed.

When Helena had squelched in from the balcony several hours before, her fatigue had been evident, and the older woman had kept the debriefing... brief. Then she'd packed the brunette off for a hot shower and lost herself in systematic checks of all of her monitoring programs: she did not want to be taken unawares when The Joker struck again.

Thirty minutes later, Barbara had been startled by the reappearance of her partner, who was swimming in a pair of the redhead's NGPD sweats and toweling her hair vigorously. Caught up in recording the damage from the night and monitoring for the first indication that The Joker's men might be on the move again, she'd barely noticed when the younger woman had made a pass through the kitchen and then planted herself on the couch.

Truthfully, the cyber-vigilante admitted wryly, had it not been for Ms. Barbeau's powerful vocals, she probably still wouldn't have been aware of the other woman's presence across the room. The lights were out in the living room, and the volume of the television was pitched low -- a distinct advantage to having a partner with meta-human enhanced senses; Helena easily picked up dialog -- such as it was -- at a volume which didn't bother anyone else.

Given the younger woman's penchant for choosing programs based on the quantity of screaming and explosions in the plot, her willingness to keep the sound down was a blessing on many, many levels.

Barbara scrubbed her face with her palms again, dawdling a bit before she forced herself to start programming a fleet of sniffers to monitor New Gotham's internet traffic for activity related to The Joker. She glanced back to the living area, allowing her gaze to linger on the big screen for a moment as she noted that Alice Cable had lost yet another item of apparel somewhere in the swamp. Immediately annoyed with herself -- both because one of her brain cells had retained the name of the heroine and because she'd nearly succumbed to the non-aesthetic allure of the movie -- the redhead resolutely dragged her eyes from the screen.

From her elevated position on the Delphi platform, she could just make out one bare foot resting on the back of the sofa, and she smiled softly as her mind's eye instantly supplied her young partner's position: after years of finding the brunette sprawled on the couch, Barbara knew that Helena was lounging on her back, right arm pillowed behind her head, left hand possessively guarding the remote, one leg elevated onto the cushions at the back of the sofa.

Green eyes lost focus, tracking slightly to the left, as the older woman ticked through many occasions when she'd seen the other woman in the habitual position or, even, the many times she'd shared the couch with her, sometimes giggling as they'd wriggled for the most room to stretch out. For some reason, one particular instance struck her: the first time that the two had shared the sofa like that after Helena had abruptly moved out so many years ago.

When the young woman who had been her ward until not quite two years before had abruptly cleaned out her room and moved into her own apartment, Barbara had been mystified... and hurt... and terribly lonely. Until then, she'd hadn't appreciated how much energy and life the brunette had brought into the home they'd shared.

The younger woman's departure coincided with a... shutting down as well: where once she'd been hard-pressed to get the girl to stop talking, it had become almost impossible to draw two sentences in a row from the surly figure; where they'd once easily passed long nights together in movie binges or scrabble-fests, contact had become limited to nightly sweeps and twice-weekly training sessions.

As agonizing as it had been, Barbara had been unable to coax any meaningful explanation for the abrupt change from the young woman. Unable to make sense of it herself, she'd finally forced herself to chalk it up to separation-individuation needs and the urges of powerful twenty-something hormones.

With the powerful benefits of hindsight -- not to mention a great deal of recent hands-on study -- the redhead ruefully admitted that she'd only recently discovered how right she'd been.

It had taken almost a year -- forty-seven weeks of stilted conversations and patient support and cautious attempts -- before Helena, seemingly inexplicably, had breezed in from sweeps one evening, parked herself on the couch, and casually asked whether there was any microwave popcorn. So elated she'd almost floated into the kitchen, Barbara had been determined to produce the requested item -- even if she'd needed to do something frightening with canned corn and a blow dryer. Fortunately, Alfred had kept the cupboards stocked and, four and a half minutes later, she'd emerged triumphantly with a slightly scorched bag of "Gobs o' butter" and two beers.

The movie they'd watched -- something with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan -- had been insipid; however, the company had not. Somehow, that first movie had transitioned to another, then another, until the rosy glow of the rising sun had interrupted them. Despite her lack of sleep, Barbara hadn't been the slightest bit tired, buzzing through the day at school fueled by more energy than she could have gotten from eight hours sleep and a triple espresso.

It had only been years later -- not too many weeks before, actually -- that Barbara had finally mustered the wherewithal, and courage, to try to discover what had been behind Helena's decision to... rejoin their lives after that year of chill and distance. Lying on the couch together, clothes in complete disarray, Helena had been lackadaisically flipping through channels and had stumbled across another Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan movie, sparking a memory for the older woman.

Hesitant to reopen old wounds, the redhead had nevertheless tendered a cautious question, smiling fondly at the puzzlement in her lover's face as the younger woman had worked through the circumspect inquiry. When Helena had finally answered, she had been sweetly puzzled... and factual, as if there could be no other reason.

"Even if there wasn't going to be any chance for... us, I needed to be with you."

Smiling at the memory, the redhead fought a yawn and debated the wisdom of taking a break to fire up the espresso machine in the kitchen. Ultimately, she decided against it, suspecting that the tepid coffee in her mug was a safer alternative.

The last time she'd attempted to use the elegant machine, two rolls of paper towels and a mop had been required for cleanup.

Sternly reprimanding herself for her wool-gathering, she reseated her glasses and turned back to the keyboard just as a dark head popped up from behind the sofa back.

"It's not too loud is it? I heard you not typing and, well..."

A tiny shifting movement accompanied the somewhat awkward observation -- a small shrug, Barbara surmised -- and the redhead smiled tenderly.

"Not at all, Hel. I was just regrouping for a moment."

A winning smile greeted the admission, and the younger woman gracefully flowed over the tall back of the couch and leapt onto the Delphi platform. In the time it took for Barbara to make sense of the movement, her partner was behind her, slender hands coming to her shoulders and working gently at the accumulated tension.

"Why don't you... regroup over there for a little bit with me? Alice is just about to make kissy-face with Swampy."


The response she'd managed was, the older woman decided, something between a snort at the playful invitation and a moan of delight as tight muscles grudgingly succumbed to the expert ministrations of strong fingers. The woman behind her, apparently, took it as an invitation to extend her invitation.

"C'mon, Red, you need a break. Can't you let it go for just a little while and be w..."

The purring words stumbled, and Barbara inhaled slowly as the younger woman completed her plea.

" kind to yourself for a few minutes? We did okay tonight, you know, holding our own against his goons."

The redhead felt her stomach clench convulsively against the realization that holding their own would not be enough. Still, almost desperately wishing that it were a night -- a situation -- when that sort of easy relaxation would be possible, Barbara shook her head slowly.

Registering her partner's disappointment, she spoke honestly.

"I wish I could, Sweetheart, but I really need to stay focused."

The brunette didn't push, simply nodding as she descended the ramp and disappeared behind the back of the sofa again, and the cyber-vigilante resolutely re-attacked her list of tasks.

On this night, it wasn't about relaxation and happy memories. It was about preparing herself for whatever might come.

Chapter 8

<"Score one for the good guys!">

Even with the wet, explosive roar still echoing through the comms, the exultation in the words was impossible to miss. Since victories had been in short supply of late, Barbara didn't hesitate to indulge herself, licking her index finger and painting a big "1" in the air.

"You were... awesome, Huntress."

From her position atop the oversized plasma display, Princess Fiona nodded her agreement with the effusive assessment.


The young crime-fighter's tone was distinctly pleased.

<"That was pretty frikkin' amazing, wasn't it?">

One crimson brow crawled upward at the complete lack of modesty in the younger woman's question, however Barbara couldn't manufacture any genuine annoyance.

It had been, well, amazing: That Helena had happened to note, during a brief lull in activities this morning, suspicious traffic near the Sports Arena; that Barbara had caught a split-second blip on a security camera; that Helena had located a bag full of C-4, removed it from the building, and had gotten it into the none-too-pristine waters of the harbor seconds before it had exploded. Not only had the daring move saved the city's architectural eyesore, but Helena had saved the lives of several hundred junior high students present for an intramural soccer match.

"Yes, you were," the cyber-vigilante deliberately emphasized the pronoun.

Heaven knew, a bit of adrenaline wouldn't be a bad thing for either of them at this point. Both women were exhausted and sleep deprived from almost non-stop work to protect the city and its residents for the last two days.

Having apparently satisfied himself with a relatively low-key coming out event on Monday night, The Joker had stepped into high gear and taken his activities into daylight. Tuesday had seen the beginning of increasingly daring robberies -- the motivation, cash flow, obvious. There had also been two dozen drive-by shootings with high-powered paint guns doctored with radioactive isotopes. Tuesday night, fires had popped up all over the city, followed by a rash of break-ins.

Throughout, Helena had been on the move almost constantly, directed by Barbara who had maintained her vigil at the Delphi. They two had focused on the victims of the mad attacks although, recognizing her partner's need to blow off steam and some opportunities to thin the criminal forces, Barbara had steered the younger woman to some of the break-ins, allowing the brunette to engage in some good old fashioned ass-kicking and, simultaneously, to apprehend fourteen of The Joker's lackeys.

Pumped with her success, the brunette had crashed for a few hours in the early morning before a renewed onslaught of alarms had drawn her forth again. The attack on the Sports Arena had been a frightening reminder of the vigilance required in what felt like an epic battle.

<"Uh, well,">

The brunette's words were soft, almost hesitant.

<"... no 'I' in team, right, Oracle?">

A fond smile creased the older woman's face as she automatically checked the scanners and monitors. There were reports of continued drive-by attacks and some store robberies, however, in comparison with the night before, the city appeared almost peaceful.

<"So, what's next? Any chance I can grab a bite to eat before saving New Gotham again?">

Laughing, Barbara relayed the happy news to her partner and returned to coding a complex program to calculate incident types, locations, and frequency. She honestly had no idea if it would help in predicting other events or, ideally, pinning down a central base of operations for The Joker, but she couldn't not try any possibility.

Half-listening as her partner in the field ordered a sandwich from a street vendor, the redhead felt herself wince as she registered the array of ingredients Helena was adding to her cheese steak: cooked *and* raw onions? mustard? Simultaneously, she registered a rumbling from her lower abdomen and absently wondered when she'd last eaten.

The opportunity to consider the question -- much less do anything about it -- disappeared when an alarm beeped from one of her monitoring programs. Since the cyber-genius had coded the programs for silent notification except in certain specific instances, she immediately realized that Helena was not going to be able to enjoy her lunch.

"Huntress? Do you copy?"

The redhead distantly noted how calm the question had sounded.

<"Yo. I copy, Oracle. What'sup?">

The words were a bit muffled, presumably by a mouthful of stomach-bomb.

"There's an alarm from City Hall. The Joker has been spotted."

There was a moment of absolute silence after the announcement, and Barbara felt the blood pounding through her veins. Throughout the wild attacks of the last few days, sightings of the green-haired Maestro of Madness had been infrequent, and Helena had yet to encounter the man.

<"I'm on my way.">

The rush of air signaling rapid movement accompanied the words, and as the older woman prepared to provided a more specific location, she felt the hair on the back of her neck rise in response to the dark vigilante's anticipatory growl.

<"It's finally time to kick some ass.">

Several hours later, the words whispering over the transceiver were a great deal less charged.

<"No use.">

The statement was utterly flat, its very lack of affect revealing more than any impassioned oratory.

"You did what you could, Huntress. Come back in now. Please."

Receiving a quiet acknowledgement, Barbara sighed softly, knowing that she didn't have much time before her partner arrived. Stiffening her spine, she automatically toggled the Delphi to its highest level of monitoring, removed her glasses and placed them neatly into their pocket on the right side of her chair, and carefully pulled a printout -- one with thirty-four names, four of them in red -- from the laser printer and tucked it out of sight. Only then was the cyber-crime fighter ready to leave her post.

Out of long force of habit, she lowered her arms to check the brake on her chair; however, instead of unlocking the wheels and pushing away from the desk, she slowly placed both palms on the edge of the table. Very deliberately, she locked her elbows and began to strain against the sharp edge of the desk. With her not-inconsiderable upper body strength, she easily -- too damned easily -- forced herself back from the workstation.

Exhaling softly again, she shut her eyes, massaging firmly at her temples, before straightening. With a rough motion, she pushed her hair back, steadying herself for what might come. Even as distracted as she was, Barbara didn't miss a soft thump from the balcony. Coinciding as it did with an almost electric frisson of awareness, she realized that her partner had arrived.

In the instant before the balcony doors swung open, the redhead scrubbed the heels of her hands against her eyes -- ignoring the dampness she felt -- and then efficiently unlocked the chair and moved cautiously down the ramp. A heartbeat later, when she observed the blood covering her partner's hands and arms and took in the dark figure's stricken expression, she wished that she'd not taken the time to indulge in her own emotional flagellation. She gave the wheels of her chair a push which was a bit more forceful than was strictly necessary and belatedly met the lithe figure in the living area.

"Are you injured, Helena?"

The younger woman hadn't reported any injuries on her trip back to the clock tower, however she had been --

The redhead brusquely corrected herself. Helena *was* obviously upset and might have... forgotten to mention something.

The quick shake of a dark head reassured the older woman, and she lightly rested one hand on her partner's elbow, heedless of the congealing blood covering the sleeves of Helena's duster. Blue eyes, filled with more emotion than Barbara knew how to identify, met green.

Blinking against the deluge, the redhead thought she saw her partner rock towards her, briefly anticipated the younger woman's knees bending, and caught her breath. But, the small figure did not falter under her soft touch, and when Barbara looked up again, she detected what could have been the completion of Helena's eyes morphing from gold to blue.

She dismissed the idea, focusing on the necessary and practical.

"Let's get you washed up, out of your coat."

Still silent, the brunette turned to the training room, years of habit leading her to drop her coat in the Bio-Haz bin and to use the medical sink to wash the blood from her hands. The older woman fetched clean towels then sat through her partner's lengthy washing, a quiet valet-in-waiting.

Finally, Helena shut off the water but still didn't turn from the sink. Instead, Barbara watched the corded muscles in the younger woman's forearms tense as she braced herself against the edge of the sink, leaning in, seeming to follow the swirling pink water in its course down the drain. Since she had, from her own bitter experiences, a fairly good idea of what her partner was seeing, the cyber-crime fighter didn't press, choosing to wait until Helena was ready.

"Well, that was a fuckin' fiasco."

The utterance was made without real heat as the brunette turned and accepted a towel with a quirked smile of thanks. Pursing her lips, Barbara inclined her head in invitation and followed the younger woman to the kitchen.

Once there, she fetched a two sparkling waters from the refrigerator, suspecting that anything else wouldn't sit well. Only after the two had arranged themselves at the table, with Helena -- seemingly unconscious of her actions -- opening both waters, did the redhead speak.

"You did everything you could, Helena."

Truth be told, the young vigilante had done more than anyone could -- or should -- expect over the last two days. Her actions of the afternoon alone had undoubtedly saved untold lives.

As soon as Barbara contacted her, Helena had abandoned her cheese steak, making it to City Hall in record time. Once there, she'd worked her way stealthily through the HVAC system until she could monitor the situation from behind a vent in the wall. The sub vocal reports which she'd provided had been chilling.

At high noon, The Joker had shown up at the Motor Vehicle Office, claiming that he needed to renew his license after his time away. Filled with citizens attempting to conduct routine license renewals and vehicle registrations during their lunch hours, the office had instantly become a prison, with almost three dozen responsible citizens and DMV staff becoming hostages to the maniacal clown and six jack-booted thugs welding machine guns.

Clearly reveling in the situation, the criminals had taken their time terrifying their victims with insane variations of bureaucratic regulations: threatening to blind those who failed impossible vision tests; forcing others to throw books and manuals at each other; and having many jump through literal flaming hoops. As mentally and emotionally sadistic as the activities had been, the threat had remained minor for over an hour, and Barbara had actually begun to hope that the Clown Prince of Mayhem might release his hostages unharmed after having his fun.

Shortly after 1:00pm, she'd been violently reminded of how cruel false hope could be.

"How could anybody be so goddamned..."

The brunette interrupted her low growl, clearly searching for suitable verbiage.

"... so twisted?" she finally finished, fury and anguish bleeding through the words.

Carefully, the older woman placed her hand lightly atop her partner's clenched fists, and searched for a way to make it better. Neither she nor Helena were strangers to wanton cruelty: both had seen enough violence and loss of life to last ten people a lifetime; however, The Joker's machinations simply took things to an entirely different level.

"I don't know, Sweetheart," was, ultimately, the best the older woman could come up with.

Fourteen years in the life -- give or take a few months -- and she still couldn't reconcile how one individual could be as cavalier and... gleeful... about causing pain.

After toying with his hostages for an hour, the green-haired madman had -- with great pomp and flair -- opened a trunk he'd brought in and produced... an old-fashioned camera, complete with photographer's drape and a tripod. The crimson-haired crime fighter had puzzled over her partner's quiet description of events, suspecting that some souvenir-gathering was about to occur.

With the apparatus arranged to The Joker's satisfaction, his henchmen had dragged one of the DMV staff to the driver's license photograph "toe line", menacing her with their weapons while the mastermind of the little affair had capered and threatened from under his drape. Only after the woman had been reduced to pleading and tears had the cruel clown snapped a picture, revealing that his camera had been retrofitted with a Polaroid to produce an instant record of terror.

One by one, the hostages had been positioned and threatened -- with guns and knives and fists -- with each finally photographed and, with a flourish, handed their picture: a macabre memento. As the number of unphotographed hostages had dwindled, Barbara and Helena had begun to hope that the situation might be winding down, until -- seemingly at random -- The Joker had revealed an additional retrofit to his photographic equipment: a .44 magnum secured to the camera body, which he casually triggered instead of his flashbulb when the twenty-third hostage had been positioned in front of him.

The gunshot, barely proceeding the other hostages' terrified screams and Helena's enraged cry, had signaled the end of the impasse. The young vigilante had burst from concealment, the sound of machine-gun fire and screaming leaving Barbara white-knuckled at her keyboard. In spite of the firepower present, the speed of Helena's attack had limited the casualties to relatively minor wounds for three hostages; however, The Joker had escaped in the melee.

"That fucker shot him in the neck, Barbara."

The redhead could only nod her comprehension of the additional cruelty of having the victim bleed out. The brunette's ragged whisper when she'd moved to assist the victim of madman's first bullet had spoken eloquently.

Now, sitting across from her protege, Barbara simply didn't have words. The utter absurdity of sitting at the kitchen table, in the middle of the afternoon, in the middle of the week, as they grappled with their reactions to a mounting storm of terror was overwhelming.

Ultimately, she could only repeat the truth.

"You -- we didn't know. You did everything you could, Hel."

With the firepower present in the small office, combined with the fact that activities had remained non-violent for so long, neither Barbara nor Helena had wanted to risk setting off a volatile situation as long as there had been no imminent threat. Hindsight, naturally, suggested that a different course of action might have been advisable.

The brief smile which the younger woman managed was, Barbara knew, strained. Nevertheless, the dark figure seemed to accept the inadequate absolution. The rigid tension in slender hands eased, and the younger woman finally exhaled slowly.


Straightening, Helena scrubbed her hands through her hair, then rose gracefully from her chair.

"He's... He's got a lot to answer for, Red."

The redhead nodded again and pushed back from the table, stretching to rest her hand on a sinewy forearm, not missing the slight tremor which traveled through her fingertips.

"Are you --"

She caught herself, aching for the inadequacy of what she could offer as she looked up into shuttered eyes.

"Will you be alright, Hel?"

The younger woman averted her face for a beat before exhaling noisily again and meeting emerald eyes.

"Yeah. I'm just..."

Helena gestured toward the master bedroom, turning as she spoke.

"... gonna get cleaned up."

A hour later, Barbara found herself in the bedroom, nervously rocking the wheels of her chair outside the door to the bathroom. The sound of the running shower was evident, but she knew that the duration of her partner's time in the bath went well past cleanliness. Even with the oversized hot water heater she'd put in in deference to the brunette's sybaritic delight in long showers, the redhead knew that the water must be cold.

Chewing at her lower lip, the analytical woman debated whether to intrude. She suspected that she understood the demons Helena was attempting to wash away: back in the day, she'd taken a few marathon showers of her own after situations gone bad. The question, therefore, was not what was occurring but how she should respond.

Until a few months ago, the brunette had dealt with these sorts of infrequent defeats in her own way -- sometimes disappearing into the night to do whatever, sometimes destroying another heavy bag in the training room, sometimes asking Barbara to join her on the couch for silent companionship. Now, however, things had changed.

With that thought, Barbara didn't give herself any further time to think or delay. She simply tapped once on the door and then entered the steam-filled room.

Blinking against the sauna-like atmosphere -- apparently that hot water heater was a great deal more efficient than she'd guessed -- the redhead slowly covered the short distance to the shower and then came to a stop. Through the frosted glass of the oversized shower stall's door, she could make out the dark silhouette of her partner sitting on the fold-down shower seat. The young woman was leaning forward, elbows resting on her knees, with the spray jetting across her head and back.

The older woman felt a muscle in her jaw tic convulsively. She exhaled slowly and retrieved the fluffy towel which Helena had left on the sink, then quietly opened the door.


The brunette didn't start -- doubtless, she'd heard Barbara's approach -- simply looking up from her intense inspection of her hands. Blinking rapidly against something in her eyes, the redhead stretched into the shower and turned off the water. For an instant, she debated trying to move into the stall before acknowledging the awkwardness of such an attempt. Instead, she rested one hand lightly on the younger woman's corded forearm and raised the towel in her other.

"Let's get you dried off, Sweetie."

Wide, liquid blue eyes met green, and the older woman silently offered a tiny smile of encouragement. She was gratified when the dark figure stood and stepped from the stall although she didn't miss what seemed to be a tiny stumble in the always-graceful woman's step. Deciding to focus on the practical, she closed the small distance, gently buffing her partner's body and legs, then wrapping the towel around her in a make-shift sarong. She turned for a second towel to cover the younger woman's hair but was distracted by the other woman's movement.

Amazed, Barbara watched the brunette slowly sink to her knees; humbled, she felt slender arms insinuating around her waist; overwhelmed, she saw expressive features crumble as Helena buried her face in her lap. Instinctively, the redhead leaned forward to embrace the smaller woman, her own chest tightening against the brunette's soft sobs.

"Here... Come up here."

Barbara straightened enough to tug gently at the dark woman's arms and, in a heartbeat, could finally wrap her arms around her partner's body, hugging her tight and pressing tender kisses to damp chestnut hair. Helena's face was pressed to her neck, and the older woman clearly felt wetness against her skin, whether tears or water she couldn't begin to guess.

"I hate him."

The words were ragged with a pain and helpless agony which Barbara understood only too well.

"I know, Hel."

For long minutes, the two remained still, Helena's restless trembling and Barbara's tender stroking the only movement. Gradually, the younger woman's quiet whimpers and tiny gasps gentled although the almost convulsive hold the brunette had around Barbara's shoulders didn't ease. Having no words to offer -- Were there words for this? -- the redhead pressed her lips to a dark brow and simply held her lover close.

At some point, she thought she detected a change... a shift. The soft breath panting against her neck changed to a different cadence, a different weight. Uncertain, Barbara focused on the sensation before realizing that she was not mistaken: Helena was no longer panting, her warm breath blowing across her in shallow bursts; rather, she was softly drawing air across the redhead's skin, her lips just making contact with her throat.

Scenting her, the older woman recognized with a rush of emotion.

For a beat, perhaps two, Barbara felt herself tense in disbelief. The trembling of powerful muscles shifting minutely under her hands was unmistakable. The slow sway of slender hips rocking in her lap was unambiguous.

How could Helena want this? Or -- green eyes squeezed shut -- how could she want it *now*?

Then, soft kisses ghosted the older woman's jaw, and a soft whimper breezed across her skin. Barbara opened her eyes when the younger woman shifted and slender fingers wound softly through her hair. Incredulous, she blinked once as soft lips ranged over her jaw and mouth to press short, desperate kisses over her skin. The dark figure's sudden, haphazard movement didn't give the redhead time to meet her lips, to respond to the gossamer touch of wet skin against her.

Struggling under an onslaught of emotion, the older woman slowly raised her hands to stroke soothingly up and down her partner's upper arms. The motion seemed to settle the agitated figure, and the kisses stopped. Barbara shivered slightly as the fine down of her lover's cheek tickled her face.

Words, so quiet they were almost lost in the last drips of the shower and the faint swirl of water disappearing through the pipes, teased the edges of the redhead's mind.

"I need..."

Feeling as if she'd been struck in the chest, Barbara tore herself away from the pleading whisper of soft lips against her. She managed to capture her partner's face between her hands, gently coaxing over-bright blue eyes up to face her.

"Sweetheart, what do you...?"

She saw, rather than heard, the words which formed on perfect cupid's bow lips.

"Touch me."

A hot ribbon of want coiled, then stretched, in the redhead's belly when Helena pulled back, coaxing her hand to her chest. The brunette push her towel aside, and Barbara swallowed convulsively as her palm was pushed hard against her lover. The heat pouring from the younger woman's skin was overwhelming, and something akin to electricity coursed from the diamond hard peak under the older woman's palm across her skin to center in her belly.

Her ragged gasp almost obliterated Helena's next urgent words.

"Fuck me."

Something hard and demanding rose in the older woman at the rough plea, and she realized that this was not want, but need. Perhaps, something they both needed.

Lowering her head to sample a droplet of water from the lush slope of her partner's breast, she almost missed the raw whisper through her hair.

"Love me."

With a sharp ache pervading her body and arms, redhead slowly looked up. She waited until feverish blue eyes sought her face before husking her own fervent words.

"I do, Helena."

Then, Barbara moved with intent.

"And I will."

Approximately an hour and a half later, redhead worked to rouse herself. Semi-reclined in the center of the big bed, lightly running her fingers through dark silk as her partner slept soundly on top of her, she was loathe to end the tranquil moment.

Yet she knew she must.

Almost ninety minutes earlier, Helena had stiffened against her and buried her face against Barbara's neck, her hoarse cry reverberating across the redhead's skin. Stunned by the force and urgency of the encounter, Barbara had only had the wits to wrap her arms around her lover as they'd both struggled for breath. Yet, even as the older woman had fought for reason, she'd felt her partner move against her -- possibly less urgent but no less clear in her intent, her need. Helena had reared back from the redhead's shoulder, and almost wildly glinting golden eyes had pinned green.


This time, Barbara had moved them into the bedroom, to the bed, to give herself a bit more mobility and space. This time, the redhead had taken more time, although not enough: her dark lover's need had still been too insistent. When the younger woman had crested a second time -- her cry sounding as much of pain and release as it did of pleasure -- Helena had collapsed over her, bonelessly wrapping herself to Barbara's side. Bright blue eyes -- so terribly open and vulnerable -- had peered through dark lashes.


The shaggy head had dipped shyly, a delicate nose brushing the older woman's chest.

"At least... a little while?"

And, she had.

For the last few precious minutes, Barbara had embraced the sanctuary and peace of their shared bed. She'd held the younger woman tightly to her, tenderly stroking her face -- the fine cartilage of her nose, the sharp angle of her jaw, the always-quirked left eyebrow -- and marveled at her partner's deep, dreamless sleep.

However, the time for rest -- the time to hide away and succor their pain -- had passed.

With a soundless sigh of resignation, the redhead cautiously disentangled herself from her lover, grateful that one of them had found a way to cope -- however fleeting it might be.

Chapter 9

The silicon chip inside her head
Gets switched to overload,
And nobody's gonna go to school today,
She's going to make them stay at home,
And daddy doesn't understand it,
He always said she was as good as gold,
And he can see no reason
Cos there are no reasons
What reason do you need to be shown


Shivering slightly at Tori Amos' raw vocals, Barbara summarily stabbed the sound system's Off button and then nearly jumped out of her seat when the action was met with an angry shout.

"What the fu--!?"

Coinciding as it had with a sudden stop to avoid a City Hall security van which had just screeched through the intersection, the older woman decided that her companion's exclamation had more to do with her opinion of the other driver than with Barbara's choice to cut short the CD. Of course, even if Helena's protest been about the music, the redhead was reasonably confident that she would have ignored it.

Given their destination, given the state of the city for the last few days, and given the call she'd received earlier in the day, that particular selection hit just a little too close to home. When she added in the fact that The Joker's escape had been announced on a Monday, "I Don't Like Mondays" became entirely too apropos, and that even took into consideration the fact that Monday had been a cake walk compared to the remainder of the week.

Since the official announcement of his escape, the arch-criminal had been on an increasingly violent rampage, exacting macabre vengeance against the city with a spate of crimes ranging from pranks and larceny to violence and murder. The city had gone into a state of siege, with police and private security firms working double and triple shifts to provide a semblance of protection.

While the schools and stores had yet to close in the face of the random violence, the local news reported an epidemic of "Clown flu", as average citizens called in sick rather than risking the dangers of the streets. Barbara herself, largely in deference to the safety of her students and coworkers, had taken time off work, not leaving the clock tower for almost three days.

While she had chafed a bit at being under self-imposed house arrest, the cyber-vigilante had hardly been bored: both she and her younger partner had been working almost non-stop in the face of the Clown Prince of Darkness' attacks. Helena had been on the streets almost continuously, rushing from incident to incident in attempts to prevent too much damage or to rescue the victims of the madman's attacks. Barbara had spent three largely sleepless days and nights monitoring police and citizen's band, directing her partner to areas where she was most needed, and figuratively banging her head against the Delphi as she struggled to plot and predict where The Joker might strike next.

The cyber-vigilante's efforts so far had resulted only in a splitting headache and a growing sense of inadequacy. Apparently, a mind as... linear as hers was at a distinct disadvantage in attempting to predict the plottings of a madman.

Of course, considering some of her recent decision-making, Barbara had begun to wonder how close she was coming to looking at the world through a decidedly skewed point of view.

Case in point: The fact that, somehow, she had permitted Dinah to join in on their triage work the night before.

Despite a great deal of well-founded resistance on her part, the two younger women had simply... double-teamed her. Helena and Dinah had approached Barbara on Wednesday evening, as Helena had prepared to hit the streets again and Barbara had continued her frantic attempts to organize the influx of emergency reports.

The younger members of their little team had correctly pointed out that -- with Bruce having disappeared after he'd captured The Joker seven years ago and with Dick tied up in the Gulf -- they couldn't reasonably count on other assistance. Helena certainly hadn't said as much -- and Dinah probably had been too wise to try -- but Barbara had clearly grasped the implication: as amazing as Helena was, the young woman couldn't do it all herself.

The three had carefully discussed what the teen could reasonably attempt on her own -- largely working to protect civilians and, more important, covering Helena's back -- and Barbara had extracted solemn vows from both young women that caution would be the watchword. While there was a certain element of relief in knowing that Dinah could, to an extent, cover Helena's back, 'uneasy' didn't begin to express the redhead's feelings when she'd bowed to reason.

Unfortunately, her concern had proven prescient.

Possibly frustrated by the interruption of his activities at the DMV, on Thursday evening, the Maestro of Mayhem and his men had been spotted at the city reservoir. By the time Helena and Dinah had arrived, the crew had managed to dump two truckloads of Mr. Bubble -- and a half-ton of acid -- into the city water supply.

As they'd promised, the two young women had utilized their skills effectively... and safely: Dinah had stayed out of sight, using her TK to divert the poisonous froth from the utility company's main intake, and Helena had -- well -- entered the fray with fists flying.

From the noises Barbara had monitored over the comms and from Dinah's somewhat fragmented and frightened descriptions, the dark vigilante had been hopelessly outnumbered, without a chance of reaching the leader of the group. Nevertheless, she'd fought ferociously, managing to take out a half dozen of the madman's henchmen as she'd worked frantically to reach The Joker himself.

It had been at that point that the homicidal clown had, again, demonstrated his utter disregard for life. Dinah's horrified scream, coinciding with a maniacal laugh which Barbara could never mistake, had been the older woman's first indication that something had gone amiss. In that split instant, the redhead had thought her heart might pound through her chest as images of horrifying scenarios had flashed through her mind.

She'd rapidly gotten herself under control, Helena's enraged shouting and Dinah's cries for the brunette to do something providing just enough evidence that neither woman had been injured. Gradually, the pieces had come together over the comms: In his desire to effect an escape, The Joker had created a distraction by pushing one of his own men into the reservoir.

The strategy had been successful, with Helena giving up her fight to attempt -- unsuccessfully -- a rescue while Dinah had struggled to continue diverting the acid-laced water from the city supply. The dying man's screams, juxtaposed with The Joker's wild laughter as he'd fled, had been horrifying enough through the distance of the transceivers.

Clearly, they'd been more than horrifying for at least one of the young women at the scene. Hearing her ward's muted whimpers, Barbara had ached to call the girl in from the scene; yet, until the utility company had arrived and by-passed the intake, Dinah had been the only force standing between the tainted water and the city.

Sighing softly, Barbara re-gathered the stack of papers she'd been shifting through just before Helena's unexpected attempt to avoid a collision with the harried security detail. She tucked them neatly into a folder as her chauffer came to a stop in the school parking lot and then swung around to activate the lift for her chair. The sight of her companion shifting to face her arrested her movements, and she readied herself to defend, yet again, her decision to make the trip.

Truthfully, the older woman knew that she could have scanned and e-mailed all of the lesson plans and semester grades which she had balanced in neatly labeled, color-coded folders in her lap. However, a call she'd received from the guidance office two hours before had provided a reasonable excuse to escape the clock tower for a short bit.

For the last three days and nights, the cyber-vigilante had affected calmness, confidence, as she'd watched first Helena, then both members of her little family, depart to face increasing violence and mayhem. The effort had stretched already frayed nerves to the breaking point.

She knew she needed a respite, and even if this errand wasn't exactly carefree, it did offer something besides familiar walls and the green and amber glow of her monitors. There was also the fact that it had been relatively quiet during the day: presumably the mass capture Helena had effected the night before had temporarily slowed some of the madman's plans; and, with school out for the day, the risk of incident seemed acceptably low.

"Yes, Helena?"

The redhead gave herself points for not snapping. In fact, she'd managed to make the question seem almost casual.

When the younger woman shifted nervously and finally spoke, she was very glad that she had controlled her temper.

"Uhm, it's just, well..."

Barbara watched silently as slender fingers raked through artfully disheveled hair. Earnest blue eyes finally captured green.

"I just don't want you blaming yourself."

Since that had been nowhere near the top of the list of things she'd been expecting, the redhead suspected that her befuddlement was obvious.

"What do you mean?"

The brunette shrugged awkwardly.

"About Dinah. About letting her go out with me and, uh, seeing him."

Even white teeth gnawed briefly at a lush lower lip.

"About seeing that."

Turning to follow the progress of Coach Fallure as he made his way across the parking lot to his mid-life Mustang, Barbara deliberately allowed her hair to fall forward, obscuring her face as she processed her partner's words.

When Jessica had called a few hours before, reporting that Dinah had been alternately tearful and snappish during several classes, it hadn't taken a mind as sharp as Barbara's to put the pieces in place. Since the faculty knew Dinah -- and because they knew some of her guardian's history with The Joker -- the teen certainly wasn't in trouble. Jessica's call had been a courtesy to alert the young woman's guardian of her distress.

The redhead suspected that she wasn't likely to learn much more in person, however, a brief face-to-face with a few of Dinah's teachers couldn't hurt. At the very least, it might give her a bit more to work with when she discussed the situation with Dinah later and tried to come up with some sort of reasonable alternative to safeguard Helena without having Dinah on the streets with her.

Obviously, the youngest member of the household wasn't quite ready for the powerful force they were facing.

Snorting soundlessly at that insight, Barbara allowed herself a moment's indecision, acknowledging the reality that none of them might be ready.

The sensation of slender fingers brushing the fall of hair back from her cheek and the sight of a dark head ducking to catch her gaze reminded the redhead that some sort of response was probably in order.

"Well, Helena, ultimately I was the one who approved having her go out on sweeps with you."

The younger woman exhaled slowly before beginning to scootch forward on the side of her seat.

"That's true, but... Godfrikkin...!"

Barbara suppressed a quick smile when the dark figure flailed irritably in the confines of her seat. Still grumbling, the brunette snapped the tilt adjustment for the steering wheel and popped the wheel out of the way, giving herself room to move around in the driver's seat. Finally settled, Helena offered a faintly abashed smile, then grew thoughtful.

"Listen, Red, I'm betting that ninety percent of the kids at school are on edge right now."

Dark brows rose, seeking confirmation, the younger woman waiting for Barbara's slow nod before continuing.

"And, even if D wasn't going out on sweeps or, hell, even without the whole telepathy thing, the Kid's gonna be picking up on a lot of, uh, tension around the tower right now."

Accurate as they were, the words did little to alleviate the older woman's concern. She felt herself stiffen and instinctively attempted to mask the reaction with a deep breath. For a few moments, she considered how she could *possibly* shield her ward from the vibes which she was obviously giving off at the terahertz level.

The older woman's self-flagellation was interrupted when Helena gracefully eased across the center console and climbed into her lap. Barbara blinked and managed a quirk of her lips as the brunette captured one of her hands, stroking the tips of her fingers tenderly across the corded tendons raised in tension across the back of her hand.

"And just cut that out, too, Barbara. It's not your fault or anything. Even if we were just three normal people in a happy, more-or-less normal, nuclear family, the kid would still be on pins and needles having that nutcase running around."

Since it would have been ridiculous to disagree with that, the cyber-genius didn't bother. Opting to focus on the practical, she knit her brows and met those stunning blue eyes which were so close to her.

"What do you think we can do for her, Hel? It's not right to have the last few weeks of her senior year... disrupted so."

Helena's response was tentative, delivered after a quick dip of a dark head which hid the young woman's eyes under thick lashes and long bangs.

"Yeah, I know. But, D's a big girl. She knows that shit happens."

The redhead smiled -- a bit tremulously, she feared -- as she was struck by a powerful wave of tenderness for the resilient young women in her life. The feeling was pushed back a bit as her analytical brain helpfully supplied all of the many events Dinah and Helena had needed to recover from.

"But, howabout letting me talk to her?"

The younger woman lightly slid from Barbara's lap, somehow managing to open the door and exit the van in the process.

"School's almost done for this week anyway, and, who knows..."

Joining the other woman on the asphalt, the redhead couldn't help but echo Helena's hopeful smile.

"... by next week, this could all be over."

The crimson-haired crime fighter nodded her enthusiastic endorsement of that sentiment as they traversed the parking lot, even as she wondered just what they could do to make it so. An exaggerated huff by her side drew her from increasingly bleak thoughts.

Glancing up, the older woman arched a brow primly.

"Yes, Sweetheart?"

Her companion's playfully petulant response momentarily vanquished her self-doubts.

"You could have at least *tried* to object when I said we weren't more-or-less normal."

The two were still laughing as they turned a corner of the main hall and came face to face with the one person -- the one non-criminal person -- Barbara really didn't want to face. Nevertheless, manners and habit kicked in, and the redhead managed a relatively cordial greeting.


The older teacher was almost visibly puffed with self-importance. Her greeting, practically a simper, raised the hairs on the back of the English teacher's neck.

"Barbara! I'm surprised to see you here."

Since the old biddy hadn't even hiked a brow above her rhinestone-encrusted frames about Helena's presence, Barbara knew that her fellow faculty member must be in possession of a tidbit of gossip so juicy that it took precedence over backbiting.

The redhead mentally rolled her eyes as she waved in the vicinity of the folders on her lap.

"We're -- "

She deliberately added the tiniest bit of emphasis to the word, smiling sweetly as the older woman pursed her lips.

"-- just dropping of some lesson plans. I'm not sure how long I'll be out, you know."

When Alethea Harkness's disapproving pucker transformed into a knowing smile, every sense in the cyber-genius' body snapped to attention.

A happy Alethea was simply not a good thing.

"Perhaps not too much longer, Barbara, if that nice DA is right."

An almost sub vocal growl from just over her shoulder alerted Barbara to the fact that her partner found the conversation as unsettling as she did.

"In fact," the white-haired woman continued, "I'm surprised that you didn't run into him yourself. He just left after trying to find you here."

Barbara worked for nonchalant interest even as she frantically attempted to rationalize why the city would send someone to the school rather than calling.

"And, did you happen to find out what he wanted here, Alethea?"

She cringed as her fellow faculty member puffed up a bit more.

"Oh, yes, we had a nice conversation. It seems that they may be close to catching that horrible Joker, and Mr. Rapien wanted to verify your whereabouts. And..."

Now the familiar unpleasant tone resurfaced as the older woman peered disapprovingly over Barbara's shoulder.

"... any family of yours."

A cold bolus of blood seemed to pound against the redhead's abdomen as her mind effortlessly supplied the definition for the name: "knave". An icy chill crept up her back as she instantly worked the anagram.

"... seemed upset when I told him you'd been out for the last few da--"

"What did he look like?"

The words ground against Barbara's throat like broken glass. If Alethea's startled blink were any indication, the interruption had sounded as harsh as it had felt.

"Er, he was very tall and rather oddly made up. I think he might have been wearing make-up or something to hide a birthm--"

As she thrust the folders into her fellow teacher's hands and performed a precise 180-degree turn, Barbara almost barked out a laugh when she witnessed concerned puzzlement flooding Alethea's rosy features.

"Did I do something wrong, Barbara? He seemed so pleasant... He was always smiling..."

Shuddering, the redhead swallowed frantically and silently returned to the van with her partner, almost oblivious when Helena started the vehicle and pulled out of the parking lot. As the CD automatically resumed, Barbara sat rigidly under the weight of knowing -- under the leaden fear -- that The Joker did, indeed, have her in his sights again.

All the playing's stopped in the playground now
She wants to play with her toys a while
And school's out early and soon we'll be learning
And the lesson today is how to die,
And then the bullhorn crackles,
And the captain crackles,
With the problems and the how's and why's
And he can see no reasons
Cos there are no reasons
What reason do you need to die

Chapter 10

With a soft sigh, Barbara reviewed the message she'd just composed, automatically checking composition and grammar before sending the e-mail. A self-depreciating smile ghosted her lips when she caught one of her habitual spelling errors -- Honestly, doubling the "L" at the end of the word for a gerund seemed logical -- and she corrected the error. Recognizing that she was as satisfied as she was likely to be with the note excusing Dinah from Friday's classes, the redhead clicked the send key and dispatched her message to the school principal.

Task completed, she slowly removed her glasses, dangling them idly from her fingers as she contemplated the sense of failure the message engendered within her. While the The Joker's visit to the school this afternoon was certainly motivation enough to keep her ward at home, it was not the threat of a madman which nibbled at her conscience... and her confidence. Rather, it was Dinah's upset from her work with Helena on sweeps the night before which continued to plague the analytical woman with self-doubt.

A soft thump from the balcony alerted her to the fact that, momentarily, she might receive a bit of positive new on that front. An hour and a half after Helena and she had returned from their outing, even as Barbara had continued to dissect the implications of the Joker's visit to the school, the redhead had heard her partner tendering a dinner invitation to the teen.

At least she'd chosen to take the rumbled words -- "Hey, Kid. Chinese. I'm buying" -- as such; and Barbara had assumed that Helena was following up on the sororal chat she'd mentioned earlier.

When the brunette entered from the balcony, bearing a container of still-steaming Sesame Chicken, she was alone. Peeling back the wilted cardboard flap of her dinner container, the older woman pointedly tamped down her curiosity and kept it brief.

"Is everything alright with Dinah?"

Helena looked up from her pre-sweeps inventory of the capacious pockets of her duster to flash a bright, supremely satisfied smile.

"Sure is. We shot the breeze. I gave her a few more grrrl pointers -- "

The playful waggle of dark brows drew a quick smile from Barbara. The younger woman's growling inflection made the redhead's palms tingle.

"-- then I sent her off to practice for the night at Gabby's."

Barbara couldn't hold back her laugh, almost choking on -- or spewing -- a mouthful of chicken in the process. Collecting herself, she took a minute sip of water and arched a brow.

"And, she was... "

Crimson brows knit as the older woman searched for suitable words. The younger woman spared her the effort.

"She understands that a break would be a good idea, Red."

The redhead raised another bite of chicken to her mouth, diverting her chopsticks at the last second when her partner's words fully registered.

"A 'break', Hel?"

She deliberately emphasized the word, not at all pleased when the brunette nodded almost absently as she fished a Stick-Up air freshener from the inside breast pocket of her coat. Opting to ignore the item in the younger woman's hand -- no doubt, there was quite a story behind it -- the redhead set her container on the desk, neatly balancing the chopsticks on top.

"I was under the impression that we were going to encourage her not to go out on sweeps altogether until this -- "

The cyber-crime fighter stumbled a bit on the words, ultimately waving a hand vaguely towards the balcony.

"-- situation is resolved."

Somehow, Barbara managed to wait patiently as the younger woman finished restocking her pockets with memory cards for the digi, Slim Jims, and gum. She didn't crack a smile when the brunette, with a seemingly unconscious shrug, tucked the Stick-Up back into a pocket. Only when she was apparently satisfied with her gear did the brunette settle her duster over a chair and join the older woman by the Delphi.

"I talked with her about it, Barbara."

Barbara blinked once as her partner settled one hip on the table and appropriated her chopsticks, digging into the cardboard container with relish.

"It's something she wants to do, and, really,"

The brunette popped a bit of chicken into her mouth and chewed slowly.

"I don't think we should stop her."

Barely noticing as she did so, the redhead reached up to pinch the bridge of her nose, fighting an incipient tension headache. The implications of her partner's words were distinctly... unsettling. While it was certainly true that she probably hadn't had a snowball's chance in Hades of keeping her first ward from embracing the life she'd chosen, Barbara had hoped that Dinah would take more time in weighing the costs and benefits of vigilante crime fighting.

The redhead honestly thought she'd tried to present a balanced viewpoint, emphasizing that there was no expectation or time limit for the decision. While Helena had, essentially, leapt before looking, the situation had been very different.

"Perhaps under norm-- other circumstances, Helena, but this isn't the same as normal sweeps."

It was only after she spoke that Barbara realized how sharp her voice had been. Accordingly, she quirked her lips apologetically, grateful for her companion's quick nod of understanding.

"I get that, Barbara."

The younger woman dropped the chopsticks into the open container and seemed to search for words.

"But, the Ki-- Dinah's not a kid. We talked about it, and she knows what we're up against. She wants to help."

Instinctively, the redhead tried to protest, only to be cut off when Helena bent down slightly to catch her eyes.

"Barbara, listen. Codename and stuff to the side, D's not some kind of song bird that you can cage away to keep safe. She's got to..."

Green eyes narrowed when the brunette interrupted herself with a quiet chuckle.

"She's *going to* learn to stretch her wings somewhere."

Impressed with the analogy in spite of herself, not to mention the fact that her relentlessly non-poetic young partner had used it, the older woman considered the words. She had to grant that her partner had a point... but only to a point.

"That's true, Hel; however, there's teaching her to fly, and then there's teaching her to fly in a den full of lions."

And tigers and bears and nasty, nasty, clowns, too, oh my.

The grin which transformed the younger woman's expressive features distracted the redhead from the nonsense addition to her words. With a sudden flash of insight, Barbara realized that she could no longer describe that particular expression as "wolfish".

Leonine, perhaps...

"Trust me, Red. After all the time I've put in with her in the training room and on sweeps, she's already done that."

Barbara managed a quick, tight smile at that and gave up on the debate for the time being. She planned to discuss the matter with her teenaged ward when Dinah returned, hopefully impressing on her that there were other ways she could help. In the meantime, judging from the latest alarm which had triggered, she needed to refocus on matters at hand.

After a relatively prank- and crime-free day in New Gotham, The Joker and his crew were reappearing as the sun sank below the horizon to spread their malicious glee throughout the city.

"Back to work, huh?"

The question was accompanied by the whoosh of a leather duster swirling dramatically through the air as Helena settled her sweeps wear on her shoulders. Barbara nodded ruefully, catching blue eyes.

"Be careful, Hel."

The quick flash of even white teeth was almost as comforting as the words which echoed through the tower after Helena's departure.

"Always, Red."

And, for over two hours, the attacks and crimes which the two had battled remained relatively normal: a shaving cream attack at the mall; numerous muggings by red-nosed perpetrators; miscellaneous robberies and arsons. Somehow, Helena was even managing to keep up with most of the violent crimes.

Frankly, the cyber-vigilante didn't know if her partner's ability to effect so many rescues had to do with the relatively slower pace of crime or the fact that she was moving more swiftly without Dinah on her heels.

Just before 11:00pm, a quiet beeping from the emergency dispatch and security monitoring routine alerted the cyber-crime fighter that the situation might be about to change.

Earlier in the day, departing NGHS in a daze, Barbara had been seized by a certainty that the situation with The Joker was about to blow up. Not quite six hours later, she found herself fearing the curse of Cassandra when she realized how oddly close to the truth her premonition had been. At the same time, the relentlessly practical woman couldn't help but wonder if her world view had skewed just a bit too much.

Or, perhaps she simply needed to re-evaluate her sense of humor.

"Huntress? Do you copy? Are you available?"

The younger woman's response was delayed for a beat, and Barbara thought she detected the sound of a size six leather boot impacting someone's anatomy. When she heard her partner's low growl -- <"Stay down, dammit"> -- she concluded that this last clown-suited mugger had been feeling a bit cocky.

<"Yeah, I copy, Oracle. What's up?">

Checking the GPS and police dispatch, the redhead determined that the police were on their way to pick up Helena's latest package.

"I've picked up an alarm from the Huffa Bubba plant. Can you take a look?"

Soft sounds of movement provided the dark vigilante's answer. A more audible snort announced the younger woman's reaction.

<"The bubble gum factory? Guess I can really tell him to blow it out his--">

"Indeed, Huntress," the redhead cut in smoothly, quite cognizant of where her partner had been going with her musing.

"But, do be careful. I've hacked into the surveillance camera, and The Joker *is* at the plant."

She pointedly didn't considered the reaction she'd experienced when she'd seen a brief flash of green hair and white skin moving past the exterior camera.

A soft, decidedly anticipatory growl was the only response, and so Barbara focused on hunting, unsuccessfully, for interior cameras at the factory until a soft soprano whispered over the comms again.

<"I'm on the roof. Skylight...">

The cyber-vigilante remained quiet, confident that her partner in the field would update her. When the younger woman spoke again, her voice was pitched so low that Barbara was forced to thumb up the volume on her headset.

<"... s here. He's got a security guard tied up.">

The redhead stiffened.

When The Joker added a civilian -- a hostage -- to a situation, it was usually not a good sign.

"Does he seem to be at risk?"

<"Not right now. Or, at least nothing more serious than a strained jaw.">

Crimson brows inched skyward.

"I'm not following you, Huntress."

As quiet as it was, the dark vigilante's reply was light.

<"Looks like they're stuffing him full of bubble gum and making him chew.">

Relaxing a tiny bit, the cyber-vigilante shook her head in amazement. The respite was short-lived.

<"Fucking hell!">

The sound of breaking glass -- the skylight, Barbara presumed -- almost obscured Helena's succinct explanation. The realization of what the sound meant, oddly, seemed to tear at something within her.

<"Gun! I'm going in.">

The redhead didn't even have time to draw a breath after her partner's announcement before a voice, terrifying in its familiarity, stole her ability to breathe. Fortunately or not, events then transpired so rapidly that she scarcely had time to miss her lack of oxygen.

<<"Well, well. What have we here?">>

<"Get that gun out of my face and maybe I'll tell you, Dough-face.">

Despite her terror, Barbara discovered that she had room for a warm burst of pride in her partner's courage. Unfortunately, she suspected, courage alone might not be enough in this situation.

<<"I recognize you. You're the pup from City Hall...">>

The crackling voice dropped a register, becoming almost oily.

<<"... and from last night.">>

The redhead flinched, green eyes widening.

<"I'm nobody's puppy, Jack-O. I'm--">

The homicidal madman's familiarity finally freed the older woman from her paralysis, and she hissed an urgent warning.

"Don't answer him, Hel... Huntress! Don't give him anything."

Not wanting to distract her partner, Barbara left it at that, baffled by her own near-slip over the comms and seriously questioning her ability to direct matters. Without hesitation, she keyed an urgent dispatch to NGPD, praying that a black and white -- hell, a fleet of black and whites -- was in the area and would respond with sirens blaring.

<<"It doesn't matter. None of you young fools hold a candle to the old-do-gooders.">>

Goose flesh crawled down the listening woman's skin when she heard the sound of facetious tsk-ing. A cold finger dragged down her spine, and Barbara's right hand rose of its own volition to cover her mouth, almost unseating the slender microphone connected to her earpiece.

<<"There's just no comparison with someone like -- ">>

A cackle of laughter squealed like nails on a blackboard.

<<"-- like Batgirl, for instance. Quite the spitfire... in her day.">>

Carefully, the redhead lowered her hand to the keyboard, distractedly noting the damp beads of sweat dotting her hands and arms.

<<"Just look at that sad excuse for a costume you're wearing. No style, no panache.">>

The Joker's voice turned disdainful.

<<"I'd almost think that you didn't have any pride in your work.">>

<"Yeah, yeah,">

Helena's voice was disdainful as well... and wonderfully, reassuringly, steady.

<"I'd love to stand here chatting about fashion, but, seriously, why would I listen to someone who dresses like you? And, don't even get me started on your coif, Dude, 'cuz that's just nasty.">

An almost delighted-sounding cackle nearly covered the soft sounds of the young crime fighter's movement.

<"So, I'm just going to take this fellow and leave you to your candy--">

A wild laugh screeched through the headset, setting Barbara's teeth on edge, and she caught her lower lip with her teeth. The words which followed and the sound of some sort of gun cocking would have caused her to bite through her own lip -- had she been able to move.

<<"I think not. In fact...">>

<"What the fuck!?">

The brunette's indignant exclamation came less than a second before three nearly simultaneous -- and bone-chilling -- sounds.

The Joker's sing-song words: <<"I think I'd rather see how you handle a sticky situation!">>

The sound of a shotgun blast.

And, Helena's gasping, choking cries.

Chapter 11

For what seemed like hours, Barbara remained paralyzed by a rictus of horror, listening to the increasingly faint sounds of her partner struggling for breath. Bile rising in her throat and cursing her own helplessness, all she could do was listen to the indistinct taunts of the green-haired madman.

<<"A bit hard to come out with your little quips now, isn't it, my dear?">>

The only response she heard was a shallow, wheezing gasp: <"Ba-- Ora...">

The soft plea, echoing distantly from a remote location, hissed tinnily through the earpiece, and Barbara was buffeted by chill tremors of regret and loss. Damning herself, the situation, the green-haired madman, she thrust aside her terror and checked the scanners.

"Huntress?! Sweetie? Hold on. Police are on their way."

There was no answer from the younger woman, only the receding voice of The Joker himself.

<<"I'm leaving. Finish the job.">>

Hearing several clicks -- guns cocking? chains and cuffs? -- the redhead grit her teeth and viciously pushed back from her keyboard, fisting both hands and bringing them to her thighs with bruising force.

How could she... she just be sitting here, listening to her lover's fading life sounds? What had she been thinking, having the younger woman take on the madman from her nightmares?

With little other recourse but to get to the van and hurry across town, Barbara yanked off her headset and viciously spun her chair to the ramp. The awkward movement briefly tipped her to one side, and she released an angry curse, jerking her body in the opposite direction and not even noticing the jarring thump of the wheel hitting the ground. Moving again, she forced herself to be more deliberate, recognizing that a spill would loose her valuable time.

Time which Helena probably didn't have.

Noises from the speaker arrested the redhead's departure halfway down the ramp: The mutter of male voices -- <<"Hold her arms while I get this off.">> -- and a sudden, harsh gasp.

Helena's gasp.

Instantly, Barbara clamped on the rims of her chair, reversing direction and backing up the ramp to reseat her earpiece.

"Huntress?! Can you hear me?"

A weak gasp was the only reply. The sound seemed to enliven the men who were on the scene with the brunette.

<<"Yeah, she's still alive. This should be fun now.">>

Fully cognizant of what The Joker's henchmen probably had in mind for her injured partner, Barbara ground her teeth, fighting to hold back the cry clawing at the back of her throat.

Although Helena had certainly faced this particular threat more times than the older woman cared to count, this situation -- Helena's injury, the involvement of The Joker's men -- was incomprehensible. Therefore, when she heard some sort of wailing, Barbara wondered if her body had simply overridden her emotional control, forcing her to scream her helpless rage.

A beat later, her brain kicked into gear, identifying the sound of police sirens and the scuffle of heavy feet in flight. One hand still frozen in place against her earpiece, she heard a soft, ragged cough through her earpiece and nearly screamed again -- this time, her relief. Instead, she shut her eyes in gratitude and collected herself.

"Huntress? Can you respond?"

A wheezing gasp reassured the anxiously waiting woman more than she could have believed.

<"Yeh... M'kay...">

She heard the sound of her partner moving, not with her usual stealthy grace, but moving nevertheless. A quick check of the scanners showed that the police were in pursuit of The Joker's men and, naturally, losing ground rapidly.

The redhead discovered that, at this moment, she honestly didn't give a flying fuck.

"What happened, Huntress? Are you injured?"

It took the younger woman a few seconds to respond. During that time, Barbara heard her breathing grow steadier, her movements more coordinated.

<"Son of a bitch zapped me with some kind of...">

The redhead waited out her partner's soft cough, detecting night noises suggesting that the brunette had reached the roof.

<"... bubble gum gun or something. Then he took off.">

Green eyes narrowed, and crimson brows knit.

"Bubble gum gun?"

<"Uh huh. Just like the pink stuff they package at the factory, but I don't think four out of five dentists are gonna be recommending this stuff. It covered my mouth and nose and arms and... ">

Again, the dark figure coughed before inhaling deeply, and Barbara considered the implications of this substance. Clearly, the gum had some sort of bonding and strengthening agent added to it, making it a formidable weapon. Heaven only knew what a mind as twisted as Jack Napier's would come up with to use the stuff on.

"How did you get free?"

<"One of his goons cut it off me after Laughing Boy left.">

A short pause preceded the brunette's next words.

<"I think they mighta wanted to play some more.">

Clenching her jaw in renewed fury, the redhead regulated her breathing and concentrated on the fact that the police had arrived in time. In addition, the younger woman's voice was nearly normal again, and Barbara offered heartfelt thanks to the powers-that-be for the brunette's remarkable recuperative abilities.

When she finally found the words to respond, the crimson-haired crime fighter discovered that her own voice was distinctly shaky.

"Indeed, Huntress. Why don't you..."

She cut herself off, then abandoned any attempt at formality.

"Please come in for the night."

The younger woman made it back to the clock tower within minutes, although it was hardly soon enough for the anxiously waiting redhead. The instant that the doors opened, Barbara was at her side, reaching out to clasp one reassuringly warm hand then, unable to fight the need, tugging the surprised woman down.

"Easy, Barbara. I've still got this goo all over me."

Distracted, the older woman scarcely heard the light warning.

"I don't care."

Urgently, insistently, she captured the brunette's cheeks in her hands, noting a faint pallor beneath normally dark skin and turning the younger woman's face to search bright -- and slightly puzzled -- blue eyes.

Carefully, she traced her fingertips over dark brows, then brushed the pad of her thumb over full lips. Her heart trip-hammered as dark lashes lowered, and, unable to resist, she dropped her hands to deceptively slender shoulders, roughly palming muscle and bone under thick leather sweeps wear, almost frantically hunting for proof of her partner's solid presence.

Finally, Barbara slowed her ragged motions and brought her right hand to rest above her companion's heart. Her own staggered heartbeat ultimately slowed to match her partner's strong, steady rhythm.

Throughout the forceful inspection, Helena remained still, knees buried in the deep padding on each side of the older woman's thighs, head bowed, a soft rumble emanating from her chest. Only when Barbara's urgent movements settled did the dark figure move, shifting forward lightly. Barbara felt the slight figure leaning forward against her palm, her weight solid and strong, as warm lips brushed her cheek.

"I'm okay, Barbara. I'm here."

Hearing a slight gasp, the redhead wondered if her partner were still having trouble breathing before she belatedly comprehended that the sound had come from her. Gradually, she managed to unlock the rigid set of her right arm, enveloping the other woman in convulsive hug.

"I didn't know...", she managed to breathe out.

A dark head settled on the older woman's shoulder.


The quiet word, little more than a sigh, held a world of understanding.

For uncounted minutes, the two lingered in a wordless embrace, with Barbara squeezing her eyes tightly against their burning pressure. Bit by bit, she allowed herself to accept that their luck had held, and, eventually, she released the rictus of her grip and pulled back a few inches. Grimacing in distaste over the stickiness covering her hands, she didn't miss the flicker of a smile across dark features, her partner's humor helping to free the constricting band over her heart.

"You're right, Hel."

The redhead was surprised by how normal -- almost light -- her voice sounded.

"This stuff is strong."

The brunette laughed, shifting backward to take her weight on her knees.

"Yeah. Bet it beats anything you've found under the desks at school, huh?"

The redhead managed a tight smile as her partner gracefully rose.

"You'd be surprised, Helena."

The younger woman's double-take almost evoked a laugh; however, her next words were instantly sobering.

"Just think, Barbara. If Dinah had been there, she could have just put a TK bubble on me and blown this shit off."

The older woman arched a brow as her partner shucked her duster.

"That's certainly possible, Hel."

She accepted the garment with a brief nod of thanks.

She'd certainly be able to retrieve copious samples to analyze. If she could replicate the... goo, perhaps she could have her teenaged ward put her TK prowess to the test.

"In the meantime, Sweetie..."

She looked up, blandly meeting blue eyes.

"... might I suggest a cold shower for starters?"


Barbara smiled, not unsympathetically: Helena's loathing for cold water was almost legendary.

"Cold water has the best chance of solidifying the goo so that you can get it off."

An hour later, Barbara Gordon sat alone on the balcony, fighting off violent shivering which had nothing to do with the temperature of the spring night or thoughts of cold showers.

Grimacing almost comically, Helena had decamped for her shower earlier, after exacting the redhead's promise to join her before too long. For some reason, Barbara had been unable to make her way to their shared bedroom yet.

For fifteen or twenty minutes, the redhead had simply sat by the Delphi, listening to the sound of the shower and the younger woman's song-stylings: Helena was doing an excellent rendition of Don Ho's "Tiny Bubbles", but Barbara simply hadn't been able to find the relief and humor that her partner had.

Rather, the relentlessly practical woman had found herself considering the... sensation in her chest. The feeling, she'd decided, was something between a fracture and a tear, somewhere behind her sternum. She'd noticed a flash of pain, akin to a rupture, when Helena had made her dramatic entrance at the bubble gum factory earlier; since then, it seemed to be growing, rending muscle and bone and ligaments in its path.

Retracing the origin of the... discomfort, Barbara had determined that it was not -- strength of the sensation notwithstanding -- a physical malady. Accordingly, she'd concentrated with fierce determination on closing the fracture which had rent her emotionally at the sound of the gun blast.

Resolve notwithstanding, when a soft sob had escaped her, she'd realized that she could no longer distance herself and had hastily made her way outside.

Shaking violently, she felt her horrified fear and helpless terror relentlessly leaching through her, taunting her: The horror she'd experienced when she'd heard his voice so close to the comms, his orders to finish the job; The helplessness she'd felt hearing Helena's choking gasps; The feeling of... paralysis it had engendered.

With that thought, the analytical woman released a bitter bark of laughter: the nightmare figure from her dreams, apparently, no longer needed either gun or bullets to render her useless. And, if that were the case, there was nothing she could do.

Locking her hands around the arms of her chair, the redhead allowed her head to fall back, revealing the gloomy night sky. Something dark and terrifying slithered inside her, undoubtedly escaped through the crack the gun shot had created within her. With every fiber of her being, Barbara wished she could reclaim the use of her legs for five minutes in order to kick the terrifying thing back into its dark recesses and pretend that it wasn't there.

Yet, the twinkling lights of the New Gotham skyscape wouldn't allow her the luxury. Her commitment to the city... to her partner... to herself wouldn't allow her the indulgence.

Very deliberately, recognizing that she needed to do so in order to give herself a chance at distance and perspective, Barbara allowed the memories to surface: Memories which were indelibly burned in her mind and soul. With her infallible eidetic memory, it was more than recollections she allowed to escape the tight container she'd built years before: it was images and sounds and scents -- and emotions -- which had played through her dreams several times every night, which had looped through her waking moments every day, for more than a year after the... event; memories which still fragmented her dreams periodically, seven years later.

Barbara shuddered and felt something rise in her throat when her mind's eyes provided the first image: her hand, still beaded with water from the shower and peeking from the sleeve of her bathrobe, on the knob of her apartment door. The sound of Helena's voice -- young, terrified by what she'd just witnessed, distorted by the cheap telephone at the redhead's ear -- was next, begging for help and reassurance after the attack on Selina Kyle.

Swallowing furiously, willing herself not to gag on the sour metallic taste at the back of her mouth, the cyber-vigilante knew that she had a chance to stop it -- to push it all back into its lockbox right then. She could stomp it down and pretend and deny, while the sickening pieces licked at the shadows of her nights and scraped bony fingers down her back each day.

Ultimately, she would not surrender to her own fear.

With every functioning muscle in her body vibrating terrified protest, she clenched her jaw, shut her eyes, and allowed the tempest free.

She gasped -- just as she had seven years before -- when she saw the figure who had been waiting outside her door. She cringed when the sickening terror -- then the fury with herself -- about being so goddamned vulnerable swept through her. Her ears rang -- small muscles in her cheeks tightening in reflex -- at the laugh she couldn't forget, like nails on a chalkboard.

Even in the face of the threat, she puzzled over the twisted smile permanently etched in white features and the maniacal glee in the madman's eyes, noticing fine lines etched across the man's features -- lines she was certain were not from laughter.

Just as it had then, events slowed, and Barbara panted shallowly through her mouth as a white gloved hand rose in surreal time. She observed, again, the incongruous details on the three tiny buttons on the wrist of the glove -- the tiny green harlequin masks imprinted on white horn -- as a horribly loud noise echoed and she felt herself falling. For a moment, she found some distance, watching the man's spat-covered shoes take two steps, one foot coming to rest on each side of her thighs, and wondering what he was going to do with her on floor.

Wondering -- for that matter -- how the hell she'd gotten to the floor.

The brief respite of detachment fled, and the redhead heard a soft whimper -- hers -- as she watched the tall man bend, almost casually, to push her robe open. Clamping down on her own soft noises, Barbara pursed her lips, catching them in her teeth against the roaring hatred she experienced as her vulnerability was laid bare. The whir and click of a camera filtered through, and she almost laughed when her brain insisted on playing games with the word 'exposure'.

Alone on the balcony, the analytical woman raised her hands to her face, noting wetness against her palms.

The movement, the sensation, was a parody of how she'd tried to push up under her attacker, an echo of the puzzling slickness -- warm and viscous -- under her hands on the cheap Berber of her apartment floor. The scent of copper flooded her nose, and, absurdly, she fretted about losing the damage deposit on the apartment after she'd been so careful.

Red lashes fluttered open, green eyes searching out a twinkling star in the evening sky, the flash of light similar to something she'd seen when she'd forced herself to look up into a madman's eyes. The Joker had tsk'ed and waved the gun over her, the acrid stench of cordite so close that she'd almost gagged. Eight crescents marked her palms as she tensed to strike, baffled by her muscles refusal to respond. Goose flesh rose, trailing from her chin in a meandering line down her torso, in response to the sensation of cold metal tracing her skin like a lover's touch.


But, yes, she would finish it, force herself -- as she had then -- to watch as her attacker straightened, then -- almost casually -- pulled the trigger again.

And again.

And one last time.

Barbara released the breath she'd been holding forever when the green-haired madman tipped his fedora, picked up the phone -- she could still hear the teenaged Helena's confused shouts -- and hung it up out of reach, then departed, carefully shutting the door behind him.

Gasping, she bent to bury her face against her legs, wrapping her arms around her unfeeling knees.

Chapter 12

Since grief over remembered terrors would gain her nothing, Barbara didn't allow herself to wallow long after reliving the attack from so many years before.

Straightening from her uncomfortable self-embrace with a wet snort, she roughly scrubbed her palms over her face and inhaled deeply of the cool night air. The distant wail of emergency sirens suggested that their nemesis, or his minions, were still at work; however, the number of sirens were few.

Apparently, even the forces of evil needed time to sleep or rest.

Shaking her head at the thought, the cyber-vigilante returned to the interior of the apartment, wondering if the same could be said about those who were embattled by said evil forces. The utter stillness of the tower and the darkness from the rooms down the hallway told her that at least one dark-haired crime fighter had succumbed to the need; however, given the events of the evening, Barbara honestly couldn't imagine finding the peace of mind to rest herself.

Deciding to be bemused by her own compulsivity, the redhead wandered into the kitchen. She swung the refrigerator door open and, working in the dim light, efficiently heated water in the microwave and fished out a bag of Orange Pekoe. She dunked the tea bag and set her mug on the counter, giving it a few moments to cool lest she unknowingly burn her legs carrying it back to the other room. As she waited, she idly scanned the contents of the refrigerator, noticing that Alfred had taken pains to stock the pantry with many of Helena's favorites: meatloaf, lasagna, a chocolate pie, and... heavy cream.

With a fond smile, she snagged the cream and a wedge of lemon, adding a dollop of the former and a squeeze of the latter to her tea. Satisfied with the combination, she picked up her mug and bumped the appliance door shut on her way from the kitchen.

The redhead settled herself at her workstation, sparing a glance at the onscreen clock as she positioned her tea to the left of the keyboard. With a guilty start, she remembered her promise to join Helena -- some time ago -- and automatically dropped her hands to the rims of the chair before staying the motion.

If the silence from the master bedroom were any indication, her partner was already sleeping; joining her now would only risk disturbing the younger woman's much needed rest.

Resolutely, the analytical woman surveyed her work environment, debating between returning to work on her crime analysis and prediction program or starting to process the specimen from the factory. If those activities failed to engage her, Barbara admitted that she was falling behind on keeping the database of The Joker's criminal activities up to date; pranks, larceny, and mayhem had been coming so fast and furious, she'd been hard-pressed to notice everything, much less record it.

Accepting the lack of chatter on the scanners as a sign, the cyber-crime fighter turned her attention to updating the crime database, slotting work on the prediction program next. She'd save the analysis of the bubble gum goo for daylight, after Dinah returned.

It was quite possible, after all, that the teen might enjoy running the tests with her.

Barbara shook her head over her predisposition to turn every situation into a learning opportunity and toggled to her database window. For long minutes, the redhead focused on her data entry and on cataloging the crime descriptions with controlled search terms, long fingers flying across the keyboard in a blur of motion. When she reached the entry for the evening's incident at the bubble gum factory, her fluid keystrokes abruptly halted as she debated what primary heading to assign to the activity.

B&E? Theft? Kidnapping? Attempted murder?

Puzzled by her indecision, the cyber-genius pushed her glasses toward her forehead with thumb and forefinger, pinching the bridge of her nose. Deciding that she must be more tired than she'd realized, the redhead pursed her lips and made a rude noise, allowing her glasses to reseat themselves.

If the sticky pink material which had been used on Helena were taken into account, the primary purpose of the attack at the Huffa Bubba Factory had been Weapons Procurement, plain and simple.

With that determined, Barbara entered the other terms as secondary descriptors and then rapidly imported the dozen new incident reports from the last few hours. A few final keystrokes and the database was current, ready for sorting, filtering, and whatever other machinations she could come up with to attempt to find... or force... some sort of structure onto the seemingly random events.

Exhaling her frustration, the cyber-genius exported the rows and rows of data, feeding it into the nascent prediction program.

Couldn't hurt to see what the program made of it. After all, she certainly wasn't making any headway with a visual analysis.

Impatiently, Barbara focused on the cyclical processing of the program, attempting to summon concern over the cpu's it was utilizing or interest in it's eventual output. To her dismay, her efforts to focus failed miserably. As she absently bumped the lip of her long-cold mug of tea against her lip, it gradually dawned on the redhead what lay behind her distraction.

As important and urgent as her work at the Delphi was, like a magnetic pole, the bedroom -- rather, the young woman in the bedroom -- was pulling at her. Plainly stated, regardless of the growing threat to New Gotham *or* Helena's need for sleep, Barbara wanted to be with her partner.

A small noise tickled the redhead's throat, and she slowly resettled her mug beside her keyboard. A few keystrokes set her monitoring routines to their highest level.

Having done what she could, the cyber-vigilante sighed soundlessly and descended the platform, moving unhesitatingly down the hall to the bedroom. As quietly as possible, she cracked the door and entered the room, green eyes narrowing at the muted light of the bedside lamp.

Obviously, the small figure burrowed under the covers had been anticipating her arrival.

Barbara efficiently removed her shoes and pants, then transferred herself to the bed. Years and years of practice had allowed her to perfect the movement, and she completed her stealthy entrance under the covers without rousing her obviously exhausted partner. Before settling herself, she snapped off the bedside light, aware that dawn would be brightening the room before long, and then inched herself into position around the woman occupying the center of the bed.

How someone as physically slight as the brunette could simply... fill a bed so completely escaped the redhead. Pressing a kiss to a sharp shoulder blade, she chalked it up to sheer presence: Helena had *always* been able to fill whatever space she occupied through force of personality.

A small smile flitted across her lips as Barbara recalled her first encounter with the other woman: the second period sophomore English class she'd taught almost nine years before.

It had been the young redhead's second year of teaching, and so she'd tended to draw the "scut" classes filled by underachievers with bad attitudes and little interest in literature. Unjaded by long exposure to these classes, Barbara had held on to her resolute -- and undoubtedly naive -- belief in the potential of each student. However, even she had entertained second thoughts the instant a willowy, gamine-featured young woman had sauntered unhurriedly into the classroom -- ten minutes late.

The young brunette had simply radiated cynical bad attitude and youthful disdain for classroom structure. More frightening to her youthful teacher had been a world-weariness and don't-give-a-fuck broodiness which belied her years. Yet, despite the girl's willful tardiness, despite her sneering excuse -- something about a line at the soda machine -- and despite the interruption of the redhead's carefully choreographed introduction to the semester, the moment that Helena had entered the room, all eyes had been on her.

A tiny flicker of nervousness coursed through Barbara's veins as she recalled meeting her new student's intense blue eyes for the first time. Ignoring her discomfort, the redhead clicked through her mental files, finally unearthing and identifying her emotional response at the time.


With a start, Barbara realized that she'd felt like she was falling forward, about to meet twenty year old institutional linoleum face first in front of two dozen bored fifteen year olds.

The feeling had been so overwhelming, Barbara had immediately, and thoroughly, buried it for almost a decade. Bringing it to the surface now, especially on the tails of her earlier trip down memory lane on the balcony, was certainly... unsettling.

For an hour, perhaps a bit longer, Barbara lay still behind her partner, grappling with thoughts of predestination. She'd arranged her legs to spoon the younger woman to her lower half and had one arm possessively wrapped around a narrow waist. The younger woman's body heat and her deep, steady breathing were inordinately soothing; however, a subtle shifting under her arm roused the redhead from her peaceful near-sleep.


Barbara felt as much as heard the sleepy emanation. She certainly felt slender fingers twine with hers. Squeezing lightly, she brushed her mouth against the satin skin of her bedmate's shoulder.

"Go back to sleep, Sweetie. There's plenty of time."

She smiled at the brunette's soft snuffle, not certain if it signaled agreement, awareness, or something else. A more purposeful shifting distracted her from her consideration as the younger woman turned within the half-circle of her arm to face her. Even in the dim light of pre-dawn, Barbara could see that dark lashes were remaining resolutely shut.


Feeling a smirk cross her lips, the older woman obligingly pushed to her other side, aware of her partner's legs twining with hers, unobtrusively assisting in the maneuver. She settled under the covers, the younger woman immediately scootching forward to blanket her back.

"Better, Hel?"

She couldn't keep the amusement from the tender question, an emotion which transformed to something softer when she made out her bedmate's sleepy reply.

"Spoon you, too."

Inhaling deeply, Barbara worked to keep her breathing steady as a strong arm snugged her waist gently. She fought a shiver, then a giggle, when the slim fingers nestled against her abdomen began to twitch. Coinciding as it did with a soft rumbling tickling her back, she recognized that her feline companion was kneading in her sleep.

Making biscuits.

The venerable cat-lover's phrase popped into the redhead's forebrain. Simultaneously, almost overwhelmed by her partner's contentment, the redhead set loose a prayer of thanks to the powers-that-be for the younger woman's well-being and for her ability to find peace during this difficult period.

Of course, the brunette usually managed to maintain her equilibrium over the situations and horrors she encountered in her role of protector of the city. As volatile as Helena could be, as violently as her reactions sometimes were, as anguished and broody as her later responses might be, the dark figure somehow seemingly managed to push her doubts and anger aside, to focus on what she could do rather than where she'd failed. It was, undoubtedly, one of the young woman's strongest points; a trait which Barbara freely admitted made her protege a much more apt crime fighter than she had ever been.

Or, very probably, ever could have been.

A tiny change in her companion's breathing drew the redhead from her ruminations, alerting her to the fact that the human blast furnace behind her was slowly ascending from sleep. Regretting that their interlude was drawing to an end, she lightly clasped her hand over the back of the other woman's and lay quietly.

"Did you sleep?"

Since she'd noticed Helena's return to wakefulness, the older woman didn't start at the soft inquiry. She took a moment before answering, finally hedging.

"A little."


Amazing how much the younger woman could pack into a single, grunted syllable.

Feeling suitably chastised, the redhead blinked and then spoke truthfully.

"I wanted to be near you."

There was no reply other than the minute tightening of the arm which embraced her from behind. The two lay quietly, breathing in tandem for a few minutes until Barbara heard her own voice, raspy from exhaustion, speaking her heart.

"I'm so grateful you're here, Hel."

A slow exhalation greeted the admission before the redhead felt her companion press herself fully to her back, hugging her fiercely with the arm around her waist. The younger woman's reply, so quiet and shy that Barbara could have missed it -- or, she realized with a thrill of dismay, could pretend to have missed it -- was electric.

"Show me."

One crimson brow arched as the older woman allowed the words to blow through her, feeling her skin tingle and the fine hairs on her arms dance in response to the whisper.

She knew that she wasn't always at the head of the class when it came to showing her affection or demonstrating her feelings.

Honestly, she was never at the head of the class, counting herself fortunate if she fell on the upper side of the bell curve.

Too often, she seemed to end up lost in her own head, endlessly analyzing the hows and wherefores instead of acting. This time, Barbara instantly determined, would not be one of them.

Eschewing words, she clasped the back of her partner's hand more firmly, guiding their joined hands up her torso to place the warm fingers under hers on her breast. Instantly, a hot exhalation stirred the hair on the back of her neck, and she felt full lips press against her tee shirt-covered shoulder.

"Oh, fuck, yeah."

The redhead's hips shifted under the younger woman's sudden thrust, and Barbara's breath caught when she felt an almost convulsive tensing of the sinewy muscles in her lover's forearm under her hand. A heartbeat later, her tension changed to something else under the awareness of how the younger woman was gentling her touch, cupping her firmly, but ever-so-delicately.

Reverently, the analytical woman's overactive mind supplied just before a thumb brushed her rapidly hardening peak and deflected her thoughts.

How could such a subtle touch stir her so?

When the tender contact ended, the redhead's soft noise of question died in her throat at the sensation of her hand being gently captured by slender fingers and guided up her torso. The movement mirrored Barbara's actions of only moments before, only this time it was her own hand which was placed on her chest.

The redhead caught her breath, arousal warring with uncertainty.

This was something her partner hadn't asked of her since that memorable Monday morning six weeks before. Six weeks ago as they'd just begun exploring a physical side to their relationship. As it had been then, the older woman didn't know if this was something she could do, something which she could offer.

Steadying herself, she allowed her lover to move their joined hands lightly across the heavy swell of flesh under her tee. Feeling her unmistakable response to the shared caress, Barbara relaxed marginally. Gradually, she took over the motion, arching forward into her own touch, her own physical reaction nowhere near as powerful as her pleasure in offering this to her lover.

She wanted -- needed -- to show Helena how much...

The deep groan reverberating from behind her eloquently expressed the younger woman's feelings. Barbara shivered, then moaned, when her partner spoke, her voice thick as honey, rough as a cat's tongue.

"God, seeing you like this... It's... you're so fuckin' hot..."

Slender fingers danced randomly over the redhead's body: stroking her tensed bicep, flirting with the hem of her shirt, brushing her cheek. Eyes shut in concentration, Barbara felt every touch magnified, heard every whisper amplified.

"I want to be inside you... on you... all around you... everywhere."

Ignoring the insideous whisper of uncertainty, the redhead urgently pushed her upper back against her partner, twisting her head to try to catch the other woman's mouth with hers.

"Jesus, Hel. Kiss me..."

Soft, full lips met hers -- too briefly -- before the dark head dropped and teeth raked the side of the older woman's neck. She thought that the guttural moan in the room had been hers, but the panting words against her skin left her, frankly, unconcerned about the origin of the moan.

"I love you so... fuckin' much. You're... it's everything."

Even as Barbara struggled to turn within her lover's embrace, she freed the arm which had been pinned under her side and swept the heavy fall of hair back from her neck, arching and offering more access to the other woman. The brunette accepted the invitation, and the older woman clenched her teeth against the keening whimper scratching insistently at her throat in response to a fierce, hungry suctioning.

"... in me... so deep..."

Green eyes flew wide when Barbara registered the words panting against her skin, and her heart stuttered, picking up the urgent pace of boyishly slim hips which rocked against her. Only ruing that her partner's state suggested that she had no time to savor, she managed to shift onto her back and work her near arm around the other woman, yanking her onto her.

The redhead's breathing hitched as the dark figure reared up with a snarl. She controlled the reaction, amazed anew by her lover's sheer responsiveness, as the younger woman deliberately dragged her upper body across Barbara's still partially tee-shirt covered torso. Helena drew out the contact, grinding once, downward, until warm breath tickled the older woman's belly button and, then, all sensation stopped.

The redhead barely had time to draw in a slow, steadying breath before the younger woman slithered back up, pushing the hem of the tee with her nose and tracing a wet trail up the center her chest with her tongue. With the tee around her neck, Barbara fumbled for Helena's tank, working with more resolve than finesse to get it up... over... out of the way until, with a soft sigh which was echoed by the other woman's rumbling purr, they came skin to skin.

Dear heavens, how had she lived -- existed -- without this... this perfect, silken contact?... this melding of skin to skin, their sweat mingling and breath mixing in a fathomless body kiss which drew on and on?

The redhead stretched her upper back into the full body caress, certain that the minute jerky movements of the smaller woman's hips against her upper legs were tickling air currents across the impossibly sensitized nerves of her upper body. Before she had time to consider the feasibility of this, the younger woman pushed up on her fists, the corded muscles of her forearms flexing by Barbara's shoulders.

Green eyes widened when the lithe young woman panted her plea.

"Please, Barbara -- I need you now."

The redhead smiled warmly -- very warmly -- as she tenderly cupped her partner's cheek.

This request... the need... was something she could respond to without doubt or concern. It was something, the practical woman had admitted to herself during the last few weeks, which filled her with a great deal of pleasure as well.

As little as Barbara had enjoyed being a... vessel for her male lovers' satisfaction during the last seven years, she'd discovered that she found immense gratification as an... instrument of Helena's pleasure. Whether that had to do with this particular lover or her own take-charge urges was something the redhead had chosen not to delve into too deeply.

It was enough -- more than enough -- that the situation seemed to work for the two of them.

"Pu-- please, Barbara... Touch me."

Unable -- unwilling -- to deny the achingly open plea, the redhead insinuated her hand between them. With a hiss, her lover curved forward in a spine-cracking C-arch at her first touch, sparking an undeniable want within the older woman. Controlling the response and thrusting more deeply, Barbara felt the tendons of her wrist stretching under the harsh angle, but instantly forgot the slight burn when Helena buried her mouth against her shoulder, whimpering her pleasure.

Too quickly it was over, the speed of the encounter a harbinger of the intensity of Helena's climax. Dazed and oddly sated herself, Barbara held her position, tenderly, possessively, cupping her lover even as she rubbed soothing circles on her back with the other hand.

The younger woman finally pushed herself up, languidly rolling to her side and pressing tightly against the redhead. Squinting to focus at such close range, Barbara gently brushed shaggy bangs away from slumberous blue eyes and drank in the tranquility of the beautiful features under her fingertips.

The twinkle which appeared in those stunning eyes and the supremely satisfied smile drawing across kiss-bruised lips distracted Barbara from her examination. The younger woman's rumbling words forced a laugh past her lips.

"Good morning to you, too, Red."

Chapter 13

"Good grief, Barbara, I'm not... "

Almost visibly trembling in her search for words, the young woman gesticulated dramatically before finding her voice again.

"... *clueless* or something!"

The older woman pursed her lips against a smile: Honestly, 'clueless' was just about the last word she would have chosen to describe her companion. Somehow, she managed a sage nod as she raised one hand placatingly.

"I'm aware of that, Dinah. I'm just concerned that you may be..."

Barbara allowed herself a few seconds to search for the words which would express her worry without making the teen feel that her ability was in doubt. Despite the sickening clench of her abdominal muscles -- How could she help the young woman understand how serious the situation was? -- she managed to remain calm, measured.

"... taking on too much too soon. The J -- This isn't like anything you've encountered on sweeps before, and I don't want you pushing yourself for the wrong reasons."

The redhead felt a warm breath of pride touch her as she watched the blonde's features transform from defensive to thoughtful to, finally, accepting.

Such a willingness to listen and consider her guardian's words bespoke a maturity well beyond the young woman's years.

"I understand what you're saying, Barbara. Really, I do."

Earnest, cornflower blue eyes sought green, and the lanky teen turned to lean against the lab counter near the Delphi.

The two women had been engaged in a detailed analysis of Helena's bubble goo specimen for the last few hours, the shared camaraderie and quiet musings giving Barbara an opening to bring up her concerns with her ward. Unfortunately, while their examination of the sticky substance had proven fruitful -- revealing a combination of epoxy, latex, and bubble gum -- the discussion did not seem to be proceeding nearly as well.

"And I know I kind of, uhm, freaked out a little at the reservoir on Wednesday and all, and I guess maybe -- well, really you probabaly just are... right, I mean, about him being a lot worse than anything I've met on sweeps, but, it's just -- "

Barbara offered a measured blink against the verbal deluge. Long exposure to the young woman allowed her to follow, and even make sense, of the outpouring.

"-- Well, I guess I got kind of freaked that he'd do something like that..."

If the blonde's brief stumble weren't enough, her absolutely stricken expression eloquently bespoke her horror over the situation she'd witnessed.

"... Pushing his own... or... really..."

Dinah slowed, clearly working through what lay at the roots of her feelings.

"... That someone could do that to anybody, I guess."

Nodding sympathetically, the older woman approached her companion. She slowly raised one hand, waiting for an almost imperceptible dip of pale features, before resting her hand on the teen's shoulder. She rubbed small circles at the base of the girl's neck, hunting for the right words.

"Man's inhumanity to man can be boundless, Dinah, and I hope you'll never..."

She purposely emphasized the word, searching pale blue eyes for understanding.

"... fail to be horrified by that type of cruelty."

A tremulous smile suggested that she was making her point, and so the cyber-vigilante continued.

"At the same time, Dinah, there's no need to exposure yourself needlessly... or too early... to situations like that. I know it's not a popular idea at your age,"

The older woman pulled back with a self-depreciating smile, hoping to remove any sting from her words.

"... but holding on to a bit of innocence isn't such a terrible thing, you know."

The teen nodded.

"It's not just unpopular, Barbara, it's almost impossible."

The two women shared a smile over the observation before Dinah's eyes clouded.

"I know that, Barbara."

Shifting a bit, the girl pushed a strand of hair behind her ear, then fiddled with the focus on the microscope. Aware that her newest protege was, possibly, more facile with the expensive piece of electronics than she was, Barbara noticed that she didn't even tense.

Unlike, a portion of her mind supplied wryly, her response when she witnessed Helena twiddling with the carefully calibrated settings of her equipment.

"And, uh, Helena and I kind of talked about this last night."

Pale blonde brows rose in question.

"At dinner, you know?"

The redhead smiled.

"Did you find the... talk helpful, Dinah?", she inquired, taking pains not to pry into specifics.

The girl shifted from one foot to the other before resting her hip against the counter again.

"Yeah. I mean, there isn't a lot you can say, I guess."

Barbara absolutely, positively, refused to press for details; however, apparently, her puzzled frown didn't go unnoticed. Her companion laughed, seeming to relax.

"Helena and I talked a little about the other night. Uh,"

The older woman pursed her lips sympathetically when she witnessed the blush creeping up her young companion's pale features.

"... you know, stuff about how it feels to see something like that."

The teen seemed to look inward for a beat before meeting green eyes again, and the redhead smiled her comprehension: Of all of them, Helena was certainly best suited to tackle topics relating to feelings.

"Mostly, she was telling me about some stuff that Dick told her a while back."

"Dick?", the older woman parroted, a bit stupidly, she feared.

The blonde head bobbed once, and green eyes narrowed.

"Dick and Helena?", Barbara repeated, working valiantly to wrap her mind around what Dinah seemed to be saying.

While the brunette's feelings seemed to have mellowed a bit in recent years -- or, perhaps Helena had simply become a bit more diplomatic -- her antipathy toward Barbara's former colleague was legendary. For years, Barbara had assumed that a great deal of the younger woman's sneering disdain had been spill-over from her feelings toward Bruce; she'd only recently deduced that the bristling hostility her ward had demonstrated for years might have had something to do with the fact that, for a brief time after the shooting, Barbara had taken the young man as her lover.

There was another cheerful nod.

"Uh huh. She didn't go into a lot of specifics, but it had something to do with when you all were taking on The Crimson Claw?"

The pieces of the puzzle suddenly shifted, just enough, and clicked into place.

Almost four years ago, the budding crime fighting venture which Barbara had recently undertaken with her former ward had been sorely tested by a horrific creature which the press had named The Crimson Claw. Wont to kidnap -- and then consume -- children around the full moon each month, the shadowy creature had thwarted every attempt Helena and her mentor had made to pin him down for two months.

On the full moon of the third month, the two women had caught a break of sorts, and Helena had burst into The Claw's lair before he'd finished his work on the six children he'd gathered. After a battle which had left the dark vigilante more battered than Barbara had ever seen her, Helena had rescued four of the children.

The young woman's failure to rescue the other two had brought her to her knees like nothing before... or since.

Broody, bitter, and radiating self-loathing and defeat, Helena had questioned everything the two were doing... or could do. Since the young woman was obviously in no shape to take on the criminal worst of New Gotham -- much less battle the still-marauding Claw -- Barbara had contacted Dick, requesting his assistance.

The young man had arrived within the day and, to Barbara's distinct amazement, had somehow coaxed... or cajoled... or forced Helena to abandon the clock tower long enough to go out for ice cream. The two young crime fighters had been gone for several hours; however, when they'd returned, Helena had put on her duster, professing herself ready to take on the worst that New Gotham could throw at her.

Neither Helena nor Dick had mentioned their conversation to Barbara, and the older woman hadn't asked, unwilling to pry and simply grateful that her protege had found what she needed to absorb the blows cast her way in their job. Years later, apparently, whatever wisdom Dick had bestowed was benefiting Dinah.

Profoundly grateful that -- whatever their differences -- the generations around her seemed to support each other so well, the older woman hid a fond smile and made a mental note to send an extra care package to her former partner from when she'd been on the streets. However, with that thought, Barbara also remembered herself and the topic at hand.

"I'm glad that you were able to talk some of this out with Helena," she carefully began, again marshalling her arguments for caution, "and that she shared some of her experiences with you."

Point of fact, 'glad' didn't begin to express her feelings for what Helena had done: grateful, amazed, delighted, overwhelmed... Obviously, she'd need to take some time later -- after the current mess had been resolved -- to consult her mental thesaurus and then endeavor to thank her partner.

"And, I'm very, very pleased..."

The redhead dropped her voice a tiny bit, seeking the younger woman's eyes.

"... that you're feeling a bit less overwhelmed, Dinah."

The teen bobbed her head in emphasis, and the older woman returned Dinah's quirked grin with a soft smile of her own.

"However," Barbara sobered, "don't you think it might be advisable if you don't join Helena for sweeps until things are..."

Crimson brows knit briefly.

"... a bit more normal?"

The lanky girl stood abruptly to pace across the platform, her agitation obvious. Barbara couldn't help but notice that, despite her obvious upset with the suggestion, Dinah -- unlike the redhead's former headstrong ward -- chose not to speak immediately. It was only after the blonde crossed the platform twice that she finally found her voice.

"It you really want me to stay in, Barbara, I'll do it."

The words were calm, thoughtful, forcing the redhead to take note unlike any amount of shouting or anger ever could have.

"But, I really think I can maybe help out -- even if it's just a little -- on sweeps. You know,"

The blonde head tilted to one side, a half-shrug accompanying the gesture.

"... even if it's just kind of hanging back and keeping a lookout when Helena is, uhm, going after people and stuff. I mean, I know that I may see stuff that's way over the top from what I'm used to, but I really want to help out, Barbara."

Utterly conflicted by her pride in the girl's thoughtful resolve and her trepidation about her ward's well-being, the older woman blew out a frustrated breath.

Obviously, stubborn resolve wasn't the sole purview of practical redheads.

Or, Barbara admitted wryly, of temperamental brunettes either.

"You are an adult, Dinah, and you've obviously thought about this, so I'll leave it up to you."

She forestalled the enthusiastic smile she saw forming with a raised hand.

"With the caveat that, if you're out there, you always do what Helena tells you to. She has a lot of exp--"

"I think you've almost got it there, Red."

The woman in question neatly interrupted the speech Barbara had been gearing up for, appearing silently from the hallway and causing both women at the Delphi to jump. The older woman tamped down on the sudden surge of adrenaline in her system with a quick shake of her head and turned to face the brunette, who was still toweling her hair after a shower.

" 'Almost', Hel? What am I missing?"

The younger woman, clad in brief nylon running shorts and an oversized NGPD sweatshirt, leapt gracefully onto the platform and bent to buss the confused redhead's cheek before responding.

"You need to take out that part about 'being out there'..."

Slender fingers encapsulated the words in quotation marks as a devilish twinkle entered dark blue eyes.

"... and make sure the Kid does what I say all the time."

"Fat chance!"

Surprised to hear herself chuckle -- when was the last time? -- the older woman arched one brow primly. An instant later, Barbara was even more surprised when she heard herself speak.

"Indeed, Hel. However, I was under the impression that that was your role with me."

Judging from the hawk like expression which instantly transformed Helena's face *and* the rush of color which pinked Dinah's pale features, not one single possible meaning of the unconsidered words had escaped either of her companions. The redhead, feeling the warmth of her own blush, flirted with the possibility of attempting damage control; realistically, she suspected that she'd simply make things worse and so opted for a rescue.

Accordingly, she caught distinctly... interested blue eyes with hers and raised her brows in supplication. A lazy wink suggested that her partner hadn't missed the plea, nevertheless, Barbara held her breath in anticipation when the brunette finally spoke.

"I guess you're right about that, Barbara. So, for now..."

The younger woman waved towards the lab equipment.

"... if you two are finished with your big brain thing, I've got something I need the Kid's help with before I go out to rescue New Gotham one bite of pie at a time again."

Dinah laughed, then squealed a protest when the older girl snapped her damp towel in her direction. Although green eyes widened in a bit in curiosity, Barbara simply smiled and extended a hand, palm up, to usher Dinah from the platform.

They could pick up their work with the bubble goo later. Based on its composition, replicating the substance would be trivial, allowing the two to experiment with the teen's TK and with creating of solvents for it.

While Barbara remained distinctly edgy about their green-haired tormentor's plans for his ultra-strong, non-breathable goo, she was able to take a small measure of relief in the fact that, at least temporarily, he'd turned his energies to other activities. After his appearance at the Huffa Bubba factory the night before, the madman had yet to be seen in the city, however, he had devoted a not-inconsiderable amount of resources to his latest caper.

Mid-morning, The Joker's men had swarmed into the Bond Street Bakery, stymieing law-enforcement with a hostage situation which, seemingly, had no demands. Tensely monitoring the situation from the catwalks and rafters of the bakery, Helena had reported that the workers didn't seem to be in danger: their captors had pressed them into service to create... a pie.

Hours later, when two helicopters had landed on the roof of the factory and then departed swinging a giant confection through the sky, the purpose of the takeover had finally revealed itself. The terrified bakery workers had been forced to create a two ton banana cream pie which the waiting helicopters had air-lifted and dropped over the central police station during the Friday 4:00pm rush hour.

Humor and creativity of the attack aside, the prank had nearly suffocated a uniformed officer, and one Records Office Clerk with severe lactose intolerance would be in the hospital for the night. Preliminary reports also showed that the motor pool was predicting that it would take weeks to clean out sugar-fouled gas tanks.

Checking the monitors for updates, the cyber-vigilante wearily supposed that the Clown Prince of Mayhem had been proving that revenge could be sweet. Even Helena had initially found the situation so when she'd waded through the five foot flow of cream filling to help with rescues; however, the dark vigilante's notorious sweet tooth apparently had limits, as demonstrated by the younger woman's somewhat queasy expression when she'd finally returned to the clock tower for a long shower.

Satisfied that nothing too urgent was occurring in the city... yet, Barbara peered in the direction of the training room, idly wondering what her two young charges where up to. With a shrug -- the low murmur of voices and occasional giggle didn't imply that there was any need for... intervention -- the redhead set to work recording her notes from the afternoon's work with Dinah and roughing out a plan for testing the substance when they replicated it.

Half an hour later, the cyber-genius grimaced in distaste as she absently took a swig of coffee grounds from her long-cold mug and decisively headed to the kitchen. She methodically rinsed out her cup, up-ending it on a folded dish towel by the sink, then dug in the refrigerator for something which would be both hydrating and stimulating: Friday nights were always busy and, with The Joker on the prowl, this wasn't likely to be an exception.

As the redhead sat in front of the open refrigerator, weighing the merits of the Red Bull in her right hand against the diet cola in her left, she caught herself humming in time with a familiar, albeit old, bouncy tune emanating from the training room. Since it had long been maintained by everyone who knew her that she couldn't carry a tune in a bucket -- using both hands -- she immediately quashed her vocalizations. However, her curiosity was now thoroughly piqued.

Deciding on the cola -- Helena tended to be a little possessive about her Red Bulls -- Barbara quietly approached the training room.

Here comes johnny and he'll tell you the story
Hand me down mu walkin' shoes
Here come johnny with the power and the glory
Backbeat the talkin' blues
He got the action, he got the motion
Yeah, the boy can play
Dedication devotion
Turning all the night time into the day


The redhead stopped at the door to the room, tapping the index finger of her left hand to Dire Strait's infectious beat and puzzling over the younger women's actions: now stripped down to a form-fitting halter-top, Helena was engaged in some showy arm-work in the parallel bars, and Dinah, for some reason, was capturing the brunette's actions on the camcorder.

He do the song about the sweet lovin' woman
He do the song about the knife
He do the walk, he do the walk of life
And after all the violence and double talk
There's just a song in the trouble and the strife
You do the walk, you do the walk of life


As the song faded to silence, the lithe figure popped into a neat handstand, balancing herself easily on the bars. Barbara blinked as the young woman spoke to the camera -- Had she just said something about eating bugs? -- and soundlessly approached. Ten feet behind Dinah, she clearly made out Helena's patter.

"... care for fruit that much, but I sure as heck can climb trees like a cat to get it. Don't even get me started on fishing..."

The brunette swung around and performed a precise turn, supporting herself on one bar with both hands.

"... and I may hate getting wet, but I can swim like nobody's business and..."

Crimson brows slowly crept skyward as Barbara observed her partner's graceful dismount and the sultry smile she offered the camera.

"... if you think this is good..."

One slim hand gestured at the brunette's skimpy outfit.

"... you won't believe how great I look in a bikini."

Helena held her pose for a moment before relaxing.

"That's a wrap, D. Cut it."

The blonde laughed happily as she lowered the camera.

"That was great, Helena. You ought to be a shoo-in."

Grinning without a trace of modesty -- false or otherwise, the twenty-something snagged a water bottle before pinning Barbara with twinkling eyes.

"Yeah, I think so, too, Kid. What about you, Babs? How was I?"

Barbara felt her brows descending, furrowing actually, as she attempted to guess what the two young women were talking about.

"Did I miss a memo, Hel? What, exactly, is it you're getting into?"

The younger woman took her time before answering, guzzling deeply from the water bottle. Thirst apparently slaked, she recapped the bottle and smiled conspiratorially.

"Open auditions for next season's 'Survivor'."

Now quite certain that she was having her leg pulled and simply hadn't felt it, the redhead cast a disbelieving look at Dinah. She discovered that the situation wasn't significantly clarified when the blonde grinned broadly and nodded emphatically.

"The television show...?", she somehow managed.

The brunette's expression, Barbara promptly decided, could only be described as "smug".

"Uh huh. Just think how well I'd do. Not to mention..."

Despite herself, Barbara chuckled as her partner pirouetted and struck an exaggeratedly showy beauty pageant pose.

"... how hot I'd look running around on a tropical island for thirty-nine days."

The older woman opened her mouth, then silently closed it.

There was simply no denying the truth of the younger woman's words. But, still...

"Still, Helena, reality television?"

The redhead mentally grimaced at the slight -- almost unnoticeable -- squeak her voice had taken at the end of the question.

How could Helena even be thinking about something like that? Especially during their current crisis?

Barbara pushed that last question soundly aside when her partner approached, speaking confidently as she knelt beside her.

"Well, I figure that it's either 'Survivor' or 'American Idol' and..."

Dark brows waggled playfully.

"... between you and me, Red, I just don't think we could handle all the publicity that's going to come around here when I get chosen as the next enduring overnight sensation of the Clearasil set on 'Idol'."

Blinking against the oxymoron, not to mention the younger woman's sheer... hubris, the redhead tilted her head speculatively.

"Not to mention having to put in wider doors to allow your head through, Hel."

To her credit, the brunette threw back her head, joining in fully with the guffaw which Dinah was attempting to hide behind her hand. Marveling at her partner's ability to -- like some sort of Zephyr -- breeze past the tension which had surrounded them for almost five days, Barbara waited out the mirth before tangling her fingers with the younger woman's.

"As explosive as you would be on screen, Sweetie, I'm not sure we could do without you if you gallivanted off to an island for that long."

The brunette smiled serenely as she rose slowly, brushing her lips to the older woman's ear.

"Yeah. My luxury item would sure have to be a picture of you."

Even as she wondered if she might melt on the spot, the redhead admitted that -- with Helena on television -- Hollywood would never be the same.

Chapter 14

"Huntress? Canary? What's your ETA to the Cineplex?"

Somehow, Barbara managed to sound almost calm when she made her inquiry, even as she snapped several keys on her keyboard with more force than was strictly necessary.

<"We're hustling, Oracle. Another two blocks...">

The redhead nodded grimly, Helena's somewhat breathless update confirming what she'd seen on GPS.

"Hurry, Huntress. NGFD hasn't reached the scene yet, but The Joker's men have encircled the theatre."

Although Barbara hadn't doubted it, the brunette's low growl provided ample confirmation that Helena was aware of the gravity of the situation. A moment later, the young woman again verified the sterile dancing of LED coordinates across the GPS.

<"We're here. Fire looks nasty, but it's still confined to one section.">

Preliminary reports had suggested as much, and so the cyber-vigilante focused on what she didn't know.

"What about the people? And The Joker's men?"

This time, it was the youngest member of the crime fighting team who responded.

<"People are coming out of the theatre fast, but there's not much panic so f--">

A rumbling soprano cut her off.

<"I'm going in the back to make sure nobody's trapped. You stay here, Canary.">

Even as she heard the sound of her partner's swift movement, Barbara couldn't hold in her warning.

"Be careful, Huntress."

<"Always, Oracle.">

As reassured as she supposed it was possible to be, the redhead tried to ignore the sound of crackling flames which echoed through Helena's headset, directing her attention back to Dinah.

"Canary? What about reports of The Joker's men being in the area?"

The cyber-vigilante could almost hear her newest protege peeking over -- or around -- the edge of whatever semi-secure rooftop or alley Helena had picked.

<"Yeah, they're here, Oracle. Probably a dozen or more guys in rainbow wigs and red noses... No, maybe more like fifte--">

"What are they doing, Canary?"

Loathe to interrupt the blonde's survey, Barbara nevertheless summarily cut her off. The teen didn't seem too upset.

<"Uh, kind of hanging around some cars parked by the front entr-- Oh no!">

Before she had the opportunity to request clarification, the sound of what seemed to be shotgun fire, followed by terrified cries from the people pouring from the burning theatre, provided a graphic illustration for the redhead.

"Stay back, Canary."

Green eyes narrowed when Barbara realized she'd spoken, then the redhead clenched her jaw and nodded her agreement with the instinctive directive.

<"But, they've covered a bunch of people with that bubble stuff, Oracle and...">

"If you think you can do it safely, you can try your TK--"

<"Try your TK, Kid, and blow that shit off them. I'm gonna kick some ass.">

The interruption, as well as the advice, was very welcome, for a variety of reasons.

"Huntress? Is everyone out of the cinema?"

<"Just in time to get splatted, Asshole!">

The redhead didn't even blink at the harsh words. Coinciding as they had with a voluble male "Ooof" and the sound of surprised shouts, Barbara assumed that the younger woman had efficiently combined an update report with her attack on the men on the ground.

"Copy that."

Picking up the sound of approaching sirens over the transceiver, the cyber-vigilante instinctively toggled to her EMS dispatch window. She winced at the sound of teeth cracking, followed by a high tenor yelp, from Helena's comms and deliberately modulated her voice.

"Fire and rescue is only a block away, Canary. Can you update me on how you're doing with the bubble goo?"

There was no reply for a long sixteen seconds, however Barbara knew that the teen was very probably concentrating on her task. She forced herself to trust that the girl was following instructions and remaining away from the fray.

<"I... I got it off... three.">

The strain on the young telepath was obvious.

<"Going to... another...">

Despite her concern for Dinah's well-being, Barbara didn't bother warning the blonde not to overdo or any such nonsense. She was quite aware that all of them would do whatever they could... as much as they could.

"Good work, Canary."

An angry shout from the other comm unit distracted the older woman from her concern.

<"Shit! They're hauling ass!">

A split-second hesitation followed the dark vigilante's update before Helena continued, a hint of question in her words.

<"I think I can get one of the cars, Oracle...">

Completely sympathetic to her partner's frustrated dilemma, Barbara effortlessly prioritized.

"Let them go, Huntress, and see if you can help the victims."

Helena's answering growl was immediate.

<"Copy that.">

The noises of confused and panicked movie-goers grew louder, presumably as the brunette plunged into the crowd. The cries and shouts didn't mask the anguished whisper which followed.

<"Oh, fuck! There's a kid... He's covered in it... turning blue...">

Barbara felt the blood rush from her head, hating -- as much as her younger partner -- when the youngest and most innocent were victimized. Furious at their foes' casual disregard for life, the redhead picked out a woman's tearful cries -- something about taking her son to his first movie -- and, from the other comm set, a distressed vocalization.

<"I didn't see him. Oh, god, I should have been closer...">

Hearing the sound of Helena tearing through the impermeable, sticky mess and beginning CPR, the older woman held her breath... waiting. During an interminable minute and a half, the sounds of the brunette's rescue attempts and Dinah's soft panting and the crowd's shouting all dimmed under the noise of her own self-reproach.

Dear heavens, if only she'd caught on sooner... or been a bit more vigilant, she could have prevented the entire meltdown.

The old proverb about the entire kingdom being lost for want of a nail echoed hollowly through the redhead's mind, and she bitterly acknowledged how well it applied in this situation. Only, in this case, rather than the lack of a nail and horseshoe, it had been for want of her own alertness and good sense.

Eight or nine weeks ago, if she'd only worked harder to put the pieces together about the jewel thefts and Frank Loewen's laser; six or seven weeks ago, if she'd only considered potential damage to the outlying areas at Arkham...

But, she hadn't. Perfect memory and years of experience and finely honed analytical skills notwithstanding, she'd... coasted along like her skull was stuffed with cotton wool.

Red lashes lowered, and Barbara acknowledged what had lain at the heart of her distraction: For the last three months, she'd been too damned caught up in falling in love -- or realizing that she was in love -- with Helena to spend serious time on the analysis which could have prevented this catastrophe.

A weak, wet cough and the collective sigh of the crowd drew the cyber-crime fighter from her bleak thoughts. Dinah's voice, heavily painted with relief, confirmed her guess that Helena's rescue breathing had been successful.

<"She did it. He's alive.">

Slowly, Barbara removed her glasses, holding them between her thumb and the last two fingers of her right hand. She pressed the knuckle of her index finger between her eyes, pushing at the pounding pressure, before exhaling soundlessly and straightening.

"Good work."

She deliberately paused, then emphasized her next word.

"*Both* of you. As soon as you think EMS has the situation under control, please return to base."

She needed to get Dinah in -- the teen's exhaustion was evident in her breathy acknowledgement -- and she suspected that even Helena could use a break after having been on the go for most of the day. In the meantime, the analytical woman ruthlessly pushed aside her doubts and remorse, resolutely turning back to what she'd been working on just before the fire at the Cineplex.

During the afternoon, the sniffers she'd deployed throughout New Gotham's net hubs had picked up suspicious activity matching the parameters she'd coded. A bit of rapid investigation had revealed that, indeed, The Joker had gone high-tech, launching highly efficient denial-of-service attacks against almost every financial institution in the city.

It had been a simple matter for Barbara to intercept the rogue packets, and she'd diverted them to a dummy router programmed to signal that the DOS packets were hitting their intended marks. With The Joker, hopefully, under the impression that his cyber-attacks were working, she'd begun the tedious process of tracking the packets' routes in the hope of discovering their genesis.

For several hours, the cyber-genius had painstakingly traced signals from one router to the next, impressed despite herself by the complexity of the trail. She'd finally linked several dozen of the electronic threads and identified what appeared to be a secondary firewall: the staging area, as it were, for the green-haired madman's deployment across the web.

Rather than immediately focusing on hacking into the firewall system, she'd opted to follow the electronic footprints departing the machine in the hopes of identifying where her foe had been casting his net in cyberspace. Just minutes before the fire at the theatre, her tedious electronic tracking -- jumping from one hub to the next -- had placed her suspiciously near a well-known location.

With a distinct sense of foreboding, Barbara resumed her electronic journey, following a trail which was becoming clearer by the keystroke. In seconds, she reached the terminus of the trail, biting at her bottom lip when her suspicions were confirmed. The redhead didn't bother firing up her password hacking software, simply logging in with her own ID and then scanning the system logs to determine just what The Joker had been seeking in New Gotham High's central computer.

Two dozen keystrokes later, she had it and, for the second time in minutes, felt the blood drain from her head in a dizzying rush.

As she'd expected, the trail led to the personal records in the system; however, the hack by-passed the faculty personnel records, sifting, instead, through the student files. With an almost surreal sense of calm, Barbara navigated to a subdirectory -- the L's -- no longer following electronic trails, simply trusting her intuition.

L-A... Laaske... Ladd... Lakerman... Lambert...

Lance, Dinah.

Almost absently, she noted that the timestamp on her ward's file had been altered only hours before and heard a soft gasp whisper through the empty clock tower.

Her own.

Since there were ways to access and alter files without disturbing the timestamp, clearly The Joker wanted it known that he'd touched this particular file.

Green eyes blinked as Barbara struggled to bring the wavering letters of the filename back into focus. When the amber-tinted block letters resolved themselves, she reached for her mouse, puzzled by an inexplicable shakiness to the cursor as she clicked to open the file.

Connected as she was with a T-3 line, it took only nanoseconds for the PDF to cross the virtual miles and open on her desktop. Once open, it took almost as little time for the cyber-crime fighter to find a change -- an addition -- to the record.

On the first page of the file, the digitized image of Dinah's senior photo greeted Barbara: the teen, arrayed in robe and mortar board, was smiling brightly at the camera and her future. As bright and engaging as the picture was, the redhead barely glanced at it: after all, there was an exact duplicate which served as wallpaper for one of her monitors and another copy in her wallet. What drew her attention was the jpeg image which had been placed in Dinah's record.

For ten, perhaps fifteen, seconds, the analytical woman remained fixed in place, unblinking, unbreathing as she fought the clear implications behind the image... and its placement: a Warhol-esque rendition of a Huffa Bubba gum wrapper was superimposed above the girl's picture, obscuring her features.

The soft ding of the elevator broke through Barbara's horror and fury. Aware that she had only seconds before her charges ascended from the parking garage, she gave herself two seconds to regain control of her breathing. After that, she swiftly renamed the pdf and closed the file; almost as an afterthought, she closed each terminal window she'd used to trace The Joker's packets, leaving only her usual three dozen or so screens open. That done, the crimson-haired crime fighter checked her posture, wondering if the rigid tension of her muscles would simply crush her back and ribs, and moved from the platform just as the elevator doors rolled open.

"-- totally rocked, Kid."

Two sets of blue eyes -- one as pale as summer sky, one as deep as the ocean -- met green.

"Hey, Red. I was just telling D how awesome she was out there, popping that goo right and left."

The older woman managed a tight smile as she watched the younger women exit the elevator. Although she was disheveled and covered with soot, Helena moved with her usual lithe grace. Dinah, while less visibly touched from the evening's activities, was more pale than usual, moving a bit slowly. Accordingly, she focused her attention on the young telepath.

"Helena, Dinah. It sounds like you both did some amazing work tonight."

Barbara approached her ward, carefully catching the young woman's hand and offering a slight squeeze. In the process, she feathered her fingers over the girl's wrist, noting her elevated pulse rate.

"How are you feeling, Dinah?"

Purposely, she kept the question open-ended, curious about how her newest protege would interpret it. When the blonde met her eyes, smiling tiredly, she found herself swallowing rapidly against something in her chest which threatened to drown -- or crush -- her.

"Really good, Barbara. I mean, I guess I'm a little tired, but nobody got really hurt tonight, and that feels really good."

Not quite trusting her voice, the redhead pursed her lips and offered a quick nod before jerking her gaze to the other figure in the room.

"The... "

She blinked once and licked her lips, trying again.

"The boy will be alright, Hel?"

The brunette shrugged out of her duster, laying it over the back a chair.

"Looks like. His mom was probably more freaked than he was."

Suspecting that she had some insights of her own into those sorts of feelings, Barbara quirked her lips, certain that her brittle facade would facture at any moment. Hoping that any... irregularities in her behavior would be attributed to the events at the theatre, she pushed her shoulders back another hairsbreadth and turned back to Dinah.

"I'm really proud of you both, but, for now, Dinah, perhaps you should turn in?"

Warmed by her ward's shyly delighted smile, she waited until the blonde disappeared down the hall before returning to the Delphi, Helena trailing behind her. She mechanically checked the police scanners, then arched a brow as she turned to find that her younger partner was parking her hindquarters on her mouse pad.

"Everything's relatively quiet, Hel. It looks like you can take a bit of a break finally."

"Well, that's good news. It's been a heckuva day."

Barbara returned her companion's easy smile, a trifle stiffly she supposed, then felt her expression falter when Helena gently tangled their fingers.

"But, you too, Red? Will you come to bed?"

Even as something within her clawed and struggled to scream, the older woman squeezed her partner's hand before releasing it to reach for her glasses. She allowed her hair to fall forward as she seated the frames on her nose and gestured toward her monitor.

"Give me a few more minutes, Sweetie. There a few other things I need to check."

The brunette exhaled noisily but, mercifully, didn't push it, simply rising gracefully and heading toward the bedroom by way of the kitchen. Barbara remained still for a few minutes, then brought up her database of recent activities, efficiently updating it with the score of crimes and pranks from the evening. When she heard the shower from their bathroom go on, she finally minimized the database and dragged her cursor to the file she'd downloaded from the school earlier.

After a moment's hesitation, she double-clicked, opening the file and scrolling down to the bubble gum jpeg. As she'd thought, there was a tiny irregularity in the image: One edge of the wrapper was twisted back, revealing a hint of pink gum.

Positive that the wrinkle was no accident, she traced the cursor around the edge of the drawing, finally clicking on the picture. Slowly, the cyber-candy unwrapped, transforming into a diaphanous pink bubble.

Green eyes narrowed, seeing something... somethings... moving, almost waving like wheat on the prairie, inside the bubble. The cyber-vigilante swallowed with some difficulty, then clicked on the bubble. The cursor stuttered across the screen, and the mouse clattered from its pad to the desktop when the redhead's hand flew to her mouth to hold back her whimper.

Appearing from the pink bubble, a photographic likeness of a well-known visage took shape. A beat later, a rasping voice -- one that Barbara would never, ever be able to erase from her memory -- echoed through the computer's speakers.

The redhead clenched her jaw, frantically wrestling back her instinctive panic. After the first half-dozen syllables, panic gave way to a different emotion as she comprehended the words being spoken: a well-known poem -- adapted for his own message -- coming from the animated clown's mouth.

"You are the hollow men / You are the stuffed men / Leaning together / Headpiece filled with straw. Alas! / Your dried voices, when / You whisper together / Are quiet and meaningless / As wind in dry grass / Or rats' feet over broken glass / In your dry cellar"

Long fingers pressed more firmly against the cyber-genius' mouth as her infallible memory supplied the next words a beat before the maniacally grinning cartoon face:

"Shape without form, shade without colour, / Paralysed force, gesture without motion / Between the idea / And the reality / Between the motion / And the act / Falls the Shadow."

Chapter 15

Deliberately, Barbara allowed the animation embedded in the jpeg to finish. Only after The Joker's cackling laugh faded and his white face vanished from the screen with a pink bubble gum 'pop', did she finally move.

Carefully, she closed the school record, methodically burying it directories deep on one of her system's hard drives. Later, she'd deconstruct the image and animation to hunt for clues about where it had been created.

Noting that she'd not saved her updates to the crime database, the cyber-vigilante recaptured her mouse and positioned it on its pad, saving her additions from the evening. With a few more clicks, she exported the recent additions and loaded them in her prediction program, setting it to work. Although it hadn't turned up anything so far, the embedded AI in the routine meant that every new bit of data would make the program more likely to come up with a possible guess about new targets.

The redhead gave the emergency scanners another cursory check, relieved beyond measure to find that the city was reasonably quiet. Apparently, testing the bubble goo at the theatre had been the highlight for the evening.

Suddenly possessed by a bone-deep weariness -- how much sleep had she gotten in the last five days? -- Barbara stared blankly at her primary display, not sure she could summon the energy to set the monitoring routines in place and make it down the hall to the bedroom. If not, it wouldn't be the first time circumstances had dictated grabbing a bit of rest in front of the Delphi.

That thought drew the practical woman from her lethargy. She'd made a promise of sorts to Helena, and it didn't include spending another night in separate rooms. With a quick shake of her head, she roused herself, setting the Delphi on standby and then briskly descending to the living area.

Crossing to the far wall to turn off the dim lights, she briefly eyed the doorway to the kitchen. Not surprisingly, the idea of sustenance -- solid or liquid -- was utterly unappealing.

The redhead entered the bathroom which adjoined the master bedroom through the hall, flinching the tiniest bit when a cloud of steam from her partner's recently completed shower billowed out the door. She transformed her startled reaction into a fond smile, snagging a hand towel and stretching across the sink to buff the fog from the mirror.

As the haze cleared and a pale face appeared before her, Barbara slowed her motions, then lowered the towel to the counter. Arrested by the vision in the small circle she'd cleared, she tilted her head to one side, her reflected companion doing the same. She blinked once, trying to make sense of the dark circles surrounding her reflection's green eyes, of the hollow concavity reflected in pale cheeks.

Eventually, finding no answers, she simply looked away, dismissing the sight. Instead, she focused on the routine acts of preparing for bed: wetting her toothbrush and applying an even three centimeter line of paste to the bristles; brushing with short circular strokes, ten seconds per tooth; unwinding a forearm's length of the minted green floss, wrapping it efficiently around her index fingers, and working the filament between each tooth. Oral hygiene complete, she mentally stumbled -- more tired than she'd known, apparently -- before stripping her shirt and pants and then picking up her brush.

Since she'd been cutting her usual routine short, Barbara determined not to shortchange her usual hundred strokes. Counting almost unconsciously as she ran the brush through her hair, she revisited her years-old debate about simply chopping the entire mess off. Undoubtedly, it would be less work; not to mention the fact that she was reaching an age when long hair was a bit of a youthful indulgence.

For some reason, that observation caused the redhead to still her motions, and she furrowed her brows. A trickle of wetness against her left cheek caught her attention, causing her to purse her lips in vexation.

It was only hair, after all.

Pushing aside any further thoughts on the matter, she efficiently completed her toilette, snapping off the light before quietly cracking the door to the bedroom. She discovered that her stealth was unnecessary: Helena was awake, propped up in the big bed, paging through a magazine.

"Ma -- "

Barbara felt a hint of heat touch her cheeks at the hoarseness in her voice and quietly cleared her throat as she approached the bed.

"Maxim, Hel?"

She observed a flash of white teeth while she transferred herself onto the bed and then occupied herself digging into her bedside table for her bed socks.

"I just like the articles about the gadgets."

The older woman contented herself with a quiet snort, leaning over to pull the socks on and then carefully arranging the covers over her waist. She'd always been a bit... fussy about her covers but now, when it should matter less, she'd gotten rather fanatical about it, possibly as a result of waking one morning not too long after her shooting and finding a finger-width cover-crease running down her right thigh.

Finally satisfied with the relative symmetry of the covers, she met her partner's gaze and spoke primly.

"Indeed. So, what type of gadget is -- "

She craned her neck slightly, squinting the tiniest bit.

"-- Heather demonstrating in her thong, Helena?"

A rueful chuckle was the only reply, and the redhead pushed herself down, under the covers while her partner turned to deposit her educational reading material on the table on her side of the bed. To Barbara's surprise, the younger woman didn't turn off the small bedside light and slide under the covers, electing to remain upright at the head of the bed.

Suspecting that some action was required on her part, she looked over to discover her partner regarding her with the abashed, faintly hangdog expression which usually meant that Helena had done something and was hoping to charm Barbara out of being upset. Years ago, for her own peace of mind, the older woman had stopped being irritated by the fact that the tactic was invariably successful.

"Yes, Helena?"

The younger woman offered a quick smile but didn't meet her eyes. When the brunette began plucking at the top sheet, Barbara quashed her instinctive urge to still the restless movement and waited more-or-less patiently.

"Uhm, it's nothing much really."

Apparently, this would be a situation requiring some coaxing. Unlike, the older woman reflected wryly, some events which her partner simply blurted out -- usually leaving Barbara shell-shocked and dumbstruck.

"That's good to know."

She smiled tenderly as she captured the slender hand which was mussing the sheet which she'd just neatly folded over the top of the blanket. Blue eyes peered through thick lashes.

"It's just, well, I was sort of hungry after my shower."

The redhead nodded, widening her eyes encouragingly.

Her companion's declaration was hardly a surprise. When was Helena not hungry? And, given their harried schedules of the last week, none of them had taken time for regular meals.

"So, I figured that a couple of pop tarts would hit the spot."

Despite herself, Barbara found herself relaxing into the slow pace of the confession.

"And, did they, Sweetie?"

Perhaps the young woman was still hungry and was hinting about a late night raid of the kitchen.

A bright smile and enthusiastic nod of a dark head forced the redhead to dismiss that hypothesis.

"Oh, you bet."

The dark figure extricated her hand and patted a well-toned abdomen in evident satisfaction. Barbara felt a tiny smile ghost her lips at the gesture, an expression which morphed into a puzzled quirk when her partner lifted the covers a few inches and gestured to the darkness beneath.

"It's just, uh, I ate them in here, and there may be sprinkles..."

Barbara waited, certain that couldn't be all of it, then snorted. Unnecessarily, she smoothed the sheet again before meeting dancing blue eyes.

"I'm sure I won't even feel them, Hel."

The younger woman laughed, finally twisting to shut off the small reading lamp and scootching under the covers. Barbara felt her heart jackrabbit once, hard, when she sensed her companion inching across the space between them, and she struggled not to stiffen when a warm hand came to rest lightly over her waist.

For several slow breaths, the two remained still, before Helena shifted the tiniest bit.

"Are you okay, Barbara? You seem a little..."

The older woman felt the slight hand on her waist rise and sensed, rather than saw, a hesitant flutter before it curled around her again.

"... edgy or something."

The redhead exhaled slowly, debating. Ultimately, she decided to share part of the truth.

"I've been kicking myself about Loewen's laser, Hel."

Silence met the admission. Finally, the younger woman moved again, and, in the shadows, Barbara could just make out her partner rising above her and moving close.


The word was a low burr against her cheek, followed by the sensation of full lips softly brushing against her own. The older woman blinked rapidly, barely managing not to avert her face.

How could Helena even...?

The other woman didn't move -- neither closer nor away -- holding her position and the tender contact. Barbara remained still, attempting to identify and separate her feeling, knowing that she was exasperated but not caring to look too closely at the cause.

Pulling one hand from under the covers, she lightly rested her palm on a deceptively slender shoulder.

"Helena, I... can't."

Despite what the admission had cost her, the redhead almost smiled when she felt those lush lips curve into a playful smile.

"Sure you can. Just pucker up your lips a little. I'll do all the work."

This time, a tiny burble of laughter escaped the older woman, and she felt her partner's grin against her cheek.

"That's better."

Another soft kiss brushed Barbara's jaw as the younger woman shifted to move away. In the instant that her laughter and relief eddied with shame, the redhead belatedly realized that her partner might have her own pent up energies... or concerns... of her own to deal with. Accordingly, she lightly rested a hand on a sinewy forearm to stay her lover's movement.

"Sweetie, do you...?"

The question was embarrassingly hesitant, damnably inadequate. However the younger woman seemed to grasp the meaning.

A tiny sigh whispered across the older woman's hair before she heard a quiet reply.

"I'm not looking for skyrockets in flight, Red. Just, let me rub your shoulders or brush your hair or..."

Again, Barbara sensed as much as seeing her partner's quick grin.

"... read computer manuals to you or something."

Even knowing that a certain 1970's hit by the Starland Vocal Band would be looping through her brain, Barbara experienced an insidious flicker of temptation at the quiet request. Yet, somehow, what her partner was offering seemed too fraught with danger and the risk of collapse.

Hating the helplessness of her words, she spoke honestly.

"Helena. I... don't know how."

The response was soft, with no recrimination.

"I know."

Full, warm lips bestowed a gossamer benediction to the older woman's forehead.

"Sometimes, Babs, it's okay..."

The older woman held her breath as another soft kiss touched her lips. She squeezed her eyes shut when she felt the fine down of her partner's cheek brushing her face.

"... to let go..."

There was a final ghosting sweep of impossibly soft lips against her jaw.

"...just for a little, even."

With that, the brunette settled back onto her side, snugging close and burying her nose against the older woman's shoulder. The two lay still for a few minutes, with Barbara fretting over how such tender words could... impale her so.

Cocooned in her partner's gentle embrace, Barbara pushed her thoughts aside, opting to focus on the red LED of the bedside clock. Oddly, the numbers seemed to blur in and out of focus, vexing the redhead with her inability to stay in sync with the slow update of the display. She felt her partner warm breath brushing her neck, the reassuring sensation of the younger woman's hand softly kneading against her far side.

Steadied by that security at least, she pressed a soft kiss to chestnut silk, murmuring the emotion she too often neglected to put into words.

"I love you, Hel."

Since she didn't possess the younger woman's enhanced hearing, she wasn't certain, but Barbara thought that she detected a tiny rumble from her partner's throat. She couldn't miss the words which purred lightly against her shoulder.

"I'll take a bubble gum bath any day for that, Red."

The response had been light, playful, and the older woman mustered a short chuckle.

And then, to her utter surprise and mortification, the redhead heard a hitching gasp which she barely had time to recognize as her own before she felt the muscles of her face tic. A moment later, she couldn't breath under the force of her chest's contractions, and she clenched her teeth to hold back a low wail trying to escape her iron control.

Before she had a chance to stuff it all away and get herself in check, a warm body settled lightly over her, blanketing her with surety while impossibly strong arms wrapped snugly around her and a tender kiss touched her cheek.

The younger woman didn't speak -- no soft shushing noises or empty reassurances -- and Barbara didn't know whether to be grateful or not. If Helena were only to tell her that everything would be all right, the redhead knew that she could have gathered her tattered self-control, stuffed her fears and inadequacies away. She could have hugged her back, and blown her nose, and found something self-depreciating to say to lighten the mood.

But, Barbara discovered that she had no defense against the steadying embrace, against the sensation of soft lips drinking her tears from her cheeks, against complete unspoken understanding. And so, for uncounted minutes, she accepted the embrace, the solace, as her fear and helplessness welled from her. Cocooned in the darkness, she allowed the wetness to escape her eyes and the silent hitching gasps to jerk against her ribcage.

Finally, however, needing to breathe, to reclaim some measure of herself, the older woman pushed up, and -- again in silence -- Helena turned onto her back, helping Barbara follow her movement. Exhaling raggedly, the redhead pillowed her head on the younger woman's chest, and again let the tears leak down her face onto the soft cotton of her companion's tank. Unknown minutes later, she was amazed to find her tightly controlled sobs gentling under the sensation of slender fingers combing through her hair.

Throughout, the other woman remained quiet although her breathing was shallow, not the deep regular respirations suggesting that the younger woman had slipped into sleep. As she calmed, settled, a bit, Barbara relaxed against the younger woman, resting her cheek against the pillowy softness of her partner's chest, lulled by the steady thump of a heart beating under her ear.

Wanting to hear more, she ducked her chin, somehow surprised when her lips grazed against firm flesh straining under damp cotton. A measured inhalation was the only response to the unintended caress.

In the darkness of night, relaxed by her partner's comforting embrace, it seemed natural and effortless then to part her lips, to trace her lower lip over the pebbled peak beneath her lover's thin tank. This time, the response was more distinct: A soft purring rumble echoed against the redhead's cheek.

Wordless, she felt her companion shift minutely, gently helping to raise her head as she snaked her tank up. The younger woman then lay still, allowing -- Barbara realized as something burned her eyes -- her to choose.

After a long moment, she lowered her cheek to silken skin, the heat of her partner soaking through her. Again she brushed her lips once, twice, against the firm peak before touching her tongue to sweet flesh.

In that instant, she understood.

Shifting to take in, Barbara heard her own soft "Oh" of surprise blending into a murmur of pleasure... and surprising peace.

For uncounted moments, Barbara touched and tasted, drawing into herself a sustenance she'd never dreamed existed. Her lover remained still, one hand lightly scratching at her scalp, offering everything without demand, seemingly content under a caress less sensual than... hungry.

Still -- this...

The older woman blinked, reluctantly disengaging.

It was... more... too...

Unwilling to surrender the moment completely, Barbara slid her right hand between them, tracing the strong muscles of her partner's stomach. Brushing her lips against firm flesh again, she teased her fingers across the material of her companion's high cut panties. Without haste, she followed the gentle slope of a slim hip before easing two fingers under the elastic band of the leg. Before she even touched, the moist heat radiating against her hand sent a flare of warmth through the redhead.

Almost cautiously, Barbara brushed wiry curls, tensing her jaw at the slow rocking of the younger woman's pelvis. Lightly, she touched more deeply, insinuating one finger into liquid silk before she felt her lover carefully encircle her wrist with a warm hand.

Comprehending the movement, Barbara blinked once and jerked her chin up an inch in question. An almost inaudible rumble tickled her lips where they rested lightly on the upper swell of her partner's breast. Soft lips pressed the top of her head as Barbara felt her right hand coaxed upward to rest over her companion's heart.

"Not... now, Red."

The brunette's voice was calm. It was utterly sincere. And, the redhead slowly noted, inviting.

Barbara pursed her lips against an onslaught of emotion, then she gasped silently when slender fingers wove through the hair curtaining the side her face, tenderly drawing her mouth back down. She stiffened instinctively, then stiffened further in an attempt not to telegraph her reaction to the subtly guiding pressure of her lover's hand. Again, still, her lover remained calm, body loose beside her, arms solid in their embrace.

For two, perhaps three, heartbeats, the two held the tableau before the younger woman shifted minutely, raising her head. Barbara shivered as soft, full lips touched the shell of her ear. She squeezed her eyes shut tightly, struggling for control when she heard -- comprehended -- her partner's low burr.

"You don't always have to be strong. Let me give you this tonight."

Helpless to refuse, and oddly no longer wanting to, the redhead opened again. In the warm haven of her partner's arms, she felt her limbs loosen and her terrors recede under the thick, safe warmth sliding languidly through her.

For perhaps the first time in her life, Barbara Gordon discovered that it was not that hard at all to put down her burden for one night.

Chapter 16

As it had to, the night came to an end.

The rising sun -- specifically, one cheery tendril of light penetrating the heavy bedroom curtains and pinning her squarely between the eyes -- dragged Barbara from a deep, dreamless sleep. Squinting irritably and wondering why she'd never had that east-facing window bricked over, the redhead groggily fisted her pillow with the intent of burying her head underneath and stealing a few more precious minutes of rest.

A chill raced through her functioning nerves mere nanoseconds after her brain registered that the pillow she was wrestling with was not hypo-allergenic foam rubber encased in a three-hundred thread count Egyptian cotton case. Rather, it was human flesh: soft, pliant, and very, very warm.

A blast of heat which surpassed her bedmate's body temperature immediately chased the chill from the analytical woman, and she felt her face and neck and entire upper body instantly transform to a shade of red which was, undoubtedly, not complimentary to her hair color.

Forcing herself not to jerk away, Barbara attempted to slow her racing heart and grappled with the implications of her position.

It was not the fact that she'd awakened with her head pillowed on Helena's chest which was so terribly difficult to grasp; after all, in the course of the last month or two, she'd frequently awakened twined against her lover or with the younger woman blanketing her. It was the fact that she'd awakened with her head *still* pillowed on the brunette's chest, which meant that she had -- somehow -- fallen asleep earlier... doing...

Seemingly impossibly, the redhead felt the heat in her face intensify.

What on earth had she done?

She wasn't... didn't...

She just wasn't.

For heaven's sake, she'd been a formula baby: bottle, not breast, fed. In all honesty, she suspected that it had had as much to do with her mother's alcoholism as it had with the popular wisdom of the time which advocated formula over breast milk. Nevertheless...

Barbara caught herself at that, mentally rolling her eyes as she admitted that what had occurred earlier had absolutely nothing to do with her infant feeding habits. Yet, it also had had damned little to do with sex either.

She continued to focus on her breathing, replaying the events which had transpired only hours before. Pierced anew by her pleasure in the encounter -- something so acute that it almost bled into pain -- she was forced to accept the reality of the peace and fulfillment she'd experienced. Somehow, in the darkness, she'd lost herself in her partner, in a union which was distinctly not sexual, yet which had been infinitely sensual and intimate.

And, apparently, exactly what she'd needed.

A low purr rumbled against her cheek, followed by words still thick with sleep.

"Hey, Beautiful."

Green eyes blinked against a burning sensation. Barbara worked her jaw to respond but, at a loss, only managed a non-committal murmur.

Obviously still waking, the younger woman didn't comment, contenting herself with a few languorous stretches beneath her. The movement afforded the perfect opportunity, and Barbara pushed herself up and onto her back. Somewhat to her consternation, her bedmate followed the movement, coming to rest on her side against the older woman, effectively reversing the position they'd just been in.

Still, the brunette didn't speak, seemingly happy to snuggle indefinitely, and, gradually, Barbara allowed herself to relax into the somnolent contact. Just as she'd begun to think that she'd dreamed the entire odd night, a soft whisper dissolved her hopes.

"Can you tell me about it now, Barbara?"

Something caught in the older woman's throat, and she frantically worked to organize her thoughts, to sift through information and distill what she needed to. In the midst of her struggles, something brushed her shoulder -- a gentle kiss, the softest blessing of a warm mouth -- and her mind's frantic whirling simply... stilled.

Just like that, the fiercely independent woman grasped that she was not going to have to carry the weight of her discovery all alone.

Perhaps fifteen minutes later, Barbara lay quietly, once again curled in the safe haven of her partner's strong arms. While there had been no tears during her revelations, she still felt purged, leached of some sort of slow-acting poison. Not surprisingly, she realized that she also felt about one hundred and twenty pounds lighter.

Well, perhaps only sixty pounds lighter, since she could only ask Helena to shoulder half of Dinah's weight.

"Yeah, I guess the way D fucked up his acid wash at the reservoir could have pissed him off. Finding out that she's tied to you has to be gravy."

The older woman allowed a quiet snort to signal her agreement, and her partner continued thoughtfully.

"He's gotta know that she can put a real crimp in things. The Kid saved a lot of lives on Wednesday."

The soft voice under the redhead's cheek paused for a heartbeat.

"She saved a couple more last night, too. He's going to see her as a threat as long as we can keep up with him."

Even as she smiled fondly at the pride evident in her partner's tone, Barbara felt the stirring of an idea -- a potentially dangerous idea -- working within her.

"Indeed, Hel."

Deciding to let the thought percolate in the parallel processors of her mind, she tightened her hold around the younger woman and pressed a gentle kiss to her neck. The movement effectively seemed to distract the brunette from all thoughts of Dinah.

Barbara shivered pleasurably as slender fingers walked playfully up her forearm, her smile growing when she heard her partner speak again.

"What say we stay in bed all day? I'll just run out to the kitchen for some snacks, and then we can burrow into the covers and forget everything."

Ignoring the trickle of bitterness in the back of her throat over the fact that the appealing suggestion simply wasn't an option, the analytical woman spoke wryly.

"Why would you need to leave, Sweetie? I seem to recall that you thoughtfully provided pop tart sprinkles for us."

She looked up just in time to observe the other woman visibly brightening.

"You're right. Cool."

The redhead's breath hitched as she was effortlessly turned, Helena coming to rest above her, supporting herself easily with her arms wrapped under the older woman's back.

"So let's stay here all day. We can sleep and cuddle and talk..."

Barbara squirmed ticklishly when the dark head ducked down and even teeth nibbled at her ear.

"... and eat pop tart sprinkles..."

The older woman's movement changed to something more deliberate when she heard her lover's next words.

"... and touch each other..."

The inviting soprano dropped to a breathy purr.

"... and touch ourselves."

The redhead's gentle undulations beneath the younger woman abruptly ceased, and Barbara cautiously licked lips which were suddenly very, very dry. A thick, sticky heat worked through her chest as graphic images from her own fantasies floated through her mind.

How had she neglected that particular desire for so long?

Swiftly re-prioritizing one of her mental to-do lists, she laughed ruefully.

"I wish we could, Sweetheart..."

Her heart squeezed a tiny bit when sweet blue eyes met hers. Tenderly, she raised a hand, tucking a few locks of chestnut silk behind her lover's ear.

"... but we have work to do."

Softer emotions made way for laughter at the vision of Helena clapping her hands over her ears and squeezing her eyes shut tightly. Rolling them to their sides, Barbara walked her fingers across the younger woman's sternum, up the slim column of her throat, and then over her sharp chin.

Crimson brows knit as Barbara unexpectedly *saw* the beautiful woman next to her, and she worked to reconcile this childlike person next to her -- who was so playfully resisting her blandishments -- with the woman who had comforted her so during the night.

Ultimately, she was forced to set the exercise aside for later, opting to stroke her fingers lightly over full lips.

"I think you'll enjoy this work, Hel," she purred coaxingly. "There might be drinking in seedy dives involved."

One blue eye cracked open, appearing decidedly doubtful.

"Indeed," the older woman nodded sagely, pretending not to notice the inspection, "and, probably some ass-kicking in dark alleys."

That got her companion to lower her hands from her ears and open her eyes. An infectious, happy smile transformed expressive caramel features.

"And, after that, I can come home and make love to you for the rest of the night?"

The redhead contented herself with a knowing smile, and the younger woman sighed, wriggling infinitesimally closer.

"As great as that sounds, can we at least have another five -- no, ten minutes?"

Barbara didn't even have to think about her answer, delivered over her partner's rumbling purr.

"Most definitely, Hel."

And, somehow, the extra twelve minutes they allowed themselves truly seemed to put a bounce in her wheels for the day. Feeling more energized and level-headed than she had in ages, Barbara worked through the day with calm resolve and peaceful purpose.

After conscripting Dinah for some chemistry work, she turned her attention to further cyber-tracking, not surprised to discover that the other trails from the secondary firewall she'd located the night before were a great deal more convoluted than the one which led to the high school. Nevertheless, it was a fairly trivial matter for her to reconstruct a great deal of her quarry's network activity. In the late afternoon, she began to narrow in on the origin of his net uplink before being stopped by another tangle of electronic threads. With a frission of excitement, she unleashed a tracking bot to work through the maze and finally straightened from her keyboard.

"Oh, this could be good, Gordon."

The cyber-genius didn't realize she'd spoken aloud until a teasing soprano replied, nearly scaring the wits out of her.

"It better be. I had to call in a lot of favors to get take-out from Luigi's."

"Jesus, Helena!"

The redhead spun from her monitor, belated realizing -- if the array of containers and candles on the coffee table were any indication -- that her cat-footed partner had apparently been nearby for some time. Accordingly, she collected herself -- perhaps some nitroglycerin tablets would be a good thing to keep on hand -- and smiled apologetically.

"I'm sorry, Hel."

The younger woman ducked her head, smiling her acceptance, and Barbara gestured toward the living area.

"What's all this?"

The brunette sauntered up the platform and bent to buss the older woman's cheek. Green eyes narrowed speculatively, noting that one of the younger woman's hands had remained behind her back throughout the exercise.

"Dinner, Red. You know, sustenance? Oh, and..."

Crimson brows shot upward when the young woman almost shyly extended a showy bouquet. Smiling, the redhead automatically accepted the offering and buried her nose in the fragrant tiger lilies. Not even aware that she was doing so, she counted the flowers in the oversized bunch, catching a difference from her initial assumption that there were a dozen.

Eleven bright orange flowers, not twelve. Perhaps one had gotten crushed, or she'd find it later on their bed, or...

The redhead's speculation ended abruptly when she recalled something from earlier in the day.

When she'd returned from a trip to the kitchen, she'd found a small pile of red cinnamon candies -- Barbara believed they were commonly called Red Hots -- on her mouse pad. At the time, she'd assumed that one of her charges had set them down and then wandered off, however, now...

Green eyes lost focus and tracked slightly to the left as the analytical woman called up a mental image of the tiny candies as she'd found them by her computer. They'd been arranged in a circle... no, a heart shape, and there had been exactly eleven of them.

Pursing her lips, Barbara looked up to find dancing blue eyes regarding her expectantly. A slow smile graced her lips as she inhaled the fragrance from the flowers again.

"Not that I mind, Helena -- everything is very sweet -- but why eleven?"

The younger woman's expression turned decidedly smug.

"I like eleven."

The redhead inclined her head as the dark figure squatted beside her and gently clasped her hand.

"Don't you like eleven, Babs?"

By now, Barbara was quite certain that she was missing something obvious; however, for the life of her, she couldn't imagine what it was.

"Eleven is a very nice number, Helena. Both prime and palindromic."

Of course, that earned her a laugh -- a head thrown back, shoulders-shaking type of laugh, no less.

"Yeah, it is, Red. But, it's also our anniversary. Eleven weeks."

The older woman's brief pique disappeared as she performed some rapid-fire calculations.

"The police banquet...?"

The dark head near her shoulder nodded decisively.

"Yup. It was eleven weeks ago when you went all cave-woman on me in front of God and country..."

This time, it was Barbara's turn to laugh as her companion thumped her chest with a fist and lowered her voice, presumably in imitation of a stone-aged romantic.

"My woman. Reese back off...!"

Laughing even harder, Barbara leaned over to capture her lover's mouth, mentally giving thanks that she had, finally, acted. Judging from the enthusiasm with which her gesture was received, her feeling was very much shared.

As enjoyable as the moment was, the redhead found herself distracted by the tempting aroma of Italian food... and, to her chagrin, the rumbling of her stomach. Her partner pulled back, smiling softly as she rose.

"Let's get some food for that thing in your stomach, Red."

Since embarrassment was a bit ridiculous, Barbara nodded and turned to follow the brunette to the living room.

"This is tremendously thoughtful of you, Hel. How did you think to do this... now?"

Helena settled herself cross-legged on the couch.

"We can't live in a state of siege forever, Red. Just 'cuz he's out there doesn't mean we can't celebrate. Even if..."

A slender hand gestured towards the open wine bottle on the low table.

"... I went with sparkling grape juice instead of wine, and I knew better than to try to drag you all the way to the kitchen table. Life goes on, right?"

Arranging herself at the other end of the sofa, Barbara gave herself a moment to consider the wisdom of the younger woman's words.

"Indeed, Sweetheart. Thank you for reminding me of that."

The shy duck of a dark head warmed the older woman, but she remained silent while her companion retrieved two wine glasses and filled them to the brim with juice.

"Where's the Kid tonight? I got enough for three, but I'd sure prefer not to share."

Not at all surprised by the admission, the redhead raised her glass in response to her partner's toast and sampled her beverage. It was a bit on the sweet side but was a decent approximation of a cheap red.

"I thought she'd put in enough time today working on a solvent for the bubble goo."

Barbara interrupted herself, expanding proudly on her newest protege's accomplishments.

"Dinah thinks she's found a combination of common household ingredients which will not just dissolve the stuff but possibly repel it."

Flushed with renewed excitement over the teen's work, she met wide blue eyes.

"Do you realize that, if she's right, Hel, we can publicize the recipe, and the citizens of New Gotham can mix up their own -- "

Dark lashes blinked a measured tempo as Helena cut her off.

"Their own UV Gum Blocker?"

The older woman dipped her head once and waved her wine glass.

"Exactly! Apparently, a combination of ordinary dish washing liq--"

The meaning behind Helena's slow -- patient -- blinking finally registered, and the cyber-genius caught herself.

"Er, yes. Well..."

Unable to resist the almost doting smile on her partner's features, she laughed self-consciously.

"... after that sort of breakthrough, I suggested that she spend the night at Gabby's."

Not missing the sudden flicker in the younger woman's eyes, Barbara primly added, "Especially since you're going to be occupied in bars and dives this evening."

The brunette simply laughed, stretching out to begin ladling copious quantities of pasta onto two plates.

"Probably a good thing I'll be spending some time in bars again. I ran by the Dark Horse this afternoon, and..."

Smiling her thanks, the redhead accepted a brimming plate, her mouth watering at the savory aromas.

"... even though Leonard's seemed pretty glad I'm not asking for any shifts..."

The brunette paused to fork an overstuffed ravioli to her mouth, chewing with obvious relish. As she waited for her dinner companion to continue, Barbara interjected a soft inquiry.

"Apparently people are unwilling to come out even for drinking now?"

Helena nodded and sipped from her glass.

"Yeah. You know it's scary when our usual crowd won't come around. Still..."

She cheerfully twirled her fork in her pasta.

"I don't want to lose my feel for being in bars, right?"

The redhead chuckled, working on her own mouthful of lasagna. A beat later, as she watched Helena sucking a length of fettuccini between her lips, the older woman discovered that she was having quite a bit of difficulty swallowing. Heat, not a blush, touched her upper chest and face as recent memories of that specific type of pasta working its way across her thirty-five inch plasma monitor threatened to overload her neural network.

A beat later, as if reading her mind, the brunette looked up with a slow, sinful smile. The heat suffusing the older woman only intensified when Helena touched the tines of her fork lightly to the strands of pasta on her plate.

"I got some of these with sauce on the side, you know. Just in case something comes up later."

Chapter 17

<"We've got it, Oracle!">

When she heard Helena's enthusiastic exclamation, Barbara clenched her fist tightly, raising it into the air for an enthusiastic victory pump. Seeing her youngest partner skipping over from her workstation, she straightened her fingers and transformed the movement into an open-palmed high five.

A pointedly polite cough in her earpiece recalled the cyber-vigilante from the impromptu victory celebration.

"I'm sorry, Huntress. We got..."

The redhead cast about for the best way to describe her feelings.

Excitement? Of course.

Happiness? Perhaps a bit premature.

Validation? Exactly.

"... a little carried away. Why don't you come in now?"

The brunette's cheerful acknowledgement ended the long-distance conversation and, for the first time in a week, Barbara pushed back from her keyboard with a sense of peace. Finally, she could see a bit of light at the end of the kaleidoscope which The Joker had thrust them into seven days before.

While a cat might have nine lives and their green-haired foe an infinite number of tricks up his horn-buttoned sleeves, Barbara had discovered that she, too, was capable of rising again. Like a phoenix of sorts, she had -- and would -- rise from the ashes of each persona she shed: from gymnast and scholar, to masked vigilante, to teacher and parent, to mentor and friend, to the complex blending which made her who she was at this point. Mired in the bitter ashes of terror and defeat, she'd struggled, only to discover that she soared best not alone, but with another.

And now, it was time to act.

Act. Not react.

It was a mantra which had been drilled into Barbara Gordon throughout her life. As a child, she'd certainly internalized the essence of the truism when her father had come after her with belt and fists. Later, in the happier circumstances of the gymnastics circuit, she'd consciously embraced this wisdom to save jumps or landings. In the classroom, it was invaluable advice for dealing with the constantly changing and often startling actions of her students. As Bruce's disciple, she'd had the words drilled into her until they'd become second nature. Years later, when she'd taken on the mantle of mentor herself, she'd heard herself repeating the advice by rote.

In her terror and guilt of the last week, she'd allowed herself to forget. No more.

Over the last two and a half days, the small team of crime fighters had exacted an elaborate game plan -- a scheme based on careful physical and electronic tracking and on seemingly random encounters. The result was a well-coordinated, ever-narrowing spiral which, not ten minutes before, had pinned down The Joker's base of operations.

To accomplish this, Barbara had seized on a dangerous idea, one which ran counter to everything she had fought for her entire adult life. Yet, with their limited resources and the seemingly unlimited manpower at the disposal of their foe, she'd been forced to accept an unpalatable reality: they would have to allow The Joker free reign in the city.

For five-plus days, the three vigilantes had run themselves ragged simply trying to keep up with the Maestro of Mayhem's shenanigans. As fast as Barbara had pinned down the location of one criminal act and Helena had dispatched the perpetrators, two more incidents would occur. Clearly, playing catch-up -- even in attempts to safeguard the city and its populace -- wasn't enough. In order to exact a killing stroke against the body of the many-headed hydra they'd been battling, they'd need to concentrate on finding The Joker's headquarters.

In short, Barbara had made the painful decision to allow the beast free reign -- or nearly so -- and to leave the police and citizens of the city essentially to their own devices for the last few days. This action had freed Helena entirely for other pursuits and had partially freed Barbara and Dinah, but it had not been without cost.

All three vigilantes were acutely aware that the number of deaths and hospitalizations had risen dramatically in the last two days. As diligent as Barbara and Dinah had been about monitoring activities and attempting to route reports to private security firms, private security couldn't compare with the security provided by one lone dark crime fighter. The recipe Dinah had created to repel and dissolve the madman's bubble goo, which they'd released anonymously to the media on Sunday morning, had saved countless lives; however, it couldn't protect against bullets and fists and knives, which had appeared with increasing frequency on the streets of the city.

It couldn't be helped.

Barbara had pulled Dinah from the streets to help her at the Delphi: a fresh set of eyes in tracing the circumspect electronic footprints which The Joker had left in cyber-space and another set of ears to monitor and route emergency dispatches.

As for Helena, Barbara had focused on other strengths of her remarkable partner: she'd yanked her from visibility and sent her to the shadows.

Even as leader of the little team had continued to track and chart the madcap and malicious crimes plaguing the city, she, too, had fallen back: focused on plotting and detection and setting her snares.

On Saturday afternoon, a second review of the men Helena had captured at the reservoir had tickled the redhead's memory: eidetic memory notwithstanding, some faces you just didn't forget, especially one she'd encountered during fights with The Joker back in the day. If this particular fellow was still attached to Jack Napier seven years later, chances were good that he was valuable.

Shortly after she and her partner had finished a delicious Italian dinner, an inexplicable paperwork snafu at NGPD's central booking office had resulted in the release of the man on Saturday evening.

Then, Barbara had released her hunter.

A small brunette going in to pay a parking ticket for a boxy SUV had brushed against the man on his way out of the police station. While it was uncertain how their quarry felt about the contact, it had afforded Helena the chance to plant a pinhead tracking device on his belt.

Then, the hunt had begun in earnest.

Helena had stalked on the streets and rooftops, flowing through the shadows, following The Joker's henchman. He'd been clever enough not to head directly to his boss, choosing instead to celebrate his newfound freedom with a few buddies at a bar. One said friend probably thought he'd hit the jackpot when he was approached later, separately, by a sultry young woman for a drink. Not too long thereafter, he'd had reason to reconsider his thinking when his lovely companion had invited him into the alley behind the bar and the physical activity which had ensued was possibly less pleasurable than he might have anticipated.

The knowledge Helena had gleaned from the encounter had permitted Barbara to forecast --accurately, for a change -- a break-in later in the evening. The Huntress had been waiting, stealthily trailing the men as they left the scene of crime, skulking through alleyways to catch whispered conversations, sniffing the air from the rooftops. From there, the young woman had effortlessly leapt from one crime to another, one encounter to another, throughout the night and most of the next day.

Barbara had recorded every bit of data her partner provided, running plots, comparing previous hide outs, scanning utility records, everything and anything to try to pinpoint a central location. A whisper from the comms meant an update; an update allowed a projection; the projected location was crisply delivered back to the shadowy figure on the streets. The two women had been in sync -- in a seamless flow -- of their partnership, always circling, centering in.

A hunch, a moment of prescience, had led the cyber-crime fighter to direct her partner to the club district. There, their old friend Clint Williams, the proprietier from the S&M club they'd recently investigated, had even provided an offhand tip, mentioning that he'd been approached about procuring Clown fish -- for the normal aquatic display uses -- by some men with traces of white grease paint on their necks.

The phone number they'd left, which Helena had persuaded the club manager to hand over, had been another valuable piece of data in triangulating The Joker's men's position.

Throughout, Barbara had moved on logic and, uncharacteristically, intuition. Repeatedly, she caught herself shivering -- pleasurably for a change -- as she listened to her partner's soft updates and growling interrogations. Repeatedly, she'd experienced an absolute thrill in the confidence and strength of Helena's movements and actions -- whether it was roughing up a lowlife in an alley or trolling for drinks and tidbits of information in dark bars.

Early this morning, the cyber-genius had slipped through the secondary firewall she'd located three nights before, and she'd had it: the location of the electronic uplinks. Several surreptitious hacks on her part had followed, and a conversation with a rogue ISP provider by Helena had resulted.

And, by noon on Monday, they had it.

The Joker was not, as the redhead had half-suspected, near the docks or the airport; rather, he was in a nearly empty tenement downtown which had the advantage of an underground parking structure.

"That was freakin' awesome, Red!"

Having heard her young partner's exuberant thump on the balcony, Barbara didn't even blink when Helena breezed in, already talking.

"The way you and D pinned down the location of that hacker-boy. I can't believe how fast that pimply-faced rat coughed up his hard-wiring plans."

The redhead exchanged a look with her blonde companion, confirming that neither of them was surprised by the brunette's considerable powers of persuasion with the young man who had run an illicit T-1 line into the tenement.

Apparently oblivious to the silent exchange, Helena shucked her duster and bounded onto the Delphi platform.

"So, what's the plan, Barbara? When can we take that fucker out?"

Not missing how her teenaged ward perked to attention at the question, the older woman managed to reply with a laugh.

After all, she couldn't fault Helena her enthusiasm.

"No take-downs for us, Hel."

As her partner's perpetually raised left eyebrow worked its way higher, Barbara placatingly raised one hand, resting it lightly on the dark figure's firm abdomen.

"Rather, no take-downs on our own. We're going to scout the building tonight and then contact the authorities."

No time to wait or dally over the information they'd gleaned, but the older woman knew they couldn't do it alone. She simply wouldn't take the risk.

A short dip of chestnut hair reassured the older woman, and she smiled her thanks. The next words she heard, an excited and somewhat reedy soprano, neatly stripped the smile from her face.

"Kewl! I'll go clean off my boots."

Despite the sizeable lump which had appeared in her throat, Barbara kept it low-key. She drew in a slow breath and turned to meet pale eyes, trying to impress upon the girl how serious she was.

"Dinah, I don't think that you need to be out--"

"For God's sake, Barbara!"

This time, the redhead changed the direction of her gaze with a great deal more speed.

Whiplash was, perhaps, a possibility.


The incredulous question was met with a decidedly truculent dip of a dark head, and Barbara felt her temper flare. Resultantly, she spoke very, very calmly.

"I can't believe you'd suggest that she actually walk right up to his lair."

As long as they'd known each other, the older woman was confident that her partner recognized her tone. Still, the brunette didn't back down, meeting her gaze evenly and gesturing toward the teen.

"Shit, Barbara. She wouldn't just 'be walking right up'..."

The tone clearly encapsulated the words in mocking quotation mark.

"... She'd be sneaking over the rooftops to the vicinity of his building and offering me a helluva lot of backup in the process."

"I can do that, Barbara."

So focused had she been on her partner's argument, the redhead had forgotten that the subject of their discussion was still present.

It was time to take things down a notch.

With a weary sigh, the cyber-genius turned to smile gently at her ward.

"Dinah, would you mind excusing Helena and me for a few minutes?"

The girl clearly recognized a dismissal when it landed at her feet. In her haste to depart, she by-passed the ramp, simply hopping from the platform and gesturing down the hallway.

"Uh, sure. I'll, uh, just, uhm, go be anywhere but here."

An amused snort from beside her eased a tiny measure of the redhead's tension, and she painted on a smile.

"Thank you, Dinah."

Waiting for the soft click of the teen's bedroom door, Barbara raised a hand to pinch the bridge of her nose, frantically working to organize her arguments. A whisper of movement, followed by the sensation of strong hands resting on her shoulders distracted her. When her companion began knead the always-tight muscles of her neck, she realized that she was suddenly at a distinct disadvantage in the debate arena and opened her mouth to say as much.

A whisper through her hair cut her protest short.

"Relax, Barbara. I'm not trying to get something over on you or anything. But, can you listen for a second?"

"Fair enough, Hel."

To emphasize her sincerity, the older woman allowed her chin to drop, permitting gravity to stretch the tight muscles being relaxed under expert hands.

"We know he's got the Kid in his sights, and he probably knows we know. But, we know he knows we know, too, right?"

Since she thought she'd followed the circuitous trail, the redhead murmured an agreement.

"But isn't it better for her to be watching him, too?"

The older woman straightened her shoulders, feeling her brows furrow in helpless frustration.

"Helena, I just don't know if we should -- "

"I know."

A quiet chuckle of commiseration silenced her protest. A beat later, the younger woman circled the chair and leaned against the edge of the desk.

"Few years ago, I didn't think you were *ever* gonna let me solo."

Remembering very well her nervousness at the idea, Barbara smiled fondly, before sobering.

"And, The Joker wasn't on the loose then, either, Hel."

The younger woman nodded seriously, then fiddled with the mouse.

"I know, but Dinah's not going to be on her own either."

This time, the redhead nodded, valiantly ignoring her desire to rescue her optical mouse.

"I'll keep her back, Barbara. You know she listens to directions, but she wants to come. And -- "

The dark figure nervously tossed the delicate prototype pointing device from hand to hand.

"--honestly, Red, I'd kind of like to have the back-up. If that crackpot has something new on that bubble goo stuff..."

The brunette allowed the remainder to go unspoken, but Barbara fully understood the implications. She'd long preached the importance of teamwork to her younger charges; apparently, her lesson -- hypocritical as it was considering her predilections back in the day -- had been taken to heart.

A line from the play she'd started with her class the week before echoed dully through her mind: Torvald's words about his songbird drooping her wings; and the older woman slowly inclined her chin to her chest, signaling her agreement with her partner's arguments. She could only hope that she wouldn't regret the decision later.

With the detente, the brunette's nervous restlessness simply... disappeared. A beat later, still attempting to comprehend the change, Barbara observed a distinctly different sort of energy begin to move almost visibly through her partner. She had time to blink twice before the younger woman flowed onto her lap, her words purring into her ear.

"We've got some time to kill before dark. Wanna burn off some nervous energy before our scouting expedition?"

Amused despite herself, the redhead turned to meet the younger woman's eyes. Her laughing reply -- something about the heavy bag in the training room -- died on her lips. She felt her heart skip a bit as she realized that, indeed, her partner's suggestion held a great deal of appeal.

She'd done all she could to prepare. Now, burning of some energy was exactly -- *exactly* -- what she wanted to do.

An hour later, trailing her lips across one of many specific sensitive areas of her lover's body, she pulled back a few inches, watching the young woman shiver and listening to her shallow panting.

"You like that, Sweetheart?"

The question was absolutely unnecessary, of course, but her partner didn't ignore it. Her gasps did make it difficult to make out exactly what she was saying.

"Fu-- fuck. I like, ugh, everything when you touch m--"

Having a good sense of the response, B shifted her touch, moving more deliberately. And firmly.

" --Oooh, fu..."

The dark head shifted, glittering gold eyes catching green.

"... I... I really like that..."

Then, there was no more talking for a few minutes as a fine sheen of sweat rose on her lover's tan skin, and the undulations of the younger woman's hips became less fluid, more jerky.

"I-- oh, shit -- don't stop... I'm gonna -- "

With an almost inaudible whimper, Barbara stopped.

Immediately, she was pinned by incredulous golden eyes.

"Wha-- what the hell?"

Swallowing thickly, the redhead ducked her head, wondering if this had been such a good idea. Reaching within, she forced herself to hold her lover's gaze.

"I want you to come inside me, Helena."

For a split second, when the brunette stiffened and then moaned - low and heavy -- Barbara feared that her request alone had been enough to... lose the opportunity, as it were.

To her credit, the younger woman somehow calmed her trembling, and a slow sinful smile spread across flushed features.

"Do you think you..."

Barbara teased two fingers to complete her question. In an instant, Helena flowed upward, effortlessly repositioning them.

"At this point -- "

Although her hands were steady, the brunette's voice was anything but.

"--I think it's guaranteed. But, are you sure?"

Crimson brows knit even as dark brows waggled playfully. The two positioned themselves, Helena mated against the redhead, and Barbara gasped watching them move slickly together.

"I don't have any protection you know."

Amazed anew by the way her lover so effortlessly combined sensuality and humor, the redhead heard a tiny laugh bubble forth. Twining her fingers in chestnut silk and dragging kiss-bruised lips to hers, she smiled her reassurance.

"I'm sure, Hel. My students keep telling me that no one ever gets pregnant the first time."

Chapter 18

There was a first time for everything.

While this wasn't the first time that Barbara had been involved in elaborate plans to take down The Joker, it was the first time that she'd been at the helm, piloting the operation and largely responsible for its success or failure.

The realization was sobering, to say the least. Nevertheless, the cyber-crime fighter tried to calm her jangled nerves a wee bit, recalling a recent experience when choosing the right pair of socks to wear for a date had seemed more daunting than the life and death decisions she made in her other life.

Tapping her fingers restlessly against the ergonomically angled wrist rest of her keyboard, the redhead wished, for twentieth time in the last half hour, that she could be on the scene with her younger partners. Even set up in the van within binocular range would provide some measure of relief; unfortunately, it wouldn't provide her nearly enough computing power to handle things from her end.

<"We're in position. There's still a lot of movement around the place.">

The relative lack of criminal activity in the city for the last few hours had already told the cyber-crime fighter that their prey had yet to depart his lair for the night.

"Hold your position until you're positive that he's left."

<"Copy that.">

A quick blip on the GPS caught Barbara's eye, and she looked more closely. The granularity of the display was such that it was almost impossible to detect movement of less than thirty or forty feet, however it appeared that her partners in the field were on the prowl.

"Huntress? Canary? I show movement."

The inquiry was mild. After all, scouting the exterior of the building was expected; however, she didn't want any surprises.

<"Little scouting from the rooftops, Oracle.">

A soft whoosh of air, followed by the softest of scuffs, suggested that her younger partner had just cleared the distance between two buildings. A few seconds later, a quiet grunt signaled that Dinah had also bridged the distance using her TK.

<"Streets are lousy with goons.">

Oblivious to the fact that it was a voice-only link, the redhead nodded.

Perimeter guards were hardly unexpected.

<"Huntress is right, Oracle. Just on this side, I can count six hanging out on--">

Dinah's recon report was cut short by a soft cough, and Barbara blinked once, then felt a smile skirt her lips when she heard Helena whisper something to the teen.

<"You mean that bum, too?">

<"You wanna take any chances, Canary?">

Barbara was fairly certain she heard the girl swallow.

<"Uhm, update on that number, Oracle. We count seven on this side.">

"Thank you, Canary. I'll make a note of that."

The redhead began to update her schematics of the area, the detailed plans they'd be fleshing out during their reconnaissance, hearing her partners' quiet movements and the sound of Helena whistling softly through her teeth.

Warren Zevon's 'Werewolves', if she weren't mistaken.

<"What's the weather forecast for tonight, Oracle?">

The cyber-genius automatically toggled to her NOAA window even as the brunette continued.

<"Should I run back to base for my... cat-brella?">

Dinah's snicker coincided with another smile for Barbara.

"It might not hurt, Huntress. This is New Gotham, you know."

A disgusted snort acknowledged the truth of the observation, and the woman at the computer took a minute to turn and look through the transom to the balcony.

Clouds, low and mean, scudded through the dark night sky. As she watched, a gust of wind cleared the cloud cover for a moment, allowing a star to flicker into view, and something Helena had told her years ago came to mind.

One late night, perhaps two years into their joint venture, Helena had returned to the tower -- bruised, battered, and less than victorious -- after a battle with Clayface. Barbara had tenderly cleaned and stitched her partner's wounds and then moved to the kitchen to procure a few ice packs. When she'd returned to the living area, there'd been no sign of the broody young woman, and so, unerringly, she'd headed to the balcony.

She'd found Helena there, perched against the gargoyle on the parapet, eyes fixed on the sky. Barbara had chosen not to speak, simply casting her gaze skyward as well. Eventually, a low soprano had broken the silence.

"Up there?"

An almost painfully thin arm had risen, pointing to the southwest and a bright star in a well-known constellation. The older woman had nodded, certain that her partner would detect the movement in the darkness.

"My mom always told me that the brightest star in Orion's belt is the special wish-star of hunters."

The redhead had turned to regard the sharp lines of her protege's face in profile. She'd heard a ribbon of pain... or tension threading her companion's voice and, at the time, had assumed it had to do with memories of Selina which Helena's encounter with Clayface might have brought up.

"Are you wishing now, Helena?"

Blue eyes, reflecting the lights from the sky, had met hers, and Barbara had shivered at the enigmatic reply.

"I'm always wishing."

This evening, Barbara cast her own wish: for a successful, safe operation. From bitter experience, she knew that injury was a distinct possibility, even in successful attacks against the madman. He was truly a force to be reckoned with.

Instantly, the redhead's perfect memory supplied the sights and sounds and emotions which had nearly overwhelmed her during the first attempt she'd joined in to capture the Clown Prince of Darkness. Bruce had directed her to stay back -- primarily to watch and learn, she suspected in hindsight; at the time, she'd assumed that she could function as an element of surprise if needed.

Chuckling without humor about the naivete of youth, the cyber-vigilante sobered, recalling her first impression of the madman when they'd penetrated his waterfront hideout: Size, sheer size. Jack Napier was well over six feet tall, with the breadth and musculature to match. With his flamboyant garb and booming laugh, his presence was almost awesome... or simply awful.

He -- and his goons -- had certainly been overwhelming that night. In a rare instance of bad intel, Bruce had seriously underestimated the forces they'd be taking on, and almost immediately after they'd entered, Barbara had been horrified to see Bruce and Dick taking a beating at the hands of the green-haired villain and his henchmen.

When the two had opted for an strategic retreat, her gasp of dismay from the rafters must have been audible, for she'd suddenly been pinned by eyes containing only pure malice. As if he'd had all the time in the world, the white-faced lunatic had strolled toward her.

"Well, well. What have we here? Don't tell me that The Caped Nitwit and Boy Blunder have finally found a brood mare!"

Barbara had almost been furious enough to attack; fortunately, her rational side had persuaded her otherwise. Unfortunately, no amount of rational thought had been able to free her from the madman's almost hypnotic eyes, his taunting words.

"Come down, Little Bat-Breeder. Wouldn't you rather make happy, smiling offspring -- "

The implication behind the clown's leering perma-grin had been clear enough to make the crimson-haired vigilante's stomach turn.

"-- than depressed and gloomy do-gooders?"

Her nauseated anger had finally freed her from her shocked paralysis and she'd retreated -- thoroughly shaken -- from the building. She hadn't moved fast enough to escape the horrifying cackle of the madman's last words.

"Perhaps, I should just make certain that you can't!"

Shaking off the memory, the cyber-crime fighter trailed her hand across her lower abdomen, pursing her lips against a phantom sensation of pressure when her fingers brushed over a ridge of thick scar tissue just above her pubic bone.

To this day, Barbara still wondered if at least one of the four bullets which The Joker had pumped into her seven years before had been an attempt to make good on the chilling threat from that first meeting.

Unlike the frontal assault her mentor had attempted during her first meeting with The Joker so many years before, this time Barbara's plan was to wait until the Master of Mischief sallied forth for his nightly torment of the city. At that point, Helena would approach the building and scout for access and hidden traps. If things were clear -- and Barbara had been quite adamant about this point -- then the young vigilante might even try to enter the building, perhaps disabling weapons or taking out any lackeys who might not be missed.

After that, Helena and Dinah would wait, circle the building, and confirm The Joker's return. As soon as Barbara finished a schematic of the building, complete with details about weapons and traps, she would contact the authorities for an early morning takedown.

In the field, her partners were ready.

At the tower, the leader of the little team was also as prepared as she could be. Every screen on the Delphi was logged in for every possible contingency. Dinah had helped her put together an emergency bag, holding two cell phones and an array of batarangs and escrima sticks, which was looped over the back of her chair. The keys to the van were tucked in her front pocket: Helena hadn't even blinked when Barbara had asked her to move the van as close as possible to the elevator in the garage.

Unknown to the younger women, the redhead had made one additional preparation while her partners were on their way to the tenement: She'd dug her father's old service pistol out of the gun safe and placed it in the pocket of her chair. If some sort of wild rescue were required of her, Barbara intended to be fully prepared.

<"Looks like they're moving out for whatever fun they have planned tonight, Oracle.">

The quiet update, scarcely louder than the night winds which whispered over Helena's microphone necklace, raised the fine hairs on Barbara's arms. Acute emerald eyes mechanically clicked from monitor to monitor, confirming that the terminals were still linked into GPS, EMS, Police dispatch, and every private security firm in the city.


The teen's breathy confirmation was almost as soft as Helena's.

<"... a fleet of Escalades and Crown Victorias just pulled out of the garage moving... uhm...">

<"South">, the older woman on the scene provided.

Capturing the security camera at an ATM several blocks south of her partners' position, Barbara watched the parade of vehicles move by. Despite the grainy quality of her video feed, she couldn't mistake the identity of the passenger in the third car in the procession.

"Give it another ten minutes before moving, Huntress."

<"I'm in no hurry, Oracle.">

The quiet words reassured the redhead, again, that her partner understood the risks of the situation. Resultantly, she didn't bat an eye when she heard a soft question through the transceiver.

<"Wanna go grab a burger while we're waiting, Canary?">

While Helena's question had been light, Dinah's reply was anything but, and, once again, Barbara reconsidered the wisdom of allowing the girl to accompany the more experienced older woman.

<"Uhm, I don't think I could eat right now, Huntress.">

The brunette didn't directly comment on her partner's case of nerves.

<"Yeah, me neither, but I'll bet you a taco that we'll be ready to eat a horse after we mop the floor with this creep.">

A flicker on the GPS distracted Barbara from a mental inventory of the kitchen -- Helena was undoubtedly correct about how hungry they'd *all* be after they wrapped this up -- and she interrupted her charges' soft debate about the merits of omelets versus burgers for post-sweeps sustenance.

"Is Canary in position, Huntress?"

<"Uh huh -- ">

<"Sure is --">

The replies were almost simultaneous, followed by a beat of silence while the two presumably sorted out who should complete the update.

<"I've got her behind the marquee of the Reel Deal.">

The redhead nodded approvingly. The location -- one story up outside the long defunct theatre -- gave the teen a vantage point in three directions and an unobstructed view of the parking garage entrance.

"Well done, Huntress."

Barbara drew in a slow breath.

"Are you ready?"

<"As I'll ever be.">

With that, the dark vigilante moved out, easily leaping the street separating the theatre from The Joker's building and scaling silently to the roof. Once there, she began to move through the route Barbara had worked out with her earlier, scouting first the top of the building.

<"And, that makes four.">

"Copy that, Huntress."

The sub vocal description of another fortified position for guards or look-outs was hardly unexpected: clown that he was, The Joker took his security very seriously.

<"Maybe I can pay the guards up here a visit before the PD arrive, Oracle.">

"Indeed, Huntress."

The cyber-vigilante highlighted the findings about the rooftop positions in her schematic even as she allowed that her partner's suggestion was, possibly, the best chance to disable the guards and provide a slim chance of a surprise arrival when the police made their raid.

"Are you ready to move on?"

<"Checking the fire escape right now...">

A rusty creak set the redhead's teeth on edge. She couldn't imagine how it had impacted the younger woman's sensitive hearing.


Despite the surprise evident in the exclamation, the young vigilante's curse was barely a whisper.


<"Frikkin' bricks are crumbling around the bolts holding the fire escape. May take a little longer to cover the building...">

"Slow and steady, Huntress."

For the next hour, Helena cautiously circumnavigated the exterior of the three-story building, peering through grime-encrusted windows and detailing everything she saw: from the presence of a lone guard who was dozing in front of a television, to the number of cots and sleeping bags in each room, to the types of weapons stacked casually against walls and furniture. As Barbara methodically recorded every finding, she continued to check in with Dinah.

The blonde reported quiet streets from her vantage point, and compulsive checks of the scanners showed why: the residents of the building had apparently decided to strike hard with their bubble goo -- possibly before New Gotham's citizens seized on the repellent recipe which had been broadcast. Shopping centers, the hospital, and two nursing homes had all been hit in the last fifty minutes, leaving numerous people injured and two senior citizens dead.

Taking the latest EMS dispatches as a sign, Barbara updated her partners in the field.

"Joker is hitting hard with the bubble goo. Is your repellent still fresh?"

<"I just put more on.">

The redhead nodded her approval of Dinah's conscientiousness, ignoring a soft mutter -- something about 'teacher's pet' -- from the other comm set.

<"Just doing it now... ">

A soft spritzing confirmed the brunette's acknowledgement. It was followed by a pointed sniff.

<"Didja have to use the lavender dish soap, Canary? I smell like somebody's grandmother.">

Hearing a nervous giggle from the teen, Barbara smiled before growing serious.

"My schematics show that you've covered the exterior, Huntress. Is that it?"

She tried to ignore the fear which blew through her at her partner's response.

<"Above ground, yeah. Guess I'm ready to hit the garage.">

Barbara couldn't stop herself. Once Helena was inside, her options for escape were much more limited.

"Be careful, Huntress."


The older woman sat stiffly, listening to... no sound at all as the brunette stealthily made her way into the underground structure. It was only when a low whistle sounded through her earpiece that Barbara realized she'd forgotten to breathe during her wait.

"What is it, Huntress?"

The younger woman's voice was hushed, but distinctly awed.

<"There's like sixty crates of bubble gum in here...">

The redhead waited out Dinah's soft gasp and Helena's brief pause.

<"... and six barrels of nitro and enough C-4 for a Bruce Willis movie. With a sequel.">

When the dark vigilante completed her description by noting that it was all stacked near the entrance, next to the water canons which had been used just a week before during what Barbara had come to think of as The Joker's coming out bash, a chilling vision of just what the maniacal clown was planning came to mind. While the raid which would be triggered from their exploration would doubtlessly curtail the terror he'd planned, all three women were aware that the presence of the explosives would complicate an assault on the building.

<"Is there anything we can dump in the nitro to, uh, stabilize it?">

A crimson brow crept upward as Barbara considered Helena's question.

"Sawdust would be absorbed best and work to raise the activation po--"

A terrified whisper cut short the impromptu science lesson.

<"There's no time! They're coming back now!">

The roaring of engines and squealing of tires graphically emphasized the blonde's warning, somehow intensifying the burst of adrenaline which shot through the older woman.

"Get out now, Huntress!"

<"On my way...">

The softest of clattering evidenced the brunette's hurry, and Barbara clenched her jaw -- unmoving, unbreathing -- for a long ten seconds.

<"M'out... and...">

A soft thump, almost swallowed by shouting voices and revving engines from the street, accompanied the update.

<"... back with Canary. What the hell happened?">

Noticing that scanner reports -- which always lagged a bit -- were dropping off, the redhead realized that their quarry must have abruptly pulled all of his men back to their base.

"Something must have tipped him off. What's going on?"

The brunette's voice was rough with frustration.

<"They're clearing the place out. Stuff from the garage first. I can hear him yelling...">

The older woman held her breath, willing her partner's acute hearing to do its thing.

<"... Something about being compromised, Oracle. Shit! I must of set off an alarm somehow.">

Even as a plethora of creative invective ran through her mind, Barbara couldn't stand the frustration in her partner's voice.

"It couldn't be helped, Huntress. Can you get some tracers onto their vehicles before they--"

<"Holy shit!">

<"Oh no!">

Fortunately for her nerves, the older woman didn't have to wait long for an explanation for the twin exclamations of dismay.

<"He's torching the building, Oracle. Canary, how many barrels of nitro did you count coming out?">

The redhead felt her eyebrows shoot skyward when she heard Dinah's reply.


"Pull back. Now."

<"Copy th-- Waitasecond...">

Barbara's brows descended with alarming speed, knitting in consternation.

What could be so interesting that Helena would dawdle near a burning building containing powerful explosives?

She'd just snapped open her mouth to make an inquiry to that effect when her partner made the gesture superfluous.

<"Joker's got the guard who was watching TV inside. He looks really pissed off...">

The redhead nodded grimly, aware that Jack Napier did not tolerate screw-ups well -- especially one that lost him an established base of operations. She was distracted from that thought -- nearly jumping out of her chair, in fact -- by the nearly simultaneous sounds of two gun shots, a high-pitched male scream, and Dinah's whimper.

<"That bastard knee-capped him!">

Helena's hushed update was rife with fury.

<"He's dragging the guard into the garage while everybody else is burning rubber...">

As horrifying as The Joker's swift punishment for his lackey was, it was Dinah's tearful words which truly terrified the leader of the small team of crime fighters.

<"We can't just let him burn! Hel-- Huntress, can't we do something?">

"Stay out of it!"

The words -- sharp, decisive -- were out before Barbara even thought about it. When she heard a resigned sigh from her younger partner, she realized they'd been for naught.

<"We have to try, Oracle.">

"Huntress, no. Don't do this."

She heard the lithe figure's movement before Helena replied.

<"In and out. I promise. Canary, you stay back.">

The redhead grit her teeth but recognized that, indeed, they couldn't not try.

A week before, she'd said it herself to her impassioned younger partner: they did not kill. By the same token, they couldn't simply stand back and allow someone to die an agonizing death.

Steeling herself, the cyber-vigilante completed her emergency dispatch to NGFD, with a prominent warning about the explosives. She'd just hit the send key when a shotgun blast and her partner's hoarse grunt boomed through the comms. The snarling voice which followed, highlighted by the crackle of flames and the angry screech of twisting metal, simply froze her in place.

<<"Well, well, I knew one of you do-gooders would come in to save this worthless piece of offal, and now you need saving, too!">>

The horrified gasp from the other comm unit eloquently expressed Dinah's reaction.

"Hold your position, Canary!"

The directive, banded with iron, was instinctive. A split-second later, Helena's almost taunting tone gave her hope that she'd made the right choice.

<"Big deal, Clown-boy. This stuff is gonna dissolve any minute now--">

<<"Ah, ah, ah!">>

The sly tsking evoked a completely visceral terror in the redhead, but she ruthlessly pushed it aside.

<<"Are you so certain that you'll have a minute? In the meantime, where's Gordon's newest little bird? Doesn't she want to play? Doesn't she want to do the right thing?">>

Well aware that the madman was deliberately taunting whoever might be listening, Barbara murmured a low warning to the teen just as the the taunting voice spoke again.

<<"It really doesn't matter, though. One by one, I'll get through you, and then I can reacquaint myself with your precious leader.">>

Buffeted by more reactions than she could grasp, Barbara still didn't miss the faint response of the young woman trapped in the parking structure.

<"No... body plays... Stay the fu-- uh -- away from... family.">

The words were brave, however the brunette was gasping.

Against her bonds? The smoke? The heat? The older woman could only guess.

<"Bar-- Oracle! I've got to go in!">

The hushed, desperate whisper apparently distracted both of the older women, and they spoke as one.

<"Stay away, Kid!">

"Canary, stay back!"

The Joker's gleeful laugh squealed through the earpiece even as the crackle of flames grew louder and Helena grunted painfully.

<<"Wrooong choice! Bye bye, Birdie!">>

Helena's voice was pure, agonized rage.

<"Then you're coming, too, Asshole!">

Frantically yanking off her headset, the redhead pushed back from her computer and fumbled for the keys in her pocket. In the instant before she turned for the elevator, she peripherally noted a blip on the GPS: a blip from Dinah's unit which could have signaled movement.

<"I have to try to get close enough to use my TK!">

Barbara instinctively grappled for the microphone, then stiffly stilled her movement.

There was simply no way she could get there in time to do any good, and Dinah was there. Specifically, she was there for backup for just this sort of situation.

Slowly, she approached her workstation again, settling the weight of her headset around her, aware that she'd have to ride this out remotely. Time seemed to slow, stretching around her like hot taffy as she listened to the events playing out:

The Joker's screams of fury.

Dinah's terrified whimpers as she tried slip past the heat of the fire.

Helena's exultant shout that she'd freed herself and was on her way out.

The explosion which abruptly silenced everything from the remote units.

Chapter 19

The silence was overwhelming.


Almost a living entity demanding to be recognized.

Not altogether surprising, Barbara supposed.

Despite the ebb and flow of family and friends in the waiting area, regardless of the efficient hustle and bustle of staff in the corridor, there could be no forgetting what those in the large central ward or the individual rooms were enduring. As a result, conversations were short; voices, hushed; movements, restrained.

There was silence.

Oddly, the redhead found that the sepulchral nature of her environment was unleashing fragments of an old song, damnably juxtaposing 1960s folk music with the words she needed to concentrate on.

Hello darkness, my old friend, I've come to talk with you again,

Or, perhaps not so odd after all.

"Are you certain you want to do this? It isn't necessary... or you could wait until she's more..."

Barbara slowly looked up, somehow having forgotten that Jesse Reese was personally accompanying her. Perhaps he misunderstood her confusion, because he dropped his voice and continued.

"It's pretty bad right now, but later today when--"

A sharply raised hand cut him off.

While the redhead understood that the handsome young police detective was attempting to look out for her, she wasn't expecting anything... pretty.

"I have to see..."

Sympathetic, deep brown eyes held hers, offering another chance, and Barbara suddenly very much understood at least some of what her vivacious partner had seen in the young officer.

The detective held the look for a beat before backing down, dropping his gaze uncomfortably. The older woman thought he was considering adding something; however, something in her face persuaded him otherwise. Ducking his head, he swung open the heavy door and stepped back, allowing the redhead to proceed him into the cavernous central room.

Within the sterile environment, florescent lights which had been dimmed to two-thirds illuminated a half-dozen gurneys. The makeshift beds were arranged, almost haphazardly, with three occupied by individuals who hadn't yet been relocated. A nurse, wearing scrubs printed with bright tropical flowers, was working with the IV bag hanging above one.

With a blink of surprise -- although she wasn't certain what had caught her unawares -- the redhead revised her count. There were four occupied beds, although the occupant of the gurney which was pushed against the wall, almost as an afterthought, was hardly in the same category as the others in the room.

Barbara was quite aware that, overwhelmed as they were by The Joker's rampage and the influx of injuries from the tenement fire, hospital staff had been hard-pressed to keep up.

Nevertheless, it wasn't... right to have him in here.

Almost against her will, she turned to face the stretcher, taking in the glint of the manacles still securing the occupant to the steel rails of the bed. While the cuffs were now completely unnecessary, Barbara realized that she had absolutely no desire for them to be removed.

For a beat, she stared at the still figure, until the soft scuff of her companion's shoes alerted her to the fact that she'd stopped. Somehow, she found purchase on the rims of her wheels with her sweat-slickened hands and forced herself to approach the gurney against the wall.

Before her, still larger than life, limbs stretched in the grip of final agony, lay the body of Jack Napier, The Joker.

Abstractedly, the redhead noted that her nemesis' dapper purple suit was nothing but charred cloth; his green hair and pale skin were burned and blistered, revealing raw flesh and bone. The man -- ultimately nothing but a man -- had tarried too long in his own trap and paid the ultimate price; yet, even the oxygen mask which was still fixed in place from the ambulance ride couldn't conceal the madman's wild grin.

The analytical woman breathed shallowly through her mouth, taking an extra moment to attempt to comprehend the... triumph in the maniacal smile. Although she couldn't begin to guess what the man had seen in his final gasping moments, she had a bitter understanding of what lay behind her foe's expression.

Crisply rotating her chair, the cyber-vigilante unerringly made her way to a different gurney, mechanically taking care not to tangle herself in the myriad wires and tubing and other accoutrements of medical care which spilled from the other beds.

In restless dreams I walked alone Narrow streets of cobblestone, 'neath the halo of a street lamp, I turned my collar to the cold and damp


No longer transfixed by the visage of evil in the bed against the wall, Barbara was assailed by the overwhelming, dreadful cold of the room. She shivered violently, wishing she were curled up in her big bed, with her young partner blanketing her with her tremendous heat.

Or, really, that she were anywhere but here.

Stopping inches from a bed near the center of the room, she realized that her trembling now had very little to do with ambient air temperature.

Slowly, carefully, she stretched out, shakily reaching for the slender figure curled on the high rolling bed. After a hesitation so brief it might have gone unnoticed, she rested her finger tips lightly on the sheet which had slipped from an awkwardly skewed shoulder. Somehow, she resisted the urge to straighten -- or otherwise fuss with -- the linen, instead slowly inching the cover down.

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more.
People talking without speaking,
People hearing without listening


Distantly, Barbara registered that Jesse had stepped closer, that he had, perhaps, said something. She peripherally noted a movement which could have been the young detective lifting his hand toward her shoulder before aborting the motion. She was profoundly grateful that he had resisted his impulse to comfort, fearing that she would have shattered at the touch.

The analytical woman inclined her head to the side, taking in the small figure before her. Due to the height of the makeshift bed, the younger woman was at eye level, and Barbara mentally cursed her position, her inability to see completely. From long years of practice, she forced herself to ignore her anger at herself -- her limitations -- and concentrated on what she could take in.

Removing her hand from the sheet, Barbara blinked against the heat in her eyes, then exhaled soundlessly, bringing thumb and forefinger to the bridge of her nose. A soft, rhythmic beeping from some machine echoed against the pulse she could feel pounding in her temple, and the hiss of an air compressor grated her nerves. Almost absently, she lightly traced a length of plastic tubing which was coiled through the fold-down rail on the side of the gurney, wondering when the overworked staff would have time to tidy the mess.

Probably when they moved the young woman from the temporary bed.

The older woman nodded, scarcely aware that she was doing so, and finally allowed herself to take in fully the deceptively small woman who lay before her, curled into a tight rictus of pain beneath the gossamer weight of the sheet draped over her.

Green eyes traced the sharp angle of the dark figure's jaw, clearly discerning the tense set of muscles clenched in agony. Barbara followed the slender column of the younger woman's throat, and she abruptly looked up, one hand fluttering toward her own neck.

Her silent companion moved forward a half-step, digging into his coat pocket.

"There wasn't much left of her clothes, but I retrieved this when we found her."

The young detective extended a loosely clasped fist, dropping a bit of mangled metal into the older woman's open palm. Barbara bleakly regarded the remains of the comms unit which had been around her Helena's neck, her stomach performing a slow roll as her mind automatically supplied the melting point -- in degrees Celsius and Fahrenheit -- of the metal.

And the sign flashed out it's warning,
in the words that it was forming.
And the signs said, the words of the prophets.
Are written on the subway walls.
And tenement halls.


The decision to have the van ready the night before had been prescient. The moment that the explosion had boomed over the transceiver and then the transmissions had ended, Barbara had been on her way. Breaking every traffic law in the city and state, she'd reached the burning tenement only moments after the fire department.

By then, evidence of their prey's presence -- crew, weapons, and vehicles -- had vanished, but using a mobile GPS unit, the crimson-haired crime fighter had quickly located one of her two team mates.

Dinah, terrified and desperate, had been battling against the flames and showering rubble, exhausted to the point of collapse yet still struggling to use her TK and her hands to penetrate the building in search of her older partner. When Barbara had managed to attract the teen's attention -- the litter of bricks and metal flying from the building had forced her to stay near the van -- Dinah hadn't paused in her frantic attempts to gain access to the parking garage.

"I saw her... Just before... Trying to get that guy out, and The Joker was pulling her back!"

Even when the entire building had collapsed under a fire so hot it melted sixty-year-old bricks, Barbara had barely been able to pull the girl away. It was only when she was so exhausted she could barely make it to the van that Dinah had finally given up. The two had silently watched the fire department battle the blaze, their hopes that Helena had escaped the inferno fervent but unspoken.

Finally, knowing that she needed to treat the teen's injuries -- not to mention, suspecting that the brunette would return to her home if she were able -- Barbara had abandoned their vigil at the fire. They'd passed the hours of the long dark night monitoring the scanners until a call had come from Jesse forty-five minutes before.

Fools, said I, you do not know.
Silence like a cancer grows.
Hear my words that I might teach you,
Take my arms that I might reach you.


A large, well-manicured hand coming to rest lightly on her forearm drew the redhead from her inspection of the necklace. She looked up, nearly falling into fathomless brown eyes, and arched a brow.

"Knowing what we're dealing with, I thought you'd want this."

Barbara felt her brows knit as she accepted a small test tube which contained a miniscule bit of matter.

"For, er, DNA testing? There wasn't -- "

Tucking the melted necklace and the vial into the pocket of her chair, the redhead looked up sharply when her companion stumbled. The young man drew a breath, and Barbara fisted her hands in her lap when he continued sorrowfully.

"We couldn't get fingerprints, but the dental match we could make was positive."

The cyber-genius felt the muscles in her jaw pulsing as she clenched her teeth against the young man's unspoken words: Even a dental match had been difficult, given the way the young woman before them had fractured her teeth in agony.

"Still, well, I just figured..."

Barbara managed to nod an acknowledgement as the detective trailed off, gesturing awkwardly toward the gurney. She followed the movement, catching her lips between her teeth at what she saw.

Yet, despite the horror of the burned and twisted flesh before her, Barbara realized that the old movie standby of someone being burned beyond recognition was a complete and utter load of horseshit. Even in the face of such appalling injuries, there could simply be no doubt.

Oh, as meticulous and methodical as she was, as much as she desperately hoped to discover... something which could help, the relentlessly practical woman knew that she would run the sample which Jesse had provided. She also knew, given The Joker's delight in his last cruel prank, that the chances of a surprise discovery were almost non-existent.

Taking great care not to bump the tall bed, the redhead inched forward. Even without her partner's meta-human senses, she had no difficulty -- even now, hours after the blaze had been extinguished -- detecting the smoke which clung to tattered remnants of chestnut hair, of feeling the impossible heat still radiating from the young woman's body. Swallowing against the sourness in the back of her throat, Barbara reached out, lightly touching the tip of her index finger to the line of the younger woman's left brow and breathing a silent prayer.

The barely audible whoosh of the door drew her from her study, and she turned to watch an orderly approach one of the other two occupied stretchers. The scrubs-clad worker efficiently unlocked the wheels of the unit and pushed it away.

Presumably, the hospital was slowly making space, and... everyone in the room would soon be moved as well.

Very deliberately, the redhead looked up, catching her companion's eyes. While she appreciated -- more than she'd ever be able to put into words -- that the detective had notified her immediately when rescue workers had made their discoveries, there was something more she needed to know.

"What about the..."

She struggled over the words, ultimately giving up.

"... other man?"

The sad shake of a dark head indicated the young man's comprehension, and the older woman allowed her lashes to descend. The detective's next words forced her to keep her eyes shut for a beat longer.

"We found the man that he shot. He didn't make it."

"In vain?"

The words were little more than a croak, with the redhead looking helplessly to her companion who could only lick his lips and blink.

"But, The Joker took the brunt of the explosion. He..."

Brown eyes searched her face, the young man clearly uncertain about how much to say. Perhaps something in her eyes reassured him.

"At least he suffered, Barbara."

Barbara had never considered herself a vindictive soul, however, she hadn't a doubt in the world about her grim response.

"Not enough."

Turning back to the tall bed, the redhead again brushed her fingers against the young woman's shoulder in a gossamer caress, then pulled back and turned to the door. She'd be back, but at this moment it was time to focus on the other young woman in her life, who was currently waiting in chairs outside.

In the few, long, hours they'd waited together between returning to the tower and receiving Jesse Reese's call, there had been no way to miss the teen's horrified guilt and terror and uncertainty. Now, waiting outside, picturing God-knew-what, Dinah had to be in agony.

Because a vision softly creeping,
Left it's seeds while I was sleeping,
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence.


Straightening her spine, the redhead followed the young detective from the room then turned to the waiting area. Because of the whisper quiet progress of her rubber wheels on scrubbed linoleum, she caught sight of the blonde an instant before the girl saw her and bolted to her feet.

Dinah's formerly long hair was pulled back in a messy pony tail, the ends darkened and shagged by fire. Her normally pale complexion was pinkened by first and second degree burns, and her arms and hands were bandaged to cover the deeper burns she'd sustained trying to beat away burning rubble to reach her partner. As she slowly approached, pale blue eyes searching the older woman, her gait was unsteady.

Drawing a deep breath, Barbara held open her arms and nodded. In the moment after her ward's face crumbled and Dinah collapsed against her, the redhead attempted to find the words but, ultimately, came up empty.

Then, cradling the sobbing girl to her chest, she looked up to focus again on the stark signage over the door she'd just exited:


Chapter 20

It was over.

For the first time in over a week of madness, the sound of emergency sirens wasn't a constant backdrop; the chatter of rescue workers on the scanners was merely harried rather than overwhelmed; gunfire and bubble guns and explosions were no longer echoing through the canyons of the streets.

And, the damnedest thing, Barbara realized, was that she didn't know quite how she felt about the peace in her city.

Rather, the price which had been paid to achieve it.

Sitting on the balcony as dawn's rosy glow crept over the tops of the city's buildings, the redhead shivered, raising her hands to rub absently at her upper arms and wishing for the warmth of a leather coat wrapped around her.

More honestly, she wanted to be wrapped in the strong arms of one certain individual wearing a leather coat.

Slowly, she lowered her hands, fisting them in her lap. Focusing intently on her fingers, she thought she detected a hint of smoke from the tenement fire in the air and narrowed her eyes in puzzlement.

It should have been impossible. The ruin of The Joker's hideout was miles away.

Crimson lashes fluttered down when the analytical woman grasped that what she was detecting was the memory of smoke -- the smoke which had permeated the bodies she'd seen not much more than an hour before.

She forced her eyes open again, needing to focus on something real while she grappled with the images being projected in her mind.

How did one qualify or quantify a reaction to what she'd seen at the morgue? How could she even... allow a response to everything that it meant?

The redhead smiled without humor, bitterly admitting that it was not the sight of death itself which left her at such a loss. Over the years, she'd certainly seen more than her share of death, and it never became easier... or made more sense.

The first, really, had been her Aunt Barbara, the woman she'd been named for, the woman who had taken her in when she was twelve and had loved her as her own. Aunt Barbara had been the first woman the redheaded girl had felt that she could trust, that she could love; it had been devastating when she'd been diagnosed with the cruel disease which had riddled through her. The end had taken years, and when the older woman had finally given in, she'd battled her disease for so long that the only emotion they'd seen in her features had been peace.

Not so for the second dead person Barbara had seen.

The first death she'd caused.

He'd been a petty burglar, caught at the wrong place at the wrong time. Barbara been on the streets as Batgirl for just over a year, and Bruce had become confident enough in her abilities to dispatch her on solo patrols. Young, dumb, and -- green eyes blinked as Helena's voice echoed through the redhead's memory, supplying the next words -- full of come, the nascent vigilante had certainly felt invincible.

That night, she'd surprised the man during a break-in of a seventh story business office. Foolishly, he hadn't wanted to surrender quietly, probably assuming that one small, redheaded girl -- and she had been scarcely more than a girl then -- was no threat. Barbara had let loose, nothing to hurt him permanently, but she had decided to practice some of her newer moves. Unfortunately, she'd misjudged -- both the strength of a sweeping round house kick and the man's balance when she made contact.

And, one other thing: how close the burglar had been to the floor-to-ceiling window.

With a sickening crash, the man had been hurled through the plate glass into the night sky. For a long, stomach-clenching second, he'd seemed to hang in midair, his panicked eyes meeting hers as she'd rushed forward, scrabbling for her bat cable.

She'd managed to free the rope from her utility belt in time to see the raw terror in the man's eyes flash to hope. Just as she'd swung the cable toward the broken glass, she stumbled over a chair which had been broken in the fight and missed her chance to catch the hapless soul who screamed his terror all the way to the concrete below.

Since that time, there had been so many: The nameless, faceless victims which she'd not been strong enough or fast enough or smart enough to protect; the criminals who had paid the ultimate price to escape justice; others in the business, such as Carolyn Lance and even Shiva, who had sacrificed for their own abstract causes; and, the innocents, like Wade, who had just been in the wrong place.

The analytical woman prodded at that final thought, finally forcing herself to acknowledge an additional truth: Those who had been in the wrong place because they had cared about her or... in some small way, been linked to her and her cause.

Of all of those, which was the young woman who had died so brutally at The Joker's hand?

Hero? Victim? Innocent?

Who would mourn her other than the very few who knew?

Setting her features, the redhead looked up from her intense inspection of her hands, attempting to make sense of it, to comprehend. Every muscle fixed, her back ramrod straight, she shut her eyes, allowing the slow rise of the sun to warm her face.

It had seemed fitting to seek... something on the darkened balcony. The spot had long been a refuge for Helena -- for brooding amid the gargoyles, for communing with the night stars, and simply for soaking in the winds of the sky she flew through almost nightly.

As Barbara considered her partner's ability to find her answers in the darkness and the skies, she smiled sorrowfully as a fragment of a poem whispered through her mind:

"I know that I shall meet my fate / Somewhere among the clouds above; / Those that I fight I do not hate, / Those that I guard I do not love."

On its heels came the memory of Helena's voice, agonized and enraged, as her captor had tormented her in the parking garage just moments before the explosion: "Then you're coming, too, Asshole!"

Had Helena hated The Joker?

A week before, when they'd discovered the reality of his escape, the passionate young woman had threatened...

Green eyes blinked wide as the cyber-genius corrected herself.

Last week, Helena had offered to end the problem. And, six days before, after the murder at the DMV, she'd spoken her hate for the man. Three -- no, four nights before, when Barbara had succumbed to her fears, her partner had willingly shouldered a burden which should have been the older woman's alone; what had Helena taken from that?

And, what about those she fought for?

There could be no doubt about the dark vigilante's devotion to her partners, but what about the citizens of the city?

For that matter, the redhead forced herself to ask, what were her own feelings? Did she love the citizens of the city which had taken so much from her? Did she hate the madman they'd battled?

Barbara shifted a tiny bit, resisting the urge to rock her chair. Unable to identify her own feelings with anything resembling certainty, she turned her attention to the remaining member of the team.

Stiffening her shoulders, she faced the reality that, after all her ward had seen and endured, Dinah had very probably learned a great deal about fear and hate which she'd never suspected. In less than seven short days, a world of innocence had been wrested from the girl.

Perhaps, from them all.

Barbara tipped her head back, watching the clouds scudding across the pinkening sky. Feeling moisture on her cheeks, she distantly wondered whether the always-dreary city was shedding its own tears. Green eyes squeezed shut, and Barbara felt the axis under her chair tilt and swirl. The sensation of a slim hand coming to rest lightly on her shoulder grounded her again, and, blinking, she reached back to brush the slender fingers gently with her own.

With a flicker of irritation, she noticed that her companion had already removed the gauze bandage from her hands.

"Are you feeling better, Hel?"

Frankly, the older woman was a bit surprised that her partner was up after all she'd been through. When the brunette had arrived at the clock tower, seventy-five long minutes after Dinah and Barbara had abandoned their vigil at the tenement, she'd been injured, exhausted, and filthy from the sewer she'd been forced to wind her way through. She'd barely allowed the redhead to dress her wounds before ducking through the shower and then collapsing into bed.


The word ghosted the still air of the balcony as the younger woman silently moved to perch on the edge of an Adirondack chair. Barbara took a moment to observe burns which were, already, visibly healing and, once again, thanked the powers-that-be for her partner's remarkable recuperative abilities.

When the brunette absently scratched at her throat, the older woman remembered to tack on a thanksgiving for the lithe figure's meta-human strength and reflexes as well.

While Helena's leathers -- and The Joker himself -- had shielded the young vigilante from the worst of the explosion and flames, every bit of exposed skin -- from her hands to her face to her upper chest -- was nevertheless reddened and blistered. If the green-haired madman hadn't been shoving the young woman into the hidden storm drain at the time of the explosion, it would have been far, far worse.

Grimly, the redhead allowed that she owed their nemesis a debt of gratitude, of sorts. Yet, considering the prank he had died attempting to put in place -- not to mention the horrors inflicted on the young woman at the morgue -- she simply couldn't bring herself to offer the man any credit for the outcome.

The sight of her companion shifting restlessly drew the analytical woman from her own thoughts, and she tendered a small smile of invitation.

"I ran into D on her way to bed," the young woman began.

Barbara nodded, pleased that her ward was attempting to rest. Even with the recent threat no longer present, she simply couldn't muster any energy to encourage the girl to head back to school today. She'd put on her responsible guardian's hat again tomorrow... or perhaps the day after.

"Is she..."

The redhead caught blue eyes and raised her brows in question, at a loss. As was so often the case, Helena seemed to intuit her meaning.

"Yeah, I think so. Or--"

The younger woman inspected her fingers and frowned as she apparently reconsidered her easy reassurance.

"-- I think she will be. It was pretty rough, but -- "

Warmed by the pride evident in the other woman's tone, Barbara felt a smile skirt her lips.

"-- she did really good. Coming after me like that and all."

The younger woman finally looked up, offering a rueful grin.

"Hell, after a little sleep, the Kid's head'll probably swell and there'll be no living with her, right?"

Barbara considered that, finally prompting, "A little well-deserved pride might not be so bad, Hel."

The brunette sobered and returned to her inspection of her hands.

"No. It wouldn't. She really deserves it after everything she saw."

Pained blue eyes looked up.

"D told me about, uh, while I was sleeping -- "

The brunette gestured in the direction of the cityscape.

"-- the hospital."

Pressing her lips together in a tight line, Barbara nodded across her soft sigh. After a beat, the brunette cocked her head a few degrees to one side.

"So, he's really dead?"

Again, the redhead limited her response to a nod. She wasn't sure what the expression which flickered across her partner's features signified, but she was fairly certain that she heard a single word in the younger woman's exhalation.


Choosing not to comment, the cyber-vigilante allowed her partner to digest the reality of The Joker's demise. As she waited, Barbara turned the whispered word around in her mind, wondering what it meant or, more to the point, if any of them ever would be free of the horrors wrought by one green-haired madman.

After a moment's reflection, the dark figure shifted minutely and scratched around a line of blisters on her left wrist.

"What about the girl?"

"Probably homeless or a runaway. Someone he found who had your bone structure and coloring."

The cyber-vigilante realized that she'd spoken more bitterly than she'd intended when her companion visibly flinched.

"I'm sorry, Sweetie. It's just -- "

She trailed off a bit helplessly, unable to put into words just what she was feeling. When the brunette quirked her lips, Barbara chose to take the gesture as acceptance of her halting apology.

"Do you think you'll be able to find out who she is-- was?"

Barbara waited until her companion met her eyes, then spoke softly.

"I'll run the DNA, but chances of a match are pretty slim. Without fingerprints -- "

She didn't miss shudder which coursed through Helena's slender frame. Unable to sugar-coat it, ultimately, the older woman simply continued.

"... and with her teeth destroyed, then covered with the casts from your teeth, we may never know."

Dark brows furrowed momentarily before the younger woman spoke wonderingly.

"The bubble goo from that night at the Huffa Bubba plant?"

Knitting her fingers in her lap, the redhead looked down to watch her thumbs fidgeting against each other.

"You said that it covered you... got into your mouth, Hel. It seems logical that he could have used it to make a cast to replicate surface details and dental structure," she finally allowed.

This time, the emotion flooding those expressive caramel features was unmistakable: Pain.

Instinctively, the older woman leaned forward, reaching for her partner's hands. In deference to the healing burns, she diverted her movement, resting one hand on her partner's sweatpants-covered knee. She waited while the brunette gnawed at her lower lip and then breathed an aching question.

"So just 'cuz she looked a little like me and he wanted to fuck with your head, he...?"

Silently, Barbara nodded, willing herself not to contemplate just what the green-haired madman might have had planned for her partner if he had captured her and convinced the world that she was dead. Helena's next soft inquiry distracted her, but unfortunately diverted her to other grim thoughts.

"And, they didn't find a double for Dinah?"

Swallowing with some difficulty, Barbara hedged a bit.

"Well, she was never hit with the bubble goo."

The two lapsed into silence for a few beats, neither bringing up the probability that their foe had probably had no plans to feign the young telepath's death. Finally, the younger woman broke the leaden stillness between them.

"Would it have worked?"

Barbara felt her brows dip.

"Would what have worked, Hel?"

The breath seemed to rush from her lungs when the brunette softly clarified.

"Do you think you would have known? Without the DNA?"

Irritation battled fond resignation as the older woman realized that, of course, Helena would want to know. The fact that the relentlessly practical woman had been steadfastly refusing to contemplate that very question since encountering her young partner's doppelganger at the morgue simply didn't matter.

Looking up at the brightening sky, Barbara drew a steadying breath and forced herself to consider how she might have reacted to the call from Jesse Reese if Helena had not already returned to the tower and fallen into bed an hour earlier. Heart seizing, she had to push that line of thought aside, resolutely replaying what she'd seen and experienced at the hospital morgue.

The likeness of the poor young woman -- at least as much as could be detected under the terrible burns -- had been startling. The trouble which her foe had gone to to insure a dental match was another jarring factor. Would that have been enough?

With a soft smile, the redhead returned her gaze to sweet blue eyes. Carefully, she raised one hand, lightly tracing her lover's perpetually raised left eyebrow.

"Once I saw her, no. I couldn't have mistaken her for you, Sweetheart."

Dark lashes shuttered the younger woman's eyes.

"So, he killed her for... a joke, and it wouldn't even have worked?"

Returning her hands to her lap, the older woman could only offer a brief nod. At that, the brunette exhaled forcefully and abruptly stood, turning to look over the parapet. It was only the movement of the wind, carrying soft syllables to her, which allowed Barbara to hear her partner's bitter whisper.

"I'm glad he's dead."

Crimson lashes slowly descended, and Barbara felt the muscles in her jaw pulse. Deliberately, she replayed some of the last words Helena had spoken in the parking garage before The Joker had ripped the comms necklace from her and the explosion had silenced everything. Cautiously, she moved forward a few feet, wetting dry lips with the tip of her tongue when the brunette turned, dark brows inching upward in question.

For a moment, the older woman teetered on the precipice, tempted simply to let it go, to... forget. Ultimately, she couldn't.


She forced herself to hold the other woman's gaze, knowing that Helena had never been able to lie convincingly to her.

"Did you...?"

As usual, having spoken without thinking it through, the analytical woman found herself woefully at a loss. She mentally flailed for a moment, struggling for words to describe... intent, until the dark figure before her stiffly dropped to her knees and caught her hand.

Barbara abandoned her lexical perambulations, certain that her partner had grasped her... intent. She remained poised, feeling oddly breathless, as Helena took her time, studying their joined fingers. Finally, blue eyes met green.

"I didn't go there to kill him, Barbara."

The redhead nodded once, slowly, aware of all that was unsaid in the words.

Nodding again, more decisively, she lightly tugged at the young woman's hands, encouraging her to rise. As she turned toward the balcony doors, intent on crawling into bed with her partner and staying there for the day, the poem which had danced through mind earlier insisted on finishing itself.

"Nor law, nor duty bade me fight, / Nor public men, nor cheering crowds, / A lonely impulse of delight / Drove to this tumult in the clouds; / I balanced all, brought all to mind, / The years to come seemed waste of breath, / A waste of breath the years behind / In balance with this life, this death."

With Helena moving down the hallway, Barbara Gordon pulled the balcony doors shut behind her and turned to follow.

She couldn't forget how close a call it had been only hours before; yet, somehow, their luck had held once again.

For now, it was -- it would have to be -- enough.