Book Two: Bad Grammar


COPYRIGHT DISCLAIMER: "BIRDS OF PREY" and other related entities are owned, ™ and © by Warner Bros., Tollin-Robbins Productions, and DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

“Bad Grammar” is a fan fiction based on, and derivative of these copyrighted and trademarked properties i.e. the work exists in violation of copyright. However the author would like to acknowledge that no commercial profit is being made from the distribution of this work and the author is in no way a serious challenge to the commercial dominion of the copyright holders.

SEX AND VIOLENCE DISCLAIMERS: This literary work contains violence, and profuse usage of profanity not appropriate for readers under the age 13. This work also describes same-gender, homoerotic relationships and graphic depictions of sexuality – if you are considered a minor, or if representations of homosexuality are considered illegal in your particular geo-political location this is not suitable reading material for you.

OTHER DISCLAIMERS: This is an unedited first draft. If you feel moved to tell me where the errors are, I will move off my ass and make the changes.

ARCHIVING: Ask the author’s permission: Phryne at

Chapter 19


Two days after mom died I read the packet she had put together for me. It answered a lot of questions in my life even as it destroyed any illusion I had that my life was mine. I was screaming betrayal in my head - from the lies mom told me, from the lies Barbara had been telling me; but there was a small part of me that sighed in relief. Here were two people who understood the world the way I did.

I don't know if I'm going to say this right. I don't know how to explain that feeling.

Imagine that you speak a language. Only you speak it. Out there in the world you know that there're others who understand it but you've never met anyone who speaks the same language. Only the language isn't words. It's things - like the wind in your hair, like the happiness of sinking your teeth into something and tearing it like a tiger, like your fist against a jaw, or knowing the air is going to hold you up because you can make it, like knowing you can hide in the dark but nothing in the dark can hide from you, like that restless thing in the centre of your chest that beats in a never ending drumbeat that makes you want to scream until the whole world cracks down the middle, or like the voice in your head that keeps asking you 'what rules? Why do they apply to you?' Do you know what I mean? It's that thing you can't explain but makes you look at the world a little off. Not too much but enough that the world you're looking at isn't the same as everyone else's; that the life you're living isn't the same as everyone else's. And all the time you know there are other people who feel exactly the same because you've heard stories about them. You've just never met them and you've never shared that feeling, the restlessness.

But the second I knew that my mother was Catwoman and Barbara was Batgirl I knew it was okay. It was fine - someone knew how I felt. I mean they had done the things I had only dreamed about. So even though my life was wrecked, a small part of me was okay.

I know I said that it was probably the sexiness that attracted me to Barbara, but I was fifteen. What in hell did I know about sex? No it was that shock of seeing her - no, her body - doing those impossible eloquent things and knowing that my body spoke those same things.

How did you meet your best friend, your lover, or your spouse? Wasn't it a moment of knowing? An instant where you said to yourself, "Oh you. I know you." Wasn't it a second of, "Hey, you speak my language!"

That's how it was for me. Even though I was sixteen and she was twenty-three, and I was in high school and she was my teacher, we became friends, because she spoke my language.

The five years that I lived with her was the biggest damn crash course immersion learning experience in a language. For five years, Barbara was my language. I learned her - her moods, her expressions, her gestures.

The same language? I wrote her into my body. Hell, I became her impulse. She was the brain and I was her body in the world. She thought and I did. Oracle, the brain. Huntress, the finely tuned body.

But the sad part is, she can talk to me but I can't talk to her. Whatever language it is we share, she speaks it better; even paralysed and in a wheelchair she speaks it better. I think the way it's written into me is wrong. But it's the only language I know. So what can I do? I just keep going, and hope that someday we'll be on the same page. I stumble about the night, going in the directions she points to, and I muddle along. I do something wrong and she corrects me. Or as Barbara would say, while we share the same OS, my software is corrupt.

I have bad grammar.

Chapter 20


I have finally managed to send Alfred away - he is not bearing well under the guilt of Wade's death. Of course, neither am I.

It's funny. I had almost two years to get used to living by myself. Two years that Helena moved out and I never saw a single person. But the second that I acquired my new troublesome teenager, I started seeing Wade. As if I were incapable of any real emotional interaction with the world unless there was an emotional storm going on at home. It's funny how things happen. If I didn't have people reminding me that I have a heart, I would forget.

If only I could tell Alfred how easily Wade could have lived. I could have told him to leave. I could have said 'Wade, you're sweet but this is never going to work out between us.' But he was so sweet and so unassuming, always trying so hard to please. It seemed like a particularly cruel thing to cut him off at the knees. Get it? It's a joke.

So I went out with him a few times, and few more times and every time I wanted to tell him to leave I'd find another reason not to tell him. The temptation was just too much - it's like visiting a high-end model home, even though you're not going to buy it, it's nice to look around and appreciate the fixtures. I had enjoyed the feeling of being the centre of someone's world, of feeling vaguely normal; of knowing that I was capable of doing something so innocuous as dating; of feeling uncomplicatedly adult and sexual about someone. After all it had been a year and a half that I'd had the clock tower to myself.

Helena had, after years of threatening, finally moved out. The bar she worked in had an apartment above it. It was noisy at night but dead quiet in the day - exactly what she wanted. Close enough to the pulsing thrum of the nightlife it was the perfect place for her. Or so she said.

"It's a dive, Barbara," she said. "All sorts of people hang out there. I could get a great feel of what's happening in the city."

I had lost that battle a long time ago. When she said she did not want to go to college, I had thought to myself, she'll take some time and then decide. But she didn't. She was happier outside of it. She spent a year and a half running around the city and through her bank account. An entire year and a half that I spent carelessly leaving college brochures around the house, 'accidentally' leaving the page open at an article about art or art history. I would return to find the brochures most lovingly arranged in the recycle bin and the articles spattered with mustard or soup stains.

Then one day she walked in very amused. It was a few hours before I tore myself away from the monitors to wonder about her apparent good humour. But how could I not? She was right there watching TV with the sound on low but laughing uproariously. Her long coat was draped over one arm of the sofa and she was draped over the sofa. She had dragged that monstrosity with us when we moved from my old apartment to the clock tower. She cradled a bag of chips possessively near her chest as she laughed at some insane man attacking an animated evil hand.

It was not unusual to find her that way. Only the clothes, food and television content ever changed. But it was always her, draped in the nestle of the cushions she had so long ago pronounced perfectly broken in and with which she had refused to part. She never lay, she never slumped, she never sat; she was always draped. I was very conscious of it that day as I watched her slowly twitch her feet from the joint of her ankle in a lazy oscillation as she watched with a smug expression that had nothing to do the movie. I knew something was going on in her head.

"Hey," I said. "You're home early." and she was. For her to be home on any but a Tuesday or Wednesday night was unheard of. And before midnight? A miracle. She had sauntered in at around ten and taken her usual spot on the sofa. She was like a cat or a dog settling in a favoured spot no matter what.

Once, I re-arranged the furniture and the TV so that her sofa was at an awkward angle to the TV, and she simply rearranged the cushions on the sofa so that she had a better angle at the TV. No matter how emotionally volatile or unpredictable she was, she was still a creature of habit. It was actually comforting, knowing that she would be there in that familiar repose.

She measured me before shrugging an, "Hmhh."

"You look amused."

"It's funny." She pointed to the screen with a half-eaten chip.

She laughed a few more times before she slithered up the sofa, absently removing a back cushion and tucking it under her knee before draping her arm over the back. All the while she never took her eyes off the TV. The squeak of her pants on leather cushion was loud enough to make me wince. I could never appreciate her penchant for wearing leather in all kinds of weather, but I did appreciate the smooth skill with which she had cleared a space for me on the sofa. The soft sagging back cushions didn't allow me to settle in comfortably when I transferred from wheel chair to furniture. I tried to follow the adventures of the amputee with his boom stick but obviously the intelligent cells in my brain were impeding my comprehension of it, because Helena certainly seemed to take great relish in it. So I transferred myself on to the sofa. I was grateful for its softness. Had I any real feeling in my lower body I would have probably made a comment about how numb my ass was from sitting in a chair all day long. As it was, the point was redundant. Much gratuitous gore and inanity later, she turned the sound off and turned to me.

"You're up and about."

"So are you," I countered.

"Not unusual for me," she said with a smile.

"Well, in that case," I challenged her. "You're in a good mood."

"Ah! Yes."


She leaned back and stretched before turning back with a mischievous smile. "I got a job today." Her mouth twitched with the pressure of some personal secret.

"A job?"

"A job. W-4's and everything. I even wrote down my SSN."

A job, I thought? "A job?" I asked again. "Where? Doing what?"

"Not far from here. Over by The Hill."

The Hill? What sort of job could she possibly find at The Hill, it was a frontline neighbourhood. A veritable no man's land between old Gotham's besieged bourgeoisie and the violent ghetto. There was no way to tell who would win yet. "The Hill?"

"Yep. The Dark Horse. You're looking at their new bartender."

A bartender! I wanted to shout, 'You're going to be a fucking bartender? You're going to take that mind of yours and drown in it in a sea of drunken assholes?' What I said was, "Is the neighbourhood safe?" Not a dumb question in context of geography, but in relation to her it was the stupidest thing I could have said. She raised her eyebrows at me in ridicule. "Do you know anything about bartending?"

"Sure, I pour the beer."

"Helena, it's not all the bartender does, there's a lot more to..."

"Are you giving me a responsibility and skill lecture? No, because if you are I don't want to hear it. It's a dive Barbara. The poshest beer they have there is Sam Adams, if you're lucky. I'll be popping tabs of PBR most of the time. The most sophisticated thing I'll pour there is a shot of Jack...on the rocks."

"Why bartender?"

"They don't have a kitchen. Besides," she smiled conspiratorially, "it's The Dark Horse. I just couldn't resist."

Helena had an eccentric sense of humour. And was infuriating. The entire world lay at her feet and she wanted to play wait staff at what was undoubtedly the most disreputable of dives because the thought of being a dark horse gave her a giggle.

Oh yes, I had lost that battle years ago.

But the final skirmish happened one night that Dick was visiting from Blüdhaven. Helena was, in one of those increasingly rare occurrences, puttering about in the tower. Alfred had made a large pan of the lasagne that she liked so much and she was in the process of releasing it from the oven. That meant she would be home all night, draped over the sofa swilling caffeine and alcohol, and watching ear-splitting, neurotoxic TV.

I felt exasperated. The unusual lull in an otherwise hectic and draining year had allowed me to take the night off. I had been counting on her being gone. After all it was Friday night, and I had been hoping to spend some quiet time with Dick in the apartment. But having Helena's glowering presence would certainly put the damper on any sense of relaxation. She and Dick had a wary relationship at best. Even were she to sequester herself in her room and be as quiet as a mouse, I would be very aware of the painful courtesy being extended to me. As I had discovered over the years, having Helena in the house was not a quiet proposition. But maybe, I thought, she was just preparing to stuff herself before a night of all out partying.

As I changed my clothes, I could hear her knocking about in the kitchen, banging the dishes and swearing at defenceless implements. She had sounded positively sullen, and despite my annoyance there was something satisfying about hearing the very creative and original imprecations in those familiar tones.

I exited my room with the intent of interrogating Helena about her plans for the night. But she must have been waiting for me to open my door, because no sooner had my wheels peeked out over the threshold than I was interrupted by her voice, "D'you want some dinner, Alfred made lasagne. I ma..." She stopped when she saw me. "You're going out."

I nodded. "Yes."


"Guess you don't want any lasagne, then."

"I can have it later, when I...maybe Dick would like to..."


"I was going to invite him over for..."

"...A night cap?" she cocked her eyebrows sardonically.

If that was the attitude she was going to take. "Are you planning on being in?"

"Why?" she asked challengingly, goadingly, as she leaned against the archway of the kitchen.

I was not going to give her the satisfaction. "Well, I'll know if I should avoid the rooms or not."

"Well," she drawled, "I was planning to stay in and sleep, but..." she stretched the word out, "I think Alfred's lasagne might be just the thing to stoke an all-nighter. So, no, I won't be here." With that she turned around to retrieve her dinner. As she scooped her serving onto a plate and covered up the pan - frankly it would have made more sense for her to cut out a small portion from the pan onto a plate and take the pan for herself - she spoke. "Actually, I was hoping to speak to you about that."

"About what?"

"My being here." I waited until she emerged. I followed her into the living room where she sat down in front of the TV. She responded to my quizzical expression. "You won't have to worry about that."

"I'm sure I don't have any idea what you mean."

"I'm moving out," she said as she stuffed a neatly cut section of the pasta into her mouth.


"Barbara, you're not deaf," she mumbled around her food.


"Apparently the guy above the bar doesn't want to renew his lease, place is popular now...trendy. It's gotten too noisy for him. I told Leonard I'd take it."


"It's too much, you know. I'm here all the time." She ducked her head and chased a morsel of mince around her plate. "If I know what's going on all the time, I'm working all the time. It's been a rough year, and I need a little time to myself."

Needed more time to herself? "What are you talking about? You're by yourself all the time. Any time I turn around you're gone. Sometimes I have to wait a half hour for you to respond to a comm. signal."

"I'm at work!"

"You do not work that many shifts at the bar."

"Then I'm working for you all the time."

"When I can't raise you on the comm. for half an hour?"

"Damn it!" she clattered her fork against the plate.

"Hel, what is going on?"

"Nothing, I'm just..." She was interrupted by the buzzing of the intercom.

"Damn it!" I rolled over to answer it.

"Hey!" Dick's voice came over the speaker.

"Dick, I'll be down in a bit. I'm in the elevator, but I've got a little glitch in my chair. It'll take me a minute or two." All the while I could see Helena's eyebrow rise higher and higher as I spoke. Thankfully she didn't say anything until I hung up the intercom.

"Sure, Babs. Truth, justice and the American Way."

My glasses were starting to get very heavy, so I took them off and massaged my eyes and nose. "Helena, is there a reason you're bringing this up now?"

"I'm not bringing this up now. You're the one who brought it up. 'Are you planning on being in?' Planning on being in? I live here! Well, not for much longer, so I wanted to let you know that you could stow any future snide questions about my being 'round here, 'cause I won't."

"Helena. It was a reasonable question." I said, trying to inject some sense into the conversation. "I didn't mean to imply that you shouldn't be here. I was merely trying to formulate plans for the evening."

"And I," she retorted, mocking my tone of voice, "was merely informing you of my intent to not be here. So you can bring Wonder Boy back here and play twister for the rest of your life."

"I don't think that's quite warranted. I am not sleeping with Dick. And considering the slew of slags you've paraded through this place I think you're a bit unqualified to start being snippy about it even if I were."

"Barbara," she said snapping her full attention to me. "I don't care, all right?" She stopped to take a deep breath. "This is what I'm talking about. We've been at each other for months now. We're crowding ourselves. You should be able to have a...guest," I couldn't help but notice how she stumbled over the word, "without worrying about me. And I should be able," this time she smiled wryly over the word, "without offending you with my choices or..."

"Hel, I didn't mean to imply that you were a..."

"It doesn't matter, Barbara. It's obvious that's how you feel."

"I..." I stared at my fingers and at the way the nail polish glittered in the light. She was right.

"Barbara...don't you think we're both a little too old to be sneaking around?" She stood up with her plate and her bottle of beer and turned to her room. "Look, you're going to be late," she said motioning to the intercom. "We'll talk later."

"But this is your home."

"That's exactly my point," she said as if she were very tired. "I'm 22 for god's sake and I've never left home. Think about it," she said with a small smile. "You still won't know where I am, you'll still have to wait for a half hour before I respond. I'll still bitch at you about the refrigerator being empty. You'll still see me every night. You'll still talk to me all the time. It'll be like I'm here. Except you won't have to clean up after me or put up with my loud music and bad TV shows; and you can have anyone over you like. All the advantages and none of the annoyances. Now go on. You don't want to have him break in here trying to rescue you or something." The click of her door shutting was followed by the loud wailing of her stereo.

I suppose she has a point, I thought. I noticed that she had left the bottle opener and the bottle cap on the coffee table. I picked them up and took them into the kitchen where I had to put away another plate and set of cutlery, and the sweating six-pack of beer. God knows Helena has always liked her beers one degree up from frozen. In the fridge I noticed there was a small glass tray. Out of sheer curiosity I peeled away a corner of the foil. Inside were layers of preserved peach slices arranged in cream and brown sugar. Helena had made my favourite peach parfait. Further examination of the refrigerator revealed some rather expert choices of wine stashed underneath the lettuce. Then it struck me - a second plate and set of cutlery. She had been hoping to sit down to dinner with me. Torn as I was between my good manners and reaching out to Helena, I had no choice. She would not answer my knocks. The music was probably too loud for her too hear. And opening the door was out of the question. She was touchy about her privacy. So very reluctantly I made my way to the elevator.

Two days later, she was all moved out. Well, not all. She still left a significant portion of her wardrobe behind. But she was right - it was all the same. Except that there were no more questionable bands blaring their existentialist angst and ennui from her room. No more clothes to pick up. No more dishes abandoned where she had demolished a helpless meal. No more surprise meals. No more late night conversations. But the last two had been on the wane for a while.

And Helena had been right. It had been too long since I had lived alone. I was taken back to my first heady days of having moved out of dad's into my own place. Once I got used the quietness, I felt surprisingly free. I was free to stay up as late as I pleased without being nagged. I could stay in as long as I wanted without being cajoled into the outside world. I could tinker around without having my concentration disturbed by a moping or manic Helena. And even though I never brought anyone over, I felt free to think about it. Felt free to maybe see other people. So I did. I saw Wade. And once Alfred brought him upstairs, it was too late - I had backed myself into a corner. Such a simple thing - stubborn pride and a weak will - that led to the death of someone who was innocent of our world in the worst way possible.

No, as much as I regretted Alfred's hasty attempt to salvage a relationship that was doomed from the start, it wasn't his fault, it was mine. I didn't ask Wade to leave. He's dead, and for better or for worse, it's my fault.

* * * * *

I've never been analytical about people. Pathological behaviour, maybe. But people? Who can figure them out? It's why I love information systems and crime-fighting. Give me order to restore, point me to a law-breaker and I'm happy. It's all very simple. Not necessarily clean and easy, but once you've the hang of it, it's simple.

Maybe that's why I'm so good at teaching English. I can explain nuances, in terms that are understandable, to kids who don't necessarily see them. I know there are places that the mind falters and things get complicated so I can point them out and say, see? But if I were to try teaching math, everything is so obvious to me I go running along at the speed of light and I forget that there are kids who don't know what I'm talking about.

So finding four boxes marked 'Medical' in the wreckage of the storage space allocated to Helena's effects was a bit of a bafflement. I know that Helena has had her encounters with the medical profession but what was ever wrong with Helena that would require four large file boxes? I'm the warden of all her medical files. In fact, because of her unique physiology, it's been long since that she's signed medical power of attorney over to me.

The boxes had been lying behind the new stack of CPU's from Wayne foundation. First, I thought they were parts. But later in the frantic rush to jam my waking hours with any thought but why I was rebuilding my home I forgot about them. But when I was putting away boxes to be broken down, I rolled to a sudden stop as my wheels hit the solid boxes. They were certainly packed. A quick flash of the box cutter and I had the contents open to inspection. Volume after volume of books - Physical Examination of the Spine and Extremities, Orthopaedic Neurology: A Diagnostic Guide to Neurologic Levels, Sexuality After Spinal Cord Injury, Spinal Cord Injury: Functional Rehabilitation, Learning to Live after Spinal Cord Injury, Management of Spinal Cord Injury, The Ostomy Book...

Article after article - Neural Regeneration: An Exploration of Bio-electric Potential Across Membranes, Neuroprotectants, The effect of bFGF on axonal outgrowth following spinal cord injury in the adult rat, Functional Electrical Stimulation: An Outlook, Electrical Propagation Along Ramified Pathways.

Stacks and Stacks of CD-ROM's, all neatly marked up in small, active, looping text. Photocopied texts and diagrams marked up with marginal notes, exclamations and imperatives like, 'find out', 'expense?', '? damage', 'future potential'. The other box was filled with same, along with copies of my medical records - copies of CAT scans, MRI's, hospital charts - confidential records.

Every single piece of medical indignity that I suffered the first three months is here - the inconvenience of my colostomy, my struggles with regaining conscious control of previously involuntary muscular contractions, the psychological evaluations, the bad dreams. Everything. When I lay in my hospital bed waiting to get out, Helena had been reading every scrap of information that she could lay her hands on.

I can't resist popping the discs into my newly rebuilt machine. They are more of the same - journal articles, internet articles, entire text books on disc. If she has actually read all this material and retained it, Helena Kyle can pass as a minor expert in the field of Spinal Neural Regeneration: she'd be a powerhouse of information regarding the nervous system.

I can barely the fathom the depth of what this means. I can tell from the dates on the books and articles her interest had extended well past my return from Dragon's mountain retreat. I can barely imagine it. The girl who had in three short months decimated her grade point average to a tithal amount, broken more underage laws and narcotics possessions laws, and made her way through her last year of school with a belligerent stare, poring over these books, marking and underlining passages and reading more material than even pre-medical students are expected to. Just that image of a Helena tired from school and her...extra-curricular activities, reading all this material diligently is overwhelming. Something in my chest catches against the flow of air at this very unexpected image.

She had been so impossible to deal with at the time. I was back at home only seven weeks after the shooting. Once the doctors had determined I was in no more danger from infection or rupturing any organs, there was nothing more that they could do for me in the hospital beyond hovering over my physiotherapy and I preferred not to have them do that. It was bad enough at home with the one professional, an entire team would have undone me. I was relentlessly obsessive in my quest for independence. It was my way of denying the injury, of denying the pain I felt, of denying the depression and anger that I felt. If I was working hard at rebuilding my body, then I couldn't be in funk could I?

The fait accompli had occurred one night that I could not sleep and rolled my chair out into my weight room, strapped my thighs together and hauled myself up the newly installed, waist-high to bi-pedal folks, parallel bars. The strain had been immense. As much as I strained my shoulders and back gone soft from weeks of disuse, I couldn't help but pull through my stomach muscles straining muscles still sore from trauma and surgery, and not quite responsive to injured neurons. I sweated and strained through the entire set I assigned myself. Even though the pain was excruciating I held on to the finish. 15 pull-ups. Fifteen measly pull-ups and I was panting and screaming like I had been on a death march for fifteen days. I was so tired I could barely make it back to my chair. Hugging the bars with my armpits, brushing my dead toes against the floor, I dragged myself. Barely a foot away from the chair, I felt the unmistakable prickling of focused observation. Sitting there in the urban glow of the darkness of the clock tower was Helena. Her eyes glittered with the same far away flicker as the distant city lights.

"Couldn't sleep?" she asked. I thought the answer was rather obvious. "Me neither. It's difficult. Every noise I hear, I keep thinking it's her walking around. And then a lot of the times it's some crazy woman working out like a contestant for Mr. Universe."

The only response I made to that was a grunt of effort, I had managed to move six inches closer to my goal.

"So is that the new exercise Mark taught you today?" Mark was my physiotherapist.

She waited for an answer she knew would not be forthcoming and then she said, "Yeah, I bet all that range of motion stuff gets real boring real fast. God knows I'd be bored."

Two more inches. "By the way, are you sure that strap around your thigh is tight enough? It's probably a bad idea to knock your legs about." I wasn't going to make it. "You look flushed, Barbara." Her voice was as flat as my energy. "Want me to turn up the air? Get you some water?" I wanted to snap at her to shut up but all my focus and strength was centred on the wheelchair.

Just as I prepared to twist myself into the chair, I misjudged the distance and half pushed the chair away from me as I let my weight down. Both, the chair and I fell in an ungraceful heap on the floor, with the armrest digging into my side and - I took a look - my thigh. There really was no dignified way out of that mess. I twisted and turned with no effect except to make me look stupendously foolish. And still she went on in the same bland voice, "By the way, your Dad called. I left you a note on the coffee table, I forgot. I got a B on my chem paper. That was shocking. But it was organic chemistry - explosives! The kids keep asking about you. Jason was wondering if he could visit or something, I think he has a crush on you. So I told him not to. Wouldn't want to disappoint or frighten him," she said casually as she relaxed her head onto her in-curled fist and leaned forward as I panted on the floor.

I knew that I was in a fix. If I lay there with the armrest compressing my veins and arteries, I would lose circulation and that was not a good thing. And the strain on my back from the contortion my body had adopted was definitely not a good thing. Perhaps I had been overdoing my own informal exercise routine and had exhausted all my strength. I gritted my teeth and called to Helena with the little air that was left in my lungs.

"Hunh? I'm sorry Barbara, I can't hear you. I think the reason your dad called was because he's being interviewed for Face to Face. Crime rates in the city are falling and everyone wants to know how he did it." Was the girl insane, I asked myself? There I was flopping around like a fish out of water and she was lazily recounting the most mundane details of her day.

"Helena!" I said.

"Right here, Barbara," she replied. There was a pause as she studied me. "You know, if you relaxed into your side and then stretched that shoulder sideways and outwards while pushing on the opposite armrest you could slide out of the chair." She was right. I lay panting on the floor but free of the chair and laid out straight, staring at the ceiling. I heard her feet come nearer. "Amazing what little cat stretches can do, hanh?"

"Damn you," I hissed.

"Oh no! Don't you dare damn me," she said as she squatted next to me. "You want to be independent and strong, you get to be independent and strong on your own. I'm not about to give you free rides." She loosened the strap around my thighs, righted the chair and turned it my direction. Once she did that she started to walk back to her room.

I banged my fists on the floor and shouted, "God damn it, I can't live like this. I cannot live like this."

She turned around and stared at me through her golden eyes. And then very clearly she said, "Well figure it out Barbara, neither can I." Then she turned away again. "Also I've got a permission slip you need to sign. Field trip to the cloisters. I promise I won't steal anything."

Two days later I decided that I needed real training to cope with my new body. Not physiotherapy, but something else - a way I could be in the chair and still feel whole - a warrior's way. I called Richard Dragon and asked him if his monastery could accommodate a wheel chair.

The girl had been impossible to live with. She was seemingly oblivious to everything about her, moving through her life like everything was okay. She didn't leave me alone, or give me space, and she deliberately ignored me when I was in obvious trouble. Consequently, she saved me from descending into a morass of self-pity. How she managed to do that when she was solidly in the grip of her own mourning is something that I still marvel at.

I know Dinah thinks that I'm too easy on Helena when she gets in a mood, or that I let Helena walk all over my feelings. But what she doesn't know that anytime Helena walks all over my feelings, at least she reminds me I have some. I can see by the look in Dinah's eyes that this explanation is a little too Jerry Springer for her, but there's no other way I know to explain Helena's sensitivity.

* * * * *

Helena's been wonderful these last few weeks. She's helped me move out the old, ruined equipment and put in the new stuff. She's been here almost every day to work out with Dinah. She's reported for sweeps every night, even on days I have told her it was okay to take off. She's been more efficient than ever in the apprehending of criminals. Even in the first two weeks after Wade's funeral when I suspended all activity to rebuild my systems, I know that she was out there. There was simply no way to miss the reports in the police blotter. And she was a wonderful support at Wade's funeral.

I felt terrible lying to the Brixton's. But Helena convinced me that it would be easier for the Brixton's to believe that their son was a victim of a random act of violence than to know that he was simply a whimsical pawn in a madwoman's conspiracy. Besides, there really was no way to explain the truth behind Wade's death without breaking our cover. Reese put in a convincing report about the circumstances of his death.

Reese has been a great help too. "There's no way I could explain my part in it to my bosses," he said. "So it's better this way." I know that he's uncomfortable with all the things that we've asked him to do, but he's been very understanding about the need to do it.

Helena's been very circumspect about her relationship with Reese as well. She hasn't once mentioned him unless it's been absolutely necessary. I feel terrible about it. I know that she deserves to be happy with someone without walking around with guilt. I know that she should feel free to talk about Reese if she wants to. But there's a look in her eyes when she watches me. I think she doesn't want to remind me of Wade by talking about Reese. I'm actually ashamed by the comfort this one little piece of tact brings me. Sometimes I forget that she can be an incredibly sensitive person.

I start out of my reverie when the Delphi beeps. Coincidentally, the throbbing beacon belongs to Reese. I activate Helena's receiver.



"I'm getting a signal from Reese."

<"Is there a problem?">

"I was hoping you could find out."

<"I'm in the middle of something here. I need to back the kid on this one."> Sure enough I can hear the sounds of a scuffle coming across the speakers. <"Can you let me know if it's an emergency?">

The exchange makes me feel awkward, but I can't say exactly why that is.

I activate the positioning software and determine that Reese is standing on Crofton between Boat Street and Cornelia lane. I lay my composited map of the current state of the city on the address. It's a 24-hour diner three blocks away from police HQ. A quick search of the city's telecommunication database and I find the payphone inside the diner. A very baffled diner employee goes off to find the policeman I've directed him to find.

"This is Reese," comes the puzzled voice.


"Oracle," he says.

"What can I do for you today?"

"I..." he hesitates. "How did you know where I was?" he asks. I know that it's not a real question and that he's just stalling for time. My pointed silence highlights this fact. "I'm sorry, of course. It's just that I was expecting He..Huntress."

"She's working right now. Anything I can help you with?"

"Yeah...No...No. I was just." He sighs. "The arsons that you gave me a couple of pointers on, thank you. We got the guy and it's an open and shut case. We got him dead to rights."

"You're welcome. We're happy to give the law a hand."

"Yeah. That's all."

"That's all? Well, in that case, Reese, have a good night. I'll let her know that it worked out just fine."

"Okay." And he hangs up.

I'm thinking about the discomfort that I feel from this conversation as well when I hear Dinah's voice.

"Uhh, Oracle we've got a couple of armed robbers all handcuffed and ready to be arrested."

Absently, I log a call for available units to respond to the scene when Reese's icon glows on the screen. I call the payphone again. "Reese," I say, "is there something else?"

"Uhh...yeah." He sounds very uncomfortable. "I know that I'm not supposed to ask and that she needs some time and everything. But how is she?"

"Excuse me?"

"How is she?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean...I haven't seen her in a month and she hasn't been returning my phone calls. I just want to know how she's doing. I know she was pretty shaken up over the whole thing and that you..."

I cut him off before he can say more. "What do you mean you haven't seen her? How long has it been seen you've seen her?"

"Err...since the funeral. I mean, I saw her that night but she said that she needed some time and that you needed someone and..."

"Since the funeral?"


"You haven't seen her since the funeral?" Reese obviously recognises the rhetorical nature of my last question and says nothing. In the silence I realise that I may have stumbled in protecting Helena's privacy. But the hurt and concern in his voice are too obvious to miss. "I'm sorry, Reese. She's doing fine. She's a little quiet but we've all been a little out of sorts." An understatement

"Yeah. Just...I...Okay," he sighs resignedly. "Will you..."

I nod even though he cannot see it. "I'll let her know you called Reese. Goodnight."


He hasn't seen her since Wade's funeral. That was four weeks ago. He hasn't seen her in a month.

I wonder how many times my mind will re-formulate that little tidbit. Now I'm really worried. So this is why she hasn't mentioned Reese, she simply hasn't been seeing him. I feel an empty clenching in my chest that makes me feel light headed. Guilt comes pouring down on me in sheeting streams as I consider the reasons why she might have pulled away from Reese. I replay his words, 'you needed someone.' Oh God! She's been avoiding him because she doesn't want me to feel hurt. Helena has always been transparent that way. When she is happy there is no missing it - it's like the sun rising. And she has been holding back on her own happiness to make sure that she can be there for me. We are really going to have to talk about how to cope with this. I'll probably need to talk to Dinah, as well. It suddenly occurs to me why she's been tiptoeing around the house all month. I'm sure the heavy silence around the tower's been taking a toll on her.

* * * * *

I cannot help but smile when Dinah comes bounding out of the elevator. It's good to see someone in high spirits round here.

"Jesus, are you sure you need to put more sugar in your system?" Helena grouses behind her.

I turn around and approach them. "Good work, you guys," I say, congratulating Dinah on the sterling job she has done tonight. Helena scowls. "What?" I ask her.

"She's cuckoo from cocoa puffs. Look at her. Who the hell bounces around like that? Maybe she's discovering a new meta ability, the power to bounce off walls."

Dinah emerges from the kitchen with a bagful of chocolate chip cookies and a glass of warm milk. She extends the bag in invitation, I shake my head, and she sits down on the sofa to enjoy her after-sweeps snack.

"What about me, blondie, your partner? Do I rate an offer or what?"

"Get your own cookies. Besides are you sure you want to eat all the hydrogenated vegetable oil that's in these? It's so bad for your health."

"Ha ha. I've been eating hydrogenated vegetable fat since before you were born. You'll die from it before I will, kiddo." Helena makes her way to the refrigerator and emerges with her own stash of two-bite chocolate cakes."

Dinah's eyes go wide when she sees the tub in Helena's hand. "Hey...where've you been hiding those?"

"Hiding? I haven't been hiding them. Just 'cause you can't see past your nose psychic girl...Besides, are you sure you want to put all that pure butter in your system. You go to bed now, and it goes straight to your hips." That little taunt makes Dinah re-evaluate the snacks in her hand. Her brows furrow and her face falls in a pathetic moue of concern.

"Don't listen to her, Dinah," I assure her. "That's only true if you lead a sedentary lifestyle. For the very athletic and active that's simply not true. In fact for you it's probably beneficial."

Dinah throws a dirty little glare at Helena. "You are so mean to me."

"And you are so gullible," retorts Helena.

"You're just pissed off that I dealt with the whole thing by myself. And I stopped you from getting your ass kicked."

"I did not almost have my ass kicked, so shut it."

"Did too!"

"Did not."

I blink at the very puerile discussion taking place in my presence and decide to break it up with my very best teacher voice. "Girls!" They both turn to stare at me. "Dinah, you did a excellent job today, very efficient on the first count. And the second time you diffused a situation before it could occur. I am very proud of you."

"Hey! That's not fair. The kid can read minds. It's not like I can tell what's going on inside a perp's head."

I continue as if Helena has not interrupted me. "And Helena is actually very proud of you as well, aren't you Helena?"

She puts out the little pout that threatens to overtake her face and relents. "Yeah. She did fine. Very kick ass."

"See?" I say to the girl.

She doesn't look convinced. "She's only saying that because you told her to. Anyway, I know I did a good job," she huffs and flounces her way to her room with her cookies and jug of milk.

Helena yells after her, "You sure you did all your homework, 'cause it's pretty late."

Dinah turns around with a tsk, rolls her eyes and huffs in exasperation before going on her way.

It isn't until she has disappeared that Helena allows herself a small smile. The glint has not quite disappeared from her eyes as when I catch her gaze. I realise that I too am smiling.

"What?" she asks.

"That was nice of you."

"Well, I was just checking to make sure that she's staying up on her homework. She needs to keep her points up if she's applying to all those schools."

"As heartening as your interest in Dinah's academic future is, Hel, you know that's not what I meant. I meant that it was nice of you to sit this one out and let Dinah take the lead." She ducks her head in response as if to shrug off the praise. After a moment of silence I speak again. "You could have let her know that it was the plan all along..."

"Yeah, but it's more fun this way. She gets a real kick out of knowing that she could have done it without me. And the damnedest thing is, she really could have. I could have been having a little catnap for all that,"

"Still, it's nice."

"Yeah. Maybe we could even give her her own beat. You know, that she could cover on her own."

"You're probably right. But you've got to stop needling her, she's sensitive enough as it is."

She looks chastened by my gentle remark and nods. "Okay."


The silence stretches between us like a strip of melting rubber. After a few minutes of not looking at me she stands up, rubbing her palms on her thighs. I can't imagine that the slick leather surface is soaking up any sweat from her palms. "So, it was a good night. Slow but good."

"So it was," I agree.

"You got anything else for me to do? CPU's to move, tables to push?" I shake my head. "Well, I guess...I'm out then."

"Actually," I stop her determined march toward the elevator, "I need to talk to you about something."


I pat the sofa. "Here sit down." Very gingerly she sits down where I have indicated. "About what Dinah said..."

"About what?"

"You almost got shot tonight, Hel."

She tosses her head back and closes her eyes. "Look, it was just a moment of distraction. The kid was there...and this is not the first time I've almost gotten shot."

"I know that, Hel. But this distraction of yours, it's not like you. I'm worried."

"Sorry," she says, but still will not meet my eyes. Squirming around on the sofa, she looks very young. Younger than I can ever remember seeing her. I imagine Selina trying to have a sensitive chat with a much younger Helena. It occurs to me that Selina would have been a lot more direct than I'm being.

"So, how's Reese?"

The question takes her by surprise. "Uhh...fine."



"How're the two of you doing?"

The lack of expression is a thing of beauty to see. Without flinching she comes back with a, "Fine, fine. Things are fine."

"So maybe the two of you will celebrate tonight."


"Yes, I spoke to him tonight. He's very happy with the way the arson case worked out."

"Oh yeah. Good. Maybe we will."

It's amazing how nonchalant she can be. "Helena..." I warn her.

"What?" she says defensively

"He told me he hasn't seen you in a month and that you haven't been returning his calls."

"Well, why are you asking me then?" she snaps.

"I'm worried about you."

She sighs deeply. "There's really no need."

"Hel, please call him. Don't let go of a chance for happiness because you think it's going to hurt me. You owe yourself that."


"I know you blame yourself for Wade's death but don't let go of a chance for happiness because you feel guilty. Talk to him about it. Work through it. It'll be worth it in the end."

"Like it was worth it for you and Wade?"

The hurt I feel from that statement is more than I could have imagined. I can see that she realises how badly she has erred when I see the penitence on her face. "I'm sorry. I..."

"No it's okay. I'm sorry I tried to interfere. But Helena, not every relationship is the same. And not every relationship has to end the same way. So don't let something get away because you're scared."

She nods quietly a few times and then looks up to meet my gaze for the first time in weeks. "'s not like that. I just need a little time to think about stuff. I don't think things are going to work out for us." She turns to leave and then changes her mind. "I'll tell him not to use the ring for non-official purposes, okay?"

"That's not why I..."

"I know," she re-assures me. She smiles a small tentative smile. "Thanks for asking." And with that, she's gone.

Chapter 21


Winter is coming. I can feel it in my fingers. The glass in the window is cold and my palm leaves a moist imprint of hot vapour when I remove my hand.

I hate fall. It brings up too many painful memories. And now I have one more. I try to think of one simple happy memory that fall brings for me and I can't.

Wait...there's one. The weekend of my first weekly pay cheque.

It was stupid - taking Barbara out for ice-cream on a rainy October evening. But she always gets a little depressed around September, and she misses at least three therapy appointments in September and October. I wonder how many she's missed this year and how many more she's going to miss. But I dragged her out for ice-cream. I bought a tub of mint chocolate chip - her favourite, vanilla and some fudge and drove over to Jim Gordon's place. He had been kind enough to keep the bowls and roasted nuts ready and waiting. We sat around Jim's table, ate ice-cream, moaned about the Gotham Knights' lousy performance, and bitched about the new mayor. After we were all sick from the sugar I talked them into going to see L.A Confidential. She said she didn't want anything to drink, but was so grateful when I magically produced a straw and a bottle of Diet Pepsi after she ate half of my popcorn, which she didn't want in the first place. And on the ride back home she fell asleep in the van. She actually let me push her chair up to the elevator.

When I rub my face and put my hand back on the glass I leave a wet handprint of silent tears. I wonder if Leonard will notice if I kill another two bottles of Jack from his inventory. I really have to pull myself together. It's not fair to have Barbara worrying about me when she hasn't taken the time to mourn for herself. I've got to stop avoiding her or she's going to think something's wrong. I need to go on like before. Exactly like before - pretend to blow off sweeps, show up for sessions with the kid, drop by for the occasional dinner. I'm not the one who's lost someone here, I'm simply the one who got stupid. And I really need to have a talk with Jesse.

Below me the thumping bass of the Dark Horse's jukebox shakes the boards under my feet. Maybe tomorrow I'll strip the floor and put in a new coat of polish. The parquet is starting to look a little dingy. I can hear the filtered voices of the customers coming through the window. I can't make out individual voices but I can sense the revelry and celebration in the tones. It seems like the entire city is celebrating its reprieve from the wave of crime and violence that engulfed it a month ago - everyone except the actual people who bought the city that reprieve.

And now, there's someone breaking into my apartment. How dumb does this bastard have to be if he's breaking into my apartment? I hear the muttering when the torsion wrench doesn't quite move the cylinder. And I have my answer - pretty damn dumb.

I wait for him to enter fully into the apartment before I talk. "Jesse."

He's so surprised he almost drops his picks. "Hey."

He does a good impression of cool collectedness but he's not fooling me. "They teach you that in police academy?" I ask, pointing to his lock picks.


"They teach you that at home?"

"What? No." A pause. "What?"

"At home - your old man, he teach you that?"


"No, of course. He'd prefer to blow the lock off wouldn't he?"

"What?" He suddenly looks nervous and confused.

Dense. He's dense. Does he really think he can keep secrets from someone who's been lying all her life. "So you want to tell me why you're breaking into my apartment, detective?"

"I was just worried. You haven't..."

"Been answering your calls. I know. I thought you'd be able to take a subtle little hint.

Long pause.

The muscles on his nose and cheek twitch just the tiniest little bit. "Fuck you," he says and leaves. But I know he's not really gone. That's one thing I've learned after all these years of leaving and being asked to leave. Wait for it, wait for it come the storming steps to the door again. And the door swings open. See, if he really wanted to leave it at that, he would have slammed the door shut when he left. "What is your issue?"

That makes me laugh. Who talks like that? "'What is your issue?' What is your time frame for this conversation? 1984?"

"So I'm just supposed to magically infer that you don't want to see me anymore."

"It's not magic. A girl you sleep with doesn't return your calls, what're you supposed to think?"

He ducks his head. He knows exactly what it means. "Is this something you do on a regular basis? Do you just sleep with someone and then let it go? Didn't it mean anything to you?"

"It was just..."

"What, a fling?"


"So when you..."

"Commitment shy, remember."

"And this," he rips the ring off his finger and holds it up. "What was this for? Why did you give it to me."

"I didn't give it to you, Oracle did. I just delivered it."

He holds his hands out and steps closer to me. "Look, I know this has been a rough time but let me help you. Let me be there for you. I know you feel bad. I know you feel guilty for things that have happened."

"You know? What do you know? You don't know anything. You know nothing about me."

"No, I don't because you won't tell me anything. You can't just throw that at me and..."

"Look, just LET IT GO," I shout, "all right?" And then calmly, "Just let it go."

"So that's it? It's all over."

"Halleluiah Jesus Lord. YES! It's all over. That's exactly it."

"I don't believe this," he says and steps even closer into my personal space. His fingers close around my wrist. He's starting to annoy me and I'm not doing anything to stop it. This is dangerous. And he doesn't know how dangerous. "So when you said that I meant something, that when I said 'good job' it meant something, what was that, a load of bullshit?"

Sometimes having your own words thrown back in your face is a total bitch. Why did I say that? I shake my hand loose from his grip and turn toward the window. "Jesus. So I sweet-talked you a little." Outside the window, couples are arriving at the bar. There's a blonde girl leaning on her boyfriend's arm; when she turns her face to his chin and kisses him he looks a little stunned - like it's the most surprising and wonderful thing in the world - and he stands a little taller. "What's the matter you've never turned the charm on for a girl before, turned it up a little to turn her on? Got in her head to get in her pants? What is wrong with you? You're such a sap."

"I guess I am," he says through clenched teeth. "The biggest sap of them all. So what was this, an elaborate ruse to keep the cop in line? Use him to clean up your mess, plant a little evidence, get a little inside line on investigations so that you and Oracle can play an end run around the law?"

"Don't you fucking drag her into this. She's got nothing to do with this."

"Oh yeah? She's the one you work for...I'm sorry, with. Isn't that why you've been avoiding me," he grabs me by the shoulder and turns me around to face him, "to go be with her? You disappear when she calls, you go where she sends you, you give me a communicator when she asks you, you call me for evidence when she needs it?" The window frame is a rigid pressure against the bones of my back, and the pressure of his fingers in my shoulders is exactly the excuse I need to escalate this little confrontation.

I hold my palm against the straining muscles of his shoulders and feel the anger building. He follows the direction of my gaze as it rests on his hand on my arm. "I've been avoiding you Jesse, because I don't want to see you anymore. It was a fuck for god's sake, not a proposal. I was horny, not in love." He pushes me back into the window roughly and the sharp angle of my shoulder cracks the glass. I hear the shards tinkling all the way to the ground, and the commotion of voices when the glass falls to the ground. The stinging crack of my palm against his cheek is a reflexive reaction to the stinging cut on my shoulder.

The slap rocks him back on his feet. His breath is a sharp hiss when he sees my hand come away red from my shoulder. He looks shocked - surprised that I'm bleeding. His voice sticks in his throat. "Oh God, Helena, I'm sorry...I..." He reaches his arm out to me. What an idiot, my cut'll be healed tomorrow but he's going to be walking around with a hand shaped bruise on his face for days.

I stop him with the smallest pressure of my fingers against his chest and warn him. "One shot, detective." The rumbling in my chest and the changing of my eyes makes him step back. "That's all you get. After that all bets are off."

His expression falls in disappointment and hurt. "It doesn't have to be this way," he whispers.

I straighten his tie and gently touch the bruise on his cheek. "But that's how it is." He closes his eyes to absorb the blow of those words and turns away to the door. I see him uncurl the fingers of one hand and look at the ring I gave him. "Don't," I say firmly. "That's between you and Oracle. If you want to return it you return it to her. We still owe you one."

He doesn't quite fully turn back, and all I see is the crescent of his face highlighted in the light of the hallway. "Lady, you owe me a lot more than that." This time he slams the door shut when he leaves.

Absently I reach my hand out to rest against the window but the breeze stops me before I can tear my palm on the jagged spike of glass. It's been a dry November, but somewhere out there it's snowing. The whistling wind that soaks into my skin carries whispers of polar breezes and arctic tundras and the frost settling on my heart answers back with a sigh.

Winter is coming.

Chapter 22


Two hours ago, a sweaty Helena trotted out of the gym, spent about 15 minutes gathering every piece of left over packing crate, my stack of old newspapers and magazines, stole the packing tape, flashed a quick smile at me, and went back upstairs. Fifteen minutes after she re-entered the gym the noise started - sounds of objects impacting the walls and floors, the sound of things being flung about, of flesh impacting something solid, and occasionally the high pitched squeal of a teenager. Over the two hours, the time between the bangs and thuds has decreased. It sounds like a wrecking crew in there. It's a good thing we don't have neighbours or else I'd be answering the door for the police right about now. And while the sounds aren't really loud, it's starting to annoy me. I cannot concentrate on cleaning up, rebuilding and re-organising my databases if all I keep hearing is the arrhythmic percussion coming from the gym.

Actually, If I'm going to be honest, I know that my annoyance has less to with whatever the hell Helena's doing up there and more to do with the fact that apart from sweeps and helping me move equipment, this weekend is the first time I have had Helena under my roof and she has spent the entire time with Dinah. I think she's avoiding me - not avoiding the clock tower, just me. Every time she's here, she spends all her time with Dinah. When we talk it's always about sweeps or the new hardware I'm installing and the newer holographic display I've had put in - and she always makes sure that Dinah is in the room with us. Every time I try to sit down alone with her or get her to talk to me she has managed to avoid me. She's been pulling an awful lot of shifts at the bar. Or always found something else to be doing. Even during sweeps, just when I think things are calming down and I can use the opportunity to talk to her when I'm not looking at her and she's not feeling exposed, she miraculously finds a mugger or thief. I'm actually starting to wonder if she isn't making up some of these suspects. Of course, that would mean that Dinah is in on the entire ruse - and that's carrying my paranoid fantasy just a little too far. Although considering how well they've been getting along lately maybe I should wonder about that too.

When the incessant banging and thumping becomes too much, I wrench myself from my workstation and make my way to the gym.

The first thing I hear - apart from the sounds - is Helena's voice. "What the hell was that?"

"It's too light," comes the teenage whine.

"Oh yeah?" Helena taunts.

"Ow! That hurt."

"Light enough for ya?" That particularly juvenile tone is followed by a series of thumping and slapping noises.

"Try this Ms. Hotshot."

The gym is a mess. There's paper everywhere and there are plastic boxes and lids strewn all over the mats. I hold my hand up in reflex to deflect a plastic projectile coming my way at the same time that Helena warns me.

"Oh shit! Barb...look out." She reaches out for the square Glad storage box just as a square pile of magazines hits her in the back of the head. Distracted as I am by the sight of Helena getting clobbered I lose track of the box, which clips my temple and bounces to the floor.

Dinah's flustered paralysis lasts exactly as long as it takes for Helena to make glaring eye contact with her. Like a shot Dinah takes off but there really is nowhere to go, Helena is standing by the exit. Helena allows her to make half a shrieking circuit around the room before catching up with her. They end up in a pile on the floor - Dinah face down and Helena on top with her knee on Dinah's back. Just as Helena gathers both of Dinah's arms behind her and grips them she starts to writhe convulsively. I start reflexively in my chair wanting to leap to her protection but stop the impulse when I hear the indignant laughter in her voice. "I'm going to kill you."

"Get off me."

"Hell, no! Not until you stop that."

"No, you stop it!"

I wonder what Helena is talking about when I notice that every couple of seconds she jerks to one side as if someone were poking her. "You first."

The sight brings a smile to my lips. This kind of horseplay isn't something I've observed in Helena for a very long time. It makes her very young and gives me a flash of who she might have been if circumstances had been different for her. And in light of recent events it's very relieving to see that she hasn't lost her capacity for happiness. I don't know how things between her and Jesse stand but I haven't dared bring up the topic again given her defensiveness about the topic from the last time. A squeal from Dinah shakes me out of my thoughts. Helena is ticking her mercilessly, and her face is turning red from the strain of laughing on her stomach while having the air squeezed out of her. Well, it's not quite the same as needling her, I suppose. But I decide that she could probably use a little help.

"You know, Dinah, Helena's always been ticklish..."

This time it's Helena who lets out a high-pitched shout - I hesitate to call it a squeal. "NO."

I continue. "So if you poked a her a little less and just..."

Dinah gets the idea and soon enough Helena's rolling on the floor, but she manages to retain her hold on Dinah. "Dammit! Barbara..." she whines. "I can't believe you told the kid that," she yells over Dinah's gleeful laughter. I know she's not really angry when she looks at me and shakes her head at me. And once again I am suddenly aware of this charming part of her where she allows Dinah to see this more playful side of her. Suddenly she stops laughing and gives Dinah a little glare over her head. "Dinah, you idiot, look at what you've done,' she says, tossing her shaggy head in my direction.

Dinah's face falls the second she looks up and then her eyes widen. "I'm so sorry." If her hands were free she'd probably be holding them up to her open mouth. And when Helena lets her go, she does exactly that.

I quickly suppress the smile that starts to sneak across my face and give Helena a firm look. As Dinah comes bounding toward me, her eyes fixed on my head, I move my hand reflexively to the bump that the box has left on my forehead. "Hel," I tsk at her. "It's nothing."

She shrugs. "Got her to stop, didn't it?"

I shake my head at her and try to will her into making eye contact through her bangs when my entire visual field is overwhelmed by frantic teenager. "Oh my god! You're bleeding," she says while furiously marshalling her hair behind a red ear. The alarm in her voice makes me wonder if the bump is actually worse than it seems.

I pat my head a little more extensively and my middle finger comes away with the faintest hint of ruddiness from roughened skin. "Dinah," I chide her with a smile. "I wouldn't go that far, it's barely a scrape."

"But it's all red and..."

Behind her, Helena rolls her eyes. I'm only half in agreement with Hel. While Dinah's concern is a little over the top, I also know that this is a symptom of her stress. She's been overly solicitous of me since the three days I spent in bed recovering from the neural trauma of using the coupler. There's another thing Helena and I haven't talked about - but the look in her eyes as she slammed the lid on the coupler's storage box had been eloquent enough.

"Jeez, kid! For a girl, you sure are upset by the sight of a little blood," says Helena wryly as she comes up to her feet and walks up to Dinah. She claps a hand on Dinah's shoulder and extends an open palm to my forehead. "That's nothing, you should have seen the bump she gave herself when she hit her head under desk the first time she installed the Delphi." Dinah starts to look a little mollified but not completely convinced. "Jeez, get a grip, you're hyperventilating," she says a little softly. Whatever Helena manages to convey through her tone, or maybe it's through her touch, Dinah nods and manages to calm her expression into some semblance of normalcy. "Anyway, that's it for the lesson." Dinah nods and breaks off to start picking up the mess they've left behind. "Aw shit," Helena exclaims, "leave it, get outta here."

Sheepishly Dinah leaves the room. And now, for the first time in weeks Helena and I are in a room together, alone. I know that she has realised the same thing when a look of slight alarm crosses her face as she looks around the room and notices that I am parked right in front of the exit. Not wanting to make her more uncomfortable than she already is in my presence these days, I wheel further into the interior of the gym and pick up the bale of tape-wrapped journals that dropped on her head - old issues of Computing Week. As she is picking up boxes and the odd loose leaf of paper, she notices my scrutiny of the pile and says, "Sorry, didn't think you wanted those."

"It's okay. I don't." She inspects a cracked lid on one of the boxes and then completes the task already begun on it and rips the plastic in half. "I don't think that's the one that hit me," I say as I hand her the offending box.

She starts a little at my proximity. "Sorry," she says, "I didn't mean to miss."

"I think I know that." She nods and resumes neatening the room. That's when I realise that Helena is cleaning up - of her own accord - without being subject to nagging and complaining. I blink at this realisation but say nothing about it. Instead I take in the carnage and ask, "So what went on in here?"

"Practice," comes the terse reply.

"Yes?" I encourage her. I am struck by a sense of déjà vu. Our exchanges these days have come to remind me of our first days of living together.

"Well, like you said, she needs to exercise her new powers." She continues to range through the gym and gather plastic and paper.


"Well, I'm trying to get her to see which things she can move with her mind without trying too hard. How many she can keep going at one time. How many she can stop from hitting her, and all that stuff." I nod in approval of this new practice regimen that Helena has outlined for Dinah. It's funny, I could never get her to stick to a routine when I was training her. "'Cause she has a real issue with getting down with the physical stuff."

"I wouldn't say that." I'm thinking of the time they were both opponents in Malcolm Lagg's death match.

Somehow she reads my thoughts and I wonder if my two meta-human wards aren't rubbing off on each other. "Oh that doesn't count. She had help from the drug, she was pissed off about Carolyn," the name is tinged with tiniest hint of disgust, " were coaching her to get me where it hurts." Then she looks up at me. "Why is it you're always telling her how to get me?"

"You know she's intimidated by you. If she can feel comfortable about being aggressive with you, she'll feel more confident about what she's doing out there," I say reasonably.

She touches the back of her head. "I don't think you should worry about that. Every time I turn around she's throwing something at me. First the nunchuks now the mags..." I start to point out that my head has suffered damage too but she beats me to it. "Hell, now she's started beaning you in the head too. Maybe there's some deep Freudian implication about hidden hostility and authority figures going on with her," she says as she finally comes to rest while leaning over a stack of more of my old programming journals. Seeing the piles and the loose leafs strewn across the mats I wonder why I, who have built my life around electronic components, still can't give up the smell of printing ink and the feel of glossy paper between my fingers.

"And what would you suggest I do about her latent hostility issues, Hel?"

"I don't know," she replies while straightening up the piles of magazines so that the edges match, "maybe she ought to talk to..." Even as she's saying it I wonder if she'll catch herself before she completes that thought...and with a cough she does. "...You about it. You know, maybe you could talk to her, draw her out or something. She's been on edge a little don't you think?"

"Yeah, she has. But I think you should talk to her and see if you can draw her out?"

From her place on the floor where he face is half obscured by her shaggy bangs she looks up a little and places a finger on her chest. "Me?" I nod. "You want me to talk to her."

"Mmm mmnh."

She taps herself on the chest again. "You want me to have a sensitive chat with her." I nod again. "Are feeling okay?"

"I think it'll be good for her. You're closer to her in age than I am. It won't seem so much like being called to the principal's office if you spoke to her."

"Barbara," she snorts, "kids would love going to the principal's office if you were the principal." She stands up. "Can you just see it? I pull the kid aside for a quiet little chat one of these days and she'll freak out. Forget the principal's office it'll be like being singled out by the school bully."

When she starts hefting pieces of the mess onto her shoulder and making her way to the elevator I get confused. "Helena, what are you doing?"

"Um...taking out the trash?"

"Alfred can do that."

"Really?" she says wistfully as she looks about the room. "Can I ask him to clean up as well?"

"I'm sure he'll be happy to." After all, no matter what you like to pretend, you're still paying him his salary.

"Cool," she says and drops the load she's carrying with a resounding thump. "I'm sorry about the mess. I know you guys've been doing a lot down here and..."

There's something very strange and bizarre about Helena apologising for making a mess but also something...endearing about it. When I don't answer right away, she starts to look a little concerned. "Helena," I say. "Just go."

"Okay, sorry."

Right before the elevator doors close, she leaps back out while fishing in her pocket. "Oh here's your equipment list - distribution and inventory and all that," she says and hands me a bunch of notes and receipts. "Just like you asked. There's invoices in there somewhere."

I take a look at the neat check-marked grid of the notes, and as I recognise the neat loops of her hand. I wonder how someone who rarely writes manages to have such neat writing. "Thanks."

"Okay." The hum of the open elevator door distracts her head for a second and then she looks back toward me. I want to extend this light interlude that we've managed to create but I can't think of a single thing to say to make her stay. And the longer I sit around staring at her the more she starts to twitch. "Iiii...I'll be late for my shift. Leonard only wants go-getters working for him. Sooo I gotta go."


And once again she's gone without us having talked about anything I want to talk to her about.

* * * * *

Helena is playing scrabble with Dinah. She called after her shift, said she was bringing pizza and then she would stay to work out. With the pizza, she also brought a length of cord. When I asked her what the rope was for all she said was, "You'll see."

The pizza, like the afternoon, is gone, as are the gallons of soda. And now, here she is playing scrabble. At least I assume they're still paying scrabble, I haven't taken a look in a while. If one has killed the other I would have heard the noise by now. Anyway, I don't think they want to kill each other these days - they simply have sneer fests. Intrigued and unsettled by the silence I put down my endlessly repetitive and pathetically plagiarised Julius Caesar papers. I push away from the table and quietly weave my way to where they are sitting.

"That's wrong."


"It doesn't have two 'L's."

"Yes it does."

"No, it's a common error..."

"That's not an error. It's a perfectly acceptable variation."

"It's wrong!"

"It's English."

"Alfred!" Dinah yells, but he's not home. "Anyway, we're not English."

"It's in Webster's, geek brain. Look it up."

"You want me to look it up?" Dinah's voice is filled with incredulous disbelief.

"Is it too difficult to look it up? Are you going to cry now?"


"Are you done yet?"

"Does it look I'm done, genius?"

"You're taking too long."

"You try it then." Long pause. "Then shut up. You're making me lose focus." Whistling and deliberately off-key singing. "Shut up you stupid bi...aahhh! I can't concentrate when you do that!" she snaps.

And even though the needling is very obvious in Helena's voice I can't see why Dinah should be so upset about looking up a word in the dictionary. When I round the table I see, both, why Helena brought the rope with her and why Dinah's so stressed about looking up the word - she is sitting with her hands bound behind her, and the pages in the book in front of her seem to be flipping by themselves.


"Hey Barbara!" she says. "Want a chip?"

Dinah stops psychically riffling through the dictionary and glares at Helena. "Isn't that 'crisp'?"

"It sure is," she says as she crunches into the deep fried potato snack. "Crunchy too."

"Dinah," I ask, "are you quite comfortable like that?"

She twists backwards and tries to bring her bound wrists into view. Cotton wrapped wrists are finished by a neatly tied Hercules knot in the rope. "Yeah, she put wristbands on and she didn't really tie them that tight."

"Oh, okay."

"C'mon, kid. Quit stalling."

When Dinah is finally able to make the pages fall to the one she wants, Helena bangs her finger down on the entry. "Ha! One 'L' or two 'L's. Read 'em and weep. That's my triple word score."

"That's so not fair!" The dictionary goes flying straight into Helena's hand.

"No it isn't fair," she says tossing the hair back from her face in an exaggerated motion. "So beautiful, and so well intelligent - it's just not fair."

"Just 'cause you were born and grew up different places..."

"How many places do you think I was born in? And how many times?" I can't help but laugh as Helena mocks the girl's ungrammatical utterance. "How does Barbara let you out in public? Kids today, can't beat it into them, can't just leave them tied up."

"Oh, and is that how your mother used to deal with you?" I ask her.

A small twitch of her head gives away her ever-present pain at talking about Selina. But instead of stonewalling she joins the game. "Oh yeah. She'd string me up outside the window 30 storeys high so I couldn't get into trouble. This one time I made a tower of all her file folders while her papers were in them, she went into her closet, pulled out the wire hangers from her fresh dry-cleaning and beat me across the calves. You can still see the scars." Dinah's eyes grow wider. "Jeez, I'm joking. Mom never laid a hand on me. She was too afraid of what I'd do if she did." Dinah's eyes grow even wider. "Oh run away. You know if I ever run into the Redmonds - it'll be when I'm driving Barbara's tank."

The grousing vow of protection makes Dinah blush and stutter. Helena notices and suppresses her reaction to it but the twitch of her lip gives away her own tender feelings regarding Dinah. I smile at her and she bites her lip.

Maybe I should change the subject. "I don't mean to be a nagging old fogy with prudish opinions but I thought you were working out and is there a reason Dinah is trussed up like..."

"A turkey?" Helena offers.


"We are working out. That's why she's all tied up." I watch as Dinah's tiles move across the board and sidle up to the grid of letters already resting on the board. "Watch-es? That's your word?" Dinah does not deign to reply, she simply totals up her points. "E, S? That's it? I can't work with this."

"You're so smart, find something."

"We're working on her fine co-ordination. Isn't this fun? Much better than all those forms you made me repeat over and over again."

"Those forms I made you run are the reflexes that save your life everyday."

"But I didn't have any fun. I was bored out of my mind, and too tired to do anything after."

"You see how smart she is Dinah? She finally figured it out."

"Funnyy...not. Anyway my training schedules are a lot more fun. Isn't it fun Dinah?"

Dinah doesn't say anything for a while. Then she jumps like she's been kicked under the table and then she nods furiously. "Yeah sure, fun - so much fun. Have you noticed how your idea of fun always involves rope, cuffs or beatings?"

"You noticed!" she mocks breathily. "I didn't know you cared." Dinah moves more tiles onto the board, getting a triple word score and a 50-point bonus for using all 7 of her letters. Helena throws her hands up in the air and gives up. "That's it. I can't play with you anymore. How do I know you don't 'select'," she makes air quotes, "your letters, it's not fair."

Dinah just smiles gleefully for winning the game. "It's not. So smart, so gorgeous - It's not fair at all."

I laugh at how easily Dinah has turned the tables on Helena. Helena pouts. "She's got you there." I turn on my wise professor voice. "I'm impressed Helena, I think your training program is increasing her mental acuity."

"Fine," Helena huffs and lays her arm on my chair, "how about you and I go work on our training program." I really should get back to grading my papers before we get to sweeps tonight, but Helena has just offered to spend time alone with me.


But before Helena can sprint off to the gym, Dinah pipes up. "Uhh you guys, speaking of turkey...I was thinking..."

"Yes, Dinah?" I encourage her gently.

"I don't want to be a pain in the ass or anything but I was kinda wondering..." her arm twitches reflexively; if it were free she would be tucking her hair behind her ear. Helena and I discreetly roll our eyes. "It's just that the holidays are coming up..."

"Spit it out kid, I haven't got all day," Helena interrupts her.

She blushes red and stammers a little. "Aaa...mmm..." Helena's indrawn growl of exasperation hurries her along. "I was wondering what you guys are doing for thanksgiving. I know it's only a couple of days away and...I know that it's kind of a bad time and all but it would be kind of nice if we could all have dinner together."

Thanksgiving? I think to myself, I've completely forgotten about it. Helena voices my thought out loud for me. "Thanksgiving?" her voice pitches upward.

Dinah turns her too-stupid-to-live expression on Helena. "Yeah, you know holiday with the turkey and family and giving thanks." But because she stole it from Helena in the first place it has no effect.

Thanksgiving? I think again. We haven't really celebrated thanksgiving in about two years. "That sounds great, actually," I find myself saying. "What do you think Hel?"

Her expression is only mildly shell shocked. "Uhh sure, sounds good. Alfred will be thrilled. He loves to cook up a storm for the holidays. In fact," she grins as she turns to me and nudges my chair along, "we won't even need a turkey, there's this great big bird all tied up right here in our living room."

"Hey!" Dinah protests

"...Nice and plump, probably won't even need to baste it."


Helena walks me to the elevator so we can go to the gym.

"HEY! I'm still tied-up here," comes the plaintive whine.

Helena ignores Dinah and says to me quite seriously, "Maybe we should work on my kicks and defending from below. And defensive manoeuvres for you. There's been too much slacking off going on here lately."

It's remarkable how she knows exactly what I'm thinking but says without any hesitation. "What about Dinah?" I ask as the elevator door closes.

"We'll work on her defensives tomorrow."

"No I meant that she's tied up."

"Oh, that's part of the lesson, too. Little miss gorgeous and smart-ass can figure it out for herself." Then pretending to push imaginary glasses up her nose in an exact imitation of my own gesture she mimics the tone of my voice perfectly. "She'll thank me later, when it saves her life."

She doesn't retaliate when I whack her in the stomach with the back of my hand.

* * * * *

Something in Helena has changed. For several weeks now, she's been different. But I noticed only two days ago, the night of our thanksgiving dinner, which Dinah insisted she cook. Alfred fussed and hovered over her like the old mother hen he is. He insisted that it was to assist young Miss Dinah. But I'm convinced it was because he was worried she would char his pots and burn his pans - and make no mistake they are his. Not one single piece of culinary equipment in this apartment was bought by the women.

But on Thursday evening - Helena arrived with the groceries that Alfred and Dinah listed out the day before. She stayed in, helping with the preparation serving up snacks and beverages. She insisted she was simply playing bartender but it was more like she was playing hostess. Her manners were so impeccable that I wished we had invited more people to our dinner. But Dad is in Chicago on a lecture series, and just having this celebration is difficult for us - every time I make a list of what I'm thankful for, I keep thinking about...To be honest what hurts is how easy it is for me to put aside the memories of Wade. In my head, I was breaking up with him for longer than we were actually together. I wonder if I'm holding on to the sadness just so that I won't feel like a bad person for not having been in love with him.

After the bird was ready she insisted that Alfred sit down and join us while she carved and served. He was indignant about the gross violation of protocol that Helena was suggesting but when Dinah jumped in with her desperate pleading, the man who could stare down Batman caved-in and gave up the fight graciously. I think he was the happiest one of us all that night. He sat there puffing his chest and staring around the table proudly at the three of us. He regaled us with his memories of Christmas goose, which got Helena reminiscing about her two years in London. Dinah now wants to do a Christmas dinner as well.

I should have known she'd be handy with the carving knife. I've seen her eat her food - it's as if the food is so thoroughly seduced by her, it just falls apart under her knife and fork while the rest of us mere mortals have to saw away at it.

Dinner was perfect. The conversation was lovely - just the perfect mixture of heady, light, intellectual and goofy. Her wine selection was wonderful, and after lecturing Dinah about underage drinking - as I hid my smirk from her - she let the kid get good and ploughed on the buzzy vintage. She packed Alfred off early and cleared the table herself. She didn't even blink when Dinah begged off dishes to go spend time with her friend Gabby.

She must have felt my eyes on her as she rinsed the plates and loaded the dishwasher. "I have dishes at my apartment. And I don't have a dishwasher. So you can stop wondering if it's Armageddon."

"Sorry." The sound of running water made me nervous. How was I to start a conversation with her? We weren't working out, Dinah wasn't around to chaperone us, we weren't working - it was just the two of us. She had made it very clear in her tacit way that she didn't want to talk about any sensitive issues. She refused to talk about Harley, she refused to talk about Reese, she refused to talk about Wade, she refused to talk about Sandy, she refused to talk about her murderous rage over the spinal neural coupler, she refused to talk about her disaffection with the direction of her life for the last couple of years. But she was happy to talk about Dinah, my teaching, school, the municipal elections, the new commissioner, dad's new job as a consultant, the revamped Delphi, the new security features for the clock tower. She was happy to sit and listen to me pour my heart out and I wanted to return the favour.

As she put the last of the dishes away, I went around the table picking up our glasses. "Come sit outside with me," I said as I snagged the remaining wine.

"Okay," she said, wiping her hands.

On the balcony, she leaped up to take her usual position on the balustrade and held out her hand as she waited for me to pull up with her glass. As I lifted the glasses up I realised an embarrassing fact. "Which one is yours? I don't remember which had more."

"You don't remember?" she asked incredulously.

"Shut up and drink," I said as I thrust the glass with the greater volume into her hand.

"What's this? How come I get more? You trying to take advantage of me Miss Gordon?"

"I...I..." I stuttered.

"...Get me drunk and get me talking?" For some reason I was incredibly relieved by the way she completed the sentence. "I know all your subtle and sly ways to trick me into a sensitive chat," she teased.

"I don't think there's anything subtle about getting you drunk. I'd have to get a whole case of this stuff out here for that."

"No, I never was a cheap date."

"I can't imagine you're a cheap anything."

"Hhmhh," she grunted noncommittally.

For the next few minutes we sat there. She stared at the sky and I stared at the snaking trickle of traffic on the distant streets below. I watched the anaemic headlights moving in one direction and was entranced by the corpuscles of red moving in the other and considered the appropriateness of referring to the large roads and avenues as the arteries of the city. The wind picking up sent a chilly shiver through me. Without a word, she shrugged off her jacket and handed it to me. Instead of wearing it I slipped it on it back to front - the back of the chair protected my back well enough. It was cold outside but her jacket was warm, toasty even. I don't even know why she needed to wear jackets since she never seemed to feel the cold anymore since the winter of Freeze. And really she had been having her issues with body and atmospheric temperature since the summer of Ivy.

I snorted quietly to myself. These were the ways in which I knew time now - by the injuries and traumas that we...she encountered. What would this year be? The fall of Hawke? The Hell of Harley? She cut her eyes at me when I snorted but didn't move her head. I pulled the warm jacket tighter around myself and inhaled the smell of wool and leather and smoke...and Helena. I took a gulp out of my glass and hugged myself when another blast of wind kicked up. Helena's hand whipped out into the air and then extended toward me. It was a single brown leaf, ragged and curling at the edges, and peppered with tiny holes. I took the brittle leaf from her and felt the rough texture of the veins as they rasped through the ridges of my callused fingers. I smiled at it. The south side of Gotham was a long way for a leaf to travel in the wind. As it crackled through my fingers, the dehydrated membranes crumbled apart and floated onto my lap. I held the remaining pieces up, above the level of my shoulder, and felt the wind tug at them - I let them go and they drifted away on the current of air into the blackness.

The wind rose and fell in waves. When I was hyper-aware of the sound of our breaths and the echo of our breathing in the wind, I asked, "Do you think about Selina a lot?"


"Do you miss her?"

The laughter burst out of her mouth like a bullet. "All the time. Really a lot this year."

"I don't miss my mother. She was very beautiful - with blonde hair. I got my hair from my father. He was funny. He'd show me how the insides of things worked. Sometimes he'd let me sit on his lap and handle the steering when he drove. He used to drink a lot."

"Cheers," she said holding up her glass.

"He beat her. He used to hit me too."


"I miss him."

"Well, we're all fucked up." It was very quiet. Not even one siren. "I don't remember mom's face any more. I try, but I can't."

"Do you think we're doomed to be perennially unhappy?"

"I don't know...maybe it's more that we can't touch happiness when it's in front of us. Like when I was a kid."

"Were you happy? When you were a kid?"

"God yeah! I was so happy - like my heart would burst."

"Are you unhappy now?"

"Now? No."

"Are you happy?"

She laughed, once. "No."

"Me too." It was getting colder. It felt like the air was condensing on my face.

Helena sat up swung her legs to hang down over the balustrade. The glass made a chinking sound on the flagstone. She leaned over towards me. "Don't cry, Barbara. It'll get better."

"I'm not crying." But the glinting drop of moisture on her thumb as it came away from my face made me a liar. I bent my head and brushed the back of my free hand against my cheeks. When I looked up, I was staring into unwavering yellow eyes that took the glass of wine from my hands.

"I think you've had too much too drink. You should go to bed," she all but whispered.

"It's early, there'll be..."

"Go to bed."

"I can't sleep there."

"Then sleep on the sofa. It's very comfortable."



She removed the back cushions from the sofa and made a high rest for my legs. When she had me tucked in with a blanket from my room, she knelt by the sofa. "They're just bad dreams. They'll go away. Try to think about something..." she smiled but the smile didn't reach her eyes, "...happy."

I pulled the blanket under my chin and considered the sadness in her blue eyes. "You should be happy too."

"Mom always used to say, happiness is what you least it expect it to be."

"Your mom was crazy...and dangerous."


"I liked her."

"Me too. Now go to sleep."

The next morning I found the tea already brewing when I woke up.

I know Helena is sensitive. I know that she is perceptive. But this gentle Helena is new. It's as if all the anger has drained out of her. But it's also as if the fire inside her has faded too. Almost as if the anger was the fuel that fired an engine inside of her, and the loss of that spark has killed whatever drives her. It's nothing specific, just a feeling, like she's not quite here. Even Dinah has noticed.

"What's up with Helena?" she asked me this morning before going to school.

"Why?" I asked.

"She's been so weird lately."

"Weird. How?"

"Like, she's nice all the time now. She's being nice to me."

"I thought you'd like that?"

"Yes but its weird. Like she's a pod person or something."

Whatever it is, I'm caught between worrying about her and being completely fascinated by this side of her. She's responsible. She's efficient. She's parental - when it comes to Dinah. Something about her is softer now - slower. Before I always felt like she was waiting to be somewhere else, but now I can't feel the restlessness anymore. She's still as evasive as ever to me but now the feeling is in me - like I'm the one not seeing her instead of her hiding. Perhaps the gentleness isn't new. I've seen flashes of it before, but it was just that - flashes. It's never been this close to the surface before; and I'm fascinated by it - it makes me feel like she's right within my reach.

Chapter 23


<"Huntress, are you available? I need you right now."> Barbara's voice in my ear jolts me out of sleep and dumps my ass on the hard floor. Fuck!

I wipe the sleep from my eyes scramble up to sit. My voice when I talk is about as rusty as a heap sitting in the front yard of some hick in the boonies of Alabama. "What, what? What's wrong? Are you okay?"

<"I'm fine. Were you sleeping?"> she asks in a voice laced with worry but otherwise un-alarmed.

Then why are you calling me? I look for the time and there it is, glowing right in front of me - four something, I can't focus on it. "Do you know what time it is?" I ask.

"Uhhm...yes," she says in a puzzled voice. "It's..."

"It's ass o'clock in the morning, Barbara." I stand up and massage the bruise on my ass. "It's half past the crack of my ass - that's the time. What do you want?"

"I have a situation developing..."

"Noooo..." I groan. "There is no situation. It's after three. There's never anything after three in the morning." I know I'm whining. I may not sleep all that much, and I may not sleep at conventional hours, but I do need sleep and the little sleep I was about to get has just been interrupted. I need whatever sleep I get.

<"...On the west side,"> she says. The words are vague but by her inflection I'm supposed to understand her meaning - and maybe I do.

The west side. "The north...west side?" my voice spirals up into a squeak. "North of the Trigate bridge, on an island, in the armpit of town, that west side?"


Fuck! "I'm on my way."

<"I need you to drop by the tower first.">

"I'm right there."

Chapter 24


<"I'm right there,"> she says, and I go off air to give her a little privacy. She was asleep - fast asleep - from the sounds of it. It's rare for her to be asleep on a Friday night...Saturday morning. We had an early end to sweeps and, by the hurry in which she left the tower after dropping off Dinah I just assumed that she was on her way to one of her disreputable jaunts of the city. Instead she was asleep and is now crabby for being startled out of it.

I turn to Dinah who is hovering right behind me and shrug at her. Dinah is bleary from sleep too, but the expression of fright she had on when the alarms went off earlier has receded to one of comical puzzlement. She can't believe that Helena's asleep either. Before I can return Dinah's shrug, we hear a clattering at the door of the balcony followed by the successive beeps of the security alarm being disabled. The door crashes open and the bleary and rumpled figure of Helena half stumbles into the room. The door slams shut behind her and she does a quick turn to wince at the loud noise it makes.

"Sorry," she mumbles. "All right, I'm here. Have you shut the loony bin down yet?' Both Dinah and I develop identical expressions of shock and surprise, with our brows climbing up into our hairlines. "What?" she responds, "It's an emergency, I got here as fast as I could."

"Where were you?" Dinah asks.


"Yeah, I can see that, hot shot. Where were you?"

"None of your business. Why don't you go brush or your hair? It looks like a bunch of angry weasels've been screwing in it."

I sigh in exasperation as the goading remark shifts Dinah's face into hurt and then anger and then irritation, and then neutrality before she leaves the room. "And you look like you were screwing an angry weasel."

Helena follows Dinah out with her eyes and then turns to me with a long whistle. "Woo! Did you hear that? She's getting feisty, Barbara, you'd better watch out." She pauses and then stammers. "What, do I have bed hair?"

"That was pretty quick."

"Well, shit, Barbara. It's an emergency. Why'd you make me come here first?"

I hold the box of specially treated contacts out to her. "Just in case," I say to her as she inspects the contents of the box. "If Quinn's involved..."

"Yeah. No problem," she mutters as she slips them on.

"Also, I think you should have back up on this."

"Back up?"

"I think Dinah should go with you."

"You know..."

"No, Helena. Dinah and I have spoken about this and we can't shield her like this. If she's going to learn how to handle more dangerous situations, we can't protect her like this. She'll hang back and can use her powers from a distance."

"What I was going to say was, you know that's probably not a bad idea."

Oh. "Oh." Now I feel stupid.

"Bet you feel stupid now. Hey, Dinah! You changed yet? Lets go!"

* * * * *

"She asleep yet?" Helena asks me a little sulkily as she leans over the sink and nurses the steam burns on her arm and on one side of her face. They're minor burns but bound to be painful.

"I just sent her to her room."

She gives me a peevish look when I hold the tube of salve out to her. Of course, both her hands are a little occupied right now. I apologise and retreat after leaving the tube by the sink.

"'She okay?" Helena asks.

"Yes. She says she feels tired but that she's okay."

"Good. I was worried about the knock on the head I gave her when we rolled out of the hummer."

"She's fine," I find myself saying a little heatedly. It was my decision to have them stay and investigate - I can't help defend my decision. Of course I can't help feeling a little guilty as well - Dinah looked shaken. I think strung out is the better word - her expression was a cross between elation and fear. Either way, she collapsed from the exhaustion and I finally had to send her to bed. But who wouldn't feel shaken after telekinetically driving a hummer off a bridge - I imagine the strain from the effort and from the close call was immense. But she's safe right now.

I leave the kitchen to go to the Delphi and try to go over the sequence of events hoping I will see something that makes sense. Of course, it has nothing to do with the fact that I can't bring myself to look Helena in the face. I don't know what to say to her. I feel responsible for this morning's events. I'm completely at a loss to explain why Helena and Dinah should have ended up on the wrong end of a police action.

When they reached the asylum, Helena remarked that they had arrived at a siege situation. Arkham staff had closed off bridge access to the island and was refusing entrance to NGPD vehicles. The director of the asylum refused to release any information about any security lapses. But my sensors indicated that there was a Level 9 security breach - there were only nine levels in Arkham and nine was the highest. If Arkham staff was trying to cover its ass at the expense of public safety there was going to be a disaster of staggering proportions - it would be a catastrophe.

At least that's what I told myself when I directed Helena into the steam tunnels that ran under the facility and opened into heating vents inside the holding cells - that I was doing to make sure that the citizens of New Gotham were safe from marauding maniacs; that it had nothing to do with the fact that Joker was one of the Level 9 inmates and the fear and hate that spiked through me at the thought of him on the loose had nothing to do with it. Despite the fact that Helena reported to me that the inmates seemed to be penned in and sedated, I made her inspect each level - even after I learned that the PD was standing down from the asylum and there seemed to be no security breach.

I was so engrossed in the argument we were having as she made her way back outside that I failed to keep an eye on my controls of all the steam vents and almost lost Helena to a spume of scalding steam that came down from the turbines at the Water District tunnels. Luckily I was able to initiate a valve closing and direct Helena out of harm's way - but not before she was a little singed. I still haven't told her that my quick patch in almost set off the overload alarms and initiated another emergency.

And as they attempted to drive off the island they were spotted leaving by an enthusiastic patrolman taking one last circuit of the island before he reported off duty, leading to a five-mile chase where Helena led the cars and helicopters to the far north side of the city, leaped out of the running vehicle with Dinah in tow and then had Dinah 'drive' the car across the bridge making all the proper turns and evasions before having her crash into and through the rails. As relieved as I was to know that there would be no more cars following them, even I had to wince at the destruction of property. Oh I didn't have a visual clue but I can always tell by the depth of Helena's chuckles how big the blow up is - I think there's a little pyromaniac tucked away in there somewhere.

I'm examining the network that runs Arkham. There's got to be an explanation for what happened. According to the press conference that Jeremiah Arkham is giving right now, it was a drill to determine police response time to emergencies at the facility, which is a lie because not only is Arkham outside the jurisdiction of NGPD, Commissioner Kelly had no idea what was coming. But they're nodding at the cameras right now - smiling and assuring the viewing public that it's all okay. I love politics.

"What a joke." Helena comes up behind me, brushing breadcrumbs off her shirt. "Kelly was about ready to blow a gasket today. He was standing there in his jammies and fluffy bunny slippers calling Arkham a motherless psycho son of bitch. For a second I thought he was one of the escapees."

I don't look away from the monitors. "Well, he was dragged from bed at an unusual hour I can't imagine he was very happy about that."

Se takes another bite of her PBJ sandwich. "Tell me about it. I know exactly how he feels." That catches my attention. Helena left in a hurry this morning - a justifiable hurry - but still without answering our questions about exactly how it was that she managed to be right on hand when I called her. I turn my chair around and almost run over her feet. "Hey, watch it!" she says and jumps away from me.


"'Sokay. So you figure it out yet?" I shake my head. "I'm sure you can figure it out."

"I don't know. I can't find anything wrong. Maybe it was a hardware failure that set it off. Maybe Jeremiah Arkham was conducting a test - he does seem a little imperious. I'm just glad it was a false alarm."

"Still it won't hurt to keep an eye out for a few days." I nod in agreement. "Okay. I'll be sure to swing by during sweeps."

As I fish about in my head for ways to start this conversation she stands there looking at me before stuffing the remainder of the sandwich into her mouth. She looks like a draggled chipmunk with her hair standing up in places, and the lump in her mouth. I take in the ruddy swelling on the far section of her face and notice how it already looks less vicious. She brushes more crumbs from her shirt and a couple of them float to my lap, driven by her vigorous hand motions. She gives me a silent 'yikes' by frogging the corded muscles of her throat, and continues grooming herself.

I smile at her and say, "Your hair's a mess."

"Fuck," she murmurs and runs her hand through her hair. "Fucking bed head, and wind hair aaannnd pulling my hair out from the way the kid drives."

"Bed head, mmnh?"

"Yeah. Well, speaking of bed head I'd better get back to bed. So much for the rest of my day."

"You never answered my question."

"What question?"

"From before, about where you were?"

Her head jerks spasmodically to the side in a miniscule motion to the balcony, almost as if she has just suppressed the urge to escape. She runs both her hands through her hair and presses it down, leaving her hands cradled behind her head. "I was out."

"I thought you were asleep."

"I was."

"But you were out?"

"Yup." I raise my eyebrow, asking her to elaborate. After a moment's chagrined silence she grimaces and says, "I was out and then I was on my way to the apartment and then the stars came out and the moon had sort of a umm....moonbow around it and I kinda sat down to take a look and I was just wool gathering and then I guess I kinda," she ended with a hissing slurp.

"I'm sorry what?"

"I fell asleep."


"On the balcony."

"The balcony?" I challenge her. I know she wasn't there. The motion sensors would have picked her up well before she fell asleep.

"The ledge...?" she corrects herself hastily.

"The ledge?" I ask incredulously. "The ledge," I repeat. "Of course. Where else?" I take in the smudges under her eyes and am once more aware of the brittle feeling she has induced in me for days now despite her outwardly normal behaviour - it's almost as if she is carrying some deep sadness inside her. Not the old sadness but something new that even I don't know about. I'm suddenly filled with a feeling like panic - there's something about her I don't know. I've always known everything about her. Maybe not the little details but the big things - I've always known. She's always been transparent to me. But lately and especially after Quinn, there's been a curtain between her feelings and my awareness of them. I ask the next question automatically without knowing where the impulse comes form. "How long?"

"Uh...I don't really..."

"How long?"

"It's just not a..."

"How long?" I put my foot down. As she answers, I'm consumed by a strange sense of déjà - like we've had this conversation before and the outcome is already pre-destined.

"A few weeks."


"My apartment's like a fucking revolving door. It's on top of a bar, there's people breaking in all the time..."

"Wait, wait a minute. Who broke in to your apartment?"


"Why did he break into your apartment?"

"Because he doesn't have a key," she says factually, her voice indicating that I'm being stupid for not being able to logically deduce that. She's silent for a while and decides to help me out by answering my unspoken question. "I broke up with him. He was being an ass."

I don't know how to respond to this piece of information, but however I should react, I know that smiling is the wrong response. I know that consolation, or encouragement to pursue the relationship will not be well taken. I redirect the conversation to its earlier track. "No I meant why outside? You can sleep in here."

She shrugs in response. She looks up to the rooms where Dinah is hopefully fast asleep. "Kid's got my room, anyway."

"There are other rooms."

"Yeah, I know that. It's comfortable outside. Cool breeze, nice view."

"Helena it's 36 degrees out there," I remind her.

"Don't really feel it, remember?" she reminds me. And now I remember when and where we've had this conversation. It was in this very room, seven years ago, before she came to live with me. She was watching over me then.

"Are you watching over me, Helena?" I ask, and I'm not sure why my heart starts to speed up at this thought. She dips her head in response and hides her expression from me. But I can see the tightening of her jaw that means I'm asking too many questions and that she's about to get defensive. I realise that I've been a little caught up with my own pre-occupations in the aftermath of Quinn's little number on us. I take in the milky light of day as it pours through the glass clock face and decide it's time to change the subject.

"So what were you going to do today?"

"Huh?" she looks confused.

"You said, "So much for the rest of my day." What were you going to do?"

She twitches her eyebrows at me suspiciously but answers me quite clearly. "I was going to go to the museum - the Van Gogh sketch exhibit. It's around only for three more weeks. I wanted to see it before it's gone. I thought it'll be nice - haven't been to the museum in...a long time."

The museum. My god! How long has it been since I've been to a museum? I think that the last museum, or rather art collection, I was in was Selina's gallery. I don't think that the fundraisers I've attended with daddy count as real visits. I think that visiting the museum sounds like a fine idea. It's a clear day outside - bright and crisp - probably one of the last clear days before winter sets in, and the fresh air and sunlight will do me good.

"Good. What time are you going?" Her look of alarm makes me feel less sure about my sure of my plan of action.


You'd think that I just asked her to inject poison into herself, which is funny because I have and she didn't look this alarmed then. " want to..." she points at me, "you want to go to the museum." She turns the finger on herself. "With me?"

"I'd like to join you, if you don't mind."

"Sure..." she says, not at all sure. In a daze she adds, "I was thinking...around noon?"

"Sounds good."

"Okay." She looks confused now. "I guess...I'll go..." She heads to the balcony.

"Where are you going?"

She points half-heartedly in a general direction. "Back to my apartment. I need to shower, change..."

"Oh, for...Helena!" I shake my head in disbelieving exasperation. "Surely you can sleep here. You're here all the time anyway. God knows Alfred's done enough of your laundry here that you have clothes here too." She looks up at her old room. "You can sleep in my room if you want."

"Uh...No, here is fine!"

"Fine then sleep on the sofa, it's very comfortable." We share a smile - she knows how comfortable the sofa is. She's the one who convince me to keep it. "Alfred will be by to make brunch later."

She nods and obediently sits down on the sofa before remembering she still has her boots on. She slips them off and gathers my blanket, still sitting there since thanksgiving, around herself - she likes to feel wrapped up even when she doesn't need the covers.

When she lies down her hair sticks up again. I start to smooth it down but when she closes her eyes I decide to leave it alone. She can fix it when she has a shower.

* * * * *

She's quiet at the museum - but not a bad quiet. It's the quiet of someone appreciating something beautiful. So as I observe her gliding though the galleries, I am quiet as well. We share our quiet opinions of the canvases - my reduced stature giving me a slightly different perspective than hers. I have taken to using the manual chair once again, the 'advanced' version not being available to my use until the insult from the coupler has subsided. It's actually quite amusing how incongruous her clothes are in this milieu - she had only sweeps wear at the tower. I don't know if she's noticed the double takes and the surprised looks whenever she rounds a corner or strolls through the vaulted rooms.

At one point, I am struck by a sketch that Helena has lingered over with exceptional concentration and feeling. It is of a path through some trees. There is a man, walking through these woods, with a pack slung over his shoulder. And even though it is a simple, tonal pen and ink sketch, I know that is an autumn evening and the twilight is starting to fog over with the mist drawn from the earth in the distant fields - it's in the shading of a soft pencil over the entire paper that obfuscates the image so slightly that you might think you're imagining it. I know that the man is headed home and that he is tired from a long day's work - it's in the slight stoop of the figure and the awkward angle of his arms as he carries his burden. I can see why Helena was so taken by this one drawing. Lost in my appreciation of the subtle skill behind this sketch, I lose track of Helena. I don't mind - I know that she'll find me when she's done.

As I make my way through the museum I spot her in the Impressionists gallery. Knowing that she will be moving on soon enough I keep going and hope that she will catch up with me at the Cubists. Thirty-nine minutes later there is still no sign of her. We have now been in the museum for about three hours and I'm starting to feel a little dizzy from all the art surrounding me. Before I can come down with a serious case of Stendhal Syndrome, I duck my head and poll the galleries and rooms for any sign of my slightly reluctant companion. As I make my systematic way through the hallways, I come to a stop by the Impressionists again. Helena is still standing in font of the same painting. Intrigued, I roll up to her and look at the painting that has her so enthralled. It is a Pissarro. In a wooded field a young man gathers kindling; further away, two women talk as they travel the village road; and in the distance is the profile of a high building probably the church steeple or the bell tower of whichever town they are outside of. The quick smudged brush strokes, the contrast between the dark cool colours under the trees and the light warm colours on the exposed fields manages to convey the impression of a perfect summer afternoon.

I'm a little confused - sylvan surroundings aren't exactly Helena's style. It's not that she isn't a romantic, there's just too much movement, darkness, and city in her for her too be too attracted to rustic themes. She does not notice when I stop next to her. The gentle touch on her hand jerks her out of her trance. When she meets my eyes, abruptly she says, "Is it okay if we get out of here, I think I've had enough culture for one day."

I nod and move out of her way as she cuts through the air. Puzzled by this shift in her mood, I study the painting to see what it is that's got her so frazzled. It isn't until I find the plain white label with its Times-New Roman font that I understand.

Les chataigniers a Osny
(The Chestnut Trees at Osny)
Painted: 1873
Oil on canvas
Formerly collection Selina Kyle,
New Gotham

I find her sitting outside on the steps at the bottom of the chair ramp, drinking out of a bottle of water. "I keep forgetting that it's there and then when I see it, it's a shock to my system. I tell myself to avoid the gallery, to avoid the museum and I don't come back for a really long time. Then I forget that I told myself all those things, and I come back, and it's a shock all over again."

I nod in understanding. "We won't come back for a really long time, then," I say with a bright smile, hoping to offset her funk.

She shakes her head and continues talking. "It didn't bother me today," she says, capping the empty bottle and throwing it very accurately into a trashcan about six feet from her. "It's just some damn painting that used to hang in our hallway. I don't even like it." She shrugs and pushes her sun glasses back up her nose.

I put my glasses on as well but pull them down just a little bit as I look over the top and ask, "Want a hot dog? I'm buying."

She accepts my hand and pulls her self up. "Just one? You have to buy me at least four."

"Four? I saw you eat brunch, you're not going to eat four."

"That's what you think. I can eat eight, no problem - twelve if I don't get soda."

"Prove it. If you can eat a dozen hot dogs - I'll buy you hot dogs forever."

"Hah, sucker! I hope you know that forever is very long time."

I see the gleam in her eye as she directs to me her preferred vendor in the park. And I start to wonder exactly how efficient her metabolism is actually.

* * * * *

I'm starting to wonder if all these years of PT haven't made me more flexible than I can imagine because, right now - as Helena would say - I have my head up my ass.

The sound of a body crashing through a glass window followed by the sound of a bullet rings over the speakers and distracts me from me ruminations of my physical entanglements.

<"Son of a bitch!"> The sound of running boots halts; there is a scuffle and then I hear the sound of boots hurriedly sneaking into position before silence.

"Huntress, status!" I bark out.

<"Shhh..."> The next sound I hear is that of heavy running boots being lifted off their feet, and then I hear the sound of an open palm striking a face. <"You don't fire a gun into a crowd of civilians you dumb fuck."> Then the sound of a fist striking flesh. <"You could hurt the wrong person."> The sound of a body hitting the ground none too gently lets me know that Helena has relinquished her hold on her quarry.

"Huntress, what's going on? Do you have Marks?"

<"You tell me, Oracle. I've just crashed a party with the FBI and the PD.">

The FBI?

<"Oracle what the fuck! Why am I picking up a cop?">

"What are you talking about?" I ask as I nudge my glasses firmly up my nose.

"This Marks guy is a Feeb."


<"That's what I said. I drop him and the next thing I know I have 10 Feebs pointing guns at me.">

"Maybe they just want him in one piece." As I speak I try to find out more about Leo Marks our gunrunner. Every search I run comes up against a dead end and my queries of the FBI database time out. If he's undercover, he's so deep undercover even his own agency doesn't know about it.

<"No, they were covering him - he's undercover."> The sound of police sirens and SWAT helicopters fills the background. The noise of commanding voices generated over loudspeakers filters through her receiver as well. The woop woop of a siren followed by the thwapping of rotor blades dopplers in and out of range of her receivers. <"Mother f...Give me five, Oracle. I gotta deal with this.">

I follow the sound of her body as it makes her way through tight spaces and leaps. She sounds pushed for space but otherwise okay. I switch my attention to my other protégé who, for the second time in five days, finds herself in the middle of what is without a doubt as big a mess as I have ever created. Out of the blue, Oliver Hardy's voice pops into my head. 'Another fine mess you've gotten us into.' I pause before I use the codename she has adopted. "Canary, what is your status?"

<"Umm...fine. I think Huntress is distracting them. I'm just sitting here making sure I stay out of sight." There is a pause <"Ow! That's got to hurt. Huntress just straight legged someone in the...umm crotch.">

"You can say 'balls' Canary, I've heard worse from Huntress."

<"Fucker!"> And right on cue, comes Helena's voice.


<"Canary, what's your position?"> she asks.

<"I'm in the park across the street.">

<"Shake a leg, I see uniforms coming your way.">

<"Uh oh!">

<"I'll say,"> Helena retorts dryly.

I take a look their signals and calculate their position relative to the layout of the streets. "Once you hit the street, there's a subway maintenance-tunnel a block to your north - same side of the street as Dinah."

<"Are you sure? I don't want to land in the middle of a fucking sewer.">

<"Huntress!"> Dinah squeals in protest, to defend my role as information provider.

"It's all right," I say - meaning both, Dinah and Helena. "This is old information. I doubt that the subway system has mysteriously re-arranged itself just to give me a headache."

<"Kid, circle the block and come 'round from the other side.">

I hear the sound of Helena touching ground and then a chuckle as a high-pitched squeal breaks the night.

<"That is not funny!"> Dinah says as she slaps Helena.

<"'Course it was, did you see their faces when you ran into them. I didn't know skulls with brains could make those hollow pwocking sounds.">

I bring the focus back onto their clean getaway "Are you at the entrance?"

<"Almost there,"> Helena responds through measured breaths.

The clanging sound of metal grates being moved lets me know that Helena has found the entrance.

<"We're in,"> Canary lets me know.

Once I know they're safe in the tunnels, I return to my screen that is connected to the dispatcher's board at the transit authority. "You need to drop one level down. About thirty yards to your north - there's a catwalk that'll bring you right over the tracks.

The sound of running feet and then, <"I see it. C'mon k..Canary, down the hatch.">

I hear the rumbling coincide with the movement of the lights on my screen.

<"Whoa!"> Helena's voice comes over the roaring sound of the express train rushing by. <"That's a little breezy. I hope that's not the train you want us to catch, 'cause it's gone.">

"Just wait," I say as I wait for the local train to pull out of its station and run red lights down the downtown track, and hope it works. Using a vocal distorter I patch into the drivers' radios and inform them of congestion on the line and explain the run of red lights. "All right, in two minutes a train is going to slow down, get on it."

<"Cool,"> Helena says, <"Is this the C train? We can take it all the way to Wayne Tower.">

Simultaneously, Dinah chimes in. <"This is awesome. Did you just stop the trains? Can you do that to all the trains. Oh my god! Can you like stop all the trains if you want to, you could...">

I can just imagine the eye roll when Helena interrupts her. <"She sure could - if she can ever get her computers to work right. Now can it, Canary. Our ride's here.">

* * * * *

All three of us are gathered around the Delphi in a team meeting, of sorts. Dinah is leaning over my shoulder, peering keenly at the monitor, in studious imitation of my own gaze. Helena is lounging on a rolling chair few feet behind us with a bag of tortilla chips. The rumbling thunder of plastic casters as she pushes off with her foot is followed by a spinning lull of crunching chips. She has been doing this - incessantly - for 11 minutes and 23 seconds, which is only three minutes less than I have been at the console. Every time I turn over my shoulder to peer at her, she gives me an understanding smile and continues to scarf her snacks. In the meanwhile, Dinah keeps twitching every time Helena pushes off extra vigorously, and blows a very annoying stream of warm breath onto my hair with each exasperated huff.

When Helena pushes off for the thirty-sixth time - yes, I'm counting - I cannot help the sharp hiss of air that enters my lungs.

"Helena, do you mind?" I ask, not a little sharply. I sound like a school-marm. I probably look like one as well, peering over the rims of my glasses. It's an unfortunate fact that I am actually a schoolteacher. Dinah turns around and joins my glare with a righteous one of her own, pleased that someone else in the room is joining her bandwagon of indignation.

Helena tip toes the spinning chair to a halt and faces me with an aggrieved shrug. "They're tortilla chips - they crunch."

I press my fingers to the bridge of my nose to push back the headache that is threatening to pour out of my throbbing eyes. I punctuate the air with a calming gesture of my open palm and say as politely as I can through my clenched jaw, "The chair, Hel. Can you please stop rolling the chair."


Dinah, and I return to our examination of the monitor.

"But how did you catch it? Were you actively looking for it?"

"No it came across the scanners ...well, actually my voice-capture recognised a few key words as they were being recorded on a 911 line. See this," I bring up another window and scroll down a list of common references, "this address shows up on a previous 911 call."

I ignore the quiet and subdued crunching of a tortilla chip being eaten very slowly.

"But there's no record of any action."


"So how did you know there was going to be a raid there tonight?"

"I've simply been following the personnel movement and requisitions on the police nets."

" if the police were already handling it, why were we there?"

I hear the quiet pad of a foot contact the ground and tense in preparation of more chair rolling - there is nothing but the sound of air.

"The algorithm spotted a pattern." I pull up the cluster diagram that graphically represents the chain of logic that led the Delphi to flag the address. Central to the whole picture is the name Falcone.

Again I hear the shuffle of a sole make contact with the ground - there is no rumble of wheels. But I hear the air shifting.

I give Dinah a short history lesson. "Carmine Falcone was the head of the biggest crime family on the east coast - he was based out of Gotham. There was nothing he wasn't into - drugs, guns, grand larceny, distortion, gambling, smuggling, prostitution, pirating...If there was a tax-free profit to be made from it, Carmine Falcone had a cut of it in this city. He practically owned the police too. One of the first things that Helena's fa...Batman did was destroy the Carmine cartel. After Carmine Falcone's death in prison, the family moved out west to Chicago before making inroads in New York and Newark. They steered clear of Gotham. But if this pattern of activity in the city is what I think it is, they're back, probably to take advantage of the vacuum of power left behind by Hawke's downfall and Quinn's absence. The title of the property is listed as being formerly registered to Carmine Falcone. I tracked the address of the shipping company's offices that have showed up in a number of police raids - their offices are registered to the same address. And yesterday, the tip line recorded a call of suspicious activity at this same address."

There it is again - a foot makes contact with the ground with a soft thump. I whip around to see Helena spinning 'round and round while staring at the ceiling. "Helena, will you please stop it!"


"Stop spinning, the sound is driving me crazy." As I say the words, I know I'm being too harsh, but my nerves are frazzled. Helena stares back incredulously. Even Dinah thinks I'm being flaky. "I mean...if you want to play spinny-chair, can you do it somewhere else please. It's a little distracting."

"I'll just go watch TV," she says, crinkling up the plastic bag of chips, "On really low volume, okay?" and slinks off.

Dinah gives me nervous look and moves back from the desk to hover an inch further away from me. She probably doesn't want to be singed by the fire breathing dragon lady. "If the Falcone family is thinking of reclaiming old territory I want to know about it. I thought that Huntress could ask Marks a few questions."

Dinah scrunches her face. "Too bad he was an undercover FBI agent." Too bad? That was an understatement. Her next question contains nothing but honest curiosity but it stabs at me like a barbed blade. "How come you didn't know he was working for the FBI?"

Instead of throwing my glasses at the screen like I want to, I hold them the loose clasp of my hand. "I don't know."

I just don't know why my research on Leo Marks didn't tell me he was a law enforcement agent. And I don't know why I didn't know that the FBI was planning a raid at the same time. And I don't know why I still don't know all these things. Maybe I'm slipping. Maybe I'm not doing my job right. Maybe, I should spend more time at the Delphi - cut down on the teaching load, take a sabbatical. This half life can't go on forever. Hell, maybe I should give up the Delphi and take up more teaching. I certainly haven't been any great shakes at protecting this city in the last year - it's been a series of one bad judgement after the other. Maybe that's it...maybe I should retire and take up flower arranging...

"...The new network servers?" Dinah is asking me as return from my little trip to Guiltland. "Maybe there's a bug somewhere in the new set up."

My first impulse is to snap at Dinah for suggesting something so ridiculous - I built this machine and put it together. I ran test after test before integrating with the older, surviving components of the original Delphi. There is no way that there's a bug in the system. But that's exactly the sort of lazy complacence that allows me to have free run of networks all over the world.

"Maybe," I sigh, and prepare to run a diagnostic on the entire system. This should keep me awake all night. My glasses bounce off the keyboard where I throw them in frustration. I struggle to suppress the urge to throw my head into my hands and scream until the sound has knocked loose whatever is messing up my life. Thank god for Christmas break. I'm ready for it - I'm afraid that I'll snap at school and have to be carted away by the men in white.

A night of peace and quiet with no alarms and emergencies is what I want. Just like the one on Thanksgiving - I could do without the angst, though. Perhaps we could have a fire, and Helena's old velveteen blanket, and Helena, just like the old days, and peace and quiet. Empirically speaking, peace and quiet would be very useful.

* * * * *

"Holy fuck!" Helena's high soprano somehow manages to boom through the space. I jerk awake as she comes skittering into the room, throws herself into a chair and comes rolling to a stop next to me. "You need to turn on the news right now. Right now," she insists as she nudges my arm and tries to take over control of my keyboard. "C'mon, c'mon it's on Channel four. You've got to see this." I slap her hands away and push her away from the desk. I switch windows to the TV captures and break into a morning press conference at the mayor's office. "No, go back a couple of minutes." The images run in reverse as talking heads flap their jaws. "Back, back. Okay right there."

"And the NGPD and the FBI hold a joint press-conference to talk tonight about the ill-fated raid that resulted in the death of one FBI agent and one NGPD detective. News Four is here live at the special conference.

There is a lull as a man in a suit, clearly representing the FBI steps up to the microphone with a prepared statement.

"The FBI and the NGPD were both conducting independent investigations in relation to a cartel of drug and gun runners. Both FBI and NGPD personnel at the risk of their own lives had infiltrated the gang. Since both the FBI and the NGPD were acting on the same inside information our respective analysts came up with similar courses of action. It is unfortunate that in the interests of protecting the confidentiality of our investigations, we were unable to share this information with local law enforcement agencies. While these are tragic we ask you to remember that these two brave and courageous men gave their lives in the line of duty to protect innocent citizens. We also ask that you remember that this is an ongoing investigation and while we pursue our crusade to bring these criminals to justice, we are limited in our ability to comment on aspects of this unfortunate incident. Please remember that at this time we must think of the families of Detective Jerome and Agent Gianetti...the two heroes who gave their lives so valiantly. Thank you"

"Thank you Agent Smith. The thoughts of the NGPD are also with the families of these two brave men. As Agent Smith has said we cannot comment on aspects of this case that are under investigation, but we will try to answer as many questions as we can."

"Commissioner! Is it true that Detective Jerome may have been killed by FBI fire?"

"I'm sorry, as I have said this is a matter that is still under investigation by both the FBI and the NGPD, and until the ballistics reports come in form the forensics lab I can make no comment on this matter."

"Commissioner Kelly, do you think that the deaths of these two men could have been avoided if each of the undercover officers had been aware that there was another undercover officer present?"

"There's no way of knowing that. Yes, next question."

"Sir, what about reports that the only reason there were so few casualties was the presence of a vigilante who aided law the police and FBI?"

"No comment."

"Commissioner is it true that the train disruption last night was related to the raid, that there was also an attempt last night to disable the city's underground transit system?"

"We're still investigating a glitch in the signalling systems. The NGTA thinks it was a hardware failure."

"But isn't it true that the FBI is now involved?"

"In light of recent security concerns, we have requested assistance from the cyber-crime division of the local FBI office yes, but it is not their investigation."

"Can you confirm that the reason you asked the FBI to help is because the mafia has been using hackers to disable police communication?"

"No comment..."

"Commissioner, sir, can you confirm reports..."

"I don't have any comment at this time...This is an ongoing soon as we have any information that we can release we'll let you know. Thank you."

It's at times like this that I really miss the use of my legs. All I want to do is push away with my feet so that I can slump back in my chair and stare at the ceiling. Instead I am locked in this eternal pose of good posture. I remove my hands to my lap and close my eyes. Slowly I fold over from my waist so that my head comes to a rest against the table, and then let out a sigh. I'm feeling a just a little tired. This is just not a good year for me in terms of maintaining a low profile. Perhaps a small vacation might be in order. Somewhere without computers, or somewhere with lots of computers but not mine. Or perhaps some sleep. But if I do that now, I'll be late for school.

I feel the hand on my shoulder at the same time I am aware of her speaking. "Are you okay?"

I turn my head to see Helena's face. She is kneeling by my chair, with one hand on the desk right at my eye-level. I nod without losing contact with the surface of the table.

"Are you sure?"

I give her a re-assuring pat on the hand and nod again. The computer beeps and I look up to see the results of the last executed diagnostic. No problems found. I'm not sure if I should be happy or afraid. If it's not the machine, then clearly there's something the matter with me.

"That's good right," she asks me, "that the Delphi is running fine?" I turn to look at her. " isn't good, that there're no problems that you can find." Her eyebrows twitch comically in a parody of unsureness. "So it's a bad thing..." I can picture the wheels spinning in her mind as she scrunches her face. "...because you still don't know what's wrong. Okay, that's not good."

And that's when it occurs to me that I am watching a morning news conference on TV. "What time is it?"

"8:30," she replies nonchalantly.

"8:30? Helena, I'm so late for school, where's Dinah, she's going to be late."

"Hey, hey, hey! It's cool. She's gone, I sent her to school. And I called you in late, because you're coming down with the flu."

"What are you still doing here?" I ask once I calm down.

"What are you still doing here? She asks pointing to the table.


"Yeah me too," she cuts in without letting me finish. "Look, go get dressed. And then go rag on your kids about moral exigencies and existential conflicts. The Delphi's still going to be here when you get back from school. You'll have the entire holidays to think about it."

* * * * *

I feel like a 12 year old. No, I take that back I feel like a ten year old. Helena has taken over driving the van for me after buckling me in on the passenger side. I inspect the brown bag she has packed for my lunch. An apple, my yoghurt, a granola bar and, what's this - a sandwich. I don't pack sandwiches.

"I don't eat sandwiches for lunch."

"You should," comes the no nonsense voice as she veers into traffic with formula one flair.

I ignore her driving and remind myself that she's driven me before and I'm not dead yet. "Hel...I don't eat ham," I remind her as I pick apart the contents of my sandwich.

"It's turkey."

"Why is it pink?"

"Because it's rare."

Rare turkey? I ask myself. Who eats rare turkey? Of course, the answer is sitting right next to me flipping off another driver. "I like my meat to be dead, before I eat it, thanks."

"Well then don't eat it," she says as she swerves around the unexpectedly slowing car in the left lane and zips into the turn. Out of the corner of my eye I see her reach for the window controls and put my hand on her arm to stop her from saying anything untoward.

"Leave it."

She shrugs and keeps driving. At least she's keeping her eye on the road. "He wasn't dead."

The non-sequitur confuses me. "Excuse me?"

"The Feeb. He was fine when Dinah and I took off."

"It was very confusing in there, anything could have happened."

"Unh unh...he was wearing a jacket and shouting orders. Everybody knew who he was by the time we left."

I stop to think about that. Of course, there's no saying someone couldn't have gotten a lucky shot in between the plates of his bullet proof jacket. I leave my lunch alone and look up to say as much to her when I notice that we are far over on the east side driving along the docks.

"Helena, why are we on the east side."

"Traffic sucks."

"Nonetheless, it's not a reason to be driving in the opposite direction of our destination."

"Oh, I don't think so," she replies cryptically.

I notice that we are no longer on a regular road but on a service road. The sight of the mica flecked tarmac rushing by brings back a memory of a lightweight Ducati that could fly like the wind and rode over the service rails, dodging the cargo trains, and taking it's rider anywhere it wanted to go. I feel the van shift gear and look up to see the graceful swan loops of the Gotham cargo rail. They've been closed for years since the quake and even though they've never been proven to be structurally unsound, they have not been pressed back into service because of the damage. My heart starts to pound with the thought of all the things that could wrong if Helena actually does what I think she's planning to do.

Quite instinctively I press back into the seat as the van picks up speed. "Helena...?"


"What are you doing?"

"Taking a short cut." With a bump and jostle we're on the flat rails and I can feel the distance between each sleeper.

"I don't think that's safe."

"It's perfectly safe. I've done it a hundred times." And with a soft lurch we're on the rising tracks flying above the docks.

It's a sight I haven't seen since my own days on the street. It's a sight I had never hoped to see again. When I feel the stinging in my eyes I realise that my traitor hand has rolled down the window just to feel the wind in my hair once more. Even so, I cannot help but notice the sections of missing side rail where a speeding van can go hurtling through. But Helena keeps the vehicle bang between the rails, not accelerating or decelerating. I look over the windshield, down through the slats of the sleepers and see the cars below us fall away as we move into the heart of the old city. Suddenly I wish we were in a convertible where we could roll down the top. I take a deep breath which sticks somewhere in the top of my chest, but then trickles down in liquid warmth to my stomach. I turn my head to look at Helena's profile - she is looking at the road ahead, her eyebrows are slightly furrowed in concentration, her body rocking softly to some phantom beat as her fingers on the steering delicately adjust the bearing of the van. I wonder if this is how she would have driven over the rails if she were me in a bat suit and had her own Ducati. I try to imagine her gloved hands on the throttle of a bike but the picture is all wrong - her fingers are smaller than mine, her wrist more slender. For a few moments I contemplate the apartment windows zipping by us and catch the odd startled gaze from a person looking out from a window onto abandoned tracks only to see a black van rolling merrily along.

I did this a hundred times when I was by myself - usually when I was exuberant from a mission successfully concluded, but sometimes when I was moping. For whatever reason, the sadness, that I expect to come dogging on the heels of the initial elation, doesn't arrive. I raise my hand to touch the side of her thigh, just to let her know that I was wrong to doubt her; that I am enjoying this; that I am thankful for her impetuousness, which draws me out of my shell but I never quite make it.

"I know they're reporters and they're supposed to be annoying, but they didn't pull 'friendly fire' out of their ass. Something weird happened there and I'm going to find out."

"You sound like Reese."

The muscles in her jaw jump before she opens her mouth. "Yeah, maybe I need to go talk to him about what's going on with his department. See what we can find out about Mr. Grey suit from the FBI. Maybe I should go talk to Jim, he still has connections in the force."

We start descending the tracks and the van slows down. "Helena, I'm sure it's not terribly important. I'm sure I can find out what Agent Smith is up to."

"Like you knew Marks was really Agent Gianetti working undercover?" My headache from last night is coming back. "I'm sorry, but I'm not saying you don't know how to do your job. I'm saying there's something uncool going on and I want to back up your info. You should be able to get with that. I want to cross verify the sources."

"Now you sound like me."

"I should, all this time we've been together."

"All I'm saying is don't worry about it. It's my job to worry about things like this."

"Barbara, I know I look like a bimbo sometimes, but I'm not a complete flake."

"I never said you..."

"They're talking hackers. You're a hacker. They didn't pull that one out of their ass, either. I don't like the way it sounds."

This time my hand makes contact with her. "'s okay. It'll be fine."

She turns to look at me. "You're just saying that so that I'll stop bitching you out and stay away from your computer."

"No, I'm saying that because I know I have you and Dinah to protect me."

"We can't protect you," she bangs the steering wheel, "if we don't know what the danger is," she looks back at the road. "Hell, I can't even protect you when I know who the danger is. Worse," she says softy, shifting down, as we move off the rails, "I can't even see what the danger is when it's right before my eyes."

I tighten my grip on her leg. "Hel...stop. It's over."

She shakes her head tightly. "It's never over."

"No, it never is. Which is why we deal with each thing as it happens. Whatever's going on, we'll deal with it."

Slowly the van crawls through an open-air parking lot before we come to a crunching stop by a barred gate. Helena rolls down the window and, putting her fingers to her lips, lets out a piercing whistle. A large brown skinned man with a broad belly and a bald head comes shuffling out of the booth by the gate. The rasp in his voice betrays years and years of smoking, "Hey, hey baby boots. How you doin'?" he says as he leans into the window and stretches his hand out. "How you doin'?" I'm speechless. I cannot fathom Helena letting anyone call her by as unlikely an appellation as 'baby boots'.

Helena slides her palm along his callused one and pulls it back to meet the back of his hand with hers and then clasps his hand before meeting fisted knuckles. "Chico!" she says with evident pleasure, "My man."

"It's been a long time girl. Wachew been doin?"

"You know," she ducks her head. "This and that."

He leans further into the car and catches my eye before turning back to Helena. "You be impressin' the girls wicho' fancy drivin' skills again?"

The girls? I think, as I see her face drain of colour before flushing. Again? Well, that's another 'phase' she never grew out of - I suppose I'll just have to owe daddy another bottle of Ardbeg for that. Her jaw drops just a little - not anything someone who hasn't known her for a very long time would see. My eyebrow jumps in surprise - she's embarrassed. Not to mention there's someone who seems to know more about her amorous pursuits than anyone else I know.

My humour like my eyebrow decides to take a decidedly arch bent in the face of this new information. I decide to see what else this unlikely friend of hers can tell me about my former ward and friend. "Actually I was a little disappointed," I respond. "She kept it under 80 the whole time. I've done 115 up here."

"Aw hell man! She really be tryin' to impress you with responsibility and shit."

"Chico, man," she cuts in. "This aint no girl, shut up."

Chico looks back in my direction. "Damn she aint! Some kids have all the luck."

"I'm not here to make small talk old man, you gonna open the gate for me, or what?"

"Sure sweet thing," he says as he shuffles back his booth, "only for you."

Helena deliberately does not meet my eyes as I mouth 'sweet thing' in amusement.

The gate rumbles on its half rusty wheels and slides open as Chico comes lumbering back towards us as the van inches forward on the gravel. Helena holds her arm out of the window and clasps his hand. "I still got that pack of cards for you, chica."

"Why" she asks, "you got money to burn these days?"

He throws his head back and guffaws. "I been learnin' a thing or two."

"I'll just have to see about that," she replies, and with a salute she drives off the gravel and onto the avenue that gets us back on the west side and moving uptown to the school.

Silence fills the van as I try very hard not to smile at the interlude just past. But years of being an intimidating caped crusader come in handy and I manage to retain a neutral expression. I return my attention to the huge brown bag that contains my partially very strange lunch and roll the top of the bag down tightly to make sure that the bag doesn't pop open.

"Chico runs the parking lot. He's in charge of the train yards, too." I nod silently at this unsolicited information. "He gets pretty lonely there by himself."

"It's nice of you to spend time with him like that."

"I guess," she shrugs. "It's useful. He likes me, lets me use the gate. I get around faster when I'm driving."

"Of course," I agree very carefully. "Very useful."

I must give something away with my tone because she jerks her head around to glare at me. "Are you mocking me?"

"No, no. I'm just saying that it's very considerate of you to be so subtle about using him." Her expression narrows to one of slight suspicion before settling on acceptance.

"Anyway," she says as she turns onto the road of exiting yellow buses, "I'm going to ask a few questions and see if anyone on the street's heard anything about the raid."

"Okay," I say as I unbuckle myself and swivel my seat around to transfer to the wheelchair.

"Hey, I'm still driving here," she grouses at me.

"That's right, I wouldn't want to crack my spine in an accident, would I?" I arrange my legs into a comfortable position, for all the difference the sensation makes to me, as Helena parks the van. When I look up at the open side door, she is wearing a very unamused expression as she ducks her head inside to hit the switch on the hydraulic lift.

As the lift lowers me to the ground she loads my lap with my books, my bag, my corrected papers, and my files. On the ground, as I struggle to arrange the mound into an orderly pile, she snags my lunch bag, pulls out the sandwich and throws it onto the front seat. "There's a salad in the cooler bag," she says as lands the cooler bag on my lap. "And two boiled eggs. Make sure you eat them." She tosses me the keys to the van.

"Yes mother."

"You need to eat more protein," she huffs.

"Stop fussing," I re-iterate and toss the keys back at her. "Come pick us up at 4:30. We can talk on the way home."

She shakes her head and holds the keys out to me, "I have..." then stops. She draws the keys back towards herself. "Okay. Four thirty," she says and leans against the van.

I corral the mess on my lap and check for my cell phone before placing my hands on the wheel rims. As I make a half-turn backwards, another memory strikes me. "Remember this place?"

"What about it."

"This is where we first talked to each other."


"Yes," I point to a spot on the parapet wall 15 feet to my right and slightly behind me. "You were sitting right over there kicking the dirt."

"I was not." I turn my sceptical expression on her and point to her foot where tiny clouds of dust are dulling the shine on her boots. She immediately pushes off the van and stands straight.

"You jumped up when you saw me walking towards you." I could say that the clarity of the memory of speaking to Helena Kyle for the first time is shocking but the image of it is no more or no less than anything else that I remember. What is amazing, however, as she smiles sheepishly, is the...I really should sleep more...Is the fact that I can draw a straight line from that girl to the woman standing in front of me; that the responses I could fathom then are the ones that give her away today. "You looked a little pale and green, and then you turned red with embarrassment, just like..." Just like she did today when Chico teased her. I stop my nostalgic monologue mid-sentence to analyse the last observation. There is something in it that should strike me as significant, my mind tells me, but the beep from my wristwatch reminds me that I have other responsibilities.

Very tactfully, she remains standing by the car and simply follows me to the entrance of the building with her eyes instead of physically, as I know she wants to.

Chapter 25


Barbara calls it instinctual, sub-conscious, sensory perception.

I call it the heebie-jeebies.

And it has nothing to do with the fact that Barbara's talking to Detective Dick Grayson on the Delphi. Dinah is giving me the stink-eye because I'm giving Dick the stink-eye. She's all swoony and dreamy eyed about Nightwing fka Robin aka pixie boots. Look at her drooling over him - she wants to have his babies. At least he got rid of that ridiculous mullet he had four years ago.

"...And that's all I know about him."

"But you'd never actually met him before," Barbara asks.

"No, but it's pretty clear he belonged to the Blüdhaven field office. We've been following these guys for about three years now. We know they've been getting help from Falcone in Chicago but we had no idea that the Feds were involved. This whole fiasco just flushed three years of a very expensive undercover operation down the toilet. 'Course once you guys got Hawke we thought the operation was over, but I guess it isn't."

"Okay thanks."

As I move closer to Barbara, I wander into camera range. He notices me and nods at me. "Helena."

"Dick," I reply, and notice that another one of Barbara's programs is pinging at her asking to be acknowledged.

"That was nice," he responds. "Didn't even sound like an insult."

"Hmnh," I shrug. She keeps looking over to the squawking icon,'s too bad I'll have to cut this conversation short.

"Still as friendly as ever."

"Still as observant as ever."

"See ya around."

"...Not," I mutter.

"All right. Babs," he waves, preparing to sign off, "Dinah. Call me if you need anything else."

Barbara nods and closes the screen. With a little jump she clicks on the icon that releases a blank screen. As she settles the earphones around her head I move closer to her. She turns around to give us an impatient glare. Dinah starts to run off like a rabbit, but I grab her by the hand and make her stay.

"What, is that your cyber sex partner?" Barbara's glare just turned deadly and Dinah's starting to squirm. "Does it have to do with fact that the kid and I've almost had our goose cooked twice in the last five days?" She doesn't say anything. "Then we're staying."

She removes the earphones and drops them on the table with a sigh. "Don't say anything," she says to me with a resigned expression and then turns a firm gaze on Dinah.

I lock my mouth with an imaginary key and toss the key away before throwing my hands up in the air. Dinah nods, tucks her hair behind her hair and pulls a chair next to Barbara, who shakes her head and turns back to the monitor. I know I saw a little smile in there somewhere. When she turns up the volume I hear a voice that's hidden under so many layers of distortion I can't even tell if it's alive. Great another paranoid hacker just like Barbara! This should be fun.

"...You standing me up again, hot-stuff?" Who's he calling hot stuff? I wonder if the pimply-faced little geek knows Barbara's old enough to be his mom.

"I'm right here Doomstar." Doomstar? I take it back this isn't a pimply-faced geek. This is an original Star Trek watching, pot bellied, bush-shirt donning, pocket-protector wearing geek.

"Hey there champ, we all secure?"

"Roger that. By the way, I've invited phreak_show to this pow-wow, hope you don't mind" Roger that?

"So what's the problem?"

Barbara begins with the Arkham fiasco. "I was monitoring a few security routines on this network and ..." Dinah looks in looking all serious and involved with her best kiss-up face. All I hear is "Computer stuff...."

By the time I've counted up to the six hundred and twenty second perforation on the exposed acoustic tile I feel a slap on my hand. Apparently I've been drumming on the back of Barbara's chair. "Sorry," I mouth silently at her.

Electronic geek voice is still going on. "...And you've tried querying their databases."

"Yeah no luck."

"The actual remote servers, not the Field Office files?" Doom asks. Even through the distorter I can tell how surprised he sounds.

"No luck."

He laughs. "You having a bad week, hot stuff?" This time both Dinah and I share a look. She looks confused and unsure, but I have a sneaking suspicion. "Since when does the FBI database give you trouble?"

"I'm having a bad year Doom, like you wouldn't believe."

"Well, the whole thing sounds strange...and you say you've given the hardware the once over."

"Yes," she replies looking over at me. Hey don't look at me all I did was unplug the suckers when you asked me to. And it only took us something like 6 hours. All things considered I'd rather have been doing inventory down at the bar, at least there I know what the thingies are called. And no one would have been staring at me trying to ask me sensitive questions about my love life and my state of mind. God! Barbara's about as subtle as a jackhammer sometimes.

"What about the remote location, if you're having a problem with synchronicity, the lag time between the two data streams could be confusing the software. The New York metro had a signalling problem on the track two years ago because of something like that, had to shut down three lines for two days before they could ...Hey look, phreak's here."

"Phreak_show! Welcome to the party."

As soon as the new icon signs on, Barbara sits up straighter in her chair...'the hell is that about?

The new voice acknowledges everyone in the little conference. "Hot stuff, Doom. Sorry about the delay. Real life was being a pain in the ass." I knew it! I turn a shit-eating grin on a very disturbed looking Dinah. That's her handle. That's why Barbara didn't want us sitting in on her consult conference; she didn't want us to know that she goes by Hot Stuff. I snigger behind her back. She hears me but doesn't turn back.

"What's up?" Doom asks the new voice.

"Professor was giving me a hard time about my mid-term paper." Oh great, this one is a pimply-faced geek.

"Aw man that's rough. So you in on this little problem hot stuff's been having."

"Shoot yeah. I'm sorry, hot stuff...but how secure are you."

I roll my eyes at that question. No one has ever caught Barbara snooping around on the internet. She's that good. Nobody outside of our little family knows who Oracle is except for Quinn, but lets not talk about that.


"A'ight talk to me."

And Barbara repeats the whole boring spiel, "Computer stuff, geek stuff, more computer geek stuff, hardware, software, computer stuff." She isn't actually saying 'computer stuff' but that's what I'm hearing. Damn! This time when she hits my hand it stings.

"What?" I ask her indignantly.

She depresses the mute button and glares. "Can you find another chair to play with, please?"

"Why? This is fascinating."

She holds her hand out pointing to a chair next to Dinah. "Sit!"

"Fine!" I go to the chair. It really is her fault for not sending me out on sweeps tonight. And Dinah can take her suppressed laughter and shove it.

The freak's voice comes back on line when she releases the mute key. "Can you send me the diagnostic log?"


If I spin the chair fast enough the new 3D display tracks make funny psychedelic patterns on the ceiling. Like when you close your eyes and press your eyelids really hard...except that my eyes are open.

The next thing I hear is Barbara's patient teacher voice holding back her a snappy remark. "Yes, I queried their databases already for his record." She's massaging her head.

"Have you gone back for a second try?"

"Not yet."

"What happened?"

"Query timed out."

Two electronic voices chime in simultaneously in a squawk of alarm. "What?!"

Barbara pushes up some more in her chair and straightens her glasses. Now I'm getting the heebie- jeebies again.

The geek boy asks very carefully. "You timed out? On the personnel records database?"

"Yes," Barbara says.

"Umm hot stuff," says the freak, "I know the architecture of that database inside out. There is no time out protocol in that program. I mean..." she stutters, " least...there wasn't the last time I snooped around." A sharp electronic whistle cuts the static on the speakers; and Dinah's face goes a little pale. What? What? What's the big damn deal? I can hear the furious clacking of keyboards and the clicking of...mouses? Mice seems wrong...But it can't be worse than mouses.

Barbara quickly starts clicking through all her keyboard and calling up all sorts of windows that I've never really paid attention to before. Suddenly there's a buzz in the room like from the whine of drives and motors kicking in. The entire Delphi is revving up. There's fear in the room; I can smell it. When I pay attention to my own body I notice that I'm standing and the muscles in my neck are trembling.

Through the clicking Doom's voice comes back on. "Hot stuff, you hear about Lightning King?"

"No," she replies equally distractedly.

"I hear he was in a take-down." Barbara doesn't say anything she just blinks. "He got sold out."

"FBI?" she asks.

"Yeah," the freak says, "but it was a free-agent sold him out." There is a hissing silence for a few seconds before the freak's voice comes back on. "Hot stuff, I know I'm getting personal, but you're on the eastern seaboard, yeah? I'll take a wild guess without actually checking - New Gotham."

I can sense Barbara's breathing slowing down as her heart speeds up. "Yeah..." she says slowly making her answer a question.

"You know anything about Oracle?"

Dinah who has been sitting there quietly all this time squeaks before grabbing her mouth with both hands.

Dungeons and Dragon boy decided to break the ice. "The hacker not the program..." Yeah he's real funny. "Super fast, super underground, helped the cops close down a few operations - the Capellinis in NYC, a Colombian drug cartel running on the west coast. Even hacked a few dot gov sites, hung a tag and got out. Made the CIA look like real assholes a few years back over the arrest of a few political prisoners from the Ivory Coast?" Oh yeah, I know what he's talking about, that's the ex-President of somewhere where they have a lot of oil, and his wife I rescued from the yacht anchored off the harbour five years ago. Wasn't the slickest operation I was ever involved in - had to crack a few uniformed skulls on that one.

Very carefully she Barbara responds, "...Oracle's an urban legend, a ghost in the machine."

"Oh no, naww, sister," freak says. "Oracle's real. There's too much weird shit going on out there on the east coast for that."

"Especially up in New Gotham. That place is locked up tight, dude. There's got to be someone trolling the signal."

I sense the exact second Barbara stops breathing. "So what about Oracle?"

"Word is, someone's looking for him. Big money to be had if you can track this Oracle dude."

"Oracle's a chick, man! Get over it."

"Whadya mean, she's a chick, phreak?"

"Shoot, Hot Stuff's a chick, doesn't burn your shorts. Oracle's a chick. Gotta be."

"How come."

"Just a feeling I got."

"Yeah, your spidey senses are tingling, whatever. A lotta the older hackers are getting freaked out over this. Word is, Lightning fit the profile and got handed over to the cops."

Barbara licks her lips and pushes back from the table just a little. "Are you saying that the Feds are surveying the net for Oracle."

"Dude, who knows? All I know is a lot of code jockeys and hackers out east been catching bugs. You may want to lie low until this whole thing blows over."


"I've gotta go with what he says." Silence. "Hey hot stuff? Don't take this wrong, but maybe we shouldn't catch up for a while."

Barbara pulls her glasses off and presses her eyes. "No, no. You're right."

"A'ight. I'll check for your tracks on the boards sometime."

"Hot stuff, don't mean to chat and run but I haven't been this spooked since techno_grok sold out the Machine Shop BBS to the Feds."

"Roger that, Doom. Out."

The two icons on the screen go dark and Barbara turns off the monitor before freezing in place. Both Dinah and I wait for her do something, say anything but she just stays there, motionless.

"Barbara?" Dinah says. "What's going on?" Dinah turns to me when she doesn't move.

I straighten up and lay a hand on her shoulder. "Barb..."

When she looks up, her eyes are as green as I ever remember them being, under my fingers I can feel the frantic rushing of her blood, and her pupils are shrunk to dark points. "I'm being hacked."

* * * * *

Thursday, December 5. Late evening.

Sal Mungioli's Coffee Shop. Established 1919. Best Cheesecake in town. Ask Anyone.

Now if you ask me I always thought that Arthur's Confectionery uptown has better cheesecake, but then again my name isn't Anyone. But, two blocks away from NGPD HQ, if you wait by Sal Mungioli's long enough you'll run into any cop you want to meet including the Commissioner. I should know - Commissioner Jim Gordon introduced me to the place. It has the softest, best, melt in your mouth, honey dip doughnuts, better even than Krispy Kreme, and that's saying something.

It's a good thing Jesse works out the way he does because if he always buys four doughnuts for himself before dinner he'd be a lard ass in no time flat. And the way cops have been getting shot in this town it's also a good thing that I'm on his side because he didn't even look into his car before opening his car door.

When he lays the bag of doughnuts on the front seat, I ask him, "Where's your partner, Detective?" He drops his keys and reaches for his gun. Before he can cock it, I have it in my hand as I brush a crumb of glaze off my shirt. "Jeez," I look at the side of the gun, "the safety's on Reese, what were you going to do, beat me senseless with your weapon?" I return the gun to him

"God damn it!" he says, and bends to find his keys. The sound of his head meeting the steering wheel on the way up is a little scary but he comes up looking clear-eyed.

Sounds like I might have flustered the good detective - I'm always making him drop his keys. "Smooth."

"What do you want?"


"Fuck you."

"I've got information for you."

"I'm done playing errand boy for you."

"Jesse, I don't know about you but with the way I'm dressed right now, I'll bet that if I start screaming, the reporters hanging around Mungioli's hoping for a friendly leak will be happy to write a story about the Detective who tried to pick up a hooker."

He stares at me like he wants to use that gun on me but I know better. I take another bite of the doughnut. Before I can finish swallowing, the engine starts. I look up when I realise we're not moving. "Seatbelt," he says.

"Are you serious?" When the car doesn't move I realise he is. Quickly, I take the two remaining bites of the doughnut and strap in. "Happy?" I ask. He grunts in reply.

"So what do you want?"

"What do you know about the raid at the old Falcone place?"

"Jesus Christ...I don't believe this."

"Hey, it's not a big secret. Anybody can look up the deeds at City Hall."

"I can't reveal anything about an ongoing investigation."

"I get that Detective. Besides I don't want to know anything about the investigation. We figure it was an inside job."

"What?" he shouts as he brakes the car in the middle of the street. Behind us, an irate cabbie swears us out in some Indian language and goes screeching away into the night.

"I was there." He shakes his head. "The Fed, and your cop by the way, was alive when I left the party."

"Do you have proof?"

"Nothing better than the recording of your own radio transmissions."

"So what am I supposed to say," he asks leaning right into me. " 'Excuse me boss, but my vigilante friend who was at the raid illegally, after illegally hacking into our system and knowing all about our movements says that there's something strange about the deaths at the raid?' You think there isn't a single cop out there who doesn't think there's something funny about the way the those two men died?"

"Back off Reese! I didn't shoot those guys. And if you can get over me for a second you'll listen to what I'm telling you. Marks...Agent Gianetti knew that Jerome was undercover. The two of them figured it out within a minute of it all going to hell. Ask your audio labs to go over the tapes, somewhere about eight minutes into it you should be able to hear the two of them talking, and Jerome shaking hands with a couple of Feds. So if you find a Fed bullet in the guy, I'm telling you have a dirty Fed."

Reese looks at me like I've just kicked his dog. Before he even knows what he's doing, I see his hand come up to the lapel of my jacket and grip it as he pulls me toward him. "You'd better not be jerking me around on this." I know exactly how serious this is to him. Jesse thinks every cop is his brother - he's probably over-compensating for lying about his dad, but there you have it.

"Jesse, I'm letting you put a crease in my leather jacket and we're not even sleeping together anymore. I'm not jerking you around." He notices what his hand is doing, how close our faces are, and drops me like a hot coal.

He starts up the engine and drives, but in about fifteen seconds we're at a red light. "What do you want?"

"At the press conference, one of the reporters asked about an NGTA systems compromise. Kelly said something about the cyber division." He nods. "What's the word on the X-files dude?"

"Special Agent Smith?" he asks with a smile. What do you know; the man has a sense of humour.


"Can't Oracle tell you all about him?"

"She can, but I want to know what you can tell me."


"What's the word on the street with Falcone?"

He groans in response. "Jerome was working a narcotics case for three years now. Every time we try to get a fix on the big names or major deals, things disappear. Blüdhaven PD has the same problem. Two weeks ago narco gets a call from Blüdhaven about a possible major deal about to go down. Jerome tells narco the head honcho's coming to town - word is, it's junior Falcone. They've been tracking the Falcone family for three years now. They think it makes sense - the Petrovs are out, Hawke is out, Quinn is out. Maybe the Falcones are making a comeback bid in the town that made the family. That's why we planned the raid. The word was Falcone was going to be there."

"What happened?"

He shrugs. "Big mystery." He looks miserable when he says that.

"You knew him?" I ask on a hunch.

"Jerome was my buddy in academy."

"I'm sorry."

He nods in that stupid iron-jawed way that people do when they don't want anyone to know what they're feeling, except the grinding muscles on the iron jaw gives them away. "All right. But I'd better not be getting on the audio forensics guys for nothing, I don't have that many markers on the force these days."

"You'll have plenty of markers after this one, Reese." When the light turns green and he puts his foot to the pedal, I pop the door open and step out.

* * * * *

December 5. Night.

Old Town

The sound of flesh striking flesh is very distinctive. You might think it sounds like something else - like maybe a ripe tomato hitting the ground, or a melon hitting the floor or a stick hitting a carpet. But that's not true. It sounds exactly like what it is. There's no mistaking it. If someone in the room gets slapped and you're drinking your beer in the back of the bar with your back turned to the fight, you'll turn around when you hear that sound because right away you'll know what's happened.

The feel of flesh striking flesh is very distinctive too. There's nothing else like it. You can play golf, or be an archer, or play darts or whatever the hell you want. But it just isn't the same. Why do you think you just can't get a boxer to retire? Why do you think competitive martial artists keep competing forever? You just can't get them to give up. Because they know that in a competition, in a battle of skill and wits, there is nothing quite like the feel of getting in a shot when your opponent didn't; of knowing that you know exactly where to hit where it hurts the most, to know that you can control exactly how much pain your opponent is feeling.

It's the opposite of sex, but the pleasure you get from it is exactly the same - don't quote me on that. But you need to get your kicks where you get them

The salt and metal taste of blood as I lick it off the scraped skin of my knuckles is exactly the reminder I need to stay calm. God, I hate these out of shape, winded, mouth-breathing brawlers. You hit them in the face and you end up cutting your knuckles on their teeth.

I watch him pick a tooth out of his mouth. He looks at it in shock and repulsion. When he feels the bleeding gap with his tongue, he jumps from the pain. Oo! A whining bleeder, I bet.

"Shit man!" he says holding up the bloody tooth to me. "Look at what you done, you fucking bitch! I'm going to kill you!"

He's so original. "I'm sorry you only win the grand prize if make the one thousandth threat. Unfortunately, you are only threatener number seven hundred and twenty three."

"Fuck you, you crazy bitch!"

"Now, Frankie, there's no need to get nasty about the whole thing. All I want is a couple of answers." Just a couple. That's all Oracle's asking for. She's a busy woman these days, handing out holiday homework, organising faculty Christmas parties, making sure she's undetected while she figures out who's trying to hack her.

"I aint tellin' ya nothin'." He pulls his gun out of his back as he backs into the window.

It's too bad he doesn't really 'believe no propaganda about no mutant, meta freaks'. Because he wouldn't be so surprised when I get the gun out of his hand before he can breathe. I slide the magazine out with a silent click and throw the gun out the window. I notice that it makes no clanging noises as it falls. No fire escape on this window. Perfect. The fabric of his shirt knots perfectly around my hand in an unbreakable grip as I twist my hand and force his body out the window.

The woman across the street slams her window down and pulls her shades as I lean into Frankie, the Fed's throat with my forearm. "This can go three ways Frankie. One, you don't tell me what I want to hear and I break your back on this windowsill. Two, you don't tell me what I want and I pitch you the hell out this window. Or, three, answer my questions and I go away." I should have brought the kid with me she'd have the information in no time flat.

His breath comes fast and hot in the cold air. The bristles of his unshaven beard breaks through the thin film of blood on his face as his skin prickles in the cold. "They'll kill me," he gurgles out.

"Oh yeah?" I reply, the expression on my face asking him to consider what his position is now. And just to make my position clear, I add, "You know no one's going to call the cops if you go out the window, right?" In this neighbourhood? Of course he knows. He's one of the guys who made Old Town that way, with it's 'family loyalties' and its code of silence. I bet he's wishing he'd kept his money hidden in a bank like all the other old-timers these days. I press his back a little harder into the window just to let him feel the jagged edges of the broken glass. "You want to go like this Frankie? After twelve years in the pen? After three years of pretending to be a nobody baker in WitSec, waiting for Sal to croak? How much did it cost you to have him whacked?" I love it when Oracle feeds me information. I just wish she would stop wincing so loudly in my ear. I'm trying to do my job here. His eyes widen at my recitation of certain key events of his life. "Come on Frankie," I whisper, so softly - I'm making promises with my voice. Come on Frankie, tell me. Tell me, and it'll all go away. "Tell me who's running the game on the streets these days. Just one name."

I guess he believes the promises I make because he coughs out an answer when I let up on the pressure on his throat. "Falcone."

He is getting on my nerves. "I know that." Maybe if I pushed him just a little further out the window, which I know can't be comfortable with all that glass digging into his back. "Which Falcone?"

"Eddie!" he screams out as his feet leave the floor. "Eddie Falcone!"

That was easy. "And is Eddie in town. Frankie? Don't you lie now, I'll know."

"Yeah," he gasps. "Eddie's in town."


"I don't know." The backs of his knees catch the glass as I lean out, holding on to the window frame with one hand. He screams, "I don't know, I don't know! Nobody knows!"

That is the lamest thing he has said all night. Luckily for him, I believe it. "Thank you, Frankie. You've been very co-operative." With a chop to his neck, I knock him out and dump him next to his open safe with the stacks and stacks of cash - enough to buy a small country. As I arrange him neatly, I hear the sirens already on the way. If nothing else, they'll be able to get him on tax evasion - or, at least that's what Oracle tells me. But who really cares, it's great day outside, maybe I'll stop for an ice cream on the way back.

God! There's nothing like a mission to take my mind off my troubles.

* * * * *

Saturday, December 7
Clock Tower

I've heard all the cheesy corny lines about my body. I've heard all sorts of descriptions of how I move, how I run, how I dance, how I can carry six mugs of beer in each hand through a crowded bar and not spill a drop. Poetry in motion, and all that other bull shit. Yeah I can kick ass and look good at the same time. Big deal. I just go to where Barbara points me and I do what she tells me to...most of the time. But watching Barbara work on the keyboards is it's own special poetry.

Yeah, I know that's pretty sappy.

But what I do isn't special - I'm just lucky that I have more strength and speed than a normal human. What I do isn't about something that I do - it's just something that I am. I was born that way. I don't really have to work hard at it. But what Barbara does - that's something she does. She does it. No one else can do it like her. It's her mind. I know I make fun of her for being a nerd or a geek but I couldn't do half the shit she does. For Barbara, being Batgirl was her entire identity. I can't even imagine what it would feel like to not use any of my meta powers ever again. I'd want to shoot myself in the head or slit my wrists or something. But Barbara, she just kept going.

You have no idea what it feels like to watch her work. I never really got to see her work as Batgirl - except for that once, and she kicked my ass so hard I had to stay in bed for two days. God I was so fucked up that night. And I don't really get to see her do the Oracle thing. Usually when she's working I'm outside or I'm in the training room or sleeping or something. And when she's really working on the computer she doesn't like if someone is in the room with her. So when she doesn't notice that I'm watching her it's kinda special.

You just have to see her. She's so completely focused. And it's the way her fingers fly over the keyboards. And the way she sits up in that chair, leaning forward just a little bit, with that look on her face. It's like she sees something no one else is seeing. And it's the way she looks at all those screens in front of her, taking in all the information evaluating and re-arranging it in a thousand different combinations, before I can even finish reading. If I didn't know her I would be scared of her.

Sometimes when she's working she gets this little look of concentration that's so strong you could crush rocks with it. There are these two little lines that form between her brows and the muscles in her jaw start to stand out. And then there's that second when that look disappears and is replaced by a new one - it's almost a smile but not quite. It's just a little twitch of the corner of her mouth and a twinkle in her eye. It's not an expression as much as it is a micro-expression. It's so small that you couldn't even see it. But she has that look now.

She's been working on that thing for about three hours now. For two and a half hours she had that furrowed look on her face and now it's the almost smile. It means that whatever she's doing is working out well. And now it's the arrogant look - a small twitch by her cheek and nose like a mini-sneer. Things are going really well.

When she finally stops typing and removes her hands form the keyboard, she leans back into her chair and places her hands on the armrests. She tosses her head back just a little, her jaw thrust out. She'd never say it out loud, but I know it's a silent fuck you.

I can't help smiling when she throws her head back like that. It's like when she used to warm up before the kids arrived when she was our gymnastics coach. When she thought no one was looking she'd practice her events - always perfect form. This is like that. When she's done working she always throws her head back just that little bit and straightens her shoulders for that panel of judges in her head. She should have gone Olympic - she would have killed the competition.

When she sees me, she returns the smile I have on my face ten times. "Hey!" she says.


"How long have you been there?"

"Just a couple of minutes..."

"I didn't hear you."

"You were working. I though I should be quiet." He grin grows wider as I talk. "What?"

She rubs her hands gleefully. "I've just put a severe dent in Falcone's little operation here in Gotham."


She shrugs. "Sort of."

"Shouldn't this be more difficult?"

Her narrowed eyes warn me off questioning her ability with a computer. But I'm still confused. "Falcone's been trying to track me by the databases and servers I use. So I went back and took a look at the logs of each time I thought the Delphi was malfunctioning. The Delphi wasn't malfunctioning, the databases were. His hacker is good - good enough to hack the FBI and the ATF files but not good enough to erase his tracks. So I went back to the Arkham networks and went over all their code. I went back to the FBI databases and looked over everything. I went back to every backdoor I use and embedded a little worm. Any computer he uses will automatically download it and pass it on to any other computer he uses and feed the information back to me. I should be able to track him down eventually."

All that effort to tell me that she booby-trapped the booby trap. I never said her work was romantic - just that I like watching her do it.

* * * * *

Sunday, December 8
Clock Tower

The thing to remember, I tell myself, as I hold the cold pack to my bleeding nose, is that she isn't angry with me. I just happened to be in the way. The other thing to remember is never let your guard down. That'll teach me to feel sorry for her. And the other thing to remember is to kick Dinah's butt extra hard during sparring next time because the way she's looking at me right now, I don't want her to get any funny ideas about messing with me.

"Are you okay," Barbara asks guiltily as she hands me a small towel to wipe the blood off my neck. I nod because the vibrations in my nose when I talk are just a little irritating...annoying...painful. "Are you sure?"

"I'm fine, damn it!" I snap at her. It's the fifth time she's asked that question. In the corner, Dinah is trying really hard not to laugh. Her face might be still, but I know it - she's just dying to laugh. I pull the pack off my face and turn to her. "Laugh and die, psychic girl." She purses her lips and turns her head. Hah! That confirms it - she is dying to laugh. That's two extra ass-kickings for the little girl.

Barbara is fiddling with the half-gloves on her lap. I think she's got a little blood on them from when she handed me the cold pack. "I'm sorry," she says really pathetically. I wave away her apology. These things happen - just usually not to me. Anyway it's not like she broke it, then I would have to have kicked her ass. Just on principle.

They say pain disrupts your defences. It must be true because I hear myself saying, "Jesus Christ! That's the dumbest move I've ever seen you make."

That gets her back up, and her eyebrow, and her voice. "Excuse me?"

"No bat-a-rang, no rope, no stick. That was your last weapon and you threw it at me."

"Well, it stopped you, now, didn't it?" She does have a point there.

I remove the comforting grip I have on my nose and look at her. "I can't believe you threw it at me. What if it hit me the wrong way?" I say it just to bug her, because I feel like an ass not to have seen the baton come flying at me, but from the look on her face I should have just kept my mouth shut. Oops!

"I'm sorry, I don't know what I was thinking."

"I know," I say, balling up the towel and throwing at her face. "You were thinking how much you hate to lose. You know kid, if she ever asks you to come spar with her, just run. She really hates to lose."

That draws a small smile out of her but she's still brooding. "I think that's enough for today," she says and goes to pick up her towel. I think I have to agree with her. Not that I couldn't go a few more rounds, but someone's got to talk to her about the temper she's been in since last night.

When I'm done cleaning I find Barbara in her sweaty clothes sitting in front of the Delphi eating a bowl of mint-chocolate chip. Mint chocolate-chip: not a good sign.

The spoon clatters into the bowl furiously and she starts swearing. Another not good sign. "Problem?" I ask.


"That's a lot of mint-chocolate chip for no problem."

"The FBI is trying to run a packet trace on my inquiries."


"I sent them all the information my miner program found out about Falcone and they're trying to trace me."

Now I get it - she's offended. "And? Do you think they'll find you?"

"Of course not." Of course not. Perish the thought, how could I even think such a thing. "They don't even know what they're looking for let alone who."

I let her rattle away on her keyboard for a while before I talk again. "So you find this guy yet? The one who screwed with Delphi?"

Sometimes you have to phrase just the right way. Like with Barbara: never say anything bad about her computer. You can say bad things about her if you like but never say anything bad about the computer. "He didn't screw with the Delphi. He can't screw with the Delphi because I'd know someone was screwing with it. He was sneakier than that. He went into the databases and servers I access and changed them instead."

"So what's the problem?"

"Helena, if I can't trust the information I use everyday while you're out on sweeps and while I'm trying to work, I can't work. I'll spend more time trying to figure out if the information is real or not."

"It can't be that bad. You'll find him, right? You can find him?"

She nods reluctantly as she shoves another spoonful of ice cream into her mouth. "I'd just like to be able to work on tracking down Falcone without bothering with the FBI as well. It's as if Falcone doesn't exist. Four cities - I've tracked the Falcone organisation in four cities. Any time there's some kind of falling out between gangs in or an internal feud suddenly they find they've been replaced by someone bigger and more ruthless than them - it's always junior Falcone, Eddie. But no one has ever met him. No one's seen him." This is true. No matter how many skulls I crack or how many heads Dinah gets into we haven't been able to find a lead on Falcone. "No one has met Eddie Falcone. He has no DMV records. He has no postal records. He has no passport. He has no credit cards. He has no IRS records. He has no criminal records. The last trace of Eddie Falcone is in his high school graduation program where he is listed as a speaker for his class. After that, there's nothing. There isn't even a record of his death. It's like he disappeared into thin air."

Chapter 26


Tuesday, December 10. Night
Clock Tower

I don't need Helena's comm. to gauge the level of chaos that exists outside on the street. Outside the clock Tower I can already hear the sounds of cars frantically beeping cars and raised voices. After the initial shocked lull of silence following the blackout a legato roar of panic has risen from the collective throat of the city. It's a very instinctive thing for humans. We may build edifices that pierce the heavens and fly to the moon. But at night, we are still afraid of the dark and left alone in it without a choice, we scream for our mothers to come rescue us. And when no one comes to chase the darkness away we fling ourselves against the fates in raging protest like a child throwing a tantrum.

At this very moment, Dinah is helping a child find her way out of a building on fire and Helena is engaged in what the police like to call crowd control, but she usually likes to call fun. Only she's doing it the way most policemen wish they were allowed to do it. The sound of fist meeting body in that very distinctive sound comes across the comm. The only thing missing is the usual banter that we engage in. But the entire four hours that this has been going on, I've heard more from Dinah than I have from Helena. I think she needs a break. In fact as soon as I've got this mess sorted out, I may need a break as well. This has been an exhausting year.

<"Oracle, what's the status on those ambulances and fire trucks.">

'There's no way to tell. The traffic grid is impossible right now."

<"I thought you were in the system.">

"This is going to take time. A few hours at least." I've managed to return partial operability to NG Light and Power but the intersecting interfaces of outdated pre-quake, analogue technology and the more modern digital technology is making it difficult for me. Even where I have reset the soft ware to do its job, the power nodes still have to be manually reset by technicians by flipping physical switches at shunt boxes.

<"This is a mess.">

"I know." I know better than she thinks. After all, I did live through the quake in the year before I started my crime-fighting career. "What's the situation?"

<"I've got these goons under control and any wannabes are having second thoughts. Canary?">

<"I've got everyone out of the building. But it's spreading to the next building.">

<"Can you try to stop it?">

<"Hang on."> She addresses someone in her vicinity. <"Anh ah, sonny,"> she growls. <"Use it and lose it!"> The sound of scampering feet proves the effectiveness of her mild threat. She redirects to Dinah. <"Just like in the training room. What you did with the boxes.">

<"I've never tried it like this...">

It's an excellent idea. If Dinah could telekinetically stall the spread of the fire, even for a little while, it would buy the fire trucks a little time. "Won't hurt to try," I encourage her.

I turn my attention for a minute to the scanner chatter. There is a fire truck on its way toward Dinah, but with all the traffic still stalled on the roads its progress is infinitesimally slow.

I toggle back to the new NG Light and Power window. The software is rebooting. The overload alarm has shut down transmission all down the lines. The computers controlling the grid have shut down with the lines in protest at the damage done their operating systems.

Another 911 call catches my attention. Looters are breaking into a shop-front and there is a bank robbery in progress. Some enterprising young men seem to be blasting the ATMs out of the bank face to cart off in their trucks. Apparently the guards are either injured or dead. The woman is cut off with a shout before she can give the location of the bank. But her cell phone is still on and I triangulate the signal to 78th and Lex. It should take Helena seven minutes to get there from where she is.

<"Huntress, there's a situation at 78th and Lex.">

<"There's a situation right here. It's a fucking riot. There's a truck driver with a baseball bat, and a suit with a gun facing off on the main avenue, and everyone is joining in.">

<"It's a possible hostage situation,"> I say to her absently as I struggle with the software that operates the shunts.

<"Well, I've got an actual riot situation here."> The sound of a gunshot cracking through the air startles a, <"Son of a bitch!"> out of her.

When I hear her wade into the crowd, I transfer back to my map of the city. She is 10 blocks from precinct 33. The bank robbery and looting is happening 25 blocks away from the nearest police precinct. It's a judgement call. "Huntress, I need you at 78th and Lex."

<"Damn it! It'll take me forever to get there.">

"Just get there. Leave this one for the police they're 10 blocks from you."

<"It's your call.">

When I return to my examination of the electrical networks, I realise a very strange thing. None of the grids outside of the greater Gotham area seem to experiencing cascade failures. Only the power plants feeding directly into the city are shut down. According to the error logs on the Bldahven networks, there were no cascade failures on the transmission lines.

 <"Oracle,"> Dinah's scratchy voice comes over the comm. <"I can't do this much longer.">

"They're almost there Dinah. They're only two blocks away from you. Do as much as you can."

I enter the super administrator account on the network.

<"Oracle,"> Helena's voice demands, <"When's the damn power coming back on?">

Before I can stop myself, I spit back at her, "I'm working on it damn it!"

<"Whoa! I'm only asking. But there are a whole bunch of kids outside this grocery store and things are looking iffy.">

"Just get to Lex and stop the bank robbery. I'll let you know when I'm done."

The account fails to recognise my password.

User authentification failed. The words flash blandly on my screen. I think I have mistyped in a hurry and try again.

User authentification failed. The same message greets me.

It is a testament to how far past stressed I am in the moment that my heart does not skip a beat when a dull blue window pops to life on my screen.

[i see you oracle]

An electric chill runs across my skin, bringing all my hairs to attention. On the comm. I hear Dinah's voice giving orders to a crowd in a very calm and controlled voice. I'm very proud of the way she has handled herself tonight.

[having trouble?]

Taking a page from my younger protrg's book I respond calmly. {nothing that you can help with}

Ten seconds later power switching nodes on my NGLP status screens come alive.

[anything you can do, I can do better]

{what do you want?}

A whoop of triumph arrives form Helena's transmitter. <"All right, Oracle! City Hall just lit up. I've got the bank robbers all tied up - buncha stupid kids. Their hostage is safe.">

[to talk]

{we're talking now}



<"Oracle, I'm going to head back toward the grocery store, see if the situation is stabilising.">

"Whatever you think." I respond distractedly.


"Huntress, I've got my hacker on line. I'm a little busy."

My hacker's words appear on the screen during my argument with Helena

[face to face?]

[just to talk?]

<"I'm right there!">

"No. Stay out there and handle it. You can't do anything here."

<"Damn it.">

"Huntress you're my field operative so stay in the field," I shout at her to emphasise how serious I am. "There's nothing you can do here."

There is a note of pleading in her voice. <"I don't know if I can do this by myself.">

"Just try, Huntress. Go help Dinah out."

There is a long pause before she replies. <"I'm on it. If you need anything, holler.">

I agree to let her know, but turn off my microphone anyway. When I return my attention to the screen the words glare at me.

[are you there?]


[trying to trace me?]

Yes, of course what does he take me for?


{you didn't answer my question}

[what question?]

Even knowing that tracking him down is a long shot, I try.

{what do you want?}

[face to face]

{where are you, in gotham?}

[i'll find you]

{what do you want to talk about?}

I keep an eye on my tracer. The first three numbers of his IP address appear, then the next three. Yes! He is in Gotham. The next three numbers. Then his words.

[you lied. i'm going to find you]

And the window disappears.

My tracer beeps at me, blinking the message "Trace complete."

I throw my head back and let out a sigh. Whether or not the trace will lead me to a valid address he's given his game away. He's just confirmed we're both in the same city.

* * * * *

Tuesday, December 10. Late Night
Clock Tower

Helena is pacing the room like a caged animal. Dinah keeps staring at her nervously at her from her chair. Helena is bursting with a seething violence that is crackling the air around her.

I click the flashlight off and pause my neurological examination of Dinah. "Helena could you do us both a favour and sit down? You're making Dinah dizzy." Dinah opens her mouth to protest but I give her a look and she shuts up

Helena mumbles an apology, "Sorry," but remains standing, albeit in one place.

I return my attention to Dinah. Her pupils seem to be responding well and there are no lumps on her head that I can detect. The cortical scanner, which with a few programming tweaks functions handily as an MRI machine, shows no physical neurological damage. But apparently she seems to be showing hyper activity of the neural clusters that are associated with her meta-human powers. "Still have a head ache?" Dinah nods yes. "Where?"

"Around the front of my head, behind my eyes and back here." She touches the occipital bone

"Shake your head slowly." She complies. "Does that hurt?"


"Try it just a little harder." She does. "Hurts?"


"Okay. And you're sure nothing fell on you."

"No, I just got a little dizzy."

"I think you just overworked yourself. Helena tells me that you didn't get singed at all when the fire-ball hit." Even as I speak about the incident I am amazed by the steadiness of both my tone and my hand.

She nods. "I guess I just did what I do in the practice room. I imagined that it wouldn't reach me and the fire just turned aside." She is trying to be serious and objective but I can detect the hint of a twinkle in her eye and the smallest twitch at the corner of her mouth. I don't blame her. It's a remarkable feat to accomplish.

I let myself smile widely at Dinah. "I'd say that was pretty handy, wouldn't you?"

She follows my lead and beams back at me. "Yeah."

"You did okay."


"But the next time you're out there, when Helena tells you to move it. Do it."

Her eyes cast downwards in gesture of shame. But I let her feel it fully without trying to make her feel better about it. Helena may be overbearing and protective at times but she would never give Dinah an order that she didn't mean.

"Yeah, do it," Helena joins in. "Stupid kid," she mumbles, and then whirls on me with a flourish. "I am sick and tired of this. I am fucking sick and tired of this."

"I know."

"This is the third time in nine goddamn days."

"I know."

"The third fucking time!" she explodes.

"I know."

"I almost end up like Peking duck in the steam tunnels, I don't give a damn. I have to crash a fucking van on the way back, I don't give a shit! But he starts gunning for you and it's over! It's fucking over. And her, she's just sixteen years old. We find this guy and we stop him now."

"I know."

"Hey I'm right here in this room. Can we not please talk about me in the third person? And I can take care of myself."

"Shut up!" Helena advances menacingly on her. "You'd be sleeping under a pile of concrete right now if you hadn't gotten lucky."

"But I did get lucky, so get off your guilt trip already. You can't save everybody and you can't be everywhere at once." When she finishes speaking, she is more surprised by her own temerity than either of the two of us. "I mean..." she tucks her hair behind her ear, "I'm okay, so it's okay."

Thus confronted, Helena retreats, and throws herself onto the sofa flinging an arm over her eyes. "Because this is goddamn getting old. I haven't slept in days. I haven't eaten today. I am worn out."

I am about to say, 'I know' when I realise that it will be the fifth time for the useless and completely inexpressive utterance, and stop myself. The only problem, of course, is that I find myself entirely in agreement with her. Dinah glances at me speculatively to see what I will say or do. "Yeah," I sigh.

"I can't do this. I can't keep going like this." Dinah gawps at the alarming words that are leaving Helena's mouth, her face giving expression to my own feeling. "It's too soon. I've only just had to deal with losing ......all this. And you've...I need a fucking..."

"...Break from all of this," I finish for her. "I know."

"Yeah like that's going to happen."

Dinah's voice is wistful and wishful. "Gosh, like a real vacation? That would be nice."

"Maybe we should take a vacation after all this." I say. "Pack it all up and go somewhere else."

The staccato laughter that spills from Helena's lips is more incredulity than humour. She pushes herself up and looks at me. "A holiday? An actual leave the Delphi behind, get on the plane, check into a hotel room, get on a bus in the morning and wander around with a camera doing stupid things holiday?" I nod. "Do you have a fever? Are you delirious? Dinah did she seem feverish to you when she was examining you?"

"No," I protest, "seriously. Lets take a vacation."

"We go somewhere warm," says Helena. "Like Barbados or St. Croix."


"I don't know," she blushes. "I've never been anywhere except Opal and New Gotham."

It strikes me at that very moment how little Dinah has seen of the world and how easy it is to forget that because of how open minded and eager she is. "This will be your chance then. Anywhere you want to go."

"Ummm...Greece? I've always wanted to visit Athens." Apparently there is something to the adage 'learn something new everyday' because I certainly had no idea that Dinah was interested in Athens.

"Why not? Helena can show you around. She spent a lot of time there."

Dinah turns her wide eyes on Helena, their brief spat of earlier already forgotten. "It's been a while," she responds.

"I think it's an excellent idea."

"Sure," Helena concedes. "If we can find this guy before Christmas, you'd still have two weeks vacation left."

Chapter 27


Wednesday, December 11, Happy Hour
Dark Horse.

"Reese..Jesse. What're you doing here?"

"You'll want to take a look at this."

"Are you supposed to show me these?"

"No, but you should see them."

"It's an execution. What'd the guy do, run off with the mob money?"

"His company was under surveillance by the FBI because someone there was using computers to access bank accounts illegally. He's a suspected hacker."


"...That's my phone. Anyway, you need to watch out - I've got a meeting with Agent Smith - to go over my informant lists. He wants to know why I have such a good arrest record."

Chapter 28


Wednesday, December 11, Evening
Clock Tower

>>> brrnn brn...brrnn brn...brrnn brn...brrnn brn...brrnn brn...brrnn brn...<<<


You have reached Richard Grayson's voicemail. Please leave a message after the beep.


"Dick, I need you to do me a favour. I need you to give me any information about apparently motiveless execution style killings in this week, specifically ones where the victim had any technical contact with computers on a daily basis. And this is important - call me with the information. Call me."

* * * * *

Wednesday, December 11, Night
Clock Tower

Police continue to be baffled by the murder of Marcus Jensen a prominent local computer entrepreneur who was shot to death in his apartment, execution style on Thursday night.

I can feel the dual weight of Dinah and Helena's gazes on my back as I speak to Dick. "When?"

Marcus Jensen was discovered in his apartment by his girlfriend of several years when he failed to meet her for a date. The grisly murder of this reportedly shy and generous man who changed the face of this economically depressed neighbourhood came as a terrible shook to the community.

<"Last night. ME thought it was an accident at first: kid passes out with the laminator on while toking up. Her place was a mess, papers and wires everywhere, it went up in minutes. But the full examination showed a bullet in the cranial cavity.">

Jeremy Williams, family friend:

"He was real quiet you know, always reading a lot. He grew up just a block over from where he lived. When he came back from college he was really into helping out the neighbourhood. First thing he did when he made his first million was clean up the park so that the kids could play, you know, without the broken bottles and the trash and *bleep*. He never took no credit for the things he did, you know, he'd like smile and say, it was the people that done it."

"What did you say she did?" Behind me Helena is bristling in anger and frustration.

"Programmer at a local software company." His face pixelates in a stutter of satellite static. <"B...Oracle? Is there a problem?" Should we be taking a second look at this case?">

"Did you know she was a hacker?"

Sally Means, neighbour:

"I really don't know who would want to do something like that. He was just a really nice boy. Always helping out with carrying my groceries up the stairs. Playing with the children. Helping the kids stay in school. He was just a good boy."

<"She had a reputation, but nothing that we could stick on her.">

Suddenly I find that this conversation is too stressful for me. "Dick, I've got to go."

<"Oracle...are you in trouble?">

Mr. Jensen, 32, was the sole owner of the local internet shopping and delivery service Wiz It! The company made a mark six years ago by offering shopping 'valets' for those too busy to shop. The company's unique policy to hire young high school aged students from economically challenged neighbourhoods and provide them with education as part of their contracts made the company a model of community building. Mr. Jensen was highly regarded as a leader and community builder, and his brutal, apparently senseless killing has left his friends and neighbours shocked and traumatised.

I sigh as restrainedly as I can. "I may have a small technical problem. But don't worry about it. I'm handling it."

<"If you say so. Ummm..."> he offers me a sincere and determined smile. <"...But if there's anything you need..."> Unfortunately I cannot bring myself to respond before I sign off.

This is Joanne Chen reporting live for News Channel Four. Ben, back to you in the newsroom.

Thank you Joanne. Ladies and gentlemen Joanne Chen reporting from Old Gotham where police are unable to discern a motive for the mob style execution of a local businessman.

My life is just a little more complicated than I would like it to be right now.

* * * * *

Thursday, December 12. Early morning/late night
Clock Tower

Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun.

I wonder why there are no equivalent phrases for people, or animals, that wander about in the December cold, because there is absolutely no sense in sitting outside on balcony when it's freezing outside. But looking at the city all lit up after the power outage earlier this week gives me a sense of satisfaction. The yellow and crimson ropes of traffic are not the only lights in the night now.

Right this minute I'm starting to wish there actually had been a break out at Arkham. At least I know what I'd be facing.

Damn it! I really don't know how I could have misjudged the situation so badly. I've been keeping tabs on the Falcone family so long that I've forgotten why Gotham city used to cower at the mention of the name Falcone. Daddy built his career fighting Carmine Falcone and his minions. But for the last fifteen years they've haven't really been a name to reckon with - insidious, yes, but not powerful. If there was ever any question about who's trying to find me it's all gone now. Two people are dead because somebody was angry about what I did to the Falcone family. If my timeline is correct someone has been searching for Oracle for the last six months and only a week and a half ago managed to narrow the search to the greater Gotham area, coinciding very neatly with my run of bad luck. Someone who is really determined to find me - determined enough to start killing off hackers who might be Oracle.

The clouds tumbling through the night sky pass for a second to reveal the moon, and out of the corner of my eye I catch a glint of something. I move further out onto the balcony and trace the curve of a two wine glasses nestled, side-by-side, in the crook of banister and flagstone. I shake my head - the blessed things have been sitting there for two weeks now. If even Alfred won't come out here to see if everything is ship shape it must be cold, and I must be truly addled to be sitting out here. And as much as I pretend to be baffled by why I'm sitting in the dark, in the cold, this time I know why I'm out here: Helena.

I know that she's somewhere out in the darkness biding her sleepless nights, staring out over the city, keeping an eye on it. Bruce used to do that. Sometimes he would just find a high tower to stand on and just stay there. No matter how cold, or how wet, or how hot, he would just stand there like a totem or a ghost, standing vigil over the city that had broken him and remade him in its own image.

I wonder if she will stop standing out in the dark if I tell her how much like her father she really is, with her broodiness and her love of the dark. The thought drags a chuckle out of my lungs - I can only imagine the outrage on her face right before it morphs into a pout borrowed straight from Selina's book. If she was holding something, she would probably want to throw it, then she'd flounce off, stomping so hard I'd probably feel the beams shake. Helena always makes bigger fuss when she want to *show* me how angry she is, because when she really is angry, you can feel the air prickle with electrified ozone around her even when she hasn't moved a muscle. She really can be something of a drama queen when she wants to. That thought makes me laugh again.

The wind picks up and I let it cut through me, letting myself shiver. The cold passes right through me shaking my bones in a punishing rattle. My hands travel to my mouth and I instinctively blow a warm breath into them. When I scrunch my shoulders into a turtle-ish huddle against the wind and dip my head to blow into my hands, the motion brings the wine glasses into my line of sight again. The action of the wind and dust, and layers of condensation and evaporation have exposed the latent fingerprints and lip marks on the two glasses. That one, I think, that one is Helena's glass. There is no mistaking the shape of the mark left by cupid-bow lips. And as I study the depth of the evaporation bands ringing the wall of the glasses I realise that the glass with the lesser amount of wine that I appropriated really was hers.

For some reason a perfect crystal of recollection floats loose from the reef of my memory.

She is putting the dishes away in the washer as I wander away to the table. I can count them by the sound each item makes as it goes in the machine: serving platter, plate, plate, charger, charger...

I pick up my glass from my seat at the table and then wheel around to her seat. Her chair is the only one sitting askew from the table. I pull the chair aside and pull into the spot. As I rest my glass on the table, my tipsy hand bumps into her glass. The dark liquid sloshes around, licking the walls of the glass in thick running legs. I reach out and steady the glass before any liquid can slosh over to mar the whiteness of the tablecloth. I must be drunk because my fingers are telling me that this glass is warmer than mine and that's not possible. I move my hand and test the temperature of my glass. Yes, hers is definitely warmer. Maybe it's the wine, I think. Is alcohol endothermic or exothermic? I pull the wine bottle toward me and tip out the last jiggerful of wine into my glass to see if that makes my glass feel warmer. I touch my glass and then hers. No, hers is still warmer. As I stare at the liquid levels in the two glasses, I hear her putting the cutlery into the machine. I slide my hand underneath the stems of the two glasses and call out, "Come sit outside with me."

Yes, mine was definitely the glass with more wine in it. How drunk was I that, in the three minutes it took me to manoeuvre my careful way to the balcony, I forgot that? A shiver runs through me as I ask myself that question and I tuck my hands into my armpits.

"You're going to start freezing in about two minutes." The lazy voice almost frightens me out of my chair. As it is, it feels like I'm having a cardiac infarction, my heart is beating so fast. I twist up to trace the source of the voice. There she is - swinging her legs nonchalantly, her hair a shaggy fringe around her face.

"You scared five years off my life. What the hell?"

She yawns loudly. "I can hear your teeth chattering from up here, what're you doing?"

"Why aren't you at home."

"You look like your dog just died."


She stops swinging her legs and stares. For a few seconds we both dodge each others' questions and then finally...

"I couldn't sleep," we both say simultaneously.

Her clear laughter comes falling from above. A second later she floats down with a whoosh of air. "Birds of a feather," she says as she leans against the banister.

We're both ridiculous, standing out in the frosty cold, watching our breaths fog and crackle in the air, laughing about absolutely nothing. I bury my face in my hands and shake my head. "I need to sleep."

"Tell me about it," she says.

"So why can't you sleep?"

"Same reason you can't sleep."

"Because I'm about to take a bullet in my crime-fighting career again, only this time I see it coming?"

Her forehead wrinkles and she flaps her mouth in a very unbecoming imitation of a fish. "I was going to say no sweeps."

"Well, you say potato....I say potahto."

"Actually, you say potato, I say spuds."

"Same thing."

She looks away from me and turns her torso to stare at the same lights I was staring at. The light of Wayne tower paints a narrow halo around her head. "There'll be no bullets for you," she mumbles. The expression on her face is determined, defiant; maybe there's even the lightest twinge of hurt. It's the hurt that I find so incongruous and painful. "You're not going to take any bullets Barbara, not while I can stand in their way." Then as if she realises she has come too close to an intimate conversation she smiles. "Hell, why me? Put the kid in the way and she'll catch them with her mind - she's the one who wanted to sign up to be a superhero. Tell her it's her signing fee."

"Shut up," I tell her. I hear her smack her lips as she ducks her head at my chiding. As I watch her breath freeze and disappear in front of her mouth, the devil whispers in my ear and the cold has numbed my brain just enough that I want to heed the voice. "Do you want a drink?"

She blinks in surprise and then shrugs. "Sure," she says as she moves towards the door. "You still got Mr Gordon's stash from last Christmas?"

As it turns out daddy's stash of Christmas scotch is nowhere to be found. But there is a bottle of Tanqueray in the spice cupboard, and a bottle of dry vermouth in the behind the mushroom soy sauce. And in no time at all Helena serves up martinis in highball glasses.

She is rimming my glass with a twist of lime peel, preparing it for a second filling as I refill hers for the third time. "So talk to me," she says. I make a great show of not spilling a single drop as I twist the shaker away from the rim of the glass. I'm surprised she has waited this long to draw answers out of me.

"I've been doing this for seven years."

"Longer if you count what you did before."

"True, true," I agree, as I sample the acerbic bite of the citrus oils on my glass. "But let's just go with say, seven - seven untraceable years. No one is supposed to know I'm around."

"Yeah! Until you start hacking NASA and borrowing transponder time because you think the next big one is going to hit." I can't believe she's still teasing me about that one. The seismographic information that came down from the Geological Institute's sensors was very alarming and I wanted to take a look at wave dispersion patterns on the ocean. It was a legitimate concern. I remember the quake. I remember the hell that Gotham turned into for six months and the two - almost three - years it took to rebuild.

"I thought I could just stay underground. Just be a ghost in the machine,"

"Like you were a ghost on the rooftops?" Ghost on the rooftops - that's a laugh. "Everyone knew you were out there, Barbara. Bobby Grene, and every other teenaged jerk off, used to have some pretty nasty fantasies about Batgirl. Oh man! The scenarios they'd come up with about Batman and Batgirl and Robin..." she whistles long and low. "Sick."

The thought of that pairing...tripling...combination makes me blush hot. Dick and I may have had our little fling but the thought of Bruce and me together still makes me as nauseated as the first time Selina mentioned it. I have to agree with Helena's assessment. "That's just sick."

"You don't know the half of it," she says taking another slug of her martini. I'm really hard pressed to understand how someone with a nose as sensitive as Helena's can enjoy the highly aromatic spiciness of gin. I can barely drink the stuff, and I'm the one with the alcoholic genes. "Didn't you used to date Bobby Grene?"

"Yeah, I did."

That gets my back up. "Even after you knew about his twisted little fantasies?"

That gets me a sheepish look and a small start. "Uhh..."

"No, no," I exclaim. "Allow me to guess. You had some pretty sick fantasies of your own," I say broadly as I lift my own glass to my lips. For the second time this week, I see Helena blanche and flush. I laugh at the sight and, as the gin burns down my throat, I infer that it means she did. The thought makes the alcohol stick. I cough and splutter as she thumps me on the back in an effort to get me to breathe normally. I stare wide-eyed at her as I consciously contemplate for the first time that Helena Kyle...Helena, my troublesome ward may actually have had the odd sexual fantasy about Batgirl, which, actually, after all, in effect, is essentially the same thing as me. I automatically take another gulp of my glass again forgetting that it's not water, and choke again.

"Easy there, Irish. I know you can probably drink a lot of people under the table, but you really need to slow down." I wipe the water out of my eyes and nod.

As I struggle to breathe and Helena runs off to bring me some water from the kitchen, I hear the sound of flesh impacting something solid, followed by the energetic swearing of my young ward. As the swearing lessens it is followed by more thumping and bumping. It doesn't sound very healthy, to say the least. "Dinah?" I call out.

"Barbara!" she squeaks in sleepy reply.

"Are you all right?"

"Yeah. Why is it so dark in here?"

Is it? I haven't noticed. I look around and realise that it I've turned all the Delphi monitors off. I've been sitting in the dark for so long my eyes have become accustomed to the ambient level of light seeping in from the windows. "Hang on I'll turn on a light for you." I start to transfer back into my chair but Helena saves me the trouble. The sudden burst of light is a little disorientating, and I feel a small burst of resentment for the loss of the intimacy that the darkness carried.

"What's up kid? You break something?" Helena asks as she hands me a bottle of citrussy vitamin water. This is a sports drink. Helena catches my confusion and replies. "You might as well. You'll be needing it in the morning." Fair enough, I think and crack the seal on the cap.

Dinah approaches the railing as she rubs her eyes and pushes the hair back from her face. "I was just coming down to get some water. It was really dark. What's going on?"

"We're having a night cap. Wanna join us?" retorts Helena.

The clang-thump of sleepy feet follows Dinah down the stairs. When she appears, she is squinting at the watch on her wrist. "It's almost three."

"Yup," says Helena. "Bar doesn't close until four. Here," she wanders back into the kitchen for a new glass "have one."

Dinah looks unsurely at me, remembering the lecture I gave her after the No Man's Land event.

Helena stares knowingly back at her. "It's okay, she'll let it go this one time. It's a special occasion." Then she turns to me as she pours Dinah a glass. "C'mon Barbara, she's a super freakin' hero. The world could end tomorrow and she won't know what a good martini tastes like."

When Helena thrusts the glass at her, she accepts it hesitantly. I wave my hand at her to let her know that it's okay. "Just this once," I warn. The look on her face as she samples the beverage is priceless. Whatever else, Dinah is not going to be sampling more martinis anytime soon.

Helena saves her by taking the glass out of her hand and replacing it with a plastic bottle. "Here have a Pepsi."

Dinah looks relieved and chugs the caffeine and sugar enthusiastically. "What are you guys talking about?"

Helena turns a smirk to me, and answers Dinah. "Well, Irish here was about to stop beating around the bush any second now, now that she's good and drunk."

"I beg your pardon?"

"C'mon Barbara, you never drink unless there's something huge on your mind, and the only time you invite me to join you is if you think I'm going to pitch a fit."

"I do?" She nods in response. That gets me thinking, am I worried about how she's going to react? Maybe just a little. "Oh."

"So spit it out already. Don't make me drink you under the table, you'll suffer in the morning."

I savour the coolness of the glass against my cheek before I answer. "Bruce and Dick and I spent so much time making sure that every remnant of the Falcone organisation was cleaned up that I never really shook the habit. Anytime it looked like they were getting close to being a real cartel again, I've managed to sabotage them. I've let it go the last two years, but...they've slowly tech-ed up over the years. If Eddie Falcone is looking to be king of Gotham he's not going to stop. He's going to keep killing anyone he thinks is a candidate for Oracle. I can keep hiding but he'll keep looking, and more people are going to die. And I have no idea who he is."

And then Dinah asks the question that I have been dodging for about six turns of conversation now. "What are you going to do?"

"We know Falcone's in town." Dinah nods patiently, but Helena's expression turn hawkish as she bites her lip in impatience. "So I'm going to let him find me."

Chapter 29


Saturday, December 14. Late evening

I have to admit, this is not the worst idea she has ever had. The plan she had with Freeze where she poured poison into my veins - now that was pretty bad. Sure it worked out okay in the end, but she didn't know it would, she had simply hoped. And what about The Stupidest Fucking Stunt In The Whole World - that was pretty bad, probably the worst idea she's ever had.

But this one - I'll agree with her - it's okay.

"It's very simple," she said.

I'm going to let him 'track' Oracle down to a physical location and then let him confirm it. Then I'm going to make such a big mess of his finances he's going to want to come for me. And when he comes for me, you're going to be there."

I wasn't sure that Falcone was going to be there myself, but she said it didn't matter. Whoever came would know him, and then Dinah could get the information out of him. It sounded like plan - and anytime we get to trash a couple of hundred thousand dollars of dear ol' dad's cash is fine by me. So I said yes. It's not every day that you can get Barbara to agree to hitch a bomb to an expensive computer she put together. In fact, I'm not so sure how I feel about it - I did help her put it together as a back up after the mess with Quinn.

I keep an absent eye on the monitors showing the entrance - nothing out of order. The doorman is flipping through his latest issue of Vanity Fair - this is an upscale space. The motion detectors are quiet and the outside views are boring too. I should have brought more video games, 'cause I'm already bored with this one. I let The Ride of the Valkyries have one more spin on the CD player just for kicks. Two minutes later right when the music is about to get interesting I feel a little prickling through my back.  A second later the computer - I like to call it mini-Delphi - starts beeping at me.

<"You have contact,"> Barbara says.

"No kidding. Are you seeing this?" The weasel thinks he's being sneaky coming in to the building through the basement next door. But you have to go a long way before you can put one over the Oracle. The cameras show the foggy green images of scuttling through the dark corridor.


"You have got to be kidding me! Who does he think he's coming for, Rambo?" I see four figures hustling through the hallway in body armour and night vision goggles. None of these guys can be Falcone. "Canary?"


"You see anything outside, anything that feels out of place?"

<"There's a van parked outside the building - Stan's Plumbing and Boiler Maintenance - a bunch of guys just walked into the building with big bags.">

"How many?"


<"That's it,"> says Barbara, <"Those are the rest of your guys.">

"Can you make out any of their faces?"

<"No,"> she replies unhappily. <"Their hats are pulled too low.">

It doesn't matter, because the heating in the building is working just fine. I take a good look at how they approach the desk and present the work order. One of them hangs back a little and glances up at the camera. The brim of his cap covers most of his face and he's wearing goggles. Call it a hunch, but I think that's my man. And who the hell sends a six-man team to fix a boiler anyway?

"Anything else?"

<"Ummm....I don't know....">

"Keep an e..." Before I can finish my sentence the lights go out. Even the cameras feeding into mini-Delphi go blank. All I'm left with is the glow of the wallpaper on the screen and the hum of the motors. Someone's done their home work: they've found the independent power lines for the cameras too.

A shiver runs right through me at the thought of the hunt and I close my eyes. No matter what else has happened this year, I haven't forgotten this, the thrill of the hunt - me in the darkness against the bad guys. Barbara rules the cyber world but the darkness is mine. When I open my eyes the darkness is nothing more than the edge of a warm silver glow.

Barbara's voice in my ear is excited and edgy. <"Huntress, start the shutdown, and set the timer."> Following Barbara's instructions I click on the red icon that will shut the computer down. Right as I reach for the flip switch that will set the time for three minutes there is a loud boom followed by a concussive wave that knocks me off my feet. My hand falls on the switch and turns on the timer.

A second boom knocks the plaster loose from the ceiling and fills the room with clouds of dust. The dust irritates my eyes and my lungs, making me blink and cough as I stand up. The red numbers on the timer run off their millisecond countdown as Barbara's voice sounds in my ear. <"Huntress, status!">

There are alarms going off everywhere. I wave my hand to clear the dust away from my face. "Well..." I cough out, stating the obvious, "There were two explosions. What the fuck was that?" I grab the handle on the door and pull but the door doesn't respond. I try again but the door only beeps a curse at me. Fuck! The door has default locked in the absence of power. I rip open the nearest grate and haul myself into ceiling vent, slamming the grate shut behind me.

Awhh! Bad fucking idea the vents are filled with smoke. How dumb is that? I choke down on my breath and push my way through looking for the nearest exit without any regard for safety. I come out in the hallway outside the mini-Delphi's suite.

Barbara is going nuts in my ear wanting to know what is going on and I growl quietly to let her know to shut up. I hear the elevator doors slide open and duck behind a plastic plant. The sharp light of a red laser cuts through the smoke playing across shadows in the clouds. "Oracle, these guys are serious fire power." From the stair well I can hear the sound of booted feet clumping up the steps. These guys are serious about grabbing Oracle. I don't know what the hell Barbara did, but Falcone must be pissed off as a hornet without a nest.

The four guys coming up through the elevator shaft are professionals: they jimmy the lock in about a minute and are through the door. When the alarm doesn't go off, I know they're good. The first three duck into the apartment, the last one does a quick scan for anyone behind him and turns to enter. The second he turns his back, I grab him by the mouth and knock him out.

"Okay, I'm back inside the suites," I let Barbara know.

<"No,"> she bites out, <"Go after the plumbers.">

"The fewer stray guns there are the better I'll feel."

<"Be careful,"> she tells me.

"Always," I lie. She snorts to let me know that she knows I'm lying.

Inside, the three guys have split up into different rooms - after all they're hunting only one person. As I stalk the second guy in the kitchen and knock him down with a thunk of the frying pan, I hear a shout behind me. Someone's discovered the unconscious body by the door. Oops!

More bodies enter the apartment. Mmhhh..."Back up's here," I tell Barbara. "Time to party."

<"Make sure they're all inside first,"> she says. I nod, even though she can't see me. But that's okay she didn't really expect to answer anyway. It's just her way of letting me know she's with me.

In the distance there are the sounds of fire trucks and ambulances. That was a pretty quick response time. I slink against the walls waiting for the stream of bodies to pass me by before I try to pick them off one by one. One...two...three...four...five...Wait...wait...wait...six. They're all in. Inside the apartment I hear a bubbling hiss - very faint, just a little gurgling, not louder than the hissing of the radiators. And I know the acid in the computer room is doing its job.

I sneak up on one of the guys, grab him by his collar and hit his head on the wall. "Three down, six to go." He leaves a little dent in the smooth dry wall as he goes down. As I creep towards the computer room where I see one body heading, I hear the crackling of radios before a confused shout. The rapid fire of bullets then confuses me. <"Are you okay?"> Barbara asks

"Yes," I reply. Who the hell are they shooting at? I'm right here. "Mother fucker!" I can't help the curse that falls out of my mouth when I hear the next series of shouts that goes up.

>>Freeze! FBI!<<

>> Federal agent! Put down your weapons!<<

"God damn it! Oracle!" I grit out. "Is this going to be another fucking fiasco?"

I can hear the rapid clicking of keys and muttering over the earpiece as I duck even lower. I can't believe I've been cracking the skulls of the law. Yeah that'll keep them off Oracle's back. But if they're the FBI, why are they shooting each other. As I listen to the chatter and the sound of bullets, I realise that there are two sets of guns - one sharp firing and loud and the other muffled. Someone in here is using suppressors. Great! Now I have to baby sit the law and figure out who I need to take back to Barbara without getting noticed.

It's only when I round the corner of the hallway that the mini-Delphi is in, that I see the bright yellow lettering, glinting white in my enhanced vision that proclaims the acronym of their agency. He is distracted by a sound - this is my chance to sneak by him - and then I notice the bright red line that comes to focus on the back of his head.

Leave him? Save him? Damn it - save him. I tackle him in the best NFL form and the coughed bullet chews into the wall. I hit him once, to make sure that he doesn't get any nasty ideas about me, and jump in the direction of the shooter with a snarl. The muzzle of the gun stares me in the face as I leap at him. His finger on the trigger squeezes and I can see the bullet spiralling out of the barrel. I move my head only an inch and the bullet goes wide. I grab him by the neck and slam him into the wall.

Even seven feet form the computer room my eyes start stinging and it's hard to breathe. "Oh man! There're fumes everywhere." If I thought the dust was bad I was mistaken - this is bad.

"Huntress, those fumes are toxic. You need to get out of there as soon as you can."

Shit she doesn't need to tell me. I may not remember all my chemistry lessons but there's one thing I know. Acid:bad as stinging fumes:toxic. The acid fumes are spilling out through the open door. I do my best to focus my awareness on everything in front of me. I can make out two sets of feet. One soft soled and the other heavy rubber

"There's a cop and a scum bag in there, Oracle," I tell her. "I can grab the baddy for you, no problem."

<"Forget it,"> she orders me. <"We can do this another way. Another day.">

"No," I insist, "he's going to shoot the cop. I can't just leave him in there."

<"Forty five seconds,"> she concedes. <"After that, I'm sending Alfred in after you.">

Now that's just black mail. "Forty five seconds," I agree.

When I catch up on my two guys, I see the Feeb scanning the room before ducking in. Fat lot of good that's going to do him - the place is filled with nooks, and his vision is obscured by his gas mask. The other guy is nowhere to be seen.

As I get into position behind the Feeb, I hear the smallest click of a trigger cocking. Simultaneously I push the man out of my way as I snatch the radio set out of his belt and throw it in the direction of the sound. The plastic makes contact with a small crunch - right on the nose. "Yes!" I murmur softly and hear Barbara's indulgent warning.

<"Fifteen seconds.">

The little feeling of triumph that surges through me at the sound makes me feel better about Barbara's baton the other day. I guess sometimes you just need to throw something.

"Give me ten, and I'll have you a present too."

A second bullet fires, this one blazing right past my ear. I turn my entire focus on the shooter so that I can get him and get out of there. Even with one hand on his nose and blind with pain, his aim is pretty good. My villain jumps out and makes a desperate grab at my neck with one hand and with the gun trained in the general direction of my head. This is pathetic. I smirk and start to slap his gun away. As I raise my hand, I see his eyes go wide as they focus on something behind my shoulder.

Good fake, I think as my hand makes contact with the gun and

Chapter 30


Saturday December 14. Late Night
Clock Tower a violent sequel to the tragic raid that cost the lives of Detective Andrew Jerome and Special Agent Anthony Gianetti. Officials say that the bomb was set off by the suspects in this seven-storey apartment complex in midtown New Gotham in a desperate attempt to escape federal custody. Twelve residents were injured in the resulting explosion. The suspects, three of whom have a violent history with the mob opened fire injuring at least one agent. Four suspects are dead and at least one is said to be at large. More when we return after the break.

It was meant to be a simple plan. A bait and grab. In and out. No problem. Ideally, once Falcone bit, and either sent his man to get Oracle or arrived in person, Huntress was going to grab him; an actual operation time of not more than 20 minutes. Not the safest plan, but simple. Only now I am out of contact with Huntress; the press is reporting "the death of three suspects alleged to be part of a criminal ring working to attack the city's infrastructure while a fifth suspect is at large"; three agents are being treated for injuries, and still no Falcone.

The only upside to this is the fact that no one seems to be looking for Oracle anymore.

It's been five hours already, damn it all to hell! Where is she?

* * * * *

Sunday, December 15, All day
All over New Gotham

Helena, Where are you?

* * * * *

Monday, December 16, Approximately 1:30 a.m.
Nick's City Diner

We must make a very strange trio at the all-night diner: two drawn and worried looking women whispering in the corner with the nervous police detective.

Reese opens a manila envelope and slides out a few prints. "One of the dead men had this in his hand."

I study the images. One, of the object in the John Doe's grip, and the other, neatly laid out on the white tile of the ME's table. I am not shocked at what I see but at least it's an explanation.

Dinah slides one of the photographs of Helena's transmitter bracelets towards herself. Her voice is quavery and weak. "I guess that's why we can't find her."

I nod wearily and address Reese. "Anything else?" Reese shakes his head and sighs. "You're sure they're not keeping it hush-hush and quiet?" It's a desperate question but I have to ask it.

"Because I searched all around the building and she wasn't there," Dinah adds in. What she doesn't mention is that she even 'probed' a few people to see if they saw anything and there is still no sign of Helena.

I lean forward and take another sip of my coffee. All information of relevance exchanged, we absorb the awkward silence around us. There is no logical reason for meeting here, except I desperately wanted to be anywhere but in the clock tower for a few moments. I rub my itchy eyes and realise that the coffee has ceased to have any stimulating effect on my system.

"Tell me more about this raid."

"Said they received information from a source they felt confident about. The Commissioner reamed the SAC a new one but he insisted the opportunity was too great to pass up. And he said he didn't share the info with the local PD because he didn't want to risk a leak."

On the face of it, the reasonable is perfectly logical and sensible. But the facts at my disposal make it suspect. If there is a leak, it seems to me the SAC should have been more worried about it coming from his agency. Of course the fact that made the information even more suspect is that there is no way the FBI could have known about the trap I set for Falcone. Ergo there is a mole in the FBI.

The rising anger does what the coffee has failed to do. I dig in my purse and throw ten dollars on the table. "Thank you, Reese. You've done a lot." He looks startled when he sees I am preparing to leave. For a second something I think is hurt flashes in his eyes. I realise that he must be worried too. After all no matter how it ended between him and Helena, he must still have feelings for her. I reach across the table and clasp his hand. "We'll find her. For all we know, she's sleeping it off somewhere in some dark corner." The re-assurance, while having some precedence to back it up, is feeble, but it's the best I can do. His smile looks as wan as I feel. I ask him one more question as I usher Dinah out of the booth. "The FBI team, are they still in town?"

He shakes his head, " No, they went back to Blüdhaven this afternoon."


* * * * *

Monday December 16. Morning
Clock Tower

I have in front of me, the personnel records of all six agents involved in the "Falcone raid".

Special Agent Gilbert Chavez

Special Agent Randall Eliot

Special Agent Robert Murphy

>Special Agent Jonathan Randolph

Special Agent Robert Smith

Special Agent John Zielinski.

The most remarkable record belongs to Agent Randall Eliot, of Chicago. A gang member at the age of thirteen, he was arrested as an accessory to the murder of a rival gang member. Because he was fifteen at the time, and the evidence against him was circumstantial at best, he was not tried and his records were sealed because of the evidence he provided in another case. It's remarkable because not many persons with a background like that are inducted into the venerable FBI. But because he was a model citizen in juvie and later counselled other inner city kids against the violent gang life, he traded his excellent background as a police officer into a career with the FBI.

But the record I find most fascinating is that of Agent Robert Smith. Say the name: Bob Smith. Now search any database for that name - in the New Gotham phone book alone, there are seven hundred and twenty three instances of persons named R. Smith or Bob Smith. All similarity to the Matrix aside, the dark-haired, square-jawed Agent Smith makes for fascinating reading.

His records are exemplary. Recruited out of MIT. Top 10 of his graduating class from Quantico. And a career-track like a rocket. Involved in six major undercover operations eight years before moving to the Blüdhaven field office - this despite his specialty as a computer-crimes consultant - where he oversaw two successful sting operations. Received the FBI's Medal of Bravery. From what I can tell, the man seemingly has no social life. No spouse, no children. Completely devoted to his job and his ailing grandmother in Blüdhaven. He pays his utility bills by mail and uses his credit card only to pay for plane tickets, make car payments and buy books and music. He makes donations to the ASPCA and Habitat for Humanity. Show me an upstanding citizen and I'll show you Agent Bob Smith. This, of course, is in complete contrast to our quarry Eddie Falcone who ceases to exist after graduating high school.

Except for one thing. Every place Agent Smith has ever lived, where he has been involved in undercover operations, the Falcone family has shown signs of resurgence, almost as if the Agent had magically cleared the way for Eddie Falcone to take over. Now show me a suspicious circumstance and I'll show you Agent Robert Smith.

And since I'd hate to accuse a man of being a monster without proof, I'll just have to find some.

* * * * *

"The lab is on the last hallway to the left."

<"Umm...there are, like, people in there?">

"Just walk in, and go to the back door in the room."


"Canary, trust me."


The door opens and then I hear the whuff of air as it closes behind her. The hum spinning centrifuges and the tinkling of glass against counters is apparent over the speakers.

<"I'm in the room.">

"Okay, how are the samples filed, alphabetically or numerically?"


I suppress the burst of irritation I feel at the propensity of her generation to make simple statements into questions. "The order number is 000-20031214-0138-TM."

Two minutes and forty-three seconds later after much humming and hawing of numbers Dinah exclaims, "Okay, here it is!" The cold locker hisses its release of frigid gases. "Wow, that's cold." Another minute later, she has palmed a vial of blood and shuts the door on the refrigerator.

>>Hey! What're you doing back here?<<

<"...Aaaah...I'm the new nurse intern?"> While it could be a valid reason for her presence in the hospital given how young Dinah looks, somehow I don't think the authoritative voice that has challenged her is going to take her at her word the way her voice pitches up at the last word.

>>You're not allowed to be here<< the voice accuses.

"Liz Alrick," I prompt her.

<"Um...Liz Alrick? said that I should come down here and ask you guys to re-run some tests on a sample they took last night."> As I hear the hesitation in her voice, I wonder if we're ever going to be able to teach Dinah the art of subterfuge. While she can handle herself just fine on the streets, she cannot lie worth a damn.

>>Why are you in here?<<

But wonder of wonders, <"I just thought if I uh...pulled the sample and handed it over, it could you know go faster.">

>>That's not the way we do things here. Where's your order form?<<

<"She didn't give me one.">

>>God damn it! Wait here. Liz, from ER, you said?<<


The footsteps fade away and I hear the faint bips of a phone being dialled. "Canary," I say, "Run, now."

Chapter 31


Aww shit! This is embarrassing; Alfred had to come rescue me. Barbara's going to be so pissed off at me. I'm going to have to wear that ugly utility belt that she used to wear just so that I can have a gas mask for situations like this. Jesus! She's the one who said that the acid was for show - to convince Falcone that Oracle had to trash the place for a quick get away - that I wasn't actually going to have to go back in the room. Man! It feels like I got hit by a sledgehammer; and my lungs hurt. Even the oxygen mask isn't really helping my cough. I start to pull the mask off and feel the tug of an intravenous needle in the back of my hand. An I.V - nasty. Bet I get an earful over this. It's only when I take a deep breath and turn onto my back do I realise - the place smells all wrong, and the surface I'm lying on is too hard - that I am nowhere that I recognise.

"Mr. Falcone," I hear a voice say, "She's awake."

I bolt awake and look around the room. Two doors, windows are blacked out with drapes, and there's not one thing to let me know where I am or what kind of building. There are two guys near one door and the other one is unguarded. Well, wherever I am, the exit is through the two guys with the automatics. I strain to hear outside sounds for a clue but all I hear is nothing - expensive soundproofing.

I'm sitting on an examining table with eight men in the room. The room is sparsely but tastefully furnished - one of those avant garde, minimalist, Architecture Today interiors. It's a working space with the comforts of home. To my right is a workstation crammed with multiple computer screens with a leather executive chair sitting near it. In front of me is large desk, an old fashioned English one - probably early eighteenth century I think absently - rosewood, if I'm not mistaken. Must have cost at least a hundred thou, easy. And behind the desk, dressed in a sober blue silk shirt is Mr. Falcone.

Falcone. Oh...this is more embarrassing than having Alfred come rescue me. Waayyy more embarassing.

I focus on Falcone's very familiar looking face. I shake my head minutely to jog my memory.

"Welcome to the land of the living Ms. Beddoes. May I call you Amy? You've been such a hard woman to track down." Amy? What the hell? Oh yeah, that's the alias under which Barbara rented the suites for the mini-Delphi.

And then I remember where I've seen Falcone. "Agent Smith."

"Right first time." His voice is a cultured baritone, a paternal rumble like an old time radio newsreader. "Very good, Amy. Or shall I say, Oracle."

Then again, I never did have a thing for paternal figures in my life. I pull the I.V out and watch the little bubble of blood trickle down the back of my hand as I burst out in laughter. Holy shit! This guy thinks I'm Oracle. I guess Barbara's plan worked after all - kind of. I focus again and then realise why I'm freaked out by the silence. I don't hear anything in my ear. Not even static. "Oh shit..." I chuckle, as I bring my hand to my chest. Hopefully it looks to him like I'm holding back my hysterically nervous, girly laughter. I'm actually checking for the transmitter. And don't you know it - it's not there. "Ohhh....shit!"

"Yes. It is quite the dilemma for you, isn't it? Especially as you've gone to so much trouble to evade me. But it seems you have a soft spot for law enforcement personnel. And my gamble was correct. You stayed to help the poor helpless agents. You don't have much of an opinion of them do you."

"No. No I don't." Not if they let scumbags like him into the agency. Suddenly it all makes sense. Of course he was able to manipulate the FBI information, he's one of their stars.

"Yes, I gathered. Breaking the law on one hand," he waves his right hand. "And turning in criminals," he waves his left hand, "on the other - very hypocritical. It doesn't endear me to you."

"Yeah, well, screw you Falcone. I'm not here to make you happy." Slowly I ease myself off the bench and glare at the four assholes who train their guns on me. When I move my head I feel how sore it is. I feel the back of my neck - there are two little bumps. That's right, the fucker tasered me. In the head. Cocky bastard. He could have killed me.

"Be that as it may, I suspect that you will not like it if I am unhappy with you." My legs feel a little wobbly when I stand up. "Anyway, I've got someone who's dying to meet you," he snickers. I really don't get what's so funny. He points to a kid near the door. "Get Vince in here."

Out of the corner of my eye I see the kid reach for the radio on hi belt and start to click it before he stops and steps out of the room. A moment later he re-enters and nods at Falcone. No wonder there's not even static on my receivers; there are no radio signals in the room - what a paranoid bastard. But then again, it's worked for him all these years. That's going to be problem with Barbara finding me - but not impossible. She'll figure it out eventually. I just have to stall until she can or until I can get out of here.

I flex my hands and notice how soft and rubbery they feel. I focus on my hands as I study the layout of the room, and silently thank him for confirming my theory about the door. But the feeling is weird - like I'm made of jelly. I shouldn't be feeling like this. Of course, the I.V, he's probably got it loaded with horse tranqs or something - I look at it balefully.

"Yes," he says, noticing my gaze. "I'm afraid I've had to take some protective measures what with your..." he is distracted by the sound of the door opening. I turn to look as well and notice a nervous four-eyed geek being led into the room. "Well, here you go, Vince. Meet your hero. I must say she's a pretty one."

I don't think I care for the way he says 'pretty'. It makes me feel slimy. The geek walks up to me with his hand outstretched. "It's a pleasure to meet you. A real pleasure."

"So, Vince," he waves his hand and a burly guy behind me steps out and to the side, "did you figure out what she did that froze your computers?"

"No," Vince turns his head, "It's amazing this program. It's like a virus...I mean a real one, with mutating code. Every time I try to attack while it's running, it re-configures itself. It's beautiful..."

"You'll forgive Vince, Oracle. He's a little bit of a geek. So am I, but not like he is."

I eye Vince suspiciously. So this is the guy who made Barbara break out the one-year old tub of mint-chocolate chip. Feeling my inspection of him, he turns back to me. "I heard you had to burn your rig. I'm sorry." The really pathetic thing is, he really is sorry. "I have a set up here. I think you'll find it's very versatile, very powerful. I'd love to talk to you about your code - it's so..." he brings four curled fingers up to his thumb and bobs his hand. I see Falcone following Vince's every action with his eyes and wonder if I could use the geek as a hostage to break out. He seems very interested in the guy

"I'm sorry to interrupt your own private DefCon here," Falcone cuts in. "But, Vince," he asks musically, "now that she's here. Be honest now. Would you say she's a better hacker than you?"

Vince nervously fingers the side of his spectacle frame and dips his head. "Well, Mr Falcone, I'd have to say she is. I still haven't been able to crack her miner either. But now that she's here..."

Falcone raises his hand in a shooing gesture, and before I can blink a hole appears in Vince's throat with a bang.

"Thank you Jeffrey," he says to the man who just shot him. "No point having him around if he can't fix it, is there?" he says to me

I brush at the spray of blood on my chest in shock. The two guys near the door come to drag Vince's body away. I watch their progress across the room and weigh my desire to be out of the room against the wobbly feeling in my limbs. I have no real idea how slow I'll be but I think I can make a run for it when they open the door. All I need to do is get out. Then later I can come back and kick his ass. In any case he'll still be barking up the wrong tree about who Oracle is.

"Well, perhaps you can fix the complications you've created, Oracle." I sneer at Falcone as he smirks at me. Ten feet.

"In your dreams asshole." Five feet.

"You're being awfully non-compliant for someone who's got six guns trained on her." they stop to adjust the weight of his body.

Two feet. "Fuck you."

His hand is on the handle. "Such language." The handle clicks open.


I slam my elbow into burly Jeffrey's throat and coil my body for the surge of speed that will take me to the door before anyone can draw a breath.

"By the way, I wouldn't recommend that."

I take two long strides and go down like a sack of potatoes as my muscles stop responding. The bulldog Jeffrey is on me in a flash and places a nice vicious kick to my kidneys.

"I told you I had to take a few precautionary measures. You kept reviving extremely quickly," Falcone keeps blathering on.

Even as I flip around to kick the goon, he intercepts my knee and presses a taser into my upper thigh. The setting is high enough to travel in a giant wave through my body, and I flop like a fish. Through the painful haze I can feel the cool liquid pouring into my veins and everything becomes just a little hazier as I turn on my side to face Falcone.

"So what do you say, Oracle? Play nice and I'll let you live."

What a lying creep. Well he can play as not nice as he wants but as long as he thinks I'm Oracle, Barbara is safe. And as long as she's safe, she can find a way to find this guy. So, "Fuck you," I say to him, "and the dog you rode in on."

The creep pulls a dull metallic Zippo from his left breast pocket and delicately lights a cigarette that his lackey hands him. He takes a long hissing, orgasmic suck on the cigarette before turning to me. He twitches his head and two of his creeps haul me up by the armpits and toss me onto a chair across the table from him. Through the thickness of the drugs I can feel handcuffs, going around each of my wrists and ankles, and attaching to the heavy chair. He waves his hand regally and someone arrives with a screw gun and flanges. I can feel the vibrations from the drill travel all the way up from the floor and into the base of my skull - thirty two times. Once he's done, drill creep stands behind me and rocks my chair - it doesn't move.

"Thank you, Jeffrey," Falcone says. "Very kind. Good job." He takes another suck of his cigarette, and turns back to me. "I encourage you to test the integrity of your restraints and the fastening bolts. I understand that you might be feeling a little weak at the moment, but I think you'll be able to get a general idea of what I mean."

I sit and stare at him muzzily.

He lays his hand down on the table and says coldly, "I insist that you do."

I don't move.

He sighs petulantly and rolls his eyes. "Jeffrey, maybe you could assist our guest."

Jeffrey returns, without his drill but with a nightstick, and strikes me solidly in the chest with enough force to make me lose my breath and possibly crack my ribs; with enough force to throw a body out of the chair, but the chair doesn't budge. I struggle not to make a single sound but I make a minute gasp that I know Barbara couldn't have missed had I been wearing the transmitter necklace. It would drive her nuts and she'd ground me forever - never let me go out to anything ever again. She'd wrap me in cotton puffs and lecture me for the rest of my life. She'd quit. She'd never work as Oracle again. She'd make me buy gallons and gallons of mint chocolate chip ice-cream and she'd make Alfred buy gallons and gallons of mint chocolate chip and then eat all of it and then bitch and moan about how much weight she was putting on and I'd have to listen to her whine all day and all night. She'd wake up in the middle of the night to work out and make a lot of noise. Good thing I don't live at the clock tower anymore, but the poor kid - Dinah would turn into a mess. That little thought makes me giggle

"You find this amusing, Oracle?" That makes me laugh even more. I wouldn't know a slash dot from an alt escape. "Do you know how much it's cost me to find you?" he takes another hit of his cigarette. "Something like 9 million dollars." The guy next to him whispers in his ear. "Thank you Charlie, 9.13 million dollars. Not to mention the fact that I sustained millions and millions in losses from failed business enterprises.

"I fund the downfall of the Hawke empire and what happens - a big fat mess. I set Spitz up to hire the help he needs and what do I get - chaos. I fund Joker's crazy bitch and where does she end up - in the nut house. Where is my man Al Hawke - nobody seems to know. Everywhere I turn, I have problems. I have 17.8 million euros in a bank overseas that I can't use because I have been shut out of my own accounts. That's something in the order of 22 million dollars, US.

"The Capellinis won't work with me in New York. The Rourkes won't work with me in Seattle. The Jefferson Boys in Detroit don't trust me in anymore. Forget Metropolis." He crushes his cigarette out on the table. "That fucking underoo-wearing fag makes my life hell anyway. You can maybe understand my distress, here.

"I had such high hopes of Hawke - he was always so cool and collected. But he got so emotional about the Canary bitch and ruined it all in the process. So, I hired Vince to trace him. I ran into a blank wall so clean that it might as well not be there. So I leaned on the little spectacular nerd there," he points to the bloody stain on the floor, "and he tells me of this mythical creature, this...Oracle they call this entity. So I asked him to find Oracle.

"So here we are, 9.13 million dollars later," he waves his hand to indicate the machinery surrounding us, "with all these lovely, expensive computers, and just you."

Fuck! Why do all the bad guys always have to be egotistical and full of hot air? He's been going on forever - and it's not helping my headache.

"I must say, though, I've always pictured Oracle as a slightly more homely and inathletic individual, but Charlie tells me...Have you met Charlie? Charlie here is my Man Friday and my accountant. Say hello Charlie."

Charlie nods dutifully, and says, " Hello." And then it's back to the never-ending monologue.

"Charlie tells me that you're one of those mutant freaks."

"Meta-human, you fuck head," I growl at him as menacingly as I can and lunge at him. He sighs and looks at Jeffrey who hits me again.

"Meta, muta - it's all the same to me. You're a disease." He leans jovially onto the table with both his crossed elbows. "So let me tell you what your situation is: no one knows where you are. None knows who you are. Your natural tendency for privacy made it easy for my boy there to erase or alter much of you electronic information. There is no one looking for you, there is no one who cares. You are at my disposal until you help me get control of all the funds I've lost access to. And you're going to hack the Interpol database and remove all reference to me. And you are going to track down your miner software and disable it. If you don't I'm going to kill you." I open my mouth to tell him to fuck off. He holds his palm out in a stilling gesture. "Anh ah, I'm not done," he smiles. "Let me finish. If you can't do what I've asked you to, you're going to find a way, or I'm going to kill you. But first," he leans in and lowers the pitch and carry of his voice, "I'll torture you. I will fuck with your head. I will fuck with your body. And then I'll fuck you. It's going to hurt." His smile is conspiratorial and amused. "And you're not going to enjoy it. At all." He leans back. "I leave your future in your hands." He purses his lips and raises his eyebrows at me to ask what I'm going to do.

I have to give him credit. He doesn't flinch when I spit a mouthful of blood and mucus at him. He doesn't even look down at where it trickles down his face and onto his expensive hand sewn silk shirt. He simply holds his hand out to his lapdog who gives him a handkerchief that he uses to wipes the spit off his face before blotting his shirt.

He sucks the air in through his teeth a couple of times before he hands the hanky back and speaks. "I must admit that I was hoping you would want to do this hard way. The sound of screaming always was a turn on for me." He pushes his chair backwards and crosses calf over his left thigh. I hear the roll of wheels as something heavy comes to sit behind my back. Cold bands wrap around my head, crushing my skull. And then something heavy and large slips over the top of my head - like a helmet. I'm starting to understand why Dinah might have been a little freaked out when she first met us. Barbara's neural scanner is kinda like the get up he's got on me. The Jeffrey creep presses a button and I jump in my chair from the little jolt that buzzes around and inside my head. I hate to say this but that fucking hurts...really hurts. And if he can ratchet that thing up any higher than this I don't know how long I can hold out. But I keep telling myself it's only a little while - because he's wrong. Someone does know who I am and she's going to find me. And she's going to give him the ass kicking of his life.

The burly bastard holds out the control pad to psycho Falcone, who licks his lower lip and shakes his head. "You do the honours, Jeffrey. I do so like to watch."

Chapter 32


Tuesday, December 17, Early Evening
Richard Grayson's Apartment

"Barbara?" To say that he is surprised to see me at his door is an understatement. He's shocked, amazed, flabbergasted.


He notices the fidgety girl behind me. "Oh, hi Dinah."


"What are you g...I mean, come in. Come in."


"Holy surprise house guests!" he exclaims once he has the door locked. Quickly, he runs around picking up his discarded clothes where they are strewn across the furniture. "Why didn't you tell me you were coming?"

I point Dinah to what seems like an appropriate corner to put down the luggage. "It was a spur of the moment thing."

"Okay," he responds, still too shocked to ask me what I am doing here. I pull the file out of the side pocket of my chair and hand it to him. He opens the folder and flips through the contents. "What's this?"

"It's a genetic assay for a certain Agent Robert Smith of the FBI..."

"Babs, I can s..."

"I've compared it with an assay of a sample of Carmine Falcone's blood. There is a 87.3% probability that Carmine Falcone is Agent Smith's father." Before he can open his mouth to interrupt me, I continue, "I've also attached an analysis of all the operations he's been involved in and compared it with the approximate timing of the ascendance of the Falcone organisation in each of those cities. The observations are quite astonishing. Dinah was also able to find me an actual photocopy of the Edward Michael Falcone's birth records in hospital archives. The certificate has footprints of the baby Falcone. It could come in handy."

He studies the documents I've provided him with great consternation and excitement, "Does this have anything to do with the technical problem you said you were having last week?" I nod. "This is amazing. This means we can..." Finally something in his expression clicks. "Where's uh...?"

"I don't know," I say. "But I think he has her."

* * * * *

Tuesday, December 17. Late night.
1237 Classon Terrace

The infrared images of the main structure in the compound compile on my screen from Nightwing's portable unit. "Now do a slow scan." The images flicker and change as he complies. I see the distribution of several person shaped flames, but not the distinct heat signature that Helena's high metabolism should give off. "I need you to try the lower floor."

I follow the rustling of boot steps and fabric as he tries to get a better view. <"Kinda like old times, hanh?"> he asks as he tries to settle into position.

"Kinda," I reply.

<"Only this time maybe I'll actually do what you tell me?"> he chuckles. I can just picture the brilliant even-toothed smile.


<"Not much for talking today, are you?">

"No." I've got other things on my mind. "Do you have a position yet?"

My curt answers clues him in to my absence of humour in this situation. <"I'm sorry Oracle, but I can't find a good angle. I try to get any lower and I'll probably have a few guns and a couple of dogs on me.">

"Canary?" I prompt.


"Do you think you could give Nightwing a hand?"

<"Umm...I can try.">

"See if you can't use the trees for cover. If you get tired you could set down in one of the branches."

Dick's uncertain hum comes over the speakers as Dinah slowly shuffles her way into visual contact with the infrared imaging module. <"Oracle?">

"Watch and learn, Nightwing."

The smooth tracking motion of the images lets me know that the camera is now airborne. "Excellent," I congratulate Dinah.

<"Holy hands-free imaging!">

<"Look ma,"> Dinah says with a small smile of triumph in her voice, <"no hands!">

"Very good, Canary. There's no one in the front of the house, can you track left?"

It's a while before she answers me, and when she does her voice is full of strain. <"I don't know if...if I can't see it, I don't think that I can..."

"As far as you can," I assure her. "Just a couple of feet."

And a couple of feet is all I need. I feel a burst of triumph when the edge of the screen shows a hot flare sandwiched between two cooler flames moving into another room. I start the program that dials into 911 and lets the local fire and police departments know that there is huge fire at 1237 Classon Terrace. The triumph bleeds into worry when I realise the bright spot that is Helena is not moving of her own volition. "Got her," I let them know. "You can bring the camera back in."

Dinah's sigh of relief as Dick packs up the equipment is very clear. <"All right, Oracle. Time to rock and roll.">

I hear him shrug off the shoulder pack as Dinah hands him the explosives for the next part of this rescue operation. I wait until the sound of his footsteps no longer echoes off Dinah's transmitter, and switch frequencies to a private channel. A minute later, the sound of grenades going off lets me know the plan is proceeding apace. "Dinah," I say. "Be ready." The scanner lets me know that Ladder 27 is already responding.

<"Oracle?"> she asks hesitantly. <"Are you sure this is a good idea?">

I slip on the heads up display unit and check its functions. All systems are nominal. "Probably not," I say as I slide the van door open and step out onto the gravel. But sometimes a woman has to do what she must.

* * * * *

I aim the tranquilliser pistol at the large Doberman bounding towards me. A squeeze of the trigger later, the animal goes down with a yelp. The grenades have done their jobs - carefully placed to hit the gas lines they have started a huge fire in the compound that is probably visible for miles around in the city. The police helicopters are keeping their distance in an effort not to fan the flames.

One flick of a bat-a-rang knocks out a guard with an automatic weapon, leaving the entrance to the building clear. As I step over the unconscious body, I can't help feeling a little disappointed. This is too easy. I want there to be a little more resistance. But I suppose this means that everything is going according to plan, for once. From the shouts and random bursts of gunfire, I can tell Dick is doing an excellent job of being visibly annoying while Dinah is fouling up their attempts to stop him. I follow the hallway past the kitchen and the rec room. I don't even need the map that flashes inside the field of my vision. I have memorised it off the screen from inside the van.

I pick up the sound of voices raised in anger at the end of hallway, followed by the sound of a door slamming. I duck inside one of the doors to avoid the footsteps running in my direction. Outside the oak panelled door I kneel down to peer into the keyhole. Five men, including one grey suit. When Nightwing calls to let me know that the police are on their way, I whisper an acknowledgement and ignore his puzzlement when he wonders why I am whispering.

The sensation of knees flexing as I reach for the gas grenade on my utility belt makes me dizzy. The long unfamiliar familiar sensation combined with Dick's voice in my ear strips away all sensation of temporal awareness. For a second I am thrown back in time. And any second now I expect Robin to come crashing through the walls with the Batmobile while Batman admonishes him for his reckless behaviour. What mission is this? Joker? Penguin? Two-face? I shake my head to clear the sudden dizziness. Huntress, I have come to rescue Helena. And the man in the grey suit inside that room knows where she is.

I shoot the sentry inside the door with a tranquilliser and toss the smoke grenade into the room. Anything that moves in that room becomes a target. I strike each blow precisely - I have no time for do-overs or room for finesse. Each action is a brute force blow struck by my baton. I feel no guilt for the sound of breaking bone or the screams of pain. Today, I am not only invincible but I am also impermeable. My progress through the room is a straight line of violence until my gloves close around the collar of the Eddie Falcone.

His eyes widen at the sight of my mask and cape. "Impossible," he breathes out.

"I thought we told you to stay out of our town."

"You're a fucking ghost," he spits. "You're not real." The back of his fist against my face barely fazes me. I am riding high on adrenaline and the painkillers I need to wear the neural coupler for any length of time.

I pull another original bat-a-rang from my belt and flash it in front of his face. "I'm very real, Eddie."

His eyes narrow in hate as he hisses, "You're very dead is what you are, bitch." The impact of the bullet to my stomach throws me away from him. And while the armour plating absorbs the force of the bullet, the point blank blow is painful enough to be crippling. Especially when the neural coupler hits the floor with a small crunch of electronic circuitry. The buzzing static on the HUD faithfully displays a damage report as random electrical pulses run up and down and my back in excruciating spikes, forcing the breath from my lungs.

"You're pathetic," he says as he points the gun at me. "You're not even him."

But I have had enough of a lifetime of guns being pointed at me; and having ended one life at the barrel of gun, I am not scared at all. I look him square in the eyes as he flexes his finger. He does not even see the stylised metal bat logo that hits his throat. His knees hit the floor with a dull popping sound as his hands convulse reflexively around his throat.

Screaming silently from the pain, I lever my body off the floor. Forcing my legs to obey the errant impulses being generated by the transponder, I walk over to Eddie Falcone. I push my fingers around the cracked bones in throat and release the pressure on his trachea. The relief that flashes in his eyes when he realises that I'm not going to kill him makes me sick to my stomach, especially when I consider that he probably never gave any consideration to all the people he killed. I enjoy the sound of his head bouncing off the floor when I drive my fist into his temple. I hope he enjoys his concussion.

* * * * *

Each step I take is like a blow to my back. It's a cross between an electrical shock and a kick to my kidneys. Maybe Dinah is right; this is perhaps not such a good idea. Certainly Helena isn't going to be amused by it. I run my eyes over the medical equipment in the room. There is an examination bench with a discarded IV apparatus, the bag hanging limply from the pole. Three feet in front of it is a bloodstain. Fervently hoping that none of it Helena's, I look around for another door. To my left. Pushing the pain to some remote corner of my brain, I stagger the ten or so feet to the door and push it open.

The dizzy sensation I felt when I entered this room returns ten fold. And if I wasn't scared when Falcone pointed the gun at me, I am now. The sound that greets me is a sound that has haunted my dreams. For years it was the sound that haunted my waking moments. The hot spill of fear and pain in the centre of my belly is as fresh today as the night I felt myself bleed to death on the floor of my apartment.

And despite all the strength of will marshalling my control of the damaged technology that is keeping me on my feet, the sound of unceasing, mindless maniacal laughter finally drives me to my knees.

* * * * *

Dinah is the first one to reach me where I have collapsed. When the grisly scene before me heaves violently, I realise that she is shaking me. All sensation of time and pain return to me.

"Nightwing," I hear her scream. "I need your help."

If Dick is surprised to see me there when I am supposed to be in the van monitoring the entire operation, he doesn't show it. Efficiently he helps Dinah find the catches in the batsuit, and strip the coupler from my spine. Little by little I can feel the sensation subsiding from my lower limbs.

"NO! God Damn it, no!" I shout at Dick to put me down. "Get her. We have to get her out of here." All he does is tighten his grip on me. "Dinah," I order, "stop him."

"Barbara!" he yells in return. "Barbara, we can't take her. You know we can't. She needs medical attention." He blocks my arm smartly when I swing it at him. "Damn it how the hell are we going to explain her injuries in a hospital?"

I want to rage at him for thinking of something so banal as explaining injuries in a hospital; but it is finally Dinah's tearful voice that snaps me out of it. "Please, Barbara. There are ambulances here already."

I nod wearily at the two of them. Dick slips his arms under my shoulder and knees and we scramble off to wall separating this property from the next and make our way back to the van.

* * * * *

Friday, December 20
Marston County Hospital

As much as I hate the detective interviewing me right now, I am actually grateful to be away from Helena. The image of Helena, unconscious and restrained to her bed while the laughter spills helplessly from her is more than I can bear. It has been forty-eight hours already and the doctors still haven't been able to diagnose or treat her correctly. Dinah has seen more of Helena in the last two days than I have. But I simply cannot be in the same room as Helena right now. It's completely wrong and cowardly of me, but the it's the specific pitch and non-rhythm of laughter that the fits are causing to spill from Helena that have undone me. The deepest visceral part of me cannot help recall another person who laughed...laughs like that - mindlessly, without ceasing. In the meanwhile, the epileptic fits of laughter continue to ravage Helena's brain in cascading seizures.

"And you have no idea why someone would want to kidnap Ms. Kyle?" I shake my head wearily. "Why didn't you report it to the police?" This is the third time I have been questioned by the police.

"I did. I called Detective Dick Grayson." I have not slept in quite a few days.

"Of the Blüdhaven department. Why didn't you contact the NGPD?"

I surreptitiously adjust the cold pack icing the bruise on my back. "Because, she was here in Blüdhaven, when she dropped out of contact."

"You say you called Detective Grayson within twenty four hours of last contact?"

And I am starting to lose my good temper. "Look Detective, am I under investigation here? Like I told you, Helena has always been very good about keeping in touch with me when she goes on trips. I called Dick because he's a good friend of mine and knew he could do some unofficial checking because the PD won't file a report until 48 hours." I catch sight of the doctor treating Helena. "I don't know why she was there!"

My show of temper does not faze the detective one bit. "Why was she coming to Blüdhaven?"

I sigh impatiently. "To visit her brother, her adoptive brother." A 'fact' he'd know if he'd read his partner's notes.

"Who would be?"

"Detective Richard Grayson of the BPD." That catches his attention. Like all policemen he suddenly feels the urge to display sympathy now that he knows the victim is related to one of theirs.

"Ms. Gordon, are you telling you can't offer me any explanation about why the mob may be interested in enough in your friend to kidnap and torture her?"

Actually I do. It's because they thought she was me. "I don't know," I sigh. "Her mother was Selina Kyle." The detective's eyes go wide. "There was some tabloid talk that she was Catwoman. Certainly, she was a wealthy woman. They may have thought the daughter knew something about missing artefacts. I really don't know." When Helena's doctor finally reaches the waiting room, I shrug off the Detective. "Excuse me, I need to go speak to the doctor. If you're done, detective, I think her life is a little more important than your questions."

"Yeah," he mumbles, "I'd like to ask you to stick around for..."

I turn the frostiest gaze in my arsenal on him. "Am I under investigation?" she shakes his head. "Is Ms. Kyle?" he shakes his head. "Then we will leave as it seems feasible to us."

Quailing, he makes one last stab at authority, "My lieutenant may have more questions for you later."

I am not above a little name-dropping. "In that case your lieutenant can reach me in Gotham through my father. His name is *Commissioner* Gordon."

* * * * *

The panel of doctors looks alternately dismayed and confused. This is the fourth such meeting we've had.

"We really don't know Ms. Gordon. At this point we're keeping her in a medically induced coma. It's all we can do to prevent the worst effects of the seizures."

"We've never dealt with anything like this before. She's suffered major trauma to several major structures...the amygdala...the hypothalamus. She's showing lesions of the temporal lobe as well. The insult to the brain is fairly extensive."

"Each neural incident only compounds the damage. And even after thirty-six hours, we haven't found a way to stop them. They have lessened in intensity but they haven't stopped either. I think Ms. Gordon, without giving up hope, at this point we may have to seriously consider the fact that this may be a persisting condition. Even after lobotomy."

"No," I say. I know what they are trying to tell me. Despite her superficial assurance not to give up hope, that is exactly what she wants me to do. I run through all the motivational prods and I can deliver, and come up with the most obvious. "Money is no object."

"Ah...we realise that Ms. Gordon. We've been made fully aware of our patient's identity, but...We just don't have the expertise."

"Who does?"

"There are only a handful of doctors..."


The chief of neurosurgery hands me a printed list of seven names. "This is in no particular order, but I must let you know that some of them have packed schedules and at least one of them hasn't..." The third name on the list jumps out at me and I wonder why I haven't thought of it myself. "Do you have any objections if we fly her back home?"

They confer with each other visually, and then the chief shakes his head. "Thank you." I fold the sheet of paper and pass it back. "If you could convey the arrangements to Mr. Pennyworth, I have a phone call to make."

"Certainly, if you let me know, I'll have my secretary give you the numbers you need."

"That won't be necessary."

* * * * *

The doctor's voice is filled with breathless anticipation. "Lydda!"


Her tone becomes guarded and slightly suspicious. "I'm sorry, how did you get this..."

"...This is Barbara Gordon."

"Oh...Barbara Gordon?....Hi! How are you?"

"Laura, I need your help. Do you think you could fly down to New Gotham?"

* * * * *

Except for the odd grey hair speckling her black mane, Laura Reade looks exactly the same as she did almost four years ago. If I am not mistaken she is even wearing the same faded Lincoln green polo neck sweater she had on one of the last times we met.

When she emerges from the retractable passageway, she is juggling her bag, laptop and loose file folders, wrestling the loose sheets of papers back into her carry case with some great difficulty. She looks less like a weary professional taking the red-eye and more like a freshly harassed Buster Keaton. Finally, realising the effect her unaware clowning is having on her fellow passengers, she gives up and steps aside, allowing other sleepy and tired travellers behind her clear passage. After she has her papers under control, she conducts a visual sweep of the arrival lounge.

"Barbara!" she exclaims, on spotting our sombre welcome party.

"Laura," I respond.

I'm not sure what to make of her inscrutable and systematic inspection of me. When she meets my gaze, her eyes are serious. "I'm sorry." I wave her condolences away. "Are those for me?" she asks, pointing at the large manila envelope on my lap.

I nod. "Do you have any other luggage?"

She smiles apologetically, "Yes, one bag. It was too heavy to carry in the cabin."

A discreet presence steps up behind me and holds his hand out. "If the doctor would care to give me the ticket I can collect the luggage while you converse, Miss Barbara?"

"Thank you, Alfred," I say.

"I can get the bag," she protests. "It's not very big..."

"In that case," interjects Alfred, "I should not have any difficulty gathering the bag." His no nonsense tone indicates that he takes his duties very seriously indeed and any hindrance in the discharge of it would be insulting.

Laura recognises the tone and relents. "Ah, thank you, Alfred," she says fishing the luggage token out of her pocket. "That would be great."

She watches Alfred stride away before pointing at the films on my lap. Wordlessly, I hand them over to her. She pulls her glasses out of her pocket and puts them on before slipping the large scan out and turning it out into the light. "I got the images you transmitted on the plane. Thanks, it's a help to have a head start."

She is completely engrossed in her study of Helena's brain. "No," I say as the film rustles with a steadying flick of her wrist. "Thank you for coming out at such short notice."

Laura's head jerks short and she puts the scans away. She looks around for a second when she finds what she is looking for she points to a quiet corner with a potted plant. I follow her as she takes a seat on the edge of the concrete pot. When she is seated she looks at me again with her serious and inscrutable gaze. "Tell me exactly what happened."

* * * * *

Monday, December 23. Late night.
Wayne Memorial Hospital
New Gotham

We stand and sit respectively in the observation for what seems like the millionth hour. Dinah is trying her best to hide her dismay and discomfort at Helena's condition but the question gives her away. "Barbara, why won't she stop laughing?"

Laura replies for me as she places her glasses on her face. "She's in pain." Dinah's face is pale with worry and incomprehension when she turns to Laura. "As far as I can determine she seems to be suffering from an extreme form of pain asymbolia." This time I turn to look at Laura as well. She shrugs under the weight of my stare as she slips both her hands under her glasses to wipe her watering eyes. As she is massaging her eyes, she lets out a jaw-cracking yawn. The glasses fall back onto her face with a click of the rests hitting her nose. "Sorry," she says, as she pushes the glasses up her nose. "Long night."

"No need to apologise," I say. Laura Reade hasn't left the hospital in the three days she's been here. She came to leave her bags at the clock tower and catch a nap but when she caught sight of me sitting outside on the cold balcony she rousted me out of the apartment and drove down here.

Tossing the scans onto the floor, she flops leadenly onto the armchair in the observation room. "It's just...I don't know, Barbara. I don't know how to fix this. I need to keep her sedated to handle the pain; but if I keep her sedated she's going to fall asleep and she has sleeping tonic-clonic seizures. If I kept her sedated I'd be able to control the electrical discharges. But I can't keep her sedated all the time - I need to observe the symptoms to figure it out. But the longer I leave her like this the more damage I'm risking. And the longer I leave her sedated, the less time I have to diagnose her safely, the longer she stays like this, the longer the epileptic episodes run, the more damage we're risking. And the epilepsy drugs won't work on her at normal doses - the more of it use, the more I have to keep using." She throws her head into the back of the chair. "And the doses - oh my god the dosage of any drug I have to use on her. I know it's her metabolism...but I'm just not comfortable doing it." She takes her glasses off with a huff, tucks them in the pocket of her white coat and presses the heels of her hands into her eyes. "Am I making sense? Tell me if I've stopped making sense."

Dinah beats me to the reassurance. "No, it sorta makes perfect sense. I get it."

"Good. Because I'm not sure that I do."

In the silence we watch Helena convulsing against the restraints on the bed. Her bunched fist bucks in an upward motion and brings a red band of abrasion in contact with the tight grip of the straps. I hiss in sympathy and revulsion. She hates it. She hates being caged or restrained - it's the thing guaranteed to drive her nuts. "Do you have to..." I start but hold myself back when I hear the accusation in my tone. Laura's doing everything she can. "Can't we do something about the restraints, they've got to be hurting her."

Laura drags a tired hand down her face and laughs. The laugh is hollow and ironic as she puts her glasses back on. "I tried a little experiment on her. I tried to wrap her in a warm blanket." Laura directs her gaze at me. "I got one of the nurses to find me a little velveteen blanket from paediatrics. The kind she likes," she says with a throwaway gesture of her right hand. I nod - hedonistic Helena loves her velvet blankets, she still has the one her mother gave her when she was four. She likes to stroke the soft velvet fur as she's sleeping, or sometimes when she's just sitting there staring into nothing - those fingers run over the nap, bristling and soothing the fibres. "I took a fluffy corner of the blanket and rubbed it against her hand - that got me a pain response."

"What?" It takes me a second to realise that even though I'm thinking the word, the exclamation is actually Dinah's.

"Yes..." Laura continues. "So, just for fun, I thought I'd apply a little supra-orbital pressure." She demonstrates the pressure of her thumbs on the bony ridge above the eyes of her own face for Dinah's benefit. "That calmed her down." She responds to Dinah's puzzled look. "It seems like your girl has a serious issue with pain right now. Her responses to pain and pleasure stimuli are a little scrambled. It seems as if the discomfort of the restraints is somewhat ...comforting to her." She laughs bitterly again and stands up with the scans in her hand. The sound of it grates on my nerves - it's too much especially now that I know that laughter is the sound of Helena's pain.

On the lit up wall panels, the patterns of alternating translucence and opacity are like a falling sensation of dja vu. I have been here before with Laura, in a room exactly like this one - only for some reason I'm more scared now than I had been back then when we thought she might die. She must sense my distance because she addresses her lecture to Dinah. "See that little spot?" she gestures with her pen as I turn away.

"That's the temporal lobe lesion that's keeping her under." She taps her pen against another film. "And then this - see how it's all lit up indicating generalised brain-wide electrical activity? That's one of her seizures."

I hear the rustle and snap of another film being placed on the light panel. "Now take a look at this - this is from three years ago. See the difference in brain activity?" Dinah must have nodded because I don't hear her voice. Then comes the sound of tapping again. "Now see this - this is the first scan they took before Barbara got me down here. And this is an image two days later, the day I arrived."

"It's different."

"Can you tell me what's different?"

"I'm...I think it's...I mean just a little maybe, but it's smaller?"

"Good eye. I've got residents who couldn't spot it."

"But, over here...there's..." Dinah's hesitant voice trails off.

"That's what I'm talking about. I know we can get a handle on this - I can see right here that the lesions can abate. But all this electrical activity here is setting her back - there's as much damage being created as there is healing."

When all I can hear is the silence I turn back from my observation of Helena to see Laura glaring mournfully at the films while Dinah scrunches her brows in intense concentration - almost as if they were willing a solution to appear. Dinah's intense concentration on the task makes her appear very grown up. Despite her youthful complexion, the gaunt lines that worry and a lack of sleep have created on her face make her appear to be Doctor Reade's peer.

Dinah reaches out a finger bleached pale in the fluorescent light of the display panel. "This over here, how come you've circled it?"

Laura re-adjusts her glasses and steps closer to peer at the film that Dinah indicates. "That's her amygdala."

"Oh. Yeah. 'Course."

"Of course?" Laura asks when she hears the knowing tone in the girl's voice.

"Dinah had a close run in with Helena's amygdala a while back," I explain.

"Oh?" Laura's expression turns hawkish.

"She was drugged - with a rage enhancer," I explain, thinking back to Malcolm Lagg's twisted death matches.

She shots me a look of bewildered expectation. "Somebody thought she needed a rage enhancer?" Her expression, coupled with the memory of Alfred's similarly wry observation, draws a reluctant laugh out of me. "How did you bring her down from it?"

I feel Dinah's aggrieved expression even before I hear her voice. "I had to stand around getting my ass kicked until we could get another dose into her and I could shake some sense into her."

"If I recall, Dinah, you were under the influence yourself. And you did more than shake her." That makes her blush.

"Over-stimulation desensitisation, hmmh! Risky...but clever. I'm going to assume you didn't have much time to figure out if there was a neuro-chemical blocker you could use."

I look at Dinah. "Well, the timing was a critical issue."

She follows my gaze to look the girl, as well. "Worked out okay for you, then?" Dinah nods. Laura takes a deep breath and leans her head against the wall. "Well, that's it then."

"Excuse me?" I ask.

"I've been wondering what that is. I thought it...maybe it was a hangover from the poisoning three years ago, but this makes sense." She looks up and reaches into her inside pocket to pull out a chocolate bar. The crackling rip resounds in the small room. She considers something as she leans back against the wall and chews on her bar. "I knew there was something odd. I'm sorry, I just didn't think to ask if she'd collected even more injuries. Maybe you should think about getting someone else in on this, I may have reached the end of my rope. If the amygdaloid nucleus is all messed up as well...I don't know what to say. Obviously that's why the neuronal impulses are being misinterpreted during signal processing, but there's really nothing I can do. I don't know who knows enough about its functioning to specifically target cell clusters. You'd probably be able to find better doctors with your family connections."

"No," I say.

"Maybe I could ask around in Metropolis see if the man in blue can't help out."



"No. You know her. You know her history. You've studied her before. I want you to take care of her."

"Barbara, I understand that you feel comfortable with me but you may need a better specialist."

"You are the specialist."

"But I don't know what to do."

"Of course you don't. You need sleep. You can't think creatively if you're sleep deprived. Lets think about it tomorrow morning."

She lets out an undignified snort. "I'd say the same for you two. You've been up longer than I have."

"Yeah," Dinah chimes in. "She hasn't slept in, like, days. From the first day Helena went out of contact to when we found her in the...I mean..." she pulls up short and then cocks her head at Laura. "You know about ...don't you? Batman, Batgirl, meta-humans, the whole deal?"

"I'm afraid I do."

"How come?"

"I have an interest in human mutations and...exotic, shall we say, genotypes." The beeping of her watch interrupts her. She looks at her watch and then at the observation window. "Hang on, it's time to sedate her. Barbara?"


"Maybe you're right. We all need some sleep. There's nothing more we can do here." She waits for me to say something. "Barbara! There's nothing more. The nurses will page me if there's a problem. I need some sleep. And I'm prescribing some for you as well. Don't make me restrain you."

"Lets go," I reply to her very reasonable request. But my heart isn't in it. I feel like I'm betraying Helena by going home to a warm bed and the hot food I know Alfred has prepared. He has been expecting a guest, after all. I start to pick up my coat and scarf as Laura goes into Helena's room to administer her sedative and tranquillisers. Maybe I don't actually have to sleep in a warm bed or eat the food. I know it's illogical to deprive myself when it won't help Helena in any way, but I can't help it.

* * * * *

Tuesday, December 24. Morning
Clock Tower

The silence at the breakfast table is strained. Outside, Christmas has settled on the city in joyful cheer. I've barely noticed the holidays in the last two weeks. But our guest has. The enamelled metalled brooch of holly leaves, with the inset ruby berries are an incongruous dash of colour. It's odd to have someone other than the four of us in here. Every other time a stranger has been introduced to this space, it has ended badly. Also it's a little hard to ignore the feeling of doom and failure that hangs all over us. Laura has been unusually quiet the whole morning, and Dinah and I have already had an argument over my insistence that she fulfil her commitment to spend Christmas dinner with her friend Gabby. I told her that I didn't want her to give up all semblance of a normal life, but found myself being accused of treating her like a child.

Laura is sitting at the table looking uncomfortable. I'm sure she can sense the tension - she's very perceptive. I watch Laura eat her breakfast and it occurs to me that she has quite an amazing appetite. The same thought must occur to Alfred as he serves her an omelette on the heels of her two large pancakes.

His smile is at once superior and conspiratorial. "If you'll pardon my saying so Doctor Reade. But it's quite wonderful to see a hearty appetite." I knew he'd find a way to make a dig about how little we've been eating this past week. "It's quite commendable. The only other person in this household who eats this much is..."

"Miss Helena, I'm sure," Laura finishes for him.


"I imagined so. And please, call me Laura."

"Very well, Miss Laura."

When she doesn't blink at being addressed as Miss Laura I remember that she comes from money and is probably used to this sort of thing while I still find it a trifle jarring - like I'm playing pretend. "You're welcome," she says and returns to the genteel demolition of her omelette.

The only sounds for the next few minutes are the sound of Laura's knife and fork against the china, Dinah's sulking, and the desultory stirring of the spoon in my tea.

Suddenly, Dinah sucks in a breath and sits up. "You know Superman."

"Pardon?" Laura looks up from her breakfast.

", you know Superman. Last night. You said you'd ask around Metropolis and maybe the man in blue could help out. You were talking about Superman."

"Umm ...yes. I...I do know him," she says while dabbing at her lips with the napkin.

"That's awesome!" Dinah says brightly as her eyes shine with hero-worship. It's amazing how her moods can swing from one extreme to another - not unlike my previous ward I remind myself. "How'd you meet him? Do you know a lot of superheroes? Do you know all of them?"

The barrage of enthusiasm takes Laura aback with a laugh. "Well, I...know a lot of superheroes, certainly, not all of them. I know them because many of them are meta-humans, or, as in the case of Superman, extra-terrestrials, and like I said last night I have a special interest in interesting genes."

"You're a meta-doctor?" Dinah always did have a flair for naming things.

"Yes," says Laura with a smile, "in more ways than one."

"You're meta-human too? Cool."

"Too?" she turns to me with chiding eyebrows. "Barbara, you've been entirely remiss in introducing me to your family. You can't just expect me to assume that your entire family is meta-human," she jokes. "These things tend to skip generations, you know."

"Not always," Dinah says glumly. And I start to get apprehensive.

"What do you mean?"

"My mom's meta. Maybe you knew her?"

"You refer to her in the past tense, is she umm...passed away?"

"Yeah," Dinah slumps a little, but otherwise appears remarkably unaffected. This makes me very sad and irrationally happy at the same time. Sad because she has lost her mother, but happy because it means Helena and I are helping her adjust to her mother's loss. "Black Canary..."

When Laura starts to cough and sputter while choking on her last piece of omelette I get anxious. Her eyes are wide when she clears her throat and asks, "Black Canary? Black Canary's your mother?" Surreptitiously she meets my eye and I shake my head as unobtrusively as possible. Laura returns her face to a mask of neutral interest and responds to Dinah's hopeful expression. "Yes." She clears her throat. "I met her a couple of times. When I was starting out as a doctor. She had emm...ahem...laryngitis." She takes a drink of water. "But that was a long time ago." After studying Dinah intently for a few moments she speaks. "So you're the reason she dropped out of sight all those years ago." The ruffled expression on Dinah's face gives away her curiosity and Laura continues. "She was in bad shape." She looks to me to ask how much she can reveal. I silently let her know that it's fine. "Hawke..." Dinah's face tightens for a second, "...Did quite a number on her. Personally I didn't know if she'd ever be able to work again. It was pretty bad - lost her cry, some broken bones. But then she dropped out of sight for a while. That's the last I ever met her." Dinah nods, hungrily grasping on to this little piece of information while tucking her hair behind her ear. "So did you inherit her abilities?" Dinah shakes her head and instead of describing her powers, demonstrates instead. Her glass of water rises to her mouth before she grasps it and takes a drink. "Impressive. Much more fun than mine."

"What can you do?" Dinah asks, and it's now Laura's turn to demonstrate. In fact I'm curious too. While I have always known that Laura is a meta-human, I have never seen any manifestation of her abilities - all I know is that she is an unusually sensitive and excellent neurosurgeon.

She reaches into her jacket, pulls out a mini flashlight and quickly divests it of the AAA cells and bulb. She turns to me. "Do you mind if I use you as a guinea pig?"

I take a breath and hold it before I say, "No."

As I push away my mug of tea she continues, "Don't worry, I've done this a thousand times, it's perfectly safe." She arranges the batteries on the table, in front of me, touching positive to negative just like they would in the body of the flashlight. She twirls the tiny bulb around her fingers and offers the copper prongs of its contacts to me with a mischievous smile. "All right, hold this, just the metal part between your thumb and forefinger. Good. Now, just...umm close the circuit...with your..." She nods approvingly when I close the thumb and middle finger of my left hand around the exposed terminals of the conjoined batteries. "That's right, excellent," she says and nods one last time. "That's it."

Nothing happens.

"Is something supposed to happen?" Dinah asks in an uncertain voice.

"No," Laura smiles with a flip flourish of her eyebrows, "Absolutely nothing. Just establishing the control here. Barbara would you agree that nothing happened?"

"I would say that."

"Now don't move." She holds out her hand and indicates my wrist. "May I?" When I nod, her fingers close around the bones of my joint. I study her face to get an idea of what she is trying to accomplish. A few seconds later she winks and bobs her head to indicate my right hand - the tiny bulb is glowing at full strength.

Dinah's jaw has fallen in an ungainly yet completely expressive slackening of surprise. "How did you do that?"

Laura's hand withdraws from my wrist and she answers. "I changed the resistivity of her body by dropping the electric potential across her cells. That's what I do - I'm sensitive to electromagnetic fields.


"Not as much fun as yours but it's very useful in new places, I never get lost."

This time Dinah holds her palm up on the table and asks for Laura's hand in hers. "I've got another one."

"Dinah, I don't think that's ..."

But she cuts me off. "I'll be careful, I promise." She turns back to Laura and says, "Think of a number, any number. And then put your hand in mine." Laura looks to me for assurance and I nod. I don't care. I'll do anything to pass the time. Laura has threatened to tranq me if I don't eat breakfast, and if I leave home before 8 am. When Laura's hand touches Dinah's they both jump back as if shocked.

Dinah looks mortified - her blush is climbing over her ears and into her hair - while Laura looks like she has just seen a ghost. "You got that? You saw the referent behind the number?"

"I'm sorry," Dinah sputters. "I didn't mean to. I swear I didn't. I usually have much better control than that." Laura just continues to stare with a wide-eyed look. "I'm sorry."

I'm starting to get worried about Laura. She looks stunned. Dinah turns a panicked glance at me begging me for help. Just as I release the brakes on my chair Laura puts her hand on the table and says in the calmest voice, "Do it again." Dinah freezes. "What you just did, try it again." She twitches her fingers impatiently in a beckoning motion. "Come on." Gingerly, Dinah reaches out. "Tell me what I'm thinking about." Dinah places her hand in Laura's. I wait for the recoil - there is none. "Nothing?" Dinah shakes her head. "Not even a stray thought?"

"No. But it doesn't always work," she protests. "I touch Barbara and Helena all the time I don't always get anything."

Laura blinks and releases Dinah's hand. And then opens her hand again. "Now try it again."

"But I don't always get something."

"Trust me Dinah, just try it." Her eyes are shining and her skin is flushed with excitement. She is on to something.

I don't know why but I start to swell with some unnameable feeling of excitement. I encourage Dinah, "Go on hon, try it."

With a little less hesitation but a lot more scepticism she places her hand in Laura's. When Dinah jumps up from her seat, spilling some of the milk from her cereal, Laura flashes us both a brilliant and triumphant smile. "By Jove I think we've got it,' she whispers. Straightening her skirt she steps around the table to Dinah's side and then looks at me. "Barbara, I think we may just have bought your girl a chance." When she puts a determined hand on Dinah's shoulder and squeezes I want to jump for joy. "Young lady," she says, "how would you like to be the girl who cured an injury there is no cure for."

The fever gleam in Dinah's eyes is all the answer Laura needs.

* * * * *

I have a pain in my shoulder. I should have a pain in both my shoulders from all the rocking back and forth I've been doing, but I guess I hold tension especially well in my left shoulder and arm. My wrist is starting to spasm and I can't rock the wheels. This is annoying - I hate this damned chair. Everything was so much easier when I had the use of my legs - I could pace, I could run, I could take a jog around the block, and I could kick the stupid vending machine when it didn't dispense the Pepsi. God damn it! I need more caffeine right now. A passing nurse glances askant at me as she walks by. I'm certainly not doing a good job holding up appearances. But the frustration I feel has snapped my patience.

Earlier today, Laura grabbed Dinah and hustled her out of the clock tower without so much as a by your leave. She was so excited she even neglected to grab her jacket. It was only when the two of them got to the elevator and discovered that they couldn't get out did they realise that I had shut them out of the control panels. Once I gathered my winter-wear, I recalled the elevator car where I was greeted by one sheepish expression of guilt and one slightly flushed look of bewildered annoyance when I held up the keys to the van.

With a lot of hand waving and gesticulating, Laura explained her brainstorm as we waited in traffic. The more she talked the more hopeful I became.

"...So my theory is that telepathy or whatever you want to call it is a function of electrical potential across neurons, especially in your case. You have to touch someone, correct, to receive any kind of impression from them?" Without really waiting for Dinah's nod she continued on, "And how do you receive these impressions are they sounds or are they"

"I don't know - sometimes they're sounds sometimes they're sensations like I was actually there..."

"Like you're actually there? Like sensory hallucinations?"

"No. More like I was there the first time and I'm remembering it now. Or sometimes like I'm dreaming it."

"Okay, all right, that makes sense. Like a memory - you're reading a mnemonic trace, maybe even entire qualia...a...a...a feeling state that comprises of a perception or experience - and so you're telepathic. And that's why I'm so good at what I do. I'm able to detect these minute fluctuations in electrical energy; I'm able to affect them. Now, unlike you, I can't read minds, only be aware of general moods but better than a simply perceptive person. I mean I read thoughts the way an experienced neurologist can read an EEG or a cardiologist can read an ECG. I'm able to correlate emotions to graphical representations of electrical discharges. Sometimes some of my patients report being to be better able to communicate with the people around them if I've given them a little electrical shift - but only for as long as the effects last.

"You are already telepathic - in a heightened state I have even less shielding from you than I normally would. But I can also reverse the effect by increasing my resistivity. I've been struggling with Helena because I can't stabilise her enough to know which of the electrical storms in her head I should quell. You, my dear girl, are going to be my canary in the mines - so to speak." Dinah and I share a look with each other through the rear view mirror when she uses the metaphor. "You are going to help me get into her head and we are going to get that girl out of wherever she's trapped."

But after four hours of trying, we're no further along than before. Dinah is suffering from a headache and recovering from what seems to be the psychic version of a concussion. And Laura is exhausted and half passed out in the observation room.

The vending machine is rescued from impending ramming-by-wheelchair by a young intern jingling a handful of change.

"It doesn't take bills." My raised eyebrow prods him to elaborate. "For some stupid damn reason it doesn't vend when you put in a bill. Here," he says pushing the currency return and retrieving my dollar. He inserts four quarters into the machine. "What're you having?"

"Diet Pepsi," I say automatically, and he presses the correct buttons. The hollow thump of aluminium against plastic heralds the arrival of my can. When I thank him and ask him to keep the dollar, he presses it back into my hand.

"Don't worry about it. You looked like you were having a bad day."

After buying his drink from the machine he wanders off with a salute of his can. As he disappears round the bend of the hallway I remember that he has left his change in the coin return. I lean forward to rescue the thirty cents but decide to leave them there. Judging from the number of coins in his hand I guess that he'll be back at the machine in short order and will have a chance to get his change back.

When I return to the observation room, it is empty. I take the opportunity to look at Helena unobserved. She looks calmer because of the sedation and there are no longer any more restraints around her wrists or ankles. I stare at the charts and scans that plaster the walls of her room and wonder if we will ever get her back. Of all the things that could go wrong this is the worst - worse than Bruce losing his head, worse than me never being able to walk again, worse than anything - losing Helena like this.

I try to think of all the days without her. All the things that will not...cannot happen if we can't help her - no more sweeps, no more protecting the innocent and fighting for justice, no more quibbling over Dinah's future, no more being badgered about the lack of midnight snacks, no more snarky remarks about my choice of dates or clothes or music, no more picnics in the park, no more late-night talks, no more bantering over the comms, no more sound of her mischievous soprano, no more joking work outs, no more smiles. Each 'no more' is a negative account of all the happy things in my life; each 'no more' is an additional vacuum. The sense of emptiness that overtakes me is like a black hole - like I am the only thing left alive and conscious in a singularity from which there is no escape. From nowhere sadness bursts through a weak spot inside me, and wells over. My tears spill to fill the emptiness and I cry like I have never cried before, not for my parents, not for myself and not even for Wade, especially not for Wade - with hitching sobs and gasping breaths, with wracking grief, with desperation, with all the anger of the girl who once asked why her father couldn't just love her, with all the bitterness of a girl convinced she is incapable of being loved.

Somehow I have to find Helena. She is my family. She is the only one who has stood up for me, stood up with me and even stood in place of me.  I have to bring her back.

This is how Laura finds me when she returns to the room - hunched over in my chair and weeping. I am done trying to hold back, hold up and hold it together. I don't want to be brave about this anymore. I want Helena back and whole. I wipe my eyes and sit up. I am a finder of information. A brain is just that - a database of information. And I am the best finder of information there is. I am Oracle. And, damn it, what Oracle wants, Oracle gets.

* * * * *

Wednesday, December 25
Wayne Memorial Hospital

Dinah looks like a whipped puppy. Her angelic features are downcast in disappointment and guilt because she hasn't been able to help today. But at least she looks like a rested whipped puppy. The eight hours of sleep she got with a little underhanded help from Laura's medical cabinet seem to have done her some good. For whatever reason I can't seem to convince her that she needs at least eight hours of sleep a day and that I'm not a good role model as far as sleep habits go. But she is as subtly stubborn as Helena is adamantly mulish.

"It was confusing. I didn't know what anything meant and I kept getting tossed around. It was like I couldn't tell which way was up and which was down." Even as she says the words I laugh - it's not an inaccurate description of some of Helena's moods. When they turn to look at me I shake my head in dismissal.

"Exactly, Barbara's theory is that you got a bit of a psychic ding because you don't know how to make sense of the images and memories. What she wants to try is this - and apparently you've done this before - she wants you to let her in there."

Dinah looks a little doubtful. Her experience earlier this day has left her looking pale and weak. She looks like she's been drained of all blood. And she looks terrified of trying it again. My knuckles tighten around the curve of the chair's rests. "Dinah I know you're scared but you can't hurt her. And I'll be there with you. I know what's in her head. I've known her a long time." I don't have the words to explain the certainty I feel this very second. I know how to do this. I've been learning how to do this for the last ten years. Helena's mind is like a corrupted drive. The data is there, I just have to restore it sector by sector. It's very simple - I'm going to hack Helena's brain.

"I don't know if I can take both of you in there."

"That's okay, just do your best. I don't need to be right in the images," Laura assures her, "I can ride the wave. I just need you to be able to tell me when we reach a wall that you can't get through, those walls are her seizures - that's where her brain is damaging itself. If I can calm that neuronal firing we can bring her out of this. Okay?"

Dinah nods determinedly. I simply lay one hand on Helena's arm and hold my hand out to Dinah. As I close my eyes I feel her hand gripping solidly around mine. The sensation is a rushing like being sucked through a small hole. I suck a gasping breath when the images and perceptions assault my mind.

Blood rushing in my veins, fingers digging into my palms, tears, hate, muscles trembling under the strain, a line from a song, the smell of a flower, cold, ice, pain, mud in my toes - feelings and sensations rush through me with a shivering chill - the applause from the stands, 92 degrees with 38% humidity, sex, the feel of leather pants, who is that man with the knife, Barbara Gordon isn't it, I'm Selina Kyle, you I'm going to kill you, Mom no! Somebody stop him, No, no, no! I will absolutely not allow you to throw your life away like that, what is wrong with my eyes, burning, I can see everything, waiting, screaming, I'm in my head but I can't help myself, fists curling I'm going to hit her, somebody's in tro...uble, I mustn't no stop this is wrong her hair is so red how can anyone do that fucking Dick I'm going to kill Wade she rides a Beemer mom hey Nibs who's that guy she treats me like a child make sure she eats something other than tuna wind in my hair flexing muscles yes kill her no this is wrong kill me like you killed her Barbara help me.

Images rip through me with the force of a blinding sandstorm, leaving me raw and lacerated - and from the wounds, my memories slip into hers. It's just too much. It's like being plunged into freezing waters. With a gasp I snatch my hand from Dinah's and wrap my arms around my self. When Laura kneels next to me I realise that I am panting like I've just run twelve miles.

Is this how Dinah feels it when she has a vision? She looks back at me sympathetically. I have a whole new respect for her strength and courage. "Are you okay?" she asks.

"Yeah," I manage to croak out.

"Are you sure?" Laura presses. "What happened?"

I clear my throat. "I'm fine. I wasn't ready. It was just too much at once."

"We don't have to this right away. We can go away and come back tomorrow once we've got even more sleep."

"NO!" I cry out. "I can do this." We're already breaking all the hospital policies, we might as well be here all night and finish.

Laura holds her hands up in a soothing gesture. "All right. All right. Just breathe. Deep breaths - into your stomach. Dinah are you ready? Good, lets go."

This time when I close my eyes I am prepared. When the barrage of images and memories surrounds me, I concentrate on just one and let it carry me. It's a voice without sound, a thought without words; and I hear it without listening, I know it without being told. It is a song that sings itself in my veins. It wraps itself around each muscle, weaves through every fibre and draws out an answering echo - I hold on to this song line like I used to my jump lines and follow the arc to wherever it will lead me. This is what I hear...

My body is to me a thing alive. Not because of me, but by itself, its individual parts. It
used to be a thing alive. It fairly sang with life. The rush of blood, the
thing that fairly sings with life; it tingles with electric abandon; blood rushes
flexing of muscles, the vital electricity that connects brain to limb - each intention
through it in a heady surge; muscles flex and bend, reaching and pulling; tendons bind
in action, precisely measured, controlled to do exactly the thing willed of
my body to my body. It is a thing so alive - that I am always aware of it, aware of it
- it was a miracle to me. I was never so free as I was in my body. When I leaped
space, in place. Sounds, images, motions they are carried to me
into the abyss, no net below me but the air, I sailed through it.
every second of every day. I can't stop it. I see things I don't want to see
I was an animal returned to the primal. I was like a hunter. Trained to
hear things others can't hear. Do things others will not do. All because of my body
decipher things others could not hear, to track things others could not see.
See me run, hear my feet strike the ground on which I run. Feel the shockwave
my body's awareness until little could get by me. Can you imagine
air as my muscles compress in readiness for a jump. See me fly. Isn't it glorious?
to build your body grain by grain, fibre by fibre, stria by stria
as I glide through the air? I am bound to this body.
breath by breath. Even in my dreams
I live in my body. I cannot leave it...
I revelled in my body.

continued in Book 3: Proof